The Deathworlders

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Chapter 80: Brought Low

Date Point: 18y9m4w2d AV
ESNN offices, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Gabrielle Nyoni

‘Nervous’ didn’t even begin to cut it. Gabrielle had been to some hairy parts of the planet Earth in her career, covering conflicts, civil wars, piracy, the aftermath of terrorist attacks…but in most places, she’d been reasonably assured that her dark blue armor with the word “PRESS” would offer some kind of protection, and not just from stray bullets and explosives. Among humans, she could trust in her hijab and the desire of the other guys to have their story heard, and carry her camera and microphone right into the lion’s den with confidence.

The Hunters wouldn’t care. To them, it’d just be different packaging on the same delicious meat. There would be no interviews with the other side, this time.

But, they were going. And the office threw a party to wish her luck. Pulled out all the stops, too! Apparently it was all Ava’s idea, as she was the only other person in the office who’d put on some body armor and seen combat up close and personal…though, she was keeping her dog close, today.

Gabrielle got the chance to thank her round about the time the last of the cake vanished. “You really didn’t have to go to these lengths, you know…”

“It felt important. This isn’t an opportunity most reporters get, or are willing to step up to.”

“You did.”

“I…got caught up in circumstances,” Ava replied. She massaged Hannah’s ears, and Gabby decided a minor course-correction was in order. Ava wasn’t shy about her problems, but that didn’t make it okay to linger on them.

“You said you might have another Laid Bare shoot coming up?”

“Yeah. I think this one will be the final installment, to be honest. If they agree to it, it’ll be…painful.”

“…They?”

“Warhorse. And, briefly, some passing-the-baton at the end, maybe. I’m not sure, there’s some personal complications involved, but…it’ll be really good, if I can arrange it. And I think it’ll do them some good too, which, y’know, that’s always been the point of the series.”

“Well. I look forward to it,” Gabby said, sincerely. “And not just the photography, of course.”

Ava smiled wanly, and then a bit more warmly. “Well…thanks. I wonder if I should ruin it and say upfront that everyone involved is already taken?”

“Aargh, if I could talk married men out of their clothes as easily as you can…”

Wrong thing to say. But she knew it instantly, and Ava was graceful about it. “Trust me, it’s not as great as you make it sound. Anyway,” she stood. “You better get ready. I hear you leave within the hour.”

…Shit. Well done, Gabby. Her chronic foot-in-mouth disease had struck again. She bobbed up to her feet, shook hands, babbled something well-meaning and retreated to the other side of the room to recompose herself near her partner for this endeavor.

ESNN’s powers-that-be didn’t want to send Gabrielle in helpless, of course. She’d taken some pretty serious personal defense training from the local police force, which was later improved upon by the local Marine security contingent—along with a HEAT operator, who turned out to be a seriously handsome tank of a boy that went by Gonzo, appropriately. Even still, she was barely a hundred-thirty pounds soaking wet, so ESNN had one other trick up their sleeve.

Marrek, a seven-plus foot tall burly basketball player of a Gaoian, who was ESNN’s chief reporter on local Clanless affairs. Like most brownfurs he was a big brute. But unlike the obscenely hulked-out giants of the military Clans that routinely made the news, his was a ‘more lankier’ bigness, and that meant he could fold himself easily down into much more everyday encounters, rather than fill a room to bursting with his bulk. He was, in fact, the very definition of the everyday brownie, even though they were still very much a minority among gaoians. Probably why he was so good on the Clanless beat, really. He was hard not to like.

And he was an army veteran, with more than a few decorations on his chest, and an associate membership in Ironclaw to reward honorable service. Dude knew what he was doing.

And he had grizzly claws. Pretty much all brownfurs did. Gaoians really weren’t cuddly.

“You git ‘yer armor fitted right this time, Gabe?” He sniffed toward her as he finished packing away his own in his ‘everything’ duffel. “An’ did’ya manage not ‘ta ogle Gonzo this time?”

“Shut up!” she giggled, a bit embarrassed.

“Take that ‘fer a no,” He flicked a playful ear. “…Nice shindig they put on ‘fer us.”

“I know!” Gabby eyed the snacks for a moment, wistfully, but…no. They didn’t want to be late for the jump. So, she did the rounds, shook hands, received well-wishes, got a couple of hugs for good measure…

They took a johnny cab to the array terminus, with Gabby twisting the straps of her pack in her hands nervously the whole way. Interstellar travel by jump array just felt…it always felt too sudden to her. Too anticlimactic. Even an elevator wasn’t so abrupt. You just sat down inside the marked zone, there was a thump and then you were on a whole different planet an ungodly distance from where you started.

The thought that in a few minutes time she’d have gone from a pleasant mini-party at the office to an alien warzone was, well, just impossible to really prepare for.

Marrek was, as always, a comforting (and almost disconcertingly canine) presence. He wrapped one of those long arms around her shoulders and hugged reassuringly. It had taken some time to get used to the kind of physical contact Gaoians favored, but in the end, humans and Gaoians just…seemed to get each other.

“It’ll be okay,” he rumbled. “I ain’t gonna letcha do somethin’ too stupid, I promise.”

“Like you could stop me,” Gabby replied, with a self-effacing laugh. But, she felt better. Still. That feeling of rushing toward something huge only got more intense as their cab arrived, they were escorted through the terminus by a man in fatigues, parked atop a large stack of supplies, crates, bags and boxes alongside a few other travellers…

She fiddled with her camera as she waited. Until, sure enough, there was that thump. The nice clean jump hall vanished, to be replaced by…

Gabby coughed, reflexively. The air wasn’t choking or fume-filled or anything, but it smelled terrible. Like a junkyard on a hot day, or a gas station shortly after a whole biker gang had done a burnout. Industrial, with a low ceiling of heavy grey clouds and too-still air heavy with dry heat.

Marrek just chitter-sighed, and activated his forcefield helmet. “Thought I’d left this shit behind when I retired…” he grumbled.

Gabby activated her own and asked, “Why did you retire, actually?”

“Got both m’arms eated on Mordor.”

Gabby completely forgot the foul air and gawped at him. Before now, she’d always thought the two pale rings that encircled Marrek’s biceps were just fur patterning or a freeze-brand. She found herself staring, and he of course reacted like every gaoian male ever did when a girl of any description was ogling them. He flexed quickly, examined himself a bit wistfully…

Growled fiercely. “S’okay though. I tore out it’s throat with m’toes ‘fore I passed out.”

“That’s…well, I’m glad you’re okay,” Gabby replied, not knowing what else to say. “So…they just, what? Grew you new arms?”

“Yup! Only jus’ got ‘em built up nice an’ big like the old ones. C’mon, let’s go find our bunks.”

Gabby nodded, but her hands were already working, taking photos as a team of men in lifting exoskeletons descended on the pile of cargo they’d ridden and started dividing it up. In fact, the whole area around them was a bustle of activity

Marrek was there as a videographer, and he already had his steadicam rig up and running.

“Those’re neat as fuck. I hear Bronzefur’s been buyin’ rigs ‘fer all their workhouses.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, been workin’ up a story on it. Example o’ some human tech infiltratin’ th’ Gao.”

“I thought gaoians weren’t fond of stuff like that?”

“We’d rather do th’ work ourselves, yeah. But we can’t right now. All our best bodies are in th’ army or somethin’ more special-like, an’ the older able-backs are all…old. An’ dyin’.”

“…And the workload isn’t shrinking.”

“Nope. It’s gettin’ bigger an’ bigger. S’why I moonlight as a laborer when the beat’s slow.”

“Because you’re able-bodied.”

“An’ available, ‘cuz retirement.”

Gabby’s reply faltered at the sound of some distant noise. A deep-throated VRRRRRRRRZZZ! followed by a rapid crackle of smaller explosions.

Marrek had tossed her into a nearby shelter that she hadn’t even noticed was there, and had his recording drone out and up before she’d gathered her wits and did the same.

A Hunter attack was in progress. As Gabby’s drone cleared the vertical obstructions and got a good look at the landscape around them, she barely noticed her own awed gasp: As orderly and efficient as things were around the jump array, the broader battlefield was a scene of purest devastation. Hillocks of pulverized concrete and tangled steel, fires still burning here and there. Major roadways kept clear of debris by huge armored bulldozers, which were retreating in the face of the Hunter advance.

The gaoian forces had responded immediately. Their armored vehicles—Growls—pounced forward, fast over the light rubble and rough ground. They opened fire on something, and a few seconds later the drawn-out buzzsaw sound of their weapons reached Gabby’s ears.

Gabby and Marrek couldn’t get their drones any closer to take a better look, because their press liaison officer had found them and was angrily yipping about the potential threat—

“I know the rules,” Marrek growled, with just the barest hint of dominant snarl gaoians used between each other when they were establishing the pecking order. Being as the liaison was an ordinary silverfur, and Marrek was…well, lanky or not, he was still a big man…

“Then I will expect you to obey them,” the liaison managed after a quick step backward. “I cannot be held responsible if someone shoots them down!”

“‘Kay. You let us know if we’re causin’ any trouble now, y’hear?” He turned back to his drone controls and utterly ignored the liaison from that point onward.

They got some great footage.

Gabby patched things up a bit later when they were being shown their accommodations. They were already making a hell of a team. On advice from several of her colleagues, she’d brought…well. Bribes, really. Not in anything so crass as cash, but in little luxuries, harmless indulgences to smooth ruffled feathers—or fur—and help battle-weary soldiers relax around her.

She’d never yet met a Gaoian who didn’t love Slim Jims, or who couldn’t smell their presence when carried. So, with a softer touch (the good cop to Marrek’s bad cop) she managed to establish enough of a rapport with their liaison officer—his name was Feegi—to get him to unwind and share a snack.

From there, it was pretty easy to reassure him that they really did know the rules and the limits of what they could and could not show, all that stuff. She got the impression that Feegi was a young and nervous type, keen to do well in his job and be promoted. So, all in all…things were progressing like many other assignments. That was oddly comforting.

They spent the rest of the day getting settled, meeting leadership, sniffing around for opportunities, and all the other things a good reporter always took care to do.

They had a lot of work ahead of them.


Date Point: 18y10m AV
Planet Origin, the Corti Directorate

Master Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

Well.

Fuck.

He didn’t know what else to say, really.

Just.

Fuck.

Well, okay.

Start with the positives.

He’d regained gross motor control pretty damn quick. They had him off paralytics already, and he could walk (shakily) on his own, mostly tend to his own hygiene…it was fuckin’ exhaustin’ though. Not in his body, which was absolutely screaming at him for some exercise…

It was in his head. He felt drained right in his fuckin’ soul just hobbling across the room. They were going to arrange electro-stimulation therapy to help keep his muscle tone and conditioning going, because if he was ever going to recover, he needed his body ready and waiting.

Marty was there, too. Everyone came to visit, one by one. The Corti were a bit nervous with a bunch of humans stomping through their medical facility, but they were slowly getting used to it. So that was good, too. Two good things!

Which…didn’t make up for the big bad thing.

He was done as a HEAT Protector.

No official word yet, and everyone was very carefully avoiding the topic, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d somehow come out of the whole fuckin’ thing with himself intact—a goddamn miracle, that—but now his personal aggression was fuckin’ ten times worse than ever and he’d suffered a fuckin’ seizure not five minutes after waking from surgery.

Odds weren’t great, to put it bluntly.

Fuck.

He gripped the steel handrail of his bed in frustration, felt it flatten and crumble in his grip. Didn’t care, wanted to break something. Crushed it into a tiny little ball, felt it get hot to the touch.

Still got my strength, at least.

For now, anyway. And what good would it be if he couldn’t fuckin’ operate?

…He missed the pain.

It was gone. No soreness, no aches, no…nothing, really. He’d never noticed before, but now that he was pain-free the difference was profound, and sort of alarming. They’d fixed everything and almost cruelly given him a perfect fresh start…that he couldn’t really use.

He always felt sleepy, now.

So: he had a refurbished body, a second chance to push the limits and excel…and at any moment, he might collapse into literal tons of spasming danger. Shit, he was strong enough now to tear his own body apart, and that was no kind of a way to go…

Worse, the people who were physically strong enough to even begin dealing with that problem could be counted on one hand. Marty wasn’t among them. But she had the other kind of strength he needed right now. The kind he maybe needed more. The kind that said, no matter what, she knew he was going to get through this and out the other side.

And he wasn’t about to fuckin’ disappoint her.

For now, he was stuck in the most un-Adam place that ever was.

Doctor Forln was…Well, Adam had never met a more Corti Corti. Direct. Brusque. Not rude, but he sure as shit didn’t have a spare word for bein’ nice to people. So full of pride it was no wonder his head was so big compared to the rest of him.

But he knew his shit, and he was makin’ goddamn sure Adam knew it, too.

“The medicine you are on will hopefully prevent a second seizure, and everything about your rehabilitation plan from this moment forward is constructed around that single goal. A second will lead to a third, and from there a fourth and a fifth, and from there your life will be miserable, and most likely very short. In time, we hope to further correct the damage to your brain, but for that cannot be safely done until it has had time to rest, heal, and rebuild its pathways.”

He clicked the little wand in his hand, and moved onto the next slide in the show he’d prepared. Something about it woke a little swell of black humor in Adam’s belly. Medical Euthanasia by powerpoint, heh.

“You have, as anticipated, lost some gross motor control. I gather that Human rehabilitation therapy is adequately advanced, and have already referred you to a specialist on Folctha. I am sure you have noticed that you are experiencing myoclonus. It is my hope that these episodes will fade with therapy. Given your prodigious strength, however, it is important to be careful around objects and persons you do not wish to damage. One random jerk could cause serious harm. It is for this reason that we have repeatedly told your spouse not to hold your hand…”

He shot a pointed look at Marty, who grimaced and laid her hand back on Adam’s wrist. Forln made the tiniest, saltiest noise of approval, and continued to the next slide.

“As I am sure you have noticed, your fine motor control is practically nonexistent. I have placed an order for some suitably calibrated equipment to help you work on your grip control. I strongly suggest that you practice art, writing or calligraphy, once you are able to pick up the appropriate tools without destroying them.”

“The important part,” he concluded, “is going to be difficult for you. Though your body has all the power it ever did, your nervous system has been carefully rebuilt. Right now, it simply cannot endure the stress that the rest of you can. That should improve with time, but for the foreseeable future, you must completely avoid any strenuous exertion. Anything sufficient to tax your physique will stress your cerebellum beyond acceptable parameters, strongly increasing the likelihood of a second episode…with the consequences I outlined earlier.”

“I’ve…never really taken it easy in my life, doctor…” Adam pointed out.

“So I gather. Nofl stressed that this restriction in particular will be torturous for you. I am not unsympathetic. Nevertheless, if you wish to live, and enjoy an acceptable quality of life, then you must be disciplined about this. The more disciplined you are now, the more temporary this restriction will be. Is that understood?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Then, as there is nothing further we can do for you here, I am discharging you. Nofl will monitor your progress at his laboratory in Folctha, and you will return here as needed.” Forln closed the slideshow, half-turned to go before pausing and turning back.

“…On a personal note…thank you.”

“What for?”

“Our continued existence.”

It was damn hard to read emotion in a Corti face, let alone the restrained one that flickered across Forln’s before he turned and strode from the room. But whatever it was left Adam feeling…

Well, he didn’t know how he felt, really.

“Well, uh, just doin’ my job,” he muttered, though Forln was already gone. Marty laughed softly, then maneuvered herself behind him and gripped the wheelchair handles.

Jesus. A fuckin’ wheelchair for him. She had to put her back into it, and her shoes slipped and squeaked on the floor before she got him rolling, but she didn’t complain one bit. Instead, once he was trundling along, she reached forward and scruffled his scalp.

“I can tell I’m gonna have glutes of titanium after this,” she teased.

“Har har.”

“Oh, don’t complain, you big baby,” she said, fondly. “Let’s get you home. Doofus is restless and Diego’s been asking after you. And your dad is waiting for us at the jump terminus.”

Adam brightened at that. But just as he was enjoying the idea of kissing his boy, a grumbly little thought crossed his mind. “Shit, Marty, how am I gonna get to our apartment?”

“The elevator?”

“I, uh, I think I’m too heavy. By too much to risk.”

He could feel her annoyed grin. “Oh, chunk, this is going to be all sorts of weird, huh?”

“Well, I mean…I can walk.”

“Up all four flights?”

“Well, gonna hafta. Or, uh, get a friend to help.”

“Get a friend anyway. Adam,” she said, more seriously. “We’ll figure it out, okay? This is just temporary. You’ll be doing your superman thing before long, understand?”

“Yeah…” he sighed, then resolved himself. “…Yeah.”

“Attaboy. C’mon. Home’s waiting.”

Adam nodded, rested his head back and tried to relax. Right now, Forln’s advice to just rest wasn’t sounding so difficult. Even being awake and talked to was kinda tiring. His whole body wanted to curl up, sleep and heal. And, well…he was in a wheelchair. And whoever’d built it had made it kinda comfy, even…

But there was too much going on around him to really want to sleep. They were on Origin for fucksake, there weren’t too many people had ever set foot on the Corti homeworld. A small swarm of cleaning drones was following them around, sanitizing every inch of every surface they even passed near. Their progress through the hospital was cleared for them, with little gray people waiting down the side corridors behind blue forcefields until they were gone.

Adam didn’t pay them much mind. Instead, he looked up as they passed through a long glass-ceilinged hallway and he got to see where they really were: right in the middle of a city that made any on Earth look low-rise. It was like if the shortest and shabbiest building in Manhattan was the Burj Khalifa.

No flying cars, though. Flying trains, floating down holographic lanes as they snaked around and between the buildings to deliver their passengers to plazas and platforms on lots of different levels.

Pretty fuckin’ impressive, really. Too bad he’d come here like this. Too bad it wasn’t open to human tourism. Made him wonder what life was like at street level for the Corti. What kinda fast food stands and whatever they had. What did Corti go to the mall to buy? Did they have malls at all? Wasn’t like they could all be scientists and professors and doctors…

Fuck, his feet were itchin’ with wanting to get up and go explore, answer some of those questions for himself. But…even if he could, doctor’s orders. And they’d never let him anyway. Couldn’t have a big human disease raft walking around among the unprotected public. In spaces where he’d be too tall, too wide, too heavy and too smelly to fit anyway.

Oh well. He wanted to get home anyway. He missed his kids.

Still, he watched until he couldn’t see any more, and finally rested his head back and closed his eyes once the view of the city was gone.

And he dozed all the way home.


Date Point: 18y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Lewis Beverote

It came as a shock to Lewis that…he actually liked kids.

Okay, so, when there was screaming and hollering and grumpy stuff goin’ on, sure, they weren’t so cute. And there was a lot of that from lil’ Anna especially, right now. She did not like the word “no.” Or bein’ offered a choice between two things she liked. Or sometimes just gettin’ tired, and then bein’ so mad about bein’ tired that she screamed until the windows rattled which just made her more tired and more mad so she screamed even more and…

…All that stuff? Not so cool.

But when she wasn’t carryin’ on like that, she was a sweetheart. And little Sam was fun, doin’ his baby-yoga and smilin’ at everyone and not really too worried about bein’ stuck at somebody else’s house while daddy was in the hospital.

