Chapter 75: Sutures
Date Point: 18y6m1w5d AV
Manhattan, NYC, USA, Earth
Nurse Delilah Lyons
Vemik Given-Man was not a problem they were prepared to deal with. First, merely moving him was difficult. While his bulk was impressive, it was his incredible weight that made everything difficult. His body was stone-solid and frighteningly dense even totally relaxed and unconscious; he was much more massive than he looked, and that was saying something.
Even their specialized equipment for those rare, extraordinarily obese house-bound patients had struggled to properly heft him. The super-reinforced double-wide gurney creaked and groaned under his weight, and it apparently took ten strong men with a special stretcher to get him down to ground level in the first place.
Both of the ambulance medics looked exhausted, and one of them must have pulled something in the effort. He was wincing in pain, she could plainly see.
Fortunately the hospital elevators had high capacities, and it was just enough to accommodate him, the gurney, and a few attending staff.
He came awake while they were hustling him into prep, mumbling something in a language she didn’t understand. Instinctually, she reached out and held his massive paw. He squeezed back with a painful grip; he was scared.
“Hey. You’re in a hospital, okay? You’re safe. You need surgery. We’re going to get all the shrapnel out of you and fix you up. Try not to move. Can you do that for me? Stay still?”
It took him a moment to process that, and his eyes were lazily sliding all over everything… definite brain injury, like they’d reported.
“O…okay.” He said at last, and then gave her a weak smile. “You’re pretty.”
“Well, thank you. But right now I need you to just relax for me, okay?”
Around them, the hospital was a step away from pandemonium. She was trying not to think about it and focus on the job in front of her, but everyone knew about Grand Central. They were already calling it the worst mass shooting ever. She could believe it.
Grief and politics could wait. She had a patient to look after.
And many more to follow.
Date Point: 18y6m1w5d AV
Marine One, taking off from the White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
Beau was doing what some of his predecessors should have learned to do, and steadfastly ignoring social media. It was a valuable tool, and powerful, but he’d learned that the safest use for it was levity. It was a tool to humanize the President, not a town crier for executive decree.
Now was not the time for levity. Now was the time to show up. He needed to hear grievances, hear the pain, see the tears. He needed to listen, not quack loudly to remind everyone he still existed.
He grabbed his seat and grimaced as they banked and turned south-east toward the AFB where the plane was waiting. He hated flying. Hated helicopters especially. But, duty demanded he get himself to Manhattan as quickly as possible, and for that, he had to fly.
Marine One to Air Force One. Air Force One to another Marine One. From there, a motorcade. He’d be traveling all day. Which, compared to the suffering that APA managed to inflict in its death throes…
Lord forgive me, I hope they’re burning right now.
He pushed the vengeful thought and the queasy feeling in his stomach aside and tried to focus on what he was going to say. He was going to have to say a lot of things to a lot of different people. Some would be wounded. Some would be grieving. Some would be heroes. All would be traumatized. He owed it to them to at least find words that didn’t feel shallow, somehow.
Then there was the diplomatic incident. Of all the people to get caught up in it, a Ten’Gewek Given-Man had been wounded, and he had no idea how the Ten’Gewek might respond to that, much less if he died of his wounds. On the one hand, there wasn’t much they could do. They were a client nation for very good reasons, even if he hated the shades of colonialism; they weren’t ready. But on the other…
They were a client nation of the Great Father. He would definitely not be pleased at all about any of this, and that mattered; Ten’Gewek were turning out to be an extremely important recruiting source for JETS teams, like the Ghurkas in the British empire. Some unique combination of factors meant it was easier to find suitable recruits among a people of maybe twenty-five thousand than it was among the Anglophone nations with hundreds of millions. And so, more than half of teams two through…six, now? The bulk of their manpower was Ten’Gewek.
All Yan had to do was call them home…
He needed to speak with his ambassadors. Rockefeller of course would be upset, but the mountainous primitivist at the center of this drama—Etsicitty?—would likely be quietly fuming over the whole thing. Chambliss of course couldn’t blame him, from what he understood the big man was quite close with the Ten’Gewek, Vemik especially. Not normally a desirable quality in an ambassador, but a typical aloof relationship wouldn’t work here, so…
So he had a primitive and yet strategically important people that needed to be assuaged, while his envoy to those people was effectively the total and polar opposite of what any normal ambassador would be: cover-model handsome and charismatic, rather than stately and dependable. Too handsome, in fact. He looked like a steroid-snorting sweaty comic book hero, for chrissake! Who did nude modeling—recently, too! That didn’t even cover his complicated family situation, or the trio’s celebrity status independent of any of the rest of it. Two sets of personalities Chambliss had essentially nothing in common with that needed careful handling…
Christ. Chambliss dug in his pocket for some acetaminophen to ease his headache, chased it down with a swig of soda, and turned his attention back to the things that were inside his area of expertise. He could be statesmanlike. Reassuring. The calm hand on the rudder now that the seas were rough.
He just needed the right words…
Date Point: 18y6m1w5d AV
Lakebeds National Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Even though Lakebeds would never match the towering majesty of Yosemite, the majesty had never been Julian’s abiding memory of that trip anyway. What he really remembered was kissing Xiù for the first time, then going back to the tent, cuddling up in a nest of blankets and sleeping bags with two of the most beautiful women in the galaxy, listening to rain on the tarp, and forgetting his troubles for a while.
Life had a way of providing such moments of peace when one went looking for them, and Julian had learned long ago to know them and appreciate them when they came. They’d taken Lewis and Lucy along, Allison had brought along Clara and Dane, they’d built a campsite next to Lake Chrissake, not far from the road, and now…
Campfire coffee, the patter of rain on the tarps. Anna and Harrison asleep in their travel cots, Ramsey diligently turning a rack full of hot dogs over the fire, Tristan listening slightly awestruck as Clara and Lucy discussed something technical that went way over Julian’s head…
There was something just…wholesome about it all. He’d had one of his slabfriends describe his alignment as “chaotic dad” once, and honestly? Yeah, it kinda fit. He really did enjoy teaching the boys his skills, and playing with the toddlers (even when they were being difficult.) Since coming out here and setting up the camp they’d sparred a bit, meditated by the lake, and tried to relax and treat it as an impromptu camping trip rather than…
Well, rather than getting out of town because his spider-sense was tingling. Just in case.
Even though that worry never quite went away, Julian did find it in him to relax, knowing they were all set at least. There was nothing for them to do now except enjoy the little slice of luxury they’d carved out.
One that his phone shattered.
Prickles ran up his back the second it went off. Hoeff’s ringtone. In a fit of mischief, he’d set it to play ‘In The Navy’ by Village People ‘cuz, well, Hoeff was a former SEAL and hated it in a tolerant, amused way. But it was not the ringtone he wanted to hear at the moment, especially considering the last things he’d heard from Hoeff.
Please, God, let it be good news…
Just in case it wasn’t, he took his phone and retreated from camp, jogged up to the truck, and sat in it to answer. “Hoeff. What’s up?”
“I’m comin’ ‘ta get you. Duty calls. President needs to talk with you.”
“Shit.” Julian sighed. Yup. Spider-sense was never wrong. “What happened?”
Hoeff explained. He listened. He realized at one point his spare hand was gripping the steering wheel so hard it was beginning to creak, and let go, but that just left him with no outlet.
“How the fuck did this happen, Hoeff?”
“Like any successful act of terror—Suddenly. Vemik killed all four who came after him and he’s okay for now, but…”
“Why weren’t your people there?!”
“Firstly, they were. The whole encounter went off in seconds. Secondly, Vemik was exposed for the same reason you aren’t surrounded by bodyguards right now, big guy. You refused.”
“No worries. I’m pissed as fuck too. Get ready, I’ll be there in five.”
“Right.” Julian hung up, rested his head back against the headrest, and groaned. He didn’t even feel like swearing.
Next time, he promised himself. Next time they’d come out here when he wasn’t fretting about something. But…who knew. This had still been the right thing to do, even if he had to go. He glanced back toward the fire, and nodded to himself. They were safe. That mattered. They could have a good time out here without him.
He bustled out of the truck.
Al and Xiù knew what was up the second they saw him. Again, there was that whole no-nonsense thing where they figured out what needed to happen, and made it happen: Allison helped him fetch his stuff, Xiù fixed him a hot dog. Kisses from them, hugs from the boys, kisses for the babies, hugs for Lewis, Lucy, Clara and Dane…
Hoeff showed up with a SOR van full of security, including Ferd and his men. Good. Humans (who he didn’t know) with long, scoped rifles and trained special operator murdermonkeys was about as good as a man could ask for. He traded a solemn nod with Ferd, another with one of the fellas that seemed like he was in charge, and crammed himself into the van’s front seat.
Xiù handed Hoeff a hot dog too. “Look after him,” she said.
“We’ll look after each other,” he promised. That was a clever little turn of phrase, actually. Exactly the right thing to say. She nodded, gratefully.
They drove away. About a mile down the road, Hoeff licked ketchup from his fingers and finally spoke.
“…Good hot dog.”
Julian realized he hadn’t even eaten his. “Yeah.” There was not much else to say. Duty called.
But he did enjoy his hot dog, even so.
Date Point: 18y6m1w5d AV
ESNN news studio, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“Are you okay?”
Ava’s hands were trembling as she massaged Hannah’s ears. It was funny, really: in front of the camera, things weren’t a problem. She read off the prompter, delivered the facts, offered whatever insights she felt qualified to give, asked whatever questions came up…It was all a well-honed skill at this point, a dance she knew the steps to.
When the cameras shut off, her imagination returned. And it had a nasty habit of putting her there.
Bustling out of the roller derby event with Adam, after he spotted a bad guy in the crowd. Hearing the shots ring out when Sara was killed. The moment a bullet had hit her in the back in Egypt…
She was fine. She nodded at her producer, Will Fisher, and gratefully accepted a cup of water. “Just…upset.”
“Yeah.” Will sat down next to her. “I can make room for you if you need to take a health break tomorrow…”
Ava shook her head. Hannah wasn’t whimpering and Doing Her Best any longer, and Hannah honestly knew her mood better than anyone. If the dog was calm, she was calm. “Honestly, I’m fine. It’s just…a lot of people.”
“Yeah, we just got the latest numbers.” Will handed them over. Ava looked the printout over and felt something sag slightly, inside her. There’d been a number of grim thresholds looming over them since the story had broken, once they’d realized where had been hit and by how many gunmen. The last of them had just crumbled.
“Right,” she nodded solemnly.
Will patted her shoulder. “You’re back on in three.”
Ava finished her drink, set it aside, and sat back so the makeup artist could touch her up for the studio lights. Sometimes, the dream of quitting this and going full-time with her art gnawed at her. But on the other hand…
A touch on her arm and an urgent mutter had her striding back to the desk. Sit down, make sure Hannah was sitting quietly next to her, microphone on, compose herself, wait for the light…
“Welcome back to ESNN, our main headline tonight, the worst mass shooting in American history, as the number of confirmed fatalities in the Grand Central massacre reaches triple digits. Our correspondent Thani Alromaithi has this report from the scene…”
She was back in front of the camera. She was in control.
She was okay.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Manhattan, NYC, USA, Earth
Hospital was not fun. Vemik couldn’t do any of the things he loved most.
Moving? Lifting? Springing around, playing, fucking? Not an option. The grenade had cut deep into his body, slicing muscle and leaving little sharp teeth inside him that had sawn and cut through him as he moved and fought. In his fighting rage, he’d not noticed. Now that he was resting, it hurt, and if he moved at all it hurt even more.
The doctors said that was easy to fix and promised he’d be up and moving in a hand of days at most. They used long words that Vemik would have found super interesting before…but that was the other problem.
He couldn’t think right.
It came and went. Sometimes, he’d feel almost like himself, he’d get out his journal, start sketching or writing, then some time later he’d blink and realize he’d been sitting with pencil in hand and doing nothing for a while, staring at the paper, or he’d look at the paper and find it covered in nonsense. His thoughts felt slow, and he’d try to listen closely when somebody was talking to him only to find, he couldn’t remember what they said.
Eventually, he managed to get some understanding to stick: he’d been knocked around pretty hard. Very hard. Between the grenade, crashing through the floor and landing on his back, his brain had gone bouncing around inside his skull, and that was why he wasn’t thinking so well.
They said he had a thick space of…something…inside his head between skull and brain that kept him alive. They also promised it would get better, with time. Vemik trusted them, especially after the first day when he could move more freely again without pain shooting through him all the time. That was after the second sir-jury.
He had the cleaned shrapnel in a little bottle by his bed. Now all he had to do was…wait. Wait for the big medicine to fix him. He wouldn’t even have many scars when it was done.
…Wait, and see if he would ever Sky-Think again.
He pulled his blankets around himself miserably and tried to watch more TV. That thought was more frightening than facing down a Brown One. He didn’t mind dying. The gods Took everything in the end. But the thought of being stupid was too painful to bear.
He missed Singer.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Weaver dropship, HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
No jump array to NYC? No problem. When all else failed, there was always the good old-fashioned approach of bundling into a trans-atmospheric cargo vehicle and waiting.
It didn’t even need to take off. Once the pre-flight checks were done and the cabin pressure tested, the trip to Earth was little more than…well. The usual anticlimax of jump travel. The view out the window just vanished. One second, the concrete of HMNB Folctha’s helipad and the ugly side of the base buildings, the next…Earth’s curved horizon, filling the sky.
Even in the circumstances, Julian had to pause and admire the view.
They were low enough he couldn’t really make out the shape of what he saw and turn it into something familiar. Somewhere over Europe, maybe? Hard to say. He didn’t get the chance to try and figure it out either, as the Weaver rolled, turned its belly to the ground, and turned the Earth into a thin slice of blue at the bottom of his window, and then nothing but the black of the sky.
Sometimes, he kinda missed Misfit.
He certainly felt a lot more worried about what he was heading for now than he ever had about exploring an alien planet. They’d swung by home to grab his good tailored suits and clean him up a bit. He was going to meet the President, he couldn’t show up in his running shorts, all stinky, barefoot and bare-chested.
…He kinda wanted to, though.
Anyway. Turned out Hoeff knew as much about this sort of thing as his sons did. Since when was everyone all dapper and stuff? Julian just had everything re-tailored recently so at least it all fit properly. Through the shower, good soap, hair conditioned, tamed and tied back, and the last little adjustments made. He had to admit, he did sorta like cufflinks…
“Christ, you really are a fuckin’ caveman,” Hoeff grumbled, as he swept over Julian with a sticky roller. “Can’t stay clean ‘fer ten fuckin’ minutes…”
Hoeff meanwhile was possibly the sharpest-dressed and groomed ultra-tank of a man Julian had ever seen…like, ever. How the fuck did he manage all that in like ten minutes?
It was a discreet kind of sharp, though. Stick a pair of shades on him, he’d be just another Secret Service guy in a dark suit. “We’ll be on the ground in twenty minutes. President should be there ten minutes after that. There’ll be a few minutes and some words ‘fer the cameras. Don’t hug ‘im, don’t crush his hand, don’t wrassle ‘im—”
“I could figure that part out for myself,” Julian replied, drily.
“Really don’t crush his hand. I think you forget you can crumble oak in your grip.”
“After that, I dunno. Depends what he wants ‘ta talk with you for, I guess. Prob’ly about the Ten’Gewek and how to keep ‘em happy with Vemik gettin’ hurt.”
“Oh, that’s easy. He better fuckin’ recover. Yan has the future of his people in Vemik’s hands, dude. He’s not gonna be happy if Vemik is permanently brain-damaged.”
“None of us are.” Hoeff sat back, apparently satisfied he’d done as much as he could to temporarily remove whatever microscopic flaws had landed on Julian’s jacket.
“Yeah…” Julian sat back and did his best not to muss it up again by fidgeting. Hard, when he was nearly sick with worry himself.
“I’ll be leavin’ you in the Secret Service’s hands,” Hoeff told him, as the plasma rushing past the window filled in and covered it entirely. “I’ma check on the big guy personally.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I know. And we’re wrapping you both up in the most smothering cocoon of security ever.”
Julian wasn’t about to argue that, not any longer. At least, not right now.
The rest of the long fall to Earth happened in silence.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Manhattan, NYC, USA, Earth
Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff
“How’s he doin’?”
Vemik’s doctor had the stressed look that said she hadn’t slept properly in more than twenty-four hours. Her face was lined from fatigue and wearing protective equipment for hours on end, and her scrubs were rumpled. Poor woman was probably running on caffeine and pure work ethic.
‘Course, a lot of people were wearing that look today, and Vemik wasn’t her only patient. Fuck the APA.
“He’s suffering from a severe concussion. Fortunately, Ten’Gewek skulls are designed to take a hell of a knocking, so we didn’t need to resort to anything drastic. As for the shrapnel injuries, between the intramuscular sutures and the modern regeneratives we injected, he should have his full physical function in less than a week.”
Hoeff nodded, feeling sympathetic and more than a little worried. “And mentally?”
“…If he were human, I’d say he’s badly traumatized. He hasn’t really opened up to anyone, but it seems to me like the thought of a permanent brain injury really frightens him. The best I can do is reassure him that I’d expect a human patient who’s conscious and responding as well as him to recover well, but, realistically, he survived a blow to the head that would have outright killed a human. I can’t give a definitive prognosis, we’d need a specialist in xeno-neurology for that, and those are…uh…not common.”
Well…fuck. Hoeff fought back a wave of sadness. That, and no small share of guilt. He’d known he shoulda pushed harder about the security detail. Vemik had been targeted by the APA every other time he’d come to Earth, they’d had every reason to believe it’d happen again…But what was he gonna say to a dude who could crush a silverback? “No, you can’t take care of yourself?”
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what he shoulda said. Not that it would have mattered, but he shoulda tried anyway.
“We okay to get him out of here? You need the room?”
The doctor consulted her tablet. “…He really needs to move as little as possible for at least the next twenty-four hours. Moving him out…no. He needs to stay here overnight, at minimum.”
Hoeff nodded. “Alright. Well. Thank you, Doctor.”
Well, first thing’s first. He wasn’t going to risk a freaked-out supergorilla panicking in a hospital with a brain injury. He’d spend the night as close to Vemik as possible.
