The Deathworlders

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Chapter 68: Nadir

Date Point: 17y6m4w1d AV
Ruins of Grissom AFB, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Rylee Jackson

Not like this. Please, God. Not like this…

The cold went right to Rylee’s bones. She was soaked from scalp to sole and her whole body was shaking from it. The shivering kept tugging on whatever had trapped her left arm, kept the pain raw.

Still. It was a sensation. It was something to focus on, a reprieve from claustrophobic silence punctuated only by her own breath and the maddening trickle of cold water down her cheek. The only other thing she could sense in the dark was a heavy, inert weight across her hips.

God, Owen…

She’d given up on weeping. He wasn’t waking up no matter what she did, and he was so cold. Just as cold as the water… and she was probably only alive because of him.

A large part of her didn’t want to be. It would have been… fairer… to die happy, together.

But a larger part of her knew that she absolutely did not want to die of hypothermia or suffocation in the ruins of her home. So when her long silent hell was finally invaded by the muffled knocking and thumping of activity up above…

She slapped her hand against the ceiling of her grave, and summoned all the strength she had left to scream for help.

Apparently it worked. The distant voices got more urgent. The thumping got closer and heavier. There was a crack, a crunch, something sagged, something else shifted with a scraping sound, then huge blunt fingers thrust through from above, grabbed, pulled.

The sunlight was painful. She shut her eyes, but not before she saw Warhorse twist at the waist and fling aside most of her living room wall like a huge misshapen frisbee.

His arm felt shockingly warm against her sodden skin as he reached in past her, and pressed his fingers to Owen’s neck…

Some part of Rylee had held on to hope. That part flickered and died when she saw the agony that washed over Arés’ face. He put it away quickly; he still had a patient. But she knew the difference between the mobile, worried expression he’d been wearing seconds before, and the locked-down, professional mask now in place.

Rylee was too cold, too dazed from her concussion and too exhausted to really pay attention. There were…questions, that she answered. Pain, that she endured until ‘Horse gave her something to make it go away. As it turned out, something had impaled her left arm and pinned it to the rubble. Getting her out took a long time. They wrapped her in mylar and insulation and gave her sedation while they worked, so that by the time they loaded her onto an ambulance she was barely conscious and thinking at all…

She didn’t even get to see Owen before the doors closed.


Date Point: 17y6m4w2d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

The Array network was on lockdown, and that meant Deathworlder society had ground to a virtual halt. Already there were problems arising as the steady flow of raw materials from asteroid mining operations and planetside industry backed up, or wasn’t where it needed to be in time. Folks were stranded on the wrong planets, ships were having to go slow by interstellar warp rather than just safely jumping from port to port…

And that was how things were going to remain until they figured out what, exactly, had happened. Either the Franklin event was a rare malfunction of the system that needed to be fixed to ensure it never happened again… or it was enemy action, in which case, Fyu’s nuts. Their hitherto-secure lines of communication just got a whole lot less secure.

All of that meant that Daar weren’t no immediate use to nobody. He could take his time, gather facts, and act, if necessary. More likely he would preside. Reign. Encourage and guide the Champions, build up that leadership corps into a cohesive whole, rather than a nest of competing…somethings. There was a weird Earth critter, long and kinda noodly, no legs, often fantastically venomous…

Lizards? Were they lizards? Was that right? It felt right. He’d have to look it up later.

Anyway. The transition from competitors to team was comin’ along nicely, and he’d take the opportunity ‘ta hasten it along, if he could.

…Mebbe deal with an old an’ itchy burr in his fur, too.

The Bronzefurs, again. A clan of stevedores, dockers, cargo handlers and pretty much any other job that involved transferring cargo from one kind of transportation to another. They were also permanently on the edge of the Law, and had so transgressed during the War that their continued existence was by the mercy of the Females, and Daar’s personal pleasure.

It was honestly his personal distaste for slaughtering any more Gao that stayed his paw. His disgust for their wartime actions was total; Daar broke their previous champion and equally complicit grandfather in council, and he fuckin’ well enjoyed doing it. He punished the successor too, that they might grasp the reality of the situation.

But…Naydi wanted them spared, and Naydi got what she wanted. Maybe they’d rise to the occasion. Maybe they’d demonstrate whatever quality the Females saw in the Bronzefurs that inspired them to leniency. Somehow. If ever they were going to, this moment when one of the major logistical linchpins of Deathworlder society had been abruptly pulled out, was it.

Before he dealt with all of that, though, he had to make himself suitably presentable.

Some small part of himself was slightly disgusted with his sudden attention to mundane lil’ details like gettin’ cleaned up ‘fore he appeared before the Champions. But, well. A dismaying part o’ being the “god-emperor spacebear of the Deathworlders” meant his image was just as much a tool of leadership as anything else. So. He flew directly to his quarters on his personal shuttle, landing at his private pad. He got a quick but intense lifting session in so’s he’d look his athletic best for the rest of the day. Balls, ‘Horse had Daar so keyed-up and conditioned these days, even he found it a little scary. Brother Tiyun—Daar’s most bestest aide—gave Daar’s fur some attention with the brush and the oil, and maybe a strategic application of the clippers too, here and there.

Brushed an’ glossy, trimmed, neat and smelling clean an’ musky an’ ‘civilized’ rather’n a sour ol’ ditch-digger. Add in a solid pump to show off the important part of his ‘uncivilized’ side…

It’d do.

He padded down to the throne room and nodded at the guards, who respectfully stepped aside to let him pass. Daar padded up and paid his respects to the Throne, contemplated things privately for a quiet moment, then reached over to the display stand, opened it, and donned his crown. It was a deliberately heavy object, being made out of a thick, twisted band of forged osmium and hand-polished to a flawless shine. He wasn’t exactly sure how weighty it actually was; he’d guessed about ten kilos at first, but that was definitely way too low. The way Gyotin had visibly struggled to lift it overhead during the coronation, and how its substantial wooden stand always creaked slightly under its heft… The symbolism of all that weren’t lost on Daar. He’d maybe need to be terrible in the fullest sense of the word, today, and such moments were… well, they were heavy. He paid them special mind when he could sniff ‘em comin’.

As was his habit, he arrived unannounced but not stealthily. He let his footpaws fall naturally to deliberately rattle the floor, as a “discreet” means of announcing his approach. He also used a determined but not urgent pace so the Champions in council would have a moment to compose themselves. When he arrived at the ancient wooden doors—more a sieging barricade, and usually needed four strong males to laboriously heave open—he pushed them open effortlessly and prowled into the chamber. All stood while he assumed his position at the head of the table.

There were tablets, documents and maps strewn across the grand table, the tools of powerful people addressing a particularly difficult problem.

“My Champions,” he said, and sat himself down on the cold stone floor. “Please, take a seat.”

They did, and a nervous silence followed. Daar didn’t yet have a “prime minister” among his Champions—he couldn’t trust them with an independent power center just yet—so it fell on him to set direction.

Daar took a moment to settle himself in comfortably. He permitted his Champions chairs so they’d be about eye-level with him, both as a mark of respect, and to remind them of the natural order. For himself, he’d eventually acquiesced to a rug—an exquisitely handsome Dhurrie gifted to him by the Republic of India—but he eschewed a seat or a throne. Fyu had one of course, but if Daar were to try and sit on it, his heft would’ve crushed it to splinters—balls, he’d have broken it even as a late cub. Despite Fyu’s many admirable and kingly qualities, he was a small male and that meant the traditional, symbolic trappings of power were of great use to him.

Daar didn’t need them. Aside from the Crown, such things in fact actively worked against him. His power base was primal and unmissable. Sheer, unmatched might; an unshakable, unequaled will to power; uncommon skill in body and mind: those were the things that made him the Great Father. For everyone’s sake—and especially his own—it was important that everyone knew that reality to their very core the moment they smelled him, laid eyes on him, or heard him speak. If any Champion ever entertained the slightest hint of true defiance…

That was why he took time to get a good and noticeable pump into his muscles before appearing in council. Doing little things like that both disarmed the foolish against his mind, and greatly enhanced its effective use against the more intelligent and perceptive. His Champions were very much both of those things, so gentler, layered assertions of his superiority were usually more effective. That made his leadership and dominance of the Champions much more powerful, and the likelihood of violence much less. They knew what he would do, if provoked. It was therefore important they remembered why he could.

Before, all that macho snarly posturing had been a fun game. Now it was deadly serious. As a Champion before the War, he’d enjoyed his dominance over other males of course, but to him it had only ever been a playfully competitive sort of thing. He’d never meant any ill will to anyone. He still didn’t, but now he had to wield his natural dominance like a weapon, because he was the Gao, embodied in a singular person.

With the population decline (already underway), the revelations about their genetic heritage (ready to enter public trials), an existential threat from what could only be their gods, and now this, the loss of their safe lines of communication…

Since the War, the Gao were only ever one or two steps ahead of calamity. Until they could get some breathing room they couldn’t relent, and he couldn’t let them pine for it, or even consider the possibility. Daar shook out the pelt around his neck and set to business.

“I know the tactical situation well enough ‘fer now. At th’ moment I’m more interested in the strategic an’ logistical implications. In no particular order, tell me about Earth, Cimbrean, Mordor, Erebor, and Nightmare.”

The Champions glanced at each other, and a quick silent consensus figuratively pushed Champion Fiin to the front. An ideal candidate for a Prime Minister, really…but it might be unwise to elevate yet another Stoneback to high office, even if the Council chose Fiin themselves, as seemed likely. Daar had much pondering ahead of him.

“The situation on Earth is of… minimal strategic concern,” he said. “From what we’ve been sent via quantum communications, the city of Chicago suffered a large explosion, but not as large as the one at Franklin. The Human homeworld is of course completely self-sufficient and our greatest strategic concern for now is the slowed rate of communication with our allies.”

Fair enough. Daar assumed that would be the case, but it was gratifying to hear.

“That’s good, all things considered. An’ th’ rest?”

Fiin clawed a page aside and glanced at the one below it. “…as for Cimbrean, four of the five colonies are undamaged. The Royal Navy Space Corps, the HEAT and the Border Force survive. The 946th spacefighter wing, however, has been declared destroyed, sharply curtailing Human ability to establish space superiority until the unit has been restored, which will probably take years. Furthermore, the RNSC and HEAT are now confined to linear FTL travel, limiting both their range and response time.”

…Yup. That sucked balls. Daar duck-nodded solemnly, prompting him to continue.

“JETS team Two is stranded on Nightmare and unaware of what happened or why their return jump won’t work. HMS Valiant is preparing to depart and fetch them. They’re expected to survive the conditions there without incident, but it will be at least two weeks before they return to base and can make ready for another mission. Erebor is out of contact: HMS Vicious is being sent to reconnect with them and deliver supplies.”

Fiin was obviously saving the worst for last.

“As for Mordor… Grandfather Vark had put in a request for more troops to clear the tunnels. Without them, the Hunters will prey on the natives and burn their libraries. Not only that, but industry and food production on Mordor have almost come to a halt since the liberation, and the natives were becoming increasingly dependent on aid shipments as more of them fled the bunker-cities. The Grand Army certainly isn’t producing any food either. If the wormhole lockdown isn’t lifted, then we will have to devote considerable spaceborne efforts to sending freighter convoys deep into Hunter space, and we’ll have to lower the system fields to let them achieve orbit.”

“That means we gotta get that Array back up yesterday. Send message to Vark ‘ta relocate a major Array well outside o’ his encampments. We’ll start usin’ one o’ our industrial Arrays that’s way out in the country.”

“That will cause…significant logistical hurdles.”

“I’m sure that’s preferable ‘ta starvation. What’s next?”

Fiin looked down at the table again, at one last report, and Daar could see the bad news written in every line of him. The set of his ears, his posture, the way his scent changed. Everything he’d said up to now had been grim, but this next one was different.

“…There is one last thing.”

“Out with it,” Daar insisted, steeling himself.

“It’s my sad duty to inform you, My Father, that Colonel Powell was killed in the Franklin blast.”

Daar keened loudly before he could bring himself back under control. “I…I see. How…how did it happen?”

“He was on leave, visiting General Jackson. I gather she’s in a delicate condition and hasn’t been able to say what exactly happened yet, but his body was found shielding her in the rubble of her home.”

Daar lurched to his feet and prowled away from the table, wrestling his emotions. It took him a moment before he trusted himself to speak, and the decision he’d already made in that time was so natural, so obvious that he didn’t question himself.

“I need to travel to Cimbrean. We bring as much aid as we can. I need…I gotta pay my respects.”

“…My Father, that might be, ah…”

Daar spun around, and realized belatedly he was snarling. No, that wouldn’t do. He forced his heckles down, drew back his fangs, but he didn’t let go of the menace in his voice.

“Colonel Powell is a gods-damned hero. It is because of him our people exist today. I will pay that man his proper homage. I will make offerings of meat, and salt, and sweet-herb and wood. I will be there to respect him and all the Humans who died today, because we owe them all at least that much and more!”

None of the Champions spoke. They all waited, and watched him until Daar took a deep breath, centered himself, and returned to the table.

When he spoke, his voice was quiet and calmer than his norm. “…‘Fer now though, let’s get our own affairs in order. I wanna git ‘er dun in two steps, if we can. First is ‘ta re-secure Array access where it’s absolutely needed. There’s a few places on that list. Th’ second, is we gotta get an aid package ready. We owe ‘em our existence an’ the Gao always ‘member their debts. We clear on that?”

Fiin duck-nodded, and tidied up his notes. “Of course, My Father.”

“Right. I know y’all do. I ain’t never doubted ‘ya. I…want ‘ya to know that.”

That was as close to an apology he could get, sadly.

Fiin duck-nodded cautiously. “I know, My Father. We all do.”

And that was as close to an acknowledgement as Fiin could give, too.

“Yeah. I shall… leave y’all ‘ta ‘yer planning,” Daar said. Ruffled fur smoothed down, hopefully. And now was the time to address that other thing…

“Champion Uriigo…attend me, please.”

Uriigo looked somewhat taken aback, but he duck-nodded obediently and fell in behind Daar as they left the council chamber. He took the opportunity to meditate briefly while thumping along; he’d learned that trick decades ago during his encounter with the Third Ring. Just…let his mind go elsewhere while the body did what it needed to do. Great way to catch a walking nap.

They traversed the long hallway all the way to the throne room without speaking. Eventually, Daar snapped back to the present and noted that the huge, very public space was for now entirely empty except for the two of them, so that every step of his paws was like an insistent drumbeat, and every tap of claw on stone echoed infinitely down the hall.

Daar felt the need to break the ice, at least for his own sake. “I ain’t interested in another wrasslin’ match, if that’s what ‘yer worried ‘bout.”

“The thought had crossed my mind…” Uriigo admitted. “But then, what do you need, My Father?”

This time, he didn’t hesitate or put any exaggerated reverence in the term.

“We’re ‘bout to face a major logistical upheaval in the coming days, ‘ta state the fuckin’ obvious.”

“To say the least, My Father.”

“Seems ‘ta me, there’s a lotta opportunity in that kinda thing.”

“…Yes…”

“I’d imagine a Clan with a lotta strong, suddenly idle Brothers might be of some immediate use.”

“We are, of course, ready to help,” Uriigo said, carefully. “But we are our own Clan. We will not be used as pawns by anyone…My Father.”

Daar sighed, this time with genuine regret. “Uriigo, let’s not play these fuckin’ games. We both know how that’s gonna go ‘fer ‘ya. I ain’t interested in usin’ y’all like pawns. I never were. None of us ever were.”

“And yet here you are, checking that we’re going to do what the Gao need, reminding me of your power before we ever had the chance to act without your oversight.”

“‘Yer right. I am,” Daar said mildly. “I’m doin’ that ‘cuz ‘yer predecessor shattered that trust during the War. I think I made that point pretty forcefully when I raised you ‘ta Champion.”

Daar…had not been gentle, in that raising. In fact he’d used all his skill to beat Uriigo nearly but not quite to death, and broke him with enough care that Openpaw could put ‘em back together and expect a full recovery. The message wasn’t so much about Daar’s overwhelming power, physical and otherwise. It was about how precisely he could—and would—wield it. Uriigo lived because Daar chose to allow it. He made a rapid recovery because the Great Father mindfully spared the disobedient pup a terminal experience of his wrath. Given what history and tradition would have otherwise demanded of a Great Father against such an unruly subordinate, that was a considerable mercy.

He had fun doin’ it, too. Weren’t no point pretending otherwise. That was also part of the message.

But of course, nobody likes to lose a fight. Nobody enjoys havin’ nearly every bone in their body broken like twigs. An’ ain’t nobody likes bein’ that kind o’ humbled in public. Uriigo’s paw flashed to one of the more prominent scars Daar had left him with, while Daar kept his gaze pointing studiously forward, to spare his most troublesome Champion any further humiliation.

Daar may have enjoyed himself in the moment, but he had no desire for further harm.

“…I’m not my predecessor. I plan on keeping my Clan strong, and playing stupid games in a time of crisis ain’t the way to do that.”

“Mhmm. That’s why we’re havin’ this little talk in private.”

“…Oh, My Father?”

“Yeah. You an’ I are settled on our accounts, ‘least as long as you don’t go too far with ‘yer insufferable needlin’ one day…anyway. This here’s jus’ ‘tween you an’ me. The other Champions can speculate ‘bout our chit-chat all they fuckin’ want, ain’t their gods-dammed business. Balls, mebbe they think we’re secret lovers, or whatever. Point is this: ‘yer Clan has, over the centuries, done an awful lotta things in their interests at the callous expense o’ others. Champions got long memories. An’ right now, you’ve got a polished wooden bowl of an opportunity jus’ sittin’ there…and I ain’t gonna say nothin.’”

Uriigo’s ear flicked, and he glanced up at the throne, and the huge bas-relief behind it covering a significant stretch of Gao’s history.

“Yeah, Champions have long memories,” he agreed. “I could point to every one’a the Clans in that room an’ pick out something they did in the last couple hundred years at our expense. These times aren’t those times, My Father. My predecessor didn’t see that.”

“Well then,” Daar sank back to all fours and prowled away toward his private quarters. “Prove it.”

“How can I? Without disrespect, so long as your teeth are at my throat, you’ll never know if I’m doin’ things out of duty or fear. You want me to prove my Clan is worthy of trust, at some point you’re gonna have to turn your back and keep it turned.”

“My teeth are at everyone’s throat, Uriigo. I know that all too well. That means ‘yer on an equal footing with th’ other Champions in a perverse sorta way. So…prove it. An’ mebbe some day, when I’m dead an’ rotting, the Gao will remember what a Great Father means and will never create one again. So, be crafty. You’ve got an opportunity ‘ta erase centuries o’ mistrust, Uriigo. Ain’t no Champion in ‘yer Clan ever had that.”

He walked away. “An’ my back is turned, now.”

The doors closed behind him, and he turned to the stairs up to his apartments at the top of the keep. It was a long and familiar climb, every heavily reinforced creaking step of it, and this time he didn’t have the mental energy to take his usual soft-pawed care. He made the top, squeezed through the entryway with a complete lack of dignity, and entered his apartments.

Naydi knew. The second she looked at him, she knew. She was on her feet in a moment, dashed to him and stroked his ears.

“…What happened?”

Daar sighed heavily, slumped to the ground, nodded, and finally permitted himself to grieve properly, here where he could. Right then he didn’t…he just wanted to hold her.

He took the crown off, set it aside, and keened for another lost friend.


