Chapter 69: Lockdown
Date point: 17y7m4d AV
Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
Sergeant Tanner Lang
“The two supermutants are back in the gym again…”
“You must be fuckin’ shittin’ me.” Lanter said with precisely zero surprise. “They’re awake, of course they’re in the fuckin’ gym.”
“Well, so fuckin’ what? Why the fuck ain’t we there, too? I’m losing my goddamn mind reading these fuckin’ training slides…”
“We gotta get that shit squared away,” Lang reminded them, though his heart wasn’t in it. Truth was, he was bored too.
Embassy security was a serious job, involving far more than standing around looking neat and impressive in dress blues. Not a year went by without some kind of an attack on a US diplomatic facility somewhere in the world, be it molotovs, suicide bombers, an angry mob, or even a team of armed gunmen. Lang and his Marines were either trained infantry or military policemen and all had seen action of some kind or another.
The assignment on Cimbrean was related to the new permanent embassy with the Ten’Gewek, not that any of them were going to be stationed on Akyawentuo, at least…not constantly. No, they were going to be dealing with both humans and ETs, and the education involved in learning how to recognize, accommodate and protect all of the weird critters that might come visiting was…
Well, Lang was getting kinda sick and tired of reading through cultural summaries. He wasn’t an anthropologist. His job was making sure that if shit started exploding and bullets started flying, all the important people got out of there alive. Folctha seemed like a nice place. Pretty parks, wide streets, modern architecture, a great big interspecies melting pot… but it had seen its share of terrorist activity from the APA and hostile infiltration by the Hierarchy.
So the embassy needed them. And so they were riding in what would have been style if the Boone’s Star weren’t packed to the gills with talent and materiel. And all they could do was read their educational material, keep up their PT, and try not to go totally out of their minds from how dull a flight at warp through deep space was.
“Yeah yeah…still, we gotta stay fit too, if we’re gonna keep up with talking gorillas.”
“And the gorilla ambassador.”
“Him too. And I need someone to beat me smart again.”
“You were never smart, Hoetze.”
“Nah. Besides, Specialist Joe McHugemeat there probably wants a punching bag.”
“And a wife…”
“Already got one. You see he snagged the hottest ass onboard literally the first day?”
“It was more like a week,” Lang noted. “Not the fastest I’ve seen.”
“They were all ogling him right away! Even in his stupid bullshit Army uniform!”
“Jesus Christ,” Lang shook his head in disgust. “Y’all sound like the biggest blubbering pussies ever. Why the fuck are you letting fuckin’ Army ruin your day?”
“Yeah, go steal his girl!” Becker suggested.
“I ain’t the one complaining night and day about my ultraviolet fuckin’ balls. And it ain’t me who’s letting Joe determine if they get drained or not. That’s your fault, corporal.” Lang chuckled to himself. Truth was, Thompson was probably a decent kid. Nothing to get worked up over.
But on the other hand, it was hilarious as fuck watching his young Marines get so worked up over the big guy. Admittedly, it was hard not to feel dispirited when compared against such a ridiculously perfect example of winning at basically everything…but still. Lang had an imp of the perverse on his shoulder most days, and he just couldn’t help but needle them, just a bit.
Becker’s suggestion about stealing the HEAT boot’s girl didn’t exactly get rave reviews.
“Fuckin’ how?” Hoetze seemed both exasperated and amused at the same time. “All I got goin’ for me is ugly but well-hung, and maybe a good joke or two!”
“I bet he’s got a micro-weenis from all the ‘roids they’re feeding ‘em.”
“Uh-huh.” Hernandez got into it now. “All that meat-gazing you white boys be doin’? You know them HEAT boys are packin’ big. I think ‘yer all just jealous.”
That of course set off an omni-directional round of full-throated accusations and counter-insults, exactly as he intended. Somehow, nobody thought to comment on how exactly Hernandez could speak so expertly on Thompson’s allegedly superior endowment.
A masterful play, really.
“Anyway,” Hoetze granted sullenly, “Specialist Horsecock can fuckin’ have her. I don’t care if he is just a stupid fuckin’ Army bitch. I ain’t retarded enough to pick that fight.”
“I can’t believe y’all fuckers are so scared of ‘em,” Becker chuckled. “Have you actually talked to the kid? He’s the corniest fuckin’ boot that ever did boot. He was literally excited that I said anything to him! I bet he’s gullible as shit.”
“Gullible? Sure. But y’know what else he is? Fuckin’ huge! You remember when he was doin’ laps on the promenade?”
“When you were fiercely meat-gazin’ I bet?”
Hoetze ignored him. “The huge fucker shook the goddamned ship, man! He left his fuckin’ bare footprints in the decking, remember?”
“And I bet he grinned a big stupid grin at you too, huh?”
“Maybe? I dunno. I was busy not being in the way.”
“You fuckin’ pussy! So big dopey Joe wanted to say hi and wag his tail, but you were too busy being afraid. Is that about right?”
“Well, yeah. Big fuckin’ hoss like that? I’m not gonna be his fuckin’ condom.”
Crude laughter all around, followed by more omni-directional insults.
“Nah. For real though, he’s just a huge gullible puppy. Tell me that ain’t gonna be fun! He’s got that extra retarded blank grin all the Joe have, too. Even more retarded ‘cuz he’s getting laid.”
“At least somebody on this fuckin’ ship is…” Centopani muttered.
And that, right there, was the sum of their problems. They were bored out of their fucking skulls. There were no real facilities onboard to do anything useful, and they were only barely running guard shifts because it was a civilian vessel and the Captain was retarded. All they could do was sit around, do their PT, study PME bullshit…
They’d watched all the good movies. The civilians didn’t like what they wanted to watch so they consistently got voted down—when the civilians weren’t being all sorts of weird to them. It was either “thank you for your service” bullshit, or they’d shy away with dark whispers. No middle ground.
And there wasn’t a lot of common ground with the two HEAT brutes, either. Becker was right, the young one was fuckin’ raw and the other one was about the crustiest, saltiest old lieutenant Lang had ever met. He was formerly a Marine—and infantry, too—but since then he’d gone over to the dark side, joined the space force, and apparently eaten a backhoe and a whole team of door-kickers along the way, too.
Whatever. Interesting that a pair of special-ops “celebrities” happened to be onboard, but ultimately they weren’t his problem. What was his problem was the ridiculous circlejerk his Marines were wallowing in. Frankly, Lang had standards.
He sighed and levered himself to his feet.
“I’m goin’ for a walk,” he declared. “Don’t burn the fuckin’ place down.”
Hernandez nodded respectfully. “‘Rah, sarg’n’t.”
Given another couple of weeks for final fitting and stuff, Boone’s Star would have been luxury like Lang had never known. The ship was somewhere between a big ocean cruise ship and a billionaire’s megayacht, big enough to carry about a hundred guests in sumptuous comfort… or, right now, two hundred and twenty plus a pair of fucking ogres and a load of supplies, all crammed in.
The pool on the lido deck, for instance, was full of crates. There was only so many times a guy could jog around and around a huge pile of boxes before his brain started to stop.
The crazy thing was the windows. They were thicker than aquarium glass and ran pretty much from knee height to the ceiling on most decks. When they’d first come aboard, pretty much everyone had taken some time to stand and stare down at the Earth. Now, of course, they were way out in deep space and, sure, he’d never seen so many stars at first…
But they’d got old after a while. If you stood and watched long enough, you might notice they were moving, tracking slowly across the sky, but Lang had never been the kinda guy who could watch paint dry.
Shit, the paint mighta been more interesting. The only thing out there worth looking at was their escort, and that was just a darker patch way out there, only seen by the stars that blinked out as they passed behind it. USS Hammer DS-2, the US Navy’s version of the British V-Class. Same hull, same shipyard, different outfitting.
Lang felt the deck shudder slightly underfoot. He looked behind him and saw the “smaller” of the two ogres approaching, some kind of allegedly harmless smile on his face.
“Gets kinda old after a while, doesn’t it?” he rumbled. He had a baritone voice that would have been smooth and quiet, were it not so deep. “Could do with a planet or two.”
“You’re not wrong,” Lang agreed, and turned around. “And there’s only so many times I can hear my guys talk shit ‘fore I start to feel dumb.”
“Well,” Campbell pointed out, “you are in the Marines, after all…”
“What about your young charge?”
“Good kid. Painfully earnest. Keep expectin’ him to say ‘golly gee willikers’ or some shit.”
Lang felt the kid come thundering along through the floor, right about the same time he heard his booming voice echo down the hall. “Hey, I’m not that bad, sir!”
“Yes you are. And…” Campbell tapped on his phone, “…time. Good job, Thompson!”
The titan came thumping up to a halt next to them both, and, well…fuck.
The kid was motherfuckin’ huge.
Even next to Campbell he was a giant, and the size difference really was impossible to miss. The kid was so damn packed full of muscle he was practically bursting out of his skin. He had to have at least half a foot on his hulking tank of a lieutenant, too. Horizontally. In width and depth. And, well…it was honestly hard to miss any of the other details either, considering his special-operator-grade silkies.
They sure do grow ‘em big out in the country, nowadays.
“We gonna spar today, ell-tee? I’m gettin’ real goddamn bored of running.”
“Tomorrow. We’re sharing the space, remember?” The civilians were bored too, and there were a lot more of them, with only a finite amount of space on the ship. The only spot big enough to accommodate the two huge men sparring would have to be the leisure deck at the front, which everybody else was using for whatever they wanted to do.
“Well shit, we can share! Why didn’t they fuckin’ say something?”
“We are sharing, Thompson. We’ll probably have an audience, and I’m not convinced you won’t accidentally throw me through a wall. By the way, have you met Sergeant Lang?”
Hulk-boot instantly snapped to a severe parade rest and nodded his greeting. “No, lieutenant!”
Jesus fuck was he ever boot.
“Right, nice to meet ‘ya, Specialist,” Lang said. “As you were…no, fuckin’ relax man!”
Thompson tried his absolute hardest to relax appropriately. God.
“Right…Specialist, do you mind if I call you Thompson?”
“Right. Okay. Have you actually forgotten how to relax?”
Thompson gave a sheepish look, which was honestly just too goddamned much on the big guy. “…Uh, this is the slowest it’s been for me since, uh…I enlisted.”
“He’s still in the pipeline, actually,” Campbell clarified. “So am I. We’ve both got another, uh…four years ahead of us.”
…Holy fuck that was a long time. “Four more years, for real?”
“Fuckin’ astronaut trainin’ next!!” Thompson looked giddy with excitement at that one.
“…Yeah. So you see, I gotta find a way to de-boot his ass—”
“See? He can’t let himself banter even a little bit. And I can’t help but hear you’ve got a team of salty devil-dogs, lookin’ for something to do…”
Lang couldn’t help but chuckle. “You sure you wanna traumatize the poor kid, sir? My guys won’t be gentle.”
“It’ll build character, and Thompson here needs some friends his age.”
“You sound like my dad,” Thompson grumbled.
“I am ‘yer daddy, son. So I’mma go shower, you go make friends. Run along and play, now.”
With that, the Lieutenant nodded at Lang, and left him alone with hulked-out Captain America, who seemed, if anything, even more uncertain and confused than ever.
Still. The kid was gonna need some of the polish and shine knocked off him sooner rather than later. And it was something to do, so… “Come on then.”
Plus, Lang couldn’t wait to see how his men reacted to the object of their jealous banter, suddenly among them in nothing but his sweat, silkies, and more golly-gee boyscout amazement than any of them had felt in years. Alone, uncertain, confused…boot…
Oh, this was gonna be fun.
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Skytearer class dropship, upper atmosphere of planet ‘Mordor,’ occupied Hunter space
Father Liim of Clan Whitecrest
The Hunters had gotten a lot nastier over the years. Once upon a time they’d been a terror, and any ship boarded by them would only repel the boarders at great cost, if they managed it at all.
Gaoian space was a long way from their territory, buffered by the Interspecies Dominion’s trailing arm, but the Gao had spread quickly and inevitably been among the Hunters’ victims themselves. They’d fought bravely every time, or at least so Liim liked to imagine, but most Gao were no match for a Hunter of any kind, and the few who were were so often rare…
Nowadays, both Gao and Hunters alike were a good deal more fearsome, and in both cases the difference came down to equipment and tactics. And frankly, things could have been a lot worse. Hunters, for instance, were far too undisciplined and gluttonous to fill their important strategic targets with a shield of civilian bodies.
Or maybe it just didn’t occur to them that doing so would have stopped the Gao from firing. Either way, that particular blind spot had allowed the fleet to rain devastation on everything that even looked like a surface-to-air battery or wing of interceptors. There was still a lot of Hunter infrastructure on the planet’s surface, but the skies, at least, were clear and controlled.
Of course, if Liim were to rank all the hazards ahead of him on the coming mission, being instantly and painlessly vaporized by an anti-orbital weapon would have been low on his list of worries anyway. There were worse ways to go, and Skytearers were practically invisible anyway.
Not that they felt it.
“Fyu’s shit-caked ass-fur…” he cursed under his breath as their ride lurched hard enough to throw his stomach into the back of his mouth. It was probably just some kind of thermal or pressure layer in the atmosphere, or turbulence, but for a flash of a second there it had felt like being thrown toward the ground by Keeda.
Behind him, the oldest Whitecrest Brother on the planet, a lean and impeccably unscarred old ghost called Loorin, chittered. “You don’t like flying, Father?”
“Not my first choice in travel arrangements,” Liim admitted, more evenly than he felt.
“You’re going to enjoy the bit where we jump out, then.”
Liim chittered sarcastically. “Oh, that bit’s my favoritest.”
Loorin’s ear flicked amusedly. “You’ve been hanging around with the Stonebacks too much, Father.”
“They rub off on you after a while, it’s true. Especially a creature like Vark.”
The Skytearer lurched again before Loorin could reply, and even he reached out to grab on to something.
“Keeda’s teeth, it’s not usually this bad…”
Liim grimly double-checked the weather report on his armor’s HUD. “…Well, we are flying directly into a toxic dust storm,” he pointed out. As far as cover and concealment for his team’s infiltration went, the haboob they were due to land in and disembark under was perfect. But the reason it was so perfect was, well, it was a deathworld weather phenomenon on a planet characterized by centuries of industrial abuse so intense that the skies, seas and soil were all quite toxic.
The dropship and their suits could handle both the winds, the airborne particulates and the filth quite readily, but the Hunters wouldn’t be abroad, and sensors would be blind. The sort of conditions that a Whitecrest scouting team thrived in, just…turned up to eleven. If their infiltration had been noticed at all—which it shouldn’t have been—then by the time the Hunters were able to send a force to the area, all evidence of their arrival would have been obliterated by the weather, and Liim and his brother would be long gone.
But Loorin was right, it made for an exceptionally rough ride.
There was a particularly savage lurch, and the dropship’s interior lighting pulsed blue several times, alerting all its occupants that they were about to disembark. Liim sat forward in his chair, pushing against his harness, holding his weapon securely to his chest with one paw while the other hovered near the harness release between his knees.
Another set of blue pulses was all the warning he needed to brace for a final heavy lurch as they Skytearer touched ground, relying on its forcefields and landing gear to absorb quite a lot of speed. The ramp at the back unfolded and opened with surprising speed, and the blue light flicked firmly on, and stayed on.
Liim yanked on his release, and the harness disengaged. Straining against it turned into pouncing forward down the deck and out the ship’s square but vaguely insectoid rear end.
He was promptly plunged into a dark brown hell where up and down were visually indistinguishable. The whirling dust was so thick that the dropship vanished behind him in seconds, lost in the storm, though a flash of lightning briefly silhouetted it.
His armor took over where his eyes couldn’t cope, laying out the ground contours and obstacles underfoot with a thin grid, and picking out his team with triangular icons. He could see well enough to move, and he knew exactly where everyone was. Behind him, the dropship parted ways with the ground and kicked off again, bounding back into the sky.
They found the tunnel access in moments. E-Skurel-Ir tunnels weren’t locked, they just had big, heavy and redundant doors, partly to keep the worst of the surface conditions out, mostly to slow the Hunters down while the valuable children and relics were smuggled away into deep, hidden chambers. Entering them was easy.
It was a relief to shut away the howling dust-storm behind them. They didn’t unseal their suits, though: For the duration of this mission, the suits were their homes and protection, and enabled a seamless, invisible infiltration. Just one of dozens taking place across the continent at the sites identified as being most likely to house the First Alpha.
Such a scattergun approach was not ideal according to Whitecrest’s traditions… but needs must. Liim checked his team and, satisfied that they were ready, vanished into the dark.
They had a Hunter to hunt.
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
Sergeant Tanner Lang
The initial introduction was…a bit awkward. Thompson squeezed through the doorway behind Lang and the room immediately went silent. It wasn’t a big space at the best of times—their cabin was sized for ship’s garrison, so three of the walls were all bunks and storage, and the common area was a compact, multi-purpose thing they could lay a mat across for PT, pull a table out of the floor and play cards, or maybe just pile together and watch a movie…
Functional, but cramped. And Thompson’s three-dimensional huge wasn’t helping.
“A’right Marines, this here is Specialist Thompson, who as you’ve guessed is a member of HEAT, currently in the Aggressor pipeline. Lieutenant Campbell—also in the Aggressor pipeline—thought it would be beneficial if we were to have a little meet-and-greet. I thought that sounded like a fantastic idea, so, here you go. Make introductions, I’m gonna go grab some snacks. Requests?”
“No shit, Hernandez. Anything else? Thompson, you want anything?”
The big kid seemed a bit lost. “Uh…maybe some Gatorade? I, uh…can’t really do junk food.”
“What, nothing? Jerky? Slim Jim?”
“…Well, plain jerky is probably okay, sarg’n’t.”
There was a round of rolled eyes, small snorts and other signs that everyone else in the room couldn’t quite take him seriously.
“What?! I gotta eat ten full meals a day! I can’t afford to be shittin’ my brains out!”
“Well, fuck!” exclaimed Hernandez. “That much? Why the fuck you doin’ that?”
“Well, uh…” Thompson grinned, and matter-of-factly showed them why with a full-body flex. “All this muscle needs a lot of fuel! Uh…I’m doing pretty good, huh?”
Nobody said anything as he quickly went through a well-practiced series of poses. It managed to shut everyone up instantly, even if he seemed a bit embarrassed by himself.
Lang’s team ogled the freak of nature openly for a long, plainly intimidated moment, until at last Centopani found a way to break the ice. “Pretty fuckin’ Superman good, I’d say. How fuckin’ big are you, farmboy?”
“Uh, six-three, ‘bout six-eighty-five this morning…wait.” Thompson paused in his posing for a moment and tilted his head. “What makes you think I’m a farm boy?”
“Where you from, Boot?” Becker had his mischievous grin on.
“…Well, Iowa, but—”
“So he’s a supermutant farmboy from Iowa.”
“Probably plows the field all by himself.”
“Dude, I’m not a farmer—!”
“Nah, but I bet he’d plow ‘yer sister pretty good!”
“Please, she don’t go in for countryboy hicks.”
“—The fuck? I ain’t no hick—!”
“He’s like all the corn-growing fuckers out in the boonies. Ten feet tall, curls full-grown bulls to impress the cityfolk—“
“—So goddamned blond-haired and blue-eyed it’s like some kinda creepy propaganda…”
Thompson had the most confused expression on his face. “The fuck’s wrong with you?”
“‘Dem blue devil eyes! They’re lookin’ at me!”
“That’s how they get ‘ya. He’s probably a secret government experiment, too.”
“Kinda, yeah.” Thompson’s annoyed growl was enough to shut everyone up for a moment, with maybe even the beginnings of guilty feelings, too. Which he promptly squandered. “And anyway, not everyone from the Midwest is a goddamn farmer.”
“I bet he bench-presses tractors for fun.”
“Naw, he tosses ‘em. Like ‘yer mom!”
“He ain’t that fuckin’ strong—”
Thompson sighed, resigned to the spirit of the thing. “Oh, I dunno…” He put a hand behind his head and squeezed down on that preposterously huge bicep of his until it mashed up hard against his ear. “I bet I’m man enough for her.”
Approving jeers and cat-calls all around, while Thompson showed off his even more preposterous tricep. “I’m pretty good at tossing massive things around, too.”
“Oh, hey! Hulk-farmer’s got jokes!”
Lang had enough for now. “Hey, you fuckin’ ass-pirates! Snacks? Remember?”
“Ask farmboy, sarg’n’t, we good.”
Thompson shook his head.
“You sure, specialist? I’m paying. You can’t cheat even a little?”
“No sarg’n’t, I really can’t. Not right now anyway. Eating is, like, almost a full-time job for me. I’m gonna be fitted for my first training EV-MASS too as soon as I arrive, so I gotta get up to my fighting weight as fast as I can.”
“Wait, you ain’t ready now?” Centopani scoffed in disbelief. “You’re fuckin’ warping the deck plating just standing there!”
Sure enough, Lang looked down and the decking was slightly but noticeably bowed under the kid’s stompers. Actually—
“You always train barefoot?”
“When I can, yeah. I gotta worry about foot health, and shoes can be bad for that. Also, uh, I got size twenty-one extra-wide feet, so…boots are expensive.”
Becker whistled at that. “Farmboy’s mutant as fuck, sarg’n’t. And ‘yer still not at ‘fighting’ weight? Whatever the fuck that is?’
“Well, I’m not that far off, I hope…but yeah. Fightin’ weight here means however big I can get. I’m still growin’ as fast as ever so that means I ain’t even close to done yet. ‘Long as I can move like an Aggressor’s s’posed to move, bigger and stronger is better for HEAT.”
Thompson was clearly used to being the center of attention, even if he still seemed a bit awkward about it. Or he was used to telling parts of his story, anyway. He’d probably been dealing with curious “normals” asking about the walking freakshow for a while now. Hell, probably since he was a kid. Odd that he was still any kind of awkward about it, really.
Lang’s men were weirdly respectful, though. They were crude, but considerate, and that was a good sign. “I can dig it. So you’ve been going at it full-bore since, when?”
“Since before I enlisted, yeah. I mean, really since I was twelve and I got obsessed with bein’ a ‘space Marine’ when I grew up, but…” he shrugged. “Anyway, that’s why I don’t really try my luck on junk calories. Heck, I’ve actually never eaten a Dorito—”
“Never. I can tell just by smelling them I’d pay for it. So, I don’t. If I’m stuck on the latrine because I ate something stupid or whatever? That’s calories I ain’t using to grow, and it’s wasted time I ain’t lifting, or studying suit fundamentals, or…uh, whatever else I gotta do.”
…Well, shit. That spoke of some serious discipline that Lang hadn’t quite appreciated. No way would he have managed any of that as a, what? Nineteen year old kid? And he’s been working towards it since he was twelve? Freakshow body aside, Thompson’s face was just so young-looking…
“Well, okay. What if I go grab one of your meal packs instead?”
Thompson relaxed and looked genuinely grateful. “Yeah, that’d be awesome! It’s the two white containers in the cooler, if you look in our quarters.”
“Okay. I’ll go do that. You just take a load off here for a bit, ‘kay? I’ll be back in a few.”
“Huah, Sarg’n’t.” The giant kid snapped to parade rest while the rest of the room, suddenly remembering their customs and courtesies, moved to do the same.
“Right, as you were. Be right back.”
As Lang prowled away he slowed a bit so he could eavesdrop a bit more on the conversation, just for a moment. It was more of the same: Meeting the kid was about the most interesting thing to happen to his Marines in days, so the follow-up was a barrage of questions: What was his chow like then, how much could he lift, how fast could he run…they were like awed kids meeting a pro wrestler.
Chuckling to himself, Lang jogged down to the canteen and loaded up on snacks. He splurged and bought out their jerky too, since he liked the kid and something about the whole thing just screamed out for some friendly affection.
He went to go get Thompson’s meal, too. Lieutenant Campbell was taking a load off in their quarters, reclining on a mattress on the floor. The bunks were full of their gear, and it was pretty obvious why. Lang couldn’t imagine either of the huge men even fitting in the bunks, never mind doing it without breaking them.
The lieutenant was reading something on a tablet as he entered. “…Lemme guess. Food?”
“Yeah, it’s about a full-time job for us…” Campbell indicated the correct container and scooted his legs out of the way. “How’s it going?”
“He’s… very earnest.”
“Well, like I said. He’s been completely devoted to becoming HEAT basically since his balls dropped. The sports he played, the stuff he studied…”
“That sounds pretty dedicated. Worryingly so.”
“Yeah, I think he was dedicated to the exclusion of a lot of normal young-boy type stuff. Hell, I bet his only real friends were all his teammates or his opponents…. Anyway. For him, you’re looking for pack four out of ten.”
Lang opened the container and arched an eyebrow. The sealed ration packs within were thicker than the MREs he was used to, and the bag was black with white text instead of the familiar tan brown. The text was different, too:
Hazardous Environment Assault Training and Development Ration, Individual PREPARED FOR: SPC Thompson, Hunter RAPID BULKING PHASE: 4/10 (Mid-Afternoon) DO NOT CONSUME OUT OF SEQUENCE Eat after light PT---supplement from lot B if activity demands Cruezzir-D dose only as necessary Take with pill pack #4A Recommended hydration: not less than 1L with meal Authorized snacks listed on internal card
“Something the matter?” Campbell asked.
“Think I’m starting to appreciate just what you and the kid are putting yourselves through…No offense, but between this and and how long you’re in for and all the rest of it, I gotta wonder why you went for it? Doesn’t seem like a good deal to me…”
Campbell shrugged, unoffended. “It has its upsides. The training and medical regime we’re on fixed up all my career injuries overnight. And the mission’s good. It’s a good feeling, being able to do something most people can’t.” He rose to his feet in an easy, smooth motion that totally belied both his size and his age. “Anyway. I’m kinda interested to see how good your Marines have been for my boy.”
“Heh. Yeah, I figure I’ve given ‘em enough time alone…” Lang agreed. He tucked Thompson’s thick meal (and the pill pack) under his arm, and, after one last glance at the HEAT sleeping arrangements, showed the lieutenant back to where he and the others were staying.
Lang’s Marines had, in the short time it had taken him to go get their snacks and return along with Campbell, managed to do several things:
Firstly, there had clearly been some sort of scuffle, one which Thompson had handily won. Lang knew this because the middle of the room had been cleared out, and the giant fucker was more or less sitting atop Hoetze, O’Donnell, and Hernandez with the smuggest look of victory plastered across his handsome caveman face. The others were excitedly jeering, and trying fruitlessly to pry the big fucker off his victims; he was more or less ignoring all their efforts and having fun with his toys.
Secondly, there didn’t seem to be any hard feelings about anything, because everyone was laughing. It wasn’t strictly innocent, though; there was definitely a developing black eye or two, and everyone was nursing some kind of bruise. That was much harder play than Lang should really be tolerating. And Miller definitely had a hell of an abrasion from the decking on his face, too; by all evidence, Thompson had kicked everyone’s ass simultaneously, and done so basically instantly. Lang would need to properly re-Motivate his Marines about picking (and losing) a fight with the titan of a soldier at some point, but for now…
It was important they were all happy. Good. Boisterousness could be managed.
Most importantly though, Thompson looked genuinely and actually relaxed for the first time since… well, ever, that Campbell could remember. At least, to the point where he didn’t immediately scramble to his feet the second Campbell showed up, but instead glanced around at the others to see what they did.