Diego was pretty subdued. Needed a lot of hugs and distractions, which he mostly got from Allison. He wasn’t keen on roughhousing no matter how much Julian seemed itching to toss him around, which was sorta sad; he wanted papa. He was a damn patient kid, but Lewis had never known a three-year-old could look so stressed.

Well, today was the day at least. Just a few hours longer.

The whole thing—not just ‘Horse, but all the other poor bastards comin’ back from Hell—had got Lewis reading up on Nervejam. Its history, effects, applications…countermeasures? So, he was doin’ his part for the childminding by keepin’ half an eye on Sam while he read on the couch.

Ably assisted by Tristan, who was Lewis’ kind of nerd. Mind like a sponge, thirsty to drink up knowledge. Better with girls than Lewis had been at his age, too. Lucky fucker.

“So nobody’s sure where the technology came from?”

Lewis nodded. “Nope. Predates even the OmoAru, far as anyone can tell. Now, usually when you’ve got a piece of tech stickin’ around across galactic timescales like that, I’d look for the Hierarchy’s influence, but this is one’a those occasions where I just can’t see what use it is to them. Anything that smacks somebody right in the brain like that’s gotta be a disaster for their daemon agents, too.”

“Maybe it was a weapon somebody else developed to counter them?”

“Neat hypothesis, my dude. But if it was, seems to me like they’d stamp it out, right? But instead, one’a the first things the Dominion did was mandate the presence of nervejam grenade caches at security checkpoints all across the galaxy, for use in the event of Hunter raids. And you can’t turn everything in the galaxy into some ancient alien conspiracy, right?”

“I dunno, can’t you?” Tristan asked. “I mean, they sure seem to get everywhere.”

“You’re just sittin’ close to the nexus of a few of ‘em, dude. Makes ‘em loom large in your mind. Nah, I think what we have in Nervejam is just a good ol’ classic case of folks doin’ stuff. Refreshing, ain’t it?”

“I guess…”

Lewis chuckled at the skeptical look on the young man’s face, glanced at the baby, found that Sam had put his head down and was asleep, grinned, and returned to his reading.

“…Thing is, it’s a damn good weapon. Does what weapons should do, and levels the playing field a bit. Gives your average vizzytik security guard somethin’ he can actually fight back with. Hunters sure learned to respect it in a hurry, lookit this.” He turned his tablet around to show off some data. “See? That Dominion mandate happened, the grenade caches got deployed, and raids on facilities with a supply of ‘em dropped pretty sharply. So it worked. ‘Course, the Hunters just raided elsewhere, started hittin’ the civilian shipping lanes more, but that one move prob’ly saved a lotta lives.”

“And then they adopted it themselves.”

“Yeah, they do that. I mean, look how quick they went from kinetic pulse to firearms after their first few clashes with humans. And how quick they stole fusion claws from the Gao.”

They read in silence for a few minutes. Nothing sensitive, of course. Just the publicly available stuff. Which was fine by Lewis, because he wasn’t even slightly interested in the classified workings of the new drugs. Instead, the idea forming in his head was that these nootropic agents, however they worked, might be part of the solution, but they couldn’t be the whole thing. It was kinda like havin’ cutting edge state-of-the-art surgery to help the wounded, but not givin’ them body armor.

…What about body armor? There had to be a radiation shield that would work. Well. Maybe it’d be too impractical for troop armor—

—Not for everyone. One glance over at Julian’s fuckin’ waist-thick neck and…

An idea, anyway. One he scribbled on his little notepad for later Violent Probing. It was plain physically impossible for any effect to both affect matter and be unshielded by something else. Had to be a material or field out there…

One of these days, he’d buy the research librarians on Origin a bottle of…whatever it was Corti drank. Fuck knew, he’d made enough weird goddamn requests of them over the years.

“What do Corti quaff for celebrations?” He mused aloud.

“Fungus juice,” Julian said distractedly. He was sat at the kitchen table, answering his emails. Somehow, despite many predictions of its inevitable demise, the laptop had never gone away. It had just got skinny.

“Urgh. What?”

“Nah, it’s nice stuff. Earthy and savory. Really strong, though.”

“Like, alcoholic strong, or…?”

“Like sippin’ a cup of worcestershire sauce.”

Tristan gave him an appalled look. “…Ew. You’d enjoy that?”

Julian snorted, “I didn’t get this kind of big being picky about what I eat. You have any idea how much I like anything I can slather on chicken and rice without throwing off my macros?”

“And Ramsey wants to be like you…” Tristan grumbled uncomprehendingly.

“So, wait,” Louis chuckled, “if I sent them, like, a crate of soy sauce…?”

“Fastest way to almost any alien’s heart. I haven’t met one of any species that doesn’t love it. Heck, Rockefeller has some really good shoyu on order just ‘cuz of that. Wanna know a weird secret? They all like worcestershire sauce too, but obviously we don’t give that to the vegans. We discovered that accidentally. State put out a pretty funny cable about it a few years ago.”

“Huh. Good to know.” Lewis made a note of that, too. It’d be a good way to say thanks to a group of beings he’d never met, but who surely found him infuriating.

Julian sat back and exhaled slightly, in that relieved-stressed way that made both Lewis and Tristan look his way.

“He’s coming home.”

“Guess you’d better get over there then, dude.”

“Yup…got everythin’ you need?”

“Pretty sure I can go a few hours without killin’ a baby,” Lewis grinned. Julian chuckled, and rose to his feet.

“Good. Gabe Arés should be comin’ over to pick ‘em up soon anyway.” Julian padded over the room and leaned down to give Tristan a hug. “Don’t beat ‘em up too much tonight, y’hear?”

The kid rolled his eyes, but smiled; Julian really was rockin’ the Big Dad Energy these days. Dadly duties done, Julian popped into the other room to quietly interrupt whatever Al was doin’ to cool off their daughter, and then was gone. As usual, he didn’t bother with a car or whatever, just took off at a jog. A couple seconds later, Lewis saw his permanent security follow behind.

Had to be awkward, havin’ guys following him everywhere like that. But, he’d never heard Julian complain about it. Hell, he grilled steaks for them!

Lewis shot another quick glance at the baby to make sure Sam hadn’t spontaneously combusted in the last five seconds, and then settled back into his reading. He turned to the precise mechanism of nervejam and its quantum interference with neurotransmission, a field he felt a bit more qualified for than childminding. Though, so far, it was turning out to be pretty easy. And when the grandparents showed up in a few hours to collect them, he’d be proud to hand over two intact and healthy little ones.

It felt good. Helping, like that. There were no kids on Erebor, and he’d never really got to know any before his abduction, but now…

Maybe Lucy was right. Maybe having some of their own wouldn’t be so bad…


Date point: 18y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Martina Arés

“You sure you can make it up all four floors?”

Adam wasn’t about to answer no to a question like that. “Ain’t a question of whether. I will. Just…might not enjoy it all that much,” he said with a bit of bravado. But, seeing her worry, he softened a bit. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a Julian to catch me. Don’t I big guy?”

Adam delivered a hearty backslap that, frankly, would have outright killed normal people. She didn’t know if he’d intended that or not, but he was careful who he was jockular with, right now.

Julian didn’t complain. He just staggered forward a step and grinned.

“Good thing I skipped legs today, then…”

Adam looked as if his best friend had just confessed to the gravest of sins. Marty couldn’t help herself: her hand flew to her mouth to cover a laugh. First one of those she’d had in several weeks…

“Relax,” Julian smiled. “My heavy session is in an hour. I’m getting legs in either ‘cuz you can’t get your fat ass up the stairs, or you can and I gotta make up.”

“Well fuck you too,” Adam chuckled, then looked at the stairs. “Well…easy way would be to just jump to each landing…”

“Yes…” she noted. He’d made a lot of progress on big explosive athletic things. It was control that was bedeviling him. “But no. Nofl says your brain needs the practice of doing things the normal way. You aren’t wimping out, I hope…”

“No.” Of course not, but maybe a little poke was in order. In any case he sighed, shuffled over to the stairs…and started putting one foot in front of the other.

He made it to the top, and only wobbled once. Julian was behind him the entire way, ready to catch, or offer a stabilizing hand on Adam’s broad back. It was honestly heartwarming to watch, with the comparatively smaller man offering encouragement and taunts one after the other…

“Try and stay standing too,” she reminded him. “It’s just like training, but for your nervous system.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Adam grimaced as the distraction of talking made him pull a bit too hard on the handrail, which flattened under his grip.

“See, that’s why I don’t practice body throws with you,” Julian quipped.

Adam stopped, sighed heavily, refocused, and kept moving. He’d come a long way already. At first, he’d barely had more coordination than a four-month-old baby. Just getting his limbs to go in the direction he wanted them to had been the work of a solid week of careful physiotherapy and some pretty amazing pharmacy. Now, he was…

The best analogy she could come up with was an easily-tired drunk who was far, far too strong for his own good. Worse, he had to push himself, but not push himself too hard, or the spectre of a seizure might show itself again. They wanted him healed, not crippled.

The door opened as they reached the top of the stairs: Gabe and Jess were waiting for them, with Gabe holding tight to Diego’s hand for now. He gave his son a complicated, understanding look as they ushered him into the living room, and put an arm around as much of his shoulders as he could. Apparently getting hit in the head was becoming an Arés male tradition, but Marty found herself slightly glad there was at least one man around who could really sympathize with Adam’s predicament right now.

Happily, Diego was a bit more oblivious, and eager to climb up Mount Papá and lie against his chest for snuggles, once Adam had negotiated his way to the couch for a lie-down.

“Missed you!”

Adam didn’t dare hug: but he could tilt his head forward and plant a kiss on Diego’s forehead. “Missed you too, mijito. You been good?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh?” He smiled, “That’s all you got to say?”

Diego squirmed, a bit embarrassed. “I was really sad ‘cuz you an’ Mamá were gone an’ Yayo said you were hurt and I wanted to come see you but I couldn’t an’ it wasn’t safe…”

“It’s been hard on him,” Jess replied, stroking her grandson’s hair as she sat down. “But he’s a trooper. And you’ve been really good for Uncle Julian and Auntie Xiù and Auntie Al too, haven’t you?”

“He’s a good little man,” Gabe beamed, proudly. “You kept Sam safe, right?”

Diego nodded seriously. “Uh-huh.” God, the machismo was so thick it was adorable.

Adam grinned, and Marty saw him stop himself from trying to reach out and scruffle Diego’s hair. She did it for him. “Good. Now papá is still pretty hurt, so I have to take it easy. I won’t be able to do a lot of things for a while, okay?”

“What kinda things?”

“Well, I’m really strong, Diego, and right now I can’t control myself so good. That means I might break something if I pick it up, or hurt someone if I hug them. So I have to be very careful while the smart people help me get better, okay?”

“‘Kay.” Diego put his head down and hugged tight.

“And I’m guessing you need to sleep a lot,” Gabe added. He nodded sympathetically along when Adam nodded yes. “Thought so.”

He stood up with a grunt of effort, and bent over to plant a kiss on Adam’s forehead. “Glad you’re home, mijo. We’ll let you get some rest, okay?”

“I should get going too,” Julian added, from where he’d been leaning in the doorframe and letting the family have their reunion.

“Right,” Adam chuckled. “Heavy leg day.”

“Well, that, yeah. But there’s one of those fancy dinners I love so much tonight.”

“Big names?” Gabe guessed.

“Mm-hmm.” Julian pulled a wry face. “Daar, Rockefeller, President Sartori…”

“Oof. Better you than me.”

“Do you always do heavy lifting beforehand?” Jess asked.

“Oh, yeah. Good stress reliever. And just…Oh geez, sittin’ through one of those things without tiring myself out first would be torture.”

“I think you make it worse for yourself by deciding you hate that sort of thing,” Marty noted. “Ever done a dining-out? They’re a lot of fun.”

“Heard the stories. Daar might wear a pink glittery bowler hat for fun, but I can’t picture Rockefeller doing it.”

“Or Sartori?”

“Couldn’t say. This’ll be my first time meeting him.”

“Eh,” Adam added, enjoying his snuggle time. “It won’t be so bad. There’ll be other pretty celebrities to take the heat off.”

“And the food’s usually pretty good, right?” Marty asked.

“It’s a good snack, over a buncha hours. I’ll be eating a full meal before I go.”

“Gourmet niblets over a base of sweet potatoes and steak,” Adam rumbled. “Sounds like I’ve got some backlog in the tracking app to get through….”

“…Now I’m hungry,” Marty mused. She stood up. “And this guy’s belly waits for no man, huh?” she swatted Adam’s shoulder as she passed, gave Gabe and Jess a hug, and moments later their house was…well. Not empty because it had Adam on the couch, Diego on Adam, and Sam asleep on the baby mat. But quiet, for the moment.

Already, her mind was working, though. Calculating what they’d need and where to help Adam navigate it safely. Sikes had made it crystal clear that whatever she wanted welded up, all she had to do was ask. She could already think of a few things…

Problem for tomorrow. Here and now, there was meal prep, and the logistics of feeding three boys. But what a problem to have! It sure as hell beat the alternative.

She smiled, and got to work.


Date Point: 18y10m AV
Alien Palace, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

(former) President Arthur Sartori

Nobody kept all their dignity around Daar, if they were close friends. He needed very little excuse to pick up little five-foot-five Sartori and smush him firmly against his monstrous ten-foot self, giving the most bestest and fragrant hugs.

Well, at least there was hardly any brain-smashing reek of musk and stale sweat this time, and no loose hairs to get all over everything. Just…huge, friendly monster. Nayda had clearly paid extra attention to his bathing.

In past years, it would have been a bit of a scandal. But the world changed, and attitudes changed with it. Daar had infected the reserved world of diplomacy with a touch of fizz. It was okay to be genuinely warm with one’s friends, now. And with new acquaintances, too.

Arthur had been looking forward to meeting the Etsicitty family (if that was the right name for them) from the moment he’d learned they were attending, and they certainly did not disappoint. Sir Jeremy Sandy had chuckled at length as he described their early, awkward forays into the world of movers-and-shakers, and Ambassador Rockefeller had a certain fond exasperation in his tone when he described Ambassador Etsicitty’s best efforts at scrubbing up…

But in fact, the trio were a complimentary blend of elegant poise, handsome confidence, and sincere magnetism. Sartori thought the wild hair worked for the big man, too. Even in white tie. He could learn to tone down that handshake, though.

Still, he liked the ambassador immediately. Julian just couldn’t help but radiate every good stereotype about All-American goodness. He was huge and strong, handsome, an earnestly straightforward type of man who was more than capable of verbal fencing but would rather just tell it straight. Soft-spoken, too. Polite, but no pushover. Dangerous, even. Intense.

He was exactly what an American ambassador should be, Sartori thought. Just civilized enough to take some of the bite out of his sheer animal magnetism. He clearly wasn’t perfectly comfortable with the attention—though what did he expect, given his life? Nonetheless, he took perfect advantage of it to advance American (and allied) interests as part of the conversation.

All that and Sartori had barely two minutes with him. Oh well, they ended up sitting near each other at dinner. Though, if he was honest with himself, the greater pleasure was being sat right next to Xiù.

It was a crime, really. Here was the woman who had initiated first contact with humanity’s two closest and best interstellar allies, and yet she had received far less recognition for that fact than Sartori felt she deserved. And the question of exactly how she’d made such a strong impression on two alien cultures answered itself within a minute of conversation.

It was the scars, worn proudly and openly even here in delicate company. The ragged gouges left by a Hunter’s teeth on her arm. The split eyebrow from being battered around by pulse fire. She hid neither, and had never had them repaired. They spoke to a willingness to put herself in harm’s way for others, and integrity of a fundamentally universal kind.

The three of them together proved the old truism that the best way to get over differences in opinion or lifestyle was just…to talk with each other. They were so obviously devoted to each other it was hard to remember what exactly the objection had been during Julian’s appointment.

The small talk was amusing, too.

“There are certain disadvantages to having a caveman for a husband, yes.” Xiù had just the right knack for teasing without giving any lurid embarrassment.

“Oh?” One of the other ladies at the table, this one a local minister of education. “Do tell.”

Allison had a touch more mischief in her. “He sheds on the couch,” she teased.

“Don’t be jealous of my luxuriant locks,” Julian rumbled in with a smile.

“Ugh. Also, do you know how infuriating it is that he has such nice hair? He doesn’t do anything to keep it! He just…wakes up, dumps some Pert Plus on it, and like ten seconds later it’s perfect! No conditioner, no oil, none of that. He doesn’t even brush!”

“Unless we make him,” Xiù added. “Blessings of being a grungy boy, I guess. He never has to worry about dry or brittle hair.”

“Stupid good-hair genes,” Allison grumbled in mock indignation. “Boys get all the luck.”

“Hey! I keep offering to go short, but last time I did you threatened to stab me!”

“Well of course! How else am I supposed to show off my boy-candy?”

“Heck, if that’s what you want, I’m sure I can arrange another charity shoot…”

“See? Incorrigible.’

And so on, to the amusement of everyone in earshot. It didn’t feel like a put-on at all. They were complete naturals at the game.

No wonder they’d grown so powerful so quickly. Hell, the three of them probably didn’t even quite realize how much social power they commanded. They had the ears of Presidents and Prime Ministers, the confidence of both the Great Father and Mother, the respect of the Given-Men and Singers alike…

Tonight’s gathering wasn’t strictly political. It was predominantly a mixer among the high society that lived in or frequented Cimbrean, and there were people from every sector of society to meet. Government, industry, civic institutions, even a few local celebrities…at least, the ones who weren’t crass idiots with their fame.

Not the journalists, though. This was a private affair. A regrouping after major events, to hear from the movers and shakers themselves about it, or at least to reinforce social connections. That mattered more than the common man generally understood; they tended to think government was about elected officials and law. And it was, but the back-room was where the real work actually got done.

The tension between government and law on one side—the fundamental defense of the common man—and the power of the elites on the other, was something Sartori was never quite comfortable with. It was therefore critically important that those social connections be maintained, because it was the only real check on the elites against ambition and folly.

The technocratic world of post World War II was slowly giving way toward an older arrangement, one of personalities and great powers. There was a lot of good and bad to go with that.

So. A little wine to unlock their tongues just enough and the opinions could flow. Conversation could happen, without the ritual of a Senate or House or Thing. No speaker, no parties, no playing to the camera, no vote-winning. Most of the people here didn’t need votes.

And thank God the greatest powers at the table were fundamentally good people, all. The Governor-General wielded so much influence it was honestly difficult for a former President like Sartori to wrap his head around. The man had in practice almost zero control over the government not even in his name, and yet…not once had it ever failed to do as he wished.

Daar, at least, was understandable. He was just a straight-up avatar of power, in every possible form a man could wield power. He was an absolute sovereign, in fact, greater than any king or emperor—he owned the whole of the Gao as an extension of his person, and whatsoever he dictated, happened. But his contribution to the night, by and large, was to listen.

And in fact, encourage the conversation. Which, inevitably, turned toward interspecies politics.

“Thas’ a good point,” he rumbled at someone who Sartori couldn’t identify. “I have been thinkin’ on what some kinda grand interstellar alliance might look like. I don’t know if it’s right ‘fer me ‘ta push that sorta thing jus’ now, though.”

By necessity he sat at one head of the table, because firstly he was the highest-ranking individual present, but secondly he was as wide as five place settings, ate as much as ten men, and had to sit on the floor rather than a chair to get down to everyone else’s eye level. Assuming a chair could be found that could possibly bear him in the first place.

