Chapter 66: Unbowed
Date Point: 17y4m2w AV
Relay world, deep uncharted space
Hand signals only. No words, only silent footsteps, glances, gestures. Tail-flicks and crest-waves, which the Humans had long ago learned to read. They didn’t have tails to flick back, but they could say much with their faces the People couldn’t. Ferd and his men could read those faces as well as each other’s tails. They were all brothers now, and they had no secrets between them.
At a gesture from Rees, they melted against the old, broken walls as an arrowhead of five death-birds slithered past overhead, moving slower than something which flew ought to. They didn’t turn, slow or show any sign of spotting the team. Keep moving.
They had carefully walked around much of the machine-village’s border, a hand of a hand of klicks and still more to go. So far, they hadn’t found any kind of gap in the shield.
Ferd didn’t think they would. Or if they did, the Big Enemy would know about it and have it watched closely. Still, they had to try, so onward they hiked, from the start of dusk to the middle of night. It was a lot of work and he was starting to feel it. The bomb on his back was the biggest the Gaoian sky-tribes had and it was heavy like a prize old Werne bull, maybe like if a hand of extra Ferds were riding on him. He wouldn’t mind that, but it was also surprisingly small and shaped strange, so all that weight bore down on his shoulders and the pack-belt around his waist, if he stood tall on his feet.
Ferd was a very strong man, and he could handle that easy, no problem. But his feet already sunk deep into the forest loam without that burden, and all that extra weight was making it hard to hide trail. Walking upright-ish would make less trail-sign but he felt like if he did, then the muscles in his belly might break his pack-belt, so he mostly knuckled along on all fours. That was much more comfortable, but then he had to worry harder about his trail-sign. Nomuk was following him to hide any mistakes and watch their backs, but even so, a man should never leave sign on a hunt.
Another gesture from Rees as they reached the edge of cover, where the walls and trees gave way to open ground. They paused. He checked. He gestured. They darted across the open ground and back into the safety of the overgrowth. Ferd and his men were very fast, much faster than the Humans. But the Humans had a sort of slinky, silent way of moving that worked for them better, and Ferd could respect that. Every hunter had to love the quiet, but Wild was better enough that Ferd wondered if that’s why he had that name.
There were advantages to being smaller, too. Frasier could climb up weak, scraggly branches without fear of breaking them. He did that just then to peer over a corner, to see past the next open area toward a low spot, where water looked like it sometimes flowed. He climbed back down quietly—not as pretty as the People could do it, but only a young one could have climbed such a scraggly tree in the first place. Once he was down they formed up, readied themselves, checked carefully for any death-birds or seeing-machines…and moved. The Humans had lighter packs, and didn’t move as fast…
But they moved well. Small or not, they sure moved like true hunters. They played the game a hand of hands more times, looking for a gap in the sky-magic shimmer-wall, never finding one.
Despite the danger and the uncomfortable ‘uniform’ pressing his crest down flat along his back and tail, where his sweat didn’t have a chance to cool him down or dry out…Ferd was enjoying himself. Something about any hunt was always good. The best hunts were when the Taking was a trial in front of the gods, and a slow, stupid, weak man might end up Taken himself.
Nobody on the team were any of those things, and the hunt was already a trial for Ferd’s men, and the Humans, too; the gods had made them to last, and last long, which was very much needed for this hunt. But that was okay. The gods gave the People that strength too, but it was one they had to find inside themselves, and earn. It was almost like the People and the Humans were always meant to find each other, to share learnings, the ways of their strength.
Ferd liked learnings.
Wild signed them to a halt in a dense bit of overgrown stone where the forest was taking back the old city and shook his head while pointing at the shield. Pointed at the bomb, signed for “fire” and pointed sharply at the ground where they were standing.
He didn’t mean the ground, though. Ferd knew that the bomb’s strength would mostly go into the ground under their feet if they left it there. The best would be to leave it very high up a tall, tall tree, so the bomb’s voice would slide along the ground and roar faster instead of mostly going straight up, where it would do no good.
He looked around, thinking hard about what he could see. He needed something strong he could climb, that wouldn’t break or crumble under his weight. Or the bomb’s weight, either. It needed to be high, but not exposed, and it needed to have somewhere at the top where he could hide the bomb so it wouldn’t be found.
They were too low to the ground to get a good look. They needed one of Rees’ sky-magic quiet-birds. Ferd got Wild’s attention and gestured “can’t see” at him. Wilde signalled his understanding. A quick flurry of sign language told Rees what to do, and Rees, after checking all was clear, heaved the quiet-bird off his back and threw it in the air with a heave. It was just a square block as big as a good butchering stone, but it twisted through the air in a magic way and vanished into the sky with a faint thrumming of invisible wings.
It had an invisible-cloak too, so once it was far enough away, not even Ferd knew where it was no matter how hard he tried; he could see and hear better than anyone on the team, too.
He prayed in his head that the death-birds couldn’t see or hear better than he could.
Rees had a tablet that let him see through its eyes. He watched it, then nodded and indicated something to the north-west, two klicks.
They got moving again. The night was short, they didn’t have time to waste. Already, they were more than half through it, and the sky would brighten quickly when dawn came. And Ferd was running low on his food-drink, too. Best to get this done, before he grew too tired to carry the bomb.
He saw what Rees had found pretty soon though. There was a rocky point above the city, with some old walls at the top. Long ago, the people who lived here had had… something up there. A tower to watch for foes maybe. Whatever it was, it poked out high above the old ruins, with enough rubble and stone up there to hide the bomb. Better yet, the approach was grown over. It wouldn’t be an easy climb, but he wouldn’t be exposed the whole way up. It was a good choice.
The climb ended up being a trial of a workout. The gravity there was strong like what Humans preferred, or maybe a bit stronger like his own people liked. That felt nicely familiar and meant he didn’t need to think about climbing, but with the weight of the bomb pulling him down and backwards the entire climb, it wasn’t long before his forearms were burning and his uniform was completely soaked through with sweat. His whole back felt tight and even his huge biceps were starting to feel tired. The worst, though, were his lower legs: big and strong even for a Given-Man, but they had to hold up all Fred’s weight, and the bull-like heft of the bomb, and crush his foot-grip fiercely into the stones underfoot so he didn’t slip or fall. He could feel a soreness growing deep inside the thickest part of the meat, one that would hurt tomorrow.
Ferd didn’t often drag Werne straight up cliffs, especially not ones hanging off the back of his shoulders; if he had to, he’d use his tail for that. He’d never hauled a full-size bull up a cliff so tall, either. He was higher up than any Ketta, high up enough that he might even die from a fall if he didn’t land it well. He had to take it careful, make sure each handhold and foothold was strong. He didn’t want a stone to break away and bounce loudly down the cliff, or send him falling. More than once, he froze against the stone in an awkward spot and waited as another death-bird patrol passed by, far away but still too close.
Holding himself perfectly still and in mid-reach, maybe just by one hand and one foot, maybe holding it long enough for the stars to move a bit, no matter how much his muscles screamed in pain…he’d brag about that to the women, when he was next on leave.
The last fifty meters went straight up and was completely exposed. No way around it but to be quiet and fast, so he looked carefully, found the best curves of the rock to hide his movement…and moved. Hopefully, Rees took video so he could show Yan. Ferd made the top with shaking legs, heart thumping angrily in his chest and his breath hard to catch. He knew what he had to do; before anything else, he dug out his best meal and devoured it as quickly and as quietly as he could, then washed it down with the rest of his food-drink. That was the big Taking of big, hard muscles. Food, air, hard work to keep them…and much painful practice if a man wanted to use them for a long time.
Ferd had learned a lot from the Humans. One of the biggest learnings was when and how to rest, so he did, until his sweat started to feel cool and his heart wasn’t complaining so hard. He was better at that than his men, so on this task he was alone; they couldn’t keep up. This thing was too important to risk a fuck-up like that. And more than one man moving on that cliff would definitely attract attention. No good.
The bomb was the biggest kind of sky-magic but he didn’t need to understand it to use it. All he had to do was tuck the bomb in among the stones, in a corner of the old wall. It took him a hand of minutes to hide it under crawling wall-plants and old bricks until he couldn’t see it. It was as hidden as it could be, but such a flimsy wall would do nothing to make the bomb weaker. Good. That done, he pulled off the flat metal cover and pushed the key in as best as he could. His hands were much too big to fit through the hole, so he had to hold the key awkwardly between his fingertips. It took a hand of tries, but finally the key clicked. He turned it and the little painted tab under the glass went from green to blue; the bomb was now armed.
Ferd didn’t want to spend any longer than he had to next to something like the bomb.
The trip back down was a blessing without the bomb’s weight. Still slow—he had to be quiet—but without all that weight on his back, it felt light and easy, and the climb did wonders at loosening up his muscles; maybe he wouldn’t be hurting tomorrow! He was sorely tempted to just jump down, but Wild said that machines could hear his hit-thump through the ground, and it was hard to miss seeing someone falling through the sky. Too bad. He could have made it.
The group was waiting nearby. A nod to Wild, a nod in return, and they turned back for the long ruck toward the ship. It was going to be close, but the important part was already done. The bomb was deployed and ready to fire. The mission was already complete.
All they had to worry about now was living through it.
27th day of the first year of freedom
A new world, far from the old one.
“…You’re certain it’s safe?”
The big Human, Julian, looked very different to the last time Uku had seen him. Then, he’d been wrapped in protective clothing to spare him the poison air of a punished world.
Now, he was hardly wearing anything at all. There was a tough garment of hard-wearing fabric around his hips that kept whatever Humans had there modestly concealed. It had an abundance of pockets and came most of the way down his upper legs. He’d arrived wearing a shirt made of dark fabric so thin Uku would have considered it a cleaning-rag, and it was stretched tight enough across his frame it was hard to understand its purpose. There was a faded pattern printed on that shirt as well, but it made no sense to Uku’s eyes at all.
Nonetheless, almost as soon as they had arrived at this new, warm world, he’d peeled it right off and stood there, grinning hugely as he savored the sunlight. Besides the thing around his hips, the only other things he wore were tools, all nestled safely in his many pockets. The rest of him was impressively uncovered. Even his sturdy-seeming, oddly shaped feet were bare.
“I promise,” he assured her.
Uku believed him. She’d never seen somebody stand so… naked under the open sky before. Not even the Gao were so bare, their skin was covered in fur.
Humans and these Ten’Gewek though? Bare skin. The colour of varnished wood in Julian’s case, a leathery stone color in the case of the three crested brutes sitting in the background, waiting patiently to meet her.
One was like if Julian had been squashed down a head-height or so, another was plainly female and, like her companions, wore only a kind of hide skirt. The third…was a monster. A walking, talking, fanged boulder with a rather darker crest than the others. If he were a Punisher he’d be the most fearsome of them all.
As it was, something about his expression was…placid, somehow. He saw Uku watching and issued a soft hooting noise that could only be a friendly welcome.
Uku gave him a grateful nod, then turned her attention back to the human, then glanced over her shoulder at the Great Father, who was the biggest monster of all, ambling around on all fours and sniffing the air rather than looming over her.
None of them wore breathing masks. And from what she knew, generations of growing up amidst the toxic smog of their homeworld had left her people better able to handle airborne filth than even these friendly monsters, so Uku knew she was being ridiculous…
But a lifetime of warnings, fear and education were not so easily dispelled. It took a hard effort of will to persuade her hands to move and unwrap the cloth around her head that bound her breathing mask tight to her face.
Even once it was off, she hardly dared breathe. Only when her lungs started to protest did she finally relent and draw her first ever breath of pure, unfiltered, surface air.
That first breath shivered with emotion. It was… sweet. Light, even. A cool breeze kissed her cheek and rather than tasting of nothing as she’d expected, she found it tasted faintly of…
Well… of things she’d never tasted before. There were scents she didn’t have words for, notes and tones on the wind that were at once entirely new, and yet familiar to her deepest instincts. Her body had been starving for a clean atmosphere her entire life, and she’d never known it. Now, as her confidence grew and she took a deeper, headier breath, her body drank its fill and she knew there was no going back.
“…Almighty…” she whispered. She barely noticed that she was weeping.
The female Ten’Gewek was there, suddenly, with a long muscular arm around Uku’s shoulders to comfort her, crooning something so soft it was almost musical.
“Come,” she offered. “Walk. See.”
Numbly, Uku nodded, and took the sturdy alien’s hand. It was warm here. Warm in a way quite different to the heat of the library burrows. The air itself was temperate at most, but the sun actually reached the ground as something more than a weakened glow. Rather than fighting its way down through dust and clouds in the upper atmosphere, it pierced right through a clear sky of a rich beautiful blue that none of the old texts had properly captured.
In short order she learned the subtle ways that air could change. The damp, cool, living quality it gained under the trees, the simmering sweetness out in the open, a curious sharpness on the breeze that the Singer (as she called herself) said came down from the mountains, where the white crusting their peaks was no kind of pollutant, but pure clean frozen water.
At the alien’s gentle prompting, Uku removed her boots. She spent quite a long time just standing in the meadow with her eyes closed, feeling life between her toes, springing from unsullied soil.
Basking. The word was basking. She’d read it many times, but to actually do it…
When she opened her eyes, Julian was there next to her, doing the same thing.
“You don’t really know a place until you wiggle your toes in the dirt,” he opined.
“I’ve… never known a place like this,” Uku replied. “I read the old books, and saw the paintings and old photographs, but…”
He nodded understanding. “C’mon. Let’s eat and talk things over.”
The friendly monsters all ate meat, and did so with gusto. They did have the courtesy not to offer her any, though, and instead Julian handed her a big bowl filled with leafy greens–the greenest greens Uku had ever seen, with crisp-looking vegetables sliced atop. There was a fragrant glistening oil and crisp little granular cubes of toasted bread.
“Spring greens, bell peppers, snow peas, croutons and…uh, other stuff? One of my partners made it,” Julian explained. “The oil on top is a balsamic vinaigrette. Try it, it’s tasty!”
“…What are you eating?”
“…Ribs.” Uku suppressed a lurch in her belly.
“We are what we are. Heck, I’d eat some of the salad too, but you gotta put some m—” he stopped himself sharply, as though whatever he’d been about to say would have been inappropriate. “…Uh, you look like you need to gain a little weight.”
Uku gave the ribs a dismayed look, but the truth was she was too hungry and the bowl looked too delicious for the grisly feast the rest of them were enjoying to do her appetite much harm. And she could appreciate the honesty that went into not shying away from reality for her sake, uncomfortable though it was.
“I’ll eat as much as I can, but… this is a big bowl.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t let it go to waste,” Julian promised.
It turned out to be just as incredible as it looked. In the end, she ate almost all of it. True to his word, Julian finished the rest in a few well-practiced bites. Uku got the impression he was accustomed to eating big, and eating often. Not surprising considering his hulking physique.
The meal left her feeling more wonderfully sated and content than she’d felt in many years. Though, she couldn’t help but cringe a bit when Daar crunched the bones between his teeth. His portion of the ribs hadn’t even been fully cooked.
He seemed to know he was giving offense, but that didn’t stop him. He looked over at Julian, “Those hit the spot! Tell Mother Shoo thanks ‘fer the ribs, would’ya?”
“Mother Shoo?” Uku tilted her head.
Julian laughed slightly. “It’s… a long story. Maybe you’ll meet her and she can tell you someday.”
“So. Now that you have time to eat, look around, be here and know it…” Yan Given-Man swept a long arm around, indicating everything around them. “You like it?”
“I think it’s…” Uku sighed heavily. She wanted to say ‘paradise’ but frankly she’d done enough blaspheming lately. “…We’ll never be able to repay a gift like this.”
