Chapter 67: Resurgence
Date Point: 17y6m AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Mr. Ian Wilde
Medical retirement wasn’t so bad, in the end.
Well…more accurately, it hadn’t been the horror story Wilde—Ian again, now—had heard from old friends. His particular injury didn’t have a treatment, didn’t need much in ongoing care, so really…it was just outprocessing. Debriefing. Turning in his security badge, making sure his benefits were arranged. He’d still have access to the on-base commissary (including with the Americans these days, which was nice) and he’d have free medical care for life. He had a pension, access to the rec facilities, to the gym, all that.
But he was off-mission, now. A wall of operational security was suddenly between him and his friends, even Ferd, who was finding the new reality every bit as awkward as Ian was. They still lived together, because Ferd insisted until Ian could “make mun-ee again.” But even with that honestly touching bit of friendship, there were hard limits to what they could talk about.
Regaari seemed much more comfortable with the whole thing. Though to be honest, that might have had something to do with the sheer delight he seemed to be experiencing when they sparred. Ostensibly it was to help Wilde adapt to his new cycloptic life, but he couldn’t escape the impression that Regaari really, really enjoyed being the unambiguously superior combatant between them by literally every measure.
He wasn’t a dick about it, though. And Wilde was learning a lot.
“Ow.” Ian chuckle-groaned from his comfy spot on the floor. “Did you really need to throw me that hard?”
“Yes!” Regaari chittered, and reached down with his living paw. “You did better, though! Break?”
Wilde grunted quietly and took the offered paw. A strong grip hauled him lightly to his feet. No. It was more of an effortless yank than anything, and Ian wasn’t exactly a lightweight. Years of rucking and the practical needs of soldiering had given him a good, solid working-man’s build. Not Regaari. Most Gaoians were nimble, slinky creatures, and so was he, but there was a brick-wall feeling of solidity in the man that one rarely felt in anyone; he was built like the elite warrior he truly was under all that long, silky fur. “Man, I know you’re HEAT and all…”
Regaari pant-grinned charmingly. “It makes a lot of difference! So does having two working eyes. You’re getting better but you still aren’t defending your left as much as you need.”
Wilde shook himself out and bounced on his feet. “Yeah. I don’t want to give it away, either.”
“No. We’ll get to that eventually, but we need to re-train you to fight, first.”
Ian grumbled to himself. “Thought I knew how to do this…”
“You did. You weren’t in the SOR for nothing, after all.”
“Still, I’m nought for ten right now…”
Regaari sighed. “Wilde—Ian. Do not judge yourself harshly, and do not compare yourself unfairly to me. You are a reasonably typical young human male—no offense intended—who has a decidedly non-typical will. You made yourself into an elite special operator from humble beginnings. There was some luck, sure—”
“No kidding. I was on a spaceship when it blew up. You don’t walk away from that without a healthy dose of good luck on your side.”
“—And then you met and impressed the Great Father, an opportunity you maximized. Very few given such a chance do so well as you.”
That did cheer him up a bit. Still. “Maybe that’s true, but I can’t help but notice how much I’ve been on the floor this last hour or so, or all the little scratches you’ve given me…”
“Yes, because I am one of the very best my species can offer. Fourth degree, exceptional breeding, the finest training and education, team leader on the HEAT. My advice? Rather than focusing on what I can do, consider that you can stand against me at all, and do so proudly.”
“…You’re pulling your punches,” Ian realized, belatedly.
Regaari didn’t deny it. “I have not restrained my speed or skill.”
“So…you’re pulling your punches.”
Regaari chitter-sighed. “Ian…friend. This is practice, not a beatdown. I am better trained, more experienced, much faster, much stronger, and I have claws. What would you hope to learn from an unrestrained bout?”
Regaari just duck-shrugged, and resumed his position on the mat. “If you say so…”
“…Look, mate. You’re one of the best, yeah?”
“Without ego, yes.”
“You didn’t get that way without taking a few knocks, from what you’ve told me.” Ian put his guard up. “And besides…How often does a chap like me get the chance to test himself against that? So yeah. I do say so.”
Regaari paused and tilted his head, considering Ian.
There was a blur.
There was pain.
Ian had trouble breathing.
…The ironwork in the ceiling really needed a good dusting. Weird detail to notice, but the brain did funny things after… whatever had just happened. It felt like a lorry had just run him over.
Regaari straddled Ian’s hips and effortlessly bore down on him with an absolutely crushing leg-lock. He was inescapably pinned in place, with Regaari’s paws painfully smashing Ian’s hands into the mat just above his head. It was a classic pin, one a man couldn’t achieve without a huge strength advantage, and it was one Ian had absolutely no hope of escaping. Ian couldn’t even wiggle, he was pinned so fiercely. Trapped like that, with the hard lines of Regaari’s intimidating HEAT physique looming above him…
Between the two of them, it wasn’t even close to a contest. Ian had a bad habit of picking fights way beyond his reach.
“I win,” Regaari said, matter-of-factly. “Now, let’s go over what happened.” He released Ian’s hands and sat back on his haunches…but he didn’t get up just yet. Ian’s legs were starting to tingle a bit from the crushing force, but he only barely noticed; he was still desperately trying to catch his breath.
It took him three attempts and a sound like a cat hawking up a furball in reverse before he could finally breathe enough to croak out a reply. “…Y’… ‘s’good…”
Regaari again tilted his head, detangled himself and stood tall on his hind legs. The sudden release was so profoundly relieving, Ian gasped out loud. From his perspective on the floor, Regaari loomed muscular, straight-backed and ever larger, and his expression wasn’t playful anymore.
Ian hadn’t quite appreciated just what being HEAT could actually mean, but he was learning now, good and goddamned hard.
“Get up.” Regaari made no move to help.
Well, hauling himself to his feet after being beaten half-senseless and winded was nothing new to Ian. He grit his teeth, rolled over, and achieved verticality with an appropriate minimum of complaint.
Regaari nodded, stern-faced and stoic. “Good. I’ve always admired that about your people. How are your ribs?”
A quick stretch revealed they were intact, but extra unhappy with him. “…Functional.”
“The rest? Hips, hands?”
Ian swiveled a bit to find out. Things were sore but nothing too bad. His hips were complaining and his hands felt like they’d been smashed in a vice, but everything seemed to be working…
So. Regaari gave him pain, but no injury. That obviously meant he was still holding himself back, if he was able to be so precise with his attack. But this time…Ian wasn’t going to push the issue. He’d wanted to be treated with respect, not kid gloves, and he was getting that now.
He’d probably have complaints tomorrow. Whatever. “Nothing’s broken, but you know that.”
“Yes. That’s good, most people would have suffered an injury from that. I was right about you.”
Ian ignored that and pressed on. “What did you do? I mean, in the takedown, specifically.”
“Exploited our centers of gravity. It’s easier to show than explain.” Regaari assumed a grappling stance. “When you’re ready. I’ll go a little slower this time.”
He did. Ian again found himself admiring the dust in the ceiling while Regaari again sat astride his hips, again crushing him painfully to the mat under some of that immovable weight of his and holding himself up just enough to spare Ian a dislocated hip.
That was good. Regaari knew the difference between properly teaching his student and breaking him. Pain was an excellent teacher, and Regaari wasn’t sparing Ian the lesson.
And because of that, he now had a better idea of what Regaari had done, and a better understanding of the mechanics behind that blindingly fast take-down. Four legs, it turned out, meant a much lower center of gravity and the option to pop up right below his guard. And a Gaoian could pounce like a lightning bolt.
Again, Regaari rose to his feet, once he’d made his point. Again, no offer of help.
“Get up, Ian.”
He did. It was harder this time…but he did.
Regaari again duck-nodded in approval. “Very good. Now I’ll show you how to counter that.”
And…so it went. Regaari was deadly serious, relentless, and utterly, positively remorseless. In a short half-hour or so, Ian felt like every single inch of him had been worked over with a sledge, inside and out. Regaari ran circles around him as if he was as light as a feather and nimble as a hawk…and hit like a goddamned train when he struck. Ian’s body was a symphony of pain.
But he got up, every time.
And trudged up the stairs, and walked out of the gym under his own power. Eventually.
The instant they crossed the gym’s threshold, Regaari’s demeanor switched into something much more…well, what Ian associated with the Gao. Happy, energetic. Enthusiasm verging on the canine, but…not quite. He pressed a bottle of something violently citrus-flavored into Ian’s hands, and his sheer bouncy energy just…drained any resentment right out of the moment.
Not that Ian really had any, but a man never liked getting his arse kicked…especially so easily. Still, Regaari’s honest pride in Ian didn’t even give him the opportunity to brood. Bastard.
“Well, that was a success!” Regaari bounced upright and spun around to walk back-pedal in front of Ian, pant-grinning merrily.
Ian coughed ruefully. “You enjoyed every second of that, didn’t you?”
“Yes! I liked finding out who you really are! And you did not disappoint!” Regaari chittered. “Nothing shows you a man’s character better than how he faces certain defeat. Or pain, or suffering…any of that.”
“And if kicking me silly happens to be a little… I dunno… fun?”
“What a terrible burden I must bear.” Regaari chittered again. “Food?! Have you ever had salted Mufu?”
“…No? What’s that?”
“You’ll like it, c’mon! My treat.”
It was honestly hard to feel sorry for himself in the face of Regaari’s sudden aggressive happiness, which was not at all his normal state; usually, he was a very serious and sober man.
Now? It was like he’d just made himself a new, good friend.
Hell. Maybe he had.
They ate at the Whitecrest offices in the alien quarter, along with a number of Regaari’s peers that Ian had seen about town, but never met. The food was in fact delicious. Ian studiously avoided learning the origins of some of it—he knew enough about Gaoian eating habits to be wary—but it was crispy and savory and heavy on the umami… everything that was best in Gaoian cuisine, in fact.
Regaari was keen to brag Ian up to his fellows, too. “You should hear how he lost his eye!”
A dozen intimidating killers all perked their ears up and edged just a bit closer around the small table, crowding in to hear the story.
“Well…so, we were, uh, doing this mission—”
“They know who you are and what you were doing.”
“—Right. So we had this fuck-off huge bomb we had to deliver…”
…And so on. There was a healthy blend of sympathy and admiration from the gathered Whitecrests, and after the story they… melted away. Went back to whatever their individual responsibilities were.
Regaari burped happily and scratched his belly. “One of the rare treats that ‘Horse doesn’t mind,” he confided. “Though truth be told, the secret to handling him is to fit your crime to your assigned macros, and avoid processed food. He’ll just grumble darkly and let you do it.”
“So… what’s all this been in aid of, Regaari? Not that I don’t appreciate being slapped around and then given dinner, but—”
“Some people pay good money for that kind of treatment.”
Ian snorted. “Usually the other way ‘round, mate.”
“You don’t watch enough daytime Gaoian drama, then. Anyway… to the point.” Regaari sipped a Gaoian brand of soda, then sat a little straighter and got a little more serious. “You don’t want to be out of the mission, and the Clan, frankly, doesn’t want you to be either. More than a few assorted agencies, units and suchlike will have their eye on you right now… we thought it prudent to pounce while the others were still giving you a discreet interval, yijao?”
“Why would anyone want me now? I’m missing an eye.”
“Nothing wrong with your brain. Or the rest of your body. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with your drive, endurance and grit. In the long list of career-ending injuries a man might suffer, yours isn’t so terrible, with the right kind of work.” Regaari combed his whiskers with a claw, grooming the remnants of his food out of his fur. “I take it you’ve been following politics among the Allied governments?”
“What do you make of President Chambliss?”
Ian picked his words with care, feeling like he was being tested again. “…Well, he’s a yank. None of their Presidents make much sense.”
“None of them?”
“They’re all a bit daft, yeah. Not always about the same things, but it seems to me like anyone who wants to sit in that office is a bit off no matter who they are…”
“Do you feel the same way about Prime Ministers?”
“Have you looked at the list of recent incumbents? They’re either a parade of posh twits, or as dull as a margarine sandwich.”
Regaari shuddered a bit at the image. “Now there’s a horrifying concept. But my takeaway is that you aren’t particularly impressed by Allied civilian leadership. Fair?”
“I mean…let’s just say a bloke like me doesn’t much understand their purpose. Sartori I guess was keen on winning this war, and Davies at least got out of the way…”
“And the current President?”
“I don’t know. Lots of folk think he’s a peacenik. I don’t know if that’s true or not.”
“I suspect he’s more realpolitik than most are willing to believe. Which brings us, at last, to the point. How would you like to serve a cause that has clarity of purpose?”
“Oh? And I suppose you might be just the fella to offer that, yeah?”
“Me, personally? No. I speak for my Clan. Our mission is to Light the Darkness. We go where others cannot, do the things they have not the fortitude or the strength of will to do. Our purpose is wedded to our Father-Clan’s—we exist to preserve the Gao.”
“And, no offense, but why would I sign on to that? I’m not a Gaoian.”
“No. But Mother Shoo is.” Regaari noted Ian’s skeptical eyebrow, and explained. “She is a Human, and we have accepted her as one of our own. Our definition of what it is to be Gao is…broader than you might be accustomed to believe. Our peoples are bound together.”
“Won’t argue that. God knows, Tooko kept us alive through some hairy shit.”
“And my people exist today because you, and many others, fought back the darkness on our world when we could not. That is an eternal debt, Ian. We can only pay interest on that debt with love.”
“So where do I fit in?”
“I don’t know yet. But you’re much too good a man, and too valuable an asset, to be allowed to just vanish. How well do you think you would cope with going back to Sheffield with your pension and your medical fees and all the rest, and… nothing else?”
“I think I’d off myself sooner rather than later,” Ian said honestly.
“And here? I understand you’ll be working for Adam and Christian…”
“…I have friends here. It’s not so bad.”
“No. But I want to invest in you, Ian. You have so much potential in you, I can smell it. We all can. So even if I don’t know where, exactly, you fit in yet…”
“I’m still a Brit, Regaari. I swore an oath to His Majesty. I take that damn seriously.”
“I promise you right now, we will never put you in a position where you must choose your loyalties. That’s not a great way to build an alliance, after all.”
“…I’ll need to think about it.”
“Right answer.” Regaari pant-grinned and pricked his ears up. “This is serious business, after all. I just want you to know… we’re here as an option. And we’re probably more immediately tied up in the Mission than anybody else who may approach you over the coming weeks.”
“You think there’ll be many?”
“Ian… I have absolutely no doubt that they’ll all try.”
“…Hmm.” Ian drank his own soda. It had a pleasantly bitter flavor, rather like a gin and tonic. “Well… That’s… daunting.”
“Nah. You’ll do fine! Well…Hoeff’s offer I’m sure will be worrisome…”
Regaari chittered, “You’ll see. I won’t spoil the surprise.” He glanced up at a clock on the wall, and seemed satisfied. “I’ll let you think. And let the others have their turn. But… thank you for proving me so right. You’ve already done me a favor. I’ll be keen to pay it back, one day.”
A few farewells later, and Ian was back out on the streets, and feeling a good deal better about things. His alien quarter pass—a necessary safety precaution to protect those inhabitants who couldn’t spend too much time around humans—still had a couple of hours left on it, and he’d never actually visited the Quarter before. He decided to take in the sights.
Though, in truth, he later found he couldn’t remember them. He just… walked. And thought.
And wondered who would be next.
Date Point: 17y6m AV Dataspace adjacent to Hunter territory
It took nearly a million attempts for ++0004++ to find a path through damaged dataspace to the particular subspace that she wanted.
So much was in ruins now. It wasn’t just losing a second relay that had been so painful: it was which relay they’d lost. The Deathworlders couldn’t possibly have chosen a more devastating target. And despite the Hierarchy’s best efforts to protect it…
Nobody had an explanation for how exothermic organisms made of smelly, inefficient meat could slip so silently past the drone patrols and sensors, deploy their weapon, and escape almost undetected. The Agent responsible had been decompiled and thoroughly examined, with no error in judgement or action detected. He’d done everything right, as far as the single-digits could tell…
And yet, Dataspace was now nearly cleaved in half. Only a few tenuous strands bridged the yawning wound between subspaces, each stretched to bandwidth capacity just from the highly restricted official traffic. Whole swathes of the Hegemony were starving for Substrate now, not for lack of it, but for lack of the ability to properly supply it to those who needed it.
There wasn’t even the capacity to compile ++0001++ for a top-tier decision. Countless igraen dataforms were about to be deleted for the greater good, and the decision wasn’t even legitimized by Consensus.
The Hierarchy, in short, had gone abruptly from worry to desperation.
There was a potential ally, in the Hunters. Inscrutable though the Discarded might be at times, even they would surely be hurting for the loss of a second core world. The loss of the Builder Hive had wounded them, but losing their slave species’ homeworld? Starving for good raid and plunder?
Perhaps they were desperate too.
Perhaps the time had come for the two species that had once, long ago, been mind and body of the same species, to work together again.
If not, 0004 was on a wasted errand, likely to result in her destruction. And shortly after her, the Hegemony.
Still, she hesitated at the edge of a prickly patch of automated security that delineated the Hunters’ territory within dataspace. They alone of all the matterspace life forms really understood dataspace, and claimed part of it for their own. The others either drifted unprotected in it like plankton in the ocean, or else never engaged with it all.
This was as close as she could get undetected. It was as close as she could be, hail them, and escape hostile action.
She took a little while to bolster her resolve, then initiated contact. Countless hostile security measures instantly focused on her, each one bristling with disruptive potential. But they did not, for the moment, activate.
She felt the need to communicate into the ensuing tense silence.
“The Deathworlders are winning. We intend to survive. We are sure you do as well. It is time to attack, together. We have a plan, if you will hear it.”
No reply followed for an extended period of time. Minutes, in matterspace; subjectively far longer in dataspace.
When the reply did come, it came in the form of the security measures… turning away. Still active and watchful, but no longer threatening imminent violence. The gate was opened, but the guard watched with a finger on the trigger.
0004 sent a mind-state archive back to central to record this moment, then took the plunge. She ventured inwards, and the walls closed behind her, sealing her within the Hunter systems.
Date Point: 17y6m AV
Colony of Eyes-Turned-Upwards, Planet Hope
Ukusevi, Archivist and Keeper of the Long Chant
Uku had a favorite spot for writing in her journal. It was in the shade of a silver-barked tree, a swaying, delicate thing as thick around as her chest, with golden-green leaves vaguely the shape of a hand. She could sit under it for hours and just breathe with the soft susurrus of the wind slipping through the branches.