He was mild and politely solicitous despite all that, because nothing would get said at the table that night if he didn’t allow it or wouldn’t approve. Conversation was at his whim. That was power! Thank the good Lord he was considered in how he wielded it, and made a big welcoming hole for people to pour their thoughts into.

Folctha’s Minister of Agriculture, Ben Troughton, was in vocal form tonight, and had much to say about the Interspecies Dominion.

“It’s the damn tariffs. They’re desperate to prop up their own crop farmers and agriculture, so they keep hiking the rates for our exports.”

“Food security is important,” Champion Loomi noted in-between laps at his soup. He was one of the few whose stature allowed him to look the Great Father nearly in the eyes (or at least, not crane his neck too uncomfortably far back), and along with two other brownfurs sat on a low, wide bench. “One can hardly blame them for it.”

“It’s excessive, and aggressive.”

“Well, yeah,” Daar chittered. “Do ‘ya know there was a short-lived idea in th’ Conclave ‘ta embargo carrots? Somethin’ ‘bout corruptin’ young cubs off yanni root or whatnot.”

“As I recall, it got dropped after you expressed displeasure at the idea.”

“Well, I got five thousan’…uh, I guess acres is the closest. Anyway. I’m definitely on team carrot. Yanni root is tasty but it’s a pain in the tail ‘ta farm. Good source o’ latex in th’ leaves though.”

“And they’re crunchier,” one of the rougher silverfurs noted. Some sort of sports celebrity at pounceball, from what Sartori understood. Basically a mash-up of rugby, field hockey, the better bits of football, and a dash of soccer too.

So, heavy on the brawl. He looked it, too. Dude was covered in scars and freeze-brands.

“Still. All that effort just over the exports from Folctha’s farms alone? And we don’t even export all our crop!”

“Don’ you worry none, we’ll be buyin’ it all up an’ then some in, oh, twenny, mebbe fifty earth years time I bet. Our rebound is gonna have a lotta hungry mouths ‘ta feed an’ I got a sneakin’ suspicion they’ll be a lot hungrier’n previous generations. They’ll all be big boys like Korok, here!”

Korok preened a bit and duck-nodded in appreciation. “Might get some real competition!’

“I saw ‘yer last game! Pretty impressed ‘ya escaped a five-way tackle like that.”

Sartori whistled. Pounceball was not a gentle game, and regularly took advantage of the Gao’s advanced medical care. It took a special kind of simultaneously graceful and reckless athlete to play. Korok seemed caught being deeply flattered and wanting to preen, and also deeply starstruck that what must have been a personal hero had noticed him in sport.

That was the general shape of the small talk for a while. It was a dinner! Yes, also a meet-and-greet and no doubt there’d be business behind the scenes later, but that wasn’t for the dining table. The dining table was for being pleasant and getting to know each other.

There was one topic that Sartori wanted to land on, however. And it was, sadly, quite a painful one for a few of those present. But, he wasn’t one to shy away. He just…picked his moment.

“I gather Sergeant Arés came home today. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years back, so, I’m glad to hear he’s survived his injuries.”

“I don’t think anyone else would have,” Julian agreed. “But, uh, yeah. I saw him this afternoon, safe back at home with his family. It’s…gonna be a long recovery for him. Especially considering he’s been told to rest.”

“That’ll be hard for him.”

“He…doesn’t exactly do rest.”

Sartori nodded, slightly amused despite himself. That fit. “I’ve heard General Miller has been meeting with the Secretary of the Air Force,” he said aloud.

A ways down the table was Folctha’s Minister of Defence, Emily Khan. “Wow,” she noted. “That’s a pretty big jump up the chain of command.”

“Along with the Chief of Space Operations,” Julian nodded.

“Well, that can only mean one thing,” Sartori commented. “And good, the man deserves it.”

“So soon?” Khan asked. “Isn’t it a bit early for that?”

“Early ‘fer what?” The Great Father’s direct question rang through the conversation.

“…Oh! Well, uh, a high decoration of some kind…”

“Probably the Medal of Honor,” Sartori clarified. “Though that’s just speculation on my part.”

Several heads nodded in agreement. Others were still, thoughtful. Daar’s dipped once, pleased.

“That man fought off and tore apart a Hunter Alpha with his bare hands,” Daar growled, “with no backup or support, all with complete disregard ‘fer his own safety while protectin’ the lives of his patients. His total fearlessness in the face of basically certain death not only preserved our only remaining jump array at the time, he single-handedly saved my life an’ the lives of everyone else there, an’ ensured th’ success o’ the mission, which in turn denied th’ Hunters a vast strategic reserve o’ food an’ materiel. He’s one o’ the bravest men I know and my people may owe him our entire gods-damned future, not just from this but from other actions, too. He’s a hero in the deepest, most truest sense of the word, an’ that’s all there is to it.”

Well. If those words got back to Congress—and they would—then that just about put the rubber stamp on it.

“Well. To his health, then.” Sartori lifted his glass.

The toast was quite enthusiastic. Those at the table who didn’t know Arés personally had at least heard of him. Sartori wondered if it would warm the big man’s heart to know so many people were thinking of him, or if he’d rather have escaped the attention.

A little of both, probably. There was a certain thoughtful look in Daar’s eye, though. Something that made Sartori think he’d just had an idea…

But whatever it was, Daar didn’t share.

The next course arrived, and the conversation moved on.


Date Point: 18y10m1w AV
Forward Operating Base Alighieri, Planet Hell

Gabrielle Nyoni

There was a certain macho gallows humor doing the rounds among the deployed troops about how they were literally fighting on Planet Hell, and against cannibalistic alien monsters at that. There was something inherently absurd about the whole situation, and the soldiers were far from blind to it.

It would have been an overstatement to say they were revelling in it, but it was there, in the base’s unique, increasingly established culture. Heck, it was there in the base’s name.

Gabby got plenty of good shots. Men jawing and joking, or piled up and sleeping somewhere. But her favorite to date was of a Gaoian trooper watching his human counterparts with a distinctly puzzled expression, his ears askance and his head tilted while the humans riffed out on air guitar to an old videogame soundtrack that struck like a wall of murderous volume.

Then the opposite: the humans grinning and shaking their heads at Gaoian foibles like a pungent tray of pickled oily fish served with air-fried nava larvae. Gabby was even brave enough to try one: it was as airy as popcorn, as crunchy as a potato chip, and tasted almost, but not quite, like chicken.

Then there’d be an alarm, or shouting, and playtime stopped. Faster than she could follow, they were on their feet with weapons in hand, and then the room was empty.

Once upon a time, she and Marrek would have embedded themselves directly with a unit, gone on patrol with them, been there keeping their heads down while the bullets flew, getting to know the men. For several reasons, that just wasn’t feasible on Hell, and it certainly wasn’t safe. She felt like she was missing something by not getting that close to them, but…

…But it was hard enough to see them coming back.

There was a spirit to them, of either species. One thing she’d never foreseen was how the medics literally had to restrain some of their guys as they pulled them out of the fight, because they desperately wanted to keep fighting, even through their injuries. In a lot of cases, the pain of not being there alongside their team seemed to cause them more anguish than whatever wound they’d picked up.

Especially the nervejam patients. Physically whole, not a scratch on them, and therefore convinced they were ‘fuckin fine, it’s just a goddamn headache, get the fuck offa me…’ even while they slurred their words and couldn’t coordinate their movements.

There was a certain face that went with it, too. An expression. A rictus, really, or a fixed snarl. Like the human brain’s basic reaction to nervejam, assuming it didn’t knock them out or kill them outright, was to get incredibly fucking angry.

The Gaoians reacted differently. They got…trippy. A bad trip, if their luck wasn’t so great, so that they came back off the line as a ball of shaky fur, curled up and whimpering about whatever personal demons had come to visit.

Either way, Gabby had no desire to be anywhere near a nervejam pulse when it went off. Every so often she’d catch a glimpse of them across the river, like a strobe light going off. Even from that far away, they were…unpleasant, somehow. They looked like a migraine felt, though of course, on camera they were just flashes of light. The breathtaking shock of actually seeing one had a quality nobody could ever record.

There was something else, too. It turned out Marrek hadn’t quite got over his own battlefront demons. Whenever he got Hunters in view through his drone’s cameras, his tail drooped, his ears flattened and his hackles raised: A Gaoian in fight mode, his body naturally protecting all the most easily bitten bits.

And of course, he was a macho idiot about it. “Nah, ain’t nothin’ wrong, I just hate the fuckin’ things…”

“I mean…they get my pulse going and my palms sweaty too, but you really look like you’re about to try and fight one with your bare teeth, every time you see one,” Gabby replied.

They were going over their footage and pictures in the mess hall, eating with one hand while writing and selecting their best stuff with the other. ESNN’s editors were going to want a report within the next few hours, so of course they needed a script, Gabby’s voiceover and a selection of footage to set it all to.

The big story, of course, was the casualties. This was war in all its terrible glory, and a lot of the men and women shovelling food into their faces around her weren’t going to get out unscathed. There was a pretty much constant flow of stretchers through the medevac array, many of them showing no visible injury, but heavily sedated: the nervejam patients.

Every day since they’d arrived, a few flag-draped coffins had been carried with dignity onto the Array and sent home, too. Every day, the Gao lit some pyres. In contrast to the wars of the early 20th century, the fallen were only a trickle, but in contrast to the wars of the decades immediately prior to First Contact, they were a stream.

AEC’s official line was that, through diligence, training, professionalism and heroism, the casualty rates were actually somewhat below what they had predicted and prepared for. Gabby wasn’t quite sure what to do with that claim, so she’d just quoted it verbatim and left the viewers to form their own opinions. Presumably the editors would have something to say…

“Yeah, well.” Marrek tilted his head at a short bit of footage, then turned his tablet around to show her. An IFV, rolling back through the base’s gates with a nasty melted gouge down one side, the sure work of fusion claws. “Y’ain’t seen ‘em up close, an’ God or whatever willin’, ‘ya won’t. I din’t git these freeze-brands ‘fer nothin.’”

“Wait, those aren’t scars?” Gabby nodded, accepting the footage.

“Nope. Modern medicine don’t leave any,” he sniffed in a distinctly disgruntled sort of way as he turned the tablet back around to keep perusing. “So now a man’s gotta pay ‘ta commemorate anythin’ special. Fuckin’ ripoff it is.”

“They’re certainly…striking.”

“Yup.” Marrek pant-grinned happily. “Earned me a daughter!”

“Money well spent, then,” Gabby replied, drily.

“They git girls lookin’, don’t they? An’ don’ pretend ‘yer immune ‘ta big pretty muscles, I saw you lookin’ at that HEAT chungus. Gonzo, right? Judge me all ‘ya want, but I bet ‘yer hopin’ he buys you a little gold ring—”

Gabby gave him her patented Unimpressed Look, painted thinly on top of an amused smile. “Honestly, that’s too much for me.”

“The ring?”

“The boy. I’ve heard the rumors about them.”

“What sorta rumors?” He wagged his tail.

She didn’t dignify that with a direct reply, and forged ahead. “Big rumors, if you must know. And that’s just…not my thing. Even though he was super friendly out on the range.”

“And here I thought size mattered,” he sniffed with a sly pant-grin.

“Men always think that.”

“That’s ‘cuz it does. Gals always like ‘ta pretend it don’t.” He never tired of teasing, really.

“Speaking as a gal, I’ll keep my own opinions about what does and does not matter, thank you very much.” She crossed her arms, grinning despite herself.

“Oh, sure. Y’know my favorite bit ‘bout all this? Gaoians and Humans are so much alike it’s fuckin’ hilarious. I’ve seen gals in both species swear up an’ down ‘bout this an’ that, and then you turn around one day, an’ they’re datin’ the fuckin’ avatar of everythin’ they profess ‘ta hate. Kinda mixed signals there, don’t’cha think?”

“You know, you’re not doing any damage to that whole ‘chauvinist Brownie’ reputation.”

“That’s ‘cuz I’m speakin’ truth an’ you know it,” he chittered. “An’ I ain’t into it, but ‘yer super cute when ‘yer annoyed wit’ me.”

“Ohh, I see. You’re the sort of boy who thinks the best way to flirt with a woman is to piss them off. If you were human, you’d have been pulling girls’ hair in the playground.”

“I’ll let my record do the speaking,” he retorted, smugly, and folded his arms across his chest. “Also, I can smell ‘yer amusement. Makes the game a lot more easier!”

“Right, because that wagging tail knocking against the wall really makes you a closed book.” She picked up her coffee—a little too cold by now—and decided to drink it all before it completely reached room temperature.

“I don’t labor under any delusions ‘bout bein’ sneaky. Never have! You should try it sometime. Jus’ march right up to your target boy an’ say ‘you’ll do,’ an’ see what you get!”

Gabby barely managed to turn in time to avoid spitting her coffee out all over him and their stuff as she laughed. Instead it sprayed between her fingers and onto the floor in the most incredibly goddamn glamorous way possible.

“Urgh…you win this round.”

He chittered, but sportingly helped her clean up the mess.

“I promise, ‘m’okay, though,” he added, once the coffee-soaked paper towels were in the trash. “S’jus’…”

“Okay.” Gabby nodded. “Let’s get that report finished, hey?”

“Yeah.”

They knuckled down to work, and managed to finish their script, record the voiceover, and send it all back to ESNN a whole ten minutes before it was due. They’d need to have another one ready tomorrow, but for now, they could relax. Not that they ever did. Nobody else was, here.

The war stopped for nobody.


Date point: 18y10m1w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Senior Master Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth

He stood on the scale with his phone recording, hoping today was the day. Metal squealed and deformed under his bare feet: Err0r was all it could manage, before winking out forever. Good. Christian was now officially the biggest human alive, and probably also the strongest, too. With that size came mass, and with that mass came power. With all that strength came speed, and the two together would make him a hell of a force to reckon with. He was just getting started and he had nowhere to go but up. Way up. All his numbers were improving ridiculously fast. He felt powerful, more nimble than ever. Better. A good feeling, really…

And a good distraction from the pain. Not just in his aching muscles or belly, either. He owed it to one of the best men in his life to use his gifts to their fullest, and be the best he possibly could. So, Firth and the rest of the Beefs were doing just that, and sharing every second of the experience with ‘Horse.

Solidarity in pain and gain, or something like that.

It was a good workout. He pulled Playboy up off the mat, checked he was okay. Grinned when he stepped on the scale and nothing happened. “Too late,” Firth drawled. “I finally smushed it.”

“Jeez,” Julian shook his head. “Left your footprints in the fuckin’ top plate! I was feelin’ all that on the mat, too.” He tilted his head curiously. “Finally beat him, huh?”

There was certain pride to go with that, even if he wasn’t happy about the circumstances. “First record o’ his to fall, yeah. Too bad I don’t know by how much…” he grumbled. “Anyhoo. I’ll be smashin’ the rest now too, an’ pretty quick I bet. On that note…you do your talk, yet?”

“Yeah. They’re nervous, but they’re supportive. I promised I’d be smart about it, but…”

“Good. Be smart about it, y’hear? This shit ain’t ‘yer livin’ th’ same way it is ‘fer me, so listen to ‘yer body an’ don’t be an idjit like me! You an’ I got the most ridiculous genetics ever, so we’re gonna lean on that instead of doin’ what ‘Horse did, ‘cuz that’s how he’d want us to do. We’re gonna be smart ‘bout this, yijao? He learned shit the hard way so we don’t need to.”

“Yi. It’s a marathon,” he noted seriously, “not a sprint. I’m hopin’ to live a long damn time.”

Firth nodded approvingly. “Damn right. Now, go let the sport doc give you his spiel, sign off an’ all that. And…thanks ‘fer comin’ along with me on this. It’ll be nice ‘ta have a bud.”

“No worries,” he nodded seriously. “I’ve got my own reasons for this. You gonna talk to Nofl?”

“Yeah. I wanna know, man. Way too much weird shit in my life to ignore, y’know?”

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.” With that, the two said their goodbyes for the day with a bro-slamming hug. Quick shower, then they were off on their own; they both had work to do. Julian had his sit-in turn with Adam—he was pretty independent now, but he still needed watching in case anything went sideways—so Julian was off to the apartments, hopefully to cheer the big guy up.

Firth sent a text to Adam to brag a bit too, because he’d love that.

broke yer scale, little guy
[attached video: 4.6 MB]

haha u fat fucc
bet you can’t touch yr toes

Firth tried, just for fun.

knees straight palms flat on the ground
beat that u lil midget

nah might fall over still kinda wobbly

…Fuck.

rite sarry

no worries gettin better!
go duckin smash it bruh

already did
imma beat yr squat later today too

haha nah u weak bitch still
betcha a steak u cant

Well, hell. Why not? Firth grinned as he agreed. It was good to see ‘Horse in good spirits.

Still, his first bit of business that morning proved sobering. Firth knocked on the door, and Costello beckoned him in. Firth got right to business. “He’s pretty chipper, sir. Thank fuck he’s such a fundamentally happy guy, despite, y’know. Everythin’ in his life. So long as he’s makin’ progress…”

“I’ll take whatever blessings we can get,” Costello nodded. “How’s his recovery?”

“Eh. Progressing, like I said. Still has trouble with fine motor control. Still gets mentally fatigued if he’s up an’ walkin’ too much. Slow but steady on both. Hasn’t lost any strength yet, but we can already tell his conditioning’s shot to shit.”

“It’s always the first thing to go when you get laid up,” Costello intoned sagely.

“Ayup. Playboy’s got watch with him right now. An’ so far anyway, th’ anti-seizure medicine’s keepin’ him safe.”

“Right.” Costello sighed. “On that note.”

“Word back from the medical College, I hear?”

“Ayup.” He gestured to a seat, but these days Firth had to resort to ‘Horse’s stool instead, which complained loudly under his weight. “They’re adamant that further surgical correction is inadvisable for now. They are ‘pleased with his progress,’ but think a full recovery will take over a year.”

Fuck. “Yeah. We sorta expected that. And…the seizures?”

Costello sighed again, and fidgeted a bit before delivering the bad news. “They are unable and unwilling to offer any sort of guarantees. So…he’ll never be out from under that.”

“…Yeah. Din’t think he ever would be, if I’m honest. It’d be askin’ ‘em to prove a negative.”

“Yeah.”

They sat in silence for a moment, contemplating the problem morosely.

“Update about the Crude,” Costello ventured eventually. “What happened to ‘Horse has got them spooked. Quote: ‘In light of recent personnel issues, and in order to further mission success, our suspension of the resistance factor for in-service operators shall continue indefinitely.’ So…guess we’ll all be forever twenty-one until we decide to retire.”

“Or git retired,” Firth pointed out, a bit bitterly. “On that note…sir.” Costello already knew what Firth was gonna say, judging by the look on his face. “If that’s the word, we can’t delay anymore, not even for his sake. Medical board’s gonna have their say if we don’t make a decision.”

“I know.”

“Sir…he can’t be on the teams anymore. Not even in a reserve capacity. It’s too dangerous for all of us havin’ a human bull who might spaz out at the worst fuckin’ time. Ain’t fair on anyone, him least.”

Costello sighed. “I know. I guess some part of me had hoped they could fix up his seizures…”

“Ain’t no fixin’ that, from what I hear. An’ the service docs all the way up at the fuckin’ pentagon have been debatin’ this. All of ‘em wanted ‘Horse to stay in. But they can’t do it.”

