Chapter 71: Sticks and Stones
The Great Gaoian Die-Off by Ava Ríos
The Gao are at a crossroads of potentially galactic importance, yet hardly anyone seems to be talking about it. The Gao, however, do, though their own media have remained largely misunderstood by Anglophone society—Gaori is an easy language to learn but quite tricky to master, and as a result there are few journalists who can confidently report on their culture.
In previous reporting on the Gao, I have not properly addressed this problem. Not even the fallout from the Laid Bare story featuring the Great Father himself has properly opened the subject. The Gao remain largely distant friends we are happy to appreciate, but unable to properly understand.
I’d like to change that.
In this range of interviews, I speak with a number of Gaoian voices: most prominent, some more modest. All of them are acutely aware of the terrible situation their people face.
We’ll begin with one of the more modest voices.
Leemu is a Folcthan artist of some critical acclaim, and notable for several reasons. He enjoys the personal friendship of the Great Father, his exhibitions at Oriel are always well attended, and his creations have found their way into collections all over the galaxy.
He attributes his success to the fact that he is one of the first Gaoians ever to see the color red.
In person, he is not an overwhelming presence. He is fit and handsome, though of modest height and retiring personality. Like most Gao he can be quite energetic and playful, and he socializes regularly in the local workhouses and commune. Most evenings, though, he can be found in his home studio, often alone and working on his next project. This is quite unusual for a Gaoian, but his particular story makes his desire for a measure of solitude understandable.
Leemu is a recovering biodrone. Like others I have met, the experience has left a deep mark on him, though according to Leemu itself, there has been a positive side.
[Picture: Leemu in his studio, applying copper foil to an oil painting of lakebeds park at dusk, to pick out the course of the river through the landscape, and the setting sun.]
“I was a different kind of biodrone. The tech that enslaved me was nanoscale, in every cell of my body. Getting rid of it demanded new and experimental medicine, including extensive gene therapy.”
Before I can ask my question, he gives me a look that says he’s heard them all before.
“I’m still very much Gaoian. Nothing has been added to my genome that wasn’t already there. A few dormant genes have simply been activated. Or expressed, I think is the right word. We don’t know exactly what the consequences of reactivating them are, yet, but so far it’s been nothing but positives.”
“Well, an immune system that can cure me of an alien nanotech virus, for a start.” He gestures to his studio. “And of course…”
“According to the Corti scientists, my life expectancy is nearly as long as a Human’s now. Time will tell on that one, I suppose. I’m healthier, stronger…exactly what’s been sold.”
How many have taken the gene therapy since you?
“It’s available to all Gao who choose to take it. I don’t know the numbers, but most of the people I know are at least thinking about it. Tens of thousands at least. More quickly too I’d bet, given the example of Our Father and Our Mother. Which I think is good. We need it.”
[Image: a montage of Leemu in action: considering a half-finished painting, prowling around the room as he thinks, washing his brushes. The centerpiece shows him sitting on the floor, playing with a ginger cat.]
“…We live in a dangerous world. It is one dominated by deathworlders—you and me. Except, we Gao aren’t quite deathworlders, are we? Once, in ancient times, we were a strong, vibrant apex species on a high-end class-11 world. It was a lush world and trending higher. We’ve got the fossil record to prove it, too. Then the Hierarchy took note of us.”
He pauses, mournfully, before continuing.
“We were still in our earliest tribal days, over twenty thousand years ago. Almost everything died and our world has still not recovered. Those of us who survived were…modified, extensively. We were re-made into a potential contingency species. Some of the deepest parts of us were deliberately shut off by a power that wanted us contained, controlled and…well. The people who biodroned me. For me, all of that is reason enough: becoming something they don’t want us to be. But there’s more than just that.”
He shows me one of his darker works. While a strong optimistic streak runs through most of Leemu’s portfolio, the few bleaker pieces stand out all the more prominently for it. One depicts the war on Gao, most of the image being picked out in shades of black and gray save for the fires consuming a burning city.
“When the biodrones attacked our homeworld, they attacked the Female communes first. They were trying to wipe us out, so, that makes sense. If they’d killed all the cubs and the females, it wouldn’t really have mattered how many males survived. And, for the most part…they succeeded. Competition for mates was always fierce before. Now? Most living males will never have another cub. So, now…we need something else to live for.”
“Maybe Humans have an easier time in that regard. I’ve seen many of your people who are childless and claim to be quite content. For us, I don’t know if it’s cultural or instinctive, but Gao think a lot about our legacy. Our cubs, the world we build for them. I see Humans who devote themselves to a thing just for that thing. Business high-fliers whose ambition is to get as rich as they can, or the nuns and monks who devote their lives to their faith, or artists like me who are defined by their art! That’s alien, to a Gao. I don’t see the point in getting rich or becoming famous unless it’s to win mates.”
But you already have a cub.
“Yes. Which makes me blessed. If I ever have another, that will put me among an elite few.”
[Image: Leemu showing one of his portraits—his cub and the little one’s mother, Leela.]
By recent estimates, as Leemu says, even if every surviving Gaoian female spends the rest of her life bearing as many children as biologically possible, from as many fathers as possible, there are so few of them remaining that less than half of all living males would be able to father any progeny. In reality, of course, most females have ambitions beyond being permanent baby factories, and prefer to select their partners carefully. It’s likely that many of the coming generation will be the children of a comparative handful of highly successful males.
The Great Father is infamous for siring a great many cubs. Thousands, by recent estimates. Does this…offend you? Other Gaoians?
“Not at all.”
“We think of the future. He is the very best breeding stock there is, so…he should sire as many cubs as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that. Why should we resent his greatness?”
Doesn’t it come at everybody else’s expense?
Leemu’s reaction to that is a lengthy chitter.
“Our Father is infamously ‘well-loved,’ but not even he can monopolize all the Females! I think it’ll be fine. Plus, I’ve met him. So have you. He can be a bit…much, for some women, and I don’t just mean his Keeda-shaming physique. So, you see? Not even he wins every contest…”
There is a distinctly smug set to his ears that is impossible to properly describe, but if you’ve spent any time around Gaoians, you’ll know the one. His self-satisfaction is with the very cub he’s painted; he managed to woo a friendly yet notoriously picky Female over the Great Father’s best efforts.
He claims they’re still on friendly terms. Knowing Daar, I don’t doubt it.
So this breeding crisis means most Gaoian males are looking for something else to identify with.
“Exactly. That’s why the Grand Army isn’t short of volunteers. It’s why per-capita the economy on our homeworld is booming and recovering so much faster than anybody predicted. All those males whose hopes of ever siring a cub fell apart a few years ago are throwing themselves into making sure that the world they leave behind for the next generation will be as good as it can be.”
That generation is going to be small, though.
For the first time in our conversation, his chipper demeanor slips. He pauses, his ears droop, and he looks profoundly sad for a moment.
“ …Yes. Have you seen the latest numbers?
Those numbers are grim. Gaoian News Network’s analysts project the total population of the Gao may collapse to below one billion within the next thirty years, though medical intervention may stretch it out to forty or fifty years. To put that in perspective, the pre-war population was nearly ten billion. Now, it stands at just over five billion…and falling rapidly. With the Female population reduced to just over one hundred million, and the Gao’s naturally shorter lifespan, Gaoian society as it is now is living on borrowed time.
[Image: Graphs and charts illustrating the impending Gaoian population crisis] Image credit: GNN
“It will be two hundred years before we return to pre-war population levels. Our society, our economy, is built to be larger than it is. We have thirty years to prepare for a collapse that, all by itself, could do serious harm. You can’t farm without people. You can’t transport goods, you can’t build and maintain infrastructure. There isn’t a single facet of civilization that doesn’t ultimately rest in a good pair of paws. What happens over the thirty years as our labor pool shrinks?”
He pauses to run a claw along the top of one painting.
“Often, I feel guilty for living here and just being an artist. Part of me always worries I could be doing something more concrete for my people. Do we really need oil paintings and sculptures when there are bridges on Gao that will collapse for want of maintenance in sixty years? But, the Great Father says this is what I should be doing.”
He does? Personally?
“In my case, yes. For the rest…he is confident that market forces will get people where they’re needed and when. I don’t doubt he’s right.”
And if he isn’t?
Leemu shoots me a mildly offended look.
Rather than strain our good relationship by pressing the point, I take a few more pictures and leave him to his work. Our parting interaction, however, left me inspired to find more Gao to interview. There’s a lot still to say about our unique alien allies, and one perspective just isn’t enough.
I think my next subject will be one of the surviving females…
Date Point: 17y10m AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, Entering Kwmbwrw space
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
Casus belli, frankly, didn’t come much stronger than the one between the Clans of Gao and Great House Henen of the Kwmbwrw. Though, most of the Dominion ambassadors discussing the issue all over the Rich Plains didn’t know half the details. To most of them, the Gao had simply launched a major incursion into Kwmbwrw space, their ships had clashed openly with a House Henen, a few dozen Kwmbwrw crewpersons were dead, an emergency degaussing and comms relay station had been sabotaged, and a House Henen security officer abducted.
At least, that was the House Henen version.
Henenwgwyr clearly belonged to the same school of blatant untruth that Sir Patrick had seen many times on Earth. From official Soviet declarations about how their reactors couldn’t possibly explode, to an Iraqi diplomat insisting that allied forces were burning on the borders while American tanks literally rolled up the street behind him, certain kinds of government would aggressively pronounce the most naked falsehoods to the bitter end, far beyond the limits of reason.
There was a psychology at play there beyond his understanding, and it apparently transcended species.
The Gaoian approach, meanwhile, was of course scrupulously honest…but that didn’t mean they weren’t judicious in when and how they deployed their honesty. As one of their old aphorisms had it, ‘secrets are like claws. Keep them sheathed until you use them.’
And in private…they showed those claws to whom they needed, when needed, for maximum effect.
AtaUmuUi was particularly incensed, as Sir Patrick had anticipated.
“There was a time when the Kwmbwrw were merely…quaint,” he said. The loose skin around his ears was going steadily darker and blacker with tightly controlled anger, and got darker still when he glanced at the Huh he was fidgeting with in his left hand. “The Houses were supposed to be ceremonial holdovers from their ancient history, not autonomous quasi-governments in their own right. They seem to have regressed.”
“…’Supposed?’ What exactly do you mean by that?”
“When my people were at the height of our powers, the culture of the Dominion was rather different than it is now,” Ata explained. “We had principles. The Charter promoted universal enfranchisement and this council’s objective was the collective betterment of all species. Now, between the Robalin and this, I see the whole edifice has decayed.”
He made a croaking noise that the translator in Sir Patrick’s glasses quietly flagged as disdain, and pushed the report back across the desk. “Barbarians.”
Ambassador Kenshi delicately picked it up. He was trying his best to diplomatically ignore whatever it was in the OmoAru nanotech that affected the Gaoian nose so badly, but Sir Patrick knew him well enough by now to tell that he found Ata’s physical presence almost painful. “May I take it, therefore, that when we bring this evidence before the Council, you’ll be supportive of our call for sanctions?”
“You will have my official reply to that question in writing, Ambassador.” AtaUmuUi rose to his feet and twitched his tail. “Once I have consulted with my advisors.”
His departure took a certain sense of pressure out of the room. Though Sir Patrick had tried and failed repeatedly to catch a sniff of that scent that the Gao so hated, he’d have sworn under oath that he still sensed something off about his OmoAru counterpart. Merely being in Ata’s presence put him on edge, somehow.
Or maybe that was just the normal and natural reaction to being around somebody who was spitting angry about something and keeping it tightly locked up.
“Did that seem personal to you?”
“Oh yes.” Kenshi’s ears shifted in a satisfied way. “Even through that nanotech stink, he smelled positively furious.”
Sir Patrick nodded at his counterpart. Kenshi had managed the interesting trick of being sufficiently inoffensive to all the Clans that they were willing to be represented by him. He was Clan, but the Clan in question—Inkpelt—were quietly unobtrusive and closely related to Clan Straightshield. Where the larger and more infamous Straightshield concerned themselves with law enforcement and prosecution, Inkpelt were more properly attorneys; they handled contract law, litigation and civil disputes.
And in Kenshi’s case, a long and well-regarded career in high-profile criminal defense law. He had a reputation for smooth-talking aggression and a keen wit, and was a pleasure to banter with. He had undeniable physical presence too; he looked for all the world like the Gaoian equivalent of a well-exercised doberman, complete with tan markings on his impressive, sleek-furred chest.
He had a doberman’s nose, too.
“I don’t need a Gaoian’s nasal gifts to sniff out personal opprobrium like that.”
“I wish I didn’t, either.” Kenshi sniffed, then grimaced. “Keeda, that scent lingers…Anyway, can you blame him? His entire species got biodroned. I daresay the thought of what Henen did would be personally offensive to him.”
“And the OmoAru remnant are nothing if not proud. I think we can count on him to back us.”
“Back us to what end? My Father has not yet decided on any particular action, at least none that I am privy to. Open warfare seems…”
“We’re already biting more than we can eat. Either the Hunters or the Hierarchy on their own would be enemy enough. Together…”
“Together,” Sir Patrick finished for him, “They represent a very good reason not to further embroil yourselves with the Kwmbwrw.”
“But at the same time, this can’t go unanswered.”
Kenshi duck-nodded, grimly. “A sharp problem, isn’t it?”
“There are solutions to such problems, of course…”
“…Yes. Which we would be the last to learn about.”
Sir Patrick nodded and stood to take a stroll around the room. Sitting too long always made his back hurt. “Of course…what we really need is for the Kwmbwrw’s united front to break apart. If the other Great Houses can be persuaded to step aside and leave Henen isolated and alone.”
“Who’s to say they aren’t all doing something just as nefarious?” Kenshi shook his head. “If they’re all guilty of something, then stepping away from House Henen would just ensure their own vulnerability when they’re inevitably caught.”
“If they were foresighted enough to see that, they wouldn’t be involved in anything too nefarious in the first place,” Sir Patrick replied. “Competent governments know full well that their every last dirty deed will see the light of day in due course, that’s the way of secrets.”
He smiled as he completed his circuit of the room and rested his hands on the back of the couch. “So. Either the other Houses are smart enough to not be dabbling in the same witchcraft House Henen did, in which case they’ll leave Henen high and dry, or they’re dumb enough to be doing the exact same thing in which case they’ll abandon the Henens out of short-sightedness and fear of being caught. Either way, now is the time to lean on them. They’ll crumble, mark my words.”
“The Kwmbwrw are proud to a fault, Sir Patrick,” Kenshi pointed out. “House Henen is wealthy, powerful, and historically significant, and the Grandmatriarchs have always had a xenophobic streak. Lean on them too hard, and resentment toward deathworlders plus contempt for foreign meddling will overrule their other concerns.”
“We’ll see, I suppose.” Sir Patrick rounded the couch and sat down. “It’s the Rauwrhyr next, I believe?”
“Good. I’m very fond of them. You never did make it to the symposium on their homeworld, did you?”
“Sadly not. I heard it’s beautiful. Trees as big as buildings…”
“Perhaps you’ll get the chance to see it after this.” Sir Patrick smiled at the memory, and gathered his papers ready to share the set of damaging revelations with another of his counterparts. There was much to do before taking the matter directly to the council, and not as much time as he would have liked.
It would be interesting when they finally did confront House Henen. Kenshi was entirely right, the Kwmbwrw were proud and insular, getting them to wash their hands of House Henen was going to be more of an uphill struggle than he’d made it sound…but he was confident.
And if they didn’t…
Well. It was past time for a shakeup in galactic politics anyway.
Date Point: 17y10m AV
Bronzefur Chapterhouse, Fei In City, Planet Gao
Uriigo, Champion of Bronzefur
He came down upon his own Clan with claws extended, a surprise attack. He had to: much of his Clan’s leadership was on the take. Including his hand-picked Grandfather. Uriigo had personally crippled Geruu in his attack, but spared him a torn-out throat; he would be healed, brought back to perfect health, face Justice, and face the Great Father. After which, frankly, he’d probably long for death.
“Capture them alive if you can,” he’d instructed the Stoneback brutes. After all, it was their Clan who were uniquely charged with inter-clan discipline. “Let’s hope they don’t get the chance to spread the word.”
