Chapter 70: Death Eye, part 1
Date Point: 17y7m3w AV
Armstrong Station, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“There’s the ship. What do you think?”
Wilde had kind of imagined there’d be a love-at-first-sight thing or something. Like, he’d see the ship and she’d be the most beautiful piece of machinery he’d ever laid eyes on, or maybe she’d be a junker but he’d see the heart of gold underneath. Something like that.
In reality, she looked like a lorry. A really, really big lorry. Most of her was a slightly misshapen cube, the rest a sturdy skeletal frame covered in racks that would hold shipping containers in place. A circular collar of kinetic thrusters enclosed the point where cube and frame met, there were a couple of smaller thruster nodules here and there along her length for maneuvering…
And that was it. Her hull was decorated with the rather bland white-and-green livery of a Gaoian shipping firm, Jishi Interstellar Distribution. That, and the pair of white lights on her nose, aimed to illuminate her name and registry number, which were both in alien runes and thus illegible.
The only impressive thing about her, really, was her sheer size. But what she represented was, well…a life. One where he wasn’t just the crippled veteran knocked out of the fight by a wound that had robbed him of his depth perception. One where he could still matter.
“Honestly, I think I’m about to shit a brick, mate.”
Regaari chittered, and clapped him solidly on the back. “Good answer. Have you met the crew yet?”
“Not yet.” Ian shook his head. “Got a message from the captain saying they’ll meet me inside the airlock.”
Regaari duck-nodded amiably. “Speaking of Shipmaster Trrrk’k…give this to him as soon as you can, would you?” He handed over a datacard, a wireless drive about the size of a credit card.
“Exactly. One for which I think they’ll be glad to have a Human ‘heavy’ on board.”
There was a certain mischievous set to Regaari’s ears with that comment; he had a comfortably undefeated record against Wilde and most of that was down to simple physical superiority. One couldn’t possibly miss the big HEAT Gaoian’s delight in the role reversal, at least when standing next to a fit and well strong, yet decidedly non-mutant human being like Wilde.
Wilde smirked, but didn’t take the bait. “Dangerous, then?”
Regaari didn’t give a straightforward yes or no, which was telling in its own right. “…The Clan maintains a number of friends across the galaxy, of all species,” he said. “Most are just people who pass along gossip and observations for a finder’s fee. A few, though, do genuinely dangerous work.”
“Against Big Hotel, or…?”
“Oh, no. Organized crime didn’t stop being a problem just because of the Igraens, and with the Clan necessarily having to focus much of our attention on the war, we’ve increasingly come to rely on our ‘friends’ to handle the more mundane side of our responsibilities.”
“…Nonhuman organized crime? What do they deal in?”
“Illicit goods and services, what else? Counterfeit luxury goods, unregulated loans—Gao has a particular problem with illegal stimulants sold with the promise of turning a regular second-degree silverfur into a stud to match any Straightshield—”
“That all seems a bit low-tier—” Ian began to object.
“—Trafficking in persons of interest…”
“I thought that would get your attention. Slavery is still a thing, my idealistic young friend. Young Gaoian cubs in particular.” Regaari’s usual urbane composure slipped for a moment: his ears flattened hatefully, and the venom in his words was almost liquid.
Regaari reeled in his temper with a visible effort, though not before a tiny growl escaped him. “They’re, uh, ‘prized’ for a number of reasons. There are certain myths that follow us because of our Deathworlder status, which many now seem to think they knew about us all along. As a result, the black markets command very high prices for fit male cubs with no Clan prospects.”
“…I hate to ask, but…?”
“All the things Deathworlders are known for, particularly strength and stamina. We’re used for everything from the utilitarian to the carnal by the sick beings so interested. Gaoian slaves have been experimented on by rogue Corti, worked to an early grave by unscrupulous industrial or agricultural barons, trained and conditioned as shock troops by some pirate and mercenary groups…and other horrors I won’t repeat here.”
“I can see why you take that seriously.”
“Oh, we do. My Father has deemed the full hundred-cut the only appropriate sentence for any so convicted.”
Ian repressed a shiver. That was an unwelcome reminder that the Gao sometimes had very different ideas about civilization and justice. It was easy to forget because the Gao living on Cimbrean largely accepted Human laws, but in their own society, at least before the War, duels to the death between males had been almost frequent. The only reason they’d become relatively rare was because Daar personally disapproved of them in most circumstances…yet even as liberally-minded as he was on most anything else, he wasn’t opposed to deathmatches on principle. He merely thought that mostly, a good duel needn’t be lethal.
Gaori didn’t even really have a word for murder: the closest equivalents were explicity gendered, with the male form reserved for a killing without honor, the neuter form reserved for a killing by accident or negligence, and the female form reserved for those unthinkable and insane cases where a male killed a female or cub.
Humans forgot how alien the Gao could be at their peril; every so often, a shocking reminder would come along. Like how even a refined creature like Regaari clearly considered slowly flaying somebody alive over several days to be an acceptable form of capital punishment, if the crime was heinous enough.
Regaari looked down at him with a cocked ear. “I trust that’s not a problem?”
Hoeff had warned Ian about what getting involved with Whitecrest could mean for exactly this reason. Getting into the dark craft was one thing. Getting involved with alien morals too…But it wasn’t as though Ian hadn’t already considered all those factors before taking the job. It was just a dose of cold water, a reminder not to let his excitement and romanticism carry him away. Nothing more.
He nodded to show that it wouldn’t. “No.”
“Good. All the details are on that datacard, Trrrk’k will tell you as much as you need to know, when you need to know it. He’s been playing this particular game even longer than I have.”
“Really? How old is he?”
“Eighty-seven, in Earth years. Making him senior but undulled, by Rrrrtk standards. It was his idea to recruit you.”
“I’ll endeavour not to disappoint, then.” Ian took a deep breath. “…I should probably board, hey?”
“You probably should.” Regaari turned and offered a paw. “I hope this turns out to be everything you wanted, Wilde.”
Ian returned the handshake. “It’s an opportunity. That’s all I wanted.”
“Good. Make the most of it.”
With that, Regaari turned and slipped away, merging into the crowd. Armstrong Station’s population were mostly human residents and workers, but there were enough aliens coming and going to achieve an almost fifty-fifty mix. Apparently the place was busier than usual right now, as ships loitered and clocked up some shore leave time, hoping to ride out the lockdown and the Hunter frenzy before their contracts and corporations compelled them to set out again.
Ian didn’t watch him go. He turned his attention back to the ship one more time, then heaved his bag onto his shoulder and headed for the crew boarding umbilical.
He had a new life to meet.
Date Point: 17y7m3w AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
Bruuk, Clanless employed by Clan Whitecrest
“It’s alright for you. Everyone knows Humans and Gao get along well. The rest of us had to get anti-disease implants installed.”
Bruuk growled at his Kwmbwrw shipmate Morwkwm, a little aggrieved. “I had to get that implant too! Just because Humans allegedly like us doesn’t mean we’re immune to all those fungi and bacteria they haul around…”
“You are though. Nothing they’re carrying around would kill you.”
“So? Some of that sewer system they carry around with them could make me very sick.”
“Well, don’t lick the Human, then!”
The truth was, Bruuk wasn’t overly fond of Humans himself. They smelled. And what they mostly smelled of was bacterial aromatics. Human males in particular could stink like rancid cheese if they were incautious in their personal hygiene, and the worst part was how they tried to cover for it with perfumes! Maybe such a cheap trick fooled their stunted nasal faculties, but to the Gaoian nose, even quite a clean Human of any gender was…ugh.
And they were due to be joined by one. Fantastic.
The mood among the crew was mixed on that score. Morwkwm was grumbling about it, of course, but the list of things he wouldn’t grumble about could have been counted on one paw with room left over to count to five. Urgug was being uncharacteristically inexpressive and stoic, though he insisted he was just reserving judgement.
Dora was, as she called it, “Fangirling.” Apparently their Human was a “British,” one of the factions—or was it breed? Clan?—at the forefront of the war that had defeated Earth’s version of the Robalin “Wisdom.” As an outcast from Robalin society herself, Dora loved that particular interlude in Human history. It represented an alternate reality where people like her were accepted, not rounded up and worked to death.
Keeda alone knew what Mojremm was thinking. Mjrnhrm were impossible to read now that nobody used implanted translators any longer. Apparently the event was momentous enough to record though, because he’d sandpapered off the old and fading acid-etch tattoo on his left forearm to start a new one, turning the dull olive chitin a spectacular shade of opalescent blue. Bruuk, alas, had no idea what the intricate designs signified, and neither did the others; the Mjrnhrm never discussed their acid tattoos with outsiders. Moj had more than most, though whether that meant a storied life or an ostentatious streak, Bruuk didn’t know.
And as for the Shipmaster… well, it had been Trrrk’k’s idea to bring this Human aboard in the first place. The wiley old Rrrtk had a long-standing contract with Clan Whitecrest, and was showing no signs of slowing down, but it was clear even he was worried about the Hunters and about the kind of scrapes the Clan might get them into. The crew needed a heavy, he said. Muscle, a bodyguard, somebody to keep them safe if things went zrrrk shaped.
Which was why Whitecrest had put Bruuk onboard in the first place! Second degree he may have been, but he was still a brownfur, and a fuckin’ strong one too. He wasn’t some effeminate little useless male like a silverfur would be, it didn’t work that way for brownies. He was just…a little short, was all. He had claws! He could fight!
So why did he feel like he was being ignored?
“You two are such pessimists,” Trrrk’k chided fondly, thumbing some dried cqcq into his smoking pipe. “He’s clean, Morwkwm. I promise you that. And you put up with foreign scents all the time, Bruuk.”
“He’ll smell like moldy cheese,” Bruuk predicted.
“The rest of us aren’t so ‘gifted’ as you. We’ll make do.” Moj buzzed the mjrnhrm equivalent of a chuckle.
“We certainly are!” Dora chirped. She was sitting on the conical beanbag that served her for a chair, sewing a new patch onto her jacket. She turned it around to show it off. “What do you think?”
“I think I still can’t see half the colors on that thing and neither can you.”
“For now! You heard about the new gene therapy, right?” Dora turned the heavily decorated garment toward Urgugnadvum instead. “How about you?”
Their navigator raised his head, which had been resting on his arms, and his facial tentacles rippled for a moment as he considered it. “Most festive,” he rumbled agreeably, and rested his head back down again. A pulse of some kind swept across the chromatophores on his face and flanks. “I like the new patch. Some of the others have shades of melancholy and nausea in them.”
Not even Dora’s relentless good mood was enough to blind her to the fact that something was amiss with their largest crewmate. She shrugged the jacket on—a peculiar motion in a being with three radially symmetric arms—and tilted her head at him. “Well that was…terse. By your standards, anyway. Are you alright?”
“I am merely troubled,” Urgug explained. “Every report says the Hunters are more active than ever with the deathworld species in lockdown, and yet—with no disrespect intended, Shipmaster—instead of staying safely here in port, we are taking on a Human—their most highly prized prey—and setting out again.”
“A most welcome reminder…” Morwkwm grumbled sarcastically. He stood up and stretched himself out, all his long limbs and his tail extending to their full and impressive length before he subsided down into the more compact stance he used for walking and picked his way across their recreational lounge in search of a cup of water.
A contrite burst of yellow-ish flickered across Urgug’s features. Morwk had survived one Hunter raid in his life. Bruuk couldn’t blame him for being distressed by the thought of another.
“We’re taking on a Human precisely because the situation demands it,” Trrrk’k said, evenly. If he took issue with Urgug’s concerns, he didn’t show it. “I mean no offense, Bruuk, but you are not a large Gaoian by your breed’s standards. I don’t doubt your ferocity…”
Bruuk tensed up reflexively and puffed out his chest, reminding the Shipmaster just what he had lurking under his heavy laborer’s pelt. The rest of the crew backed up slightly. Good.
“I’m maybe not be very tall, but I’m plenty gods-damn big, and my claws are very sharp…”
“Be that as it may,” Trrrk’k said evenly, “he is a large Human from what I am told, with an excellent military service record. He would grossly overpower you.”
Bruuk raised his enormous arms, bared his teeth slightly in a quiet growl and made a point. “Would he? I doubt it. I’m prol’ly way bigger’n him, ‘cuz I’m heavier’n most any Human an’ ain’t none o’ it is fuckin’ fluff! I’m strong for my weight too, Human or Gao. Also, size ain’t the only thing that matters! He can mebbe punch me good an’ hard, an’ I bet that’d hurt bad…but more’n just a lotta muscle, I’m fast an’ I got claws. I can gouge his fuckin’ face off.”
Bruuk was used to, but not happy with, a certain amount of prejudicial rank-ordering from other species. Humans, for some reason, always got put at the top of the imaginary deathworlder threat hierarchy, with the Gao generally getting third place after the Ten’Gewek.
It was dumb, lazy thinking. Not all Humans were powerhouses, very few Ten’Gewek knew the world beyond their own, and not all Gao were little pushovers. Any Deathworlder was dangerous, and you couldn’t know how they were until you’d met. It was insulting to be so casually relegated to third place, even when unintended.
But the worst part? Bruuk didn’t look like a weakling at all, because he wasn’t. He’d spent his entire life working against his naturally modest height and it showed, having been lifting and competing since he was a floppy-eared cub. The Females seemed to like the results, and it had earned him a fair few dates over the years—more than most males could say! It’d also earned him plenty of work over the years, too…but the plant-eaters somehow couldn’t see it.
To the Vzk’tk, size and strength—and therefore threat—correlated pretty much entirely to height. They had no idea how to assess anything substantially shorter than them. They feared Humans because of Kevin Jenkins’ legend. The Humans in turn spoke highly of the Ten’Gewek, and so some of that infamy transferred across. But for the Gao? Familiarity seemed to breed a sense of ease, and that meant by the magic of perception, the “little” Gao largely evaded the Deathworlder label. Sometimes that was convenient…
…But mostly it was insulting.
“‘Wild’ is retired military, yes?” Moj offered. “Maybe he has skill to match his strength. But, why argue? He is here to be on our crew, not to fight us. Between the two of you, perhaps the Hunters will break their teeth on this ship, if they try.”
“Right!” Dora bubbled. “No way he’s going to want to get eaten either! And besides, the Clan won’t want to lose us! That’s why they installed all those shiny new toys! We’ll be fine.”
“I think you’re overestimating just how much the Clan cares about us,” Morwk retorted. “Or did you forget the Gao are in lockdown too? So many left to die…” He directed a pointed, accusatory look in Bruuk’s direction.
“That is enough,” Trrrk’k scolded him before Bruuk’s hackles were fully up. “You are troubled, I understand that. I am troubled too. There is no call for bitterness toward our shipmates over matters beyond their control. ”
Morwk drank his water, then turned to Bruuk and dipped his whole torso in the Kwmbwrw version of an apology. “Of course. That was disrespectful of me. I withdraw it.”
Bruuk willed the fur along his back to settle down and pulled his claws back in. He’d never actually attack one of his crewmates, and they knew it, but body language was a hard thing to set aside. Especially when Morwk had struck such a tender nerve. He duck-nodded in reply, and the tension reverted to comfortable silence.
It only lasted a few seconds before being interrupted by a heavy Clonk that resonated through the hull: the sound of the airlock cycling. Dora sprang to her feet eagerly.
The rest of the crew stood too, with varying degrees of enthusiasm of speed. Bruuk was last up, and second to the door after Dora. He tried to remind himself to be positive and friendly. After all, he’d got used to Urgug’s musty carpet smell and Trrrk’k’s smoking habit in time. Maybe this Wild wouldn’t be so bad.
The only thing to do was to meet the new guy and find out.
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
On the inside, the ship gave about the same impression as her exterior. Functional rather than stylish, but well squared-away. The lighting was clear, bright and neutral, the gravity a little low at exact Dominion standard, but the airlock cycled healthily and the area beyond was clean. A small round cleaning drone—a Roomba by another name, really—skirted around Ian’s feet with a warble and continued on its patrol up the length of the deck.
Right. Any space with three or four furry lifeforms in it had to deal with shed hairs and dander. Having some robo-vacuums made sense.
The atmosphere was cool and dry, and a little thin. Rather like the Alps in late spring, minus the smell of grass and wildflowers. In fact, there was no scent at all that Ian could detect. It didn’t even smell sterile like a hospital, it just smelled…
Well, like totally clean, processed air.
He’d been expecting the crew to meet him at the airlock, and the fact that he wasn’t gave him a moment of confusion and disappointment, before a door opened a little way down the deck to his right and they emerged.
The word “motley” immediately sprung to mind when the door opened and Ian met the crew for the first time. No two of them were the same shape, size or colour, and only half of them were wearing any kind of clothes. He’d read the dossiers on them, of course. He knew a thing or two about their life stories. But that was a very different thing to meeting them in the flesh.
One of the first out was a surprisingly short but fuckin’ tank-like Gaoian brownfur, who got a good sniff of Ian and flicked an ear, before slinking out of the way with a slightly deck-shaking step to make room for the taller beings who emerged behind him. The Robalin beside him was practically bouncing with eager energy, an effect only enhanced by the entire Pride parade worth of mismatched LGBT+ patches, pins and stickers adorning her incongruous denim jacket.
Immediately behind them was a weathered Rrrrtk who could only be the captain. He greeted Ian with a long, slow nod, and stood aside to make room for a Guvnurag, who raised a hand and tucked it to his chest in welcome, while the Mjrnhrm beside him raised both hands and pressed them together in front of his chin in a gesture very reminiscent of a wai.
The last one, the Kwmbwrw, seemed just about as standoffish as the Gaoian. He dipped his body in the shallowest of welcomes, but otherwise barely moved.
It was a hell of an introduction. Wilde had only ever really interacted with Gao and Guvnurag before, plus a few encounters with some of Folctha’s Rrrrtk. He’d never met a Robalin, nor a Kwmbwrw or Mjrnhrm. This was…going to be a learning experience alright.
“…Hello.” He projected rather more confidence than he felt, and lowered his bag to the deck as he smiled at them. The Kwmbwrw gave it a wide-eyed look as it settled on the deck with a heavy sound. It did contain all of Ian’s worldly possessions after all. He’d been getting a bit tired of hauling it around.
“Welcome aboard” the shipmaster replied, through a small black translator worn on a choker high on his neck. He stepped forward and offered one of his sturdier hands for Ian to shake. “I am Shipmaster Trrrk’k, but please feel free to use whatever approximation of my name is easiest for you. It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“And you too,” Ian agreed, shaking the offered hand.
“I must say, I have rarely known Clan Whitecrest to offer such a strong recommendation. They seemed most eager for us to take you on.”
“Shared service,” Ian replied, with a nod. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the Clan too.”
“Good. Of course, I rather hope we will never need your specific talents, but better to have and not need, as they say.” Trrk’k tilted his head, then half-turned and gestured toward the rest of the crew. “Introductions?”
Trrrk’k gestured first to the Guvnurag. “Our navigator, quartermaster and accounts manager, Urgugnadvum,” he introduced.
The hues that flickered across the big guy’s body were…Ian wracked his brain, trying to remember the chart on Guvnurag tonal language he’d studied. Half the problem was that the Guvnurag saw about a million more hues than a human, so a quite visible and clear difference to them was practically indistinguishable to human eyes. That mottle of royal blue and emerald green could mean everything from bored indifference to, in this case hopefully, professional but genuine warmth.
He also extended a hand so huge that Ian’s own was baby-small in comparison, and he had to shake the big guy’s finger rather than the whole thing. “Ah, the man I talk to about getting paid” Ian joked, then deepened his voice into his bass register. “Durumuddrad-bugvutharrah.”
He got what he was hoping for: a flash of bright purple signifying surprised gratification. He’d practiced that greeting for an hour.
“And to your kin and self as well!”
“How was my pronunciation?”
A hefty cough and a flash of green was the Guvnurag version of a guffaw. “Terrible, but the effort is most welcome.”
“This is Mojremm’rt, our pilot,” Trrrk’k continued, indicating the Mjrnhrm. Ian blinked as he got a closer look: from what he’d read of Mjrnhrm culture, the beetle-like ETs tended to wear a family emblem acid-tattooed into their foreheads, but Mojremm’rt had a Yin-and-Yang there instead. The rest of him was just as bizarrely tattooed, with a cross on his right pectoral chestplate, and the mon of Clan Starmind opposite on the left. And, dotted across the rest of him, a star and crescent moon, a pentacle, a Jainist hand, the Gaori for “Keeda,” the head of Baphomet, the Buddha, the Star of David, and several other icons that Ian didn’t recognize, though he could guess at the theme. The tattoos went all the way down to the waistband of a pair of baggy dark orange pants, and the only visible part of him not currently adorned by acid-etch had a scuffed, pale look like he’d recently sandpapered it.
