Chapter 84: The Deep
Date Point: 19y3m1w AV
Ekallim-Igigi, deep space
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
Ian had sometimes idly thought about writing memoirs or a book or whatever. Plenty of men had, after serving, but…no. No way. There was no possible combination of words that could do justice to…
Actual Gilgamesh. From the Epic of Gilgamesh.
What the fuck.
Fortunately, the big man—and what a comical fucking understatement either of those words were!—could read the room. He chuckled amiably, and somehow, through some small shift in the way he stood, dropped some of the radiant god-king bullshit.
“It’s a lot, I know. And you have so many questions. But I’m afraid we are not quite done with all the pomp and ceremony yet. The people out there have been waiting a long time for this. We should let them see you…”
Aye, why the fuck not? We can meet Santa and Gandalf while we’re at it.
Smiling, the King put his arm around Ian’s shoulder and guided him along, in a way reminiscent of Firth’s most colossally Hawaiian-shirt-laden forceful friendliness. Ian looked up at the man.
He had a deep chuckle. “Not precisely the name I was born to…but a few thousand years will distort anything.”
Ian shook his head. If not for the very real weight of the arm companionably guiding him, a real physical man actually touching him, he’d have wondered if they were deep in some kind of holodeck bullshit. Keeda’s biggest prank yet. But…shit. If a Gaoian god-hero could show up and fuck with them, why couldn’t a human one?
He strained his memory trying to remember the story. Couldn’t recall much of it, frankly. The king of Uruk had been a wanton man, who bedded all the women (and men, in some tellings) on their wedding nights, partied and debauched, wrestled and fought, until finally he’d made a good friend in…
Enkidu. Y!’kiidaa. No wonder Rees had bust a gut laughing.
God. Alice down the fucking rabbit hole? Shit. There was nothing to latch onto here. A large part of him wanted to just…give up and laugh, like Reesy’d done.
He held it together. Somehow. “Yeah…Saying I have questions is an understatement.”
“Good!” The Frat Boy King slapped him on the back with enough force to genuinely sting, though he realized his error immediately and gave an apologetic grin. “We’ll do our best to answer them. But come! Meet my people!”
Christ. An ancient mythological king, one built to the same sort of big and powerfully muscular scale as fuckin’ Firth—hard to compare blokes that size, really—but possessed of an absent-minded gregariousness instead of Firth’s cat-like poise. As they walked, he talked jovially about the palace, the stuff on the walls, and made introductions. He praised the Stray Fortune, and not in a back-handed royal kind of way either. Ian found himself teetering between listening politely and occasionally being smacked in the head by the sheer bloody absurdity.
But then they were round a corner, and through a curtain, and into a wall of noise, cheering and drumming and applause, and a balcony overlooking a long tree-lined mall. The mall was rammed shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people in every conceivable shape and species…and Gilgamesh was their king. He gave Ian one last affable swat on the back, (much more restrained, this time) then stepped up to the railing to make a speech or something, which Ian completely failed to listen to.
How in the fuck am I going to write this in my report?
Somewhere in that crazed thought, he found a solid place to land on at last. Okay, so the world had just bowled him a fuckin’ peach of a wrong‘un…but he was here to do a job. He’d have a report to make at the end of all this. That at least let him figure out which way was up.
Thus armed, he pulled himself back together and started listening properly. Started thinking again. How was he going to report this?
Well. He could start by seeing to his crew. And after that…
After that, they’d see.
The moment when Dora’s misgivings about the Robalin Supremacy had crystallized into evil certainty was indelibly fixed in her mind. She’d been eleven years old, a few weeks after her first pubescent molting. Tall and slim, self-conscious about her new, soft scales, and mortified by every compliment.
She ought to have been proud. Every depiction of the perfect child looked like her. Silky, smooth, fine scales in a healthy, youthful seafoam green, bright dark eyes, feathery antennae…The poster child of the Supremacy’s model young woman, on the outside.
On the inside…well, a few intense sessions with the school’s morality counsellor had quickly taught her to disguise every awkward adolescent flush of internal heat from the “wrong” sources. Every day had felt like tiptoeing through a minefield, never daring to stare at the girls who fascinated her so much, always forcing herself to coo admiringly over masculine features that did nothing for her.
And of course, every time she was pointed to by her teachers as a good example for the class to follow, she’d felt bare, as though any of them might see right through her and pipe up to dutifully expose the disgusting lesbian hiding among them.
Nothing of the sort had happened. Instead, she’d been the darling of the school administration, her beauty and flawless grades irrefutable proof of the innate superiority of their race. Never mind that her grades had been the product of desperation, a smokescreen she’d worked hard to maintain so they wouldn’t look closely at her. By keeping herself pretty and perfect, she’d escaped notice while some others of her class were taken away for “corrective education” and never returned.
It had only left her teetering precariously above a long and terrible fall, of course. Whatever fate had befallen her classmates, her fall from grace would be triply meteoric. The Supremacy reserved its most terrible wrath for its favored children who fell out of favor.
But the crystallizing moment in which she had truly glimpsed behind the curtain had been the parade. A selection of prize pupils were given the signal privilege of witnessing the launch of the Supremacy Naval Authority’s new crown jewel and flagship, the Utopian Ideal.
At the time, Dora had been awestruck. The ship was an aesthetic behemoth, her slender angles, silver hull and sharp profile putting Dora in mind of a shard of broken mirror. She’d put on a flashy light display across her shields and hull as she’d drifted past the viewing gallery, adding to the pomp and fanfare and fireworks. Infographics had said much of the ship’s titanic capabilities, armament, and defences. Much had been made of her esteemed and highly decorated captain, too, a man who could have been Dora’s cousin for how similar they looked. Or anybody else’s in the crowd’s, for that matter.
Laughable, nowadays. The Stray Fortune, nondescript and deliberately shabby as she was, would have wrecked the Utopian Ideal in seconds. But hidden among the information about guns, shields, engines and so on, Dora had noted a small but significant detail in the form of the Special Warfare Module.
In other words, the bioweapon tanks.
Her realization of that module’s nature and purpose had coincided with an announcer proudly proclaiming to the crowd how the Utopian Ideal could single-handedly pacify any resistance, even on a planetary scale.
…In other words, how it could infect millions of defenseless people with a virulent airborne plague that would leave them shitting out their own liquefying internal organs before merciful death finally delivered them from their suffering. The Supremacy hadn’t even bothered to try and hide how terrible its weapons were. On the contrary, it was a point of pride, and probably a statement to the masses about the likely outcome of any futile dissent.
In that moment, though, it had occurred to Dora to wonder where and how exactly these pacification weapons were created. And in the next moment, a leap of intuition had told her what “corrective education” might truly entail.
Her eventual escape had taken a further six years, and she’d never looked back. But now…
Well. Singularity was giving her some misgivings.
It was the parade for their benefit that had really set her on edge. The way everyone lining their route to the palace was some kind of beautiful or perfect. Fuck, she’d seen a Robalin girl in the crowd, pretty enough to make Dora’s heart ache with longing and awaken her ancient, ingrained, whatever-you-do-don’t-stare anxieties.
She flinched as he felt Ian’s warm hand on her spine. “Breathe, love. You look like you’re about to be sick.”
Dora shivered, and turned her head to whisper to him. “I’m okay. I’m just…big parades don’t sit right with me…”
“Sounds like an understatement. You’re damn near bending the railing.”
Dora looked down. Sure enough, two of her hands were clenched around the metal bar in front of her, tight enough to make the fine scales there turn pale. She let go, and brushed herself down awkwardly. “…I’m not that strong.”
Ian chuckled, then glanced up at the far end of the balcony, where their gracious and kingly host was waving to the crowd, all broad, charismatic smile and noble bearing. “He is layin’ it on a bit thick, isn’t he?”
“There’s no such place as paradise, skipper,” Dora whispered, fervently. She was as sure of that as she was of anything. “It’s all…”
“Bread and circuses?” Ian suggested. “I dunno if I’d read too much into it just yet. It’s pretty natural to want to give a big welcome to new visitors. Everyone does that. Hell, that’s more or less what His Majesty’s job is full-time, back home.”
He gave her a friendly pat on the back. “Go on, take a step back. Get away from the crowd a bit, if you need it.”
Of course, they weren’t in a barge or any such thing, so the king probably overheard them. He didn’t say anything, but he did whisper in an aide’s ear. He stepped back from the balcony, which let everyone else to do the same. Refreshments appeared in short order.
“Well! I thank you for indulging me a bit…you do not know what it means for us. We’ve lived in secrecy for so very long…This day has been millennia in the making.”
There was a Corti who’d been close by Gilgamesh from the moment they first arrived. Leifini. And she was a doubly baffling creature. She didn’t quite look Corti, somehow. She was too tall, too well-figured, her face too expressive. She was openly smiling, something Dora had never known a Corti to do. “And it came sooner than anticipated.”
“I wouldn’t celebrate too strongly,” Ian cautioned. “Our own leadership is going to have… reservations about all this. And rightfully so,” he added, with just the right amount of polite, respectful rebuke in his tone.
“Of course, that’s only wise. And you, of course, have questions!” Gilgamesh boomed. “Perhaps the time has come to start answering them…yes. You’ve indulged us long enough.”
At his gesture, they left the roar of public attention behind and retreated into the palace’s quieter innards. Getting away from all those watching people steadied Dora’s anxieties a bit. She probably had been reading too much into it, truth be told.
But they didn’t go away. The King especially unnerved her, and she couldn’t say exactly why.
But a glance at Ian told her that he felt the same.
So did the others. Hoeff, his Wrecking Crew and Bruuk as well…all had silently conspired to a defensive arrangement around their more vulnerable crew.
They came at last to a room—quite Japanese Tea Room in aesthetic, actually—with low cushions around a small table, a central hearth and a warm pot, and an array of light fare. It wasn’t quite as severe as a tea room, though; there was room enough for everyone to sit comfortably about the room.
Clearly, Gilgamesh anticipated they’d be here a while. Even so, despite his immense size, he eschewed the furniture and settled for folding himself down cross-legged next to the table.
He caught the mood immediately. “Force of habit! Several of my wives insist on this. Who am I to disobey? Please, sit however you find comfortable!”
“Wives plural?” Ian asked, as he sat opposite. Dora found a large conical beanbag, perfectly shaped for a Robalin to sit on, and lowered herself gratefully. Her feet had been starting to hurt. Around the room, the others found somewhere to be. Bruuk curled up next to Ian, Urgug settled at the back, out of the way, Moj imitated the king in sitting cross-legged, and the Ten’Gewek all opted for a wide-legged stance while sitting on their coiled-up tails.
Dora knew that was a kind of half-way posture for them. At ease, but they could spring in any direction in an instant if something happened. And Hoeff, Rees, Frasier and Davies knelt rather than unwinding completely.
Y!’kiidaa and Leifini settled on lounge couches to Gilgamesh’s right and left, respectively.
“Oh yes. You met Tomoe already. No doubt some of the others will want your attention in due time. As for…well, you learn a certain kind of open-mindedness over time. Or at least,” he chuckled, “you grow less dishonest with yourself. It was common in my time, I am a passionate man, and I see no reason I should conform to later ideals in every detail.”
“Our leadership is definitely going to want to know you conform to some later ideals,” Ian pointed out.
“Given how the Great Father himself has daily dalliances with sometimes dozens of females, and your own ambassador to the Ten’Gewek has two wives…”
“I was referring to matters like slavery,” Ian replied, directly.
Dora noticed as Gilgamesh paused. It wasn’t an awkward, embarrassed pause, nor indignation at being interrupted. There was a look between them, the kind deathworlders used when they were having a whole conversation in silence. She’d studied humans for years, and still never cracked that facet of them. They insisted they weren’t telepathic; Dora still wasn’t entirely convinced.
“That’s brave of you, young one. And a bit rude.” There wasn’t any anger in his tone, however.
“Wise, though. So…In that regard, I must admit, privileged and powerful as I was, it took a long while for my eyes to open.”
“Not a reassuring statement, that.” No rank or honorific. Ian was parlaying with the King as an equal, and the King was permitting it.
“Perhaps not. It took me longer still to even attempt to stand against it. Now, I mean no offense, but I suspect you do not understand how brutal the simple labor of feeding ourselves was. But, over time, matters improved. Singularity has never practiced that dreadful custom.”
“That sounds a bit…”
“Then I shall be clear. Slavery is an abomination before the gods. Any culture that can abolish its practice, must. I will not pretend I did not begin as a creature of my age, and you will see there is much truth in my legend. Brutal times make for brutal men, and I can be most brutal, when needs must. Gods, I was born and ruled in a time when the Ten Commandments would have been revolutionary! But all of us feel, my friend. It does not take much to engender sympathy for the most unfortunate and wretched among us. A man who cannot feel the wrong of it does not lead for long. Feeling it in your bones is the first step forward.”
This time, Ian said nothing. His posture shifted slightly, relaxed a little, and so too did Gilgamesh’s. The king reached forward, selected a dumpling or something from the table in front of him, and ate with surprising delicacy.
“…I have watched my species these long years, from a distance and from up close. I have read all the books of great men and heard their arguments, and those of the gao. I have been challenged many times, and learned the beginnings of my own ignorance. You were fortunate to be born suffused in the Deep. I had to learn it. No. Our people had to first discover it.”
He chuckled suddenly. “With time, I came to take joy in discovery, especially when discovering my own foolishness. If you ever have the opportunity to live truly long, young one, you must cultivate your inner child. The world must never become boring and static! And all of us, kings, captains, Keedas and Corth, must be humble in heart. There is always something new to learn.”
“And a new story to hear, your majesty?” Ian suggested.
“Yes!” Gilgamesh agreed. He poured out a red liquid into the cup in front of him: the scent of alcohol made Dora’s antennae fizz. “And it’s time we begin, indeed. I hope to hear the tale behind your eye!”
“You first, sir.”
“Mm. But, our story does not begin with me, nor even my brother and cousin Yekiidaa.” The ancient king tilted his wine toward the Corti now reclining on a cushion to his left. “It begins with Leifini…”
Date Point: 19y3m1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Things could always get weirder. That was a maxim of the Universe Daar had taken to heart long ago, and reality had yet to prove him wrong. A ‘Back couldn’t often do anything about the weird, either. That was were he found himself quite suddenly, facing down a potentially terrible change to the game and lacking any useful data to help him wrassle with the problem. So, he did what he always did in such situations: what he could, when he could.
First, triage: protect the Gao (and her allies) from himself.
Easier said than done, since the most immediately doable thing was also the cruelest, given how it would involve his bestest Cousins in a deliberately ordered contingency plot against himself. If that terrible scenario ever came to pass, it wouldn’t just be Daar who suffered an untimely demise, probably.
But needs must, and no Great Father—especially Daar—could afford to be anything but brutally honest about reality. The truth of the matter was that Daar’s huge blessings were as much liability as asset in this new game. He was an engineered being, he’d learned not too long ago, and that engineering extended well past simple designer gene tampering. He was intended to become the new Alpha of Alphas over a new kind of Hunter, one that smiled and made friends with the prey it would ultimately contain, control and devour, one way or another.
Nobody anywhere was more of a predator than him.
Thank everything that the Humans had come along and given him an escape path from that fate. Gave his entire people a chance to transcend their destiny. The causal chain stemming from encountering Humankind was mind-boggling to think about, and if it wasn’t for Xiù, for her partners, for Adam rescuing Daar’s dearest Cousin from a terrible fate…how many were instrumental in the Gao’s salvation? In his own stupendous potential finding its expression? In his current rank and privilege? How could Daar ever repay such a debt?
How would he approach the problem of Singularity, with everything they’d made him into?
He was a freak. A lonely, incomparable freak who no longer had any peers in any endeavor, who’d never have someone to match him properly and whose freakishness was still on a rocket ride upwards. Oh, he had minds he could contest with, sure—Loomi in particular was a Cousin he’d grown to deeply appreciate over the years. He had sparring partners that could give him a proper fight too, if they were very clever about it. Reading and learning was always a joy, lifting, training, and hunting his meditations. He wasn’t without personal challenge in life.
But that was the problem. It was only in blatantly uneven arrangements that things were any kind of sporting at all! He was a made being engineered to be “perfect,” whatever the fuck that was, and he’d essentially achieved that “perfection” as much as by his own efforts as anything else. As he’d begun understanding from a young age, that despite all the immense rewards of being the best, “the best” was very often a lonely, terrible, and dangerous thing to be.
So…what control did his makers have over him, exactly? He didn’t know.
He couldn’t know, if they’d done the deed right. And that was the central problem, right there. Singularity was more than a well-connected conspiracy of spies. They were apparently an ancient space civilization with unspeakable technological power. They had truly made him, not the Corti, and Daar would bet his huge left nut on it.
Worse, “they” was the only word that fit. He had multiple conflicting forces at play in his heritance and upbringing. The Hierarchy of course, who had accelerated their plans on the coming of the Humans…and Singularity, for their own reasons. Probably both wanted an ultimate weapon in the form of a pliable, militant civilization of Deathworlders. Both had decided he would be, well…the singularity at the center of that. Both had worked to bring that about, which made them sworn enemies by odd circumstance, blindly allied in the fact of Daar’s existence.
He couldn’t allow either of them the faintest possibility of control. With the Hierarchy that was generally easy to accomplish. Ban neural implants on pain of death for all but the most debilitating and terrible circumstances, and closely monitor every such case. Done. Had a terrible war to that end, too. But Singularity? Where Keeda himself was apparently still around, at least according to early reports? He had a good crew on the task, but even they would be potentially suspect after this, with such credibly fantastical claims of technological power about.
How would he conduct any statecraft with this Singularity, given how they’d apparently infiltrated Corti society since before the Gao had history? Should he? Could he risk himself? Did he use cut-out ambassadors? How could he ethically do such a thing to an ambitious Brother?
…What did Daar want out of all this?
He sighed, and pulled his Naydi closer. It was early morning and he’d only half-slept through the night, mind restless and unwilling to let go. Of course, she’d done her admirable best to help him relax the night before, and her attentions had certainly helped…
Her nose sniffed and she yawned awake, snuggling along his chest and belly.
“Mmmf…you smell distracted, Bumpkin.”
He snuffled in the top of her head fur. “Yeah. But don’t you worry ‘bout me.”
“Worrying about you is my job, Bumpkin. Somebody has to!” She chittered quietly and wriggled around to face him. He in turn rolled over onto his back, taking her with him. She laid her head on his chest, snuffling in the dense snow-white ruff of fur between his pecs and gods how he wished he could just lie like this forever…
But, she was his rock, and his reminder of what was at stake. Resolved now, he rolled back over, gently pinned her. “And someone needs to take care of you, Naydi.”
So, he did. Gently, and nothing ultimately self-serving. Just a good massage and good, playful attention, all nuzzling hugs (and definitely a bit more than that) instead of satisfying his more volcanic appetites. She deserved a break from his passion, after all. Which, again…
“You’re so young, my Naydi.” She was less than half his age, a female in the peak flower of her life. “You shouldn’t spend it all just on smelly ol’ me!”
“Bumpkin,” she chided, running her claws through his chest fur. “I swore an oath to be true to you. I am the one person who stands by your side, and not below. I wouldn’t jeopardize that.”
“You wouldn’t with me,” he countered, knowing he’d lost the argument again, as always. “There ain’t nothin’ in this Universe that’d stop me lovin’ you.”
“And if it were just you and me, I’d take you up on your indulgence,” she sighed. “You’re right. There are many good males out there…but, no. We must live lives for more than ourselves.”
“I know.” It always hurt to admit, just a little.
“And you shouldn’t tempt me like that, Bumpkin. We can never indulge.”
“I…I know. It’s a selfish sort of concern for you, I guess.”
“And it’s a noble one,” she wrapped her arms mostly around his neck and hugged. “But you can’t put your concern for me over the Gao. I knew what I was doing when I first pursued you. I went into this with my ears up, Bumpkin, even back then. We all knew you needed a consort and we all knew what that would demand. I swore an oath to be that comfort to you before the Seen and the Unseen. I have no regrets. And pretty good cubs by you, too…”
They both chittered quietly.
“So don’t fret.” Her paw reached up and scratched against his jaw. He leaned into it, enjoying her attention. “I have the best male there is or ever will be, warming my nest-bed for the rest of my life. That’s more than enough for me.”
“That might be an extremely long time,” he warned.
“It may. But the nice thing about long times, is it takes a long time to know them. We’ll explore them together, Bumpkin. And we will live our lives, however long they may be. We won’t be Great Mother and Great Father for all of it. Whatever happens, then or now…we’ll work it out.”
Daar sighed, in awe of her calm wisdom as always. “Gods, I dunno how I’d manage wit’out you…” He didn’t wait for her reply, but kneaded at her with his paws, snuffled his way down her belly…and did what came naturally. Sometimes, it was all about her.
The way she gripped desperately on his mane and ears was delightful, too! He was merciless.
Anyway, onwards. He had a schedule to keep today, and more and more, he was a being of timetables and appointments than he’d prefer. At least the Gaoian notion of time made more sense to him, compared to the weird Human system; a shorter second, called a tick instead, a hundred to a minute, a hundred minutes to an hour, twenny-five hours to a day (almost) exactly. Time-wise it very conveniently lined up with Cimbrean’s natural day-length too, so if he just subtracted five hours either way, he was roughly good to go.
Sixth hour: wake up officially. Git up, take his morning piss, get his fur situation tended to. Daar chittered a bit evilly to himself, since Naydi was a bit too happy-shocked to be of much use right now…Tiyun would just hafta do.
Seventh hour: quick workout, just to get the fuzz outta his brain. He and Tiyun made up a ball game where Daar’s size and strength weren’t much advantage, so that was nice! The littler guy need to work on his throws, though. Gaoians always needed a bit more practice, there.
Eighth hour: breakfast, stretching, a once-over by the sports doc, morning briefs. Generally all at once. Poached fish fry-mix this morning, fresh from Longback’s finest, and meal one of his planned nutrition as a chaser. Stretching was a bit more painful than he’d like; definitely getting a little muscle-bound with the heavy winter bulking, so he’d need to focus on that more. Perfect health otherwise, so that was good. Briefings were mostly dull. Also good.
None of them had the Big Revelation in them yet. That would come later.
The next several hours were a blur of engagements and socialization, along with food tucked in whenever he could. He was a bit behind on his meal plan by the end of it. Then a proper workout, training with First Fang to keep up to scratch on their tactics, more meals, some reading and tutoring time, some argument in Conclave…the hours ticked by pretty quick.
Fifteenth hour: caught up on food. Now, the real challenges of the day began. The first was a press junket. Among the Gao this wasn’t exactly a new thing, but the Gaoian press was much less…predatory, maybe. Partly that was due to Gaoian nature, because one either respected authority or, feeling confident, one challenged it. Friend or enemy, never an adversary. The distinction between the two was a difficult concept for the Gao to understand.
So, he answered their questions. Only a little of it was even a little biting, and he could smell the fear on the young reporter’s scent just working up the nerve to ask.
“Oh, don’t’chu worry ‘yer pretty silver head,” he offered, hopefully disarmingly. Flashed a big pant-grin too. “I ain’t gonna eatcha! I promise. Now ask that question.”
He did. Something almost gently critical ‘bout the rumored Constitution he an’ the Conclave were working on.
“Oh, I get it. Impressive that ‘ya got a hold of that, since it were supposed ‘ta be a secret…” he wagged his tail just to make sure everyone understood he was amused more than annoyed. “But only ‘cuz we’re still wrappin’ our head around how we’d even write somethin’ like that. We don’t wanna leave anyone without a say, but we don’t wanna set up conflict, neither. It’s been some work! Champion Reeko’s got a trap of a mind on legal matters, too…”
He really did. Daar wasn’t accustomed to thinking like a Lawgiver, and he was finding the intricacies of the thing a fun challenge. Still, it was a mild question, and he’d hoped the press corps could do better…
Which is why he’d invited Ava over for the junket. If anyone could fearlessly ask questions, it was her. And she did not disappoint.
“Rumors of a new, major force deployment have reached us, Great Father.”
Ah, yes. She had her spies everywhere.
“You know I can’t comment on matters like that, Ava.”
She didn’t care. “Secret deployments blossom all around you. Care to comment on that?”
“Ha! Spicy today, I see! But no. Tactical advantage requires some discretion, you know this. I will not comment on any alleged operations, not ‘til the moment is ripe. You’ll hafta wait.”
That did speak to the final thing he’d hear that night, though: his last situation brief of the day, before he was free to retire to his mating contracts and his Naydi. He fielded a few more questions, made his apologies…mebbe poked things a bit on social media, just ‘cuz…
Back to his office. Briefing from Thurrsto and Vark. Chief topic: the Crew’s status, and the big find they’d delivered to them.
He hadn’t shared the Message with any but Thurrsto, just yet. And before the meeting…he had another message in his inbox, keyed to him personally.
Looks like the Humans had a big fuckin’ shock comin’ their way, too.
Urgugvuneg was the one who’d written the report, probably because Wilde was busy. He didn’t quite seem to get just how huge this was and that lent the write-up an oddly terse, factual style. Which was maybe not surprising, what with species and culture and errything.
He pressed his intercom. “Let’s take this to a war council meetin’ instead. An’ reach out to th’ Humans. I’mma need ‘ta meet with the leadership immediately.”
They were gunna want to know. And then they were gunna need a while to accept it. Assumin’ they even believed it…
…How would Gilgamesh of all the fuckin’ things even prove it? Keeda had it easy; he was a walking genetic anomaly. Daar could sympathize with that, really…
But Gilgamesh, presumably, would be an “ordinary” human. Well, they sure could test for his ancestry…
To think he’d planned a nice, vigorous evening with some youthfully enthusiastic mates, too.
Oh well. The weird din’t wait for anyone.
And things could always get weirder.
Date Point: Circa 10,000 years BC
Irflis-Tlinnsu City, Planet Corth’n.