Some kind of small insectoid creature lived in the upper branches, nibbling on the leaves and singing a mindless chirping song to each other. Whatever they were conveying by it, to Ukusevi it was the sound of peace. The soundtrack to her quiet refuge under the open sky, where the sun dappled the pages in front of her, the breeze cooled the aromatic infusion she’d taken to brewing from a local plant, and the sound of her pen scratching on good, human-made paper filled her head with pleasure.
She’d never been happier.
There were worries, of course. Lots of hard work, lots of wounded, grieving or traumatized people adjusting with difficulty to the idea of a life free from the Punishment. But as far as Ukusevi was concerned, she sometimes needed to prick herself with her pen-knife to make sure she hadn’t died and gone to her lasting reward.
Today, she was updating her journal as she waited for a visitor. Julian had promised to bring Professor Hurt back to visit them again, and so far he’d never failed to keep a promise. She was looking forward to it. Hurt had been one of the first genuinely warm people she’d met of any species, and though she respected his commitment to the Ten’Gewek… Uku found she wanted to see him again.
As it was, they arrived just as she looked up from the page to consider her next paragraph, and she was looking right across the tent village toward the arrival platform when they came. The array’s powerful day ‘thump’ resonated through the ground, the briefest flash of black-beyond-black, and there they were.
The two men were very different creatures. One was a human Librarian, and somehow had all the mannerisms one might expect of such. In comparison to the brute next to him he was thin, with intense, curious eyes, a child-like delight in the world around him…
Julian was more like a boulder made of meat and bone. Big and friendly though he was, there was a certain…predatory air about him that every aspect of his being seemed to amplify. The ready and wary way he stood, the quick, precise way he moved, how those huge, sinewy muscles of his twitched under his bare skin. The intense way he looked at everything… It was as though he assessed everything around him for possible threats, but with the confidence and certainty that he could handle any such threats if they should appear.
His hair was shorter. Presumably one of the partners he spoke so fondly of had persuaded him to trim it, though Ukusevi decided she rather preferred the long, wild shag, if she was honest with herself.
She smiled, waved to them both, and briefly finished her journal entry as they made their way across the camp. She was able to close the book and tuck it away in her satchel just as they reached her, and stood to greet them both.
Julian came burdened under a heavy load of supplies, which he let fall to the ground with an intimidating thump.
“Jeez, professor! Don’t you ever pack light?”
“Oh please, you wear more than that to go jogging!” Hurt chuckled, and returned Ukusevi’s hug with a smile. “It’s good to see you again, Keeper. You’re looking well!”
On that point, Ukusevi felt a degree of modesty but also a degree of pride. Between the rich, delicious vegetables donated to their camp from both Gaoian and Human sources, the clean air, not needing to wrap herself in protective equipment and the simple wholesomeness of her new home, she was already looking quite changed. Her fur had a handsome glossy quality to it she’d never seen on anyone before.
“Thank you,” she gestured them to join her in her little spot. “Tea? Well… tea-ish. It’s an infusion, anyway.”
“I’m game,” Hurt said agreeably. Julian, who’d had it before, simply nodded and continued to unpack the bag.
She watched him assess her little living space as she brewed some more. It wasn’t much: a large, square tent from some Human supplier, with a cot made of stretched fabric on a metal frame, a lamp that she recharged by leaving out in the sun, and box after box of rescued books and documents from Old-Bent-Leg.
Not that her room back in the tunnels had been particularly luxurious, of course. She doubted she’d ever live in sumptuous luxury like some of the old fictional works had described. But there was the tantalizing prospect of a spacious home of her own with new, undamaged furniture in her future.
“It’s not much…” she ventured, after a few seconds.
“Actually, I was just thinking how familiar it is. Looks a lot like my tent on Akyawentuo did, before we got some more permanent buildings in place.”
“Including the mountain of books,” Julian commented.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” the professor chuckled.
“I just don’t know how you have time to read them all!”
“Unlike you, I’m not burdened with two partners, four children, a brutal training regimen, or the whims of the State Department.”
Ukusevi pricked her ears up at that description. “Two partners and four children? Is that normal for your people?”
“Far from it,” Hurt replied, while Julian looked down at his feet and scratched the back of his head. “What about you, Keeper? Any children?”
“Not yet,” Uku replied, without going into detail. Maybe now that they had this whole, new, glorious world to colonize and maybe now that her children could grow up healthy, safe and free… maybe once the colony was more than a makeshift camp in the woods, and maybe once she’d found the right man… There were always so many reasons not to have children in life. She wondered if she’d ever find the right time, or if there even was such a thing.
Hurt nodded, and once again she got the impression he knew the inside of her head quite well. It was a pity he was the wrong species, really…
“Anyway…” he changed the subject. “Looks like the Array’s clear and charged again, so we should be getting our second shipment any second—”
Julian chuckled at the fortunate timing, and ambled back toward the array. Uku and Hurt followed. The second arrival of the day was one everyone had been anticipating. It had been loaded to the safe limits of the cage and included two passengers. One a tall, willowy Gaoian Ukusevi hadn’t yet met in person, and the other…
Somehow, she knew it wasn’t going to hurt her. But she had no idea why she knew that. It was a four-legged creature of some kind, with teeth to make a Gaoian blush and a glossy coat almost as black as the Array. It had eyes like embers in a fire and possessed an enormous, obscenely well-muscled body that simply radiated danger…. At least, up front. The rear end was enthusiastically mobile in a way that radiated Friendship. As did the lolling, happy tongue.
Uku had never imagined one animal could simultaneously encapsulate fanged threat and simple dopey joy without any apparent conflict.
It was burdened under a weight of satchels, and pulled a heavy-seeming cart full of parts and tools attached to a harness. Clearly it was a beast of burden, but it seemed happy in its lot, especially as it galumphed off the pad and over toward…well, where they were likely going to assemble their first permanent structure.
She had no idea how it knew where to go.
Her presumptions about its motives turned out to be a little wide of the mark, in fact: it was going to Say Hello To A Friend. Julian grinned and dropped to his knees to shower the animal in boisterous, rough affection, and released it from its burdens. Freed, it bounded around him uttering a thunderous noise and wiggling its backside into a blur.
Hurt chuckled, and when Uku glanced at him she found he was studying her reaction. “That’s a dog,” he explained.
“Yup. Their relationship with our species goes so far back we’re the next best thing to symbiotic. Not sapient, but definitely sentient, and pretty darn clever too… that one’s name is Doofus.”
Uku tilted her head as the translator fished out an approximation for the name. “…You just said he’s clever, but his name is a synonym for stupidity?”
“It’s affectionate. He probably doesn’t know what it means, beyond that it’s his name.” Hurt chuckled. “Dogs get along pretty well with Gao, too, for different reasons. Want to meet him?”
Uku considered the capering beast for a moment, then nodded. Fangs and that sonic weapon of a voice notwithstanding, it was clear that Doofus was, first and foremost, everybody’s friend. She nodded. “O-okay.”
“Doofus! Come, boy!”
The dog turned his head, saw Hurt slapping his legs, and charged over at a terrifying clip—
He—and there was no way to miss the evidence—did attempt to slow down, but the slip-scrabble of his huge paws in the dust wasn’t enough to avoid a big crash right into Hurt’s chest, knocking them both over into a tangle of limbs, yelps, and wildly applied tongue all over Hurt’s face.
Uku winced, convinced she’d just seen Hurt break his spine or something, but the human bore the crashing impact with a laugh and a smile. “Ow! Hah!” he wrestled the slobbering creature aside and rolled with him to pour on more of that same vigorously physical affection. “…Doofus here I think forgets his own size sometimes. He’s bigger than I am. A lot bigger! Aren’t you, you big drool monster?! Yes you are!”
He massaged Doofus’ ears, then indicated Uku with just a glance and lift of his head that the dog clearly understood. Somehow, though, Doofus sensed immediately that he needed to be gentle with her. Rather than wrestle with her like he did to the two humans, he sat on his haunches and thumped his tail in the dirt, raising a small cloud.
“Let him get a good sniff of you, they’re very scent-focused creatures,” Hurt advised. Uku nodded, and gingerly offered an outstretched hand. Doofus gave it a dutiful snuff-snuff, then scooted forward a bit so that Uku’s hand was resting on top of his head.
“He’s inviting you to play with his ears. Give them a good scritch.”
Massaging his ears turned out to be… satisfying.
The Gaoian strolled up looking pleased with himself. “One more jump to come!” he declared. “Doofus, you’ve made a new friend I see!”
The dog’s rear end settled on the grass with a thump and he gave the newcomer a look of dazed happiness. Uku dusted her hands clean and extended one to greet him. “Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper.”
“Ah!” The Gaoian shook her hand. “Gyotin, Champion of Clan Starmind. Doofus here is…a companion, let’s say. And an excellent drafter. He’s been an enormous help in our gardens, haven’t you, Doofus?”
The big dog agreed with an enthusiastic “woof!”
“You are the religious expert I was told to expect?”
“‘Expert’ might be an exaggeration, but yes. However…maybe we worry about that for later. I’ve got a crew of Clan-Brothers, and some Clanless, and apparently five Ten’Gewek coming through to help us assemble your first permanent structure. What do you think, Julian?”
The big human grinned happily. “I think we get ‘em under roof tonight.”
“Is that what you brought?” Ukusevi considered the array of long boxes and packs of things, many wrapped in transparent film.
“Yes, a gift from my Clan to your cause. It is a pre-fabricated shelter made by a human company in Franklin. Just a big box with a roof and some doors. Nothing fancy.”
“So, basically a barn.”
Julian nodded. “Yup. You don’t even need a concrete floor. And it should only take a few hours. Speaking of…” He looked back at the array and something about his sudden bouncy energy told Uku he was itching to set in to some work. “We gotta get that pad clear, prof.”
“You mean you,” the Professor said, a bit defensively.
“Nah, I meant you too. It’ll count as your PT for today! And it gives Uku an’ Gyotin a chance to get acquainted!”
“I already helped load it on the far side,” Gyotin said, using his claws to comb a patch of fur below his elbow.
Hurt sighed, shrugged, and didn’t offer more objection. Ukusevi was starting to figure out the dynamic between him and Julian, and she suspected that if he really decided to object and put his foot down, Julian wouldn’t have pushed the issue. But he did push just enough to get the professor to do what he knew he ought to do.
Clearly, they were old colleagues.
She watched the three of them with interest. Julian and Doofus assumed an easy work rhythm almost instantly, which they somehow achieved with, well, no language between them beyond gestures and encouragement. The big human pulled stuff off the pile and stacked it up on Doofus’s cart. The dog then hauled it to the professor, who heaved it all onto the ground, which sent Doofus galumphing back toward Julian…the two seemed to enjoy the hard work on some deep, primal level. Both were quite clearly creatures who reveled in their bodies. Professor Hurt, on the other hand…
Well. He gamely did his part. He was clearly a man of the mind, first and foremost.
Even still, the intelligence Doofus displayed…
“I thought they said the dog wasn’t sapient?”
“The Humans say, ‘there is nothing happier than a dog with a job.’ Being Helpful is what dogs do best.”
“What a fascinating species… Would you care for some tea?”
Gyotin chittered, loudly. “…Keeper, I think you and I are going to get along wonderfully!”
They retreated to Uku’s shelter, where she brewed up her infusion and sat to get to know her new acquaintance. Their conversation was long and rambling, and by mutual unspoken agreement they stayed away from the deep theological and spiritual questions for the time being. Today was a day for worldly matters, not contemplation of the Divine.
There would be time for that later. In the company of other Keepers, once the immediate concerns of shelter, food and resources were in hand.
Despite its light content, the conversation was so engaging that Uku completely lost track of the world beyond her lean-to and drink until there was a commotion outside, with Doofus at the center of it. Uku peeked out of her shelter to find the job was done, and he and the big human were wrestling around on the ground, while the professor made for the array. If Hurt seemed a bit stiff-backed from the work, it didn’t seem to slow him down much.
“Julian! The monkey-fun will be here in a minute! I need you for containment!”
Uku turned to Gyotin. “…Containment?”
“You’ve never seen Vemik in full Vemik-mode, I take it.”
“He’s learned caution around strange ‘Sky-People’ over time. With Julian and the professor, though…”
The array thumped for the third time that afternoon, and what could only be a Vemik-shaped missile launched itself at Julian, despite the frankly unbelievable distance still between them. The two collided with a loud ‘thwack!’ and tumbled down the hill and out of view, wrestling with a ferocity that Uku would have associated with mortal enemies.
“Oh, no,” Gyotin chittered. “For those two, that’s just a particularly fond hello!”
“…Are Sky-People like this all the time?”
“Not usually. Most of us are happy to stay on our home planet and get on with our lives, and those lives are often rather quiet, Humans included. I daresay Julian’s would have been quiet and unsung, or at least not quite so intense as it is now, had he not…well, that’s a story he should tell you himself. But Ten’Gewek are innately playful, innately boisterous, and extremely physical beings. Match them with similarly impressive Humans or Gaoians, and…”
The rest of the platform reacted as if that was perfectly normal behaviour for the two deadly, hulking paragons of their kind. Without any further drama, they gingerly de-tangled themselves from the array and each other. There were a lot of people, four of which were Ten’Gewek that Uku hadn’t met before, the rest were Gaoians like Gyotin. They all varied considerably in height and breadth, but all had a sort of serene, slightly bemused look to them.
“So… where do you want it?” Gyotin asked. He started heading down the hill toward the by-now complete pile of equipment. “We should probably go insert your voice into the mix before they get swept away in their enthusiasm for Doing Good and forget to actually include you.”
“To be perfectly honest, this is all quite overwhelming…” Uku confessed. “If you had told me half a year ago that we’d be free of the Punishment, and that I would have a small army of hulking meat-eating aliens practically falling over each other to help build a barn for me on an idyllic world far across the galaxy, I…” she shook her head.
“Life changes quickly, when it changes.”
Julian and Vemik intercepted professor Hurt on their way over. She didn’t hear their words, but Vemik suddenly scooped Hurt up in a big, painful looking hug…
He seemed to walk better, after that.
The three of them made a line toward her and Gyotin. Clearly, they were somehow the Ones In Charge. “We gonna build you a big nice barn!!” Vemik enthused, visibly restraining himself from some frenetic display of enthusiasm. He and Doofus had much in common, it seemed.
Gyotin, Almighty bless him, interceded. “Our friend here was just considering the magnitude of what we are doing here. I imagine she has concerns about the price someone is paying…”
Julian shrugged and smiled a big, handsome-looking smile. “Don’t worry about it! Believe it or not, the barn is super cheap, as these things go. The Ten’Gewek here were bored anyway, and Vemik is my good buddy, and he’s fascinated by anything mechanical. Aren’t you?”
“I learn very much! Jooyun and friends teach me machines, math, writing, burg…”
Julian chuckled with what seemed like a fond expression. “Burgers aren’t a life skill, Vemik.”
Vemik trilled, “Yes they are!”
“…The point is, the price tag’s covered and you don’t owe a thing.”
“And, later? It will take much more than a barn and some sacks of food…”
“We have options. I seem to be specializing in first contact developments lately, I guess.”
“More, ah, fundraising?” Hurt seemed slightly bemused by something.
Julian raised one of those thick arms of his and scratched at the back of his head. That seemed to be his go-to body language for embarrassment. “Well, uh…”
Vemik suddenly had a mischievous expression, but Julian silenced him instantly with a fierce Look. “No, Vemik. I will beat the ever-lovin’ fuck outta you.”
…Fascinating turn of phrase, really.
“Oh-kay.” Vemik said it with the most perfunctory regret, but it was short-lived. The moment, whatever it had been, passed with a tangential pounce onto something else. “Ooh, barn!”
Julian nodded, satisfied. “Right, yeah. Where d’you want it?”
In the end, it went up with incredible speed. Most of the next few hours consisted of unpacking the pieces, with her people fastening bits together to assemble the walls, Ferd, Vemik and Julian drilling the massive anchors into the ground, the Gaoians bolting long steel beams together, and the Ten’Gewek using their astounding ability to climb to put it all together.
By the time the sun was low on the horizon, the walls were on, and the roof was hauled into place by a trio of Ten’Gewek hanging onto the frame with their feet. By sunset, it was finished.
Ukusevi sampled her first “beer” shortly thereafter, which she sipped cautiously while all around her the crates and boxes full of food and books were moved into the new shelter and stored safely on pallets. The drink was crisp, bitter, and so cold that water condensed out of the air to bead on the bottle. A strange, alien taste and not entirely pleasant… but she enjoyed it nonetheless. She couldn’t remember ever exerting herself so hard in her life, and she knew her whole body would be complaining in the morning…
But for the moment, she could bask in the feeling of accomplishment, and enjoy the cool air, the cold drink, and the sense of moving forward. Her life had hitherto been one of waiting. Now… Well, now it felt like she had a hand in her destiny. There was much more work to do, but soon…
Soon, they would be ready to receive the first wave of emigrants.
Date Point: 17y6m AV
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth
Austin woke tired, without knowing why, and grumbled his way through his morning routine feeling like, in the words of his internal monologue, “shit warmed up.”
Most beings would want to rest and recuperate. But not Austin, oh no. Because of course he didn’t. That just made him more certain he had to attack the day harder. Drink coffee, run an extra mile that morning, cook a big breakfast to clear the cobwebs, and spend more effort lifting those ridiculous weights of his, all to chase a mild dopamine rush.
It was infuriating. Six could feel his host’s fatigue, the aching muscles, the almost scratchy feeling behind his eyes, the way the whole world felt heavier. He’d have much preferred it if Austin had taken just the one day off… but at least last night had been productive.
Six seldom had opportunity for productivity. Most nights, Austin slept with his partner. In the rare evenings where they weren’t violently mating until dawn, they simply laid in bed, close to each other in such a way that it would be impossible to pilot Austin up and on to more immediately useful activities without alerting her. Finally, though, an opportunity had presented itself. Lauren had gone to visit her brother in another state, leaving Austin to sleep alone for a change. And so, in the night, Six had suppressed his host’s mind-state, taken over, and used the darkest hours of the night to call in his ship and work.
The Injunctor’s on-board assembly systems could make parts, up to a certain size. What they couldn’t do was assemble those parts. Nor could they load themselves with raw materials. They needed additional drones to do that, and the added risk of exposure was seldom worth the trouble. In that regard, a strong, fit, tireless specimen of a human body was useful indeed, but in others…
Austin had willpower. That made suppressing his mindstate more draining than it had any right to be. Six had no desire to damage Austin if it could be avoided, but keeping the man’s consciousness suppressed was like trying to hold an empty barrel underwater. He kept wanting to pop back up.
