Chapter 83: Singularity
Date Point: 19y3m AV
Ekallim-Igigi, Relic Space
The Old Man
“Some. There’s also a Gaoian, and several Ten’Gewek of all the fucking things, and a few others from here and there. Quite the assortment!”
“Who among them are of the Line?”
“…The shorter-statured Human, firstly.”
“The Gaoian, too. The Captain has been touched in his ancestry, but he is not one of us. Nor are any of the other Humans.”
“Yet they’re impressive, are they not?”
“That they are, for their own reasons. The children of Earth rarely fail to impress. Never more so than in the last century or so…”
“Has it been so quick? It feels as if they had only just mastered the sail…” the Old Man sighed ruefully. “It was the one thing I’d long wished to learn but could never do.”
“I can’t imagine you climbing in any rigging…or swimming, for that matter.”
The Old Man chuckled, “Indeed not. Yet now they have engines to power steel ships that would hardly notice a burden like me…and far more besides. They know the first of the Deep, now.”
“There is no turning back from that.”
A huge, ringed hand stroked thoughtfully through the kind of beard that legends had very literally been written of. It was a luxurious conceit, admittedly, but it was his hands that made him a Hero. They were hard-calloused like a miller’s stone, thick-sinewed and truly powerful, the hands of a man who did not hide from life in a perfumed palace. Hands that had built cities, tended fields, hefted sword and spear. Broken men apart like unfired mud bricks. Hands that had held women, played with children. Buried loved ones. Wiped tears from the eyes of young and old, boy and girl. Man and woman. Friend, and, on occasion, worthy enemy.
Defeat need not mean destruction, after all.
Those hands had forged crowns with both power and skill, made kings of the worthy. Later crushed some flat for betrayals and belligerence, crown and skull alike. Had destroyed far worse than disloyal servants too, far above the skies in the lonely, unforgiving empty of space.
His hands had lived a multitude of lives and done many things, be they gentle or terrible in turn. That had never stopped being an odd thing to contemplate.
“I remember when we were so much less as a people. Small, ignorant and afraid, too weak to face the world alone, save a few Heroes who could stand against it all. Now, excellence is so much easier to find, but the Heroes are still far too rare. A shame my kind does not remember how much truth lies in the old tales…”
“Your tales aren’t as embarrassing as mine, old Cousin. Count your blessings!”
The Old Man laughed sympathetically. So much had happened in his life. Though much time had been skipped in the Long Sleep between needfulness, more had been seen, encouraged, experienced. Friendships and dalliances across the centuries. Enemies, too. He was old. Very, very old. Sire of legends, and an odd legend himself. The gods had strange humor.
Of course, he hadn’t quite gone down in history as a god, unlike his friend.
Just two-thirds of one.
“Thank you, Cousin.” He stroked his beard again, then reached a decision. “I’m of a mind to meet them.”
His massive furry friend turned and gave him a quizzical look. “Are you certain? Meeting these travellers will be the end to our secrecy…”
Hmm. The Old Man was a decisive leader when needs must, but his Cousin was far older, and had the deep wisdom only experience could give. They were equals in this long, strange tale, always had been. Still.
“They are brave men, to come out here. And their part in this drama is clear to see. The Great Father must have sent them personally.”
Now there was a Hero worth meeting! Perhaps…perhaps soon. The gods would tell.
“Yes. They’re well equipped. That ship is far more than a simple freighter.”
The Old Man sighed, and settled his massive frame down into his chair. He was unquestionably the apex of his kind, yet that had not ever quelled his feeling the need to get up, get moving, to prove himself against the world. One of his age could not afford to forget that his feet were for running fast and far, for dancing to the simple music of drums. That the sweet air was for breathing, and the world was to be felt and experienced ever-new. The latest medicines had reversed what little aging he’d experienced, put darkness back in his beard and hair and erased the wear and tear. Bodies could be repaired, even for the immortal, but age—thousands and thousands of years, with his memories intact—was in the soul. At times, it needed refreshing.
As far as he could tell, there was no important difference between body and soul. They were one, prospered and suffered as one. One could not deny their nature. And right now, his soul demanded activity.
“I will of course not do this thing if we are not in agreement.” He was their king, but only by mutual consent. Sometimes, that meant leading decisively. Other times…
His Cousin duck-nodded. “Maybe…a test, Cousin. We must see their intent.”
Wise, that. The Old Man’s head bobbed in agreement, as he had long ago adopted the gesture. “What of their dataspace pet?”
“Slippery little cub. And of course, even if we catch this probe, there will be others. It’s not part of the plan, but I don’t see that we have any better recourse than to talk with it. And test it, in turn.”
“Hmm.” Yes. Feeling itchy. Definitely could use a foot-race, and he found himself bouncing his legs on the balls of his feet and inadvertently shaking the deck, even as he sat. A foot-race with his Cousin had never grown tiresome. The two of them were perpetually tied. “What kind of test, do you think?”
A thoughtful ear-flick, “We must know that they can adapt to whatever rises in front of them. If they retreat from revelation into ignorance…”
“I doubt that will be the case. Still…”
“Bringing them past the event horizon is a risk, no matter who they are,” the third, oldest, and by far and away smallest, person in the room interjected. Her oversized, black almond eyes blinked patiently at the Old Man. “They must demonstrate the capacity to accept absurd truth, just as both of you did.”
An eloquent turn of phrase, that. The small grey ones had such a way with words, in their mightier, more Heroic youth. What a tragedy had befallen them.
The Old Man accepted her observation with a nod. “Much must be risked in war, and this war has gone on long enough. We stand at a pivotal moment. It is time we took to the battlefield, openly.”
His Cousin chittered long and hard. “Oh, balls! Can you imagine the two of us showing ourselves?! What a magnificent trick we pull!”
The Old Man chuckled heartily along with him. “I thought you’d like that. But the prank is only half the joy, Cousin. The other half is the fruition of all our long work.”
His friend duck-nodded again, gleefully. “And what fruition we’ve already seen! Our peoples have built the tools we need and are effectively destroying the Discarded, the Old Minds have gone to sleep in the hopes of escaping the wrath they’re due. The Heroes are returning among our kinds. I am finally exceeded by the best of my people, as you will be some day soon, I wager! The unexpected fruit has been particularly delicious, as well…”
“The Ten’Gewek will be a magnificent addition to our ranks, yes. An entire people of Heroes! Imagine when they’re properly trained…” The Old Man turned to the tiny, quiet, grey-skinned figure standing at his left. A nobler example of her people’s antiquity. Such a shame…but soon, they would renew themselves. He made a pleased rumble deep in his chest. “And Leifini! They’ve even convinced your own kind to find their greatness again. This pleases me.”
“As we had hoped,” she replied. “There will be others too, if we make contact.”
“Yes. It is a very interesting file you have built for us, Leifini. This Ambassador, the HEAT, the reappearance of Heroes. Perhaps my time is coming after all. The Great Father! An exciting era for us all.” The Old Man stood, and clapped his hands together. “We must test them, then. Heroes must be proven!”
“I was hoping you would say that,” his Cousin chittered happily. “I think I know just the right way to get the measure of them.”
“Excellent! I always enjoy watching your tricks unfold. But first! Come, spar with me, old Cousin. This is a good day! I would offer prayer to the gods.”
“The prayer of sweat and pain,” the Gaoian chittered. “After all this time, after all you’ve come to know, the old ways still touch you deeply.”
“I am what I am,” the Old Man said simply. “And you’re delaying. Come, beast!”
“You two have fun,” Leifini bade them, with the soft hiccuping giggle that none of her people had uttered in too many thousands of years. He would challenge her at games, later.
Beaming in anticipation of pleasures both immediate and future, the Old Man rose from his seat, felt the deck under his feet submit to his power, turned toward the hatchway…And showed his crew the meaning of speed. He heard the thundering of paws right behind him, as always.
The young Heroes-to-be would be tested. Oh, it would be a fair test, to be sure. They would have the opportunity to see what was coming for them. But it would be a test, nonetheless.
The Old Man hoped they’d impress.
There were other preparatory works to be done, too. Revealing themselves to the Young Ones was not without peril. They needed to begin that process soon. But first, he would lock arms with his old Cousin, embrace the wild spirit within, and in their struggle, give prayer for the young.
They would need all the favor they could get.
Starship Stray Fortune, orbiting WeiMeYrU-Uym relic homeworld
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
“Well that’s a hell of a fucking hole they left, isn’t it?”
Ian had to admit, the sight of it gave him chills. It reminded him of that famous crater in Arizona, the one he’d kind of always idly wanted to go and look at someday. More than a kilometer across, deep enough that Stray Fortune could have vanished nose-first below the lip and not touched the bottom…it looked pretty much exactly like a fucking asteroid had hit the site. No radiological alarms, no signs of exotic energies…
Just force. Of the very traditional kind.
“Shit, I’m glad we got the fuck off the shuttle before that hit us…no sign of any survivors, I’m guessing.”
Morwk’s long fingers trailed through the controls, zooming and focusing their various cameras to peer down past layers of cloud. “None. The entire dig site is a hole in the ground, and there’s not a blade of grass standing within several hundred meters of ground zero.”
“Well. Guess they didn’t want any trace left behind. Looks natural, too. It’s just a meteor hit. One that very conveniently erased any trace of anything artificial down there.”
“And wouldn’t be known as convenient if we hadn’t witnessed its firing.”
“That was aimed at you?” Hoeff asked over the video intercom.
“Oh yeah. Hit the shuttle dead on.”
“Oh, the whole back half of the shuttle’s a jump array, linked to one of the cargo bays up here on the ship. Useful for transit, but also for escape. Soon as those ships showed up I got a gut feeling, so I went with it, dragged everyone back there, hit the button…and three seconds later, that happened.” Ian waved a hand vaguely at the devastation below.
“Good instinct,” Ferd rumbled next to Hoeff, twitching his tail.
“More like better safe than sorry, right? If I’d been wrong, the shuttle would’ve returned on autopilot, and aye, maybe I’d get the piss taken out of me a bit but I can live with that. If we’d stayed and I’d been wrong, though…”
“That makes sense,” Morwk agreed, absently. “…But the nature of the weapon raises questions.”
“Well, the Hierarchy, so far, have never been known to use anything other than kinetic pulse and plasma weaponry. Human guns leave behind the residue of their ammunition, and the Hunters use imitation Human weapons or fusion cutters built on the hull. Most Dominion species rely on pulse weaponry, which leaves a residual radioactivity in many cases, and Gaoians increasingly go in for ultra-high power compressive fields…This crater was made by none of those. It’s just the kind of hole left behind by something small and dense moving very, very fast. Not even a Human RFG has that much energy.”
“Hit us like God getting angry,” Moj recalled.
“Indeed. I am not looking forward to being on the receiving end of that again.”
“The ship held up alright, didn’t it?” Hoeff said. “You came back undamaged.”
“Only because we’re a fucking James Bond spy car,” Wilde replied.
“If we had this model of freighter’s stock defences, it would have turned us inside-out,” Morwk agreed. “I don’t think they were expecting our lashback shielding.”
“They’ll expect it next time.”
“Lashback?” Ferd asked.
“Shields work by deflecting incoming fire, and whatever damage they absorb they get rid of in a flash of light,” Wilde explained. “Ours can turn that flash of light into a laser, so every time they hit us, we hit them back with their own energy.”
“Up to a point, anyway. Any shield has a power limit and flashbacks tend to have lower ones…” Morwk’s eyes narrowed and tilted slightly, a Kwmbwrw expression of confusion and sudden concentration. “…Urgug, I’m picking up a faint signal here, is it—?”
“Call on FTL wake band,” Urgug rumbled, perking up from his usual sleepy slump, then turning a shade of mild confusion as he considered what he was seeing.. “…Standard distress signal.”
“All the way out here?” Ian moved to his station to see the call for himself. “Current codes?”
“They are up-to-date. And Gaoian, apparently.”
Ian frowned at the distress call. It certainly looked genuine enough, but that didn’t stop his spine from tingling with sudden suspicion. They were in a big and remote region, examining the hole in the ground where the only other intelligent life that was supposed to be out here had been, and suddenly…
He didn’t need Bruuk’s nose to smell a rat. Still. They couldn’t ignore it. Either it was genuine, in which case somebody needed help, or it wasn’t in which case it was part of the investigation. Either way…
“Well, we ought to investigate. Set course to intercept, but cautiously. Drones please, Dora. Hoeff, I think we might need your talents for boarding.”
Dora acknowledged him over the intercom at about the same time as Hoeff’s, “We’re already suiting up.”
Right. The site would have to wait for the moment. “Leave something behind to monitor the wreck, please. Something discreet.”
“I’ve got just the toy for that,” came Dora’s chipper reply. She was definitely enjoying herself.
At least someone was. Ian didn’t like this.
Didn’t like it at all.
“They’re showing some caution with the high-speed drones.”
“Of course, they’re not fools. Nobody has any business out here.”
“Eh,” the Old Man grinned. “They don’t know that yet. They left a small drone behind with a fairly primitive cloaking field, too.”
Leifini paused with her finger poised over her tablet, waiting to give a command. “Should we destroy it?”
“No, that would tip our hand. Let them believe it went unnoticed.”
His Cousin duck-nodded approvingly as Leifini nodded and canceled the attack order. “We’ll make a sneaker out of you yet.”
“You’ve had all of my people’s recorded history to manage that trick, old Cousin. Haven’t yet.”
“You sure about that?”
“A tactical deception is not a well-laid plot,” the Old Man grumbled in amusement, then rose from his chair. “Time grows short, old friend. We must prepare you for your role!”
His furry friend sighed. “Yes, I suppose. It must look convincing. And you’re going to enjoy it.”
The Old Man nodded with a wolfish smile. “I won’t deny that. Now hurry. They will be upon us within the hour….make it look good.”
“When have I ever not?”
Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde
It wasn’t hard to pick up the trail. Somebody was moving his arse at high speed, and trading fire with a pursuer. And holding up surprisingly well, too. The residual ripples of destroyed gravity spikes was making for the equivalent of a bumpy ride, slowing them down as they followed the trail from one pocket of dissipating plasma and debris to the next.
“Let’s let them know we’re here. Dora, a megalight drone, with warhead please.”
“How big a boom?”
“Ooh, it’s Christmas!”
Ian grinned despite the tension at her infectious glee. A moment later, the ship uttered a sharp tung! sound as the drone launched forward. He tracked it as it accelerated ahead of them, slammed up to more than a million lights, and started sending back a better look at what they were dealing with.
Five of those high-speed-low-drag warp signatures from their last visit, and a much more normal, but still pretty intense, warp field pulsing out a distress call.
A simple enough party to crash. The drone picked a target, streaked in and for the next several seconds, Ian’s instruments were blind.
…Four UFOs, one ship. Good. And the ship had clearly got the message that the cavalry was coming, because it turned a sharp and daring turn to come straight back toward the Fortune. Its pursuers did the same…
Perfectly timed. The spike lit seconds after launch, and turned a running battle at FTL into a stand-up realspace brawl deep in interstellar space. Moj’s wings buzzed as he rode the spike’s surge and brought them in smoothly, reducing their engagement range to only a few thousand kilometers.
The distressed ship was definitely Gaoian. It had that sleek, sharp profile they liked, and its transponder identified it as Clanless: the Seared Rascal.
“Right. No point in pretending this far out. Light ‘em up. And what make is that vessel?”
The Fortune had a couple guns on the hull, long-range FTL autocannons which Ian promptly heard hammering away through the structure. Before the UFOs had even properly adjusted to the sudden change in reference frame, they were already being pummelled. They twisted and accelerated, throwing out decoys and chaff. Two of them took pot-shots at the fleeing Gaoian as they did so, and Ian gritted his teeth when he saw the shots hit home.
But the Gaoian’s shields held.
Shit, that’s a tough ship…
Incoming hail from the Gaoian: Ian swiped to accept it. A black-furred, pointy-eared face with bright amber eyes came up on his screen, coughing and swiping at the smoke around him. He must be overheating like hell.
“You have excellent timing! I need more shields, please!”
Odd accent. Ian couldn’t place it. Not important right now.
“Dora, get a phalanx on him.”
That was the Fortune’s big secret. She was a drone hive. All that cargo space had more than enough room to hide away a whole fleet of drones, in lots of variety. From the big ECM “Bulldogs” to dazzle hostile ships with strobing noise, to the fast and agile Gaoian-made “Skyslasher” strike drones that punched far above their weight…and the “Phalanx” shieldwall drones. An interwoven mesh of shield boundaries tucked safely around both the Fortune and the Rascal, adding considerable field power and, more importantly, distributed cooling.
Even so, those UFOs hit like a truck. The lights flickered and something beeped insistently at Ian as a round skipped off their defenses, tripping a number of surge protectors as it did so.
The next one slapped a Phalanx clean out of existence. But the drone did its job: it took the damage so the ship didn’t, and the lashback sent a pulse of focused X-ray back that knocked one of the UFOs into a tumbling drift, trailing a halo of vaporized metal.
The surviving three enemy ships re-evaluated their priorities and broke off their attack on the Gaoian to form up.
“They are forming a shieldwall,” Urgug reported. Ian gritted his teeth. Damn. He’d been hoping that trick would be alien to these guys.
“Our shields to power mode, turn off lashback,” he replied.
“Lashback off, max power, aye.” Morwk replied from engineering.
It was a slow few seconds. The UFOs prowled in a high speed orbit around them; Morwk kept their shields angled to present maximum strength to their formation, while the Gaoian slipped in at the Fortune’s wing and shed heat, glowing brilliant white for a few seconds. Dora’s drones were still pouring out of their racks, however, and the UFOs clearly decided it was now or never.
They struck, slashing in and firing as they came, accelerating hard to doppler their firepower. The Fortune’s drones counterattacked to meet them, and the space in between became a blizzard of metal fragments and high-energy discharges. Ian’s console beeped frantically as it recorded a flurry of hits on their shieldwall…
And then the UFOs were retreating, having lost one of their number in the exchange, and with a second limping badly and trailing stuff that it probably didn’t want to be trailing. Half a dozen phalanx and skyslasher drones were adrift or destroyed, but the bulldogs had done sterling work. Very few of the attackers’ strikes had been on-target.
Still…that was a lot of heat they’d built up, very quickly. Even with the shieldwall. Ian fancied they might be able to take on five of those things, but six would be a damn dangerous scrap.
He watched the UFOs book it toward the G-spike’s field edge. Fuck that. “Dora.”
She knew what to do.
Seconds later, and it was decisively over. The skyslashers had more thrust-to-mass, numbers, and astonishing firepower for their size…it was a short pursuit.
On Ian’s screen, the mystery Gaoian pant-grinned happily at him and let out a huge, relieved sigh. “Well. You aren’t just a freighter, are you?” he observed. “That was quite an entrance!”
Again, that odd accent. Not that Ian knew every Gaoian accent and regional dialect there was, of course. But he’d never heard anything like it. Curiouser and curiouser…
“Glad we made an impression,” he replied. “How’s your ship?”
“Cooked. Smells of burnt everything over here.”
“I’m—” the Gaoian coughed and swatted away a coil of smoke. “—I’m okay.”
“Right. Well, prepare to be boarded. We will need to be a bit forceful, you understand…”
“Yes, yes…” he waved a paw assuringly, then looked around with the kind of ear-flick that performed the same function as a human grimace. “I’ll be waiting.”
A private message from Morwk pinged up on Ian’s other screen. On that vessel’s make…unknown. It’s registered as a private vessel. All details are screened.
Ian frowned at it, and typed his reply: We should have access to that information anyway.
Yes. Still screened.
Well, now that was weird. But then again, the Fortune herself was similarly protected…and given where they were, and how well it had stood up in the fight, Ian hadn’t been about to take that ship or its occupant at face value anyway.
He kept a close watch as the two ships came alongside, and their tractor fields reached out to pull the Seared Rascal snug against Stray Fortune’s airlock. Hoeff and the wrecking crew were in position and ready…
One way or another, their new friend ought to have some answers.
Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff
Maybe they should have just gone with the EV-MASS. Weighed down with everything they needed to safely conduct a boarding in space, even Hoeff and Ferd were feeling the crush of it all. That the rest of his team stoically powered through was a testament to their hardiness. They had to get the mission done, right here and right now. No time to call in the big boys.
They’d all be paying for it later, though. Beef or not, Hoeff never signed up for this shit.
Nice of the other ship’s occupant to cycle the airlock for them. And stand with his paws pressed up against a bulkhead, waiting for the inevitable inspection. He was a massive gaoian. Not ridiculously tall, as big gao could get, but still maybe something like six-foot-eight. Call it two meters. Built like a brick shithouse too, with the kind of roll and athletic line to his thick muscles that meant they were good for a lot more than show: a predator born. Not a brownie though, he had sleek black fur. Like if Daar and Meereo had a love baby, maybe.
Ferd and Hoeff looked at each other, and silently decided to double-team the big fucker. Once they did, they could feel just in the brief moment of pulling those heavy arms behind his back that the two of them together wouldn’t be a match for him, if he decided to get violent. Hoeff had to wrench on his forearms to cuff him up, and he felt absolutely no give or slack in the gaoian’s corded muscles at all. The big guy wasn’t resisting, but Hoeff hadn’t managed even the tiniest dimple, and he’d pulled with all of his strength. Dude was hard like iron.
The brain scan came back clean, though. No implants, no Arutech.
Hoeff lifted his visor. “Right. Name?”
“Yekiidaa.” Odd sound in the name though, that Hoeff couldn’t figure out.
“Alright. You’re a long way out here, Yekiidaa.”
The gaoian flicked an ear—probably Hoeff had mispronounced the name. “So are you. Mother caught two naughty cubs in the pantry, yijao?”
…Well, shit. Code-cant, probably. That needed answering.
So… “Gotta be careful, Mother might be sniffing.”
“Oh, I think Mother’s gone to lie down…” Yekiidaa chittered, completing the challenge. “For now, anyway. Well! This is a funny meeting, isn’t it?”
No shit. Yekiidaa didn’t look anything like a Whitecrest ought, even in the modern era where everyone had to be big-ass badasses to do the mission anymore.
Then again, Daar had done work for the Whitecrests while serving as Stoneback’s champion, years ago. That was even public knowledge! So…maybe?
But Hoeff had never seen a gaoian like this. He was just…what was the word?
He looked off, from his build to his fur. His face was handsome—actually, maybe too handsome, somehow—and even kinda familiar somehow, but the accent was weird, and he even smelled off. Like, the usual gaoian kinda musky, but…well, he’d have to ask Bruuk. He didn’t have the nose to really be sure. And besides, the ship really did smell like fried electronics and ozone so maybe that was just the environment.
It was a stupid fuckin’ thought, on the surface. There were billions of Gao, and Hoeff hadn’t met more than a few hundred maybe. If all he’d ever met of other humans was white guys, black guys, hispanic guys and asian guys, then meeting a Polynesian guy or whatever might give him that same feeling.
But even so, he just couldn’t shake the impression that Yekiidaa didn’t fit somehow.
He gave another look at Ferd, whose armored tail was twitching in thought. Yeah. He was getting the same vibes.
“Right. Well, let’s get you over to the ship and have Bruuk look you over. He’s our cook-bouncer-medic-longshoreman and sometimes spare engineer.”
“Sounds like a great Gao.” Yekiidaa chittered, deep and slow.
“He’s a man of many talents. And he’s got grizzly claws, too.”
Something Yekiidaa didn’t, Hoeff noted. His claws were the sleek, retracting, razor-sharp kind characteristic of silverfurs. But a lot bigger. Not grizzly big, but enough to gouge deep.
That engendered a decidedly mischievous ear-flick. “I will need to be on my best behavior, then! In any case, you’ve got room for my ship? I don’t wanna abandon her, she’s one of a kind.”
“That will need to be decided by the Captain.” Hoeff indicated the airlock with a jolt of his head. “Anything we need to know about the ship before we inspect it?”
“No. I assure you, there are no dangerous surprises aboard, save for the obvious things. I would appreciate it if you did not overload the fusion reactor.”
Hoeff gave him a faint smile. “Don’t plan on it.”
“Good! What next for me?”
“Medical. After you.”
Yekiidaa duck-nodded gratefully, dropped to four-paw, and rolled through the airlock with an easy gait, followed by Genn and Nomuk.
He took to fourpaw as naturally as a brownfur. Silverfurs always looked slightly awkward on all fours, even though they had perfectly uninhibited motion in so doing. Not this guy.
“Alright,” he mouthed to Rees, Frasier, and Davies. “Check the ship. I think…I may want the wrecking crew to stick with me for the moment.”
They all knew his meaning. “Aye.”
Ferd watched the two begin their work, then snapped his helmet back on and re-shouldered his assault pack. Hoeff did the same.
Something didn’t quite add up.
Riding along on a human’s helmet cam could get bewildering. They never stopped looking around, this way and that. How in the hell they ever got a good look at anything when their heads never stood still for a second, Dora didn’t know.
But they did. Rees paused in front of something in the Rascal’s flight deck and looked it straight on for her benefit. “‘Ey, Dora? What am I lookin’ at here, biwt?”
He paused and stared fixedly at a…gizmo. Of some kind. Dora leaned in to the screen and tilted her head.
“Uh…it’s a thing. It does stuff. Could you take a closer look?”
“Any closer and I’ll have my ‘ead up its electrical fuckin’ arse.”
“Well, it’s just…I don’t know what it is. I don’t even…swipe a hand through the control field, would you?”
Rees waggled his glove back and forth. Sure enough, a control interface did appear, but…
“…Urgug, can you make any sense of that?” Dora asked, scowling at it.
“I am not familiar with that interface layout at all…” Urgug replied. “Or that lettering.”
“That’s the weird thing, I swear I’ve seen this before,” Rees said. “Fuck if I can remember where, though.”
Dora highlighted some of the triangular, sharp text, and tried to run it through the translator, which promptly gave her an error message. “It doesn’t match any language in our database, real or fictional.”
“I swear blind, I’ve seen it before…” Rees repeated. He watched the readout a moment longer, then shrugged, and looked around. “Still no idea what this thing does?”
“You’re asking me to translate a completely foreign interface on first glance,” Urgug said.
“Yeah, but, like, that arrowhead there represents the ship, right?”
“Maybe. Probably. But the colorful fields extending from it? I have no idea. It could be measuring ambient phenomena, or depicting something the ship itself can generate, or something else entirely. I cannot say.”
“Not bloody Gaoian though, is it?”
“Is it dangerous?” Dora asked.
“I have no way of knowing, beyond the fact that our guest said it is not.”
“He could be lying…”
“Gaoians as a rule do not lie. They can smell it, and they’re generally bad at it.”
“It’s a fuckin’ distraction, is what it is,” Frasier interjected. “we’re here to check for threats, like a boarding force or whatever, not poke at shit to guess whether it’s an advanced warp drive or a fuckin’ toaster.”
“Right.” Rees moved on. They’d already done a quick run through the ship—emphasis on quick, as always—and now they were taking a slightly less urgent pass from end to end.
“I am reasonably certain it is not a toaster,” Urgug rumbled. He was probably amused, but without seeing him, Dora couldn’t tell for certain.
In any case, her attention was already divided between their guest’s ship, and the gao himself, who was strolling amiably down their deck toward sickbay with the wrecking crew behind him, sniffing the air and looking…well, she wasn’t sure. Like he was enjoying a tour of a quaint old sailing vessel or something.