Rage was…unfashionable in these modern, trying times. A thought which, frankly, inspired Leifini to indulge in more of it.
The vote was firmly and unequivocally in. By an unchallengeable seventy-six percent majority, the various regional representatives and esteemed Faculties had ratified the decision to amalgamate the whole planet and all extraplanetary colonies under a new, unified Directorate.
Everything was to change, right down to the language. Much of it, from where Leifini stood, was an erasure. Irflis-Tlinnsu was to become City 03. No longer would the city be capitol of an ancient and storied state, but now merely be the administrative hub of a new, mathematically precise district whose lines were already drawn up without regard for history, or even geography. The aesthetic pleasure of straight lines, it seemed, trumped such mundane concerns as the course of rivers, or the ridge-lines of mountains.
Even the planet was to be renamed. “Origin.” As if the only thing about it that mattered was that it was where the Corth people had evolved.
It was an act of dominance over reality itself. The pinnacle of hubris. And a painful defeat that had her and her cadre essentially exiled from polite company.
Which, frankly, seemed the wiser option. She could see ruin coming for her people. Seen that it may have already come for many, with their atrophied sex organs and their lack of passion. Maturation tanks were so much cleaner and more convenient, really. Why suffer the effort, risk and discomfort of pregnancy? Of motherhood? Of intimacy? Of mating?
Assuming one was throwback enough to even manage such a thing?
Nowadays, it was a calculated act of rebellious will to cultivate any kind of emotional intensity. “The indulgence of the artist and the malcontent,” as the newly-appointed First Director had framed it only two years ago.
The self-righteous slit.
“I hope that wasn’t directed at me.”
Leifini realized she’d spoken that last thought aloud, and turned to give Geifil a warm look. “No, no. If I’m ever that angry at you, you won’t have to guess.”
He chuckled, rose from his couch and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “It was good swearing, though. You have a talent for packing hate into a syllable.”
She leaned back into his embrace with a smile. He, at least, could get it up when the passion called for it, and passion seemed to be his stock in trade. He even managed to be quite handsome, perhaps in rebellion against the newly approved aesthetic. Charm, a smile, and visible muscle tone were all strongly disapproved of these days among males. He had a positively primitive measure of all three.
That was not a complaint.
Not for the first time, though, she wondered at the disparity between the warm fondness she felt for him, and the passion that poets of even only two hundred years ago had seared into their pages. They had been such a heroic people! Passion dripped from every pore of their being, robustness of spirit had been lauded! Males took joy in their strength, females encouraged it, and reciprocated with their own charms!
All of it, now, was being carefully excised in the new language. The words for ‘passionate’ and ‘dangerous’ contained a quite deliberate association.
Even their genetic lines were being re-factored. A male’s brute strength? Useless, and an unnecessary indulgence in resources that could be better used elsewhere. A female’s reproductive system? Dangerous, messy. Prone to all forms of maladies. Also wasteful.
The common factor, of course, was that those were the means by which people were uncontrollable.
Leifini and Geifil were among the last of a rebellious line. Or perhaps a rebellious artistic tradition, much-maligned as atavistic. But it may have been too late, anyway. Even they had felt some of the dulling, leveling effects of it all in their childhoods. They hadn’t got a hold of their genes, yet; the two of them were what Corth should be, at least at a basic level. That wouldn’t last. Any child they had together would be illegal going forward. She was too emotional, he was far too physical. Both of them were studies in the tyranny of sex. Two hundred years ago, they would have been celebrated in primary school’s annual competitions.
Now, they were soon-to-be labeled Black Caste. The most undesirable, “dangerous” people, who were to be “helped” into productive work and comfortable retirement.
She didn’t know what to do. It was all…closing in on them.
Like a predator.
The thought struck her like lightning, and just as demanding. It permitted nothing but itself inside her head until it was complete.
Geifil squeezed her. “…You just gasped.”
“I just had a…thought. One that fits the pattern a little too well.” She wriggled out of his grasp and darted across the room to her bookshelf. Real books of pressed plant fibre and fungal leather. Limited editions, all. Many of them had never been digitized, and never would.
The one she selected, however, would likely survive into the new era. It was a volume of planetary habitability studies, a neat cataloging of every life-bearing world within a considerable distance around Corth’n. Some had been promising candidates, and eventually targets, for Corth’i habitation.
Others, though, were death.
She found what she was looking for in the middle of chapter six. One of the so-called Death Worlds was largely ocean, speckled only lightly with archipelagos and no major continental masses. The shallow waters among the islands had been studied intensively, and Leifini tilted her head as she speed-read.
The account was of a clash between a shoal of glass-backed sharp-finned fishoids, and a pod of toothed mammaloids. The fish instinctively swarmed and swam in vast schools, sometimes up to miles across in the breeding season. Naturally skittish, their first defense when threatened was to simply swim away as a single shimmering, confusing ball, trusting that the predators could not pick out any individual fish from among the chaos.
When pressed, however, they counterattacked. And they were well-named, for those sharp fins could carve an incautious predator to the bone. A glass-back shoal was good eating for the toothy mammals…but dangerous, too. So the mammals employed tools the fish lacked: problem-solving intelligence, communication…and anticipation.
They had all sorts of tricks. They would circle below and blow curtains of air bubbles to divide off a small piece of the shoal. Then the strong, fit ones would risk a daring high-speed charge right through the middle of the glassbacks to divide them again, before plunging through the curtain bubble to escape those sharp fins.
Repeat, then repeat again, until the glassbacks were divided, confused, exhausted…
“We are being hunted,” she said, breathlessly.
Onna Illuminati deathstar or whatever
Hoeff, not quite believing this bullshit
Hoeff’s inner spirits were battling out on whether he wanted to just run away back to Akyawentuo to hold Claire tight in his arms and keep her safe against this ancient conspiracy motherfuckery, or if he wanted to stand up and put his fist right through Leifini’s chest.
Probably not wise, given literal Gilgamesh sitting cross-legged with them around a low table. The ridiculous behemoth was a serene study of way, way too much man folded down into an alarmingly compact knot of comically hard muscle. Even from such a relaxed posture, though, Hoeff somehow knew he wouldn’t even get to move so much as a inch in aggression before the big fucker blitzed across the room and put his own head-sized fist right through Hoeff’s skull, painting the wall with his brains. Probably cluck disapprovingly at his ruined manicure, too.
The King of Singularity was watching him closely. Like he could read Hoeff’s thoughts. Or, more likely, he was just an expert killer in the company of his own kind.
Well…okay. Oddly reassuring, that.
Out loud, though, Hoeff just had to call bullshit. “It took you reading about fish in a book to figure out what was up?”
GIlgabro gave him an amused look, but said nothing further. Leifini on the other hand had a wry shrug and a smile that was disarmingly human.
“It does sound stupid when you put it that way,” she granted him with a giggle. “But…no. Predation was not as…developed an art on our world. Deathworlds earn the title for more than one reason, after all. But the book was a useful illustration, not a complete revelation. Though, it was the subject of much horrified fascination, when it was published.”
“How so?” Morwk asked.
“It dramatically expanded our view of biology. It was that sort of time, really; practically everything we thought we knew turned out to be incomplete, and woefully so. We were young, fresh on the galactic stage. I was six years old when our first warp ship flew and we made contact with the OmoAru, who of course were at the apex of their power in those days. We were a proud species, but so many humbling discoveries all at once…they set in motion our deep anxieties. Especially once we discovered how small and weak we were in every sense, compared to the others.”
“And the Enemy exploited those anxieties,” Wilde guessed.
Leifini nodded. “The drive to perfect ourselves, to specialize ourselves, was not their invention, it was already present in the Corth’i. But the Enemy cultivated it to a destructive extreme. As has been their mode of operation for all of history. Those they cannot channel thus, they eradicate. It is, frankly, why the Gao were not simply exterminated in their prehistoric years, as the Ten’Gewek were meant to be. In the Gao, the Enemy saw exploitable, controllable traits. Of course, we didn’t know this at the time. We didn’t even know the Gao existed…”
“There is at this point much detail you must forgive us glossing over,” Gilgamesh added, gently. “To summarize: the plebiscite Leifini mentioned caused the bulk of her people to radically re-define themselves into the Corti you know today. Leifini and her faction were…”
“Rendered obsolete,” she said unflinchingly. “But, the new Directorate was nothing if not pragmatic. They did not hate us as such, just wished we were gone. So, they granted to us an obsolete space station and a few support ships. Exile was the cheapest and most expedient option. I daresay they imagined that without access to the homeworld’s reproductive facilities, we would simply fade away.”
“How nice of ‘em,” Bruuk commented, drily. Gaoians didn’t usually do dry, but when they chose to…somewhere, somehow, a British man would be tearing up ever so slightly.
“In relation to how some other species and even Human factions have disposed of their undesirables…yes.” Leifini said it with plenty of wry mischief. “The station they granted us is still around, in some sense. Every part and piece of it has long since been replaced, of course, but this is the end product of all those years of expansion and upgrades.”
She waved a hand around them, at the whole of Ekallim-Igigi. “So, we certainly did not quietly fade away. Instead, we went exploring. We weren’t sure what we were looking for, yet: evidence of some alien hand in the course of galactic society. All we had was, firstly, the desire not to be extinguished, and secondly, a vague hypothesis that somebody wished our people to be…less, somehow, than they could be. Some entity persuasive and insidious enough to persuade the Corth’i that they were actually improving themselves…”
“So, Satan then,” Hoeff noted. “You saw the Devil and went looking for him.”
“Indeed.” She sighed and shook her head. “It was a long search. For a great, great many years, I lingered in doubt as to whether I was just paranoid and irrational. But…I trusted my gut, as you say. So much so that I experimented with our earliest life extension and anti-aging therapies, which were not without price and danger. I lived in constant pain, and tumors were my daily companion for a great many years before we discovered Earth and corrected that limitation.”
Hoeff twigged to that immediately, but Wilde beat him to the punch. “Wait, how—”
“Ah, forgive me. I jumped ahead. We’ll get to that in due time. First, I must talk about the Gao.” She sighed, and gave Y!’kiidaa a complicated look. “What a day that was, when my faction discovered them…”
Early morning, A long-ass time ago
Clan Darkfur-by-the-sea, May-Eshi, Gao
Y!’kiidaa, Stud of his Clan
The fish twitched once as Gour sank a claw into its brain, then joined its dead fellows in the net at the back of the raft. Y!’kiidaa loved swimming, even if his size made it a struggle keeping his head above water sometimes. His Clan were known for their large webbed paws, and that gave even their biggest Studs just enough help to swim, so they could catch the most biggest, most delicious fish, which they smoked up and traded with all the neighboring Clans, and others further away, too.
Gour always complained about getting water up his nose. He was the one man in the tribe bigger even than Kiidaa or a match for his own sire, and could only barely keep afloat in the water, paddling as furiously as he could. It was one of the very few things Kiidaa could best his brother in and he never failed to tease him for it.
“So when are you going to get off your huge hind and help me catch anything?”
Gour whined very slightly, caught between the challenge by his little brother and his bone-tired desire not to fight sinking beneath the waves. They’d been out all night, fishing by moonlight and starlight, and the sun was finally coming up. The stars in the east were fading behind the dawn glow.
“We’ve got a good haul here, and the tide’s turning,” he replied. “And I’m tired. Quit showing off and let’s get back home.”
Y!’kiidaa chittered merrily, and splashed at him. “You’re too fat and your fur’s too heavy!”
Unlike Kiidaa and the rest of the village, Gour’s sire had been a fierce, huge man from the far north, thick brown fur and massive paws tipped with claws so big, he couldn’t fully retract them. He’d been powerfully wide-backed and hard-bodied like stone too, so unlike Kiidaa’s Clan of strong fishermen and swimmers, who could slip through the water with hardly a care. He couldn’t swim at all. Still, he’d taken Saa!’ashii as his wife, became one of the Fathers…
The last few seasons had given him some morning aches and curtailed some of his infamously fleet-footed speed, and filled his pelt with white, but his strength and stamina had done nothing but increase. Only Gour, his first and only surviving cub, could match him. He’d inherited more than his sire’s nose, fur, and immense strength; Kiidaa’s most biggest, bestest brother also had the webbed paws of the Clan, their long breath and their love of the water. He was an excellent shallow-water diver too, but he was still far, far too big and heavy to spend much time in the deep of it.
“Y!Kiidaa,” he growled, “Don’t be stupid. The smaller fish are shoaling up next to the shore. Let our smaller Brothers earn their keep! Lazy tails lounging by the shore, all well-fed and sleepy! They’ll need our strength to haul on the nets anyway.”
Kiidaa chittered. Gour was right, as always. But he couldn’t resist a little more teasing. “And they can use you for an anchor!”
Gour growled good-naturedly, but in the way that promised there’d be revenge once he was rested. “Big talk from someone half my own size…”
He grabbed the sculling oar and turned the raft’s nose toward the shore. Y!’kiidaa chittered happily and grabbed on to the side, staying in the water for now.
“So,” Gour said, putting his back into pumping the oar and getting up a decent speed. “I heard you an’ A!yiiymaa up talkin’ all night last night. When are you two gonna—?”
Y!’kiidaa flicked his ears back in a rare gesture of embarrassment. “…We ain’t gonna.”
“Oof. Bad luck, brother.”
“No! It’s not that. The Fathers made me Stud an’ are sendin’ me to the sacred harem for a year! I can’t take a wife before that.”
“Oh, so that’s what y’had to talk about! I was havin’ trouble figgerin’ out what you’d have to say that was so interestin’!”
“Better’n the dead silence I hear from ‘yer hut every night!”
He ducked under the water as Gour’s paw swatted at his head, but he could hear Gour chittering. It wasn’t true, of course; Gour was First Stud, having served with the sacred harem two years before and conquered all its secret rites. That made him very popular with the women (married or otherwise) and because of that, he’d still not declared a wife. Y!’kiidaa swam under the raft, came up the other side, and took a deep breath as he surfaced.
Paw-swipe. “Fuck off, little-dick! Come back when you learn how to use what god gave ‘ya!”
“Ain’t so little if they’re sendin’ me to the harem! I’ll be so good I’ll steal all ‘yer women!”
Kiidaa ducked again, having to struggle not to chitter while underwater. Life was…
…His nose caught…something…as he surfaced. He didn’t know what it was, couldn’t think of what it might be…and it was only there for a just a beat or two, but he definitely smelled it.
“Smell something, brother?” Gour put his nose to it, too. Nobody had a better nose than him…
He couldn’t smell it again. Gour nodded, warily. “Sometimes scent carries over the waves. Could be three whole gallops away and we’d not know from where.”
“Din’t smell like anything I ever sniffed before…” Kiidaa scowled at the horizon, warily.
“Well, I believe you,” Gour said, loyally. “But keep that to yourself. The Fathers get real nervous when people start talkin’ ‘bout strange scents.”
Y!’kiidaa duck-nodded, Rites-Father T’aak!ii in particular was like a cub with a new toy every time he got a sniff of an ‘auspice.’ The ol’ silverface was blind as a deep fish, but every pawful of days was some omen or augury or whatever, an’ there must be some kinda magic to him, ‘cuz he’d been around a long time, even for a silverface…
“Wait…” Gour turned and sniffed the wind. “…Yeah. There it is.”
…Yes. Faintly. So very faintly. He could smell something that smelled like, maybe the idea of a mushroom, but something else…
“…Smells like someone smithin’ metal. Dunno what kind, and there’s oil, too.”
Ah. Of course. Gour had gone on trading pack-outs with the Fathers, being big and strong enough to load their heaviest sacks across his back. He’d have smelled many things Y!’kiidaa had not.
Whatever it was, the scent didn’t come again. They rowed home in silence though, listening and watching and sniffing every stroke of the way. If the water hadn’t been plastering his fur to his back, Y!’kiidaa’s hackles would have been bristling. Something was…
…He felt watched.
“Incredible. I have no idea what they could be sensing, but they definitely know we’re here…”
Incredible was the only word for what they were seeing. Here, on a terrible Death World, they found a sapient people, engaging in all the requirements for true intelligence. Language. Cooperation. Trading! Division of labor, even!
And what a people they had found! Most were small and nimble, others were hulking and brutish. All rippled with powerful sinew, their motions light and deft even in the oppressive gravity that Leifini doubted she could even have stood up in for very long.
But of course, for them, it was normal. And their senses were clearly acute in ways that Leifini couldn’t begin to calculate.
A shame that in getting close enough to listen in on the pair’s conversation, they had inadvertently brought it to an end. What she’d heard of their language had been truly fascinating. So different from any Corth’ dialect. It relied on tones, glottal stops and yipping interjections, such that the same phoneme could, apparently, mean greatly different things.
They hadn’t overheard enough to start building a comprehensive lexicon, but what she had heard, she’d enjoyed. It was a language with a pulse to it. And that chittering sound…mirth?
Fascinating. It was enough to put an emotional lump in her throat.
“You were right, Geifil.”
The modern Corth—the Corti, another linguistic shift since their exile—would have called her irrational, for speaking so to the deceased. But how else did you keep somebody alive, when the life extension treatment had simply…failed?
He’d been philosophical and even quite relaxed about it all, in the end. Sad at causing her pain, but she’d found a kind of backwards gladness in knowing his agonies were over. And his work lived on, in her, and their daughter, and their work.
And in his predictions, of course. Even hundreds of years after his death, he had a talent for being correct. He’d remained adamant his whole life that there really was no good reason why deathworlds couldn’t give rise to intelligent life…
And here, finally, was his vindication.
Their daughter, Meien, was up on the mother-station. “We can’t let this get back to the Directorate,” she opined.
“It will, in time. This planet is too close to the territory of existing powers, not to mention a few burgeoning species. Those Guvnuragnaguvendrugun in particular will be achieving interplanetary warp within a generation or two at most, and they’re not far from here at all.”
“The notion of sapient deathworlders will cause…a great deal of concern.”
“Yes. Especially these people. With their claws and teeth just a start, they are the very image of a predator…strong and crafty, to alarming degrees. The OmoAru will not care, nor our people, but by the time these…What is their word for themselves?”
“…The full name is long and difficult to pronounce. Regardless, you are correct. I will note however, the G!âo are not without their charms. They care a great deal for the unfortunate. They seem to be intensely social, they keep pets, they have the beginnings of agriculture…”
“And that boat is well made.” Leifini smiled as she watch it scull home. The larger, heavier G!âo riding in it poured himself over the side, and together the pair of them lifted its frame clean out of the water, heaved it onto their backs, and started trudging up the sand to deposit it above the high tide line.
“Quite a lot of variability just in this tribe,” Meien noted. “And remarkably well-adapted to multiple modes of locomotion, despite the high gravity. Yet more evolutionary theory rendered false by observation.”
“As is the way with science,” Leifini intoned. “These two have single-handedly invalidated centuries of scholarship just in an afternoon of observation.”
“The question remains unanswered, though. How long can we keep the Directorate, and the intuited Manipulator, from learning about them?”
Leifini sighed. “We can’t. It’s that simple. I suspect there’s not much we can do for these people except notice them and learn from them. Perhaps our studies will yield something useful…”
They had come here looking for compounds, after all. Geifil’s early studies had suggested that deathworld biochemistry could be an unguessed treasure trove. Medicines, materials, industrial techniques…rapid evolutionary iteration would teach them what mere innovation could not.
Leifini and the Void Caste would have to move on in time. Too soon, really. But until then…she would enjoy getting to know these people.
She hoped the future contained great things for them.
Clan Blackfur-by-the-sea, May-Eshi, Gao
Y!’kiidaa, Stud of his Clan
Gour had finally decided to name a wife, and that could only mean one thing to Y!kiidaa.
Mid-summer was always the best time for pranks against his biggest, most bestest brother. Broad webbed paws he may have, but those thick heavy muscles and even heavier fur of his, which made him so handsome to the women, was given by the gods to those who dwelt in the far, far north, where the only available prey were bigger than any G!âo and the very rain fell as ice, even in summer. Or so Grandfather Buu!kuu had said.
That meant Gour was particularly lazy during the heat of the day, more inclined to nap in the shade and cool earth of his burrow than cavort around with his handsomest younger brother!
An unforgivable sin, and Kiidaa knew just what to do. He didn’t have a heavy, waterproof pelt weighing him down. His fur was short, sleek and glossy, good for showing off to the women and shedding heat with a quick dip in the sea.
So: wait until Gour was nicely asleep. Sneak into his burrow quick and quiet…and drop a stenchbug on his nose.
The angry insect had been buzzing and struggling in Y!’kiidaa’s claws since he’d caught it, but he knew how to hold them so they couldn’t aim their butt at him and spray. Now, though, the potent little critter had a prime target to vent its fury: right up Gour’s nostrils.
Gour woke with a huge yelp and a reflexive leap and flail so that his head banged the ceiling of his burrow. He sneezed, pawed at his nose, sneezed again…
Kiidaa ran away, chittering. There was craftsmanship to a prank like this. He’d be caught, and made to pay, that was all part of the fun! But Gour would have to earn his vengeance too, and what better way to get the huge lump up and out?!
And besides. Kiidaa was maybe, barely, just a tiny bit faster on his paws. Not for as long, but if he got a good head start…
Oh good. The chase was on. Kiidaa chittered loudly, and plunged through the circle of traders and workers in the heart of the village, scattering them like birds. He’d planned this. First, he’d give Gour an easy trail to follow, then he’d vanish. Normally, there was no point in hiding from his big half-brother, as Gour’s sense of smell was just too good. But right now, he’d be totally nose-numb.
There was a caravan visiting, traders with baskets full of wares. He slipped around one of them—spared a precious moment to give a friendly, chittering, lovely trader’s daughter a flirty nose-sniff—and then he was weaving between burrows and people, one ear turned backward to listen to the thunder of heavy paw-fall.
Clever Gour. He wasn’t just chasing straight after Kiidaa, but had gone sideways and around so he could keep up the pace.
Okay, fine! No sense in terrorizing the rest of the village with their play. “Keep up, brother!” he called over his shoulder, and turned up the hill toward the clifftop.
The rocks up that way were a lot of blocky and flat columns, packed together. A nimble man could work his claws into the gaps and swarm up between them, and then it was just a matter of being sure with his paws.
Y!’kiidaa was nimble and strong. But Gour was so strong it didn’t matter. What bits were uncertain and shaky he simply leaped over, and Kiidaa realized his mistake, then—
Tackled hard toward the top, Gour panting heavily and crushing Kiidaa under his weight.
“I always…could…jump…better’n you…brother!”
“You’re outta breath, though! Ow!”
Gour panted heavily, then demonstrated he wasn’t so out of breath he couldn’t apply his enormous brawn to the matter of Kiidaa’s punishment. “Yeah…good run!” More panting, and then the wrasslin’ really began. “Gonna hafta smush that mischief outta ‘ya…”
He did, too. Gour didn’t spare any of his vast strength, or leave any part of Kiidaa un-flattened. Soreness pulled at his every muscle the entire limping walk back. Gour, meanwhile, was still trying to sneeze the smell out of his nose.
Had a lot more prance in his step, though. So that was good!
“Balls! I bet it’ll be days ‘fore I can smell properly again! You little shit.”
“You shoulda heard the way you yelped, though,” Kiidaa panted at him happily. “Don’t care how much you smush me, that was worth it.”
“Why, though? Why do you always have such big mischief in your heart?”
“You’re too serious alla time, big brother! Ow…” Happy prancing was definitely not going to be in Y!’kiidaa’s life for a while. “Always worried about everything, always so serious…you should have some fun now and then!”
Gour sighed. “Well, the gods made you this way for their reasons, no doubt…”
“Someone’s gotta keep you humble!”
…Actually, that was a bit harsh, and Kiidaa’s ears flicked back immediately.
“Not that ‘yer any kind of meek yourself…” Gour grumbled, then sneezed a big, sticky load of snot out of his nose. Gross! “But brother…am I really so stuffy?”
“No.” That was deep truth, right there. “But…I don’t know, Brother. It feels right. People should have fun with life! I’m not the only one who worries you’re too serious…”
“Oh, I get it. A!yiiymaa put you up to it, huh?”
“No, but…she mebbe said a few things ‘ta me. It’s good if the youngest don’t see you as scary.”
He understood instantly. “…Oh.”
“And I did it for fun,” Kiidaa chittered. “Don’t lemme pretend it was ‘fer anything more’n gettin’ one over ‘ya!”
Gour finally chittered, shaking his head. “Fine, fine. ‘Ya got me good. But don’t think I’m lettin’ you get away with just a squishing, brother. You owe me for my numb nose, an’ we got a lotta fish left ‘ta catch this season.”
Still worth it, though.
“Wait. Wait a tick! Is that the truth behind the, uh…Keeda tale?” Bruuk had perked up to listen. “The one where Keeda—uh, you—stole your brother’s nose?”
“Yes!” Keeda himself chittered. “I dearly loved my brother. And thank you for indulging me…there were more shenanigans of course that summer. I’ll tell them later.”
“What about the bits where you stole his tail an’ his ears?”
“Those happened too, an’ that’s how I ended up on permanent diver duty. Tell you what though, we ate well that year! I grew to my full size, got the first of my real strength too. Balls, I couldn’t wait to travel off to the sacred harem…”
“I bet,” Hoeff dead-panned. A half-dozen different kinds of amusement passed around the room.
“Diving for big game fish all year?” Ian tacked, diplomatically. “Sounds like hard work.”
“It was, yeah…” Kiidaa sighed. “…but it saved my life.”
It would be many years and a strange adventure before he understood how much being in the water saved his life that morning.
They’d gone out on the tide just after sunset, by the light of two bright full moons. The fish were right up on the surface to feed and mate, lured there by the moonlight. Gour even managed to lean over the side and scoop a big roe-fat female out of the water with his claws.