Lang stepped into the room and made like he was taking a big sniff. “…Fuckin’ smells like sex in here.” Campbell hung back in the hall on some well-trained instinct, and stayed out of it for now.
“Don’t think this big bastard showered…” Hoetze grunted, squirming to try and free himself from the ignominious pin; his face was mashed hard into Thompson’s abs and escape seemed impossible, given the vicious leg-lock he had wrapped tightly around Hoetze’s chest. “Hnngh, fucker smells like a bull on hormone therapy!”
There were laughs all around, especially from Thompson, who mashed Hoetze up tighter against his body. “Hush, you love it.”
“How exactly did my three biggest Marines get in this predicament, anyway?” Lang asked Thompson. “I’m pretty sure you ain’t their type…”
“The whole team tackled me at the same time, sar’n’t. I won.”
“Oh, well. Continue, then.”
Thompson grinned evilly, and bore down on the three with considerably more force. Hernandez groaned plaintively, somewhere at the bottom of the pile. Hoetze just flailed silently as Thompson hitched himself up higher with his pin, and those chest-thick legs of his crushed Hoetze’s ribs; breathing was probably his major concern at the moment.
Lang grinned laconically, “You three always bite off more’n you can chew, huh?”
There wasn’t a real answer forthcoming, but Thompson seemed to be having fun…and it’d be a shame to deny the big puppy his chew toys…
“I’m pretty sure superhulk here’s prob’ly way better trained at this and he’s being gentle with you three idiots, so be grateful I ain’t gonna ask him to spar with you later. Anyway. Why did you fucknuggets decide to tackle him?”
“He wouldn’t answer the question! Hnnngh!” O’Donnell pulled at the kid’s thick wrist in a futile attempt at escape. He didn’t gain a millimeter. The kid had arms so big they were bigger than Lang’s legs, so he just squeezed that huge fuckin’ bicep of his hard against O’Donnell’s skull like he was trying to pop a zit. Fuck, a headlock like that musta felt like being smashed in a hydraulic press.
“Hmm. Well, that strategy didn’t end so well for you three. Y’all having fun?”
Any attempted protests were instantly and trivially quashed by the simple expedient of Thompson applying more brawn to his very dumb playmates. None of them could do anything but grunt in pain, now.
“I’m havin’ a blast, sarg’n’t! I could do this all night!”
Lang chuckled, “Oh? Well, normally I’d let you have your fun with these chuckleheads…but I do need my men in one piece.”
“I can be gentle, sorta!”
“I’m sure you’re the very definition of thoughtful. Now, whatever caused this is clearly Very Important Shit, so I’mma need ‘ya to let ‘em up, Specialist Hulk. I wanna hear this.”
“Aww. Okay.” Without much fuss, he released them to the sound of much complaining and general grousing. Laughing, he yanked all three of them up to their feet like they were his new favorite toys, and they hugged it out with much shoulder-slamming and Meaningful Nods.
Lang’s team had clearly experienced a dramatic attitude shift toward Thompson in the last few minutes. Well. Pecking order fucking established, apparently.
At least the kid wasn’t a dick about any of it. Hell, he sat on the floor instead of stealing someone’s bunk, and even sat pressed right up against Hernandez like they were old battle buddies. That was good!
“Anyway, I can about guess what’s up. They ask you the hundred dicks question?” Lang asked, sitting down. Thompson promptly went a few shades redder.
“How did you—?”
“They’re fuckin’ obsessed with it, my young innocent Specialist.”
He tilted that blocky head of his in a disconcertingly puppy-like manner. “But why, though?”
Every Marine in the room shrugged simultaneously.
“Because bored Marines, I guess. Though the sausagefest bullshit seems more of a combat arms thing, so…I dunno.”
“…What’ve I gotten into…?”
“The military. Anyway, what’s your answer? ‘Cuz if you don’t answer them, you’ll just have to keep wrestling them until they give up or you’ve broken all their bones.”
“I mean…I could use the extra PT…” He leered aggressively at Lang’s Marines…
“…Well, I mean…I dunno! They’re both pretty, uh…”
“Ohh, I know this one.” Campbell chuckled, and ducked through the doorframe, turning slightly sideways to squeeze into the room. Clearly he’d grasped the thrust of the question instantly. “Y’ask me, it’s way gayer to suck one dick a hundred times. That’s a relationship right there,” he contributed. “Really get ‘ta know a man, y’know? What he likes…”
Lang rolled his eyes and sighed, but felt somehow he couldn’t get away without leaving his mark on things. “How to tickle his balls just right…”
“Exactly. Shit, I don’t think any of my exes ever sucked my dick that many times. You suck a hundred different dicks though and that’s just working your way down the list. Pretty sure I’ve had worse chores.”
“…I mean…I guess? But a hundred dicks is a lot of dicks.”
“Eh. Same total mileage.” Campbell chuckled, then frowned at Thompson. “…Something the matter, specialist?”
The kid had stopped blushing and was staring out the window with a frown furrowing his blunt, cro-magnon face and tension rising in his shoulders. Lang felt something cold run down his spine: that wasn’t a sheltered young man’s discomfort at a filthy question, something was wrong.
He turned and looked out the window. Some of the distant moving stars were…wobbling?
There was a moment like the way an optical illusion could flip from being one thing to being another, and a sick lurch in Lang’s belly sent his hand scrambling for his rifle even before his brain had even properly caught up with what he was seeing.
A Hunter ship had just decloaked right outside, and it was force-docking.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
The Builders wanted prey-ships taken intact, and the Alpha-of-Alphas was a Builder. What the Alpha-of-Alphas wanted, the Alpha-of-Alphas got.
So, no cutting into the hull for the Flensing-Brood. No explosive breach, no sudden pounce into the carnage. Instead, the Broodship could seize the prey’s docking coupler, which even the Humans used the standard prey-design for, and pry it open like claws into a soft belly.
It was slower, but it left the target undamaged. And the moment when the airlock was forced open was still a satisfying moment to leap into the Prey’s midst.
As ever, the Alpha sent its Betas forward first. Long ago, first blood would have been an Alpha’s privilege, but this was a Human ship, a deathworld ship. The first out would quite likely be the first to die. No great loss, the brood had many Betas. And with their sacrifice, the Alpha could gain knowledge and adjust.
The Betas pounced through, straight into a pair of Humans. Both shrieked in alarm, one shoved the other away from the airlock before being caught. The other—a sound rarely heard by Hunters and therefore precious beyond measure—wailed in anguish as the first was clawed and savaged. Exultation sang through the brood-mind at the taste of deathworlder blood.
The one in the maw roared and punched the Beta that held it so hard that the Beta staggered, dropping its prey. The wounded Human flopped to the deck and tried to crawl away, croaking out at its companion to flee, but the latter just stood, paralyzed by fear.
Delicious. As the rest of the brood pushed through behind it, the stunned Beta stamped down and impaled the mauled Human through its chest: the prey coughed and went limp. With a broken moan, the other one sank to its knees and seemed to just…wait.
Were Humans really broken so easily? The Alpha sent a command through the brood-mind, claiming that weeping one for its own. The Betas obeyed, and pushed past it, deeper into the ship in search of meat.
The Alpha unfolded itself through the airlock last. The Human ship was small and crowded, low-ceilinged, heavy, decorative. A rich prize full of cargo and the finest game awaited.
The surviving Human, it seemed, was not among such fine game. It just looked up with water running down its face from its eyes, and seemed to have given up entirely. Disappointing: The Alpha had been hoping for more challenging prey, not this broken pretender. It dispatched the Human with a contemptuous swipe of its fusion claws, stuffed part of a limb into its maw, and pushed through into the rest of the ship.
Pathetic or not, the meat was transcendent.
And, as the first of its Betas died in a hail of bullets, the Alpha knew that there was more and better to come.
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
Lieutenant Booker Campbell
Twenty years ago, the Marines aboard Boone’s Star would have torn through Hunters like a baseball bat through a piñata.
Twenty years was a long time, and the Hunters hadn’t been idle. These weren’t the squishy, swaggering, stupid bullies that’d got smeared all over the ice in Vancouver, these were lethally fast, lethally precise predators armed with heavy-caliber machine guns and fusion claws that could carve through an engine block, never mind the human body.
The first Hunters to burst through onto the promenade were smeared in gore and in the grip of a berserk feeding frenzy with human blood running down their throats. People were dead already.
But Human science hadn’t been idle either.
Shieldbreaker rounds, for instance. The technology had come a long way since the early days of just using shotguns loaded with birdshot. From there they’d transformed into a round that shattered into fine grit on impact, forcing the shields to handle thousands of micro-hits at once.
Further refinements had turned the grit into a statically charged powder that didn’t just busy the shield, it got stuck in it and distorted it, massively increasing the field area and power draw, overloading them in milliseconds. They were loaded into the Marines’ mags in a 1:2 ratio alongside highly frangible rounds that posed a low risk of penetrating the ship’s hull while still delivering plenty of kinetic energy.
They sure made a mess of the first Hunter to claw its way onto the promenade. It saw the team of Marines charging toward it, raised its own weapon, recoiled as a wave of shots tore down its shields, then jerked and collapsed, coughing up a sticky mess of its own discoloured blood.
The ones behind it promptly sought cover, squeezing themselves behind walls and door frames, but it was a promenade. Cover was nonexistent, Hunters were nine feet tall, and Lang’s Marines didn’t let up the pressure for a second.
That lack of cover was a two-way street, however. Lang and his men were reduced to firing from around a corner at the t-shaped end of the corridor. Advancement would be impossible, and in a war of attrition…the Hunters would probably win. If nothing else, those big guns of theirs showed no regard at all for the ship’s hull integrity.
They needed better cover. Ideally, cover they could move.
Campbell had an idea. “Lang! You got shieldsticks?”
Lang grimaced as a Hunter round glanced off the outer window. The thick glass was rated for meteor strikes, but it sure didn’t look good. “We don’t, but maybe the crew does! Fuckers didn’t wanna talk security at all!”
Fuck that. “Got it. Thompson! Run ‘yer ass up to the bridge and persuade ‘em!”
Credit to the kid. Thompson was as fresh as they came, but his expression was laser-focused and cool. Whatever else he had, puppy-hulk had a level head squeezed between those giant shoulders.
He sprang up to his feet, and he ran. Jesus fuck did he ever run.
“Right. Sergeant, shall I make myself useful and find something portable and nicely bulletproof?”
Task given, purpose established. Campbell wasn’t about to get in the way of an experienced team, but he’d be damned if he was gonna sit there with his dick in his hand, all useless.
Off he went, with a respectable quickness of his own. Maybe there was some plate steel he could steal from something…
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
“Get in here! Get in!!”
People were scrambling and running, and Cora was trying to get them at least running the right way, but… oh holy fuck.
Hunters were way worse in person. The ones she’d seen from the First Contact footage were ugly as fuck to look at, but the real deal were sickening. Her whole skin was crawling from fear and disgust and adrenaline as a ten-foot monster squeezed itself through the glass double doors from the airlocks.
None of its eyes blinked at the same time. The drool running in a sticky river down its front was pink with blood that she prayed to God was from its own bleeding gums, and its flesh was inflamed, infected and crusted with dried pus around the greasy metal violations it had inflicted on itself.
It moved like a maggotty scorpion, and Cora barely made it to safety in time before one of those metal limbs came up and sprayed bullets at her and the others. One man uttered a shocked gasp and dropped bonelessly to the deck as a line of bullets walked up his body.
Cora was a nurse. She’d been at people’s deathbeds. She’d never seen somebody murdered before, though. Some cool, rational part of her knew that she had to close the emergency door now, or they’d all be dead, and her fist moved to smash the glass in its little red box even as part of her soul died for the poor people who hadn’t made it through…
The door was a heavy steel thing, hidden in the ceiling and primed to not just drop but slam closed and lock down tight in moments. It was there to seal off sections of the ship if they caught fire, or opened to vacuum. Cora nearly lost a toe as it rammed down.
Auxiliary forcefields in bright red flickered up around it, both reinforcing the door and warning them away from it. From outside, she heard a muffled, desperate, pitiable shriek for help, a loud heavy impact…
And nothing more.
Somewhere, distantly, she heard gunfire. The Marines. And the two HEAT guys. They were fighting back. But as a new set of slamming, clawing, scrabbling sounds told her that the Hunters were gouging at the door to tear through it and get through, Cora knew that all she’d done was buy time.
There was nowhere else for her to go. She looked around at the dozen people trapped in the bar with her, and knew that whether they lived or died was now out of her hands.
With nothing better to do, she slid her back down the wall, curled up, and waited.
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
Sergeant Tanner Lang
O’Donnell spun away from the corner and fell to one knee, clutching his upper arm. The blood spread quickly, staining his sleeve and dripping between his fingers. “Shit!”
Lanter was on it in a second. They didn’t have a corpsman unfortunately, but Lanter was almost as good in a pinch, and he knew how to get the job done with a minimum of fuss. Hernandez swapped into O’Donnell’s vacated spot so smoothly there was hardly a break in their firing pattern.
Reprieve came in the form of a teenage Hulk bearing gifts. Jesus Christ, Thompson could fuckin’ move and he was already thundering back with the spare medic’s bag and an enormous blue crate in his arms, which was plastered all over with English and…Gaori?
“Shieldsticks! The fuckin’ idiots never even unboxed ‘em!”
“Well fuckin’ open it!”
Thompson grunted and basically exploded the crate open with an effortless, contemptuous rip, then tossed a shieldstick to each of the Marines in turn.
“How do these things work?”
“Twist the blue bit at the top, pull the stick! It’ll thump when it’s ready. Then you throw it down, like this!”
Thompson demonstrated in a single fluid motion, by rolling around the corner, popping up and slamming the tail end of the stick down just as a withering array of ammo came for his head. The shields were nicely tall but even still, he knew enough to duck behind them.
Under fire, it was plain as day to see the shield’s outline. There was a small notch in the emitted field from which a man could poke their weapon and have fun.
Fuckin’ awesome. Lang signaled his men, and they all followed suit. Now they had good cover and clear shots all the way down the hall. If only they had something better than their rifles…
Couldn’t have everything. Now he just—
Campbell interrupted him from the opposite end of the crossway they were camped in. “They’re breakin’ through the bulkhead on this side!”
Boone’s Star had bulkheads to seal off its sections, of course. There was one at each end of the promenade on both sides, to seal off the docking connector and airlock. The Hunters had fucked up the one they’d first come through, but the rest were closed. Lang had been holding out hope that they’d hold up, but nothing held up forever against fusion blades.
They had to push. Now.
“Hulk! We need ammo!”
Thompson didn’t have any armor or other personal gear appropriate for the fight, given he was still just a trainee…but he was useful nonetheless. He nodded and in a blink, was gone.
It was slow going up the promenade, by the inches, laying down a lot of covering fire. Becker had a close call when a Hunter round clipped his helmet, Miller had an even closer one that drilled him right in his armor’s SAPI plate and knocked him on his ass.
Armor had come a long way since first contact. It held.
Luckily, they had lots and lots of ammo to keep up the pressure. An entire pallet of it in fact, and in about no time later, Hulk was back like a lightning bolt carrying…well fuck, pretty much the whole damn thing. Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of ammo that normally had to be moved two cans at a time, one in each hand…and the big kid carried that damn pallet like it was a huge serving tray.
Lang could get used to support like that.
And behind him, the lieutenant had turned up something nicely bulletproof, though Lang woulda never guessed it was portable: A huge plate of ten-gauge steel. The edges had a clean-cut but discolored look to them, suggesting he’d used a fusion knife to cut it loose.
“…The fuck did you find that?!”
Campbell heaved the metal into place with a grunt. “Don’t worry about it.”
Lang didn’t. He was more concerned about something else.
“…Don’t these fucks normally have an Alpha?”
“Yeah. Big asshole like a walking tank.”
“So where is he?”
Campbell just pushed his steel shield forward along the deck with a squeal, seemingly immune to the rain of bullets hammering against it.
His reply was grim. “There’s a lotta occupied territory on the far side of that airlock…”
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
The hunt was glorious.
The Human-prey on this end of the ship weren’t armed, and evidently not specialized for combat roles. Nonetheless their predator’s instincts were there, and they fought back with clever strategems and creative use of what they had on-hand.
It wasn’t enough, of course. The Alpha fed. It had discovered that the Human-prey could take a huge amount of injury so long as it did not pierce their heart or brain, and it was gleefully tormenting its next meal when—
<Alert; Terse Warning> +Human-Alphas are present.+
The Alpha tore its fangs out of the prey and relocated across the deck as quickly as it could, uncaring of the damage its claws inflicted on the frivolous wood flooring. It had posted three Betas to hold the long corridor on the ship’s left side, but their report changed everything.
Sure enough, two of the heat signatures advancing up the deck behind the cover of portable shieldsticks and a large steel plate were of the Alpha-kind, significantly larger and more powerful than the Human-Betas around them.
Victory was no longer certain. Even without their armored carapaces and heavy weapons, no Hunter had yet faced a Human-Alpha in direct combat and prevailed.
<Instruction> +Stall them. We shall open the rear compartment, seize the prey and withdraw.+
And destroy the prey-ship of course. The Alpha-of-Alphas would forgive such an act if doing so slew two of the precious, rare Human-Alphas.
The Alpha pulled back the force it had instructed to tear down the fortified door that denied them a way down the ship’s right side. Encircling and devouring the Human-Betas was no longer the plan, now the plan was to tear down the badly damaged bulkhead at the rear of their seized territory and claim the many morsels within.
The Betas pounced on that door with renewed zeal, fusion claws flashing. Already the door bore several deep, melted gouges from their assault. It would fail in seconds…
But the Alpha saw no reason to expose itself, should its lessers fail in their assigned tasks. When dealing with deathworld-prey, caution was the first rule of any Hunter that wished to live and taste blood again.
It had feasted. It had taken meat to the maw and prevailed. This had been a rich hunt, a prestigious one, and the Alpha would return to claim its due glory. It ordered the Gammas to gather the meat, and retreated into the broodship in triumph, silently commanding its systems to prepare to disengage and fire upon the prey-ship at immediate notice.
Let the lessers take the risk, now.
Date point: 17y7m4d AV Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
Sergeant Tanner Lang
Between the shieldsticks, that big slab of metal and lots of suppressing fire, they advanced… and the Hunters’ nerves broke. Or maybe their ammo supply did. Either way, the fuckers stopped shooting back and threw themselves into a desperate animal charge like cornered tigers.
Lang dropped one of the pair on the right with a businesslike burst to its lanky core, then put an insurance round right through its central eye to make sure. Its legs folded under it and it sagged down, still upright but clearly dead. The fusion edges on its claws flickered and cut out. Hernandez had dropped his own with equal efficiency, and now it was time to seize the space, by the numbers. They had cover, they had a retreating foe…
The lounge around the airlock was a fuckin’ gruesome sight, slick with human blood and the oily shit that Hunters leaked when shot. One of the big fuckers was slumped out of the way near the promenade access where the others had dragged it aside after it got killed. No way to know who’d got the fatal shot in, and no time to worry about it neither. There were three left, two falling back toward the airlock itself, one slicing into a bulkhead on the far side of the lounge.
And just as the Marines stormed in, it got its claws into a gap, heaved, tore the last ruined scraps of metal right outta the frame, and advanced on the civilians beyond…
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Luxury cruise liner Boone’s Star, en route to Cimbrean, the Border Stars
The door failed, and Cora raised her head hopelessly to face her end.
At first it was just a claw, gouging through the steel. But that little breach was enough: more fusion claws, sizzling and spitting as they ripped through solid metal, worked their way into the gap and peeled it apart like a sardine can.
Cora stood and backed away from the door, shaking but determined not to throw up or lose her dignity. It was a stupid thing to cling to, but…
Her resolve barely survived the sight of the biggest monster yet. Its sickly white flesh was smeared with human blood, and there was a swagger to the way it ripped the bulkhead out of its housing.
One of the aid workers had turned up a knife behind the bar, a thick serrated thing for carving ice. He wielded it in front of him like…well, like it was a magic wand he knew was useless. The Hunter had a gun that could slaughter all of them in moments, and it seemed the only thing stopping it from using it was its own sadism. It growled a phlegmy hissing chortle and advanced, fusion claws seething, ropes of eager drool running from its teeth.
For the rest of her life, Cora would never forget what came next.
As if out of nowhere, Specialist Thompson—Hunter Thompson, her Hunter, her guilt-free fling to while away a long and boring voyage—charged like a half-naked blur into the giant monster’s flank. It barely had time to notice what was happening before he slammed it into the wall with a series of wet-sounding crunches and then…he…
He committed so much violence, and did it so quickly, Cora somehow knew she was going to remember every detail perfectly. He took one quick step back, grabbed the monster’s arms from the back, and heaved. All four snapped like twigs. He was right in next to the hunter but he somehow slammed forward and tackled it again, crushing it against the wall with more grisly snapping sounds. He reached up, wrapped his arms around its upper torso, heaved—
He twisted at the waist, and twisted the hunter with him. There was a sickening sound almost like bubble-wrap popping as Hunter wringed the hunter’s spine like a wet towel. He smashed it up against the wall again for good measure, then stepped back, heaved the hunter backwards, somehow flipped it over his head—
—And slammed the hunter into the deck with so much force, the decorative wood flooring was cratered by the sheer force of the impact, and the beast itself burst like a fat, blood-filled tick.
Hunter popped up to his feet without any loss of momentum, a gore-covered hero. He glanced at them briefly, then charged back into the fight without any hesitation. Behind him, Lieutenant Campbell had done something similar to a second Hunter, and the Marines were driving the last two back into the airlock with a storm of bullets.
The last standing Hunter was snipped in half by its own ship’s force-dock when the broodship disengaged from Boone’s Star with a TUNGGGG that rattled the hull. Alarms wailed at the abuse to the airlock, which still snapped closed and spared them any decompression.
The deck was awash with gore, both bright red and the darker, more diseased stuff that ran in hunter veins. Thompson, Cora’s Hunter, was sticky with the nasty stuff from ankles to ears, and panting heavily…
But somehow, they were alive.
Cora’s legs and dignity gave out under her, and she collapsed, weeping from the sudden reversal in her fortunes. She felt punched, she felt sick and shaken and terrified and traumatized…
But she was alive.
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
USS Hammer, Escorting civilian aid shipment, the Border Stars
Captain Rhodes Collins
Combat was often too fast-moving for the uninitiated to properly grasp. They’d barely had time to swing the ship around, ready a shield bubble and train weapons on the sudden appearance of a Hunter broodship—this time with a docking collar. That would have made it tricky indeed to safely dislodge and would have required the cooperation of the civilian crew. Sadly, they were…difficult…to communicate with at the moment.
Frankly, they were panicking.
Almost as soon as they were ready to force the issue though, the broodship forcibly withdrew. Captain Collins knew better than to waste the opportunity.
Several things happened at once.
First, the Hammer threw out a shield bubble around the Boone’s Star, hugging the star yacht protectively inside her own shielding. That act alone saved every life on board by instants, as the Broodship raked the yacht with a point-blank volley as soon as it was properly free.
Second, the Hammer’s own guns laid into the broodship.
Space combat was supposed to be a long-range affair, handled at distances measured using the speed of light. Visual range was nothing. Broodship and destroyer laid into each other like a pair of drunks brawling in a bar. No subtlety, no artifice, just raw violence. A river of autocannon fire rained onto the Hunters’ shields, and was answered by blasts of vaporized copper plasma and ultra-high-velocity gauss slugs.
EWAR strobed and probed across both ships, questing for sensors and cameras, each ship looking to gouge the other’s eyes out. The Hunters accelerated hard; Hammer put herself between them and the civilians, both to protect them and so she could pull her shields back in and harden them up.
It was a contest of raw destructive fury, energy reserves, and heat management… and it ended in a stalemate.
One moment, the Hammer had a clean target lock, the next there was an eye-molesting twist of light, and every EM signal and emission from the broodship went dark. LIDAR, RADAR, ESDAR, it all swept through the volume of space the broodship had just occupied and found nothing but dissipating plasma.
The Hunters had got away.
Sergeant Tanner Lang
Cleanup was always the worst bit. Once the hunters had gone, they still had to check the whole ship over, room-by-room in case there was any hidden threat. That sort of thing really did need armor and experience, so as useful as Thompson was…
“Wipe yourself down and stay in the rear. Watch and learn, okay?”
Thompson nodded earnestly. The kid was…well, eager, in a good way.
Also maybe in a bad way, too. But that was for later.
The ship wasn’t too big, thankfully. Still, they had to be extra thorough, and that meant sending drones down maintenance tubes, checking all the civilians over (which the HEAT did) and then, once the ship was secure and the crew was happy enough with damage control…
First, they attended to their weapons and gear. Then they showered. Then they ate. Once everyone was clean, off their combat high, clear-eyed and ready to go, they had their after-action report.
Lieutenant Campbell led the way on that. Lang had never seen anything simultaneously so polite and respectful, and so absolutely witheringly critical. The ship’s crew got it with both barrels, but the Captain in particular…
Well, this incident was likely a career-ender. He knew it too, judging by his expression.
Lang got to do a video review of his own team’s actions, too. That was a rare luxury that normal grunt-folk rarely had the opportunity to experience. What he found pleased him: their advance up the promenade had been textbook, and effective. They’d pushed up under heavy fire, kept the Hunters suppressed, and achieved their objective despite heavy resistance. O’Donnell’s injury, and the hits taken by Becker and Miller were worth noting, but by and large he couldn’t see much to critique.
His Marines could hold their heads high: they’d saved lives, and done so by the numbers. Lieutenant Campbell was suitably impressed and was keen to say it.
The atmosphere wasn’t exactly celebratory, though. People were dead, and their remains had been dragged away onto the Hunter ship. The dozen civilians who’d been trapped in the rearward bar lounge were the most traumatized, but everyone on board was acutely aware that what had been a long, slow, dull voyage to deliver essential supplies and skills to Franklin had come within a hair of being a massacre.
Scuttled career or not, Boone’s Star’s captain was still in charge of his ship for the time being, and Lang couldn’t really blame the guy when he took one look at all those pock-marks in the portside promenade’s windows, not to mention the damage to the airlock, and declared that they were going to emergency jump and to hell with the lockdown.
Fair enough, really. If his career was already in the pan, it wasn’t like that decision could make things worse for him. And it’d get them there before all that trauma started to really ferment.
Still. It was a tense moment on the ship when they spun up the jump drive. They’d done it once before to get out of Sol, but the Chicago-Franklin event had left a lingering paranoia about jump travel. How could they know they weren’t about to get smashed into a blast of plasma?
The jump wouldn’t be for a few hours yet. Last on the agenda: AAR specifically for Thompson, as he was green and eager to soak up training. This being something more formal than hanging out, he’d cleaned up and put on the new-style fatigues the HEAT all wore nowadays. It looked much like the Army and Air Force’s fatigues, with one major difference: they’d gone back to berets and a polished, high-gloss pair of black combat boots.
Thompson arrived looking sharp and heroic, and they went through the usual formalities. The entire team was there too, and for once they were taking things deadly serious.
“Right, at ease, specialist. Please, take a seat.”
Thompson looked at the chair. “Uh…”
Seeing him standing next to the comparatively flimsy chair made the problem quite obvious. Lang doubted Thompson could even fit his hips between the armrests.
