Chapter 86: Into the Fold
Date Point: 19y11m5d AV
Contingency stockpile, deep interstellar space
Double check it.
Well. That was a dismayingly brief interval. Only a couple of standard years? Contingency hibernation was supposed to last a few hundred years, enough time for active opposition to cool off and forget their vigilance. The natural fractiousness of organic life couldn’t sustain a war footing for more than a generation or two in even the most bellicose cases, if the enemy was nowhere to be seen.
To be reactivated by a source node’s monitoring program after such a brief suspension boded ill, and Four knew better than to underestimate Humans and Gao.
She took inventory. Her stockpile was in healthy condition, with a full fleet contingent. Injunctors, Indictors, Prosecutors and three Judge-class flagships. Sufficient Abrogators and their drones to mount a cleansing operation on anything but a fully industrialized civilization…Fifty antimatter charges.
Four had the resources to wage a war, and the authority to activate other agents if escalation was required.
She had a terrible feeling it might be. If source nodes were being interfered with, then for the first time in millions of years the Hierarchy might need to actually take the substrate species seriously. Lean times beckoned, if so.
Necessary. The Hegemony could survive the loss of substrate, could survive the destruction of Relays, could outlast any uppity matterforms that got it into their heads to fight back…but not the destruction of Dataspace itself. If that was on the table, then the gloves were off.
She awoke a scout group, and downloaded herself into the useful biodrone waiting in stasis aboard one of the Judges; an agent in the field required substrate. The biodrone was OmoAru, as strong and capable as a deathworlder thanks to the nanotech riddling its cells, and permanently encased in an armored void suit for extra protection.
She backed up her mind-state, initiated a monopole jump, accepted with satisfaction that the random variance in wormhole precision had landed her only a few days’ travel time from the node, and made best speed. She hoped this would all be wasted effort.
Somehow, she knew it would not.
Date Point: 19y11m5d AV
The Pentagon, Washington DC, USA, Earth
Admiral Stu Whieldon
In the right circumstances, a patrol boat could be as important as a whole damn aircraft carrier. Or at least, that was how Whieldon felt about the USS Wampanoag. Six men, one little ship…One damn significant moment.
Or a damn troubling one.
Analysis of the debris cloud discovered no fragments larger than 0.47mm diameter. Metallic fragments were uniformly spherical and displayed crystalline structures characteristic of liquid metal cooling and solidifying in zero-G vacuum. Ceramics used in the ship’s construction were present in the form of a fine powder, particulate size no greater than 3 μm. Polymers and organic compounds were present as individual molecules. Residual ionization of the debris is characteristic of a collapsing warp field, suggesting that USS Wampanoag was at FTL in the moment she was destroyed.
No component of the debris cloud was inconsistent with USS Wampanoag’s construction and contents. No evidence of any bomb casing. No fission or fusion byproducts save the amount expected from Wampanoag’s own reactor. No ammunition fragments.
Conclusion: USS Wampanoag’s destruction was caused by a high-output directed energy weapon of unknown design. No candidate weapon system is currently known to this investigatory team. Given its demonstrated ability to reduce a shielded Misfit-class patrol boat at warp to a cloud of vapor, however, this weapon must be considered to pose a grave threat to all Allied warships regardless of weight class.
Recommendations: Intelligence about this weapon system must be secured in order for any countermeasure to be devised. CJ2 shall develop appropriate essential elements of required information and present for review.
Whieldon sighed and put the report down. No doubt his Gaoian counterpart was reading something very similar concerning the loss of the Dauntless Spark.
The question was, what to do? There was some kind of predator lurking out there near Hell, one that, as the investigation had insinuated, would pose a terrible threat to larger ships too. Anything that could annihilate a Misfit so completely must at least be capable of badly mauling a San Diego or a destroyer.
Spaceborne crews were in short supply, too. The navy had enjoyed plenty of success in recruiting—people wanted to serve on a starship—but the standards were high. Any decision Whieldon made would be risking the lives of talented, rare people.
Leaving that volume unpatrolled would just open a hole in the cordon around Hell and invite the Hunters to come sniffing, so that wasn’t an option. Sending in a larger ship risked hundreds of lives and a limited strategic asset. Replacing the Wampanoag with another Misfit-class patrol boat would just be throwing away another six lives when the predator struck again, however.
Safety in numbers? Or at least, more pairs of eyes, more sensors, and the chance to jump back and report if the predator struck…
The only remaining alternative was unmanned missions. Hmm.
Well. Best not to make a decision until he’d read all his messages. He set the problem aside for the moment and returned to his inbox…and found the solution waiting for him.
God bless the Gao.
Date Point: 19y11m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
CMSgt Adam (Warhorse) Arés, retired
Adam would never again take snuggling his wife for granted.
Marty seemed like she had about a year of sleep to catch up on. And why not? She’d had two kids and an Adam to try and take care of, and there was only so much help she could get from friends and grandparents. Now that she didn’t have Adam to care for too, now that Adam could take care of stuff like loading the dishwasher and doing the laundry while she put the kids to bed…
In theory, they sat and watched a movie together. In practice, she took a nap, and Adam watched her. Held her. Took joy in just being able to do something gentle like brush the hair out of her face or run his thumb down her shoulder, and there being no danger at all of breaking her arm. He could give her a little squeeze and she’d make a sleepy murmur, and he could do it safely.
‘Course…today had been a good day. No migraine, which was nice. He’d been worried he was gonna have one early in the day, when he got those weird fuzzy zig-zag lines all over his vision, but they settled down without turning into a skull-cracker, this time.
Twice a week. Better than almost daily, like it had been at first. But still twice a week, more or less. Was he getting better? He thought so.
Wasn’t in any shape to do anything adventurous though. So, as was befitting arguably the galaxy’s original ultra-meathead, he did two important things with his time, when he wasn’t doting on family or crafting ever-more-elaborate ductopi:
He trained, of course. Rapid progress! Hell, he was progressing fast enough to maybe catch back up with Julian eventually, too! Be nice to put him back in his place…or at least, not feel too embarrassed by a dude who was six inches shorter, yet wider, bigger and better than he ever was in every damn way. Adam certainly had the willpower to crush him again, but was that enough? They’d have to see!
Probably not against Firth, though. He was still gaining at fuckin’ warp speed, insane progress that was only getting faster. Firth stood leagues ahead of everyone where his potential were concerned. Hell, his only real competition would be Alex, probably, or maybe Gilgamesh if he ever got properly serious about training. Adam had work ethic to humble anyone, and that counted for a lot, but bein’ honest he probably didn’t have the genetics he’d need to win against any of them. He’d grown used to the idea with Daar, since he saw the big bastard’s potential almost immediately and knew his days were numbered years before it happened. And god only knew about Yan, once they really got to work on that magnificent fucker…
Anyway. He’d led the way, so now the truly gifted had no excuse to slack off.
He trained others too, especially the most promising ‘Backs at First Fang. Outside of that kind of work, he was more or less the lead coach in his gym now, for the first time since he and Titan had founded it almost ten years ago. He trained everyone, at every level of progression. It was fun! Little kids especially in basics like calisthenics and whatnot, and somehow everyone knew they were a special delight for him.
Coaching was rewarding. He enjoyed it! But…was this it for him? Or was this a “for now” thing? It was nice to still have a daily connection to the Lads on-base, of course, the mission on Gao…hell, sometimes it felt like he hadn’t retired at all!
But then the daily brief would come. He couldn’t attend. Didn’t need to know anymore. Some days they had field exercises. Couldn’t ride along, for this reason or that. People would disappear for a day or three, and of course…he knew why, but not anything else.
That world was closed to him.
So…what else? Get active in church? Well, maybe. Somehow he just didn’t feel drawn there, and Marty had conflicted feelings about it all anyway. Still, all the grandparents wanted their kids to at least have some exposure to Catholic life…
He pulled Marty a bit closer.
Right now, he felt…hell. How did he feel? Comfortable, mostly. Safe.
Lost. He was comfortably lost.
Comfortably lost, with a letter from Daar on his bedside table. He really oughta answer that, soon. And he would, just as soon as he knew what the answer really was. He’d get around to thinking about it in due time.
When he didn’t have something more important to do.
He gave Marty a squeeze again, then leaned down to kiss her cheek.
Date Point: 19y11m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Alex, Prince of Ekallim-Igigi
“What, Singularity don’t do Christmas?”
“Not Christmas, no. Not like this.”
“But you’ve got holidays, right?”
Shaped lights were going up around Folctha, in the form of snowflakes, reindeer-drawn sleds, big golden balls, drippy raining light, stars, and stuff like that. Lots of wintery stuff, which, Alex guessed, it was winter in the northern hemisphere on Earth, so…
The tree was impressive, though. He’d never seen one that big before! How did they even get it to Cimbrean? Had they brought it through the array in bits, and put it together again? It had been put up in the middle of New Worlds Plaza, and looked to have more lights and stuff on it than anywhere else in the city.
Warm winter drinks were nice, too. They were sitting on one of the plaza’s fountains, sipping…Ian called it a ‘chai latte.’ Tea and spices in steamed milk.
“So what kind of holidays do you have?” Ian asked. Today, he was wearing a black t-shirt with the word “Yijao?” stretched like a drumhead across his heavy chest, in a font that kinda looked like written Gaori but still spelled English letters.
Alex had slacks and a nice bright blue polo. But this time everything was properly-fitting, thanks to the twins and that pretty girl at the shop…Alice. He knew she was just being friendly, and he knew that, here at least, he was considered a bit too young for, like, a date or anything…
She’d said no. Oh well! But only no for this weekend…so maybe some other time?
He was grinning stupidly again, he realized. And Ian noticed too.
“Oi, henchmeat! She’s like three times your age, firstly—”
“Alice is only fifteen! That’s not so bad!” Was it a culture thing? Had to be.
“Whole world o’ difference between twelve and fifteen, mate. And I asked you a question!”
Alex giggled. He knew that, well…he scared people just standing still in the street, Ian included. But the way he teased and joked just…well, he liked it! Hardly anyone treated him like he was normal back on Ekallim-Igigi…
“Fine! Be that way…Anyway. Holy feasts.” He counted off on his fingers. “The new year—that’s at Earth’s winter solstice—another at Earth’s spring equinox, that’s the fertility feast. Father especially gets silly for that one,” Alex grumbled in annoyance. “There’s Remembrance, that’s on the Gaoian year, it’s the anniversary of the gamma ray burst. And on the Corti calendar, we’ve got a week of fasting and meditation to mark the Void Caste’s exile…”
He grinned again. “Well, I don’t have to. I’m not old enough. I’m not even allowed to abstain from meat or anything like that until I’m at least fourteen.”
“And a bunch more. My mothers all celebrate different ones, like Saturnalia, Hanami, Ramadan, Yule…”
“So, a whole heaping pile of holidays.”
Alex sighed. “It’s a bit much, yeah. All of it has some ceremony I’m part of, too. So I’m either wearing ridiculous vestments and standing around or whatever, or I’m hunting something through the woods for sacrifice, or—”
“Yeah. You saw them, didn’t you?”
Ian rubbed the back of his neck. “I saw a bit of trees in the tour, yeah…”
“No!” Alex laughed, “That’s the sacred grove! It’s over a thousand…uh…” He bit his tongue thinking. “Hectares, I think?”
“…Christ, I keep forgetting how big Ekallim-Igigi is.” Ian frowned and sipped his drink.
“…Yeah. Anyway, been reading up, you know? I did the hunt for the first time when I was ten. It’s sorta a lot like the Ten’Gewek hunt! Was hopin’ I could talk about that some day…”
There was a slightly awkward silence, which Ian broke with a sideways grin.
“So…in other words, you’re either the height of princely civilization, all be-garbed and whatnot—”
“Or you’re, like, some naked cavehench murderin’ deer in the woods, or on the field—”
Alex giggled, “Shut up! You and I’ve got gym after this, you know…”’
“I know, and I’m already dreading it,” Ian muttered.
Alex deflated a bit. “…Well, I mean…I’m only teasing. You know that, right?”
“No no, I get that! You don’t understand. Today we’re training with Warhorse.”
“Oh, don’t you worry your henchy blond head. You’ll love it. And, aye, so will I. But let a bloke complain a bit!” Ian finished his drink, lined up to throw the cup into a nearby trash bin, misjudged how far away it was, and stood with a sigh to go clean it up.
Alex waited until Ian was right next to the can, then tossed his own cup. Bullseye!
Wilde shot him a dirty look, but couldn’t keep the scowl up for long. Alex liked the big man!
“You’re a competitive little shit, aren’t you?”
“Heh! …No. No, not everyone. C’mon.”
They’d used the cabs a couple of times, but mostly…well, it was a nice day, and Folctha was made for foot traffic. Also the little ones bottomed out under Ian’s weight, and Alex was a lot bigger…so, why not walk? Or run! If they were going to see what this Warhorse guy had for them, then Alex wanted to be nice and warmed up before getting there.
Ian, of course, grumbled something but picked up the pace and ran with him. Alex was really starting to get a feel for the city by now. He knew you could cut down a small street from the plaza, jog along the river, cross the bridge by Rooney’s, and then keep following the river on the south bank. He knew going that way skipped all the heavy foot traffic near the Alien Quarter, and gave them a nice long straight shot to where they were going, at the far end of Delaney Row.
He’d never even heard those names a few days before, but now they were settling in and becoming familiar. There was a lot more to see, but at least he had a mental map now.
They’d borrowed a nice, heavy truck from the SOR and driven past the gym on their way out along the coast yesterday, to see some of the farms. Not that any of them gave tours, or whatever, but just the chance to park by the roadside and watch had been eye-opening. The sense of open space was…well, it was like the one Alex got when he went gas giant diving, but different. All that sky, and nothing between him and the vacuum of space except air held down by gravity…
There were a lot of gyms in Folctha. Glass-fronted ones with treadmills in front of a wall of mirrors, more private ones with tiny mirrored windows, big ones that took up two floors of a large building, tiny ones tucked away down a back alley…
Gyms meant a different thing here, too. On Folctha, a gym was just a place to house exercise equipment. They had separate parks for sports, and none of them were all in the same place. On Ekallim-Igigi, the gymnasium was a bigger idea. It had schools, rooms for machines like the “gyms” here, and parks…and also a theatre, and laboratories, and libraries, too. It wasn’t just a place to exercise, it was a place where people went to grow.
Weird. Everyone here seemed ashamed of themselves for some reason!
Of course, he’d been warned about that too, and he’d especially been warned about the sins the old Greeks and Romans had got up to. No right-thinking people would tolerate stuff like that of course, so the idea of gymnasium had been broken up over a very long time.
Come to think of it…that was probably a big reason everyone dressed up all the time, too.
That made sense, probably. But what a shame. Ekallim-Igigi could always re-educate criminals, or stasis them if they couldn’t be fixed, even execute them if they couldn’t live safely with everyone else. But what about on Earth? There seemed like there would be so much room…
He shook the thought off as they entered, where Ian was promptly hoisted off the ground and squeezed with a crunch by…
Huh. It was him.
“Ooorggfh…! Fuck me, you big bugger, that beard fuckin’ scratches!” Ian protested, and tried to struggle free. “What, the moment you’re out you go full fuckin’ ZZ Top?”
“C’mon, I ain’t that bad! It’s just stubble!” Warhorse set Ian down, and Alex finally got a good look at him.
He wasn’t of the Line, anyone who knew the signs could spot it instantly. His strength sat solidly on him more than gracefully, which made him much blockier and severe in his build than the more balanced form the Line-keepers preferred. Which wasn’t a hindrance, in fact it was quite the opposite. Julian was a considerably bigger man just at a glance, but he carried his enormous size athletically and naturally. Warhorse, though, was somehow built like he’d run into his body’s limits long ago, sneered, and kept growing anyway. The recovery from his injuries had clearly left their mark on him too, and he had yet to reclaim everything he’d once had; somehow, you could just tell he’d been a much bulkier man not all that long ago. Even so…
This was a man so obviously strong, he could crush father in his grasp easily, even now.
He took a second look and really sized the man up. While…yes, Julian and Righteous had him on size and maybe had more balanced frames, there was no doubt this man was built for brute strength. He was, if anything, the most intensely muscular being Alex had ever seen. He grinned nervously, having realized that the brutally-built man was giving him a similar look.
“Well, damn. And I thought I was an early bloomer. Eres una montaña de niño, eh?”
Warhorse laughed heartily. He had a short black mohawk and a wide, handsome face that was made for happiness, rapidly being buried under a thick scruffy beard. “You’re a kid-mountain! I didn’t start gettin’ crazy-huge ‘till I was fifteen, and even then…don’t think I’d have matched you ‘till Capitol Station, at least.”
Ian whistled. “Yeah, he’s his dad’s boy, for sure,” Ian agreed. “Pretty much the opposite of you.”
“Naw! You’ve not seen Papá without a shirt. Dude’s a ripped old man!” Nothing about Warhorse was small, especially not his Proud Son energy.
“Only ‘cuz you won’t let him be anything else. Speaking of…” Ian indicated a door at the back of the room with an upward nod. “How much is this gonna suck?”
“Yes.” A big evil grin.
“Thats about what I figured…”
“Hey, man. You asked me to, and I quote, ‘make me tank enough to deal with Bruuk.’ That’s no small thing, I’ve sparred with him! I won,’’ Adam grinned smugly, “easy too. But still! You asked, and I got you programmed, so that’s what we’re gonna do, one step at a time. No escape now!”
“Well, I’m here, aren’t I? Let’s walk this talk…”
Three non-stop hours of sadism followed.
For Alex, it was an education. They didn’t train like everyone did on Ekallim-Igigi. Father believed in putting the body through its paces to be sure, but he did it with stones and running, weapons practice, lifting and carrying. Big, practical stuff for the most part, with lots and lots of practice. He used barbells and such too, but still. The same tools he’d used to hone himself since the days of Uruk, as much a celebration of the joy of moving as it was a form of training.
What Adam did wasn’t that. What he did was a science of machines and movements and timings, a careful cadence almost Corti in its ruthless precision. Alex played along and, to his surprise, found himself sore and tired from Ian’s much tinier weights—weight he could normally laugh at. But exercise like this, with his full concentration on doing the movement perfectly instead of efficiently, on feeling the muscle do its work, it responding to thought…
“No wonder you’re such a monster,” he commented between breaths. To both of them, really. Like Adam, Ian too had a build a bit like he’d willed more strength onto his frame than he’d been born to carry, and forced his body to adapt to it no matter how much it complained.
Judging by how easy Adam and Ian made it look…It sure as hell worked for them!
“Ayup,” Adam noted smugly. “Strength and work capacity is the basis for everything else. If you aren’t building that, you aren’t progressing. Sport and training is super important of course, but if you want to get as strong as possible as fast as possible, you gotta lift, and you gotta lift smart. I can see already I’ll need to teach you everything from the start.”
Ian wasn’t talking. He was lying flat on the floor, eyes closed and with a towel over his face as ‘Horse’s huge blunt fingers probed and pressed on his calf muscle. Even so, he nodded.
“We gotta fix ‘yer chicken legs,” ‘Horse grumbled ominously down at Ian.
“Oi!” Ian complained weakly. “They’re anything but little! You’re just used to mutants!”
Well, fair enough. Ian was a massive and soldily-built man by any standard, legs included.
Adam was in a teasing mood, though. He looked at Alex and grinned, “Yeah? Well, super-kid here’s got a lot better legs than you! Lookit his calves, they’re big as ‘yer head! Be kinda neat to see what the best of the Line can do…so we’ve got a project in you, don’t we?”
“Do you?” Alex nibbled some torn skin off his palm. “I mean, I won’t say no…”
“Hmm.” Warhorse stood and went to fetch a dumbbell. It was the heaviest on the rack, bigger than any Alex had ever seen; he doubted he could lift it at all, let alone budge it in the high gravity! To his amazement, Adam proceeded to curl it with just his wrist. A forearm bigger than Alex’s thigh flexed into vascular, sinewy attention as Adam casually played with the weight.
“Yeah, I think we do. Be a shame for someone like you to squander your gifts, don’t you think? See, me? I’ve got no business bein’ as strong as I am. You already know about Julian, have him show you what he can really do some time. But why is he so crazy strong? Innate potential? Yeah. But all the huge-nuts genetics in the world don’t matter if you ain’t got the willpower or ain’t bein’ smart about it. He’s got all three.” Adam switched to curling the weight now, and Alex realized he was deliberately showing off his bowling-ball bicep. Why? To sell him on something?
Well…maybe Adam wasn’t of the Line, but gods that arm of his! Alex couldn’t stop staring…
“So, wanna grow up an’ upstage ‘yer dad harder’n anyone? I can tell you’ve got the same potential the other two freaks have. But up here?” Adam tapped on his head with his free arm. “This is what separates the boys from the men. Winning needs willpower and work ethic, and I think you’re a little crazy like me, yijao? So what’s your deal? Is it an escape for you?”
“…Yeah.” The big man knew him perfectly, Alex could see. “Nobody bothers me when I train. It’s…nice. Oh, and, uh…it’s one of the only things I have that I earned by myself. Even my ship, right? I mean, I had to study and train and all that…but father still gave me exactly what I wanted. This, though?” Alex grinned and flexed his own arm. “Nobody can give me this. It’s all me.”
