Chapter 81: The Offensive
Date Point:18y11m1w2d AV
FOB Alighieri, Planet Hell
“Masks on! Get your fucking masks on!”
That was easy enough for Gabby that even dazed, pummelled and totally upside-down, her fingers managed to do it without thinking. A simple button press and instantly, her head was cocooned in a protective forcefield. A puff of cool air from her collar, and suddenly the burnt smell was gone.
The ringing in her ears, though…that wasn’t going away just yet. Everything was lopsided. She could hear the shouting from her right, the orders and urgent calls, “Corpsman! Corpsman!!”
From her left…just the high ring of tinnitus.
Something heavy, furry and warm was pinning her down. When she pushed on it, it squirmed and keened.
“Buddy, you okay?”
“…Feel like Daar just jumped on top’a me…” He climbed off her, and Gabby gasped as she got a good look at the world beyond him. A dirty brown mushroom cloud was still unfolding, towering pretty much right above them. Close.
Dazed or not, her hands knew what to do. Up came her camera, shutter clattering even while a terrible frozen awe tingled down her limbs.
“Well…” She could hear Marrek indulge in a full-body pelt-shake, and the part of her brain that was still not quite connecting wondered if there was even any point to that under his fatigues. “Never thought I’d see that again. We should get movin’.”
“…Yeah.” In fact, there was a river of men rushing past them, streaming toward the mushroom cloud and the enemy. Attacking? Now? God, how did they do it?
Still. She was on her feet and moving too.
“What do we do?”
“We git th’fuck back ‘ta HQ right now. C’mon.”
Gabby nodded. Shit, they’d survived on purest dumb luck it seemed. A roll in the terrain, some reinforced concrete and Hescos, and sitting on the leeward side of a parked vehicle. Enough to spare them. But…God. Among the extra equipment she’d been enduring this whole time was a general-purpose environmental hazard alarm, and it was starting to click urgently at her as the fallout came down. Suddenly she was much, much more grateful for the horrible, sweaty layer of unbreathing fabric she was wearing.
Even so, her dead run wasn’t fast enough for Marrek, who outstripped her for a few dozen yards then stopped, came back for her and growled urgently. “Climb on.”
Gabby wasn’t about to argue. If there was any safety to be had, it was back under one of the inner forcefield domes, and the sooner they got there the better. Dignity didn’t fucking matter right now. She climbed on, took the biggest, firmest grip around his neck that she could, and hunkered down.
What followed was the wildest ride of her life. Gaoians didn’t have straight and steady spines like horses. They flexed more like cheetahs, and hanging on was mostly a matter of keeping her hands locked around his thick neck until her knuckles creaked, and her legs braced under her, trying to rid enough that she at least didn’t go flailing about.
It was a pretty far going of it, but he kept to a rapid lope, lungs heaving all the way. When they got close enough to see the devastation…
No more pictures just yet. Safety first. He picked up the pace again, and upgraded to a dead sprint when the alarms went solid and started screaming at them. There, near HQ and the shield generator, was a hastily-assembled clean area. Nothing else stood. Precious little was even there, reduced to residue rather than rubble. A clear line where the devastation gave way to clean concrete marked the edge of the inner shield dome, the one protecting HQ and the jump arrays.
Marrek didn’t slow down until they reached the tent, and it was only then he unceremoniously dumped her off and clutched at his chest, desperate for breath.
“Fuckin’…Humans…yer all…fuckin’…heavier…’n’you…look…” A human from the US Army was on them immediately, clad in full protective gear and armed with a menacing spray nozzle. “Heavier’n…my…runnin’ vest…”
Ordinarily, Gabby might have taken offense at being called heavy. Right now, she had more important things on her mind. “Are you okay?” she asked, as they were briskly doused.
Marrek waved a paw at her reassuringly and kept panting, then grunted and pulled a face as the cold water sprayed all over him.
The soldier with the hose didn’t have any time for niceties, and gestured with his nozzle toward a tented hallway as soon as he’d given them their rinse. “That way. Quickly, please.”
“What happens next?”
“You strip down to your skin, we scrub you down from a distance, and we dispose of everything you’re wearing.”
“My camera!” Gabby protested.
“We’ll send that through for specialized decon. And before you do,” he warned, “don’t go sneakin’ no memory card through. Put it all in the bin right there.”
“I don’t care, ma’am. Do what you’re told, or have it done to you.”
“Trus’ me,” Marrek moped. “I’ve got it worse.”
“We’re gettin’ shaved.”
“I’m told they got some rapid re-grow pills now,” the soldier offered, consolingly.
“Le’ss jus’ get it over with…”
Well. Gabby learned a few things.
The first was that there was no such thing as dignity in a warzone. Marrek, herself, and three others were all herded into a decon cell, stripped naked, shaved completely hairless (all of them, head to toe!), and then effectively power-washed with something stinking, stinging, and blue. And almost scaldingly hot, too.
The second was that brownfurs looked alarming without their fur. Marrek was both physically almost too impressive…and also weirdly, unaccountably alien. It just somehow looked wrong because he wasn’t merely buzz-cut, which would have looked fine, even handsome…it was that he was shaved entirely. He looked like a bodybuilder sphinx cat. Or a roided-out potato.
She managed not to giggle at that image, though that wasn’t hard, really. He looked miserable. No wonder they considered it such a serious punishment!
Of course, she was bald now, too. Everywhere. Even her eyebrows. Even…yes. They were at least good enough to let her tend to her own intimate areas, but they had to watch and approve that she’d done a thorough enough job. It was one of the most degrading experiences she’d ever lived through.
And of course, they’d shaved her hair, too. Gone, to be destroyed with the rest. Which, she’d been wearing a forcefield helmet but the soldiers were utterly uninterested in her protestations. She was only issued some clothing, in the form of some fatigues, once the treatment was over and her whole body felt like they’d stripped off a layer of skin.
She got through it all in part by worrying about all the soldiers and marines outside who were presumably fighting in the fallout. Marrek had…chattered…at length about what the next step would be, about the need to counterattack because the Hunters presumably had pounced the moment the bomb went off….
Gabby couldn’t imagine how the wounded might go through what they’d just endured.
And the dead…however many there might be, they weren’t going home. Ever. Somehow, that thought put the fear into her. To think…there but for the grace of God, she and Marrek could have ended up not just killed here, but buried in a mass grave here too, never to be returned home or given a proper farewell.
Something about that filled her with a cold dread that mere death didn’t carry.
In any case, the battlefield was no longer any place for reporters. They were on the first available jump back—routed to Gao, inconveniently—and had debrief, post-processing, medical, and so on…it turned out Gabby’s left eardrum was ruptured. The Gaoian medic gave her a shot of some kinda regenerative alien supermedicine and promised it should fix itself in forty-eight hours.
For Gabby, the emotions were mixed. On the one hand, after such a close escape, and with the cold dread still lingering in the back of her mind, a large part of her was glad to have escaped with a mere terrible indignity.
On the other hand…the battle for Hell had just turned endlessly more serious than it already was. She felt like she was abandoning the people left there to the same anonymity that freaked her out so much. If she could have stayed…she would have.
But she couldn’t. And she was guiltily grateful for it. She’d just have to do what she could from safety.
Marrek understandably wanted to stay on Gao while his fur regrew, so Gabby returned to Cimbrean alone after a long wait for an available jump that she barely noticed. She just…sat. And waited. And didn’t really think about anything. There were terrible thoughts and emotions all balled up tight in the back of her mind; she didn’t dare touch them. They’d explode, when she did.
She was spit out the arrival gate with nothing to her name except the oversized fatigues and boots she’d been stuffed into, and a piece of paper with instructions on it—symptoms to watch out for, what to do about them, that kind of thing. On autopilot, she walked the few blocks to the ESNN building. Nobody had even bothered to call ahead and let them know. She was, in fact, the bearer of breaking news when she stumbled numbly into the office.
Jim wanted to put her right in front of the camera. Ava tore into him and took her home instead. Sat her on the couch. Sat next to her. A warm, furry weight on her knee broke through the daze, and when Gabby looked down into Hannah’s big, soulful, canine, worried eyes…that was when the click finally happened. When it really hit her just what she’d witnessed, and survived.
It took her a long, long while to stop shaking.
Date Point: 18y11m1w2d AV
Lance Corporal Viggo Dyer
Jesus shit they were fuckin’ lucky. Well, as lucky as infantry ever fuckin’ get. Fuckin’ nuked, Jesus fuck. Gonna die of ass cancer or some shit in ten years, if the fuckin’ Hunters don’t get ‘em first.
Or set off a second one.
No time to think about that. Wouldn’t fuckin’ feel it if it happened anyway, so…shut up and go to work.
Right now, they were in the worst kind of urban maneuver, securing ground and flushing out territory. It turned out that gaoian and human tactics were fantastic for the task. There was a pattern to it, where you cleared a sector, covered ingress, swept the obstacle clear. Sometimes there were buildings that needed to be cleared. Mostly, it was holes under debris. The silverfurs darted forward, the humans flowed in to secure. The big guys lugged in the packs filled with shieldsticks and ammo, leapfrog, leapfrog, leapfrog…
It all sorta…melted together after a while, really. The Hunters were too fuckin’ dumb to know what was up. They just…charged. And died. Didn’t even seem to give a fuck they were bein’ mowed down…
Right up until the other Hunters took advantage. Invisibility sure as fuck made it easy to get outflanked, the sneaky fucks.
Big fuckin’ mob of dumbfucks up front: Anvil. Sneaky group of backstabbers to one side: hammer. Dyer and his buddies right in the fuckin’ middle.
Clark crashed to the ground up ahead as a volley tore sideways into them from the left. Dyer spun, returned fire while finding the meagrest fuckin’ cover ever, followed it up with a grenade. A fat hostile round cracked past his head and against the wall: concrete dust splattered off his mask.
The grenades went off; he charged. Panting for breath under his mask, rounds skipping off the ground by his feet. One of the Gaoians next to him went sprawling, shot in the throat. Behind, the big guys opened: an invisible patch of air up ahead turned into a Hunter, reeling and screeching as its arm got torn off.
Another patch of air directly in front sizzled white hot: fusion claws. Shot the fuck out of it. Cloak flickered and failed: shot it some more, kept assaulting. Move, shoot, kill, all of it on reflex until…suddenly, nothing. No more enemy. No idea if they were all dead or if some of the cloaky fucks had melted away.
Secure the area. They had good good visibility of any approach—not that it necessarily mattered against invisible murder—and the LT decided now was the moment for them to dig in, get a breather, get some relief.
Also, mortars were fuckin’ up everything around them. Which was nice.
Clark was dead. So were Feegun and Rivera. Couple other guys were bein’ stuffed into stasis bags. Dyer, somehow, had come through it without even a little nick in his MOPP suit.
The rest of the day…sorta passed in a blur.
They got their positions secured. Relief came some hours later, and pushed forward in the next wave. They were ordered to the rear, where they could decon, debrief, reload, refuel…
It was only sometime later, when they were all sorta cuddled up in a tent, waiting for the showers to open up, when things were quiet, somehow….
Dyer fell apart. They all did.
Then they pulled themselves back together. A shower, some sleep, and more fighting awaited.
Date point: 18y11m1w2d AV
Kwei Bo Fa city, eastern Eng Hi province, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
One of Daar’s most favoritest things to do was hostin’ guests from across the Gao. He had two afternoons twice a week set aside ‘fer that sorta thing, and he was always careful to invite people from across society, as much as he could. Unknown Clanless with interesting stories, impressive athletes, thinkers an’ scholars, high Clan, the occasional charming rogue…
And Females, of course. All kinds of them! Balls, more often’n not they weren’t even mating prospects, jus’ respected elders (who had the bestest stories) or maybe very young maidens, new to the world an’ fulla potential, who were just delightful as all get out ‘fer a red-blooded man’s senses…but prol’ly wouldn’t be a good mating fit ‘fer him, metaphorically or literally. Most were arranged by Naydi for her own reasons, and all were good company.
Some of ‘em were mating prospects of course, but not all: lotsa gals turned him down. Happened allatime, even if nobody would believe it. Though if he were bein’ as brutally honest with himself as he could possibly be, maybe a lotta that was jus’ him sniffin’ out real early-like if she was interested, an’ sparin’ ‘em both the time an’ embarrassment. More often’n not, s’pecially wit’ ‘yer average silverfurs…well, he tended to both intimidate an’ arouse pretty much everyone, usually mightily so, but almos’ always it was one more’n th’ other, s’pecially ‘fer the littler folk. He always had done, even when he was jus’ a fifteen-year-old, newly-grown adult an’ freshly made Champion who din’t know his nose from his tail where females were concerned. Which, well. He understood. So he din’t put ‘em on the spot, if he could avoid it.
Well…usually. It was always important ‘ta know if someone liked the game!
Anyhoo, predictable Daar-things aside, most of the time he din’t quite know what kind of company he’d be getting on any given day, ‘cuz his staff had discovered that he delighted in mild surprise, and took over mosta the work ‘fer settin’ things up.
The event they’d arranged today was kinda half-formal, half-relaxed. They were down south on the isthmus, enjoyin’ the warm weather on the grounds’a the big Commune at En Wei-Nan, havin’ a kinda fancy picnic an’ artistic exhibition. There were sculptures, paintings, animations, poetry, all kindsa things. Finger-paintings by some o’ the more precocious cubs, too. It was…well. Civilized. Nice! Sittin’ around snackin’ on cheese an’ meeshi while a lovely young fifteen-year-old silverfur sang the famous Yi mi kei shei aria.
Not a classic performance, though. A modern interpretation, with Human European influence. Lotta grumblin’ about that in some circles, about preservin’ heritage an’ not pollutin’ it. Others held the view that art was a livin’ thing that grew an’ changed with the times, an’ pointed out that ‘ya couldn’t modernize the ol’ aria without knowin’ it damn well first.
Daar did think it were important ‘ta treasure what they were an’ hold on ‘ta the’ things that were good an’ right about their culture. It were over ten thousand years old, an’ most o’ that recorded! But still, even if the avant-garde (…a Human word, that) art scene weren’t really his thing, he could still appreciate talent.
S’pecially lovely talent! So, he was enjoyin’ the performance, even if it were pretty adventurous, when his nose caught a scent that spelled trouble: Tiyun’s.
Daar knew his aide well. Even when Tiyun was at his calmest, his state of mind was an open book to Daar’s nose, and Daar usually knew what was up a good little bit before he arrived, just from his scent on the breeze. This time, though, the aroma of worry and anguish hung so heavily about him that other heads turned too, ears flattened sympathetically. Something was badly wrong, and though Tiyun was doing his best to pretend otherwise, he fooled nobody. Even the singing sister faltered.
Daar did what he did best, then. He made eye contact wit’ her, gave his absolute most bestest pant-grin, winked, an’ mostly ‘fer fun gave her jus’ the quickest lil’ preenin’ pose as he stalked away to go meet with Tiyun in private.
That was the bestest part o’ bein’ a leader, really. Encouragement! She carried on, voice just a bit more soulful, and it warmed Daar’s heart to hear. What a blessing to have that power!
On to more sober business.
“‘Fore ‘ya launch into whatever it is,” he preempted, “make sure she’s offered a private audience whenever’s appropriate.”
“I…yes, My Father. I presume for an evening?”
Daar chittered. She was incredibly lovely, but… “Naw, ‘less she’s interested. Needs some learnin’ first, or mebbe sum’ good teachin’….now, what happened?”
Ordinarily, he would have indulged in teasing Tiyun a bit about how long it had been since his last contract, and that maybe he should be the one to educate the young sister in the ways of male and female…but now was very clearly not the time. Instead, Tiyun plucked a privacy field generator from his pocket and activated it, sealing them away in a sphere of white noise.
