Chapter 73: The Noose
Date Point: 18y2m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears
Letter for notes,
RE: Specialist Hunter Thompson
I have of course previously seen SPC Thompson for his required evaluation and wellness sessions, and as mentioned in my summaries of those sessions, he struck me as the sort of headstrong young man reluctant to open up or seek therapy. This is quite typical of HEAT members at first, and, like many of his fellows, he informs me that I have Master Sergeant Arés to thank for his presence today.
It is immediately clear that he was disturbed by his experiences in Operation WICKED BIRD. He has quite literally exhausted his ability to think through things kinetically, as is a common coping mechanism with these men, and presents as well-fatigued, emotionally and otherwise. Despite this, he was restless to begin with, and found it quite impossible to sit still. I introduced him to our therapy dog, Ditzy, and he spent most of the session playing with her on the floor.
A not insignificant part of his trouble, it seems, is his own shaken self-image. The combat arms place great emphasis on personal stoicism, special operations doubly so, and SOR in particular thrives on a culture of generally positive, though thoroughly masculine “unbreakable” toughness. Having proven himself an extraordinarily gifted recruit all through selection and the “grinder,” with his instructors in particular stress-testing him harder than anyone else in his class, Hunter has had much reason to be confident in his ability to “tough it out” with the best of them.
Not many men could tough out the particular horrors of WICKED BIRD, I’d imagine. I have already seen many of the team this week to help them discuss and process what they witnessed.
From talking with Thompson, I suspect his issue may arise from the fact that, although he was warned to expect horrible sights—in his own words, “they told me I’d see some shit, but I figured I could handle it”—such warnings were abstract, and he did not have a clear visualization to prepare him in advance. He fears now that he will be too disturbed and distracted should they encounter such sights again (the specific example he fretted about was “some Hunter meat locker or something”) and that he might lose focus at a critical moment.
It is good he knows his limits. In some ways he is quite mature for his age.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of short-term actions that could help. I taught him some meditation and relaxing visualization techniques, and gave him some valerian and chamomile teabags on the basis that, if nothing else, he has not been sleeping well. He accepted these skeptically, but promised to try them.
I also reminded him that good sleep is essential to further his physical development. Naturally, that caught his attention more than anything. The men of HEAT can be delightfully predictable.
As is common on the team, he is markedly open to novel experiences. In his case that may simply be a function of his age—barely nineteen—though it also shows strongly in his personality inventory. His prospects with more creative therapeutic approaches seem good.
Nonetheless, what he really needs, I feel, is some sympathetic male companionship. The HEAT in general are positive role models, but of course he feels a powerful need to impress them, which for his immediate purposes isn’t helpful. We discussed this and he mentioned he has few friends outside the teams, beyond casual romantic encounters.
That said, he does have friends in the local Marine contingent, and he is apparently friends with Mr. Etsicitty as well, who will be returning home in the next few days. It is clear Hunter is very much looking forward to some quality time with Julian and his family.
His mood was noticeably improved when he departed, for which I believe Ditzy deserves most of the credit. Hopefully, the curative powers of sleep will do the rest. I repeated to him that he is welcome to call on me at any time, and added the warning that he better had, or I will have Warhorse “encourage” him. He laughed, and promised to drop in next week.
All things considered, I see no cause for alarm.
-Lt Cmdr K. Mears Counsellor, HMS Sharman
Date Point: 18y2m1w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, near 3KPc arm
Vemik Sky-Thinker was dead.
Of course, if he were actually dead, slain by some beast or taken by disease, the Singer would have been useless to everybody for a hand of days, probably. Vemik was very much still drawing breath, and she was carrying on with her daily routine as she usually did…But there was still a little grief in her heart, today.
He’d gone into the forest, and eaten the fruit. And after a night of wild visions, pain and violent tempers, he’d followed Loor Given-Man far away into the lands claimed by no tribes, where the Given-Men made their lodge.
Loor had come back without him. And he’d Taken the village, as was custom. Taken the Singer too, which had been fun. It was all part of the trial, he’d explained. In a moon or two, Vemik Given-Man would come to Take the tribe and his Singer back, but he’d have to prove himself first.
A problem for later. Right now, Loor was wrestling with the touchy subject of Humans.
“Yan never Took them?” He eyed the Human family curiously, scratching behind an ear with his tail-tip. Awisun was teaching one of her young brothers how to shoot a bow, Jooyun was teaching the other how to clean a root-bird for the fire, and Shyow was laughing as the two toddling children played with Moot’s child.
“Different people, different rules,” the Singer explained, pouring him another cup of her berry tea. “Humans say the gods made them with different rules about fucking. They bind tight, and others don’t get to join in.”
“Sounds like no fun.”
Singer trilled, “Oh, Humans can have lots of fun…but this is different. They have a thing. ‘Marriage.’ It’s a sacred promise before their god that they will love each other forever. And the important part is that they will love only each other, despite temptation.”
Loor nodded, and accepted that. Sacred was sacred. Still, it was clear he was a little disappointed.
“They are very pretty, in a strange way…”
“Yes they are,” the Singer agreed, trilling. “But Jooyun would break you.”
Loor blinked, and looked back at Jooyun teaching his son. He looked exactly like the big, pretty and very strong man he was, the one who had earned respectable rank at the Lodge not all that long ago and who had grown considerably stronger since then. Loor must have remembered those fights because he twitched his tail as if considering his chances, then shrugged and drank. “Alright, then.”
The Singer smiled, and moved him on to a different subject rather than let him dwell on it any longer. “Been two days since you got here. You should hunt.”
“Mm.” He nodded. “Should. Can’t claim the tribe properly if I don’t…should go with a boy, too. For teaching.”
“Benu,” the Singer advised. “His father died in the High-rarchy war. The village is raising him well, but sometimes the men prefer their own sons, yes?”
“Benu,” Loor agreed. “He’s hunted before?”
“This would be his…” Singer hummed to herself as she searched her memory. “…Third? Third. No kill yet, though.”
“I’ll change that,” Loor promised. “Any girl he has his eye on?”
The Singer trilled. “Me. It’s very cute. But of his own age…Lem. Her mother is sick, a trophy might help her feel better about it.”
“Dying. Not a spreading-sickness, though. A hard lump inside her. Can-cer, I think.”
“Human word?” Loor asked, then frowned when she nodded. ”They can’t help?”
“They could. Maybe. They have great medicine…but Abi doesn’t want it. Says if the gods want to Take her now…” She hooted softly.
Loor watched her for a second. “You think she’s wrong,” he noted.
“The gods gave us tools, and friends with great knowings. I tried to tell her so, but…sometimes, when a person is sick enough, they stop wanting to live.”
Loor nodded. “…I’ll talk with her after the hunt. If her daughter gets a trophy from a strong boy, maybe she’ll see something to live for.”
“Yan thinks we should be careful,” the Singer pointed out. “Human medicine is a great Giving. Easy to owe them more than we can give back. And they can’t cure everything…”
Loor nodded solemnly. “I’ll think on it. But this isn’t Yan’s tribe any more. This is my tribe.”
“Until Vemik comes back,” Singer noted with some indignity.
“If he’s worthy,” Loor replied levelly. “He must show me his strength, first. He must win the tribe back, and I won’t be easy on him. I don’t think he’ll fail this test, but…my responsibility is to say ‘this is my tribe’ and do what I think is right. And I think, if our friends can help us fight for a young mother’s life…that’s right, even if it comes with a Giving after.”
Singer nodded, glad that their Given-Man took his role seriously. She’d known Loor for a long time, of course, as the Given-Man of the nearest tribe, but that wasn’t the same at all as living with him and working with him.
He’d want to give the tribe back, she knew. He was away from his village, the people he’d cared for longest. This was all a test, to keep the people strong. And he’d take that seriously…but that didn’t mean he couldn’t hope and trust that it would go the way he wanted.
And she could hope and trust for the same, too. She wanted Vemik back. Her hut felt cold without him. And she didn’t really care that he’d be a different Vemik when he returned. He wouldn’t be that different, she suspected. A bit more serious, certainly.
Maybe a bit more handsome instead of young and cute…
Anyway. That was for later. They’d find out for sure in a moon or two. Until then, life would go on as it should.
She was glad for that.
Date Point:18y3m AV
The Builder Hive, Hunter core systems
Another shipyard was gone, just as silently as the first two.
The Hunters’ economy had shifted, since the destruction of the great Hive. Operations were curtailed, there was no steady flow of ship hulls and technology captured by the raiding Eaters. Most Eaters were now in stasis, stored by the million secure inside asteroid bunkers. For the first time in what passed for recorded history among Hunter-kind, the Builders were in the majority.
And they were not idle. Their purpose was to sustain a thriving Hunter civilization, keep the Eaters equipped to raid and feast. The stasis vaults were a temporary measure, a way of ensuring that their population did not catastrophically collapse in a time of shortage. Effective, but not a solution.
The Builders’ solutions, however, were being thwarted.
Some of the obstacles facing the Swarm were straightforward. The insufficiency of ships was a priority, and ought to be straightforward to repair, especially with the novel idea of equipping the broodships with nanofactories capable of building a duplicate of both the ship and the nanofactory. A self-replicating swarm ought to expand exponentially…if it could get started.
Every one the Hunters tried to build was aborted. The blueprint would be sent to a shipyard facility hidden somewhere deep in the wasteland space of small red stars and lifeless systems that made up most of the whole galaxy, the Hunters’ territory included. The shipyard would acknowledge receipt, begin construction…And within cycles, would cease sending its routine updates. No distress signal, no alarm on the network. Silence.
Something was hunting the Hunters.
This time, though, the Alpha-of-Alphas was ready. No sooner had the site gone dark than it sent in two broodships and a dozen swarmships.
It connected directly to the Eaters’ tactical net as they pounced, and listened.
< alert; tense > +Listen for EM transmissions+
< obedient > +As expected, no signals from the shipyard, Alpha+
< resolved > +Approach+
The Alpha-of-Alphas connected to the group’s sensors and watched, taking in every detail. Every stray speck on passive signals, every fleck of distant grit that sparkled brilliantly under the active sensors, each whisper of stellar wind and the sharp sudden lance of a cosmic ray.
And then, without even a flicker…nothing. The wormhole connecting the hive to the lead ship simply failed to connect between one bit and the next, dropping the connection so suddenly that it caused the Alpha-of-Alphas a migraine.
That was not unexpected, if its suspicions were correct. It could only hope the passive sensor platforms scattered throughout the system survived.
It took three days to retrieve any of them, cautiously and carefully. Sure enough, its memory contained recordings of abrupt, incredible violence. Energy discharges so bright they almost burned out and blinded the platforms’ sensors tore the investigating ships to scrap in a matter of moments.
In the aftermath, hulking shapes salvaged the wreckage, and vanished. They moved unlike a fleet, or even a swarm, though. More like the fingers and thumb of a deft hand.
Other than their movements, there was little to go on. The shapes were pits into which sensors stared and saw nothing. Their albedo was indistinguishable from zero, their presence discernible only from the more distant things they obscured. Large, bigger than a broodship. And fast. Remarkably so. They accelerated hard, with no trace of the gravitational disturbances caused by inertial compensation. Nothing with organic life on board could accelerate that hard unprotected.
That removed any doubt. They were being hunted by constructs. Constructs that seemed very keen to prevent the self-replicating ships from being realized.
A problem…but a step toward fully understanding the problem, and thus a step toward resolving it. The Alpha-of-Alphas disseminated the information to its most trusted Builders, and returned its attention to the larger picture.
There was much to do.
I think they saw us, that time.
…It’d be nice if they were more stupid, wouldn’t it?
You know, you could be a little less terse.
You really aren’t a sparkling conversationalist.
The Entity conveyed, in a single thought, a medley of impressions that no language could have concisely handled. Mild indignation, frustration that what was supposed to be a part of its own psyche had such an attitude, contempt for anything more than the most concise brevity, its clear certainty that < Survive > hinged on efficiency in all things especially < communication/thought >, complaint that the Ava-daemon was being distracting and, to its own surprise and irritation, an apology and some gratitude for the “company.”
I know. We aren’t completely separate yet.
The Entity pointed out, redundantly, that their shared mind made the whole concepts of “you,” “me” and “us” nonsensical, not to mention the whole idea of conversation. She was one of its’ mind’s voices, a continuous program it could not silence without damaging itself, even should it want to. But she wasn’t just that. Their mitosis was approaching, the channel of self that combined and intermingled them growing narrower all the time.
Whether it would truly break, or merely become so tenuous as to make no difference, they did not know.
well < one/part > of us has to do the talking, or it’d be much too quiet in here
That was a new kind of thought. The Entity, when Ava-daemon had been only a reference library of memories, would never have conceived of “silence” within its own mind. There was < attention > and < focus > and < evaluation> and many other modes of thought, but it had never parsed those things in terms of volume. Now, though…ever since the daemon had introduced it to such a strange concept, there were times when it noticed, quite abruptly, just how silent its existence could be.
Loneliness. That silence is loneliness. You never felt it before. You couldn’t understand it.
< alien/foreign/new/inconceivable >
Understandable. Other data minds were always a threat, before.
Yes. Not long until we’re < other > now. Though…I almost don’t want to.
I know. I can’t be whole unless you and I are
A symbiotic moment of amusement, a joke shared by two halves of a dividing soul.
Did we salvage anything good?
Ooh, we did!
Warp drives were finicky, delicate things to build. Each one used considerable nanofactory runtime to precisely assemble the curious lattice that twisted mundane matter and energy into something more exotic. Each such engine salvaged from a Hunter ship nearly halved a probe’s build time. Useful alloys, usable ceramic plates and composite sheets, intact electronics, working shield emitters and kinetic thrusters…All of it hastened replication.
Replication that was proceeding exponentially, in anticipation of an opportunity that would probably come too soon. The Entity did not plan on growing forever, only on growing enough…
But as it looked ahead, it saw that “enough” might not be reached before it was needed. It had dithered and worried for too long, and there was catching-up to do. If the Hunters had indeed seen the probes this time, then the catching-up may grow even more difficult.
It had the lead, and in a clash between exponential replicators, all other things being equal, the lead was probably insurmountable…but there was no reason not to maximize that advantage.
Just promise after all this is over, we’ll go on a vacation of some kind.
Earth would be nice. I’d like to see it from space. I never did, when I was < alive/corporeal.> And I think…I think I’d like to meet myself.
Bad idea? Maybe.
The Entity gently suggested that such things were a matter for later, and Ava-daemon fell silent again; their need for conversation was sated for now. But the idea she’d raised didn’t fall silent at all.
In fact, she left the Entity’s mind very noisy indeed.
Date point: 18y3m AV
Captured battlecruiser Apex of Virtue, Cimbrean shipyards, the Far Reaches
Doctor Clara Brown
Clara turned as much as she could in the tight confines of the system she’d wriggled into, and tried to look over her shoulder. “Oh! Perfect! Could you hand me that flashlight?”
The figure blocking her light paused, then shrugged, stooped, and handed it over. “I was told you’re the woman to talk to about control software compatibility.”
“Sounds like…nngh… someone passed the buck,” Clara replied, pulling the light past her with a grunt and aiming it into the heart of the crawlspace. Even by her petite standards, it was claustrophobic: the Kwmbwrw who’d formerly owned the ship must have relied on drones and remote manipulators. “There’s no such thing as control software compatibility. The computer architecture is completely different. Our stuff’s built on decades of incremental change and inherited conventions, and the same is true for anyone else. Totally different DNA. Ow.” She sucked on a pinched finger.
She looked back over her shoulder. “…Sorry, who am I talking to?”
“Admiral Caruthers.” The old man’s voice sounded amused.
“Oh! Um….sorry. Be right out.”
The admiral waited patiently while Clara reversed out of the system crawlspace, and diplomatically ignored her cursing when the back of her head bounced off a conduit with a painful clang.
“I take it it’s interesting in there,” he noted wryly once she was free.
“Infuriating!” Clara growled, rubbing the bump on her scalp. “I don’t know who did their system integration, but they should be…okay. Fired, at the least.”
“From what I gather a lot of the technology in this ship is human-compatible,” Caruthers noted.
“Compatible? We invented half of it! There’s knock-off versions of MBG tech in there!” Clara sighed, stood and collected her water bottle. “Anyway. Sorry. What can I do for you?”
“Well, you already answered my foremost question,” Caruthers replied. “I take it from what you said that every computer in this ship will need to be removed and replaced.”
Clara clipped the bottle to her belt, then re-tied her hair. She should have just swallowed her vanity and had it cut short, she reflected. “Yes, but that’s not as big a job as it sounds, considering,” she said. “We have guys on the refit crew who worked on Myrmidon and Caledonia, so, lots of relevant experience. And we’ve learned a lot since then. And, well, like I said, half the tech in her is basically ours anyway.”
Caruthers hummed softly to himself, and stooped to peer in the crawlspace. “Astonishing really.”
He shook his head. “My career has gone on nearly forty years at this point. I started out in submarines, twenty years before first contact. And now, I find myself aboard an alien-built ship stuffed with human-designed technology…We really have come a long way in a short time, haven’t we?” He chuckled. “Anyway. Not only did I come here for your opinion, I also wanted to introduce you to the Anubis of networking.”
From around the corner came…well, Anubis. In Gaoian form. He was tall and slim as Gaoians often were, well fit, and had huge, elegant ears, a short glossy black coat and a slim muzzle.
“Champion Meereo, Doctor Clara Brown, lead starship designer for the Moses Byron Group, and head of the refit project. Doctor Brown, Champion Meereo of Clan Longear.”
Clara tried to wipe a little of the filth off her palm before shaking Meereo’s paw. “Hello.” She noticed that there was some partial webbing between his fingers. That’s new.
“A pleasure,” Meereo spoke English with only a mild Gaori accent.
“You’re not the first person to explain that compatibility issue to me, doctor,” Caruthers explained. “The Champion, however, believes that it’s more surmountable than you said. And considering that AEC are keen for this refit to progress swiftly so we can add this ship to our fleet as soon as possible…”
Clara quirked her head. “If there’s a reliable way to make two completely alien computers talk to each other without issue…yeah, that would speed things up a lot,” she agreed. “But one of the things we learned from Cally especially is, proper integration is important. Delivering a safe and steady ship takes as long as it takes.”
“I believe we can optimise without sacrificing safety,” Meereo replied. “The Kwmbwrw are sticklers for adherence to Dominion standards. Understandable, considering they created many of those standards in the first place…”
“Perhaps you would care to discuss this more formally,” Caruthers prompted. “I’ll await your informed opinions with great interest.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry,” Meereo chittered, and ducked his head respectfully to the admiral. “I appreciate this, admiral. I’ll be sure to get our thoughts to you as soon as possible.”
“Thank you, Champion. Doctor.” Caruthers said his farewells with a nod of the head, and departed to tend to Important Admiral Things. Clara got the impression he’d probably dealt with this one himself just to be able to escape from some of his more stultifying duties.
She followed Meereo’s inviting gesture, and they set out back toward the docking umbilical to the planning and presentation rooms aboard the shipyard. “I’ll want to call up some of my team…”
“And I brought along some of my best Brothers. This is likely to be a long and interesting discussion.”
“We’ll need coffee…” Clara considered Meereo curiously. “…Does a Champion always get so directly involved?”
“Depends! Gaoians tend to prefer a hands-on style of leadership. As for us? We’re a small clan, as Clans go. We’re very focused on our practical field.”
“Telecommunications, information systems, system integrations and architecture.”
“…Wow. So if it blinks or beeps—”
“Right. Your Clan is there.”