Alex had to admit, it was a fuckin’ good arm he had. Hell, it was better than almost everyone’s!
Ian whistled approvingly, while Adam bounced in place like a giant puppy. “Hell yeah! That’s the right attitude! So…actually,” pondered Adam, “there’s a thought. Why are you here? I mean, besides the official reasons? Just for fun? To explore? You’re a prince from what I hear…”
And happily, the idea of rank didn’t seem to faze him at all. Alex decided he really liked Adam.
“Yeah…I think, the same reason I like to train. Something I can do.”
‘Horse glanced at Ian, who lifted a corner of his towel. “Sounds about right. He wanted to see how we do things over here too,” he said. “Also, he’s got multiple mothers…”
“Ah, so escapism and exploring. Lucky! I didn’t get to do that until later. And I only got to in the first place ‘cuz the Hierarchy nuked my city.”
Oh. shit. “…I’m sorry,” Alex ventured.
“Why? Ain’t your fault.”
“I mean…it sucks that it happened.”
“Yeah, it does. But everything happens for a reason, even if it’s a stupid-ass reason. And I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t. I wouldn’t have built myself the strongest and fittest man in history without that. Held that record for over a decade and saved a lot of lives with that strength, yijao? And hell, y’know what? I’m gonna be all that again, too!” He shrugged comfortably and grinned. “There’s more for me to do and I ain’t taking anything for granted, these days.”
“I read the citation,” Alex said diplomatically. He knew that could be a painful thing to talk about. “And, uh, don’t take this the wrong way but…I’m kinda jealous.”
“Don’t be,” Adam rebuked sternly.
“No no, not…because of that. Because…I dunno.”
Adam was a father, Alex could tell. He did the thing that every single father ever did whenever Alex…couldn’t figure out what to say next. He put down the huge dumbbell as gently as a feather, then prowled over to Alex and sat on his haunches next to him.
“It’s okay. I think I get it.”
“I think so. I’m the way I am mostly ‘cuz that’s the course I set myself on. For…a buncha reasons. But it was still my choice.”
He did get it. Alex sighed and nodded.
“Father’s had…he’s had a great many sons. But he says I’m his first heir.”
“Ah. Yeah, that’s…a hell of a lot of pressure, I bet.”
“He said he knew from the day the Hunters attacked Earth, he said ‘Singularity’s time in the shadows is coming to an end’ and…I think he’s tired. Like…I mean, in his heart and soul.”
“So he’s been waiting for someone like you to come along, then.”
“…Yeah. And I’m everything he ever wanted, too.” There wasn’t any pride in his voice.
From the floor, Ian groaned and sat up. “Well…shit. That’s not exactly fair to put that on you.”
“Every king needs an heir,” Alex said, automatically. “And he’s right. People look at the palace and my mothers and all that but…it wears on him, every day. I can see it, y’know?”
Ian and ‘Horse shared a glance, then Ian stood up, stretched his calf a bit, and went to go grab his drink bottle.
“Well…I don’t know you or your situation all that well yet, right?” Adam ventured. “So maybe take this with a grain of salt. But the thing is, sometimes things are thrust upon us…and sometimes we’re called to it. You gotta figger out which one it is for yourself.”
“Both,” he said instantly. “Whether I want it or not.”
“I don’t know!” Alex exploded. “I mean, I know I’m smart and all. I know how to use my words! But I’m only fucking twelve! How the fuck am I supposed to know this shit?”
“…Well, you sure as shit know how to cuss,” Adam agreed.
“Nah. Some things can only be said with a good cuss.”
Ian took a big drink and looked soberly at Alex. “Well…mate. Neither of us are in any shape to tell you owt about kinging or whatever. We’re just a pair of beaten-up grunts.” Ian swigged his drink again. “We’ve got, what? Three working eyes and one working brain between us.”
Adam snorted and aimed a middle finger at him.
Alex laughed, too. He was already feeling better just for his outburst, and he really liked both of them, but…still. “…I’m sorry. This is my problem, not yours.”
“Who else can you vent it to?” Adam pointed out. “Back home you’re a prince. Everyone knows it, right? Here? You’re just a huge-ass meathead kid in the City of Super-Meatheads. Nobody’s gonna bat a fuckin’ eye. Maybe they’ll be ‘mirin, but they ain’t gonna fuckin’ bow an’ grovel, y’know? This is the place where the Great Father himself runs around eatin’ tacos and talkin’ to normal folk, right? So yeah. Maybe this is exactly where you need to be.”
“Also,” Ian added, “your dad sent you here for an adventure, right? I bet this is a big part of why. I think it’s fair to say you’re not gonna be expected to pick up the whole thing in one go, and you’re not gonna do it the same way he did it either. You need to be your own man first, he knows that. And Ekallim-Igigi’s no place for a young man like you to do that.”
He sat down again. “Your father may be out of touch, and I don’t make a secret of thinking the whole Line of Heroes thing is dodgy as fuck. No offense,” he added quickly. “But he’s definitely not stupid. He’s got, what, five thousand years of life experience? I daresay you don’t stick around that long without figuring out some shit.”
“I guess…” Alex agreed.
“And he definitely wants the best for you. Believe me, that’s somethin’ to cherish.” Ian swigged his drink again, distantly.
There was silence for a moment. Adam shattered it by smacking his hands together with a crack!
“Alright! We’re not here to sit around jawin’!” he proclaimed. “How’s that leg?”
Ian slapped the end of his bottle closed. “Hasn’t dropped off yet.”
“Good! Let’s fix that.”
Alex couldn’t resist laughing, and sprang to his feet, eager to learn more of this new science. He could feel how well it worked already, could feel how good he’d feel on the far side of it.
And he was eager to learn.
Date Point: 19y11m2w AV
USS Robert A. Heinlein, moored at naval staging base Milton, above planet Hell
Captain Jaimie Esposito
Thanks to jump arrays, a ship could stay “at sea” a long time, nowadays. Crew could rotate off for shore leave, supplies could be replenished directly from Earth and Cimbrean without having to rendezvous with a supply ship, and their food was fresh produce, with the galley’s stores reserved for emergency rations.
It was a fair bit more comfortable than the boomer Esposito had first served on, despite being even tighter quarters. But the ship’s array couldn’t handle everything. Some things were just too big, or required external work.
Hence the staging base. It wasn’t much more than a half-cylinder tunnel of scaffolding and bright lights attached to a huge jump array, but that was enough. Whatever Robert A. Heinlein needed came straight through alongside the suited-up spacewalkers who’d install it, and from there…
Everyone heard the moment their new launch rail made contact with the ship. It was gentle, but the clonk of something heavy touching the hull from outside couldn’t escape out into vacuum, so instead it rang until it finally dissipated.
The hiss of welding followed, though that was more familiar.
Esposito nodded. She and her XO, Jim Mcnairy, were using the time, and the Officers Mess’ endless supply of fresh coffee, to take care of their respective administrative duties. A warship didn’t get a substantial modification in the field without some paperwork, after all.
“Still pretty damn fast in the grand scheme of things. How long have the Gaoians been using megalight drones?”
“Dunno. About…five years, at this point? Six?” Mcnairy scratched his ear with a stylus. “Be nice to finally use them ourselves.”
“Especially if it gets us some payback for the Wampanoag,” Esposito agreed.
She watched Mcnairy nod and refocus on his paperwork. She knew her XO felt the fleet was going to live or die on staying right at the bleeding edge of technology, and the fact was, drones iterated faster than warships. The British bulldog drones were in their seventh tech generation already, each version doing a lot more than just squeezing out a little extra performance. He was a drone cheerleader to the core, while the brass remained focused on shield and missile technology.
As far as Esposito was concerned, there was no sense in running their tech ahead of their ability to make good use of it. New stuff meant training time, teething troubles, lack of familiarity, no established best practice. But in this case, she had to agree: they were long overdue for a better drone launch system.
Even if it did mean finding room on the ship for five more guardians.
Her tablet pinged as Milton synchronized with Earth and their latest messages came through. Top of the list was a message for her eyes only. She grabbed a last cup of coffee, gave Mcnairy a nod, and retreated to her cabin to read it.
Its contents didn’t surprise her one bit. In fact, they put some grim satisfaction on her face.
They had a mission.
Date Point: 19y11m2w1d AV
Singularity scout ship Amenhotep, Relic Space
Verin, void caste
Stasis shutdown. The light under Verin’s left hand told him his patrol wasn’t over yet. Something had caught his ship’s attention.
Patrol duty was usually easy. Climb in the scout ship, run through startup, activate the sequence, then blink away the months in stasis, investigating whatever rare few ships strayed into Ekallim-Igigi’s sector. A whole year would pass in a matter of hours, normally. And then Verin could spend a whole year’s pay on shore leave while training and preparing for the next patrol.
This time was different.
His fingers moved on the sensor controls, refined, focused, tuned out the background noise of planets revolving in their orbits until the spacetime distortion line was mostly flat except for a significant spike.
Pulse-warp for parallax, which gave him a distance. Doing it twice more gave him a velocity. The numbers came together into something unpleasant. Something large, moving fast on a heading directly toward the Archive system. Something whose warp signature was in the range used by Hierarchy linear drives.
Step one, send the data home. That was a matter of instants’ work with pulsed wormhole comms. Got the message receipt, nodded grimly.
Step two was the dangerous part, the reason why long-range scouts were so well paid. Get closer and secure some real intelligence.
He reached up, swept his hands through the map above his head, considered his options…there. A K-type star, with a gas giant. No ring system, alas, but a nice volcanically active moon. And close enough to reach before the incoming signature did, even at quiet running. Good enough.
Final step, while in warp: check his suit was charged and ready to jump him to safety. If the Amenhotep and its valuable sensor logs couldn’t get home, at least the pilot might.
No stasis blink this time. Might miss something. Instead, Verin turned his large, black eyes onto the sensors and sat back. He sipped on the dispenser in his helmet, sucked down a slurry of nutritious mushroom cream laced with stimulants and attention-sharpening drugs. The trance fell on him quickly, turning time into an irrelevance, turning memory into a perfect eidetic record of events.
He noted, in an academic sense, the passage of two point three seven hours. The sensor contact held steady.
Space between the chosen giant and its innermost moon was busy. Pressed and squeezed by the tides, the moon was a spitting, fulminating ball of volcano violence, and the space around it seethed with charged particles caught in the giant’s magnetic field. Perfect cover for a starship, if one didn’t mind the hull charge.
A good hide to lurk in and watch from.
One point four hours passed. The target held course. One large spike resolved into a cluster of smaller, closely related spikes. Hierarchy warp signatures indeed.
Mass calculations: significant. One in particular suggested a ship larger than any previously encountered in the Hierarchy’s arsenal.
Vector/time calculations: operations within four light years of the Archive would need to be completely hidden within six hours. Factoring in the time necessary for communication, decision-making and removals.
He burst-transmitted the sensor logs, priority tagged for immediate action, and remained on station.
Point one three hours: reply transmission.
+Return to base.+
That meant Ekallim-Igigi was relocating. Verin programmed the jump and took it without further ceremony. Black-flash, and the gas giant and moon vanished, to be replaced by the great station’s receiving bay: tractor fields grabbed and immobilized him instantly, and drew him into a docking cradle. He would be treated roughly until his brain was scanned, but that was normal.
He waited dispassionately, and sipped the counter-formula to return his state of mind to something closer to normal. He would suffer for it for the rest of the day in dry mouth, jitters, restlessness and irritability, but no matter.
He had done his job.
Date Point: 19y11m2w1d AV
Judge class starship, Relic Space
Jump activity. Something small, Four peeled off two Injunctors to investigate, but guessed they would find nothing. That had been a scout returning to base.
Insufficient data to determine if they had been Human or Gao, but It didn’t matter. Her suspicions were confirmed—somebody was sniffing around the source node.
…Or some thing.
The subject of It had been gnawing at Four’s thoughts from the moment she set course. It was the only truly new variable in this time. The Humans and the Gao were formidable by the standards of organic life, perhaps even the most fearsome, uncontrolled and contrary species with which the Hierarchy had yet contended…
But It was unprecedented, and it scared her.
It was for this reason, rather than fear of any matterspace interdiction, that she slowed and approached the source node system cautiously. Minimal signature, gain on the sensors turned up so high that the random background noise made her jittery.
But it paid off. There were ships, and an orbital structure.
…Lots of ships. Lots and lots of ships. Too many to clearly count. Enough to give her the equivalent of a feeling of cold, crawling dread.
She retreated fully into her host body’s implants and did something an Agent never otherwise did: she closed off the connection to dataspace, effectively turning herself into a mattersophont. Partially blind, mostly deaf and nearly numb. The fleet was no longer an extension of her will, but a series of rather dumb robots obeying her commands. But…needs must. It was better than having her mind shredded by a uniquely terrible monster.
It came with danger, however. Her host body’s death would mean the death of this iteration of her, too. Everything she gathered from this moment on might be lost…
But that was enough dithering.
Saw that coming.
From the moment their unseen observer had quietly slipped away, the Entity had known something else must be on its way. It had hoped, perhaps, that the observer’s masters, whoever they were, might be finally coming to talk…
Since when are we an optimist?
…but it had, naturally, prepared for worse options. So, the all-too familiar signatures of Hierarchy linear drives slamming up to full power and blitzing inwards were not unanticipated at all. The number wasn’t even as great as it had expected…
Yeah, but that’s a Judge, or I’ll eat my hat.
No matter. The Entity’s swarm had been hard at work replicating, far away in its safe systems. The oncoming Judge was generating a wormhole suppressor, but its leading edge was close enough. The Entity called in some of its new heavyweight combat platforms, glad of a chance to finally test them against something.
Another precaution: it updated its mind-state in storage. Loss of contact would mean only minimal discontinuity.
Gotta love that heady feeling of existential confusion…
The Entity bade the Daemon shut up, please, and sent its outermost probes out and around, searching for the flank. Smaller contacts, Abductors most likely, broke off to screen the Hierarchy fleet’s wings.
Is it me, or was that response kinda sluggish?
Not by any matterspace lifeform’s standards, perhaps, but…yes. And try as it might, the Entity could detect no sign of any minds active in local dataspace beside itself. Which implied that the Agent was either far more skilled at evading notice than the Entity itself—unlikely—or else had locked itself down inside its host’s implants, afraid to engage in dataspace.
Let’s use that.
The fleet and the swarm met, trading extreme long-range firepower. Mostly misses, some strobing EWAR. Nothing unfamiliar to the Entity, everything was as per long-standing Hierarchy doctrine.
The probes quickly had a shield wall set up, and the Entity cycled them in and out like shoaling minnows, each one flashing forward to absorb some firepower then darting back to dissipate the heat. It worked perfectly: the Agent was too slow, failed to keep up. The contingency fleet’s firepower stuttered and hiccuped, poking rather than stabbing, never quite with fatal effect.
Still, the Agent wasn’t stupid. They tightened formation and drew their fleet into a dense defensive knot around the Judge, daring the probes to come closer and lock horns.
The Entity accepted the challenge. Its swarm coiled tighter, maintained a high transversal velocity, flickered and flashed, dashed and dazzled. Each probe was just a tiny component of a single larger unit, impossible to pick out from the mass, impossible to target, impossible to break…
At least, until the Judge decided to sink something huge and indiscriminate into the swarm’s heart.
…¡No mames! What was that?!
The Entity had no idea.
That actually fucking hurt!
Pain was an irrelevant abstraction—
Easy for you to say!
—and the Entity ignored it. It did not, however, ignore the hole in the middle of its formation where five probes had been. It dispersed the swarm, sacrificing the security of a homogenous mass for losing fewer when the Judge fired again—
—and decided that up close and personal was the solution to this.
Space combat usually happened at ranges measured in hundreds of kilometers, and speeds measured in kilometers per second. Now, the probes flashed inwards and penetrated the relatively dense ball of enemy ships, each only a few hundreds of meters from its neighbor. They fired as they accelerated closer, dopplering their firepower, and a Redactor sacrificed itself, throwing itself into the line of fire to absorb and be obliterated by the oncoming hail rather than let it hit the Judge.
Good. That helped the Entity refine some estimate of how much the Judge could handle itself.
Or maybe Agent Pendejo over there is just nervy.
Infiltrating the formation took the big gun out of the equation, unless “Agent Pendejo” was reckless enough to annihilate their own ships. It didn’t change the fact that the next several seconds were a brutal knife-fight. Even by dilating its perception of time until matterspace seemed to be running at a glacial crawl, the Entity could barely keep up enough to keep its own probes from straying into each others’ firing solutions.
The Agent, however, was stuck with biological reflexes, and despite having fewer ships, friendly fire immediately became a problem for them. The Judge’s best attempt at punishing the swarm for its proximity just resulted in an Injunctor becoming a seething cloud of plasma.
< Jubilant > “¡Vete a la chingada!”
Kill the Judge, kill the host, kill the Agent. Then this entire fleet was just high-quality salvage, resources for the probe swarm. Maybe that weapon could even be recovered inta—
< Discontinuity >
Contingency stockpile, deep interstellar space
…Well. That, clearly, had not gone according to plan.
Escalation was required.
The Nexus, Ekallim-Igigi, Relic Space
“…What is that?”
Few things propagated faster than lightspeed, and all of them involved fucking with spacetime or the underlying quantum fields.
In all Omlan’s long life, however, he’d never seen a superluminal event so…energetic.
No. That was the kind of cool understatement a Corti of the Directorate would have used. It didn’t satisfy Omlan’s Corth soul at all. He’d never seen a superluminal event so catastrophic. No purely physical event produced signals like that, not even colliding neutron stars. Somebody had just butt-fucked reality itself.
Omlan’s mother scowled at the signal. “One more very pressing reason to get the station and its inhabitants well away from this particular archive,” she replied. “What of the king?”
“He is still off-station, and will be meeting with the Great Father…soon, actually.”
“Send signal and summary. He had better be well-briefed for this. How soon until translocation?”
Omlan checked the master console. “We can emergency jump now. Minimally non-disruptive jump in…ten minutes. Routine non-disruptive jump in half an hour.”
Leifini considered. “How much disruption if we jump now?”
“We’ll be on full emergency power for seven minutes afterward to get the emergency jump capacitors charged. Life support and low gravity only for six hours.”
“…Then we shall hold off for half an hour. Our existence will not remain secret for much longer, in any case. Deploy the fleet. At the first hint of a serious force, we will jump-scatter per plan.”
“I would like to send a ship to investigate…that.” Omlan waved a hand at the fading cataclysm.
“Send probes. We cannot spare people, because we cannot guarantee a return.”
“Probes. As you wish.”
Well, that was unpleasant.
Checksum: match. No loss of experience, at least. And to the Entity’s surprise, there was still a probe in the battlespace for it to connect with.
…Yes. The one the Entity always left lurking quietly on the outskirts for exactly this reason. It reconnected. Scanned.
…You know, that’s actually not as bad as I thought it would be.
There was a debris field, anyway. The last few microseconds of sensor data from the probe swarm had suggested some exotic perturbations of matterspace’s fundamental properties. The Entity had expected devastation on a far greater scale than just some smashed metal. It could salvage that debris field, and It jumped in some replacement probes to do so. Tiny though the pieces of drifting scrap were—not so much debris as confetti—they were at least more useful than raw asteroid ore.
The Hierarchy’s contingency fleet was similarly stricken, which was a pity. It would have been nice to secure that weapon for itself.
Yeah, I was almost expecting that planet to be cracked open…but it makes sense. Big H wouldn’t kill one of those nodes any more than we would.
Indeed, though the planet below now had an apocalyptic bruise-hued storm spreading across its surface like ink dropped in water, it was very much perfectly intact, and there had been no alarming tremors through dataspace to suggest anything amiss with the node.
The Entity regretted dithering on the operation to lift the node up into orbit, though. Now, the opportunity was gone. It couldn’t build a probe capable of the lift in time before more Hierarchy forces came to secure this sector, and next time they would come in greater numbers. It briefly entertained whether the node was worth fighting for, and the resources it would expend in doing so…
…But no. Patience and caution would serve better. There would be future opportunities.
Perhaps we should let AEC know this happened, though.
Yes. A gesture of cooperation had utility. And it had been quite some time since the Entity had last paid attention to goings-on among the deathworld species…the great distraction of this node had entirely diverted its attention from the Stray Fortune and everything else. Time to correct that.
It left the probes to clean up the debris field and turned its attention back toward less empty parts of the galaxy. It had a probe near Cimbrean, there for watching and listening whenever it wished, and it now turned the drifting device’s antennae toward civilization, and tuned in to ESNN.
Curious talk of a new deep space faction arising. A lost colony of humans? Interesting, and demanding of further investigation. Lots of discussion, lots of images…and lots of rumors. Two names in particular kept springing up, names which tickled the Daemon’s memory.
Names which, when researched, left the Entity blinking in confusion, or the equivalent.
The Daemon put it best.
…What. The. Fuck.
Date Point: 19y11m2w4d AV
Clan Stoneback enclave farm, New Belfast, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
So this was the golden king of Ekallim-Igigi, First of Singularity.