“The Hunters on Hell detonated a nuke.”
“I presume Command has already begun their counter-attack?”
“Within seconds. But the casualty reports are…significant. And the Hunters are throwing everything at them.”
“Of course they are. Hell is existential ‘fer them. Almost all their resources are tied up in that system an’ we’ve been denying it to them for two months. How big a nuke was it?”
“Tactical, we think ground burst. Something on the order of ten kilotons we think.”
That was puzzling, actually.
“Why so small? In their situation, I’d have used something much more bigger.”
“Leading theory so far is resource constraint. It might simply be all they had on-hand.”
Hmm. Daar’s ears flicked in thought. That spoke to a pretty serious desperation, maybe…
Or maybe, it spoke to a serious internal disconnect. “Well, either that means they ain’t got the means, or they ain’t got the will from th’ Alpha o’ Alphas. Either seems advantageous to us.”
“…The casualties, My Father.” Tiyun seemed a bit…ah.
“Tiyun. Brother.” Daar got down on his haunches and pulled Tiyun in for a reassuring hug. “I know. Believe me I know, an’ I’ll light their pyres myself. It’ll likely be almost everyone who was there, which by now is prob’ly low six-digits. Am I on the mark?”
“…Over a hundred thousand, My Father. As a rough first estimate.”
“Yeah. So, knowing that, an’ acceptin’ that, what can I do ‘ta make their deaths worthwhile?”
Daar tightened the hug, and used his paw to massage reassuringly along the back of Tiyun’s neck and head. “It’s okay. It jus’ means ‘yer good people, s’all.”
He held on for a comfortable while, and only pulled back when he felt Tiyun relax a bit.
“…If, if you wish to speak with President Chambliss, I have made the arrangements.”
“Good. I’ll need ‘ta. Firs’ I gotta talk to Command. I assume that’s where we’re goin’?”
“Your jump is waiting.”
Daar nodded, and stood up to walk toward the array. It wasn’t far.
Something was still bothering Tiyun, though. Daar could smell exactly what it was, too.
“I know you want to say something,” he said, with a bit more authority in his voice. “You have standin’ permission to say anything you think needs sayin’. You know that, so, say it. I won’t have an aide afraid of my shadow.”
“…I…” It took him a while to screw up his courage, but like any good Gao, he found a way through. “How…how can you be so…so…”
Daar spared him the rest. “Because I must, Brother Tiyun. I am the Great Father. Nothing else matters. We have just been wounded by a terrible enemy, and I will not allow that to stand. Right now, the way ‘ta honor them best is ‘ta be cold an’ win this thing.”
Tiyun shivered, but duck-nodded, and that was that.
Together, they stormed back to the motorcade where the truck with the jump array was powered up and waiting for them. With that thing trailin’ him, Daar was never more’n a few seconds away from whereever he needed ‘ta be.
At Command, the hubbub was almost loud enough to drown out the thump of his arrival, even from the next room over. The air was thick with the scents of dismay, grief, alarm…but not panic. Not yet, anyway. And he’d picked his senior staff carefully enough that he trusted they wouldn’t panic at all, but still. The mood in the command center shifted immediately as he pushed through the doors.
Minutes passed. A whirlwind built around the map table, showing ground zero and the disposition of their forces at the moment of detonation. What they’d lost and, more importantly, what they still had.
Sorta. Reports were understandably pretty sparse for the moment. Thankfully they had excellent overhead observation courtesy of Fleet Intelligence Center aboard Myrmidon.
The foothold was still there. Human and Gaoian engineers had cleared a nice moat around it and brought the innermost shield dome right down to and below ground level, leaving the inner fortress completely unscathed, and even clean of fallout.
The second ring, previously secured territory, was now the front line again. The Hunters were swarming right through ground zero without a fuckin’ care in the world. Didn’t matter to ‘em that they were fatally irradiating themselves by doing so. Fuck, they prob’ly didn’t even know they were committin’ suicide. And if they did, well, Hunters only seemed ‘ta start carin’ about their own lives once they had some actual rank.
Though, when Daar recalled the Alpha, he had to wonder if even that fucker had really cared all that much.
Somehow the Marines and soldiers in that hellhole had held. They’d stood right back up, charged their fuckin’ weapons, and instead o’ swarming over a disorganized mess o’ shellshocked helpless victims, the Hunters had run into the teeth of some fuckin’ pissed off maneuver, grindin’ its way through an’ slaughterin’ everything in its path.
Gotta sustain that. An’ the single biggest probl’m they’d have in that regard…
“How’s our logistics lookin’ in all this?”
“We don’t know yet,” Bronzefur’s Father Rogin declared immediately. “We are obviously getting everything in motion we possibly can on this side, and our Allies are doin’ the same thing back on Earth and Cimbrean. We should be ready to flow major combat power within the next few hours. Critical supplies—or what we anticipate they’ll need, anyway—will flow imminently.”
Daar duck-nodded. There was one thing that seemed to be runnin’ smoothly: communication between the groundside shield generator and FIC was still intact, meaning orbit-to-ground fire support was still available. A few well-placed RFGs had probably made the difference as the Hunters strayed out from under their own shield dome.
All in all…a terrible blow. But not a fatal one, which it could have been. And the fact the Hunters hadn’t escalated to a bigger bomb as it became clear their assault was failing gave a lot of credence to the idea they’d shot their wad.
So to speak, anyway. Nutless greasy soulless shits.
The question was, what was Daar to do in response? The Grand Army was being well led and administered. An’ goin’ ‘ta Hell personally would be fuckin’ reckless right about now, no matter how much killin’ a pissed-off fuckin’ truck-heavy ‘Back like him could inflict. No, that’d be be near suicide right now, not ‘ta mention takin’ up valuable jump capacity.
The question was answered for him by Father Biirin of Clan Whitecrest, who handed him a memo from one of his junior Brothers. A brief evaluation of the likely morale implications on Earth, in light of the recent political climate.
Hmm. Yeah. This situation needed somethin’ diff’rent than him bein’ a wall o’ muscle an’ murder.
“Reckon I’ll be visitin’ Earth in the very near future. Officially.”
“Yes, My Father.”
Daar duck-nodded, and addressed the staff present. “Thank you, everyone. Please continue your good work, and keep me informed as appropriate.” With that, he withdrew, leaving them to damage control and counter-attack. He’d need a dust bath and a comb, quickly. An’ a moment ‘ta touch base with Naydi, who was no doubt takin’ care o’ things on her side. After all, that quick moment ‘ta compare notes might be the last he’d get to see of her for a few days.
“Right,” he said in a low voice to Tiyun. “C’mon, you an’ I gotta pretty each other up ‘fer this.”
He was about to become very, very busy.
President Beau Chambliss
The shocking thought—the thought that shocked himself—running through Chambliss’ head was that at least it wasn’t a whole damn city this time. God.
Another, more detached thought plaguing him was that it was a nice day. Clear blue skies, crisp cold air, a perfect late fall day in the runup to Thanksgiving. A slow news day, even. And that was about to shatter like glass under a hammer. His speech writers were already looking grey and stressed as they assaulted a first draft of his address to the nation…and to the world. This was an Allied effort, after all.
There would be coordination, at a high level. He had an emergency call scheduled with The Great Father and the King in the next few hours, where they would…
Well. Decide the fate of billions.
Those were the stakes, after all. The Hunters were at a tipping point, the moment when they were either permanently ruined as a major galactic force, or the moment when they rebounded fiercer than ever and tempered by war…and with a new thirst for vengeance. Failure on Hell could result in whole worlds being scoured in a few years’ time.
There would be many—his disgruntled election season allies and supporters chief among them—who would scorch him for this. He’d run on a platform of peace, of pulling America’s beleaguered economy and grieving populace out of the war beyond the Sol Containment Field. To most people, alien life was a distant, abstract thing. The occasional Gaoian visitor on the news, an ESNN story here and there…Nothing concrete. Not part of their lives. Why should their children, spouses and parents be put in harm’s way when there were so many more immediate things to attend to here on this very real, very tangible, very troubled Earth?
Instead of delivering on that platform, he had instead ordered American troops into an already-bloody battle that had, in one instant, become the greatest loss of life since the Vietnam War.
There was only one way to look at it: in an hour, two at most, the American people would show their true character. Would they demand a withdrawal, and throw the rest of the galaxy to the wolves?
Not if Beau Chambliss had any influence over it.
God, and to think he’d ever called Sartori jingoistic…
He needed a PR campaign. One that wasn’t him doing the PR. He needed a sympathetic, foreign voice to be given, well, voice. He needed a big, big state visit. Soon. And it needed to be an untraditional one, too. He didn’t need or want Prime Ministers and other inherently political creatures mouthing meaningless words. He couldn’t afford that. None of them could. Politics had to be set aside, lest whole civilizations burn.
So. First things first. He had to call the Speaker of the House (in his party) and the Senate Majority Leader (in…bitter opposition) to keep them abreast. Right after that would be the Gang of Eight, and after that…the leaks would begin.
With luck, the leaders in Congress would play some ball. He felt confident they mostly would.
And that just left his plan, for the King…and the Great Father.
The time for the great leaders of the Deathworlders to step up had come.
ESNN BREAKING NEWS REPORT
Nuclear strike on allied forces
BREAKING: At approximately 1100 GMT, the Hunters on Hell detonated what appears to be a nuclear weapon near the front lines. At this moment, there is no estimate for the number of casualties.
[Image: a shaky, slightly blurred still frame capture of the mushroom cloud] photographer credit: Marrek
We are pleased to report that our colleagues Gabrielle Nyoni and Marrek survived the attack, and have returned to Cimbrean and Gao respectively. ESNN has reached out to Allied Extrasolar Command, who are yet to comment or provide any additional information.
At time of writing, it would appear the Human and Gaoian militaries are already responding the crisis, with thousands of service personnel mobilizing in the USA, and many having their leave cancelled.
get live updates on this news story
<Breaking News] <Live News] <Hunter War] <Planet Hell] <AEC] <Grand Army]
Date Point: 18y11m1w3d AV
LCpl Viggo Dyer
It was amazing how much a good cry could just…help. You had to have the right sorta brothers with you, though. Nobody else would understand. Clark, Feegun and Rivera were good men, and…
In the here-and-now, though, they needed showers. After hours fighting in full gear, sweaty as balls, rehydration salts for the win…rank didn’t even begin to fuckin’ cover it. Another stroke of luck, or maybe magically competent planning: they had a decon kit with them at battalion, complete with pop-up tent and everything…and it had connected showers.
As everyone was in gear, that meant nobody had to be shaved. Thank God, because that could be debilitating for a gao. They did take the opportunity to trim right the fuck down though, and that was a nice bit of laughs for a bit. You had to be pretty cocky to rock a to-the-skin buzz cut.
Or, just be right out of fucks to give. For the most part, nobody was anything crazy special. Just a bunch of guys (and gao) who could hack it, together by circumstance and need. And that was all there was to it, really. You just had to cope, and thank fuck for the battle-brothers you had with you. They were a damn good unit, really.
And they grieved together by…kinda by turnin’ everything else up to eleven. As if goin’ extra hard on the banter and shit made up for the guys who weren’t there to take part.
So, the usual grab-ass was both a little more spirited and a little less humorous, that night. Nobody was feeling full of laughs exactly, but they were all feeling spiky and itchin’ to fuck something up hard. They were all young, after all, fierce in their prime and heavy on aggression, deployed on a giant adventure together, not sure if they’d ever come back…
Even if most of them weren’t stand-out special, they were all fit as hell, and that sort of competitive-but-brotherly energy just fed on itself. More than a few of them were seriously dedicated gymrats and at the crazy high end, two guys made everyone else look like chumps. First there was corporal Walker. Six-foot-six and one of those huge mutant motherfuckers that started really croppin’ up like ten, twenty years ago in out-of-the-way high schools and such. Fucker could move quick and nimble like a goddamn lightning bolt, too. Better’n everyone at everything, easily strong enough to make all the brownfurs his bitch…
All of them except for Heembo. He stood about seven foot tall like the other brownies, but while the rest were fit and lanky, sorta like really bigged-up versions of Dyers, Heembo was more like that big reporter gao; basically a tall-ass, long-armed linebacker, really. The two of them were a half-ton bundle of bestest-bud chaos and could honestly spend all day tossing each other around like toys. Walker was diced as fuck too, and as it turned out—
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” Dyers whistled in honest, open astonishment. “You’re fuckin’ ripped under all that fur!” His already sky-high ‘do-not-fuck-with’ rating went up about six dozen notches in Dyer’s opinion. Like Walker, Heembo was just fuckin’ something else.
“Fuck yeah I am!” He preened lewdly and thrust his hips. “Why, like what’cha see?”
Heembo, like most gaoians, was not afraid to tease. No need to fear, though: unlike many gao, the big bastard was only about the girls. Kinda stupid about ‘em, too…
“Fuck off!” Dyers retorted as he lathered up his hair, “I’m not your fuckin’ sex toy!”
“Yet,” Walker noted, with his usual total deadpan. “Anything’s possible if you’re brave enough.”
“Nah, couldn’t ever take me,” Heembo grumbled. “…Where the fuck I put my fur shampoo?”
“You didn’t pack any,” Fekko, his little silverfur battle-buddy commented. “Despite being warned you oughta.”
“…I din’t?” There was some good-natured jeering from his slightly confused expression.
“Nope. So I packed extra. Here, and you owe me, pretty-bro.”
Feeko pant-grinned so big. “Okay! We’ll git you such a purdy female ‘fer a date, you’ll see…”
“Jesus,” Dyer snorted and shook his head. “Built like a war god, too fuckin’ good-looking for your own good, can’t remember to pack fuckin’ soap, and your offer for payback is to wingman for your buddy. Your name is fuckin’ perfect.”
It really was. He always had a vaguely placid (and kinda…absent) expression plastered on his dumb, handsome face, and frankly being as muscular and pretty as he was, should’ve been doing scandalous modeling instead of fighting in the blood.
Heembo just shrugged and started working on that full-body lather. “Don’t hate on my brownie beauty. And I’mma need help wit’ my back, too.”
Some stereotypes were true. Despite making up less than one percent of Gaoian society, purebred brownfurs were often well over a fifth of any combat unit, precisely because of how innately physical they were. Silverfurs just…usually weren’t, really. Unless they worked at it.
Still, none of them here were pushovers. They were all deathworld tough, they’d all trained well, and they could all fight. In oily black rain, too. Which the fuckin’ Hunters just…ran through. Like they didn’t give a shit that actual goddamn radioactive shit was washing over them.
That shit creeped Dyer out.
Maybe the dumb fuckers just didn’t know. Half the time, the young Hunters with hardly any cybernetics didn’t seem to even know what a bullet was. They were just suicide troops, a big distraction for the older, nastier ones to exploit. Thank fuck for shieldsticks, or their bigger brother the MPESCE—Man Portable Electro-Static Cover Emitter. The “em-peske” was a fuck of a lot heavier, a fuck of a lot bigger, but it was like slapping down a big ol’ reinforced concrete wall in front of yourself. One that you could see and shoot through. Took balls to trust it when the bullets were slapping into the shield a few inches in fronta your face though.
He was a Marine, among the gaoian equivalent of Marines. They all had balls.
And not a lot of time for rest and recovery. They had been blessed with a shower this time, but that would be a rare treat going forward. All the gaoians were careful to soap up and get any loose hair taken care of, before they all took a pill that stopped fur growth for a month straight. All of them would look like short-coat man-raccoons (or man-bears) for the duration.