Straightshield was also involved, and Judge-Fathers conducting a raid could move like a slamming door: sudden, violent, loud, and inescapable. They had a knack for intercepting would-be runners, too. Fast as the raid was, it was being conducted in a big complex with plenty of exits, fire escapes, windows…
Stoneback were more like sledgehammers. They didn’t do subtle. Against them, there were two choices: submit, or die. Often messily. Uriigo had heard the rumors of course, and knew about the Fangs. But it had been beyond living memory since a Clan had seen enforcement at the paws of Stoneback. Their abilities in that regard had become more legend and myth.
It was over in less than ten minutes. The Chapterhouse was littered with the foolish dead, often slammed fatally into walls or even crushed underfoot. Few of the officers surrendered; they knew what was coming for them.
The courtyard, meanwhile, was a sorry sight of rank after rank of defeated, trembling figures with their wrists cuffed painfully behind their backs and their ankles tied together. Most, Uriigo hoped, would be innocent. That would not completely spare them, of course: Clan punishments were total. Every member of the Clan would bear a shameful scar-mark after this day, and that was if the Great Father was feeling generous. Much more likely, every officer of the Clan faced castration.
Frankly, the scar-mark would do enough to end their bloodlines, these days. No Female would ever court one of them.
Still. The Clan would endure. Which would mean that Uriigo had succeeded in his duty as Champion, at least. That potential grace, however, would not come for many hours. They had to raid all the Clan’s workhouses, barracks, facilities and offices, and he had to inspect the work at every key site. Much of Stoneback was in the field today, enforcing their mandate. People would notice that something was up. Time was of the essence.
And after that, he’d have to find a whole new leadership from among the Associates and Brothers. There were going to be a lot of young, unready and intimidated Fathers soon, not to mention the question of who among them could possibly serve as Grandfather. Clan Bronzefur had a difficult several months ahead.
Which was good. Not pleasant, but good.
The raids went on all day, and Uriigo personally took part in as many as he could. He wasn’t as…endless as the Straightshield Judge-Fathers or the Stoneback Enforcers, but it was important he give his all. By nightfall, he’d abandoned standing on two-paw entirely, he was just too exhausted.
That left just the final brief-out with the nameless Judge-Father—all Judge-Fathers were nameless while on duty—who served as on-scene commander. He was really the one who held Uriigo’s fate in his sturdy paws. They both knew it, too.
…It really was damn near impossible to tell them apart. They all smelled the same. The perfect fuckin’ bastard didn’t even have the good manners to look tired, either.
“Well, Champion. I hope you have somewhere to sleep tonight. You look as though you need it.”
“I’ll make do.” Uriigo grumbled, glancing back at the chapterhouse. The buildings, of course, were all seized until the Straightshields could go through the computers, books and other documentation within.
“I would suggest a local inn. We’ve chartered it for the night and, Champion…you will need rest, and safety.”
Uriigo blinked, too mind-fogged by fatigue to figure out what kind of threat he might need protection from now, after all that work. “Safety?”
“We’ve only rounded up the conspiracy among your Clan,” the Judge-Father reminded him. “Any Clanless involved will still be at large, and may decide they have nothing to lose by exacting a little vengeance.”
“And if I may, Champion…you’ve had the kind of day that nobody should sleep alone after.”
That was a surprisingly warm sentiment, considering. Or maybe it was just that Uriigo wasn’t yet ready to believe he’d earned any kind of warmth.
“I guess I have,” he agreed, and groaned as he stood upright, despite his aching body’s protests.
“You still have a lot to do, after all. Better you face it after resting properly. I believe some of the Stonebacks have volunteered to bed down with you tonight.”
“…That’s surprising, honestly. But I’ll take what I can get.”
The Judge-Father tucked his tablet away in a pocket behind his back, and gave him an acknowledging duck-nod. “Good night, then. I will see you tomorrow with a progress update.”
Uriigo glanced around after watching the black-clad figure depart, and suppressed a brief impulse to just slump down on the concrete and sleep where he was. Instead, he lumbered in the direction of a group of Stonebacks near a Growl who were clearly waiting on him.
Sure enough, they saw him safely to a nearby inn, so prickly with added security, patrols and armed guards that only the suicidally stupid would interfere with it. He dozed through the short trip, lurched up the stairs half-unconscious, and crashed into a nest-bed with a heavy thump that he barely remembered.
He woke late the next day. Aching, stiff, and feeling delicate in his soul…but alert. There was lunch (he’d missed breakfast) and paperwork, and another Judge-Father (or possibly the same one) waiting to ask him a few questions…
He bore it all stoically and without complaint.
Absolution, after all, was not meant to come pleasantly.
Date Point: 17y10m1w AV
Even the prepared and familiar could find the moment of stasis disorienting. It helped to brace oneself and know that the container would, from Ryth’s perspective, reopen just as soon as it was closed.
There were little details. A sudden feeling of weight landing on his every limb, so higher gravity. Artificial light, but not as true-white as aboard the freighter Krr’zkvik nor the medley of colorful LEDs that were Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm’s signature.
The furred, clawed paws that finished opening the bag and helped him extract himself were definitely not Kwmbwrw. They were gentle, though.
“Easy there, friend. You’re safe. Welcome to Gao.”
Rythweth rather felt his safety remained to be seen, but he accepted the welcome with a grateful nod and a “Thank you.” There were five Gao in the room, all male. One, a slender silverfur in a green coverall was clearly a medic of some kind as he was already expecting the wound in Rythweth’s arm from deploying his fusion blade implant. The one who had welcomed him could only be a Whitecrest. The streak of pale fur that ran from between his eyes to the nape of his neck was even taller than his ears, and the stripes and mottling in the fur around his eyes was especially dark.
The remaining Gaoians were faceless and intimidating behind suits of black security armor and visored helmets. Fair. Rythweth would have insisted on a security presence when receiving a defector too.
“Hello,” the Whitecrest began. “My name is officer Deegar, and before we begin, I must tell you that we cannot permit you to keep the concealed weapon in your forearm. I’m sure you understand.”
Ryth made a tired noise and glanced down at his forearm as the medic took off the makeshift bandages he’d applied. The wound was, of course, bone-deep, and the fusion blade had made a bad mess of the tissue around it as it sprung out. With prompt and proper medical care, he’d have been able to have it all regenerated. Now, it was doomed to heal badly. But, the point of an emergency concealment like that was to use it or die. It had served its purpose. Better a crippled arm than death.
And of course, had the roles been reversed, he wouldn’t have permitted a detainee to keep it either.
“Of course,” he said aloud. “I presume you will need to sedate me.”
“Thank you. And, we already did. You should be feeling the effects right about…”
Rythweth woke up in a cell.
Somehow, the pharmaceutical stasis was a good deal more jarring than the technological one. He blinked, raised his head, and looked around the room, temporarily adrift in time and space while a fog of confusion dispersed in his brain and the thoughts that had, a second ago, seemed so sharp and focused, bumped clumsily into one another and a mounting swell of mild pain settled between his ears.
Gaoians, it seemed, had effective sedatives.
That thought prompted him to look down at his arm, though that didn’t help the sense of disconnection from reality one bit. The limb was unblemished and perfect, with no sign at all of the ragged scorched fissure his own gambit had left in his flesh. There wasn’t even a discernible scar.
He raised it to his mouth and bit it experimentally. No, it was definitely flesh and blood, and he felt the pressure of his teeth quite acutely. He flexed his fingers and found they all worked, where half of them had been paralyzed before. He bore weight on it, and found it held up.
He stood, and considered his surroundings. The cell was quite comfortable. Basic, but the bed was well padded, there was a desk with a suitably shaped chair, and a tray of food on the desk alongside a plastic cup of water.
Ryth was suddenly acutely aware of a hollow ache in his stomach. The beans and greens on the tray were unfamiliar, but turned out to be delicious, complimented by a scattering of tiny seeds and a dark salty sauce for flavor, plus the glass of water came with a dose of painkillers that chased away his headache. In minutes, he’d devoured the lot and was able to sit back appreciating two facts: first, that he was safe for the first time in several days, and second that he’d just had one of the most unexpectedly tasty meals of his life, in a Gaoian interrogation cell.
He wasn’t left to sit adrift and alone for too long. Enough time to appreciate the silence and sort his head out, before the guards arrived and escorted him firmly, but gently and politely, to his debriefing.
The Whitecrest from before, Officer Deegar, rose to his feet as Rythweth was led in. “Welcome back. I hope the food was to your satisfaction?”
“It was, thank you,” Rythweth nodded and took a seat at Deegar’s invitation. “And for your hospitality.”
“Well, this is a debriefing, not an interrogation. Now, misbehavior can rapidly change that…”
“I understand the game.”
“Excellent.” Deegar duck-nodded affably.
“I was not aware Gaoians appreciated vegan cuisine.”
“We do, though that was a Human dish. Their vegan cuisine is much more varied than ours. We mostly enjoy it for the taste, as we cannot subsist on plant matter alone.”
Ryth nodded slowly. “I have a few questions, if I may?”
“My arm seems…remarkably well healed.”
“Regenerated. Our medical technology is considerably in advance of your own. It should be as good as new.”
Rythweth glanced down at his arm. If they hadn’t told him, he’d never have guessed. It looked, and felt, exactly as it always had before the self-inflicted injury. “That…must have taken a while.”
“By the Kwmbwrw calender, it is currently…” Deegar checked his tablet. “Eleven-ninety, five-eight-twelve-nineteen-twelve.”
“…You regrew my arm in a month?”
“Thirty minutes. Another hour to attach it. You’ve been in stasis some time, as we’ve needed to arrange a great many things.”
Rythweth could do nothing but blink. Deegar, if he was telling the truth—and frankly, Ryth had no reason to believe he was not—really hadn’t been exaggerating when he said their medical technology was ahead of the Kwmbwrw’s.
Troubling, really. The Gao were a rather younger species. For them to be so far ahead in that regard said volumes about how stagnated his own culture had truly become.
“I’m…sure,” he replied, trying to remain level and composed. “Considering the resources the House would surely have thrown into recovering me, I imagine my extraction makes for quite a story. And this is the part where I confirm as much as I know of what your own investigations have unearthed.”
“You would have done no differently. Though, as a professional courtesy…” Deegar tapped his nose. “And the same goes for any Gaoian you’re likely to meet in the near future.”
They understood each other. Ryth nodded, took a deep breath, and settled comfortably in his chair.
“Where would you like me to begin?” he asked.
Date Point: 17y10m2w AV
Planet ’Mordor,’ Liberated Hunter Space
There was a sense of relief around the jump platform. Even in Gaoians, the body language of stressed, hard-fought men who’d been cut off from their supply chain and just got their lifeline back was easy to read.
Mike had it pretty good through the long isolation. He was a military contractor now: the Great Father’s agent, not a regular grunt. He’d been sleeping well at HQ, eating decently enough, not having to suck down polluted air every day. Most of the Grand Army though…everything about how they stood and watched the incoming supplies and replacements sang of exhaustion, and a hunger to get the fuck out and go clean up, get some real chow, and sleep. Not necessarily in that order. He’d lived that look before, many, many times.
The Grand Army here had been fighting Hunters every minute of every day since they arrived. In tunnels. On a blasted polluted wasteland. In ruins and factories, rail yards and abandoned cities…And they’d won. The planet Mordor had been one of their strongholds, and now…now the primary military objective had been achieved. Mordor and its resources were denied the Hunters. Which left a stabilization mission that didn’t need to be nearly so big. Grandfather Vark and his staff were getting ready to pack it up, leaving the garrison forces to one of his commanding generals, a scarred-up Father who Michael couldn’t quite remember at the moment.
He was too busy tending to his own shit. Michael was employed as a personal security asset for Daar, and whomever else Daar felt needed extra protection. The notion of people like Daar and Vark needing any kind of protection always felt a bit laughably weird, but of course bombs and bullets didn’t give a shit about how much of a superhero a man might be.
And with Vark leaving…so was Michael.
He wasn’t gonna miss the place, but something about leaving scratched his conscience a bit. There was still a civil war raging among the E-Skurel-Ir, and they’d only ever evacuated a trickle to safety before the jump lockdown. The new array was military, secure, and for essential traffic only. Precious few refugees were going that way.
The Hunters’ former slaves were just gonna have to grow in the toxic earth they’d been given, and from what Mike could tell, they didn’t have any idea how. Down in the tunnel-cities, it was a coin-flip for the Gao whether their patrol routes took ‘em through territory that saw them as avenging angels sent by the Lord to deliver them from torment, or literal demons from hell, interfering with the divine plan. It seemed to change on an hourly basis.
Or, in most cases, through districts of tight-packed, starving, scared civilians who didn’t have the first fuckin’ clue what to think and just wanted to know when they’d next get the chance to feed their kids.
Yeah. Mike didn’t feel great walking away from that situation.
Beside him, Vark watched the first group of weary soldiers trudge onto their shiny new Array platform and pack themselves in as tight as they could inside the safety markings. The wounded had gone ahead, shipped out in the first few jumps, while Vark had insisted his place was among the last jump out. Which meant so was Mike’s.
“Kinda weird, not bein’ able ‘ta smell ya,” the Grandfather rumbled as the controlled jostling unfolded. “Had a nose full’a ‘yer scent the whole time we’ve been out here.”
“Well, good to know my PPE’s working right, then,” Mike retorted. The new Array was not comfortably sealed away inside a pressurized environment like the original had been. They were out under the open sky, the acid rain and the genuinely insane levels of lead in the atmosphere. Everyone was wrapped up tight in itching layers.
“Yeah, I’d just gotten used to it,” Vark went to scratch the side of his face, then stopped himself. “Been stuck here a long time, got to know ‘ya. Whaddya think is up next for you?”
“Leave. At least, I fuckin’ hope so.” Mike chuckled. “After that…I dunno. If I get a say in it, I think I wanna keep working with the Skurels.”
“It’s easy to get attached to a mission,” Vark noted sagely.
“Yeah. And…I got this creeping worry like they’ll get forgotten about, as the war moves on.”
“Naw. Not forgotten. But we’ve done a great thing for them, ‘fer our own selfish reasons, an’ there’s a point where a people gotta take control o’ themselves. We’ll be leavin’ ‘em an array here that’ll connect ‘em to wherever they wanna go. An’ we’re leavin’ a small garrison here too. Ain’t gonna be goin’ away anytime soon.”
“At that rate, they’ll think the Gao are the only people in the whole galaxy.”
“Mebbe. Kinda doubt the Tangy-Work will stay away though. They’ve taken an odd interest.”
“I’m still hearing room for a human in all this.” Mike watched the last of the departing troops settle in, and a safety officer patrol the perimeter to make sure everybody’s limbs and tails were safely inside the lines. “I guess I’ll see. It’ll be weird not working so closely with you any longer, though.”
“Are you thinkin’ of abandonin’ me?” Vark’s tail was wagging. “After all we’ve been through!”
“Hey, there’s a big ol’ briefing waiting for us on the other side of that Array. Everything that’s happened in the galaxy since we got stuck out here. Could be anything in it, so I’ve got no idea where the job’s gonna take me next.” Mike chuckled. “Won’t complain if it’s somewhere with cold beer and single women, though.”
Vark’s baritone chitter matched the Thump as the array fired again, replacing a group of weary Gaoians with fresh, clean, eager ones sitting on top of a stack of supply crates, who sprang off it and started hauling the boxes away the instant they arrived. “Yeah. Ain’t no way our people have been idle, huh?”
“Well. Guess this is ‘yer ride then,” Vark indicated the platform as the last of the newly arrived crates was hauled of it. A team of motivated Gao working hard had cleared it in seconds. Mike was honestly impressed. “An’ if you get to keep workin’ with the Skurels, be sure an’ lemme know. I got kinda attached ‘ta the mission too.”
“Will do.” Mike extended a hand. “‘Till next time, Grandfather.”
The Array, when it fired some minutes later, delivered him and another batch of exhausted Grand Army fellas back to Gao. For the first time in months they got to stand under a clear blue sky and drink in good air that hadn’t been passed through a filter. That all by itself was a sweet experience, though Mike didn’t get the chance to savor it properly. There was a car waiting to take him someplace. The Great Father’s hobby farm, in fact.
It was a long drive, even in a fast car, and as he’d predicted it came with plenty of reading material. Life sure as shit hadn’t slowed down while he was stuck in Hunter space, and if anything it looked like the jump lockdown had made some things move faster.
