Chapter 65: Leaps of Faith
Date Point: 17y3m3w AV
Kansas, USA, Earth
“Shit, shit, shit, fuck…”
Earth was outside of dataspace contact. There was no signal from the Irujzen relay at all. That could mean only one thing: Six had fucked up.
He’d fucked up badly.
The plan had been so simple. The Humans were supposed to find the relay, monitor it, find it utterly impenetrable and then ask for his input. He’d then infiltrate it and use its core access functions to fundamentally alter the 0001 compilation algorithm, effectively inserting a new mandate into the Hierarchy at, for lack of a more accurate term, the genetic level.
They weren’t supposed to destroy it! That was maniacal, that was…
He used his new biodrone’s phone to burrow into the Internet and start looking for information. It didn’t take long. Sure enough, the relay’s destruction had had major repercussions for matterspace. One of the Guvnurag worlds had also been solely covered by Irujzen, so its droned populace had simply… woken up. No doubt there were agents stranded on that planet as Six himself now was, but the Dominion and human Allied nations had jointly organized a substantial aid effort. Which of course, had demanded an explanation, so the relay’s destruction was no kind of a secret at all. It had, in fact, been hailed as a significant victory.
…It wasn’t even the Humans who’d destroyed it. The Gao had.
Six spent several minutes summoning up every expletive, profanity and curse he’d learned over thousands and thousands of years of infiltrating deathworld species. Though in that regard, the Humans had definitely come up with two viciously monosyllabic winners.
With some degree of catharsis achieved, he turned his attention to his situation in a more methodical way.
He was stranded. There was no way to leave without detection.
His own hubris in programming the Injunctor meant that it had picked a great big strapping and highly noticeable farm boy for his host, one with many ongoing social commitments that would not be quietly severed.
Nevertheless, the Injunctor itself had plenty of potential to cause mischief… but only with his direct oversight.
So, what to do? He couldn’t strike back except in a token gesture, not if he valued his continued existence. He had no idea what the state of play was inside of dataspace. Re-connecting would require escape, and assuming he could avoid detection (which he couldn’t) and come within range of an active relay (also effectively impossible) then…what? Surrender for decompilation?
As far as Six could tell, he had no options except to just… what? Settle into the honest life of a farmer? Spend his biodrone’s remaining years tending to the secret spaceship in the barn and move from host to host? Wait for potentially hundreds of years for the human race to let its collective guard down? By the time they did, there would be no point in even trying to eradicate them. They’d already spread to two worlds—no, three—and from there…
But he was alive. There was that. For all he knew, he was the last Six, and whichever version of him had still been extant out in Dataspace had died when the relay went down.
Could he just… enjoy being human? Enjoy them for who and what they were, as a sort of salute to their deranged magnificence? He’d planned to do that anyway, and just revel in being human at the peak of what that could mean… and in that regard, the Injunctor had picked perfectly.
The Humans had survived many infiltrations, and all the mechanisms of global calamity that had worked so well in the past were ineffective now. Nobody in a remotely significant position of authority was vulnerable to biodroning. Implants and nanotech alike were non-viable. There was no way for Six to gain access to anybody or anything sensitive, as he would have in the past.
There was effectively nothing he could do, for now, except just… be a human. Try to enjoy it. Not even bide his time, just live and keep on living for as long as he could, until perhaps one day the chance would arise to escape this planet and move on.
But if he was going to do that in comfort, then he’d need to earn some goodwill with his new biodrone. Otherwise, he’d have a traumatized ghost locked away in a corner of his mind, held there by force of will and constant attention, forever. Tolerable for now, but in the long term…
They were going to have to be friends.
And Austin wasn’t going to like that idea.
Date point: 17y3m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Saying goodbye was never easy. He’d already said his farewells to Preed, who had gone with the Great Father back to Earth and would likely never return. Now, Leemu was getting ready to say goodbye to Gorku, too. The big Brownie had been accepted to the Rites of the Second Ring (whatever that meant) and that meant Associate Gorku would soon be Officer Gorku, if he made it.
And then, after that…maybe Brother. Leemu knew he could do it. But would he?
They’d had a few weeks to prepare for their goodbyes, of course. Preed’s journey back to his homeland wasn’t a small undertaking, and Daar had insisted on saying goodbye too, so it ended up that the Human just…tagged along in Daar’s retinue. That had given Leemu time to…well, process it, really. Have one last bowl of noodles. Finish his painting. Little things.
Gorku got his notice of acceptance a week before the Rites began.
That would leave… Leemu. All alone in a house built for three, with no Clan and no company. He couldn’t begrudge his friends for moving on with their lives—balls, he’d have felt worse if they’d stayed just to keep him company—but once Preed had given away his garden plants and packed his things, shared long, tearful hugs with his friends and finally gone away…
The house already felt emptier.
Gorku wasn’t quite gone, though. And he still had training to do. So, in an eminently Stoneback sort of way, he hefted that enormous saddle-ruck of his, sank to all fours, and asked Leemu in an almost desperate kind of voice, “Uh… ‘ya wanna go run with me?”
Previously, Leemu hadn’t. He never felt up to that level of exercise. This time though… He just duck-nodded and fell in alongside his friend.
Gorku was keeping it to a sort of loping trundle rather than his usual flat-out run. And he stopped here and there, quite plainly for Leemu’s comfort; he’d definitely need to work on his endurance. Aside from the exercise though, Leemu felt like they should talk, or say something, or comment on the cherry trees, or…
In fact, Gorku seemed to just want the company. Because, as ever, he wasn’t a Gao who was so good with his words.
Leemu chittered softly. Gorku’s emotional range was… well, it was as big as he himself was. Everything he felt, he felt large, so he wasn’t so good at handling the smaller, softer, quieter feelings. That offer, or query, spoke volumes to anyone who knew how to read him.
They loped back through Riverside Park toward the Alien Quarter, where Leela usually set up her trailer. Sure enough, she was parked in one of her usual spots, an open space near the Quarter wall that wasn’t quite big or glamorous enough to be called a plaza. It was just a space where a lot of foot traffic passed through.
She had competition today in the form of a Human selling baklava. Leemu had a pretty bad sweet tooth, so he couldn’t help but sniff toward that stall…
“Hmmph! Talk about loyalty, I see!”
Leemu flattened his ears sheepishly and turned to Leela, who was watching him with a look that said she was amused rather than annoyed.
“Hey!” Leemu chittered, “There’s nobody else in my heart for greasy deliciousness!”
“Greasy, huh?” She gave him a mock-indignant sniff. “I remember you being more of a charmer than this. You’re off your game today.”
“You say that like greasy is a bad thing! It’s the best, isn’t it Gorku?”
“Taco grease is the bestest.” Gorku affirmed, loyally.
She flicked her ears amusedly and flipped a couple of crispy taco shells out of the warming cabinet. “So why do you two smell so glum today?”
“Gorku’s been accepted to the Rites for the Second Ring,” Leemu explained.
“Oh? Isn’t that a good th–? Oh. You’re going away for a while, huh?”
Gorku duck-nodded. “A year. Stoneback’s Rings are long. An’ I won’t be able ‘ta visit, neither.”
“…Congratulations, then, but… That’s a long time.” She started to pile all her best ingredients into the shells for them. “Well, then, these are on me.”
“Thanks.” Leemu duck-nodded. “But if he gets a recommend for Third Ring, that’s at least another half a year on top of that, too.”
“Stonebacks never do anything small, do they?”
“It’s a lotta trainin’ an’ a lotta work,” Gorku confirmed, stoically. “Gonna miss my little cousin, here.”
Leela handed over the tacos. “…Just you left in that house then, huh?”
“Oh, well…” Leemu took his and held it in both paws. “Preed calls every other day. He just met his great nephew…”
“It’s not the same, though.”
“He’s got you though!” Gorku suggested. “…Right?”
“Of course he does!” The way Leela didn’t even hesitate and seemed to think Gorku was being dumb to have even asked, immediately opened a bright sunny gap in the grey clouds that had been following Leemu around for days. She reached out and spatulated Leemu playfully on the nose with her swatting spatula. “But this is the only time I hand out freebies.”
“That’s fair,” Leemu agreed.
She gave him a knowing ear-flick that said she could tell how touched he was, then with a tilt of her nose indicated the customers behind him. “You two go spend your time together. I’ll see you later, okay?”
They ambled away, enjoying the crunch, juices, meat, spice and all the other assorted wonders that were a proper taco. It might have been a human food, but the Gao in general (and Leela in particular) had perfected it as far as Leemu was concerned.
Gorku of course ate his so fast it was a wonder he tasted it at all, and spent the next minute or so happily licking the flavor out of the fur around his mouth.
“Don’t you ever just take the time to enjoy what you eat?” Leemu chastised him.
“Sure! I just gotta eat more’n you! An’ we gotta get ’ya back ‘ta liftin’ so’s ‘ya don’t waste away…” He licked the last drop out of his fur, then pant-grinned at Leemu. “Tol’ ‘ya that’d make ‘ya feel better, though.”
“Yeah. Still gonna miss you…”
Gorku sidled up next to Leemu and pulled him into an affectionate sideways hug. “Me too. But I ain’t gonna be gone ‘ferever. All the prettiest females live here!”
That extracted a genuine, heartfelt chitter that reached all the way to Leemu’s belly. “Of course. What other reason could you have for coming back here?”
“‘Ta show my bestest cousin how strong I’m gettin’, o’ course!” Gorku actually spun excitedly. “An’ ‘ta see how many more cubs you’ve sired. I bet ‘yer gonna have at least two more before I’m back!”
Fyu’s nuts he was predictable. But still…
“…You’ll be okay, right?” Gorku asked, switching from playful confidence to concern so fast that anybody else would have had bruises.
Leemu glanced back at the square, at the fragrant column of steam over Ninja Taco and saw with some gratification that her line was a lot longer than the baklava guy’s. He liked Folctha. It wasn’t going to be the same without Preed and Gorku around, but…
…But he still had friends here. And he’d have hated to stop them from moving on.
“Yeah,” he promised and put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’ll be okay.”
It was nothing but the truth.
Date Point: 17y3m3w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor system, Uncharted space
“Well, yes, I know but you’ve got to understand there’s a lot of folks here who don’t know you as well as I do.”
A parade of emoticons splashed across Darcy’s tablet. The Entity didn’t strictly need them, as it had demonstrated plenty of times when it got frustrated and chose to speak via its archived copy of Ava Ríos’ memories and personality, but it preferred its own pictorial language which Darcy was becoming steadily more conversant in.
Something about retaining itself for as long as possible before those other memories completely integrated and it ceased to be either and became something else. That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Darcy, but the Entity had always been adamant that the moment it fully integrated Ava’s personality would be the moment it… well, crossed a rubicon, and was never quite the same again.
If there was one thing the Entity had, it was quite strong beliefs about what constituted self. It founded itself around what it had termed—through the Ava-scan—its ‘subjective continuity of experience.’ And from what Darcy could gather, the moment two such subjective streams merged, you wound up with a new one. And the Entity was keen for its current one to last as long as possible.
Hence the emoticons. They were a… safe way for it to communicate without steadily eroding its own sense of self.
These particular ones combined to convey a general sense of being disgruntled, but understanding and resigned. It followed up with a complex cartouche of related emoticons that effectively translated to ‘but you still trust me?’
Darcy sighed and shrugged. “Yes, but… you’re gaining a lot of power. And I happen to believe that the kind of power you’re building up is more than any individual can be trusted with.”
It requested a clarification, so she stood up and boiled some water to make a cup of green tea.
- “How many ships is your fleet up to, now?” she asked. She nodded at the reply it gave. “Okay, so… it took you three months to double in size.”
- “So in a year, you’ll be sixteen times as big as you are now.”
:Green tick: :wavy line: — ‘More or less.’
“And in two years, two hundred and fifty-six times bigger. Then two thousand times by the three year mark. That scares people. Hell, the size of the entire AEC fleet, between the Royal Navy Space Service, the US Space Force and the 955th and everything the Gao have between Clans Stoneback, One-Fang and Fireclaw… you will be a bigger fleet than all that combined by September.”
A complex burst of graphics conveyed the sentiment, ‘But still smaller than the Hunters’
- “Right, but not forever. Where will you be in ten years if you keep expanding?” She let the tea steep and leaned against her desk to wait for it. “That much power worries me, and I know you better than anyone. I think.”
“Right. So all the people on this station who don’t know you, all they see is a heavily-armed swarm of death machines growing at an exponential rate.”
Over the course of several lines the Entity first conceded the point, then added—liberally peppering in de-intensifiers so as to make it clear that this was not meant to be menacing—the observation that they couldn’t stop it at this point even if they wanted to.
“Well, exactly. Lewis was right, the cat’s out of the bag now. The genie’s out of the bottle. Whatever. You’re a Von Neumann swarm now, we’re just going to have to deal with that I guess.”
With a peppering of emoticons, the Entity professed the reassurance that it was, at least, not a stupid Von Neumann swarm. It followed this with a collection of human and Gaoian faces, and a string of green ticks: ‘I like people.’
“So what’s the plan?”
She sat back and watch the little images march upwards. It went on for some time, as such complex thoughts often did, and it said something like…
‘I plan to live forever. But not alongside the Hunters. They have to go. And you need a huge fleet and lots of firepower now that they are fortifying their home systems. If you want them gone, then I can do that, once I am large enough. After that, it’s a big galaxy and I can grow large enough to protect it while using only a fraction of its resources. I will spread out, and I will defend. I am very patient.’
- “Defend against what?”
:Galaxy: :Arrow: :Galaxy: :Question mark:
- “You think that’s likely?”
- “What does—? Oh. Be prepared? It can’t hurt to be prepared?”
- “Well… like you said, there’s not much we can do about you at this point. I’m glad you’re on our side.”
- :Green tick: :Green tick: :Green tick:
- Darcy smiled. “I like you too.”
- “Still… won’t you get lonely? All by yourself, spread out over a whole galaxy, waiting to defend us from threats that may never come? I mean, you’re going to outlive me. Dataforms can exist indefinitely, you might outlive the entire human race. Your memories—the archive you carry—might go on to be the last human being in existence.”
“Yeah, but… you need to think about that sooner rather than later.” Darcy picked up her tea and sipped it. “Indefinitely is a long time. What happens when it’s just you?”
There was a pause of nearly twenty seconds, a sign that the Entity was thinking good and long and hard about that one. The reply, when it came, achieved some pretty startling brevity in the form of seven symbols that collectively meant:
‘Life is life.’
“Even the Hunters?”
- A full minute passed before it replied. This time, the reply was even more brief.
“…Yeah. Guess you’ll just have to play it by ear, huh?”
Somehow, the next green tick managed to convey a degree of reluctance and uncertainty. Clearly she’d given it something to think about.
- “Well, I’ll let you chew on that. I should get back to work, these relay worlds don’t find themselves, you know.
- :Green tick:
She put the tablet in sleep mode and set it aside, along with her lingering worries. After all, there was no point in worrying about something she couldn’t change… And besides.
She trusted it.
11th day of the first year of liberation
Library bunker at Old-Bent-Leg, a freed world
Uku woke to the sound of a brawl.
She scrambled out of bed, got her legs tangled in her blanket, nearly fell over and had to waste several seconds disentangling herself, during which time the sounds of violence outside in the library only intensified. It was only when she finally managed to open the door, however, that she realized she wasn’t looking at a brawl at all.
It was a siege.
No sooner had she poked her head out of her room to see what was going on than one of the men she trusted, Teeisyo’s father, pushed her back into it. “Stay inside, Keeper!”
He shoved his son in after her and closed the door. A second later, there was the sound of a pot smashing against the wood.
Teeisyo had the hiccups, and the wide-eyed look of a frightened child. Uku stooped and gathered him up in a hug, as much for her own benefit as his. “What happened?” she asked, fretfully.
“They came up the tunnels…” Teeisyo hiccupped again. “They had hammers and tools and fire and they just started hitting people, and–”
Uku rubbed his back and whispered a comforting noise, for what little good it might do.
The door opened, and Uku suppressed a frightened yelp. It was Haman, Teeisyo’s father again. He had blood on his face. “Keeper, we can’t hold them. We need to get you out of here.”
“But what about—?” Uku began, but he shook his head sharply and heaved her to her feet by her arm.
He positioned himself between her and the attackers as they slipped out of her quarters and headed toward the surface tunnels, the ones where she met the aliens. A thrown brick, lobbed over the line of defenders, missed him by a finger’s width and knocked over a lantern stand.
Uku needed no more encouragement than that to put her head down and scuttle up the tunnel as fast as she could go. The shouting and sounds of violence echoing through the concrete halls behind her were terrifying, she’d never heard sounds like that from her own people before.
Was this what they became without the Punishment? She whimpered as they reached the room where she usually met with the aliens, and Haman worked its heavy locking mechanism. Once upon a time these tunnels had been waterways, and the doors were designed to hold it all back. They weren’t quick to open.
Teeisyo squeaked and buried her head in Uku’s shoulder as a man she didn’t know sprang into the tunnel from a side passage with a mattock in his hand. He shot the unarmed three of them a look of bloody, righteous hatred, and charged.
The door sprang open. Something short, dark and powerful pulled Uku, Haman and the boy through, then barged past them. The mattock swung, missed, knocked chips of stone off the wall. There was a blur of motion, a loud crack, then a knife flashed in the gloom, just once.
The human trained a compact black rifle down the hallway and barked something in his own language. Garr-avf was waiting in the room beyond, and he ushered Uku, Haman and Teeisyo into the waiting protection of two more Gao in faceless black armor, who in turn tried to guide her forcibly up toward the surface.
“No!” Uku tried to stay put. “You’ve got to help them, they’re being murdered back there!”
“You first,” Garr-avf replied. Out in the corridor, more men poured out of the library, then hesitated at the sight of a heavily armed alien staring them down. The sight of them made Teeisyo whimper.
The door behind Uku squealed open, and something new squeezed through it. A Gao, maybe, but…
He was like a furry wall with claws, wearing heavy armor with a stylized Gao on the shoulder, its back rucked up into a snow-capped mountain. The ones who squeezed through behind him were much the same. Garr-avf and the other two respectfully got out of their way, bundling the three Freed Folk safely into their wake.