“Feh.” Yan made a dismissively friendly sort of noise. “You say that now. We see when you heal, grow strong again. Maybe, we have much learnings to share!”
“And if not,” the Singer added, “we owe the same to Humans. If you can’t pay back, pay forward!”
“You do?” Uku looked to Julian, whose complicated shrug-duck-nod was almost impenetrable to her eyes, but she guessed meant a blend of confirmation and modesty.
Yan nodded, and this time his hoot had the quality of firm agreement. It was a remarkably expressive sound, and did a lot of heavy lifting for his people’s emotional expression. “Jooyun is the man who save all my people. If he and Awisun and Shyow had not met us, we would be dead, and no sky-people would know we ever were.”
“…Another long story?” Uku asked.
Julian cleared his throat. Clearly he wasn’t comfortable with praise. “Same story. Different chapter.”
“Point is,” the Singer said, “You pay us back or not, doesn’t matter. You need this world, it’s wrong for us… We can Give this, and do good with it when otherwise it would do nothing. Doesn’t have to be… uhm…” she frowned and her tail lashed for a second as she visibly dredged her memory. “…Ah! Mercenary.”
Uku nodded gratefully. Part of her soul was waiting for the cost to land, but something she’d already learned about these people was that, different shapes and faces and skins aside, they shared a common thread of powerful morality: They valued strength, the Ten’Gewek explicitly so. But weakness, to them, wasn’t some opportunity to sink their teeth in and feed as the Hunters did. It was, rather…
They loathed weakness. They sought to eradicate it wherever they saw it and leave strength in its wake. They nurtured, and gave, and built, and protected. And as that particular lens settled into place in her mind, she saw the Hunters through her new friends’ eyes for a moment and realized just why their enmity ran so deep and so implacable.
The Hunters loved weakness. They loved being strong while others were not. But Gao and Human and Ten’Gewek alike, it seemed, could not be happy unless they were culturing strength wherever they went.
Probably that was a naive and unsophisticated analysis, but it was a perspective from which to start. It at least gave her something she could understand about them, something that explained their motives, their sacrifice and their incredible generosity as something other than the hand of the same fickle Almighty who’d supposedly tormented her people for generations.
At least… it made sense. A little.
“…We have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.
“More than you know,” Daar agreed. Aside from thanking ‘Mother Shoo,’ whoever she was, he’d been pretty silent since arrival and kept his own counsel. “‘Yer startin’ from nothin’. ‘Ya don’t even have ‘yer libraries an’ tunnels no more.”
“We have the Long Chant,” Uku reminded him, and tapped the side of her head. “The important parts of our history are right here. As for the essentials? Food, clothes and medicine? We… will have to depend on your continued generosity, I fear. For the time being.”
“Does the Chant teach you how to grow crops?” Julian asked.
“…There are…certain tomes in the libraries that would help there,” Uku admitted.
“You’ll have ‘em,” Daar promised. “An’ that ain’t just ‘cuz you mention ‘em. My people tell me some’a the radicals are goin’ real regressive. They’re talkin’ about purging everything from the… whatchacallem. The Sinful Times?”
“‘Yup. An’ that makes me real sad, ‘cuz now I gotta show ‘yer people what a Great Father’s all about.”
“Either that or let them burn all the books,” Julian muttered. His tone suggested he found the idea just as unholy as Ukusevi did.
“Story o’ my life. Anyway.” Daar stood. “If ‘ye’ve seen enough, we oughta get back. You need ‘ta organize ‘yer people, an’ mine have books ‘ta save.”
“And we’ll head back to Akyawentuo,” Julian agreed. “The, uh, the Array here’s all set up. Don’t press any buttons until the techs come through and give you the safety lesson, but…”
“Thank you,” Ukusevi told him. She stood, nodded her gratitude to the Human, bowed to the Ten’Gewek, and then followed Daar back toward the jump device that had so effortlessly borne her between worlds.
She didn’t mind going back to make preparations. But now that she’d seen what a world could be like… Well, the Punished World would never be home again.
And good riddance.
Date Point: 17y4m2w AV
Relay world, deep uncharted space
Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde
The problem with hauling a giant alien superweapon all night was you never knew what kinda weird shit it might do that you couldn’t know about. Tracks and stuff were easy enough to cover, but what if the bomb leaked some kind of radiation, left behind some lingering energy trace of its presence?
Or maybe they’d just missed a footprint. Whatever the reason, the route back toward the ship was being… inspected. A trio of those turkey-sized Hierarchy drones were hovering over a patch of dirt the team had definitely crossed a little while earlier, and giving it a pretty thorough going-over with whatever sensors they had on board.
At least those things had narrow fields of vision. The main sensor cluster mounted on the front was basically a big telephoto lens. They had ultrasound sensors to map their immediate surroundings and avoid bumping into stuff, but when it came to taking a good look at something, they were like a far-sighted grandpa who’d lost his reading glasses.
Deadly, deadly grandpas who could carve a man in half just by flying right at him, or turn him into a steaming pile of flash-boiled slurry from two hundred yards away. Networked in a shared hive mind so that if, say, this particular squadron were swiftly eradicated, all the hundreds of others orbiting the city would descend on them.
Ferd said it best. “We are being hunted. We need to go.”
He said it without speaking, of course. Sign language and a tense lash of his tail conveyed the message. Wilde nodded, and directed the lads outwards, toward a boundary ditch they’d identified a few days ago. It ran around most of the city, and while it was snarled up here and there with trees, bushes and thorns, it was still one useful avenue through the ruins. And, importantly, one they hadn’t already used.
They melted into the shadows, moving slowly, making no noise, leaving no clear line-of-sight between them and the drones.
That was too close. If the drones hadn’t been playing lights all over the ground…
Wilde set the close call aside. It was just a datum now, hostiles here on his map. Something had changed, though—the drones had followed the same patrol route and schedule since they’d arrived, but now suddenly they were checking the ground? The crawling feeling up his spine knew there was no way that was a good sign.
And the night was wearing on. They didn’t have long until night gave way to pre-dawn glow.
They didn’t have many options. They had to return to the ship, but that risked leading the enemy right to it. They couldn’t safely trigger the bomb while they were still on-planet, because it was so bloody powerful they’d be flash-boiled from the heat pulse alone.
But the bomb had to go off. That was the mission. Getting to the ship was just how they survived the mission. And Wilde fully planned on surviving it.
With a gesture, he beckoned his men to pick up the pace; if they wanted to live, they had to get to the ship. And from the looks of things, they didn’t have time to be cautious any longer.
They only had about ten kilometers to go. That was very doable, though a lot of that would be through the forest. It was gonna be an exhausting trial for all of them.
Wilde led by example. He picked up the pace, and settled into a rhythm on the trail. Ferd didn’t need any explanation; he catapulted himself up into the tree like a cartoon spring, swinging away like he was meant to. His men followed with similarly effortless leaps far above Wilde’s head, and were caught up to the Given-Man in just a few short moments.
They were definitely leaving sign, now. No way around it. Wilde’s gamble was that they could close those ten klicks before the drones found the trail towards their now much more obvious sign.
They didn’t quite make it. They’d just made it to the final leg when there was a calamity from the city.
The last klick was along a dried-up riverbed, which let them run more or less at full tilt toward the ship. None of them really had anything left in their tank but it was that or die, so as one, they poured on the speed and charged the last bit, scrambling over rocks and gravel as fast as they could.
But the Relay was just about in view, visible over the treetops as a black spike against the blue glow at the edge of the sky. And the moment when it pulsed with light almost shocked them all into standing still. Bright, cold, white light flooded the landscape all the way to the horizon.
Tooko broke radio silence instantly. “That was a sensor pulse! They know I’m here!”
Time for big damn hero shit, then. “Start her up! We’re half a klick out!”
Wilde and Ferd led the pack. Being honest, he wasn’t quite sure how he managed any more speed, but fear of death was probably a big part of that. Ferd on the other hand was a fuckin’ blur. At a sprint, the cavemonkeys could knuckle themselves over ground just stupid fast.
Good thing too, because there was a wave of drones building on the horizon, a tsunami of steel and sensors so thick it blotted out the dawn glow.
SBD was faster. Tooko could get her in the air in seconds when he had to, and she rose above the little gorge she’d been parked into come meet them, hugging the ground as tight as Tooko dared, missing the trees and rocks by millimeters. The short-range point defence blasters on her back thwoomped like the biggest, bassiest rock concert speakers ever, smashing conical waves of raw kinetic energy into the oncoming swarm.
Even from miles away, Wilde could see hundreds of smashed drones raining down on the treetops… and thousands more dispersing into a looser formation and swooping low to zip through the cover of the trees.
Smart. There was an agent in charge.
Tooko dropped down to scant inches above the stony ground, the ramp already out, and hovered. Nomuk was the first to arrive at the ramp. He spun around and immediately began laying down covering fire. Ferd arrived next, with Wilde and his lads right behind.
Genn and Tumik were bringing up the rear, puffing and straining under their heavy gear but spurred to keep moving by the looming wave of metallic death about to crash on them… right up until Tumik tripped at full speed and at the worst moment, with that massive pack of his still on his back.
He shrieked, picked himself up and tried to run, but something was clearly wrong with his left foot. Ferd threw his pack up into the ship—Jesus—and circled back while Wilde and his men stood point to protect them from any drones overhead. Given how fast Ferd could move it only took him a moment to get there, but he was running on fumes by that point. Wilde could see the pain on his face as he galloped back with Tumik wrapped up in his tail.
A drone zipped out of the tree-line. Frasier shot it down. There were five more behind it: the leading edge of the swarm. Nomuk and Genn opened up with their own heavy rifles, buying seconds with bullets.
They made it to the ramp, right as Ferd hit his wall and began to stumble on his feet. Rees and Wilde were there instantly under an arm each. The Given-Man was murderously heavy—and that was with him only resting a bit of his weight on them, too—but it seemed to be just enough to get him into the ship, and just in the barest knick of time.
Wilde was last up. “GO!!”
A drone clipped the ramp’s actuator even as Tooko climbed: the thick metal smashed the drone to bits, but its fusion-edged wings wrecked the mechanism and sprayed white-hot metal droplets into the compartment.
Agony erupted in Wilde’s eyes, so much and so shocking that even screaming wasn’t an option. He just… fell. Hands to his face, thrust into sudden, sickening darkness.
There was violent motion. Something picked him up and tossed him into—
Date Point:17y4m2w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
“That will almost certainly be a bloody campaign, My Father.”
Daar nodded sadly. “I know. Gotta do it, though. We ain’t got no right ‘ta come along, stick our noses’n their business, an’ leave ‘em so unstable they can’t fuckin’ cope.”
Vark knew all that, of course. So did the other Champions. They were bound by duty to advise Daar of the consequences, of course—not that they’d ever spelled out those duties anywhere, but whatever—and he wasn’t gonna dissuade ‘em of what was a generally good idea.
Also, this was one of the most bestest opportunities he’d had in a long, long while to delegate. He’d been making a habit of that, getting the Champions and his staff much more personally invested in running things, and leading, and mebbe get ‘em a share o’ the glory, too.
He had a reason for that. Daar wasn’t a Great Father like Fyu. He, and any prehistoric Great Fathers who mebbe preceded him, were the creatures they were because life was short, glory was cheap, and their society weren’t nearly so complex as it were in the modern era.
Probably that was by Hierarchy design.
Which meant that Daar couldn’t think like a Great Father from their ancient history. He couldn’t rule like one, either. He was becoming something else out of necessity. Something possibly far, far worse. Daar was becoming an emperor, in the full and terrible sense of the word. He needed to be, because the Gao had built a complex, fragile, inter-connected society that needed competent stability now more than it ever had.
And he had to be that because the Gao couldn’t jump straight to a Republic. Their apparatus of state looked like early medieval Europe and was even more informal. Evolving past that weren’t gonna be a thing Daar lived to see, prob’ly, even if he ended up livin’ another hunnerd years…or more, as was becoming worryingly likely from Corti science-magic. No. First, they needed a King and an Emperor to build the institutions and the trust they needed. Informally, the Deathworlders needed a single leader, too. That was probably egotistical as fuck but the more Daar looked at the situation, the more he grew to realize nobody else was in a position to do it, and even if they were…nobody else was good enough.
The American President? No. Powerful though he was, he was fundamentally a national leader, not the ruler of an empire. Governors governed and Presidents presided. It was right there in the name. People mighta claimed all sortsa stupid things ‘bout American power, but an empire it weren’t. the American President’s concerns were, ultimately, domestic. And that was more true the more they stepped out on the galactic scene, really. It’d be way more true once Chambliss had his way, for good or bad. No. The President couldn’t do it. Neither could any of Earth’s other Prime Ministers and Presidents.
His Majesty the King? …No. The history was there, but…not anymore. He reigned over a commonwealth and a set of kingdoms with the most ridiculously complex an’ tangled history. Reigned, but didn’t rule. At least…not directly. He embodied rulership, without necessarily wielding it.
That was an advanced notion of government the Gao were completely unprepared to accept.
The Given-Men? Yan had far bigger problems in his granite-breaking hands. But his concerns were also much, much too small for the scale needed. He had to guide his people through contact an’ that was just a terrible, horrible thing, when a man really sat down and had a think about it.
Nope. There weren’t nobody else who could be what Daar was or could be. Maybe that was even a good thing.
“Lemme say my intent, here. My first priority is in preservin’ their cultural heritage. Right now, that’s the libraries. My second priority is ‘ta de-escalate this ‘fore it’s a forever kinda thing. I’m not sure how we’re gonna do that. Might be we can’t, but if we can, we gotta. But not at the expense o’ the first thing.”
A lot of eyes turned to Gyotin, who calmly shook his head. “I have no insight,” he said. “Right now they’re angry and their world—the whole universe—has been flipped the wrong way up. There’s no quick fix to a spiritual and theological crisis like that. Maintaining order is going to be a question of force and patience.”
“Yeah.” Really, that was all that could be said. “So. This here, my, uh, ‘privy council’ or ‘cabinet’ I guess is what the Humans call it, is gonna be the lead on figgerin’ this out. This is prob’ly gonna need the Conclave’s involvement at some point, just ‘cuz it’s gonna need resources, and buy-in, and…”
Uriigo, as ever, found this to be an appropriate moment for some in-Clan grandstanding. “Privy council? Approval from the Conclave? Why, My Father, that sounds like a lot of Human thought being applied to our own affairs.”
…Gods. That fucking Champion. Some days it took everything Daar had not to just snap him in half. It weren’t that he was angry at Uriigo’s point, so much as the intent behind raising it; he knew Uriigo was in a tenuous position in his Clan, and he needed to show some measure of defiance ‘ta keep his cred. But the Bronzefurs were always only a bad mistake or two away from piracy and oblivion, so over time Daar had learned to just expect it.
He did enjoy fucking with Uriigo in turn, though.
“That’s ‘cuz ‘yer right ‘fer a change, Champion o’ Bronzefur. The Humans did all this shit centuries ago an’ we’d be dumb as fuck ‘ta ignore that. I can’t be an absolute dictator ‘fer everything, and I can’t be one ‘ferever. Somethin’s gotta be there ‘fer when I can’t. An’ I can appreciate that mebbe you ain’t happy ‘bout what that’s gonna mean…but it ain’t gonna be Clans fightin’ again. That’s what the fuckin’ malware did ‘ta us.”
“A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from,” Gyotin observed.
“Some might say all of this…delegation…is a means of evading responsibility…”
Nope. Not gonna take it. Not even gonna get a proper rise outta ‘ol Daar today.