Julian would want to do the same thing, once he was done meeting with the President. Hoeff had stayed away from that. He didn’t think much of Chambliss, firstly, and the President probably didn’t think much of him; Hoeff had murdered one of his best friends after all, on order of the previous president. Consorting with terrorists didn’t exactly win a spot in Hoeff’s space-limited heart, and somehow he knew Chambliss wasn’t as perfectly ignorant of things as he claimed to be.
Best to stay away and do what he could. Like, say, letting himself into Vemik’s room to try and cheer the young cavemonkey.
Apparently he managed it just by showing up, because Vemik’s body language shifted the instant he looked up and saw who was visiting him. “Heff! Ow.” He grimaced as his natural bouncy greeting pulled at his wounds.
“Careful, big guy. You survived something that would probably kill ‘Horse! Gonna take some time to get right, y’know?
“‘Horse? Nah….really?” Vemik paused, blinking like that thought dismayed him more than the actual wound.
“Really! Well…okay, maybe not him, but any of the rest of us! You cavemonkeys have hard heads. Grenades at that range are usually fatal. Anyway. How are you feeling?”
“….Slow. Keep losing words in the middle of…uh…”
Hoeff sighed. “Yeah. That’s not uncommon. I’ve had a couple really hard hits to the head over the years too. I remember that feeling.”
“Oh…good. Makes me feel better. How long?”
Hoeff sat on the bed beside him. “Hardest hit was when I was playing rugby in high school. I was sixteen.Pretty fuckin’ big-ass sixteen-year-old too, so the way my head collided with the other guy’s honestly mighta killed us both. I had to quit playing after that, took me, uh, three months to fully recover. I was told that any more hits might never heal, so…I had plans, so I stopped playing rugby.”
“We have much better medicine now. And a few months isn’t that long, in the grand scheme of it. I think we all know you’ll be the next Yan, if you don’t get yourself killed.”
Vemik drooped, and fidgeted with the tufty end of his tail, Ten’Gewek body language for all kinds of uncertainty, anguish and sorrow. “I come to this planet, people try to kill me. Every time, seems like.”
“…Yeah. But you kill them right back. All four of your playmates are burnin’ in hell right now. An’ we don’t know for sure, but…a little birdy told me that someone really important to the terrorist fucks mighta blown himself up. So, you win. All you gotta do now is heal up.”
Vemik didn’t stop fidgeting with his tail. “I didn’t kill the last one…”
“You pretty much crushed every bone in his body, Vemik. Even his jaw. That’ll kill a human just fine. Might take a while for us to figger out we’re dead, but…”
“So…they’re gone? No more APA?”
“Eh. you never kill off an idea like that completely. There’s always gonna be some stupid true-believer shit-fuckers out there. But, they were losin’ and about to go away forever, so I guess they decided to go out with a bang. And…” Hoeff looked around conspiratorially. “Keep a secret?”
Vemik nodded, and then managed a reluctant smile. “Maybe forget anyway…I keep.”
Hoeff laughed along. “Heh, right. I probably shouldn’t say this, okay? But after what you did? Took a grenade pretty much to the face and barely noticed it? Then ran four big dudes through a fuckin’ blender faster’n most people can stand up? I don’t know many with the balls to stand up against that kinda murder. And believe me, that story is being spread far and wide. Deliberately. I wouldn’t be surprised if security cam footage ‘leaked’ at some point.”
“It’s a message. Fuck around and find out.” He watched Vemik’s sleepily confused blink, and decided to translate. Fuck that hit him right in the feels…Anyway. “Means…means ’if you try that again, this is what’ll happen to ya.’”
“…Oh. That’s good I guess.” Vemik’s stomach growled. “…I’m hungry, but they don’t feed me enough! Said something about…uh…[stomach-sick]?”
“Yeah, they’re kinda overwhelmed out there. And probably worried the anesthetic will cause nausea—that means [stomach-sick]. I’ll getcha a big bowl of red.”
“Nothin’ but meat, fat, and spice. None o’ them heretical beans the northerners like so much…”
“Ooh! Yes please!!”
The Quest for Real Chili didn’t take too long—it was New York, finding good food was not difficult—but there was a dragon to fight at the end, in the form of a protective and badly overworked nurse, with the surname Lyons on her scrubs.
Fortunately, Hoeff had a superpower. All his fucks had long, long ago been given.
“Look, I respect ‘yer tryin’ to care for your patient, but he ain’t human. Big guy can tank a grenade goin’ off next to him, but he’d starve to death on what you feed your regular patients, and quickly too. Do you know what his base metabolic rate is? It’s terrifying.”
“We’ve quadrupled his rations!”
“And it ain’t enough, or of the right balance. He’s not human. Believe me, I know. I’ve run around in the jungle naked with these guys, hunting werne.”
“And your solution is a gallon of ‘death chili?’” she asked, achieving a total no-sell with the naked-in-the-woods thing. Dang.
“Yes. It’s nothin’ but calories and protein in a form his short meat-eater gut can handle. Really my solution would to be to bring a side of beef in here and roast it over a fire, but I thought y’all might object.”
A small crack in her formidable defenses finally flickered across her face, for just a bare second. Dang! Too bad he felt so loyal to Claire, because this would’ve been rare sport…
Oh well. He already had perfect. What more could a guy want?
“Look, if he chucks it back up, I’ll clean it myself. Can’t say fairer, right?”
“And re-do his sutures if he pulls them?” she retorted.
“Y’all marinated him in Cruezzir-derived medicine. We both know he’s good, just bruised. Right now it’s his soul needs healing most. A full belly should help with that.”
She sighed and nodded, clearly too busy with all the other wounded from Grand Central to fight him any harder. “Fine, fine. You’re right, he’s not human. Go ahead. I’ll add what you said about his dietary needs to his notes…”
“‘Preciate it. Seriously, feed him right and let him move around and he’ll be right as rain, I bet.”
“We’ll take that under advisement,” she said, unconvincingly, and turned away to sit back down at her desk. “Go on in.”
Hoeff gave her his best winning smile, ducked back into Vemik’s room, and made himself comfortable while his invalided friend started spooning the chilli into his face-hole as quickly as the spoon could manage. Well. Nothin’ wrong with the big guy’s appetite at least.
He turned on the TV. There was nothing on except the reporting from Grand Central, but that was worth watching. He wanted to stay informed, if he could. And maybe see if Julian was gonna end up in front of a camera again.
Prob’ly not. Right now, he’d be meeting the President in private. Hoeff had no desire to be a fly on the wall for that one. He’d learn what he needed to know in due time, when the Powers had made their decisions.
For now, he had the important job of looking after a friend. So he put the remote aside, settled down, and relaxed.
There were worse jobs.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Manhattan, NYC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
His ambassador to the Ten’Gewek was an unlikely fellow to wield high office, to say the least. It probably wasn’t fair to the huge man at all, but something about Ambassador Etsicitty just…rubbed Chambliss the wrong way. Beau, if he was honest, earned his rank through cunning and positioning. He had ideas that he wanted to see through to fruition, and to do that in this game, one needed to be in the right place, know the right people, cultivate the right skills…and, of course, the right connections. That sort of work was a long, deliberate, careful dance of decades and it had at last paid off with the ultimate reward.
Etsicitty, though? He would never wear a suit well, no matter how expertly tailored it might be. You just had to look at the man to imagine the axe over his shoulder, the firewood under his arm, and the plaid. Or, equally, to see Tarzan swinging in a tree with his Janes along for the ride. His hair was too long, currently pulled back a little too tight and neat, giving him a strained look. His tan vanished right down his collar and up his sleeves, and he had the handshake (and calluses) of an old auto mechanic.
He’d won his position by being the kind of person the Ten’Gewek liked and would actually respect, not by being…well, an Ambassador. An Ambassador’s job was to represent and convey the interests of the nation he served. Now to be fair, Julian of course did that, and from all reports was doing it quite well. One did not easily earn a positive evaluation from Rockefeller, after all. It was more…
He didn’t slip into a scene gently and say soft, friendly words with daggers hidden inside. He simply appeared and commanded everyone to pay attention through his sheer dominating presence, even though he was visibly doing his damnedest to defer to presidential authority. He had to shuffle halfway sideways through narrow halls, for chrissake.
None of that should have bothered Beau all that much. But try as he might, there was something about the polygamous caveman that just rubbed Chambliss the wrong way. It was…
That was it. It was the excess. Etsicitty was too damn big, too damn good-looking. Too damn much of a man in all the irreducible ways high society pretended didn’t matter, but which really, really did. Too damn polite and soft-spoken, despite the too damn gravelly tone in his voice that worked too damn well for him. Too damn many women in his personal life who were too damn happy about it all, in all the primal, uncivilized ways that could make a man too damn jealous. It was all just too much…
Too much damn success. At least, from a certain deep-down point of view. It grated on Chambliss’ instincts and reminded him those instincts were still there. You could cover a man in a nice suit and surround him with the refinements of civilization at its highest level, and still he would reduce himself to a goddamn neanderthal when the right kind of rival walked in. And that was it, really. Beau was in the presence of a much better neanderthal.
Julian was the total opposite of what civilized power should look like. He should be on a team breaking skulls with that obscene body of his, rather than sweating his way through formal dinners and guarded conversation. He didn’t fit, he didn’t belong, and his mere presence pulled back the veil on how power at the highest levels was really just theatre. In some ways he was even worse than Daar. That giant bear made even Julian seem like a puny pencil-necked nerd, yet he was no stranger to statecraft. Daar somehow knew how to gently dance in and properly dominate a courtly scene, and do it in a way that flattered everyone there. But Julian?
No. He subconsciously tugged at his shirt’s collar, even though it was clearly a perfect fit around that absurd neck. Everyday furniture couldn’t bear his weight and floors creaked ominously under any unguarded step, so he prowled into a room rather than walk or saunter. He curled inwards, doing his best not to loom over people, yet he stood tall and heroic even then; easily six-foot-three. His body language screamed discomfort and a barely-contained desire to be anywhere else.
Well. Time to seek his expert opinion and then spare the poor man—and everyone else—the pain of keeping him caged up in civilization.
There had been the usual series of events on arrival. Some comments from a lectern on the apron at JFK, and then into a motorcade. There was business of state to discuss in private before Chambliss headed to Grand Central to meet people and make his real statements.
Just as soon as he knew what those real statements were.
“Please, gentlemen, sit down,” he invited them, and settled on the couch himself. Ambassador Rockefeller was more comfortable in these situations and sat gracefully, adjusting his suit as he did so. Etsicitty sat gingerly, testing the couch before allowing his weight to settle on it. Something inside creaked alarmingly, so he re-settled himself over the front edge of the couch’s frame and leaned forward, most of his huge weight comfortably borne on his heels.
That seemed like a problem Chambliss was happy not to have, really.
“So. Our Ten’Gewek friends.” He spread his hands, inviting them to update him.
Fortunately, Etsicitty’s discomfort turned into professionalism when given such an invitation. He nodded, and took a deep breath. “Yan has seen this before, and he’s no stranger to violence among his own people, or among ours. He won’t blame us for the attack, as such, but he will make note of it in his balance of Givings and Takings between us. What matters now is how Vemik recovers.”
“How was that balance looking before this?” Chambliss asked him.
“The only avoided extinction because we intervened, and they damn well know it. They make a lot of talk about how a Giving like that is too big to ever repay, and sending men and Given-Men to the SOR is part of their redressing of that debt, or at least paying off the interest, if you like. Vemik, though…Vemik’s former name is Sky-Thinker. He’s their people’s Archimedes, their Newton, a once-in-a-thousand-years breakaway genius who totally changed life for all of them, and Yan knows it. He knows his people need Vemik to navigate the challenges of just making contact. Losing him, or losing his brilliant mind? That’d pretty much wipe out all our credit with them, and then some.”
“Lucky for us that he survived, then,” Rockefeller said, grimly.
“Well…yes. But…” it was here Julian showed genuine worry, “in what capacity? Do you know how hard it is to concuss a Ten’Gewek? They’re literally thick-skilled, with an inch of soft tissue padding their brains. Their men have an enormous sagittal crest that anchors a three-inch thick layer of jaw muscle on top of all that, too. In Given-Men? They’ve got more of all that. They’re built to take a hit and keep going. I doubt he even noticed the fall, it was that goddamned grenade going off like six feet away…”
“…Six feet? That’s all?”
“That’s what I’m told. Like I said…they’re tough. So I can’t imagine Yan will think too highly if some random losers managed to scramble Vemik’s mind, seeing as he’s the shining light of his people, and all.”
“Shining…how–? No. Why was he allowed about so unguarded?!”
“Because he said no. Same as I do.”
“He did have a quick response force following him,” Rockefeller added. “And they responded quickly. But as Julian said, he wouldn’t accept more than that. Nor does the Great Father, when he visits Folctha.”
Chambliss sighed. He’d had similar conversations with his children, about the balance between protection and personal freedom. Hell, he’d chafed under the need for protection himself. There was no sense in picking at that problem, it was in the past and unchangeable.
“So. Let’s assume the worst case for a moment and assume a permanent brain injury on Vemik’s part,” he said. “What do we do to keep Yan and the Lodge happy?”
“Nothing.” Julian shrugged.
“Nothing is not an acceptable answer.”
“Nothing is reality, Mister President. If Vemik comes out of this as a drooling…fuck.” He ran a hand through his hair and it instantly detonated out of its tie into a wild, untamed mane. Oddly, it suited him much better, even as he made a desperate attempt to tidy it then gave up and sheepishly let it fall as it wanted. “…There’s nothing in our power to do. To be frank I don’t know if he’d be happy to have me as a friend anymore. He’ll see it as us having murdered their future. And he’d be right.”
“Which is why we’d better be ready to pony up to the Corti,” Rockefeller added. “Assuming they can help.”
“…Probably. They’ve got some pretty advanced nootropics they’ve been researching with the Lads—the HEAT operators, sorry. They get hit in the head pretty hard on the regular. Even nervejammed.”
“And will that translate?”
Julian shrugged with a small embarrassed grin. “I’m a lot of things but, uh, I’m no big-brain like that. I’d guess they probably have a start on something that might work, maybe.”
“This being the Corti we’re talking about, though, they’re going to know how valuable a relationship this is to us, and they’ll charge accordingly. So far, we’ve been able to bank on the unique scientific resources of two deathworlds to pay them off. For this…” Rockefeller pulled a face.
“I see.” Chambliss checked his watch, and decided they’d discussed everything he needed to discuss with them in person. “Well, I’m glad we have some kind of a direction. I assume you’ll be going to see Vemik?”
“Immediately after this, Mister President,” Etsicitty nodded.
“Please…if he’s in any condition to hear them, please convey my personal regrets over this incident to him.”
Etsicitty was so dismayingly guileless that he let his skepticism show on his face, but he nodded nonetheless. “I’ll do that, sir.”
So. He would never be of use in a high-stakes game of diplomacy against a well-prepared adversary. It was more than simple honesty—the Gaoians and the Great Father managed, after all. It was more that he didn’t have the instincts for the game in the first place.
But, that wasn’t what he was for. He was there to demonstrate to the Ten’Gewek that humans could meet their values. So, Chambliss nodded, and decided to prompt him. “Unless you think it would be better delivered in person…?”
Julian shifted, tilted his head, and gave Chambliss an unmistakably hard appraisal.
Which he failed. “…Maybe not, Mister President. Or at least, not without some preparation beforehand. It can…take quite a bit to earn their respect.”
Well. No hiding the meaning there, but he was at least polite about it. “I see. I will leave the matter of our regrets in your hands, then.”
“A personal Giving would be a good idea,” Etsicitty offered. “A gift from you to Vemik will carry a lot more weight. They’re very conscious of Give and Take, effort and sacrifice. Words only carry weight after respect is earned. Your best bet would be to give something tangible he could use.”
“Something practical but finely made,” Chambliss surmised.
“Yessir. He is particularly fond of knives and steelwork, being at this point a master bladesmith himself. But I’d suggest something else. Being a Given-Man, he’s not had much time to beat on steel and that’s a bit of a sore point, and…well, you’re not a smith, sir, so it wouldn’t be a personal sacrifice on your part.”
“…He came to this planet to donate his personal journals to our library, didn’t he?”
“Yes, and that’s a big part of the affront. He came with a big Giving.”
Chambliss nodded, and thought for a second. “I have quite a collection of pens I’m very fond of…”
Julian seemed a bit non-plussed, but Rockefeller came to the rescue. “That’s a good idea. He’s a scholar, and a writer. ‘With my fond hope that you will record ever greater knowledge…’ I think that’s very suitable. I think one of the Emperors? Julian?”
“They’re very large and finely crafted.”
“Oh! Yeah. He tends to like big chonky pencils and such.”
“Well, that’s a painful parting,” Chambliss sighed. “But…needs must.”
“Can you tell me exactly which pen, sir? It sounds like I need to do some reading if I’m to convey the scope of the giving…”
“I’ll get you up to speed,” Rockefeller offered, easily. “Let’s just say that some of these pens could buy you a modest sports car.”
Chambliss laughed, despite himself. That was such a corn-fed response it was honestly charming. “Tom?” he turned to one of his aides. “I need the Pilot Hundredth Anniversary set brought from my personal collection as soon as possible, please. With the matching ink.”
Rockefeller raised an eyebrow. “Very generous, Mister President. There were only twenty-five sets made, as I recall?”
“And one was sadly lost, yes.” Chambliss nodded. “I bought extra ink at the time too, so Vemik will get two un-opened bottles in each color.”
Julian wasn’t stupid. “Sir…how much of a giving is this?”
“At this point it’s priceless.” Rockefeller chuckled. “Complete sets are simply not for sale. You have some learning ahead of you.”
Julian nodded, with perhaps a bit of surprised awe in his voice. “…Thank you, Mister President.”
“Thank you for advising me.” Chambliss endured another one of those grinding handshakes. “Anyway. It’s time for me to leave you to your research and go face the cameras. Thank you, both.”
He shook Rockefeller’s hand too, and left them behind as he headed out. One of his other assistants handed him a tablet as they went, with his speech on it. One conversation ended, another began, and the business of being President in a time of crisis flowed ever on. Still. He was pleased, even though he was giving up something that meant a lot to him. If it could rob the APA of their victory, no price was too great.