His immediate mission was an odd one. He’d be keeping an ex-biodrone company, apparently?
Whatever. Leave back to Earth wasn’t gonna happen, but there was apparently some limited jump traffic back to an array on Cimbrean now. He wasn’t expecting a buddy but hey, what had he ever expected?
Well. Not an old familiar face, either.
“Hey, you’re lookin’ pretty good for a fella with one eye!”
“I’m told by a highly reputable judge that I’m ‘more handsomer’ now, too.”
They traded hefty hugs and ambled in the general direction of a distant field where some kind of spidery farm equipment was being dragged through the soil by a familiar bear-shaped iron mountain of an emperor. A relatively smaller Gao-bear was perched atop it, straining at the handles in the rear. It seemed to be all he could do to keep it from jumping all over the place.
“So this is what you’re doin’, now you’re out?”
“Well,” Wilde tucked his hands easily in his pockets as they strolled along. “The pay’s good, and I’ve made some good friends. And I’m feeling way better than I was before this gig came along.”
“Yeah, Daar’s persuasive like that.” Mike paused at the fence to watch the Great Father beast the rattling plough or whatever it was across the field, crunching its way through the rocks and packed dirt like an unstoppable machine. “…Shit. And I thought Vark was strong as fuck!”
Wilde seemed amused. “Ah yes. The living bulldozer and his pet tank. You know the scary part?”
“He’s a fuck of a lot stronger than he looks.”
Mike re-considered the Great Father. He looked almost cartoonishly brawny as his muscles bulged against the load with a steady, well-practiced and sure-footed motion.
“Ayup. Everyone’s puny next to him and his ‘little’ friend is much the same. ‘Course, you know who first popped into my brain when I saw ‘em side by side?”
“Yogi and Boo-Boo.”
Mike did his best to suppress his laugh, which wasn’t easy when the somewhat “smaller” pet tank chittered and waved excitedly. “We heard that!”
“Guess I’ll pay for it later,” Wilde chuckled. “Anyway. That’s Bruuk. You read up on what happened to him?”
“I was wondering how to pronounce his name.”
“Yeah. Somewhere between brick, brute, and truck. Fitting, really.” They both chuckled for a moment. “Anyway…reading?”
“Yeah. What are we up to now, three different kinds of biodrone? Big H aren’t short on tricks, are they?”
“Something like that. He’s doing pretty well but sometimes, just this wave of depression crashes over him and it’s all we can do to keep him level. I hope you like bedtime snuggles.”
“So…like a teddy bear. Except I’m the bear, and the bears aren’t.”
“Pretty much, yeah. Oh, and he likes to train and spar, too. He asked for a human with skills like mine so he could keep up the training he’s been doing…”
“That sounds kinda nice, actually.”
“Well…” Wilde qualified, “I’m ex-SOR, so a big damn bloke, right? Well, Bruuk’s at least twice my weight, quick and strong as hell, too. Beating on him is kinda like punching a brick wall. I can just outlast him by holding on for dear life, but I’m also quite a bit bigger than you, so…”
“…Right.” Mike nodded. “I’ll be his chewtoy, then.”
“Lil’ bit, yeah.”
Mike chuckled ruefully. “Ah well. Good training, at least.” The machine had negotiated a corner and was on its way up the slope toward the far end of the field. Daar didn’t even seem to notice the gradient. “I’ll do my best, but you’re his friend…”
“Yeah, and long-term what I’m working on will be what’s best for him. But they don’t let you become a starship captain without some qualifications, so I have to study and I can’t do it here. He makes quick friends, so you’ll be one of his ‘bestest’ in short order, I bet. He’s good people. Just…a bit of a fixer-upper.”
“Aren’t we all…” Mike admitted. “And we’re going to Cimbrean?”
“Yeah. Daar and his people think some time around other ex-drones might be good for him…Anyway. You head back to the cottage. The Great Mother’s got tea on and she’ll probably have some words for you. I need to go say my goodbyes. First round’s on me when we’re all back in Folctha, alright?”
“See you there.”
Wilde nodded, vaulted the fence, and jogged away up the field in pursuit of the two furry farmers, and presumably a difficult farewell. Mike followed his advice and turned back toward the house.
He’d never seen one like it. Half-buried in the ground for warmth with no straight lines anywhere on it, it was like a hobbit hole sized for an eight-foot brute to live in. The “roof” was an herb garden, while wildflowers of every description exploded from practically every spare bit of dirt, some looking like they might be from Cimbrean, others from Earth.
What really struck was the quiet. Once, not long ago, the farmstead had been heavily fortified—some of the scars were still on the land—but all of that had been torn down. There wasn’t a major city for miles, and the nearest divided highway was a twenty-minute drive away.
No traffic, no rumble of urban life, not even the background hum of power, or even wind in the leaves: what few trees there were had dropped their leaves, and the fields were harvested for winter. Just the distant clanking of that contraption on the field, and, from inside the house, the tap and clink of cups and the reedy ululation of Gaoian singing.
All of it was the Great Father’s personal property. Well, technically all of the Gao personally belonged to him, including the Gaoians themselves, but that was more a tradition and legal technicality than anything else and he certainly wasn’t one to push the idea. This land, though, this was his alone, and he’d apparently owned most of it before ascending to the crown. That, on a world where owning a modest house was something only the wealthy could afford. More than anything else, that drove home what kind of a power Mike was actually dealing with.
…He sure did know how to step in it deep.
The door opened, spilling out warm air that smelled of baking. Naydra, the Great Mother and the one being among the Gao whom the Great Father didn’t literally own, stood on the threshold and gestured for him to come in. “You’re early!”
Mike didn’t need to duck under the door—it was sized for somebody a lot bigger than him—but he still felt like he should as he stepped inside and scrubbed his boots on the doormat. “Great Mother…”
“We don’t stand on ceremony and titles here, Michael,” she assured him, and gave him a welcoming sniff. Her ears plastered themselves backwards against her scalp, the Gaoian equivalent of pulling a disgusted face. “Yurgh. That planet really is polluted, isn’t it?”
“Not your fault. We, ah…well, there is a fantastic bath through the door out back. And clean human clothes…”
Mike was only too happy to oblige. A real bath? Yes. In fact a real, hot bath in a steaming tub literally big enough to bathe a rhino. Or a Daar. And the water was clean, with good handmade soap, and hot enough that it was almost painful in the best way…
…Oh God. Heaven.
The clothes were laundered and had some kind of bundle of herbs or something on them too. He wasn’t sure what to do with the herbs, but he understood the intent. People usually had to pay for pampering like that. Here he was, being spoiled by, inarguably, the two most powerful people in the known galaxy, and all he had to do was keep Bruuk company?
Well, fair enough. And part of keeping any Gaoian company was to smell sorta nice. He guessed that he was supposed to, uh, maybe perfume his rinse water with it? Sure. That made sense. He did so, and enjoyed a bracingly cold bucket-dump or three over his head.
Sure enough, he returned to the kitchen-slash-living-area sorta space probably not reeking of industrial contaminants and questionable hygiene. Naydra glanced his way, sniffed, duck-nodded in a way that said ‘much better,’ and put him to work peeling tubers of some kind.
“So…Daar predicted you’d probably want to stay on with helping the E-Skurel-Ir,” she said, sitting opposite him to slice the peeled tubers into thin batons.
“That woulda been my first choice, yes…” Mike agreed. “They’ve got a long road ahead of them.”
“We won’t neglect them,” she promised. “We’re just coming to the moment when prioritization really matters. The Grand Army, right now, is at its peak. We have numbers, training, materiel and young, able-bodied men. Soon…well, the decline is coming. It will be a couple of centuries before we even have the population numbers to raise a force like it again. We have to use it now. And that means the E-Skurel-Ir have to come second to finishing the fight.”
She looked up at the window, and Mike followed her gaze. Outside, Wilde was saying his goodbyes to Bruuk with a huge hug, while the same driver that had brought Mike waited patiently to make the return trip.
“After all. When the Hunters are done and the Hierarchy dealt with…we’ll have the resources spare to help them properly,” she said.
“Their civil war isn’t going to stop burning,” Mike replied. “They can’t wait long…”
“They won’t have to,” Naydra promised. “Things are about to shift. One of the last major obstacles we had with the Dominion will be dealt with, soon. After that…You’ll see. The E-Skurel-Ir will have all the support they need. Until then, we put people where they’re needed most.”
“And right now, I’m needed most here, looking after him?”
“Bruuk has done great service to the Gao, and indirectly to her allies. He had no choice in the matter and he’s suffering for it. My Bumpkin wants to put that right, but even with videoconferencing and the like, he can’t stay here on this farm forever. He has to turn his attention to graver matters, and soon. As must I; the Females must be ready as well. And with what Ian’s training to do…we’re going to need him soon, too. Bruuk will ideally be a part of that. So yes, you’re needed here.”
Mike nodded. He wasn’t gonna pretend like he really understood the way important people thought about things, but he’d met Daar before. He was good people, and he picked good people. That was enough for Mike. “Okay then.”
Outside, Wilde got in the car and pulled away. Bruuk’s broad shoulders sagged like a cartoon character, and Mike had to admit—he already felt a tug on his heartstrings for a male he’d not properly even met yet. Naydra watched him, and flicked an ear when Mike looked back at her.
“Go on,” she said. “Make friends.”
Mike nodded, dropped his last tuber in the water bowl, stood, and stepped toward the door to do his job. “Wish me luck, then.”
Today had not been what he was expecting, really, but that changed nothing. He’d do his part.
And do it well.
Loyal to a Fault
by Ava Ríos
Folcthans will know Myun as a familiar figure. Guard-Mother of the Alien Quarter’s commune, and famously Mother Supreme Yulna’s bodyguard at the outbreak of the Gaoian homeworld war. She wears a scar she won on that day with no small amount of pride.
This is, by Gaoian standards, quite a masculine affectation, and Myun is vocally proud of the way she doesn’t quite fit the mold of Gaoian femininity.
“Oh yeah, I grew up to be a total tomboy! You’d never have guessed it from pics of me as a little cub, would you?”
[Image: the huge, brown-furred guard-mother, face turned slightly to proudly display her scar, and posing mightily with her sword. Opposite, a photo of Myun as a particularly small cub practicing Kung Fu alongside Xiù Chang.] Image credit: Mother Ayma, Wi Kao Commune of Females
Indeed not. She is a tall and quite seriously muscular brownfur, Amazonian by any standard and, from what rumors tell me, intimidatingly beautiful to most Gaoian males. None of this matches much with her personality.
“I was so tiny! And I grew up so big!”
She’s understandably proud of herself—and not ashamed to say it—however, she’s not one to dwell, either. One of her massive paws strays to her belly. Like most Gaoian females, she has spent much of the last several years pregnant, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
Would you say there’s a lot riding on the Clan of Females right now?
She shakes her head sharply.
“Our Clan has always been about…this. Cubs, the next generation, the future of the species. There’s nothing riding on us now that wasn’t riding on us before, except maybe now…maybe it’s riding a little heavier. A lot of us used to enjoy taking a few years to just be Sisters, see the world, do some work, you know?”
Now, that’s complicated.
Myun sighs, and duck-nods in agreement. “Yes. We’ve become too important to leave unguarded.”
On that point, a young, burly Stoneback sits discreetly off-side, not intruding but his purpose quite clear.
You sound a little resentful of being guarded, even though you’re a guard-mother yourself.
“I try not to. Deem over there means well. They all do. And that’s the point, really.”
What do you mean?
She looks over to Deem and flicks her ears in a way I can’t quite interpret. Deem chitter-sighs, and nods in acquiescence.
“Well, Take Deem. Like…don’t get me wrong, he’s a fantastic example of a male. Healthy, strong, smells good. Handsome too! And, balls! Maybe if he plays his tiles right…” The burly male perks his ears in unabashed hopefulness, but otherwise maintains his professionalism. Myun chitters back—the Gaoian laugh—in a flirtatious manner, one which very specifically means “no…for the moment.” He flicks his ears, suitably chagrined, and Myun resumes her point. “Like I said, he’s got a lot going for him…but still. I can kick his tail and not just in a spar. I’m bigger than him. Faster, stronger too. So why, now, does he guard me?”
Deem speaks up for the only time in our interview. “Because you’re worth more than me.”
“And that? That’s the fucked up part, because I can’t argue with him. It’s true.”
[Image: Myun and Deem. Sure enough, the statuesque guard-mother is a head taller and more physically imposing than the male. Myun’s weapon is a sword and she wears a handsome uniform. Deem, meanwhile, bears a submachine gun, a battle-worn carrier vest, and a helmet.]
“Kinda telling how we’re equipped, ain’t it? Me, I’m here to represent the safety of the Clan and the cubs. Deem’s here to actually protect us.”
It is clear Deem wants to say something, but he keeps his peace. Myun notices, and corrects herself.
“Okay, fine. I ain’t being fair, and he’d be mad if I undersold myself; I’m here to protect us, too. But he’s the front-line. I’m the last resort. And that…bothers me. It’s just one example of the stuff the Clan of Females can’t do for ourselves any more.”
Because of numbers.
“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t gone back to the bad old days when females were male property living in harems. We all know why we’re being folded up in bubble wrap like this. But you’re a free-roaming, sharp kind of woman, Miss Ríos. You’ve asked questions to the Great Father that nobody else had the guts to. How would you like it if all that got taken away and you had to go everywhere with a male chaperone, even if the reason was really really good?”
She gives Deem an apologetic look.
“It’s only a real short pounce from ‘Protect and Provide’ to ‘contain and control.’”
So why tolerate it? Why not insist on your independence?
“Because it’s a really really good reason. And trust. And because, you know, there’s billions of males out there who’ve got to try and build a life with no hope of ever siring a cub, or maybe they’re serving and dying in the Grand Army, or just working themselves to pieces trying to keep our civilization running when there’s not enough of them, so really we don’t have it all that bad next to them…”
“Yeah. Loyalty. I mean, they’re faithfully and loyally doing their part for the future of our species, shouldn’t we do the same?”
At this point in our conversation, a cub—young, but old enough to be entrusted with chores—runs up on four-paw and delivers a written message. Apparently using such hand-delivered notes as opposed to text messages or voice calls is a Clan of Females tradition: it’s a good way to keep a cub occupied and in touch with all the Mothers. Myun glances at the note, then pockets it and sends the cub on their way.
The brief break gives me a good opportunity to move onto another subject I wanted to discuss.
Did that cub have the gene therapy?
“Mikki? Nah, he’s I guess what you’d call a vanilla Gao…We’re gonna need words for Gao-with-therapy and Gao-without-therapy soon, aren’t we? Anyway, right now we keep it to natural-borns, where both parents had the therapy. Openpaw’s doin’ that for observational purposes, yijao? And anyway, the ones who’ve got it are all too young for fetch-and-carry yet.”
I presume they’re a little different to their fellows
“Not really. So far they’re just like any other cub, mostly. The oldest ones are a year old now—a Gaoian year—and the only thing I’ve really noticed is some of them don’t like toys that the older cubs did, because to them it’s a different color and it looks ugly. Maybe some o’ them smell a bit healthier but it’s hard to tell, ‘cuz, uh…well, we’ve had the luxury of being choosier ‘bout things.”
Have you had the gene therapy yourself?
“I’m going to. It’s not safe to take while pregnant, but as soon as this little one’s among us…”
She touches her belly again.
Obviously, there are profound moral issues surrounding the question of universal gene therapy, not to mention regenerative medicine. Myun and I discussed these quandaries for some time, and you can find the uncut version of our conversation linked at the bottom of this article. Eventually, however, the discussion came back around to the core subject of this series: The challenge of this age of Gaoian history, what they are doing about it, and how their choices differ from what humans might do.
Why do you think the therapy is being so widely taken? I can’t imagine that humans would embrace it so readily, especially in a time of such uncertainty.
“I think lots of reasons, really. Um…I think part of it is that Humans—or, the ones I’ve met anyway—you’re not really as collectivist as most Gao. You’re not selfish, but even when you’re thinking of the big picture for your people, you’re thinking about what it means for individuals. You always know what the greater good costs, I think. Like…you’ve got that saying about making omelettes and breaking eggs. To us, it’s like…well yeah. Nothing ever happens without a cost.”