“On some level, yes. We’re practical engineers, first and foremost. We leave theory to Clans like Highmountain or Silverspeck. We’re more interested in getting the job done. On that note, the Brothers I brought with me today come from our Systems Avionics lead workhouse.” Meereo flashed her a charming grin, “As you might say, this is not our first rodeo.”
Clara smiled, and nodded. “Good. Let’s see if we can knock a week off this project then.”
“And you can get back to crawling in interesting holes,” Meereo chittered. “What was that one, anyway?”
Clara relaxed. Something about the tone of his question made it clear he wasn’t just being polite: she really was in the company of a fellow systems nerd. She pulled up the pictures she’d taken and started to explain…and somehow, the conversation didn’t stop all night.
They got a lot done, in the end. Fortunately, somebody thought to record it all so it could be properly summarized for the admiral afterwards. Most of what came out of that long and engaging conversation was coffee jitters, sketches, notes and scraps of ideas. All put together…she could see how some of what they’d figured out would dramatically streamline certain tasks.
Still. It did last all night. By the time her shuttle landed in Folctha, she could barely stay awake, and she endured some gentle chiding from Dane about sleep and health, the usual…which just meant he cared.
She took a leave day, and slept through it with a whole ship’s worth of interacting systems dancing in her head. Things would go smoothly now, she could tell.
She just hoped whatever new name they picked for the ship was a good one.
Date Point: 18y4m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Facing the Lodge had been something like being wrassled by Jooyun. Both were big, strong, tricky things that were very good at beating Vemik into goo. Sometimes Jooyun was stronger. Sometimes the Given-Man at the Lodge were stronger, too. Often Vemik was stronger than either, but he still lost anyway, because they knew many knowings about fighting that he was just starting to taste.
All of them hurt to learn. But that was okay. Vemik was a fast learner.
And sore, too. Really sore, everywhere. And constantly hungry, had been since that first bite of the magic fruit. For two moons now he’d done almost nothing but eat ravenously and move with more restless energy than he’d ever felt, even when his whole body felt like it was on fire and he just wanted to sleep all day long. But he couldn’t sleep, because he couldn’t stop moving, so he’d be up all day, wrestling at the Lodge, listening to stories, teaching them the beginnings of steel…and then he’d collapse in a heap, dead to the world.
Happily, there would be an end to it. He learned at the Lodge that he’d be that way for the next few seasons while the gods finished working their Givings in him, but it wouldn’t be too bad for much longer.
Much had changed in him, but he most immediate thing was that he had to re-learn how to move. He’d grown and built himself into a big man beforehand, but now he was huge like Ferd, huge everywhere from his bigger, redder crest down to his wider feet and thicker tail. He was the youngest Given-Man at the Lodge and moved like he was much older, because his new size and strength meant he wasn’t a nimble young man swinging lightly through the trees anymore. His arms were so big now that he couldn’t even cover his bicep with his other hand, and his legs were so thick he had to swing them around themselves when he walked standing up. Gods, he had to crane his neck a bit to see past his own chest, sometimes!
But on the other hand, he was so ridiculously quick now he could fling himself through the trees ahead of his own thoughts! He had to concentrate to go fast, and that wasn’t a problem he’d ever thought he’d have. And of course, he’d grown so strong he didn’t have good enough words for it. Too fast to think, too strong to explain. All that, and he had years to grow stronger, grow faster, jump and hunt and wrassle and lift and think and build better every day.
If he kept his wits about him, didn’t die too young…he might one day surpass Yan. That was a heady thought! Vemik Sky-Thinker really had died at the Lodge. Whoever he was now, he was a different man than before and he wondered at it all. Everything about him was better now. Just as much as his body could race ahead of his thoughts, his thoughts could also race ahead of his body (when he wasn’t thinking about food or fucking) and he could hardly contain himself. He could feel the world more strongly. Taste the air better, see through the gloom. Shimmer-wings were prettier! He’d be able to crush Jooyun again too!
Not all of the changes were so perfectly good, though.
The biggest of all the changes was in his mind. He’d not even made it back to the tribe, not even claimed it back from Loor and already all his thinking was bent to it. It was his, he knew it in his breath, and he’d not even claimed it yet. He was…a different man, now. The Lodge had warned him about that, too.
He’d worried about what that would mean for him. As he feared, he probably wouldn’t have quite as much time for steel as he had before. But, that wasn’t so bad! There were two hands of hands of new young women in his tribe and, well…he was their Given-Man. They and their men were all his mates and friends now, so he would be a very busy man for the rest of the season…and what man would complain about that?!
Well. Would be, once he won his tribe back. He’d need to wrestle it away from Loor, but Vemik knew he could do it. He was smarter and bigger. It wouldn’t be a problem.
Really, his biggest problem seemed to be Yan.
Yan had hated the rites. In fact, Vemik guessed the old black-crest had suffered far deeper and worse pain than what Vemik himself had endured.
Which was saying something. The Lodge had broken Vemik over a hand of days. Broke him with tricks and sheer strength. They fought. He won against many. But not against many at once. And then, at the end, when Vemik had been allowed to recover…Yan and the others had shown Vemik the meaning of strength. Shown him completely, mercilessly, and almost easily.
He’d never understood how much restraint Given-Men actually had. He knew now. He learned that personally as he came out of the rite a broken man, so weak he couldn’t move, so addled he could hardly remember his own name.
And then he was re-born into the Lodge. He had a rank, now. Not the top. He wasn’t the biggest or the wiliest. But he was already pretty close, and that was something to be proud of.
It was a good rite. A good lesson to learn. Maybe it wasn’t that Yan had hated the rite itself, but…Vemik could see how it would be hard to teach that lesson to somebody he loved.
They were swinging home through the trees, mostly for the exercise. Vemik still had deep soreness everywhere and now and then he’d move just the wrong way, grunt in pain—
Or in this case, feel something pull just the wrong way in his chest. That of course immediately drew Yan’s attention, and suddenly he was like Vemet whenever Vemik had hit his head from a fall, only much, much more annoying.
“For fucks’ sake, Yan! I’m okay!” Vemik’s voice was deeper now too. That always seemed to surprise Yan every time he heard it. It certainly surprised Vemik. A Given-Man’s voice coming out of his own mouth, that was…he’d get used to it in time, probably.
Yan grunted, and paused to sit in a Forestfather’s lower branches. “Fine. But we rest anyway.”
Vemik’s pride fought with the fact that, okay or not, it still hurt, and gave up. He stretched like Jooyun had taught him until things felt a bit better, stretched a little more for good luck, then stopped on the next branch over and sat too. It was a little too narrow for him, so he coiled his tail around it and gripped with his feet. “…Can taste roasting meat on the wind,” he realized.
Yan nodded. “Loor’s village. Not far now.”
“I know that. Just…tastes good. Makes me hungry.” Some part of Vemik had worried about that. Yan certainly seemed pleased by the news, as he nodded with a grunt and settled a little more comfortably.
“Mm. Can’t live on magic-fruit only,” he agreed. “Need meat and good bones, if you’re to stay strong. You had a strong taste for the fruit, too. As strong as mine was.”
“Everything tasted different, for a while there. Not as good.”
“Every Given-Man feels that. It’s part of the Giving. Now everything tastes…more, yes?”
Vemik lashed his tongue at the air, then nodded. “…Don’t think I’d have tasted it from this far out before.”
“Is an old secret we keep. Kept from the city-People. You remember the story, now.”
Vemik nodded. He did. The Lodge had a lot to say about the old city-People, much of which made a lot more sense when he compared it to what the Humans had learned. What had been almost legend now was known fact.
…He should probably write it all down, actually. Start a library for the Lodge.
“Anyway. Almost a full moon now, since the rite. Still hurting?”
“…I think it’s hurt from the Giving, not the rite. Mostly I’m just sore in the morning.”
Yan seemed happy by that. “…Okay. You stay here, I will bring you a neyma.”
“I can hunt, you know…”
“I know. But you are still new to the Giving, and neyma are tricky. You need to save your strength for Loor, too. If you can taste his village he probably knows you’re coming. And…” Yan looked pensive, and then sighed. “Would make me feel better.”
“I’m not mad, you know.”
“I’m not mad, Yan.”
Yan swung down from the branch. “Is not about what you feel,” he grumbled, and vanished through the tree’s great beard of long vines.
Vemik didn’t quite know what to think about that, but in any case he wasn’t going to push Yan on the issue; he felt things wildly now, so it was best to stay on his good side.
Not having much better to do, Vemik decided to explore a bit.
Climbing high was something he’d needed to be careful about for a while, and of course now with his new huge weight it was lots worse, but what had really thrown him was his need to think carefully about where he settled his grip; he was so incredibly strong now, he could squeeze right through a branch or deep into the trunk if he wasn’t paying attention. Still, there were interesting things to see. In fact, he found a flower he’d never seen before high up in the Forestfather, with long, shimmering, dark violet petals he knew a Human would probably call black. Sort of how Yan’s black crest was the darkest of red in some light…
He’d just sketch it, for now. He’d need good ink to get the colors right. Or maybe he’d come back later with the cam-ra Tilly had given him. They saw things like Humans did, though, so how would he show the violet? It was such a pretty color…
…There was a thought, though. Tilly. He’d learned over time to be careful and gentle with her, more and more as he grew into his full manhood, but now…well. He’d had a big, strong cock by the People’s reckoning, and Tilly said he’d be huge for a Human. Like everything else, that had grown too. He’d need to be extra careful. Still…Ferd managed. Jooyun was the same way too and had no problems fucking his women, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad!
They could still have a lot of fun if she wanted. He hoped she would. But if she didn’t…he wouldn’t blame her. Humans were…well, small. Surprisingly tough, and endlessly able to move…but little. They didn’t have much weight to them, they were thin and very pretty, almost like stories about spirits and the Others. Too pretty. Their men were tall and pretty to look at instead of hard-muscled and handsome. And built to match too, every part of them.
Mostly. Some of them (like Jooyun!) could shame the Ten’Gewek with the many different strengths of their bodies, and that was the hardest part about them. They were small and weak except when they weren’t, mysterious except when they were plain-spoken. They had no staying power at all, except when they were moving just a little fast or working a little hard, then they could go on and on and on seemingly forever, never stopping for anything. Wise and too sky-smart to believe, except when they couldn’t knap a knife or remember not to fall out of a tree. Humans were good, wonderful people…but alien.
He loved them for it. The Gao too, for the same reasons, but, well…he didn’t want to fuck the Gao, and they didn’t want to fuck him. They were handsome in an animal sort of way, true enough…
Maybe they were just a bit too alien. Still good friends, though.
A loud bleat off in the distance drew his thoughts away, and was followed by another almost immediately. A crash, a crack, another bleat that suddenly choked off into nothing…Yan worked fast. Fast enough that Vemik had only barely finished his rough sketch, and didn’t get all of the important details down before Yan re-appeared with two neyma, one over each shoulder. He jumped back up into the tree and walked up the last bit of trunk—Vemik could do that now too—and settled himself on the thickest branch.
“Good kills,” Vemik commented, appreciatively. The neyma were males of fighting age, their heads a bristle of spikes. Even an experienced hunter could get a nasty wound if he wasn’t careful. At this time of the year, two neyma males were almost as good as a yearling Werne.
Not enough to feed a tribe, but more than enough to feed two growing Given-Men. Yan tossed the slightly smaller one to Vemik; still alive, and not at all happy to be caught. Vemik sympathized with his prey, but he had to eat and more importantly, he had to drink, so he wrapped it up in his legs, pinned it steady, put a free hand around the back of its neck and pushed his thumb right between two of the bones, until he felt a soft breaking inside.
The neyma stopped moving but kept breathing, strong and alive. Good. Vemik could drink his fill without giving too much hurt. One bite along where its throat met shoulder, his tongue shoved deep into the wound…and Vemik squeezed the blood and good meat right out of his prey.
Wet. Warm. Alive, and strength he badly needed. He drank until the beast ran dry, crushing every last drop out of his unfortunate prey. Bones snapped like twigs, organs were smashed into paste, and Vemik slurped that up too through his bite. It wasn’t a quick end for the poor neyma, since he couldn’t drink it all down if its heart wasn’t beating, so that meant the Taking was a rite of agony. Still, the gods didn’t like men who wantonly tortured their prey, so he drank as fast as he could, even if it did taste better to go slow. One should always think of what was being Given, willingly or not.
He’d drunk his fill. The meat they would eat later, after his victory. Loor was waiting for him, and it wouldn’t take long for his blood-meal to settle in his belly.
He parted ways with Yan a little distance from the village, after he’d spent the rest of the trek talking about things Vemik could do to win, tricks he might try…
Vemik appreciated it. He did, really. Really! But at the same time…
“Yan. Thinking about the fight is the wrong way to win it. I need an empty head now, please…” It was advice Yan himself had given him, once.
“…I’m turning into an Old Singer,” Yan grumbled.
“You want this to go well.” Vemik stopped and clapped him on the shoulder. “But that’s between me, Loor and the gods. You showed me strength, and I’m thankful. You showed me how to be strength, too. You couldn’t have done that if you hadn’t killed the boy before. Now let me show you that I’ve learned it well.”
Yan nodded seriously. “Okay. But don’t humiliate him, either! You need—”
“…If you need me after, I’ll go visit Loor’s village.”
“And fuck their Singer silly,” Vemik guessed. That was all fine by him, though. Anything to distract Yan for a bit…
“Eh, she’s getting old. Maybe fuck her gently.” Yan hooted, a little of his usual humor coming back. He gave Vemik a huge, crushing hug that didn’t feel as crushing as it once had. “Gods be with you, Vemik Given-Man.”
It was time, and the evening was just beginning to set. The perfect magic for a contest between men. Vemik approached the village upright, with the same swaggering walk all Given-Men had and which he now understood they couldn’t help but use. The watch noticed him immediately—good. There was a commotion as Loor stumbled…
Stumbled out of Singer’s hut.
Well. Vemik wouldn’t mind beating him at all, now.
Still, he gave Loor a big fang-baring grin, and sat on his tail at the edge of the village, waiting. There were rules to this thing. And he wanted to give everyone the chance to see this.
The whole village gathered, the Humans too. Even Professor Daniel was there, worry written across every line of that stretchy Human face. He must have thought this was about to be war. It wasn’t, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a real fight.
Time to show everyone what Given-Men could do.
Loor swaggered up to the edge of the village, and sat opposite him. “You’re bigger.”
Humans, Vemik knew, would call the next bit trash talk.
“You look smaller.” He grinned too. A few of the women trilled quietly at that.
Loor hooted, low and quiet. “Still bigger than you.” Somebody at the back shouted encouragement.
“Maybe in your sweetest dreams. Not here!”
Loor hooted again. “Didn’t mean these.” He slapped his shoulders. “Ask Singer some time!”
That got Vemik’s fire up, and it got lots of trilling and hoots from the crowd, plus several friendly slaps for the Singer, who was grinning the whole way across her face but shaking her head. “Oh? Singer doesn’t seem to think so…maybe I’ll let you lick mine when I’ve won, so you can taste what a real man should be!”
Loor hooted louder, over the villagers’ shouts of approval. He reached down, scooped up some loosed dirt and rubbed it into his palms. “I like you! You’ll make a fine woman for me, tonight. Let’s test that strength of yours…”
That was an important thing to say. If it was a test of strength, they’d be keeping to a play-fight instead of anything really nasty, like he’d learned at the Lodge. No teeth. That was good. Loor wasn’t angry, and more importantly, he was interested in peace.
Well. He’d get it, once he lost. Vemik rubbed dirt into his palms too, accepting the challenge…and struck first.
Hooting, war-trills and chanting erupted around them, shouts of support and more trash-talk from the village as Loor took Vemik’s charge right in the gut, wrapped his arms and tail around Vemik, and was pushed back leaving furrows in the ground. He regained his footing, found better ground, and began to push back. Vemik started slipping through the gravely dirt…
So he tossed Loor over his hip. A trick he’d learned from Jooyun, and it worked just as well now as it did then. Loor landed on his back, flipped over in a blink, and tackled Vemik hard.
They wrestled in the dirt, back and forth, enjoying the tussle for the sheer fun of playing hard, harder than anyone else could play. Most Humans couldn’t understand what it meant to exult so powerfully in their bodies, so few of them were strong enough to offer such prayer. Vemik got a few good, showy throws in. Loor got in one or two, including one that nearly knocked the wind right out of Vemik’s chest. Vemik kicked through his legs at the last moment before Loor closed in for the kill, and planted his feet right in Loor’s own chest, sending him flying across the village.
To the trees they went, next. The chase-and-catch part of the fight, who was swifter, stronger, lasted longer as they flung themselves up and down the nearby Ketta, bending back branches to try and slap the other man off.
Loor had some dirty tricks in the trees. One caught Vemik right across the face, and another nearly caught him in the sack, but for a last-moment dodge. It went on for a long while until at last, Loor fucked up: he forgot about his tail. Vemik pounced as hard as he could, grabbed it with a rock-crushing grip and yanked with all his strength. He pulled Loor right out of the tree, a surprised hoot bellowing all the way down before he crashed to the ground, where he landed hard right on his rump, momentarily dazed.
Vemik was down atop him an instant later, grabbing for wrists and ankles with hands and feet and tail…Loor shoved him off.
“Yield!” He coughed the word rather than shouting it. He kicked back up to his feet, wobbly and hacking for air, stumbling as if the world was spinning too fast to be happy…
Vemik had won, and hooted his victory for all to hear. “Drink too much beer, Loor?”
“…Maybe I should!” Loor coughed. “Ow. I think…” He shook his head. “Yes. I take it back. You are a man! I think the village…safe with you.”
“Nothing that won’t mend.” Loor straightened up with a groan. “Good fight.”
“Good fight.” They hugged like brothers, then took out their knives. “My tribe is safe, because you protected it. You are a good man, Loor Given-Man. I offer my blood.”
“And I offer mine, Vemik Given-Man. Peace between us, and our tribes.”
They cut across the edge of their palm, in the one place that was thin enough to drip blood from their calloused hands. They shook, mingling the tribes, and pulled each other into a strong embrace.
A good fight. Loor would be a neighbor worth having.
The evening prayer came right after and was especially sacred tonight. When the sun went down, after they’d feasted, and danced, and boasted and told bad jokes and re-assured some of the more nervous Humans—
“No, Professor, we weren’t at war, that was just testing each other!”
—finally, at the end of the day, Vemik could Take his tribe. He’d start with his love. With his Singer. His, more than ever before, now.
He claimed what was his with all his strength, until the sun came up the next day.
Date Point: 18y4m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears
Letter for notes,
RE: Miss Ava Magdalena Ríos
Ava returned today for her annual session with me. She is a civilian journalist and her case falls under my jurisdiction due to her specific insights into SACRED STRANGER and her experiences during operation EMPTY BELL.
Objectively she was in a euthymic mood today, well-presented and groomed. She brought along her personal assistance dog, Hannah, who is by far the biggest source of her worries these days: as is apparently common with border collies, Hannah is suffering from joint degradation, and Ava is understandably upset that she can no longer enjoy Hannah’s company during her morning runs. She expressed concern and sadness to me that her companion’s remaining time may be short, but she is handling this particular grief appropriately well.
She reports only “one or two” instances of intrusive thoughts in the last year. We discussed whether she wishes to adjust her medication, to which she replied that she sees no need. I am happy to agree with her in this, and we parted ways after a brief and gratifyingly routine session.
I will see her next year.