If one dense human had been enough to make the angry mob pursuing Uku hesitate, the sight of half a dozen rangy, powerful monsters advancing on them quite rightly put the fear of the Almighty back into the rioting men. Especially when the leader laid a huge clawed paw on Hoeff’s shoulder then stepped past him.
The translator in his armor’s chest gave him a resonant, deep, coarse voice.
“My name,” he declared, “is Grandfather Vark. An’ I came down here in these tiny tunnels ‘ta save you stupid fucks. Now, y’all seemed to have calmed down all-sudden…you gonna stay that way, or do I gotta show you my nasty side?”
A few of the violent mob trapped at the front took refuge in bravado. One of them stepped forward and hefted a hammer, though his ears were plastered flat against his back from fear.
“We came here to punish a heretic, alien!” he snapped, desperately.
“Oh? ‘Yer Punishers now, are ‘ye?” An array of titanium fangs gleamed in the torchlight, hinting darkly at what Vark had personally done to the last set of so-called punishers. “So come up, then! Come Punish me, if you dare!”
Peering out between the press of hulking bodies, Uku could see the way that several of the ones in the back decided they weren’t brave enough, and quietly slipped away into the dark.
“…No? Hmm. Coulda swore you were swingin’ like ‘ya had ten ton nuts just now…”
The self-appointed spokesman at the front glanced urgently behind him, and realized that he was rapidly losing followers. Still, he hefted the hammer again, though Uku was beginning to wonder how there wasn’t a wet trickle running down his leg. She felt terrified of Vark herself, and she was safely behind him.
“Boy, you swing that hammer, and I will slap ‘yer skull so hard it’ll s’plode all over these walls. Think carefully.”
“…Th-this isn’t your affair. You’re interfering in, in a matter of faith…” Only a few nervous die-hards remained at the leader’s back, now.
“Oh, you poor dumb-fuck child.” Vark’s chitter carried a freight of dark amusement. “Lemme tell ‘ya what happens next. You lose. That’s the only way this goes down. How you lose is entirely up ‘ta you. So, if I’m gonna be hosin’ my armor down today, I’d like ‘ta get the messy bit over with. Make up ‘yer mind, boy.”
The hammer rang loudly as it dropped onto the concrete. A second or so behind it followed an assortment of knives, cleavers, shovels, axes and other hardware.
“Good boy.” Vark’s voice was heavy with derision. “Now get. An’ you tell whoever told ‘ya ‘ta come here that if you try again, we ain’t gonna be so nice next time.”
With that, Vark turned his back dismissively and made to prowl off.
The ringleader wasn’t quite cowed yet, though. Some courage returned when he wasn’t directly facing down those metal teeth. “Y–you’re just one man! This was only a raiding party!”
That prompted a shuddering growl from deep inside Vark’s armored chest. Then he moved. He moved so fast it was difficult to follow, but in practically a heartbeat he was right up in the self-appointed leader’s face with only a few inches between them.
The huge Gaoian sniffed the air around the man’s face, then growled again. “I know, boy. An’ so was this. I got literally a billion Gao I can bring down on this place in the next few weeks. What’chu got? An’ you think I’m the worstest ‘yer ever gonna meet? We got many more like me, an’ I’m a fuckin’ cub next ‘ta my boss! So how’s ‘bout we stop wit’ the stupid-ass dick measurin’ games? Or…don’t. It’s ‘yer choice.”
“…” Uku clearly saw the moment the last few zealots’ resolve broke. They started backing away, eyes wide, hands up protectively.
“I coulda swore I just told ‘ya to git.” Vark snarled.
As Vark’s team swept past him down into the library, Hoeff relaxed, lowered his rifle, and said something that didn’t translate, but which certainly sounded approving.
Whatever it was he said, Vark had a reply. “Yeah, I know. But that’s one o’ the advantages o’ being big an’ mean. Sometimes it’s ‘nuff ‘ta stop a fight.”
“My people!” Uku scrambled to get back toward the library, but Vark put up a huge paw and stopped her, remarkably gently.
“My Brothers are takin’ care of ‘em,” he said.
Uku glanced down at the dead man on the ground, the one Hoeff had dispatched with a single efficient stab to the throat. Something cold rose up in her belly, but she shut her eyes and wrestled it back down with a shiver.
“…It shouldn’t have come to this…” she lamented.
“That’s on them, not you.” Vark glanced over his shoulder down toward the library. “…We stopped ‘em today. But they’ll find their balls again if we let ‘em. Best if you come with us, Keeper. We can keep you safe, an’ if y’ain’t there then ‘yer enemies won’t have no reason ‘ta hurt ‘yer people.”
“…They’ll come for the others, too. The ones who sided with me.”
“Already taken care of,” Vark promised her. He looked over Uku at his men. “Get her ‘ta safety.”
Uku didn’t resist this time. As more Gao poured past her into the library to restore order and save those who could be saved, she allowed Garr-avf and Hoeff to fall in alongside her and lead her to the surface.
Somehow she knew, however, that she would never see the library again.
Date point: 17y3m3w1d AV
Dodge City, Ford County, Kansas, USA, Earth
“Shit, Austin, you look like you took a dump and found a kidney in the bowl. You okay, baby?”
Austin had experienced worse hangovers, but at least those left some clue as to what on Earth he’d done to earn the pain. This one? It’d come outta nowhere. He just woke up in his bed and felt like someone had beaten his brain flat with a sledgehammer, and then went after the rest of him for an encore.
He wasn’t exactly old…hell, he weren’t even twenty-five yet! And he hadn’t let himself go from his athletic glory days, either…which kept the ladies interested, and was usually how he earned his hangovers…well, not since Lauren decided to go steady. Come to think of it, why wasn’t she suffering? They did everything together these days…
…Whatever. He didn’t want to think about it. He just wanted a full belly and something to drink.
“Fuck, I don’t even know.” He leaned over and gave her a kiss, then sat opposite her. “I just woke up feeling like shit.”
“Aww. Man flu?”
Aching head or not, Austin laughed. “Fuck you, babe,” he said, affectionately.
“Later.” She winked at him with her trademark big grin. “I wanna make the best of my time before you get into tillage and planting.”
“I thought you liked how I plow…”
“Pervert.” She smirked, and frisbeed a menu at him. “I’ve got tables to wait. Try not to whine too much.” And with that she stood back up and spun away from him with a cute little swish of her skirt…
“I’ll have the usual!” he called after her, feeling better already. She turned, grinned, waggled her notepad at him, and got back to work. Austin sat back and let out a deep breath. He still felt beaten-up, but that’d mend. And she sure looked pretty as hell with that ring on her finger…
Life was good.
Date Point:17y3m3w5d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3KPc arm
Yan’s armpits were just as lovingly smelly as ever, which Julian learned as the monstrous chief of the Ten’Gewek wrassled him into all sorts of vaguely pretzel-like shapes. But that was the price of his friendship, when they hadn’t seen each other for too long.
Julian had made a kind of family vacation out of this visit. Al had a few days of downtime while the factory at Chiune Station got the next Misfit superstructure ready for her team to work on, Xiù’s property portfolio mostly managed itself and she seemed to genuinely enjoy being otherwise a homemaker… The trickiest part had been pulling Tristan and Ramsey out of school for a few days. There’d been a negotiation with Amanda, a quick talk with the social worker…
But in the end, they’d got permission. The boys had been giddy with excitement at the chance to actually explore an alien world, and had got amusingly defensive when Al had pointed out that, technically, they lived on one.
Anna and Harrison of course were fairly portable, though they came with a sizeable luggage of stuff that the Ten’Gewek women were finding deeply amusing. Clothes and diapers and toys and changes of clothes, and pulped food because they were starting to introduce Anna to the early stages of weaning… in the end hardly any of it was actually necessary, because there were too many fascinated cavemonkeys who wanted to grin for the babies or tickle or…
Fortunately, though Ten’Gewek grew up to be a lot more sturdy than most humans, in the first year or so of their lives there wasn’t much difference.
And so, their arrival had gone off in an extremely predictable manner. They arrived, the village lookout announced them. Yan and Singer came galloping up to the platform and there were spine-shattering hugs and general happiness. Food was immediately shared—Julian had brought along a pair of hams, because the Ten’Gewek loved it the most—and once all of that had been taken care of, the group split up.
Al and Xiù were immediately swallowed up by the women and some of the older more “grandfatherly” men. Julian wasn’t worried; the Ten’Gewek weren’t savages, and besides: they were being somewhat fiercely defended by Singer. The boys were dragged off to the forge by Vemik, who despite being very thoroughly a young adult at this point, hadn’t ever lost his manic excitement over…well, anything really.
Yan had pulled Julian off to go talk in private before they spoke with Professor and the nearby Given-Men. And, since it would take them a while to show up, indulge in a protracted bout of Julian Squishing. The stronger and tougher Julian grew, the harder the Ten’Gewek wanted to play…and that was extra true with Yan.
Maybe the day would come where Julian could score a win against Yan. Hell, maybe he could beat up Firth and steal ‘Horse’s lunch money on that day, too. So, that being somewhat unlikely, he endured the indignities of being totally outclassed in basically every way a man could be outclassed, and just tried his best.
That seemed to be good enough for Yan, who eventually decided to be merciful. With a happy hoot he let Julian go, then bounced away, sprang up a tree, flung himself to another tree, barreled back down that one with a ground-shaking crash, and then sprawled on his back in the dirt with a happy expression.
“Get it out of your system, big guy?”
“You’re getting stronger!” Yan beamed approvingly at him. “Good man of the tribe!”
“Heh.” Julian did enjoy flattery, he wasn’t gonna lie…maybe he showed himself off a little. He wouldn’t tell the girls. “Feels good, yeah. Also, it’s just nice to be back, y’know?”
“You were meant for strong worlds, Jooyun. Earth, here…Cimbrean I think is too easy.”
“Well, you’re not wrong…” Julian shrugged. “But anyway, I said a while ago I’d bring the family to visit, so…here we are! Try not to play so hard with them, will you?”
“I know how to play gentle,” Yan promised, with a touch of reproach. “Didn’t break you ever did I?”
Which was honestly impressive, given that Yan handily outweighed a full-grown bull. But still…
“There was that one time when you tossed me up to grab that melon, remember?”
“Feh. You missed the branch! Not my fault. And you just had a bruise!” Yan trilled and sat up, propping himself on his tail. “What kept you so busy? Not see you in hand of hands of days!”
“You know that planet Ferd and his men went to?”
“Yes. He say much about that. Tell some very tall stories, maybe…”
“They’re all true.” Funny how that idiom was common between their species. And with the Gao, too! “He really did break a tank-Hunter almost by himself, and his men did much the same to another. My friends in the SOR have nothin’ but good things to say about ‘em.”
Yan hooted his approval. “Good! And the new sky-people?” He fished some Werne jerky out of his hip pouch and bit a chunk off, then tossed a piece toward Julian.
“They’re… tougher than they look.”
“That sounds like careful words.”
“I’m an envoy, remember? I have to use my words carefully. I tell everyone your people are clever, quick to learn and stronger than pretty much anybody. What I don’t tell them is that you’ve only just begun to learn steel, that your writing isn’t even two years old, that you need high gravity and dense air and a frankly alarming amount of meat several times a day…”
“Yes, yes.” Yan waved that off and tore into his jerky again, using his two-inch-long canines to rip the leather-hard meat into shreds. Knowing Yan, that wasn’t exactly an accidental show of just what kind of man he was. “So you say, tougher than they look. Means, they don’t look tough. Ferd say, they all very sick, yes?”
“Their world is poisoned. The air they breathe is poison, the water will blister your skin, the trees are all stunted and small… I’ve told you about photosynthesis, right?”
“Green plants make the ock-see-gen that goes in air that we need to breathe,” Yan summarized.
“Yeah, well, photosynthetic life on that planet is hanging by a thread. In a few more hands of years, it might have collapsed entirely, and then…” Julian sighed. “…but they’re alive. They’re tough inside, strong against poisons and radiation. With clean air, good water and enough food, they might be about the same as the Gao.”
“Sounds like they should leave.”
“Some of them want to. Others think the Almighty—they believe in a single god, like a lot of my people do—is punishing them for something their people did in the past and that it would be sinful to leave.”
“Hrrm…” Yan pinched some debris thoughtfully out of the fluffy bit of crest at the end of his tail. “Still think they should leave. Maybe they go to Cimbrean, yes?”
“And live alongside us?” Julian thought about it. “…That could come with a lot of problems. There’s too many of them for the Alien Quarter, so they’d have to make their own city, maybe even get some of their own territory… And there’s lots to go around, but negotiating that between the five colonies could take years.”
“From what I see of Dominion, take years no matter where they go.”
“Yeah. They need a place, like, yesterday. The longer they stay, the nastier that schism will get. It’s already come to blows once. Last thing we want is to save ‘em only for them to wipe themselves out in a religious civil war.”
Yan looked up into the sky thoughtfully. “…We have worlds, you said. Dominion rules gave us nearby planets once they know about us.”
“No good to us now,” Yan shrugged. “How long until we fly between worlds for ourselves? Vemik is smart, but not that smart. Also… we were made for here. The gods made us strong, but our strength is tied to here, to Akyarawanentuo.” He jabbed a finger toward the ground for emphasis.
Akyawentuo, the planet’s official name, basically meant “Place where all things are under the sky,” in Yan’s dialect of the People’s language. The version he’d just uttered more narrowly meant “this place where all things are under the sky.” There were times when Peoplespeak, with its weird conjugations and contractions and run-on words, could express very specific concepts.
“Y—” It took a few seconds for Julian to get his voice into gear. “…So you’d just…? Yan, that’s a… A whole planet would be about the biggest Giving possible!”
“No Giving at all, if it’s no use to us,” Yan replied, evenly.
“You’ve never been there! You don’t know that!”
“I know you and you tell me about these plan-ets. So, I trust you.”
“All I read is the Directorate survey report. That’s like if I told you there were Werne to the north, but didn’t mention how many, how far, or if there were any good young bulls. It’s not enough to make a decision like this.”
“…Hrrm.” Yan set his tail aside again. “…Maybe I should go see, then.”
“…” Julian had no immediate response but to look at Yan in wonder. “Do…do you understand what you are trying to set in motion, here? You are, on a well-meaning whim, giving away one of your people’s planets and then for an encore, asking us to mount a surprise expedition, too!”
“Expedition first,” Yan said, breezily. “You’re right. Shouldn’t give it away without looking at it first.”
He bared his teeth in a pleased grin at the dumbfounded look on Julian’s face. “Crazy?”
“Lots of crazy in the sky. Lots of crazy in here, too.” he unfolded a long arm and prodded Julian gently in the forehead. “Crazy enough to fight a war for my people. Nearly get killed. Nearly get your women killed for us. But you did it, and if you hadn’t…” he left the thought unfinished.
“That’s not even remotely on the same scale.”
“No? All of my people, alive and well, with vack-seens now and better health than ever and better hunting than even my grandfather would boast of. We killed a Brown One, Jooyun, and lost only one man. You gave us a whole future. That’s the biggest Giving, for me. One plan-et we probably never use, next to that? Bah.” He waved the same hand dismissively.
“You wouldn’t even be Giving it to us, though!”
Yan gave him an impatient look. “You want to help these people or not?”
“Well… Of course I do. But not at your expense!”
“All things are at somebody’s expense, Jooyun.”
“Well, yes, but it’s not just yours anyway. It belongs to all Ten’gewek. Yan Given-Man can’t just give it away on a whim.”
Yan shrugged. “Lodge will think as I do,” he predicted.
“Yan,” Julian sighed. “Of course they will. You fucking terrify them.”
“Yes,” Yan said with no small amount of smugness in his voice. “So I talk last, and listen to them before I scare them. But Jooyun, you say yourself many times, you think my people probably will always be ‘one-planet species.’ So does Professor Daniel, and Core-tie. And so do I. We are made for this place. If we do as you do, build cities, civilize, then we grow like the city-People. Safe. Weak. No use to anyone. What good is a world that would make us soft? We are not sky-smart.”
“I think, probably not ever. We would need to Give all that we are now, and you know this. So does Professor. It makes him sad, I think.”
“We did it once,” Julian pointed out. “We used to live like you, you’ve seen that. We Gave all that we were and became what we are. That’s life. That’s… you change, or you die, Yan.”
“You did not have Sky-Friends. We do. We have strength you need. I listen to Ferd. He boasts, but he does not lie. No, what we can Give is special. Let us Give as we can.”
Julian ran a hand through his hair out of a mix of frustration and… what? Admiration, sure. A lot of that. But that was the problem with arguing with Yan: once his mind was made up, it took earth-shattering force to change it.
The big guy hooted at his expression, clearly tickled. “And I am not giving them all the plan-ets, Jooyun. Just the small one!”
Jooyun sighed, but a chuckle was on its heels. “I can see I’m not gonna talk you out of it.”
“No!” Yan agreed, and flashed his smug grin again.
“…Fine. I’ll talk to the Ambassador, arrange a survey trip for you and whoever else you think should go. It’ll take a long time, we’re talking a whole planet here, you don’t just land and look around. A proper survey takes months. Hell, the girls and I only managed three in the whole time we were doing it.”
“They do not have much time,” Yan reminded him. “But I think we say everything important. We say more when other men come visit. But now, I want to meet babies! Then maybe go fuck Loor’s Singer too!”
Julian laughed. The Singer from Loor’s tribe was one of Yan’s more regular ‘partners,’ in the carefree Ten’Gewek way. She was Loor’s half-sister, and her consistent favoring of Yan was one of the driving factors behind the two tribes’ close relationship.
She was, by Ten’Gewek standards, stunning. Hell, by human standards she was quite pretty, and that was honestly an achievement. Not because Ten’Gewek were ugly—they were far from it. It was more… Their woman could put most any bodybuilder to shame, Singers doubly so, and she in particular was a formidable amazon of a gal. But, Singers weren’t chosen just for their looks. They were chosen for their insight, intelligence, diplomacy and skill at wrangling the men.