“Moj,” he offered, shaking Ian’s hand. “Just Moj.”
“Moj it is,” Ian promised.
“…And this is Morwkwm, our engineer,” Trrrk’k introduced the Kwmbwrw, who repeated that shallow dip.
“Morwk is fine,” he grunted, tersely.
“The vibrating one is Dora, our cargo handler and drone technician…”
“It’s so nice to meet you!” Dora chirped, unmistakably without the aid of a translator.
“You’re speaking English?”
“Oh hell yeah!” She presented her forward hand for Ian to shake. “Fuck Robakol. In fact, just assume my attitude to anything the Supremacy approves of is ‘fuck that,’ ‘kay?”
“Well, fair enough!” Ian gave her the firmest handshake he dared, which she turned into a high-five. Dora, it seemed, was a handful.
“And lastly, this is Bruuk, our chef and medic,” the captain finished.
Bruuk’s firm pawshake and incongruously tenor hello were…polite…but not warm. Ian knew Gaoian body language well enough to spot that the brownfur didn’t like the smell of him. Which was fair. He probably stunk, he hadn’t had the chance to shower in more than a day.
Still, he’d had worse introductions.
“I will show you to your suite,” Trrrk’k promised, and waited until Ian had picked up his bag and swung it over his shoulder. “This way.”
“Mealtime is in two hours!” Dora called. “We’ll get to know you then!”
Ian waved back in thanks, then let out a long breath as he caught up with the captain.
“The anticipation of a first meeting is always worse than the event itself, is it not?” Trrrk’k sympathized.
“You’re not wrong, mate,” Ian chuckled. “I was dreading that all day.”
“In case you are wondering why Bruuk was so reticent, he has a particularly sensitive nose even by Gaoian standards. He boasts it is as good as the Great Father’s is alleged to be.”
“That’s quite a claim. I’ve met the Great Father, and he could smell what I ate three days previously.”
Trrrk’k turned his head to look at him and made a faintly surprised trilling sound. “Indeed? Well you may find that Bruuk is not…hmm…quite as enthusiastic about his species’ sovereign as many others. There is a reason he lives at a remove from his people, and has never progressed to Associate of Clan Whitecrest.”
“Seems to me like we’re all working at a remove from our species.”
“For our own reasons, yes. Though that is not so unusual in my case. The Rrrrtktktkp’ch are solitary by nature.”
“So who should I get to know first? After Dora, that is?”
“Dora?” A human would have used an insincere I-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about tone with a sly smile. Trrrk’k lifted his head and made a kind of quiet cough deep in his belly.
“Come on, if I don’t talk to her properly by the end of the day, she’ll bloody burst, anybody could see that.”
A louder cough was probably the Rrrrtk equivalent of a ‘Hah!’ “…I believe Moj is just as eager, in his own way, but will not be offended by a delay. Morwk will most probably appreciate being left alone while he completes his pre-flight checklist but would likely take offence at being left to last. Urgug believes that relationships need time to steep properly and so won’t expect you to make time especially for him. Bruuk, I think, should be your second visit.”
“He’s the only brownfur I’ve ever met that’s shorter than me.”
“Second-degree. I’m told that’s very rare for his breed. And quite proud of it, or so he claims. I think the deeper truth is that he takes great pride in overcoming the disadvantages his stature brings.”
“I’d say so,” Wilde mumbled. “The lad’s bigger’n I am.”
“Shipmaster, I can tell just by looking. He’s built like a brick shithouse. No wonder Regaari was smirking! I’m training up yet another alien bruiser and I know he did that on purpose. Why do I always get the big guys?”
Trrrk’k made a sort of rock-gargling cough that was allegedly his species’ version of laughter. “I sense there may be some interesting stories behind that! In the meanwhile, I would advise you to handle Bruuk with some caution. He is fiercely loyal as all Gao seem to be, but in your specific case, it may take some time for him to grow fond of you. He…”
“Chip on his shoulder, then.”
“…Is that a turn of phrase?”
“Uh, yes. Sorry. It indicates…kind of a burden of resentment, hostility, grievance, that sort of thing.”
“Then yes. Oh yes. A chip of Guvnurag proportions.” That cough again. Was it a laugh after all? The captain smelled like a smoker. “But before you address it…your quarters.”
Ian considered the door they’d just stopped outside. “Thanks. I guess I’ll see you at dinner then.”
“There is only one mealtime on this ship. I understand humans need to eat more however, so you may need to cook your own second and third meals. Bruuk is already quite busy.”
“That’s unusual. Gaoians usually eat twice or three times a day too…”
“I believe he cooks all his food ahead of time. I am not so sure he would be so generous with you, at least to start.” The soft creaking sound that briefly emanated from Trrrk’k’s skinny thorax was probably an attempt to be reassuring. “He will warm up, I am sure.”
“Thanks. Oh, before—here. This is for you.” Ian plucked the datacard Regaari had given him from his pocket and handed it over.
“Ah. Yes. Thankyou.” Trrrk’k pocketed the card with a slow nod. “I will see you at dinner, then.”
Once the captain was gone, Ian took a second to figure out his door panel. Some thoughtful soul had already programmed English lettering and instructions into the ship’s systems for him at least. It didn’t take him long to figure out how to enter a new passcode, and then…
He’d been expecting something cozier. Or at least smaller. But of course, everything on this ship was designed for aliens up to as big as Urgug, who was roughly the size of a long-base van. Ian didn’t just have a cabin, he had a whole studio apartment.
He made a note to order some furniture. Folctha’s IKEA was having a closing-down sale, getting rid of their stock now that the lockdown meant they couldn’t resupply, and Ian had enough thousands in his savings account to turn the huge space he’d just entered into the ultimate bachelor pad…
…It’d be bloody expensive to ship it up and through the system defence field. Or at least, a serious pain in the arse to hand-carry. He did have some big cavemen friends, and a Ferd to help, but…No. Probably best they stay home. Saying goodbye to Ferd hadn’t been easy. Hell, he hadn’t even thought Ten’Gewek could cry…
Oh well. Expensive delivery costs it was. He could afford it.
For now, though, he explored, not that there was much to explore. The bed was a large soft patch of floor tucked up in the far corner opposite the door. It turned out to be a giant memory foam mattress, big enough for an elephant to sleep on and therefore far too big for Ian. Other than that the suite was bereft of furniture and there wasn’t, he realized, a bathroom. Instead he was going to have to shower, shave and do his business in the shared multi-species ablution facility that was presumably somewhere nearby. No kitchen, either. So in fact what he had was a giant combined bedroom and living room and not a lot else.
A problem for later. At least there was plenty of storage, all around the door. Shelving mostly, but he did find a rail tucked away in the back of one of the taller ones, and successfully mounted it to form a wardrobe. He hung up his shirts, trousers and jackets, tucked his underwear and socks on a smaller shelf, found room for his boots on a third one, then stepped back to consider the fact that one big and heavy bag had translated into quite a meager collection of stuff.
The biggest and heaviest part of his pack was his gun case. He’d brought two weapons with him, a SCAR and a Glock, plus a healthy supply of ammunition and such for both on a seperate pallet. God willing, he wouldn’t need either. He’d need a workbench in the corner there for cleaning and maintaining them.
With that small task done, he turned and considered the empty, rather cold space that was to be his home until he ever—if he ever—grew tired of this new life he’d signed up for. It needed a lot of work to make it his. But that was going to be part of the fun.
He smiled, and set about searching for the atmosphere and gravity controls.
Bruuk, Clanless employed by Clan Whitecrest
Wild stank, all right, though he weren’t nearly as bad as Bruuk had feared. Mostly he smelled of exercise and testosterone, which were good, honest scents a brownie like Bruuk could approve of. He also reeked of uncertainty…though maybe that weren’t exactly what Bruuk was smelling. He knew that Humans smelled almost familiar, but not completely so, and that a gao should be careful not to assume anything because of that.
If that was as bad as it ever got, Bruuk could live with that. Balls, it weren’t as if he smelled like sweet-herb and summergrass all the time, either.
Wild’s arrival did mean larger meal prep and food supply concerns. In fact he’d be eating about as big as Bruuk probably, which meant the two of them together would be eating more than the rest of the crew combined…and that was assuming they remained sedentary. Bruuk was fond of his weights like any good brownfur, so that weren’t fuckin’ happening, and he doubted Wild was keen on sleeping the journey away, either. Bruuk had laid in enough stores to pack to their pantry full from corner to corner, and secreted as much away in auxiliary storage as he could reasonably fit. Hopefully, it would be enough.
His leisure time was going to shrink dramatically, he could tell.
Bruuk prided himself on cooking good, hearty meals that any species could enjoy. In Wild’s case, he’d asked Urgug to order appropriate supplements for an athletic Human. That was probably unnecessary given that most of his ingredients were Earthling species—Cimbrean was a dominant agricultural exporter precisely because Human crops were so rich and nutritious—but Bruuk didn’t know for sure, and in any case he wasn’t keen on sharing his own protein power and such. On a multi-species crew, little details like that were important.
Mercifully, when mealtime came around, Wild had showered and changed into clean clothes. He used an unperfumed laundry detergent, but his body wash was heavy with a woody, slightly spicy fragrance that clashed with the aroma of the day’s dish, and Bruuk just knew it was going to linger in the ablutions facility.
Still. It wasn’t an unpleasant scent in isolation…
Wild was first to arrive. He took an appreciative sniff as he entered, smiled, and helped himself to a cup of water from the pitcher in the middle of the table.
“That smells excellent,” he commented, in surprisingly fluent Gaori.
“And I thought Humans had no sense of smell,” Bruuk replied, happy to wrap his tongue around more comfortable words.
Wild took the jab affably as he considered the mismatched assortment of seats intended for wildly different anatomies around the table, and quickly identified that the new and shiny one was appropriately proportioned for a human. He sat down and sipped his water. “Not as good as a Gaoian’s, that’s true. Skipper tells me yours is especially good.”
Bruuk preened a bit, “Finest in the galaxy!”
“That’s quite a boast. Okay. What did I have for breakfast…oh…three days ago?”
Bruuk scowled at him for a second, then abandoned his cooking for a moment, steeled himself, and took a good snuffle of the human at close range.
“…Some kind of grain, with milk, nuts and a sugary syrup full of volatiles.”
“Honey nut cornflakes, you’re right.”
“Told you.” Bruuk allowed himself a certain satisfied swagger as he returned to his kitchen. “Yesterday and today, you had poached eggs and bacon. And some really low-quality meat fried in grease shortly before you came aboard. And—”
“Alright, alright!” Wild laughed. “You know, I never get over just how long those scents linger.”
“I have to get good and close and concentrate to pick up on old ones like that. But yeah. Humans tend to…dominate the nasal landscape. Though not as much as whoever that was you were hanging out with a few hours ago. They certainly don’t smell human…”
“That’d be Ferd Given-Man. Ten’Gewek.”
“I think I may need to wear a mask if I ever meet one in person.”
“Yeah. Even to me, he’s a noseful.” Wild chuckled. “I—”
He was interrupted by the door, which opened to admit Moj. The pilot greeted the room with a wai, then stalked over to his seat and settled gracefully on it. “How did you find your quarters, Human?”
“Uh…spacious. Don’t think I’ve ever had that much room all to myself before.”
Moj made a clicking sound that, in his people, blended the functions of a nod and a “hmm” of agreement. “Short privilege. You, Gao, Corti, you get more living space out of the same volume. For Dora, Morwk and me, comfortable. For Urgug and the shipmaster…”
Moj tilted his head thoughtfully. Apparently his language didn’t include an equivalent word, because the translator on the side of his head took a while to finish, “…Interesting concept. Yes. Probably.” He folded his hands in his lap and bowed his head. “Excuse me.”
Wild watched him for a second, then shot a curious glance at Bruuk. Bruuk just duck-shrugged. Moj was, from what he’d told Bruuk, considered irrevocably insane by his species’ standards, not that Bruuk had ever noticed. Okay, so he spent an inordinate amount of time “Resonating with the Higher” as he called it, but whatever Resonating involved, it mostly seemed to consist of being still and quiet and mindful of the present moment.
Curiously, Wild bowed his head and went quiet too. Maybe he and the Mjrn had something in common after all.
Most of the rest of the crew arrived together. Dora and Urgug were, of course, as talkative as ever and their mutual disgust with some comms operator over on the station was ongoing it seemed. Apparently one of the Humans over there had, in Dora’s words, “a pole up his ass.” Morwk gave Bruuk a resigned look, sighed, and moved to sit opposite Wild, who looked up and gave him a nod and a smile.
Bruuk couldn’t fault the Human’s willingness to get along, at least.
Dora, of course, promptly dragged her stool over with a squeal to sit next to Wild, antennae waving excitedly. “So what do you think of the ship?!”
“I, uh… Well, I haven’t really had a chance to look around, yet,” Wild replied.
“I could show you! Well, except I’m super busy taking on cargo right now so maybe this isn’t the best time so, yeah, maybe you’re right. But you should totally come see what I do while I’m still doing it!”
Bruuk forced back a fond chitter, willed his ears into a more neutral position when Wild glanced at him, and carried on serving his food.
“Well, I plan on getting to know everyone, of course,” Wild replied.
“No time like now!”
“True. I was wondering about your jacket, actually—”
“Oh, don’t get her started on the jacket, please, Morwk groaned. “You’ll get her whole life story.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Dora feathered her antennae indignantly.
“We’ve all heard it,” Morwk replied.
“Haven’t heard his story,” Moj replied, lifting his head out of his trance as the door opened and Trrrk’k joined them. He bobbed his head in greeting to his crew then settled gracefully on his bench at the head of the table. “Only fair that the newcomer should share a journey that none of us have heard before.”
Dora hesitated. “…Ooh, yeah. Good point! You were a soldier, right?”
“A Royal Marine and JETS operator,” Wild confirmed. He reached up and tapped beside his eye. “Until this happened, anyway.”
“You certainly went with an obvious prosthetic,” Morwk commented. Bruuk duck-nodded, unconsciously. Wild’s right eye was glossy black with a misshapen white patch on the front for a pupil. As synthetic replacements went, it was unmissable.
“It’s not even a prosthetic, mate. I caught boiling metal fragments to the face, all the way back to here. Totally fucked me up, cut my entire face to ribbons. The surgeons fixed me up…mostly. But the optic nerve was destroyed beyond all hope of regeneration. This bit of glass is purely cosmetic.”
“You survived that?!” Dora looked fascinated, while Urgug went a squeamish shade of yellow-green and even Trrrk’k uttered a small creak of dismay.
“Barely. It helped having a giant gorilla toss me into a stasis locker like a ragdoll.”
“…Is that a human skull on the front?” Dora had leaned in to get an even closer look.
“Sure is. My Ten’Gewek friend’s idea.” Wild chuckled. “Started calling me ‘Death-Eye’ too. And, that was the end of one career.”
“You said you met the Great Father of the Gao, too,” Trrrk’k recalled, changing the subject away from such medical matters. Bruuk stiffened, listening intently as he carried the first plates over and set them down.
“Yeah. I was on HMS Caledonia at the Battle of Gao. When we got sunk and had to abandon ship, I wound up planetside. Amanyuy territory, if you know it Bruuk?”
“I do. I was from Yuy Geng originally,” Bruuk told him, delivering the second set of plates to the table. “Until the Great Father destroyed it.”
“That he did, yeah.” Wild hesitated, then cleared his throat. “…Anyway, by cosmic weird luck, I ended up at a farmstead that turned out to be the launch point to reclaim the Three Valleys. One of the SOR’s senior NCOs took charge of keeping us alive, I worked with her until Daar and his army turned up and…well, between Kovač and Daar, I saw a good direction for my career to move in. And it was a good direction, up until…”
He trailed off, and brushed his fingers across his right cheek with a wry expression. “Well, we can’t all be superheroes, I guess.”
“Would you consider yourself a typical Human, then?” Dora asked. “You sound like you’ve lived a pretty heroic life so far!”
“That’s a tricky word. I’ve not had a typical life, no. I’m bloody fit and strong, but I’m no superman. And reasonably smart, but not a genius. I suppose I’d need to concede that I’m stubborn as a bloody mule, though, which counts for a lot…” Wild gave Dora a shrug. “Definitely wouldn’t call myself a hero, though. Wouldn’t…feel right.”
“I don’t think I could stand having a shipmate who thought of himself as a hero,” Bruuk opined, sitting down with the last two plates. “Anyway. Eat, before it cools.”
“I don’t know anyone who thinks of themselves like that, now that you mention it. Which…I dunno. Ferd’s a hero as far as I’m concerned. My whole team owes him their lives. So is Tooko. I owe him my life several times over.” For a moment, Wild looked distant, but it passed, he hooked his plate over and brightened at its contents. “Tell you what though, the food already looks better in this line of work!”
Bruuk handed over a vitamin bottle. “I hope so. Just in case, I ordered these for you. There’s more too, I’ll bring them to you later on.”
“Cheers. Uh…Before we eat, there’s a human tradition called a ‘toast’ if I may?”
Mostly there were intrigued reactions along the lines of ‘go ahead’ from the crew, except for Dora who clearly knew what was involved as she started to fill cups of water and hand them out. Once they were distributed, Wild picked his up, stood, and raised it slightly in the air in front of him.
“…To new friends,” he said, and lifted the drink a little higher. The rest of the crew followed Dora’s example in raising theirs too, and then drinking.
It was, Bruuk felt, a good tradition.
By long-standing tradition, the rest of the crew cleaned and put away after dinnertime. Dora spent most of the time eagerly showing Wild where all the utensils should go, but that was acceptable. Somebody needed to. And in fact, with his contribution, the work went faster than ever.
Afterwards would normally have been recreation and social time, but today was a little different. They had a job for the Clan.
So, when Trrrk’k mentioned it, Urgug, Morwk and Dora nodded and slipped away, leaving the rest of them to talk business. Wild watched them go, then turned a raised eyebrow toward Bruuk, who gestured for him to sit down as Trrrk’k retrieved one of the Clan’s little toys, a privacy field generator, from his pocket and set it in the middle of the table.
Moments later, they were secure in the fuzzy silver dome of a privacy field. The other three knew the ship did business with the Clan: for the most part, they preferred not to be directly involved, and Trrrk’k preferred it that way himself.
He considered Wild for a second as the Human sat and looked at him expectantly. Alert but patient. Attentive. Good. He’d expected nothing less, but it was good to see.
“We are going to the capitol system of the Kwmbwrw great houses,” Trrrk’k revealed. “Specifically, Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, one of that system’s biggest and busiest stations, owned by House Henen. The Clan’s “friend” aboard that station has missed several scheduled reports.”
Moj made a prolonged, low-grade buzzing sound, like a quiet bass cicada. “House Henen is powerful. Their Grandmatriarch is ambassador to the Dominion Council.”
“Which is exactly why the Clan is sending us, the deniable asset.” Trrrk’k lit his pipe, taking his time over it as he spoke. “The Friend might be in hiding, captured, or dead. We are to determine which, and extract them if alive.”
“And if dead?” Bruuk asked.
“Extracting a captured spy from under the nose of one of the most powerful factions of an influential Dominion species…Feel like I’m jumping in at the deep end,” Wild chuckled.
“I was assured that it is entirely within your abilities,” Trrrk’k told him.
“Probably. Goodness knows, I’ve pulled off some shit in my time.”
“…I shall interpret that as confidence.” Trrrk’k finished lighting his pipe and puffed out a small smoke cloud through his nostrils.
Ian nodded. “Still, I don’t work alone. If it does come time to put me to work, who are my teammates?”
Bruuk grumbled, and indicated himself and the Mjrnhrm. “Us.”
“Yeah? I kinda guessed you would be, Bruuk, but uh…no offense intended Moj, you’re a bit of a surprise…”
“No offense taken,” Moj assured him. “But yes. No deathworlder I, but gifted with useful skills anyway.”
“Moj thinks a locked door is more of a suggestion than an obstacle,” Bruuk explained. The Mjrnhrm buzzed contentedly.
“If they don’t want people going through, why advertise that something good is on the other side by locking it?” he quipped.
“And that would be why they kicked him off their planet,” Bruuk added.
Wild raised his eyebrows at Moj. “They exiled you?”
“Sanded off my family markings and etchings. Gave me the name of an outcast…” Moj buzzed that same contented buzz again. “Called me insane, too. Shame, really. Fly charter shuttles without incident for twelve years, prevent a crash that would have killed dozens, nobody remembers. But rob one bank…”
“You can tell that story later, Moj,” Trrrk’k said firmly, then turned to Wild. “Be warned. He exaggerates. He would have you think he is an impulsive kleptomaniac, but he is not.”
Moj’s buzzing sound was mock-aggrieved now. “Always you spoil my fun,” he lamented.
“Can we focus, please?” Bruuk requested.