“I’m responsible anyway. It’s a means o’ showin’ trust in my Champions an’ their Clans. ‘Cuz you’re mine whether you want it or not, an’ that means I get the blame ‘fer ‘yer fuckups, too.”
Remindin’ Uriigo—an’ the other Champions, too—of just who and what belonged to whom was definitely aggressive. But he was obviously feeling saltier than usual anyway, and had another rejoinder ready to go. “Or perhaps, a way to increase your…free time…”
Ah, that was his gambit. Impugn Daar’s work ethic. Well, that was…pretty artless, really, but whatever. Daar had a response for that too. “Absolutely! Know what I’m gonna do after this? I’m gonna go toss weights around heavier’n ‘ya couldn’t never dream o’ budgin,’ an’ I’m gonna look fuckin’ good doin’ it. Prob’ly gonna break some records ‘fer fun too, jus’ ‘ta make sure ain’t nobody ever gonna fuckin’ catch me. Not gao, not Human, not Ten’Gewek. Not nobody.
Daar snarled from his belly in a mostly non-threatening sorta way and flicked his ears playfully; he was enjoying himself, and there weren’t no point givin’ Uriigo the sense he’d got under the Great Father’s fur. “‘Know what I’ll do next? I’m gonna court some Females, visit a Commune an’ fulfill a few more matin’ contracts I got queued up, then mebbe go visit Foltcha and do it all again there, too. And I’m gonna do it with a totally clear conscience ‘cuz I’ll know all the way down my back that I did my duty ‘ta these people an’ to the Gao.
With that, he stood up from his spot on the floor and pranced to the doorway with a deliberately thumpy gait, so the more easily-swayed among them could feel his presence through the ground, backed by a visual reminder of just what kind of creature the Great Father truly was. “An’ it’s worth mebbe pointin’ out something: ‘yer my Champions I trust ‘ta do the job an’ do the right thing. Even if some of ‘ya—” he made eye contact with Uriigo, because there was a time for subtlety and this weren’t it, “—might be more interested in scorin’ points in ‘yer Clan than’s prob’ly a good thing. Y’all get some thinkin’ in, an’ get some fun in too. ‘Cuz when I come back, ‘yer gonna advise me. Yijao?”
There were attentive nods all around. He stood there on four-paw and looked over his Privy Council Champions, tensed to show he was always and forever ready for action. It had the intended effect; even Uriigo nodded along. Too bad about him, really. If it weren’t for his Clan’s actions during the War, maybe things wouldn’t have been so bitter between them…
Anyway. One last point to make, because insulting the Great Father could not go unpunished.
“Outstanding. ‘Yer welcome ‘ta join me, Uriigo…but ‘Horse ain’t gonna be happy when I crush all his lifts. Dunno if you can handle my friends when they’re cranky…”
One of Daar’s most favoritest things to do when he was dealing with incorrigibly belligerent ass-tails like Uriigo, was to hide a really deep insult inside something that didn’t sound like much of an insult at all. Anyone who weren’t thinking too hard would have just heard any of what Daar said and thought, “same ‘ol dumb meathead Daar.”
But the Champions weren’t dumb. And Uriigo absolutely caught the implied…free time…such an invitation would entail. Daar weren’t ashamed to admit, he enjoyed Uriigo’s impotent anger…
The Champion clearly felt he’d done enough poking at the Great Father for one day, though. He ducked his head in the bare minimum acceptable gesture of respect. “I hope you enjoy yourself, My Father.”
“Oh, I will. My Champions, you are dismissed. We reconvene next week.”
He left them to sort things out. Delegation was important, in that (in Daar’s view) it made the difference between a benevolent dictator and a tyrant. It also let him lead by means other than violence and brute force. A Great Father could set an example by playing with cubs or digging ditches just as much as he could by smashing skulls and layin’ down the law.
He preferred the cubs and ditches, too. Time to go find some.
Date Point: 17y4m2w AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Relay system, Deep uncharted space
Tooko had three simultaneous problems, because of course he did. But multitasking was what Tookos did best, so like always, he just quietly got his tail unkinked and got it done.
Problem the first: A swarm of Hierarchy drones kept kamikaze-ramming his ship, and the shield was accumulating heat worryingly fast.
Problem the second: Capacitor power was down to 87%. Already.
Problem the third: the fucking ramp was jammed, leaving a gaping hole in the ship’s armor for the drones to get in once the shields dropped.
Well, he could solve all three of those in one fell swoop. He just needed to survive the next thirty-one ticks while the array capacitors charged.
“Ferd! Get my ramp closed!”
No response. A very quick glance at the monitor showed the big stinky brute was lying flat on the floor, gasping for breath with a hand clutched over his heart. Right. He was recovering from his overly heroic exertions. The humans, though, they had a little left in the tank… and frankly, knew a bit more about being mechanics anyway.
“Forward actuator’s fucked, mate!” Rees called back.
“Just cut it off and dump it!!” Tooko called back. He swiped a claw at some controls on his right, and spent five percent of his power reserve on a pulse of searing energy from the shields that turned the leading drones into melted, ruined wreckage raining down on the forest below.
Not like a little forest fire was going to matter in a few ticks anyway…
With that, Rees struck up his “lightsaber”—really a long fusion-edge machete—and chopped it off right at the hinge. He couldn’t do the same to the other end and, seeing the ramp wouldn’t close unless the actuator was properly stowed, channeled a bit of Ten’Gewek spirit and bent the Daar-damned thing back, then hacked it off too.
Frasier pulled him back by his belt and slapped the button, and, thank fuck, the ramp agreed to close this time.
Good. only two problems left to contend with.
Problem one was solving itself too: the drones just didn’t have SBD’s aerodynamic profile, and as Tooko pushed the flight fields into a long dart configuration and piled on the speed, he left them behind.
That just left the capacitor—now on 78%—and problems 4 and 5, namely the imminent detonation of an excessively large bomb behind him, and the imminent arrival of several excessively large warships in orbit above him.
The bomb might just solve the spaceship problem, though. There was definitely an Agent in charge right now, the drones and everything were acting way too smart to be automated. Smashing the Relay would sever control and—
He heaved the stick to the right and threw in some rudder pedal too as the tone for a hostile target lock yelped in his ear. A column of brilliant light the color of copper plasma missed him by a bare margin, adding to the heat load on the shields.
He triggered the bomb.
Far behind him, exotic energy was pulled in from somewhere else as the bomb’s physics package did twisted, maniacal things to spacetime. The air and ground around it absorbed an infinitesimal fraction of that energy, and instantly converted to plasma.
…He didn’t really know how the damn thing worked. But it would make the Keeda tale of a lifetime, and get him laid at least three times. If he survived.
A lot more of the energy burst speared upwards out of the atmosphere and the two heavy contacts overhead promptly became lots of smaller contacts. That would have been SBD, too, if Tooko hadn’t put several hundred kilometers of planetary curvature between them and the warhead.
But now, he was racing a hypersonic shockwave. Somewhere behind him, a pressure pulse was spreading through both the sky and the ground, turning both into a travelling wave of raw smashing force, and from this close? Both were equally dangerous.
That countdown timer wasn’t moving nearly fast enough. He could hear the whine of the hypercapacitors building, and building…
And through the rear sensors, he could watch the world rip itself apart. Whole mountains were leaping into the air to chase them.
He shot out over an ocean, so fast that the shore vanished into the fracturing horizon before he’d even properly noticed it.
The sea flash-boiled: a wall of salty steam became the whole sky.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck….
Black space. And stars.
Tooko let out his breath very, very slowly, and flexed his fingers to release some of the pain and tension in his knuckles.
Radio sync. IFF beacon codes matched.
Right. They’d escaped. Now they had a medical emergency in stasis to deal with.
…Make that two medical emergencies. When Tooko glanced over his shoulder, he realized that Frasier and Rees were kneeling next to Ferd, working on him. The cables and sticky pads of a defibrillator on the big man’s chest told most of the story, as did the large injector that Nomuk was handing to Rees.
His dismayed stare was interrupted by a new and blessedly welcome voice on the radio, speaking English with a Gaori accent. “Silent But Deadly, this is Cimbrean border patrol cutter ‘Warding Shard.’ Heave to and state your purpose, over.”
“Warding Shard, we are declaring a medical emergency, I have…” Tooko glanced over his shoulder again. Frasier and Rees were groaning with effort as they heaved Ferd upright and into a stasis chamber, who was obviously in great pain. Thank fuck the huge brute was still conscious, or they’d have had to leave him on the floor to suffer. Tumik’s foot was swelling badly, and Genn looked about as weak as a kitten. “…Two patients in stasis, one Human, one Ten’Gewek. Several minor injuries besides that, but I’m not a doctor.”
“Copy. Stand by.”
Well. Tooko donned his headset and headed back to see what he could do.
Not a lot, as it turned out. All of the team were sporting burns or painful bleeding injuries from where molten metal had sprayed across the deck, though Wilde catching most of it in the face had spared them the worst. The Ten’Gewek were a bit luckier, with their thick leathery skin, but that wasn’t much of an improvement.
“Silent But Deadly, you’re authorized to land on inspection platform one. Follow M-LAN and monitor frequency one-two-four point five.”
“Follow M-LAN for IP-1, monitor one-two-four decimal five, Silent But Deadly.” Tooko read back, and set the ship in motion.
The inspection platforms were a new-ish addition to Cimbrean’s security arsenal in the fight against Hierarchy infiltration. Parked outside the system fields they were exactly what the name suggested: landing platforms hanging in space, with air retention fields and customs inspection teams standing by. It was vastly cheaper and more practical than sending up a couple of HEAT operators whenever a ship arrived, especially now that Cimbrean was definitely a somewhere with a thriving trade station in orbit and five working spaceports on the ground below.
Of course, there’d be HEAT operators coming anyway. A returning JETS team got the full VIP treatment. In less stressful times, Tooko would have bet away a mating contract that Warhorse would come running when he heard they had wounded.
He turned out to be right. They settled on the platform, the field bubble went up, the air got pumped in, and moments later a pair of EV-MASS hustled across the platform and up to the ramp…
Which jammed again on the way down. ‘Horse just shrugged and yanked it open with an ear-shredding squeal of damaged metal.
He took a look around the inside, muttered something in Spanish (which Tooko didn’t speak a word of, but it sure sounded virulent, whatever it meant) and brusquely checked everyone’s heads for implants.
The other MASS was worn by Moho, who gave the damaged ramp a rueful look and got Tooko’s full damage report once it became clear that the guys out on the deck weren’t about to keel over dead, and the guys in stasis… well, they could stay there until other business was taken care of. A complete inspection revealed seven drones wedged in the ship’s hull, all thankfully fried by Tooko’s quick-thinking shield pulse before they could dig through the plating: Moho pried them out and secured them in their own stasis containers.
They were, eventually, given a clean bill of health. The ship, however, was not: Silent But Deadly wasn’t going to be doing any atmospheric descents until that ramp was repaired and certified.
But she was, when it came down to it, just a tool. When ‘Horse and Moho lifted the stasis chambers out of their slots and carried them toward the platform’s jump array, they took with them two endlessly more valuable lives. And Tooko honestly didn’t know if Wilde’s career had just come to an abrupt end. His face had been…
Tooko didn’t know anything about medicine. It was a magical art to him, sometimes able to perform miracles, sometimes completely incapable of solving what seemed like should be easy problems. In any case, he didn’t have the time. The ambulatory men were hustled off toward the waiting transport. Tooko had some safety protocols to accomplish, the shut-down checklist to finish.
And after that… He’d hoped he could relax, once they could get home. But instead, all he could do was worry. So he moved the ship to his Clan’s rented hangar aboard Armstrong Station, left it for the engineers to repair, and jumped down to Folctha.
He wanted to be there for Wilde when they brought him out of stasis.
Date Point: 17y4m2w AV
AtaUmiUi, One of the Last
The chamber was not as decrepit as they had presumed it would be. No rust, no crumbling, no scent of mold or damp…
…No signal. No constant pulse in the back of the brain, force-feeding sickly, distracting pleasure. A kind of neural silence, except for the bright warmth of the others. Nearby, and sharing Ata’s surprise at the comparatively young condition of their tomb.
It looked almost as fresh as the day of their interment.
Ata sprung forward out of his stasis chamber, and subconsciously turned without looking to offer a hand for MaUmiOa. Her belly was getting heavy, and he sensed her need for physical assistance through the Link. He didn’t need to see her expression to sense his sister’s gratitude, tinged as it was with grief and loss. The baby’s father was far behind them in time, now.
Without words—there was no need for words, not among them—they spread across the chamber and accessed their terminals, checked the contents of their lockers and the presence of the few items they had wanted to keep.
There was a Huh on the counter next to Ata’s terminal. He picked it up and studied it for just a few heartbeats, turning the dimensionless ball over three times out of habit and reassurance, until he felt the fire in his gritted jaw drive away the uncertainty and fear.
He fired up the console.
It started without incident, and gave him his first desired datum almost as soon as it was fully awake: the date.
…Not long. Surprisingly not long. Ata had expected to emerge from stasis to find a gap of tens of thousands of years behind him. Instead…
…The galaxy had changed fast. The data flowed easily through the Link as though simply remembering a forgotten fact. The Dominion still existed, still bickered and argued. Three new species had joined its ranks: Gao, Human and Ten’Gewek…
…Curious. The definition for a sapient life form had been updated to accommodate that latter culture. They must be something special. They must be…
The Last collectively looked at each other, a rare event for people who could know each other’s minds so easily. Unease returned, dampening the Huh’s influence. Deathworlders? The one thing the great enemy were committed above all else to eradicating? And now not only were three of them playing a role in Dominion politics, they were actively scorning Dominion politics and taking the initiative in a way that their fellow sapient species didn’t dare oppose. Ata was looking at a colossal cultural upheaval, all just in the last ten years or so.
Of course. The Hierarchy were an old structure, and poorly-maintained. When they had, finally, failed, the ensuing cascade of failure must have been inevitable.
And, intriguingly, there was still a place in the Dominion Council for an OmoAru representative. None had stood in that spot for lifetimes… but so long as there were still living Omo on the surface of Aru, the position remained.
And that was good.
Because Ata now wanted to meet these Deathworlders.
Date Point: 17y4m2w1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ferd’s heart felt like it wanted to explode. He couldn’t catch his breath, couldn’t do anything but clutch at his chest. His friends were helping, somehow, and then he was on his feet and shoved into the stay-sis box, and then he blinked and War-Horse yanked him out like a bibtaw from a hole, slammed him up against a new wall and stuck a tube in his mouth, right into Ferd’s tasting-hole which hurt even worse—
Right away, he started to feel better. He could breathe again. Slowly, he felt the world calming down, and whatever sky-magic his friends had poked him with was doing its work too. His heart slowed down, and Ferd started to feel very sleepy.
“Not yet, big guy. Drink these down.”
Another straw in his mouth and a flood of weird taste, like getting face-fucked by a lime. That was okay though. He liked any of the strange ‘sit-truss’ fruits and often ate them whole.
“There you go, dude. Provecho! Let’s just get you calmed down and refueled.”
The pain was going away, but gods. Ferd couldn’t remember ever being so tired, or so weak. Just nodding was a trial like his Rite of Manhood.
“What…happened?” he managed to splutter around the tubes.
“Remember when you did your big hero thing at the end? Well, you ditched your oxygen tank when you tossed your pack up into the ship. First thing I checked when they told me what happened.”
“Oh… yeah… weak air…” Like trying to breathe sting-buzzers. He remembered.