After this, they’d be stuck with wet wipes and field hygiene. Shit was gonna get funky.
The best luxury of all though, was they were allowed a whole four hours of sleep under cover. The wonders never ceased. All of them knew the score, and took maximum advantage.
Then they were done. They did try to clean things up as best they could for the next guy, but there was only so much that could be done. They swept up, took out the garbage…it wasn’t much, but it mattered.
Maybe they coulda done more, except First Sergeant showed up, and that was it. Back to the action. Back to the filth, the bullets, the mud, the blood, the death and the radiation. Back to not havin’ time to think about anything.
Back to the killing.
And just maybe, get some fuckin’ vengeance.
Date Point: 18y11m1w3d AV
Light bulk freighter Stray Fortune, returning to WeiMeYrU-Uym relic space
Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff
Training was cut short, but that was okay. They were ready. Still, more suit acclimation time was a good idea, and they all needed to be as hard as possible against its loving embrace.
So, they were sitting around, quietly suffering.
Fuck. Crazy to think they’d come this far. They weren’t rocking an EV-MASS, but of course they didn’t need to, either. The Mass was a full-on combat space suit and was burdened with a lot of support equipment as a result of that do-anything mission, a kitchen-sink approach to a rarefied battlespace where anything and everything might happen. Not so for the Ground Reconnaissance Advanced Survival System. The Grass, because of course it needed a terrible fuckin’ backronym. Gaoian-designed, human built, cavemonkey approved.
Their take on superarmor was something…a little less over-equipped than the big Lads preferred. The Grass was more focused on ground operations. Obviously. Hoeff had a big part in its design, and even though he was unambiguously a HEAT-level guy himself these days, he wanted Rees and Davies to be able to manage it too, so…instead of just tinkering with the Mass, they went for the ultimate mudfoot’s battle armor. Yeah, it was heavy as fuck, and still hugged with lethal force for the unprepared…but they each had suits tailored to their size and strength, so once you got used to that, got hard enough to tolerate the damn thing…it was like the fucker wasn’t even there. Movement became powerful and you could hit something with so much goddamn force…
Even better, the Grass was still damn near everything-proof, and could keep them clean and cool for weeks on end, if needs must. Fuck, it fit under clothes. The Mass couldn’t claim that! Hoeff coulda skulked around in all the sortsa places he’d skulked before just wearing jeans and a jacket, and just looked a collar size or three bigger than he really was. Which, okay. Because he was a fuckin’ tank of a man already, there wasn’t any real blending in anyway. Which worked out great, because on him it was basically a straight-up EV-MASS in heft and rib-breaking fit. He’d seen the destructive testing. The lightest version could save its wearer from grenades, mortars, and anti-materiel fire. Hoeff and the cavemonkeys? Theirs could take even worse, and Ferd’s armor was basically Protector-grade in fit, strength, and sheer ridiculous mass.
Not that a hit that hard wouldn’t fuck him up anyway, but whatever.
Anyway, it was a damn good set of armor without a lot of the really crazy extremes the Mass went to in the name of absolutely maximized protection. It didn’t have on-board biolabs, or waste processing (thank God!), or active forcefield armor. No biofeedback suit controls for extra functions, no metamaterials around gloves and seals…it was just armor, with the barest of spacemagic to make the suit conform to the body. No supercomputers, nothing crazy.
Basic. Reliable. Scalable to a man’s fitness, all the way up to HEAT-grade hard. Fuck yeah.
Wasn’t without its drawbacks, though. It more or less doubled everyone’s weight a lot like the bare-bones Mass did, and that took some serious work to adapt to, especially for Rees and Davies, who were merely big bastards and not freaky hulked-out balls of muscle like Hoeff. It was not space-rated without some optional accessories, and those accessories included a (hard to smuggle) forcefield pack; the suit itself was not that kind of pressure-tight.
Still. In a pinch, with the right disposable pack, it could even pull off a HELLNO. Which was easily the quietest way to reach a planet’s surface, and therefore something JETS had been wanting for years.
Which was why Hoeff’s little whatever-the-hell-they-were team was field trialing them. So far…ten out of ten, would survive again.
“Shit,” Bruuk sniffed toward them, as they lounged around and silently suffered under the suit’s insistent pressure. “We could use somethin’ like that, yijao?”
“That’s the plan,” Rees chimed in. “If I can do it, then a big ol’ bastard like Ian can too.”
“And if I can do it, then a massive teddy bear like Brukky here should have no problems,” Ian said fondly, and delivered a hefty slap to Bruuk’s absurdly wide shoulders.
“We’ve got a month of travel and you two are going to get fit up at our first stop,” Hoeff noted. “I hope you both have an unhealthy relationship with pain, ‘cuz…”
Dark chuckles and trills all around.
Dora’s antennae swayed as she listened to it. “Sometimes I forget the difference between deathworlders and the rest of us…and then you come out with something like this. But how are even you supposed to adapt so fast?”
Ian shrugged. They were hanging out in his quarters, on his (now flattened) couch, playing his videogames. Place was big enough for two guvnurag to live in, so by Human standards it was a whole fuckin’ apartment. He’d set up dividers to try and make it feel cosier. “We aren’t. The suit’s got variable tension, so it ramps up on you over time as you gain strength. Means you get more effective over time, too. We’re just backup, anyway.”
Hoeff turned his head at an explosive sound of frustration from Frasier at the other end of the late couch. “‘Ere, fuckin’ knock it off with that blue shell bullshit ‘ya big wanker!”
Ferd only smiled, and tightened hs tail-grip around Frasier’s waist. “No!”
“Fuckin’ giant monkey fingers, beats me how you even press the fuckin’ buttons…”
“He’s not the one you have to worry about. He’s still in tenth place,” Dora reminded him. “And by the way…red shell.”
Ian and Hoeff glanced at each other and shared a chuckle. It was all good, in Hoeff’s eyes. Morale needed to be high for what they were heading into…whatever it was.
Fuck, Hoeff didn’t even know if they were ever going to set foot off the ship. Might be they were going for a joyride and wouldn’t ever deploy. But who knew? Planets were awfully convenient spaceships, after all. The Hierarchy sure as fuck used ‘em.
An’ that was assuming it even was the Hierarchy. It was a big-ass and old-ass galaxy. Lotta places, and reasons, for somebody to hide. But whoever it was, they were an unknown variable. A hostile unknown variable. That couldn’t stand.
So…be prepared. Get some rest, get some more acclimation time. Maybe Ferd could get some squishing practice in on Bruuk—or vice versa, frankly. It’d be nice to escape that fate for a bit.
And maybe, just maybe, they’d stumble into something they could fight.
Rise of the Supermen—Humanity’s Next Generation? ESNN Essays
Joshua Hartl is in many ways a normal teenager living the All-American fairytale. Born and raised in a somewhat nondescript smallish town in the vast midwestern interior, he was Homecoming King with his long-term sweetheart, whom he has known since kindergarten and who has always been the girl for him. While neither will commit to marriage, they acknowledge conversations on the matter. He is tall, standing six-foot-three, blessed with rugged good looks and an extremely fit body only the young can ever manage. He has earned a 4.0 GPA under a respectable course-load, with several academic scholarships on offer to good universities.
He is also so wide-shouldered he must turn sideways to pass through doors, with a muscular physique to make the mind boggle. At over seven hundred heroically well-proportioned pounds, lean and trim to an almost worrying degree, he is far too big for most hospital scales to cope. Thirty years ago, had he been around in his present conditioning, Joshua would have been the largest, strongest, fittest, most singularly performant athlete the human race had ever seen.
But he is not alone. Joshua is one of a new breed of superhuman athletes that have generated much alarm and conversation, and none of them seem to know why they are so special. Neither do researchers we have contacted, and so far, the government has no comment.
They are rare, with only a few hundred such people known in the United States, with a similar proportion present in other nations. It is nonetheless difficult to miss them. SWAT units in major cities are seeing their ranks slowly swell with these supermen, our most elite tier-0 military units are staffed almost entirely by them, and our own ambassador to the Ten’Gewek is one of the most utterly extreme examples to be found anywhere. “There’s two guys who can out-grunt me right now,” he noted with some obvious pride, “and I’ll be beating one of them here pretty soon.”
He too was an astonishing outlier as a teen, but unlike Joshua, the opportunity to compete was a distant fantasy. “We couldn’t afford much,” Ambassador Etsicitty stated. “Which was probably a good thing, because there just wasn’t any room for someone like me in any of it. I was already way too big by my freshman year, so I’m glad there’s space for these kids nowadays.”
We discussed the matter in some depth. Regarding allegations of drug use, he does not deny that his current stature is the result of both a herculean training effort on his part, and “an ongoing science experiment” of advanced sports medicine, along with several other disciplines. He insists that he built himself to this extreme level of physical development as part of maintaining his extraordinary relationship with the Ten’Gewek, and does so under intensive medical supervision. He also insists he “wasn’t doing anything like this as a kid,” and that he “couldn’t have afforded any of it anyway.”
“All I had was running, and horsing around with my friends, and simple things like farm work and messing around with lifting. Still, it was enough to get me growing like a weed, enough that I outgrew any possible varsity wrestling career while I was still in middle school. And I think I ate my friends out of house and home!”
Nonetheless, he dutifully insisted that we remind our readers not to abuse medicines, especially performance-enhancing drugs, and to seek professional medical advice before use. “I can’t pretend I’ve got any standing to tell people no, but I will encourage them to be safe and legal about it. Mistakes here can ruin you for life. Don’t be stupid about it!”
Sound advice, we feel.
Of course, performance athletes on high-end training regimes are an understandable quantity, if perhaps alarming to some. Given the demands of HEAT and other strategic concerns, along with alien technologies and allied encouragement, it is hardly surprising that such tech has found its way into our most elite military and law enforcement units.
What is far more concerning is the appearance of this caliber of performance among unaffiliated, seemingly otherwise ordinary youths. We have learned that nearly every member of HEAT was just such a standout in their own youths, and that common factor may be the single biggest reason they are able to perform at such extreme levels. Within the team it is immediately obvious who had those abilities in youth, and who did not.
Growing up with such remarkable ability has not been easy for any of them, and even today the challenges can be significant. For young athletes competing merely a few years ago, such as HEAT operator “Gonzo,” their path took immense personal sacrifice. “I always had to fight my appetite, work out hard and long every day to keep in calorie deficit or I’d grow overnight!”
In Gonzo’s case, heavyweight was the highest division open to him during his wrestling career, which meant he had to remain below two hundred and eighty-five pounds. “State champion three years in a row! But I finally had to give up after my junior season.” His weight shot up “like a rocket” after that. He enlisted prior to his eighteenth birthday, weighing in at “around four hundred pounds.” On arrival to Cimbrean he weighed in at a floor-bending, alarmingly lean six eighty-five with “thirty-plus inch arms.” He has since grown considerably in size and in weight.
He will not say exactly how much, apparently because his precise capabilities “are sort of classified,” but he claims it is “four digits” now, as it is for everyone in the so-called “Beef Club,” the HEAT’s informal gathering of the most extreme athletes to be found in or out of the team. Even his immense size is modest among this group; he states that the ambassador, visually the superior man yet does not seem much bigger than Gonzo in person—they are the same height—is now “several” times heavier and “hugely, stupidly stronger.”
“I have broken fingers and knuckles punching him,” Gonzo noted. “He’s something special.” A useful skill, considering the rough-and-tumble nature of the Ten’Gewek.
As to what Gonzo’s classmates thought of his remarkable strength: “they all thought I was ‘roided out of my mind. But I’d never even smoked a joint!”
He is of course under medically supervised training now as a full member of HEAT, but even in the lead-up to his career he insists he was drug-free. “[The] first time I ever used a [performance-enhancing drug] was sort of late in the HEAT pipeline, and even then that was just to deal with the wear and tear. They really beat the hell out of you, [you know]?”
Allegations (or at least suspicions) of drug use follow these extraordinary people all their lives. Despite his own immense superhuman physique, Joshua insists he has never taken a performance-enhancing drug of any kind. “I mean, I use creatine like any good athlete these days, and maybe some pre-workout…but no. I mean, ‘roids couldn’t do this, so why bother?”
Indeed, rigorous testing has followed Joshua and others like him since their early years. He accepts it as a burden he must carry, and opines about what it must be like to compete without suspicion. “All I wanna do is wrestle and run track,” is as far as he will comment.
The problem, of course, is not limited to young males. [For simplicity’s sake, we refer to sex instead of gender, to avoid confusion among the many tangled rules across federations—ed.] Remarkable young females have also made their mark. According to research they are just as common, yet for many reasons they are far less likely to take advantage. Those that do have an even more difficult time in competition, needing to play against males instead of other females, and they often handily dominate their opponents. This has caused social friction and remains a major point of contention among concerned parents and an often divided public.
Sport federations around the world have struggled with how to accommodate these still quite rare but undeniably able athletes. For example, most federations are consolidating around heavily-regulated super-heavyweight and unlimited weight classes, where that is a relevant classification. The problem of how to incorporate such exceptionally performing young athletes into national and international competition remains an open debate.
For his part, Joshua is currently ranked second in his state under their new unlimited weight class, and hopes to wrestle his way to the top at an upcoming meet. “It’d be great! Might help win a place with Ohio State. Or not.” Win or lose, there will surely be a loud, awe-struck crowd.
He shrugged his mountainous shoulders and opined that, while the venerable wrestling powerhouse has a super-heavyweight class these days, he’s over three hundred pounds too heavy for that, with no real chance of cutting down; it would mean losing almost half his weight, just as his body is desperate to grow stronger, swifter, and harder. Worse, like nearly every young man in his giant-sized shoes, he has great difficulty maintaining any fat reserves on his body, and must eat almost constantly to avoid growing dangerously lean. “Maybe they’ll go unlimited too, but their head coach ain’t so sure about guys like me, yet.”
He doesn’t blame them. Joshua is among the rarest of the rare. Bouts between these young warriors draw impressive crowds, who enthuse about their “lightweight” speed, endurance, and aggression, combined with the spectacle of their superhuman physiques, their sheer strength, and their “floor-shaking” size. Bouts have been known to routinely run out the clock without any pause in the action; matches like that are a sure-fire way to sell many tickets. Yet, the long-term health consequences for such extremely capable athletes is far from known. Nevertheless, that young men and women like him exist at all is both a testament to human ability, and raises deeply unsettling questions which may prove to have highly consequential answers.
Finally, possibly the most confounding part of this new reality might be that many who seem as if they should manifest these abilities…do not. It is clearly a heritable set of traits, and many in such families are inclined to excel in one way or another. However, if they do not take to sport at a young age, these “runts,” for lack of a more succinct description, seem unable to develop such incredible physicality later in life. Nearly all appear to be in astoundingly good health for what may seem like little effort, but none of them ever develop such floor-bending physicality.
They do, statistically speaking, tend to excel in other fields. This leaves open the question of just how deep the abilities of these new supermen and superwomen truly go.
For the moment, there are no good answers. However, with the known history of alien influence, the existence of the Hierarchy, the astounding developments among the Gao, and many other concerning factors, there will certainly be no lack of questions, or speculation.
For many of these supermen, their lives will be quietly exceptional. With some care they can “pass” as normal folk, and many choose to do so. For the most extreme examples like Joshua, that may not be possible. He is already considering enlisting to gain some measure of anonymity—HEAT members are all known by callsign, if at all—and feels there are few options for men like him.
“What else can I do? People think they want to be famous, but they haven’t tried it! I’m sick of the way everyone gossips about me. When I wrestle, or run, I have fans, right? That feels good! But as soon as that’s over it’s back to the same. It sounds really nice to sort of fade away, you know?”
