The Deathworlders

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Chapter 76: Hell and High Water

Dandelion: audiobook now available!

Dandelion by Philip R. Johnson and Justin C. Louis, produced by Podium Audio

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 we are delighted to announce that the audiobook version, narrated by John Keating, is coming to Audible on June 8th!

And now, without further ado, on with the chapter!

Hell and High Water



Date Point: 18y6m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

WO2 Robert “Highland” Murray

“Yannow it’s gonny be a bloody weird mission when the biggest bloke on-team is Regaari…”

“I am still plenty huge these days,” Regaari said primly. “By any reasonable standard. I am only small by the highly distorted example of HEAT’s biggest.”

Parata chuckled over the top of his coffee. “I note it hasn’t impacted your social calendar…”

“Quite the opposite!” Regaari chittered. “We silverfurs make mass look classy! How else do you think Warhorse was able to convince me?”

They were waiting on Costello, bright and early ready for what promised to be an interesting mission. There would be no Beef in the opening phase, nor any of the ‘regular-sized’ lads. The seven men selected were firmly the “smallest,” “lightest” and most nippy men on HEAT team one, aside from the officers: Murray himself, Parata, Walsh, Forrest, Regaari, Shim and Ergaan. “Nippy” here had a very HEAT-specific meaning, though: “can maneuver through a space without destroying everything.”

Their biggest members simply couldn’t manage that in a fight.

Warhorse and Daar (when he had good enough reason to play) were unstoppable forces of nature, ones best used when absolutely everything had to be obliterated up close and personal. Both of them had massive reserves of absolutely ludicrous strength at their command, and that was the worst part, really: they could do simply unbelievable things, like flip over trains (did that on the Ring) or jump like fleas (which they do for fun), or keep climbing through supergravity strong enough to pulp normal men. Only the Ten’Gewek could match their pound-for-pound strength and ability, and only Yan himself was big enough to compete. The HEAT were a team of supermen, but those two were who one called when the Mission needed something more.

Unstoppable they may be, but that didn’t mean the walls or floors (or surrounding future debris) of wherever they found themselves could withstand that much concentrated mass and power blitzing aggressively through their space. In full motion, those two big fuckers were living bombs.

On most HEAT missions that was an asset. For this one, though?

No. This mission might need some quick, quiet maneuver. Not even Firth was good enough to overcome his own floor-crushing size, despite being the most well-practiced ninja on the team. This time, the sneaking had to be left to the real craftsman. A HEAT stealth mission? Murray grinned. He always knew they were useful for more than mayhem.

Of course, they’d done quiet missions before, even with the Beefest of them all along for the ride. This time, that wouldn’t be possible on initial entry. They were being stuffed into a stowaway’s hidey-hole with a substantial amount of gear, and they couldn’t afford the volume, the thermal signature, or frankly the mass necessary to bring along the big lads. A suspiciously warm bulkhead was the last thing they needed.

And Hunter cargo ships were…surprisingly small. They had one central passageway, with zero artificial gravity, which Builder Hunters or their slaves presumably used for maintenance purposes. All the intel they had said they were otherwise totally automated. Hunters didn’t stoop to manual labour. Load trash, jump, offload trash, jump back. Like the shuttle in a loom.

In principle, it was the same kind of mission as sneaking into a railyard, boarding a train, and riding it into enemy territory. Just…spacier.

The Big Lads would be suiting up, of course; the mission overall would go quick or not at all, and it was always handy to have instant mayhem at the ready. Still, this was a rare opportunity for the under-four-digits crew to poke some well-earned fun at their oversized betters. And ‘Horse (of course) was providing the right comedic foil.

“I can move without breaking everything, you know.” He wasn’t using his sullen tone of voice, which meant it was open season for teasing. “Marty says I’m graceful!”

The e-tattoo across his ridiculous pecs was on today, this time with a game of Snake. With him, it was either some terrible bloody sentimental wank, some terrible bloody anime nonsense, some terrible bloody violent thing…or Snake. Always Snake. That really old pixellated version from the stone age of mobile phones, meandering around his chest picking up little dots.

“Aye, well, you must be if you haven’ae ripped her in half yet.”

“Hey!” Adam laughed. “She knew what she was getting into!”

“Or what was getting into her, you mean?” Regaari had the most acid rejoinders.

“She’s a braver lass than every man in this room…” Murray intoned. Solemn heads nodded all around, none of them wearing a perfectly straight face.

“Yeah, well…jealousy over my size or my self-control doesn’t become you,” Adam sniffed, unable to quite contain his big goofy smile, and sat down heavily on the massive steel bench in their suit-up room. As ever, it creaked just a bit more alarmingly than the last time he’d graced it with his Huge. “Anyway. Why not take Gonzo? Maybe he needs a distraction from Wilde!”

“Hey–!”

“Or his Marine toys. Wear them out, did you?”

“Ha! I don’t think anything can do that, not that I ain’t trying!”

“Maybe you just need to dick ‘em harder,” Firth joked, with lewd guffaws all around.

“Oh, c’mon! Why you gotta do my friends like that?”

There was some good-natured jeering, because everyone had picked up on Gonzo’s aggressively carefree nature. For his part, he seemed utterly unperturbed by it. There was an unofficial pool circulating among the team about how he actually landed on the matter, which he himself found hilarious—‘shit dude, I don’t even know!’—but Murray suspected it was just the usual weirdness from too many high-speed lads working much too closely together, like one found in most any combat unit. It probably wasn’t anything real. Or at least, not seriously real.

After all, the boy was rarely without a lady of some kind, and that probably said enough.

“Still,” Adam pressed, “I bet he could hack it. He’s still right-sized, too!”

“Aye, but no room. Need a bit more experience for this mission. Sorry, lad.” Murray gave a sympathetic look toward Thompson. “‘Yer time will come.”

Thompson had lost a lot of that boot eagerness since joining. He just shrugged affably. “Rog.”

“I agree with Murray,” Costello intoned as he entered the room, while everyone shuffled to their feet to greet him. “Besides, you punch well above your not inconsiderable weight, Thompson. Best to keep you in reserve for when it’s time for a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence.”

“Aww, is that all I am for you?” Firth quipped. “Just hired muscle?”

“Yes.” There were chuckles around the room: Costello had a perfect deadpan. “You and ‘Horse are the very definition of that. Literally tons of fun for when you just can’t get your point across any other way. Anyway, to the brief.”

There was the rumble of mountains sitting back down.

“Right. So: the design of our mission is a very careful one. We don’t know how attentive the Hunters are, but one thing they might notice is heat signatures or excessive fuel burn in one of their scrap ships. Thus, we’ve spent some time analyzing our surveillance to come up with a good idea on their loading variance and designed our mission around that. We don’t have a lot of room to play with, especially given all the equipment you need to bring. We think we have maybe ten thousand kilos to play with, but we will want to keep well under that number, for obvious reasons.”

“For today and the next few weeks, we’re focusing on our training. The demands of this particular exercise require some fairly serious experience, especially experience being big bastards, but I expect everyone to rotate through as many times as they can. Ideally, I want everyone on the HEAT ready to go. That includes everyone on provisional team two. Take the opportunity, fellas; for once, team one won’t be cock-blocking your sim time for mission readiness. Campbell will be in charge of the training program for everyone.”

Manpower had always been the Achilles’ Heel of the SOR generally, and the HEAT acutely. Right now, only team one was operational; team two was basically qualified but they needed…more time. Brutal reality had forced the HEAT’s recruiting cadre to pick…well, very promising candidates, rather than the perfectly ready. Good men all, but they were still well behind the curve. Whatever luck had given them the men of HEAT team one hadn’t held, so they had to build them instead. Hell, Hunter was the first truly HEAT-ready trainee they’d found in years, already essentially good enough to hack it with the team veterans…

…and, well, they needed to fill a gap, which is why he wasn’t on team two. Not that anyone could ever truly replace Starfall, but…

Oblivious to Murray’s thoughts, Costello continued his briefing. “The hazard course team put in a lot of overtime the last couple of nights, and they tell me the training scenario is ready to go. There will be a lot of permutation and variation to cover our intel gaps. Additionally, I am told by Master Sergeant Arés that everyone is ready and recovered for another heavy training cycle…”

Warhorse grinned evilly, and seemed to almost literally swell in anticipation of all the Good Training he was about to inflict on everyone. There were groans all around. The next year would be one of essentially constant aches and pains.

“So we will have our work very much cut out for us, these next weeks. All leave is cancelled. I am going to ask that you responsibly limit your off-duty vices to something reasonable, too. We don’t know when or how the mission will kick off. Might be a month, might be half a year away. Until our masters say otherwise, this mission is our sole focus. Team two will be doing all they can to improve their operational capability during this time.”

Costello gave them a second to consider that, then nodded and leaned forward. “Fellas, this is go-time. We don’t often get the luxury of this level of prep. Make the most of it. Now, are there any questions?”

Heads shook. They’d been here before, and none of it was unexpected or different. Costello gave a satisfied nod, and tucked his tablet away. “Alright. Murray, Walsh, Forrest, Parata, Regaari, Shim, Ergaan. You have first crack at the simulation and priority access whenever you feel like. Everyone else, you will be rostered for rotation through, and I encourage you to take advantage of any free time that happens to be available. The sim techs will be posting extended hours for you, so don’t waste their time.”

There were nods all around the room.

“Last item: I am told that ‘Horse will graciously permit us all an amnesty weekend—”

There were bursts of cheering all around the room.

“—Anything you want to add, “Horse?”

Adam stood up, and the room got quiet. “I’ll be quick. Have y’all seen what our competition is like these days? From the Hunters? Hell, the cavemonkeys? Stoneback? And Whitecrest’s new covert teams which they’re totally doing no matter how innocently Regaari flicks his ears?”

The whole room glanced Regaari’s way, and then a chuckle washed over it when he, very innocently, flicked his ear.

“Exactly. Here’s the next year’s goal. Everyone is gonna get fuckin’ better by as much as they fuckin’ can. We can’t afford any less, not with the shit that’s coming. I expect the newbies to be up to full mission standard, I expect the veterans to keep them humble, and I expect all the Beefs to be somewhere near my level, come hell or high water. If Righteous ain’t at least makin’ me work for a win, I will be disappointed. If I ain’t makin’ Daar nervous or Yan my chewtoy, I will be disappointed in myself. We ain’t sittin’ by while the Hunters breed some new mutant fucks to kick our heads in. Bustin’ skulls is our jobs, ain’t nobody gonna beat us. That’s all.”

Ominous, that. But…

Well, that was what they were for.

“Right,” acknowledged Costello. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, Lads. Let’s get to it.”

And with that, they were dismissed.


Date Point: 18y8m1w AV
The Given-Men’s Lodge, Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate

Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge

Daar Great-Father had wanted to pay a visit to Yan’s world. Partly this was because of Vemik’s injury—Yan had no idea why, since the Gao weren’t involved—partly it was for political purposes. Mostly, to his mind, it was for friendship and for hunting.

And Yan Given-Man was not so stupid as to say no to a god. So, Yan invited him, since it would be rude to just visit anyway. Given-Men always announced their coming to anyone else’s tribe, after all. They had called a meeting at the Lodge, just for the occasion. Only two aliens had ever been invited. Jooyun of course, being a kind of Given-Man himself…

This time was different, though. Many of the other Given-Men did not understand what the great chief of the sky was like, what his power was. Yan had told this to Daar, who was reluctant, at first, to make a big show…

“They need to see, my friend. They respect Jooyun and the Humans because of him, so my people see us as…friends, in a Give and Take. We are better in some ways, they are better in others. Balance. But you? They only ever see small, nimble Gao when they visit Folctha. Not enough of us know what your people are.”

“Ah,” Daar rumbled, padding along with a ground-thumping swagger as Yan swung above him. “You want me to be your next Jooyun!”

“No,” Yan grinned. “I want you to teach them the truth. They think your people weak but for your Sky-Thinking. That won’t do. They need to know what power lives above us. Only you can show them that, and make them understand. They need to be beaten to accept it.”

“Even if it hurts your own? I don’t wanna cause you grief…”

“It will not,” Yan trilled amusedly. “They will see that I am friends with a man-beast that could crush me like a fat black buzzer! This will make me more powerful, not less.”

Daar wagged his tail. “Well…I ain’t had a really good brawl in a while…”

Daar’s friend, Gee-yo-tun, was a tough, lanky creature of silvery fur who seemed unhappy about where this was going. “My Father, the implications of something like this…”

“Will be consequential, yeah. Do you unnerstand what me whuppin’ ‘yer leadership all at once is gonna mean, Yan?”

Yan compared himself to the sharply rolling muscular landscape of Daar’s body. Against any other man or beast of any size, Yan could feel proud. The gods had shaped him well. Were still shaping him, and had hardened his muscles so much he could smash rocks between them. But next to a god like Daar, a mighty Brown One in his own right? Yan was so much less in every way, he almost felt ashamed. Thank the gods though, Daar was a civilized man, one reluctant to dominate his friends no matter how much his might made it right. That made Yan trill merrily.

“I think I know it better than any,” he replied. “The Lodge does this. Every year, when our Fires burn, we meet and we do this. We fight to see who is strongest, argue to see who is wisest. There is no fighting the gods on the truths of the world. You will show you are stronger, and earn the respect you are due!”

“I…” Daar looked at his friend, and they said very much to each other with just a quick look. “Yan. Friend. I am the last person who would ever insult you, but I don’t think you understand jus’ what ‘yer askin’ me ‘ta do. Lotta people’ll think o’ this as a moment o’ weakness on my part. Big dumb ol’ Daar, bullyin’ a young civilization an’ all…”

“Daar, my friend…” Yan paused, and jumped out of the tree to talk to a god, face to face. “No. Nobody is strong like you. In every way a man can be strong, you are the strongest there is. You are so strong that I do not think you are really a man at all, Daar Great-Father. Your people are strong too. Strong like the Humans, stronger than us.”

Daar flicked his ears backwards. “…Sure, that’s flatterin’ an’ all, but—”

“Which is why,” Yan continued, “only you can do this. My people, we are the strongest persons but the weakest people. Too few of us, too far behind on the trail of sky-thinking. The Humans, they teach me this. But you, you can show us. There is no shame in having stronger friends.”

“I ain’t interested in conquering ‘yer people, Yan. Whuppin’ you an’ ‘yer Given-Men in council is pretty much that.”

“No,” Yan shook his head. “You will never conquer us, because you do not want to. We will not be conquered, either. It will just show the order of the sky-tribes, as is true. Pride-lies will not help us, Daar Great-Father. We are protected, yes? Some in the Lodge need to see how strong the claws protecting us are!”

Gee-yo-tun spoke up, unable to hold his peace. Daar must have respected the little man enormously to allow him such rudeness.

“It is one thing to demonstrate a power dynamic. It’s always important for everyone to understand where they stand. It is another entirely to legitimize that dynamic. Is it…wise to explicitly subjugate yourselves to the Great Father?”

Yan understood the worry. Wars between Sky-Tribes could be terrible and nobody enjoyed being small. The oldest stories had a lot to say about that, why the People lived apart in the forest, free of other tribes. Still: to the Ten’Gewek view of things, it was weak thinking to pretend everyone stood on the same ground with the same strength. They clearly didn’t.

”What are we now? We can only leave our home if you let us.” Yan looked up at the sky through the trees. “Can’t even leave unless you help us leave.”

The silver-furred man didn’t have anything to say to that, though he was clearly troubled by the idea. Yan knuckled over to Gee-yo-tun, then stood up to talk eye-to-eye. “Funny thing. Never knew we could or wanted to, before. But now we know we can. Maybe one day, we do it ourselves. For now, though…here we are. Is not about lee-jit-amizing. Is about speaking, seeing, living the truth.”

Daar grumbled deep enough to shake the air, and seemed to come to a decision. “Well…okay. How much can we keep this to a big bout o’ play-fightin’?”

“Most of us will be happy to wrassle. A few, will need more than that. I will teach them again where their place is. Leave that to me.”

“An’ what ‘bout you an’ me?”

Yan grinned fiercely, showing off his great big fangs. “I like to play hard, Daar Great-Father.”

It was another day and a half to the Lodge. They hunted, and feasted, and Gee-yo-tun had managed a good pouncing kill. Very Impressive, that: neyma were so fast, pouncing on even an unwary neyma was something their fastest hunters found hard to do. Usually, they threw spears or more likely now, arrows from above.

Not Gyotin. He’d pounced it from cover of a bush, and picked a healthy young male, too. Tasty! He didn’t seem happy when Yan drank his fill—something about doing that bothered all the sky-people—but didn’t say no when Yan rubbed its liver in some good, peppery herbs.

The Lodge, somehow, went almost exactly like it always did, even with a meeting a bit out of season. Summer had settled over the forest: hot, humid, and oppressive despite the shade. Yan went through at least four waterskins every day. His Gaoian sky-friends had it worse. Gee-yo-tun had shaved his fur short for this visit but he still ended up panting after any exertion. The Gao were made for cold, and the cold was their favorite weather.

None of that seemed to bother Daar. He constantly had to drink and his fur always shone with his lather, but none of that slowed him down, or dampened his energy. He was still huge, still playful and willing to hunt. Yan didn’t have many friends who could play as hard as he liked, and in the end, he didn’t mind how easy it was for Daar to beat him. It was nice to have a challenge!

Gee-yo-tun enjoyed playing too, but…he was much too bendy and breakable, so Yan was careful. Friends shouldn’t break each other, at least not too hard. Vemik had said something like that once, and who was Yan to ignore a good idea? Gee-yo-tun very much liked how Vemik had spoken it, too; word choice was just as important to an idea as the idea itself. It was good to test each other, but there was a limit to what that testing could be. So, gentle play, because Gee-yo-tun was a good sky-thinker.

So, absolutely no breaking his bones.

They were the last to arrive at the Lodge, and Yan had barely made any introductions before the brawl had begun. He didn’t need to say or provoke anything because the Given-Men were all still in their Fire, and there was a new, massive challenger to the Lodge, one who had yet to prove himself, or have his weakness proven to him.

It didn’t go their way.

It didn’t go quickly either, but that was because Daar Great-Father was having much too much fun to make quick work of it. They wrassled until the sun began to dip below the sky, first fiercely, then playfully, and eventually with friendly affection. On it went until everyone was too sore to wrassle anymore, admitted their defeat, and acknowledged Daar Great-Father as the Strongest of the Lodge.

He had nothing but praise for everyone despite his strength, despite tasting like the mightiest Brown One, flush with victory after a kill. He happily acknowledged his victories and enjoyed showing off his godly brawn, teaching them all what true might looked and felt like. There wasn’t a Given-Man among them who doubted his godhood, now.

Most wondered at the friendship their people had stumbled into, and Yan had gained a new kind of respect out of it in turn. His leadership of the Lodge was now stronger than ever.

Once even the most reluctant and stubborn Given-Men had learned their place in the order of things, they all settled in for the evening, while Vemik went to prepare the herbs for the evening’s Smoke. Daar found a comfortable space in front of the fire. He was covered head to toe in a heavy lather of sweat, still panting happily but with some aggressive energy left in him.

“Well…that was fun,” he said lazily, then growled out a dominant challenge. “I bet I could go ‘fer another round o’ fun, if anyone feels they ain’t got their money’s worth outta me…”

Nobody bothered, not even Yan, who was still stinging a little inside over how easily he’d been quashed in front of everyone. He was the last to challenge Daar, and even fresh and ready against a tired, panting Great-Father, it had been like a boy fighting a grown man. Yan was sore, tired, and the very air tasted so much like Daar and his victory, it was hard to taste anyone else’s musk on the air. And besides: wrestling a Gao turned out to be very different to wrestling the People, or even a Human. Gao had sharp bits. Not even little Gee-yo-tun was safe to play with, really.

“I think,” Loor groaned, “none of us are that stupid.”

There were groaning trills of agreement. Nobody much enjoyed confronting their own weakness in the face of something so much stronger, even if it was a god-made-man like Daar. Bitter attitudes might have festered, if not for two things.

First, there was food.

“Shit, I’m hungry…I s’pose I better go get somethin’ ‘fer roastin’, huh?”

Daar somehow found the energy to go hunt a mighty bull werne that evening, one any Given-Man could have been proud to take. This he did by himself and in the growing dark, including dragging it back to the Lodge. Somehow that was even more impressive than the brawl, despite every Given-Man present being able to do the same themselves. But of course, none of them had ever faced down and defeated the entire Lodge beforehand, either.

There was a feast, all wounded pride forgotten as they boasted and bragged about each other’s exploits while gorging on well-seasoned meat. Some playful tussling too, but everyone had proven their points by then; there was no anger or ambition.

The second…was the Magic Smoke.

Nothing but the Smoke could smother a man’s Fire, at least for a while. All ferocity was gone from everyone. They sat, piled atop each other and crowded around a low fire as the evening’s cool air creeped about the edges of the Lodge, threatening to nip at anyone’s exposed flanks.

Daar told them stories about his people, dizzy and panting happily at…nobody in particular.

“Some’a’ya prob’ly heard us Gao talk ‘bout Keeda a couple times, huh?”

“My….Father!” The smoke was having a strong effect on Gee-yo-tun. If Yan were to guess, he’d fall into a vision before long. “Tell’m th’ one ‘bout…uh…th’ one about Keeda and Anttiri!”

Daar grumbled merrily in his chest. “Anttiri, huh? Smells a lil’ like ‘yer teasin’ me over somethin’…”

“I am!” Gee-yo-tun fell into some kind of hiccuping chitters that must have been a giggle.

“Hmmph.” Daar chittered indulgently, then gave the curious Given-Men a sly look. “Keeda. Most bestestest Gao ‘ta ever be! Least, most bestest we tell stories ‘bout!” Everyone caught his meaning, despite the Smoke’s gentle…

…Wonderful grip on their minds.

“Keeda’s a trickster an’ a pranker, an’ not always kind, neither. In some stories, he stole the sun outta the sky, an’ hid all the trees!” He paused at the semi-outraged hoots from the Given-Men, along with plenty of trilling. “In others, he stole everyone’s balls!”

“Sometimes he has a big brother too!” Gee-yo-tun added. “Big an’ strong, earnest, gullible…”

“Careful, my lil’ wrasslin’ toy…”

“Always wins!”

Daar growled smugly. “Damn right. Anyhow. One thing ol’ Keeda was good at stealin’, though, was the affections o’ pretty females. But there was one…just one…called Anttiri who never even flicked an ear at ‘im.”

“Did she sell tacos?”

Daar reached across to grab Gee-yo-tun, pull him across the floor with a yelp, and then sat on him in punishment.

“I dunno, did she?”

”Mmmmpf!” The little silver-fur couldn’t be heard, under Daar’s bulk. The amused trilling around the room got louder.

“S’what I thought. Anyhoo!” Daar did let him poke his head out, but kept a firm grip on his tiny friend. “‘Fer someone like Keeda, that shit weren’t fuckin’ acceptable. He coulda had any other woman any time he wanted—”

Giggles, from under Daar’s chest, which he ignored.