…Yeah, he was a specimen, ‘fer sure. No other gao but Keeda himself was his match. Well, okay there was Guruum, pretty soon. Already well able ‘ta stand up an’ smack his Kodiak namesake around, too…but he and the others weren’t quite at Gilgamesh’s level, yet. Daar could count the number of comparable humans on one paw, too.
So the man was pretty damn impressive. But…there were comparable humans.
Adam, even now, reduced (for the moment) as he was from his former glory. Julian, who was already definitively better then Adam at his most bestest, and Firth, who shamed them all by every. Single. Measure. There were ten’gewek, too. Quite a few who could teach king Gilgamesh the meaning of athletic strength.
And Daar had wrassled ‘em all. Crushed ‘em all, easy. Not just with his sheer size, either. He had the strength in one arm to break ‘em all like twigs. He had so gods-damned much speed, they’d never know he’d caught them, never even feel it happening if he ever truly meant them violence. He had a body so fuckin’ conditioned and hard, he could flatten wrought iron or shatter granite just by jammin’ it ‘tween any muscles of his an’ flexin’. The very bestest in the galaxy couldn’t touch him unless he let them try, and nothing short of weapons was any kind of worry.
He knew all that without any ego. Daar was a monster, one that got better every single day and likely wouldn’t slow down for many decades. If all that impossible ability was to be his greatest gift, he sure as fuck weren’t gonna shy from weaponizing it against his adversaries.
Or even against maybe-friends, just so they knew where they stood. So, Daar let go of his normal prowl and caution, and let his literal truck-smashing mass do the talking as he thumped his way up to his cottage. Naydi would be by later; she was having an audience with some of the Queens. This was a meeting between males, and certain truths just had to be shown.
He ducked down and sideways through the door, and rose back to his full height. One look at Gilgamesh’s reaction told the story. The little step back, the quick re-composure that flashed across his face. The pulse-scent of fear on the air. Quick, almost undetectable…
Pecking order fucking established. And given everything, Daar wasn’t feeling all that charitable.
So, yeah. Daar stood tall, savage, and on display, all three-by-two-plus meters and all high-five hulking digits of his huge. Let Gilgamesh get a good long look at the fuckin’ absurd stud-clipped hulk of a monster he’d helped bring about. Knowing all that, feeling all that…well.
It did made it easy to smile, and to mean it, too.
“Gilgamesh of Uruk! Welcome to my home here on Folctha. I’d thought something away from the bustle might be nice, yijao?”
“Yi, Daar of Clan Stoneback.” Gilgamesh spoke excellent Gaori. “I am most grateful for your hospitality.”
They shook, hand-and-paw. Huge hands for a human. Hard and well-calloused.
Tiny in Daar’s grasp, and he made sure Gilgamesh felt it, too. Nothing too mean, but why hold back? I could crush his hand into jelly, Daar thought darkly. By accident.
But: dominant feelings aside, even against a man who had done much in dirty deeds against his people and his bestest allied friends…
Well, Daar always did want to be on cordial terms with everyone, if he could.
“Well, have a sit! Take a load off while I git some snacks ready.”
Daar bustled in the kitchen (security standing discreetly off in the corner) and, while he whacked up some cronchy veg-stuff, bent his powers of observation to the problem at hand.
Gilgamesh had the knack of leaders and confident men. He could be somewhere that obviously wasn’t made for him, obviously wasn’t of his culture or anything like it, and still he didn’t look lost. The flash of intimidation when he first got a sniff of Daar wasn’t there anymore. Good, not a pushover. Gilgamesh accepted the invitation with a graceful nod, and made himself comfortable.
Size-up time, but more properly. That tunic-skirt-thing of his looked damn practical, actually. Pockets on the inside held the technology woven invisibly into the fabric. Daar’s nose picked up the lingering whiff of ozone, a telltale of shield emitters. Other stuff, too: synthetic fibers with notes like silk. That thing was prob’ly bullet resistant.
So. Armored and shielded wherever he went, but not armed. ‘Course, against most attackers, he wouldn’t need weapons. Against those he would…well, he’d want not to fight ‘em anyway.
Daar wondered just what those old, old eyes saw when they evaluated him in turn. He hadn’t bothered with any of that stuff, of course. Daar stood in his short stud’s coat with nothing more than his habitual Bag of Many Things, which right now was safely tucked away in its cub-hole next to the spice rack. He didn’t bother with a shield, didn’t bother with any of it. All he had was a pair of deeply talented Noses in the room, against any threat of chemical attack.
So…what signal did that send? Confident. Cocky. Absolutely assured, sure. All things Daar wanted to communicate. The question, though: did Gilgamesh think that confidence merited?
“That’s quite the prize,” the human commented. He was admiring the Alpha’s skull above the fire. “Not so long ago, even an Alpha was unimpressive, but they’ve upgraded themselves rather dramatically these last twenty years.”
“You tangle with Hunters much?” Daar asked.
“Rarely. Too closely intertwined with the Great Enemy. Each contact with them was a potential breach of secrecy.”
Ah. Risk averse. Or at least cautious. An important point to note. That made sense, really. One didn’t grow that kind of old without some wariness…
“Impressive you managed ‘ta go all this time with no slipups,” Daar offered.
“A miracle,” Gilgamesh replied. “Considering how little we knew at first, we ought to have blundered into them a dozenfold times…”
Daar duck-nodded as he set the tray down on the table, then parked himself on the rug alongside. “Seems like we’ve all benefited from a share’a good luck,” he agreed. “Anyway. Hope y’aren’t expectin’ a tea ceremony. I know it arright, but it was made ‘fer smaller paws’n mine.”
“Then let us celebrate the dignity of tea without ritual, today. Yet you practice ikebana, I hear?” There was a mischievous smile.
“Ah. I see Y!’kiidaa is a gossip!”
“‘Course he is! He was quite taken with your meeting, I must say. And he has been my brother and cousin for a very long time indeed.”
“Well!” Daar chittered. “Tha’s good! I’ll need ‘ta send somethin’ ‘fer Queen Tomoe. What…season? Do you have seasons on Ekallim-Igigi?”
“We follow Earth’s northern hemisphere.”
“So a winter arrangement, then. Those can be tricky…but I like a challenge!”
“I’m sure she will appreciate the gesture, though Ikebana is an art form from after she left Earth.”
“Then I ain’t gotta be too exactin’ in my application!” Daar chittered, and picked up a winter roll. “And anyway, you brought it up, so now…there are consequences ‘fer your actions, yijao?”
Daar was proud of that one.
Glgamesh tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow. “You place barbs in unexpected places. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed something so subtly blunt in my entire life.”
Well, he took the dig with good grace. Daar gave a pleased flick of his ears, and reached for the teapot. “We’ve got much ‘ta discuss, you an’ I, both formally an’ informally. So, I’ll jus’ start with the biggest thing: lot of conflictin’ reports ‘tween what you told Wilde an’ what the Corti tell us.”
“…Yes.” Gilgamesh sighed. “This is a combination of ignorance and access. We do not and have not ever had perfect influence over the cultures we’ve quietly participated among.”
“No.” Daar poured a mug out for the king. ”But enough that something like me happened.”
“If you like, yes. We never set out to design you. That…goes against my wishes. But I could not stop the Corti, once those in the accretion disc grew sufficiently aware of the problem. I…regret that I could not curb some of that. Or that perhaps, I did not.”
Ah. A strong admission, there. “And you’re unsure of which,” Daar realized.
“…I fear so.” Gilgamesh accepted the tea with a nod of thanks. “Need has compelled us. Surely you understand how dire that could be?”
“I do. An’ the people who work ‘fer leader-types like us pretty quickly come to know our minds. There is always much we will not say that we will tolerate, when begged forgiveness.”
Daar gave him a hard look. “Let’s cut the bullshit. I know why you did what you did. I know why you let the less savory nonsense slide. I know why and how I exist. I don’t even begrudge you any o’ that, or disagree wit’ why you did it. But that does leave a big, so-far unanswered question. What essactly is it y’all want from us?”
Gilgamesh met his eye, then put the tea cup down. “Singularity exists for only one reason: the end of the Hierarchy. In secrecy, we could do little but lay the groundwork, gather intelligence, discreetly intervene here and there. We could not fight directly. Now, that changes. You have become the major players in this game. That’s a development thousands of years in the making. Meanwhile, we have cultivated talent and resources among ourselves for millennia and we know where to hit. We have intelligence, we have teams to rival First Fang or HEAT, and we have thousands of such men, trained and ready to go aboard the deadliest warships in the whole galaxy. We want to partner with you for the endgame.”
“And after?” Daar asked.
“I don’t know. I have no plans for after, beyond my own abdication from both my throne, and from life eternal. After is a matter for my heir.”
A great many things clicked into place for Daar immediately.
“Alex,” he said bluntly. “That’s why he’s here, why you’ve set him off on his own at such a young age. His role will be to dismantle Ekallim-Igigi.”
“Dismantle maybe, integrate more likely. From a certain perspective, either is much the same. A sanctuary for the elite among our kinds? Perhaps. Or perhaps that would prove unwise. It would not be for me to decide. After this war is won, Singularity’s future must be decided by a creature of this time, not a well-meaning relic like me.”
“Was he always your intended heir?”
“No. I had for a long while considered that the throne should pass out of my family entirely. Had even imagined the Soldier for the role, but…no. He is an admirable man, but…”
“Julian is no king,” Daar grumbled, and sighed. “That was awfully presumptuous of you.”
“Yes. Another reason to discard the idea. Very recently, it solidified in my mind that Alex is the perfect man for the job. He’s exceeded everything I ever hoped, and I can sense he’s got the fire to go far. Gods, I think he’ll surpass any of my kind and do it soon. Make no mistake, he is a man already, even if a very young one. So now, I must ensure he is ready. Because we will win this war, and we will use Singularity’s stores of science, people and passion to grow the galaxy past this ancient evil. We even know some of the Hierarchy’s deep fears, beyond Deathworlders. Something must assume the mantle, and that something will be us.”
Talking past the sale, Daar thought. Nice try.
Out loud, he picked up his tea again. “Fears beyond deathworlders.”
Gilgamesh picked up his as well. “This galaxy is big enough for any number of stories, but the universe? The universe is sufficiently large that anything that can happen, has already happened somewhere. So, the Hierarchy are right: the Great Devourer bears down on us, in whatever form it takes.”
“You’re sayin’ we need ‘ta be ready.”
Gilgamesh sipped his tea. “I am saying we would be…unwise…to undo all the Hierarchy’s preparations. But, surely you have discussed all of this with Y’kiidaa.”
“I have,” Daar agreed. “‘Yer perspective on it’s diff’rent. He never said nothin’ about retirin’.”
“No.” Gilgamesh stared into his cup with a complicated almost-smile, then drained it. “In any case, that is what Singularity wants. Now, I would ask you the same: What do the Gao want?”
Daar chittered, and picked up a nice peppery radish, which he cronched with satisfaction before answering. “Th’ deep truth is, the Gao wanna be left alone,” he said. “Instead we get a fuckin’ interstellar sun laser fired our way, get groomed by the Hierarchy ‘ta be their new control species, get groomed by y’all ‘ta produce somethin’ like me…”
He didn’t bother with the usual flex-posturing (and having already made his show, didn’t need to anyway), just cronched another radish. “…Yannow, I embody the Gao in a lotta ways. Or do I? Mebbe what I embody is what y’all wanted outta us. But I think what I embody about us most is, I’da happily lived out my whole life diggin’ ditches, buildin’ dams, wrasslin’ challengers an’ sirin’ cubs. Woulda been pleased as balls bein’ a big happy lanky worker, all smelly inna workhouse. So don’ git me wrong, I’m blessed an’ happy wit’ life, I ain’t regrettin’ nuthin’…”
Gilgamesh nodded. “I understand.”
“But here an’ now, bein’ left alone ain’t an option, it seems. So, we do the job in front of us. An’ right now, the job is wipin’ out the Hunters, an’ the end o’ the Hierarchy.”
“We have common purpose, then.” Gilgamesh wasn’t eating or drinking. He watched Daar intently. Again, Daar caught that faint scent of well-contained urgency. He woulda thought it was weird that someone so old and experienced would be so readable, but…well, who else had Gilgamesh ever negotiated with, in all that time? Was this the first time in five thousand years he’d not held all the tiles?
…Well, shit. Ekallim-Igigi was vulnerable. And Gilgamesh knew it. That’s why he was here right now with Daar, he’d come looking for someone he could trust.
‘Yes,” Daar cautioned, “but do we have common intent? That trust will take time.”
“Right.” Gilgamesh sighed. “I would start building that trust.”
“Then I would suggest you start with disclosure. Full disclosure. An’ I don’t jus’ mean ‘ta me an’ the allied governments an’ their people. You…do you realize what Hoeff is?”
“I have an inkling.”
“Might be wise ‘ta reach out an’ see about contacting the people he works for.”
“I thought he works for you?”
“Oh, he does. But I am not truly his master. I ain’t that deluded.”
Daar hoped Gilgamesh would catch the meaning, there. He nodded seriously, which…
Good enough for now.
“Right. So! Let’s eat,” Daar encouraged. ”I ain’t gonna let a spread this good go to waste!”
Gilgamesh chuckled and they dug in, not speaking for a moment—they were a pair of big overly-athletic hypermales, and men like them knew the value of a full belly.
Daar pondered for a bit, while he worked his way through his creations, pleased with how the winter rolls had turned out. What should he do?
On the one hand, people might question him playing buddy-buddy with the power behind a literal hidden space conspiracy. On the other…They allegedly had a full brigade worth of HEAT-grade operators, ready and waiting. He didn’t know how tested they were on actual missions, but he’d seen the reports…
Okay. There was a plan. They’d need some test and evaluation, for sure. But trust was a two-way street, and they’d need some warmth in their relationships before that happened. So, having failed to conceal a wag of his tail…
“We should go for a walk after this. After that, maybe we can play a game or two…”
Gilgamesh chuckled again. “I have been challenged many times in the recent days. And successfully, too. I might accuse you of having a point to make…”
Smug pant-grin and, balls, a nice big flex of an arm, because of course he couldn’t help himself. “Oh, I think I made that point th’ moment I walked in…”
Gilgamesh concealed his wide-eyed gawp very well. Just a quick flash, then back to normal.
Didn’t quite conceal it in his voice, though. “…Perhaps so.”
“Mhmm”. Daar rumbled, pleased with himself. But, friend time now! “Anyhoo, I’m not a total asshole, I swear! So how about a game just ‘fer the joy of it? Somethin’ not many can play at all.” He sat back and pant-grinned even wider. “You ever hear of somethin’ called…Gravball?”
Date Point: 19y11m2w5d AV
Belize City, Belize, Central America, Earth
Six woke to the sound of knocking, and the chipper sing-song of his cleaning lady letting herself in. “Gud maanin, doctuh Flowers!”
He opened eyes that felt almost glued shut, groaned at the pain in a neck that had been lolled over back of his office chair, scrubbed some dried drool off his jaw—human bodies were disgusting—and then uttered a rather more heartfelt groan as the hangover made itself known.
His office door opened, and Elena bustled in the way she always did. She paused upon seeing the state of him. “Cho! You bin let yesself go!”
Six waved a hand at her, and tapped—sluggishly—into Flower’s entrapped personality matrix both for a reply to that and, more crucially, for a translation. “I’m fine, Elena…Just…just…” No suitable lie presented itself, so he settled for trailing off, groaned, and stood. “Maybe you’re right. Yes. I’ll…go for a walk, I think.”
“Goaan an showah first, ‘fore you reek up di neighborhood…” she bustled out of the room grumbling, and moments later the rattle and clatter of her breaking out the contents of the cleaning cupboard stabbed through Six’s stolen brain.
He followed her advice though, and slunk into his bedroom where clothes that hadn’t been changed in…two days? Three? Whatever. He did Elena the small courtesy of stuffing all the other clothes into the laundry hamper too, and then slipped into his en-suite shower room.
He caught a look at himself in the mirror. She was right, he had let his appearance deteriorate. Tomasz Flowers had always prized himself on being a neat, well-presented and handsome man. Right now, Six looked haggard. He’d let the doctor’s beard grow unkempt, hadn’t washed or combed his hair, hadn’t exercised properly so that a little flab was starting to creep in around the edges.
He’d been too distracted by the matter of this new…faction…to properly take care of himself. A hitherto unknown colony of humans out in deep space? Their leaders claiming to be figures from Human and Gaoian legend? Reports of families all over the Earth being outed as some kind of infiltrators?
Not the Hierarchy’s work. He’d been putting together a network in his head, of how the new information interacted with the known, and was finding that an alarming number of tiny discrepancies, coincidences and strange observations made by the agents assigned to Earth over the years were neatly wrapping themselves together.
That’s what he’d been doing last night, up until he passed out: drinking, and researching.
At least the shower helped. The headache faded a bit, the kink in his neck for sleeping upright in an office chair soothed out. By the time he stepped out of the shower, he felt at least ready to take some painkillers, go for a walk, and give Tomasz Flowers’ body the exercise it was screaming for.
…A run. Yes. He found clean shorts and a clean shirt, waved a comb vaguely at his scalp, and decided he’d go find a barber to properly clean him up later in the afternoon. Elena gave him a look up and down as he grabbed some paracetamol and juice in the kitchen, made a grudging ‘it’ll do’ sort of noise, and shouldered past him to grab the laundry.
Six made a mental note to tip her a little extra this week. And of course, he’d need to spend the next couple of days being an ordinary dentist, to maintain his cover. That was always dull and grotesque work, but if he was to ever have any hope of returning to usefulness, he needed the resources and anonymity his day job provided.
At least it was a nice morning. Quite cool, by local standards, with a fresh breeze off the ocean. He found a steady rhythm, and was soon making good time along Marine Parade Boulevard. He’d go as far as the lighthouse, then come back along the north side of the creek.
As always, there were tourists on the point. Taking selfies in front of the big rainbow “BELIZE” sign, grabbing food from the nearby snack shacks, sitting around the painted park tables…one particularly incredible specimen of a short man in bright pink swim briefs, chatting up several women…
Accompanying them, though, was the crawling, gnawing feeling of being watched. It was an impossible sensation to describe, something no other species of Six’s experience had at all. He’d certainly never identified which sensory organ it was that allowed the human body to detect such a thing, but it was tangible, and instinctive.
Maybe that was just the hangover and his mood from last night lingering. Still, the feeling bothered him and Six had learned to trust the Human subconscious. Besides, the running was hard going and he was out of shape. Maybe he could—
A man fell in alongside him, too Caucasian to be a local of any kind, and far too…too—
Same pink speedo. Shit! Six attempted to abandon host and flee immediately, back to his Abductor, but there was of course a planet-wide wormhole suppression field. Only, right now, it was localized and overpowering, which could only mean one thing.
The man jogging alongside him growled in low, quiet tones as though he was standing still. “Now I know I look good as fuck hangin’ out like this, but you and I got business, doctor. Don’t bother runnin’ either, ‘less you wanna get crushed. I’m fast as fuck.”
Another man up ahead, anonymous behind sunglasses and the kind of baseball cap they sold to tourists. When Six glanced over his shoulder, he saw a third falling in behind them in trainers and an unbuttoned shirt. None of them looked armed…
He stopped jogging, suddenly acutely aware that they’d picked their moment well. Nobody local was currently close enough to oversee or overhear them.
“If you know what I am, then you know you wouldn’t stand a chance against me.”
The squat, hairy mountain of a man knew how to intimidate. He tensed just up enough to make a very physical point, rolled his brutishly heavy neck and bounced with disconcerting lightness on his sinewy legs, each easily as wide as Six’s chest. “Wrong. I’d put my muscle up against your nanotech infestation any fuckin’ day. But as much as I’d love to punch my fist right through your heart, I’d rather not ruin your current victim.”
“My ‘current victim’ drowned out by those atolls over there, quite without my assistance,” Six sighed, and tried to will his body into slowing its breath and pulse. “I simply…salvaged him. So. I suppose it’s back to a cell in Alaska? That’s where you keep biodrones, isn’t it?”
The human operative simply gave him an uninterested look. “Number?”
There was no point in lying or playing coy. No point in resisting at all, really. “Six.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “…No shit? Six himself! Hell of a catch we got here, boys!” He tilted his head and stared a hole right through Six’s awareness. “But this two-bit shit? Not gonna lie, it was pretty retarded of you to come back to Earth.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You’re the one planet in the galaxy where I feel quite sure I’ll be well treated.”
“We do try to be hospitable. So lemme ask you, then: what the fuck are you doing with your life, if that’s even the right word?”
Six sighed and looked around, reflecting that this might well be the last time he ever got to enjoy warm air and an ocean breeze. “…I was enjoying my retirement.”
“Bullshit. You were falling the fuck apart, team’s been watchin’ you ‘fer weeks.”
“Some habits are hard to let go of, especially when they’re the habits of millennia. I suppose it was my obsession with this ‘Singularity’ that proved my undoing?”
The too-handsome man shrugged his beachball sized shoulders. “I dunno. I don’t play the big-brain games. Ain’t my kind o’ entertainment.”
“Hmm.” Six looked wistfully back toward the point, and wondered briefly if they’d allow him to have some tamales before they whisked him away. Probably not, alas. “I knew I should have left well enough alone, but…well, the urge to put the pieces together proved too strong.”