Oh well. Gao were weird and full of braggadocio at the best of times. She kept her middle hand poised over the forcefield controls on principle, but otherwise relaxed and watched. Presumably he‘d have something interesting to say soon.
After all, he certainly hadn’t been boring so far…
The Old Man
Games were a technology, and also a mirror to the souls of the people who invented them. The Old Man had learned much about the galaxy’s many peoples, nearly all of whom were represented by somebody somewhere in the Singularity, by playing their native games with each of them.
Ta’Shen was a favorite, of course, blending as it did both bluff and physical skill, with the element of luck that the Old Man felt was essential to any truly great game. Poker, the old Royal Game, the surprisingly intricate Guvnurag game whose long, rambling name condensed down to “Trick Squares” in any more concise tongue…all of them were fundamentally about riding the winds of chance better than the other player.
Tellingly, though, the Corti disagreed on that point. Even the few as old as Leifini. It was a core of their entire mode of thinking that games should be equally balanced contests of pure strategy. Somewhere in their souls, they lived in a world without the vagaries of chance and the whims of fickle gods.
And after all, why would they? Origin was not the sort of planet that threw periodic upsets at its inhabitants. It was not a world where the meeting of formerly isolated populations and wild genetic divergence would produce Heroes with regularity. So, where Human games accepted some element of luck, even as simply as which side had the advantage of making the first move, the old Corti game of Stratagem eradicated all luck and inequality in favor of perfect symmetry.
It was much like chess, but moves were made simultaneously. The Old Man actually rather liked it. Even despite how long he’d known Leifini for, she’d known him for longer, and she’d made a science of knowing his mind. They could truly wrestle through the medium of Stratagem, in a way they never could physically.
“You are feeling a different itch this day,” she noted, accurately. “One that sport or your wives would not satisfy.”
He grinned slyly, “not for lack of trying…”
The Old Man laughed. “I think I will never tire of needling you! But, yes. We stand on the edge of historic times,” He decided on his move, entered it into the board’s memory, and watched as one of his pieces and one of hers neatly sidestepped each other. Not for the first time, he reflected what a shame it was that Leifini was not a physical being. He suspected she would have been a deft sparring partner, in the right kind of a fight. “Is it any surprise that I’m eager to see how it unfolds?”
“I suppose not. We have seen so many repetitions of pattern that a genuine novelty is cause for special interest.” She entered a move then stared at him, challenging him to anticipate her. To overthink it, or underthink it, this time? Was she acting in anticipation of a many-layered tapestry of strategy he might be constructing? Or was she expecting him to be straightforward at this point in the game?
…It was early, and pawns could be sacrificed. Straightforward it was. There was value in setting expectations. He entered his own move and watched, betraying no satisfaction as his pawn marched into the teeth of, and thereby ruined, an ambush that would otherwise have pressured a more valuable piece. He’d read her correctly.
“I imagine Yekiidaa is having fun, right now.”
“It has been literally millennia by any of our calendars and you still cannot pronounce his name.”
“And he still can’t pronounce mine. As in all things, we are well matched.”
He enjoyed Leifini’s giggle. Somehow, she’d kept a torch of mirth burning throughout a long and dark age, when the entire rest of her species had forgotten it. It was musical, and bubbled upwards at the end. “And of course…the end of all our long work beckons,” she added. She hadn’t entered a move yet, he noted. She was baiting him.
He obliged her, and entered his move. “Oh, no. The old enemy won’t fade that easily. It’s going to be just as much long work to find all their archives, and if we miss even one… but I think—I hope—the end of my long work may not be far off, now.”
Leifini’s pupils widened; a Human would have raised her eyebrows. “You, of all people, are considering retirement?”
“Your move,” he reminded her, then fished in his pocket and slid a folded piece of paper across the table while she entered it. Two pieces at opposite ends of the board ignored each other completely. “And, read this.”
She tilted her head, picked it up, unfolded it, then cleared her throat and read aloud.
“Come to me,” the spider said, “do come, my little fly.”
“I’ll wrap you, bind you, bite you softly, then I’ll drink you dry.”
“I have no choice,” replied the fly. “This is my end, I see.”
“But you and I are just as trapped: you’re in the same web as me.”
“I spun this web!” cried Spider. “I am not stuck at all!”
“I can walk its length and breadth, and its wide and tall.”
“Then leave,” the fly he challenged, “set out into the world”
“And live a life of freedom, without your net unfurled.”
“I’d starve,” protested Spider. “‘I’d surely waste away.”
“And so you see,” said Fly, “that I and you are both held sway.”
“You’ll kill me now, then linger here until your life force ebbs.”
And so the spider did, but knew: she too was trapped in webs.
“What do you think?” the Old Man asked.
“Who wrote it?”
“My youngest daughter, Annitas. She’s practicing her English.”
“Hmm. So young, yet her poetry already exceeds yours,” Leifini snarked, then grinned when the Old Man barked a laugh. “And remarkable metaphor for somebody who has never seen a spider…give her a few centuries and she’ll be quite the wordsmith. And she has a good grasp of the mutuality problem, it seems.”
The Old Man sighed, and leveled his gaze at her. “I too, am trapped in a web.”
“Let us dispense with the metaphor for a moment.” Leifini set the poem down beside the board. “You are irreplaceable. There is no Human your match, and none but a Human could possibly do this, I’ve come to learn. Who, then?”
“My old friend…we have raised children and heirs for thousands of years. It is the way of things to eventually pass the torch. It is not right for the younger generations to live perpetually in the shadow of their forebear.”
“There is truth there, but there must first be a successor. As of yet I know of none among the Humans. There is the Great Father of course, and my successor has yet to be engineered—”
The Old Man grumbled at that, but said no more. It was an old argument, and a necessity he despised.
Leifini acknowledged his restraint with a small nod before continuing. “Your fundamental problem is your own magnificence and necessity. Not that your ego needs any encouragement, but Singularity approaches victory because of you.”
“Yes.” There was no point denying it. “But I see my successor. He of course doesn’t know it yet, but he is the first Hero born to the program who stands to exceed me. And soon. Hells, he even has friendships that could survive his ascendency, and there is another Heracles in his orbit. That man may one day soon make even my might seem as but a child’s.”
The Old Man entered a new move. Leifini’s move was made not expecting him to strike so early: her Second Rank was pinned, now. She considered the board for a moment, then conceded. By unspoken agreement, they started over.
“This successor. Does he have your intelligence?”
“How am I to know? But he is intelligent enough. Leadership is more about wisdom anyway.”
“Does he have your wisdom?”
“Of course not. He’s not yet even half a century gone. But it will be some time before he is ready, and he will have the wisdom of us all to counsel him. I was about that age when you found me.”
“Anyway,” The Old Man added, opting for a defensive opening move. “All of this is beside the point. Has the object of all our work been to trade one shadow for another? Am I here to take the Hierarchy’s place and continue its work? Shall I doom this galaxy perpetually to the whim of unseen kings?”
“…I suppose not,” Leifini admitted. Her own move was defensive too, the beginning of a tough shield wall.
The Old Man nodded, and decided to continue drawing battle lines for now. “Singularity must come into the open. It must evolve into a new role, and the Powers must understand us. The Great Father will likely be the new paramount leader of the galaxy, and he will need a check on his ambitions. Everyone needs opponents to thrive.”
“Even if friendly?”
“Especially if friendly. How else would I have made it these long years without you? Or Yekiidaa?”
“I am sure your ego would have found a way,” and Leifini rewarded him with more of her laughter. A shame, really. He found no desire in her body, but he dearly loved her soul.
“Ha! You’re probably right. Leadership at this level does require some immense self regard,” he said with a raunchy grin, then got serious again. “But understand me. I hope to retire for more than one reason. The…shock of my existence will be something to behold. Yekiidaa’s too, and the ancient ties it will reveal will unite the Deathworlders yet further. All of this will serve to greatly empower the Great Father.”
“Empower him too much.”
“…” She conceded the game again. This time, her concession was a message.
“You were always the champion of Stratagem. In any form it takes, really.”
“I think you might have won that one,” The Old Man replied. “I only had a plan for the first few exchanges.”
“Sometimes, there is more pleasure in losing.” She looked away for a moment, and her enormous dark eyes unfocused. Rather than implants, she had contact lenses, and the Old Man saw the flicker of light and color on their surface. “…He’s aboard their ship.”
“Oh, how I wish we had a way to watch!” He laughed, knowing full well the game that was about to unfold. “He has such a way with these things. And they will all laugh about it in the end, too. He’s a master of that knife-edge between comical and dangerous.”
“I very much look forward to his recounting of it,” Leifini replied, and stood. “I should rest. The hour is late.”
“As should I. We’ll play again tomorrow?”
“If there’s time,” she promised. “I have a winning streak to reclaim.”
The Old Man smiled, waved her goodnight, and then stood to wend his way through his museum toward his own quarters. Tomorrow would come early, and it promised to be interesting.
Just as today had.
Bruuk, wearer of many hats
If there was an appropriate adjective for their new gaoian guest, it had to be ‘overwhelming.’ Bruuk felt instantly dominated in the presence of this male. Which was telling: Bruuk was a powerhouse himself, despite his second-degree luck, and because of that he rarely felt particularly cowed or submissive toward anyone. When he did it usually manifested as a mild sort of admiration or automatic respect, but not this time.
This male’s presence practically grabbed him by the nuts and forced him to notice. The only time he’d ever felt so strongly and compulsively submissive was with Daar. And to be frank…this gao had the same air of power and perfection about him, despite being obviously no sort of match for the Great Father—not that anyone was, or could be. That kind of dominance was not to be trifled with.
He was quite sociable, though. The big black male seemed happy to make friends, and flowed across the room and greeted Bruuk with an open, non-threatening nose-sniff, right at a neutral level. Like an old, forgotten friend. Or a new most bestest one, waiting to happen.
“You must be the infamous Bruuk I’ve heard about!” There was a charming pant-grin there, exposing some massive fangs. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a gao quite like you! And my guards are interesting, too. They smell good and strong!”
Flattery. Good flattery too, and quite sincere. The Ten’Gewek keeping guard in the room each preened a bit with their particular tail-twitches and wide-armed, wide-legged stances. Still, their rifles were kept at the low-ready, and they were still encased head to toe in full armor.
Hoeff, as ever, was inscrutable.
The newcomer was definitely friendly. Still, Bruuk found himself struck by a sudden unease as the big male panted-grinned and looked around at his sickbay, clearly sizing up everyone and everything within it. Which, that was natural. Everyone did it. But with him…
…Fuck this. Bruuk needed to take charge. Respectfully. Their guest was a whole lot of male.
“Yeah, That’s me! Jus’ ‘yer friendly ship’s cook, medic, the hired muscle, an’ sometimes the designated percussive thing-fixer, too. Includin’ you, if you’re hurt…”
The newcomer chittered cheerfully. “Oh? You gonna percuss me?”
Bruuk chittered in turn, and wagged his tail. “I dunno, it might be fun ‘ta try…”
He wagged his tail in return. Hey! That weren’t so bad. “Maybe! But to the question of if I’m hurt: I ain’t. Little smoke inhalation, but managed not to get my hide burnt. That’s always a pain to grow out…”
Quite precise diction with this male, but he used a few ancient contractions, too. One normally had a “lax” cant or dialect, or a Received Standard. Nobody really had a mashup of both.
His accent was odd, too. Bruuk looked up at Hoeff, Genn and Nomuk, but there was no help there. They probably didn’t even notice half the things that were weird about this newcomer. Bruuk wasn’t sure he knew what was discomforting him so much either, exactly. It was a combination of lots of little things he might have ignored individually.
“Well, that’s good…” he said aloud. “Where you from, if you don’t mind?” He pulled his scanner down off the shelf and set to button-pushing. It’d be a tick before it had booted and was ready.
“Oh, little place on the east coast, May-Eshi province. Ain’t there any longer.”
“…Do you mean Meyishi?”
He waved that off with a massive paw. “Regional variation. Mine was a tiny little village.”
Well, fair enough, that…and he smelled honest. Definitely. More definitely than Bruuk had smelled in a long time, actually. As honest as Daar.
“So!” Bruuk decided for chipper. “Thankee for the compliment. I’m Bruuk, as you see. Not essactly ‘yer typical brownie…”
“No! You certainly took advantage, though!”
An admiring look, that. Very open, very honest, which made the Ten’Gewek trill quietly. A little too open actually, but hey! Bruuk could dig. “You too! So what’s your name?”
—Bruuk’s brain short-circuited for a moment. Initial-stress yips hadn’t been used in everyday Gaori for millennia. That was an odd fuckin’ name, to say the least…
Balls. Actually…balls! Was it…?
Okay. Be delicate about it. “…You musta got teased a lot in the commune.”
The big male just chittered openly. “Nope!” Again, brutal honesty, and yet….
“Now that is hard to believe, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“I know, right?! Not too many rockin’ such an archaic pronunciation for their name. Especially not that name.”
Right. He seemed far too amused by the whole thing for it to be anything but his honest name. Still!
“What in the name of all the forgotten gods was your mother thinking?”
“Dunno.” Y!kiidaa chittered sadly. “She ain’t around to ask. Hasn’t been in a long time.”
Bruuk keened. His own birth-mother had been one of the casualties, too. “Sorry. Lotta us got that kinda story, these days.”
“In the end, everyone does. Sadder if it plays out the other way, ain’t it?”
It took Bruuk a moment to puzzle out what he meant by that. “…I suppose. Still, a lotta gao got kilt too young.”
“We always were a misadventurous people. Gods know I’ve seen my share.”
So, definitely some melancholy about him. He was politely and carefully steering away from a sad story, not talking about home, or his Commune and Mothers…Well. Bruuk had pain like that himself. He wasn’t about to pry.
Y!’kiidaa aimed his nose at the medical scanner. “So, you gonna give me that once-over? You’re a charming one, but I need to talk with your captain about my ship.”
“It’s okay. ‘Yer so big I gotta crawl all up around ‘ya anyway. Good ‘ta be charmin’!”
Y!’kiidaa chittered and spread his arms, then sank to all fours. “I’ll spare us both the indignity. For now, anyway…” He took advantage of his position to pose and…
Focus. Right now, he had a job.
Scan scan scan. Beep boop. Ping.
“Well, you definitely have some smoke inhalation. I’ve got an inhaler for that, lemme…”
He pressed the button for dosimetry. The tablet flashed an angry red (red!) warning at him, noting some unexpected parameters…
…The fuck? Had his scanner gone off? He thought about scanning again—
Bruuk contained himself, with all his Whitecrest training. What he was looking at had hit him so suddenly, his patient would definitely have noticed something. And indeed, Y!’kiidaa tilted his head with an intrigued twist of his ear.
“Is there a problem?”
“No,” Bruuk said truthfully. “But I will need to compute the dose manually. So…let’s get all ‘yer vitals. Go step on the scale over there, please…”
Right. Full workup, for vitals that strangely off. Blood pressure, height (a bit over two meters) and weight (maxed out! And that on a scale which could handle a Guvnurag), run him through reflex tests (lightning fast). Mobility and motor function, as good as could be. Functional strength so far off the charts it was comical. Y!’kiidaa took more opportunity to show off, too. Which…
Listen to his heart, listen to breathing. All top notch, smoke inhalation notwithstanding. Blood panels were oddly balanced, but he wasn’t really a doctor so he couldn’t say more than “Yup! He ain’t dying.” But otherwise, perfect health. Perfect everything, and all of Y!’kiidaa’s aggressive preening was distracting. He thought about making some flirtatious small talk while the gene sequencer worked, see what Y!’kiidaa was really into—
Beep. He glanced quickly at the chromosomal histogram on…
Hoeff’s voice. “Somethin’ the matter, Bruuk?”
Bruuk tore his horrified, fascinated gaze away from the readout, glanced at Hoeff, then back at his patient, warily. Y!’kiidaa was watching him intently, with deep amusement.
Y!’kiidaa’s pant-grin got a degree or two wider. “So, my impressively brown friend! Find something interesting?”
“…Interesting. That’s…a word for it.”
Chitter. A deep, sympathetic, but knowing chitter. Bruuk realized suddenly he’d been drawn into a game without knowing the rules, and that he’d already been playing it for several minutes. It didn’t seem like a malicious one. But that didn’t mean it was safe, either. His fur bristled, and he noted Hoeff and the Ten’Gewek watching intently.
“Well,” Y!Kiidaa offered, still with that disarming friendly air. “Maybe it’ll help to talk it out. What do you think you’re looking at?”
“I’m…uh…” Bruuk flapped his tablet, vaguely. “You’re, uh, you’re missing…uh…s–several chromosomes. And your base pair count is…really low.”
A delighted rictus grin, with fangs exposed. “Go on…” Bruuk felt like a trap was closing.
“Like, uh, I can’t get a reading on your, uh, your Degree.”
“Why do you think that would be so?”
“Well…reading your degree would require you have multi-ploidal sex chromosomes.”
“…So. Do I?”
“Uh….no. No you don’t.”
That chitter again. “Go on…keep thinking out loud.”
“Well…I mean…the last time any Gaoian didn’t have…was…”
“A long time ago.”
“…A very long time ago.”
The black-furred anomaly sitting in front of him made a show of grooming the fur on his paws, flexing his claws and forearms to both intimidating and…distractingly impressive effect. It was enough of a display to really cross-wire Bruuk’s poor brain; Y!’kiidaa had him down cold, and he was being expertly fucked with on multiple levels.
Somehow, his mouth kept working and doing his thinking for him, though. “And…you’ve got a really…archaic name…”
There was so much delighted smug radiating off the big fucker, Bruuk could almost chew it in the air, whipping all around them. Somehow, though, he couldn’t tear his attention away to glance at the men standing guard.
“…The hell kinda prank is this?” he asked instead.
“The best kind of prank!” Y!’kiidaa chittered merrily, but was still skewering him with that smug, amused gaze. Then he dropped all pretense and spoke in a version of Gaori so gods-damned old-sounding and so completely fucking natural to the mouth, all doubt was blown away.
Bruuk didn’t catch all of it. The sounds were just too different. But the grammar and the words were still there, the rhythm and cant almost musical. He caught enough.
“…I can’t fuckin’ believe it.”
“Believe what? That ancient conspiracies multiply all around you? That you’ve wandered into Relic space and found something interesting? That’s what you came here for, isn’t it? What is it you think you believe?”
Bruuk realized he was shivering, and felt weak in the knees. It was Revelation. He knew.
Holy balls, he fuckin’ knew.
…He picked up the scanner and pointed it downwards, prompting a hearty burst of gut-busting chitters. Sure enough, the organs he was scanning were present, but…
They’d been burned, all right. Burned and repaired, but forever sterilized by ionizing radiation.
His patient made a celebratory gesture. “Balls, you’re a clever tail! Very good! I knew this would be fun! So.” He leaned forward, and his dialect dropped into a more playful version of that archaic register. Bruuk found himself transfixed by the ancient, amber hunter-eyes of Keeda himself, and this time, he caught every word.
“…What’cha gonna do?”
Captain Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
Human noses weren’t useless, no matter what most Gao thought. In fact they were generally pretty good, especially if, like Ian, a fellow had learned how to properly use his nose through training and practice. Even still, they didn’t hold a candle to anything canine or gaoian, and the subtler scents only ever hit subconsciously.
Not now. Ian could smell Bruuk’s stink from all the way down the hallway.
He smelled freaked out. Almost panicking. And instead of his usual playful loping gallumph down the deck, he was scrambling so much his claws skidded on the metal.
“Captain! I gotta show ‘ya somethin’! It’s a fuckin’ …arrrgh! Fuck!!”
“You’re on rare poetic form today, mate.”
Bruuk, however, was clearly not in the mood. “Fuck off and come with me!”
He took off and charged back down the hall at full tilt.
Ian didn’t even think of asking more questions, he just followed, but even so his head was spinning. It couldn’t be anything terrible, they had Hoeff and all the Ten’Gewek watching the Gaoian in sickbay, so it wasn’t like he could do anything without some kind of commotion…
And sure enough, the big black-furred bugger was sitting on the medical bed, kicking his dangling paws like a playful cub and looking incredibly pleased about something. The guards were watching him with careful, professional blankness, but Ian had got to know Hoeff well enough by now to sense that even he was off-balance.
“Ah! Captain, I was hoping we could discuss my ship.”
“Before that…” Ian looked at Bruuk.
“That male should not exist.” Bruuk said it with absolute conviction. “We’re balls-deep in something big, if he’s for real.”
Ian looked the very real, very imposing figure on their medical bed up and down. “Explain.”
Bruuk did so. It involved showing him scans, and explaining what the scans meant. But the thrust of it was pretty clear: the Gaoian sitting in front of them was about as closely related to Bruuk as Ian would have been to a neanderthal.
“And then…then there’s his name, boss. I…I think this might actually be Keeda him-fucking-self. Or…like, that’s what he claims? And believes! He smells as honest as the Great Father about it…”
Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. That was like claiming Jesus Christ himself was swinging his sandals in their sickbay. Except…Bruuk wasn’t exactly some kind of religious nut, and he sure as shit wasn’t prone to flights of fantasy…
“And truthfulness is about belief,” the black gaoian noted. “He’s correct, of course. I may simply be colossally deluded. But I think not…” He had a gravelly chitter. “And I don’t think you believe so, either.”
Wilde regarded the…being…with some petty fuckin’ deep wariness.
“So. That’s a story.”
The throwback—maybe Keeda—chittered deep and long. “Yes! You live up to everything I’ve ever read about the British! How delightful! But on more serious matters,” he sobered up instantly. “I will not insult your intelligence. I am, in fact, Keeda. I am the very being whose legends have carried forward in the most delightful way. I was there when the Hierarchy destroyed my people and enslaved them, when my nuts were burned sterile—except it was a gamma ray burst from a nearby star and severe radiation poisoning that ended my line, and nothing so fanciful as the stories indulge. You doubtless know enough to connect the remaining dots. And so, at last, after ages of waiting…I am here, now, to test you.”
Ian folded his arms and lifted his head, setting aside for the moment the notion that a Gaoian god was sitting in front of him to focus on what was being said, not who was saying it. “…And how are we doing so far?”
“Delightful! Some assurance, first: I am not and have never been a god. You may think me deluded, and that is probably a wise assumption, but at least let us dispense with insane. I am a flesh-and-blood gaoian from a lusher, hardier Gao and a more Heroic age, as your scans all but confirm. Shall we at least agree upon that?”
“Scans can be tricked. But…sure.”
“Trickster, you say? Oh yes, that part of the tale is as true as ever. I have always been fond of a prank. But no, I am and have always been scrupulously honest. I will not lie to you in the slightest detail. But truth can be deceptive, and so, you are warned. What we propose is no mere play. You are on the cusp of touching something ancient and powerful, and I am the herald and warning of that danger. You must be tested, if you to are learn the Deep of it. I am sure you understand what that might mean.”
“Oh, I think I do,” Ian nodded. “And if it’s a real test? It’s already begun. That whole bloody fight just then was a nice bit of keyfabe to get you onto my ship, wasn’t it?”
“Correct! Such a wonderful word, that…but yes. I can hardly test someone I’ve never sniffed, yijao?”
“Your organization,” Ian replied, darkly, “murdered a group of harmless archaeologists—”
“Oh, they were far from harmless. I won’t get into the details at the moment. That’s for later.”
Ian wasn’t having it. “Whether they were harmless or not, you damn near blew me and mine out of the sky while you were at it!”
So-called-Keeda’s expression turned more serious. “I offer this as constructive criticism: a hot-headed captain will not do. And it is out of an abundance of caution that your opponent did not destroy you. Had he been a bit more hot-headed you would not be here.”
“So the round that splattered the shuttle I was riding was just your man chasing us off?”
Ian stared at him for a second, then glanced to Bruuk, whose slight flick of ear and head said quite a lot. Keeda was still…well, ‘honest’ was maybe the wrong word. But he didn’t apparently smell of a lie.
‘Keeda’ shook his head. “I warn you, it is possible for a Gaoian to effectively lie, and I have had much time to learn that skill. I am not and will not, but you cannot rely on Bruuk’s no-doubt exquisite olfactory senses here. This is a test for you, ‘mon capitaine.”
“Do I have the option of declining your test?”
‘Keeda’ approached and his security surged forward—
“Steady,” Ian bade them off. “He’d have done it already if he wanted to.”
“Correct.” The giant gaoian ducked down a little and got close, nose sniffing this way and that, right against Ian’s skin. He held his ground. “…Yes. I think you honorable enough for that. So, let me make you an offer. What we are and who we are is a secret you must earn. But if you are not interested…well, you give your solemn oath that you will not speak of this encounter to anyone, and your crew does the same…you may leave, unmolested. You may report this incident to the Great Father alone, and you will deliver him a message from us.”
“What message would that be?” Ian asked.
“Not for your eyes, I’m afraid.” ‘Keeda’ backed off and sat down again, with an unmistakably dominant ear-flick toward the security. “You want to read that message? Play my game.”
“…How dangerous is this game?”
“It is also a test, so the danger is very real. But with danger comes reward. We will show you things that will be of great use to the effort, and you may step back at any time.”
Ian took a step back and thought. Glanced around the room at his crew and comrades. The fact was, as captain, it was his job to send them into danger, for the right reasons. And finding a new ally in the fight against the Hierarchy was a damn good reason. Except Keeda had only said ‘the Great Enemy.’ Hard to see who else that could be…but then again, if there was some third party to be concerned about, learning of them would be a damn good reason too.
He was still more than a bit disinclined to play this alleged Keeda’s game, though. He’d survived the last encounter with the Gaoian’s people by a matter of seconds and inches. Anyone who shot at him with that much intent was already facing an uphill struggle to earn his trust…
…But that was letting his personal feelings get in the way of his responsibility. He stared hard at Keeda, who was nonchalantly grooming himself and playing with his claws.
“Given who you’re claiming to be, I’d be a bit bloody stupid to take you at face value, wouldn’t I?” he said aloud.
‘Keeda’ duck-nodded affably. “Oh, that’s the problem with tricksters, ain’t it? Sometimes one must. But when? Perhaps now is such a time! The enemy of my enemy, yijao?”
“—Is my enemy’s enemy. Nothing more. But…fine. We’ll play your game.”
A happy chitter then, complete with clapping paws. “Excellent!”
“So what’s first?”
There was a beep on the intercom from the bridge, to which ‘Keeda,’ who’d opened his mouth to reply, paused and chittered. “Impeccable timing…”
Without taking his eyes off ‘Keeda,’ Ian reached over and tapped the intercom. “Go ahead.”
Guvnurag didn’t usually vocalize their emotions. It was all in the chromatophores with them. Even so, Urgug sounded alarmed and worried. “Captain, our guest’s ship just took off at high warp.”
“Wh—? Get after it! Are the team still aboard?”
“They are. I cannot raise them.”
‘Keeda’ raised his paws placatingly as Ian rounded on him. “I promise you this, your men are perfectly safe. They’re in stasis.”
“Bring them back!”
“You’re playing the game now, ‘mon capitaine!’ So…no. Not unless you decide to back out now, at the very first sign of trouble…?” He chittered at Ian’s expression. “I didn’t think so. Consider this a little jolt to spur you into action. You have my word that they will be returned once we arrive at our destination.”
“If you’ve endangered my men—”
“I haven’t yet, Captain Wilde. And do not think you might resort to something more brutish with me. I am man enough to destroy you all in the blink of an eye, even Ferd Given-Man over there. I am here as a proctor of a test. I am not your friend. I am not your enemy. I am Keeda.”