Date point: 17y6m4w3d AV
Ruins of Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Captain Antony Costello

There was a fine layer of metallic dust all over everything in Franklin. A whole freight train and all its cargo had been converted to highly pressurized plasma, only to cool and snow back down on the ruins after the blast shockwave. It was present on every surface as a silky black powder, it mixed with the natural oils on the skin to form dirty smudges, it stuck to boots and gloves, it quickly turned dust masks and filters black and God only knew what kind of horrible carcinogenic effects it’d have when inhaled…

…And it was just one of the many complications in the rescue effort.

The jump network was down, and staying down with no schedule for when it would be restored. There’d been a flash communication to that effect less than five minutes after the detonation, but it put Cimbrean in an odd position.

For one, it meant that they were on their own for search-and-rescue teams. All the aid personnel and first responders who would have come flooding through the Arrays in any other situation were instead being loaded onto a convoy of ships and escorted to Cimbrean the slow way, along the spacelanes at warp. They weren’t due to arrive for a month.

They’d be welcome when they got there, of course. But a month was far too long for the poor bastards trapped in the rubble.

So, it was all hands on deck for the HEAT. They had pararescue jumpers among them, after all: too few in number, but stronger and more enduring than any other to make up for it. They’d even been lucky enough that Rhino—their fourth and newest Protector—had been back in Folctha in-between bouts of his extended training. He may not have been quite mission-ready yet, but reality didn’t much care. He was mission-ready enough.

Luckily, he already had all the insane strength and endless endurance the Protectors were famous for. The four of them could go for days, it turned out. Keep them well-fed and full of their Juice…

It was the well-fed bit that let Costello catch up with them. They’d scarf down meals in seconds, but the food still took a couple of minutes to heat up. Which was how he found them, dirty and sweaty and a little bloody too, in a rough square as they fixed up a ten-thousand-calorie light snack to keep them going. Even they had their limits, after all. Even they needed to stop and recharge every so often. And they weren’t immune to grief.

God knew, ‘Horse and ‘Base in particular had experienced enough of it.

They had a small forward base, thanks to Titan’s inventiveness. An electrostatically charged forcefield could sweep a space clean of the ubiquitous dust, create somewhere safe where the dust masks could come off and food packs could be unsealed, cooked and eaten, or where open wounds could be cleaned and dressed. He’d set them up on major intersections all across Franklin, and each one was now a nexus for triage, supply storage or just taking the weight off weary feet for a moment.

The Protectors had claimed the corner of 24th and Montana for their own little space. Franklin had a predictable, methodical approach to names: numbers north to south, states east to west. 24th and Montana was, therefore, pretty much right in the middle of town, a central location where all the Protectors’ heaviest gear could be safely stashed and fetched on short notice if needed.

Costello wasn’t in the mood for the usual courtesies, and waved Rhino down as he joined them. The lad was still in the training pipeline and still had some of the toy-soldier mindset going on. The other three knew him well by now, and Butler shuffled aside to make room for him to join them, which he did.

“General Jackson’s on a Weaver back over to Folctha,” he told them, launching straight into the important news so as not to waste their time. “I gather they’ve already called in Nofl.”

“Yeah,” ‘Horse grunted. “Her arm was pretty fucked up. Honestly kinda surprised she didn’t bleed out.”

“Well, she has the old man to thank for that.” Costello said. There were nods. Colonel Powell’s last living act had been to save the woman he loved, and he’d succeeded. That was a tiny, dim glimmer of comfort amidst a whole lot of despair, but was something at least. Not enough… but something.

Knowing she was alive, stable and on her way to real medical attention had to be at least a small boon. Every morsel of good news was something to share right now.

“Who’s this Nofl guy?” Rhino asked.

“Corti, but he’s alright,” ‘Base explained. “There’s a dude walkin’ around Folctha on two feet right now who only had the one before Nofl fixed him up. And another woman who got fuckin’ stabbed right in the heart by a Hunter, she’s alive thanks to him.”

“And he’s the dude who invented Cruezzir,” ‘Horse added.

Rhino raised an eyebrow, suitably impressed.

Butler paused in reaching out to pick up his meal pouch. “Shit, that reminds me. Wasn’t Julian offworld with the JETS?” he asked. “With the Arrays down…”

“HMS Valiant is en route to collect them,” Costello reassured him. “They’ll be there a bit longer than planned, but that’s all.”

“Do they know that yet?”

“…No, actually. They don’t. And they won’t until either Valiant arrives or the network goes back up. No idea when that’ll happen.”

“Or if,” ‘Base muttered, pessimistically.

Costello had no reply to that one. He stood up again. “Right. Well. I want you four to resume a normal schedule. We’ve got dogs and Gao searching and, well, it’s been a while.” He left the rest unsaid. “So Burgess, figure out a rotation. Routines are more important now than ever, and that’s extra true for you huge fuckers.”

He drew a little dark amusement out of Arés, Burgess and Butler at least. Rhino—Cohen—just blinked. He’d figure things out eventually.

“We got somewhere permanent to get some shuteye yet, sir?”

“Deacon carved us out a spot. You be sure and thank her.” Costello pointed in the general direction of the HEAT’s sealed, filtered tent. “Tenth and Vermont. She promised me there’d even be showers by the time you arrive.”

“I think I’m in love,” ‘Horse grumbled a bit humorlessly.

Costello could only nod. Still, he was satisfied that they were… okay. Not great, but okay.

Shit, though, the team had taken some hits lately. And this one was just… a bolt out of the blue. This wasn’t a brother falling in the line of duty, this was the loved and respected CO just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Costello sure as shit wasn’t feeling great about that. Powell had been his mentor and something of a second father. Waves of grief kept hitting him and building like pressure in his head and heart until he could push them back down again and focus. A couple of times an hour, every hour, ever since he’d first heard the news.

The Crude was undoubtedly making it worse, too. He couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for any of the Beefs. Hell, they’d gone through the pipeline in Huntsville with him, too.

Just how much more could they take, really? The HEAT had been active for just seven years, and in that time, well…

Price. Stevenson. Jones. Vandenberg. Bozo. Blaczynski. And now, Powell.

They were the most elite of any military formation in the galaxy, but their mission was still brand new and they were solving for it as they went along. Their enemies may have been weak-bodied and silly, but they weren’t stupid, and they were certainly dangerous. Hell, they’d come uncomfortably close to disaster at least twice.

And too few people knew about it. Not that the Lads would say they wanted recognition or appreciation, not that Costello wanted it himself. But for men like those to die quietly and unsung was wrong.

His thoughts turned to the mass grave being excavated at the edge of town. There was no time for anything more personal or more dignified. All of Franklin’s dead, military and civilian, human and ET alike, all of them were getting a simple wooden box at most, stacked like cargo in a pit.

That was wrong, too. Necessary, but wrong.

And try as he might, Costello just couldn’t think of a way to make things right. All he could do was… carry on. Shoulder the burden that had just landed on him. Be a worthy commanding officer, though he didn’t yet feel ready. And keep the faith that their efforts were pushing in the right direction, that one day there’d be a victory worth dedicating to those good men (and dog).

His boot scuffed up another puff of dust as he walked, and reminded him. Not just them. Not just the good men of the HEAT. Everyone. Every abducted human caught by Hunters or spaced by cowardly aliens, every poor soul of San Diego and Chicago and Franklin, every Gaoian, every Guvnurag, every one of the Hierarchy’s unwitting brain-slaves, every single soul of all those thousands of anonymously genocided species, every Ten’Gewek and E-Skurel-Ir and everyone of every kind who’d lived in terror of the Hunters for literally millions of years…

There was a fucking reckoning coming.

Or else he’d die trying.


Date Point: 17y6m4w3d AV
Field camp, planet Nightmare

Daniel Hoeff

“It’s late.”

“You’re sure?”

“My watch, your watch, Ferd’s watch, they all say the same thing. We got a late jump.”

“Jumps are never late.”

Hoeff nodded solemnly. Jumps couldn’t be late, any jump coming out of Earth or Cimbrean had to be carefully timed to a scheduled window in the Farthrow field. A late jump was a no-jump.

Which meant their supplies weren’t coming today.

Thank fuck they’d brought a bunch of emergency supplies for just this event, but the worried look that passed between all the humans on the team was telling. And the look of downright alarm and dismay on Julian’s face, doubly so. Quite abruptly, he turned away and trudged through the snow to go split some firewood.

Hoeff couldn’t blame the big guy. He’d been stuck on this hellhole planet once before, for six goddamn years. If the jumps were down and they were stranded here again…

The Ten’Gewek were anything but stupid, but sometimes they didn’t know everything they needed to fully get their heads around how big a bit of bad news was. Ferd watched Julian go with a tilt of his head and a tick of his tail, then looked to Hoeff for clarification.

“What’s so bad? They send another one, yes?”

“Think ahead, big guy. You four ain’t built for the cold. You need to eat a lot to keep warm, and that means our supplies won’t last too long.” Hoeff turned back toward the shelter. “If they don’t send us another jump, then things are gonna get tight quick.”

“And them not sending us this one says something went wrong,” Frasier added, gloomily.

“Right, yeah. We gotta plan for the worst. No more jumps, maybe a ship on its way at best. We could be stuck here a long time…” Hoeff glanced at Julian again, round about the time the crack of the big guy’s axe halving a log echoed between the trees. “And I think he’s already on it.”

Rees, as ever, was the more optimistic of the two Brits. “Well, he’s done it before.”

“He was a lot younger, he wasn’t a Beef Bro big enough to casually snap strongmen in two, and he didn’t have four cavegorillas to feed, either.”

“We can hunt,” Ferd said with an annoyed lash of his tail. “None of us useless childs.”

“You’ve seen what hunting’s like ‘round here. You spend more effort digging the bloody thing up than—” Frasier began.

“Bitchin’ ain’t gonna get shit done,” Hoeff growled. “We’ve got food for now, what we need is firewood and better shelter. Monkeybros, go help Julian. It’ll get done a lot quicker. Rees, Frasier? Let’s get our lean-to in some kind of better shape. Y’all come join us when you’re done with the wood.”

“Yes, Boss.”

That was the thing about Frasier. Doom-and-gloom merchant he may be, but he never actually griped when given something concrete to do. The three of them quickly decided that the best thing for their shelter was to get a more sturdy kind of roof on it. Right now, it kept the wind out, which was great. But it didn’t really keep the warm air in. With the fire crackling and well-tended, a guy could sleep warmly enough, but if they could close it over and insulate a bit better, they could burn a lower and slower fire and the same fuel supply would go further.

That was the theory, at least.

Hoeff got his chance to speak with Julian when the big guy hauled over a double armful of split wood to add to the fuel pile.

“You okay?”

“…Can’t believe I’m stuck here again.” Julian shook his head with a frustrated snarl on his lips. He slumped down next to his pack and grabbed a cup full of snow and a coffee sachet. “I knew I didn’t wanna come back here for a reason…”

Julian was generally a laid-back kind of dude, despite his immense presence. He was good at putting people at ease and making friends; there wasn’t much that riled him up. Separating him from his family, though? That’d do it. The last thing they needed right now was Beef Bro Tarzan on the knife edge of raging out, in an environment only he properly knew how to survive.

Hoeff squatted down in front of him. “Hey. Big guy. Hey. Look at me. You here? Good. Listen. The worst case is it takes a week, maybe two to get a ship out here. Okay? You’ll be home wrasslin’ with the boys pretty quick.”

“…Hope you’re right.” Julian set his cup in the coals at the edge of the fire: the snow inside it hissed and squeaked as it started to melt. “What could have stopped the jumps, though? If something happened to Folctha…”

Hoeff clapped a hand down on his huge shoulder. “Hey. Whatever happened, you can’t change it. What you can change is here and now. Worrying won’t do shit for the people you love, except distract you. You know that.”

Julian just nodded. Still, Hoeff was satisfied. The big fella had a lot more to live for than the last time he’d been stuck on Nightmare, and he’d held on and lasted through that ordeal without any real hope at all. Now he had a family to go back to and every reason to believe they’d be rescued sooner rather than later? There was no doubt.

Still. They could afford to give him a minute to get his head on straight. “Tell ya what. Brew us all a drink. Fuck knows, I could do with something to warm me up anyhow.”

Julian nodded again, more firmly. “Sure.”

Hoeff nodded, patted his shoulder again, then stood up and went to go check on the monkeybros and the huge pile of wood they were generating.

They’d be okay, he was sure of that much.

Everybody else was just gonna have to take care of themselves.


Date Point: 17y6m4w3d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Beau Chambliss

Beau was running on coffee and grit, and he wasn’t a young man any longer. The same fuel of resolve and caffeine that had seen him through many long nights during his career from campus to campaign trail just didn’t go so far nowadays. He’d pay for skipping sleep, sooner rather than later.

But he’d put the sleep off as long as he could, and there were worse substances to medicate himself with than a well-sugared latte.

And it sure tasted a hell of a lot better than all the crow he’d just had stuffed down his throat.

“At this point, it’s really not a question of whether it was sabotage, it’s a question of who, how, when, and where. And until we know exactly how it was done and can prevent it from ever happening again…”

Beau sighed and nodded. “…Then the next one could be New York, Folctha, London, Rotterdam, Beijing, Wi Kao or… how many array complexes are there around the world now?”

“Dozens, Mister President. Nearly all of them in major metropolitan areas, too.”

“And all of them have to remain offline and unused until we know they’re safe, otherwise we’re just inviting even more disasters and even more deaths.” Chambliss drained his coffee and massaged his face. “Still. Talk about the lesser of two evils…”

General Marcus Talmadge, the director of the NSA and the man currently tasked with briefing the president on this whole mess, nodded solemnly. “Yes, sir.”

“Do we have any idea how long it’ll be before we can…?”

“No, sir.” Talmadge shook his head. “It depends on who’s responsible.”

“Explain.”

“If it was a human terrorist—and there are still APA elements who haven’t been captured yet—then we’re in the usual digital arms race. If it was a Hierarchy agent… well, that’s an arms race we can’t win. They’re effectively an intelligent quantum computer, only they tap into living brains for their non-deterministic factor. Probably. To them, our encryption and security systems are eminently surmountable obstacles at best.”

Beau thought about that for a moment. “So either way, this can happen again.”

“There are measures we can take. Air-gapping critical infrastructure, for instance, so that it simply can’t be accessed from outside. But ultimately, if a Hierarchy agent can touch a network, they can penetrate it.”

“And there’s no way we could introduce a human override.” Beau shook his head, knowing the answer to that was a firm no. Planes had pilots, heck, even astronauts had eyeballed a safe return to Earth in the past. But the jump arrays? What human override could there be in a precisely calculated manipulation of the very fabric of spacetime? There was no tiller to put a human hand on. You might as well ask for a safety sorceror.

Talmadge’s shake of the head had a rueful quality. “It would have helped if the commercial sector had accepted our security recommendations…”

“Why weren’t they mandatory?”

“Lobbying, and philosophical disagreements with the previous Administration.”

“I see.” Beau kept his expression neutral. “And what are your recommendations now?”

“At the very minimum, every jump array in the world needs to be transferred onto a completely isolated network, with the usual head-scanning and nanotech screening for all persons with access. Jump-capable starships must isolate from all communications and perform a thorough system audit before jumping. Details will need to be worked out, obviously.”

“How quickly can all of that be done?”

“Not very. At a normal pace, planning and deploying air-gap networks takes…years.”

“And I suppose the faster we push it, the more likely there would be some kind of potentially fatal oversight or mistake,” Beau observed, bleakly. Talmadge didn’t need to reply; the confirmation was written plain on his face.

Beau stood, and patrolled the Oval Office with a sigh. “…A whole thriving interstellar economy just came crashing down in one moment,” he muttered. “And now I find out our timescale for resurrecting it safely is years, plural and minimum. It doesn’t matter if we get interstellar freighters flying quickly, transit between ground and orbit just became more expensive, difficult and dangerous.”

He paused in front of ’The Avenue in the Rain’ and gave the antique oil painting a long, solemn look. “…We overreached. Too far, too fast, too aggressively,” he decided. “Out into the stars the second we could, without really taking the time to prepare for it. It’s the same mistake the Byron Group made early on. The same mistake that cost three HEAT lives on their first mission. The same mistake that cost us San Diego! Just how many times do we have to get burned before we stop sticking our hands in the fire?!”

He turned back around and slumped down on one of the couches rather than return to the desk. After a moment, he turned his eyes back up toward Talmadge. “…Thank you, general. I will take your recommendations seriously,” he promised.

A president’s lot was to have little time alone, so the few minutes he did get once Talmadge was gone were a mixed blessing. On any other occasion, they would have been a rare pleasure. Today… they were a chance to feel tired. He’d turn in early, tonight. For the moment, he did his best to smooth away some of the lines in his face, rub some of the hot grit out of his eyes, and readied himself for Policy.

The general’s suggestions did not go down well. Nor did Beau’s resolve to rebuild Franklin and the 946th.

“How do we even begin? We have the damage in Chicago to consider, we’re still paying off everything that was borrowed after San Diego… do we even have the money to do this?”

“No.” Beau shook his head dismissively. “And it doesn’t matter anyway. We have the industry and the materials, so we’re simply going to get it done and worry about money some other time.

“We still have to pay people!”

“Yes. With the magical fiat currency we all pretend has intrinsic value, in a world where the dollar is the de-facto unit of exchange, in a situation where absolutely nobody is going to question the game when Treasury carefully–carefully–fires up those printers.”

Beau turned and straightened his spine, stood a little taller. “The alternative is death. For our nation, and eventually for us all. I built my presidential campaign on caring for the American people and wanting the best for them, and right now that means defending them. I want the 946th restored. I want planes, and pilots, and personnel, and I want them right back where they were, as soon as we can make it happen. I promised them prosperity, and that means getting the array network rebuilt to the highest standard of safety. I never promised them easy or quick. We’re in for a two-term uphill battle, tight belts, a mountain of debt and probably a recession. But we’ll come of out it on a stronger foundation than we had coming in.”

“The press will attack—“

“No, they won’t.”

“…how can you say that? They hounded Sartori for years!”

“Yes, they did. What’s different now?” Chambliss sighed, “Do I really need to spell it out? Yes. It’s unfair and stupid. But right now, I’ll take any advantage I can get, and if a partisan media that’s on our side works to the advantage of the American public and the world at large, I’ll take it.”

And that was that. The wheels of Republic were in motion. There’d be opposition, and no shortage of difficulties and hardships ahead, but the ship of state at least had a heading and a distant port in mind no matter what reefs and storms may beset the voyage.

He went to bed at something like an early hour, too. He even got a good night’s sleep, and breakfast with Catherine after a fashion. She was in Chicago, but they were propped up opposite each other via tablets. A poor substitute for her familiar warmth beside him at night, or a kiss before breakfast, but far better than nothing.

And after that… another day beckoned.


Date Point: 17y6m4w3d AV

Professor Daniel Hurt

Something about the prospect of extended survival focused the mind like nothing else, and Daniel found himself genuinely surprised by his immediate reaction: it wasn’t sadness, or shock, or grief, or rage. It wasn’t anything like that.

His immediate reaction was calculation. Late fall was the ideal season for this to happen, when the hunting was (apparently) easy, the work was (relatively) easy, the Ten’Gewek were focused on teaching their children and getting ready to put on that thin layer of fat they needed for the coming short but intense winter. At least his staff and colleagues would have time to adjust to their new routine.

He woke everyone up and broke the news over his best coffee. They knew something was up when he’d brewed a whole pot of his coveted beans, and their reactions were similarly practical to his. While they went about deciding what an indefinite stay on Akyawentuo might mean—closing up research, securing sensitive experiments, maybe—Daniel had a much less pleasant job.