“But this woman was the most bestest of them all! Fur as silky as moonlight, she had!”

There was some friendly jeering from the Given-Men.

“What!? Fur don’t turn y’all on? Don’t know what ‘yer missin…But fine. Antirri had a fuckin’ rump that would enslave any mind. Y’all like butts, yeah?”

Lots of approving hoots, there. Yan might have been the loudest.

“Grace an’ charm, smarts an’ wit, she had it all. An y’know what else she had? Wisdom. Wisdom enough ‘ta see right through ol’ Keeda’s game. Keeda o’ course, he jus’ figgered all the stuff that worked on the other females, it’d work on her too if he jus’ did it hard enough!”

The chittering-from-under-Daar was hard to ignore again, and Yan realized he was telling the exact same story to Gee-yo-tun and the Lodge…but with entirely different intent.

“Firs’, it was the charm. Keeda could charm a stream into flowin’ uphill! He could sweet-talk his dinner right onto a spit! For Anttiri, he turned on all the charm. He tol’ her the funniest jokes he knew, he whispered the sweetest praise, made the most biggest promises ‘bout just what he planned ‘ta do with her…”

“Size isn’t everything!” Gee-yo-tun chittered again, desperately trying to wriggle free of Daar’s grasp. “Maybe Anttiri likes ‘em modest!”

“Oh, I dunno…” Daar’s grip tightened fiercely, while he snuffled in Gee-yo-tun’s headfur affectionately. “Size got me pretty far! Keep needlin’ me an’ I’ll show ‘ya jus’ what us big boys can do…”

That gentled him right up, but only for a moment. “Noooo!” More dizzy chittering, as if he wanted to say something clever…but the Smoke would have its way with everyone.

Not Daar though. Not just yet.

“When charm din’t work, he tried showin’ off! Now, Keeda was an impressive tail. Big an’ sleek, strong an’ athletic, handsome, quick…not as sassy as my cuddle-buddy, here…”

Trills all around, but definitely…sleepier. Everyone was relaxed, comfortable, pulling pelts over and finding warm friends to snuggle up to.

“But no matter how fast he ran, how many bigger, browner boys he wrassled down an’ defeated, no matter what he did…she turned up her nose at her.”

A hoot from the back of the room: Berg Given-Man. “What’s not to want! This Keeda, big handsome man?”

“The mostest!”

“Good, big cock?”

Daar chittered smugly. “The most biggest! But Geeyotun ain’t wrong, y’know. You’d be surprised how much that ain’t always a good thing…”

It took a while for everyone to get the joke. Berg eventually figured it out, sat back down and grumped ruefully, but what could he do? He was one of the youngest and smallest Given-Men at the Lodge.

…Ha! Small!!

“Anyway! Finally, he turned ‘ta the last resort o’ the courtin’ male: gifts. An’ Keeda, he already knew his best so far hadn’t been good enough. He needed ‘ta bring her gifts the like’a which no woman had ever received before or since. Nat’rally, he started with flowers.”

“He brought her the bloom o’ the rare shumyu, which only blooms ‘fer one night every three years. She didn’t like the smell. So he planted a whole row o’ blossomin’ fruit trees overnight for her ‘ta wake up to. It was pretty, she agreed, but not enough ‘ta win her over. Keeda was gettin’ real mad now.”

“Should just give up,” Yan declared. “No woman’s worth that.”

“Ah, but see, Keeda’s pride was on the line, now. It weren’t about wooing her, now. It was about provin’ there weren’t no-one he couldn’t woo. But there, o’ course, was the problem: the more it was about his pride, an’ the less it was about her, the less an’ less she wanted him. An’ there ain’t no playfulness ‘ta Takin’ when she ain’t interested.”

Sober nods around the lodge. They got it: this wasn’t a playful story, no. This was a story about the Fire, and how the Fire could go wrong.

Geeyotun squirmed out from under Daar’s grasp a bit more. “But this bit’s the most important! Tell ‘em about Feeko!”

Daar looked down at his friend and pant-grinned. “Feeko’s ‘yer most favoritest part, huh? Why don’t you tell ‘em then!”

Daar released the little gao, and then immediately snatched up Loor Given-Man to snuggle, who fought to escape with as little apparent success as Geeyotun had managed.

“Nah,” he grumbled. “‘Yer my buddy now.” There was trilling all around as Loor gave up.

Geeyotun was a storyteller in his bones. As soon as he took over the telling, it was like the smoke cleared from his mind. His eyes were bright as they looked out of the world and into the story.

“So there Keeda was, moving on from flowers to gems. He was sounding the rock, delving for the biggest, brightest stone he could bring back, when into our tale waltzes little Feeko. Feeko was not like Keeda. Where Keeda was big, Feeko was little. Keeda was sleek, Feeko was scruffy. Keeda had wealth and a whole harem of females. He had his own Clan! Feeko was nobody at all. But he saw what Keeda didn’t: he saw that Anttiri needed help. All those gifts were just piling up. The shumyu had wilted, the tree blossoms covered the garden, and all the other gifts Keeda had brought her filled Anttiri’s home until she could barely move.

“So, one day, when Keeda wasn’t around to challenge him to a duel and break his back, Feeko just…started cleaning her garden. He swept up the blossoms, he tidied away the dead bloom, he took care of all the stuff she hadn’t been able to ‘cuz she was too busy with Keeda. Keeda didn’t notice any of this, of course: he was too busy trying to bring her a cloud from the sky. But Anttiri noticed.

“Of course…by now, Anttiri was fed up with males. She just wanted to be left alone, and she certainly didn’t want some little scruffy Clanless trying to woo her when she was turning down even the likes of Keeda. But Feeko never actually tried to woo her. He just worked. He never asked for anything, never tried to intrude on her time. He just did what needed doing, humbly.”

“Eventually,’ Daar jumped in, “Anttiri came down to visit Feeko. See ‘ta me, that’s the most bestest part. An’ you stay put, Loor.” He growled low next to Loor’s ear, “I ain’t done wit’ you.”

“That she did,” Geeyotun agreed. “She sat and watched him, waiting for him to pounce at the chance to woo her too, but all he did was show her respect and carry on with his work.”

“‘Why,’ she asked one day. ‘Why have you been so kind to me?’”

“Feeko was genuinely confused by that. ‘Because nobody else was!’”

“‘Don’t you want to court me?’ She asked, confused.”

“‘Of course I do,’ Feeko replied, honestly. ‘Any male would kill for your love. But how could I live with myself to see you suffer? What kind of male hurts a female to get what he wants?’”

That was a good way to phrase it, really. Yan had learned from Jooyun and other humans that there were some big differences in the workings of man and woman between their peoples. The biggest was sex. For a Ten’Gewek, hurting a woman was always bad…but nobody really thought of a good fucking as hurtful. Maybe it could be rude, yes…

With Humans, sex was serious. Fucking a woman without asking—without getting a clear “yes”—was just as bad as murder. After thinking about it, about what Humans were like, how their families worked…Yan could understand, really. But still. It felt strange. Alien.

With the Gao, it was worse. With their people, a man could force a woman to bear him a cub, force her to love him. If he had enough strength and stamina, she could not say no.

That…That was evil. And the Gao knew it, too. It was telling that even though, in this story, Keeda was digging up the heart of the world, and pestering Anttiri with gifts as big as moonlight and all the song in the world, the one thing he didn’t even think of doing was just Taking her.

Among the People, that would be very rude, and the man would need to make it up to her. It might be a whole season before she smiled at him again, if he had been particularly uncaring.

Among the Gao, that would have all but killed her.

It was a Taking much too big to be allowed, even in a god-story. Still: none of the other Given-Man knew about that evil working of the gods, and most of them only barely understood the Human way of things. Daar’s words managed to cover all that.

And their objections to the Keeda were loud and disapproving.

The tale went back and forth between Daar and Geeyotun. It didn’t have a happy ending for anyone involved, really. It had a nice bit in the middle where Feeko won Anttiri’s affections, but then Keeda—jealous and angry—fought the little male and destroyed him. That of course won him a mortal enemy in Anttiri, and in the end she stole his claws so he could never fight another male again, and he had to learn how to be tricky and clever from there on out.

“Now, later on Keeda gets his claws back…” Daar mused, with a dizzy nod of his head. “…Fuck. I think the smoke’s gettin’ ‘ta me! Where’s my little buddy? …Oh. Sarry.”

He finally let go of Loor, who looked halfway crushed to death and happy to escape.

“It’s another story anyway,” Geeyotun said. “Don’t know…wow the fire…I can see red now and…”

The Smoke had him.

Given-Men did not easily fall to the Smoke. It took a good long evening before it eventually won, but when it did, the gods spoke to them all. Strange ideas happened, things were…

Closer, maybe. Yan, the Lodge, Daar and the bird outside watching, and the fire, and the pile of everyone else, the wind, the smoke, the Dance…

Good smoke, that night. The gods whispered to them all, and whispered them all to sleep.

Yan woke needing to piss yet thirsty, his mouth as dry as a mountain stone. He rolled his tongue in his mouth, doing his best to wet it as he clambered over the slumbering Given-Men to go tend to both needs. No Daar, though. The big Gao’s taste on the air led outside and into the brush. He was hunting, probably.

…How had someone that big slunk out of the Lodge so quietly?

A mystery for later. Right now, sweet Ketta sap worked its magic on Yan’s thirst, before the rest of the Lodge woke and went about their day, cleaning up, hunting, gathering, or whatever else needed doing.

Yan decided to track Daar. He had things he wanted to talk about, now that a new day was with them and his head was clear. Besides, he wanted to see how a god hunts, and if he could track a god in the first place.

He could, it turned out. Not easily, and he left so little sign that Yan would have been proud, were he tracking one of his own…

But nothing could disguise his taste on the wind, or on the ground where what sign he’d left reluctantly revealed itself.

As for how Daar hunted…he vanished. Even when Yan knew he’d caught up and found Great-Father, it took him a few seconds of staring at the bush full of his taste before his eyes looked beyond what they are seeing and suddenly he was there, a furred face and burning eyes where before Yan had seen only shadows.

He’d focused on a big and old male neyma, which was a hard beast to hunt. They were skittish and very, very fast, so a man had to get their spear right through their heart, across its blind spot—

Daar…struck.

He didn’t have a spear. He just had claws, paws and teeth. He didn’t need more than that. The neyma coiled, sprung away, then went crunch as Daar hit it like…

…Well, like a Brown One hit anything. Like a bear back on Earth. He’d moved so fast, not even the swiftest neyma could escape, and he’d broken it the moment his chest collided with it.

Yan wasn’t as sneaky as he thought, either. “What’chu think, Yan? Good enough?”

He thumped down out of his tree and ambled over to see. It’s ribs had been flattened by the impact. Not hard to do, admittedly—neyma weren’t very tough—but Yan would never have managed to pounce on such a strong, wise old male, no matter how sneaky he was.

“Quick. Clean. Meat won’t last long though. Should have gone for a werne.”

“Eh, didn’t smell one. Also, kinda glad it lured ‘ya out here too, heh. I wanna talk.”

“So do I.” Yan dropped down next to the neyma, hefted his knife, and offered to break up the meat for him. That way, maybe they could hunt something else too.

“‘Kay. You go first. What’chu need, big guy?”

Some of the stories from last night had stuck with Yan. They weren’t all about Keeda, telling just-so stories about maybe pretend things, maybe real.

Some of them were about the war. The one that had come to Yan’s people without any warning. The one that needed sky-tribes and ships, and guns, and all the rest. The one the tribes were sending more and more young men to fight, in their small but important way.

The one that Yan Given-Man had not lifted a finger to fight himself.

“I…feel like I should take a more…” Yan searched for the word. “Direct. Yes. Direct role in all…that.” He waved a hand toward the sky.

“You do, huh?”

“I send young men, good strong Given-Men off to fight, but what about me? I am strong, smart, Corti think I will live many more years if I keep healthy…”

“I never doubted that,” Daar nodded with his whole head and shoulders. “Man like you’s too good ‘ta just fall over. But what kinda directness are ‘ya lookin’ at?”

Yan considered briefly, and confessed. “I want to be on HEAT.”

Daar gave him a serious look. “Well, that ain’t surprisin’ ‘ta me. Been expectin’ you’d ask ‘fer a long while. I ain’t got no doubts you’d be one o’ our most bestest, too. Physically, yeah you could definitely do it at the highest level. No problems learning everything, I bet. But…”

Yan knew that was coming. “…But.”

“The question ain’t if ‘ya could. Really, the question is if ‘ya should.”

“Why not?”

“How would ‘yer people manage without ‘ya?” Daar shot back.

Yan had an easy reply to that. “How would yours? You go on mission, too.”

“Yeah. Sometimes I do.”

“Then…how can you say I should not?”

“Because I shouldn’t.”

Yan twitched his tail. “Then…if you know you should not, but you do anyway…?”

Daar sighed heavily, and licked some blood off his claws before answering.

“I know you think I’m a kinda god, Yan. I ain’t deaf, I know what y’all say behind my back. But whatever I am—an’ a god ain’t it—I make mistakes like anyone. Keepin’ myself on th’ mission roster is prob’ly an ongoin’ mistake. I say to myself—and I believe it, too—that my people woulda fallen if I hadn’t gone an’ done some o’ the things I’ve done. And why not? I was already eclipsing Warhorse, yijao? But what would have happened if I had died? What would have happened to the Gao? And what, Yan, of your people?”

“Got to hand off our tribe some day,” Yan pointed out.

“That’s true, an’ that’s part o’ why I can justify doin’ what I do. Least, to myself. I can do things ain’t nobody else can do, but the Gao? They don’t need me as much as they think anymore. If I die, they’d be sad, and it’d cause a lotta chaos…but they’ll servive losin’ me, now. Been the work o’ years but it’s true. I don’t know we can say the same ‘bout ‘yer people, yet.”

Yan sighed as he tore one of the Neyma’s legs off. “And even if we can…even if our people survive without us just fine…why hurt them if we don’t need to?” he asked.

“Yeah. Mine is a tribe of billions, Yan. ‘Yers is, what, unner thirty thousand right now?”

“Professor says twenty-eight thousand and a hand of hundreds.”

“An’ that’s after a whole mess o’ babies post-vaccines, too.”

Yan sighed dejectedly. “Yeah.”

“Duty’s a hard fuckin’ thing, ain’t it? Especially when you gotta figure out what your duty even is, and when it ain’t what you think it should be. ‘Fer us, our duty is ‘ta live good an’ long…an’ if anyone’s had ‘ta learn that lesson th’ hard way, it’s been me, Yan Given-Man. Take ‘yer opportunity ‘ta learn from my mistakes.”

“You still consider yourself on the team, yes?”

“I do. I can’t totally write off th’ possibility I might be needed again. Now, is a big part o’ that ‘cuz I am literally the best there is? Yeah. Ain’t gonna lie. But that still don’t make it necessarily wise. I need to pick my battles very carefully.”

Yan nodded solemnly, and went silent to think as he finished dressing the kill.

Daar let him work in silence until he was nearly done before adding another few kind words to pick him up. “…Y’know what? Just ‘cuz we shouldn’t risk ‘ya on a mission, don’t mean we can’t train ‘ya. It’d be good anyway, ‘ta know what ‘yer men are really goin’ through. It’ll help ‘em respect ‘ya, too.”

“Would take me away for just as long, yes?”

Daar was perceptive. “…It would, an’ that’s actually what ‘yer lookin’ for, ain’t it?”

Yan felt there was no point dancing around the truth. “My Fire never stops now, Daar Great-Father. It only gets stronger. I grow stronger, more fierce, more…protective. Need to live away from villages or I would take them over. When Given-Men reach this time, they go into the forest and don’t come back. We protect all the tribes, until the gods call us home.”

“And how long before that?”

Yan shrugged. “Stories say, can be long time. More often, we die by Yshek or Brown One.”

“And why wouldn’t your people still need that?”

“They have arrows and bawistuh and guns now. I think, black-crests like me will happen more. We have never been so fit. Vemik will follow me one day, I think. But, there will be more of us, and less need of us. Fire must go somewhere, Daar Great-Father. Want something…”

Daar gave him a long, hard look. One that Yan knew was of a god looking into his soul. He tried to stand tall next to that, but the truth was…

The truth was that not only was Daar a god, but Yan had witnessed that god being born. He knew the exact day Daar stopped being a normal man. It was the day after their victory against the Abro-gate-ers, the moment Daar had learned what had happened to his people. His face went grim, he took a dangerously big measure of the biggest sky-medicine, ate more than any man Yan had ever seen, went off to sleep…

When Daar woke up, he was a completely different being. Yan could taste it even then. He didn’t look different, but Yan knew. Really, everyone there knew it, even if they didn’t have the words until later. How often do ordinary men watch a god come into being?

And how did a man count someone like that as a friend? Where once there was a rangy Gao that Yan could—with some effort—defeat with his own strength, now…

Daar had always been smart, too. Yan could keep few secrets from him.

“You want to find the new calling for Given-Men,” Daar Great-Father observed.

Yan nodded. “Not want. Need. Our people must change, or we die.”

Daar sighed heavily. “Such is life…” he rumbled. “Okay. We need to think, and talk, and whatever comes of it won’t come quick. The HEAT won’t bend their standards for anyone, and one’a those standards is stickin’ it out over time. If the Fire stops you bein’ patient enough…”

“Good. Humans are wise, there.” Yan nodded, stood, and slung the meat over his shoulders. “You give good advice, Daar Great-Father.”

Daar took the praise with a small duck-nod, and reared up to sniff the air. “…No werne, but there’s some more neyma, yonder. Whaddya say, think we should take more back?”

“Lots of hungry Given-Men at the lodge. One neyma won’t do.”

“Don’t count Gyotin out, neither. Little guy can pack food away, somewhere.”

“Then, we better find werne.”

“You know their ways better’n me. Lead on.”

Yan nodded, and took to the trees, getting up high where he could listen and taste the air. Daar was right, no werne were close, but that probably meant they were getting water. He pointed the way, saw Daar duck-nod and trundled off through the bush, and sprung from one tree to the next.

He felt lighter. A little less Fire, now. Like he was flowing again, not blocking himself. His way forward felt right, whatever happened.

Yan hadn’t said everything, though. Daar may be a god, but not even he could always tell if Yan had said everything. Yan knew he was likely to live for a long time, much longer than the sky-people would believe, because he knew a few stories that only the Chiefs (and probably the Singers) told each other. Soon, a Chief and the Lodge wouldn’t be enough for his people.

He might be the last Chief. Or at least, the last who could wear the word as more than just a word, the last who could wrassle down every Given-Man and prove who was best. Ten’Gewek would grow big, and grow fast, now that vaccines were helping their children live, food was safer, sickness was retreating from soap and good high jeen.

Soon, there would be too many Given-Men for a Lodge in the first place.

But that was okay. If there was one thing his people could offer to the Sky-Tribes for their friendship, it was strength.

And Yan would Give his own.


Date Point:18y8m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ferd Given-Man

The ship on the concrete wasn’t Silent But Deadly, and its pilot wasn’t Tooko. Not only that, but Ferd and the others weren’t going on it either. It was all a sad reminder, and sitting to watch team three load up wasn’t helping Ferd feel any better.

No Given-Man on that team, either. Four humans, two of the People, two Gao.

And to really itch his ass…what kind of a name was ‘Drunker on Turkeyer?’

No, Ferd was not in a good mood. He’d missed the summer Lodge, which meant he’d had to cool his Fire by work and exercise, not with a hunt and magic smoke. It wasn’t the same thing. A mission would have helped more, but…

Well, team three had won the right to do this. And as Rees reminded him while they watched: “Can’t do everything ourselves, mate.”

“I know…” Ferd sighed. “Just feel…caged.”

“Aye. But you’ll be going home now for a long while, yeah? You’ll have a tribe to attend to.”

That thought did lift Ferd’s spirits a bit. Going home, to the trees and to the songs of his people, and to…well, humans weren’t so much fun. Didn’t fuck so much, or at least, not with Ferd. Couldn’t play so rough either…and it’d be nice to father a few more little ones…

Still, though.

“Yeah. Just hate leaving a job half-done.”

“Trick is to think of our job as just being the little bit in front of us, pal,” Rees advised. He took the sharp-tasting gum he’d been chewing out of his mouth, dropped it in the trash next to him, then slipped another one between his teeth. “‘Sides. You’re not leaving it half-done. You’re just letting those lads carry the baton for a bit, yeah?”

Ferd didn’t know what a baton was, but he did understand what Rees meant. “Yeah. Is big tribe we are part of, now. Can’t see every part.”

Rees nodded. “So, go home and have fun. Tooko wouldn’t want you moping about. He’d want you happy.”

“True.”

“And, hey! We’ll be back at it before long. We’ll be doing a lot of training, too. But you’ve got a whole tribe filled with fair young lasses, from what I hear…and just a bunch of grown-up boys to tend them…”

Rees always knew what to say.

Ferd nodded, then stood up. “We should wish them good hunting,” he decided.

“Works for me…”

Ferd knew Morl and Bang from Ormin’s tribe. Good men. The Humans had found Bang’s name funny and trained him in demolitions, a job the young man had taken to like…well, with a Vemik-like manic glee. Like a Yshek took to water.

Who could blame him?

Ormin, unlike Ferd, was an old Given-Man and well-established in the Lodge. Age didn’t weaken Given-Men at all, or slow them down, which would have made him a mighty operator…but it did mean they had more to lose and more family to care for.

He wasn’t on the team, even if two of his best sons were.

The Gao were Teemo and Ankki, both scarred from nose to tail by their time warring against biodrones on Gao-world. They’d won much respect, and earned the call to the JETS by their deeds, not by Clan. Small, but as quiet as fog when they wanted to be, and clever. Nobody ever snuck up on them.

Small-strong. That was the word. He’d first used it to describe Heff, but now he used it to mean anything that was…well, small, and strong somehow.

Yan liked the word too.

Then there were the Humans, Booth, Taylor, Ryan and Santos. And if Teemo and Ankki were clever, and Morl and Bang were strong, these Humans were tough. Tough in that well-smithed, beaten-on-an-anvil way, like men who knew exactly how to make a warrior had done their finest work on them. They weren’t the biggest, or the craftiest, but that was okay. They were unbreakable men, in Ferd’s opinion.

A good team. Not as good as his, but they’d do.

“Enjoyin’ the boring bit, sir?” Rees asked as they approached, then stood to a casual attention; no saluting on the flightline. Humans had all sorts of funny rules, there.

“Oh, it’s been an outstanding day so far,” Lieutenant Booth grumbled. “Let’s just say this has been a day to drive home why we inspect everything before a mission…”

Ferd hooted and nodded—taking inventory of all their stuff while they loaded it on was the worst bit of the mission, but nobody wanted to go hunting with a broken spear. Everything had to be found good before they headed out.

“Know that feeling alright…” Rees agreed. “Be so much bloody simpler if we could just bomb the fuckin’ thing from orbit, aye?”