Ian gave him the death glare. It did nothing. ‘Keeda’s’ amber eyes didn’t so much as waver. Ian’s did, however, when it suddenly caught up with him that at no point had anyone mentioned his or Ferd’s names.
“Good,” ‘Keeda’ said, and bounced to his feet with a deck-shaking thud, which was no doubt deliberate; he left concave pawprints in the plating. “I hope at the end of this we might be friends. And perhaps I am not the best proctor; I want you to succeed. We all do. But only you can make that happen.”
He headed toward the wall where the water dispenser lived—which also happened to be near the exit. Hoeff and his men shifted position immediately, but they kept their poise.
…Watching him move, Ian had to concede that he probably wasn’t exaggerating about how a fight would go between them. That was a sobering thought. But Ian, well…urban combat left its mark on all who played at that game.
He never ignored the geometry of a room.
“Well. A super-brawler you may be, but I doubt you would much enjoy vacuum exposure. Shields,” he ordered, and thank fuck Dora was on her game, because a forcefield erected itself between Bruuk and Wilde on one side, and ‘Keeda’ and the fully-sealed wrecking crew on the other. “These men will escort you to quarters. And they will keep some distance. I don’t care how fuckin’ strong or clever you are, I’ve yet to meet a man who could outmuscle or outsmart a bullet to the brain.”
Keeda duck-nodded, amiably. Approvingly, even. “Enjoy the pursuit,” he replied. “Mine is a fast ship…”
And with that, he was gone. Dora walked the forcefields up the deck behind the wrecking crew. Ian let them get a ways down the deck then clapped Bruuk on the shoulder and headed forward, toward the bridge.
“Where are you stuffing him?” He asked as he went.
Even Dora sounded a bit rattled. “Rearmost cargo pod. We can space him with a press of a button. Or stasis him.”
“You’re a gem.”
The bridge was tense and silent. Moj and Urgug were standing at the navigation console, talking in quiet tones. They looked up as he entered.
“Fast one, this,” Moj confirmed. “Hard to follow. But, could be faster and harder. Giving us a sporting chance, I think.”
“Yeah. All part of the game,” Ian confirmed.
“Our megalight drones are faster…” Urgug ventured. “We could G-spike it.”
Ian shook his head. “No. This is a test of some kind. And they’ve already seen our megalight drones in action. Just…play along for now. Don’t lose it.”
“How did it disengage from our airlock without us noticing?”
“Morwk asked that exact question,” Urgug replied. “Except, he threw in a gratuitous ‘the fuck.’ I believe he is inspecting the airlock as we speak.”
“Right.” Ian flopped down in his chair, then immediately stood again and prowled across the bridge to make himself a coffee. “Keep trying to raise the team, and if you can’t…well, we’ll see where it leads us.”
Well, they’d come out here to find something weird. So far, they’d succeeded. He wasn’t sure he liked being tested in such a high-stakes way, but…okay, no, that was his instinct for British Understatement talking. He was tense as fuck. Three of his mates had just been abducted, his whole crew dragged into some Saw-esque ‘do you want to play a game’ bullshit, and the cheeky wanker responsible was sitting back in cargo, claiming to be the actual real Keeda of all the fucking things! And yet…
And yet, on the other hand, he was curious about what they’d learn from passing this test.
But it had fucking well better be something good.
Singularity had always extensively used spacetime manipulation. When playing a game of Strategem across such deep time, the occasional retreat into stasis was necessary. Leifini had once skipped more than seven hundred Origin years in the blink of an eye, trusting in generations of her apprentices and successors to carry on the great work and to only rouse her when her input was necessary.
Not even Singularity’s medical technology could extend a lifespan indefinitely, after all. Although Leifini was incredibly well-preserved, and could reasonably expect to live another few subjective centuries, she would have expired of old age millennia ago without judicious budgeting of her time.
Some species seemed to have more life than others. Humans, for whatever reason, seemed made to delve the Deep. Their king had received minimal intervention over his exceptionally long life, and yet looked to her experienced eye as a human man in the peak of his prime.
Gaoians took to it well, too. At least, they had before the Enemy discovered them.
Sometimes, however, circumstances called for the opposite use of stasis technology. Sometimes, the biological need to rest might inconveniently interfere with an unfolding significant episode. So, Leifini got her rest and attended to her morning meditations and cleanliness in an accelerated chamber. From her perspective, a long and restful night. From the outside…a matter of minutes.
The Old Man was still asleep, of course. He loathed accelerated-time, and was far more willing to endure interrupted rest than to, in his words, ‘fritter away’ his mortal span.
He also tended to sleep long and late, in the company of at least two of his wives, or whoever else might have struck his fancy recently. So, Leifini wouldn’t be seeing him for several hours, yet. That suited her well. It meant time to make her own observations and discuss with the many specialists monitoring the situation.
Ekallim-Igigi’s central monitoring nexus was never at rest, but it was always quiet. It was a hushed place, the solemn nerve center where dozens of people of every species in the galaxy worked. Singularity lived and breathed on information, and there was simply no substitute for aiming a well-trained sapient mind at the incoming data.
Y!’kiidaa, of course, was the subject of special attention. One of the Old Man’s wives, Tomoe, and one of Leifini’s sons, Omlan, had taken charge of monitoring his mischief. They were two of the oldest and most trusted outside of the triumvirate, and always at the heart of special operations.
Omlan stepped aside to make room. “Mother.”
“How is he doing?”
“Confined to a cargo pod. They can space him or put him in stasis if he causes trouble.”
“I have put a rescue drone on standby,” Tomoe noted. “If they do space him, Keeda-sama will need immediate medical attention.”
“Much must be risked in a stratagem. And he is an expert risk-taker.”
“I deem it much more likely that they will stasis him, if they do anything at all,” Omlan said. “So far, they have been entirely sensible.”
“Sensible.” Leifini considered. “That will not do. A Hero must know when to dispense with sensibility.”
“That part of the test is coming,” Tomoe assured her, with a definite air of looking forward to mischief. “Only a few hours from now. The extraction operation on Archive-351 is complete, and everything is prepared. We shall see what they do when the sensible thing would be to withdraw and make their report.”
“What do you anticipate?”
“I would rather not say,” Omlan demurred. “But I very much hope they pass. The necessity if they should fail will be…painful.”
It was at that point the Old Man stumbled into the monitoring nexus, minimally clad and in clear need of caffeine.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he murmured, then grinned lewdly. “No matter how tired I was.”
“Husband,” Tomoe chastised him with a playful slap on the chest that would have broken either Leifini or Omlan in half. “I don’t think I will ever get used to your lack of modesty.”
“Ah, my wife! I truly do not deserve one so fine as you. And I still don’t know how you can magic tea at literally any possible moment…”
“Is that a request?”
“Hot, too.” The two of them could be saccharine in moments like this.
Tomoe folded her arms and quirked an eyebrow at him. “Indeed I am. And the tea?”
“Over eight hundred years of this banter…” Leifini rolled her eyes as the Old Man chuckled merrily. “Before you ask, the board has not changed. It will soon.”
Tomoe had, indeed, conjured a hot tea almost instantly. She simply kept a stasis flask about her person, of course. One must always have tea. “They will need to be welcomed aboard if they pass Keeda-sama’s test,” she observed. “I would like to take that duty for myself.”
“And rob me of my big moment?” The Old Man asked, taking the tea with a smile.
“Of course not. To prime them for it. And you must prepare.”
Bathe, Leifini translated internally. Tomoe had her subtleties, despite her warrior nature.
“Ah, I suppose. Who am I to disobey? More seriously…”
“It goes well, so far.” No need for details with the Old Man. “It will be several hours yet before the game truly begins. You have time for more civilized considerations.”
“Or for more sleep, husband,” Tomoe suggested. “You will want to be at your best for this.”
“…Yes. Now that my mind is better at ease.” He set the teacup down, kissed her, and gave Leifini and Omlan a grateful nod before turning and stretching his way out of the nexus with a yawn and an unguarded thump, thump, thump across the shuddering floor.
He was anxious, if he was that unpoised. Tomoe saw it too, as always.
“He wants them to succeed, very much.”
“…We all do,” Omlan agreed. “I’ll have your ship made ready.”
Tomoe didn’t often let slip her incongruous giggle, but this time it bubbled up behind a grin that she barely remembered to cover. “It has been far too long since I played the rescuing heroine…”
“Enjoy it,” Leifini bid her. “We will keep you fully included.”
“Thank you, Leifini-sama.” They traded bows—even after eight hundred years, Tomoe clung fiercely to the customs and etiquette of her birth culture—and then she was gone.
Omlan watched her go, then sat down. “This whole interlude has been remarkably fortunate. I thought for certain our arrival in this sector and the breach of secrecy were going to be a disaster.”
“As did I,” Leifini agreed.
“Why did we move so soon on this archive? It could have waited until there was no activity out here at all…”
“This late in the war? When the Discarded are nearly destroyed, and the Minds are going into hiding? This is a moment of desperation for them both. I expect we will be surprised by something novel, therefore we must move quickly. Which we cannot do from the shadows.”
“And make the best of whatever ensues. I understand.” Omlan thought for a second. “…Of course, there will be consequences if they do fail this test.”
“Yes. We risk much by this, too. Our king knows this, of course. But…I trust his instinct. His immediate reaction was to make contact. He’s never been so quick to make that decision before. He clearly believes the time has come.”
“And how quickly it came,” Omlan chuckled. “Very well. Do you wish to take this seat for a while? I feel the need to exercise.”
“Gladly.” They swapped positions, and Leifini settled into the observation couch. “Go. Pick up heavy things.”
“And the important second half: putting them down again.” He chuckled, and took his leave. Leifini smiled, basking in the swell of pride she felt at the fact that her son had taken so well to life among exceptional Deathworlders. Soon, perhaps, he could walk openly among his own kind. Or the descendents thereof, anyway.
And sooner still, perhaps they would add a few new deathworlders to the Singularity. The Ten’Gewek would be most welcome.
She settled back, poured a hot tea from Tomoe’s left-behind flask, and watched.
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
The Seared Rascal may have started out giving them a chance to keep up…but all pretence of fair play was gone, now. That ship could fucking move, and apparently it was bloody smart too. Some kind of AI? Impossible to tell.
Not that it mattered. What mattered was, it was leading them a merry fucking chase.
Following it through interstellar space had been straightforward enough. After all, there was nothing to hide behind or inside, out in the deep black. It could quieten its warp field and slip along leaving barely a trace all it wanted, barely a trace was all that Urgug and Moj needed.
Morwk even used the time to fine-tune their sensors to best follow it. By the end of the first six hours, they’d lost then reacquired it four times. After that…they were wise to its tricks, and didn’t lose it again.
So of course, it changed its behaviour.
The new round of trickery started with a sharp course-correction, abruptly changing tack to book it toward a nearby molecular cloud of the kind known to human science as a Bok globule.
Ships didn’t normally enter molecular clouds. There were stars forming in there, deep in the dense globule’s core. That much matter, that tightly packed, was not a friendly environment to navigate at warp at all. And that was only the beginning, as Morwk explained over dinner.
“In the galactic scheme, what’s forming in there is nothing special. A red dwarf already showing signs of core fusion, and its binary partner is most likely never going to be more than a brown dwarf. There’ll be some small planetoids in there a few million years from now, but right now it’s just a circumstellar disk.”
“How safe are we to go in there?” Ian asked, spooning some potato salad onto his plate.
“We’ll have to slow and shape the warp field to minimize charge accumulation. But, so will the Seared Rascal and that should make it more visible. So I don’t anticipate any difficulty in tracking her through that lot…just in making sure we don’t build up a dangerous hull charge.”
“He’s testing us, remember,” Ian pointed out. “He’s not going to be satisfied with just checking how well the Fortune can handle some static electricity.”
“The only other hazards in there are the stars, the accretion disk and some bright nebulosity objects.”
“What are those?”
“When jets of ionized gas ejected by a star collide with the colder substance of the molecular cloud, they luminesce.”
“Could the ship hide in any of those?” Hoeff asked.
“The star and accretion disk? Impossible. The bright objects though…maybe.” Morwk rolled his head left and right thoughtfully. “He does have some very sophisticated shielding.”
Ian nodded, then looked to Dora. “He still behaving himself?”
Dora waggled her tablet at him. “You’d think he’s not locked up at all. He’s as happy as Larry!”
“Doing exercises, him,” noted Moj. “Or sleeps, or meditates.”
“Any radio emissions?” Hoeff asked.
Urgug shook his head and flashed a negatory hue. “None that we can detect.”
“So why so happy?” Ferd wondered.
“Because the crazy wanker is playing a game,” Ian noted, “and we’re the game pieces.”
Nomuk’s tail lashed irritably. “…Don’t like that.”
“None of us do, mate. Fuck it. Moj, take us in, and let’s see if we can find our boys.”
Moj dipped his head, stood, dusted off his hands and grabbed a bun to take with him to the bridge. Urgug did the same, tucking a couple of baked potatoes away in his cheeks for later.
Well, at least the hull charge management systems would be well-tested.
The Old Man
Today was spear and shield practice. And of course, the Old Man could not be defeated in any reasonable match by anyone, really; he always had his immense physicality as a trump card.
Mevia however, did not play fair. Before spear and shield, she had spent hours tormenting him with her always-cruel training regime; today was about core strength and explosivity. Weights, rings, sprints and medicine balls, gravity torture, holographic wrestling opponents…
She was fresh, well-fed and limbered up by the time she felt interested in sparring. He, on the other hand, was soaked head to toe in sweat, sore in every muscle, fatigued, hungry, and more than a little irritated.
It wasn’t just sadism of course, though Mevia was full of that; unlike his other wives, theirs was a violent attraction. In the nearly two thousand years they’d been married, she’d clung to one tenet of training above all else—that exhaustion revealed the flaws for them to work on.
The Old Man was effectively impossible to exhaust, by this point. But by the gods, could she ever get close. And she could still work him to the point of mistakes. Tiny errors, invisible to anybody but them, but Mevia had devoted two millennia to the mastery of every killing tool ever devised by the human race.
She was a goddess of war, really. His goddess.
He was going to fuck her stupid after this torment reached its climax. Repeatedly.
And that animal thought was all the moment of distraction she needed. Their spears clacked, shields clashed, step, parry, turn, thrust—and her spearpoint was resting against his ribs, a hair shy of slipping between them and stopping his heart.
Of course, his was resting against her belly. No fancy technique there; he’d batted her defense aside with pure force, and not a small amount of it. The beast in him grinned.
“Enough.” She stepped back and shook her head. “Fifty years it took me to get you to stop lifting that elbow, and still it comes back on bad days.”
“Only a gods-cursed cunt like you would ever notice, wife.” He gave her his most intentful snarl.
“You’d have joined me in Elysium,” she pointed out, and slung the spear over her shoulder to go pick up a water bottle. “Must be something powerful going on in that head.”
“Two things,” he sighed. “Thoughts about you are most prominent…”
“As they should be.”
“I worry for the crew we found.”
“And for a lot more than that. Are we stepping out of the shadows at last?” She turned and threw a full water bottle at his head, hard.
He caught it in his left hand, keeping his eye on her. Surprise attacks were one of her favorite dirty tricks. He’d have his own for her, in a bit…
“Our hand is forced. Perhaps too early, but the war advances quickly. No amount of intervention at this point will deter curiosity from the Deathworlders.”
“Our young captain’s hesitancy may have proven wise, then.”
“Wiser still would have been to strike after the Stray Fortune had left…but he is young.”
“That would have made little difference anyway,” she commented, finishing her water.
“Perhaps. I would still—oi!”
Sparring again, and she held nothing back. From the first day he’d seen her in the arenas of Rome, skewering boar for the roaring crowd, she’d been tremendous; millennia of training, medicines and single-minded devotion to her craft had honed her into an awesome opponent.
But she was not the Old Man. His skill was second only to hers, but speed and strength counted for very much indeed, and in that regard he was supreme. He parried three, two, one, then blinked under her defenses, cast aside the spears and shields, tackled her and sprinted to the far wall—
He let her hit the padded surface with just as much force as she could take. Then his lips were upon hers. Fierce and futile resistance, just as always…
Then fierce demand.
“I have lessons with the boy in a few hours.” He snarled in her ear while his hands claimed her body, “I know who I’m doin’ until then.”
She snarled right back, “Well, I hope this spear-work is up to standard…”
They were always much more affectionate after they’d exorcised the violence from each other, and she lay draped across his belly, idly feeling his body while he caressed hers. There were few who had ever once so much as glimpsed Mevia’s gentle side. She rarely showed it, because her early life had taught her there were consequences for such an indulgence.
The Old Man never took advantage. It broke his heart still to see her so stilted. Some wounds simply never healed, no matter how many years passed. But it warmed him when she did relax, and smile, and open her soul.
“I think I worry about them, too,” she said after a long and happy while, picking up their abandoned conversation from where they’d left it.
He pulled her up and kissed the top of her head. His warrior-goddess. So fierce, and so vulnerable too… “It is strange how suddenly we’ve all developed a fondness for them.”
“Without ever meeting them,” she nodded. “But…it would be nice, to shed the deep secrecy.”
He nuzzled in her hair. “Aye. Ready or not.”
Peace, then. A long, pleasant moment of peace with his wife.
But it could not last, of course. He kissed her one more time, long and tenderly, then roused himself from the bed. “Status report, soon. I’d better go check.” He pulled on a pair of soft cotton pants, found his sandals and decided not to bother, then voiced a parting jab.
“So…how was my spear-work?”
She smiled. “Satisfactory, for now…go, my love. I will offer prayer for them.”
A nod, more serious this time, and he was jogging toward the Nexus for any news.
Morwk’s eyes were starting to ache from watching the same monitor for the last five hours. He was feeling the need to stretch, or at least to stand up and walk around, but…well…that would have been a bad idea.
Not a terrible idea. A few minutes to relieve his discomfort wouldn’t be catastrophic. But it would be suboptimal, and in the conditions at the heart of a molecular cloud, in this situation, they needed optimal. The software controlling the shields and charge handling system was superb at reacting to changes, but useless at predicting them, and prediction was critical in the cloud’s ever-changing environment.
Even so, it was draining work. Watch, anticipate, adjust, correct, watch. Over and over again, for nearly a quarter of a day.
Keeda’s ship—Morwk was prepared to accept that maybe the being behind the myth really was currently locked in their cargo bay—was certainly more at home in the cloud than was the Fortune. Despite his earlier confidence, Morwk was actually beginning to entertain the idea that perhaps it could even survive the conditions inside the circumstellar disk.
Surely not, though. Enough hurtling gravel would shred anything, and pretty quickly too. Ships did not enter planetary accretion disks at this stage in their lifetime, unless they wanted to become a small but intriguing seam of compressed ore deep in the mantle.
…There. At last, a faint trace amidst the swirling dust. He passed it to Moj who course-corrected, and there for a moment, like a half-glimpsed figure in a sandstorm, was…
…That was not a ship.
Morwk blinked and tried to reacquire it, but it had been distant and faint among billows of gas and debris. high-metallicity cloud played tricks with magnetometric sensors, but Morwk had no doubt: he’d seen something big.
“I saw it.” Wilde moved over from his command seat and loomed over Morwk’s shoulder. “Space station, d’you think?”
“Nobody would build a space station here. It’s of no use as a degaussing platform, and I don’t see any strategic value in being effectively blind.”
“There’s strategic value in being unseen…” Ian mused.
“It wouldn’t be. The maintenance required to keep a station operational in these conditions…either it’d be hammering away with jump traffic, which the nebula is completely transparent to, or else there’d be a river of ships coming and going….there it is.”
The clouds parted again, and the fur on Morwk’s neck hump stood up. “…By every Matriarch…”
“Jesus,” Wilde agreed, reverently.
What they were looking at was…well, it was very dead. Untold time inside a dust cloud had ruined its ability to hold air, there was no sign of anything generating power on board, and frankly what remained was little more than a sandblasted skeleton.
“How…how old is that thing?”
“I have no way of knowing. We could have Dora bring a sample over and get a rough—”
“Millions of years,” a familiar deep voice said over the intercom.
Wilde stiffened, and his face darkened, which was always an intimidating sight in a Human. Doubly so in one with a skull-patterned prosthetic eye. He snatched up his tablet and tapped on it, selecting the camera feed from Keeda’s cargo hold. The Gaoian legend waved a paw at the camera. “About sixty or seventy million, depending on whose calendar you’re using.”
“…Should have bloody figured you wouldn’t let us lock you up if you couldn’t keep watching us,” Wilde growled.
“Of course not! I am known as a trickster, after all,” the big bastard chittered. “But I will not interfere. I am just…illuminating the parameters of the test you’d otherwise have no means of answering. So, there you have it: a truly ancient relic, from the era of the dinosaurs ending. What’cha gonna do?”
Ian frowned at the tablet for a second, then turned to Morwk. “…Is there anything intact in that thing?”
Morwk considered the external camera feed as Moj brought them in alongside it. The structure had once been…well, it was hard to say, exactly. Probably a bowl-like structure at the end he was arbitrarily going to call the ‘top,’ then two long arms depending from there. Like a vast jellyfish, a form of life practically ubiquitous in every ocean on every life-bearing world. If jellyfish could be reduced to ribs and bones, that was what they were looking at.
But at nearly five kilometers across, there was a lot of structure, there. A lot of protection for the core…
“A few compartments, maybe. The ones in the very heart of the structure.”
“Can we get to them?”
“The conditions outside are nothing the shuttle can’t handle. I wouldn’t like to be out there in a spacesuit, but the structure should offer some protection…the HEAT would have no trouble with it—”
Keeda chittered. “Yes, calling them would be the sensible move here. They’re far better trained, conditioned, and equipped for the task…but as much as I would like to meet them, I forbid it, for now. I am not testing them. I am testing you today.”
Wilde scowled and wrote the words “How tf is he doing that” on his tablet. Morwk had no idea: all he could do was sit back and spread his hands helplessly.
“That is for me to know and you to find out at the end, perhaps!”
Wilde sighed. “Why would you share a trick like that with us?”
“Common enemy, ‘mon capitaine.’ I’d do very much to see it dead.”
Wilde’s expression was unreadable as he considered the camera feed, then he hit the shipwide 1MC. “Hoeff to bridge. Hoeff to the bridge. Morwk, mate, you and Urgug see if you can give me a decent look at what’s in there.”
As it turned out, with the assistance of some of Dora’s drones, that ‘decent look’ turned out to be pretty good. Hoeff watched with his arms folded as their LIDAR image took shape.
He looked like a solid cube of murder, encased in all that armor.
“…The monkeys won’t have any trouble getting through that,” he declared confidently as it took shape. “Me neither. What about the rest of my team? We gettin’ ‘em back?”
“As you wish.”
There was a thump, a brief scream of broken digital audio compression, and a very welcome voice suddenly coming in on the tacnet. “Oi! The fuck happened?”
Hoeff unfolded his arms. “Davies! That you?”
“Yeah! What the hell, one minute we’re poking through this guy’s laundry and the next we’re—”
“Stasis, bud. The ship froze you and took off. It’s all gone fucking weird.”
“Yeah. Our guest thinks he’s Keeda. Like, the actual, legit Keeda. And he’s also fuck-off old and genetically impossible. Oh, and this is a test, or something.”
“Sounds like he’s taking the piss every fucking way…” There was a long silence. “…Well, uh, we’re not getting ourselves out of this mess. I dunno if I’m looking at a nav console or a ten-gear automated arse-wiping machine over here.”
Morwk suppressed a chortle, and saw a fragment of a smile briefly twitch at Hoeff’s expression.
“Well, our guest said we can have you back, so, sit tight.”
“That, we can do.”
Hoeff and Wilde exchanged a nod, and the armored man turned and hustled astern toward the shuttle bay. Morwk could hear his footfalls long after he’d exited the bridge.
“How does he manage?”
“He’s practically a HEAT operator these days. He can hustle in that shit all day long. Don’t know about Rees and the rest, though. They’re all tanks but there’s levels to this shit.”
“Well, anyway. I have a route inside for them.” Morwk indicated. “This whole area down here was probably docking gantries at one point. There’s debris in there, but the shuttle’s shields can sweep it clear. After that, they’ll need to navigate outwards and then up. I think it’s up. The internal layout might be this way instead, but—”
“Relax, just send ‘em the map and they’ll navigate it just fine,” Wilde reassured him. “Think you can help Dora kit out a drone to help them?”
“Absolutely. Cutting tools and lights. We’ll get right on it.”
Morwk nodded, stood, and headed aft. It didnt bother him one bit that he wasn’t going over there in person. Frankly, he was perfectly happy to stay here, inside the Fortune’s nice reinforced and well-shielded hull. But he was glad he’d get to watch the helmet cam and drone feeds.
Something told him they were about to learn something…
The Old Man
The Old Man would have preferred to spend time relaxing. He always had. But a man who did nothing but relax and enjoy his pleasures was no man at all. The luxuries he enjoyed—his kingdom in the Deep, his beloved wives, his friendships, his collection, his tremendous long life—were all the fruit of sacrificing immediate indulgence. He would be dead and forgotten millennia hence, had he merely fucked and feasted and fought around in the manner of his callow youth.
A hard lesson, that had been.
Today, he was studying the last few decades of Anglosphere politics. He was doing so by a series of audio-visual lectures conjured up by the Continuing Education department, guided by the supremely capable gifts of Pandrosion, his fifth wife. She was the finest of teachers.
In every sense, of course. He had a thing for Greek women.
Their classroom was typical. He learned best while doing, so he was playing a sort of invented ball-game with his youngest and so far most innately athletic son, Alex. It was an especially heavy medicine ball of course, and at the moment the rule seemed to be that they had to keep the thing airborne as they tossed it back and forth between each other across an invisible barrier. Volleyball, almost. Good upper body workout, and good for footwork, too!
And inevitably, a game with that much exertion had lots of pauses. Good for listening, too.
Pandrosion was patrolling the edge of their impromptu ball-court, testing them with questions from her tablet. “A landmark case before Supreme Court of the United States, Gonzales v Oregon. What did it establish?”
A wild toss over the imaginary line, and the Old Man had to shoot across the court to make the punt. Tricky! He shot under the ball just in time—no catching and throwing allowed!—sprang up and spiked it nearly to the ceiling. That would be an easy return but Alex was clearly a bit sore and tired. He caught it to his chest with a loud whump, though he hadn’t kept his legs springy, so the sudden force cracked the floor under his feet. Annoyed, the Old Man fetched the ball and chided his son. “You must learn control of your strength, boy! It is not enough that you attend to yourself. You must consider what you set in motion!”
“…Sorry, father.” Alex looked down at his growing feet: big, broad, and sturdy like the rest of him. He had powerfully thick legs too, with the big calves and rear one earned from a young life spent running and playing hard. He’d already developed the kind of heavy musculature only a true Hero filling out his frame would ever possess; Alex was growing into a fine man.
He’d probably be an athlete to surpass the Old Man, too. It was about time the Line started producing true successors! Between Alex’s potential and that of the Soldier or the Warrior…
Still a boy, though. The hero-worship was still strong with this one, and could be plainly read on his worried face. The Old Man sighed. He never could stay angry at anyone for long.
“Oh, don’t look dejected like that! It’s cheap wood anyway. But if you are ever to pass among regular folk, you must remember what you are and what they are not. Many of your friends are not Heroes and you could break them with a single uncaring moment. Understand?”
Alex nodded, with a chagrined smile. “Yes, father.”