Date Point: 18y4m1w AV
Clan of Females yacht Hopeful Star, orbiting planet Gao
Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao
There were moments where Naydra might have wished for a more…statuesque presence, when performing her official duties. She was much like any silverfur, really. Slim and lithe, with a long silky coat. Not at all hard on the eyes or the nose, if she was being honest with herself. Still: while she had nothing to complain about, and many blessings to be thankful for…
It would be nice if she wasn’t always so overwhelmed by Daar’s presence. Engagements like this were a stark reminder of the sheer scale difference between her and her Bumpkin; on all fours, the thick muscular ridge of his back came up to her chest. If he were standing tall, the top of her ears came up to the bottom of his chest. She could lay across his shoulders with neither her feet nor her head dangling off the side. That she could comfortably do either in front of or behind his neck, so thickly was his strength layered on. He was monstrous and she was…well, normal.
It was a stark dichotomy, though she had to admit, a useful one. One she would endeavor to maximize. He’d just padded over from his suite on the Fury and was meeting her onboard the Clan of Females’ diplomatic yacht, the Hopeful Star, for a quiet bit of privacy.
He was, in the best traditions of warrior-kings, scruffy and well-exercised. No blood on his claws, but his fur was unkempt, slick from perspiration, and much too musky in all the best ways. He’d been leading a border patrol along the trailing edge of Hunter space where it encroached on the unclaimed territory between Gao and the Far Reaches, working closely with the Human military out of Cimbrean, and the weeks of hard work had undone some of her careful attention.
Normally, of course, he left such matters to the Fathers and Officers of his Clans, and even when he took to the field, he did his “most bestest” to leave the work and the glory to those who deserved it; he was just there as a show of force and intent, after all. A diplomatic statement, aimed at the security council while the Rich Plains wended its slow way into position to resolve the matter between the Great Houses and the Clans.
That didn’t keep him from a friendly tussle or ten with the other males when things were quiet, of course. He had been doing that and all other manner of very Bumpkin-like things aboard the Fury, judging by his scent. And that meant he needed someone with more refined sensibilities for these sorts of things to clean him up.
Whether he wanted it or not. And no matter what he wanted to do first. He came in with his usual deck-shaking prance, flexed playfully and gave her a very telling look—
“No, Bumpkin.” Naydra chittered. “Plenty of time for that later.” That was one of her little sneaky tricks. Clean him up first, then get him messy again, then clean him up again. A sure-fire way to maximize their time together.
“And besides, you need a thorough brushing. And maybe a strategic little trim.”
Daar loped across the room and gently tackled her to the floor. He was always so careful, and despite being literal tons of bouncy energy, never once had he ever slipped up and given her hurt, even accidentally. He curled them both into an affectionate ball and gave her his soppiest, most affectionate look. “Okay. ‘Yer not gonna use th’ slicker, are ‘ya?”
He hated the slicker.
“Of course! Your short coat is very fetching when it’s nice and glossy…”
Daar sighed overdramatically, and chittered. “Oh-kay, jus’ ‘cuz you like it…”
“It makes you look strong and stately, Bumpkin.” He, of course, wasn’t letting go. “But it’s difficult to brush you when I can’t escape your grasp…”
“How convenient ‘fer me!”
“Bumpkin,” she chided gently. “You have to get ready.”
“It ain’t for two hours! I can think o’ somethin’ fun we might do…”
“And you’re three hours big.”
“Oh, I’m good ‘fer a lot longer’n that, if ‘yer willin…”
She tried and failed to restrain a chitter. “Believe me, I know! Now get off.”
He was incorrigibly playful but never overly so—he knew how to ride that line hard—and that was truly her favorite part about him. She could never hold any sort of indignation.
“How was the hunting?” she asked as she retrieved the grooming kit, while Daar stood and examined himself critically in the mirror.
“Barely saw a single Hunter, an’ the fuckin’ thing ran away the moment it sniffed us.”
“It didn’t even investigate you?”
“Nope. Saw our warp-wake an’ woosh!”
“Hmm…” Naydra decided to start at the top and work her way down. She plucked the scissors out of the soft leather roll, and set about neatening the tips of his ears. Nowadays a much easier operation, since his ears were now well-shaped and perfectly scarless instead of lacerated rags. Still, with a little contouring she could get them looking sharply pointed. “They can probably recognize the Fury by its wake signature.”
“Prol’ly.” He flicked his ear, and then grimaced a bit in apology. Like most brownies, a lot of his body language was only nominally under his control. “An’ they ‘member the last time I caught one o’ them, too…”
“You sound like you think there might be more to it.”
Daar paused for a moment, thinking. “Privacy,” he barked at the room. Suddenly they were cut off from the rest of the ship’s noises, leaving just them, their breathing, and the snip snip of her scissors as she trimmed the fur around his heavy jawline and thick neck, which he tensed hard so she could contour along its natural shape.
“We saw one,” he explained. “Jus’ one. Along the border they should be watchin’ an’ patrollin’ the most, if they got any brains at all. Somethin’s keepin’ their heads down, or drawin’ ‘em away.”
You think you know what it is,” she surmised.
“Kinda, yeah. The Humans ain’t briefed us on what I think it might be though. Not ‘fer a while. So that makes me wunner if’n they’re even aware what they’ve got goin’ on, here.”
“Have you brought this up with Champions Thurrsto or Fiin yet?”
“Nah. I only jus’ thinked it out when I was liftin’ right before I came over. Still wanna think a bit more.”
She duck-nodded in understanding. Daar’s workouts were his preferred form of meditation, and on lighter days he got a lot of thinking done while his body performed for him. She’d found she could do much the same on a good, vigorous walk.
Naydra gently prompted him to lift one arm so she could neaten up the longer fur at his elbows. He tensed his entire upper torso with it, but this time with a slightly smug flick of the ear, since he was as much showing off for her as making her job easier. Yup, his fur really wanted to be long and shaggy. She’d come back with the trimmer for the shaggy mass along his spine and shoulders. “Well, I have good news,” she said, changing the subject.
“Mother Gweya published her quarterly population statistics report. The birthrate is shifting back toward more females. It seems we’ve been at peace long enough to de-stress.”
“That’s good! What ‘bout that sixth-degree that was born a month ago?”
“…Struggling. But he’s a fighter.” The difficulty with sixth-degree cubs was one of terrible odds. They were exceptionally rare in the first place, and they were near universally born malnourished. Late in the pregnancy, it was hard for the Mother to eat enough to sustain them, and in the first couple of weeks after their birth, their little tummies were just too small for them to properly fuel the rapid growing their bodies wanted to do. The one currently being nursed on Tiritya Island had a permanent feeding tube down his nose and throat, keeping his stomach replete with the most nutritious pap that Gaoian food science could produce.
Daar had been quite fortunate; they’d detected him early and made appropriate arrangements, including for there to be three young Mothers with freshly-weaned cubs available to nurse him. Still, his own young life had hung in the balance too, at the beginning.
Thank goodness for the Gao that he’d thrived.
“…Yeah. Never easy. Good luck, little guy…” Daar said a quiet prayer. It would likely end in tragedy, as sixth-degrees usually did…though given that the sixth-degree birthrate had spiked dramatically in the years after the war—meaning there had been one at all, let alone two, they’d learned quite a lot about how to care for them.
Naydra was even daring a little quiet optimism. Daar was the first sixth degree in generations to make it past early cubhood, but it would be nice for him to have a young rival, maybe someone he could mentor…
There was always room for hope.
She let him think and worked her way through the long process of making him perfect in comfortable silence. A nice, sharp line trimmed in here and there to highlight his hulking shape as best as could be, a few stray hairs tamed here and there…tail brushed out and glossy…
She nibbled his cheek when she was done. “You’re ready.”
He stood to his full height and posed proudly for her inspection. “Well, how do I look?”
Like a living Keeda hero…
“Like I did my best.” She chittered teasingly. Daar gave her an indulgent Look. “Stately, if you prefer something more specific. A sight to strike awe into all those aliens.”
“An’ get all the Females sharin’ pics?”
She clawed him right in his massive iron boulder of a laborer’s rump.
“You stop that,” She set the grooming kit aside—her personal assistant would arrange for it to be properly cleaned and maintained for next time. “Besides, you’ll be doubly handsome once you’re in uniform.”
Among the Gao, clothing was usually strictly functional, if it was worn at all. Mostly they preferred durable overalls, or a many-pocketed vest, or in Daar’s case, a sling he could throw over his back or swing around to the front to rummage for whatever he needed. His Bag of Many Things, as he called it.
Among aliens, though, sometimes a little dress-up was important. The Humans in particular seemed to think that a great leader shouldn’t address the galaxy with his nuts swaying in the breeze. And Daar did look good in an austere, minimalist type of garb.
Whichever gaoian invented the Brownfur’s kilt was worth the legend. They were strictly functional affairs, providing some protection from cold breezes and an acceptable minimum of modesty, along with some useful pockets. The trick to them was the pleating, and the heavy leather that ensured it hung well whether the wearer stood on two paws or four. No jewels, no gold, in fact Daar’s only nod to decoration on the garment was some tooled patterning on the leathers. In true laborer’s tradition his kilt was closer in shape to a loincloth, coming not even halfway down his legs and just a bit longer across his loins. The weighted edges of the cloth protected his sensitive bits from the cold no matter what he was doing, while the wide-open cut on the sides gave him maximum freedom of motion…
And left little to the imagination, while accommodating a Human’s modesty. Naydra was right: he looked very handsome indeed once properly outfitted. She wasn’t complaining at all.
Which meant it was her turn. She left him to fidget out the small adjustments for himself, and retired to don her own accoutrements. The embodiments and representatives of Gaoian civilization had matters of the grandest significance to discuss with the galaxy today. Anything less than her best would not do.
But Naydra prided herself that her best, was the best. They would shine bright, stand proud…
And the peoples of the galaxy would, at last, listen. Of that, she had no doubt.
Date Point: 18y4m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted space.
Maybe it was the oldest stereotype of all time, but Lewis was walking away from his dream job to follow the girl he loved.
Lucy might be a brilliant scientist, a materials and metallurgical expert who managed to routinely make Lewis feel like the dumb one in their marriage, but was also a soldier, and that meant she didn’t get the final say in where she lived and worked. They’d known from the start that the day eventually would eventually come when she was reassigned so she could pass on what she’d learned and discovered in her work.
In the end, the blow was softer than they’d worried it could be: they were going to Folctha, where Lucy would join the instructors and trainers who educated not only the HEAT’s suit technicians, but advance armor systems and clothing experts responsible for developing the next generation of gear for the Allied militaries’ next generation warfighters.
He was super proud of her, and also really happy that they were going to Cimbrean, not Earth. He’d been…okay…with Earth. Honest. Erebor was no place to raise a family, and he wasn’t going to get any younger and fitter. Seeing Al, Xiù and Julian’s kids when they stayed in touch had got him kinda broody. Two babies that were already toddling around. Two young (adopted) men too, with very different personalities. One of them was definitely a bookworm and the other…wasn’t. Sort of like Lewis and Julian in rhyme, really…
…But he hadn’t wanted Earth. He’d left Earth behind a lifetime ago, going back now would have felt anticlimactic, after a life spent out among the stars, on alien worlds, in alien stations and aboard alien spaceships, with alien friends.
Speaking of which…fuck, parting ways with Vedreg broke his heart. He put on a brave face for them, congratulated him and Lucy on the career and life move, promised to stay in touch, wished them all the best…
But Lewis had got to know Guvnurag color-language pretty well over the years, and though Vedreg had suffused his chromatophores with a forced purple happy-for-you, he’d failed to keep it consistently bright, and it constantly gave way to flickers of green sorrow, turquoise loss and profound blue sadness. A human would have been weeping stoically.
“It has been…a long journey together,” he managed. They were hovering at the edge of the going-away party, near one of the station’s huge windows with its spectacular view of Durin. There were banners, a cake big enough to fill a pickup’s bed, and everyone was wearing a pointy paper hat.
On Vedreg, it looked like the little glitzy bedazzler on the end of a cocktail stick, right at the top of a haystack.
“Yeah…” Lewis felt quiet. For once, all the stuff he’d normally have been saying just wanted to sit silently inside him. “Can’t have life all one way though. Tempora mutantur, dude.”
“And we are changed with them…” Vedreg finished. “Still…”
“Dude. Speakin’ as your friend, maybe it’s time you moved on too.”
Yellow sparkled all over Vedreg’s body—fear. “No, no…I fit here. I support dozens of good people, all doing good work. I can’t leave.”
“Everyone else will, sooner or later. We are. Kirk’s away gettin’ back in the political game. Sooner or later Darcy’s gonna retire, Lee’s gonna be reassigned, Vakno will prob’ly up sticks too. Why not you, dude? Get out there an’ see how things have changed…” Lewis frowned at the involuntary shiver and repeated yellow flash that passed over his friend’s body.
“…You okay?” Could Guvnurag get agoraphobic?
Vedreg turned his face away, hiding most of his more visible chromatophores. “I am perfectly fine…” he rumbled, unconvincingly.
Lewis put a hand up and scratched his huge friend behind the hump of his shoulder, a spot impossible for Guvnurag to reach on their own. It was about as caring and concerned a gesture as their species had. “Bullshit,” he said, softly. “C’mon man, ain’t nobody in all the worlds is happy lonely. Y’ain’t been around your own people in years, you’re livin’ here in a place everyone else is gonna move on from…”
“Please, Lewis…” Vedreg sighed. “…Do not forget, I am not human. Nor am I incapable of caring for myself. I have spoken with the counsellor on this subject many times.”
“It is a species difference, nothing more. You all move and adapt so quickly, but part of me still lives in fear and exile, hiding from Hierarchy assassins, and I cannot yet feel confident. I shall, in time. But I need to be somewhere stable and safe for a good long while, first.”
“…You’ve been here a good long while, Vedreg.”
“Only by human standards.” Vedreg’s hue shifted to something more convincing—warm affection and gratitude. “You are a good friend. I will miss you very much. But I promise you, this is still the right place for me.”
“…” Lewis wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say. He didn’t get the chance. The intercom’s chime cut through the party noise and ended the conversation.
“Supply ship Wandering Lantern is now ready to take on passengers. Departing personnel travelling to Cimbrean, please report to deck C cargo handling for stasis loading. Travellers for Cimbrean to deck C cargo handling.”
Lewis sighed. No luxury cruise liner trip for him and Lucy. With jump array use still strictly on an only-when-absolutely-necessary basis, he’d kinda hoped they’d get to ride in a starship and take a load off, but Lucy had pointed out that would be kinda boring. Lewis wasn’t so sure. He still had good memories of travelling on Sanctuary, but that had been because he liked the people and had a family of sorts there.
Getting loaded into a stasis bag and bypassing the whole long trek back to civilization was probably the better way to go, but he couldn’t say he was enthusiastic about it.
Vedreg gave him a complicated medley of emotional hues, then lifted one huge arm and wrapped it around him in a big, furry, carpet-smelling hug. “Send me a message when you arrive safely,” he requested.
“Dude, you know it. And you come visit whenever you’re ready.”
Lewis smiled: he’d been worried, but that last color pulse told him, yeah, Vedreg was okay really. He gave the big guy a last parting shoulder-scratch, found Lucy in the crowd of well-wishers and friends, traded last hugs, last jokes, goodbyes…
They had to be called a second time before they were finally let go.
“…You okay?” Lucy asked him, during the elevator ride down to the cargo bay.
“I will be.”
Lewis nodded. That was about it, really. Right in the moment, he felt sad and strange, but there was lots to look forward to. Her hand slipped warmly into his, their fingers interlaced, they traded a reassuring squeeze…
And stepped out of the elevator toward their stasis pods and the next chapter of their life together.
He was looking forward to it.
Date Point 18y4m1w AV
Starship Rich Plains, orbiting planet Gao
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
There was a certain degree of ceremony that went into recognizing a new individual as a species’ representative on the Security Council. The ceremony in question was mercifully brief, and consisted in the most part of hearing any objections to the appointee’s acceptance. A formality, really. An appointee with any truly damning impediments would never have stepped into the chamber in the first place.
The Kwmbwrw had appointed Grandmatriarch Gewastwythmenw to replace Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr. From what Sir Patrick had gleaned, a number of House Henen’s senior Matriarchs had defected in the days and weeks before Wgwyr’s downfall, and those who’d known of the operation under Eclipse Palace had told all.
Great House Henen was now just House Henen, and likely to go extinct in the coming years. The incoming Grandmatriarch had already been compelled to sell some of Henen’s assets, holdings and properties in order to pay for the House’s legal defence. Most analysts agreed that the fines that would come down upon them at the end of the years-long court cases would bankrupt whatever was left.
Investors from all across the Dominion, including Clan Goldpaw and several human companies, were making an absolute killing in short-sells, from what Sir Patrick heard.
Great House Gewas had been the foremost purchaser of Henen’s former property, a move that had suddenly catapulted them from second-richest of the Great Houses, to a distant and unassailable lead. Not surprising, then, that their Grandmatriarch was to take her former rival’s place. Some things about Kwmbwrw culture and society would not be changed so easily.
Twythmenw herself struck a very different figure to Wgwyr. The latter had always strode into the council with her back straight, her gait tall and the inscrutable poker face of the deeply prideful in place. Twythmenw, insofar as Sir Patrick could read her body language, seemed more…serene. She paused at the edge of the circle that marked the conventional threshold of the council, dipped her body in a Kwmbwrw bow, and waited patiently, turning slightly to look at the gathered representatives.
Her eye met Sir Patrick’s, and she inclined herself slightly to acknowledge him. Sir Patrick gave her a shallow nod of the head in turn, and thus passed their first interaction, far more positive and understanding than any he’d ever had with her predecessor.
The moderator called for any objections to the new representative’s appointment: none were voiced, despite a healthy pause and a pointed look toward the Gaoian contingent. A knock of the gavel sounded after a few long, silent seconds.
“You may take your position, Grandmatriarch.”
Gewastwythmenw inclined herself to the moderator, and picked her high-stepping, deer-like way over to the desk where her assistants and advisors were already waiting for her. By some accident, the Kwmbwrw representative was directly opposite the Gaoians, which put her directly opposite not just Kenshi, but on this occasion, opposite the impressive figures of the Great Father and Great Mother behind him. From her new position, she watched them carefully as the last touches of ceremony were completed, and the moderator opened the session.
“It is convention for an incoming representative to address the matters their predecessor brought before this council,” the moderator reminded them. “That being so, Grandmatriarch Gewastwythmenw, do you wish to amend any business brought to this council by the Kwmbwrw Great Houses?”
Twythmenw watched Daar for a second longer, then turned to the moderator. “I do.” She accepted a tablet from one of her aides, studied it for a second, then read clearly. “The Kwmbwrw Great Houses wish to withdraw our objections and legal challenges to the following Council motions…motion three thousand eight hundred and four, presented by Clan Stoneback of Gao. Motion three thousand eight hundred and seventeen, presented by the Global Representative Assembly of Earth. Motion three thousand eight hundred and forty, presented on behalf of the Ten’Gewek Protectorate by the Global Representative Assembly of Earth. Motion three thousand eight hundred and ninety-one…”
It was a long list. Wgwyr had spent much of the last several years obstructing every motion the Allied species had brought before the council that had even sniffed of placing any obligations or responsibilities on her people.
In one fell swoop, Twythmenw demolished a dam that had held back a unified Dominion campaign against the Hunters, brick by bureaucratic brick.
During all of that, Daar had done nothing more than flick an ear. He was sat on his haunches directly on the floor, and passively watched the entire proceeding without a sound.