Though, somehow, he expected the price would be a lot steeper than some pens, in the end.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Starship Silent But Deadly Hell system, Hunter space
Tooko, Brother and Stud of Clan Firefang
Tooko was not an analyst. Any observations he made during his long sit-and-watch were amateur work at best, but still he made them. He had nothing better to do after all.
There were definite patterns and cycles to the Hunter activity he was seeing. Which made sense: everything he knew about them said they automated as much as they could. It would be strange if their jumps and shipments weren’t on regular schedules. Hopefully the real analysts would find something to sink their claws into.
Tooko, though, had a problem. He was overdue to exfiltrate, made so by a persistent farthrow and by the feathery touch of long-range FTL sensors brushing through the outer system. At such extreme ranges, their resolution would be too low to catch him at a quiet, slow warp…but the surge of going superluminal in the first place was always that little bit brighter. He didn’t dare move, yet.
He had supplies to last for months where he was, and so long as he remained still and quiet, about the only way they’d ever find him would be if they happened to look closely at the one particular asteroid he was latched to.
It wasn’t like he was hidden, really. Just tiny and the same temperature as the rock. Any decent visual-wavelength picture of the asteroid would show his dart-shaped little craft as clear as Keeda’s tail. He was depending on the vastness of space to keep him hidden, nothing more.
And he was getting worried about one of the patrols. It was on a slow, lazy, thorough loop through the gas giants, pausing over every moon to do a full orbital survey before moving on. He could only imagine it was either automated or captained by something with insect-like patience, because that must have been about the most mind-numbing detail in the whole system, but…well, they were doing it. Methodically and comprehensively.
Were they really crazy enough to hunt every rock in the star system for him? That would take years!
But then again…Hunters didn’t have the same standards for sanity as everyone else. And so long as that group was sweeping around, Tooko didn’t dare take off and fly away.
He drummed his claws on his chair’s armrest as he watched them finish their survey of moon seventeen and move on to moon eighteen. Eleven more to go. Maybe they’d move to the moons of the next gas giant. Maybe they’d move on to check the planet’s lagrange points. If the former, he’d be clear to slip away.
If the latter…it depended. He’d have to move. If they came straight for his hiding spot, it would be run or die. If they went for one of the other L-points first, there might be hope of using the gas giant’s gravity well and atmosphere to obscure his escape.
He was itching to move, stand up, do something, stretch his legs, do some calisthenics, relax a body made stiff by too many tense hours in the chair…
Fuck it. He did exactly that. When the time came, he’d need to be loose and ready, not sluggish. There was no reason to believe they’d abandon their methodical pattern, and it would take them hours to finish it. He had time.
He rose, threw his blankets off, and prowled to the middle of the ship to stretch, calculating furiously. He’d already loaded up a drone to fire off, if the worst happened. They could catch him, but his probe would streak out of the system at blistering speeds before jumping home the second it cleared the farthrow field. Whatever happened, so long as he got that probe launched, it was mission accomplished.
He unfolded the resistance trainer from its nook in the wall, locked it in position, set it to a low intensity, and started his warmup.
The question was, how far away was the farthrow field edge? SBD was fast, tearing fast. Hopefully, faster than anything the Hunters had…but that wasn’t certain. It certainly wasn’t faster than its own probes, and if the Hunters had interceptor probes of their own, then any direct chase would be short-lived…
The exercise distracted him, and he stopped thinking about it for a while. For some peaceful minutes, there was just his own sounds of exertion, the creaking of the resistance bands, and the sound of cables through pulleys.
A ping from his instrument panel pulled him out of it. He let go of the cable, sprang to his chair, and watched. The patrol had gone to warp, just a short sublight hop from one moon to another.
Well. Mind back on the job. But he felt better, now. Prepared. Coiled. Ready. Whatever came next, he’d warmed up for it.
He grabbed a foil pack of food formula, stuck the wide straw in his mouth, and squeezed it out as he wrapped the blankets back around him with his other paw.
And he watched again.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Manhattan, NYC, USA, Earth
There was nothing worse than a miserable Vemik. Like…anything was better. He was just such a naturally and aggressively optimistic fella, anything that managed to get him down was guaranteed to be depressing as heck.
First thing was the hug. Julian braced himself as Vemik leapt across the room and into his arms, tail and legs squeezing tightly around his waist. Julian staggered back a few steps under the reassuringly heavy load, but managed to stay on his feet. “Oof! Yeah,” he grunted, “take it easy, I ain’t going anywhere.”
There was no wrestling or anything this time, just a man and his younger, frightened, massive iron lump of an alien gorilla friend, doing the best they could together. Julian would be lying to himself if he didn’t say he felt some fatherly protectiveness, too.
…How much sense did that make, given Vemik was literally more than twice the man he was these days? He’d need to strike up a conversation about that with Gabriel, because the fact was, Julian was feeling protective. He couldn’t remember hearing of another Ten’Gewek who got knocked out. Oh, sure, Loor had been unconscious after the Brown One stepped on him, but that had been a whole mess of traumas, including his heart. He hadn’t been concussed by the experience. They were built to fall out of trees in supergravity for chrissake.
Still. Vemik didn’t seem completely out of sorts…
“How you doin’ big guy?”
“Miss Singer…” Vemik hooted a little, sounding tired.
“Well…I’m not Singer, but I missed you too. Eating good? It’s important to eat good.”
“Yeah…Food here’s okay. Too many potatoes. Heff bring spicy chili too! They feed me better now. The lunch lady, she came to visit…uh…”
Vemik made a frustrated snarl and buried his face against Julian’s neck.
“…I can’t remember.” Fuck. His voice was quavering.
Julian looked around, and Hoeff snapped open a very solid-looking folding metal stool. “Snagged it from HEAT before we left. It’ll hold Adam, so you’re good.”
“Buddy,” Julian offered as he sat down, “I’ve been hit in the head more than once. Yeah, it can go pretty wrong. But it doesn’t have to. We’ve got good doctors and good medicine, you know that. We’ll be doing everything we can, okay?”
Vemik sighed and let go, or at least loosened the hug a little. “I know. Heff tell me same thing. Just…is like the fire, but harder to ride. The Fire is anger, fierceness, horny, easy to deal with. Go hunt, go fuck, it cools down again. This?” he shook his head. “Comes up the same way, but I don’t know what to do!”
“Well, you’re using big words and using them well. That’s a pretty good sign, I bet!”
“…Hope so…” Vemik went to sit back down, then grimaced. “Ow.”
“Careful buddy,” Hoeff cautioned, “you’re still bruised all to hell.”
“Hurt like anything.” Vemik groaned. “Still hurts.”
“Yup. Gonna take a while for that to clear, even with the meds.”
Vemik groaned, and settled back in his bed with a creak.
“Tell ‘ya what. It would probably help if we go for a walk. Now there ain’t gonna be any escape from the security this time—”
“Doctors said rest.”
“Yeah, and I respect that. Which is why I said a walk, and not a climb, or a wrassle, or a lift, or anything like that. If nothing else, it’ll be nice to go sit in the park a block away.”
Vemik paused, then nodded. “…Yeah. Miss trees.”
As it happened, getting him out of the hospital involved some strenuous negotiations with a human force of nature in the form of Nurse Lyons. Some people packed a whole cast of character into a small package, and this particular nurse was a condensed keg of medical professionalism, and she was not happy to let her patient go wandering.
In the end, Julian appealed to the empathy and caring instincts that lurked in every nurse’s soul.
“Look. Do you see that giant depressed alien in there? He’s a Given-Man of his people and impressive as hell, right? Well, he’s also barely nineteen and still has a teen’s soul. He comes from a people who happily sleep in trees naked to the rain, who will climb three-hundred meters up a Ketta just to get a few berries. Who use their huts mostly as a place to keep things dry more than anything else. He needs to get outside, he’s going stir crazy in here!”
She gave him a skeptical glare, then turned it toward Vemik and softened. “…He’s to rest,” she reminded him. “He’s got a lot of healing to do. And he’s going to tire out quickly. It takes a lot of work to move him.”
“Oh believe me, I know.” Julian chuckled, and was rewarded with a small flicker of humor across her face too. “I’m a big boy though, I can manage.”
She gave him a skeptical look up and down. “Do you have any idea how much he—”
“Yes. I promise you, I can get him back here all by myself if he needs it, and we won’t go far. He just needs sun, air and trees.”
She relented, and typed something behind her desk, before handing Julian a laminated card. “Emergency number. Call it if he shows any troubling symptoms. He’s not discharged yet, so you bring him back before the end of visiting hours. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am. I don’t think our security will let us wander too much anyway…” Julian eyed the growing mob of definitely-not-regular fellas down the hall.
With Vemik’s temporary freedom secured, they got back out into the open air.
It wasn’t a normal day in New York. The hospital had a field of flowers tucked up against the wall, with other stuff mixed in: photos, teddy bears, keepsakes, candles. People were hanging around, praying, holding signs, or just being there The security team politely but firmly chased off some camera-wielding figures who tried to get snaps of them, but Julian was pretty sure there’d be pictures on the news sites in minutes.
He didn’t care. It was good to see the way Vemik relaxed and moved a bit easier once he could see the sky.
It was warm and not unpleasantly humid out, sunny, and the air was nice and clean. A perfect excuse to rid himself of his nice duds, so he ducked into the park’s rest area and changed into something much more…well, loose, anyway. And so what if the Cimbrean Speedsters were a fake team? He still liked the joke.
He bundled it all up and carefully stuffed it into his bag, so Xiù wouldn’t murder him too hard later. Julian stepped out, took a big, refreshing breath, and smiled like an idiot despite himself. A nice, loose tank-top, good breathable shorts, his bare feet in the grass…
Honestly, it didn’t take much to make him happy, and the same was true of Vemik. In fact…
“Uh-uh, buddy. I promised unspeakable things to the nurse that you’d take it easy.”
“I just want a better view!”
“That tree won’t hold you anyway. You wanna fall out of it right now?”
Vemik grumbled, but relented and settled for looking around from ground level. “…Still busy.”
“Thought…the news made it look like everyone stopped to mourn.”
“Cities never stop. Not this one, anyway. It’s used to tragedy.” Julian shook his head. “Life has to go on for most people. The rent still needs paying, the fridge still needs food, the kids still need raising…It’s a fact of life. More’n a hundred people died yesterday, but some things can’t ever stop no matter what happens.”
“Used to tragedy?” Vemik asked.
“Yup. Evil fuckers have hit this town before, and worse than this. They’re tough, they keep going.”
Vemik made a low, sad noise. “…Every time I come here, I have good times, but there’s danger. I think…” he frowned suddenly. “…Had a thought, but it’s fuzzy. Can’t hold it.”
“Take your time. Harder you try and catch it, the more it’ll slip away,” Julian advised.
“…Evil fuckers just seems like, they happen with Humans. But then other times, you save lives, bring peace, bring medicine. I just…why?”
Julian sighed sadly. “Human nature. I don’t think, deep down, we’re really made for big cities and all this. Part of us still wants to be out on the savannah, next to the forests, in nice little villages. Get enough of us together and lots of good happens, but for some…”
He glanced back at the impromptu memorial next to the hospital. He’d seen the other, much larger one outside Grand Central, too. A lot of lives had changed forever in just a few short minutes yesterday.
“…I don’t know, buddy, and that’s the honest truth.”
Vemik blinked slowly, then heaved out a huge heavy breath, nodded, and lay back on the grass. Seconds later, to Julian’s surprise, he was asleep. None of the security fellas came charging over to check on him though, so that was probably not something to be too worried about. He’d just had a long, difficult day.
Well, the point was to let him rest. If he slept better out on the grass in the park than in his hospital bed, then let him sleep.
He needed all the rest he could get.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Hell system, Hunter Space
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
Boredom was a venom, and the Alpha had finally found an antidote. After far too long of nothing, the system and planet it was responsible for had been investigated.
It had to be the fur-faces. They loved their fast, vexing little drones, and their quiet, sneaky little ships. They were cunning predators themselves, with their fangs and claws, but they hunted slowly. They hid. They watched. They ambushed.
The Alpha could feel a degree of kinship, there. It was what made them such good adversaries. Hunting prey was trivial. Hunting a clever fellow predator, though? That was sport.
…Which was < wrong-think > of a sort. The fur-faces had been classified as prey by a previous Alpha-of-Alphas, and none since had deigned to reclassify them. The current Alpha-of-Alphas was a Builder though, and its attention, instincts and priorities were elsewhere, so the Flensing-Alpha suspected its master would neither notice nore care about such a minor quibble.
And knowing that the fur-faces—the Gao, to compound its own wrong-think—were predators and thought like predators meant the Flensing-Alpha could try to get inside its quarry’s head.
A predator hunting other predators was sensibly wary. It would either conceal itself well and watch from a position where it could not be watched in turn, or else claim a position of unassailable strength. The latter was the Flensing-Alpha’s approach, taking a trio of broodships out into the deep system to hunt. Each was armed with million-light spike probes, suitable to flash out in front of any ship no matter how fast. The Deltas sleeping in their stasis racks would go unused: this hunt was the Alpha’s.
Besides. Mere Deltas would never have been patient enough for this work. The calm and clarity necessary to methodically search every possible hiding spot came only to those Hunters who did survived where the hastier and less thoughtful had expended themselves, thus gaining age and experience.
The Alpha was not bored. Quite the opposite, it felt more alert and engaged than it had since coming to this system and being tasked with its protection. Three of its eyes were permanently watching the ground surface scan, taking in every detail, thirsty for any pixel out of place, any metallic anomaly, any heat signature, any sign at all that what it was seeing might be a ship, rather than bare ice and rock.
So far, nothing. And, when the last of the moons was scanned, still nothing.
Another Alpha might have raged, snarled, lashed out at being cheated of its anticipated prey. The Flensing-Alpha simply scratched a small, frustrated line in its console and stood to pace and think.
Clearly, it was missing something. Some piece of the puzzle. Fur-faces didn’t think quite like Hunters, perhaps there was some non-obvious alternative hiding spot?
The gas giant’s upper atmosphere, perhaps? Giants were treacherous, their weather lethal, their winds quite capable of catching a ship and dragging it down into the crushing depths…but a daring spy might use them.
The giant’s singular faint ring? Little more than a dusty line of pebbles. Easily eliminated by a quick automated scan: anything ship-sized would be quite visible, and sure enough, the scan came back negative.
Most interesting. Could it have the wrong vicinity altogether? There were other giants in the system, other moons…It had chosen this one as being at a good distance to clearly see the probes on passive sensors, but the Gao perhaps had more sensitive equipment, or might simply be content with less complete data. They could have watched their probes from elsewhere.
If so, the hunt was already over and the prey could be long gone. There was no sense in going to check those places, therefore. The prey was either here, or escaped.
But the Flensing-Alpha had eliminated every possible hiding spot, hadn’t it?
It returned to its throne, toyed idly with its navigational sensors for a few long minutes, letting out its mounting frustration in a low, quiet growl…
And then it saw what it had missed.
Date Point: 18y6m1w6d AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Hell system, Hunter space
Tooko, Brother and Stud of Clan Firefang
Bad luck: the Hunters were checking the L-points, which meant Tooko had no option but to rabbit.
Good luck: they went to the wrong one first.
He emergency disengaged the heat sink and flinched at the loud bang through the hull it made as the coolant lines explosively decompressed. The blast of cold gas from below was enough all by itself to overcome the asteroid’s pathetic gravity and push him to escape velocity.
He’d been planning this.
At its core, starship combat had a lot more in common with submarine combat than with airborne vehicles. There were differences, of course: starships accelerated rather than set headings and depths. There was no ambient noise for signals to get lost in and no thermal layer for a cunning boat to duck under, which meant that once contact was established, breaking it again was far more difficult.
But certain tricks had survived.
He opened the airlock and spent a little air blowing out its interior, scattering his supply of probes to the void. Then he picked a direction—almost randomly, just so long as it didn’t take him toward his enemy—and went to warp.
From the Hunters’ perspective, he hoped, what they’d see was a starburst firework of sudden, bright contacts all shooting off every which way. A few would clearly be his message buoys, the megalight messengers intended to sprint beyond the wormhole suppressor and jump home with his intelligence.
The rest, though? To anything beyond a few thousand kilometers, their warp signatures should be practically identical to SBD’s. The ship was designed to modulate and dampen its own distortion wake after all, it could make itself look just like one of the slow-running probes.
He was banking on the Hunters having a limited capacity to launch G-spikes, on slow reaction times, and on sheer numbers to do the rest.
In his head, he started counting. One…two…three…four…
He made it to twenty-six before the first of the Hunters’ G-spikes came screaming out of its launch tube. He growled in tension and vindication as he saw it streak towards a trio of drones, that had all set off in broadly the same direction. Sensible: they were playing the numbers, realizing they couldn’t catch all the targets, so they were aiming to catch as many as possible.
Within instants, six spike probes were in the air, all similarly aimed. One was aimed uncomfortably close to him…
At the forty-count, the probes he’d launched started course-correcting, disguising the course-corrections he’d anticipated having to make for himself. He calculated furiously in his head as his chart tracked broodships and their g-spikes. Simply geometric maths: angle, distance, apparent realspace velocity, travel times. He could do it all in his head. Had to.
Only unknown variable: the maximum flight time of the enemy G-spikes. If they were using the same ones he was familiar with, he’d be beyond their reach in two minutes, assuming the broodships were standard spec too.
In any case, with all his probes changing course slightly, he could afford to shift heading a little bit too, fortuitously nudge himself so that he wouldn’t quite be where the G-spike was aimed at.
It missed him by, in interplanetary terms, a whisker. Blue warning lights blinked furiously on his console as his sensors registered the sharp boundary of disrupted spacetime within mere hundreds of kilometers off his bow. At closest approach, he passed within weapons range of the field edge.
The Hunters launched a second spread. His own probes—the ones caught by the G-spikes—started to wink out.
Okay. Useful intel. Hunters have FTL guns now…
No choice. Course change or die. A desperate swipe changed his heading just before he plunged into the depths of a spike field, but no probe would have reacted like that. They knew which one he was now.
No sense in pretending to be a probe any longer, and a full capacitor. Fuck it. Give the warp drive everything and hope to everyone’s gods they hadn’t held another spike in reserve…
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
Clever. So very, very clever. What a hunt!