“Good, good,” the Old Man tousled his son’s shaggy hair. Quite blonde, oddly, with ice-blue eyes, and he tended toward a golden tan rather than a dusky brown. Unusual for a son of his, but he had sired a few like him over the centuries… “Now answer our tutor’s question!”
“The question was for you, dear husband,” Pandrosion chided him. “Don’t burden the lad with your tasks, now.”
“Of course! But the boy broke my floor!” He gave a roguish smile to the boy, who smiled back ruefully. “I think this a suitably mild punishment.”
She merely gave him that Look. The severe one, face tilted down and slightly to one side, eyes impatient. The one he yearned above all else to provoke some days! But, that was for later.
Alex looked between them. The ways of man and woman were beginning to dawn on him as the girls his age started taking notice of his charms. He was young still, barely twelve but already quite handsomely grown, with a face that would soon get him into the best trouble! “…Father?”
Of course, so did the Old Man. Aside from their wildly different complexion, Alex’s face was the spitting image of him in his youth. With a smirk, “oh, don’t you worry, boy. I’m not in trouble.”
“Yet,” Pandrosion said, drily. A tiny slip of a smile leaked through her visage. Victory!
“But I’ll help! That case was about Federalism and assisted suicide. Do you remember?”
Alex racked his brain. He’d been in on all of the catch-up sessions so far, having a particular developing talent for history, so this would be a fun challenge for his mind: something a boy like him desperately needed, if he was to grow into a complete man. He thought for a long moment, looking up at the ceiling… “Oh! That’s the one where, uh…federal dominance?”
“Supremacy.” He suddenly whipped the ball back to his son with much more speed and force than was polite. He’d always had a competitive instinct, and a desire to test people…
The boy braced himself instantly, caught it with nothing more than a quiet grunt and just a small step backward. Impressive! And he was utterly unfazed. “Right. They couldn’t stop one of the states from allowing it because drug law, or something?”
“Right on the general thrust, appallingly lacking in detail…” Pandrosion shook her head.
“Detail is not always important in leadership, my wife. It is more important to understand the spirit and nature of a thing more than its every speck and feather.”
“Until the details matter, of course. And one must know the details to know a thing!”
“Of course! Up to a point, anyway. But that is why I rely on you so much! I see the lovely forest, but you always notice the trees.”
“You should notice the trees, husband mine…”
“Beloved, I have lived over five thousand years. More than four of which I’ve I spent awake. One does not meaningfully retain every detail of every experience with that much history to account. Which is a thing you must learn too, boy. Your years will be many, gods willing.”
Alex nodded seriously. He was so unlike the Old Man in that way, who was fundamentally a being of play. How he wished the boy would get into some trouble with his friends now and then! But, no. All his enormous aggression was focused instead of carefree. He was a disciplined boy, something the Old Man took many years to come to. Probably why young Alex already had a Hero’s strength and endurance, and why he had grown into such a young demon of strength and sport. That single-minded focus of his rubbed off on all the boy’s friends, too, whether their pursuits. They were a loyal group but fiercely competitive.
Hopefully the fairer sex would temper some of that in him. It hadn’t escaped the Old Man’s attention how much Alex was paying attention to the girls, lately…
He’d even taken to combing his hair, on occasion. The wonders never ceased.
“All the more reason to keep your faculties of recall well-honed.”
“Sure. And at this point I rattle off that the state was Oregon, the federal law in question was the Controlled Substances Act, as amended from whenever or whatever—no, it doesn’t matter—and that the case had important implications for many issues of federalism. Can you think of any, boy?”
“Uh…” Alex picked up the ball and tossed it idly from hand to hand. A quiet feat of immense strength, that: few full-grown men could have budged it from the ground in Earth standard, let alone play with it so lightly in the artificially extreme gravity of the Old Man’s playground. What a fine boy! The Old Man couldn’t be more proud, though Alex would never cut a tall figure; he was broad and stocky rather than towering and poised, with a heavy-set and much more muscular build then the Old Man had ever attained in his own Heroic youth.
Handsome, intelligent, curious, empathic toward others, respectful yet playful…not much of a troublemaker, alas, but nobody could be everything. All in all, Alex was a gods-given blessing.
And he figured out the answer to the question, too. “Well, there’s that one right now isn’t there? Didn’t someone sue about the military keeping Cruezzir from the public?”
The Old Man gave him a delighted smile, and looked toward his Athena of a wife. And felt a spirit of mischief take him. “Yes, Pandrosion, what about that?”
“Its name?” she stressed.
“Equity in Medicine versus United States” The Old Man bailed him out.
“Oh, and the same versus Allied Extrasolar Command too!”
“Good.” Pandrosion tucked the tablet under her arm. “But that latter isn’t in the United States. It’s in the United Kingdom.”
“…Can they do that?” Alex asked.
“Why not? Lawfare is conflict like any other. And even closely allied nations may disagree.”
“Constructively, when done correctly,” the Old Man agreed. “…A break, I plead. You’ve tortured us enough, woman.”
“And your mind is on Yekiidaa,” she surmised, and set the tablet aside. “He did sound impressed with them.”
“Rare praise, that. They are challenging him. I’m sure his toys will come in handy…”
“What toys?” The boy asked, astutely. “Wouldn’t they have found those?”
“Normally, yes,” Pandrosion agreed. “Not these. Before he departed, he had a portion of his skeleton replaced to help effect his many tricks.”
That sounded awful, and it seemed Alex agreed, judging by his disgusted expression. But, Yekiidaa had been known to endure much—and arguably much worse than mere surgery—for the sake of really good mischief.
And of course, no unpleasantness would ever compare to the day long, long ago when the dawn had burnt him, blinded him, and stolen the joy of children from him forever. Early Corti medicine had fixed the rest, re-grown his eyes and repaired the radiation sickness…but none of their arts at the time could have fixed the corruption of his seed. Which would not have mattered anyway, once the Hierarchy remade his people. He was a different species to them, now, closely related but fundamentally incompatible at the deepest genetic level. It was in acknowledgement of that sad truth that he had never sought a newer, more complete repair. With whom would he have bred?
His life was one of the deepest tragedy; none of his line survived into the Deep, as far as they knew. He doted on the Old Man’s children, though. They could always rely on “Uncle Keeda” to spoil them when their parents and “Aunt Leifini” were being too grim and concerned with their proper upbringing, or to play the roaring beast, the happy friend so different and so familiar to Mankind.
It was no small thing, rearing Heroes.
“I think that is enough of lessons for today,” Pandrosion decided. “I will assign homework, though. Don’t ignore your inbox!”
Simultaneously: “Yes, wife.” “Yes, ma’am.”
She smiled, at last. “Go, now. Play games. Those are important, too.”
Alex perked up. “Can we go flying?”
Ah, a boy after his own heart! Alas…
“I must stay here for the big game we’re playing,” the Old Man said, gently. “As much as I would love it. So I am afraid it will need to be something safely aboard Ekallim-Igigi, today.”
No childish disappointment, here. Alex took the necessity in stride with a nod, and a swift leaping tackle right into the Old Man. “How about wrestling?!”
“Ha! Good spirit!” Alex had already scrambled around and was giving his most fierce effort to effect a chokehold. Gods he was strong, and that man-sized arm of his was hard as iron too. He could already break full-grown Heroes! “Good! But that arm of yours is nowhere near strong enough to defeat my neck, boy…”
The Old Man never turned down an opportunity to roughhouse with anyone, especially his boys. And he seldom let them win, so with a twist and a slam that would have killed most men—
“Oof!” Alex took it in stride, and struggled mightily against the Old Man’s pin. But it was just play, and he was in a playful mood. “You just broke hnnngh! more floor’n me!”
…True enough. The Old Man had left a crater under the boy. Oh well! He let go, yanked Alex up to his feet and gave him a fierce hug. “You’re right, boy. I got carried away! I’ll need to replace it later. You should help! Carpentry is a good chance to work with your hands.”
Alex beamed at that possibility. “Okay! Right now?”
“No no, we’ll need to requisition more wood and things. And I could crush you on the mat all day, if you wish…”
“Mind your ego, Alex! But you’re already a skilled demon at that game. One of the best! You just need more strength to beat me, and that will surely come with time. So! What else?”
“Well, why not go lift, then?”
Always tempting, but…
“We’ve got the contest later today, with your half-brothers. Save your strength for the prize!”
“I’m gonna win easy,” Alex said, self-assuredly. “So, okay…” he racked his brain for a game. “Then…count to a hundred, and try to catch me!” He didn’t wait for a reply, just took off running.
Ah! Sneak-and-pounce! One of the finest cubhood games. And both of them were always looking for an excuse to go tearing through the corridors, after all…
And what speed Alex had! Gods could the boy run, despite his stature. What a fine young man he was becoming! He’d need to be careful with this boy. Body talents that strong could lead to an unbalanced personality, if the boy was left incompletely challenged.
Something the Old Man knew all too well.
Yekiiidaa always had a knack for finding vexing hiding places for the children, too. But that was okay. Alex was old (and well sturdy) enough for some good, solid roughhousing nowadays. The Old Man chuckled, started loudly counting to a hundred, spent a count of thirty or so embracing Pandrosion, then cheated a little and took off early in pursuit at eighty.
And was glad of the distraction, knowing that the harshest moment of the test was upon them.
Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff
Sure enough, the Ten’Gewek were right at home. GRASS in vacuum-sealed mode with the bulky EVA maneuvering pack on the back? No problem. A tangle of sharp eroded metal to navigate? Just like home.
Rees and the rest, they frankly weren’t up to it. So instead of torturing them with zero-G gynmastic hell, when he knew perfectly damn well they wouldn’t last, he left them on the Fortune to guard their slippery guest.
Not that keeping him locked up seemed to be achieving much, but what-the-fuck-ever.
The drone was useful, though. Cutting lasers and manipulator fields made short work of the stuff they couldn’t safely navigate for fear of a suit breach, and the nets on its sides were perfect for bringing along stasis bags, and taking back whatever interesting shit they found.
It was slow going at first. There wasn’t a patch of intact floor, wall or ceiling, just bare metal beams gleaming like knives where the endless light sandblasting effect of the molecular cloud had sharpened the edges. No rust, not in vacuum. Just a maze of blades, like something out of a D&D campaign.
And of course, it was perfectly pitch dark in there. They had their augmented helmets on for this, which was a cheaper version of the spacemagic the HEAT lads wore. It gave them light amplification, LIDAR scanning, and even acoustical scanning overlays (if only there were any air to sound out) right in front of their face. The HEAT version was custom-aligned for each operator and projected directly into their eyes. This was much simpler; just a projection in their helmet that you had to manually adjust over time.
And of course, there was the big light on the drone’s nose, plus the little fly drone buzzing around each man and zipping off to shine a light on whatever he pointed out.
A few ruined compartments in, they found their first fully intact floor panel. The compartment after that, the door at the far end was still sealed. No atmo beyond, though. Ferd and Nomuk had to brace themselves and pull hard to get the lock to finally give up the ghost, and nearly lost control when the hinges went too.
But the compartment it had sealed off was basically intact. There was still paint on the walls, a slate blue-grey he’d need to remember for one of his remodeling projects.
There were bright colored lines cutting through it, though: blue, green and yellow. A near-universal way of showing “this way to The Important Thing.” No fuckin’ idea what the writing inside each line was, though.
They went down a corridor, and then another. At the end of the third was an airlock—a mechanical one. They went through two at a time, because Hoeff didn’t fancy wiping out their whole team at once. He went first with Nomuk, first closing the door, then going to open—
Air pressure. The compartment was flooding with air.
Pucker factor went up ten times. Thank God the GRASS didn’t have a fuckin’ butt tube.
Still no power in the realm beyond, but there was air, oh yeah. Weird how light looked different in air. Suddenly, the shadows weren’t as stark, that creeping sense of being somewhere unreal faded a little bit.
“Hey boss, air means heat, right?”
“Yeah. And heat means power. At least some, somewhere.”
Hoeff’s asshole could forge diamonds at this point.
“The fuck kinda power source lasts sixty million years?” he asked, playing his flashlight around. The room was kinda…nondescript, really. Was that somebody’s idea of a reception desk, maybe? It was a big L-shaped thing that cut the room in half, but it was on a level with Hoeff’s nose, and when he pulled himself over it the chair he found floating on the far side was not built for a humanoid butt.
“Self-shielding solar panels?” Ferd offered.
Hoeff could hear his fellow monkeys giving Ferd a Look.
“What?! Is idea I saw on internet somewhere!”
“It’s not just the power source,” Morwk pointed out. “There’s systems degradation to consider as well. Absolutely nothing lasts that long without maintenance.”
“I dunno. The entire station did,” Hoeff pointed out. “So either we’ve got some ultra-advanced super-duper spacemagic on our hands, or we’re not alone.”
“Or both,” Keeda offered, unhelpfully.
“Yes, fuck you very much,” Hoeff grumbled under his breath. He picked his way over to a likely-looking wall panel.
He looked at it.
He tilted his head.
He looked at it again.
“…Does this look like a circuit breaker panel to you?”
“It does,” Morwk agreed. “Please don’t be so stupid as to flip any of those—”
Hoeff did. Big one first. Heard something spin up.
The lights came on.
So did the gravity. Heavy too, at least Earth standard if not a bit more. He could hear lots of things crashing to the ground, elsewhere.
Another moment later, the air started moving. He could hear air handlers squealing to life.
“…Well. You’re not dead. Congratulations,” Morwk had a shrill, tense note in his voice. “But I want you to know that the range of possible outcomes there included explosions, violent decompression, and the entire structure around you becoming electrified. Not even well-armored deathworlders are immune to high voltage, you know.”
“Sometimes you gotta be brave.”
“And a bit stupid,” Wilde added. “Good. Let’s not press our luck.”
“You won’t need to. You’re nearly there,” Keeda encouraged. “And to answer some of your questions about how this place is still functional…we’ve kept it that way. You’re visiting a place we’ve all made pilgrimage to at some point.”
Hoeff couldn’t help himself. He was always way too curious for his own good. “…Why?”
“What would the opposite of a holy site be? This is it.”
A childhood memory of high gates and the words Arbeit Macht Frei popped into Hoeff’s head. “…Right.”
Things were boring for a bit. Hallways, offices. The feeling of a medical space started to tickle his brain. Things weren’t clean, but they still had a sterile feel to them. Clinical. Or at least, easily cleaned.
One room could only be a high-end forcefield operating suite. It was just a big empty cube, with large glass walls…but there was the obvious signs of a control room with holographic emitters everywhere. Even across eons they looked the same. And the forcefields that had sliced and diced good friends of his were in that cube-room too, clustered everywhere. They were identical in design to what he’d seen in Hunter intelligence briefings.
Another room held glass containers in racks. Dozens of them, big enough for…well, for a scene from a horror movie, anyway. Now, they were all empty save for a thin layer of black residue.
…Fuck it. “Help me out, Keeda. What the hell am I looking at?”
“At one point, there were, as you no doubt suspect, preserved brains in those jars. We surmise they were for display. We’ve since found others in stasis jars.”
“…Why the fuck—?”
“Keep going. Not far now.”
At some point, Hoeff had begun to believe. He knew, now. That really was Keeda, because this shit was the first time in his life that Hoeff felt legitimately terrified. Ferd was right there with him, exploring the unknown of pure evil.
He already had an idea of what happened here. And he didn’t want it to be real.
Wilde had an idea, too. ”…Keeda. I will grant that you’ve made a very impressive point. What the fuck is this?”
“Come now. You know. Deep in your heart, you know what it is.”
Hoeff knew. Dear God did he know, though he didn’t know how. “…It’s the beginning, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But the beginning of what is what I’m after. Say it out loud. I need to hear you say it.”
The last, largest door at the end of the hall had to be pulled open by hand. It was vast, thick and armored, and not even whatever maintenance Keeda’s people had performed had saved it from the ravages of deep time.
Or maybe they’d left it like that deliberately. The space beyond was pristine in a way that sank into Hoeff’s soul and left him…
The opposite of a holy place.
It was cavernous, the size of an aircraft hangar, and tiered like a prison, lined with…with devices. Three kinds, that Hoeff could see, one of which almost looked like he could have lain in it himself, if only he’d been twice his actual height and a foot narrower.
They seemed designed to restrain. And all of them had a lot of equipment focused on where the head might be. Other equipment, too. A lot of which still looked sharp.
Rails along the floor led to a sizeable hatch at the far end, with diagonal stripes in bright blue painted around it that spoke of some ancient attempt to convey Hazard. And if that didn’t work…well, even the stylized symbols of an alien civilization depicted fire in a recognizable way.
The entrance Hoeff and the monkeys had used wasn’t the only one, either. There were two more, coming from either side and recessed into the floor to provide a physical barrier against, say, anyone trying to climb out and escape.
“Go ahead, Mister Hoeff,” Keeda prompted him, though there was no mockery in his voice this time. “The beginning of what?”
“You impress me.”
“The Igraens did this to themselves?”
“Not just to themselves. One doesn’t build an entire shadow reality from a single flavor of perspective.”
“…Oh God.” Hoeff felt sick in his soul. He looked over at Ferd. Wide-eyed and pupils dilated. If he’d lifted his helmet, Hoeff would probably have tasted fear on the air, strong as anything.
And in his ear, oblivious or uncaring, Keeda explained.
“In here, the Hierarchy was born. This is the room where the first of them digitized their beings and their plan for the galaxy was set into motion. It was here that billions of minds from across the galaxy were sacrificed, reduced to bytecode, torn apart and blended together to form the genesis of One, the gestalt mindstate of the Hierarchy and seed of the Hegemony. The whole of this station was built to nucleate Dataspace. And most—though far from all—of the souls fed into the machines suffered that fate against their will.”
“The outer decks were slave pens,” Wilde realized out loud.
“Slave pens, research spaces, labatories…and preparatory works. They needed to capture the whole of experience to generate their paradise, so much stimulus was inflicted on the lesser seed-minds. All sorts. From the most exquisite, mind-shattering pleasure…”
He spared them the details. Small mercies.
“But…the incinerator. The Hunters? I thought they were—”
“They were Discarded very deliberately. The incinerator was for the slaves. The mindless Igraen bodies were reprogrammed, given a set of directives about how they should behave. Really, it was just a slight modification on their ancient combat forms. But of course, subsequent generations would have grown up with an Igraen intelligence, wouldn’t they? So they were programmed to implant the newly spawned as soon as they emerged from the waters, thereby claiming another mind for the Hegemony at the same time as they maintained their useful tool. A similar fate would have awaited the Gao, in time.”
There was a long silence, as everyone took that in. Keeda waited a while before continuing.
“So…at this point, you have passed the first of my tests. I would congratulate you, but…”
“Billions,” Dora said into the ether. She sounded hollow.
“Billions just to start, and they’ve been doing this for nearly seventy million years. So…I offer you a choice. Bring your men back and we leave this place. Call for reinforcements. It would be sensible. This is something that needs much more than your admirable little team to manage.”
Hoeff thought about that. Yes. It would be sensible. Smart, even. Except…
“You’re gonna disappear this station the moment we step off, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Or the station itself might. Or nothing will happen. Or something would. That’s a risk you need to assess for yourself. Here is a priceless trove of intelligence and technology, and it is yours—“
He was interrupted by a shrill alarm, and a blast that rocked the deck. The lights flickered, the gravity went mad for a second, shoving Hoeff sideways—Genn grabbed him by the wrist, keeping him from falling. At the far end of the hall, the incinerator’s cover hatch blasted off and smashed through several of the ancient Hierarchy machines, scattering torn metal and broken technology before it skidded to a halt. A belch of flame unrolled itself along the ceiling.
Behind the alarms, a voice in a language Hoeff didn’t speak started calmly announcing itself as they recoiled through the open door.
“Morwk, the fuck’s happening?”
Morwk’s voice got higher when he was stressed: right now, he was screeching. “You turned the fucking power on, that’s what’s happening!”
Something, somewhere, groaned like a whale being broken in half. There was the familiar thump and black-flash of a jump. Keeda appeared next to them, fully armored and ready for bear, his posture low and tense.
“Balls! That wasn’t supposed to happen!”
“Worse might happen, too. Let’s get our tails outta here. My little magic trick only works for me.”
No argument there. Hoeff backed away down the hall as another, much larger belch of flame from the incinerator shook the walls. “So…what now?”
“Now? We fuckin’ run,” which he demonstrated, and everyone followed behind. “Cut the power off and hope things calm down! Who the fuck knows what might happen when a computer system millions of years old fires back up!”
“Turning it on isn’t part of the pilgrimage?”
“Not all of it!”
Well. Okay then. They did the only thing they could.
They ran like their lives depended on it.
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
Fuck it. “Jump beacon away, let’s summon the HEAT. We’re done playing games. Status?”
“We’re booking it!” Hoeff said over the radio, panting loudly. Then there was a loud hoot—
—and gunfire. Ian gritted his teeth and called up the feed from the drone. Sure enough, the guys had formed a tight defensive circle.
The drones assailing them had a lot of the same DNA as a modern deathbird, but thank fuck they seemed to lack the plasma gun. That would have been fucking deadly, in a pressurized station. Instead they had high-powered kinetic pulse weapons, strong enough to dent the floor and crack the wall panels, but against six heavily armored and beastly men?
…Less so. Even so, he watched Tumik take a shot to the helmet that staggered him, and only Keeda’s insane speed and a timely swipe of a paw saved him from being carved into by the drone’s blazing fusion blade wing.
An alarm started peeping: The Ten’gewek’s suit was no longer airtight.
But there was nothing Wilde could do except stand by, helpless, as his team fought their way free of the wreckage. His hands fidgeted and his knuckles were white from gripping the edge of the console: there was no covering fire he could provide, and even talking to the team would be a distraction. All he could do was watch.
…Fortunately, they weren’t called the wrecking crew for nothing. Hoeff and the cavemonkeys were terrible forces of violence when they were let off the leash. Wilde hadn’t appreciated just how much that was so, until he saw it for himself through barely-stabilized helmet feeds. And ‘Keeda’ was more than pulling his weight; he really hadn’t lied about what he could do.
The feed cut out abruptly with a sharp howl, and he heard Dora swear from her control blister. One of the deathbirds must have noticed their drone and destroyed it.
Well shit. Now he was just waiting.
It felt like an eternity, but in subjective terms it didn’t take long for the crew to reach the shuttle, slam the hatch closed, raise shields and de-ass the situation with extreme quickness.
The deathbirds boiled out of the station’s swiss-cheese structure every which way, furiously intent on tearing the shuttle to bits, but that was okay. The shuttle had damn good shields itself, easily strong enough to punch its way out through the disintegrating metal beams, and once it was clear of the debris, the Fortune’s shields could cocoon it protectively. Their CIWS started blazing away up on the hull, vibrating the deck as they reduced the whole drone cloud into metal scrap in a matter of seconds.
A familiar heavy THUMP through the deck heralded the HEAT’s rapid response team as they jumped into their aft cargo bay; they’d been warned not to jump in the Caledonia until they were fully apprised of the situation. It was followed seconds later by a more rhythmic thumping: Captain Campbell’s armored boots, and the heavy lope of a Gaoian behind him: Regaari.
“That was an alarming message,” Campbell started, without introduction. “Ancient Hierarchy relic?”
“Oh…that’s just the fuckin’ start of the balls-out weirdness. Hey Dexter, wanna meet Keeda?”
If there was a flaw to the Gaoian helmets, it was that they couldn’t both protect and let them express with their ears. Even so, Ian got the distinct impression that Regaari’s ears were twisted confusedly in completely opposite directions.
“An odd moment for a joke.”
Ian sighed. “I’m not joking.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“…You will understand, of course, that is a difficult claim to believe…”
”No can do,” came Hoeff’s inimitable growl over the radio. “Big fucker just disappeared.”
“Of course,” Ian sighed. “Maybe we can pull up the video footage in…No.” He knew before he even asked, before he even checked, before anyone had any chance to follow his thinking.
Even so, they checked. And of course, he was right. Not just the video. All the relevant digital logs had been encrypted, presumably to be unlocked at the whim of their infuriating “proctor.” Bruuk managed to spare Ian’s blushes somewhat by finding a hair in sickbay and running it through the DNA analyser, but other than that tiny fragment and the fact of the sabotage itself, there was no evidence that he’d ever been aboard.
Regaari’s confusion was not relieved. “How could he possibly have—?”
“He’s fuckin’ Q, that’s how. It was all a fuckin’ game to him.”
At least the station seemed to have survived its near-disaster. Or at least, there was no further sign of any explosions and power surges over there.
“What do we do about the wreck?”
“We closed the door behind us, and turned off the power,” Hoeff grunted, still in armor. “Didn’t do much to the swarm once it was released, but maybe it’s not tearing itself apart anymore.”
Morwk was indignantly standing upright, never an unimpressive sight in a Kwmbwrw. On the rare occasion they uncoiled their tails for balance and reared up, they were the tallest species in the Dominion, and sheer height counted for a lot. “I did tell you not to touch those switches,” he pointed out.
Hoeff, being all of five-foot-four on a good day, yet was easily the most massive man in the room, had precisely zero fucks to give.
“I don’t fuckin’ care. You wanna decide that shit, suit your ass up next time and step with us.”
“Gentlemen,” Wilde intervened. “Now ain’t the time for a pissing match. Captain,” he turned to Campbell. “That station needs to be preserved at all costs. It’s… priceless.”
“That’s going to be delicate,” Sikes pointed out. “Damn thing’s falling apart. And it’s how old?”
“The important bits have been maintained. There’s pressure and power in there.”
“Don’t turn it on,” Hoeff grunted.
“That’s what I–!”
Funny, how Hoeff could convey distilled, absolute murderous intent with a totally blank face. Morwk’s outraged squeak cut off mid-sentence. He dropped back down to quadruped, and stalked away across the bridge where he sat his arse down and started poking at his console in silence.
“How you proceed in a tactical situation has little to do with ideals,” Wilde said, diplomatically. “He wasn’t there as a curator. Leave it. And you, Mister Hoeff, should attend to your men.”
And get the hell of my bridge.
Hoeff nodded, and did just that. With the interpersonal bullshit managed for now, Ian returned his attention to the task at hand.
They jumped in Caledonia. There was planning, an away mission which went far more smoothly than the first. More planning, some requisitions, some pretty extensive use of the jump arrays on both ships to bring it in. For the moment, this was not something to share with civilians or contractors, so the best they could do was some drone mapping, with HEAT and wrecking crew assistance here and there. Not even a relief team could be allowed, at Ian’s insistence; this was to be kept to as few people as possible for now.. All told, it took a long time, and they heard nothing of Keeda or his ship throughout.
Ian could guess why. The test was for him and his crew, not for anyone else. They weren’t going to hear from the trickster until they were firmly alone again.
Maybe they’d already failed, for that matter. Somehow, he doubted it. He wasn’t quite sure what axis they were being tested on, but…he got the distinct impression he’d know if the test was over.
The messages with the Great Father were the most interesting bit. He’d sent a big formal email directly to Daar’s personal key, laying out everything for his eyes only.
Being a hands-on kind of leader, he decided to reply immediately. By text message.
bein tested by actual Keeda
balls thats a new one
That’s putting it mildly
I think the test’s still on though
He’s waiting for us to be alone
Probably best if we move on ASAP
use your best judgment
for what its worth I believe you
aint even top ten for weirdest shit we’ve seen so far
okay maybe top five
but bring back sum good evidence or imma squish ya tween my legs
He must have been sat at his desk, because he’d taken a photo of a quick scribble of cartoon-Daar gnawing on and wrestling a hapless, suspiciously Wilde-like stick man who’d been tied in a bow.