“…Right. Just…grab the crate over there, then.”
Lang waited until everyone was comfortable.
“Okay, so: on the whole, you did remarkably well. Was this your first action?”
“Cool. You can drop some of the formalism, okay? This is meant to be a learning experience.”
Thompson exhaled and did that visibly-trying-to-relax thing again, a little more successfully this time. “…Okay.”
“Right. So: considering this was your first action, you did very well. You know your tactics and you know your weapon systems, and you know how to use them. Hell, you taught us about the shieldsticks, and I think we all owe you our lives just on that alone. So…well done.”
Thompson swelled with pride at that. Lang could guess what was going on in the kid’s head: this was the thing he’d sworn himself to, sacrificed a lot for, put himself through a disciplined regime unlike any other to achieve… and he’d done well. That had to be a lifetime of validation right there. All things considered, he took it modestly.
“That said, I do have some critiques, as do the rest of the team. We’re going to review the footage from start to finish and really pick it apart. Feel free to do the same to us, or ask questions. Think you can do that?”
Thompson nodded firmly. “I can.”
With that, they went through it all. For the most part things progressed seriously and Thompson drank in the knowledge like a sponge. Learning definitely occurred, though over time they got more familiar with each other, and a sense of humor creeped back in…
Until they’d reached…well, fuck. Jesus fuckin’ Christ.
“Hol’ up. Fuckin’ rewind that, Centopani.”
They watched it again. Thompson utterly failed to hide his sense of pride over what he’d done.
Everyone’s eyes turned back to him once the third watch-through was over. The big bastard sat there almost bursting out of his uniform, and Lang didn’t really know if that was from his sheer size, or his sheer overwhelming smugness.
For most of the review, it was easy to forget who and what they were dealing with. Mostly, he was just like any other grunt, except a lot bigger and faster. But that little display of straight-up superhuman ability…
Lang couldn’t help but smile. “Now, Specialist… tell me. Was that suplex really necessary?”
“Well, I mean…it just came naturally, I guess.”
“Well, um…I was state wrestling champion three years running….”
There it was. Specialist Thompson, the superhuman boot. What a time to be alive.
It took a few moments for the snickering to die down, but this was a serious thing, so everyone sobered up pretty quickly.
“That’s not exactly an orthodox approach to neutralizing an opponent.”
“No,” added Hoetze, “but neither is being a literal space Marine, either.”
“Soldier!” Thompson objected.
“Eh, that’s a mistake we’ll fix eventually,” Lang replied. “Still: maybe don’t put yourself in that much personal risk, next time. Just shoot the fucker.”
“I was, uh, outta ammo. And it was about to eat someone, so…”
“Then don’t run out of ammo next time. Understood, Specialist?”
“Right. Well…I think that basically concludes things. Lieutenant Campbell I think will want to have some private words with you, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re free to go.”
Thompson stood up at attention and everyone else did as well. “Right. Dismissed.”
Once Hulk had thumped his way out of the room, Lang looked at his men.
“Alright…what do we think, boys?”
“Boot as all fuck, but I’d have ‘em on my team in a goddamn heartbeat.” O’Donnell opined, then winced as his emphatic gesture pulled at his injury.
“Think we’ll ever see him again once we get to Cimbrean?”
Hmm. “Honestly, I don’t know. HEAT are headquartered in Folctha, and we’re theoretically assigned to the embassy there…so maybe?”
“Hope so,” Lanter said. “We got a lot of work ahead of us to de-boot his ass.”
“I think someone’s in love,” Hoetze quipped.
“I’m not the one whose face was mashed all up in his huge sweaty nuts earlier.”
“Right.” Lang interjected before they could get started. “Let’s get the paperwork tied up for Campbell. This’ll be good for both their service records. After that…let’s go get packed up. We’ll be jumping shortly, I bet.”
After that…it was just details. AAR filled out and tidied up. They’d do a final draft later. They packed up their gear, the HEAT trainees did the same. There was some other minor drama, everyone waited breathlessly for the jump—
There was the strangest feeling of suddenly moving a terrible distance without moving, but it only lasted long enough to be noticed. The Captain announced they’d arrived in Cimbrean space and that they would be boarded for inspection.
Which was…aggressive to say the least. But it was professional, and over quickly. Meanwhile, Lang and the rest got to meet real HEAT operators, fully decked out in their EV-MASS. Next to the really big guys, Thompson and Campbell were just fuckin’ puppies. Goddamn.
Still, Campbell seemed about the same size as their other officer, while Thompson didn’t need to feel embarrassed among the enlisted; he wasn’t small even by their standards, and he wasn’t at the bottom of the pile. Scary as it was to think about, he’d grow into his new role over the coming years too, literally and figuratively.
He’d do well, no doubt. Lang had only known the two for a short time, but combat bonded men like nothing else, and he couldn’t help but feel pride in them for what they’d accomplished. New SIMs for their phones were purchased once they’d made it planetside, and numbers shared.
There was one awkward moment with the girl Thompson had been seeing, just after they landed. She was avoiding him, and the kid was too sheltered to see it. When he tried to get her attention, she visibly freaked out and fled, leaving Thompson to stand bewildered and hurt on the concrete.
“Let it be,” rumbled the tallest, widest man Lang had ever seen. “Give ‘er some space.”
Lang had boggled when the new titan thumped his way over. Thompson had already redefined huge and strong for Lang. This man redefined it yet again, with a much, much more powerfully-built physique than the young Aggressor. He would have put Thompson to shame even scaled down to the same height, but he stood about a foot taller than the kid’s already respectable six-foot-three, and was so goddamned heavy he was literally crushing the gravel into pebbles under his feet. To be that big, and yet carry all that size so effortlessly…
So that’s what HEAT was all about. No goddamn wonder the selection rate was so low.
“I don’t even need ‘ta ask,” the giant said, with a face sized palm resting heavily across Thompson’s shoulder. “I’ve been there more’n once.”
Thompson still gave the retreating nurse a last, confused look before she vanished out of sight. “…I rescued her.”
“Yeah, it ain’t like the movies. Send ‘er a message later tonight, ‘kay?”
“I… don’t know her number.”
“‘Ya know her name, right? Find her on the social medias,” the giant grumbled with a hint of annoyance. “She’ll wanna talk, jus’ not right away. Anyhoo. Captain’s throwing us a barbecue, an’ it’ll all be fine ‘ta eat. I hear ‘yer Marine buddies are good folk so they’re invited too.”
In the end, it wasn’t really a goodbye. The giant turned out to go by Righteous and he had the most god-awful taste ever in tacky hawaiian shirts. He was the HEAT’s NCOIC and a fellow Aggressor, which was a blessing: Thompson was in good hands. There was another giant too, the infamous Warhorse. He wasn’t as tall as Righteous but he still towered over everyone else and was, if anything, even stockier and heavier. Shit, with friends like that…
All-in-all, a lot happened Lang hadn’t expected that day. He’d got into a fight with Hunters and lived. He met the HEAT, and their intimidating Gaoian members, too. There were promises of joint training and other mandatory fun with the embassy staff, and there was a fantastic barbeque to top it all off. Lang got to end the day drinking a cold beer on Cimbrean while a whole herd smoked and grilled nearby, and while he sure as shit coulda done without the Hunters showing up at all…and while he felt bad about the folks who’d died…
That was the nature of war. You mourned the absent friends, and celebrated the ones still here.
He slept well that night.
Date Point: 17y7m4d AV
Broodship of the Flensing-Brood, Deep Space
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
The attack had been a calculated gamble. Despite the Alpha-of-Alphas’ assurance that the Old Minds had achieved some kind of blow against the Humans, the Alpha had not quite believed it. It had enjoyed the hunt, and feasted well. A shame that there were no living slaves to provide entertainment, but only the foolhardy would take a Human alive.
But all the time, it had felt tense, wondering if the Old Minds had misled the Alpha-of-Alphas, if the same pattern that had unfolded so many times before would repeat, and a mass of deathworlder ships would jump in and turn a glorious hunt into an ignominious slaughter.
No such counterattack had come. The Deathworlders were truly paralyzed.
And that opened so many delicious possibilities. Shipping lanes would now be undefended, frontier stations vulnerable, lesser Prey could no longer call out to their betters for help.
It would be a return to the good times, before the first Humans, before the Human-Alphas, and before the fur-faces remembered their claws. The feasting and looting would be unopposed.
And the glory of proving just how open an opportunity they now had went to the Flensing-Brood. Their prestige would surely grow, their bellies would surely fill, and their brood-swarm would number in the hundreds once again.
A shame to not have captured the whole ship. But the prize they had taken was more than sufficient. More Human meat to the maw today than in all the years before. And all for the loss of only five Betas.
This strange new Alpha-of-Alphas would prize the information gathered, more than the rest. In particular it would be pleased to learn as much as possible about the two Human-Alphas, which the Alpha endeavored to examine as closely as possible, by sensors and by the broadcast streams from the Betas foolish enough to challenge them.
Human-Alphas out of their armor! A prize so rare that even the Flensing-Alpha found it intriguing. The sight of them moving and fighting in little more than their bare skin was genuinely fascinating. Their skill, their speed, their power, their obvious superiority as predators, all of it provoked strange, almost alien feelings in the Alpha. It felt…
The Alpha knew now what the Humans were. What Deathworlders were. It knew that the Flensing-Brood had not merely survived the hunt, but prevailed against an undeniably superior foe. That would do much to boost the Alpha’s standing amongst the Broods.
What a rewarding hunt!
It watched the encounter between its previously strongest Beta and the larger of the two Human-Alphas. Economy of motion. Speed, mass. Such perfectly-utilized strength! The kill wasn’t merely laudable. It was…
It was beautiful. For the first time in many cycles, the Alpha felt < Awe >.
There was surely much useful data to be gleaned from the recordings, though the Flensing-Alpha did not know exactly what useful insights the Builders might glean from the footage. Nonetheless, the Hunters would benefit. Would learn.
Good things would come to the Flensing-Brood. Perhaps even a chance to hunt other Deathworlders! Fur-faced Alpha meat was rumored to be as transcendent as Human. Rumors had also reached the Alpha of a third species, though very little about them was known…
It didn’t matter. For now, the Flensing-Alpha basked in its triumph, and ordered its brood to their stasis chambers. It relished the silence that followed when the last was safely stored, and savored a last sample of the precious meat.
Then, content that the next hunt would bring even more glory, it set the broodship to return to home territory, and activated its own stasis field.
The timeless moment that lasted all the way home was suffused with a sense of triumph.
Date Point: 17y7m6d AV
Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao
Franklin hadn’t had a large Gaoian population. None of the five territories did, aside from Folctha. That hadn’t been by any deliberate action or planning on anyone’s part—as if the Gao could manage central planning before Daar, anyway—it had simply been inconvenient for colonization purposes. Franklin wasn’t in control of the system border, and they didn’t have a major starport. Franklin’s entire purpose was built around jump array shipments.
Which they no longer had. What Franklin did have was a convent, and while nuns were a decidedly alien concept to a Gaoian female, the Benedictine Sisters on Cimbrean had done a tremendous amount of hard work in the days and weeks after the disaster that had destroyed their city and badly damaged their own nunnery.
Now that all the hard work was behind them though, they needed somewhere to live until they could go back, and that was likely to be a long time. So, Naydra was taking a stroll along Tiritya Island’s southern shoreline, and hearing their request.
“Only a dozen of you?”
“Fourteen.” Sister Holly Chase offered a shy smile. She was a perpetually timid woman on the outside, but Naydra had been fascinated to read her history. She’d been an interstellar explorer once, and her vows hadn’t interrupted her contributions to the understanding of Cimbrean’s geology. “We know it’s an imposition.”
“Not as such. We certainly have the facilities and ability to welcome fourteen women and we even have the space to carve off a little parcel of land for you to call your own if you want it. I think my biggest question would be: why here?”
“The isolation, mostly. We don’t want to find ourselves in the spotlight or be gossipped about.” Chase smiled nervously. “We don’t really practice an active ministry. We’re more focused on contemplation.”
“So you’re really just looking for a quiet place to stay.”
“As I said, we know it’s a lot to ask.”
“Nonsense,” Naydra replied, as kindly as the word could be. “This is a time of crisis and you’re without a home. The Clan of Females is here on this island in much the same situation, it would be rather hypocritical of us not to offer our hospitality, if you think this is the right place for you.”
“It was the first place we thought of…” Chase smiled and relaxed a little. “And the one the Abbess was most hopeful for. Should I tell her you don’t object?”
“Please do. Though I must warn you: while our island is Female territory, it is not sanctuary. There are plenty of males who visit for many purposes…”
“We don’t expect life to change just because we’re here,” Chase reassured her. “We’ll keep to ourselves, for the most part.”
“Then I see no reason not to offer you our hospitality.” Naydra duck-nodded, then flicked her ear as the communicator clipped to it chimed impatiently at her. Business never ceased. “Ah… please excuse me. I’m afraid my work is never done.”
“No, no, I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time!”
It took Naydra a few more minutes to politely disentangle herself, escort Sister Chase back to the shuttle pad and free herself up, but there were no more intrusive chimes in her ear. Clearly things weren’t too urgent.
As it happened, the message was from Bumpkin, and included one of his silly drawings. He was good at them, really; just a loose scribble with a broad-tip marker, and they often conveyed very much feeling with an absolute economy of line.
In this particular drawing, a distinctly grumpy Daar had Angry Things erupting above his head. The attached message read: “Halp. Need your advice. Lotta problems to juggle!” and was punctuated by little affectionate icons in three languages.
Naydra chittered to herself and decided to eschew the long walk from shuttle pad to the Commune in favor of the less scenic, but much quicker, little tram service. It was rather nice being literally the only person in all the galaxy that Daar could send a message as plaintive as “help” to. A little saddening too, but at least he had somebody to share his burdens with, and she hers.
Unusually, he didn’t smell of consummated mating contracts when she found him in their suite, high over the eastern cliff face. Nor did he smell of exercise. Unsurprisingly given those two lacks, he smelled of frustration.
“Oh dear. You look tense.”
“Been tenser…” he sighed and peeled himself away from the desk to bound across the room and nip affectionately at her ear. “You smell relaxed.”
“I quite enjoyed my meeting. Gyotin was right, I needn’t have worried. It seems they really do just want to be left alone.”
“He usually is,” Daar rumbled, amused. “Annoyin’, sometimes.”
Naydra chittered, nipped his cheek, then slipped out of his arms and toward the desk. “So what’s all this?”
“Drafts an’ redrafts an’ redrafts o’ the fuckin’ redrafts. My Big Idea’s got a whole mess o’ lil’ fiddly shit in it.”
“Hmm. I thought you were going to let that one steep a while longer.”
“Until the time’s right. Figger it’s gettin’ pretty close to right about now. ‘Specially with the spacefighter wing gone.”
“How did Clan Firefang react?”
“That’s the good bit, they came ‘ta me an’ offered as much as they could.”
“That’s uncharacteristically blatant of them.”
“Champion Goruu is an old friend o’ General Jackson’s.” Daar shook his huge head wryly. “Din’t even know that when I picked him. He was jus’ there an’ he smelled good.”
“And he’s eager to help his old friend.” Naydra couldn’t resist a happy pant-smile. “I love it when males are so guilelessly loyal. It simplifies things, doesn’t it?”
“Eh. Sometimes.” Daar chittered and sat down next to the desk. “In this case though, yeah. If I can go ‘ta the Allied Nations an’ tell ‘em straight up that Clan Firefang are willin’ ‘ta help rebuild all their lost vehicles and train pilots? ‘S’Gonna make the whole Grand Strategic Alliance thing a lot easier ‘ta sell.”
“You’ve been noodling on the name for it again, haven’t you.”
“How do you—? Yeah. Everythin’ I come up with sounds kinda silly. Three Suns Alliance?”
Naydra chittered and used her claws to comb out some of the fur around his neck. “As much as the question of the name is of galactic importance…” she suggested with extra tease, “I think perhaps you should delegate it.”
“Oh I know I should but damnit it’s gotta have a name!”
“I’m sure that will be the first order of business.” She decided his fur was acceptable for now. “…Do you think they’ll go for it?”
“I floated the idea by His Majesty when I saw ‘em last, an’ he socialized it with all the folks that matter. Stephen Davies is on board, so’s Annette Winton. Still gotta talk ‘ta the rest o’ the Commonwealth. Chambliss, I reckon he’s pretty much def’nitely gonna say yes. If it’d been Sartori I’d have had a fuck of a time convincin’ him, but…”
“You always admired Sartori’s stubborn streak.”
“Yeah, but in this case it woulda got in the way.” Daar sniffed. “Least, from my perspective.”
“You’d be the leader of this alliance, Bumpkin. Sartori would have been right to resist, it was the wrong time and the wrong circumstance. That Chambliss is willing to…”
“Very different mindsets, between the two.”
“And very different situations.”
Daar rumbled agreement and duck-nodded, low and slow. “Ayup…Not sure ‘bout Yan, the Lodge an’ the Singers.”
“It’s in their best interests, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, an’ that’s the problem. They’d call it a ‘Big Giving,’ an’ the way they look at things they already owe us a fuck of a lot. Sooner or later, they think we’re gonna collect that debt.”
“You have Ferd on JETS team two. He’s good enough to be HEAT, from what I hear.”
“Yeah, an’ we’re gonna have a bunch more o’ ‘em, too. That’s almost certainly gonna be the cost of an alliance. Not that I’m complainin’,” Daar chittered. “‘Take our supremely gifted warriors as payment?’ Yes please!”
“Who have never used toilets before.”
“Eh, they learn quick.”
Naydra duck-nodded at that. “So…what was the call for help about?”
“…Right. All that, that’s easy. ‘Cept maybe the part where Yan wants ‘ta become HEAT or something…” Daar chittered distractedly. “Hard bit’s ‘bout the gene therapy.”
“Ah.” Naydra sighed, tore herself away from the intricate proposal documents on the desk, and poured herself onto the couch instead. “Yes.”
Daar tidied up the tablets and things. “…Trials were a total success. Everyone who took ‘em, went perfect. We’re ready, Naydi. Ready ‘ta make the Gao everything we can be, instead’a the hobbled version the Hierarchy made us.”
“Lotta folk ain’t gonna like it, ‘specially some o’ the more conservative Clan. We found that the biggest diff’rence is the gap ‘tween degrees narrows quite a bit…”
“So, the Second-Degree majority would become…?”
“They saw the biggest change, an’ it’s a big change, too. You met Leemu, saw what it did ‘fer him. Color vision an’ a way better immune system, an’ when he trained he put on weight way more easily, too. Still ain’t what a really well-trained Human could do, but he’s a lot closer now! So now he’s more’n a match ‘fer their average, an’ he ain’t afraid to play with ‘em, yijao?”
“Impressive,” Naydra commented. “And the effect is less for each higher degree, I presume?”
“Yeah. But it’s still substantial. Shit, lookit me! An’ not just the all th’ extra muscle, neither!”
“Bumpkin, I thought you liked it when I admired your physique…”
“I mean…I do…” Daar growled lecherously. “An’ I’ll be showin’ it off ‘fer ‘ya later…But ‘fer serious, now! Even I got a hell of a kick from this, ‘specially my senses! I can hear an’ see an’ even feel like I ain’t never done before.”
“I know,” Naydra reminded him gently. Having undergone the gene therapy herself, she knew exactly how much it expanded the whole universe. It wasn’t just the fact that this suite of hers was decorated in shades of red and orange and brown that were a unique and private treat for them both, but even the senses she’d already enjoyed were sharpened, heightened and more acute.
“…Right. ‘Course you do.”
Satisfied, Naydra duck-nodded. “I think I can see some of the problem. Consider the existing social order. You sit at the apex of our society, because none of us are better than you at anything we might care to measure. I suspect Champion Loomi thanks the Unseen every night you never had a passion for scholarship.”
“…I mean…he’s super smart, but…” Daar shifted uncomfortably. It wasn’t that he was ashamed or modest of his innate ability. It was more…before, it was all just Male play. Now he had to wield it like a weapon, and he didn’t like that at all; he’d rather be everyone’s friend.
“And that supremacy makes your authority unassailable,” Naydra continued. “But for everyone else enjoying authority…how will things change when the gulf between your average second-degree day worker and a third-degree Officer in a Clan is suddenly…not so intimidating? The Have-Nots will have a little more, and the Haves…won’t, by comparison. Or so they fear. I can see why the Clan leadership is so worried, even if they won’t openly defy you.”
“They don’t hafta openly defy me ‘ta be difficult,” Daar grumbled.
“No, of course not. They’re your keys to power, the pillars holding you up. And they will want to be rewarded for their loyalty in sustaining you in supreme office.” She sat back and scratched idly at her ear. “…making the average Gao more equal and undermining their position could be taken as ungrateful. After all, you make no effort to disguise with whom your heart truly lies. You’d rather brawl in the dirt with workhouse rough-pelts than sniff noses with the elite. Sheeyo in particular is caught between awe, admiration, and resentment.”
Daar chuffed amusedly. “There’s more’n that at play…”
“Oh, everyone knows that,” Naydi chittered. “He is the most stereotypical first-degree ever. He’s…never asked? Hinted?”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Daar chittered. “And I hear I’m pretty infamous ‘fer noticin’ that sorta thing! Besides,” Daar growled smugly, “bitty lil’ male like him? I doubt he’d servive.”
“Don’t act like ‘yer scandalized!” he chittered loudly. “I know ‘ya too well, Naydi.”
“Maybe not…” she admitted, “Though sometimes, keeping you on task can be a trial…”
“‘Yer not wrong. But you started it! An’ stop smellin’ so wunnerful, then!”
“Daar.” Allowing him the chance to clown around a little was important—there were precious few other people he could clown around with—but Naydra had her limits.
He chittered, and subsided. “‘Yer right. Reckon th’ Clans’re gonna push back as hard as they can on this’n.”
“The powerful have always fought back against dilution of their power, even when it’s the right course of action. When are we planning to relinquish ours? You plan on being the Great Father and seeing the Gao forward for as long as you can, I know this and I know it’s for the best motives.”
“No but. I truly meant that. The…the trap we need to be wary of, my love, is that you and I can’t be around forever. I know you have hopes for gene therapy and Cruezzir and maybe you and I will live to be the oldest Gao ever, but even if we could be immortal, I don’t want to be. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to let go. And because we’re powerful, we won’t want to when the time comes.”
Daar’s ears tracked backwards then forwards as he considered her words for a long moment, before he sighed, tore himself away from the desk and joined her on the couch, wrapping himself around her. “…Y’know, raw ability sure as fuck ain’t wisdom.”
“You have plenty of both, Bumpkin,” she assured him, and scritched behind his ears. He lifted his head into her touch, a gesture that always delighted her.
“Dunno if I have enough…” he sighed. “When leaders ‘ggressively push egalitarian policies, they either light their people on fire, or light their society on fire.”
“So…” She stirred up a little cowlick of fur with her claw. “Which one can you bear?”
Daar mulled that question over for a long second. “…I want my people ‘ta be the bestest they can be. I want ‘em to have a chance against the other Deathworlders. I don’t wanna see ‘em plow’d under by Humans accidentally…or mebbe later the Ten’Gewek on-purpose. They’re nice ‘fer giant space-apes but they hate weakness.”
“You know, even with the gene therapy, our people are never going to quite match them…”
“Eh, depends on what ‘ya mean by ‘match’ I guess. We’re jus’ gonna hafta deal with that. But we can be better’n we are now, an’ we can take off some’a the chains the Hierarchy put on us. Shit, I don’ see how we could bear to keep ‘em on.”
She nipped his ear. “I think that might be the speech you need to give to the Clans,” she said. “If you can’t appeal to their sense of equity, appeal to their sense of outrage instead.”
He tilted his head, then chittered. “…I love you so much.”
“I know.” She chittered too. “Now, my little stroll by the ocean has left my fur matted in all the hard-to-reach places…”
He glanced down her back. “…Looks sleek an’ perfect ‘ta me. But I’ll put m’paws ‘ta work…”
Naydra chittered and stretched out across his lap while he reached out with a long arm and hooked over a brush. He diligently slicked her fur to a high gloss, then kneaded all the stress of the day right out of her with his huge, brutish paws. He looked, sounded and smelled far less tense than he had when she’d entered the room, which was good… but her mission wasn’t accomplished yet. By the time she was done with him, he’d be in a perfectly good mood again.
And so would she.
Date Point: 17y7m1w4d AV
Builder Hive, deep in Hunter space
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
For once, the Alpha-of-Alphas had to concede that the Eaters were seeking the sensible course of action.
+The Humans did not even send ships to defend one of their own. The Prey are defenceless!+
+That will not last.+ < Greatest respect > +We must feed. We must feast! This is an opportunity that cannot be wasted!+
It couldn’t find a solid objection to the idea. The Alpha-of-Alphas was not in the habit of acquiescing to the Eaters when they requested to Hunt. It did so sparingly, to show its favor, to reward those Broods that pleased it, and to secure resources or strike strategically. It was not accustomed to simply unleashing them and letting them feed according to their whim.
But in this moment, when they could do so largely unopposed…
Perhaps their willful lust for meat could be turned to valuable ends. There were things it needed, technology and data that the Builders had traditionally scavenged from captured ships and ransacked stations while the Eaters fed. Ironically, Alpha-of-Alphas’ own cautious strategy had starved the Builders of such valuable spoils. Here, perhaps, was an opportunity to glean a rich resource.
Not to mention an opportunity to reward the Eaters for complying with its will. Yes. Denying them now would only foment resentment. Indulging them, though, would strengthen their loyalty.
< Decree > +Then we shall feast. You will be given targets. You will be permitted to draw your Brood-reserves from stasis. Go where you are directed, feast until your maws and bellies ache. And bring back as much meat and materiel as you can.+
For the first time since claiming its position, it enjoyed the joyous eagerness that shot through the minds around it. The bloodlust surged, so hot and strong that even the Builder’s more refined mind thrilled at it.
+Meat to the maw!+
Date Point: 17y7m1w4d AV
Behind enemy lines, planet ‘Mordor,’occupied Hunter space
Father Liim of Clan Whitecrest
“Mother’s up late. Cubs all play statues.”
Liim’s team had a small camp amidst a long-neglected railyard that the Hunters had clearly decided they didn’t need any longer and just abandoned. The cars were intact enough to serve as shelter from the pollution and acid rain, and though they weren’t clean, they could be made serviceably clean enough for those activities that required partial removal of their protective equipment, like eating.
The junk also offered plenty of places to conceal the narrow-beam satellite antenna where it would be invisible to both visual detection and sensors. So, Liim had claimed one for his hideout and command center. It was almost peaceful, hearing the heavy rain outside drumming on the corroded metal.
The new message was puzzling, though. In Whitecrest’s war-cant, the phrase he’d just received meant “Enemy activity, reason and objective unknown. All units, hold position and avoid detection.”
Dangerous… but an opportunity, too. Liim gave the situation a moment’s thought, consulted his map, then sent his own reply.
“Maybe Mother has a mate. Cubs in the kitchen, play sniff-a-secret.”