The Flensing-Alpha’s maw was a rictus of satisfaction. What a hunt, what a hunt! Such a twisty, sneaky, skilled quarry!
Programming the solution for the final spike-probe cost precious seconds, and the prey was barely in range. It all came down a chase. Did the probe have the staying power to catch the Gao, or did the ship have the sheer speed to outrun it?
The Flensing-Alpha thrilled as its strike vanished out of its launch tube with a superluminal thump that shook the whole broodship, and leaned in close to watch the conclusion of its hunt. Its whole being was resonating with the hungry thrill to capture and feast on this most glorious of sport. There could be nothing sweeter than victory in this moment.
In its mind, it counted.
Tooko, Brother and Stud of Clan Firefang
One-twenty-one, one-twenty-two, one-twenty-three…
Hard to concentrate on his timekeeping with that fucking beeping telling him, redundantly, that there was a missile locked on him. Just pray to Keeda he’d rounded pessimistically in his estimates. Which he had. He knew he had. But had he been pessimistic enough?
There was nothing Tooko could do now. He’d either saved himself or he hadn’t. He’d done his duty, either way: the messenger probes were clear and away. Command would get the intel he’d gathered.
His paw strayed to the pouch on his flight suit’s hip. Win or lose, the fuckers wouldn’t sink their teeth into his meat…
The wormhole suppression indicator remained stubbornly blue.
The G-spike caught him.
Silent But Deadly slammed back into realspace hard enough to throw Tooko against his restraints.
Tooko sighed, and unbuckled his flight seat. Clan and Great Father alike would miss him, and it hurt him more that they—all the Gao, really—would have to carry on without his services than that he was about to die. He hadn’t let them down, he’d achieved his mission…but it pained him to pain them.
He wished he’d included a personal message to Wilde and the team, though. There hadn’t been time. And there wasn’t time, now.
Now, there was only his duty.
Alpha of the Flensing-Brood
++Meat to the maw!!++
Caught! Caught! The Alpha practically leapt from its throne and danced. A victory! A real victory! Triumph like it could barely remember sang through its body.
At superluminal speeds, the distance to any target in realspace was measured in instants. Heartbeats passed, and the broodship sliced deep into its own spike’s suppression field, shield reaching out to wrap up that tiny, interesting dart of a spaceship as the Alpha surged to the front of the control room and gazed hungrily upon its prize.
A single-occupant craft, alas. No great feast, but the Alpha was drooling freely at the thought of the pilot’s surely sublime flesh—
There was a brilliant, all-consuming white flash, and the Alpha went, abruptly, completely blind. No matter how it blinked or pawed at its eyes, not one of them would clear. It staggered back and collapsed, too overwhelmed by pain and the sudden lack of visual input to notice, at first, the flood of damage control alerts the ship was sending.
Those alerts released dormant Builders from their stasis pods. The Alpha sensed one of the Building-Brood stoop to examine it, felt the tickle and sting of medical instruments assessing the damage.
< Furious; anguished > ++The ship! The prey! Report on the prey!++
< Calm > ++The prey detonated a high-yield warhead, Alpha. There is nothing to salvage. This Broodship is crippled and must return to dock for repairs.++
From triumph to theft in an instant. The Alpha slumped, too crushed to even lash out in anger. So. It had stared right into the heart of a nuclear flare at the moment of detonation. It would need new eyes at the very least. Synthetic dermis too, if the burning sensation all over its face and torso were a reliable indicator.
Such matters as mere injury were of no consequence. It had been seeking a justification to requisition upgrades anyway. But…No meat. Such a fine hunt, but no meat to show for it. That was…wrong. It went against the order of things. The Alpha felt < sickened; shocked. >
Then it felt something different. Something stronger.
< Hate >
What did these Gao think they were? What were they to deny the nature of life? Such hubris! Such…such…
The Flensing-Alpha lurched to its feet, staggered back across the command deck and returned to its throne by touch and its mental map of the space. It would repair. It would upgrade. It would surely be rewarded, too, for it had rid the hive-system of a spy today.
But it would not forget. It would feed on Gao-flesh. It would remind the fur-faced ones what nature intended.
And it would punish them for this crime.
Date Point: 18y6m2w2d AV
Nofl’s lab, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ten’Gewek were always a small challenge to accommodate in his lab. There was the smell, of course. They were musky beings, and even a Corti’s relatively atrophied senses could be overwhelmed a bit by it. Something about them inescapably radiated a predatory aura of dominance and danger, and it was Nofl’s opinion that the smell was a big part of it.
Rather like Adam’s dungeon, really. Except all of them smelled that way, differing only by degree. Even their women! Goodness.
Nofl, as always, was the Directorate’s first point of contact with the deathworlder species. It seemed to be an arrangement that worked: He got to study an endlessly fascinating category of sapient life forms, which both he and the Directorate considered to be suitable reward for his contributions to Corti science and prosperity…but he also did it on an alien colony in a backwater region where he couldn’t scandalize his superiors (and didn’t have to endure them, either.)
That rarest of artworks: a compromise that was actually pleasing to both parties.
His patient today was none other than Vemik, now Given-Man. An impressive specimen indeed! But today, he had a most unfortunate presentation. Some absolute criminal had damaged that glorious brain of his. That wouldn’t do! They’d just have to put it right.
The prognosis was encouraging, though. Best start with that.
“Well, my dear old peanut! That’s it for the superscience for now. Tell me, how do you feel?”
Vemik blinked slowly at him. “…Peanut?”
“Oh, don’t mind me, I’ve developed an interest in ridiculous Britishisms, my old china teacup.” Nofl flashed him a grin. “So. You’re feeling all fuzzy in the noggin, yes?”
“Can think again. Words…I have to think harder about words sometimes, but can do math, sky-think mostly. Sometimes I have trouble remembering things. That comes and goes, no way to know when…Also, I want peanuts now.”
“Sure, help yourself!” As it happened, Nofl had acquired a taste for salted-in-the-shell peanuts himself, and had a small bag in his snack-stash. “That’s an odd choice of snack. Why peanuts?”
Vemik delicately cracked open a shell between two blunt and quite literally steel-bending fingers. “Salty! Been wanting a lot more of that.”
“That’s true,” Julian noted. “I’ve been putting rehydration salts in his water, too. He’s been craving it like crazy the last couple days.”
“Interesting…” Nofl grabbed one of his medical scanners and adjusted its settings before running it over Vemik’s skull. “But encouraging. I hope. Let’s see…”
He had other projects on hold for this. He didn’t mind. Any chance to poke around in a deathworlder’s head was scientifically valuable, but in any case, all his hours were billable and clearly the powers that Julian worked for had deemed Vemik’s complete recovery to be worth every cent. So, he could afford to take his time and do everything as thoroughly as could be.
Vemik, to his credit, bore it well considering how bad his mood swings were. Sometimes, he could barely sit still and they needed to take a break so he could go outside and burn off a little energy. Other times he was slow, dopey and lethargic.
That wasn’t unexpected, and was also encouraging. Brains had strange rhythms about them when they were healing, and in his case, being a young Given-Man at the peak of change…
What Nofl really needed, he decided, was a high-resolution functional scan of a mature and undamaged Given-Man’s brain for comparison. To that end, Ferd and Yan of all beings were due to arrive at his lab shortly. Singer as well, for other reasons. He’d scan her brain too.
They arrived a little bit after they were expected; Ten’Gewek didn’t have the same sense of punctuality as Humans could or Corti couldn’t help but obey. They sauntered up to his lab on their own time, arrived on their own terms…and in the Singer’s case, flung herself at Vemik with a room-thumping thud, wrapped arms, legs and tail around him, and stuck there. She spent the next several minutes picking nonexistent debris out of his crest and grumbling about how worried she’d been and how he clearly wasn’t being looked after properly and clucking ruefully over a wound on his tail that had left a scar despite the regeneratives…
Nofl decided it was best for everyone that he not mention the small notch the shrapnel had left in the bone, there. She didn’t need to know how close they’d come to having to reattach his tail.
The lab was impossibly crowded with three Given-Men, a Singer, Julian and Hoeff crammed into it, and made all the more crowded by Yan being…upset. He was always a grumpy guts, of course, but today was different. There was an air of wounded trust, a hint of blame. He didn’t even favor Julian with a tussle, merely a quick tail-hug; affectionate, but not happy.
Nofl listened to their conversation while he persuaded Ferd under the scanner and calibrated it.
“Three times he goes to Earth, three times he’s attacked.” Yan’s hoot carried reproach. “Your people are not a happy tribe, Jooyun.”
“We’re not a tribe. That’s the problem. We are many, many, many tribes, all living on top of each other. Usually without the benefit of anything that makes it clear which tribe a fella might be in, or even that they’re in a tribe to begin with.”
Yan scowled and his tongue lashed the air disagreeably. “Don’t know how you live like that.”
Julian shrugged. “What can I say except, you’re right? Neither do I. I didn’t grow up in a big city. Folctha is as big as I can personally stand, being honest, and then only because it’s somehow remained relentlessly small. First time I ever visited New York was when I took Vemik and Singer there.”
Yan rumbled, but said nothing further.
“Was a nice Giving from President, though,” Vemik muttered, then suddenly grew animated and excited. “Tell him!”
“Simmer down, darling,” Nofl reminded him. “You’re resting.”
“Right, right…but still, tell him Sky-Brother!”
“Oh God. Uh…well, the short version? Imagine if Vemik had given me his very first bow. Or, uh…yeah. The President gave Vemik a hand-made set of pens. Only twenty-five of each were made, they took a team of craftsmen years to make, and they’re so valuable that they’re literally priceless. Nobody knows how much they cost because nobody is selling. Oh, and one set was lost in a fire, so sending one of these off-world is…generous.”
“Is not just the rareness,” Vemik added. “Is a right gift. Heh! Write-gift. Get it?”
Not even Yan could maintain his grumble at the flash of happy-Vemik. He smiled indulgently.
“For me. For my Sky-Thinking. Pens. Finest pens, made for writing down big thoughts…”
“I am sure you will get much good use of them,” Nofl interjected. “I am…cautiously optimistic. But before then, mind if I pop these nice healthy brains into my scanner? Up on the slab, Yan!”
“Already lying here,” Ferd rumbled.
“Yes, yes, I already got yours. You can get out now.”
Ferd frowned at him, but sat up. “My whole brain? That fast?” he sounded offended.
“It’s a good scanner.”
“Didn’t feel anything…”
“If you had, dear, that would mean my scanner was doing brutality to your grey matter. We’ll have none of that in here. Now shoo!”
That was the funny thing about Given-Men. They might have bristled had anyone else been so daring as to shoo them, especially with the distracted hand-flap Nofl threw in, but he’d learned much about the value of audacity. Bossing them around worked so long as he did it in this seemingly unthinking, playful way.
Yan at least seemed amused, in his hypermale cavemonkey fashion. One grew quite fluent in the language of Grunt, when working with the HEAT.
“…Good Giving in thought, then,” he said as he laid out under the scanner. “But useless to everyone except a strong-mind Vemik.”
[“Not everyone,”] the Singer chided him, this time quickly enough the translator tripped up a bit and de-synched. “Words are a strong sky-thought. You say so yourself!”
Yan scowled at her, and then relaxed. “They hurt my nephew, Singer. Let me be grumpy.”
“You are always grumpy, uncle. Always have been, even when you’re having fun.”
“And you’re fidgeting,” Nofl complained. “Stay still you massive lump! I need good scans if I’m to target my therapies correctly!”
Yan made an indignant noise, but went obediently still. The Singer squeezed his hand between both of hers.
“Their enemies hurt him, uncle. And they Gave in sorrow, and are Giving now to put it right. Even the gods don’t ask for more.”
Nofl appreciated the effort Yan put in to not nodding, shaking his head, or whatever else it was he wanted to do. He stared resolutely up at the scanner while it did its work, tail twitching. Maybe it was the enforced stillness that made him think about her words and let them do their work, though: once Nofl gave him the nod and he sat up, he gave Julian a more complicated look, then a proper hug.
The Singer gave Nofl a small grin as she settled in under the scanner. Nofl gave her a discreet thumbs-up, refocused the scanner, and got the last scan he needed.
There was a lot to unravel, he’d need time to go over and compare the scans, and frankly it was clear the Ten’Gewek needed to have a good long chat with Julian anyway. He bundled them out of his lab with promises to call them back as soon as he had finished his analysis, grabbed one of his decaf espressos, and sat at his desk.
Very interesting. Politically, academically and socially. He suspected that one soft but firm statement at exactly the right moment had probably achieved a kind of healing that all his medical instruments never could. Still…if Nofl’s efforts could spare Vemik a long, slow and painful recovery, he’d put in every erg he had.
He sipped his coffee, hummed a merry tune to himself, and got to work.
He had a mind to save.
Date Point: 18y6m2w2d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
“No ship, though?”
Champion Goruu hung his head and keened a little.
Daar hung his head too. He’d known it was a dangerous mission but, fuck, if they were gonna ever assault Hunter space, they needed intel. And Tooko had delivered spectacularly.
“He is a hero,” Goruu added. “We will be lighting a pyre for him tonight, My Father.”
“Good. I…would it be inappropriate for me to attend?”
“…I was not aware you were close with him, My Father.”
“Not…we weren’t cousins. We only met briefly. But I liked an’ respected ‘em almos’ instantly.”
“That makes me happy,” Goruu sighed forlornly. “Tooko could be…a difficult personality. He was an extremely capable pilot. And he knew it.”
“Oh, he were arrogant as fuck,” Daar chittered. “But I can’t really hold that against anyone. That’d be hypocritical as shit, seeing as how I don’t shy away from what I am. I respect honest arrogance, s’long as it’s true.”
“Perhaps that was why he was in such awe of you. You know he volunteered for this mission?”
“Yes, My Father. You, I think, were one of the few who could put him in his place just by being there. I think he needed that in his life, desperately. For me it was a struggle, not the least reason being he was undoubtedly the better pilot. And a very successful first degree…”
Daar chittered deep in his chest. “That’s good! I can respect that, too. He’ll have a good legacy. There are advantages ‘ta bein one extreme or th’ other, sometimes. Too bad we din’t meet when I was a young ‘Back, we coulda got up to some terrible fun I bet…”
Goruu chittered, “Fyu’s nuts! I don’t even want to think about that! What were you like in your younger ears, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“A hell-raiser! A brawler, biggest an’ strongest ‘Back ever, even then! Had me lots o’ fun!” Daar chittered fiercely, then sobered up a bit. “But, well, I weren’t essactly a good guy when I was young. I mellowed out a bunch when the Championship fell on me, though. Had to. And thank the Unseen it did when it did. I hate to think what I’d’ve been like if I hadn’t been forced ‘ta grow up at fifteen…prol’ly not anythin’ good.”
“Maturity comes when it’s needed. My own trial…well. You were there to kick it off, of course.”
Daar keened slightly at that. Goruu was Champion because Daar had destroyed Firefang’s Champion and Grandfather with little more than a pawswipe, right at the pregnant moment when severe change in leadership was necessary. It was then that Daar had assumed the Mantle of the Great Father, though he would not know it for several hours.
“…Yeah. For what it’s worth, I do wish the duty hadn’t fallen on you like that. You deserved better.”
“It…has been a trial, yes. But My Father, I must ask: do you regret it?”
“I regret nothing,” Daar answered, plainly. “I did what was necessary. The consequences are what they must be. No point pining after a past we couldn’t afford.”
Goruu duck-nodded solemnly.
“Anyway.” Daar shook his pelt out, and began padding his way toward the gym; it was time for his morning workout. “You din’t answer me on if it’d be okay ‘fer me to pay my respects. An’ I’m askin’ earnestly,” he added, hastily. “I promise I won’t take no offense if you say no.”
Goruu followed after him, and after a bit gave up on two-paw. He settled into a slow-lope gait on all fours to keep up with Daar’s pace. “It is…meant to be a private affair. But I think it would be good, if you could make a discreet appearance.”
“Discreet can be tricky ‘fer me, but I’ll make it happen. Thank you. Now, I’m ‘bout to go throw around some tonnage, so unless you wanna really get ‘yer tail whupped…”
Daar growled it friendly-like, but he was still surprised by Goruu’s response. “Actually…yes. Why not? I’ve got some aggression to work out. I assume you have something suitable for us normal-sized males?”
Daar chittered. “I do. An’ I’d appreciate the company.”
“As would I.”
There was little more to say, for now. There’d be the pyre later, the analysis of Tooko’s intelligence would take however long it took. The real tribute to him would come after, when they used what he’d found to tear into the Hunters’ soft underbelly and exact revenge.
Though, if Daar could pay tribute to him in some other way, too, he would. Perhaps in the name of the next ship?
He duck-nodded to himself. He’d let that idea percolate. Don’t force it. Just sit on the idea and let it hatch in its own time. For now…
Time to see what his Champion could do.
Date Point: 18y6m2w4d AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
There was a sting on the air: ethanol. And a lot of other compounds that hit Dora’s antennae and itched, weird aromatics and strange compounds she’d never encountered before. But mostly ethanol. And for some weird reason, it was coming from her drone control blister, along with quiet, sad music very different to the upbeat human pop she usually played.
♫“…and all I’ve done, for want of wit, to mem’ry now, I can’t recall…so fill to me the parting glass…”♪
Somehow, Wilde had made himself comfortable in her seat. She hadn’t thought that was possible for a biped. He was sprawled across it, bare feet up on the console, drinking something amber and potently alcoholic from a small glass. Another glass, full and untouched, was perched on one of the blister’s internal spars, as close to the void outside as possible, and he was staring out at the stars while singing along quietly.
He half-turned his head. “…Hey. Need me t’clear out?”
“Worried about you. You missed dinner.”
“Yeah…” He sniffed, emptied the tiny glass, then refilled it. Dora wondered why he didn’t just drink from a larger glass, or the bottle itself. “…Friend died.”
“I’m…sorry. This is a wake, huh? I’ve heard of them.”
“Sort of.” He chuckled and waggled the bottle at her. “Stupid. ‘M’not even fucken’ Irish. But the Paddies know how t’send off a mate prop’ly…”
“Ohh. So that’s whiskey! I’ve never seen it before.” Dora settled into her relaxed standing-sit and held out a hand.