Others, like Julian Etsicitty, have embraced their celebrity to advance their goals, if at first reluctantly. “It brings attention to things people need to pay attention to,” he stated. “I’ve got a bit of an ego too, so I’ve learned to enjoy some parts of it. The modeling, for example. All for good causes…” He grins in unmistakably proud and definitely masculine sort of grin, then pauses to consider. “But, yeah. It’s not been perfectly easy. I have full-time security, after all.”
Indeed, Ambassador Etsicitty and his family have now several times survived assassination attempts, though only two are publicly known incidents. He won’t say much about the other occasions, except to say, ominously, “they won’t threaten anyone ever again.”
But what of the rest? How do they navigate a world filled with the comparatively meek and increasingly frightened? Is it fair to fear them for how they were born? Is it fair to pretend it doesn’t matter?
Needless to say, the consequences of all this are not obvious and cannot yet be known. Nonetheless, many are asking questions, and sooner or later, we will have answers.
Date point: 18y11m1w3d AV
Champion Uriigo of Clan Bronzefur
All hands on deck, up to and including the Champion himself. There just weren’t enough men to do the job! Balls, the Clan was bleedin’ money bringing in Clanless contractors ‘cuz the Grand Army needed a new everything on Hell, and they needed it all crammed through the Arrays as fast as gaoianly possible.
Though, if he were honest with himself it was nice to just throw cargo again. Secure netting, fill containers, deal with breakbulk snarls, “no this will not fucking fit through the array!” and so on.
He needed all the major distractions he could get, really. The consequences of Daar’s punishment upon their Clan were still causing him no end of trouble. Ten times in the last year he’d been challenged for the Championship. Ten times he’d put it down. Fatally.
Ten times, he’d failed to quell the simmering anger in his Clan, at the universe generally, the Great Father more specifically, and their Champion in particular.
Not that it was surprising, really. Mating pressure was becoming unbearable among Clan. Balls, even he had trouble securing mates! The Females, it seemed, were not keen on forgiving.
Everything was moving so damn fast. Including the death of his own Clan, if shit didn’t change.
And if the Females had a flaw…it was that the hard, repetitive and necessary work that propped up all of civilization was often invisible to them. A hard-working Male might win them over with his physique and his wit, but his job? There was no glamor in moving goods.
If ever there was a moment to change that dynamic, it was now. Now was the time they could show their quality to the world. But…how? Just delivering the goods wouldn’t suffice. It was what they were expected to do, after all. Nobody ever won favor by doing what was expected of them. They needed to go above and beyond, somehow.
…So, they needed to deploy forward.
It was an obvious answer, really. Why should the Grand Army be spending perfectly good personnel in the intricacies and heavy labor of logistics? Sure, they’d need to deal with it eventually, but from what he’d seen? Broken containers, mis-deliveries, useful time spent on correcting the mistakes that crept in when the work wasn’t done by professionals…
Clan Bronzefur was not expected to go to Hell. But by doing so, they could make a difference when it was needed the most. They could prove that they were truly willing to make sacrifices and take risks for the Gao’s future, and that was a thing the Females did not ignore. Even so, Uriigo was not looking forward to sending his Brothers to that terrible place.
After all: A Champion led by example.
And Uriigo would lead.
Date point: 18y11m2w AV
Camp David, Catoctin Mountain Park, Frederick County, Maryland, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
Hosting personalities such as the King and the Great Father required a certain discretion that simply wasn’t possible at the White House. It was, after all, open to the public at almost all times, and in prior years didn’t even have a fence around the property. In Lincoln’s time, petitioners could just walk up to the front door and see themselves in!
No. A meeting this sensitive required discretion, especially considering what Beau was going to ask of the two men. It required privacy, some distance, some quiet contemplation…
And in Daar’s case, simple space. Beau had thought the Great Father was a monstrous being the last time they’d met. Since then, the Gao had activated their Hierarchy-suppressed genetics and begun fully realizing their deathworlder heritage. Nowhere was the potential of that change more dramatically evident than in Daar, the only sixth degree male in his species, and in a breed where each higher degree was an increasingly more radical expression over its priors’ best.
Where before he was an eight foot hulking giant of a man, now he stood two feet taller and was quite literally the fastest, strongest, most massive creature walking the Earth, a living engineered weapon still firmly in the throes of that change. He was so broad and powerful, he had to sink to all fours and squeeze through most double doors. Daar was colossal.
The King had a different sort of presence altogether. Quiet and self-assured in a way Beau didn’t expect. It took him a while to recognize it, recognize what the two great sovereigns had in common when they couldn’t possibly be more different…and then it hit him.
Both had seen combat in their lives. Both had fought for king and country, and both were now king of their country.
Well, at least they would understand, then.
Firstly, he had to find something the three of them had in common. That turned out to be easy. All three loved the outdoors, and Camp David had a lot of very well-secured outdoors to explore.
If there had been cameras to see, they would have cut a casual picture, strolling in the woods. The two humans in classic, well-tailored wool sports jackets, Daar in a habitually showy short clip—flagrantly so to some sensibilities, though it had been well-brushed and neatly groomed into a clean athlete’s trim. By gaoian standards, that definitely qualified for smartly turned-out.
The conversation, however, was anything but casual.
“I don’t envy you your task,” the King noted. “Our Prime Ministers have rarely had good luck so thoroughly bucking their own party, on such a fundamental point of disagreement.”
“No,” Daar shook out his pelt, as he ambled along next to them on all fours. That was a remarkably disarming tactic of his, even though the level of his back came up to just below their shoulders. “But you gotta do it, an’ I get the feelin’ this ain’t a purely social call…”
Stating the obvious, of course.
“I don’t think you have the time to spend on social calls right now,” Beau replied. “No, this is about correcting a wobble before it pitches us all overboard. We’ve had a…a long fifteen years or so. San Diego, Chicago, Grand Central, now this. Each of those individually were generation-defining incidents. Put together, and…”
“We have a Great War, but none of the trappings or rhetoric of a great war,” the King summarized. “I think I can see already where this conversation might be going.”
“…I need help,” Chambliss confessed. That was a show of weakness he’d never hoped he’d need to make, but now was not the time to worry about costs. “I can’t sell such a thing alone.”
“Oh…balls.” Chambliss felt Daar’s grumble through the soles of his feet. “That’s what we’ve been doin’ wrong all along, ain’t it?”
“We’ve been thinking too much in the modern era. That this is some manageable defense matter. That it isn’t a total war. We’ve been too lucky in our allies, too lucky in even our enemies. But no longer. We just lost a terrible number of men, and when the news breaks it’s going to rock this country just as hard as the city bombings did. I think this one is finally going to shatter the illusion.”
“It’s been an easy illusion to maintain, too. With that shield keeping us isolated, it has allowed My Government to busy itself with domestic matters that, after all, seem so urgent…” the King considered for a moment, then turned to his private secretary. “Zöe, would you be so kind as to summon My Prime Minister? I know it will annoy him but…”
“That would be an understatement,” Dame Zöe Finch noted. “Shall I be persuasive, sir?”
That seemed to sober her up instantly. “Right, well…I had better get to work then.” With that, she offered a brief nod, stepped backward a pace, and left.
“The marvels of modern technology,” the King noted. “With the inter-city Array he’ll be here within the hour, I imagine.”
“Illustrates the point, don’t it?” Daar rumbled again. “It’s all so easy here. The war never came ‘ta Earth like it did ‘ta Gao, not with actual ships burnin’ in the skies an’ bloody claws’ in the streets.”
“But the shield isn’t unbreachable. We transit the thing constantly, and all it would really take is one single slip-up in security protocol, or for the Hierarchy to reveal a known weakness…”
“Right. Only reason the war ain’t come here is ‘cuz we’re keepin’ the pressure on out there.”
“A task for which your people and mine have paid disproportionately,” the King added, then turned his attention to Chambliss. “Understand Beau, I don’t mean to attack. I am keenly aware of the limits on leadership. Nevertheless, I don’t know how much more we can give, without a full commitment by the US.”
Well. There was the price. An understandable one really, and one that may end up destroying Beau’s Presidency. But what could he do? He’d always considered himself a moderate liberal. Too much of the prior decades had been defined by…indulgences…and the game of revenge politics had brought both major parties to the brink of a nihilistic end. His moderation meant the activists universally loathed him and his Administration, while the Congressional moderates were…well, weathervanes. They turned every which way the wind blew.
So…get a storm going.
“Understandable. Which is why I’ve asked you both here.” Time to lay it out. “Would you consider an impromptu tour across the United States?”
“A charm offensive,” Daar grumbled.
“Well, the nice thing about the same technology that means Steve Davies should be arriving soon is, a whistle-stop tour is a fair bit more convenient for us all. Breakfast in Balmoral, Dinner in Chicago,” the King replied. “So, if you think it will help…”
“I think it is essential. I can’t make the sales pitch myself. I am a political creature, fundamentally. I do not have the advantage of…well. Being above the fray.”
“And that carries complications for me,” the King noted. “I will need to socialize the idea, speak with My Government…it will be some doing to set this in motion.”
“It is a big ask,” Beau admitted. “And you, Daar?”
“I am the Gao,” he stated, matter-of-factly. “I know what’s at stake. But even I oughta socialize this kinda thing, ‘cuz my equivalent o’ nobility don’t like surprises.”
“They’ll be in for a damn big one if the tide flows the wrong way.”
“I din’t say it’d take much work,” Daar rumbled. “We’re more or less all on th’ same page.”
“What a luxury,” the King noted, sotto voce.
Daar’s chitter shook the ground. “I really don’t envy you any o’ what ‘yer gonna need ‘ta do.”
Beau nodded, and sighed heavily. “Speaking of which, I daresay the Joint Chiefs are itching to talk with me, and after that I have a nation to address.”
The King and the Great Father both nodded understandingly, and their hastily-arranged, unofficial meeting went their separate ways with handshakes and well-wishes. Beau let out a long breath once they were gone: he hadn’t wanted to admit to needing the help, but what choice was there?
Well. There was the choice that many in his party, and on the other side, would advocate: withdraw. Close down. Tend to humanity first and leave the galaxy to fend for itself. Many of them were going to feel quite betrayed that Beau no longer felt that way.
But, they hadn’t met the people he’d met. They hadn’t seen the worlds he’d seen. There were whole species out there who’d be extinct if not for human involvement in the greater galaxy, and that came with an obligation to keep fighting.
He just had to hope he had it in him to make that case to his own people.
Chambliss 180s on military policy
We all saw it coming. After storming into office less than a year ago on sweeping promises to reduce military spending and use the money thus saved to help the people living here in America to rebuild and regrow, Beau Chambliss has done exactly what Arthur Sartori did and crawled into the Great Father of the Gao’s bed for a big furry cuddle.
Meanwhile, on social media, #FOLDEDFLAG is trending as people post pictures of military cars and the uniforms inside knocking on doors to deliver news to next of kin. AEC and the Pentagon haven’t released official casualty reports yet, but it’s pretty clear that whatever happened out there in space, the USA just lost thousands of its young men and women in one blow.
We can add their names to the long, long list that started in San Diego.
Why are we even on Hell? Unlike Mordor, there’s nobody there to save. Unlike Gao, there aren’t billions of lives on the line. Every report from Hell has painted the same picture, of a blasted, polluted world strewn with wreckage and nothing else.
What, exactly, have thousands of our serving men and women just died for?
Well, let’s ask Arthur Sartori, now enjoying retirement at his nice comfortable estate in New Hampshire. Let’s ask the CEOs and executives of the Hephaestus Consortium, or Moses Byron. Let’s ask all the billionaires, millionaires and influencers who’ve done so well in the past fifteen years.
And then let’s ask the families. Let’s ask the homeless. Let’s ask the hundreds of thousands of people who had to stand in line all day for months on end just to take home their essential food staples after the Chicago bombing completely tore apart America’s transport infrastructure. Let’s ask all the people whose pensions went up in smoke amidst the market turmoil.
And now let’s ask all the mothers and fathers who are getting a folded flag today.
What have those broken promises purchased? The gratitude of an alien warlord? Not one but two protectorates, both of whom have received more of our tax dollars than our own people? Last week, Arthur Sartori spent a pleasant evening sipping soup in an alien palace, shoulder to shoulder with Julian Etsicitty and Daar (what better freaks of nature to sup with?) and the useless anachronism that is the Governor-General. All while America’s poor kids, left with no other career options by a decade of war and terrorism, signed up to serve and die in the mud. Beau Chambliss promised to be the antidote to all that. His every campaign promise was to reverse that trend, to bring American dollars home, use them to rebuild our wounded nation.
Instead, as with his predecessor, money talks. And everything else gets left to starve in the gutter.
When the fuck are you going to start objecting?
Date Point: 18y11m2w AV
Father Garaaf of Clan Whitecrest
Garaaf was in two minds about whether or not this was the worst part of the universe he’d crawled, skulked and generally snuck his way through. The ring hive had set a Keeda of a precedent, after all.
Still. Filth and radiation and mud and gore were probably a smidgeon less soul-eroding than an unending prison-slash-abattoir. Amazing what a little fucking perspective could do to a Gao’s outlook. He didn’t really know how to live in “civilized” places these days, anyway. Spent too long slinking like vermin in the sewers and ventilation and maintenance ducts, and now in the craters and rubble and devastation.
Least he’d been at HQ when the bomb went off. Unlike the poor bastard whose foxhole he was borrowing. He tagged the fallen Human’s location, then settled in to survey through his scope.
He noted a heavy vehicle, grounded and immobile, but possibly still with an intact turret weapon. He tagged it. Something heavy would obliterate it in short order.
FIC needed eyes on the ground. Many of their sensors could penetrate clouds—even clouds of ash, smoke and pulverized radioisotopes—with relative ease, but sometimes they needed a good old fashioned optical camera or biological eyeball. Garaaf was happy to provide that service. It enabled him in his hunt.
His scope settled on a group of five gammas, lightly augmented regulars. He noted their position and direction of movement. They were moving with a purpose.
Weird technological almost-hive-mind or not, the Hunters still had a command structure. They still had the ones giving the orders, and some of them needed to stray close to the front. Coordination like they’d shown in the last day of fighting suggested an old and wily beast was on hand to direct them, one that had lived long enough to develop some actual individuality. He’d seen a few such on the ring hive, always stomping around in bodies that were more machine than flesh.
Funny how the more of their bodies they cut away, the more they started to resemble a person. Kind of the opposite to how a healthy species worked, that…
Through his scope he explored the few remaining intact walls of a collapsed building. Nothing.
He found a Beta, quite layered in armor plates and technology, hunkered low behind a pile of concrete rubble. He watched it for a second…No, not a threat. Dead. Move on.
An Omega. Unaugmented. Not visibly injured, but twitching and coughing up blood in a hole. Kind of impressive it had managed to live long enough to die of radiation poisoning. Any other life form, he’d be tempted to put a merciful bullet in its brain. Hunters deserved no such. Move on.
Movement? Watch it for a second. An empty alleyway. Move on.
Watch some more…
The Alpha, flanked by a bodyguard of barely less upgraded Betas. And this time, no…balls, no actual living Keeda to smush it.
But he did have a hell of a rifle. And by whatever may be out there, he knew how to use it.
The Alpha, alas, wasn’t staying put. It moved on before Garaaf could ready his shot. He reported its presence in the area, then slipped out of his foxhole to stalk it.
And somewhere in his soul, he realized he was enjoying himself.
Time to go make the Great Father proud.
Date point: 18y11m2w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“A Laid Bare? Are you sure?”