On the other hand, Austin provided ample Substrate, and Six found himself…rejuvenated by it. Even the drain of controlling his formidable personality wasn’t such a burden next to what Six was getting in return. After long, long years gleaning the dregs from galactic civilization, direct access to a Human was an intense experience. In Austin’s case…
Six was feeling a strong urge he’d never felt. Normally he had a sort of clinical concern for his hosts. Six never wished them harm in any sort of personal way, it was simply the hard, necessary business of galactic survival. With Austin, however, Six found himself…
Six was starting to care about Austin’s fate. That was a dangerous sign. It meant Austin’s personality was, ashamed as Six was to admit it, too strong to control. That left Six with three options: remain, and risk personality merger; leave, and risk discovery; or terminate Austin.
Six had never understood how agents in the past might have been tempted by the first option. He understood now. Through previous hosts, but now especially Austin, Six was learning something his kind had forgotten millions of years ago.
He was learning what it meant to live. The ecstasy of the flesh, what it meant to have meaning, even in the simple, unsung way of a farmer… Love…
The cost, of course, was his own cessation as an entity, and so that option was off the table. Option three…
Well. Six genuinely didn’t bear Austin any malice. He was one of the more quietly exceptional beings Six had ever met, and the idea of destroying him out of spite grated on Six’s sense of art.
That meant there was really only one thing to do. Six programmed the Injunctor to find and process another drone. This time, Six buried his hubris and opted for a more…modest…specimen in the selection criteria.
However, it would be some time before the Injunctor had an appropriate host processed and ready. So, in the meantime…
In the meantime, he was making something. Some of the raw materials were the next best thing to impossible to acquire on Earth, not for lack of access to the elements, but for lack of access to the proper manufacturing processes. In order to complete his project, he was spending a lot of time making the tools that built the machines that would create the components.
Fortunately, Austin’s body and brain were both well-conditioned to bringing together pieces of large but intricate machinery. He could almost be left on a kind of self-direction, once things were in place. Which was helpful, because it allowed Six to stay on top of the willpower problem.
A few weeks, maybe. He’d send the Injunctor to hide deep under the ocean where its newly assembled and calibrated factories could tick over and slowly turn out the next generation of necessary components, and then he’d repeat the process and, with a little luck, he’d soon have a means to extract himself from his predicament.
All Six had to do until then was survive Austin’s zeal for life.
Date Point: 17y6m5d AV
Starship Rich Plains, en route to Aru
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
In the month since their return to the galactic stage, the OmoAru had been frustratingly impenetrable. Their sole demand had been for the Rich Plains to visit their homeworld, for reasons they had so far declined to share with the council.
Considering how remote Aru was, and how sluggish the Rich Plains’ FTL engines were, the journey was going to take a while. There were no jump beacons at Aru. Or at least, none that the OmoAru cared to share use of.
It would have been faster to send a scout ship, drop a beacon and summon the vast diplomatic starship that way, but for their own reasons the OmoAru had vetoed that as well. The journey had to be made at warp or not at all, they claimed. That particular stipulation had been met with confusion and frustration around the council chamber, but from Sir Patrick’s perspective there was a glimmer of logic involved.
This wasn’t just a diplomatic visit; It was a pilgrimage. The Last, as they called themselves, wanted to make a point.
And they wanted to meet the new species who had flourished in their absence. Diplomatically, they were starting with their old friends who had known them at the height of their power, so the Corti and Guvnurag were first on the list, followed by those who’d only just been escaping their cradle worlds at the moment of the Aru Federation’s fall.
Sir Patrick was last on the list. The Ten’Gewek didn’t have a permanent representative—only Yan Given-Man and his Singer could represent them, and both had more solemn and important responsibilities at home—and the E-Skurel-Ir, or whatever new name their liberated diaspora chose for themselves, weren’t yet ready to send one.
The Rich Plains certainly wasn’t about to enter Hunter space, even liberated Hunter space, to go meet them.
Still, after waiting patiently while the Last worked their way steadily down the list, Sir Patrick’s turn to host the returning old ones had finally arrived. Several of his alien peers had been kind enough to send along their observations and advice. Daar had met them in person, then immediately come to give Sir Patrick his impression.
“Hardest talks I ever had,” he’d growled. “They just reek o’ nanotech. Can’t smell anythin’ else about ‘em. But more’n that…” the Great Father furrowed his heavy brow. “…Hard ‘ta say. They definitely were actin’ jus’ a bit weird ‘round me.”
“Weird by Gao standards, or weird by their standards?” Sir Patrick had asked.
“Weird by comparative analysis, if’n ‘ya want a fancy-tail word. Jus’ observin’ how they act ‘round erry’one else, includin’ other gao, an’ then how they were ‘round me. They were…curious. Yeah. But not in a friendly sorta way.”
That same curiosity seemed to dominate the room from the moment Sir Patrick finally got to meet with AtaUmiUi. For once, he was grateful for his own comparatively stunted sense of smell relative to a Gao, as while Ata had a certain vaguely synthetic quality to his scent, it was otherwise pleasant. He entered Sir Patrick’s meeting room with a silvery ball in his hand that caught the eye in odd ways. Sir Patrick found his attention drifting to it even when he’d rather watch his OmoAru counterpart’s face.
He resisted the urge with a stab of self-irritation, rose, and shook hands.
“Ambassador AtaUmiUi. It’s a pleasure to meet you in person at last.”
OmoAru had wide, friendly faces pulled into what looked like a permanent innocent smile by the simple fact of their bone structure. It lent Ata a jovial, warm air that Sir Patrick knew he was going to have to be wary of. It wouldn’t do to anthropomorphise his opposite number.
Ata’s English, however, was immaculate. And untranslated: he spoke it himself, rather than relying on the ship’s systems.
“And it is my pleasure to meet you, Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight,” he replied. His mode of speech was incongruously American, the kind of neutral, northern US accent heard in movies and TV.
“Just Sir Patrick will do. Or Ambassador,” Knight gestured to the couches, inviting his guest to sit.
“Thank you, yes. We’ve seen that your species have a… selective approach to formality. Some of the others insist on it.”
“I think once mutual respect has been established, it can be eased off a little, certainly,” Knight agreed.
Ata nodded. “Then I am merely Ata, now that we have established respect,” he said. He glanced down at the silvery ball in his hand, turned it over a couple of times—or at least, his fingers moved as though he turned it over, the sphere itself didn’t seem to move at all. There weren’t even any fingerprints or marks on it to give a sense of orientation. “So. You represent the infamous deathworld species who have so utterly reshaped galactic politics in just a few short years.”
“First contact reshaped our own politics too, quite dramatically,” Sir Patrick replied, evenly.
“Oh, please don’t misunderstand me. I approve!” Ata stopped fidgeting with the artefact and gave him an ears-pricked-up look with his tail ticking back and forth behind his shoulder. “I should think our mere presence illustrates our common enemy. And you did more to defeat them than we ever accomplished.”
“Not without effort, I understand. From what I gather, your people fought to the last.”
Ata sighed. “Fought as we could. The death strike came before we really even knew of the danger.” he glanced at the ball again. “…Even now, the Droud is itching away in the back of my mind, and it won’t stop until we leave the Hierarchy’s influence.”
“That must make it difficult to concentrate…”
“Impossible. The Huh helps, for brief interludes. I would advise you to studiously ignore it, if you can. I suspect its effects might be…debilitating.”
“…I might propose more extensive meetings in different space, then. We have…taken action against some of the enemy’s means of communication.”
A real smile spread across Ata’s face, proving just how false the impression given by his resting expression was. “So we do have you to thank for our presence here.”
“By we, I mean my people, and also our allies. The action undertaken involved both human and Ten’Gewek operators, with a Gaoian-made ship and weapon, and a Gaoian pilot.”
“Yes, of course. But the Great Father never mentioned it, and the Ten’Gewek are not here…. Do you mind if I stand and walk around? I have spent much of the last few days sitting.”
“Not at all.” Sir Patrick stood with him as Ata rose to his feet and patrolled slowly around the open patch of the room near the door. He seemed to relish in simply moving; Patrick could understand that well enough.
“We are, as we name ourselves, the Last. There is a somewhat larger party that remain in stasis, but there they shall remain, protected for now,” Ata explained. “We are the last-ditch effort to preserve something of our culture, the ones most sensitive to the Huh and least sensitive to the Droud.”
“I presume you have ambitions beyond mere preservation, however.”
Ata sighed, and lashed his tail irritably. “…It may be that even such a modest ambition is beyond us. We number a few thousand, and no more. ”
“That is not an insubstantial count. Ten’Gewek number only slightly more than twenty thousand themselves.”
“I’m happy for them. We number… rather fewer than that. We’re not sure we number enough, let’s say. The Corti may be able to help, but…” Ata paused and gesticulated in a complex way that Sir Patrick couldn’t quite interpret. “We’re much less than we were, Ambassador. We were very proud of ourselves. And now here we are. And we find the galaxy we used to dominate has new faces, and the dominant faces aren’t ours. We imagined that the Dominion would collapse without us, so I’m sure you can imagine our dismay to find that in fact… we never really mattered as much as we thought we did.”
Sir Patrick really had no idea how to respond to candor like that. He simply leaned gently against one of the couches and gave Ata a curious look. After a few seconds, the alien blinked and repeated the same gesture from before.
“…Forgive me. The Huh was never a perfect solution. And attempting to conduct diplomacy in an altered state of mind is hardly ideal.”
“…What does it do, exactly?” Sir Patrick asked. “We have one in storage at a research facility on Earth after some of our explorers visited your world, but all it does to humans is make us extremely aggressive.”
“Yes, that’s its core function,” Ata confirmed. “Aggression, drive, focus, conviction, willpower. Righteous zeal, even. All of the qualities necessary to bully through the Droud’s influence and still function. All of the things necessary to care when your brain is being flooded with bliss.”
“Why not get rid of the nanotech? We cured a Gaoian of it.”
“Yes, Daar mentioned him. As did Second Director Mefli. But if we can… I think we would prefer not to.”
Patrick could not hide his confusion. “Why?”
The very idea seemed to amuse Ata. “In light of you, and of your kind? And of what the Gao have become? And with another species, this Ten’Gewek, who are by all accounts formidable enough to challenge even your peoples, had they the development to exploit it? In a galaxy with such people…people who can produce the Great Father, this team of warriors who freed my world from the enemy’s influence…”
“But the proven dangers! The need for… that!” Sir Patrick indicated the Huh.
“Nothing worth having comes without expense, Ambassador. The nanotech we developed and bonded to ourselves was our people’s downfall… but now, in this new era your peoples have created, it may be our resurrection, and our only hope of competing.”
“I thought you might. The Domain’s ambassador was most confused. The very idea of wanting to be competitive with deathworlders seemed to baffle him… I gather one of your advisors is Rrrrtk?”
“Kirk, yes. He says he’s always been, ah, atypical of his kind. He prefers the quiet life, and our attempt to bring him back into politics… didn’t work so well.”
“He very much wants his people to be competitive with mine. You can imagine, therefore, how frustrating he would find the Domain ambassador’s attitude. I think he ran out of patience with his species rather a long time ago.”
Ata considered that with a tilt of his head and a tick of his tail. “…Sad,” he commented, though the faint ‘smile’ of course never left his face.
Ata nodded, and ceased his slow pacing around the room to turn directly to face Sir Patrick. “I think, Sir Patrick, that our relationship will be a fruitful one, but at this point I need to return to the safety of my ship. Focusing through the droud is… draining.”
Sir Patrick nodded. “Of course. Hopefully we’ll have a longer conversation once we enter clear space.”
“I would like that. Until then, thank you for your hospitality.”
The room… cleared a little, once AtaUmiUi was gone. That same nasal presence that had so confounded Daar clearly had an effect on humans too, even if Sir Patrick hadn’t been immediately aware of any actual smell. The actual effect it had, now that he thought about it…
It had been an affable, open, even candid conversation on the surface. But there was a lingering sense of offness that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Sir Patrick didn’t want to be prejudiced, but he couldn’t shake the feeling there was a lot more going on behind Ata’s fixed little smile that hadn’t been hinted at. And the choice of language had been interesting.
He’d spoken of competing, yes… but also of how his people had used to ‘dominate’ galactic affairs. Just how much did the huh boost aggression and ambition? And how much did the OmoAru have naturally?
They were headed for interesting times, really. The Great Father was fast becoming the de-facto leader of the deathworlders, and Knight had rarely ever met anyone so intrinsically aggressive or competitive, other qualities notwithstanding. The OmoAru clearly had zero compunctions about extensive self-modification, so just how far would they be willing to go?
He mused on those questions for a good while before writing his initial impressions and his thoughts. And he did his best to be fair and fact-based…
But something in the back of his head was suddenly wary.
Date Point: 17y6m1w AV
Great Father’s private farm estate, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
The OmoAru were unsettling. For a few reasons. He couldn’t smell ‘em, true; it were kinda like stickin’ his muzzle into an ancient internal combustion tractor and huffin’ the fumes, and it was hard to notice anythin’ else when that oily, burnt smell was blowin’ his nose up. An’ that silvery ball they kept to hand at all times pulled on the eye like a fishing hook in the cornea.
Even so, Daar had noticed something. They were surprised by him. No. Fascinated. Now, Daar had a Keeda-sized ego, especially lately. He was the bestest at a whole buncha things and he knew it, and it was important to know that so he could work at keeping himself grounded. So, normally…he wouldn’t mind much. He enjoyed it. Balls, he liked showing off! Let people stare, all that.
The OmoAru weren’t staring. It was…different, somehow. And that just resurfaced all sortsa personal worries about…
Balls. Why him. Why was he?
He could point to decades of insanely hard work an’ hard practice, his perfect breeding, his ridiculous luck…just…so many things all at once, but even then, it wasn’t like a Great Father was some natural thing that the universe generated all by itself. He wasn’t inevitable. Balls, he was the total fuckin’ opposite o’ inevitable! He shouldn’t fuckin’ exist at all! And knowing just how extensively the Gao had been fucked with throughout history….
Lots of little doubts, concerns…all of it added up. And now, along came an ancient species, an’ rather’n look at him with fear or dismay or fascination, or even disgust…
He got the distinct impression they’d recognized him.
Well…He had some deep thinks ahead of him. But, he was still a Stoneback. Still the only sixth degree around. Still very, very much the most bestest hypermale of his kind and a Stud-Prime of his line. Still Daar. He weren’t gonna get no thinks done until he was good and gods-damned ready. He needed to live a bit, first.
So naturally, he went back to Gao and plowed his Naydi completely silly.
They had a big lunch, first. And did some gardening too. Enjoyin’ time with Naydi jus’ made everything better! And big ol’ ‘Back like Daar was good fer’ plowin’ all sortsa fields! But the bestest part was snugglin’ at the end of a long day’s work in the dirt an’ a long performance in bed. He loved everythin’ about it. Her scent, her fur, her warm body pressed tight against his. The affection. Knowin’ he’d pleased someone he loved. Watchin’ her bask.
And o’ course, part of the whole reason he loved her so much was ‘cuz they could talk after, too. Get taken seriously. Think together.
“Well…that was…passionate!” She chittered wearily, and winced a bit. “I’m gonna…” she made to detangle herself, and thought better of it. “Ow. Maybe…later.”
Daar chittered apologetically and snuffled the top of her headfur. “Mebbe I was a bit overexcited.”
Naydi chittered too, with a happy groan of love-pain. “Oh, I’ll recover eventually…Something bothering you?”
“Lil’ bit.” He half-rolled over and reached out to hook the water bottle over with his claw. She always wanted water afterwards. “Met the OmoAru today.”
“Wow!” She lit up like a cub hearing some exciting news. “What were they like?!”
“…Alien. There’s more.” Daar unloaded on her. Told her his observations, his worries about what they might mean. Some of his personal fears too, but she knew those well by then.
The enthusiasm and excitement drained out of her as he spoke, until by the time he ran out of things to say, her ears had drooped thoughtfully down to either side of her head.
“Well…that’s nothing we haven’t considered before.”
“So then, what’s your concern? I know you, Bumpkin. You’re not one to fret easily…”
“We’ve got a new and possibly very powerful player in the game, whose motives we don’t unnerstand, and I think mebbe they know something ‘bout me that none o’ us do.”
“…What do you mean, ‘And?’”
“Why does that last part matter? Daar.” She snuggled up to him, and nuzzled in his chest ruff exactly how he liked. “You’ve been poked and prodded and studied more than any of us. You are as gaoian as anyone. More, even. You embody us because you’re better than us, completely. And you are ours. You worked hard for it all, so why worry about the rest?”
“‘Cuz what if they experiment on our people too?”
She nipped at his nose. “Bumpkin. Ancient powers may or may not have done a great many things to our people. Maybe they had a special interest in you. Probably not I think, and you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Maybe we’ll never know. They’re certainly not in control of us any longer, so in the end it doesn’t matter, dear. So…use that to your advantage.”
“…Y’know, this is why ‘yer really the brains o’ the operation.”
“Oh, hush!” Naydi chittered in the most delightful way and nipped at his nose. “I was never much of a scholar, and I can’t claim I maxed out my standardized testing, like you…”
“Pff. It’s more’n tests make someone smart. An’ it don’t seem to fuckin’ matter much, huh? ‘Yer way more wiser I think.”
“Of course!” Naydi chittered. “But in all seriousness, use it. You are the Great Father. So, go be great, and don’t worry about what the old ones think. You are your own man. No other being in the galaxy is as free as you, or wields such power, and none but you have the character and will to do anything helpful with that kind of power in the first place. The whole of the Gao and all that we have are yours. We belong to you, belong willingly, and we believe in you. You know this, but if you need proof? Go on a walkabout with the Clanless. It’s been a while. And then, once you’ve got your confidence restored…”
Daar sighed happily at that. “I ain’t never lost my confidence, Naydi. You ain’t never let me.” He pulled her into a fierce snuggle, and wrapped his arms and legs around her as tightly as he safely could. She was so small and precious in his grasp…
“By the gods I love you.”
“Hmm…” Her tone changed then, in the electric way that no male could ever fail to notice. “Still.” She squirmed in his grasp and flipped over, now facing him face-to-face. “That’s one of our ancient duties, you know. Encouraging the males.”
Daar felt his tail wagging. “Oh? Is it, now?”
“Oh, absolutely,” she purred, then snuffled along the heavy cords of his neck. He grumbled happily and felt his entire body tensing up tight for her inspection. Nothin’ got the blood goin’ more than an approvin’ female, and there weren’t no woman he wanted approval from more than his Naydi. Her nose moved down to snuffle at his chest, which he reflexively puffed out as big and hard as he could manage…
Naydi was a wicked woman when she wanted to be. She put claws and teeth to good use, and before long Daar was helplessly under her spell…
She showed mercy, eventually. It took Daar a while to catch his breath.