“And we can’t justify the risk, even if we had a say in it at this point.”

“No.” Firth sighed. It felt like sentencing his friend to death. “So we oughta make it official. ‘Horse already knows it’s comin’ of course but he deserves to hear it for real. An’ I think he needs the slap in the face too, if he’s gonna figger out the rest of his life.”

“You’re right. I’m not completely sure how to navigate this, given he’s US Space Force…”

“I got friends. I’ll have someone git in touch, sir. General Miller will probably be the guy.”

“…Right.”

Neither of them said anything for a bit.

“…What else, sir?”

Costello looked down at his papers, and re-shuffled them as if attempting to file away the previous conversation. “How are you coming along?”

“You mean, am I gittin’ good enough ‘ta replace ‘Horse and do my job too?”

“Well, nobody can quite replace him, but…”

Firth looked down and studied his hands. It was a thing to look at ‘em these days. Biggest, broadest, roughest hands of anyone besides an actual emperor bear.

“Well…I s’pose a bit of a story is the best answer, if you’ll indulge me, sir.”

Costello nodded.

“Right. So…years ago, just after capitol station? Me an’ Horse had a sorta private moment. First time I really got how much I’d just been coastin’ on natural ability, y’know? I asked him ‘ta help make me the best there is at this job, ‘cuz we knew even then that I was about the only dude who won the genetic lottery harder’n him. Turns out I won it the hardest but that’s ‘fer later.”

“Now that’s a scary thought…so why, then?”

There was a lot loaded in that question, but it was important to answer. “Why has ‘Horse been draggin’ me all these years? Couple’a reasons. First biggest reason was I’m fifteen years older an’ I’d not been gentle on myself. Took years ‘ta reverse all that body-debt. Second reason’s bigger, though, an’ it’s a big part o’ why this shit’s really gonna hurt ‘fer him. So ‘fore I answer that, lemme ask you this: what would you do if you were in his shoes?”

Costello looked thoughtful for a few moments. “Well, I suppose what I’d have to. Move on. Not saying it’d be fun or anything, but…”

“Right. Now, consider what that means. ‘Fer you, that’d be, oh, drop two hundred kilos or so, git fixed up an’ maybe ‘refurbed’ I guess we’re callin’ it now…and move on. You’d still be a goddamn monster by normal standards but you’d fit in most anywhere.”

“Ah.” He got it quick. “Because I’m just a hulked-out normal man, more or less. But he’s more.”

“Much more, sir. He could drop half his weight and he’d still officially be a Beef. Same wit’ me now. We’re that massive, but the difference is I’m built to be a giant, whereas he’s just crammed super dense an’ basically filled to fuckin’ bustin’ with muscle, and that’s even with having forced his frame to grow bigger over the years to accommodate it all. He’s basically a science experiment in how far his willpower could possibly go when teamed up with bleeding-edge sports medicine and actual fuckin’ spacemagic. Doin’ all that’s made him uniquely fuckin’ capable. I’m gonna hafta grow much stronger an’ faster than he ever was, an’ study the shit outta everything he knows, just so’s I can mebbe match his combat utility to the team. He’s the best, an’ he’s made himself into one of a kind.”

“He can’t walk away.” Costello said aloud, rhetorically.

“No. He’ll always be what he is. Only way out for him is inevitability, like it is for all of us. And so, back to my story. We spent years basically re-habbing me while I grew into the mission over time. Like how we all did, y’know? But, oh, a few years back? Like, a little ‘fore Daar was crowned the Great Father? I could feel shit was healed up. Hard feelin’ to describe. Could see it in the mirror, too. Lookit my face, sir. It’s handsome instead of broken all ‘ta fuck. Second chance at life, right?”

“…I think I see where this is going…”

“Yeah, but lemme finish, please. Anyhoo, I started growin’ like a weed but we both decided, y’know what? There’s pushin’ it, and there’s pushin’ it. Why bother? I weren’t never gonna fit in anywhere anyway, ‘cuz I was a super-heavyweight wrestler when I was fuckin’ thirteen. Why make it worse? I was one o’ those freaks that’d started showin’ up here ‘n there a couple decades ago, and knowin’ Julian’s story? An’ my own family history? Well, I ain’t asked Nofl yet, but I’m gonna today, an’ I think we both know what kinda answer he’s gonna give.”

“…Right. And by some degree that same sort of story probably accounts for a lot of what we’re seeing on-team and elsewhere.”

“Some of it, yeah. More of it I think is just genuine human badassery, now that we’re lettin’ go of bad ideas and such…but yeah. Anyway. Both of us were of the opinion that, ‘fer health an’ longevity reasons, mebbe I didn’t need ‘ta risk goin’ as hard as he did, ‘cuz we were both pretty much good ‘fer the mission. But that was a while ago. Things have been gettin’ dire this last year. When the Corti told us they were gonna ‘temporarily’ suspend the engineered resistance for us active types…I knew. An’ so…we started work on me.”

“None of us failed to notice you were growing at an alarming rate.”

“Yeah. An’ now, I’m hopin’ ‘fer a second kid, and, uh…other stuff in my personal life? I can’t walk away from this mission. Ever. Too much rides on it. My wife, my kid, my next kid. Maybe more people I care about, soon enough. An’ there’s only four guys who could possibly do this. We’re ‘bout to tell one of ‘em he’s gotta retire. Julian’s busy doing important civilian shit an’ he ain’t the type ‘ta suit up anyway. Gonzo’s got years o’ seasoning and catchup to do before he’s ready…”

“Leaving just you.” Costello sighed again. “Are…are you sure? I love ‘Horse to death, but nobody’s taught me the consequences of this life more than him.”

“I’m more’n sure. I started the ramp-up to all this almost a year ago an’ now I’m ‘bout to go all the way. Of us four? I’ve got hands down the best genetics an’ the best possible build to my frame to do this. Who else? Yan? He’s a monster, yeah, an’ physically he’s a better fuckin’ natural specimen than any of us, but we both know he ain’t really gonna be a team member, an’ I’m gonna use everythin’ I got to blow past him anyway. You can’t tell me we don’t need what I can do.”

“No,” he agreed, reluctantly. “No I can’t. And you’ve clearly thought this through, too.” Costello sat back and frowned at the whiteboard on his wall. “…Of course, I’ve got no designs on quitting, myself. Don’t think anybody in this unit does.”

“No, but y’all are in a different situation than us,” he said, referring to their short-manned officer corps. “Like I said, you could. I mean…lookit me. Lookit the diff’rence.”

He didn’t bother with any of the showy shit. He didn’t need to. Not even bespoke t-shirts or pants were any kind of modest on him, these days. He didn’t even need to stand up.

Still, Costello took his point with a nod. “Right. No going back for you. Or any of the Lads.”

“Weren’t ever normal ‘fer me, boss. I’m over seven feet tall naturally and I ain’t never fit my shoulders through doors since I turned fuckin’ twelve. Most guys this tall are lanky as shit. I never was. I won’t list all the ways I’m the fuckin’ best, ‘cuz you know ‘em already, so let’s just say I’m better-suited to this shit than anyone, period. Even ‘Horse. I got a thicker neck an’ I still got wider shoulders’n him, an’ they’ll get even wider when I finally start pushin’ myself like he did. So…take a good long look at what I am, knowin’ I ain’t even close ‘ta filled out yet, an’ tell me you wouldn’t want a big mean fucker like me on the team, maxxed out an’ in the fight.”

Costello nodded, maybe unconsciously.

Firth nodded back. “Not jus’ me, neither. Any of us superfreaks, ‘cuz almost nobody’s got the genetics to even qualify ‘fer indoc, an’ less’n one percent of them can even attempt this shit successfully, let alone be any good at it, let alone keep up with the mission demand year after year. Look at what our little band o’ freaks has ‘ta do to ourselves just ‘ta keep up! Now: imagine what takin’ that away from ‘Horse is gonna be like, sir. It’s gonna rip his fuckin’ heart out. He’s one of the rarest few, an’ he can’t fight no more. An’ we gotta do it, ‘cuz we gotta figure out how to blaze that trail ‘fer the rest of us too.”

Was that the most meatheaded little speech he’d ever given? Yeah. But, well, he was on a team of special-purpose swollbros on a very, very specific and deadly serious mission. His body was his weapon, in a way and to a degree that wasn’t true of anyone else anywhere in the human world. His only real peers were a couple o’ space gorillas an’ fuckin’ murderbears for God’s sake.

That wasn’t nearly as awesome as it sounded when he first signed up, honestly.

Costello musta been thinking the same thing and nodded, grimly. “I know some of the Lads make noises about retiring once the war’s won, but…”

Firth shook his head. “Nah.”

“Right. You’re right. Sooner or later, somehow, we’ll all face what ‘Horse is going through now.”

“Yeah. An’ maybe his real mission now is figgerin’ out how ‘fer the rest of us. I dunno. I know I s’posedly got a high IQ and all that, but this sorta shit makes me feel dumb as hell.”

“I don’t think any of us feel particularly clever about anything lately, Firth.”

“No.”

They sat for another minute, contemplating. Firth waited until it seemed appropriate, and broached the next bit. “I’ve…got some ideas ‘fer him. First part is some kinda retirement job, while medical does its thing an’ he gets whatever medal he’s due. I think we can justify a full-time training NCO right now, yeah?”

“Absolutely,” Costello nodded, visually happy for some way forward. “I’ll get started on that right way. What else?”

“Well, I doubt he’ll give up any of his size or strength. I wouldn’t, after having paid that kinda price. So we gotta jus’ mebbe find a good fit. I mean, he’d be good for full-time search and rescue, right? An’ I know people are always lookin’ ‘fer medics. There’s gotta be room ‘fer someone with his talents, yijao? Firefighter, mebbe? Security?”

“That last one might have possibilities,” Costello mused. “Word is the AEC is gonna be spinning up a joint special security unit for all the diplomats and ambassadors and whatnot here…”

“Mebbe.” Firth was a bit dubious, but best to see what developed. “It’s options, anyway. An’ if ‘ya let me, I’ll start pokin’ my nose around…”

“Please do. I’ll do the same.” They nodded, on the same page. Good. That was good.

Things didn’t feel quite so oppressive anymore.

Costello had some unfinished business, though. “Right. So, if you’re committed, and ready to do this, then the last thing I gotta do is sign off on your sports medicine approval, I take it.”

Firth nodded. That was one of the reasons he’d come to visit. “Got the forms ready to go.”

“I presume our medical overlord has given you the full brief of how dangerous this can be.”

“He has. I’m also the only guy on-team with a higher Crude sensitivity than ‘Horse, or with a better tissue cross-section and bloodworks. Not even Julian’s better’n me by the sheer numbers. Nobody’s in a better position to do this than me, sir. Nobody else can at this level.”

“…Very well.” He glanced at his computer, checked his inbox, found the message, and signed off. “Right. Authorized. Be a hero, Firth. But don’t be a fool.”

Firth relaxed, but pressed his point. “Not sure of the difference. But this shit matters, boss. So yeah, I’m gonna do this right. Hell, I’mma do it better, ‘cuz I am better, we got ‘Horse’s experience ‘ta draw from, I’m in a way better place ‘ta start, I’m big enough ‘ta go even harder, I got Julian bein’ a bro an’ doin’ mosta this shit wit’ me, an’ to top it all off I ain’t gonna be splittin’ my trainin’ time ‘tween murder an’ medicine. We can’t rely on our Gaoian friends ‘ta solve our problems ‘fer us, an’ I ain’t gonna cede shit ‘ta Yan. I’mma fukkin’ smash his gorilla ass, too. ‘Cuz bein’ honest? It’d be nice ‘ta reclaim some o’ that Human terror.”

“…Can’t argue that. It’s an insane kind of thing, what we’re doing.”

“In it to win it, sir. It’s time ‘fer me to step up an’ fill his big fuckin’ boots. I’mma make ‘Horse look like a little boy, beat him at everythin’ by every fuckin’ measure, ‘cuz that’s what he’s secretly been hopin’ I’d do ‘fer years, an’ now I ain’t got any reasons ‘ta hold back anymore. Wish’d I’d committed sooner, but the only way I’m leavin’ this mission now is when I can’t do it no more, however it comes.”

That was a sobering thought. But it was true.

He was committed. They all were. For ‘Horse, for themselves.

All the way.


Date Point:18y10m1w AV
Jzzkrv’v’ikkt Station, Vzk’tk Domain

Associate (‘fer now!) Bruuk o’ Clan Stoneback

Workhouse talamay would put hair on even a Corti’s balls, if they still had any. Or, more likely kill ‘em. It could strip the wax right offa floor too, Bruuk knew that from experience. Or disinfect a ‘Back from th’ inside!

It was the bestest. Because firstly, it was cheap. An’ secondly, while it took a stupid amount before a Gao got all weird and dizzy like Humans did, it didn’t take much of the real fiery cheap stuff to loosen up attitudes, get everyone happy an’ playful…

Perfect, ‘fer keepin’ an ear ‘ta the wall, or whatever that sayin’ was. Or was it floor? Nah, that din’t make sense, y’couldn’t hear shit that way. Had’ta be wall.

‘Sides, he was rollin’ on the floor wit’ a couple big guys, anyway. Wilde called it “little man syndrome” which was laughable bein’ Bruuk was three times bigger’n him, but whatever. Tall males loved bein’ tall, and Bruuk loved remindin’ them how much it din’t matter sometimes.

But it was all in good fun. His wrasslin’ dummy tonight was a ship’s chief engineer, an’ after loosening him up (first with drinks, then by folding him into interesting shapes), he had some interesting stories ‘ta tell.

“Weird ships?”

“Yeah. Skipper had me do a full diagnostic on th’ long range sensors ‘cuz it jus’ din’t make sense. But, nope. Nothin’ wrong with ‘em.”

“Well, weird how?”

“Smooth. like…huge mass, goin’ fast as Keeda after his nuts got burned, but makin’ a real gentle spacetime wake, yijao? Reckon we only even picked ‘em up ‘cuz we got those new sensors, the Gei-Gei type nine-hunnerd-sixty multifunction array.”

That probably meant something important, but Bruuk had no idea what, so he memorized the number and plowed on. “So, stuff we prob’ly shouldn’t be able ‘ta see, suddenly we’re seein’ it.” . “Well, yeah, that’s what Gei-Gei promised. S’posed ta be good for sniffin’ out Hunters waitin’ in ambush at low warp. Only instead, you head out toward the rimward end of spacelane, uh…ah, I forget. It’s one of the old precursor empires, y’know? Guys not even the Corti ever met. There’s a couple archeology digs out there, pickin’ over what they left behind. Steady regulars, pay well ‘fer stuff, an’ they’ve always got interestin’ stuff ‘ta bring back. Reckon our skipper makes half his money sellin’ old alien shit ‘ta collectors an’ museums. Anyway, our whole trip out there we were seein’ these fast, high-mass, low-wake sigs at extreme range, jus’ carryin’ on like they din’t know we could see ‘em.”

Interesting. Bruuk committed that to memory too, trusting that Urgug might know which rough end of space the ol’ Gao was talkin’ about.

And Wilde. He had to tell the captain, too. The whole thing smelled of the sort of thing their Whitecrest bosses would love to know.

“….Shit. I prolly shouldn’ta told ‘ya that…” the engineer rumbled, suddenly. “We got a good thing goin’, don’ want’cha stealin’ it.”

“I’m not th’ type ‘ta snitch,” Bruuk said, truthfully. “An’ our skipper ain’t that kinda guy. He’s this really badass Human, actually. Lost an eye in the war.”

“I thought I smelled Human on ‘ya! Are they…all they’re cracked up ‘ta be?”

“Well,” Bruuk took another swig of his talamay, “He is, I’d say. Puts up more of a fight than you!”

“Hah! Good ‘fer him! ‘Yer gonna hafta show me jus’ how you flattened me so easy…”

“Wit’ this!” He flexed outrageously. “You tall males always take ‘yer strength ‘fer granted!”

And…so on. It was a fun evening, and maybe he’d made a friend for another day. They were regulars to the station, after all.

Rather’n have too much fun though, Bruuk made his apologies and returned to the Fortune while what he’d learned was still fresh. He might not have a Human’s weakness of gettin’ all dumb and passin’ out and stuff on talamay, but it still tended ‘ta dull the ol’ noggin.

Urgug turned a very interested shade of greenish-blue as he listened.

“I think I know the territory he was referring to,” he decided, once Bruuk was done sharing.

“Who’d it belong to?”

“I cannot pronounce their own name. By all accounts they communicated in ultrasonic frequencies, high above what I can hear or utter. The OmoAru called them the WeiMeYrU-Uym. A constitutional monarchy, prior to their collapse.”

Ian grinned. “No shit?”

Urgug rumbled and fluttered pink. “No, as you say, shit.”

“Let me guess. Hierarchied to death?”

“Decades of political strife led to balkanization and internecine war, spurred by a number of acts of treachery whenever any attempt was made at negotiating a peace. Eventually, the few survivors were too weakened to fight off a Hunter invasion, and the whole Swarm finished them off. So, almost certainly yes.”

“Hmm.” Ian rumbled. “And now we have mystery ships operating in the area. That sounds like something we shouldn’t ignore. I’ll get started on a draft report and talk with Morwk, see if our own sensors can pick up what those Gei-Gei ones can. Would you fill in the details?”

“Yeah, lemme go git started on’ dinner. We’re doin’ veg fritters an’ a nice everybody curry.”

Curry, apparently, was a word for “buncha spices in a stew” and among humans, usually meant a lot of cumin too. On their ship, it meant something tasty from basically everywhere, and was a good way to get everyone to agree on the menu. Also a good way to make the veg diet a bit less soul-crushing; they couldn’t have meat every day, sadly, so supplement pills for Bruuk, something similar for Ian, and lots of protein powder for both of them.

They’d finally found a bulk brand that didn’t make them fart like sick naxas, too.

He did have to keep Wilde’s tastes in check, though. The big human’s preference for what constituted “curry” was a nose-melting chemical warfare concoction that brought physical pain to Bruuk just bein’ in the same damn room. They’d tried letting him have his own pot o’ curry paste to add to the dish once it was served, but…no. Poor Dora had fled the room to go rinse her antennae, an’ Bruuk’s sinuses had been fuckin’ sterilized after he opened it at the table.

Apparently even other humans found his tastes to be a bit much.

Anyway, this curry was heavy on gaoian lentils tonight, just ‘cuz they basically cooked themselves. He needed th’ time to drink water an’ get the talamay out of his system before he earned a headache.

Which left him with shower thoughts once the pot was simmering, he’d had his workout (new PRs!) and he’d sweat it all out. He did a lot of thinking in the shower, really. Had ‘ta stay clean ‘fer the rest of the crew.

…Conditioner an’ fur oil was workin’ wonders on his coat, too…

Anyway. What had they found? Weird ships with low-wake drives could mean lots a things, but a lotta the ideas that crossed his mind didn’t really fit. Some kinda smugglin’ outfit woulda been closer ‘ta civilization. Pirates, maybe, but if so they were rangin’ a long way from their base to operate. And there weren’t no spacefaring civilizations in that part o’ space no more…

Hunters? Unlikely. It was a long fuckin’ way from their territory, they were tied up in a war right now, an’ they’d never leave somethin’ as vulnerable as an archeological dig or light trading ship alone.

As far as Bruuk could think of, that left the Entity, and the Hierarchy.