There was no time for jokes or banter, most of the night. Just a long rhythm of throwing out the net, then Kiidaa would slip into the water to scare the closest fish into it, Gour would haul it back in. Keep and kill the big old ones, throw back the little young ones to breed another generation, grow fat and get caught another year…
It was perfect. The moons on the calm waters in front of them, and the warm hearthfires of home back on the shore behind them. Honest teamwork, skillfully done, and just reveling in each other’s company. Kiidaa didn’t even notice how much he was enjoying it.
Then, when their baskets were full, there was nothing left to do except sit and wait for the tide to turn. Gour lounged in the boat, Kiidaa draped himself over the outrigger, and they talked about nothing important while the horizon grew warm with the impending dawn, and the stars faded one by one.
The last to vanish, near the sun at this time in the year, was the Winter Burrow, the brightest star in the depths of winter and a navigator’s reliable friend. Kiidaa watched it until it was gone, and stretched until his back popped.
“How’s the tide?”
“Turning, I reckon.” Gour yawned expansively and shook himself. “Gonna sleep all day, I reckon.”
“Do you reckon, now? Or do you reckon you don’t reckon?”
“Shaddup, little bro.”
Kiidaa chittered, and sniffed the wind. If he concentrated, he could just about smell breakfast starting to sizzle back home, and it made his stomach growl. They’d earned a nice big meal—
Gour pranked him while he wasn’t looking. A huge paw descended, and Kiidaa was back in the water with a splash. He yelped in surprise, then chittered, pleased at this sudden burst of mischief, but then—
Light. Much too bright, as if the sun had decided to skip the slow business of climbing up the horizon and instead leapt straight to midday. Shafts as bright as noonday lanced down into the water around him, and even through the muffling water, he heard a sudden howl from Gour.
There was a splash, and Gour joined him in the water, twisting and swatting at himself. His paw shot out and grabbed Kiidaa’s fur, stopping him from surfacing, then with a heave he flipped the boat over, spilling their hard-won catch back into the water. They surfaced under it into a pocket of air.
“What the fuck—?!”
“Hot!” Gour keened, and Y!’kiidaa realized that his brother’s fur was singed to the skin. “Balls, it’s so hot it feels like I’m burning still!”
“The Winter Burrow! It came back! And it got bright, so bright! Brighter than the sun!”
…Kiidaa could feel the heat, too. Just a little, but that under the boat. Second by second it got worse, until the very air was baking hot and drove them back under the steaming water.
The sky-gods must have been angry.
They didn’t need to say anything. They held onto each other and sheltered under the surface, shaking in exhaustion and fear, poking just their noses up to snatch hurried breaths before the terrible cooking heat burned their nostrils dry.
Each time they did, they smelled fire.
The room was silent. Hoeff realized he wasn’t breathing.
“Gour used every last bit of his strength to keep me alive. I…several times, I just couldn’t, so I hung around his neck and he kept us both just below the water. I don’t know if you unnerstand how hard that would have been…”
Hoeff nodded. He understood, lately. He and the monkey crew really understood.
Y!’kiidaa duck-nodded, and took a sip of something that looked and smelled a bit like talamay to steady himself. Thousands of years on and it was still a raw wound, apparently.
“…He died aboard Leifini’s ship. The worst part was…it wasn’t even the radiation that killed him. It was simple exhaustion. We’d been fishing all night, working hard…and we had to stay out in the water, sheltering from the terrible heat for hours. Keeping me alive for all that time…”
A quiet, mournful keen, which Bruuk joined. Moj bowed his head, Urgug’s body was black and dark, Dora was trembling, and Morwk’s eyes were closed. And Ten’Gewek weren’t shy about weeping, either.
Leifini’s voice was soft and terribly, deeply sad. “We didn’t dare drop the shields to rescue you…by the time we could intervene, Gour had used the very last of his strength to push them both to shore, and the moment he knew Y!’kiidaa was safe, he collapsed right there on the beach. Massive heart attack. We just…we knew too little about your species, we…”
“I know.” Y!’kiidaa gave her a reassuring look. “I’ve long since forgiven you, you know that. You did what could be done. At least he had a legacy, so…there’s that.”
“The Hierarchy did that?” Rees asked.
Leifini’s expression was grim. “Oh yes. There was nothing natural about that gamma ray burst, stars of that type just don’t do that. And the timing of it…A few hours later, and it would have scoured the whole of Gao’s primary continent clean of all life.”
“But that wasn’t their goal,” Wilde stated, rhetorically.
“Perfectly timed, it was. Impressive, for a star twenty-six parsecs away,” Gilgamesh grumbled hatefully.
Okay. Real passion, there. Hoeff could respect that.
“As it was, it ‘merely’ slaughtered a few thousand people on the eastern coastline and islands, and gave a terrific dose of radiation poisoning to those further west,” Leifini finished. “Y!’kiidaa was protected by the water, somewhat. Enough that we could at least save his life, though our medicine then was not what it is now.”
“Everyone else in my Clan died in slow, burning agony. It was only the migrants from the year before that survived at all, and only because they were a good deal west by then. Then the forests died the next year. Or I suppose they died right then but didn’t notice yet…”
“Total ecosystem collapse. What was once a deathworld lush and fierce enough to rival any then and now was…reduced. But the Gao, to their tremendous credit, adapted.”
“Oh, it’s a terrible tale,” Keeda sighed. “The “gods” appeared, shortly thereafter. Holographic light shows of course. At first, all they did was heal. Had to start somewhere. And it wasn’t like Leifini could have intervened. She knew her enemy, then. And I began to know mine. But later on, once they’d chosen the bloodlines they wanted…there were offerings. Sacrifices, you see. The first of their terrible genetic reprogramming was done. Only took them four generations to do it, too, and I hadta watch. One outta ten were allowed ‘ta live, each generation. The rest were poisoned and died quietly, in their sleep. Only the strongest examples of difference were kept, and that was when our women became females, a precious resource to protect.”
“Always through intermediaries, too. Priests,” Leifini explained.
“Those filthy, nutsack-licking priests,” Keeda spat.
“Many were biodrones, of course. But not all. Some were simply filled with zeal, having seen the gods walking the land. The actual enemy never showed their face, for…reasons that may be obvious now, but at the time we had no inkling of Dataspace.”
“And so they changed the Gao,” Gilgamesh rumbled.
Y!’kiidaa duck-nodded with venom. “Yes. Made us into their ideal soldiers. Small, tough, clever, aggressive…but controllable, and with lots of disposable males in every generation. They tampered with our reproduction, made our females into little more than cub-making machines…it took us millennia to reclaim any dignity for them.”
“All of it a contingency, in case the Hunters ever became uncontrollable. One they have cultivated in every era,” Leifini added. “Social programming was extensive. The first phase was greatly amplifying breeding competition between Clans. This they did by corrupting the sacred harem—a really lovely example of equality, in its own way—into female slavery. This continued for many thousands of years, as the now-Gao slowly rebuilt their world, leveled the old rotting forests, planted fields, reproduced, fought, strengthened their bloodlines…”
“I spent my time mostly as a traveling storyteller,” Keeda added. “That, and helping out where I could. I smelled a bit odd to most, but nobody would turn down help from someone as big and work-hardened as I am. Played tricks too,” he chittered glumly. “Lotsa memorable ones.”
“He always left a village with just enough mystery to keep people questioning, until eventually the villages talked together, noticed they also had a Y!kiidaa around the same time—not knowing he could travel quickly from place to place, of course—and from there…legend grew.”
“Yeah.” Keeda nodded, ears flat. “That wasn’t really my intent but, well, it did the thing, so I rolled with it. The descendents of my Clan had by then re-settled on the western edge of the great isthmus. It was good to see they’d survived…though now they were much smaller, and couldn’t hunt the big fish like we used to. Anyway…they got a bit of a reputation as tricky business because of me, so I started appearing in different furs, different guises, all sorts of things to keep people from guessing what I might be the moment I showed up.”
“It was effective, too. Particularly when his guise would ‘melt off’ right as he left. With his efforts over centuries, the myths and rites of the old world stuck. The important ones, anyway. No amount of work from the priesthood could stop it.”
“And I was there when the Hierarchy abandoned the priests, too. You have no idea how much pleasure I took in breaking their bodies, one by one…”
He’d tensed up his huge body as he said it, too; if there had ever been any doubt about just what kind of intense strength he possessed, there wouldn’t be now. He was a stone-carved beast just walking around, but in that instant of unfocused aggression, he looked feral. Then he shook his pelt out and relaxed again, which only took the fiercest edge out of the moment.
Well. Never let it be said Keeda was a meek soul.
“Things were looking up for a while, but of course that was false hope. Fyu’s rise was their sign to begin phase two,” Keeda stated, glumly. “And in that he was used perfectly. One hundred percent mission success, right there. They never managed to biodrone him, thanks to our efforts…but it didn’t matter. And by the time we made contact, the change had been done. Once the gene base was wide enough, they began to cull.”
“The rise of the silverfurs,” Bruuk whispered.
“Yeah.” Keeda nodded, glumly. “Dormant engineering that they activated en masse. Once that happened, warfare between Clans greatly reduced. No need to worry about big, hot-blooded males if nobody ever grows up into one, right? We all but disappeared. We were dangerous, you see, and much too expensive to feed when there was no fresh food to be had. Slowly we were all out-bred, starved out or killed off, except those living on the coldest parts of the northern plains, where the gamma ray burst had merely glanced across the world. Those winter-born Clans would one day unite and become the Stonebacks. Only they retained most of our ancient heritage.” Y!’Kiidaa keened, sadly. “We were magnificent, once. All of us! Predators born, but with the souls of poets. We would have loved Leifini’s people, had we met them, even if the least of us was five times their size.”
“But his kind were disfavored,” Leifini agreed. “Silverfurs ruled the day, and besides: a people facing chronic famine and just recovering from a dreadful, omnicidal war, they could not afford the year-round fifty thousand calories a day that a male like him requires just to keep his strength, no matter how useful he might have been.”
“…No,” Kiidaa agreed.
“And the Hierarchy saw this. It was to their design, after all. They wanted an efficient weapon, not an expensive one.”
“You didn’t know any of this at the time, though,” Wilde said.
“No. That terrible day on the beach, though, that was the first day our enemy took direct action, and we saw just how ruthless they truly were. So we hid, we watched, we inferred—and we could infer much, from the ensuing centuries of activity—but their nature, their reach, their history and the depth of their control over the galaxy? We didn’t truly understand any of that for a very, very long time. We were not equipped to fight them. All we had was the Void Caste, and now…our first non-Corth member.”
“You recruited him.”
“It would be more accurate,” Leifini replied with a respectful nod to Y!’kiidaa, “to say that he recruited himself…
Thousands of years ago
Orbiting planet Gao
Pain had a way of transcending language, culture and art forms. Leifini couldn’t say that Y!’kiidaa’s funeral song was beautiful—to her ears, it was a high kind of high, yipping howl—but it was haunting.
The coffin now drifting away from them contained more than just his brother, after all. It contained his entire Clan and future. He didn’t need to understand spaceships, the void, stars, gamma ray bursts and all the other contributing factors to his tragedy to grasp that central point.
Her heart ached for him, and a stray, atrophied motherly instinct compelled her to do something that other instincts were screaming at her not to do.
Very carefully, she hugged him around his great neck. As much as she could reach, anyway.
Equally carefully, he hugged back.
And he keened against her, lost in grief. He keened for a long, long time.
As he did so, Leifini peeled back the layers of her emotions. There was tremendous sympathetic pain and shared grief for him, of course. She’d been watching his Clan and others further inland for some time now, learning much from them. She’d known their names, grown very fond of them. She felt their deaths, more sharply than she’d felt almost anything.
Beneath that, though…was a great, rumbling, fearful anger, and she’d never known that a passion could be thus. It was too big to properly feel.
“…Leifini.” He broke away, and stared her directly in the eyes.
She held to her courage, under that amber hunter’s gaze. “…Yes?”
“Who did this?”
Leifini had held on to some doubts. In the uncertain dead of night, she’d sometimes wondered if her whole mission was founded on nothing more than faith, that the universe could not naturally be so perverse. That decay of the sort she’d seen playing out among the Corth’i, the OmoAru and the older, declining civilizations could only be the product of hostile intent.
Those doubts had now burned away alongside Y!’kiidaa’s future. The universe, at its core, was indifferent. There was no reason whatsoever for a perfectly ordinary main sequence star to do what Winter Burrow had done. Stars did not just decide to ignore the laws of physics out of spite; they were not capable of malice, any more than a stone was capable of love. Those were the poetry of living minds.
Which meant that, for the first time, she’d seen the hand of their enemy directly at work.
“It will…take time,” she said carefully, “to teach you all you need to know before I can answer that question properly.”
She’d given that answer, or one like it, many times in the last few days. As the dazed, sickly, exhausted Y!’kiidaa had convalesced in their sickbay, he’d been full of questions, about where they were, who the strange small gray people were, about what had killed his brother…
At first, he’d found the reply insulting, then frustrating. Then he’d accepted it. Now, though…
He seemed to grow a little as he resolved himself.
“It took years, of course. You don’t just take a bronze-age fisherman and introduce him to the Deep overnight.”
“No. But I made myself into an excellent student. I want to be there, when we find the very last Archive, after we’ve smashed all their hidden caches, all their machine-worlds, all their assets hidden in the Deep. I want to look at that last, single piece of their kind and crush it with my own two paws.”
“You keep talkin’ ‘bout The Deep,” Bruuk tilted his head.
Gilgamesh nodded. “It’s a device of mine. I think of the deep knowledge, the deep truths of all this, the deep dark recesses of space…all of it is as dangerous waters, filled with hidden power. The Deep. It is to look into the real of it all and be changed by it.”
“That’s…kinda poetic, actually.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“O’ course, Leifini and the Void Caste had no experience training a guy like me up. I had ‘ta go right back to the stuff they teach their infants. An’, I fancy myself pretty fuckin’ smart, but it took me a long time. You don’t realize just how much you pick up through a kinda osmosis just by living in a culture, until suddenly you’re trying to learn among a buncha aliens…well, some’a you might,” he added conscientiously, nodding at Dora, Moj, and the Ten’Gewek.
Varieties of nod circled the table.
“So you’re the third to enter this story…” Ian suggested, turning to Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh waved his wine cup, miraculously not spilling a drop. “We’ll get to me at the proper time. Which, I fear, cannot be tonight. Did you lose track of the hour?”
Ian blinked, then checked his watch. Sure enough, they’d been sitting and listening for a long time. In fact, now that his attention was drawn to it…he was feeling pretty stiff and ready to move. Not to mention sleepy.
In fact, when he looked around, the whole crew looked various shades of tired. Urgug in particular was resting his head on his forelimbs like a gigantic dog trying to stay awake, his chromatophores dim and sluggish. Guvnurag slept only once every couple of days, too, so…yeah. They were overdue.
“Right! So,” Gilgamesh rose to his feet with some impressive grace, and gestured toward the door. “We have rooms prepared. And food! You are of course free to explore as you wish. My home has much green space for walking or play, and there are other diversions available. If you wish to exercise, there is a gymnasium…though, I’m sure you already guessed that.”
He grinned, a touch self-effacingly. “Of course, if you prefer the privacy of your own ship, there are vehicles ready to transport you back. But, you have the hospitality of my house.”
Ian rose to his feet as well. “As I am sure you can appreciate, I must make a report, and contact my superiors…”
Gilgamesh waved that away with a massive, almost paw-like hand. “Yes, yes. Of course! Whatever you need to do that will be yours. Now, I owe my youngest son some attention, and there is a bit of a grudge match between him and another of mine about a recent contest…any who are interested are invited. And tonight, I think nothing formal for dinner. Order in! If I were you I’d probably dread some big feast right about now…”
Well, he was a personable king, at least.
“I’ll tag along,” Hoeff decided.
“…Bein’ honest, any son of our good king here’s gotta be somethin’ to see…”
“Ha!” Gilgamesh’s expression was the very picture of fatherly pride. “That he is. Anyway,” he turned to a nearby Gaoian, “could you see to the arrangements? Thank you. Now, my guests, Loosh here will take care of everything. I must hurry off or I will be late…”
And with that, Gilgamesh himself bowed out, bounced heavily on his toes, and…
Departed. At a hell of a clip, too.
Hoeff and the Wrecking Crew gave Ian a look, then went chasing after, with somewhat less obvious ease.
Well. Okay. A weird combination of formal and informal, so far.
And a hell of a story. Shit, there’d be anthropologists—gaopologists?—who’d give their left nut for the chance to hear half of what Keeda had told them about his past and his village.
By ones and twos, the crew were escorted. Urgug wasn’t in any condition to do more than lumber dazedly after one of the staff toward whatever accommodation awaited him. Moj requested to be shown a place of worship, Morwk decided to return to the ship. Dora elected to go sightseeing in the station’s shopping and entertainment decks, with an escort. She still looked like something was itching at her. Maybe a closer look at how the average being on the street lived with Singularity was a good idea.
Ian found himself at a loose end. He needed a coffee. And he wanted a smoke, despite kicking that bad habit years ago.
As it turned out, the bean had made it to Ekallim-Igigi. When he voiced his desire to the small, quiet girl following him around, she promptly conjured up a small cup of something as rich, fragrant and lethal as anything to ever froth up in a Turkish cezve.
He may have been a coffee snob at one point in his life. Whatever. The scent alone was enough to raise the dead, or at least sharpen the mind. He was shown to his suite of rooms—suitably palatial, and a lot too fancy for his tastes—then decided to wander the palace and take notes with his tablet in hand.
It was an informative tour. He was shown a museum of artifacts he knew nothing about, but he guessed would have had any antiquities professor jizzing himself unconscious just to glance at. Graciously, he was allowed to take pictures. When he asked questions, though, his guide just gave him an apologetic look and a wry shrug.
“Spoilers,” she said.
His wanderings took him out to the fields—what a thing to have on a space station, that—and in the middle was the king, Hoeff and the wrecking crew…and two combatants, having themselves a tussle in the grass. He didn’t even need to approach close to see they were both something, and the shorter, young one in particular…well. He was rather handily dominating their fight, and Hoeff’s expression was openly concerned by what he was watching.
…Uncomfortable questions could wait for later. He had a report he had to write.
“You seem lost in thought, captain.”
He turned. Tomoe bowed by way of a hello. Somehow, he was surprised she wasn’t wearing a kimono or whatever. Instead…well, it was basically jeans and a tee shirt. Casual and comfortable, and kinda incongruous.
“Uh…yeah. Suppose I am,” he replied, awkwardly. “Got a lot to take in.”
“I can sympathize.” She gestured toward the lawn, inviting him to walk with her. “I found it shocking enough, and I had never heard my husband’s legend before I met him.”
“It was almost lost, even in Iraq. It was only some adept archeologists that re-discovered it.”
“…Now that’s the most worrying thing I’ve seen or heard all day. And that includes that young Hoeff-like preteen over there tossing his grown brother around like a sack of potatoes.”
“What worries you? The fact that we had the means to prevent the legend’s loss? Or the implicit ego in preserving it?”
Ian gave her a serious look. “Why not both?”
There was a cheer from behind them, and Ian glanced over at the match again. They were up on their feet, smiling…and went right back at it with a sign from their referee-king. Tomoe smiled at the sight, then gestured along the path. Their route was taking them to a…carp pond, maybe? Of the spend-an-afternoon-fishing variety, not the ornamental kind full of oversized goldfish.
“Gilgamesh-sama has an ego to match his physique,” she said. “Deservedly so, maybe. But…even I find it irritating at times.”
“Not a god-king, then?”
“No amount of ability or time can hammer out every last flaw. My husband is a greatly competent man. But he is a man.”
“Just like the rest of us?” Ian tried not to sound too sarcastic. He wanted to challenge, not offend.
“No, of course not. Look at him!” she laughed. “But he has his weaknesses. Sentiment, especially…he couldn’t quite bear to let his legacy fade from memory. And, there is no such thing as a human being who is without insecurities. Or fears.”
She paused and turned to face Ian again. “You have fears about us. You’ve been tense since you came aboard, and somehow, I don’t think a massage and some wine would help…”
“No,” Ian agreed.
“I thought not.” There was a log next to the pond. She sat on it, leaving room for him to sit alongside, which he did. “There’s something I noticed that my husband and the others neglected to go into. Where the Line of Heroes comes from, exactly.”
“There’s that, yeah. I’m kinda au fey with guys that big and capable, but I’m used to ‘em being on Cruezzir and stuff. But, him and his son, and these kids we’re starting to see popping up all over are like that naturally?”
“Absolutely. They’re human, and nothing but human. Deathworlds are exceptional environments for giving rise to wild genetic recombination, but they also give rise to threats. And if there’s one thing our species is very good at, it’s rising up to a challenge. In times of stress, you see what people are truly capable of, do you not?”
“When those forces overlap, you get Heroes. In the more ancient times, it happened frequently enough to fill our oldest stories with demigods, especially when you throw in some mythic exaggeration. Uncontacted tribes coming together, different subspecies of our kind finding each other, surviving together…In every age there are truly exceptional people, for this reason or that. Did you think Newton or Einstein were any less Heroes? Our conspiracy was to preserve those lucky exceptions, and keep the strength of it alive.”
“Why? Why’s that necessary?”
“Because the great price of civilization is to…mute…these Heroes. Blend them together.”
Ian tilted his head. “How?”
Tomoe frowned up at the “sky” above them—some kind of hologram, or maybe huge LED screens—and took a moment to think before she spoke. “Civilization isn’t an easy endeavor. It comes naturally to humans, and to all sapient beings by definition. But it isn’t easy. A failed harvest, a marauding foreign horde, a plague, and collapse follows. Then something new grows in the ashes, but rarely something better. To get something better, you need a civilization that can last, and refine itself.
“Nowadays, Earth’s civilizations can survive a bad harvest year, or even plagues that ravage millions of lives…but they have never, ever survived a total loss of faith on the part of the populace. That’s what a nation is, fundamentally: a shared faith in something grander and more important than any one person within. It’s about how a culture orders the world.”
“I…suppose, but what—?”
Tomoe held up a hand, requesting that he let her continue. “In the eyes of the people, Heroes can become more important than the shared faith. Then the nation is the Hero, and the consequences of that process have played out many times through history. Look at Julius Caesar. Look what he did to Rome. One man inspired an army, and that army overthrew a republic, to replace it with a hereditary dictatorship. Look again throughout history, and you’ll see similar figures do much the same, time and again. Or sometimes, they rally their civilization against a force that would destroy it. But the point is, their very existence is both a natural response to a crisis, and a crisis itself…and crises are existential threats to a civilization. So, those civilizations which do not create the circumstances in which heroes arise, endure. That’s the price for safety, prosperity and a lack of crisis.”
She glanced back over toward the lawn where the game of Calvinball was still ongoing. “But sometimes, Heroes are necessary. Crises happen, no matter what. And the Hierarchy is an existential crisis for all of humanity, just as it was for thousands of civilizations that came before us. In response to a crisis of that magnitude…what are we to do except cultivate the best of what humanity can be? What ethical alternative is there? Inaction would be conspiracy.”
She spread her hands. “And now the crisis is upon us, openly. Billions are dead, between Gao and Earth, and thanks to the interconnected global civilization, everyone knows it. Everyone feels it. The forces overlap…and Heroes emerge, right when they’re needed the most.”
Ian…didn’t like the direction this was going, but kept his council to himself. Instead, he simply prompted her to continue.
Tomoe seemed a little disappointed that he said nothing, though. She watched him for a moment, then sighed. “That’s all we’ve done, Wilde-san. Preserve something that’s as natural to humans as…well. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed by just what an incredible species we really are, and how few of us ever notice. We are not here to rule. Where we have nudged human history, we have done so to preserve what is already great about humans. On that, you have my word.”
“But you are promoting these Heroes of yours…”
“We live in difficult times. Life has been easier for Earth than it would have been without the containment shield—”
“Wait, was that your doing too?”
Tomoe nodded. “Yes, indirectly. It was an emergency response to a rapidly developing threat. Earth…wasn’t really ready for the Hunters. And the Swarm of Swarms would have descended, without the shield….and that would have been the tale of us. So, we influenced matters. But the Line of Heroes predates the Sol shield, by a long time indeed. We have always known that one day, humanity would attract the Enemy’s attention. And once discovered, the Enemy would destroy us. We had to give our people a fighting chance.”
“Most folks on Earth think of that shield as a prison.”
“Perhaps,” she replied. “Something that might ordinarily be terribly cruel can be the kindest option in even crueller circumstance. A prison can be a sanctuary, if death waits outside the bars. We’re at war, aren’t we?” She gestured vaguely at the sky, and the whole galaxy. “The greater the war, the greater the necessary unpleasantness. You must know that. This…is a great war indeed. For the highest possible stakes. Against our greatest enemy.”
Again, she glanced back toward the lawn. The game seemed to have broken up by now, and its players charged off for parts unknown. Still, she watched the area as though they were still playing. “We can’t survive this crisis without Heroes. Exceptional problems require exceptional solutions, and those require exceptional beings to conceive, plot, and execute. That is their nature. They solve problems.”
“And create them.”
“That they do.” She nodded, grimly. “Singularity’s calculation is that whatever crises the Heroes generate will be endurable. It’s not just the fall of a civilization and the rise of another that’s at stake in this crisis. It’s extinction. The great gifts of civilization—liberties, enfranchisement, rights and dignities—all of them are downstream of continuity. They are precious gifts, to be cultivated wherever possible…but the dead cannot cultivate them at all.”
Ian had plenty of thoughts, and for a moment, he was tempted to share them. But…that wasn’t his job. Tomoe affected a casual, friendly air, but she was a queen, and one of Gilgamesh’ captains. Whatever he said to her was going to have consequences. And that wasn’t his role.
“Well…I think I understand where you’re coming from a touch more clearly now,” he offered.