He had to go to Yan, hat-in-hand, and ask for charity.

Mornings for Yan were always something intense. He might be hunting, he might be beating on metal in Vemik’s hut as essentially a living power hammer. He might be teaching the young ones important skills, as Given-Men were considered the head-teachers of boys. Or, like today, he might just be pumping literal tons of iron and wrestling with his strongest friends.

Ten’Gewek being Ten’Gewek, they’d been fascinated when Walsh and Etsicitty had set up their first workout area, and begged curiously for the two to teach them. The two meatheads taught them the basics of weightlifting, what formal sparring practice looked like…and the Ten’Gewek took that instruction and ran with it. The iron game played to their instincts perfectly and they were phenomenal natural strength athletes, men, women, and children alike. Now Yan’s and the surrounding villages had access to large well-tamped dirt and gravel pad, a Warhorse-grade set of good iron weights on it, and an enormous, well-kept sparring mat bought from a sporting goods company. They used (and shared, happily!) their “jungle gym” with all comers, and attacked their new “strong games” with just as much enthusiasm, discipline and natural talent as they did anything else.

Other villages further away from the Array were saving up the survey and sampling “mun-ees” they’d been earning to do the same. And, since fall was a relaxed time for them, much of their Given-Man post and radio chatter these days was about who beat whom in their monkey-fun, which tribe could beat which in “war” and so on. Cultural contamination came in many forms, after all; the Ten’Gewek we’re learning sports team rivalry.

By the time Daniel came down from the village, Yan had just finished putting things away and saying his goodbyes to the visiting men from other villages, whom he’d no doubt spent the entire morning playfully humiliating; Ten’Gewek played rough and Yan was no exception. The huge gorilla noticed Daniel approaching, grunted in greeting and knuckled over to say hello.

Parlay with Yan at perhaps his most feral wasn’t something for the weak at heart. Every sweat-soaked inch of him was a lean, anatomically perfect example of vitality carved into living granite. Even doing something as simple as knuckle-walking, he was so packed full of strength that he moved with a sort of ground thumping, larger-than-life swagger that his sheer size and muscularity made impossible to miss.

“Professor!” Yan wiped the sweat off his face with one of his man-breaking mitts. He was in a friendly mood, which probably meant he’d won extra hard today. “You come too late to play!”

Daniel deadpanned, “I wish I could, but we have a problem.” There was no point in beating around the bush with Yan.

“Hmm.” Yan cocked his head. “How big a problem?”

“Small enough to worry about.”

Yan grunted, and headed over to one of the giant glazed vessels they kept fresh water in these days. Most of it was rainwater, but some of it was collected from the village Ketta every day, because its sap was watery, mildly sweet, and had a potent anti-microbial something in it that meant the clay pot never fouled.

He lifted the lid and cupped out a few palmfuls of water before filling an empty waterskin from a neat pile nearby. Dan waited while Yan attended to himself—one always waited on the Given-Man, especially when he’d just been doing something to get his blood going. Yan was considerate, though, and tended to himself quickly. He wringed and combed the sweat out of his crest from top to tail, stretched out a bit, and exuberantly bounced in place a few times like a goddamned flea, probably because he was feeling an exercise high and didn’t want it to end. Each of those no-effort leaps of his easily achieved several meters of height, which he casually landed with ground-shuddering crashes. No surprise, really; Ten’Gewek routinely jumped into, between, and from high out of trees, and Yan could have jumped considerably higher if he’d wanted to. None of them seemed to have any concern for heights.

The only thing more intimidating than a Ten’Gewek’s incredible physicality—any of them, even the most average of their people—was the knowledge there were a number of humans and gaoians who could match it…and Daniel had met almost all of them. He didn’t know if he should be impressed they could do the same, or concerned that there were so very few who could.

Yan eventually stopped aping around and focused his full, intense attention on Daniel. “Well, we worry about many things, I think. Tell me about this new worry.”

“The jump arrays are offline. All of them. We got a short message over the emergency system to let us know, but we don’t know why.”

Yan’s tail twitched as he thought. “So, no going back to Sim-bree-an.”

“No. And none of our usual supply packages.”

“You will need food very soon, then.”

“That’s the shape of it, yes.”

Yan nodded. “Then it is good this happened now. This is no problem.”

Daniel was honestly a little taken aback. He knew Yan as a generous soul, and he knew the Given-Men felt that the People had a great debt still to pay back to humans in general, but feeding his research team was no trivial matter. “Still, it’s a burden your hunters wouldn’t have had otherwise. Tell us what we can do to pay it back.”

Yan waved a giant blunt-fingered hand at him reassuringly. “You Give us very much already. But! I not so stupid to say no to help! Most of your staff are women. They help the village with the last ‘canning’ we do before winter. Your men can help fix huts and things, maybe help Vemik make charcoal! My men can hunt more if they do not need to do village-work, yes?”

Most young college-age people would probably bristle at the casual way Yan talked about gendered work, but, well, survival had a way of focusing the mind on practical matters, and reality had a way of not being high-minded and egalitarian. To the Ten’Gewek, the rhythm of gender was just as much a part of life as the rhythm of night and day, winter and summer. Ignoring it was a hard-won human luxury.

Fortunately, Yan was a friendly charmer. He’d made every woman on the expedition giggle from his shameless flirting at one point or another, and he’d befriended every man too, no matter how little he understood about what they were doing. Yan tried and that was enough.

“We’ll be glad to. We have a few sensitive projects that will have to be put to bed first, but… that’s the work of a few days, no more than that. And we have supplies to cover that. In fact we have supplies to last for a couple weeks, but…”

“That is good, we should keep those. Never know what the gods may test us with. Anyway! You come help me and Vemik, we will need to make proper knives for everyone!”

Yan’s English vocabulary had been a hard-won thing. He didn’t pick up language quite as fast as the younger folk, but he was also much more careful and correct with how he used it, and he was much more thoughtful about how he blended it into his native tongue. Dan didn’t know if that was a cognitive or personality trait of his, but there was no denying his staggering intelligence, or his widely respected wisdom, either; all the Given-Men emulated his style of speaking, and that percolated down through the tribes—

Daniel realized suddenly what Yan had actually said. “Wait, me? You want me to help make knives?”

“Yes!” Yan was bouncy and cheery again, and bounded clear across the village with a few tremendous horizontal leaps over to the forge, where he fetched some heavy leather gloves and bounded back just as impressively. “See?! We have human gloves that will fit I think! Made for Jooyun’s hands but should still work! You go put nice clothes away and come back. Bring lots of water! And eat something fatty too!”

“I should point out that I’ve never actually made a knife before.”

“We all start somewhere. Will be good for you!” Yan raised his titanic arms and displayed a pair of round, vascular biceps, each of which was bigger than his own goddamned head. He worked his arms in and out a few times, taking his time to show off the rest of their absurdly muscular thickness, then loudly slapped his brick-like chest and grinned smugly down at Dan. “Make you strong too!”

Ugh, God…

Of all Dan’s testosterone-poisoned acquaintances, Yan was easily the cheeriest and most blatant show-off. And that, frankly, was saying something; even Julian, by far the most laid-back of all of them, had essentially zero self-consciousness and was not at all shy about performing some astounding feat of athleticism, or striking a pose for a laugh. Tossing around boulders as wide as his own door-wide shoulders or leaping around like a Ten’Gewek?

He made it all look so easy, the friendly bastard.

Yan, of course, was all of that but much, much more, and rightfully proud of himself. If anyone were to ever “beat” Daar or Warhorse at their grunt-games, it’d be him. Fortunately, he didn’t take himself too seriously, so his almost pro-wrestling attitude towards all things grunty was more about goofy play than anything else.

Most everything with the Ten’Gewek was play, really. There was a certain wisdom in that.

Dan chuckled and shook his head. “Yan, there are limits to what a man like me can do. I doubt I’ll be arm-wrestling any of you anytime soon.”

“Not with that attitude! How you think I make myself one of the strongest men in gal-ax-ee? Not from sitting around and picking at tail! When spring Fire come, I crush Warhorse too!”

He tensed up his entire body and showed off his genuinely ridiculous physique a bit more aggressively, because why not, apparently; his obscenely huge legs in particular were like a carved-granite anatomy chart from hips to ankles, even compared to the rest of him. Extremely impressive, to be sure…

…But Dan really didn’t have the humor in him just then. Instead he rolled his eyes, crossed his arms and gave Yan a Look. Eventually, the Chief of the Lodge remembered there was Serious Business at hand, and no pretty women nearby to impress—or at least, anyone willing to wrestle—so he sobered up and returned to the matter at hand.

“Fine, fine, be all serious-think and no fun! You should still help, good work is still good for you. You grow much since we met that first day, all soft fat and sick-sweat…but a man should always try for more. And if you be here for long you will need good strong knives…”

Well. There was the moral imperative, right there. Yan was undeniably right. They all had utility knives of course, but they were small and nimble, fit for a variety of work and for clever human hands. Now, the kind they really needed were much heavier and more durable. Vemik had essentially mastered the ideal Akyawentian survival knife, and now it looked like Dan was going to learn how to make them.

A small price, for the tribe’s generosity. And honestly it was the kind of practical education he always told his students was good for them. But also a lot of hard work.

Fortunately, Daniel had learned to break an academic lifetime’s aversion to hard work. He’d probably wind up having fun, even if the idea was daunting at that exact moment. So, he followed Yan’s advice and returned to the research camp to share the good news, load up on good filling food, and change into his hard-wearing bush gear.

…He also brought his ibuprofen. And on second thought, he left the shirt behind, too. Forges were hot and there was no point in suffering more than he needed. And besides: there was a leather apron there, too. He wouldn’t be completely without protection…

When he returned, Yan was already there, pounding merrily on a melt with the kind of force one would expect of power equipment. Vemik was there too, preparing his tools, and he was positively exploding with happiness over the idea he’d be teaching the Professor something for a change. On a day of bad news, where they knew nothing about what happened and could only worry…

It wasn’t such a terrible thing to be a student again.


Date Point: 17y6m4w5d AV
Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

Ava had taken a lot of photos in her life.

There was a certain culture of neophiles who insisted that photos would one day go extinct, but so far the art had outlived every deadline they’d ever set. The right picture was worth more than even the right footage, and definitely worth far more than a mere thousand words. Sometimes the world just…lined up. And the right eye in the right place with the right lens and shutter could save that moment forever.

The mass grave outside Franklin was a moment worth saving. But even more so were the living moments around it. A worker slumped against his excavator, staring numbly into his water bottle with two clean lines through the grime on his cheeks. A Gaoian fitting a special filter muzzle on a Cimbrean mastiff so the animal could safely sniff through the rubble without inhaling a nose full of carcinogenic dust, their body language a strange alien mirror of each other. An airman, one of the few who escaped the blast unharmed, standing guard with his face hidden behind a dust mask.

That mask was everywhere. It was the face of grief in Franklin, a death mask for the modern age. It only came off in the safety of sealed tents or beneath the aegis of static field generators. Ava’s kept getting in the way when she raised her viewfinder to her eye, and it was rubbing the bridge of her nose raw.

And—something a camera could never preserve—there was the smell. Ash from the burned houses, burnt plastic, scorched metal, dust on the wind, and a scent that Ava couldn’t describe but knew instinctively was rising from the open end of the mass grave.

The gravework wasn’t done. There were still many bodies to bury, and another trench to dig.

There were folks causing trouble, too. Not mean-spirited trouble, nothing opportunistic or selfish, or anything that could harm an observer’s faith in humanity. Just bereaved families who didn’t want their loved ones to lie anonymously alongside thousands of others. Who wanted to say goodbye properly and personally, rather than thrust somebody who’d mattered to them into a pit and forget about them. Good people.

But the moment that lined up best, the one that Ava knew was going to become an iconic image of the day, was of the gravediggers and Daar.

Any other head of state would have met them, shaken their hands, listened solemnly to them, laid a wreath or some other token of respect, made a speech, retired to planning rooms and privacy as soon as the public performance was done.

Daar dug the grave.

He dug it with his bare paws, in the mud and dirt himself, levelling off and tidying what the excavator had done, shovelling the potassium nitrate, stacking bodies and boxes alongside the other workers. And he saw to the comfort of everyone he could.

He noticed Ava shortly after he emerged from the trench. He didn’t react much at first, just a flick of his ear and then turning away toward the cleanup tent, but maybe an hour later she was sought out by one of his assistants and invited to attend him aboard his transport ship.

He hadn’t cleaned up yet. In fact, he was stretching out and massaging what were clearly aching muscles. He didn’t stop when she joined him, just hooked his claws into the floor and pulled, stretching out his shoulder. “Y’got some good shots?”

He was being a bit humorously playful, she knew. “You’ve grown quite a bit since the last time.”

“Mhmm, an’ I got lots o’ frame ‘ta fill out even still. Think I’ll keep my clothes on this time, though….rrghn.”

“I’d think a vest hardly counts as clothes…you feeling okay?”

“Eh. Long work is long work, even if it ain’t all that hard t’do. You can get a cramp just writin’ so why is that any surprise?”

Ava gave him a look. “That’s not entirely what I meant.”

“I know.” He sighed, ceased his stretches, and sat up. “…There’s a friend in a fridge up there. A good man who deserves way more. Fuck, they all deserve way more. I prob’ly got more friends in that trench, too.”

He stood, and offered her a chair to sit in. “I s’pose we shouldn’t pretend like we’re jus’ bein’ friendly-like, huh?”

Ava nodded, reluctantly. “You’re here as the Great Father, I’m here doing my job…”

“I ain’t ever not the Great Father, Ava. You know that.”

“I know, but… sometimes you’re more the Great Father than other times?” she suggested.

“Less an’ less as time goes on. Daar and the Great Father are sorta mergin’ into one guy.”

“You speak of yourself in two different persons. Some might consider that alarming.”

“All kings worth a salt do, ‘cuz the thing they embody ain’t a natural kinda o’ being. I’ve had some long talks ‘bout that point with His Majesty an’ others. Big part o’ what I did on my tour.”

“And now here you are, digging graves. You built a lot of pyres on Gao too, as I recall.”

“Yeah. I am Daar. I ain’t gonna let that part o’ me get murdered by the Great Father. An’ I’m the Great Father. I ain’t gonna let Daar’s proclivities ruin the office. ‘Least,” he grumbled with a bit of humor, “not too much.”

Ava nodded, and felt it was time to move on from discussing him to discussing the situation.

“A lot of what humanity built over the last fifteen years or so is thanks to jump technology. What do you think happens if we can’t patch whatever caused this and go back to using it?”

“If I don’t miss my guess, ‘yer askin’ me that question ‘cuz I got a reputation ‘fer blunt honnesty, an’ nobody else don’t wanna touch answerin’ it, yijao?”

Ava didn’t reply to that. She just waited patiently for an answer.

Daar sighed. “Well, I ain’t gonna get over my paws too much. It’d be catastrophic. I don’t think that’s anythin’ people don’t know. But if we gotta make it work, then we’ll gods-damn make it work. Ain’t no way our worlds can be cut off from one ‘nother at this point.”

“Is that why you came here?”

Daar shook his head and gestured vaguely out the back of his transport toward the city ruins. “I came t’pay respects. The 946th fought hard in the Battle of Gao, there’s unsung heroes lyin’ dead here that my people owe our existence to. How could I not come here? Wouldn’t be right.”

Nobody would ever accuse the Great Father of detachment. He was very much a leader with his paws in the mud. And speaking of…

Daar had unconsciously positioned himself perfectly on the cargo ramp of his transport. He didn’t fly in sumptuous luxury; he was simply too damn big to do that. Instead, he sat right on the metal floor, and that fact was framed unavoidably behind him. Ava raised her camera to take a picture and she knew instantly she had a winner. All he wore was a bright safety-yellow harness and his own natural pelt, cut long and shaggy. His physique was bigger and mightier than ever, with every hard muscular line plainly visible through his pelt. This time, however, his expression and the thick lather of his perspiration gave him a thoroughly haggard, yet defiant look. There was still dirt on his claws and in his fur, all the way back to his elbows.

It was perhaps the most honest portrait of him she’d ever managed.

Daar gave her a sly grin when she lowered the camera. “That’s ‘yer freebie. Don’t make a habit outta that, ‘kay?”

Ava smiled in return. “I kinda already did.”

“Ha! Well, send a copy to Leela, ‘kay? That’s ‘yer payment.” There was a noise inside that Daar turned his head towards and listened for a moment. “Right.” He returned his attention to Ava. “Time to go. Stay safe.”

“I will. And you stay safe too.”

The giant gaoian nodded, turned his head and prowled up into the ship. With that the ramp raised, and she was ushered back as the engines spooled up.

Another minute, and the Great Father of the Gao was gone.

And that left…a story. He’d labored for literally hours and saw the mass grave through to its completion. He’d brought a hastily-assembled aid package, too. Photo-op or not, he’d at least paid for it.

But the work was only just beginning. Franklin had been substantially leveled. Only the westernmost portion of the city had survived. There was no municipal gravity or power, the sanitary sewers were non-existent. Emergency services were saturated and martial law had been declared.

There was a lot more to the story than galactic leaders digging in the dirt.

Ava set to work.


Date Point: 17y6m4w5d AV
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth

Six

De-implantation was considerably trickier than implantation, and left a non-trivial chance of permanent damage. There was also a recovery time involved, so Six had to contrive for Austin to need such a thing; an unwise accident while lifting gave Six just enough to justify a day or two in bed.

He hadn’t needed to contrive much. The Chicago incident had motivated Austin in an entirely unexpected way. He didn’t cower, or feel defensive. Instead, he got angry. Anger and an intense sense that he had to do something to fight the threat—which was also remarkable, because nobody on any news media had yet voiced the notion it was an attack.

But the humans seemed to know it was. Somehow. Austin knew it instantly and so had all his friends.

In either case, all Six had to do was carefully induce just the smallest mistake while Austin was squatting in his makeshift gym. Unwisely he was alone, and he was moving an astounding weight up and down, up and down…

An inconveniently timed spasm in his left leg brought it crashing down with a sprain so bad, he could hardly walk. And, Lauren happened to be in town for the day, which was just enough time to arrange for his de-implantation, leaving Austin none the wiser and nursing a headache he hardly noticed compared to the soreness in his leg.

There had been no detectable cognitive damage. Strangely, Six felt somewhat relieved by that.

Lauren did her part to keep him safely in bed and recovering as well. Six no longer had to experience their endless procreative activities personally, but he did check in with a stealth drone, just to make sure. The first night she was massaging his leg with some painful-looking kind of smooth steel implement, mostly by mashing the muscle flat as hard as she could…

The next few nights were spent far more vigorously, but Six had already moved on. The drone was there just to keep an eye on things.

His new host was chosen with rather more care. Austin had been a standout, a specimen to match Six’s sense of pride. But a return to Hierarchy doctrine was in order: the ideal host was somebody unremarkable, harmless and preferably lonely. Not a complete down-and-out, but definitely in the bottom half of the social dominance hierarchy. And yet, with the capacity to rise and inveigle themselves into a useful position when needed.

Life and politics among humans being what they were, that was a delicate balancing act.

Finally and most importantly, Six wanted somebody with good access to communications technology. A network admin, or something like that.

Injunctor-class scout ships were well-equipped with sophisticated sub-sentient intelligences for sniffing out such individuals. The technology had been honed over hundreds of thousands of years, and without it Six would have been forced to grab whichever late-night motorist he could and be satisfied.

With it, he’d found a shortlist of appropriate candidates before ever going to Chicago. And, once Austin was free of his implants, he honed in on the most promising of them, a thousand miles to the east.