Either way, Whitecrest was gonna be interested. Which meant a long-ass haul out to that end o’ civilization in their near future. He’d have to make sure they were properly stocked up.

His tail was waggin’ though. This kinda mystery was what their ship an’ crew was for. Even if it turned out to be nothin’ important, it was good ‘ta still feel like they were sniffin’ stuff out, findin’ out the galaxy’s secrets and bein’ useful.

His phone pinged: the timer on the lentils, and a reminder from Ian to fill in his details on the report when he had a minute. Bruuk pant-grinned to himself, and jumped to do both.

He loved his job.


Date Point: 18y11m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

RE: Master Sergeant Adam Arés

Letter for notes

Today’s post-injury counselling session was challenging. As expected, as his recovery progresses and he continues to suffer a marked slowness and loss of physical prowess, Sergeant Arés’ mental health has suffered too. He describes depression, a feeling of uselessness, and intrusive thoughts. He admitted today that the thought has crossed his mind a few times that “everyone woulda been better off if I’d just died.” He strongly asserted that he rejects this thought, believes it to be untrue, and he is grateful for his survival, but it nevertheless has plagued him a few times and he “hates to be a burden.”

His team of course does not consider him a burden at all, and I made a point of relaying that to him. He agreed that while he knows this intellectually, it is not easy to internalize. Or, in his own words: “Yeah, I know, but my stupid fuckin’ monkey brain doesn’t believe it, you know?”

The official word of his impending medical board has made these feelings much stronger. He is also beginning to feel his strength loss acutely now, in an increasing stiffness, a decreased appetite, and a paucity of opportunity to properly engage. To say that is having a drag on his mental well-being would be a colossal understatement.

He explained that these last few days have been especially difficult for him. It is a HEAT tradition to participate in the city’s Halloween celebrations by dressing in costume, and Arés has greatly enjoyed this in the past, especially taking pride in creating his own costumes. Furthermore, he was looking forward to creating costumes for his wife and sons this year. Being unable to do so, and missing the chance to join in the festivities, is clearly quite a blow. He states very firmly that one of his recovery goals is to participate fully next year.

He and I are both reluctant to prescribe anything at this point. If his physical recovery continues on pace and translates into mental recovery as we both hope, it is likely that he will not need anything. I will consider starting him on Citalopram if necessary.

We performed some guided relaxation and bodily awareness exercises, which he called “helpful.” In the meantime, he is finding some reward in re-assuming his duties as training NCO. It is my understanding that command is formalizing the position into its own billet, both to accommodate the team’s growing needs and, frankly, as a career cushion for Arés.

I will see him again next week, or on an urgent basis as necessary.

-Lt.Cmdr K. Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: 18y11m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Freya Firth

“Only one left to go,” Christian said with a grin, in-between shoveling bites of steak and rice into his mouth. She knew what he was talking about, of course, and didn’t bother to hide her pride in her giant cavehulk finally claiming his rightful place in the order of things.

“So quick! How does he feel about it?”

“Called me a lil’ bitch ‘fer takin’ so long.” No more talking. More steak.

She grinned, and went to check in on Joseph, who was busy building a small city with his blocks. Mostly that seemed to consist in stacking blocks as high as he possibly could before they tumbled over, then grumping about it for a few seconds and starting over. A little too grumpy, actually.

Definitely naptime. Thankfully he was usually pretty easy to put to sleep.

She’d chosen right when she married Christian. He’d given her a son to be proud of, and he’d proven to be the sort of man that a two-meter amazon like her could feel safe and protected by. Not that she really needed it—most men weren’t remotely her match—but she wasn’t one to deny her feelings, or get wrapped around the weird political crap that seemed to follow that sort of thing around like a fume. Besides, there was just something wonderful about a man who had to look down to smile at her, instead of crane his neck and make a nervous short-joke or something. No intimidated good manners from her man, just old-fashioned stoic solidness.

…Who could effortlessly put her in her place, when they felt like playing that sort of game.

She was proud of the men he associated with, too. Especially ‘Horse, these days. They’d always been a bit…well. She had dated Adam first, and while physically speaking he was the sort of man she’d wanted, even if he was pretty damn short at the time, he’d had more growing up to do, emotionally and otherwise. And he’d done that growing, to the point he was a good father and slightly taller than her, now…but she had no regrets. Firth was the best.

He’d been a sort of ruined Adonis-slash-Hercules when they’d first met, a man who’d lived life hard and loved every second of it. But underneath the wear and tear, she could see the real goods on offer. She’d claimed him before he’d even realized it, and once they’d got to really know each other it was obvious they’d be together forever. She of course admired Adam’s dedication, even if she worried at how extremely far he’d pushed himself…but no. He was a big selfless hero. Admirable, but she wasn’t looking for a hero. Heroes often got themselves killed. What she wanted was a man, and a man protected his own above all else.

On that score, Firth had zero competition. He was a protector, a provider, and a warrior. He didn’t pretend to any higher ideals, or harbor a burning anger at the universe for being uncaring and terrible. What he cared about was right in front of him. He wasn’t a complicated man.

That history had always been slightly awkward until everyone got married and had kids, but even still: the two had always been insanely competitive with each other, especially at the beginning when she was dating between the two. They cared too much about each other to let a woman get between them—proof of their real merit, that—but that fierce energy had never fully dissipated. Every little thing was a well-meaning-but-serious competition, especially over the last year as Christian ramped himself up and finally started winning their boy games. It was endearing, and weirdly wholesome, even if it occasionally devolved into literal dick-measuring.

Not anymore. Adam had done something appallingly heroic and was paying the price for it. Their rivalry had evaporated instantly, and Christian being the man he was, was doing everything he could to step up and provide for his friend and the team.

It was causing a bit of friction in their home life, though. And it was making Freya think about what she’d do, in Martina’s position. How well she’d cope, going through the same thing.

And…how likely that was. What kind of a beached, stranded position their marriage was in, knowing that he was already committed to something that would command him until it destroyed him, one way or the other. He’d vowed to push himself further than Adam had ever managed himself, and by all evidence, he would succeed. What was that going to mean for them?

If everyone had a devil on their shoulder, then Freya’s was whispering terrible things about Martina being…lucky. This was going to be a hard and painful transition for them, but afterwards she’d have a family that wasn’t being pulled on from the outside, and the burden would have shifted onto Freya’s family instead.

The angel on the other shoulder was shocked, disgusted and murderously angry at that thought, but it was just a whisper, nothing more. Mostly, she was just glad her friend was alive, glad two kids got to grow up with a daddy, and glad the people she loved weren’t grieving on top of needing to put their lives together again.

Though, the devil had something else to say, too. ‘Cuz the Lads were notoriously horny, which Christian blamed on the medical regime keeping them in a permanent young adulthood. All it took was a stray thought, a stiff breeze, eating a grape…

It turned out he was the worst case of them all, even worse than Adam, both because of who he was and the training he endured. It left him with needs. And Christian didn’t believe in taking care of his more acute needs by himself in private. Not when he had a willing wife. And though Freya was willing, she was beginning to feel put upon.

Every morning good and hard, which to be fair, was a wonderful way to wake up. Every evening he could get, for as long as he could manage, and he was so good it was hard to say no…

But now he was sneaking home over lunch, visiting her on her own breaks at the clinic…

For a while, it was delightful. He was pursuing her, like they were teenagers again! It felt good to be desired and he was a wonderfully attentive lover, for all his aggression. But after a while…

There was only so much pursuing a soul could want before she started to hanker for something else. Especially when she had a two-year-old to manage. She had a house and a job to balance, there was only so much nap time in the day to get stuff done, and they’d pretty much agreed they were going to have another one before long, too.

Not quite yet, though. A pregnancy would just make all her timekeeping troubles worse. Fortunately, Christian was a perceptive man.

“I wonder how Marty deals with it?” She asked the room, sometime after they’d eaten, cleaned up, and after she’d rebuffed yet another of his (admittedly playful) advances with a giggle.

He looked confused for a moment, and then a flash of hurt…but he got her meaning.

“Well…shit.”

“I just don’t know how you have the energy left, with how hard you train!”

“You feed me real good, I’m young again an’ I’m a big boy too. I s’pose that’s got somethin’ to do with it. Always been th’ biggest horndog I’ve ever known… Fuck, am I really that bad?”

“You’re a big bunny rabbit.” She glanced at the top of his head, pictured a couple of ears sprouting from his scalp, grinned, and stroked them. “It’s not just the medicine, right? You feeling stressed out?”

“Shit. Mebbe. We’ve all been…y’know. Fuck darlin’, ‘Horse means the world to me, like he’s a little brother or somethin’. We’ve all been tryin’ ‘ta step up how he’d want us to.”

“And you more than the others.”

“Yeah. ‘Cuz I can and ‘cuz I gotta. But we’ve had that talk already.”

“And this goes on, what? Forever?”

He looked uncomfortable, and squirmed on his spot on the floor; their couch was off-limits to him until they could replace it with something sturdier.

“Well…darlin’ what options do I got? It ain’t just being on a team like this. It ain’t just that we’re a one-of-a-kind thing, and we’re a thing that the war would be lost without. I am literally the only one who can do this, an’ if I don’t the team’s gonna hurt. How the hell am I supposed to walk away from that? If I do, the mission could fail an’ that’s not a thing most guys like me gotta face. Usually, we’re replaceable. HEAT Lads really ain’t.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Well…fuck! What do you expect o’ me? I’ll tone it down, sure. No problem.”

“But what’s that going to mean for you?” She decided some soothing was in order. So she grabbed a bowl of jerky (because of course they had that lying around) and sat pressed up next to him, offering him her support.

“I’m sorry,” he offered after a moment.

“Don’t be sorry for that. All I’m asking is…I dunno. Some breathing room, maybe? For both of us. You can’t fuck away all that pressure, bunny.”

“I know. It’s also, maybe…we talked about another kid. Been on my mind a lot.”

Ah. “Okay. We can talk that out. But…bunny. Serious talk for a moment.”

“This ain’t serious?”

“Well, ‘more seriouser.’”

That got a snort out of him. “Darlin’, don’t be gettin’ all our bad habits now.”

“I like that one, it takes some of the edge off. But, here’s the thing. When I married you, in church and all that, I took a vow before God that I would love and cherish you until the end of our lives. I mean it. So…look. Please, please don’t let this get out of control, okay?”

She loaded a lot of meaning into that, hoping he’d understand…

He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tight. “So did I. I promised I’d keep honesty between us, too. So…yeah. It’s a thing, darlin’. But I can manage it. Mebbe I just needed to be more mindful, y’know? I’ll make it work. I promise.”

“And if…if you still have needs? There’s…I’m not close-minded. I love you, I know you love me, and…” She couldn’t actually voice it.

He looked distraught, and shook his head. “No. That ain’t me. I will keep my promise and be honest with you, the whole way. I swore it then and I mean it now.”

Satisfied, Freya slid down off the couch and into his arms, and got the cuddle—just a cuddle—she’d been craving for a good while now. Comfortable silence ruled for a few minutes.

Until Christian broke it, of course. “…So…is Bunny my new nickname now or somethin’?”

“I kinda like it.”

“I dunno. I’m a pretty murdery bunny.”

“Mhm. Murderbunny. I like it!”

“Eh.” He shrugged in good humor. “I’ve been called worse. An’ you git a special pass.”

“I’d better!”

He chuckled at that one, but the moment had to end eventually. The gripy sounds of a waking toddler through the baby monitor did it. They both listened for a second in case he went back to sleep but…nope. There was that first high complaining noise.

Christian rumbled, and started to get up. “My turn.”

“Thanks.”

Life never stopped. And there were a lot of things still to work out. A whole conversation looming on the horizon about anti-aging therapy and stuff, ‘cuz she’d be damned before she grew to look like some cougar with a boy-toy when he was actually almost two decades older. But, she’d taken a bite out of her worries. That was good. Keep doing that, keep talking, and things would stay good.

And that meant, when the day did finally come when their family had to face what the Arés family was going through now, they’d be tough enough to get through together.

Which was all she wanted, really.


Date Point: 18y11m AV

Allied forces continue to make slow gains on Hell
written by Gabrielle Nyoni

The problem with shield generators is that they don’t cope well with uneven terrain. If they did, then the war on Hell would already be over.

The Allied objective in invading this planet was clear from the outset: Hell is one of the Hunters’ few remaining sources of materiel they need to support their interstellar raiding, construction, and what passes for civilization. The herds of relocated slaves still roaming its surface, and the vast debris fields left behind, were a vital source of both food and parts. By sealing the planet away behind planetary defence fields and a “Farthrow” wormhole disruptor, the combined Gaoian and AEC strategy is to starve the Hunters into insignificance.

The Hunters know this, and their forces trapped on Hell are not going to let it happen quietly and easily. Ever since the invading force arrived, the Hunters have been counterattacking. They fire rockets and artillery from their enclaves in the city ruins, splashing the shield dome above FOB Alighieri with chemical, biological and radioactive hazards.

Or, more often, they just walk under it.

The city around Alighieri is unlike any Human or Gaoian one. There are no malls, or stadia, or plazas and shopping district. It was a dreary, unadorned place before the Grand Army and AEC arrived. If you could safely sift through the rubble, you wouldn’t find any graffiti, no adverts, no fliers or menus, no drink cans or broken TVs. The Hunters have no concept of entertainment or culture.

But it is still a city. Built on five low, rolling hills rather than a perfectly flat plain, it’s cut through by a concrete river channel, built up with raised roadways and multi-storey buildings. And, of course, now pock-marked with craters, mounded with piles of smashed concrete that used to be buildings, and littered with the burnt wreckage of vehicles.

Even if it was possible to perfectly seal Alighieri’s protective shield dome right down to ground level, the Hunters would still have plenty of ways to undermine it via the city’s utility tunnels and sewers.

Unfortunately, the shield can’t even come down to street level in most places. Across much of the city, there’s enough of a gap for even the largest Hunters to simply ignore it, and so they do. They come at night, cloaked, silent and invisible. Sometimes they attack during the day, in a tide of newly awakened reserves pulled from stasis, supported by their most fearsome war-bodied Betas and a hail of nervejam grenades.

Every such attack is met by an Allied counterattack.

Combat engineers work around the clock to close the gaps, but they are numerous, and each gap is more fiercely contested than the last. Lines of communication are protected, but the modern battlefield is inherently three-dimensional and it can be exceedingly difficult to dominate airspace inside a bubble.

Nervejam has made all of this more difficult. Troops must maintain their distance as much as possible, because recovery from heavy Nervejam is a prolonged and uncertain affair, where human and gaoian are concerned. Specialized ultra-heavy shock forces (such as First Fang and the AEC’s HEAT) are limited resources that Supreme Allied Command guards with care.

The Hunters, meanwhile, show no regard at all for their own lives.

Breaking the siege, expanding outwards, destroying the Hunters’ reserves and cutting their line of communication is slow, difficult, dangerous going. The AEC nations have not seen a battle this costly in generations. But the alternative is to remain trapped behind a single wall, unable to maneuver and at the mercy of the enemy’s whim.

So long as that’s the case then, to paraphrase the IRA’s infamous threat to Margaret Thatcher, the Allies need to be lucky every time. The Hunters only need to be lucky once.

The only option is to push back and claim more territory. Every street the Allies claim is a little more security, and a little closer to locking down this terrible planet for good. Each victory is a step closer to a galaxy without Hunters, an inconceivable dream just twenty short years ago.

Among the troops on the ground here, the consensus is clear: that is a worthy mission. Despite the difficulty, the hardship and the danger, morale remains high. One can only guess what the Hunters are thinking.

Hopefully, they are afraid.


Date Point: 18y11m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés

Night-time routine went mostly like it always did, except there wasn’t much Adam could do to help. So, he practiced his grip work. Before, that would have been all about bearing down as hard as he possibly could, and being darkly proud when mere metal couldn’t stand up to him.

Now, he had steel cylinders, each of which had a force transducer in it. He had to grip them precisely and not go over, or under. Here, the smaller the required force, the harder.

He could pretty consistently get down to the twenty-five kilo version and keep it on target without thinking about it. Smaller than that, though, was proving tricky. He was working on the ten kilo grip right now while he stretched on the floor. If he let his attention wander for too long he’d spike up well past the sensor’s limits, and right now he couldn’t really feel the difference.

It was…really, it was fuckin’ terrifying. Not having the feedback to know if he was delicately squeezing something in his hand or crushing it with enough force to pulp an ordinary man’s arm. The whole world felt like it was made of tissue paper, and he didn’t dare hug his sons, or Marty. Hell, he was sleeping on the floor right now because he just couldn’t risk it. He kept having nightmares about rolling over and cuddling her and waking up with her broken body crushed in his arms…

The grip tester beeped at him: he’d let go too much. And he’d been so distracted by his thoughts, he hadn’t really noticed what it felt like so he could learn. Re-learn. Fuck.

Frustrating. But, progress. Maybe he’d hit it again right away in the morning, after yoga. He wasn’t anywhere near where he was before he got chunked, but static holds and such were progressing the fastest, and were proving the biggest aids to being able to walk about normally.

He got a text message, suddenly. Annoying. He still couldn’t trust himself to pick up his phone, so he used the voice control to show the message.

It was from Daar.

Hey fren, can I visit?
I need some wind ‘tween my ears!

He always wrote very precisely in his texts, so his misspellings were deliberate, to convey a bit of his accent. Just one of his many foibles. Adam told his phone to say yes, and went back to his stretching. The only real thing he had right now to keep his muscles in good shape was really intense electro-stimulation and some basic machine lifts down in the Dungeon. That…wasn’t ideal, to say the least, so keeping limber was critically important.

Marty came to check in after she’d put Sam to sleep. Diego got a little more time to play, since he was extra good that day. He usually wasn’t, so this was a rare treat. “How goes it, chunk?”

“Eh. I think I’ve got the twenty-five mastered. I can hold it in my hand without paying attention now. It’s weird, though. Anything smaller and I just…eventually crush it.”

“Does seem odd,” she commented, and draped herself over his back, hands running under his shirt to rub across his abs and chest. God he loved it when she did that…

“Much as I’d like what you’re fixin’ to do,” he quipped, slightly regretfully, “Daar’s comin’ to visit.”

“Oh! That’s sudden. He say why?”

“I think he just wants an excuse to run. I can sympathize…” That was the thing he missed the most. Running. Sure, he could manage some short sprints now, and even jog for a mile…but as always, it was a matter of his body screaming at him for a chance to perform, and his nervous system begging to take it easy. He’d never felt anything so frustrating!

…Calm. A quick mental pause, back to a good headspace. Luckily, he was no stranger to being big mad. Would be nice if it would give him a break now and then, but whatever. It was useful.

“Well, okay. I’ll go fix some snacks—”

There was a muffled thump, and Adam felt the building shake enough to be noticable, but not enough to be any kind of concerning. Daar must have leapt up to the rooftop terrace. That was okay though, because the dude knew exactly how to finesse his insane weight. Adam and a few of his friends could do the same trick; mostly they refrained to keep from annoying the tenants. Four storeys was a heckuva jump, but with super-strength and some parkour skill…and Daar didn’t even need that. He moved like a huge cat when he wanted to.

“Right, well.” Adam rose carefully to his feet, always mindful of just how tenuous his motor control still was for the moment. “Nice night to loaf up on the roof anyway.”