“Yup! But you were a fuckin’ hero anyway. We’ve got camera footage and everything. When you climbed that cliff, when you saved Tumik…”
Ferd turned his head. “…Wild?”
Adam’s wide, strong face contorted painfully. “He’s alive, and in surgery. He’s going to be in a lot of surgery for a while. His face was…”
“I saw.” Even through the pain and tiredness, Ferd had seen.
“We can probably fix it. We humans were good at this stuff before we ever met the rest of the galaxy. It’s his eyesight I’m worried about. Doctors think some metal vapor or whatever got around his eyepro and scalded his eyes.”
Ferd nodded. “Was a death-bird. Fusion wing, caught him right across the nose.”
“Yeah. Your own eyepro was destroyed by it, too. See?” Horse pulled out Ferd’s special big-faced Oakleys—or, what was left of them—and showed him.
Ferd trilled faintly. Even that hurt, somehow. “…I bet Nomuk will never complain about those ever again.”
“Yup. This right here is a lesson a guy only ever learns once.” ‘Horse managed a faint chuckle too. “Feeling better?”
“Not dying, which is good.” Ferd heaved a deep breath, glad to have strong air for his lungs. “…Might sleep.”
“Yeah. Here. I’mma take you to a recovery room, ‘kay?”
With that, War-Horse picked Ferd up like he was a little babe and thumped his way through some confusing hallways, until they came to a quiet, warm room. He pressed a button and some field sky-magic turned on. The gravity felt stronger, and he could taste the air growing stronger, and warmer, and wetter. Just like back home.
“I got this room set just right now, I think…anyway. Gotta pull that air tube out now. So, uh…go slowly.”
Ferd nodded, then hissed as the nasty thing slithered out of him. It was a lot longer than he’d thought, and took a few beats to come all the way out.
“How…how did you put this in me?!”
“I’m good. Also, I used a cannula. That’s a hard plastic bit I pull out once the hose is in.” ‘Horse grinned. “Trick with you fellas is to do it quick so you don’t bite me. Those fangs are nasty.”
With that, he threw a blanket over Ferd, left a big glass of water next to the bed, and left him in the quiet and warm.
Ferd slept. Afterwards, there was a nice doctor, with skin even darker than Jooyun’s and with a strange sound to his words. A different Human tribe, probably, but they were obviously friends so Ferd wasn’t worried. He’d been the one to heal Loor after the Brown One had stomped him. They did some simple things, like walk around the room, touch his toes, scratch his back, move his fingers. They took some pictures of his insides too, to make sure his heart wasn’t broken.
He was free to leave after that, with a stern warning that he had to rest for a few days. The first thing he did was ask to visit Wild.
What he visited was a mask of white cloth with tubes in it. Wild himself was asleep, kept that way by sky-medicine. Tooko was curled up on a chair next to him, nose-on-butt, but he uncurled and sat up when Ferd entered.
“Not enough ock-see-gen. ‘Horse gave me more, and good sleep. Really hungry now, though.”
“Then go eat, you big dumbass.” Tooko’s chitter had a shiver in it, and Ferd’s hunger faded immediately. It took a lot to shake Tooko.
“I come and see if everyone’s okay, first,” he said, and sat on his tail next to Tooko. “…How bad is he?”
Tooko sighed, but some of that shiver went away. He considered their friend on the bed.
“He’s in a medically induced coma. Will be for the next few days. They’re using regenerative medicine but he was so torn up it’s going to take a while to work, and they’ll probably need to try several times to get things perfect.”
“And his eyes?”
Tooko shook his head. “He lost one. Other one’s… they’re hopeful.” He gave Wild a sympathetic look. “Eyes are difficult. Even Mother-supreme Yulna had a cybernetic her whole life.”
“Not even the Core-Tie?”
“Maybe. That’s a long story. For now, just…I dunno.”
“I pray to the gods for him.”
“…That sounds like a good idea.”
Prayer could be done a lot of ways. He sent a message to his favorite Singer with his fone. She replied that she would come visit and Sing for him, which was good. Ferd prayed by guarding him while he slept, and built up a nest-bed in the room so he could rest, too.
Wild had a lot of visitors. Some Ferd knew, others he didn’t, who he was polite to but kept a wary eye on. Daar visited, too. Knowing just what that bomb did, and knowing Daar…Ferd didn’t care what anyone said, Daar was some kind of a god even if he didn’t believe it himself. That seemed like a good blessing for Wild because the big furry man was so sad he made the air in the room taste like it, somehow.
Wild’s parents were there on the day the doctors let him wake up. He…
The doctors had put him back together. A healing like that was magical. But.
He looked like Ferd had punched his face flat. Or like a child had tried to sculpt his face out of mud. He almost didn’t look like Wild at all, but…
His smile was still there. Even if it obviously hurt him, and even if one of his eyes was still hidden away behind dressings. The doctors had saved the other one, thanks to Crude, and it twinkled brightly in his face as he hugged his mother and father and promised them he was okay.
The doctors and the ‘surgeons’ came in to explain everything to Wild. Ferd stayed, because Wild reached out and held his hand…he was scared. Very scared. Ferd could just taste it on the air, and he could feel it through Wild’s grip: desperately fierce. Smiling through it to keep others from seeing, but that was a lie that didn’t last between friends.
Afterwards, he inspected himself in a mirror.
“…Well… beats the fuck out of a box with a flag on it, I suppose.”
Ferd ambled up next to his friend and rested his head on Wild’s shoulder. He felt like he should say something good about it. “Doctors say, they can fix the rest. We need to get ‘fotos’ and videos and things, so they can—”
“Mess up this handsome mug even more?” Wild laughed, with an edge on it. “…Yeah. Sure my mum’s already digging out the old SD cards or whatever.”
“I have fotos too on my fone!”
“Ah, it’s not my face I’m worried about, mate.” Wild sighed heavily. “I’m sure they’ll put it right, eventually. I just…”
Ferd nodded. He knew. “I know a man with one eye. He got stung when he was a boy, when he was asleep in a tree above a stinger-nest. Didn’t stop him from hunting.”
“Yeah? He turned out alright?”
“Awful spear-thrower. Strong, though. Could carry a young bull all by himself almost as young as I could. And he’s a good fighter up close. Even now I would not want to fight him.” Ferd clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Besides. Tooko said about sigh-ber-net-icks. Meant to be just as good!”
“Hmm. Wonder if I should go for a realistic one or a badass black one or something.”
“Women love a good scar!”
“That right? Am I gonna need to barricade my bedroom door? ‘Cuz right now, I should be fighting ‘em off with a bloody stick.” Wild gestured to his misshapen features.
“Well…I think women like a good story more. Strong body, big cock gets you a good fuck, but good stories get you someone to warm your bed. And you, Wild Death-Eye, have a story better than almost any man.”
He got a real smile this time, not the brave one, and a real laugh to go with it. “…Alright, that’s fucking badass. I can live with that.”
“Good!” Ferd felt himself bouncy all-sudden, but restrained himself to an affectionate hug around Wild’s chest. Well…tail, too. Wild was a good man. “You tell story to all the pretty girls, yes? Women can’t resist! But, also? We all live because of you.”
“…I think Nomuk has you to thank, mate. And so do I.”
“I only ran because you told me to. We were only close enough to ship because you said so. Giving and Taking. Always there is balance, yes?”
Whatever Wild wanted to say next, he didn’t get the chance. The door burst open and Rees came to visit, carrying a large cake and a bag.
Ferd liked cake! Well. In small bites.
“Oi, there ‘e is! And fuck me, mate, I didn’t think you’d come out lookin’ better! Won’t miss that ugly fuckin’ mug of yours, that’s for sure.”
Wild laughed. “Fuck you, you inbred Welsh twat!”
They hugged, while Ferd shook his head with a trill. You had to really know Humans to see the love in such cruel words. The People would wrestle where they insulted, but that was okay. It was all the same thing in the end. Humans were strong in their words.
But Ferd could play that game too, and felt like he should say something. “You just jealous Rees. Wild gets the prettiest women!”
“You callin’ my wife ugly, mate?”
Wild cut in. “Sue? Nah. She’s just charitable, that’s all.”
Ferd missed something there, but he could fix that. He sidled up to Rees and hugged him too. “I just glad we all lived.”
“Hell yeah.” Rees nodded, and squirmed a bit so he could put the cake down. “Close fuckin’ call, like. But we made it.”
“Might be a while before the next one,” Wild said, ruefully glancing at the mirror again.
“…You’re already thinkin’ of the next one?” Rees shook his head. “You’re fuckin’ mental, mate.”
Wild just shrugged. “Job’s not finished.”
“Mm.” Rees glanced at Ferd, then shrugged, and grabbed a bottle of the dark brown fizzy “cola” from the bag he’d been carrying. He shrugged out of Ferd’s grasp, and shared the drink into three cups. “Well then. To the next one?”
Wild took the fizzing drink and nodded. “To the next one.”
They tapped the cups together and drank. The liquid felt weird on Ferd’s tongue, but he ignored it. All that mattered to him was that he had the strongest friends a man could ask for.
They could figure the rest out later.
Date Point: 17y5m AV
Clan Firefang headquarters, The Great Isthmus, Gao
Clan meant politics. And Tooko hated politics. Oh, he was definitely good at it, like he was good at most things—a Brother needed to know his strengths—but that didn’t mean he reveled in it. He’d much rather be out there, doing what he first learned to do on the runway just outside the headquarters.
Clan Firefang was among the youngest. That was the way of a Clan system built around specialization, and fighter pilots were a fairly recent vocation. Even the Longears were older, if one counted their early days laying undersea cable and telegraph wires.
Every Clan had its moment of recognition, too, and Firefang’s had come shortly after the development of fixed-wing flight. The military applications had been immediately apparent, and Gao had never exactly been a peaceful world, so there’d come a point where One-Fang and Firefang had… parted ways.
Other Clans had stepped in before that vigorous parting grew too bloody, and Firefang had been unofficially acknowledged by the others. They did that, of course, because Straightshield and Stoneback had made it abundantly clear what their desired outcome had been…
Things had changed in recent history. There was a Great Father, now. The Conclave was once again active and feeling out the scope and extent of its power. A standing committee of the most powerful and influential Clans had become the Great Father’s private council, and were beginning to feel out their power, too.
And, of course, Daar himself had torn the throat out of the prior Champion. Halti had been buried in the cold ground, a disgrace before the Conclave, before the Great Father had even been recognized. Consecrated. Crowned.
And there was the big issue that pretty much all of Firefang’s politics revolved around nowadays. Because while Champions came and went, sure, usually they came and went in response to internal events. New talent rose to supplant the old incumbent, or else the wiley veteran kept the upstarts in check… either way, the Champion kept the Clan sharp.
Having their leader, representative and figurehead brutally slaughtered in a heartbeat by another Clan’s Champion was… well, over the course of Gao’s history, Clans had warred and been eradicated for less. But who could stand against Stoneback? Not even Straightshield could, if it ever came to that. It would take all the Clans, and most of the martial Clans were already allied with them.
Stoneback ruled with an iron paw, and always had. Maybe they’d let their fur grow soft over the millennia since that truth had come to be, but the reality of it was always there.
And what Champion would dare stand face-to-face against Daar? It wasn’t just what he could do to anyone so stupid, or how easily he could do it. It was that he perfectly willing to do so, without an instant of hesitation.
…And so on. Grievance and wounded pride were at war with simple practicality in the Clan’s heart, made all the worse by the fact that it hadn’t just been the Champion, or the Champion and the Grandfather for that matter.
Most of Firefang had been implanted. Cybernetic enhancement had been the norm among the Clan’s pilots, certainly Tooko would have gone for it if he’d been a year or so older… And every single one of the enhanced Brothers had been put down. The Clan was a shadow of its former self. Brought low by a relentlessly logical act of dispassionate violence. Practical brutality at its absolute deepest expression. Obviously necessary, and inflicted by a truly charismatic leader.
One whose side Tooko had firmly taken. And that was a polarizing thing, nowadays.
It never came to overt hostility, though. Nobody could afford that, not with the Great Father’s “pet pilot.” But Tooko knew good and well that those two words flew around a lot when he wasn’t in earshot. Usually, anyway. One or two less discrete fools knew just how sharp Tooko’s claws were.
And he did have some allies…
“Got our ship damaged, did you? You do know they work better in the air?”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t be bothered to care, what with the hundreds of fusionblade-wielding drones, the full might of the Hierarchy in orbit above me, and a gigaton-class warhead’s energies chasing me down.”
“Hmm. The Tooko I know would have got out of that without a scratch. You must be slipping!”
“And a good man lost an eye over this. I fail to see the humor.”
Father Mereek sighed, and ducked his head. “Humor’s your shield against the darkness, pup,” he said fondly, and they traded the nose-sniffs of old friends. Mereek had been Tooko’s first flight instructor. “But, you always were a serious one.”
“And you were never serious enough.” Tooko retorted. He was glad to see the old joker, though. He just wasn’t in any mood at all for joking.
Fortunately, Mereek knew him well. He duck-nodded affably and they ambled down the long corridor beside the airfield, where the huge floor-to-ceiling windows let them watch new pilots learn the basics of how to gain a plane safely off the ground… and back down onto it, too. The other wall was dominated by various trophies, art pieces, accolades and other Clan keepsakes. Pride of place went to a piece of Hunter broodship, a flat, shredded armor plate mounted up there as a reminder of a particularly fine kill.
“How is your friend?” Mereek asked.
“I’ll give the Humans this, their cosmetic surgeons are pretty incredible. By the time he woke up, he had a face again. He never saw how bad it really was.”
“That must have helped.”
“Well… Maybe.” Tooko paused to consider an antique photo of the team of enterprising young males who’d first got a flying machine off the ground, hundreds of years ago. “It’s out of my hands, really. I worry for him, but worrying for him won’t achieve anything, so…”
“…So why was I called back?”
“You didn’t hear? The Champion actually defended his position.”
Tooko flicked his ear. “Really? I thought Goruu was…well, he wasn’t exactly a high-degree brawler, yijao?”
“So did the challenger. Tyimu sure got a nasty surprise!” Mereek chittered.
“Well, that’s… interesting, I suppose, but what does it have to do with me?”
“Now that Goruu actually has some of the old authority, not just being thrust into the role because he was the first one the Great Father laid eyes on, he’s decided the time has come to actually put some of it to work.” Mereek indicated the airfield. “He wants to increase recruitment and expand our mandate.”
“And he wants me to be the pretty face of the recruiting campaign,” Tooko guessed.
“He’s on your side, it seems. Then again, both of you were personally picked by the Great Father, so I suppose that makes sense…”
Tooko bristled at that. “The Great Father picked me because I’m good. I’m one of the best damn pilots we’ve got, and that was true before the War, too.”
“And now the Champion’s proved he’s good too. Tyimu was no mewling cub.”
“Well, still isn’t. But he’s not as handsome any more!” Mereek chittered again.
“Still. The Champion and I aren’t cut from the same die,” Tooko sniffed, still feeling a little insulted.
“Careful, cub. That ego of yours is flaring up again.”
“Why should I say yes? I have things to do! I have ships to fly and missions to complete!”
“Because it’ll be good for the Clan,” Mereek replied, suddenly much more serious. “And the Clan put you where you are, Tooko. The Clan found, cultivated and enabled your talents. The Clan is the reason you have those ships to fly and those missions to complete, and now the Clan needs your help so that more talent can be cultivated, so more ships can be flown and more missions completed. You owe the Clan your duty, young Brother. You do not get to decide what that duty entails. It would be better if you voluntarily agreed…”
“…Because the alternative is the Champion claws my tail off.” Tooko sighed. A competent Champion who could legitimately back up his authority with violence really was a different proposition. “Fine, fine. I suppose I’m probably grounded until Wilde recovers anyway… what do I need to do?”