Gabby had taken sick leave, for a host of reasons the least of which were her ruptured eardrum and a mild case of radiation poisoning. So, Ava had been glad to get a message from her asking to meet for lunch at her favorite coffee shop-slash-bookstore. Books, coffee, cake, inoffensive jazz music in the background…Too bad it wasn’t an early rain day. Rain on the window would have completed a mood.
Gabby looked pretty great, which surprised her. She had her makeup on, the bald head actually suited her and made her cheekbones pop, and she was looking sharp and confident in a black-and-emerald velvet jacket. Even her smile was convincing.
But there was no fooling Hannah, who started Wanting To Help the moment she laid eyes on Gabby and went into full Wiggly Love Mode. So, they ordered cappuccinos and cake, found a private spot upstairs next to the window, and the first words out of Gabby’s mouth once they sat down had been about doing a shoot.
Figured there was something more going on than just wanting to get back to normalcy.
Gabby sighed. “I’ve been trying for days to write down what I…” she fidgeted with her coffee cup as she trailed off. “…Look anyone can write down the cold facts. And hell, the pictures I took are everywhere now. But…”
“But sometimes, a picture can’t do what a thousand words could.”
“Yeah.” Gabby sighed again. “I was there, you know? I lived through something a lot of people didn’t. Facts and photos are one thing, but I want people to know how it felt. Except, every time I try to sit down and write about it…”
Ava nodded. “I know.”
“Yeah, I…thought you might.”
“Still, it sounds to me like all you need is an interviewer or co-writer to bounce off. I mean, not to talk you out of it, but I was kinda planning for my next one to be the last in the series…”
Gabby blew across her coffee. “…And I’m not a warrior, either. It’s supposed to be ‘warriors in their own words’ huh?”
Ava watched her for a second as she drank, noting the disappointment in Gabby’s eyes. Gabby was, she realized, giving her a cry for help. And a pretty desperate one too, though not in the pathetic sense of a kitten stuck in a pipe and needing a human to free it. More like…’give me a gun, a knife, a stick, something so I can fight my way out of this jungle.’
“I dunno if that really matters,” she said out loud. “If it’s what you need, then of course we’ll do it.”
“I think it is…” Gabby cleared her throat. “And, uh. Marrek wants to, too. And he’s just as bald as me, right now.”
Ava’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Really? I thought that was, like, super shameful for Gao?”
“He’s been having the same trouble. This is a big story that we both want to tell and get off our chests, and we agreed it’ll have more impact if we can really show the consequences for us, you know? But it needs to be soon. If we wait too long…well, hair grows back. And I might be able to shave again for the camera, but Marrek won’t want to. If we can’t do it basically today, he’s gonna start taking the follicle stimulants and then the opportunity will be gone.”
Ava considered it. With anybody else, such short notice would be difficult, but still easier than with practically anyone else she’d shot. There were a few things they just didn’t have time for, this late in the day.
“It’ll take a few hours to set up and I dunno if I can find an indoor venue on such short notice unless you wanna do it in your living room or something, which, uh…”
“Doesn’t really feel like a statement.”
“No, but by the time we’re ready for an outdoor shoot, it’ll be getting dark and maybe raining.”
Gabby considered that for a moment. “That actually sounds appropriate, though.” She managed a wry look. “Too bad Folctha’s so young, huh? There’s no abandoned warehouses or industrial zoning that’d be perfect for this.”
“Actually…” Ava’s mind turned to the various locations she’d considered for the final Laid Bare, and discarded as inappropriate. It was true, Folctha’ didn’t have those kinds of abandoned, haunting places of broken brick, cracked concrete, hardy plants and shattered glass. But that wasn’t to say nowhere in town had the right kind of energy…
In the dark and the rain…yeah. She knew a spot.
“Alright,” she said decisively, and dug in her purse for her phone “I’ma need you and Marrek to sign the releases and stuff, you know how that goes…I’ll take care of the rest. Message me the kinds of questions you want, okay?”
“Don’t forget your cake,” Gabby pointed out, looking amused. Ava nodded, scnorfed it down—it was much too good a cake to really waste like that, and she resolved to come back and pay proper respect to another slice tomorrow—chugged her coffee, and stood.
“See you in a couple hours.”
“Right…” Gabby looked suddenly nervous, but eager. “Where are we shooting?”
“You’ll see.” Ava grinned at her, and rushed away with phone in hand and already selecting the right contact…
There. She grinned to herself, stepped out of the shop, and strode up the street back towards her apartment as she made a call to Hayley Tisdale.
Date Point: 18y11m2w2d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
There were plenty of placards and signs out on Pennsylvania Avenue. A lot of people exercising their First Amendment rights and letting the POTUS know how disappointed they were.
Beau had certainly never seen his press secretary look so harried. The last several days had taken a lot out of him, and Beau had already noted (and re-noted, to be certain) in his private journal to arrange some gesture of gratitude, when he could.
In the meantime, all he could do was let the people vent, let the conversation happen, and let the charm offensive unfold. It stuck in the craw to lean so heavily on his nation’s allies, but the fact was, Beau himself was hopelessly trapped. He could stand up and make speeches and attend rallies and make his case all the livelong day, it would only deepen the wound. The told-you-so Sartorites who’d voted for Margaret White would just crow all the louder, fanning the embers of war-weary Chamblissers’ resentment, and generally creating a poisonous, explosive mixture it was best he refrain from touching.
Getting ahead on all the executive paperwork was a silver lining, at least.
On today’s agenda: the morning intelligence briefing at nine a.m. At ten thirty, a meeting with the Transportation Secretary. After that, paperwork and reading until lunch at one pm, during which he’d find out what his afternoon schedule was.
No setting foot outside today. A pity. He’d been cooped up indoors for the best part of a week now, and was pining for cold air on his face and the crunch of leaves underfoot.
Oh well. At least he had coffee. And the security briefing turned out to be remarkably optimistic.
“Still no sign of any followup nuclear deployments by the Hunters, and it seems likely at this point that they hit us with the biggest and only bomb they had the available resources to build. Still, FIC have identified three possible sites where they might be able to assemble another one. Plan at the moment is for Second Fang to hit all three simultaneously, keeping the HEAT and First Fang on standby. Best estimates of Hunter traffic in the system suggests they’re continuing to evacuate, most likely to another controlled system, exact location unknown.”
“So, all told, the situation’s largely unchanged,” Beau summarized.
“That’s about the shape of it, sir.”
“Why no nukes, though?”
General Bower shrugged. “Physics is hard. It’s even harder when you don’t have the physical infrastructure to process nuclear fuel, I’d presume. That’s a question we don’t have a solid answer for, I’m afraid. The best guess so far is they scrounged up the fissile material from the Ring Hive wreckage, and don’t actually have the capability to refine any otherwise. You will of course be informed immediately if we gain any intelligence to suggest another bomb.”
Chambliss nodded. “Next item?”
Bower nodded and turned the page. “The Great Father is in New York City, no security incidents of note…everything’s on schedule, no red flags, and we anticipate his safe return to Gao this evening.”
“God, who would pick a fight with him?” Chambliss grumbled.
“Someone who wants to provoke the Great Father into performing an act of extreme murder on live television?”
Chambliss raised an eyebrow. “…Wow, you’re just a great big bundle of fun, aren’t you?”
“Not my job to be, Mister President.” Bower looked amused, though. “Anyway, that concludes the extraterrestrial business. Uh, domestically, we’re seeing an uptick in activity on Former APA-associated message boards and other isolationist networks. Fortunately, the, ah, impressive video footage of the Great Father in combat against the Alpha has done quite a bit to dampen people’s anger. As does his habitual short clip, which I now personally suspect he maintains for precisely this sort of reason.”
“Oh, he absolutely does,” Chambliss agreed. “We talked about it. His power base has a strong element of hyper-competency and danger to it. His Champions obey him firstly because he consistently acts in their interests, but unconsciously because they fear him personally. They know he’s bigger than them, smarter than them, and far more willing to murder, if need be.”
Bower nodded, and ran his finger down the page. “Well. Other than that, the bomb maker behind the Tuscaloosa incident was captured in a raid last night and is being questioned, and…nothing else of note. Internationally…”
Chambliss nodded and listened. Life was very much Still Going On on Earth, and the international portion of the briefing was the usual litany of piracy, the movements of terrorist cells, rocket and mortar attacks, the suspiciously sudden way a friend down in Panama had stopped returning their calls…
Nothing that needed more than that he hear and acknowledge it.
“When does it air?” he asked, once he’d dutifully heard it out.
“Tonight, on tape delay. They should be done recording by now, and at this point I expect he’s just enjoying the hospitality. Big guy’s a hell of a charmer, it turns out.”
“Sure is. You know he managed to dance with my wife at the inauguration ball?”
General Bower gave him a genuinely mystified look. “…How, sir?”
“He was two feet shorter, then.” Chambliss smiled. It wasn’t often he got to say something so cryptically impossible. “Anyway, don’t let him sweet-talk you, he’s surprisingly good at it. As for tonight…”
“I’ll be watching, Mister President.”
“As will I.”
Date Point: 18y11m2w2d AV
Terran Microbial Action Zone Preservation, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ava hadn’t been kidding. She’d taken a kind of impish delight in playing coy over exactly where they were going to do the shoot, but she’d definitely come through.
A short woman with a long ponytail that was about fifty-fifty brown and silver grey had met them at a chain link fence about half an hour outside the city, down a winding dirt track and some distance off the road. Signs every twenty yards or so along the fence declared the compound was owned and operated by the Cimbrean Terraforming Authority, and the gates were chained and padlocked.
The reason why became pretty immediately obvious. There were some earthworks, the unpleasant tingle of a low-powered wildlife deterrent forcefield, and then all of a sudden there was no more lush growing woodland around them, but a vision from a slightly different Hell.
Marrek made a disgusted noise. “Fuck. That ain’t a nice smell…”
“I can’t smell anything?” Gabby asked.
“‘Cuz Humans ain’t hardly got a nose at all. Lucky fuckers…” He shuddered,and curled up a little tighter inside the ridiculously baggy woollen cardigan and sweatshorts he was wearing.
The woman who’d let them in was a friend of Ava’s, Doctor Tisdale. She gave him a wry look. “This whole patch of land is a control sample. No planting, no terraforming…this is what the Skidmark would look like if we hadn’t planted over most of it.”
“So I’m smellin’ fifteen-year-old human shit. Fuckin’ great.”
“More accurately you’re smelling the fungi in the soil that’s lived there basically ever since. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. Just think of it as, uh, really well composted.”
Marrek grumbled, but Gabby was more taken by the long-dead trees they were pulling up next to. Cimbrean Pinkwood, the increasingly extinct native tree with their distinctive multi-stemmed body that swooped out and then up in a neat gourd shape. “If this is a control site, why are we allowed to plod around all over it?” she asked.
“Well, it’s only protected by a fence. It’s the great outdoors, we can’t possibly keep it completely undisturbed. I wouldn’t have agreed to bring you up here if it really mattered. Just, uh, don’t defecate anywhere.”
“It’s about as apocalyptic as anywhere in Folctha can be,” Ava explained. “Can they climb in the trees?”
“I’d rather they didn’t,” Tisdale said.
“Pretty sure I don’t wanna, either,” Marrek rumbled.
“Okay! No problem.” Ava nodded amicably as she parked their rented RV. They could go no further: Despite Hayley’s words, there wasn’t actually much soil. Without living things to hold it, ten years of nightly rains had washed the area down to clean bedrock, far too uneven to drive on. Here and there, though, the blackened and much-reduced skeletons of native trees still clung to vegetable un-life.
‘Apocalyptic’ was exactly the right word.
“Woulda thought errythin’ would be gone,” Marrek said, alighting first and standing up to stretch.
“All the native beetles, grubs, worms and other decomposers that would normally eat dead wood died in the pollution, and the forcefield keeps Earthling species out. Still, you’re right. Those stumps won’t be around much longer.”
“What will you do when everything is completely gone?” Gabby asked.
Hayley shrugged. “We’ll keep it for as long as there’s useful science to be done here. After that, we’ll remove the forcefield equipment, fill in the ditches and get more useful science as we watch nature reclaim it.”
“Well, let’s get set up while we still have light,” Ava pressed. “Uh, would you rather Hayley stay in the RV during the shoot? I mean, she’s gotta be here to make sure we don’t do anything to fuck up the science, but–”
“Thousands an’ thousands o’ people are gonna read the article anyway,” Marrek replied. “Don’t matter ‘ta me none if she’s here ‘ta watch.”
Gabby’s first instinct was to disagree but logic caught up. He was right of course. In fact, Hayley would probably be interested enough to buy the article she’d had a hand in creating, so did it really matter?
She shrugged, shook her head, and held out a hand for a bag of equipment.
Between her and Ava’s experience as photographers, Marrek’s heft and Hayley running enthusiastic gopher, they found a good spot and got set up in what had to be record time. Good thing too, because the light was dying on them pretty fast, and the usual Folcthan rainclouds were gathering.
The first drops started pattering on the bare bedrock around them as Ava placed a lamp and lit it. The temperature, as it always did when the nightly rains arrived, was plunging. Getting nude in this was going to be…unpleasant.
But Gabby had been through worse.
She pulled off her T-shirt and stuffed it in her bag, following it as quickly as she could with her pants and underwear. Best to get them stowed away now so they’d be nice and dry when they were done. Beside her, Marrek made a resigned noise and did much the same.
And actually…cold though it was…there was something liberating about it, too. She swung her arms, took a deep breath, and stepped out in front of the camera.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s write a story.”
Date Point: 18y11m2w2d AV
’That Show with Jamal Taylor’ set, New York City, USA, Earth
The Show Must Go On. Hard to believe an evening talk show could survive the murder of its host live on air, but everyone had kind of felt like they owed it to Steve Lawrence to carry on in his name. So, they’d hung his portrait behind the desk and, after a few guest hosts, had found Jamal, who’d grappled quietly with imposter syndrome every day since taking the job.
They’d had a private chat beforehand, exchanged notes on what they’d both like to talk about without making any undue promises. The big headline guest for that night—and they didn’t come bigger, in any sense, really—was nothing but reassuring and even a bit charming.
Good thing too. It helped put Jamal in the right mood for his opening monologue.
There was the studio applause, of course, but on some other days Jamal had walked out to wild cheering and celebration over some big news. Today was…well, like most recent shows, the mood was subdued. There wasn’t much in the recent news to celebrate.
In the end, it was a three “thank you” day. Counting how often he had to say that before the applause settled was a decent barometer, in Jamal’s experience.
He kept the opening monologue short. The audience in the studio knew who to expect, and tonight wasn’t a night for stringing them along and teasing them. He made a tasteful joke about a B-list celebrity’s weird fashion choices to perk things up, then acknowledged the elephant still lingering in the room, the battle on Hell and butcher’s bill that AEC had released. He quoted a couple of blogs, vloggers and other commentators, read out some tweets—his own opinion would come later, at the end of the show—and that was good enough. He’d primed the pump.
“Now, you may have noticed that, uh, there’s no couch up here today. Well, that’s no accident, because our guest tonight doesn’t really need one, or an introduction for that matter. So please rise and greet Daar, Brother, Father, Champion-Emeritus, Stud-Prime of Stoneback, Great Father of the Gao.”
The audience dutifully stood and applauded politely, then collectively gasped as the Great Father prowled out from behind the curtain and up onto the loudly creaking stage. There truly was no preparing anyone for him. His impossibly muscular build, the prowling power that his short coat emphasized but which no amount of fur could cover. His sheer, incomprehensible size… All of it hit the audience all at once, to stunning effect. Nevermind the rank and titles, Daar commanded attention and respect (and frankly, fear and awe) just by being there.