“Heh, yeah…” Booth stretched until his back popped, shimmied to extract a similarly satisfying noise from his neck, and groaned. “Maybe we can this time, we’ll see.”

Ferd nodded grimly. He’d seen what the Gaoian weapons could do. If all they wanted was to kill relays, that was easy. No need for men to brave the surface and spy on the enemy first. But the weapons that could do that would also kill everyone who lived there.

That they’d done it once already was a big secret. People wouldn’t like knowing they’d killed a whole world once, and meant to do it again. All those trees, all those beasts…All that life.

It was a thought to make a man’s soul hurt, and his sleep restless. But what was the other choice? Leave the Enemy to build and grow strong again? An Enemy who’d already killed many, many, many kinds of people?

For the cost of a few living worlds, all worlds could be rid of their greatest foe. But there had to be a line somewhere, a taboo. People needed to know where they should stop, and so the line had been drawn. The greatest weapons, the world-killers, would never be used on places that were home to people.

But that meant needing to know those worlds first. Go there, stand on them, see for themselves that there was nobody there to call them home. Only then could death come. So, that was what the JETS teams were for: to scout a place, so the chiefs of the sky-peoples could decide if a world lived or died.

A heavy duty, that.

Ferd and Rees wished the team well, and left them to their work. Time for second breakfast anyway.

It dawned on Ferd that Rees had said something.

“Whuh?”

“I said, you’re thinkin’ bloody hard about something.”

“Just…wondering about the balance.”

“The balance?”

“Yes. Killing a whole world…a Taking like that needs a big Giving for the balance. But how? Can’t make a world, can we?”

“Not yet.” Rees shrugged. “Give it a couple hundred years, who knows, right?”

He saw Ferd’s troubled expression, and became more serious. “…That’s the thing about big war, mate. There is no Giving. Or, at least, nothing that looks like it. What your people have been doing forever is…”

“…Smaller.”

“Right. You got dragged into this. We woulda left you alone. The Hierarchy didn’t give anyone a choice, aye?”

“Makes me wonder how many others like my people are out there. Small. Would be left alone by anyone else but the High-rarchy.”

“Like your people? Not many.”

“But some.”

“…Probably, yeah.”

“Hope we don’t miss them and blow them up.” Ferd sighed. “Be too easy. Worlds are big, relays are small.”

Rees stopped. “…Are you okay, mush? Sounds like this is needlin’ you.”

Ferd found himself gripping his tail. “…I think about my children. I have two now that I know about. Maybe more. Would hate to kill little ones.”

“Yeah…”

They found a table and grabbed some food in silence, ate in silence. Only when Rees’ plate was empty and Ferd had gone back for more did either of them share more thoughts.

“I guess…” Rees finished his drink with a long slurp through the straw. “I guess it’s good that this shit bothers us though, aye? Like, the bad guys? Fuckin’ do it all the time ‘cuz they think it’s the right thing to do. Us? We’re puttin’ life and limb on the line to make sure it dun’t happen. So, least we’re tryin’ to do right, yeah?”

“What if we fail?”

“Can’t let that stop us, pal. If we stop, they definitely get to keep doin’ what they do, and then little ones definitely die.”

Ferd mulled that one over, and decided it was enough. He didn’t feel good at the thought of what the other team might be about to do to a living world…but Rees was right. The other choice was not fighting back. Fuck that.

“Alright. We have study session, yes? Take mind off things.”

“Here’s hoping.”

Doing was definitely better than thinking, in Ferd’s view. He had lots of reading to do today, and reading was…not…his strongest skill. But! It was something good to do, no question. He’d take that over worrying, every time.

He nodded, stood up, put his troubles down for now, and went to study.


Date Point: 18y9m AV
Armstrong Station, Cimbrean System, the Far Reaches

Bruuk

Humans were weird.

It wasn’t the notion of a ceremony to rename the ship that Bruuk found strange. It was the content of said ceremony. Apparently they were persuading King Neptune, god of the seas, to forget the name of a ship that would never in fact touch water in all its existence. And they were invoking the four winds, too. In space. And the weirder thing still was that Wilde professed that Poseidon was an ancient god that very few people actually believed in any longer. But, the ship was a ship, and Humans had their ship renaming ceremony, so…

The fact that Moj thought it all made perfect sense definitively proved the lunacy of it all, as far as Bruuk was concerned.

“So…lemme get this straight. We have a ship. In vacuum I might add…”

“Yes.”

“You have a magnum of what smells like perfectly delightful champagne.”

“…How can you smell it? It’s still sealed!”

“Residues around the cork. Anyway. Your plan, after praying to gods nobody believes in, and beseeching winds from a planet we’re nowhere near—”

“In the vacuum of space, yeah.”

“Your plan, then, is to religiously moisten our ship.”

“Technically, I’m supposed to pour half of it into the ocean from east to west, too. I figure blowing the bottle out the airlock’s good enough, right?”

“That’s a debris hazard!”

“It’s okay, there’s a bot out there waiting to catch it.”

Dora ran two hands across her antennae and the third down her nose in a gesture of pure Robalin frustration. “Ian…are you entirely sure this ceremony can’t be adapted?”

“Hey. I’m a former Royal Marine. Part of the Navy, I suppose…and we have our traditions. They’re ancient. Hell, I bet Gaoians have traditions, too!”

“Yeah, big burly boys drumming all night long! Sometimes with fire dancing too! That at least makes sense since it’s a celebration!”

“Wait, you guys do Taiko drums?”

“No, we do shingu da guen drums.”

“Sounds like Taiko drumming to me. Here!” Suddenly, in a blessed distraction from the insanity at hand, Wilde dove for his tablet to search the Human internet for videos. It didn’t take him long. “There! See?”

Bruuk tilted his head, and felt himself pant-grinning. Good drums! And the drummers themselves weren’t all that bad to look at, either…

“Okay, maybe you Humans aren’t completely insane. Still feels a bit weird. They’re basically naked, yijao?”

“So are you, right now.”

“I’ve got fur. It takes a lotta work for me to get naked.”

“Short-shorn fur, yeah…doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination, mate.”

“Hey! I worked damn hard ‘fer this body, why wouldn’t I show it off?! Besides, I’ve been working nonstop while you were testing! An’ it ain’t short where my bits are concerned!”

“Okay!” Wilde laughed. “You’re still showing off, though…”

“Damn right!” Bruuk flexed his thick arms and even thicker chest for a bit, proud of the years of hard work their size and shape represented. “Lookit!” he preened, flexing it all in and out to really annoy the big human. “Lean an’ vascular too, even through the fur! Makes ‘ya look kinda puny, huh?” He growled teasingly, “Wanna feel? Or ‘ya wanna just skip ahead?”

He figgered out pretty quick that over-the-top teasing did a lot to disarm Wilde’s recent personal discomfort about that kind of thing. Somehow, the more ridiculous Bruuk behaved, the more it was obvious he didn’t mean anything serious. It musta been working because Ian tried very hard not to crack a smile, and failed miserably. That of course provoked Bruuk to show off even more, or he would have if Morwk hadn’t interjected.

“Would you two stop flirting, please?” Morwk requested. “I’m eager to get on with this!”

Durn. Bruuk didn’t even get a chance to show off his back! It was his most bestest part, too!

“I ain’t flirting!” he chittered. “He ain’t man enough ‘fer me! But he can still feel if he wants…”

“You’re flirting,and showboating, and it’s sweet,” Dora asserted, mischievously. “But Morwk’s right, on your own time please.”

Bruuk grumbled good-naturedly. “Fine. We can get back to this insane ‘religious moistening event’ if you insist…”

“Important, this.” Moj was holding the second bottle of champagne with all the dignity and fervor of a priestly sommelier. “Marking a death and rebirth! Good thing to make a moment out of.”

“Can’t we just do what Saltpaws or Longbacks do?” Bruuk questioned. “We have a pretty long tradition in space nowadays.”

“…Are those, uh, sailor clans?” Wilde asked.

“Yeah. An’ they’re almost as weird as you!”

“Well…okay. What do they do?”

“Uh…lemme pull up something quick.”

Urgug made a heaving sound, and settled down on the deck with a thump, a motley collection of impatient hues shimmering all over him. “Now is not the time to decide to change which ceremony we are doing.”

Bruuk ignored him, and pulled up the video. “There. See!? You consecrate some black paint, splash it over the old name, then consecrate some white paint and write the new name. Then, when the name’s all worn down, you just re-paint it ‘cuz that’s the ship’s name now. It’s still all moist and stuff, if you gotta have it—”

“Mate. Gross.”

“But it also don’t involve navigational hazards or maybe-gods back on planets a couple thousand light years away. And the ship’s gaoian registry anyway, so I’d argue that, if anything, it’s gaoian traditions we gotta worry ‘bout. Moist or not.”

“We’re a multi-species crew,” Dora pointed out, hastily, before Ian could object. “How about we try and do something that makes sense and still respects both your cultures?”

“What are you thinking?”

“No spacing the bottle. Instead, why not do something symbolic down on Cimbrean? We’ve got three days left anyway before we’re due to embark.”

“Breaking the bottle on the hull is the most important bit, though…”

“…Does it have to be attached?” Morwk asked. “I have spare hull panels. We could smash the bottle on that and then swap it out…”

Even to Bruuk, that sounded like he was missing the point.

“Okay. Look. I don’t object to the idea of doin’ something, even if it’s weird. But we ain’t in the ocean. ‘Member that video I just showed you? You can’t even do that in space, so they paint over the ship’s registry plate on the bridge, first in black, then in white. Simple. Gets the job done. An’ doesn’t put champagne bottles into dangerous elliptical retrograde orbits.”

“Humans have many gods, too,” Moj pointed out. “Call on Nyx, maybe? Goddess of Night. Seems more suitable.”

The more they tried to talk Wilde out of it, the more and more he seemed to transform from a Marine with a (to Bruuk’s understanding) reluctant relationship with his Navy, into a salty sea-man who would not anger the gods.

“Okay…fine. I get that we’re not going to do a spacewalk. But we are re-christening this ship, goddamnit.

“By calling on a non-Christian god.” Moj buzzed lengthily. He seemed to find that very funny indeed.

“That’s not actually what that word means in this case, but whatever.”

Moj buzzed even louder. “I hear christ, I think christ. English is weird.”

“Not my fault! English isn’t a language, so much as a vocabulary thief that goes around shanking other languages and rifling through their pockets for shiny new words.”

“Keeda’s itchy balls…okay.” Bruuk was growing frustrated. “Look. This is easy. Bash ‘yer champagne against the registration plate. This isn’t a boat, it doesn’t have a keel or a prow, there’s no ocean, we’re not on Earth. Make the symbolic gesture and move on.”

“…Fine.” Wilde seemed unsatisfied, but resigned.

“I’ll talk to my Longback friend, while I’m planetside.”

“You haven’t actually told us what you’re renaming it to,” Morwk pointed out.

Bruuk and Wilde both shook their heads. “It’s bad luck to speak the name before the re-christening,” Ian said. Bruuk nodded along in agreement.

Morwk groaned. “Oh, goody. Turns out human sailors and gaoian sailors are just as fuckin’ weird.”

“Let them have this,” Urgug rumbled. “They put up with many foibles from you.”

“Like what?”

“How long were you complaining about the Matriarchy yesterday?”

“…Fine.”

“So…to the bridge, then?” Dora suggested.

In the end, they cobbled together a ceremony that was mostly satisfying to all involved. Ian even got to ritually dissolve the ship’s old name in a bottle of seawater from Cimbrean, they painted over the old registration plate in black and dismounted it for proper disposal, removed the ship’s physical books and archived the old computer data before removing them from the ship to be transported to Gao…

The new registration plate came aboard wrapped in cloth and was finally unveiled to the sound of shattering glass as Ian wrapped the champagne bottle’s neck in a towel and smashed it against the new plate.

“I name this ship Stray Fortune. May God bless her and all who sail in her.”

As Moj buzzed a quiet amen, Bruuk stepped forward, toweled off the plate, and swiped a broad, rough stroke of white paint over the name. He didn’t say anything, because gaoians didn’t mark things like this with a prayer. Instead…

“Right. I’m hungry!”

“Absolutely,” Urgug agreed. “I like the name.”

“Me too!” Dora chirped.

“To the hungry, or to the liking the name?”

“Both!”

“Whose turn is it to cook?” Morwk asked.

Wilde chuckled. “Hell with it, let’s just get pizza…”

The new shipmaster’s first and second decisions were popular ones, it seemed. Bruuk especially wasn’t gonna complain, since one of the pizzas he ordered was an extra-large Hungry Keeda Meat Lover’s special from the station’s famous Pizza Pirates.

Starting tomorrow, now that everything was ready, would be the job. They had to earn their keep after all. But Bruuk, honestly, was looking forward to it. Not the reaction he’d have expected from himself—up until today, he’d been dreading a sudden meltdown, a head full of flashbacks and trauma, or some lingering House Henen programming—but…no. Nothing. Just gladness that he had a place, friends, and good work to do.

And pizza, of course.


Date Point: 18y9m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

WO2 Robert “Highland” Murray

The light in Murray’s visor turned green. Hand gesture, forward.

Approaching their target was nothing they hadn’t already done a lot. When the light turned green, they let go of their tiny warp-capable launch—little more than a warp drive, capacitor and a rail to hold on to—and pushed toward the target airlock. Brief cold-gas maneuvers, hit the hull gloves first because boots tended to make noise while hands were nice and quiet, and they could sticky-swarm over the hull toward the airlock.

The airlock was an evil-looking fucker, designed for force-docking with whatever the Hunters could catch, and not necessarily worried about leaving the prey’s own airlock in working order afterwards. But, vicious or not, it was their only way in.

Breaching a ship or station wasn’t difficult. The HEAT could do it in seconds via any one of dozens of methods…most of which were loud, violent, depressurizing, and would set off every alarm in the structure. Useful if the goal was to slaughter every living thing on board while capturing the ship, its cargo and its computers intact. Worse than useless for this mission.

There were silent ways to penetrate the hull, by sticking an air-retaining field to the outside hull and cutting through, but that came with downsides. One never knew what kind of vital circuitry or sensors lurked under the hull, the malfunction of which might summon repair teams. And the problem with Hunters was, if any of them flatlined, they all instantly knew about it. And even if not, what happened when some random crew-thing entered the room to grab whatever widget was stored there, or do whatever chore was based there, and promptly found a giant hole in the hull?

No, there was only one way to enter a station covertly: through the airlock. And airlocks were not designed to be opened quietly from the outside by hostile infiltrators.

They approached from the hull horizon, not straight down. Applied sticky sensors around it, watching the interior for signs of traffic…all quiet.

Most of the team deployed an air retention field over the outer door, while Shim used a fusion blade to surgically dissect it at a spot he’d identified. Into that new, tiny keyhole went his “lockpick,” and by some Whitecrest Magic that Murray hadn’t yet learned, the outer door was persuaded to relax.

From there, Tiny and Parata applied good old-fashioned Human brawn to the problem, each grabbing one of the doors and pulling, while Murray and Forrest covered them and the Whitecrests lined up ready to flow in like oversized and heavily armoured ferrets as soon as the gap was wide enough.

Textbook.

From there, cycling the inner airlock was more straightforward. They left it broken and useless—if the atmo field they left outside hadn’t been there, it would have leaked air like a screen door—but that was all fine. If any of the Hunter crew tried to use it, the resulting explosive decompression would appear, at first, to be a catastrophic equipment failure, not sabotage. And by the time they figured out otherwise, the mission would have succeeded or failed anyway.

But now came that precarious balancing act between speed and caution. The slower they moved, the more they could scout out the areas they were about to move into and the more aware they could be of threats. But moving faster would minimize their time spent exposed.

When dealing with humans and most ETs, there was the possibility of quickly and quietly neutralizing an awkwardly placed hostile. No such luxury with Hunters. What one saw, all saw. In this mission, they would either slip through the entire facility entirely unnoticed…or, most likely, die.

The good news: Hunters relied on automation for their industry, and relied on stasis to manage their resource scarcity. This station was purely industrial, no need for the soldier-class Hunters at all. This was a worker’s station, and the workers were mostly dormant while they waited for something to repair or work on. If there was a crew awake at all, they’d be a tiny skeleton force, or a team performing maintenance on a specific system.

That was why breaching the airlock without triggering any alarms had been so important.

Movement up ahead. The team melted into the shadows while Regaari skulked ahead under his suit’s active camo, invisible in the gloom. Long, tense seconds…

Whatever he found, Murray never got to find out. He was still waiting when the entire facility around him slammed heavily and he suddenly found himself in the teeth of a tornado wind. He grabbed a wall support with one hand and shielded his visor with his arm as loose debris punched into his shoulders and helmet.

Fuck. The airlock had decompressed. They must have got sloppy with the air field or something….

The vertical support he was gripping shifted, and he realized too late that what he’d grabbed was a stasis chamber, which was now opening to spill a burly Hunter engineer—more machine limbs and welding tools than actual living organism—out of its waiting dormancy.

Around him, dozens more were doing the same. He snatched his knife from its sheath and slashed, planted his feet back on the deck as the rush of air faded to nothing…

The lights came up, and a tone sounded in his ear. The Hunter he’d just “killed” fizzled out of existence and the drone that had generated its hologram retreated into the stasis booth. There was a sudden feeling of weight and pressure as the gravity was turned back up to 1G, and the hazard course team pumped the air back in.

In his ear, the voice of Sergeant Lloyd. “Scenario failed. You’re done for the day, lads. Come on back and we’ll debrief.”

Well, it was about bloody time. Murray had been wearing his MASS all day, and was reaching the point of needing a shit. Which the suit could accommodate, of course, but that was no fun for anybody.

Debrief was quick, and held when they were out of the armor, through the showers, and still in the “chill-down” mode where the room was air-conditioned down to arctic temperatures to keep them from stinking up the place. The sim techs had been dicks, of course.

What he was really looking forward to was the weekend. This was the last opportunity they’d have before they were back on full intensity training. Adam would be pushing them to and well beyond their breaking points for the next year or so, and any sane man took what he could get before that.

Which was why Adam and Christian were grilling, tonight. It was Friday, and Julian had invited much of the team over to his place, having brought back an entire goddamned werne. And frankly, there was a lot more you could do with werne than just shoving it near a big bloody fire, like the Ten’Gewek did. The things that ordinary salt and pepper did to the meat all by themselves were rifuckingdiculous.

Properly seasoned and smoked, it was a bloody luxury.

So, while the various families’ kids ran around and made noise and turned some of the biggest and scariest bastards in the galaxy into their personal climbing frames and playthings, Murray got to put his feet up and enjoy the full-body warmth that followed a day of gainful exertion, refresh himself with a good beer, and savour the scent and anticipation.

“I’m pretty sure werne is the king of meats,” Adam opined, happily. “It’s…fuckin’ perfect. Ideal fats, high in protein, gamey without being musky, rich without making you feel sick…”

“Nah,” Christian disagreed. “It’s up there, no lie, but really good grass-raised beef, where they’ve been running around and playing all their lives instead of livin’ in barns…”

“Maybe that’s it,” Murray suggested, and aimed his beer bottle at the carcass. “This big bugger was never even on the same planet as a barn.”

“You can tell it was fit as fuck too just by lookin’ at it,” Adam remarked. He was busy carving a huge slab into some genuine caveman steaks. “Maybe we should talk with mister Hernandez and see if he’ll do us a deal for some of his grass-finished.”

“I haven’t talked to him in a while,” Julian mused. “I wonder what he’s up to?”

“He got himself a couple freak bulls, one’s all black, the other’s all white. Don’t you ‘member when he brought them downtown for a publicity stunt?”

“Wait, those were his?”

“Yup! Both well over two thousand kilos, apparently.”

“…Jeez. That’s werne big. Well, not this specific werne, but yeah. They get bigger too! Anyway, this guy was just a yearling bachelor. Aggressive! Had a fight on my hands.”

“How did you get him through customs, anyway?” Murray asked.

Julian grinned, “over my shoulders!”

“No, ‘ya big bawbag, I mean—”

“It cleared Ag pretty easily, seeing as we have those pathology force fields or whatever.”

“Plus, he’s the ambassador,” Firth pointed out. “Right? Got a few little privileges I bet?”

“That doesn’t matter for as much as you might think. I can get booze through a border tax-free, but a whole carcass is a bit much. Also…” Julian smiled, and took a swig of his beer. “Once ‘Horse’s kitchen fellas get through with this, I’m keeping some of the trimmings. For stew, and stuff. And maybe some personal gifts to Ninja Taco…”

“…And if, say, you happen to know the border force gaoians love them some tacos…”

“Oh, they do?” Julian feigned surprise. “Well, how inexplicably convenient!”

“How’s Vemik doing?”

“Not bad! He’s got a bit of an absent-minded genius thing going on at the moment, but that just means he takes a ridiculous amount of notes, now.”

“Could be worse, I guess.”

“Sounds more like a blessing in disguise,” Allison opined, returning with another selection of beers, fresh from the paddling pool full of ice water and therefore colder than a penguin’s knob. Murray gladly accepted the one she handed him.

“We’ll see. If he gets over it I sorta doubt he’ll lose the note-taking habit.”

“I hope he recovers,” Murray opined. “I like the manic lad.”

Adam nodded. “We all do. Anyway, we doing steak al pastor, or just salt, pepper, and butter baste?”

“Keep it simple, big fella. Werne doesn’t need much.”

Dinner was glorious, and gloriously simple. A giant steak, a potato with sour cream, a big heaping pile of roasted vegetables. Even ‘Horse’s cheat meals were healthy.

Healthy but plentiful. Not a single belly was left not creaking at the seams by the end, and there was still plenty left over. In this, Adam’s sneaky side was showing: they’d be going in to heavy training with a load of nutrients on board and ready to work…But was it really subtle if everyone knew what he was doing anyway?

Nah, it just meant they all knew him well. They all knew each other well. They’d all, somehow, found the good life. Murray found room for another beer, and devoted himself to relaxing as hard as he could.

They’d be back to work soon enough.


Date Point: 18y9m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Martina Arés

There was nothing more adorable than a big, gruff dad holding his grandchild for the first time. And while Sam Kovač wasn’t the biggest dad present, he’d not lost any vigor, and could gruff with the galaxy’s best. Not even Adam’s sandpaper-by-noon stubble could look so grizzled.

Probably, it was the salt-and-pepper. More salt than pepper these days, and Marty was finding herself stung a few times by the revelation, which jumped into her awareness every couple of minutes before being forgotten again, that her parents were…old.

Not even Gabe was showing his age much these days, thanks to a few doses of Crue-D to fix his nerve damage, and the increasing availability of therapeutic regeneratives with their concomitant boost to longevity. Nobody wanted to contemplate genuine life extension, but an extra twenty years of prime life for not all that much expense? That was a different story…

Dad hadn’t got on that bandwagon, and probably never would. To be fair, he didn’t really need it; he still had cheese-grater abs, none of the rest of his body had gone the tiniest bit slack, and he still had the severely-healthy look of many a retired military man…but nothing could hide the weathering of his skin, or the creases on his face. No, he had another ten or maybe fifteen years left in his prime, and that’d be it. In that he was like a lot of people back home. Few on Earth were as forward-leaning on this as people on Cimbrean.