She certainly wrangled Yan pretty well.
“You’ve had enough kids by her, big guy. Also, it occurs to me: I haven’t heard a word from either Tristan or Ramsey…”
“A good thing, with boys that age. Means they’re learning something.”
“You mean, getting into trouble.”
“Trouble with Vemik.”
“…Maybe we go back and see.”
Julian chuckled and rose to his feet. “Good idea. They’re prob’ly fine, I trust all three of them, but…”
“Always best to check,” Yan finished agreeably. With a shove of his tail he was on his feet again, and he set a relaxed, ambling pace back down toward the village with his characteristic rolling swagger.
He needn’t have worried too much. The boys were learning how to beat on steel, and had ash smudges on their faces that made their big happy grins shine out. Allison, having predicted this, had even brought along eye protection for them, and was watching with a proud expression.
Julian leaned into her and kissed her neck. “How are they doing?”
“Terrible. Worst blades I ever saw,” she grinned at him. “But hey, it’s their first time.”
“I see Vemik is super happy with the eyepro you got him…”
Ten’Gewek didn’t have noses, but they did have nasal cavities that opened into the roof of their mouths, and the adults had noticeably prognathous jaws. That gave Vemik a little spot on which he could rest his brand new mirror-coated goggles, though he was still fiddling with the elastic strap; it sat on his crest a bit uncomfortably, probably. He’d get used to it.
“Can’t have our supergenius gorilla friend losing his eyesight before he’s thirty,” Al said. “Shame they don’t make gloves in his size.”
“With hands like his? He doesn’t really need them.” Anyway. He’d not snuggled Al in at least half an hour, so he pulled her into an affectionate hug, and nuzzled at her neck.
She made a happy noise and burrowed her shoulders backwards into his chest. “…So. What important affairs were you menfolk discussing while us girls were back here looking after the children?”
Julian snorted. “Mostly wondering what kind of sammich you’ll be making me–OW!” Her elbows were pretty darn sharp. “Aww, c’mon! There ain’t even a kitchen here for you to be all barefoot in!”
“Oh, that does it!” She turned and deployed her cruellest weapon: she tickled his ribs.
Julian ran away, giggling, and it was only later in the evening, when everyone was tired and drifting off to sleep, that he had a chance to reflect. Here, safe among an adopted tribe on a quick little vacation, where he could run around and play like a little kid…
That was a heck of a blessing. He wasn’t totally free of course. He’d had to write some messages, people were getting downright alarmed at the idea of just giving away a planet…
Big important people would be getting involved very soon. But, that was a problem for tomorrow-Julian. Right now he had two beautiful women curled up with him on top of nice warm werne pelts, his kids safe and asleep at the other end of their little shelter…
And shortly thereafter, Julian too.
Date Point: 17y4m1w AV Starship Silent but Deadly, far uncharted space
The clock opposite Tooko’s stasis booth flickered, and transitioned in an eyeblink from one date and time, to a very different one. Better yet, the new time was square in the middle of their ETA at the target system. Good.
He stepped out of the booth and shook off the lingering disorientation that stasis always left behind. Long-haul interstellar travel shouldn’t be so… well, from his perspective he’d backed into that booth and hit the button only five seconds ago, and literally nothing else had happened except for the clock. And yet, at the same time… there was some tickling thing in the back of his brain that knew it had been a lot longer than that. As though he’d just been lost in thought for a couple of months and hadn’t noticed.
…No, not quite. There was a thin layer of dust on everything, all generated before they went into stasis and then given months to settle. But other than that…
He ought to feel drained, or sore, or something. He ought to need to stretch. He ought to feel like he’d slept the whole way, not just sort of… skipped it.
He shook his head again, and slipped forward through the ship on four-paw to pour himself into his chair in the cockpit. There was a difference there: the leather felt cool to the touch through his fur. The lingering chill of low-power mode hadn’t quite left the upholstery yet.
As for his instruments… yup. They were exactly where they were meant to be. A cluster of about two dozen mostly uninteresting red stars, with a single bright yellow one in the middle
He released Wilde and Ferd from their booths. Like him, neither man took the time skip without a moment’s confusion. Ferd lingered in the booth for a moment as if waiting for something to happen, and Wilde started to stretch then seemed somewhat put out to discover he didn’t need to.
Stretching anyway to cover his embarrassment—pointlessly, because Tooko could smell it—he ambled forward through the ship and leaned on the back of Tooko’s chair.
“How’re we looking?” he asked.
“Looks like Mrwrki were right. There’s a strong signal coming from the second planet of that G-class system.”
“How far out are we?”
“Three hours to the termination shock.”
“Right.” Wilde wandered back through the living area then, clearly bereft of ideas for what to do with himself, grabbed the cleaning kit and started dusting.
Ferd decided to bring up their equipment from storage.
“It’ll be a long while before we’re ready, mate,” Wilde pointed out.
“Yes. Still should check things, they did not have stay-sis sky-magic.”
“Knock yourself out, then.”
Ferd gave him a confused look, then clearly deduced his meaning, shrugged, and set to work with a grunt.
Three hours later, exactly on schedule, the scant pressure of stellar plasma against SBD’s spiked briefly but dramatically, marking the moment they transitioned from interstellar space to the target system.
Beyond that…there wasn’t much interesting to report. Ferd did poke his head in–about the only part of him which fit anyway–grunted politely, and scritched Tooko on the back of his neck affectionately.
“Ninety minutes to orbit,” Tooko confirmed.
“We should wake up men, eat, shit, warm up muscles.”
“You do that…” Tooko kept a close eye on his instruments. “I’ll get us down there in one piece…”
“Trouble?” Ferd gave the sensor readout an uncomprehending look.
“Enemy territory, and they already lost one of these things. If they’re remotely not stupid, they’re watching this one closely.”
“…Leave you alone, then.” Ferd nodded, and backed out of the cockpit.
“Thanks…” Tooko muttered, and adjusted course slightly. Star systems were energetic places, on their own scale. A giant naked fusion reaction hanging in space tended to dominate the local landscape, but all that radiation, gravity, the huge magnetic field and the way they all interacted with the planets and asteroids in its orbit…
To sensors as sensitive as SBD’s there was a lot of information out there to filter and make sense of. Little eddies in the quantum fields, odd gravimetric shifts, random spikes and squeals and mournful whoops in the radio bands coming from a gas giant…
There were things out there, visible as shadows in the noise. He gave them a wide birth, came in above the plane of the ecliptic rather than along it, and watched them closely, keeping the ship’s own warp down to a bare single-digit multiple of lightspeed. Painfully slow next to the shrieking pace she could achieve when he opened her up, but right now he was balancing speed and stealth. The longer they hung out in space, the more likely something would glance in their direction. The slower he went, the harder they were to see.
Once they were down on the surface they’d be harder to find, powered down and hidden among warm, dense, humid atmosphere, a powerful magnetic core and all the other things that made temperate worlds temperate. But out in the void…
Something moved. He killed the drive instantly, powered down to minimum reserve only. The gravity went, the heating clicked off. Ferd and Wilde made alarmed noises as they suddenly found themselves drifting in freefall.
Wilde grabbed the wall and boosted himself up to the cockpit.
“We fucked?” he whispered.
“Don’t know yet,” Tooko answered, more calmly than he felt. “And you don’t need to whisper.”
“…Right.” Wilde shivered at the volume of his own voice. “Don’t think I’ll get used to that. What happened?”
“Something’s out there. Almost as quiet as we are.” Tooko combed his whiskers with a claw, then pointed at his readout. “There. See?”
“Assume I know fuck all about these things, mate.”
“It’s subtle, but something out there’s moving superluminal.” Tooko watched it intently. As he did so, the thing—whatever it was—slipped away into the outer system at two kilolights. “…Probably a ship.”
“So… we fucked?”
“No, I think we’d be dead already if they’d seen us.” Tooko exhaled slowly. “But I’m going to take it slow on approach. We’re going to make like a natural phenomenon. Subluminal travel only from here. So, revised ETA is…” he glanced up. “…two days.”
“…Back in the box, huh?”
“For you two, yes.”
“Right.” Wilde clapped his hand on Tooko’s shoulder, and left him to work. “You heard the man, Ferd.”
They retreated back into the cargo bay, and a moment later a pair of beeps indicated to Tooko that they’d returned to stasis. He was alone on a dark ship that was barely generating any power, and he was being hunted.
He sighed, grabbed a blanket from his locker, and settled in for a long and stressful fall down the gravity well.
Date Point: 17y4m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“…That would solve a big problem.”
Julian was tired. He’d enjoyed his time with the tribe, obviously, but the thing about that was he always had to participate. Ten’Gewek didn’t get days off, after all. The tribe always needed feeding, so there was always a hunt, always the need to bring home the kill, prove his value as one of their Men…
He could hack it. Heck, he could hack it well, these days. But that just meant he had to hunt bigger game, and do so more often. None of his increasingly ridiculous strength ever quite made up for him being human, or them being Ten’Gewek. They were built for different kinds of work and for them, carrying a bull Werne across their shoulders, up trees and hills all day long was easy. Running a few miles, though? They could if they had to, and could even get good at it…
Small victories were the secret to happiness, Julian had learned.
And of course, Yan never let him go without damn near breaking him in half. Affectionately. You…had to know them, to understand. For them, war and play and violence and sex were all dangerously related concepts. As long as nobody got hurt, and everyone had fun…
So the chance to sit down on a comfortably huge (and discreetly ultra-durable) chair in Ambassador Rockefeller’s office, drink some of his excellent coffee and just talk was pretty welcome. It wasn’t a substitute for the Xiù-massage and long nap he was going to enjoy when he got home, but it was still respite from his aching muscles. And considering he was on a high-dose Crude regime these days, that was saying something.
It was almost enough to distract him from the problem at hand. Almost.
“Them giving away a whole planet seems…” he shifted uncomfortably.
“It’s their planet to give away.” Rockefeller shrugged. “And from what I gather it’s Class Five. So Yan may be right, it may well just be useless to them.”
Julian waved his hand at the ground. “I mean, we’re sitting here on a Class Four right now, and Cimbrean’s plenty useful…”
“To us, yes. With a huge terraforming effort.” Rockefeller sipped his coffee. “You’re comparing apples to oranges, Julian. They aren’t us, their needs are different. Heck, you understand that better than most.”
“I’m just not sure that Yan gets how big what he’s proposing to do is…”
“Funny, and every other time you’re the one telling me to not underestimate just how well he understands things.” Rockefeller looked amused, but he finished his coffee and put it down. “I respect your concern for them, but don’t forget your obligations to us as well. You’re an officer of the United States, and it’s not your place to talk them out of decisions they have a perfect right to make.”
Julian nodded resignedly. “I know. And… heck, I admire their generosity. I’m just worried about it hurting them in the long run.”
“That ‘long run’ is probably at least a hundred years distant anyway.” Rockefeller sat back in his chair with a creak. “Meanwhile, the E-Skurel-Ir are descending into civil war. The violence has already started. There was an attempt on Ukusevi’s life.”
Julian forgot all about his Ten’Gewek concerns with a cold shock. “Just an attempt? She survived?”
“She’s now under Mister Hoeff’s protection, and enjoying the hospitality of Grandfather Vark of Clan Stoneback, General of the Grand Army of the Gao.” Rockefeller looked amused.
“…I don’t think I’ve met him.”
“Nor I, but I am given to understand he’s exactly the kind of Clan-Brother the Great Father can appreciate.”
“So…big, blunt, cheery, and violently direct?”
“Exactly. I suspect she’s safer than you or I, right now.” Rockefeller’s amusement twinkled in his eyes, then faded as he sat forward. “But those people are tearing themselves apart right now, and she’s requested asylum for herself and her like-minded. We need a place for them immediately, and Yan’s offer is about the best thing we could ask for.”
“So you’re going to approve it.”
“Julian, none of us have that authority. This is between the Ten’Gewek and the E-Skurel-Ir. Your survey mission to that planet will go ahead as quickly as your ship can be made ready.”
“We have a ship?”
“An old friend of yours, actually: Misfit. The Byron Group very kindly made her available to us. If you’d been on this planet last night, you would have seen her landing.”
“…Oh. Wow.” Julian had to admit, that was unexpectedly welcome news. Misfit hadn’t been home for three years. It’d be nice to see her again. “Uh… so how’s that going to work?”
“Her current crew will shuttle you, Yan and whoever else you think is necessary over to the target planet and together you’ll survey it. After she’s had some maintenance out at Chiune Station, of course.”
“…Oh man, Al’s gonna be giddy!” Julian smiled to himself. He wished he coulda been there to see the look on her face when she got back out to the hangar and found her old ship parked and waiting for her. Of the three of them, she’d always loved Misfit the most. She’d probably give it a hug.
Rockefeller chuckled. “Well, I won’t keep you then. You look like you need some rest anyway.”
Julian knew when he was being gently dismissed, in the nicest way. Besides, the Ambassador wasn’t wrong. He nodded, and rose to his feet. “Okay.”
“Enjoy yourself,” Rockefeller smiled, shook Julian’s hand, then turned to his computer. Julian let himself out.
As much as he wanted that cuddle and nap, however, he had one more stop to make on his way home: Nofl.
The whole transition off OG Cruezzir and onto Crue-D hadn’t been completely smooth sailing. Crue-D might be the more refined, more sophisticated, better drug in every way, but that was exactly the problem. There had been something kinda like withdrawal at first; he’d felt weak and lethargic, as if some vital part of him had just been…removed. There were also a few false starts as his gut biome had to be completely flushed and replaced—an experience he wouldn’t wish on anybody—and the attendant nutritional problems as his ability to properly digest food had taken a day or two to recover as well.
He was addicted to the drug, now. Addicted like the HEAT, kinda like the Spice from Dune. It was the perfect drug, in that way. It did nothing but good, so long as you kept taking it…
All-in-all, it would’ve been even worse without Nofl’s input. And if Julian was honest, less fun too. The little guy’s inimitable bedside manner was growing on him.
“Darling! Fabulous to see you! Come in, come in! Hop up on the slab and I’ll get the anal probe ready…”
Julian snorted. “Graffiti troll’s been back again, huh?” Nofl’s lab had suffered a few cases of vandalism over the last few months. Somebody out there had a grudge against Corti, and a passive-aggressive approach to venting it.
“With a scatalogical return to form! His recent work just hasn’t been inspired, but this morning’s offering was a masterpiece. I might have it framed!”
“I wouldn’t encourage ‘em.”
“It’s alright, I have a plan. I’ve decided to build a guard!”
Nofl pointed to a half-finished…project… on one of his smaller workbenches. “Stabby the Flamingo!”
“…I have so many questions. But, uh…let’s just stick with the physical.”
“You’re probably right. No anal probe, then?”
Julian smirked, “…No. Thank you.”
“Probably for the best, I don’t own one anyway.” Nofl tittered and guided Julian toward his scanner suite instead. “Back from Akyawentuo, I notice.”
Nofl indicated the biofilter arch around his lab’s front door that swept his guests safely clean when they entered. “There’s a unique class of microorganism on that planet that you probably don’t even notice. Almost like an airborne phytoplankton. Totally harmless, in fact by deathworld microbe standards it’s practically a puppy. But…”
Frontline doesn’t catch it?”
“Oh, it’s not harmful. In fact it’ll all be dead by tomorrow, Human skin is not a hospitable environment for it, oh no.” Nofl rummaged through a mess of tools on his bench that was probably perfectly logical and ordered according to his own system. “But its presence is a surefire telltale of somebody who visited that planet. Ah!”
He turned and waved an implement up and down Julian’s body. “…Tch. Being pulled and stretched like that must hurt.”
Julian shrugged. “Not too bad.” Truth be told it hurt quite a heck of a lot, but, well. There was pain, and there was pain, the kind that warned a fella he was about to be torn in half. Yan was usually pretty good about avoiding the latter.
“Oh well, no major damage, and your bruises heal quickly… hold still, this is the tickly bit.”
Julian sighed and pulled his shirt up for Nofl to press the scanner to his belly. Sure enough, it tickled.
“Mmm…good news all around. No sign of a hernia or anything. Whatever you’re doing to have such a strong core, keep doing it! Internal organs are adapting to the Ceuezzir-derivative nicely…your heart seems to have strengthened considerably, goodness me! That’s one long-term worry off the list, eh?”
“I guess I’ve never really worried too much about that.” Julian shrugged.
“Unsurprising. The life you lead you’re far more likely to be shot, stabbed, blown up, or eaten by something…”
“No no, I mean…I’ve never really felt heart pains, y’know? Like, I’m always out of breath before I feel anything like that.”
“A good sign! Still, given your prodigious mass, it’s good to keep on top of these things…”
“Right. So. Clean bill of health?”
“As far as my considerable talents say, yes. You’re as healthy as a HEAT operator!” Nofl turned, tossed the scanner back onto the bench and grabbed a tablet. “Now. I’m sure you’re much more interested in my impression of your children.”
Julian gulped, and nodded fervently. On that point, Nofl was so right that he didn’t even want to say it.
Fortunately, the little guy saw right through him. Corti faces weren’t very expressive, but Nofl had a particular smirk he wore in moments like these as he handed over the tablet. “They have, I’m pleased to announce, suffered no detectable deviation from their expected neural development. As far as I can tell you have a pair of basically normal human babies, just as your own doctors said.”
Julian heaved a huge, relieved sigh. He trusted human doctors, of course, but Nofl was the guy who’d first invented Cruezzir. There was absolutely nobody in the galaxy more qualified to comment on its effects. Between his opinion and the expert advice of the paediatricians, a dizzying weight had just slid off him.
Still, where his kids were concerned, there was no such thing as too safe. “You’re sure now? Normal?”
“Well. They’re well-developed for their age, but within normal bounds. I don’t think you need to worry about either of them growing up as schizophrenic supersoldiers.”
“Christ.” Julian leaned against a counter. “…I feel like we dodged a bullet there.”