“There is not much more to focus on,” Trrrk’k told him. “Wild, Bruuk, I think it best if you remain on the ship while Moj and I investigate the Clan’s friend. The Kwmbwrw are not hospitable to deathworlders.”
“Fair,” Wild nodded affably. “The longer we get to train together, the better.”
“…Training?” Bruuk looked mildly offended, which left Wild unmoved.
“Did you serve in the Grand Army?”
“Ever undergone any military or security training at all?”
Bruuk straightened his spine proudly. “My workhouse taught me how to fight.”
Wild nodded. “Nice. I’ll enjoy seeing that training in action.” He looked to Moj. “What about you?”
Moj shrugged. “Always new tricks to learn. You say train, we train. Tonight, maybe? Interesting to see what training with a Human is like…”
“No can do, I have a list of things that need bringing aboard and setting up first. Which, we should probably discuss, skipper.”
Trrrk’k nodded slowly. “Yes, we should. Moj, Bruuk, thank you both for staying. I will not take up any more of your time.”
As the pilot and medic stood and left, Trrrk’k considered his new crew member for a second. He knew that Wild had led a team before, but the way he took Bruuk in stride was particularly gratifying. Trrrk’k himself had struggled with their Gaoian at first.
“I should warn you about Mjrnhrm humor,” he explained.
Wild looked interested. “What about it?”
“The cornerstone of a good Mjrnhrm joke is an outrageous lie,” Trrrk’k explained. “The only thing they find funnier than tricking somebody into believing something incredible, is being accused of a lie they have not in fact committed. And Moj, I believe, is by their standards something of a comedian.”
“I guess that makes getting at the full story behind his tattoos…interesting…”
“An exercise in futility, I think. In any case, you mentioned needing to bring some things aboard?”
“Yeah.” Wild fished in his pocket for a small device. “Just a little shopping list, the Clan should hopefully cover the bill…”
Trrrk’k nodded, and listened as he explained. It wasn’t a long list.
But it was very interesting.
Date Point: 17y7m3w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Daar knew it was bad because Thurrsto and Sheeyo chose to ambush him right after the bestest bit o’ grunty liftin’ an’ wrasslin’ with First Fang he’d had in ages. They musta wanted him good an’ tired and hopefully ridin’ a happy high before they rained doom down upon his day.
Devious, really. He’d need ‘ta pay ‘em back one day.
Daar chitter-sighed to himself, detangled from Gurrum an’ his bestest, and shook some of the lathered-up sweat out of his pelt. He was more or less permanently in a sleek, almost to-the-skin cut these days, but even that could hold a ‘Back’s sweat like a sponge, if he were workin’ hard enough.
“I hope ‘yer not losin’ ‘ta Righteous as hard as ‘ya jus’ lost ‘ta me,” Daar growled happily, as he yanked ‘Kodiak’ up to his footpaws.
“Naw, I give ‘em a good fight,” Gurrum rumbled happily in reply. “An’ I do that even wit’ him bein’ stronger’n me, too!”
“That’s good! You keep ‘em on their monkey toes, y’hear?! That’ll jus’ mean we all get better!!”
Daar made to praise the rest of his playmates, but Thurrsto chittered in that very specific, urgent tone he had for when niceties had to be dispensed with. Daar turned toward him and sighed; It musta been really bad. They weren’t even giving ‘em a chance to hose down.
“An urgent matter requires your attention, My Father. Fourth-claw with safeguards.”
“I’mma be awful disappointed if this ain’t somethin’ of fuckin’ planet-shattering significance, if ‘yer gonna git ‘tween me an’ a pool o’ nice, cold water…”
“As an owner of a magnificently long and silky pelt, I’d never do something so cruel unless I had to,” Thurrsto dead-panned, as he reached for his portable privacy field button. “One of our ‘friends’ in Kwmbwrw space has gone silent,” he explained, once it was active.
“…Okay? No offense, but I trust you to handle tradecraft matters on ‘yer own, Champion Thurrsto…what’s the catch?”
“This particular one was investigating an issue with the Gorai biodrones, My Father.”
“You have my absolute and undivided attention, Champion. What issue?”
“Per your orders, the Grand Army elements on Gorai have been taking biodrones alive wherever possible, especially female and cub biodrones, and attempting de-implantation and rehabilitation wherever possible.”
“Yeah. My unnerstandin’ is that, there ain’t generally nobody home ‘ta save no more.”
“Clan Openpaw remain optimistic but, well…optimism is that Clan’s greatest character flaw. The Corti suggested wholesale new personality implantation, which we rejected on ethical grounds—”
“—And rightfully so.”
“But it may be relevant nonetheless. The issue we’ve been chasing is a miscount, a discrepancy between the biodrones reported taken in the field, and those actually arriving at the rehabilitation facility on Gorai’s moon.”
“…I’m gonna really fuckin’ hate this, ain’t I?”
Thurrsto’s ears flattened slightly. “Last year, one of our friends on the borders of the Kwmbwrw Great Houses fed us an intriguing sighting: a Kwmbwrw light freighter loaded with cargo containers with Gaori markings. Nothing inherently unusual, but they made an emergency stop and cleaned out the station’s supply of spare temporal-spatial field stabilizers. When our friend gained access to the manifest, there was nothing listed that should have required stasis transport. At first it was just a curiosity, probably smuggling, nothing important, but we asked our friends to look out for it anyway.”
“And what happened?” Daar asked.
“It was next sighted by another, closer friend of ours at Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, a major trade hub and shipyard in the Kwmbwrw home system, where it received a number of crates in escrow from a non-College Corti ship before departing,” Sheeyo said. “Three days later, it was listed as destroyed in a Hunter attack near the Brwnyn system.”
“Try as we might, we cannot corroborate its destruction,” Thurrsto added. “There was Hunter activity in that sector on that date, but their raid was thwarted by a megalight intervention. Clan One-Fang reported zero civilian casualties. And that got Sheeyo’s sniffer twitching.”
“Gorai is an active system. Our reconstruction efforts mean a lot of alien ships coming and going. Clan Goldpaw use the system’s asteroid and moon mining operations to finance and supply the Grand Army, so foreign freighters make port a few times a day. Plenty of opportunities for our biodrone miscount to be explained by a smuggling operation in Gaoian biodrones. So I had one of our planes ‘dust’ a biodrone population in Gorai-Yi-Gu just before they were rounded up.”
“Dust?” Daar asked.
“One of our toys,” Thurrsto explained. “A nanotech powder with a distinctive radio signature, that clings to fur like nothing else, and stays there even through decontamination cycles. Looks and smells like mild dander. You have to wax to get rid of it quickly, but it transfers from fur to hair and cloth quite readily.”
“Sure enough, three weeks after the next miscount, our good friend on Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm detected traces of our dust,” Sheeyo said, grimly.
“…An’ the only way it coulda got there is if a biodrone from Gorai-Yi-Gu was on that ship,” Daar surmised.
“Or somebody who physically interacted with one, yes.” Sheeyo duck-nodded. “Our good friend went dark not long after. His last check-in suggested he had a promising lead he was going to investigate. We think he may have been captured by House Henen internal security.”
Daar’s hackles, which had already risen angrily as he listened, fully bristled. “‘Yer tellin’ me that the Grandmatriarch’s house is involved?”
Thurrsto ducked his head cautiously. “It could be simple counterespionage. The Great Houses spy on each other all the time, they’re…challenging for that reason. We are sending some more friends to investigate, and will act and brief you based on what they discover. But, um…”
“We take the possibility seriously enough that the group of friends we sent includes Sergeant Wilde, My Father.”
Daar duck-nodded, pleased by that. Wilde hadn’t deserved what happened to him. Knowing that he was getting the chance to keep fighting the good fight was welcome news, as was knowing that when Whitecrest hired a “friend,” they hired incredibly competent friends.
“Well, Ol’ True-Name better hope they completely fuckin exonerate her,” he snarled out loud. “Or this is gonna get ugly.”
“….Old True-Name, My Father?” Thurrsto flicked a confused ear.
“Linguistic coincidence,” Sheeyo explained. “That’s what her name means in an obscure Human language. Anyway…this is who we sent. Shipmaster Trrrk’k has been working with us for forty years, he’s one of our oldest and closest friends.”
Daar accepted the tablet and swiped down the freighter’s crew, duck-nodding as he scanned each one’s summary.
“That’s quite the motley crew you’ve assembled. Ah, Bruuk! I ‘member him! Tried out ‘fer Clan not too long ago. Damn good prospect, but…just, whole lotta resentment in ‘em, y’know?”
“We offered him employment when Stoneback turned him down.”
“Good ‘fer him! You could use some more good honest brawn in ‘yer Clan!”
Thurrsto chittered deep in his broad chest. “You don’t need to convince me of that, My Father.”
Sheeyo rolled his eyes, which prompted Daar to drop down to his haunches and draw a bit closer. He was fond of his Champions as a rule, but he’d maybe not been generous enough with affection in Sheeyo’s case. He’d done very much for the Gao, after all.
“An’ we got Sheeyo here ‘ta thank ‘fer a good lead? Never did really unnerstand the connection ‘tween ‘yer Clans…”
Sheeyo preened a bit, and looked up at Daar with pride. “Well, really we have the Clan’s Trade Analysis Cell to thank, but I am glad you are pleased, My Father. As to our history? Well, that’s simple!” Sheeyo chittered, “‘Follow the money’ is one of the oldest tricks around!”
“I won’t bore you with the full details,” Thurrsto chimed in, “suffice to say it was a rather brilliant piece of synthetic analysis. Now, though, things are likely to go kinetic so we’ve stepped in. Bruuk may be rebellious and aggrieved, but he is a fine medic, a quick thinker, brave, and exceedingly fit. He just needs…guidance, really. And a capable leader.”
“And you put Wilde onboard with him to give him those things. That should be interesting…”
“We thought having somebody to mentor would be good for Wilde. And good for Bruuk, too. An alien perspective which isn’t mired in our cultural baggage might be just what he needs.”
“How did’ya tame his loner streak?”
“We didn’t.” Thurrsto had an amused set to his ears. “He’s not Clan yet. We’ll see, though…”
“Ah,” Daar chittered. “Anyway. A good crew. It’d have been better if they’d had longer ‘ta gel together…but into the fire, I guess. What’s the status?”
“Boarding and taking on cargo at Armstrong Station. The Avenging Rage will follow them discreetly as far as the Kwmbwrw border for security.”
Daar couldn’t resist a small grin there. He was proud of the Rage-class. His own Destroying Fury and its fellows were like him in spaceship form, huge and fearsome and unstoppable. There was no small amount of ego involved, no point thinking otherwise.
Avenging Rage was an ambush predator, almost as stealthy as the Silent But Deadly or Drunker on Turkeyer, but armed to smash practically anything in seconds. She couldn’t take the beating that a Fury would, but she wouldn’t need to if used correctly.
“Good. Good…” Daar huffed out a huge sigh, then fixed Sheeyo with a Look. “…’Course, we know somebody Gaoian’s involved. Don’t we.”
The two looked at each other uncomfortably. “…Yes, Father.” Thurrsto took the lead. “We don’t have anything solid yet, but there’s only a few real possibilities…”
Daar sighed again. They all know what he’d have to do to whichever pack of total fuckin’ idiots were involved. “And?”
They told him.
Daar had been right. He really fuckin’ hated it.
Date Point: 17y7m3w1d AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
If Ian had thought to guess based on her…anarchic first impression, he would have imagined that Dora would have a painful singing voice. “Enthusiastic, but missing some of the notes” would have been on-brand for her, from what he’d seen so far.
As it turned out, she was pretty good. But her taste in music, on the other hand…
♪“All eyes on me in the center of the ring just like a circus! When I crack that whip, everybody gon’ trip just like a circus…!”♫
Her Pride-festooned jacket, and the feathery antennae atop her head, were swaying back and forth as she bopped along in time to the song, keeping the beat with her left hand while the forward and right ones deftly manipulated the controls of a tug drone outside as it guided a shipping container into its place in the rack.
Robalin were the only trilaterally symmetrical species that Ian knew of. The usual comparison was a vague “lizard-ant hybrid” but the reality defied such a simple summary. Dora had wide-set, large eyes set atop a broad leaf-shaped head that let her see almost completely behind her, so she easily saw Ian coming and turned her head to wave with her left hand while one of the others turned the music down.
A pair of fluffy antennae more like a moth’s than an ant’s sprouted behind her eyes, serving as olfactory organs and, from what Ian had read, they served a social function too in that the closest thing Robalin had to kissing involved lightly brushing their antennae together.
Other than that, her skinny limbs terminated in tridactyl hands and feet, with no chirality to tell them apart.
There, the insectoid similarities ended. Unlike the chitinous Moj, Dora was scaly, with the softer skin on the inside of her joints being smooth, emerald green and skink-like while the outer-facing skin was a lustrous glossy olive-black and the texture of river pebbles. A spiny “beard” ran up either side of her jaw and met at the back of her head, and a couple of the larger spines bore metal piercings.
“Hello, Dora.” Ian paused at the threshold of her little command blister. “Am I okay to come in?”
“Sure, sure!” Dora turned her music off completely, scratched the ridge above her mouth where a human would have had a nose, and then clearly decided that the drone didn’t need her full attention for the moment. “I gotta say, it is so cool to actually be on a crew with a Human! Like, part of the reason I love the Cimbrean run is ‘cuz I get to meet your people and stuff, but actually having one of you aboard is just—I’m babbling. Sorry.”
Ian chuckled. “Let me guess. The others complain when you start getting enthusiastic?”
“Eh, sometimes.” Dora swivelled her chair to face him. “So I’m guessing you have questions? I know I make a weird first impression, huh?”
“Actually you remind me of my younger cousin.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“Bubbly, kinda mental, queer as a nine bob note.”
“Ooh, I like that one!” Dora had a disarmingly human giggle, and Ian couldn’t tell if that was a natural Robalin laugh or an affectation. “Yeah, that’s me! Gay as fuck and proud of it!”
“First time I ever met an LGBT nonhuman.”
“Really? I heard the Ten’Gewek—”
Ian shrugged. “For them, the idea of even needing to define themselves that way is totally alien. They just fuck every which way, that’s their normal,” he said. “Pride, though? I honestly thought we were the only ones daft enough to even make a big deal out of it.”
“Yeah, well. The ‘Wisdom’—” Dora managed to cram a whole lifetime of venom into two syllables “—has it that folks like me are Deviant, and the greater good means the collective has a right to recoup its expended resources in our ‘failed’ upbringing by sending us off to labor camps.”
She shook her head and her antennae lashed irritably. “I definitely prefer the folks who have fancy colorful parades and stuff and actually celebrate being yourself. And in all the galaxy, that’s Humans. So…yeah. I like your people. A lot. Nobody else really gets just how evil the Supremacy and their fucking ‘Wisdom’ really are, but you do.”
“‘Cuz we nearly went there ourselves.”
“Exactly!” Dora nodded enthusiastically. “To the others it’s just this academic thing, this weird alien culture with alien morals. You guys fought that evil and won. And now people like me and all kinds of other people besides get to live free and open and fly a flag that says “this is who I am and that’s beautiful!” I…you probably don’t know how much that meant to me, learning that such a thing even existed. That’s why I took a Human name. I don’t want to be anything the Supremacy approves of.”
“Fair enough.” Ian agreed. “So what else should I know about you?”
Dora hesitated. “…Ooh, that’s a question. Umm…I love Japanese food and Human military history. I collect—well, you can see what I collect, I’m wearing them. Uhm…Oh! I do magic tricks!”
“Yeah? What kind?”
“The classics! Card tricks, linking rings, the cup-and-balls routine…” Dora issued an excited and decidedly nonhuman chirp of excitement. “I’ll have to show you sometime!”
“Yeah you do,” Ian agreed with a chuckle. Her enthusiasm really was infectious. “I bet that extra hand comes in useful.”
“Yeah-huh! I even invented a routine that’s physically impossible for bibrachial species!” Dora wriggled proudly. “And, well, you probably heard me singing…”
“That I did. Not bad.”
“Thanks! Anyway. Your turn.”
Ian shrugged. “Don’t really have a favorite music genre, just songs I like. Guess I like Italian food the most…Can’t play an instrument, can’t even carry a tune in a bucket, definitely can’t do card tricks, though I can speed-reload in less than two seconds and I’m pretty good at pub quizzes. Don’t have a collection of anything yet…Maybe I’ll collect glass eyes.”
“Eww-hee-hew!!” Yeah, there was no way that giggle was an affectation. Robalin, it seemed, laughed in just the same way as a human would.
“I dunno. I guess I’ve always defined myself by my work,” Ian confessed. “I knew I wanted to be a Marine from a young age, and that’s what I was ever since. Being anything else is…” He trailed off and shrugged.
Dora’s antennae bobbed sympathetically. “Still figuring it out?”
“Without much success, until the whole ‘roguish space mercenary working for an alien ninja clan’ thing came along.”
Dora actually cackled. “Hah! Yeah! You should totally lean into that, really go all in…Maybe get a brown coat and start talkin’ all folksy-like…”
“You’ve watched Firefly?”
Alien though her expressions were, it was easy to tell that Dora was thrilled he got the reference. “You did notice that I’m a massive fangirl for basically everything Human, right? I’ve seen all kindsa weird cult movies and TV shows.” Her best approximation of a mischievous smile spread slowly across her features. “I even tried my hand at cosplay. You should see me in a red wig and orange rubber suspenders!”
Ian practically choked. “You’re pulling my leg!”
“I swear I’m not!” Dora’s antennae lashed happily. “I’ll show you my Instagram later.”
Ian shook his head disbelievingly. “Well, Dora…I think working with you might just be fun.”
“I hope so!” she chirped, then indicated behind her. “But right now, I should probably actually do my job, huh?”
“Probably should. Though, do you mind if I sit in and watch for a bit? It seems interesting.”
“It’s not. But sure!” Dora turned, theatrically pretended to crack her knuckles while waggling the spare hand in front of her like a magician about to conjure a hat rabbit, then dropped her fingers onto the controls and swung the drone around to collect a container from the waiting crane.
It was, as she predicted, dull work but done diligently and well. The rhythm to it was pretty straightforward: The ship had three cargo racks, one dorsal and two pectoral, each serviced by a crane which delivered containers from the station’s own handling system, and each equipped with a drone tethered by a power feed and cables. Dora would tag the containers for the drones to collect, the drones maneuvered, grabbed their container in a forcefield, then turned and delivered it to its designated spot in the rack. The work was mostly automated, with Dora adding a sapient’s insight to what otherwise would have been a stupid, mechanical process.
Her contribution, she explained as she worked, was the little touches. Planning things out so that, for instance, when they arrived at their first port of call, they didn’t have to dig out their deliveries from under a layer of containers destined for the second port, and so on. Everything she did was calculated to reduce turnover time and allow cargo to flow freely and easily onto and off the ship. Sometimes she juggled containers from one drone to another, deciding that one delivered by the dorsal crane belonged in the starboard rack instead.
Ian had to admit, his first impression had been wrong. Dora might come across as bubbly and ditzy, but she had focus when it came to doing her job.
After a few minutes of watching, he decided he’d seen enough and the best thing was to leave her to it. They traded see-you-laters, and he slipped out of her control blister to continue his exploration. He grinned when, behind him, he heard the deafening pop music resume.
He found Morwk elbows deep in the wall near the crew quarters, an impressive feat for a Kwmbwrw: Morwk’s arms were longer than Ian was tall. He had a wheeled tool cart next to him, with an assortment of gizmos neatly laid out atop it and ready to use.
Kwmbwrw didn’t really have a neck to speak of. They didn’t need one. On their ancestral homeworld, in their native habitat, they’d fed by lifting clumps of vegetation to their mouths with their hands, and like Dora, Morwk had big, wide-set eyes that saw about three-quarters of the world around him. He didn’t turn Ian’s way, but did languidly wave a hand.
“Busy?” Ian asked, leaning over slightly to inspect whatever the engineer was tinkering with.
“Always. This is routine cleaning and maintenance.” Morwk plucked a ratchet spanner off the cart and pushed it into the wall’s innards. “Do you want to know one of the comforting things about space travel?”
“It’s a great equalizer. If the ship goes badly wrong, it’ll kill you deathworlders just as fast as the rest of us.”
“That’s your idea of comforting, huh?”
“That’s my idea of a joke. Actually, in some emergencies, you’d die first. You need more oxygen than the rest of us.”
Ian didn’t quite know how to take that joke. Whether that was an example of Kwmbwrw humour or Morwk humour in particular, he wasn’t sure. Either way… “How’s the ship doing, anyway?”
“Better than brand new. Our friends in the Clan see to that. Our little side jobs for them pay far more than cargo haulage contracts, and they want to be sure their people or packages arrive safely, so…”
“Seems like it’s been a good arrangement, then.”