In any case, he was still a big vigorous bear of a man, and in his own quiet way just as testosterone poisoned as the other two. It came as little surprise, then, that when Adam looked at the clock, made a face and announced:

“Aww crap, time for my evening lift!”

“What…right now?”

“Yup, right now. Gotta stay consistent!”

Samuel was obviously eager to go play. “I mean…I’m as much a meathead as anyone, but…”

“Trust me,” Gabe added. “You do not want to meet Adam when he’s twenty thousand calories over budget for the day. All that energy’s gotta come out somehow.”

“I’m told I can be a bit intolerable,” Adam dead-panned. “Besides! You’ve never seen what I can really do. High time I showed you!” He grinned his evilest grin, and there was a brief interlude of ominous-hulk and the usual flexing. “C’mon! Leave the girls to the girl talk!”

All of them rolled their eyes at once, Marty included. Caveman. Well-meaning, but caveman. Adam didn’t notice as he was already squeezing himself through the door. Dad gave little Samuel one last rueful bounce before handing him to Mom and, with curiosity, followed.

Adam shot one last look for any other comers, and only Julian volunteered, bouncing heavily up off the floor from his somehow cross-legged spot near the TV. No volunteers from the Lads. They apparently felt they’d be getting enough come Monday, and besides: aside from maybe Firth or ‘Base most days, none of them were meatheads to anywhere near the same degree as Adam or Julian. Those two got along like a house on fire, really. With them gone for the moment, as well as one of their guests of honor, the rest of the Lads migrated outside to go stretch their legs, probably.

Marty had to admit, though: it was nice to have some of the male energy…gone for the moment. Well, yes, there was absolutely no escaping the way Adam ingrained himself on places, especially his own whole-floor apartment in his own apartment building, or even his fellow-caveman’s home…Well, okay, this was definitely Julian’s space on second sniff, but honestly at the level they played their grunty games, it was hard to really tell the difference.

Anyway. It was nice to have a break from it all, no matter how much she’d grown to love it.

“You married a caveman, dear,” Mom observed, with dry fondness. “With cavemen friends.”

“So did you. Why do you think I liked Adam so much?” Marty had long ago given up on being weirded out by the whole ‘women prefer men who resemble their fathers’ thing. Hell, she didn’t just double down on it, she went and picked a grunt who was basically an extreme exaggeration of Dad in almost every detail. Even the DIY bit, apparently; Adam hadn’t grown up a grease monkey or anything, but he was becoming an accomplished handyman maintaining his buildings and working on other projects, here and there.

“There are levels to this. Apparently.” Mom gave her squirming grandson a kiss on the forehead that promptly settled him right down. “Though, I remember him a lot shorter…”

“He was,” Marty sighed. “Not as thick-set, either. One of the consequences of the mission.”

“…Is he…okay?”

“Perfect health, yeah. Probably the healthiest man alive.”

“Not the same thing, darling.”

Marty never had been able to smuggle anything past her Mom. “He’s…lucky enough to get closure for the stuff that hurt him. In his case, being what he is means he’s uniquely useful. I’d say, with that and family, he’s in a pretty good place.”

“Everyone has their limits. You’re…sure he’s okay?”

“Mom,” Marty sighed again. “Whatever his limits, physical or otherwise, he’s not found them yet. Don’t underestimate my beefchunk. He’s got a lot to live for. I take care of my man, and he’s a man worth taking care of. You raised me right. And he takes good care of me, too.”

“…Thank you.” Some tension melted away, and there was a comfortable silence for a bit. “Well, certainly he’s given me healthy grandchildren! Diego is a terror.” She said it with the bottomless fondness only a grandmother could muster.

Marty laughed, and helped herself to another hot dog and some potato salad while she still had empty hands. All the HEAT-adjacent kids were out on the lawn. Most of them were about the same age, and Jess Arés had been overheard to comment gratefully that she was going to be firmly retired by the time they all landed on a classroom.

Where had all the time gone? Titan had found someone, and they had a kid on the way. Sikes had several that, well…he was being a supportive dad, at least. They were there, playing on the lawn, and he clearly loved them…but all four of them had different mothers.

Most of the Lads, though, had taken a good hard look at their jobs and realized that they were in a high-stress, high-involvement, high-risk job that demanded a particularly patient and understanding partner. Combined with their forever-21 bodies (and hormones), and the ample distractions Folctha had on offer for eager young men…

Most of them were holding off on having families until the mission was done with them.

The HEAT techs, though, they had bred a small army between them. Tisdale and Miller were the holdouts, weirdly. Everyone HEAT-adjacent shipped them, they were unquestionably together and madly in love, but for now at least, babies didn’t seem to be on their agenda.

Adam had been a wild child once. Well, still was, really; he wasn’t a man to be tamed, and nobody—Marty included—had ever managed such a thing. What she did instead was to give him her loyalty, and that was what he’d wanted more than anything else. She got it back tenfold, along with two strong boys so far and everything else he could provide. All that wild energy of his was still there, but it was completely focused on her, and on growing their family.

In any case, the Lads loved playing uncle to their personal army of rent-a-nephews. They and all the safely ambulatory kids were far down in the field, playing a ball game with no clear rules beyond that each of the players was riding a HEAT operator like a polo horse.

Even the almost cruel burst of training they were doing now had its cycle of effort and rest. Resting properly was essential to good training, after all. So, even in the midst of their their torture, they got the occasional weekend to let their bodies and spirits breathe before they resumed on Monday.

As always…they were making a frankly worrisome level of progress, especially her “Gordo.” The floors creaked subtly louder every day, his energy was well into the manic and unstoppable place she’d grown fond of and warily used to over the years…

Which was why she savored her free time. Her man took care of her like nobody else, but he was a high-maintenance guy himself. Such was the life of HEAT families.

Their get-together lasted most of the night, well past the time the families with children went home, or the kids who were staying were put to bed. The Lads drifted off toward Rooney’s around sunset—ever a pack of well-meaning hooligans—and the few who remained headed indoors to escape the night-rain.

Still. While Marty enjoyed her girl talk well enough, she wasn’t really…into that whole scene. At best, she could dip her toes in it for a bit, smile and enjoy things, but before long she’d want to be doing something decidedly more tomboyish.

Or at least, something with a bit less feeling. Rescue came in the form of Adam, who eventually returned with a blissed-out looking Julian, a proud-looking Gabe, and a thoroughly haggard and thunderstruck Dad.

“You weren’t too rough on him, I hope?”

“He’s a tough old man! He coulda taken a lot more I bet…”

Dad, himself a former Ranger and a devoted disciple of the iron, let out a plaintive groan. “Oh God please, no. I don’t think I’ve ever been tested that hard…ever.”

Julian chuckled evilly, while happily examining his rather impressively bulging forearms. “Oh, trust me, he was bein’ gentle. It is the weekend, after all. And hey! There aren’t many who could bench four-ninety-five at all, let alone that easily. I’d say you did pretty good!”

“I’m pretty sure Adam has dumbbells even bigger,” Dad said, gruffly. “And that you could probably curl ‘em without really noticing you were doing it, either.”

“Heh.” Julian chuckled. The quietly smug look on his face said Dad wasn’t off the mark at all.

“Anyway,” Adam bounced, “I thought I’d show you a little of what we get up to. Is it true you were thinking of moving out here? It’d be great to have you nearby…”

“It’s been a thought,” Samuel admitted. “We’re not sure we have the means, being honest. And before you say anything, don’t. We’ll do it on our own or not at all.”

“Entiendo,” Adam intoned. “Still, we do have some connections, and maybe you might be surprised how budget friendly things can be here…”

“…We’ll look into it.” That was the best his pride could do for now. Oh well.

“Anyway, I was sorta scheming to lift all night, but these guys persuaded me that was a bad idea—”

“Mostly, it was to escape your dungeon,” Gabe chuckled.

“—so we came by to save you from Xiù’s evil clutches instead,” Adam grinned, as Xiù threw a couch pillow at him.

“You wanna leave the kids here tonight?” Julian offered. “Be a shame to wake ‘em now…Or you two could use our spare room I guess…”

Marty slipped her hand into Adam’s. “A night off…sounds nice,” she admitted. “If you don’t mind?”

There was a brief, microsecond-quick look of knowing that flashed between all the men simultaneously, no doubt calculated to go undetected by the gentle ladyfolk present. Too bad for them, none of them were as subtle as they thought.

There were negotiations, checking that they’d brought everything they needed. One didn’t just drop a four-month-old and a three-year-old on friends and then skedaddle without proper planning, after all. There were logistics to consider. But, well, everything was in place, and they weren’t going to get an opportunity like this very often. The best thing to do was seize it with both hands, bring a thank-you gift along in the morning at pickup time, and reciprocate at some later date.

They walked home in the rain, young and wild for the night.


Date Point: 18y9m1w AV
Starship Drunker on Turkeyer, Relay system HIGHWATER

Lieutenant Jeremy Booth, JETS team 3

“So, no system field?”

“Just as expected.”

Well, good. They hadn’t come all that way for nothing. A system containment field would have ended the mission outright. After all, the one around Sol hadn’t gone away anytime in the last eighteen years, and Booth was prepared to bet a lot of work had gone into figuring out how to put it under human control and turn it off. That would have made some things a lot easier.

But from what little he’d gathered of the science, these Hierarchy relays were basically huge wave-making machines, and they totally swamped smaller and more refined ripples like, say, gigantic system-enclosing forcefield, planetary defence fields, farthrow generators and gravity spikes. That was the theory, anyway.

In practice, there could be other sneaky shit going on. Could be as they flew in-system, a field would come up behind them, they’d all be trapped like a fly in glue, have their brains raped outta their heads and then the Hierarchy would know everything they knew.

But, hey. New worlds and all that other boldly going shit, right? This was what he’d signed up for!

“In we go, then…”

Everyone on board was quiet, and keeping their voices low. They didn’t need to, obviously, but the mood kinda demanded it. They were flying into a hostile alien system, half the ship’s sensors were basically dazzled by the huge energy source on the planet in front of them, and the other half were the EM sensors that had an effective range of way-too-close-for-comfort. Like driving toward the sunrise on a one-track lane after snowfall, with no clue if some idjit was coming the other way.

Booth would have preferred to watch over Ankki’s shoulder, but their pilot tended to get irritable when that happened. And Ankki claimed to have been sired by the Great Father. Booth couldn’t see it in his size—in that regard, he was a perfectly normal if very fit third-degree, trending to an (actually pretty impressive) ottery muscularity rather than huge hulking kodiak bear—but in that ballsy aggressive attitude? Yeah, he could believe it.

So, instead, he sat down at the table and watched Taylor and Ryan go over the long-range optical telescope data. The marbled blue world they were looking at could have been Earth’s stunt double, but apparently they were finding some relevant stuff in some of the info on the side.

“Definitely stormy down there…”

“Right. Big ol’ alien gizmo pumping energy into the atmosphere, I guess…Gonna be a bumpy glide.”

“Yup.”

“Anything Ankki needs to know about?” Booth asked them.

“Nuh. Ship can handle it. Might even work to our advantage, if the atmo’s fucky enough. We’re pretty hard to see at the best of times, in the middle of all that?”

Ryan scowled suddenly, and pointed to a scrolling something-or-other. There was a huge red spike sticking straight up from a wobbly blue line of background noise. “Woah. See that?”

“Yeah…” Taylor was their sensor and drone operator, a veteran of special reconnaissance. Some of the new toys they had were basically wizardry, but Booth had been trained in their basic operation enough to follow him as he honed in on that spike, triangulated it, tracked it.

“…Ship. ‘Bout…fifteen to twenny thousand klicks up.”

“MPO patrol?”

“Prob’ly. We’ll know for sure if he ain’t alone…”

Medium Planetary Orbit patrol struck a balance between having enough altitude to see a big chunk of the sky, and low enough for a spread of ships and satellites to directly support each other.

Sure enough, more spikes yielded more contacts: twenty ships, or thereabouts, spread out in an even, tumbling pattern like a huge twelve-sided dice mid-throw. Santos let out a low whistle as he overheard that number.

“That’s…more ships than they’ve ever had in one place before, ain’t it?”

“Well, if they were ever gonna get serious, now’s the time…” Booth replied, nodding. But Santos was right: up until now, the largest realspace force the Hierarchy had ever been known to deploy had been a couple of ships. Suddenly finding an order of magnitude more waiting for them wasn’t exactly filling him with confidence.

But, Drunker had flown into denser danger before. Yeah, with a different pilot…

But theirs came highly recommended, too.

“There a way down through that lot?” Booth asked Ankki.

“Ain’t no such thing as perfect coverage…reckon they ain’t coverin’ the poles all the time. We’ll watch an’ see.”

“Right.”

Sure enough, Ankki turned out to be right. Booth’s first impression of a d12 being rolled had been wrong: each of the ships was on its own orbit, and each orbit carried it away from some of its fleetmates and closer to others, each one precessed and shift… The actual cage of coverage around the planet swelled and stretched on a steady eight-hour cycle.

Even so, there was never quite a moment when they failed to cover any part of Planet Highwater’s surface. Ankki’s guess was on the money—every few hours, there was a half-hour window where the planet’s polar ice caps were at an extremely oblique angle to the one ship that could see them at all, but that was as good as it got.

Was it good enough, though?

Tough call. The hardest part of a stealthy insertion by far was that a ship entering atmo had to shed energy. That part was non-negotiable, unless they wanted to slap straight into the bedrock at Mach 10. But, shedding energy was how ships got noticed. For two days they orbited at extreme range, unpowered, dark and silent, and watched as their opportunity never quite arrived.

Day three, though, brought something they could use in the form of a solar flare.

It wasn’t a big one. According to Taylor, it was the kind of stellar fart that G-class stars generated a couple of times a day on quiet days. But, it was headed in the right direction. In a few hours’ time, all that plasma would plunge into Highwater’s magnetic field, get drawn to the poles, and form quite a light show. Back on Earth, tourists would fly from far away to see the aurora, but here and now? It was concealment.

Ankki went for it. He slipped into the invisible river of charged particles and rode it down, while the ship politely warned them that its radiation shielding was now active, and Taylor’s sensors went blind.

The only thing to do was wait and pray. If they were unnoticed, great. If not…well, for what little comfort it offered, they wouldn’t know their death was coming, and wouldn’t feel a thing when it arrived.

But, that was a situation faced by many men before. Booth tried not to let the thought bother him and instead rode out the long approach and descent tending to the practical things.

They didn’t die.

The next order of business was waking up the cavemonkeys. They ate just an amazing amount of food, and would spend all day burning those calories away by lifting weights and wrestling if they didn’t have anything more important to do. Admittedly, the whole team was pretty restless like that, especially Ankki—otter-built and otter-strong, with the energy to go with it. But still: nobody else was such a terror they needed magic naptime.

Morl had a particularly smart kind of mischief in his soul, too. He exaggerated a huge yawn and stretch as soon as the stasis field turned off, as though he’d been asleep for a few days rather than skipping all that time in a finger-snap, then grinned at Booth. “We there yet?”

“Yeah, yeah, get outta the tube you big ham.”

Bang hooted as he ducked out of the slightly-too-small stasis cylinder. “Mmm…ham.”

“Might be some for breakfast, if we get through our prep.”

Morl pulled a face at the rush of their plasma halo past the window. “How protected is it?”

“Lots of ships in the sky,” Booth told him. “We’re not dead yet, so I’m guessing we slipped past them, but, no way of knowing what’s still waiting for us.”

“Lots?”

“Twenty, that we saw.”

They brought the monkeybros up to speed over, sure enough, breakfast with ham as Ankki leveled them out into the low altitude powered flight phase of their insertion, where the ship’s forcefields spread out into a huge, low-drag, high-lift pair of virtual wings that demanded almost no thrust at all to stay in flight, and whose wake would be imperceptible against ordinary background turbulence.

The local gravity asserted itself, too. The Ten’Gewek were pleased: Highwater was a good bit more massive than Earth. That seemed to be the trend for relay worlds, and one of their science briefs had said something about “resonant working mass” or something…

From what Booth gathered, the reason relays were built on planets was because they worked best in a gravity well. The deeper and stronger the gravity well, the better. But, obviously, you couldn’t build shit on a gas giant, so it had to be a rocky planet. And dense, high-G rocky planets that were still gentle enough to not pose insurmountable engineering and maintenance problems tended to be Earth-like deathworlds, so…

How much of the Hierarchy’s campaign of galactic genocide was just about protecting the worlds best suited for their needs? Killing off the competition, as it were? Maybe that was what they’d picked Akyawentuo for.

In any case, as Ankki turned of the ship’s gravity and let Highwater take over, the extra weight settled on them like a heavy blanket.

“Feels good, after weak grav tea. Should stretch out and get ready, yes?”

“Yup. Lots to do before we land…”

“Guys?” Ankki’s call didn’t sound troubled in a “we’re-all-going-to-die” way, but it did have a note of “oh-for-fuck-sake” in it. Booth ducked back through to look over his shoulder.

“Yeah? …Oh.”

“Yyyyup.”

They were flying over a highway.


Date Point: 18y9m1w AV
Belize City, Belize, Central America, Earth

Six

It had been a bad day for Doctor Tomasz Flowers. For a start, he’d died.

Really, Six reflected as he reviewed his newest host’s memories, it had been his own stupid fault. Flowers had neglected to check the weather before taking his boat out to do some reef diving, ignored the warning signs until it was too late and, well. The Earth had done what deathworlds did to those who failed to properly respect them.

It had been just the sort of opportunity Six’s ship had been waiting for.

With North America on perpetual alert, even an Injunctor’s excellent stealth systems had been inadequate. It had waited out its timer, searching for the chance to infiltrate that most strategically significant airspace and find a host for its Agent, but failed. And so it had expanded its search, tracked a single-occupant boat, noted the weather, noted the mortal peril of said occupant…

An opportunity. Thus, instead of being lost out at sea with no proper memorial and only the fish to nibble his remains, Doctor Flowers had been plucked from the waves, sedated, and modified to suit the Hierarchy’s purpose. He was a gruff, arrogant, bullying sort of man. Strong-willed and stubborn. Short on empathy, long on self-importance, rich in money, poor in charity.

Damn difficult to suppress, in other words. Humans often were.

Unlike his previous farmer-host, Six didn’t feel any pang of remorse or difficulty with this man. If the former had been a case study in what was worthy and redemptive about Deathworlders, quietly or otherwise… Dr. Flowers was not. The man’s mind was filthy, awash with predatory thoughts toward everything in a skirt. Austin had been powerfully attracted to women of course, but in him it was more…appreciative. Playful. Happy.

Flowers looked at women as prey. Conquests. Property. It was a subtle thing, because there were undercurrents of that in Austin, too…but never were they front and center. With Flowers, it was all…wives, mistresses, secretaries, pretty girls walking down the road who could be any one of the above if he flashed a little money…When he looked at a woman, he didn’t see a person. He saw something he could buy.

No, all things considered, by removing Tomasz Flowers from it, Six seemed to have done the Human race a service. Which he seemed to be in the habit of doing lately, no matter how much he wanted otherwise.

The Injunctor had dutifully recorded everything. Relevant media coverage, trends, opinion poll results, whatever it could glean of military movements and assignments…

Six reviewed them all while sitting in his host’s pleasant office, enjoying the air conditioning. By every metric, he’d failed. Failed, failed, failed. American support for the extrasolar war was up, almost to the levels it had reached at the height of Sartori’s popularity. Public confidence in jump travel was boosted, thanks to the efficacy of the safety measures at Grand Central.

There were some reignited divisions, of course. Mass shootings always polarized, and this time was no exception. But that hadn’t been the goal, and it was nothing the USA hadn’t chewed over a hundred times before.

No, it was clear. However hard Six hit them, humans just hardened up. The more he tried to weaken them, the more he tempered them instead.

Flowers had been saving a particularly expensive bottle of whiskey for a special occasion. Six drank a quarter of it, until the inebriation penetrated the barrier between biology and machine and interfered with his pattern too.

What the fuck was the point anymore?

He’d miscalculated at every step. Set the Humans on the path to finding the relays, only instead of the great reprogramming he’d envisioned that might ensure lasting peace and stability, now the Hegemony was probably being torn down in chunks. For all Six knew, he might be one of the last of his kind.

What could he even try next? Nothing. And even if there was something…Fuck it. Humanity didn’t need more of his help.

Fuck them. Fuck the Hierarchy. Fuck everything. There was no fucking point in any-fucking-thing any longer. The only thing left to him was…what? The body of a middle-aged dentist whose great ambition for this year had been finding a fourth Mrs. Flowers?

Oh, well, wonderful. He, an alien infiltrator and failed saboteur, could make it over the low bar of being a better human being than this serial adulterer. How wonderful. How absolutely fucking magnificent.

For a moment, the temptation pricked him to take the boat out again. How much more thoroughly could he lose? How much more was he willing to keep being a failure?

But…no. He’d have a victory of some kind. Six had existed for hundreds of thousands of years. He wasn’t going to just end now. Especially not now, when for all he knew, Igraen civilization consisted in its entirety of him.

Patience. Fuck it. Patience. He could be patient. He’d existed for millennia, he could endure a few human lifetimes, tucked away in backwaters. He could even be a good man, leave a legacy for each of his hosts. Perhaps he’d even find one he could have a symbiotic relationship with, rather than this.

There was no hope of any victory other than that, now. Humanity had broken free, had won, and had unleashed their fellow deathworlders. The galaxy would never be the same again. The disease was finally pandemic.

But, he could rob them of the vengeance they’d surely want, at least. And he could adapt, he could rebuild, he could be the seed for a new paradigm. There was still a goal to work for even if it was completely different to what he’d wanted.

He sighed, stoppered the bottle, put it away, and set about taking a good, long look at Tomasz Flowers’ life with a view to being a better man. And after that…well, he’d make it up as he went along. He’d be patient. He had all the time in the world.

Might as well learn how to use it properly.


Date Point: 18y9m1w AV
Freighter Stray Fortune, Tradelane near the Ink Spatter Nebula, deep space

Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde

Plastic.

There wasn’t a civilization in the galaxy that didn’t need it. It got everywhere, into everything. Its industrial applications were endless, its uses infinite and often irreplaceable…

And it was fucking difficult to make in space. Not impossible, according to Morwk—all you needed was carbon and hydrogen, really, which were about the most abundant things in all creation. But then you needed to bully them into forming long-chain polymers, and you needed to be able to mix in some oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and chlorine, and ultimately, It was so much easier, and cheaper, if you could just let a few million years of heat and pressure do the work for you deep beneath a temperate planet’s surface. That was why the Dominion existed, fundamentally: to regulate access to temperate planets.

