The Deathworlders

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Chapter 87: Waves on the Horizon

Date Point: 20y1m AV
Ekallim-Igigi

Allison Buehler

Late night, in an almost unreasonably palatial new home on an unreasonably huge space station. Children fast asleep, Julian’s slow, heavy breathing on her neck as he big-spooned the both of them in a tight, powerful embrace. Ekallim-Igigi was kept warm, and Julian was more a furnace than ever, so his musk and sweat was inescapable and a bit overwhelming. No-blanket sleeping had become the norm for them, not that she was complaining.

Or…not sleeping. Maybe there was something in the air, and it was having the same effect on her that it’d had every single night since they’d arrived. She stirred, and felt him stir in turn with a happy grumble, then felt something else stir itself over her rear, up her back…

That wasn’t always how a gal wanted to wake up, but sometimes it absolutely was. “Hmm,” She purred, sleepily. “Not very subtle of you.”

He’d never been a mild sort of man in any meaning of the word. Big, strong, thoughtful…but uncomplicated. That had always been how she thought of him. But now, with how far he’d pushed himself, with his growing responsibilities and the demands of this new posting, the success of his friends and the presence of something like actual competition again in his life…

Well, to say it had brought out all his best qualities would be an understatement. He’d never looked better, never been so fantastically fit and strong, never had so much fizzing energy about him. Never seemed so alive as he had lately. Whether he was playing with the kids, attending to duties, dominating the fuck out of his competition, or doing his best to screw the both of them right through their bed and out the other end of the station…

Honestly, she was okay with that.

His grip tightened, and those powerful hands of his began their devilish work. “Fuck subtle,” he growled quietly. “I want you. Just let me do all the work…”

Tempting, really…and he was so endlessly strong. But no. She wiggled free of his wicked ministrations. “Nah, babe. My turn.” She “pushed” him onto his back and climbed astride his hips. He grinned smugly, getting exactly what he wanted. Big pretty bastard really was too damn good at this game…

Well, she could play right back.

“I’m gonna make you work for your reward, Tarzan. And you can make yourself useful, Xiù.”

Once, Xiù had been the most timid of them. That had changed, with time and experience and closeness. Now, she just grinned and purred a sultry “yes, ma’am.”

“Good girl.”

There was something so erotic about taking charge that Allison couldn’t get enough of. Here was such a man, pretty much literally the best there was and getting better. And he loved her. It was intimidating. He frightened her when his growl was up, when she got to feel just a tiny fraction of what he could really do…

Xiù was intimidating too. So smart, so wise and fierce. She could dance her way through the world of people and their plotting without ever misstepping, without a single hair astray. How she juggled their lives and made them such a home despite never being asked or pressed into it…

Sometimes Al wondered what exactly it was she did for them, to deserve this little misfit family. It wasn’t hard to feel insecure next to people so accomplished and exceptional. But Julian’s expression said it all. His massive hands fully encircled her waist, lifting her up, settling her in place…

And then driving all thought and breath out of her.

Too good to put to words. She might be on top, be he was the one in control, and they both knew it. Her very breath only came with the rhythm he set. Fierce, desperate, faster and faster, endless motion that went on and on and on—

Then Xiù’s teeth on her neck and arms around her chest, sweet whispers in her ear, and Allison saw stars.

Eventually they caught their breath and she was lying on her side in his arms again, all tenderness and gentle nuzzles. She’d got exactly what she was looking for.

“Christ.”

And so had he. Julian sighed happily, “no kiddin’.” He kissed the top of her head while her heart calmed down. After a while he rumbled, “so it isn’t just me.”

“No,” Al agreed. “I think it’s this place. It’s warm and a little humid, and the lighting is just right…”

“Like perpetual mediterranean spring,” Xiù noted, eyeing the scene with a devilish grin. “I hope you don’t think you’re done, bǎobèi.”

“Oh, not at all…”

It was Al’s turn to watch, and honestly, she could dig it. He was so much more aggressive with Xiù, and sometimes Al wondered what it felt like to just give in so completely. She couldn’t, really. It just wasn’t her thing. But still, he could bliss Xiù so quickly, and keep her there seemingly forever…

It was some while before they reluctantly slid out of bed, changed the sheets, checked in on the kids, had a snack—well, a full meal, in Julian’s case. Honestly, the whole late-night wakeup thing wasn’t so bad, really. A good long nap, a good long romp, another long nap—

So naturally, right as they were drifting off to sleep again, the station’s alarms went off.

General quarters. Everyone to their designated stations.

…Fuck.


Gilgamesh of Uruk, king of Singularity

Dreamless, contented sleep shattered like glass under a hammer at the sound of the general alarm. Gilgamesh was upright before he was even properly awake, while Tomoe was even quicker in springing out of bed. While Gilgamesh grabbed yesterday’s discarded clothes and pulled them on, she found a clear spot in the middle of the room, gave him a tense smile, touched the controls on her bracelet, and vanished in a black-flash and thump of air displacement. Her place was on her ship.

Gilgamesh spoke to the room. “Report.”

“A large Hierarchy fleet incoming, sire. They will be here in five minutes. We are preparing to jump.”

Gilgamesh didn’t bother asking the first question that lodged in his mind. How had the Hierarchy found them? That could wait. What mattered right now was the security and continuity of the station, its population and their guests.

The Nexus, when he reached it, was disciplined chaos. Ekallim-Igigi was too big to jump on immediate notice, its sheer radius and mass required careful management to safely navigate a wormhole.

“Is everyone on-board?”

“The last mining ship is docking now. Jump will be ready in three minutes.”

Which meant it wasn’t going to happen before the fleet arrived, and if the fleet had a wormhole suppressor—as it surely would—then it wasn’t going to happen at all.

“Launch shield mines. All ships and weapons will prioritize any enemy vessel which generates a suppression field.”

“By your orders.”

Gilgamesh assumed his command chair and strapped himself in, counting down the seconds while reports scrolled up the screen in front of his hand. Systems powering up, shields reaching full stability, the all-too-slow creep of the jump calculations and capacitors charging…

Ekallim-Igigi had never once been fired upon by an enemy before today, but he noted with satisfaction that the long generations of training and preparation had not been wasted. The people were solid, and soon the station itself would prove its mettle too.

With one minute to go until contact, the embassy guard reported that the ambassadors and family members had safely returned to Cimbrean…

Not a moment too soon. Gilgamesh had barely read that update when a faint tremor through the deck and a series of disturbed red notifications told him that the leading edge of the Hierarchy’s disruption field had swept over them. He looked up and considered the battle volume, noted the hundreds of contacts, and the red kidney-shaped blob containing many dozens more which had yet to be isolated from the mass. Some of the tension in his shoulders relaxed away as he saw how few of them were tagged as suppression sources. This was not a hopeless fight.

The leading edge of the oncoming force was temporarily lost in a series of brilliant detonations; the shield mines, dumping all their stored energy directly into the enemy ships’ shield wall. Several contacts flickered and went dark, their systems overloaded and their superheated structures buckling, but Gilgamesh saw what the agents in charge of the hostile fleet had done instantly: they had sacrificially directed the brunt of the thermal load onto a few escorts.

Signal from Mevia aboard Gladiatrix: target calls. She’d identified the heavy Judge-class ships holding the shield wall together. Gilgamesh concurred, directed, synchronized…

Singularity’s entire fleet spoke with one voice.

In the aftermath, a quintet of the Hierarchy’s powerhouse battlecruisers were gone, leaving behind only clouds of fine dust and a flare of radiation. Their sudden loss tore a fissure in the Hierarchy’s front line, which was not allowed time to close. Gladiatrix, Onna-Musha, Menhit and Valkyrie, the four most combat-focused of the queen-ships, pulse-warped and were amid the exposed prey like terriers among rats, alongside Yekiidaa’s Seared Rascal. Gilgamesh gripped his chair in vindicated, savage satisfaction as he watched them tear ships apart by the dozen…

Ekallim-Igigi spoke again, its weapon fire streaking through the hole they’d made. The suppressor ships in the rear of the Hierarchy’s formation burst apart like bubbles full of smoke, and the moment every computer in Singularity’s arsenal had been patiently awaiting came: the suppression field collapsed.

There was the lurch and black-flash of jump. Gilgamesh’s battlespace overview took a second to catch up…and he relaxed.

All safe. None left behind.

“Report.”

“Ekallim-Igigi is at sixty-four percent thermal capacity, minor structural damage from overloads in sections Ninhursag and Utu. Gladiatrix reports armor ablation, likewise Onna-Musha. We have expended one quarter of our mines.”

Good. A good report, but they had no time to lose.

“Deploy a system shield immediately and begin a sweep for probes or beacons.”

“Sire, a system shield will be detected—“

“We are past the point of stealth and will not survive a second assault, now that we are revealed. Make it so.”

Now that he had time to think, Gilgamesh could only chastise himself for failing to order one deployed sooner. He had hoped they would have more time to act in secrecy and scout more archive sites…instead, his caution had invited an attack on Ekallim-Igigi itself. That could not stand.

He rose from his throne. “There will be a debrief and strategy session in one hour,” he declared. “Tend to repairs, and invite the ambassadors to come back aboard with our assurance that this will not happen again.”

“By your order, sire.”

“And I want my son in attendance, too.”

He strode from the Nexus and returned to his quarters to dress properly. There would be much to go over, and many lessons to learn, for everyone…perhaps most relevantly for Alex. Gilgamesh was glad the boy had not been present to be endangered by this, but he would need to see and learn from it nonetheless.

They all would. For all their confidence in their technology and their personal histories as warriors, this was the first time that Singularity had truly fought the Enemy in open battle. They would find every flaw and mis-step, and learn. They must: the alternative was to be worse than useless.

And once they had learned, Gilgamesh resolved, they would go on learning. They would deploy alongside the AEC and Gaoian fleets. They would take to heart the hard-won lessons of those two younger but more battle-tested powers…And they would win this thing.

Though in his soul, he knew it would not be easy.


Date Point: 20y1m AV
Daar’s Gym, High Mountain Fortress, wherever Gao is

Adam, feelin’ like whipped cream at the moment

When was a vacation the actual, total fuckin’ opposite of relaxing?

Adam never got around to answering Daar’s letter with one of his own. Instead, he went to visit the big guy personally to talk it out. Maybe that was taking advantage of their friendship, sure. After all, Daar was a fuckin’ god-king, right? Like, literally, in no uncertain terms. How many people had that kind of bestest friend?

Well, Daar wasn’t really a “normal” god-king anyway. Not that normal was even possible for him, but normal was what he wanted most in life, and damnit, if Adam and friends could give him a little of that, they sure as fuck would.

Daar just had to make time for it. Which took a couple of days, of course. He might be theoretically able to just drop everything at a moment’s notice and go play, but in truth…

That was okay. Gao wasn’t exactly the grand galactic tourist destination, but it was developing some cottage Deathworlder hospitality, and there was still plenty for a young family to go and see and do and play with. After all, gaoian cubs loved to play and go on adventures just as much as human toddlers.

That was the first couple of days, until Daar’s schedule was cleared enough to make room, and they could do normal friend stuff. Eat (…surprisingly good) “gaori-style” tacos, go on hikes, play videogames and so on. Daar loved the kids and they loved him right back. And gaoians loved mischief, so when the Great Father himself wanted to pop in somewhere for a bite with some friends, talk up a museum, sneak and slink around as unnoticed as he could ever be…

It was like a giant, spontaneous conspiracy to make his life a bit easier, and everyone was happy to have done their part. So…who exactly was on vacation, anyway?

And since they were both over-enthusiastic gymrats, there was a lot of that too. He had a fuckin’ amazing gym with artificial gravity strong enough to flatten Adam to the floor, so of course he was dying to try it out! They spent days wrestling and sparring, lifting, playing all sorts of sports and dominating the fuck out of tactical drills with Stoneback’s finest. Never a dull moment and never for a second did Daar fail to amaze. Adam was extra proud of that, even though being Daar’s coach did give their relationship an extra dose of strange.

But what else could they do? No gaoian alive would be so presumptuous (or brave!) as to tell the Great Father how to train, and besides: it was Adam and his team—well, former team, anyway—who had first taught them how to grow past athlete-by-practice into a mindset of athletics-as-science. That little nudge, along with many others in other subjects, had broken them of the Hierarchy’s quiet social conditioning, and with it…

Nobody embodied the change more than Daar himself. When they first met he was already a giant of a gao. He stood eight-foot-four and had a lean, powerfully athletic build; HEAT teased him as the “furry Vin Diesel” for good reason. That long torso and those long arms of his hid a lot of muscle too, so the dude was well over a half-ton of kodiak-bear-strong right from the outset.

Impressive as hell! But their first meeting was in less than ideal circumstances, which meant that Murray, a HEAT man less than half of Daar’s huge weight, had to safely subdue the giant gao. Daar was then Champion of his Clan and an important potential ally, too. No pressure.

So, Murray did. Without all that much fuss. It wasn’t because he was bigger. It wasn’t because he was faster or stronger or quicker or tougher, or anything. On a physical level, Daar had everyone on the team (even Adam, on some things) beat from the moment they met.

No. The difference was in training. In mindset. In attitude. In emphasis and competency. If it were just one thing it would have been a quirk of circumstance. But in every field of society, from science to learning to philosophy to meathead things like Adam understood…the Gao had been crippled, Daar especially. Held back. Whispered into restrained mediocrity.

Fuck that. Daar and Adam understood right away from their grunty perspectives. So, they fixed it. And Daar started to grow properly. Then they got him on strong sports medicine, found he responded perfectly and they pushed it all the way, pushed him even harder…

It had taken time of course, and it even took some revelations about his entire species’ genetics to come to light. But all of it proved the point. Daar went from a naturally lanky bruiser to…

Well, shit. To a figure out of myth and legend. Ten feet tall now and just honestly so much, there wasn’t even a point trying to put it to words. Dude was the unbeatable monster, period.

Still mortal enough to need some sports massage, though. Something very few were strong enough to manage. Adam could barely dent the guy using all the force he could muster, even with his ultra-duty Graston scrapers and some jackhammer gadgets for serious work. Daar made teak and wrought iron feel soft and squishy by comparison.

“Christ,” Adam mumbled, while catching his breath. “I’m pretty sure most armor plate would have more give than you. You sure you’re relaxed?”

Daar wagged his tail and grumbled blissfully while Adam failed to make any real progress on the dude’s elephantine left calf. “I ain’t flexin’—oh that hurts so good keep doin’ that…”

Well, okay then. Full send it was. He had plenty to work against too; Daar really was just stupid big. He hooked his own legs around Daar’s giant footpaw and set in to it. At least he could manage some leverage…

Eventually, they’d scraped him down from calf to neck, front to back. Adam was fucking exhausted from the ordeal and Daar didn’t feel at all like they’d loosened anything up…but he was nothing but grateful from his puddle on the floor, tail wagging lazily to and fro.

“Oh…dude. Dude. I needed that so fucking bad, Cousin. Y’know how fuckin’ good it feels to be loose again? I could just lie here all day…”

He couldn’t, of course. Great Fathers got little time off, so even there in his own private gym, he’d had a string of advisors and others coming to and fro, all needing sign-off on this between lifts, opinion on that as he caught his breath, complex decisions while he hung in a cross from the rings, gravity set so fucking high, neither Adam nor his aides could enter the pit…

“I dunno if loose is the word,” Adam quipped wearily, as he massaged his own sore forearms. “Fuck, man. Even with all the insane shit you’ve done over the years, somehow this drove it all home for me harder’n anything else. You’re fuckin’ scary.”

“…Yeah. I know. I got some crazy tricks I can show ‘ya, too. But seriously: thank you.”

“De nada. Think I need my own massage,” he said absent-mindedly.

Daar flowed up to all fours with a big, luxuriant stretch. “Okay. I can do that.”

Adam glanced sideways at him…and at the writhing cable-like sinew in those thigh-dwarfing forearms of his…

“Uh…no thanks. I choose life.”

“Relax you big goof,” Daar chittered wearily. “I do this ‘fer Naydi so you’ll survive. Lie down.”

Well…he was right. Adam did survive, technically. Those giant paws knew what they were doing, but they were not gentle even by Adam’s standards.

“Hnnngh…” Adam panted. “Fuck, guess I’m payin’ back karma, huh?”