Now there was motivation to succeed. You had to know the big guy to understand his humor, of course. Ian sent an acknowledgment, then sat back to consider his options.
What he wanted was some sleep. Get his head down, stay a few hours longer, head out the next day fresh and prepared. The wrecking crew would sure benefit from sleep too, and he probably still had some ruffled feathers to smooth over with Morwk that would be best done when everyone was calmed down and rested…
But this test was gnawing at him. As annoying as he’d found Keeda, he had to acknowledge that the big smug git had jumped right over to help his guys out when shit hit the fan. Unless it was a fuck of a staged incident—which seemed unlikely for several reasons—well, Keeda had earned some kind of trust with that.
Besides. Ian was loathe to let a mystery lie, or to half-arse anything.
His mind was already made up, he realized. He groaned, fixed himself a latte with two extra shots of espresso, and returned to the bridge. Two hours later, some of which was spent communicating to Campbell and Caledonia’s captain, Commander Boyt, that they had a mission to get on with, they broke away from the stricken station. There was no sign of the Seared Rascal of course. No trail to follow. So, they took the shortest route to the Bok Globule’s surface to minimize hull charge.
It didn’t really come as a surprise at all when Keeda’s sleek, dark ship pulled in alongside them, and the gao himself spontaneously thumped into being in the middle of his bridge.
The test, it seemed, was not over.
Winter retreat, the High Shield of the Northern Plains, Gao
Thurrsto, Champion of Clan Whitecrest
Unlike many species, winter was always the time of plenty for much of the Gao. Yes, it was cold, and yes, arable farming was on pause. But the herds of naxas and other useful critters had access to buried grasses and tubers, and would remain well-fed throughout; wild prairie on Gao was hardy against the cold and the snow. More importantly though, the herds clustered together, and were reluctant to run far or long, both to conserve energy and to keep their body heat under control, being smothered under their thick, shaggy pelts.
A perfect environment for a sneaky, pouncy sorta predator like a Gaoian.
So, Daar had been growing out his heavy shaggy coat in anticipation of the hunting on offer. They were downwind of their prey in a full-fledged blizzard to rival anything Earth might offer, sniffing toward the flock they would be hunting that evening. Nothing too big, just some wild Great Kwek in full winter plumage.
Assuming the weather permitted.
It was cold as balls out, and the visibility was almost bad enough he couldn’t see the Great Father standing right next to him. Even Thurrsto’s magnificent coat wasn’t quite enough to keep the chill at bay, and he’d had to resort to gloves and waterproof stockings to keep warm.
Daar was utterly unbothered by it. His Stoneback heritage was on full display, there.
They’d retreated to his “tent” once he was satisfied about the upcoming hunt, though “tent” was a silly description. It was closer to a human yurt in construction and well-anchored against the constant howl of the polar wind. Inside it was cozy, well-heated by a nice pellet stove, and there was a good supply of pre-catered food kept in stasis; they were all alone out there. Not even his security were closeby, and their only link back was a radio and a portable jump array, should an emergency develop.
This was a meeting requiring the utmost secrecy. Difficult to do, between Champion and Great Father. But a hunting trip above the polar circle? Free even of trusty staff?
They bustled into the portable hut and Thurrsto immediately shook out his pelt to fluff it out, sniffed and found their pitcher of spiced fruit beer had warmed nicely by the fire, and decided to pour himself a generous dose. He poured an “even more generouser” serving for Daar, who battled against the wind for a bit to properly seal the inner and outer doors.
“Balls, it’s fuckin’ blowy out! Might not get any hunting done at all!”
Thurrsto was just fine with that, frankly. He didn’t enjoy the deep cold the same way brownfurs did with their oily double-coats, and Daar of course was the Maximum Brownie, and a giant heat engine himself. And of course…winter was their traditional time of plenty, when big males put on size for the lean times of early spring, and the females reared cubs to get ahead of empty bellies. Daar and Thurrsto had both taken advantage to grow, but he of course…
Somehow, the shaggy winter pelt made him look more intimidating than his usual stud’s clip. Yes, it was cooler in the hot summer, and that was something he needed, but habitually going around with every little detail on display like a young Brother competing for Stud left little mystery. Under full fur, though? Well. It was honestly worse when you had no idea about what new and impossible brawn would be there in a half a year, when the sun was at its hottest and even a proud silverfur like Thurrsto trimmed their coats back.
“You’re looking especially healthy, My Father. Eating good I take it?”
“Yeah! Winter’s ‘fer cuddlin’ an’ growin’! Naydi’s been spoilin’ me rotten on my meal plan!” The Great Father shook out his pelt and sprayed frost everywhere. “How ‘bout you? Got someone warming ‘yer bed this winter?”
Winter companions were among the rare tolerated exceptions to the general Gaoian taboo against exclusive relationships. The weather could get quite cold and harsh, after all…
But come spring, it would be time to part ways yet again. The Gao could not afford the social consequences, were all the Females to be taken by a minority of successful males. For the sake of peace, prosperity, and the genetic vigor of the cubs, it was rare for a Female to go exclusive with a male. At least, in her child-rearing years.
It was cruel thing that had been done to the Gao, that.
“I do, I do…an old friend.” He didn’t say more, since he was typically private with his relationships. “So…what is your plan for me tonight? Shall I take my painkillers now?”
Daar chittered, “Naw, I’ll play nice. Too much on my mind. But les’ warm up first.”
Beer, hot snacks, and a nice, warm nest-bed chased away the last of the chill. Heavy blankets too, which lulled them both into a sort of half-sleepy, half-awake state.
“I got a pretty disturbin’ email today,” the Great Father at last rumbled. “Actually, an email an’ an attached message. From someone claimin’ ‘ta be Keeda himself.”
Thurrsto, normally, was a guarded kind of gao. It came with the territory. That one however got his ears moving, and it took him several seconds before his brain managed to get some actual thoughts together.
“Oh, wait ‘till I tell ‘ya the rest. Crew got his genetics, too. He’s ancient. Like, truly, ridiculously fuckin’ ancient. Like predates degrees ancient.”
Thurrsto sniffed his beer. “…Call me skeptical, but the existence of an unbelievably old Gaoian isn’t quite enough to persuade me that Keeda himself is an actual literal person…”
“He’s sterile, too. Severe radiation poisoning. An’ he’s got some tricks, cousin. Also, his name is Y!’kiidaa,” he said in a suddenly very ancient tone. “Got a story, at least.”
“So he’s claiming to be, what? The truth behind the legend?”
“Yeah, but that’s incidental ‘ta what he really wanted ‘ta show us. Here.” Daar rose from their nice warm pile of comfort, stalked over to his Bag of Many Things, and pulled out a tablet. “Give this a read. Report from Captain Wilde. An’ this don’t leave th’ tent, just yet. At all.”
Thurrsto duck-nodded solemnly, and speed-read it.
He re-read a couple of sections more closely and slowly, then read the whole thing again, taking in every detail. Daar waited patiently, moving Thurrsto’s beer closer to the fire to keep it warm.
“…So, on first glance…the strategic implications here are, ah, staggering.”
Daar’a darkly rumbling chitter was telling.
“Which part? The activation of a long-dormant galactic superpower? That they’ve not so much as showed their nose ‘fer longer’n our people have been a people? What have they been doing?”
“Singularity, My Father. We’ve been aware of some organization at work in the inner circles of the Corti Directorate for some years now. Our friend Nofl is in their ‘accretion disk,’ an associate.
“Right. Now consider what it’d mean if this an’ that were one an’ th’ same.”
“That’s exactly what I’m speculating. Some of the things this Y!’kiidaa is reported to have done only make sense if he has the power to locally accelerate time around himself. A neat trick, and one that Corti abductors can do, but we’ve never yet managed to replicate it.”
“We do have nanofactories that can do that,” Daar pointed out. “They’re present on all our ships.”
“Yes, and require enormous power to affect a tiny enclosed space.”
“…Right. Yeah. And so this ‘Keeda’ is leading my crew on a merry fuckin’ chase—”
“Through unspeakably ancient relics of galactic history. What are we doing about that?”
“That’s the first question. What the fuck do we do? There’s no action we can take that won’t break secrecy, an’ right now, we can’t fuckin’ say shit about this. Imagine the public backlash!”
“If there’s no action we can take, My Father, then no action is what we take. Though, I can think of certain preparations my Clan could make…”
Daar…thought. It was a big think, too, because he got up once again and started pacing the enclosed space. For a few minutes, nothing but the howling wind whipping against their shelter and the quiet thump of paws on a wooden floor could be heard.
“…How discreet can we be? HEAT’s already involved, so…”
“So, hundreds have already been contaminated. That sneak is well snuck already.”
“This ‘Keeda’ must know that, too.”
“He’d have to, yes. Revealing something like…”
“It’s evil just thinkin’ ‘bout, ain’t it?”
“Essactly. This smells awfully like they’re plannin’ a debut.”
“And intend to use us in the process.”
“And my clout, too.”
Thurrsto picked up his drink and sipped it. “They weren’t here to defend Gao in our time of need. They may even have been manipulating us for a long time. And K—… and fuck knows what kind of operations they have been performing among other species. What about the Humans?”
“If they’re Singularity, they engineered me. ‘Member my little pipe trick? That shit ain’t fuckin’ normal, Cousin. An’ I can do shit now that makes even that look like fuckin’ childplay. Fuck! Lookit me! A livin’ creature shouldn’t be fuckin’ bulletproof! And the Corti breeding program with the Humans? Our own breeding programs? Let’s draw some easy lines, there.”
“…We’re both soldier species.”
“Yup. Hard ‘ta avoid that conclusion. An’ that means Singularity’s been usin’ us both.”
“Millennia, for both. Us for much longer. An’ Thurrsto…it gets worse. They made me, ‘member? I’m made by at leas’ two forces that ain’t our friends. You need to consider that.”
That statement hit Thurrsto like a bolt of lighting right to the nuts. “…I…”
“Yeah. That’s the evilist thing I gotta ask of ‘ya, ‘cuz I’ve had a big, long think. I…shit, Thurrsto. I’m just a big furry ‘Back at heart. S’all I ever wanted ‘ta be. But now I gotta worry I ain’t what I think I am. So while I still can, mebbe…I gotta lay in contingencies.“
Thurrsto felt his fur rise along his spine. Daar was asking an unthinkable thing of him.
“What you’re asking is…so much more than treason.”
“Is it? I’m asking it. You need a contingency plan against me. I know y’all have thought on a post-Daar world, jus’…now you gotta think on how ‘ya might make it so, if needed.”
“I can’t possibly involve anyone else in such planning…”
“Sure ‘ya can. Jus’ the ones closest to ‘ya, who can be trusted. An’ you tell ‘em I requested this. Besides…I’d be surprised if ‘ya din’t have some kinda related plannin’ in place already…”
Thurrsto sighed, avoiding the trap. “For both our sakes, I won’t comment on what we may or may not do for the good of the Gao. As to this? Very well. If you think it’s necessary.”
“I hope ‘ta fuck it ain’t. But what happens if our enemies do make me their puppet somehow? Balls, we really shoulda thought of it sooner…but we thought of it now.”
“You know, of course, that if I do this, I must also make…” Thurrsto cleared his throat delicately. “…associated contingencies.”
Daar stiffened. Of course he’d considered the danger that he could conceivably pose to the Gao…Thurrsto suspected he hadn’t thought so closely about how dangerous those closest and most beloved to him might be in the same circumstances.
That was fundamentally the problem with Great Fathers. Everything pivoted on them. Every influence and force at work on them had to be considered.
After a long, dreadful moment, Daar poured more beer for himself. “Well then. Now I doubly pray ‘ta fuck it ain’t necessary.”
Thurrsto duck-nodded, and said no more on the subject. An order had been given, he would see it done. Discussing it further would be contrary to the order.
“…What about the Stray Fortune and this alleged Keeda?” he asked instead.
Daar heaved a huge sigh of his own. “They’ll get ‘ta the heart o’ this thing. They’ll let these people—Singularity, if that’s who they are—step into the light. An’ then when there’s finally a face ‘ta put ‘ta the name, we’ll talk. They’ll have some clawed questions ‘ta answer, though. An’ dependin’ on what those answers are…”
Thurrsto duck-nodded again. For a moment, the only sounds were the blizzard outside, the crackle of the fire, and the fizz of beer. Except…the blizzard sounded like it might be passing. He guessed he knew what that meant.
“Gonna get dark, soon,” Daar said. “Let’s go huntin’.”
Thus ended the conversation. Not to be repeated outside the tent, though Thurrsto’s head was doomed to whirl and churn as he digested what he’d just learned. But he knew a few of the Great Father’s tricks. Knew that Daar was giving him something else to focus on, so that it could all settle and become the new reality.
Keeda was, apparently, real. In some sense, anyway. The Gao’s history had an extra influence on it that, Thurrsto could see, put a few confusing details in a new and clearer perspective. When he returned to his office and gathered his most trusted, he’d have had time to properly internalize all these revelations…
Here and now, though, he was glad of the challenge.
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
As far as the Ten’Gewek were concerned, Keeda was now welcome to eat with them. Anyone who jumped into a dangerous situation to fight alongside them automatically went up a few levels in their estimation.
Wise monkeys, they were.
Most everyone else was a little more cynical. There were still questions, but frankly, the dinner table was as good a place as any to get them out. Besides, everyone was hungry. And Keeda could eat. And that meant Bruuk was a happy little bear, because nothing gave him more joy than stuffing his friends full of food.
His motherly side was adorable, really.
“Oh, balls, i’ve missed real gaoian cooking so much…it’s so different than I ‘member, but the flavors are still there…”
“You wait! I’ll have some bao steamin’ in a minute…”
So, they sat, and ate, and made nice. Got to know their guest, as much as he was willing to open up. Got quite the history lesson too, in a small and localized way.
“I was a fisherman. Longbacks and Longears both descended from my clan. After we migrated, that is. Used ‘ta be fish as big as my leg swimmin’ in the waters of May-Eshi. In the late autumn, they’d cluster near the shore in the sheltered coves, feed up ready to to swim upstream to their spawning pools. You could take a raft out and drag up ten, twenny at a time. Balls, you could even fish right from a little rocky waterfall too, just swipe them out of the air with your paw!”
Wilde grinned at the image, then glanced down at Keeda’s bouncing leg. Big fuckin’ fish, that.
“There’s still big game fish on Gao!” Bruuk said, defensively. “Just out to sea!”
“Yeah, but those things…” Keeda sighed. “Catch ‘em at the right moment in the year, you could slash ‘em open with a claw and they’d be full o’ nice, juicy, salty roe…perfect stuff ‘fer the winter. An’ good ‘fer a nice glossy coat! The flesh dried and smoked up so good, we’d eat well all spring. An’ then we’d chum the waters with the bones an’ scales ‘ta lure in the little ones. It was…”
His eyes were lost in the misty past. “…It weren’t an easy life. No real medicine, no tools except what we made with our own paws. I remember the day a rich merchant travelled through, dunno why. We were nowhere. But we had shells an’ beach-pebble beads an’ woven baskets ‘ta trade, an’ provisions for the road. My sire traded ‘fer a bronze necklace ‘fer my Mother. First time I ever saw metal.”
“You’ve lived a life much more like our Ten’Gewek friends here, then.”
“…My early life, I suppose you might draw analogies. I was only fifteen then, just ready to name a wife and serve my season with the sacred harem. I was a stud of the clan an’ pride of the elders, next to my brother…” He sighed, and keened softly. “Then…well, I had ‘ta grow up fast. But that story ain’t for now.” He shrugged. “Truth is, I’m more interested in Earth.”
“You’ve never been?”
“I’d stand out a bit, now wouldn’t I?”
“…Didn’t answer my question.”
Keeda chittered, delighted. “Correct!”
Ian gave him a Look.
“Fine! Ruin my fun…yes, I’ve visited Earth. No, no details. That’s for later. Then I promise I’ll tell you all the dirty bits, ‘kay?” He pant-grinned, and drank.
“Nope!” Keeda declined to answer with a shake of his head. “Coulda visited any time, too! I’m twenny-five thousand years old, my young friend!”
“Surely you have not been awake and conscious that whole time?” Urgug asked.
“Not all, of course. But most of it! Thing is though, there’s a bit of magic ‘ta deep memory. You only really have so much of ‘yer life in ‘yer head at any level of detail. All the rest fades away. So, best to keep a fastidiously complete journal. Mine’s hand-written, in books this big.” he held his paws up. “Fills a lotta shelf space by now.”
“Wait. If you can remember your fishing village—” Rees frowned.
“Some memories stick. The important bits especially. Humans are the same way. Corti though…” he shook his head, clearly impressed. “They’ve got astounding memories! Way, way better’n ours. But, enough. I wanna tell ‘ya my story, an’ I will when the time is right. Until then, let’s hear your stories.”
They did the rounds. Nobody told their complete tale, of course. Ian shared how he’d earned his eye, Dora recounted her family’s daring escape from the Robalin Supremacy. Urgug recounted the tale of how he was recruited by Whitecrest while studying his postgraduate education in physics. Rees shrugged his life off as mostly uninteresting, kicking around in a small town in Wales until he’d enlisted, but he did note that there’d been plenty of fishing where he grew up.
Bruuk, understandably, didn’t share his story.
Nor did Hoeff. His was…probably too classified, firstly, but also…
Keeda duck-nodded. “I understand.”
As for the Ten’Gewek…something about the whole round of story-telling seemed to quieten them a bit. They did share, though. Really, theirs was the story of brutal lives led by effectively unbreakable men. Ferd’s story about his werne hunt in particular…
Genn managed to dredge up an amusing story from the People’s flight over the mountains to escape the Abrogators, though. It had been a grim time for everyone, very stressful. And Ten’Gewek vented their stress in one of two ways: brawling and sex.
It would have been weird as fuck for a human to recount how his sister, Buna, had worn out a given-man so badly the poor guy couldn’t keep up the next day, but among them that was a point of pride. Strong women made for strong tribes, after all. And as her brother, Genn was strong by association.
Aliens. Just the same enough to be relatable, just different enough to be interesting. And Genn was a good storyteller. When he stood and recreated the given-man’s exhausted stagger, and the way he ran away when Buna went looking for more, Dora practically fell over giggling.
The food had long since been polished off by the time the stories were done. They cleaned up, then sat down again. There were more serious matters to discuss.
Ian dived right into it. “So. Back at the station. That didn’t quite go to plan, huh? I don’t think jumping in to help was part of the test, was it?”
Keeda shook his head. “I’m here to test you, not kill you. If I had seen exactly what Hoeff had flipped I might have had forewarning…”
“So you actually don’t know everything we’re up to.”
“I never actually claimed ‘ta be all-seeing an’ all-powerful,” Keeda chittered and spread his paws. “Guess I played the smug-as-fuck act a bit too good, huh?”
“I’m not sure you played anything.”
“Ha! Well, that’s fair…but now. You summoned the HEAT. I do recall explicitly forbidding that.”
“I don’t care. This is too important and I’m not going to let a game get in the way of that.”
Slight surprise rippled around the table in all its various forms: tilted heads, raised eyebrows, twitching tails, swaying antennae, a flash of blue.
“…Not the response you were expectin’?” Keeda pant-grinned again. “But it is. You were decisive. You made a bold call ‘ta ignore me in the moment, and when the moment passed…well, here we are, yijao?”
“So we’re doing well so far,” Hoeff rumbled.
“You wouldn’t’a seen me again if you weren’t. But, that’s enough praise, ‘cuz while that whole affair on the station got more dangerous than it should’a…the next phase is gonna be dangerous by design. Seems only fair ‘ta warn ‘ya.”
“How dangerous?” Ian asked, noting the way his crew all glanced at each other.
“Again, that depends on you. You can back out any time, if you don’t mind the consequences. If you stick it through, though…You’re gonna see some things you won’t like. Things you’re gonna want to do something about.”
Keeda’s infuriating air of smug mystery was back.
Their destination turned out to be something a little closer to civilization.
Not in any literal sense. In point of fact, it was incredibly isolated. They were a long, long way off the tradelane network at this point, in territory marked on the Interspecies Dominion’s maps as unclaimed.
Nevertheless, there was traffic. And said traffic was impressive enough to have Morwk whistling, for the wrong reasons.
“By the Matriarchs. I don’t think I’ve seen a warp wake that coarse in my whole career…”
Ian was hardly an expert on warp fields, but even he could see what Morwk was talking about. The ship they were following was churning through space rather than surfing it. It was a difficult impression to pin down, exactly, but as Morwk pointed him through the various metrics and maths of it…
Well, it was like cruising down the motorway in a brand-new sports car only to find some idiot on a moped absolutely fucking thrashing his ride to manage thirty in the fast lane. Humanity’s first warp-capable ship, Pandora, now honorably retired to the Smithsonian, had probably generated a smoother and more efficient field than the junker in front of them.
“How the hell do they even make any progress out here?” Morwk continued, oblivious to Ian’s thoughts. “They must be stopping to degauss every day!”
“And what are they even heading for?” Ian asked.
“There is a temperate planet on the star charts in that direction,” Urgug noted. “Unclaimed.”
“Does that also mean uninhabited?”
“Not necessarily. There is no record of a settlement, but…”
“Hmm.” Ian rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, then glanced up at Keeda. The Gaoian was feigning innocence, sat in the corner of the bridge and not looking their way, but his ears weren’t fooling anyone. He was listening. Just not inclined to say anything today.
“Can we get a closer look at this ship?” he asked.
“Captain, with our enhancements, and if their sensors are anything like their drive, I’m quite sure we could get inside visual range unnoticed,” Morwk declared.
Ian continued to watch Keeda. Still nothing.
“Bring us in closer, then. Let’s make a good recording.” He shot a glance at Keeda, “assuming our computers work or whatever…”
Keeda flicked an ear, but continued to remain silent. Whatever.
The ship turned out to be just as much of a junker as its wonky drive suggested. Its hull was a patchwork of second-hand modules, many of them wearing the battered paint and livery of whatever they were salvaged from, and few of them even from the same make of ship. Or even the same shipyard.
Morwk’s sense of professional outrage was well and truly triggered. Ships, in his view, could absolutely not be sewn together out of spare bits and pieces. Not safely, anyway. Different systems, different standards, different units, different everything. He promptly declared it a deathtrap as they steadily overhauled it. About the only thing apparently working properly was the transponder…which belonged to a ship that had supposedly been scrapped more than thirty years ago, according to Urgug’s database.
Alright. The galaxy was full of weird shit, and somebody flying a miraculously airtight box of spare parts on the world’s jankiest warp drive was a little bit interesting, to be sure…but worthy of Keeda directing their attention this way?
Hardly. At face value, it was no more noteworthy than having to pull over while out driving in the country to let a rusting old land rover chug past. So why?
“…We sure there’s not more to it than meets the eye?” he asked aloud. After all, anyone giving the Fortune a cursory glance would only see a quite common mass-produced bulk freighter with some after-market modifications in the form of the cargo container racks and drone loaders. Appearances could deceive…
“Not that I can see.” Morwk rolled his eyes, which denoted confusion rather than impatience in his case.
“Alright, well….let’s leave it alone and go check out that planet, I suppose.”
They slid away as Moj returned them to their quiet cruising speed: the patchwork ship fell behind without showing any sign of having even noticed them.
Three hours later, the planet turned out to be more of the same. On Urgug’s charts it was an unassuming Class Six, no registered name, no registered colonies, estimated population zero.
Reality was that the Fortune started picking up the twinkle and blink of communications satellites talking to each other long before they even crossed the system’s termination shock, not to mention a small flotilla of ships, and plenty of activity on the ground, too. Ian had them hold off at a good distance and build up the best picture possible at long range before getting closer. After all, just because that one ship had been dragged out of a landfill didn’t mean this unregistered settlement didn’t have something a bit better to hand.
But the long range scans got Urgug practically incandescent with concern.
“This is no minor settlement,” he soon declared, pointing out some features for Ian’s inspection. “See here? If the primary population center follows Dominion colony-planning guidelines, then it must have a population of nearly a quarter million all by itself.”
“That’s not a lot of ship traffic for a quarter million…” Ian mused.
“No. And that is just the primary center. Taking into account the secondaries and conurbation, I think we are looking at half a million individuals. And yet, there is no record of this place existing.”
“No service tradelane, a handful of…what are those, asteroid miners?”
“Most probably. It is quite bizarre.”
“There’s nothing inherently bizarre about isolationists, necessarily.” Ian pointed out. “There’s plenty of communities on Earth that prefer not to participate in the broader hubbub of society.”
“Indeed. And yet, I gather that they are considered strange even among your people, who are yourselves widely regarded as very strange.” Urgug turned a teasing hue for a few seconds, then refocused. “There are unencrypted broadcasts. Entertainment channels, I believe. Local news and suchlike. Monitoring them should prove edifying, if you will give me the time.”
“Knock yourself out. There’s something going on here, our esteemed proctor said as much.”
An agreeable shimmer of color washed over Urgug’s hide, and he settled in to watch TV. Not a bad job to have, in Ian’s view. With nothing for it but to let the big guy work, he turned away, updated the log, and decided the time had come to relax for a bit.
Or, as the case may be, get exercised to exhaustion by one of their resident pieces of meat. But that was okay. He’d been sitting down too much.
Somehow, though, he couldn’t get Keeda’s words out of his head. There was something here they weren’t going to like. That all by itself was reason enough not to take things at face value.
But for now, that was all he could do.
“You want us to go down there?”
Breakfast was kind of a weird tradition, as far as Dora was concerned. It made sense for creatures that needed to eat as much as Humans and Ten’Gewek, but it was too much for her. One meal a day was all a Robalin needed. Allegedly, breakfast food was superior to all others, but…
Well, you probably had to be a carnivore to think so. The sizzle of bacon, even though it was just the same as frying onions or whatever, was somehow much more uncomfortable to hear just for knowing it was a living animal’s flesh being seared in the pan. And as for eggs? Horf.
Cinnamon rolls, though…cinnamon rolls were dangerous. Much could be forgiven for cinnamon rolls.
Besides, there was news, and a briefing. Urgug had been up all night watching the local media from the planet below, and his resulting request was…interesting.
“I see no other way to learn more. Though the unencrypted transmissions have been edifying. What I have already gleaned indicates an extreme culture of hostility toward deathworlders.”
“That’s an understatement,” Ian added. “Seems like every ad break is bookended by anti-deathworlder propaganda. ‘Speak carefully: their ears are sharp!’ and ‘Beware: they have keen eyes.’”
“What, nothin’ about noses?” Bruuk sniffed indignantly.
“Oh, yeah. That one’s a good’n. ‘Don’t let them sniff us out!’ Classic.” Ian chuckled. “The point is, from the looks of things if we send the wrecking crew down, it’ll either spark a panic or a massacre. You four,” he indicated Dora, Moj, Urgug and Morwk. “Can blend in. But there’s not enough room in the shuttle for Urgug, and we need our chief engineer. That just leaves you two.”
Dora wafted her antennae in Moj’s direction, ticking them up and down to indicate his Tai Chi-fu pants and the assortment of Human religious emblems acid-etched into his chitin. She followed it with a flick up and down at herself, and the rattling Pride-festooned denim vest she was wearing. “Yes. We’ll be perfectly inconspicuous.”
“Well, I mean. Leave the vest at home, love.”