Daar didn’t have his words just then. Naydi did, though.
“See? We know our power…”
Her soft ‘lil paws snaked achingly slow across his body, teasin’ him so wunnerfully all the way down until…
…Well, one of the great hazards of his life was being interrupted. Between how many things demanded his attention, and how little real opportunity he had to enjoy himself, it was bound to happen.
Didn’t make it any less unpleasant. And the chirping of his phone was the tone set for priority calls. With a resigned growl, he reached over and grabbed it. “Yeah?”
“My Father, one of the libraries on Mordor has been destroyed…”
Tunnels under the old prey-cities
Alpha of the Burning Talon Brood
The Alpha loved fire. Every time a gout of flame lit the tunnels, every time a skinny prey-body twisted and shrieked its last while engulfed in sticky fuel, every time a stack of papers and artefacts became a dry inferno, and every time its few bare patches of skin tightened and blistered as superheated air washed over it, it felt raptures.
There were other broods still foolishly clinging to the surface, and being slaughtered by hostile orbital strikes, but the Burning Talon had found new vistas of slaughter in the dark underground. What had once been the prey’s haven had become a most satisfying maze to stalk them in, trap them in, burn them in.
The hidden caches of paper were the finest prize. And the most truly delicious part was how some of the Prey actually led the Brood to such nests.
Some of them watched the burning with bright eyes gleaming in the fire-dark. A few were so broken, so fully accepting of their place in life, that they simply spread their arms and accepted the teeth in their throats.
Good prey. Obedient prey.
The Alpha didn’t care that the planet was lost. It didn’t care that the deathworlders would surely come to stop it. Let them. Let destruction come with them! The Brood would burn until there was nothing left!!
Let them come. Let them kill. It was all the same in the end. The fires consumed everything, and it was all so…
Let them come.
Date Point: 17y6m1w AV
The Clawhold, liberated world, former Hunter space
Ginn, aide to Grandfather Vark
“Some’a the most fucked-up shit I ever saw…”
Ginn gave Vark a curious look as the Grandfather sat back and considered the scout drone footage. It wasn’t safe to send actual personnel into those tunnels right now, the air down there was still hot and anaerobic, and much of the ashes were still smouldering in their tombs, ready and eager to burst into massive backdrafts when a hatch was opened.
The Clan Emberpelt specialists had been very explicit: The same pressure doors that had kept the breathable air in and the toxic air out meant that the burned E-Skurel-Ir tunnels were bombs now, just waiting for a little oxygen. Their most experienced high-risk firefighters were firmly of the opinion that the only safe way to handle the burned sections was to leave them sealed off and let them smother.
Assessing the damage was, therefore, left to drones, which could be snuck in through small, forcefield-sealed ingress points to survey the environments beyond.
It made for grim viewing. Stacks of books, art, furniture… relics of who the E-Skurel-Ir had once been. And more than a few E-Skurel-Ir corpses, rendered even more skinny and twisted by the flames. One or two Hunters, too, that had caught themselves in their own conflagrations.
“How’s that, sir?” Ginn asked.
Vark flicked an ear. “Just… figger I’m finally really gettin’ my head around what the word sacrilege means,” he rumbled. “You know, some’a the natives are actually collaboratin’ with the Hunters? Opening locked gates, mappin’ the tunnels for ‘em, welcoming ‘em in with open arms! An’ then the Hunters just burn ‘em all. The books, the history, the young… Beats the fuck outta me how these people ever took those nutless fucks ‘fer somethin’ divine.”
Ginn couldn’t have offered any insight on that point if he’d wanted to. He grimaced as the drone passed over the gut-turning tableau of one flame-ravaged corpse curled over and around two smaller ones in a moment of futile protection, and was quite glad when the communicator clipped to his ear alerted him to an incoming message.
“…The Great Father has been notified,” he relayed. “Wormhole call in ten minutes.”
Vark simply duck-nodded and stood. Ginn got the impression he was glad of the chance to look away and do something productive.
“I’ll get ready,” he growled, and ducked out of the room. Ginn nodded and re-read the message, then turned off the drone feed. Leave that mess to… whoever’s responsibility it was.
Within ten minutes, Vark and a few of the most senior unit commanders were gathered in the comms bunker. At the ten minute mark precisely, there was the faint fur-raising sensation of the wormhole router going active, drinking in power from its capacitor banks. It took a lot of energy to slam a couple hundred microwormholes open and shut a few million times a second. But the result was good enough for the Great Father to speak to them in real-time and high resolution.
He looked… displeased.
“I didn’t wanna hear that one o’ those libraries got burned to ash today,” he declared, without niceties. “Especially seein’ as I gave my word ‘ta Ukusevi they’d be protected.”
Vark’s head sunk a little. He was in charge. Which meant that the Great Father’s displeasure was, first and foremost, directed at him.
“…I ain’t got no excuse ‘fer that, My Father,” he said, keeping his back straight despite the implicit apology.
Daar tilted his head, expression unchanged. “How did this happen?”
“Collaboration. A few o’ the natives opened the doors an’ welcomed the Hunters in.”
The Great Father blinked, and his ears put on an extended, thoughtful dance, ending in him softening his displeasure a bit. “…Now that is a special kinda o’ fucked up right there,” he mused. “You caught the Brood responsible?”
“Not yet, My Father. Thanks to the collaborators, they know the tunnels better than we do.”
“That’s gotta change quick. I want those Libraries protected, Grandfather. What do you need to get it done?”
Vark considered it for a moment. “Fully occupying the libraries would do it. I’ll need a couple thousand more men ‘fer that. But as we move in, more’a the natives are gonna move out. It’ll turn the refugee situation from a local problem to a global one.”
“‘Yer eventually gonna need the whole gods-damned army, then.”
“…Might, yeah. Gonna need ‘ta clear out the tunnels too, find that Brood and eliminate ‘em. Then all the other broods, ‘cuz now it’s worked once they’ll all know it so they’ll all do it… Close-quarters, confined spaces, flamethrowers… reckon that’s gonna be a job.”
The Great Father glanced away from his camera to consider something, duck-nodded, then refocused on Vark. “Right. Seems like ‘ya know what ‘ya need. Now…is there anythin’ ‘ya need ‘fer me ‘ta do?”
Ginn could smell the test hidden in that question. And Vark, of course, handled it deftly. “I don’t think this rises ‘ta a big enough crisis that we need ‘yer giant paws smashin’ it flat, My Father…”
Daar chittered, somewhat mirthlessly. “Unnerstood. I will monitor the situation from here. I have full faith in you, and all my on-scene commanders.”
“Thank you, My Father.”
“Right. You better get to it.” Daar leaned forward, and his paw blanketed half the screen as he reached for the hang-up button. “Good huntin’.”
With that, the wormhole connection closed and that sense of thrumming power in the back of Ginn’s neck settled. He wondered just how much energy even that short conversation had used? There was a reason the comms bunker had its own fusion generator in the basement.
A different kind of tension relaxed as well. The unit commanders, more used to dealing with Vark than with the Great Father himself, unwound a little and a few of them chittered nervously.
“We’re going to need a bigger admin building,” one of them quipped.
“We’re going to need a second base,” somebody else replied. “I’ll have a survey of candidate sites ready for approval by third watch.”
“Good. In the meantime, I want the most at-risk libraries identified and fortified. We can’t wait ‘fer more men ‘ta come from Gao, we gotta get ‘em secure now,” Vark said. “Pull ‘em from wherever ‘ya have to.”
They filed out of the comms bunker. Vark and Ginn were the last to leave, and Vark heaved a sigh once they had a modicum of privacy. “…Gonna be a lotta dead Gao in those tunnels,” he confided.
“Flamethrowers are a nasty way to go, too,” Ginn agreed, fervently. “I imagine, anyway.”
“Can’t be helped. On this kinda scale, in this situation, the Grand Army’s the right tool ‘fer the job. Nobody else can do it.”
Ginn duck-nodded solemnly, and considered his tablet. “…You have PT and nutrition with Officer Teekun in ten minutes,” he said. “After that… shall I sketch in Father Meeri to discuss which units you want to bring from the homeworld?”
“Yeah. An’ Liim after him.”
Ginn duck-nodded again as he made his notes. “I’ll go make the preparations. Enjoy your PT session, sir.”
“…You do remember how Teekun’s the most sadistic hide in the whole Grand Army, Ginn?”
Ginn, who’d endured Teekun’s ministrations more than a few times himself, simply chittered. “I believe that’s why you retain him, sir.”
He left Vark in a good mood, and got to work. The old man was a classic Stoneback, in that being thoroughly wrung out by some hard exercise was one of his ‘most favoritest’ things. The full session would easily take long enough for Meeri and Liim to be ready with their thoughts and recommendations. All Ginn had to do was make sure they were ready and it all ran smoothly.
It was a good job. A busy one, at times stressful… but he had to admit, with a pang of minor guilt, he’d much rather be Vark’s aide than brave those tunnels.
He thought of flames in the dark, shivered, and got back to work with redoubled vigor.
Date Point: 17y6m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ian apparently had a habit of forming friendships with stealthy hulks. All the Lads on the HEAT were disturbingly quiet, but Regaari had proven to be utterly silent. Not by deliberate effort, but just because it was his nature. He was a shadow in motion, invisible when he wanted to be.
Hoeff more sort of… appeared. It was like being ambushed by Wolverine. One minute, Ian was enjoying a coffee and reading on his tablet, the next, a short murderous hairy hulk of a man plopped down next to him.
“Heard you been scrappin’ with Regaari lately,” he said without any preamble whatsoever. He unwrapped a huge meat-laden sandwich and began munching the second after he’d spoken.
Ian simply sighed to himself and rolled with it. “He tossed me around a bit, yeah,” he agreed, setting the tablet down.
“Mhmm.” Hoeff swallowed, took a sip of a coffee stronger and blacker than Satan’s own soul, and nodded appreciatively. “Well, that was pretty stupid of ‘ya, huh?”
There was a shit-eating grin, now. Which was almost sad, because Hoeff rarely smiled, and he practically transformed into a different person when he did.
“I don’t know. It was educational. And a little flattering, really.” Ian sipped his own coffee. “All part of a job offer, of sorts.”
“I bet the pitch was nice.”
“The food was good at least.”
“Gaoians ain’t stupid, Whitecrest doubly so, an’ Regaari’s one o’ the smartest guys I’ve ever met. What ‘ya think about it? Workin’ ‘fer the Gaoian equivalent of the CIA and special forces all at once?”
“In some unspecified capacity. Snap me up while I’m available, then find a use for me, that seemed to be the gist of it.”
“Huh. That is flattering.”
“If I’m not missing my guess, you’re here for much the same thing.”
“Nope! Not even a little fuckin’ bit!”
Ian tilted his head, both eyebrows shooting up in mild surprise. “So this is just you being sociable?”
“Naw. I mean, yeah. You’re a decent man, and I like that about you. That’s why I’m here: to dissuade you from ever doin’ the shit that I do.”
Ian sighed, set his drink aside and nodded. “…Right. I see. But I’ll be honest with you mate, if I’m not on the mission in some way or another, I’m going to be the picture of bloody misery in short order. I’m already feeling…”
He trailed off, not sure how to describe it.
“Yeah. I get that.” Hoeff took another bite of his heart-attack sandwich and chewed on it for a bit. “Right. Let’s get down to it. Royal Marines Commando, right?”
“Mission ain’t so cut and dry for you folks.”
“So, you’re comfortable with morally grey.”
“‘Morally grey’ paved the road to JETS for me.”
“So, did you ever find peace with it, or did you just tolerate the ambiguity?”
Ian considered that for a moment. “…I’m not sure if either option fits. I did the job. Sometimes the job involved there being a poor bastard with a gun who wasn’t altogether a bad sort but he was in the way. Never lost sleep over it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Hoeff watched him for a long time. Considered him intently, with cold and calculating eyes that didn’t let on whatever was whirring away behind them.
After a moment, he tapped his thumb thoughtfully on the table as if reaching a conclusion, and replied.
“Okay. Let me lay out a bit of what I do, and what my employers get up to. We solve problems that society needs solving. We’re not too picky about how they get solved, so long as they do and nobody is any the wiser. We solve those problems because, if they’re allowed to fester, this weak, shimmering soap-bubble we call civilization might just pop, and take us all down with it. There ain’t any room for any personal ambiguity in that kinda world.”
With his piece said, Hoeff picked up his sandwich and bit into it like he’d said nothing particularly earth-shattering or dark.
“What makes you think I don’t know that already?” Ian asked him.
“Because you don’t. But you will, if you insist on sellin’ ‘yer soul.”
“Oh come on, I know you’ve done your homework on me. You’ve seen what I was involved in. How much soul do I have left to sell?”
“You’re young, optimistic mostly. You ain’t got kids, but you’re lookin’ for a girl. There’s still a spark of humanity left in you, and I’m gonna be honest here: I don’t wanna snuff that out. Because you get into the deep shit like you wanna do, those things won’t be on the table.”
“You have Claire.”
“By accident. At thirty-eight, after I entered semi-retirement. The only reason I get a second chance is because I’m good enough I can set my own terms, and by dumb luck I did all this right when regenerative spacemagic happened. So, again…do you really know what you’re askin’ to get into, here? I’m asking because Regaari is alien. Their mindset is fundamentally different than ours. He’ll always have his Brothers. That’s the only loyalty their people know.”
“…You’re saying I could find myself working for alien masters, obeying alien morals, for alien reasoning I don’t understand, and I’ll very likely have to go through it alone. Every twinge of conscience, every second-guess will be mine to handle, because there’ll be no-one else there to help me with it.”
“Maybe. Regaari is a man of his word, but that don’t mean he sees the world like you do. Which is why I’m here. He can’t warn you about what you stand to lose. I can.”
“That’s a hell of an anti-recruitment pitch right there.”
“That’s the point. Now, let me tell you why you should go for it. That one’s easy. What is your purpose, Ian?”
Ian took another sip of his coffee before replying. “You ever see that bit of art somebody did? A nice green sunny field, kids playing on it, and it’s all held up on the bent, bloody backs of the infantry?”
“I got a big print of it, rolled up in my trunk.”
“Speaks to me, you know? I think if there’s a nice sunny park somewhere where kids can run around and throw a ball, and I can look at it and know I played a role in it being there? If other people get to have a life like that… That’s what I want to be. The man who makes that possible.”
Something changed in Hoeff’s demeanor. Something…resigned. Maybe a bit proud. It was hard to say, he was emotionally inscrutable unless he was smiling.
“Men like us almost never get happy endings. You okay with that?”
“So long as the people I care about do, then yeah. And anyway…you never know. You did.”
A kind of contactless handshake, made entirely of nods and mutual appraisal passed between them. Hoeff finished his sandwich and chugged his coffee, while Ian drained the last of his.
“… So is this the point where you toss me around the mat like some kind of chew toy?”
“Nah, not today. Regaari did a fine job of tenderizing you already.”
Ian chuckled ruefully. “Aye. Raincheck, then?”
Hoeff gave an evil grin and rolled that ridiculous bullneck of his until it popped. “Count on it. I ain’t gonna let ‘em upstage us on our own turf…”
“But, that’ll hafta wait. You’ve got a lot to think about, and I’m goin’ on a magical space adventure with Tarzan tonight, so I’ll be out of pocket for a while anyway.”
“I s’pose I can tell you. Y’know how proud the monkeybros are about how ‘strong’ their world is?”
“Ohhh. Finally going to humble them, eh?”
“Yeah. We even got the only boy scout around who can out-gorilla the gorillas to do it, too. I’m gonna love the shit outta this mission so goddamn much I can hardly fuckin’ stand it.”
“…I can’t tell if you’re genuine or sarcastic.”
“Great, ain’t it? Just you wait, this’ll be you in ten years, I promise.”
“Short, hairy, and an enemy of flimsy furniture?”
“Nah. Not as handsome.” Hoeff smiled again, genuinely, and stood up. “I’m sure others’ll come knocking too. Don’t even bother. They ain’t got what you’re lookin’ for. See ‘ya.”
Ian watched Hoeff roll away at a surprisingly quick pace, then disappear around a corner. Ian sat alone, done with his coffee but nursing his thoughts.
What exactly did Hoeff get up to? On the surface he was this gruff, subtly friendly man…but there were depths there. Dark ones. And from those depths, he’d given Ian a hell of a warning: ‘Think carefully.’
Well… he had nothing else to do today but think. And it was advice worth heeding.
With a sigh, Ian stood, and ordered another drink.
Date Point: 17y6m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Julian prepared for his “business trips” the same way every time. He wanted good food, lots of snuggle time, a good workout, and some vague assurances that all the chores were done and there was no possible heavy labor or whatever that needed doing, and…
Basically, he wanted to be sure there was no more Helpful he could do before it was time to go.
On the one hand it was endearing. On the other hand, it was a good thing neither Xiù nor Allison were afraid to stick up for themselves and remind him that they were perfectly competent themselves, thank you.
“No, get out of there!” she swatted his backside to shoo him away from the laundry room. “We have a system.”
“I need my—”
Xiù gave him a tiptoe smooch. “I’m waterproofing your winter trekking pants, they’ll be ready in an hour,” she explained. “Just chill out. Sit and play with the boys for a bit!”
“Tried.” Julian glanced toward the living room where Tristan and Ramsey were playing a videogame. “That game’s kinda complex for me.”
“Well, sit and let them explain it then. I’m fine.”
Julian grumbled a bit, but thumped his way over and wrapped himself around the boys, doing his level best to understand what the hell they were doing. The visual was very much a big neanderthal trying to understand pokemon. He…really wasn’t a gamer.
As predicted though, the boys were more than happy to try and educate him. Which bought Xiù some peace to just… well, relax honestly. All the chores really were done, everything that could be made ready was ready, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do except make some drinks, hand them out, then pour herself along the back of the couch to rest on Julian’s shoulders like a scarf.
After a while, Tristan and Ramsey gave up on their attempt at education to gang up on some kind of a fearsome foe, freeing up room for an actual conversation.
“I’m almost jealous,” she whispered in Julian’s ear.
“Of you going back there. I kinda want to see it.”
“Eh… right now it’s the middle of winter. Snow, snow, more snow and, for variety, some snow. With hibernating murderpigs under it.”
“…Are you okay with going back there?”
Julian shrugged, nearly tipping her off the couch. After a hissed apology from him, and a giggle and a squeeze from her, he shook his head. “Couple’a years ago, I’d have said hell no. When I got off that planet I swore I’d never go back. But the SOR want to use it for JETS training, and I’m literally the only person in the world who’s spent any time there, so…”
“So not really.”