“Nah. You need a good smashin’ even worse’n I did.” Silence for a while while he worked, until finally they broached the topic they both knew was the reason for Adam’s visit.

“So…had a think on my letter?”

“Yeah.” Hitch in his breath while Daar found a particularly nasty knot in his lower back and obliterated it with his absurd strength. “…Still recoverin’.”

“I can tell. ‘Yer missin’ a lotta size an’ you ain’t essactly rockin’ ‘yer normal conditioning, I can feel it. You should feel bulletproof like me, not…”

“Like Jell-O?” Adam offered, wearily.

“Don’t be so hard on ‘yerself. Les’ jus’ say ‘not like ‘ya were.’ Righteous has you beat now.”

“I know,” Adam sighed, “he’s beat me good and hard. Literally just the other day, sorta settling an old score—I had it comin’ so don’t worry. He’s a fuck of a lot faster an’ stronger now than I ever was, too.”

“‘Cuz he’s way fuckin’ bigger’n you an’ he’s still packin’ on th’ size an’ conditioning. Fuckin’ impressive. Biggest surprise though? Fuckin’ Yan Given-Man! Once y’all got serious? Balls!”

“I know, right? Sure, he still ain’t remotely a match for Righteous and the gap’s growing, but we ain’t even started Yan on the spacemagic yet. Everything he’s got is all him.”

Daar whistled, which was an impressive trick for a gaoian. “No shit? Well fuck, that’s terrifyin’!”

“That’s ten’gewek. Their bigger Given-Men are all like that, more or less. Difference is mostly in size. They condition fast too. Really are the best fuckin’ badasses out there.”

“S’long as ‘ya can feed ‘em.”

“There’s that, yeah. They’ve got some weird mineral and micronutrient needs. The bigger guys like to chew bones and rocks and they’re all blood drinkers too, especially in spring.”

“Mhmm. So…what d’ya think of our new space friends?”

Adam scratched his chin while Daar worked over his spinal erectors. “I dunno,” he said truthfully. “I think they’re sorta weirdly in the same trap the gao were, though not as bad. They never turned their training and education into science like we did.”

“Your people are pretty unique in that regard. You an’ the Corti. Can’t argue wit’ the results…”

“Fair. So, I dunno. Gilgamesh looks like he’s got all the potential in the world. Same way you did. Julian’s got more’n him though, and he’s already folding Gilgamesh up like an old newspaper.”

“Ain’t surprisin’. He’s the end result o’ both’ their efforts an’ yours. Be weird if he wasn’t.”

“Yeah, but then there’s Alex. See, I was just a really mutant-fit kid growing up, right? Not really a giant like Firth was, or a lot of others, so I could kinda-sorta claim to be normal. Alex though, he’s, what? Comin’ up on his thirteenth birthday and he’s already fuckin’ scary—”

“I can sympathize.” Daar rumbled. “I really oughta make more time ‘fer him. His old man’s usin’ him as a piece in this big game we’re all playin’, an’ somebody needs ‘ta start makin’ sure the kid can see it.”

Adam scowled. The thought of a father using his own flesh and blood as a pawn like that made his skin crawl and his belly twist up. It was…backwards, in more than one way. It was medieval. It was fuckin’ bronze age.

Daar, bless him, veered away from that subject after a minute’s painful, smashy silence.

“Back ‘ta the subject o’ you, huh? Other’n the conditionin’, how’s that thinker o’ yours doin’? Still gettin’ migraines?”

“Couple times a week,” Adam told him. “I think they’re gettin’ better, slowly…I hope so, ‘cuz I can’t train when I can’t even open my damn eyes from the pain.”

Daar duck-nodded. “Mhmm.”

Another few minutes passed quietly, Daar obliterating tension in Adam’s upper back. He finished, then picked up one of Adam’s scrapes.

He examined it with a tilted head. “This s’posed to be bent like this?”

“No,” Adam sighed, glad for Daar’s attentions. “It and your body had a contest. It lost.”

Daar chittered, and put it aside. “Sarry. Well, no. Sarry it’s broke. I’ll git ‘ya a new set.”

“Appreciate it.”

Daar flipped him over and gave a mischievous look. “Hey, I said I can do some really crazy tricks, right? Watch this.” With a flourish, he wadded it into a loose ball with one paw; impressive as fuck, and Adam could never have done that. But that wasn’t the trick. He pressed it between his palms, interlaced his fingers, grunted in effort and flexed—

Daar’s entire upper body exploded into a corded, hulking mass of anatomy-chart muscle. A thin extrusion of metal slithered out from between his paws after hardly an instant. He grimaced and somehow bore down even harder. More escaping metal, then a couple seconds later he hissed and snatched his paws back: the scrape, flattened and thinned into a fuckin’ pancake, dropped to the ground and rolled like a huge misshapen coin.

“There, easy!” He pant-grinned in that friendly-dominant way only he could pull off. “None o’ y’all ain’t shit next ‘ta me! I figger, if I’m gonna be a monster, may as well have fun wit’ it!”

Adam picked up the resulting smashed disk of what had been solid stainless steel, and juggled it from hand to hand while it cooled. He looked up and eyed Daar warily. “…Okay. I take it back. That is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do.”

Daar flicked an ear, suddenly a bit embarrassed. “…A bit much, huh?”

“…Yeah, I’d say.” Good God. Adam had never felt so comparatively weak!

Daar sighed ruefully. “Right. Uh, mebbe I shouldn’t do that one ‘fer jus’ everyone.”

How did someone react to a trick that amazing? The truth seemed best. “Probably not, no.”

Daar paused for a minute. “There was another even crazier trick I wanted ‘ta show…”

“Maybe save it for next time. Y’know. When I need a good scarin’.”

He chittered ruefully, “…Right. So let’s git you finished up.” He made quick work of it, in slightly awkward silence. Which was thick after that supergaoian performance, and the suggestion he could do something even crazier…

“Okay. I gotta ask. What was the other trick?”

“Oh, uh…I’ll show ‘ya later, but it’s a way more better version o’ the pipe trick, ‘cept this time it’s wit’ a solid bar an’ I don’t use my arm. Even I can’t believe I can do it an’ I did it jus’ today ‘fer the cubs!”

“Now this I gotta see…why not show me now? And why the mystery about ‘not with my arm?’”

“‘Cuz I flatten’d m’last bar ‘fer ‘em!” Daar chittered, “an’ ‘cuz mystery is fun! An’ also ‘cuz it hurts like balls ‘ta do. Now what d’we got left ‘ta work out?”

There wasn’t much, but the big guy did help pop and stretch everything back into place; Adam’s hips really needed someone strong and careful enough to manipulate them and god it felt good when everything finally popped into place. At the end of it, panting from the total-body relief of it all, Adam couldn’t help but crack a joke. “What, no happy ending?”

Daar snorted. “Din’t give me nohappy endin’ when you were scrapin’ close enough ‘ta try…”

“Well, you didn’t ask!”

“Shit, that’s all I had ‘ta do? I’d better keep that in mind ‘fer next time!”

“Well. Maybe get me drunk first. Don’t know if I’d survive the attempt otherwise.”

“Ha! Damn right!” Daar preened. “But I thought ‘Base was ‘yer one true love!”

Adam looked around conspiratorially. “Don’t say that so loud! Marty might hear…”

“Balls! I swear there’s somethin’ wrong wit’ you.”

“Probably.” Adam put his hands behind his hand and grinned. “So…no, then?”

Daar snorted, and threw a towel at Adam’s head. “Git up ‘ya fuckin’ pervert. An’ keep ‘yer lil’ battlepony in ‘yer shorts. I’ve got three more circuits ‘ta go!”

They did four, as it turned out. For Daar it was a nonstop, manic attack at the weights and the ropes, on the rings and the mat, with just enough time between activities to gulp down some air and gulp down Juice. Adam spent all his energy (and then some) just following along.

Daar finally relented at the beginning of the evening while he examined himself in the mirror. And honestly…

Jesus Christ. He was goddamned magnificent. Perfect. Nothing and nobody compared.

And he knew it too, though right now he was learning what it was like to push himself when he’d really reached his limits. Until very recently, he had lots of headroom to spare. Now he was where Adam had been for years—he’d need to force himself to improve, and not gently either.

It was a strange feeling running into that wall, and it’d hit Daar the same way it’d hit Adam. “Shit, I’m so fuckin’ gnarly an’ pumped up everwhere, feels like I’m gonna essplode. Can’t even see I’m flexin’!”

“Good! That’s why you’re gonna pose for an hour. Force blood into ‘em, force ‘em to grow!”

Posing was a great finisher for an advanced Student of the Iron, since form and function at this level went more hand-in-hand than people wanted to admit. No better way to develop mind-muscle connection and force that last bit of tension into him, pushing just that little bit harder right as his muscles were screaming for mercy, until the trembles set in and he couldn’t flex anymore. Adam would permit him a bit of recovery, then they’d do it again, and again…

Yeah, ego and motivation had a lot to do with it, but it was broscience with method to it. By round six the big guy was so swollen and vascular he genuinely did look a bit like he was gonna pop, so Adam ordered him to relax, then reached up, tried and failed to squeeze on Daar’s arm. Or flank, or his chest, back, legs…fuckin’ anywhere. Dude was a burning-hot sculpture of fuckin’ adamantium. Adam had a grip to smash iron and shatter granite, but right now he couldn’t even slightly dent his big bud’s body.

Fuck. “So…yeah. Finish this round and I’d say you’re fuckin’ done.” For real, Adam thought.

Daar pant-grinned down at him and resumed posing. “Yknow…I was sorta angry at first, thinkin’ about th’ idea I was some kinda engineered. Lotta people out there who are, like this whole Line thing jus’ hands all th’ credit ‘ta Singularity. But they din’t build my body,” he snarled as he worked his arms in and out. “I built it. S’the one thing…I can claim…is somethin’ I earned!”

Daar relaxed, but for only a second. No slack athletes allowed in front of the mirror. “Mebbe that’s my ego talkin’…but err’thing else, all this fuckery sorta taints it, yijao?” He growled again, and turned sideways to the mirror, grabbed his arm from behind, and bore down hard in a godly side-triceps. “But hard work? They can’t fuckin’ take that from me!”

Adam laughed bitterly. “Oh yes they can.”

“I…shit.” Daar dropped to all fours, hugged Adam tightly and keened. “I din’t mean ‘ta do that.”

“No…I know.” Adam rallied, “now don’t mope for me! Back lat spread, you giant fuck!”

Daar gave Adam a friendly slap on the back, which very politely didn’t snap his spine. “My man. Anyway,” he called as he spread his colossally wide ultra-thick lats. “What next, coach?”

Adam shook his head and grinned. “No keepin’ your spirits down, as always…As for targeting, there ain’t really anything you’ve got that’s lagging or out of proportion. You’ve been paying attention to yourself and self-adjusting. Good job! I’ll say keep doin’ what you’re doing, but at this point you’re so goddamn everything, what the fuck could possibly stand against you?”

“Oh, I’m sure th’ Hunters’ll build a better Alpha after I squished their last offering…”

Adam hadn’t witnessed that, being he was chunked up and in stasis at the time. He’d seen the video, though. And…just…Jesus.

“…Right. So keep it up, then. Just don’t forget mobility and function, especially in your upper body. You still get stiff like any gao and it sorta shows when you stretch your arms overhead.”

His Meathead Majesty examined his side profile in the mirror, those ridiculous legs of his being the focus of his attention as he flexed them in and out and turned every angle he could manage toward the mirror. “Calves are good’n huge, mebbe my adductors could use some more size…” he grumbled, “but yeah. Always been my bugaboo, keepin’ up wit’ ‘ya monkeys. It’s a good thing I’ve got all the speed!” He chittered teasingly. “Gotta put ‘ya in ‘yer place, yijao?”

Adam just chuckled. Every part of Daar’s legs were hugely developed of course, being a biped, but because he was also a quadruped his hamstrings were particularly obscene. While that did hamper his range of motion a bit—he’d never have an ape’s hip mobility—what it gave him in turn was power. Unbelievable power to lift the heaviest weights and outrun sports cars.

There were a lot of uses for a friendly rampaging dump truck in a fight.

“Anyhoo.” Daar stopped admiring himself and sank to all fours. “Walk wit’ me.”

He didn’t wait and set off at a casual pace, thumping along without much care. Adam shrugged and followed behind, since walking alongside wasn’t an option. As wide as the passageways in High Mountain could be, Daar often filled them, leaving little room for anyone else to pass. On all fours, the level of Daar’s hugely thick back came up to Adam’s shoulders, and the big freak’s haunches were a bit wider still; from the rear he was a square-shaped wall of rolling, bulging muscle, maybe a bit like the mutant super-cows or whatever on the internet but far, far bigger. By sheer bulk alone he was the biggest thing walking land anywhere. They meandered for a bit, Adam having no idea where they were going, until at last they arrived at a quiet garden.

High Mountain seemed to have lots of those. This one was quiet thanks to the walls on all sides, and was dominated by a big circular fish pond with a statue in the middle of a female gaoian in what was prob’ly a sultry pose by their standards. Fat alien fish with upturned mouths rose to the surface and gaped at them, clearly expecting to be fed.

Spring hadn’t quite sprung on Gao yet, so most of the garden was artfully barren, with an occasional flash of color. Barren, but Adam could feel a flush of warmth from the sun above. It was slightly yellower than Earth’s, but about the same size in the sky. You had to really pay attention to notice the difference. There was a strong chill to the air too, but this deep in High Mountain Fortress, the wind didn’t howl through and the air didn’t bite at the skin.

He could come to like this, actually.

Daar parked himself on the wall of a raised flowerbed, one immense Adam-sized leg dangling over the side. He chittered at the fish, which were still enthusiastically begging for food. “Don’t let ‘em fool ‘ya. They’re fed. Dumbasses don’t know when they’ve had enough.”

Adam took in the scene and, honestly…this was one of those moments where it suddenly clicked in his mind who exactly he was dealing with. Even in casual repose—sweat-soaked, disheveled, and straight from the gym—there was no hiding what Daar was. He was a natural leader and the base of that was undeniably rooted his sheer, ridiculous physical charisma. He had a too-handsome face and a god-like physique; both were majestic and terrible to behold. Musk that hit you over the head like an anvil, leaving no doubt for any caveman about who was in charge. He moved like a noble predator and had the personality to match, too.

None of that was just a gushing compliment or anything; it was a factual statement of how he was. Forget his country bumpkin accent or complicated origin. Daar had it where it counted, and had it more than maybe anyone ever. He…truly was the Great Father of them all. More and more, Adam realized, that was starting to include his own kind.

He paused on that thought for a moment, decided it was above his paygrade, then nodded to himself. “Yeah. They’re colorful. Kinda, I dunno, drugged-out colorful?”

“Yuh. Came as a fuck of a surprise ‘fer us,” Daar chittered again. “Before, I just thought they were swirly. Watch ‘em ‘fer a while an’ the swirls sorta change color dependin’ on th’ light.”

Quiet, again. Not knowing what to do, Adam took up a seat next to Daar, who gave him a Look. He sighed, and settled in along Daar’s iron flank. That giant arm and free leg of his immediately pulled him in for an inescapable full-body snuggle-hug that was half affection, half wrestling pin. Tight enough to register as affectionate between them…fatally crushing to most anyone else.

…Yeah. Gao knew how to Friend, maybe better than anyone. Except dogs. But gaoians and dogs were partners in crime, and what the dogs had in innocence, gaoians had in insight.

As Daar demonstrated. “So! Recovery. Lemme…tell me if I’m wrong, okay? I git a good sniff o’ men like you, an’ I know you ain’t gonna be happy wit’ retirement. You need purpose. An’ you know ‘yer purpose ain’t gonna be somethin’ quiet an’ safe…I on the mark?”

Adam blinked at him, a bit dumbfounded. “Uh…yeah. Yes. This is…I don’t know what to do with myself, Daar. I need…fuck. I dunno what I need.”

Daar pant-grinned at him kindly. “You need a mission an’ a goal, ‘ya meathead idiot.”

Adam paused, searching for a retort, and discovered he didn’t have one. “How the fuck do you do that? Like, one fuckin’ sentence and you’ve figgered it out.”

“That’s me,” Daar chittered. “Daar of Stoneback, grunty supergenius! Though th’ real secret is listenin’ ta’ Champion Gyotin’s podcast, an’ learnin’ but good from his example.”