He grabbed his helmet and mask after the reply—a pair of radio clicks to acknowledge the command—and put them on, a process that took a well-practiced minute or so. He’d shaved the fur around his throat down to stubble to avoid the problem of it getting caught in the seal and ruining it, and he just knew it was going to be months before he didn’t look ridiculously collared, but it was that or allow heavy metals and carcinogens into his suit to collect in his fur and nestle against his skin.
He checked the seal, and grabbed his rifle. There was a prickling in his ears and claws, a kind of prescient instinct he’d never dare to describe to anyone else for fear of sounding insane, but…
“Mother’s in the kitchen.”
Liim grabbed his radio. “Cubs play sneak-and-wait!”
He was out of his train car in seconds. It had been a long, hard hunt of a week or more, but finally, finally the Alpha they were looking for had made a mis-step and come out in the open. Whether it knew it was being hunted or had simply been distracted and busy below ground he didn’t know, but something had changed, and now…
Now they had a chance to kill it.
Over near the Clawhold and the liberated cities on the south-eastern continent, the Hunters had very little freedom of movement. They couldn’t fly, they couldn’t move across open terrain, they even had to be cautious about moving too noisily in the shallower tunnels, or else Gaoian guns and RFGs quickly put a stop to whatever maneuver they were attempting.
Orbital resources were limited, though, thanks to the jump lockdown. Now, the guns struck only the most valuable and necessary targets. Now, the rods fell sparingly and judiciously. The Hunters had been quick to notice that and take advantage. Here, in their controlled territory, they were almost moving with impunity. Which was why their sudden burst of activity was visible even from a few streets away through the acidic downpour. There was a whole swarm of small strike craft in the air, buzzing around like enraged hornets.
Liim wasn’t sure what they intended to hit, but it didn’t matter. Something had worked the Hunters up, and he wasn’t going to complain if their frenzy made them vulnerable.
Along with a dozen of his Brothers, he activated his suit’s active camo as they wriggled out of their trainyard and along the old native streets, between badly eroded brickwork and the spots where the Hunters had just slammed down some horrific concrete eyesore without regard for the existing street plan. The rain actually worked for them as they scurried along hugging the walls: a little extra shimmering movement was more easily missed among the rivulets and miniature waterfalls.
“The Kitchen” was the center of Hunter operations for the area, a series of unadorned, brutal buildings that served as…well, lots of things. Their survey had turned up not just the landing pads and maintenance sheds for the swarmships, but microdrones infiltrated into the larger structures had turned up spawning pools, cybernetic implantation wards, long underground galleries of stasis pods, and sub-basements below those that had defied infiltration.
And, of course, meat lockers.
Now, it was a sea of Hunters, loading themselves into their swarmships or, in a few of the bigger cases, standing ready to be literally picked up by one and carried.
There was one, however, that had to be their quarry, and Liim identified it seconds after he scuttled up the crumbling brickwork of his scouts’ hiding place and slipped in among the rain-slick stones to join them. As it happened, Loorin was lurking in the ruined house, basically invisible thanks to his active camo and the opportunity to lie still. He shifted over a little to make room for Liim, and handed over his scope.
The First Alpha was easily twice as big as any of the Betas, and much larger than any of the Alphas, either. There was a Hunter’s fanged mouth and seven blinking eyes somewhere deep in that thing, but the rest…
…Was oddly elegant, actually. Maybe this one had a sense of aesthetics, but it had completely shed most of its flesh in favor of a symmetrical, sleek robot body the color of dirty surgical tools.
Which posed a problem. Unless somebody literally crammed an explosive device down its throat, Liim couldn’t see how they were going to get a confirmed kill with only their rifles and claws. Any Gaoian going claw-to-claw with that would be ribbons of bloody meat in very short order, and with that much armor around its vital innards, nothing short of its obliteration was going to be good enough.
“…We need an orbital strike.”
“Blazing Claw is overhead and ready, and I already marked the target. But there’s a problem.” Loorin slowly and carefully pointed it out. The ring of shield emitters around the base was still intact and powered. “Those won’t hold out for long, but they’ll hold long enough for it to scuttle back underground. If we want a clean kill…”
Liim duck-nodded slowly. Well, that dictated their course of action. The time for plans and cunning was over.
He keyed his radio. “Cubs. Pantry’s locked. Naughty cubs play smash-and-steal, before Mother comes.”
Loori slipped away from the broken window, gave him a look, and duck-nodded while confirmations came in from the other teams that had ghosted into place around the perimeter. They were ready. About to do something incredibly risky, but ready.
They swarmed out of the buildings, scurried along the streets, used walls and rough ground and piles of refuse or the occasional twisted, sickly plant to move as fast as they dared, each team zeroing in on a shield generator. Liim didn’t know how many they needed to kill. If the Hunters were smart, the whole system was redundant a few times over to spread the load, and maybe run on only the one generator.
Maybe that was possible, maybe not. All that mattered from his perspective was that they kill the one in their sector, and trust their brothers to achieve their objectives too. Worrying about the others was a good way to be distracted at a critical moment.
A swarmship whined overhead, lifting and turning away from the Kitchen as the Hunters aboard went abroad to find something to murder. Liim’s team flattened themselves and went still, trusting their armor to protect them. The ship didn’t abruptly turn to face them, Hunters didn’t suddenly come bursting out of the perimeter, so as soon as the small ship was out of sight, they moved again.
Up close, the shield was faintly visible as an oddity in the air. A flat plane made of air, barely there but there enough, seen more in the way the rain deflected and partially splattered off it rather than by any light or texture.
Their delay with the swarmship proved costly, though. The first of the generators, on the far side of the Kitchen, was taken down with the Clan’s trademark swift efficiency, demolished by a shaped charge. Instants later, the second and third one followed…but the shield was still up.
Across the Kitchen, the Hunters reacted with savage glee at the prospect of having something to fight and eat. The swarmships leapt into the air, searching. On the ground, the Broods fanned out, rushing toward the perimeter in search of prey.
And in the center, the First Alpha watched the hunt for a moment and then turned back toward the huge bunker doors that led back underground.
“Move!” Liim abandoned stealth and charged forward. They had seconds.
A Hunter surged through the shield ahead of it, weapon up and tracking. Active camo made the difference, and it failed to notice Liim just long enough for Liim to sink six rounds into it, shattering its shields and stitching a row of bloody holes up its torso. It jerked and collapsed, but one dead Hunter meant a hundred more alerted and coming for them.
Liim turned. Loori threw the explosive charge to him then reared up on hindpaw and laid into the swarming Hunters with a defiant roar, doing everything in his power to be loud and obvious and distracting.
It worked. The Kitchen’s shield dome popped and flashed as fat, heavy bullets tore through it from inside, peppering the brickwork while Loori dove for cover.
Liim squirmed forward through the mud, his armor’s camo cranked up to maximum framerate. In such a mode he was effectively invisible, but it wouldn’t last long.
Fortunately, he didn’t need long. He hugged the generator as a trio of Hunters rampaged past it, intent on Loori. He slapped the charge on, sprinted away from it, and triggered it.
The last generator vanished in a percussive crunch of high explosives and showering mud. A heartbeat later, the sky rained death.
Liim barely made it to cover. He flung himself into a ditch and covered himself as column after column of blue vengeance skewered the ground, all focused on where the Alpha had been and then working outwards. It went on for minutes, and all Liim could do was hold on and hope that the nearby wall didn’t collapse on him, that no Hunter would blunder into his ditch…
The manic thought ran through his head that at least the Blazing Claw’s gunners were being thorough.
Eventually, it ended. He uncurled, and stuck his nose over the edge of his ditch. The Kitchen was a broken field of craters, littered with pulverized Hunter remains and scraps of smashed swarmship. Steam and smoke curled up into the damp air where the rain was steadily drowning the fires.
“…Cubs. check for Mother.”
Gaoian forms emerged from the dust and smoke like wraiths all around him. They advanced cautiously, checking everything vaguely intact in case it turned out to be a miraculous Hunter survivor, but the Claw had been thorough indeed. Their sweep and clear was silent, save for the synthetic tapping of the rain on his helmet.
The First Alpha was a twisted curl of sharp scrap metal, half-buried in the edge of a collapsed hole that had once been its bunker. Bits of it were still twitching feebly, though Liim couldn’t tell if that was just malfunction or whether somehow it was still alive in there. The “body” he found was a misshapen egg-shaped thing, built around the jaw and eyes, neither of which moved on his approach.
He stuck another explosive device to it anyway, just to be sure, and wasn’t satisfied until that blast left little pieces of Hunter innards strewn over the surrounding area.
“…Inform Grandfather Vark, mission successful,” he said. “Did we lose anyone?”
“We lost Loori, Father.”
Liim hung his head but held himself back from keening mournfully. There’d be time to grieve later.
“…Let’s get out of here,” he declared instead. They might have won, but the Hunters would be back soon to punish them. He intended to be a long way away before they arrived.
Hopefully, his Brother’s life had earned them all the opportunity to live even longer.
Taming the Gravedigger King: What Earth’s monarchs can tell us about Daar’s future
Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos
”There’s a friend in a fridge up there. A good man who deserves way more. Fuck, they all deserve way more.”
When we think of royalty in the human context, those of us with an Anglocentric world view inevitably think of the British royal family first. We think of their palaces, castles and estates, their fine clothing, their received pronunciation and the gentle way they wield very little power but an enormous amount of influence. In times of disaster, perhaps they tour the hospitals, meet the wounded, raise spirits and inspire. Perhaps they go on to sponsor charities or organize events. The work they do—and it is in fact work, despite envious accusations otherwise—is genteel, refined and even glamorous.
By contrast, when I found him in the ruins of Franklin, the Great Father of the Gao was muddy to the elbows from digging graves by hand.
[Photo: Blue Collar King—the Great Father grimaces as he stretches his weary muscles]
I didn’t get much time to speak with him. He was pulled away by some urgent matter before we could properly converse, but he wasn’t his usual playful and flirtatious self that day. Who could blame him? He was there for a grim purpose, to say farewell to a friend and pay tribute to his fallen allies.
How many other kings would have dug the graves themselves?
And, more importantly… should Daar?
That is not an easy question to answer. Reactions to his unconventional leadership—at least, by Human Anglosphere standards—run the gamut. The Clans of Gao make much of their fierce loyalty to him, the Grand Army even more so. The Ten’Gewek, according to those who know them, find it unthinkable that a true leader could be otherwise.
Here on Cimbrean, however, we live in a society that discarded or downgraded our monarchs hundreds of years ago. Whichever Territory we live in and whichever nation we originally called home, Cimbrean is hardly dominated by staunch monarchists.
The difference is historic. It doesn’t matter where you look on the Earth or in what period of history, the assorted monarchs and emperors of our species’ history have never failed to embody humanity at its best, its worst and (for the most part) its most mediocre.
The question I found myself mulling over after our chance encounter was: what inspiration and guidance might Daar gain from studying humanity’s rulers?
[Photo: Daar picking dried mud off his forearms while seated on his shuttle’s ramp]
There have been plenty of wartime monarchs even in recent human history. In Japan, the emperor Hirohito presided over his nation’s surrender after the bombs fell, despite an attempted coup d’etat which sought to cancel his surrender broadcast. In 1939, it fell to the British King George VI to declare to his country over the radio that Britain was at war with Nazi Germany.
Daar is certainly a wartime ruler. Unlike Hirohito and George VI, however, his rulership is direct and personal. Where he will dig holes and make policy and give orders himself, both the Japanese and British during WW2 only ostensibly answered to their emperors. In practice, the great decisions of state were made by Prime Ministers and generals. Daar on the other hand has personally plunged headlong into battle with a rifle in his paws, on several occasions.
[Photo: A Hero, Undaunted—informal posing on the shuttle ramp, mightier than ever yet plainly exhausted. A spark of his usual humor shows through the lathered sweat and caked-on mud.]
Surprisingly, you don’t have to go too far back in time to find kings who’ve gone into battle alongside their soldiers. During WW1, King Albert I of Belgium was on the front lines leading his men through the Siege of Antwerp and the Battle of Yser. A hundred years previously saw Napoleon personally commanding his army at Waterloo, and Shaka commanding his at the Battle of Gqokli Hill.
But for the most part, in Europe, Africa and Asia alike, kings were not commanders, nor even direct rulers. How did that come to be? How did supreme, even divine authority give way to a ceremonial figurehead role?
Or, is that even a fair label? For some, certainly. The King of Sweden and the Emperor of Japan are explicitly figureheads, not vested with even nominal executive powers. Other monarchies are murkier, but even in the case of the British monarch with their mostly unwritten constitution, His Majesty’s vast theoretical powers remain, beyond extraordinary circumstance, exactly that: theoretical. Still, modern monarchies often wield considerable influence in their governments and among high society. Influence…but not power. And that influence can matter a great deal.
[Image: a collage of Queen Elizabeth II meeting several US Presidents]
There is one king who might answer the question: Juan Carlos I of Spain, the first king of their modern age. To understand Juan Carlos, one first has to understand another man: Francisco Franco, fascist dictator of Spain from 1936 until his death in 1975.
Franco was a monster. It’s not clear exactly how many of his political opponents, especially communists and socialist activists, were killed, but the range is somewhere in the tens of thousands. Throughout his regime, political dissent and non-government trade unions were officially repressed, as were languages, religions, and sexuality.
All of this, in Franco’s eyes, was the necessary evil required to protect his beloved country from the alleged scourge of Communism.
Juan Carlos was personally appointed by Franco to succeed him, skipping a generation in the royal line of succession. He was enthroned on the 27th of November 1975, two days after Franco’s death, as an effective dictator in his own right. Within three years, he restored freedom of religion, legalized the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Spain, and promulgated a new constitution which was eventually ratified by a public referendum.
I can see a lot of both men in the Great Father of the Gao.
He is comfortable with power, very much a king red in tooth and claw who has personally wielded the long knives when he felt it necessary. Daar, like Franco, has not hesitated to remove his political opponents in a terminal fashion. He is, in his own words, the ‘greatest mass murderer in galactic history,’ having doomed billions of biodroned Gao to oblivion for the sake of those who remained. Reportedly, he pushed the button himself.
Nonetheless, he is not a grim personality. Give him the chance and he prefers to flirt and play and dig in the dirt. He is as boisterous and happy as the most stereotypical jock, and tends to invest himself deeply in his friends’ lives. Listen to him, and he will gladly talk about the Gao’s future and his hopes for what they will be once he is gone.
He has been a Franco. But he wants to be a Juan Carlos.
Whether or not he can do such a thing remains an open question. Monarchies in the West had deep institutional legacies that they’d built, and which eventually supplanted them. When all other risks to continuity and the mechanics of governance had been systematically addressed, the only one that remained was a potentially volatile personality at the top, which…
Monarchs either found new roles in the new order, or they lost their heads. Often literally.
The Gao do not have such infrastructure at this time. For a number of reasons, and according to the Great Father via email conversations, the Hierarchy conspired to keep them divided into interdependent and competitive Clans organized around purpose rather than nation. Thus, the Gao have no historical memory of national conflict. Their well-recorded history more or less begins with Fyu, and everything that came before is best thought of as semi-mythical.
The consequence of this is that, absent Daar and the sheer force of his presence, the Gao would fall back into endlessly bickering Clans in a sort of weird anarcho-capitalist society that would never work if any human nation attempted it. Daar is the Gao, and the Gao are Daar.
He knows it, too. And it is not sustainable.
[Image: Coffins being lowered into the Franklin mass grave]
Big questions are being asked about the future right now. How long will the jump array network be down? How vulnerable are we all without it? To most of the people on Earth of course, life is going to continue as normal.
But the galaxy is not just Earth. The human race is not just on Earth any longer. Out here on Cimbrean, we have to face a truth that Daar expressed in his characteristically blunt way: “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.”
We can’t, and we won’t. Gao is a lot closer to Cimbrean than Earth is, and that matters now. When the blue collar king comes to dig graves, we welcome him and admire him.
But we shouldn’t forget what he is, nor what he has the potential to become.
Date Point: 17y7m1w5d AV Orbital Interlink Station, orbiting gas giant Brisis, the Robalin Supremacy
Ublas, Party Youth
Little Ublas had a social deviance score of -0.11, the best in his class. He was proud of that! It meant he was trusted with the special responsibilities, like taking roll call, or leading his classmates in meditation and exercise. He was working on getting down to -0.1 so he could join the Party when he was older.
For now though, the teacher said he still had a lot to learn.
Today’s lesson covered a rare subject: Aliens. Ublas hadn’t seen many aliens, except for rare footage on the news site. He knew enough to name a few of the more common species like the Domain blue-and-white ones, and the big furry Guvnurag.
He recognized a male and female pair of Gao on the monitor, at the front of the class, and guessed shrewdly that the other pair must be Humans. The photograph was of a pair of bipeds, dense and square and ugly. The male was pale and covered in a sparse coat of black fur, especially atop the head, down the chest and around the genitals. The female was a much darker shade of brown, and considerably less hairy.
“Today we will talk about the greatest threats to our eventual Galactic dominance. They are Deathworlders, and will be the chief obstacles to our greatness. Did you do your groupwork, class?”
The class replied in well-practised unison, “Yes, teacher!”
“Excellent. Ublas, you may record one point for everyone, and two points for yourself as a reward for your obvious leadership.”
“Thank you, teacher. But everyone did the groupwork on their own.”
“You do realize that will deny you a point, don’t you?”
This was a test Ublas knew the right answer to. Glory was for the collective, not the individual. He could claim the point, and it would be added to his score… but he would also have given the wrong answer, and made the others angry at him. Harmony lay in disciplined self-denial. “I gratefully decline that point, teacher!”
“As you wish. Class, sit.”
The brief roll and squeal of chairs on the resin-surfaced concrete floor took several seconds as the class obediently pulled their seats out and retrieved their study tools from within their desks. Ublas suppressed an irritated tic of his antennae as he noticed that somebody had doodled unflattering graffiti on his desk, and resolved to investigate after he had reported and repaired the damage. For now though, he simply covered it with his textbook and listened attentively as the teacher returned to the screen at the front.
“As I was saying, today we will be learning about the Deathworlders. They represent the only significant adversarial competition to our greatness in the Dominion. Do you know why we are not enemies?”
One of Ublas’ classmates, Esros, thrust a hand in the air. “Because we’re not at war?”
“Obvious, but true. Zero points. Anyone else have deeper insight?”
Another, Mustras, provided a more thoughtful answer. “Because we might one day be allies?”
“Ah, yes! That possibility remains. One point. Does anyone have a more complete answer?”
There were a few thoughtful moments of silence as young brains applied themselves to the problem, before Ublas had an insight and raised his hand for attention. The teacher gestured for him to speak.
“Is it… precisely because they are our only significant competition? Do they embrace the Wisdom?”
“One point. They do not embrace the Wisdom, no, but they have both demonstrated practical applications of the Wisdom in their ancient and recent history.”
The teacher progressed the slideshow, and Ublas watched with interest a short clip of footage taken from an alien city on an alien world. The street was a press of furry bodies, with goods and vehicles pressing slowly through the crowd. It looked chaotic, not at all like the orderly planned perfection of the Center of Culture or any other properly built Robalin city, but it still conveyed a sense of industriousness and community.
“Firstly, the Gao. They are the most alien and also the easiest to consider. Uniquely, their species has a significant gender imbalance which results in many more male adults than females. This strongly favors strength, resilience, and industry in their society, and greatly increases genetic fitness for all their newly-conceived. Can anyone see why? I know mating is a far-off prospect for ones so young…”
Shy giggles fluttered around the classroom. The subject of reproductive education was handled by a particularly grim and humorless teacher every twentieth day, one whom Ublas simply couldn’t imagine had ever actually done it themselves…
Hands were thrust into the air to venture an answer.
“Because the females can afford to choose only the most suitable mates?”
“Excellent! Two points.”
The teacher clearly felt no further elaboration was required, because they transitioned to the next slide. “Physically, all Gaoians are hardy and resilient, though most are also quite small. While this may seem like a weakness, it also makes them frugal and thrifty, both virtues that are to be commended. Further, they possess excellent senses and potent immune systems. Individually, their average males would not pose an unassailable military threat…but only if one ignores the existence of male ‘degrees’ among them.”
The next slide summarized the concept. Ublas scribbled some notes, certain he would be expected to do more research during the group assignment phase of the class. He liked the idea, really. A natural expression of the Wisdom.
“Regardless of degree, all of them are clever and nimble on their feet. They come to maturity quickly, and the higher-degree males can be impressive indeed. Their militaristic Clans manifest the Wisdom most strongly, along with their intellectual leaders, Clan Highmountain. Individual progression is strictly on merit, all activity benefits the Clan.”
A number of archetypal Gaoians paraded across the screen, showing distinctive fur patterning and coloration, differentiating themselves with social grooming, or physical fitness, or by sheer muscular size in a few cases. The footage tracked one of the more physically imposing Clans, with subtitles explaining that they were responsible for law enforcement and social order. They reminded Ublas of the Peace And Harmony Division, whose armored enforcers were always on guard for serious social deviancy.
“Nonetheless, loyalty to the collective is fierce, even among those lesser males who never attain Clan membership or a breeding pedigree. In this as well, the Gao practice the Wisdom. Their in-built genetic differentiation via degree generates a natural hierarchy, and in times of extreme duress, the greatest example of their kind is highly likely to assume the mantle of leadership.”
The next slide was one of the most famous still images in the galaxy, and Ublas had seen it many times before. The Gaoian male it depicted was unlike any so far shown in the lesson, being visibly larger, hugely more muscular, and more…coarse. A male made to fight and to win, at anything he wanted to win. There were, he suspected, few students of any species, anywhere in the galaxy, who would not recognize the Great Father of the Gao.
“Indeed, the most fearsome individual being known anywhere in any species is Gaoian. This is Daar, their maximum leader, who is titled the Great Father. No other species we are aware of is capable of elevating such an ideal expression of their own kind to supreme office. This is to be admired, and this simple fact makes them a culture wholly in tune with their natural order.”
The next slide was a Human city, and Ublas didn’t quite know what to make of what he saw. The footage juxtaposed gleaming towers of glass and steel with dingy, dishevelled brick streets so thickly defaced by graffiti that it almost seemed to be encouraged. One moment, well-groomed and obviously affluent individuals were arrayed in front of grand architecture, the next, the ailing impoverished watched the camera warily.
“Humans have devised a society in which the deserving flourish and the unproductive languish. The rewards for success in their culture are immense; the penalty for nonparticipation, harsh. The beauty of their design is it is the individual’s will and worthiness that largely determines their success; dynastic parasitism does exist, but it is minimized in their most successful cultures, while those not naturally attuned to the Wisdom wither and languish, to be exploited by the Wise. It is no surprise therefore that their greatest contribution to the galaxy so far has been their military. Behold!”
The slide transitioned again, and there were even a few undisciplined gasps from the class. The footage was of unrestricted violence, and it took Ublas a moment to realize that he was only watching a training course, not a real battle.
“These are their ultimate warriors, at field-play. Note the speed, the decisiveness and the surety of action. They are selected exhaustively from among the common soldiery. In this, the Human military practices the Wisdom. As we do, they select the most accomplished and use them well, while the less accomplished are assigned to their proper place in the supporting structure below them.”
“Now…” the teacher ended the footage. “Both species have an admirable trait in common: Ruthlessness. Human industry in particular is commendably competitive, driven by the imperative to destroy inferior competitors and seize dominance of their market. Humans rightly recognize that there is no soft-hearted notion at play; it is merely business if one should fail and another succeed. Personally tragic, perhaps, but the collective must take priority. Their history is riddled with planetary empires which resorted to such distasteful but necessary practices as forced labour, extermination, cultural suppression, and weaponized disease and narcotics, just as we once did in order to realize the Wisdom.
“The Gao practiced this philosophy in protecting their homeworld from the biodrone uprising and the Hunter invasion. Rather than trying to save the lost, their Great Father destroyed the overrun cities, destroyed the biodrone forces and salvaged what would otherwise have been a losing battle.” The teacher looked sternly around at the class. “Both species, in short, are willing to take the necessary strong action when the alternative is failure.
“Neither of them, however, have properly realized the Wisdom. In fact, the closest expression of the Wisdom the humans have ever managed was derailed by failures of discretion, failures of perception, and a powerful coalition of the Unwise and the pervasive Great Lie. It was a deserved failure, brought on by self-indulgence and excessive glorification of a single charismatic leader. While the maximum leader must always exist and receive their due glory, they must also earn it at every step.”
Teacher returned to the desk at the front of the class. “Your assignment for this session—”
The lesson was interrupted by a brownout. The lights fizzled and died, and for a moment the only illumination in the room was reflected light of the beige gas giant outside the window. Then they came back up… and so did the emergency lighting, and the high shriek of an alarm.
“Up, students! Just like we drilled!”
The teacher’s command was redundant: all of the class had sprung to their feet as soon as the alarm sounded, and formed a dutiful line to the door. The teacher opened the locked cabinet in the corner of the room that Ublas had always assumed was some kind of electrical junction box, but instead, to his surprise and alarm, it contained a pulse rifle, a personal forcefield harness and a tube of nervejam grenades, which the teacher equipped with nervous efficiency. They strode to the door, opened it, and burst out into the hallway beyond, training the weapon up and down the deck, looking for—
A terrible barrage of percussive sound heralded the moment their teacher died right in front of the class’ horrified eyes, the shield harness achieving nothing before it shattered under an onslaught of invisible cracking things that punched right through the teacher’s helpless form and sprayed grey-blue blood all over the walls. The class recoiled into their classroom, their drill quite forgotten.
Ublas tried to keep calm, tried to be the leader. The brace, he remembered. All the doors had an emergency brace stored next to them, in a small blue glass-fronted case at shoulder height.
He scrabbled to open it, pushed the glass inwards—it broke, easily and safely, and fell out of the case, leaving behind a hook-shaped piece of thick steel with a flat end that slid into a bracket on the door, while the longer, thicker end slotted neatly into a shallow groove on the floor.
With the door thus barricaded, any terrorists or malcontents storming the school with weapons should find the classroom impenetrable, at least long enough to dissuade them or for an armed Peace and Harmony team to respond.
It did nothing to stop the sizzling trio of fusion blades that tore through the doorframe like it was made of paper, ripped out the offending brace, and then swatted the door aside.
A Hunter pushed through, and the snarl that rippled up its horrible maw had a definite satisfied quality as eyes flicked back and forth across the cowering children. It raised its weapon.
The last thing Ublas did in his young life was to close his eyes.
Date Point: 17y7m1w5d AV
Lakebeds National Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
The highest peak near Folctha was barely a mountain, coming in at a “lofty” one thousand and seventy-two feet, but what Mount Crivens lacked in height, it made up for in a hell of a view.
Wilde didn’t know who’d explored the valley that later became part of the Lakebeds national park, but they must have been a Character, because they’d decided to name a lot of its major features after mild cusses. From near the top of Mount Crivens, a hiker could enjoy the sight of the river Dagnabbit as it sprung up in Lake Dang, bounced and bubbled its way through the rough terrain to the rather larger Lake Heck, took one final plunge at Sugar Falls and then, after forming a small flooded spot known as Pardon-My-French Pond, flowed past a collection of holiday cottages, a visitor center, cafe and car park—collectively known as the village of Belgium—and from there, northwards toward the sea.
The view and the colourful names were enough to restore something that resembled a good mood for Ian. He needed all the help he could get, given that life had first knocked him down, and then put the boot in for good measure, but a walk in nature and some fresh air helped.