You’re at such a delicate moment in your people’s history though. With a population crash coming, isn’t a huge campaign of genetic engineering a big risk to take?
“I think it’s a bigger risk for us not to. Like, okay. Let’s leave aside the ridiculous overachieving males in the SOR, right? Gaoian or Human, ignore them for a moment. Even without them, look at us next to your people! On average we’re…kinda pushovers, yijao? And were only that because we were deliberately made that way! Doin’ this just makes us peers like we were meant to be. You need allies who can keep up, and we need it too, with how few of us there’ll be before long. And then there’s the Ten’Gewek! On an individual level they kick everyone’s tail by a fuckin’ mile! We can’t let numbers be our only advantage. We won’t even have that soon!”
What if it goes wrong? What if it makes the population crash worse?
“It’s not going to.”
How do you know?
“How do we know anything? How do we know the water will come out of the faucet, or that the shuttles will be safe? That traffic lights will work, the city control grid won’t crash people? You gotta trust at some point, and My Father trusts his experts.”
And you trust him
“Of course I trust him! What kind of a question is that?!”
The astute reader will notice a particular pattern, here. Gaoians of all stripes show intense deference and respect to the Great Father. This is not wholly without merit; he is, perhaps surprisingly to some, an extremely intelligent man and a distinguished expert in several fields, including what we’d term agriculture science, civil engineering administration, and business management. He also holds the title of Master of War, which could best be described as a sort of post-doctoral honorific in military science, and is surprisingly well-read on a great many other things besides. Champions in general are highly-accomplished among the Gao, and Daar is widely considered to be perhaps the greatest ever Champion of their most prestigious Clan.
Despite all that, he prefers a folksy style and a blue-collar life, and that has endeared him to many, human and gaoian alike. It has also softened criticism against him about his extremely aggressive and decisive style of leadership. He is, by his own admission, directly responsible for the death of many billions. His unflinchingly honest appraisal of that fact, and his refusal to let people forget it, has done much to convince the Gao of its necessity.
Myun’s indignant reaction to my question is quite typical, and expected.
Do the Gao always trust their leaders so absolutely?
“Of course not! Just the ones who deserve it.”
How do you test them to prove they deserve it?
She looks genuinely perplexed.
“The only reason we’re not extinct right now is because of him. How much more of a test do you need?”
So it’s not an ongoing question?
“I’m serious! How much more of a test do you want? Does he have to keep proving himself over and over again? Or can we just accept that yeah, he has our species’ best interests in heart and he’s worth following? He’s not some elected politician playing screwy shadow games and cutting deals to gain power, he was made Great Father by us, the Females, and all of our leadership submitted themselves to him. We belong to him, but that also means he’s ours. He’d step away from it in a heartbeat, if he could! I know why you’re asking this, and I know where you’re from not trusting the folks in power is a matter of course, but I just don’t think you get this! He’s earned real trust, not the temporary kind. He says the gene-therapy is safe, he’s taken it himself…again, what more do you want?”
Throughout this tirade, Deem duck-nods fervently along with her, and shoots me a look of considerable indignation.
I decide to shift tactic.
How do you feel about his heavy use of Cruezzir-derived therapeutics?
That made her squirm a bit uncomfortably, and leap to his defense.
“…It’s not for everyone. He’d be the first to say so. You’ve really gotta have both the work ethic and the genetics to properly take advantage, and the cold hard truth is that almost nobody does. He does, though. Remember, he was pretty fuckin’ big an’ badass beforehand, and he says it’s only been kinda recently he’s been using it to train. Balls, he’s so keyed up and so Keeda-damn good, you can’t even smell any of it on ‘em. That means for his size he’s barely using any at all! So…yeah.”
She pauses for a moment, awkwardly, before continuing her thoughts.
“…Yeah, I don’t think many of us really disapprove of any of that, we’ve always been a bit more open to that sort of thing. but I do think it’s fair to say we Females are wary of abuse. Cruezzir is like any tech, it should be respected. Not many people are the right kind of genetically perfect, so for most people it’s maybe got some pretty big risks…I don’t know all the details. Even the life extension benefits require serious dedication to personal fitness. It’s enough that Our Father—like you said, he’s one of the most visible users of it—has warned the public against cavalier use.”
Would you consider using Cruezzir as a performance-enhancing substance? Your job as Guard-Mother could benefit…
Again, she is visibly uncomfortable, but doesn’t shy away from her conclusion.
“…Well, I’ve got the genetics and the work ethic, so…I might, some day. I gym pretty hard but right now I don’t use it; this is me as I naturally am. I don’t feel like I’ve reached my limits yet. Besides, it works way better for males anyway. Do you use it, Deem?”
He shook his head no. He, too, was noticeably uncomfortable. The Gao are keenly aware of the general Human attitude toward such things, and they are intensely social beings. They do not much enjoy broaching uncomfortable topics, even where it’s expected.
“And I don’t think he should! He’s not even twenty yet, still lots of growin’ left in him! Maybe when he’s a bit older, once he’s filled out more and he’s got some good scars…”
She gives Deem a non-committal ear-flick of interest, then returns to her point.
“So…yeah. I mean, no judgement on my part, but I don’t think most of us should use it. At least, not lightly. For a few, it really works for them. But I think there’s a lotta males out there who think it’s some sorta magical get-Females drug, one that’ll give them a breeding advantage over the rest. Well, It won’t. It’s sorta like the makeup you’re wearing. For you, it highlights and enhances what’s already there! But for some…it’s a bad substitution.”
Substitution for what?
“Mediocre genetics. Poor self-care. No real discipline. Believe me, we can sniff those things out of a male more easily than anything else. No spacemagic drug will give them what they aren’t already able or willing to work for. In fact, if they aren’t already basically perfect on everything, it only makes things worse. They’re just hurtin’ themselves by bein’ stupid about it.”
And the gene therapy?
“Different things, but in the end they’re not what drives me when I choose a mate. No male’s going to win a contract with me just by using widely-available medicine. They’ll still have to work to impress. There’s no shortcuts.”
On that point, I find myself in total agreement. Our interview concluded, I’m escorted from the compound by one of Deem’s comrades. There aren’t many of the armed males around the Commune, but there are enough to make it very clear the Gao are concerned for their future, and fierce in protecting it. Even here, on friendly soil.
And when it comes to the future of the Gao, there’s one Champion in particular who thinks about nothing else…
Date Point: 17y10m2w AV
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, Erwn-Bwrw system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“We don’t answer to the Gao.”
“I know, mother, but we do answer to the Dominion Security Council, and they—”
“We don’t answer to anyone. We are a sovereign people.”
“And as a sovereign people we signed treaties—”
“We had treaties thrust upon us. If there’s one thing the Gao and the Humans have absolutely right, it’s that the Dominion simply assumes dominion and expects you to sign automatically. I don’t know what our ancestors were thinking when they did so without protest, but here we are.” Henenwgwyr’s face bore the expression it always did when her mind was intractably set. Owryth had learned long ago that there was no power in all the great galaxy that could move her mother when she was so determined.
Still. She’d held out some hope.
“So you intend to ignore the summons?”
“Of course I do. I’ll not be dragged in front of a brute who murdered half his own species and made to answer his hypocritical accusations.”
Owryth ducked her body in acknowledgement. “As you say. I will prepare accordingly, then.”
A lifetime of paranoia bade her sweep the room for hidden observation devices after the call ended, and only once she was certain she was unwatched did she allow herself to sag and grown out her frustration aloud. What had mother expected? She’d performed experiments on Gao, one of the most notoriously loyal species in the galaxy, fanatically protective of one another.
Well. She’d clearly expected they’d never find out.
Owryth didn’t really know what the Grandmatriarch was thinking now. Was she stalling for time? Playing a subtle game while she gathered support? Trusting that the Council’s outrage would cool? Or was she simply prideful enough to truly believe the House was politically unassailable?
Owryth’s faith in her mother’s judgement was shaken, crumbling. Up until now, it had always seemed that Wgwyr had a plan, was always in control, could not be outmaneuvered. Now it seemed that Wgwyr had always thought the same, and simply didn’t know what to when do the plan failed, her control slipped, and her foe countered her every move.
Could it be that, after a lifetime of success, she’d forgotten what it was like to fail? Failure was a landslide, starting slow, gaining momentum. Once it started, there was no stopping it. There was only surviving it, and learning from it. And from what Owryth could see, her mother had forgotten that lesson.
If she’d ever learned it.
So what was Henenowryth to do? The slip had started, the momentum built. What move should she take, to ensure that she survived and learned?
Every crawling inch of her spine told her the first step was to abandon her mother. The guilt and anguish provoked by that thought was tight in her shoulders and chest, and painful in her eyes. Could she really do it? Not just her mentor, but her mother.
…A mother who’d shown no hesitation in abandoning a favored grandson the instant his bad luck stumbled him into an important matter. Even her reaction to Eriwyth’s death had seemed to be more personal anger than real grief.
Where, ultimately, did Owryth’s loyalties lie? To a mother who didn’t repay it? To House Henen, which was effectively the same thing? To the Kwmbwrw people in general? To ideals above and beyond even them? Or just to herself?
She thought long and hard.
Then, carefully, she took off her House insignia, dressed plainly in the manner of a young House servant rather than a Matriarch, and departed her suite high in one of Kwmwrta-Wrtnwm’s planetside towers.
She changed transportation three times before she was happy that the Grandmatriarch either did not have her under observation, or else she’d given said observation the slip. There was a bank in Midstation, on the lower promenade deck where businesses were crushed in as tight as canned pulses, built around one of the station’s huge ventral windows where pedestrians walking the promenade could look “down” on the stars and the ships coming and going.
There was a bank there. She collected the contents of a safe deposit box she’d taken out years ago, in obedience to her mother’s own advice about always keeping even the most unthinkable options open. A private channel to the spy-matriarchs of another House was…
Well, she’d always imagined that if she ever used it, she’d be doing so for reasons of deniability, or for the good of Great House Henen. That she’d do so loyally, because it was her best interpretation of the Grandmatriarch’s bidding.
Instead, she used it to defect.
It was the only way she could see to survive the coming landslide.
Date Point: 17y10m2w AV
Starship Rich Plains, Garden system, the Interspecies Dominion
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
It was always gratifying to watch a friend wrong-foot a rival.
What became obvious from the moment the Dominion Security Council held its first formal meeting into the Wrrmuthwm skirmish was that the Kwmbwrw—spearheaded by House Henen—had been expecting the Gao to charge in hard with accusations and righteous fury, and they had prepared to respond in kind.
That was arrogance on full display, right there.
Worse, it was unconvincing arrogance. Matriarch Henenteweth was a grand-niece of Henenwgwyr, not one of her daughters or granddaughters, and was quite clearly reading from a script she’d been given strict instructions not to deviate from. Of the Grandmatriarch herself, there was no sign.
Then again, neither was there any sign of Daar, and that seemed to be what threw the other Houses for a loop. House Tewyth’s Grandmatriarch had slipped out of the chamber grumbling sotto voce about having her time wasted, House Wrem’s looked bored out of her mind, and Sir Patrick fancied he could hear Grandmatriarch Gweremeg’s teeth grinding all the way from his own position.
Wgwyr had clearly planned on snubbing Daar’s presence. Daar, in turn, had snubbed her. The contempt expressed by their conspicuous absences was palpable. And so, poor hapless Henenteweth had Kenshi to contend with.
Knight tried not to reduce his Gaoian colleagues to canine analogies…but in truth, what he was witnessing was rather reminiscent of a guard dog savaging an intruder. Except…with words. Expertly crafted barrister-grade words.
Teweth had been figuratively thrown to the wolves, and though she was putting up a commendable fight, the fact was she was shackled by her Grandmatriarch’s instructions, and by the sheer disadvantage of her position. A human sitting in her seat would have been perspiring frantically.
“In sum,” Kenshi summarized as if he were bored of his chew toy, “Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr’s position remains untenable, delusional, bereft of morality, unmoored in reality, and is an insult not only to the Clans of Gao, but to the conventions and charter of the Interspecies Dominion. We have levied our accusations under seal to the satisfaction of a majority of the voting members present. If we do not get credible answers soon, we will move to lift the official seal, and expose this matter to full sunlight. As our Human allies say…Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
He concluded his remarks, and almost stepped away from the podium to return to his seat when he paused, turned back, and, as though it was an afterthought or unimportant side-note he’d only just remembered, made his parting shot.
“Oh, and one final matter. My Father has charged me to deliver a message to your Grandmatriarch. His message is this: ‘we are running short on patience. You may still extricate yourself from this situation, even now. You know what must be done.’”
There was a silence, into which the moderator’s gong slipped like a wake-up call.
“The chamber will now hear comments and queries from third parties.”
A chime from the Corti delegation was answered with an acknowledgement from the chair, and the Directorate’s ambassador took the podium.
“The Directorate and Faculty of the College of Xenoneurology and Cybernetics have been made aware of the role played in this incident by a number of Corti scientists—” he began.
A voice from the Rauwrhyr segment of the chamber chimed in loudly. “Yet again!”
The moderator was having none of it. She struck her gong again, hard this time, so that it crashed rather than chimed. “Ambassadors to the Council will maintain polite silence while another Ambassador is speaking!”
“Thank you.” The Corti didn’t even turn his head toward the Rauwrhyr. “In response to the accusation just received, I remind the Council that there is not a single species here which does not struggle with rogues who step outside the bounds of law and decency. We are a species of billions, and the Directorate cannot promise to enforce impeccable behavior on our citizens. What we can promise, as we have promised before and as we promise again now to the Clans of Gao, is that we condemn the research, methods and ethical violations of the Corti involved, and will assist our friends the Gao to the fullest extent in bringing those involved to justice.”
Sir Patrick nodded, tapping his desk gently to signal approval. Some days, it seemed, the Directorate’s primary job was keeping its more wantonly enthusiastic scientists in check. They, and the Faculties, practiced the science of the big picture, of political expediency and concern for their species’ reputation—lowly matters far below the attention of the world-shaking geniuses who filled the Colleges.
Honestly, Sir Patrick didn’t envy the Directorate one bit. In their cold, amoral, dispassionate way, the Corti were really a species of hyper-enthusiastic nerds with dreams rocking the galaxy via some shattering scientific insight. Governing and representing them must have been rather like being the head-teacher at a school for gifted but socially oblivious youngsters, except all of the students had access to advanced spaceships.
“As for the Wrrmuthwm matter…The Directorate acknowledges our own long history of embarrassing entanglements and rogue operations. We therefore submit the following hard-earned advice to our esteemed counterparts among the Kwmbwrw Great Houses: Excise the cancer within yourselves and let justice be done. Your people, your standing in galactic society, and the people of all present governments, will not benefit from pleas of innocence. Not when every worthy power knows the underlying truths, at least in part. Deception is an illogical stratagem at this juncture.”
He nodded to the moderator. “That concludes my comment.”
Sir Patrick arched an eyebrow. That was, in Corti terms, about as strong a sentiment as if the Ambassador had stood up and told the Matriarch “We all know you’re playing silly buggers, fucking stop it already.” He was impressed.
Such a strong statement in the mouth of an old ally clearly had the intended effect on Henenteweth, who looked to the moderator. “…The Kwmbwrw Great Houses request a recess while I seek advice,” she quavered.
The Moderator nodded long and slow, and rang her gong again. “Council will suspend conversation on this subject until tomorrow’s session,” she intoned. Around the room, several chairs squeaked as the Ambassadors of many species rose and departed. Sir Patrick joined them. All that remained on the schedule for the day was a minor dispute between the Robalin and the Versa Volc over mining rights in a cluster of systems a long way from anywhere. Hardly a matter of star-quaking importance, and nothing that Sir Patrick would have any useful input on.
He met Kenshi in the diplomat’s bar, where an assortment of vapors, liquids, canapé-esque foodstuffs and other cultural equivalents to a stiff drink were available. Kenshi gave him rather a pleased look, and offered a glass of Talamay.
“That was productive!” he declared.
Sir Patrick accepted the drink. “Looked rather more like a savaging to me. Then again, she has no ammunition.”
“No. She isn’t really the target anyway, that little performance of mine was for everyone else.”