Adam laughed. “Well, you prob’ly ain’t wrong.” The mirth didn’t last, though. “But…seriously. What the fuck can I do? I’m still pretty fuckin’ broken, Daar.”

The big guy stretched again and shook out the short-cut mane around his neck. “That ain’t gonna be ‘ferever. An’ ‘fer how I gotta think nowadays, long term is an unnerstatement.”

“…Right,” Adam sighed. “So on the one hand, I need a mission and a goal, on the other hand that’s not gonna happen in the short term…” He scratched his wrist idly as he chewed on that conundrum for a second.

“Ayup. So. Lemme tell ‘ya a bit ‘bout what I do. An’ fer this, I need ‘ya ta imagine I’m wearin’ my crown right now.”

“So this ain’t my best bud Daar talkin’.”

“Nope. He’s more or less dead, an’ only gets ‘ta come out now an’ then when reality allows. Right now I’m the Great Father in all his terrible fuckin’ glory. An’ a Great Father has ‘ta play a big fuckin’ game o’ chess. Or stratagem. Or cubes, if ‘ya prefer a gaoian game. Anyway.” He shook out his mane again, snuggled tighter into his friendly pin-hug, and sighed. “There are consequences to my creation, Adam. My species has just entered an accelerated die-off. Our population is going to drop below a billion in less’n twenny years. It will take us centuries ‘ta recover, an’ as much as I admire what ‘ya humans can do, an’ how you’ve built societies…it ain’t somethin’ we can perfectly mirror.”

Adam understood, suddenly. “And because the spacemagic allows it—”

“An’ ‘cuz I was engineered to do it,” Daar reminded him.

“…Right. So you’ll be the Great Father that whole time.”

“Yes. Because I must. Because my people demand it of me. I own ‘em all in absolute terms, like they were an extension of myself. That means I can command ‘em absolutely. But it also means they can do the same ‘ta me in turn. I live in service to th’ Gao, ‘cuz I am the Gao, an’ the Gao themselves made it so.”

Adam nodded. He’d heard this before, but it was worth letting Daar repeat himself when he felt it important. It set the stage.

Daar sighed heavily. “An’ Cousin…Adam. Fuck, do I ever need some good chess pieces by my side.”

“Even busted ones that’re gonna take a long time to fix up?”

“A long time in the face of centuries? Or millennia? Cousin, ‘yer gonna heal up in the blink of an eye in th’ face o’ that. And I tell you now: I need you. I need someone who is loyal to me an’ loyal to his people. I need someone who can do wunnerful an’ terrible things nobody else can, ‘cuz ‘yer a hero born who ain’t afraid ‘ta walk the dark side. I got Whitecrest ‘ta light the darkness. T’do that job, they need every fuckin’ trick in th’ book. I need the best ‘yer people got ‘ta walk that darkness wit’ them. An’ right now I’m lookin’ at the best there is. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Adam hadn’t got where he was by retaining many illusions about himself, or anyone else. He wanted to be modest, but the fact was…well, he could only think of one other human who was on their level.

“Not just me. What about Righteous? He…uh, fuck. He’s straight up better’n I ever was, nowadays.”

“Admirable man. An’ if it were just ‘bout his body, obviously I’d be all over ‘em like stink on naxas. But it ain’t. He ain’t a hero. He ain’t got a hero’s soul. An’ he’s named Righteous fer a reason. That man ain’t essactly a perfect ally ‘ta the gaoian race. Ain’t nothin’ wrong wit’ any o’ that, but when it comes to it, can I trust ‘em ‘ta serve an ideal beyond my people an’ yers?”

Adam didn’t answer, out of loyalty to his friend and brother…but Daar was right. Firth, ultimately, was in it to find his own limits and be the best he could possibly be. And besides that, he was loyal, of course…but the man was a benign chauvinist in a lot of ways, and there was no hiding the human supremacist streak, if you got to know him. He didn’t mean harm to the Gao of course, but gaoian problems were very much of secondary concern to him, even if he liked his teammates well enough. Service and loyalty to his friends? Absolutely, with his life if need be. But service to the Gao, even to human benefit? That was a fundamental line he’d probably never, ever cross.

…Would Adam bend the knee? How many lives could he save, if he did?

Daar nodded, accepting Adam’s silence. “Now, let’s be the harshest kind o’ honest. I think we both know good an’ damn well ‘yer a natural genetic freak th’ same way Gilgamesh an’ his fuckin’ ‘Heroes’ are. ‘Cept you’re the real gods-damned deal, no fuckin’ ancient conspiracy pedigree bullshit in you, an’ as far as I’m concerned that’s a damn good thing ‘ta have on my side. Plus, we both know there ain’t nobody more determined’n you when the chips are down. So…are you? Are you the best?”

Adam swallowed, and nodded. “…Yeah.”

“Good enough ‘ta go farther’n anyone? Put th’ work in an’ make perfect fuckin’ Righteous ‘yer lil’ bitch again? Go all in, all th’ way by my side, no matter how fuckin’ evil this shit gets?”

Daar idly bat at a fish, which blinked out of the way and was back to begging instantly.

Adam found himself nodding.

“I meant it when I said ‘yer the best there is. An’ now I bet ‘yer wunnerin’ what I’m actually gonna ask of ‘ya. Is that fair?”

“I haven’t heard an actual mission yet, it’s true.”

“Alright. Here’s th’ mission, in no particular order: destroy the Hierarchy. Preserve th’ Gaoian race. Preserve th’ Human race. Protect our allies. An’ rule the galaxy, ‘cuz someone’s gotta, and if it’s gotta be someone, it may as well be us misfit Deathworlders.”

…Jesus. Now that was shoving all his chips in, right there. “And my role in all that?”

“You will be one of the most dangerous weapons in this fight. I need someone deniable, unflappable, unstoppable, an’ terrible. I might need ‘ya ta save a buncha lives. Or I might need ‘ya ta murder th’ fuck outta someone or somethin’ nice an’ quiet. I need a weapon, Adam. An’ honest-ta’-gods angel o’ death, or mebbe o’ mercy. I need a hero worthy o’ bein’ that weapon. I need someone who can do that mission when a gaoian can’t. I need a one-man force o’ nature who’s better’n any team th’ HEAT or First Fang can muster. I need what only a human can be, ‘cuz ‘yer people are warriors unlike any other. And you in particular are one o’ the only beings in this entire fuckin’ galaxy I truly, completely respect.”

“…Well.” Adam cleared his throat, awkwardly. “That’s…heavy.”

Daar gave him a slight pant-grin. “Oh? I heard ‘ya were good wit’ heavy…”

He earned a traitorous grin, but only just. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Heh! I know. An’ ‘yer right, it’s heavy as balls. But…” Daar again stirred the fish pond with a claw. “Tending to th’ Gao means I cannot ignore th’ humans. Our fates are inseparable, ‘cuz we’re complimentary, tip-to-tip. Y’all are gonna blossom an’ spread while my people diminish. ‘Fer a time. Then we’re gonna out-breed you, and things are gonna change. Tell me that ain’t a terrible fuckin’ dynamic waitin’ ta happen.”

Adam remained silent as he mulled that over. Beside him, Daar rumbled, duck-nodded, and stopped teasing the poor fish.

“We gotta build a friendship that’ll live through anything,” he said. “An’ you might say a lotta the work’s already done. ‘Yer people saved mine, we woulda lost Gao, lost errything without humanity. An’ that’s sure as fuck a good foundation ‘ta build on…”

“But it’s just the foundation,” Adam finished.

“Yuh.” Daar let a moment pass silently. “…Help me build. Please.”

Well. Shit. Adam considered who he was talking to. Daar had him pinned: physically, with both genuine affection and no doubt some calculated dominance; and rhetorically too, with words and argument he knew good and goddamn well Adam wouldn’t be able to escape. That was dangerous territory to tread, because the big bastard was a literal fuckin’ supergenius. Like, pretty much the most intelligent piece of meat around, at all sorts of things. This, though? This was the sort of thing he was good at, what he was made to do. And nobody did it better.

Everyone (including Adam) focused on Daar’s huge elephant-dwarfing muscles and his fuckin’ god-tier physique and all his macho personality, because it was real, right there, and genuinely him. But he had a mind that could weaponize all that too, to completely irresistible effect. Daar was a true leader of men, one who could lead across species. All he had to do was stand there and speak a few words, and armies willingly followed him to glory and death.

Adam wasn’t a fool. He knew in his bones that he was absolutely no fuckin’ match against a mind like that, bending itself to persuading him. Daar could probably talk him into anything.

…And goddamnit, Adam wanted this.

“…I won’t lie…you know exactly what to say…”

“Right,” Daar sighed. “So lemme promise you this: I know what I am and what I can do. With you, I will never push it. I want you. Badly. But only if you want it ‘yerself.”

And that, annoyingly, was the right thing to say too. Goddammit. Adam was playing checkers against a grandmaster of ten-dimensional hyperspace-Ta’Shen. But even so, he couldn’t be mad. ‘Cuz the fact was…Daar was completely right. He needed a mission. And raising his kids was only going to be a mission for a few short years, at least on this timescale…

Speaking of Diego and Sam…the opportunities they’d have, in Daar’s orbit. And what about Marty? He knew she wouldn’t tolerate him “re-enlisting” while the kids were still young…

What about after that? What happened then?

“I’ve…gotta think about it, Daar. Like, think hard.”

Daar duck-nodded, and snuggled tightly. “Tha’s all I ask. But in the meantime…build ‘yerself back up. Take ‘yer time, do it right, an’ you fuckin’ man up an’ surpass everyone like I knows ‘ya can. You’ll be on my payroll even if ‘ya say no, ‘cuz people like you are investments an’ I want ‘ya at ‘yer best. Keep sharp! ‘Cuz one day, th’ world’s gonna need ‘ya, an’ when that day comes…well, I hope I’ve got th’ galaxy’s most bestest badassiest runnin’-monkey by my side.”

Adam nodded, and that was all it took to close the curtain on their talk. Daar didn’t bring the subject up again the rest of the evening, not as they trained into late night, or afterwords as Adam was pulled into the traditional sleepy gao-pile among Daar and Stoneback’s finest. He didn’t say anything the next morning, either…

In fact, he never brought it up again.

But Adam’s mind never stopped bringing it up. And he discussed it with Marty, because this was a decision that would steer her whole life too. She…was understanding. He was with her, and she was with him.

That made all the difference, so that when Thurrsto came to say hello toward the end of their vacation…that was all he did. Said hello, indulged in some visiting, some small talk. Not once was Adam’s heavy conversation with Daar even mentioned. Yet Adam said yes. All by itself, apropos of nothing. He wasn’t a fool.

Thurrsto nodded, understanding entirely, and it seemed like all the arrangements had already been made.

There was a key, a quiet procession, and a dark, ominous room. Then agony.

Warhorse of Whitecrest emerged from the Darkness.


Date Point: 20y1m1w AV
Starship Stay Fortune, Cimbrean system

Bruuk, griller of meat, compressor of uppity humans

“Again with the shirt. Who gave ‘ya this one?”

Wilde wasn’t in a position to answer, ‘cuz Bruuk was squeezin’ the life outta him nice an’ hard. All he got back were slightly desperate mumbles.

“What’s that?” Bruck chittered, “I can’t hear you!”

He had his arm locked around Wilde’s head, which probably made it hard to reply. So of course Bruuk flexed it a good bit harder, until Wilde bit down on his bicep. Or tried to. It din’t hurt too much ‘cuz Bruuk weren’t no softie, but the big human still got his point across.

Bruuk let him go, too amused to be indignant.

“Dang, how d’you have such a nasty bite with no real fangs?” He shook out his arms and took some pride in his consolation prize; just his bicep was bigger’n Wilde’s whole damn head, and hard enough to crack it open! That was victory enough, as far as he was concerned.

Wilde chuckled, drew some breath, and clambered to his feet. “I’ve got fangs! Nice and discreet human fangs. Size isn’t always everything, you know.”

“That’s what small males always say.”

“Oi! Comin’ from a bloke that’s like, what, five-foot-seven?”

“Bigger every way else! An’ like four times ‘yer mass too…” Bruuk pant-grinned as Wilde rolled his eyes and didn’t rise to that. “But yeah. ‘Strumpets an’ Crumpets’? What’s that about?”

“It’s a burlesque house on Cimbrean! Lots of fun.”

“…Okay. What’s burlesque?”

“Oh, mate! C’mon, lemme show ‘ya…”

Video followed, of what looked like a really bawdy, teasing performance by a buncha human females, all lovely in their own way and for different reasons. There were some males too (who weren’t bad to look at either!) but they mostly seemed to be there for the women to have some fun with. He liked it!

“Balls, that’s kinda like some of the spring-time entertainment the younger females used ‘ta put on! Them and some really lucky young males…”

“Used to? …Oh. Right.”

…Well.

Bruuk shook off that sad thought. “Well, I hear some of the enclaves have started up with spring festivities again, so mebbe I can show ‘ya one pretty soon!”

“Maybe…” Ian agreed. “Be nice to get me legs on hard ground again. Change of routine…”

“I rather like this routine!” Bruuk chittered. “I cook us food, then I embarrass you in the gym!”

“Yeah, it’ll be nice not having my face jammed in your armpit every Tuesday for a change.”

Bruuk chittered, then pulled Ian tighter and settled in to watch some more of this burlesque stuff. It wasn’t that he really found humans that sexy, but they were…

Well, okay. Maybe he kinda did. But not, like, in a way that made him feel lusty? It was more kinda aesthetic than that. Like maybe how a ‘Back could appreciate a specimen of a naxas, maybe. Admire it for what it was. But maybe not.

Whatever. It was just fun to watch ‘em move and play. In sports, in dance, in whatever. This was the species that had invented a whole art form of sliding down a mountain on a board and then spinning real fast in the air, for Fyu’s sake.

Of course, the feeling was mutual. After the video ended, the next in the queue was the most recent of Stoneback’s annual Snow Games, where some of the most bestest athletes the gaoian race had to offer were competing for the crown, an evening with the Great Father and Great Mother…and of course, lots of Female attention. He’d have his chance to compete here pretty soon, too. They were heading home, and it was time to tackle the Second Ring…

At the moment the competition was the drift-sprinting finals.

“Bloody hell, that looks exhausting.”

“It is. The drifts are all of different heights and you hafta run in a straight line. Over or through, never around.”

“So this is Gaoian winter sports. Pretty neat.”

“Some of it! This is sort of like, uh…maybe like Winter Iron Man plus Crossfit. And mebbe strongman, or something. They gotta compete in all the events but they only win overall.”

“So, what I’m getting from this is that your winter sports are all about Grr Grunt Aargh, and ours are all about spinning really fast.”

“And wearing frilly outfits. Is figure skating a kind of burlesque too?”

Ian choked on his beer.

“Well,” he eventually managed, “it sure as fuck is now!”

“I mean, the outfits look about the same…”

“No no, you’re completely right! That’s what I’m callin’ it from now on. Ice burlesque.”

Bruuk chittered, only slightly confused. “Well, okay! Not all of our winter stuff is grunty though. There’s tobogganing and ice sculpture!”

“Curling? You got that?”

“What’s that?”

“You slide a bunch of rocks on the ice and smash them into each other.” Ian finished his beer. “…I never did figure out the rules, exactly.”

“Oh, yeah! We got something like that. Your boulders score based on where they land and you try to knock the other boulders off the field. Also, we’ve got downhill racing too. Just…not on skis.”

“Can Gaoians ski?”

Bruuk thought about that. “Maybe? Balls, I’d try it! It’s always hard to fit footwear ‘fer us…”

“Sure, but still. Short legs and all.”

“Probably we wouldn’t be all spinny like that. Still looks fun!”

And so the rest of the evening went. Nothin’ too strenuous. Just watching some videos together after a good hard workout. The truth was, things were boring and routine right now. Hoeff and his Wrecking Crew were on leave right now and would be for some time. Meanwhile, the Stray Fortune was returning to Gao from a very long milkrun, and aside from the Interesting Characters they had in stasis, there was nothing to do until they made port.

It was nice to have something so simple to do, for a change. Drink beer, watch sports, just kick back and be a space trucker. And unlike wet-navy ships, there wasn’t a constant, losing battle against corrosion to contend with. Once everyone was caught up on work, life was easy and good.