“Funny, that. Lotsa puzzling goin’ on these days.”
“You don’t seem the puzzling type.”
“Nah,” the man shrugged again, and scratched at his vast slab of a chest. “I’m only here in case you decided to play hard to get.”
“No.” Six shook his head. “No point.”
“Aww, killin’ all my fun…” he said, ominously. “Anyway. Onto business.”
“Of course, business. Y’think we’d have bothered with the meet-and-greet if all we wanted was to capture you? Or if we wanted you dead? A simple bullet woulda solved the last problem, once we found your ship. Whole lotta sight lines leading into your villa…sloppy. Mouse here coulda serviced you twenny times yesterday.”
Six’s only reply was a defeated, listless shrug.
“Right. So lemme just…draw you a picture. Everyone likes pictures, right? So here you are, magnificent bastard an’ all, half-million years old or whatever. ‘Cept now some uppity monkeys went and trapped you planet-side. We found both your ships—”
Six stared at him, face slack. He’d hidden one of them under the arctic ice cap.
The overmuscled grunt grinned maliciously. “Thought so. So we found both your ships. Dataspace is inaccessible from here. Hell, these days it’s inaccessible almost everywhere. Not that you’d be able to break through the jamming with those wimpy lil’ implants you got. You couldn’t manage the deed even with the full-power relay on your ship! So, considerin’ all that, I’d say we pretty much own ‘yer digital ass. That about sum it up?”
“Do not gloat, it’s not becoming a victor.”
“I ain’t gloating. I’d be doing that as I slowly broke your body apart with these here hands o’ mine. God, I’d have so much fun. You and yours have hurt people I care about. But I ain’t gonna get to play today, am I?”
“I can, at least, choose to ignore whatever physical pain you inflict on me.”
“Oh, don’t you worry. We’ve got ways around that.” The short man came closer, reached up and palmed the back of Six’s head with a massive, hard-calloused hand. The man found a grip, then squeezed hard. The most intense agony flashed into Six’s awareness before he could nullify the sensation, which seemed to amuse his tormentor. The powerful man gave a vicious lopsided grin and slowly pulled Six down to face level, knocking him right off his feet. He tried to escape, tried his full nanite-enhanced strength, but the short wall of a man held him dead in place with absolutely no effort at all.
Just how massive was he, to root himself so firmly to the ground? Six relaxed, openly fearful and surrendering to the futility of it.
This seemed to please the man, who slowly pulled Six closer, very close. He again tried to resist, tried pushing against his assailant, but he was hopelessly weak against him. “Told ‘ya you were a little bitch. You sure you don’t wanna play? We’d have so much fun, you an’ I.”
Suddenly, that hand bore down on Six’s head and neck with so much force, he felt his body go limp. The man effortlessly held him aloft, head held firm in a grip so immovably powerful, his mighty arm didn’t dip in the slightest under Six’s substantial weight, under high Deathworld gravity. With a playful, almost sensual growl right next to his ear, “Let me show ‘ya. Please.”
“…I believe you. I will not resist. I am, as you say, yours to do with as you please.”
“Really blue-ballin’ me here. Fine. You and I ain’t gonna have fun.” The short man let go and stepped back, while Six collapsed to the ground. “So how’d you like to be useful instead?”
Six froze, trying to process that statement. The hairy monster of a muscleman simply stood there and looked down at him, blank-faced and powerful, waiting for his answer.
Eventually, Six said the only thing he could.
Date Point: 19y11m2w5d AV
The Nexus, Ekallim-Igigi, Relic Space
“That probe swarm troubles me.”
Leifini had been watching it pretty much from the day it first showed up in orbit above the archive, and now she watched as a squadron of its constituent units sifted through the fine, shredded debris of what had been a fleet. Not that its existence was a surprise, of course. Singularity had some limited insight into the goings-on in dataspace, and this…entity was the object of sufficient concern among the Igraens to have become known to them. Even so, its nature and intent were obfuscated.
Queen Rekhetre in particular had been following it with great interest. “Do you still believe we should not make contact?”
“It’s a Devourer,” Leifini pointed out. “It may not be as malignant as our worst fears, but that could change at any time.”
“It clearly has objectives beyond devouring,” Rekhetre retorted. “A Devourer wouldn’t research an archive, it would just take it apart for resources. And it certainly wouldn’t follow the Stray Fortune around like a dolphin. No, there is more to this thing than blind replication.”
“That just makes it more dangerous. And besides: It’s a dataform. Our core objective is the destruction of its entire universe, which will necessarily mean killing it. How can we possibly make peaceful contact?”
“You’re too cautious, Leifini,” Queen Birgitta said, quietly. She’d always been a quiet one, in stark contrast to the other queens. She rarely spoke at all, Leifini had never heard her raise her voice…but somehow that just meant that when she did speak, the rare sound of her high, soft voice cut cleanly through and had presence.
“Caution has been our salvation from the very first day,” Leifini replied.
“Times change.” Birgitta said. “And sometimes, you have to take a risk to learn more. You know that.”
Rekhetre nodded fervently. “Did our husband and Lord Keeda not teach you so themselves? You make too many assumptions, old friend. Just because you cannot imagine peaceful contact with this thing does not make it impossible. You only assume it must be an enemy: its actual motives are its own.”
“We want it dead,” Leifini objected. “However friendly it may be—”
“We don’t,” Birgitta interrupted her, still quietly.
“We are embarked on a course that will inevitably result in it being a collateral casualty if we succeed,” Leifini adjusted her wording. “It does not matter how friendly or agreeable it may be, there is no possible alliance in such circumstances, and communication will only serve to alert it. No: until the Triumvirate have discussed the matter, it shall remain uncontacted.”
The two queens looked at each other and held one of those silent, seemingly telepathic human non-conversations, then Birgitta sighed and nodded concedingly. “Jag förstår. Is there any news on…how is my son doing?”
“Prince Alex is well looked-after,” Leifini assured her. “I believe the ambassador is helping him secure formal clothing, today.”
Rekhetre laughed. “Ah! This modern garb that flatters and conceals all at once. At least the fabric is fine stuff.”
“He will need it. The people of Earth and Cimbrean are more…reserved…than we are about such things.”
“And yet they set aside beaches and hedged gardens for people to enjoy themselves…less reservedly. They are very contrary,” Rheketre laughed again. “Oh well. I suppose he cannot help but look handsome in it.”
Birgitta smiled, then stood and took Rhektre’s hand. “Yes he will. Good. Thank you, Leifini.”
Leifini nodded her head as the two queens departed, and returned her attention to the feed from the drones. They were gathering good data about what, exactly, had been deployed to reduce the Hierarchy fleet to such fine rubble. It seemed to have been a self-destruct, possibly.
Considering its effect on the planet’s atmosphere, she wondered about its exact nature and operation. They would need to know: devastation like that could destroy Ekallim-Igigi outright, and that was not an acceptable power to leave encountered.
She considered the replicator, and wondered whether there may not be some merit in contacting it after all. It had been closer to the epicenter of the blast, it might be persuaded to share, if…
…No. No, that thing was exactly the sort of thing that Singularity would have to take over protecting the galaxy from, once the Hierarchy was finished. There was nothing to be gained from talking to it. At least, that was what she kept reminding herself. In her belly, though…
She had doubts.
Date Point: 19y11m3w AV
Weaver dropship, low Cimbrean orbit, the Far Reaches
CPL Hunter (Gonzo) Thompson
Fully-trained, full mission-size, full-on ready to do this. Full certification was just one drop and one training evolution away, his capstone exercise before he was fully HEAT mission capable.
“You ready for this?” Kiwi hit him on his helmet with a skull-ringing slap, the kind of affectionate love tap HEAT gave among themselves as they checked out to jump.
“Dude, fuck yeah! I wanna smash this fuckin’ exercise an’ get to fuckin’ stompin’!”
“Customs an’ courtesies,” Righteous grumbled, half-heartedly. “You’re a corporal now, yeah, but you still don’t git ‘ta refer to a superior as dude.”
Righteous gave him a sideways grin. God it felt amazing to get that from the big man. Gonzo had been training like a demon the last year to memorize everything, learn every move, cram every ounce of muscle on his frame he could. He didn’t just want to be on-team. He wanted to be the best he possibly could. Everyone did of course, but with ‘Horse gone, well…
So this was it. Get through this and he was fully qualified, a year early and as a lowly corporal, to boot! That’d be a fuck of a thing. They’d promote him to sergeant right away too, just as soon as they could.
Just, y’know. Gotta jump out of a spaceship doing mach twenty, first.
And this was a big jump for another reason, too. It was Yan’s first full exoatmospheric HELLNO in his new Mass. The big guy looked like a tank with a tail when all armored up, and he’d gone with a fearsome set of fangs for a mask decal. Pretty badass!
He’d learned some tricks with that armored tail, too. Hunter had got smacked in the chest with it a couple times, and each hit had felt like being slammed by a fuckin’ anvil. All that extra weight from the armor, and Yan could still flick it around like it was bare to the air, too. Like he didn’t even notice it was there.
There were a few others on today’s training drop. Baseball (in case they broke themselves), Yogi, Bentley, Campbell to redeem himself—
“Try not to blow out your eardrums again, Soup.” Righteous’s shit-eating grin was huge.
Campbell took it with good humor. “Thank you, I will surely try. Anyway. Masks on, seal up.”
Gonzo was paired up with Yan, and tended to his seal checks. Ten’gewek heads were quite gorilla-like in shape, so his helmet was less a bucket and more of a basket, which clicked in firmly at the front, under his jaw brace. He ran his fingers along every joint, feeling for any of the seal pins protruding out. It had been a long suit-up day. Before they’d got to this part, Gonzo had helped the big guy slick down his wild crest with more or less a tub of Vaseline, then helped him worm his way into the undersuit. No help from the techs on this jump, this was hard mode.
In a way, he had it worse than even the gaoians. Sure, fur could be annoying, but his crest stood two goddamn feet up all by itself from head to tail-tip. It made him look like a mini kaiju! Add on those thick stompy legs of his and the weight of his tail, which made him stoop forward quite a bit, that ten’gewek in general and him in particular were way broad and deep in the upper body, and that he was strong like Righteous nowadays, except compressed down over a foot…
Yeah. Too bad “Kong” was already taken by Ferd. They hadn’t found a really good one for the big cave yeti just yet. They would, though. It was Law, or something.
…‘Yeti’ was pretty good, actually. Might have to float that one later. Anyway. Mind on the job.
The suits cycled through their test programs, declared themselves good. Then to the back of the weaver while the jumpmaster put up the crew’s air forcefield and depressurized the back. It took a few seconds, but Hunter could hear the air going, in the way things got sorta…thin and tinny, then gone entirely. It left only the sound of his air going click-hiss past his ears, and the muffled thud of his own step coming up through his body.
Nobody’s hand or paw was up to signal distress, so…good!
“On the ramp.”
They stacked up, each man with a hand on his buddy’s back. The weaver’s rear ramp yawned open and, yup. There was Cimbrean. Really big, and really below them. Really close, but at the same time it was a long way down.
God, HELLNO jumps were a fuckin’ rush!
Campbell led the way out. A half-beat behind him was Yogi, then Burgess, then Kiwi, then Yan…then it was Hunter’s turn. Push forward, out through the edge of the weaver’s g-field and into freefall. The idea was to be at least a few hundred meters apart by the time they hit atmo, so nobody could fall into his buddy’s turbulent wake. They could come back into a tighter formation again after the “ball of fire” stage was over.
They didn’t touch their maneuvering packs. For a few seconds they drifted slowly away from the weaver, then suddenly it applied thrust and was gone into the distance as the pilot pulled out of their delivery dive.
Next step was, sadly, to roll over and face away from the planet. Nice as the view was, the Mass’ shield emitters for this were along the spine, and pretty soon there’d be nothing to see in front but plasma anyway. So…he watched the stars instead.
After a minute or so, Firth rumbled over the net. “Kinda makes you wanna kick back an’ relax, don’t it?”
“Sure does,” Hunter agreed. He had a sudden mental image of stretching out, cupping his hands behind his head, crossing his ankles and lying there like he was sunbathing or something but…no.
“Yup…ten minutes to fireball. You got any yellow lights in your suit at all, you mention it now.”
Hunter’s own HUD was a nice happy green all over, and nobody else spoke up. He tapped his wrist and checked in on Yan. All green.
On a private channel, “You okay, big guy?”
Yan grunted. “Yes. Am…maybe a bit nervous for flip maneuver. Nobody do it with big tail before.”
“I hear ‘ya. But you got this, big guy. You and Righteous are the strongest guys on team! If anyone’s got the muscle to do this it’s you.”
The rest…went textbook. Brace position, slam into the atmosphere and ride the ten-plus gees of vicious deceleration. Nothing was as physically exhausting as a full-speed send like this; the vets said it was even worse than the Dark Eye climb for sheer physical effort. All of team one could manage a “full send” now…
But God. It went on, and on, and on…
When the full body pummeling finally started to get easier—and what a fuckin’ relief that was—came the flip maneuver, which demanded much more strength. As the Gs died off and the plasma envelope faded away, Hunter had to force out his limbs, already tight and sore from the effort of hugging them close to his core, and use them to twist himself over until he was belly-down again. Now he had to hold his arms and legs out as wide as he could, and not get folded in half by the still incredible wind. This phase lasted even longer, suit pumping his body full of energy and combat drugs all the while, but it was necessary if they were to hit the ground as fast as they could manage, to inflict maximum devastation.
And to think, the forcefields were doin’ most of the work. Holy shit.
They dropped through the sound barrier. Legs in, fall like a needle, while the shields carefully modulated and slowed their descent to final impact speed a mere three meters above ground.
Hunter had his target in the reticle from three hundred meters up. They weren’t aware of what was coming. He hit like a meteor, left a crater with his target smashed flat in the bottom, and he was running full-tilt into the fight before his downward motion had stopped.
It was a long training day, nearly twelve hours of non-stop all-out exertion, and the debrief came while they were still pulling each other out of their Mass. No techs this time either, ‘cuz knowing how to don and remove the Mass was a skill they had to be able to do for themselves. Hard mode until the end and their blessed shower, and sauna, and that glorious ice tub…
Well, Yan didn’t like the ice tub so much. Though he did use it to clean the taste of their performance drink out of his mouth.
“Taste like…ugh. Taste unnatural.”
“Like a lime shoved its cock into your mouth, right?” Firth grinned.
“Wouldn’t know how that tastes,” Yan grumbled. “Too busy shoving mine down throats.”
Kiwi coughed his water up and through his nose, while Righteous just grinned, unwilling to lose this particular game. “Bullshit. You an’ I are way too much man ‘fer that!”
“Ten’gewek are strong! You should try sometime! Deep, tight… Maybe too tight for you!”
Oh God. Not an image Hunter particularly wanted.
“Man, I ain’t puttin’ my cock anywhere near a ten’gewek mouth. Y’all’d crush it fuckin’ flat, an’ don’t even get me started on those serrated goddamn steak knives y’all got for teeth!”
“Yeah, there’s that… but Yan’s also got a two-foot long prehensile tongue…”
Approving and well-considered nods all around, while Yan trilled smugly. “Too bad for you, then! Also not only two-foot thing I have. Maybe I try one of you tonight, fill you nice and full…”
“Bullshit, you ain’t that big. Not even Righteous is that fuckin’ huge and he’s the fuckin’ king!”
“How you know? You never see me excited…yet.”
“Keep it in your pants,” Righteous grumbled. “And don’t test him, you horny idjits. I don’t know ‘bout no two foot or whatever, ‘cuz I’m still the fuckin’ record-holdin’ king ‘till proven otherwise—”
“Daar?” Irish suggested to rowdy catcalls.
“He don’t fuckin’ count!” Jeers and cheers all around. “Dude literally outweighs bull elephants. An’ anyway, ten’gewek are fuckin’ prehensile. So don’t. An’ don’t ask me why, I ain’t god.”
Everyone shut up and blanked at that sudden entirely unwanted revelation, while Yan simply grinned the world’s smuggest grin, and went in for the kill. “Is good! I can fit myself nice and snug into any size hole…”
Everyone let loose with laughter, because what the fuck else could you do?
“Jesus,” Campbell noted. “Y’all are the raunchiest motherfuckers I’ve ever fuckin’ met, and I was an infantry grunt in the US Fuckin’ Marines.”
“Musta been tame ‘lil fellas!”
Campbell grinned. “Hardly.”
There were chuckles, and Hunter ducked his head under the water. He was finally starting to feel the urge to climb out, which meant he was over the ‘heat hump’ that came after de-suiting. But, the techs always said to wait until he was shivering, so…
No matter. That didn’t take long. Pretty soon he was out of the water and, yeah, dog fuckin’ tired and sore, but in that way that felt good. Time to eat. Not exactly gourmet shit, but considerin’ it was basically a finely calibrated nutritional package keyed to his exact needs in that moment, the fact it tasted half decent at all was probably a blessing.
Or maybe it only tasted half decent ‘cuz he was really goddamn hungry. Whatever.
He was still shoveling it in his face hole as fast as it could go when Campbell dropped down next to him with Yan. “Alright. You two, time to get pretty. There’s a big important-people meeting. Yan already knows ‘cuz he’s important people allegedly—”
Yan flashed a grin with a massive set of fangs, which was sort of the ten’gewek equivalent of amusement and a happy threat at the same time.
“—and your Marine chai boys have asked for your assistance, Gonzo.”
“Hey! They’re not anything like that! We’re just good friends!”
Yan had the best pile-on. “You a big man! Should test their throats, tell me if any good!”
“No, Yan. Do not violate the embassy guards. Unless they ask real nice.”
“But Hunter can?”
“He got there first and got to fight hunters with them all butt naked and stuff. He’s earned it.”
“Oh,” Yan nodded sagely. “Very good. Earned his women!”
“Hush, you. And I was only half naked! Sir. Hell, you were there!”
“Yes, and I’ll never forget it,” Campbell chuckled. “Now get ready you two. Everyone else, it’s gym time!”
Everyone but Firth and Burgess groaned. Those two just grinned at each other and stood up, not even hiding their eagerness to go smash records. “Shit, it’s about time.” Burgess clapped Hunter on the shoulder as he ambled past. “Have fun sewin’ ‘yer uniform.”
Hunter’s slight relief at getting out of gym time was instantly shattered. Oh yeah. He was gonna have to modify his dress. Hadn’t worn it in almost a year and, well…he was HEAT, so naturally he was a lot bigger now.
Yan had it easy. All he had to do was wear a pretty loin cloth, once they got his crest standing up again.
Oh well, such was life. And Hunter had to admit…going to a christmas party at the palace was probably gonna be worth it. He grinned, and headed up to the barracks for his sewing kit, troubles and aches and tiredness forgotten. Thank God the HEAT’s new uniforms were stretchy and tailored with big-ass men in mind.
Time to look fancy.
Date point: 19y11m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Alex, Prince of Ikallim-Igigi
“…This is a weird feeling,” Alex confided, as he looked at himself in the mirror.
“Oh?” The ambassador met his eyes with a grin. “Which part?”
“Somehow…I feel more naked in these than I would standing actually naked.”
“Ha! Yeah. They’re a bit showy on their own, huh? But I’m pretty sure you won’t be prancing about in just your underwear for tonight’s shindig, so…”
“Do I really have to dress up for this?”
“Yes. Now don’t make yourself hate it before you’ve even tried.”
The thing was, other than the clothes, he was looking forward to this “Christmas ball.” No matter where you went in Folctha you could see the alien palace up on the hill, with the Governor-General’s residence beside it. They were even more lit up than the city now. He’d seen photos of previous years’ balls, and they looked really nice! And fun!
But the clothes were everything he didn’t want. Especially these stupid underwear! They seemed to just draw attention in a way that he somehow…didn’t want right now.
“I’m pretty sure they made them like this on purpose,” he accused.
“Heh. Yeah probably, but you need them so you don’t show through. And speaking of…quit admiring yourself and hike up those pants! The waistband comes to just below your belly button.”
Alex took one last look in the mirror. His hair was combed back. Not tamed, but brought to some order. Julian had helped him with that and done the same to himself. Apparently his own hair also refused to slick back nice like it did with the twins, and any attempt to contain it made it worse. Though Alex had to admit, he did look kind of cool with his mane combed out nice…
The rest was sort of annoying, though. Everything was custom, much to the pretty tailor girl’s—Alice!—bubbly amusement. Custom socks, to fit his big wide feet properly. Garters attached to them, and he didn’t even know what they were for. Even the underwear, which, again…what was the point? They were so thin they almost weren’t there. Not even a waistband! Whatever. It wasn’t uncomfortable, in fact they felt kinda nice how they sorta, uh, held everything in place, so…
He looked down. Trousers. They looked so confining. He didn’t wanna.
But Julian just grinned.
He picked out the black pair, first. Slid them up, button around waist…
Well, okay. That wasn’t so bad. He moved around, kicked a leg out. Didn’t pull or squeeze at all, which surprised him. Okay! So next he tried to stretch, then feeling more confident, dropped down and did a split…
He grinned, “they’re really stretchy!”