“My working theory with Cruezzir and its relationship to human mental health is that it strengthens the pathways your brains naturally develop in response to repeated crisis situations. You’re a profoundly resilient people that way. But your babies, of course, are being raised in a loving home. No abnormal stress means none of the triggers that Cruezzir amplifies.”
Julian nodded. “…That makes sense. So they’re basically normal.”
“Completely normal, darling. And by ‘normal’ what I mean is ‘within expected biological norms.’” Nofl smiled, and sauntered over across his lab. “I can tell that’s a weight of your shoulders. Coffee?”
“No thanks. Already had some, and I was gonna take a nap when I get home.”
“I have the best decaf in the galaxy?”
Julian chuckled. “…Some other time. Thanks, Nofl.”
“Oh, I always have time for you. Why don’t you check in later, you can see how Stabby is progressing.”
Julian glanced at the bizarre project. “…I’ll… see if I can make time in my busy schedule.”
“There’s always more time than you think, darling! But go on, be your usual busy-bee self!”
Julian shook his head and let himself out, chuckling to himself. As far as he could tell, Nofl viewed him as a kind of challenge. Julian had long ago stopped finding his antics shocking, so Nofl responded by being aggressively weirder whenever Julian visited. So far, it seemed a stalemate: Julian wasn’t yet completely immune to the little gray fella’s antics, but Nofl still hadn’t achieved whatever his definition of victory was.
He went home. There’d be more work coming in the imminent future, and he needed to rest up for it, spend time with his loved ones…
But at least now he could worry about them a little less.
Date Point: 17y4m1w2d AV
The Clawhold, a liberated world, former Hunter space
Ginn, aide-de-camp to Grandfather Vark of Clan Stoneback
With the endless global industry halted, air quality was soaring. There was still a haze of carcinogenic particles in the air, but it was thinner than ever before, to the point where Ginn could actually see the mountains near the Clawhold with the more-or-less naked eye. They looked dirty, dead and brown, but they were still a view.
It was hopeful. One thing Ginn hadn’t properly appreciated in his short years was just how connected to nature a people truly were. Balls, it wasn’t until he’d left Gao for an alien world to save an alien species that he noticed just how much he…missed it. Missed Gao.
Speaking of that alien species, though, the clear weather had brought out the rioters.
Hooded and swathed in their own cobbled-together protective gear, armed with an assortment of stones, work tools, glass bottles full of flammable liquid or acid, or just angry words, there were a few thousand E-Skurel-Ir marching determinedly down the cracked asphalt that had once been a major road. In a few minutes, they’d reach the Clawhold’s checkpoints, and then…
Ginn was not trained in riot control. That was something for the Straightshields, who had been arriving en masse over the last couple of days, complete with their identical armor, all wielded by the same identical Judge-Brothers. Same respectable-but-not-ridiculous height, same capably broad shoulders, same burly-but-not-huge build. They had the same authoritative voices. Same movements. Balls, they almost had the same scent. It was deeply unsettling.
But of course, workhouse rivalries could get pretty nasty…so it wasn’t like they were out of practice.
The E-Skurel-Ir rioters were doggedly ignoring the loud broadcast warning them to disperse, however. They were religiously angry, and Ginn hadn’t really seen that before. They weren’t just angry, they were disgusted at something, and eager to purge it.
He wasn’t part of this fight. He was glued to Vark’s side, taking care of the daily little hairball-like problems for the Grandfather, so he could focus on leading, and doing. So, for now, Ginn was merely observing.
He knew what he was about to watch, having seen a couple of workhouse riots. He was about to watch the Straightshields beat the E-Skurel-Ir into bloody pulps.
There was a reason Emberpelt medics and Openpaw doctors were staged up behind them.
A bottle, trailing oily black smoke and licks of flame, arced through the air and smashed on the concrete a pounce in front of the Straightshield line. The armored Brothers ignored it, even as blue-edged flames slathered the road.
“Y’ever seen a riot before, Ginn?” Vark asked, conversationally.
“Were ‘ya on the receivin’ end?”
“No.” Some honest instinct compelled Ginn to clarify after a second: “I slipped away before it turned nasty.”
“Prob’ly smart. It ain’t fun gettin’ smacked around by batons.”
Of course Vark knew what that felt like. Ginn duck-shrugged. “It was the gas,” he recalled. “Like getting smacked in the nose by a bag full of drain chemicals. I don’t think I could have taken a real dose of that.”
“Yeah. Too bad the E-Skurel-Ir are kinda immune.” Vark sniffed behind his mask. “We might need ‘ta use CS gas on ‘em. It’s a Human thing. Burns the skin horribly, an’ it’ll make even them hurt in their nose.”
“That sounds… awful…?”
“Naw. That all clears up the second ‘ya get outta the gas. But trust me, CS gas for a Gaoian’s nose feels like if Daar jumped on ‘yer balls. An’ lit ‘em on fire.”
Gin suppressed a shiver at that mental image, and silently wished for some kind of work to come along to distract him. He was pretty familiar with violence himself, it held no fascination for him. He’d be quite glad to be back indoors, taking care of Vark’s business.
“Grandfather…may I ask why we’re here?”
“Stoneback and Straightshield, we’ve got ancient relations, right?”
“Well, part o’ that is we back each other up. I’m here ‘ta see jus’ how bad the rioting’s gonna get.”
Ginn watched the Straightshields heft their shields and angle them upwards to deflect a rain of thrown rocks, before advancing. They smashed their batons against their shields to the cadence of their steady, relentless forward march, a heavy hammering sound that bounced up and down the street and off the buildings.
The rioters’ answer was more thrown firebombs and acid bottles.
“…Are the Stonebacks going to get involved?”
“Prob’ly not. ‘Cuz we don’t play nice, when we gotta wade in.” Vark sniffed again. “One’a the goals of riot control is ‘ta protect the dumbshits from their own stupid. We… ain’t so good at that. We’re the breaker of Clans.”
Ginn flinched as the Straightshield line met the front row of angry E-Skurel-Ir. It didn’t look much like the Straightshields played nice, either.
But there was a logic and purpose to it all, he could see after a few seconds. While the Brothers at the front held the line, a Judge-Father behind them would identify a particularly charismatic troublemaker who was riling up the ones around them. He’d point out the target, and a pawful of second-rank Brothers would inject themselves into the mob, ignoring their shouting and battering weapons, pushing them aside until they reached the ringleader, who was surgically extracted.
There was care to it, too. They weren’t letting anyone get crushed in the push of bodies. If an E-Skurel-Ir fell, they abruptly found themselves behind the shield line rather than trampled. Before the rioter had any idea what was happening, he was shoved snout-down into the ground, his hands and feet were zip-tied together, and then he was unceremoniously tossed into a padded wagon along with the rest of them.
“Do you see the point o’ all this, Ginn?”
It wasn’t gentle, but it was careful. Methodical. Thorough.
“It’s like you said. They’re actually protecting the rioters from themselves.”
“Yeah. But this is also war, too. The goal is to break their will, so’s they don’t get any itchy ideas no more. It ain’t a pretty business.”
“…No.” Ginn nodded at that. The demoralizing effect of having their leaders and prophets snatched from their midst was already showing. The front line had less purpose now, they’d thrown their stones and bottles, they’d worn their arms out trying to beat down the shield wall. The fight was going out of them pretty quickly.
When a pair of armored vehicles rolled up behind the Straightshields and turned on a pair of high-pressure water cannons, the momentum completely turned around. The water had a bright blue indelible dye in it, and it drove the mob back up the road, creating a clear gap that brought the Brothers some respite, washed away any lingering corrosives or accelerants…
Ginn decided he’d changed his mind. This was interesting, in its methodically brutal way.
“They’ll be back,” Vark predicted, as the back of the riot started to turn ragged and drain away down alleyways and into the warrens below the old ruined streets. “Take more’n one bloody nose ‘ta beat all the fight outta them.”
“They’ve got four hundred years of pent-up frustration, rage and justice to work out of their systems.”
“Ayup.” Vark sank to all fours and shook as if he was trying to re-seat his NBC gear. “C’mon. You and I gotta get ready. The Great Father’s gonna be here soon ‘ta meet with the object of their hatred.”
“Oh, that’s going to be interesting.” Ginn warmed to the idea. He’d had the chance to get a good sniff of Ukusevi during her short stay on the base so far. She seemed to have the kind of toughness that only emerged in people who’d been hammered on life’s anvil from day one. Cushy safe job underground spent filing the papers and books notwithstanding, he could easily see how she’d managed to rile up an angry sect against her.
Seeing her meet the Great Father would be an education, no doubt.
Well. Ginn probably wouldn’t get to see that, actually. That didn’t seem like the kind of conversation lowly aides got to stick around for, and he wasn’t Daar’s aide in the first place. But it was fun to imagine.
He turned his mind back to his actual job. “Anyway, Champion Fiin sends his regrets, says he’s got a good sniff of what may be a new Alpha and possibly some breeding pools in the hills of sector White Seven. He’s not coming back in until that’s dealt with.”
“Doin’ all the fun stuff himself,” Vark grumbled…well, not exactly good-naturedly. It was definitely tinged with envy, but it was meant humorously.
“‘Fun’ isn’t exactly the word I’d have chosen, Grandfather.” Ginn thumbed through his notes. “And… yes, we are scheduled for troop inspection in four hours time back on Gao. New initiates to the Second Ring.”
Vark duck-nodded, ignoring the sound of several flashbangs detonating out on the street as he stepped down out of the guard tower. “…Right. Better get goin’ then. An’ I’m gonna need a fur trim, too. The Second Ring is important. Gotta look good ‘cuz one or two of ‘em ain’t gonna survive the training. They deserve somethin’ better’n a near-mangy Grandfather.”
“I took the liberty of arranging a visit by your preferred grooming service,” Ginn replied, reflecting once again that yup, he was definitely never going to go for the whole Clan thing. He’d rapidly grown to respect the Stonebacks, in a way that eclipsed every Clanless’s general sense of intimidation and awe of them, but even if he’d been a Brownfur himself, little details like that completely killed any sense of ambition or idealism.
“Thankee, Ginn. ‘Yer the bestest some days, y’know that?” Vark had long mastered the fine art of the truthful back-handed compliment. It helped that he was pant-grinning as he said it.
“Only some days?” Ginn sniffed, though he was genuinely amused. Vark’s humor was… Clannish, but heartfelt.
“Well…ain’t nobody perfect, really. C’mon. Lessgo.”
Ginn still spared one last glance back out at the riot, which was now down to a few trapped diehards who’d been surrounded and were basically just being contained until they finally got fed up, from the looks of things. There were a lot of arrested E-Skurel-Ir to be processed—and Fyu alone knew what Law applied in this situation—but things seemed to be over.
All in all… it had been disturbingly efficient.
“Right behind you, sir,” he said, and followed.
He’d seen enough.
Date Point: 17y4m1w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Senior Master Sergeant Christian “Righteous” Firth
Morning was the usual. The alarm screamed, he smashed his fist down on it. He rolled out of bed, shrugged on his shorts, grabbed a shake from the fridge and was in the gym before he’d even properly woken up. Same as usual.
Today was a heavy Slab day so the morning lift went on for a couple of hours, but it was also a weekend, so that meant he could go back upstairs and crawl back to sleep, if he wanted.
It was six in the morning. And, as it happened, the house was awake when he got back. Adam, Marty and Diego had come to visit. Diego was already toddling around and talking ‘ferchrissakes—had it been that long already? Joseph hadn’t quite got his feet under him yet, but Christian was super proud to say that his boy was already a pretty extreme outlier in all the best ways; he was big and well ahead of all his development milestones!
So was Diego. He was already showing a bit of a daredevil streak too, always trying to climb, always pushing footrests and things around…
And Marty was pregnant again. Somehow, Christian suspected she was going to be pregnant a lot over the next few years. She seemed to like it.
He and Freya…eh. They were definitely thinkin’ about a bigger family, but two or three at most seemed to be Freya’s line, and Christian was more than happy to respect that. He’d grown up in a warren of a family, so…he knew.
“Uncy Firf!!” Diego stopped trying to tip over a chair and instead ran headlong into Christian’s leg. Which was…
People tended to think of Christian as a giant Viking berserker made entirely of highly compressed murder. Which he was. But kids seemed to short circuit that in him. He picked up Diego and tossed him up nearly to the ceiling before swooping him around on a palm while making airplane noises. The little guy was built like a rubber ball, neither of his parents batted an eyelid.
He found himself in a much better mood, suddenly.
“‘Sup, fatass?” he gave ‘Horse a meaty smack on the back as he sat down. Which was more or less like slapping a granite boulder and left Firth’s entire hand tingling, but whatever.
Adam hardly seemed to notice. “Broke some PRs this morning. We still sparring later?”
“Yup! Costello said, and I quote, ‘as long as you two don’t break my walls again.’”
“But we can break each other just fine.”
“You know in any other house that would be a scary conversation, right?” Freya asked. She’d made shakshuka, enough for eight. Well. Eight normal people, anyway.
“Just proves Costello’s a sweetheart,” Marty opined. She hoisted her son up into a high chair. “Anyway…how did it go?”
Christian sighed, but not as sadly as he’d been prepared for. “Board din’t promote me. Which…weren’t surprising. But! They did say I’m not out of the running for future boards, so…”
“You two had to tie on that one too, huh?”
Adam grinned smugly. “Well…gotta tie on something, I guess.”
“Har har. Laugh it up, midget.” Which was a ridiculous thing to say about a dude who stood about six-foot-nine these days, but whatever. Tradition.
They took their time and enjoyed breakfast, talked about family stuff, baby stuff, work stuff, solved some of the world’s problems until the clock had ticked over a couple of times and Marty stood up with a yawn and a stretch.
“Well. Better go measure some big men.”
“Workin’ today, huh?” Christian suddenly understood the visit. Freya must be looking after Diego for her.
“Deacon wanted me to help out, and I sure don’t mind getting some of that contractor money.” she grinned. “Now that Team Two are getting simulator time, they need help training up more technicians.”
“Yeah. We’re gonna hafta figger out the Couch situation too. A full Team One and some nubs from the future Team Two?”
“Who are both Protectors,” said Adam, predictably proud.
“So fatasses, then. Ow!” A loving punch in the side was his minor penance, one that woulda broke ribs with regular folk; life as a tank weren’t so bad, really!
“You’re pronouncing ‘studly heroes built outta pure muscle’ the wrong way, dude.”
“Giant fuckers breakin’ my floors an’ eatin’ us outta house and home, then! Anyway, day room’s gettin’ awful crowded. Gonna hafta finish the new day room up on the top floor.”
“And upgrade the Couch.”
They cleaned up and walked over toward the base, and ran into a few of the newer guys who were still halfways scared to death of mean ‘ol Firth. But…hell. It was an off day. He weren’t in uniform. And he was feeling friendly, so why not make friends?
Well, at least they weren’t standing at parade rest quite so rigidly, anymore. Give ‘em time.
They paused on the way in, for one other thing: There was the memorial to respect. One smiling photo longer than it had been a few months ago, and the sight of it was kinda like unexpectedly touching a live wire.
He didn’t have the force of will to keep it in anymore. Part of being what he was these days meant that feelings hit him hard. Life was being pretty good to him these days… but it was never going to be as good, now.
But. He had always been a man of extremes. Hell, he’d been that way since his nuts had first dropped, bein’ honest. All bein’ HEAT had really done was turn it all up way, way more. And the thing about big, deep feelings like his? They hit hard, but they were also cathartic and cleansing instead of lingering like a bad fog.
The sideways hug from Adam and Marty’s warm hand on his back helped too, he weren’t afraid to admit.
They parted ways with Marty, who picked up her security pass and went to go help out with technician-y stuff while Christian and Adam got some chores done. Then they Slabbed again; it was a heavy day, after all. Adam was of course the strongest human ever and was again getting humiliatingly stronger every day, thanks to Corti witchcraft and his own pure insane willpower. But! Firth was improving too, and he was improving even faster. Hell, it was getting to where he could actually sorta almost keep up with Adam for a change, and maybe dodge an attack now and then too! At least…when Adam didn’t feel like showing off, anyway. One day…
It’d be nice if they didn’t feel quite so embarrassed next to Daar, too. Big goals.
Between the physical training, breaks, food and taking care of some minor chores around the place, mid afternoon rolled around pretty quick, and with it came Costello and Powell, who showed up for their own daily grind. Firth and ‘Horse did their cool-down workout while the officer-types put in their work. There were some benefits to being the “little” guys, relatively speaking; they didn’t need to spend nearly all their off-duty hours (or most of their scheduled training time, for that matter) in the gym, on the mat, running trail… Must be nice, having unscheduled hours in the day.
But if a man wanted to be the best, he had to do the grind and serve the time, day in, day out, year after year, never missing meals, studying every day, training every day, never skipping a day, never making excuses. Firth didn’t mind. It was almost like meditation for him, even as it fed his competitive instincts against ‘Horse. The Tao of Slab, even…if he were feeling half-snarky.
All in all, it was a quiet day until Coombes showed up and brought some actual work with him.
“Oh, bloody hell…” that was Powell in a pretty good mood. He shot Coombes an amused look that took in the tablet under his arm. “An’ here I thought I might have a nice relaxing day for once.”
Coombes looked around at the ruins of the gym and the literal tonnes of metal lying everywhere. “…Relaxing?”
“Fookin’ right. Light day today, so ‘Horse is goin’ easy on me.”
“Still gotta re-rack everything, sir…”
“…You planned that on purpose.”
“You’re too bloody sneaky by half, Arés.” Powell chuckled, but the bustle of activity that followed got the place squared away just fine pretty quick. Anyway. Enjoyably grunty stereotypical activities aside, they did have some serious work to address; such was life in a special team.
“Right… so what’s on ‘yer mind, Coombes?” Powell asked, once everything was as they’d found it.
“JETS team two are due to report back soon, and that got me thinking about what we should do with teams three and four.” Coombes waggled the tablet.
“…Arright. May as well hash that out.”
They used the mission planning room. It had all the maps and documents and a nice big table, and big chonky chairs that were actually sorta comfortable, and a few touches of sci-fi tech here and there that mostly just got used as a real fancy Powerpoint presentation.