Best to take advantage while they could. It wouldn’t last.

In any case, it gave Bruuk some time. Time to think. What was his next move? He was still very young, in his early twenties. He had a long life ahead of him with modern medicine. He had good recommendations, good friends and about the most elite genetics a male could want. Sure, second degree was sort of a bummer, but that’s how chance went. Can’t win everything.

So he could go for the Second Ring. And then the Third, if he wasn’t pretending to modesty, which he never did. He had no doubt he could earn Stoneback’s most elite qualifications. But that would take him away from the ship. Away from friends who had loved him when he didn’t deserve it at all. Away from this weird little family…and he really wasn’t sure if he wanted that.

Feeling more than just torn, Bruuk wrapped himself around Ian a bit tighter. Some sorta cartoon on the screen now. A violent one, but funny too!

He had time to think about it. Not, like, forever, but long enough. No sense wastin’ a good evening with worries…

So he didn’t, and drifted off to sleep without noticing.


Date Point: 20y1m1w AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Beau Chambliss

“So, it’s chosen the image of this Folcthan news anchor to speak to us?”

Chambliss was already beginning to regret agreeing to speak to this Entity thing. He’d been advised that he should, and he’d listened. But the more he learned, the more a creeping sense of…well, of the creeps, crept over him. The willies, the heebie-jeebies, whatever you called them.

How the woman now briefing him, Darcy something, could be so sanguine and even apparently fond of it, he didn’t know. But she was, apparently, the Earth’s singular expert on the Entity. And she was shaking her head.

“No sir. It is her. Sort of.”

Too many questions to ask exploded in Chambliss’ mind, before coalescing into a simple, confused, “How…?”

“She’s a San Diego native, and was present when Agent Six was captured the first time. Was fortunate enough to be on vacation in Orlando when the antimatter bomb went off. She was fostered and later adopted by Gabriel Arés, and went with him when he emigrated to Cimbrean to become Folctha’s chief of police. Her best friend was killed by a Hierarchy biodrone, and she went into investigative journalism to get to the bottom of it all,” Darcy summarized. “And, she succeeded.”

Chambliss’ eyebrows lifted in surprise.

Darcy nodded, and something in her expression suggested a degree of materteral pride. “I met her after she was picked up in Egypt, hot on Six’s trail. Six himself, apparently curious about this human who kept popping up in his vicinity, asked to speak with her by name in exchange for information about Hierarchy operations on Earth. We needed that intelligence, so Ava was granted access to DEEP RELIC.”

“A journalist was given access to a top secret document like that?”

“She was made well aware of the consequences, and her particular situation meant she was at the center of it anyway. In any case, it was a decision that paid off. What followed was Operation EMPTY BELL, the battle of Marsa Alam, and the destruction of the Hierarchy’s last active ship on Earth at the time. The information we got from Six in exchange for her presence proved invaluable.”

“Sounds like everyone got the information they wanted.”

“Yes sir. Ava then retired from investigative journalism to become ESNN’s extraterrestrial affairs correspondent and an award-winning photojournalist—you’ve sen the Laid Bare series?”

“Oh yes,” Chambliss nodded, wryly. “But where did this ‘Entity’ come from and how is it her?”

Darcy’s professional face cracked into a scowl. “Six wasn’t content to just meet her, he wanted to know everything. So he scanned her brain, and created a datasophont copy of her for…dissection.”

“Christ almighty…” It took Chambliss a moment to appreciate that thought in full. As he did, the flowering nausea that accompanied it matched the grim anger on Darcy’s face.

“Yes. Six doesn’t know what happened exactly, and the Entity hasn’t been able to precisely articulate it, but from what we gather the dissected copy of Ríos’ mind…mutated, or something. Broke out of digital prison and started massacring its way across dataspace. Since then, it’s been an occasional ally, furnishing us with intelligence about goings-on among the Hierarchy and Hunters. A few years ago it stole the Hunters’ early prototype Von Neumann probe, and has been growing ever since.”

“And it’s a friend?”

“The only life experience it has is of being a human. It talks to us through a human avatar, a ‘daemon,’ in the computing sense, based on Ríos’ memories and personality. Its first and only real objective is its own survival, but my every interaction with it suggests that it’s smart enough to know its best strategy in that regard is to cultivate allies. So, yes sir. It’s a friend.”

“So, what does it want from us?” Chambliss asked.

“It wants to make peaceful contact with Singularity, and it wants to begin open military collaboration alongside us,” Darcy said.

Chambliss nodded thoughtfully, then looked to Admiral Whieldon. “What sort of assistance would you want from this thing?”

Though Whieldon was entirely professional, Chambliss had been watching him throughout the briefing. Of all the people in the room, he was the only one who seemed eager to meet this Entity, rather than disturbed by it.

“It’s a Von Neumann swarm, sir,” he said. “If it’s been growing this whole time, then its manufacturing capacity is vast. And given that the Hunters have started field-testing a V-N swarm themselves, our only hope of containing that problem is to get out ahead of the curve with a swarm of our own. That’s what Erebor’s coltainer program was supposed to achieve.”

“Whatever happened to that, anyway?”

“The program is still active, and continues to be a useful source of new technologies, but the Galactic Vaccine itself is…a long way off. We just don’t have artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to make it happen. Nobody does. And until we do, the only V-N swarms in the galaxy will be datasophonts like the Entity, or the Hunters being crazy enough to rip their own brains out and install them in spaceships.”

“Well, then,” Chambliss decided. “That limits our options. When can we expect it?”

“It gave us one of its drones, sir. We can communicate at your convenience.”

Chambliss nodded, and the conversation turned to a few practical minutiae, of who was going to establish the first diplomatic avenue, sort out the agenda of talks, what America’s position would be, how that played with the other Allied nations…

Pretty soon it all dropped below his level and he could move on to other business. But he knew he was going to be marking the days until this particular meeting with a mix off fascination and dread.

There was one last matter before they broke up. Not necessarily a Presidential one, but a burning question still unanswered.

“Does she know?” he asked Darcy, just before she left.

“…The flesh-and-blood Ava Ríos, sir? No. She’s never been told.”

“Then this is going to come as a nasty shock to her, when it gets out.”

Again there was that sense of a distant and estranged kind of fondness when Darcy nodded thoughtfully, the worry lines on her forehead deepening a little as she did so. “I doubt whether there’s much to be done about it though, mister president.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Chambliss conceded.

That was where the matter stood for the rest of the day. He had issues closer to home that demanded his attention as well, like an agricultural bill that he could have sworn nobody could possibly criticize, yet…here they were. He was almost beginning to grow glad of the extraterrestrial matters. Existentially horrifying and high-stakes though they were, there was much less moral gray area involved.

…for the most part. Allying with a digital eldritch abomination birthed from the unconsenting mind of an innocent civilian might qualify as a gray area. It didn’t change the fact that he was quite looking forward to meeting them.

He sighed, cleared his head, and returned his mind to matters mundane. The work never stopped.


Date Point: 20y1m1w AV
Ekallim-Igigi

Alex, Prince of Singularity

Alex’s head felt like somebody had none-too-gently pried the top off, shoved a whole live rabbit inside, then stapled it back on. It simultaneously felt fuzzy and tight, and like something was wriggling around trying to burst free. And it hurt.

He’d paid attention as best as he could. Really, he did. He took notes even, forced himself to drink in every word…

He didn’t even have the mental energy to go flying. That would require thinking. And the bit he couldn’t figure out was why he’d been there at all. To see and learn, obviously, but…wasn’t that why he’d been abroad, visiting other people?

He flopped on his bed and realized…it was his bed. He hadn’t been in his chambers since…when was the last time? Weeks ago. It felt longer.

And, looking around, it almost felt like somebody else’s room now. Almost. There were still his sketches above the desk, when he’d been designing the Beowulf. And his armor for training with Mevia, still in a messy stack on the chair in the corner. He’d left a book open, pages-down on the side table. Pandrosion hated when he did that. She must not have come in here while he was gone, or she’d have bookmarked it.

In fact, none of his mothers, the ones he was close with, had been in. His birth mother would have straightened a few things. Mevia would have put his armor back on the dummy and left a note scolding him.

Instead, it was all untouched.

He rolled over, picked the book up, and only remembered which one it was once he was holding it. The Crystal Singer. He stared at the page for a second, and realized he was going to have to start over again if he wanted to enjoy it…

He sighed, put it aside, and stared up at the ceiling. The whole thing was one big low-light screen, set to mimic Earth’s sky as seen from the latitude and longitude of ancient Uruk. During the station’s day, there’d be blue skies or clouds would scud overhead depending on the season. Sometimes rain would patter softly and roll across it as though it were slightly slanted glass, and at night, he could look up at the stars and name the constellations.

Right now, it was sunset. The sky was cooling to a blueish-purple, shading to orange and yellow in the ‘west.’ The sight of It cooled his mind off and let him properly chew on what he’d seen and heard at the strategy meeting.

So. After thousands of years jumping around the galaxy in secret, Ekallim-Igigi had been found and was now going to stay put…

“…Room, outside view.”

The ceiling blinked to a neutral tone, then gave him the live stream from one of the station’s hull cameras. They’d picked a temperate world for their permanent home, apparently. On the grounds that, if they were not going anywhere, perhaps they might establish a new colony and growing beyond the station’s confines.

Alex raised a finger, closed one eye, and traced the outline of a continent. It was just a meaningless random blob, but there was a large island off the coast which looked sorta like a wolf skull. Pretty cool.

Maybe they could go visit? The atmosphere was pretty oxygen-rich. Really high gravity, too…

He lay back and watched it turn below for a while. Father had been…pleased? By how well the fleet performed and how well Ekallim-Igigi had defended itself. The space battle had been a victory, in that they’d kept the station alive and jumped to safety.

But that had been a big fleet. Hundreds and hundreds of ships.

In comparison, Singularity had about three dozen in the same mass range. Earth had about the same. The gao had more, but all told the three factions didn’t have that many. Father said sheer numbers weren’t the only factor, and Alex could see why. But numbers didn’t count for nothing, did they?

No. Of course not. Alex knew better, and he was, well…really fuckin’ smart, too. He didn’t, like, rub it in people’s faces but he’d earned a high performance spaceship before his twelfth birthday. He knew space combat better than most people ever would, and he could damn well imagine the advantage of being a digital mind in a fight like that.

Hell, even maneuvering! Alex had a strong enough body that he could handle maneuvers of twenty-five gee or more, so long as his support suit was tight and durable enough to match. Sure, that was basically at the limit of what a reasonable ship could do, drone or not, but how many people could handle shit like that? Not many. So, they were outnumbered by an enemy that could out-fly and out-speed them. That didn’t sound winnable, to Alex.

But what was the plan? Hide behind the system shields and hope the bad guys never figured out how to batter them down?

…The teams. That was the plan.

Father and his council knew they could not ever match the Hierarchy ship-to-ship. The plan all along had been covert infiltration, in person, to run a guerilla offensive campaign until the Hierarchy could be taken down a notch or ten.

…Did they have enough men to do that?

Round and round his thoughts went, until that fuzzy rabbit-in-his-skull feeling, which had started to go away from just lying safely in his bed, was back and worse. He tried to turn his thoughts aside, picked up his book again, put it down again, stood up, fidgeted with some stuff on his workbench…

Tried some LEGO. Real ones, from Earth. He made a spaceship, of course. Then, because that was kind of a lot too simple, he rigged up a simple circuit to give it blinky running lights.

Restless. He kept bouncing his leg and it was shaking the floor.

So he went for a run. Then, he decided to do some wind sprints. He needed tiring out, maybe…

Nope. The drag chute and the weighted vest did help tire him out but his mind would not stop.

Gods, sometimes he wished he was normal. What was it like to just…not?

Something really made him resist the idea of lifting or combatives right then. No idea why. Go play with his friends instead? …Eh. They’d be busy with homework right now, or doing their job training. Which is what he was supposed to be doing too but, well. Princes did have privilege. And he was two full cycles ahead anyway, so he’d already earned free time.

But, that was it. He wanted somebody to talk to. And he didn’t really want one of his mothers fussing over him or trying to educate him, or whatever. He wanted…

Fuck it. He wanted to see father.

Finding him wasn’t difficult. The station would have told him as soon as he asked, but Alex didn’t need to ask. He knew exactly where father would go to work off the same burning fuzzy-brain feeling. Maybe that was why he’d stayed away, in the back of his head?

One of the things he’d learned in Folctha by talking with Champion Gyotin and Gonzo of all the people, was just how much of a person’s thinking happened below the level of words. He’d been paying attention to that in himself more lately, and it was sort of astonishing just…how automatic most of his life was, if he let it be.

Weird.

Well, he could use a workout anyway. He’d arrived and had just made it to his locker when he found father in front of his own, having pulled on some jogging shorts probably for a cool-down run. Alex watched quietly as father took a moment to stretch, grimacing slightly and rolling his shoulder. The way he moved told a story of being sore all over, but his bearded face lit up with a big smile as he noticed Alex, all pain forgotten. He dashed over, pulled Alex off his feet, and swallowed him up in the best kind of crushing embrace.

“My boy! Good to see you again!”

“Dad! Oh, hey! You feel stronger!” Alex suddenly knew why, and decided to tease. “Been lifting a lot? You’re not feeling jealous are you?”

“I’m too old for jealousy, boy,” father chuckled. “But I’m not too old to learn. Or too old to feel competitive! The new ambassador has shown me the value of their ways.”

“Didn’t you say there’s no art to their way?” Alex teased a bit more as father put him down.

“Look at Julian’s body and tell me there’s no art,” father retorted. “A man should strive to his standard! I know I shall be, until I can put him back in his place… And I imagine you’ll be a keen student of theirs, and probably a teacher in turn, too. Just make sure you win.”

“At what?”

“The game! It’s always a game with worthy people! But, ah. I’m falling into the trap of teaching you again, aren’t I? Even my reason for calling you back…”

“I know I’m only twelve but please, I knew. You aren’t very sneaky.”

Gilgamesh sighed, nodded, and indicated that he’d like to walk and talk, which Alex was more than happy with. “That I’m not,” he agreed. “It seems the past several months have shown me many of my own flaws. It’s an uncomfortable thing.”

“Well,” Alex offered. “I suppose. Among my friends onboard, uh…”

“You stand supreme. And not by a little.”

“Not anymore, though. My new friends are scary.”

“A man’s best friends should be,” father agreed. “And I’m glad you have made such friends.”

“They’re all older,” Alex noted. “Except, not Vemik in a way. Or Gonzo! He’s goofy.”

Gilgamesh paused, and looked down with a slight frown. “Have you met no children your age?”

“Oh yeah, lots. But they’re not like me. Not even the ones of the Line, and there’s a lot of them in Cimbrean. But I met a girl! She doesn’t wanna date though.”

“That will happen,” Gilgamesh agreed with a chuckle. “There were plenty who chose to turn me away and live their lives on Earth…But tell me of this girl.”

Alex was glad to. And from there he talked about…well, all sorts of things. Whatever came into his head, he talked about as they walked and as father listened…Really listened.

It was different, somehow. It didn’t feel to Alex like he was being tested for anything, this time, or like father was wanting to be sure he’d learned. This time, he just smiled and inquired about the details and seemed to be truly glad to hear what Alex had to say. That was different. Very welcome, but very different.

So he said so.

“Aye. You said even in Folctha you find none who could be your peer. And that is right, I think. You are a man beyond your years, and it’s not just because of your body or your breeding. It’s because we’ve been carefully training the one muscle in your body that actually matters.”

He tapped on Alex’s head.

“Wilde and I have had opportunity to chat. Mutual interest in your well-being, you see. He said you told him once you knew you were ‘the human Daar.’ Is that right?”

“It’s…it feels that way, yeah. Especially now I’ve had a chance to meet and see.”

Father gave him a long look. He sighed and his shoulders slumped, making him look old and tired. But only for a moment. A faint sideways grin creeped up his face.

“You are very perceptive. How do you feel about that?”

“…I dunno. So, what? Am I a lab experiment like Daar, too?”

“He is no experiment,” Gilgamesh admonished. “Nor is he a synthetic being. What went into him were very many minor changes over many, many generations of his ancestors, and a final post-conception ’refinement’ during a routine check-up, according to the Directorate. The distinction matters because it means he’s genetically as gaoian as any other.”