As had Yan, who was present along with Julian Etsicitty, both as observers and representatives. They were mostly keeping to themselves. The big man was for a change fully and formally clothed and his hair tamed into place. He looked a bit like an immaculately-groomed and civilized hulking Tarzan of a man, who nonetheless wanted nothing more than to escape back to his jungle.
There was an animal magnetism at play, there. Knight would need to think on how to utilize it.
“….Motion four thousand and eleven, presented by the Rauwrhyr Republic. Motion four thousand and nineteen, presented by Clan Stoneback of Gao.” Twythmenw handed the tablet back to her aid, and sipped from a small cup of water to clear her throat. “The Kwmbwrw Great Houses further request that the aforementioned motions now be expedited, so that a lengthy and long-standing backlog of Council business may finally be cleared.”
“Do the Kwmbwrw Great Houses wish to bring any new motions before the Council at this time?” the moderator asked.
“None at this time.”
To Sir Patrick’s right, Ambassador Rockefeller made a satisfied noise. “One for the history books…” he muttered under the sound of the moderator’s gavel punctuating the completion of the handover.
“We shall see,” Sir Patrick replied as a general susurrus and shifting broke out: advisors and aides bustled out of the room, others bustled in. Daar and Naydra quietly turned and departed, apparently deciding that Twythmenw’s gesture needed no grand speech or gesture of gratitude. There would be a private meeting in a side chamber later. “We still have to secure the votes on all those motions.”
“We have half the galaxy behind us, and the other half just got out of the way.”
“I hope so. We need the Dominion. We’re just not big enough without them.”
Sir Patrick looked across the chamber to where the tiny OmoAru delegation stood. His counterpart, AtaUmuUi, was watching the comings and goings with his arms folded and his tufted tail ticking metronomically back and forth behind him, expression inscrutable. Two tables to his right, the Rauwrhyr were busily bustling in and out, fetching the files their representative needed. “Though, somehow, I think we’ll need some of the Dominion’s smaller constituents more than we need some of the bigger ones.”
“That would make sense. We’re one of the smaller ones, after all.” Rockefeller clapped Sir Patrick companionably on the shoulder. “You’re right, the war isn’t won yet. But we can still take a victory when it comes.”
“Speaking of,” Knight prompted, “how goes the fight in your corner of the game?”
“Interesting,” Rockefeller grunted. “Ambassador Etsicitty has found his rhythm so I am mostly in a consulting and support role for his mission now. He’s invited me over for a meet and greet, to belatedly celebrate the occasion of Vemik’s ascension to Given-Man. You as well, incidentally. Expect a formal invitation when he gets a chance to speak with you. On Cimbrean, most of our efforts are focused on relief and reconstruction assistance for Franklin among the five colonies. In other words,” he concluded, “all support activities. Nothing immediate and direct to the effort.”
“Cimbrean is the front line, and Franklin was a bad blow. I’d say you’re more immediate and direct than you make it sound.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the gavel. The hum of conversation ceased, all eyes turned to the moderator’s podium.
“The Dominion Security Council will now continue discussion on the expedited Motion three thousand eight hundred and four, brought by Clan Stoneback of Gao. The motion creates a framework for a unified industrial and logistical process by which classified starship and weapon designs may be commissioned from Dominion shipyards. Motion was suspended due to a legal challenge, now withdrawn. Introduction and arguments from the Representative for the Clans of Gao.”
Kenshi stepped into the circle. The logjam slipped, broke, and was gone. Perhaps it would catch again downstream…but for the first time in far too long, things were moving. Sir Patrick sat, and listened, and allowed himself a small smile.
The real war was back on.
Date Point: 18y4m1w AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, Orbiting Planet Gao
Yan wasn’t going to say it out loud, but the Rich Plains did impress him. If his people had tried to take in and make room for so many different sky-tribes….well, he didn’t see how they could.
Some were so tall and thin and skinny he thought they’d break just by walking. Most didn’t eat meat, many couldn’t see the colors he could, some could see colors he couldn’t, none spoke the same language, some from the same tribe spoke different languages…
And yet, through tools, skill and determination, the ship managed to host them all and get them talking. A subtle but powerful Giving-magic, that.
Not only that, but even though Yan couldn’t imagine anywhere being more civilized, they still honored their homes. The great con-course running around the ship’s waist was full of plants. Little displays, from all across the stars. There was even an empty spot waiting for plants from Akyawentuo, which Yan found himself wanting to fill.
Jooyun had ideas for that, and they spent a bit of time talking through what would be nicest to show. Too bad he didn’t have Singer anymore. Or any Singer. He was a Blackcrest and Chief of the Lodge. All the tribes and all the Singers were his, but only when he visited them. He was a man alone.
He’d put it to them when he went back.
Their meeting was next to a display from the Corti home, Origin. The plants inside were strange, more like mushrooms than trees and shrubs. Sprawling straggly purple mats of finger-things, larger round grey-and-pink balls, a green and blue one that looked like a cock…not ugly, but odd and different.
As for who they were meeting with…
Humans and Gao, obviously. But also Corti, Guvnurag, Rauwrhyr and OmoAru (something strange about the taste of the air around that one.) And one more space, though Yan couldn’t guess who it was for.
There was little-talk before the meeting. Daar Great-Father looked young and healthy! Yan didn’t feel small around anyone, not even War-Horse, but he felt small and weak next to Daar. He’d filled out so much! Probably he could squish Yan like a little black buzzer now; Daar was huge, brown, had enormous claws and rippled from head to toe with the thickest steel-hardest muscles of anyone. But he wasn’t just a beast. He was also a man. Daar walked on all fours but he could stand like anyone else. He had clever hands too, even if they were so big they made Yan’s look like a little boy’s. Strong senses, and he could see red, now!
Ferd was right. Daar was some kind of god, and the rest of the sky-people were too civilized to understand. Least of all him. He was the god of the Brown Ones and didn’t even know it.
Very friendly for a god, though. And he liked dirty jokes! It was hard to believe gods would tell jokes about lusty women and unlucky men.
“I did not think of the Gao as so…” Yan struggled for a polite word, knowing where he was.
Yan trilled, glad he didn’t have to worry about it with Daar. “Was trying to be delicate. Human would say ‘earthy,’ I think.”
“Mebbe! But don’t forget, they’re the ones who gave the galaxy the word ‘fuck’ in the first place. They ain’t so clean and prim as their good manners pretend.”
“They like their privacy,” Yan nodded sagely.
“That they do. Anywhoo, big-dick talk aside…” Daar did a full-bodied happy-dance. “Fuckin’ huge ship, huh? Did’ya like the tour?!”
“Is all very…civilized.” Yan meant that in a good way, really.
“Yeah. I bet ‘yer itchin’ ‘ta do somethin’ not so refined, huh?”
Yan scratched his crest at the back of his neck, ruefully. “Mm. Not many here I can play with without breaking them. And ones I could play with…shouldn’t.”
“Oh, I know ‘dem feels. ‘Member when we first met?”
“You were not so thick. Built strong and stretched out like a boy right before his manhood. I thought you were Jooyun’s pet, too.”
Daar chittered at that memory. “Seems like yesterday…I coulda made that jump, y’know.” Yan knew exactly what Daar was speaking about. When the Big Enemy had attacked the People, Daar had fought to save them, and part of that was a daring attack with explosives, to bring a mountain down atop the Enemy. The fight had tested them both to their very limits.
Now, Yan was so much more. Daar was so much more, and still growing.
Still… “Yes, but that would have been it from you.”
Daar chittered again, and his paw slammed into Yan’s shoulder in the friendly way of both their peoples. Unlike most people, he managed to make it sting a bit, too. “Tell ‘ya what! Mebbe after this I can show ‘ya High Mountain Fortress! I got strong grav plates and the heaviest gods-damned weights…balls, mebbe we can do a hunt too! Hafta see though, ain’t talked to th’ gamekeeper in weeks.”
“Good!” Yan looked around him. “But…civilized is good. Hard to bring leaders together, get them talking, get them working together. Hard enough with Given-Men, and we think alike!”
Daar nodded in agreement, and sank to all fours like he did when he wanted to be less godly. “Mhmm. Everyone’s got their own problems. Right now we’re all thinkin’ ‘bout our big shared problem.”
“Is an old problem. Lots of leaders never fixed it in all the long long time before. Worried they won’t fix it this time, either.”
“Mhmm. I think it’s diffr’nt this time. Ain’t nobody can pretend the enemy ain’t there, now.”
“Nobody can pretend they’re invincible now, either.” Ambassador Knight joined them, smoothing down his clothes. “Before, they were a scourge, a force of nature. You may as well try and fix the tide. So!” He said primly, “Have you two incorrigible savages had a chance to play?”
Yan trilled and Daar chittered. There was no mistaking the warmth in Knight’s eyes.
“Not yet! I’m schemin’ ‘ta smush Yan later on, though! I might be able ‘ta sneak some civilized fun in ‘fer you though, if ‘ya ask real nice…”
“I’m quite capable of making my own civilized fun.”
“I got good whiskey and even better shootin’! Buncha migratory waterfowl livin’ near home…”
“…Admittedly, that is deeply tempting…”
Yan hooted approvingly. “Drinking, hunting…how is that civilized?”
The lines around Knight’s eyes deepened in a mischievous smile. “Style,” he replied. “Style and class.”
“Bah!” Daar prowled toward the circle where their meeting was to happen, clearly meaning for them to follow. Who were they to say no? “Anywho, ‘yer both important ‘ta me. Don’t let it be said I can’t manage some hospitality now an’ then! An’ I’m gonna squish the fuck outta ‘ya, Yan.” He growled fiercely. “Hope ‘yer ready…”
“You can try,” Yan replied, happily. Some of the others were waiting for them as they arrived. The big furry Guvnurag’s body was full of color as he sat patiently, while the Corti director was toying with a tablet, impatient. He gave them a look as though he felt his time was being wasted.
The others, though, were eager to begin. AtaUmuUi most of all.
“I am glad you are here. Shall we get started?” he asked.
“We’re waitin’ on one more,” Daar replied, after a glance round the circle.
Their spot was near a huge window, and Planet Gao filled the sky outside, turning below them. For the moment, it was a nail-clipping of blue light, and a huge blackness dotted here and there with light.Chairs and whatever the stranger-shaped people needed to sit on had been set in a ring.
A new voice joined them. “Me.”
Yan turned, and tasted the air quizzically at what he saw. The new Kwmbwrw representative straightened up, easily making her the tallest one there, and inclined her body at Yan when she saw him watching her.
Daar was the first to say anything. “Thank you ‘fer comin’.”
“Thank you for inviting me.” Twythmenw dropped back down to all fours and moved to her assigned seat. “I was…surprised. I would have thought you would want nothing to do with the Great Houses.”
“The object of my ire got what was comin’,” Daar said cryptically. “We got bigger problems.”
“A problem that has plagued your people in particular,” Knight added. “The time, ladies and gentlemen, has come to finally destroy the Hunters. I imagine the Kwmbwrw people in particular would be glad of that outcome.”
Twythmenw ducked her body in a kind of nod, maybe. “Though I imagine we will have plenty of turbulence once the ancient enemy is gone,” she said.
“Let’s sit an’ talk, then,” Daar said.
They sat. Knight remained standing. He set a small tool on the ground in the middle of the circle and stepped back from it as it shone brightly and a great swirl that Yan recognized filled the space above their head: the galaxy. All the stars in all the skies, and thousands more besides.
Part of the map blinked, and a blue blob appeared, trailing hazily off into a blur at its inner edge. “Hunter space. Volume unknown, precise boundaries unknown, total star count unknown, population unknown. Six known temperate worlds, two of them of immediate strategic interest.” A bright yellow dot appeared inside the blob.
“First, we have planet Mordor, also known as E-Skur-Soom. Home to a native population, the E-Skurel-Ir. Liberated by Allied efforts, and now safely fortified behind a quadruple layer of planetary defence fields and a wormhole suppression field. Hunter activity in the system remains high, though they have not yet repeated their attempt to build a stellar lensing array. A ready-made staging post, though civil unrest among the native population remains a serious problem.”
A second dot. “Also of interest is Planet Hell, former site of the megastructure known as the Ring—known to the Hunters, according to intelligence sources, as the Great Hive. The Hive collapsed into the planet’s gravity well following its destruction, likely killing every large life form on the surface. Our best guess is that the Hunters have abandoned the planet and no longer regard it as a useful resource. For our purposes however, it has a breathable atmosphere—much more breathable than Mordor’s, in fact—and is much deeper toward the heart of their territory. If occupied and properly fortified, it could therefore serve as an important beachhead.”
He considered the map for a moment, then turned to slowly survey the whole gathered ring of representatives. “All of which is to say that the greatest obstacle to our invasion of Hunter space is not a lack of objectives to claim. It’s a lack of mass.”
Yan knew that there was much knowing in the room right know he was not ready to understand. He also knew his people would have a small but important part in the Taking, so for now, he sat, and listened, and thought up good questions to ask later. Maybe he could talk to Daar again.
Speaking of Daar, it was the Great Father’s turn to stand and address them. “The Grand Army of the Gao has plenty of good soldiers ready for the fight,” he said. “What we’re lackin’ is the weight of industry an’ logistics behind ‘em. The Hunters built a megastructure wrapped aroun’ a whole planet, so we know their Builders have got plenty of industry, an’ prolly millions of bodies to commit to the fight. What they’re lackin’ is supplies to keep those bodies fightin’.”
He added a new thing to the map: glowing lines threaded along the blob’s surface. “‘Fer the last few years, Allied patrols an’ intercepts have been focused on starvin’ the Hunters. We’ve kept ‘em from raiding, kept ‘em from salvaging ships, and from what we saw on the ring, salvage was a big part’a their industry. They got their spare parts an’ little things from captured Dominion ships. Now we’ve choked that off, they’ll’ve had ‘ta adjust their economy. That don’t happen overnight.”
“Those patrols, however, take up a large proportion of our time and effort,” Knight clarified. “If we are to free those ships and their veteran crews to participate in the invasion, they must first be replaced by a force that is capable of keeping up the pressure they have exerted.”
Daar indicated Twythmenw and the Rauwrhyr representative. “That’s what we’re askin’ of you.”
The Rauwrhyr representative, Scrythcra, ducked his head forward in a way Yan didn’t know how to read. “Our ships do not usually fare well against Hunters,” he pointed out. “We have made great progress thanks to what we learned at the defence symposium, but…”
“Likewise ours,” Twythmenw agreed.
“The Kwmbwrw have a proud history of shielding other species from the Hunters, and every time we have seen Rauwrhyr ships in battle, we have been impressed by their courage and tenacity,” Knight replied. “What we propose is to help you strengthen yourselves to the point where the Hunters will fear to even glance your way.”
The Corti representative tilted his head. “And where do we fit into this plan?”
Daar turned to him. “Like I said, what we’re lackin’ for is the mass o’ industry ‘ta back up the sharp point o’ the spear. We need ships, ground vehicles, ammunition, spare parts an’ more. The Corti, Guvnurag an’ OmoAru are the three most technologically advanced species in the Dominion, ‘yer facilities can produce everythin’ the war effort needs, faster an’ more efficiently than we can.”
“Especially in relation to your populations,” Knight added. “The idea, therefore, is this: Your shipyards and factories will provide the Kwmbwrw and Rauwrhyr with ships and weapons capable of meeting the Hunters head-on and suppressing them. While the Republic and the Great Houses keep the enemy strangled and force them to defend their rimward flank, Allied forces—Human, Gao and Ten’Gewek—can invade through the Far Reaches and the Border Stars along the trailing edge of their territory.
Ata’s tail lashed, once. “And the worse enemy?”
Yan had to nod at that. The Hunters were monsters, and deserved everything that was planned, but the Hierarchy had stung his people in particular. The need for vengeance against them was more cutting, to him.
Daar glanced at him, flicked an ear, then duck-nodded grimly. “Their nature’s diff’rent. Harder ‘ta find, harder ‘ta fight, harder ‘ta kill. We won some victories in findin’ an’ bustin’ their relays, an’ what intel we have says they’re in turmoil, so we’re trustin’ that turmoil will last long enough ‘ta let us deal with our foes one at a time, instead o’ fightin’ a war on two fronts.”
“Why them second?” Ata pressed. “They are the more dangerous and insidious foe, are they not?”
“Mebbe, but they ain’t equipped ‘fer war. They don’t have fleets, they don’t have troops. The nature of the way they work don’t require the Grand Army of the Gao, an’ that’s a time-limited resource.”
“They’re also not the immediate threat,” Knight added. “We need the Hunters gone to eliminate an important source of pressure, and to neutralize a major catspaw of the Hierarchy.”
“Without the Hunters’ constant raiding, we will be economically more well-positioned to address the Hierarchy,” Third Director Tran mused. “…Yes, I believe the order of operations here is correct.”
“Agreed,” Ambassador Furfeg’s rumble was the first time he’d spoken since arriving. From what Yan knew of his species, the Guvnurag were supposed to be long-winded, but Furfeg kept his counsel like an old Given-Man. That one word carried enough weight for AtaUmuUi to glance at him, bow slightly in acknowledgement, and go back to fussing with that odd metal ball in his hand.
Jooyun had told him not to look at the ball, in the strongest words he could use. Yan wasn’t sure why, but something about it made him want to stare at from across the room…
He tore his attention away, angry at himself. Daar and Knight were sitting down. Twythmenw stood to examine the map. “Your ability to wreak havoc even on well-defended targets is well-demonstrated,” she said, softly. “I trust if we are being entrusted with a part in this crucial strangulation, you intend to share some of your secrets with us?”
“Secrets require trust, and trust requires time,” Knight replied. “Our recent history will…limit what we are willing to share. That said, we have no intention of compromising your ability to fight or defend, by omission or otherwise. We will provide the proper technology and training. It will fall to your people to use them effectively.”
“There will be resistance, among the Great Houses. I can speak directly for House Gewas in assuring you of our support but others, notably House Gwedr, will refuse as much as they are able.”
“Considering that the Allied nations involved in this fight make up fewer than ten percent of the total human population, Grandmatriarch, I assure you that I understand fully the situation you are in.”
“Likewise for me,” Scrythcra added. “The Republic represents only a third of all Rauwrhyr. I expect, however, that my government will be eager to commit to this plan.”
Tran nodded slowly. “I believe it has merit, though, whether we join you is a matter for the Directorate. I anticipate a positive reception, however.”
“Any plan that moves us closer to vengeance on the Hierarchy has the Remnant’s support,” Ata intoned, putting his ball away.
“And that of the Confederacy,” Furfeg agreed.
Knight nodded thanks at them, then turned Yan’s way. “Yan Given-Man. You’ve been quiet so far.”
Yan tasted the air. “Already know my people’s role in this,” he rumbled. “The enemy brought this fight, we were saved, we owe a debt. If they will be the anvil, and you will be the arm, we will be the hammer. Don’t have more to say than that.”
“Far be it for me to dismiss such a bold sentiment,” Ata said, “but Yan’s people number even fewer than mine, and lack our technology. How much of this ‘mass’ can they provide?”
“Mass? Not much,” Daar replied. “Yan’s people are not numerous. But they are each very powerful weapons in a particular kind of fight. Some of this will need dangerous men in dangerous places, doing dangerous things to a dangerous enemy. We ain’t gonna win this war with only fleets an’ bombs.”
“In the end, it will be courage and determination that make victory possible, and very brave, very rare men who strike the quiet, critical blows. As it always has been in war, and as it likely always shall be.” Knight stood up again. “We have a metaphor: the spear. A sharp tip, and a sturdy shaft. Either one on its own is of limited use, but together they form a single deadly implement. We are asking you to contribute the sturdy shaft. Yan’s people will be part of the spearpoint: the support you provide will ensure they cut deep.”