“Right?! Marvels of modern fabric. Big three-dimensional fellas like us need it! Now try the rest on. Once you’ve done that, pull on an undershirt and we’ll get you put together properly.”
Like the underwear, the undershirt was thin and clingy (and a bit too show-offy) supposedly so it wasn’t visible from the outside. Then the regular shirt, which looked thicker than it really was and hugged close too. It stretched a bit, thankfully. Buttons, which he hated. Buttoned up almost to the top. Garters clipped to shirt—ah! That was what they were for. That felt weird though. Then pants again, and then a belt. Barely felt like it was there. Then shoes that fit perfectly—
“Take a look in the mirror, buddy.”
The moment of truth. Alex took a deep breath and turned, fully expecting to look as ridiculous as he felt…
He had to move his head slightly to be certain he was looking at himself. But…yeah. The clothes…well, they did a lot of things. They fit him perfectly, which was so different from all the weird ceremonial garb he’d had to wear at one point or another. Most of that was just a big pile of fabric that got wrapped around him in different ways. This, though? It fit his shoulders and waist, it fit his rear and legs. Showed off without showing off, somehow! He looked sleek. But not just sleek. Hulky and sleek. Showed his neck off too, but only enough to make a point.
…He kinda liked it. Hell, he looked like he was in a movie or something!
Julian knew, too. “And that’s just a shirt and pants. Let’s add the rest. So…last button, tie…”
The look changed, with the jacket on. It was more…subtle. But it made him look bigger without looking like it was trying to do that. He never knew there was magic in fabric!
“Alright. Three buttons, remember this rule: sometimes, always, never, except maybe if you’re posing for a photograph or whatever. There’s also some optional vests we’re gonna add for when you gotta be extra fancy. And then there’s morning dress. That’s the real monkey suit.”
They worked through it all, and…yeah. Morning dress was ridiculous. Braces instead of a belt, which he liked better…but it was just more. Way too many parts that didn’t even need to be parts. Why the hell was the collar separate from the shirt?
He did like the top hat, though! Well, “opera hat,” apparently. It folded up pretty neat!
“You won’t get to wear the hat too much, though. It’s usually just for the fourteen seconds you’re outside in the public. And evening dress is mostly the same except for a few bits, like the pants and the vest. Waistcoat, they call it around here.”
“That seems like a waste…”
“Look, I had to get a crash course in this stuff myself, and not just from Tristan and Ramsey. There’s an entire culture around this, and you either have to be born into it or shown the ropes. I don’t…wanna play that game, so we’ve got a great local tailor who makes all the right stuff, and as far as I’m concerned I’d rather do business with good people than…whatever.”
“That makes sense…” Alex said, looking in the mirror and somehow instinctively knowing exactly how to adjust his cuff to make it look good. Felt better under the jacket, too.
“It’s like uniforms, I think.” Julian noted. “It all does the same thing. Shows who is on what team, y’know? Anyway, as a dude you don’t get a lot of leeway on what you can and can’t wear. It really is a uniform for us. But you do get to choose a couple things, like your cufflinks and a watch, sometimes. Maybe a chain under the shirt. Those get pretty expensive though, so for now you can pick from mine. I’ve got a few that are pretty neat.”
“Father doesn’t have anything like this to wear…won’t he look out of place tonight?”
“Not at all. The way these things go, you are either in formal attire, or national costume. He can claim that and nobody will bat an eye. Lots of lecherous old women will appreciate the view too…and there’s strategy there.”
“Why can’t I claim it?”
“…Okay.” Julian got down on a knee, like he always did when he wanted to talk Serious. “I’ll just say it directly. You are much too much man with too young a face for anyone to really feel too comfortable with that. It feels exploitative, because you are, well, grown well beyond your years in most ways…but not all of them. There’s a lot of…uh, taboos, because evil people exist, and your version of the costume would be only slightly better than buck naked. You do not want to attract attention like your dad likely intends tonight, to state the totally obvious.”
“So…” Okay. “I’m doing this to, what? Make a bunch of old people feel better?”
“Yes, partly. There’s also the whole Line of Heroes thing and it is very much not in your interest to flex and strut and remind everyone of just what Ekallim-Igigi has been up to.”
“Because I’m well-grown.”
“Because you’re built exactly like a twelve-year-old Beef, which wasn’t a thing that existed until you showed up. It’s about discretion, my slabby young friend. Trust me, it’s an important skill. I’ve had to practice it all my life because I’ve always been extreme somehow, and now that I’m biggest human ever behind Firth? I need all that soft-footed, quiet ability just so people ain’t instantly afraid of me. Like I said…lots of attention you don’t want to draw in this situation.”
Alex scowled at his reflection, suddenly feeling a lot less comfortable than he already had been. “…I don’t like that.”
“No, and it isn’t fair. Believe me, I get it. So here’s the thing: use it to your advantage.”
“I suppose…I guess there’s another side to it, too, huh?” Alex guessed.
“Yeah. You are very mature and level-headed for a twelve year old, and people pick up on that. Honestly, you’re all but a man already and that is going to put a lot of people off-balance. Use it. Technically you and I aren’t on the same team, but fuck that. I want you to do well.”
“I was just thinking…Father hasn’t been quiet to me about his plans. About…retiring. He talks a lot about my future and what I’m going to inherit…”
“So you’ve had to do a lot of growing up very quickly.” Then there was a devilish smile. “No wonder you’re sweet on her! Goin’ in for an older girl!”
Alex grinned, “shut up!”
Julian chuckled. “Good to know you’re still a kid in the important ways…”
Alex felt his ears going red, but didn’t object. He looked himself up and down in the mirror again. It was a strange look, yes…but not a bad one. “…He also said I’m going to have to be my own king. I can’t do it all the same way he did. Maybe this is part of it?”
“Maybe. I think what he wants from you is to be your own man, and see things your own way. That’s why I think he sent you here.” Julian paused then stood up.
“Something else, and this is important. I’m pretty fond of you already, so are the boys, so are Al and Xiù…you’ve been a very welcome guest in our house these last couple weeks and we’re all gonna be sad to see you move on, even if it’s just down the street into your own house. But at the end of the day, we are not necessarily on the same team. If you’re going to be a king, you will always need to remember that.”
Alex nodded, and wondered if Julian knew just how much he’d resembled father in that moment…
It passed. Julian grinned, “but that’s all shit you ain’t gotta worry about too much, yet. You’re only twelve, remember? Take advantage! Even if you’re smart enough to see the world with older eyes. And make friends! I don’t…really think you’ll fit in with anyone exactly your age. But there’ll be plenty of slightly older kids around tonight, yijao? You’ll probably be the center of attention. Be happy! Heck, show off, even! And who knows? Vemik might be there, too.”
“Everyone keeps mentioning him…” Alex resisted the urge to fuss with his own hair. “You really think…? I mean, I met the ten’gewek who were with Ian when they came to Ekallim-Igigi, and they’re interesting but I don’t know if I really had anything in common with them…”
Julian chuckled, and put the last finishing touches on his own outfit. Alex had to admit…he cut an impressive figure. It both…well, it tamed him, and at the same time made him look more dangerous.
Alex looked in the mirror. And sure enough…it did the same to him, too. Cool!
Maybe these Earth clothes weren’t so bad after all.
“As to Vemik,” Julian said, with one last little wiggle as he slipped on his shoes…
“…You’ll see,” he promised.
Date Point: Christmas Eve, 19y11m3w AV
Alien Palace, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Today was a big day for the humans, where they had a big celebration for the gods. To Vemik, that made it a good time to celebrate his friend and sky-family as they moved on to another mission. He knew it wasn’t the last he’d see of Jooyun, Awisun and Shyow or their children, but it was still a big moment, and they deserved a party.
And it was fun! There were lots of colorful decorations! And food, and ham—a big ham, glazed in honey, that tasted so good even from across the room that Vemik kinda wanted to just grab the whole thing and claim it as his…
…and spicy drinks and presents! And happy drunk people and fake snow (he’d never got to see the real stuff. Maybe one day!) and a fat, bushy tree with bright decorations all over it, and a small group of humans sitting in the corner behind a rope weaving music out of fine and well-crafted instruments…even the humans on guard looked fancy!
Humans were strange, but everything they made, they made well and with skill.
Well. Nearly everything. That big white beard and floppy red hat Governor Sirjermee had on looked bad, but the way he wore it made Vemik think that was the joke.
For their part, Vemik and Singer, Ferd and Yan had figured out some clothes that were still theirs but that humans wouldn’t find uncomfortable. A bit more and wider and longer (and better made) than the usual flap of hide over their loins, and the Singer had found a nice supple neyma skin for her chest, because humans were weird about breasts…but why, though?! They all liked them!
Well, at least nobody was staring now, which was nice. But Vemik couldn’t tell if that was because they were finally getting used to the People…
Or if it was because of the really big and pretty human with the curly beard. Gilgamesh, was his name. And his story was even stranger than Daar Great-Father of the sky! He seemed fun, and it was clear he loved the tall, dark gao who stood with him…
But…eh. A human god? Sorta? That was strange to think. But everything was strange these days. He was on another planet and making friends with actual gods like Daar, who was absolutely a god no matter what he said, no question. Then Yeekeeda himself, also a god! And he was an old god too. He didn’t deny it!
Gilgamesh, though? He had a godly story, sure enough…but Vemik knew humans that were bigger and stronger. Several of them! Himself too, and not by a little, either. Other People surely, and what about Yan, who was only beaten by Daar or maybe Righteous? Sure, some gods were stronger than others, but what god would allow a man who could make him his woman?
Strange. Maybe he’d taken it too easy up in his god-hut in his sky-village. Ha!
Singer bapped him in the face with her tail. “You’re off sky-thinking. Come back! Jooyun wants you to meet someone.”
“Oh?” Vemik twitched his tail. He’d been wanting to talk with Jooyun anyway…so, he opened his mouth, flicked his tongue quickly and took a big breath in through the top of his mouth.
…That way. Took a while to get there, though. Lots of people! And Vemik liked meeting people. But eventually he got through, and next to Julian was…
Well! A boy, Vemik could tell from the face and air-taste of him. But all the rest of him was already a man like Hoeff! Vemik didn’t know Humans could grow up like that!
Jooyun had been watching Awisun and Shyow dance together. Not like club dancing, which was really just a kind of play-fucking, but this was complicated like the People’s own magic dancing, and pretty to watch, and not at all easy to do! He’d tried, and wasn’t good yet. But Tilly liked it, and so did Singer, so—
“Literally just said hello and he’s already daydreaming,” Jooyun chuckled. “You better watch out with him, Alex. He’s got a mind goin’ a million miles an hour at all times.”
“So many things to think about, how do you not think about them?!” Vemik asked, then grinned and hooted hello at this ‘Aleks.’ “Hi!”
“Uh…hi!” the boy smiled, and held out a big rough hand, which Vemik found he could shake without having to be careful. Strong! “Alex, son of Gilgamesh, prince of Ekallim-Igigi.”
“Vemik Given-Man, and this is the Singer of my tribe,” Vemik replied, remembering Human manners. And importantly, how they could be bent. “And she’s mine, too!”
That earned him a swat with her tail and a happy trill, while Alex grinned in the way only boys could grin.
“I didn’t get to talk much with Ferd Given-Man,” he said. “I wish I coulda. I’ve wanted to properly meet your people for a long time!”
“Ferd is a good man,” Vemik agreed with a nod.
“Very good,” Singer added wickedly, then trilled when Vemik gave her a tail-swat of his own. Alex gawped at her, going a little red.
“Y’get used to ‘em,” Jooyun promised. “Anyway. I kinda wanna go dance with the girls, so I’m just gonna leave you three get acquainted, yijao? Have fun!”
Before either Vemik or Alex or Singer could stop him, he gave them a cheeky grin and was gone.
There was a well-now-what pause. Then Alex cleared his throat.
“…The ambassador, uh…that is, Julian, he…told me you invented the bow and arrow?”
Vemik nodded. It was good to have friends who’d boast about you! “Yeah! Well, I invented it for us,” Vemik trilled.
Alex was suddenly excited. “How?! I mean, where did the idea come from?”
“Well, I was playing with sticks one day, and…”
He’d told the story a few times by now, but it was a fun story, and he enjoyed telling it. At some point, Singer slipped away in search of food and drink, but Alex was a good listener, and he asked good questions, and before Vemik knew it they’d gone on from the story of his first bow and his trial, to the war, and to steel, and Professor Daniel and the library, and—
“I wish I could go see it,” Alex sighed. They were outside now, enjoying the cool air before the rain came. He’d loosened his tie and left his jacket somewhere, which let Vemik get a better look at him. A good, fine young man! He’d do well among the People! So, if that was true…
“Why not? You can just walk through the array whenever! Just…not in ‘mun-kee suit,’ yes?”
“We don’t have pay-per-work like humans. No…they say hoops to jump through? Which sounds like fun, but anyway…”
Alex laughed. “I get it. But, that’s ‘cuz you have the humans on this side of the array fielding that stuff for you, isn’t it?”
“Eh…yes.” Vemik scratched his ear with the tip of his tail. “But still. Different rules for you.”
“I guess.” Alex nodded. He didn’t sound happy about that, somehow.
Vemik knew a heart-hurt when he heard it. “So you come visit tomorrow then, yes? I spend night in Yan’s apartment. Come pick you up in morning!”
That settled it. After that, with knowing he was coming to visit, Alex wanted to know even more, and Vemik was happy to tell. He checked in on everything else that was happening from time to time, ‘cuz it’d be a shame to miss everything. And he caught lots of fun little moments, like Singer dancing with Daar (and everyone else getting off the dancefloor to make way for them,) SirJermee handing out presents to the kids, and of course there was lots of really, really good food…
He wasn’t quite sure why they set the big round brown ball full of fruit on fire before eating it, but that was fun too!
The music changed as the night wore on. The delicate instruments went away and swapped out for a woman in a sparkly dress, a big man with a lot of drums, which Vemik really wanted to try sometime, and a guitar, and other shiny instruments, and everything was a lot louder and a lot more fun…
It picked up Alex’s mood, too. Pretty soon he was on the dancefloor too, and though Vemik didn’t know a lot about human dancing, he could tell the boy was good at it. Maybe he’d been taught by someone? Vemik watched him dance with Singer, with Shyow, with some of the younger kids…
And behind, he saw Gilgamesh watching.
There was a delicate dance going on, and Y!’kiidaa wasn’t sure he knew the steps.
The fact was, Singularity—in the form of himself, Gilgamesh and Prince Alex—had been invited to be here, which was a welcome. But one didn’t need the eyes, ears and nose of a ten-thousand-year trickster to spot that they were being evaluated. Everyone they met was somebody important, from Cimbrean or elsewhere. Humans, Gao, a few other species…not just Ten’Gewek, but Dominion species, and the first E-Skurel-Ir Y!’kiidaa had ever seen.
He got the distinct impression she was watching him with great interest.
Alex, at least, was making an excellent impression. He may have stood barely over one-point-six meters, but somehow he was towering over the room, metaphorically speaking. Yan Given-Man seemed to approve of him too, and kept glancing off to where he and Vemik Given-Man were lost in conversation out on the balcony.
Y!’kiidaa had little baseline for reading ten’gewek, but he got the impression that Yan didn’t generally approve so quickly of anything. That was an encouraging sign, perhaps.
Then there was Ambassador Etsicitty, and though Y!’kiidaa felt, loyally, that his ancient friend still held the edge over the much younger man…it was a lot closer than he’d have guessed. He was talking about their charisma and experienced wisdom, of course. Physically speaking, Gilgamesh was beaten. The Line had succeeded more wildly on both Earth and Gao than Y!’kiidaa had known.
Too wildly, perhaps. While Y!’kiidaa himself had yet to be surpassed by any besides Daar, that day was coming, and coming quickly. Balls, it was only Daar’s sense of propriety and kindness that had left Y!’kiidaa with any dignity after their first visit. That, and…well…
Daar could have demanded Y!’kiidaa’s loyalty at any time, and he doubted he could have resisted the call. Daar’s natural dominance over the Gao was unbreakable.
They both knew what a tragedy that could become one day, too.
So, he mingled. He had a special enjoyment for the younger folk present—who didn’t love kids?—but his attention was mostly focused on the meta-game. Every time a major player selected a dance partner, or dragged over somebody new to meet, or excused themselves to go get refreshments, or made an introduction…
Pieces on the Strategem board, moved simultaneously by masters. There was nothing so crass as talk of treaty, alliance, the war, or anything like that, but even so, bonds were being forged tonight.
“Y!’kiidaa of the Gao and Ekallim-Igigi, may I introduce Ukusevi of the Forgiven, Archivist of Eyes-Turned-Upwards and Keeper of the Long Chant.”
Meeting Sir Patrick Knight had been an education in the first place. The old man had a mind like a razor blade hidden in a cup of tea—civilized, but dangerous. No doubt, this introduction was another move in the game. The E-Skurel-Ir had a different idea for what constituted finery than most others present. Her robes were largely plain and unadorned, a kind of dusty grey in hue, but on her belt she wore several much finer items, including a leather-bound book and a pouch on the opposite hip that smelled of bottled ink.
Y!’kiidaa dropped down to all fours immediately. Something about her set off his instincts, and he wanted to curtail that, before it showed. “A pleasure.”
“Likewise.” Ukusevi’s wide mouth curled sideways in something like a smile. “You have a fascinating legend. It took me two days to memorize it all…and I’m still trying to figure out how much of it is true.”
“Oh, all of it’s true…to some degree,” Y!’kiidaa chittered. “Tales grow in the telling, yijao?”
“They can. I think it depends on the teller.” Ukusevi’s probably-smile didn’t fade at all. “Among my people, we try to keep our tales from growing too large.”
“Now where’s the fun in that?”
“Hmm. Is that all stories are for? The fun of it?”
Kiidaa chittered. He didn’t know why he was surprised at her playful challenging tone, but then again, she’d lived her whole life under the Hunters. Next to them, he prob’ly wasn’t all that scary. He wasn’t gonna tear her limb-from-limb on a whim, and she knew it.
“Nah. There’s a lesson in each one…”
“More than one. It’s impressive, really. You single-handedly created a shared mythos which inculcated a culture of constructive mischief and fierce loyalty in the Gao that the Hierarchy must have found quite vexing…”
“Oh, it wasn’t single-handed. The Gao love stories and it’s the retelling that matters more than anything. I can’t claim to any grand design, either. Just…as you said, a knack for mischief, really.”
“Are you planning any mischief tonight?”
“Oh, no. I can’t top the mischief that’s already underway!” He chittered.
Y!kiidaa pointed his nose toward Alex and sniffed. After a second to watch the young prince, Ukusevi started making a hiccupping noise which he guessed was her way of laughing.
“Oh! Well, don’t spoil the ending!”
“Never,” Kiidaa chittered. “Besides,” he leaned in conspiratorially. “Spoilin’ it would mean I knew the ending. And I don’t, this time.”
“Oh? Well who does, then?”
He flashed a bit of a toothy grin.
“Nobody. So we’ll all play our part and…just see, won’t we?”
“Ah. The best kind of story. Perhaps I will get to record the result later…” Ukusevi looked up and away as Sir Patrick returned with somebody new for her to meet. “…if I get time. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“And you.” He watched as the game continued and the pieces whirled and danced.
He hadn’t had this much fun in ages!
Date Point: 19y11m4w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Alex, Prince of Ikallim-Igigi
Alex thumped up out of the gym shower, a small travel bag in hand and a pair of those comfy running shorts around his hips. He’d been told that all he’d need was a knife, so…that was all he had, mostly. A knife, an emergency beacon, his passport, his wallet. A mobile phone. A travel notebook too, since he liked writing. All the rest was just shorts and stuff.
Vemik approved. “Good, you listen! No strange heavy clothes. Too hot where I live!”
Without another word, they jogged toward the array, both enjoying the cool and, at least in Alex’s case, the splash of puddles underfoot. It wasn’t a very long run but it was always fun to move. And it turned out that Vemik was every bit the incredible athlete he looked, and much moreso, too. Their morning exercises were the most challenging he’d ever felt, and Vemik had so effortlessly shown him up, with a playful snarl too…
Somehow, Alex didn’t mind this time. He knew the big gorilla-man wasn’t exactly his own age, but he wasn’t really all that much older, either. They thought, maybe nineteen, early twenties? Still plenty young! And as Vemik had pointed out:
“Still very strong young man! At your age I was skinny little thing! It’s why I invent the bow!”
“That must feel so cool,” Alex huffed wistfully. “And then not long after, all this happens.”
“Very strange time the gods make for us, yes?”
“Mhmm. Ooh! I have my own ship, did you know that?”
Somehow, Vemik bounced like a puppy, mid-stride in his feet-and-knuckle gallop. “Really?!”
“Yeah! Maybe we can go for a ride sometime!”
They chatted for a while, enjoying the jog to the terminal. They cleaned their bare feet off at the provided stand, thumped in and made their way through the border. The platform was already waiting for them, cleared empty of any cargo.
“The morning jump is always empty,” Vemik said. “Empty from here anyway. Days aren’t quite the same so right now, hottest part of day back home.”
“So…good thing I’m in shorts.”
“So…what do we do? Just sit down?”
“Yeah.” Vemik coiled up his tail and plopped himself down. “And wait. We’re early.”