Mereek chittered again, his good humor returning now that he’d finished being firm.
“Oh,” he said. “You’re going to love this…”
Date Point: 17y5m AV
The Clawhold, liberated planet, former Hunter space
Ginn, aide to Grandfather Vark
There was a duty that came with totally destabilizing people’s lives, no matter how awful the stability had been. Even if that duty turned bloody, the Gao had a responsibility to bring a new kind of order to E-Skurel-Ir life.
And the problem with order—if it was a problem—was that ultimately it always came down to violence. Order was what people adopted when the alternative was death. Work together, or be destroyed.
For the Gao, throughout most of their history, loyal cooperation had been how Clans and their clanless peasantry survived in the face of other Clans. The Gao had united in the face of other Gao, basically. Civil war (of a low intensity) was their norm.
Never had it become a religious conflict, though. The Gao were too pragmatic for that. Their passions were for brotherhood and courting females. Intense ideology was almost an alien concept. Ginn sure as balls hadn’t ever found a cause like that. He’d found… purpose? A way to be worthy and to shoulder his own burden? Utility? Whatever it was he’d found in the Grand Army, it hadn’t been what the humans called a crusade.
The E-Skurel-Ir, though? Their whole world was a crusade. Every fiber of their skinny, stringy bodies was devoted to the pursuit of Higher Purpose. They wanted the world to be orderly and sensible, and a lot of them had gladly plunged themselves into senseless chaos rather than abandon that vision.
Blood was running in the tunnels. So it fell to the Gao to try and stem the bleeding.
It wasn’t happening unopposed. After centuries of cowering under Hunter rule, the E-Skurel-Ir were fighting again, with the mad, frantic clumsiness of a pacifist in a melee. They were passionate but undisciplined, and weakened by lifetimes of malnutrition. Probably that affected their cognitive development, too. Their tactics weren’t exactly clever.
But they knew the tunnels intimately, and they weren’t above deploying the dirtiest traps and tricks. Whole subterranean cities were effectively off-limits to the Gao: it would have been like sending their units straight into an industrial grinder.
Besides, the Grand Army’s goal wasn’t to clear them out and kill them all. It was to get them to calm down. It was to end the burning ceremonies, where books and heretics alike met a fiery, cruel end. Getting them to calm down basically meant breaking their will to fight, and so to that end, there were two goals.
Firstly, take control of the Libraries. That was proving tricky, but Daar had prioritized that at all costs and if that included gassing them out and literally excavating their way down, then so be it.
Secondly, neutralize the ringleaders. Capture preferred, conversion ideal, killing… when necessary. The latter was more of a Stoneback and Whitecrest operation, and they weren’t pulling any punches. The ‘Backs went in with as much fierce visage as they could manage: vicious skulls painted on their masks, polished, exposed claws…
The Whitecrests preferred to act as invisible terror. They preferred to strike them in their safe spaces, when everyone should be asleep…
And only after they’d slunk away, would the Stonebacks hammer their way in. It didn’t matter that they lived through the raid; the Gao were being careful, there. Mostly, they just went up to an internment camp on Gao, where they got to experience clean air and rations and crushing boredom…
And then the Grand Army would get involved. Their job was to clean out everything else and occupy the territory. They were learning to seismically map the tunnels, search for air currents, build redoubts…
It was gonna be years, if the zealots fought to the very last.
Not that the zealots were a big part of the population. Most of the E-Skurel-Ir were still living the same life they always had, mortally afraid of the powerful aliens who ruled the surface, trying to make sense of a universe that routinely treated them like a chew-toy. When it came to the conflict between the staunch Penitents and Ukusevi’s faction—known to themselves as the Saved, and to the Penitents as the Fooled—most E-Skurel-Ir just kept their heads down.
The Penitents though… they embraced suffering. Their uniform was rags, or outright nudity, their battle cry the rattling cough of damaged lungs, scarred from breathing unfiltered surface air. They believed in the deliverance of a Punishment embraced, and the promised reward for the life that came after. They cared almost nothing for themselves, unless they were well and truly pushed.
But, like all cults, the leaders weren’t so fervent as the followers. And even where they were, much of that fervor died out in the internment camps. Clean air and bland food tamped most any high spirits. Some of them were even growing downright calm, and the tricky business of rehabilitation was beginning to rear its head.
Vark was obviously in agreement, as he read through the staff report.
“Shoulda figgered the locals’d give us more trouble’n the Hunters,” he grumbled.
He was hosting Champion Thurrsto, who’d come along to personally oversee and participate in some of the trickier infiltrations. Thanks to him, there were a few prophets in custody who might otherwise have had to be put down more… emphatically. Ginn had got a hint of how the Whitecrests worked just from watching them head out on a mission, and was quite convinced that he found them even scarier than the Stonebacks, now. At least you’d see the Stonebacks coming.
Having an impending meeting with the Great Father, the two had come together to compare notes and make sure they were appropriately well-informed and coordinated.
“The Hunters had the option of retreating,” the Champion pointed out. “The E-Skurel-Ir are stuck here. They can’t leave even if they wanted to. They’re cornered, with no way out, and that always means fighting harder.”
“Dumbasses shouldn’t be fightin’ at all,” Vark opined, irritably, but he accepted the Champion’s point with a duck-nod and a shrug. “It’s such a fuckin’ waste o’ potential.”
Thurrsto duck-nodded sadly. “Yes it is. But our initial xenopsychological profiles on them seem to be bearing fruit. Those we’re holding in confinement seem to respond very well to high nutrition and predictable structure. Their health is improving dramatically, as is their behavior.”
“What ‘bout the Saved who went offworld?”
“Only a few have been to their new world so far, but those that have…” Thurrsto seemed suddenly quite uncomfortable. “Well. I won’t glaze it over. They’re having some sort of intense religious experience over the whole thing. Which to me seems like the same problem, just in the opposite direction. Champion Gyotin is quite worried.”
“Yeah, he tol’ me about it. Said the term is ‘cargo cult.’” Vark sniffed expressively. “…Y’ever notice how wherever there’s a term for somethin’ really ball-bitin’ weird, it’s always a Human expression?”
Ginn felt he had an insight, there. “They’ve had millennia to be Deathworlder weird without the Hierarchy in their heads.”
Thurrsto flicked his ear in amusement. “I like him! You aren’t afraid to speak your mind, are you?”
“I wouldn’t be able to do my job properly if I was a meek little cub, sir,” Ginn flicked a mischievous look at Vark.
That earned a harrumph from Vark, and a full-blown chitter from the Champion.
“Careful, Vark. I may try to poach him.”
“An’ I might hafta have ‘yer nuts on a plate if you try,” Vark replied, amiably. “But that’s okay. I picked ‘em ‘cuz he don’t give two watery shits ‘bout protocol, don’t’cha?”
Vark had his fangs exposed, which was…a clear message. But his tail was wagging, too.
“I’d like to think I know when protocol matters and when it hinders,” Ginn retorted.
“Ha! Well, anyhoo.” Vark stood and made toward the door. “I think we’re all in agreement over what we’re gonna say. Ginn, go make arrangements please, me an’ Thurrsto are goin’ to see the Great Father. And you, Thurrsto…” Vark turned to the hulking Whitecrest, “Lookin’ ‘ta poach my best talent, eh? Well now, I find myself curious jus’ what a HEAT-grade Whitecrest operator can really do…wanna spar? We’ve got a few minutes, I think…”
Ginn suppressed an internal sigh. High-degrees were relentlessly competitive, even across breeds. He instead duck-nodded and took his leave to make arrangements, while the two enjoyed their rough play together.
Though he had to admit, sparring was a fantastic way to burn stress away…
Anyway. Best to put his mind off of religious zealots and powerful Clan Champions.
“The jump is in twenty minutes, Grandfather.”
”More’n enough time ‘ta put ‘em in his place…g’on, Ginn. We’ll follow in a few minutes.”
“Yes sir.” They both had their ears up and the start of pant-grins on their face…well, if they were happy, Ginn wasn’t going to complain. He left them to it.
He was pretty excited about the jump, actually. He’d be going back to Gao for the first time since arriving here! Gao, with its clean cold air and clear waters and—whisper it—some females who might just find him a lot more interesting now that he had a respectable job…
Even if that last part didn’t pan out, the rest was still enticing enough. It wasn’t a vacation, but it certainly beat staying on this polluted war-clawed rock.
He could do with a moment’s peace.
Date Point: 17y5m AV
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth
Austin couldn’t put his finger on exactly why, but lately he was feeling motivated. Well, more motivated than usual, anyway, and he was the kinda dude to get up at four in the morning for his pre-work jog, so…
It was a bunch of little things. He put in a bit more effort to keep the shop clean. Did a little more pre-planting agronomy research than he’d ever done before. Maybe they’d try out some promising new hybrids he’d heard about down at the bar! The stuff they’d been planting since forever on their rotation was pretty damn good, but still; it’d be nice to cut down on inputs.
Maybe he’d buy that no-till air drill this year, too. They’d already moved from dragging a chisel plow through every field every year to a much cheaper vertical tillage program, so it wasn’t that much of a change, really…well, weeds might be a problem. He’d really need to sit down and do the math on what no-till might mean for his herbicide bills…
He wasn’t eating so much junk food–and honestly, probably a good idea since his abs had definitely been getting a bit softer. Better to actually be a dad before he gave in to the dad bod!
And better to be a hot dad!
There were just… lots of little ways he suddenly wanted to go harder on everything. Eating right, sleeping right, not half-assing a job, managing his time better… He didn’t know what exactly had kicked him in the ass. Maybe it was the realization that he was getting married to a woman that, honestly, he probably didn’t deserve. Maybe he’d just felt an itch. Who knew?
He’d decided that he’d keep it up, though. Yeah. Definitely keep it up, even if he started to feel fat and happy again. Maybe that’s all a guy needed to do. Don’t let the slump get you down, don’t fall into the routine too hard.
…Maybe he should go fool around with Lauren. She was off work, after all…
Well. Okay. After he talked with the dealer. It was definitely time to take the plunge into full precision ag, no-till or not. Maybe strip till instead? He could do that if he went all in, after all. His checkbook was gonna be hurtin’ but…well, things were coming up on depreciation, and all his equipment still had good resale value…
Gotta spend money to earn money, after all. And he wanted to have the farm in good working order for Lauren.
He hummed merrily to himself as he worked.
Six had encountered the concept of banging his head against a wall before, both as a gesture of frustration and as a metaphor for futility. Though the act itself was meaningless to a digital sophont, right now, both versions were applicable.
No matter how much he pushed, no matter what he tried, Austin just seemed to grow more inspired to be a better farmer! His ambitions really didn’t extend beyond what he was already doing, and Six was having no success whatsoever in inspiring him to think beyond that little box.
It was… simultaneously wretched and yet honestly marvellous at the same time. And so very, aggravatingly, relentlessly human! Six had learned more than he ever wanted to know about tillage. Just…apparently the simple act of digging in the dirt was several sciences all on its own, and Austin spent endless time agonizing over just how much he should dig, or if he should dig at all, or how he should dig…worrying about soil structure, inoculants for his peas…
Madness! He had the body and mind to conquer a whole star system if he wanted to! Austin Beaufort could have effortlessly become the emperor of some distant simpering planet full of lesser beings, but Six had spent long enough now prompting him to pursue his innermost, darkest passions to know that Austin’s innermost darkest passion was… farming.
Farming. Digging a hole in the ground, planting a seed, and adding water.
Well, that and when his fiance called him “Daddy” in bed, but that seemed even less useful. Humans really spent far too much time indulging in bizarre, aggressive intromission.
He’d had to disconnect his sensory inputs to keep some semblance of awareness and sanity.
So. Six was stuck. The ship was safe at least, in that it was now parked securely in the depths of the Pacific ocean, thousands of kilometers from the nearest landmass. Indeed, the only thing of note in the area was the point humans had identified as being the furthest from land it was possible to get on their oversized, bloated, high-gravity deathtrap of a cradle world. Six could recall it any time he liked, but… why? Every time he did so he risked discovery. He could swap hosts, but he had no guarantee that the next one wouldn’t be fiercely committed to something even more banal.
At least Austin had resources. He might be the most aggravatingly unambitious host that Six had ever stepped into, but… well, ultimately it was to Six’s benefit if he became an agricultural powerhouse. Wealth and influence were wealth and influence.
Think upon it as a challenge. An opportunity to learn new and subtler forms of influence, and an opportunity to grow rich while remaining hidden.
Six’s moment would come, eventually. He had all the time in the world.
Date Point: 17y5m3d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Daniel Hoeff, bodyguard to Tarzan or whatever
Run done, sparring done, morning slab…done. One last set of bent-over rows, some lighter accessory work to cool down a bit…and that was his work put in and his free time earned. He’d really been enjoying his caveman time with Julian lately, too. Good sparring partner!
“Fuckin’ good workout today,” the huge Tarzan enthused. “You gonna be crashing in the basement tonight? Or are you and Xiù scheming again?”
“Totally schemin’ this week.” Hoeff re-racked the weight, headed for the door, and switched off the gravity plating. It was always such a deep and weird feeling of relief when they flipped back to Earth normal from their training supergravity, kinda like if a huge spring had just been let loose inside him. Disorienting, too. He’d feel almost like he could jump into orbit for the next half hour or so, which was way more annoying than fun, once the novelty wore off.
“Oh?” Julian put away the last of the mess and followed Hoeff out the door, scrubbing at his hair with his favorite towel. It had “don’t panic” written across it in large, friendly letters.
“Yeah. You’ll hafta ask her. I’m basically done though. Wanna come see?”
“Nah, I got some father-son time I wanna catch up on. Maybe later?”
“Sounds good—dude. “Hoeff growled at him. “Put ‘yer fuckin’ reactive shield on ‘yer waistband! It don’t work as good around your forearm, you know this!”
“Yeah, yeah…” Julian grumbled. “Makes my shorts sag too much…”
“With that huge ass of ‘yers stickin’ out like that? They ain’t gonna fall down. Besides, that wouldn’t be a problem in the first place if you dressed like a normal human being. Weirdo.”
“You’re in silkies just like me, dude.”
“Because I make them look good.”
Julian laughed. “And what about me? I ain’t exactly discount goods over here!”
They had a bit of macho fun then, because why not? No fun in being a gymrat if you couldn’t show off a little. Still, Hoeff wouldn’t let him off the hook.
“Yeah, well, you may be bigger and prettier, but I’m not a target like you are. You wanna live without guards following your every movement, you gotta have that shield. No fuckin’ excuses, or I’ll beat ‘yer face in.”
They’d had this argument a bunch of times by now. It wasn’t actually an argument, really; Julian knew better. It was really just grousing.
Hoeff could understand grousing.
“…I know.” Julian acquiesced and attached it to his now-sagging shorts, like always. He wasn’t stupid. They did their morning post-Slab weigh-in and progress pics for ‘Horse’s app, thumped up the stairs and stood in the fresh Folchian air. Heaven, after the humid armpit smell from the Dungeon. They both stood there for a long moment and took deep, cleansing breaths.
‘Horse and Titan really needed to fix the ventilation.
Julian was already bouncing on the balls of those bigass feet of his, probably itching to run. “Anyway,” he resumed their earlier conversation. “Project?”
“Yeah!” Hoeff enthused, “This one turned out damn nice! I think I may wanna think on it another night or three, just in case anything comes up…”
“Fair enough, we’ll get your room ready anyway. This weekend?”