“Quite. I daresay we all know she’s been thrown to the wolves…pardon the expression.” Kenshi waved a paw dismissively, and Sir Patrick continued. “You did an able job of demonstrating how her own government have left her with such an impossible task.”
“Hypothetically…” Sir Patrick sipped his drink, as though asking an entirely unimportant question. “What would happen if the Houses don’t budge?”
“We will have justice, one way or another. We’d hope to minimize the cost, of course…” Kenshi’s refined tone was belied by the way his ears turned backwards and lowered aggressively. “Under no circumstances will we allow our people to be captured, enslaved and biodroned, turned into weapons, and set loose on the world. We will send a message to everyone on that point: never again.”
No arguing with that, really. Sir Patrick watched a few nearby interested ears note what had been said and turn away. The bar was, by convention, a place of diplomacy in its own right. Nothing was said there that wasn’t intended to be overheard. In other words, Kenshi had just delivered an informal ultimatum.
Now to see what the Houses did.
It should be interesting.
Private farm, Planet Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Time was up. He had to move, one way or another.
Daar had taken advantage of the time to perform on his backlog of softer but equally important duties. In the mornings, he traveled all over Gao and tussled with young cubs, surprised the older school-aged adolescents and wished them luck on their exams, visited workhouses and training centers…maybe he surreptitiously sniffed out a few who might make good ‘Backs, because Champion Emeritus or not, he was still Champion… And in any case, the recruiting directorate always appreciated good tips!
It was, somehow, weirdly tiring work, much more so than spending all day pulling literally tons of implement through dry, rock-hard soil, like a ‘Back of old doin’ the necessary work of civilization. Still, tiring though it may be, meeting and greeting was genuinely good for the soul. Naydi said he had a lot of love in his soul to give, and damnit he’d give every bit of it he could.
He got it back tenfold. Maybe all the social stuff wasn’t so much tiring as…overwhelming, really. What a blessing and an honor to be the target of all that!
He maybe scored some mating contracts outta it, too…and so did Bruuk on one chilly day! Balls, he weren’t even tryin’ and this pretty lil’ slip of a sharp-tongued silverfur said the sassiest thing to the young Associate, who had an absolutely acid rejoinder…the two were instant friends!
It was fuckin’ adorable, is what it was!
He’d given Bruuk a couple more days of back-breaking work therapy, and enjoyed pushing himself as hard as he could for the last field work of the season. As always, the lower east quarter was a right fuckin’ bitch to pull through, and Daar was pretty sure he mighta actually bent the frame forcing it through some of that hardpan…
Well, he prob’ly added some inches to his arms an’ legs doin’ it all, so it weren’t that bad!
Bruuk was happy as shit when they were done. So was Daar. But also a little sad, ‘cuz that meant it was Time. Time for Bruuk to move on with his life. Time to end this little not-really-a-vacation.
Time to decide the fate of billions, yet again.
Henenwgwyr was bein’ an obstinate old’ crone ‘bout her crimes. Daar wished that were surprising but…well, it weren’t, and it weren’t like his people hadn’t been busy as balls behind the scenes, preppin’ the battlespace ‘fer whatever might need doing. Friends were recruited. Leads developed. A couple very careful and judicious covert actions, here and there…even a quiet deep-space action by the HEAT, to insert an agent onto a particularly critical station.
One didn’t often think of “quiet” and “Warhorse” in the same thought, but war was weird like that.
It was sad to watch, really. There was no dignity in her defiance. She was just doin’ what so many like her had done a million times and denying anything was wrong even while her empire burned down around her.
‘Course, that made her dangerous in a different way. So Daar needed to be absolutely certain about his next step.
There weren’t nothin’ for it. He needed him some thinkin’ tacos.
Taking the first jump to Cimbrean was mebbe a small abuse of his power, but dammit there just weren’t nowhere better to get authentic Gaoian tacos in all the galaxy. Yes really. It helped if a ‘Back din’t think ‘bout that too much. And besides, he could take Bruuk with him, so that saved on spaceship berthings, too!
He was being efficient! That sounded like a good enough excuse to him, so it musta been good!
The new Array link was military, properly secure in its synchronization, and with both ends installed a safe distance from anything important. The Gao end was built in what had once been a forward operating base as the Grand Army marched across the continent, reclaiming it from the biodrones. The Cimbrean end was a ways south of Folctha, deep in the recovering dustbowl left behind by the “Skidmark.” Sensible spot for it, that—a long way from civilians, nobody lived down there. It had just been dead terrain, now it had a purpose again.
Well…it wasn’t quite so dead anymore. Like the American plains, there were grasses taking root and spreading rapidly. The particular breed had been engineered so as not to release toxic allergens; for some reason, Earthling grass pollens were often horrible for most species, including a fair chunk of Gao. Hell, some Humans too! It wasn’t exactly a lush landscape, but it was a start on a good, solid recovery.
He’d briefly considered running it on fourpaw, jus’ to give his HEAT conditioning some extra lil’ exercise. It mighta been fun to lope his way through the grass all the way to Cimbrean, but he knew Bruuk and his security team wouldn’t be able to keep up, so boring ol’ truckbed it was.
And once they were in Folctha, Bruuk dropped off at Leemu’s house and all introductions made…all Daar had to do was follow his nose.
Leela was glad to see him. She pretended not to be, of course, but there was a kind of love in the way she saw him coming, flicked both ears, and then reached up to retrieve her special Daar-smacking spatula.
She gently bapped him the moment he shoved his face through her little window.
“One of these days you’ll learn not to stick your sniffer into my stand!”
“Me, learn? Why would I do that when I have so much fun needlin’ ‘ya!?”
She chittered, flicked her ears again, and set the spatula aside. “How’s Naydi?”
“She’ll prob’ly be envious I’m here gettin’ the bestest tacos in all the galaxy and she ain’t!” Daar chittered. “But bein’ serious, she’s doin’ Great Mothery stuff an’ I’m a lotta things, but I ain’t anywhere near so stupid as gettin’ in the way of that!”
“So you came to bother me instead,” Leela snorted. “And, what’s this? You aren’t up on your feet, strutting your stuff…no outrageous flexing today? You’re not gonna spend an eternity showing off your preposterous brawn?”
“Nah. I mean…” Of course Daar had to take a bite at bait that good! He stood and gave her his most bestest and most biggest side-chest. Really showed off the thick slabs o’ his pecs! “I will if ‘ya wanna feast ‘yer eyes on literally tons o’ ripplin’ muscular perfection—”
“No.” She almost managed to restrain her chitter, and that only provoked him further!
“No?” He worked his huge arms in and out, just to really nip at her. “Mebbe ‘ya prefer ‘ta feel me up instead? Really get ‘yer claws all over these big buff biceps!” He spun to face her, and showed off his legs and corrugated middle. “An’ here I worried I was bein’ too forward—”
“Daar! You are incorrigible! Behave!”
“OK, fiine…” He chittered and fell back to fourpaw. “‘Yer loss.” Fun had for the day, it was time to move on. “But…nah. I got…bigger things on my mind tonight. I need some thinkin’ tacos.”
She gave him a flat look. “…Thinking tacos.”
Leela considered that request for a moment. “…Smelt,” she decided, and opened a tub full of gloriously pungent little fish. “Fresh from Gao.”
“Oh balls those smell so good…I bet the humans hate ‘em too!”
“Most, yeah. Their loss!” Suddenly, her Spatula whipped out with a lightning-quick strike.
“Get your drooling muzzle out of my stand!”
Daar chittered, and set to pacing. He had a lot to think about.
“So, what deep affairs had you come hundreds of light years just for my thinking tacos?” She asked.
“Maybe…can I jus’ eat my tacos, an’ walk ‘ya back to the island shuttle?”
“Yeah. An’, uh…there ain’t many who ain’t Champions an’ shit that I can really talk serious with.”
She duck-nodded, and wordlessly doubled the number of smelt in his tacos.
The fact was, Leela was about the closest thing Daar had to a friend who wasn’t HEAT, or high-ranking, or some kinda mover and shaker. Or, terrified of what he was. Not even Leemu could get over his natural instinct to just…instantly submit, or agree with anything Daar believed.
There were only a few women in his life who din’t give one watery shit ‘bout his rank. Leela was one of them, and may the gods forever bless her for it. And under the short, cold front he knew good and damn well she counted him a friend too. Not that she’d ever say it. But she showed it, all the time.
As always, Daar timed his visit to coincide with closing. He did that for a number of reasons—havin’ her all to himself bein’ the big selfish one—but really, he did it to spare her the inconvenience of havin’ the fuckin’ emperor spacebear (or whatever the internet called him these days) drop in and ruin her day. She was cleanin’ up anyway, so all the customers were gone…
She backed out of her tidy little shack, locked the door, dropped the front shade-door-wall thing in front of the window, and picked up a stasis bag filled to the brim with tacos and snacks.
“I thought I’d just, y’know, take all the rest. It’s a long walk down to the shuttle terminal.”
It was, and Daar was content to dismiss her discreet escort, along with his own security. He could take care of them both after all, and the team would quietly take care of anything else. Before long they were alone on Folctha’s well-lit paths, munching tacos in comfortable silence.
If she maybe drew a bit closer to him in the evening chill and dark, he weren’t gonna complain.
“So…what’s on your mind, big guy?”
Gods, she even talked to him like a normal man. He missed that so much…
Daar shook his head free of its cobwebs. “You been following the galactic news? S’pecifically ‘bout our recent incursion into Kwmbwrw space?”
“ESNN breakfast, every morning.”
“Ah, good.” Daar flicked his ear mischievously. “You listen ‘ta the mean version o’ things.”
“And here I thought you liked getting smacked in the nose.”
“I ain’t one ‘ta kink shame, Leela. Anyhoo,” he said before she could work in a rejoinder, “So ‘yer up to date on what’s publicly known.”
“There’s a part o’ this that, if it were ‘ta make it into the public eye, would force us into war.”
Daar sighed unhappily. “Yeah. An’ it wouldn’t be a quick one, neither. S’why we’ve been tryin’ ‘ta give ‘em every opportunity ‘ta walk outta this. But, well, Ol’ True-Name is a particularly obstinate tail o’ a women…balls, even more stubborn than you…”
Leela chittered, and clawed him gently right in his big ol’ rump. Which would normally prompt some of his usual play…
He chittered anyway, but she could tell he wasn’t feelin’ it. “…But her stubbornness here’s gonna mean some bad things.”
“Well, what exactly is she being stubborn about?”
Daar hesitated. As always, he hated secrets, but there were ears everywhere, and as much as he wanted to pretend, his footsteps in Folctha didn’t go unnoticed by the world writ large. He could just barely hear the flutter of a drone high overhead, for instance. Probably it was just Colonial Security…
“Well, les’ just say she’s doin’ a very bad thing against us, in secret. Quite why she thought we’d never find out is jus’ beyond me, an’ I’ve got a pretty vivid imagination these days…anyway, it’s bad, Leela. Real gods-damned bad.”
“And she’s…what? Refusing to own up to it?”
“Refusin’ ‘ta stop.”
“Well…does she think your threat is credible?”
…A fair point, and one he kept in the back of his mind, for later. His own generals had noted the same thing.
“That’s the thing, ain’t it? Whether it is or ain’t, what matters is whether she thinks it is. An’ from what I can tell, I think she’s the kinda power-mad that lives in its own fantasy world an’ never sees things as they are. I don’t think she can believe I’d come after her.”
“And you would.”
“Of course. ‘Fer something this big? I’d come personally, if it were needed.”
She duck-nodded, and handed him another taco. They still had plenty of time before the shuttle left, so they paused at the back of the small crowd gathered in front of the Wall outdoor theatre. The Folctha Amateur Dramatic Society were putting on a performance of a play called “One o’Clock From The House.” Judging from the laughs, it was a comedy, but Daar was too distracted to listen properly so the humor went over his head a bit. Human humor could be weird anyway.
Too bad tacos were a one-bite cronch for Daar. Bein’ the biggest weren’t always the bestest.
“So…forgive me, I obviously don’t know everything…” Leela said.
“Yes, yes. G’on.”
“Is there any way you can punish just her? I know those kinds of ops are hard…”
Daar chittered darkly. “That’s puttin’ it mildly, ‘ta say the least. We’re working on options,” he said cryptically, for the benefit of whoever owned the second drone he could hear fluttering about now. “But that has bigger upside risks than bein’ direct about it.”
“So really, it’s a question about opportunity cost.”
“…Yea, I s’pose ‘ya could look it at that way.”
“Well, let’s be sure. So Option one for, uh, whatever this crime is, would be to just, I dunno, smash it all with a big hammer, right?”
Daar nodded. “Yeah. Be a big drain, might be long and costly.”
“And option two is possibly—”
“—Most likely cheaper, but it’s risky.”
“Yeah. Very risky, in this case. Things could go wrong, and the assets are, uh…”
Leela was quiet suddenly. She understood. “…Hard to replace.” They both knew what she left out; she was friends with many of the operators who would be involved.
“…You already know what you have to do, though.”
“‘Course I do. Don’t make me like it any.”
“So what do you need my thinking tacos for?”
“Sometimes my heart takes a little more convincin’ I guess. Leela,” Daar sighed, and maybe keened a little. “I’ve murdered a fuck of a lot of people over the years. I’m gettin’ real damn tired of sendin’ young men off to their doom for this kind of dumb shit that shouldn’t fuckin’ happen in the first place! But to spare a whole lotta young dumb good males, I gotta send in people who are so rare an’ special, it’s more’n just my heart that’d break if we lost any.”
“So…it really is an opportunity cost problem, then.”
“…I hate that it’s that cold, but yeah.”
Leela was quiet for a long moment. “I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”
“I’m glad you don’t have to make ‘em too.”
They moved on from the theatre. Another taco. Cronch.
“…I was bankin’ on if I gave ‘em a face-savin’ thing, it could all be avoided. They stop, quietly…prove it…” more evasion, but she understood. “An’ we get on with the real bad guys.”
“But they aren’t, and…you are the Great Father.”
“Well…for what very little it’s worth…the risk is probably worth taking. We can’t afford to throw ourselves into another meat grinder and I don’t think the galaxy can, either.”
“Even if it…costs.”
“Yeah. They’re good, but nobody’s perfect.”
Leela found some of her humor. “Except for you. At least, that’s what you keep telling me…”
Daar chittered but…he truly didn’t have the energy at that moment. All he could do was nod. And that seemed to be what finally broke through. Leela jumped up and hugged.
He wrapped his arms around her and hugged back. What else could he do?
They walked in silence the rest of the way to the spaceport, and paused at the point that, on every other occasion, had been where they said their good-nights and parted ways. This time, she looked up at the control tower for a moment, then turned back around.
“…Come with me.”
“…Oh? You sure? I thought you weren’t—”
“I’m not asking for that. Not…not tonight. I just hate to leave a friend to suffer alone. We can…we can just do friendly…right?”
She smelled nervous. And a little afraid. If there was one thing about the two of them that made Daar sad, it was the memories he triggered just being big and brown. He knew she didn’t mean anything bad by it…
Daar duck-nodded seriously. “I can do that.”
She leaned into his side while they boarded the suborbital shuttle. Again, a bit nervously…so he put an arm around her as gently and warmly as he could manage. Naturally he was too big to fit in the crammed passenger compartment, so he laid himself out on the floor of the cargo compartment. She came down there with him, and with some pant-grins and some gentle encouragement, they napped curled up together for the flight to the island.
She smelled good. Beautiful, even, once the nervousness had faded away. Once the trust started building. Cuddlin’ her was the mildest kinda chaste torture, but that was okay. He promised, and something told him she needed this even more than he did. It took a while and some trust before they’d managed a properly tight, full-body squeeze, but it was worth it in the end. Her friendship was worth the extra little effort.
The walk to her quarters was much the same. Quiet, comfortable. Thankful. Undoubtedly there would be some rumors tomorrow but whatever, that would be fun for later. For now…Tomorrow he’d set their planning into motion. Orders would be given. People would die.
He took every moment of peace he could get.
Date Point: 17y11m AV
Kwmrwta-Wrtnwm, Erwn-Bwrw system, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“Y-yes, Grandmatriarch. They smuggled her off the station within half a day. She’s been a guest of House Brwnen ever since.”
“And it took us this long to determine that she went to them?”