He seemed to understand the effect he had on everyone though, and decided to disarm it. With a bit of a flourish, he gave them all a very un-statesmanlike panting grin…and then posed on all fours with a smug toss of his head and a quick flex of a truly gargantuan arm. That bit of preening somehow conveyed just the right amount of ridiculous, self-effacing humor…
The audience laughed, and the applause grew more heartfelt. Somehow, you just knew from the feel of the room when the reactions were genuine, instead of mere clapter.
Jamal crossed the stage to greet him, and found the Greater Father was so big that even on all fours, he was nearly at eye level. His proffered hand was lost in that giant paw, and….
No. Make a show of it. He gestured upward with his hands while the audience kept applauding, and Daar caught the meaning. He stood up, and up, and up…
…Wow. The audience gasped, and the whooped, egging it on.
Jamal was barely more than half as tall, and it was an image that would be on all the media tomorrow. The Great Father had a bit of a showman’s streak in him too; he put his arm around Jamal‘s shoulders, then for one final show, lifted him in one arm so their heads were level…
“I think they like it,” Daar grumbled quietly, just for him.
The spectacle was perfect.
Jamal put a little icing on it by straightening his tie and jacket once set down, then gestured invitingly to the floor space where That Show’s infamous couch usually sat, and settled in behind his desk.
Instead of a couch, Daar was provided with an enormous body cushion that he could lie against, if desired. He settled on it in a sort of regal stretched-out repose, managing to find his dignity considering the stage just wasn’t really designed to accommodate somebody on his scale.
“Well, you’re definitely the biggest guest I’ve ever had on,” Jamal quipped as he settled in.
“The most biggest,” Daar grumbled with some self-effacing humor. His voice was unbelievably deep, almost into the infrasonic. “My mamas always made me eat my meeshi!”
Laughs, there. Jamal doubted anyone knew what meeshi was but they really didn’t need to.
“Do you ever find it difficult? Most Gao are smaller than me, and I’m not all that big myself.”
“It’s true! Most of us ain’t very big, huh? But it ain’t as tricky as you might think,” Daar stated. “Lotta variability in our people, and we brownfurs are all pretty big as a rule. Most o’ our spaces an’ buildings are designed wit’ that an’ also alien guests in mind. ‘Fer me, it’s a weight problem more’n a space problem, really. I’ve broken a lot o’ floors. But don’t matter if it’s floors, cars, rickety houses, playin’ with cubs, matters o’ love…you get used ‘ta it.”
Somebody in the audience wolf-whistled. Daar, to his credit, gave him a look that was somehow both gently amused and also remarkably effective in quieting him down. “Yeah, yeah. Won’t pretend I ain’t what I am. But no. I manage, ‘cuz it’s useful bein’ big.”
“It makes for some entertaining footage,” Jamal grinned, and grinned as the blooper reel the production team had assembled started playing. Nobody ever came on his show without suffering some small ritual humiliation.
Daar chittered so low that Jamal felt it in the soles of his feet and watched along good-naturedly. “Ooh,” he flicked his ears back against his head. “I ‘member that one. Kinda hurt, actually…and o’ course gotta I pay ‘fer repairs. Pretty good incentive ‘ta not break stuff!”
“Doesn’t that make travel complicated?”
“If you let it. I mostly like ‘ta run on my own four paws anyway, but yeah. I don’t fit in cars. Bigger’n them! Usually I travel by cargo hold or by flatbed truck. Helps not bein’ too pretentious ‘bout accommodations. All I really ask for is a good hard floor and some privacy.”
“And yet, you are…the Great Father of the Gao.”
“Yeah! I am, huh?” Laughs, and a mischievous pant-grin from Daar.
“Yes, yes,” Jamal conceded, then pressed his point. “And you’d rather sleep in a warehouse.”
“Well, no. But I gotta be realistic ‘bout what I can get. Gimme a nice warm rug on that floor? Oh, luxury. The Great Mother spoils me rotten with the nest-bed she keeps ‘fer us, too!”
Yup, he was being a charmer, and a damn good one, too. Never mind that the being across from Jamal was…well…a great and terrible leader, really, and that was a point they would explore later. For now, though…time to edge into that topic gently.
Jamal nodded, and deployed one of the questions Daar had specifically requested be asked.
“And yet…this isn’t natural, is it? You did this to yourself deliberately.”
“Some of this, yeah. I doubt you’ve failed to notice I do, indeed, lift.” There were some polite chuckles from the audience, and Daar rolled a massive paw into a fist with a bit of flourish. He looked down at his chest-thick forearm and they all watched it sinuously ripple under tension.
“And lift quite a bit,” Jamal quipped. Gentle laughter broke the spell.
“Yeah! Always been a big boy, an’ I’ve been the biggest an’ strongest o’ my kind since I were fifteen, even when the fashion was ‘fer ‘Backs like me ‘ta favor a lankier build. Still is ‘fer most brownfur Clans, too. Which is good! Can’t all be hungry hulks, yijao? But now, ‘tween the realities o’ space combat, fightin’ the Hierarchy and its agents, an’ th’ consequences o’ gene-activation, plus ‘cuz it’s a whole lotta fun liftin’ jus’ balls out, I gotta admit…”
There was a hidden land-mine in plain sight. “Wait. Gene-activation?”
“Yeah. My people have—well, had now—a substantial portion o’ our genome deliberately deactivated. Blame the Hierarchy. In any case, doin’ that is a big part o’ why we’re all fillin’ out, can see th’ color red now…an’ it sorta went bonkers in me. I’ve taken advantage, too.”
Jamal whistled for effect. “Now that’s an understatement if I ever heard one.”
“Sure is! ‘Cuz o’ that an’ a buttload o’ insanely hard work, an’ a lotta sciencey spacemagic…” the audience laughed at that turn of phrase. “Now I’m th’ strongest, fastest an’ heaviest thing walkin’ this Earth. It’s a good thing ‘fer me too, ‘cuz I’ve needed it.”
“That’s…an alarming set of claims,” Jamal noted. “We had hoped to test some of them…”
“I did see ‘yer big pile of toys backstage…” he flicked his ears in a gesture that somehow conveyed amusement, and the audience chuckled. “Am I gonna be ‘yer big talkin’ circus bear?”
Laughter again, and some encouraging cheers.
But. Charming though he was, there was substance here that needed exploring.
We’ll see if we have time,” Jamal demurred. “Back to ‘needing’ all your obvious strength. I presume you’re referring to rumors about your recent battle on Hell?”
“Among other things, yeah. Unnerstand I can’t say much ‘bout ongoin’ operations.”
“Well, okay. But what about…you also said something about deactivated genes?”
“Yeah, an’ I’ll get back ‘ta that in a moment. But firs’, what d’you mean by ‘natural?’ In our case it’s kind of a loaded question, an’ a bit of a sore point ‘fer us.”
“How do you mean?”
“Okay, so. The thing is…” Daar shifted his haunches a little, visibly settling in to storytelling mode. “…Brownfurs are a minority among my people. We’re less’n one percent o’ the population. There’s a buncha other breeds too, but th’ minorities all added up ain’t more’n ten percent. Most every gao is a silverfur, an’ since it’s caused by a dominant mutation, anytime anyone mates wit’ a silverfur, odds’re the cub’ll be one, too.”
“And yet, much of your leadership are racial minorities. And that’s complicated by the issue of degrees?”
“…Right. Yeah. So firs’ly, it’s important ‘ta note that race ain’t really a thing ‘fer us. The better idea is breed ‘cuz the useful diff’rences ‘tween breeds can be pretty big, an’ the Clans run breeding programs. Which I know is an idea that squicks out most humans, but jus’ go wit’ it ‘fer now. An’ ‘cuz there’s already been a lotta reportin’ on our people, I’ll jus’ summarize an’ say that, since our Clans’ territory is in function an’ purpose these days instead o’ land or somethin’ like that, there ain’t a lotta conflict among the Gao. Breed ain’t really an impediment ‘ta success, but everyone’s good at some things more’n others, so there are definitely trends, yeah.”
“That’s…a lot of that would sit very uncomfortably among humans,” Jamal noted.
“Yeah, an’ it should! It wouldn’t never work ‘fer ‘yer people. It does for mine though, and there’s…reasons for that. Gettin’ there, I promise. But like I said, our breeds ain’t th’ same thing as race in humans, an’ it ain’t really comparable crosswise. There’s been a lotta ink spilled over that so, uh…les’ jus’ leave it at that. ‘Fer us, the bigger social division is the problem o’ degree.”
“And you are the only living sixth degree, which implies…a lot of things.”
“Yeah. More essactly, I’m a fully dominant sixth degree, which is so astronomically unlikely it was the biggest clue ‘bout how I am. We’ll get back ‘ta that, too. Also, there is one other sixth out there. He’s jus’ a lil’ cub right now. First since me, an’ I was the first in centuries.”
“A rarified club, then?”
“Yeah…but lemme say somethin’ important. Degrees are a thing that were engineered into us by our great mutual enemy, the Hierarchy, an’ it only affects males. It ain’t perfectly obvious why they did it, but we males naturally form hierarchies ‘tween th’ degrees from th’ beginnin’ of cubhood. It’s easy ‘ta see why, too. Each degree is a sorta magnified version o’ the degree before it, an’ it has a big, inescapable influence on every part of our being. Among silverfurs, second-degrees are th’ most common. Among th’ minority breeds, it’s third. An’ among purebred brownfurs…it works differently, which is a big part o’ why we’re generally in the positions we’re in.”
There was…a lot to unpack there, and the engineered claim needed digging. But hosting a guest was a fine art, and when a guest was on a roll, you didn’t want to interrupt too much.
So, hoping he’d get to circle back at some point, Jamal merely asked, “How so?”
“Well…for everyone else, degrees are sorta linear, I guess. Each is a big step up. But with us brownies, each degree is a bigger step up from the previous, so a fifth-degree ends up bein’ a really huge physical improvement over a fourth, an’ a sixth over a fifth is…well, lookit me. The diff’rence is so big I’ve been accused o’ bein’ a diff’rent species. An’ worse, it ain’t jus’ all this bulgin’ muscle I got, neither. It’s everything about us an’ that’s jus’…well, it’s a roll o’ the dice, an’ it’s a pretty brutal one, yeah.”
“Yeah. It affects our intelligence, social skills, our senses, longevity, general health, size an’ strength…everythin’. Even things like fertility an’ scent, an’ those last two no gao can ignore.”
That led them, at last, to the most important point to broach. “Right. And for you, that means…”
Daar sighed, and shook out his pelt. “Couple things. Yeah, it means I were advantaged from birth, more’n anyone else. ‘Course, sixth-degrees almos’ never servive their first few weeks…anyway. It’s worse, though. It turns out I weren’t actually lucky. I was…made.”
The audience was dead silent. Jamal, too: Even knowing in advance they’d be talking about this—though not that it embroiled Daar’s entire species—it still shocked him to hear it. Something in Daar’s solemn, uninflected delivery lent it an inescapable weight.
“…Made?” he prompted.
“Yeah. The Gao are an engineered soldier species. That part’s not essactly been a secret, but it needs sayin’ ‘fer everyone’s benefit. We were discovered in our tribal pre-history days an’ from there, made into a people meant ‘ta replace th’ Hunters as the Hierarchy’s main tool o’ control. It’s only ‘cuz of ‘yer people we escaped that fate. That’s…how do we ever repay that?”
He gestured helplessly with a paw and shook his huge, shaggy head expressively. Jamal kept half an eye on the audience, noting again that there was no noise at all from them. Not even a cough, or the shift of butts fidgeting around in seats. It wasn’t what they usually went for in a show. Usually they wanted laughter, and claps and cheering and sometimes jeering.
“Anyway,” Daar continued. “There’s more. It ain’t jus’ that my species were engineered. That’s all high-level an’ indirect. Turns out, I was engineered in particular, along wit’ a few others in high office. Every single gene in me was chosen, ain’t any of it happenstance. Because of that, I am…well, at leas’ from a particular design goal, the genetically perfect gao. Which is a pretty silly idea—what do we mean by ‘perfect,’ anyway? But given how weird some o’ my genome is, it’s hard ‘ta argue otherwise. An’ I can tell ‘ya that ain’t a comf’table thing ‘ta learn.”
“That’s…” Jamal cast about for a proper question. “…It’s…whose idea of perfect?”
“Hierarchy, an’ one o’ their enemies. Kinda soberin’ they both thought I were th’ answer to their problems. Thing is, though…” it was here the Great Father snarled in the back of his throat, “The Gao are nobody’s pawns.”
More than one person in the audience made quiet, though fierce, sounds of agreement.
“And the genes are only half the story, aren’t they? Nature versus nurture and all that.” Jamal replied, nodding. “They could engineer your whole species’ biology…but they also tried to engineer your culture.”
“Yeah. We’ve found evidence o’ their interference goin’ back ‘ta before we even figgered out steam power. Old skulls with cybernetic implant scarrin’ an’ suchlike.”
“And of course, in the modern age, implants became commonplace, didn’t they?”
“Yup. Lotta the Mothers in the Commune where I grew up had translators an’ stuff. Stands ‘ta reason at least a couple’a them were agents, there ‘ta keep an eye on their pet project.”
“Would you say they succeeded?”
Daar tilted his head. “Now that,” he said, “is a hard question. An’ I think…’side from the fact I ain’t doin’ their biddin’, well, becomin’ a Brother o’ Clan Stoneback was nat’ral. Risin’ ‘ta Champion was easy. Stud-Prime were obviously gonna happen at th’ same time, ‘cuz not ‘ta brag, but ‘fer lack o’ a better word, I really am genetically perfect an’ all th’ testin’ I’ve ever done shows it. Physical, cognitive, whatever ‘ya got…maxed it all. Only thing mebbe goin’ against me is my accent, dependin’ on how ‘ya see it.”
Another rabbit hole, but a good one. “About that…”
“Brownfurs got broad an’ heavy but less mobile muzzles, an’ Clan-speak preserves a lotta old grammatical forms an’ such. Put th’ two together…As ‘fer why in English? ‘Ta match how translators did m’voice, really. I can speak much more eloquently,” he said suddenly, with much more precise diction, “but it hurts m’jaw.”
“…Pain relief yokel-speak,” Jamal found himself quipping.
The Great Father chittered loudly and the audience laughed too. “Ha! I like that! I’m a bit of a yokel anyway. My Naydi—the Great Mother—she calls me ‘bumpkin.’ And whatever Naydi wants, Naydi gets.”
There was the polite laughter of understanding, and Jamal could certainly relate. “Still, as much as I want to dive into every rabbit-hole…”
“They are tempting, huh? But back to ‘yer original question…yeah. Balls, I was certainly thinkin’ I should get implanted, before I was warned off it. If I’da done that then, yeah. They woulda prob’ly taken me over and succeeded completely. Th’only reason that din’t happen is…” he waved an immense paw at the scenic vista of the Manhattan skyline behind them, contriving to indicate the whole human race. “I might not be fightin’ for ‘em…but otherwise, I’m exactly what they made me ‘ta be.”
“And what is that?” Jamal asked.
“A killer.” Daar was unflinching. “An’ a murderer, many times over. Had I not been those things, had I not put down weakness and taken charge when and where and how I did, my people would be extinct. I ain’t talkin’ the death of a nation, you unnerstand. I mean species extinct. I regret nothing. That is why I am the Great Father.”
The room was suddenly so quiet, you could hear people breathing. “That is…an incredible statement.” Jamal cleared his throat, uncomfortably. “So…how, then? How do we ally with you?”