“…Y’sure it’s safe ‘fer you?” Ian asked.
A quick check on her phone reassured them both that yes, a shot wouldn’t do her any more harm than it was doing him, so he shrugged, found another glass, and poured. Wafting her antennae over the glass was enough to make Dora very nervous about it—actually drinking it was enough to confirm every one of her concerns. It burned. Her throat closed reflexively, and she coughed violently.
“He loves you tooooo…” Wilde chuckled and took her glass back before draining it like it was pure spring water. “…Where’s Bruuk?”
“Remember that sleek thing with the russet chest ruff he met after we got tacos? Well, he’s got a mating contract! He’ll be a week or so, from what I gather.”
“Ha! Good ‘fer ‘em! Betcha he’ll be unbearably smug. Bear, ha!”
“What about you? You’ve been so busy studying…”
Wilde grumbled and hauled himself slightly more upright. “Could do with a pipe-cleanin’, yeah.”
“…That sounds gross, whatever it means.”
“I mean…that was the polite way o’ sayin’ it. Dunno if I’ll find what I’m lookin’ fer though.”
Dora could relate, there. “Hmm. Join the club. Actually…what are you lookin’ for?”
He paused, swirled the bottle thoughtfully. “Fuck if I know. Never really found anyone who fits me…” He swigged directly from it, abandoning the tiny glass. “Had a few girlfriends through school, didn’t seem to work. Had fun. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good shag? But, y’know, I think the Gaoians’ve got it right there. Get it down on paper so erryone knows where they stand, have ‘yer fun, build the actual meaningful relationships with the people around ‘ya. Our shit’s so much fuckin’….messier. S’like…number o’ stories I hear where they’re married an’ they only have sex outta a sense of duty t’their partner an’ not ‘cuz they actually want to? S’fuckin’ tragic.”
“That sounds awfully familiar to me,” Dora noted. “Like…very familiar. How far have you thought that idea through?”
“…I think I’m too drunk ‘fer thinkin’ through anythin’ right now…Whaddya mean, familiar?”
Dora affected a sigh as best she could. “Honey, how do you think I figured out I was gay?”
That seemed to sober him right up.
“Well, shit. That’s goin’ from nought to fuckin’ sixty, innit?”
“Well, is it a question you ever asked yourself?”
“Nah. I mean…wouldn’t I just…know?” He swigged from the bottle again. “I’m thirty for fucksake, that’s the sort of shit you figure out in your teens.”
“You said it yourself, you never found anyone who fit, and from what you’ve told me, you never actually stopped to figure yourself out in all the running around serving and fighting.”
He stared out the window at Cimbrean for a while. “…Well…I dunno. I feel like it’d just…be obvious, y’know? But nothin’ feels obvious,” he frowned. “…Fuck.”
Dora reached over and patted his shoulder with her leftmost hand. “So it’s a question you need to answer. It doesn’t matter what the answer is, at least having one will help you know yourself a bit better, eh?”
“Heh. You almost sound like Moj…” he shook his head. “But..that’d be nice, yeah. Knowin’ myself better. S’why I came on this ship in the first place.”
“Well, maybe the answers aren’t up here in a bottle, maybe they’re down there among your own people. Your kind don’t cope with being alone very well. Especially…y’know. Right now.”
He swirled the bottle some more, then sighed. “…Fuck, Tooko woulda said th’same thing.”
“…Well, since I’m guessing by context he’s the reason you’re drunk, maybe take his advice.”
“Heh…yeah…funny thing, little bugger was irresistible to the ladies, but I’d swear he was queer as a nine bob note.”
“Oh, please, Gaoians by human standards are gay as fuck. Their idea of ‘gay’ is more like ‘doesn’t like females at all.’”
“Yeah, really. Go watch ‘em in the park one day. Most gaoian ‘cousins’ are, like, chaste-ish romantic life partners. But they don’t try and be everything to each other. That’s where Humans fuck it up, you pick one person and lay all your wants and hopes on them. And it’s funny, because you know there are all different kinds of love, but you don’t act on that.”
He was watching her with a drunkenly attentive expression, so she elaborated. “Different kinds of love, you know? It’s weird that English has only one word for it all, ‘cuz, like, there’s…” she started counting on her fingers. “Akak, that’s romantic love. Fesh, that’s love between close family, Arrak for love for close friends, Tooib is playful, no-strings-attached, carefree love—kinda frowned on by the authorities, but they can’t stamp it out—Hen for love of nation and higher ideal, Susuk is love for self—y’know, healthy self-respect and valuing yourself, not narcissism…”
“Wait, wait, wait…” he waved her to stop. “The Robalin Supremacy has more words for love than we do?”
“The Robalin people do,” Dora rebuked him, gently. “Anyway. The point is, you want fesh-t’arrak? The love of family, friends and companions? Well you’ve got that, right here on this crew. You want to ‘get your pipes cleaned?’ Well, none of us can do that for you, or want to, so go find somebody! You want somebody warm to sleep next to at night? You’ve got Bruuk! Why overthink it? If you can’t find someone who fits you, maybe there isn’t one! Maybe that’s not what you need!”
“…I dunno. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like the idea of, uh. Sharing like that. I don’t know about the rest but I definitely know that.”
“Well, okay. Still. Shoo! Go, clean pipes, whatever that means. Don’t you have some friends from the ‘soar’ or whatever?”
“Not really. Well. Maybe.” He considered the bottle a moment longer, then reached for the cap and screwed it back on. “Ehh…fuck it. Why not? The lads’ll wanna pay respects too…”
“Shower first!” Dora advised. “You smell like a degreased engine.”
“Right, right…” he levered himself awkwardly out of her chair, then paused, and gave her a hug. And not the gentle, hesitant sort of hug Humans usually gave. This one was the kind he reserved for fellow deathworlders, and it smashed the air right out of her.
“Shit, shit, sorry…” he let go. “Just…”
“I know, you walking disaster. Now go clean up and celebrate your friend instead of mourning him.”
He meandered away with a muttered “Right…” and Dora let out a heavy sigh. That conversation had been a while coming. She knew, even if he didn’t. His friends probably knew, too. Probably the only one who didn’t was himself.
That was a story she knew all too well.
Date Point: 18y6m2w4d AV
The Funeral Fields, Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Everyone got a funeral. Everyone got a pyre. Everyone got mourners. That was Daar’s promise, not just to the Grand Army but to all the Gao: nobody went un-mourned. Out of practical necessity, so many of the Gaoian dead—the biodrone swarms, the victims from the Communes, the Clanless killed during the biodrone rampage, the starship crews—had gone to mass graves, mass fire pits, or simply been obliterated by orbital strikes or in the destruction of their ships.
But everyone got a pyre, eventually. Even if it was a small symbolic sliver of wood, burning along with so many others. They got a pyre.
The fires on the Funeral Fields therefore burned day and night, attended faithfully, at minimum, by a ceremonial detail. Mostly, the ceremonial detail were wounded, convalescing before their return to frontline duty. But it was an important unit, and they took their role seriously.
Today he wore his crown, to represent the Crown. The symbology mattered. No playful banter, no mugging for fans or flirting with females. Today he was the embodiment of serene power.
Tooko had more than just the ceremonial minimum present. His pyre was one of the symbolic ones: a small stack of kindling, smaller than Daar’s paw. Such a little thing, to stand in for someone with such a big, passionate heart…
But needs must. They didn’t have enough to do it properly. Wouldn’t for a long time; if Daar was very lucky, he’d live to see great forests on Gao again just before he went blind and died.
Where the fire was inadequate, though, the people made up for it. Not just Gao, either—one of the Humans stationed permanently on the planet had showed up to pay his respects too. Murphy. He’d come back from his time helping Leemu and Bruuk become housemates, and maybe helping steady Bruuk just that little bit more from the evil that had been done to him.
Daar didn’t have anyone else who was quite so handy a handyman as Murphy. It was good to have him back.
Other than Murphy, there were some representatives from the Clan of Females, a few higher-ranking Fathers from Clan Firefang, and more than a few Clanless who’d apparently known Tooko and counted him a friend.
It was quite the impressive showing. Tooko had earned plenty of respect, and done much for the Gao. Lots of people were going to miss him. What better legacy was there?
Daar and the Great Father had finally merged at some point, he knew. Daar knew this because there was never a time when he wasn’t calculating things to the maximum advantage of the Gao—and of her allies, if it benefited everyone. And he really wanted it to.
So while everything else was going on, and his heart keened in silence for Tooko and everyone else…Daar plotted on people, especially personnel. He was always on the lookout for good talent, always hoping to maximize their possibility for success. Tooko had been a standout, and spending him to get that intel was a painful, costly consequence. But, there were others.
He’d need another ship to replace Silent But Deadly too. Technology marched ever onwards, and the next would probably be even better.
He had a couple of brownfurs that smelled like potential, and he’d set them on the path as best he could. Gorku was doing well! He’d completed the Second Ring with good recommendations, so now it was a matter of nudging and preparation.
He wasn’t quite sure what Bruuk’s purpose was gonna be, but his potential was so obvious it’d be criminal to ignore him. Balls, if Daar had been a second-degree, he’d probably be much like the grumpy lil’ tank. If Bruuk had been born a fifth degree, Daar had no doubt he would have been a soaring talent in the Clan, possibly even a challenger. Shame really, but…that’s just how it went. Still. Damn near peerless genes, good attitude despite the horrors he’d endured…
And firmly in Wilde’s orbit. Maybe that was what he’d be good for, actually. That ship, its crew, Wilde, Bruuk, they’d resolved one of the longest-standing obstacles to the war effort. Daar didn’t intend to let them stop there, though. The galaxy wasn’t gonna stop turnin’ up new roadblocks, an’ basic sapient greed an’ short-sightedness could do a lot of harm.
Well. There were options. Bruuk had thoroughly dominated the First Ring when he challenged it and was still riding pretty high on that; his taco-purveyor-spy-friend told Daar he’d found a mate! That was good. So, once that was done…
Should Daar maybe encourage Bruuk to go hard at the Rings? That would take much time. Years. Gorku only just finished the Second Ring after all, and the Third could be infamously long, depending on what the ‘Back wanted to specialize in. Would it be a better investment to encourage Bruuk along the traditional path of Clan advancement?
Or would it be better to encourage…something a bit different?
On the one hand, Bruuk would be an excellent ‘Back in the Clan. No denying that. That was an assured path to personal success for him…
But was it the right path for him? And was it what the Great Father needed?
…No. To both. Bruuk was too much of a stand-out. Top-tier genetics—and a good nose could smell it on him—and by random chance, an absolutely average degree. Senior Clan would outcompete him in every way that mattered. He would drown in the politics of mating pedigree, and that wouldn’t do for anyone. Bruuk was a special project, the more Daar looked at it.
As was Wilde. Daar didn’t have many Humans on-staff.
No, they were both far too useful and important where they were. And there was plenty to be done still, to prepare the Grand Army for the next stage of invading Hunter space.
And there was the lesson of Tooko. Small, stealthy ships had their uses. But they were also defenseless. What was needed was something that could sneak around, and then stand up and beat its enemy bloody when needed. Drunker meets Destroying Fury.
The Drunken Fury?
Such a ship would need support, too. Say, an innocuous civilian freighter, making cargo runs across certain strategic corridors…deploy the odd discreet sensor here and there, drop a megalight drone, smuggle the odd special project…
…Maybe have a compact lil’ grizzly bear of a cook start a fight now and then, while a respectable wall of a one-eyed murderhuman sweet-talks the local authorities…
Okay. Probably not. But that was still such a funny report, Daar couldn’t help but enjoy the memory of just reading it. Balls, he’d have had so much fun if he coulda played!
He checked himself just before he chittered at the memory. This was a solemn moment, and though he was pretty sure Tooko himself woulda understood it weren’t no disrespect…well, still. The Pyres were never really for the dead, anyway. The Pyres were for the living.
This one, though, was just about burned out. The kindling was down to just a few last glowing tips, and the last wavering lick of flame guttered out even as Daar watched it. Such tiny pyres didn’t last long. But they’d happened at all, that was the point.
Just like a life.
He sighed sadly. Lives. That was the currency of Great Fathers, and of wars. Tooko’s had been an expensive life to spend, but what he’d bought…well, they’d see. It might be one life that avoided the waste of many, or one life that ultimately avenged trillions. Either way, the point was not to waste lives.
That was the promise he poured silently into the last trail of smoke until even that was gone, and the funeral was over. Then, with a head full of plans, he returned from reflecting on the ones he spent and commanded, and went back to his own.
Behind him, the ceremonial detail prepared for the next remembrance.
Date Point: 18y6m2w5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
SPC Hunter “Gonzo” Thompson
Hunter’s physical training had been deliberately lined up with the biggest Beefs, apparently owing to his high growth potential. That turned out to be kinda nice actually, ‘cuz all four of them were currently on an extended recovery pause in their progression, timed in this case to align with the trials of caring for Adam’s second kid. A boy, named Samuel, several months old by now and who was just settling into a good nighttime routine. He was a big boy, too. Dang.
Anyway, that meant Hunter was on an extended break too, the first one at this level he’d ever been on. It wasn’t, like, a do-nothing thing. Mostly it was about reasonable self-restraint, while the superscience was at a bare minimum (and mostly absent right now) to give their bodies time to adapt, time to really recover and settle on their new normal. Rest and recovery was just as important as pushing it, and at HEAT’s level, those rest intervals could last for months.
Which…well. It was awesome! It meant he could afford occasional cheat meals. He could party a little! He wouldn’t be busting PRs or anything, but who cared? A guy had to live a little, and if there was anything Hunter had learned he’d missed his whole life, it was living.
It was nice being a fuckin’ beast. But it was nice to do dumb shit, too.
So, he was down to have fun. Fuck, that was part of how he’d earned his callsign! “Gonzo.” He kinda liked it, actually. It was nice not being super-serious all the time about everything. But sometimes, a guy had to be both.
They were drinking to Tooko. That was a fuck of a bummer. Hunter had never got to meet him but the JETS guys all thought the world of him, and the HEAT lads were, if nothing else, fiercely loyal to their JETS buddies. So, the night started out at Rooney’s where they raised a few glasses, shared stories, laughed sadly…
From there, the new nightclub on New Worlds Plaza, Unchained. Huge dance floor, some pretty funky holographic gizmos up in the roof alongside the lights and lasers…
Hunter had a weakness. A big one. He was a huge show-off, but he sorta…well, he tried to keep it to places where it wasn’t such a dick move to prance around, y’know? But still, he was a big pretty bastard and he loved to play. Playing with other pretty people was fun, and there wasn’t any better place among normal people than a dance club. Or more fun!
Wilde wasn’t super excited by the idea. He had the usual ship-mooring pole up his ass like most brits did, but with him it was even worse because he didn’t really…fit in with the HEAT lads. Not the Gaoians either, which seemed to somehow bum him out even more, despite their attempts to make it better. Probably it was the sorta…uh, puppy-like way everyone was showering him with attention…
Hunter thought he understood. Wilde needed someone who was too dumb to get what was botherin’ him. Well, Hunter could be pretty dumb when he needed to, and he was even dumber with his Marine buddies.
So, they went to go be the dumbest together.
There was a lot of drinkin’. Firstly, Wilde was a big damn dude, quite a bit bigger than Hunter’s Marine buddies. He was also a Brit, and together that meant he could hold his booze against their degenerate alcoholism, no problem. Good! Hunter was like three times bigger still, so he didn’t really have to worry about getting too plastered to contain himself. He could match them all, drink for drink without any worries, and he couldn’t afford enough booze to get drunk, anyway.
He still got tipsy as hell, though. And tipsy-dancing was the best dancing. All the lights flashing, the music thumping, pretty people all around him, paying attention to him…shirt off, sweat-slick from dancing…fuck, he probably looked sick in all the flashing lights! Then he was showing off to cheers, there was a tall drink of woman he hadn’t met before, lots of grabby hands…
He realized at some point that Wilde wasn’t playing along, instead hovering around the bar, being all awkward and stuff. Fuck that noise. Hunter stomped over, picked him up and dragged him right into the middle of the dance floor, and sicced a bunch of the pretty people after him.
“Have fun you stupid fuck!”
Jesus fuck there weren’t nothin’ more funner’n shoving a Brit WAY past his comfort zone. And that eye was a real conversation-starter!
Well, for what passes for conversation on a pulsating dance floor, anyway.
And it worked! One of Hunter’s favorite hookups had Wilde loosened up in no time—direct attention from a girl that hot had its own kind of superpower. Hunter gave her a look and moved just the way she liked, offering to go somewhere private and play like they had before on a few occasions…
She just gave him a wicked grin, and returned her attention to Ian. Oh well!
Hunter did learn something pretty valuable that night. After accounting for his ridiculous size these days, it turned out he was actually a fuckin’ lightweight on the booze. Once he crossed some magical threshold, he went from tipsy to fuckin’ smashed almost instantly. He didn’t quite trust himself in that state, given how big he was and everything, so that was the time to stumble off the dance floor and maybe call it a night.
Marine buds gave him no end of trouble for that. Oh well. He’d earned it.
He didn’t remember much else after that. He vaguely recalled some really nice fuckin’ attention from that woman he smiled at earlier, but he didn’t remember really…what. Good warning sign. He remembered stumbling home too. Or maybe stumbling off to somewhere closer…?
He woke up with a raging headache on an unfamiliar floor in an unfamiliar living room, with a happily familiar warm weight atop him.
He needed to pee, and drink some water, but still he took a moment to put things together. Okay…nice place. Not a university student’s digs, place looked more like…
A few more pieces fell into place as he checked the warm body cuddled up to him. Yup. Older woman. Ring on her finger. Right, yeah, there’d been a married couple…no sign of the husband though.
Well…whatever. He could be a good house guest. He carefully extracted himself from under…uh…nope. Name wasn’t coming to mind. Whatever. He did his best not to wake her up, groaned his way to his feet, and went looking for the bathroom.
Taking care of that need dealt with half his hangover all by itself. He found some painkillers behind the mirror, scooped a couple double-pawfuls of water into his mouth to wash them down, and decided it’d prob’ly be polite if he fixed breakfast or something.