Bloody astounding, really. Here they were in the fucking space-future, Ian was the captain of an interstellar cargo transport with a crew made up entirely of aliens, and it turned out crude bloody oil was still at the core of politics.

Or maybe not, for much longer. If the Entity they were going to meet lived up to its boast, it had invented a means of cheaply synthesizing plastics from the products of asteroid mining. And it wanted to share the technology with the allied species.

In return, it had requested payment in gardening supplies. The Stray Fortune was carrying a healthy supply of every kind of seed going, from corn and cotton, all the way up to maple and oak, and even Meeshi, Ketta, Cimbrean Pinkwood…not to mention compost, potting soil, bacterial and fungal soil cultures, earthworms…In short, everything necessary to kick-start an ecosystem in space.

Ian had no idea why a sentient Von Neumann probe would even want those, but it had been a small request for a potentially incredibly valuable piece of technology, so…here they were.

They were a long way off the beaten track. The area had been a spacelane once, centuries ago: the furthest outpost of the OmoAru empire had been here, near a dark cloud known as the Ink Spatter Nebula. But as the OmoAru declined, their facility had been abandoned, the spacelane clearing fleets had stopped maintaining it, and now…

Well, the interstellar medium was still much less dense along the old route than it was in uncleared volumes. They were making good time, probably wouldn’t need to stop and dump hull charge for another few days.

It was lonely going, though. The last warp contacts they’d seen had been a convoy arriving at Cimbrean. Since then, nothing. Certainly no sign of the friendly they were supposed to be meeting.

Still, the Entity had already achieved the impossible—it had got Morwk and Moj to agree on something.

“Still can’t believe your people unleashed something like that on the galaxy.”

“Evil thing, that. A pretend soul, split across pretend bodies. Shouldn’t be.”

Ian drummed his fingers restlessly on his desk and its relentlessly empty FTL sensor display. “Be fair, Morwk, we didn’t unleash it. It bodged itself together out of Hierarchy dataspace voodoo and Hunter ship parts.”

“Oh, wonderful.” The engineer made a choking, hock-up-a-wad-of-phlegm noise that was the Kwmbwrw version of a derisive snort. “The unnatural union of two galactic terrors, piloted by a mangled Human psyche.”

“Not a thought to buoy the soul, that,” Moj agreed.

Ian shrugged, and took a swig from his water bottle. “So it’s nightmare fuel. So what? There’s enough fuckin’ nightmarish things in the galaxy that want to eat, enslave or body-snatch us, so honestly I’ll take one that’s freaky but friendly.”

Two alien faces gave him their equivalents of a skeptical look, so he sighed and set the water aside. “Look, we haven’t even met it yet. How do you know what it’s like? Could be we’re about to meet the bestest new friends we could ever have.”

“Bruuk’s rubbing off on you,” Moj buzz-chuckled.

“Not if I can help it,” Wilde grumbled sotto voce.

From the front of the bridge, Urgug rumbled and flashed an amused shade of blue too. “No, no. Our dear Bruuk is far too slow to warm up. That was pure Wilde optimism.”

“What about you?” Wilde asked him. “Think we’re on our way to meet a monster?”

A thoughtful ripple of green glowed along Urgug’s face and flanks. “I think we are on our way to meet something…different. Strange. But a monster? A scourge on the galaxy? No less than organic life can be, and much less than some has been. I think it best to face new things without prejudice…though perhaps a little healthy caution.”

Ian shrugged. “Our bosses say it’s a friend. That’s good enough for…me…” his sensor console start pipping at him just as he was finishing the thought. A trio of small, intense warp contacts, coming in fast.

You could tell a lot about ships at FTL from their warp wake. Higher masses made a bigger distortion, slower apparent linear velocities diffused the wave. That was how small ships could sneak around at low warp undetected - below a certain threshold, the fluctuations they caused were almost impossible to pick out from the background ripples caused by planets and stars orbiting each other.

On the other hand, a low-mass object could achieve higher speeds for the same energy expenditure, and the resulting signature was “bright” on the sensors, small and sharp in a way that cut right through everything else, like the high note on a piccolo.

What fell in alongside them was a trio of…probes. Smaller than Ian had expected, each one only a few meters long, and they almost seemed to play alongside the Stray Fortune like dolphins. Up at the front, Urgug’s chromatophores went a confused purple.

“…We are receiving a communication, but I do not understand it.”

“Let me guess: two dots, a line, curved line?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a smile. It’s saying hello.”

“A…smile?”

“Remind me to teach you how to read English one day,” Wilde said distractedly, as he watched the probes spread out into a triangular formation slightly ahead of them. “Okay, so what are you…?

There was a shift, felt through his buttocks and the seat of his chair. Lots of things across the bridge started chirping in confused ways, Morwk among them.

“It just folded a whole new warp field around us. We’re travelling much faster. And…accumulating zero hull charge. What’s it doing?”

Ian grinned and relaxed in his chair. “It’s showing off.”

At their new, greatly accelerated pace, they shot straight into the heart of the Ink Spatter Nebula. From the inside, the gas and dust that had looked so impenetrable turned out to be, well…nebulous. The ambient particle count was surely way, way up on where it had been along the old spacelane, but not a bit of it reached the Fortune’s sensors.

“The briefing did not mention this…” Moj fretted.

“Just relax and enjoy the ride, mate.”

The ride, in fact, did not last long. Just as quickly as their accelerated sleigh ride had begun, the trio of probes in front of their nose slowed them. Urgug blinked at his console, then turned one eye to Wilde.

“It requests that we slow to sub-light, shipmaster.”

“Do it.”

They coasted in, dragged along by the probes, and then…

Mass loomed up at them out of the nebula. A small planet’s worth, in fact. The probes inserted them into orbit, then did a flourishy little twirl around the ship and sped away, leaving them parked.

“Huh.” Morwk sounded genuinely impressed.

“Not a bad ride, was it? Where are we?”

“It looks like our friend found a rogue planetoid in here and is using it as a charge dump. Clever. Nebulae aren’t navigable otherwise. So, it gets somewhere private that nobody will ever stray into, and the gas cloud conceals it.”

“Hmm. Big show of trust, that,” Moj scratched at his newest acid-etch. “Could just as easily set up a meeting far from here.”

“This could be one of many…” Morwk pointed out. “We don’t actually know how big it’s gotten.”

“Still, no need to let us see this. Showing us is a gesture. Trust. Welcome. Friendship.”

“Might be,” Ian said. “If it’s got ten others, this is just psychological operations. Doesn’t matter anyway, let’s make our transfer and get home.”

Urgug rumbled agreement. “There is a space station. Our orbit will intersect its in twenty minutes. I shall set up our approach.”

“Good man. I’ll go wake up Dora and Bruuk,” Ian hopped to his feet. But he spared a look again at the planet outside.

It was dark. So dark. The Ink Spatter Nebula was well-named: it had turned the whole sky almost entirely black, with only the sparsest scattering of stars making it through the dust. They weren’t orbiting a star, either: the planet they were above was completely rogue, wandering its own way through the galaxy on its own timetable. Its surface was as black as the void, invisible in the dark.

Even so, Ian wondered if he could detect light down there.

Questions for later. For now…they had a delivery to make.


Date Point: 18y9m1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao

Thurrsto, Champion of Clan Whitecrest

Early autumn on the northern plains meant storms. Nothing dramatic, just the kind of reluctant grumbling that manifested in open terrain when the land had started shedding heat in the long fall toward winter. The sky to the south-west was the hue of blued steel as Thurrsto’s shuttle made its final approach, and he stepped out onto the ancient High Mountain stones to the distant smell of rain and ozone, reinforced by a distant flash and, seconds later, a prolonged crackle. Flash of colors, a hint of vibrant red. Like many, it was his new favorite color.

It was a dramatic sight, and one that Thurrsto would have preferred to pause and appreciate, but the Great Father had barely returned from Akyawentuo before summoning him for a meeting. Thurrsto had been expecting it. He had, in fact, quite a good idea of how the next few minutes were going to unfold.

He wasn’t much looking forward to them.

Daar was on the roof of the gate tower appreciating the coming weather himself, and smelled much like he’d personally conquered an entire herd of angry naxas, having presumably tended to his stock before returning to the fortress. He was affable enough, but plainly knew that there was a solemn and unpleasant duty ahead of him too. They exchanged the usual pleasantries then got right to the point.

“I got a concern, Cousin. I see by the numbers, Whitecrest is reducing its opstempo significantly. I don’t need ‘ta remind ‘ya how now really ain’t the time, so…what’s goin’ on?” he tapped on the parapet next to him, inviting Thurrsto to lean on the stones.

Thurrsto did so. “Asset conservation. The Clan is…not healthy, at the moment.”

“Mhmm,” Daar grumbled. “I know that story.”

“The relentless pace of operations since the war started has taken its toll, and operations on Mordor in particular have been costly.”

“Lotsa that t’go around, Cousin.”

“And we were never a large Clan to begin with.”

“‘Yer talkin’ to the Champion-Emeritus o’ Stoneback, Cousin.” Daar grumbled with some grim amusement. “Lemme tell ‘ya ‘bout too few bodies.”

Thurrsto hesitated, knowing the danger he may be placing himself in. “…My Clan is in jeopardy, My Father.”

“…Ah.” Daar sighed, and thumped down to all fours. “That bad, huh?”

“That bad,” Thurrsto agreed. “With recruiting and opstempo as it is, it’s doubtful we’ll even last the duration of the current crisis. Not as an effective, useful Clan, anyway.”

“Thurrsto…I don’t think I need ‘ta re-iterate jus’ how fuckin’ badly we need that not ‘ta be the case. I can’t back off, not now. Way too fuckin’ much at stake. An’ things are ‘bout to get much more aggressive. Not today, maybe not tomorrow…but soon enough.”

“Which puts us in an awkward position. You need us. The Gao need us. And will always need us.”

“Assumin’ there is, in fact, an always. We’re pickin’ a fight with our gods, Thurrsto. That ain’t a fight you can walk away from.”

“No.” Thurrsto agreed. A wash of warm, fragrant air, laden with energy, plucked at his ears and crest: the storm was definitely getting closer. Apt. “Whatever the Clan can do will be done. I don’t hold out much hope for our long-term prospects.”

“An’ why is that, essactly? I can’t imagine a world where a Whitecrest ain’t drownin’ in Female attention…”

“There aren’t enough, My Father, and priorities change. Nobody wants to mother a cub who is likely to get himself killed in an unknown mission, unremarked and forgotten.”

“No,” Daar agreed, then padded slowly toward the staircase, with his shoulders lightly brushing along both walls simultaneously.

Thurrsto followed behind, and they found themselves in a courtyard, one with a small pond filled with colorful fish. As full-color vision spread among the gao, they’d realized to their astonishment that several native species had brilliantly iridescent scales, and were rapidly becoming a favorite for ponds and aquaria alike.

Daar contemplated his fish for a moment, before he looked back at Thurrsto and sighed. “Nevertheless, Champion, I need people to light that darkness.”

“And very soon, if things do not improve I may have none left to give you.”

“You are to ensure that does not happen, Champion.” That was the second time he’d been addressed by rank and title, instead of name. Thurrsto wasn’t dealing with his goofy friend Daar.

He was facing down the Great Father.

“I will, of course, do all that I can, My Father.”

“I know. Never once doubted it.”

Thurrsto was quite sure that he didn’t need to say more. He just needed to wait, and let Daar’s mind work. He was always quite deliberate when contemplating a distasteful situation.

“…I will keep this in mind, of course,” he offered, after some thought. “Mebbe we lean on the Grand Army more. Get some more use outta JETS, too. I ain’t keen on eatin’ my seedcorn.”

“Of course not, My Father.”

“But sometimes that’s what’s gotta happen, Champion.”

Well. He was expecting that. The Great Father would have what he needed, no matter what. So long as he understood the cost, that was all there was to it. Still, that left only one thing, and Thurrsto knew the answer before he even asked.

“My Father…my Clan is dying. We are not merely in jeopardy. We are in danger of outright collapse. We’ve been operating on negative attrition for several years now. Soon, I will start sacrificing my training cadre on missions, if this does not let up. Are we not worth preserving, or at least using more conservatively?”

“You ain’t alone in that, Champion. You’re tellin’ the story of all the Clans. Some worse’n others. Some more important’n others, too. ‘Yers is one I’d hoped weren’t in that list.”

“Hope is not a tactic,” Thurrsto retorted. “Right now, I face a simple numbers problem. Less recruits are coming in than we’re currently losing to retirement, attrition, or otherwise. I can’t solve that without something breaking.”

“Then go break something, Champion.”

Thurrsto was about to reply, when the idea suddenly struck him speechless. Of course.

Daar pant-grinned and idly batted at a fish in the pond. It escaped, probably because he wasn’t really trying.

“Well, way I see it? ‘Yer Clan put you in charge ‘cuz ‘yer well-equipped ‘ta break shit when needed, yijao? Ain’t many gonna stand up ‘ta you and say otherwise. So: I need ‘yer operators. I need more of ‘em than ‘ya can get right now. So, go break your problems. And be ruthless, Champion. It’s far better ‘fer a Clan to break from within.”

Daar was kind enough not to spell out the alternative. Friends or not…

Duty was a terrible thing, sometimes. But, Thurrsto had a direction now. He sniffed the wind a little longer, then stepped away from the parapet.

“I should get to my shuttle before that storm arrives.” It wouldn’t be unsafe, but it would be a bumpy and miserable ride.

Daar duck-nodded. “Prob’ly, yeah. G’on.” He turned away to pad to his next encounter. Before he left, he looked back and noted, “Try not ‘ta make the same mistakes I did, yijao?”

Thurrsto inclined his head gratefully, and headed down the other stairs, his mind already a-spin with thoughts, planning what he needed, putting the pieces in place. By the second flight down, his mind was properly organized. By the third flight down, he had his communicator in his ear. By ground level, he was giving orders.

He was going to owe Regaari a boon for requesting his presence at such a difficult and intense time. But he needed all the allies he could muster.

After all, they only had one shot at this. He wasn’t about to waste it.


Date Point: 18y9m1w AV
Council starship Rich Plains, Orbiting planet Perfection

Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight

Sir Patrick couldn’t have asked for a better backdrop to today’s deliberations than Perfection. Really, the world below them was a monument to the Interspecies Dominion’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses, all at once.

One of the most hospitable low-class planets in the galaxy had become an oligarch’s paradise, practically overnight. In principle, the planet belonged to the Vzk’tk Domain; in practice it belonged to corporations, who’d negotiated aggressively, bribed, wheedled, and even outright bullied the Domain until their rule was absolute, their territory sovereign and their legal restrictions flimsy at best.

The result was a world of curious extremes. The middle class, frankly, had it better than anywhere else in the galaxy. Perfection’s cities were beautiful, their towers gleaming and clean, their parks sculpted and perfect, their lights bright and vibrant. Perfection was an engine of technological and cultural wonders: its corporate research labs rivalled the Corti Directorate’s most esteemed colleges for groundbreaking output, and its media industry had their assorted misshapen fingers in studios even on Earth. Their combined output of games, music, literature, movies and other more esoteric media contained much that was garbage, much more that was merely industrial and soulless, and the occasional sparkling genius jewel.

Worker’s rights, though? Unions? Nonexistent. Biodiversity had crashed, and most of the surviving native species of fauna were now classified as vermin. The standard medical plan for much of the working class was to take out a pay-day loan and spend it on an interstellar ticket to some other planet. Home ownership wasn’t a thing at all.

One major thing had changed, after the Hunters raided. They’d dropped a few RFGs, flattened some city sections, then vanished while the Dominion military lumbered to catch up. They’d left behind a lot of reconstruction work, a lot of bodies, and a lot of angry shareholders demanding more effective protection for their investments.

Into the gap had stepped a human firm, Thermopylae Security Solutions. In Sir Patrick’s book they were mercenaries, but it didn’t really make a difference: they were veterans from Earth’s various militaries and security agencies who’d quickly figured out that their skills could translate to a fat paycheck in the interstellar private sector. And their presence meant that Perfection now actually had the fourth largest human population after Earth, Cimbrean and Lucent.

As to their quality…well. The Gao and the Allies had been choosy. TSS wasn’t so particular, but they at least did require physical fitness of their recruits, and a certain sort of commanding presence. But not much else. Basically they were big scary mall-cops, and some of them had once been in the presence of infantry. Maybe that wasn’t an entirely fair assessment, since surely there were standouts among them…

Nonetheless, it was difficult to give them much credit, when Sir Patrick had Righteous standing at his side.

“You aren’t your normal chipper self today,” Knight commented slyly. He already knew why.

“Sore as fuck, sir. I’ll be a’right. Anything we gotta be wary of today?”

“Probably not, but the beings we’re meeting today think they know what having a scary human around to protect them looks like. Considering what we need to persuade them of, I felt a little one-upmanship was in order.”

“That’s half o’ what a military’s always been about,” Righteous intoned sagely. “The big pretty bit’s not just ‘fer show.” He grinned and bounced slightly in place, wincing slightly and causing the deck to shudder more than usual. “…Takes a bit o’ work, though. An’ a sadist coach.”

Knight favored him with a friendly smile. “Well, I am glad for your services, then.”

He watched out the window as a series of shuttles slid past the observation lounge and toward the Rich Plains’ cavernous landing bays. Those would be the delegates from below, CEOs and corporate presidents and whatever other alien ranks and titles they claimed. One didn’t wage war without getting the captains of industry on board, after all.

Previously, the Great Houses had been the stickier obstacle. Now that they were part of the solution, the Security Council’s next concern was refitting, expanding and transforming the Dominion’s patchwork fleets into a modern fighting force that could go toe-to-claw with the Hunters and hold the line. Do that, and the Gao could focus their efforts more selectively, stop throwing their young males into the grinder.

But of course, changing the contracts wasn’t going to come cheap. If House Henen had been stubborn and thorny, Sir Patrick was quite certain the capitalists now joining them would be more pliable…but also sharper.

None of the shuttles, he noted, were standard mass-produced designs. Each was a statement. Yachts, as it were. Which was hopefully, for the good: a sufficiently large ego was useful, in the ring of diplomatic jiu-jitsu.

On the subject of making statements, all the council were getting in on the act too, including Kenshi. The ambassador was dripping with Gaoian finery: polished wooden rings on his clever paws, precious metals pierced into his ears and even beads and wire woven into the longer sections of his sleek, glossy black-and-tan fur.

Righteous saw right through it, and was taking full advantage of the less formal relationship they had, now that Knight was no longer an admiral.

“My, Kenshi. You got all dolled up for us an’ everythang!”

“I took some advice from Champion Sheeyo on how to make an impression with these people. And that’s rich coming from you,” Kenshi chittered. “We were lifting not an hour ago!”

“Won’t deny it,” Firth chortled. “Ambassador Knight wants me to look big an’ scary, so I look big an’ scary. Mostly though it’s ‘ta help with the soreness. ‘Horse decided I’mma beat his face in this year, an’ nothin’ piddling like my body’s limits are gonna git in the way, I guess…”

He seemed stoically resolved to his fate.

Knight had to admit, he’d done himself up too. He had a fresh, sharp haircut, his suits were newly tailored. He’d been keeping trim too, because…well, he was a Deathworlder, after all.

“Sad to say, fellows, but impressions do matter. Now let’s go make one, shall we?”

Sure enough, everyone on the ship seemed to have had much the same idea. Normally the council was a businesslike, working affair, the posturing done through rhetoric rather than costume. Today, though, each culture’s definition of finery was on display, and Sir Patrick was definitely the least ostentatious figure present. At least, at a glance. His display of wealth was in the quality of fabric and manufacture.

Others had a more flamboyant approach. The Rrrrtk ambassador, for instance, was wearing a formal hood of some kind, strung with lace and moonstone. Grandmatriarch Gewastwythmenw had a broad bottle-green collar draped around her shoulders and neck, intricately embroidered with the symbols of her Great House in gold thread. Third Director Tran was physically unadorned, but flanked by a pair of drones to hold up his long, wide and densely-packed personal banner like a portable backdrop.

Sir Patrick privately thought they all, with the possible exception of Tran, looked ridiculous and in need of a lesson in class. But he wasn’t about to let that sentiment escape the confines of his own skull.

He re-evaluated his opinion when the yachts offloaded their occupants, though. Next to the perfumed pomp parading in front of him, even the moonstone lace hat was practically puritanical. One of the shuttles even unleashed a cloying, overpowering wave of scented mist as it opened, and Knight heard Kenshi desperately fight down a retch.

The Qinis who owned that shuttle alighted with an epicene grace, surrounded by billowing fabrics so cunningly suspended by inlaid circuitry that she looked like she was floating underwater. She was shadowed by a small constellation of drones, most of them with no discernible function.

Righteous was an iron mountain of stoicism, with disgust coiling off him. Not even his most aggressively ugly shirts were a match. Those at least were humorous, and self-aware.

Frankly, the president of TSS, Steve Warren, won several points just by wearing a well-tailored suit with no unnecessary frills and classic black Oxfords. His shuttle was sleek and understated, the interior nicely upholstered…all in all, he clearly had some of the same thoughts about alien displays of wealth as Knight did. Promising.

By a long-standing bit of interspecies etiquette, each of the visiting businessbeings was entertained by their own species, once the mercifully brief welcoming ceremony was behind them. Given that there were no Gaoians among the visitors, Kenshi joined them too for a tour of the observation deck and the collection of Earthling plants and cultural artefacts—and what a nightmare figuring out whose cultures should fill those spaces had been—in the high-gravity zone toward the stern, portside.

Warren paused and made an appreciative noise as they stepped over the warning line on the ground and the familiar weight of 1G settled on them. “…Oohh. Damn. That feels good.” He shimmied his shoulders a little and basked in it for a moment. “I’ve been telling myself for a while I need to get G-plates for my apartment, this settles it.”

“It must be an effort keeping your staff up to fitness standards in lower gravity…” Knight ventured.

Warren glanced up at Firth warily. “Well, we’re not raising HEAT operators…but we do have facilities.”

“Do they include gravity plating?”

“Not yet. Think I might look at bringing it forward…” Warren bounced a little bit, then accepted Knight’s invitation to sit with a grateful smile. “After all, we want our guys fit. ‘Specially if our clients are gonna be scaling up and turning their own facilities into big juicy strategic targets.”

That just-noticed-the-world sense of novelty didn’t sound like what Knight wanted to hear, frankly. He’d need to discuss it later. In any case, they made small talk, established some working rapport with Knight’s insistence that Warren come visit later that night.

He was left with a mixed impression. Warren wasn’t unlikable, and in fact he had many of the qualities Knight would have looked for in a good officer. But at the same time, he gave the impression of not really running his operation to the gold standard. It wasn’t the lack of G-plating in their facilities and training specifically, it was just clear that Warren, while ambitious and competent, had never encountered real excellence.

Rough clay, but of a quality they could work with, therefore. Not as well-formed as Knight would have liked, but there was potential there even if they had further to go to fully realize that potential than was ideal.