He’d gone with a steel-frame building early on, just in case they ever had a Guvnurag tenant or some industrial concern move in. Combined with double-wide doorways everywhere and a staircase (and its landings) that could accommodate an elephant climbing up to the roof… all that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Partly because of all that, and along with the HEAT’s floor-ruining reputation, buildings in Folctha tended to be quite generously appointed for large critters running about. He and his fellow HEAT landlords had led the way on that.

And it was a good thing, too. These days, even that kind of accommodation was a bit cramped for the big bear. So, he jumped straight up the side of the building, and up the stairs Adam went to meet him, thankfully without too much wobble. Didn’t even bust the handrail this time.

“You’re lucky you didn’t wake Sam up with that,” Adam greeted Daar with a grin. “And you’re lucky my tenants are pretty much all single people right now, too.”

Sometimes, it struck him sideways how weird their friendship really was. Adam was just a very high-end grunt, really. His impact on the world was pretty limited. Daar, on the other hand…

“Balls, sarry!” Daar made a slightly embarrassed grumbling huff. “I just really wanted ‘ta get a good flyin’ leap in or jus’ somethin’ fun, yijao?”

Maybe somebody else would have found that a bit callous, given Adam’s current predicament, but honestly he didn’t mind. No reason Daar couldn’t enjoy his body.

“Naw, I getchu. I heard you were in town for a big shindig or somethin’.”

“Yeah. Another one, balls. Been runnin’ back an’ forth almos’ every fuckin’ day ‘fer like a fuckin’ month. Been a real pain in my tail, yijao?” With that, Daar padded over and stood alongside Adam. Being Helpful. Which…

“I can stand just fine, at least for a bit. I don’t wanna…”

Daar gave him his Most Patient Look. “‘Yer lookin’ at the only dude in the fuckin’ universe ‘ya can’t hurt. C’mon. Les’ go lie on that nice bit o’ grass you got up here.”

Well….okay, then. Adam trusted, and gripped onto the back of Daar’s shoulders and neck while they walked down the treacherous three steps toward the rooftop garden. As promised, the Great Father didn’t complain. He felt hard and completely unyielding under Adam’s grip, which given the kinds of things he’d been breaking in his hands just absent-mindedly…

Okay. Daar was safe from him. Good to know. Jesus.

He needed that solidness to grip onto, because Adam really hated those three steps. Something about them was still impossible, despite the progress he’d made. Having someone he could trust himself with right now was just…

“There, see? Not so bad! Now hang on, I’mma lay down here…”

There was a bit of awkwardness involved in all that, but Daar didn’t let him wobble. Some grunts, some wincing pain from too-stiff hips and such, and before he knew it they were lying comfortably on the grass. Or rather, Daar was lying like a huge hulking beast taking a nap, while Adam was sort of propped up against his flank.

He took a moment to mentally rest. Complex movements were a bit taxing. Didn’t feel like he’d made any progress at all on that front…

Daar broke the silence after a good long moment. “I was wunnerin’ if ‘ya wanted ‘ta talk.”

“Why not?” Adam replied, bitterly. “What else am I good for right now?”

A giant nose snuffled near Adam’s face, the Gaoian gesture of extreme concern. “Naw, ye’re good ‘fer a lot. Don’ go down that road jus’ cuz ‘yer feelin’ frustrated.”

“Urgh, I know,” Adam sighed. “Just…hard not to feel fuckin’ useless right now.” What more could he say?

Daar put an arm around Adam and pulled him in for a tight snuggle. “Guess I’d be feelin’ ‘bout the same. I wish’d I could be more helpful, but…”

Understandable. To say Daar had commitments would be a hell of an understatement, and in any case he was just too goddamn big to really fit in most of the human world. Well, so was Adam, but he wasn’t so huge he couldn’t fake it most days. Not so for Daar.

Still. “You’re helpful enough, big guy.”

Daar duck-nodded, and wrapped himself head to toe the rest of the way around Adam, giving the kind of intense affection that, well, he couldn’t give to anyone else for fear of hurting them. It felt good, and they were quiet together for a long moment. A breeze rolled over the rooftop, and Adam felt it tickle his hair. Need to get it cut again soon to fit under the helmet…

…Oh. Yeah. Right.

Daar shifted and sniffed him again. No fooling that nose. “Mus’ be some heavy thoughts in that noggin.”

“Have a lotta time to think, lately.”

“Mhmm. An’ you’d rather be doin’ I bet.”

“I mean…” Adam growled. “I always think best on my feet. ‘Cept that’s not been so easy.”

“Yeah. An’ it ain’t gonna git better instantly, neither.”

“…No.” Jesus. He felt himself welling up a little…

Daar responded by flipping Adam over and just crushing him in the biggest, tightest hug ever. Adam hugged back without thinking, felt a stab of panic—

“‘Ya can’t hurt me,” Daar said gently, while tightening his squeeze and snuffling against the top of Adam’s head. “Jus’ let it out. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

…Adam let it out.

Fuck, did he ever.


Martina Arés

Marty had to turn away.

It hurt. It hurt not being able to give him the shoulder to cry on he needed. It hurt that she couldn’t have survived the desperate, crushing hug he was inflicting on Daar right now, one that even the huge Gaoian couldn’t take without an ear-flick of pain.

That should have been her. He should have been able to turn to her for this. That was the whole fucking point of marriage, being there for each other. And…she couldn’t. She couldn’t even hold his hand safely…

The whole helpless freight of it just kind of barged up from behind, hit her in the back of the head and knocked the feet out from under her. She slid down against the kitchen cupboards, sat on the cold tiles, and tipped her head back. Too miserable to even wipe her own tears.

It helped, though. Anybody who ever said crying never solved anything had obviously never really needed to do it. A damp, wretched minute or two, a deep breath, and she got her balance back, a little. At least, enough to dry her cheeks.

She was helping. She knew that. She was there for him, and would be no matter what. But…But dammit, she needed a hug too.

And the only person she really wanted it from, couldn’t.

But she could hug Adam from behind. And Daar was a sensitive soul at heart. She found her feet, took a deep breath, and went out to join them. Draped herself up against Adam’s back from behind and laid her head against him. Felt him soften, just a little.

It’d do, for now.


Daar

The magical curin’ power o’ closeness did its work, sure as Daar’d known it would. ‘Fer both of ‘em too, which was good. The whole house reeked o’ the kinda misery that only really tough people could work themselves into when they were bein’ strong ‘fer their loved ones.

Daar knew that misery well. Shit, he was pretty bad at sinkin’ into it himself.

He de-tangled himself when they’d both let it all out, an’ got the two snugglin’ as best he could. Fact was, if he’d helped Adam let go an’ fall apart, it was Marty’s presence that let him put himself back together again. It warmed Daar’s heart to see.

Naydi had taught him a lot about the power of love. May the Unseen curse the Hierarchy forever for taking that away from the Gao.

The rain started up, same way it always did in Folctha after sundown. The terrace had a pergola though, so instead o’ gettin’ soaked they jus’ retreated under it an’ got cozy. And with a little curative misery outta the way, they got to talkin’ about what came next.

“I’m going fuckin’ nuts,” Adam opined, sadly. “I can’t even hug my own wife! Every time I make just a little bit of progress, that seems great, and then I go do something like flatten the handle on my favorite cast iron pan! And at the same time, I can feel years of work just…:”

Marty had snuggled into his lap and draped his arms around herself as a compromise. It was something, but Daar could see both of them woulda wanted a real squeeze and didn’t dare. Sensibly didn’t dare. She nodded glumly, and rubbed his forearm.

“Well, it ain’t completely bad. I know good an’ damn well ‘ya couldn’t lift his arms on ‘yer own, so he had ‘ta help. Means he’s got the ghost of what ‘ta do still in his brain, right?”

Adam nodded, slowly. “I suppose that’s true…hell, I wasn’t even thinking.”

“Essactly. It ain’t hopeless. It’ll take time, and ‘yer gonna prol’ly fall behind…but ‘yer gonna rebound pretty quick after that. You know it, balls ‘ya helped rehab Kodiak last year, an’ Sikes before that, ‘member?”

“Yeah…but they got to go back to it.”

There it was. Daar wished he could dance around that a little, but…no.

“Yeah,” he said unflinchingly. “I take it ‘ya got the official word?”

Adam nodded, then froze up as Marty shifted in his arms. She patted him reassuringly, and he relaxed again. “Yeah. SOR’s makin’ noises about keeping me on as a training NCO, but…”

“I don’t think ‘yer gonna be able ‘ta stand it.”

“…No.”

There was a long, sombre pause, with the only sounds being the rain and Marty still rubbing his arm reassuringly.

“Well, firs’ thing’s first,” Daar broke the silence. “‘Ya got people, Adam. People who ain’t fuckin’ gonna let ‘ya down. You know that, right?”

“…I know.”

“An’ you ain’t lettin’ any of us down, Cousin. I owe you my entire people’s lives twice over now. Don’t you never ever fuckin’ ‘ferget that, ‘cuz I sure as fuck ain’t gonna.”

“I ain’t lookin’ for a handout,” Adam said, stoically.

“An’ I ain’t offerin’ one. Adam. Lissen ‘ta what I’m sayin’. How many people d’ya know are owed by the most powerful being in the galaxy? Even among ‘yer crew, that’s some pretty ridiculous shit, s’pecially how’s it came that I owe ‘ya in the firs’ place. Use it. I can thinka all sortsa uses ‘fer a man like you, and I know there are people right now findin’ out ‘yer gon’ be available, jus’ wunnerin’ how they’re gonna sales pitch their offer.”

“I know, I just…what I want and need, even you can’t give, you know?”

“Well, mebbe not. But I’m pretty old these days by either human or gaoian reckonin’, even if my stunnin’ good looks say otherwise. So, if I ‘ve learneded anythin’ being all old-fart an’ stuff, it’s that ‘ya never really know what ‘ya want or need ‘till it smacks ‘ya cross the muzzle. What do you wanna do? Make a diff’rence? Save lives? Have ‘ya considered that we still ain’t founded a rescue service on this planet? Rural fire service? Some kinda special security?”

Adam frowned thoughtfully, but Marty was nodding. “You did always say, if you ever retire from the HEAT, you’d go into that kind of thing.”

“See? An’ that’s jus’ what me an’ Firth been schemin’ about. ‘Yer young-bodied an’ th’ way things are goin’ I bet ‘ya got a hunnerd years left in ‘yer prime, Cousin. Or more! The spacemagic is real, yijao? So stop wit’ the doomin’ and focus on th’ here an’ now. Got it?”

Adam nodded again, but Daar could tell they’d about reached the end of what words alone could do. There was only so much a ‘Back could do by sayin’ nice an’ supportive things.

In a rare case of a Human’s ears bein’ just as sharp as his own, Marty looked up and toward the stairs at the exact same moment Daar heard the first griping and complainin’ from inside. Mothers. They could hear a cub gettin’ needy from half the galaxy away.

“…Goddammit Samuel Milan Arés, you couldn’t have given us a little longer?” she asked ruefully, and wriggled out from under Adam’s arms, who jerked them away with…well, some crude control, anyway.

At least he wasn’t flailing. Which made Daar’s tail flick in thought. Hmm…

“S’okay. We needs us some bro-time,” he said aloud.

She must have been feeling a lot better, because she gave him a look so dry it damn near stopped the rain. “Oh, I see. Get rid of the wife so you can be Manly Men without me, huh?”

“Well, how else are we s’posed ‘ta gossip ‘bout all the pretty tails?”

“Fine, fine. I’ll leave you alone to paint each others’ nails and braid your hair…God knows, I need some sleep anyway. But you’d better return him in one piece, hear? And go easy.”

“I can promise I’ll do at least one o’ those things.”

She sighed, looked like she was about to argue, then gave up when the griping from indoors turned into a full-throated demanding wail. “…Good enough.” She kissed Adam, gave Daar a hug, (hugs were always nice!) and darted in out of the rain.

The look Adam shot after her as she left was a warmin’ thing to see all by itself. Daar let him watch her ‘til she was gone, then put his Cunnin’ Plan into motion.

“So lemme ask ‘ya a question, then: you beat anyone’s face in lately?”

That threw Adam for a loop. “…No? Daar, I can’t pick up a water bottle without blowing it up.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Fine motor control an’ all that. Did any o’ the bigbrains stop ‘ta think how much that gets exercised in a fight?”

“…Well…maybe you have a point, but…”

“So what ‘ya really need is someone ‘ta beat on that can take it. Well. I’m here. Wanna go test out my lil’ theory?”

The answer was yes. He could see it an’ smell it. Rather’n let Adam torment himself with worries about what he wanted ‘ta do versus what he should do, Daar didn’t wait. He stood up, let Adam use him to get up to his feet…

The two of them went to go settle scores and work out frustrations.


Marty

…Yup, they were going down to the gym. Probably there to ignore doctors’ orders. Marty sighed and sat back, adjusting Sam on his pillow as she tried to think what she should do. Should she stop them? Tell them off?

But…God, did she have the heart to? Adam clearly needed the chance to use his body properly for the first time in weeks. And he wasn’t stupid. Nor was Daar, for that matter.

Or at least, they weren’t heedlessly foolish, anyway.

…No, she wasn’t going to stop them. They all needed it. Adam needed some hope, Daar had some old macho accounting to attend to…

And she needed some hope too.


Adam, doing a pretty stupid thing

He was still clumsy, but he could move. The stairs down to the basement weren’t so bad either, though Daar was right there in front of him the entire way down, filling the staircase with himself and providing a sort of default safety wall in case Adam lost his balance.

So. He was inching himself down five flights of stairs to go brawl with a goddamn hyperbear. What a weird combination of thoughts. How was he gonna even manage to do that?

They made it all the way down. Adam was only slightly wobbly. God, he fucking needed this.

He wobbled harder when Daar turned up the gravity. Seeing that, Daar cranked it, which caused Adam to grimace and sink to a knee.

And in that instant, Daar wasn’t a caring, concerned friend anymore. He snapped into something much more dangerous.

“Fuck that, ‘yer better’n this. Get th’ fuck up, you pussy.”

Well. Fuck you too. Adam growled, steadied himself against the wall, grimaced, stood…

“Good. Walk around the room now, an’ don’t be a lil’ bitch ‘bout it.”

It was the tone of voice. Daar knew. Knew how to reach right into the back of Adam’s head, grab the Hate, and yank it upright. Moving his foot was…fuck, it was welded to the floor. But this he could do. This was a strength he still had, could remember.

He took a step.

“Good! Ain’t as fuckin’ useless as they all say, are ‘ya? Now. Finish that fuckin’ circuit.”

It was hard. Up there with the hardest fuckin’ things he’d ever done. Somehow, through sheer goddamn will, though, he made it round the room. One heavy, impossible step at a time, he made it.

“Right. Movin’. See that? Now. Calisthenics. Let’s get you doin’.”

Jesus fuck it was agony. Simple stuff, all torture, all of it liberating. Many times he fell onto the padded floor. Under supergravity that hurt, and that made the whole thing risky as fuck…

But he was reacting. His arm shot out to break his fall the first time, and after that…

He was up. Moving. Moving with intent. Moving right. Jesus. Well, at least better.

“I fuckin’ knew it. Now.” Daar crouched down in a position to wrestle, then tensed his body hard and…just, fuckin’ hell. He was the absolute best there was and boy did that ever show. Adam felt downright soft and puny by comparison, and of course the big guy had fuckin’ broken the Alpha where Adam had failed…

No. He’d crushed it like a fuckin’ grape after having snatched the damn thing right out of the air. Done that after a building had been dropped on him, after leaping up and out even as the building was still in the act of collapse, and he walked away from it all with nothin’ more than a headache and a head trip.

…Fuck.

Adam gulped, and crouched down too. For the first time in years, he felt intimidated. Hell, fuck that. He felt scared. Daar was an unbeatable juggernaut even before all this bullshit. He’d created a monster, and now that monster wanted to prove himself, and have fun doing it.

Daar sniffed toward him, retracted his claws as best as he could…

“You ready?”

“…No. But fuck it.”

A deep, knowing chitter. “Good man. Now, you an’ I got some history ‘ta work out, so I’mma take my time an’ whup the ever-livin’ fuck outta you. You better fuckin’ fight back, y’hear?”

Those burning bronze eyes locked onto him. He meant every word of it. Daar wasn’t playing. But neither was Adam.

He nodded. Took a breath. Closed his eyes, opened them again…

And Warhorse was back.


Marty

It wasn’t often that Adam’s music escaped the basement. He’d soundproofed the fuck out of it while putting it together, and he usually made a point of not letting it reach the apartments, let alone the top floor. The fact Marty could make out the distant chugging of heavily distorted bass said he must have finally cranked it up as high as it would go.

About fucking time, really. He’d needed to explode all week.

Fortunately, the kids were pretty much bombproof once asleep. Sam especially, after he’d fed. They could sleep through it. As for the tenants? Well, Adam was choosy about his clients. All of them were in some way a lot like him, and all the apartments were soundproofed anyway. Nobody could hear shit in the bedrooms.

She smiled, closed the door, and locked the music out. They were both going completely against Nofl’s advice down there but, well…Nofl was a Corti, unconventional though he might be. He might know a lot, but there were things he just didn’t understand and never could. He might know everything there was about what Adam’s body needed…

But Marty knew her husband’s soul. Knew he’d never heal if he couldn’t express it. She’d fuss over him and remind him later, because he needed that too…but right now she was just glad for him.

The two of them didn’t re-emerge until, well, extremely early morning. And by the two of them, more accurately, Daar prowled up the stairs with Adam draped over his back, looking like a train had run over him, backed up, and ran over him again. And the train that had run him over looked pretty tired, too.

“Hi, Marty. Sarry, I kinda beat ‘yer husband up. An’ smushed him pretty fuckin’ hard, too.”

Marty laughed softly, and held the door open so he could deposit Adam on the mattress next to the bed. “Did you two get all your dick measuring energy worked out, at least?”

“Oh, I won that game long ago,” Daar chittered tiredly. “This was more…balls, it’s so stupidly macho-male even I’m embarrassed. Les’ just say he’s a damn good coach. An’ if he din’t know how good he was, well…I smashed away any doubt!”

Marty sighed, suspecting it’d be something like that. “Well, at least you kept your promise and brought him back still in one piece…I know I should be objecting about doctors’ orders and stuff but, I think he needed it. Even John and Christian are being gentle with him.”

The Great Father chittered again in a satisfied sort of way. “Yeah, ‘cuz Adam could still fuck ‘em both up pretty bad, at least ‘fer now. I got the advantage of bein’ a lot more huger an’ harder.”

He considered the mattress, and dropped Adam onto it in the sort of callous, gruff way only good friends could ever manage.

“—Ow! Fuck!” Adam looked around wildly, and calmed down when he realized where he was. Apparently he had taken a quick nap atop his Daar-train.

“Aw, quit whinin’. Tha’s the softest landing ya’ had all night!”

“Fuck, you ain’t lying. Ugh…”

Daar chittered, “Yeah, well, sleep good. Might go ‘fer round two tomorrow…” he growled in challenge.

“So…how did it go?” Marty asked. They both looked pretty pleased, so it must have gone well. Certainly better than she’d feared it might.

“He ‘membered mosta everything once I got him mad enough. Still a bit drunken but, oh, couple’a hours o’ me squeezin’ him like toothpaste was all the reminder he needed. I din’t stop beatin’ on him ‘till he managed a bit o’ payback. Then he put me through the most evilist fuckin’ round of liftin’ I’ve had in fuckin’ years. ‘Yer man’s a fuckin’ sadist.”