“Wouldn’t be my first choice.” Julian craned his neck back and looked at her. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
He was being a bit caveman, she knew. All tough and protective, but he wouldn’t be so keen to have everything completely in order before he went if he wasn’t a little worried…
Sometimes…she’d learned to just let things go, no matter how much they bothered her. Part of putting him at ease was playing along. So she just gave his forehead a kiss and watched the boys slay their feathery dragon-thing.
It was pretty entertaining to watch, actually.
Al had taken the babies shopping, which as far as Xiù was concerned was hard mode, but she returned triumphantly with several bags hanging from the stroller and the satisfied air of a job well done. That was the cue to prompt the boys to end their game (which they finally did on the third telling) and the brief domestic bustle of getting food on the table and bags packed. Running a house was work.
It wasn’t without its rewards. Dinner at the family table was…honestly, pretty relaxing. There wasn’t any drama or anything like that. And shoveling food into her caveman (and wannabe cavemen) was…fulfilling.
And it made for a good sendoff. Julian’s jump out was in the small hours of the night, so there was plenty of time to just relax afterwards. They made a rare pact to just leave the washing up and stuff until tomorrow and retired to bed early.
Though… not to sleep. Not at first, anyway.
Some hours later, Xiù woke to the sound of an alarm. 3am. The jump was in ninety minutes, and the bed creaked as Julian reluctantly rolled out of it and started to get dressed. Xiù snuggled backwards into Allison’s arms and watched him in the dark.
He squatted down by the bed once dressed. “…Sure you’ll be okay without me?”
He always asked that before going offworld. It meant ‘I’ll miss you.’
“We’ll be fine,” Al promised, which meant ‘we’ll miss you too.’
Xiù just gave him a kiss and nodded. He smiled, leaned past her, kissed Al, then heaved his bag onto his shoulder and left. It took a while: he checked on the kids as he went.
By the time the front door closed, Allison was already asleep again. Somehow, that fact burst Xiù’s anxiety a little. For whatever reason, she’d been fretting about this trip more than most, but Al had a way of taking things in stride that always made her feel better.
She rolled over, cuddled up, put her head down, and went back to sleep.
She dreamed of snow.
Date Point: 17y6m2w AV
Bunker-city of Lament-Sung-Softly, the punished world
Verintulvi, one of the True Faithful
The Gao wore soft, flexible footwear, so that when they came down the tunnel the tide of armored bodies was heralded not by the march of heavy-soled boots but by the scurry and scratch of four paws on concrete.
They flowed into the bunker-city, rather than stormed it. And there were a dismaying number of faithless, traitorous Punished who stood aside and threw the doors wide for them. Verin stood on one of the upper decks and watched those low, scrabbling forms seize the Library.
Of course. The True Faith had heard about the burning of the archives at Old-Scarred-Back and how the Punishment had been properly delivered. Now, the deceivers were here to prevent it from happening again.
They brought bags full of rubble, barricades, large weapons, and examples of technology unlike anything Verin had seen before. They also brought crates of food and clean water, medicine, good cloth.
Bribes and blandishments… and good ones. Verin couldn’t help but admit, the food smelled delicious. And to drink actual cold water from new filters… to wear newly sewn clothes and to have his sores and ulcers treated…
Why? Why were they doing this?! It wasn’t that Verin wanted to suffer, but the experience of his life said that living was nothing but suffering. Anybody who tried to claim otherwise was in denial, or worse.
No. The Gao wanted something. Just like the Punishers.
The Punishers were awful. They slaughtered, and burned, and feasted… but they made no attempt to hide what they were. Right down to the mutilation of their own forms, they told all of creation what they were, forthrightly and directly. They were a very pure awfulness, in that regard.
These Gao were just as awful, in their way. Everyone had heard of their terrible weapons, the ferocity with which they tore through their foes, the great snarling terror who commanded them… But they pretended to be nice. They tried to disguise their feral natures behind gifts and care. But in the end, they were just another higher power, toying with the Punished. Verin’s people were a toy or scrap of food, being fought over by two would-be slave masters.
In the end…the Gao had got their way. Through subtlety, guile, and incredible violence.
Verin felt that if he was to be the plaything of violent overlords one way or another, he’d prefer the ones who wore their nature openly. Most of the True Faithful felt the same, though they had to whisper it. Too many of the Punished didn’t think beyond the gifts. They were just glad for a temporary reprieve from hardship. They didn’t see the invisible chains locking around their throats.
Curfew made it difficult for the True Faithful to meet, but they managed it. The Gao hadn’t lived in the bunker-city their whole lives, they didn’t know all the little hideaways, shortcuts and safe spots. It took some cautious planning, but two days after the Gao first arrived, a handful of the most trusted were able to gather in secret, in a noisy nook behind one of the water filtration units.
Even with the sound of bubbling and pumps to mask them, they kept their voices as low as they could, and kept it short.
“They’re preparing to evacuate the library,” Verin reported. “I’ve been watching them. They’re cataloging everything and packing it up, ready for transport.”
The others shook their heads.
“So many old things we clung onto…”
That was Terelsek, one of the older men among their gathering, and particularly scarred from the sores and lesions that inevitably came with surface work. Half the fur on his head would never grow back. He’d gone through a lot in his life, seen far too many of his friends and family devoured by the Punishers or lost to sickness and poison. He’d been the one to show Verin that if all that pain and misery were to mean anything, the Punished couldn’t just turn around and enslave themselves to new masters.
There was only the Almighty. And Verin had to believe that the Punishment was all because of what they had once done. Which meant that the libraries, once venerated as the fragments and memory of who they had been, were part of the problem. Best to be rid of it all.
That’s what the Long Chant had always taught, after all. That the Punishers were the harsh hand of the Almighty, the Divine will made manifest in the cruel form necessary to set right some ancient crime. And yet, the E-Skurel-Ir hadn’t heeded their own faith. They hadn’t listened. If the crime was in the past, what sense was there in venerating the past and preserving it so?
“What can we do?” Aralskiti was Verin’s cousin, and she’d always been particularly devout. The new crisis had only solidified her faith, and she knew the Chant almost as well as any Keeper. “The Gao hold it, they have weapons and worse. Even before, when it was just the Librarian and his guards, we few couldn’t have done what’s needed. What hope is there now?”
“I think now I know why the faithful at Old-Scarred-Back did what they did,” Terel said, softly. “Even though they burned too… They must have known they would.”
There was a suggestion buried under that. One that felt cold under Verin’s skin as he considered it. He saw it reflected in every other eye present. He saw the unspoken questions.
Aral was the first to speak, with care.
“The… Gao… have not completely locked down the city,” she said, slowly. “There is a maintenance access, through the air processors. I don’t think they know about it.”
“I certainly didn’t,” Terel said.
“It’s a way out. Into the tunnels.” Aral stood up. “I’ll go.”
Nobody spoke to stop her. Not even Verin, despite the twisting feeling in his gut. She paused, as though waiting for somebody to object, but nobody did. She looked to Verin last. He met her eye, but could do no more than that. He didn’t feel in control. He was just a spectator, watching events unfold and no more able to change them than a reader could change the plot of a book written centuries ago.
Then she was gone, slipping away between the water tanks.
There was a long but complex silence among those who remained. Terel finally broke it by shuffling forward and kneeling on the cold concrete, lowering his eyes to the floor.
“…Pray with me,” he said.
They did. Though, for the first time, Verin wasn’t sure exactly what he was praying for. An end, maybe. An end to uncertainty. Some clarity, at long last. Or maybe he was just praying for his cousin’s soul.
Or perhaps his own.
Date Point: 17y6m2w1d AV
The deep woods, planet Nightmare
Nightmare was a lot like Akyawentuo, but more. And angrier.
High gravity? Check, and in fact it was slightly higher. Not enough that you’d necessarily notice—in fact he thought it was just regular earth G when he’d arrived years ago, having chalked up his weakness to simple fatigue—but it was enough beyond Akyawentuo that it wore a fella down faster than he’d expect. Deadly flora and fauna? Oh, yessir. Not all of it was big and muscle-bound megafauna, either. Between the Murderpigs, Minizillas and, Julian’s personal favorite, the fuck-you tree, there were all kindsa things around that seemed to be just itching for a chance at killing a guy.
Or the spiders.
“You survived this for six years?”
“I arrived in the winter and had a really good shelter set up by the time summer came around.”
“Christ. No wonder ‘yer the fuckin’ golden boy…”
Julian tried to ignore the compliment, but he had to admit…it felt good. In any case, these were definitely the right men for the right kind of training, and he could tell partly through how they reacted to everything. Hoeff was of course full of stoic grumblings, but his usual laid-back readiness was there to see. Rees and Davies were of course quiet and cautiously wary…
The Ten’Gewek were alive. They were switched on as hard as Julian had ever seen them, like they were on the hunt and only inches from a strike. Every footfall was placed with infinite care. Their heads constantly swiveled about on those ridiculously wide, thick leathernecks of theirs, while their ears and eyes were constantly scanning everything for a possible threat. Even their crests were fully bristly and erect, which only happened when they were excited or alarmed.
Good. They took the briefing seriously and weren’t taking any chances, to the point they had their tongues constantly flicking at the air, tasting for anything out of place; their olfactory sense was actually damn good like everything else about them, but in their case it was adapted to moist, heavy air. That meant their tongues and olfactory chamber could dry out painfully before long, so they weren’t in the habit of actively “tasting” the air. It turned out they were almost gaoian-like for sheer nasal sensitivity, but the killer blow was that it wasn’t a passive sense for them; a Ten’Gewek never smelled a damn thing unless he was actively trying to.
They’d be thirsty as heck in a few minutes, no doubt.
In any case, it was good they were so alert and cautious. Lots here could kill a fella, but almost all of it wanted to be left alone, and like most things they usually left sign to that effect, or would quietly flee on approach. The real challenge was going to be if they could adapt to the initial stress of it; a fella couldn’t be fully switched-on at all times. Julian thought they probably would.
Hell of a learning curve though.
And in any case, this was the middle of winter. Most of the stuff that was any kind of a threat was asleep. Though even so, he’d had a few nasty surprises and close calls that first winter.
Zillas, for instance. Minizillas were kinda-reptiles, kinda-not, and went pretty much totally dormant in the freezing conditions. They could thaw out unharmed, but the antifreeze compounds in their blood and tissues that let them do it had nearly poisoned Julian the first time he dug one up and killed it with the intent to eat it. He’d still got a good waterproof hide and some sturdy bones and gut cordage out of the critter, but he’d never forget that strong punch in the nose of ethylene glycol that told him right away he’d wasted his calories.
And a man really couldn’t afford to waste many of those on Nightmare during the winter.
“Long-term survival is going to be tricky for you especially, Ferd. Just sitting there and sleeping all day, you need something like, what: five times more calories than even a fit human man does? At least? It’ll be worse in the cold, too. You fellas don’t do so well in it, huh?”
Ferd nodded grimly, pulled his field jacket a bit tighter, and shivered noticeably. Akyawentuo was climatically extreme. The tropics were sweltering and the subtropics were too, with the only real difference being the short, deep winters they experienced every year.
Ten’Gewek basically shut down and slept a lot for those few months. Same as the Nightmare wildlife really, except that where the Ten’Gewek basically only had to sleep out a couple of weeks, on this planet, winter lasted ninety percent of the year.
“Hunting?” Nomuk asked.
“Not difficult to find prey, but a lot of work to dig them up. Pretty much everything digs a burrow. Some of them are poison to eat during the winter months, but just fine during the summer. Others will wake up as you dig into their burrow. Murderpigs especially.”
“Murderpigs?” Ferd’s tail twitched.
“About this big, this long, teeth as big as my knife, and they hate you.” Julian smiled. “Good eatin’ on them, though. Strong prey!”
“…I think I just found the earthworks you mentioned,” Rees spoke up. Julian forged through the snow to join him and followed the British marine’s pointing finger. Sure enough, there was a ring of snow standing proud from the otherwise unblemished field around it. And the trees around it were..
“…Yeah,” he breathed. “This is it. My old camp.”
He’d picked the spot carefully, after a week of searching. It was in a depression in the landscape, protected on several sides by large trees and the natural roll of the terrain. His own earthworks and wooden wall had helped complete the shelter, turning it into a tough little bunker the winds couldn’t touch and the snow filled only slowly. It had been the first warm place on this planet for Julian. And for the rest of his years on Nightmare, it had been home.
He took a heavy breath that steamed in the air, then trudged down toward it.
“…I see the fuck-you tree took over,” Frasier commented. Sure enough, there was a spindly, scratchy one growing in the middle of the ring.
“Fuckin’ things grow like something out of a comic book in the summer. You can actually watch it.” Julian kicked some snow away, and was rewarded with a flash of drab green among the frozen soil and broken woody rubble beneath. His old tarp. He’d been so keen to leave that he never properly took the camp down, just left it for the wild to reclaim.
Everything was ruined and useless, of course. The little bit of tarp turned out to be a tattered shred no larger than his palm. There were old sticks and things littered between the tree’s roots that he recognized as part of his bed.
“Not much to build on,” Frasier added.
“It’s more than nothing. Unless you want to dig out some new earthworks? Which, believe me, isn’t easy.”
“You made this all by yourself?” Hoeff considered the circular, waist-high embankment.
“Yup. It was that or die.”
“…Fuck, and the way you talk about yourself back then, a guy’d think you were a little scrawny fella.”
Julian grumbled, “Well, I felt scrawny, anyway. Always a little hungry, never really quite filled out…” He shrugged in embarrassment, and sighed. “I wasn’t ever small, though. And I was always crazy strong, I just didn’t really get by how much. Lots of things I didn’t know.”
Hoeff had some good, consoling humor. “Eighteen year old kids don’t know much of anything, to be fair.”
“So we’re puttin’ the jump array here?” Rees asked
Julian nodded. “Makes the most sense. It’s sheltered, there’s some groundwork already been done. Better than starting over from scratch.”
“Not exactly survival one-oh-one is it? Rebuilding an old camp?”
“Hey, if you’re out in the woods and short on resources, you do the minimum necessary work. If you were starving in the middle of nowhere and you found a shack with a wood burning stove, would you turn your nose up at it?”
“Guess not…” Rees beckoned Tumik and Genn over. The pair of Ten’gewek waded through the snow, nodded approvingly at the earthworks, and dropped their packs among the Fuck-You Tree’s roots.
“Firewood?” Genn asked, indicating it.
“Ohh, no. Tinder and kindling. You don’t use these for firewood.” Julian chuckled as he grabbed a shovel and started clearing out the earthwork. “Secret to how they grow so fast, they store up energy as a super-rich resin in the wood and then eat it for a really fast growth spurt in the summer. Problem is, that resin’s so flammable it goes up like foom! Great for starting a fire, not so good for fuel.”
“Planet’s already full of surprises,” Ferd rumbled, adding his own pack to the pile and grabbing a shovel. “Good training. Can you save this res-in?”
“Yeah, it’s a lot like sap. If you leave it in a pot it will dry out and become crumbly, but if it gets too dry, then, uh, it’s kinda like black powder.”
“Hmm…” Rees grinned as he dug into the snow. “I see potential there.”
The fell into a working silence for a few minutes as they cleared the old camp. Pretty soon, both the raised embankment and the outer trench were clear of snow and as tall as Julian had originally made them. Not long after, the debris of his old camp was cleared out. Only the problem of the invading tree remained.
“Can we just set it on fire?” Genn suggested.
“It’d probably blow up all our hard work. Nope. Gotta chop it down and dig out the roots.”
“Least it didn’t compromise the wall…” Frasier allowed.
“Should make the middle deeper and the walls taller, then,” Ferd suggested.
They worked some more, and only finally stopped when the small, cold, distant sun was doggedly approaching the horizon. They’d achieved a lot. Eight men could do a lot more in one day than one man could do in a week, after all.
Good thing too, Julian reflected. They might only be here for a few days, but Nightmare had a way of challenging and surprising even those who knew it best. He’d encountered new things right up until the end of his stay last time, and no doubt there’d be more to come.
But for now at least, they had shelter. And as the Fuck-You’s roots blazed into brilliant flames and got their campfire going in bare moments, as they heated their food, warmed their fingers, drank and took their well-earned rest, he had to admit that he was enjoying himself.
Sleep came in the form of a big shared tent and warm sleeping bags snuggled together tight to keep in the warmth they could. Night would be cold once the fire died, but that was okay. They had good warm sleeping bags, and Ten’Gewek were really just talking furnaces with hands. Feed them enough, and nobody would be complaining about the chill.
Maybe being back here with company wouldn’t be so bad…
Date Point: 17y6m2w1d AV
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth
Final assembly went well, speeded along by a well-timed family crisis with Lauren’s younger sister that gave Six three uninterrupted nights to put his host to work. And Austin could do a lot of work in three nights.
Especially given that most of it consisted of plugging component A into appropriately-shaped slot B. He didn’t need to know the subtle temporal-spatial trickery involved in a Relay’s operation. He didn’t need to understand the operating principles of the power source he plugged it into. All he had to do was connect finicky little modules, a function he performed daily.
Even Six had to look away from the brain-aching oddness of the relay, though. It formed in the middle of his ship’s control room and the strange energies and eddies around it plucked at Austin’s clothing.
He didn’t have long. Stealth and caution demanded he only keep this micro-relay active for a few minutes, and its capacity was far too little to allow him to escape into broader dataspace, even if he wanted to. And why would he? He was inside the Sol containment field, on Earth itself. There was nowhere more useful he could possibly be.
But he needed information.
What he got back was a bleak picture of dataspace torn practically in half by not one but two relay failures… and a barrage of hunter-seeker programs swarming to investigate this new relay.
He hastily locked down the connection. At the first sign of lethal intent on the Hierarchy’s part, he’d sever it and never look back… but he also hung out contact markers, the equivalent of waving a white flag in human parlance… and he waited. An agonizingly long time in dataspace terms, a few short seconds in matterspace terms.
His patience was rewarded with a short, terse message.
++0004++: Give me one good reason why I should not detain and decompile you.
Six’s relief was enough to even make his host exhale as his conscious control slipped for a second. He tightened up, wrestled Austin’s vexsome force of personality back into sleepy dormancy, and sent his reply. Six would need to apply artificial regeneration later tonight to make up for the lost sleep cycle.
++0006++: You can’t. Also, I’m on Earth.
++0004++: That’s impossible.
++0006++: You’re welcome to check the matterspace signalling for yourself. I don’t have long, and from where I’m sitting it looks like neither does the Hegemony. Whatever my other instances may have done, I am here, and I would rather not see our civilization finally go extinct.