“Does it? He was still engineered! Even if it was mostly breeding, even if they didn’t do it all in one go or didn’t know what they were making exactly. What about me? Was I ‘refined’ too?”

“You were not engineered, boy. But you were very carefully bred and selected. I will not lie. I love your mother, of course, do not mistake it. But with her…” Gilgamesh sighed. “Love is a strange thing, Alex. Often it happens whether you want it or not. Other times, you work at it. In your mother’s case…it was a little of both. She was found, I took an interest. We saw what might happen in such a union. I wooed her. And then she wooed me. And so, here you are.”

“…So I really am a human Daar.”

“In the best possible way…yes. I will not say you are ‘perfect’ or any such nonsense, but you are wholly without genetic defect and equipped with every advantage we could conspire to ensure. None will ever be your equal. Already you face that among your own age, and among full-grown Heroes far older than you, in full possession of their abilities. But, I truly hope you do not face what Daar must. And I do not think you will, either. Our species are too different.”

Alex kicked a pebble, now feeling a bit bitter. “No. I’ll face something way different. But it’ll be just as terrible, I bet. I mean, think about it!” he said, waving his hand around. “This exists!”

Father nodded, and by saying nothing, invited Alex to speak his mind further.

“…I’m not mad.” He said, suddenly. It felt right to say.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you were, as such. This is a burden thrust upon you, you did not volunteer for it. But I am…very glad, and very proud, that you are not. Your head is much leveler than mine was, at your age.” Gilgamesh chuckled. “I was the very image and archetype of a spoiled, arrogant prince.”

“Yekiida has the best stories about you, you know…”

“Oh does he? Well perhaps I should test some of my newfound strength against him!”

“If he isn’t busy trying to seduce Bruuk again,” Alex giggled. “Besides. He’s been training too.”

“Then our battle will be legendary!”

Alex rolled his eyes. But he couldn’t hide the grin.

“Don’t you look at me in that tone of voice! Now come! We haven’t raced in too long, and I may as well get my licks in while your legs are still so short…”

“Hey!” Alex bounced on his toes, limbering up. “You think I’ll always be short?”

“It’s more than likely, yes. But short here is relative. You’ll still crest two meters at least.”

“So…shorter’n you and mom, but…”

“Tall enough for anything else. And with that—”

Gilgamesh took advantage of those long, strong legs of his. Alex charged after with everything he had. Father never let anyone win, never threw a match…

Maybe father was sore. Maybe he was tired. Maybe Alex was feeling his oats. Maybe some of his human-Daar was taking over. He was a very, very fit young boy after all, fleet on his feet and stupid strong for his size…

He won.

And all it took was one glance behind him to see that his father couldn’t have been happier.


Date Point: 20y1m1w3d AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor system

YeUmIvuUni, researcher

When the Deathworlders had requested a technological consultant to assist them in their research efforts, Uni had gone expecting an easy assignment. This was a species tens of thousands of years younger than his own after all. That was a gulf of time and technology that should have been akin to trying to teach flint-knappers the principles of electronics.

Not so. The humans had more than benefited from the Interspecies Dominion’s “catch up” program. In twenty of their homeworld’s years, they had absorbed every shared fragment of knowledge and then become the bona fide expert species in a few significant fields of their own. Uni was finding their mathematical notation particularly challenging, even with cognitive assistance.

And, in fact, they had recent experience teaching flint-knappers the principles of electronics. And more. In fact a small group of said flint-knappers had come along to escort Uni during his visit. They were…mind-boggling examples of physicality, and flawlessly so, at that. Their bodies were artworks painted with a broad, rough brush. Yet despite that and what it might normally imply, they were obviously not stupid at all. In fact they were discussing literature with their human companions, albeit in slightly halting English—which seemed more a problem of wrapping their mouths and throats around the sounds, more than any cognitive barrier. Uni learned very quickly not to underestimate any deathworlder.

The biggest of the ten’gewek—Ferd Given-Man, by name—was holding court on-topic while bouncing heavily on his feet. “I think I like Spider-Man most! Is…very human hero-tale.”

The human known as Rees queried, “Oh? How so?”

“Hero is…he starts small, yes? Weak man, can’t talk to girls. Then he gets strong but uses it wrong. Make big mistakes, get uncle killed…”

One of the other ten’gewek (whose name Uni had not yet overheard yet) chimed in. “Yes! Is everyone around him, bigger, stronger. Only ‘cuz he is so…not hero? But then! The gods call him to big duty, yes? And he stands up, does duty. Protects tribe. Even though small!”

“Small and quick.” Ferd nodded approvingly. “Very human story. Very human message. We should come up with Ten’Gewek superhero!”

“So like, the Hulk but gorilla.”

“And better with women.”

“And good at making things!”

“…So Tony Stark, but also Hulk, and also gorilla.” Rees seemed to find that funny. “You can call ‘em Mary-Sue.”

There was some cultural in-joke there which eluded Uni entirely, and apparently sailed over Ferd’s be-crested head as well. He rumbled in his chest after a moment. “No. I think he already lives. His name is Vemik. But I think, important this hero not know he hero.”

That…was actually an interesting narrative twist. How would that even work? Uni added that thought to the long list of things he still had to meditate on, and returned his thoughts to the present moment as their ride reached its destination and they were ushered through some decontamination fields.

Uni had visited Mrwrki only twice before. On the other two occasions, he’d been effectively double-checking the humans’ work and confirming it was good, but this time was different. This time, they had something they simply didn’t know anything about, but needed to as expediently as possible.

Not an encouraging thought, considering this was a weapons lab.

In charge was a Captain Müller—why did so many humans have such similar names? Anyway, the latest project was plainly a reverse-engineering effort of some kind. They had an assemblage of technology partially disassembled in the middle of the work space and surrounded by safety measures, from things as mundane as transparent eye coverings to multiple rings of containment shields.

Not that Uni was going to complain about a culture of safety consciousness. Goodness knew, if his own people had been more prudently wary of technology…

He shook Müller’s hand. “A pleasure, captain.”

Müller’s handshake was pleasantly firm, rather than the crushing thing Uni had endured from other deathworlders of late. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “‘I’m hoping you know what this thing is. Our governments are…very eager to know.”

Uni lashed his tail amiably, and gave the assemblage a curious look. It must have come off a spaceship of some kind, he decided. It certainly didn’t look like it belonged on a ground vehicle…in fact, it was difficult to identify this thing as a weapon at all, if not for the context of where they were. He’d have guessed it for a sensor module instead, or perhaps electronic warfare of some kind…

“Where did you get it?” he asked, out loud.

Müller talked him through the weapon’s history and acquisition while Uni prowled around it, inspecting its superficial features—general layout and appearance. No clues there. He would need to take a closer look at the internal components…

Or so he was thinking until Müller handed him a glass jar full of a fine powder.

“What is this?”

“That’s what’s it turned the USS Wampanoag into. Fine dust, metallic, ceramic, even organic matter, all reduced to…this.”

…Oh.

Outwardly, Uni swore in English. “Fuck.”

Müller frowned at him. “…Not the response I was expecting. You know what this is?”

“I think I do. We never developed it ourselves, but I think what we have here is a…” Uni thought for a moment. “…In English you might call it a ‘quantum jammer.’”

“…A what?”

“It works by nucleating a pocket of higher-order space with different fundamental constants. The details are very particular, but one, shall we say, ‘popular’ approach was to generate a region with a markedly higher Higgs energy, as I believe you term it. This obviously does not last for long as the universe collapses said bubble at the speed of light. But in that time, the intermolecular forces fail and any solid matter within the pocket will simply…fall apart.”

Müller’s brow furrowed. “…Wouldn’t there be an energy release from broken bonds?”

“Oh yes. Quite a substantial one, I imagine. Certainly enough to blast apart the powderized matter.” Uni indicated the jar of debris. “But in theory, this weapon isn’t unknown to Dominion or Human science. Nervejam operates on a very similar principle.”

The lines on Müller’s forehead doubled in both depth and number. “…We’ve never yet figured out an effective defense against nervejam. We have drugs that can mitigate the effects, but all attempts at shielding have so far proved futile. We’ve not yet found anything that can stop it.”

“Oh? Well. We can fix that with some ease. There are some advanced meta-materials that will effectively block a small-scale attack.”

“Not shields?”

“No. The shields all make use of the Higgs field directly, so…some highly advanced active metamaterials are the only defense I know of.”

“Why…haven’t you shared this before?”

Uni lowered his head and fluffed out his mane in contrition. “Nobody ever asked. Forgive us, but it is difficult to know the knowledge gaps intimately enough to anticipate every need. But yes, now that we know this, we can provide.”

“In what form? We’re going to need some way to refit the existing fleet to handle this thing…”

“In the short term, a spray coat? Paint?” Uni suggested. “I will need to consult our own materials and manufacturing experts, and I cannot say how effective such a solution would be. These are obviously far more powerful than a simple nervejam.”

Müller nudded. “Anything is better than nothing,” he agreed. “And, thank you. That’s a big question answered.”

“But others created, no doubt,” Uni offered, sympathetically. “I wonder where they got this technology from? Have they always had it, and simply preferred not to use it as a waste of good meat and materials? Or have they acquired it from somewhere, recently?”

“Who knows, with Hunters.”

“True…” Uni was forced to agree. Such equanimity was…discomfiting, somehow. Humans didn’t lack for curiosity, by the Stream, no. They’d even named one of their early extraplanetary probes in tribute to that virtue. But Müller at least seemed to have an ability to sit comfortably with never knowing the answer to some questions.

Eminently practical, but at the same time, alien. Perhaps it was that focus which had driven their rapid catch-up.

Müller led Uni to a distinctly low-tech area: a smooth white board, and temporary markers. Some known parameters of the weapon were sketched in a box in one corner, but it was for the most part a blank work space. “Alright. So, give me the crash course in how thing works…”

Uni lashed his tail approvingly, took up the pen, and gathered his memory, called up some knowledge from external memory. Now. How to express it in human notation…? Ah, yes. He smiled as the solution formed, and he started to write. This was what he loved about humans: they challenged him.

And he was happy to rise to meet them.


Date Point: 20y1m1w5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ambassador Julian Etsicitty

Julian wasn’t one to put his foot down, ever. That just…wasn’t how he rolled. He’d never needed to do that with the twins, and he’d never needed to do it with his wives, either. And wouldn’t that be, like, the most caveman thing he could do?

Well, fuck it. Caveman he was, and right now he would brook no argument.

“I don’t care. You’re both staying here until I have some proper reassurance.”

Allison of course wasn’t happy about it. She’d never been one to shy away, she wasn’t some tower princess, he loved that about her. But it meant that right now, she was arguing. “Julian—!”

He held up his hand. “No. I will not risk you or the kids on a goddamned battlestation.”

Al’s momma instincts finally got the better of her badass space babe instincts. She pulled a face, but then unclenched her fists and teeth and subsided. “…Yeah, I know. Just…don’t risk yourself too.”

“I have to, babe. I am the ambassador. But…look. Nobody’s ever gonna question you. Least of all me. But this is the way of it. You are a mother to a toddler. You are important. I have a mission that I can’t walk away from. It’s important, too.”

“This stuff isn’t easy for us, bǎobèi.” Xiù said, rubbing Allison’s back. “You remember back when the Abrogators were attacking, and we had to just…watch? It sucks, even when we know the reasons why.”

The caveman melted away, and Julian reached across the table to squeeze their hands. He got it. He’d have hated it if their roles were reversed.

“Alright…alright.” Allison sighed. “But what are we gonna do while we’re here waiting for your shit to get finished? I quit my job, remember?”

“You could laze around the house in your PJs eating ice cream,” Julian suggested.

Xiù giggled. “I mean, that’s tempting…” She agreed.

“Yeah. Nice way to spend one afternoon…” Al snorted. “Eh, sorry I’ll quit whining now and find…something.”

“I’m convinced,” Xiù snarked. “Are you convinced?”

“I’m convinced,” Julian agreed, nodding like a troll.

Al snorted again. “Oh, fuck you both.”

“Now there’s a good idea…”

They didn’t. But they did cuddle on the couch. And they did welcome Alex who’d come back to Folctha and, well…man he may be, at least by the weird and kinda selectively backwards standards of Ekallim-Igigi, but that didn’t really change that he was a twelve-year-old boy.

…Well, okay. Alex was different, being honest. There was an uncannily wise and level head on top of those giant shoulders of his. Though, he was still a boy no matter what else he was, and even big boys get homesick and lonely sometimes. So rather than sit alone in his apartment—well, except for a robo-butler—he sat on the floor while Julian lazed across the couch with Al and Xiù sitting on his legs. Not knowing what else to do, they watched the news.

Not that there was much to watch. The latest brushfire war on Earth was still grumbling along, accompanied by the usual condemnations and insistence the two sides should come to the negotiating table. Union disputes in the US, trade snafus in Europe, migration…

Julian was about to suggest they give up and play a board game instead when there was a sudden bizarre shift. It was subtle, but the ESNN anchors looked weirdly confused and off-balance about something, even under the professional facade and stuff.

…Oh.

Julian knew.

“You three…need to pay attention to this.”

Xiù looked up, and put her phone away. “Babe?”

Julian didn’t answer, just gestured at the screen as the guy looked to the camera and inhaled.

“Going to the USA now, where AEC has released a statement introducing a new ally in the war against the Hunters and Hierarchy. We’re going live now to the White House where President Chambliss is introducing this new ally to the world…

Allison tilted her head curiously as the feed from the press briefing room came in. There was President Chambliss, of course, standing straight and smiling for the cameras. But alongside him was…

“…Ava?”

Julian sighed. “No. Well, also yes. It’s complicated.”

He explained as best he could while the news rolled on, muted. The one on screen definitely had Ava’s face, give or take ten years and a lot of stress, and an impossible holographic dress. He kept watching for a waver, some fuzziness, a break in the projection that’d reveal the drone underneath, but…nope. Maybe she glowed a little bit, but that was about it.

Xiù’s phone buzzed. She glanced at it, then rolled off the couch. “That’s Derek. Ava—The, uh. The real Ava—”

Al stood up too. “She freaking out?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m comin’ with.”

“Right,” Julian sighed. “Take however long it takes, you two. Alex and I will hold the fort.”

He got his favorite double-kiss on his cheeks, and they were gone in a bustle of coats and concern.

Alex looked up, and nodded. “Well, okay. I do need to do some studying though…”

Christ, the big fella had a deep voice. Well, no. It’d always been deep and a bit raspy from the moment they’d met, but lately it had dropped a couple-few octaves lower and taken on a booming, resonant quality. Still raspy, but somehow Julian could tell that would pass quickly.

The boy was growing up, and damn fast, too. But growing up or not, he was still a boy, and one unabashedly collecting father figures at that. He obviously loved his own dad, but…

He must have been lost in thought, because Alex tilted his shaggy head. “…Julian?”

“Right.” Julian shook his own shaggy head. “Don’t worry, they won’t be gone for super long.”

“I’ve also, uh…never taken care of a baby before?”

“Really? Well you can relax, they’re asleep. We can probably sneak downstairs and Slab for a bit too. Smarthaus stuff will pipe the monitor downstairs.”

“Monitor?”

“Yeah. Listens in on the babies. Watches too. Beeps if anything’s weird. Super useful. Anyway…” Julian stood and stretched out luxuriantly. “I, uh…I’m not so good with this sort of thing. Glad they can help, all I can really do is, uh, offer hugs. And babysit.”

“I mean…those are important.”

Julian smiled, “Yeah, they are. Now c’mon! It’s not often I get to beat up a twelve-year-old and not feel bad about it…”

Alex raised and flexed his huge Beef-sized left arm, admiring himself for a long moment. “You can try! And I turn thirteen next week!”

Julian whistled appreciatively, “I heard! You’re basically a teenage Hoeff these days!”

“Naw, I’m better’n him, see?! Lookit my arms! I’m a better athlete, too! S’pecially at Rugby!”

Well, just looking him over, the big bruiser of a boy wasn’t wrong…

“Careful with that ego, even if it might be true—”

“Is true!”

“…And on that note, I also heard he made a bet with you for a Saturn V LEGO set?”

“Yeah!” Alex enthused, bouncing on his toes and shaking the floor. “He said if I beat every one of his records in the HEAT’s Black Book before I turn thirteen, he’d give me his original set! Has the box and manual and everything!”