“Anything that makes my job less stressful is a good arrangement.” Morwk agreed as he withdrew a probe of some kind from the panel’s innards, inspected it, grunted what was hopefully a satisfied noise, and wiped it clean. “You don’t want a stressed ship’s engineer. You want a bored one.”
“That makes sense,” Ian agreed. “Mind if I ask what got you into the career?”
Morwk pulled off a complicated Kwmbwrw shrug as he put his tool away. “The job pays well, and I have children to support.”
“Yeah? How many?”
“Three.” Morwk closed the hatch and started to screw it shut. He stepped aside and made a grateful gesture when Ian grabbed a spare screwdriver and got the opposite corner. “Their mother and I didn’t separate on good terms, but at least thanks to me they have health insurance, tuition and a stable address.”
He drove home his second holding screw and stepped back. “And I have to admit…machines are easier than House politics.”
“I can think of some Human women who think we should be matriarchal too.”
“Human society is patriarchal?”
“Where I’m from, nowadays, in theory, we’re trying for neither.”
Morwk’s eye did something a human eye could never do: it rotated in its socket, through a full ninety degrees so that his slit pupil went from horizontal to vertical. Ian had no idea what kind of an expression that was or what it meant, but it was a freakishly alien bit of physiology.
“You used a great many qualifiers in that statement,” the engineer said, outwardly.
“Human society isn’t really one thing mate. We have more than two hundred countries, and way more than that in ethnic minorities, cultures, faiths…Where I’m from, walk across town and you’ll hear three different accents. But…yeah. Most human society is patriarchal.”
Morwk chortled and his eye returned to its resting orientation. “And we have hundreds of Houses, dozens of Great Houses, and thousands of our own minorities and historical groups. It seems our species are alike in complexity.” He chortled again. “Perhaps I will ‘toast’ to blissful simplicity at mealtime today.”
“I’d drink to that,” Ian agreed.
“Excellent…incidentally, if you are willing, I could use some strong extra hands for some tasks. I know you have your own responsibilities, but…”
“Mate, I’d be glad to.”
“You’re certain? You are under no obligation to–”
“Morwk,” Ian interrupted him. “If I didn’t want to do it, I’d tell you. I’m not that bloody obtuse.”
Morwk seemed to relax a little, “Thank you.” He finished stowing his tools in the cart. He turned away from it, looped his tail around its handle, and stalked away down the deck, towing it behind him. “ I appreciate that kind of straightforward simplicity.”
“Me too, mate.”
“You’re likely to hate it when we reach our destination, then.”
“How bad can it be?” Ian asked, following him. His reply was a prolonged and rather bitter chortle.
“My new friend…” Morwk chortled again, and his translator gave him the same despairing tone of voice that Ian might have used to say ‘Oh, my sweet summer child.’ “…You have no idea.”
Date Point: 17y7m3w2d AV
In all his years serving the Great House, Rythweth had interrogated plenty of spies. Most were from the other Houses, engaging in the political and industrial Great Game that kept all the Houses alert, and therefore the Kwmbwrw people as a whole honed and sharp.
The young man currently pacing around his unadorned cell and going slowly frantic from boredom and sleep deprivation, however, was not a House man. Rythweth had known that much from the moment he first tracked down the spy. The procedures he followed were different, more than just a variation on a theme, but genuinely odd. That implied alien.
Alien infiltration of House Henen was also a frequent occurrence, but usually the foreign agents were of a different species. It was rare for a Kwmbwrw to work for an alien power. And, frankly, it was rare for alien spies to be so subtle. Pinning down this one had tested the limits of Rythweth’s experience and assets, and his success was far from complete.
Nor could it be, so long as the stubborn dung-chewer continued to hold out and say nothing. There were possibilities that urgently needed disambiguating, and the longer the interrogation went on…
That the prisoner would break eventually was not in doubt. But he could always hold on long enough for his interrogation to be obsolete. Long enough to damage Ryth’s reputation and career, and Ryth had more than one venomous cousin waiting eagerly for that opportunity. His reputation was solid enough to not be ruined by one particularly stubborn spy…but it would be a gap in his armor that his competitors would ruthlessly exploit, just as he ruthlessly exploited theirs whenever he could. The fewer such gaps he exposed, therefore, the better.
Which meant he needed something more. Something to persuade his prisoner that continued resistance would just be an exercise in needless masochism, and if he just confessed what House Henen clearly already knew in full, he could end his unpleasant stay in the interrogation cells and move on to the comparative freedom of mere prison.
The prisoner had been a trader in…well, hardware. Fuses, filters, tools and spares for every conceivable design of ship passing through the station. Nary a ship docked at Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm without needing some spare parts restocked, and Ryth had to admit to being impressed by just what a variety of small yet vital things were methodically filed away in the shop’s dense warren of shelving.
“Thoughts,” he muttered. The palm-sized lenticular drone hovering slightly above and behind him warbled softly, acknowledging that he wanted to think out loud and have his words recorded.
Ryth randomly reached up and selected a part off the shelf. It was an elbow-shaped bit of plastic tubing with some kind of locking pin at each end, and a rubber seal. “A lot of dense shelving here,” he mused aloud. “Easy to get lost in this shop. Easy to lose a sense of scale…Drone, measure this room, compare to official station schematics and inform me of any discrepancy.”
The drone purred an affirmative, and flitted up to roof height, lingered there or a moment, then returned to its position at Ryth’s shoulder.
“No significant discrepancy found.”
“Toothbreak…” Ryth cursed mildly, though he wasn’t really surprised. Things were never that easy. Still, he wasn’t ready to discard that particular idea just yet. “…Note for later, compare station schematics to archived versions, just in case…Hmm…”
One of the smaller shelves at the back of the shop caught his attention. It was narrow, tucked away in a corner, and a sign at the top read “Exotics.” A notice posted below that apologized to customers for the limited selection on that shelf, and stated that the management would be happy to order the desired part on the customer’s behalf, though shipping would likely be lengthy and expensive. At first glance, Ryth couldn’t discern how the packaged items on the shelf were any different to the thousands of other nicknacks in the rest of the shop, but he didn’t recognize the text or brand markings on them.
He picked up a pack of small cylinders.
The drone hummed forward and inspected the packaging.
“Low-capacity power cells, non-standard size and specification. Origin: China, Planet Earth.”
Ryth cocked his head curiously, placed the power cells down, and picked up another with what looked like a substantially different alphabet. “And this one?”
“Fuses, non-standard size and amperage. Origin: Geng Ai Territory, Planet Gao.”
“Hmmm…tenuous, but it seems our spy has at least some contact with deathworlders…oh no. No, that’s a priority.”
A Gaoian connection could be bad. A Gaoian connection could be very bad indeed.
He turned to leave the shop, mind already whirling with unfortunate possibility, and was brought up short by an all-too-familiar figure watching him amusedly from the doorway.
She smiled, and looked around. “An interesting little boutique. I trust my most favored son is here on business?”
“Wonderful. I was beginning to worry. You’re usually so punctual with your reports, I can practically set my schedule by them…” She gave him a look that somehow blended expectant but high-pressure pride with an unspecified accusation. “Is something the matter? You have the air of an urgent revelation…”
“Oh good.” She stretched her back and tail out, languidly. “I’m pleased to know you’re just as talented as ever. Your grandmother is—”
“Mother…” Ryth didn’t look around conspiratorially. There was no surer way to attract attention. But he did make sure his next words could only possibly reach her ears and none other’s. “If you mean to imply that Grandmother is interested in this case….”
“I implied no such thing!” Mother had an impish streak. It was a flaw that Ryth had been careful not to inherit. “Oh, dear, you take your job so seriously, don’t you? I’m sure she has nothing to fear, with your faithful protection…”
She eyed the shop. “Most curious. I never would have guessed that ships needed so many kinds of parts. You’d think it would all be standardized by now, wouldn’t you?”
“Even mundane affairs have hidden complexity,” Ryth replied, neutrally and carefully. She was playing the more-stupid-than-she-actually-was act. Always testing. Ryth’s sisters and female cousins were never tested so hard, but then again, they were assumed to have the right instincts for the Great Game by dint of biology. A male, though?
Males were the earnest, honest, agreeable, straightforward thinkers. Not unintelligent, but unsubtle at the best of times, and dangerously so during the rut. So went common wisdom, anyway. Any male who overcame the deficiency of his gender enough to play the Great Game at any level, never mind what Ryth had achieved, did so in the face of millennia-old prejudice.
Ryth couldn’t blame the majority of males who looked at the insurmountable obstacle of entrenched matriarchy and decided that their lives would be easier, simpler and more enjoyable if they just accepted their lot. His own stubborn pride in playing the Game himself and playing it well had certainly been the source of much pain in his life.
And yet, in a way, his brand of very male stubbornness had worked to his advantage. There were times when taking the direct route worked. The trick was doing so sparingly and unexpectedly.
“Quite so,” Mother agreed. “In any case, I really shouldn’t interrupt you while you’re hard at work. I wouldn’t want to delay you.”
In other words, hurry the fuck up. Mother had mastered the delicate art of directness too, in her own indirect way. And right now she was telling him as bluntly as she ever did that this particular case was important.
Just how much did she know? How much did Grandmother know? Just how explosive was this particular incursion?
…A lot. If Grandmother was watching, it was explosive indeed. And Ryth could not pass it off. He’d either disarm it, or explode with it.
Rythweth bowed, pushed past Mother, and headed for the nearest tram station. There was a crawling sensation along his back now, his nerves telling him that he was suddenly playing the highest-stakes round of the Great Game yet.
And losing was not an option.
Date Point: 17y7m3w3d AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
The delay to bring aboard several large pallets loaded with boxes, crates and construction materials had put Urgug in a resentful mood, as evidenced by the slow ripples of color sweeping across his body under the fur. He loathed delays. Days spent in port were days spent paying the crew but not earning the money to pay them.
Still, the shipmaster had granted Wild time to bring aboard furniture for his quarters, plus other materials for a “project” in one of the Krr’zkvik’s unused storage bays.
The ship wasn’t old, but the original design was obsolete. Irbzrk Shipyards had been a prodigious producer of fully pressurized cargo ships, most of the hull being a honeycomb of individual bays, accessed, managed and loaded via the freighter’s long, hollow spine. It hadn’t been an inefficient system at all, and for certain kinds of cargo it had even been the better system. Shipping containers capable of protecting their contents from vacuum were far more expensive than just adding yet another large pressurized space to a ship already made out of large pressurized spaces.
Still, that obstacle too had faded with time and manufacturing. When the Krr’skvik had been retrofitted to accept containers on external racks, a half-dozen or so of her internal holds had been left behind, the ones installed within the ship’s main body rather than in the “trailer.” They mostly went unused. Urgug and Morwk had kept a few spare parts and supplies in there, but nothing that couldn’t be consolidated.
Now, it seemed, the shipmaster had given one of them to Wild for him to breathe new life and utility into. Bruuk had no idea what the one-eyed Human intended to do with that space, but it apparently involved several large sheets and boards of cheap pressed wood fiber (one of the ways Humans were really alien, that; no Gaoian carpenter would ever insult wood that way), plus nails, screws, glue and paint..
Once it was all aboard, however, there had been no reason for further delay. Whatever business Wild, the shipmaster and the Clan had with a ton of cheap construction material, it was now secondary to the business of getting their ship moving, their cargo of dry corn delivered and the Clan’s friend rescued or avenged.
The crew, for the most part, were on the bridge for departure. Only Dora and Morwk were absent, ensuring that the cargo and the ship were both comfortable with the transition to interstellar flight. For Bruuk and Wild, however, there was nothing to do except lurk at the back and talk quietly.
“So what’s your story, Bruuk?”
Bruuk flicked his ear at Wild’s question, then duck-shrugged. “Don’t really have one.”
“Oh come off it. A big bloke like you, working on a freighter that runs gigs for Clan Whitecrest on the side? Like…any other Clan, maybe. But them?”
Bruuk cheered slightly from the compliment, but kept his answer carefully neutral. “They’re just a Clan. The only thing interesting about them is their mandate and focus. For me, this is just a job. Same goes for Morwk and Urgug, and the Shipmaster never really discusses himself. Moj and Dora are the ‘interesting’ ones.”
Wild leaned casually against the wall and watched Moj apply enough reverse thrust to push them loose from Armstrong. With puffs of gas and clouds of little water crystals, the docking umbilicals separated and drifted free in the vacuum before slowly crawling back into their stowed positions.
“Just a Clan? No offense mate, but bullshit. In my experience, anyone connected to Whitecrest is never boring. They don’t like boring people.”
Bruuk duck-shrugged. “If ‘ya say so. All I know is, I was a goods vehicle operator. A trucker? I spent mosta my time movin’ shit back and forth along the northern isthmus highway.”
“I often wondered why your people never went with autonomous lorries and all that.”
“We did. My job was dull. Enter a destination, then sit back and stay alert for anything that might need me to hit the emergency brakes, or take over when the road markings and survey was no good. And of course, handle the paperwork, keep the vehicle in good repair, all the stuff that software couldn’t do…” Bruuk sighed. “Dull, but relaxing too. I could listen to talk shows and thoughtcasts, or music, or read a book. And it paid well! It was a pretty good life, actually. I had some successful dates, not bad ‘fer a young brownie. Sired a few cubs, too.”
“Mmm.” Bruuk shook his head. It wasn’t a story to be congratulated on, but he’d started it. In for a claw, in for a paw. “…The most recent mother’s name was Meeki. She was an accountant, and a good one. She took one look at my finances and in seconds she told me how much I owed to the city and region for infrastructure, how expensive a workhouse I could afford to live in, how much I should give to the Females to seem generous but not extravagant, foolish or desperate…”
He turned his nose slightly Ian’s way and flicked an ear. “She was very proud of her cybernetics, you see.”
Wild’s expression twisted a little. He didn’t say anything though, just listened. He was a good listener, it seemed, and Bruuk didn’t feel like fighting the urge to say more anyway.
“So that was how the war began for me. Three hours outside of Yuy Geng, I got a message from the Commune congratulating me on siring a healthy little male and asking if I wanted to suggest a name. Shortly after that, I was fighting for my life against a biodrone.” Bruuk looked out the window as Armstrong rolled and turned away from them. “…that cub was probably torn apart by his own mother. The other two…wouldn’t have left the Commune yet.”
Wild clearly had no idea what to say.
“It’s the past.” Bruuk shook his pelt out. “Better to let it out than let it fester.”
“Lot of people have lost, this past decade.”
“Exactly. Why should I be more miserable than them? I lived. Fyu, I’ve got both my eyes, both my nuts and a working sniffer. I helped form a little refugee community at a rest and refreshment stop, operated my vehicle’s radio to coordinate survivors, fought off biodrone raids…When the Grand Army marched up the Three Valleys and rescued us, a Stoneback came and talked to me, I moved on, got hired by Whitecrest…and here I am.”
“Made you the same kind of offer they made me, huh?”
“Well, except the crew doesn’t concern itself much about my skill at smashing shit and fucking things up. They think I’m here to cook, clean, and handle simple medical issues.”
Across the bridge, Urgug rumbled a quiet reply to Armstrong traffic control, then raised his voice for the rest to hear. “We are cleared to go to warp, at a top speed of one kilolight until we have passed the system threshold.”
Moj turned his head. “Heading and speed set. Cargo secured, propulsion and power nominal. On your command, shipmaster.”
Trrrk’k nodded. “Go to warp, helm.”
“Going to warp. Power to FTL in three…two…one…”
Outside the bridge’s portside window, the planet Cimbrean-V and the small crawling lights of traffic around Armstrong immediately vanished. There was no blur of acceleration, no sense of them lurching away. The ship achieved a thousand times the speed of light in less than a second, far too sharp an acceleration for anything biological to react to.
Wild grunted slightly. “…Y’know, I’ve travelled FTL before, but I never actually got to look out a window,” he said. “It’s a bit anticlimactic, isn’t it?”
“One does feel as though the occasion deserves a swirl of lights or a visible distortion or something,” Urgug agreed. “Alas, reality is often boring.”
“Yeah, but our Gaoian isn’t.” Wild reached out and gave Bruuk a hefty, aggressively friendly clap on the shoulder. “Tell you what. Why don’t you come have a look at what I’m building down in Hold Four? I think you’ll enjoy it. More interesting than watching the sky do nothing, at least.”
Bruuk tried not to sigh. Wild reminded him of some of his workhouse-mates back on Gao. Perpetually eager to Make Friends, or to get up and Do. His energy was more…mature than theirs, but still fundamentally the same. For a moment he considered turning the offer down to see if he got the same disappointed cub reaction, or maybe a small friendly tussle until he yielded…
But no. He could tell just by sniffing that Wild would simply shrug and affably leave him alone. And besides, the Human was right: space travel was dull unless one had something to do, which right now Bruuk did not.
“Why not?” he agreed. Maybe his new crewmate wasn’t so bad after all.
Though, he still stunk.
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
Moj visited them an hour or so later, while Ian and Bruuk were happily at work.
Ethnicity was a weird thing, for Gaoians. The differences between silverfurs, brownfurs, and rarer pelt colors like the russets, wheatens and blackfurs, were a lot more than just a palette swap. A human was a human was a human, in Ian’s experience. Didn’t matter how much melanin somebody had or what shape their cheekbones were; personality traits were mostly a matter of upbringing and culture, not genetics.
Gao, though? Their ethnic groups were more like breeds. To Ian’s mind it felt more than a little bloody racist sometimes, but the fact was you could guess at a Gaoian’s general temperament from his fur colour. And Bruuk was a brownie, through and through. Give him something practical to do with his paws, and he’d not only pitch in, he’d thoroughly enjoy it.
He especially loved the nailgun. But really, who wouldn’t?
They were building a selection of plywood and MDF doors, walls, corners and targets to serve as an indoor firing range and basic assault course. Bruuk hadn’t got his head around the idea at first, but he’d twigged after a while, and even grown enthusiastic when Ian had explained he’d seen some Gaoians flow through the one at Sharman with times that beat the Human operators.
After that of course, those brownie competitive instincts kicked in. And Bruuk, being a short and physically powerful juggernaut of a brownie himself, had a fighting streak a mile wide.
The Mjrnhrm, of course, had no idea what they were making. He stood in the doorway with his vestigial wing casings buzzing shrilly for a moment, then approached Ian with his head tilted curiously.
“You’re building a house?”
“Sort of,” Ian agreed. “Not a real one. It’s for training.”
“Ah. War.” Moj buzzed again. “Hear humans know a lot about that.”
“You don’t?” Ian asked. He honestly didn’t know much about the Mjrnhrm or their history, but Moj cut such a fascinating figure with his many and conflicting religious tattoos that he could barely wait to learn more.
“All species war. But prejudice on my homeworld is, Humans do it more, and worse.”
“Far as I can tell mate, that’s not unfair.” Ian waved a hand at Bruuk, encouraging him to take a breather, but Bruuk just shook his head and enthusiastically continued nailing bits of wood together. Oh well. At least he was having fun.
“You plan to train us?”
“Well, even if we still lived in the world of pulse pistols, I wouldn’t want to get in a fight without somebody watching my back,” Ian explained.
“Even then? Pulse weapons can’t hurt you, I heard.”
“Not totally true. They’d knock me around, bruise me, batter me, tire me out. It might take more pulse fire to bring a human down, but we’re not immune.” Ian picked up his water bottle and took a swig. “Besides, why tank a hit when you can just not get hit at all? And the best way to do that is to have mates at your back, go hard, and take the other bastard down before he even knows what’s going on.”
Moj considered that, flared his wing casings, then nodded. “…I see. Never thought I’d learn to fight like a human.”
“Well, you have to walk before you run mate.” Ian swigged the water a second time, then sealed it. “Care to help? An extra pair of hands will make this go faster.”
“Of course. I have an hour.”
“Prayer.” Moj stood. “Five times a day.”
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask…”
Ian shrugged. He grabbed a sheet of MDF and rolled it upright, holding it steady while indicating for Moj to grab the screwdriver and a board. “You…do know some of the faiths you’re wearing are mutually incompatible, right?”
“To a Human maybe,” Moj replied, evenly. “To me…different faces of the same shape. Different shadows cast by different lights.”
This, coming from a being with both Satanic and Christian imagery etched into his hide, never mind all the others, gave Wilde pause. He was still trying to think of where to even begin that conversation when Moj issued one of his amused buzzes and explained.
“I am insane,” he said. “So other Mjrn say, anyway.”
He aligned the board where Ian indicated, then, at Ian’s nod, lined up a screw and fastened it to the MDF. “Doesn’t matter to me. I just know this is important.” he indicated his mismatched tattoos. “So important that millions of your people died for all these ideas. So important that other, older species culled them from mine and the others. Each one opens the mind in a different way, points Higher in a different way.”