It was a delicate abduction, in an urban area, with a short time window, but nothing Six hadn’t done hundreds of times before. He settled into place in his new body, who promptly went to bed with a migraine but no further suspicions…

And he watched Austin’s farm until, three days later, the FBI arrived to question him.

__

Date Point: 17y7m AV
Huntsville, Alabama, USA, Earth

Lieutenant Booker Campbell, US Space Force

The HEAT pipeline had exactly one function: Find limits.

Not mental limits—anyone who even made it onto the pipeline in the first place had already proven good and well they had the right stuff—but physical ones. The pipeline found the point where matter finally beat mind, where the sheer laws of physics and the limits of biology won out over willpower. Very, very few people had ever been proven like that.

It involved…pain. The instructor cadre were the biggest, meanest, toughest, fastest sons o’ bitches Campbell had ever had the misfortune to suffer under, and they didn’t just push a body to the point of lactic buildup or fatigue. They pushed it to breaking, and then they pushed it beyond. They pushed until they knew a man could withstand the abuse, recover, heal, and then take more.

That, and no less, was the necessary agony of HEAT selection. Because the Mass could kill a man, if the wearer was unworthy.

The moment when Booker finally gave out and collapsed felt like failure. Pain twanged along his limbs and through his ravaged muscles, and exhaustion kept him from even writhing to try and relieve the spasms. He might as well have tried to lift somebody else’s arm, or move an amputated leg; the spirit was willing, but the most it could coax out of the body was a pathetic squirming.

So he squirmed. It wasn’t nothing. Nothing was not an option.

“Alright.” The terrifying instructor was suddenly a lot less terrifying. “That’s enough. Let’s get you to medical.”

Campbell could hardly even grunt in objection. “N’t… d’n…”

“No. You’re done, and I’m sorry.” He picked Campbell up and took him to recovery, where all but one of the applicants were also recovering.

The apology sunk Booker’s heart like it’d been torpedoed. He’d failed.

He barely felt the sting of the IV going in, or the rush of Crude, painkillers and nutrients into his bloodstream.

He’d failed. His very, very best, the absolute limits of his ability, wasn’t good enough…and his best was pretty fuckin’ good. He’d been a hell of an athlete growing up, been good enough to justify acceptance to pre-selection even as an old lieutenant with an enlisted career already behind him. They’d put him on Crude like all the rest, he’d spent a year putting himself through absolute fucking hell to build himself up into something genuinely terrifying…

And he’d failed.

Only one of them made it through—a young kid by the name of Thompson—but of course, everyone knew he would from the start. He stood an easy six-foot-three and was a broad-shouldered, rugged hulk of a young man who seemed equally comfortable rucking up mountains, or sprinting off to the horizon, or tossing around weight the rest of them could barely dream of moving. Campbell had been a far better performer than the rest of the candidates, but Thompson was something else entirely. That long-armed gorilla of a kid had at least a hundred pounds on Campbell and it was a much harder, higher-quality hundred, too. Hell, that first week or so he’d been kicking everyone’s ass…

They’d learned in quick order they were all equally useless. Except Thompson, apparently. Campbell wouldn’t go so far as to say the kid breezed through…but it was clear the instructors were inventing new cruelties on the spot, just for him. He took it all…and just kept going.

What the hell did that kid have in him?

Well…he had quite a bit, actually. Thompson was an absolutely top-tier athlete, with football, track, and wrestling all-state heavyweight championships under his belt. He’d already been a three-hundred-fifty-plus pound freak-hoss when he’d enlisted and had such a naturally wide and sturdy frame, he’d looked almost lanky at that size. Predictably, the kid grew like a motherfuckin’ weed on the Crude, so by the time they entered selection together, he was already tipping the scales at well over a quarter-ton of brick-hard muscle, and showing no signs of slowing down. He perfectly embodied all the usual all-American blond-haired, blue-eyed corn-fed bullshit that seemed to just drip out of the pipeline like nineteen-fifties propaganda, and the genuinely worst part of it all? He was good-natured and friendly about it all, too.

Competing against him was infuriatingly humbling.

In a normal group, Campbell would be a goddamned stud. Hell, he was a stud in this group, too! But against a kid like that? He wasn’t special at all. He couldn’t run further or faster. He couldn’t ruck heavier loads. He couldn’t move as quick, couldn’t lift as hard. Didn’t gain muscle as fast, either. He was depressingly far behind the kid by every measure that mattered, and if it wasn’t for some deep-seated spite bubbling away inside him, he probably would’ve given up.

He didn’t, because he would be damned if he let the golden boy win without a fight. It didn’t matter; he failed. The golden boy won. The kid was better than him. Much better. Youth, vigor, and sheer genetic luck won out over age and experience. Thompson won it all and was the very last man standing, in fact the very last man who could stand. They’d ended his torture right as Campbell was being carried away, and that perfect fucking bastard somehow still had enough in him to get up to his feet under his own power and stagger away.

Campbell had failed to a fucking nineteen-year-old mutant from fucking Iowa. Army, too!

His righteous indignation couldn’t sustain him. Sleep took him like a ton of bricks to the face.

When he woke up, he was in a different room. Not the tent out in the field, this time it was a proper barracks. There was an IV in his arm. He and Thompson were both there, alone.

He still felt like he’d been run through a food mill, except now it had been set to a coarse grind.

Thompson woke up too and…well. He sat up with the biggest shit-eating grin ever, plastered gormlessly across his handsome, stupid face. He was honestly just so damn earnest and corn-fed, Campbell felt some of his competitive resentment just…melt away. It was hard to hate a kid so guilelessly happy. Well…mostly.

“We made it, ell-tee! Can you fuckin’ believe it?!”

…Wait.

“Wh—?” Campbell creaked out a long, pained groan as he sat up. Okay. Not quite milled down then. Thompson had a sympathetic look as he handed over a drink bottle, already opened. It tasted vaguely like a menagerie of citrus fruits were attempting to burn out his sinuses, out of spite.

“Like gettin’ face-fucked by a lime, huh? Doc said it’ll do you good.”

…That was a better description, actually. Apparently Thompson was better with his words too.

“Coulda sworn I was out…” Campbell muttered. His everything still hurt, but moving and functioning like a human again was coming back to him, piece by piece.

“Naw! Lemme go get the NCO, he’s just around the—OW!!”

…Well, apparently Thompson wasn’t completely invincible after all. And in a moment of reflection, Booker realized he’d been more than a little uncharitable on the kid. That wouldn’t do.

After all…they’d made it. They were team members now.

“You okay, specialist? Don’t strain yourself.” He was young for a specialist, too. Part of the early merit-based promotion thing for his MOS? Campbell couldn’t remember the details.

“I’m fine sir, just…it’s like someone tried to hammer my hamstrings flat.”

“Pretty sure that’s exactly what they did,” Campbell retorted. He was feeling better already, for a little movement. Not get-up-and-walk-anywhere better, but enough that his head was starting to get into gear.

Thompson noticed. “We should prob’ly get you up and, uh, hobbling, sir. It’ll help a lot.”

“Right… ergh.” Legs that honestly had a lot more strength in them than he’d thought complained at being asked to bear weight, but they bore it just the same. He must have been asleep a good long while. Maybe all night, it was hard to tell.

He needed to lean on Thompson, a little. He’d never felt so damn useless.

The trip down the stairs toward the orderly room felt genuinely perilous. Both of them made heavy use of the handrails. When they showed their faces, the staff sergeant sitting at the desk let them right through into the OIC’s office and bade them sit.

“I’ll go get captain Miller, it’ll just be a minute.”

They didn’t have chairs. In a mark of exactly where they were and what kind of training unit this was, what they had was a bench made of a halved log that nonetheless sagged slightly when it took their combined weight. Dang.

He appeared and immediately gestured for them to stay seated. “No no, don’t go tearing yourselves up on account of me. Thank you.”

Something about the training pipeline had really brought back some of those boot camp lessons, and the young Marine in Campbell would have marveled at such a casual display of acceptance. That seemed to be the way of operators, though: self-assured mutual respect.

Captain Miller—just how many goddamn Millers were there in the Air Force anyway?—was by any reasonable standard a tall, well-built, broad-shouldered man in excellent health. Next to Campbell and Thompson, he… wasn’t. Christ. All that time surrounded by fellow HEAT candidates and the instructors had skewed Campbell’s perspective.

The captain sat down and tidied his papers for a moment, gave them a once-over, and looked at them both. “Well gentlemen, congratulations. Specialist Thompson, you are accepted and will enter the Aggressor pipeline. You may be interested to know, you will be our last US Army soldier so accepted. After you, all the rest will be recruited and selected through the Space Force directly, so do your best, young man!”

Thompson let loose with another shit-eating grin and a lusty bellow, “Huah, captain Miller!”

…Jesus, the kid was so goddamned boot it was almost painful. Though to be fair, he came by it honestly. He’d enlisted directly into the HEAT pipeline, after all.

“Yes yes,” Miller chuckled. “Good esprit de corps! To business: you will both need to start packing it on a lot faster, because we need you both mission-ready ASAP. I’m sure Warhorse and his relentless dieticians will work their magic on you…” He turned his attention to Campbell.

“Lieutenant Cambpell, you are provisionally accepted, also as an Aggressor. Let me expound upon what that means. You are not a young man anymore…”

“No sir, thirty-eight this October.”

“And while you’ve shown remarkable spirit, and you’re responding very well to the Crude…”

There was much left unsaid. “I won’t be stupid, sir. I spent nineteen years hoofin’ it in the Corps before I commissioned, I know when to say stop.”

“Good. Now, normally I’d be wishing you good luck and you’d have a week to recuperate and celebrate before taking the jump over to Folctha…” He tidied his papers again. Something was amiss. “…but there’s been an incident.”

They listened as he explained. Officially the detonation of a freight jump between Chicago and Franklin was unexplained, but the way Miller stressed that fact made it clear there was more to it than a tragic malfunction. At the very least, Campbell realised, sabotage was suspected even if it couldn’t be proven.

The colonel’s death though… That was a kick in the guts. Campbell had met Powell, just the once. He’d dropped in on Huntsville pretty regularly to keep an eye on the new guys coming up the pipeline and deliver a word of motivation.

“So…quite a lot has happened since you entered the Grinder.”

The Grinder was the month-long hell all HEAT candidates went through at the end of the selection course. It was a thing no human being could possibly handle if they weren’t essentially made for it and at the top of their game, and they wouldn’t have survived it if they didn’t have access to the very best medicine. It was the ultimate test of human capability.

And there was no outside contact while the Grinder went to work on the candidates.

Thompson was still basically just a kid. He would have barely been in Kindergarten when San Diego happened and was still pretty young during the war for Gao. He’d gone pretty quiet when he’d learned the news.

Campbell couldn’t blame the kid. He was in the shit now and he’d just realized it.

For Campbell… well, his service had been defined by those moments. He’d enlisted even before First Contact, not knowing what he was getting his young, dumb ass into, never even dreaming that by the time he made sergeant there’d be an interstellar war on against no less than two monstrous alien civilizations, which they only learned about years later.

He’d never thought he’d be based in southern California during and in the aftermath of the destruction of an American city, doing what he could to help while the National Guard shouldered a burden of walking wounded, peacekeeping and sifting through the dead and the destroyed. He’d never thought that years later he’d be boots-on-ground on an alien world helping save talking raccoon-people, either, though their food was damn tasty.

For Campbell, the news about Chicago and Franklin was another twist in a long career, and another reason to keep doing what he did. For the kid, though…

“If the jump network’s down,” Thompson asked, “how’re we getting to Folctha? Are we just waiting for an all-clear?”

The captain leaned back in his chair and smiled humorlessly. “Oh, don’t you worry your pretty young head about that none, specialist. Uncle Sugar’s chartered a luxury spaceliner to get you and some others downrange with a quickness. You’ll be sharing a suite.”

The thought seemed to delight Thompson in the way that only a young soldier could be delighted. He looked over at Campbell and offered a wry smile. “I’ll wrassle ‘ya for top bunk.”

Campbell chuckled. “Nah, I think I’ll just pull rank here.”

“Aww!”

“I’m glad you two lovebirds get along so well, ‘cuz it’s a long flight to Cimbrean. And don’t think you will get a chance to relax. Your diet plan and your training plan will be following you, so…think of it as a month to polish up and impress. You’ll probably be meeting Warhorse straight off the ship, after all.”

“I’ve been looking forward to that!” Thompson chirped. Campbell just grunted. He knew what he was in for: the new incoming LT was going to be tested. Rightly so, but that was something to be good and ready for.

“It’s honestly hard to believe he even exists…”

“Oh, he does, and the stories hardly do him justice. His only real competition is an actual talking space gorilla, and the only thing alive anywhere that can humble him at the moment is an actual talking space bear. So…have fun with that. Anyway.” Miller tapped his papers together one last time, and stood. “Pack your bags, gents. You’re going to Cimbrean yesterday.”

Campbell just managed to restrain his groan of discomfort as he stood up too. “Aye, sir.”

Miller nodded at them. “And… gentlemen? Congratulations once again.”

That left…well. Packing up. There wasn’t much to pack, in fact everything fit into a single seabag—”green duffel” as Thompson wrongly called it—and neither of them had anything that wasn’t already crated up and in storage anyway. They did some out-processing paperwork, had the LRS arrange for their crates to get moved from storage to the waiting ship…

Three days later, they were enroute. A Weaver carried them into orbit for the very first time in their lives, and Campbell felt no shame at all in pressing his face to the porthole just as eagerly as Thompson.

“Woah…” the kid’s nose was practically squeaking on the glass. Watching over six hundred pounds of freshly-trained killer eagerly drinking in the scenery like a boy on his first bus ride…well, Campbell was doing the same thing too. Some things needed wonder.

They were gaining speed and altitude somewhere over Africa when Thompson tore himself away long enough to ask a question.

“…Hey, LT, something’s been buggin’ me.”

“Yeah?”

“We’re gonna jump, right? I mean, we’ve gotta jump to get outta Sol. So why ain’t we jumping the whole way there?”

Campbell had been wondering the same, and he only had a snarky answer to go with it. “Because we have to jump. I bet some bureaucrat somewhere is worried about distance or something, or maybe they just need to ‘do something’ to make their bosses happy. So it’s probably eluding them that distance doesn’t matter here, and they’re saying ‘short as possible’ because they’re reactionary and risk-averse and that’s how bureaucracies work.”

Thompson blinked heavily, and tilted his head. “But…that’s stupid.”

Adorable.

“Uh-huh.”

“Like…obviously stupid.”

“Yup.”

Thompson seemed at a loss, and the confused-puppy expression on his face was just hilariously incongruous atop that man-breakingly thick and sinewy neck of his. It jut out so wide from either side of his skull, his earlobes were practically resting on it, for chrissake.

…Did Campbell’s own look the same way, now? That was a thought for the shaving mirror tomorrow morning. For now, he had a pup to educate.

“Thompson, that’s bureaucracy for you in three words right there. You ever heard of Apollo Thirteen?”

“Oh, yeah! Back in, like, forever ago, right? Nearly blew up in space but they managed to get home?”

“Yeah, but they had to jury-rig the air filtration system ‘cuz the filter cartridges for one of the modules were square, but the ones they needed were round. Or maybe it was the other way ‘round.”

“…Wait. They had two different filters?”

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t, like, weight a super big concern back then? And storage space?”

“Yes.”

“…But—”

“The point is, the different modules were built to different specs by different companies because Bureaucracy. And ‘obviously stupid’ has never, ever, mattered when it comes to making decisions by committee.” Campbell shrugged at him. “So yeah. Now, in this moment of panic, when we have no other option but to jump, we jump. But not all the way. Maybe there’s a good reason? Could be, I’m no supergenius. But I’ll bet you the top bunk there ain’t.”

“…” He seemed to give in to the inevitable with a slightly defeated sigh. “Fine, I ain’t taking that bet. I still wanna wrassle for the bunk, though.”

“Weren’t you state champion?” Campbell recalled.

“Yessir! Three years running!”

“And heavyweight champion, at that?”

“Wrestled at two-eighty-five! Had to cut down to weight!”

Campbell shook his head in mild wonder at the idea. “Then no.”

“Well, you wrestled too, right? And you were a combatives instructor…” Thompson pointed out artlessly.

“Yeah, I was. I’m also not young and stupid, and bein’ crushed like a bug isn’t my fetish.”

“Aww.” He didn’t seem upset at all, beyond some mild regret he’d missed the opportunity to fold his lieutenant into several pretzels. For now, Campbell was happy to keep the kid guessing about just how much advantage he really held. Old age and treachery, and all that.

They were interrupted by the loadmaster. “Gentlemen, your ride’s coming up on the port side. Might wanna get a good look at her, ain’t often you get to see a ship in space from the outside.”

They transferred to the port side and sure enough, there was a brilliant point of light ahead and “above” them that soon resolved itself into a pencil-thin edifice in space.

All the major human-owned ships were celebrities in their own right. Hephaestus’ My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon, Actually Three Smaller Ships In A Trenchcoat and Put Back Together With Bits Left Over were all celebrities in their own right, not to mention MBG’s Misfit, Halcyon and Creature of Habit.

He didn’t immediately recognize this one. As they hoved into view he recognized MBG’s rich red-and-silver livery, but the ship itself didn’t look like one of the tiny, brick-shaped, high-powered scout ships that MBG were so famous for. This one was long, sleek and luxurious. She looped more like a flying sculpture than an industrial workhorse.

Thompson clearly recognized it. “Holy shit. Captain wasn’t kidding! We’re actually travelling on a luxury spaceliner!”

“I musta missed this one.”

“MBG decided to get into space tourism. Their scout ships found all kindsa amazing places, so they built this to take people there to see.” Thompson gestured enthusiastically. As they slid up alongside the elegant hull, Campbell could finally make out the name stencilled along her nose: Boone’s Star.

Inside, the ship wasn’t fully furnished yet. She’d been pressed into service before launch to deliver emergency personnel and aid, so the decks were crowded with boxes, crates, bags and flat-packs rather than chairs and tables and stuff, and were absolutely choked with people bustling around getting ready to hurry up and wait. The luxury cabins all had a couple of cots crammed into them to accommodate extra travellers, but when the two HEAT men found their cabin, that turned out to be all fitted and finished. Probably they were modular, built on Earth then jumped up and installed in orbit.

Campbell had certainly travelled in less comfort than a cozy cabin with real mattresses and a working en-suite bathroom. Well. Cramped, admittedly, but being honest that was probably a ‘him’ problem rather than a design oversight.

“I see the bar is empty,” sniffed Thompson.

“Okay, firstly young specialist, I ain’t gonna pretend like I didn’t get up to shit at your age…but I’m still an officer and that won’t end well for you.”

“I know, I know…”

“Secondly, I bet you’ve never been much of a drinker, huh? All that clean living you’ve been doing for years now, and all that time getting ready for selection? Well, how do you think your newly huge-er ass is going to react to whiskey, after you’ve not had a drop to drink in ages?”

“…Gotta admit sir, that does sound like a fun experiment…”

“No.”

“Yessir.”

“Besides, drinking age in Folctha is seventeen. You’ll get your chance.”

“Better find a spot to do our PT… The lido deck, maybe?”

“Right now, best thing we can do is stay out of the way. We’ve got a lot of waiting ahead of us, and we’re sharing this ship with a lot of people. Let them get organized, then we can find a spot.” Campbell tested the top bunk, then grimaced. “…You know what? You can have this thing, if your fat ass can even fit.”