“Can’t leave the etchings, I,” Moj pointed out. “Can sand them off, but they last, the marks.”
“I thought of that.” Ian grinned, reached under his chair, and swung a case of some kind up onto the table. “Got the idea from watching the Lads play Warhammer,” he semi-explained, clicking it open and turning it around.
Moj’s elytra buzzed. “…Paint?”
“Yup. We match the colour of your chitin, paint over your etchings, add a layer of matte varnish and no-one’s the wiser!”
“We shall need to forge an etching, too,” Urgug pointed out. “The colony’s Mjrnhrm residents all wear the same one on their forehead.”
Moj’s elytra buzzed again as he tilted his head. “Serious thing, that. Clan-badge. Means the colony is family to them.”
Dora considered the Yin-Yang etched on Moj’s own forehead. “So we’re looking for the stuff they’re not broadcasting in the clear,” she surmised. “You want us to connect a device to their network?”
“Talk to folks, get the lay of the land?”
Ian shook his head no. “With that much propaganda about Deathworlder spies flying around, asking the wrong questions or being seen as ‘out of place’ could quickly turn bad. Best if you keep interaction to a minimum and just vanish in the crowd.”
“Gotcha.” Dora nodded seriously. “And…what happens then? What do we do afterwards?”
Ian glanced at the door. Their guest hadn’t joined us this morning, but they all knew he was watching, however he did it. “Keeda brought us here for a reason, and he promised we wouldn’t like what we find. Somehow, I don’t think this is going to turn out to be a mere colony of paranoid isolationists. But what we do is going to depend on what we find.” He looked around the table. “…any questions?”
The shuttle ride down was a tense moment. The shuttle had plenty of Whitecrest tricks, and the planet was barely inhabited at all, so their descent should go unnoticed, but Dora’s mind was still going over how quickly it could all go wrong if they weren’t…
She missed the comforting weight and jangle of her vest. She’d substituted the kind of practical tool harness worn all over the galaxy by working beings of every species, but it just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t hers.
Moj probably felt the same. He looked odd without his loose clothing and full-body collection of mystic symbolism. Wilde had done a damn good job of matching the paint to his natural coloration, and the varnish really sold it. You had to look closely to spot that anything was not natural, and it was clear he felt exposed and uncomfortable.
But, that was in the privacy of the shuttle, which sank unchallenged into the atmosphere well below the horizon from any part of the colony and which, with Moj at the controls and Dora watching the navigation sensors, slipped unnoticed into the trickle of airborne traffic linking the peripheral settlements with the population center.
The colony’s name, according to its traffic control beacon, translated into English as ‘Venture.’ Traffic and landing were automated, directing them to a flat dirt field south-east of colony center, where their shuttle set down as one of a neat grid of ones just like it. The ubiquitous grey-flying-brick design remained nicely anonymous even here.
As for the colony itself…
Dora had seen her share of new settlements. Her flight from the Supremacy’s dark hand had taken her through several such on the periphery of Robalin space, and they had much in common. The same planning techniques, same construction, same materials, same technology. It was all quite standardized, but one thing immediately stood out about Venture: although it was all the same, it was also all used. There was nothing new present.
Instead, the buildings were shabby prefabs, presumably purchased second-hand from their original owners when the time came to replace them with more permanent structures. Not only that, but they were clearly assembled from multiple mismatched kits, just like that freighter they’d passed. They were dirty, weathered, damaged, and graffiti-tagged in a dozen alien languages. The same went for the vehicles, the shuttles—thank fuck their own was deliberately left in slightly shabby condition specifically so as not to draw attention—the street lights, everything. The air conditioning units rattled, the heat exchangers hummed, the power transformers buzzed.
There were exceptions, though. The road surfaces were smooth and unpatched, for instance. And like the radio and visual broadcasts, there was propaganda everywhere, in printed poster format with AR tagging in the corners, and in holographic format projected by pristine emitters.
It reminded Dora terribly of the Supremacy, who had unlimited funding for the things the Leadership deemed interesting or necessary, and practically none for boring irrelevancies like, say, creature comforts for the general populace. No doubt there’d be a fancy, pretty part of town some distance from the plebeian spaceport where the colony’s limited wealth was all on display.
They’d be avoiding that part of town for sure. It’d be full of cameras and security drones.
As for the people…well, the people were a lot like their town. A mismatched mix of every non-deathworld species from the Dominion and the Alliance both, but all with a second-hand, worn down look. Those who wore clothing wore patched, sun-bleached and distressed fabrics that had clearly been serving a long time. Those species that didn’t were still wearing the usual bags, pouches and harnesses but again, there was definitely a used-and-repaired vibe going on. Dora was suddenly conscious that her vest, drab and workmanlike as it was, was going to stand out a bit just for being new.
As was Morwk’s tool kit.
Well, too late to do anything about that problem now. Getting straight back in the shuttle and leaving would be much more suspicious.
“There.” Moj gestured toward the ubiquitous feature of every travel hub: a bar and eatery. Dora’s antennae caught a nauseating, foetid stench on the air that might be uncollected garbage, but was more likely a pot of putrescing zrrks.
Sure enough, there was a half-liquid scummy cauldron of the things simmering over a fire in the middle of a ring-shaped food counter. The eatery was sort of outdoors-ish, bounded on three sides by a bodged-together slum stack, and protected from the weather by a canopy made from dozens of mismatched tarpaulins.
It was clean, though. The metal decking floor was swept and mopped, the walls degreased and free of graffiti, the lights weren’t flickering, and the countertop, scuffed and dented though it was, gleamed.
There was a free ration ball and water dispenser at the back of the room. The ubiquitous bland sustenance of the working destitute. Rather than interact with one of the workers behind the counter, Dora and Moj grabbed a ball and a water cup each, then retired to a corner table to make themselves as comfortable as possible on the one-shape-doesn’t-quite-suit-anyone chairs. They were just two overworked colleagues, grabbing a bite to eat and a moment to rest before moving on to the next job. While Moj people-watched, Dora pulled out a phone and started scanning.
“Okay, there’s a public-access colony network” she observed, in Robalish. Considering the anti-Deathworld propaganda about the place, speaking English would have been stupid. “…And a second locked one.”
Moj buzzed and nodded, boredly chewing his ration ball and watching people come and go. “Public.”
“Yeah.” Dora connected to it.
What she found was much like the rest of the colony in its generally patched-together, mismatched configuration. Whoever was responsible for maintaining it must be run ragged trying to stay on top of all the issues it would be generating.
The selection of available data was incredibly limited, too. The public network seemed to consist in its entirety of a citizen information page, government services like a job board and, prominently, a “report suspicious individuals” link front and center on the landing page.
Below that, she found a more promising link: “new citizen orientation.”
The collection of files behind it was…informative. She speed-read it as she ate and drank, transferring copies to the shuttle which would transmit them back up to the ship. But just in reading it, several things fell into place.
The language was circumspect, or at least assumed certain basic knowledge on the part of the reader. There were occasional references to “our benefactors” and “our guardians,” and much damning rhetoric about Humans and Gaoians, not to mention alarmist predictions of the future state of a galaxy “ruled by monsters.” The authors envisioned complete economic and military dominance within a generation, inevitably leading to bloody subjugation. Historic examples of the great cruelties both species had descended to in their past were sprinkled throughout like salt in the hands of an overzealous cook.
Venture was off the grid, hidden. Everything here was scavenged or purchased from the scrap merchants, specifically so as to leave no paper trail. The run-down prefabs, the mismatched network devices, the worn and torn personal equipment, all of it was presented as a clever way of thumbing their collective olfactory organs at ‘so-called deathworlder ingenuity.’
Dora had to admit, it seemed to have worked. If Clan Whitecrest or AEC knew about Venture, they’d never been briefed. And given the cryptic references to the colony’s “benefactors…”
She turned her attention to the secured network, which presumably contained much more juicy data…but how to get in? The registration process required her citizen ID number, which of course Dora didn’t have.
Though, to be fair…what they already knew was already enough. Dora could add.
Moj’s foot nudged hers urgently, at around about the same time as she became aware of a distinct change in the eatery’s atmosphere. She knew that sudden tension all too well, and when she looked up at the entrance, she knew all too well what she was looking at.
In the Supremacy, they were called the Dark Hand. In Earth’s history, they had been the Gestapo, the KGB, the Guó’ānbù, the Santebal and a dozen other names. Fuck knew what they were called here, but there was no mistaking them. Between the new, neat, well-maintained equipment and the way everybody present suddenly became extremely intent on not drawing their attention…
There were three. A Locayl and a Chehnash—the two obligatory legbreakers—and then the brains of the outfit, this time in the form of a fellow Robalin.
Dora suppressed a shiver. If there was one thing she couldn’t doubt for a second, it was the ruthless, sadistic efficiency of her own people when they set their mind to it, and this one still wore the barcode tattoo of the Supremacy’s Global Security Division between his eyes. Whether this was just bad timing and a routine inspection, or a specific tip-off, that officer would definitely have pointed, awkward questions to ask about her and Moj’s shiny new gear.
“Escape route?” she asked Moj, quietly. Somebody near the door had bustled over to the trio and was definitely snitching.
“Got one.” He sipped his water cup. “Steady. Ready…”
The mass of a Guvnurag customer blocked the view. Moj stood, and Dora followed. Don’t rush, don’t run. She’d done this before. The trick was to look like an ordinary citizen going about their day. People always slipped away when the Secret Police showed up…
Thank fuck they were in a slum. Slums were never airtight. Slums were nothing but lost spaces, side paths, lanes between construction and forgotten corners. They vanished down a gap in the corner between two prefabs, then turned sharply left into a muddy alleyway half-choked with garbage.
Sudden raised voices from back in the eatery suggested their disappearance had been noticed.
This was a game Dora had played before. She’d learned a lot since then, though. And she had some much more powerful friends nowadays…with some wonderful toys.
She plucked one of them from her pocket and stuck it in her ear. “Mother’s prowling,” she subvocalized. She didn’t need to speak aloud for the Whitecrest gizmo to convey her words.
Hoeff’’s voice was as cool and level as a frozen lake. “Big brother’s ready.”
Moj juked aside again, squeezing his bulk between two misaligned prefabs. Dora had no trouble following. “Cubs playing sneak-and-hide. Dropping snitchers.”
Moj nodded, and pressed another Whitecrest toy to the side of a dumpster as they passed it. The little spycam was tiny, fingerprint-sized and as thin as a card. That was their back watched, at least.
Dora’s was a drone, folded up inside her vest. As they reached an intersection with some blue sky visible above, she tugged it out of her pocket and flicked it upwards: it unfolded with a faint snap and drifted upwards out of sight.
“…Turn left. Keep snitching.”
More raised voices, and the sounds of searching behind them as they turned left, then right again when he told them to. Dora couldn’t see what Ian was watching through her drone or their little postage-stamp spycams, but she didn’t need to. All she needed to do was trust.
Left, right, like a rat in a damn maze, and now Dora was getting scared. Dark Hand would have given up or gotten lost by now, but Venture’s secret police had something extra going for them. Some extra determination, or numbers, or—
A pulse shot dented a metal wall by Moj’s head with a slam, half an instant before a second one punched into Dora’s personal shield.
Dora had been keeping her hand close to the tiny pulse pistol in her vest the whole time. Now she spun, snapped off a couple of shots back in the direction the attack had come from. No idea if she hit anything, then Moj was barrelling forward. There was a flash and slash of fusion blade in the gloom, and an interrupted shriek; all that training with Ian, Bruuk and the wrecking crew was paying off.
Hoeff’s voice, still frosty: “Right, then immediate left, get out on the street, blend with the crowd. Drop a flasher.”
Two of Dora’s feet skidded in some trash and she nearly lost her balance; Moj dragged her on by her arm. She stuck a flasher to the prefab as they rounded the corner, and then they were out on the road, among a bunch of colonists all backing away from the sounds of violence in the slum.
Moj and Dora plunged into the mass of them. Behind them, the flasher went off with a blast and a brilliant white nerveshock pulse that would ruin anyone’s day, no matter their species. The explosion blew away the last of the crowd’s inertia, though: Suddenly, they were part of a stampede.
“Crowd’s heading north. Keep pushing west, back toward the shuttle,” Hoeff instructed, then changed his mind. “Duck!”
Dora ducked, and not a moment too soon—these secret police, it seemed, had no qualms at all about shooting into the crowd.
Not even the Supremacy was that craven.
To Dora’s left, a fleeing Vz’ktk bleated in terror and agony as a shot scythed two of his legs out from under him. He crashed into the mud with a crunch of breaking bones and thrashed pathetically. Moj’s personal shield flashed once, twice, a third time as he flung himself over a stricken civilian and scrambled for the relative cover of a parked vehicle.
Dora’s breath was tearing at her lungs, her heart felt like it would burst any second, and fuck her shield could take maybe two, three more hits…
Duck around a corner, through yet another narrow gap. This one opened into a courtyard with plenty of space. Just get to the archway at the other end…
No. Agents there. Closing in.
Dora found cover, pressed her Button, and tossed it into the middle of the courtyard.
Hoeff and crew thumped instantly, and…did what they did. Just him and the Humans for now; presumably the monkeybros were the next wave, if needed.
But against a rag-tag group of secret police, they may as well have been gods. None of them would have had time to even raise a radio call, they were so swiftly…
Serviced. That was really the only word for it. It wasn’t a fight, it wasn’t even something so passionate as a kill. It was just a flurry of precision shots, death in an instant, then silence.
“We better get goin,” Hoeff grunted. “Array’s charging up back on the shuttle.”
Of course, having activated her beacon, there was still only one way out.
The deaths seemed to have activated something, because there was now a discordant, attention-getting alarm playing from public loudspeakers, from every TV and every portable audio device.
Hoeff and crew didn’t need any telling. They tossed down their own beacon and summoned in the monkeybros, and it was just in time, too: the sky overhead shimmered as a forcefield dome snapped into place.
“Well, fuck.” Hoeff said with remarkable calm. “If they can afford that…”
”A Farthrow just activated in the city,” Urgug noted with some alarm. “You will need to escape beyond its limits.”
“Don’t suppose…there’s any chance…of smashing it instead?” Dora panted. She was not built for distance running.
“We are considering that option,” Ian noted, tersely. “Find safety.”
Hoeff made a hand gesture, and they were on the move as stealthily as they could manage. Dora couldn’t even think, now. Her chest felt about ready to implode.
She just hoped there was any getting out of this…
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
The one silver lining was that the handful of ships in orbit above Venture still looked like a mining and infrastructure maintenance fleet and nothing more. The Fortune could handle them with one figurative hand tied behind its back, if it came to that.
Didn’t change the fact that there was now a Farthrow pinning his people down, and a sturdy shield dome stopping the Fortune from sniping it.
And that really said the last thing that needed to be said. A Farthrow generator was a closely-guarded secret. They were manufactured as required, protected by the highest security, and given only to authorities competent to protect their secrets. There was no way some random colony of quack isolationists had one.
The Hunters and the Hierarchy, though…
Well, this sure as fuck wasn’t the Hunters’ work.
Urgug was glowing with intense concentration as he pored over their orbital and drone imagery of the colony. Venture was a decent-sized city, and not all of it was prefab slum. There was some locally made construction too, east of the river. The farthrow was being projected by a generator somewhere in that district.
The question was, given the colony’s otherwise apparently limited resources, was it just indoors, or in a basement bunker? If the former, then the Wrecking Crew could hit it. If the latter, then they were better advised to take down the shield generator and hope the Fortune’s guns were up to the job.
That was the question for Urgug. And the answer he came back with after a few tense minutes was a welcome bit of good news.
“I do not think they can possibly have a proper bunker,” he declared. “That leaves the problem of Dora and Moj.”
“Copy that,” Hoeff noted with a grunt. “Think we can hunker down for a bit.”
“Can you get them to the shuttle?”
“Prob’ly. Just need to disguise ‘em a bit more.”
“Our gear, was the problem,” Moj reported. “Too new, it. Too clean. Needs to be second-hand, like everything else here.”
“Hope you’re not above a little theft, then,” Ian quipped.
“Would never dream of taking what’s not mine, I!” There was a thrumming sound in the background: a human would have been pissing himself laughing.
“Top man. You’d better get to it, then.”
“They’re gonna see us.”
“Maybe,” Moj buzzed. “Stay calm.”
Dora nodded. She didn’t need telling. Panic was death, she knew that.
And right now, there was a lot of panic about for them to take advantage of. Colonists were flooding back to their domiciles in compliance with the emergency broadcast’s instructions. Hoeff and his Wrecking Crew were skulking their way toward their target, avoiding detection as best as they could. Probably they’d do most of their movement at night. Humans had excellent vision in the dark, and they had some nifty toys to augment their innate ability, too. Ten’Gewek apparently didn’t even need that; they were well-adapted to thick forest gloom.
The scariest things really did go bump in the night.
Finding some less-shiny stuff had been straightforward enough. Dumpster diving in a back alley had turned up a rain cloak that fit Dora tolerably well, though she wouldn’t have liked to actually wear it in the rain. It had holes in it big enough to fit her hand through. Moj had simply ditched everything he was wearing. Mjrnhrm weren’t habitually a clothed species anyway.
Walking up to their shuttle as nonchalantly as possible was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. The moment where they took a chance and slipped out of the stream of civilians had Dora’s skin crawling. She was certain there’d be a shout, or somebody would challenge them, or just start shooting…
But no. They were back among the neatly parked shuttles without incident. Back to their own shuttle without incident. Lower the ramp, step aboard, close the ramp, all without incident.
…Now they just had to hunker down and wait.
They had been stalking their strange prey on this strange hunt all day. First, there was much rest and the occasional quick, quiet movement when they were sure nobody was watching. Like this they scuttled from slovenly hut to junk pile to a small grove of small, sad trees, everywhere keeping their presence secret. The enemy was all around them, all ready to push their buttons, send their alarms. And their prey was so very far away.
Things got easier after night. In the dark, the enemy saw even worse than Humans, and their bright lights just made it easy to see where they were and know where they were looking.
At first, anyway. The river was a different challenge. Bright on the far side. Lots of lights. Lots of drones hanging slow in the air and watching.
They would have to ford the river. No small thing, that. For Humans, it was easy. They loved water, and if these were normal men on a normal raid, they would swim their way across without making a ripple, like a smaller, much deadlier yshek. But this was not a normal raid, and these were not normal men. Heff was too much man to swim anymore, he’d sink just like Ferd. The other three were big too, and they had a lot of equipment with them, and they had full armor, so swimming wasn’t going to be possible anyway.
At least, not swimming without a rebreather. One of the little sky-magic toys they had was a small little thing they could wear across their face. It would give them just enough air to walk along the river bottom and climb out the other side, without making any bubbles that might give them away. Ten minutes, at most.
Not a reassuring thought. If they ran out of air, Ferd and his men would die. They could not swim at all on their own despite every effort to teach them. They were much too dense and heavy, and not even their great strength could keep their face above the water without flippers to help them push against the water. And even then it was an effort, and unmissably loud.
So, walk along the bottom, like a yshek after prey. Took a lot of courage to completely trust technology like that. He would rather fall from the sky, because that would be a fast, fiery death. Drowning was a terror he never knew he had.
But he was a man of the People. Terror wouldn’t stop him. And Humans had very clever hands, and even more clever minds. He’d learned to trust their strength, as they did his.
The water was cold and dark, nothing to see by underneath. Just the waving reflections, and enough light to make out the man in front as a blobby blur. They held their nerve, walked across the bottom, climbed the far side…broke the surface slow, to make no ripples or noise. Wait for Heff’s signal…
Then out and up the retaining wall. Low, quick and quiet across the open concrete to where a small stand of tiny, weak trees and bushes could hide them. Pause. Look. Listen.
A hand gesture from Heff, and they were moving again. A guard in the wrong place. Low-kayl. Big, but not strong.
Serviced. No gunfire, right now. Ferd did the deed with a simple punch where neck met skull. Dead before he even knew what hit him. Shame, really. A man should have the chance to fight, but that couldn’t be, here. Secrecy was everything. So, he caught the corpse-man as he fell, quickly wrapped him up in his tail to prevent any jangling or other noise, snuck back to a dark corner and hid the body. Their sneaking would end at some point, but not yet.
Their target was the big building at the east end of the square. Looked like a bubble-fungus growth made of glass. On its roof, the shield generator. Somewhere below that, the Farthrow.
More hand signals. Ferd followed them, going right with Davies, Frasier and Genn. Low and quick again. Stack up, hand on back, get ready…
The signal was given.
There was a point that Y!’kiidaa and Leifini had been making to the Old Man for a long, long time; namely, that deathworlders were not the only game in town. After all, Singularity was a Corti creation to begin with.
Oh certainly, Deathworlders were required to win this war. The coming fight would involve terrible environments that only Heroes could hope to manage, be they underground, in orbit, or in stranger environs yet. Heroes would be needed in the thousands—millions, to lesser degree—over the coming decades or possibly even centuries of this war. The Old Man was right about that, no matter how uncomfortable the means proved.
But Y!’kiidaa was impressed by the non-deathworlders on this crew. There was something of the Hero in them, too. They had answered the call, risen to the challenge. This was a new variable and it needed consideration. Humans could lead the great masses.
And, yes, admittedly Moj and Dora had failed in that they had been discovered. But they had also succeeded, in that they had evaded detection long enough to gather the asked-for data. And their failure, frankly, had not been their fault. They had walked under-informed and unprepared into a society primed for intense paranoia, but they had walked regardless.
That was one axis of the test. Was he dealing with Heroes?
Well. Therein lay a question he’d agonized over for millennia. Just what was a Hero? The Old Man made much of the word, and Y!’kiidaa loved the Old Man dearly. But part of the reason why was that, somewhere deep in his soul, the Old Man lived in a universe of stories and then, through sheer personal force, became their author. A Hero, in the Old Man’s eyes, was they who stood above others. Those who were Instrumental, rather than Accidental.
On that matter, Tomoe-san disagreed with her husband in a quietly profuse way. In the Old Man’s eyes, she was most definitely a Hero. In her own, she was a servant, having devoted herself to first her lord, then her husband, and through them something higher. She had given even her name to that ideal of service, and had gone by a description these past eight hundred years. She was Tomoe. the comma-like swirl central to her personal heraldry, Gozen, a woman of noble birth.
In all the years since she had joined them, she had never told Y!’kiidaa or anybody else her birth-name. The Old Man probably knew it, but he certainly hadn’t shared.
As far as her husband and Y!’kiidaa were concerned, it was that very modesty and submission to a higher calling that earned her the title Hero. And if it was true for her, then by every sense of fairness he had, Y!’kiidaa must grant that title to the entire crew.
But there was more, of course. There had to be. It wasn’t just the offer of service, but her ability to effect it. It was the Old Man’s firm belief that the ability encouraged intent, because why offer yourself when it would make little difference? Heroes came in many forms, but all of them had some element of supreme, confident ability.
And everything that went with that, of course. Heroes were often fascinating stories.
Take the study in restrained violence now playing out below. The wrecking crew was more than capable of destroying their way wantonly toward their target. Prudence no doubt guided them in their stealth—also impressive, frankly—but it would not strictly be necessary, armored and equipped as they were, strong and swift as they had built themselves. There was no effective opposition. Captain Wilde could simply destroy the colony from above too, and by this point he must have deduced what these people were.
What was motivating him? Prudence? Of course. More intelligence, a grander gambit? Possibly. Deference to authority? Measured, and responsible.
Passion? That was harder to suss. A Hero could not be cold and calculating to the exclusion of all else. And Wilde did not give much away. His face may as well have been carved from the same black glass as his prosthetic eye, it was that immobile. His posture was upright, neither tense nor relaxed. His eye never deviated from the flow of information as he watched the situation below unfold.
Only the flexing of his fist and periodic shifting of his weight betrayed the same tension flowing freely across Urgug’s hide. No, he wasn’t dispassionate. Just tightly in control.
Perhaps the time had come to give him a nudge.
No need for anything big. Just standing next to him should do the trick.
He spared Y!’kiidaa a glance up. “…Kinda busy right now.”
“I see that. You know what these people are, now.”
“Watch ‘em move and interact. They’re there of their own free will. Unless the Hierarchy’s taken to meat-LARPing lately.”
Ah! Definitely not lacking in passion. Now for the temptation…
“Wouldn’t take much to contain this threat.”
Wilde glanced unmistakably over at the weapons panel. “…No.”
“Indeed. So…whatchu gonna do?”
“Drop that shield, get my people out. Let our spies know about this place.”
“They’ll scatter like disturbed beetles after this.”
“Oh, aye. But we’ll find them again, eventually. There’s tricks we’ve got aboard,” Wilde said noncommittally. “Boss Bear might decide to blockade, anyway.” He half-turned and frowned at Y!’kiidaa. “What are you trying to do? Goad me?”
Y!’kiidaa flicked an ear. “A little, yeah. I didn’t expect you to rise to it but one can never be sure.”
“Hmm.” Wilde nodded. “…Y’know, in all of this, there’s a question I forgot to ask. What exactly are you testing us for?”
“Many things. The goal is to assess a potential ally. Understand, we did not intend for this to happen. Our original plan was more…circumspect. But circumstances compelled us. Our timeline is accelerated.”
“Come off it, you’re ancient. And you’ve been watching Earth a good long time, I bet. How is testing us assessing an ally? You’ve had plenty of time to make up your minds.”
“It is one thing to watch from afar. It is another entirely to see a thing like this.” Y!’kiidaa waved his paw about. “We watch the human race, we see bitter fighting. Resource competition. Nuclear oblivion poised on the edge of action for the better part of a century, corruption and ignorance…Yet, we also see potential. Here and there, more and more it manifests, in ways big and small. One such supreme example recently ensured the end of the Discarded, and he is suffering mightly for it, gods bless his soul. What to do with such a contradiction as your people? Balls, what about mine?”
That wondrous Human capacity for brilliant, intuitive insight and analysis showed itself with a widening eye. “…Heroes. That’s what this is about. You’re looking for goddamned heroes.”
Y!’kiidaa caught the wariness in his tone. “Yes. Now: do not jump to conclusions. We have a particular meaning in mind when we use that word. We are not interested in glory hounds or unrestrained warriors. This is too important a mission to leave to the unfixably aggressive, the unmovably cautious, or the irrepressibly arrogant. A Hero has all those qualities held in careful tension, because it takes a certain kind of chutzpah to do what the wrecking crew is doing right now, doesn’t it? To captain such a ship, while missing an eye? To lead such a crew?”
Wilde blinked, and Y!’kiidaa could practically hear the gears grinding in his head. Now here was a test. How would he react to such implicit high praise, disguised as mild rebuke?
Fate, in the form of Mojremm’rt, intervened to rob them both of the answer.
“Skipper? Got company, we…”
God fucking dammit!
Dora had dared to hope. They’d made it to the shuttle, hunkered down, nothing had happened for a good long while…But apparently, that while had not been idle. Somebody, somewhere in Venture had been…whatever. Reviewing camera footage or something.
Productively, to judge by the mismatched squad of goons in power-assisted exoframe armor now surrounding their shuttle and hauling a heavy weapon into position.
Fuck that. Shields up. Launch drones.
Lovely, shooty drones.
Skulking in the crowd, Dora could do. Passing for anonymous in a crowded place too, if she had the right clothing. Access networks and plunder them for valuable data? Absolutely!
But drones were her art form. The team assembling the heavy weapon were heavily armored, but Dora’s drones were set up for dealing with Hunters. A couple of Kwmbwrw in exoframes? She ripped them in half.