“I hope so. But, you have much more of our history to hear first.” Tomoe gestured back the way they’d come. “And, I mean no offense, but you look like you need rest. Shall we return to the guest quarters?”
“Kinda amazed you have those…” Ian said, as he turned to walk alongside her. “How many guests do you get?”
“Guests in the palace from elsewhere on the station are quite frequent. Guests from outside Singularity…well, we do recruit. Few get the personal royal introduction, though.”
“You still seem tense, Wilde-san.”
“I…have a great deal to think about,” he offered, probably unconvincingly.
Convinced or not, she nodded. “Well. You’ve had a long day.” She paused, and indicated over her shoulder to a distant house out among the trees. “As have I. I appreciate you taking the time to hear my thoughts, Wilde-san.”
“Of course,” Ian replied, politely. She bowed, he did his best to imitate the gesture…and she trotted away across the grass toward what was presumably her home.
He had a moment alone again. Not that he was actually alone, no doubt if he called for any kind of assistance there’d be somebody with him in a heartbeat. But, at least, nobody was talking to him for the moment and he could get his thoughts in a row.
One of his own questions was still lodged in his head. It really did seem to him like Singularity in general were keen for their approval, in a way that was more than just checking things had worked out. It was hard to put his finger on where the impression came from exactly, but it seemed like…like they were all eagerly awaiting the moment he smiled and relaxed and started saying nice things, instead of polite things.
That couldn’t be it, could it? Were they actually looking from validation? From him?
…No. Not him. From him.
He sent a message over his group text chat, ignoring for a moment the implications of his mobile phone working seamlessly aboard the station. “Let’s have a get-together,” he’d said. Half an hour later, they were all gathered in their guest quarters. Not a place for a private conversation, but then again, the Fortune probably wasn’t by this point either.
The crew pretty much shared his concerns, with…varying…degrees of intensity, from Hoeff’s straightforward ‘this whole thing is bullshit,’ to Morwk’s cautious optimism about gaining access to Singularity’s technology. Rees still seemed to find the whole thing funny, Dora was really off-balance for some reason, and fuck knew what Moj was thinking.
Bruuk was the most accepting, somewhat disturbingly. But of course, as he pointed out…
“We’re made for this sort of thing, so…”
“And these people did it.”
“Had a countering hand in it, yes. They’re also the reason my people exist at all.”
“That’s got to color your thinking, hey?”
“As does your people’s compulsive distrust of any form of authority. Which I always thought kinda weird, given ‘yer love of usin’ it—”
“Let’s not start that bullshit,” Hoeff sighed wearily. He had the air of someone who was desperate to go punch something and too tired to bother.
“Part of it is your inability to lie,” Frasier noted. “It takes a pretty especially evil Gao to manage the trick convincingly, and they don’t often fare well long-term.”
“Don’t see what you’re all so worried about,” Nomuk ventured. “So they help breed strong people? No problem there! Strong is good!”
“You need to sky-think more,” Ferd replied. “Strong can destroy weak things, but even strongest Brown One starts out as tiny, helpless cub. The biggest sky-thoughts start out weak too, sickly, puny things until strong mind grows them. Vemik Given-Man is best teachings of this. Small, skinny, weak boy late to manhood, has strong thought, protects it…then one day, grows. Still young man, but maybe only Yan is stronger by now. Makes me feel small. Not just in muscle.”
“Might doesn’t make right,” Dora summarized, fervently.
Wilde sighed. “I wish that were true. But that’s the problem. It isn’t. And now, look at what we’ve found in the deep dark, going bump in the night!”
“Literal legends. And it looks to me like they want to come in from the deep dark, eh?” Rees said.
“There’s…” Bruuk ventured carefully, “I think two problems. Y!’kiidaa is clearly one case. He was all about keeping something of the Gao alive. Balls, he even taught me the true name of our people! G!âo!” Wilde had to admit, that did sound right in Bruuk’s broad muzzle and deep, growly throat. “So I can’t really stay angry at him or any of this for what went down with my people. We were being actively fucked with, yijao? But…”
“We woulda been fucked with the same way too, in time,” Frasier pointed out.
“No.” Wilde sighed. “We were slated for extermination. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?”
“Yeah. Sometimes it pays to be a bookworm and a news junkie. Din’t stop the chavs from noticing me, though…”
“Wait, you were bullied, big as you are? Well, no wonder ‘yer such a mean fuck in a fight.”
“I was a skinny little shit until puberty hit…anyway.”
“Point is,” Davies pressed. “Fucked with genetically, nuked off the face of the Earth…I mean, we can at least admit it’s nice to have someone in our corner, can’t we?”
“Seems like spousal abuse,” Hoeff grumbled. “Like…okay. Maybe it’s kinda personal ‘fer me, right? But I sure as fuck can’t help feel like I just got robbed of a lifetime of grindin’ and hard work an’ all that. ‘Oh yeah, you were meant to be an angry gorilla-truck!’ Fuck me. And I sure as fuck picked exactly the right career, din’t I? Y’know I wanted to be a botanist once?”
That was definitely something to ask about later. Still, he had a point.
“Sure, you’re prickly enough to be a cactus yourself,” Rees joked, not unsympathetically. “Nah, honest truth? You legitimately frighten me, Hoeff. Like, I’ll never be a fifth as good as you, and I’m pretty goddamned good at this shit myself. You’re freak strong, with freak talent. But now, honestly? It’s kinda nice knowing it’s not my fault. At least, not completely.”
“Now there’s some psychology I don’t like,” Wilde grumbled.
“Everything you earned, you earned,” Urgug rumbled. “Ability dictates the limit of your success, not whether you claim it in the first place. Whatever Singularity’s meddling in your ancestry might amount to, you could have taken that and spent a life coasting on your natural gifts. Instead, you chose to learn what you are truly capable of.”
Davies squirmed a bit uncomfortably. “But that’s just it! ‘All men are created equal’ is kinda out the window now, innit?”
“It was always horseshit, if you didn’t grok what they meant,” Hoeff rumbled. “They weren’t talking about ‘yer looks or ‘yer brains or ‘yer bank account or ‘yer muscles. What they meant was something like, ’everyone is equal in dignity before their Creator.’ There’s a whole lecture about natural rights an’ shit hiding in there. Which is horseshit too, the more I think about it.”
“I always figured it meant, ‘We’re all in this shit together, and no-one gets out alive, so try not to be too much of a cunt,’” Dora offered.
“Men aren’t created equal,” Bruuk chitter-sighed. “Nowhere is that more obvious than in my people. We have literal degrees and, believe me, personal excellence only goes so far against that. Can you imagine what I’d be as a full-dominant fifth degree? Balls, I’d be makin’ Y!’kiidaa himself my bitch! Instead, here I am. Some of the most bestest genetic potential Daar himself says he’s ever sniffed…but it don’t matter much. Roll of the dice sets limits on what I can be. So why should we pretend to equality at all?” Bruuk shrugged. “Is what it is. What we should do instead is work to love each other. ‘Cuz in the end, you can’t help ‘yer luck.”
Moj thrummed his elytra and nodded enthusiastically. “Right. Fourteen motes of dust in this room, all tiny before the Infinite. Deathworlders, or not, just the fizz in a young universe, we. Next to Divine, the difference is too small to matter.”
“So…as much as I enjoy philosophizing about our present debacle, I need to make some decisions.” Ian turned to Bruuk. “ Y!’kiidaa means well, you reckon?”
“I think they all do. But, I think, maybe, Y!’kiidaa’s dirtied himself a lot less.”
“They’re thousands of years old,” Frasier pointed out. “They’ve got to be at least a little out of touch, right? I mean, shit, how long have they been out here looking in? That’s gotta warp their perspective just a little fuckin’ bit.”
Bruuk didn’t say anything. Probably to spare his feelings; nobody had missed the energy between the two. Still…
“Right. So, I gotta ask…are you feeling objective, Bruuk?”
Lots of meaning there.
“…Yeah. I’ve, uh…” and it was at this point that, had the moment been any kind of jovial, there would have been endless teasing. “Well, I turned down a pretty tempting invitation, I gotta admit. But now ain’t the time. My Father needs an honest nose ‘fer something this crazy.”
Ian settled for the gentlest tease he could manage. “He is pretty…but thank you.”
“Big question I have for them,” Genn twitched his tail thoughtfully. “…did they know about us?” He waved a hand at himself and the other Ten’Gewek.
“It’s hard to believe they didn’t. Professor Daniel says you are an ancient people.”
“So, are they the gods who gave us strength?”
“Or just the gods who watch?” Ferd mused. “That’s what the name of this place means, yes?”
“Aye, yeah…” Rees nodded. “But…what kind of ‘heroes’ just watch?”
There was a long, thoughtful silence.
“…Right.” Ian took a deep breath. “Time for rest, I think. You’re all free and encouraged to go explore, but keep your phones on you. Might want to leave on short notice.”
Nods (or equivalent) circled the room, and in ones and twos the crew drifted off to do whatever it was they felt like doing. Once they were gone, Ian settled in to write the first part of his report.
He had a lot to say.
Storytime was much less formal, the next day. In fact to begin with it wasn’t storytime at all. It started out in the park, just running around in the grass and playing simple games with, yes, Gilgamesh himself (in some sort of comfy-looking short shorts, because apparently nothing about sporty lads had changed in the last five thousand years) along with some of his family.
It was disarmingly wholesome, and honestly so. Not completely without its weirdness, though: even in the most considerate game of touch football, Gilgamesh wasn’t apt to take any prisoners. Ian didn’t mind to be honest, and neither did Bruuk or the Wrecking Crew…but still. Humbling. Ian would pay good money to see Firth and Mega Space-King duke it out one day.
He could deal with some considerate rough-housing. Hell, he welcomed it. You could learn a lot about someone in sport, and Gilgamesh was a fair man, tailoring his aggression to each opponent, but also ruthless, and he didn’t permit anyone the delusion they could challenge him. It wasn’t often a man saw someone like Ferd or Hoeff sent tumbling along from a hit.
Still, it was fun, and the chance for Ian to indulge his inner lad was a nice change of pace. Though, he knew it was an indulgence with purpose. They were going to be sitting around all day, getting a history lesson. Caveman instinct was you did that after wearing yourself out all day, so…here they were, wearing themselves out.
Though, it came packaged with the most humbling encounter Wilde had experienced in a long while: getting the stuffing knocked out of him by Alex, Gilgamesh’s absolute unit of a twelve-year-old son. The kid was young, polite, charming…and so innately, freakishly athletic and strong, it was unreal. Strong enough to hit like a fucking runaway lorry and heavy enough to really make it count, and looked every bit the part too, as much as anyone Ian knew. One careless tackle had Ian drifting almost peacefully through the air for a second or two before—
Gravity really was a bitch sometimes.
“Sorry! Sorry!” The kid ran up with honest concern written all over his face. “Are you okay?” He had the deep, raspy voice of a boy whose voice had recently changed, too.
But, Ian had honestly had worse. And when the kid offered a broad, troublingly thick and callused hand and promptly yoinked him right back up to his feet with a quick flex of a massive arm, looking genuinely worried…alarming, yes, but the kid’s attitude made it easy to forgive.
“Heh…yeah. Yeah, no worries.”
“Oh, good!” Alex relaxed and grinned sheepishly. “Father’s always telling me to be careful.”
“He’s right. You’re lucky I’m too dumb to break these days!”
The kid giggled in a deep register, not entirely like a young boy should sound.
“You aren’t dumb! And you felt pretty tough when I hit you, too…I bet you’re a good wrestler!”
Yup. The kid-mountain was giving him an unmistakably appraising look, as if he was hoping for a potential playmate. He was even slightly crouching, ready for more rough play…
“Well, thanks, but I don’t think I’d last long against you.”
Ian laughed. “Take it as a compliment! If I could teleport myself to twenty years ago, with what I’ve built myself into nowadays? I’d be a world-champion athlete, hey!”
“Exactly!” The kid grinned, rolling his head on that Hoeff-like neck of his. “Bet you’re tricky, too!”
Ian smiled. The kid was persistent! “Yeah, but nah. Also, I don’t think I can take too many more tackles like that, either.” Ian twisted his spine around and shimmied his neck to make the point. “Though, you know what? If you’re itching for a fight, I know exactly what you need!”
“Yeah! Look at those fellas over there!” Ian gestured towards his boarding team, who were standing around in a circle, talking animatedly about something. “Try them! By the Wrecking Crew’s standards, what you just gave me is a love tap. They’re more on your level, I’d bet.”
Alex tilted his head like a curious pit bull. “That’s Hoeff and the Ten’Gewek, right?”
“Yup, and sometimes Bruuk. Rees, Davies, and Frasier might play too, if you ask nice.”
“Ooh!” Alex seemed interested, suddenly. “And you’re sure they won’t mind?”
“For someone like you? They’d probably love the chance to let loose. Go play! I’ll join in later.”
“Will…” the big lad suddenly looked a bit embarrassed. “I wanted to ask about the eye, but…”
“I’ll tell the story later, I promise. Now go play!”
And he was off, moving fast enough to chase down a car.
Despite himself, Ian smiled. Kids were a fundamental kind of honest for the most part, and he couldn’t help but like the big lad. “Cornfed,” as the Americans might say.
“My son’s taken a shine to you,” Gilgamesh said, having silently padded up behind Ian, in the way that huge men sometimes knew how. “I’ll confess that makes me happy. He needs more…”
“Normality?” Ian offered.
“With nothing but positive connotations, yes. I’ve learned over the years how important it is to ground one’s self in reality.”
“It can be harder than it looks.”
“Absolutely,” the king nodded. “An ongoing effort, truth be told.”
“I was half expecting him to roughhouse a bit,” Ian confessed. “I would’ve, if I were him.”
Gilgamesh sighed. “He wanted to desperately, but he knows better. Really, he does. It saddens me a bit, so I spend as much time with him as I can.” He also gave Ian an appraising look. “Are you a father yourself? I don’t sense it about you…”
“You’d make a good one, I think. So…let me speak for a moment, just as a father. Leaving the rest aside.”
“I know you must report, and that report will have consequence. I suspect it will not be a perfectly glowing review.”
“I will be honest,” Ian replied. “I promise that.”
“I know. But, any of that aside…I would greatly appreciate any opportunity for Alex to get some social contact away from…all of this.”
“That’s…not even slightly inside the realm of what I can promise or arrange.”
“I don’t mean this instant, and I don’t even mean necessarily you, though I would not object to that at all. All I mean is…I worry for him. All my other children were…they could pass, as it were, even as exceptional as they’ve been. All but a few have made their permanent homes on Earth…” he paused, and it struck Ian that he’d just admitted to outliving them all. “…But Alex there, as proud as I am of him, and as much as I love him…he cannot ever.”
“He lacks for peers,” the king intoned, a bit sadly. “A natural born Hero is often the loneliest of creatures, and that is not a burden to be considered lightly.”
“So this is the reason, then.”
“Of course not the whole reason. Duty comes first. The time has come, our strength is at its maximum, the means to strike are finally within our reach. But…when my duties as a father align with my duties as king, it gladdens me.”
“Well…as I said, I can’t promise anything…”
Ian looked over at the Wrecking Crew. Alex was among them, having started a rugby-flavored brawl over something vaguely ovoid in shape…
They all looked delighted to play.
“…But I like the lad. I’ve known kids who were right cocky little shits for having far less reason.”
“Humility was a virtue I learned the hard way, if I have learned it at all. I hoped to instill it in him from the first. I have spared him none of the necessary hardships of life.”
“So, not spoiled?”
“Oh, he is that!” Gilgamesh laughed, “but there is a secret to it. You ruin a child by making their life easy. Alex has never had an easy day in his life. But you also ruin a child by making their life miserable. Every hardship he has faced was constructive, and…well, he has access to resources most do not. How many boys earned a spaceship for their tenth birthday?”
“How did he do that?” Ian asked, unbidden.
“Oh, he had to learn every system on-board, qualify as crew and captain, and demonstrate military readiness, too. He’s received the full training on all those points and was tested harshly. Still is, weekly in fact! What father would send a boy into space unprepared? It was his obsession for three straight years. And he did it! As a consequence, he values that little ship more than even his collection of Star Wars figurines. Which was not easy to procure, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
Ian chuckled, and smiled, shaking his head. And…
Sure enough, some of his hypotheses had been proven correct. Gilgamesh lit up at the first chance of genuine friendliness. And Ian wouldn’t begrudge him this moment. Fathers had a right to be proud of their sons, after all.
But it wasn’t a thought he’d wanted to see proven.
“I’ll ask around,” Ian promised, perhaps a bit unwisely. “I can’t make any promises.”
“I know. And asking is all I ask. Regardless of what else happens…the children matter most.”
On that point, they could agree.
“Anyway! Storytime has come!” Welp, back to jovial god-king mode. “I want to hear some of your exploits! We said much about us—yes, there is more—but I want to hear about your crew! Heroes all, by the smell of it!”
Ian found himself being affably dragged back to the group (another thing the Gregariously Huge seemed to do without noticing), whereupon a picnic magically happened, and some nice comfy grass was chosen to sit down and talk. Alex led Hoeff along, who was smiling bemusedly, and decided he wanted to sit snuggled right between Ian and the murderTexan for storytime. The Ten’Gewek (and Bruuk) followed suit, and Ian found himself at the heart of a happy, friendly, though unfortunately somewhat sweaty pile-on, waiting on the story.
Rees, Davies, and Frasier kept a bit of distance, with smug grins flashed at Ian.
“So…” Gilgamesh offered a charming smile as he selected something that looked and, Ian knew from yesterday, tasted pretty damn similar to a fig newton. “Before we continue with Singularity’s tale, I would very much like to hear about your eye…”
Ian nodded, as much to his crew as to the king, and told his tale. Alex was enraptured by the story, and by now Ian had got pretty good at telling it, with special assists from the Wrecking Crew here and there to tell the other important bits. Keeda nodded along, chittered where appropriate…Leifini was definitely a Corti. He had her full, expressionless attention.
They ate, and talked. There were questions. With a bit of encouragement, Hoeff told some of his own story. Apparently he too was a pretty serious freak as a young kid, as Ian had suspected, and he’d clearly taken a big shine to Alex; hard not to, really. The boy was leaning up against him and Hoeff had his arm around the kid’s shoulders. “Could never hold onto my size ‘fer long though. I got just a bonkers metabolism. So…lotta experience bein’ big an’ small, sometimes both in the same year. Took Adam and his docs to finally figger out what the hell was goin’ wrong. So here I am.”
“The angriest, tankiest lil’ murderTexan,” Ian quipped, to jeers and cheers.
They went around the group, mostly sticking to more jovial stories where possible. Ten’Gewek we’re good storytellers, and told them as much with their bodies as words. Even Frasier—usually the quiet one—opened up.
Dora was last, and there was absolutely an ulterior motive at play, here. Her tale was chilling, and not subtly so.
“I was…kind of the wonder child too. The Supremacy used to select children out of school at a young age, the ones who showed top genetic conformity to the Ideal, who earned perfect grades…we got sent to a special academy. One where failure had…permanent…consequence. Normal folks just got a black mark on their file for this or that, not really a big deal in the scheme of things. But the exceptional ones, any misstep…”
She sighed heavily. “…I spent years living in terror that the teachers could read my mind. But, worse, I was scared of my classmates. Because we all knew, at that level? Even tolerating an Undesirable Trait in somebody else was a failure in its own right. There was nobody I could talk to about my feelings, nobody I could come out to…I couldn’t trust any of them, and they couldn’t trust me.”
She sighed heavily. “I remember the day two of the boys were caught. They were—” she indicated the feathery antennae on her head. “…brushing these together has a whole range of meaning among Robalin, kind of like how, with humans, shaking somebody’s hand is different to holding hands, you know? But long and slow and gentle brushing is kind of the equivalent of making out…”
She stared down at the cup of tea in her middle hand. “…They marched us out onto the schoolyard, lined us up. Made us watch as our classmates were flogged, and then…there was a black van.”
“How did you escape?”
“I took a risk. I figured, I was going to die there anyway, somehow. I’d put a foot wrong, I’d attract suspicion, and then, it’d be me up against that wall, and then being thrown in a van. So, when we got a few days off to go home and visit our parents…I came out to them. I told them everything, how I felt, how scared I was, what I knew was going to happen to me…”
One of her free hands was shaking. Ian took it and squeezed, as firmly as he dared. She gave him a grateful nod. “…They argued for hours. I could hear their voices through the floor, while I lay awake and wondered whether my own parents were about to call the authority and whether all I’d done by telling them was kill myself…But the next day, there was breakfast, and they told me the plan. My father worked for the port authority, he knew some people…he could pull some strings and get me a position as an officer on a transport ship, one with an interstellar license. The Supremacy only issued interstellar travel licenses to trusted individuals…and here I was, in the special academy. All I had to do was graduate, accept that career, and then go AWOL at a foreign port and request asylum.”
She scoffed bitterly. “Such an easy plan. ‘Just go AWOL.’ Well, I made it that far. I lasted two more years in the academy, somehow held it together and…convinced them I was one of them. As a student in good standing, I was issued my license, and the academy gave me a special award for graduating into a ‘prosocial’ career. But of course, we didn’t get shore leave. So in the end, I had to write a script to fool the cargo handling system and smuggle myself off the ship in an emergency spacesuit. After that, I went straight to another freighter due to depart, told them my story…and by the time my Robalin crew noticed I was gone, we’d already gone to warp, with me as their new junior cargo operator.”
Alex looked up at her with big, sad eyes. “What about your mom and dad?”
“They would have had to deny everything just to survive. Ritually disown me, all that. We talked that all through. I’ve not talked to them since…I don’t even know if it worked.”
There was a long silence, before Gilgamesh nodded in resolution. “I sense there is much more to your tale…but I will not pry. I thank you for sharing it.”
Alex looked particularly shaken. But, of course, he was a prince. And despite Gilgamesh’s talk about giving him some calculated hardship, up until now the Robalin Supremacy had probably been an academic thing for him, if he’d learned about it at all. Numbers and history just didn’t hit the same as a more personal account.
“They killed those boys just for being in love?” he asked.
“If they’d been anyone else, maybe they wouldn’t have. The Supremacy couldn’t execute everyone who didn’t conform, or they’d have run out of people. But we were the chosen few, you know? We couldn’t show imperfection. It undermined the Supremacy’s legitimacy.”
“Similar stories have played out on Earth,” Gilgamesh said, heavily. “I was even the agent of such a few, in my foolish youth.”
Alex gave him a dismayed look. “Why would you do that, Papa?”
“Because I am very old, Alex. And I had not yet learned. Our whole people were yet to learn, and times were savage. It was easy to fear those who were different or strange. Easier still to believe anything, when the simple act of writing it down was yet to be widely learned.” He sighed. “Such is the way of history. Such is the nature of sapient beings. Love, it seems, does not come naturally to any species. We must see for ourselves how terrible the alternative can be.”
“Well, that’s the cost of putting some virtues on a pedestal,” Dora said, bluntly. “Escalation.”
Gilgamesh gave her a complicated look, and nodded seriously. “Aye.”
Nobody missed her intent, there. Tomoe even squirmed a bit, but Dora was unflappable. What a brave woman she was.
“Life here can be…challenging, yes.” Keeda admitted, perhaps to soften the moment. “As you point out, excellence taken to an extreme leads to escalation, and that can be smothering. Though, I will note Ekallim-Igigi is not a civilization unto itself and was never meant to be. Most that are born here, leave of their own free will. And are welcome to return as they wish, means permitting.”
“Which is merely a concern about secrecy,” Leifini was quick to add. “One of the things we hope can be made easier, in the coming days.”
“Well, the conversation seems to have come back around to you,” Ian pointed out.
“Indeed.” Gilgamesh sampled a fruit. “And I enter the story in a hard time, when I was not a good king.” He looked down at Alex, and smiled a little sadly. “Nor a good father.”
He picked up a cup of wine, and drained it.
“It took a bit of humbling to set me on the right path…”
C. ~2900 BCE
The City of Uruk, Sumeria, Earth
The bed was comfortable, and sturdy enough to not even creak no matter how passionate his play within it. And it had seen much vigorous play the night before. A king could sleep the whole day away, in a bed like that…If only the king’s steward would let him.
Gilgamesh groaned and screwed his eyes tightly shut as the shutters slammed open and dawn light speared right into his face. Last night’s wine pounded between his ears, and raged for release behind his nethers: he had to piss like a bull.
Rather than say hello with any dignity, he staggered from the bed in a series of grunts and animal noises and lurched for the privacy offered by a screen in the corner, where his chamberpot waited.
His steward, Sagar, was used to it, of course, and raised his voice to call out over the spatter of liquid on pottery. “Another royal night to remember—or forget—my king?”
“Mm…” Gilgamesh grunted. “…Remember. Just. What was her name again?”
“I did not catch it, my king. She was…hurried…in her departure.”
“So the whole palace gathered.” Sagar replied, drily. He shooed a servant out of the way as Gilgamesh finished his ablution, for now, and stumped heavily out into the open. “We have had further petitions from the merchants. There are now dozens of men in the city who doubt the parentage of their first-born. The public mood is…”
Gilgamesh gestured vulgarly. “That to the public mood.” He swept up one of last night’s wine jugs and, finding it still half full, chugged it.
“Sire…A king leads by more than his might. Not even yours is endless.”
“I rule by divine right!”
“While they will have you, yes. Your own cousin is testament to the…pleasures…of the gods. And I speak in my own self-interest, sire. Mine will be the first head to roll.”
“Might be the first I crush in my arms, if you don’t get me some water…”
“Your bath awaits, of course…” Sagar responded, evenly, then made a show of inspecting the clay tablet in his hands. “Now, if I may draw the divine king’s attention to matters of state for the day…”
…he was being too harsh. Sagar was a good friend, after all. He’d never spoken unwisely.