Thompson grinned at the mild ribbing, and tried pulling down on it with an arm. He watched dismayed as it deflected without him so much as budging an inch upward. “…I don’t think it’ll hold me, either. In fact, I don’t think the bottom bunk will, either.”

“Well.” Campbell shrugged, “We signed up for this.”

“I’ve always been big, even when I was just a kid.” Campbell grinned at that, which earned him a Look from the young future Aggressor. “I’ve never been big like this, though.”

“And getting bigger. Guess our bunks are storage shelves, then.” Campbell sighed. “At least the mattresses look nice…”

“Floor-beds it is, then.”

They sorted their cabin out, then settled down. There was a long month ahead of nothing to do but eat, sleep, lift, maybe read…

But he’d take it. He’d passed. By the skin of his teeth, he’d passed and he was on his way. And when it came down to it, shipping out in a luxury liner with a nice mattress under him and nothing much to do except train?

…And good company, too. He’d been awful uncharitable to Thompson in his head, though the kid did had a lot of boot to get rid of. But that was something to help him with, not resent him over, and Campbell regretted his earlier bitter thoughts…but that was all in the past. Right now, he was glad to have a bunkmate and somebody to train with.

It would’ve been an awful lonely trip, otherwise…


Date point: 17y7m AV
Folctha General Hospital, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Rylee Jackson

Not so long ago, a two-foot spear of splintered timber through the meat of her forearm would have been an ignominious end to Rylee’s career. Today, though…

They’d surgically opened the limb to put all the bones back where they were meant to be. Then they’d put her in a compression cast and injected Crue-D and some other kind of Corti spacemagic into the wound, and promised that when they took the cast off again there’d be no pain, no stiffness, nothing. Even the scar would be a thin, faint thing that would fade away in less than a week. Like it never happened.

But it had. And Rylee’s mind kept rebelling against the idea that all evidence would soon be gone. As if she could just be put back together with glue and tape and carry on. It was too easy. Bodies shouldn’t be so easily repaired. She shouldn’t be whole again so quickly or so trivially.

She wasn’t whole. Her arm might be, but her heart and her head were…

Well, she had something neither whole nor trivially fixed to distract her. Because Goddamn it, the 946th might have lost all its planes, most of its pilots and WSOs, the greater part of their ground crew and have taken a mauling far worse than Rylee herself, but so long as she was the wing’s commanding officer they were not dead yet.

Even if she had to fix it with one hand from her hospital bed.

Even if what she really wanted was to let go and sob like a little girl.

But what could she do? Earth was a month away until the powers that be reopened the arrays, which might take… fuck, years, if they were slow, diligent and cautious. She could pine after her mom’s comfort food and the chance to properly process all she wanted, but…

She wasn’t quite up to business just yet. But she was up to visitors, and the HEAT wanted to pay their respects. And so, her little room in Folctha General was more or less continuously crowded by giant men walking on eggshells. The two most frequent visitors however, were Baseball and Warhorse—both were registered nurses these days, which was apparently good enough for the Brits and they were working the hospital wards because their skills were of more use here now rather than flinging rubble around. There was no shortage of bodies digging the rubble over in Franklin, especially with all the Stonebacks who’d come along with Daar, but nurses? Those were in short supply across the whole planet right now. More people had been wounded than killed, and the other four colonies were straining to take them in.

And, well, the HEAT needed to be on standby. Even if getting anywhere fast was out of the question now.

Both men sure knew how to cook comfort food, though. Burgess in particular could make mac and cheese that, and for this Rylee had to whisper a guilty internal apology, was actually better than Gran’ma Jackson’s. Adam had made Beans.

“You know ‘Horse’s darkest secret, ma’am? He’s always secretly hopin’ he’ll have an excuse to cook like this, now and then.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “Pff. How is that any secret?”

“Figure you’d be a mile wide an’ soft as a couch if you hadn’t signed up.”

“Naw, I was a skateboard punk when I was little. You burn a fuck of a lot of calories doin’ that, y’know. Ever wonder why they’re always such lanky guys?”

“And then you went from skateboarding to powerlifting under supergravity.”

“Had to! Ended up playing basically every sport I could too, ‘cuz it was the best way to meet other kids. Was pretty much the best!”

Adam seemed justifiably pleased with himself, and had even started to puff up slightly with pride. Fortunately, John knew exactly how to pop that balloon.

“Weren’t you also the worst at swimming? Like, toward the end you were turning into a fuckin’ tank, so you had to struggle just to keep your head above water?”

“Yeah, yeah…that bit in PJ school wasn’t fun.”

And didn’t you have the worst fashion sense, too?”

“To be fair, that’s true of all of us at that age,” Rylee commented with a giggle.

“Yeah, but not as bad as ‘Horse! Remember your tight jeans phase?”

“Shut up!” Adam laughed nervously. “I couldn’t help it, they were all tight!”

“Uh-huh. You also wore makeup too, as I remember—Ow!” ‘Horse had started to go red—impressive with his skin tone—and delivered a casual back-handed slap to ‘Base’s shoulder that would likely have broken any ordinary man. For them, it was just guy-type affection.

She wasn’t gonna complain, seeing as they’d brought food. She was eyeing up a second helping of the cornbread, too…

“I actually liked that fashion,” Rylee recalled. “Too bad it didn’t last, but there were a lotta men with eyeliner around for a while there.”

Still. There were men who could pull off that look, and men who should never try. Owen had fallen into the latter camp…

And there it was again. That little lance of pain that kept interrupting her. It was a normal part of grief, she knew, and it’d never quite go away… but it turned a smiling moment into a depressed silence every time it hit her.

‘Horse did his meathead best to comfort, and offered her another hunk of cornbread. And it did prompt them to finally broach the reason for their visit.

“He’s, uh… He’s coming home tomorrow,” Burgess said, gently. “We thought you’d wanna be at the ramp. And, uh…you’re the closest he has to next of kin, so the mortuary affairs people wanna know his final disposition.”

God. That just drove the spike right back into Rylee’s heart. Owen’s family history had been stable, but… unpleasant. He’d never formally severed contact with his parents so much as drifted apart and gladly left it that way. She knew he had cousins and their kids back in England whom he’d sent Christmas cards and little birthday gifts to, but overall he’d built a family in the HEAT and in his relationship with Rylee.

She’d never have thought of herself as his next of kin until Burgess said it, but… it was true, really. And she knew what he’d have wanted. He’d told her.

“…A natural burial, right in the woods behind his house. He planted them, after all. And a non-denominational service.”

“…Okay. Daar wants to pay his respects too, but he knows that might be a hassle…”

That thought brought something that resembled a smile back to Rylee’s face. “Let him. I hear we’ve got some big fellas about who could keep things safe.”

“Yeah. I heard that too.” ‘Horse sighed heavily. “…I think we’re about outta time. Don’t eat yourself sick, okay?”

“They should be taking the cast off and discharging me sometime this evening, assuming it all worked properly. I’ll pace myself,” Rylee promised.

Thus left alone again, she threw herself back into her work, as much of it as there was. There was already some messaging flowing across the zero-width Array, with assurances the wing would be rebuilt as a Space Force delta…

“…Never waste an opportunity, I guess…” she muttered to herself. It was a sensible proposal. It also meant her focus was going to narrow considerably. The Space Force was like the Marine Corps in that its assets were meant to be almost exclusively mission elements, with support and other functions handled by big Air Force. The SOR’s American component had been planning a conversion for years. With this, that likely meant two things:

Firstly, her new Delta would be in direct support of SOR, which gave it a much more focused mission. And second, the training wing at Malmstrom would need to be rebuilt into a full-sized operational wing. The Air Force needed space fighters too, because their mission was bigger and broader.

She whiled away a productively focused hour reviewing letters, plans, charts, laboriously tapped out a few messages of her own—a slow process with only one hand—and maybe ignored ‘Horse’s advice and ate a bit too much, until another visitor interrupted her. A much, much smaller visitor.

“Hello, Nofl.” Nobody else she knew was as tall as a seven-year-old with a cranium the size and general shape of a party balloon and dainty pointed ears.

“Just a checkup, darling!” Nofl waltzed in with all his usual sun-and-puppies sparkle, armed with a medical scanner of Corti make, which he waved vaguely at Rylee’s arm, then tutted. “…Oh dear.”

Rylee’s heart sank. “What?”

“It looks like we won’t have the pleasure of your company any longer.”

Nofl clipped the scanner to the utility harness he wore in lieu of pockets. “You’re all healed up, and I really can’t justify keeping a perfectly healthy woman in here using up a hospital bed…Goodness knows, we need as many as we have,” he added, sobering a little.

Rylee sighed, nodded, and swung her legs out of bed. “I’ve been meaning to thank you for saving my arm…” she began, but Nofl stopped her with a vague flap of his fingers.

“Nonsense! The Human body is so durable that your people would have achieved adequate results with carpentry and sewing. All I did was accelerate and refine the process.” He pulled off a merry, cheeky smile, which was never going to stop being an odd sight on a Corti face. “Though, I did refine it rather a lot…”

“Well, thank you for that, then.”

“You’re very welcome, darling.” He pulled a tablet from a satchel strapped securely to his side, tapped on it a few times, then nodded. “There we go. A consulting physician’s signature on your discharge paperwork. A nurse will pop by shortly to take the cast off, and after that…” he paused. “Do you have somewhere to stay?”

“Yeah.” Owen’s place. A loud and cowardly part of her wanted to check into the Statler instead, or maybe up at the base. But Rylee Jackson was no fucking coward.

“Well then. The arm should be perfectly functional again. Anticlimactic I know, but in my experience my patients prefer being able to do something about trauma over bearing a trophy of it. It may be a little weaker than you remember, but with the amount of Cruezzir-Derivative in your system right now it should gain that strength quickly enough. Let me know immediately if you notice any numbness or can’t oppose your thumb properly to touch it to all of your fingertips” He waited until Rylee had demonstrated that she could, then tipped his head in a small bow then headed for the door. “Oh, and… general?”

Rylee paused in repeating the opposition test for her own comfort. “Yes?”

“You have my commiserations, for what they are worth.”

“…Thank you, Nofl.”

Het tipped his head again, and was gone.

True to Nofl’s predictions, a nurse appeared almost as soon as he was out of the room, and Rylee massaged her arm once the cast and bandages were gone. The scar wasn’t quite as faint as she’d imagined. It was star-shaped, a few inches below her elbow, with one point extending right the way down to her wrist.

A tattoo, maybe. It’d be her first, but there was something profane about the idea of allowing that wound to pass without a mark or memory.

She had a lot to do before then, though. She took a photo for reference, gathered her things, and discharged herself.

And, not being a coward, she went to Owen’s place.


Date Point: 17y7m AV
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth

Austin Beaufort

Raids didn’t work like he thought they would. The Feds came right up to his front door and knocked. He answered, warily. They asked him to step outside, and not sure what was happening he did…at which point a pair of huge goons threw him up against the van and handcuffed him. One of them pressed some sort of device against his head, while the other dug through his pockets, scattering their contents on the ground.

“Hey, what the fuck—”

A third man, considerably smaller than the other two, addressed him. “We have a warrant to search your property. Hold still.”

“I… what?! What are you talking about, get—!”

Lauren was given a similar treatment, right next to him, and Austin never wanted to see that look in her eyes ever again. He’d never seen her look genuinely terrified before.

Still. It was over pretty quickly. This time, whatever the thing pressed to her head had to say, the dude in the FBI coat just grunted at it, gave a nod, and just like that they weren’t being painfully crushed up against a van.

“That’s the hard part,” the Fed said, in a tone that was kinda-sorta an apology. “But I’m afraid, mister Beaufort, you’re going to want to sit down for the next bit.”

“You’re invading my goddamned property and you’re lucky I was feeling polite—” Austin put himself protectively in front of Lauren, squaring up.

“And you’re lucky we were, too. Neither of us would have wanted it otherwise. Anyway, to business. The reason we are executing a warrant on your property is because your mobile phone was used to perpetuate the Chicago disaster. You are not a suspect,” the pencil-necked agent offered up placatingly, “Just in the wrong place at the wrong time, it seems.”

All the indignation and fight dropped right out of Austin. He glanced at the goons who’d plucked his phone from his pocket: they’d already dropped it in a copper mesh bag and taken it away.

“…My phone?”

“I’m afraid so. But like I said, you are not a suspect in our case. We do have some questions for you, however. Shall we get that out of the way?”

There were a lot of questions, for him and Lauren in separate rooms. How often did he drive alone, had he noticed waking up with unexplained soreness, had he suffered from unusual headaches lately, had he or anybody else noticed any strange mood swings…

Austin felt too numb and used to do anything but reply honestly. All the time, yes, several times over the last few months, a few but nothing serious, not really he’d just been feeling more switched-on lately…

And then, so abruptly it left his head spinning, they left him with an evidence receipt, said their farewells and left. At a loss for what to do next, he reached down into his pocket to check the weather, and immediately realized he was now without a phone.

“Fuck! That had all my ag software on it!”

Well…

Shit. Now his day was properly ruined. Lauren had long since been released: she’d gone to her mom’s house. He hoped she was okay.

He’d… make it up to her. Somehow. Maybe take her on a date, go phone shopping.

He sighed, stood, and went to his office to fire up his desktop. He’d call her. And research which phones had the best digital security, too.

And most importantly…try not to let those questions and the way they’d scanned his head worry him too much. Because there was a horrible suspicion in his belly now, one that made him want to throw up.

And he decided he’d rather not know.


Date Point: 17y7m AV
Georgia Tech, Atlanta, USA, Earth

Six

What a perfect choice! And what an even more perfect result! With one decisive stroke, Six had made a bigger step forward than anything the Hierarchy had achieved since the Sol Containment Field’s deployment.

And after all that time in such a vexingly willful and blatant host, having somebody more forgettable and pliant to work with was a much welcome change.

Allen Nguyen was everything Austin wasn’t, in many ways. Where Austin was a strong, beefy worker, Allen was just trim. He got his exercise via a recumbent bicycle, and had slim, delicate hands that could barely open bottles, let alone shatter them with a single-handed grip, as Austin was wont to do as a party trick. Where Austin had an irksomely active love life, Allen had been single for some years, and entirely lacked the confidence or social graces to change that. Austin was a country boy, Allen was a city boy, a distinction that truly did carry a lot of information.

What they had in common was a hands-on, practical intelligence for technical problem solving. There was less mud and WD-40 in Allen’s life, more wire crimping tools and soldering irons and bright LEDs. Less open sky and digging in the dirt, more air-conditioned buildings and digging in steel cabinets.

What Allen had over Austin, however, was connections. A sprawling web of professional ones, and no more than an idle corner-of-the-page doodle of personal ones. Not to mention access to the cybersecurity and telecommunications department of a major university.

From Six’s perspective, it was a clean and seamless match between his needs and the host’s. From his unique perspective he could inspire Allen to new heights and insights, and in turn Allen’s research could benefit him.

He’d learned patience from Austin. He’d learned how to achieve a big result with an imperfect and unsuitable tool. Now, he wondered, just what he could achieve with the perfect and most suitable tool, and the same level of patience.

Time would tell.


Date Point: 17y7m1d AV
The Clawhold, Planet “Mordor,” liberated Hunter space

Grandfather Vark, General of the Grand Army

There was an adage with an equivalent in practically every language, when it came to grand-scale military wisdom. The Gaori version, recorded by Great Father Fyu in his classically long-form poetic prose, held that ‘if a general must choose between feeding his men and arming them, then they must sink their fangs into both food and foes.’

Humans had opted for the rather more glib ‘an army marches on its stomach.’

Right now, the Grand Army on Mordor had no food, and wasn’t marching. And it was all thanks to the tunnel refugees.

Before the liberation, the E-Skurel-Ir had kept themselves fed by cultivating a rapid-growing kind of pond weed that grew like dangling ropy bunting everywhere in their cities, in homes, along streets, in farm bunkers. Eaten fresh, it apparently made for a pleasantly peppery salad base to be supplemented with the spicy roots and hardy wall-berries they grew for variety and vitamins. Dried and powdered, it could become bread or a porridge, though both were disconcertingly green.

But the cities were emptying. The E-Skurel-Ir were either rising up to join the cult of the Repentant, or else fleeing both Repentants and the Burning-Brood who still gnawed at the bunker-cities among the deep tunnels. The fighting down there had been fierce, and the casualty reports were dismaying.

Every city that burned out, was annexed by a suicidal cult or became occupied by Gaoian forces contributed another wave of refugees fleeing into the “safe” tunnels, or even to the surface where they would squat among the old Hunter infrastructure and factories. Few had brought enough food, or the equipment to grow more. Most were starving.

Previously, the Grand Army had handed out food supplements, mostly in the form of rice, flour, and beans from Cimbrean. Earthling food crops were so calorie dense that a little went a long way. Now, though, the roles were reversed: the natives had more food than the Grand Army. And even if Vark had felt inclined to take their food—which he was not—it wouldn’t have helped anyway. The E-Skurel-Ir staples were, alas, effectively inedible to a Gaoian.

Gao could handle prolonged starvation. At rest, the Gao metabolism was strikingly efficient, in fact; a healthy Gaoian could go weeks without water and a good quarter of a year without food, provided he remained inactive. And therein lay the problem. An army could not be inactive. Especially not one stranded on such a hellhole planet.

Clearing all the Hunters out was going to take years, and Hunters bred freakishly quickly if given the chance. Vark’s forces had already engaged more than a few new broods, and though the new spawn had none of the advanced cybernetics that made red-brood Hunters and Betas so incredibly dangerous, they had numbers. Numbers that needed to be kept in check.

And to top it all off, they were deep in enemy space. Freighter shipments? Forget it. They may as well just hand those supplies directly to the Hunters. And in any case, Mordor was encased in no fewer than four system defence fields, the lowering of which was inadvisable to put it mildly.

So the only option was to build a potential WMD-scale explosive, close enough to the Clawhold to be logistically useful, far enough away that if it DID detonate like the one in Franklin then the Grand Army and the natives would suffer no harm. It would be the only active jump array anywhere in deathworlder territory aside from its counterpart on Gao, which was being built out on an old deep-sea oil drilling platform. They only existed because there was no alternative, but they might do some good in bringing the rest of the network back up, if they pulled double duty as experimental test-beds.

The Hunters, fuck them forever, seemed to know just how important the array site was, and weren’t giving it a moment’s rest. They were throwing their best remaining forces at it, in fact. Clearly whichever Alpha now commanded the planet’s remaining broods knew that its best route to victory lay in delaying the array’s construction and cutting the Grand Army off from its logistics until the Gaoian guns fell silent, the Gaoian soldiers were stupid from starvation, and the walking wounded perished for want of bandages and antiseptic.

Such was the surest route to victory in all wars, after all. Vark would have done the same.

It put him in a lose-lose situation. If he didn’t devote enough forces to defending the Array site and getting it built and online, then his troops would wither on the vine. But if he didn’t properly defend the bunker-cities and their precious cultural archives from the burning menace below, then their victory would be pyrrhic at best.

The solution he wanted was a decapitation. His own death wouldn’t have harmed the Grand Army much, there was a clear line of command and succession, he’d have been replaced in moments and he trusted the men who’d replace him. The Hunter system—and the word ‘system’ was stretching it—was more like a particularly fractious form of feudalism. Killing an Alpha would only result in one of its lessers taking over, but the broods would bicker. Their alliances were between the Alphas, and needed reforging when the Alpha fell.

A decisive general could exploit that confusion like splitting wood down the grain. There was just one problem: they didn’t know where the Alpha they needed to kill was.