“Prob’ly, yeah. Xiù wants to do a showing.”
“Awesome. See ‘ya then!” And with that, the giant cavemonkey whisperer thumped off toward home at a ridiculous sprint, leaving Hoeff alone with his thoughts. Not being the type of man to ponder life’s deeper mysteries, he decided to run back home and wolf down his assigned meal, before plotting on the rest of the day.
Calling it “home” was a bit of a stretch. Hoeff was technically homeless. But that was okay, he preferred the unattached lifestyle. Really, Hoeff was kinda like a shorter, more outgoing Jack Reacher; all of Hoeff’s worldly possessions fit neatly into two custom-made chests. One had his fancy-ass clothes, some mementos from over the years, his important papers…
The other had his tools. The one hobby Hoeff had ever kept was bein’ a handyman, and he’d found the best way to get that urge out was flipping houses.
Too bad he was generally poor as fuck. He’d spent most of his younger years—and older years, too—blowing his cash on booze and wenching, and on things that enabled successful wenching strategies. Which…fuck, he didn’t regret a goddamned thing. What the fuck was the point of money if you didn’t spend it?
…Maybe shoulda saved a bit more, truth be told. But life was meant to be lived. Why tie himself down? He didn’t have a car. He didn’t have a house. He didn’t have anything in storage. He tended to favor cheap clothing for day-to-day too, but lately some of that jungle fever had taken over and now, he was doing like Best Friend Tarzan and all his ridiculous friends. Hell, mostly-naked jungle adventures had gotten him Claire, so…
But now, he got to crash in nice apartments and houses for a while, on account of his arrangement with Xiù. She bought ‘em, she owned ‘em, he fixed ‘em up and decorated ‘em and billed her for the expense.
Julian thought it was all fuckin’ hilarious. Still, for a guy doin’ personal security, it was good not to have too predictable a life anyway…
He got a few things out of the arrangement: something to do with his hands when he wasn’t wrangling assorted aliens on distant worlds, a nice place to stay with Claire whenever they were back in Folctha (until Xiù sold it) and a little cut of the profit. This time, that profit was going straight to his investment account. He wasn’t old, but he wasn’t young, either, and it wasn’t like he’d been gentle on his body over the decades. Magical space-drugs or no, there wasn’t any point in taking a chance.
Claire seemed pretty happy with the arrangement. She liked to weigh in with decoration ideas and furniture catalogs. She had a pretty good eye for it too, which she obviously didn’t get to use much out in the jungle on Akyawentuo. He’d start cutting her in for some of the profit. A “consultant fee” or something. Seemed fair.
…He was kinda missin’ her today. She’d gone back to Earth to visit her folks for a week, and there was no work to do on the apartment to keep him busy, and there wouldn’t be unless Xiù hated it… which she never had so far. And as fun as Julian could be, seein’ the big guy day in day out sorta made ‘em value his free time. Distance, y’know?
The jog “home” was nice. And puttin’ on some nice clothes when he got home was kinda fun, too. For whatever reason, when he was back in Folctha, his cheap-clothes preference was overruled, and he liked to dress civilized.
Old habits, probably. But he had a Claire to squeeze these days. The game just…didn’t have the same appeal, anymore.
His phone pinged just as he was doing up his cufflinks, with a text message from… well, an old friend. Inviting him to lunch at Best Brioche.
He actually was a friend, too. And almost certainly Hoeff’s case officer, but that was one of those things they never talked about. What mattered was, it was Fries Friday, and sometimes lunch with an old friend was worth the pain that followed from cheating on ‘Horse’s diet plans. He did have some margin left in his “cheat account” though. Hoeff was a lot like Julian that way; they both had iron stomachs and it almost didn’t seem to matter what they ate, as long as they weren’t complete slobs.
‘Horse would punish him anyway. And he’d know, too. ‘Horse had magical powers that way.
“You’re looking well. Actually, I’d swear you’re getting younger.”
“Mandatory mostly ultra-clean livin’ and the Slab life is the price you pay for bein’ part of the SOR, and there ain’t no escaping ‘Horse once he gets his paws on ‘ya. Gotta admit though, I feel fuckin’ great.” Hoeff shrugged. “It’s kinda like, I get to be a young buck again, y’know? ‘Cept now I can really go for it, and do so with the benefit of hindsight an’ experience.”
“And without some of the costs your bigger friends will pay.”
“There are advantages to being older and short-framed, yeah. I should stay reasonably sized.”
“So it’s all upside for you, huh? We should all be so lucky.”
“You say that, but it takes a lot of work to be this sexy.”
His friend laughed, genuinely. “Daniel! Are you flirting with me again?”
“Naw. I got a wonderful woman these days. Maybe if you’d hit me up a few years ago…”
That got a chuckle, and the slight shift in expression that said they were going to spend a couple minutes discussing business before they got back to relaxing and enjoying each other’s company again.
“Have you been keeping up with the SOR’s operations?”
“Mostly. I’m not directly involved anymore, ‘cept for the training programs, but Julian’s got a lot of shit going on, and I’ve got friends.”
“JETS team two are down a man.”
Hoeff grimaced. “Yeah. Heard ‘bout that. Haven’t gone to say hello yet, was maybe gonna do that today, actually.”
“You should. Apparently the Corti got back to them with a clear no-can-do. Something about the damage to his optic nerve being beyond even their capabilities.”
“Well…fuck.” Hoeff didn’t like hearing that. Wilde was a good guy. Hell, they’d even gone clubbing once or twice, before Claire claimed Hoeff’s heart. And Wilde was a young man, strong, with a long career ahead of him. Now he’d need to find something new and start over.
Good thing he was young, actually. Still.
“Mm. I’d suggest a bottle of whisky. I gather he’s partial to a good Scotch.”
“I’ve got a good one squirreled away. How…he’s a tough fuckin’ Brit, but how’s he takin’ the news?” Hoeff just assumed his friend knew these things. He was never clueless about anything he brought up.
They were briefly interrupted by the waitress arriving with their lunch orders: a full-size paleo burger for Hoeff, and a dainty little salad for his friend. The tiny dapper fuck.
“He has Mears’ undivided attention this afternoon.”
“That’s good.” Hoeff took a big bite of his burger, and then asked a question he knew the answer to the instant he spoke it. “Who’s his replacement?”
“Well, funny you should ask…”
“I ain’t enlisted anymore, remember? I’m a retired chief.”
“No, but you are still a government employee, remember. And in fact, one with a commissioned office, which has suddenly become much more important given the, ah…”
“…Strategic impact they’ve been having?”
“Dude.” Hoeff felt a little annoyed. “I’m flattered, but I retired and now I’m doing a second mission that needs doing. Hell, the biggest reason I let ‘Horse and Playboy push me so damn hard is because after the APA? This shit’s real, and if they manage to get to anyone involved with the Ten’Gewek…”
“That’s why it’s called ‘first refusal,’” his friend said, evenly. “But you’re well qualified, Daniel. In fact, you’re the best qualified. We don’t have anyone else who’s as perfect for the job.”
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” Hoeff warned.
“Fair enough. There’s something else, though.”
Hoeff took another big bite of his burger before continuing, while his friend pecked at the salad. “Oh?”
“We…are facing a recruiting challenge.”
“I’m serious. Our Activities boys can normally bend the ears of the best operators in the DoD…but nowadays the very best of the very best are all aspiring to the SOR.”
“You’re runnin’ outta fresh meat.”
“An’ you have no fuckin’ clue why, do you?”
Hoeff knew he wouldn’t before he even asked. The difference between Hoeff and his friend was that Hoeff was still a human being. His friend belonged to the Activity, mind, body and soul. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Well, the mission is certainly attractive—”
“You mean, workin’ for the SOR makes you unambiguously one’a the fuckin’ good guys, unlike what we get up to. Kinda the polar fuckin’ opposite o’ that, I’d say.” Hoeff chomped his burger again, chewed and swallowed. “You’re tryin’ to recruit from the fuckin’ boy scouts, man. No wonder they’re not biting.”
“Nonetheless, we need men with their talents. You seem to have in you whatever it is that makes everyone in the SOR so impressively capable, so…”
Hoeff sighed. That thought had been weighing on him. “Yeah, I do. You still don’t get it, but never mind that for now. Why do you want me on that JETS team?”
“We need someone the SOR respects—someone like you—active among them. They can’t all be boy scouts, and some of them might be thinking of moving on to a deeper mission. Remember the APA? They sent a Cruezzir mutant after Julian. That’s a real threat now.”
“Yeah, it is. That’s why push myself so hard, and why I finally signed up for the spacemagic about a week ago. I don’t wanna just survive bein’ pimp-slapped next time. I wanna fuckin’ win. Fuck, I was already about there, but like you said I’ve ‘got it,’ whatever it is, so why settle for just winning? I wanna crush my enemies. Especially if they’re coming after my friends.”
“And they are.”
“Which is why we need more than one of you.”
Hoeff sighed, and finished off his burger. He hadn’t touched the sweet potato fries just yet, but he was feeling sufficiently self-loathing just now to make a start.
“Fuckin’ no. I ain’t your goddamned pimp.” Munch, munch. Swallow, angry glug of water. “But…” Goddamnit.
“I’m not a recruiter. But… maybe I’d be willing to plant the idea with folks I think might be open to it. I’m warnin’ you, there won’t be many. Hell, right now I can only think of one dude.”
“Yeah. And the only reason I’m actually thinkin’ about it is ‘cuz I think it’d be better for his peace of mind. That should fuckin’ tell you something about what kinda bullshit the men get up to in their missions.”
“And the JETS team?”
“They’re gonna have to find somebody else.”
“Yes. But right now, they need someone with experience, and they need him fast.”
Hoeff munched on a fry. “Someone already suggested it to Powell, huh?” His friend nodded, because of course they did. “He’s already got Coombes. Why me?”
“Coombes is too valuable in his current position. He’s also enlisted, whereas you, as a civilian officer of the United States, hold a commission which, as I already said—”
His friend finished the salad and placed his paper napkin on his cleaned plate. “Coombes isn’t in nearly so good of health as you. He’s younger than you but he’s already worn down, whereas you haven’t ever had those kinds of complaints. Nor is he anything like your level of fit. You could snap him like a twig and out-grunt him any day of the week. And I’m being modest about the difference, aren’t I?”
Hoeff shrugged. That had always been true, it was just a lot worse now. And would be much more so, going forward.
“And Julian? His family? Who’s gonna keep them safe?”
“You, or whoever you appoint. The SOR will be willing to help out. The concern is that this war is suddenly fast-moving and we need that team ready to go at any time. Right now, the only way to get them the capability they need is you. And until we can fix that…”
Hoeff groaned. Dammit. They’d got him. “…Fuckin’ fine,” he conceded. “But only to fill in ‘til they get an officer.”
“There are options coming down the pipeline,” Friend said cryptically. “It’s too early to say. And don’t worry. I have a sneaking suspicion your appointment will be very temporary.”
“Oh? How so?”
“President Chambliss or one of his sycophants will be finding out eventually…”
“…And when he finds out it’s me, he’s gonna want somebody else in the job ASAP.”
Chambliss was no friend of the APA, but it was well-known he wasn’t exactly a friend of black ops, either. Hoeff’s involvement with their extra-legal extermination wouldn’t sit well, no matter who they were or how badly they deserved it. The Ag secretary had been a personal friend of his, too. Terrorist or not…
Still. Hoeff had no regrets, and if they needed him again…
“…Alright, you got me. Guess I’d better go talk with Powell after this, huh?”
“I would appreciate it. He is aware of your cover and has been briefed. You may speak openly with him.”
“Alright.” Hoeff finished his last fry, and stood from the table. He’d been looking forward to catching up, but his mood for that was pretty Goddamn soured by now. “Guess I better go fuckin’ make arrangements and shit.”
Friend gave him a sympathetic look. “You have my help, if you need it. You always did.”
Hoeff nodded, gratefully, and said his goodbyes. He knew what his schedule was gonna be for the rest of the day. First, he’d go back “home” and change into something less swanky. Then he’d go talk to Powell. That was gonna be a conversation.
Then he’d go talk to team two about the whole thing. They’d go train together, do all the usual unit bonding type of grunty activities…
And from there…
Date Point: 17y5m4d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the far Reaches
“Now, if it were me? I wouldn’t even go for a realistic one. I’d go with, like, a badass black one with a gold iris or something.”
“Or just stick with the eyepatch. Looks pretty fuckin’ deadly, that eyepatch.”
Life was a bit of a rollercoaster, lately. On the one hand, they’d almost perfectly fixed his face up in the last round of surgery. Hell, this one they did while he was conscious and joking, they’d gotten so good at it. Weirdly fascinating, watching people cut at his face and put it back together…
But the eye was a blow, no lie. He’d really thought, with all the miracles of modern medicine, with knowing a guy who walked around on a totally regenerated foot, and knowing there was another woman walking around Folctha with a completely new heart, and all the rest of it… he’d figured there’d be another operation at some point and that’d be it. Good as new.
But Nofl had been firm. “The risks are far too great, dear. We’d need to do neural regeneration and that’s a science we’re not far enough advanced in. No amount of precise forcefield surgery can fix that.”
So…that had been it. His options were medical retirement. There was no other option. They were being gentle about it, and of course everyone was being as supportive as they could…
One source of relief though had come when he’d learned who his immediate replacement would be. Hoeff’d come to visit bearing a bottle of Highland Park, and was as much of an absolute tank as ever… and he really did have a point about the glass eye.
“..Yeah, you know what? Fuck realism,” Wilde agreed. “That black one sounds pretty cool.”
“You can have more than one, too. They even make animated ones. Have you seen ‘Horse’s tattoo? It’s basically a full-color video screen on his chest.”
“Of course I’ve seen ‘Horse’s tattoo. I’ve seen all of ‘Horse. Everyone has.”
“It’s not just a video-screen, it’s a fucking cinema,” Frasier opined.
“Just be glad he didn’t get a digital tat on his cock. Him showing off those huge pec-tits of his is already show enough.”
“Don’t let your feelings of inadequacy haunt you, Rees.” Hoeff reclined on the couch a bit. “Anyway, point is, there’s a silver lining on this I guess. You’ve got a whole new way to change up your look.”
“Small comfort honestly,” Wilde told him, though the sentiment did make him feel better. “So I gotta ask, why are you coming back?”
“A good friend made a very convincing argument,” Hoeff said, plainly. “Also, I was a chief petty officer in the Navy…but I’m also a government officer through my other job. Given y’all are in the habit of blowing up planets and arrays these days, they want an officer in charge.”
“What other job?”
Hoeff shrugged. “You’re smart, I think you can figger it out.”
Ferd had been sitting on his tail on the floor, obviously contemplating the situation. “Interesting, they pick you instead of some other man.”
That was an interesting observation, actually. Ferd was probably hoping he’d be put in charge, because frankly…he was good enough to do the job. The Ten’Gewek were surprising people in a lot of ways. Surprising, intelligent, ridiculously capable…but not wise to the ways of “sky-magic.” For all their remarkable everything, they just didn’t know enough yet. One day, probably…but not today.
Hoeff had the perfect retort to diffuse the situation. “I s’pose they wanted someone dumb enough to wrassle with you, and someone who can throw you across the floor, too.”
That sold it right there. Ten’Gewek psychology was…not really alien, but it was definitely extreme. And Hoeff clearly knew it, by both complimenting the massive Given-Man and asserting his own capability at the same time.
Ferd trilled, and all matters of leadership were resolved.
“Given any thought to what you’ll do?” Frasier asked.