Well. He could at least pull some underwear on, first. So he did that, and whoever-she-was stirred sleepily.
Hunter paused, and grinned sheepishly. “Uh…hi.”
“Rebecca,” she said with a more wicked grin. “And you are?”
He sighed in wary relief and could feel how gormlessly he was grinning. “Uh. Hunter. We, uh, I guess things went kinda fast last night.”
“Well, you looked so lonely…” she stretched out like…well, like a cougar. A very satisfied cougar. “Like a poor lost puppy, even. If you were thinking of clattering around in the kitchen, don’t bother. My husband will take care of it when he gets back. He’ll be out for his morning jog.”
“Oh. Okay.” Hunter went digging around in his clothes for his phone. Sure enough there was a barrage of teasing messages from the Lads. “I, uh, guess he’s a morning person, huh?”
“Mm. Don’t know how he does it. Or how he’s able to walk, after what you did to him last night…”
Hunter blinked. He didn’t remember that! “I…what?”
Rebecca gave him the most evil smile he’d ever seen. “I’m only teasing. Raymond only has permission to watch, for now…”
“Ohh…” Hunter chuckled. “Good. I’d hope I’d have remembered something like that!“
Actually…Hunter looked around. No sign of his buddy.
“…I wonder where Wilde wandered off to.”
Rebecca arched an eyebrow at him as she rose to her feet and headed for the bathroom herself, with a bit of a pained groan. “Ugh, you young bucks and your lack of restraint…Now what prompted that question?”
“Uh…buddy of mine. Goin’ through some stuff, I guess.” Some intuition struck him suddenly. “You keep your claws out of him!” he added with a grin.
She snarled, playfully scrammed the air at him, and vanished into the bathroom with a “Rawr!” and a laugh.
Hunter chuckled, decided he liked her, and scrolled through his messages, just in case there was anything there that demanded his attention. Not much, as it turned out: A new post from Adam, posing with Samuel and Diego in one arm and his wife in the other, a huge happy-dad grin turning his face goofy. Weirdly adorably goofy, which he’d need to tease him about later. Other than that, just his daily reminders.
Rebecca returned, tying herself into a silk bathrobe. “So, this buddy of yours. Quiet Brit? Cool glass eye? Useless on the dance floor?”
“Well, he is a Brit…”
“More useless than usual.”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Last I saw of him, he was having more success with that girl than you were.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Hunter grinned smugly. “I got there first weeks ago. She’ll wear him right the fuck out.”
“My,” she clucked in faux disapproval, “You are quite the himbo, aren’t you?”
“Hey! I’m doin’ a community service! I got needs, y’know? And apparently so do a buncha lonely folks in this town…”
“What can I say? Folctha has that reputation, in some circles…say, you happen to be buddies with a big man, goes by, uh…Warhorse?”
“You’re kidding!” Hunter laughed, “Him too? He’s super loyal to his wife!”
“Oh, this was a few years ago. I suppose he got it out of his system…Alas.” She trailed her fingernails over his arms and shoulders, asking a question that Hunter knew the answer to.
“Too bad, huh?” He pulled her close and tight, and snarled into her ear. “What would your husband think if I were to just fuck you stupid on the counter?”
“He’d probably enjoy that a bit too much…so you have to wait ‘til he gets back.” She pushed a sharp fingernail into his sternum. “That’s the rules. Only when he’s here to watch.”
“You are a wicked little thing, ain’t you?”
“Fiendish.” She purred, quite relaxed and clearly enjoying herself. “You enjoy an audience anyway. So stick around, I promise it’ll be worth it…”
Well, he didn’t take much convincing. He was just a big dumb boy, really. But still…Wilde. The entire point of last night was lookin’ out for Wilde. As much as Hunter liked gettin’ his dick slicked…
“Uh…okay, but I really gotta…” he unwrapped himself from her and picked up his phone again. “See if my buddy’s okay first, y’know?…”
“Aww, that’s sweet.” She made herself comfortable on the couch. “You HEAT types really do look out for each other, don’t you? But you’re usually more gentlemanly than to just fuck-and-run…”
…HEAT types? Wait. How much did Rebecca get around? Well…he understood the teasing, now. He’d apparently just gleefully plowed the village bicycle.
…Hot fuckin’ bike, though. Whatever that meant. And whatever, she was clearly happy with life, so who was he to judge? Not like he was some kinda monk himself…Mighta felt bad for the husband, but he seemed pretty fuckin’ happy with the arrangement himself, now that Hunter’s memory was getting into gear…
Oh. Yeah. Wilde.
“So you never answered my question. You know where he is?”
“I’m pretty sure he’s with his girl for the night. Now a question for you: what are you going to go and do? He seemed like a big boy…” she trailed her toes up his thigh and gave him a sinful quick arch of her eyebrow. “Are you sure he can’t take care of himself…?
“…Uh…” Hunter tripped up on that one. It was true, he’d been so eager to help that he hadn’t actually put any thought into how. Or even, really, if Wilde actually needed his help at all, now he thought about it.
And…cougar or not, she had such a fine fuckin’ bod…especially there in the morning light…
“…Maybe I’ll just send a text, actually.”
“Good boy.” She patted his shoulder, and gave it a good hard squeeze. Then leaned in close to his ear and snarled. “We’re not done with you yet, anyway.”
“…Oh.” Hunter thought about that for a second then decided…y’know what? WIlde was a grown-ass man, he could look after himself for the day. “Good.”
He could work on friend-stuff later.
Date Point: 18y6m2w5d AV
Betty’s Diner, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“I thought I smelled you!”
Ian tore his attention away from the morning news TV and blinked. At least he was having a good breakfast, even if he kept zoning out in the middle of it: Orange juice and eggs benedict, the best hangover cure, not that it was working so much. He’d spent most of the last day totally pickled, and his brain was…chugging.
“…Hey, Bruuk. And, uh…”
“Tensee,” Bruuk introduced his female companion with the smug look that only a Gaoian male who’d just secured—and fulfilled—a mating contract ever dared to wear in public.
“You two have a good time, I take it?”
“So did you, by the smell of it!”
Ian groaned and drank some of his juice. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, I showered and everything.”
“Can’t fool this nose, Cousin!” Bruuk chittered merrily and sat down opposite him. Tensee—a terrier-furred robust thing with a couple of surprisingly masculine scars—slid in next to him looking quite amused.
“Cousin, you say? He doesn’t much smell like you…”
“Oh, I ain’t sure he’d servive that.” There was an evil chitter in the rumbling wave of bass.
Ian blinked at him, still badly brain-lagged. “I…what?”
The two Gaoians both chittered again. “I don’t know which you smell of more, female or alcohol!” Bruuk pant-grinned at him.
“Think both of us had way too much to drink. Fuck me, that was dumb.”
“Which bit? The drinking? Or the hookup?”
“Both in combination.”
“Trust a Human to overcomplicate matters…” Tensee’s tone was understanding, though. “Me, I keep it simple. Bruuk here was a perfect gentleman on our date, and a perfect savage afterward. And I’m hoping he will be for the next month, too. You wanted it, she plainly wanted it… Why deny our natures? ”
“Easy for you to say, love…” Ian grumbled, but decided not to elaborate. Bruuk didn’t need the distraction right now, and she was a stranger. He turned his attention back to the telly. “Eh, sorry.”
Bruuk gave him a concerned look. “You okay?”
“Just…lots o’ shit news all in a couple days. Knocks a bloke off his stride, you know?”
Tensee duck-nodded sadly. She was watching the footage from New York too, now, her ears moving to a more solemn angle. “Did somebody you know…?”
“Not in that. But…yeah. Lost a mate of mine yesterday.”
Bruuk keened softly. “Anyone I know?”
“Doubt it. Tooko. Clan Firefang. Dunno the details, but they were good enough to tell me…”
“I know that name…” Tensee blinked, then her ears flattened. “…Wait. First-degree? One of his Clan’s studs?”
“That’s the one. Smug little bugger, but a bloody fantastic pilot. You knew him?”
“Knew of him…Wow. There’s…going to be a lot of unhappy Sisters.”
“Now that’s the kinda legacy I wanna leave…” Bruuk commented. Tensee gave him a slightly affronted look, but it evaporated when Ian laughed.
“Hah! Yeah. Yeah, I think he’d be happy wi’ that.”
“Ugh, males…” He could tell her heart wasn’t really in it.
Ian had to chuckle at that one. Bruuk chittered too, then dug in one of his pockets and handed Tensee a credit card. “Hey, get ‘yerself breakfast. My treat.”
“And one for you too, hmm?” She flicked her ears amusedly, but climbed out of the stall to go order.
“That’d be nice.”
“Such a lazy brownfur…” she chittered, and headed for the counter.
“Not last night!” he called after her, and turned his attention to Wilde. “…Y’don’t seem as…uh…happy as I woulda thought you’d be.”
Ian stirred some bacon around on his plate, mopping up the runny egg yolk. “Doesn’t work that way for us,” he grunted.
“Okay. All due respect and everything? Yes it fuckin’ does. I’ve seen an’ smelled way too many of you Humans after a good Gao-worthy all-night romp. You come out of it with a spring in your step and a syrup-sweet disposition. So why not you?”
“…I mean…it wasn’t what I needed.”
Bruuk tilted his head, which made his normally erect wolf-like ears flop over a bit too much like a giant puppy. “You…” A sniff, then. One of the serious sniffs Gaoians always did when they wanted to be sure, and wanted you to know it. “Lotta self-doubt there. An’ I’m guessin’ it ain’t over somethin’ stupid like performance.”
“I performed just fine, thank you. And it was….fun. Nice. Just…I’unno. Hollow.”
“…Oh. I get it.”
“Better’n you might guess. I’m a second degree, yijao?”
“Oh for God’s sake, Dora gave me this exact same talk yesterday.” Ian put his knife and fork down.
“What talk? I ain’t gonna give you no talk! I just get that, uh, things ain’t always so cut an’ dry. You got any idea what it’s like bein’ both more and less of a male than most other males? So no. All I’m sayin’ is I get it.”
“That isn’t it for fucksake!” Ian groaned. “I don’t give a rat’s arse what people think, my problem is…look, it’s the same one that got me on the ship in the first place. I’ve spent my whole fuckin’ life being something clear-cut and easy to understand, and then everything gets turned upside down and I’ve suddenly got to figure out shit that I should’ve squared away years ago.”
“Square away…” Bruuk looked…well, his chitter wasn’t mirthful. “Brother. Did you not hear what I said? Who gets to live cut-and-dry? That’s a luxury. I’m a ‘little girly second degree’ with a second-degree’s infamous preferences…but I’ve also got Keeda’s own testosterone count, and I naturally got enough muscle on my frame to literally crush most fifth degrees’ ribs flat with a simple hug. Now, after Daar himself’s been teaching me? Well, I’m gonna get fuckin’ crazy strong while I prep for the Second Ring. So I know confusion. You know what it was like when I figgered out I was way more interested in males than females? For higher-degree males that’s kinda unusual, but for first an’ second degrees, that’s common.”
“Wait, what? You’re into guys?”
Bruuk shrugged hugely. “Yeah. Gals too, as you can see by my pretty-tail date. But mostly guys.” He grinned evilly, exposing his fangs. “‘Specially if they need puttin’ in their place…”
Wilde ignored that thought for now. “…I didn’t know you were gay.”
“That’s what I’m tellin’ you. By Gaoian standards I ain’t. The right female will still enslave my heart just by flickin’ an ear at me, yijao? That’s a trick only a female can manage ‘fer us, even us open-ended types. So yeah. I still love Females. Just…not literally all of ‘em, the way guys like Daar do. I’m a little odd by our standards, yeah, but even then it’s ‘cuz I’m basically a big fifth degree squashed down. I’m short, but I’m thick an’ wide as fuck, and I smell like a full-sized ‘Back. Strong like one, too. So, y’know. Confusin’ for everyone.”
“Confusion seems to be the order of the day…” Ian grumbled. “And I gotta say, that little speech hits a little uncomfortably close to home for me.”
“So what? An’ is that ‘yer problem? I dunno! I just know you smell confused as shit, an’ you seem ‘ta think ‘yer the only one who’s ever felt it. Bullshit, which is the bestest English word an’ I’m stealing it.”
Despite himself, Ian laughed. “Oh come on, everyone knows ‘fuck’ is the bestest word.”
“Fuck is universal. It transcends species an’ belongs to no language. Or at least,” he sniffed, “any species worth the fuck in the first place. Bullshit is English. But. Anyway. Look, we ain’t the same species. I’m pretty fuckin’ smart but I won’t pretend like I get Humans, yijao? All I know is I get what ‘yer goin’ through, even if you don’t even know what it is ‘yerself. Standouts never have an easy time finding themselves.”
“Mm.” Ian picked up his fork again and ate the last of his bacon. “Dora reckons I’m gay.”
Bruuk duck-shrugged. “‘Course she does. She’s from a culture where everyone gets their little fuckin’ box, an that jacket o’ hers is covered in all the little flags for all the little boxes Humans put themselves into. She wants you ‘ta have a word that sums it all up, ‘cuz that’s what helped her! Doesn’t mean that’s what you need, or that there even is a box ‘fer you.”
“True, I guess…Besides, I’m pretty sure I’d know. Right?”
“Eh. Maybe.” The question didn’t seem to interest Bruuk much. “I dunno. You clearly like women so you ain’t gay like I’d term it. I mean,” he chittered evilly, “I can ream you out but good if you wanna find out what ‘yer into—”
Ian snorted. “No.”
“Y’sure? I’m strong and ‘ya wouldn’t be the first confused male I’ve smashed inside-out—”
“Fuck, no!” Ian shook his head. “Christ, that’s not an image I wanted today…”
“See?! You can still laugh. But seriously, firstly I wouldn’t really do that to ‘ya unless ‘ya asked, obviously, and secondly I know you Humans think differently ‘bout this. ‘Gay’ ain’t what I’d call ‘ya. I mean, look around. You see any male tail you wanna chase?”
“Right, that’s the bit that has me confused. I look around and it’s like…she’s hot, she’s cute, she’s fuck-it-why-not…don’t quite see it in men. I mean…but also, at the same time I do kinda see it and that’s fucking with me.”
“Oh? How so?”
Ian took his time and mopped up some more egg. It was starting to get cold so he polished off his plate before continuing.
“Well, okay. There’s this young HEAT kid. Goes by Gonzo, right? He took me out clubbing last night and…fuck. I spent more time staring at him than anyone else. Never…that was a first for me. I couldn’t fuckin’ look away.” Just remembering that made Ian feel uncomfortable. “If things didn’t go like they did, I probably mighta…I dunno. I think he noticed though, ‘cuz he stomped over at some point, and I honestly didn’t know if he was gonna break me or something, or if I had to fight off a fuckin’ angry HEAT operator, but thank fuck that wasn’t what he was mad at.”
“He was mad you weren’t playing with everyone else?”
“…How did you–?…whatever. Anyway, yeah. He didn’t seem to like me sticking to myself, so he stomped over and literally picked me up like a fuckin’ child—and that was a feeling I wasn’t expecting! I’m a big damn bloke and he manhandled me like nothing! Then he plopped me right in the middle of the dance floor, and then…there was this beautiful young woman, right? Suddenly I forgot everything else, and then I woke up in her bed, hung over, and…here I am.”
Ian felt a bit drained after that, and nursed his orange juice. Bruuk though, he seemed thoughtful. “Okay. Yeah. That’s unambiguously an attraction. So, how do you feel about it?”
“…I don’t know. Confused. I mean, I ended up going home with the woman, right? She’s the one that got my blood pumping. But at the same time? I never…all my friends are guys. I wanna hang out with them and do guy things, right? Why don’t I ever feel that with women?”
“Well. Okay. Y’know what? You human males have a superpower in common with us. We Gao, we can meet each other for the first time, sniff noses an’ be lifelong friends before we’ve ever spoken a word. I see you males do the same thing, sorta. Now I ain’t no, uh…whatever would be an expert here. But you can’t tell me that ain’t driven at least a little by some kinda male-specific bond, ‘cuz the females in both our species just…don’t hardly ever do that.”
“Oh, bullshit, I’ve known plenty of women who’re inseparable best friends for life!”
“I didn’t say no women. That’s obviously stupid! Of course sometimes women meet and they’re cousins forever. But in general you can people-watch an’ see patterns. So, it looks to me that men an’ women click together ‘fer different reasons. An’ mebbe whatever does the clickin’ is different in us. Man and woman, I mean. You sure you ain’t just…missing some o’ that? You military types have really intense friendships an’ all…”
Ian could only stare at him blankly for a bit. “How do…why are you so smart about this?”
“I’m a compressed chair-crushin’ contradiction, cousin,” Bruuk chittered. “I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout all this a long time. Bein’ turned into a fuckin’ robo-zambie didn’t help shit, neither.”
Tensee slid back into the booth and returned Bruuk’s credit card, who immediately wrapped a massive arm around her possessively. She leaned into him and purred, sniffed the air and discreetly changed the subject. “He’s a smart one, with smart friends. Handsome, too!”
Ian chuckled. “I suppose he’s that, yeah.”
“I meant you.”
Both of Bruuk’s ears flicked indignantly. “Hey!” Despite his protest, his grip around her tightened affectionately. The two of them together were almost nauseatingly cute.
“Bricky, you’s a handsome male, but you are never going to match his scar. Or his glass eye.”
“Wouldn’t bloody advise it,” Ian said. Somehow, he wasn’t self-conscious about that when it was a Gaoian female pointing it out. Especially not one who’d picked up a few wounds herself. “It stung a bit.”
“Only a bit?”
Bruuk chittered. “You gotta understand, in his Clan, that kinda understatement means it was the most painful shit ever.”
“M-hmm,” Ian agreed. “Took more than a sit-down and a cup of tea to get me back on my feet, I’ll tell you.”
“Handsome and understated! You picked a good cousin, mister brick! Could learn a few things from him, too…”
Ian had to tease him a bit. “Never be as handsome, though…”
“Eh,” Bruuk waved a massive paw. “It’s okay. I’ll settle ‘fer well-hung an’ hulkin’ over a missing eye any day.”