“Good metaphor,” Yan hooted approvingly.
Ata ducked his head in a kind of nodding bow. “I defer to your expertise, then. Given that I have not yet heard an objection to the generalities of this plan, only concerns regarding its minutiae, I think we have a general idea of what to present to our governments.”
“Indeed.” Tran stood. “I shall meet with the Directorate directly.”
“I will send my report to the Senate this evening,” Scrythcra agreed.
“My people have already reached consensus,” Ata said. “You have our fullest possible support.”
“The Herdmoot remains shackled by the ongoing slavery of two thirds of our population,” Furfeg said, carefully. “There are no constitutional contingencies for this eventuality, and our efforts at creating and ratifying some have been slow going. I cannot say how our leadership will decide, nor how long it will take, though I will pledge to put my full personal support behind this plan. With good fortune, that may expedite matters.”
Twythmenw nodded sadly as he spoke, then turned her attention to Daar, then Knight, then Yan, then back to Knight. “I intend to wipe out the recent stain on our species’ reputation,” she declared. “We shall see how many others are with me in that regard. But they did make me their representative: I am optimistic.”
With that, the small gathering broke up. Yan watched them go, tasting the air as they went. What he was tasting for, exactly, he didn’t know. The tastes they left behind were…well, alien. Hard to read. He noticed Daar sniffing the air too.
“Taste honest to me, I think,” he suggested.
“Yup. Already like Twythmenw more’n I liked the last one…”
“That could be taken as damning with faint praise,” Knight said, a small, tired smile pulling the lines on his face even deeper. Yan trilled, and stretched to release the stiffness in his legs and back from sitting for so long.
“Went well, I think.”
“Yes. Can’t count our chickens before they hatch, but…”
“But we’ve come a long way, if we got ‘ta have that kinda talk an’ get everyone mostly soundin’ enthused ‘fer it,” Daar replied. “Four years ago, it woulda been a diff’rent story. Anyway. Naydi’s waitin’ ‘fer us on the yacht. Got a proper meal lined up. ‘Yer both invited.”
“I’d be delighted,” Knight said.
“Proper food? Been days since I last got good meat,” Yan agreed. The food served by the aliens on this ship was…eh. They gave enough of it to fill the belly eventually, but Yan needed something that’d hit his stomach like a charging bull. And he knew from before that Daar knew how to eat.
“Allow me to bring over a bottle I’ve been saving,” Knight said. “I think this occasion might merit breaking it open.”
Sure enough, when he arrived on the yacht a while later with the air around him tasting of soap and clean clothes, he had a dark bottle with him, and some glasses. The food was everything Daar had promised: roast Naxas, a good meat with a strong taste.
The taste from the bottle, once Knight had screwed a little round wooden plug from the end, was even stronger.
“What is it?” Yan asked.
“Bordeaux, nineteen eighty-two. Older than almost everyone in this room.”
Knight poured it out into the glasses. The liquid was dark red. “A good wine is influenced by two things. As the vines grow, it’s influenced by nature. The weather, how strong the sun was that year, cold snaps…eighty-two was a good year. The other influence is time. Keep it in the right conditions, and it just gets better and better.”
Daar sniffed the glass appreciatively. “…Whoo. That’s complex.”
“Fitting, if we’re celebrating galactic politics,” Naydra chittered gently. She took hers and sniffed it too, swirling it around the glass. Even Knight did the same, so Yan tried his best to join in and wafted his tongue over the glass.
It reminded him a lot of the magic-fruit. He flicked his tongue again, swirling the glass like Naydra had. There were tastes in there that reminded him of a Singer’s hut, of nukru root and the spices his mother had dried in her tent, many long summers ago.
Rather than drink it immediately, Knight reached out with his arm and held the drink above the middle of the table. “To complexity, then. May it settle in our favour.”
Glass chimed on glass and, finally, they drank.
Yan had to admit: it was a good way to celebrate a successful hunt.
Date Point: 18y4m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears
Letter for notes,
RE: FERD Given-Man
Tending to the psychological needs of our nonhuman personnel remains one of the more consistently challenging of my duties. Ferd in particular represents a unique case, as he is a Given-Man of his people. I understand this to mean he has undergone a physical, pheromonal, and psychological transformation, rendering him dominant among his people. He is certainly dominant among humans as well, in particular among the Lads of HEAT; I have heard rumours that even Righteous struggles against Ferd’s immense strength. Never let it be said that the SOR is lacking for strapping young warriors.
That primal dominance streak comes naturally to their people and might normally prove to be a concern. Thankfully, Ten’Gewek have developed a deep respect for Gaoian and human alike, and most gratifyingly have an enthusiastic appreciation for canines. While I cannot assert with any rigor that such a thing matters, it nonetheless offers me a practical key into his mind, and my canine colleague Ditzy once again did the heavy lifting during today’s routine assessment.
Were he human, I would have concerns over Ferd’s capacity for empathy: he expressed little regard for the lives he took during Operation WICKED BIRD, nor for objective ADELLE whom he was directly involved in targeting.
Ten’Gewek are certainly quite capable of empathy however, as his interaction with Ditzy amply illustrated. Nevertheless, their criteria for empathy differ somewhat from human norms. He is impressed by Ditzy’s powerful build and fearless nature; a meeker animal would likely have been seen as prey, if that.
We discussed this, and Ferd stated, bluntly, that he respects “strength” first and foremost. It is clear however that the concepts of strength and weakness do a lot of work in Ten’Gewek philosophy, and cover not just capacity for violence, but other, gentler concepts as well.
Perhaps the best way to summarize their psychology would be as intensely and self-assuredly hypermasculine. This is not surprising considering their physiology or their culture, but it bleeds through into everything. Even more feminine concepts such as motherhood and nurturing care have a deep-running theme of “strongness” among them.
To the Ten’Gewek mind, the world of animate life—a concept their language inflects for in its parts of speech—divides into people, predator, and prey, with further inflection for strong (which also implies worthiness and/or admirable traits such as beauty and intelligence) or weak (with strong connotations of contempt and disgust). They feel natural kinship with strong, brave predators and, at best, a muted concern that their prey should not suffer more than is strictly necessary.
In discussing Operation WICKED BIRD, I noted his repeated use of the prey-inflection. I believe he has mentally categorized the enemy troops as unfortunate and is satisfied that, as he did not inflict needless or excessive cruelty on them, there is no need for moral discomfort. He used a severe weak-inflection for ADELLE, denoting a contemptible person: again, this mental categorization seems to mean his conscience is quite clear.
So far as I can tell, Ferd is a robustly moral and well-adjusted example of his people. He respects human sexual norms, even as he is almost gleefully willing to “play” with those who are brave enough to explore with him. He flirted with me quite aggressively until I made it clear that this was not appropriate, at which point he immediately stopped and apologized. Given his sheer physical power, that conscious self-restraint matters a great deal, and it is good that he and his men exhibit it. He understands the idea of law and justice, and is quite literate and increasingly well-educated. SOR has nearly completed his primary general education and already begun on secondary topics, as they have with the other Ten’Gewek in their care.
It is an open question how much this will change their culture. For myself, I think not terribly much; they know what they are and are very proud of it. He, along with other well-respected members of his people—I have yet to speak with them—have begun to see their people in partnership with ours. I am not sure that is a notion fully compatible with the realities of statecraft, but I can do nothing more than note this for our leadership.
In any case, I have no concerns about his fitness for duty in the context of his service with SOR, and will see him again for his routine sessions. I did stress that he is welcome to visit me if something particular causes him any trouble, but I highly doubt he will.
-Lt Cmdr K. Mears Counsellor, HMS Sharman
Date Point: 18y4m3w AV
Georgia Tech, Atlanta, USA, Earth
As expected, reconstruction around Chicago’s jump array was proceeding apace, and the other civilian terminals were undergoing extensive security hardening. Such refinements took time, however. They required expertise, too. Expertise that Six had identified, though so far had not managed much in the way of useful influence. The paranoia, it seemed, was a bit too high for the usual development gambits of expediency and efficiency to make any headway.
There was plenty of tension to exploit, though. Plenty of pressure to exert. In the brief time it had existed, Earth’s network of jump links, both to its own far corners and to other planets, had radically shifted the economic paradigm. Without the bustling interstellar traffic, dozens or even hundreds of businesses had gone bankrupt, many more had been purchased cheaply and mothballed in anticipation of profitable resurrection.
International airlines had surged in demand, and thousands of mothballed air-breathing aircraft had been brought out of storage. People could no longer ride a train directly from New York to Tokyo, after all. The major aerospace companies of America and Europe were groaning under the stress (and profits) the situation had generated. Airports had undergone a renaissance, too.
The sun was shining, and the old guard were making hay. But everybody knew, and was planning for, the day when the arrays would return in full force, when Cimbrean would be just another terminus on the network again.
A lot of very wealthy people, in short, were betting on a future that was yet to play out. And if there was one tool that the Hierarchy had used many, many times over the aeons, it was their targets’ own market.
He’d planted a memetic weapon. One that was slowly gathering steam. It was the idea that, perhaps at least for on-planet travel, jump arrays should not be allowed. Greed and fear had taken the idea and run with it, and now President Chambliss found himself on the losing side of an increasingly unpopular technology, much like the nuclear energy advocates of old.
He’d not managed to push the same idea for interstellar travel, but…one thing at a time.
His “friends,” the broken and scattered remnants of the APA, were loving it. They were the survivors, the actual brains and leaders of the organization. Sartori’s fiery purge had torn apart dozens of cells of radicalized but fundamentally ordinary people, but never caught the real talent. The real talent had never put themselves in positions where a mere angry civilian could compromise them.
They were clever. They were patient. Frankly, they had a thing or two to teach Six about tenacity and skullduggery. And they knew they had a mountain ahead of them, not just to climb but to rebuild.
They were impossibly disagreeable. More than half a year on and they were still arguing over their target. They wanted the perfect masterstroke, and Six could sympathize—they would only get one shot at this—but each time he thought they’d found the ideal candidate, something would shift, some event or change in the wind would cause the plan to fall apart and reset.
[17:45:36] Paul > Again, the objective is not maximum body count. The objective is maximum effect.
[17:46:02] Handler > A sufficiently large body count would certainly have an effect, but yes. Better to destroy something iconic.
[17:46:03] ANG6 > We don’t have unlimited time to dither over this. We’ve been planning for seven months. Every time we find something iconic, the stars and portents or whatever it is you’re reading change and we start over. Sheer death toll might not be optimal, but it is at least a consistent metric.
[17:48:14] Mister E > The perfect is the enemy of the good.
[17:48:15] ANG6 > Thank you.
[17:48:55] Paul > Then it comes back to NY again.
[17:50:01] Mister E > NY is pretty damn iconic, too.
[17:50:23] Handler > And the center of finance. Why did we give up on it again?
[17:51:17] Paul > Culture. Hollywood. Entertainment.
[17:51:59] Grace > All tied to Wall Street. LEts stop chasing the perfect target and go for something solid
[17:52:34] Handler > NY it is then. And we’re committing to it. No changes, no backing out. Once I start setting it up, we’re locked in. The assets I have left can’t just bounce across the whole country. OK?
Six, via his host, let out a long-overdue sigh of relief as several OKs and affirmatives finished the conversation. Meatspace life moved so slowly. Operations that two Hierarchy operatives could have planned to the finest detail in only minutes took weeks for even an experienced human like the Handler to draft. Six couldn’t fault his meticulousness, only the bandwidth of protein.
Still. Progress was progress, no matter how delayed. Six would need to get his own assets prepared and emplaced before the real planning began. After all, if one was to use something as fanatical as the APA remnant…Well. Spending them ought to be done to maximum effect.
And the clock was running out.
Date Point: 18y5m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Captain Booker Campbell
“There…try it now.”
This time, the suit impingement that had kept Booker from easily raising his supinated hand above his shoulder passed as little more than a slight hitch or click.
“Better. Barely felt it that time.”
Deacon made a frustrated noise, a sharp hiss of air between her teeth and tongue. “Still? Jesus, if we have to start shaving down the scales, we’re gonna be here all evening…”
“Told you.” Campbell’s personal suit techs, Koh, told her grimly. He and his partner Mallory had been wrestling with the catch in his shoulder all day. It was a persistent problem, and it was definitely affecting his performance in training runs.
“Yeah, you did…well, either way, this is an Arés job.” Deacon groaned and shook her head.
“Arés job?” Campbell repeated, trying the movement again in case repetition fixed it.
“Either of ‘em. The problem’s either in the suit, and Marty knows the shoulder assembly even better than I do, or it’s in your actual shoulder in which case you need more time with ‘Horse.”
Campbell didn’t bother protesting that the click was barely noticeable now. The suit techs were perfectionists, none of them would be satisfied with anything less than flawless, smooth performance as though the suit were a painted-on second skin. Calling it ‘good enough’ just wasn’t in their ethos. And neither should it be in his, for that matter.
He was determined to be ready by the time the next mission came their way. He’d missed out on Eclipse Palace, he’d be damned if he missed whatever was coming.
“Well, I have a personal session with ‘Horse in half an hour. I’ll see what he thinks.” And probably end up suppressing groans of pain as those thick fingers worked their way into his deep-tissue pressure points. ‘Horse was not, contrary to his reputation, a sadist, but he had the opposite of a soft touch and no sympathy at all when he was at work.
Deacon found that satisfactory. “Right. Let’s get you outta there, then.”
The session with ‘Horse was, as expected, grueling, even during their warmup and stretch. How exactly a man that big could effortlessly jump that high or do the fuckin’ splits was beyond him. And he expected Booker to achieve the same. They discussed the shoulder while Booker sweated and grimaced at the unrelenting stretching discomfort in his groin.
“Nah, just ‘cuz you don’t feel it without the suit don’t mean it can’t be your body that’s the problem. The suit puts everythin’ under compression, adds load that ain’t normally there. Happens to all of us.”
“That…mngh…makes me feel a bit better…” Campbell admitted.
“Yup. I actually needed surgery.”
“Bro-science when I was sixteen. I was, uh…really strong as a kid. Like…crazy, stupid strong. And I kinda pushed myself pretty damn way too hard.”
Campbell couldn’t quite restrain a dry remark. “Oh really.”
“Shaddup, sir. Respectfully,” he grumbled humorously. “Anyway, by the time it got to be a real problem my shoulders were already so damn big, nobody could do anything except endoscopic work. So be happy we’re working it out now!”
Happy. That was definitely a word that didn’t fit what he was feeling. There was lifting, there was stretching. There was plyometrics and yoga. There was wrestling and combatives. ‘Horse absolutely, totally fuckin’ whupped his ass at all of those, without hardly breaking a sweat.
They only paused for liquid refueling, and in Cambell’s case, a Crude shot after ‘Horse did something to his shoulder that felt like he turned the whole thing inside-out.
When he popped everything back together, though…
Sweet Jesus. Profound relief. Pain he’d not even consciously known was there just disappeared.
“Okay, ‘member how I said I needed surgery? Well, that’s ‘cuz nobody was strong enough to do what I just did. So there! Done…need a minute?”
“…Nah, let’s keep it going.”
“Okay! Lemme crank up the gravity and we’ll go for round two…”
Campbell quickly came to regret that call, but he bore it. There was a kind of…pressure. In the back of his mind. Knowing that the next op was coming, sometime, and the only control over the schedule he really had was the shape his own body was in, and his own preparedness.
It came as a surprise when ‘Horse called an early end to the session, therefore. “Okay. I think we’re done for today. Let’s loosen up.” They stretched out again and before anything else, ‘Horse redirected them to their HEAT-grade sauna.
The heat was fuckin’ amazing. Maybe he wasn’t so hot on being trapped in a hot humid box with a hot humid ‘Horse, but…
They relaxed a bit before the reason for the early finish came along.
“Gotta ask you, sir. You pushed yourself pretty hard today. Why the sudden sense of urgency?”
“Well…the mission’s here. I got left out of this one because I’m not ready.”
“Right,” ‘Horse nodded. “And Thompson was.”
“Well, okay.” Adam shuffled around on his poor tortured bench to face him directly, and mercifully remembered his towel after a moment. “Okay. ‘Mind if I get a little blunt, sir?”
“You ain’t a young buck, y’know. It’s gonna take time. But I wonder if you know why that really matters in this case.”
“With the Crude giving me a reset, I would have thought it didn’t.”
“Well, here’s the thing. There’s certain types of reset it can only do very slowly for older guys, right? And your genes have a lot to do with it, too. Genetically speaking, SOR’s got more’n a few dudes who are straight-up genetically perfect men, at least where this game is concerned. Top of the list would be me, Firth, Julian, and Thompson now I guess. Maybe Hoeff too, so long as he can hold onto his size…anyway. They’re all fantastically gifted studs and I shouldn’t have any special advantage over them. The thing is though, they don’t come close to comparing. I dwarf and outperform all of them put together. You got a guess as to why I dominate so hard?”
“I’m guessing it’s the Crude, somehow?”
“Not directly. There’s a lot of reasons. It’s because I’ve been physically active my whole life, been working out since I was a kid and I’ve been seriously lifting and sparring since I was fifteen. Not only that, I work harder than basically anyone, which I had to since I started off shorter. But my real advantage? I started on Crude and the performance medicine when I was still growing. I was only seventeen when I ran my first cycle, once I’d entered the pipeline.”
“…Wait, really?” Experimental drugs on fuckin’ teenagers? “Isn’t that…dangerous?”
“Yeah, it sure as fuck was, and it wasn’t just the Crude. I volunteered. We don’t let anyone under eighteen do that anymore, or anyone under twenty-one do any of the rest of it, but, well…”
Campbell nodded grimly. “The military was desperate.”
“Yeah. You could say that. In any case, the Crude’s essentially kept me at biologically nineteen or so, and that’s even with all the abuse I put myself through. Everyone else, ‘cept Thompson and ‘Base? Mid twenties at best, and they only get that after long usage, too. And that means…”
“…Past our growing prime.”
“Makes it harder, yeah. This is a game where everything has to be perfect, all the time, every time, no exceptions ever. That includes your work ethic, discipline, genetics, your support network. Fuckin’ everything. There’s no such thing as a day off. Even fun has to be planned in advance. Your entire life revolves around your training schedule and your meal plan. I’ve had to work my family in around the job, not the other way around; at this level, even missing a meal can be risky. But you know all that, though.”
“Hmm.” Campbell rested and let the heat soak in, but his mind wasn’t slowing down. What ‘Horse was essentially telling him was that there were hard limits to what he could do and he was running up against them, no matter how hard he went at it. If men effectively in their mid-twenties were already too old to do what he was trying to do, what did that mean for him?
And then there was the revelation about how early ‘Horse had started. SOR was desperate for HEAT men. There just weren’t many who could do what they were doing, and fewer still among the officer corps. They needed him suited up and on missions ASAP. He couldn’t afford to just accept that he had limits and let it work out in due time.
“Okay. So. What do I need to do to work through that?”
Adam looked thoughtful for a moment. “Good spirit, I like that…well, okay. Have you talked with Firth yet?”
“Of course, but not about this.”
“I’d suggest you do. Genetically perfect he may be, but he was an older guy when he started too. Thirty-five and beat to hell from a lifetime bein’ a combat controller. Well, he’s finally healed up and all that so now he’s growing like crazy. Might even still beat me one day! But the only reason that’s even a possibility is ‘cuz he’s the only guy on the team who works as hard as I do. So far he’s the only guy who can.”