“Mhmm,” Marty noted with some pride, then glanced back at Adam, who was already nodding off again. “It looks like he put you through your paces as well. You’re welcome to stay, of course.”

“…That shaggy rug looks pretty comf’table right now, yeah.”

“You might get poked by a curious toddler in the morning.”

“Thas’ okay. Been meanin’ ‘ta meet ‘em anyway.” He prowled to the rug, turned a circle, and curled himself down onto it. “‘Night.”

Marty nodded, and slid the door closed. “Good night.”

For a moment, she considered joining Adam on his floor mattress. He was so clearly exhausted that maybe…

He grumbled something and twitched in his sleep. She grimaced, made up her mind, and climbed into bed instead. Hopefully tonight had been good for him, but there was still a long way to go.

She put her head down, watched him, and slept.


Date Point: 18y11m1w AV
Light bulk freighter ‘Stray Fortune,’ Spacelane 557-1020, WeiMeYrU-Uym relic territory

Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde

“Your mate from the pub failed to mention the choppy fucking ride,” Ian noted grimly, though ‘choppy’ wasn’t really the right word for it. They weren’t bumping or rolling or anything like that, as a freighter in rough seas would have.

Instead, the problem was that the spacelane hadn’t received the attention of a maintenance fleet in thousands of years. The background count of stray dust, gas, micrometeors and plasma was only slightly less dense along the lane’s arterial center than it would have been if they were going cross-country.

The mental image Ian had of hull ionization was of his uncle John’s van. The old man had been a tiler and plasterer, with a carefully maintained white Mercedes Sprinter in which he’d rumbled around most of South Yorkshire beautifying people’s kitchens and bathrooms. The back doors had always been filthy, and Ian had earned a few laughs by scrawling “CLEAN ME!” in the filth with his finger…as well as a slapped wrist when he’d drawn a pair of boobs one time.

He’d once asked his uncle why he never bothered cleaning it, and received a shrug and a “not worth it. It’ll just get dirty again.” Except John did clean the van sometimes: whenever he visited some farm or country place out in the middle of nowhere, and it got muddy up the sides.

That was deep space hull ionization. A little was inevitable, even on a well-cleared spacelane. A ship could trundle along basically indefinitely with that level of accumulation. But right now, the Fortune was off down a bumpy muddy track in the sticks, and she was not happy about it.

Nor was Morwk.

“At least some kind soul kept the map up to date…” he grumbled. “I’d hate to try and navigate this without knowing where the next planet was.”

“Why trouble?” Moj asked. “Plotted our course, you. Safe, right?”

“It’s more bloody work for him once we’re out of the sticks, mate,” Ian explained.

“And all this chasing a rumor Bruuk heard in a bar,” Morwk added.

“Sometimes rumors are worth chasing.”

“I bloody hope so…That’s it. I have to pull the sensor mast in before it gets damaged.”

Ian nodded. Morwk was probably just being overcautious, but he’d rather that than come all the way out here, burn out the sensors, and not be able to see anything. Besides, they’d be charge-dumping at a gas giant in twenty minutes.

Moj’s elytra buzzed, a quick low-frequency thrum that Ian thought of as being kind of like a shudder. He’d been doing that ever since they entered the old empire’s relic territory, and Ian could sympathize. Even though they hadn’t yet actually visited one of the dead civilization’s worlds or seen anything of theirs, there was still a feeling creeping over him. The same one he got in graveyards, or that time he’d gone to Berlin on a school trip and they’d visited the Holocaust memorial.

He patted Moj reassuringly on the shoulder, and prowled to his desk to sit down and wait.

So far, the flight out here had been routine. They were coming under cover of being on their way out toward Versa Volc space and, having heard of the digs, decided to detour with some luxury goods, hard-to-get stuff that’d fetch a premium and be worth the time. If the Fortune had been any bigger it would’ve been a flimsy fucking excuse, but she was just small enough to make it credible.

Part of him was curious to see a civilization that had been dead and gone thousands of years before humans even got a fire going, too.

Now though, he was wondering if the cover story wasn’t genuinely flimsy as fuck, because time spent stopping to degauss was expensive for a ship like theirs. They were going to stick out a bit, if there was anything out here to see.

“Still can’t believe all the s’pensive bullshit Bronzefur was able ‘ta pile on,” Bruuk grumbled. “I don’t even know what half of it is. One of the biggest crates is something called ‘zrrk’ and balls it stinks terrible…”

“Yup. Vzk’tk delicacy. The more rancid the better. Tell you what though, that’ll be our best seller when we arrive.”

“May as well sell ‘em the contents of a fuckin’ composter.”

“Mate, they don’t comment on your anchovies—”

“Balls they don’t!”

“Just…aliens, mate. We’ve all got our weird ways.”

“Hrrmf.”

Moj was a smooth damn pilot when he wanted to be. From interstellar high warp to in-system low warp to a smooth low-altitude orbit all in one graceful arc. Bloody masterful. The gas giant was something special to look at, too: as blue as the ocean, with boiling bands of white and grey cloud under a ring system that made the planet itself look fucking tiny. Poor old Saturn couldn’t even begin to compete.

Morwk made the closest thing he ever produced to a satisfied noise when the first flash of hull discharge crackled away down their extended shields to sink into the atmosphere, and the ship sounded happier too. Or at least, a few things that had been beeping urgently for nearly an hour packed it in.

A second artificial lightning bolt and Morwk nodded, leaned over and hit the intercom. “Dora. Go for external inspection.”

The reply was a chirpy ”On it!” buried in a blast of pop music.

“All good?” Ian asked. Morwk gave him an affirmative gesture, curling both his thumbs together into something like a human OK.

“I’ll put the sensor mast back out in five minutes,” he promised.

“Cheers…Moj?”

Moj had risen from his station now that they weren’t going anywhere for a while, and stalked over to a window. He gestured for them to come and see.

“Brought us to a ruin,” he said. Ian and Bruuk shared a confused look, then joined him.

Sure enough, there was a distant metal speck out there, glittering in the ringlight. Ian frowned at it, then tapped on the window. The smart systems built into the glass let him take a better look at it, and told him how far away it was, a figure that brought an impressed whistle to his lips. Nearly four thousand kilometers, and still visible to the naked eye.

“On the star map, this,” Moj explained. “Gone soon. Orbit decays in three hundred years.”

Ian nodded and zoomed in. It didn’t look like much, really. Just another sprawling space hub, not built to look pretty. Expanded and added to, replaced and upgraded as necessary. It was a tangle of metal with no symmetry or design to it at all, and the heavy bombardment somebody had sunk into its midriff some untold centuries ago hadn’t made it any prettier. Or maybe it had been some ancient meteor strike. Impossible to tell.

Still…that graveyard feeling crept over him again.

“…Really makes you appreciate just how long this has been going on, hey?” he commented. “Just how long has that thing been out here?”

Moj shrugged. “Older than your stories. Older than mine.” he tilted his head thoughtfully. “How crowded would galaxy be, without the Hierarchy? Would it be better that way? Or full to bursting, full of war? Wonder sometimes, I.”

“Balls ‘ta that,” Bruuk growled. “They wanna wipe us out. Don’t matter none if the galaxy’d be better or worse off without ‘em.”

“Gao wouldn’t be Gao without them,” Moj replied, then shrugged again and bent his head in silent prayer.

Bruuk flicked an ear irritably, then shook his head and wandered off. Ian lingered a second or two longer, then did the same. The fate of the galaxy with or without the Hierarchy wasn’t for him to say; here and now there was a job to do, and Morwk was extending the sensor mast again.

Part of Ian had been expecting that, with a nice clear image untroubled by the Fortune’s own hull charge, they’d get an instant look at those high-speed-low-drag warp signatures Bruuk’s contact mentioned, but no such luck yet. But, it was a big sky. Maybe something would show up yet.

A new feeling was beginning to tickle the back of his neck, though. An irrational one, but one he knew well and trusted. He crossed the bridge to make himself a cup of tea, and tried to shake it but it wouldn’t go away.

He had the horrible feeling they were being watched.


Date Point: 18y11m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Martina Arés

Marty woke to an insistent prod in the arm and a worried young voice.

“Mom…Mom! There’s a bear in the kitchen an’ he’s makin’ waffles!”

Something like that was enough to get her giggling before she’d even fully woken up, despite that…oh yeah, she hadn’t slept enough. Her whole body had that leaden feeling and she knew she’d be paying for last night for the whole day.

“Mnnn…no, that’s Daar.” She accepted a morning cuddle, then gave Diego a slight guiding push. “Go say hi.”

“‘Kay…”

Marty laughed again as her son cautiously headed out to go meet the kitchen-bear, then rolled over to check on Adam. Still out like a light, his chest rising and falling slowly and evenly, his green feet wandering a lazy circle near his ribs. God, he looked like he was getting the best sleep he’d had since waking up on Origin. No way she had the heart to wake him from that, so she slipped out the other side of the bed, put on a T-shirt and shorts, and slipped quietly out of the room.

Sure enough, the Great Father of the Gao was sitting on the floor in the middle of her kitchen, preparing for battle with a mountain of eggs and bacon. And, yes, waffles. At least, waffles of the Eggo kind, which were still Adam’s go-to comfort food for reasons only Arés men could possibly fathom. He was pondering the mysteries of the toaster when Marty shuffled up onto one of the bar stools and bid him a yawning good morning.

“Marn! I’ve got a delivery comin’ ‘ta restock th’ fridge. I hope ‘ya don’t mind.”

It was an interesting sight to watch, really; it could not be overstated how utterly colossal Daar was. He put Kodiak bears to complete shame, and yet he somehow found a way to work in the kitchen without complaint, sitting upright on his haunches and relying on his long arms to reach anything he might need.

He wasn’t really “like a bear” as was often said of larger Gaoians. Though there was something obviously ursine about many brownfurs’ proportions, and him most of all, the face was too different. Too sapient and intelligent. A bear would have looked dopey and comical sitting there on its butt, but Daar just looked purposeful. There were other things too: his body shape was all wrong, and had some definite simian-like mechanics to it; he had huge, blocky shoulders bigger than his own head; wide, mobile hips, which were noticeably wider than his waist; fur not quite the right texture; a truly massive rear paired to even huger haunches…

…But he also had short, thick legs with much heavier hamstrings than any human would ever have, as you’d expect on a swift quadruped; long, heavily muscled arms, which tucked in to his side perfectly for swift four-paw running; a long neck over twice as wide as his blocky head, with heavy traps sloping down to his shoulders; a long, stout torso that was equally broad; he was much thicker across the chest and back…

Paws and claws that really sold the grizzly angle, to be frank.

So, yeah. Kinda like a bear, actually. Just, not completely. A man-bear. Bear-man. Gorilla-raccoon. Something. Marty yawned, and shoved her favorite coffee mug under the espresso machine. Her brain needed some cobwebs blowing out. “Not at all. Thanks…Morning.”

Daar’s chitter was very un-bear-like. Plus, he was entertaining Diego by juggling an egg on the spatula, Teppanyaki-style. Every time he “missed” the egg landed exactly on the griddle, conveniently ready to be cracked the rest of the way open and fried up for toast.

“…Where did you learn that?”

“First time I wuz on Earth ‘fer trainin’.” His ears pricked up proudly as he set another egg spinning, and Diego laughing again. “‘S’always been a hit with th’ cubs. An’ stinky little human boys too, right Diego?!”

“Am not!”

“Are too! You think ‘ya can hide anythin’ from this nose?”

“I had a bath last night!”

“Hmm,” Daar grumbled and sniffed around a giggling Diego with much excessive drama. “Seems kinda sus…whatchu want ‘fer ‘yer eggs?” The question was delivered to both of them at once, as Daar made eye-contact with her.

“He likes his scrambled. I’ll have mine over easy,” Marty guessed. “And Adam’ll eat them however, but he definitely prefers runny.”

“Daddy’s still asleep though…” Diego pointed out.

“Not for long…” she predicted, and sniffed her coffee. Okay. This was a damn good way to start a morning. Not that simple black coffee was rocket surgery, but he sure brewed a good pot…

Sure enough, when the smell of sizzling pork product had really started to saturate the kitchen, there was the distant snap of snoring coming to a sudden end, followed a small earthquake, and a wild Adam lurched out of the bedroom.

He’d managed that a lot better than every other day, though he did seem grateful to pour himself onto his Extra Sturdy Stool.

“Mmmf…you’re an evil man, Daar.”

The Great Father didn’t reply, but did flick his ears in an unmistakably dominant gesture, and set to griddling up more bacon.

“How’re you feeling this morning?” Marty asked.

“Not been this beat up in a while…but…also easier? S’like, my body’s happy to be hurtin’ if that makes any kind of sense. Moving seems easier.”

“Good! But I gotta warn ‘ya,” Daar grumbled, as he spatulated the bacon, “I’m pretty sure this is only gon’ be a sometimes thing, if that. ‘Yer recovery comes first.”

“And your time comes first,” Adam retorted.

“Naw. See, here’s the thing, right? Th’ whole point o’ bein’ what I am is ‘ta set direction an’ lead, not ‘ta over-manage anythin’. Been reading up a lot on that, old gaoian writings an’ a buncha human stuff too. Even some Corti ideas. The practical upshot o’ which is my actual day is mos’ly spent doin’ this, ‘cuz it’s important. Visit cubs, cook at workhouses, sports, charity, chair the Conclave an’ express my intent, that sorta thing. These days, I only poke my nose in now an’ then ‘ta make sure ain’t nobody gettin’ too stupid wit’ my planet.”

“Or blitz the battlefield…”

“That too, when it’s necessary. I ain’t never managed ‘ta figger out the right balance there, but I try, an’ it’s important I git better. I do other things too, but that’s the gist of it. I came in as a terrible force o’ nature. Now, I’m hopin’ th’’ potential of all that means I ain’t gotta use it ‘ta keep order. My people gotta learn ‘ta govern themselves outta love an’ self-respect, not jus’ fear of the biggest meanest gao. So, that’s what I do. I try an’ lead by example, if I can. I’m too damn powerful to safely use it too much.”

Marty thought about that and, for whatever reason, felt like offering some criticism.

“Not that you’re terribly consistent about any of that…”

“Naw. Sure ain’t,” Daar agreed. “Ain’t no such thing as a perfect dictator, and I’m way more powerful’n jus’ some big bad boss. I am the Gao an’ I don’t think people get that. But I try an’ be better. Which is why I’m here, ‘cuz balls do I, we, my species owe ‘ya, Adam.”

Marty watched the modest discomfort on Adam’s face. He reached out, and managed to pick up his coffee on the first try today. “I don’t…know how I feel about that,” he admitted.

“I bet not. An’ I bet ‘ya know what’s comin’ ‘yer way, too.”

“…I do?”

Daar looked at him thoughtfully. “Damn, you really are humble. Well, lemme jus’ say that, it’d be a good idea ‘ta recover an’ stick around. Good things are comin’ yer way. An’ I mean that as serious as I’ve ever meant anythin’. Now stuff ‘yer face,” he magicked up a plate full of eggs, bacon, and two supremely over-buttered and over-syruped Eggos. “World still needs ‘ya.”

Adam stared blankly through the plate as he processed that, then nodded, and set to shovelling food into his face. Still not a perfect process—his hand was still wobbly, and getting the fork to his mouth rather than, say, into his eye still demanded some concentration…but Marty could see, it was a good day today. Maybe the best he’d had so far.

“…Thiff ain’ eggactly on m’ meal plan,” he pointed out around the chewing.

“Stuff ‘yer meal plans,” Daar replied, watching his language around Diego. “Right now, you eat practically, not perfectly. I squished the lifeforce right outta ‘ya all night long—had loadsa fun doin’ it too!—so ‘ya need a big pile o’ calories an’ protein in ‘yer system. Eat! Ain’t nothin’ more importanter’n gettin’ yer thundery butt unner proper control, yijao? I don’ wanna hear the first word ‘bout ‘yer meal plan ‘till ‘ya can cook it safely ‘fer ‘yerself.”

Daar had, apparently, taken it upon himself to rehabilitate Adam, and anything anyone might say otherwise was just input to be considered, processed, and applied to the problem. He knew how to take charge of a situation, and the relationship between the two of them had certainly flipped. Adam had always been the more quietly dominant personality between them, but…

Well, things had changed. Not in a negative way, or a resentful way, but…naturally. As if it was what they’d expected between each other.

“‘Sides,” Daar added, “We all know ‘yer gon’ whip ‘yer ass back into shape the second ‘ya can.”

“That’s a bad word!” Diego blurted out.

“…Is it? Well I’m sorry,” Daar ducked down to speak eye to eye with Diego. “I shouldn’t be usin’ no stinky-tail words ‘round you, should I?”

Adam chuckled, and swallowed. “M-hm. Abuelo would have somethin’ to say about it, wouldn’t he mijito?”

“Anyhoo. Enough jawin’ an’ more eatin’. I think next…mebbe I’ll make ‘ya some gaoian hash!”

It turned out to be delicious, of course. Gaoians didn’t typically indulge much in sweet things, but breakfast seemed to be an exception. His “hash” turned out to be a mash of something…starchy and shredded, which wasn’t potato but still tasty, and some vegetable matter Marty couldn’t identify, and something that was definitely egg-like but not…

Fried to a crisp, and covered in honey at the last second. God it was good. Far better than Eggos, by a long shot. In any case, everyone was left with full stomachs and honestly, a desire to go back to sleep and digest.

Which was of course when Daar decided it was time to go. He made to scrub down the griddle, but Marty shooed him away. “I’ll take care of that. Price for cooking breakfast.”

“An’ smashing ‘yer man?”

She and Adam both laughed. “Yes, that too. And I know you have your heart set on a certain taco-centric lady just now…”

“Ha! Rumors spread quick, huh? Well yeah, pro’ly visit her today if I can. I think firs’ though I gotta take care o’ business. I do still gotta poke my nose in an’ stuff, advise, mebbe direct…”

“Sounds terrible.”

“Naw. Jus’ important. One las’ thing, though. I’mma keep my eye on ‘ya both. You’ll get through this. ‘Yer prob’ly the strongest man I know—no, that ain’t what I mean, Adam—an’ ya got a strong family ‘ta help. An’ friends in high places, an’ not jus’ me. Don’t ferget. Got it?”

And with that, he was gone. He left behind a mess that Marty was happy to clean up, because for the first time in weeks their home felt well. Normal, or at least as normal-ish as their family ever mustered. Adam rolled himself onto the couch to sleep off the last of last night, while Gabe and Jess were more than glad to come take Diego off Marty’s hands for a while so she could do the same…It was the first truly relaxing morning she’d had in far too long.

She made the most of it.


Date Point: 18y11m1w2d AV
Shuttle, on approach to archeological dig site, WeiMeYrU-Uym relic homeworld

Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde

Somehow, when Ian’s imagination turned to the idea of a dead civilization, it turned to, well, pyramids and the desert. Something about the whole mental image of an entire culture that had died before humans had even strayed out of Africa just set his mind to sandstone temples with big columns, maybe a huge statue hewn from a cliff face or something like that..