“The best we can narrow it down to is somewhere on the north-eastern continent, deep inside the territory they still hold.” Father Liim, as Whitecrest’s most senior representative and commander on the planet, seemed to take the Alpha’s continued existence as a personal affront.

“That ain’t exactly precise…” the north-eastern continent was the larger of the two currently held by the Hunters, while the Gaoian forces were still claiming the largest of Mordor’s three major landmasses. A whole planet wasn’t conquered overnight, after all. Liim had just ‘narrowed down’ the Alpha’s location to within twenty million square kilometers.

“No, Grandfather. We’re working on it. I’ll have to send scouts into that territory if I want a precise location, though.”

“We do know where most o’ the secondary Alphas are, though. We can strike against them,” Father Meeri suggested.

Vark shook his head no. “Not really, no. I ain’t got any proper assault teams I can spare jus’ now, either. All I got is some Fang elites from Stoneback: two claws from First Fang, an’ another two from Fourth. I can’t justify ‘em goin’ in and doing this jus’ yet.”

Meeri flicked an ear, confused. “Surely that would buy us some breathing room?”

“Yeah, but very ‘spensively. Secondary Alphas ain’t really worth their time, ‘cuz just one raid would cost us ‘bout a million calories o’ ration or somethin’ ridiculous like that. First Fang are big boys an’ they eat like it. On that one raid they’d each burn up literally ten times th’ ration as a really strong, really active male in th’ grand army would in a day. An’ Fourth ain’t much better.”

Meeri looked taken aback. “That much?”

“I ain’t in the habit of exaggeratin’,” Vark reminded him, evenly. “Even sittin’ there doin’ nothin’ but keep ready, they’re a food sink we can barely afford, and they can’t afford ‘ta sit around, neither. All that muscle they’re carryin’ needs workin’ or they’ll lose it. Balls, I’m even worse, fit as I am these days. I don’t eat like a Keeda ‘fer nothin’ and I ain’t doin’ it ‘ta taunt y’all, neither. At this level, my ‘tabolism’s so gods-damned fast, I gotta eat or I’ll keel over an’ die in a few days, mebbe. There’s a real cost ‘ta bein’ this kinda big, an’ right now I can’t afford to make the problem worse ‘fer everyone.”

Liim duck-nodded agreement. “If we deploy those claws at all, it cannot be for anything less than a decisive strike. Once used, they need to recover, and we don’t have what they need.”

Ginn cleared his throat to politely inject himself into the discussion. Vark had picked well with the little fella: Ginn wasn’t no pen-pusher, he’d seen real bloody action an’ killed his share of the big tank-Betas. He was a good barometer for what the average soldier would say. “Well… Grandfather, with respect, we have an enormous army of volunteers…”

“Yeah,” Vark growled gently. “We do. They’re brave too, alla them. But they’re also weak, mostly. Which ain’t anythin’ ‘gainst them personally, it’s jus’ that second-degrees usually ain’t man enough ‘fer this kinda work, even with armor an’ guns. Gotta be able ‘ta take a hit an’ power through the raid, an’ ‘ya can’t stop ‘till the job’s done.”

The vast majority of gaoian males were second degree, making up over ninety percent of the adult demographic—and thus, the grand army as well. The problem wasn’t one of spirit, oh no. It was one of simple physical inadequacy. It pained Vark to admit it, but second degree males were…something less compared to the Human average—and in this new Deathworlder era, ‘Human’ was the standard to compare against. They were noticeably smaller and often considerably less muscular, even next to Human women. They had slower reflexes, weren’t nearly so strong and couldn’t take anywhere near the same amount of abuse. They didn’t have a Human’s endless endurance, that marvelous immune system, the same resistance to pain and toxins… any of that. Sure, they could survive on comparatively meager rations, had a better nose and natural weapons a Human did not… but that wasn’t useful in this case. Against well-defended Hunters, raids meant overwhelming force.

Ordinarily, a problem like this he’d just throw a fuck of a lotta ordnance at the greasy shits. That kind of fight, the grand army could do like none other; they were well-trained on tactics and maneuver, and has the right predatory mindset. But the root of his conundrum was logistics, an’ an army ran outta bullets just as fast as it ran outta meeshi beans. Which meant he had to go for it. Which meant a lotta death.

Vark wasn’t a fan of throwing bodies at problems, if he could avoid it. What he needed was more assault teams. They’d be exactly the tool for the job, but they depended on higher-degree males, and gods were they rare and precious resources. A well-trained third-degree was a match for most any Human trooper, but they were less than eight percent of the population, and virtually all of them in the grand army were already in leadership or special positions, like the assault teams. A fourth-degree was even more impressive, and could reliably embarrass even exceptional Humans—and some Ten’Gewek, apparently—but they were literally one in a million. Fifth-degrees were far better still and truly astounding specimens, but at less than one in a hundred million they weren’t even a factor…and of course, there was only one sixth-degree alive, the first in centuries.

And he was far too important to spend on something like this.

Ginn flicked his ears in a somewhat defensive gesture being a second-degree male himself, but he could see the argument. “. But if the grand army isn’t enough, and the Fangs are too much…?”

“What’d be jus’ right?” Vark finished the question for him.

“Yes, Grandfather.”

Vark shook out his pelt. “That’s easy. What I really need is the grand army’s assault teams, or maybe some Human troopers experiences with raiding. But they’re all back on Gao or they’re overworked an’ at risk o’ gettin’ kilt, or in th’ case o’ Humans we just ain’t got any. Throwin’ a wall o’ little males at th’ problem’s a last resort, ‘cuz why waste hundreds o’ lives if the job could be done by a squad?”

There was silence for a few moments as they considered options.

Liim took a deep breath. “Very well. I have enough Clan specialists on planet to infiltrate the occupied territory and hunt down that Alpha, perhaps even kill it with some good fortune. Each one of them is your eyes however, Grandfather. Wherever I pull them from will become a blind spot. You’ll also have to do without me, as I’ll be leading them.”

Vark duck-nodded. “You find First Fang a target, an’ we’ll claw a victory right outta the Hunters’ mouths. None’a the alternatives are very happy things. But don’t dawdle; I can’t give ‘ya much time ‘fore I send in Fangs and bodies anyway.”

“Yes, Grandfather.”

“Get to it, then.”

Liim duck-nodded again, and bustled away. Meeri tilted his head at Vark. “Until then, Grandfather, where should I concentrate our forces? The array site, or the cities?”

“Prioritize logistics. We die if we don’t get that shit sorted out. I need that Array thumpin’ away day an’ gods-damned night or we’ll be dead inside a week.”

And that was that. They were committed to a course of action. Vark wasn’t looking forward to all the reports about how many books burned in the next few days, but it was that or an outright loss. And they’d make the Hunters pay, in time.

Even if the war had just got a lot more complicated.


Date Point: 17y7m1d AV
Colony of Eyes-Turned-Upwards, Planet Hope, the E-Skurel-Ir Diaspora

Ukusevi, Archivist and Keeper of the Long Chant

Rain.

On the Punished World, the rain was acidic enough to bleach and blister. Metal left out in the rain corroded, concrete and stone became etched, and thin crusts of chemical salts were left behind when the runoff dried.

According to Ukusevi’s Human and Gaoian liaisons, the difficulty in making water potable on their home planets lay in cleansing it of tiny parasitic organisms and infectious viral motes. According to the Long Chant, the same had once been true of the Punished World. But for generations the great challenge in procuring drinking water for the E-Skurel-Ir had been precipitating out the harmful chemicals.

The process would have been difficult enough without depending on scavenged equipment built with spare parts and surplus skimmed from the Hunter work orders. Uku had seen a Gaoian test their drinking water and physically recoil upon seeing the lead content.

Now, though… the water pattering softly on Uku’s tarpaulin lean-to roof was clear, potable and cleaner than any she’d imbibed in her life before moving to Hope. It was bliss to wash her tongue with it, but the sound of it was even more of a delight. Laying warm in her cot and listening to that thickly textured white noise was a joy unlike any she’d known before.

Still. There was no avoiding certain demands of the flesh. The muscles wanted to move, the joints wanted to stretch and bend, and all the comfortable inertia in the universe couldn’t indefinitely quell a full bladder. When she twitched her tarp aside enough to look outside, she discovered that it wasn’t quite dawn yet, and the light was still silvery-dim. The Saved Folk would all still be comfortably asleep, and she’d have the dawn to herself, except for any aliens who happened to be awake.

She shrugged on her robes and raincloak, and glanced toward the jump array as she emerged into the refreshingly wet weather. Still no activity. Before, it had never stopped: as soon as one stack of crates or huddle of refugees were removed, it would thump again and the next shipment would arrive. But for days now it had been nothing more than a flat metal plate on a concrete base with a frame around it, dormant and useless.

And, apparently, dangerous.

A few of her people, absurdly, had lamented this new twist in their fortunes. Uku had replied by adjusting her sermons to remind them that they were still, by any measure at all, still in a far happier situation than they had been only a couple of months ago. The deathworlders had been foresighted in their work, delivering enough supplies and food up front to feed the refugee camp for a long time before things got dire. Easily long enough for starships to arrive, according to the Gaoians. They were in no danger of starving.

They were in no danger at all. There was pain, knowing that so many were stranded on the Punished World, promised an escape to Eyes-Turned-Upwards and the chance to breathe its clean airs and drink its pure waters for themselves, only to have that door slammed in their face. Uku could understand that they would likely feel resentment. But the ones already transferred had no cause to complain.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a sight that would shock and horrify any E-Skurel-Ir; A trio of children came charging out of the woods in front of her, giggling gleefully and playing tag in the rain without a thread of clothing between them. For a moment, Keeper and younglings stared at each other in dismay, before the young ones assembled their wits first and fled, scattering back among the trees. Uku didn’t even summon the intellect to call pointlessly after them until they were already out of view.

She’d recognized the trio, of course. She would have to give their parents a stern—

She stopped herself. Actually, why would she have to give their parents a stern anything? Back on the Punished World, such a game would have been unthinkably stupid, a fantastic way to earn chemical burns or worse, and any parent careless enough to let it happen was endangering their offspring. But here?

If they had been older, she may have suspected some less innocent motive, but those three were too young for that. They were just enjoying a freedom that too many children across too many generations had never known, smart and aware enough to know that adults likely wouldn’t approve, but ruled enough by their temptations to do it anyway.

No. No stern talking-to. A little gentle teaching moment with the kids individually, maybe, reminding them of the word propriety and all it meant. But there was no need to shame them. In fact, if she was to be honest, there was something rather enticing about the notion of skipping naked in the rain herself…

She laughed to herself, dispelled the idea, and completed her trip to the ablutions block in a jolly mood.

Her mood even survived talking business with the gloomy Gaoians. The one overseeing the kitchens was a rare female, Sister Yeania. Taller than most Gao that Uku had met, and scarred too; a ragged triple claw-mark had cost her half an ear and narrowly missed her eye. From what Uku knew of Gaoian culture, the males wore their scars proudly, but they were considered thoroughly un-feminine. Yeania’s had come to her in a narrow escape from rampaging biodrones during what the Gao called the “Homeworld War,” and was a feral testament to the fact that she’d seen a lot and suffered a lot more.

Ukusevi could sympathize. But where her own trauma inspired her to revel in beauty and comfort wherever she found it, the Gao by and large seemed…embittered. Embittered, but also imbued with purpose.

Yeania, for instance, was an early riser, and she could put a commanding edge in her voice that sent burly Grand Army males scurrying to clean, cook or simply get out of her kitchen. Under her direction, the whole refugee population, the Grand Army troops and the handful of voracious Humans in Eyes-Turned-Upwards could always depend on solid meals waiting for them at sunrise and sunset.

Today, she just look up as Uku entered and flicked her remaining ear. “You’re up early, Keeper. Kids wake you?”

“You know about them?”

“Hard not to. Cubs are cubs in pretty much any species, I reckon. Hard to miss when they’re playing.” The Gaoian chef handed over a large metal bowl. “Here. Make yourself useful and mix the pancake batter, wouldya?”

Uku obliged her. “Quite a shock. Back on the other world…”

“Count yourself lucky they ain’t human. Your people, my people, we got all that nice healthy fur coverin’ our bits. Humans? I bet you can see every damn thing flopping and dangling around.”

Uku laughed. That was quite a mental image, alright. “Suddenly, I’m glad they share our sense of modesty.” Her thoughts turned briefly to Julian. “…For the most part.”

“Mm.”

That was as much conversation as Yeania apparently had in her. Uku gave her a few quiet moments before broaching the conversation that was really on her mind.

“Any news regarding the array?”

“Still down. Prob’ly a supply ship from Gao on its way, Tiritya alone knows when it’ll get here, but we have enough to last us a goodly while. Knowin’ the Great Father and Great Mother though, it’ll be here sooner, not later.”

“You know them?”

“Not person’ly. Just… knowin’ what I know of them. The Gao they’re buildin’ won’t forget. I’d bet they didn’t even need to prompt someone.”

Ukusevi decided the pancake batter was appropriately mixed and set it down. She wasn’t quite sure where the alien food had come from: both the Gao and the Humans claimed it as their own, and she was pretty sure she’d seen a similar recipe in an old book from the archives once. Maybe pancakes were just universal. “You sound like you admire them greatly.”

“Before, Champions only lifted a finger if they thought it would benefit their Clans or perhaps earn them a wet dick for a mating week. And to be honest, that worked well enough in its own mercenary sort of way. Things are different now.” She sniffed. “I respect them, sure. But the males are so fanatically loyal it’s kinda hard to fathom. Can’t even make a joke without ‘em gettin’ all defensive. As if they need it.”

“By they, you mean the Great Mother and the Great Father?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve never met her. I’ve met the Great Father, though. It’s hard to imagine him as any kind of vulnerable, to be perfectly frank.”

“…What’s he like?”

“If I were to pick one word, it would be…” Uku paused and rifled through her vocabulary for a moment. “‘…Immense.’ Everything about him, in every sense of the word. Even his emotions. Immense to the point he seems almost impervious to harm, or unstoppable. But I know that’s not true. His sorrows are immense, too.”

She watched Yeania consider that for a moment, then posed a question of her own. “Have you ever met the Great Mother?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s she like?”

Yeania paused in her work, and gazed off into some unseen distance for a moment. “She went through worse shit than I did and came out as level and as kind and as serene as I reckon a person could ever be. The usual politics between Females just…don’t apply, somehow. They flow around her like she wasn’t even there.” She looked down for a moment. “…Wish I had that skill.”

“Well, antagonizing the males about Daar is maybe not the way to go.”

“Prob’ly not. But I’m here ‘cuz on the whole males are less…complicated than my sisters. Don’t pry into stuff, don’t ask dumb questions about when I’m going to have this seen to…” she waved a paw vaguely at her face. “…Or some other scars I might have.”

She didn’t say more. Uku didn’t ask more. She just nodded her understanding, and stepped aside. “I should go clean up before breakfast,” she decided.

“You do that. Thanks for mixin’ the batter.”

The bit about cleaning up had been a small untruth. She’d certainly wash her hands before breakfast, but in fact Uku was keen to get back to her journal and jot down her morning thoughts. In its way, that duty was as important to her as getting food in her belly, and almost as pleasant nowadays.

After all, she lived on a world where children could freely be children, and scarred women could find some simplicity. Those were moments worth preserving and thinking about, and eventually sharing. There was too much beauty in every moment for Uku to record all of it…

But she’d record as much as she could.

She went home with a smile.


Date Point: 17y7m2d AV
Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

Xiù had always believed that riches were an obligation, that the with had a duty to the without. And she was firmly and definitely one of the with nowadays.

She, Allison and Julian had come back from Misfit’s voyages to find an account held in their name by Byron Group, guaranteed for plural millions of dollars each in salary, survey bonus and hazard pay, and managed by Byron’s finest financial and investment officers to plump it out even further.

Julian had used his to buy their house in Folctha, and was happy to leave the rest of his money in low-risk development funds where it paid for territorial development, investment and growth. Allison had invested hers in MBG, with enough aside in a savings account to pay herself a comfortable yearly rate for the rest of her life.

Xiù had turned her wealth into her job. She’d become a property developer and landlord, made something of a brand out of providing pleasant and well-built but affordable housing in Folctha, Franklin, Botany, Nouveau Acadia and Abeltown. Thanks to her, first dozens then hundreds of migrating families had been able to buy or rent homes. Good homes, not cheap cramped cookie-cutter condos built to a standard that wouldn’t last more than fifty years, but actual real houses they could proudly pass down to their kids.

The more she owned, the more the business expanded. She’d hired people. Had to let some go too, especially an accountant who’d been…

Well, Xiù wasn’t interested in cutting corners for the sake of pennies. Quality and ethics came first in her business model, so they kept the money on-shore, they paid their taxes, the bonuses went to everyone… It was her small way of doing things right. And it worked! It had made her one of the bigger residential property owners in Franklin.

And now, the owner of a scorched and flattened field of splintered wood, broken cinder blocks, shattered glass and sad personal effects. Homes built to withstand decades of Cimbrean’s gentle weather had offered no resistance at all to a Nagasaki-sized blast.

At least the horrible dust was being cleared away. Drones outfitted with electrostatically charged field generators were zipping back and forth across the rubble, weaving a methodical grid pattern and returning to their base with filaments of fine powder accreted along the field lines like stringy black spiderwebs. Thanks to their tireless, automated efforts, there were whole blocks of the city now where each step didn’t raise a puff of pulverized freight train.

While most of the people who worked for her lived in Folctha, each of the five territories required somebody on the ground to scout locations, work with building contractors, handle the minutiae of building laws and so on. Franklin’s was Sam Berry, a six-foot giant nerd with some intriguing tattoos. He’d been out of town checking up on a small town a couple of hours away along Territorial Highway 1 at the time of the blast, but it had still hurt him.

It had hurt everyone. Especially the unharmed.

“The insurers are already making reluctant noises,” he said, toeing some rubble aside listlessly. Xiù put a hand on his arm, reassuringly.

“You let me worry about the insurers,” she said. “That’s a problem for tomorrow. What I want to know is, what can we do today?”

“…Not much,” Sam said, gloomily.

“What about the survivors? Surely there’s something we can do!”

Sam shook his head. “The damage and the fatalities pretty much overlap. The folks who came through this with their lives still have their homes, and the folks who lived in the destroyed homes, well…”

Xiù looked around. There were a lot of people hard at work still, clearing and cleaning, but she could tell he was right. There were pretty clear radii of damage. The road network was basically intact even right into the city center, and the further she looked out from the epicenter, the more bricks there were on top of other bricks until, a good mile or more from ground zero the first intact building stood cracked but vertical. There wasn’t an intact window within five kilometers, though, and somehow she guessed there would be a lot of buildings that were no longer safe and would need to come down.

That was something her business could do something about, and she said as much. “There’ll be repairs, and reconstruction… and people will come back here, Sam. Some will move away, others will come. Franklin isn’t a ghost town yet. And it’s in our power to ensure it never will be.”

He sighed, but nodded. “…Still. There’s not a lot we can do today. All the contractors I work with are… It’s going to be a while, Xiù.”

“I’ll help,” Xiù promised. She didn’t even have to hesitate and think about it, when the call had gone out for an emergency, Amanda Buehler had stepped up, and while Xiù still had a lot of…criticisms… about Allison’s mom, she couldn’t fault Amanda for that. She’d freed Xiù up to come take care of this, and Allison up to go put in some overtime on the latest Misfit, which they were trying to get ready by the time Boone’s Star and whatever other supply ships from Earth arrived. At the very least, she’d be good for getting people to and from orbit, now that the jump up to Armstrong wasn’t available.