He looked Tensee in the eye, pant-grinned and flicked his left ear in what Ian knew to be a decidedly filthy bit of body language. He must not have been exaggerating because she suddenly demurred and looked away to see if the breakfast was coming.
Which it was, for maximum sitcom timing. The waitress gave the two laughing males a suspicious look, refilled Ian’s coffee, and returned to the bar with a prim expression as though she knew exactly what they were discussing and didn’t care for it one bit.
They ate their breakfast mostly in silence. Bruuk’s was a mountain of eggs, meat, and veg to satisfy whatever minimal fiber he needed to move all that grease along. Tensee had got herself the smoked haddock kedgeree. They planned to go hiking later in the day and asked if he wanted to come along. He’d worried he’d be the third wheel, but that was apparently an utterly alien concept to Gaoians, so…
Honestly? Why not? His hangover was clearing up, things in his head were…well, they weren’t sorted out exactly, but he still felt like he’d taken a step in the right direction. A good hike and some fresh air might just do the rest. And even if they didn’t…that wouldn’t matter, really.
He already felt much better.
Date Point: 18y6m2w5d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
There was the usual fallout. The reignition of a debate that would never go away so long as America existed. The usual powerful voices wanting a word in the President’s ear about what he should do in response to Grand Central. As though it was inevitable that every action had an executive reaction. As if by exerting his authority he could somehow put things right.
He wanted to shake some of them, call them what they were: vultures. People were dead, and here they came a-circling, looking to pressure the President into doing something. Not because it would actually put the world right again—nothing could achieve that—but because it would further their own dreams. Vultures on both sides, each more concerned with pecking at their mortal enemies over the carrion than with something as vulgar as common decency and grief.
It was enough to make him look forward to his session with Ambassador Etsicitty later. This time on Cimbrean, to meet with Vemik after all.
But first, the placations, and the standing of his ground.
“You know, I see these kinds of things, and of course I want to do something about them. Of course I want to build an America where this doesn’t happen. The obstacle isn’t will: the obstacle is that no bill, law or executive order holds jurisdiction over the human soul. There’s no piece of paper I can sign that will mend a broken mind.”
“There’s plenty you can do, Mister President. Ways in which you can make it harder for this to happen again…”
“How?” Chambliss asked. He sat back and rested his arm lightly on the back of the couch. “The APA were using military equipment. Carbines with grenade launchers! The armed officers there to protect the station were killed in the opening seconds of the massacre. Despite that, every emergency and security measure in that building worked flawlessly, and dozens, probably hundreds of people escaped unharmed because of them.
“Now, if during the course of the coming investigations it turns out there is something to be learned, some procedure that can be implemented to save lives in the future, you can bet every dollar you have that I’ll jump on it and make it happen. But I think it’s safe to say that all the laws we have are sufficient at this point. We didn’t allow the attack, after all.”
He kept his patient steel barrier up and successfully fended off one set of vultures. The other set got similarly stonewalled.
“There were good guys with guns present, Senator. They died. They were, in fact, the first to die. And I find myself wondering, when NYPD SWAT arrived, how they were supposed to tell the difference between the armed men in civilian clothing who belonged to the APA, and the armed men in civilian clothing who happened to be valiant members of the public? How many heroes might they have mistakenly gunned down in the heat of battle, with no uniforms or insignia to help them tell friend from foe?”
…and so on. Thus passed a long and frustrating morning, and both sides went away dissatisfied, which probably meant he’d done the right thing.
There was the usual lunchtime flurry of minor things, confirming he’d attend there, declining to meet with them, signing that, reading this… The dull make-work of power, enough to leave him with a gritty feeling of boredom in his soul that made even the prospect of teleporting to an alien world seem attractive.
Teleporting to an alien world for the first time in his life. It was still a rare thing, going offworld. Between the Allied settlements on Cimbrean, and the Chinese and Russian colonies on Lucent, only a few million people had ever left the Earth, and that had slowed dramatically after Franklin, with the lockdown.
Now, though…now was the time for a personal endorsement of jump arrays. He’d made a bit of an event of it, and had a portable one set up on the White House lawn. It made for a good photo op, it kept the Secret Service happy and, most importantly, it meant he didn’t have to climb into a damn helicopter.
He waved to the reporters, stepped inside, and—
Make it as much of a perfunctory thing he possibly could, and…well, that wasn’t so bad. The air was instantly a bit thinner though, which was a strange sensation. And something about the gravity had him feeling the teensiest bit off-balance.
Waiting at the other end was Etsicitty, looking far more comfortable in a role-appropriate set of high-end activewear, like he was about to strike out for the summit of a nearby mountain. Somehow, even showing off all his stupendously bulging size like that, he seemed much more discreet and approachable. All the too-damn-good-looking superhero nonsense just…fit better. Suits were of course designed to make any schlub look like a hero, and the thing about it was that they pushed things just a bit too far with him. What a strange (though not necessarily enviable) problem to have.
Wild hair worked better for him, too.
And…good God. Somehow, the two men flanking him were even bigger. He’d never quite believed the stories around HEAT, but Jesus. And they, unlike Etsicitty, were absolutely dressed up in their (well-fit but dismayingly cheap) service uniforms, a pair of titans that could only be described as a norse god of murder and his latin-hulk friend. The two of them were walls of Space Force blue in enormous, polished-to-a-gloss combat boots.
There were of course the meet-and-greets—Folctha’s Prime Minister and cabinet, a photo op, the usual. The remainder of the day was spent in diplomatic tours. Near the end was the HEAT, where dozens of titanic men and Gaoians politely and very formally made their greetings; not a particularly warm reception there, unsurprisingly, but their officers were at least courteous. And a perfect illustration of relative size, too. Next to their men they seemed quite small, but compared to the President they were monsters. Scale just didn’t seem to work with these men.
How in the hell had Sartori and his predecessor been convinced to undertake such a radical thing? These men were straight-up superhuman science experiments! All clearly eager and happy with it, but taking some of the military’s very best and pumping them full of alien drugs and encouraging them to push it as far as they could?
He glanced surreptitiously at the two biggest. The viking—Righteous—was such a specimen that he looked almost as if he were naturally that size, but it was the shorter, much bigger man that was the more worrisome. Chambliss only had to look at Warhorse to see a very handsome young man who’d pushed himself to the very extremes of his limits with medicine and willpower. He looked as if he couldn’t possibly cram another ounce of muscle onto his frame, and that he was somehow in the habit of doing so anyway. What would the consequences be for him, whenever he eventually retired? And how old was he? He looked too young to be so…so…
Chambliss would have crushed the idea had it been put before him. As it was…well, the whole unethical gamble had paid off, and at this point they were invaluable and essentially irreplaceable. Not only was he forced to continue this unnatural abomination, he had to increase its funding, lest the Great Father’s influence over the SOR tighten even further.
The JETS weren’t quite so alarming. They were a small assemblage of very large, robustly fit and intense men—yes, still far more so than normal—but at least compared to the HEAT, they seemed well within the bounds of normal human experience. Even still, that was tempered by the presence of Ten’Gewek on the teams, and, well. They were impressive despite having no military traditions. They didn’t wear uniforms, preferring to stand bare-skinned to the world, save for a bit of something around their hips for modesty and convenience. They let their frighteningly powerful bodies and their openly superior attitudes do all the talking they needed.
They were warriors in the truest sense of the word. Chambliss had never properly understood that word until today. Not just the Ten’Gewek, either, or the men of JETS. The entire SOR. The HEAT did a full unit demonstration, first doing incredible violence in their immense, ground-shaking armor, then they did it again, faster and even more impressively while stripped down to simple field uniforms without even their basic weapons or equipment. That bit was probably to drive home just how terribly effective they were; the men themselves were the weapons. All of them were superhuman terrors of course, the Viking easily the worst…
And then Warhorse took the stage, for a solo demonstration against the entire scenario. He showed them the meaning of violence. He moved so quickly, Chambliss almost couldn’t follow him. Mostly he just watched the wreckage appear as if by magic along the course.
“He’s something, isn’t he?” Costello commented as they watched Warhorse shove a truck onto its side in an easy, explosive motion to briefly serve as a barricade, before tumbling it over some of the simulated enemies. He’d moved on before the truck had even rocked to a standstill.
“…That’s putting it mildly, I’d say.”
Costello chuckled grimly. “Indeed, Mister President. He’s the very best we have, by a longshot. I can think of maybe three men who might match him one day. Two are already on the team and the third, sadly, is busy being an ambassador to a people who are among our few real competitors.”
Chambliss blinked. “That few?”
“Yessir. It’s a rare blend of genetics, willpower, personality and circumstance. We evolved to be tough and adaptable, which is a serious advantage, so we’re pretty good at most everything. But we’re only elite at a few things, and extreme speed or strength isn’t our natural strong suit. Now, the Ten’Gewek? They’re physically superior to us by literally any measure you care to try, just by dint of being themselves. They can even match us on endurance, if they train at it.”
“Which is why they are able to fill our JETS teams despite being so few in number.”
“Yessir. And then there’s the Gao. If you look at your average human versus your average Gaoian, it’s not generally much of a contest. But at this level of the game, it’s a different story. As it turns out they are an engineered soldier species, so their elite standouts are…well, seriously so, and a little more common to boot.”
“More common…across billions.”
“Yessir. The numbers game is very much not in our favor. Intel tells us the Hierarchy were in the final stages of ‘activating’ the Gaoians to destroy and replace the Hunters, when we came along…”
Chambliss watched the worrying scene before him for a moment while he pondered on that statement. He didn’t like the conclusion. “We’re falling behind.”
“…Yessir. This is, admittedly, only a very small part of our species’ relations. There are other and much bigger aspects to projecting force. Fleet technology, mass, tactics…all very important.”
“But so is the ability to put the right man in the right place at the right time.”
“Exactly. In this war that matters a great deal, and with the capability these men represent…the Gao felt compelled to respond. Whitecrest definitely has covert teams to answer our capability. Stoneback openly does. Their very best men are roughly on-par with ours one-for-one, but they also have much larger teams, and more of them. What we have in the dozens, the Great Father has just as good, and in the hundreds, now. And that is becoming a strategic concern.”
Realization struck, as he watched the ground-shaking, unstoppable force of nature obliterate his way toward the finish line. “That is a lot riding on these men.”
“Particularly the Beefs—that’d be Warhorse, Righteous, and Baseball. It’s enough that we’ve considered recruiting efforts for Julian, their unofficial fourth member. We don’t think he’d be receptive though, even if he can beat Baseball senseless these days. Biggest reason being motivation and mindset. He’s definitely a warrior in his quiet way, with a body good enough to challenge Righteous…but is he a HEAT-like force of directed violence? No. So even when we have a physically ideal candidate….”
“It’s not enough.” Chambliss understood. “And he’s got other uses, anyhow.”
“It weighs on us, yeah. Particularly Warhorse. He’s been on an extended rest and recovery interval to accommodate his second child—”
“Oh? Give him my congratulations!”
“Will do, Mister President. But in the meanwhile, one of exactly two beings anywhere that can even remotely compete with him, passed him by. That’d be Yan Given-Man. Fortunately, I expect ‘Horse to handily take the lead again and soon, because he’s determined to stay on top, and in my experience with him…that’s enough. I’ve never met anyone as determined as him.”
“…Well, I can’t say I’m pleased by…any of this, but I can at least see its importance. I wish him luck. Who is the second, if I may ask?”
“The Great Father. He’s almost a one-man HEAT team himself at this point, and getting better. That’s your chief interstellar ally, Mister President, trained up to that level by Warhorse and Righteous themselves. Hell, he was almost at that level back when he was just a big lanky Champion of Stoneback. So, y’know. That’s the type of alliance and competition we’re in. Our average have all the advantages. Our best have to fight hard every day to stay in the race.”
…Well. That certainly put things into perspective. He suspected he’d need to get a deep-dive briefing on exactly who and what the Great Father was, if he was that sort of threat.
The demonstration drew to a close. Warhorse had completed the entire scenario while Chambliss and Costello were chatting, meaning he finished it almost as fast as the entire team did working in concert. He stood there in his camo pants and shiny compression shirt, panting heavily with a big grin on his handsome propaganda-poster face, a heaving, writhing mountain of muscle. He was obviously quite proud of the job he’d done and rightfully so. Worries like the Great Father aside, Warhorse was an extremely apt name. Whatever the rest of the men were, he was clearly something else entirely.
And he was the only one they had.
…Unreal. And deeply concerning.
The next spectacle was a game of the infamous Gravball, bare-chested and barefoot in nothing more than running shorts, fighting through sand and supergravity, soaring through the weightless middle and monkey-like across the ceiling and walls. It was impressive as all get-out, the world’s roughest game of 3-D rugby mashed up with a no-holds-barred brawl. complete with press cameras, too; their purpose was to show him (and the world) that they were healthy and happy men.
Which…were they? With all that weight upon them? They certainly looked every bit as superhuman (and supergaoian) as their play unambiguously proved they were, and it was clear they weren’t being forced to play against their will…
It was a game cunningly designed to balance everyone’s strengths against each other, yet even then Warhorse handily dominated the field. Knowing the giant puppy of a man was so irreplaceable, even among such unbelievable superhuman ability…was not a pleasant thought.
It left Chambliss thoughtful and quiet as the motorcade carried him from the base up to the alien palace above the lake for the evening dinner and the quiet time afterwards when some actual business could get done.
Something slightly disquieting about Folctha—everyone was in great shape. He didn’t see a single chubby face or soft belly all day. It was like wandering the Miami beaches during spring break…except there were no beaches. People ran about casually barefoot. Ran about, and even his own ambassador to the Ten’Gewek wore sandals rather than shoes on his huge, sturdy feet. Cars were a rarity, everyone walked, rode a bike, or took public transit. He knew the settlement incentivized fitness through an aggressive system of taxes and rebates, but still…
In some ways it was utopia. And it was deeply unnerving. It was almost a relief when he spotted some minor vandalism, in the form of somebody’s spray tag on a bus shelter. It was proof that he hadn’t accidentally come to Stepford instead.
As it turned out, though, as Annette Winton explained to him over dinner, there was a reason for the fitness culture, beyond coercive taxes.
“It’s the gravity. Cimbrean is a low-G world, so without exercise, people would suffer muscle and bone atrophy. We keep a municipal generator running to normalize the gravity within the city to Earth standard, but those things have a huge power draw, so it doesn’t reach the suburbs or the farming villages, and of course it needs periodic maintenance.”
“A culture developed pretty quick around it,” Julian added. “And, well heck, why not encourage it? We’ve been super lucky here that it’s worked out like it did. But living in a place where you literally can’t afford to ignore your health for several reasons isn’t so bad. And there’s the HEAT too. Folctha’s a small town and, well…everyone knows the HEAT.”
“They’ve certainly had an influence on you,” Chambliss said, pointedly.
“Yeah.” Julian met his look with a challenging stare. “They have. A good one, I’d say. Turns out I’m a natural at this, and I’ve got every incentive to do all of this as best as I can. So, I’m gonna keep doing that, for the sake of our species’ friendship.”
This last was for Yan Given-Man’s benefit, Chambliss reckoned, and the funny thing was…Yan might be wearing only a leather loincloth, and there was nothing dainty about him, but he somehow still managed to not seem out of place at this table. He was a brute to dwarf Julian, a natural monster on the scale of Warhorse…but he had a serene air about him, too. Composed. Watchful and thoughtful.
He also seemed content to let his niece do most of the talking. She, in deference to human delicacies, had dressed up somewhat. In deference to not pretending to be what she wasn’t, that meant she’d wrapped a wide cloth around her…disconcertingly human chest a few times, like a sarashi. Her English, otherwise excellent, was given rather a pronounced lisp by her oversized teeth and lack of a nose.
“For most of our people, this…” she waved a hand at the finery of the hall and the dinner, “…doesn’t work. To impress our tribes, your ambassador needs to be like us. Needs to hunt, needs to know the forest, needs to be strong. Otherwise, most won’t respect him, won’t listen. And then, he can’t do his job. Jooyun’s very good at it. Stronger than most Given-Men!”
Chambliss nodded his understanding, and returned his attention to his soup for a bit, listening and watching. The First Lady and Xiù Chang were deep in conversation over the Franklin redevelopment, totally deaf to anything but each other. On Julian’s other side, Allison Buehler had the carefully neutral expression of a woman enduring the event rather than enjoying it. In that regard, she had a lot in common with her partner.
The Prime Minister of course was in her element, and happy to chat with the Singer, who seemed equally comfortable. From what Beau knew, Singers were somewhere between priests and inter-tribal diplomats anyway, so that made sense. Yan Given-Man had been polite, and wasn’t shy to venture his opinion when asked for it, but seemed determined to keep his own counsel.
Conspicuously absent, of course, was the convalescing Vemik Given-Man. He would be the last visit of the day. Beau suspected Yan was waiting to see how that visit played out before deciding whether to warm or remain closed up.
It wasn’t a long meal. Apparently that was a consideration for their Ten’Gewek guests, who needed to eat rather prodigiously, and for whom the small portions served at a diplomatic meal would be little more than an amuse-bouche. Beau wasn’t about to complain. He wanted to meet Vemik himself and, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, tear off the band-aid.
He was staying at Julian’s house, under strict orders to take it carefully for the next week. After a quick introduction to the rest of the Ambassador’s family—including two impeccably dressed young men who honestly outshone Julian when it came to scrubbing up—They found Vemik in the basement under oppressively high artificial gravity, engaging in what was, apparently, quite light exercise by his standards.
…with Daniel Hoeff.
Beau wondered if Julian knew what a vile psychotic assassin was in his personal orbit. Likely not; Julian was many things that grated on Chambliss, but all of them were essentially good. There was nothing good about Hoeff.
It was for the best, therefore, that Hoeff simply stood, paid service to appropriate deference, and left them alone while Julian smoothly stepped in to spot Vemik instead.
Vemik racked the drooping-heavy bar with a loud crash, and effortlessly rolled up to his feet. He looked quite chipper, actually. Beau had been expecting him to be slow-witted, stumbling over his words and groggy, but in fact the grin he got was friendly and perfectly lucid.