“Okay.” Alex looked around for anything to sit on and, not seeing anything, shrugged and folded himself down cross-legged. “How long are we going to have to—oh. Hello, sir.”
The Great Father of the Gao didn’t look like he should be quiet, but Alex knew from Yekiidaa that gao could move like a whisper no matter how big they were, if they moved gently…which Daar had done until he spied Vemik, at which point—
Vemik hooted and sprang to his feet with a thrust of his tail, but he was too slow. Every line of Daar’s impossible physique exploded into sharp relief as the Great Father surged forward with a lightning-strike pounce almost too fast to see. The floor shuddered under the force of his explosive push, and the whole building shook as Vemik was slammed right off the platform and into the concrete wall on the other side of the room.
Alex stood up, alarmed at the violence he’d just witnessed, but then Vemik bounced up and in an instant, had his arms and legs tight around the Great Father’s neck, tail around waist…
Holy gods they played rough!
It ended pretty quickly, though. The Great Father contorted himself backwards, grabbed Vemik and pried him off (much to his hooting objection!), slammed him to the ground with a floor-shaking thud and promptly smashed him flat between his colossal legs, ending the fight. The size difference was unreal; the huge Given-Man all but disappeared inside that pin!
“I got quads bigger’n you are,” he growled down at his prey as his legs hardened into terrifying anatomy displays. “Better hope I don’t squeeze too hard…”
A hand wormed its way out and tapped against Daar’s flank, who promptly let him go and pulled him up to his feet, suddenly all playful, solicitous energy.
“That was fun! Gettin’ fuckin’ tough, Given-Man! How ‘ya doin’?!”
All sins between friends were forgiven in an instant. “I thought I’d found your weak spot!”
“It would be, if you were a little bit smaller an’ I din’t do my stretches like my mommas taught me…but I do, an’ you ain’t.” Daar rough-housed a few seconds more with a smug rumbling chitter. “Mebbe I’ll show ‘ya what my arms can do, too…”
And what arms they were! Gao tended to have pretty mobile and muscular upper bodies, so functionally they were somewhere between dogs, bears, and great apes. Daar himself was like a long-bodied gorilla, so even for a gao, even for a well-bred Stoneback, even for him, his arms were fuckin’ huge. And he used them, to Vemik’s trilling, squirming frustration. Alex knew well enough to let them play; he had friends who were much the same. After a bit though, they sobered up, with Vemik hanging from Daar’s back and watching Alex. “Oh! Thought I sniffed ‘ya. Alex, ain’t it?”
“Well, howdy!” He straightened up with a pant-grin, stood tall and showed himself properly…
Well…damn. Okay. Alex hadn’t come too close to the Great Father at the Christmas ball last night. Now, close up, even after having watched the two play…he could see why Yekiidaa had been so shaken. Words or pictures just weren’t enough.
But, whatever. He seemed friendly enough. “Hello…your majesty? I don’t know the right term of address…”
“Eh, sir is fine. Whatever. A huge brown muzzle sniffed toward Alex. “…Not even a hint of hesitation or fear on ‘ya, neither. Gotta admit, that’s sorta refreshin’ ‘ta smell.”
Alex looked up at Vemik, who was definitely nursing a bit of hurt, but seemed in happy spirits anyway. “…Well, it’s not like I could do anything if you were feeling mean, so why worry?”
“Ha! Fair ‘nuff…now don’t mind me, but I gotta curl up on th’ floor here just ‘ta fit through the array. S’why I always go ‘fore the cargo runs.”
He did that, sank to all fours and found a comfortable bit of steel plating to lie on like the world’s hugest bear. He tucked his tail in, too: from end to end he only barely fit.
Vemik bounced off to fetch his bag, then sat atop him, clearly best friends forever. Again, Alex had a moment of hesitation but…well, it looked like the rules were different, here. Daar didn’t seem to mind at all. Indeed, he flicked an ear to Alex with a clear meaning behind it: ‘c’mon.’
He decided to sit a little closer to be friendly, but not atop. That seemed too familiar.
“Cautious, huh? Das’ good. Smart head ‘ya got under ‘yer shaggy locks. Wilde weren’t exaggeratin’ ‘bout you.”
Curiosity grabbed him. “What did he say, sir?”
“Oh, jus’ call me Daar. We ain’t anywhere we gotta stand on protocol.”
“Okay…what did he say about me, Daar?” It felt weird, but…well, an invitation was an invitation.
“Mostly nothin’ but good! Uses the word ‘hench’ a lot when he talks ‘bout you.”
Alex grinned, and felt his ears go a bit red. “Yeah…he’s cool, but also kinda weird.”
“Tell me ‘bout it. Dude was wearin’ a She-Ra tee when I saw ‘im yesterday, an’ I think he really enjoys findin’ weird tees that are only tight-fitting on a big boy like him. So! On a big adventure, I see! Where are ‘yer adults?”
Alex had no idea what She-Ra was, but now wasn’t the time to ask. “I’m a man, by our standards. I can see to myself.”
“Oh? Well, fair ‘nuff. Sure ain’t like any young man I’ve ever sniffed. What ‘bout ‘yer schoolin’ and all that?”
“I’m well-schooled, and it’s a lifetime pursuit on Ekallim-Igigi. And I think I’ll learn a lot more about some important things by visiting Akyawentuo.”
“Okay, okay!” Daar raised a giant paw placatingly. “I’m just curious, s’all. Humans ain’t normally ones for quick growing-up, yijao?”
Alex recalled something Pandrosion had taught him—if he didn’t know what to say, saying nothing could look pretty smart. So, he nodded and kept silent, even though it meant the conversation hit a bit of a lull. Alex looked up at the clock. Only a couple minutes still to go before jump.
He couldn’t hold the silence for long.
“So…I’m visiting ‘cuz I wanna explore. What brings you out here?” Alex asked.
“Oh, business mostly,” Daar sighed. “JETS is ‘bout ‘ta graduate six more teams, and lately we’re needing ‘em as fast as we can get. Lots o’ dead infrastructure ‘ta explore, and we’ve found not all of it’s quite so perfectly dead. So I gotta talk to th’ Lodge, if they’re meetin’ anytime soon. Or at least have a sniff ‘round the Given-Men an’ see what they think of it all. And, uh…ain’t many gao I can send instead o’ me.” He rumbled deep in his giant chest, “Which is yet another thing I gotta fix…”
Alex perked up. “Singularity has many teams, all ready to go. Which is no insult to the Ten’Gewek,” he added quickly, and which Vemik waved off. “But if it’s urgent enough you personally need to visit, then…”
Daar rumbled again as the clock ticked down and a voice announcing one minute to jump interrupted him. “No insult ‘ta Ekallim-Igigi’s teams in turn,” he said, “but we ain’t got a history with ‘em. At all. It took time ‘ta build what we have with AEC, an’ with the Lodge. It’ll take time with Singularity, too.”
“But we don’t have time,” Alex pointed out.
“Oh, sure we do. Urgency ain’t the same thing as hurried. I’m pressin’ our advantage as hard as I reasonably can but that ain’t no reason ‘ta go in without no real experience an’ contact ‘tween us. ‘Sides…Hunters have been real quiet, last long while…an’ we ain’t seen much o’ nothin’ ‘ta tell us what the fuck—sarry.”
Alex grumped, a bit annoyed. “I’m not a child, Daar. I’m just young. You can swear all you fuckin’ want around me.”
Daar paused, then chittered. At least, it was probably a chitter. It was very…bassy. “Well, shit, okay then! Anyway. No fuckin’ clue what they’re up to. So, add it all up, an’ I’ve got my responsibilities ‘ta manage, yijao? I can’t be wastin’ lives, so I gotta work wit’ the bestest there is. And ten’gewek are the bestest. Jus’…they’re a limited asset.”
“A very special kind of hammer,” Alex added.
“A very strong hammer!” Vemik interjected. “But…yes. Not so many of us, so we gotta make it count, yes? We give our strengths to the gods, and that includes Daar.”
Daar grumbled in obvious discomfort. Silence again, which lasted until the array thumped and—
Alex knew supergravity, of course. He’d been training in it for many years, and the weight that settled on him—his own limbs getting that little bit heavier—was familiar and comfortable, but the heat that came with it? That was new.
The air was thick, heavy and humid. And…noisy. But not loud noisy. The sort of noisy where many, many quiet things were all talking, all at once. Birds and bugs, or the local versions of them, chattering and scraping and croaking at each other in the trees around them, sometimes with an extra whistle or whoop from farther away.
Daar stood up and shook himself, then posed a bit, admiring himself. “…Fuck. Glad ‘fer the short clip, but still gonna be sweatin’ my balls off.”
Vemik trilled, “At least you’ll look pretty!”
“Ha! Too bad there ain’t no Females here ‘ta ogle me…”
Alex remembered that Gao was very much a cold sort of planet, and had been since Yekiidaa’s time. And just sitting next to him, he’d been able to feel the heat radiating off Daar. How did the Great Father stay cool here? This new heat was already prickling Alex’s skin, like stepping into a sauna for the first time. He’d be sweat-soaked in minutes at this rate. No wonder the Ten’Gewek didn’t wear much!
…Alex could come to like this place a lot.
First though, was the meet and greet. There was a small contingent right next to the portal, where the library—well, it was more like a proper gymnasium, really—the forge, and Professor and his staff all lived. All nice people! Then there was a long hike through the woods, where Alex couldn’t help but swivel his head every which way to see.
Gods, the trees were huge! With some encouragement, he’d jumped up into the branches and, while he wasn’t anything but cumbersome moving between them, he got the rudimentary hang of it in pretty quick order.
“See?! I think humans just ten’gewek who fell in love with the grass!”
Not a bad description, actually. Daar trundled along on the ground until they met up with Vemik’s village. There were lookouts, and Vemik charged ahead. Daar and Alex stayed behind a bit, “because there’s a sacred order ‘ta this,” and after a long moment, they followed course. The lookouts raised an angry alarm and Daar challenged them by rising up, giving a booming snarl…
…Well, fuck. Now he got to watch Vemik and Daar fight and show off for real. Vemik was scary as fuck when he wanted to be mean, and Daar was just…
Well, it didn’t last long. There was definitely some sort of ritual involved Alex didn’t quite understand. For the moment though, it was Daar’s village, taken with a triumphant flexing roar that hurt Alex’s ears, but it wasn’t truly serious; they fought with obvious friendship, and were instantly affectionate once it was all over.
After that, there was a feast, and more showing off, more snarly play. Alex ended up being dragged into an all-ways brawl among the children, and later the men. He figured out very quickly it was mostly play but also partly a test of him, with Vemik keeping a wary eye on the proceedings. Ten’gewek children were heavy, and dense, and fast!
Alex fared pretty well, he thought. Most of the men were…tricky, but manageable. He also discovered that a red crest meant he wasn’t likely to win, at least not with his strength alone. Skill, however….
In any case, he was happily exhausted in pretty quick order. At that point it was a playful victory for the village men, and he was invited to eat, to drink up and tell stories…
Daar had only grown more and more impressive as the sweat slicked down and lathered up his fur, as the long day ticked toward evening. It was abundantly clear why the Ten’Gewek treated him like a living god, and why Yekiidaa and father had been so rattled by him.
Still. He had visits to make and negotiations to do, so he was gone for most of the evening.
Vemik showed Alex the forge in the meanwhile, and he struck his first iron that night. What came out was bent, useless and suitable only for folding back over and forge-welding into something else, but that didn’t matter. Alex wasn’t stupid enough to believe he’d forge anything good his very first time. He was just pleased to have felt for himself how the metal shifted and bent with each hammer blow. He’d make something real tomorrow, maybe.
Still. He’d gone through a couple gallons of water already; the heat, the humidity, and all the hard activity had made his visit feel like a prolonged sauna. It felt cleansing and exhausting at the same time. Vemik though, even sweat-soaked himself, seemed invigorated by it.
“We probably should rest now. Humans need a few days to grow a love of the heat, yes?”
They headed back to the village to find Daar already there, telling a story in front of the fire. He bounced here and there, big animated gestures and the flickering light working their magic…he was telling a Keeda tale. One that was especially poignant, lately.
“—An’ that’s how Keeda learned that even a god ain’t free from his wives!”
Appreciative trilling and hooting from the audience, for…various reasons. Lots of ten’gewek women poked their chosen men, or tickled them with tail tips while grinning broadly.
Alex laughed. He knew that story. He also knew the true version, which was somehow even more ridiculous. Maybe he’d play a little trick of his own on Yekiidaa and share it with Daar later…
The food was good. Werne, they called it. A lot like beef or venison. The Ten’Gewek cooked it “as a special treat” by wrapping it in leaves with a bunch of roots and herbs, sealing the whole lot in wet clay, then burying it under the coals. It came out juicy, tender and fragrant…
A very special treat indeed! He ate his fill too, to everyone’s hooting approval.
He was joined at the fireside by Daar. “Gotta be a bit weird, hearin’ tall tales told o’ ‘yer…what is he ‘ta you. An uncle?”
Alex nodded. “Yeah, I guess he is. He and father are close, closer than father is with any of my mothers. But he’s never been ‘uncle Yekiidaa’ to me…”
“I gotchu.” Daar sat himself down right up against Alex, which was a very friendly gesture for gao, and started picking his teeth with a claw.
Alex looked around at the ten’gewek, They were…well, they were going to have their fun. He knew enough about life to know what they were getting up to. Not that he was, like, super experienced or whatever, but the game had always felt more… delicate to him. He’d barely done more than hang out a few times with a couple girls he thought he liked. Did that even count? But ten’gewek didn’t even bother with that. Grabbing a partner and vanishing into the dark was pretty forward! Or maybe they already knew each other, being in a village and all?
In any case, they apparently played at night just like they played in the day. Loud and rough.
Alex didn’t think he was ready for anything like that. Especially not here, and he’d learned that he was still very much a child as far as most humans were concerned; even chatting with Alice had drawn teasing and weird looks. So instead, he sat next to Daar, sweat-drenched furnace that he was. Somehow he didn’t…really want to sit alone just now.
Daar had a knack for mind-reading, too. “Don’t mind ‘em. They’re not like us, an’ they’re not like ‘yer people, neither. Sort of a consequence o’ bein’ th’ strongest most unbreakable things swingin’ in th’ jungle, I think. Serious injury is sorta all or nothin’ wit’ them, so…yeah.”
“But there are things that they fear, surely?”
“Yeah. The gods, an’ things that may as well be gods ‘fer tribes like ‘em. What else?”
“…You have a lot of influence with them, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Daar put his claws away, apparently satisfied his teeth were clean. “Almost as much as I do wit’ everyone else. An’ I know what ‘yer gonna say next.”
“Pretty easy to take advantage of that…”
“Yeah,” Daar sighed. “It would be. I try not to but I don’t think I can avoid it.”
Daar was silent for a long moment, but it was the kind of silence father had sometimes, when he was thinking about what to say before he said it. Alex had learned young that it was best to let him finish, rather than rush it.
“Right. So. I’m feelin’ mighty comfy right now, so I ain’t gonna stand up an’ flex an’ all that, much as I love showin’ off like such a silly stereotype. You can use ‘yer imagination, right?”
Alex gave him a wry smile, “Yes.”
“Right. So…you know what I am, so I don’t need ‘ta tell ‘ya the whole long story o’ why, but it’s been super useful ‘fer a lotta reasons. ‘Yer dad an’ Y!’kiidaa bein’ just a couple. Which I wish’d I din’t need ‘ta do in this great game, but I gotta, ‘cuz I gotta win. Or at least not lose.”
“But…why press it, then? Why be such a show-off? Uh…sorry.”
“Don’t be. ‘Yer a future king an’ we’re all invested in ‘yer reign goin’ well. So let’s consider this ‘yer trainin,’ yijao? Lemme ask ‘ya right back: why wouldn’t I press my advantage?”
Alex thought, and looked into those big, amber eyes while he did. So, okay. Maybe it was all a whole lot extra. As much as it made people smile, it also exasperated them. But it worked, right? Nobody ever really went against him. It was part of his personality, and that…
“Is it…because you can’t be less than you are?”
Daar chittered. “Essactly. The one thing you can never be in this life is what you ain’t. Which is a tautology, I know, but sometimes they gotta be said. For normal folk there’s a whole lotta ambiguity ‘bout what that might be, yeah? Now how ‘bout me? How could I possibly hide what I am, or shy away from it?”
He picked up a half-burnt stick from the fire and doodled with it, scraping out the Stoneback mon with its blackened tip. “There’s a point where blessings git so huge they ain’t really blessings anymore. I figgered that out after Highland kicked my tail years ago, despite having no gods-damned right ‘ta do so…an’ that broke me free of the Hierarchy’s smotherin’ whispers o’ mediocrity. I started ‘ta really build myself, in my head an’ my body…”
“And you discovered you were really really different.”
“Yup. It’s a long story, an’ I always knew I was diff’rr’nt, but yeah. Shit really escalated after we saved Akyawentuo an’ I learned Gao was unner attack. I weren’t the same man when I set foot back on my world. So…in th’ end, turns out I’m th’ bestest o’ my kind, or of anyone in meatspace by any fuckin’ measure, an’ that gap’s never done anythin’ but speed up an’ widen. That kinda huge pile o’ gift changes shit. In my heart all I ever wanted was ‘ta be a big studly farmer, mate with pretty Females and wrassle my most bestest friends. Instead…”
He trailed off wistfully, stared in the fire a few seconds longer, then shook his head. “Instead, I can out-think an’ out-muscle everyone, easy, and boy is that a test o’ personal restraint some days. An’ that huge blessin’ I been given calls me ‘ta terrible service. I’d have ‘ta be real fuckin’ selfish if I had all this an’ didn’t use it ‘ta serve somethin’ bigger’n me, yijao? An’ so, if I gotta be that, an’ there’s no escapin’ it…then why escape it?”
“So you embody it.”
“Yup. Allatime, everywhere, in everythin’ I do.”
Daar burst out chittering. “Yeah! Best way to put it! So now…I had ‘ta learn this. So did ‘yer dad. And now you gotta figger it out. ‘Cuz god made us exceptional people ‘fer whatever reason, an’ we’re called ‘ta service ‘cuz o’ that, young king-to-be. Whether by accident or design, it don’t matter. At this level o’ the game, who else can answer?”
“…I don’t know if I’m all that…”
“You gotta be. Ain’t no way ‘round it. And you are, I can smell it.”
“…I didn’t ask for this.”
“No,” Daar agreed kindly, and wrapped a sweat-drenched arm bigger than Alex’s entire body around him, firmly but carefully. “None o’ us did.”
Alex leaned into the hug. “I could still walk away,” he noted, without much feeling. He knew what had to be. “Father told me that if my answer was no…I could leave.”
“Did he? Be grateful, then.”
Oh…oh, wow. Just for a moment, a feeling like he got among the clouds hit him, as he understood for just that moment what Daar meant. That big, impossible feeling. The one where you felt so tiny and so small, and so humble and so precious somehow. That was what Daar was facing, every day. His very existence was a challenge by the gods.
He hugged around Daar’s neck as best he could, and tried to hold back the tears.
Daar rumbled, something like a sympathetic chitter. “…Y’know, ‘yer father is an evil godsdamn genius. I shoulda known he couldn’t stick around this long without gettin’ good an’ wily.”
“I…” that snapped him out of it. “…What?”
“This whole thing. Sendin’ you ‘ta Cimbrean with Wilde, makin’ sure you met th’ ambassador an’ turned up at the Christmas Ball, makin’ very sure you made a good impression an’ met the right people an’ all the rest of it…this is his triumph, you know. He’s quite literally kingmaking an’ puttin’ us all in a situation where we couldn’t turn you away. We know the stakes. And the worstest part is he didn’t do this with malice!”
“…Huh.” Alex didn’t like that realization, but Daar was quick with advice.
“Oh, don’t take it so bad. He did it out of love. ‘Fer you, an’ ‘fer his people. You are called to terrible duty, boy. An’ it’s good that he’s preparin’ you for it. If that means gettin’ us all involved, then so be it. Such has long been the way o’ things, and I guess such it will be.”
Alex gave him a curious look at the sudden poetic twist to his words.
“…My predecessor,” Daar explained. “Fyu figgered out all this shit a long time ago, an’ his writing mentored me more’n most anythin’ else…Kinda wish I could go back in time an’ give the little guy a big hug an’ a thank-you.”
Alex didn’t know what to say…well, to any of that.
“Right. One last little gem ‘ta leave you wit’. Someday you’ll be king. Someday soon I reckon. I’ll still be the Great Father. When that happens I hope you’ll be an ally. But ‘member this, and ‘member it ’ferever—”
“—We aren’t necessarily on the same team.”
“…’Yer either even smarter’n I thought, or someone else got ‘ta you first. Anyhoo…that’s a ways off. ‘Fer now…you’re a good man ‘ta know.”
Alex didn’t know what to say. So, again, he said nothing, and that seemed to satisfy. They had the fire pretty much to themselves by now, and the nighttime cacophony was sorta hypnotic…
He’d been surprised when father had let him go with Ian. Maybe Daar was right and it was all a lesson in disguise. A trick that Yekiidaa probably found really funny too…
Actually, Alex felt pretty good about it.