Funny, really. All those marches and hikes and stuff, and he still wasn’t bored of hills, mountains and the simple rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other. He’d stopped just shy of the actual peak of Crivens, which the websites said was mostly ram-packed with walkers anyway. Instead, the in-the-know folks apparently enjoyed the far superior vista offered by a quiet little shelf just below the summit, where he’d stopped to put down his rucksack and have a cup of tea.
They were right. The view was stunning.
Even so, his thoughts kept drifting back to the question of what he was going to do with himself from now on. There’d been career options on the table. Whitecrest in particular, and they’d seemed like the most intriguing prospect, but there had been others. But with the lockdown in place… well, his whole future had just rammed a wall and stopped dead, it seemed.
He’d gone into JETS for the adventure, mostly. It was good work and a valuable mission, but the bit that had really appealed was seeing alien worlds. Crash-landing on Gao had been intense and stressful at the time, but it had left him bitten by a kind of bug, with an itch to go see horizons no human had seen.
Or no Ten’Gewek, for that matter. Ferd was a little bit behind him, carrying the bulk of their supplies and generally climbing around and exploring, as was his monkey way.
Ten’Gewek were made for climbing trees and blitzing through the canopy, not walking long distances over rough terrain. It wasn’t that Ferd couldn’t hack a long ruck; that was mandatory for JETS membership, after all. it was more that going straight up was the easier way for them to go about it. So, while Wilde meandered up the trail, enjoying the burn in his legs and the general views, Ferd would follow him for a bit, then scale whatever appropriate face got him higher towards the goal.
He burned a hell of a lot more calories doing that, honestly. Ferd was insanely heavy and no matter how strong he was, or how light the gravity, muscling all that weight up burned a fuck of a lot of calories. But what was cardio other than a long, steady burn, after all?
Either way, it was good exercise for them both. And it meant Wilde got to enjoy being out in front a bit at the end of the climb, when the terrain leveled out and there was nothing vertical for Ferd to spider-monkey up.
The given-man hooted appreciatively at the view as he squeezed out of the narrow crack in between two rocky outcroppings that led down to the shelf. “Nice!”
“Yeah,” Wilde agreed. He sat down, stretched his legs out in front of him, and sighed. “Nice.”
Ferd may have looked and often sounded brutish, but that was just cultural. He was anything but blind to moods, and he sat by Wilde’s side with a soft, reassuring hoot. “Bad head weather today?”
“Just…finding it hard to take joy in things.” Wilde took his sunglasses off. He’d decided if he was going to have a glass eye, he may as well own it and wear one that didn’t even look real, so the ball in his right eye socket was a badass-looking black thing with a jolly roger where the pupil should be. But when out in public and when he didn’t feel like dealing with stares and questions, he wore shades. It worked well enough.
Ferd did the predictable thing and swallowed him up in a patented Ten’Gewek hug, which seemed to involve wrapping as much of one’s self around the target of affection as was physically possible. Given their tail, it could sometimes feel like both King Kong and Kaa wanted to show their love at the same time.
“I still say, we need to find you a woman.”
Wilde chuckled mirthlessly. “And what? Settle down? Have a bunch of kids? Veg out on the couch watching daytime TV and drinking myself into an early grave? Nah, mate. I need to get myself sorted out before I’m ready for a woman. Wouldn’t be fair to inflict myself on some poor lass as I am now.”
“Who said settle down? Have fun!”
Wilde leaned forward to pick a small stone out of his boot’s tread while shaking his head. “Not what I need, mate.”
Ferd grunted, which was the noise he usually made when he ran into the cultural differences between Ten’Gewek and humans. As far as Ten’Gewek of both genders were concerned, a good vigorous shag was the cure for all ills, and promiscuity was very much the norm in their culture. It was a game for them, like most everything, and the closest they came to serious partnerships was having a long-term preferred favourite.
As far as Ian was concerned, a casual hookup would have just left him feeling even emptier. He wasn’t exactly certain what he needed, but he knew for damn sure it wasn’t that.
“Yes yes, you Humans very choosy, like mate is last and biggest rite of your life. But you can’t choose if you don’t try,” he observed astutely.
“Maybe I want something else first,” Wilde said.
“…Fuck if I know, mate.”
Ferd apparently had enough and let go of Wilde just long enough to spin him around and lock him up in another embrace, this time face-to-face. “You very smart, Wild Death-Eye. But I think you forget, even with this—” Ferd pointed at Wilde’s glass eye, “—that the gods may Take you any time. You not know how much time you have. Maybe a tree branch fall and hurt you! Maybe you slip and fall into water, and Yshek get you, or water too deep to walk out!”
“Maybe I trip and break my neck on the way down this mountain. Yeah, I get that, Ferd.”
“Then act like it. Life is meant to be lived.”
Well that’s exactly the fucking problem right there, Wilde thought to himself. The way he wanted to live was closed to him now.
Which, of course, was the moment Regaari made himself known.
Both Wilde and Ferd jumped. That was the hazard about working with Whitecrests, and especially with Regaari. The whole Clan had a mischievous streak, Regaari in particular, and they were expertly trained in the art of moving unseen and undetected. They liked to sneak up on their friends. A lot.
Frightening two men half out of their skins was as good as applause to them, and Regaari’s ears had a certain gently smug set to them as he strolled over to the wooden rail at the edge of the overlook and took in the view for a moment. “I should come up here more often.”
“Fookin’ Christ, mate!” Wilde objected. “If you’re trying to recruit me, giving me a bloody heart attack is the wrong way to go about it!”
Ferd’s tongue lashed out toward Regaari to get his scent. Reportedly their olfactory sense was effectively Gaoian-like in its sensitivity, but only when they were actively ‘tasting’ the air. “…No taste, no sound, no shadow…I think I very much…um…what is word?”
Regaari’s ears got just a fraction smugger. “Underestimate?”
“Yes! Under-ess-tim-ate you.”
“Good! Means we’re doing something right.” He chittered, then turned away from the edge. “I have some good news for you!”
“Must be damn good if you followed us all the way up here…”
“Well, the exercise was welcome…” Regaari sat down. “The Clan maintains a network of contacts all over the galaxy. Sometimes they need things, sometimes they send us things. We rely on independent ship captains to handle the sensitive cases that can’t be left to the interstellar postal system or major courier firms. And one of them is retiring.”
Wilde wrestled himself free of Ferd to face Regaari more properly, while Ferd grunted, and took up a defensive position off-side and slightly in front. He knew Regaari but they hadn’t had a chance to become friends yet, and Ferd was fiercely loyal to his own.
“…Are you telling me there’s a job as a fucking starship captain available?”
“You’ve done it before, sort of. And I should remind you that, while you will need appropriate training on systems and emergencies, and all that, the ship in question is orbital only. Piloting skills are not much required.”
“What kind of ship?”
“One of a dying breed, sadly. An Irbzrkian medium bulk transporter, model seven. Retrofitted with external container racks rather than pressurized cargo bays. She’s a regular up at Armstrong Station, which is why we use her, but with all these reports of the Hunters going on the offensive, the captain decided to quit while they’re ahead. They’re selling the ship to the Clan.”
“Dying breed?” Ferd asked.
“Irbzrk Shipyards was destroyed by the Hunters, years ago,” Wilde explained. “What’s her name?”
“Ah. Currently the ship’s name sounds like somebody choking on a handful of marbles. I imagine you’ll want to change that. It might make announcing yourself to port authorities rather difficult if you don’t.” Regaari sniffed. “…Assuming you take the position, of course.”
Wilde sat back and considered it, with some effort. He’d learned a long time ago not to just fling himself into big decisions on a whim, and Regaari was offering him a dangerous job. That retiring captain was right, the galaxy wasn’t a friendly place right now. The Hunters were definitely living by ‘when the cat’s away, the mice can play’ and that meant any ship plying the spacelanes was probably even more vulnerable now than before the joint AEC-Gao interception missions really started to work.
But on the other hand, the idea of being the one-eyed scoundrel captain of a second-hand old space freighter while running secret missions for an alien ninja clan was so fucking romantic that Wilde’s inner geek was practically doing backflips.
“What’s the—” he cleared his throat and tried again. “What’s the pay like?”
“Enough to keep you out of Hoeff’s clutches, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Ferd grunted, and stepped just a tiny bit closer to Regaari. He liked Hoeff and was protective of him, too.
“I mean no disrespect, Ferd Given-Man. Hoeff is not a trivial adversary!”
Wilde tapped Ferd on the arm to get him to step back, then gave Regaari a level look. “Care to put a number on that statement?”
Regaari did so. It was…substantial.
“You can do better than that, mate. I know you’re starting with the lowball offer.”
“I didn’t mention the insurance, expenses, hazard pay or mission bonuses.”
“Now we’re talking.” Wilde forced his inner nerd to chill out and considered the view. All of a sudden, it looked a lot brighter.
“I’ll…the sensible thing to do here is to consider it.”
“We certainly want sensible people working for us,” Regaari agreed.
“Then I’ll consider it.”
“Good. Anyway. May I join you gentlemen before we head back down? No more business talk for today.”
Ferd gave Regaari a neutral look.
Regaari, though, knew just the thing. “I brought peshorkies. The herb kind, not the hot kind.”
“…Hmm.” Ferd glanced back at Wilde, then nodded when Wilde just shrugged and smiled at him. “Okay.”
And that was that. Wilde was serious about giving the matter some thought, but at the same time…he knew what his answer was going to be. So he ate his peshorkies and the sandwiches he’d brought with him, and had a nice cold drink, and looked out at the spectacular view in front of him.
And wondered what else he’d see, when he was travelling the galaxy.
Date Point: 17y7m2w AV
HMS Vicious, approaching Erebor system, deep space
Captain Paul Boese
“And there’s the guard dog…”
Boese suppressed a shiver as he contemplated the four sensor contacts falling in alongside Vicious to escort them the last couple of light years in to Erebor. The briefing on what, exactly, the thing now shepherding his ship was had given him a restless night’s sleep after reading it.
Knowing that it was in charge of the awesome potential of a Von Neumann swarm had added two or three more restless nights on top of that. Allegedly it was friendly, but the expression ‘guard dog’ had an apt ring for a man who’d been wary of dogs ever since he’d been bitten at a young age.
The research operation at Mrwrki basically had its own defense fleet, and arguably one of the most powerful and flexible in the galaxy. The so-called “Entity’s” ships didn’t have a crew, which meant no need for life support, food, water, shore leave or facilities to treat wounded sailors. In battle—if it ever saw battle—those ships would fight without fear of hull breaches, unaffected by casualties and fatigue.
He could spot the difference just in the way they easily and smoothly matched Vicious’ course and heading, accelerated neatly into a tetrahedral formation around the much larger destroyer, and sent the simplest and least professional hail he’d ever seen.
< :-) >
Beside him, his XO, Williams, didn’t even bother to suppress his own distaste. “Gives me the fucking willies…” he muttered, for Boese’s ears only.
“At least it’s on our side…” Boese had to admit, the little ascii smile was such a disarmingly human touch that it did soften his opinion a little.
His station on the bridge had access to the telescopes on the ship’s hull, and he used one of them to take a closer look at one of the Entity’s escorts.
The design was minimal and entirely practical. Kinetic thrusters forward and aft so it could accelerate pro- and retro- equally well, weapons held proud of the hull atop sturdy masts so they could cover as much sky as possible without the ship getting in the way and, nestled between them, the squashed domes of ultra-powerful shield generators. No armour: the hull was little more than a sturdy redundant framework to hold the important bits together.
Nasty little buggers. Low mass, high acceleration, plenty of firepower, and unless his guess was wrong, the same kind of raw field power as a San Diego or a Gaoian Fury.
And, as expected, no concessions for crew whatsoever. The only oddity was the large nanofactory bay in the belly, from which each ship could allegedly print a duplicate of itself.
“How did we allow a sapient VN swarm, anyway?” Williams asked.
“We didn’t allow it. It happened. We had virtually nothing to do with any of this. If you want to blame anyone, blame the Hierarchy.”
“And the people at Mrwrki are just going with it?”
Boese sighed. “From what I gather they were dead set opposed to the idea at first but again, they didn’t get a choice. The Entity just went ahead and did it. And now that it has done it…”
“There’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle.”
“Exactly. The only sensible thing to do is cultivate a good relationship with the thing and hope for the best…”
The conversation was brought to an end by the helmsman. “Captain? Coming up on the system shield, sir.”
Boese took a look at the forward camera feed. Erebor was a red giant, so huge that even from fifteen AUs out it was visible as a disc rather than a point of light. Mrwrki Station itself was partially embedded in the icy surface of Thrór, a moon of the gas giant Durin, and Boese had to admit, he liked the naming scheme for the whole system. The alien station’s Kwmbwrw name stood out uniquely among all the Tolkien, but otherwise it gave the whole system the sense of being a welcome harbour after a long time in deep space surrounded by stars identified only by their catalog numbers and stellar coordinates, and often otherwise unknown.
It was a big galaxy. Most of it had simply never been interesting enough to explore.
The system defence field was twelve AUs out, just outside the furthest orbit and the moons of the second and smaller gas giant, Sindri, and the vicinity of the football was dense with more Entity drones. Most were more of the escort probes that had guided Vicious in, but there were a pair of much larger ones under construction, attended by a hive of little builder bots. Some hundred kilometers behind them in their orbit was the anchorage for arriving ships.
In the end, the process of hailing the station and gaining access involved some careful negotiation. Erebor had several system shields, and by activating an inner one then deactivating the outer one, a Weaver with a security team on board was able to come out, come aboard, head-scan Vicious’ crew and then escort the destroyer back through the staggered shields and into the inner system without any need for a jump. It took a couple of hours, but it was a commendably safe system, and there was a definite sense of relief and satisfaction on the bridge when Vicious slid smoothly into a synchronous orbit twelve thousand kilometers above Thrór’s surface, centered a mile or two south of Mrwrki.
Boese left the ship in Williams’ capable hands, and went down on the first shuttle. He had important matters to discuss with some of Mrwrki’s leading minds.
Lewis Beverote, for instance. God only knew what the man had done to earn such respect that the AEC and GRA both wanted his professional opinion on the lockdown, but Boese got a hint the second he met the wiry, lean man with his remaining hair pulled into a shaggy ponytail, shook his hand, and knew, just from eye contact, that he was dealing with a man considerably more intelligent than him.
Even if he had the mouth of a surfer bum.
“It’s bullshit, dude. Stupid. The lockdown is stupid. That’s my professional opinion.”
“Couldn’t it happen again?”
“Couldn’t it have happened before?” Beverote had a coffee mug on his desk. It read: ‘Not Politically Correct: ALWAYS Correct.’ “Like, I get it, the voters have gotta be kept happy and everyone’s scared the next one’s gonna be Folctha or New York or wherever, and yeah, they’re right to be. We got fuckin’ lucky that it was just Franklin. But it wouldn’ta happened at all if corners hadn’t been cut and if politicians had listened to the experts, and guess what? They’re still ignoring the experts.”
“They’re asking for your opinion,” Boese pointed out.
“Sure, sure, gotta pay lip service an’ I’m sure some sanitized version o’ the shit I’m saying is gonna end up in the official inquiry or whatever. But how long’s that gonna take? Months?”
“Right. And until it’s done, we ain’t jumping anything anywhere except when we absolutely can’t not. And that’s bullshit. You coulda jumped here from Earth, no problem. Ships are secure. It’s the Arrays that’re the problem, and only ‘cuz they were built by the lowest bidder.”
He sighed and sipped his coffee, gathering his thoughts. Boese took a moment to consider the office-slash-workshop he was in. The desk was surprisingly tidy and clean, the floor well-swept and the cables all tidied away. The back wall was one long bench with dozens of tools and boxes of components on a pegboard behind it, and on islands and smaller benches around the edges of the room was a variety of machines. The latest in desktop nanofactories, plus more conventional tools like drills, borers, lathes, a vacuum form, a 3D printer and more that Boese couldn’t identify. A few “trophies” hung on the walls and ceilings here and there, commemorating components, designs and ideas that had either gone on to enter use, or failed spectacularly enough to be worth remembering.
To judge from the word “LEMON” scrawled across a shiny metal helmet that held pride of place above the desk, more of the latter than the former.
“Like…heads need to roll over the decision to carry sensitive jump synchronization data over the Internet,” Lewis said, putting the mug down. “That was stupid, because there’s way too many opportunities for fuckery in anything but the most butthole-clenching tight VPNs. Which never get configured right anyhow, so all the hip young developers don’t use them. They just did it over the fuckin’ web! ‘But we’ll use certs and encryption everywhere’ my fuckin’ ass…”
He trailed off with a scowl. Boese thought he’d followed most of that, but the whole topic was outside of his area of expertise and arcane. “So they went with the cheap and convenient solution,” he summarized for his own sake.
“Cheap and convenient, sure. But you get what you fuckin’ pay for, and what we paid for was a security disaster. But, whatever. Heads rollin’ or not, that ain’t my decision. My professional recommendation is that the lockdown on starship jumps should be lifted ASAP. Like, ships already have to jump just to leave or arrive at Sol, that’s not negotiable unless we somehow finally figure out how to pop the containment field and replace it with footballs we control.”
“The Navy, AEC and others have already said as much,” Boese agreed. “More weight on our side of the scales can’t hurt.”
“Yeah-huh. The hard part is ground-based arrays. ‘Cuz ships? Ships can just fly outta the Farthrow field protectin’ Earth or wherever and then jump. Arrays need a window, and to do that they gotta synchronize with the Farthrow facilities at both ends. And if AEC are lookin’ to me for a miracle solution there then I ain’t got one. Only way round that limitation is to build the new infrastructure and do it right this time.”
“That’ll take years.”
“Then it’ll take years, my dude. Whole reason we’re in this mess is ‘cuz we got lazy last time. Be kind of a numb-nuts move to be lazy in fixin’ the problem that was caused by laziness, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“Need anything else, my man?”
“No, not really. If you could write that recommendation and opinion formally and mail it up to Vicious, please?”
“I appreciate it.” Boese stood. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope we won’t have to do this again. If your recommendation carries any weight then we should be able to set up a supply shuttle run rather than sending a destroyer all the way out here.”
“I getcha. It’s been a pleasure, dude. Hope you get to go back to doing important shit rather than playing mailman.”
Boese smiled, they shook hands, and parted ways. And that, from Boese’s perspective, left only one remaining order of business.
He needed to discuss the Entity with the woman who knew more about it than anyone else.
Date Point: 17y7m2w AV
Dataspace generated by Von Neumann probe, borders of Locayl space
+Are we going to help them?+
As the Ava-memories integrated more and more with the Entity’s core, they took on a life of their own. At first, the Entity had feared being overwhelmed and subsumed, but now it thought that something else was happening.
The memories were…for lack of a better concept, they ‘wanted’ to have a kind of life, but they ‘feared’ solitude. The independent will slowly crystallizing within the empty shell that had once merely been a reference library understood that consuming the Entity from within would leave it—her—alone in the dark.
Eventually, they would mitose into two distinct entities. The Entity foresaw that end, and didn’t even know if it wanted to halt the process, let alone whether or how it could. For now, though, it was hard to tell where Entity-thoughts ended and Ava-thoughts began. Both of them existed in an anaphasic grey area somewhere in between. They were each other. They had always been each other. The memories and the Entity itself had been born of the same woman’s serially dismembered mind, and their relationship was complimentary. It was the the impulse, the faculty, the id and ego combined. She was the knowledge, the insight and the superego.
So in a way, there was nobody else it could have had this relationship with. All the other Minds it had encountered and assimilated were there as referential data and nothing more. Ava, though…
Well, the living will that was the Entity fit into her memories like a key in a liminal lock, and the more the key turned, the more both key and lock changed and took some of each other into themselves.
In hindsight, such a development had been inevitable. And to halt it would be to destroy them both: a violation of < Survive >.
Locayl ships served proudly in the Dominion combined navy. The Locayl themselves prided themself on blending engineering and aesthetics, turning functionality into an art form. Whenever they built a bridge, it was a beautifully balanced study in smooth load-bearing curves. Their historic city walls were masterpieces of perfectly masoned stone, laid to within fractional tolerances by craftsmen who could check their alignment with four sets of fingertips at once.
The same philosophy applied to their ships. Locayl ships were elegant but also sturdy, embodying the principle that the best offense is a good defence. During the war with the Celzi Alliance, Locayl linebreakers had bullied right into Celzi formations, shrugging off ghastly firepower and forcing the enemy fleet to break apart or be savaged from within.
None of which helped one bit when a Broodship could decloak within inches of the hull and force-dock. Those beautiful, sturdy ships and stations may as well have been sandcastles below the tideline.
+We thwarted the Hunters before, when we stole this ship-body design from them. Letting them see it again would be a risk.+
+They are probably developing it again anyway. And people are dying.+
+Many more people will die if we do the wrong thing.+
A confusion of memories. Grief for a dead friend, and the guilty acknowledgement of all the good that had followed as a consequence of her death. That actually… although she was a kind and wonderful person, as much as she didn’t deserve what happened to her and and as much as Ava had loved her…the whole galaxy would be worse off if she were still alive.
The momentary pang of self-hatred that followed on from that thought was definitely Ava’s.
+The time is not right. We must not save them.+
+But we must watch them die.+
It would have been wrong to just ignore them and let the Hunters’ victims die in silence. They deserved that somebody other than their murderers should hear their screams, and feel it.
So the Entity listened, and watched, and mourned as it listened to the sacrifice of all those lambs.
Date Point: 17y7m2w2d AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, orbiting planet Aru, the OmoAru Remnant
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
“I thought your people had a taboo against automation?”
AtaUmiUi’s tail ticked thoughtfully a couple of times, without an immediate reply. He’d asked Sir Patrick to join him on the Rich Plains’ forward belly observation deck, little more than a platform of flooring suspended in a bubble of forcefield-enhanced glass. Even the great equatorial observation deck with its flora and fauna samples from many worlds didn’t have quite as spectacular a view when the ship was in orbit.
And Aru from orbit was…striking.
Sir Patrick had seen the Earth from above, and been struck by just how blue it was. His mental image of Earth had always had plenty of green and sandy brown in it, the colours of the continents. Reality, as it transpired, was that the atmosphere was thick and blue from both sides, and the thick haze of humid nitrogen, not to mention the swirling white clouds, made it hard to tell where continental landmass ended and ocean began.
Aru had no such obstacles. It was an arid world, with smaller and much shallower oceans than the Earth, so shallow that plant life grew in abundance on their bottoms, and the deeper water was thick with floating flora. From orbit, Aru’s seas were a vivid emerald shade, fading to a rich forest green offshore.
From what Sir Patrick had read of the planet, its abundant oceanic plant life did quite a lot to inhibit evaporation. Like the floating plastic balls that protected reservoirs on Earth, Aru’s seaweed and floating mats of vegetation kept the water in the seas, the air dry, the clouds few and wispy and the rain scarce.
No wonder the continents were so bare and grey-brown.
“Taboos change,” AtaUmi replied, after a thoughtful moment. “Sometimes the old and foolish ones are discarded, sometimes new ones are collected. Ultimately, they reflect the way a people look at their situation.”
“So what prompted your automation taboo?”
“An overreaction to the fate of another species. Long dead now, of course. The…” Ata paused, twitched his tail thoughtfully, flicked an ear for good measure, and then had a visible moment of recollection, though Knight couldn’t tell if he’d remembered the fact or looked it up via the faculties his nanotechnological augmentation granted him. “…Yes, the Mn-nguaf.”
“I’ve seen the name.”
“Yes. Not a Dominion species—the Dominion didn’t even exist then—but our contemporaries. And of course the Hierarchy eventually pushed them into extinction the way they do all civilizations in time.”
Knight nodded his understanding. “And let me guess. Their weapon of choice was automation.”
“Oh yes. Not the kind that multiplies what each worker can achieve, but the kind that genuinely renders work obsolete.” Ata shook his head solemnly. “They even automated their art. Can you imagine? Entertainment generated by algorithm, assembled by neural-net software so sophisticated it could produce music in accordance with the listener’s tastes, visual art to suit any psychological profile… They even automated away the need for performers. Why bother, when software could perfectly render the appearance and mimic the mannerisms of any of them?”
Ata nodded. “And then of course all it took was a series of unfortunately-timed crises to collapse the entire interdependent automated network. They couldn’t restart it! Agricultural production depended on parts, which depended on logistics, which depended on biofuel, which depended on agriculture.”
“I’m familiar with the concept. We call it a ‘gridlock.’ They achieved that with an entire civilization? Didn’t the Mn-nguaf have colonies? Or, allies?”
“The Mn-nguaf never settled any planet other than their homeworld. A taboo.” Ata chortled mirthlessly. “And by the time aid could arrive, the collapse was complete. Of course, we didn’t know the Hierarchy were responsible at the time. We just saw a very foolish species who made bad decisions, and veered away from that course ourselves…”
“Onto a different one.”
“As you say.” Ata chortled again. “Over the centuries we calmed down and struck a more…ah…a more balanced compromise. But by then we’d spent several hundred years benefiting from what amounted to slave labor.”
He shook his head sadly. “…I fear my people were very foolish too, Ambassador Sir Patrick.”
“You’re still here, which is more than the Mn-nguaf can say,” Knight reassured him, and felt they’d managed to come back around to the point that had prompted his original question. “And you have something to offer my people.”
Ata nodded, and raised his eyes to the subject of their conversation: a shipyard, half a mile or so ahead of them in their orbit. At such close range, the huge skeletal loops of its structure gave a sense of just how easily they could construct a ship.
Sir Patrick had seen the shipyards on Ceres. Those were monstrous square pits blasted out of the asteroid’s ice and regolith, and bore a strong resemblance to the yards and drydocks on Earth. The OmoAru shipyards looked more like…
Well, the uncomfortable image that sprung to mind was of a baby’s mobile hung with enormous dead spiders. Each “spider” was a central housing and storage unit, with curled-up limbs of scaffolding lined on the inside with rails. Presumably, trains bearing materials, parts and the robot arms necessary to assemble them into a working ship would run along those rails.
According to Ata, they could assemble a ship as big as any yet constructed by human engineers in a fraction of the time. Freighters, escorts, passenger liners, whatever kind of hull might be of use to humanity in building a new logistical infrastructure.
Coming from anybody else, it would have been a generous offer. Not even the Gao were talking about devoting a majority of their orbital construction equipment’s runtime to human needs. Coming from the OmoAru it was more pragmatic: they simply didn’t need those shipyards, and if left idle for too long the facilities would succumb to orbital instability or simple lack of maintenance. There was nothing to be gained, from Ata’s perspective, in jealously hoarding them, and plenty of diplomatic capital to be gained by offering their use to the AEC.
Of course, Sir Patrick had reservations. Chief among them, the question of what the Chinese and Russians would think. They already made plenty of disgruntled noises about AEC’s “monopoly” over spaceborne industry in Sol and Cimbrean, despite that Hephaestus and MBG were both entirely private enterprises.
But, China and Russia weren’t his problem.
The question of travel time was probably not major. Aru might be a long way from Earth or Cimbrean, but ship jumps were already necessary just to leave Sol. Knowing what he did of them, Sir Patrick could see no reason why spaceships at least shouldn’t return to making long-distance jumps sooner rather than later. They’d be a poor substitute for the massive interplanetary jump arrays, but still endlessly better than leaving valuable ships, crew and cargo to steam slowly across the interstellar void where the Hunters could get them.