Firth was an old-school kinda guy. He prefered paper and pencils, and highlighters and notebooks. He’d rather have a book or a map. Same with Adam and Powell. It was only ever really Coombes or Costello who seemed to enjoy all the digital shit, and sure enough Coombes had a deck he’d been working on, already sitting on the file server.
He called up info on their latest recruits. The JETS teams were easier to recruit for, marginally, but only marginally. Three of the dudes going into Teams 3 and 4 were HEAT applicants who just…didn’t quite cut it. No shame in that. It weren’t no weakness in character or discipline, they just couldn’t physically perform to standard. Most men couldn’t no matter how much time they were given and no matter how motivated they were, and the reasons why weren’t completely clear. Genetics was probably a big part, but that couldn’t be all of the reason…
Whatever it was, it turned out that very few men could use Crude to its fullest potential, and who could wasn’t necessarily obvious. Natural size wasn’t a good predictor; Adam was originally a short man after all, even if he was pretty ridiculously fuckin’ muscular and athletic even as a teen. General fitness didn’t tell the story either, nor did innate strength. In the end, you just had to pick the stand-outs, the slightly crazy ones who wouldn’t let anything tell them no, and…let them try. The pipeline had a hellish dropout rate because of that, and making it to the line but not over it put those dudes in rare company.
They hadn’t failed. They’d truly learned their limits, and that was a success. It was just that their limits weren’t enough to hang with HEAT. But JETS needed men of that caliber, and that side of the SOR’s Table of Organization and Equipment was starting to look pretty healthy.
Actually, the whole table was lookin’ pretty good, a development which brought along the best kinda problems to have.
“So, here we go. Teams three and four. They’ve made the cut, they’re about ready to come out here.”
“Havin’ a couple of almost-HEAT bros will help, since we’re fresh out of Ferds and Daars.” Adam commented. “And Tiny’s growing into proper HEAT size now, so he ain’t going back.”
“They’re physically ready, maybe,” Costello said. “None of them have any off-world training yet.”
“To be fair, neither did we when we hit Capitol Station.”
“And that evolution cost us dearly,” Powell recalled.
“Yeah.” Adam conceded, while Firth nodded. The first three photos on the memorial wall had fallen on that mission. “But the point I was gonna make was that we couldn’t have had any field experience in the first place. Not quite sure what we can do here, past what we’re already doin’. There’s only so many Ten’Gewek they can wargame with.”
“And that’s what I’ve been thinkin’ on,” Coombes said, pleased. “The Ten’Gewek have been great an’ all, but one team of super-gorillas isn’t exactly gonna fill our MTOE, and besides that we need to train on more than just two worlds. Our guys need to be able to go anywhere. So I thought… What about Nightmare?”
Powell arched an eyebrow, Costello rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and Adam perked up at the idea. Firth, though, had concerns.
“Uh…Nightmare’s a bit of a different ballgame. Julian only survived ‘cuz the Corti fucks stacked the deck way in his favor. You read the report, right? Deep hypnotic conditioning, extensive briefing, some essential tools and suchlike, and let’s not even talk about the fuckin’ breeding program…”
“That’s exactly the point though. It is a different ballgame. We aren’t training boy scouts here, we’re training dudes who can go anywhere. They’re no pushovers by the time they get to us, they’re a team instead of just one guy, and of course we’re gonna monitor them. But I reckon we couldn’t ask for a better ready-made training environment.”
“I’d still feel better about it if we ran this by Julian, bein’ honest. He’s pretty involved in the training with the Tangy-Work as it is.”
“Can’t hurt to get the expert’s opinion,” Costello agreed.
“I like the suggestion,” Powell decided. “It’s got legs, unless Etsicitty comes back at us wi’ an ‘absolutely not.’ An’ we need a good long-term training option for JETS, there’s still a lot of relays out there that need our attention.”
“An’ that’s on top of wherever this monkey experiment ends up goin’ I presume?”
Powell nodded. “‘Experiment’ is the right word there. Best to keep our options open.”
“I’ll get that expert opinion taken care of, then,” Coombes nodded.
“Oh, he’s gonna love you askin’,” Firth predicted. “He’s busy as shit with this whole E-Squirrel thing.”
Adam snorted. “Do you deliberately butcher every species’ name outta spite, or is your mouth just that fuckin’ broken?”
“It’s my proud duty as a humming bean. But if ‘yer willin’ to take credit ‘fer that, seeing’s as ‘yer fist seems to find my jaw every time we spar…”
“Guess that’s the end o’ this meeting, then,” Powell rumbled drily and stood up. “Don’t break the table, lads. ‘Night.”
…Was it night already? Firth stood up and peered out the window. Well, shit. It wasn’t dark yet, but the sun had definitely moved a good distance, and Folctha’s nightly rains were gathering on the horizon, out over the lakebeds national park. Might as well get in some good cardio, then, so’s he had an excuse to go running in the rain.
If there were ever a blessin’ in his life he was eternally grateful for, it was Freya. She’d given him a strong boy, a warm home, and most importantly…understanding. She knew what kind of creature he was, and there wasn’t any judgement, no subtle attempts to “tame” him or whatever the fuck some Karen-type females thought they were doing to their poor men.
Nope. She loved him not only for what he was, but because of it. He’d got stupid lucky with her.
So, while ‘Horse and Coombes made family plans about meeting up for breakfast at Papa Arés’ place in the morning, Firth bid them both goodnight. Marty woulda gone home hours ago and picked up Diego, so it’d just be him, Freya and Joseph in the house. Maybe they’d watch a movie. Maybe…
Why plan it? Just enjoy.
He paid his respects at the memorial wall again on the way out, and went home.
Date Point: 17y4m1w2d AV
Farm near Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth
Austin had, as far as Six could tell, a life that from one perspective might seem dull and staid, and from another might seem simple and rewarding. Austin himself clearly felt it was the latter. He had a pretty fiance, he spent his days fixing farm equipment or driving it around a field, and he spent his time off at the motocross circuit, watching football and football-like games, playing football-like games or if that wasn’t happening, hanging out with Lauren.
There was some wasted potential, there. He was a naturally fit and strong man, and so didn’t see much need to worry about his health; work, play, and the occasional dalliance with his home gym seemed to be enough for him. He was highly intelligent too, and yet felt little interest in extending his higher education beyond his bachelor’s in agricultural science.
In an odd twist of irony, the very fact that he was so naturally gifted seemed to assure his blissful mediocrity. He was, from Six’s perspective, actually rather boring. Plant his field. Keep in shape. Make Lauren happy. Have a little fun. Such was the life of a big man, a capable man, who was nonetheless content with with small ambitions.
Though, to be completely fair…farming turned out to be a lot of work. His days were long, the labor was often arduous, and there were often so many activities in-flight, be it repairs, orders, deliveries, organizing labor…
It was an education. But still… smaller than anything Six had ever paid attention to before. His scope, previously, had been whole civilizations on the largest scale. His focus had been leaders, nations, weapons of mass destruction, the fates of whole planets and species.
And now, Six was trapped in what was by all measures a high-end human being, whose entire purpose was focused on the minutiae of something as banal as food.
Maybe that would be the key to building up a relationship with Austin. Six could start small. Very small, perhaps just some gentle chemical augmentation to help Austin’s endurance along a bit. Maybe…reward him with endorphins and such whenever his thoughts turned to ambition. Encourage him to value the bigger picture.
He’d be doing the poor man a favor, really. Helping him realize potential that would otherwise have gone unrecognized and unremembered. Helping him find a purpose beyond simple thankless toil.
There was a long way to go before he’d be able to reveal himself directly, of course. A lot of groundwork to lay down. But it was a place to start.
All he needed was the right direction to steer Austin in. Maybe they’d begin by nudging him away from the alcohol and the bar food.
Even the highest ambitions needed a beginning.
Date Point: 17y4m1w3d AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Relay system, far uncharted space
The moment when they dropped into atmo came as a profound relief for Tooko.
Orbital mechanics weren’t easy. Shedding enough energy to drop out of orbit was easy enough, but doing it stealthily? SBD weighed nearly seventy tonnes, fully loaded. At orbital velocities, that was a lot of kinetic energy, and it all had to go somewhere. If he wanted to avoid detection, then it had to go somewhere at a sufficiently controlled rate so as to not show up against the cosmic background.
This led to a new problem: if he didn’t shed it fast enough then the ship would sink gently into the upper atmosphere at far too shallow an angle and skip off.
For every spacefaring civilization, the historic way of dealing with that was to plunge in at a slightly steeper angle and shed speed by atmospheric braking. But if the Hierarchy were being as paranoid as Tooko would have been in their position, then they’d blow any such plasma halo right out of the sky. Better to blow up a thousand meteors than let one plane full of hostile troops reach the ground.
So, that approach was out.
That left only one possibility: hypersonic reentry.
SBD had shield emitters just as capable as the Destroying Fury’s, and only her much smaller power capacity kept her from achieving the same terrifying things that the Great Father’s flagship could. What she could achieve with them, however, was an aerodynamic profile sharper than a sewing needle, and control surfaces not constrained by the limits of mere matter.
She pierced the target world’s thermosphere like a hypodermic, with nary a ripple.
Tooko didn’t bother putting his hands on the direct flight controls. They were nowhere near fine or quick enough for this. Instead, his attention remained on the string of precise instructions he’d given to the ship itself, which folded and shifted its fields around it to create a wide, flat, thin surface that slipped through the air like a scalpel, balancing the need to stay up and not plunge down into the stratosphere at meteoric speeds, with the need to not glance off the meager near-vacuum and skip back out into space.
The line between those two options was calculably fine, but far below the threshold of what he could ride with a stick and pedals.
No halo. That was the important part. Whatever he did, he absolutely could not allow the ship to generate enough waste heat from braking as to begin forming plasma. If he did that, well…
Well, they’d probably die, instantly and painlessly as some unseen Hierarchy weapon reduced them to a bowshock of ionized particles. Not a bad way to go, but Tooko was pretty set on not going at all, or at least not anytime soon.
Descent took hours. Most of a day, in fact. The whole point was to shed energy slowly, and Silent But Deadly had so much to shed, and was shedding it in such a deliberately cautious way, that by the time they reached merely supersonic ground speeds, they had circumnavigated the globe nearly a dozen times. The continents rolled past, and past, and past underneath him, broken up here and there by stormy hammer-shaped cloud formations, wine-dark seas, snow-browed mountain ranges and, memorably, a hurricane.
None of them affected the ship in the slightest. They were all much too low.
For Tooko’s part, the only thing to do was sit in the seat, keep himself alert with tea, and try not to be too envious of the men behind him who got to skip this prolonged, stressful descent.
Finally, there was a slight shudder as they dropped through the turbulent convection barrier where the thermosphere gave way to the mesosphere. The ship pulled its flight surface fields in closer, gaining some maneuverability at the expense of glide efficiency, but that was fine. When Tooko checked their ground speed, they were down to a single-digit multiple of the speed of sound, speeds that the ship could bleed off quite handily, especially once they dropped down into the comparatively dense fog of the stratosphere.
He woke up the others.
“…Shit, Pip, you alright butt?” Rees gave him a concerned look the moment his stasis field dropped.
“Stressful day,” Tooko replied. He must be looking rough if a Human could notice.
“We down?” Wilde asked.
“Next best thing. We’re about seventy kilometers up. Touching distance.”
Wilde nodded and ran his eye over the maps that the ship had generated for him. “Good work, mate.”
“Like there was any doubt.” Though, inwardly, Tooko felt a little knot untie itself in his brain at the praise. He’d needed that recognition.
Rees, Frasier, Nomuk, Tumik and Genn, of course, hadn’t been awake for the last conversation, and Frasier summed up the look that passed between them.
“Care to fill us in on what we missed? I take it Big H are up to their merry fuckin’ hijinks?”
“System’s crawling with them,” Tooko confirmed. “We’re safe for now… safe-ish…”
“But fuck knows what’s waiting for us at the relay,” Wilde finished. “Alright. Ferd had the right idea earlier, let’s get our kit out of lockup and check it’s good…”
Tooko left them to it and returned to his seat. He was going to curl up and sleep when he got the chance, but for now he had to find a landing site near the relay.
As for the relay…
He glanced at the map again. This one was different to the last one. Irujzen had been in the middle of a stinking forest, built on top of a coal mine. The relay had been pretty much the only sign of intelligent life on that planet.
This one was different.
This one was built in the middle of a city.
Date Point: 17y4m1w3d AV Chiune Station, west of Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Misfit was a lot smaller than Julian remembered, but damn if she wasn’t a welcome sight. And he’d have to be ten years dead not to smile at the way Allison was practically sparking with happiness at working on the old girl again.
“She’s just so unique!” she gushed, ducking under the landing gear to check it before flight. “Like, the production model took a few lessons from our girl here and they’re special and arguably an improvement, but Misfit is her own thing… She’s just got more character, you know?”
“I think Xiù and I need to be jealous.”
She gave him an amused Look, then stepped up on the landing strut to check inside the cavity above. “I’m not gonna fuck the spaceship, dummy.”
“Oh, I see. That’s all we are to you, huh?”
Her reply was to throw some wadded-up scrap paper from her pocket at him.
Julian collected it, pocketed it, then looked up and patted the hull fondly himself. Truth was, Misfit did hold a special place in his heart. They’d gone to some pretty incredible places and done some pretty incredible things with her, and he was glad to see that aside from a little understandable wear and tear she was still in fine shape. Her livery was still proud red and gleaming silver, her hull was still that squat, blunt sledgehammer shape that made her feel tough and capable. She still had that charming slight asymmetry from the observation dome built into her starboard side…
But now that he was seeing her for the first time in a long while, he had to admit… she wasn’t a big ship at all. Hell, she could have landed on a tennis court. The only reason she stood so far off the ground that he and Allison could walk around underneath her was because she’d been designed with long landing legs capable of setting down on uneven terrain.
She had a few new decorations on her, behind the cockpit, in the form of a red circle and six blue-green ones. Trophies of the worlds she’d been the first ever human ship to land on: Mars, Lucent, Akyawentuo, and Ayma, plus the three discovered by Jeremy Lee, Ben Sullivan and Sam Ackermann, Misfit’s current crew.
There’d be an eighth going on that list today.
Ackermann was the field researcher, the guy doing what had once been Julian’s job. They’d originally got off on the wrong foot, with Ackermann being quite sullen about losing “his” ship to them, but he’d dropped that grudge pretty quickly. In fact, the model of Misfit sitting on top of the bookshelf at home had been his idea, a gift from the new crew to the old.
Julian personally kinda liked him, but he had no idea how Lee and Sullivan could stand living with him in such tight quarters. Then again, they’d gone a very different route in their relationship: the three men were close colleagues, and had as much of the Right Stuff as any of the Apollo missions, but they struck Julian as a little too… professional.
Still. There was no disputing their results.
“I’ve been reading up on the target world,” Ackermann said. “You know this is going to be the first time Misfit sets herself down on a non-deathworld that isn’t Cimbrean?”
“We gonna paint the picture up there a little smaller, then?” Allison asked.
“A planet’s a planet,” Ackermann shrugged.
“Well… good news is, you took good care of my ship,” Allison declared, tapping firmly on her tablet to record her verdict.
“Now you bring my girl and my boy back in one piece, hear?”
Julian rolled his eyes and grinned affectionately. “We’ll be fine, babe.”
“Sure, but you’re gonna be cooped up in there with a buncha cavemonkeys for like ten hours. That little jaunt we did out to drop the system field is nothing next to that.” She gave him a hug and a smooch. “So keep ‘em from tearing up the place, okay?”
“Good boy.” She gave him a second smooch then stepped away. “See you when you get back! Wo ai ni!”
“Wo ye ai ni!” Julian grinned, waved, ignored Ackermann’s amused expression, and then at his invitation preceded him up the ship’s ladder.
Climbing on-board, well…things felt a heck of a lot more cramped than they had before. He felt positively lumbering as he shouldered his way through the airlock, through into the crew space, and plopped himself down out of the way in the observation blister. The interior was much the same, though. Much the same…but not quite.
Xiù had decorated it with a few little personal touches, using acrylic paints. At first it had just been some girly leaves and flowers on vines and stuff, but later on after her first encounter with the glimmermotes on Lucent, she’d added those as well. That was the biggest detail, missing: at some point, her hard work had been wiped out.
Things were stored a little differently, too. Different personal items stashed in the bunks, some board games stowed to either side of the TV where they’d kept books… things like that. He very much was visiting his old home and seeing how other people lived in it. Not a comfortable feeling.
Being a passenger didn’t help, either. He knew every single step of the procedure for bringing the ship up to power and jumping her to space, and he could practically count it off in his head, following the familiar beats as the power systems came up, the airlock locked down, the artificial gravity took over from Cimbrean’s…
And the black flash of the jump itself, right on the zero as he counted down from five.
All in all, he felt weirdly out of his element from launch, up through jump, and down again for landing. He got to turn the tables, however, once the crew met the Ten’Gewek for the first time.
The experience was always much the same. Ten’Gewek were cheerful, blunt, and direct people. They were suspicious and stand-offish at first, but the instant they knew you were friendly, all boundaries aggressively disappeared. All of them.
Though on that front, Yan’s tribe was at least somewhat considerate. All the crew had to endure was curious children. Which, given they climbed like spider monkeys and often massed as much as full-grown men…
Lee managed to hold up with two of the very little ones sitting on him, combing through his hair, exploring around his upper body and absolutely pelting him with questions. Not bad going, in supergravity! Still, Julian rescued him before their combined weight (or grabby hands) could defeat him, and then turned to his first diplomatic problem.
There were far too many curious cavemonkeys who wanted to come along. Half a dozen Given-Men, three Singers, one of whom was beginning to go blind and so wanted to bring her Dancer along, Vemik of course…
Packing all of them into Misfit would have been a lot like running a herd of prime beef into a sardine canning plant. Not that they’d mind much, but there were functional concerns. And safety concerns.
And sweaty musky cavemonkey concerns.
“We can’t take too many. Didn’t you tell them, Vemik? Also, where’s Yan?”