Firth, of course, had a less charitable take once they’d said their farewells and left to prepare for the afternoon’s opening negotiations. The privacy screens around Knight’s office suite were barely active before the big man let loose.

“…Thermopylae? They named themselves that?!”

“It is a bit tryhard,” Kenshi agreed. “Even I know that Keeda tale.”

“Jesus Christ. Like…in the human race, I’m apex badass number two, right? An’ there ain’t many else who can whup me. Basically a couple’a o’ Gao an’ some Given-Men, mebbe. So how do they get off claimin’ the Spartans as their fuckin’ namesakes? Fuck that’s cringe.”

“They’re selling a product,” Knight pointed out. “Presumably they went looking for something that’s such a byword for competence that even an alien would know it.”

“Yeah, well, what they achieved is the biggest mess o’ phone-it-in I’ve seen in a while.”

“Do keep in mind, you represent an elite that a rare few can achieve.”

“Sure,” Firth maintained, “but I run a dojo, too. I know twelve-year-old boys and girls more committed to excellence than this. No grav-plating! In the modern world that’s step one!”

“Mm.” Knight decided a cup of something hot was in order. “Tea?”

“Only kinda tea I drink is harbor tea, sir.” Firth’s hyper-aggressive grin was there, of course.

“America’s greatest act of self-sabotage. Oh well, it’s a good thing we never sent you the good stuff,” Sir Patrick replied, and made three cups on principle.

“This must be some cultural joke I lack context for,” Kenshi prompted.

“Knight’s from a country that used ‘ta be our colonial oppressors. Then bald eagles happened and we made a bunch of harbor tea, and the best country ever came to be. No biggie.”

Kenshi’s ear flicked. “…My confusion is undiminished.”

“An entirely appropriate reaction to American silliness, I fear.” Knight chuckled. “Drink. I happen to know for a fact that Warhorse approves of the stuff.”

The fact was, his meeting with Warren had him feeling optimistic. The Dominion was getting serious about the war now, everyone could feel it. All the peacocking down on the landing bay had been one thing, but the fact was that the people who’d come up to negotiate with the council today were incredibly wealthy and powerful in their own right, and yet here they were. No silly games beyond the showing off, no senseless power plays…they were here for business.

Perfection was a once-damaged, now-mended jewel in the Dominion’s crown, and certainly one of its economic hearts. Today might be the moment that heart started beating faster. Businesses would never pump for anything but their own profit and greed, but they clearly saw an opportunity in the war. For the first time, a concerted effort to destroy the Hunters wasn’t a guaranteed loss-maker to them.

A future without Hunters was a future where ships and cargos weren’t under the constant low-grade risk of being snatched up and devoured. That was good for the bottom line. They could make a deal, of that much he was certain.

All that remained now, was making it a good deal.


Date Point: 18y9m1w AV
Hidden facility, the Ink Spatter Nebula

Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde

Gaoians couldn’t whistle. Their mouths were the wrong shape. So, their equivalent to a low, impressed whistle was a kind of deeper, more musical version of keening. Dora, surprisingly, could whistle, albeit at the back of her mouthparts rather than the front, so it sounded strange. It wasn’t a native Robalin vocalization at all, but the intent was clear.

Ian couldn’t blame either of them.

He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, exactly. Something purely functional, for sure. The Entity wasn’t a creature of matterspace, it wasn’t even technically a creature at all. What need did it have for pressurized, habitable spaces? What need did it have to make those spaces look nice? If its plan had been to make them feel welcome, then a lot less than…this…would have sufficed.

But…no. What the three of them had just stepped into looked very permanent, like it was the whole reason for the station’s existence.

They had found, for lack of a better term, a garden. Obviously there were no plants, not even any soil. All of that stuff was back on the ship, being offloaded by Dora’s drones. But they’d found the space where a garden would soon be, a well-lit oval void with many layers and terraces in sculpted, polished white concrete. There was a waterfall, which became a series of trickling brooks feeding a series of pools. All by itself, without any living things, it looked like an abstract artwork….but it was clearly intended to be a green and growing place.

“This is…I mean, if I was setting out to grow plants in space, this isn’t how I’d do it,” Dora noted, looking around them. “It’s the pretty way to do it, for sure, but it’s not exactly efficient…”

“Maybe that’s the point.” Ian replied.

“I thought we were dealing with an AI here? It’s a machine, right? Wouldn’t it be all about the efficiency?”

“Whatever did this has a soul,” Bruuk duck-nodded.

There was an amused, and very human laugh from behind them. “I certainly hope we do.”

They turned, and Ian came within a whisker of gawking. He’d seen the woman standing by the nearest pool many times. Seen her face, anyway: one of ESNN’s regular reporters, one of Folctha’s more acclaimed artists, a galactically famous photojournalist who convinced the Great Father of the Gao to do a nude shoot…

Just, somehow, not.

For starters, the real Ava Ríos wasn’t a transparent hologram. Nor, somehow, could he picture her wearing the flowing, diaphanous gown this version seemed to have chosen, redolent of the elves from Lord of the Rings.

The attitude was different, too. The one on TV was professional and serious, with slightly haunted eyes. This one looked serene, and playful.

It was all in the briefing, of course. How the Entity first came to be, how it was fundamentally a self-assembling dataspace being formed from the disjointed scraps of her archived mind-state. How it sometimes used her appearance, memories and imprint to facilitate communication with matterspace life. But that all sounded cold, like he’d be talking to an animated face with a flatly uninflected voice.

Nothing in the document prepared him for a drop-dead-gorgeous latina who looked him up and down and smiled approvingly.

Naturally, the next words out of his mouth were the pinnacle of wit and suavity.

“Uh…hi.”

“Hi.” She beamed at him. “Welcome aboard.” Her voice didn’t come exactly from the hologram, but instead from a perfectly cube-shaped drone about a foot above it, made a little tinny by its speaker.

Bruuk’s nose twitched, and he chittered deep in his chest. “Well, if that was the effect you were goin’ for, I’d say It worked.”

Ian felt a bit nonplussed. “What effect–?”

Holo-Ava, though, pulled a fist-pump and grinned. “Yes! Still got it!” She fought the grin down a notch or two when she saw his expression. “Well, for certain definitions of ‘still’ I guess.”

“…This isn’t goin’ how I thought it would.”

“No! This is more fun though, don’t you think? I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything to eat, but…well, you brought all our food with you.”

“Our?” Dora asked.

“Me and it. The Entity. It never did figure out that whole communication thing, so…you get me, instead. Well, I speak like we’re separate beings. We’re really not. Maybe the best way to describe it at this point is as two personalities inhabiting the same intelligence.”

“That’s new,” Bruuk grumbled. “How’s it goin ‘fer ‘ya?”

“Well…” She paused. “Pretty good, I think? I mean, if I was actually human I think I’d probably be screaming insane with existential horror? But why bother? I am what I am. I have human memories, like the feel of water, my first love, the taste of an apple…But I’ve also felt the sting of static discharge off my hull, listened to the music of stars and tasted a nebula. It seems like a fair trade to me.”

She gestured, and Ian realized a trio of chairs had swooped up behind them, including one appropriate for a Robalin. He glanced at Bruuk and Dora, shrugged, and sat. “I’m…glad you feel that way,” he said. “Uh…I mean, we just came here to drop off some things and retrieve that gizmo you talked about.”

“Sure. We’re printing some right now. They’ll be ready in a few minutes.” Holo-Ava took a few steps to her left and sat on the pool’s retaining wall. “But really, we wanted to explain why we asked for all the plant stuff and explain…well, we have some ideas for the future. It’s a long future, for the Entity and me, and, well, we don’t really want to stay hidden in the shadows forever.”

“Dunno if we’re the people to talk to about that, love,” Ian pointed out.

“Well, no, you’re not. But you’re here, and your job is delivering stuff, so…deliver a message for us, please?” She shrugged slightly.

Bruuk tilted his head curiously. “You sent a message ‘bout the trade you wanted to do…”

“Sure, but that was just, like, ordering some stuff. This is about…” Holo-Ava waved her hand around at the proto-garden around them. “Hospitality, I guess? And making an impression. And showing that we’re not just a crazy swarm of AI probes that nobody understands.”

“Doubt that impression’s gonna go away quickly.”

“Probably not,” she agreed with an affable shrug. “All the more reason to start working on it, right?”

“I guess…”

The Ava-avatar smiled, and indicated an approaching drone with a nod of her head. It was carrying glassware. “I can’t offer you juice, coffee, tea or whatever, but we do have water. Fresh from a comet.”

“Ooh!” Dora giggled appreciatively and poured herself a glass. “Fancy shit!”

“It is?”

“Oh yeah. Supremacy bigwigs always make a big deal about serving comet water at state banquets and stuff. Dunno why.”

“Napoleon used to serve his most important guests on polished aluminium plates,” Wilde observed, “back when it was worth more than platinum. Probably it’s a prestige thing.”

Ava shrugged. “Here, it’s the most convenient source of water we have.” She watched them drink with a definite air of trepidation. No need, there, the water was cold and sweet and refreshing. It was good water!

Ah. But she wasn’t worried about the quality of the drinks, was she? No, here they had a being who’d spent years lurking out in the dark doing nothing more than occasionally prodding humanity to say hi but mostly doing its thing in secret and then suddenly…this. An embassy in matterspace, cold water, a fountain and eventual garden, a carefully sculpted hologram in elegant clothes being the very model of a hospitable host…

The Entity wanted to come in from the dark and the cold. This was just…testing its footing. That was going to be a hell of a story to tell Daar and his people when they got back.

…Which was probably the real point of why they were here. Hmm.

They enjoyed some brief schmoozing. There wasn’t a lot of the station to tour—most of it, apparently, wasn’t ready for organic guests—but the Ava-Entity-Hologram had some pretty incredible renders of what the garden space would look like when it was all planted up and finished.

They won an instant friend in Dora by gifting her one of the gardening drones. It’d be useless outside of the Entity’s control sphere, but the tiny, skittering robot was weirdly charming. Kinda like a little steampunk crab.

The actual transaction of leaving the gardening supplies and taking on the synthesis equipment passed quickly, and from there it was back out into the black. They were guided out of the nebula’s smothering embrace under the escort of three more of those little warp-drones that Ian now privately thought of as ‘dolphins.’

All in all, it left his brain working overtime.

The journey back was…anti-climatic. The crew had went off to their individual distractions after dinner, which left Wilde and Bruuk alone to do Deathworlder things. Here, that meant some exercise (which today was high-intensity intervals, where Bruuk was absolutely kicking his arse), and later, an evening of videogames where Ian could turn the tables a bit.

It had been exactly the right kind of grueling, really. The weight wasn’t too heavy—well, Bruuk used at least four times more for his work, which was saying something since Ian was linebacker-big, in considerably better conditioning, and damn good at the iron game these days. Not that it mattered, since the intensity and the volume and the pace of it had Wilde reduced to something akin to pudding before they were even a half-hour into their workout.

Two hours later, they’d gone straight into some cardio for cool-down, where he’d managed to recover some of his dignity. Just a little, though: Bruuk really was a ridiculously good athlete.

“Just wanna check somethin’ with ya,” Bruuk rumbled, round about the third lap around the ship.

“What?”

“Y’know she’s a hologram and you can’t fuck’er, right?”

Ian snorted, and swatted Bruuk on his legitimately knuckle-brusingly hard shoulder; the big guy was loping along on all fours, of course.

“Mate, I may be dense ‘bout this sorta thing, but even I’m not that dense.”

“Jus’ checkin’.”

“You’ve got a one-track mind, pal.”

Bruuk’s reply was to chitter and sprint down the hall like a cheetah after an antelope. Being a hefty Gao, his movement was definitely more bear-like than feline…but he could move blindingly fast and, as Ian learned to his cost, do intervals all goddamned day long. Having blinked to the far end of the corridor, he slammed into the wall, turned around like a pouncy cat, then galumphed his way back to Ian’s side, panting crazily.

Ian was happy to let him have his fun. Bruuk had some pretty impressive endurance, but Ian could force-march for days if he had to. He doubted the big bear could match that.

…Probably.

“Mostly I’m just thinking about how I’m going to report this…” he said, taking a moment to pause and catch his breath at the far wall. “What’s it going to mean when that thing is in our fleets? Is it gonna give us robot ground troops? Or is it just gonna be a whole series of sapient factories?”

“Bit above our pay grade, ain’t it?” Bruuk panted.

“Still makes me think. And wonder, too. I mean, she seemed happy enough being what she is. I wonder if anyone would ever want to join her?”

“What, voluntarily?” Bruuk’s ears plastered themselves to his skull. “Fuckin’ insane.”

“You heard what she said. They’ve got a long future ahead. Could be there’s people out there who’d view a fate like that as better than dying.”

“Crazy fuckin’ idiots, maybe.” Bruuk shook himself slightly. “She ain’t alive. She ain’t even real. She’s a copy of a livin’ person bein’ used as a translation app, nothin’ more.”

“Guess I know where you stand on it, then.”

“Well, whaddya want from me?! I’m a simple kind o’ ‘Back, yijao? I lift things, I cook things, I fuck pretty people…”

“…You put your pants on one leg at a time…”

“Naw. I don’t wear pants! Maybe shorts. Ooh! I can wear a good work-kilt now! We’re allowed once we complete the First Ring.”

Ian gave him a patiently impatient look. “I think you’re missing the point of the idiom.”

“Deliberately! ‘Cuz you think too much, an’ we’ve got six laps left to go!”

“Don’t get jealous just because you can’t think and run at the same time.” Ian grinned at him, pushed off from the wall, and resumed his jog.

Maybe Bruuk was right, maybe he was thinking too much, but…well, why not? He had that luxury, now. His job hadn’t exactly been brainless before, but it had been focused. Now, he had time to actually spread his wings and let his brain work on more than the task in front of him. And he was learning that he liked it. He enjoyed trying to fit things into a bigger picture and make sense of them.

Mudfoots gettin’ aspirations. Frightening.

He chuckled to himself, and followed Bruuk’s advice for now. Just jog, and be. He could grapple with the universe some other time. Now was for honing his body and emptying his head so he could refill it later.

But he did know one thing: he wanted to go back and see that garden, when it was finished.

Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too long.


Date Point: 18y9m1w1d AV
Unexplored planet, relay system HIGHWATER

Lieutenant Jeremy Booth, JETS team 3

If Booth had ever needed to look the enemy in the face and see their works, well…here it was.

The natives of this planet had been somewhere in the middle of the nuclear age. mid 1960s, or thereabouts. The aesthetic was different, but the tech? A dead ringer. The highway they’d found had been choked with vehicles, most of them quite rusted, but intact enough to check under the hood. They’d had a thing for mounting the engine at the back, apparently, but fundamentally, what Booth found when he inspected one would have been an open book to any mid-century classic car enthusiast.

Poor fuckers had built to last, clearly. Though, the arid climate had probably helped preserve things. They were out in scrubby desert, kinda like Arizona. Enough water around to irrigate and raise livestock, but it all flowed in from somewhere else. Booth doubted if the place saw rain more than a handful of times a year.

The air was still, too. The rolling terrain and valleys were good for Drunker on Turkeyer to navigate low and slow and stay beneath notice, but they also baffled the wind and kept it down to a slight, hot, static-charged breeze at most. The alien highway’s surface was buried under a half-inch of fine dusty sand, but the railings, concrete dividers, the vehicles and signage all still stood, worn and neglected, but proud.

The vehicles were totally log jammed, packed bumper-to-bumper on the arterial roads out of the cities. Or, out of the nuclear craters where the cities had been, anyway. The cars, road signs, text and numbering might all be alien, but the sense of panic reached across time and species. These people had survived something terrible, and got themselves trapped as they all tried to take their families and get someplace, anyplace, safe.

Instead, something had strafed the roads, eating up the fleeing civilians like a vacuum cleaner running over spilled cereal. A good half the rusting alien cars had clearly been smashed from above with plasma weaponry. Greenish blooms of condensed copper salts were embedded in the shattered wrecks.

The natives had fought back, valiantly. There were tanks along the roadside, blasted open like someone had taken a fifty cal to a soup can. Sad piles of bones lay in the dirt nearby, alongside a collection of rusted scrap that could only be helmets and rifles, buckles, magazines, and all the tools of the poor bloody infantry. Not perfectly humanoid, but that didn’t matter to Booth. He’d have felt just as sober, and just as cold, if they were National Guard.

Morl’s tongue lashed the air. “This was not long ago. Still taste bones on the air.”

“It’s been long enough,” Booth knelt to inspect a skull. Two eye sockets, nasal cavity. Sharp serrated teeth and a protruding jaw. Bit of a sagittal crest, which suggested they had a pretty impressive bite force. No big monkey tail on the nearby skeleton, and what looked like cloven feet, maybe? “We’ll know for sure how long in a few minutes…”

They’d flown over the city ruins and scanned them for the elemental byproducts of radioactive decay. While Drunker chewed over the results, they’d come out here to check for any signs of living scavengers picking over the wrecks…without success. The only sign of life was a herd of some vaguely goat-ish critters, grazing on the sparse shrub at the road-side and keeping a wary eye on the strange visitors. The bones had been scattered by scavengers, chewed open in several cases, but the vehicles and their contents were untouched. Blankets, tools, spare parts, gas cans and water carriers…even rations. All the things that desperate survivors would have clawed for with both hands after the apocalypse were here, untouched and decaying.

Nothing sapient had come this way since the slaughter.

Time to move on. The ship was at its safest and most silent while airborne, and they’d lingered long enough. They bundled back up the ramp, spared a last glance to the fallen warriors by their ruined tanks, and dusted off.

“Still nothing,” Taylor reported, as they parted ways with the ground. He’d been listening for radio signals, not that any of them expected to hear any. The Hierarchy would presumably have ruthlessly tracked down and expunged every such beacon long ago. “Just Big Hotel signals.”

“We got a timeline for when this happened?” Booth asked, sitting opposite him.

“Drunker reckons two to three hundred years since the bombs.”

Booth nodded. And somehow, he just couldn’t picture the tanks he’d seen outside taking down even a single Abrogator. The extermination campaign had probably been quick. “Morl said he could taste bone on the air.”

“There’s a couple million dead people out there, sir. Place is gonna taste of bone for a long time.”

“Gonna be hard to say for certain that there’s nobody out there, though. There could be small groups, hiding in caves or whatnot.”

Teemo tilted his head. “For hundreds of years? The Hierarchy are patient and thorough enough that I doubt it…”

“I doubt it too. But do we doubt it enough to drop the bomb and risk finishing the job Big Hotel started? Nah. This one has to go higher.”

That settled it, really. The question was too big to answer with a cursory glance. They’d need to get a surveillance constellation into orbit and spend time really looking over things.

“How’s our egress lookin’, ‘Badge?”

Ankki really hated that nickname, and growled threateningly about it; no doubt there would be retribution later. For now, though, he remained professional. “Still no farthrow field an’ never will be unless they shut down the relay, which they ain’t gonna. We can jump out any time we like. You wanna leave all quiet-like, though, that’s extra.”

“Well, let’s consider our orders. We can’t just drop the bomb unless we’re certain there’s no sapient life on planet. We can’t know that until we do a survey, which requires satellites, which requires time. How long, considerin’ how careful we gotta be?”

Ankki scratched his muzzle thoughtfully as he ran an eye over the orbiting Hierarchy ships. “…If we wanna safely launch the sats, we gotta do it when those ships are low on the horizon. Pref’rably below it. Only place I’ve seen that happens is the poles, maybe once a day. Better break out the cold weather gear, I guess.”

Booth looked back at the rest of the team. None of them were much looking forward to Hoth-type fun, especially the monkeymuscle. Still…

None of them were gonna go back to Costello (and by extension, his bosses) without being absolutely sure. The monkeys especially would be adamant on that point.

After all, this hit very close to home for them.

“…Right. Well, let’s get on with it, then.”

“Rog.”

Booth nodded, and headed back to the cargo area to unpack the arctic warfare stuff, the ground-to-orbit mortar, and the sats. He spared a last thought for the scene they were leaving behind, though. Up until now, the enemy’s global extinction campaigns had been kind of abstract for him, the devastation they’d caused in San Diego, Chicago and Franklin galling and infuriating rather than crippling. They’d stung humanity, stung the Gao worse, and nearly killed off the Ten’Gewek, but…

But seeing a squad of mechanized infantry left unburied where they fell, their bones bleaching in the sun hundreds of years after the last of their race probably went extinct? That firmly drove home the point that Humans, Gao and Ten’Gewek were exceptionally fortunate. Thousands of other species, trillions of souls, had not. The abstract was now very real.

And he honestly didn’t know which he hoped for more: that by some miracle the natives of this place were still hanging on somewhere, or that they weren’t and so Big H could receive the kick in the dick they so richly deserved.

Either way: mind on the job.

He pulled the crate out of the rack, and started unpacking.


Date point: 18y9m1w2d AV
Whitecrest Clan Headquarters, Gao

Thurrsto, Champion of Clan Whitecrest

Whitecrest was…struggling. That was about as strong a word as Thurrsto would be willing to commit to out loud. In the privacy of his own mind, however, the more realistic assessment was that his Clan was in serious danger of collapse, and he didn’t know if he could “break” it into something better, as the Great Father required.

They were over-extended, overworked, understaffed and fatally short on recruits. Standards couldn’t be lowered, and they were facing extreme competition with the likes of One-Fang, Firefang, Silverpaw and Straightshield, to name a few, not to mention the Grand Army itself and the endless opportunity workhouses presented. Joining a Clan was…intimidating, and lots of young, upcoming Gao were aware of the dangers being in a security-focused Clan could mean.

Their air of intrigue, mystery and suavity had been a boon, before. It meant that those approaching the Clan wanted to be what Whitecrest was, and the Clan could focus its efforts on educating them rather than motivating them. But now?

Now, there just weren’t enough Gao. Especially not young males looking for a way to stand out from the crowd.

That meant only one thing could be done: reconsider what it meant to be Whitecrest.

Whitecrest’s senior Fathers—those who’d survived the purge, at the outset of the War—had been in denial about it from the word go, since before Thurrsto had broken Genshi and ascended to the Championship. It had been an arduous task of gentle persuasion over many years. First he had to convince them to broaden the breed standard. He himself was an atypical example of a traditional Whitecrest after all, and so had been Genshi before him. He was naturally broad-shouldered and stocky, even with a silky pelt. High-degree, too. Once he had even been considered an “ugly” Whitecrest but times had changed, and now…well, he was blessed with a busy social calendar. Proof that such things weren’t set in stone, to say the least.

From there, it was a fight every step of the way. Getting them off the breed standard was just the start. They had to expand their definition to include a wider range of personality types, for the wider range of work they found themselves doing now. Whitecrest had too many missions it had to perform, too many environments to infiltrate across the galaxy. Young, capable brownfurs needed more than token associate status to attract them nowadays. Acute shortfalls in all the traditional Clans and workhouses meant a young male had his pick of destinies.