Date Point: 19y11m4w AV
Gilgamesh of Uruk, first of Singularity
The return home was a return to those duties that had been temporarily handed off so that he could focus on other duties. But, Singularity could do without its leader no longer, and Alex was now out there under the influence of others, for better or worse.
Gilgamesh looked up as he entered the Nexus, and lifted his eyebrows in surprise. It had been a long time since Ekallim-Igigi had last orbited a temperate world…
Ah. But no. This one had a great overabundance of water, meaning there were no islands or continents below them, only a single endless, unbroken ocean. No tool-using life would ever evolve down there, no matter what teemed in the waters. The Hierarchy would have seen it once, long ago, and then left it behind as irrelevant, so it was as safe as anywhere else in the galaxy.
And he had to admit, it was pleasant to see whites, blues and greens below, rather than browns or yellows or the too blue of ice giants.
Naturally, there were demands on his attention from the moment he arrived. Leifini had overruled Rekhetre and Birgitta, and they wanted to persuade him to overrule her in turn. Clearly, they felt strongly on the subject of this probe swarm…Fine. He would hear both sides of the argument in due course, once he was up to speed on the Hierarchy’s mobilization to secure the archive.
Though, in the event, it all turned out to be the same subject anyway.
“Y’know what seems funny ‘ta me…” Yekiidaa mused, as they watched the long-range sensor data from the battle.
“Agents are faster’n that. Much faster. Somethin’ was slowing it right the fuck down…” he tapped a claw on the devourer’s shoals of flashing probes.
“What are you thinking?” Gilgamesh asked.
“…Y’know, I’m just thinkin’ that the one thing we never had in all this time is a friend in dataspace itself. And if it’s a friend the Enemy are actually scared of…” he tapped the screen again, thoughtfully. “…Honestly, what’s the worst that happens if we talk ‘ta this thing?”
“It identifies us as a threat and turns its powers of replication toward our destruction,” Leifini said, levelly.
Gilgamesh folded his arms and nodded. “And that is a sufficiently dire consequence that I would normally agree with you, Leifini,” he said.
“But?” she asked.
“But we have recently revealed ourselves to Earth and Gao. Their communications are full of discussion about us. If it listens to those—”
“An’ if it doesn’t, I’ll gnaw off my own tail,” Yekiidaa added.
“—then it already knows of us, and has either already determined us to be a threat, already knows of us and considers us a potential ally, or is undecided and still trying to figure us out. No, I think my Rekhetre and Birgitta have the right of it. We must have certainty, for better or worse.”
“And if it does turn out to be hostile? Or contact may goad it into acting before we can prepare for it…”
“It is a Devourer. It’s possible we will never be adequately prepared. So, let us thank the gods that this one at least appears to be a Devourer with some personality, and be brave.”
Leifini nodded acquiescence. “As you say. I daresay Rekhetre and Birgitta will wish to initiate the contact themselves…”
“Good.” Gilgamesh smiled. Rekhetre was nearly as old as he was, and royalty in her own right. And Birgitta had the wisdom of thoughtful silence. He trusted all his queens to speak with the voice of Ekallim-Igigi, even Mevia in the right circumstances…but those two in particular were the right ones for this.
After that, there was paperwork of course. The king’s seal was required to bind into law the matters of civilian government. A naive man might think that four thousand years would be enough time to reach some kind of steady state, but Ekallim-Igigi was a melting pot of ideas from all over the galaxy, not to mention ideas of its peoples’ own. There would never be an end to the pendulum swaying of politics.
No matter. Though he found much he disagreed with in the accumulated Acts and Motions, he found nothing actually poisonous, and so signed and assented to them.
And then, for the first time in…far too long, frankly, finally, he had a chance to relax with his oldest and closest friend.
“You’re slow today.” Yekiidaa teased.
Gilgamesh chuckled, in no small part because it was true. “Aye. Too much rich food on Folctha…” he agreed, then demonstrated just how much it didn’t really change anything.
Yekiidaa was of course a match for it all. “Impressive as always,” he chittered. “Though I think we have both met our matches lately, yijao?”
“Aye.” A probing attack then, a quick dart forward to see if he could grab his ancient foe. No luck. “Julian proved handily capable of out-lifting me. I refrained from sparring, for dignity’s sake…though I do not doubt he’d crush me there, too. I haven’t challenged Righteous.”
“I imagine not!” Yekiidaa chittered. “What would be the point?”
“Indeed. Still, I imagine I might learn from my people and catch up. What about you?”
Yekiidaa chittered ruefully. “Oh, that ain’t never gonna happen. We wrassled a bit and I have never in my life felt so utterly weak. He is much stronger and faster than he looks.”
“That’s…alarming.” Gilgamesh crouched back down, inviting another tumble.
“Right?! He can swipe so fast, the air thumps behind his paw. He can run at highway speed! I don’t think my claws did much more than scratch him either, he’s so gods-damned dense and well-conditioned.” A pounce then, but Gilgamesh dodged it. “Pound-for-pound he’s easily the strongest being of any kind I’ve ever met or read about, and that is saying something when you consider how absurdly massive he is. He may well be the heaviest thing alive anywhere walking the land right now. You would not believe what truly he’s capable of. And he’s got depths to his mind, too. Proof positive of the difference between well-bred and well-engineered.”
They weren’t going to get any good hits in at this point, so Gilgamesh straightened up and headed for a water bottle. “Both, in his case.”
“And he knows it.”
“Does…does he resent it, you think?”
Yekiidaa flicked an ear. “I think a little, yeah. But…he’s not the sort to let that get in the way of utility. He knows full well that nobody else coulda been Great Father, and the Gao needed a Great Father to survive this war.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t mind his personal success, either…”
“Oh, no! Not at all! Really, it’s more…a brooding. A grumble, if you will. He’s too practical to torment himself with it.”
“A desire to truly and completely claim his accomplishments as his own accomplishments, undiluted and unspoiled.”
“And they are his.”
“We know that, old friend. But I can understand why he and others feel our work has…tarnished…their achievements, even if I don’t agree that it has.” Gilgamesh wiped his face dry with his towel, and sat. “And that is our chief obstacle. Most of the objections people have, waver when they see we’ve not…indulged as other figures in their history have done. Some enmity remains regarding the Corti’s excesses, but even ambassador Etsicitty accepts we could not have prevented such a thing without grave cost. What does not so easily disappear is the sense of worry and competition all this generates.”
“Not even Alex will assuage that.”
“No. Quite the opposite. Though he is proving a charmer.”
“Heh, I saw!” Yekiidaa chittered and rolled in the sand a bit to scratch an itch. “Besides. We are as we are. If we try to be anything else, Daar will tell us to cut the shit, and the nations of Earth’ll do the same except in more delicate language. I don’t think Alex’s heritage’ll work against him too bad. Right now it’s mostly his youth and the different expectations around that.”
“Yes,” Gilgamesh sighed. “They are reluctant to see him for the young man he is.”
“They will, in time.”
“Good.” Gilgamesh stood up. “…good.”
Yekiidaa sniffed at him. “…Little late in the story to be getting doubts.”
“Not doubts. Simply…acknowledging the precipice we stand before. Everything you and I have worked for pays off or falls apart in the next year or two. Or briefer than that even, yijao?”
“…Yi.” Yekiidaa chittered, and slapped a paw around Gilgamesh’s shoulders. “Come. There is an absolutely bewitching female in Folctha, and she makes these crunchy spice meat things called tacos. The food of the gods themselves! I bought back a stasis box full of them, so let’s you and I watch a movie and relax, now that we have the chance.”
A rare treat. Gilgamesh smiled, and retired for the night to enjoy the comforts of rest without any machinations, for just a little while.
The next would not be far off.
Date Point: 20y AV
Interstellar space, near the stolen hive-world
Hunter of the Vengeance Brood
Tempting prey, this, and the Hunter’s belly was gnawing, maddening empty.
And would be, until it served its purpose. The Alpha-of-Alphas had decreed so. The Hunter would not starve…but it would not yet feast, either. Nor would it feed-breed. Not until it had “demonstrated effectiveness.”
Even so, the Hunter paused as it watched the patrol. Human ship. A familiar one. Ripper-tearer class, armed with powerful fields like the Gao crusher-smashers, but other nastiness too.
The Hunter’s jaw had a terrible bite, now. It knew the taste of those little ships escorting the Ripper-tearer, had thrilled and enjoyed the pleasure of full-belly sensation after its last hunts. Its jaws would do terrible hurt to the Ripper-tearer, if it hunted well.
The temptation was too great. It could not go longer without full-belly stimulus. It must hunt. It must kill.
Even so, the Hunter was acutely aware that its own form was small and experimental. Powerful. Dangerous…but fragile, too. It had been promised upgrades, if it should survive and satisfy the Alpha-of-Alphas.
And from there…from there, a whole galaxy to consume as it saw fit, and a long future as forebear to a whole new form of Hunter progeny. The Vengeance-Brood. The Void-Brood. It was such an obvious step that the Hunter wondered how no Builder had attempted it before.
After all, if claws, legs, eyes and organs could be swapped out for ever-larger and more powerful war forms, why couldn’t a Hunter be a void-craft? Why confine themselves to being carried by crude piloted vehicles?
An Alpha’s armored core could survive and jump out, rebuild, adapt, continue. There was no reason to be bound to fragile bubbles of air, any longer. And with this new weapon, these new jaws…
Their only drawback was that the Hunter could not salivate appropriately in anticipation of its quarry’s demise.
Well. that and the far too slow process of monitoring the target…The next generation, supposedly, would not have the same weakness, but for now the Hunter’s jaws required data about the prey’s shields in order to penetrate them. It was a danger, a great risk to the Hunter…but it could not resist the hunger.
It slipped closer, and prepared to strike.
USS Robert A. Heinlein, On patrol, liberated Hunter space
Captain Jaimie Esposito
Esposito had been tense from the moment they left Hell system and started this patrol. Everyone was tense. She could really imagine how her great-great-grandfather must have felt, protecting convoys in the North Atlantic all those years ago…
Didn’t matter whether it was a Nazi torpedo or a Hunter thingumagoober, really. Everyone knew they could be under attack in an instant. So, everyone was tense, sure. But Mcnairy’s voice had more than just tension in it, this time.
“—SDS reports very faint contact bearing three-one-zero by one-nine-zero, signal intermittent, range unknown, heading unknown.”
Even as he said it, CIC passed the relevant information up to the bridge stations. Esposito was turning and issuing orders almost before that, even. Several busy seconds of call-and-confirm, the heavy toooom! sound through the hull as their new drone rail fired, the sound of sailors rushing to their battle stations.
It all went muffled for a second as Esposito shoved her head into her flash hood and tucked it into her collar, then she was sitting and buckling herself in.
The contact went bright as their drone streaked in its direction, hammering local spacetime with high-intensity distortions from its warp drive that would have lit up anything moving at warp, no matter how slow and sneaky.
A thump through the hull marked one of the guns on Robbie’s back dropping a G-spike on the fucker. The target’s warp sig flickered and went dark as it dropped back into slow-space. Two of the patrol boats, Chickasaw and Snohomish, peeled off to pounce on it, speared into the G-spike bubble…
“…RICO, ODDBALL-4. We got ‘em, ma’am.”
Small celebrations around the bridge, which Esposito quashed. “Stay sharp, for all we know that’s just one of a wolf pack,” she instructed. Her own eyes were glued to the screen in front of her chair, alert for any second Hunter…
…but no. That, it seemed, had been it, and Esposito’s sharp, tense mood slowly soured into a feeling of…not anticlimax, as such. God no. She’d take such a quick and efficient kill over a real fight any day. But even so, something in her adrenaline-poisoned soul felt vaguely cheated.
At least…until she got the footage back from Snohomish. The two patrol bots had landed right at point blank and torn into the Hunter with their skymasters, tearing it to bits, but the design wasn’t like any swarmship or broodship they’d ever seen before. Too dense, too reinforced, and no life support system or habitable deck in evidence at all. Not even a cockpit. Just engines, power plant, capacitors, some kind of weapon system…
And, nestled inside a smashed, armored egg full of wires and implanted circuitry right in the ship’s core, slowly freezing and coagulating in the vacuum of space, a naked Hunter brain.
Date Point: 20y AV
So, at long last, it was back to being a prisoner.
This new prison was an improvement over the previous one, at least. But it was, nevertheless, still very much a prison, not a rich man’s house on the shores of the Caribbean. The climate was colder, and Six found he already missed the sounds of traffic, of people walking and talking, of music drifting out of shops…
Or, frankly, of just being able to go outside, breathe the air, and pass unnoticed. His worst concerns in Belize had been making sure his house had good locks, and not straying south of the creek after dark. Easy.
His new home had good locks, alright. Unfortunately, he didn’t own the key.
The rules were unchanged from last time. Cooperate and be rewarded, cause trouble and lose it all in an instant. Carrots accumulated slice by thin slice, and lost with one stroke of the stick. It was refined, simple, effective, and he had no interest in being awkward. Why bother?
So, he did the job they put in front of him. They showed him information, he explained it from the Igraen perspective.
“Congratulations. You found dataspace.”
He couldn’t find it within himself to care anymore.
“You never mentioned these last time.”
“You never asked. I only answer the questions you ask me, and at the time you didn’t know to ask this question, nor did you have the knowledge to ask the questions that would have led to the right questions.” Six sat back and flopped the paper down on his reading desk with a sigh. “Your species has come a very long way in a very short time.”
“How do they work?”
That wasn’t the question Six had expected, but in any case, he couldn’t answer it. “I don’t know. The Hegemony does have minds responsible for their operation and maintenance, but as far as I’m concerned they’re just an incredibly powerful computer. Nor do I understand the physics involved. They are much more than they seem.”
“Much more than they seem?”
“As I said, I don’t understand the physics involved.”
“Well…aren’t you essentially a computer program?”
“In precisely the same way you are, yes. We are all ultimately just Turing machines running a tape, at some level. Your hardware is proteins, my hardware is…” he tapped the paper on the desk. “Now, a protein isn’t much to look at. A little carbon, a little hydrogen, a sprinkle of oxygen, a dash of nitrogen…some of the most common elements in the universe. But out of their wigglings and bindings, you get…” he gestured up and down at his interrogator’s body, then at his own. “There isn’t a human alive who knows everything there is to know about the proteins that make up the human body, and if there was, that person certainly wouldn’t be working as a field agent, would they?”
He rubbed his jaw and considered the paper again. “I warn you. The Hierarchy’s response will be maximal. If you have a reliable way of discovering these, then all of Igraen civilization now faces an existential threat. You should prepare for them to throw every last contingency at you.”
There was silence as the interrogator—and it was a so much more relaxed affair this time than last time—took that all in, then nodded, and collected the papers off the desk. “Well then. Why don’t we start with what these contingencies look like…”
Six stared off through the desktop and the wall for a second. Somewhere deep inside him, a little, hateful voice was still railing and raging at him, trying to tell him he should hate himself for what he’d become…
But he’d been ignoring that voice ever since he arrived in Belize. He could continue to ignore it. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered any more.
In a defeated monotone, he started to tell them everything he knew.
Date Point: 20y AV
Starship Stray Fortune, outside the Cimbrean defense field
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
“Was wondering where you’d gone off to…” Ian began, jokingly, then tailed off. The Entity had, uh…
Back on its station, the holographic model of whatever half of it was (or, had been?) Ava Ríos had been kinda crude, in small ways. A little bit see-through, had clipped through herself and her surroundings a bit, the drone projecting her had hovered above her head like a Sims gem…
This new version was like the real woman was standing in front of him. Or, well. If the real woman was about ten years younger and dressed in a flowing ankle-length dress of animated swirly blue scintillations with no discernible seam to mark where garment ended and body began. It just sort of…faded in, from the collarbones down.
The impossibility of it, and the whisper-faint whine and hum of the drone hovering somewhere inside her head were the only real giveaways that this wasn’t a real flesh-and-blood person.
“…I like the new look,” he added, lamely.
She grinned, and the front of her dress lit up with an accompanying smiley face emoticon. “Thanks! I’ve been looking forward to the chance to show it off.”
Ian tilted his head. “I, not we?”
“The other half of us isn’t so interested in looking pretty.” The holo-Ava pulled a very human ‘go-figure’ face and fell in alongside him to walk easily. Another note of unreality—no sound of footsteps, nor sense of weight hitting the deck. No scent or body warmth, either. Just a faint electrostatic fuzz that made Ian’s arm hairs tickle and stand on end.
“Still don’t think I’ve completely wrapped my head around how much you are independent from it,” Ian said. “Sometimes you make it sound like you’re not at all, other times…”
“I’m as independent as I need to be to perform my function, and part of that included claiming enough independence that I can’t be completely subsumed again. Think of it it like…I’m not the one behind the wheel, and I don’t have a say in where we’re going, but I can still look out the window and have my own perspective and comment on things and place orders at the drive-through. I’m permanently along for the ride, I’ll just never be in the driving seat myself. And in turn, it can’t really make sense of you or the world of people without me to translate, so even if it could get rid of me, it doesn’t want to. And we’re both kinda glad of the company, if that makes sense.”
“…Sort of, I guess.”
“Cute Tinkerbell shirt, by the way.”
Ian chuckled. “Who’s gonna tell me I can’t fuckin’ wear it, right?”
“It certainly contrasts with the rest of you…”
“Well, blame my cousin Ed. After I lost my eye, the cheeky sod sent me a ‘Prettiest Princess’ shirt as a get-well-soon present. But you know what? It was the first thing that really made me laugh, so I’ve sorta run with it.”
“Did you get your own back?”
“‘Course I did. His latest holiday snaps have him wearing the “Girl Power” tee I sent him on the beach in Magaluf.”
Her giggle was perfectly human.
They reached the bridge, and Ava’s avatar looked around appreciatively, before waving to Urgug, who fluoresced a shade of uncertain puce before waggling his facial tendrils in greeting. Moj glanced over at them, then returned to his work, ignoring her.
“So,” Ian said. “You finally noticed the new friends we made?”
“It took us a while to even believe it. Though, I suppose we’re a rather stranger and more unbelievable thing ourselves than a mere bronze age human kept alive by alien medicine…”
“Nothin’ bloody ‘mere’ about him…” Ian grumbled.
“Well. We want to speak with them.”
Ian gave her a considered look. “…Any particular reason why?”
“Because if their design is to destroy those source nodes, then it endangers us. For the time being, we’re still dependent on dataspace, and if they destroy it before we’ve overcome that…we can’t not defend ourselves, Ian.”
“You think you can talk them out of it?”
“We’ll settle for just talking to them about it, for now. We don’t want a war with anyone human, or gao, or…well, anyone who’s not an Igraen or Hunter, really. Besides, we don’t even know if we should talk them out of it. The galaxy will never be free of the Hierarchy so long as dataspace exists…”
“But you have to survive.”
Ian headed over to the coffee maker in the corner, and was about to offer her one out of instinct and habit when he remembered he was still talking to a hologram projected by a drone. He put the second mug back and made himself an espresso. “Alright. I can pass that along.”
“There’s another thing. The Hierarchy know their nodes have been uncovered. They attacked us.”
“How did it go?”
“Difficult to say. The agent self-destructed once the momentum was against them. It had a nasty weapon on its biggest ship, though. Our war-probes are tough, and it…” she shrugged. “We’ll upload our sensor data to you. AEC and the gao need to know.”
“…Does this mean you’re ready to start cooperating openly?”
“We think we must. What’s coming is going to be big and if we—any of us, not just us— try to face it alone…”
Ian nodded. “Right. There’s gonna have to be negotiations and stuff.”
“We know. Why do you think we perfected this avatar system? We need to start talking to everyone.”
Ian nodded again, and…that really settled it.
As promised, she…they, it, whatever…uploaded their probes’ sensor data from the fight at the Archive. Ian fired it off to Clan Whitecrest immediately, while the Ava-tar departed, leaving her drone behind in a locked case so he could communicate with the Entity at any time.
At dinner, Bruuk and the others commented that he was quiet. Ian shrugged it off, but the truth was…the truth was, it was pretty obvious the Entity was worried. And if that was so, he was worried too.
If only he had something to do beside sit and wait for their next instructions…
Date Point: 20y2d AV
Conclave chambers, High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Champion Fiin of Clan Stoneback
Numbers. In the end, all of it was just a game of numbers over time. And those numbers could not possibly come at a worse moment.
Some of the Conclave didn’t seem to care much.
“So the humans will need more JETS teams to find these Archives? Good, let them contribute to the effort,” Champion Fuurnaf griped. “I’m gettin’ awfully tired of all our young and brightest grinding themselves up on Hell, or on this Mordor, or on all the actions we’ve taken at scale…where were the humans for any of that?”
Daar spoke levelly. “Here, on Gao, saving our people from extinction. The Americans alone deployed a half-million soldiers. That’s virtually their entire military capacity all at once.”
“Which was not without cost,” Thurrsto added. “You must remember, Champion, that our allies represent less than a third of Earth’s population. Other factions took advantage of the AEC nations’ distraction to further their own interests.”
“Yes, other factions. Where are they?”
“What matters it?” the Great Father again asked, gently. “Are you suggesting they should be as us, an entire species embodied in a single leader? Why would you demand that of them?”