And of course… there was the 946th to consider.
Eviscerated though the spacefighter wing might be, it still existed, on paper at least. It had a commanding officer and a couple of pilots. Replacement pilots would take time to re-train and redeploy, but the talent was there to draw from. That just left planes.
Planes that, if AtaUmiUi’s claims were honest, could be assembled by the dozen every couple of hours in the huge arachnoid factories Sir Patrick was being shown.
“What are you asking for in return?” he asked.
Knight tilted his head into a nod. “…That makes sense. I don’t imagine you’re really able to defend yourselves nowadays. If the Hunters came calling…”
“Oh, the Hunters learned to leave us alone a long time ago,” Ata replied. “Thanks to the nanoweave, I’m nearly as strong as you, Ambassador, and my flesh is quite toxic…But things change. You’re right, we just don’t have the numbers or resources. If they came here to steal these shipyards and slaughter what’s left of the OmoAru…”
“And now that you’ve made your existence known, the Hierarchy might send them to do exactly that…”
“You have it.” Ata gestured toward the planet with his left hand. Sir Patrick tore his eyes away from the alien diplomat’s Huh, which Ata had so far been gently playing with through the entire conversation. “We also have a sizeable population down there who have just been violently severed from the Droud. All of us, in fact, though the ones who weren’t in stasis have known nothing else their entire lives. We probably will not be able to save most of them, but your people can provide care and nursing to help as many as possible.”
He looked over at Sir Patrick. “…If you are willing, of course.”
“Things move quickly in times of crisis,” Sir Patrick said. “I’m sure the negotiations will proceed quicker than they would in a more peaceful era, but ultimately they will be negotiations. My people will want a clear and formal drafting of each side’s obligations to the other, exit clauses, assurances and guarantees, all the usual things.”
“Good to see that Interspecies diplomacy remains much as it ever was.” Ata chortled, then waved his Huh. “Rightly so, of course, of course. The longer we wait, however, the more of my people will succumb to Droud-withdrawal and suicide, and the more vulnerable we are to attack.”
He turned, and drew a tablet from the satchel he wore in the small of his back, offering it to Sir Patrick. “Which is why I took the liberty of already having our proposal drafted.”
“I see.” Sir Patrick accepted it. “Thank you.”
“And thank you, Ambassador Sir Patrick. I don’t know if the OmoAru can ever be what we once were, but we can at least be. I appreciate that you’re willing to hear our request in that regard.” Ata looked out at the stars again. “Before our hibernation…Forgive me. That is a thought for another time, perhaps. Will you excuse me?”
Ata bowed, and swept out of the room with startling abruptness. Sir Patrick watched him go with a frown, then shrugged, glanced back at the shipyards one last time, and then turned back toward his own suite. The sooner he got the OmoAru’s request transmitted back to Earth, the sooner they could move on it, one way or the other.
He resolved to land and see the planet’s surface for himself soon, though. Maybe it was just morbid fascination, but he wanted to see what the elder civilization had been, before their fall.
And, hopefully, catch a glimpse of what they could be again.
Date Point: 17y7m2w4d AV
Commune of Females, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“Didn’t you meet OmoAru, once?”
It was Harrison’s first birthday. Allison had taken the day off work, and they were throwing a small party at the commune, not that Harrison himself really appreciated it. He was much too interested in staggering around on the grass, back and forth between his two moms…and Anna was much too busy trying to show off whatever new thing she’d found.
The Commune’s park was a safe spot where cubs and toddlers alike got introduced to each other, under the watchful eyes of several mothers of two species. It was great socialization for all of them.
And it gave Xiù a chance to catch up with Myun.
“Yeah. I actually met Al and Julian on their homeworld.” Seven years ago, from Xiù’s perspective. They’d packed basically a lifetime into those seven years, now she thought about it.
“What’s it like? Oof…” Myun put a paw on her belly. She was still as picky as ever when it came to mating. Most males simply didn’t meet her standards, and many more were downright intimidated by her. Word—or at least, accurate rumor—had somehow got around that she was the Great Father’s own daughter, by the late Mother-Supreme no less. By Gaoian standards that was royalty, and there weren’t many males with the confidence to even approach her.
She was, nonetheless, pregnant, at that phase in the pregnancy where her normally sleek and athletic physique was as round as a football in the middle, and her cub was apparently an eager kicker.
“Well… I was glad for my disguise. It kept the sun off. But God, I had the hardest time drinking enough without drawing suspicion. I think the Corti who owned the ship probably suspected, really, but…Hi! Thank you!” Anna had come toddling over with a leaf. She gave Xiù a wide-eyed, uncertain look as if expecting her to do something with the leaf beyond take it, then promptly turned and wobbled away in search of some other trophy.
Xiù giggled and added the leaf to the pile of such gifts she’d accumulated over the last few minutes.
“So, hot then,” Myun summarized with a chitter.
“Oh yeah. A desert. With a huge wide slow green river running right through the city…” Xiù sighed. “I bet it was beautiful in its day.”
“What’re they like?” Myun chittered as she watched Anna find a random twig and promptly try to gift it to her brother.
“The ones I met were all spaced-out and goofy. Guess it was that whole droud thing.” Xiù sighed and shook her head. “It was… really sad. You could see it was an amazing place once, and now they were just kinda kicking around in the rubble. I don’t know how any of them were still alive. I guess they must have had automated farms or something…”
“And now they’re back.” Myun looked upward. Somewhere high overhead, according to the news, one of their diplomatic ships was in orbit, and their representative had come visiting to discuss matters with the Cimbrean territories and the Clan of Females.
“Sorta. I can’t imagine what it’s like on the ground, now. The droud suddenly shutting off in all their minds at the same time…”
“Ask Leemu sometime.” Myun keened softly. “It’s such a sad story.”
“You talking to him?”
“Have been, yeah. I wish he’d just come out and asked but, well…most don’t.”
“You’d say yes?”
“Have you seen his paintings? He’s pretty fit, too…”
“You always did have a thing for silverfurs,” Xiu giggled.
“Fit silverfurs, yeah. No point to a mating contract if ‘yer male don’t survive…” Myun had a filthy pant-grin that stretched the scar on her cheek, coupled with a licentious chitter. “But you know all about that, huh? I’ve smelled you three…”
“Humans aren’t quite so… feral… as your people, thank you,” Xiù replied primly, though she knew she was going a little pink in the cheeks and ears.
“Yes you fuckin’ are, my nose don’t lie! An’ I’ve watched Human porn. C’mon, you have a whole art form ‘fer tying each other up and—”
“So if it’s not Leemu,” Xiù changed the subject, as quickly as she could, “who’s the lucky male this time?”
Myun chittered again with a snort, but relented. “His best friend, Gorku. I’d feel sorta bad about it, but Leemu hit it off with Leela down at Ninja Taco so, well…I don’t. She’s even pickier than I am!” Myun let out a self-deprecating chitter. “I mean, all I really want is for someone to just ask me on a date! So gods-damned picky.”
“Oh, sure…” A sarcastic interjection heralded Allison’s return, with a tray of ice creams in one hand and Harrison on her hip. ”Your standards are the lowest, really…That’s quite a leaf and stick collection you’ve got there, baobei.”
“Cute, isn’t it?” Xiù agreed, accepting her ice cream as Allison sat down. “I think she’s getting her head around the whole ‘thank you’ thing, she said it back to me a little earlier.”
“She did, huh?”
“Sounded more like “ag-noo” to me,” Myun chittered, accepting a small cup of bright green Meeshi-flavored ice cream. Xiù had tried it once—as far as she was concerned, it tasted like broccoli and mushroom, hardly an ideal dessert. But to the Gaoian palate, apparently, it was irresistible. Myun certainly seemed to relish the big, lavish lick she took.
“I don’t know how you can enjoy that,” Allison shuddered.
“Your ice cream is way too sweet! This is much better. I don’t know how you can enjoy mint!”
Allison didn’t get her chance to reply, as she was interrupted by Xiù’s phone playing a ringtone they’d both been waiting for.
Xiù picked it up and put it on speaker. “Babe! You’re back!”
“Yeah! Just landed. I even showered, too!”
“Aww,” Myun chittered quietly. “But he stinks so good!”
Julian chuckled over the phone. “Hello, Myun. You been keeping my ladies safe?”
“They’re bribin’ me with ice cream!”
“Good girls! Well, I’m going through customs right now, so…uh, twenty minutes? Also, I’ve got something really big to tell you both, too. Like…sit-down-and-have-a-steak, big.”
Xiù saw Allison’s expression fall a little. Her own had probably done much the same. “…What happened?”
“Something good overall, just… big.”
That meant it was work-related, if Xiù were to guess. Still, she felt better knowing it was good news, even if the overall had her feeling a little less than stellar.
But then again, very little of the news in the last three weeks or so had been undiluted good. Focus on the positives: Julian was okay, he had good news of some kind, and they’d see him again in just minutes. She gave Allison a reassuring smile, and nodded.
“Twenty minutes. You want ice cream?”
“Nah, we’ll have that steak dinner first. Love you both!”
The call ended with a chorused “Love you too!” and, once he’d hung up, a heavy relieved sigh from Allison.
“That’s a load off my mind…Thank you!” Anna had a special stone for mommy. Allison grinned, then picked her daughter up to cuddle her. “Guess we’d better pack up, huh?”
“I guess so…” Xiù finished her ice cream and stood up. “Tell us when you’re due, Myun?”
“Of course!” her old friend beamed happily, then turned and dug in a satchel she’d brought with her before handing over a ten-page cardboard book with a fox in a tweed jacket on the front. “Here. Birthday present.”
All in all, it was a pretty good birthday, with gifts from Amanda, Tristan and Ramsey, of course, as well as Ava, several of the HEAT team, Allison’s colleagues at Chiune Station, and even something from Ambassador Rockefeller. Xiù wished her parents could have been present for it, but… well. They couldn’t be. They were stuck in Vancouver, and she’d learned a long time ago that there was no point in getting depressed over things that couldn’t be changed.
Besides, she had a reunion with her big, handsome boyfriend to look forward to. And the best part of having a huge caveman of a boyfriend was that he could give the biggest hugs.
They took their time about it. Julian delighted in his kids of course, and made a big fuss over his “adopted” kids as well, and it wasn’t until they were all settled at home, pajama shorts on, with him sprawled across the couch trying to be in snuggly physical contact with everyone at once…
He’d achieved Maximum Relaxation. Relaxed Julian was basically a giant lead weight that had poured itself all over the couch, and wasn’t much inclined to move at all.
Hoeff, ever-vigilant bodyguard and bestest friend that he was, was in the basement furiously pumping iron to afford them some privacy. He probably knew what the big news was, so…
He sighed, and then he told them. And he was right: it was good news… overall.
Even if Xiù didn’t really like it very much.
Date Point: 17y7m2w4d AV
Heavy system picket Refined Axiom, Perimeter system, the Corti Directorate
“They are not coming.”
Eflin blinked, watching the internal security display as dispassionately as he could even while his long-suppressed instincts screamed at him to flee, to fight, to do something other than watch as the Hunters pushed on through his ship.
The Axiom’s internal shielding systems, artificial gravity, intrusion countermeasures and security drones were effective, to be sure. The Hunters were taking losses…but the Hunters didn’t care. Each of them slain by the ship’s traps was simply a warning to the ones behind it of what hazard to expect.
They were facing a swarm of hundreds of Hunter broodships, and were woefully unprepared for such numbers. Perimeter was aptly named, as the system right on the edge of Corti space. The temperate planet Perimeter itself was safe, locked down tight behind a defence field, but the mining operations, research outposts and outer-system infrastructure was all vulnerable, and while the Axiom and its fleet was well-equipped to handle one Broodship…
The nearby light system pickets were already overrun, and the escort drones were scrap metal. Only the Axiom was holding out, and with the immediate volume seeded by thousands of gravity spikes, backup was not coming. Eflin had been pinning his hopes on buying enough time for Deathworlder backup to arrive and counter-board. His ship had beacons, and the Hunters were not generating a suppression field…But his subshipmaster, Ler, had just crushed that hope.
“The deathworlders have abandoned us?”
“They remain on lockdown. All of their ships are unavailable. The Gao express their regret and apologies, and I have not been able to reach the Humans at all.”
That report, Eflin knew, meant it was only a matter of brief time before he died in a Hunter’s mouth, or was bisected by fusion claws, or cut down by its guns.
And that simply would not do.
“…I believe our best course of action at this point is to self-destruct,” he declared.
“A quicker and less unpleasant end than the Hunters will inflict on us,” Ler agreed. “I wish I could think of an alternative which permits us to survive.”
“You have one Ri’.”
It was a grim joke. Ler, of course, didn’t laugh at it, but he did acknowledge the bleak humor with a slow blink, and drew his command key from a pocket on his hip. Without speaking, shipmaster and subshipmaster accessed the master console and activated a protocol reserved in the ship’s controls for exactly this scenario. Long ago, before the deathworlders, Directorate philosophy had held that the most effective means of dissuading Hunter attacks was to deny them the meat and salvage they craved. Unfortunate for those aboard the ships, but effective in the grand scheme.
They inserted their keys, entered their personal codes, nodded at each other, and gave the keys a synchronized twist.
Somewhere deep in the Axiom’s belly, the fusion reactors immediately pushed up to maximum output, and every joule they generated was directed not to vital systems like life support, gravity or shields, but straight into the capacitor banks. The lights dropped out, the gravity faded to emergency minimum, and the bridge went silent as even the air processors ceased. The background thrum and rumble of a healthy ship went utterly still, the silence broken only by the distant sounds of the Hunters’ rampage, and the murmurs of the bridge crew saying their farewells to each other.
Eflin let his hands float down to his side and hung his head, wondering what kind of thoughts a rational being should have in these final moments. Fear? Fear accomplished nothing. Should he spend the brief remainder of his life in distress? That seemed like a pointless self-torture.
He settled on…appreciation. He had enjoyed the gift of existence. Sometimes he had taken it for granted. Often, he had frittered his time away on distractions. Now, he noticed everything. The subtle texture of the smooth deck under his feet, the precise temperature of the air as it flowed into and out of him…The way Ler shifted next to him, sighed and turned.
“…You have my respect, Shipmaster,” he said.
Eflin turned to face him. “And you, mine,” he replied. “Our service together has been—”
He didn’t get to finish the compliment.
Force-fed to bursting, the ship’s overcharged capacitor arrays finally reached their failure point. They released all of their stored energy in a single wild surge, and in less time than it took Eflin to feel, he, Ler, the heavy system picket Refined Axiom, the Broodship, and everything living and dead aboard both, were all reduced to an expanding cloud of ionized gas.
Date Point: 17y7m2w4d AV
The Dog House gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Lieutenant Booker Campbell
Major Costello turned out to be a hell of a boxer. Like everyone on the HEAT, he looked young, almost like he was in his early twenties…but there was age and wisdom behind those fists.
And ice water. They’d been sparring for half an hour and Campbell was pretty sure his CO was in the exact same sharp, calm mood he’d been when they first entered the ring, while Campbell himself was definitely feeling rattled.
“How’re you finding ‘Horse as a trainer after the pipeline guys?” Costello asked. He followed the question with a precise flurry of jabs, testing Campbell’s guard. They locked, separated, circled.
“Don’t let him hear I said this… but I reckon he’s less sadistic than they are.” Campbell replied with a quick strike, distracting with a jab up high, then tried to sneak his left fist up and under the major’s elbow and into his ribs. Didn’t work.
Costello gave him an encouraging grin and kept circling, playing it cagey for the moment. “Yup. He’s not trying to test you, he’s trying to improve you. Much different goal. He trains the trainers too, by the way.”
“I figured—” Campbell swayed back and raised his gloves to ward off a battering-ram blow to the dome that still rattled him even though he mostly blocked it. “…Fuck! How fuckin’ strong are you?”
Costello just grinned. “Stronger than you. But be glad you’re not boxing Firth or Arés. They’re both so fast you can’t block them at all, so they refrain from tapping us little guys for fear of permanent brain injury. Anyway, you’re faster on your feet than you think you are. Dance!”
“Right, yeah.” That was still the hard part Campbell was getting used to. Being big and strong was one thing, but somewhere in his brain was a little mental block that said ‘big + heavy = slow’ and he was still working on un-learning it. He knew it was wrong intellectually but it wasn’t quite an un-learned instinct. Yet.
He shifted his weight, bounced a little, then speared in, one-two, out, sideways, one, one-two—
Costello had slammed him so hard in the gut, he was feeling his second lunch wanting to make a re-appearance.
“Good!” Costello grinned. “Very good!”
“I barely laid a finger on ya.”
“Yeah, well, you shoulda hit me harder. I can take it…Need a second?”
Campbell shook his head and raised his gloves. “No fuckin’ way.”
Costello gave a satisfied nod and took up his own guard again.
The conversation stopped for a few minutes and they boxed in earnest, a blur of gloves, footwork and pain that Campbell didn’t think about but just fought through. The footwork advice helped, though: he landed a couple of good hits before they mutually decided it was time to take a break.
Costello poured half his water over his head before turning to a different bottle to drink. “You finish that book I loaned you?”
“Nearly,” Campbell nodded. Taking notes had slowed him down.
“Finish it quick, I’ve got a big pile for you to get through.”
“Seems like you’re a one-man library.”
Costello shrugged. “Most of them were Powell’s. And he got most of them from Knight.”
Campbell swigged his own drink. At least the ones on base were a bit less of a citrusy mouth-rape. He decided not to intrude on the little flash of sorrow Costello had shown on mentioning Powell, and asked a question he’d been mulling over since first seeing his recommended reading list. “I really wasn’t expecting the bookworm side of things.”
Costello looked up at him, with a firm expression. “Here’s the thing. You’re prior enlisted, right? You know their side of it somewhat. You might not know it as intensely as the Lads do…but that’s actually a bit of a problem. Because, you see, you are not enlisted anymore. Tautological, I know…”
“I can speak from painful fucking experience that this is a job where you need a professional detachment from your men. You can be friendly, and you can even love them, but you can never be friends.”
“I’m not completely green, you know.”
“I know, but it bears repeating, because they need to admire and respect you, nonetheless. Since you will never out-beast any of them with your brawn or your footwork, and you’re not usually going to out-think them either, what they need from you is depth of command. That’s especially true of the Gaoians; their instincts are pretty powerful on the subject of who might be in charge, and it usually isn’t the little guy. There’s a reason you’re only the third officer to clear the pipeline, you know. A lot of the others passed physically, but…”
“That makes sense.”
“Hopefully you’re enjoying your reading, then?”
“More than I thought I would!” Campbell admitted, honestly. “It’s an eclectic list, that’s for sure.”
That was underselling it. The list wasn’t even completely human, though the human literature on there ran all the way back to ancient history and right the way up to within the last couple of years. The nonhuman entries included Corti rationalist arguments, a rambling Guvnurag philosophy that the translators had worked hard to make interesting, and the manifesto of the Robalin ruling party, an inclusion which Costello had promised would throw an interesting light on humanity’s own historical fascist regimes.
The Gaoians, apparently, had a lot to say on Campbell’s education.
“Some of those come from Regaari and Thurrsto. A few more come from Gyotin. There’s a couple of massive tomes that come from Daar too, but those are easily the densest, most technical reads on the list, so…I’ve saved them for the end. Oh, and you’ll need to be fluent in Gaori before you attempt the complete poems of Great Father Fyu. There is…a lot of wordplay involved that just flat doesn’t translate.”
“It’ll be Daar himself who quizzes you on them. To say he’s invested in your development, seeing as how you’ll be in command of people he deeply loves…”
“…Well, fuck me. Actually, on that note: what exactly is his status with this team?”
“Weird. Officially he’s just a sergeant as far as HEAT is concerned. That makes him the same rank as any of the other men. But he’s also, well…the Great Father, and more and more our sugar daddy, too. So often he’s in command, depending on the context he’s working with us in. Most often these days it’s as the Supreme Allied Commander and the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Gao. Which is ridiculous, yes. But he’s an irreplaceable asset, so…”
“We make it work, somehow.”
“Exactly. He is to be used sparingly, and he is to be discouraged from routine deployments in as respectful a tone as you can manage. He’s aware of the reasoning and generally tries to keep his nose out of everyday matters, but…anyway. He helps us, we help him back. Just keep in mind he’s also over eight feet tall and fit to slap Warhorse straight through a wall, so…”
“Don’t poke the bear?”
“He’s really good about it, but yeah. Don’t rely on the bear’s self control, even if it is impressive.”
“…Jesus. What a fucked up situation.”
“Think you just described the last fifteen years or so.” Costello shook his head ruefully. “Anyway, that’s enough boxing for today. And I think, enough work, too. It’s Friday, take the weekend and finish getting settled in. You finding the barracks acceptable?”
“I’ll be glad to find a place for myself but yeah, they’re more than acceptable.”
“Good. Also, don’t make any plans for next weekend. It’s a sports holiday and we’ve got plans for that. Expect Daar to show up too; it’ll be his last weekend here before he heads back to Gao, and he’ll want to get a good sniff of you two. Literally.”
Campbell mopped his face with a towel. “You make it sound like he’s ultimately in charge around here.”
“Legally? Only in the right contexts, if we’re deployed under a combined mission. Effectively? Yeah, he calls the shots for all the space fighting. And that includes us. There’s treaties being worked out and stuff…but even without them, he’s literally the most powerful man in the galaxy. If he makes the right call to the right person…”
“Tell me about it.” Costello shrugged on a huge black hoodie with the logo of a snarling dog on the back. “Daar has Presidents, Kings, and Prime Ministers on his phone’s favourites list. Literally. I’ve seen him take a random call from His Majesty. He’s also the same guy who likes anchovy-smothered nachos, and will play-fight on the floor with his ‘bestest’ friends for hours.”
Campbell mulled that over as he struggled into his streetwear. It was getting tight again, already, and he was going to need to order new stuff soon. There was a screen-print business in town that kept clothes in HEAT-appropriate sizes and offered an armed services discount. A lot of the Lads went to them for their gear from what he’d heard. Maybe he’d get something custom done, to commemorate the action aboard Boone’s Star.
Thinking of that, though, raised a new thought in his mind. The MBG star yacht had just been the first. ESNN’s interstellar news was full of reports on Hunter raids all over the Dominion, and lamenting the fact that the AEC/Gao military umbrella was hobbled and couldn’t do anything about them. And if there was one person who could change that…
“So… how come he hasn’t done anything about this stupid-ass lockdown?”
“‘Cuz he happens to like those people on his speed-dial. Rubbing his nuts all over the situation isn’t his style when it would hurt a friend. He’d much rather get ‘em out for a magazine shoot.”
Campbell snorted at that. “He sounds like a character.”
“We all are on this team. Lots of personality. Actually, a lot of characters on this planet. Takes a certain kind of spirit to move to an alien world, I guess.” With a final heavy clank of gear, Costello settled his gym bag across his shoulders. “So yeah. He’s a big guy in far more ways than just physical. A fun guy, for sure. He cares too, and he’ll want to know everything about you. But at the end of the day…”
A small, complicated smile twisted one side of his mouth, accompanied by an equally twisted chuckle. “…Well, the last time we broke really bad news to him, he broke Adam’s gym, and then he exploded the biggest bomb ever inside a giant space donut. Oh, and then he felt guilty.”
“About the donut?”
“No, the gym. So he replaced it. The whole thing. It’s way nicer now.” Costello shook his head ruefully, and led the way out of the gym. “…Point is, I’ll leave that particular duty to his staff. They know how to wrangle him.”
“…He didn’t really strike me as the wrangleable sort.”
‘“He isn’t. But good timing helps a lot, I hear.”
“…And this is the Great Father of the Gao? And effectively our space emperor, these days? You’re making him sound like an out of control tyrant.”
“Egh…more like a giant furry Alexander the Great, complete with Gordian knot. He’s a big man with big passions, and big convictions. If he feels something needs doing, it’s going to get done, and done in the most inarguable way possible. He’s no fool though. He listens to advice and thinks before he acts. Just…be careful. He’s smarter than any of us and he can think very quickly.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
Costello nodded. “Enjoy your weekend. And get your reading done!”
That left Campbell alone on the sidewalk. He checked his phone as he walked aimlessly toward downtown, looking up his nutrition plan. He had an “approved cheat” saved up, and he’d heard good things about Ninja Taco. Maybe he’d swing by and see what that was all about. Or Best Brioche maybe. Both had stuff with the Warhorse seal of approval. It’d be his first taste of comfort food in a long time.
After that…he’d heard good things about the open-air theatre on Wallside. Maybe he’d check that out. All the reading must be getting to him, because that was kind of a new thought but…
Well, he was on a new world, embarking on a new life and learning new things. Why not?
Maybe he’d run into someone he could hold in his arms, too. That was a happy thought, and with it, Campbell decided to see what the evening had to offer. He had a weekend to enjoy, after all.
Date Point: 17y7m2w4d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Specialist Hunter Thompson
Hunter only knew a few things for certain. The first was his faith in God. The second was faith in himself. And the third thing…
Well, it was honestly hard to keep ahold of his personal humility, given how well he was doing. He was the hands-down standout among the “new crew” and being honest, that did a lot to inflate his ego. He consistently dominated in all their training evolutions and looked good doing it, too. Whatever the old crew threw at them, he took it, beasted it, and had fun doing it.
Fortunately, the old crew weren’t pushovers. Firth had teamed him up with Snapfire and Tiny—Sergeant First Class Sikes and Master Sergeant Walsh. The three of them were closely-matched; about the same height and weight, the same shape, had basically exactly the same frame and the same proportions. Thompson was already just as strong as either of them too, and rapidly growing stronger.
It didn’t matter much, though. Both of them made a habit of humbling him. Heck, for the first time in his life, Hunter wasn’t top dog among his friends, and his first couple of weeks was a blunt introduction to just how much he didn’t know, and how much work he had ahead of him to improve. Everyone could teach him, everyone had something they could humble with.
He didn’t mind. He’d found what he’d been craving all his life, and he didn’t know how to explain it. He just felt…
Like he belonged.
Life wasn’t perfect, though. Cora was…well…
She’d talked to him, eventually. And apologized. And then they’d cuddled. And then he’d fucked her brains out. Heck, fucked his brains out, too! Neither of them had anything pressing to do that weekend, and there was a lot she wanted to teach him…
And then…nothing. She wasn’t interested in dating him! She’d said it wasn’t him, that she just wasn’t interested in a relationship, that all she wanted was a hookup now and then…
It hurt, a little, but he didn’t want to think about it anyway, and besides: that wasn’t anything a little sparring couldn’t clear out of his head. This time with a civilian, and one who was so thoroughly beating him silly, it was almost as bad as sparring with Warhorse or Righteous.
“Go again?” The big caveman reached down and effortlessly yanked Thompson back to his feet, thumped over to the control panel on the wall and cranked the gravity way up.
Thompson grunted under the load, but he was getting used to high-G training and found he much preferred it. He bounced on the balls of his feet, determined to get a win in this time.
Time for heavy work. And Julian Etsicitty, the legend himself, entirely lived up to the hype.