“It can’t all be true though.”
“Doesn’t have to be true to contain truth.”
Bruuk groaned and set the nailgun safely aside. “You got him started. I can’t follow him when he gets like this…”
“You don’t want to,” Moj replied.
“‘Cuz it ain’t interestin’ to me. Maybe it is to some of those Starmind fellows…”
“Yes, I talked with them.” Moj indicated where the Starmind clan mon was etched into him. “They’re like me. You aren’t. That’s okay.”
“Be a bloody boring galaxy if we were all the same,” Ian agreed. “So…what? You collect faiths and pick out the bits that work for you?”
“They tell many versions of the same story. Sometimes they disagree on who is hero and who is villain. Sometimes they disagree on what is good and what is true. Your Plato, he talked about people who live in a cave, telling stories about the shadows on the wall but not looking outside to see the real form.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that, mate, ancient Greek philosophy isn’t my thing. I’m more like Bruuk here. Like…it’s interesting, sure. But I’ve got other stuff on my mind.”
“Like?” Moj asked, lining up another board.
“Like building this course, mate.” Ian gestured for Bruuk to hand him the nailgun. The Gaoian sighed and did so, reluctantly. Moj issued another amused buzz, and let the conversation go, and the next hour or so was spent discussing nothing but the simple things like “no, there,” or “that one’s gonna be a corner piece.”
Moj did, as promised, slip away to pray at the top of the hour, but he was back fifteen minutes later with snacks and water, and Dora too, who was more than happy to start painting the finished wall sections.
By the end of the day, the range was more or less complete. It wasn’t wired up with lights or anything—none of them were dumb enough to start patching into the ship’s power grid without Morwk’s consent and assistance—and the paint and glue were still wet, but it stood up and could easily be put together in a variety of different, plausible configurations, complete with pleasingly ugly paper Hunters for targets.
Naturally, the ETs all wanted a demonstration, and Ian was only too happy to oblige. He’d been itching for the exercise anyway, so under the guise of getting equipment he headed back to his room, loosened up and got his blood moving…
…Then indulged his inner geardo and loaded himself up with his full kit, complete with armor plating. He’d pay for that after a week of little proper exercise, but it’d look badass, and he’d feel badass, and that was what he needed right now.
Their reactions when he returned were interesting. It was hard to tell what Moj thought, but Bruuk plainly approved. Dora though…
“…Woah. You look scary.”
“I think that’s the idea,” Bruuk informed her.
“Partly. That’s why I have a skull mask. But mostly, it’s to break up my outline. This coloration is for most foliage because I don’t have my gear set up for on-ship assaults, but you get the idea.”
He handed Dora the stopwatch. “Time starts when I go through that door. Time ends when I yell ‘Done.’ ‘Kay?”
She nodded seriously, and gripped the watch eagerly in two hands while the third’s finger hovered over the button. Ian tried not to chuckle, took up his starting position and…
He’d been out of the fight, out of training, for far too long. He could feel his movements were rusty, even in a totally static assault course. They didn’t have aggressors, or fake pop-ups, or any distractions or anything…He had what he needed to add all those things, but for now it was basic as all-get-out.
Still, it was good fun to run, even if he felt a bit more winded than he’d prefer. And there was just something satisfying about shooting Hunters, even if it was only airsoft and even if they were just paper stand-ins. There was never a wrong time to kill him some bugs.
Dora fumbled the watch, adding a second or so to his time, but she still blinked at it in astonishment. “You’re so fast! I could barely follow you!”
Bruuk flicked an ear. “…You say you’ve worked with other Gaoians who can do that?”
Ian couldn’t resist the broad grin that spread across his face. “A fair few, yeah. A few of those blokes are absolute demons, too.”
“And you expect I’ll be doing that, by the time you’re done with me.”
“Ayup. I can see you’ve got some pretty goddamn heavy muscle tone under that shaggy fur, Bruuk. It won’t take you long.”
Bruuk visibly swelled with pride and showed off an arm well bigger than Ian’s. Heavily muscled was a hell of an understatement. He was short for a brownie, maybe only five foot seven, but he’d layered it on thick in that long-bodied athletic way only Gaoians could manage. “Balls yeah! I’ve worked hard enough for it! And I’ll be doing this wearing all that equipment, too?”
“Mate, a big bastard like you? You can handle it easy.”
“I know that! I mean, where’d we even get any for me?”
“I’ve got a chest full of kit and goodies that should fit, though I was expecting a silverfur, so the armor will definitely be tight around your chest. We’ll sort it out.”
“And me?” Moj asked.
“Well, that’ll be a problem, yeah. But I couldn’t solve it before we boarded, so we’ll just need to make do.” Ian smiled, and shrugged his airsoft rifle’s strap over his head, and held it out to offer them. “So…who wants to go first?”
Date Point: 17y8m AV
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, Erwn-Bwrw system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
The prisoner’s expression was the same bored, blank thing that Ryth had seen a dozen times by now. In a way, he truly admired Uwrik. Spy though he may be, the chained man on the other side of the table had incredible will and endurance.
Interrogation was a science, and Ryth was well-trained in it. He knew well that Uwrik had to be approaching his breaking point now. He’d known nobody but Ryth, been given no way to measure out time, been given no luxuries at all save those tiny few he’d earned in his rare moments of cooperation…which were of course confiscated again when he reverted to defiance.
The whole process was a probe aimed at the oldest, most irresistible animal parts of the brain, effective on every sapient species alive. There wasn’t a being in all the galaxy that didn’t respond to training, and the training in House Henen’s detention facility was clear and straightforward: Cooperate, and be rewarded. Refuse, and get nothing.
Nothing at all. Not conversation, not music, not art, not satisfying food, not comfort, not even a routine.
Pain, in Ryth’s opinion, would have been a far more tolerable infliction. Urwik might pretend to be stoically enduring his desolate condition, but the microphones and cameras in his cell told a different story. He was getting frantic. And his self-reassuring mutterings, the fantasies he played out aloud as he paced, the whole fictional world he was building in his head to try and escape, they all revealed more than he might have wished.
The Gaoian connection, for instance, was a certainty at this point.
“I went digging into your business connections since last we spoke, Uwrik.” Ryth laid his tablet on the table between them. “You have a great many, don’t you? Understandable, really. So many makes and models of ship from so many shipyards, so many species…A businessman like you had to be prepared for anyone to come to your shop, needing supplies. Your arrest has been a terrible inconvenience to hundreds of ships, you know.”
Uwrik sighed. It had taken a while to get him to even speak a word to Rythweth, but that was the point. Ryth was the only person he got to speak with. There was nobody else. “I thought you would have sold the shop by now.”
“We’re going to, of course. It’s House Henen property. But that can’t go ahead until I sign off and say that the store is of no further interest to my investigation.”
“What more is there to investigate? You always act like you already know everything.”
Ryth just pushed the tablet forward for him to inspect. “I know that the Gaoian firm you use isn’t real. Oh, it was, until its owners and workers were all either biodroned, murdered by biodrones, or vaporized by the Great Father. But since the Gaoian War, Jishi Interstellar Distribution has existed only on paper.”
He smiled at the tic that crossed Uwrik’s face. “Cunning of the Gao, that. Not just a shell company, but a real company that met an unfortunate end and was…hmm…repurposed to serve. They’re a ruthless species, aren’t they?”
“You’re no less ruthless, Ryth.”
“Which is why I intended it as a compliment.” Ryth retrieved his pad. “So. You’re spying for the Gao. A dangerous species who have routinely violated Kwmbwrw space and conducted military operations along our borders. A species led by a dictator who has unflinchingly described himself as ‘the greatest mass murderer in history’ and shown contempt for Dominion law on multiple occasions, including his role in the illegal elevation of a pre-contact species whom he has vassalized into his army.”
“…That’s not a fair or accurate description at all.”
“Why do you care? What does it matter to you if I slander an alien warlord?”
Uwrik said nothing.
Ryth gave him a primly satisfied look and put the tablet away in his case. “To an extent, I can see the appeal of them. The Gao have a reputation for being…uncomplicated. Loyal. Honest and forthright. A society where the men run the show, and run it like it should be, eh? To a certain kind of man, I’m sure the fantasy of a society that just…oh…sees what’s wrong and deals with it directly? Where even courtship is straightforward and honest? Where the go-to mode of conflict resolution is a quick fight, establish a dominance hierarchy and then go back to being friends? And whose supreme leader is the absolute, utter embodiment of those ideals? Oh yes, I can understand how that might appeal to a certain kind of man.”
He fixed Uwrik with a glare. “You are not a Gaoian. You will never be a Gaoian, and if I were you I would be very happy about that fact, because it means I don’t get to just claw your throat out and drink your blood for betraying the House, even if I was barbaric enough to want to. We have rules, and we stick to them even when they are inconvenient. Our Matriarch won’t pin you to the ground and tear you apart like a Hunter.”
He sat back, and allowed Uwrik to stew in silence, watching carefully.
“I think you need to spend some time thinking about what kind of people you’ve been serving,” he declared after a few seconds. “And you need to think about just how much good you were doing with your honest, productive, helpful business before you threw it all away.”
He stood to leave. “Return the prisoner to his cell, please.”
He got exactly what he wanted. Uwrik’s anger finally proved to be his breaking point.
“At least they aren’t slavers.”
…Now that was a turn Ryth wasn’t expecting at all. This wasn’t a time to carefully construct an interrogation plan. This was something that needed eating while it was still fresh.
“Really, now?” He turned back toward the table, and gestured for the guards to step back. “Care to elaborate?”
Uwrik scowled at him. “You talk about how we obey the rules? About barbarism? How…how fucking dare you?!” Ryth had to admit, he was impressed by just how much hatred the prisoner managed to squeeze into the simple and wildly successful Human expletive. It was the only word of any language in the entire galaxy that practically every sapient being knew. “You? You’re propping up a House that writes the rules to suit itself, and writes new ones when they stop being convenient!”
He surged to his feet, straining against his shackles. “I know all about that steady trickle of cubs and biodrones ‘rescued’ from Gorai. I know all about that army you’re building, an assault team to match First Fang and the HEAT, the perfect shield against the Hunters. And you know what’s going to happen when the Great Father learns the names of the monsters who’re helping you? Oh yes, he’s going to pin them down and punish them. But he won’t rip them apart, oh no. He’ll make their punishment last. He’ll fuck them up so hard and for so long, they will beg for death before he finally grows bored. Only then will he hand them over to Straightshield for the real punishment, and only when they’ve flayed the monsters’ skins, will Daar crush them, rip their limbs off, and finally tear them in half. As. He. Fucking. Should.”
A pulse round flattened Uwrik’s head from behind and painted the whole room with his brains.
A lifetime of paranoia spared Rythweth the same fate.
It had been expensive, having shield generators hidden in his clothing and jewelry. Each was tiny, discreet, and individually weak, but together they meant the shot intended for him splashed harmlessly off the air a finger-thickness from his skull.
His survival prompted the treacherous guards into a moment of stunned silence. Rythweth didn’t waste it. There was only one exit from the room, it lay between them, it was locked and they had the keys. It was move, or die.
He charged. Agony sang down his right arm as his mental command activated a cybernetic he’d had installed years ago but never intended to use: the fusion blade embedded in his forearm bisected one of the guards down to his midriff, carving easily through armour, flesh and bone with a fearsome sizzle.
By some stroke of pure fortune, Ryth’s shields barely held as the second guard shot him again, a shaved instant before Ryth cut the legs out from under him.
A moment after that, the guard’s own gun silenced his agonized shrieking.
And now, Rythweth had to move. He fumbled at the guard’s belt with trembling fingers, retrieved the key, jammed it into the reader. The door clicked. He barged it open.
And he ran.
Date Point: 17y8m1w AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Interstellar space
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
It had taken a few days to get his quarters set up the way he liked it, but Ian was pretty pleased overall. He’d used a couple of dividers to cut his living space in half, and thus created a combined gym and armory of sorts at one end. He needed a workbench for cleaning the guns and modifying the gear he’d brought with him, so that half of the room pulled double duty alongside a barbell and a squat rack, a bench, some dumbbells, a yoga mat and a set of kettlebells.
A sofa bed, a rug, a coffee table, an XBox and a bookshelf turned the other half into a pretty damn decent living space, and a couple of oversized beanbags neatly solved the question of how to accommodate alien visitors.
He’d been a little disappointed that only three of the crew accepted his invitation to movie night. Dora had, of course, and she arrived bearing her version of nachos, topped with a face-meltingly hot salsa. Robalin, it turned out, couldn’t taste capsaicin, and Dora thought the eye-watering stuff was just sweet and tangy.
Spicy food had always been Ian’s Achilles heel. Dora didn’t seem to mind getting the nachos all to herself, though. She munched them appreciatively with one hand while the other two bamboozled him with card tricks.
Ian had to admit, it was a good routine.
Morwk brought a (surprisingly good) vegan cake and hummus with dipping vegetables, plus a few tools and adapters to help finally get the Xbox hooked up to the huge entertainment screen that dominated the forward wall.
They had to move one of the dividers aside to make room for Urgug, whose contribution to the snacks was a vat of popcorn, and a keg of beer.
That one came as a surprise. It wasn’t a human brand, but instead covered in the liquid script of Ugundravnu, with a psychedelic label that probably meant something to a Guv.
“I didn’t think ETs drunk alcohol.”
Urgug rumbled interestedly “Really? Why not?”
“Heard it doesn’t affect you guys.”
“Oh, I heard about this!” Dora chirped. “Apparently the first time a human got drunk on Gao it caused a lot of confusion ‘cuz the Gao can basically drink neat ethanol and all it does is loosen them up a bit, but Humans get all sleepy and wobbly and totally fucked up.”
“That’s what I heard, yeah,” Ian confirmed. He didn’t mention that he’d heard it directly from a partner of the woman involved, though.
“It’s the same compound for everyone,” Morwk pointed out. “It maybe hits Humans harder, but stick enough of a solvent in a living organism and they’ll feel it.”
“Huh. Today I learned.” Ian poured himself a cup, then considered Urgug. “…You’d have to drink a lot to get the same blood alcohol percentage as me, too.”
“Maybe that is part of it,” Urgug agreed. “Is anybody else coming?”
Dora shook her head. “Moj called it a distraction, and Bruuk is…well, he’s warming up to our Human here, I think, but you know what he’s like. Can’t cuddle up in case we all suddenly think he’s going soft.”
“Yeah, I’ve never met a Gaoian so standoffish before,” Ian said, and swigged his beer. It was pretty good, albeit incredibly strongly alcoholic and way more malty than he usually like. He’d have to introduce Urgug to the joy of hops sometime. “All the ones I know love to make new friends.”
“Most of his friends died during the biodrone war,” Morwk revealed, prompting Dora to stop shuffling cards, and Urgug to turn a somber shade of aquamarine.
Ian nodded solemnly. “Afraid to get close to anyone again, you think?”
“He’d probably bristle at the accusation that he’s afraid of anything, but yes.”
“I can get behind that. I was there for that war, like I said. It was fucking ugly, mate. Daar blowing up all those cities stopped it from turning into a total clusterfuck, but…”
“But in doing so he killed everyone Bruuk knew and loved,” Morwk said.
“Fucking hell. No wonder he’s got that chip on his shoulder.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Dora disagreed. “I mean, maybe part of it. But you’ve seen how hard he throws himself at that training course you built. He was lifting weights and exercising hard every day after he heard a Human was joining us, and it wasn’t like he’d been slacking off before, either. I don’t think he can tolerate being second place behind anyone or anything.”
“…You know, I think I know how to deal with that,” Ian said, half to himself, then changed the subject. “Anyway. Movie?”
“Nothing violent, please,” Urgug urged, to Morwk’s physical agreement. “I cannot fathom your species’ passion for slaughter, horror and terror as entertainment.”
“Aww, you just vetoed all the best ones!” Dora objected.
“Not all of ‘em,” Ian replied. He mentally removed Schindler’s List from consideration too, given the kind of society Dora had fled, but that still left plenty of good stuff both old and new…
After a little negotiation, they settled on Ghostbusters as a good compromise between Urgug’s delicate sensibilities and Dora’s desire for something more exciting. Even so, it was secretly funny as hell to watch the big guy squirm and fidget at the ghosts and weirdness on screen.
To Ian’s quiet delight, Bruuk joined them around about the time Sigourney Weaver was doing her levitation act, which Urgug was watching from behind one hand while alarm and discomfort strobed across his skin. Given that half the couch was unoccupied—nobody else was the right shape or size to fit on it—he slunk up onto it with a no-big-deal kind of forced nonchalance and sat there to watch. Tightly coiled, as if expecting…something. A fight of some kind.
Ian just handed him a bag of doritos, said nothing, and watched the movie.
Date Point: 17y8m1w AV
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, Erwn-Bwrw system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“I told you we should have inducted him. Something like this was only a matter of time. My exact words, if you care to recall.”
“I know. And I understand how painful this must be for you. He is my grandson, I don’t care for this at all.”
“We should bring him in alive. Explain that the guards—”
“The guards did exactly what they were ordered to do. Unfortunate that we did not think to give them more nuanced orders, but each such nuance would be a chance for project Dreaming Blade to leak, and that cannot happen.”
“My son is loyal to the House.”
“Your son was loyal to his ambition. He considered the House his greatest obstacle and adversary, not the object of his unswerving devotion. Everything he did was for himself, dear, not for House Henen, and I have explained this every time in the past when you petitioned for his advancement. Is your affection for him clouding your judgement?”
“…I dislike wasting talent.”
“And if you are ever Grandmatriarch, you will run the House as you see fit, though you will need to be much more ruthless if you expect to hold this seat for long, my girl. Talent exists to be spent. Sometimes, a regrettable loss is the price we pay for a greater gain, or to avert an even greater loss. Young Rythweth is a painful loss, he truly is. But you know that we stand to lose far, far more than one unusually cunning male.”
“Then you know we cannot gamble on the hope that his loyalty has survived this little interlude, if it ever was as strong as you claim.”
“Good.” The Grandmatriarch’s tone softened, became more sympathetic. “I know I’m asking a terrible thing of you, my darling. But family has to clean up its own mess. Your exact words, if you care to recall.”
A moment of seething, futile, despairing hatred went totally unexpressed. Concealed in that quotation was the veiled certainty of what would happen if Heneneriwyth herself became a ‘mess’ to be cleaned up.
“Good girl. Be swift, daughter. It will be less painful for all of us if you are decisive. Do you know where to start?”
“Rythweth is hiding amidst hundreds of thousands, and he knows the station well. There is a freighter coming, though. Jishi Interstellar Distribution, the front company that the spy reported to his masters through. If we allow it to dock, that should draw him out of hiding, and pressuring the crew should force an error.”
“And if it does not, Hunter attacks are so very easy to simulate.”
“The Gaoians won’t fall for that.”
“Dead spies are merely a diplomatic incident, my daughter. Dreaming Blade is a war. Remember what the stakes are, and act accordingly.”
“Excellent. I will leave the matter in your proven hands, then.”
Eriwyth stared at the blank screen for some time, paralyzed by the turmoil in her chest as her maternal instincts duelled with her loyalty. She could…
Pragmatism stepped in and brought the duel to a decisive close. She was too involved in Dreaming Blade herself. The Gao would have no sympathy for her. She would be destroyed, torn limb from limb just like the House she had sacrificed her whole life for.
It was a terrible thing, to murder one’s own son. To know that her own mother would not hesitate to kill her too, if need be. It was a cruel, awful game the House played. But the only way to live was to keep playing it.
She willed her heart to freeze again, and turned away to do her duty.
Date Point: 17y8m1w AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Interstellar space
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“How is he so bad with Females?! He had a chance with…whatshername?”
“Dana, played by Sigourney Weaver.”
“She’s so pretty and she even smiled at him! How could he blow it so hard?!”
Of course. The thing that finally grabbed Bruuk by the balls was the romantic subplot. Ian wasn’t sure what he was expecting, really; nothing interested Gaoian males more than females. Those instincts were so strong they seemed to translate over to other species, and Bruuk was no exception. He seemed almost personally offended at how awkward all the males were around Dana, and most of his grousing centered on their collective romantic ineptness.
“Not everyone’s a smooth operator, Bruuk.”
“That’s no excuse! You can’t sire a cub if you can’t even score a date! Louis needs to learn how to talk to people! And they both need to spend some time in the gym.”
Ian snorted at that. Low-degree males in his experience were usually slim, urbane creatures, more androgynous then manly. They tended to be thoughtful and polite, with that fierce streak all Gaoians had well-hidden under layers of civilization. Apparently that wasn’t how it worked with brownies. Bruuk was in basically all respects uncannily like every brownfur Ian had ever met. He was brash and uncomplicated. He reeked of exertion and musk, and was built like a powerlifting bear. He wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions, either. In fact, as far as Ian could tell, the only real difference between Bruuk and, say, Kodiak or Daar was one of simple stature.