“Yes, after I’ve had a flagon of water and splashed the stink off me, by heaven…”
He tried to be fair. But it was so boring to sit and listen to problems all day long…Petty problems, at that! So many of them amounted to nothing. ‘He refuses to pay his half of the funds to repair the wall we share’ against ’He broke the wall!’ Or yet another whinging copper merchant who’d bought from a dishonest supplier and thought the matter deserved the king’s attention…
It would have been so much easier to just show up, take a look at the problem, and beat the offender’s face in. Who could stop him? Nobody! But, no. He had to sit there, dressed up and quiet, and just…listen. Make a small comment, maybe. Let his priests do the dirty work.
The afternoon promised more interest, in the form of a visit from his royal cousin Ur-Gishkim of Lagash. Gilgamesh had heard much of Ur-Gishkim’s skill with a javelin, and the thought of testing himself against a worthy competitor brightened his mood.
There weren’t any, really. Hadn’t been since he was a young boy. It was obvious he would be king one day, once his uncle had died. As Sagar had pointed out, Gilgamesh’s cousin had enjoyed the divine right only briefly, before sickness took him. He’d never been a strong man.
Gilgamesh had never known sickness, or weakness. He was supreme among men. Handsome beauty came to him without effort, war and sport even more so. A clear blessing, which he took delight in training further, though at times he wished the gods had also blessed him with the talent for sleeping with his eyes open and his face alert.
Not that he cared overmuch about giving offense to some whinging baker, if they insisted on being annoying. But it wouldn’t do to insult a fellow king. So, best get prepared.
He bathed, properly. He was oiled and massaged, his beard tended to. He ordered a public feast; the store-houses were full after all, and the people had worked hard to fill them. Everyone deserved a bit of fun, now and then! And in any case, stores kept too long would spoil in the heat. It was time to refresh them.
Soon, the city was abustle with the commotion of people participating in the feast, of his soldiers keeping the peace, of musicians and dancers, and when the noise of cheering reached Gilgamesh’s ears, he emerged onto the palace’s rooftop terrace to look toward the gates. His cousin must be making quite a show of his arrival, to impress the people so much…
Until he realized that it wasn’t cheering he’d heard after all. And the crowd were not celebrating a royal procession. They were screaming, and running as a dark figure sauntered malevolently up the road.
It wasn’t his cousin who had arrived after all.
It was a beast.
“You have got to be kidding.”
Rees was giggling uncontrollably. “Aw, man, I told you!”
“Did you think the legend contained no truth at all?” Gilgamesh chuckled. “I was a bad king, as I said. Or at least, I wasn’t a good king. That might be more fair. But I was also, as the legend has it, a man of rare and terrible ability. I was almost the sort of thing Singularity had been looking for. A prime example of an uncontacted, utterly unknown species, free of Hierarchy influence. When they found us—when they found me—they thought they had hit the jackpot.”
“He was the product of an absurd confluence of gene-flow,” Leifini added. “His parents were the union of wild, un-mingled tribes, who themselves had recently absorbed wildly unmingled tribes, some of which included entire human subspecies as-yet undocumented in your science. He is a very rare specimen, to be sure…but he was not the only one alive in that era. That repeatability was fascinating to us, and suggested it might be encouraged.”
Ian took note of that. “Encouraged” was doing a Yeoman’s work, right there.
“But,” Y!’kiidaa added, “he was also, unlike all the others, the king of a city-state in the most civilized part of the world, because of a quirk of distant relation. The old king knew he would not last long, and was doomed to be forever heirless. So, he went looking for an heir.”
“And found me, over a foot taller than the other boys my age and many times their weight, with the strength of several grown men and the speed of the swiftest beasts. I was much like young Alex! So I was tested, taken, they taught me the art of words…”
“And that was that. Sudden, powerful privilege was his.”
Gilgamesh sighed, then gave a bit of a wan smile to Alex. “It went to my head.”
“And that we absolutely could not afford,” Leifini added, wryly. “So we decided Y!’kiidaa would simply need to beat it out of the young king. After all…look at them.”
Keeda bounced to all fours and posed that rippling superhero physique of his, with as much ironic bravado as he could manage. Gilgamesh rose and followed suit, and for a long moment the two showed off to their captive audience. There was a good round of jeers and trilling amusement, a flash of color, buzzing wings…
“Our muscle-laden gaoian ally was no stranger to ego, it must be said.”
Keeda chittered and flicked his ears self-effacingly. “It’s true! I was also…despondent. And bored. I had done what I could to preserve my people as best as we could, avoided detection…and we were successful, to a degree. We remembered the core of our souls, at least. Far, far too much was forgotten…”
“So, you fought.”
“Oh, it was more than a fight,” Gilgamesh beamed. “It was glorious! So I saw the commotion, I strode down from the palace steps, all full of my regal self-regard, and…”
And what a beast it was!
Thick-sinewed and powerfully muscled, with a fine pelt and a fierce, heavy jaw. Was it a bear? Cousin to a lion? Couldn’t be! No tale of any such beast had ever reached his ears. And there was an unsettlingly man-like intelligence in those keen amber eyes…
And then it spoke. Spoke!!
“King of Uruk!” it called in a deep, gravelly voice. “Your people call out to me! ‘Save us from this seducer and brawler!’ And so I come, mighty king! Yekiida comes to test your mettle!”
Now that gave everyone pause, Gilgamesh included. It spoke with an unnaturally loud voice, so loud Gilgamesh could hear its cry from across the city. Sagar’s words from earlier stung him; surely this was a test of his divine right to rule.
Well, Gilgamesh enjoyed a challenge, whether it was a foot race, a test of strength, a game of wits, perhaps…
With a fierce grin, he ditched his sandals and his annoying regalia, stripped down just to his kaunake, which he girded and tied around his loins. He was perched high up atop the temple, at the apex of the stairs, looking down upon the commotion. He didn’t have the voice of a god, but he did have the strength and physique to shame all men, and he’d never let himself come to slack-thewed softness. Quite the opposite, in fact; he’d never been stronger.
So, he bounced on his toes, dashed forward, and flung himself down from the top of the ziggurat, landing on his toes with enough heft to shatter the paving stones underfoot. “Beast!” he bellowed, and the sea of men between him and there parted as if by divine force. “I see you! Come now, and speak with me!”
The beast grinned at him, just like a man, but also with the lolling tongue of a dog. It spread its arms, flexed its fingers and showed off a set of fearsome claws…then hid them away again. Letting him know they were there.
And then, warning given, it charged.
Men, women and children scattered shrieking into the alleyways, but Gilgamesh stood his ground. It was so fast—!
But he turned that speed against it in a hip-toss. Felt the beast-man’s hot fur and smelled his breath, and then the beast was past him. It twisted in the air to land lightly on all fours, a posture that looked all too natural.
“What are you, beast? That you use our words and tease us so! Do the gods test me?”
“No!” It…laughed, then, not unlike a hyena from distant lands. “I test you! Now, fight!”
It pounced, too fast to be believed. It tackled Gilgamesh with enough force to slam through market stalls and cave in a wall. He kipped up to his feet, avoided a paw-swipe…
And the fight was on. And what a fight it was!
Afterwards, his memories of the brawl were incomplete from the sheer strain of it. Just a vague series of moments that lodged in his mind. Of brick mud walls shattering under their bodies, of birds escaping from their cages and scattering in a panic. Of squashed fruit making the footing treacherous. Of the full heat of the sun as it climbed to noon-day and the welcome cool of one of the palace pools when they splashed into it. Of his soldiers, spears in hand but wisely staying out of this clash. Of the sun coming back down from the sky’s pinnacle, until the street had shadows again and the whole feast-day was behind them.
Of exhaustion. Deep, abiding tiredness. Scratches everywhere. Obvious claw-marks across his chest and legs.
And underneath him, laughing in that strange voice…
“So you can fight, after all!”
The beast bucked, tossing Gilgamesh across the public space. They both rose, wary and panting, but the beast…turned his back.
He had won. But only because the beast had conceded the fight, when it plainly had more in it. Even though the beast’s tongue was lolling in the air, and Gilgamesh knew for certain he must have bruised that tough, hairy body.
How could he not have? When he looked around, he could see the wreckage of their brawl everywhere. There were buildings that would need to be knocked down and rebuilt, their walls knocked through.
But of any hurt, the beast gave no sign. Instead he pranced on all fours, heading up the stairs to the top of the palace. “Your table better be as entertaining as your fists!”
The beast looked back. “But we made a gods-damned mess in our play! What should we do?”
Gilgamesh looked around again. There were scared, tense faces watching from every direction. Women and children, cowering behind their husbands and fathers. People whose homes and stock they had just destroyed. All looking to their king with the silent question on their faces: ‘yes. What are you going to do?’
“I mean…that’s fuckin’ entertaining, I won’t lie,” Hoeff managed. “But there’s somethin’ I don’t get.”
“The why of it.” Gilgamesh nodded.
“Seems like a lot of showboating to me.”
“That was precisely the point. I needed to be humbled.”
“Yuh, but…why you? What were they even looking for in you? You’d have been another, what, bronze age fella needing a lot of education, even once you were aboard…”
“He wasn’t an easy choice, it’s true. There was much against him. His lusts and his temper, just as a start…but for all that he was a ‘bad’ king, his people also loved him.”
“Despite fuckin’ their wives?”
“It was the done thing,” Gilgamesh added, simply. “I certainly did not start that dubious tradition.”
“But you did indulge in it to the point where the merchants started complaining.”
“As they did about many things. You should also consider how my tale came to be; I caused it. It was authored by me, mostly. Part of my aim was an apology for past behavior, and an admonition to the future against such. As with most legends, it has grown in the telling.”
“The people of Uruk loved having a king who could show up any other king,” Leifini said. “He was their champion, their representative, their mascot and their avatar. They tolerated his behavior as his kingly due, as was the way of things. It was ultimately his empathy that tipped the balance in his favor; the sons of Uruk would have followed him into death itself.”
“…And many did, over the years.”
“And after our brawl, of course, he was the king who had saved his city from the marauding beast-man, and tamed him.” Yekiidaa chittered.
“Oh, I don’t think anyone has ever tamed you…” Gilgamesh chuckled in turn. “But it was a fantastic spectacle. He was by my side for many years, and taught me many a thing.”
“Okay, okay, but why did you need him?” Hoeff insisted to Leifini.
“Need what? A leader? We thought we already had one. I had filled that role for thousands of years, of course. But here was an untainted species—”
“‘Yer leavin’ out the bestest part!” Kiidaa objected.
“I was hoping to spare you embarrassment.”
“About what? It was the right thing to do!”
Leifini sighed. “…Fine. Truth be told, we found humankind almost by accident. Surveys had identified the planet, but there were no emission spectra that suggested civilization.”
“Because we were just getting started.”
“Yes, so we were quite surprised to find the human race, just ‘getting started,’ and—”
“I wanted a tussle!”
Leifini sighed again. “…Yes. Y!’kiidaa is and was many things, but one thing I had learned by then was his innate need to play could never be denied, or ruinous consequence would follow.”
“An’ none’a the Void Caste could ever give me real play. We made do with drones an’ stuff, but…balls. For the first time in far too long, I finally saw a chance to actually test myself.”
“So…lemme get this straight,” Hoeff said, disbelief dripping from every syllable. “You’re telling me that you run into us, right at the start of our history, and Keeda here has a fuckin’ itch, goes looking for the biggest badass he can, and just picks a fight.”
“Yes! You can’t tell me you ain’t done the same!”
“In a bar, or a dojo or whatever, sure! It’s another to punch the goddamn king in the face!”
“Slapped, thankyouverymuch! And I did that after having taken the time to learn the language, and all that.”
“You walked up and slapped Gilgamesh in the face.”
“Yes, and more, too! But I wanted to talk with him, mostly. See if he might be useful. We spent years studying humanity. Thought you’d make good allies, one day.”
“Why do you think he was so pent up?” Leifini asked. “All those years of watching the first people we’d ever seen who could be his true peers, in every sense. From early on in our monitoring of your people, he’d wanted it.”
“It took a lot of persuasion to get her ‘ta let me,” Keeda finished. “An’ she never agreed. So I jus’ did it anyway. Stole her ship, too! Balls, it was cramped…”
“Mm.” Leifini gave him a measured look that said, even five thousand years on, she was still quite unamused at that.
Ian looked over at Hoeff. “You look like you’re about to eat their faces, mate.”
“Well what the fuck else am I supposed to do?!” Hoeff exploded. “What the fuck kinna bullshit two-bit fly-by-night operation is this?!”
“You put your finger on it,” Gilgamesh chuckled. “They didn’t know what they were doing. The Void Caste were groping in the dark, learning what they could about the enemy, but they were not a military. War was unknown to them. They had no tradition of it to draw from.”
“We were bereft of leadership,” Leifini agreed. “And leadership is critical. With stasis, the deep observations over generations, the comings and goings of many talented people…”
“Oh God.” Ian understood. “It was a committee of scientists, wasn’t it?”
“And artists. And the fiercely independent. And the fiercely capable,” she added, shooting Keeda an indulgent look. “But how could he lead us? He was big enough to hunt and destroy the galaxy’s most impressive megafauna from the first we met, and he was so…intense in personality, it took long friendship and admiration to overcome instinctual wariness.”
“I’m a big scary guy!” More fierce clowning, clearly for Alex’s benefit as much as anyone else. He’s fond of the lad, Ian noted.
“So then, what did you do?” Hoeff insisted. “You and fuzzy huge-nuts over here have a fuckin’ city-wrecking brawl, or whatever, and now what? Everyone fucks off an’ that’s it?”
“Oh, the story unfolds over years, of course. But in that moment…I had been stripped down to my foundations, so to speak. Worn out, scratched bloody, bruised and battered. Yekiidaa told me later that he was on the verge of collapse himself, but he has always been a better actor than me. In the moment, I truly believed that he had allowed me to win, to save face. That is a humbling thing, for a man who woke up that morning believing the gods themselves approved of his every whim.”
“And I wasn’t done fuckin’ wit’ you, either.” Keeda said, more sternly.
Gilgamesh chuckled, and nodded. He picked up his wine and took another swig.
“Indeed not…” he said.
Every part of him ached. He wanted so desperately to go back to his palace, to soak in a hot bath, feel the hurt seep out of his pores…
But those watching faces were a challenge. And so was the beast’s sharp, amber gaze.
“My table,” Gilgamesh said, slowly, “belongs to the people of Uruk. And we have caused havoc, here. We will tend to the families who have nowhere to sleep, before we feast.”
Such a simple little thing to say. But by the gods, what a change it set in motion. There was so much work to do, that night. So much debris to clear. The beast helped too, and made a game of much of it.
He was leading, Gilgamesh realized. This beast was a leader of men. Where did Gilgamesh stand next to such a black-furred titan of muscle? A beast that could speak? Was he a man?
Was he king?
…How had Gilgamesh fallen so far?
Resolution, then. This was the game, and he was losing.
He put his back into clearing the debris, opened his palace to the dispossessed, feasted that night alongside them…
“Men wrap themselves in illusions of their own making. We are all of us, in some degree, deluded about ourselves: we do not know what kind of person we are. It is only through hardship that you peel away the unconscious lies, and lay bare the soul. Then you find out who a person truly is. And if they are attentive, they find out about themselves. Yekiidaa has a special talent in finding that, exposing it, ruthlessly burning it away, if need be. He has it because an uncaring Enemy did far, far worse to him, right as his life began to flower.”
All eyes focused on Keeda, who duck-nodded seriously.
“I am the trickster god of my people, by my own design. But I am no divine creature. I am a sterile remnant of a mightier, more heroic G!âo. It is…extremely unlikely I have any legacy. The one woman I had known before the fire could not have escaped…so this is my work. Gilgamesh is our king. But by words, weapons or personal might, I am his test.”
“…Okay.” Ian said. The tale was starting to range pretty wildly. “So…you had a fight, and then you fixed the city, and presumably you were re-born as a better king. Sure. II’ll also accept you’re cutting out much for the sake of brevity. But…what then? Now you’ve got Keeda running around, presumably. And the rest of the Epic gets…pretty wild, to say the least.”
“Yes,” Gilgamesh broke some bread and spread paté on it. “So let me summarize. Over the next year, he slowly prepared me for the Revelation. Then the Revelation was made, in private. I met Leifini. My true education began, my first true temptation was had…”
“Technology.” Hoeff said, without expression. “I suppose ‘cuz we weren’t ready.”
“Yes, but more than that. You, I think, understand how brutal our people can be. Imagine if all the world were filled with men like you and I, and I had introduced firearms.”
Slowly, Hoeff nodded.
“Precisely. We were not ready. There were wars, too. Over the years my rule grew more just. Laws were passed. Well, written law was invented, first, and I am proud to say it was one of my scribes who did so, before I could nudge the idea into my court. Later codes drew heavily from his first framing. Ash-Dagrim was his name, and he is still with us. The first lawyer! Do not hate him for it,” he joked. There was a gentle susurrus of amusement.
Gilgamesh took another sip of wine. “From there, Uruk prospered beyond my wildest imaginings. I could not outlaw slavery, despite my wishes. Even a king must answer to reality, but I could blunt its greatest horrors, over time. My brutality toward defeated peoples tempered. I…continued to indulge, but I was kinder. Playful, instead of conquering. I worked to grow my people before slaking my appetites, and soon enough I had more blessings than I could ever indulge. Husband and wife hide from an uncaring king, but they welcome a beloved one into their homes. Yekiidaa taught me powerful wisdom by his actions. Wisdom he didn’t know he had within himself. You want a blessing from the gods? He was, for me.”
Keeda himself flicked his ears back in embarrassment. Interesting.
“And we explored,” Leifini added. “Earth had fascinating biology, if you take my meaning.”
“I…don’t think I do?” Hoeff frowned. He was proving an excellent foil.
“No matter, we’ll get to that eventually. In any case, the legend states that I was gone on a voyage far into the east for some time, yes? Well…not the east, of course. One of the Void Caste’s observation posts had sent a distress signal.”
“He immediately offered his arms. His, and a very few select of his guard who had been brought into partial confidence.”
“And…what did you find?” Dora asked.
Gilgamesh contemplated his wine, sighed, and poured out a measure onto the grass. Prompted by that, Ian did the same, followed by everyone else. With that observation made, he answered her question.
“…We watched a civilization die.”
Date Point: A long time ago, in a galaxy close at hand Orbit above pre-contact planet Spif, Trailing Edge
From orbit, the nuclear exchange was almost peaceful. No sound, no thunder, no wails of millions dying…just pulses of light, as transient and slow as a sleeping heartbeat.
They hadn’t been a good people. Their sympathy for the out-group was nil, and their willingness to expand the in-group to include former out-groups near non-existent. Not that the G!âo or Corth had been much better. Leifini’s Void Caste were outcasts, a perpetual out-group. And Humans, so far as Y!’kiidaa had seen so far, had few qualms about brutalizing other tribes, cities and nations. Or even lower-status members of their own in-group, for that matter.
But the suicidal madness playing out before them hadn’t sprung from instinct and alien morality alone. The civilization burning below had suffered a nurturing of their worst nature, ever escalating, ever divided, until finally their xenophobia and technology combined to bear terrible, frenzied fruit.
In only a few more generations, they would have been the galaxy’s new problem neighbors, perhaps even a warmongering, slave-taking, conquering scourge to rival the Hunters. Perhaps they could even have witnessed extinction like this without grieving for the loss of something precious.
Y!’kiidaa couldn’t. Now, there was no hope they could prove him wrong.
He keened, quietly.
“…What was the point?” he asked the room, eventually.
Leifini had long since closed her eyes and bowed her head. She didn’t open them or lift it, but she did speak, softly. “A universal maxim, my friend. Everyone is good by their own moral code. And every evil they perform is the lesser evil, in their own estimation.”
“What’s worse than this?”
She moved her head side-to-side. “Why do I incinerate bacterial and fungal samples after study? For safety. To prevent their escape and spread. Yet I am killing millions of living organisms in doing so.”
Gilgamesh gave her an askance look. “What you destroy are not thinking beings. They don’t feel pain, or love, or hurt or joy! They can’t write a poem or sing! They can’t dance!”
“Or anticipate the future and fear their end. I know. It is an imperfect comparison. But they must have some inner life, some kind of consciousness even in some lesser degree than our own. They are incapable of the things we value, and thus we feel no shame in destroying them. Perhaps these people—” she gestured out the window, “—are incapable of the things the Enemy value, and so fall into the same disposable category…Or perhaps the Enemy considers themselves at war, and think this massacre is necessary to avert some more terrible future scenario. Perhaps their molding of the Corth into beings of coldness and unempathetic rationality reflects their own values.”
The treacherous thought flitted through Y!’kiidaa’s mind that she was sounding pretty damn cold herself, in that moment. But, he knew better. Leifini had nothing to prove to him, in terms of her warmth or empathy. It was just a coping mechanism.
Gilgamesh frowned at her, then looked back out the window and placed his hand on the glass. He watched death flowering across a continent a few seconds longer. “…My people will have this power, in time?”
“Oh yes,” Leifini nodded. “Those weapons are the first tangible expression of what you’ve taken to calling ‘The Deep.’ They are a necessary and inevitable step to understand the physics of the universe.”
“It was this way for me too,” Y!’kiidaa reassured him, reading much in the king’s stance and expression. “There is so much to learn…”
Across the bridge, one of Leifini’s distant grand-nephews cleared his throat, politely getting their attention. “Unidentified ships decloaking in a polar orbit.”
Leifini opened her eyes. “Let’s see them.”
It was their first glimpse at the foe’s actual weapons. There were six in total. Transports of some kind? Two huge deployment bays straddling the middle like saddle bags, ahead of a cluster of engines, and aft of an axe-shaped prow. Spare and spartan. Not much room for a crew at all.
They orbited low and fast, opening their bays as they decloaked and firing large, metallic packages downward as they passed over what had been, just a few hours ago, major population centers. Re-entry plasma made it hard to get any kind of clear look at what they dropped, but Y!’kiidaa got the impression of an insect curled up on itself.
The Void Caste observed in silence, speaking only quietly to compare notes and draw each others’ attention to details. They noted the lack of any obvious livery on the warships, the highly efficient nature of their cloaking devices…
Kiidaa watched the ground forces. Their deployment was swift and brutal, slamming into the ground at terminal velocity. He watched one of the coiled things unfold itself from its protective cocoon, raise itself up tall to scan the vicinity. Explosive charges on its back launched a flight of light drones into the air and, seconds later, it sensed a target and turned to destroy.
Not far to its south, an identical machine did the exact same thing. And another, and another. In minutes, there was a formation of them marching steadily across the fields and through the woods, to converge on minor towns and vehicle-packed highways.
And when they reached them, they commenced to complete the slaughter that the nuclear missiles had begun.
The Ten’Gewek knew his story already. Young though they all were—Ferd was the second-oldest at, maybe, his early-mid twenties—they had all lived through the Hierarchy’s invasion of their own world. They knew the Death-birds and Abrogators well.
“Efficient.” Ferd said it with a snarl and a curled lip, his tail coiling angrily behind him.
“Very,” Leifini agreed. “By the time the Hierarchy decides to exterminate a species, they’ve spent a thousand years or more studying it and guiding its development. They know the local politics, the global atlas, they have already infiltrated every government…they know everything they need to maximize the carnage, and to ensure that there is nowhere to hide.”
“Why hit us so early?” Nomuk asked
Gilgamesh gave him a sympathetic look. “Your people were never going to invent the intercontinental ballistic missile,” he said. “Even if your civilization had reached the point of developing rockets, they would quickly have realized that Akyawentuo’s gravity is too strong for any reasonable chemical engines. And without rocketry, without payloads to orbit, there are whole branches of the Deep that are cut off.”
“Your world’s gravity is over twenty percent stronger than Earth’s,” added Leifini, “which is very nearly inescapable itself. Nothing short of nuclear propulsion would have sufficed to escape, and doing such a thing would have been the doom of you all.”
“The gods trapped us,” Tumik grumbled darkly.
“The gods work in mysterious ways,” Gilgamesh replied diplomatically. “You were found, and now because of that hardship, you have strength no other people have. Strength of body, of spirit, in fortitude, determination…how hard must you have labored to be here, now, speaking a language ill-suited for your mouth and throat? And I hear you can read ancient Sumerian!”
Nomuk twitched his tail. “Only a little…”
Coming from a human, that would have been modesty. Coming from him, it was embarrassment at not being completely fluent in it, yet.
“Besides,” Gilgamesh added. “Trapped you may have been, but you were also not vulnerable to the Enemy’s preferred cowardice of provoking their victims into self-destruction. They were compelled to confront you head-on, and early. It was a long and costly campaign for them, and vulnerable. Internecine war is a plausible cover for their scheming. Death robots methodically scouring the land, less so.”
“In any case…we inferred much about their mode of operation, that day,” Leifini brought the story gently back on track. “We discovered there was no crew, and that the ships had enormously powerful computation elements onboard, far in excess of what any well-engineered AI would need, which was our first clue as to their nature. And afterwards, when we sat down to think about it…”
“You’re suggesting they’re some kind of…what? Rampant machine? That can’t be right! Can it?”
“We don’t know what is capable with machines. Sapient-like artificial intelligence is a field the Directorate continues to study with interest…perhaps because it benefits the Enemy.”
Y!’kiidaa made a grumbling noise. “…I’m not used to you not knowin’ things…” he fretted.
“This is new territory for us all…” Leifini shook her head. “But it would explain much if our foe is not corporeal, in the conventional sense. You saw how efficiently they took apart those people down there.” She gestured vaguely behind her, as though the entire planet was in that direction. Maybe it was. “How many bunkers and shelters did we just see them tear into that we had no idea existed. How many fake transmissions did we pick up, adding to the confusion? How many people in positions of power seemed to go totally insane in those final hours, and how many of the people who should have stopped them, didn’t?”