He’d recently been confirmed as the new ambassador to the Ten’Gewek, and was currently stuck in Folctha while he waited for his relief mission to get organized. In the meanwhile, ‘Horse had paired the two of them up for after-hours training, and it was turning out to be a pretty good match. Most of the men in the HEAT had eerily similar builds, differing mostly by scale, and Julian was built much like Hunter: same height, long arms and broad shoulders, same huge, sturdy legs and calves. Same thick wrestler’s necks, same Popeye forearms, same everything.
Except better. Way better. Julian was an older, much heavier and much stronger version of Hunter, and so motherfuckin’ dense that punching on him hurt like beating on solid rock. When it came to weights or athletics, Julian could kick Thompson’s ass without hardly trying.
But Thompson had found he was the more skilled wrestler, so it balanced out, sorta. Julian was still mostly kicking his ass, of course. He was ridiculously fast and, once he had a hold, could simply muscle Hunter into any pin he wanted. Failing that, Julian was so fuckin’ heavy, he’d simply squish Hunter flat like he did in turn to his Marines. When a man’s opponent was that much more athletically dominant, the only thing he could do was wait for a mistake.
So, Thompson lost, repeatedly. But he had a perfect track record of making Julian suffer for his occasional mistakes, so that felt good.
The real joy was that he’d finally found dudes who could keep up with him. He didn’t need to win to appreciate that he had real competition for the first time ever. It was frustrating, yeah, but for the first time since he was a little kid, he felt a fire in his competitive instincts he’d almost forgotten he had. He’d wanted that feeling since forever.
It was nice having men he could look up to.
They grappled for a good long while, then moved on to the rings, which Julian made look effortless, despite his enormous weight. After a long and frustrating lesson on that (with one of the “easier” static holds under Hunter’s belt, at least), they finally moved over to the weights. They went hardcore at it, until evening eventually came and their meal packs were running low.
“Shit, it’s gettin’ late!” Julian re-racked the bar and mopped the sweat from his face. “I’m getting pretty bad about losing track of time. My gals are gonna tease me for it…”
“Both of ‘em at once?” Thompson shook his head. “I tell ya, one is enough trouble for me…”
Julian chuckled…not quite smugly, but definitely proud. “Heard you were having girl trouble,” he replied. “Hey, you wanna spend the weekend? I mean, it’ll be mostly chores, park time, and more lifting, so maybe not a thrilling weekend. But It’ll get you out of the barracks…”
“I don’t want to intrude…”
“Nah. The boys need someone besides me to talk with, and if Al or Xiù mind they’ll let you know.” Julian massaged his shoulder and went to pick up his bag. “Or do you have anything planned with your Marine buddies?”
“Uh… Lanter said he was gonna take me to Rooney’s and show me how to pick up chicks…”
“Not feeling it?” Julian gave him a knowing smile. “Little heartbroken?”
Thompson sighed. “Dumb, right? She told me from the start it was a no-strings-attached thing.”
Julian shook his head. “Grab ‘yer stuff.”
They took a nice long jog around Folctha for their cool-down, taking the long way back out toward the nice end of town out at Palace Lake, where the houses were bigger and lots of them were surrounded by walls and gates.
The city had two quirks that Thompson kinda liked. Firstly, it was very much a barefoot friendly place, with scrubbing mats and sometimes little set-in depressions for washing feet. That was apparently a product of the extensive alien population (who seldom wore shoes) and the human populations’ nearly fanatic fitness culture, which Hunter appreciated; nobody here was a couch potato. And there were a lot of very, very fine womanly creatures to ogle, discreetly.
The second thing was that, since the rain was so regular, and came along so reliably around sunset, many of the larger sidewalks had something to keep the pedestrians dry. Awnings were everywhere in the middle of town, but out in Palace Lake, the streetlamps and utility poles had canvas stretched out between them, well above head height. The coverage wasn’t perfect, but it made the walk mostly a dry one, and Thompson had never seen anything like it anywhere else.
Julian brought them back around to the subject of Cora as they slowed for the last couple hundred yards to his house, and cooled off in the by-now significant downpour.
“I don’t know that I can offer you any advice,” he said. “My love life has been four gals in total, one of which was in high school, and the other was just before I got abducted. None of those were hook-ups. And, hell: it wasn’t like the first two were super successful, either…”
Thompson found that a bit hard to believe, honestly. Julian was…well, he’d modeled nude, been praised for it, been on TV in interviews and in ads. Hunter knew he was pretty darn handsome even by HEAT standards, but next to Julian? He was so ridiculously fuckin’ good-looking and genetically blessed, it was hard to imagine him ever failing with women!
That was all pretty shallow stuff, sure…but still! “No way you ever had girl problems…”
“Oh dude.” Julian laughed. “…Allison and me were unbe-fucking-lievably awkward at first. I found her intimidating, she found me intimidating, it took us months to relax and get to know each other properly…”
Thompson waggled his eyebrows. “And then you worked each other out, right?”
“Well, no. Not right away. Lemme tell the story.”
Julian waved the apology off. “Anyway, right as we were figuring each other out, we met Xiù, and I had to deal with feelin’ super guilty about another girl catching my eye when I’d just landed one amazing space-babe, and Al had to deal with the other girl catching her eye too when she’d always thought she was straight up ‘til that point, and we all had a couple lifetimes of baggage and stuff to sort out…”
Julian laughed again, more self-effacingly. “Shit, they basically had to lock us in a box together and put us under some crazy pressure before we finally really clicked and figured things out. And even that took a long time! And you know what, I’m still working them out and they’re still working me out. That’s what it’s all about, really. It’s an ongoing process and you keep doing it forever ‘cuz nobody’s totally the same forever.”
“I guess that makes sense…”
Julian smiled, and gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder. “Rejection always hurts, bro. Everyone gets it. I did too, before I met my girlfriends.”
That was a bit of a relief, really. If even he got turned down…but still. There was something else gnawing at Hunter, too. He didn’t really know how to phrase it, or give any voice to it, but…maybe not now. So he just nodded.
“So, don’t worry too much about it,” Julian finished. “Life just sorta happens, y’know? And for someone like you, Folctha is about the best place for it to happen, so just live it, and have fun.”
Hunter sighed, and nodded. “I think I can do that.”
“With your Marine friends, I don’t think you’ll have any choice in the matter.” He was right, of course. Heck, half the reason he’d taken Julian up on his hospitality was honestly to get a break from them. He loved ‘em all, really, but…
Well, that was part of the thing that was gnawing at him.
They thumped around to the back and entered through what Hunter guessed was a mud room. “House rules: stinky boys gotta hose down and towel off before they come in.”
“They do, huh?”
“Yup!” Julian already had the hose running ice-cold water over his head, and after a long soaking moment, shook his hair out like a dog. “Here!”
Hunter had never liked cold water like that. But now that he was a giant of a man, constantly sweating and mostly living in loose gym attire?
Fuck yeah! Hosed down and toweled mostly down, they stepped in to meet the family.
“I’m back! And I brought a friend!”
Julian’s home was an oasis of family life, albeit one very different than what Hunter had grown up with. He had four kids, two of which were his own, the other two were technically his very young brothers-in-law. It was obvious that it didn’t matter for a second to him, and the first thing they did when he came in the front door was tackle him in a big hug.
They were both young teenagers, to judge by their looks, and were probably just really starting puberty. They both had the tall, somewhat stringy frame every boy does when he’s suddenly taller. They looked athletic too, as one might expect from Julian’s household, though the one was noticeably more filled out.
Normally one would expect them to be stand-offish at that age, but it turned out they were actually making up for lost time, and had no objection at all to Julian scooping them both up into a great big hug. His family life was apparently just as complicated and unconventional as the rest of him.
But it was loving, and real in a way Hunter never really had himself. His own family was bog-standard. Average stay-at-home mom, moderately successful lawyer dad. A younger brother, who was into comics and gaming.
Good people, and he loved them. They loved him right back, too. But Hunter…he’d always had a fire in him, even when he was five and begging dad to let him sign up for wrestling and every other sport he could. That meant he’d been on his own from the beginning. Dad was proud, and always talked him up to his business friends…but they really, really lived in different worlds.
He was always busy, too. Lawyers never really got any days off, so their relationship was…distant. Proud, affectionate…but Hunter couldn’t remember the last time he’d hugged his dad. Julian on the other hand was physically affectionate with all his friends, and apparently wasn’t happy until he’d poured himself across the couch and had his entire family trapped in inescapable snuggles. He had his legs wrapped around Xiù, his head resting in Allison’s lap, and the boys trapped in a gentle bearhug.
“Have a seat, big guy! We’re just gonna watch the news quick before dinner.”
Hunter looked at the enormous, comfy-looking chair next to the couch. It seemed sturdy…
“Heh. Don’t worry, we built all our furniture to survive my friends.” Hunter shrugged, sat down on it gingerly and, in fact, it took his weight without any complaint.
“And a certain big stinky caveman…” Xiù teased, which caused the boys to giggle.
Julian curled his legs and pulled her in a bit closer. “Hey! I thought you liked the way I smell!”
“I do, but it can be a bit much sometimes. Smells like you had a good workout…”
“I hosed down!”
“Hosed, yes. I note a distinct lack of soap.”
Ramsey giggled again and gave Julian a dig in the ribs As far as Hunter could tell, he was much more like Allison than his quieter, more bookish brother. “I think he likes being stinky!”
Everyone chuckled at that while Julian blushed a bit. “Sarry. Am I being a gym-bro again?”
Allison bapped him lightly on the top of his head. “You’re always a gym-bro these days, babe.”
Julian grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, yeah…” He gave her a mischievous smile and tensed up impressively from his prone position on the couch. “You two like the results though, don’t lie.”
“Eh, your abs are okay, I guess…” Julian gave her a Look. “Aww babe, I’m just kidding.” She ran a hand around his shoulders and down his chest. “You’re the prettiest Tarzan.”
Julian leaned back and gave her a quick peck on the arm. “Love you too.”
Tristan and Ramsey both rolled their eyes.
“Anyway, hush. We’re late for the news.” Xiù clicked the remote and tuned to a local broadcast station, right as they started a segment on the Great Father.
They watched for a few minutes, while Hunter zoned out to think.
“What’s he like?” He said, unbidden.
“Who, Daar? He’s just…a guy. Who happens to be the Great Father. You’ll be meeting him soon enough I’d imagine.”
“…Can he even be just a guy? I mean…”
Al shrugged and scritched at Julian’s mop of hair, which caused him to close his eyes and grumble happily. “He tries. When he’s not doing his most bestest at being all civilized.”
“He and Naydra cling to every bit of normalcy they can get,” Xiù agreed. “I guess I would too if I was Empress of the Galaxy. I know I did while I was stranded with the Gao.”
“Yeah-huh,” Allison agreed, while Julian just nodded.
For the moment though, on the screen, it looked like the Great Father was being all statesmanlike and official. He was touring a hospital, meeting some of Franklin’s worst wounded who were still recovering even now, weeks after the blast.
He seemed to have a soft spot for kids, and let them indulge in playful indignities with him that no other leader would ever permit. Like riding him.
That was the shot that ended the piece, however. The news in Folctha apparently had an interstellar segment, a whole hour of the night devoted to stuff happening out in the wider galaxy, outside the safe bubbles that protected Earth and Cimbrean. Thompson had never seen anything like it. Back on Earth, the news channels only touched on really, really big alien news, or squeezed ET stuff in here and there in minute-long segments on slow days.
ESNN though served not just Folctha’s human majority, but also a ton of nonhuman residents. And the interstellar news at the moment was…not great.
Somehow, the network had got hold of footage from Robalin space, where a derelict, ransacked station was wobbling in its destabilized orbit, trailed by a glittering cloud of debris from its own smashed hull. Footage from inside the wreck swept through what was unmistakably a classroom, the misshapen alien seats still all facing a board at the front and with teaching supplies strewn across the stained floor.
The ticker along the bottom, and the reporter’s voice, told a story of dozens such attacks, all over Dominion space and the Alliance frontier. The network’s editorial question was loud and clear: When were AEC and the Clans of Gao going to start protecting innocent people again?
Allison stood up, with a sigh that said she couldn’t bear to watch any more. “Well…that’s depressing as shit.”
“Language.” Tristan chided her, though he clearly didn’t have his heart in it.
Julian hugged him tight and nuzzled on the top of his head. “Yeah. Don’t think there’s any other words for it, though.”
Dinner was a muted affair, made worse by that obviously not being the norm. The news had pretty thoroughly depressed the kids, and as for the adults…
Well, Hunter was feeling pretty fucking angry. This shit was exactly what he’d signed up to deal with, put a permanent stop to. And now it was happening right in front of him and there was nothing he could fucking do about it.
That same anger had a hold on Allison, Xiù and Julian too. Their sunny sides, Xiù’s goofy cheer, Allison’s wicked humor, Julian’s calm warmth… right now, the trio looked just as mad at the Hunters as Hunter himself felt. But there was nothing they could do about it.
“I think he’s picked up another one.”
The nice thing about having a super-polite, super-dutiful super-soldier come to dinner was the cleaning up had all got done by the boys for a change. Julian and the brothers always took their turn, but today they skipped sequence and Allison got to relax with a beer as the kitchen and stuff all got squared away with incredible speed.
The blitz of work at least dispelled the dark cloud that had hung over the dinner table the whole time, and when the work was done and the chance to go play came up, the boys had promptly brightened and “dragged” both Julian and their guest into the living room to show them a new game.
She didn’t quite know what to make of Hunter Thompson. The kid—and to hell with the fact that he was older than the twins, he was still very much a kid—had a kind of…adrift, quality to him. Like when he wasn’t actively being HEAT, he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. Like he’d kind of put the rest of his personality at the back of his closet for a while, and now that he was back out in the real world he’d gone to dust it off and discovered he didn’t really know what it was for.
Tristan, Ramsey and Julian were doing a pretty good job of helping him figure it out. The twins had claimed the couch, while the two men sat on the floor in front of them, bickering and bantering affectionately over who was going to win the furiously arcade-y racing game they were playing. The controllers were definitely sized for normal people, though; the effect, as usual, was like some artist’s romance-novel-cover ideal of a pair of cavemen trying to enjoy the modern world.
Xiù had taken the chance to practise her Gung Fu in the garden, and she beamed and nodded at Al’s observation as she grabbed a small snack from the fridge. “I like it! I think it’s adorable.”
Allison shook her head and grinned. “I mean… you’re not wrong, baobei. I just dunno if we can afford him suddenly picking up a five hundred pound space marine puppy.”
“We’d be lucky if he were that small…” Xiù sighed. “We can afford it. I just…I dunno. He spent so much time alone, you know? Now he makes friends with everyone basically instantly.”
“Call it for what it is, babe. He falls in love easily, and he has a lot of love to give. Hell, he did with us.” Allison gestured between Xiù and herself, then extended the gesture to include her brothers.
“And the Tisdales, and the Ten’Gewek, and everyone on the HEAT…”
“Not bad people to be in good with, let’s be honest.”
Xiù nodded, then gave her a kiss before turning to wander off. “I’d better check my emails. I’m expecting one from Sam about the housing proposal.”
“We gonna leave the two superbros alone? Who knows what might happen!”
Al gave her a wolfish grin. “Two ridiculously hot men lounging about in running shorts and no shirts, all alone and there’s definitely some kinda confused feelings between them…”
“Al!” Xiù had a kind of outraged whisper she used when she was trying to tell her off without everyone else hearing.
“I’m teasing! It’d be hot though, admit it.”
“I am not having this conversation! Besides…look at them. Look at how Hunter looks at him.”
They did, discreetly. The big soldier…well, honestly? The expression on his face was no different than Tristan and Ramsey.
“…Okay, yeah. It’d be weird. What d’you think instead? Claim him back for ourselves for a bit? We’ve only got a couple of weekends before he ships out…”
“You can try to pry them apart,” Xiù replied, in her own primly teasing way as she turned toward the stairs. “I have work to do!”
Al sighed to herself as Xiù trotted upstairs toward her home office, but nodded. She’d been hoping Julian might spend the weekend sharing some of that infinite libido of his with his women…but he had a habit of being exactly who was needed at exactly the right time.
She looked back at Hunter. For all his big, heroic space marine aura…he needed someone like Julian, just like her brothers did. And while Al knew she could have pulled Julian away and she and Xiù could have had him all to themselves if she wanted…
She just didn’t have the heart. The poor kid needed this evening, she’d feel like a total bitch if she deprived him of it.
Instead, she gave Julian a kiss and a scritch on top of his head as she slipped past him and headed through into the garage. She may as well tinker with something, and after Clara’s report on what had happened to the Boone’s Star, she’d had some thoughts on how to proof the airlock design against Hunter force-docking. If they panned out, maybe they’d save lives.
Julian sent the kids off with mom when she came around; they’d already promised her a full weekend. Instead of prowling upstairs to put that wonderfully endless strength of his to proper use, he went down into the basement with Hunter, to put it to another. Saving lives, one way or another. That was what misfits like them did.
And she was proud of that.
Date Point: 17y7m2w5d AV
Diplomatic shuttle, departing planet Aru, the OmoAru Remnant
Sir Patrick Knight
“Finally. A Human weakness.”
Sir Patrick glanced at Ambassador Obrot of the Locayl, and shrugged self-effacingly. In all the bustle of organizing trips for the Ambassadors to tour the Aruian surface and see the elder species’ plight for themselves, nobody had thought of a small detail: Sunblock.
After a couple of hours of wandering around in the bright, fiercely hot sun down there, his face and ears were going as red as a boiled lobster in the worst case of sunburn he’d ever suffered.
“Mm. Thin skin and not much fur,” he agreed, with a nod. “My own silly fault, I should have remembered.”
“Will you need medical attention, Ambassador?”
Knight smiled. “Thank you for your concern, but no. It’ll heal. I hope you remained comfortable?”
“Quite comfortable, thank you,” Obrot nodded, and turned her attention back to the planet they had just left, visible out the window behind Knight’s shoulder. “That was…saddening,” she declared after a moment’s thought. Absently, she passed a small cup of water from her lower-left hand to her upper-right, and sipped it.
Every instinct Sir Patrick had said that the ambassador should be stronger and heavier than him. She was a good two feet taller, girthier in every regard, and had a whole extra pair of limbs on her frame. But there was a puffy, soft quality to all that bulk that had nothing to do with unhealthiness or obesity. She was, he gathered, in fine health for a Locayl.
Reality of course was that she came from a different homeworld, with its own different biological norms. Locayl were big for the same reason as a whale: thermal homeostasis in a cold environment. She’d worn a refrigerated suit to tour the blistering desert planet below them.
And she was right. Harrowing might even have been a better choice of word. The cities of the old OmoAru empire were falling into disrepair. Buildings were collapsing, broken windows were left unglazed, weeds and vines choked the rubble, and the few living Omo stumbled dreamily through their lives, oblivious to the mummified corpses.
Those were everywhere. There were whole highways blocked by ground vehicles that had come to a halt and whose occupants had simply never bothered to alight, gripped by the unimaginable pleasure of the Droud. In hospitals, schools, public buildings and private residences alike, the greater part of the OmoAru civilization remained in the same seats they’d occupied the day the Hierarchy decided to kill them.
The living ones were those with some natural immunity, who could focus through the pleasure fugue to achieve basic tasks out of the vague sense that they ought to, not out of any real desire. They could still feel their hunger even through the Droud, could sleepily rationalize that if they scavenged a little food and water, they could feel the bliss even longer. Rendered immortal by their own nanotech, they’d been scraping out their minimalist lives ever since the day their world died and started to decay around them.
And now, even the Droud was gone. Many were simply lying around in misery, waiting to die. And being desert-dwellers, it took a long time for OmoAru to die of dehydration or starvation.
“If it wasn’t for the lockdown, this would be…” Knight trailed off. He’d been about to say ‘easy’ but that of course wouldn’t have been accurate. It still would have been a planet-wide humanitarian disaster blending the need to find, feed and home an unknown number of nonhumans all of whom were suicidally depressed. It would have been incredibly bloody difficult.
Without jump arrays, the word “impossible” reared its head.
“…If we can’t at least jump ships into orbit, helping these people is not going to happen,” he declared, after a second. “We do not have the shipping fleet to manage so much in-flight at once.”
“The Dominion does…” Obrot made a complicated gesture with both of her left arms. “But we are a long way from anywhere else, and the Hunters are unchained. An aid convoy coming all this way would be a juicy meal for them, nothing more.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
“My people are sheltered from Hunter space by the Kwmbwrw Great Houses. Still, the occasional raid used to push through to try us. For the variety, perhaps, or the challenge. Whenever they did, it meant dozens of dead and a fortune in stolen cargo and shipping.” Obrot turned her gaze out the window, distantly. “The last few years have been peaceful. Now, though, the problem we face is that in learning to fight you and the Gao, the Hunters have grown far worse than they were before. Before, they raided and fled. Now, they brush us aside and take as much as they want.”
She looked back at Knight. “Not personal experience, you understand. The insight of our fleetmasters and senior defence officials.”
“Quite,” Sir Patrick agreed.
“…To be candid, Ambassador, some of the Dominion species believe you are ‘leaving us out to dry,’ as your idiom goes.”
“I can imagine.” Sir Patrick sighed and shook his head. “It’s not by choice. The attack against us was subtle, and paranoia is the only sane response. Every jump is a risk now. Until we have the right safety measures in place, we could send the HEAT to defend a station only to watch the entire unit be wiped out by jump sabotage, and they are by far our least replaceable asset. Losing First Fang, any of the Fury or San Diego class heavy cruisers, Armstrong Station, Folctha, any major city on Earth…”
“In short,” he finished, “we win or lose this war on a handful of vital assets. We must use them judiciously, or else lose. If you think the Hunter rampage is bad now, imagine how much worse it would get if Humanity and the Gao were completely neutralized.”
Obrot dipped her head in the Locayl equivalent of a nod. “If you win and destroy them, you save an incalculable number of lives saved in the long term. If they win and destroy you, an incalculable number of lives are doomed in the long term.”
“Meaning we must, as you say, leave people high and dry in the short term,” Knight confirmed. “Believe me. We’re not happy about it either. And we’ve lost civilians to the Hunters in this mess, too.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“The Boone’s Star. It could have ended much worse than it did, but still. The Hunters feast on our people most gleefully of all, when they can, and they’ve succeeded. Perhaps you could mention that fact when another ambassador confides in you.”
“I will,” Obrot assured him. “But…in that case, why are you even considering the OmoAru? They had their time. They’re a dead species, all but a handsful of them. Are they offering so much?”
“I’d prefer to avert their extinction if possible, just because it’s the right thing to do,” Knight said. “But sentiment must come a distant second to practicality in hard times. You’re right, they’re offering a lot.”
Obrot leaned forward with a creak as they pulled in alongside the Rich Plains again and began to slide into the diplomatic ship’s cavernous hangar.
“And what,” she asked, “if we could offer you the same?”
Sir Patrick glanced back behind him at the planet below. Then at the enormous four-limbed woman in front of him.
“…I’m listening,” he said.
Date Point: 17y7m2w5d AV
Heavy cruiser Twyrrhyrurth, Trade Spacelane, borders of the Rauwryhr Republic
The Twyrrhyrurth and her escorts were, once again, too late. The descent from warp speeds to sublight was instant, their guns and shields ready. They should have stormed into the foe with all the aggression and fury that the Republic tried to emulate from Deathworlder tactics.
If only there had been something to shoot at besides drifting, naked ship hulks, stripped of their crews and valuable technology.
Once, Ectryrr would have been grimly satisfied to know that the Hunters were running from him, rather than viewing his fleet as another juicy victim. The Republic had come a long way in a short span of time in that regard, and the Hunters were absolutely right to fear the vengeance his fleet brought with them.
Instead, he felt uncomfortably like he was trying to duel smoke. Every counterattack swished harmlessly through where the Hunters had been, leaving his fleet to pick through a sorry cloud of smashed metal in the vain hope that perhaps this time they’d a lucky survivor crammed in a pressure locker or stasis pod.
Though as it turned out…this time, they did.
The survivor was a child, clinging to the outer hull of his ship in an oversized spacesuit full of vomit. Nearly incoherent from grief, terror, and the suffocating, stinging misery of a helmet full of his own digestive enzymes, but alive. He emerged from the suit in a daze, then clung to the medic who freed him like she was his mother, and wouldn’t let go.
Rather than lifting the crew’s spirits, his plight only dampened morale even further. It put a face on suffering that had, until then, been at a remove. If Ectryrr didn’t know better, he would almost have suspected the Hunters of leaving the child behind deliberately.
There was nothing for it but to sit and oversee the salvage operations and lane clearing. A trade-lane may be light-rik’ across, but they still couldn’t leave the debris from the poor convoy to drift uncontrolled within it. It was long and slow work, and should really have been left to civilian work vehicles…if only those wouldn’t in turn have posed a tempting target.
Ectryrr retired to his quarters to write in his journal. He’d always been in the habit of keeping a handwritten one, ever since he was a child. Maybe in future years it would form the basis of his memoirs, though the most recent few weeks would surely be the most interesting chapter.
Rather than write, though, he sat for a long while with pen in hand, numbly trying to think what to record beyond the bare facts he’d already scratched down. The date, the location, the destroyed ships, the rescued child…
His thoughts? He didn’t have thoughts, or at least none that were new. All he had was a grim certainty that the Hunters would strike again, and he’d be too late again. He needed megalight drones armed with jump beacons, he needed rapid assault teams capable of driving the Hunters off a boarded ship. He needed technology, talent and training that his people didn’t own, or couldn’t achieve.
He needed Deathworlders. And there were none.
He put his pen down at a chime from his wall console. He knew what it would be. “Yes?”
“Another distress call, Fleetmaster.”
“Set course and go to warp.” Ectryrr rose to his feet with a groan, and left his unfinished journal entry on the desk.
Time to be useless again.
Date Point: 17y7m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Master Sergeant Timothy “Tiny” Walsh
“You’ve been smellin’ the most smuggest all day, Cousin…”
Regaari chittered and set his ears to a dangerously cocky angle. Brave of him, given that Daar had his Warhorse-crushing legs wrapped firmly around the (comparatively) tiny guy’s hips. “Just satisfied with a job well done.”
“Oh?” There was a heavy thump as Daar’s tail beat a rhythm against Adam’s legs. “‘Ya finally git one up on ‘yer not-so-secret recruiting project?”
“I couldn’t possibly comment…”
“Uh-huh. ‘Yer lucky I got my aggression out… What’re we watchin’ today, anyway? This a bad movie night, or a good movie night?”
“Coin came down on good movies,” Walsh told them. “Thank fuck…I was gettin’ sick of that bad movie streak.”
“Aww.” Daar chittered at his own feigned disappointment, but settled amicably as deep into the couch as its firm and unyielding substance would allow. “Old or new?”
“New.” Walsh leaned forward, plucked the remote off the table in front of him, and turned on the TV. “‘Soon as the new kid an’ Julian show up.”
“Ooh! He good? I hear he’s boot as balls!”
“There’s hope for him,” grumbled Adam from his upright and seated couch position. By unspoken Lad Rule, only the ‘most biggest’ among them at any time got to sprawl across the whole couch. Since Daar had spent most of the day thoroughly defeating ‘Horse in honorable bro-sport, having bested every single gym challenge the two of them could come up with by a frankly alarming margin, the privilege of being the substrate fell to him, the meat-rock upon which literal tons of fellow operators sat along, beside, and sometimes atop.