The chip on his shoulder was definitely odd, but even then it didn’t overcome his essential Gaoian-ness, once he’d got himself invested in the movie. As a result, Ian now had an absolutely massive boulder of muscle pressing itself firmly against his flank as they watched the movie progress, all standoffishness forgotten as he groused along with his New Friend.
Experimentally, Ian put an arm around Bruuk’s hefty shoulders. The burly Gaoian stiffened for a moment, but unwound just as quickly and offered to share his meat snack. Some kind of Gaoian jerky. Ian took some and offered up some of his crisps in turn. Who didn’t like cronchy food?
Well, besides Morwk, who eyed the jerky with disdain and shifted his weight away from it. Kwmbwrw were, biologically speaking, omnivores. Deep in their ancient past, they’d grazed on water weeds and amphibianoid critters in their native swampy marshlands, but proximity to Hunter space had made their homeworld a regular raiding target. They’d understandably developed a profound cultural aversion to meat-eating as a result.
Bruuk clearly didn’t care. Ian gave their engineer a small apologetic shrug, but ate anyway. He had been getting kinda sick of the vegan diet, and the Gao made good jerky. To his credit, Morwk was cosmopolitan enough to not comment.
Urgug hushed them again. “I keep missing dialogue! Why is there a giant white thing now?”
“Because Ray couldn’t keep his mind blank, so he imagined the most harmless possible thing he could, and Gozer…”
“Gozer did a Keeda trick.”
“I can’t decide if this movie is scary or not,” Dora said, twitching one of her antennae.
“So long as it’s entertaining, who cares?”
“You’ve got a point…” she reached over and tried to snag a crisp out of Ian’s bag. Bruuk shifted a little to get out of her way. Funny, he’d been on the crew a long time, and while he seemed to already be warming up to Ian, he was still oddly cold with the nonhumans.
Whatever. Maybe it was just another case of the two species clicking.
Urgug’s complaint worked at least. The rest of the movie passed in relative silence, until the conclusion bought a bit more romantic grumbling from Bruuk, and the credits rolled.
“So, do we want to watch the sequel?”
Bruuk bounced up to his feet. “You can if you want. I gotta get my blood movin.’”
“Yeah. Might go push the sled up and down the hall for a bit.”
“…Wait. You have a weighted sled?”
“Uh-huh. I’ve got a way more better set of weights an’ stuff than ‘yers.” Bruuk tilted his head, clearly pondering something. “…Uh, you wanna see?”
Ian considered. He wasn’t sure what the dynamic between Bruuk and the rest of the crew was, exactly, but it seemed a natural breaking point anyway. Morwk was already making motions to leave, and Dora was far too easy-going to be offended.
“…Yeah, I think I just might. Can’t sit still for too long, hey?”
“The snacks are almost gone anyway,” Dora added, waving an empty bowl.
That settled it. Wilde said his good-nights to everyone and showed them out the door, with a promise of another movie night sometime later. Bruuk, on the other hand, was almost bouncy now that the two were alone.
“C’mon! I’ve sat down for too long I’m itching to do something!”
Understanding clicked in Ian’s head. Of course! Nobody else on the crew could keep up with Bruuk! None of them could play with him the way he wanted to play. Urgug was probably strong enough to pull that sled, but Guv were strong in a big, slow, plodding way. They couldn’t explode like a pouncing Gaoian or a Human powerlifter. They couldn’t achieve the vigorous activity that Bruuk clearly craved. They couldn’t compete with him.
“You get set up. I’ll change and be with you in a tick.”
Bruuk nodded happily and, for the first time Ian had seen, dropped to all fours and charged out of the room.
Ian spent a minute or so tidying up before changing. He didn’t want to come back to a room full of empty crisp packets and beer cups after a strenuous workout, after all. By the same logic, he unfolded the sofa bed, got it ready to sleep in too.
Having delayed enough, he changed, stretching as he did so. Truth was, he wasn’t worried. Bruuk might be a charging ball of enthusiastic energy who’d come more alive when talking about his sled than he had at pretty much anything else Ian had seen, but he was no Warhorse. This wasn’t about to be a surgical body-improvement session, this was going to be fun.
Date Point: 17y8m1w2d AV
Starship Avenging Rage, approaching the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
Father Eku of Clan One-Fang
“This is where we part ways, Krr’zkvik. Safe travels.”
“And to you, Avenging Rage.” Shipmaster Trrrk’k looked old and tired, as far as Eku was concerned. He was old, as old as Fyu. Apparently his species lasted a good while longer even from such an venerable count of years, but in Trrrk’k’s case it was hard to see how. That smoker’s cough didn’t sound healthy.
Of course, they had no intention of parting ways. That was merely for the benefit of their watchers. But the Rage did have to peel off and stay on the Gaoian side of the border for appearances, at least for a few hours. Then they could go silent, slip back across the border and tail the Krr’zkvik to her destination.
Which was technically a breach of several interstellar treaties, but the Great Father had ordered it, so it was so. Trrrk’k knew the truth, the Rage’s crew knew the truth, and they were the only ones who needed to know.
The trip so far had been…mixed. Every comms synchronization had come with a burst of new Hunter reports. People were dying by the thousands out there, on remote stations, outposts and facilities. But this was the main arterial tradelane linking Gaoian space—the Hunters’ most successful predators—and the Great Houses, who were easily the most militant and Hunter-savvy of the Dominion species.
In other words, a hard enough target that all the slaughter was happening somewhere else. A small fast blip on spacial distortion sensors might have been a Swarmship at high warp, scouting the border territories for easy pickings, but other than that the journey had been uneventful. A litany of death from other places, but uneventful.
Eku was losing his gods-damned mind.
Not that he wanted anything to go wrong with this mission. It was delicate, and important. If they could get in, extract Whitecrest’s “friend” and get out smoothly, that was all for the good. But the Avenging Rage, and Eku himself, were creatures of war. Their job was wrecking shit that didn’t know they were coming, in as instant and decisive a fashion as they could manage. The same stealth that made the ship so good at totally ruining something’s day also made it perfect for this particular escort, but Keeda’s matted ass-fur, it wasn’t what they were for.
No, no. Wrong thinking, that. They were for whatever the Gao needed. If the Gao needed Hunters turning into space dust before they even knew they were under attack, fan-fucking-tastic. If the Gao needed a team of alien spies escorting into deep foreign territory…
Suck it up, Eku.
Still, he didn’t resist the urge to prowl restlessly around the bridge as they peeled off and headed corewards, skirting the trailing edge of Kwmbwrw space. To any outside observer, the idea that they were going on a patrol into the periphery of Hunter territory should both deter anyone following, and explain them going to low emissions mode.
He gave it twenty minutes, then ordered the ship to stealth. There was, of course, no visible change. The lighting wasn’t lowered, nobody started speaking in hushed tones. Life for the crew wouldn’t particularly change. The differences were in speed and systems. Shields were down, warp drive tuned below the so-called “wake” threshold where the ship’s FTL made only the barest, minutest shimmer in spacetime rather than big waves.
Slower, a little more fragile, but a lot harder to see, they turned spinwards again and violated the border. There was plenty of space to hide in.
With luck, the Kwmbwrw would never know they were there…
Date Point: 17y8m1w AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Interstellar space
Brownfurs weren’t a common breed, despite their outsized influence, and among them the second-degrees were pretty fuckin’ rare; over ninety-nine percent were third degree or better. Bruuk was a second-degree brownfur. That made him as rare as a first-degree brownfur but with none of the advantages, like siring lots of female cubs…and gaining lots of Female attention. It also meant he would never have the towering stature of a high-degree brownfur; in fact he was shorter than most silverfurs. Second-degree brownies were born cursed.
While theoretically a male’s degree weren’t a hindrance to his prospects, reality was something different; nobody considered brownies as anything but big dumb brawny laborers, ‘cept for Highmountain types. It didn’t matter how skilled a laborer had to be to do his job, what mattered was the perception. That meant Bruuk was at a disadvantage right from the first pounce. If it weren’t for his aggressive work ethic in the gym, he’d be the little one among other brownies. Instead, he was usually the strongest male in the room, and he was damn proud of that, too. He’d been lifting and playing sports since he was a cub, had trained seriously at damn near every program Stoneback’s gyms made available to the public. Bruuk had built himself into as physically undeniable a brownfur as he could possibly be.
So, naturally, all anyone ever saw in him was a powerfully muscular if somewhat short brownie. None of his certifications mattered, even though he had pursued those just as hard as his gym scorecards. His perfect workhouse scorecard didn’t matter, either. All they saw was a brute of a convenient height. And, so, that’s how they used him.
Which…well, he didn’t mind as much as he felt he should. He played the part, built himself up, and before long had gained a reputation as a strong laborer with a knack for solving tricky problems. All of that had Bruuk feeling confident and ready to meet the challenge, and put the Human in his place. He didn’t know if he could best Wild on skill, but in a fight? Bruuk had thought he’d be at least Wild’s match, if not a whole lot stronger.
He wasn’t. Well, actually he was. Sorta. Depending. It was complicated.
It turned out Wild hadn’t been lazy, either; even for a Human he was an extremely strong man for his size, and he weren’t a small male, neither. While yeah, Bruuk had a downright silly weight advantage over Wilde and none of that extra mass was slack or soft, that massive innate strength advantage didn’t seem to matter much, because unlike Bruuk, Wild knew how to use it.
Wild used his strength to move. Just by watching him practice assault runs, Bruuk could see that moving was the key to it all. And while the Human was laughably slow at a dead run, in close-quarters assault he was quick as could be, and a genuine struggle to keep up with.
Watching him challenge the course in slow motion, Bruuk was struck by a challenge to his expectations, too. He would have expected somebody so quick and deft to be elegant in their movement, but Wild’s particular brand of elegance was…robotic. Like the punchy precision of an automated assembly line, each movement was a straight line, each turn direct, each motion spare and minimal. When he reloaded, he had the replacement magazine in his hand before the empty one had even hit the deck. When he swapped weapons, one went down and the other came up in the same motion.
Nothing wasted. Not even fractions of seconds.
Bruuk found he enjoyed it, though. The training turned out to be much like anything in a gym: strenuous, repetitive, and oddly pleasing. He got a little better every time, and that was just enough to reward him, and keep him interested in further progress.
Wild was an amazing teacher, too. Bruuk was really starting to like the Human.
“You gotta take advantage of your shape, Bruuk. Use that long torso of yours and noodle through!” Bruuk was used to powering through things, being after all a brownfur. He was used to speed and power, not flowing like water. Wasn’t used to moving like a silverfur. The assault course was turning out to be a Keeda-damned hell of a learning experience for him.
Moj, it seemed, was getting a different surprise. Where Bruuk had been humbled and then rebuilt, Moj was learning that his actual limits far exceeded his own self-estimation. Okay, his reaction times were slow next to Bruuk or Wild, but not as slow as either nonhuman had first thought. He’d always be the slowest and weakest of the three of them… but he could still learn to do things right. And in that regard, in fact, he had Bruuk honestly beat.
Having a built-in armored carapace helped, too. No part of him was uncovered and that chitin could take a pretty serious beating. Armor was always going to be a weakness for Bruuk. As predicted, Bruuk’s armor had been much too tight around the chest, but Wild had spent a few evenings sewing on new side straps. Now it had a reassuringly snug fit instead of crushing his chest. Nonetheless, the vest only covered his upper torso: a plate front and back, and smaller ones along his flank. The armor for his arms was also far too tight and unfixable, because his were way bigger than Wild’s, or in fact most any Human’s at all. Bruuk was ridiculously proud of that, but it meant he would need to do without. The rest of him was similarly uncovered.
Wild’s own armor set was much nicer, and had been custom-fit for him by the SOR, but it too failed to cover much more than his torso and groin.
“Full-body scale armor is fucking heavy,” Wild had opined. “‘Horse built me up into a big damn bloke like he does with everyone he knows, but I’m still just that. I’m nowhere near strong enough to fight with basically your twin wrapped around me head to toe.”
Bruuk chittered at the oblique compliment. “That heavy?”
“Aye. That’s where it starts for the HEAT lads. Believe me, their armor rapidly gets much, much heavier. Us mere mortals need to make do. Anyway, enough about them.” Wild bounced on his feet and beckoned to Bruuk. “You’ve already halved your time through, did you notice?”
Bruuk bounced on the balls of his footpaws in turn. “Yeh! It’s all about moving properly, you were right. Kicking a lifetime of bad habits ain’t easy.”
“I bet, but when you get it…” Wild chuckled and shook his head. “I envy you furry fuckers. If I could move that fast while keeping that low…”
“And if I could throw that hard…” Bruuk replied. That was a trick he especially envied. The motion felt…unpracticed, maybe? It made Bruuk aware of supporting muscles in his shoulder he never really knew he had, but that was okay. He just had to figure out how to train those neglected muscles, and that would be one more item on the growing pile of things he was better at than those big, dumb, overly tall brownies that got all the Female attention. If he couldn’t tower like them and just win by default, then he’d just have to completely smoke them at everything else.
And Wild was helping him along that path, too. Bruuk found his tail wagging.
“You will! Just takes a bunch of practice. Now…shall we move on to sparring?”
Their lifting and sparring sessions were, admittedly, Bruuk’s favorite part of the day. While Wild could run circles around him in the assault course, and it seemed every single time they went through there was more to learn, more possibilities to experience…
Bruuk got to turn the tables in the gym. There, he taught Wild a thing or two. Bruuk had been a laborer for most of his life after all, and he’d been a lifelong lifter. If there was one thing in the whole damn universe Bruuk could say he were a Keeda-damned expert in, it was moving big damn weights however they needed to be moved. He could lift a lot more for a lot longer, and rather than wear out he felt energized by it. He could outlift Wild on everything and the rest of the crew had finally started to notice. Balls that felt good!
But the most bestest was sparring, specifically the no-weapons extended playfights they were doing to train up their technique and reflexes. That turned out to be where they were almost perfectly well-matched.
At first, Bruuk got his tail handed to him. Wild was a Human after all, a savannah-striding simioid that still had all his ancient tree-swinging upper-body strength and flexibility. He could put his muscle to work from seemingly any angle, no matter how awkward, and that made pinning him a special exercise in frustration; if he could move his arms at all, Bruuk would probably suffer for it. Wild was a special operator too, trained and conditioned to the finest standard. Bruuk had the weight and strength to just crush Wild, but he in turn had the toughness to simply take the abuse and keep going. Fighting with him was proving to be about the most strenuous workout Bruuk had ever had.
But Bruuk wasn’t any pushover, eiither. He was strong as balls and way more flexible. Wild couldn’t turn one-eighty at the waist, didn’t have as much usable power in his legs. There were also a few movements where Bruuk was so much stronger it was downright silly. For example: pushups were exercise to Wild, even if an easy one, but to Bruuk (or really any Gaoian) they were trivially effortless. They were made to run on their arms, after all.
Once he figured out how to use his advantages, Bruuk started to come out on top. Especially when he started ruthlessly exploiting his greater weight and Wild’s blind eye. By the end of the trip, in fact, Bruuk’s winning streak was growing wider every day. He’d rather have earned his victories with skill instead of sheer brawn, but, well…
…Outmuscling a Human was good for the ego, especially a big one like Wild. And Wild was…not what Bruuk was expecting. Other brownies often tried to downplay the loss when Bruuk put them in their place, with an “I’ll getcha next time” or something similarly jocular and face-saving. Wild? He just laughed, congratulated him, and went for another round.
Still: despite all Bruuk’s advantages, Wild was dangerous. He’d usually end up winning by the end, just through his sheer endless stamina. That a Human could beat even a well-conditioned brownie’s endurance turned out to be completely true. Just one more thing to get better at.
It had taken him a while to admit it, but…Bruuk liked Wild.
Moj interrupted them both around the time Wild’s winning streak was starting to re-assert itself, and Bruuk’s pelt was growing waterlogged with lather. He was silently grateful for the interruption and took the opportunity to wobble up to his feet and fetch a towel. He’d need to get a short fur clip if he was gonna have any hope of matching Wild’s staying power.
Moj was looking down at the phone in his hand. “Nice that you two get along so well now, but it seems Trrrk’k wants us on the bridge.”
“We’re due to arrive today, right?” Wild asked.
“We just did.”
“Shit, why didn’t you tell me? I wanted to see this thing from the outside!” Wild hung his own towel up and bolted out the door, leaving Moj and Bruuk behind.
Moj click-chirped a noise that Bruuk thought meant something like amusement at a grown child’s antics. “Just a space station,” he commented. “See one, see them all.”
“You say that, but this one’s a lot bigger than Armstrong,” Bruuk replied. “Most humans haven’t ever laid eyes on a void city before.”
“Easy to forget they’re the newcomers, you’re right.”
“Right? They think of Earth and Cimbrean as the center of civilization. To the rest of the galaxy, they’re a couple of backwaters. A deathworld backwater, in Earth’s case.”
Moj click-chirped again, louder this time. “He’ll find the view impressive after all then, maybe.”
And it made for an excellent opportunity to get a cold dip in, too. Bruuk wasn’t gonna say no to that.
Sure enough, by the time they reached the bridge, their fearsome Human “heavy” was pressed up against the forward windows, peering up and out at the immense structures crawling past them on all sides with immature wonder.
All cynicism aside, Bruuk had to allow that Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm would be pretty impressive for anyone whose idea of a big space structure was Armstrong Station. While the station in Cimbrean billed itself as the “gateway to the galaxy,” the fact was it was a perfectly standard out-of-the-box Dominion trade station, designed to form the anchor for generations of future expansion. The Humans had made after-market modifications, adding redundant safety systems out of a luddite mistrust of the well-tested technologies that kept the Dominion running, but if one ignored those, it was just about the same as every other station in the civilized stars.
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm was different.
It was…big. One of the biggest stations in the whole Dominion, a couple dozen kilometers across in every dimension, and organic in how it had grown in stages with each individual district being well-planned, but the whole thing looking like a bunch of city blocks had been glued together any old how. From a distance, little motes of light zipped along its surface on monorail tracks, or crawled down tight approach lanes between its districts toward its hundreds of docking gantries.
And behind it…the planets.
The fourth orbital object in the Erwn-Bwrw system was a binary planetoid pair, two dusty frigid rockballs of about the same mass, orbiting a shared center of gravity so close and so fast that their atmospheres mingled. In a few hundred thousand years, they were destined to smash into each other, but for now the station orbited them both. To Bruuk’s eyes, one was a dull shade of dirt-coloured, and the other was a slightly duller shade of dirt-coloured, but Wild clearly felt they were about the most magnificent sight in the sky.
On a hunch, Bruuk sidled up to Urgug and got the big navigator’s attention. “…What colour are those planets?”
Urgug glanced up at them, and sure enough a pleased glow washed over him. “They are very handsome indeed. To the Human eye…I could not say. But he may well be seeing what you cannot.”
“That’s very helpful Urgug, thankyou.”
Wild clearly overheard the conversation. He turned back and grinned at Bruuk.
“The closer one’s red, mate. A sort of warm, rusty red, really. Close to orange. Just like Mars, back in Sol. I always wanted to see Mars.”
“I wish I could see that…”
“You’ll be able to, soon enough. Hell, aren’t they ramping up for everyone to get it, now?”
“I never even thought about that. It seems so unreal. Like…our eyes just have the ability to see a whole range of extra colors, but our genes are switched off?
“Yup. Your people have good color vision, too. I hear it’ll be something like ours or I guess the cavemonkeys. I forget the details, but…good.”
“…That’s hard to imagine. What about the other planet, what does that look like?”
“The further one? More…I don’t know. Purplish? Lavender? I don’t know how to describe it, it’s like the colours on hot steel. Bloody beautiful, I’ll tell you that.”
“Oh yes,” Urgug agreed. “It is the color of a mother’s music to her infant, with bands of ambition and peace. The more handsome of the pair, I think.”
“Now that sounds like an incredible way to see the world…” Ian shook his head. “I tell you lads, the more ETs I meet, the more ways I find to envy you.”
“That feeling,” Urgug replied, “Is entirely mutual.”
“Heh. ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’”
“Ironic for me to interrupt you while you resonate with the Higher,” Moj called out from the pilot’s chair he’d settled into as soon as they reached the bridge, “but traffic control requests our manifest, contracts and duration of stay.”
“Ah, yes. Apologies.” Urgug returned to his work. A few moments later, his flank glowed. To Bruuk it looked like the kind of serious hue he used when concentrating, but it clearly looked like more than that to Wild, who tore himself away from watching the huge walls and towers of the station rolling past to frown at him.
“…Something amiss, mate?”