Already, he’d survived three challenges to his authority because of his relentless drive. He wanted to re-define Whitecrest as a state of mind more than anything else, and the most senior Fathers were having none of it.

He’d broken the last Father to challenge him, and done it in council. The previous two, he spared their lives. This time…he ensured the message was understood. Even his most senior Fathers needed reminding of the stakes. Hopefully, one demonstration would be enough.

Damn it, they couldn’t afford the brain drain of losing senior Fathers, but they could afford idiocy even less. Either way, it was more weight on the wrong side of the equation, dragging the Clan down.

And, of course, now he had made enemies in his own council. Having proven the direct path was of no use, now Thurrsto had to be wary of subtler dangers to his person. They were, after all, a Clan of assassins and spies. In more secure times, such games would even be good for the Clan’s long-term health. But now? In the face of everything else?

Time to level-set. He called a Congress of Fathers, the first full such congress in the Clan since the War.

They all attended, as was required. Even so…it was dismaying how few were gathered. Between war losses, infiltrations gone wrong, and the sheer demands of their role, Clan Whitecrest was running badly short on Fathers. And the number that Thurrsto could trust without question was down to…a pawful. Regaari and Garaaf as his closest agents. A few more who had proven themselves loyal.

Against him was a larger retinue of the carefully neutral, and a plurality of the openly hostile.

Not a single hostile muzzle without a little grey on it, though. Perhaps that was good, a clear indicator that his opponents were aging and out of touch. On the other hand…old Whitecrests were an especially rare and well-honed breed.

“I won’t waste your time,” he said, striding into the chamber once everyone had arrived. “You are here because Whitecrest is facing a crisis. Father Tarrek, what are our recruiting numbers for this quarter?”

He was one of the very few old guard that was firmly on Thurrsto’s side. Tarrek was an absolutely impeccable example of the old breed standard, too. Lithe, agile, strong and hardy in a discreet way. Every move of his was supple and ready, a predator born without necessarily showing it to the unwary. The crest between his ears was as white as fresh snow, and groomed to a razor-sharp peak. “My Champion. Last quarter, five hundred and seventy-seven hopefuls met the First Rite. Of those, five hundred and forty-eight survived, and are progressing through their training. We expect up to twenty percent of those to fail in the next year. Now to be fair to the young ones, they are all high quality recruits, so we may see more success than average…”

“Before the War, what was our intake?”

“…If it were merely triple, My Champion, we would consider it a crisis.”

Thurrsto duck-nodded solemnly. “Father Garaaf. Among our qualified Brothers of the Rites, what is the current rate of attrition?”

Garaaf had that information memorized. His coarse voice recited the list to the silent room. “Last quarter: Retired due to old age—two hundred and eleven. Retired on medical grounds—one hundred and sixty-eight. Fell in the line of duty—thirty-eight. Accepted the Cut of Shame due to improprieties—three. Met the Great Father’s justice…one. Total count, four hundred and twenty-one.”

“Father Regaari. You have prepared some projections for us?”

Regaari in particular looked haggard and exhausted, though he was doing more than most Gao alive could manage to not show it. It was genuinely astonishing he’d found time to attend amidst his HEAT duties and their ongoing training campaign. Thurrsto of course kept up on his team training, so he too was suffering under Warhorse’s scrutiny…but he didn’t have a major mission ahead of him on top of everything else.

Just the weight of a collapsing Clan.

“Yes, My Champion. Even with the expanded recruitment drive and qualifications you’ve mandated, we are currently at rough breakeven for personnel. The long-term trend is slow attrition, with an expected acute shortfall of experienced Fathers…in less than ten years, notwithstanding longevity treatments.”

He had graphs and charts. A necessary evil. The Humans called it “Death by PowerPoint.”

It was a grim graph. Behind them in time, the cliff that marked the opening days of the homeworld war, when so much of the Clan had been torn apart by biodrones, or had been biodrones themselves. Ahead of them, a long slow dwindling, with the yellow that represented their most experienced and senior members vanishing first, followed some years later by the blue that represented everyone else.

In other words, at the current rate of replenishment versus attrition, Clan Whitecrest had one generation left to live.

Thurrsto let the numbers sink in for a moment. Nobody said anything, though there were some grim, unhappy ears among the older fathers.

“I will not insult anyone’s intelligence,” he announced. “You can all read our fate as well as I. Our mission is only going to grow more demanding over time, too. Father Garaaf’s new assault teams require significant investment in young new ‘Crests, and already we’re struggling with brain-drain among our other departments. You know this. You all know this. So why, then, do I encounter such fierce resistance to the basic, obvious changes we must make?”

He swept the room, sniffed. Singled out one of the more tenacious burrs in his fur, and spoke to him directly. “Father Tenfu? I know you must have some opinion. I want to hear it.”

Tenfu tilted his head at Thurrsto curiously for a second, then glowered at the charts still on the wall screen.

“A Clan is more than just numbers,” he said. “It is traditions, a breed standard, a convention and an identity. Lose those, and you lose the Clan just the same as if you lose all members. All I see here is that our Clan is doomed no matter what we do.”

“Yes,” Thurrsto agreed affably. “And by that breed standard, I shouldn’t be a Whitecrest at all. Save for my fur, in what way does my body conform? Does my temperament match that received wisdom? And yet, here I am, elevated by my own merit and by the Clan’s nomination directly. What say you when the Clan’s paragon defies tradition so thoroughly?”

Tenfu visibly worked up his courage, and then stood. “I would say, respectfully, that you are far too eager to embrace your own deviancy. We have a breed standard for a reason. We bred ourselves away from Highmountain and Stoneback for a reason. You, for all your good qualities, represent a significant retrograde to a more brutal time, and a more direct mission. Of course you won the Championship, and of course Genshi before you did; the duel is an ancient custom that favors those such as you. For generations we have strove to shape ourselves to a purpose, one where subtlety and discretion was our hallmark. But now? We are almost back where we started. We are becoming brutes, just as the Hierarchy wanted.”

No agreement was voiced, no nodding or wagging tails, but nor were there any growls, flicked ears or calls of dissent. These were Whitecrests, after all, and despite Tenfu’s accusation, restraint and calm were still hallmarks of the Clan. The silent signals of approval or disapproval were much subtler among them.

To Thurrsto’s mild surprise, though, there was little rancor here. A difference of opinion, certainly, but Tenfu was not being hateful. He was simply advising his Champion.

“We live in brutal times, Tenfu. Did you forget to whom I exposed my throat?” Thurrsto held Tenfu’s gaze for a second, then flicked his ear and indicated Regaari’s chart. “No identity is static and unchanging. Remember: on our creation we were brownfurs. Our Clan has evolved much since the days of Fyu and the onset of our industrial age. And now, with this population crisis, the recruiting pressures, the dire need for mission success…we only have the traditions we can afford, Brothers, and our bank accounts on that score are empty. Literally, too. We are running out of time and resources. Better to change than die, yijao?“

“Everything dies, My Champion. The choice is whether to die true to ourselves.”

“If you speak for yourself, that is fine. I do not. I speak for the Clan, and I—we—owe allegiance to a far greater power, one who owes no idealistic fealty to any such notion. The Gao will survive and Whitecrest, as we have done many times over the centuries, will adapt. Our Father has need of what our Clan can do. We have a duty to the future of our species to meet that obligation. And what, I ask you, is more central to Whitecrest than our duty? We light the darkness, that others may never fear it. We keep secrets, because they are a burden. What does my bench press have to do with either of those? Or a young recruit’s coloration? How much have we lost the plot when I, Champion of Whitecrest, am a non-conformant exception because my crest is too tall? When did we forget the breed standard was about ability in body, mind and soul? Since when are we like Straightshield, breeding for indistinguishable Judge-Fathers?”

He shook his head solemnly. “The mission comes first. Our duty comes first. Perhaps in due time we will afford to uphold the same standards as before. Here and now, we have a war to win and a foe to destroy, or else all the Gao may die. If that changes us, then so be it. History is written by the survivors and the victors.”

Silent, thoughtful heads all around the room. Satisfied, Thurrsto picked up the printed copy of their breeding and induction standards that he’d brought with him as a useful prop. It wasn’t a slim document, either. Every last detail was specified and uncompromising, from form, posture, gait, temperament, measurements of aptitude and arm length, of genes and personalities…The same elite standards that had made Whitecrest so fearsome. The book was at least as thick as his own considerable forearm.

He tore it in half with a snarl.

“The only way we survive to do our duty in any capacity is to break, and change,” he said, dropping the scraps theatrically back onto the table. “I’m not unsympathetic to the objections of our Brothers and Fathers. There is much here that is valuable. But…it presumes resources the Gao no longer have. The Gao are changing, the available males are of a much different character. Many are combat experienced, yet more jaded. Mass warfare has rendered our old strategies moot. Therefore, we will change, and that starts with replacing this tome.”

“I intend,” he added, “to do so with your input, and with a mind to preserving as much as we can of our traditions without compromising our fitness to survive and contribute to this war. If that is unacceptable to anyone here, if you prefer to retire rather than assist in this reinvention, I will accept your resignation…on the condition that you deliver it to the Great Father. Personally.”

Daar, of course, would accept it. And do so graciously, with fond well-wishes.

Nobody in their right mind was brave or shameless enough to do such a thing. Across the table, Tenfu stared sadly at the broken documents, sighed, and stiffened his back. Inwardly, Thurrsto let out a sigh of relief that he didn’t allow to reach the surface. Of all the people in the room, Tenfu was the barometer. The fact that he now looked and smelled resolved, rather than crushed, lit a new spark of optimism in Thurrsto’s chest.

Garaaf stepped forward and dropped a new, blank document on the table, took up a pen, and set nib to paper. A well-judged nod to the old-fashioned approach.

“We should begin, I think, with our baseline,” he rasped. “What is our new minimum standard?”

“More to the point,” Thurrsto suggested…

“…What is a Whitecrest?”


Date Point: 18y9m1w2d AV
North pole, Unexplored planet, relay system HIGHWATER

Lieutenant Jeremy Booth

Arctic winter. Abstract words, until a man experienced what they meant in person. In this case, they meant a combination of permanent dusk and wind-whipped razor-sharp snow that made it hard to even tell up from down. There was no horizon, there was only the snow. There was no frame of reference, except for the ship and its dazzling lights.

There was only the cold, which would have sliced across Booth’s skin like a potato peeler if he’d been stupid enough to leave any exposed. The underlayer he was wearing had pockets for chemical hand warmers and he still felt chilly, especially in his fingers and boots.

“We’re—nff—a long fuckin’ way from Kansas,” Taylor commented. They were struggling with the ground-to-orbit mortar, which needed to be well clear of the ship and properly secured on level ground. The packed snow all around them was fairly well perfect, but between the howling wind, the sandpaper ice it carried, and recent hip-deep snowfall, the simple job was not so simple. They were having to dig out a clear patch, which the wind kept trying to refill.

Morl and Bang were definitely suffering. “Just…shut up…’n dig…” Bang growled. Ten’Gewek did not react well to cold weather.

It didn’t take long. The monkeybros blurred up to the ship to get the mortar plate from storage, ran back out, and emplaced it faster than Booth had ever seen done by anyone, ever.

…Dang.

“Alright, go warm up,” he told them. “You too, Santos, check ‘em over.” The last thing they needed now would be frostbite.

Gaoians handled the cold better, though Teemo’s muzzle was still wrapped up to protect his sensitive wet nose from the ridiculous chill. He had the satellite rounds on a makeshift sled, and was hauling it from the ship by his harness.

Really, the humans could have done this by themselves. Nobody on any JETS team was little. They were all big damn dudes and could athletically humble operators the world over. But still, even with that, it was better to get the job done as quickly as possible.

Time saved in setting up the mortar meant more time to program and fire it before their window of stealth closed, which meant more satellites. Each one was going into a polar orbit, precessing slowly around the world. Even if they only launched one, it’d eventually map the whole thing…but ‘eventually’ wasn’t the goal. They wanted a good look, and quickly.

In the end, the mortar sent twelve of them streaking upwards in flashes of blue light that lit the blizzard like lightning strikes. Not the ideal number, but acceptable, and all in the deepest, most secure moment when all the enemy’s ships were at the wrong angle.

Even so, they disassembled the mortar and heaved it back onto the ship as quickly as they could. The ramp closed, sealing out the frigid climate, and they lay on the nice, warm deck to gather their breath as Ankki got them the hell out of there.

“…That…really fucking sucked…” Bang opined, after a few seconds.

“It was bracing!” Teemo retorted. “Really let you feel the air!”

“Oh shut up you talking husky…” Ryan groaned.

Teemo’s answer was a good-natured growl and a chitter. He rolled to his feet, shook some snow out of his fur, then stood. “How are we doing, Ankki?”

“Telemetry looks good!” Ankki called back. “We should have a full global survey by this time tomorrow.”

“Good,” Booth said. “Let’s get into our hidey hole for tonight, then. You said there was a cave about ten klicks away?”

“Yup. We’ll be there in two minutes. You all ready to disguise the entrance?”

Morn uttered a heartfelt groan, but rolled up and used his tail to push himself to his feet. “…Ready.”

Booth chuckled, and rubbed his gloves together a little. Truth was, his gear was keeping the cold out just fine, but the weather had an almost psychic quality to it that sunk right past mere clothing and chilled the soul. He’d be glad once they were properly covered up and able to relax for a while in their nice, warm spaceship.

The “cave” was more a wide, deep overhang scooped out by the remorseless wind from a set of black rocks that jut up through the ice sheet like broken teeth. But, it was overhead concealment, a healthy chunk of solid stuff between them and the open sky. Once they got the camo netting out and covered the ship, there was nothing to see. Not even the Hierarchy had tech that could have spotted something amiss. Probably.

Mercifully, the cold seemed to have exhausted the cavemonkeys, who were content to curl up and watch a movie under several blankets. He loved them to death really, especially when it came to storytime, but there was only so much crushed-by-silverback-gorilla fun a guy could take before it started to drive him mad.

They watched “Dunk,” a heist flick with a human scriptwriter and a Gaoian director that went totally over Morl and Bang’s heads, but that just inspired them to fall asleep. Not a bad choice, in the end.

After that, an “inspired by true events” story of an abductee surviving on an alien world, but Booth had zoned out by then. Really, they were just marking time and waiting, now. The satellites would do their job, they’d jump home, analysts would analyze, the brass would make a decision…His job, hopefully, was over for now.

He fell asleep to the sounds of TV, and the howling blizzard beyond the hull.


Date Point: 18y9m1w3d AV
Clan Stoneback training range, planet Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

This wasn’t a typical Couch Night. For one, it was on Gao. There were too many people to fit in the day room around the legendary Couch, so instead First Fang had bashed together something more biggerer and more able to accommodate everyone, out in the countryside inside a cozy lil’ glade. It was nice and well-shaded, private while still being close to a nearby little village, and it was one of the few still open to the public, which meant they could visit any time they wanted.

It had seen some damage in the War of course, but the trees were growing and recovering, just like everyone and everything else these days. Forestnettle had really worked some magic on it! Still, it was on Stoneback property, and this last lil’ get-together…

Well, it was important, so Daar had his aide pick a weekend where nobody else had any big plans or reservations or whatever, then snatch it up and make any apologies that needed making. They’d lucked out and there were plenty of free weekends, which was a small blessing: he hadta find room ‘fer six dozen o’ the most elite military operators ever assembled in the galaxy, since they deserved a break an’ soon enough he’d be sending them off to do a terrible thing.

Quite likely, quite a few of ‘em wouldn’t come back. Sobering thought, as always.

An’ the fuckin’ worstest part is, the more he looked into the situation, well…more and more, it looked like he might be one of them. Despite all he’d said to Yan not so long ago, sometimes the Great Father did have to don the armor and go to war himself, or else he weren’t no Great Father at all.

That was especially true when they din’t have enough good men who were good enough to do this mission. With that sobering fact looming in front of him, and with how balls-bustingly critical it was to secure themselves on-planet in the first few seconds of this assault…

He had ‘ta go. The moment coming upon them demanded it. More, he wanted to. He was a warrior in his soul an’ watchin’ young men go off ‘ta die ‘fore they’d left a legacy just gnawed at his soul, s’pecially when he coulda saved ‘em from a pointless fate.

Still, he did unnerstand how important it was to be cautious. He was very careful not to put the idea forward to anyone, let his advisors think on it an’ take his lead. Nonetheless, they thinked and thinked good an’ damn hard, and when they did, the tactical reality…made itself known. Even his advisors who routinely discouraged him from anything fun or dangerous found themselves mute, lately.

Some fights, you couldn’t leave anything on the table. This was one of ‘em.

An’ that was the thing. This really was an all-in assault. If they didn’t win, didn’t make their point hard enough…the Hunters would retaliate. They had a lot less to lose, after all. All of that meant a few things. He needed erryone at their best an’ workin’ together if they were gonna claw a good victory outta what promised to be a hard fuckin’ fight. He needed ‘em rested, needed ‘em bonded together in that weird way only blooded brothers in arms could ever understand.

Fun, therefore, was mandatory. And the mandatory fun needed three things.

Bad movies.

Rough-housing. A few sister-nurses from Openpaw were there on standby, to everyone’s delight…

And tacos. The food that Humans had invented, but the Gao had perfected.

Well, okay. It needed other things, too. Lotsa roastin’ meat ‘fer one! Done. He was Stoneback, after all. An’ those movies had ‘ta be truly bad. Or mebbe people wanted other entertainment!

Movies, videogames…shit, even an impromptu Warhammer tournament. ‘Cuz regardless of species, military fellas—but operator types especially—were all giant fuckin’ nerds. And when invited to hang out in the woods an’ spend some time gettin’ to know the men they’d be fightin’ alongside in a few days, it was fuckin’ inevitable that they’d drag along a superbattery, some projectors, a buncha tables and a wizard hat or five. Why not? It was a great chance ‘ta practice English an’ Gaori, after all. It was technically training!

Oh, and a nice bit o’ dirt for sparrin’, too. So far the grand champions were Kodiak, Righteous, Warhorse, and Daar himself o’ course! He couldn’t help but be proud o’ Kodiak, though. He’d knocked the Champion of Whitecrest out flat on his tail, and that weren’t no easy thing ‘ta do!

‘Course, Thurrsto had left ‘em with a couple big new scars too, so it weren’t like he was a push-over. An’ confusingly, he’d managed ‘ta defeat Champion Fiin, which immediately prompted a serious fight ‘tween Kodiak an’ Fiin…which Kodiak lost! So…who was the bestest? Much ear-semaphore an’ tail-wagging ensued, as err’one theorized. The three of ‘em decided ‘ta keep it a mystery ‘fer now. Durn!

But even still, the most bestest fight that night weren’t about th’ speed an’ fury an’ skill of their most biggest an’ bestest, thousands o’ pounds of pinnacle muscle dukin’ it out ‘fer females and ‘fer glory. Everyone was too tired from the relentless trainin’ to do much more than their lil’ tournament. No. The bestest fight was ‘tween lil’ Tisdale and one’a Kodiak’s suit techs, Jeem. He was a silverfur clanless but far from little, and he’d been talkin’ mad shit while hypin’ up Kodiak, after he unceremoniously slapped Moho right out of the elimination ladder.

Tisdale didn’t just match him, cuz the lil’ fucker was strong an’ quick as shit. He outlasted him. Ten rounds, nothin’ held back, and by the end of it Jeem was panting and wobbling and barely on his feet, when Tisdale gamely strolled right up and slammed him into the ground.

He won with a vicious pin, one he coulda had from the beginning, Daar realized. Instead, he wanted to prove a point.

Well. Point fuckin’ proven.

Jack had earned a couple really good gashes across his chest and torso from the fight, since Jeem was far from useless. But that was okay. Miller was right there to clean him up, along with a very impressed looking sister-nurse.

Nobody much noticed Jeem, though Kodiak was loyally by his side.

“Gotta work on ‘yer endurance, Jeem. An’ pick ‘yer fights better. Jack’s bestest bud is Warhorse himself over there.”

Jeem looked over at the almost-naked colossus of a man, waiting in line for some food.

“….Fuck me.”

“Mhmm.” Kodiak chittered deep in his chest, hauled him to his feet, and walked the both of them over to Jack to congratulate him.

Daar got distracted by a small commotion over by the gaming area—probably more Blue Spark Shenanigans—but by the time he’d looked back, Jack and Jeem were already hugging it out. Good! A lil’ testosterone poisoning weren’t so bad, s’long as everyone made nice.

There were some sounds shortly after that about concluding the championship. Everyone already knew how that would go, but still. One never quite knew how a fight would go.

Which is why Daar had to say no. No matter how badly he wanted ‘ta whup ‘em all and really show the world who was the biggest, baddest ‘Back…there weren’t no such thing as gentle ‘tween ‘em. “We’ll fight after the mission,” he’d said. There had been boos, and chittering jeers, but what could he do?

Had to be ready, after all.

So instead he prowled around, listened in on the ones tellin’ stories of their fallen buddies, watched Firth run a wave of big stompy green ladz into the teeth of Ergaan’s carefully crafted ambush. He’d briefly eavesdropped on Thurrsto and Regaari, scheming on their Clan’s recruiting problems…

By Whitecrest standards, they sounded downright optimistic. He decided not to pry.

There were other themes at play, too. Everyone was complaining (quietly) about the severity of their training. First Fang had to match HEAT after all, and there weren’t nobody who didn’t enjoy a good grouse ‘bout good, painfully hard work…but overall, everyone was in a good mood. Motivated. Fit an’ ready. Sharp.

Daar found Costello at the Ta’shen table, losing everything to Shim.

“I thought ‘ya were smarter’n that,” Daar chittered as he trundled up to the table. “Gamblin’ with ‘yer men, shameful…”

“The stakes are actual steaks, this time,” Costello replied evenly, and flipped a tile into the pattern. It was a good tile, and a good play, but he got his flip wrong and the tile wound up rattling to a halt showing the wrong face up. Shim promptly pant-grinned and landed a fairly mediocre tile that, importantly, didn’t matter which way up it was. That was the thing with Ta’shen. Brilliant flourishes and skill won games, but the mark of a true master was in knowing when not to show off and just take the guaranteed points.

“Oof,” Daar cringed. “Hope ‘ya got access to some good meat! Last time I played Shim, I owed him foot massages ‘fer a month!”

“And they’ve only just recovered, My Father.”

“Hey! I’ve got a gentle touch! Naydi says so!”

“If so, I’ve never felt it–hnnngh!”

Daar had enough of his sass, and applied a bit of noogie to get the point across. “Fine, be that way.” He let go, “But I gotta barge in an’ talk with Costello a bit here. Sarry.”

Costello nodded, pushed his tiles into the table in the traditional gesture of conceding defeat, and rose.

They found a spot some distance from the light and noise to look back and survey their men, grabbing a couple of beers on the way past. Daar didn’t care for beer much, but well, it wasn’t terrible either. He got a good sniff of Costello as the human took a swig and looked back: he smelled proud.