She shook her head. “Then there’s what happened to the Corth. The insidious subtlety of it. I always wondered how they could be manipulating us. It seemed highly unlikely that our leaders have been meeting with the representatives of an unknown civilization and doing their bidding.”
“So…why don’t we go down there and see for ourselves?” Y!’kiidaa asked.
“And give ourselves away?”
“You managed to detect us, in full cloak!”
“Because I could smell ‘yer ship’s burnin’ oil!” Y!’kiidaa chittered. “We’ve already established ain’t nobody got sniffers like my people. They sure didn’t down there, so…”
“And our current generation of ships are far superior to the one you flew that day, great-aunt,” Leifini’s nephew added.
“Yekiidaa has the right of it,” Gilgamesh declared. “We cannot hide forever. We must know more.”
“But the danger! You do not understand—”
“My loins may be harmed, yes? Ha!” Gilgamesh laughed. “I don’t intend to walk around there forever. Besides, many a merchant’s daughter is heavy with my boys! I can afford a risk, for something this important.”
“It’s more than just your nuts,” Y!’kiidaa warned him. “Those weapons poison the air, the ground and the water. It gets in your body and stays, and then—”
“I did read your writings on accumulated dose,” Gilgamesh pointed out, annoyed he was being impeded. “So we make an armor against the danger, we see with our own eyes, and we leave. Why is this difficult?”
“Oh, I’m with ya. We need to go down there and hunt. But we need to do it right, we need to have some idea what our quarry is, and we need to do it sneaky.”
“How?! You have already said you know absolutely nothing about our great enemy! So what are you planning against? Nothing! That’s no different than hiding from the storm. So let us go see! By the gods, how have you got anything done? You can do nothing at all if you know nothing about your foe!”
Kiidaa scratched his ear. “Well…I never went to war, never spoke at council. Balls, I wasn’t even quite a man, when my world was taken from me.”
Gilgamesh softened a bit. “It’s not about war, friend. This is about action. A king must often act without the luxury of understanding, for failure to act may prove fatal. If we do nothing, we will be eaten by this thing! So we must scout. We must see what there is to see. Only once we have some knowledge of our foe can we make a better plan with a sharper point on it.”
“I’m with you, then…but, if Leifini’s people can arm us with some kinda sneaky tricks, I’d like that…”
They both looked at Leifini.
Four days later, they made planetfall. Leifini and the Void Caste’s engineers had created some prototype equipment for them, inspired by the excursion suits Corth scientists used to venture onto dangerous planets, and informed by Kiidaa’s nose for mischief.
Gilgamesh shugged uncomfortably at the skin-tight synthetic under-coverings. “Is this really necessary?”
“Yes, you massive lout,” Leifini said, with a laugh. “The greatest danger is from skin contact and inhalation of the fallout, at this point. Most of it should have already progressed through the highest energy decay modes.” She reached up and tugged along the neckline. “This would fit so much better if your neck wasn’t wider than your head…”
“Would you have a weak champion?” Gilgamesh replied, then shook his body. “It feels… fussy. And the rest of this?” He glanced at the heavy pile of stuff he needed to don.
“Air seals, some armor, and some more active protection. Shield emitters in the harness should deflect anything too energetic. It can also be used as cloak in visual spectrum, and it should keep you hidden and safe, provided you don’t move too quickly. But do not rely on it heavily. The technology is…young, and untested.”
Gilgamesh knew enough of the Void Caste by now to know that they took great pride in their work. When Leifini called something ‘untested’ what she really meant was that it hadn’t been proved time and again over decades of regular use. He himself knew much too little to have any idea how suitable the garment was or the task…but he trusted Leifini.
They landed in woodlands. The trees were nothing like the ones Gilgamesh knew, the air was cold, and when he looked up at the mountains, the sight of ice running down one of them in a slow, frozen river was…distracting. But trees and underbrush, it seemed, were trees and underbrush.
They hunted quietly. Yekiidaa could hold himself low to the ground and stalk on all fours, and his impressive nose led the way.
“Does that not expose you to fallout?”
“Nah,” he whispered back. “Fallout’s big like dust. Stuff that smells is way more tinier.”
More Deep to learn, apparently.
At first, it was just…getting the lay of the land. A strange place, and the ground did not pull at his feet as re-assuringly as it did back on his world. But some things were still the same. Paths were still paths, trod by feet or carts. They followed along one such path, noting everything for Leifini’s benefit, until—
“That has to be a person.”
The clothes were the giveaway, really. Had he seen such a hopping, hairy thing naked, he would have guessed otherwise, but it was wrapped in good cloth, though dirty and torn. …Much better cloth than anything his people had. As good as the weirdly comfortable thing he was wearing under all the “safety.”
He didn’t seem to be doing much, though. Just…standing around. Not even like he was out enjoying a sunny day. And was that drool? Maybe they normally drooled. But somehow, Gilgamesh knew otherwise. The creature-man in front of him was in a bad way, his thoughts long flown away, leaving his body behind to stumble around.
“Well,” he said as quietly as could be, “here’s one of the poor bastards, Leifini. What next?”
“Use the blue scanner on him, please.”
He aimed it. Pressed the blue thing. It blinked. Blue like the afternoon sky, before the colors of evening.
There was a moment of silence, while he waited to see what the blink meant.
“The green one, please?”
Aimed. Pressed. faster blink this time, amber like warm honey.
“…Do not let him see you. There is anomalous technology of some kind embedded in his skull. These people are not sufficiently advanced for—” a new word. He knew much of the Corth tongue, these days, but not this one…it contained the sounds for ‘body’ and ‘device’ though.
It meant something to Yekiidaa though. “Well,” he whispered, “that’s fuckin’ alarming. You want to study him in person?”
“The only safe way to do that is to kill him.”
“Look at him. He’s already dead, so…”
So Gilgamesh put him out of his misery. A quick dash forward, a fierce blow to the head, a fist through its chest…
Done. Done too easily, actually. No man of his people would have…Popped quite like that.
Yekiidaa was at his side a second behind him. “I think we got what we came for. We should go quickly.”
They picked up the sorry, broken, and much too light corpse, and returned to the ship.
It was a long wait while Gilgamesh’s intellectual betters did their careful work. In the meantime, he wrestled with Yekiidaa, found new ways to use the exercising toys…
Restless. He was restless. Something about all of it was gnawing at him. Kiidaa, too.
Some hours later, as he and Yekiidaa were napping together after their exertions…They got the first of their answers. He didn’t like them. Nobody did. In fact, they created a number more questions.
But now, at least…they had a start.
“We mounted two more excursions. Obviously, we could not capture any of the enemy’ drones or abrogators for study, but Gilgamesh was right. Once we had taken that first step and learned something, we knew where to look to find more, and so it went.”
Y!’kiidaa took a moment to delicately nibble the meat off a perfectly cooked spare rib. And by perfectly, he meant barely. Crispy sear on the outside, warm and juicy on the inside. He crunched down on the bone and sucked down the warm, buttery marrow, too.
Leifini had never enjoyed it. “Must you?”
“I’ll give up rare meat when you give up fungus tea.”
“Thousands of years, they still bicker the same old way,” Gilgamesh chuckled.
“Anyway. We didn’t get a whole lot out of that first biodrone. By the time we even got it to Leifini’s medical lab, the implant had half dissolved already. Some kinda nanotech self-destruct. I guess so if the drone dies in a car crash or whatever, there’ll be no sign of it by the time they get round to an autopsy.”
“At this point, we must gloss over a great deal,” Leifini said. “We made slow, steady progress for many years. Gilgamesh simply led and we followed, feeding him knowledge…eventually, we decided to formalize matters. A decade after we met, Gilgamesh was proclaimed chief of the Void Caste.”
“I remade things immediately,” Gilgamesh noted. “It could no longer be exile Corth, hiding in the Void. We needed to prepare ourselves for a fight where we had no allies. This was…a tall order. And I realized soon that I could not remain the God-King of Uruk.”
“It took some decades to plot. Fortunately, Gilgamesh aged very well, losing nothing as he entered the prime of his life. The people in his region were long-lived and that, it turned out…”
“Bullshit,” Hoeff said, flatly.
“I do not. Much of our most successful longevity research comes from the biodiversity of Earth herself, and from Gao’s ancient history as well. We collected and preserved very much, before the Hierarchy came. Why do you think your peoples respond so well to modern therapy?”
“Let’s say we were as long-lived as a people without the sciences of good health can reasonably hope to be,” Gilgamesh offered. “And I, of course, was hale and hearty even as my hair turned gray. By this point, the stories of me went that my friend the beast-man had died, and I travelled far to rescue his soul and return him to life. I returned to Uruk, ruled as well as I could while I continued my studies of the Deep…and when the time came, as a final touch to my legend, I ascended to the heavens.”
“It was quite a light show,” Yekiidaa chittered. “And of course, key members of the court knew much of the truth by then, as did his eldest son, who succeeded the throne. But they kept to their secrecy, and told no one. They were not so foolish as to shirk from the need of it all.”
“…Ah.” Ian noted. “And now, finally, we come to the important bit. Why did you breed us like cattle?”
Y!’kiidaa paused in munching a savory cracker. He had to give Wilde credit, a lot of the humans he’d known had been so intimidated by Gilgamesh that they went all meek. Death-Eye, on the other hand, lived up to his fearsome visage.
But then again…he reported directly to Singularity’s greatest triumph, and had been respected in a company of men containing many of the Line. Kiidaa had seen enough of Wilde to know that he felt comfortable in the presence of excellence…and that comfort meant he was willing to challenge it.
The challenge certainly stung Gilgamesh. “You imply a degree of control and callousness we never even aspired to. Not like cattle, no. We never culled or gelded the undesirable, nor compelled a union. No woman ever woke up mysteriously pregnant after being artificially impregnated.”
“That directly contradicts reporting from the Corti Directorate themselves.”
“They are mistaken. Whatever your misgivings about the process, I will firmly defend that we did it with integrity, and respect for the lives we were touching.”
“A stranger comes to the village,” Y!’kiidaa said. “He has a strange accent and declines to speak much of his past, but he works hard and lives selflessly. With his help, the harvest that year is good, or the new buildings are strong and well-made, or he forges good iron. Within a year or two, it’s as if he was never a stranger to anybody. His accent fades, the people of his community accept and value him, and if he still declines to share anything of his family or where he came from, well, the world is a vale of tears, and all men live with pain. Why press him? Let the poor soul live the new life he has built…and he’s a good man. As fine a husband as any girl could look for, and soon enough there’ll be a family happy to welcome him as their son and brother…Indeed, it is that sort of man who gave me my brother.”
“That was our approach,” Gilgamesh nodded. “What is there to object to? Omission? A normal part of life, that. Would you tell your mother what kind of pornography you watch, or blurt out a sickly relative’s medical troubles to your colleagues? We needed an army. That would not come from the Corth. You cannot imagine we spent thousands of years doing nothing. We have had teams like your HEAT for much of it. How do you think we have learned all we learned?”
“And how else would we have kept humankind a protected secret? System shield technology is a recent innovation. We could not have done as you so magnificently managed by accident with the Ten’Gewek.”
“None of which answers why.” Ian insisted, forcefully.
“Yes. So let me summarize. I ascended to leadership among the Void Caste. By acclamation I was crowned, with an advisory council to cover my many and deep ignorances. With a bit of time, and observation, I arrived at our needs. The mission was to free the galaxy of the Enemy. We knew right away we would need powerfully capable ‘spear-men’ as I thought of them at the time, and we knew that men of the necessary caliber were rare. We could not simply recruit every Hero from Earth; my people would notice, and be weaker for it when we could not risk such a thing. We also knew, as does anyone who observes mutts, that the very thing which makes someone like me is diluted, without luck or care.”
“We needed an army. To man that army, we had two species. Gao was out of reach for the moment, and Earth was about to explode into civilization…the time to act was then. So, we began cultivating the Line.”
“A eugenics program to breed super-soldiers.”
Gilgamesh sighed. “…Yes. A voluntary one, but yes.”
The silence hummed like a bowed string as Wilde and his crew stared at him, until Wilde, very carefully, spoke his mind. “Seems to me, we’re coming at this from opposite sides of a big divide. Where I’m from? Eugenics is a fuckin’ ugly word. And the drive to improve people, to create the ideal human, has been used to justify industrialized murder.”
Gilgamesh sighed again. “Yes, I suppose we are. So let me let you in on an important fact about the people of Ekallim-Igigi. A full quarter of her population are enlisted directly in the fight, and of them nearly half are actively deployed right now. We were not attempting to breed the ideal human. Far from it. What would such a thing even be? What we were looking to preserve and cultivate was talent.”
“…Because you’re not a hidden civilization at all.”
“You’re a paramilitary.”
“Closer to the mark, yes. We are…” Gilgamesh paused and considered. “Perhaps the best way to put it is as a paramilitary nation. All of us here, no matter the species, is united in our purpose to destroy the Hierarchy. Some of us lead. Many of us fight. Still others research, think, design. The very best of us often retire back to Earth, or Gao, or whatever world…a stranger, wandering in from the night, with a story he will not tell. Save but a handful, we age, have families, and die. After all, immortality is not for the faint of heart.”
“Understand, it is out of service we do this. I suspect that, if we ever manage our victory, we will very likely disband, and I will finally allow myself to age, grow old, and die alongside all the rest. To go, and at last unite with my children, and explore the Final Mystery.”
“Hmm.” Now it was Wilde’s turn to omit, or at least not share his thoughts. Instead, he stretched until his spine popped. “I think a break is in order, if you don’t mind.”
Bold of him, to lead a king. But Gilgamesh liked bold leaders, and frequently indulged. “You are right.” Gilgamesh rose to his feet. “I would go play at lifting. You and your men are of course welcome to join…”
Ian demurred. “I’d be holding the rest of you back.” He shared a quick look with Hoeff, who looked like he was craving physical violence. “My crew is of course free to play along. I’ll take a walk instead.”
If Gilgamesh was disappointed, he didn’t show it. “As you wish. Perhaps we should resume this evening?”
“That sounds good.”
“Very well!” Gilgamesh nodded at his staff, and made his exit. Hoeff and the so-called Wrecking Crew followed behind.
Everyone else wandered off. Everyone but Alex, who poked Ian in the shoulder.
“Hey! Uh…wanna see my ship?”
What a scene! Ian was being asked after by a young boy-prince who was far and away the more powerful man, both physically and politically, yet who wanted nothing more than to show-and-tell with his New Awesome Friend. Some truths transcended time and species.
The change in Ian was immediate. He went instantly from brooding on whatever still troubled him, to smiling down. “Aye, sure. That sounds like fun…”
Y!’kiidaa watched them go. They still had an uphill fight here, he could tell. But, that wasn’t really surprising. They’d had a rough introduction to Singularity. A rougher time still, absorbing millennia of new history and all its implications…It would be good for him to indulge in some innocent fun.
Y!’kiidaa chittered to himself as the old temptation stole over him once again. He’d never, ever, in all his time, once been able to properly resist it.
What Captain Ian Wilde needed, he decided, was a good trick…
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
What this kid needs is somebody closer to his own age…
The manic thought somehow managed to hold on inside Ian’s head as Alex put them through a high-G maneuver that had him briefly feeling like his guts were about to sink into his feet.
Ian knew a thing or five about maneuver in space. It wasn’t like planes. Planes could do all sorts of aerobatic shit by leaning into the air resistance until they flipped out like a thrown playing card. Spaceships, though…most spaceships were designed with a strong axis of thrust, maneuvering thrusters, and a gyroscope. The most Gs you could get was equal to the engines’ maximum thrust.
And by Christ the kid’s ship had some thrutch. They’d rammed out of the station’s approach as hard as the traffic controllers would let him, and that had been bloody intense enough. But then they’d reached the minimum safe distance, and Alex had made it his mission to show off, by way of turning Ian’s inner ear inside out.
Now, Wilde enjoyed a wild ride, no lies there. But fuck!
“Hey!” Alex called over his shoulder. “You ever been down into a gas giant’s atmosphere?”
“Can’t say I have!” Ian called back. The lad’s ship was pretty damn roomy, probably to accomodate his fucking unit of a father riding behind in the back seat. Or the lad himself, frankly. But it was still a two-seater ridealong job. “Is that safe?”
“Oh yeah! No problem for the Beowulf!
Ian laughed. The “Beowulf? A little on-the-nose, isn’t it?”
“Aargh, it’s not what you think,” Alex groaned. He angled the ship’s nose away from Ekallim-Igigi and spent a few seconds speaking to traffic control in a language Ian didn’t speak. Seconds later, they were at warp—quite a slow warp, actually. Ian actually got to watch the station and the planet it orbited recede astern, rather than just blink out of existence, which meant they hadn’t even gone FTL.
“I mean, it’s not bad as names go,” Ian grinned. “After that performance earlier I thought you’d have named it ‘hench press’ or ‘super-squat’ or—”
Alex snorted. “Shut up!”
“Oh well. Maybe the next ship, aye?”
The kid laughed, “‘Hench press,’ though? That’s terrible!’
“‘Ey, I know blokes who’d think that’s hilarious and absolutely name a ship that just for a giggle.”
“Why did you choose Stray Fortune for yours?”
“Well, see, the original name was some Vzk’tk thing like a bloke who just got smashed in the mouth trying to chew his own teeth.”
“But it seemed apt, maybe? Let’s face it, not a one of my crew are exactly living the normal life. We’re all on that ship ‘cuz we’re a bit stray, I guess, but we’re all glad to be there.”
“Sounds fun,” Alex sighed. “I don’t think I’ll ever get to be stray.”
“Aye, well. ‘The grass is always greener,’ and that.”
“No, no! I mean…I’m sorry.”
‘What for? Fantasizing? Don’t be. I mean, I can imagine what it must be like, here…”
“It’s good! For the most part. Father says he ‘got it wrong the first few times’ when I asked him about my older siblings, you know? It is kinda weird growing up here.”
“What are you measuring it against?”
“Well, we get TV. Eventually.”
Ian laughed. “Not missing much, there…what about kids your age?”
“Oh, there’s plenty. It’s just…”
“None of them could hench press a house?”
Ian chuckled again. Clearly Alex had set a slow warp just to enjoy the conversation. “Got a girl you like?”
“No. I mean, not like that.”
“So, okay. What’s stopping you?”
“I mean…” Alex shrugged. “Girls are weird.”
“But hard to look away from, yeah?”
“…Yeah.” Alex laced his fingers and stretched. “Also…I dunno. It’s like, up at the palace I’ve got all my step-mothers about and the last time I even smiled at someone it was the house gossip for like, a week straight.”
…Ah. Right. And Gilgamesh would know that. No wonder he wanted an off-world adventure for the lad.
“And I suppose they all have loads of ‘good advice’ or ‘concerns’ or whatever?”
“Oh gods yes. Especially Mevia, she’s the worst.”
“Don’t think I’ve met her yet.”
“You’ll know. She’ll be the one who wants to beat your face into the mat the moment you meet. For her, that’s friendly. The first time I ever saw her smile was the first time I knocked her on her ass.”
Ian laughed in mild wonder. “She sounds like a piece of work alright…but she turns into a cuddly mama bear in private?”
Alex laughed, “No, not really! She’s just a bear, all the time. And she treats educating me like she’s preparing me for war.”
Ian got a sudden sense of what The Talk must have been like, coming from a woman like that. Or Tomoe, for that matter. No doubt the poor kid had suffered having the Birds and the Bees sprung on him by all of them in various ways.
“…Because she is,” he said aloud.
“Yeah. I know. But at least I know it’s weird. And do you have any idea what it’s like when they all decide, at the same time that I need to know all about—”
“Was just thinking about that, actually.”
Alex barked a laugh. “See? I’ve had the condom talk four dozen times. Like, for a while it was almost a game to hide whenever someone wanted to talk about ‘something important.’’
“I remember mine,” Ian grinned. “It was a class at school. Can’t remember what her name was, but I remember she had a weirdly smooth face from too much makeup foundation, and bright red lipstick and blaze orange hair, but she had to be, like, sixty-something. And she had a big clay model the size of a fucking pringles can so the whole class could see it. Oh, and a cucumber. And then to prove how reliable condoms are, she cut the cucumber up while the rubber was on it. Made all the boys very uncomfortable, and I swear some of the girls got ideas…”
Alex giggled then, the best kind of raunchy giggle. “That sounds terrible!”
“Aye, well. It cleared up some stupid misconceptions that had been doing the rounds, so it worked I guess.” Up front, a point of light was beginning to get a bit bigger and kind of noticeably brown-orange. “That our destination?”
“She’s an odd-looker, isn’t she?”
“I like it! There’s some streaks of red down along the southern pole, and some blue too!”
“Kinda reminds me of Jupiter, minus the storms.”
“Well, this one isn’t as big. And we’re only going to just dip in a little. I, uh…” Alex smiled sheepishly. “Gotta treat this like a solo flight, no offense. So we’ll be careful.”
“Smart lad,” Ian nodded. “How deep is a ‘little?’”
“About five hundred kilometers? One day I’m gonna have one that can go way deeper.”
“Well, this’ll be a first. Don’t think anyone on Earth’s yet sent a manned ship into a gas giant’s atmosphere…”
“They should! There’s lots of good gas mining down there,” Alex noted. “Niven was right about all that.”
“You read a lot of classic scifi?”
“Oh yeah! Or audiobooks. Y’know.” He shot a wicked grin over his shoulder. “When I’m busy hench pressing.”
It was Ian’s turn to snort-laugh. “Got a favourite?”
“Well…the ship’s named after Beowulf Shaeffer.”
“Isn’t that a whole series? I said only one…”
“I don’t have just one!” Alex objected. “And it’s all one big story anyway, so that’s my answer.”
“Tsk, tsk…kids these days, can’t even follow directions…”
“I’ll fight you for it…” Alex warned with a grin.
“Right. Directions followed exactly. Top score.”
The kid smiled again, but this time there was…a hint of some discomfort. Right. So there were limits to how far Ian could tease the lad. Good to know.
“Okay…” Alex said after a moment, as they coasted toward orbit. “What about you?”
“Honestly, I wasn’t a big reader at your age. I read some of the classics ‘cuz people I respect told me I should, but honestly, the number of technical manuals I have to read, I’d rather veg out and play a videogame, you know? It’s not really…damn, that’s a view.”
They were just penetrating the planet’s uppermost, thinnest gas layer now. The familiar flecks of plasma along the hull’s leading surface hinted at how fast they were still going, even though things outside had the illusion of slowing to a halt. But, that was the scale of space. The clouds Ian was looking down on looked like watching out the window of a plane at cruising altitude, but the reality was he was looking down on banks of gas big enough to swallow whole continents.
“Wait until we’re down among it. You ever felt really, really small?”
“Moreso lately,” Ian grumbled sotto voce. “Is that your idea of fun?”
I already bloody am, Ian thought, as the plasma halo got brighter and more opaque. They were plunging into an environment that would kill both of them pretty damn quick if Alex fucked up badly enough. Ian sure as shit couldn’t have taken over in an emergency: he couldn’t read the instruments in front of him at all.
But the kid really was a damn good pilot. He focused quietly on flying for a bit, leaving Ian to think in silence until after five minutes or so the plasma halo around them faded, cleared…
And Ian felt really, really small.
At first glance, the view was merely fucking pretty. Banks of cloud to either side of them, the colour of sunset, with a kind of “lowland” of undulating pale beige between them. Wide, flat white pockets of water vapour drifted over those lowlands like grazing animals, and every so often there was a flash of light from somewhere deep below, hinting at the terrifying crushing dark far beneath. It was magnificent.
But on second glance, the scale drove itself home when Ian realized that each of those tiny distant flat clouds was a hurricane to dwarf any that had ever smashed a human house. And with that perspective, just for the briefest second, his brain managed to see how big each of those fog banks on either side of them was.
Each of them could have comfortably swallowed the Earth.
It was like an optical illusion. For one second, maybe two, he fully and truly understood just how tiny they were in relation. Then the sound of his own awed sigh snapped him out of it, the sense of scale slipped out of his mind like a wet bar of soap in the bath, and fumble after it though he might, he just couldn’t quite get it back. Part of him was frustrated at losing it. A rather larger part was quite glad, thank you very much, to be safely back in his cozy little brain where humans were actually significant.
Calling the whole experience ‘religious’ felt inadequate.
Jesus, no wonder Moj is addicted to it.
“…Yeah,” Alex agreed, quietly.
That one word gave Ian an insight into the lad’s whole life, and set his heart aching. And Alex, after a long moment, gave voice to it.
“…Y’know what it’s like? I mean, knowing why you are?”
“Do you…believe you have a why?”
“I…found a cause,” Ian ventured. “But, not like…”
“Not like being crafted for it.”
“…No. Is…is that what you are?”
Alex laughed a bit bitterly. “Father loves mother the same way he loves many women. He cares, but he cares about the Line even more. I’m here ‘cuz they expected someone like me.”
“I haven’t met your mum.”
“She prefers to keep to herself. Father dotes on her too, but…”
“Where’s she from?”
Ian choked back a laugh, somehow. “Sorry, I’m sorry, just—”
Alex shrugged, and grinned. “Dad has a type, I guess. But, uh…nineteen-seventies Sweden. She’s not some viking shieldmaiden or whatever. Not literally, anyway.”
“So…right. About you. You seem, uh…a bit conflicted about it all.”
“Just a little.” Alex said nothing for a bit, then pulled up in altitude, and put on the autopilot. “But, I mean, what am I supposed to think? I’m this massive freak and I like being all freaky but at the same time, that’s exactly what they want out of me, so what am I doing?! I s’pose I’ll join the Intervention Teams at some point, go on raids…y’know, prove out the Line or whatever…”
“Not a job to do when you’re in two minds about it, that.”
“That’s the thing. I’m not two minds about it. I want to do it. I’ll be the best at it, too! Like…I know what I am. I’m the human version of Daar. I like being me, I like fighting, I like winning. I’ve sent grown men three times your size to the hospital! What I don’t like is that I haven’t really decided I like all that. I just do!”