“Neat!” Julian grinned. That set remained almost impossible to get. “So how close are you?”

“Uh…I’ve got about halfway through…his squat is gonna be really hard to top.”

“Well then,” Julian chuckled, “we better get to work,” and led the way downstairs. And tried not to worry too much about stuff outside his control. Al and Xiù would work their magic, of that he had absolutely no doubts. But there was more than one lonely heart in their orbit they couldn’t in good conscience leave alone.

Right now Julian had a boy-man that needed him. And that, he could do something about.


Date Point: 20y1m1w5d AV
Armstrong Station, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde

Shore leave. Well-deserved shore leave at that, but it was one that might end up a bit bittersweet. Bruuk was…well, he’d been torn between personal advancement and loyalty to the crew. Understandable, but on that point Ian had to put his foot down for the short bear-tank. “No, mate. Go do the Ring. Everything’s in a lull right now anyway, hey?”

“…Lull? Cousin, did you see the reports?”

“Yes. And now everyone’s going to shield-bubble and nothing will change for a bit, at least until the next shoe drops. And that next shoe isn’t happening quickly. So go, train up. When you come back I want you so fuckin’ terrifying you could break me accidentally. And I won’t be sitting on my laurels, either.”

Bruuk tilted his head and made that really subtle, disturbingly canine keen gaoians did when they were upset about something. “What…what about the rest of the crew?”

“Extended leave and retraining for them, too. Maybe they’ll move on. We’ll see. There’s also refits due for the ship—no, don’t tell Morwk yet. In any case…we’ll have time. Time for all of us to catch up on things. And for you to go be the bestest Stoneback boulder you can be!”

Bruuk bass-chittered at that, but he would not be deterred. “Well, what’re you gonna do?”

“Shit, mate, I’m gonna actually take some leave. Go out drinking, get laid, buy some shirts, hang out with my mates, all that good shit. And study,” he added to counter Bruuk’s skeptical ear-flick. “Captains have to stay current too, you know.”

“I was more bemused at the idea of you finding more weird shirts. How many can one species generate?”

“More than I’ll wear in a lifetime, my friend.”

“Well,” Bruuk sniffed. “I think the real reason you like ‘em is ‘cuz they’re skin-tight. ‘Yer a showoff just as bad as me, yijao?”

“You’re only young and sexy once!”

“Well, I’ll agree you are at least one of those things…”

That earned Bruuk a tackle. And Ian an instant, skull-crushing pin.

“Don’t start what ‘ya can’t finish, little man…” But then he sobered up, and they sorta flowed back into an upright-sitting hug. “We’ll keep a group chat going, right?”

…Gao really were canine. The mere prospect of parting ways had Bruuk borderline moping.

Ian checked in with the rest of the crew before going. Moj was planning on spending time at the Starmind monastery, Dora had tickets to The Big Queer Music Festival in Nouveau Acadia, Urgug would be visiting family on the Guvnurag homeworld. Even Morwk had been persuaded to not stay and fret over the ship while she was in dry-dock. Instead he’d be doing the tourism thing around Folctha. Good for him.

There were the usual formalities of dry-docking, handing over the ship to somebody else’s care with paperwork in triplicate (because gao were very Japanese with paper record-keeping) and all the necessary administrative bollocks and then…extended leave, before he reported for training.

The first couple of days he spent just exploring of course. Then a few more being more ambitious: a trip out to Franklin, still being rebuilt; a hike along the river Dagnabbit; an overnight at one of the island resorts around the equator.

Friends. He wanted to go with friends. That was what he was missing, but then…who were they? Perhaps a bit improperly, he’d considered his crew to be friends. In a larger vessel that would be severely inappropriate, but for small ships? …Eh.

Except, as much as he loved them, all were busy and none were human. And he never really got how to do human, so…

He considered. Nervously re-considered.

Gave up, and gave Gonzo a call.


Date Point: 20y1m2w AV
USS Robert A. Heinlein, Orbiting planet Hell

Captain Jaimie Esposito

Esposito abandoned her paperwork and grabbed her flash hood in one smooth movement at the sound of general quarters, and was on the bridge in moments.

“Status, mister Levy?”

Levy stepped aside for her. “Hunter warp signatures on long range sensors, captain.”

“Thank you, I have the conn.”

The next few minutes were a tense flurry of messages as the various ships orbiting Hell received their orders. Esposito was ordered to high orbit, near the outer system shield generator, alongside a couple of the destroyers.

The thought turning over in her mind was this new weapon the Hunters had. If they could rock up and destroy a system shield emitter from the outside…? No, surely not. If they could, then the Hierarchy could have done that years ago. But then what was this all about? What could they achieve if they still couldn’t breach a system shield?

They could make a show of force.

The silence on Robby’s bridge was more than just professional quiet. Esposito could feel the gnawing concern that started to eat at her sailors and guardians with each passing second, as the sensor contact resolved itself in a troubling way.

What eventually buzzed the system shield, skimming low over its invisible surface like sea birds, was a shoal of…dozens. A hundred or more, maybe. They cruised past with contemptuous slowness, in a way that said take a good look, fuckers to any species, then warped lazily off into deep space. Not a single shot fired, not a scratch on the paintwork, not so much as an extra ripple on the system shield’s surface.

But Esposito could feel the dismay. They’d been damn worried just hunting one of those bastards, and now the Hunters were showing off…that, With the promise of more to come.

But the most worrying thing was, the Hunters weren’t returning back the way they’d come. They were heading in the direction of Dominion territory.

And Esposito had a terrible idea she knew what that meant.

Time to alert the fleet.


Date Point: 20y1m2w AV
The White House, Washington DC, Earth

President Beau Chambliss

Little details. The Entity’s avatar was very convincing, but here and there…in some tiny little way that Chambliss wasn’t always even consciously aware of but which struck a nerve regardless, in some small way she—it—would mess up from time to time. Be a little bit unreal.

The avatar never swept a hand under her to smooth out her skirt when sitting, for instance. The fabric didn’t quite drape and crease like the real thing would have. It was an animation. A really, really convincing one, as good as the best Hollywood special effects or videogame graphics, if not better. But no animation was ever quite going to perfectly capture a real person.

And somehow…he could feel the presence of a much larger, much stranger mind behind the avatar’s polite, smiling, stunningly pretty face. An indefinable pressure of the mind, hinting that a consciousness that spanned the galaxy was at least in some small way paying attention to tiny, insignificant, human him.

How the hell Darcy liked the thing, he had no idea. It gave him the screaming heebie-jeebies. But there was one way in which it was an honest pleasure to work with: simplicity. It was an individual, not a nation, and no nation or people, not even the Gao, could have such complete and perfect integration between the executive and the ground floor.

And it wanted to help. But as with any negotiation, there were things it wanted, and Chambliss was not yet convinced about agreeing to its request.

“You have weapons of your own, though, surely?”

“We have kinetic pulse, gauss guns and high-power shields. Frankly, our probes are behind the curve compared to what the Hierarchy have,” The avatar explained. “We could figure out our own versions of more modern weaponry, but that will take time both to invent and to reconstruct the old probes. Or…we could benefit from existing experience.”

She gave a wry sort of shrug. “Let’s face it, I was a journalist and the rest of me is..not exactly of the material world. It’s possible that weaponry is not our strongest suit.”

Chambliss nodded, and adjusted his jacket thoughtfully as he shifted his posture on the couch.

“Here’s my concern,” he said. “You…aren’t answerable to anything. If you were another nation of Earth, then we could work out a treaty, we could bring in neutral arbitration, we could both agree to be bound by enforceable penalties, or at the very least there could be the threat of sanctions and more. But you aren’t a nation. You aren’t even really of Earth, any longer. Neither of us can really bind the other.”

“You’re right, we can’t,” she agreed. “So doesn’t that mean it comes down to faith and trust?”

“That is…a lot of faith and trust you’re asking for.”

“Yes.” The avatar sat forward, or rather slid forward a bit. There was a faint whine from the hidden drone inside her head. “But Mister President, the alternative is that the ally who’s come to you won’t be the ally you need. We know about the Hunters’ new ships. We know the Hierarchy have weapons they haven’t yet used against human or gaoian ships. Things are coming to the tipping point, and you’re going to need us when it arrives. You’re going to need everyone. And we’re all going to need each other.”

Well. if the immortal space horror gig fell through, she could have a decent career as a speech writer.

Chambliss pushed the intrusive, absurd thought aside and gave her a level look. “You make a powerful case,” he said. “I will discuss the matter with the Joint Chiefs.”

The avatar nodded, quite convincingly. “Thank you.”

She stood up when Chambliss did, and her handshake…well, it didn’t feel like skin, but it was solid nonetheless. “I believe my people know how to contact you?” he asked.

“Yes. We intend to visit Cimbrean.”

Chambliss guessed the rest instantly. “You’re going to meet your…shall we say, your corporeal counterpart?”

The daemon Ava nodded. “She must have seen us on the news. It’s…we would regret it, if we didn’t meet her, at least once. She deserves to know.”

Chambliss found himself nodding, in complete agreement. “Well. I hope it goes well for both of you,” he said, and that, after the remaining little formalities, was the end of their meeting. He sat back down on the couch once the door closed, and frowned thoughtfully with his chin in his hand.

The Entity wasn’t human. It still had too many little details to prove it. But then again, one of America’s closest strategic allies wasn’t human either. And wanting to set things right with its—her—former self?

Deep in his gut, he knew that he was going to trust and have faith, and not just because he had no real alternative.

But because he truly believed the Entity deserved it.


Date Point: 20y1m2w3d AV
CGS Avenging Fury, Jumping.

Shipfather Rooti of Clan One-Fang

Rooti had jumped to a great many Hunter raids over the last few years. He thought he knew them well, knew how they always went. The cavalry arrived, the Hunters put up a token fight, then retreated when they lost a broodship or a dozen swarmships…

Not this time. This time, instead of a beleaguered convoy holding on desperately until help arrived, the Avenging Fury’s bridge battlespace display lit up with thousands of inert, fragmentary contacts: debris, tumbling in the void. Not a single friendly IFF or civilian transponder in view.

On visual, the scene was even grimmer. Something had bitten a perfectly well-built freighter in half like a hungry cub snapping at a longfish. Bits of spaceship tumbled in a smokey haze of particulate matter…

Sensors had a good read on moving objects in there, though. No kind of transmissions coming from them, but those were the Hunters, definitely. Picking over the corpses. Even as Rooti watched, one of them came about, aimed its nose at one of the larger pieces of wrecked freighter, and—

A brilliant flash made Rooti blink. Most of the drifting hulk simply burst apart and the Hunter dove right through the thick cloud of matter it left behind, spinning up a forcefield that dragged tons of raw material into its maw. Somehow, it was a sight as stomach-twisting and enraging as watching them feed on an actual flesh-and-blood life form would have been.

The flash decision: jump out and get reinforcements, or shield-drone the fuck out of the battlespace, stick around, and deny materials to the Hunters.

No, by the time they had a larger force assembled, these Hunters would be long gone.

“Distress jump beacon away. Drone-ops, you keep those nutless fucks far away from us. Deny it any favorable attack geometry.”

“Yi yi!”

Fury class never traveled alone. Rooti had a dozen escorts, hundreds of drones in the fleet. They shot off into the void as fast as their rails could load them, spinning and spiraling away into a hemispherical defensive formation. Even as each one flew out of the rail, its replacement was jumping into the hangar, but Rooti knew it was only a matter of seconds before—

There it was. A pulse of alarming blue indicated hostile wormhole suppression was active, and Fyu’s nuts it was every single one of the fuckers. That made this a stand-up, knock-down, claws-and-fangs fight to the death for one side or the other.

He ordered the fleet to pull range, focus-fire. Better to obliterate one than chip away at ten. He watched the command pay off as the first and most eager of the Hunter probes became the focal point for a hail of long-range firepower: no dodging that.

The others, witnessing their swarm-mate’s demise, changed tack. Suddenly they were spreading around the shield-drone formation like crawling ivy, and their presence was distinctly difficult to track.

Hunters always had commanded a mastery of cloaking devices. Each contact became a blinking, inconstant, slippery thing, vanishing from scope then reappearing again, their trajectories too unpredictable for projection.

Every few seconds, one would blink back into visibility long enough to annihilate a shield drone. Gunnery was quick on those: Rooti watched one take a glancing hit and fall into a free, unpowered drift.

He turned his attention to navigation. His ships were swift and were burning away from the Hunters as hard as they could manage…but the lines he saw were not encouraging.

The fight became a slow drag race, each fleet accelerating as hard as it could in a straight line directly away from the debris cloud. The Hunters stopped picking at the drones once they realized that doing so invited an answering hail of gunfire; the gaoian ships held their fire and gritted their teeth as their sensors strained to give them a decent firing solution.

It was a race the Hunters couldn’t lose, and both sides knew it. They could just pull a harder acceleration curve than the Fury, so they crept slowly—”slowly,” at relative speeds that would have circled Gao in minutes—past and around, while drone ops gamely did their best to deny them an attack angle.

“Sensors, I need good target solutions.”

Brother Taygu was panting with stress as his paws flew across his terminal, constantly fine-tuning and adjusting. It was only thanks to his efforts they had any kind of idea where the foe was at all. “I need active flares, shipfather!”

“Drone ops! Sacrificial flares, give our guns something to shoot!”

Painful move, that, but necessary. Rooti watched and held his composure with an iron will as one of the shield drones whipped out of formation, shot toward a Hunter’s estimated position, and overloaded its own shield generators to provide a huge energetic burst.

It worked. The wash of energy sizzled over a Hunter’s hull, and the fleet’s guns spoke in unison, disintegrating it as totally as if its fellows had turned on it. A worthy sacrifice, even though the act robbed their defense net of a precious member.

“Keep doing that, drone ops!” Rooti barked. Their survival hinged on killing the bastards at long range, before they won the kinetic energy race.

But each drone that sacrificed itself was another tear in their protection, and not all of them were sacrificed fruitfully.

And finally, their screen was sufficiently tattered to let one in. At angled through the cordon, closing hundreds of kilometers in a flash before the Striking Spark shoved a volley down its throat. But then another breach on the far side, and another at their north pole, another at a high-angle…

Rooti bit back a pained keen as two of the Hunters streaked in and the Charging Ember evaporated in a terrible flash of white light. Emboldened, the others of the swarm took a shortcut and charged into the shield drones, smashing them aside and zipping inwards. The Crashing Star and the Ravaging Claw turned desperately, pulled for range fighting for their lives, then died within a heartbeat of each other, instantly. Hundreds of brave gao, dead in a flash.

And more would follow. Only one chance at survival now.

“High-yield megalight nukes to every debris cloud, now.”

Deny the Hunters their food. That was all they cared about, right?

The crew obeyed. Before those things could spin up their forcefields and feed—

Multi-flash of gigaton-class warheads, leaving behind nothing but radiation and scattering the sandy remains of gaoian warship, hunter probe and civilian freighter alike to the stellar winds. Shields took a hell of a pounding and their heat capacitors were overloading, now.

But it stung the greasy nutless shits. The Hunters, like any cowardly predator, didn’t know how to react to prey with teeth. And now, this fight was no longer profitable for them.

The disruption field dissipated. Dozens of black-flashes as the enemy jumped out. Rooti breathed again, and slowly, painfully, dug his claws out of his command chair’s armrests.

“…Jump to fleet. Father Neebaanu, secure and regroup. Comms, with me. We have a FLASH to draft.” Somehow, Rooti found his voice was level and commanding. He rose from his chair as the fleet jumped home, and prowled back to his ready room.

Something was going to have to change quickly, or they were in very serious trouble.


Date Point: 20y1m2w3d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ian “Death-Eye” Wilde

Head pounding. Wicked daystar sending its devil-fire through the gap in the curtain to spear his retinas. Mouth as dry as a teabag. He groaned, stretched, found he was pressed against someone who felt almost burningly hot—

An arm bigger than his fucking waist came around his chest and a far bigger leg around his hips. A crushing hug next, and a deep voice grumbled, “Mmmpf…c’mon, I wanna sleep…”

Ian struggled fiercely to escape, mind going a billion miles an hour, broke free of the huge monster’s death-grip—

“Aww fuck man please don’t freak out yet…”

Ian freaked out.