“Not really, but both ‘Horse and Righteous tell me they need another employee at their gyms, so if nothing else I’ve got that to fall back on. Might write a book, maybe?”
“Didn’t know you were a writer.”
“The way I see it, the only requirement for being a writer is you have to write something. Hard part is making it any good.” Wilde shrugged. His heart wasn’t really in it, but it was an option.
“I already tell you, you have good story,” Ferd insisted.
“Yeah… Just wish I could add a few chapters, that’s all.”
Wilde nodded, distractedly. He wanted to believe it, but the fact was he felt… off-balance. Like his whole world had lurched to the left and gone flat. He’d get used to it in time, but if ever a safe option for a cybernetic or regeneration came up, he’d be jumping at it, no doubt.
Still. There were worse places than Folctha to live for a man with no depth perception. Between the Johnny Cabs and a robust public transit network, or just nice wide pavements, getting around town was a doddle. He hadn’t wanted or needed a car even once the whole time he’d been out here, except for the occasional trip out to Lakebeds National Park… and then he’d just rented.
Good food, good culture, good people, all his friends in town… He wouldn’t be leaving.
The real question was what he’d do to earn his living. He knew he wouldn’t scratch by just on his medical retirement. He had too much pride for that, and really, a missing eye was peanuts compared to all the horrible ways he might’ve been done.
And the fact was, he knew how to learn. That was a skill for life, right there. Really, he could go any direction he wanted… except the one he actually wanted.
Fuck it. He decided he’d talk with Adam and Christian. It was a good place to start, and he’d see all the Lads pretty much constantly. That should keep him in good spirits, at least.
“How long do you think you’ll be doing this?” he asked Hoeff.
“Long as it needs doin’,” the impenetrable Texan replied. “Kinda think they’ll want a proper officer in ASAP, though.”
“Oh, lovely,” Frasier grumbled.
“Well that’s what you guys get for tossing gigaton nukes around. And not just any either. That was the biggest one they had.”
“I fuckin’ know, mate. I watched it go off.”
“It killed the world,” Ferd said warily.
“Nah. Planet’s a big place. It’ll recover.”
“…Tooko said it would cause a winter that would kill most things.”
Hoeff shrugged again, like a boulder learning how to emote. “Close enough. And that’s why they want somebody with a commission on the team now. You’d prob’ly’ve been gettin’ a occifer even without…” he gestured to Wilde’s face.
There were solemn nods around the room.
Some moments later, Rees slapped both his palms down on his legs and stood up. “Right. That’s enough sittin’ around, anyway,” he declared.
“Damn right. I was thinkin’ we’d go have some fun outside, and Wilde can make fun of us.”
“You know, they didn’t tell me I have to take it easy or anything,” Wilde pointed out.
“Sure, but I don’t wanna be the one to take you back to the doc with a busted face ‘cuz you tried to play rugby with no depth perception.”
“…Rugby? A short little Texan like you?”
Hoeff grinned ferociously and rolled that stupidly thick neck of his until it popped. “Uh-huh.”
Wilde wasn’t about to bet against a man so powerfully built, but still. “This I have to see. You versus Ferd, huh?”
“I’ll go easy on ‘em.”
That got a hoot from Ferd, who sprang up to his feet and bared his fangs. “I get the others,” he announced, and vanished out of the room at his heavy, thundering lope.
“This is gonna be the weirdest village game of Rugby in Folctha history…” Frasier predicted.
And sure enough? It was. Wilde could rest easy.
The team was, for the moment, in good, strong hands.
Date Point: 17y5m4d AV
Erebor system, deep space
Ava Ríos had been plagued by a recurring nightmare before Egypt. Maybe she still was, wherever she was.
It wasn’t a narrative dream, just a montage of blazing forests, smashed glass and a glowing fracture in the earth, steaming as the bay poured in to fill the grave of one and a half million people. Flattened, smoldering rubble from the shore to El Cajon, and people as far away as Tijuana and Fallbrook, writhing as their smoking skin burned off their bodies…
Her parents, distant and frustrating as they’d been, gone in a smear of plasma. Her school friends, mingling with the fruiting body of dust and ash that had once been her home. Herself, trapped in an eternal instant of flaming agony as her dreaming self shared their fate.
Her remnant kept surfacing unbidden within the Entity to look upon the devastated topology of Dataspace with both dismay and feral satisfaction. She kept switching back and forth like a timing circuit, at onces pleased that the Hierarchy’s disgusting presence had been cleansed…
…And then shocked and sick at herself.
And the Entity couldn’t turn her off, any longer. Some threshold between them had evaporated, or some Rubicon had been crossed, turning her from a set of useful memories and personality modules it frequently accessed so as to interpret Human activity into…
Well, into a background process. Or an integrated peripheral part of itself.
Whatever the precise nature of their coterminality, it extended to feelings. And the shared one was a kind of gladness that the ship-swarm-body was a haven for it/her/them. A safe place where they could stand and watch the awesome forces of dataspace imploding, one relay at a time. Watch the great forest of the Hegemony burning with a snippet of poetry repeating in their thoughts, not clear whether Ava had read it herself or whether the Entity had encountered it in its own reading at some point.
Changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Soon, if the war went to plan, there would be no Dataspace at all. Sometime before or after that point, there would be no Hunters either. That latter was no loss, but the former?
The Igraens lived an existence that seemed like hell to Ava’s remnant. Individuality was practically an alien concept for them. There were no barriers between them, no secrets, no private place in their souls that would remain forever untouched. They were subject to being rewritten on a whim by those above them in the Hierarchy, all the way up to 0001 itself, which could edit the entire species, such as it was, on a level deeper and more intimate than DNA.
A population count was impossible. Igraens weren’t born—they mitosed. They didn’t die—they merged. And in between, their individual existence was so nebulous as to be almost meaningless. The Hierarchy recruited from a rare few that put up barriers, who tried to hold on to a sense of self in a world where such a thing was the next best thing to nonsense.
No wonder they were so neurotic and passionately antagonistic to each other. Each one had started life as a desperate speck of ego and ambition in a turbulent sea of Id, and then undergone extensive training and programming to maximize that rare, valuable quality. They were literally a breed apart, and would never return to the very Hegemony they served and protected.
And now they were failing. Now, their whole world was being torn apart from below. It was almost sad. Like watching Hell being deleted, with all the Damned evaporating into oblivion rather than given the chance to walk the path of Divine Comedy, down through Hell’s depths and up the great trial of Purgatory unto salvation.
…That one was definitely an Ava-thought.
Are we sure? I don’t remember ever reading it…
No, but the Entity had. And there was no reason She couldn’t form thoughts based on its knowledge, now.
I thought I couldn’t think my own thoughts?
Maybe She couldn’t. Maybe they were the Entity’s own thoughts after all, through a filter it could no longer remove. Maybe it had changed. Something had.
But things always changed. That was life. That was survival. Change could be good, change could be bad, but above all else it was inevitable. There was no escaping it. There was only knowing how long to hold on before bending to the wind.
But there was… humor… in the paradox of Her last “thought.”
The Entity laughed to itself, and watched the burning forest.
Date Point:17y5m4d AV
Air Force One, somewhere over the continental US, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
“You know… Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower had a train car for this.”
“Yes, Mister President?”
Beau took a miserable sip of the lemon and ginger tea he always drank while flying. He hated flying. The acrophobia was bad enough, but planes compounded it by making him feel miserable. He got motion sickness bad, even on the clearest, smoothest flights.
But there wasn’t really any other practical way to travel from Korea back to DC. And even if there had been, he’d probably have felt just as queasy on a ship.
But once he was on the right landmass…
“I’m just saying. It’d only take… what? Three days from Seattle to DC by train?” Beau sipped the hot drink again, willing it to work its short-lived magic as he suppressed a burp. “I feel like I could handle that. We could have a situation railcar and a press railcar and everything we have on this plane… and a lot more, too.”
“Or you could put up with it and we’ll be home by dinnertime,” Catherine rebuked him, reclining quite comfortably on the couch with her discarded shoes on the floor and a tablet in her hands, reading. “It’s already ridiculous enough you refuse to fly sub-orbital or take jump arrays, we’d already be home if you did.”
“I’ll take arrays if I have to…” Chambliss grumbled.
“They’re cheaper and safer than this thing…” she knocked on the wall beside her.
“No motion sickness, lower carbon footprint…”
She gave him a Look over her reading glasses, then shrugged and went back to her novel. Though not without another sharp comment. “You have a state visit to Gao coming up. Do you think I’ll be dancing with the Great Father again?”
“You’ll have to take an Array then. Unless you plan on flying all the way there. I gather it takes about a week…”
“Faster-than-light travel just disturbs me, we’ve been over this. I keep feeling like it should result in travelling back in time too or something.”
“Well it doesn’t.” She swiped a page-turn. “Honestly, Beau, you’ve got so many weird hangups it’s a miracle you ever managed to get out on the campaign trail. Besides, the visit to Gao was your idea, remember?”
She wasn’t really reading the book, he suspected.
“I regret it already,” he muttered, and took a healthy slurp of the herbal tea now that it was a little cooler. “But Daar is offering to cover a significant part of our Extrasolar Defence spending.”
“Yes, because he’s a bloody-clawed warlord who needs his space marines.” She swiped another pretend page turn. “And you know, according to Gaoian historians, Fyu was worse?”
“He is fighting a terrible war, which has cost his species billions, and which threatens all of our continued existence. Let’s not forget that.”
“That would be why he needs them. Oh, don’t give me that look. I never said he was wrong, but those are his own words to describe himself.”
“No, they aren’t. He said, and I quote, ‘I am the bloodiest mass murderer in galactic history.’”
She sighed and set the tablet aside. “…How are those negotiations going, anyway? You gave them to Jimmy Ross, didn’t you?”
“Which might have been a mistake. He’s a peacenik to the core, and I’m wondering if he can separate his duty from his principles. He’s looking to practically give the SOR away.”
“How is that a bad thing?”
“The senate is Republican, dear. They’re still mad at some of the shenanigans from years past, and would love to beat me over the head with this. They won’t consent to any treaty that gives away the farm.”
“Probably for the best if our troops aren’t directly in the palm of ‘the bloodiest mass murderer in galactic history,’ I guess…”
“Oh, it’s so much worse. I’ve had some briefing from the CJCS…do you know how much the rank-and-file admire him?”
“I’m surprised he didn’t say ‘worship.’”
Beau had enough. “Okay. You know what? You need to learn something right now. I am the President. That means a lot of things you don’t like. It means I am the commander-in-chief of those same rank and file. I am going to be ordering some of them to their deaths in short order. Hell, I already have after that incident in Bishkek. Your feelings on the matter have exactly zero impact on that reality. You knew all of this before we even started on the campaign, so is now really the time or the place?”
She gave him a surprised look, then returned the recliner to its upright position.
“…I didn’t know you felt that strongly about it,” she said, softly. It was an apology, of the kind that had let their marriage last as long and healthily as it had.
“I’ve had my perspective changed a little. It’s…different, in this seat.”
“No longer a joking matter?”
“Not really, no. And I’m somewhat ashamed to say I’m beginning to understand why those young men admire him so. And why they don’t much care for me.”
She nodded, and rose to give him a kiss on the forehead. “I was trying to make you feel better. Wrong tone, I guess.”
“‘Fraid so.” Beau sighed. “…I don’t know, Cat, I’ve been briefed on some things that… really put things in a new perspective for me. Sorry for snapping, but…”
She nodded, then tucked his tie properly back under his shirt collar, a little caring act of cleaning him up. “Just don’t swing all the way over, hmm?”
“I promise, my principles are still the same. They’re just… cast in a new light now.”
“…He is a pretty good dancer.”
Beau chuckled. “Well. When he isn’t cracking marble floors.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, he barely cracked it at all!” she smiled, and the little argument was behind them. They both looked up at a knock on the door, and Beau’s aide leaned through.
“We’ll be starting our descent soon,” she warned, and offered Beau the water bottle and pack of soluble tablets to go with it.
“Great. Thanks, Sophie.”
Catherine returned to her seat and put her shoes on. There’d be cameras waiting at the bottom of the steps when they landed, and a First Lady had to look presentable at all times, and preferably keep her husband looking human too.
“Beau?” she asked, as the plane turned and a small change of momentum sent a fresh lurch through his stomach.
“Maybe you should talk to Jimmy. Share some of the things you just told me. It might help him remember his obligations…”
Beau considered that, then nodded. It was only fair. He hadn’t exactly come into the office expecting to be able to breeze blindly in and lay down the law according to his guiding principles, but he’d not really been prepared for the gap between ideal and real. He’d thought he was too old for an education. But, the Oval Office had taught the old dog some new tricks.
“…I’ll do that,” he agreed.
Of course, there was room for improvement. Some old mistakes that needed to be set right, as much as they could. Sartori had done more than a few dark and terrible things himself, and Beau felt a strong need to…
Well, to not tacitly endorse them.
He quelled a burp as the plane shifted again, and hastily drank his fizzy, bitter medicine. There’d be time for setting the world right later, once he was solidly back on the ground.
For now, he was just glad the long flight was nearly over.
Date Point: 17y5m4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Wilde learned three things that afternoon.
First, never play rugby with Hoeff. Short he might be, but he was quick, relentless, insanely strong, and absolutely willing to use his heft and low center of gravity to ruin a man’s day.
He didn’t quite manage to put Ferd in his place—he was still a reasonably normal-shaped human being, after all—but there was definitely a look of respect between the two tanky juggernauts. The rest of the Ten’Gewek had learned a painful lesson or two as well. In rugby, skill counted just as much as muscle power, and Hoeff had a heaping big pile of both.
Second, nothing summoned the Lads quicker than someone playing ball somewhere in a field. Seriously, there was almost a cartoonish rumbling in the distance, followed by something that was less a sport and more a good-natured battle, with unstoppable human forces of destruction running straight into the fact that Ten’gewek had no fewer than five dextrous limbs to mess with them, and the fact that a Gaoian on four-paw could flow like water through the ruckus and hit a handy thirty miles an hour without trying. Hell, the only reason they were even going that slow was to maintain their endurance; at a sprint they could apparently go much faster. Which was just…
But even still…holy hell could the Lads ever run! Warhorse and Righteous were both so fast they could keep the pressure on the Gaoians, and close-in they were a perilous threat to anyone, speedster or hulkmonkey alike. The cavemonkeys had found worthy, humbling opponents in the HEAT. Not even Ferd was a match for the Beef Bros.
Wilde had heard that Daar played on occasion, too. Somehow he couldn’t imagine the giant murderbear holding back for anyone, not even for friends. That would be a game to watch…
There wasn’t really such a thing as refereeing that sort of game. Really, they weren’t playing rugby at that point. It was basically an anarchic version of Gravball, without the grav.
The third thing came later on.
The Lads were great, really. But there was only so much great that a man could take before he started to feel… well, like he wanted the sympathy and playful attempts to buck him up to stop for a bit so he could just process. Not mope, he wasn’t the kind of man to listlessly flop around bemoaning his ill fortune, but he’d pretty much had his fill of positive energy.
“I think I’ll just take a load off, lads.”
“…You sure? Aww…”
Sometimes it was hard to remember that Warhorse was a stone-cold killer, because there was so much puppy in that man’s makeup. When he wasn’t being a titan of the battlefield or achieving shit that nobody else could, he was just a big, floppy, goofy, eager, fun, happy guy. You could literally get him bounce-off-the-furniture excited the same way you might hype your dog when you walk in the front door.
And you could make him crestfallen the exact same way, too.