Ian reflected on that. The fact was, hearing that? Daar would probably get along with the kid like a house on fire, whatever his feelings about the father.
“Do you resent it?”
“I don’t know!”
“Kinda feel like you ought to, but can’t quite summon it up?”
“…I dunno. Maybe.”
Right. Well. Only one thing to do.
Ian wanted to give him a hug. But he couldn’t, sitting behind him.
So he reached forward and put a hand on that ridiculous boulder of a shoulder, squeezed it reassuringly. It had all the give of plate iron but the gesture was enough; Alex reached up with a hand and held Ian’s gratefully.
“I shouldn’t tell you, but…your dad asked if we might find you some, uh, off-station opportunities. I said I couldn’t make that promise to him…but I will make it to you.”
“You mean, like…visit Earth? And Folctha?” The surprised hope in Alex’s voice was painful to hear.
“Your dad knows you better than you think. I’m pretty sure he understands you exactly. So, yeah. You know what it means for someone like him to show that kind of vulnerability to someone in my position? That’s a huge risk he took, and he took it out of love.”
There was a long silence. Then a movement of shoulder and arm suggestive of Alex scrubbing furiously at his eye, before he put his hands back on the controls. “…We’d better get back,” he croaked, then reached out and tapped on the comm. “Can the trick, Yekiidaa.”
Ian frowned as an all-too-familiar voice replied. “Aww! Well, okay.”
“Oh, what?!” Ian groaned. “You were gonna—?”
“He had this idea about pretending we were being hunted by a cloud whale or something.”
Ian blinked, then glanced out the window, peering suspiciously down into the atmospheric morass below them. “…Is that a real thing?”
“If I told you, then that would take away some of the mystery!”
Alex giggled and shook his head no for Ian’s benefit.
“Well. Fine. I’ll have you know Alex and I were having a real man-to-man! We talked about sports, and hench-pressing—”
“And girls and things—”
“I’m gonna fold you up like a fuckin’ newspaper!”
“Oi! You keep that fuckin’ mouth of yours clean around me! And you have newspapers here?”
Movement out the corner of Ian’s eye prompted him to turn his head, and even knowing it was a prank, he still recoiled from the sight of the fleshy mass that had lumbered up alongside them. Fucking thing looked like the bastard lovechild of a squid and a zeppelin, with too many eyes, and miles and miles of thin tentacles drifting behind it…
Then the hologram shimmered, vanished, and Keeda gave him a jaunty wave from his seat at the front of the Seared Rascal, clearly chittering his tail off.
Well, it sure as shit would have fooled Ian if something like that had come barreling at them. Whoever had made it had a damn good imagination for what gas giant life forms might look like. Or maybe they’d based it on a real beast? Ian was going to have to read up later on whether gas giant life was even a thing.
“…Okay, that’s a pretty neat bit of art, there,” he said aloud. “Did you do that?”
“Balls no! I begged it off a lovely female some years ago!”
They returned to Ekallim-Igigi mostly in silence, got priority docking clearance, and slid into the Beowulf’s waiting bay with nary a stray bump. Ian sat patiently in the back while Alex quietly ran through the post-flight checklist…Gilgamesh was waiting for them when they disembarked, all smiles and Proud Dad energy, kind of weirdly clashing with the regal beard and kilted king look.
“How was your flight—oof!”
Alex had tackled his dad in a hug at a dead-run, with enough force to cause even him to grunt and take a step back. Gilgamesh, confused, looked over at Ian, then back down at his son. “…Okay! I love you too. I came to see if you two were hungry…”
Alex buried his face against Gilgamesh’s neck. “Can we just grill or something?”
“—Sure! Uh…” he looked over at one of his omnipresent aides, who nodded and started tapping out messages furiously. “Something low key?”
“Okay. Go clean yourself up. We’ll catch up in a moment.”
“Race you!” Kiidaa thundered, and sprang off ahead. Alex didn’t waste time yelling something stupid like ‘no fair!’—instead he was off like a shot, hard on the Gaoian’s heels. In seconds they’d vanished around a corner and out of sight.
Gilgamesh eyed Ian shrewdly, once the thundering sound of their race was getting quiet. “You two I suspect are more than friendly acquaintances, at this point.”
“Yeah, I’ll take that. I’ll let you know I’ll be doing you a huge favor, too.”
“Don’t thank me. The lad needs it.” Ian folded his arms. “I can’t speak as to what happens next. Likely, there will be some sort of delegation exchange, and all of this is going to cost.”
The big man’s friendly expression hardened. It wasn’t unfriendly, but it wasn’t fatherly. Ian wasn’t talking to a happy dad anymore. He was talking to a king of legend. “Oh? What price must I pay for my son’s friendship?”
Ian shook his head. “Not what I’m talking about. That’s between him and me. The cost will be about what you have been up to for the last thousands of years. There is going to be a reckoning over all this.”
Gilgamesh stood and listened with an impassive expression, so Ian elaborated. “My government, the Americans, Allied Extrasolar Command, the Great Father…they’re going to want full disclosure. They’ll want you to share everything. All of it. Every single last detail. And if they decide to kick you out and never come back, you’re going to have to respect that.”
“I will not jeopardize the mission over my son’s privileges, Captain Wilde. You know this.”
“Earth isn’t your mission, though, is it? Now, I made a promise to the boy, and by Christ I’m going to keep it if I can. But he’s going to be, what? Visiting son of a foreign head of state? The head of a state we didn’t even know existed until the day before yesterday! And of course…there will be questions. A lot of urgent, serious questions. Especially once they see young Alex, there.”
“I…expected that, yes.”
“Did you really? There will be severe trust issues. To say the very least. We certainly won’t take kindly to having been used as breeding stock for your hidden sky empire.”
“That is not true—“
“Isn’t it? You telling me that, when Alex there may as well be Firth’s younger brother? Firth’s already the single biggest freak we’d ever encountered! Hell! You think that won’t raise some bloody eyebrows? Besides,” Wilde added. “Whether it’s true in your eyes isn’t the bit that matters, is it? It’s what’s true in the eyes of Earth’s people and governments that’s going to count. At this point we’ve had twenty years of revelations. We’re not alone in the universe, alien body-snatchers have infiltrated the planet and are trying to wipe us out, they nearly succeeded back in the nineteen-sixties, they wiped one city off the map and blew the heart out of two more…people back home are getting a mite bit sick and tired of having everything they thought they knew turned upside-down every three or four years. So you can take it from me, when they find out that the rise of this breed of new superhuman—which we did notice, by the way—is all the work of a distant, hidden power led by a man literally out of myth and legend? It’s not going to go down well.”
Gilgamesh frowned, and twisted one of his beard’s braids between his fingers.
“…Then I must offer myself up for judgment.”
Ian blinked. “I…right. Way above my paygrade, that.”
“You’re a candid man, Captain Wilde. I appreciate that. Truly. You’ve already given me cause to…reflect…on a great many things.”
Ian moved his head awkwardly in something between a nod, shrug, and shake of his head to acknowledge that. “Well…for what it’s worth, I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. It’s just, don’t mistake me for an ambassador, your majesty. There’s only so much I can say and I don’t plan on sugar-coating any of it.”
“I would not have you do such a thing.”
“I know. And, uh…I appreciate that,” Ian replied, echoing Gilgamesh’s own compliment.
Gilgamesh nodded, then gestured ahead of them in the direction Alex and Yekiidaa had vanished. “Porkchops?”
“Wh–? How do you get pigs out here? It’s a space station.”
“A very large space station,” Gilgamesh chuckled, his usual easy manner returning. “But, space is tight, so they are expensive. I am, however, prone to spoiling guests.”
Well, that made sense. And, it was appreciated. It wasn’t that Ian’s life was short on meat, not since the Ten’Gewek had come aboard. The vegetarian option wasn’t an option for them. Nor really for him, given his regimen these days. And now they had a jump array in the hold, they could requisition pretty much any supplies they wanted. But…
But a good mixed grill was hospitality in any language.
He did have more questions for the big king, though. So many it’d take a year to grind through them all. So, as they walked, he picked the most important and burning one from the top of the list.
“So…when do we hear the rest of your story?”
Date Point: medieval Gao War Camp, the Northern Plains, Planet Gao
Great Father Fyu had a talent that Kiidaa knew he was going to have to cultivate in himself. Tiny as the silvery-brown-furred male was, he nevertheless managed to completely fill any space he walked into.
Part of it was the armor, maybe. The warrior-poet’s armor, its metal plates acid-etched with the poems he’d brushed onto it in his own hand, then lacquered.
But a lot more of it was his mind. Kiidaa knew he was a fair ol’ bit smarter than most, but Fyu had a wisdom only the strongest warriors and finest poets could ever obtain.
“You are an old creature,” Fyu said, levelly. “I can smell it on you.”
“Me, or the poor woman’s skull you’re holding?”
Fyu turned the grisly item over in his hands and sniffed at the metal plate still attached behind the eye socket. It had been placed in a stasis box immediately after being liberated from its former owner’s head, the box only opened mere minutes ago, but already the inbuilt nanite self-destruct was digesting it with an audible faint hiss. Once their work was done, they themselves would dissolve into fine dust and by the end of the hour, not even the Void Caste’s finest tools would be able to find more than a little degeneration of the bone.
For the next few minutes, though, the evidence that Mother Tiritya’s late and loyal handmaiden had not been entirely Gao was still plainly there to see. Fyu didn’t need to know what a trans-cranial controller was to know that something was very much wrong here.
“…Who are our enemies?”
“That is a long tale. One that will take much time to tell.”
“You will find me to be patient, when hearing matters of importance.”
“I don’t doubt it. So, let me say this: this battle is already lost. Our people were remade in the image of our greatest, unseen enemy. What you do now in rebuilding the Gao is, well…the final masterstroke of that battle. There is no turning back. So, it is the war we must now look to.”
“…Who are you?”
He sighed. “I am Keeda, and I come to you at the most important moment in our history.”
There was a long silence. A barely perceptible sniff from Fyu, so gentle Kiidaa hardly noticed.
“I believe you. Now…what must we do?”
“Fyu himself…” Bruuk sighed. “Fuck, I’d give my nuts to have met him.”
Yekiidaa duck-nodded. “He worked with us for a while. How else do you think he lived so long? But in the end, he elected to retire into contemplation. Even after learning some of the Deep, it was his belief and wish that he’d be reunited with Tiritya, in the end.”
“You should have seen his armor,” Gilgamesh recalled. “Like a walking, lovingly illustrated book of poetry.”
“They have it on display in High Mountain Fortress,” Hoeff recalled. “Whole place is a combination museum, archeology dig, working fortress, working palace now…and seat of government I guess.”
“I hope I’ll have the chance to visit and pay my respects,” Gilgamesh said. “In any case, what fell out of Yekiidaa’s meeting with Fyu was…well, several things. We met, almost on this exact spot here on Ekallim-Igigi, and…strategized. The full details are not for you to know, of course, but a long plan was put into place on that day, which has more or less come to fruition in recent years.”
“More or less?” Ian asked.
“Again…details. But the general thrust of it is thus: prepare our two species for the war. We had been doing basic needed things for quite a long time, of course.”
“The breeding program.”
“I hesitate to go even that far, but…yes. There is always a need for great talents. Your own HEAT, your ambassador to the Ten’Gewek, many figures in history…all testament to that, be they of the Line or not. In any case,” before Ian could object further, “after Fyu, we began to learn rapidly. And it started with the founding of a new Clan…”
Y!’kiidaa wasn’t really among his own people any longer. They were G!âo, no doubt. But not his G!âo. The planet was so changed these days, changes that had happened while he slept away the long eons in stasis so that each return visit to the world of his birth made it clear that…it wasn’t the world of his birth any longer.
Where once there had been forests from sea to sea, now there was treeless, wind-stripped steppe, prairie and tundra creeping down from the far north into where it didn’t belong. The planet was colder from the loss of biomass, all that carbon now locked away in dead, buried forests, which were already past peat and slowly becoming coal. Fish of the kind he’d clawed from the sea in his youth were long extinct, replaced with smaller, cleverer, nervous and darting little things that were hardly a snack, if a man could even catch one…
Too much like the people his species had become, these days. They had even changed their own name. They were the Gao, now. It felt strange to say in his bigger, thicker throat.
He couldn’t doubt their skill, though. The new Clan Blackclaw was a collection of the sneakiest, deadliest and trickiest young males, hand-picked by Fyu for their cunning service during his war. Spies, assassins and saboteurs whose skullduggery had opened city gates, poisoned wells, slain Champions and delivered patrols right into well-laid ambushes. They had a nose for the dark arts, and they didn’t need to understand the Deep or the nature of technology to understand the mission.
They were a sweet-pot. A baited trap for an enemy spy. It was a role they had played before.
And this time, with Keeda’s help, they played it on an alien wearing a Gao body. Grabbed from behind, a soft cloth shoved in the hapless victim’s mouth, rope lashed around wrists and ankles. The poison tooth was pried out of his jaw with cruel pliers, and the device in Keeda’s hand flashed warningly at him: it had suppressed a zero-width wormhole.
“Well. We’ve found one, boys.”
Their relationship with them was very much one of awe-struck cubs next to…well, Keeda. He didn’t particularly enjoy playing that up—he’d rather be playmates, or maybe something more—but the mission came before all else, and right now they needed a god among them.
There was much work in making a spy safe. Poisoned claws were a worry, and by the time the infiltrator had been shaved down, de-clawed, muzzled and all the rest, he’d clearly figured out he was known. He watched Keeda with just as much calculating intensity as Keeda watched him.
Y!’kiidaa sat down across from his subject. “I think I’ll take the lead on this, Rumyu.”
“Yi!” Rumyu gestured sharply to his men, and moments later the room was empty.
“So,” Y!’kiidaa said casually, while making a very calculated display of his claws and the heavily muscled forearms attached to them—best to lay it all out at once. “You ain’t one of us, are you?”
The Enemy looked him up and down, slowly, then sniffed him through the muzzle. “And you aren’t one of them. Interesting.”
“Correct. I am what my people were, before your unspeakable evil came to us. I’ve taken great pleasure over the millennia, thwarting your ham-fisted attempts to erase our culture.”
“Did I? I’m here, am I not? They know who I am. They even know the essentials of why I am. We may be a shadow of what we were, but we are still here. We will rebuild ourselves over deep time, greater than we ever were. And when we do…”
His entire body had tensed with his anger. Unintentional, but…it was a useful show, and these things still mattered. The creature before him cringed backward for a moment before regaining its composure.
“Well,” it said, reclaiming its poise. “Let me spare you some effort, here. There is no torture you can inflict on this body that will compel me to speak. I will not even feel it. I don’t know where you got the technology to block my escape, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t fear death. My backup will be active and investigating this incident by the end of the day.”
…Jackpot. They had a talker on their hands.
Y!’kiidaa chittered in cruel mirth. “You’re not terribly smart, are you?”
He pant-grinned darkly at the way the enemy spy blinked at him. “Don’t understand? Oh, very well.” Y!kiidaa switched to Cortan. “You have just told me that you are a digital sophont, inhabiting poor Likyin here like a gods-damned brainworm. You’ve confirmed for us that you communicate via zero-point wormholes, that your existence is non-physical, that you see us as mere pawns in your schemes. Balls, I even suspect your plans for us! In one sentence, you took me from near total ignorance of my enemy, to near perfect understanding.”
The spy’s eyes narrowed, his ear flicked irritably, and he finally remembered to shut up. Too little, too late.
And now, the plan changed. Y!’kiidaa could feel his muscles tense in anticipation of great violence. Not yet, though. He let his body steel itself, and even added a bit more of a deliberate flex for show. This thing was clearly susceptible to emotion, after all…
“…Do you feel smart? Just imagine the research potential, lurking in your brain…and now we have an interesting conundrum. I suspect you could destroy yourself with a thought. Is that not so?” He waited patiently, while the spy opposite him did not in fact suddenly drop down dead, or blink as his own mind took over. “…No? Can’t, or won’t? Now that is interesting.”
“Of course,” Y!kiidaa sighed, back in modern Gaori. “That does leave us with a serious burr in our tails, don’t it? You can’t be compelled to talk, and I lack the means to compel it.”
The spy, having learned his lesson, said nothing.
Nothing for it, now.
“Exactly! No trickery of mine is going to be of any use, is it? So, that being said—”
Y!’kiidaa demonstrated the immense strength and speed that had once belonged to much of his people, and now only lived on as a shadow of its former glory in a precious, rare few. In a single heartbeat he’d sprung forward, slammed the spy against the wall and broke its body, ripped off its head with a pawswipe, shoved it into a stasis bag…
Caught his breath in one big huff. Noted the awestruck looks from the Gao watching through the overhead bars.
Considered his enemy. And pulped the rest underfoot with a wet, explosive stomp.
“—Allow me to show you what I plan to do to your entire kind,” he growled coldly at his prize, then looked down at the dripping, ruptured corpse, hacked and spit down on it.
Fuck these evil things until the end of time.
Maybe, over many moons, he might have compelled some conversation via sheer boredom. Balls, he’d done it before. But Y!’kiidaa didn’t have that kind of time. Far more useful was to capture a digital being in its own hardware before it had any chance to react. Hopefully.
Felt good, too.
“Ruymyu, Faan, attend to this, please. Sorry about the mess. Meeti, come with me. I need a bath, and after that we have plans for you…”
Meeti had to lope on four-paw to keep up with him. “Plans?” he asked.
“Mmhm. This is just the beginning. Got a long war ahead of us, an’ somebody’s gonna have to keep our secrets all through the dark that’s to come.”
“And that’s to be…me? M—my lord!”
“An’ a few others. Can’t carry that torch through all the years alone. But…that’s what you gotta do, Meeti. Light the darkness. You up to it?”
“My…” Meeti keened then, quietly. He paused, then nodded firmly. “I am. But…my lord. I…I must ask a thing.” Brave little male, really. Couldn’t weigh more than eight stone, clearly terrified out of his mind…but brave. Smart. That lick o’ white fur between his ears was pretty damn handsome, too. A quirk like that would keep the once-again independent females interested, and Y!’kiidaa needed somebody who’d have plenty of cubs for this…
“Why you an’ not them?” Keeda guessed, jerking his head back toward the leaders of the Clan they’d left behind. “It wasn’t just ‘cuz you’re the prettiest among ‘em…”
“…No. I mean…yes I am,” he chittered, nervously. “But I know why already.”
Good. “Ask, then.”
“…What, exactly…are you?”
Y!’kiidaa put an arm around the tiny male and pulled him in. “My friend, that is a long story, and it will need much talamay…”
Date Point: C.840 AD Starship Gladiatrix, Near-Earth space, the Border Stars
“This is a cruel thing we’re doing.”
Sometimes, a king needed to wield the sword himself. Especially for cruel purposes, and in that regard the boy was right. It was a cruel thing they were doing.
Not doing it, however, would have been far crueller.
At Gilgamesh’ side, Mevia shot their son a stern glance. “If you lack the stomach for it, my son, we can always find room for your soft, kind soul back on Earth.”
It wasn’t that she was disappointed in Titus, Gilgamesh knew. It was just that, in her opinion, their third child had never really hardened properly, despite his parents’ best efforts. Not enough carbon in his steel. His body was of the Line, but his spirit was made for song, dance and love play.
He, on the other hand, was amply disappointed in her.
“You keep promising to do that. On several occasions I’ve taken you up on that offer. And yet, somehow…I’m still here.”
“You aren’t ready for Earth,” Mevia retorted, checking the charge on her sword again. “You think what we’re doing is cruel? It’s crueller still, there.”
Titus was armed with a heavy pulse gun, the kind that even Gilgamesh had to respect. Its capacitors whined as he readied it. “Make up your mind, mother.”
“My mind is on the necessary task before us.”
Their argument was interrupted by welcome news from the Gladiatrix’s pilot. “We’re in range. Ready to intercept on your command, my king.”
Gilgamesh nodded. “Spike them.”
The hapless ship before them was Corth. Corti, nowadays. The Directorate’s ongoing rebranding of the species had never slowed, and the modern species were very different to the Void Caste outcasts. Even tinier. Even frailer. Not, in Gilgamesh’s estimation, noticeably that much smarter.
And in this case, straying much too close to Earth.
It wasn’t in doubt that the enemy would, one day, discover the human race. The struggle was to delay that day for as long as possible, buy humanity a few unmolested centuries. The plan was already bearing fruit, in that regard. Gilgamesh’s homeland was the thriving center of a new religion, and of early explorations into the Deep. What would become of it remained to be seen, but those were ponderings for a later time, with wine and time to explore.
And, frankly, not with Mevia. As exciting as he found her, she was no scholar. She was the cruel tip of a blade.
Anyone who got too close to Earth had to die, and it had to look like the Hunters’ work. Titus might bemoan the necessity of it, but Mevia didn’t. To the contrary, she seemed eager. Perhaps she had something in common with the Hunters herself, there was certainly nothing like blood sport to get her warmed up. Strange, really, that such an inferno of a mother could issue such a sensitive son.
But again, those were musings for later. The moment was upon them.
One of Gladiatrix’s tricks was the power to alter her warp signature. To the Corti, she would look like a Broodship, and they wouldn’t know any better. If somehow they did escape, they would report a close call. Sometimes, letting them go was the wise move, to make sure word spread.
More often, as today, the wise move was…
The spike caught them. The Corti ship dropped to sub-light in a flare of radiation, and Gladiatrix sliced back into the Slow World within visual range of their victim. Authentic Hunter swarmships did their part via remote control, pouncing across the gap, latching onto the hull, and biting in.
From her own ship to the swarmship in a brief jump, and from there into the research ship’s core. Gilgamesh threw himself into the grim work of silencing these potential spies without hesitation or doubt. They were doing the right thing, and he knew it.
Titus did his duty, methodically and effectively. He was fast, accurate, deadly. Never a stray shot or a misplaced punch, and whatever he felt, he did not let his emotions rule him.
Mevia was a bloody blur with no mercy in her soul. She thrived on killing.
In that regard, Titus had her wrong. Death was far from the greatest cruelty Mevia could have meted out. Compared to the fate of a crew actually taken by the Hunters, what she brought was clean, quick and painless. None of these Corti would know weeks, months or years of fear in the Hunters’ slave pens, nor the agony of being bitten into and eaten alive. Their end came as a swift stroke of light in the dark, or as a blast of shattering force that instantly sent them to their fate.
They even got a funeral, afterwards.
Titus, dutifully, had proven an amply capable soldier. He wept as they remembered the dead, but Gilgamesh would never hold that against anyone. Men should be passionate, not unfeeling stone-hearts.
Best for the young man to pursue his dream of a life on Earth, though. He had proven that he could do his duty, and his father-king was proud of him.
Nor was Gilgamesh shy to say as much, either. He’d learned that lesson early: never part with a child without saying everything they deserved to hear.
Even with that lesson and the closure that came with following it, however…it was never easy. How could it be? How could a parent claim to love a child, then send them away knowing they would never see each other again, and fail to find it difficult? It wasn’t the natural way of things. To grow old, die and leave the future to one’s children was as the gods had intended.
To embrace Titus one last time, then see him go, and know that he would die anonymously among the ordinary, ignorant people in a mere sixty or seventy years? That was cruel. Far crueller than their mission together.
Whatever final words passed between mother and son, he never learned. Mevia had her secrets. They all did. He hoped they reconciled, or at least found some understanding, before parting. But he didn’t pry.
He never pried.
“And that, I think, is as good as a catch-up we can do, without having rehearsed it.”
“It is a long, twisty story,” Tomoe agreed, as she prepared them all another round of tea. “But, to summarize: we have long protected Earth and Gao. Both we have prepared as best we can for the long fight. Our efforts have frustrated the most ruinous effects of Hierarchy influence among the Gao, and prepared Earth for the day it would learn the Deep. Fortunately, humankind are resilient peoples, and little intervention was necessary over the millennia. That’s left us free to focus on our core task.”
“…Which is?” Ian prompted.
“Ultimately, locating and destroying every last one of their archives. To that end, intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. We know most of the Hierarchy’s assets, all of their core worlds. We had hoped for more time to locate all their Archives, but…”
“What interventions have you undertaken?”
“Protect the system from intrusion, mostly. The task grew impossible once the industrial era hit and started loading the atmosphere with volatile compounds—the Hierarchy have telescopes all over the galaxy looking out for that—but prior to that we were mostly a picket force. And of course, we sent out sons and daughters to preserve the Line.”
“…Yes. That. What did they do?”
“Mostly stay out of the way,” Gilgamesh answered. “Our goal was to preserve our peoples’ genetic wildness, not lead Earth from the shadows. The offspring of the Line have proven quite industrious, but so has humankind without our efforts. You will find at least as many Heroes among who were distant or untouched by the Line as you might find directly.”
“Then…why? Why even bother?”
“We needed that excellence up here more than Earth ever needed it down there. What the HEAT or the Great Father’s Fangs do so admirably, we have been doing for millennia and at a scale nearly three orders of magnitude larger. Not once has the Enemy learned of us. Or if they have, they’ve chosen to pretend otherwise. And I cannot imagine why they would.”
“Besides,” Tomoe added. “The fact that Heroes arose independent of the Line did not mean they were guaranteed. We needed to be sure.”
Gilgamesh nodded his full agreement. “Do not discount the power of inspiration, either. We all want to be Heroes, somewhere and somehow. Examples inspire, and inspiration is often all that someone needs to be great.”
“In any case,” Leifini added, “You now have as much of the story as we can reasonably tell in such a short time. Our full history and our full rationale will take months to recount. We are an organization several times older than all of humanity’s recorded history, after all. What you have heard today and yesterday is the most abridged possible version.”