“He’s out hunting, but he only just left, so we used the speaking-stone magic to call him back.”
“Okay.” Julian cleared his hair out of his face. Time for a trim. Or maybe he should grow it out… “We’ll be putting a jump array on the new world, too. You’ll be able to walk from here to there just like you can to Cimbrean. Then, anyone who wants to visit, can.”
That earned a hoot of approval. Ten’Gewek by and large were not wholesale adopters of alien tech. They were…selective. If they could make it or do it themselves, they preferred to stick to what they knew, though they weren’t shy about learning, either. Quite a few improvements to their way of life had come of simple refinement and better skills.
Writing was probably the best example of something they adopted whole-heartedly. All of the nearby tribes could speak fluent English at this point, right down to the children. Many of them could read and write too, and their two writing systems were more or less merging into a single coherent system, which was going to earn Tilly some post-doc accolades, probably…at least, as long as a certain curious gorillaboy didn’t distract her too much.
They were okay with the simple machines too, so long as it didn’t intrude on what they saw as sacred labor: the Hunt, the Dance, the Game of the tribes…anything to do with social ritual. They were also leery of anything that required Sky-Magic to work, even if they could get their head around the basic idea.
The story was different if that bit of tech did something completely impossible for them. Jump arrays were fine. That was so utterly impossibly magical there was nothing to ground it for them to the World That Is. Two-way radios were somewhat the same, and those they loved the most. They ended up purchasing simple, rugged models that could survive just about anything, and now there was at least one in the hands of most of the tribes.
They’d even got a start on a solar-powered repeater network, so before long the whole of the Ten’Gewek–at this point, spread out across an area comparable to Rhode Island–would be able to talk directly to each other. All the Given-Men and Singers knew how to use and maintain them, so along with the “Given-Man Post,” they were well on their way to communicating with each other as one culture.
Sure, they didn’t know how it worked. They didn’t even know the first principles at play. But that would probably be changing, actually. The Professor’s Academy had finally taken off, and the basics of learning were starting to spread pretty widely.
Daniel fretted about the cultural harm that caused, of course. English came with a heavy freight of concepts that had hitherto been entirely alien to the Ten’Gewek, and he’d gone on quite a long diatribe about the history of European cultural development, the interplay between Christianity and Germanic languages, they way that simply learning to speak it meant effectively outsourcing a couple-few thousand years of cultural development…
The usual stuff. The humans working on Akyawentuo were all pretty much resigned to the inevitable reality of cultural contamination at this point, and generally dealt with it by reminding themselves that the alternative for the Ten’Gewek had been extinction.
Personally, Julian thought they were worrying too much. They were thinking like civilized people. Hell, they were thinking like academics, and that was the problem. Ten’Gewek were not civilized, nor were they academically inclined. Not even Vemik was overly interested beyond a practical sense of engineering. And that mattered, because their relationship to all of their new “sky-learnings” was very pragmatic. Where the stories stuck together, they were happy to let them. Where they didn’t…eh. Tribes had different stories, after all. No sense getting too worked up about it, there were bigger problems at hand, like hunting their next meal.
So it always was. And stories didn’t bring in the meat.
In the end, knowing there was a jump array coming allowed Yan to wade into the gathering and get them to chill out while he, Sky-Thinker and his Singer made the trip. Three Ten’Gewek in the ship was a much less uncomfortable proposition, even if Julian was pretty sure he’d get pretzel’d at least three times through the trip.
Sure enough, he went zero for three against Vemik, who was definitely feeling his oats and enjoying his strength. Frustrating. Maybe if Julian wasn’t trying so hard not to break anything…he did get Vemik pinned on their fourth bout, though. Julian spent the rest of the flight exacting his revenge, but not really. Vemik had a way of bring out the kid in anyone.
Yan spent most of the trip asleep, surprisingly. Apparently he’d been hunting extra hard the last few days to make up for however long he was going to be away. And the Singer was quite content to curl up in the observation blister and watch the stars crawl by.
She almost fell out of it though when they arrived in orbit around the target world. That was the thing with FTL travel: things didn’t swoop up all slow and graceful, they just… appeared. One moment, open black sky, the next… a planet.
Julian chuckled as she flipped over onto the floor, twitched her tail at it, then stood up and tried to reclaim some dignity, kind of like a cat who’d just fallen off something and was trying to walk it off.
“I never did get used to that,” he admitted. “I think pilots do it deliberately. Xiù sure did.”
“Shyoo has big mischief in her soul,” the Singer replied. She twitched her tail again, then stepped forward to consider the world below. “…So these are our sky-tribe-lands. Funny thing, for another sky-tribe to claim land for us that we never saw before.”
“It’s supposed to prevent wars. Didn’t work so well, but I like the idea in principle,” Julian said. “Should be about an hour until we land. Falling safely down through the sky and landing are the careful bits.”
“And then what?” Vemik asked.
“We find a place to land, we set up the jump array, the others come through, and then… well, we see what kind of planet she is.” Julian patted the wall beside him. “Misfit’s done it plenty of times. It’s what she was made for.”
“What do we do until we land?” Vemik asked.
“My advice? Watch the view. There’s nothing like it.” Julian perched himself on the back of the couch, facing the window, and followed his own advice. And for a little while, that feeling of being out of his element went away.
It was good to do this again, one last time.
Date Point: 17y4m1w4d AV
Relay planet, deep uncharted space.
Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde
“Reminds me of Machu Picchu.” Rees decided.
Wilde shifted his binoculars, comparing what he was looking at to the map that Tooko’s instruments had made as they came in to land. He could see what Rees meant though. The Hierarchy had obviously obliterated some poor native civilization once upon a time, then built their relay in the ruins, proud upon a mountaintop surrounded by the crumbling stones of what had once been a metropolis.
Rees nodded. “Fuck aye. Saw it when I was fourteen, my Nan and Dadcu took us to Peru… Except Machu Picchu never had a fuck-off giant alien death monolith in the middle.”
Wilde didn’t even bother fighting the amused smile that smeared itself across his face. The Relay was pretty unmissable, given that it had to be a good hundred meters tall and had an eye-bending space fuckup at the top. “You sure about that, Reesy?”
“I think the fuckin’ tour guide would’ve pointed it out… Fuck, security’s a lot tighter than the last one, innit?”
Wilde nodded. They were camped out on a mountainside a good few miles away from the distant alien ruins, and it was plain to see that the relay was far better protected than Irujzen had been. Hierarchy Repealer-class drones, the same ones that had done the heavy lifting in genociding the Ten’Gewek, were circling above it in dense swarms like flocks of evil starlings. High overhead, a faint heat-haze shimmer in the air hinted at the presence of a huge domed forcefield angled upwards to protect the facility from orbital strikes.
“Makes me wonder why they didn’t just Football the planet,” he mused.
“Maybe they can’t?”
“Iunno. Maybe it fucks with the relay or somethin’? I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud here.”
“Hmm.” Wilde considered that possibility. “Well, that’s one for the brains back home to figure out, I guess.”
“Yup…” Rees nodded in satisfaction as he finished setting up his camera. “Be nice if I was right though.”
“Ready to move on?”
Cover was sparse on the mountainside. They were in alpine terrain, more than two thousand meters above sea level. No trees grew up this high, though here and there where the craggy, broken terrain created little pockets that weren’t blasted constantly by the wind, scrubby little patches of dense foliage had been able to establish themselves, haunted by an assortment of animals that had never met a sapient being in their whole life and didn’t understand the concept of fear.
One in particular was like a particularly ornery honey badger, and only the fact that Ten’Gewek skin was so naturally thick and tough had protected Tumik, though it had taken a good minute or so to pry the enraged creature loose from his arm.
They shrieked like a fucking banshee when they got mad, too.
Annoyed, Tumik had eventually broken the critter’s jaw to free his arm, then pulled it the rest of the way apart with his feet. He’d suffered some superficial cuts and a torn uniform, but the “madbadger” as Frasier had named it had earned a healthy measure of respect. Wilde was determined to stay the fuck away from wherever one might be nesting.
They weren’t much good for eating, either. The meat was stringy and… musky. The Ten’Gewek didn’t seem to mind all that much, but even they said it wasn’t very tasty.
So, considering the sparsity of good concealment, moving unseen was proving to be a challenge much like training back on Cimbrean. Luckily, one of their uniform options turned out to be a fairly effective camouflage even to Ten’Gewek eyes. Testing had shown they definitely had deep color perception, so if they found it difficult to follow, then so would most any untrained vision AI, right?
It was a good working idea, anyway. And backed up by the fact that a swarm of plasma-spitting drones hadn’t descended on them yet.
Getting and keeping the Ten’Gewek in uniform was a small source of grumbling, though. They especially hated their “boots” which were really super durable gloves for their feet. Not being able to feel the ground through their feet threw them off a bit, but the sharp, jagged little flints of rock laying about everywhere ended up being a pretty good motivator.
It was a good old hike over to the next camera spot, made all the slower by the need to pass undetected. Wilde was silently grateful for the Ten’Gewek: while he, Frasier and Rees absolutely could have handled the cross-country mountain marathon with a hundred kilos of equipment on their backs, the cavemonkeys could wear that much like it was a shirt. That freed up the humans to move nimbly and openly, and so their whole patrol could set a respectable pace despite the difficulties.
Work was still work, though. Moving that much weight around burned calories, and so did powering the bodies that could do that kind of work in the first place. Progress was therefore slowed a bit, and around ten klicks in they needed to pause and eat.
They discovered a nice natural overhang that seemed fairly cozy, and it only took a few minutes to establish a nice lean-to that was effectively invisible from above.
That also gave them the first opportunity of the day to drop their gear and piss. Soldiers of old would have wondered at the need to be careful there, but: they didn’t know the local wildlife, and hyperspectral overhead imagery could spot such things. That was why they had to be covered head to toe and the Ten’Gewek needed to wear “boots.” They couldn’t leave any chemical markers.
Which also meant cold food, sadly. Not knowing the capabilities of their enemy, they couldn’t risk the fumes being detected. Hell, really they should be wearing re-breathers too, but…
…There came a point where ascribing magic powers of detection to the enemy got ridiculous and maddening. The Ten’Gewek for example were absolute masters of not leaving any sign of their passing at all, but for them it was a magic art more than anything else. That meant they had…superstitions.
The biggest one had to do with being in the open in the first place. The forest covered a multitude of sins: it was gloomy, the foliage muffled sound, the still air kept scent from circulating. Being out in the open, in the bright light where sounds could travel and where the wind could carry a scent…well, it put them on edge. The given-man in particular was flinching and making a warding gesture at every kicked pebble, or every time his unfamiliar shoes scuffed against something.
“Relax, Ferd.” Wilde said in a low voice. “They can see many things from overhead, but they can’t hear from that position. Remember about how there’s no air in space?”
“They can be invisible, yes?”
“And they would have hit us by now if they were doing that. Relax. We’re not dead, so they’ve not noticed us. And they probably won’t either, as long as we’re reasonably careful.”
Ferd’s response was a grumpy chuff. Nomuk, however, was a good deal older than Ferd and had some more life experience to draw on.
“Lots of small animals here anyway. See? Burrow over there, shit over there… probably lots of little noises here all the time. Making noise is not so bad, if animals make that noise too.”
The thing that made Ferd a good leader was that he was smart enough to realize his men were all older and wiser than him, and that he should listen. That was the biggest reason Wilde respected him. It wasn’t his absolutely ridiculous brawn, really. Well, okay, that was actually pretty impressive. But really, it was that he knew enough about himself to know he didn’t really know anything at all.
He also knew that monkeyfun wouldn’t be a smart idea here. So instead he grinned, deliberately showing off those two-inch fangs all the Given-Men seemed to have, and nodded his agreement.
They couldn’t rest forever, or even really for very long. But getting that shelter up was good, it’d give them somewhere to come back to later. For now, they had three more cameras to deploy. Wilde stood up, stretched, and hefted his pack–still bloody heavy, even with gorilla porters–and bounced a bit on his toes to loosen up his hamstrings.
“Time to get going, lads.”
Frasier and Rees nodded and stood. The four cavemonkeys collectively made the unhappy noises of men who would have really liked another five minutes or so, but that was the limit of their complaint. They rolled upright, grabbed their gear.
And, with a final luck-gesture from Ferd, they headed out again.
Date Point: 17y4m1w4d AV
The Giving-World, far from home
Vemik had gone to other worlds many times now. He’d been to Cimbrean and Earth, and those were fascinating places, very strange. One had all of the Humans’ old history all around them, in the stones and the ground and the air. The other was younger, and everything was busy.
He’d never been to an empty world before.
The Giving-World, or at least the bit of it they’d landed in, was… there wasn’t a lot going on. There were plants, and animals, and things, but he couldn’t taste what was going on around him like he could at home. He couldn’t read the land around him. Even the desert on Earth hadn’t been so…
He didn’t know the right word. There was life all around him. Interesting life! And lots of it! But something was… missing.
The trees were… nice. Tall and slim and white, with interesting purple leaves, and lots of them had smaller plants growing up them. But when the Singer, lightest of the three of them, tried to climb one, the branch cracked and peeled off the tree under half her weight. Yan, when he tried, needed not much of his strength to just heave it out of the ground and push it over.
The rocks were still rocks, and the dirt was still dirt, but the gravity was weak. Vemik had no trouble bounding so high in the air, he’d managed to somewhat flip over and land badly.
Which didn’t hurt much.
At least Jooyun was enjoying it. He was doing the thing he always did of singing to himself as he worked. The Singer was listening with interest to that: Human songs went to strange places.
♪“…I don’t want the world to see me, ‘cause I don’t think that they’d understand. When everything’s meant to be broken, I just want you to know who I am…”♫
Weird. Or maybe just going over Vemik’s head, though from the looks the other Humans gave him… just weird. Either way, Vemik shrugged and helped the four of them build the jump array. Sully-van was doing something interesting with a thick black cable and a hatch under the ship, but he waved Vemik off, and appealing to Jooyun didn’t help either. Sky-Brother just shook his head.
“Sorry, bro. Too dangerous.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Pulling power from the ship’s capacitors to power the array. That’s a lot of juice, easily enough to kill if you don’t know how to handle it right, so leave it in Sully’s hands.”
Vemik sighed, but gave up on it. Jooyun usually let him join in, so if he said no that meant it really was important. But nobody ever learned anything by being safe! And what Sully-van was doing didn’t look too difficult…
…But no. So instead, he headed out after Yan, following the trail markings the big Given-Man had left with his knife.
Eventually Vemik caught up with him on a ridge where they could look back and see the ship’s gleaming red hull through the trees. The forest wasn’t… it was thin. That was the word. The trees were slim, and they stood far apart, and there wasn’t much living around them. He could see between them almost like standing in the open. It wasn’t like the forest at home at all.
And Yan had caught some things, easily. Some kind of spindly little thing that kind of reminded Vemik of a bibtaw except it had feathers instead of fur. He was busy skinning and roasting them over a campfire.
“They didn’t even run away,” Yan grumbled. “Or fight. I walked right up, and they didn’t even get scared until I Took one.”
“Good meat?” Vemik asked. Yan shrugged, grabbed the one he had spit over the flames, and tore a chunk off with his fangs.
“…Tastes okay,” he decided after chewing and swallowing. “Doesn’t hit the belly hard, though.”
That sounded a lot like Cimbrean. Or at least, the things that had always lived there. Jooyun and Tis-dale had said that Earth things were moving in and taking over because they were much stronger than what was already there…
And that would happen here, too. Vemik wasn’t sure how he felt about that. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that the gods should have made stronger life here.
“Something in your head, Sky-Thinker?” Yan offered him a crispy haunch.
Vemik took it and bit in. A bit bland. Maybe with a bit of salt, and some of Jooyun’s pepper, or rubbed with some Tanew leaves…
“I think…” Vemik considered his words before he spoke. “I think, this place would make us very weak. Not weak like being civilized. Weak in body.”
“We haven’t seen much of it yet.”
“I’ve seen enough.”
Yan nodded with a grunt. “They did their ‘fo-to-gam-a-tree’ thing when we were orbiting. This was the spot they picked…so did they pick a strong spot, or a weak one?”
“It’s a planet. The whole thing has gravity like this. But plants, beasts? That’s a different song. Could be we landed in the land of weak scrawny critters, and there’s good hunting a hundred days that way.” Vemik waved his hand.
“But gravity is still weak. Weaker than Cimbrean-place! Look how high I can jump, Vemik!”
Yan did so. Even for him, who could jump higher than any man Vemik had ever seen, as high as Daar Great-Father could with a bit of a run… it was wrong, how high he launched himself.
Yan landed and Vemik growled in knowing. “Too weak.” Yan sat himself back down. “What did they say the Gee-number was?”
“Point seven-six Gee. That’s like…three of a hand? And that hand is Earth-Gee. That means…”
“I get it.” Yan nodded. “…Doe-min-yun were stupid giving us this. We’d never use it.”
“They Gave it because it was inside a bubble of a certain size around our home-world. I don’t think they did any sky-thinking at all.”
“Hmm. All rules, no thoughts. Stupid, like I said.” Yan stripped the last meat off his prey’s bones with his teeth, and tossed the bone into the fire. “Maybe, this is a gods-blessing in disguise. The sky-people Jooyun talks about are very sick. Maybe this would help them heal.”
“Maybe…but the gods would re-make them to this place, like the gods make everyone for their place. Jooyun and Tis- dale call that ‘ev-o-loo- shun.’ But,” Vemik considered, “they also think maybe that’s part of why we and the City-People were so different, too.”
“We come from the same place,” Yan pointed out. “So a people’s place isn’t the only thing that matters?”
“I think, yes. I only know the shape of the idea. Too many other things I need to know first,” Vemik growled in frustration. “It’s a big sky-thought. Professor Daniel says it changed their whole world when a very smart thinker of theirs first thought it.”
“An important thought, then.”
“Yes! Professor says, of course the gods make a people, and change them. But he says, they also change themselves, too. Very slowly.”