The hapless analysts briefing her exchanged a troubled glance. “We…didn’t exactly…”
“They told us, Grandmatriarch. And offered some rather blunt, unsolicited advice.”
Wgwyr gave the pair her coldest stare. “What. Advice.”
“It’s, ah…here, Grandmatriarch.” One of the analysts handed over a printout. Wgwyr glanced at it, then set it aside.
“Leave,” she instructed.
Truth at last. Traitors and conspirators all around her, even her own daughters. Her own House. A rot that went down to the very foundations of House Henen, if not even her own kin were immune. After all she’d taught them, all the love and guidance, all the opportunities she’s given, this was how they repaid her? Disloyalty? Betrayal?
She reared up on her hind legs and lashed out with her tail, smashing House Brwnen’s sanctimonious ‘advice’ across the room with such force that the framed picture it struck fell off the wall and broke.
Moments later she was tearing through the keepsakes of her pride. Owryth had done much in her career, so had Eriwyth, Iwathi and Feirweg. Mere minutes ago, the trophies of her daughters’ triumphs had been sources of gratification. Now they sickened her. Now, each and every one was torn from the walls, swept from the surfaces and snatched from the shelves. She cleansed her rooms, scrubbing out every last hint of infection until there was nothing left but her own works and deeds.
She sent out orders that Iwathi and Feirweg be arrested. They could not possibly have missed their half-sister’s malfeasance, which meant they must be complicit. Interrogation would prove it.
As for the other Houses, the Gao, and those pliable buffoons sitting on the Dominion Security Council…That would require guile. She had nobody she could rely on, right now. And Daar had ably proven that a direct fight was unwinnable.
She would need to fight the indirect fight herself. Alone, unsupported, untrusting. It was the only road to victory now.
There was a kind of clarity that came with that thought. A certainty of purpose, a sureness. She’d worked at a remove for too long, attempting to exert her will through the clumsy, imprecise tools of other people. Others with their own wills and agendas, others who would always twist her ends to their own.
Now, it was clear: the only way to see things done right was to act herself.
“Ready my transport. I will take up residence at the Eclipse Palace.”
The first step, after all, was to fortify herself. Her enemies would be coming. And there was only one place in all the galaxy that was adequately safe now.
Under the shade of the ancient dead.
Date Point: 18yAV Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff
Hoeff finished stretching out, glanced at his phone and sighed. He’d been expecting this message for a while, but he still wasn’t happy to get it. At least it came at the end of his workout.
It came at the end of Vemik and Playboy’s daily workout too, where Vemik had been aggressively and cheerily giving Julian an education on just what he could do these days. Today’s hyper-testosterone excesses had been going on since the buttcrack of dawn and it was past noon now; the two just couldn’t be separated. They’d fought at everything from a series of footraces, to several bouts of wrestling, to “speed forging.” Now they were attacking the weights.
Like they did every morning, every day. Without fail. Maybe they went hunting, maybe they were building something. Maybe they were even studying sometimes, but every single day the two were getting along like a house on fire, sometimes with Yan or maybe the Singer, sometimes with others, sometimes simply together. Some mornings, it was all Hoeff (and most of the village men, too!) could do to keep up.
Julian was a rare critter, to cope with all that manic energy. Even rarer, since he could match it. He held the Ten’Gewek’s respect because, aside from his friendly nature and his ridiculously good-looking charms, he was a supremely athletic stone-hard ultra-heavyweight hulk of a man, one so stupidly dense he sank like a brick in water, and one who could play with the Ten’Gewek as hard as they wanted. That mattered. The big Tarzan was at the top of the game, knew it, could count on one hand all the Gaoians or human beings who could put him in his place these days, and he’d still have a thumb left over to spare.
Yet, despite his genuinely overwhelming blessings…among Ten’Gewek, he was humbled.
There were hundreds among their people who could best him, and one of the youngest of those monsters happened to be his most bestest cavegorilla friend. He didn’t seem to mind, and Vemik seemed to relish proving it, too. For all his smarts he was, after all, still a cavemonkey in the grip of the spring and his youth, and on top of that was the dominant male in his tribe, aside from Yan. Not even Sky-Thinker was immune from the feelings that sort of thing gave a man.
As if to prove the point, Vemik walked back to his barbell and exclaimed, “Watch this, Jooyun!” He added more plates to his heavily laden “Warhorse” barbell, which was already bending a little too much for comfort under the gravity and weight. Hoeff couldn’t even deadlift that much weight, yet Vemik managed a perfect clean and press. Fuckin’ impressive, that. Pleased with himself and obviously feeling ambitious, Vemik lifted a leg off the ground and squat some preposterous count of reps, then switched legs, did it again, switched back and did another set…and another…added some over-their-heads high one-legged jumps in for good measure, and kept jumping higher, and higher…went back to both legs and now really added some crazy height…
When his strength finally started to give, he squeezed out one more unbelievable jump, this the highest Hoeff had ever seen him do, one that could easily clear a third story landing. He landed with a terrific ground-shaking thud, bellowed a skull-splittingly loud victory hoot at the top of his lungs, then pressed that enormous bar overhead a few dozen times with a fang-filled snarl, just to flex on Julian even more. Satisfied, he dropped the bar to the ground with a thunderous crash, sprang about for a bit, aped around outrageously and strut.
And then promptly crashed and collapsed in a heap, grinning crazily and panting for breath.
“Ha! A hand of hands of reps…two hands of sets… easy! One-legged too! Bet…bet you can’t do that!!”
Julian wasn’t the type to hold a grudge, despite his fiercely competitive streak. So instead of brooding or anything like that, the big caveman grumbled a bit and shook his head with a smile, then delivered a congratulatory spine-shattering slap onto Vemik’s broad, ultra-muscular back.
“That was impressive as heck, big fella! Can’t say I’ve ever tried jumping pistol squats…”
“There’s a name for that? I thought I was doing a trick!”
“Yup! Heck, maybe hold a kettlebell or another barbell in your foot while you do it next time! Ooh, and your tail, too! But before I try any of that that for myself…” Julian mopped the sweat off his face, then turned his attention to Hoeff. “Something up, Hoeff?”
“Yeah. Looks like Big Boss is gettin’ ready to do the thing. We’re gonna need to leave soon for Cimbrean to do our dry runs.”
“Wish I could fight too…” Vemik grumbled unhappily. Normally he was too wrapped up in his own interests to be jealous of Ferd and crew, but this spring he’d been feeling a bit salty.
“You can, bud! But you’ve got a kid right now—”
“By other women, yes, and they all have dads that love them very much. Your kid’s dad is you. And besides, you’re young yet. You’ve got time.”
Vemik wasn’t really arguing to run away and go play soldier, Hoeff knew. He was just feeling the call. Hell, Hoeff felt the call pretty hard too, which was why he’d enlisted, why he’d found himself on JETS, why he was there in the first place even after “retirement,” training up cavemonkeys and feeling like a wimpy little kid next to his two best superhuman friends.
Springtime had its own issues, too. “Anyway. You get your zoomies out, Vemik?”
Julian tried to choke back a laugh, and for a moment a flash of insulted rage shot across Vemik’s young, be-fanged face…but a moment later he flicked his ears ruefully and trilled. “Yes, Heff. Maybe you just too old to have rut!”
“That’s a your-people thing, young man. We’re not so cursed.”
“Is not curse!” Vemik said with a hint of sullen offense. “Is blessing by gods!”
“…Okay. Sorry. Still, I’m happy it’s not burning me, y’know? You still hurting?”
Vemik nodded sheepishly. “Yeah. Every morning, hurt and sore like after trial of manhood. Need to think before say anything, everything in my head angry all the time. Or, maybe not angry but like, I wanna fight everything?”
“Aggressive. The word you’re looking for is aggressive.”
“Yeah! Lots of Ag-ress-shun. Need to work good and hard and burn it out! Yan say, for good redcrest it never goes away. Gets worse every year. But the Giving we get…”
Vemik showed them both just what the rut was giving him. Goddamn “Is annoying Taking, but good Giving in turn!”
Hoeff glanced him over. Couldn’t argue with the results, really. “Fair enough. Anyway, shall we go check in on Rees? I think today is firearms instruction.”
“Ooh! Guns!” Vemik turned into a charging gorillablur without a second more thought.
Julian chuckled, “You coulda just said that from the beginning.”
“My monkeyskills aren’t as good as yours.”
“Heh.” Tarzan scratched at his big slab of a chest and stretched out a bit in a futile fight against tomorrow’s soreness. “Let’s go try and keep him out of trouble.”
Funtime was over. It seemed that the powers that be had need of Hoeff and his little crew of expeditionary murder again. Which would be a hell of a trick, really. The Ten’Gewek were just now entering the peak of their springtime rut.
As it turned out, that was both a bit of a blessing and a bit of a curse. Right now, the Ten’Gewek were at their most vigorously alive, when everything was bursting into life and everything in the jungle was taking advantage. Their natural playfulness and aggression spiked through the roof and gave them daring, so much so that they had the balls to prove things like their ability to safely jump down from almost any arbitrary height; they didn’t need parachutes! That all by itself was a trick Hoeff was scheming to learn for himself and use—the HEAT already used it, with some slight forcefield augmentation if they were coming in off orbital drop. Rees and Frasier weren’t gorilla enough to manage but that was okay. They had other talents Hoeff couldn’t quit match these days, at least not without a fuck of a lot of suffering.
Time to go check in on school time. Rees should have just started the lessons for the day.
Their “war-play” with Hoeff and the cadre had become a sort of mating signal among the women, too. Hoeff’s men got a lot of attention from the ladymonkeys, and that hadn’t gone unnoticed by anyone. There was quite a bit of hennish gossip over the tribes’ radio network and apparently more than a bit via their Given-Man post. Getting on a team had become every young Ten’Gewek’s highest ambition.
Which was no doubt part of what was irking Vemik, really.
The Ten’Gewek made fantastic “sky-warriors” and they were starting to recognize it. Beyond their ridiculously unfair physical prowess, they were smart, had discipline, could follow and give orders. They had focus, too. Sure they were new to the modern world, but they were learning things quickly, and reading had become a “strong” skill everyone had to know. Teaching them how to cope with civilization had turned out to be mostly a non-issue, thank god.
The biggest hurdle had been drilling into the men how romance worked among humans, and what terrible consequences would befall them if they broke those rules. So far, they’d all been respectful on the rare occasion they got to step through to Cimbrean.
In the end, the biggest problem was making sure their intense focus was properly targeted, which wasn’t really all that hard with the right kind of respect. Julian commanded it, being something like a quasi redcrest or Given-Man himself, and nowadays Hoeff sorta did too. He quietly thanked ‘Horse and Playboy for all those months of torture, because if he were any less impressive, he probably wouldn’t be able to hold his murdermonkey’s attention.
Well…that wasn’t fair. They were pretty good actually, but like all young men in their prime…
“Oi!” Rees slapped Tumik on the shoulder. “Stop tasting the air for sex and pay bloody attention! You can go fuck your cock off when we’re done!”
Ferd gently rapped Tumik’s skull with his knuckles and trilled deeply. “Now is not the time. We must study this gauss rifle, yes? Will be needed for our Big Mission.”
Hoeff shot him a thankful look when Tumik returned his attention to Rees. Ferd was feeling his springtime Fire too, and like all Given-Men was feeling it fiercely. Everyone’s aggression was through the roof thanks to the rut—ladies too—and the physical effects were unavoidably obvious, but with red-crested men (and Given-Mens’ Fire especially) the difference was dramatic and striking. If a fellow thought the cavemonkeys had big and showy physiques before…now, even by their standards, everything was turned up to eleven. None of it was merely for show, either. One-on-one, Ten’Gewek were dangerous.
“You good? We need to work out some energy? We have more ship-time scheduled today—”
That produced the obligatory stoic grunts from the cavemonkeys; they’d found that new bit of their training particularly arduous and draining.
“But, after that, I’d planned to go shooting today…”
That was guaranteed to hold everyone’s attention. For Vemik’s part, he was standing off to the side, watching, learning, quite literally bouncing on the balls of his feet, tail twitching to and fro…but he was deliberately not interfering. His focus was the most intense of all, and it never once wavered.
“No…I’m good, Rees.”
“Heh, good lad. Now, field strip this weapon quick…”
Rees was a pretty good teacher, after all. He didn’t talk down to them or guard his language, and the cavemonkeys looked up to him as a result. Funny, really. It was like a herd of full-size bulls chasing happily after their farmer.
“This is the latest gauss rifle from the HEAT’s bag o’ tricks, the GR-6e. Now, the thing about this rifle is how it fires its bullets. It doesn’t use gunpowder and cartridges like your SCARs do. This uses very powerful electromagnetic coils to fire the bullet. This has a lot of downsides: it makes the rifles very heavy and it also makes them bulkier. The power electronics on-board are absolutely state of the art, but none of us are smart enough to fix them in the field. If your weapon breaks, it’s broken without spare parts, which you’ll be carrying, which will make your loads heavier. Ballistics-wise, it isn’t necessarily any better, either. In fact, at the extremes of its power range, it’s markedly worse.
“That said,” he continued, “it does have some upside. As it’s all solid-state, there are few parts that need maintenance. Cleaning is much easier, there’s less barrel fouling. You can carry more ammo in less space, though it’ll also be a lot heavier…but you lot can manage that. What this rifle has going for it is its power scalability. It can throw bullets gentle enough to just annoy someone, or with so much force it’d rip my arm clean off from the recoil. And it can spit bullets faster than you’d believe, too. That’s why you big burly monkeyfolk will be given these. It can be a carbine or a machine gun, a quiet little peashooter or a fucking cannon. You get versatility. Me and Davies will be getting long range rifles. We’ll be getting precision.”
Lessons were safely on. Good. Hoeff and Julian could leave them behind for the moment and go find Yan.
It was a bit of a trek to find the big Given-Man. He’d been straying far from the village lately to hunt neyma, which were swift deer-like critters that were tricky to hunt and tasted fuckin’ delicious. Normally, villages didn’t hunt neyma—mostly they were hunted by traveling men, or by boys learning to Take—but for someone in Yan’s unique situation, they were perfect prey.
The springtime Fire had transformed him into a blackcrest. Was still transforming him. Probably would be through the summer, too. He was…monstrous. There really wasn’t any other word. Monstrous to the point that he made his three-month-ago self seem kinda unimpressive. A bit taller, much broader, as hard-bodied, stocky and muscle-packed as he could possibly be and still function. He didn’t look young, didn’t look old. A guy couldn’t guess how old he was, really. By Ten’Gewek standards he was some new kind of handsome, his old nagging complaints were melting away…
The gods had Given.
The price he paid for all that gain was that he endlessly hungry and in constant agony from the growing pains, so to say he was feeling aggressive was an understatement. Approaching him therefore required a measure of care. Sure enough, the moment Julian made their presence known, he whipped around, the most vicious snarl on his face promising infinite punishment—
Which instantly transformed into unmitigated glee when he saw his friends. The poor guy was on a wild rollercoaster of emotion, right now. He was fully aware of himself, though, and was his usual considerate self. His bearhug didn’t break even one of Hoeff’s bones. Whaddaguy.
Yan didn’t even bother with a greeting, just jumped right into the question he knew they’d ask. “Better today. A little. Still bad, though. Bad as my first Fire. Maybe worse actually.”
“Get any sleep last night?” From what Hoeff had seen, Yan didn’t so much sleep right now as crash. He’d go two or three days at full blast, then all of a sudden there’d be an immobile snoring lump that everyone else had to step around all day. And then sometime in the middle of the night, there’d be a ferocious hunting hoot out among the trees, and the remains of a crushed flat and crushed dry critter over the fire by morning, Yan having eaten the haunches, shoulders, and liver all by himself.
And having squeezed out and drunk every drop of the poor critter’s blood, too.
As it turned out, there was a reason Ten’Gewek had long forked prehensile tongues and enormous fangs. During the spring they had a strong taste for blood. Shoulda been obvious in retrospect, considering their mouth and tongue were black from high levels of iron, but…
Still. Seasonal gorilla vampires. One thing was becoming pretty clear with time: the Ten’Gewek really were tied tight to the planet and the forest. Biology ruled them every day of the year, and any future exploration would be severely constrained by their physiological needs.
“Some sleep,” Yan confirmed. “Late. Not long, though. Got itchy. Made an axe. Lifted when village was asleep.”