“Because I am not merely a person. Of course I am a person, but you need to think in bigger terms. I am the Gao, in a very real, very literal sense. I am the personified embodiment of my people’s will, given freely at a moment of great peril. I have been blessed, consecrated, crowned and enthroned to preserve and protect us all, against my own desires, and with every warning I could possibly give ‘bout what that would mean. I am the Gao. I am absolutely sovereign. No dictator is that empowered. I have a billion-strong army that’s the envy o’ every power out there, includin’ ‘yer own. I’ve got the economic might ‘ta back it, an’ now a space navy more an’ more worthy of it. So, really, lemme flip ‘yer question on its head: why would someone like me come on Human TV? Why do I wanna ally with you? Because I do, very much.”
“A lot of people have asked that question,” Jamal agreed.
“I know. I know what they call me. When they’re bein’ flippant, I’m Bear-nghis Khan. When they ain’t, I’m a mass-murderin’ alien warlord who’s got Earth’s Western governments in his pocket. What do I need ‘ta come here an’ make nice for?” He sighed heavily. “As if all a person needs, or a people ‘fer that matter, is ‘ta be powerful. But that’s a pretty serious mis-unnerstandin’ o’ how power works. I ain’t what I am by my own sheer awesomeness. No ruler rules alone. I am what I am ‘cuz my people wished it to be so. I am free ‘ta act ‘cuz I always act in their interests. I do not jail any Gao ‘fer insultin’ cartoons, an’ believe me, there’s more’n a few. Balls, I got some’a them pinned up in my office! I do not interfere in their daily lives. I ain’t displacin’ Clans, I ain’t conscriptin’ males into service. I might get tetchy with th’ Clans themselves, when they’re gettin’ a little too self-interested, but they signed up ‘fer that game o’ their own free will.”
“…Tetchy? You’ve summarily executed their Champions and leaders.”
“Yes, I have. An’ I’ll do it again, if necessary. Any organization will favor its own interests over any other, an’ that’s natural as anything. However, I cannot allow that past a certain point, s’pecially wit’ the existential challenges we got comin’ at us, an’ that lesson must be learned. On th’ other hand, I can’t expect ‘em to work against their interests either. So, if I’m to grow my people, I must grow the Clans, an’ the Clanless, and multiply our prosperity. I gotta be trusted an’ respected ‘ta do that, but mostly I gotta be feared. That ain’t always pretty. Especially not from the perspective of another species, an’ that’s extra true from a republic like ‘yers. Appreciate what ‘ya got, ‘fer my sake. It’s a beautiful thing. I hope we can afford it one day.”
“What do you mean, ‘afford?’” Jamal asked. “This country is founded on the idea that freedom, democracy, republic, fair trials and life itself are rights to be protected, not luxuries you buy when you can afford them. They exist simply because we do, and they are inalienable.”
Daar tilted his head in thought for a few seconds as he worded his reply.
“Well…tell that ‘ta the Hunters. They din’t care much when they came to devour my entire world. Or th’ Hierarchy, who consider the very concept of self as alien. When they came, they murdered billions o’ my kind in literally seconds, with malware. What then?”
“I don’t deny that you’ve had to make terrible decisions—”
“Res’ectfully, yes you do. You may not mean to, an’ I even appreciate it, but you ain’t thinkin’ the problem through. I’ll say it clearly: people only effectively have the morals they can afford. My people reached a point where someone like me had to exist, an’ exist effectively. Think ‘bout that ‘fer a moment. Once ‘ya need a Great Father jus’ so’s ‘ya can keep existin’, you’ve run outta moral capital ‘ta spend. ‘Cuz in the end, Moral Number Zero is that ‘ya have th’ right ‘ta exist, but only if ‘ya can defend it in th’ first place. Everythin’ past that is luxury.”
“But Gao is secure, and you’re fighting on other worlds, now!” Jamal objected, passionately. “Surely you can afford more than that now!”
“No. We can’t, not yet. We ain’t nowhere near as secure as you think. I do the terrible things I do ‘cuz it’s necessary, ‘cuz there ain’t an alternative that ain’t worse. Th’ Hunters ain’t happy they got denied their most biggest feast, for which I am eternally grateful ‘ta y’all. But yes, one day, when my people recover from our trials, th’ goal is ‘ta work us outta that trap. To get us ‘ta the point where our future as a species ain’t ridin’ on gettin’ things perfectly right. Ain’t no definition o’ freedom that’s complete without th’ freedom ‘ta make mistakes. But right now, the Gao can’t afford mistakes. We are a mighty an’ powerful people, deathworlders jus’ like you, rediscoverin’ our past…and poised on th’ edge of oblivion. But that’s the thing. So are you.”
And there, right there, Jamal understood why this entire interview had happened. In an instant, he realized he had been used. Oh, he knew it before, knew it was a propaganda ploy…
But now, he realized his public standing was being worn like a cloak to justify war. And he was not about to let that happen to him on his own damn show.
“…You’re a warmonger,” he said, flatly.
“No,” Daar sighed. “…I’m a farmer. If I had my fondest wish, I’d be pullin’ a plough ‘through the dirt, diggin’ holes, ranchin’ Naxas an’ livin’ the simple life. But I can’t do that. Alien monsters from space wanna eat all my people. An’ the only people they wanna eat more’n mine are ’yers. Here’s a fact. Did’ya know the Hunters are th’ discarded bodies o’ the Hierarchy?”
“Yup! Same species, but when the Igraens moved on from flesh ‘ta digital, they left behind bodies runnin’ on instinct an’ no personality. It takes years and a lotta success ‘fer a Hunter ‘ta start havin’ any real mind of its own. Short o’ that…they jus’ eat. That’s what we’re fightin’ an’ th’ only reason they ain’t here is ‘cuz o’ that system shield. An’ th’ only reason that is still up is ‘cuz the Hierarchy ain’t managed ‘ta bring it down…yet. But they’ve tried, oh yes. So how safe do ‘ya feel, knowin’ that? Hunters have been eatin’ people ‘fer millions o’ years. An’ now, ‘fer the first time in history, we’ve got ‘em pinned down. We may be th’ firs’ civilizations with a chance ‘ta end this. So…what kinda monsters would we be if we din’t? If this kinda evil ain’t worth obliteratin’ then what the hell is?”
Jamal, despite his indignation, couldn’t immediately think of an objection to that. Daar didn’t bull-rush him though. He stretched out a bit and his expression softened, his ears moving sideways and down with a sympathetic flick.
“You…clearly believe every word.”
“I ain’t given ‘ta dishonesty. An’ I know a lotta what I just said might sound like hyperbole, but…I ain’t given ‘ta that, either. Except when I’m jokin’ around. But, in the interest o’ transparency, lotta this ain’t given me much reason ‘fer humor. I’ve got a lot of pyres ‘ta burn. An’ more personally, this war has…hurt. I’ve lost good people, people I loved. One o’ them I nearly lost jus’ recently. He’s still recoverin’ from bein’ a gods-blessed hero too. So…yeah.”
“The details will come out in time.” Daar shook his pelt slightly. “But he saved my life, that’s ‘fer damn sure. An’ that chance ‘ta end it I was talkin’ about? We still only have that ‘cuz’a him too.”
Insistent waving from off-stage caught Jamal’s attention—his producer, who tapped his watch fervently.
“Well. That was an intense bit of conversation, folks. I think we’ll take a break now, and we’ll be back with more of this…I think it’s fair to say extraordinary interview with the Great Father.”
When the microphones cut out, and the band played up, and the cameras were off…
“You used me,” he accused, with a neutral expression.
“Yes,” Daar replied, with brutal clarity. “My people’s existence is on the line, an’ so is ‘yers. What would you do, if ‘ya walked in my pawprints?”
“I’m glad that I’m not. It’s just…your reputation is for being scrupulously honest.”
“An’ I was. I told ‘ya beforehand what I was willin’ ‘ta talk about, an’ what I was gonna talk ‘bout, an’ I did. It were you that broached the topic in th’ first place, ‘member? But ‘fer what it’s worth,” he offered, with a softer tone, “I wish’d the reality o’ things weren’t so dire. I’d rather’ve jus’ goofed off ‘fer laughs, if I coulda.”
Jamal sighed, admitting defeat. “I guess it wouldn’t have made for such riveting TV though.”
“Eh. I dunno. I can goof off pretty good. I’m a big showoff too, an’ I hear pro wrasslin’ gets pretty big ratings…”
Somehow, Jamal couldn’t help himself. “Who would you wrestle?”
“Oh, nobody’d be a good match, really. So instead I’d just make all sorta weird pained noises and flex an’ stomp about an’ stuff. And somethin’ ‘bout paper-view?”
Jamal blinked, staring into Daar’s big amber eyes and trying to decide if he was joking or not, but in this case… “That’s, uh, pay-per-view.”
“Oh…y’know, that makes a lot more sense.”
…Goddamnit. Jamal couldn’t help but shake his head and grin, despite…well…
And that was all the time they had, just a thirty-second break. This was ratings gold.
“Welcome back, folks. Tonight we are hosting the Great Father, and…well. If you missed the first half, it was intense. How would you summarize it, Daar?”
“Hard questions an’ hard answers. An’ hardly any flexin’.”
Some laughter, subdued but genuine…
“Well, we do still have those toys backstage.”
“…Oh?” The Great Father’s tail thumped on the floor. And with that…
Date point: Date Point: 18y11m2w2d AV
Belize City, Belize, Central America, Earth
How the fuck did he manage such a brilliant fucking coup?!
The Great Father of the Fucking Gao, with apparently zero guile whatsoever, just marched up onto national broadcast television, confessed to being exactly the terrible monster he really was, did so in unflinching detail, utterly dominated and visibly frightened the host…
And then, one underarm deodorant commercial later he’s a completely different being, stomping about for laughs and showing off the result of the Hierarchy’s finest engineering efforts. But instead of bringing the Humans to heel or otherwise using his abject perfection for some predictable purpose…no! Instead, he’s among the audience, taking selfies, flexing outrageously for little old ladies and awestruck children, utterly lowering himself to their level—
Somehow, they forgot everything else about him. Now he was a huge furry playful thing and it was like he knew exactly how to short-circuit a Human’s instincts. It was so crass, so obvious, and so effective, Six could barely stand to watch. After indulging the audience directly, he moved outside, picking up and idly crushing a car in his paws, running what may as well have been two hundred klicks an hour down a back alley with his tongue hanging out, then he’s back in the studio, again flexing that ludicrously hyperdeveloped physique of his to raucous cheers like he was an over-oiled parody of a magazine cover model, all while doing a pro-wrestling impression. And then singing. BADLY. To laughter!
The moment where he engaged a couple of kids in halting, stunted conversation was so sickeningly sweet it made Six’s host sympathetically retch.
And the audience, both physically present and watching around the Earth, were in love. Many of them knew perfectly damn well that he was putting on a show to play with their emotions and win their hearts. And they knew that he knew he was putting on a show. They all knew, and they all knew it was bullshit.
It didn’t fucking matter! To a being with Six’s perspective on the collected social hubbub Humanity constantly pumped out into its global networks, Daar’s influence was as a fluorescent dye in water, uncoiling in smoky turbulent coils as it flowed outward, occasionally vanishing down hidden channels to pop up unexpectedly somewhere else.
He had just seduced the entire goddamned human race with twenty minutes of video.
Well, okay, not the entire human race. Not even the entire population of the Allied nations. But enough that any counter-movement was absolutely dead in the water, to borrow another maddeningly Human and hydrological analogy.
Doctor Tomasz Flowers had had a passion for reef diving and marine biology. And, for all his faults, a forceful personality. Six kept finding himself wrestling with the compulsion to frame things in his host’s preferred idiom.
There was further conversation at the end, also serious but the mood had changed dramatically. Act One had been to clear the air on what Daar was. Act Two was to show them what he wanted to be. And Act Three?
He showed them what they could do, together. The deal was closed, and there was nothing Six, or the Hierarchy, or any possible calamity could do to change that. Daar had united the Deathworlders into a single people. With dirty jokes and a grin.
The end of the program had the Great Father giving Jamal a genuine hug and thanking him for the opportunity! It was so earnest, and honest, and…
When the Great Father prowled off stage, rather than a terrifying, hulkingly muscular killer, what the people saw was a passionate defender of his people. Their people. They saw a man who talked with them on a level they could relate to. Them, ordinary people, relating to the most powerful embodied being in the galaxy like he could be their lifelong friend.
That, right there, was POWER. Doctor Flowers would certainly have related to him.
In that moment, the Hierarchy had been defeated. Now, it was just a matter of action. And Six had no way of communicating it to his people. No way of knowing if his people were still organized in any meaningful way, out there in the galaxy at large. No way of changing the trajectory of the future at all.
All he had left was rum.
He spent the rest of the night wondering whether it was him or his host who toasted the screen.
Date Point: 18y11m2w2d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
The champagne was excellent that night. A fitting celebration for possibly the greatest political coup of his lifetime, or frankly in living history. He had sold the war without selling a goddamn thing, and nobody would really be the wiser.
Oh, a few people would. The people who knew the way of things, who understood the keys to power. Well, a President had many, many keys, and right now his were all on his side.
Of course, they were Daar’s keys now, too. A small sacrifice of influence, temporary and, ultimately, inconsequential. Beau had what he wanted. He could save his people, and be praised for doing it.
He sent a message to his chief of staff. Time to propose a budget.
Date Point: 18y11m2w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Leela, Grand Mistress of the Hidden Taco Arts
Tonight was a suddenly-Daar moment, and rarely had she ever seen him so pleased with himself.
“Tacos ‘ta go, please! An’ make some ‘fer ‘yerself too!” Bouncy and chipper were not usually adjectives that worked for someone his size, but right now…
“Oh dear. Snatch a little bird, did you?”
“The biggest, fattest, mos’ crunchiest lil’ bird that ever did chirp!” Daar poked his nose through the window, and grinned when she ritually spatulated his snout.
“You want to be careful with those. They fill you up with your entire daily dose of Smug in one go.”
“Nah, I got unlimited smug in my meal plan! So c’mon, les’ go have some fun!”
“I still have to cook your order, and close shop…”
“Ugh, fine…” He plopped his rear end down and sat patiently, which was about all he could do. Leela knew perfectly well that he would have gladly helped her clean up…if only he could actually fit.
“So, what miracle did you manage this time?”
“Guess y’ain’t watchin’ ‘yer phone, huh?”
“…Oh Mothers, what now?”
“Naw, ain’t gon’ spoil th’ surprise! Tonight, only thing I wanna do is eat tacos. An’ wrassle around by the fire with my most favoritiest females—”
“Daar! I have a business to run here! I can’t just take Friday nights off whenever I feel like it!”
“But y’do feel like it.” He pant-grinned cheekily. And, well, there was something nice about just going off to play…especially with someone who knew how to play…
But mortgages and business loans didn’t care about such things.
“Daar. I really can’t. I don’t have any help.”
“Aww. Well, okay. Can I jus’ hang out ‘fer a while an’ eat my tacos, then?”
“Of course you can!” She set to work, and even though he timed his visits for minimal impact, well…
There was a crowd.
“Daar,” she asked when she handed him his order, and before wading into the backlog of everyone else’s… “What did you do?”
“I promise you it’s good! But keep it a surprise ‘fer now, ‘kay?”
Orders. So many orders. People knew he was there and there was definitely some sort of celebratory energy about him, but try as she might she couldn’t quite glean the details.
She sold out, though. So that was nice! He was also nice enough to suggest in a very friendly sort of way that maybe everyone who had their orders or whatever might think about possibly going somewhere else.