It was like shaking hands with a warm statue. Like Julian and the other supermen he’d met that day—Yan and Warhorse being the most outlandish examples—Vemik had a certain unreal quality about him that was hard to describe. In him though, somehow that intensity radiated the strongest. He was young and obviously so, from his line-free face to his bouncy, quick movements. He was physically mighty and flawlessly formed, a brutally handsome young man even across species. Extremely fit, literally hard as a rock. He was, for lack of a better word…basically perfect.
And that made the next thing he said even more painful.
“…President? I’m not sure if I remember so good lately…”
Well. Fuck. The potential tragedy of this was inescapable, now.
“Yes, that’s me, Vemik Given-Man. I thought I should at least meet you.”
“Thank you for the pens. I write much with them already!”
Chambliss found himself smiling. The young Given-Man’s enthusiasm was infectious. “I’m glad! You know, some people just lock items like these away and never use them?”
The young Given-Man hooted indignantly. “What’s the point of making a good tool and not using it?! It’s good I can write though. Here! I show you!”
It was then that the President experienced what it was like to be yanked along upstairs toward what was apparently Vemik’s writing desk. He was able to flag down his secret service just in the nick of time, who gave him shocked and indignant looks. Lord only knows what Vemik, Julian, and Hoeff might have done in a confrontation.
“I started a new journal about my home. Nofl says I should use my memory as much as I can, so I decided to try and remember everything I haven’t put in a book yet. It helps! See?”
The astounding thing was how neat Vemik’s handwriting was. Maybe it was stupid prejudice, or simply the…anarchic…energy he radiated, or just that he had four massive digits on his paw-like hand instead of five, each of which was relatively short, blunt, and easily over two inches thick. Beau had really expected a clumsy, hasty scrawl, or maybe a childishly careful one, but…no. Vemik’s touch was controlled and deft, the lettering even and fluid. Just the sort of handwriting that the pens he’d been gifted were ideal for, in fact.
Somehow, that made the giving a lot less painful.
“I write a lot more right now because half the time I forget things right away. But! If it’s on paper I remember and Nofl says this is good for healing!”
“I see you use all the colors.” In fact, six of the pens in the seven-pen set were carefully laid out on their cloth, while the one he was using was kept carefully on it’s lacquer stand.
“Helps memory. Also, who doesn’t like colors?!”
“True, I suppose…” Beau agreed. “Anyway…Ambassador Etsicitty—Julian—said that with your people, it’s the Giving and the deeds that matters, but, well, words are important to me and my people. I couldn’t leave it at just the gift without also coming here to apologize. You came to our great city as a guest, and to give us a gift, and were attacked while under our hospitality and protection…”
“That’s okay,” Vemik interrupted in the cheerful manner of somebody who wasn’t being rude, just differently cultured. “I killed them.”
“Ah. Yes.” Chambliss had no idea how exactly to reply to that. “Uh…well, nonetheless, it would have been good if you hadn’t needed to defend yourself.”
“Yeah. But, it happens. Some people have big hurts in them. Maybe not from getting blown up, either.” He trilled. “Me, they tell me, prog-nose-is is pretty good! Mostly, everything works, but I forget things easy if I haven’t been thinking on them long. Maybe, not always. But point is…good future, probably. So, that’s okay.”
Beau turned to Julian. “So, good prognosis?”
“So far, yes. It’s impacted his short-term memory the most, and his language centers a bit. He’s not normally so choppy with his words.”
“Only thing you humans have, bigger’n us!” Vemik trilled crudely, then resumed writing.
“Yeah, big buddy! Anyway,” attention back to Chambliss. “Ten’Gewek apparently have somewhat smaller language processing centers than we do. Doesn’t really seem to hinder their ability much, but it does mean his concussion has made words a bit harder for now. On the other hand, damn near half their brain is just motor control. You’d need to see them really perform to get it what that translates into, but that control means they’ve got strength and finesse that’s just way beyond ours. Anyway, Nofl has promising candidate drugs for treatment, and it’s starting to look like Vemik lucked out and might not really need it anyway. Hopefully.”
“So, not quite out of the woods yet, but on the way?”
Julian chuckled. “Hopefully back in the woods before we know it…” he trailed off as they were interrupted. One of Beau’s aides ducked in to whisper in his ear.
“Problem?” Beau asked him.
“Update from General Kolbeinn, Mister President. They’ve found another relay world…”
Beau blinked, then his mind turned back to the fact—so-far unreported and likely to remain that way—that one of the corpses found in Grand Central Station’s destroyed jump array had been riddled with Hierarchy implants. A small, satisfied smile invaded his face and decided to stay.
“I see.” He nodded. “I’ll be with him shortly.”
Julian gave him a curious look. “Good news, sir?”
“I think so,” Beau agreed. “I’m…you’ll have to forgive me for cutting this short. The job never stops. It was a pleasure meeting you, Vemik Given-Man.”
“Thank you for the pens.” Vemik stood and slammed his palm against his chest, loudly. “I found a video on how they were made…is big Giving. Now go be President!”
They shook hands and this time, Vemik’s hand-swallowing grip was perfectly calibrated against Chambliss’s strength. Julian was right, they truly were a remarkable people.
And he even earned an approving nod from Yan, too.
So. That was that. A regrettable incident navigated as well as could be hoped for, at least for now. And the chance to get some revenge had just come along too, it seemed. Beau wasn’t one to indulge in revenge usually. He liked to think he was above that.
But the chance to get some justice for the victims of Grand Central might change his mind.
Date Point: 18y6m3w AV
Light bulk freighter Krr’zkvik, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
Bruuk, cooker of the most bestest dinners
“So, what did you say to him?”
Dora handed over a bowl of sliced celery. It was her turn to help prepare dinner today, and Bruuk had been looking forward to it. She was easily the second-best cook on the ship, after him. Or maybe it was just that she could comfortably dice ingredients with two hands while stirring a sauce with the third. Made her time management that little bit easier.
“Kinda disagreed with your assessment,” he told her. They were preparing their own unique cross-cultural take on a Robalin dish called Babru, without using a single authentic Robal ingredient. Meeshi greens, celery, Kwmbwrw cwes, plenty of lentils and beans—the Meeshi and especially the lentils were really the nutritional base of the dish. Most of the rest was there for flavor and texture really. It was a regular favorite.
“Got a latent attraction he don’t unnerstand, yeah. But that don’t really mean anything yet. An’ in any case, most Humans don’t really care all that much anyway, so there’s no point in him tearing himself up over it. Balls, maybe it’s just a phase! All that camaraderie in the service can be hard to lose, or so I’m told. Couple’a big Fang ‘Backs talked to me about it a few times.”
“…When do you talk to those sorts of ‘Backs?”
“When I’m puttin’ ‘em in their place!” Bruuk chittered evilly.
“…Eww! I did not need to imagine that!”
“Imagine what exactly? I didn’t say a damn thing!”
“You don’t need to. Ugh.” Dora’s antennae lashed, and she scraped the chopped herbs into the sauce.
“You’re right! I put ‘em in their place all night long. And don’t be speciesist!”
“I’m not, it’s just…Males of any species are so gross.” She sniffed. “…Especially furry ones.”
Bruuk chittered, “You really are a raging girls-only kinda gal, balls.”
“May as well not be anything, with my odds of ever finding a partner. Should just convert to whatever it is Moj worships and become a fucking nun…” she griped. “…Whatever. Ian’s happier, and that’s good. So, I’m glad one of us managed to help him.”
“You helped,” Bruuk said loyally. “You aren’t wrong, either. He does need to think about it, and I’ve not met many humans who were all one thing or the other.”
“How many have you met?”
“Not, like, billions of them…but plenty, since we’ve been orbiting Cimbrean.”
“Funny, their culture makes it seem so clear-cut.”
“Yeah, but that’s ‘cuz their culture is fuckin’ stupid sometimes. Too much focus on what they think they should be, not enough on makin’ peace with what they are first.”
“A little too close to Robalin, I think…”
“Eh. Maybe, but Daar says it’s aspirational too, and he’s ‘bout the smartest man I’ve ever met. Like…ever.” Bruuk finished rolling out the noodle dough, grabbed his longest knife, and started slicing it into thin ribbons.
“Funny, he doesn’t look it.”
“Shouldn’t judge a Gao by his muzzle. Ol’ Mother Yulna made him Great Father ‘fer a reason…”
Whatever Dora would have said to that, they were both distracted when the door opened to admit Moj and Ian, who had an extra spring to his step…
“…Yeah, think one of ‘em’s in SOR! They’ve got a sacred stone circle up in the woods east of Memorial Hill or something. Probably let you join in if you ask nicely…Hey, guys.”
“You’re lookin’ chipper! Get laid again?”
“You don’t need to ask, you can smell it.” Ian chuckled and flopped heavily into his chair at the dining table. “But can you smell where I’ve been all morning?”
“Ha! No, sadly. Stuck in a simulator all day! You are looking at the Gao’s newest certified merchant Shipfather!”
Dora made a delighted squeaking sound, moved the sauce off the heat, and ducked around the counter to give him a hug, which he returned carefully. “Awesome! So we get to finally go do stuff again?”
“Pretty much…heard from the old man, too. Trrrk’k’s still hanging in there, he called me up to congratulate me.”
“How did he know?” Moj asked, buzzing his hemelytra slightly.
“Said he checked the registry first thing every morning. He knew before I did!”
“Sounds like he’s doing pretty well for a man in palliative care…” Bruuk decided the time had come to start assembling the dish and get it in the oven. “Well! Congratulations, Shipmaster! We shoulda got bunting or somethin’.”
“Yeah! Isn’t that what you British Clan do? And bake cakes or something?”
“I am one thousand percent down for cake!” Dora nodded enthusiastically. “Ooh! And maybe some’a those sparkly little firework candles too.”
“…Aliens are weird,” Ian chuckled.
“You’re the alien, Cousin.” Bruuk chittered.
“Literally all of us are different species, mate.”
“Well, anyway, it’s your culture. Ain’t nobody else in the galaxy thought of puttin’ sparkly dust in rubber bags full of helium.”
“That is not my culture! I’d rather just have a beer or something!”
“More easily arranged,” Moj buzzed amiably, and went rummaging in the fridge.
“And cake,” Dora insisted.
“Fine! We’ll have a cake. Why not? But no glitter,” Ian warned ominously.
“Aww, why not?”
“It’ll never come clean, and Morwk will have revenge.”
There was Human-style cake. Not a terribly difficult thing to make, really: some flour, some eggs, buncha sugar, chemical leavening, stuff for flavor…and Bruuk had to admit, decorating was kinda fun, too. He couldn’t eat much, though. Gao didn’t have a craving for sweets the same way most other species did. Moj, on the other hand, ate so much he got both sugar-high and sick at once. Dora took care of both problems by taking him for a walk, Urgug and Morwk were both too busy with the ship’s ongoing refit and upgrade to do much more than drop in and acknowledge the moment before going back to work…
That left just him and Ian lounging in his quarters, contemplating if they wanted to lift, or spar, or just play a video game.
“Cake’s got me feeling pretty lazy, not gonna lie. And the beer’s making it worse.”
Actually, a nap sounded nice, too…but first.
“So, how did it go?”
“Passed with flying colors. Some of the challenge scenarios were pretty stressful, but I mean, nothing next to—”
“No. Well, okay. Great! But that’s not what I was asking about.”
“Oh.” Ian laughed at himself a little, then shrugged. “…Not bad, considering. Felt compelled to talk it out with Gonzo, ‘cuz I felt bad about creeping on him all night. That’s the huge HEAT kid at the club, by the way.”
“I remember. That’s…pretty brave of you, actually. I take it he wasn’t mad?”
“No, he wasn’t. Opposite, actually. Said he was flattered and didn’t mind at all. Even said we should ‘hang out’ sometime, which…”
“Not your thing, I guess.”
“…Yeah. Maybe. I dunno. Somehow, the idea of taking that step just…instantly kills it. And in any case, I’m not even sure he meant anything by it besides being nice. He’s just such a kid that he might have just meant…hang out.”
Bruuk duck-nodded. “Ah. Well. I wouldn’t worry about it then. Really, don’t. Just take it as it comes, yijao?”
Ian nodded. “Seems as good advice as any.”
They sat together in silence for a moment before Bruuk broached the other question. “How about the woman? Things getting on with her?”
Ian smiled. “Got a standing invitation to have fun whenever I’m in town. That’s all she’s looking for, and it’s all I’m looking for, too…”
Well, that’d have to do. Ian didn’t smell stressed out or anything, so…
Maybe not overthink it.
“Okay. But you owe me a rematch in Mario Kart!”
“Ugh, you know I hate how that game rewards you for losing…Street Fighter instead?”
Neither of them had the energy to spar. Neither wanted to lift, and they were both tired of talking. Maybe…
“Yeah, okay! Tournament mode?”
“You’re not allowed to play Dan this time.”
“Oh come on!”
“I mean it. Anyone else, but not him. It’s not fair! If I win against Dan, it don’t count!”
“And if you lose…”
“Ain’t gonna happen.”
Bruuk sat back and pant-grinned happily to himself as Ian laughed and oozed off the couch to grab the controllers. He didn’t care about unanswered questions, or possibly even unanswerable questions. He didn’t really care about what was going on in his friend’s head, beyond one important fact: Ian was okay.
In the end, that was the only thing that mattered.
Date Point: 18y6m3w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Thick air, big, strong trees. The taste of werne on the air, the cloying smoke of villages.
Vemik was home. Not quite the same, but he was home. He arrived just in time, too; the werne were moving, and the village had to move with them. It was time to smash the pots, burn the huts, Give the village back to the forest.
But that was a hand of days away. First he had Singer. And his village. And Tilly, too; she had been worried. And Vemun. Everything else could wait, while he Gave them all the love he needed to give.
He still wasn’t quite himself. He could think again and thank the gods and the doctors and Nofl and everything that he wasn’t doomed to stupidity…but he was still pretty forgetful about right-now things. It came and went. Mostly it wasn’t so bad, but then he’d…pause, and his mind would blank, and if he hadn’t written it down or someone couldn’t help him remember, then it was gone.
Nofl had made him little hard nuggets that would slowly help. He was supposed to chew one every morning, and he made sure Singer knew so he wouldn’t forget; he was extra useless right after waking up, before he got moving and filled his belly. Maybe he’d never quite have the same “bear trap” of a mind he’d had—Tilly had used that word!—but Nofl thought it would definitely get better, especially once he was back in the forest, and his Fire was flaring back up…already his body was aching as the gods played catch-up with their Givings…
But there was a blessing hidden in it all. Sometimes, when he forgot what he was doing and then remembered again, he remembered something else more important he should do instead. Which was how he finally got around to showing Vemun how to make and shoot a bow.
The design had come a long way since his first one, and he’d learned lots of things from the Humans too. And the People had an advantage in bow-making that Humans never would.
“Okay, so you hold the stick with your feet like this, and then you can work the knife against your thumb like this to control it, see?”
He had not-so-little Vemun in his lap, tail wrapped affectionately around his belly, so their hands and feet could work together to do the work.
He had such small hands, really. All children did, but holding such a small thing in his own big hands, knowing what strength there was yet to grow into his son…
And, more importantly, knowing he would grow, thanks to the vaccines. Human and Corti medicine to go with the People’s own healings. The tribes were growing big now, with every crate of little bottles and sharp needles. Of all the things the Humans had done for the People, that one…that goodness, and knowing how many hundreds and hundreds of people worked quietly to make it happen?
That more than made up for the few hands of evil men who’d tried to kill him, in Vemik’s mind. Nothing was greater than the magic of children.
There was a small crowd of Vemun’s friends watching the lesson, too. A good hand of them looked like they may be Vemun’s half-brothers, but of course there wasn’t any way to be sure. Boys and girls alike found it interesting, though the Given-Men agreed it was a Taking sort of work, making a weapon. Just like spear-crafting, bladesmithing and flint-knapping.
Still. As far as Vemik was concerned, everyone needed good blades and spears and bows. And he was Given-Man of his tribe, so he could teach the children whatever he wanted.
Vemun gave him a nudge in the ribs. “You stopped!”
Vemik blinked, then cleared his throat and shook his head. “…Thoughts went wandering. Sorry! But see, you have what you need to do already. Just whittle at the wood!”
“That’s what I did. Cut the wood, watched how it changed. See, if you carve it off like this…” he demonstrated, until he had the nice tapering edge that had led him down the road of inventing in the first place. “See? Pluck it with your thumb!”
Vemun did so, then trilled happily when it made a musical twang. “You got bows out of this?”
“I did! Made me think, see? Saw it snapped back like that and started thinking about branches smacking me in the face in the forest, and then thought about throwing a spear, and wondered if I could make a branch throw a spear! And I could!”
He ruffled Vemun’s crest, then grinned at the other children too. “Sounds silly, but thinking about silly things might turn up smart things! Be curious! But don’t forget that you live down here, too. Can’t think if you forget to eat!”
“We just ate!” one small voice piped up.
“Good! Well, grab a knife and play then!” Vemik trilled, and then caught himself. “But don’t cut yourself!”
The children bounced away gleefully, all going to get their flint cores. They wouldn’t get steel knives until after their rites, of course. Vemik would make knives for the boys, Singer would make them for the girls. There was magic in metal, and it had to be guided properly.
For now, let them keep practicing the old skills, so they knew the why and how of steel even better when their time came to use it. Besides, if a steel blade broke far away from the forge, it was always good to know how to make a knife out of flint.
A weight landed on his shoulders: Singer, curling herself around him and nibbling his ear. “Done?”
“For now. Sent them off to play sky-thinking.”
“Dangerous game,” she hooted, and kissed him. “Never know what kind of trouble it’ll get you into…”
“Worth it,” Vemik declared, then thought about that for a second. “…Mostly.” He turned to look up at her. “Can’t recommend grenades very much…”
“Mm. Stay away from them from now on.” She tidied up his crest possessively, then coiled her tail ‘round his throat in the way she always did when…
“Again?” Vemik trilled. “I fucked you this morning!”
“Want to be sure. It’s baby time.”
Vemik spun around and pounced, tackling her to the ground. “Thought I tasted that on you…well. We better be sure, then!” With that, Vemik threw her over shoulder, trilling all the way, and carried her up into the trees to go play a game of their own.
It was good to be alive.
++END CHAPTER 74++
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.
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“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.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 76: “Hell and High Water”