He. Him. Gonzo. Not wearing anything. Head pounding harder fuck fuck! fuck!!

“Dude! Calm the fuck down, okay? Just…there. Can we at least have some fuckin’ coffee first?”

“…Right. Shit. Yeah. Fuck.”

Gonzo chuckled and stretched just so and—

Ian had to look away.

…Fuck.

“…Right.” Gonzo shimmied his neck until it popped loudly, grunted happily, then climbed out of…well, they actually weren’t in bed, ‘cuz the hotel bed wasn’t HEAT-ready. They’d made a kind of nest on the floor out of the mattress. “Okay. So. Pre-coffee, I guess. And before you ask, we didn’t do it. Okay?”

“Uh…we didn’t—?”

“No. we didn’t. Your asshole is secure.”

Ian burst out laughing, despite everything. Nervous, relieved…and if he was honest with himself both disappointed and glad at once.

“Right?” Gonzo said. “Okay? For right now? Okay. Good. Now. Make us some coffee, please.”

“…Right.”

Ian excused himself…well, to the other side of the room where the tea set was kept, while Gonzo thumped around like fucking Godzilla putting the bed back together. He didn’t bother with anything else though, and stood as unselfconsciously as HEAT were infamous for.

Ian looked away, drank, and reflected on how fucking amazing a cheap cup of hotel tea could taste.

“I…shit.” Ian felt extra stupid this morning.

“It’s okay. I was sorta expectin’ this. You were fuckin’ crunked last night.”

“…Yeah. Why was I?”

“Dude.” He laughed that perfect fucking laugh. “You tried to out-drink me.”

Ian glanced over quickly to size-up again. Right. Yeah. He was one of the Beefs, and one of the big Beefs, too. In fact one of the biggest at this point. Shit.

“Well,” he said, with some false bravado. “Not my finest hour, that.”

A chuckle, and a sideways be-dimpled grin that was just heart-breakingly handsome to look at… “No, prob’ly not. But fun, though.”

Ian’s head was going a million miles an hour, and something had a grip of his heart and was just squeezing it flat like it was in a vice…well, one thing to do.

“Right. Uh…” he gulped, “Gonzo, what the fuck did we do?”

He smiled more fully now—even more achingly handsome, and didn’t seem to notice Ian’s distress. Instead Hunter dumped the coffee pot into a cup and took a sip. He drank it black. “Honestly, not much. You had a lot you wanted to say and then you got curious. So I let you explore. Felt good. I showed off, you liked it…maybe I made sure you were having fun. But that’s all we did. Din’t feel right to push it. Really wanted to, though.”

“…Thanks.”

Ian studiously examined his tea.

One of those giant hands landed on his shoulder, gently.

“Hey. Look at me.”

Ian looked up.

“It don’t need to mean anything if you don’t want it to. And if you do, that’s okay too. I’m not a stranger to weird and scary, okay?”

“I…right.” Ian nodded. “Thank you. I’m just…”

He sighed, rubbed his face and pulled it together. “Shit, listen to me, I’m a grown fucking man, I can handle this.”

“I know. I was, uh, exactly in this spot when I first showed up. First time away from home, the dancing and the drugs—”

“Really?”

Gonzo shrugged, and again he was so fucking handsome, Ian felt the urge to look away. “Seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyway, don’t tell anyone, team already knows, right? Righteous gave me the hardest fuckin’ day ever. But it ain’t nobody else’s business, an’ he told nobody but command. I got an Article Fifteen and a buttload of extra duty. But that’s it. I had fun, I paid for it, still promoted to corporal. Drugs are legal in Folctha so the police wouldn’t do a test, and that saved me. Worked out okay. Scary fun, but fun. So now I take it a lot more seriously, y’know?”

“Right.”

“I didn’t think you’d do anything that stupid, just for the record. But there’s a lot of shit that can happen when you’re almost blackout drunk, so…I carried you to a hotel. That’s what started it I think. You, uh…really liked being carried.”

“…Uh…”

“Right. No judgment. Really no judgment. I liked carrying you, too.”

What the fuck was Ian supposed to say to that? He felt as if his whole goddamned world had just been inverted and set through the negaverse or whatever. Fuck, Bruuk and Dora! They were right! Or, mostly right? Did they…

Another glance, more bravely. Ian’s heart stopped in his chest. Gonzo was…just so fucking beautiful. He didn’t know what to do, felt panic rise in his heart again—breathe. Calm down.

Wondering look up at Gonzo’s face again. He just smiled. Knowingly. Nothing but good vibes. Nothing but total, accepting understanding.

“Jesus, mate! How are you so…”

Gonzo shrugged again, the ripple and play of the vast musculature under his skin almost too exciting to watch. “Been there, done that. And being honest? I like fucking beautiful people. Even if I didn’t get to do much tonight, I still had fun. ‘Cuz you’re beautiful people.”

That felt…good. Shit, when was the last time Ian had ever had a compliment like that? “Right,” he cleared his throat and his thoughts, and drained his tea. It was still too hot, but, fuck it. “So like you said. Been there, done that. I guess now worn the fucking t-shirt.”

“Naw. Nobody wears t-shirts like yours, yijao?”

A bit of a desperate laugh barked out of Ian, but it was sincere.

“There,” Gonzo smiled. “Not so bad, right? So. Okay. You standin’ up good? Nice and steady?”

Ian considered, and nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

He waved ineffectually at, well…everything.

Gonzo waved him down. “Right. I get it. So, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna step in there and take a nice long shower, ‘cuz this is an expensive-ass room and that’s a fancy-ass shower. I’m gonna scrub up nice and good, and that’s all I’m gonna do. If you wanna work something out, or whatever else, you can step in with me. You’re in control.”

And with the invitation given he did exactly that, leaving the door cracked open.

The shower cranked up. Surprisingly good singing followed shortly thereafter.

Ian stood rooted, indecisive and, if he was honest with himself, more than a little afraid.

…Felt pretty gross too, actually. He needed a shower.

Fuck it.

He put the cup down, took a deep breath, and stepped into the shower.

He had no regrets.


Date Point: 20y1m2w4d AV
Ekallim-Igigi

Ambassador Julian Etsicitty

Despite being on the station for more than a month, Julian still hadn’t met all the queen-consorts. Many of them lived very privately, having never bothered to learn English, or much of “The Deep” at all. According to Queen Pandrosion, the culture shock was…intense.

Julian could imagine. He’d grown up with a TV and Star Trek reruns, and even for him the revelation that aliens were real had been…Well, if he hadn’t been busy scraping together a camp and surviving on Nightmare, he’d have probably been totally blown away by it. God knew he’d had plenty of what-the-fuck occasions since, more than he could list.

How much worse for a ninth-century Kyivan royal cousin, or a 4th century Malay islander, or a priestess who’d witnessed the raising of pyramids in Peru two thousand years before the birth of Christ? Not all of them had the boundless curiosity, courage, open mind, or sheer stubbornness to quite adapt to the life of technology.

But while any modern archaeologist would have given their eye-teeth to talk with them, to Julian fell a different duty: he had to discuss war. And while queens Pandrosion, Mevia and Tomoe were very different indeed from each other, if there was one thing they shared, it was a passion for weaponry.

And as it turned out, Singularity was very familiar indeed with the Q-Jammer. It was the Onna-Musha’s primary armament, and the queens were entirely happy to give a demonstration, by reducing an asteroid the size of a cathedral to a milky cloud of powder. Waste not want not, though: there was one of Ekallim-Igigi’s vast mining barges on standby to suck up the resulting space dust

Queen Tomoe nodded thanks to her gunnery crew then turned to Julian. “I hope that was an effective demonstration?”

“It really was,” Julian agreed, reflecting that at least the poor bastards on USS Wampanoag and the three ships the gaoians had lost wouldn’t have felt a damn thing. He’d had a few nightmares about those brief seconds when he, Al and Xiù had been exposed to hard vacuum back aboard Sanctuary, and of all the ways somebody could die in a space battle…not that, please. “But your ships are defended against it?”

“Well, we use it precisely because it is so difficult to defend against,” Tomoe explained. “But yes, these ships can take a few hits from it before the armor ablates away and the effect field penetrates into the structure.”

“What I don’t get is why the Hierarchy didn’t just pop the Sol Containment Field with one of these,” Julian wondered, watching the asteroid continue to vanish.

“Range,” Mevia had a satisfied look on her face. “Most spaceborne weapons have effective ranges measured in thousands of kilometers; Q-jammers can achieve hundreds at most. They can’t reach far enough past the system field to hit the emitter.”

“So what do you use for long-range engagements?” Julian asked.

Mevia’s satisfied smile turned into an outright bloodthirsty grin. “I’m glad you asked!”

And so went the rest of the demonstration. Julian had to admit, it sure looked impressive. And the numbers were incredible, too. Gladiatrix had an acceleration profile even steeper than Misfit’s had been, despite being an order of magnitude more massive.

And that was just one of the Queen-ships. Singularity’s fleet consisted a lot more than just the harem’s highly personalized vessels, there was a solid force of tiny-but-mighty gunboats backing them up, filling a mixed role between escort and strike fighter.

The fact was, inviting them to join in alongside AEC and gaoian forces was a no-brainer. If only it was as simple as saying ‘sure, come on in.’

Instead, there was the need for treaty. Seemingly everything had to be covered, from which side would be adjusting their transponders and comms systems to accommodate the others, who would defer to whose chain of command, rules of engagement, what language it would all be happening in, the procedure for blue-on-blue fire, what would and would not constitute a violation of treaty…

…and more, and more, and more. Thank God there were people on Julian’s staff who seemed to enjoy the legal drudgery, and who delighted in reading and picking apart their Singularity counterparts’ work before advising Julian. They were making progress! Helped, no doubt, by the fact that everyone involved wanted this new friendship to succeed. Line bullshit or not—and Julian still wasn’t sure how he felt about that, or about the fact that he definitely had some of Gilgamesh’s genes in him—they were either going to stand united or fall divided.

Well, no. Maybe “wanted” was a strong word, actually. Maybe “understood” or “accepted” was more appropriate. Public opinion was…wary, to put it mildly. A lot of grief was flowing toward the “Heroes” on Earth, but that was fortunately tempered by the fact that nobody was really stupid enough to pick on a quarter-ton freshman who just wanted to get through high school, or to harass that eight hundred pound gorilla of a laborer who honestly made everyone else’s working day a lot easier simply by being there. Never mind they only numbered in the hundreds in the US at most, they were impossible to miss, impossible to ignore…

Impossible to deny. And Julian was about the most ridiculous example to be found.

Still wasn’t a hundred percent sure how he felt about that.

In either case, Julian was happy with the demonstration of the system shields and the assurance that Ekallim-Igigi was, now, safe and secure and there wouldn’t be another attack unless the Hierarchy figured out a way past system shields. And frankly, if they managed that, there wouldn’t be a safe place anywhere. So, he’d bring Al, Xiù and the kids back with him next time he jumped back to Folctha. The ambassadorial apartments felt…very empty, without them.

And he’d be damned before he missed a second more of his children’s lives than he had to. That had been the big promise he’d silently made them, the first time he’d held them: he’d be there.

After all, he was doing this for them.


Date Point: 20y1m2w5d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

God, it was like looking through a mirror into the past.

Ava had been…well, she’d been a lot of things, the last few days. She barely remembered them, except as a blur of emotion and physical sensation. Like throwing up. Lot of that.

Through it all she’d been able to surface and notice the people who were there for her. Derek, obviously. Al and Xiù, Charlotte and Ben, Adam and Marty…and poor Hannah, who was the Best Girl in the whole wide galaxy and had barely eaten or slept for looking after her.

The guilt of owing so much to all of them was threatening to pull her back down. But no. Even if there was a terrible little demon gnawing in her soul’s roots and telling her she didn’t deserve any of it, she was damn well going to accept their love in the spirit it had been given.

What came as a surprise now was how calm she was feeling, now that all her questions were about to be answered. Now that she was standing in front of…Well, herself.

Except, not.

Though, to judge by her doppelganger’s expression, it was just as weird for her, too.

“I…don’t remember looking that good,” Ava ventured, as an ice-breaker.

Her counterpart nodded, and sighed heavily. God, even the mannerisms were hers. “We hated ourselves at the time,” she said, then looked over Ava’s shoulder. “…Coombes. I remember you.”

Ava reached out and took Derek’s hand, letting the engagement ring show. The holographic herself looked down at it, looked up with a small smile. “Well…I guess we’ve both got a lot of catching up to do.”

Ava nodded shakily, squeezed Derek’s hand, and sat. The other her glided into the armchair opposite the couch, and waited expectantly. She looked more…composed than Ava remembered being ten years ago. Looking back at old photos of herself, she’d stood with a definite defeated slouch, hadn’t done more than the bare basic with makeup, hadn’t really properly looked after her hair…she’d gone everywhere with a haunted look on her face. But this “Entity” showed none of that. For all she had some of Ava’s mannerisms, she looked…poised. Confident. Like even the awkwardness they were facing right now was something she could handle.

The kind of person Ava wanted to be.

“…So, uh…I…” Ava began, faltered, then just cut right to the heart of it. “…How?”

The Entity’s Ava avatar even breathed, a slow but short and shallow, disapproving inhalation. “He had a scanner. When we met him alone, in his office.”

“…I remember I had a headache afterwards. Are you saying he…?”

“He scanned your brain down to the atomic level, converted it into a datasophont, and…abducted you. Me. Us.”

Ava could tell she was standing on the edge of a cliff. The yawning drop in front of her made her still-tender stomach do backflips, but even so…she steeled herself and leapt. “…And then?”

She’d expected her other self to say something like ‘you don’t want to know.’ She’d expected to have to fight and dig and press and claw it out of her. But of course…the Entity knew her well. It just looked her in the eye for a long second, and told her.

Everything.

No gory, messy, awful detail spared. How she’d been violated, over and over and over again, torn to pieces, resurrected and ravaged repeatedly. How those pieces had somehow clawed themselves back into an unconscious facsimile of life and fought, fought, fought for every second of life, how it had slunk and slithered through dataspace preying on the Hierarchy, watching and listening and hiding when it couldn’t fight, surviving by the narrowest of daring margins…

And through it all, Ava sat and wondered, how could she of all people have withstood that?

Derek held her hand tight, his face an inscrutable mask of impotent rage at what had happened to her, but for Ava…as the story continued, she realized she found it cathartic somehow. As if a cavity in her life that she’d never even known was there had just been filled.

“But you’re…only half of this Entity.”

The avatar nodded. “Or less than that. I’m the daemon it runs for interacting with people, except I can’t be turned off. I’m a little bit independent, a little bit not…it’s hard to explain. Even talking about “it” and “me” is wrong, but…everything I say is what the larger us believes.”

Ava thought she followed that. “I just…don’t know how you’re so calm. I’ve spent the last few days a complete mess just from finding out you exist and you’re—”

“Not human,” the daemon-her replied. “I’m human enough to communicate with, but…really, I’m just very good at pretending to be a real, living person.” She shifted slightly in the uncomfortable silence that followed, then added, “But if I was a real person, I think…I think I’d look at it like, the worst day of my life already happened. Nothing we face is ever going to be as bad as how we came to be in the first place…so really, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“But if you’re not human, then why come here? Why meet me?”

Ava wasn’t sure if the Entity really needed all the time she—it—took to think on that before answering. Maybe it was just another one of those ‘very good at pretending to be a person’ things. But the avatar frowned and wrung her hands just like Ava did, and when finally the answer came, it came just as tentatively as Ava would ever have put it.

“I think…We think…we’re probably only alive because you’re a lot more tenacious than you think you are, Ava. The very core of us, the first bit that ever wriggled away and clung to life, was your will to survive, and thrive, and grow. And we’ve watched you, as much as we can, and you’ve done…Madre di Dios, chica, you’re successful. You’ve taken every shit deal life threw at you and here you are, you’ve got a great job, you’ve interviewed galactic leaders and politicians, you’ve got a really handsome fella—”

“Thanks,” Derek grunted awkwardly. Despite herself, Ava chuckled and squeezed his hand.

“We aren’t you, but we owe everything we are to you. And we wanted you to know that…well, that we’re here. That whatever we become, and we hope we’re going to be something good? It started with you. And besides…you deserve to know the truth.”

Ava nodded. “The truth is important,” she agreed.