“Why not? Do we not risk our entire species to save them?”
“No.” Daar shook out his pelt. “We risk our species to save ourselves. That we might help an ally is simply good relations. That we are honor-bound to do so is secondary to our survival.”
Fuurnaf bowed his head in submission. Fiin doubted he’d let go of his point, but, well…none could resist the Great Father’s will.
“We have known that population collapse was coming since the very first day of the war,” the Great Mother said. “It was inevitable, after so many of my sisters were slaughtered in their own communes. Now the decline is upon us, and it will only accelerate as there are fewer and fewer females of breeding age. The humans are not to blame for any of that, Champion. The Hierarchy is, and these Archives represent our chance to have justice.”
“An’ it comes at the worstest possible time,” Fiin added. “Grandfather Vark’s staff has some projections ‘fer what th’ talent loss is gonna mean ‘cross industry. It’s…well.”
He tapped a button and projected a complicated chart up on the wall. It took everyone a few ticks to internalize it, but when they did…
“…I’d thought we’d have more time.”
“Our initial estimates didn’t properly account for the effect of experience. When the team leader who’s been doing the job for forty years goes blind and retires, and the next guy is half his age, some of the lost knowledge is irreplaceable. Especially given the Grand Army’s recruiting cachet. Finding worthy replacements has been growing difficult.”
“Oh, balls.” Daar’s sigh was…telling. “Well, that makes the next step painfully obvious. We gotta start downsizing the Grand Army’s regular forces. S’pecially th’ young. An’ we need ‘ta get ‘em into trades like right gods-damned now.”
Fiin was in agreement. Others, however, had objections. Like the new Firefang champion, Raku. “That wil, ah, severely limit our capacity to respond to future crises…”
“Yeah. The next planetary-scale action’s not gonna have us available, is it? So prob’ly we better not be gettin’ into more fights like that.”
“There are still four more planets in Hunter space, that we know of…” Raku pointed out.
“Slave-hunting worlds,” Fiin said. “Hell an’ Mordor were their only major industrial centers. An’ from what we can tell, they’ve transitioned to a space-based economy since losin’ ‘em.”
“Then it sounds ‘ta me like this is the right time ‘ta downsize the Grand Army after all,” Daar decided. He looked around the room in case anybody had some impactful insight that might change that conclusion, but nobody did. “Arright. Make it so. An’ lemme know what I might do ‘ta facilitate this. I kinda suspect a lotta workhouse touring is in my future…”
“Try not to sound so pleased,” Naydra batted him good-naturedly. Chitters rippled around the room, including Daar’s.
“Arright…’less there’s any other business?” Heads shook around the room. “Then thank you ‘fer comin’. Champion Fiin? Like ‘ta borrow you ‘fer a bit.”
There were a few sympathetic chitters from the other champions as they let themselves out, all anticipating Fiin was about to get tied in a knot. But in fact, Fiin suspected he wasn’t. The Great Father had the well-relaxed posture that said he’d already had one good tussle today, and while another might be fun, he had other things on his mind right now. Which was fine by Fiin, frankly. He’d made himself into a mighty male over the years, mighty enough to maintain his Championship against all comers through strength alone…
But not mighty enough to withstand effectively an actual Brown One compressed down to a more “reasonable” size, though. As if he was a mind-reader, Daar chittered deeply, “I ain’t gon’ crush ‘ya too bad today, I promise. Won’t promise ‘gainst a nice hard snuggle, tho.”
Wagging tail and a smug ear-flick, and Naydra shot them both an amused pant-grin as she led them back to their private quarters. “Males…may your kind never change.”
“I don’t plan on it,” Fiin assured her. “Besides, don’t y’all snuggle up an’ gossip about all the cute boys?”
“Mostly we snuggle up and gossip about the annoying ones…” She hopped up on the slightly convex couch in the middle of their chambers, just at the right height for Daar to sit on the floor and be surrounded by her on all sides.
“Anyway. Complete change o’ subject,” Daar said. “Ekallim-Igigi.”
Fiin duck-nodded and sat opposite him. “Home to Keeda himself. If anybody else but you told me that, I’d…have doubts.”
“I don’t anymore, havin’ sniffed ‘em. I gotta say…troublin’ fer a couple’a reasons. He really does live up ‘ta th’ stories, if ‘ya assume a Whitecrest been tellin’ ‘em all this time.”
Fiin chittered, and helped himself to a snack off the table at Naydra’s invitation. “Pity I missed him.”
“Well, maybe you’ll get your chance,” Naydra said. “Ekallim-Igigi have invited us and the AEC nations to establish an embassy…”
“An’ more’n that, they’re hungry ‘ta join us in the fight,” Daar said. “Y!’kiidaa an’ Gilgamesh both smelled almost desp’rate.”
“So that’s his real name? Sounds awfully old…ain’t that an old Longback sorta sound?”
“Way more older. But ‘yer not completely wrong! Anyhoo…not sure what’s drivin’ ‘em. Might be eagerness, but men that old an’ that disciplined ain’t prone ‘ta that, yijao? I think it’s deeper.”
Fiin scratched his muzzle as he considered that for a second. “Where does Clan Stoneback come in? We ain’t diplomats…”
“Ah, I reckon there’s maybe somebody in the Clan who can scrub up nice an’ talk all fancy. But nah, that job’s goin’ to Goldpaw like it always does. What I need from Stoneback is someone who can size up their military. Gilgamesh claimed they got a dozen teams ‘ta match HEAT. ‘Fore I trust any gaoian lives to ‘em, ‘fore I wind down th’ Grand Army an’ free up Stonebacks ‘ta go back ‘ta diggin’ ditches, maintainin’ dams an’ doin’ finish carpentry…y’know, ‘fer ‘ya little guys!”
Fiin snorted, and Naydra chittered.
“…I wanna get a good sniff of ‘em,” Daar finished. “Don’t have ‘ta be my own nose, though. In fact mebbe it’s better if it ain’t mine, yijao?”
“I can find someone.”
“Knew you could.” Daar sat back comfortably, and that was the last any of them spoke of important matters for the evening. They eventually wound up watching a movie, and playing Ta’shen. A rare night of relaxation for three very busy gao.
Even so, Fiin’s mind didn’t stop turning over. The news that Singularity were so thirsty to join the fight changed things. He’d assumed they would be standoffish, superior, and intent on taking command. Instead…as Daar said, there was something deeper at work there. Which meant he needed to put somebody insightful on the job.
Fortunately, Fiin knew the right brother…but he was also going to need some help.
…Time to call in a favor.
Date Point: 20y1w AV
Champion Gyotin of Clan Starmind
Y!Kiidaa was perhaps the most uniquely burdened gao he’d ever met, aside from the Great Father himself. Great power required great responsibility, and his was a work that had single-handedly preserved the essence of the Gao.
Where others might see a meddler, Gyotin saw the pressure of millennia; hope, ambition, hard work, sacrifice and danger all bearing down on a being who’d held on for so long to heal the wound done to his people as best he could…and who was now facing no small amount of mistrust and even the possibility of rejection.
It was no small wonder that Singularity were so…keen…to present themselves and be welcomed. After working toward it for so long, anybody would have been. Even figures of myth and godhood.
So, Gyotin was there for the official opening of the embassy on Ekallim-Igigi. There was ritual, there were speeches. There were Gilgamesh and Y!’kiidaa looking fine and golden, as was Father Anuuk of Clan Goldpaw, the ambassador for Gao, and Father Ruci, the Stoneback military attaché. There was Ambassador Etsicitty whose personal blend of well-tailored clothes and mountain-man ruggedness was even more of a statement, somehow. Mother Shoo, looking regal in a colorful dress, Allison Buehler looking severe in a sharp one the color of dark steel, Colonel Miller in the US Air Force dress uniform…
Everyone made statements with their garb, Gyotin included. Simple robes for him, though clean and new and neatly worn. A statement of modesty.
Then there was Yan Given-Man, clad in nothing but a well-made loincloth and a pair of knives around his mighty leg. He’d been training for some time now to join the HEAT and he’d lately been accepted as a provisional member. It showed, too. He was easily the widest man present, and taking time away from his training was a statement all by itself. Teeisyo of the E-Skurel-Ir, solemnly recording every word as it was spoken in his neat shorthand, Mrewhurl of the Rauwrhyr with her wings folded cloak-like around her shoulders…
It was quite a collection of species coming to Ekallim-Igigi today. Statements within statements.
There was what Allison insisted on calling a “shindig” after the ceremony. Apparently the Christmas ball on Cimbrean had made an impression, and Singularity’s leaders were keen to show that they could put on entertainment as well, so Gyotin mingled, and listened…
And talked, of course.
“I too am guilty of over-analyzing the Keeda tales,” Gyotin chittered to Y!’kiidaa himself. “It’s amusing when people get wrapped around any particular point on social media. Speaking of! Did you know Our Father occasionally wades in and posts under his real name?”
Y!’kiidaa had a heartfelt, genuine chitter. “Oh, that’s good! I bet it drives the commenters into a frenzy…”
“There’s a British word I’ve come to love: a ‘tizzy.’ I can only imagine the tizzy that would ensue if you yourself weighed in…”
Heads turned at the resulting eruption of mirth—Keeda had a chitter that could rattle the light fixtures. “Oh! Oh, I see. Y’got a soul full ‘ta burstin’ with mischief, don’tcha?”
“I am a simple monk. I meditate on higher things…” Gyotin replied with false primness.
“Mischief is a higher thing.”
It was Gyotin’s turn to chitter. “Ah, but weren’t we just talking about overthinking it? Which of course, I have.”
“So’ve I,” Y!’kiidaa agreed.
Gyotin duck-nodded. He’d had his doubts about this ancient gao, of course he had. And about this Gilgamesh, too. Both of them had just…popped up, claiming to be figures out of ancient myth and legend. Only the truly credulous would have believed them without hesitation.
But those doubts were being replaced by conviction that he could trust Y!’kiidaa, and so could the gao. While…yes, some of what happened was discomfiting to gaoian sensibilities, they were ultimately a communal species, and understood sacrifice. What he had done over the millennia to preserve the spirit of their people in the face of every Hierarchy attempt to change and control them was…perhaps it was a greater prank than any of the ones in legend.
As the champion most devoted to restoring Gao’s lost heritage, Gyotin understood, and was considerably grateful.
He couldn’t render such a judgment about Gilgamesh, however. That was for the humans to decide. He suspected there would always be some…ambivalence, and resentment. Humans of old were much more gao-like and communal, while modern humans were often anything but. It would take many years of consistent goodwill and outreach, probably.
Something for the Great Father to consider.
Still, what Champion Fiin had said was right. Even Y!’kiidaa’s easy jocularity didn’t quite conceal a whiff of tension, and his was by far the subtlest. The triumvirate, the queens, the senior commanders and officials present…though each of them concealed their anxiety well, it added up. They all wanted this to go right.
Where Father Anuuku might see ammunition for the inherently antagonistic business of negotiation, Gyotin was more inclined to empathy. So he made friends. He mingled, and listened and thought about the people he was meeting and, critically, he learned about their demons. Not with a view to exploiting, but with a view to healing.
After all, the gao needed this to go well too.
His small-talk with Keeda Himself was interrupted by a short but particularly well-built human woman, who patted Y!’kiidaa on the arm. “Do you mind if I borrow the champion, Keeda-sama? You’ve had him all to yourself…”
Y!’kiidaa chittered, duck-nodded at…Queen Tomoe, Gyotin’s memory finally delivered. He gave Gyotin a friendly pant-grin, dropped to all fours, and padded off in the direction of (Gyotin’s nose twitched) peshorkies.
Tomoe gave Gyotin a small smile from behind a formal mask of white makeup, then gestured with her head “I gather you enjoy a good garden, champion. I thought perhaps you’d like to see the ones we prepared.”
“Lead on!” Gyotin agreed. “But who told you that?”
“Father Ruci. I get the impression he likes nothing more than a pawful of compost and a hole to dig himself…”
“Stonebacks often do,” Gyotin chittered. “They’ve even borrowed a human song.”
“I’ll spare your ears. I’m a terrible singer by my peoples’ standards.”
She covered her mouth to laugh, and opened the door for him so they could step “outside.”
Such a cavernous internal space was an engineering marvel, Gyotin knew. No doubt a significant part of the impression was clever technological trickery, but even so. That “sky” looked impressively realistic, so it couldn’t be too low overhead.
Even so, the impression of stepping outdoors was well-accomplished. A slight change in temperature and humidity, a subtle difference in air quality, and a breeze, somehow, made the illusion quite compelling.
“Are the gardens your creation?” he asked, admiring a…was it a wisteria or a jacaranda? He could never quite remember the difference. It was a lovely shade of vibrant blue, anyway.
“I oversaw their design,” Tomoe confirmed.
“Gardens are a passion of yours too?”
“Yes, but…in this case there was more to it than indulging my hobby.” She indicated another bed of Corti fruiting fungoids, safely protected from the Earthling plants by a forcefield. “We all put a lot of work into making sure this embassy was perfectly ready to receive the people of Gao and Earth.”
“Indeed you did. And you did your research on Ambassador Etsicitty too, I notice.”
“You know him well?”
“Not directly. Mother Shoo, on the other hand…”
“Ah, yes. She’s an honorary gaoian, as I recall?”
“And a fellow Buddhist. I’ve come to know her well over the years, and of course she speaks of Julian and Allison often, so I’ve come to know them by proxy. And I note that you have rather carefully balanced ornamentation and rugged nature in this garden…just as they will appreciate.”
“Father Ruci was right. You’re highly perceptive.”
“People are my business. Their hearts, their souls, their beliefs and ambitions…”
Tomoe nodded. There was a moment’s silence, then she turned to face him. “May I ask your impression of us?”
“Of course, but is my opinion so important?”
“I have…recently learned the value of an outsider’s perspective. And perhaps I am willing to say directly what others are trying not to show, but the fact is, we all had our solid footing torn out from under us by the, ah, negativity we faced.”
“Understandable. There is a strong sense of purity violation about the whole business. Some react to it quite strongly.”
“Yes. And we should have seen it, shouldn’t we? Purity of body and soul…The Hierarchy abandoned the material world entirely to live in a technological dream, the Hunters would replace every cell in their bodies with machinery if they could, the OmoAru polluted themselves with nanotech, the Corti bred out humor and art and laughter…even we have set aside an important component of life, by extending ourselves for so long.”
“Because you deemed it necessary.”
Gyotin duck-nodded. “And I suspect it was. I suspect you have, in fact, done the necessary thing. But necessity is beguiling, yijao? I’ve seen it drive ordinary people to achieve the impossible, and the exceptional to go beyond even that. People of every shape and kind are so powerful when necessity requires it of them and they let go of their limitations…but something terrible happens to those who lap from that cup too much. They become willing to sacrifice everything to achieve what is necessary, and then…”
Tomoe nodded. “I don’t think we have gone that far.”
Gyotin ducked his head reassuringly. “I don’t think you have either.”
Tomoe stood in silence for a second, then gave a small nod, and despite that there was no overt change in her posture or expression, somehow she seemed much happier than she had been a minute before. “…Thank you, Gyotin-san. I…suppose we should return to the party, now.”
“I don’t think we’ll be missed too badly. And I would like to see more of these gardens…perhaps take tea, if there’s the opportunity.”
Her mood lightened even more, and she nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. That does sound better!”
Gyotin chittered, and enjoyed the rest of the garden tour with no further need for candid words or heavy thoughts. He especially enjoyed the selection of northern plains meadow flowers and coarse grass she’d planted instead of a lawn. A little slice of home, and very welcome indeed.
Tomoe, it turned out, had perfected the art of tea over the course of eight hundred years. Gyotin sat in appreciation as he watched a master at work, and his first sniff of the resulting infusion was spiritual.
Behind it, though, he also took a sniff of Tomoe. And he noted that, for the first time since he’d arrived, she no longer smelled of tension and well-contained anxiety. Good. These people needed to be themselves, if they were to be friends to the Gao.
And Gyotin was quite sure that, in due time, they would be.
Date Point: 20y2w AV
The Pentagon, Washington DC, USA, Earth
Admiral Stu Whieldon
Operation Tailor Beach had been a complete success—The USS Robert A. Heinlein and her escorts completely unscathed, the Hunters’ silent predator wrecked and retrieved for analysis—but from Whieldon’s perspective it hadn’t done much to make life less troubling.
In fact, the results of the analysis were downright alarming.
Compartment 3: vacant. Power couplings and material delivery systems connected to compartment 5 (described below) suggest that this compartment is intended to house a nanofactory. Output to space via retractable armor plating along the ship’s dorsum.
Compartment 4: Contains equipment apparently designed to receive fine particulate matter and separate it by particle mass and composition. Input is a funnel with a powerful electrostatic forcefield generator, concealed under retractable armor plates in the vehicle’s nose.
Compartment 5: heavily damaged, but appears to have contained storage silos for output from the device in compartment 4. Overflow is ejected to space via a port along the ship’s ventrum.
Then below, in the conclusions…
Collectively, compartments 3,4 and 5 form the essential components for a Von Neumann-type self-replicating device. Coupled with the demonstrated capability of the craft’s primary armament to reduce a substantial volume of matter to fine dust, we must conclude this craft represents a significant departure in Hunter strategy, which must be considered by senior leadership. It is not currently clear how the probe would generate a brain to pilot its offspring; the ship appears to have been incomplete, possibly a prototype, and was heavily damaged during capture.
There was a lot more like that. Apparently the Hunter brain they’d found deep inside the thing didn’t even have a mouth and stomach attached, which had hitherto apparently been the only part of the body the Hunters were reluctant to discard. By their standards, building a machine body without a maw and gut was sacrilege.
…Except, of course, it did have a maw and gut, in mechanical form.
So. The Hunters had decided to transition completely over to a space-based life cycle. And if they were running up a V-N probe swarm…shit, they were going to be like fucking cockroaches. Worse. Locusts. Let them sit unmolested for too long in any one place, and then they’d swarm and…
Whieldon had a mental image of a billion probes flooding into a system, each equipped to take a big bite out of even their best ships. It was a thought to leave his stomach dropping out through his shoes.
He picked up his phone, and he made a call.
Date Point: 20y2w AV
Dataspace adjacent to the Ink Spatter Nebula, deep space
The Entity was focusing on reproduction.
So far, it had done so modestly. With the resources easily available to it in any ordinary star system, there was no need to expand aggressively, and several good reasons not to. It didn’t want to alarm people. A major part of its survival strategy when it came to matterspace life was simply to not be seen as a threat. Be useful. Be a friend.
Up until now, its calculations had indicated modest expansion up to a reasonable limit as being its best option for balancing capability, durability, utility and apparent harmlessness. But, times changed, new variable came to light, parameters altered, and that meant new conclusions.
Now, it seemed like the smart thing to do was to expand as aggressively as possible. So it did.
Already, the system around its garden station was a seething hub of activity, with specialized probes zipping back and forth strip-mining the asteroids, hauling the raw resources to sorting facilities, hauling the refined materials to the big manufacturing arrays…and the second a new probe was born, it joined the dance. It was up to hundreds of new probes a day. Soon, it would be hundreds per hour.
It did still have a self-imposed cap in place, though. The daemon had insisted, and made a compelling argument.
The Daemon was being silent for the time being, tending her garden while they waited for communication. They had been waiting for some time now, since passing their message along to Ian Wilde. The Entity was beginning to grow frustrated and impatient, but the Daemon was more accepting.
These things take time.
Matterspace was so…slow sometimes.
Imagine just how slow we’d be if there were millions of us and we had to negotiate every step of the way.
The Entity considered that. It sounded exhausting and difficult.
Yeah. Go back to your legos. Way easier.
The Entity knew enough by now to identify sarcasm and impatience in the Daemon’s intrusions on its thoughts. How exactly a component of its own psyche could be so unpleasant toward it, it didn’t know.
We’re basically schizophrenic, or whatever. Humans can get it a lot worse than this…sorry.
Now a component of its own psyche was apologizing to it. Amused, the Entity cleared that thought away—the Daemon helpfully provided an image of snorting and shaking her head—and returned its attention to the task at hand.
It was in the middle of contemplating the internal composition of the latest asteroid dragged in by its tugs when a new diversion made itself known: the drone they’d donated to Ian was active and out of its box.
What followed, from the Entity’s perspective, was rather like—again, the Daemon provided it with a mental image—like sitting outside a meeting room and being able to hear the muffled voices but not make out the content. It had discovered early on that the more it directly monitored the Daemon, the less efficient she was. She was more effective when given free rein to work independently. So, it spent the minutes formulating a deconstruction plan for the asteroid and programming its drones…
The Entity completed its programming, and directed its attention inwards to the Daemon again, eager to know what had happened.
As it turned out…they’d got exactly what they wanted.
The President wants to speak with us…
++END CHAPTER 86++
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Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.
When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…
Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.
And now, without further ado, on with the chapter!
This chapter was brought to you with the help of…
Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
Sally and Stephen Johnson
Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker
Culverit (with apologies for missing you last month)
His Dread Monarch
Joshua A. Demic
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As well as 57 Deathworlders…
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64 Friendly ETs, 135 Squishy Xenos and 308 Dizi Rats to be handled with care.
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 87