But of course, the WeiMeYru-Uym, or whatever their real name had been, were a spacefaring civilization. They’d numbered in the tens of billions, spread across the surrounding star systems. And their downfall had mostly come about through years of terrible civil war. The details were vague, dulled by time and no doubt quietly censored, erased, lost, fudged and buried by the Hierarchy, but they’d presumably had metropolises to equal or exceed any on Earth.

All of which were now buried. Lost under rolling fields of yellowish grainy grass, and swallowed up by forests with vibrant golden leaves. As the shuttle bellied low to follow the river, Ian couldn’t see anything with the naked eye. No roads cut through the forests along the water’s edge. No crumbling concrete embankment kept the river running straight.

It looked like a totally uninhabited region. But the shuttle’s sensors—much upgraded from the stock package—told a different story. Ground-penetrating radar, thermal imaging, gravimetric and magnetometric survey had lots to say about what was under the topsoil. The false-color overlay revealed huge craters, dozens of them punched into a semi-regular grid of rich metal oxides. Over the millennia, the vehicles, water pipes, power lines and structural rebar had all corroded, collapsed, and become a layer of young geology, buried under centuries of windblown dust and flood sediment. It was all so clear, even to Ian’s uneducated eye, that he could see the general street map, and the long curve of a major highway up the buried city’s eastern flank.

And, at the city’s north end, a dazzling too-strong return on the sensors from the dig site and equipment on the surface, and the nav beacon calling them in to land.

Ian was piloting it for a change. He needed the practice, and Moj had expressed some unease at setting foot on a “grave world.” Morwk was staying up top to take care of some of the never-ending maintenance and keep an eye on the sensors, and Urgug would have left no room in the shuttle for cargo.

Dora and Bruuk, of course, had both leapt at the chance to get some fresh air. So, at least they weren’t short on muscle and drones to offload their wares, groundside.

The sooner the better. Even though it was sealed, Ian still fancied he could detect an aroma coming off the container full of prime, truly putrid zrrks stashed at the back. Bruuk certainly claimed he could.

The warm, summery, floral air that rolled in when the shuttle was finally down and he opened the doors confirmed it. Even Dora, whose sense of smell was easily the weakest among them, sighed with relief.

“I will never understand the appeal of these things…” she grumbled, tapping the crate as she alighted.

“Aye, but you say the same thing about bacon. So…” Ian dropped down from the shuttle and grinned as he saw a number of tall, skinny blue figures ambling their way. Perfect.

He didn’t have a lot of experience with Vzk’tk. There weren’t many on Cimbrean, and they mostly kept to the Alien Quarter in Folctha, safely away from any blundering humans and Gao who might accidentally snap their spindly legs. They had a reputation for not being the sharpest marbles in the shed, but the smarter ones knew it, and used it to their advantage.

Should make for interesting haggling, at least.

In the event, despite their initial unease at encountering a couple of deathworlders and a Robalin, the diggers quickly got over their nerves when they realized there were some genuinely ancient Zrrks on offer. They sold pretty much instantly, and for more than Ian had expected.

Then came the other luxuries. Entertainment, decorations, sweets, a few gadgets and spare parts…nothing snapped up quite as eagerly, but their little bazaar did a roaring trade for a good hour or so.

Ian stepped away from it to go explore once it became clear that the Vzk’tk were generally more happy dealing with Dora than with him. He ambled as close to the dig site as they’d let him, hoping to get a glimpse of their trenches and finds, but, well, they looked like big holes in a field. Whatever was of interest at the bottom didn’t look like much to him, so he returned to the shuttle, put his feet up, and let his thoughts wander.

He was pulled out of them by a persistent peep-peep-peep, peep-peep-peep from the console to his left: a call from Morwk. When it connected, Morwk’s expression was, as far as Ian could tell, troubled. It was hard to tell with Kwmbwrw faces.

“Something the matter, mate?”

“I couldn’t say. It seems like Bruuk’s informant wasn’t just ‘spinning a yarn’ as you say.”

Ian sat up. “You’ve seen them?”

“Oh yes. High speed and low drag indeed. I clocked whatever it is doing nearly half a megalight, but the distortions were tiny. We’d make a bigger wake at a thousandth of that speed.”

“Did you get a direction?”

“Not as clear as I would have liked. A signal so faint, at extreme range? The margin of error is…sizeable.”

“But still, you know vaguely which way it went.”

“Vaguely,” Morwk agreed. “I couldn’t begin to give you a mass estimate, though. It could be as small as the shuttle, or as big as the Rich Plains, I have no way of telling.”

“So, vaguely, which way were they headed?”

“Rimwards-by-north, well off the beaten track. And, skipper, you thought it was a ‘choppy’ ride getting here? Those were still spacelanes, even if they are old and badly maintained. Believe me, the real interstellar medium is worse. We are not equipped for extended off-lane travel.”

“Not a problem mate, our job was just to confirm the story.” Ian swung his boots up onto the copilot’s chair and sat back, and dug around in the bag stashed next to him for his water bottle. “Still nothing on that fancy relay finder we got?”

“Nothing. I swept that whole section of sky. No active Hotel relay in this part of space.”

Which of course didn’t rule out the possibility of one being under construction but not yet online. If Big Hotel stuck to their old MO, then the planet Ian was currently sitting on would have been a prime candidate, but the Fortune should have had no trouble seeing a construction site like that from orbit. And the Hierarchy wouldn’t have hesitated to wipe out the archeologists to cover their tracks.

“Can you whip up a survey of temperate planets in that direction?”

“A full survey would take five or six days. If you want to leave on that unsuspicious timetable you laid out, I’ll only be able to get the nearest few dozen lightyears.”

“What about if you narrow the search to high-Class worlds? Gravity above one point three Dominion standard.”

“Tighter parameters will accelerate the search and extend the range I can map in that time. Though, this may not actually be the Hierarchy, you know.”

Ian nodded, and took a swig of water. “I know. Still. That’s who we’re most concerned about, isn’t it? I’ll be quite happy if it turns out to be someone or something else.”

“I suppose so. I’ll begin the survey at once.”

“Cheers. We’ll keep being the innocent traders down here, I guess.”

“Please tell me you sold all the zrrks…”

“Happy to report they’re all gone, mate.”

Morwk uttered a low, relieved cooing sound, and then coughed a Kwmbwrw laugh. “Thank the old mothers…See you when you get back. Out.”

Ian chuckled, slapped the top of his bottle closed, and set it aside to grab another crate from the back of the shuttle. Now that the archeologists were nicely loosened up with some of their own classic delicacies, the time had come to introduce them to the joys of Folctha-grown radishes and rocket. And then maybe he’d buy a souvenir for his quarters.

The funny thing was, he’d always felt that digging up cultural items and putting them in museums and private collections was kinda…disrespectful. But this felt different. The people who’d once called this world home were extinct. There weren’t any descendents around to complain about their heritage being plundered. If nobody dug up this stuff and displayed it at all, then they’d just be…gone. Forgotten.

There was no bringing them back. But they could be remembered. It seemed only fair, really. Even if nothing came of the mystery high-speed sensor contacts, just coming here and remembering made the trip worth it, in Ian’s view.

As did confirming those warp signatures. He didn’t know what they meant yet. Maybe he’d never get to know, compartmentalization being what it was. But they were definitely out there, and definitely aware of his ship, too.

…Best not to relax until they were safely back in civilization. That feeling of paranoia wasn’t going away. If anything, it was getting worse. But, he wasn’t too worried. His crew still had plenty of tricks up their misshapen, odd-numbered sleeves.

And so did the Fortune.


Date Point: 18y11m1w2d AV
FOB Alighieri, Planet Hell

Gabrielle Nyoni

Quiet days put everyone on edge. Quiet days, consensus had it, meant the Hunters were up to something.

Of course, ‘quiet’ was a relative term. The base never stopped working, and the constant background noise was a rumble of heavy stuff being moved around, the regular thump of the arrays firing day and night on a schedule you could set your watch to, and the growl of vehicles heading out or returning from patrol. Nobody stopped at Alighieri.

If nothing else, there was kit to maintain, or food to stuff into faces. Gabby liked finding groups of men sitting around taking care of such chores. They tended to be a good source of unfiltered opinions.

But today? Today was silent. Confusingly so. The Hunters had seemingly vanished, and the few that were encountered out in the city seemed to be hastening to some sort of errand. It was, in the words of far too many tense young men, fuckin’ suspicious. And they were happy to speculate around the reporter.

Of course, nobody could agree on what kind of ‘something’ the enemy might be up to.

“Now, if it was me? I’d be lookin’ at diggin’ under the shield bubble. Whole lotta underground infrastructure down there, right? Basements and shit. Knock through a few walls, wriggle along some pipes, you could carry a nuke right under us.”

Lance Corporal Dyer was the kind of guy that Gabby thought of as a charming douche: cocky, self-assured, irreverent, and apparently didn’t know how to keep his thoughts to himself. As soon as he had a bright idea he shared it, and he didn’t give up on his bright ideas easily.

He wasn’t big by human standards. Maybe five-foot-six and built like a tough, muscular sort of beanpole. She imagined he was the type who often talked a bigger game than he could properly back, and as a result, likely knew his way around a fight better than he had any right to know.

His buddies mostly knew how to handle him: they just let him jaw until he tired himself out. The Gaoians, though…

“What is it with humans and thinkin’ sewer pipes are big enough to fit through?”

The Grand Army’s frontline combat units were full of brownies, and Heembo—a name that had attracted all kinds of robust mockery—was a pretty classic example. He was a rough-furred and handsome third-degree like Marrek, brawny-yet-lanky though noticeably beefier, which these days was about the post-War brownfur standard. So…pretty damn huge, by human standards. Sort of like a massive basketball player and a freakishly tall linebacker combined.

“Most of us ain’t seven foot bears,” Dyer retorted. “And plenty of y’all could fit!”

Despite the high population of brownies, that was only relative to gaoian demographics. Eighty percent of the unit were still silverfurs, and they ran the gamut in physicality. A few were legitimate competition for the brownfurs, but most were a sort of tough, wiry sort of build. Small, really. Even next to Dyer they weren’t overtly imposing…but they had wicked claws.

“Most sewerage is, like, as thick around as my leg. And fulla shit,” Heembo insisted. “Kinda like you.”

There was a gruff round of guffaws and chitters across multiple octaves of deep. Big or small, everyone seemed a bit fond of Dyer’s antics.

He, of course, was oblivious. “You got big fuckin’ legs, though! Big enough I could wriggle through a pipe that size. And there’s utility tunnels an’ stuff, and drains. And basements. I’m tellin’ ya, with a good map I bet you could tunnel a long fuckin’ way.”

“From the other side of the river, though? Through the river? Nah, pretty sure that’s not what they’re up to.”

“Alright, let’s hear your idea!”

“Don’t have one, I just think your idea’s got no legs.”

“Come to think of it, why haven’t they nuked the city, yet?” Gabby asked.

“They have,” Heembo noted. “You weren’t here ‘fer that. They stopped when they noticed the shield could fight it off.”

“No, but, I mean, isn’t Dyer right? Couldn’t they sneak one underground and—?”

There was a blinding double-flash. Gabrielle was too stunned to react, but the men knew what to do, and so did Marrek. He threw her to the ground and then threw his two-hundred-plus kilos on top of her, which made something pop painfully in her side—

The voice of God spoke.


Date Point: 18y11m1w2d AV
Light bulk freighter Stray Fortune, orbiting WeiMeYrU-Uym relic homeworld

Urgugvuneg

“There’s another one.”

Urgug turned away from his paperwork and toward the sensor display, where Morwk had spent most of the afternoon. The ship was mercifully quiet, with its three noisiest crew away on the planet below them. No raucous human music thumping from Dora’s command pod, no clanking of metal and gruff banter from the gym, no unconsciously dense footfalls making the deck shake with every step.

And in Bruuk’s case, no tapping of claws against the metal of a deck already complaining loudly about such a large mass bearing down on it through comparatively small feet. That last one especially worked its way into Urgug’s hindbrain in a deeply uncomfortable manner. Instinct hadn’t caught up with the idea of a friendly, powerful predator, and probably never would.

He was very fond of them, of course. But deathworlders, and those who embraced their culture, were a little overwhelming from Urgug’s perspective. They were dynamic, and aggressive, and a bit too quick of mind to really catch up. Bruuk was wickedly intelligent, and Wilde was in another league of perceptive. The two of them together seemed to synergistically combine their powers in ways that, frankly…Urgug had no hope of keeping up with. Especially the way they managed to infect Moj and Dora with some of that energy, too.

No, he preferred his paperwork on the whole. It was something a hefty ruminant like himself could, well, ruminate over. And he’d found that deathworlders in general hated paperwork. Alleviating much of that burden from them both had earned him solid friendships, and well-crafted salads at dinner. Avocados, in particular…

He shook off the green glow of pleasure that thought rose in him, and returned his attention to Morwk. “You sound concerned.”

“You aren’t? Mystery sensor contacts in a supposedly dead region of space don’t trouble you?”

“No more than many of the other escapades we have launched ourselves into over the years, both with this shipmaster and our former one.” Urgug trundled away from his desk to peer at Morwk’s readings. “…My, that is faint.”

“Any fainter and I’d think it was just a background fluctuation. But it’s definitely moving like a ship…” Morwk traced the two spindly middle fingers of his right hand across the screen, then paused when the contact faded entirely. “Hmm.”

“You sound even more concerned now. Surely there is nothing to worry about? It was quite far away, and heading away from us.”

“True…” Morwk didn’t sound convinced. He drummed his thumbs on the counter for a second, then returned to fiddling with the sensors. The contact did not reappear. “…I think we should call the others back up.”

They were almost ready to head back anyway, and with the two strongest crewmembers at hand, they should make quick work of stowing everything away on the launch. Bringing forward their return by a little while should not be a problem. Urgug nodded, and went to make the call.

Wilde listened thoughtfully, nodded, and gestured at somebody off-camera as Urgug explained Morwk’s concern. Behind him, the shuttle sealed itself and the audio feed picked up the low thrum of its engines coming online.

“Aye, two confirmed contacts is enough for me. Have Moj and Morwk spin up the jump drive, we’ll go home the fast way.”

Morwk raised a hand to indicate he’d heard the instruction, and abandoned the sensor column to return to his spot in the engine room. A few seconds later, the sound of his voice calling over the ship’s intercom to summon Mojremm’rt to the bridge reached Urgug’s ears.

“The ship will be ready for you,” he promised.

“Good. See you in a few—”

The screen went blank. Urgug blinked at the words “connection lost” for a few seconds before turning his head to the sensors.

Space around them was, far too suddenly, not as empty as it had appeared. Red waves of alarm pulsed down his body and he turned, too slow, to lumber across the bridge and—

Moj was quicker. Maybe it was all that training with Wilde and Bruuk. He came out of nowhere, slid under and between Urgug’s legs, chitinous carapace skidding on the metal deck plating, sprang to his feet in a smooth motion and flung himself into the pilot’s seat, swatting the panic button as he did so. The lights dimmed. The shields went up.

The next instant, faster than Urgug could process it, something slammed into them in a brilliant white flash that made the bridge’s outside cameras shut down protectively. Two more flashes, then a heavy thump that rang through the hull. The shrill wail of multiple alarms alerted Urgug that they were gravity spiked. Something terribly fast and blisteringly hot streaked past the ship and down into the relic world’s atmosphere. Far below, the dig site was annihilated in an instant.

The shuttle was…gone.

Urgug was a peaceful being at heart. His people were a peaceful people. He couldn’t cope. He froze. He was still staring at the sensors, too shocked to hear Moj’s shouting or Morwk’s cursing, too stunned by wishing the shuttle would just reappear somehow—

Something short, dense and hairy shoved him aside. “Move your arse mate, shit just got real!”

Wilde. And Bruuk, too. Somehow…

…Right. Yes. The jump array on the shuttle. The thumping sound. But by the world-storm, the speed they must have thought at to—

Another shield-flash, and Urgug’s body caught up at last with his brain. He stumbled aside, returned to the navigation console as Bruuk pounced on the sensors. Outside, the enemy ships recoiled, confused that their assault hadn’t annihilated an apparently harmless freighter.

“Urgug! Get a good scan on ‘em! Dora, launch our pets! Moj! Break for high orbit, get above ‘em!”

Clear orders. Urgug’s hands followed them. The whole hull vibrated around him as Dora’s combat drones swarmed out of their hidden launch tubes and suddenly the attackers weren’t facing a sitting, vulnerable target. They were facing every surprise that Clan Whitecrest could cram into one hull.

And in space combat, there was nothing more deadly than surprise.

In the end, it was a short fight. Dora’s drones engulfed one of the attacking ships, reduced it to scrap. Two more high-velocity shots skipped off the Fortune’s boosted shielding, generating retaliatory bursts of gamma radiation…

Then a lurch in the deck. The planet below vanished, Urgug’s console beeped and updated, and it was over. They’d escaped, back to the safety of staging near Cimbrean.

Things progressed quickly after that. They were boarded with extreme violence by the legendary HEAT. Never had Urgug thought he’d meet deathworlders the like of which made Wilde or Bruuk seem so insignificantly slow, weak, small, so completely, totally harmless. Some were gaoian, some were human, all were studies in concentrated, precision death.

There were apparently levels to this. Thankfully, the aggression was quick, and no harm beyond a bit of a bruise was given. The biggest one—he stood almost at eye level, and was far and away the most dangerous being Urgug had ever met—had been the one to tackle and slam him against the wall with just enough force to stun, but not quite enough to cause any lasting harm. ‘Righteous’ gave a firm pat on the flank and what was probably a friendly smile. “Sarry ‘bout that. You’d be the last one we’d want possessed by a fuckin’ Hierarchy demon.”

Urgug flashed pink in confusion. “Me?”

The huge man shrugged, “you’re a big dude.” And with that, their conversation was over.

Debrief. That was thorough. Human and Whitecrest personnel, in what was clearly a combined intelligence operation. Presumably a thorough poring-over of their sensor data while Urgug answered questions to the best of his reeling ability.

What came next, however, was orders. And direction. He was glad for both.

“Get the ship repaired and restocked,” Wilde barked out, as he emerged from his own debrief. “I’ve got an errand to run.”

“Oh?”

“Yup. Gotta go fetch a Chimp and some monkeys.”

Well, whatever that meant, Urgug was just glad for some direction. Those few moments—a subjective eternity—of panic, of not knowing what to do, of total paralysis…they had been horrible. Doubly so, for believing his crewmates dead.

The chance to put that right was a balm. He seized it gladly. And far from being scared, he wanted nothing more than to go back and settle the score.

After all. He’d chosen this mission too.



++END CHAPTER 80++



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Acknowledgments

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Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker


39 Humans

TTTA

Adam Shearsby

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Brigid

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Sun Rendered

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Zorven


As well as 58 Deathworlders…

Adam Zarger Alex Langub Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece atp blackwolf393 Brandon Hicks Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Candreva Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Derek Price galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jack Weedon Jeffrey Stults Jerry Lawson Jim Hamrick jmal116 Jon Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina Blue lovot Matt Matt Badger Matt Bullock Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata Nicolas Gruenbeck NightKhaos Patrick Huizinga Ryan Cadiz Ryc O’Chet Sam Sean Calvo Stephen Prescott Thanatos theWorst Trevor C walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas Zod Bain +1 anonymous

73 Friendly ETs, 146 Squishy Xenos and 314 Dizi Rats. And now to make a Dizi Rat pie. SPLAT


“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 81