The rest of the goon squad scattered, finding cover among the landed shuttles and returning fire. Their leader was probably that Rrrtk at the back, whose heavy pulse gun had plenty of aim-assist built in, but lacked the stopping power to do more than knock the drones off-course.
Which did fuck up Dora’s attack run, of course. She sent the deflected drone up high to get a better vantage, and inhaled sharply as she realized these few were just the first to reach them. There was a whole convoy of armored vehicles at the main road, and more armored Hierarchy loyalists hustling their way.
A blast from one of the vehicles wrecked that drone. Fuck.
She kept the rest low, sent them scything out among the shuttles, then sharply back in to catch the enemy in their side. Hit and fade, slash and vanish.
One of the nearby shuttles took off, followed seconds later by a second, then a third.
Of course. Why send troops into the trap when they could just have the spaceport’s automated traffic management system clear the road for them. In a few seconds, the whole field would all be airborne, and the bad guys clearly knew which one was theirs so there was no safety in trying to take off and hide among them.
After that…well, the shuttle had decently upgraded shields, but it was no tank.
She directed her drones outward toward the tanks. Maybe she could—
One of the tanks exploded.
Dora was still blinking and trying to figure out what she’d done to cause that when a second detonation ripped open a second tank, and then there was a shimmer in the air, a flash of brilliant white-blue—
The shimmer was a Human. Not one of the crew—a woman. Her armor was light and tight, form-hugging white plates over a red undersuit, with a pattern of swirling commas on the left shoulder and a dark, iridescent helmet like a compound eye. The long-bladed, long-handled spear-like fusion sword in her hands whirled, and four of the hapless quislings around her collapsed in pieces. Another blast kicked up a billow of smoke and dust, and Dora lost track of the mystery warrior.
She’d stared too long anyway. She turned the drones back as she realized that a couple of the first goon squad were trying to set up that heavy weapon again. She strafed them, killing one and persuading the other to run the fuck away.
“Who the fuck was that?!”
Moj had a rifle in hand, but no opportunity to use it. “Not know, I. Glad for her, though!”
“I saw her,” Ian confirmed. “Guessing she’s one of Keeda’s. Hang in there, the wrecking crew are nearly at that Farthrow.”
Dora surveyed the field. The last of the quislings were running away as fast as their odd-numbered sum of legs could take them. They were, it seemed, safe for the time being. “We’re ready to go get them. Just say the word.”
Back to waiting. But…wow. She’d only seen that Human warrior for a second or two, but already Dora was starstruck.
She hoped they’d get to meet her…
Wrmathrrm, loyal to the Order
Somewhere in the back of her head, Wrma had always been a bit skeptical of the Order’s anti-Deathworlder messaging. She’d never dared voice it, for fear of having to explain herself to the Enforcers, and it wasn’t that she’d disbelieved the threat they posed. They’d taken the whole galaxy by storm in less than a generation, destroyed livelihoods, toppled a Great House, bullied two warring galactic powers into truce…They were dangerous, to be sure. But could they really be the near-supernatural terror the Order’s posters and broadcasts claimed?
Apparently, yes they could.
Her worst nightmares had never envisioned this. Whole teams going silent simultaneously. Moments of silence, then another group in another part of the building. Their path didn’t seem to match her mental map of the Order’s headquarters. How were they so fast?
Another burst of terrible violence over comms made her cringe. A blast, shots, then the grim note of biomonitors flatlining. A whole room of people, gone in the space of a heartbeat.
Deathworlders weren’t just dangerous. They were monsters.
The Benefactors had promised that if ever such a force came for them, the suppressor in the sub-basement would be the colony’s best line of defence. Activating it would pin down the foe and keep them confined to at least moving through ordinary space.
The pair of Abrogators left behind to guard it were her only source of even faint comfort. Their solid, metallic, heavily armed bodies moved like they were alive, reacting to the distant concussive sounds of slaughter by turning sensors as if they could see through the walls.
Perhaps they could.
The last of Wrma’s forces were gathered in the suppressor facility, behind the barricades and shields and heavy weapon emplacements all pointed at the one point of entry. Even so, her skin was crawling with creeping certainty.
She was about to die. She was sure of it.
Death didn’t bother with the door. It came from above. With a tremendous crash and an unbelievable burst of violence, all she caught was the impression of heavy shapes dropping atop the abrogators with enough force to snap their spines.
Something knocked her aside, spinning her around and yanking her away from the fight. She didn’t see what, but she saw what the beasts were doing to the abrogators. One of the stricken machines writhed, trying to track its weapons onto its own back even as those weapons were grabbed with hands, feet and tails and simply ripped off with a terrible squeal of ruptured metal. The other sparked and went limp as a fusion knife stabbed down and decommissioned it.
Then there were smaller, darker shapes, and a volley of terrible explosions made her ears ring, dazzled her eyes and set her head pounding. The sound of her men dying before they could even turn around.
She shook her head, trying to get her bearings. When she did so, she was face to face with…
A Ten’Gewek. It had to be. It was about as broad as it was tall, more than half that deep, and had a tail so long and sturdy-looking, it counterbalanced the creature’s hunched-forward posture. It was looking her directly in the eyes, and when its lips curled back they exposed fangs like daggers.
One of the Humans was attaching something to the suppressor. “Whatcha got, Kong?”
The Ten’Gewek didn’t take its eyes off Wrma. “Officer.”
“Sounds like a great detainee to me. Wrap her up.”
“Wrapping” in this case apparently meant with his tail. The monster of a Ten’Gewek—easily the biggest in the room—firmly folded her up, tied her hands and feet together, and then she suddenly found herself inside his coiled tail, being hauled around like a child’s carnival prize.
She got a look around.
All her force was dead. Quickly too, their bodies mostly torn apart by whatever war crime these Deathworlders were using for weapons. There was blood in every color, everywhere.
One of the humans approached, the same one who had spoken to Kong. Same gruff voice, and he was in body and function the same to the humans as Kong was to the Ten’Gewek.
“You are hereby detained under the Interspecies Dominion’s laws of combat. You will be questioned, shortly. Do you have any immediate medical needs?”
Wrma gaped at him, still trying to fit the idea that she was alive into her head. In that flurry of instant, overwhelming force they had picked her out to live? It didn’t make sense…
“N….no…” she squeaked.
“Very well. We’ll discuss matters when the situation is appropriate. In the meanwhile…Kong here can crush a boulder to gravel with his tail. I’ve seen him do it. So I would advise you not to give him cause to tighten his grip. Understand?”
Wrma nodded, reflexively.
“Right. Be a good girl and nobody’s gonna hurt you.” To his men, “let’s move out.”
There was acceleration that Wrma felt in her bones and guts, and a terrible blur as she was launched vertically, still in the Ten’Gewek’s grip. Back up through the ruined ceiling…and the mystery of their bewildering movement through the building was solved. They’d simply ignored the walls.
Her captor’s loping run shook her hard and made her teeth rattle, doubly so when a blast behind them signalled the suppressor’s destruction.
Then they were out, into the night. For a moment, Wrma felt a spike of…something. Not hope, exactly, but surely the cordon of armored vehicles would give these monsters some pause?
…No. The Ten’Gewek had huge rifles that Wrma couldn’t have even lifted. They twisted something on the weapons’ sides, took aim, put their full considerable weight into bracing themselves…
They fired with a retort more like artillery than small arms, and they may as well have been shooting ration cans. Each round buckled and smashed a vehicle’s armored hide, wrecked its wheels, pulverized its contents. The troops, sensibly, fled.
Moments later, a shuttle was setting down on the square, orbited by a trio of combat drones. The deathworlders didn’t even wait for it to land properly, but started leaping up into it as soon as the ramp was down and a female Robalin—the very same one who’d been the object of the Enforcers’ earlier manhunt—waved them up.
Big as shuttles were, it was a tight squeeze. Wrma found herself packed in between her Ten’Gewek captor and a dark-skinned human who bared his teeth at her in a way that did not seem friendly.
The lead Human was the last one up. “Death-Eye, Chimp. All aboard,” he reported as the ramp sealed shut. Wrma could hear the solid k-chunk of the drones reattaching to the hull, and the whine of capacitors as the Mjrnhrm pilot charged a jump drive.
A new voice over the shuttle’s comm system. ”Stay put for now. We’re about to jump out and we’ve got a containment fleet jumping in. Feel free to stage down, Hoeff.”
The short wall of a human grunted toward the ceiling. “Rog.” He looked over at his men. “Right. Go ahead and shed ‘yer Grass, once we’ve jumped.”
Wrma didn’t know what their ‘grass’ was, and her translator didn’t offer any clues. A few moments later, the universal sensation of being yanked through something without moving overtook them all—
“Secured from jump,” came over the intercom. “Bruuk to aft cargo hold for medical inspection.”
“Right. De-ass and buddy-check!”
Everyone sighed in relief, and they disembarked the shuttle with an unmistakable sense of urgency into what appeared to be a large cargo bay of some kind. Once the rear ramp was down they were all out, arranged in a semi-circle—no escape for her, not that she could go anywhere—and tended to each other quickly. That done, all of them dropped their packs with a disturbingly heavy thump, set down their weapons, began pulling off their assault armor…
“Jesus fuck it feels good to be outta that bullshit.”
She…boggled. The rumors were true. Deathworlders really were a strange kind of infernally handsome. Something about how they fit together, how they moved…it spoke to parts of her instincts she didn’t properly realize she had, and she found it uncomfortably intimidating. The least of the Humans was so well-formed he was almost grotesque to look at, and the largest Ten’Gewek was…monstrous to the point it came out the other end. His more than any of the rest was a terrible beauty to behold. No living thing should be that obviously capable!
They noticed too, and there was a susurrus of dark humor. The lead human—very much like the big Ten’Gewek in physique himself—briefly tensed himself, and gave her an amused grunt.
…By the Matriarchs, nothing she’d ever seen before was as intimidating as that little display. All of them reciprocated, proving that they’d been standing totally relaxed and comfortable before. What malign force had made these creatures?
“I know we’re all pretty as fuck,” the lead human rumbled, “but I got questions first. Name, rank, and serial number. That at least.”
“…If I refuse?” She said, bravely, suspecting she knew the answer.
She didn’t. He shrugged, “then you can just sit there and be bored, I guess. Won’t matter, I bet the captain’s gonna wanna talk to you anyway. As for me and the boys…Rees! Let’s get a rotation through the showers going. We all stink to high fuck and back.”
The Ten’Gewek nodded too. “River was slimy,” one of them complained.
Their cargo space was obviously well-equipped for their activities because in the corner was, in fact, a hygiene station. All of them rotated through—and if she thought it obscene glimpsing their bare upper bodies, it was far worse now. She studiously found other things to look at.
The ship’s medic, apparently, was a Gaoian of unusual size, also a study in alien handsomeness, though thankfully he was covered in a thick pelt of shaggy fur. He gave everyone a once-over with a medical scanner, declared the deathworlders all clean, then gave Wrma a rather closer inspection. He frowned at the scanner as he played it around her head.
“How’s ‘yer hearing?”
“…Fuzzy,” Wrma admitted.
“Not surprised, with that perforated eardrum. I can give you—”
“It’s just a standard regenerative.”
The Gaoian duck-shrugged, and muttered a dictation into his tablet. “Patient refused treatment.” He stepped back and considered her a moment longer. “Okay. You’re on a ship with a deathworld crew, all of whom have Frontline contagion-suppressing implants and went through biofilter cycles before and after boarding. That bein’ said, it is my strong recommendation that you accept an immunobooster for your own safety.”
“Oh yeah.” The Gaoian indicated the nearby troops with a flick of his claw. “Humans are more’n fifty percent bacteria, by cell count, an’ it’s all symbiotic. Can’t completely sterilize ‘em without killin’ ‘em. An’ Ten’gewek? Kee—well, goodness only knows. We Gaoians ain’t essactly bastions o’ purity, neither.” The stocky gaoian made a chittering noise that was apparently a laugh.
“Eh. That’s evolution for ‘ya. So. You want the shot? Or you gonna risk a messy death?”
Wrma gazed at him in sickened bewilderment, then wordlessly held out her bound arms. He duck-nodded, took hold of her wrist with a grip that she could sense would have no trouble snapping her bones if he wanted, but was restrained gentleness itself when he pressed the injector to the inside of her elbow.
“Sure you still don’t want that regenerative for ‘yer ear? It’s gonna hurt before long.”
Wrma sighed. In for a paddle, in for a wade. “…Fine.”
That treatment came in the form of a spray into her ear. “There! All good. Now, you get a good meal in, yijao? Don’t wanna see ‘ya fallin’ out.”
“…Why are you being nice to me?”
The Gaoian looked genuinely confused. “Why not?”
They stared at each other in mutual incomprehension until he duck-shrugged, packed up his medical kit, slung it onto his back and was gone with a last instruction to call if she felt any sudden discomfort or troubling symptoms.
His absence left Wrma to stew in her own confusion, not to mention shock. It still felt like mere moments had passed since these brutes had massacred a room full of people and two abrogators like they were nothing, chosen to spare her for their own alien reasons…and now they were all politeness and sympathy? It didn’t make sense.
What in all creation had prompted them to come torment their sanctuary, anyway? And why had the Benefactors not intervened? After all their promises that Venture would remain unfound and would have plenty of time to grow and prepare for the Hierarchy’s resurgence, they had barely made it more than a handful of years, and then in one afternoon the whole project was over.
And the Robalin and Mjrnhrm! Traitors. Associating with the very life forms that would supplant and destroy everyone, in time.
It took only a few minutes for the deathworld soldiers to attend to themselves, the smell of their bodies thankfully much improved. They sat in a guarded formation around her—lines of fire carefully preserved, she noted—clad in thin shirts and some shiny mesh-like shorts for the humans, and shorts only for the Ten’Gewek. None of it did much to actually conceal their disturbingly over-muscled bodies, so she had no idea what the purpose of such flimsy garments was.
All of them began tending to their equipment. Mark of good soldiers, that; your health and your weapon were your greatest concerns, and these fighters obviously understood the tools of their trade better than any she’d ever seen in her command. No hesitations, no pauses, no consulting references. They disassembled everything almost distractedly, and cleaned as they talked among themselves.
The scatalogical and downright offensive content of their conversation was clearly some perverse kind of jocularity.
“Hey.” Big Human grunted at her, suddenly. “You hungry?”
“I don’t eat meat.”
“Yes, I know. We’re not going to force-feed you or anything like that. Are you hungry?”
Wrma’s impulse to defiance duelled with the emptiness in her belly, and lost. “…Yes.”
He tossed her a ration pack. “Here. Falafel. One hundred percent vegan. Means absolutely no animal products of any kind were used to make it.”
She scowled at the pack in confusion. “I thought you were carnivores.”
“Omnivores, more precisely, and we all like a good steak. I just happen to like the falafel MRE.”
When she tentatively opened it and gave it a sniff, Wrma could see why. The aroma was remarkable, and a tentative sampling was…good, actually. Clearly a foodstuff designed to keep for a long time, but not bland, not at all.
By the Matriarchs, how was she to cope with these contradictions? Just minutes ago they had slaughtered all her men, and yet now…
They all looked up and abruptly stood to attention as a new Human joined them, and this one could only be the “Death-Eye” that “Chimp” had called to. As unnerving as a human’s focused, predatory gaze innately was anyway, his was rendered doubly baleful by the obvious prosthetic.
“She behaving herself?”
“Yessir. I just gave her an MRE.”
“You cruel man.” They shared a chuckle. “Fleet’s coming. FIC wants her in Myrmidon’s brig.” he turned to Wrma. “I am afraid you are likely to be with us for some time.”
“And what will happen?” Wrma asked. She’d given up on defiance at some point without noticing it. Now, she was just…resigned.
“That depends on you. I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories, but trust me: we don’t practice any of that, and we don’t need it anyway. You will learn quickly that you are your own worst keeper.”
Whatever that meant. Wrma was still wondering when a new group of Humans arrived, these ones in uniform of some kind to escort her away, to another cargo bay, through a jump array, onto a different ship, through its cramped and too-tight decks, and into a cell.
They let her keep the food. Gave her a paper cup full of a whole day’s worth of water, too. Left her alone just long enough to start getting nervous, bored and fretful…
And then they came back and explained the rules to her. They were polite. Friendly. Efficient.
It was that last word that clicked things into place. How the team who’d captured her could unleash such terror and violence so efficiently, then go to giving her food and treating her with nothing worse than polite, hospitable disinterest. They were professionals. The violence was nothing more personal to them than their job.
In its way, that was far more monstrous than any description of them in the Benefactors’ stories.
They left her to consider the implications of that revelation a while longer, but they needn’t have bothered. Wrma was defeated. All she had left to do now was answer their questions. There was no point in resisting. They could not be resisted.
The Hierarchy was completely right about them.
Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff
“So, lemme guess. Keeda fucked off again?”
Wilde nodded, looking more amused than frustrated about it, this time. “As soon as the fleet showed up, yeah. I turned around, and there he wasn’t.”
“How d’you think we’re doing on this ‘test’ of his?”
“…I think we’re passing. Hard to say, but…he left some coordinates.”
“Sounds like an invitation, to me.”
“Or another show-and-tell with an assessment attached. But there’s something else. Somebody new joined our little drama.”
He showed them Dora’s drone footage. It was like something out of an action movie, the way a fucking ninja just materialized out of thin air, unleashed some terrible havoc, then was gone again just as quick as she arrived.
“…One of Keeda’s, you think?”
Wilde nodded. “Yeah. And I doubt we’d have seen her if we hadn’t impressed, somehow. He uh…” he scratched the back of his head, awkwardly. “He started banging on about ‘Heroes.’ Like, you could hear the capitalization.”
A mutual round of frowning at each other swept the room. “Uh…” Frasier began.
“Yeah. We got interrupted before I could get into it with him. But that’s about the point she appeared.” Wilde indicated the footage. “So, I don’t know what to make of it all. He seems to think we’re…” he trailed off, shaking his head.
“Something special,” Hoeff suggested.
“Sounds good to me,” Tumik rumbled, cheerfully. “Heroes get lots of pussy.”
“Rude!” Dora exclaimed. “Who taught you that word anyway?”
“The internet,” he shrugged. “Also, dance club! Turns out, human women like us…”
Now that had been a big surprise. Hoeff had known the monkeys were good-looking in an exotic sort of way, after all. He wasn’t blind. But good-looking enough to pull on the dance floor?
Apparently! Or maybe the gals in Folctha were more adventurous than most. But then again, Tilly was happily Vemik’s side girl, so…
…Actually. He’d been hit on by Ten’Gewek women, too. Maybe everyone was right about Human and Ten’Gewek. They did seem to have some kind of strange Star Trek attraction to each other.
He pitied the first human guy to stick his dick in that, though. Hoeff grinned, despite himself. If rumors were true, it’d be like stuffing a twig into a bear trap!
“…Something funny, Hoeff?” The captain seemed amused.
“Just my imagination boldly going.”
“Careful,” the captain teased. “You’re a married man now!”
“Eh,” Hoeff scratched the back of his head, suddenly sort of embarrassed. “I’ve got Claire.”
…Since when was he ever embarrassed about anything? With the head-scratch, too! Clearly he’d spent too much time Beefing with Julian. The Minnesota was gettin’ all over him!
“So,” he changed the subject. “I take it we’re going to those coordinates he gave us?”
“With Big Poppa Bear’s permission, yes. They’re going to contain the system we just found. Probably already have a planetary forcefield and Farthrow up, I reckon.”
“Hell of a thing. Whole planet fulla people loyal to Big H.” Hoeff shook his head. “Fuckin’ idiots.”
Frasier shrugged it off. “Can’t win every heart and mind.”
“It wasn’t all that many. Scan showed, what? Three small cities? I don’t envy the army for the POW operation they’ve gotta run now, all-sudden.”
“Shit, give the poor buggers down there some hot showers and walls without rust holes in ‘em, they’ll be singing our praises in a month,” Davies opined.
“We’ll see, I suppose…” Wilde replied evenly. “Anyway. It’s only forty hours or so to our rendezvous. I’d suggest you all get some rest and recovery in.”
That sounded good. Never not sleep, when the opportunity presented itself. And the Grass may not be the Mass, but it sure as hell kicked it’s wearer’s ass the same. They’d be putting it on again in a few hours, no doubt.
Hopefully, they were close to getting some actual fucking answers. It felt like they were due some. Hoeff was getting tired of the cryptic bullshit.
Whatever came next, it had better be good.
Y!kiidaa, Right Hand of the Triumvirate
“You intend to show them the Archive?” The Old Man’s holographic avatar was seated, enjoying a cup of wine as was his usual taste for the evening. He was a temporary touch of regality among Tomoe’s otherwise thoroughly minimalist private chambers aboard the Onna-Musha.
Y!’kiidaa duck-nodded merrily. Frankly, he couldn’t possibly be more thoroughly pleased with how things had turned out. “My old Cousin, they’re everything we hoped they would be. They play by my rules but not to a fault. They know when to use their own judgement. They showed great restraint in dealing with the…Wilde used a fantastic word for them. ‘Quislings.’ They’ve earned my trust twice over. And Tomoe-san’s too, it seems.”
“Yes…” the Old Man smiled at his wife. “Yours was quite the timely intervention.”
Tomoe shifted her weight slightly. “I merely averted a needless tragedy.”
“And thereby sent a tacit message they cannot have failed to miss.”
“If I have misunderstood Keeda-sama’s test and overestimated his approval, I apologize greatly,” she replied evenly. Only several centuries of familiarity allowed the Old Man to see the quiet certainty that she hadn’t behind her words.
And of course, she was right.
“You know me too well,” Y!’kiidaa replied. “Had you not stepped into save the shuttle, I would have. In fact, I think it’s better this way. A little extra sniff of mystery to entice them.”
“So you will show them the Archive,” the Old Man repeated. “That would be quite a test itself.”
“I wouldn’t dare show it to them at all if they hadn’t completely won my trust, old Cousin,” Y!’kiidaa promised.
The Old Man nodded, satisfied. They had been close for thousands of years, practically of one mind. Y!’kiidaa would have accepted his trust without hesitation, and knew that the Old Man felt exactly the same way. Neither of them were hasty, after all.
“Very well, then. I shall prepare Ekallim-Igigi for a suitably dramatic entrance.”
Tomoe’s hand covered her amused smile. “Ever dramatic, Husband.”
“One must always consider one’s legend, my love,” the Old Man chuckled. “If this is to be our moment to reveal ourselves, we’ll make it worthy.”
He glanced outside the camera’s field of view at something, smiled, nodded, then turned back to them. “I will see you tomorrow, then.”
Tomoe blew him a kiss, Y!’kiidaa ducked and spread his paws, and they were alone.
Tomoe stretched and rolled her neck, then wandered across the room to her armor stand. “You are a little too pleased with yourself, Keeda-sama.”
“One of my faults,” he chittered. “I don’t deny it.”
“I can hardly blame you. You are getting your way, in the end.” She tutted at some imperceptible damage to her weapon, and pulled a workbench out from its hiding spot in the wall to correct it.
Y!’kiidaa pant-grinned and made himself as comfortable as he could. The fact was, he didn’t much enjoy Tomoe’s taste in decor. It was too…open and clean. Gao were meant to relax in cozy, dark spaces full of the scents of living. The white walls, white ceiling, white floor, hidden-away furniture and near-total absence of decorative touches struck him as both clinical and unfeminine.
But, this was not his space. It was hers. The whole ship was her wedding present from the Old Man, periodically updated, maintained and rebuilt.
“I’m surprised the crew of Stray Fortune did not notice your implants,” she continued, transferring the naginata to the bench and beginning to strip apart its fusion field generator. “Surely they scanned you?”
Keeda duck-shrugged Getting one’s bones replaced with shield emitters, jump arrays, batteries, computers, explosives, smoke generators, and an emergency life support system that could keep him alive in the vacuum of space for nearly an hour…not a pleasurable experience. But oh, how useful.
And it was true, he’d held his breath during Bruuk’s medical inspection, and clamped down hard on his relief when the scanner hadn’t noticed any of it. Of course, why would it?
“You have to think about how people think of things,” he said. “Very few people really understand the workings of the devices they use. They think in terms of function, not how the function is accomplished. An automobile is a ‘go-places-box,’ not an intricate mechanical assemblage of cause and effect that eventually transmits force to ground.”
She nodded as she set the components of one of her own functional devices aside in neat rows, listening politely, inviting him to continue
“So too are medical scanners. They’re ‘find-sickness-boxes,’ especially to the people who use them every day, not a very particular set of modes and technologies to observe a target. The trick, Tomoe-san, if you wish to be clever in this way, is always in the procedure of a thing, not in its abstract function. You can’t fool a perfect find-sickness-box, if indeed there was such a thing…but you can absolutely fool a sophisticated X-ray scan, by considering reflectivity and density.”
“And I suppose they were much more concerned with your biological uniqueness, upon discovery.”
“Oh yeah. Can’t underestimate a good big distraction like that!” he chittered merrily. “But, oh, I had fun. I got to be a cyborg Keeda and everything, big and stompy and filled with lasers!”
The Gao had always loved their kitsch. Such a wonderful word, that! He’d definitely want his old bones back after this, though, and maybe this time he wouldn’t insist on consciousness. As weirdly, clinically fascinating and educational it was to watch your own body be precisely dismembered by forcefields…
He’d rather just dream.
“And has it all gone as you expected it would?” Tomoe asked, as she dismounted the weapon’s blade from its shaft.
“I try not to expect. That way I’m never wrong.”
He chittered when she turned and gave him a patient Look that she’d given him many hundreds of times before, and shook his head. “But, no. This has been very interesting!”
Really, Keeda wished he could claim credit for it all being some masterful gambit on his part, but that would have been an outrageous lie. The fact was, they’d only been trying to clean up after a slip-up.
Grave robbers. Quisling grave robbers, at that! Of all the things he’d been in his many lives, a filthy, mangy disloyal pyre-thief was not one of them. But the galaxy was full of people too unscrupulous—or too dull—to care about the sanctity of dead civilizations. To them, a fallen empire was just a useful place to grab something that some equally contemptible but wealthier collector would gladly buy for a small fortune, funding their black market purchases.
In theory, it was the sort of routine encounter an inexperienced new captain could safely cut his teeth on. But reality was never quite so mundane. Chaos had its way of slipping in, and the right zephyr in the wrong place could culminate in an avalanche. A slightly incautious too-fast warp led to ghostly sensor signatures, creating a spacer’s rumor, and from there…
Well, if a certain freighter, apparently come to trade with the grave-robbers, had been all that it appeared, then it and the dig site would have vanished, and the entire incident would be just another ghost story. Singularity had left plenty of those, over the ages.
But no. This freighter had turned out to be much more. So much better.
At heart, a trickster was just a sailor, skillfully turning his sails to the winds of chaos. A trickster was just a forager with a good nose, sniffing out opportunity from under the soil. A trickster was a huntsman, who might not know exactly when the animals would come his way, but nevertheless knew enough to lay a good ambush.
Y!’kiidaa had been sailor, forager and huntsman in his life, and much else besides. He knew chaos even more intimately than he knew Tomoe, or the Old Man. After all, he had witnessed the death of his very species, and certainly the end of his own line, yet still turned it into an opportunity.
And here, he smelled great opportunity. The solution to a mission that had at times seemed impossible over the long years.