Yan nodded. “Makes sense. We changed a lot just since you came along, little Sky-Thinker.” He looked around at the thinly wooded hills around them. “…But this place, I think, would change us the wrong way. No. I don’t like it here. Best thing we can do with it is Give it to the sick people. That seems to me like it would please the gods.”
“Maybe Jooyun will see that too, now we’re here.”
“Maybe. He tries to protect us from the sky-world and I love him for it. But we are not stupid. We are blessed by the gods to be a thing none of the sky-people can be. But that means we can’t be like them, either. I think you have been thinking on this, yes?”
“…Yes.” There was definitely a bit of a sullen note in his hoot. “But that means… a lot of wonderful things we’ll never do. Inventions and things. If we can’t be like them, there’s so many things we won’t have.”
Yan nodded, shuffled round, and put an arm and tail around him in a fatherly hug. Vemet had hugged him like that, many times. For a moment, it made Vemik sad to remember.
“There’s many things they don’t have, Sky-Thinker,” he said. “But we’ll get to keep them. And we can share, yes? So don’t look so sad. Be happy in what you are!”
“Guess nothing! You are a fine man, Vemik Sky-Thinker. Handsome. Very good shape to you, tall red crest and good hard muscles. Stronger than Jooyun! Smarter too! Why be sad because he has read more books? You have half his years, and already you do so much!”
…That was true. Maybe Vemik was being jealous. The gods didn’t like jealousy. And really…Yan was right. He didn’t have anything to be jealous of against anyone, not even Jooyun. Being jealous would be an insult to everything he’d been Given.
Feeling better, he nodded, then stood up. “Array should be ready, the others will be here soon. I think they won’t need long to see things your way.”
Yan just grinned. He bounced up to his feet with a push of his tail, nodded, and led the way back down the hill. Vemik took a look around again before following. They’d go to many other places on this world first before Jooyun and the other Humans were satisfied, but Vemik knew already.
They were Giving this place, and it was the best thing they could ever do with it.
26th day of the first year of freedom
The “Clawhold,” above the old-bent-leg tunnels
The “Clawhold” was… Uku hadn’t realized that a place could be so clean, even while it was alive and working. Not even the hydroponic farms in the warrens were so well-kept.
The light was a little too bright for her, but a helpful Gao had given her a pair of darkened lenses for her eyes. They rested on her nose and kept the worst of the glare out so that she was comfortable.
Another had shown her how they archived their knowledge. Whole vast troves of knowledge were neatly tucked away in some distant storage, and she could read those records—or a translation of them, anyway—through book-sized devices controlled by taps and touch.
The Hunters had similar things, so their existence didn’t come as a complete shock. But there was a lot around Ukusevi that was far beyond what her people had achieved even at their height before the Hunters came. Their machines had been all wrought iron, rivets, steam and wood. Electrical power had been a new and intriguing invention, only a few years old, before that fateful day.
And of course, her people hadn’t stopped thinking, inventing and innovating during the long years in hiding. They’d been stifled and slowed by their circumstance, but everything around Uku was understandable, even if she’d never had the chance to see such things up close.
Though, she hadn’t had the chance to see most of it. For security and safety reasons, she’d been confined to a small part of the Clawhold, behind sealed doors with attached pumps, where filters and fans kept the air cleaner and fresher than any that she’d breathed in her life. It had only been a few days, and already she felt… fresher. More awake and alert. And the trauma of being attacked, while it still throbbed, was fading.
Now, though, she had an important meeting. So important that Grandfather Vark was accompanying her to it.
“I should mebbe warn ‘ya about the Great Father,” he said, with what Uku could only guess was a pensive set of his ears. “He is…a very big creature. In every way. Overwhelming even when he doesn’t want to be. You will need to take that charming meekness of yours and bury it very, very deep for this meeting. Can you do that?”
“…Charming meekness?” Uku wasn’t sure if she should be offended or not, and wound up standing straight, planting her hands on her hips and giving him a curious look, one ear askance and the other straight up above her head.
“Yeah. I don’t mean it bad. It’s jus’ that somethin’ about y’all brings out my protective instincts very hard. It’ll be like ten times worse with the Great Father. It’s what he is.”
“I don’t think of myself as particularly ‘meek.’”
“Mebbe it’s jus’ perception on my part, then. An’ mebbe I ain’t bein’ fair. But ‘ya weren’t so bold when we first met, yijao?”
“People were trying to kill me!”
Vark duck-nodded agreeably. “Ayup. Like I said, mebbe that ain’t entirely fair o’ me. I done a whole lotta killin’ in my time. But I can only go by what I think is true, an’ I’m tellin’ ‘ya this ‘cuz Daar—the Great Father—very much doesn’t like scarin’ people he don’t wanna scare. Oh, an’ there’s one other thing. Y’know how we don’t like lies?”
“An admirable trait, even if it maybe makes you a bit too blunt in your observations…”
“Daar is the Champion-Emeritus of my Clan. He is more an embodiment of what we are than any who have ever lived, an’ that’s the honest truth. So…”
Ukusevi considered that word. “An embodiment. A living symbol? Avatar of your ideals and virtues?”
“Yeah. An’ more. He’s a good man, but…”
“You’re fretting on my behalf.”
Uku put a grateful hand on his arm. “Thank you for the advice. But I think I can handle myself. Librarians can be…passionate…in their disagreement, as you have seen firsthand.”
Vark chittered, a gravelly noise that sounded nothing like her own people’s laughter, but she knew the sound well enough by now to smile.
“Yeah, fair ‘nuff,” he agreed, then angled his nose toward the door. “After you.”
They walked a bit through the warren of corridors and airlocks that made up the Gaoian’s temporary village on the surface. No matter where they went, the air had that same marvelously clean and cool quality, and it also carried a faint…it smelled green like the hydroponics gardens they kept in the Library, but stronger.
She knew instantly when they were approaching the Great Father’s quarters, however. The gentle breeze moving down the hallway was suddenly saturated with a heavy musk much like Vark’s, except… more. It wasn’t unpleasant, really. But it bullied every other aroma into the background, even the scent of Vark standing next to her.
It obviously had an effect on him. Vark’s ears flicked backward in a clearly docile gesture as he approached the door. There was a grooved metal plate mounted in it above the handle, which Vark scratched loudly with his claws.
A deep, booming voice rumbled from the other side. “Come.”
It turned out that Vark had not exaggerated about the Great Father in the slightest. Daar was…he was…
Vark was right. She suddenly felt meek. It was just instinctive upon encountering someone so obviously dangerous. No other creature she had ever met, seen or read about had anything like the deadly ability positively radiating from him. It was etched into his every movement, into every well-fed and impossibly muscular line of his body, with terrifying teeth and rib-breaking claws every bit the match for all the rest. She willed her spine to remain straight, and her expression serenely curious.
Ukusevi quickly learned that capability and intent didn’t necessarily align with this creature. She didn’t get even a moment to gather herself before the Great Father boisterously greeted the much smaller Vark by effortlessly hauling him clear off his feet and half crush-hugging, half wrestling him in what could only be described as an affectionate show of dominance.
Vark didn’t seem afraid at all. That spoke of a deep trust, or perhaps a much better ability to read intent from each other. Nevertheless, he was clearly cowed by the Great Father. Despite Ukusevi having known Vark for a few days, that would have seemed like an impossible thing, until now.
“Mrf, I missed you too, My Father!” Daar put Vark down, and if he took a big gasp of breath, Uku tried not to notice. “I brought the Librarian.”
“Thankee! I know ‘ya got a lotta work ‘ta catch up on, so I won’t hold ‘ya captive…”
Somehow, she knew that wasn’t merely an observation. Vark knew he had been ordered out, and bowed out with a dignity she hadn’t yet seen from him.
“Thank you, My Father.”
Daar turned his attention to Ukusevi and though she felt a shiver of instinctive dread, he was nothing but friendliness. “You must be Ukusevi! Welcome, please, have a seat!”
“…Thank you.” Uku sat in the offered chair, feeling well and truly out of sorts, and was surprised when the Great Father ignored the furniture and promptly thumped his enormous haunches down on the ground with a slight tremor that she felt through her feet. He made himself comfortable right there on the rug and seemed to think nothing of it. The rational part of her brain told her that was clearly calculated to make him seem less threatening. With… limited success.
He seemed to know it too, and gave her what could only be a sly look. “I ain’t gonna eat’cha, y’know.”
“Most things in my life with teeth like yours would have,” Uku replied.
“I know. My people are obligate carnivores. But we do not eat thinking beings.” He indicated a plate. “I got veggie snacks, if you want ‘em. They’re called ‘carrots.’ An’ the dip is ‘hummus.’ Totally veggie.”
“I… Thank you.” Uku realized that she was in fact quite hungry, and accepted the plate of sweet-smelling roots gratefully. She dipped one, and sampled it with a satisfying crunch followed by a combination of flavors both earthy and fresh. It was… by far the tastiest thing she’d eaten in a long time.
“One’a my favorites,” Daar said. “Ain’t Gaoian food though. Human. Almost everything we eat has meat in it somehow.”
“I appreciate your discretion,” Uku told him, warming to the big feral alien. “And I don’t mean to seem intimidated. Your people have more than won my trust, but…well…Instinct is a difficult thing. I think your word is yijao?”
“Ha!” The Great Father’s chitter was almost a parody of Varks: deep, resonant and chest-shaking. “Not a bad pronunciation either!”
“All part of the training. We librarians have a phonetic alphabet.”
“Yeah! I’ve been readin’ th’ briefin’s my people are makin’ and it’s fascinatin.’ My own Clan’s got someone called the Lore-Master who I think you’d like to meet. Balls, Highmountain too.”
“I think I have a few more immediate concerns,” Uku replied. “The last report your Father Garaaf gave me said a great many of my people are being exiled to the surface by the… let’s call them the puritans.”
“That’s a good word ‘fer ‘em. You got ‘em outnumbered, but I suspect ‘yer people ain’t used ‘ta winnin’ those kinda fights.”
“My people aren’t used to fighting at all. We’re used to dying.”
That elicited what could only be described as a sympathetic keen from the Great Father’s throat, along with a visible attempt to restrain himself.
“…Is something wrong? I was told you prefer the unvarnished truth.”
“I do. Still hurts ‘ta hear.”
Uku nodded. “You’re right. We outnumber the puritans. But they’re just so angry. They’re in so much pain, so desperate for a truth that gave their lives–and all those deaths–a kind of meaning. And we’re tearing it away from them. I don’t blame them for being angry at us, but their anger is driving thousands of families onto the surface, and we can’t live on the surface!”
“Yeah. An’ that’s leadin’ me to the first big thing we gotta figger out. There is a Sky-People you’ve not met yet. They’re called Ten’Gewek, which means ‘the people’ in their own language.”
“Sky-people? I’m familiar with the concept of alien species, you know.”
“Yeah. But Sky-People is honestly the better word ‘fer this. Species is just a kind of living thing. Sky-People says a whole lot more inna lot less words. Anyhoo, I ain’t gonna bore ‘ya wif the details jus’ now. The chieftain o’ their people has convinced his fellows that they should give ‘yer people one of their worlds.”
“…A whole world? A planet?”
“Yeah. It’s a big thing ‘ta drop on ‘ya, I know. But we ain’t got the luxury o’ time. I’ll jus’ say that, their people are tied to their world in a way most aren’t. An’ they’re still hunter-gatherers. It’s a long story. But what the consequence o’ all that weirdness is, is that they ain’t got much use ‘fer that world. So ‘fer them, givin’ it is the good an’ obvious thing ‘ta do.”
“When can we start moving?”
The Great Father barked some kind of excited emotion. “Balls! You ain’t one to beat around the tail, are ‘ya?!”
Uku noted his choice of words. As she suspected, he was very much a surface-hero type of personality who was doing his best to mind his manners. The brave souls who’d left the tunnels to work for the Hunters, mine the world, make tools for them, and risked being slaughtered and devoured every time the so-called Punishment came to collect…they all had that same general coarseness to them after a while. Maybe it was how sapient beings of every kind handled true hardship.
Something about him told her he’d been through many such things in his time.
“As you said, we do not have much time.”
“No. But Ukusevi, you need ‘ta know some things. The planet has weaker gravity. Over time that’s gonna have consequences ‘fer ‘yer people. The world is completely untamed, too. It’s…going to take very much to make it your own. And I kinda think that movin’ in is gonna kill off what’s there, in favor of what your people bring along.”
“What are we going to bring?” Uku retorted. “There’s nothing left for us except poisoned, dead things. Our food crops are grown hydroponically, and those are about the only things we’d take, apart from our books and archives. We don’t have any pet animals or livestock, the last of those died generations ago. A Hunter ate it.”
The Gao must have kept pets too, because that statement elicited an angered growl from deep inside Daar’s chest that Uku was glad to know was intended for the Hunters, not herself or her people.
He didn’t let himself get distracted, though. “Well…you do have bacteria. Food plants. ‘Yerselves. You’ll need ‘ta piss an’ shit, just like anything else that walks. An’ we honnestly jus’ don’t know enough ‘bout ‘yer people’s particular flavor o’ life, or this planet’s life, or how it’ll play together. Or not play together. So there’s mebbe a lot o’ risk to this.”
“Well, we’ll deal with that.” Ukusevi shook her head. “I don’t care, Great Father, if there’s risk involved, and what concerns we will have to face. What I care about is that hundreds of thousands of my people are going to starve or die of poison very soon indeed unless we act. Next to everything we’ve endured and already overcome, the difficulties of settling a new, untainted world will be a blessing. And so I am eager to begin. I think you would be too, in my position.”
“Mhmm.” The Great Father rose and barked through to an adjoining room. “Tiyun! How are ‘ya doin’ on our crash colonization plan?”
A much smaller Gao—Ukusevi had seen enough of their species to deduce that this Tiyun was a fairly normal Gao, while behemoths like Daar and Vark were a feared minority—bustled through with a device of some kind, which he laid in the Great Father’s massive paw.
“There are a few lingering questions we need answers to,” he reported, “but the infrastructure is in place, we’ve received the Ten’Gewek’s go-ahead, and the groundbreaker team is ready to jump to Misfit’s array and build a larger one at your order.”
“Thanks, as always.” Daar fixed that intense predatory gaze of his back on Ukusevi. “Jus’ say the word, and it’ll be so.”
A thought occurred to her suddenly, likely prompted by Tiyun’s brief comments. “…Why are you doing this for us? This has already cost you lives! I don’t even know how many!”
Daar heaved a huge, serious sigh.
“My people were brought to the edge o’ extinction by these evil fucks. Once there were over a billion females among my kind, now there are just over one hundred million remaining. Worse, my people already had a natural gender imbalance of…well, six to one or so, but I’m digressing. The point is that I am the Great Father as a consequence of all that, my people yet live, an’ there are not words ‘ta describe how grateful we are to be free of an enslavement we din’t even know was there. We are a made people, Ukusevi. We were made to be a soldier species. And it’s only because of the Humans that we broke free.”
Ukusevi didn’t have anything like an appropriate reply to that. All she could do was take refuge in an observation. “…You really can sympathize.”
“Yeah. All of which means we can’t not help you, especially when it’s Hunters doin’ ‘ta you what their masters tried ‘ta do to us. Never again. Not while I’m still kickin.’”
“…They have masters?”
“They do. Garaaf mighta mentioned ‘em at some point as the Hierarchy. That’s a long story, an’ they’re the prey I ultimately wanna crunch in my jaws. But not right now. Right now, I care about you. So…are ‘ya ready ‘fer the adventure of ‘yer life?”
Ukusevi took a deep breath. She’d already gone on more adventures than one life really ought to contain, she felt. As if upsetting her religion and prompting a civil war weren’t enough for one woman.
“I don’t see any point in even asking,” she said. “My people need this. That’s all that matters.”
The Great Father nodded his head in a way that seemed to involve his neck and shoulders more than his head itself. “A’right.” He sank to all fours again, nodded at Tiyun, and prowled his way toward the door.
“C’mon. Let’s go see ‘yer new world together.”
Date Point: 17y4m1w4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
The final touch to his protective drone was a raspy, razor-sharp tongue. If Stabby were ever forced to take defensive actions, Nofl figured they should be memorable, so as to dissuade further attempts on his lab.
The programming should be sufficient. He’d run simulations, and everything. The idea emphatically was not to actually harm anybody, as the Folctha government took a curiously dim view of people protecting their own homes and property. The idea was that if anybody did invade his lab, they really, really would wish they had not.
Amusing as that thought was though, if truth be told, Nofl found his mind far more occupied by his temporary engagement. Singularity had, entirely without asking, arranged for the whole affair.
The Ark Project was ready for its first independent checkpoint review. There being precious few individuals cleared for the program, and fewer still who were experts in deathworld physiology and especially few who had any knowledge at all of normal early-life development for deathworld species… the candidate pool was necessarily thin.
Nofl didn’t know if that was an insult or an accolade.
In any case, there was no point worrying about it. With a put-upon sigh and no small amount of actual interest in what he was about to see, he grabbed his bag and headed out.
Transit was at least quick. Instantaneously, in fact, but only after he’d made the jump to Origin, been shuttled halfway across City Zero, driven down a bunker, and herded toward another jump array, this one behind multiple forcefields, security turrets and other measures besides.
“Is all this really necessary?”
“Project security is paramount.”
And…that about exhausted the small talk. Of course. His people had abandoned that particular social nicety a long time ago. No, no little pleasantries for the Corti, no being nice to each other.
Honestly, it was a wonder they were still around. Then again, they wouldn’t have been in a few more hundred years, if not for the project Nofl was now visiting.
With the black flash-thump of an Array, he stepped off the platform at the Ark Project and was immediately struck by a change in the atmosphere that had absolutely nothing at all to do with humidity, temperature, or the ratio of gases. The white-banner technician with three doctorate pips on her work harness who descended the stairs to meet him had an actual spring in her step, rather than the prim trot he was used to seeing.
“Doctor Nofl, thank you for coming!” she surprised him further with genuine warmth, which was unheard-of between somebody of her rarified caste and somebody of his decidedly more lowly one. “I am Doctor Feln, director of development and education.”
Ah. The headteacher. Suddenly, her downright personable demeanor made a good deal more sense.