Most importantly, she’d freed up both of them to have something to do rather than fret about Julian. He’d lived through Nightmare and worse before, he’d do it again. But their bed was always lonely with just two.

All of Cimbrean had taken a blow. The five colonies were happy neighbors, all entirely comfortable with the distribution of territory, all speaking the same language both literally and politically, and brought closer by the Cimbrean Common Economic Area that meant anyone holding a passport for one territory had effectively unrestricted access to the other four.

They were siblings. And one of them was wounded, but the other four were already pitching in, and Xiù intended to be among the contributors.

The firmness in her voice certainly seemed to help Sam. He nodded slowly, took a deep breath, then plucked his phone from his pocket. “…I worked with a lot of companies out in the outlying towns,” he said. “I’ll find people. We can at least throw together some temporary housing and get people out of tents. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

“A start is all all we need,” she promised him. They wouldn’t be the only ones helping, after all.

This wasn’t the end for Franklin.


Date Point: 17y7m3d AV
Planet Nightmare

Ferd Given-Man

Cold—real cold—bit. It had teeth, thousands of little ones that gnawed slowly through shelter, fire-warmth, blanket, skin and muscle. It lurked in the bed, in the ground, in the walls, and when a man left the safety of his blanket to fetch fuel, he’d come back to find it invaded by those teeth again.

And outside of the shelter? It didn’t have teeth. It had knives. Knives that would slice off toes, fingers and tailtips if they let it. Knives that would sink slowly into the heart and still it.

Ferd had faced many things in his life. Hierarchy and the Brown One and angry bull Werne, an even a charging Yshek. He feared none of them: they could be killed. The horror of Cold was that it wasn’t a beast or mind, it could not be slain. It just was, and all a man could do was carve out a little place that was less cold, at great effort.

He’d even come to like the nasty, bitter coffee-drink. It put warmth back inside him, pushed the cold away for a while. Gave him a chance to feel something other than the teeth pushing inwards.

They’d done all they could. Dug up and slaughtered two hibernating murderpigs, whose meat was now either frozen hard halfway up a tree or smoking above the fire. Stacked firewood every chance they got in the middle of the day when the biting chill was at its tamest. They had enough now for five hands of days. The roof—poles draped with tarpaulin and murderpig hide—kept the wind out and the heat of the fire in, at least enough.

Now there was nothing to do but… wait. They’d find more prey when the meat was half eaten, they’d chop more firewood every day as they used it. But other than that, there was nothing more they could do.

Except sing, apparently. Jooyun did that a lot, in a quiet distracted way.

♫“Well the good old days may not return, and the rocks might melt and the sea may burn. I’m learning to fly…”♪

He was pretty good-sounding too, for a Human. But the song was…the same. All the way through. Same tune, same rhythm, over and over again. It was starting to make Ferd’s tail itch.

“Too simple,” he grunted, and only knew he’d said it aloud when Jooyun stopped and glanced at him.

“What?”

Well, in for the hunt, in for the kill. “A real song is a story. It follows the story. That one just… for fun.”

Jooyun seemed amused. “Well I won’t argue that, big fella!”

“All Human songs are like that. Nice, but… just nice,” Nomuk said.

“No, we’ve got the other kind too!” Jooyun shook his head. “Remember Professor Daniel? When he told you Beowulf? It’s sung, actually. Heck, I think I have it on video.” He fumbled for his thinking-stone.

“You know any of your story-songs without going to the video?”

Jooyun looked at a loss for a second, but Rees snort-laughed. “Sure we do!”

“We do?” Fraz-er looked at him.

“Sure!” Rees puffed out his chest and spread his arms out in just the same way Professor Daniel did when telling a story. ”This is the greatest and best song in the world…”

“Oh my God…” Jooyun seemed suddenly embarrassed and amused. So, mischief then!

“The best song?” Tumik asked. He leaned forward, reached out of his blankets to pick up a coffee cup. Ferd looked over at Jooyun and shared a Look. Tumik always was a bit gullible…

Rees gave his best trouble-grin and barked happily when Jooyun poked his thinking-stone with a grin and the opening tones of a Human git-arr hung in the air. “Sure! Just listen…”

It went on for a while, and it was still fun, but it was a fun story too. At first, just Rees and Jooyun, but Heff and Fraz-er joined in shortly after. They all knew the words, it seemed.

♫“…the song we sang on that fateful night, it didn’t actually sound anything like this song!…”♪

It lifted the mood a lot. By the end—or at least, by the time it totally stopped making sense—all four Humans were looking more alive than they had in a day or two. Rees reached over the fire and his palm slapped against Jooyun’s in a high-five.

“So our supermonkeys like story songs? Julian, you got any Weird Al on that speaker?”

“Oh, fuck, not Albuquerque?”

“Fuck aye!”

‘“I’m gonna do ‘Spicy McAngus’ before we jump down the Weird Al rabbithole.”

There was a lot of music in that rabbit-hole. Eventually they climbed back out, and ended on Ferd’s favorite song.

♫“Fat-bottomed girls, you make the rockin’ world go ‘round!”♪

“Of course you’d like that one the most, not a one among you with a little arse!”

“Not my fault you humans so skinny! Can’t jump with that tiny ass, Rees. You should be more like Jooyun! Big, strong rump like real man!”

Rees rolled his eyes while everyone else laughed. “I’m British, mate. I don’t want America’s arse.”

Heff snorted. “No sex please, we’re British!”

“‘Ey, fuck off!”

Jooyun didn’t say anything, but the grin on his face was the smuggest Ferd had ever seen.

Happy that he’d scored a hit, Heff turned to Ferd. “Can’t properly appreciate a nice ass with a tail in the way, either.”

“Tail’s the best bit!” Ferd shot back.

“Suddenly, I just learned something about Ten’Gewek I didn’t want to…” Fraz-er muttered…

…And so on. The place felt… warm again, after that. The food tasted a little better, the fire a little stronger. There were smiles again as a comfortable silence fell.

And into that silence, as if called by their songs, a sound they’d all been waiting for: the bee-bee-beep of their phone.

Rescue had finally come.


Date Point: 17y7m3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Focltha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Brigadier General Rylee Jackson

Rylee had attended far too many ramp ceremonies in her career. Mostly, the flags draped across the coffins had borne the same combination of colors in a different configuration.

This one was painfully different. It was an oversized coffin, like Vandenberg’s had been. And the flag was British instead of American. And the man borne within had both meant more to her personally, and had died in harder circumstances to bear.

She was only alive because he’d given all of his immense strength to save her. She remembered more and more over time, and none of it was of much comfort. An I-beam had fallen across them. He took the impact across his broad back, probably breaking it in the process and sparing her a crushed rib cage. Somehow he’d muscled it off them both despite the carnage it had wrought on him, and then promptly collapsed across her legs.

He’d given her a gentle smile right before he passed out, never to wake. Now that she’d remembered it, it was burned in her mind. And all she could do was stand at attention as he was borne down out of the Weaver that had brought him home from Franklin.

Arés and Burgess were in front. Firth and Murray in the rear. Two of the new guys in the middle, she didn’t know them by name yet. The only honor-guard fit for him.

To either side of the dropship’s ramp, the Spaceborne Operations Regiment—HEAT, JETS, technicians and all—stood in formation. They weren’t alone, either: Daar was there too, but stood well off to the side as discreetly as he could manage, his huge paw up against his brow in salute, touching his crown in a gesture that very few beings in the whole wide galaxy could have earned from him. The Folcthan Prime Minister was in attendance, neat and small alongside Daar in her black suit, her gaze distant.

Fortunately, ramp ceremonies were usually quick things. A sharp moment of grief at a solemn pace, that ended when the coffin was loaded into the hearse and driven away. Less quick was the funeral proper, to come in the morning.

Owen’s house was hers to possess, now. He’d left all his worldly possessions to her in trust, to be used among the SOR as she best saw fit. She’d given it serious thought, as he would have wanted. Arés was working on a big family…but he had a tenant leaving the apartment below his, so his plan was to combine them into a two-level home. So, that was paid for.

To the others had gone similar gestures. Some were taken, some were kept in reserve. Owen’s books went to Costello, save for one or two she couldn’t bear to part with. His weights went to the incoming officer they’d meet in a couple week’s time. Campbell, was his name.

Murray got a collection of keepsakes from Folctha’s very earliest days. Photos, mostly. Memories that he, now, was the only remaining SOR man to bear.

In the end, she didn’t keep much. She kept the house, she kept his monstrous recliner. Some of the plates and other fundaments of a working house. She moved in, because Owen’s grave was in her new backyard and somebody needed to look after him.

She read a eulogy. It passed a bit in a blur, but she did distinctly remember there were clever lines, here and there. Small, mildly embarrassing stories he would have delighted in sharing, were he free of the duties of his office.

He was free from all duty now, so…she shared.

Daar and Gyotin had something to contribute, too. They made some simple offerings, growled out something that sounded almost like Gaoian, but much more guttural, much older. She didn’t have a translator on hand so she had no idea what they said.

They’d buried him like he wanted. Nothing fancy. A shroud instead of a coffin, a natural burial in a shallow grave. She planted a small sapling over the top.

The thing that surprised her for days afterwards was how many visitors came, who hadn’t been able to attend the funeral, or who’d been there at the back and wanted something a little more personal. Mark and Hayley Tisdale, for instance. To pay respects to the man who’d held their daughter as she died.

Owen had had more friends and respecters than she’d guessed. It seemed like half of Folctha wore a track in the lawn. Some came more than once.

But in time, they stopped. They moved on. They lived.

And Rylee did too.


Date Point: 17y7m3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate

Doctor Tilly Briggs

One advantage to the way Ten’Gewek didn’t like bathing with water was that the humans got to enjoy the rivers and streams (at least, the ones too shallow and clean for Yshek) for themselves if they wanted to. Tilly had a favorite spot, a hip-deep calm stretch of river between two sets of rapids, about an hour’s walk from the village in territory that the planet’s nastier critters avoided: too close to Ten’Gewek.

The Yshek didn’t come up above the rapids, and even if one had, its orca-sized bulk would have been practically beached in the shallow water. It was a safe spot where she could float on her back, and think.

There’d been a lot of talk at the research camp about how things would change if the array network stayed down indefinitely. How they’d be back to warp drive and the long grind of interstellar travel. No more stepping from planet to planet, no more interstellar commutes. Wherever somebody went, that was where they were going to stay for a not-insignificant duration. There’d been a kind of informal betting pool on what the solution to that would be. Maybe there’d be a regular ship service bringing supplies?

The option that Tilly had pessimistically put her metaphorical money on was that they’d be recalled. And she’d been right. They’d had a message through the emergency Q-router to the effect that HMS Vigilant was coming to pick them up.

It was a long flight from Cimbrean to Akyawentuo. They had plenty of time to finish their work, pack up, put everything in storage and so on… but Tilly didn’t really care about work for the moment.

She cared about the fact that she was about to lose a lifestyle that made her truly happy.

She had pioneering research work. Admittedly, her bit of it could be a bit dull, but literally nobody before her had ever done metallurgical analysis of an alien peoples’ society. They were an old people, far older than human tribes were at this point in their development: maybe half a million years, maybe a great deal more. Papers like that didn’t come around often, and she got to write them.

She also got to teach, which was what she’d have done if this opportunity hadn’t come. While, yes, she got to teach Ten’Gewek young and old—they had a lot of catching up to do, to get to the steam era of science and master classical physics—there was another benefit to that…

She got to teach math and science to Vemik, her very favorite cavemonkey. And that was the bit that was going to hurt the most. She was…well…

…She’d fallen for him, quite honestly. Fallen hard. He was a ton of fun—or close enough, anyway—super smart, had a sense of humor to go with his hyperactive, aggressively cheery personality…and, well…

…She wasn’t gonna say no to ten-pack abs. Or his weapons-grade…everything, really.

Nobody had been more surprised about that than Tilly herself. She’d always thought she preferred quiet, thoughtful types, maybe someone cute, about her size, in good health…she never thought she’d go in for an iron-age cavemonkey who defied that image in every way. He was loud and brilliantly intelligent rather than merely thoughtful or smart. Not cute, but handsome in a striking, alien way, with a body better than her wildest fantasies.

And good health? He wasn’t some meek coffee-house intellectual. He was primal and alive with every fiber of his being, whether he was hunting, or building, or having his inventive way with her under heavy pelts. All his strength, his honest passion…it was satisfying.

Against all wisdom she’d fallen for him, mind, body, and soul. She didn’t care what anyone thought. Singer didn’t mind, hell she’d been actively encouraging it. Tilly had been scheming to live on Akyawentuo indefinitely, find some permanent research position…and then it all came crashing down. Saying goodbye to everyone was gonna suck hard. Saying goodbye to Vemik…

And then there was the Singer. Wwhile Tilly had never been attracted to women, she’d fallen in a different kind of love with the Singer. There was no envy or jealousy at all between them, and over time they’d become closer than friends, taught each other a lot. She’d never had somebody she knew without a doubt she could confide absolutely anything to, and all she’d get back would be love. Leaving the Singer was going to hurt just as much.

Hence, Tilly was floating alone in a stream a long way from anyone else. And crying. A lot of that.

It helped. Eventually, she stood up, scrubbed her face clean, and waded ashore. She didn’t feel better about what was coming, but she at least felt ready to face it.

Rather than go back to the research camp, she wandered down into the village. Vemik gave her a wave and a grin as she returned, even while he was busy wrangling a springing, swinging, playful bundle of monkeyfun in the form of his son. Ten’Gewek kids matured along a different pattern to human kids: they got mobile fast, way faster than any human toddler, with shocking strength and essentially perfect coordination. They transitioned to solid food quickly, too.

Social development, though? That was slower. A human child started constructing sentences before a Ten’Gewek was even out of the babbling phase. The Ten’Gewek “Terrible Twos” actually happened when the child was three years old, and Ten’Gewek parents had to contend with a willful tantruming gymnast rather than a mere screaming toddler.

Even so, they loved their kids. As far as Vemik was concerned, it was like having an interactive kettlebell. And Tilly had to admit, the kid was cute as hell. His crest was growing in, curly and floppy and platinum blond. It wouldn’t stick out mohawk-like for a while yet, but that just made him all the cuter, really.

Which was odd from a human perspective, considering that Vemun was also a very muscular boy at around a hundred and fifty pounds. By Ten’Gewek standards, he was a normal-sized male on the hefty side of healthy. By human standards, he’d be a sixth-grade linebacker.

Fortunately, he wouldn’t have another major growth spurt until puberty, at around ten human years old. There were definite phases to Ten’Gewek youth, and Vemun was now into the slow and steady phase where all his growing energies went into developing his mind, and piling on that pound-for-pound superhuman strength the Ten’Gewek were infamous for. By the time puberty hit and he was growing like a weed again, he’d likely be pushing well (and rapidly) past three hundred pounds, and he’d probably be at least five times stronger than an athletic human man at the same weight.

Already, he was watching his dad hammer on steel, and even taking a few swings himself. Inexpertly to be sure, but no human three-year-old could ever have been trusted around glowing hot steel. The coordination just wasn’t there. No human three-year-old could swing a twenty-pound hammer, either. He had big, curious eyes behind the too-big safety goggles, and he kept his tail safely anchored around Vemik’s leg while he practiced.

Tilly recognized a scrap piece. Even Vemik had failures now and then: a bad quench, a crack that went right the way through, some other catastrophic flaw that sent the project to the scrap pile to go back in the furnace. No good for making a tool with, but fine for supervised teaching.

She waved, then gestured toward the Singer’s hut, letting him know where she’d be waiting once he was finished.

The inside of Singer’s hut was an eclectic blend of Ten’Gewek tradition and modern life. It had a dirt floor, true, but that floor was well-tamped and covered with woven mats. All her things were neatly organized on pegs along the wall, or on a low shelf along the ground. Potted food, a bone flute, a shawl and a drum sat next to imported examples of technology in the form of a well-made journal, a robust pen and a bottle of ink, next to a stack of pliable bark sheets with the Singers’ traditional song-markings bitten and chewed into them.

The smell was always homely and inviting. Ten’Gewek were musky beings, to the point where even their women smelled firmly masculine to a human nose. That was especially true of Singers, and of Singer in particular; she was a muscular Amazon of a woman even by Ten’Gewek standards. But Singer’s hut didn’t have too much of that deeply ingrained scent. There was the omnipresent aroma of wood and leather, of course, but mostly the hut smelled of incense, herbs, sweet smoke and crushed seeds.

Honestly, to Tilly’s mind, Singer was what a hippy should be. Practical first and foremost, and connected to nature without too much of the crystal-gripping silliness.

She was making beads when Tilly entered. The Singers braved shallow water to collect small, smooth stones, especially interesting ones, and then drilled holes through them, a task made much easier by access to steel tools. She had a small hand drill she’d clearly purchased in Folctha with a set of good hardened drill bits in a bright yellow case; probably she and Vemik conspired to find something they’d both love to have.

The task of both holding the beads and drilling through them admittedly looked a lot easier considering how delicately she could grip things with her feet.

She looked up as Tilly entered, hooted a welcome, and set the unfinished bead aside in a wooden bowl, before carefully putting the expensive imported tools away and rising to give Tilly a hug.

“Hello, Singer.”

The Singer had many important duties: one of them was counselling her people through hard times. She could spot a depressed mood as easily as Tilly could have noticed a stone in her shoe. “Bad news? You normally more up than this…”

“Yeah. Afraid so.”

The Singer nodded, and in seconds Tilly was favored with the good rug to sit on, and there was a small clay pot among the slow-burning coals in the middle of the hut: Ten’Gewek tea, made with dried berries rather than leaves. They had a pretty strong taste for sugary things and the drink was almost cloyingly sweet. Its fruity steam added a warm comfort to the atmosphere.

Vemik and Vemun joined them before it had finished brewing. Vemik was sweat-covered and pretty rank from hard work, haggard and happy to be home. The child was limp and asleep, draped across his father’s shoulder, and the scene the two of them made was one of the most heart-melting things she’d ever seen. Ten’Gewek kids didn’t tire like human kids, they didn’t have that grumpy-shouty phase where they were tired and didn’t know what to do about it. They just ran straight off the energy cliff, whereupon they’d find something to cuddle and then zonk out in seconds.

Fortunately, Vemun had a teddy bear, and wrapped himself around it the instant it was within reach. Vemik had hooted and trilled at length when Tilly gave it to him: something about the idea of turning the “Earth Brown One” into a child’s sleepy cuddle-toy just tickled him pink.

His tongue snaked the air over the fire for a moment once he’d got Vemun down on some blankets, and he sat next to Tilly. “…Good berries. Must be bad.”

Tilly laughed, in an explosive, sad way. “…Yeah. We, uh… we got an update. It’s not good news.”

The Singer used a cloth to lift the clay pot out of the fire, and poured it into three small cups. “You know why the Array down now?”

“Yeah. One of them exploded. Killed thousands of people.” Tilly sighed. “So they’re all shut down until we can make sure it won’t ever happen again. Which might take years. So… we’re all being recalled to Earth.”

Both Singer and Vemik blinked.

“…Arrays can explode?” Vemik shot a glance up the hill toward the village Array.

“Apparently, if something goes wrong enough…but I don’t think it was an accident. I think it was something the Big Enemy did. We all do. So, like I said, they’re all shut down until then. Yours too; we pulled the power the first day.”

“So that’s why Professor Daniel said it’s off.” Vemik shivered.