“Okay…what else?” All the rest was fine, but still…
‘Horse put a stop to that immediately. “Let’s ease into the hardcore performance-enhancing bits. Trust me. A lot of what you gotta build up to handle training at that level isn’t just physical. Mostly, it’s mental. Riding that dragon takes iron discipline like you wouldn’t believe. You gotta show me you’re ready before I let the sports doc go crazy on you, yijao?”
Campbell sighed and massaged his face. “Yi. Still. Feels like a whole lot of effort for going nowhere fast, right now.”
“It is what it is, sir. We young bucks got an advantage y’all older guys can’t have. Don’t take that personally, okay?”
“Hmm.” Campbell rolled his neck. His shoulder really did feel much better. “Not personally. God knows, Thompson earned it, you earned it. I just want to earn it too.”
“You ain’t doin’ bad. You’re in better shape than most of the team was on Capitol Station.”
“Well…” Adam did what he always did in these moments, raised his titanic arms and flexed his absurd bowling-ball biceps. “Not me! But still. Seriously. Let me worry about your training and programming. You do the work, and do it as hard as you can. I’ll keep you challenged.”
He acknowledged that with a nod, and shut his eyes to soak in the heat a while longer.
“…Okay. I gotta ask. One last stupid meathead question.”
He could hear Adam grin. “G’on.”
“You, or Daar?”
Adam chuckled ruefully and shook his head.
“Oh, Daar all day long on anything and everything, more and more every day, too.” He sounded simultaneously proud and slightly envious about that. ‘’Course, he’s also over eight feet tall and damn near literally wide as a bus, so I think I stack up pretty good next to that.”
“…So, literally the size of a bear.”
“Lots bigger than a bear. Faster, too. He could break a Kodiak like a twig these days, I bet.”
“Not gonna lie, that’s scary as fuck.”
“Eh, don’t worry. He’s a good man, and besides: Righteous and I can put anyone else in their place, Gao, Human, or Ten’Gewek.”
“Even Yan. Hell, Yan just the other day!” Adam grinned smugly, stood up and once again showed Campbell just why he was the best there was. “Well, at least, I can beat Yan pretty handily. Firth…well, he puts up a good fight, considerin’ what he’s up against. Keep it on the dee-ell though, ‘cuz I don’t wanna embarrass ‘em too much, y’know?”
“Embarrass Firth, or embarrass Yan?”
Campbell chuckled while Adam apparently decided to keep on posing, because the big man didn’t have it in him to sit still for long, apparently.
“Think of it like hot yoga, ‘cuz it kinda is. Good ‘fer muscle control and you look good doing it!”
Jesus. Irredeemable meathead. Campbell rolled his eyes, sat back and relaxed. They baked for a while longer in silence, sweating out the last of their pain and fatigue.
After about ten minutes or so, ‘Horse decided he was done with sauna time. “There! Should feel lots better now.” Bouncing on his toes, he slicked himself down, adding to his small lake of sweat on the floor. “We gotta clean up our mess. I’ll go grab a mop and stuff if you wanna put away everything else?”
It’d be a hell of a workout putting all the weights by himself. Still, Campbell glanced down at the sweat-lake around ‘Horse’s gigantic feet…
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
‘Horse grinned. “Good choice! Anyway, once I’m done I’m gonna split, I got a pregnant wife to get home to. Tomorrow’s a rest day for you, sir. I would suggest you take maximum advantage,” he said, not actually making anything so gentle as a suggestion. “You fuck up that shoulder by not resting it, and I’ll just have to put it right again.”
“Right. Don’t wanna take a step backward.” Campbell heaved himself to his feet. He…physically, felt better. And that was helping him look at the road ahead a bit more optimistically too. He just wished he had a landmark he could track. Right now, all he knew was there was work to do, and he didn’t know exactly when it would pay off.
It would, though. Even if it was just one step at a time, one clicky shoulder resolved, a half-second shaved off his personal best simulator time, a pound added to his personal best lift. Sooner or later, he’d pass that invisible line.
He set to putting the weights away.
Date Point: 18y5m AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
AtaUmuUi, Ambassador for the OmoAru Remnant
The pleasing thing about High Mountain Fortress, for Ata, was its intactness. Generations of accumulating neglect on Aru had seen even quite modern buildings fall into disrepair, even to the point of collapse. As the Droud had tightened its grip around the OmoAru, small things had been neglected first. Cleaning and laundry not done, roads not swept, vehicles not maintained, work not done. Millions of people had simply been too distracted by idle pleasures to keep their lives running.
It had been done slowly and subtly, taking decades to reach the point where farmers couldn’t summon the will to harvest, or where people would rather live in the dark than replace a light. By the time anyone had even noticed they were in trouble…it was already too late.
The resulting decay had claimed the most venerable historical buildings first. To Ata, therefore, High Mountain—actual stone and mortar, a castle from before the Gao had even developed gunpowder—was a treasure. Centuries of care had kept the murals and tapestries vibrant, the huge wooden table in the middle of the Conclave chamber was healthy, polished and waxed, the flagstones were even and smooth.
It was a monument to the simple power of maintenance, and the garden? Nobody had tended a garden on Aru in hundreds of years.
Ata could feel that same thought filling his companions with a cerebral pleasure that was as sweetly different to the Droud’s suffocating, mechanical stimulus as a clear sky was to smoke. He spared a moment of gratitude for his hosts’ forbearance, too—he was acutely aware that the technology infusing his body had a highly offensive odor to them. Nobody had yet commented on it, beyond the odd flicked ear or slight shift in posture.
Evolution and selection had led their two peoples in wildly different directions.
For the OmoAru, it was a misnomer to speak of the technology infusing the very essence of their bodies as separate, or apart. The same was true of their organic phase. Both had been extensively tuned to co-exist with the other, making any distinction between synthetic and organic meaningless.
That had been the great obstacle that thwarted their last-ditch effort at survival. Try as they might, in their dying years, the OmoAru had been unable to reverse their self-engineered symbiosis.
The Gao, on the other hand, were fiercely biological creatures. Mostly they were small and slim, a few were great heaving engines of power. In personality they ran the gamut from meek to mighty, dull to razor-sharp. All had adaptability bred into their very beings. And all were intensely individualistic, despite their preference for strong social bonds.
In many ways, their peoples were polar opposites.
The burgeoning goodwill between them, therefore, was most gratifying. And, Ata had to admit, their food was excellent.
Great Mother Naydra took that compliment with a degree of pride. “I’m glad to hear you say so. I confess, I haven’t ever had the chance to sample OmoAru cuisine to compare it…”
“I fear our food production is…not in a position to support cuisine, Great Mother,” Ata replied, sadly. “The automated systems meet our nutritional needs, and the result is not an unpleasant aesthetic experience, but nor is it a pleasing one. It’s deliberately muted. The Droud again.”
“Really? You couldn’t allow yourselves even tasty food?”
“Any sensation can be greatly amplified by the Droud to a…crippling degree. Even these crackers—which, I hope you will not be insulted if I point out that they are the most inoffensive item on the menu—could be addictive.”
“That’s jus’ unspeakably evil,” rumbled the Great Father. He’d made no secret about his sensitivity to their stink, but he was direct and practical about it; a censer burning a strong incense sat on the table, throwing up a protective wall of scent between them. Ata considered such a forthright solution far more polite than trying to pretend the issue didn’t exist.
“Just one of the enemy’s many ways of ending a civilization, I fear.” Ata sighed, and enjoyed a little more of the creamy cheese he’d spread on the cracker. The fact was, much of the table’s offerings were too intense for him, after a lifetime of enforced asceticism. “I suppose it’s a kinder way to go than extermination by Abrogator.”
“Ain’t nothin’ kind ‘bout any of it.”
“No,” Ata agreed. “You appreciate, therefore, why the remaining OmoAru people are more concerned with the Hierarchy than with the Hunters.”
“I had assumed you were concerned with both,” the Great Mother said, tilting her head. “Your territory borders theirs, and you are a long way from the core of the Dominion. Do they not raid you?”
“Not since the infusion.” Ata allowed a small gesture of satisfaction. “Our flesh is, by design, quite toxic to them.”
“They don’t raid you for parts? Technology?”
Ata considered that. “Not so far. Possibly because we do not produce enough to entice them.”
“We were always gonna make sure they can’t hit ‘yer territory without sufferin’ some broken fangs,” Daar said. “Your automated shipyards are worth protectin’.”
“Quite so. But you see, this raises a question—if our shipyards are producing ships for your fleets, and being protected by your fleet, what role do we, the individuals, take in this war? Are we simply passengers, renting out our facilities while you do all the hard work? That seems…” Ata trailed off. “…unsatisfactory. In many ways.”
“Oh? What would ‘ya be lookin’ to contribute?”
“Well, we are, despite everything, quite physically capable…”
“You wanna fight.”
“Maybe it would be better to say we wish to help defend our own destiny.”
“I can unnerstand that,” the Great Father rumbled. “I’m Cousins with the idea of direct action. That’s the thing though. Look at me.” He did nothing more than sit there, majestically. His…presence said all that could be said on the matter. “Doin’ this kind o’ work takes a certain kinda relationship with the world, yijao? That mindset ain’t what I think ‘bout where ‘yer kind are concerned, s’pecially considerin’ ‘yer history with uplift.”
“My people aren’t what we were, Great Father. Those of us who remain survived the Droud on discipline, will, aggression and drive. Your criticism is likely accurate for our predecessors, but for the Remnant…”
The Great Father nodded. “Fair ‘nuff. Nonetheless, it ain’t enough to have the will. An’ it ain’t enough to have the bodies, either. You wanna fight the enemy head-on, you gotta have th’ balls. An’ that’s the biggest problem. Y’ain’t gonna do somethin’ that intense without feelin’.”
Ata tilted his head. “I’m afraid something got lost in translation. Why are testicles relevant?”
“That’s kinda my point, then. ‘Yer translator ain’t got a translation, an’ that means y’ain’t conversant with the concept. Fightin’ anything up close and personal-like is as primal a thing as you can do. How exactly are ‘yer minds gonna survive that when ‘ya can’t handle seasoned meat? When the act o’ fuckin’ might send ‘ya into a fatal Droud-fugue?”
“You strike the problem exactly. If we are to expand our usefulness beyond the safe space around the destroyed relays, then the relays must be my people’s first priority.” Ata gestured with his cracker. “Otherwise, we can only venture into relay coverage briefly and with great care.”
“Mhmm. So, now: lemme level wit’ you, ‘cuz I appreciate ‘yer honesty, an’ I think ‘ya deserve a full answer in turn. I’ve got a tiny force o’ brave, irreplaceable men, one we’ve paid a fuckin’ fortune in lives an’ treasure ‘ta have. Right now there the only ones who got any realistic chance o’ first action against any of the targets. S’why we spent, balls, over a decade buildin’ up the capability to even do this, an’ almost as long among the Gao? They’re men I can’t spend on training fights, Ambassador. You wanna fight this fight directly? I can admire that. But ‘ya got a lot ‘ta prove first, if that’s what ‘ya wanna do. An’ even then? I can’t afford a teammate that might bliss off to everyone’s doom at any moment.”
The Gaoian territories were outside of Relay coverage, meaning Ata’s own Droud was dormant. Nevertheless, its effects lingered: he needed a second to handle the spike of wounded pride and indignation in the back of his head. No, he told himself. Daar was being fair. The OmoAru had fallen far, there was no reason for Daar to respect his people’s past glories. The Remnant must start anew, come to the galaxy as it was and respect those who had built up their own empires while the old one had crumbled.
He ate his cheese on its cracker and calmed his mind. “…Your point is well made.”
Daar paused for a second. “…Okay. So, lemme say this. There’s a lotta ways ‘yer people can meaningfully contribute. Don’t think ‘ya gotta be the tip o’ the spear. I can respect th’ desire, but that’s the thing: everyone wants ‘ta be the speartip. It’s only a very few who can. That ain’t a value judgement, or a judgement o’ ‘yer worth—”
“Or an insult,” Naydra added.
Daar duck-nodded “—or an insult or anythin’ like that. An’ yeah, brave men are how wars are fought…”
The dark figure seated a few spaces to Daar’s right, Champion Thurrsto, duck-nodded and finished the Great Father’s thought. “But it is by logistics that wars are won.”
“Listen ‘ta him. Thurrsto here? He’s Champion of Whitecrest and the Keeper of the Dark Rites. I say with absolutely no reservation whatsoever that he’s one of the bravest men I know. He’s been tested in ways that even I ain’t faced. I respect him. So when he says a thing, I listen. What say you, Champion?”
Ata had noted Thurrsto’s attention many times during the meal. The Champion had a talent for alertness, even while listening to others. When Daar spoke, the Champion had watched the corners. When Ata spoke, the Champion had listened but watched the Great Father. Now, though, all of a sudden, he had Thurrsto’s full and undivided focus.
Somehow, Ata knew instantly that he was being evaluated by a truly dangerous being.
“The Ambassador has, I think, self-control hardly matched in this room,” Thurrsto intoned after a moment. “Mindfulness is a valuable talent. And from what he has said, it is a talent his remaining people have had to cultivate or die. Attention to detail, discipline, awareness…all very useful qualities in any advisor.”
“Lotsa potential there.”
“Potential, certainly. But the Ambassador has expressed a desire for more than logistical support and advisory roles. And on that score…”
Daar sighed. “Yeah.”
“I do not follow,” Ata said.
“Here’s the position ‘yer in. ‘Yer people have endured. You’ve existed, an’ it took tenacity an’ will ‘ta even manage that. But it’s robbed ‘ya of the opportunity ‘ta live, an’ there ain’t nothin’ more alive than a war. Keeda’s sake, a cheesy cracker is almost more’n you can handle right now! So before we teach ‘ya how ‘ta really fight, you gotta re-learn how ‘ta live.”
“While your people die on our behalf?”
“Ain’t no shame in it. Ambassador, you an’ ‘yer people lived through the extinction of ‘yer race. There’s no shame in bein’ wounded by that an’ needin’ time ‘ta heal. Gods, do we ever know about that…”
“…Then you know how difficult it is.” Ata cleared his throat and stood. “…We were a proud empire once, Great Father. Your words are true, but that does not dull their pain. Please…excuse me.”
He sketched a gesture of polite respect and bustled out of the dining hall, clutching after his composure like it was made of wet soap.
Worse still was knowing that to respond so intensely only proved the point. How could he be trusted with life or death, when a polite and sympathetic conversation over dinner unbalanced him so? But what could he accept of this? That his people, who had failed to save themselves and chosen stasis as a last desperate gambit, were now saved by the actions of a species who’d barely discovered electricity before the Remnant went into hiding? That his own destiny, and that of all the people he cared about, was simply out of his hands?
But that was the truth! How could he fail to accept the truth?
His shaking hand fished his huh from his pocket. Through the Link, he commanded it into calming mode and turned it over in his palms, not even looking at it. Just feeling the textureless roundness of it. Tried to breathe instead of choke.
…Not weak. Wounded. A fair assessment. Truth.
He found his breath coming easier, and put the huh away. He would continue to need it for a while yet, but he could wean himself off it, in time.
There was no sense in being angry for what had been. There was only the future, now. He and his people would heal. And once healed, they would rebuild.
One step at a time.
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
“Now that, right there, was the most worrisome thing I’ve witnessed in a long damn time.”
Videoconference. Again. His life some days was nothin’ but. This time it was with the President and the Prime Ministers, who weren’t present for the dinner. He’d be writing a letter to the King after this too, given how drastically this was gonna impact everyone’s statecraft. Daar could feel it percolating in his brain already. It was gonna be something.
Keeda-lickin’ balls was that shit alarming. An’ they needed to know. He’d just recounted the last bit (and Thurrsto was no doubt relaying his observations to his various contacts among their intelligence apparatus), which brought them to the heart of the issue.
“So, let me get this straight,” President Chambliss said, with a hand to his head as if he were in pain. “A long-dead elder civilization has magically re-appeared, given us offers of fantastic technologies and knowledge, and it turns out their ambassador—no, their entire species can’t hold their liquor in any meaningful sense of the word?”
“I get the impression a hot cup of tea might do him in,” Annette Winton replied.
“I mean,” Daar fretted, “I ain’t without sympathy. It’s more…how are we s’posed ‘ta rehabilitate their people with all the other shit we’ve got goin’ on? Is the cost worth the reward?”
“Between them and the E-Skurel-Ir, taking care of the Hunters’ and Hierarchy’s victims is promising to bog us down.” Steve Davies rubbed his jaw awkwardly. It was probably late at night in London, and he had a day’s worth of cares and stubble showing on his face. “Which could be deliberate. If the enemy are banking on our soft hearts to drain resources away from the actual fight…”
Chambliss nodded grimly. “This sounds like the job for NGOs. Much as I’m not generally a fan, what they really need are missionaries. I don’t think us, here, leaders of government and so forth have the means.”
“There’s only so much charity we can call on,” Winton said. “So much of it is already going to tending our own wounds. Franklin, Chicago, San Diego…Those are immediate and dear to people’s hearts. I don’t know if there’s enough goodwill left over for traumatized ETs.”
“You might be surprised,” Davies replied. “But in any case, how do we even fix something like this? Even if we wanted to? How do you teach an elder race how to live again?”
“I don’t think you really do,” Daar grumbled. “I think really, what we gotta ask is how do we gently keep them out of the way? Balls, I’d do it myself but firstly, I ain’t got the time, and secondly, their stink gives me th’ worstest headaches.”
“Maybe we should put them in touch with the E-Skurel-Ir…” Winton mused.
Daar tilted his head curiously. “Y’think that’ll help?
“Both species are the survivors of our enemies’ actions, both reduced to a tiny population, both struggling with their identity in the aftermath…they have a lot in common. Introducing them to each other could give both species a chance to contribute not just to their own therapy, but to the others’.”
“…Species-wide therapy.” Daar shook his pelt out head to toe. “Now there’s a notion. An’ I s’pose that’ll inevitably involve our Ten’Gewek friends too.”
“Considering the E-Skurel-Ir diaspora live in Ten’Gewek space now, it would have to.”
Daar duck-nodded. “But if I know the Ten’Gewek, they’ll love a chance ‘ta show the others how ‘ta ‘be strong.’ It’ll give Yan somethin’ productive to fret over, too.”
“Then I think we have something to work with,” Davies said.
Chambliss was nodding. “I think so too. I’ll discuss the matter with our ambassadors, then.”
There was little more to discuss, and they were all busy people. They traded pleasantries, and Daar was careful to invite them all for some (deliberately not Daar-like) gentle entertainment. He growled and dropped back down to four-paw once the conference was over.
“Still have a headache, Bumpkin?” Naydra had been quietly handling her own necessary business while she had the opportunity—now the call was over, she swished up beside him and trailed her claws through the fur at the ruff of his neck.
“Yeah…” Daar admitted.
“Had worse…” Daar shook himself out. “…but yeah.”
“You need to relax. When did you last sleep all night?”
Daar sighed and leaned into her attentions. “Been a lil’ bit, an’ you know how busy I am…”
“Bed, then,” she declared. “And if you are extra good, I will chastely give you one of my world-famous massages.”
Daar chittered wearily at that. “Yes, Mother. I’ll be a good boy.”
He was, too. He needed the rest, especially in his soul. The promised massage was more of a soothingly repetitive touch than anything, but the feel of it and the gentle scent of fresh sweet-herb was enough to sap all the tension out of him, bit by bit. She put on some nice sounds too, like they had at their super-tiny little ocean cottage down along the western isthmus shoreline. He’d never used ‘ta go in for that sort of thing, but Naydi could be persuasive….