“Remarkable how far they can come in just a few months. huh?”

“Every time I think we must be finding the hard limits, we break right through them. New science, new methods, more experience…” Costello shook his head in mild disbelief. “And you should see the shit the hazard course techs have had to pull to get the infiltration team to fail the scenario lately. We’re talking some ‘God hates us and personally intervened to ruin our day’ stuff.”

“That’s good. Very good,” Daar sighed, letting some tension out. “Helps ‘ta hear that. Now, how ‘bout our ultraviolence crew? They comin’ along?”

Costello took a big swig of his beer. “Jesus fuck, yes. You wanna know just how well? Adam’s basically tortured the Beefs up into his league now. He’s still the the hands-down best but now, they don’t have any reason to be embarassed about it. Firth, Julian, even ‘Base can win in a spar against him now and then! Adam of course hasn’t been sitting still, so that should give you some idea of how much crazy we’re talking about, and just how quickly. Everyone else has made bonkers progress, too.”

Daar knew that feeling all too well. After all, he’d been the Gao’s biggest science experiment on the matter since day one, and he’d never slowed down, only sped up. If all o’ that was ‘cuz he was originally made to be a Hierarchy weapon, well…

He didn’t have no fuckin’ problem turnin’ that against ‘em, as hard as he fuckin’ could.

Costello shook his head with a slight expression of awe, swigged his beer, then gave Daar a fierce look. “We’re ready. Not ‘ready as we’ll ever be’ or ‘ready as possible.’ Ready. Now the real question…what about you?”

“I know how you feel about the situation,” Daar said, calmly.

“Do you, sir? Because y’know what I’ve been thinking the whole time, the more I think about how important this mission is? I sit here and I think, ‘if only we could have talked Julian into this a few years ago’ or ‘we just need another Firth-like Beef,’ or…”

“A full three teams, all ready to go?” Daar duck-nodded, resignedly. “Yeah. ‘Bout what I thought you’d say. An’ comin’ from you that more or less seals the deal, yijao?”

“I don’t like a mission that’s so perilous we gotta make use of your talents, sir.”

“I don’t think anyone does.” Daar sighed. “So, you’re ready as the situation permits, but that’s still a big gamble we’re ‘bout to do.”

“The biggest. The infiltration team don’t have an escape route, no hope of extraction. They win, or die. That all by itself makes this a hell of a thing. Adding you to the mix? I…the assault team will not succeed if they don’t have every scrap of ability on-hand. But they may still lose anyway, so what happens if the de-facto Emperor of the Deathworlders dies with them?”

“What happens if the de-facto Emperor of the Deathworlders sits in the back an’ watches a failure he coulda prevented? Or worse, what happens if we don’t even attempt this? Same outcome, any way you cut it. The Hunters rebuild, in secret, and then one day they ain’t so secret no more, and that’ll be the end of the Gao.”

Daar tipped his head back and drained the whole bottle down his throat in one long drink, and made up his mind. “No. Our only option is to strike now, with everything, while the iron is hot, while they’re starvin’ and rebuildin’ and I got an army I can march down their fuckin’ throats.”

Costello nodded grimly. “Well, then. We should make the most of tonight.”

“Yup. But…thanks. You sayin’ we’re ready carries weight.”

“That’s…be careful giving such a compliment to a lowly major, Mister Emperor-bear.”

Daar chittered humorously. “Ain’t nothin’ but the truth, you know that. Anyhoo. Mebbe I will go tussle wit’ ‘Horse. Can’t have ‘em gettin’ any silly ideas.” Daar nodded, and padded off toward the general melee.

“Don’t break each other,” Costello said to his back.

Not too hard, Daar thought to himself with a slight chitter. But not too gently, either.

It was good to take a load off. In the next few days, they’d know the situation around the new relay world they’d discovered. What they did after that could move quickly, so this fun day was also a cool-down day, the beginning of their pre-mission recovery.

Rarely did relaxation have such a grim purpose.


Date Point: 18y9m1w5d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Beau Chambliss

“We’re certain?”

A president’s life was hearing advice, from advisors who knew far more than he did. Really, Beau should have grown out of the habit of asking that question, but it still boggled his mind that a satellite the size of a cellphone could deliver data like he was viewing right now.

Of course, it had all been washed through the most sophisticated machine learning on the most powerful supercomputers on Earth, and those findings had been reviewed by human experts, but still. There were moments when the sheer magical power of modern technology hit him full-speed in the brain.

“As certain as it’s possible to me, Mister President. There’s no evidence of a single living one. Not so much as a campfire…Which isn’t surprising, really. If we could detect any such, you can bet the Hierarchy would too, and promptly exterminate it. At this point, it’s safe to declare the natives of HIGHWATER extinct: we can hit the relay arbitrarily hard.”

Chambliss nodded. “Alright. General Kolbeinn, you may begin preparations. Thank you, everyone.” He stood, and the room started to empty. “Michael? A word, please.”

Some men were too important to pester, and the Director of the CIA was one such person. For the particular issue Beau wanted to raise…best to wait for a convenient moment.

They waited for the room to clear, and Michael straightened his suit as the door closed. “Yes, Mister President?

“I have a concern, Michael.”

“About whom?” Perceptive.

“The Great Father. We are going to need another of his very large weapons.”

That much was plain and obvious. The scout team’s ship had seen the clear signature of a shield dome over the relay site, easily powerful enough to deflect…well, practically anything. Certainly, anything in the US Military’s arsenal. The entire Allied Extrasolar fleet could have swung into orbit above that thing and laid into it with everything they had, and achieved zip.

That only left one option, and Beau was loathe to use it when there was any alternative.

Michael nodded thoughtfully. “There is of course the question of if he’ll release it. I don’t see why he wouldn’t, but his focus isn’t on the Hierarchy right now. He’ll extract a price.”

“We’re allies in this, aren’t we?”

“Good alliances are built on reciprocity. Each of those superweapons is a strategic resource, and not cheap either. Considering how economically hard-pressed the Gao are right now, and how much worse it’s going to get for them in the next few years, requesting one without price would be quite a test of our friendship.”

Chambliss conceded that with a nod of his head. Were the relationship reversed, he’d no doubt be making similar decisions.

“How much price are we thinking?”

“Our best estimates are that each such weapon costs billions, Mister President. He will want a heavy strategic favor for that.”

“How much heavier can we bear? He already has the SOR in his pocket.”

“The SOR, yes. Not our space navy, nor the rest of our military. Nor our planetary resources, nor anything else. We are nowhere near fully committed and he damn well knows it.”

“We are as committed as we can manage right now. Surely he understands that!”

“Perhaps. Nonetheless, he and his people are one and the same. This fight is existential for him. It is not for us. We have the privilege of unassailable high ground, in the form of our system shield. His system shield can be tampered with. Ours cannot, even if we wanted to.”

Chambliss nodded. It was a great irony of the last twenty years that the device originally intended to imprison and quarantine humanity had instead turned out to be the greatest gift and boon they could ever have asked for. It had done far more to protect the human race from the galaxy, than to protect the galaxy from the human race.

Michael was right. Humanity had a privilege, there.

Still. The war had not failed to take its toll, especially on America. Losing San Diego all those years ago had been a bad blow. Losing Franklin and so much of the rail yards at Chicago, a wound. Funding and developing the space navy, a necessary but strenuous drain.

The USA’s economy, in short, was weak from blood loss, and overtaxed. They were writing checks they could barely cash, borrowing heavily, accumulating a national debt that realistically would never be repaid and everyone was afraid to admit it out loud. Sooner or later, the delicate soap bubble of trust that founded the whole thing was going to pop.

Daar, on the other hand, had buried billions of his own people.

“So then, all of that sounds like a great argument for destroying the relay.”

“No, Mister President. That is a great argument from our perspective, where the Hierarchy is the immediate threat.”

“We have the same enemies, don’t we?” Chambliss asked.

“But different situations. Our situation means we can’t afford to take the pressure off the Hierarchy. Their situation means Daar can’t afford to take the pressure off the Hunters. And he’s not wrong: given the opportunity, the Hunters will, in very short order, grow into an extinction-level threat. If that happens, their shields will come down, and Gao will burn. He cannot afford to miss his coming strike against the Hunters…which is also going to involve a gigaton-class warhead. We do not know how many he has on-hand, but we suspect the number is small.”

Michael saw Beau’s troubled expression, and pulled a complicated face that only vaguely resembled a smile. “This is war, sir. War inevitably means racking up debts, if not to our allies then to simple material reality. We either accept the Great Father’s price, or spend the same or more on developing our own weapon, which will take too long.”

“Or we use the weapon we already have, and risk never being able to use it again…assuming it even works,” Beau finished. “Do we know what his price will be?”

“Immediately, he’ll likely want a full mobilization against the Hunters once the HEAT strikes. He’ll want to sneak in, seal off Hell, purge the system clean, and steal all their resources.”

Beau considered that as he wandered the office. Maintaining a military was one thing, sending it off-world to fight alien monsters was quite another…but what was the alternative? Tuck tail and slink away? withdraw behind the Sol containment barrier and never touch the greater galaxy again? Leave billions, trillions of people, non-human or not, to die for the sake of one nation’s economy?

Like it or not, continuing the march to war was the only moral option. God only knew how they’d afford it, but…

Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

Speaking of which…there was another matter.

“Very well. Knowing Daar, he’ll be aware of our situation, he won’t ask for what we can’t afford…thank you for your advice, Michael.”

“Of course, sir.”

“There is one other matter I wanted to discuss before you go, though,” Beau told him. Michael lifted his eyebrows expectantly as Beau settled himself against the edge of the desk. “…Daniel Hoeff.”

Michael’s expression locked down, but not before betraying a little flash of wary concern. “Mister President—”

Beau raised a hand to stop him. “I’ve had a good, close look at his career and deeds, Michael, and I do not care what you are about to say. I will not have a man like that serving under this office or our Constitution.”

There was a long silence. Michael watched him for a moment, looked down slightly, looked back up, then took a deep breath.

“…In that case, I resign, Mister President.”

Chambliss mentally tripped over himself. Of all the things that Michael could have said in response to that…. “Michael, are you sure? That’s a bit…”

“Mister Hoeff is not an evil man, Mister President. He is a man who takes his oaths very seriously. ‘To defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ What do we do when the Oath conflicts with itself? For a man like him, one with an iron will and iron morals? It’s easy. He swore to defend his nation, and sometimes that requires more than most can stomach.”

“He is a killer, Michael. A dyed in the wool killer.”

“As am I, Mister President. And a great many under your service. Will you fire them all?”

“He is an assassin on top of that.”

“Yes.”

“An extrajudicial murderer.”

“A legally sanctioned killer, Mister President. You have many powers that are yet untested before the courts and before Congress. They remain unchallenged because your political adversaries deem them necessary for the function of the Republic. There is a reason they have not attacked you about them, because everyone knows about our prior Secretary of Agriculture. Nobody knows how, or by whom. But they know why.”

“How…I never knew you felt that way, Michael. How can you possibly justify such a realpolitick view of the world?!”

“…Beau. You appointed me Director of the CIA. You must have known I wasn’t all cuddles and hugs when you made that decision.”

“Frankly? You came highly recommended by voices I would be unwise to ignore. I’ve grown to appreciate you,” Chambliss was quick to add. “But…well.”

“Ah.” That seemed to settle things in Michael’s mind. “Then I was right to resign. Mister President, we only have the morals we can afford. If I can show you anything about the world by my actions, it is this: we’ve not been able to afford our loftiest ideals for a very long time.”

“Afford? An ideal isn’t something you cleave to only when it’s convenient, Michael! It’s…it’s a guiding star! It’s north! It’s how you set a direction! Principle isn’t a transaction, it’s how you navigate!”

“All very true. But the dead have no principles, Mister President. If San Diego, Chicago, and now New York do not convince you of the situation, I cannot think of what might. Do you think the horrors of any war are justified by anyone’s moral outlook? That’s rarely the case. We knew what we were doing was wrong when we did it, because to do otherwise was to lose.”

“When? When did we know? In what war?”

“Pick one, Mister President.” Michael looked around the office, then gestured toward the photo of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, framed atop one of the side tables. “Nagasaki. Hiroshima. Tens of thousands of civilians reduced to ash in an eyeblink, because the alternative was worse. Isn’t the right to life one of our guiding principles? But in August nineteen forty-five, a different principle compelled us to do a terrible thing. We could not afford to shy away from that terrible thing. And you, sir, cannot shy away from keeping terrible arrows in your quiver.”

“If you do,” he added, “you will lose more than just my services. If you follow through with this command and get rid of Hoeff, you will put your security services on notice. The communities men like Hoeff participate in are small and very consequential. They will notice. They will talk. And they will leave. Retire early, fail to re-enlist, and make their reasons for doing so known, so recruiting will drop too because none of the divisions of the previous decades have gone away. They’re still there, and the distrust is still very, very strong. Once the dust settles, our nation’s security agencies will have been cut off from a very important pool of talent, right at the moment when they are needed the most.”

“That’s going to happen anyway, now,” Chambliss replied.

“Not necessarily. Right now, perhaps my doctor has warned me of a heart condition and I’m choosing to step down from a high-stress job to spend time with my grandchildren. The people who understand these things will know better, but what you choose to do next will inform what they choose to do next and whether they play along. You, being who you are, must walk a tightrope between perception and intent. Choose carefully, Mister President.”

Beau sat heavily on the edge of the desk. He felt…there was an all-too-physical crawling sensation across his entire body, like hot ants under his shirt. He wanted what Michael was saying to be wrong, but…But goddammit, what if he wasn’t? Was one man worth endangering so much?

…A president’s life was hearing advice, from advisors who knew far more than he did.

And a president’s duty was to heed it.

“I would…prefer…” he began, then paused, and gave up on delicacy. “…Dammit, Michael, I want to do what’s best and what’s right.”

“You are the President. What is best and what is right in your duty has nothing to do with your feelings or with any one person. What matters is the nation, and only the nation. What is best for the United States is often ruinous for an individual, and at this moment in time you cannot afford indulgence. What, then, do you believe to be best for us all?”

Rather than hear Chambliss’ answer, he headed for the door. “You’ll have my letter within the hour. Good afternoon, Mister President.”

The door opened, closed with a sharp click, and left Beau alone with only the ticking of the clock, the rain on the window…and, once again, the feeling of constraint that came with the power of the office.

The problem wasn’t that he was impotent. Quite the reverse, the problem was that everything he did carried so much weight that any action at all was liable to do damage. He could barely move without stepping on something, breaking something. Michael’s resignation was damaging, but in the grand scheme it was a warning. Like the old deck out back of Beau’s father’s house that had sagged and creaked, alerting them to the danger before anyone actually fell through and hurt themselves.

He checked himself again. What was his reason for wanting Hoeff gone? Ross Guillory had been…well, he’d been a terrorist. That part was indisputable, though it had been a terrible punch in the gut to learn it. You thought you knew a man, and then…

…And then the world turned out to be ever more complicated than even a man who thought he had a handle on it could fathom, and that which had seemed so clearly evil turned out to be just the shadow cast by the necessary good. And speaking incautiously, saying the wrong thing in the wrong way to the right person could set dominos falling, with disaster waiting at the end of the row. At least this particular domino had been good enough to tell him how to stop the others from tipping.

Could a President ever stand on his own principles? Or was there just the office, before which all the ideals Beau had brought with him were just sacrificial lambs?

Maybe that was why he wanted Hoeff gone. Not for what he was, or what he’d done, but for what he represented. In Beau’s mind, he’d become the short, hairy, violent avatar of realpolitik, the very personification of what Beau hated most about his duty.

But getting rid of Hoeff wouldn’t change anything. There would still be hard, pragmatic decisions to make. Principle would continue to play a distant and quiet second fiddle to necessity no matter how much he might wish otherwise. And one man was not worth the damage. Hell, he wasn’t even worth the damage already done.

Beau Chambliss massaged his face, and grunted out a heartfelt “…fuck.” It was all he could do, without breaking anything. A few seconds after that, he was back at work.

The job never stopped.


Date Point: 18y9m2w6d AV
Starship Destroying Fury, orbiting planet Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

The perfect opportunity to strike came earlier than was maybe ideal, but they were ready. This was a serious mission, and it was gonna involve doing a whole lot of violence in very short order. They needed to sneak through the system shield in the vacuum conditions onboard a Hunter cargo ship.

To that end, Regaari was leading the infiltration team through the kind of dangerous, quiet missions he’d earned his reputation on. Daar had once said Regaari was the bravest man he knew, and this did nothing but prove it: he’d had been the first to volunteer.

What a mission, though. This one was…

Well, it was a big flip of the tile, for sure. A whole HEAT team were gonna go get themselves cut off from their support on purpose, an’ when they made it through the other side, what had to happen next was violence on a stunning scale.

Fact was…people were gonna die today. Including, potentially, Daar himself if it all went completely balls up. Because he was suited up, along with all of Stoneback’s Fangs, the entirety of his space navy, the Human’s space navy…

And the Grand Army of the Gao was just now getting its alert orders, as were two corps from the American army. Much the same was playing out across their sister services, and among the Commonwealth allies. The alert couldn’t be given too early, or intel might leak to the Hunters. Too late, and it wouldn’t matter. Timing was everything, in so many things.

Thank the gods for the extra time they had to train, and thank the mad scientists on their side who made it all possible. Everyone on the HEAT was as ready as they had ever been. ‘Horse had kept his ominous promises, and nothing in the world seemed to make him happier. He’d improved too, substantially. So had everyone else, including team two, who were suiting up and on standby today; they’d likely be deployed before long. Even Champion Thurrsto was suited up for today. All hands were on deck.

Because if this mission failed, Gao would likely fall. The retaliatory strike from the Hunters would be terrible, and Daar had little doubt there was some poor fuckin’ biodrone somewhere on Gao the Hierarchy could weaponize to terrible, sudden effect.

A word with his allies was…sensible, therefore. Before going all in. One last sanity check, before committing everything he had.

Those had been interesting calls. Chambliss was in a sombre mood of late, and he seemed to age a year every week. Daar knew why—the man’s country was staggering under a gargantuan financial load, despite the best efforts of their allies to ease it. He almost felt like he could smell the other reasons, too. Whatever had happened, Daar guessed it was the sort of torment only leaders ever got to endure.

Steve Davies, ever cautious and thoughtful, was a good kinda sounding board in that Daar always wound up needing to think aloud. He had a knack for finding the questions that needed consideration.

For instance: “Are you entirely certain this is the moment?”

Daar was alone for this conversation, safe in his quarters aboard the Destroying Fury but already armored up, as his suit’s biomedical pack ramped up everything to fighting speed. With Q-comms and the tech in his desk, he might as well have been sitting opposite the Prime Minister in Downing Street.

“We don’t have the luxury o’ gettin’ all our pieces perfectly in place before we make our play,” he said. “Won’t ever happen.”

“Personally taking the field, though? You are taking a tremendous risk by doing this. A risk for yourself, and a risk for the Gao.”

Daar reflected on that, and on advice he’d given Yan some months ago. That advice was still true, still good. Still wise. Daar was taking a huge risk.

But it wasn’t just any risk. It was the risk. And it was still a gamble that needed all his tiles pushed in. Including himself, since that small HEAT team surviving the first couple minutes of fighting would determine the course of the war.

After all, Yan had started training with the HEAT, too. Everyone had stakes in this bet.

“Y’ain’t wrong. But this time, I gotta. Ain’t no escape ‘fer me, ‘cuz I am the Gao, Prime Minister. That’s just as true now for this thing as it is for anythin’ else. The Hunters are gonna destroy us, either today or some future tomorrow. Right now, we’ve got an opportunity to hit them hard and regain momentum, while I’ve still got an army o’ billions ‘ta hit ’em with. If I miss this chance, I am gamblin’ ‘ta live another day against the certainty they’ll eventually strike back, regrouped an’ unstoppable. It’s now or never.”

“Then I had better let you prepare…Good hunting, Daar. Give them hell.”

That left just one last thing: a last moment with Naydra.

She was waiting for him in the adjoining room of his suite. She was the very picture of poise and serene calm. But under that iron self-control, Daar could sniff the barest hint of worry.

“…It’s soon, isn’t it? Your pupils are dilated.”

Part of the Suit’s medicine, that. His metabolism was ramping way up in anticipation of combat, his muscles starting to twitch and tense up for lack of anything to do. They were also beginning to swell inside the crushing embrace of his armor, as they pumped up full of glycogen and other things being injected directly into his blood. He couldn’t dawdle, he had to be warming up and moving once the Suit’s biolab started to really push things….

“Yeah. I can’t stay long.”

“Then nor can I…” She sighed, nipped affectionately at his nose, and poured herself against him. Left her scent on his suit too, especially against the sealing collar so he’d smell her even with the helmet on and suit air blasting. “I have preparations to make.”

“Yeah…” Every factor to secure victory had been, or was being, swung into place. They wouldn’t be doing this if he wasn’t confident of winning. But her duty was to consider the worst case. Her duty was the future, come what may. If they failed here, Gao would fall…but the Gao would live on. Naydra would see to it.

No male could stand in the way of that. That was why, among all the Gao, only she was free of his will. The Females may have bared their throats, but she had not, and never would.

There was one thing he had to know, though. He could just barely smell it on her.

“…Is our cub healthy?”

“So far, yes. She is.”

“…She?”

“Definitely. Your third daughter. So you come back, you hear me?”

Daar only nodded. It was all he could do. She pant-grinned, clearly pleased with her surprise, nipped his fur one last time…and was gone. A moment over much too quick, but…

But the future beckoned.

Come what may.



++END CHAPTER 76++



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Acknowledgments

This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


The SOR

Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Sian, Steve, Willow and Riker


35 Humans

TTTA

Adam Shearsby

Alvaro Gaitan

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Armond471

Austin Deschner

Brigid

Chris Candreva

Chris Dye

Daniel Iversen

Daniel Morris

Eric Hardwick

James Ren

John Norton

Joseph Szuma

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja

Krit Barb

Marquis Talmadge

Nicolas Gruenbeck

Ortheri

Rob Rollins

Ryan Seaman

Sam Berry

Shane Wegner

Sun Rendered

T.A. Carlson

Taylor McGee

TheMoneyBadger

Theningaraf

Xultanis

Yeania Aeon

Zachary Galicki


As well as 62 Deathworlders…

Adam Beeman Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece atp Ben Thrussell blackwolf393 Brandon Hicks Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jeffrey Stults Jim Hamrick jmal116 John Campbell Jon Joseph Bark Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina lovot Matt Matt Bullock Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Nikita Becker Patrick Huizinga Richard A Anstett Riding Badger RJ Smiley Ryan Cadiz Ryc O’Chet Sam Sean Calvo Sir Xaph Stephen Prescott theWorst Trevor C Vincent Leighton Volka Creed walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas ziv Zod Bain

76 Friendly ETs, 145 Squishy Xenos and 318 Dizi Rats, take one down and splat it around.


“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners.

The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not necessarily share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 77