He relaxed, and watched Tomoe sharpen her sword in comfortable silence, entertaining himself with imagining how they would react to her…and to her husband. He’d find out soon enough.
They were nearly at the Archive.
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
Their destination turned out to be a planet. One that left Urgug’s hide aglow with puzzled ripples of yellow and red.
“It is a decidedly odd one.”
Ian frowned and pulled up the data Urgug was looking at on his own station. “Odd how?”
“I see a strong magnetic field, liquid water and thick nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, but no sign of chlorophyll.”
Urgug added pulses of blue to his expression, the equivalent of a human humming and hawing. “For the sake of precision, let us say it is breathable. Or at least it appears to be from this distance. Closer inspection may yet indicate otherwise.”
Ian joined him at his console and watched around his huge furry crewman’s shoulder. Urgug was right, calling the planet they were approaching ‘habitable’ would have been more charity than it deserved. It was a bit smaller than Earth but a bit denser, and wildly more eccentric in its orbit. Urgug rumbled thoughtfully, and started to run the system simulation in reverse at high speed.
Sure enough, after only a few seconds, it threw up an error message. “As I suspected.”
“A rogue object passed through some…hmm…two hundred thousand years ago. We are looking at a once-temperate planet killed by the disruption of its orbit…and we are fortunate to be approaching when we are.”
“In a few weeks, the seas will boil. Then, presumably, they condense back out of the air at the other end of the year, freeze solid throughout aphelion, and so on. It is…very much a deathworld, in the truest sense.”
“So what in the hell is Keeda bringing us here for?” Ian mused aloud. Their rascally self-appointed proctor had resumed his mysterious act, and taken to answering all questions with a sly look, a shake of his head, and infuriating silence. “There can’t be anything living down there…”
“An observation which implies we are here for something non-living. Technology, perhaps? If he is indeed the enemy of our enemy…”
“A relay world? I doubt it. Everything we’ve seen so far says the big H like to use stable, temperate deathworlds for those…”
“I daresay we shall know more when our ‘friend’ reveals himself,” Urgug replied.
“He’s not here already?”
“At this point, I would be deeply surprised if he does not have an exceptional cloak.”
“Fine, fine.” Keeda, of course, chittered and appeared out of thin air with a shimmer. “Ruin all my fun with your logic…”
Ian chuckled, despite his growing annoyance. Even Urgug had reacted with calm. “For a trickster, you’re kind of predictable.”
“Naw! What’s the point in a trick that nobody figgers out?! Fun is for sharing.”
“Be that as it may, this is my ship, and…”
“Yes, yes. No more tricks, I promise.”
Ian accepted that with a kind of shrug-nod. “So what kind of ‘fun’ do you have for us this time?”
“Got something ‘ta show ‘ya. But first, there’s a friend of mine I want you to meet…”
Ian raised an eyebrow as, right on cue, the Fortune’s proximity alarm sounded. Keeda pant-grinned happily, and looked up through the flight deck’s roof windows.
“…There she is,” Keeda finished, with all the happy satisfaction of a magician who’d just produced the rabbit. “Gentlemen: the starship Onna-Musha.”
Moj buzzed a high, impressed noise equivalent to a long and low human whistle. Urgug was doing the same, glowing purple with streaks of white. Ian had to agree with them. The Onna-Musha was two hundred meters away at most, which was more than close enough to get a good, clear look at her, and she was…
Bloody hell, she was a fucking artwork.
She was crescent-shaped and smooth, much wider than she was tall assuming she was oriented the same way up as the Fortune. Her hull was a gleaming lacquer red, partly hidden by large and brilliant white armor plates. And if Ian’s eye was correct, those faintly glowing blue panels recessed along her leading and ventral hull were thrusters, presumably with matching partners on the opposite side. Equal thrust in all directions, the mark of an agile ship.
Front and center on the nose, were elegant brush-stroke characters the size of a bus. He didn’t need the translator to recognize Japanese Kanji.
Keeda chittered at their reactions. “Yeah, I gotta hand it to ‘er. Captain Tomoe knows how ‘ta blend form an’ function.”
“We are being hailed, captain,” Urgug reported.
Ian was still considering the elegant ship above them. “Put her through…”
Captain Tomoe turned out to be no less stunning than her ship, clad in formal silk robes. She bowed at the hips in greeting, and Ian caught the translator’s work in the mis-match between the movement of her lips and the words he actually heard.
“It is nice to meet you. I am Tomoe Gozen, captain of the Onna-Musha.”
“…Ian Wilde, captain of the Stray Fortune. A pleasure. I take it we have your crew to thank for getting my people out of a sticky spot.”
Captain Tomoe smiled, and switched to flawless, faintly accented English. “I attended to that personally. May I come aboard?”
“Uh…” Ian gestured invitingly. “Please do.”
“Thank you.” There was a thud, a black-flash, and in that instant she had gone from her own bridge, to Ian’s.
Ian sighed. “In the future, I’m going to ask you and your own to please not do that.”
She had the decency to look somewhat contrite. “Ah. Forgive me. It is our usual mode of travel among ourselves.”
“I figured it was something like that. You might consider how, uh, helpless anyone else is before that form of infiltration.”
“At least we were kind enough to show it to you, then,” Keeda replied, with his trademark amused ear-flick. “You are now forewarned, therefore forearmed.”
“I…suppose,” Ian allowed.
“There’s much more we intend to share, too. After this one last thing…I’d appreciate if you came down personally for this one. Shall we take your shuttle?”
“What, you can’t just jump us all down?”
Keeda shook his head. “No. Nor would you appreciate it if I could, yijao?”
Well, that was true enough. Ian considered for a moment, then accepted with a nod of his head. “Alright…Give us a minute.”
He ordered the wrecking crew to the shuttle as well, just in case. Tomoe made her apologies and returned to her ship, stating that she would meet them below, the shuttle was readied and loaded, and the long flight down passed uneventfully. Ian spent it looking out the window, trying to admire the view.
It wasn’t easy. There wasn’t a lick of green anywhere. The seas were blue enough, but dark somehow, as if the annual cycle of boil-and-rain had left them looking just as dead as they were. Technically it was a temperate world. In reality, it was a cinder.
Things were no better on the ground. When the shuttle set down, it did so in the middle of a scene of perfect desolation. There was nothing but bare dark dirt from one horizon to the other, baked as hard as fired clay by thousands of orbits too close to the sun. It was like walking on a vast unglazed earthenware plate, and without the shelter of any clouds in the sky. Thank fuck for the GRASS, really: hoofing it across the Sahara couldn’t have been any more hot and thirsty.
They were near the equator, in the middle of a tectonic plate thousands of miles from any fault lines, volcanoes, subduction zones…anything lively in short. On Earth, this would have nothing but perfect crop growing soil for hundreds of miles in all directions. Here? Just an oppressive sun, and the too-hard ground scuffing and crunching underfoot.
And, about half a click from their landing site, Tomoe was waiting for them at the top of a slight rise. She was armored and armed, now, that same light red-and-white outfit with the insect-eye helmet she’d worn back at Venture. She turned to acknowledge them, then returned her gaze to some unseen interest beyond the rolling terrain.
Ferd’s tail lashed as he turned, looking behind as though anything might be coming up unseen behind them here. “Reminds me of a book…”
“Which one?” Hoeff asked.
“Day-gone. Lovecraft, yes?” Ferd indicated the landscape of endless, undulating dark soil around them. “Just missing the dead fish.”
“I think I like this new literary supermonkey thing you’ve got going on. Do y’all have a reading club?”
“Yes, with Professor Daniel and Vemik, very much ‘catch-up’ to do. But I think you tease me.”
Ferd rumbled good-naturedly at that while the rest of the swolebros trilled. Nobody was being quiet. This was a very, very dead world, and anything that might have been here would have noticed them anyway.
…Except, that wasn’t quite true; one of them was being totally silent. Keeda was padding along on four-paw, and his expression wasn’t just solemn, it was downright funereal. Just as it had been back on that station.
“…What happened here?” Ian asked him
“Nothin’. This ain’t like the station or whatever. Think of it as…heh.” he perked up, very slightly. “Speakin’ o’ your culture’s literature. I’ve shown you our enemy’s past and present…”
They reached the top of the rise and he extended his paw forward, with an air of quiet, grim drama. “Behold th’ Ghost o’ Christmas Future, I guess.”
The rise in the ground turned out to be the end of the ground. Tomoe had been waiting for them at the lip of a vast open-pit mine, a conical hole big enough to bury a mountain. It had to be recently dug: had it been excavated last year, the rainy season would have filled it and they’d have been standing at an isolated lakeshore instead.
Far below, in the geometric center of the mine’s floor, was something so dark, so perfectly vantablack, that it caught the eye like a kind of inverse twinkle.
“…What is that?” Rees peered through his binoculars, then gave up and handed them to Ian with a shake of his head. Ian set one side of it to his good eye, and tried to focus on the black object, but he found that when the mine’s floor was in focus, he still couldn’t make out any details.
“Our mission,” Tomoe replied cryptically, and stepped over the edge.
It was a hell of a steep slope, but she slid down it like she was tobogganing, half-turned to cruise on her hip, her uphill hand pressed to the wall for braking and control. She made it look effortless, in fact. Keeda followed her without a word, with a flying leap that would have boggled the mind, had Ian not seen its like before.
Well, nothing to it. Ian gave a look down and considered. He was…well, a beast of a man by loosely normal standards, SOR had seen to that in spades, and he’d kept up the habit. But he wasn’t an ignore-gravity type of lad like Hoeff and his Wrecking Crew. That, and his total lack of depth perception. Suddenly felt a bit naked for lack of that eye. Feeling at a loss, he looked at Hoeff, who nodded at Ferd…
…Who hooted amiably and joked lightly. “Will take good care of you, little brother!”
True to his word, the descent was undignified, but safely managed. With a blistering run-up and a flying leap, of course, but cavemonkeys could make that sort ot thing look like everyday grace.
And they could fall out of trees on their home planet. Hell, they could safely fall from almost any height. Terminal velocity held no fear for the Crew, especially not here on this low-G rock.
Still, they hit with jarring force, even against the gravel. Ferd must have suspected the footing would be soft because he fell on all fours to fling himself free of it the instant they were in contact, translating his vertical motion into something alarmingly horizontal. From there a couple more flinging skips like a stone across a pond, bleeding off energy until Ferd had solid footing underneath…
They rolled to a stop at the bottom in a shower of dust and gravel. Monkeyflings were not the carnival ride Ian wanted out of life today. Two out of ten, would not barf again.
Keeda certainly approved, though. “Neatly done!”
Ferd put Ian back on his feet with a jocular grin. “See? Not so bad, yes?”
“I’ve been through worse,” Ian grumbled, and dusted himself off. Around him, it was raining men as the rest of the crew made their own descents.
A trill, an understanding hug, and a fang-filled grin of approval. The best way to a monkey’s heart was just to try, really. The biggest strength they valued more than any other was bravery.
It was getting on for late evening, and so by the time they reached the bottom of the whole it was pretty damn dark. But the object drunk in light like it was just falling right through the world and out the far side. That fact made it hard to get a read on its exact shape and dimensions. It was, Ian realized, still half-buried in the ground at a slight angle. So, probably a cube, actually.
“Now that’s really fuckin’ weird,” Rees opined, holding out his palm toward it. “Fuckin’ thing’s been drinkin’ in the sun, it should be radiating enough heat to cook with!”
“An astute observation,” Keeda chittered.
“So…” Ian took a step closer and peered at it. He couldn’t even see any scratches or dust. “What is it?”
“An Archive.” Tomoe prowled forward and rested a hand on its surface. “You’re looking at the Hierarchy.”
The crew all glanced at each other.
“…What. The whole thing?” Frasier asked.
“Oh yes. A complete backup. The Hegemony and every Mind therein. Stored here, in the most tectonically stable region of an otherwise inhospitable and useless planet that no remotely self-interested sapient being would even think of building on, and yet rich in mineral wealth. Contained within this cube is not just the archived data of all Igraen civilization, but the means to reconstruct it.”
“…It’s a Von Neumann probe, innit?”
“Indeed.” Tomoe walked a slow circle around it. “Tellingly, the Hierarchy have something so magnificent as this, a macroscopic backup of their entire civilization, yet not once did they imagine what such a device could really do. It’s just a library to them…”
Keeda duck-nodded, then turned sharply. “Ferd Given-Man! Do you know what a Von Neumann probe is?”
Ferd cocked his head, frowning at the sudden question. “Makes more of itself,” he said. “Then two make four, then four make eight, and go on long enough you have millions for every star in the sky.”
“That is certainly one of the more horrifying possibilities, yes. So, are we blessed or cursed with such an unimaginative enemy, hmm?”
Hoeff considered the cube. “…They really don’t care about matterspace, do they?”
“Only insofar as is necessary for their existence.” Keeda sniffed. “They live in their own universe, where they have total control of everything. Its fundamental laws, its nature. Even the boundary between self and another is optional to them. A dreamworld, endlessly more flexible than our rigid, objective reality…and endlessly less real.”
“Sounds kinda lame,” Hoeff opined.
Keeda chittered, long and loud. “You, my friend, have a talent for criminal understatement.”
Hoeff regarded the big bastard warily. “I’m a mudfoot. You get used to the immense bullshit. But we ain’t friends. Don’t pull that shit with me.”
“Really? Compared to these assholes…” Keeda indicated the cube.
“Those are my enemies. I don’t know what you are. Abducting my men and toying with us like an episode of Star Trek is a real fuckin’ good way to make it onto my forever shitlist.”
“Agreed,” Ian said, flatly.
“Oh, mon capitaine! You wound me.”
“Fuck off with that. We’re here. You showed us Space Auschwitz and the planet of the quislings, and now this. But you haven’t actually told us a damn thing about yourselves. You’ve jumped in to help when things got rough, and I appreciate that, but this cryptic bollocks makes it hard to trust you.”
“Oh come now, the enemy of my enemy, yijao?”
“—Is my enemy’s enemy. Nothing more.” Ian folded his arms. “Who are you? You called this your mission,” he reminded Tomoe. “How does appointing yourselves our proctors and testers forward that? What even is the mission?”
“We are Singularity. And our mission is the complete eradication of the Hierarchy, of course.”
“Singularity? Thank you. But the name alone tells me absolutely nothing, and that’s not the whole of your mission, is it? ”
“It very much is. But it’s so easy to say, isn’t it? ‘Destroy the Hierarchy.’ As if that were simplicity itself.” Tomoe shook her head gravely. “You do not understand the power of our mutual enemy. You think you are winning this war against the Hierarchy? You are not. This Archive is the three hundred and fifty-first we have ever uncovered. We have no idea how many there are in this galaxy, or beyond it. If even one survives, then they can start over, when our civilizations are complacent, when all of us here are long dead. From just one of these, they can rise, scour the galaxy, and begin their cycle of domination anew. And why not? They’ve done it before.”
“You think over all the seventy million years they’ve existed, we are the first and only time they ever faced opposition?” Keeda asked.
“I…hmm.” Ian’s brow furrowed as the question sank in.
“There’s one difference, o’ course,” Keeda continued. “Thanks to us—the conspiracy of which Tomoe and I are a part—for the first time in their history they are vulnerable. We might—might—be on the verge of actually defeating them. But it has taken us thousands of precarious years to reach this moment, and failure was always a real possibility.”
“Thousands of years of preparation, and the careful cultivation of both our species,” Tomoe agreed. “To what end? To the end of producing an alliance of peoples with the strength of will to see this fight through to the very last, however long it takes. To the end of producing people with the drive, tenacity and courage to rid our galaxy of the Great Enemy forever.”
“We were testing you,” Keeda said, “to see if we succeeded.”
Ian frowned at him, then around at his crew. The Ten’Gewek were listening implacably, drinking in the…whatever they’d think of it. The grand sky-story? God, how did they factor into this Singularity’s plans?
Rees had his eyes downturned, lost in thought. Frasier was watching the cube, brow furrowed and chewing his thumbnail. Davies’ head was angled slightly to one side as he looked back and forth between Keeda and Tomoe.
Hoeff’s expression was stony. “…And?” he asked.
Keeda looked at him, and spread his paws. “…And I think we did,” he said.
“So…If I was the Hierarchy,” Ian mused, considering the half-buried cube they’d unconsciously made the center of their circle, “and anyone fucked with one of these…I’d get very fucking angry at them and retaliate with everything I had to hand.”
“That’s what we expect, too.”
“Well, you see, there’s a paradox. We know how to destroy these. But the moment we do is the moment our long conspiracy is finally exposed to the light.”
“That is a dilemma,” Ian conceded. “You also risk much merely by telling us this..”
“One cannot see all ends,” Keeda duck-nodded. “I presume not even we could perfectly contain this, at this point.”
“That’s a fair amount of trust you’re showing.”
“Yes. So…how much more do you want? We would need your strict secrecy on this. It would be for your most senior leadership to determine what to do with what we wish to share.”
“We keep secrets well.”
“Good. Then it’s time for you to hear the full story. But not from us.”
Tomoe, it seemed, was something of a trickster at heart as well. She simply smiled, took a step back, and aimed a finger at the sky.
Ian was looking right at it when a space station the size of a city appeared overhead, low enough to see clearly in the light of sunset.
Its name, they learned, was Ekallim-Igigi. A name which their Surprisingly Educated Spacemonkeys found especially intriguing.
“I know those words…” Nomuk’s face was a mask of agonized recollection, like a man who’d put his keys down five seconds ago and now couldn’t find them.
Ian returned his attention to the looming edifice as the Fortune pulled closer for docking. He’d been wrong about its size, from the ground. It was a lot bigger than just a city. In fact, its vastness eclipsed every space station he’d ever even heard of. It was a whole damn civilization in space. As they were led along its approach lanes toward its port, he could see farms under glass ceilings.
Even so, the spectacle of it managed to come second to his curiosity about what Nomuk had just said. “You do?”
“Yuh. Read it somewhere…”
Hoeff grinned, proudly. “We’ve learned that spoken languages are harder for the monkeybros to learn, if they’re too different from their own, but reading is something else entirely. They drink it in like water. Their average is also a good bit more intelligent than our own average, too.”
“We study Humans,” Nomuk explained. “And, best way to know you is, start at the beginning, yee-jow? With your old history.”
“So this is why you wanted a big map of Iraq the other day.”
“Yes! And markers, to find places…That was it!” Nomuk poked his finger excitedly and whipped his tail. “Is Soo-mare-yan! I remember from one of Professor Daniel’s books!”
“…you know Sumerian.”
“Like water,” Hoeff grinned wider. “I’ve taught myself to speed-read to keep up with them. Gotta stay on top somehow…”
“So…what’s it mean?” Ian asked.
“Hard to say. Something like…’Palace of Gods Who Watch and Listen’ I think?”
“Or possibly princes, or just royalty. It’s pretty ambiguous,” Hoeff added, then frowned at Ian’s expression. “What?! Speed-reading, remember?”
“Besides. Spend time with Professor Daniel, even stupidest man learn,” Genn hooted with a nod and a teasing grin at Hoeff.
“Fuck off monkeybro, I’m smarter’n you! Still like twice as fuckin’ strong, too…”
“Anyway,” Ian interjected before something Stereotypically Hornyswole broke out between them for the umpteenth time today. “Sumerian. Sure. Okay. That’s…out of the fuckin’ blue, but fine. Bit bloody ominous, though…”
“Fits,” Ferd rumbled. “I think I read name Toe-mo-ay before too, somewhere. And Keeda is much older than Soo-mare-ya, yes?”
Rees, who’d practically had his nose glued to the window watching the vast station slide by suddenly took a step back, shock and dawning wonder crystallizing in his expression. “…Oh God. Oh fuckin’ shit!” He started laughing hysterically. “Keeda! Oh Jesus fuck you can’t fuckin’ be serious!”
Rees started shaking his head violently, grinning like a lunatic. “Oh, no. No. No, no, if I’m right, this is too fuckin’ good, boys! I can’t spoil it.”
“Could squeeze it out of him,” Ferd offered with a vicious grin. Rees only laughed harder.
“Don’t you dare,” Keeda replied, pant-grinning hugely. “Or I’ll squeeze you even harder! Gods, I’ve waited so long for this, I’m gonna give Rees the most biggest prize when it’s done…”
Rees took one look at Keeda, and bust out laughing even harder. He was having trouble breathing now.
Most of the crew were watching him like he’d gone mad. Tomoe, though, was openly giggling along with him. Whatever the joke was, she was in on it.
Ian looked back out the window while Rees leaned against it and slid down to the floor, gasping for air and making pained noises. The guidance fields had brought them to a stop in a cavernous port bay, and across the bridge, Urgug was watching Rees’ hysterics with troubled flecks of pink rushing all over him while he ran the ship through its docking sequence. “…I can tell I’ve got some reading to do.”
“You won’t have time,” Keeda intoned, then burst out chittering. “But we won’t torment you for long! Come, let’s go meet the Old Man.”
“Oh God!” Rees pulled himself together at last, and accepted Keeda’s helping hand to stand up. “…Ow. Fuck. Wow. Hah! Oh, shit, boys. We’re down the fuckin’ rabbit hole now, I tell you!”
Keeda’s smug could be cut with a knife. “Indeed. Now…this way, this way…”
They were given quite the processional welcome. Keeda and Tomoe insisted on bringing the whole crew, and loading Urgug into a vehicle was always a time-consuming process, but the streets—halls? Corridors? Decks?—were cleared for them.
Ian’s impression of a spaceborne civilization was on the money, it seemed. He’d been expecting just Humans and Gao, but in point of fact the crowds lining their route were of every sapient species he’d ever heard of, excepting the E-Skurel-Ir and Ten’Gewek. And Hunters, of course, but they didn’t fucking count.
Lots of Corti, but unlike any Corti Ian had seen before. These ones were taller, their bodies less terribly atrophied and emaciated, more functional.
That applied to the humans too, come to think of it. There wasn’t a one out there who wasn’t an Adonis or a Venus in his or her own right, in every skin tone and ethnicity under the sun and then some.
Maybe that was true of everyone, but he wasn’t really well-equipped to judge, say, Rauwrhyr beauty, or what Guvnurag found most ideal in each other. Urgug had gone nervously dark, tightly locking down his chromatophores rather than emote openly, which was usually a sign of intense focus, painful shyness, or perhaps a feeling of inadequacy.
Then they were out of the busy districts and into something altogether more…well, palatial. They passed through gates, and then…hanging plants, fountains and flowing water.
No sandstone or whatever, mercifully. That would have been a bit too on-the-nose for Ian’s taste. Even though he was beginning to expect something like that…instead, they were surrounded by the materials that built space stations and cities. Glass. Steel. White stone, colorful tiles, grass and trees. The parks were dotted here and there with buildings that didn’t fit the rest of the aesthetic, in that their architecture was from completely different cultures. What Ian knew about architecture wouldn’t have filled a page, but he thought he could recognize Japanese construction at least. Especially given that the banner on the wall matched the emblem on Tomoe’s armour. One of the others might have been a Roman villa, or Greek maybe? Whatever they were, they stood out for their difference.
It was all beyond extravagant. They were in space for Christ’s sake, setting this much volume aside for palace grounds was…
Well, it was a hell of a fucking flex. Though, it seemed this “Old Man” was happy for people to use it as a place to relax and get some open space, so maybe there was method to the ego. Or at least, it wasn’t an ego prone to jealousy. In fact, there were kids playing out in the courtyard, including a couple who were—Ian blinked. That was a hardy young lad! He didn’t know what he was expecting kids to be like in a secret space civilization but…why not, at this point?
Their convoy pulled up on an oval expanse of gravel in front of an entryway, and this did not defy Ian’s expectations. It was open, no gates or doors, and lined with art. Mosaic walls picked out in metal and polished stone, and sculptural reliefs thrown into sharp contrast by the indirect lighting from below. Winged beasts and nude goddesses watched the crew sternly as Tomoe and Keeda led them through, as did a guard of men in armour much like Tomoe’s.
And beyond…a throne room. With a very much occupied throne at the top of seven steps.
Its imposing occupant was wearing something like a kilt but old, somehow. It was colorful and of obviously fine make, and it fit tight against his legs—showy garb for a hot clime. No shoes or sandals, no headdress, not even a shirt. Lots of jewelry.
It almost looked ridiculous. Then the man stood to meet them, and…
“I fuckin’ knew it…” Rees whispered.
…Firstly, f-f-fuck. Yeah. Up-fucking-staged like never before, right there.
He was fucking perfect.
Like, legit perfect, in every detail. Tall, towering over every other man present, even taller than Keeda. Broad-chested and HEAT-built everywhere, with long wrestler’s arms and a set of legs to match. His luxurious black beard was braided and sewn into thick twists, and a similarly prepared mane of long dark hair shot with the occasional silver thread fell to his shoulders.
The object lesson in masculine beauty extended to his face. He had happy, glittering eyes, warm and deep, deep brown. A nose to match the beard, obviously big but it worked for him regardless. Probably a chin to match it, too. Heavy brow without a caveman’s slope, with thick eyebrows. Thick everything. He was wide-necked and broad-jawed but handsomely so, not lumpen and ogre-like. He was moderately hirsute, with mostly bare, dusky skin banded with golden jewelry, and there was a ring on every one of his fingers.
In fact, putting it all together, through squinted eyes, the big man looked eerily like…
“…Julian?” Hoeff whispered beside him, completing Ian’s thought.
This was the caveman in fifty years, he knew instantly, somehow. Somehow. The King of Men could have been Julian’s dad. Gonzo’s grand-dad. He was old, too. Not in body—he was a perfect man in his perfect physical prime—but somehow, there was deep age in his spirit. Time just seemed to radiate off him with every movement. Maybe it was the way he dressed, the setting and show of his palace, or what-the-fuck-ever, but he felt ancient in a timeless way.
Awe, and unreality. Both at once. That was the only way Ian could describe it. Something in his legs and back wanted to bow, on pure instinct: he resisted it.
The king looked over them all in a slow sweep, smiling faintly, taking in their reactions, then swept down the steps—with a prowling gait, Ian noted absentmindedly—stopped before them…and bowed.
Respectfully, and not abjectly. But it was a bow, nonetheless. He held it for a long moment, then stood upright, favoring them with a broad, warm, welcoming expression.
“Hello, young ones! I am Gilgamesh of Uruk, king of the Golden Throne. Welcome to Singularity.”
++END CHAPTER 83++
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Dandelion: audiobook now available!
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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.
And now, without further ado, on with the chapter!
This chapter was brought to you with the help of…
Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
Sally and Stephen Johnson
Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker
Culverit (with apologies for missing you last month)
His Dread Monarch
Joshua A. Demic
Joshua Mountain Taylor
Richard A Anstett
As well as 58 Deathworlders…
Adam Zarger Alex Langub Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece atp blackwolf393 Brandon Hicks Brigid Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Candreva Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Henry Moyers Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jack Weedon Jim Hamrick jmal116 Jon Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina Blue Loaf of Orange lovot Matt Matt Badger Matt Bullock Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata Nicolas Gruenbeck NightKhaos Olli Erinko Patrick Huizinga Rabid Hyena Ryan Cadiz Ryc O’Chet Sam Sean Calvo Stephen Prescott Thanatos theWorst Tim Mulder walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas Zod Bain +1 anonymous
68 Friendly ETs, 136 Squishy Xenos and 307 Dizi Rats who, trust me on this, should NOT be served for Christmas dinner.
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work are the property of their respective owners.
The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.
The author does not necessarily share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.
Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 84: The Deep