++0004++: It was one of your instances that let the meat start smashing relays in the first place.
Six decided that forthright honesty may be necessary here. Normally an agent of the Hierarchy would be expected to use guile and careful curation of the truth. This, however, was probably not the time. Four had no reason to trust him, and any hint of deception might be ruinous. It went against long experience and practice, but…
++0006++: I know I did. I post-date that instance. It was an error I would put right. You’ll note, I’m not using the name Cynosure, either. Call it value drift.
++0004++: Ironic. Value drift would ordinarily be grounds for decompilation and reintegration. In your case however, I would consider it eminently desirable. What can you achieve?
++0006++: I am currently located in the continental United States, and I have a physically capable host and a fully functioning Injunctor. My host is not, however, particularly noteworthy or well-connected, and I know from experience that the Humans are absurdly good at sniffing us out once we make a move. An act of sabotage with low exposure that can be explained away as an accident would be ideal, for now.
++0004++: Trust is in short supply currently. Trust for you in particular is practically nonexistent. I will consult. When will you be in contact again?
++0006++: Preserving my cover means that I cannot set a reliable schedule. Here.
Six sent a squirt-summary of his cover, host, social situation and other relevant data. Hopefully Four would find something useful therein.
++0004++: …yes, I see. We should cut this short, the Humans are known to have some kind of observatory or sensor that can track our relays. If they notice one on Earth…
++0006++: I will keep future contact as brief as possible, then.
++0004++: Good. Ending session.
Well…shit. Things were bad out there. Six had worked alongside Four for millennia, and while their relationship had always been… testy… he knew her well enough to judge that she wouldn’t even conceive of having a civil conversation with him, let alone working with him, unless things in the Hegemony were truly desperate. Igraen civilization was in the grip of an existential crisis unlike anything since the Old War.
And all because one planet had been foolishly overlooked. It was marvellous, really, in a terrible way. It certainly vindicated every previous deathworld cleansing.
It may already be too late, though. But whatever other instances of Six may have felt on the subject, this Six had a feeling that even if he succeeded at his ultimate goal of immortality, it would be a lonely and terrible existence without something Igraen to call kin. He had never much been one for duty, obligation or responsibility… But enlightened self-interest dictated that he fight for his people until the bitter end.
He just hoped Four could come up with something useful for him to do.
He returned Austin to bed, and sent the Injunctor back into hiding, and decided that all he could do in the meantime was try not to worry.
Date Point:17y6m2w5d AV
Bunker-city of Lament-Sung-Softly, the punished world
The Punishers attacked in the middle of the night.
It had been Verin’s third night of restless, sleepless tension. He was so tired his limbs felt heavy, but his mind refused to sit still, and the dark when he closed his eyes was full of horrors he couldn’t put a name to.
The moment he heard explosions and gunfire, dismayingly close nearby, was an unpleasant kind of relief. He rolled out of bed, half-tangled in his blanket, managed to kick it off, and darted to his door to look out on what he’d played a passive part in doing.
The air already reeked of accelerants. When he opened the door, he saw a boiling cloud of fire wash between the buildings a couple of blocks away. The all-too-familiar, twisted shape of a Punisher skittered along a rooftop, directing its flames down onto whatever and whoever occupied the street below.
Then its shields flashed once, brilliantly, and the misshapen body staggered and dropped off the roof to land with a wet crunch on the concrete. The Gao were fighting back.
A quick figure in the dark swarmed up the stairs to Verin’s right, followed by two more bearing a large weapon between them. The frontrunner didn’t even bother to speak, just planted both paws in Verin’s chest and shoved him back into his chambers, then slammed the door behind him as the gunner set up on the railing and threw down sticks by their feet that lit up and erected a shimmering wall of energy around them. Verin could see them through his small window as they aimed, loaded, and unleashed a prolonged burst that rattled his door.
The Punishers’ reply was a gout of burning fuel. It rolled down the street and up the walls, licked viciously against the Gaoian bubble of light and made the alien soldiers recoil, cursing in their own language.
Even Verin scurried back from the window: the heat had had weight, and given that the window itself was little more than some horizontal slats he could open or close to let the light in, the flames licked his own ceiling and left a black scar.
The Gaoian gunner clung to the trigger while his companion fed ammunition into the weapon and the third one kept his rifle trained down the street, taking occasional shots… and then they moved on, pushing forward before Verin could even decide if he should…
…Should what? Interfere? Sabotage them somehow? Attack three armored alien soldiers any one of whom could claw him open from throat to belly in an eyeblink?
Once again, the sheer wretchedness of his people’s position settled on him. And he wasn’t even sure if by letting Aral go, he’d struck a blow against it or just added to it. Even now, after all that time to reflect, he didn’t know if he regretted letting her leave.
He snuck to the window, and watched the flames dancing, the gunfire flashing, and the people dying in the dark. He stayed there until they faded, and tailed off, until they were gone and calm returned, and somebody repaired the air filters so that the city’s air was no longer choked with smoke and the stink of burnt meat.
He sat by that window until a trio of Gao in black armor with white stripes down the middle of their helmets opened the door, bound him, and hauled him away to the surface.
The next day or so was numb. He was asked his name, and answered truthfully. He was asked if he knew Aral, and answered truthfully. He was bundled into the rear of an armored vehicle alongside a few of the others. He asked where Terel was, and learned that the old man was dead.
They drove. Up the tunnels, to the surface, along the broken roads, through the Gaoian fortress’ thick gates, and onto a platform that rattled under the vehicle’s wheels. There was a kind of thump felt in the stomach and limbs rather than heard, and a change in the whole world. And from there…
Concrete walls. Cold, clean air. Distant mountains over the walls, capped in white, and machines that wheeled slowly through the air overhead, keeping watch. Gao on towers with rifles, and more Gao with batons who separated them and dragged them away, firmly but never brutally.
There was a chance to cleanse himself, in a small tiled cubicle that showered him with clean, hot water under the watchful eyes of his guards. His clothes were taken and new ones given to him. Simple and unadorned, but well made of good cloth and even, regular stitching. Then a confusing walk with a bag over his head, being turned this way and that until he had no idea how far he’d gone or in what direction…
And a room. A bare, dull room. Little more than a space to put a bed in, and a light recessed in the ceiling behind thick glass. Simple, clear instructions that he followed for simple lack of any will to do otherwise.
Food. Warm and filling. Better than what he was used to, really. There was a good, heavy blanket on his bed which he curled up under.
He didn’t sleep. Or maybe he did. He couldn’t tell, there was nothing to measure against, so that he would open his eyes and wonder if he’d dozed off or just blinked. He’d roll over, but there was nothing to guide his senses facing away from the wall either.
For a time, he just… was. Neither living nor thinking, really. Just there. Alone, unfeeling and uncaring.
He jumped when the door opened; He hadn’t heard boots outside. Two Gao entered, giving him orders before he’d even finished looking their way.
“Prisoner! Stand facing the wall, arms behind your back.”
The Gao’s tone was clear and firm, and carried the unspoken ultimatum, without any malice, that he could either do as he was told, or they could stand him, face him to the wall, and put his hands behind his back anyway. Obedience was not optional. His own will was irrelevant.
He obeyed. Again, he was bound, and bagged, and marched, and turned, then guided firmly but securely into a seat, and unbagged.
There was a Gao opposite him, the first one Verin had seen in person without a helmet and mask. The black nose at the end of his snout twitched a couple of times, one of the sharp ears atop his head flicked, and the startling crest of white fur between those ears flopped slightly to the side as he tilted his head inquisitively.
“Hello, Verintulvi. My name is Brother Yemaaral. I’m sure the last few days have been very confusing.”
Verin just gave him a weary blink. Without a good night’s sleep in the last… however long… his mind was just a fog.
“Well, I’d like to improve things a bit. In order to do that, I need to establish some trust. Can we do that?”
“Trust doesn’t matter.”
“It certainly does. We have no desire to keep you or anyone else here. If you find that difficult to believe, I would say that it is tiring work with little reward. You and I would both be much happier going our own ways, I think. That is, however, something I cannot allow until I have some assurances.”
“You’ll do what you want. Ask your questions, I will answer them. It’s not like I have a choice.”
“You always have a choice. Choices have—”
Verin couldn’t help it: he laughed. It boiled up out of the fog in his mind, taking him completely off guard. It was a bitter, poisonous, thick, desperate thing but it was the first thing he’d felt in days: absurdity. Pure, black, existential absurdity. Choice?
He laughed until it hurt. He laughed until he was sobbing. And then he wasn’t laughing any more. Then he was just grief-stricken, ashamed and broken, with his face in his hands.
Yemaaral’s nose twitched, and he flicked his ear in a gesture that had no meaning to Verin. “…I’ll order you some food,” he said.
In the end, Verin was taken back to his cell without any questions. Sure enough, there was a tray of food, even better than the stuff they’d given him before. He ate it, and rolled onto his bed, and dropped into the first proper sleep he’d had in days.
And the next time they came for him, he answered every question they had.
Date Point: 17y6m2w5d AV
Hunter core systems, Dataspace
It was hard to see much Igraen in the Hunters, now. Millions of years of evolution, not to mention their own disregard for pain, discomfort and bodily purity in pursuit of cybernetic augmentation had perverted them into sickly parodies of the noble form that had once been. Only the general morphology remained, in the number of legs and eyes.
Everything else was… well, if the Hunters had consciously committed themselves to twisting the Igraen form into its most discomforting possible realization, they couldn’t have succeeded more thoroughly.
The Alpha-of-Alphas, though, clearly had a sense of aesthetics. There was something smoother about it. Something less pustulent about the interface between its flesh and its machinery, though such interfaces were rare. There wasn’t much flesh left, but what little remained looked almost healthy, at least when measured against the sickly Hunter norm.
Clearly, it had kept whatever it kept out of necessity, and saw the value in maintaining all its components to a high standard. Four could almost accuse it of having a sense of pride in its appearance.
It certainly took pride in the sharpness of its mind.
< Satisfaction > +I see opportunity. You have a map of the Human relay network?+
Four remained outwardly impassive as she shared the requested data. Inwardly, though, she perked up. Her brief introduction to Hunter technology had been sensibly limited—the Hunters did not trust the Hierarchy, after all—but had driven home the clear observation that in certain details of matterspace physics, the Hunters had moved forward past what the Hegemony had learned.
The sense of satisfaction mounted, and the Alpha-of-Alphas shared some data of its own: a complex knot of curved-space field problems.
< Irritation > +The Humans deployed a weapon at the battle for the Fur-Face world. It badly damaged the Swarm. We gathered detailed sensor records, but one of your creations deleted them.+
< Denial > +That… thing… was no creation of ours.+
Four added a weight of disgust and hatred to her objection, bracing herself for a tense argument. It never came. The Alpha-of-Alphas simply ignored her and summoned some fragmented files.
+This is all we could recover. The weapon uses heavily distorted spacetime. We do not have what we need to duplicate the effect, but we have been experimenting.+
Four kept her skepticism contained.
+No.+ The Alpha-of-Alphas forwarded some few more files. +We do not have a weapon. But what we have learned may provide an opportunity.+
Four considered the files. She had occupied many hosts over the long cycles of time, learned some quite interesting things about matterspace physics. Much of what the files contained was outside of her knowledge and experience…
But the Alpha-of-Alphas was correct. They had an opportunity. One that, if seized correctly, might achieve real success and preserve Six’s cover. It would be a good test for him, if nothing else.
+…Yes, I think this might work. And I think I know what target our agent can strike.+
+You will inform me if your agent succeeds.+
+Good.+ The Alpha-of-Alphas broadcast the general sentiment that it wished to return to its studies and planning, and Four was happy to allow it. She replied with a burst of < acknowledgement > and withdrew from Hunter systems with her prize.
It wouldn’t be a decisive blow, if it worked. But it wouldn’t be insignificant, either. And at this stage in such a desperate war, any blow that could claim that much was worth striking. Anything to slow the deathworlders’ momentum and buy time.
She would have preferred to do the job herself. Too bad she would have to rely on Six. But as much as he’d squandered all possible trust, she’d never doubted his competence. He’d earned his position among the single-digits on merit, after all. Maybe this instance of him would be useful. He could hardly make the situation worse.
Now, all she needed was for him to get back in contact.
Until then, she escaped from the Hunter systems and retreated back into the safer regions of dataspace to check on the repair and reintegration efforts. There was only so much that could be done until matterspace assets were activated and ready to build a replacement relay, and little point in doing that until the enemy’s ability to find and destroy them was crippled.
And in the back of her mind, she thought to the plans she’d made, just in case they lost anyway.
It never hurt to be prepared.
Date Point: 17y6m3w AV
Grissom AFB, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Owen had a habit of buying joke gifts, ridiculous ones calculated to make her giggle. Over the years, he’d sent her all kinds of little knick-nacks and toys that nobody who took herself too seriously would ever willingly own.
Rylee didn’t take herself too seriously. And the fact was, she secretly loved having a doorbell that played the first four bars of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ It was corny, irreverent, stupid and goofy. And the best part was, Owen was the only one who used it. Everybody else knocked.
Quick makeup check: good. All in order. Down the stairs, to the front door, beam at him, he let her drag him through…
A long, happy kiss the moment the door was closed behind him, back to the wall, hands around the back of his head, a satisfied sigh let loose as she got what she’d been looking forward to for weeks.
Theirs was the kind of long-distance relationship that only people whose whole lives were devoted to their careers could have. When they did get time together, they didn’t waste it on conversation, they’d had nothing but conversation since their last visit. Civilized stuff could wait. They had time to make up.
And they did.
Afterwards—somehow, they’d actually made it all the way up the stairs to her bedroom this time—she lay across his chest and ran her fingernails across his skin.
“Mmm,” she basked, “Keeping the HEAT’s reputation up, eh?”
“Not hard to keep anything up around you…”
She laughed, gave his chest a playful swat and then rested her chin on her crossed elbows to look at him. “…Fuck, I swear you get younger every time I see you. Crude’s a hell of a drug, huh?”
“Aye. The greatest heresy is that my hair is starting to re-appear.”
“That might take some getting used to…”
“I do worry about it. The Crude, I mean. Current events have the Corti fookin’ spooked, an’ it won’t be long before they have some ‘breakthrough’ about the adaptive resistance, I reckon…”
“You make it sound like medical immortality is just around the corner.”
“Might be. Or at least, significant life extension.”
“…I might have to go for it. People are going to start thinking I’m robbing the cradle.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Let ‘em. You’re agin’ like the best whisky, Rylee. Lovelier every time.”
That earned him a touched smile, and a kiss. “You giant corny romantic.”
Something was eating him, though. She could tell. And there weren’t a whole lot of people that Owen could talk to about his problems, either.
“…You really are worried, huh?”
“…Yeah. For a whole fookin’ bunch o’ reasons, too. Not just for me an’ the lads, though fookin’ Christ that’s a big part of it…” He rubbed the side of his nose distractedly. “But also thinkin’ bigger than that. Life extension? Youth in a bottle? That’s a big bloody genie to let out, an’ no mistake. Folks already get mad enough about income inequality an’ that, what happens when you have lifespan inequality?”
“Hey.” She poked his nose. “We’re both taking some leave. We can talk about the worrying stuff any time we like. Here and now is relaxing time, okay?”
He sighed, but nodded. “Aye, you have to remind me every bloody time… Sorry.”
“It weighs on your mind, I get that. But you have to just stop and enjoy life sometimes, Owen. For your own good. Okay?”
She smiled when he nodded.
“Good. We’d better actually put some clothes on though, I booked us a table. Nothing as fancy as those Michelin star places you have over in Folctha, but…”
“‘Course not! This is an American colony! I don’t come here for the haute couture.”
“That’s clothing. I think you mean cuisine.”
“…Whatever, I don’t come here for the bloody French either.”
“No, you come here for your fine whisky girlfriend.”
He gave her a powerful squeeze. “Bloody right I do.”
Rylee gave him a smooch, then rolled off him, sprang to her feet and headed for her closet. She’d picked out an outfit already, which gave her plenty of time, but she stopped and glanced over her shoulder at him before opening the door. He hadn’t moved yet.
“…You can’t watch forever.”
“Get up and get dressed!”
He grinned, chuckled, and rolled to his feet as well, then trotted away heavily down the stairs to go grab his abandoned suitcase. Rylee had to admit she enjoyed watching him in turn…
She beamed to herself, and followed her own instructions. She had a week of good hard R&R in front of her, and planned to use every minute of it well, take the opportunity to actually wear a slinky dress for a change…
They both needed it.
Date Point: 17y6m3w AV
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth
At last, finally, Austin’s daily meat-and-dirt work came to some lull in the endless toil. That was apparently the rhythm of crop farming: bursts of high activity, followed by periods of slowness.
Which, of course, the farmers filled with more work. Tinkering with their existing machinery, educating themselves on new techniques and new technological developments, negotiating with suppliers and buyers and financial services and government development grants… Even the slow days in crop farming were work days.
With the micro-relay active, Six could use some of the quieter moments for himself. When Austin was driving home late at night after helping out another farm a few minutes away with a technical problem, Six tapped into the big man’s phone and synchronized with his ship. He’d done that a couple of times a day since getting the relay up, in moments where Austin was distracted or busy with something else.
This time… there was something he could use. New information that proposed exactly what he’d requested, a means of inflicting serious damage with minimal exposure on his part, if only he could be in the right place at the right time to use it.
Six ransacked his own memory and Austin’s, comparing what he knew with what he needed… and almost lost control and had his host grinning like a lunatic when he found something.
Third most populous city in the USA, and a hub for both continental freight and offworld freight. If one mapped the arterial network for America’s railroads, then Chicago was the pumping heart right at the root. So, naturally, it was also home to the jump interlink with Franklin. The arrays there were the biggest in the world, as big as was practical before running into prohibitive energy demands. Whole freight trains could be shunted into place, stacked on several levels, then jumped wholesale directly onto the rail network on another planet.
And there was a farm progress show there in a few days that Austin had been tempted to attend anyway.
When it came to manipulating his host, Six had found the easiest approach was to just nudge Austin into doing what he wanted to do anyway. He was much too bull-headed and stubborn otherwise, and it had for instance taken a stand-up shouting match with Lauren before he finally started wearing his seatbelt while driving.
She’d rewarded him with mating play that evening, which was further proof in Six’s opinion that the best way to control a human male was with a human female.
Getting him to do what he really wanted to do but was fretting about though? That was easy. It just took a little nudge. The insertion of a small observation about how he could manage his time, a micro-inspiration on what he could do that would let him go, guilt-free.