“We heard,” Julian commented laconically.
“Should have joined me!”
“Yan, at this point you could prob’ly snap ‘Horse in two. Anyway. Got a message from big boss.”
“Hmph. He should come here and lift too! Show him what real man can do…” Yan rumbled, but good-naturedly. “What message?”
“Need a team for a big mission soon. Ferd’s team, ideally.”
“Hmm. Fire season, but low fire for him this year. Was expected though, often smaller Fires after big ones, yes?”
“So he’s good for it.”
“Yes. They all good for it, but he would be best. Good man, Ferd. Strong mind. Fire will make him sharper. Good team, too.” Yan grabbed Hoeff and noogied affectionately, “and good man leading them!”
“Urf…thanks. Might need more than one team, actually.”
“So really is big Taking, like you promised in fall.”
Julian nodded, expression grim. “We’ve got three operational JETS teams now and this might take all three. There’s still some time before the mission, but they should all start training for it. HEAT is setting up the training course back on Cimbrean. This is all secret, by the way. Not for Professor or any of his staff still here. Not for Vemik either…”
“No fear. Vemik has other things to think about anyway. He doesn’t know it yet.”
Yan had been getting better with his contractions, which was strange because he only really got fluent in English when he was preoccupied with something else. He let Hoeff go and scratched at his ear. “…Could use your thoughts.”
Well. One didn’t get the chance to counsel King Kong very often. Julian and Hoeff glanced at each other, then nodded.
Yan pulled his tail around and ran his thumb along the crest. It was black now. Maybe the very, very faintest hint of iridescent gore red at the ends of the tufty stuff at the end, but otherwise to the human eye, his once-brilliant hair was now as black as a crow’s wing.
“…Been trying to pretend this time wasn’t coming,” Yan rumbled. “But blackcrests can’t stay with their tribe. I am…the Fire never really stops, now. Only fades. My tribe now is bigger. Need to protect all the tribes, because the forest is dangerous. Does that make sense?
“Problem is, when I go, the gods will Take someone else. Tribe always has a Given-Man…”
Julian understood instantly. “Vemik.”
Hoeff arched an eyebrow at Julian. “You think?”
“After Yan, he’s the tribe’s dominant male. He’s more dominant than some Given-Men and this year’s rut hit him almost like the Fire. You saw how easily he kicked my ass today, right?”
Hoeff thought guiltily of the paper on Ten’Gewek hormonal triggers and the Given-Man phenomenon he’d promised Claire he’d read. He hadn’t, yet. He’d been too busy reading her.
…He really was a walking stereotype sometimes.
Well, he’d better read up, because that was the thing about the Fire: it burned. Everyone was a bit cranky from growing pains and general soreness, but the really big males had it ten times worse. The Fire gripped them, and wouldn’t let the most dangerous of them go for months.
Like it was doing to young Vemik. He was already about the most impressive redcrest around and the rut had hit him over the head like a goddamn sledgehammer, to the point where he was more or less filling out into a smaller version of Ferd. Cranky as fuck too, even though he was friendly. Still, not even his relentless cheer could quite cut through the bullshit going on in his body and brain, which wasn’t surprising: Vemik was probably something like seventeen or eighteen years old, and for Ten’Gewek that was the middle of a man’s youthful peak.
Which was long as fuck. Instead of running from seventeen to twenty-one like it tended to for humans, for Ten’Gewek it went from fifteen to twenty-five, and ran at full tilt the whole time.
…What about blackcrests like Yan? What exactly did the Fire do to them?
“I could hold on another year, maybe two…” Yan fretted. “Still a new blackcrest, real Fire will be next year. Would even be good for Vemik! He’d be a very young Given-Man. But so was I. I just…want him to stay redcrest for longer. Less worries for him. More sky-thinking.”
Ah. There it was.
“Well,” said Julian, clearly thinking quickly. “I mean, let’s work this out. What does a Given-Man need? He needs a Singer he cares for, right?”
“Always, yes. The gods say, only if Singer and Given-Man in harmony, can a tribe be whole.”
“Well, in his case he could inherit your tribe. He’d have the same Singer. Your niece, his love.”
“And he needs lots of potential mates, right? Didn’t your tribe just trade daughters?”
“…Maybe was thinking ahead of this, but yes.”
“And…will the change make him any less of a sky-thinker?”
That, clearly, worried Yan a lot. “Maybe. It is…the Fire makes all things stronger for you, not just good muscle. Better taste, better touch. See better, think better. But, also fills your head with…”
“Yes. Your thoughts bend to the tribe, always. I am still Yan, but always I think of tribe first. All Given-Men do this. Is why I want to protect Vemik. His sky-thinking is good for the tribe.”
“You learned to value it more because of him, though. You sky-think now too. Because you know the tribe needs it. Why your people need it, and now you are becoming Given-Man for all Ten’Gewek, right? So, I don’t see why he’d stop. He knows the value of it probably even more than you…” Julian counted off on his fingers. “Anyway, the last thing a Given-Man needs is loyal men, right? Well, most all the men in the tribe are related to him and you both. They like him, you’ve seen it.”
“…Yes. Is one other thing. He must face the Lodge.”
“…And you will be the one who initiates him.” There was clearly something there that Hoeff was missing, but he could about guess what that meant. Initiations weren’t often nice things.
Yan practically slumped in upon himself, overcome with what could only be grief.
“It will be…big Taking, for a man as good as him. And big betrayal. He does not know.”
“Could be an even bigger betrayal to leave him face it without you, buddy.”
“He’ll need to face it anyway, sooner or later,” Hoeff pointed out. “Better he do it when you’re in charge.”
“And you may not be here long,” Julian added. “I think you will, but only the gods know for sure. So my thinking is, you can’t fight the gods forever, Yan. If they’re going to Take him, let it happen while you’re still here to guide him and help him through it. And while you both have plenty of time to repair your friendship after the Taking.”
Yan looked up—Jesus he looked so sad—and nodded. Nodded on the verge of tears.
“You’re right. I think, Human’s biggest Giving is wisdom. You have so much of it. Maybe…scares me, a little.” He stood up, looking about as subdued as Hoeff had ever seen him, and headed toward one of the nearby trees. “I’ll…think,” he said. “Thank you.”
They watched him vanish up the Ketta as if gravity simply didn’t apply to him, and turned back toward their camp once he’d vanished among the lower branches.
Julian walked in silence rather than humming as he usually did, looking distant, thoughtful and rather sad himself. That said a lot, and for Hoeff’s part the conversation had raised some things he just couldn’t will himself to leave alone. He waited until they were about halfway between the village and the research camp before finally voicing them.
“You faced the Lodge, right?”
Julian paused, and stopped walking at the base of a tree. “…Didn’t get the full treatment. I’m not a Given-Man. But I got the important bits.”
“…What’s gonna happen to him?”
“Sacred oath, my friend. I can’t say. But I will say this: not everyone survives.”
“And it’s gonna be Yan who almost kills him, isn’t it?”
Julian’s silence was damning.
“Well…” Hoeff ventured. “He knows his limits. And you’re still friends.”
Julian paused again, and then relented with a sigh. “I knew it was coming. Had to, to arrange for medical support. It’s one of the big reasons I’m only ‘honorary,’ because I was allowed to cheat a little. And like I said: I didn’t get the full treatment. Yan and the Given-Men were restrained with me. They didn’t let me really have it until they’d figured out I could take it. Tell nobody. Especially don’t tell any of Dan’s staff. Or Dan himself.”
“…Why, though? Why do it that way?”
“It’s a death and rebirth. The end of one life and the start of a new one. They kill the man who was, and give the man who comes after a new name. And as a practical matter, it’s important to the peace that they can respect each other’s ability to murder each other. One of the things they’ll teach him is how to fight really dirty. You must have seen some of Ferd’s nastier tricks.”
“…Once he stopped playing nice, yeah.”
“Hoeff. Buddy. I guarantee you he was still playing nice.” Julian took a deep, somewhat haunted breath. “Now…I’ve said enough. And I know you can hear me, Yan. But he’d have figured most of it out, so…”
The Given-Man crashed out of the tree with a ground-shaking thump that made Hoeff jump a foot sideways. He’d genuinely had no idea the huge murdermonkey was up there, nor that he was very annoyed.
“Yes, yes. Heff too smart inside his head. Very wise little man, he is.” Yan glared down, tail lashing behind him.
…Daniel Hoeff was not a stupid man. He knew when his life was suddenly in the balance. “My lips are fuckin’ sealed, big guy.”
It took Yan a second to puzzle that out, but he nodded in acknowledgement and twitched his tail. “Anyway. Yes. You right, Jooyun Sky-Brother. I must ‘man up’ and face this. But!” Another of Yan’s wild emotional swings gripped him. “Is springtime! Time for best play and best feast! I go hunt a good werne, we eat good tonight! Come with me!!”
Hoeff actually would have enjoyed a good hunt…
“Can’t, big man. Duty calls. Remember the message?”
Yan grumped slightly, but his sudden cheer was undiminished. “Yes yes, go teach our men! We will Give whatever we can. They jump to Cimbrean soon?”
“Yeah. Maybe let the fire settle down a little…”
“Yes. Ferd’s new tribe just getting settled! Give him and his allies another moon and they’ll be ready for him to go fight.”
“I’ll hunt,” Julian said. “Be nice to bag one more before I go home. The family loves werne jerky.”
“Come, then!” Yan jumped like ten meters back up into the tree and gestured eagerly. “We Take two!”
Hoeff could see Julian resign himself to the back-breaking work that would entail. “Alright, big fella. The herd’s up by the cliffside lately…”
They vanished among the trees, with a backward wave of farewell from Julian, and Hoeff was alone. He took a moment, a deep breath, and shook himself out a bit with the feeling that he’d just learned something about his friends that he’d rather not have known.
Work called, not to mention that paper Claire wanted him to read. Suddenly, he was much more interested to go through it and see how much the scientists knew. They’d probably figured out more than Yan guessed.
He set boot to trail once again, and walked away.
The Hierarchy’s Footprint
By Ava Ríos
This last in my three-part series on the state of Gaoian civilization and what’s next for our friends turns to somebody with a little more seniority than my last two interviews. He’s a familiar sight to most Folcthans, generally found hanging out in Quarterside Park or at the Multi-Faith Center. And always, nowadays, accompanied by his colossal “temple dog,” Doofus.
It’s also my great pleasure and privilege to consider him a friend.
Gyotin, Champion of Clan Starmind
“In all the galaxy, there is precisely one species who have been left effectively unmarked by the Hierarchy: Yours.”
[Image: Gyotin sitting comfortably in the park, in front of the Starmind monastery. He’s wearing simple black robes, and is slightly dwarfed by Doofus, who is resting alertly alongside him.]
“In fact, one obstacle we have is that a lot of Humans simply don’t believe the Hierarchy exists. Why should they? You don’t have their claw-marks all over your history, your culture doesn’t bear the clear signs of their interference.”
“Well, the fact that you don’t have just the one ‘your culture’ for a start. Look at every other species in known space. We’re all rather…monolithic, culturally. Oh, certainly, you can point to subdivisions like my peoples’ Clans, the Great Houses of the Kwmbwrw, the Chehnash tribes…”
He waves a paw dismissively.
“Functionally, the differences are minor. No other species has your rich tapestry of recorded history. That was one of the things we found deeply odd about your people, on first contact: that your civilizational history was so well-recorded, and so short. Every other species had a long, slow climb to the stars. Yours?”
He flicks a paw upward and hisses a noise between his teeth that can best be represented as “schwoop!”
“Not just that, but the differences between humans of sufficiently divorced cultures can be incredible. The Five Eyes nations show some variation in language usage, manners, mannerisms, political leaning…but compare them to the Russian Federation. Or the People’s Republic of China. You tell me, Ava, do you think you have more in common with me, or with [Russian President] Dimitri Goncharov?”
I’ve never met him.
“I have. There’s no doubt you’re the same species, of course, but the difference is stark. It surprised the hell out of me. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that Humans all broadly share the same priorities and outlook, because of course I’m actually only familiar with quite a tiny slice of your species. Though, that would be an accurate and safe assumption with any other species.”
[Image: Gyotin and President Goncharov during the President’s visit to Folctha.]
“You, by luck, were left alone. Earth sits in an unpopulated backwater at the far end of the Border Stars, She escaped notice until, as far as we can tell, only about a hundred and fifty to two hundred years ago. You weren’t invisibly coerced into a unified world government. Your religions spread and evolved unmolested, the founding principles of your civilizations emerged organically. What the Hierarchy did to Humans, when they found you, was damage control.”
He looks sadly across at his monastery.
“Us? They sculpted us. All of us. We are, I fear, very much what they want us to be.”
The Great Father has given a number of speeches on that very topic. According to our best intelligence, the Gao were meant as a contingency control species, whose purpose was to serve as a contained adversarial pressure on the “substrate” species, in order to combat stagnation. To that end a great many things were done to their kind over the centuries. Please see our interactive feature for a more complete look at this tale.
“For example: Our gender imbalance, the very thing at the core of impending population collapse will also guarantee our quick recovery. Our intense loyalty and pack behavior. Our shortened lifespans, rapid maturity, long prime years and abrupt senescence. None of these are natural traits. They’re far too convenient. They’re exactly the traits you would invent if you were grooming a whole species toward a violent purpose.”
And now, as is the Great Father, your people are defined by that violence and aggression.
“…I suppose that’s true, from a certain point of view. For me, all this raises the question of what the others were for. Why are they as they are? If the traits bred into the Gao make us ideal for our role, what kind of role is benefited by docility, indecision and a tendency to bicker among themselves rather than unite against an obvious outside threat?”
I remind him that I’m here to interview him, not to answer questions. After a chittering apology, he explains.
“Livestock. That’s what most of the galaxy were bred to be. That’s how most of our fellow sophonts were kept. But the miracle of sapience is, once it becomes aware of new horizons, it reaches toward them. A cow will never see an eagle circle overhead and ask, ‘could I do that?’ Sapient beings are not livestock, and never can be as soon as they see that there’s an alternative.
Which is what the Hunters were purposed to contain.
“And my people as well. But, now things are different. We are aware of the deception, of our collective enemy. It is now inevitable we will deal with this travesty. They’ve lost already.”
How can you be sure?
[Image: Gyotin talking animatedly, waving his paws as he prowls around.]
“Because there’s no going back from here! What are they supposed to do, make all the species in the galaxy forget that Humans exist? Forget what we’ve seen, and what your people have inspired in us? That other deathworlders exist? They’d have to eradicate every civilization in the galaxy and start over, and they can’t do that, because they need us!”
“The question at this point is not whether we will destroy them. We already have. The question is whether we will survive their downfall.”
Do you think that’s unlikely?
“Cornered beasts, and all that. And who’s to say what gets crushed when an empire collapses? Especially one so old and so powerful as theirs. We have no option but to bring down the Hierarchy at this point, even though doing so could lead to incalculable misery. Indeed, will lead to incalculable misery, if nothing serves to replace the infrastructure they installed across the galaxy.”
He slows his pacing, strokes Doofus, then sits down next to the dog again.
“And then of course there’s the long term. What does a universe post-Hierarchy and post-Hunters look like? Right now there are only three known deathworld species. In a thousand years, what will a galaxy dominated by deathworlders look like? What of the non-deathworlders? What will they have to do to compete? What happens to the livestock when the ranchers are gone?”
One of Gyotin’s most prominent personality quirks is his propensity to answer questions with a barrage of deeper questions. He shakes his head.
“It would be a terrible mistake to assume that the Hierarchy’s influence on the universe has been an unadulterated negative. They have done terrible things, exterminated thousands of species, warped and sculpted others, and ruled this galaxy with an iron grip since…well, effectively forever. They have maintained a stable galaxy for their own selfish ends. But isn’t stability a good thing? Some amount of it, anyway. What kind of an unstable, terrible age might we usher in by felling them?”
Are you really worried by that?
He chitters and shakes his head.
“No. No, not really. But even when the established order is terrible, you destroy it at your peril. And never without fearing your own potential to replace it with something worse.”
[Image: Inside the Starmind monastery, Gyotin leads his brothers in meditation]
You asked what happens to the other species when the Hierarchy are gone. You didn’t mention what you think will happen to the Gao.