“But why can’t you stay here?” The Singer asked. “There’s food for everyone, if you do village-work.”

“It’s more than village-work,” Tilly sighed. “There’s logistics. Think about it. We’ve been using Arrays to move everything we need between worlds, right? Well, if we can’t use that, we need to use ships. And there aren’t enough ships, and ships need crew anyway…we used arrays for a reason. We’ll probably go back to them as soon as we safely can. But for now… the money just isn’t there. The people funding our work here have decided to call us back. So… we’re leaving.”

She was promptly the filling in a Ten’Gewek hug sandwich. She didn’t mind; musky affection was what cavemonkeys did best.

And in fact it was what she’d needed. Reassurance that they understood, that her friends would miss her…She wasn’t looking forward to going back to the world of pure academia. Sure. there’d be plenty for her to do there as she presented her findings, defended her work, maybe put it to good use in developing the study of human cultures…

But her heart was on Akyawentuo now. And she didn’t want to leave it behind.

“There’ll be… some of us who stay,” she managed, after a few minutes. “Probably. Only a few. I’ll try to be one of them, but…”

“We could ask for you,” the Singer suggested.

Tilly was touched, but her sense of obligation stung her. “I don’t… you shouldn’t ask for me just because you’re my friend. Whoever stays here has to be the right people.”

“I know,” the Singer assured her. “But I think I’ll ask for you. I think you’re ‘right’.”

“You helped me make the bawistuh, Vemik reminded her. “You’ve given more to the village than most! And besides. Is diplomatic team who will stay behind, yes? Best to have the people we like with them! You being our friend is a right reason.”

Tilly sighed and relaxed. She’d been so worried about breaking the news, she hadn’t even thought that maybe they’d turn it around on her. Make her feel so… valued. That was kinda new.

“You sleep here tonight,” Vemik decided. “Sometimes, we need more than hug, yes?”

They hugged her tighter, in the full-bodied way Ten’Gewek did when they really cared: arms, tail and legs around as much of their friend as they could manage, heads pressed together, feet and hands tangled tightly. It was a profoundly intimate gesture.

Tilly couldn’t resist them. “Oh…okay.”

Nor did she want to.

It was early evening anyway, and Singer had to prepare for the evening Song. That left Tilly alone in Vemik’s arms…it was different, that time. It wasn’t his usual endlessly volcanic passion, where he was as much proving his superhuman strength as he was happily nailing her to the ground through the next afternoon. Instead it was…he was…

Loving. Powerful and intense as always, but now…It damn near broke her heart, when she had the presence to form a coherent thought.

They whiled away the rest of the afternoon tangled together, no words needed for the rhythm between them. When evening came, they didn’t so much stop, as agree with a simple nuzzle that it was time to meet the night with the village. The Song started as they emerged, and Vemik joined in with Yan and another man to Dance the men’s offering to the gods.

Singing was normally the domain of the women, led by the Singer. Dancing was what the men did, with Singer’s apprentice Dancer learning all she could about the menfolk’s much more kinetic world. Tilly watched while the three taught Dancer their offering. They Took the rhythm of the Dance from the Song being Given all around them: primal, powerful, an exaltation in the day’s hard-won right to life, in the heart of one of the most dangerous jungles known on any world. It was safe only where the People made it safe, every day with great, ongoing effort.

The mere act of surviving their home was a prayer to the gods, and no amount of Sky-Magic could ever take that from them. Their reward was the plenty of the jungle, and the strength, and guile, and bravery it gave them. Their very beings thrummed in tune with their world. They were a people made for their place, and their place was made for them.

They had purpose.

Sleep came slowly. Vemik and Singer hugged Tilly tightly against themselves under those heavy Werne pelts, sharing heat and gentle affection against the creeping autumn chill of the night. Closeness—and maybe a little bit of play, too—faded into sleep so slowly, it was hard to say when sleep had actually taken them.

It didn’t matter.

The morning came, eventually. Reality had to be dealt with, the cold fought against despite the warmth under those pelts. It’d be sweltering by mid-day, and by midnight it might drop below freezing. Such was the rhythm.

She spotted Vemik and Singer talking animatedly with Professor later that day, while she was closing up work on her radioisotope lab. She knew what they were talking about. Maybe they wouldn’t get their way. Maybe she’d be sent home with the others regardless. But it felt good to have friends fighting her corner.

It felt good to belong.


Date Point: 17y7m3d AV
HMS Valiant, Orbiting planet Nightmare

Daniel Hoeff

V-Type destroyers had a magnetized flight deck and tethering forcefields along their back. Hoeff sometimes wondered why they weren’t mounted upside-down in the belly, or sideways along a flank. It wasn’t like it’d make any difference in zero-G…but then again, if everything was the same notional way up, it was probably easier for the crew.

Either way, their Weaver latched onto the deck with a firm resonant tungggg! and Hoeff’s last view of Nightmare’s wintery-white continents out the porthole was eclipsed by the black edge of the ship as they were drawn inside and sealed tightly away behind good solid doors and backup forcefields.

The drop in gravity down to Earth normal was almost disorienting. They all knew how to handle it, though: stand up carefully, bounce on their toes while holding on to something, shift their weight a bit. Remind their brains how much force was needed to get around.

Still. A man always felt like he could jump to the moon for a while after coming out of high-G.

There was the usual meet-and-greet, the curtain of cold fog rolling off the Weaver’s hull as they stepped out into the hangar, and of course decontamination. They’d been eating alien pig-critters for a while, so a quick pass through a biofilter arch to kill any parasites or alien germs was a necessary minor indignity, even if it always left Hoeff’s mouth feeling… squeaky.

Then, there were the most important matters to attend to. First, a blessed, glorious shower. It wasn’t quite so bad for the monkeybros since they were always pretty musky, but the humanfolk were particularly ripe, especially Julian. Super-caveman didn’t just look the part, he smelled it something fierce.

Jesus Christ hot water and soap was the greatest thing ever. Even Ferd could appreciate its charms after a couple weeks covered in rendered fat.

Next, there was food. Everyone was hungry as fuck, but the monkeys were of course ravenous, the cold having eaten away what little reserves they had.

Finally came learning what the fuck had actually happened. They got their briefing while they were still picking at their food, bellies full but hunger not quite sated. Long, deep cold had a way of cutting the fat right out of a guy, and their stomachs knew it.

Still. The hunger faded into the background as the enormity of what they were hearing settled in.

Julian had the most immediately apt questions. “Has Ambassador Rockefeller had anything to say? Because my duty now puts me light-years away from my family. If I can’t jump to Akyawentuo…”

“There’s a letter for you from the ambassador.” The lieutenant briefing them, Kirsten Candreva, slid it across the table. Her expression was sympathetic, though. Of course, everyone serving in a starship was facing a lot more time away from port, weren’t they?

Hoeff could see what was coming from a mile away. “Buddy, we’ve got a long ride ahead of us before we get home, don’t fly off the handle—”

“A letter, huh? That’s gonna be a hell of a read. Because this just completely exploded the Mission. We can’t go without that Array. Period.”

“I doubt anyone would argue that, sir. In any case, I’m not authorized to know the lofty dealings of ambassadors and envoys, so…”

Heh. That was a carefully-chosen, weapons grade bit of snark right there, and it seemed to deflate Julian better than anything Hoeff had ever managed. He sighed, slipped the letter out from under Candreva’s fingertips, and nodded.

She handed out some other stuff—instructions for the JETS team, mostly—then stood and left them in peace, with the assurance that she was available whenever they needed her.

Hoeff and his team read their letter in silence. The big news, of course, was the Old Man’s death. Christ. Powell gone, just like that. That was…

…Fuck.

Julian’s letter apparently didn’t contain any mention of that. It did, however, contain an entirely different bit of news. “…Well, that’s a hell of a thing. Fuck me.” His giant paws were actually shaking.

“What happened?”

“…Uh, ‘in recognition of my faithful and exemplary service,’ I’ve been offered the position of full ambassador to the Ten’Gewek. Apparently confirmation is basically a lock in the senate…fuck.”

“…You’re shitting me!”

Julian set the letter down. “It…makes sense,” he conceded. “With no jump array contact, the flight time over there in, say, a Misfit-class is a couple of weeks. Rockefeller can’t be the ambassador under those conditions. He’s…not physically fit for the mission.”

“The Given-Men not accept him anyway,” Ferd predicted. “He has Human power and respect, but we need…”

Julian sighed with a certain resigned finality. He’d already decided. “Someone like me.”

“Only ‘someone like you’ I know is you. You have been to Lodge, fought and won a good, strong rank. Good like mine! The Given-Men think you Given-Man from the sky.”

Hoeff had to interject at that. “Wait, you’ve fought at the Lodge?”

Julian nodded. “Ayup. I’m not too shabby either, I guess. Did a lot better than I thought I would, considering I’m one of the smallest guys at the lodge. I went earlier this year, a couple weeks after I finally drew about level with Vemik strength-wise and just…went through it all. I had to, otherwise Yan would lose face. Only reason I’m not a Given-Man myself is because I couldn’t father a tribe.”

Ferd nodded. “And Core-tie have a contract, Give and Take. All the things that make HEAT, all their sky-medicine…all a contract. Part of that contract is the blood-Taking from us,” he said. “Some of the Lodge don’t like that. Some of the Singers like it even less. But we know, HEAT keep us safe, and we help keep other Sky-People safe too. Jooyun helped make that. Jooyun’s voice keeps it strong. No Jooyun… things might change at the Lodge. Might decide we’ve Given enough.”

“So…lemme get this straight. You’re ambassador now—”

“Will be.”

“Right. And you’re that because you literally out-gorilla the gorillas at their own gorilla games?”

Tarzan shrugged, “I gorilla’d enough. Yan and his best buds can still squash me like a bug, for now. But that’s okay. The important thing is that I can stand among them without fear. They respect me enough that they will listen to me, on their own terms, in their own, uh, government.”

“And what about your girls and your kids?”

Julian sighed. “Two months on, two months off I’d imagine. Or something like that. That’s not gonna be fun at all. But here’s the fuckin’ evil part. Ambassador Rockefeller knows good and damn well I can’t say no, not with the doors this opens for me and my family.”

“…What doors? Aren’t you already a fuckin’ millionaire?” Rees looked a bit lost. Hoeff couldn’t blame him. Like Candreva had said, Ambassadorial business was a bit above them.

“No amount of money can help with some opportunities. At this level, it ain’t always about bucks. Before, I could send my kids to good damn schools and give them a great shot at life. Now? With this? They can be anything they want, so long as they’ve got the talent, and all I have to do is ask. I would be a complete fool to turn that opportunity down.”

“They always talk about how anyone can be President,” Hoeff rumbled. “But it’s sure as shit a lot more likely for the ‘right people.’”

“And now you’re the ‘right people,’” Frasier summarized, skeptically. “I thought the whole point of your country was to get away from that lords and ladies bollocks?”

“We did. Dude, I grew up in the fuckin’ woods, on welfare. Now, I can set my kids up for life just based on my merit for the job, and the only thing that’ll screw them is if they don’t have merit in turn. Tell me that ain’t egalitarian as shit.”

“And all the Ambassador asks in return is you’re not around half the time.”

“…It’s a big ask, yeah. But this is the important bit. This is the only time in my life I’ll ever be asked. If I say no, I’ll be saying no forever. All those doors that might be creaking open for my family will quietly close again, and they won’t ask a second time.”

Frasier nodded. “…Hell of a bloody carrot, then. What’s the stick?”

“…There isn’t much of one. He can’t fire me, he needs me too much. I’d just be doing the job until I quit. He knows it too, which is why he arranged for such a big goddamned carrot. The stick is pretty much just missing out on the carrot.”

Hoeff looked at Julian shrewdly. “I gotta say, your Minnesota modesty seems to have disappeared…”

Julian sighed again and rested his hands on his knees. “What, am I supposed to pretend they’d give an offer like this to just anyone? If I’ve learned anything playing these games, it’s that false modesty isn’t any kind of modesty at all.”

“So you’re taking it.”

“Al and Xiù will say I should,” he predicted. “I’m not gonna say yes until they have, but they will…What was your bad news?”

Hoeff sighed, and told him.

It was going to be a long trip back.


Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Cruise Liner Boone’s Star, Deep space, the Border Stars

Lieutenant Booker Campbell

Ah, the trials and tribulations of youth. Thank God Campbell was through with them.

Thompson, though? Not so much. He was a red-blooded man in the flower of his youth. He’d been blessed with incredible luck, raised with the right work ethic, and given the opportunity to earn his way toward human potential at its absolute maximum. The boot-ass kid was so fuckin’ high on life right now, it was honestly amazing his little problem had taken so long to surface.

They were trapped on a ship with absolutely nothing to do but eat, sleep, train, and study. Oh, and ogle the many and beautiful womanly creatures that were quite literally on the same boat.

To say Thompson was distracted would be the understatement of a fuckin’ lifetime. In fact, Campbell had to wonder how long it’d been since the kid last had any female contact at all. His career had been… what? Basic, then School of Infantry, then indoc, the pipeline, the Grinder, then here. And that had been quite literally fresh from high school graduation, too. He’d had a whole whopping week as a free civilian.

In short: Thompson had no idea whatsoever about How To Talk To Girls. Since of course, high school absolutely didn’t count. He’d probably been the big man on campus too, but now?

Well, he wasn’t dealing with teenage girls anymore. And the women were rightly a bit standoffish from him. Who wouldn’t be? He was a walking tank and still thinking like a high school senior…

“I swear this was way easier when I was dating…”

“You were a young buff three-sport varsity jock in a good high school, who was planning to enlist first thing after graduation. That meant you were a low-risk fling for young and inexperienced teenage girls. Of course it was easy. These women are professionals, they’re not gonna respond well to ‘Becky, lemme smash,’ no matter how pretty you smile at them.”

Thompson had a good self-deprecating sense of humor about him, and smiled sheepishly. “Guess they ain’t here for a good time, huh?”

“Nope. They’re here with a job to do. We’re cargo. They’re working.”

“Maybe they need a stress-buster?”

“And maybe they don’t. Be careful, Thompson. Sexual harassment would be a bad way to throw away that hard-earned career of yours.”

He watched the kid sober up a little, with some gratification. Inexperience was forgivable, and Thompson wasn’t guilty of the less forgivable sin of being brainless.

“…Jeez, LT, did I cross that line?”

“Eh, probably not. You may be a gormless boot—”

“Hey!”

“But as much as it pains me to admit, you’re ridiculously good-looking and that counts for a lot.”

Thompson clearly wasn’t used to being complimented on his looks. He covered for his embarrassment with a winning grin and a desperate joke, accompanied by an outrageous flex. “Hell yeah, I worked hard enough for it!!”

…Impressive, admittedly. But still, this was lesson time so Campbell just gave him a solemn Look until the kid calmed down. He added the quirked eyebrow, too. Even a teenager knew not to mess with the ‘brow.

“Got that out of ‘yer system?”

“…Yessir.”

“Good. Maybe don’t try that with the ladies. At least, not as an opening gambit.”

“So…what is a good opening gambit?” Thompson asked.

…Jesus Christ.

“Look, if there’s a gal on this ship who’s inclined to take a ride? She’ll let you know. All you gotta do right now is make eye contact and smile. If the situation permits, try small talk. You be polite, and professional—and unlike what some folks think, you can do that and be friendly—and you be respectful.”

“So, just…how is that dating?”

“It isn’t. You’re not dating. This is not the place or the time. And believe me, if your corn-fed ass can’t get any on this ship, you ain’t gonna anyway. Professional adults have priorities and those priorities likely don’t include a teenage bumpkin murderhulk from Iowa. So don’t push it, okay? At least for my sake, because this is a weird situation and I’m not your NCO. That makes me considerably more dangerous for you if you screw up. You do understand that, right?”

A look of sudden understanding crossed across his face. “I do, sir. I won’t fuck up.”

“Good, I know you won’t. Now go clean up. Least you can do is put on your prettiest uniform.”

Campbell hated to scare the kid, but Thompson was right out of the pipeline and had ten times more pent-up aggression in him than the civilians were ready to handle. Normally, the combat arms kids were shipped off to lighter training courses and gradually phased down a bit, then maybe they’d go directly to their first duty stations and get “de-booted” even more…

There were things that, as an officer, Campbell couldn’t overlook if they happened in his presence. Years ago, in a different age and as an NCO in the Marines…but it wasn’t years ago, he wasn’t an NCO anymore, and this wasn’t the Marines. They weren’t in a Marine town, filled with townfolk who had a working relationship with the Corps. Thompson could fuck his life up big if he made the right kind of mistake here.

And Campbell would have to be the instrument of those consequences, too.

It was going to be a long-ass trip. But, Thompson nodded, and promised he’d behave his very best…and left for the evening on “personal time.”

Campbell got some shuteye.

Some hours later, he was woken up by a quiet curse coming from the bunk’s general direction. Thompson was digging for something and seemed agitated—

On a suspicion, Campbell glanced the other way, toward the door where a silhouette was leaning against the frame with amusement radiating off her every curve. Oh, that slick bastard. Apparently there was an interested gal on board after all.

“Looking for something, Specialist?”

“I swear I brought some—!”

“Some what, Thompson?”

Golden boy turned around and suddenly couldn’t find his words.

“Uh…well, I mean…”

Campbell dragged the agony out a bit, let the boy squirm some, while the woman in the doorway covered her mouth and shook with suppressed mirth.

“There’s a pack in my sea bag, at the bottom. They’re the good kind so don’t you dare use them all up.”

“…Thankyousir.”

“No worries. And Thompson?”

“Yeah?”

“You be a perfect gentleman…until she tells you otherwise. Y’hear?”

Countryboy went a brilliant shade of crimson and practically burst into flame when a wondrously musical lilting laugh came from the doorway. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he behaves himself…” she promised, in a silky accent that Campbell couldn’t place.

Only once they were gone did Campbell permit himself to laugh. He pulled the mattresses together and sprawled across both of them, glad to have a little more space and no snoring beside him. Maybe there was a warm body somewhere out on the ship for him too, but…

…Well, happiness consists in getting enough sleep. That was a lesson Thompson would eventually learn, of course.

But not tonight.

Campbell fell asleep with a grin on his face


Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Broodship, Deep Space, the Border Stars

Alpha of the Flensing-Brood.

The ship was Human, just as the Alpha-of-Alphas had been promised by the dataminds. They weren’t jumping from safety to safety now, they were flying like prey again, and the Brood network was humming with hunger. Human flesh was so rare, so special.

And so dangerous.

One of the things that set Alphas apart from the lesser of their Brood was the talent of savoring anticipation. Not just the moment of the kill, but the moment before it. A good Alpha could be satisfied with the knowledge that it would drink blood soon, and use that satisfaction to give it patience. Patience enough to score the prize and the kill.

Yes, they could have pulsed their warp engines, gained that little extra speed, chased the prey down. But Humans were more than other prey. They always hid things. Weapons, tactics, tricks. An impatient brood that revealed itself early might be outrun, torn apart by undetected guns, neutralized by unforeseen traps…

The Flensing-Brood would not meet such a fate today. It took long, long days to slide up alongside the human ship, to close the distance until it was actually visible to the eye, alongside the cloaked Broodship in space.

Only the most disciplined Hunters could bear to have meat so close in front of their teeth and not snap at it before time. But the Flensing-Brood were disciplined, sharp and trusting. They knew the Alpha’s mind, knew its wisdom.

They waited, and they hungered.

Until the last inches closed.

Until they latched onto the human ship’s hull.

Until they tore through it.

Until they fed.



++END CHAPTER 68++



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Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 69. Nice.