Still, she wasn’t quite personable enough for Nofl to fly into the mode he used with Humans, so he settled for echoing her restrained happiness. “I’m pleased to be here! I believe you’re the author of that insightful paper on common traits in early juvenile sophont development, correct?”
Complimenting a senior academic on their published work was always a sure way into their good books, and so it proved for Feln, who was naturally much too cautiously inculcated in the ways of high-banner Corti to do anything so crass as smile, but nevertheless looked quite pleased.
“I’m pleased you have read it,” she replied. “Please, come this way!”
An actual ‘please’ from a white-banner? Nofl was beginning to think he’d stepped into an alternate universe, but what quickly became apparent as Feln led him into the facility was that… he almost had.
The Ark Project was deep underground on a planet at the fringes of Corti space. The planet in question was barren, the last of its photosynthetic life having died off millions of years ago as a consequence of a rather feeble core activity. Its magnetosphere had failed to conserve its atmosphere against the stripping power of the stellar wind, and all tectonic activity had ceased, meaning no volcanos to replenish the atmosphere. Being out the outward fringe of its star’s habitable zone, the loss of pressure had resulted in the temperatures sinking down, and down, and down, until it was far too cold out there to support life of any kind.
The Directorate had surveyed it extensively in the hopes of finding fossil fuel deposits, but as it turned out neither the ecosystem nor tectonic activity had lasted long enough to produce those valuable resources, and so Tangent had been left abandoned. Claimed but forgotten, not really worth the effort of establishing even a mining colony.
Now, though, a tiny handful of scientists, secretly here in a hole far underground with no access to the surface, had devoted an otherwise useless rock to the future of their species and civilization.
The first generation of Corti 2.0 were now in their second year of life, by the Directorate’s calendar. They were walking, forming simple sentences, developing their fumbling motor skills and, it had to be said, clearly enjoyed drawing on the walls in crayon. One had clearly decorated the length of a corridor with a series of rather misshapen triangles at chest height.
“That would be Meru’s work,” Feln explained, a touch apologetically. “She is the oldest. Carbon Caste zero-zero-zero-one. And easily the most…precocious.”
“You can actually see her getting more accomplished…” Nofl mused. As they reached the end of the corridor, the triangles were definitely approaching a more ideal equilateral.
“That would be why we have not cleaned it off yet. The sequence needs scanning and analysing. Oh, that reminds me. If you hear a thumping sound getting closer, it is usually a good idea to flatten yourself against the wall. She and her siblings learned how to run about twelve days ago, and now they just will not stop.”
“You make her sound like a charging rhino,” Nofl said, suppressing the urge to giggle.
“Earthling mammal, as much as two tonnes in mass with thick armored hide and a large spike on the nose. Renowned for charging at things and trampling them.”
“That’s interesting, though. Human and Ten’Gewek infants at this stage in their development are still figuring out how to stand upright by holding on to things.”
“Gaoian cubs, on the other hand, are playing social games and using rather complex tools,” Feln replied. “Our Carbon caste develop similarly quickly.” She sounded proud, in a motherly way.
“And they’re physically dangerous to an adult?”
“They are about half your height and mass, and surprisingly strong. We haven’t had any injuries yet but I am quite certain we will unless we get into the habit of stepping aside when they are running around.”
Nofl considered the Human children he knew who handily matched that description, and decided that, yes, he’d rather not have one of the Carbons barge into him at an unsteady run.
The tour of the facility proceeded without such an incident, however. As it turned out, the Carbons were all in lessons or taking naps, and could not see him through the observation windows. That was a shame, he’d rather hoped to meet one and speak with them.
Feln had not exaggerated their size or mass, however. Infants they might be, but they already had a substantial solidity to them that was quite un-Corti. And their eyes were different. The classic, normal Corti eyes were large, ovoid and angled slightly upwards, but the Carbons had slightly smaller, rounder, more focused eyes. The difference was not large, but it was enough to highlight that what he was looking at was, in many ways, a different species. Certainly, none of them would be able to breed with a baseline Corti, though that was due to the fact that baseline Corti were effectively sterile.
But still. Being so different in every way, and having no realistic likelihood of interbreeding, was as reasonable a definition of speciation as there was. Strange, therefore, to think that this new, synthetic species based on the Corti, with traits stolen or purchased from three other species, were being counted as the hope of the Corti. They weren’t a continuation, they were… a replacement.
But they were being raised as Corti. The same culture, the same general structure to their lives. They would be different, and would surely take the Directorate in their own unique direction when they took over… but that was their right, as it was the right of every generation.
Feln was obviously very proud and fond of them, and surprisingly unabashed in showing it too, considering her caste. That part gave Nofl real cause for hope. Maybe his people hadn’t been as far gone as he’d feared.
That impression, however, was swiftly dispelled by his introduction to the rest of the project directors. Staid, conservative, dismayingly concerned with the performance of Caste. Predictable. Boring.
And in an endeavor such as this, dangerous.
He retired for study after the necessary social positioning and status-establishing rituals. Several hours to go over results and documentation were needed before he confronted them with anything important.
And it turned out, there were important things to confront. Two days after he first arrived, having dug, read, watched and reviewed his way through an incredible amount of data, he met formally with the directors to discuss his findings.
“I have concluded my overview. Now before we delve into the specifics, I’d just like to run through the ‘big picture’ as the Humans say.”
“That would be a restatement of the executive summary we’ve already provided.”
“Yes it would, darling. That’s the point. We would hardly wish to proceed unless we were certain of our mutual understanding, hmm?”
The various directors agreed reluctantly, despite doing all they could to project dispassion. Nobody much liked having their projects turned upside-down by strangers. Silver banners being audited by a lowly steel banner such as Nofl?
How very terrible.
“Overall, the project is meeting minimum success thresholds in all capacities, and exceeding the optimal success thresholds in most regards. Per the Directorate performance evaluation algorithm, I am able to grant the Ark Project a Grade Two pass score.” Nofl saw nods around the table. “I am sure, of course, that you are all eager to hear what steps are necessary to achieve a Grade One score.”
Feln in particular nodded with rather more enthusiasm than her more bridled peers deigned to show.
Nofl nodded at her in particular, then turned to the presentation he prepared. “I see you took my advice on the Gaoians seriously.”
The project’s genetics director, Fehu, wore four doctorate pips and the triangular emblem of an emeritus professor. Clearly he’d retired from his tenured post at the college of xeno-genetics for his position here at the Ark. “Affirmative. We found a number of novel solutions regarding rapid early-life development, however: their genome is far and away the most computationally complex we’ve ever investigated. It’s almost two genomes, with heavy overlap.”
“It is two genomes, darling. They are an engineered species. So far as we can determine, they were designed specifically to combat stagnation among us lowly ‘substrate’ species.”
The Cultural director, Mavin, tilted his head subtly. “That…would go far to explain their social structure.”
“Yes, and the presence of ‘throwback’ Clans like Highmountain and Stoneback, especially rare individuals within those Clans. Frankly, I’m impressed you found anything that could be safely used at all.” A small compliment, to lubricate the gears. “So overall, I would say you have made optimal use of that resource. I am a bit more concerned with just how much Ten’Gewek and Human genomics I see in these New Corti. Both are naturally-evolved high-order Deathworlder species, and there are immense epigenetic phenomena at play.”
“Most such concerns were addressed in the early batches. Meru and her siblings were the result of serial run…” Mavin looked to the senior archivist to finish his sentence.
“Experimental Twenty-one Fourteen, strain three thousand four hundred and forty-five,” Tlenm supplied, promptly.
“Indeed. Nevertheless…. Director Feln, I read a rather extensive document concerning the, ah, unsatisfactory state of their alimentary health. I understand the poor things are suffering from routine gastric discomfort and incomplete digestion.”
“It has required us to formulate specialized nutrition for them, yes,” Feln acknowledged.
“I believe there may be a less industrially intensive solution.” Nofl called up his next slide. “An interesting fact for you. By cell count, a Human is actually as much as ninety percent bacteria and fungi. They’re more like a walking symbiotic microbial ecosystem than an individual organism. The symbiotic microbes make up only about one to three percent of their total mass, but the point is that an enormous part of what goes on in their body—especially their digestive tracts—is the work of symbiotic microorganisms. It was this quirk which led to the creation of the so-called ‘Human Disaster,’ after all. The same is very much true for Ten’Gewek, and it is from these species, directors, that you have extensively drawn your organ encoding.”
“In short,” he concluded. “You need to expand this facility to include a microbe research lab and start cultivating healthy gut biomes for the Carbons.”
Fehu wore a briefly concerned expression. “How will they propagate the necessary symbiotic bacteria after reproduction?”
“The problem, historically, has been how to prevent bacterial propagation. That is what the Frontline treatment was specifically invented for, after all.” Nofl reminded them. “Human and Ten’Gewek exchange microbes extensively in their daily and intimate lives, and especially between mother and child at the moment of birth. I assure you, propagation will take care of itself.”
Looks of barely concealed disgust were exchanged around the table… again, with the interesting exception of Feln, who looked like she found the whole subject intriguingly revolting. Of course, she’d probably had rather a lot of exposure to the natural end product of all those upset stomachs.
Nofl treated them all to a tight smile, and called up the next slide. By the end of the day, they would all have achieved that same level of inoculation, or else would leave the room desperately needing a shower. He looked forward to seeing which.
“I have a few recommendations on where the microbe lab should begin…” he said.
Date Point: 17y4m2w AV
Relay world, deep uncharted space
“That shield is a problem.”
Ferd looked up from his meal pack. The Human food hit the belly hard and stuck there, and gave them all they needed to be strong, but it didn’t taste so good cold. Frasier said it tasted better with the hot sauce, but Ferd had no idea why or how humans liked that stuff. It tasted like fire in the mouth, and if it got into his air-taster then he could do nothing except cough and have water eye for a long time after.
The Humans were all too happy to have as many of the little bottles as they could get though, if Ferd and his men weren’t using them.
Wild, though, was fretting about something.
“Shield?” Ferd asked him.
“Yeah. I can’t see its bottom edge.”
“So we will use dump-web then, yes?”
“That would give us away, mate.”
“Hmm.” Ferd moved up beside him, picked up a seeing-glass and joined Wild in looking at the problem. Sure enough, the hazy shimmer of the field came right down among the buildings. Maybe it stopped just above the ground, maybe not. Hard to tell.
“We need to see closer.”
“Yeah. Probably.” Wild sighed. “Damn it. I was trying to see if I could spot an aqueduct or something. Some trench below street level.”
“I think, that would be too easy for big enemy.”
“Yeah, they’d probably be watching it.” Wild sniffed irritably. “…Fuck. And I left my TBM at home, too.”
“Tunnel Boring Machine. Big fuckin’ drill for making caves. Not exactly portable, though. It’s as big as a couple of houses.”
“Ah. Joke.” Ferd considered the abandoned city below. “…Would be useful, though.”
“Yeah, mate. As it is… we’re on limestone up here. Hard rock. No digging through that lot, so going under the shield isn’t an option. Only thing we can do is walk up and hope there’s a gap to squeeze under.”
“Or else us dump and get noticed.”
“Yeah.” Wild grumbled. “…Something tells me this whole thing’s going to happen fast when we head down there. Those drones won’t fuck around if we’re spotted.”
“I remember,” Ferd said. “Killed many men of the tribes. Killed many tribes. Death-birds, we called them.” He watched the flock of them going round and around above the Relay. He knew they flew faster than anyone could run, had ‘plasma’ weapons that could explode a man like ripe fruit, and fusion blades along their wings that could cut even him in half.
“Good name.” Wild considered the city one last time, then nodded. “…Alright, fuck it. We’re going back to the ship, and we’re breaking out the big boom.”
Ferd pulled a small face to himself. The “big boom” was a piece of Gaoian sky-magic the Great Father gave them. He didn’t know what a gigaton was, really, but it sounded big, and the Humans and Tooko talked about it like it was really really big. All he knew was, it was as big as a bull Werne’s head and a lot heavier.
He would be eating well, though. There was always a shimmering flower to find.
“So we’re nuking it,” Rees said, perking up.
“Yup. Only way—”
“—to be sure!” Rees and Frasier chorused. Ferd blinked. Whatever that joke had been, it slipped right past him.
The trek back wasn’t bad. There were many interesting things to see, and some small scuttling prey. Nothing worthy of a good meal, but they hadn’t deeply explored the forest next to the open ground yet.
They had a forest trail, though. Tooko had landed in a dry riverbed where no trees grew, and with the help of some nets, some fabric, and some sky-magic built into the top of the ship, he said it still looked just like an empty riverbed from above. He must be right, because so far the big enemy hadn’t seen him.
The path on foot through the trees was marked with Ferd’s forest-sign, carved into trees and stones with his knife. They weren’t big or strong trees like at home, but they were wide, with big flat dark leaves that covered the sky and drank the light, so it was even darker among them than the forests at home.
He and his men had no problem seeing in the gloom. The Humans though… they could see well enough to walk, but it took them a while before their eyes settled and they could see properly. Wild walked close behind Ferd, stepping where he stepped.
Their ears seemed to make up for some of that, though. “Hear that? Something’s following us, about five o’clock.”
Ferd flicked his right ear around and, sure enough…
“Sounds like a hunting beast on all fours.”
“Least it’s not a fucking tiger…” Frasier commented, turning and raising his weapon.
“Why not?” Nomuk asked.
“Completely silent, those are.” Frasier aimed into the bushes. “Light?”
“Shoot your tac light in the bush back there, yeah. See if we scare it away.”
Frasier nodded. “Watch your eyes, lads.”
Ferd turned his head. There was a bright flash, and something heavy panicked and started scrambling to run away behind the bush.
Nomuk wasn’t about to let good meat get away. He blurred after it, and within a couple breaths had caught it, broken its back with a muffled crunch, and flung it over shoulder. Ferd hooted softly: the beast was rangy and mean-looking, built more for slinking and pouncing then climbing or brawn. It reminded him of a Baru without pack-mates, and was both bigger and skinnier. And its fur was green. Weird.
“Fuck me, look at the claws on that bad boy!” Rees commented.
“Kinda reminds me of a sloth,” Wild replied.
“Sloth?” Ferd asked. “…Must be strong beast with claws like that?”
The Humans traded a laugh that said no, it really wasn’t, shook their heads, and turned back down the trail toward the ship.
“Least we get real meat today…” Tumik muttered.
“Sure.” Wild ducked under a branch and paused as the came out of the woods near the ship. “We’ve got some planning to do.”
As they stepped out of the woods, one of the ship’s smaller guns turned to track them. All as normal: Big Enemy got into people’s heads. Tooko was just being safe. There was a ’scanner’ on the ship that could see inside them for Big Enemy’s tricks, but it needed them to stand still, so they did. After a few seconds, the gun turned back to its resting pose and Tooko opened the door.
“How you holdin’ up, Pip?” Rees asked him jovially as the Gaoian emerged. “Goin’ stir crazy yet?”
“Glad to have the place smelling decent for a change,” he replied. “…What is that?”
“Lunch!” Nomuk held up the carcass.
“…Oh. Okay.” Tooko sniffed, then shrugged and turned to Wild. “So. Bad news first?”
“You already got the good news, in that we’re not dead or droned,” Wild replied as Nomuk and Tumik took the beast away to harvest the meat. “Bad news is, it looks like that thing’s shields come right down to ground level.”
“That takes me flattening it off the table,” Tooko grumbled. “…So what’s the plan?”
“Nuke it. If we can sneak that warhead the Great Father gave you in under the shield, that’d be perfect, if not… well, I doubt the shield could stop it anyway.”
Tooko’s ears flicked backwards. “Well. So much for the local ecosystem…” he muttered.
“Needs must, pal.” Wild took a swig of water. “…What’s the minimum safe distance on that thing, anyway?”
“Uh… preferably behind the moon?”
“I am being serious. The radiation pulse alone on that type of bomb will kill everything within line of sight. It’s gonna kick up enough debris to maybe trigger a nuclear winter. Nowhere on-planet is safe. And that doesn’t even cover the earthquakes, or—”
Ferd watched them both carefully. “…That big?”
“Bigger. The Great Father said we’re only to use it if there’s no alternative.”
“Pretty sure this counts, mate. Believe me, it’s not my first choice, but we came her to kill a Relay and by God I’m going to kill a Relay.”
Ferd nodded sharply. That was as solemn a vow as he’d ever heard Wild make, but he agreed completely.
“I hope the Great Father agrees with you…” Tooko fretted, but he duck-nodded and headed to the cargo hold. “I’ll prep the bomb for you, then.”
“Cheers.” Wild heaved a big breath once the Gaoian was gone, then gave Ferd a complicated look. “Never thought I’d nuke something…”
“Is a big Taking,” Ferd agreed, grimly. “Kill much of the world, from what Tooko said.”
“Worth it, though. Big Enemy threatens many worlds, many peoples, and has killed many over deep time. Take a big Taking by us to balance all they’ve done.”
Ferd clapped him heavily on the shoulder. “Good you take it serious, though. Men shouldn’t Take lightly, especially not on this scale.”
“Yeah, mate.” Wild stood. “…Took’s gonna need me to open the second lock. You get some rest and roast up that kill, ‘kay? We’ll go at night.”
Ferd took that seriously, because he knew what the nuke was like: bulky, heavy, and would make him the biggest target on the team.
Night came quickly. The days here were a finger shorter than at home, so dark and light seemed to blur past fast enough to lose track of time. By the time the kill was cooked, eaten, and declared good, the sun was already low in the sky.
By the time they’d painted their faces, checked their gear, gone over the plan and all clearly understood their part in it, the sky was washed with orange and pink.
By the time they emerged from the forest with the nuke on Ferd’s back and the old dead city in sight, it was dark. No moon, tonight. A good night for hunting. There was light down around the Relay though. Little deadly cones of it as the death-birds swept the ruins, ever watchful. And behind them, the faint off-white glow of the shield dome, invisible by day but clear in the dark.
No talking, now. They were ghosts in the dark, off to do a terrible thing.
And they would not fail.
++END CHAPTER 65++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 66: “Unbowed”