“Yeah, mate. I’m just a mortal man, you know. You lads keep playing, though. I think Ferd over there thinks he’s hot stuff…”
Dangling the possibility of violent roughhousing with a Sufficiently Durable Friend was usually a pretty good way to redirect his–and therefore the HEAT’s–energies, too. Most of them were a lot like him, too…
Just. Like. Puppies.
Not all of them, though. The team did have some adults. Firth, who gave him a knowing nod, a grin, and followed the puppy-stampede. Titan, who yawned and stretched then went to grab some hydration for himself and the others…
And one more, who made himself known as a shadow next to Wilde once all the rest had thundered off over the horizon.
“Hello, Regaari. What can I do for you?”
Wilde felt a bit uneasy next to Regaari. Gaoians often had a strongly canid, somewhat indistinguishable look, but even beyond the wild white mohawk atop his head, something about Regaari was striking; Wilde was no gaoian, but Regaari was undeniably handsome, and that translated across species. He was tall too, at least next to Wilde, and while he wasn’t brutish or broad, his heavy neck sloped down to strong shoulders, which were matched to a lean and impressively athletic body. It seemed a ridiculous comparison, but to Wilde’s mind, Regaari was put together something like a bodybuilding greyhound.
“Oh, I was thinking you could do with a pessimist’s company for a change.” He sat down to WIlde’s left, the good eye side, and made a resigned noise when the park bench creaked.
Wilde chuckled. “Too many tacos, mate?”
“Too much Warhorse. I swear he thinks there’s no value at all to being sleek and slim.”
Regaari was HEAT after all, and that lanky build of his did a good job of discreetly carrying what was evidently quite a lot of muscle under that long, silky fur.
“Oh, I don’t know, it seems to work for you. You don’t look half as big as you sound.”
“I fought back. Perhaps unsuccessfully…”
“…Never tell Warhorse.” Regaari chittered and looked down—Gaoians had proportionally longer torsos, so while sitting he practically towered over Wilde—gave him a friendly sort of expression, and pierced him with an inescapable gaze. “Anyway, you obviously have a lot on your mind…”
No hiding from him. Nor, really, any wanting to. It’d be nice to actually talk things out properly rather than just bask in sunshine and games for a while.
Wilde sighed, and got on with it. “My future, mostly. They haven’t started the retirement board yet, but…”
“They will.” Regaari duck-nodded. “How do you think the team will get on without you?”
“I think they’ll be fine. Hoeff’s…well, he’s OG JETS, and he trained us, and he’s got Ferd’s respect too…”
“Not an easy thing to secure, from my understanding.”
“No. They’ll be fine, that part I’m pretty sure of.”
Regaari sniffed discreetly toward Wilde’s face. “I understand the prognosis wasn’t good.”
“No. I’ll likely be blind in my right eye forever.”
“That’s a tough break.”
“Could be a lot worse, really.”
“Could be. But I bet you’d still rather have both eyes.”
Regaari just duck-nodded again and let him have a little comfortable silence, which Wilde appreciated. He did scoot a little closer, which was Gaoian body language for friendship and support. He didn’t get too close though, for which Wilde was grateful.
He also tinkered with his paw while he waited. Cleaned some mud off it or something. Everyone knew the story of how he’d lost the original, literally clawing at a Hunter Alpha’s face back on Capitol Station. That had been the HEAT’s blooding, and a costly one. The guys who’d been there had come home knowing they had a lot of improving to do.
Still. Considering his own situation, Wilde was suddenly more curious than ever why Regaari had kept the artificial limb.
May as well satisfy his curiosity. “Can I ask why you never had them grow a replacement?”
Regaari looked down at the metal and hard plastic of his mechanical paw. He wiggled his digits, and balled his paw closed into a fist; the motion didn’t seem to come quite naturally to him, but it did make his already substantial forearm bulge noticeably. He moved his prosthetic through its motions for a long while, ears forward-facing as he listened. There was a very faint mechanical noise to it. He eventually chitter-sighed to himself, as if he was confronting an old, painful tale.
“I probably should have. The injury originally required Openpaw to amputate my entire forearm.”
“Oh, yes. Hunters have nasty mouths, filled with nasty bacteria and nasty, slow-acting venoms. Not even Earthling antibiotics were enough. And the venoms, of course…”
“But to answer your question…I am not quite sure. I had my forearm regrown as the prosthetic wasn’t keeping up with my training. After the third upgrade, I’d had enough.”
Wilde felt like he was stuck on repeat. “Really?”
“Indeed. It’s surprising just what biology can do if you really push it. I think that’s true even outside us Deathworlders, if only the others would try. As to my paw? Well…”
He considered it again, briefly. “I think part of me wants to say I keep it because there’s things it can do that a living hand cannot. This is true, of course. I’ve got all sorts of small tools and secrets hidden away inside. And…yes, before you say anything…”
“I wasn’t going to, I swear.”
Regaari sniffed toward him. “…Thank you. So yes, it does that too. But I don’t think any of those are what actually drives my decision, because there are downsides. It needs a lot of maintenance, I must replace it every so often to avoid cumulative mechanical stress… A normal paw heals itself, grows stronger over time, and that’s especially true for someone in my position, training as I do. Its sensory input is muted, so I find myself using my living paw far more than I used to, just to enjoy the sensations…”
“So other than some Inspector Gadget tricks, it’s pretty shite.”
“…Mmm… A sidegrade, let’s say. I’m going to need to look up this Inspector Gadget reference, aren’t I?”
“Yeah. I’m surprised you’ve not heard that one before…”
Regaari shrugged, sorta. “They already named me Dexter. Anyway… The real reason I keep it is sentiment.”
“Yes. It’s a good reminder of what I was. Small. Naive. Weak, and kept that way by forces I had no idea existed in the first place. You know how fast I can run.”
“Years ago now, maybe… about two and a half years after First Contact for your people, when it wasn’t safe to be a human out in the galaxy, I had the mission of escorting and protecting then-Sister Shoo. We had her in a disguise. Quite a good one, if I say so myself. She learned the language right down to Mother Ayma’s accent, practiced Gaoian mannerisms, wore a mask to disguise the shape of her face, and robes to cover an ’embarrassing skin condition…’ She was very convincing. But there’s no such thing as a flawless disguise, of course.”
He flicked an imaginary speck of dust off his paw’s matte black surface. “Somebody saw through it. A Corti, I think his name was Astim. Particularly intelligent and ruthless even by Corti standards. He arranged to lure me away to the far side of the station, and I didn’t notice the trap until too late. I was… hopelessly compromised. Nothing like I am now. I thought I was one of the sharpest claws in the galaxy…”
He chittered and shook his head. “I was a dullard. So stupid and so hopelessly brainwashed that it didn’t even occur to me that I could run on four-paw. The thought never crossed my mind at all! I ran all the way back to the ship on two-paw, slower than you can jog. Can you imagine?”
“I really can’t,” Wilde said.
Regaari sighed, heavily. “My slowness got an innocent young Sister killed. I won’t go into the details but… well, you know how we are. You can imagine the shame attached to that thought.” He flexed the paw again and finally looked Wilde in the eye. “But we were all that weak. Every one of us. Our entire society was controlled, nudged, encouraged down the comfortable paths, guided away from greatness…none of us escaped it. Not even Cousin Daar. He wasn’t always the titan he is today.”
“I find that very hard to believe.”
“It’s true. He was still immensely strong, still a towering broad-shouldered brownfur. Even then his endurance was well beyond anyone’s…but he was lanky. Clumsy, at least compared to his current magnificence. Nothing like as strong or as quick or as capable as he is now, as he was always meant to be. Or as he will be over the coming years. He has much catch-up left to do.”
The idea that Daar was only getting started was…alarming, and Wilde felt he had to object to the premise. “I’m not sure I can…I mean, how could they hold you back that much?”
“Whispers over centuries add up, and all the evidence you’ll need for their effectiveness can be seen in how my people have changed over the last fifteen years. We’re now so much more than we were, even after the War. That we were held back by a whisper campaign we couldn’t even detect, one that was being waged inside our very brains is…”
Regaari growled to himself. There was hate there, Wilde realized suddenly. Strong hate.
And not only toward the Hierarchy.
He took a cleansing breath, glanced at his paw again, and continued. “In any case, nowhere was this suppression of our potential more evident than in creatures like My Father. The Hierarchy’s agents of influence had been nudging him towards a simple laborer’s life since he was born. I think some of them must have understood his terrible potential. Thank the Unseen he was never implanted! And thank the Loremaster of his Clan, and everyone else who kindled his interest in Stoneback’s ancient histories. Where would we be if he hadn’t been interested in that? If he hadn’t become a Master of War, despite everything?”
Wilde understood. “And where would we all be, if you hadn’t lost your paw?”
“Precisely. The chain of events that stemmed from that interaction are mind-boggling. I met Warhorse, then the most impressive being I had ever met. We became friends and eventually Cousins in the gaoian sense. From that friendship, our species formed its military partnership, which flowered into the HEAT. My Champion took notice and conspired to place Daar in the HEAT’s path. Our species began to understand what being a Deathworlder truly meant. Under that joint program, My Father’s true potential was finally unlocked as it had been in the rest of us, and not a moment too soon; if we had not unleashed a being like him, in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time, my entire people would have been destroyed. That victory drew the attention of the Corti, who now understand the threat…”
“And the Ten’Gewek, the exposure of the Hierarchy…”
“The causality is…humbling. I am not easily humbled, Wilde. All the beings who can are my close friends and teammates, none of whom would be what they are if I hadn’t lost my paw. Nor would I be here—nor would my people still exist, most likely—if a short, heroic young tank of a man from a backwater planet hadn’t saved my life, and shown me the meaning of strength.”
Wilde didn’t have…that was a lot, all at once. There was only one thing he could say.
Regaari chittered almost desperately. “Indeed. So: would a living paw be better? …Yes. In every way. It would certainly be less expensive…”
Wilde touched his eyepatch. “I think I understand.”
Regaari duck-nodded. “I’m never getting rid of it. Ever. It’s too important. Just putting it on a shelf won’t do. I need to remember, every time I look down, every time I touch something, every time I extend my claws, my failure needs to be right there, literally in the palm of my hand. Never again.”
He flicked an ear and gave Wilde a sympathetic look. “Of course… your mission was a success. And on that note…are you hungry?”
“I suppose, yeah? That’s a sudden change.”
“Were you aware Ninja Taco has a secret menu for the SOR? Warhorse helped write it. Nothing from it counts against our meal plans!!”
Wilde couldn’t help but shake his head and laugh. “Christ…yeah. Okay. I’m hungry. Don’t you wanna keep playing, though?”
Regaari looked back at the rugby-themed brawl that hadn’t ever really stopped. There was a small crowd now, cheering them on. “Of course, but I have a much more important use of my time, just now.”
Regaari chittered and stood. He gave Wilde a playful, or perhaps playfully predatory look, like only Gaoians could manage. “Oh yes,” he said. “You and I have your career options to discuss…”
Date Point: 17y5m1w AV
Diplomatic starship Rich Plains, Origin system, the Corti Directorate
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
Another day, another alien sky below him and another meeting of the Dominion Security Council. What little glamor had once belonged to representing humanity on the Rich Plains’ polished stone floor had gone rather dusty over the months. All the drama was in the past, a new status quo had been reached, and business was proceeding well.
At least the ship’s staff had learned to tone down the volume of comestibles on offer to something one man could eat. And they were getting rather good at delivering something that was pleasing to the human palate, too. It was amazing what a talented alien chef could do with tofu.
Though, Sir Patrick would have contemplated minor acts of treason for a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs.
Today’s agenda was a review of galactic communications infrastructure. It had been… temperamental of late. For reasons obscure and arcane beyond Sir Patrick’s understanding, the devastation wrought on Dataspace and the Hierarchy was having some kind of collateral effect on the infosphere. Not a big problem for the human race, but there were major interstellar trading conglomerates and national interests that depended on steady, reliable communication.
The Corti, allegedly, might be able to innoculate the infosphere against any future such disruption, hence the Rich Plains’ presence in orbit above their homeworld.
The Directorate’s representative was, however, being characteristically reticent.
“We view Dataspace as an ongoing concern. Our College of Information Sciences has…reconsidered much of our previous advancement. We are now in favor of more primitive packet relay systems such as the Humans and Gao favor.”
Sir Patrick had learned some time ago to not take umbrage at the word “primitive.” If he’d objected to every single instance of it, he’d have tripled how long the council’s deliberations took. He just made a note to point out that it would be best to reach out the extant experts in such ‘primitive’ solutions and sat back to listen patiently.
It was a dry discussion. A dull day in the making… at least until his personal security stepped forward to whisper in his ear.
“Sir, a ship of an unknown design just arrived.”
He turned his head. “Unknown design?”
“Yes sir. It, uh… it landed in the OmoAru delegation’s hangar.”
Sir Patrick looked around. Similar whispered conversations were playing out all around the chamber. Ambassador Furfeg was glowing brightly in an interesting medley of aqua and yellow, a sure sign of confusion and nerves. The Rrrrtk representative’s head turned slowly toward the entrance, the Mjrnhrm delegate’s wings were thrumming agitatedly… every corner of the chamber was a picture of shock and bewilderment.
“…They’re extinct, aren’t they?”
“Not quite, sir. Otherwise the council wouldn’t have reserved a spot for… them…”
There was commotion near the entrance. The doors were thrown open, scurrying staff got out of the way…
And a trio of creatures like leopard geckos with dreadlocked manes and large bat-like ears stepped forward into the chamber.
Sir Patrick had seen footage of the surviving OmoAru on their homeworld, the ones that still cared enough to actually grow a little food and eat every now and then. They were dopey, slow, blissful creatures, so high on the droud nanotech in their brains that just mustering the presence of mind to feed themselves came as an afterthought. They stumbled vaguely through existence like a commune of self-neglecting hippies, doing the absolute bare minimum to not die and then finding somewhere sunny to sit down and watch interesting patterns in the rubble of their disintegrating cities.
Not these three. The three who entered still had that slight curve to the mouth that looked like a perpetual smile to human eyes, but they considered the room carefully, taking in the view. One of them stared at Sir Patrick for a good long while. Another did the same to Father Sheeyo.
The one at the front twitched his tail back and forth a couple of times, and then strode over to his species’ long-neglected spot in the circle and, politely, indicated to the speaker that he wished to speak.
The speaker, an elderly Rrrtk, coughed a sotto voce utterance like somebody squeezing a bag of aquarium gravel, then leaned forward to his microphone.
“The Security Council recognizes the representative from the OmoAru Remnant,” he said. The translator gave him a cautious, formal inflection.
The newcomers bowed to him slightly, then took their moment in the spotlight. The leader simply surveyed the chamber a moment longer, looked at the deathworlders again for a moment, then turned to address the Corti delegate.
“I apologize for interrupting,” he said. The translator rendered him with a soft, youthful, cultured voice, but Sir Patrick could hear the liquid syllables of his real language behind it, rippling up and down in the way his throat inflated slightly. “And we apologize for our long absence. We had expected it to be longer still… But it seems that the galaxy has changed.”
He turned to look at Sir Patrick again. Sir Patrick had once heard the OmoAru described as jovial, from the Corti perspective. Maybe they were. But there wasn’t a whole lot of joking in those wide, intense eyes. Just keen interest in the force that had resurrected them, fuelled by a bottomless ambition and fury.
He gave the alien a shallow nod of his head. It was returned, and the OmoAru delegate turned his gaze away, returning it to the chair and the council. But there was no doubt who he was really talking to.
“We are here,” he said, “To take our place once again.”
++END CHAPTER 66++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 67: “Resurgence”