Urgug’s facial tentacles rippled. “There is a grade two security alert posted. All ships are to remain alert for a dangerous fugitive who may seek to stow away. Cargo inspections upon departure are mandatory.”
“Well, that puts a fucking spanner in the works…” Wild grimaced. “…They posted this fugitive’s likeness?”
“Indeed.” Urgug called it up on the glass at the front of the bridge.
“…That our guy?” Wild asked, looking to Bruuk.
“No idea. Kwmbwrw all look the same to me.”
“It is not.”
They turned to the shipmaster. Trrrk’k picked his way forward to his customary spot in the middle of the bridge, tilting his head back and forth atop his long neck as he considered the face on the screen. “No, the Clan’s friend has a different bone structure along his snout and around his eyes. This one is more…handsome, by their standards.”
“Pretty boy, hey?” Wild frowned at the portrait. “We got a name for this lad? I mean, I’m guessing that’s it there next to his mug, but I can’t read…whatever that is.”
“Wrrkenrythweth,” Urgug provided, rolling the first syllable lavishly.
“Former House, then,” Moj declared. He buzzed when they looked at him. “House Wrrken. The House of Traitors. Not a name for Houseless nobodies, that.”
“You know a lot more than you let on, mate,” Wild complimented him. Moj shrugged it off with a chirping sound.
“Student of alien cultures, remember.”
“…Right.” Wild rubbed his jaw with a scratching sound, then turned to the Shipmaster. “We come here looking for a bloke who was spying on one of the Great Houses, and when we get here one of the House’s sons is on the lam? Smells bloody fishy to me, right Bruuk?”
“When I’m standing next to you, the only way I could smell any fish is if you taped it to my nose,” Bruuk replied. He’d learned that Wild appreciated even quite vicious insults as a joke, with the right delivery and timing. Human humor was weird in that regard.
Sure enough, Wild snort-chuckled and reached out to give him an affectionate but slightly aggressive swat in the arm with his knuckles. “I mean it seems suspicious.”
“I quite agree,” Trrrk’k said. “Perhaps we should make contact with this alleged terrorist.”
“I’m game.” Wild glanced back out the front window as Moj brought them to a relative stop and the station’s docking arms reached out to embrace them with a series of heavy sounds that echoed through the hull.
“My only question is…How?”
Date Point:17y8m1w AV
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, Erwn-Bwrw system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
The lifetime of paranoia was still keeping Ryth alive. Barely.
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm was more a city than a space station. In theory, its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants provided him with the cover he needed to move unseen, and he knew how to defeat the facial recognition systems in the surveillance cameras, but safety lay in stillness and isolation. Everyone he passed on the street might be a House agent, authorized to gun him down on sight. Every camera might have a watchful living eye behind it, not a dumb algorithm.
He’d never gone so far as to prepare an actual safe house, and that was turning out to be an oversight. He’d always imagined threats to his life would come from other Houses, who might have acknowledged his talent and tenacity via assassination. Being hunted by his own House, shot by its guards, given the name of a traitor and having his face plastered on security alerts all over Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm…
House Henen was ruthless. He’d known that. But he’d always clung to the belief that Houses were at least loyal to their own. A favored son who’d worked his whole life for the House, who’d kept it safe, who’d dug out so many spies and saboteurs…
He deserved more. But now it turned out that not only did the House have secrets to which he’d never been privy, but…
There weren’t many species that hadn’t practiced it once. For most, it had been the foundation of their early civilizations, but as they grew more advanced in both economics and ethics, such barbarism had been left behind. Treating sapient beings as property was reviled nearly everywhere in the galaxy, most of all by those for whom it still loomed recently in collective memory.
House Henen clearly felt that biodrones no longer counted as sapient beings. The Gao, of course, would feel differently. If they found out about it…
Well, Uwrik’s grisly predictions about what Great Father Daar would do in reply had been just the start. His vengeance would surely extend to the House as well, and if the other Houses were remotely sensible they would step back and allow it. A war with the Gao would be brief, futile, and hideously bloody.
No wonder the House was willing to kill even its loyal son to keep the secret. But their lack of trust put Rythweth in a position where his only hope of surviving was to betray the House in turn.
Though he didn’t have a safe house, he did have secure funds and a stash of untraceable hard currency, plus an archive of some of the more intriguing software he’d encountered in his career. The larger part of his funds had gone on acquiring the best computer he could afford without leaving himself entirely tapped. If he needed to, he wanted to be able to bribe, or buy.
As for accomodation, the station’s social housing for the destitute was free, but obvious. So Ryyth instead embraced the vagrant life, sneaking away into the station’s hidden corners to sleep on a stolen mattress, next to a power outlet that had presumably been useful to somebody long ago, before the section was remodelled.
It was all he needed. He kept a stash of ration balls and a few water bottles on hand, grabbed from a free dispenser, he hid…
And he watched.
And now, the watching had paid off. He woke up when the software he had set up to monitor the arriving and departing ships pinged. It had found exactly what he’d told it to watch for.
“Jishi Interstellar Distribution…” He chortled quietly to himself. Uwrik’s masters had sent somebody to check on him.
The ship was appropriately anonymous. An ordinary Irbzrkian light freighter with a Domain name, an alien shipmaster and after-market modifications. Hundreds of ships like that came and went every year. It was the sort of vehicle Ryth himself would use.
If he hadn’t known that Jishi was a front, he’d never have known there was anything special about the Krr’zkvik.
Unfortunately, the House also knew. He’d spoken that particular detail out loud during Uwrik’s final interrogation.
“So what to do…?” he asked himself. He’d had to leave his drone behind, it was too traceable. But he was still in the habit of talking to it. It helped him think. “The enemy of my enemy? Is my enemy’s enemy and nothing more. But what alternative do I have?”
He looked around himself. The space he was in had been forgotten even by the graffiti taggers. Water—dirty water, alas—hissed metallically as it rushed through a thick pipe along the ceiling, and the cool copper condensed the moisture out of the air at enough of a rate to leave a perpetual wet patch on the floor below it. Combined with the still air of this badly-ventilated, forgotten place and Ryth’s temporary home had an invasive damp quality. The only thing it had going for it was isolation, and even that was only a temporary benefit.
He had to give the Humans credit for that word. That little phrase, even though it fit awkwardly in the Kwmbwrw mouth, perfectly captured the resigned determination that settled on Ryth’s back. It wasn’t an optimistic sentiment, so much as a certainty that things were going to go bad no matter what, so he may as well get it over with. Maybe he’d be dead by the end of the day. Maybe…who knew. The only way to find out was to Do.
He pulled his computer toward him, thought for a second, nodded…
And made contact. __
“And here I thought you wanted to leave me behind…I’m not exactly subtle like this, mate.” They’d just arrived and he was already suiting up.
So too were Bruuk and Moj, who buzzed amusedly. “Subtlety eludes you even in normal clothing,” he opined, then shrugged when Trrrk’k gave him a cool look, and carried on with his own preparations.
“Plans change,” the shipmaster explained. “I think now, a show of brute force is prudent. You and Bruuk together are a fairly unmistakable message.”
Bruuk growled quietly next to Wilde, so he put an arm around the short brownie’s heavy neck and hugged tightly. That seemed to be all he needed.
Attitudes on the ship had changed toward Bruuk over the last few weeks. Before he was just their grumpy but ultimately caring cook and occasional small-injury nurse. He’d never had the chance to show off his prodigious strength, since they rarely took any bulk cargo and he wouldn’t have been the one to deal with it anyway. Dora’s drones did all the heavy lifting.
Now, though? Now that they’d seen him in action against Wilde? Watched them spar and train? They paid him a great deal more respect. And Bruuk was nothing if not conflicted by that. That growl of his wasn’t aggressive. It was frustrated, and deservedly so.
Urgug rumbled from his spot at the communications console, and turned a nervous shade of warm yellow. “Station security are at our airlock. Along with a civilian female wearing the colors of House Henen.”
“No civilian she, then,” Moj said. “Matriarch, maybe.”
“We should make our point as blatantly obvious as possible, then. Ready to go stomping, little guy?” Bruuk loved his newfound freedom to tease and had become a downright expert at it.
Wilde grinned at him with the slightly…well, wild smile that said he was looking forward to something. “Hang on. Lemme go fetch my special eye.”
“Oh yeah. You’ll see.”
Their inspection wasn’t going so well. For a start, the ship’s computers were much better secured than was standard for an Irbzrkian freighter. By now, Eriwyth had expected to be reading a report from a team of analysts scouring its logs and feeding her relevant data, but they were apologetically bereft of anything useful.
That all by itself was telling. What really gave away the game, however, were the two excessively capable guards who flanked their shipmaster as he met Eriwyth at the airlock.
One was a Gaoian, and a particularly fierce example at that. As burly and brown as the Great Father, albeit much smaller, and just as clawed and fanged. His fur was short-cut in what had to be a deliberately intimidating display of his might, and his huge claws were fully extended. He bared his teeth at Eriwyth as the small entourage came to a halt. It wasn’t a friendly expression.
The one that made Eriwyth’s own guard fidget nervously, however, was the totally unexpected sight of a Human.
Eriwyth had seen a Human before, in the form of Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight. She’d always found it hard to imagine where the species’ fearsome reputation came from, in the face of that white-haired, bearded, refined and dapper man. Knight was soft-spoken, polite, civilized and regal.
This Human was a package of violence hidden under layers of war gear. He didn’t go in for a raw physical display like his shorter companion. Instead, the Human radiated menace. His face was mostly obscured by a cloth printed with a white-on-black skeletal visage, but that was nowhere near as troubling as what little face was visible behind it. One eye was dark, fierce and direct, focused forward like a weapon’s targeting system. All by itself, it was unsettling. But the other eye…
What otherwise looked like an empty eye socket had a baleful blue-green gleam in it that sent nervous shivers down Eriwyth’s back.
The Human was being deliberately, flamboyantly aggressive. And it was working. Worse, it put the security force on the wrong footing: they’d only brought pulse weapons. Shipmaster Trrrk’k had brought bodyguards who could sneer at pulse weapons before ripping them all to pieces.
She tore her gaze away from that awful stare, and returned her attention to the Rrrrtk shipmaster. This one was aging, his movements were stiff and cautious, but when he bowed his long neck in a nod of acknowledgement, the intelligence in his eyes was undimmed. He knew exactly what he was doing by bringing two such fearsome deathworlders to protect him.
“I greet you, Matriarch. How may we be of assistance?”
Eriwyth stood up on her hind legs to remove the height difference between them. She could tower over the deathworlders at least, and look their shipmaster in the eye. “No games, shipmaster. We know that Jishi Interstellar Distribution is a front for Gaoian intelligence services, which makes you spies.”
“This is a free port, bound under Dominion law to permit any and all legal custom, unharassed and unhindered,” Trrrk’k replied, smoothly. He offered Eriwyth a tablet. “As you can see, our shipping manifest is in order. We have here a large cargo of dried beans, kernels and flour from the planet Cimbrean, our delivery contracts are pending, and whatever you accuse our employer of being, the fact is that Jishi Interstellar is a registered trading body licensed to do business across Dominion space.”
Eriwyth shot an irritated glance at her assistant, who took the tablet and scanned it. After a few moments she turned her eyes to the matriarch and reluctantly ducked her body in the affirmative. “Everything is in order, Matriarch…”
“Meaning that our trade business here is lawful,” Trrrk’k said. “Shall I quote section and paragraph?”
“Am I supposed to believe you brought two clearly hostile deathworlders here for innocent reasons, shipmaster?”
“Am I to infer that you are exhibiting prejudice against my crew, Matriarch? Your reaction, I would say, rather justifies their presence.”
“That one is snarling at me!” Eriwyth accused, indicating the Gaoian.
“Of course he is. You brought an armed security team onto what is, in fact, sovereign territory. Gaoians are…protective…of their own.”
Eriwyth aimed a pointed finger at the Human. “And that one’s death mask?”
“His glowing eye?”
“An injury he earned while fighting to protect his comrades.”
The security team behind Eriwyth shifted uncomfortably. Everyone knew the list of things that could kill a Human was short. And this one had, presumably, gone up against such a thing and survived. He saw them staring, and the shift of his mask and eyes suggested a feral grin to match the bared skull on his mask.
“…We are here to inspect your cargo. We will make a thorough search of your ship, as is our right under Dominion law.”
“By all means.”
The inspection was…Well, it was a masterclass in intimidation. More than once, bulky obstacles were conveniently blocking their way, such that her security team could not move them or find another path. The Gaoian would respond with a contemptuous sort of sneer and effortlessly move the cargo container or whatever out of the way, derision written across his every gesture.
The Human wasn’t so brash. He simply leaned against a wall with his arms folded and watched. That evil eye bored into everyone, and the security team couldn’t stop glancing back to check if he was still there. He unnerved them.
“Why do you not help your fellow?” Eriwyth asked him at one point.
The Human shrugged and said simply, “He’s stronger.”
The rest of the crew were just as bizarre as the deathworlders. Their Kwmbwrw engineer refused point blank to give his House name, claiming that he simply didn’t have one. The Robalin cargodrone operator was listening to music so loud and so raucous that Eriwyth could hardly stand to go near her station, and the Mjrnhrm pilot’s quarters contained absolutely nothing at all save the small cushion, on which the pilot himself sat in meditation the whole time without acknowledging their intrusion.
The shipmaster’s cluttered, messy quarters reeked of cqcq smoke, the guvnurag quartermaster’s were packed with so many plants that the pollen made Eriwyth sneeze. The Gaoian’s quarters reeked of male musk, and inside was nothing more than a bed and a large collection of what had to be some kind of exercise equipment. As for the Human’s, they were… incongruously normal. He had a couch, some bookshelves, a workbench and some equipment similar to the Gaoian’s. Like the Gaoian, he flatly refused to reduce the gravity for the inspection team’s comfort, and stood menacingly in the entryway, wordlessly staring them all down.
An electronic device was hooked up to the room’s entertainment screen, and he claimed it was entirely for entertainment purposes. He had apparently been playing a game on it before the inspection, which featured a heavily cyberized human, paused in the midst of a pitched gun battle with other, equally augmented humans. The game’s creators had gone into disturbing detail in making one unfortunate foe’s head explode in as gruesomely realistic a way as possible.
Eriwyth shivered and stepped out of the room. Up until then, she’d been telling herself that the Human’s appearance was just an act, that he was being deliberately disturbing to throw her and her officers off-balance. And while that was unquestionably the case…what kind of a sick culture created something like that and called it a game?
There was nothing of note aboard the ship, otherwise. Weapons, yes, but every ship carried weapons in case of pirates or Hunters. The makeshift training facility in a redundant cargo hold was strange, but clearly there for a legitimate use. It would take time to verify the contents of the shipping containers and establish that they did indeed contain only raw foodstuffs as the manifest claimed….
But strange was not illegal. There was absolutely nothing unlawful or impermissible on board which would have allowed Eriwyth to turn them away, no matter how hard she looked. Even the company, Jishi, legitimately existed in that it was owned by Clan Goldpaw, and was properly licensed.
She had to curse herself for not foreseeing this. She’d been so hung up on imagining all the ways they could smuggle themselves aboard the station that she simply hadn’t considered the possibility that they would just walk down the ramp and everything would be completely fucking legal.
So, she had no choice but to allow them on board. The Gaoian moved down the gantry with a sort of deck-juddering swagger that was equal parts intimidating and infuriating. The Human, though? He didn’t swagger or thump about. Instead, he…prowled.
She watched them go. She set her people to watch them closely.
And she wondered what she had missed.
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“Did you really need to stomp your way down the entire ramp?”
Bruuk chittered, “Balls, yeah! How else am I s’posed ‘ta keep ‘ya in ‘yer place?!”
Wilde’s personal canid tank-friend was turning out to be a bit of a character, once some of the sullen crust had been laboriously jackhammered away. He was showing more of that genuine and playful personality that was endemic to Gaoians, and brownies in particular.
All he’d needed was someone to notice him, really. Wilde could appreciate that.
Not that the crowd failed to notice either of them. Folks of every size and shape were getting out of their way, sharpish. They were firmly ambling, maintaining an unhurried, casual pace as they wandered down the moving walkways and into the dockside marketplace. A few even put large objects between themselves and the two Scary Deathworlders, and watched fearfully from behind the stalls and advertisements.
Bruuk was having the time of his life.
There were a lot of advertisements, mostly in shades of blue and yellow, black and white, green and grey. It gave the market a uniform palette even while the shapes and assorted logos, trademarks, icons and mascots blended into a riot. Ian couldn’t read a word of Kwlsh, the Kwmbwrw lingua franca, but he could recognize a cute mascot selling noodles just fine. Okay so the mascot in question had three freaky alien eyes and a long curly tail and didn’t look remotely like a cute Chinese chef or whatever, but the same energy was there.
…He was feeling hungry, all of a sudden.
Bruuk flicked an ear. “…Was that ‘yer fuckin’ stomach?”
“Yeah, it makes that noise when I’m underfed and starving.”
“Hey, I keep you fed good!”
“Tell me those noodles don’t smell good, though.”
“…You raise a good point.” Bruuk’s stomach growled a bit, too.
“I heard that!”
It took a fair bit of smiling and negotiation to convince the (plainly terrified) shopkeeper of their friendly intent, and maybe a bit of panting friendliness from Bruuk, too…but they somehow, eventually, perhaps even accidentally achieved Noodle.
They were some good fucking noodles, too. A bit like miso soba soup with ginger. Maybe slurping them up inexpertly with an alien eating utensil undermined the fearsome death mask visage a bit, but that had been for the House goons’ benefit, not the general public’s. And slurping was universal language for tasty and appreciated.
More specific to Gaoians was their tongue licking every part of their own face, which Bruuk did while his tail hammered out a steady metallic beat on the bin next to him.
They left a generous tip, and kept on walking. Well, Ian walked. Bruuk, on the other hand…
Yup. It was unmistakable. Bruuk was strutting down the promenade with a deck-shaking swagger to match. And Wilde knew exactly why he was flaunting his stuff, too.
“I still can’t believe you made me help you trim your fur down…”
“What?! If we’re gonna train together, I don’t wanna be carryin’ a billion gallons o’ sweat around when we’re sparrin,’ yijao? Also it looks cool! Shows off m’ abs, see?!” Bruuk proved his point by tensing them.
Lord. Wilde rolled his eyes, but couldn’t contain his own snort of amusement. This of course prompted Bruuk to show off more of his impressive self, and even clown around a bit for a few children along the way, who were hiding behind their parent’s legs with big, curious eyes.
“Too bad there aren’t any Females around to see all that Big Bruuk Energy you’re flaunting…”
“There might be, you never know! And besides: me, show off? Mister ‘skull mask and ghostly glowin’ eye’ is lecturin’ me about showin’ off?”
“Mine is just some scary clothes. You on the other hand are practically naked!”
“Naw! I still got fur! And I got m’shorts on so m’bits ain’t floppin around—”
“Fine, fine! God.” Wilde shook his head and laughed. “You’re an attention whore, you know that?”
“People should pay attention to me!”
Their route “coincidentally” took them past a spare parts and hardware shop that was closed and shuttered, with bright blue tape plastered all over it. Ian didn’t need to read Kwlsh to guess that the tape had the local version of “CRIME SCENE” printed on it. They paused for a second and considered it.
“Yeah, our guy got caught alright,” Ian muttered, under his breath. “…They following us?”
Bruuk didn’t even need to sniff. He just flicked an ear and ducked his head a fraction. “Fuck yeah. Smell nervous, too.”
“Good. Let’s keep this distraction going, shall we?”
“What’ve you got in mind?”
“I dunno. Let’s just…let’s see if there’s somewhere to get a drink around here…”
Cargo handling was a dance and dancing was what Dora did best!
Well…among other things. Juggling, say. She’d practiced juggling a lot after first finding it in an entertainment datadump she’d pulled from Armstrong Station’s network, and it had been one of the more difficult things she’d ever done. Then she’d got good at it.
Then she’d got good enough to do things with her extra hand that no Human juggler could ever do.
Containers—isotainers, as the Humans called ‘em, since it was their fucking design everyone used—were awfully big for juggling. They had inertia, and they didn’t spin all the same…but still. It was kinda like juggling. Set it in motion, move the drone to catch it when it got there, don’t chase it, trust the toss, get it moving again. The rhythm to cargo handling was essentially the same as the rhythm of juggling. Working on one had honed her talents in the other.
And her study of juggling had led her to another skill, one she’d practiced with Moj a lot.
Palm, simulation, steal, ditch, misdirection, steal, simulation, misdirection, load, simulation, switch, misdirection…
Once you knew the basics, once you were good enough? You could do it with anything. The same simple toolbox of moves was universal, and it didn’t have to be a cigarette, or a badge, or balls and cups. With the right tools, interface, and enough practice…
Dora could pull off sleight of hand tricks with forty foot, seventy-thousand-pound cargo containers.