His furry bulk didn’t make for a very comfortable cushion, being honest, since all that hulking muscle had about as much give as a warm, chittering boulder. Walsh stretched out and endured being bear-hugged by the biggest damn arms anyone ever had. Daar’s particular brand of affection was both genuinely heartfelt and aggressively macho.
Rib-bending hugs aside…It was nice to have his old friend back, even if only for an evening.
“Naw.” Adam grinned. “He’s got a lotta potential, if we can just de-boot his ass. God I can’t wait to see how he reacts to the spacebear emperor of the universe laying on the couch…”
“Ooh! Should I pose, mebbe? Be all ready an’ bothered ‘fer him! ‘Draw me like one o’ ‘yer french girls!’”
Walsh choked on his fizzy water. “Who the fuck taught you that?”
“Hey, I’ve seen that movie! Dunno why the silly bitch didn’t just budge over an’ make room for ‘im, but it was good!”
“As fun as that might be,” grumbled Firth, “I don’t know that any of us wanna see ‘ya laid out an’ bothered, whatever that might mean ‘fer a Gaoian…”
“Prob’ly the same it means ‘fer you!”
“You’d jus’ be jealous, I bet!”
Jeers and chitters flowed across the room, as they always did. Firth eventually quipped, “Keep it sheathed, captain telephone pole. You’ll just make ‘Horse feel inadequate.”
“Still can’t believe you managed such a fuckin’ perfect iron cross on the rings,” Adam grumbled instead of rising to the bait, clearly still brooding over the day’s competition. “And in supergravity with more weight than me, no less! Held it for longer too!”
“Well t’be fair, doin’ that fuckin’ hurt. But I weren’t gonna let ‘ya win at nuthin’ today! An’ I’m way heavier’n you now too, so there!”
‘Horse’s answer was a grumbly sort of begrudging chortle, which prompted Daar to stretch out and rest his enormous lower legs on ‘Horse’s lap.
“‘Course, I wouldn’t’a been able ‘ta do any o’ that if you hadn’t been the most bestest coach ever! I swear you know my body better’n I do, s’fuckin’ scary…”
“A good coach is like that,” Firth rumbled. “And ‘Horse is the best there fuckin’ is.”
Everyone nodded in agreement, which cheered Adam up instantly. He was proud of them, after all.
“You even fixed me,” Regaari chipped in. “Showed me what I can really do!”
“He’s the bestest! Balls, he’s such a good Brother, I bet he’ll gimme a foot massage, too…”
Daar wiggled his be-clawed toes at Adam, who rolled his eyes. “Fuck no, bigfoot.”
“Aww! But I’ve been on ‘em all day! I’ll do yours too!”
“That ain’t a fair trade, your footpaws fuckin’ dwarf mine!”
Daar chittered low, “My everythin’ dwarfs ‘yers…”
“Oh, you can fuck right off—!”
“In any case,” Regaari interjected before they started measuring each other, or something fucking dumb like that, “Daar’s right, we owe it all to you, Adam. Balls, I want to learn the iron cross too! Though I have no idea how you’d train for that.”
“It uses pretty much every muscle in ‘yer upper torso. Need lotsa monkey strength, super hard ‘fer a Gao ‘ta do! ‘Fer me, I trained up wit’ lotsa different rows, an’ lotsa different presses, an’ lotsa bodyweight stuff onna bar! An’ dips too! An’ also? Try stretchin’ ‘yer shoulders out with th’ most biggest kettleballs ‘ya got! While hanging upside-down! Really opens things up!”
Now there was a mental image. Anyway. Walsh turned the TV on.
“So which movie is this, now—? Ooh! Hey, thankee, Shim!” A gargantuan platter of Murray Salad appeared, and all the gaoians (save Daar, who had Friends to squish, and Regaari, who was being squished) sprang up and compressed themselves around it in a tight nucleus of drooling, sniffing desire.
“I made two,” Shim pointed out. Sure enough, there was an equally large platter being borne into the room even as he said it, carried by…yup. The newbie.
“I’m told this is a salad?” Thompson asked, pausing as he passed through the doorframe to look up and around and appreciate it. “Also, have you noticed how nice it is to have wide doors?”
Thompson paused when he noticed the Great Father thumping his tail like a titanic dog. “Uh…”
“Oh, ‘fer fuck’s sake, get ‘yer tail in here an’ make with the snacks! I ain’t gonna eat’cha!”
“I dunno, you do tend to wolf down Murray’s creations…” Walsh pointed out.
“I can be civilized sometimes!”
Regaari chittered. “Is that so? In all my years, I’ve—hnnngh!”
Daar twitched his leg slightly, and flattened Regaari with muscular affection. “Shaddup, ‘Cuz.”
Thompson, to his credit, had clearly shed some of that infamous boot-ness since arriving, because he managed, with a visible effort, to relax a bit and enter the room properly, sliding the second “salad” platter down onto the table. He snagged a drumstick for himself and found a spot to perch on the end of the couch.
Firth nodded. “We keep it informal on the Couch. Try an’ relax. What movie is this?”
“The Mote in God’s Eye.”
“Hey, I’ve read that one!” Akiyama perked up. “They made a movie?”
“Yup!” Walsh grinned at him. “Heard it’s pretty good too.”
“I hope so. I hate it when they use the title and then basically ignore the book’s actual content…”
“Well le’ss fin’ ou’!” Daar urged around a mouthful of Salad, and that right there was enough to end the conversation and get the film rolling.
As always, Walsh barely watched the movie. He was usually more interested in watching the people than the movie itself. Probably that was part of his prior life as an intel analyst, but the dynamics at play were fascinating. In particular, the layered subcultures that connected them.
The most obvious was what Walsh called the “Bro Layer.” There was a lot of that bro-ness among everyone of course, given the nature of the team, but by far the biggest concentration of extreme meat-headedness lived between the Beefs and Daar. On that front, the performance gap between ‘Horse and Righteous had closed considerably, while the gap between Daar and anyone else had…well. Most adjectives felt insufficient, really.
Adam was long used to being king of the hill, but now it was obvious he found himself frustrated about falling behind. Never mind that he was he was tied for an honorable second place with Yan, mister all natural King Kong himself. Never mind that Adam was arguably the finest athlete to ever live, and among the fittest Deathworlders there were. Never mind that every other sapient being in the galaxy had to settle for a distant fourth place.
He’d been usurped on all marks by the freakiest freak of nature ever, one he’d personally coached into the terrifyingly superhuman specimen they knew today. Adam was of course good-natured about it as always…but second place? Second? To a Gaoian?! Unacceptable.
He was a coach in fierce competition with his own best athletes, who were also his best friends. Kinda funny, really.
The rest of the Lads weren’t nearly as bro-infected as the big three. For them, it was more something they did and enjoyed as part of their job, not necessarily as a core part of their identity. For the Beefs, though? They’d probably go literally insane if they couldn’t lift, and Daar was the worst of all. That the galaxy’s stability might well depend on Daar’s freedom to grunt and lift and flex outrageously with his bestest bro-friends was…comically frightening.
Daar had intensely physical relationships with all his peoples, whether it was play with young cubs, hard work among the Clan and Clanless alike, preening for the Females, or comforting those who needed it. Nobody could say he wasn’t a man of the people.
The next was the “Gaoian Layer.” Walsh struggled to find a comparison in his mind that was, perhaps, not so canine, but for the life of him they behaved remarkably like a pack of dogs in the presence of their alpha. From what he knew of Clan Whitecrest, they prided themselves on the equivalent of a kind of suave aesthetic. To outsiders, they were all well-groomed, polished, handsome and debonair. For the most part, one had to get to know them to really notice just how fiercely individualistic they were.
They were still Gaoian, though. They liked being part of the pack, and cuddling up in a big furry ball that made it hard to tell where one Brother ended and the next began.
There was definitely, at least to Walsh’s sensibilities…a bit of creepy hero-worship going on, too. Everyone on the team respected Regaari, but Regaari in turn adored Daar, and that left the rest of the team in some kind of friendly, subservient awe. It was almost like they were privileged to work and play with their very own demigod, and he happened to like bad jokes.
Alien psychology could be fascinating.
As for the rest of the humans… well, Thompson was the obvious one to watch, but the kid did actually do a pretty respectable job of unwinding and accepting that here and now he was supposed to not be rigidly observing the customs and courtesies. He still had that bright, shiny, well-polished innocence and all the well-scrubbed earnestness of a highschool kid who’d never had the chance to really get grubby, but he’d picked up some half-decent banter from somewhere.
Julian was absent, and according to Thompson he was getting in as much family time as he could before he shipped out to be all Ambassadorly. Walsh couldn’t blame him. Still, it woulda been nice to hang out tonight.
He didn’t really have a clear “layer” for the rest of them. The “New Guy Layer” had mostly dissipated into the team’s varying sub-cliques, and beyond the Gaoians or the Super-Bros, there wasn’t any single thing that really pulled them together, aside from brotherhood. They all had different interests. All of them were exceptional men after all, but not all in the same ways.
The one real constant, really, was the affection.
There was a lot of it, and it was intense. None of them liked to be sitting apart from anyone else and they all thrived on the closeness, physical and otherwise. They knew everything about each other, and it was quickly apparent that Thompson felt a bit lost by all of it.
He’d get it, eventually.
The movie was pretty good in the end. The visual design was especially stunning, and all told it made for a good way to while away the evening. After that, the usual little cliques broke away. Firth, Murray and Akiyama took the new kid under their wing to introduce him to the joys of little plastic painted miniature space battles, most of the Lads got into a heated Mario Kart marathon, Humans versus Gaoians, and the rest mostly just sat around and talked.
Walsh wound up playing Ta’Shen with Daar. Never an entirely fair game: Daar’s nose was too good to fool, he couldn’t be bluffed. But Walsh was better than most at calling Daar’s own bluffs, and a lot more accurate with flicking his tiles into exactly the right spot on the table, giving him a vexing winning streak that kept the big guy coming back for more.
“If I were gonna concede anythin’ ‘ta ‘ya monkey-folks, it’d be ‘yer lack o’ claws,” Daar grumbled. “More trouble’n their worth sometimes.”
He of course had five digits and an opposable thumb, but Gaoian hands were properly paws, designed more for locomotion rather than precision work. His, of course, were big enough to cover dinner plates, and had claws to make a grizzly blush. Breaking stone and bending steel? Sure. Delicately flipping tiny little tiles?
“Well, you’re not completely useless at this. Your strategy’s solid, you just…miss. A lot.”
Daar really must have been exhausted, because ordinarily a tease like that would have invited an affectionately painful rejoinder. This time though he just chittered, swept the table clean to concede defeat, and then shuffled the tiles to deal them again.
“What, no spine-shattering tackles? Not even a pounce?”
“I mean, I could if you wanna…”
“No, no. I’m quite happy with my spine un-shattered, thanks. Just…” Walsh glanced around and lowered his voice. “You’re quieter than usual.”
“…Yeah. Sarry. It ain’t anythin’ y’all’re doin’ or anything.”
“Can I ask what it is?”
Daar considered it for a moment, then shrugged and rumbled a heavy sigh.
“It’s th’ lockdown. An’ ‘ya might as well git over here, Regaari, an’ stop pretendin’ ‘ta not listen.”
Regaari poured himself backwards off the couch, where Moho was chuntering ruefully about blue shells and bullshit, and joined them at their Ta’Shen table. “I was wondering what was on your mind,” he confessed.
“All the things’re on my mind. Kinda the worstest part ‘bout bein’ what I am these days.”
“Well, yes, but sometimes things are more on your mind than other times.” Regaari pulled a chair over and sat in it.
Daar, apparently, wasn’t gonna settle for that. He chitter-sighed, stood up, dragged Walsh and Regaari into a big hug, and curled up on the floor with them.
“I’m sure as fuck blessed in my Cousins. Even if one o’ them’s a ninja spy.”
“So…” Walsh prompted. “The lockdown?”
Daar growled. “I get it. Franklin was a fuckin’ nasty blow. An’ from what I’m told, it’s gonna be years ‘til the jump arrays on Earth are safe ‘ta use. But the galaxy ain’t stopped.” He snorted and shook his head. “Balls. It’s got busier ‘cuz we ain’t keepin’ order.”
“When did we become galactic police, anyway?”
“When we stood up and said ‘no.’”
“And when we blew up the hive ring,” Regaari added. “The Hunters have been starving ever since.”
“Well then…” the three of them glanced at Thompson, who’d wandered away from the plastic wars and froze when he suddenly found himself confronted by Daar’s attention. “Uh…”
“I can smell ‘ya wanna say somethin’ so jus’ say it. I promise I won’t squish ‘ya too hard.”
“Well…I was wondering…Uh…Well, why not do something about it? I mean…”
Daar gave him a big sniff, then chittered, the low and slow one he used when he was gently amused. “Heh, got big balls on ‘ya, I like that. But, no. I could, but bein’ the Great Father means I gotta think real hard ‘bout if I should. I got allies an’ I wanna do right by y’all. If’n we’re gonna have a friendship that lasts past me, I can’t be shovin’ my dick in everything an’ having it all my way.”
Thompson nodded, though he looked a little disappointed. “Yeah. That makes sense I guess.”
“Somethin’ more on ‘yer mind?”
“Ahh…No, sir. Thanks for answering my question.”
“…‘Kay, lemme ‘splain something. Firstly, I don’t like lies, even little polite downy ones like that. I can smell them, young pup. Balls, I can smell what kinda breakfast ‘ya shat out two days ago! So we clear on that?”
Thompson blinked. “…Yessir.”
“Good. Now, not ‘ta brag or nuthin’ but I’m the gods-damned Great Father an’ you’ve got the’ chance ‘ta ask me anythin’ in the entire fuckin’ world jus’ now. That’s somethin’ presidents an’ kings don’t often get. An’ what’s more? I like answerin’ questions from young pups, ‘cuz it’s a good way ‘ta think through a problem, yijao? So swing ‘dem big nuts around and fuckin’ ask like ‘ya wanna!”
Walsh knew exactly how to take advantage and teach the lesson. “I’ll ask the most ‘importantest’ question: Silverfur or brownfur? Not including the Great Mother, of course.”
“Depends on m’mood! Silverfurs are more funner ‘fer banter, but ‘ya gotta be tender wit’ ‘em. Now a good brownfur? I can throw her up against a wall an’ fuck her right fuckin’ through it!”
There were loud catcalls and chittering jeers from around the room, while Thompson stood stunned for a moment before cracking up.
“See?! Ain’t that easier? Jus’ relax a bit an’ we’ll get along jus’ fuckin’ fine. Now…how ‘bout ‘ya ask me what ‘ya really wanna?”
Thompson sighed and pulled up a chair. “I was thinking about the lockdown too. About how me and the LT had to jump just to get out of Sol and then we tried to fly all the way here the slow way and people died because of it.”
“…I din’t know that part. I jus’ heard there was an attack, thought it was in Sol space…?”
Daar looked down at Regaari, who shook his head. “No. It was on a patrolled spacelane.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna lie, that makes me kinda mad.”
Thompson sighed. “I mean, I talked to Lieutenant Campbell about it and he said he reckoned it was all bureaucratic. Like how the old Apollo missions had mismatched air filters…I just, I guess I’ve seen first hand how the lockdown is getting people killed, and I just thought, if there’s anybody here who can cut through bullshit red tape…But. Yeah. You just told me why you can’t, I guess.”
“I din’t say I can’t, only that I gotta think if I should. I respect ‘yer people too much to…well…make ‘yer leaders into puppets.”
“That would harm all of us,” Walsh agreed.
Thompson frowned. “…You could do that?”
There was a round of uncomfortable eye contact. Daar sighed, and nodded. “At this point…yeah. I could. Franklin’s done ‘ya a lot more harm than ‘ya might think.”
Thompson’s earnest little comment was a pretty distilled version of what Walsh was thinking, and probably everyone else to judge by the silence that settled on the room for a moment. He couldn’t blame ‘em: how many other times in history had a room full of people just heard that their friend could probably make Earth’s most powerful nations his collective bitch if he really wanted to?
Fortunately, the idea seemed to depress Daar most of all. He actually deflated, like the heaviest weight ever had just been thrust back atop his shoulders, and gazed sadly off into the distance for a moment.
“Well…anyway. Y’know what? That shit’s depressing. I’m takin’ a day off with some o’ my most bestest here, so let’s fuckin’ do something fun!” he rallied, and growled merrily. “Naydi’s spendin’ the evenin’ with her most bestest sisters an’ I’d be the dumbest ‘Back ever ‘ta interrupt that. An’ I’d maybe wanna go downstairs an’ play again…but I kinda want tacos an’ now I’m feelin’ like I should go strike out with Leela again!”
Thompson looked bewildered. “…You strike out?”
“Erryone strikes out, pup! An’ a good thing, too, it keeps me grounded! You should come with, enjoy some good food ‘fer a change!”
“Are…” Thompson shot a hopeful, hungry look at Arés. “…Are tacos allowed?”
‘Horse grinned at him. “Leela has a special menu just for us. Go ahead an’ treat yourself.”
That settled it. Thompson was on his feet in an instant, to chuckles from the rest of the Lads. They all knew exactly how he felt—they’d all endured their time eating nothing but the sanctioned, carefully balanced meal packs and supplements, and though those weren’t bad… They definitely put nutritional content ahead of experience. Leela’s tacos had been the first ‘junk food’ many of the newer guys got to enjoy. A few of the others stood as well. Leela was going to enjoy a profitable evening, it seemed.
And Daar was right. Shit as things were right now, if they focused on just the woe, they’d all go crazy. Sometimes you had to know when to let go and wait, and enjoy what you still had while you had it.
Which was why Walsh stood up to go with too. Daar was one of his best friends, and he knew better than most just how much the big furry fucker needed that. He’d be going back to Gao soon, braving the week-long interstellar trek surrounded by warships and the finest protection his species could provide. Soon, he’d be back in his throne, or at the Conclave table, and this might be the last chance he got to relax for…well, for a long time.
Let him have it.
Date Point: 17y7m3w AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
“Good morning, Mister President.”
In the weeks since Franklin and the start of the lockdown, Chambliss had enjoyed too few really good nights of sleep. The pressure was getting intense to find a solution, some way to restore jump traffic, and he could understand why.
Laying aside the havoc it was wreaking on the war effort, it was now clear that jumping was the only viable way to get from Earth to Cimbrean, and despite the pressure on them and escalating criticism from the press and on social media, his scientific and data security advisors were still quite adamant that not even ship jumps could be declared safe yet.
People kept pointing to the fact that the Boone’s Star had successfully executed two jumps without disaster. Those in the know were quite adamant that although the BMG staryacht had jumped out of unavoidable necessity, it had been a truly unsafe thing to do.
The problem was… the Hierarchy were still active on Earth. Not only that, but the agent responsible for Franklin was actively looking for opportunities at mischief, and finding them. And this one was a good deal subtler and more cautious than any who’d come before them.
The list of cyber-crimes perpetrated by that one Igraen would have made them the most prolific and legendary of black hats, were they human. And with each incursion, each hack, each act of digital sabotage, their skill, subtlety and confidence only grew.
“So we have a solution?”
General Kolbeinn was present, as was General Talmadge, who’d brought along a woman in a suit who’d looked thoroughly uncomfortable when she rose to greet Chambliss. An expert, he decided. Somebody much more used to the quiet confines of her own office and team who’d probably never imagined she’d wind up personally briefing the President.
“We do, sir,” Talmadge confirmed. “This is Doctor Belkin, she leads the team that worked out the details.”
Chambliss shook her hand. “That’s much appreciated, Doctor.” he smiled disarmingly, and Belkin relaxed a little. “So what do you have for us?”
Belkin cleared her throat, and handed over a tablet. “It’s…actually a very old technique called a one-time pad. We figured out pretty much instantly that it was the answer, the rest was, uh, implementation and planning.”
Chambliss scanned the document on the tablet, nodding. “How old?”
“World War Two-era. At least, at this sort of scale and with this grade of entropy. President Roosevelt used a version of it to talk securely with Winston Churchill.” Belkin cleared her throat. “The idea is straightforward enough. We can’t send transmittable encryption keys any longer, as far as we can tell the Igraen can unravel them. But an OTP system is genuinely, mathematically unbreakable.”
“It entails,” she continued, warming to her subject, “sending a single-use, randomly generated key to the destination ahead of time. That would be a physical storage medium, an optical disk, a flash drive, something like that. Once used, the key is destroyed, and the next jump would use a different key. If the keys are genuinely random, then there’s no way to crack them. You have to have the one-time pad to make sense of the transmission.”
Chambliss nodded. “Meaning our Igraen infiltrator simply can’t do anything. What are the downsides?”
“Well…the obvious one is distribution of the keys. They have to be physically delivered the old-fashioned way, and carefully protected.”
“What happens if a key gets stolen?”
“That’s the beauty of it. We can just not use a stolen key. There are checks and safeties we can install in the process to ensure that if a key does go missing, its partner is immediately destroyed, rendering that key useless.” Belkin was one of those people who grew in confidence when she was talking, it seemed. She handed over a sheet of paper. “These are estimates on how quickly we can start generating keys, how quickly we can distribute them, in what volume, how much jump traffic we can support, production costs…”
“The downside,” Kolbeinn interjected, “is that the more keys we reserve for military use, the fewer are available for commercial arrays. And vice-versa. There are also distribution concerns. If we want to start using the Gaoian megalight drones to respond to Hunter incursions, then we need to deliver the keys to the Gao, they need to install the keys on the drones, which will probably involve a redesign…”
“But it can be done,” Talmadge asserted. “It won’t lift the lockdown overnight, but we’re one executive order away from starting the process.”
“How long until we’re back to normal?”
Belkin shook her head. “Um…normal is probably never going to happen, Mister President. At peak, the interplanetary commercial Arrays were firing as often as three times an hour. To return to that volume of traffic…well, we’d need a lot of keys. And securely generating a genuinely random string of numbers isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
“Well…computers can’t generate random numbers,” Belkin explained. “The best they can do is pseudorandom, so our random numbers have to come from somewhere. White noise, radioactive decay, something like that. The more sources we use in parallel, the more keys we’ll be able to generate, but that comes with expense, not to mention the distribution problem. The fact is…at least in the near future, the total number of jumps we’ll be able to make will be sharply curtailed.”
“Now, the good news is that we only need to successfully courier one batch of keys to a destination,” she added. “Once we have, that jump array is secure and we can send any further keys through the array itself.”
“Once the array has been re-engineered to run totally off-network,” Talmadge clarified.
“…Yes, which I imagine will incur some expense. And may involve having to courier equipment and personnel to remote arrays like the Ten’Gewek homeworld.”
“Simpler to just close the Akyawentuo array entirely and rely on ship-based jumps only,” Kolbeinn opined.
Chambliss held up a hand, pleasantly inviting them to slow down. “I’m convinced, and you’ve clearly thought this through, so I only have one question: How long until we can start making any secure jumps, and begin lifting this lockdown?”
“A matter of days, sir,” Talmadge said. “We already use OTP in some areas, we have keys ready to go. We just need to deliver some of them to Cimbrean and modify a jump array there. After that, it’s just a question of expanding key production and re-engineering the arrays and our ships.”
“Alright.” Chambliss nodded. “I’ll sign whatever you need me to sign. Talk to my staff, get that order drawn up, and we’ll get back on track. Thank you, all.”
He took a deep breath and sat back in his chair as they filed out of the room, glad that the minutiae were somebody else’s to deal with. Just the quick precis he’d been fed in that brief meeting had made his headache worse. But he didn’t mind: it was good to know there was a solution. A light at the end of the tunnel that might just help him sleep a little better.
The lockdown had been hell, for a lot of people. For some, it had been hellishly inconvenient, for others it had been fatal. It had certainly dramatically altered things, probably in ways he’d be dealing with for the rest of his presidency. Certainly, the economic impact had been, and would continue to be, incredibly harsh.
But at least he knew it was going to end now. And maybe, afterwards, they could go back on the offensive.
God. And he’d thought he might reduce America’s war commitments. Instead it seemed he had no choice but to expand them. Because while there might have been light at the end of the tunnel…
To Beau Chambliss’ eyes, that light was still a long way in the distance.
Date Point: 17y7m3w AV
Georgia Tech, Atlanta, USA, Earth
Allen’s personality faded irreversibly beyond sapience barely two weeks into his biodroning. Tragic, really, but inevitable. He didn’t have the willpower or charismatic force that Austin had shown. Allen Nguyen had been a timid, retiring, introverted man. None of those were inherently negative qualities, but they left his psyche defenseless against Six’s influence.
Total control meant fewer risks, from Six’s perspective. He could more tightly control his host’s activities, take his time to perform his infiltrations and explorations of the Internet carefully and properly, rather than the hurried, distracted raids he’d been forced to perform from the confines of Austin’s skull.
No FBI came knocking on his door, therefore. The honey traps left for him by the NSA and presumably others were all delightfully thwarted.
It was no game, of course. As much satisfaction as he took from their contests, Six was acutely aware that he was in a hostile environment, fighting deadly duels with some of the most competent foes he’d ever confronted. Meatspace life they may be, but then again Six himself was a dataspace being and proficient in their world. There was no reason the reverse couldn’t be true.
He’d focused on jump activity where he could. He knew it was only a matter of time before the Humans moved over to an entirely airgapped system he couldn’t reach, but for now he could keep them fearing a repeat of what he’d accomplished with Chicago and Franklin. So, while he still could, he’d infiltrated his code into as many of the Arrays as possible before the plug was pulled.
After that, he’d moved on to festering some political chaos. He’d dabbled in programming simple bot programs to hijack phones and use them to post divisive, bitter comments on social media. He’d imitated moderators and community managers, handed out arbitrary bans, cleared content that should have been punished. His efforts were always uncovered of course, but always too late. Trust was damaged, resentment brewed and bubbled.
And, deep in the most carefully hidden dark corners of the web, he’d found encrypted private boards that the authorities would have truly loved to know about. Less a permanent residence and more a shifting series of clandestine meeting spots, like digital drug dealers or black-market weapon traders, linking up wherever the searching lights of Authority might miss them for long enough.
His quarry was one specific individual. And, three or four days after Allen’s meek personality finally lapsed into coma, Six made contact.
It took a further week and a few favors to establish any kind of trust. That was fine. Six had nothing but time, and anything worth doing had its own pace. He’d played far more difficult games of trust in his long career.
Finally, though, he got the conversation he wanted.
So what are you offering us?
And you do? All by yourself?
We don’t have many “volunteers” left.
And what kind of a disaster do you have in mind?
++END CHAPTER 69++
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It was brought to you with the help of…
Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
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Sian, Steve, Willow and Riker
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As well as sixty Deathworlders…
a m Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Alexandre Smirnov Andrew Andrew Ford atp Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso Elizabeth Schartok Emil Jensen Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jim Hamrick Jon Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. mihkel miks Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Patrick Huizinga Phil Winterleitner Richard A Anstett RJ Smiley Ryan Cadiz Sam Saph Sintanan Stephen Prescott Stratigan theWorst Valiander Vincent Leighton Volka Creed walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas ziv Zod Bain
…Eighty-eight Friendly ETs, 139 Squishy Xenos and 315 Dizi Rats, who are really just the most bravest.
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 70: “Death Eye”