And like that, they were alone. Cleanup didn’t take long when there wasn’t anything left to sell, and Daar dutifully tidied up the tables and chairs. She backed out of her shop, locked it up—
Daar had her pinned and pressed up against his iron body instantly, and her heart was suddenly trying to leap out of her chest.
“‘Yer a hard-workin’ gal, Leela,” he snarled right next to her ear, while his paws did unspeakable things elsewhere—!
“An’ I’m a hard-fuckin’ kinda man. Feelin’ up ‘fer some work?”
The whole evening passed in a wonderful blur, because he was good at overwhelming in the best possible way. She did remember waking up, though. Sore, thoroughly worn out…
He was dead asleep. Well! She’d tired him out! Now that was something to be proud of. Of course, Naydra had mentioned that encouraging him to show off was an excellent tactic…
Breakfast. Yes. Something. She stumbled down to the kitchen to get some bao, and along the way she remembered there was something he did…
Phone out. Internet search—nope. Right there on the front page.
Gaoian social media was exploding all over her feed. Dozens and dozens of messages, and even more from a few who knew what she did that night…
LAID BARE Gabrielle Nyoni and Marrek
“You really don’t know what the Fear of God is until you’ve felt it.”
[Image: A black and white photo of Gabby and Marrek, both standing awkwardly on bare rocky ground with embarrassed expressions. Gabby has a hand on her bare scalp while the other hugs her own midriff; Marrek’s posture is hunched and half-covered. Both are covered in goosebumps, and soaking wet. The lighting catches the raindrops, surrounding them in a halo.]
Credit: Ava Ríos
Previously, arranging a Laid Bare took weeks. This one came together in an afternoon and in a hurry at the request of our models. Gabby and Marrek are journalists and colleagues of mine at ESNN. They were covering the war against the Hunters on Hell when the allied forces there suffered the devastating effects of a nuclear attack, and they were evacuated immediately afterwards. This is their story.
So, you two requested that this shoot happen ASAP, and it’s because of your hair and fur. What happened to it, exactly?
Marrek: “We were on Hell, reporting from the front lines when the nuke went off. And, y’know, it wasn’t a clean bomb, and it was a ground burst…that means fallout. And part of the decontamination process for that is…this.”
Gabby: “ All our hair had to go. All of it. Human or Gaoian, made no difference. Shaved off and burned or buried.”
Even so, you both have radiation poisoning.
Gabby: “Yeah. Just a really mild case, thank God. But I feel like shit right now and it’s been a few days.”
Shouldn’t you be at home resting?
“I bet the doctors think so. But, I can be feeling miserable for myself in bed, or I can be feeling miserable for myself here and getting stuff off my chest. Honestly, I’m glad for the distraction.”
[Animated Image: Marrek duck-nodded in agreement while Gabby speaks]
Credit: Ava Ríos
Marrek: “Not gonna lie, when she first suggested we do this, I thought she was nuts. There’s few shames like being completely furless, for a Gao. I kinda wanna be curled up in private somewhere until it grows back. I’m cold, I’m wet, and you know how it is with us, Gao don’t usually need clothing, so this feeling of being naked is kinda foreign to us. It’s, uh…I’m not really enjoying this.”
(Interviewer’s note: At this point, I checked whether he wanted to discontinue the shoot and he assured me that he wanted to keep going.)
“I guess what persuaded me to do this was the chance to prove I’m like this for honorable reasons, not as punishment for some crime.”
Gabby: “As for me…I’ve worn my hair short my whole life. When I was twelve, my mom told me the balance point is ‘long enough to do something nice with on special occasions, short enough to keep out of the way when you’re doing chores.’ I’ve never been bald before. I keep finding my hand running over the top of my head, and if there’s a mirror nearby, I keep glancing at it. My ears and neck feel cold, and my head looks round and weird. I hate it.”
You have a wig at home, don’t you?
“I can’t stand to wear it. Not just because it itches but…It feels like I’m trying to pretend something important didn’t happen.
Marrek: “That’s why we decided we wanted to do this shoot.”
What do you mean?
“Well, my fur’s gonna grow back, and Gabby’s gonna grow her hair out, and by this time next year neither of us are gonna be, uh, I guess marked by it any longer.”
Tell me about the moment the bomb went off.
[Image: Marrek, his eyes distant and his ears flat against his head; Gabby wringing her hands.] Credit: Ava Ríos
Marrek: “We were sitting around with some of the marines we’d got to know. Getting a look at what it was like for them on the ground, right? And one minute they’re in the middle of grabbing some food and trading jokes with their buddies and the next…”
He shakes his head.
Gabby: “I don’t even really remember the moment it went off. I think I remember a really bright flash and a blow like getting smacked in the chest with a softball bat, but the next thing I really remember is the mushroom cloud. God, I will never forget that…”
[Image: the mushroom cloud, and Marrek in silhouette, looking up at it.]
Credit: Gabrielle Nyoni
“It’s not like watching a movie. It’s not fiction, you know? It’s really there, this terrible thing that could have killed us if only we’d been sitting in a slightly different spot. I remember…I remember feeling, physically feeling, waves of…of something, crawling over my whole body. I’ve tried a few times since to put it down in words but it’s like…I mean, I totally get what Oppenheimer was getting at when he quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, now. You really don’t know what the ‘Fear of God’ is until you’ve felt it.”
Marrek: “Yeah. It’s fuckin’ religious. Ain’t no other word for it. This weren’t the first time I’ve seen a mushroom cloud, but, fuck. It doesn’t ever lose its power.”
Gabby: “We had these hazard sensors with us. Because, you know, Hell is a nasty polluted place. And it started clicking at us, and that’s a terrible sound too. So, we had to get out of there. But even though we were doing that, all the soldiers there, and the Marines…they were charging toward the battle instead. And they had to be just as…they had to be feeling a lot like I did. Right? And that scares me, looking back. It scares me that you can take ordinary people and get them to pick up a gun and attack this, this face of God that’s suddenly manifested itself.”
Marrek “It’s ‘cuz they knew they had to. They knew the Hunters were going to attack right after. If they hadn’t counter-attacked, we’d all have been overrun. Everyone would have died. Including us.”
[Image: Both models trying their best to strike a pose. Gabby has raised her arms above her head and cocked a hip like she’s dancing nervously; Marrek is doing a back double biceps pose with considerably more confidence.] Credit: Ava Ríos
“And then came…this.”
Gabby: “There is no time for dignity after something like that. They weren’t cruel about it, just, it had to be done, and it had to be done quickly. Because I guess we had to be out of the way, because in a few minutes there’d be wounded coming back in, and probably a lot of them.”
Marrek “They weren’t exactly gentle with the clippers for me…”
[Images: Minor bruises and abrasions here and there on both of them; a closeup of Marrek’s freeze-tattooed upper arm; Gabby’s scalp, from behind.] Credit: Ava Ríos
What was the last thing you saw, before they sent you back?
Gabby: “Honestly, I was focused on the silly stuff. When they told me they had to take and get rid of everything, I was worried about my camera, and then I was worried about having to strip down in front of so many strangers…I guess my mind was focusing on little things because the big thing was too big, you know?”
Marrek: “For me, it was the backhoes.”
“Yeah. Big armored ones. Remember, you ain’t coming back from Hell unless you’re breathing.”
[Image: Gabby, wiping her cheek.]
Credit: Ava Ríos
Gabby: “That scared me. More than anything, that scared the life out of me. I don’t know why, but the idea of my final resting place being that trench…of anyone’s, really…Everything else, the shaving and the losing my stuff and everything, that all was easy enough to accept. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was right. You know? That mass grave, though…even empty, it felt wrong.”
Marrek: “Maybe this sounds cold, but I don’t feel the same. They’ll be remembered, I know that much. All of them. The Great Father said he’d light the pyres himself. What matters is the remembering, not where their bones lie.”
But you still noticed the trench being dug. It clearly mattered to you.
He keens quietly, and is silent for a few seconds. “…Might be that’s just what I’m telling myself. I don’t know. Yeah, I noticed it. I guess you’re right. Maybe.”
Gabby: “We’re still processing it all.”
So what do you want people to know? What message do you think our readers need to hear?
[Image: Marred beauty. Even in this state of embarrassment, both show nobility of form.]
Credit: Ava Ríos
Marrek: “I think…I think I want people to feel the weight of it, if that makes sense. I think sometimes your people—Humans—you’ve got this shield around your home system, and everything that’s going on out here happens through wormholes and far away, so it’s still at arm’s length. It’s just…for my people, this war is part of everyday life. Our whole economy is built around it, everyone’s either serving in, or served in, the Grand Army, or is rebuilding from the destruction, or attending the pyre-lightings…”
Gabby: “But for most humans, somehow, it’s still all…over the rainbow.”
Marrek: “Not anymore, it ain’t.”
A roll of thunder causes us to cut the interview short, but they both seem content. Afterwards, as we’re warming up and drying off indoors, I ask them if they have any last thoughts they want to share. They both shake their heads, and I can tell that, as with my other interviewees before, they’ve found some catharsis in this process. Not to mention some renewed drive. Gabby talks enthusiastically about what their next project will be most of the way back.
My thoughts, however, turn to a man the Great Father recently praised, claiming he was the sole reason the invasion of Hell had succeeded, though almost at the cost of his own life.
The subject of the next, and final, Laid Bare.
Simping for kings
Charm offensive. Good combination of words. They’re turning on the charm, and it’s fucking offensive.
Here’s a reminder for you, America: you’re supposed to be a republic. We had a whole thing about it three hundred years ago, remember? A government of the people, by the people, for the people?
Well ‘the people’ aren’t wealthy elites. The people scrape by on a hundred bucks a day. The people don’t own castles, or golf courses, or private spaceships, or earn more in a year than you could have saved up if you’d set aside a dollar a day since the time of the pharaohs.
So why the slobbering love for His Royal Baldness?
Seriously. You can track the King’s progress across the US in genteel parties and soirees, and brainless blogs losing their fucking minds over how sharp so-and-so looked in a pant suit by whatsherface, while some of the quietly richest people in the world walk by in the background for an evening of schmoozing, networking and, in the finest British tradition, hobnobbing. And the ones who were already getting rich and fat and happy off interstellar war come away full of beaming confidence, while the ones who were maybe thinking of growing a backbone sometime in the next ten years have gone all quiet.
Sure. On a personal level, the King’s probably not a bad guy. Flew rescue helicopters, saved lives and so on. Forget all that. As the murderous bear-elephant just spent an evening telling us, people like him—this includes the King—are embodiments, not everyday folk with everyday struggles. We hardly live in the same universes.
So what does the King of England embody? Well, that’s an easy one. Old Money. Establishment. Empire. The Ancient Powers, that still matter a great deal, and in fact have always mattered. America is the one place where a republic actually had power, yet our elites are too busy lining up to sniff at the Royal Posterior to remember what they are.
They’re commoners. Okay? There’s no blue blood among them, just money and ambition. No nobility, if in fact it ever existed among the Lords in the first place. And if this country was actually working the way it’s supposed to, they’d have no patience for the hereditary figurehead of a country that’s stubbornly refused to step bravely forward into the eighteenth century.
Instead, they attend his parties, listen to his bland humor. Throw parties for him with hardly a proper smile among them. And then, like robot bees, suddenly all of them are entirely behind the President and his warmongering, mouthing platitudes and praise for the “Great Father” and his admittedly murderous ways!
It’s a charm offensive, and it worked. Daar won over the normals with some strutting, some flexing, and some baby-talk with criminally adorable children. All spontaneous, you see.
The King, however, proved that he still matters. Somehow our betters get a little breath of the Royal Presence and now they’re all on page, singing the same tune.
It’s blatant. And as Americans, it’s damn near blasphemous.
And it’s working.
God, I need a drink.
Date Point: 18y11m3w AV
LCpl Viggo Dyer
Shit wasn’t exactly fuckin’ peaceful, but they’d held. With reinforcements, orbital fire support and a few fuckin’ miracles, the allied side of the river had held, and now Ground Zero wasn’t a hole so much as a filthy fuckin’ puddle full of water so toxic even the Hunters weren’t bugfuck enough to wade through. The whole river was like that, fed by black rain and storms downwind, up in the mountains. Over the course of a couple hours, it had filled the hole, left behind a big round black deadly lake in the middle of the city—or whatever you called what was left of this city—and cut off the two enemies from each other.
There was only one place left to cross the river. One of the large bridges had come through the nuke merely damaged, its roadway on the north side collapsed, but the train tracks on the south side still intact. And Dyer and his buddies got the fuckin’ awesome job of sitting at the friendly end to mow the Hunters down if they were dumb enough to try and cross it.
So of course the fuckin’ creepy-crawlies were fuckin’ blue-balling them. They’d set up their own fortifications on the far end, and now? Mexican fuckin’ standoff. At least until Command got shit together for an assault, and then…
Fuck, Dyer didn’t know. The far side of the river looked more intact than their side, prob’ly ‘cuz the Hunters had known what they were gonna do, and prepared for it. Fuck only knew what FIC and Command knew was over there and what they’d want destroyed.
Sure were a lotta Clan dropping in to look at things, though.
That was one of the things about working with Gao. The Grand Army was, duh, a fuckin’ army. You kinda knew what they were about. But Clan? Clan could be anything. And they’d show up any time, and want or do whatever. Might be a group of Whitecrest, who’d set up some gizmos and point ‘em over the river, then vanish again. Might be Stoneback, turning up like a work gang of oversized wolverines to dig a hole, build a wall, or whatever. Might be some Openpaw medics performing a medical check on everyone of either species to make sure nobody was dying of radiation sickness.
One had been a Starmind chaplain. He’d spent some time chatting with folks while waiting for his bodyguard and a team from Mortuary Affairs to show up. Lotta men and Gao unaccounted for, still. Lotta bodies still to recover. And yet, somehow, he’d taken the time out to talk and listen, and he’d made Dyer feel…well, Dyer wasn’t sure what. A little more human, maybe.
The fuckin’ furry angels, though, were a new group he’d never seen before. Big. Not literally-a-bear big like Stoneback, but big and burly like the kinda stacked dude who lifted really heavy shit for a living and could do it all day. Clan mon was four bronze squares on their armor’s belly, and they rocked up in trucks full of supplies like it was fuckin’ Christmas.
Every supply. If even one guy in the Company had complained about its absence, they’d brought it. And they unloaded it all themselves like an oiled machine. Heft, hand, catch, place, stack, move, all while chantin’ some kinda work shanty in Gaori.
It was a pretty catchy tune, actually.
Dyer somehow got the job of handing out the Ripped Fuel, in little foil pouches with NBC caps. It was a new-fangled energy drink—because of course the military had to keep energy drink tech at the bleeding edge, or something—that somehow managed to get several thousand calories into you by the end of the packet.
Tasted like getting face-fucked by a lime.
Still, as morale-boosters went…it was no weekend in Vegas with whores on buffet, but it worked. All of a sudden they’d gone from fighting on empty, worrying about conserving ammo and shit, to being fuckin’ stacked.
To Dyer, it felt like some of those black clouds overhead had opened up a little. Sure, he was still stuck in a literal hellhole, sure he was still prob’ly looking at ass cancer in his thirties or some shit, and he’d lost way too fuckin’ many of his buddies…but they’d fuckin’ held somehow. If that was the worst the Hunters had…it wasn’t enough.
He buried that thought quickly. Last time he’d jawed off about what the Hunters might do, he’d been immediately proven right. Best to not give ‘em any more ideas, or tempt fate. But even so…
They were still here.
Happy fucking Thanksgiving.
++END CHAPTER 81++
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Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.
When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…
Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 82: Moving Forward