And the nice thing—the really nice thing—about big isotainers full of palletized stacks of dried soybeans in bags was, they all looked the same inside. So even though the House Henen security troopers thought they were thoroughly scanning the inside of each container, and for most part they were…
…There was one particular container they’d scanned twice, and one they hadn’t scanned at all.
Over on the station, Moj slipped out of his container and vanished amidst the port equipment.
And Dora kept on dancing.
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
Someone had challenged Bruuk to a drinking contest. That was dumb as hell.
Ian was nowhere near stupid enough to get involved. All pride aside, getting into a drinking contest with an ET could only end with him comatose and the alien barely buzzed. Humans were notoriously the galactic-class ultimate lightweights, second only to the Ten’Gewek in how badly they held their booze.
Getting into said contest with a Gaoian, though? That could be a death sentence. With a tank of a Gaoian? And a brownie, too? Bruuk got about as much out of a bottle of vodka as Ian would have out of a shot. He could basically piss it straight out and failing that? He could sweat it out, too. Given their penchant for fermented foods, and their long, terrible winters…
Gaoians were the superheavyweight grand champions of drinking. Several liters of industrial cleaning solvent in, and Bruuk had drunk his competition quite literally under the table. He was, at worst, slightly buzzed.
And of course, station security were sniffing around.
These ones weren’t the House goons. They were ordinary beat cops, called in to handle a disturbance and apparently somebody had neglected to inform them who was at the heart of said disturbance.
One of them was nervously keeping a hand close to a holstered pulse pistol that, if he fired it Ian’s way, would have maybe given Ian a bloody nose. At most. He somehow doubted Bruuk would have much noticed either, frankly. Lord only knew what a buzzed Gaoian would be like…
“Is there a problem, officers?”
The senior officer—or at least, Ian suspected he was senior, given that his security harness had a chevron on it where his partner’s was blank—fixed him with a glare that contained more bravado than authority. “We had complaints of a disturbance.”
“Can’t see why, I haven’t touched a drop and my shipmate here was just having a friendly drink with…” Ian gestured to the comatose Vgork male under the table. “Who, as you can see, is being nice and quiet, too. Nothing’s broken, we’re no bother to anyone, we paid for our drinks…”
“The complaint said you were being threatening.”
Ian sipped his soft drink. It was a Kwmbwrw brand he couldn’t pronounce, but it tasted pleasantly similar to mint and agave, with plenty of cold fizz. Maybe if he got the chance he’d have a couple of bulk packs delivered to the ship. “I’ve been getting that a lot. No idea why. I’ve been nothing but pleasant since I got here.”
“You’re wearing a death mask.” The officer indicated the mask, currently rolled down around Ian’s throat.
Ian finished his drink. Maybe not with buying a crate. The alien cans were the same size as those little lunchbox snack cans. Not really a cost-effective way to buy. “It’s cultural.”
“And you’ve got…that eye…”
“You wouldn’t begrudge a wounded veteran his prosthetic, would you?” Ian squashed the can in his hand, then crushed it flat against the tabletop.
“…I’m going to have to ask you to—”
“You and what army?” Ian interrupted, and finally turned to glare at him. The officer shrank back. “I’m here having a nice peaceful time, we’re bothering nobody. You want me to leave? Give me some probable cause and back it up with some fucking artillery mate. That thing won’t do more than piss me off.”
“I am authorized to—”
“I don’t care.”
He turned his glare away, ignored the officer’s outraged, futile sputtering, and smirked to himself when the Law finally slunk away with their tails very literally between their legs.
That should do the trick.
Across the room, a couple more vgork were getting increasingly angry at Bruuk, who was showing off and chugging his way through a large bottle of something green. Sooner or later, somebody was going to do something stupid. It wouldn’t be Ian, and it wouldn’t be Bruuk.
But it would be all part of the plan…
The ship’s agent could have been more inconspicuous, Ryth felt. Mjrnhrm weren’t a common species even here, and this one was not decorated according to his species’ traditions and culture…
But he knew the trade. He made contact in just the way Ryth had instructed, deep in the narrow backs between two residential blocks.
Everything was a risk right now. Every communication might have been intercepted, everything might be a trap by the House. For Rythweth, there was no alternative but to put all his weight on each step and trust that the floor would not give out under him.
Still, he kept his bandaged arm with its hidden blade held close and ready, and the other one near the pulse pistol hidden in a pouch on his thigh, and felt glad he’d had the chance to recharge his shield generators. It wasn’t a full security harness, but it had already saved his life once…
Though, if this Mjrn was the House’s man, then it probably wouldn’t be enough anyway.
“Are you lost, friend?” he asked, stepping out of the doorway he’d been lurking in.
The Mjrn turned and considered him for a moment, then buzzed slightly. “No. I don’t think so,” he replied.
Good. Correct call and response, at least. Ryth took a few steps closer, the Mjrn did the same, and within a few paces they were close enough together to speak quietly.
“…The man you came here for is dead,” Ryth revealed. “I know why. If you can get me off this station and grant me sanctuary, then I will share what I know.”
“You killed him?” The Mjrn asked.
“No. They’ll kill me to to protect what he knew.”
“Important, then. Our word is good enough for you? Sanctuary is yours no matter what, but if they kill you before you share—”
“Not going to happen,” Rythweth cut him off. “That information is my only currency. You’ll get what I know once I’m safe, and not a ri’ before.”
The Mjrn made an affable gesture. “Thought so. So. Plan.”
“I assume you have one.”
“Disappointed I won’t get to see them in action,” the Mjrn buzz-chuckled.
“Friends. Friends who are good at being the center of attention, yes? Was looking forward to watching them work, but…” He made that affable gesture again. “Worry about our side. A rabbit in a hat, us.”
The Mjrn explained. Ryth still didn’t understand the hat reference. But he understood the plan.
And he liked it.
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
The problem with Vgork bulls, especially bachelors, was they each had enough testosterone for the whole HEAT, and usually the muscle to back it up, too. A Vgork’s head had a thick bony ridge running right up it, the inside of their skull was lined with soft spongy tissue to cushion their brain, and their neck was braced to handle as much force as they could exert and then some. When one reared up and butted something or somebody, it usually stayed butted.
Vgork bachelors had a deserved reputation as bullies and thugs, always raring for a fight and generally equipped to win it. They certainly thought enough of themselves to believe that a pair of “small” deathworlders should be taken down a peg.
Gaoians were, of course, ambush predators. And their prey had always been bigger than themselves. In many respects, a vgork was pretty similar to a Naxas, and Bruuk clearly knew a thing or two about wrangling Naxas.
Ian, meanwhile, had played rugby with the HEAT. He knew a thing or two about redirecting literal tons of mass away from his squishy middle bits, and into more productive directions.
Like the nearest wall.
It dented with a loud crunch, the plaster cracked, and the charging vgork sat down on his arse with a confused expression.
“Now what’d you do that for, mate?” Ian asked him, conversationally, while across the room Bruuk ducked under the other one’s headbutt, grabbed his forelegs and twisted sideways. Two alien bodies crashed to the deck in a tangle, and that was a fight Bruuk couldn’t lose.
“Stand still!” the vgork heaved himself to his feet and rounded on Ian again.
“Come on, pack it in.” Ian stepped neatly aside as the vgork reared up on his hindlegs for a headbutt, then ducked under a desperate fist-swipe with a rolling motion inherited from the boxing ring.
He was enjoying himself, he couldn’t lie. The alien’s movements undeniably powerful, yeah, but they were also so slow and telegraphed it was ludicrous, and the fact was he could stop this fight any time he liked with a well-placed punch…
The only thing stopping him there was that a well-placed punch on most Dominion species counted as lethal force. He wasn’t here to kill or maim, he was here to make a ruckus, and he wasn’t completely sure what a Vgork could handle, so that meant playing the matador. He even threw in an “¡olé!” for his own benefit when he deftly rolled aside from another charge. His self-satisfied chuckle just drove the vgork to new angry heights.
Bruuk, meanwhile, wasn’t nearly so artful. He was working out a freight of frustration and showing off his ridiculous brawn like the cheesiest of Gaoian daytime dramas. The poor vgork would be wallowing in total-body pain whenever Bruuk let him go.
Most aliens had no stamina, though. After just the fourth charge, Ian’s opponent was breathing heavily and moving slowly. He stomped the deck irritably and growled something defiant, but Ian could tell the big idiot was barely standing upright already. All that (poorly-conditioned) muscle mass took a lot of energy to set in motion, and the stop-start pace of trying to catch Ian had taken a lot out of him.
The last attack finally winded him to the point he couldn’t stand. The vgork staggered, sagged, then crashed to the deck without Ian ever laying a finger on him. Ian squatted down next to him and patted the big guy’s sweaty neck in a friendly way. “Stay down, mate. You’re in a different league now.”
With a whining sound, the vgork gave up. “…Urrgh…”
“Now, seriously, what was all that abou–Bruuk! Your chew-toy has had enough, mate.”
The Gaoian shot Ian a briefly mutinous look, but then reined it in. He let go of his beaten adversary and rose to two-paw. “…Right, yeah. Sarry.”
The bar was vacated. The locals had fled, the staff had escaped out the back door, and the tables were knocked over. No serious damage, but Ian knew what came next. Station security had already had a word with him to no effect, which meant any second…
Yup. The bitch from the welcoming party strode in, with a team of much better-equipped goons behind her. Still no sign of a real weapon, but those pulse rifles pack a much heavier punch than the pistols. Enough to knock a tooth out or concuss, or….
Oh. No. That subtle electric whine, right on the upper limit of hearing, felt rather than heard. Fully charged capacitors. Yeah, that’d be enough to fling Ian across the room and leave him with some internal bleeding, then.
“…Come here often, love?”
The poison in her glare translated across all possible species barriers. She kept one eye on him while she turned her head to consider the state of the bar with the other two. “…I knew letting you two on board was an indulgence I would come to regret.”
“In fairness, we didn’t start it.”
“Yes, you were very careful about that, I know.” She reared up on her hindlegs and towered over Ian and Bruuk alike. “But one does not have to attack first to instigate a fight. You came in here looking for trouble, and just so happened to find it.”
“Ah yes, the ‘they made us do it’ argument, very compelling. What are you, their defence attorney? I’d find somebody more convincing if I were them…”
“Enough! I am a Matriarch of House Henen, you are aboard a House Henen station, and you have just been involved in a brawl! I don’t care who started it. I care that we have two aggressive deathworlders roaming my station, looking for trouble and disrespecting the security officers. I will not stand for it! The two of you are confined to your ship, by my lawful order.”
Bruuk’s raised his hackles and growled right on cue, which prompted the nervous guards to ready their weapons. That prompted an irritated snarl, and…
Ian put his arm in front of Bruuk, and raised the other hand peacefully, taking one step forward to defuse things before any of the House retinue did something stupid like actually raise their gun and aim it.
“…Fine. We’re leaving. Entertainment’s lacking all of a sudden anyway.”
There were more House troops outside, plus a black van with a blue light on top and the House sigil on the side. A lot of wary, armored figures watched Ian and Bruuk as they emerged from the bar.
Bruuk turned his translator off and growled something in Gaori for Ian’s ears only. [“Racist assholes.”]
[“Comes with the territory, mate,”] Ian replied. [“We’re the galactic bogeymen, you and me.”]
[“…Yeah. Feels good knowin’ we can kick their tails, though.”]
Wilde looked down at Bruuk and smiled. [“Together, yeah.”]
They passed the rest of the long walk back to the ship in silence, trailed by a platoon of armed Kwmbwrw while the station’s civilians stood aside and gawped. Bruuk had a definite spring in his step but he was at least polite enough not to make too big a fuss about it.
He still flexed outrageously for the kids, though. Ian wasn’t sure which of them attracted more attention, Bruuk with his flagrant physicality, or the glowing glass eye. They probably made for about the most interesting street theatre ever on the station.
It couldn’t last forever though. The airlock cycled, they wandered through the docking umbilical and into the ship, and…
Still in silence, they checked each other with one of Whitecrest’s little bits of hardware. No sense getting sloppy and saying something incriminating before checking thoroughly for bugs. Only once they were both perfectly happy that neither of them was carrying some kind of listening device did they allow themselves to relax.
They traded high-fives, and headed for the crew lounge, where Trrrk’k put his tablet down and looked up as they entered.
“…Well done,” he said.
“You successfully drew the attention of every House trooper on the whole station,” the captain confirmed. “Moj was able to make contact.”
“So what happens next?”
“You two stay alert and ready in case things go wrong, and we wait.”
Ian sat down. “I’ve got a bad feeling about that Matriarch, skipper.”
“She smells…deceitful,” Bruuk agreed.
“Why, Bruuk! That’s the biggest word I’ve ever heard you use!”
The burly Gaoian chittered, “Shaddup, Wild.”
Ian chuckled, then sobered up. “…Not just deceitful, but desperate. She wanted us off that station and she took the first and flimsiest chance she had to do it. Somebody’s leaning on her from high up, I bet; She bit hard on the chance to gain some control.”
Trrrk’k puffed his pipe. “Good. Desperation means mistakes.”
“It also means crazy dangerous curve-balls, skipper.”
Trrrk’k nodded slowly, and raised his tablet again. “Then we shall just have to be prepared,” he said.
“Right.” Ian stood up and wandered through into the kitchen. “I’m gonna cook something, then. Those noodles were nice, but…”
Bruuk cheered and followed behind him. “I’ve got some steaks secreted away! I think we’ve earned them.”
“Thank you for the warning,” Trrrk’k grumbled, and turned his chair to face away from them.
“Oh, c’mon!” Bruuk yipped irritably. “We drink almond milk for your benefit. Do you know how terrible that shit smells? Kinda like poison!”
“That’s ‘cuz almonds are poison, mate,” Ian told him.
“Oh yeah. Wild almonds would kill any of us dead. Anyway…”
“Wait, wait. How did you go from that to a food crop…?”
Ian chuckled. He was glad to be off the station. Courting controversy came with the downside of seeing the galactic population’s xenophobic side (ironically), and it was nice to be back somewhere he was welcome. And it was nice to have really broken through Bruuk’s shell.
Now all he had to do was hope the rest of the mission went so smoothly…
There was a way of seeing the world. Hard to describe, harder to achieve, but useful. A balance of seeing the parts and the whole at the same time, watching not just the dance, but each dancer. Rivers of mortal life, streaming from work to home or the other way…but made of persons. Same enough to predict, different enough to surprise.
To Moj, people were patterns, and pieces of patterns. He’d learned how to become whatever part of the pattern he wanted, while still rising above it to know it.
Moving a wanted man through a crowd should be easy, if he could become the right part of the crowd. If he could be one of the pieces that just moved and flowed, anonymously. If he could be water but not a fish, If he could be the breeze and not a leaf, If Ryth moved like nobody he could become nobody. He could be less than invisible. He could be ignored.
Rythweth was not nobody. He was House. House were not ignored. House did not know how to be ignored. Not their role, that. Rythweth knew the idea, but he didn’t see, he didn’t rise above.
So, tricky was even trickier.
Trickier still? Moj could have stood out, been a big fish. Easy, that. All his tattoos, bright clothing, being an uncommon species…big and obvious thoughts became a big and obvious person. Maybe if Moj became Bruuk, walked Wild, Rythweth could be a lesser leaf and go unnoticed in his shadow.
But. Moj was not supposed to be aboard the station. He was supposed to be aboard the ship. If he stopped being nobody and became somebody again, if he was not ignored, they’d know he got aboard somehow. The route back would likely close, likely never open again.
So he stole a car.
Easy, that. Companies loved their big tales about security and safety, how their vehicles had the best features to stop unwanted use. Moj didn’t know if they were telling huge lies or if they really believed it, and he didn’t know which was funnier. They all did the same thing with the little point-and-push keys. Nobody needed to point them, but they pointed anyway. Point and push a button, send a number, lock or unlock. Sometimes, one number to lock, another to unlock. Sometimes, with lazy companies, one number for both.
Moj had a toy. It listened. It heard numbers. It sent numbers. Not even a crime, really. Moj needed the car more than its owner, the owner would get it back soon. An inconvenience at worst. A public transport trip, a few minutes. A chance to rise and think Higher, think above material things. A lesson, if they listened.
Probably not. Most people didn’t think Higher. Not Moj’s fault, that.
And even Rythweth could be nobody in a car.
“Where are we going?”
“To be rabbits.”
“…What is a rabbit?”
“Don’t know. Live in hats, I think. Strange minds, aliens.”
“…As you say. But you didn’t answer my question.”
Moj explained as he calmly guided his stolen vehicle onto one of the station’s main arteries, headed toward the cargo yards. Not like driving on a planet, no. A warren of tunnels instead of a road network. No commuters and passengers either. On a station, vehicles were for moving goods, not people. People used trams and elevators.
Useful, that. Facial recognition was a crowd tool, not a cargo tool. Different zones, different rules, different security. Security where people went was all about finding the ones who were trying to be nobody. Security where things went was about only letting in the right somebody.
Thing security was stronger, but stupider. Moj liked strong but stupid. Clever but weak was worse. Clever and strong, the worst. Fences and doors and motion sensors didn’t know nobody from somebody, didn’t think. They just were. They always were as they were, where they were. Just like vehicles. Though, vehicles could whirr elsewhere.
Bad idea to keep the vehicle near where they got out. Better for it to go. Better for it to forget. Easy, that. Machines forgot whatever they were told to forget. Moj knew how to ask so it couldn’t say no, so the people got out and the machine drove off. When found, it wouldn’t know where it had been. Maybe somebody strong and clever would guess…
Or maybe not. Not fast enough, was what mattered.
Rythweth might not know how to be nobody, but he knew things. Knew how to move quick and quiet, knew things about fences and doors and motion sensors too. Had toys of his own. So somebody and somebody went where nobody should be, quiet and quick and clever among the strong, stupid, static things that watched and guarded but didn’t see. Where being somebody or nobody didn’t matter, and all that mattered was numbers on boxes, code for which things went where.
There was one somebody watching and waiting for them, though. Outcast and sadder than she pretended, walking like a Human on three legs, learning Human tricks, speaking Human words, wearing Human flags. Poor lonely soul, her. Never to find one like her to love, probably, but still walking forward. Making her either a Higher mind than she claimed, or (the best comedian of all) a liar who believed her own lies. Whichever she was, Moj loved her deeply.
Good at pulling rabbits out of hats, too. A hilarious lie, that. And very useful.
They slipped into the right container. Airtight. Stasis-sealed. Safe. No death in the void for Moj and Rythweth today. Just a big metal hat, and a magician to pull them out of it.
Time to go home.
A little control re-established, maybe. But also an opportunity for unsupervised mischief, and Eriwyth had the tense feeling running all the way up her tail and spine that said she knew she’d erred a few times already. Like pressure in her brain, like a creeping pain in her fingertips and behind her eyes. She was off-balance, pressured, so distracted by the stakes and the consequences that her focus was not what it should be.
At least the deathworlders were out of the way. A large part of her worried she’d made a mistake by focusing on them when they were so clearly there to distract her, but sometimes distractions were worth engaging. One second, they might have been hanging out “drinking peacefully” in that bar. The next they might have vanished from view and achieved all sorts of mischief because she didn’t take them seriously. A distraction could become real action all too quickly.
Yes. Better to have them dealt with and removed from the equation. They could no longer distract her, and they could no longer act. Whatever damage may have been achieved while she was distracted still had to be accounted for and corrected, but at least there was one fewer dangerous variable in play.
Nobody else had disembarked from the ship, and the cargo unloading was going slow as the security teams scanned the containers. A less cautious woman would have felt safe. Eriwyth, though, was wondering what she had missed
The document in front of her wasn’t quite the relief she’d hoped. But it was something. It put a little solid ground back under her feet, and helped her take the deep breath she needed to center herself. She had an edge now, a tool to fall back on if things went wrong. A truly interesting and relevant one, too.
Hopefully, she wouldn’t need to use it. There were profound risks involved. But if things had got to that point, they would already have come too close to disaster anyway.
She deleted the message for safety’s sake, and returned her attention to the hunt. She still had a missing son to find.
And she could not rest until the end, whatever happened.
++END OF PART ONE++
Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
Sally and Stephen Johnson
Sian, Steve, Willow and Riker
Joshua Mountain Taylor
As well as sixty-one Deathworlders…
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 galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jim Hamrick John Campbell 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 Samuel Wilson Saph Sean Calvo Sintanan Stephen Prescott Stratigan theWorst Valiander Vincent Leighton Volka Creed walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas ziv Zod Bain
…Eighty-seven Friendly ETs, 137 Squishy Xenos and 317 Dizi Rats, who ate all the cheese and then exploded.
“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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Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders chapter 70 will continue in part 2