As she spoke, an aide had darted forward to whisper in the king’s ear. Gilgamesh listened, then nodded at him. “And now, I return to the responsibilities I have left waiting. You have the hospitality of my house for as long as duty compels you to stay, and I hope you will stay a little longer and learn more…if not for my sake, then for Alex’s,” he added, looking to Ian.
He stood, kissed Tomoe and said something tender to her in Japanese, added something playful to Keeda in old Gaori, gave Leifini a nod and a smile, and was gone.
Tomoe watched him go, then bowed to the Fortune crew. “If I’m late for training, Mevia will make me regret it,” she declared, and headed off in the opposite direction from her husband.
Keeda, when Ian glanced over at him, had already vanished in perfect silence. Rude, maybe, but…well, the old furry bastard had a reputation to keep. Bruuk certainly seemed to find it amusing, though, and so did the Ten’Gewek.
That just left Leifini.
“For myself, I have nothing pressing on my time,” the ancient Corth said. She sampled a mushroom from the plate in front of her. “And there is one last thing I would like to recall, if I may…”
“What is it?” Ian asked.
“We touched on it much earlier, and I promised I would return to it. When I said ‘we found Earth and perfected our longevity medicine,’ yes?”
She stood, and gestured for the crew to follow. “I think, perhaps, this last moment is best recalled in our botany lab…”
Date Point: circa 2800 BCE
Bay of Bengal, Earth
Gilgamesh had fingers that could grind a plant to powder like a mortar and pestle when he wanted. This he now did, rubbing the dried seaweed down to a fine snuff and inhaling it.
“…I know this. The priests use it sometimes, as an infusion.”
“Do you imbibe of this infusion?”
“Yes. It is one of my roles as king. To imbibe with the gods.”
“Of all the things we have found on this world of yours, this may be one of the most important. And timely. It is…the plant does not have much time left.”
Leifini watched the king snort up the last of the powder, then frown at her. “Why not?” he asked.
“This planet is warming. Up until relatively recently, there was ice stretching from…well. Down to not very far north of here. But the ice has melted, the world grows hotter…your own land will soon become a barren desert, rather than a rich, fertile grassland, and Uruk will die along with it. Many things will. Including, I fear, this remarkable plant.”
“What’s so remarkable about it?”
“It is a genuine contrageriatric, at least for the most common biochemistries. It isn’t any one particular thing about it, either. There’s no one molecule that we can point to that causes the effect…yet, when we test it as a simply-prepared compound, introduced fairly directly…”
“You lost me at contra-geriatric.”
“It…keeps the body young.”
Gilgamesh nodded as though that were expected. “Aye, as the priests claim.”
“We have been searching for something like this for thousands of years, King Gilgamesh of Uruk. Everything we ever found that does similar work comes with…downsides. I have been living with painful tumors for hundreds of human generations. And now, we discover this weed in the banks of a polluted river, being picked to death for trade, and all you need do is snort its powder—”
Gilgamesh shifted heavily on his feet. “It works best in a drink with milk, actually…”
“Whatever!” Leifini exploded, exasperated. “This is a miracle! It’s…The Void Caste have bent our best science to this problem for thousands and thousands of years, is the point! And yet, here we find everything we were ever looking for as a tiny, sickly population of nondescript water plant, and on the verge of extinction, no less!”
Gilgamesh, then, had an idea. “Yekiidaa! Give this a smell!”
The gaoian came bounding along, having been pre-occupied with some playful attempt at fishing. “Yeah?”
He smelled it, carefully. Then keened nostalgically and took another, longer sniff. “Balls…now that’s somethin’ I never thought I’d smell again.”
“You know it?” Gilgamesh asked.
“It ain’t essactly the same thing, but there’s something like this on Gao. Or was, I guess. We used ‘ta bake the fish with it. Dunno if it’s still around after the Fire…”
Leifini let out a heartfelt groan and sat down so heavily that her armored excursion suit beeped a warning at her. “You have got to be kidding me…”
Yekiidaa keened, and flopped down on the bank beside her. “I mean…you only got ‘ta my world a little while before it got burned,” he ventured. “You din’t really have time to look for interestin’ stuff. ‘Ya never even got to say hello! We’d have fed you good!”
Their long friendship had never quite helped him get his head around how best to comfort her, but it had taught Leifini to appreciate his attempts. She hiccuped a sad laugh, then considered the specimen in front of her. “We must save this thing,” she insisted, fervently. “Even as it is, it’s…revolutionary. In time, it might be so much more! We can’t let it die out in obscurity here…”
Gilgamesh shrugged. “Then take samples. As many as you need.”
Leifini looked up at him. He really didn’t know the magnitude of what they’d just found, did he?
But of course…how could he? He lacked the context. And besides, his people were naturally long-lived, and he more so because of priestly privilege. Even now, a century on from first meeting, although his hair and beard were pure white and his skin dark and lined, his body had only hardened with age. He wasn’t as swift as in his youth, but his strength these days was, frankly, beyond unobserved belief, and and alon with Y!’kiidaa daily redefined the limits of what it was possible for mere flesh to do.
He wasn’t even the only one of his kind so gifted! They’d so far found thousands. And those just in his region of the world, too!
Suddenly, her own aches and constant background agony—always dulled by painkillers, but never entirely absent unless she wanted to be completely non-functional—were entirely forgotten. She sprang back up, and waded into the water, sending a signal to the ship to send down as many stasis containers as they had.
She had just found salvation.
And she could grow it.
Hoeff considered the tall glass tubes around them, and the long, skinny, floaty kelp-like plants swaying gently within them. There was a whole ecosystem in there. Fish and shellfish and worms and all sorts of things. From what he could tell, that plant needed a pretty fuckin’ specific environment to thrive.
But It was sure as shit thriving in there. And the lab was fuckin’ peaceful as a result. A guy could walk between those big-ass tanks and listen to the running water and watch the leaves swaying in the current, and forget a lot of his troubles…
Or, he could have, if not for knowing what this shit was.
“Y’know…I always wondered where Cruezzir came from.”
“The final medicine derives from a number of sources, both natural and synthetic,” Leifini said. “This plant here is not the only component. There are other critical contributions from Gao and several other deathworlds, along with some truly brilliant synthesis work by a number of scientists. Nofl, yes, being paramount among them.”
“But this plant here is kinda important.”
“More than ‘kinda.’ I lived for thousands of years in constant chronic pain. You cannot know what a blessing it was when I switched to the medication we derived from this plant, and woke the next morning pain free. I…could not function that day for weeping in relief. And you have seen for yourself how effective it was on Gilgamesh. In just ten years of regular high dosing instead of a nearly ineffective milk infusion, he returned to the prime of his youth.”
“So you leaked this to the Directorate?” Bruuk asked, sniffing one of the tanks.
“Partially, to our members in the Accretion Disk, yes. Along with a number of contradictory reports on its origin, to obfuscate the truth. The time had come, and we knew it would be needed.” Leifini pressed a hand fondly to the glass and looked up at one of the towering cultivars. “I consider this to be my greatest personal accomplishment.”
“Have you considered the consequence of functional immortality to us?” Hoeff asked, pointedly. “Because I sure as shit don’t think you have.”
“I am probably the oldest flesh-and-blood lifeform in the galaxy, Mister Hoeff, and in many ways the matriarch of this little civilization.” She gestured at the wall, indicating the station and everyone living aboard it. “I assure you, I have considered the consequences of indefinite life quite carefully, and I have every confidence in your species’ ability to overcome the challenges it presents.”
“That’s…a hell of a decision to take upon yourselves. Arrogant, to say the least.”
“Says who? You? ‘Cuz we sure as shit didn’t get a say in the matter!”
“It was necessary. Would you rather have faced extinction?”
Hoeff had had enough.
“How do you mean? How does breeding freaks of nature save us? No, don’t sugar coat it. You wanted soldiers, so now you have that because you made that. Here I am! I’ve got friends, too! But you weren’t happy with time-limited fucks like me who can shoulder press trucks, were you? Not enough! We take too long to train, and we’re too expensive to build. So now you wanna make us live ‘fer-fuckin’-ever. Am I on the right track?”
“Do I?” Hoeff laughed at the notion. “They already took HEAT off the time-limited stuff and put us on the full-fat version! Why? Julian too, he’s gonna live centuries, that poor sumbitch, and he din’t get any say in it ‘cuz you sick fucks needed lab mice! Hell, I suspect they’ll be givin’ us all our lifetime vaccines ‘fer this shit here pretty soon. Only makes sense, right? Should I start squeakin’ too? And what the fuck happens when everyone finds out about this shit? ‘Cuz they will. And then they’re all gonna want some! How’d you expect us to survive that?!”
“Let us say that I consider that to be much more survivable than the Hierarchy.”
Hoeff was, honestly, at a loss for words. Thankfully there was a smarter man in the room.
“You are not human,” Ian intoned, with just a hint of carefully-modulated despair. “Good God, you bastards may have damned us all one way or the other.”
“I have faith in your species. Still, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I have. Perhaps you will hoist yourself on your own petards with this. But that will be a self-imposed fate, not the will of an alien—”
“No. Bullshit.” Ian was cold, now. He’d gone that full, delightfully dangerous shade of expressionless only a truly pissed-off fuckin’ northern Englishman could ever manage. “I think I have heard enough. There’s quite a bit of wartime necessity I am willing to accept, given our enemy…but I think we now know everything we need to relay to our superiors.”
It was strange watching so many emotions flicker across a Corti face. All the ones Hoeff had ever met before just weren’t made for it. But in Leifini, well, shit, her face worked about the same as a human’s, and so did her expressions. Confusion, upset, hurt…she was completely at a loss for words, too. How many times had that happened in her long-ass life? Couldn’t be many.
Jesus shit. Even she didn’t buck the whole mad scientist species thing. End of the day, she’d seen a thing she could do, so she did it, and didn’t stop to think about whether she should.
Ian stood, a porcelain mask of politeness. “Thank you for your hospitality. We will be retiring to our private quarters.”
And with that, he swept from the room, trailing everyone else behind. Hoeff was the last to leave. He sensed, somehow, he needed to say the last word, for purposes darker than the rest of the crew. So, once the coast was clear, and it was just him and Leifini…
“Lemme level with you. I serve some very pragmatic masters. I’m sure you must have some idea what I am.”
Leifini, who’d sat down with a distant expression, rallied and looked him in the eye. “I…yes. An organization we’ve never managed to penetrate, I will admit.”
Yup. There was his confirmation. And with that, the organization had a new mission.
“Yeah. Good reason, too. We’ve known our world and people have been interfered with for a very long time, long before the atomic age. So…I’m looking at my enemy, aren’t I?”
She flushed with fear, then.
“You are extremely lucky of the circumstances,” Hoeff let her know. “So, as one nasty piece of work to another, lemme give you this tiny bit of professional courtesy, in exchange for all the fine dining. Pull your people out and do it now. Because we’re going on the hunt when I get back.”
And with that, Hoeff turned on the balls of his feet, and left.
He had his own reports to write.
The problem with writing a report on all this shit was…fuck. Like Ian had asked himself back on the balcony, where did he even start?
Well, there was a form to these things. That helped. Keeping it concise was more of a challenge though. There was a lot to unpack. And of course…there was his mood. Professionalism was at war with his sensibilities, and losing.
So the knock on his door and Tomoe’s voice calling through it were not welcome. Not at all.
“Captain Wilde? May I have a moment of your time?”
“That would be quite an imposition,” he said truthfully.
“I understand. Even so…”
“Very well. Give me a moment.”
Even worse than being interrupted on a good old-fashioned brooding, was the need to pull on trousers again. He’d just gotten comfortable.
Fuck it. Shorts and t-shirt. He bumbled for a moment through his PT gear and achieved Short, then a moment later unlocked Shirt, with his favorite band fading gloriously away across its artwork.
Tomoe, it turned out, was just as informally dressed, and she had a fresh-out-of-the-shower look. And a black eye, and several bruises on her forearms. Apparently, training with Mevia was a rough affair.
She also had a bottle in her hand. She handed it to him without ceremony. “A parting gift. Given your stated intent to leave soon…”
Ian looked at the bottle suspiciously. “…What is it?”
“There’s nothing quite like it on Earth. But, it’s just a token of my personal esteem. It’s not the reason I’m here…” she shut the door behind her. “Leifini was quite shaken.”
“I bet,” Ian rumbled. Still, he took the bottle and packed it in his bag. “So, you’re here to address, some misunderstandings and misgivings, I bet.”
“I think, at this point, we’ve made our case,” she replied, then sat when Ian gestured to a chair. “And what’s quite clear to me is that you don’t approve at all. Of practically any of it. And don’t make any dutiful noises about what’s above your pay grade, please. It’s your report that the Great Father and the governments of Earth will respond to.”
“Yes. It is. Now, in turn, please do not insult his intelligence, or my capacity to write factually. My personal feelings do not matter here unless and until I am asked of them, directly. Will that happen? Probably. Will it matter? Maybe a little. What truly matters are the facts. And those are enough to indicate a grave hazard. How could they do otherwise?”
She sighed, and rested her elbows on her knees. “I guess I don’t know. I came here in my twenties, as my lord’s loyal warrior. All I really knew at the time was the sword, the bow, horse riding…I learned the Deep here, on Ekallim-Igigi. This plan of ours, this grand strategy, is all I’ve ever really known. From where I’m sitting, it all seems like the right thing to do. I think it seems that way to all of us. And now, in just two days, we’re all looking at each other bewildered, because none of us predicted you’d react so negatively.”
She looked him in the eye. “Are we so out of touch?”
“…Very well. Let me lay it out. We—and by ‘we,’ I mean both my people and the Gao—have been used as playthings and as experimental breeding pools by two opposed galactic powers. We have been preserved and engineered, that your hidden civilization may stock its ranks with ‘perfect’ men and women to carry out a millennia-long mission of retribution. On a personal note? One of my friends spent six years imprisoned on a hell-world in absolute solitude to prove out the final form of Cruezzir, and let me tell you he’s more than a bit cracked because of it. He will outlive his wives and his children. He’s so tough and strong that death itself will likely only come to him by his own hand, because you took that from him. Young Alex out there begins to understand his fate, too. He’s not a fan! Radical, arguably unnatural changes are being foisted on our peoples at an ever-increasing rate…and I haven’t even begun to address San Diego, or Chicago, or Franklin.”
Tomoe tilted her head and—something nobody else among Singularity’s leadership had done yet—she listened rather than trying to justify or defend.
There was so much he wanted to say. So many things that were gnawing at him to come out, but…
Ian took a breath.
“…Those are the facts of it, Queen Tomoe. And I will be honest, I am not entirely without fear for my safety. I feel compelled to remind you and whoever is listening that we are expected to report in soon…and there are safety-signaling shibboleths I can and will include that you won’t have access to, at least not without some Hierarchy-tier wetworks. Which honestly, I suspect you may have anyway.”
She looked genuinely pained at that. “…We truly have failed, haven’t we?”
Ian considered. “I can’t answer that. What I can say is that, frankly, it is not me you need to impress, and it never has been. I am just a captain. I am not a hero, or a Hero, or any of that. It’s all I can do to keep above water, it seems.”
“I am just a captain too. Queen or not. And…well, it doesn’t matter.” she sighed heavily and looked down at the floor between her feet for a moment. When she looked back up, her expression was too complicated for Ian to read. “…You know, we always looked forward to this day. We imagined a grateful galaxy.”
“It’s easy to, I’d bet. We have a saying in my culture: no good deed goes unpunished.”
“Heh.” It wasn’t so much a laugh as a despondent acknowledgement of the cynical rightness of it. “Well, whoever said that…I feel for them.”
“Maybe gratitude and affection will come, in time. Who am I to say? You’ve got a massive wellspring of distrust to get past before that, though.”
“Apparently so.” She rubbed her bruised forearms thoughtfully.
Ian sat back and considered her for a moment. “You really thought you were helping, all this time?”
“I really do.”
“You never saw it as imposing on people?”
Tomoe sighed. “…Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask. Bushido as I’ve always understood it is not the same as the more…poetic thing it became in the Edo. In my time, we were tsuwamono, weapons in human form, our role was violence and nothing else. The time I lived was known as the Heian, “the peace,” but we achieved that peace through the application of overwhelming, merciless force. The question of ‘imposing on people’ was an irrelevance. All that mattered was the end result, the stability and security of the province was paramount. I’ve spoken before of freedom and happiness being downstream from survival, but that of course was a later idea. At the time…security and stability were virtue enough. They didn’t need justifying.”
“So you think defeating the Enemy is justification enough.”
“It’s…difficult for me to see how it wouldn’t be,” she replied.
Ian nodded. “Alright. So…let me tell you a story, right?”
“Only fair, considering the last two days,” she folded her legs comfortably to one side and listened.
“…So I’m me, growing up and doing all the normal things lads from my neck of the woods do, right? I play some sports, puberty hits and I grow like a weed, suddenly I’m the star player on the school team, all the boys are my mates, all the girls are making eyes at me…gets to be it goes to my head and I start hanging around with the wrong crowd, and get in a bit of trouble. One of my teachers sits me down and helps me figure out some shit that was bothering me…look, I won’t bore you with the details. Off to the Royal Marines I go. And it turns out I’m damn good at it all.”
He tilted his head back and reminisced. “Pretty quickly, I end up going in for Commando. Won’t claim it was a walk in the park or anything like that, but, well…it chews men up, right? By design. But I came out of it in damn good shape. Hench, even! Using that word a lot lately…” Ian noted mostly to himself. “Anyway, I kept getting better. Kept going places…There’s some detail I’ll leave out. Blah blah blah, shit happens, I wind up leading a JETS team. You don’t get that gig by being just a regular bloke, right? We’re all pretty special, I’m not too modest to pretend we aren’t. We’ve got the mission, we’ve got colleagues who can challenge us…it’s great. Love the mission.
“And at first, I don’t think too much about it, right? Sure, there’s the lads in HEAT, where even their littlest guy can fold me up in the blink of an eye…but that doesn’t bother me. Sports science is crazy advanced these days, and they’re taking a hell of a risk so they can do what’s basically an impossible mission, right? Can’t help but admire that. And it’s inspiring! Me, Rees, Davies, Frasier…we all end up pushing ourselves. And then things escalate.
“First, it’s the Ten’Gewek. And that’s all right, they’re damn good friends to have, even if it took a lot of work to get them up to scratch. Yeah, they’re…basically better than the four of us in every damn way. But somehow, it doesn’t really hit wrong, you know? We sort of synergize and it just works out damn nice. And we’re not without strengths of our own, either.
“Then I had my accident. Lose this eye. Hoeff steps up, and there is the first time I really started to question shit. Don’t get me wrong, I love the bloke to death, but he’s so fucking capable. He’s man enough to stand up to Ferd and that’s despite standing nine inches shorter than me. Smarter than me, too. Smarter than all of us. Better in every single thing, better by a fucking longshot. His only real hang-up is that fucked-up metabolism of his, but…
“So, we start playing catch-up without really knowing we’re doing it. And nowadays, a regular bloke can push himself pretty much as far as he wants without much fear, given how good our sports medicine and all that’s become. It turns out I’m especially good at this, so…here I am, now. I’m as good as a ‘regular’ bloke can ever hope to be. And that’s great! Like I told Alex a bit ago, if I were to teleport back twenty years I’d be the champ at whatever sport you like. Track and field? Strongman? Something more fighty? Hell, even prancing about on stage in posing trunks or whatever, if I decided to try that for some daft reason? I’ve no doubt I’d kick arse. It’s amazing how far we’ve advanced things! So why don’t I feel like I’m king of the world?
“Well, I think I know why, now. Even for someone like me, what I am now is more about making the best of what I was given, taking risks, using the knowledge we’ve gained…and putting the work in. Just endless, endless work. Everything perfect every time, no missed meals, no slack days. The grind never stops. And that’s how it’s always been. Talent matters, but grit, discipline, and smarts matter more. And if there’s one thing I will not be ashamed to claim, it’s grit.
“But now? We’ve got people who are far and away better than any of us, just standing there! These new Heroes of yours are basically HEAT-level standouts without even trying. Hell, they don’t even have a choice in the matter! How the hell is a bloke like me supposed to compete against that? Instead of being super proud of what I’ve achieved, instead of being happy that I’ve reached the top…”
Ian sighed. “Instead, I take one look at Alex and all his ridiculous natural ability and it’s just…depressing. He did show and tell for me, right? Great kid, by the way. And we look at his stuff, and his hobbies…he’s good at sketching too, but nothing breathtaking. I think that’s fair. He showed me what he can do in his weightroom, of course. Why wouldn’t he? He’s a hard worker and he’s clearly proud of his body. Rightfully so! And that’s, yeah, insane and all that. I couldn’t come close to keeping up and I bet Hoeff or Bruuk or any of the Ten’Gewek would struggle against him too, especially in a few years time when he’s really grown into it. But you know what really humbled me? It was his piloting.”
Tomoe nodded at that, with the air of a proud mum, but she still listened closely.
“That kid,” Ian insisted, “is a natural-born flier. He’s so damn good at flying that neat little ship of his, and he knows every single bit of it inside and out. I’m a trained captain at one of the most elite merchant marine academies out there—the Gao run a ruthless school, let me tell you that—and he’s better than me. A twelve year old boy who has only just started to notice the world properly, and he’s already better than me by every measure. We’re not peers, in any sense. And there is never a thing I could ever possibly do that would level the field.”
Tomoe’s gaze had dropped. Now she seemed to be looking at the bruises on her forearms. She nodded slowly, though, the brief moment of pride in her step-son’s ability already forgotten.
“Now…An individual, I reckon, can like somebody enough so they can look past that. Alex clearly hopes I can. And I do! Why should I hold his excellence against him?” Ian asked. “But people as a whole? I like that kid a lot, but he and all his fellows mushrooming up all over the world are walking, talking assaults on the bedrock conceits of our civilization. Things like the equality of mankind and all that. Now, how would your various lords and masters over the years have taken such a fundamental kind of foreign meddling? One that struck at their divine right to rule, and their highest virtues? D’you think they’d have been pleased and grateful for it?”
Tomoe sat on that for a minute, staring at something a few light years away through the floor. Finally, she stood and bowed deep, low and formal.
“…Thank you for your candor, Wilde-san.”
Ian blinked at her. “…What, that’s it? You’re not going to push back?”
“I didn’t come here to. We already made our case, and will make it again when the time comes.”
Tomoe turned toward the door, then paused and turned back. “I know you don’t trust us. I think I understand why, now. But…if my word, personally, means anything to you, I want you to know that your life was never in danger, and nobody has been listening to this.”
Well…Ian believed her. But, he didn’t say as much. He just stood, and extended a hand. “Thanks for the bottle. I’ll, uh, mark an occasion with it.”
She nodded, and shook his hand. “…Goodbye.”
Then she was gone. Ian sighed, and slumped back down in his chair, wondering if he’d said too much, overstepped his authority…but she’d come to him, and asked.
And really, he hadn’t said a quarter of what she needed to hear. But…
Shit, there was only so much he could do, anyway. What he had here was a messianic sex cult to rival the Bene fucking Gesserit, and their whole philosophy at core rested on “the lesser of two evils.” Which…fuck, how could you argue against that?
So…he wrote his report. He wasn’t normally an eloquent writer, but…words flowed.
He found his heartbeat increasing as he typed, and typed…
In ten minutes he’d written pages and it was not a kind evaluation. Not at all.
Right. That wouldn’t do. His duty was impartiality. So, he went for a jog, which didn’t help. Sent a message to Hoeff, went to go find Alex. Got some exercise in.
Didn’t help. In fact, it made it worse, seeing how fucking desperate Alex was for playmates who could handle him…and being so goddamned humbled by a twelve year old boy. They left Alex with a huge smile on his face, and as soon as he was gone…
Hoeff didn’t need to say a word. They nodded, and he followed Wilde back to his guest quarters.
Ian learned some things about the short tank of a killer, in the ensuing conversation. Just the simplest basics of what he truly was, but it was more than enough to understand the consequences of today, in their proper context. So, they wrote their reports together. This needed a forceful and united voice, to the powers bright and deep.
After that…well, maybe he ought to sleep. But, he couldn’t. So rather than pace the room, he let himself out onto he guest quarter’s balcony, well past the local version of midnight, where he could admire the open sky, or at least its imitation. Imitation stars, even an imitation cool night-time breeze.
He really, really wanted a cigarette.
Instead, he leaned on the railing, closed his eyes, and breathed slowly in through his nose and out through his mouth. The report they’d written was…a lot less than the teary-eyed gratitude Singularity had been hoping for. A lot less.
But it wasn’t unfair, he hoped.
A soft rustle of fabric was Hoeff leaning on the railing beside him. They looked out over the parklands in silence for a minute or so longer, until a thought hit Ian and made him…not chuckle. Just a little puff of bleakly amused breath. But it got Hoeff’s attention.
“Just a stray thought. Well, two thoughts.”
“Yeah?” Hoeff must have been psychic, because he fished in a pocket and offered Ian a smoke.
“Always have ‘em on me. For days like this. Don’t tell Claire.”
Ian didn’t resist. They lit up, and, bad habit or no, at least it centered him a bit.
“So…?” Hoeff prompted after a moment.
Ian gave him another look-over, and considered the layered irony in confiding with someone like him. “You notice how the railing was built for someone like you? No complaint, no bending…”
“…Yeah.” Hoeff lit up with a heavy drag, and offered his lighter to Ian. After blowing it out slowly, “Amazing how a little thing like that speaks volumes, ain’t it?”
“Aye.” Ian lit up too, with a more restrained puff. He didn’t have superlungs, after all.
They smoked in silence for a while.
“And the second thought?” Hoeff prompted.
Ian contemplated the glowing embers on his cancer stick. “I was just thinking…you know what they say, don’t you?”
Ian chuckled, looked out over Ekallim-Igigi, and finished his cigarette.
“Never meet your heroes.”
++END CHAPTER 84++
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Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.
When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…
Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 85: “The Reclaiming”