“Because I have no idea. This conflict has defined us, and will continue to define us until it is done. The moment when it’s over…that’s a singularity, to me. I can’t see past it. Maybe My Father can, but if so he’s never told me what he predicts. But that’s the nature of the future, I think. None of us ever see very far; our imaginations concern themselves with today, and tomorrow, and next week. I have no idea what’s coming for the Gao. Or for Humanity. Nobody does. We’ll see, I guess. The next generation will trouble themselves with the questions of their time, our generation will let go and wish them good luck, and life, in whatever form, will go on.”
He smiles at me, perking his ears up optimistically.
“I’m happy with that.”
Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Sharman, (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
What a strange new life he found himself living.
Ferd was pulled in two directions. There was the Debt, of course. The Giving to the Humans and Gao for the fact that the People were even still alive. That was a solemn, sacred duty all itself. But there was also the sacred duty of being a Given-Man. And it was hard to do both.
Tribes needed a Given-Man. They needed it so much that if they didn’t have one, the gods would Take usually the biggest and strongest redcrest of the tribe and Give him the Fire. That was a problem, because then what happened when the old Given-Man came back?
He would need to fight for his tribe, and fights between Given-Men were terrible Takings.
The Singers and the Lodge had stories about how they once warred for the smaller City People, who had much wisdom from the gods to make up for their softer, weaker bodies. They had learned many things on their own they had never Given to the Forest People, but they did Give when it suited their idea of the balance. The biggest Giving was the secret on how Given-Men could live apart from their tribes, for a time. It was easy, really. A Given-Man needed to make good friends with another Given-Man, and they needed to live very close together, share lands and even almost share villages. Then, they shared tribes, when one was away and the other was not.
So, for Ferd, his tribe was safely in Eb Given-Man’s hands. Which was good, because he’d been away long enough now that he was truly beginning to miss home. The food was good, the training satisfying, the learnings made his mind itch in the best way. The new tools—including properly fitting armor made the Sky-Tribe way—were good and strong, just right for his needs. He could stand outside a ship in it, look down from above the sky!
It had been beautiful. The gods had made a strange, wonderful world, and getting to really see it from far, far away had been…humbling? But also fun! Being weightless was strange. As was the idea that weight wasn’t the same thing as mass, which did not go away. That had been a fun day of training! Still, none of that was nearly as strange as when Baseball explained how gravity worked. Space and time were the same thing, and curved into each other!
He tried to explain the math too, but…Vemik said the math of moving things was called ‘calc you-luss’ and was a long way down the trail. Even he wasn’t there quite yet. So, that was okay. Maybe some day!
Ferd’s head was swimming with sky-thoughts these days. Sometimes, he wondered when Yan or Vemik might join a team, if for no other reason than to learn the biggest learnings.
And he had his Amy, when he was feeling itchy. Had her noodly little boyfriend, too! And when they were busy, or maybe wanted to be alone, there were enough other humans out there willing to fuck, he just had to take it slow and gentle with them.
Had to bite more carefully, too.
But! That was okay! He loved the humans, but not like he loved his own tribe, his own people. He might have felt a little bad about that but that was being silly; everyone loved their own kind the most, and that was natural and as the gods wanted it. As long as one kept good friends with their Sky-Friends, there was nothing wrong with that.
There was a big Taking, coming, though. And preparing for it was hard.
Take air, for instance. Ferd had needed to wear oxygen before, but the training they were doing now was in thinner, weaker air than ever before. Where they were going, he was told, the air was there enough to live without the mask…but not to fight. The Gao and the Humans needed oxygen too, but only the very biggest and scariest of them needed it as much as Ferd and his people.
Training for weak air was even more humbling than floating above the sky. Warhorse solved the problem by having very big lungs in his very big chest, but that was one of the strange ways the Humans were strongest; they could just go forever. For Ferd…it took lots of work.
Months, in fact. But he could do it. The People could be strong in the sky for their Sky-Friends.
Which was good, because the day when the training paid off and the Taking finally came was upon them. And this one…they all knew the details. They’d been told from the very start, and had planned and trained and planned some more ever since. This was a right Taking, a righting of wrongs.
Heff was there, in his own new armor, helping them suit up and double-checking everything to prevent deadly mistakes. He was more or less a man of the People himself these days, and as far as Ferd was concerned was a worthy leader to take over for Wild. Strong, good men.
Costello, though…Costello was stronger. He was HEAT. And if Ferd had learned one thing in the last few months, it was just how strong the HEAT really were, and why his people weren’t yet ready to be among them.
But they would be, one day. Until then, though…
He sat, and listened as the briefing began.
Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Sharman, (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Major Anthony Costello
The SOR was about to engage in its first-ever joint operation between HEAT and JETS, and its largest-ever combined op with the Royal Spaceborne Navy, the US Army, the US Navy, the US Space Force, the Clans of Gao…special operators from every service, select regulars as well…
It was a huge and complex amassment of forces, done very rapidly, and done very conspicuously as a final warning to the Kwbwrw Great Houses. Most of whom, gratifyingly, were conspicuously isolating Great House Henen.
Costello’s briefing was the many and varied special teams required for the op. He would be commanding HEAT, of course, but the full operational package was present for the brief, having had plenty of time to make friends. Including a long, expensive, wild weekend early on that was probably going to go down in history as Rooney’s most profitable night, despite the broken chairs (since replaced) and the broken pool table (…on order), and maybe a few broken hearts.
…And the broken dartboard. Ferd could throw things pretty hard.
Thank God Patrick Rooney was a jolly Irishman at heart, even if the closest to Ireland he’d ever been was Rhode Island. So long as the Lads paid for the damage, he was happy.
Once everyone got past the initial sizing-up phase of First Contact and established the all-important pecking order, they all got along like a house on fire, and that had made their month of combined-joint mission training move as smoothly as could possibly be hoped for.
And today, after all that training, all that briefing and all that preparation, finally, was go time. Just the final group briefing remained before their training became reality. Before they got into the meat of it, though…there was one small solemn, important, and absolutely hilarious duty Costello had to attend to.
“So before we begin, I would like to congratulate our assigned Airmen on, at last, their finalized transfer to the US Space Force…”
There were groans all around, and some good-natured cheering from those who represented other branches.
“…And on their new service traditions,” Costello finished smoothly. “Guardians, I salute you!”
‘Horse especially was not happy about that. Where Burgess and even Firth were taking it with a degree of good humor, Arés apparently had a particular bugbear in that word. Costello only spoke a little Spanish, but he got the gist of the stream of dark mutterings Horse growled from behind his titanic crossed arms.
“Don’t like it, ‘Horse?”
“It’s stupid!” He exploded. “I didn’t work my ass off to be what I am just so’s some nerds in sat-ops can LARP like they’re in a movie!”
“Big words from someone whose official job is as a Protector. Now you’re a Guardian Protector! I know I feel fuckin’ safe as shit.” Costello grinned at the chuckles from around the room. “Besides, aren’t you working on a double masters, ‘Horse? You’re hardly one to cast stones…”
“In exercise science! It’s a literal jock degree!”
“On top of a Masters of Nursing, and all the relevant certifications—”
“Okay, fine! But that’s just basically my job anyway!”
“You’re a nerd, ‘Horse. A nerd of muscle and guns and paramedicine. Fuckin’ own it.”
He grinned ruefully and shook his head, but also bounced his chest—which was a neat trick, as he had his full armor on—just to remind everyone who exactly the biggest meanest badass around was. Not that there was much confusion on that point, since the only two guys in the fuckin’ galaxy who could could even remotely compete with or humble him weren’t there.
Ah, the silliness of combat arms.
Ferd, still feeling jolly, hooted cheerfully and poked Arés with his tail. “Guardian and protector! Will you keep us safe from scary forest monsters, ‘Horse?”
“I will pop your head with my left bicep, if you ain’t careful…”
“I dunno,” Burgess nudged his friend. “I think ‘Guardian’ kinda fits. Paint you green, you’d do a good Drax impression.”
“I Am Groot,” Firth rumbled, and grinned hugely at Arés when the ‘shorter’ man glared at him. “You always were wrapped up in it all, and that’s good! But right now you’ve got a plastic shit-tube up your ass, more tubes in your arm and neck, you’re being squeezed half to death by a suit made out of ceramics and goo, and you’re about to jump from outer space on top of some poor fuck and ruin their fuckin’ day. Try to keep some perspective.”
“Speaking of which, sooner we get this briefing done, sooner we’re out of the suits again,” Costello said. “So, here, once again, is our target…” He called up the satellite footage and imagery pulled from House Henen’s own inside documentation. “This, gentlemen, is Mirw-Kwenek Wrrmthwemwnwn. For your purposes, ‘Eclipse Palace.’ It’s a big old galaxy and we’ve already seen some Big Dumb Objects floating around out there…”
And blown them up, he mentally added.
“…Well, turns out there’s a weird little tidally locked planet on the fringes of House Henen space where, millions of years ago, somebody put a fucking huge solar shade between it and the star. Whoever built it is long gone, but their terraforming work outlived them. That planet’s as dead as Mars, but the atmospheric pressure and oxygen levels are actually inside tolerable norms. There’s a spot right in the middle of the equatorial desert that is in permanent eclipse thanks to the solar shade, and House Henen, being drama queens, built a palace there. It is the Grandmatriarch’s sanctum sanctorum, her private retreat and, she believes, the safest place in all the galaxy.”
He looked around the room. “We’re going to prove her wrong.”
He let them consider the palace a moment longer. When he’d first heard about it, he’d imagined some cartoon villain castle of black obsidian in menacing spiky shapes, but the Kwmbwrw had disappointed, there. The palace was a skewed trio of vast single-span glass domes, collectively the only spot on the entire planet where anything grew—nocturnal plants, fungi and megalichen imported from all over the galaxy, all bioluminescent, all of them perfectly happy in the crepuscular lighting conditions.
The living quarters, kitchens, halls and all the other stuff that made it a palace ringed the edges of the garden domes, and covertly gathered information suggested the presence of a bunker network below the whole complex, not to mention a hefty supply of weapon systems both inside and out, including a fighter wing based a few miles away, and a number of heavy system pickets patrolling the sky above.
Henenwgwyr wasn’t totally wrong. It was a fortress. One to take damn seriously. But they’d assailed worse.
“House Henen has been experimenting on abducted Gaoian biodrones and converting them into sleeper agents with programmed personalities. Such agents are obviously an atrocity, but they’re also a major security threat. It’s likely that Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr will have significant intelligence relating to this operation available to her at all times; our primary mission is to secure said intelligence so we can put a stop to it. Our primary objective is Henenwgwyr herself, who you will have known as ADELLE.”
Costello didn’t quite understand that code name, but whatever.
“As a reminder, you will find the gravity noticeably lower—exactly as you’ve trained—and the air a bit thin, but again, that’s why you’ve been enjoying the hospitality of Mrs. Giovanni and her Warehouse of Torments this past month. Do we have any environmental questions before we brief the mission timeline?”
Ferd and Genn raised their hands simultaneously, then contrived via MonkeyGrunt for Ferd to ask on behalf of them both. “Did we re-think about ocks-e-gen tanks? The warehouse training show us, we will use them up very quick. Very small safety margin…”
“We’ve sourced much higher-pressure tanks from Hephaestus which have an identical regulator to the one that you’ve been training with. Sorry it took so long, but they had to be manufactured and tested…”
“Yes. Your wrist computers are updated accordingly, you should have another forty minutes of go-time before you need to take it easy. So…nice fat margin. Does that answer the question?”
Ferd grunted in acknowledgement.
Costello dismissed the familiar map of the palace and called up his next slide, a closer, tighter shot with a couple of items highlighted. “The sequence of operations is as follows. Firstly, Clan Whitecrest will be performing a stealth insertion along with JETS Team Two, using ‘Silent but Deadly’ and ‘Drunker on Turkeyer’—yes, I know, save the giggles for later—as their rides. Their immediate objective will be the rapid neutralization of surveillance elements located here, and here. Most of that work will be done by Whitecrest; Team Two is mostly along for the ride, as they are the lead on ADELLE.
“Once surveillance is in place, and Team Two signals readiness, we will insert the HEAT. Their immediate objectives will be to neutralize planetary defenses, including a small Farthrow generator that our intel shows was rather hastily installed on the surface. Once that is down, they will construct a jump array, and the balance of our teams will portal through to obtain control of the installation as fast as is possible. JETS Team Two will be available for use after they have achieved their objective.
“Simultaneous to HEAT’s insertion, our naval assets will begin their campaign. As that’s a little beyond our scope here, I will not brief it in detail. Suffice to say, their job is to smash shit, cover our sky, and provide ‘close air support’ as necessary. During that, the balance of forces will be interested in securing the site and the planet, and doing so as fast as is possible.” Costello looked around the room. “As you are well aware, this is an unusual mission. It sits somewhere between direct action and an invasion. Time is our most precious element; we need to be done and gone before the rest of the Houses feel compelled to respond. So, once ADELLE is secure, the palace is cleaned out and the intelligence recovered, we’re leaving. Given the sheer size of this op that will be a bit of a challenge, but the 75th will be humping in their own arrays, and of course First Fang’s got some big strong ‘Backs to help. It’ll be all hands to get the fuck outta Dodge when the signal’s given.
“So,” Costello concluded. “This is the ultimate coalition smash-and-grab. It’s one for the history books. Three species, multiple armed forces, the culmination of the last ten years of training and development. We’re going in the history books for this one.”
Fierce energy was universal. Human, Gao and Ten’Gewek alike traded grimly eager looks. Some of the strongest beings in the universe rubbed shoulders with much more modest and far colder, far quieter professionals, but one thing was clear: they were absolutely ready for this.
“So: final checks, slam some food down. In an hour, we stack bodies like cordwood.”
That applied to him, too. HEAT life was eat life, as the new kid, Thompson, had put it. There was only one good way to get energy into a living body after all, so…food. High-density performance food, designed to power, not satisfy.
Except it did satisfy, in a completely different way. By the time everyone had eaten their assigned meals, the first of that energy hit everyone’s bloodstream, HEAT operators or otherwise. They were all amping up and ready to tear through the walls.
They had a mission to do. And it was time.
Date Point: 18y2m AV
Starship Destroying Fury, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
It hurt, not going into this himself. Daar had always been the kind of leader to wield the knife himself. But this time…
A head of state directly invading to punish the Grandmatriarch of a Great House? That woulda been a step too far for what was theoretically a limited operation. Much as he woulda wished it was otherwise, for the sake of the Gao, he had to sit this one out.
But he could damn well send ‘em off.
From the bridge of the Destroying Fury, he could see them all in tight formation, close enough for the naked eye. From the humans came the V-class Destroyers, plus USS Hammer and USS Fargo. HMS Caledonia and HMS Myrmidon, theSan Diego, the Gene Roddenberry, the Robert A. Heinlein, and their new fourth sibling, the USS Apollo.
The Gaoian force was no less impressive. The Destroying Fury, as his personal flagship, could not be present, but there were two others to take her place: the Vengeful Fury, and the Avenging Rage. Alongside them, a whole squadron of Clan One-Fang’s finest, spearheaded by the Charging Blaze and commanded by Fleetfather Neemi aboard the Scorching Claw.
Flitting between them, flights of Voidrippers—they were all feeling the loss of the Firebirds, whose presence would have really rounded this thing out—plus the sleek, almost invisible darts that were Silent But Deadly and his beloved Drunker on Turkeyer.
It was a hell of a sight. Black masses on a black background, visible only by the way they blotted out the stars or were silhouetted against Cimbrean. Not the biggest fleet ever formed by a long way, but if Daar even could meaningfully be a bettin’ man any longer, he woulda bet on this fleet and the men it was carrying to take on almost anything.
This wasn’t a speech-giving occasion. This was too necessary a moment for that. They were righting a wrong, not rocking the world. But he owed it to them to observe, to send them into battle personally even if he couldn’t lead them.
So he stood on his flagship’s bridge, listened to the command chatter, and, in silence, he watched until they’d all flashed black, and were gone.
And with that duty done, he gave a nod to the Fury’s navigator. They had their own rendezvous to make.
It was time to address the Council.
++END CHAPTER 70++
MORE BY THE AUTHOR
Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.
When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…
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The Deathworlders chapter 70 will continue in part 3