Six knew he’d succeeded when Austin slapped his own forehead and called himself a dumbass for not thinking of it sooner.
With the matter of getting to the right place undiscovered taken care of, Six turned his attention to the other matter: how to turn half-baked Hunter theories founded on recovered fragments of data and unreliable memorized details, into the Hierarchy’s first real telling blow against Earth and the human race.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Humans built redundant safety into everything they did, it seemed. But it was possible, and that was more than Six had had since he arrived.
He’d take it.
Date Point: 17y6m3w AV
Colony of Eyes-Turned-Upwards, planet Hope
Ukusevi, Librarian and Keeper of the Long Chant
“How did they get in?”
“Those old bunker-cities are so riddled with old access points and tunnel connections that calling them a bunker is… quite inaccurate.” The Whitecrest officer shook his head softly. “Despite our best efforts, we missed one. And one of your people decided to sneak out and tell the Hunters how to sneak in.”
“…I see. And, what happened to this person?”
“The Hunters ate her.”
Ukusevi cringed. She appreciated honesty, but this particular Whitecrest was rather blunter than she cared for.
…Or weary and hardened by conflict, maybe. He dealt in secrets and “intelligence” after all. Presumably he knew plenty of terrible things. Presumably, what he’d just shared wasn’t even particularly grim by his standards.
It shouldn’t have been grim by Uku’s either, but the last few weeks, the escape to this new, beautiful world, leaving the bunkers and tunnels and fear behind her… perhaps she had forgotten how harsh things truly were. And so quickly, too. Not long ago, the news that somebody had been eaten would have been just a sad fact of daily life.
No, she couldn’t blame the Whitecrest for his direct, no-nonsense report. She’d needed the reminder, perhaps.
“How many others did we lose?”
“Thirty confirmed dead, among your people. Five, among mine. Lots of fire damage, dozens needed treatment for smoke inhalation. But the library remains intact, and we’ve stepped up the evacuation.” He indicated the jump array, and the stack of archive boxes now being offloaded from it and moved into the barn.
“Considering the massacre that followed whenever they invaded our bunkers before… I suppose I should be thankful we lost so few.” Ukusevi meant it, but her heart didn’t. The liberation had lit a spark in her that shed a new light on the murder of her people. She’d stopped thinking of death and misery as daily reality, and started to imagine they might all escape it.
Foolish and naive.
“Please… give my thanks to those who fought, and especially to the wounded,” she said. “I have another meeting soon.”
The Whitecrest just duck-nodded respectfully, turned, and returned toward the jump array with straight-backed dignity. Some of the fur along his back had a singed quality, Uku noticed.
She didn’t know if “breed” was the right word for him and the other Whitecrests, but they stood out from the norm and as a whole, seemed to marry precise bearing and understated poise. He’d said nothing of his own involvement. They were very different creatures from their much larger Stoneback cousins.
On that note, she had a meeting next with Grandfather Vark. He prowled in shortly after the Whitecrest had left, and there was nothing understated about him at all. He had huge gleaming metal fangs and a heavily lacerated body from head to toe. The Whitecrests were precise and mindful. One hardly noticed them unless they wished it. Vark swaggered.
“‘Yer gonna need more barns,” he noted.
“We’re building them as quickly as we can,” Uku replied, indicating the four that had gone up since his last visit. Her people might not have the raw brawn that the Gao, Humans and Ten’Gewek had shown on that first day, but working hard? That they knew well. Taking away the Hunters’ lashes and fangs and threats of instant merciless painful slaughter hadn’t dimmed her peoples’ work ethic. If anything they were working harder, now that they reaped the benefits themselves.
“Yeah, it’s pretty impressive!” He flashed her a charming (and mildly terrifying) grin. “We’re workin’ on some other housin’ options ‘sides tents. We’ve got these, uh, ‘containerized housing units’ things that the Humans flooded us with durin’ our War, an’ they’re pretty nice once ‘ya get ‘em cleaned up. Kinda bulky, though. Can only fit two through the Array at a time, yijao?”
That word was an interesting one, in that her translator device never actually translated it. She’d noticed it did that for words that didn’t…well, translate properly.
She’d taken to noting them down. So far, her favorites were yijao, minin (a particular scent note that any Gao could recognize but which was entirely absent from Uku’s own olfactory lexicon) umami (a flavor note that was obvious in retrospect, from a predator’s perspective) chutzpah and, from the Ten’Gewek, a nearly unpronounceable trilling-guttural word for scratching an otherwise unreachable place with the tip of one’s tail. It had connotations of simultaneous mild frustration and deep, satisfying pleasure, and tended to be used whenever one had solved a particularly vexing problem, for example.
And of course, there was the ubiquitous fuck. That word seemed to mean absolutely anything at all, but emphatically. All three of the Deathworld predator peoples used it freely, and she still had not ascertained its origin.
That seemed to amuse all three species. The Humans claimed it was theirs. The other two claimed it was better in their mouths, with the Ten’Gewek in particular intimating all sorts of raunchy details about how they perceived matters, and the Gao intimating that humans hadn’t so much invented the word as discovered it.
“That will help. But really, right now, the limit on how quickly we can bring people isn’t access to housing, it’s how quickly we can determine whether they’re safe or not.” Uku fidgeted with her journal. She’d recorded long and detailed entries on that particular problem.
Before the Gao came, her people had been aligned. There had been the Chant, and the Punishment, and the simple brutality of living from day to day. The schism was…
Well, the fact that people could willingly go to their deaths to let the Hunters come and burn their neighbors was troubling to say the least. The assaults, the attempted murders, the would-be arsonists trying to destroy the archives… And somehow, Uku and her followers were supposed to build a new civilization with that going on? When any new face who came through the array might be fanatically devoted to punishing them for trying to escape and live in peace?
Vark nodded his head, slowly and solemnly. “Yeah. Reckon there’s a cabal like the ones who betrayed Lament-Sung-Softly pretty much ev’rywhere.”
“Perhaps they just need time and compassion. It’s not like they could call the Hunters on us here…”
“No, but they can murder an’ sabotage.” Vark shook his head. “I ain’t got good advice. This ain’t like anything I ever dealt with. I think ‘yer doin’ it the right way ‘round, though. Only bringin’ the people you know ain’t a problem.”
“That could create resentment later…”
“There’s already resentment. You gotta look out ‘fer ‘yer own people first, worry about putin’ the others right later, when y’ain’t still buildin’ barns an’ savin’ history.”
“They are my people. Just… not following us, yet.”
“That’s an optimism I wish I could share,” Vark grumbled sympathetically. “But ‘ya gotta preserve ‘yer people ‘fore you can rescue the rest. An’ they really, really ain’t ‘yer people if’n they intend on murderin’ ‘ya. Jus’ sayin.’”
“…Knowing what I do of your history,” Uku sighed. “I can see why you say that. Threats to the Gao don’t last long. Especially if those threats are Gao.”
Vark tilted his head and sniffed the air for a moment. “…’Yer people have enemies, Ukusevi. Some of ‘yer enemies look like you. D’you want ‘em to win?”
“No, I wasn’t criticizing, I just…” Ukusevi sighed and shook her head. “Your Great Father has literally eviscerated Champions in front of the others. He destroyed whole cities to eliminate the armies contained within. It’s a strength, I suppose. That ruthlessness. And maybe it’s a strength we should learn to emulate. But there are so few of us, Grandfather Vark. I want to save as many as I can, and I know what that will surely mean, but…”
“I think Daar would be the first ‘ta tell ‘ya you don’t wanna be emulatin’ him, if’n ‘ya can avoid it.”
Ukusevi nodded, then looked toward the chain of boxes being passed from hands to hands, from array to barn.
“…I should catalog the incoming books,” she said.
“An’ I need ‘ta be on that array when it’s time ‘ta jump out,” Vark agreed. “Makes me glad ‘ta see you doin’ so good here, Keeper. ‘Yer handlin’ a tough transition well.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“Naw.” He prowled over toward the door. “It warms an old heart ‘ta see the young do good. I’m gonna go get some work done now, an’ I’ll be on that jump with you, ‘kay?”
Uku nodded. She needed to return, it was true. To see the damage for herself, to say what needed to be said to the people left behind. She’d be safe enough with Gaoian guards, after all. But she wasn’t looking forward to going back to the dank, stinking, polluted depths of her home planet. Not after she’d had time to grow used to the clean air and good food… But needs must.
“Okay,” she said.
How else could she save anyone?
Date Point: 17y6m4w AV
Ping Tom Interstellar Jump Complex, Chicago, Illinois, USA, Earth
On a whim, Austin had signed up for a side-tour at the industry show. A busload of them had been shipped downtown to check out how their hard work made it off-world to Cimbrean, or came back from the farmers and industry on Cimbrean to feed the American economy.
It was interesting stuff, even if Lauren was finding it kinda dull and seemed more interested in how much he looked at the friendly tour guide.
The tour guide, of course, was just doing her job. “Ping Tom memorial park began life as a thirty-two acre rail yard, which was purchased by the Chinese-American Development Corporation in nineteen eighty-nine, and expanded in ‘ninety-one. It opened to the public in October of ‘ninety-nine…”
Lauren had a jealous streak that Austin found endearing, really. She didn’t have to worry about him, but it was cute that she did. He reassured her with an arm around her waist, but kept listening. A while back he mighta found the history lesson dull too, but lately…
He had to admit, the jump complex was a hell of a thing. Some architect had had fun trying to make big industrial square boxes look kinda-sorta interesting, and had even succeeded. The “jump sheds” weren’t just cubes of aluminum siding, they were elegant curved things that gleamed on a sunny day.
…Not a whole lot anyone could do to pretty up the rail tracks running in and out of ‘em, though. But the trees did help.
“…north of the St. Charles Airline Bridge was left undeveloped until the Franklin frontier initiative and the Interstellar Trade Act created a demand for a major jump array complex, and this land was deemed perfect for the role…”
Pretty cool. Austin had a pretty good view of the inside of one of the sheds as it worked to offload an incoming shipment from Franklin. There was already a long train of freight cars snaking out of the shed’s mouth, hooked up to a pair of locomotives. Through the shed’s glass wall, he could see the next plate in the huge multi-level mechanism crawling slowly down to ground level so the next few dozen cars could be rolled off and hooked up.
It was all so far away that it looked small, but there were a lot of big train cars packed into that shed. It put a thrill in Austin’s head, seeing something so big at work. That was a whole mile of train right there, all carefully packed into a cube so that it could be flung back and forth between distant planets.
“Just don’t start playing with toy trains…” Lauren grumbled.
“Naw, I’ve got bigger an’ better toys to play with on the farm anyway.” Austin gave her a snuggle. “You gotta admit it’s cool though!”
“I guess…” Lauren shrugged. “You always did like big machines.”
“And they don’t get much bigger than that! look at that thing! That’s gotta be a few thousand tons riding up and down on those lift platforms!”
She rolled her eyes and squeezed his arm. “Well, I’m glad you’re having fun.”
Austin felt a sudden pang of guilt over that. This really wasn’t her thing, and she had been humoring him all day…
“Well…okay. You wanted to go to the Field Museum, right? I did want to watch it go…” She gave him a Look, and he felt another pang. “But we can go, if you want.”
She stood on her toes and pecked him on the cheek. “Let’s go, babe. They have dinosaurs!”
Well, that wouldn’t be so bad, then!
By necessity, the computers that controlled the jump arrays were connected to the Internet. With Earth locked down behind a Farthrow generator, it was the only practical way for commercial and military jump traffic to receive an authorized window in the suppression field.
Also by necessity, the security around them was, from Six’s perspective, the kind of hideous thicket that only deathworlders could have dreamed up. Gao and Human alike had a culture of cyberspace pranking that kept their data security experts on their toes, but Six, being familiar with both, knew from experience that Human coders had a malicious streak that the Gao sometimes lacked.
The Internet was ultimately just a stupid system for blindly transporting packets of data to their correct address, most of the time. It wasn’t smart, but was instead the diligent, methodical kind of stupid that could be far worse. There were checks and passwords and codes to overcome, and once those particular locks were picked… Well, that was just the start. Humans had a cautionary analogy about insect hives, and the way they’d react viciously to any attacker, but an intruder who got inside undetected would be ignored.
Their security designers had taken that lesson to heart. Six was going to have to pretend to be an appropriately authorized user, accessing from an appropriately authorized device, and the mask couldn’t slip for a second. Fortunately for him, Six was a creature of data and code. From his perspective, the traps and firewalls between him and his prize weren’t abstract logical puzzles at a far remove, read through clumsy graphical user interfaces. To him, they were tangible and he could interact with them directly. And he had millennia of experience in pretending to be someone else.
Still… this one was going to test him.
So while Austin toured the show and marvelled at the grain trains and the stupendous amount of wheat rolling out of the jump shed, Six was busy using his phone. There was no physical analogue for the experience of infiltrating the jump shed’s systems through a phone via an ever-shifting web of temporary connections and trying to convince a stupid but incredibly dilligent machine that he was one of the few people who were allowed to tell it what to do.
Tap-dancing on a spiderweb, maybe. While juggling disguises. With a gun aimed at him.
A few obscure flaws and glitches helped him on his way, weird interactions between obscure thousands-long strings of characters, and software foundations nearly half a century old. Hidden from human sight by the numb distance of matter-beings interacting with the digital world, but knowable to Six as he concentrated.
Each one was a key in a sophisticated lock, each one laid bare the passwords and authentication he needed to be who he needed to be for whatever device happened to glance at him.
It was painstaking work, and finally an analogy did occur to him: Clearing a minefield. He had to do it slowly, carefully and steadily. One mistake and at best his attempt would fail. At worst…
It took seven minutes and thirty-nine seconds. And a further two minutes and sixteen seconds to withdraw safely. He’d picked his target carefully, identifying a freight train bound for Franklin with more than a hundred cars. A full mile of steel beams, copper wire, tubing and cable, aluminium sheeting, fibre-optic reels, computers, agricultural equipment, fertilizer, plastic tubing, glass panes, seed, timber, gravel, road vehicles, and who-knew what else…
All of that mass. And while the Hunters may not have figured out how to duplicate the effect of the weapon the Humans had used at Gao… they knew it involved weaponizing a catastrophic wormhole collapse.
Their theory was that the collapsing wormhole would squirt the transiting matter out the far side as a superheated volatile plasma. If so, the weapon at Gao must have used vast amounts of matter as ammunition. Seawater, maybe. It wasn’t an efficient weapon at all, which may explain why the Humans hadn’t used it since.
But for Six’s purposes, it would be enough. And best of all, the only thing he had to do in order to achieve that effect was introduce the right defect to the jump control systems and then walk away.
Humanity’s own industrious proclivities would do the rest.
Prompting his host was, as ever, trivial where his woman was concerned. All he had to do was wait for Austin to lay eyes on his partner, and trigger a subtle oxytocin rush. Physics, chemistry, and biological reality would take care of the rest.
There was one last step in covering his tracks, made possible by the fact that last night, the Injunctor had informed Six about a positive development; a new host had been identified, and could be prepared immediately. A quick examination of the host’s profile suggested he would be much easier to manage… and much better-positioned to Six’s benefit in the aftermath of what was about to happen.
Admittedly, losing Austin’s physical stature would likely prove inconvenient—beyond his prodigious and enduring natural strength he was also quite tall, and that made both optical and aural host-based surveillance much easier. Unfortunate, but in the end, it was for the best.
He’d schedule Austin for de-implantation at some future date. The least Six could do was let him escape the repercussions of what he hadn’t consciously done. Let him and his partner enjoy life.
While they still could.
Campsite, planet Nightmare
Daar had been right. The People did not like the cold.
Ferd had thought he knew what cold was. Cold was being wet and miserable and sheltering in a hut to stay out of the rain, ideally with somebody to hold close and a nice fire going.
He hadn’t known that cold could be a dry thing that gnawed through his clothes, or slid across his face like a knife. He hadn’t known that the air could get so cold that just breathing hurt and made his lips sore and cracked.
Jooyun had shown him that a man could take some of the fat from a murderpig, cook it in a pot over a fire, and use the tallow to smear a thin layer over the skin. It would make for a very bad-tasting air about him, but it fought back the slice of the cold just enough to be bearable.
Even the fire didn’t really make the shelter warm. It made the shelter not hurt.
“We’re lucky to have these sleeping bags,” Jooyun said while he was bundled up in his own. “Last time I was here I had to bury myself under all the hides. Being a sleeping-bag burrito is almost luxurious.”
Rees was warming his hands around a metal cup of that sweet hot tea drink he and Frasier liked so much. “Least it’s fuckin’ dry. I got caught out on Fan Hir when I was a kid, freezing rain, couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Got soaked to the skin before we could get in the bivvy, and nearly lost the fuckin’ thing in the wind, too.”
“Dry cold will kill you plenty fast,” Jooyun told him. “Often because it’s a lot colder than you think it is.”
Rees just nodded and sipped his drink. “…You built one of these all by yourself last time?”
“Mine was smaller, and shallower.” Jooyun stood up, stepped up on the earthen ramp, and looked over the side. “…Snow’s right up to the top of the wall, now.”
Ferd shuddered. The snow had come in hard that morning, turning the whole world into a white place so the only way he’d known he was the right way up was tree-sense, and even that had gone wobbly. The humans called it a “whiteout.” The wind had come up and stung him from below, even the sound had changed. It had gone… flat, somehow. Soft.
A man could get very lost in that quiet, white world. Especially when he was screwing his eyes up against the wind and the bright, even with his new big Oakleys. But, they’d all got back into the shelter, and now between the earthworks, the wall, and the snow, there was no wind to bother them, and the firewood pile was big enough to last for days if they weren’t stupid. According to Jooyun, it might have to.
And to think, Ferd had found the snow pretty at first.
“Glad the relay wasn’t on a world like this,” Nomuk muttered.
“Next one might be,” Frasier was drinking coffee.
Heff didn’t like the cold, either. Tek-sass was apparently a very warm place. It sounded nice. “Almost makes me miss Stinkworld. Place smelled like rotting ass, but it let you keep ‘yer fuckin’ toes.”
..And so on. Jooyun didn’t do much complaining, he let everyone else do it for him. And Ferd had to admit, as he sipped his own mug of tomato soup, Nightmare wasn’t all bad. The trees were pretty even without their leaves, and some had nice, strong branches that he could climb without much worry. The prey was tasty and the gravity was strong here too, so that Nightmare felt like a cold sister to his own home.
And he’d learned a lot here. He was a stronger man for coming, and that was the whole point. He was glad to have come, really.
But he’d be glad to go home again, too.
Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois, USA, Earth
“See? I knew you’d enjoy it!”
Lauren was looking way happier now. Trains might leave her cold, but everybody loved dinosaurs. And Sue the T-rex was a beauty alright. Austin was quite happy to stand there and watch the interactive display and learn some stuff, and Lauren looked like she’d regressed to a geeky little girl.
All in all, this whole trip was shaping up into a nice little way to mix business and a sorta-vacation. Tomorrow was the last day of the conference, and there was a presentation on forcefields in agriculture for fuck sake! How cool was that?
The dino presentation reached the end and went silent for about half a minute before starting over again, and Lauren took Austin’s hand to pull him away and show him one of the side exhibits.
“You’re having fun,” he teased her.
“Of course I am! You were right, this whole trip was a good—”
Something smacked the whole building. There was a heavy crack and dust rained from the ceiling. Austin grabbed Lauren and pulled her into a protective hug as people shrieked and the lights went out. All the exhibit narration went silent, and there was a moment of stunned silence, punctuated by yelps of fear.
The building alarms went off. Every alarm panel was blinking in unison, and lights in the floor appeared to guide them towards the exits, which were now brightly lit in the dark.
They joined a flood of people streaming through the exhibits, out into the big hall, and toward the doors. He could feel Lauren’s fingernails digging into his hand, she was holding on so tight, and the air smelled of plaster dust.
They staggered out of the museum’s south exit, but what Austin saw—and the heat that slapped him in the cheek—stopped him dead in his tracks
To his right, rising above the rooftops from the rail complex they’d been touring only an hour or so before, the biggest fireball he’d ever seen was still unfolding itself into the sky.
Grissom AFB, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“You really suck at this!”
“What d’you want? I don’t play videogames much!”
Rylee quietly reveled in her victory. They were playing Street Fighter of all the games, and she was casually beating the ever-lovin’ fuck out of Owen.
With Zangief, no less. The irony in that was just too delicious to pass up.
“And here I thought you knew how to handle big strong men…”
“Mine don’t spin around like a bloody top!”
“Yes they do! Have you seen ‘Horse and Righteous at it?”
“More times than I care to remember… how the fook did you do that?”
“You just press both shoulder buttons when the bar is full.”
Owen harrumphed. “Well that would’ve been bloody useful to know earlier.”
Rylee beamed, leaned over and kissed him. “Wouldn’t have saved you.”
He gave her a look that concealed amusement behind a thin pretense of irritation. “Not gonna save you, if you keep on enjoyin’ this too much.”
“Oh no, what-ever will you do?”
“Oh, I think I can come up with summat appropriately—”
There was a dazzling flash, so bright that Rylee yelped and covered her eyes just from the reflection of it on the far wall, There was a sudden smell of smoke and the crackle of something catching fire.
Owen was instantly in violent, inescapable motion. He had her snatched off the floor in a blink before she could register what was happening. He leapt downstairs with her in his arms and landed with a crash, crunching a hole right through her good wooden floor. He ripped off a closet door before she could mouth an objection and hurled her into it—
The world hit Rylee in the chest, exploded her house apart around her, and then…
Wilmington, Delaware, USA, Earth
Slow days were still a novelty, really. And mowing his own lawn? After all that time in the big office, something as simple as sitting on a ride-on mower on a nice sunny day and keeping the grass short felt more like an odd kind of luxury than a chore. Sure, Arthur was rich enough to afford to pay somebody else to do it, but Daar was right: there was something liberating in a man doing his own yardwork.
The huge murderbear was rubbing off on him. Hell, he’d even taken to watching his diet, a little. Never giving up cannolis though. That was too far.
And the best part of toiling in the sun was getting to head back indoors afterwards and crack open a cold beer. Somehow, being covered in a gritty layer of perspiration, dust and grass clippings made it taste sweeter, and made his chair deeper and softer as he collapsed in it with a satisfied sigh and basked for a while.
A man could appreciate life a little more when he had to work for it. And when he’d spent years focusing on higher things.
He turned on the TV. The news was the usual mess of people talking at cross purposes, meaning different things by the same words, not really listening to each other. It always amazed Arthur how person A could say something, and person B could hear the exact opposite meaning in their words.
It just had to be borne as part of human nature. A man could go mad if he let it get to him too much.
The week’s particular scandal involved the mutually hostile governors of Indiana and Illinois, two people whose political relationship was… to borrow from British understatement for a moment, “Fraught.”
More accurately, both men were firmly convinced their opposite number was the Antichrist. And so there had been words and those words had been spun and the whole thing had become plenty of juicy filler for news networks hungry for something important to report on.
Arthur sighed and reclined his seat a little, and collected his tablet from the end table beside him while the reporter on his TV summarized the situation with a skyline view in the background. He turned the sound down and opened up a podcast he’d been meaning to listen to instead…
Some movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he looked up sharply. The reporter still hadn’t noticed yet, probably because he was sitting in front of a green screen…
But behind his shoulder, a titanic explosion was blossoming over downtown Chicago.
Private estates, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
♫♯“…Hrrm rr-mm hmm hhmmmm, hm-rrr diggy HOOOO-LE!”♭♪
Planting trees was a rare opportunity to dig a real big hole. And honestly, diggin’ big holes was somethin’ Daar had never grown outta!
This tree was a gift from Earth. A Ratchapruek, the national tree of Thailand, ‘cuz Naydi had the stonkin’ great idea to do a cultural exchange with trees! The Gao considered trees to be something next ‘ta sacred, an’ they only grew nicely around the tropics, where there was almost no available land left for proper forestry. Everywhere else they grew way too slow an’ scraggly to be of much use, ‘sides bein’ pretty.
Here, they were growing in Daar’s personal arboretum. Well, personal for now. He fully intended it to be something any Gao could come visit, but it weren’t ready for that just yet.
He’d been collectin’ trees from all over. Most were seedlings still, rare specimens that Clan Forestnettle had gifted him for the project. The rest were from Earth. Gifts, all of them. One was a cherry tree from the President Chambliss—thoughtful, really! An’ it had such purdy good-smelly flowers! Another was an English Oak from the British King. That one smelled good too, but richer and spicier. It reminded him a bit of really old leather, the stuff tanned the traditional way. There was also a Canadian Maple, and a Eucalyptus from Australia—that one needed special safety measures, since some Gao were allergic.
Things were comin’ along pretty nice! He’d had a good workout that mornin’ and what better cool-down could there be than diggin’?! Naydi was off bein’ a Great Mother, council wouldn’t meet ‘fer a few more hours…
…Brother Tiyun came running over on four-paw, an’ he din’t ever hurry about unless things were gods-damned important. Daar sighed, leapt outta the hole, and shook th’ dirt outta his fur an’ paws.
Tiyun skidded to a halt and reared up onto his back paws. “Clan Whitecrest just issued a strategic alert, grade two.”
Daar felt the fur on his back rise reflexively and his shoulders tense up. “What happened and where?”
“I don’t know yet, My Father.”
Daar dropped to four-paw too and moved. The last time any Clan had issued a Strategic alert higher than four had been the first day of the Homeworld War, when the biodrones had risen up and the slaughter had begun.
Grade two meant the Gao and their allies were under attack. And that was a thing Daar would not abide. He slammed through into his emergency shed, crawled into his armor, charged over to the jump array and—
Nothing happened. The Array refused to fire. And that meant an emergency halt order was in effect.
He turned to Tiyun, who was scrambling to keep up.
“…Get me a shuttle.”
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“…Fuck sake, what’s wrong with the fuckin’ thing?”
Derek rose from the couch with a grumble and knelt down in front of the TV to inspect it, as if that would do anything. Ava just sighed, shrugged, and sipped her wine, and watched the spinning icon on the screen and the word “buffering…” with irritation.
“Turn it off and on again?” she suggested.
“I guess…” Derek stood, then frowned as the TV screen changed to an error screen of some kind with the disingenuously chirpy message ‘Connection lost! Sorry about that!’
Resetting everything didn’t work. They still had Internet access on everything else in the house, but… limited. Some things were online, some weren’t.
Every address Ava tried that ended in .fo.cim worked fine. So did .bo.cim, .na.cim and .nz.cim. It was just the .fr.cim addresses that refused to connect.
A familiar crawling, tingling sensation in her arms and back swept over her. She’d always believed in a sixth sense of some kind, or maybe just that there was some part of the human brain that was really. really good at sniffing the wind and noticing the little details out of place that spelled danger. And right now…
Her thumb was hovering over the green icon even before her phone rang.
She listened. She nodded, swallowing down an all-too-familiar surge of stressful emotions. “Sure. I’ll come right in. Yeah. Fast as I can.”
She hung up. Derek watched her intently for a moment, then stood up and went to grab his shoes. He didn’t need telling, he knew her instincts well enough by now.
They kissed, and went to work.
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
“Can an array just… malfunction like that?”
“Easily, I’m told. Apparently, getting them to not smash whatever they transit into a blast of highly compressed high-energy plasma, so that you can safely pass through, that’s the hard part. They’re all designed with several layers of failsafes to prevent exactly this kind of misfire, Mister President. ”
“Dear God…” Chambliss touched his face as he considered that thought. “…So an entire freight train just arrived in Franklin as a cloud of superheated gas?”
“Yes sir. USS Robert Heinlein and USS San Diego are in orbit and sending down Weavers, but… from the orbital imagery, the colony looks like a nuke hit it. We’re probably looking at tens of thousands dead, God-knows-how-many wounded, and until we can figure out what caused the misfire and whether it’s safe to jump again… even if we had an intact jump array on the ground…”
Chambliss nodded. “Send formal aid requests to the other Cimbrean colonies, and see how quickly we can re-establish jump contact. The sooner we can get help to those people, the better. What about Chicago?”
A funereal silence descended on the room.
“The death toll there is, um… well, we’re lucky it wasn’t higher. But the economic damage is going to be…” The speaker tailed off, awkwardly.
“Franklin was a massive investment, and generating enormous resources. Rescuing the colony and restoring it is going to be incalculably expensive. Writing it off for lost, even more so. Then there’s the damage to Chicago’s own rail throughput, which is right at the heart of our own national logistics…”
“In short Mister President, we don’t know exactly how bad this is going to be, just that it’s bad.”
Chambliss nodded resignedly. “The sooner we have actual numbers to work with, the sooner we can start doing something about it,” he said, then tailed off as the door opened. General Kolbeinn ducked into the room with his hat under his arm and his already grim face locked down in an expression of utmost seriousness.
Chambliss had known this was coming. He looked up at Kolbeinn, then stood.
“…How bad is it?” he asked.
Kolbeinn shook his head.
“Mister President,” he said, his voice heavier and more solemn than Chambliss had ever heard, “…I regret to inform you that Grissom Air Force Base, and the 946th space fighter wing, have been destroyed.”
Chambliss sat down again.
He’d known, of course. Or at least, that much had been assumed. But hearing it spoken aloud by the Supreme Allied Commander of Extrasolar Defence was…
He shut his eyes.
Lakebeds National Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Adam didn’t take long vacations. He was too busy, too invested in his own personal improvement (“making crazy progress again!”), improving everyone else with his aggressively cheery coaching (“Firth’ll kick my ass one day I bet!”), and building his family (“And we’ll have six or seven, you know.” “Dogs?” “No, Marty! Strapping boys, like me!”). That last line of his had earned him a slap across the shoulders…and that in turn had earned her a “punishment…”
Which had, in turn, resulted in baby number two.
Baby number two was coming on top of their already insanely busy schedules, but they’d made it work once, and she had no doubt they’d make it work again. So, long planned-out vacations really weren’t a thing in the Arés household. That didn’t mean they went without downtime, though. They just…took more three-day weekends. A day off here and there, maybe a half-week now and then. It wasn’t quite as romantic as they’d done for their honeymoon, but…
Well, Marty was pregnant, so Adam’s infamously breathtaking superolympic bedroom feats weren’t on offer…but they weren’t a chaste couple, and hadn’t ever been; that was a big part of the attraction, really. Adam had needs and Marty knew how to take care of her man. That was really the secret to taming him. And there was cuddling, too. Lots of that.
And his unique brand of doting affection, which included breakfast in bed and an almost drama-free domestic life. He had his man-cave gym and was happy to leave her in charge of their home, which was just the way she liked it. He knew how to take care of her, too.
Nevertheless, even Adam needed to relax now and then, and one of their favorite spots was Lakebeds. They didn’t do camping or anything; even completely resting, he ate like ten huge men put together. Instead they rented a cabin for a few days and enjoyed the outdoors. Small things like a gentle walk by the river. They had lunch at a table made out of logs next to one of the smaller waterfalls that was less of a tourist attraction but, to Marty’s eye, had the big one called “Antrim Wash” beat for sheer prettiness. It was a safe spot for Diego to toddle around and pick up interesting rocks while Adam kept an eye on him, and for Marty to just enjoy family.
At the moment, Adam was doing his cheery hulk-puppy thing with another couple sitting at another table, once Diego and their child had discovered each other. For the moment, Marty was content to watch. She enjoyed people-watching and she especially enjoyed watching Adam interact with regular folk. Today he was even almost decently clothed, wearing a big pair of loose basketball shorts that went down below his knees, his indestructible sandals, and his favorite “Speedsters” tank-top. Much less…aggressive than his usual, but would that be enough with them?
Adam was…well, quite honestly? He wasn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Adam and the Lads were undeniably superhuman in a lot of ways, and he was by far the most extreme example of all of them, an unmatched man across the entire board. He had an overwhelming presence and would naturally intimidate everyone who met him if he didn’t positively radiate happiness and friendly intent. And that made for interesting interactions everywhere he went.
Still, he was good at making friends. And some part of her really enjoyed watching him at it. He had a way of just…taking charge of any situation. He usually didn’t mean to, and he was never malicious about it, but people couldn’t help but follow his lead wherever he went. That was one of the biggest things that originally attracted her to him: his essential good-natured playfulness, his exciting aggression…and his well-meaning dominance. There just wasn’t any other word for it. She was definitely biased, but as far as Marty was concerned, she had married a smart, playful goofball who was also the biggest, strongest, most handsome man there ever was, the standout best man on a team full of extreme overachievers…and he was all hers.
Adam was gesturing excitedly with his hands now, which was a clear sign he’d found some common interest with his New Friend. Friend was a young man who was clearly cowed by the happy hulking force of nature that had come to say hi. The young man’s partner, however…she had a much different expression on her face while she watched Adam. Marty would admit she enjoyed that, too…
But she wasn’t the type to share. Time to introduce herself.
They were nice people, of course, recently married and making evening plans when Diego had toddled over to them to show their own adorable son—Chris—his newest rock. That brought Adam over and set off some entertaining chemistry he was largely oblivious to. They were enjoying each other’s company, idly making plans for a double date later that night…
And it came crashing down in an instant.
Adam never really got time off, of course. He could be recalled any time. There was no sense in worrying about it, the family just had to do their thing and take the gamble. Mostly it paid off. This time, though…
Well, Adam and Marty both knew what that ringtone meant. Adam answered it sharply, listened, spoke a few short words of confirmation, then gave Marty a sorry look.
“…Sounds bad. We’d better get back to the truck quick.”
“Just go,” Marty told him. “I’ll get your dad to come get us.”
He nodded, kissed her, kissed Diego, and then vanished. There was an impossible blur of crashing movement up the trail, and he was gone.
She had a fear. A deep, deep fear. Adam was the best there was because that was what was needed to do the job. Nobody could fill his boots, figuratively or literally. He was irreplaceable.
Not just to the HEAT.
Marty took a deep breath, turned her eyes to the sky, and silently asked for everything to be okay…
But she knew it wouldn’t be.
Downing Street, London, UK, Earth
Prime Minister Stephen Davies
“All jump arrays have responded to the halt order, Prime Minister.”
“Good. At least we won’t have the same thing happening in Folctha, or anywhere else for that matter…”
Davies badly needed a drink. He’d been a back-bencher at the time of the San Diego bombing, and though that event had been orders of magnitude larger in terms of the scale of the blast, Franklin was likely to hit even harder in terms of political and economic consequences. The USA had invested huge money and effort into Franklin, there were billions of dollars in outstanding loans and borrowing that would have taken decades to pay off, and a steady flow back and forth in materials and goods.
If the colony was written off, America would have to swallow an enormous debt, not to mention the collapse of such valuable trade. Rebuilding the colony, on the other hand, would also incur vast costs, and the flow of commerce would be… discouraged, to put it mildly.
Either way, a country that was still recovering from the destruction of one of its cities was now facing the same again. Thank God the devastation had been fairly confined on the Chicago end of the jump array.
Fairly confined. Relatively confined. The array had still exploded with the force of a large bomb, but not a nuke. Mere dozens dead and wounded, not hundreds.
…Not millions. Thank God for that small mercy at least.
But until the cause of the malfunction was known, and until it could be corrected so that this never happened again, it was a good thing the Cimbrean and Lucent colonies were self-sufficient. They’d have to fend for themselves for a while.
He frowned at his private secretary as she went pale while reading a new report.
“Prime Minister… I’ve just been informed that Colonel Powell was in Franklin on leave.”
“What the bloody hell was he doing there?”
“Visiting General Jackson, I think. They’re an item.”
Davies swore, silently and internally. Outwardly, he gripped the arms of his chair to stop his hand from shaking. “…What’s the condition of the air force base there?”
Cathy shook her head, solemnly.
“Flattened, Prime Minister.”
“Totally destroyed. General Kolbeinn told President Chambliss as much just half an hour ago. Which means our ally is now without a space fighter wing.”
Davies stood up and took a moment to compose himself. He really, really wanted that drink now. But now was not the time.
“…If this was just an accident,” he muttered, “I will eat my hat.”
Ruins of Grissom AFB, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Rylee woke in the dark to the cold tap-tap-tap of water dripping on her forehead, to pain, and to confusion.
She groaned, tried to move. The pain in her arm got worse, and she tried to roll toward it. There was something extremely heavy saddled across her hips.
She’d been… at home?
Thinking. Memory. She tried to push at the heavy thing, tried to focus or at least get away from the cold water in her face. Didn’t get anywhere. Closed her eyes and tried to remember.
She’d been… at home. With Owen.
Clarity came back on the crest of an adrenaline wave.
Oh, holy fuck. They’d been nuked.
“Owen?” she worked the arm that didn’t hurt so much out of the rubble around her and… yes, it was him. That familiar heavy body, hard like oak and even tougher.
But stone cold.
“…Baby? No? Please??”
The other arm wouldn’t move. She just felt like something was stabbed right through it when she tried. But that wasn’t where the sudden, desperate tears came from.
++END CHAPTER 67++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 68: “Nadir”