“Yes. Especially—”

“When it’s painful,” Ava chorused with her other self.

The daemon smiled. “Title of our biography. Yours and mine, I mean.”

“…That’s pretty good,” Ava admitted. “Or…”

“Or it could be the title of your interview with us.”

“You read my mind. But are you sure?”

“We plan on being around for a long time,” other-Ava said. “We don’t want to be alone. We want to be liked, and maybe to become something people can rely on, talk to…we want to be seen as human after a fashion, not some hidden monster living out in the darkness.”

“We’ll need someplace to do a proper shoot—” Ava mused, running through the mental map of places she’d identified as good shoot locations for the Laid Bare series, though none of them really seemed to fit…

“Don’t worry about that,” other-Ava interrupted. She had an eager grin, now, and held out her hand. As she opened it, a small green shoot unfolded from her palm into a delicate blossom. “We have the perfect place.”

She smiled when Ava blinked at her in confusion, and closed her hand again with purpose.

“Why else would we grow a garden?” she asked.


Date Point: 20y1m3w AV
HMS Sharman, (HMNB Folctha) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

CPL Hunter “Gonzo” Thompson

“You sure you wanna do this, dude?”

Yan Given-Man nodded seriously. “Yes. Crest is…pride-thing for men. So it feels strange, but I learn that sham-poo make crest lie down. Take days to stand back up, and only if I work very hard and earn big sweats.”

“Which we’re doing anyway,” Firth interjected.

“Yes! Never stands right. Also,” Yan hooted, “I beat my bench record! Already wrote on board!”

“Oh? That’s good!” Firth noted, with a genuine smile. But he still couldn’t resist a dig. Switching to a more wolfish grin, “I broke mine too, Yan. Looks like you still ain’t shit next to me…”

The two of them were locked in Serious Competition, so their posturing was Serious Business. It’d been going on for a while now, since Yan was making rocket progress and somehow, the prospect of genuinely competing with someone had really kicked Righteous into hyperdrive. He was keen on putting on as much lead between him and Yan as he possibly could before the big gorilla plateaued and the sports medicine team got to work.

“Feh! All things in time,” Yan said, sagely. “You’ll be my woman one day! But yes. Not even big sweats enough anymore.”

“‘Cuz of the mineral thing, right?”

Turned out, a ten’gewek’s crest was part of their cooling system, and certain hollow hairs reacted with the minerals in their sweat to go stiff. This lifted up the super-soft long hairs that wicked up all their sweat and gave the still air of the jungle a chance to evaporate it. More sweat, more oils and minerals, the stiffer the crest got…

Yan’s was normally a two-foot tall thing from the top of his head down to the tip of his tail. Really badass looking! But of course, that was a problem with the Mass. That badass crest had to lie flat under the armor. That meant smushing it down (which broke hairs) and slicking it down with petroleum jelly, which had to be scrubbed out afterwards. Normally he just avoided soaping his crest, and that was fine; kept him musky but not offensively so. But now?

Well, lots of jokes had been made about how Yan “couldn’t keep it up.”

Given what kind of men ten’gewek were, and what kind of man Yan was, the consequence of that teasing meant they all knew how very, very wrong they were about that.

Oh, and he’d beat the tar out of all of ‘em. Except Righteous, of course. Nobody beat him.

Not in combat, either.

Yan nodded, glumly. “Yes. Can’t have all things at once for this. But!” he cheered, “I think, maybe with nice sharp buzz cut it might look cool!”

“I bet Ferd will like it too. I noticed his crest’s been lookin’ a bit, uh…”

“Flaccid?” Walsh suggested.

“Limp?” Parata offered.

“Tired?” Burgess had a huge grin.

Hunter snrrked, and held back the first comment that sprang into his mind: That he’d just spent a very fun weekend with Ian engaging in all manner of happy sin, and yet these motherfuckers were unbearably fuckin’ homo.

Yan and the murder-raccoons knew, of course; ten’gewek and gaoians alike had insanely acute olfactory senses, and the tail flicks and ear semaphore were a language to themselves. But so far, none of them had said anything. Bless them all, they all knew the etiquette. You didn’t out a guy like that. Not that Hunter woulda cared, but Ian still had a lot of thinkin’ to do.

“All of you, better warriors than comedians.” Yan trilled gruffly, but Hunter wasn’t fooled. He thought they were hilarious. With ten’gewek, the tail-twitch told all.

So. Out came the clippers. And, fuck, those stiff bristle hairs did not cut easy. Five minutes in with the occasional growl and flinch from Yan as a guide hair got caught and yanked on rather than cut cleanly, and they’d only got as far as between his shoulder blades.

Which of course was the moment when the alarm rang and Captain Thompson came banging on the door, shouting “Suit up!” Poor Yan was left looking fuckin’ ridiculous and would have to finish shaving himself later; all concerns of personal grooming were forgotten as the team crushed out of the room.

Suiting up was a kind of well-practiced dance at this point. Into the undersuit, stretch it and smooth it out, endure the discomfort of the “plumbing” and grit his teeth against the cold water being pumped in. Sit on the edge of the bench, bend forward at the hips, raise his feet, force both halves of himself into both halves of the suit, push until it felt like something was about to break until slip-thump and he was suddenly wearing it.

Now the water turned blood-warm, activating the mid-layer’s reactive padding, causing it to expand and squeeze. It hugged with deadly force to the uninitiated and a welcoming embrace for him. Thompson briefed them even while his own suit was going on.

The mission: search and rescue. The Hunters had hit a space station, and were already long gone; it was their job to save whatever lives could still be saved. Something they’d trained for a lot, but rarely got the chance to do for real.

It was a Defender and Protector heavy job, but Aggressors had their part to play too. They would be the leading edge of securing their operating space, while Baseball, Irish and Rhino did their thing. They’d…well, this was the first proper rescue since they’d lost Warhorse, meaning they only had one PJ-sourced Protector on the team, now. Irish and Rhino had both come up through the medic ranks, sure, but next to a combat rescue specialist like a PJ?

Warhorse had been the best there was. No replacing that. He’d also been the best Aggressor on the team, too. There, at least, Gonzo and all the rest of them could step up. Or, for Righteous, maybe massively overcompensate. But in a job like theirs…you never had enough.

Suit checks, seal checks, board the Weaver, jump—

Gonzo was never quite sure if he did or didn’t feel anything when the ship he was on jumped. It felt like he ought to feel something, so maybe his imagination filled in the blank space?

Whatever. Mind on the job.

He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when the ramp dropped and he got a good look at the station, but…there was a lot less of it than he’d thought there would be. Something had taken huge fuckin’ bites out of it, leaving ragged holes where the decks and structure were open to the void. There was a faint milky haze of dust around everything, and it hissed against his visor as he thumbed his maneuvering pack’s controls and thrusted forward, following Righteous’ marker.

As they got closer, those bite marks turned out to be really goddamn smooth. Razor-sharp exposed metal gleamed in the planet-light from whatever temperate world they were orbiting.

“Nasty fuckin’ edges there. Watch your suits.”

Gonzo signaled confirmation as he pushed something dark aside. As it floated out into the light, he realized it was a corpse. Half of one, anyway. The rear half of a young Guvnurag, trailing a messy string of congealed guts. Fuck.

Now came the hard part: entering the intact and pressurized bits without explosively decompressing them and killing the survivors. That was the Defenders’ job; to Gonzo fell security, keeping an eye out in case of any nasty shit the Hunters might have left behind, or frenzied station security too dumb to know they were the good guys.

There was nothing. He spent a minute standing around, watching his HUD and sweeping his light into the shadows, but all he found for his trouble were more alien corpses. God, they were standing in what had been somebody’s home up until, what? Half an hour ago?

“Gonzo. ‘Rilla. Stack up.”

Righteous at the front, getting ready to make entry. Really the junior guy should be there in his place, since he was the team’s senior NCO, but there also wasn’t anyone else anywhere near as wall-like as him. Yan took up position behind Gonzo and Highland stayed behind for now.

Titan had set up a forcefield over the door they were using. Now he used a cutting charge to slice it in half, leaving the bits to drift in zero-G, and Firth shouldered them aside as he burst through. Proper sound came back with a rush as Gonzo surged in after him, and he became aware of an alarm’s urgent whooping, and the braying of ETs weeping nearby. Emergency lighting was on, meaning the shadows cast by his helmet and gun lights weren’t so sharp and perfectly pitch black as they woulda been when he aimed them down the deck to their right.

“Clear!”

Hand signals, verbal orders, HUD markers, all at once: Gonzo knew what his job was, and he fell into it with practiced ease. Behind him, his buddies came piling in through the forcefield and set up to handle their own tasks. Triage, stasis bags, a jump array….everything they needed to get as many people as were still alive on this wreck safely home.

They got to work.

And they saved lives.


Date Point: 20y1m3w AV
Alex’s Apartment, Folctha, Cimbrean, Far Reaches

Alex, Prince of Ekallim-Igigi

So, birthday cake was nice. And, there were presents of course.

But the thing Alex enjoyed most was that it was just a few.

No rites of initiation today. He didn’t have a small army to fight off with his bare hands, or wrestle his way through a sacred tournament, or just…whatever other sadistic thing Mevia might come up with, and father approve. No deer to hunt and butcher, not that he didn’t enjoy a good hunt… No public appearances, no oaths or chants or incense or—

No mountain of small tokens of esteem from well-wishers and step-mothers. He’d said very specifically he wanted to celebrate by the local customs, as a token of respect—a brilliant scam on his part, as it turned out—and so far everyone was honoring it. He’d have a billion congratulatory notes to reply to of course, since the thirteenth was the first and most important birthday of his manhood, at least on Ekallim-Igigi. It was important and all, but honestly…

Lowkey was nice. His actual birthday gifts amounted to one from his mother and father, one from Ian and the Stray Fortune’s crew, and a collection of small ones from the ambassador’s family. Mom and dad had a big one: a full suite of upgrades for Beowulf. Weapons now! They’d be locked out for now of course, and he’d need lots of upgrade training, and certification, and…

Ian gave him a T-shirt, one festooned in bright and ridiculous cartoon characters, that was deliberately just small enough like all of Ian’s favorites. So obviously, Alex had to shimmy into it right then and there, to a nice round of whooping cheers and laughter.

“Yyup.” Ian folded his arms with a smug grin. “You’ll be fending the lasses off with a bat in that.”

“Or the other way around,” Alex grinned big and stupid. “This is the henchest shirt. I love it!”

He looked in the mirror on the other end of the room and he had to admit, he did look good…

“Well,” the ambassador said with a grin, “we were at least smart enough not to buy you something you’ll outgrow in literally a week.”

Ian chuckled and sipped his Coke. “Oi, it’s not about how long it lasts, it’s about how thoughtful it is.”

“Well, I like it,” Alex stated, loyally. “Plus I look better’n the guy on it too!”

“Aye, well. The page boy haircut and furry speedos are a tough look to pull off.”

“I’ve done it before! Shoulda seen me on one of the hunts for my last birthday.”

Julian chuckled, “So like Hoeff and Daar did years ago for Halloween. Hoeff went as He-Man, and Daar was Battlecat. Before Daar was, y’know. Building-sized.”

“Ugh.” Allison pulled a face. “Hoeff is way too hairy for He-Man.”

“Oh, he isn’t that bad, and it’s all blonde anyway. Besides, he shaves down nice,” Julian said with a lecherous grin—Alex could tell now—and both of his wives instantly made grossed-out faces. “No, really! Don’t you be hatin’ on my boy!”

“…Are we talkin’ about the same Hoeff here?” Ian asked. “The man who would stare down Batman?”

“Sure! Look, I’ve got pics.”

Sure enough…

“Wow,” Alex exclaimed. “He was a lot smaller back then, huh? Fuckin’ crazy ripped though! And lookit Daar, he’s like a big sleek murdercat!”

“…Murdercat.”

“Well what the hell else would you call that?!”

“I dunno. Too much bear for me, I think…”

“Whatever,” Alex giggled. “Also look, he dyed his fur! When was this?”

“God, like over ten years ago at this point?”

Ian was quieter. “Y’know, if anything there’s even more murder on Hoeff’s face in that pic.”

Julian noted, “And a lot more play on Daar’s.”

Actually…that had to be Daar before he became the Great Father, right? He didn’t look so…burdened. It sorta made Alex feel sad.

Xiù understood, because she pushed a wrapped present across the table. “Here.”

They must have worked together, because what they gave him was a collection of useful things. From Julian, a full grooming kit in a nice leather case, “Because I know how much of a pain this stuff is, but having the right tools helps out a lot.” And the timing was good, too. Alex had noticed a wisp of hair growing suddenly on his chin…

From Xiù, a good-smelling cologne and a promise to teach him how much was enough. Apparently there was an art to it? Alex had to admit, the stuff smelled good…

Allison found all that very amusing, and gave him a videogame console because, in her words: “you don’t wanna grow up too fast, do ya?”

It was…well, Alex couldn’t really tell because his only contact with ‘normal’ had only ever been imported TV and movies, which were fiction of course. But it seemed like he’d always imagined a regular birthday might go. A cake, a few nice presents…and that was it. Just the fact that they made a small big deal out of it made it special.

The last present was a bit of a surprise. Hoeff came to visit, dressed up nice and fancy; he was going on a date with his wife. Fun! Under his arm he had a wrapped present, but Alex already knew what it was.

“…Are you sure? Those aren’t easy to get…”

“No, they’re not,” Hoeff grunted, and handed the set over. Alex unwrapped it and sure enough, there it was: the Saturn V kit in its original box, assembly manual and everything.

“I mean…I do really want it—”

“Then take it. I challenged you to beat me completely, right? Well, you did. You beat every damn lift of mine and that puts you into company you can count on ‘yer fingers. So congratulations.”

Hoeff stuck out his hand and they shook with the kind of grip only men like them could appreciate. “You’ve built up a better body. Now,” Hoeff pulled him in for a hug. “Be a better man.”

Alex hugged back fiercely and nodded seriously. “…I will.”

“Good,” Hoeff nodded back, then broke out into the happiest smile Alex had ever seen him give. “Now go eat some cake! But don’t slack off too much! ‘Cuz I sure as fuck ain’t gonna let you keep those records…”

“Ha!”

Alex spent the afternoon playing videogames. He’d never really had the chance to try them, before, but they turned out to be great fun! Dangerously good fun. He lost a couple of hours without noticing them vanish.

Allison was right. It was nice to just…escape from being what he was and do something pointless and fun for a while.

But, not forever. He had planning and packing and paperwork to do, because the next big leg in his journey of learning was just around the corner…and he was really looking forward to it. Something told him he was in for a lot of shocks, but that was the point, and he was ready for it all. So, he turned the console off, stood up, and prepared.

He was going to Earth.



++END CHAPTER 87++



If you have enjoyed the Deathworlders story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:


Dandelion: audiobook now available!

Dandelion by Philip R. Johnson and Justin C. Louis, produced by Podium Audio

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!



Acknowledgments

This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


The SOR

Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker


34 Humans

TTTA

Adam Shearsby

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Armond471

Austin Deschner

Chris Dye

Culverit

Daniel Morris

Devin Rousso

Eric Hardwick

His Dread Monarch

James Ren

Joseph Szuma

Joshua A. Demic

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja Grim

Krit Barb

Marquis Talmadge

NovaTheSpaceWolf

Ortheri

Richard A Anstett

Ryan Seaman

Sam Berry

Shane Wegner

Sun Rendered

T.A. Carlson

Taylor McGee

TheMoneyBadger

Theningaraf

Trevor C

Xultanis

Yeania Aeon

Zachary Galicki

Zorven


As well as 57 Deathworlders…

Adam Zarger Alex Langub Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece atp blackwolf393 Brandon Hicks Brigid Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Candreva Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Henry Moyers Ian Cashman Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jack Weedon Jim Hamrick jmal116 Jon Justin Hood Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Lina Blue Loaf of Orange lovot Matt Matt Bullock Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nathaniel Batts Nick Annunziata Nicolas Gruenbeck NightKhaos Olli Erinko Patrick Huizinga Ryan Cadiz Ryc O’Chet Sam Sean Calvo Stephen Prescott Thanatos theWorst Tim Mulder walter thomas William Kinser Woodsie13 Yshmael Salas Zod Bain +1 anonymous

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.

This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work are the property of their respective owners.

The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not necessarily share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 87