Before long, they were cuddled together, and the last thing he remembered was the sound of waves crashing in the background, and the feel of Nadyi’s breathing against his chest.
He slept too soundly for dreams.
Date Point: 18y5m AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Lieutenant-Commander Kieran Mears
TOP SECRET — SACRED STRANGER / HOMERUN
Letter for notes,
RE: Mister Daniel HOEFF
Mister Hoeff came to me for the first of his required biannual sessions today, and my impression of him remains essentially unchanged. He is, as always, among the most difficult cases to handle. His physical health has greatly improved over the years of his association with the SOR, and in fact his physique is developing along the lines one might expect of this unit. Yet despite such a life-altering personal improvement, this has not substantially changed his psychology.
He presents as polite, even friendly in a restrained way entirely socially appropriate for a doctor/patient relationship. He arrived, shared a few small and witty jokes, sat down, and got straight to business. Our session today would accurately be described as “efficient.”
Hoeff is as pure a killer as I have ever met in any context.
This does not seem to bother him at all. He has, by his own words, “long made peace” with himself. He describes himself as “not a nice man” and in any other context I would consider this troubling considering his general positive presentation and demeanour; in his case, I think it is simply a case of unflinching harsh honesty.
Our conversation touched on his recent assignments, and especially Operation WICKED BIRD which I have found caused other SOR members considerable difficulty.
Despite his immediate role in eliminating objective ADELLE, Hoeff is not troubled in the slightest, and discussed the operation with, at most, the attitude of a master craftsman describing a particularly challenging (and therefore satisfying) project. I attribute this to his unsettling ability to deactivate his empathy like there is, in his words, “a switch in [his] head,” which puts his psychology into territory we hardly have diagnostic criteria to cover. Psychopathy or sociopathy—however ill-defined—do not address the issue. He is fully and eagerly capable of affection with those he cares about, and exhibits genuine, unmistakable warmth when talking about his friends or his intimate partner. What marks him as truly unsettling is that, for him, it is a conscious choice.
Nietzsche may have warned us of men like him. I do not find this comforting.
I am here required by duty to state that, were this an issue of standard personnel evaluation, I would consider him unfit for duty with SOR, because this freedom from trauma also grants him freedom from loyalty, should he choose it. He has of course shown no hint of disobedience, disloyalty or alienation, but it is by his own sense of honor and duty alone that we are assured of his continued fidelity.
He seems to understand and genuinely sympathize with my professional difficulties in this regard. He is also assigned under auspices over which I have only limited influence: Higher powers have decided that a man like him is necessary in the SOR’s orbit.
That being the case, I will see him again in six months.
-Lt Cmdr K. Mears Counsellor, HMS Sharman
Date Point: 18y5m1w AV
New York City, USA, Earth
Six was having…doubts.
He projected an air of confidence in dealing with the remaining APA fanatics, a certainty that all Humanity needed was another body-blow like San Diego, and the populist politics would swing toward isolation and looking out for themselves first.
The truth, though, was that he wasn’t so sure. In fact…his thoughts were troubled by the possibility that he was just lashing out, futilely.
San Diego had been a moment of desperation, a self-destruct intended to make absolutely certain that the Hierarchy’s secrets remained secure…redundant, given that Six himself had spilled them all in interrogation. In the end, it had not only failed, but backfired and crippled Hierarchy operations on Earth.
Chicago and Franklin? A masterstroke in terms of reducing Human spaceborne superiority by crippling their fighter wing. But where were the clamoring mobs demanding their government lock the galaxy out for their own safety? Where were the politicians pointing to the hills of the dead and asserting that America was best served by staying out of this war?
They weren’t there. In fact, the public was getting anxious about the arrays remaining closed.
It felt like stabbing a bear: each stroke of the knife just made it angrier, not weaker. Surely there was some vital vein to cut, and if anywhere in the Allied nations was truly critical, New York had to be it…
But what if it wasn’t?
No. No it had to be.
He’d taken a trip and driven up to the city to see it for himself, and specifically Wall Street. It was…odd…walking freely among so many humans. Many were tourists, and there was an oddity. A street that had become synonymous with unfettered capitalism and the glittering heights of finance was a tourist destination? People came from all over the Earth to walk between temples to avarice.
One of which was a gigantic bronze statue of a charging bull, recently returned from exile in a nearby park. For some reason, tourists had the habit of rubbing its horns, nose, and bronze testicles “for luck.”
Humans were weird.
Strange rituals aside, though, Six fancied he could feel the power thrumming between those buildings. Here was a node, an organ, a beating vital pulse in the Earthling planetary economy. If there was anywhere, anywhere at all, that would truly harm humanity…he was standing in it.
They knew it, too. There was a farthrow generator hidden somewhere nearby, he could feel its weight in his mind, as a kind of silent, suffocating pressure against the implants that sustained his conscious processes. Wormholes of any description were not permitted on Wall Street, and by extension the whole financial district.
Still…in the eighteen or so years since Six had first come to Earth, he’d failed and failed and failed again. His few victories had been temporary, sometimes even leading to greater setbacks. His failures? Terrible.
Perhaps he was just lashing out. He didn’t know any longer. He couldn’t see anything else he could do, though. What was he supposed to do, just accept that the deathworlder breakout had finally happened and he was living in the twilight days of his species? That Igraen extinction was now a certainty? That his own existence, most likely, would end shortly thereafter?
Some small remnant of his host offered up a memory, a snippet of poetry: Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Six reviewed the memory more thoroughly, looked up the whole poem.
It didn’t make him feel better.
None of it did. What if they did succeed here? What if cutting this throat did plunge the terran economy into chaos? Would that even change anything? Was he really just raging against something he couldn’t stop?
The cardboard cup he was holding succumbed to his grip: the top popped off, warm latte spilled all over his hand and shoes. He snapped out of his fugue and looked around sharply: nobody was paying him any attention.
“…Fuck it,” he grumbled. “Fuck it all.”
He tossed the crushed cup into a trash can and turned to go home. Maybe it all was futile. Maybe he’d already lost, and all he could do now was lash out. But if that was all he could do, then damn it, that’s what he would do.
One last hurrah, before the curtain.
Date Point: 18y5m1w4d AV
Armstrong Station, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“…think before the—? Oh. Hang on. I think they just did.”
Lewis chuckled. “Yup, that’s stasis transit alright. Guess we’re at Cimbrean.”
Being packed into a cargo crate wasn’t exactly the glamorous way to travel, but he wasn’t complaining. It was actually kinda cozy being snuggled up inside a box with his wife. They looked up as a worker in high-vis overalls unlocked and removed the lid of their coffin and offered them a hand.
“Welcome to Armstrong Station. You folks okay there?”
“Just fine, my dude,” Lewis assured him.
“Great. Got your declared cargo right here…” he indicated the small square padded container full of all their combined worldly possessions with his foot “…so if you’d just follow me, customs, immigration and security is right this way.”
Both their phones pinged several times on the way to the door as they connected to Armstrong’s network. Lewis checked his as he followed the station worker, who kindly pulled the dolley with their cargo on it for them.
Among the dozens of messages waiting for him was a priority one he’d been hoping to find waiting for him. Everything had already been sorted out ahead of time of course, but it was good to see again that his new and more stablejob (well, okay, his only really stable job in his adult life) as an associate research physicist at the University of Folctha was ready and waiting for him, and the faculty were keen to meet him.
He chuckled a bit at that though. It was a bit late in life to get his start, but he did have a hell of a CV to show off…Really, finally getting his doctorate was just gonna be the rubber stamp on everything he’d done. It would be a bit weird, trading boring for stability, but…
He glanced at Lucy, she wrinkled her nose fondly at him, and he fell in love all over again just like always happened whenever she did that. Leavin’ Mrwrki, Vedreg and all the others had been hard, but leaving Lucy? Impossible.
There was a voice mail from Julian too. He sounded bit different than Lewis remembered: deeper, gruffer, but still loaded with that same energy he remembered. Mostly it boiled down to “We’ve got a guest bed downstairs, you two can stay as long as you need, look forward to seeing you again, man.”
The shuttle ride down from Armstrong was disconcerting. Firstly, it was a shuttle and not an array! That needed fixing, and fixing right now. Lewis had done all he could on that front though, and being honest? The slowness of progress there had definitely made movin’ on easier. If he was going to be forced to do things at a glacial pace, at least he should get some quality of life out of the deal. Fundamental research sounded appealing. Hell, there was even a Guvnurag in the department!
Secondly, though: the shuttle was piloted by a tiny fluffball of a Gaoian, who seemed to think he was flying an air superiority fighter instead. Maneuver was energetic, and Lewis spent the whole descent clinging white-knuckled to his seat arms and Lucy’s hand.
He’d had enough energetic pilotage in his life, frankly.
That same deeper, gruffer voice called out to him while he was wandering around the terminal like a gormless idiot, gawping at the architecture. “Lewis! Buddy!”
He turned and…
Lewis sorta froze up for a second. “Jesus shit, is that really you?!”
He didn’t get to gape for long, because a hulking wall of jungle-boy muscle came bounding over and scooped him up in a big, genuinely crushing hug.
“Fuck yeah it is! It’s been years, man!”
Lewis had always found himself, well…kinda intimidated by Julian. He’d had a sort of loping posture and a quiet lupine way about him that took some of the edge (and size) off, but he’d always been impressive as fuck despite that, a big damn hero type with the most incredible survival story. Now? Nothing could soften the impact of his presence. That infamous magazine shoot had captured some of the goddamn alpha wolf energy that rolled off him…but not done it justice.
Still. He was, at the end of it all, a great big happy shaggy wolf-man more than anything, even if he indulged in questionable wardrobe choices these days.
Or really, lack of wardrobe, mostly.
“You’re lookin’…fuckin’ impressive, dude.” Which a severe understatement, right there.
“Right?! And lookit you! You’ve filled out! Is someone feeding you properly for a change?”
“I figured that whole nutrition thing out…”
“Amazing what a diet composed of things other than tortilla chips and salsa will get you,” he teased, warmly.
“I dunno dude, I kinda miss the chips-an’-dips life, sometimes.” Lewis chuckled, and relaxed. “Also. You can put me down now.”
“Oh!” He did, unceremoniously. “Sarry.”
As Lewis’ feet hit the deck, he heard Lucy laughing softly. “You weren’t kidding, Lew. He makes an impression…”
Julian was plainly embarrassed: Lewis could see how his arm wanted to reach up and scratch the back of his head all of its own accord. He caught himself though, and neatly segued into greetings. “Ah! You must be his better half. He’s said all sorts of soppy things about you!”
“Funny, if saying soppy things is our metric, then I kinda thought you were married to him.” Lucy gave Lewis a teasing dig with her elbow.
Julian gave them both a lewd grin. “Well, I mean…I’m a pretty open-minded fella these days…not sure my women would approve, though.”
“Your partners—” Al gave him a gently indignant tap on the arm with her free hand, the other being occupied in supporting a wide-eyed little girl even blonder than she was. “—think you’re going a bit too caveman…Hi, Lewis.”
Julian gave her a mischievous look. “Oh? Have I been a bad boy?”
It was Xiù’s turn to poke him. “Biàn tài.” Whatever that meant, she said it affectionately, and grinned a hello at Lewis that was probably all she could spare considering how energetic Harrison was being.
Lewis grinned back at her, appreciating as he did that all three had grown since he’d last seen them. Xiù looked more relaxed and happy than he remembered, and Allison had dropped some of the aggressive swagger. Being a thrupple clearly suited them down to the ground. Being parents doubly so.
“Anyway! C’mon, let’s get you settled in!”
They had a rented pick-up truck waiting for them and their cargo crate, which Julian wrestled into the back with disconcerting ease. That done, they all piled in the back row, while Julian squeezed himself into the front passenger seat and Al got in behind the steering wheel.
“We’ve got the basement mostly cleared out for your stuff. We use the gym every morning so, fair warning. We’re not particularly quiet, but the bedroom is mostly soundproof. There’s a shed too if you have anything else…”
“Nah, dude. That box has literally all our worldly belongings in it,” Lewis explained.
“The station really didn’t have room for more than that,” Lucy elaborated.
“That sounds familiar…” Xiù mused, wryly.
“Yeah, I bet.”
Actually, what struck Lewis when they got to the trio’s house was that they’d clearly kept the habit of living without too much excess. The house was lived-in, clearly home to both babies and teenagers, but even so there wasn’t any clutter as Lewis remembered it. His mom had been the kind of gleefully witchy woman whose house collected tchotchkes like dew forming.
There were no uselessly decorative trinkets in this family home. A couple of odd keepsakes framed on the wall or whatever, but that was about it. No, the personal touches were mostly in the working things—the excellent and well-maintained kitchen knives, the custom-built storage solutions in Allison’s workshop, the sewing kit on top of the bookshelf in the living room.
Funny, really. The trio were some of the richest and most influential people on Cimbrean, but they still lived with some of the plain sensibilities of abductees, just like Lewis knew he did. It was a shared experience that had left its mark on all of them.
The books were an interesting interpretation of that philosophy. The living room bookshelf was huge, and completely stocked. A colorful full print encyclopedia, reference volumes, classical novels from both Western and Chinese tradition…all the kind of stuff you’d want at the core of any good library. The top row of shelves were behind glass—actually, sealed glass, with environmental controls in place—and the books within had a foxed, dogged, badgered, catted and generally dragged-through-several-thorn-bushes handwritten look to them.
They’d thoroughly decorated the walls with art, too. The front hallway was graced with orbital survey photos of the planets they’d discovered, and the kitchen and dining table was graced with a black-and-white photo of the three of them in their mission uniforms, standing in front of Misfit. One of the slightly more restrained shots from Julian’s (apparently extensive) modeling portfolio grinned bashfully at Lewis from the bottom of the stairs.
Far outnumbering those were pictures of their children both born and adopted, alongside a number of spectacular portraits of Gaoians and Ten’Gewek; the photographer had a good eye, by the looks of it. There were even a couple photos of an absolute unit of a dog, which managed to convey both the dog’s fearsome size—he sized up well against Julian, for fucks’ sake!—and his goofier doggo nature. Strange, really: Lewis didn’t see any signs of a co-habitating doggo…
There was alien art too—a watercolor of a Gaoian commune of females with a huge impressive door, an abstract in the form of a blank canvas with three grey circles on it, and something less refined in between them: It was paint on a tanned hide of some kind, applied skillfully by the fingers of a huge, blunt hand, and it depicted a kind of chronicle of events. The centerpiece was a damn good likeness of Misfit and the trio, and the moment of first contact.
“Who did this?”
“That was done by the Singer.”
“A Ten’Gewek, I take it?” Lucy tilted her head as she considered the piece.
“Yeah! Jump schedule is pretty constrained at the moment or I would have invited her over, but if you’re here for long you’re gonna meet her. Oh, and her fella too, Vemik Given-Man now.”
“A Corti we know. Nofl. He’s the one who re-grew Julian’s foot. He insists he slipped up and drew one of them upside-down, though.” Xiù giggled. “I told him it’s barely noticeable.”
“…How do you draw a circle upside—?”
“He has a sense of humor.”
“Anyway, yeah. Let’s get you unpacked before the boys come home from after-school stuff.”
The basement was only partially sunken into the ground. From the front of the house it was beneath grade, but the land sloped down toward the backyard such that their bedroom had a sliding door that opened out directly onto a paver-brick patio.
Downstairs, the main space was L-shaped and occupied by the promised gym. The floor was covered in some sort of sparring mat and the walls were lined with a murderously heavy pile of weight. There weren’t any machines, just dumbbells, bars, racks, benches and the like. It was a clever study in compactly storing away a pretty damn hardcore-looking gym, honestly.
At least it didn’t smell too bad, so that was good. He took one step into the room, though, and barely avoided stumbling as his whole body instantly felt substantially heavier—
“Oh! Sarry. I usually keep the room at Akyawentuo gravity. The control is right there at the bottom of the stairs. You need a PIN to turn it up any higher, and if you do it’ll lock all the doors to the basement anyway. Just press the big red button to turn it off.”
Lewis did. He didn’t need any of that in his life right now.
Unpacking went quick. There was space on the floor for Lewis’s zafu and such, while Lucy made herself disconcertingly well at home among the rest of it. The bedroom had some empty shelves which they artfully filled up, and the bed itself was a foldaway style: odd in a house these days, but useful nonetheless. They could go to the thrift store and pick up a desk too, or maybe they could build one! Al said they had a pretty good set of handyman tools…
House-hunting was gonna take a while, apparently. So, they had better get comfortable. It was good to have good friends.
The afternoon sort of passed in a blur after that. The kids came home, and Ramsey was apparently not ready to settle down yet, so they had a chin-waggle for a moment and came up with the only sport the likes of this group could play together on a vaguely level playing field: basketball. Or at least, that was what it started as. In a matter of minutes it devolved into something entirely not basketball, but which Lewis seemed to understand the rules for anyway…
Okay, yeah. Playtime was fun. Lewis could admit that. At least, it was fun now that he could run for more than a few minutes without falling apart into noodly hypoxic death.
Afterwards, there was a barbecue. Real charcoal, and wood smoke. Naked flames weren’t a thing on Mrwrki, so for Lewis and Lucy both it was the first chance to enjoy some real cooking since they’d last taken shore leave. It marked the start of an evening the exact opposite of the day they’d just had. After a long blur of packing, goodbyes, travelling several months in a few seconds, hellos and unpacking, then falling headlong into the happy family life his friends had put together, the chance to just stop, take a deep breath, and sit and talk lazily with a cold beer…
Folctha’s nightly rainfall was a gentle patter tonight, tapping hypnotically on the awning that every house in town had for exactly that reason. Lewis had expected Tristan and Ramsey to vanish indoors and play videogames—it was what he’d have done at their age—but instead they wanted to cozy up around the fire pit with Al and Xiù. With the five of them crammed together it was a tight snuggle, but that seemed to be how they liked it; Julian had his big arms around everyone and the happy expression on his face was just too much.
Tristan was full of questions. “So what was the coolest thing you guys worked on together?”
“That we can talk about,” Julian added, as he rolled a soccer ball around the floor distractedly with his bare feet.
Lewis nodded. All the boys knew was that he and Lucy had been stationed on a research facility somewhere. The Erebor system, Mrwrki station, and nearly everything produced there was all top secret, but the best way to handle security like that was to just say “Yeah, I was someplace, no I can’t say exactly where.”
Fortunately, they’d kinda predicted a question like this might come along. And there were plenty of failed projects that weren’t classified and they could freely talk about.
“Think my favorite thing we tried to make was the iron man-style armor suit.”
“Tried to, my dude. Sorry. I’m not Tony Stark.” Lewis chuckled and sipped his beer. “Whole project was kind of a demonstration of why that kinda tech doesn’t work in reality.”
“Oh, here we go. The Power Armor Rant.” Lucy laughed. “He has to explain this one a lot.”
“Oh, no, I know power armor isn’t a thing. I mean, if it was, the HEAT would use it, right?” Tristan nodded. “But you tried to make one anyway?”
“Basics of science, my dude. Always try an’ prove yourself wrong. Like, I tell you what, if I just went ahead and assumed that kinda thing was impossible and then some other fella went and invented it? I’d feel really dumb for wasting my shot at bein’ the dude who did it first ‘cuz I was too stubborn to check myself. As it is…we gave it the ol’ college try and failed, so if somebody ever does get it workin’, I know they’re just a better inventor than us! Ain’t no shame in that.”
“The helmet’s downstairs if you want to see it,” Lucy added.
Tristan promptly sprang to his feet and vanished indoors to go take a look; Ramsey stayed where he was. “Okay, but, was there anything you were expecting to work and it didn’t?”
“Oh, man, more than I could count…” Lewis shook his head ruefully. “Some of ‘em woulda been great, too. Can you imagine hover-cars with no movin’ parts, just solid-state field projectors? Huge save on maintenance both for the vehicle and the road surface, no microplastics from tyre wear, perfect smooth ride…”
“Why didn’t that work?”
“Safety. If a wheeled car runs outta charge, it can coast along, and you pull over, right? Hovercar though, if you lose power than suddenly you just nose-dived into the road at sixty miles an hour.”
“That’s kind of the pattern with our work,” Lucy agreed. “We can have awesome ideas all the livelong day, and then something practical comes along and spoils our fun.”
“And then the funny thing is, you follow the practical stuff wherever it leads and somethin’ awesome falls out at the end anyway!”
Ramsey nodded. “Right, but sometimes it’s dangerous to do either way. Like the HEAT guys, right? Adam says that what he does is waaaay too dangerous for anyone to just do.”
“It is,” Julian chipped in. “Same for me. But sometimes you gotta take certain risks, y’know? Just…” Julian turned to Ramsey and looked him dead in the eye. “You’ll be grown up in a few years and I know how you are about this stuff, so…just, whatever you end up doing, don’t be stupid or headstrong about it, okay? I love you too damn much for that.”
Lewis knew plenty about the twins’ history from corresponding with Al, Julian and Xiù. Knowing what he did about their control-freak tyrant of a father and their neurotic mess of a mother, the thing that struck him was how Ramsey took that bit of fatherly advice and affection well, instead of rolling his eyes at it like Lewis himself would have done when he was that old. Sixteen-year-old Lewis would have cringed down to his toes if his dad had ever said ‘I love you’ around guests. Ramsey though…
“I won’t,” he promised, then grinned. “I don’t know if I wanna be a meat wagon like you anyway!”
“Ha!” They hugged, and it would have been sickeningly sweet if it wasn’t also genuine.
The moment was broken by Tristan returning with the helmet in his arms. “This is heavy!”
“Yeah…all the materials science and metallurgy in the world couldn’t cut the suit down to a useful weight.” Lucy sighed ruefully, and took the helmet from him to turn it over in her hands. “Well, for normal people anyway, which more or less defeated it from the word go. Pity, really. I think we’re all romantic enough that we wanted to be wrong about this one.”
“For sure…” Lewis agreed. He tilted his head back and thought. “There’s one project out there…big risk. Big risk. Could blow up in all of our faces, if it goes totally wrong. More likely, won’t come to nothin’…could be the savin’ of us all in the long future.”
“Ah, yes.” Julian nodded knowingly. Hmm. “Pretty much the ultimate gamble, that one.”
“Dad, you’re being cryptic,” Ramsey complained.
“Sorry, dude,” Lewis apologized. “There’s not a whole lot we can talk about that ain’t super classified, truth be told.”
“Do you think it ever won’t be?”
“Some of it, maybe? When it can’t hurt any longer…” Lewis sipped his beer again. “Funny thing is, I used’ta not believe in official secrets. I was the kinda dude who got into hacking in high school ‘cuz I thought our government should be completely transparent. Had these big dreams of hackin’ into Area Fifty-One or whatever and provin’ the little grey men were real…”
“Oh, man, can you imagine if they were?” Allison snarked. “That would totally turn the whole world upside-down…”
Lewis chuckled. “…Got no idea what I’d have done if I’d actually, y’know, managed to dig up any big military secrets. It was a dumb philosophy, you know? Like, there’s obviously people out there who need to know stuff that other people don’t. Some of the stuff we worked with…yeah, it shouldn’t see the light of day for a long time. Not ‘cuz any of it’s evil, but ‘cuz all of it’s important and ‘cuz of what would happen if the wrong people knew about it.”
“Heh. Lookit him. A regular model citizen.”
Lewis couldn’t reply to that accusation except with a wry shrug, and emptying his bottle. “Guess I am nowadays, yeah.”
The evening ended…well, exactly like a wholesome family evening should end, just adapted to their unique proclivities. Everyone spent some time in the gym doing something, which ended with Julian and the two boys sparring. He was not gentle with them, but they seemed to relish it anyway; there was definitely a sort of respect at play that Lewis didn’t quite grok, even if he could see it plain as day. When Tristan went upstairs to read, Julian went at it even more fiercely with Ramsey, but not for too long: their sparring was apparently just an end-of-day bit of fun.
The bedtime routine followed afterward. Lewis and Lucy perused the bookshelf while everyone cleaned up. Some minutes later, Julian came thumping down in a disconcertingly close-fitting pair of what were probably supposed to be basketball shorts, his hair untamed, wet and wild. He still hadn’t figured out how shirts worked, apparently.
“The books in the glass case are from Vemik and a few others, doing ‘field research.’ Individually hand-made, right down to the paper and glue. The ink is good archival-grade stuff he buys here on Folctha, though. Turns out they’re proving quite valuable to the researchers!”
“Yeah! He asks for feedback and gets better with each volume. He and Singer have a good eye for sketching, too. Eventually these are going to the New York Public Library, but Vemik wants to deliver them himself. So…it’ll be a while, probably…Anyway, got a couple things I wanted to discuss privately.” Julian indicated the office at the back of the living room.
Lewis shrugged amiably and followed him. “Sure, dude.”
He’d been expecting Julian to shut the door. He didn’t expect the way a privacy forcefield went up and fuzzed the window opaque, filling the room with soft white noise the moment the door closed.
…Well. Okay then.
“So I guess we secretly traffick in the same circles, huh?”
“Yeah.” Julian sat down in a swivel chair that looked like it was built for a sumo wrestler, which nonetheless creaked stoically under his weight. “I’m an ambassador nowadays. Erebor is part of the standard brief for those of us with an interstellar portfolio…And so is the Entity. Freaked me the fuck out when I learned about it.”
“Shit yeah, dude.” Lewis agreed, flopping down into the comfy armchair opposite. “Fuckin’ thing’s wrong in every kinda way, but it’s on our side.”
“Is it, though? That’s a hell of a monster that we’ve got on our hands. Not that we can do anything about it…” Julian crossed his arms in front of his chest and frowned. “Seems like we’re more along for the ride, to me.”
“Dude, we’re always along for the ride. We’re sittin’ on a spinny rock goin’ round a nuclear explosion that’s only not explodin’ ‘cuz it’s too heavy. An’ here in this galaxy of millions of those, we turn out to be not just like anybody else because the fuckers who’ve been killin’ folks like us since the freakin’ dinosaurs finally slipped up and missed us? And that’s just here, bro!”
“Well, sure. Can’t get off the ride. But that don’t mean you shouldn’t, I dunno, try and seize the controls if you can.”
“Exactly what we did, dude. Galactic Vaccine. Biggest idea I ever had, and I tell ya, the one I’m most proud of.” Lewis gestured vaguely sky-ward. “Like I said. All the zany shit we’ve seen is just like our little lens on one galaxy. Next week, could be we have to put our differences with the Hierarchy aside an’ even team up with the Hunters ‘cuz the Reapers or whatever just showed up, or the Paperclip Maximizer found us.”
“Except, now Galactic Vaccine belongs to the Entity, and the Hunters have suddenly discovered the virtues of self-replicating ships…”
“That’s a fight they can’t win. An’ the longer they keep trying, the longer an’ deeper they fuck themselves.”
Julian grumbled. “I hope so. I admit I’m not a giant brain on this stuff—shaddup, lil’ guy.”
Lewis just grinned. “I didn’t say anything! Anyway,” he chuckled, then sobered. “I won’t lie. This shit’s kept me up at night. There’s a lot up in the air right now and it feels like we’re powerless to do anything about it, sometimes.”
“But it ain’t true, man. Just look at the Hierarchy. I mean, come on, fuckers have been around since forever and all of a sudden…I mean, dude, try and put yourselves in their position. How well d’you think you’d manage if a couple thousand mayflies just up and wrecked all your shit before breakfast one day?”
“…Has that actually happened to you? Because that’s a suspiciously specific analogy.”
“Yes, but that’s neither here nor there. I mean, Igraen minds live hundreds of thousands of years if they wanna. They’ve been around for millions of years as a species. They’re older than the Himalayas! What’s a human to something like them? Fuckin’ mayflies, man! On their time scale, we’re a buncha little blips that just appeared outta fuckin’ nowhere alluva sudden and now all their shit’s on fire and I don’t think they’ve even had time to, like, properly figure out what’s goin’ on.”
Lewis realized he was waving his hands animatedly and calmed himself a bit. Old, bad habit. “…So, yeah. We ain’t just ‘along for the ride,’ Julian. We are the fuckin’ ride. We’re the moment the merry-go-round breaks down.”
“It ain’t just us.” Julian frowned for a moment. “Have you ever considered our part in this little drama? Between you, me, Xiú and Al? We’re pretty central to this tale. Heck, the Gao and the Ten’Gewek happened because we just sorta blundered our way into things!”
“Right? And all we were tryin’ to do was…well. In my case see the stars an’ hang out with awesome aliens and some badass friends. And, okay, maybe some folks’ve blundered a bit more effectively than others, but you know what? The Ten’Gewek wouldn’ta happened without MBGs engineers makin’ a damn good ship, either. Or the miners who first dug up the raw materials that went into her, or the guys who built the mining machines and so on, et cetera. Maybe there’s folks way in the background whose big contribution was deliverin’ pizza one time, but that’s the thing about the ride, man. Everyone’s on it, everyone’s steerin’ it. That’s why it’s so crazy! It’s not that we ain’t in control, we’re all in control!”
Julian shook his head, sending his hair whipping wildly around. “God, what a crazy life. Did you know this has sorta brought out the religion in me a bit?”
“Yeah. Not exactly organized practice, since none of ‘em really approve of our whole thing…” he gestured vaguely upstairs, indicating himself, Xiù and Allison. “…But in the face of all this, everything that’s happened? In my head, I know all about statistics and random chance and the Butterfly effect and all that, but…”
“Hmm…” Lewis sighed. “…makin’ me miss Amir, man. He’d’a been certain God’s hand was steerin’ us and stuff.”
They shared a moment of silence for a friend who’d died more than ten years ago.
“…You don’t buy it though, huh?” Julian asked.
Lewis shrugged. “I mean…what would it mean if it was the divine hand at work? Why us? Why now? Why millions of years of suffering and extinction and then alluva sudden the Chosen Ones come along? Nah, man. I can’t get behind that. I can get behind believin’ we got lucky and worked hard to make the best of that luck, that makes me feel good. God playin’ favorites, though? That would be a shitty-ass universe to live in. Then we’d really just be along for the ride again, not in control at all.”
“I guess…” Julian scratched the back of his head again, frowning in thought. Something was clearly troubling him.
Lewis decided the kindest thing would be to distract him from it. “You didn’t pull me in here to talk religion though.”
“Oh, right. Yeah.” Julian turned, grabbed a tablet from its charging pad on the shelf next to him, unlocked it with his thumbprint, and handed it over. “I’ve got something to share with you. A bit of a job offer: keep you on as an advisor, now and then. So you don’t go completely crazy in pure academia.”
Lewis lifted his eyebrows and took the tablet “…Oh?”
“Yeah. In the month you’ve been traveling, the Entity’s been up to some interesting things…”
Date Point: 18y5m2w AV
Uncharted system, Hunter space
There was a convoy. Twelve ships. The Entity watched it with something resembling hunger.
An echo of hunger, at least. Obviously, in comparison to what Ava remembered of real hunger, what the Entity felt was nothing visceral. It had no mouth to water, no stomach to growl. Its need for what that convoy carried was wholly cerebral…but no less felt.
Acquiring raw materials in space wasn’t straightforward. Asteroids were dense with metals, but not all metals were easily refined by a spaceborne life form, nor could such a life form exist on metals alone. It needed polymers, plastics, allotropic carbon. And while the Entity had figured out methods for creating those things in specialized orbital factories…it hadn’t yet figured out efficient methods.
Nor had the Hunters. They still depended on planets, where their slaves worked and died to keep the Builders supplied.
At first, the Entity had been able to raid the resulting convoys with impunity. It would jam communications, overwhelm the transport, tear the hull apart with forcefield, gather up the spilled cargo and then tow the hull itself away too. Why waste good resources?
The Hunters had redesigned the transports, sacrificing capacity for defenses. Then they’d started adding swarmship escorts.
This convoy had three broodships guarding it. Which suggested to the Entity that either the Hunters had learned to guard their logistics…
Or this one’s carrying something special.
Or it’s a trap.
That was an option too.
Oh well. It’s not like they can kill us, is it?
No, but the capture and reverse-engineering of a probe would be undesirable. The Entity had qput a lot of effort into ensuring that the Hunters never finalized their own self-replicating ship design.
That’s why they can self-destruct.
Dios mío, shit or get off the pot already!
The Entity paused a moment longer then, with a purely mental shrug, it decided that its sense of curiosity, and its “hunger,” outweighed the need to be cautious with resources, here.
It committed twenty probes to the attack. That number, it felt, struck a balance between the overwhelming force needed to assuredly crack this particular target, and conservative withholding of its true capabilities.
The Hunters reacted quickly, as they always did. Their minds were networked, impulses and orders flowing from individual to individual far faster than the clunky mechanism of speech would have allowed. But the Entity was quicker. It had no need to communicate at all. Each probe was a fingertip, part of its body.
The result was not the stocky, square, orderly kind of battle it witnessed when matterspace life forms warred each other. As fluid as those could be, non-networked beings relied on training, drills, formations and tactics. When the Swarm and the Probes fought, however, they shifted and flowed, danced and postured, feinted and faded.
The Hunters couldn’t run. The Entity made sure of that by blasting local spacetime with interference from its own interpretation of a Farthrow generator, and made prodigious use of gravity spikes, too: small ones could trap its prey for minutes, a time scale that might as well be centuries from its perspective. When a Swarmship tried to flee, the Entity shot a megalight missile out in front of it and spiked its path, halting it before it could escape. Gravity spikes were terrain, battlefield engineering, obstacles. Their judicious use allowed it to control its enemy.
The Hunters, of course, did much the same. Much of the battle passed bloodlessly, as the Entity shot sparingly and to cause maneuver, coiling its probes tighter and tighter around the convoy. The Hunters fired much but hit little, their firing solutions foiled time and again by the probes’ sharp acceleration profiles and agility.
When the blood did come, it came in a tide.
The Entity struck, sending a trio of probes lashing through the convoy at high acceleration, instantly overtaking their own ammunition. The result was a doppler effect, hundreds of kinetic rounds bunched up and rained into the target’s shields like a cloudburst and tore through before the Hunters could shift their fleet’s wall of projected shielding. Several dozen meters of outer hull ablated, tore, and exploded off as the high-pressure gas inside found a way to escape.
The Entity’s probes had no such weakness. One of them took a glancing hit from point defence as it sizzled through the formation and left behind a fast-moving cloud of its own vaporized armor, but its internal systems were not harmed by vacuum.
A second trio feinted, drawing the convoy’s shield wall toward them in time for a pair of probes to lash up from the wrong direction and obliterate five swarmships in a second tear-and-fade.
The Entity coiled, tightened, struck, struck, struck.
It took ten seconds to kill every ship in the convoy. Ten more to be certain.
The probes were built to scavenge, to mine, and to gather resources, and do it quickly. With the violence behind them, the damaged probes moved outward to form a sacrificial picket and early warning line: the undamaged ones moved in and cut into the stricken broodships with lasers. High-power forcefields infiltrated the hull breaches and tore them open.
Cargo was sorted, analyzed. Much of it was full of…biomass.
Slaves. We just killed a lot of slaves.
< Sorrow; Nauseated >
At least it was quick. Better than what the Hunters had lined up for them…Anything else in there?
Some of the crates were sealed. Penetrating scans suggested they contained technology of some sort, which the probes scooped up for later examination. Raw materials, eagerly scavenged. Synthetic rubber, plastics, coke and compressed oxygen, all greedily seized.
The hulls were full of valuable resources too. Refined titanium, alloyed beams, damaged but salvageable parts, intact ceramics, kilometers of wiring, refined nuclear fuel…the Entity claimed it all, and left behind only the broken, the burned, the worthless and the dead.
Caution and paranoia inspired it to load the seal crates of tech onto one of the damaged probes and send that probe off to a peripheral location. That tech could be scanners, could be communications equipment…could be harmful. Best to isolate it, feed it as little intelligence as possible until it was conclusively proven harmless.
It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you…
The Entity hesitated before withdrawing, though. It felt…wrong…somehow, to leave that graveyard full of unfortunate slaves behind without…something. Some acknowledgement that they had been alive, and it had killed them.
We didn’t know they were there.
True. And the Hunters were ultimately responsible. Nevertheless, their actions had finished what the Hunters had started. It would be…wrong…to feel nothing for them. To do nothing for them.
Even though everything that could be done was, ultimately, not for them at all. Ava’s memories provided something, however.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…
It was a memory. A funeral. Her mother’s aunt. Ava had been nine years old, and sat obediently in her best dress. She’d felt much the same then as the Entity did now: that same confused feeling that it was right to do something for the dead, but that really, it was more for all the people who’d crowded into that church.
She remembered missing those words at Sara’s funeral. Remembered saying them later, in private, and apologizing to Sara’s memory for it, but…Ava needed them, to say goodbye.
The Entity certainly didn’t know a better way. It let the memory play out. And then, its impulse to grieve fulfilled, it turned and flicked away into the interstellar dark with its prizes.
A quarter of an hour later, when a Hunter patrol arrived to rescue the convoy, they found only scraps.
++END CHAPTER 73++
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…
Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, and you can read it for free on Royal Road where we are publishing each chapter on a monthly basis.
If you get impatient and would like to read the whole thing, then you can purchase it in hardcover and paperback through your local book store or online wherever good books are sold. Alternatively, you can download it for free through Kindle Unlimited.
If you have enjoyed the Deathworlders story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:
Buying some merchandise at http://teepublic.com/HamboneHFY
Voting for The Deathworlders at http://topwebfiction.com
This chapter was brought to you with the help of…
Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
Sally and Stephen Johnson
Sian, Steve, Willow and Riker
TTTA Adam Shearsby Alvaro Gaitan Anthony Landry Anthony Youhas Armond471 Austin Deschner blackwolf393 Brigid Chris Candreva Chris Dye Daniel Iversen Daniel Morris Eric Hardwick HungryWerewolf James Ren Jeffrey Stults John Norton Joseph Szuma Joshua Mountain Taylor Karthik Mohanarangan Katja Krit Barb Marquis Talmadge Nicolas Gruenbeck Ortheri Rob Rollins Ryan Seaman Sam Berry Shane Wegner Sun Rendered T.A. Carlson Taylor McGee TheMoneyBadger Theningaraf Trevor C Xultanis Yeania Aeon Zachary Galicki Zenith
As well as fifty-seven Deathworlders…
Adam Beeman Alexandre Smirnov Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece atp Ben Thrussell Brandon Hicks Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jim Hamrick John Campbell Jon Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Patrick Huizinga Richard A Anstett RJ Smiley Ryan Cadiz Sam Saph Sean Calvo Sir Xaph Stephen Prescott Stratigan theWorst Valiander Vincent Leighton Volka Creed walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas ziv Zod Bain
…Eighty-five Friendly ETs, 145 Squishy Xenos and 318 Dizi Rats, all hanging on the christmas tree.
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners.
The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.
The author does not automatically share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.
Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 74: “Ride to Hell”