Chapter 88: The Turning Gears
Date Point: 20y2m AV
The Exodus Hive, Hunter Space
Victory, it seemed, was still a possibility.
The Alpha-of-Alphas had been in a meditative, focal trance since the early trials of its replicator-hunters. Its underlings could oversee construction of the Hive and the preparations for exodus: it had sensed an opportunity to perhaps reverse the tide.
Now, months of calculation and planning had satisfied it that the proper order could still be restored. Perhaps the Hunters might not have to depart and regroup in some distant galaxy. They still would spread, of course. But in due time. After…setting things right.
It would be delicate, though. Things would come to a sharp edge, which might cut either way.
But that was as the order of things decreed, really. Predator and Prey were at their… holiest… when the struggle was genuine and the stakes were the agony of extinction or exaltation of life.
Many lessons of the spirit had been bestowed by the humans, the true Prophets of the Hunt. They showed that the line between predator and prey was not set in place. That the order of things would demand a renewing of blood, a refreshing of might. They had showed the Way: Conflict. Overcome, or die.
For too long, the Hunters had gorged on placid prey and grown fat and weak. Humankind had shown everyone the Way. Such was their prophecy, they had shown the fur-faced—Gaoians, now, by its decree—how to remember their predatory nature. Had taught so effectively, the supreme predator of the galaxy was himself a magnificent Gaoian Alpha of Alphas, and arguably the Deathworlder’s collective leader. Had discovered another species who would in time prey upon them all, such was their rumored all-encompassing superiority. Already, they had invited the mightiest Alpha of their kind among them, to teach him their Ways.
How could the Hunters flee in the face of that? In the very essence of what they should have been all along? But to accept that was not the same thing as to dive gleefully into the maw without a plan. And so, the Alpha-of-Alphas had planned extensively. It believed it could pinpoint the moment the cutting edge would arrive, the moment when overlapping lines of probability and future met.
The right conflict at that moment might be the end of the Hunters…or if the Alpha-of-Alphas planned correctly, it might be the moment of resurrection.
The Hunters did not fear death. They feared humiliation. And there could be no greater humiliation than to flee the moment of destiny rather than face it. Even if it should be that the Hunters should fall short…there was always Revenge.
Revenge had already consumed as much precious resource to build as the Exodus Hive had, and would ultimately consume even more…but the Alpha-of-Alphas accounted that expenditure as absolutely necessary, for one simple reason: The greatest prey of all was the mightiest predator.
And the Hunters…would hunt. Slowly, patiently and, for the first time in far too long…intelligently. And the order of things would be settled.
Once and for all.
Date Point: 20y3m AV
Entity’s Garden, the Ink Spatter Nebula
Ava had jumped so much she thought she’d be immune to the disorientation by now, but maybe she’d just been cushioned a bit by the fact most jump halls looked about the same: concrete, more concrete, and then a few decorative touches of concrete. Maybe an ad board by the exit, maybe a sign saying “Welcome to” wherever…and then some extra concrete for luck.
Or maybe it was that she’d envisioned something different when the Entity-Daemon-Her told her about the garden. She—it—had refused to go into detail: “We don’t wanna spoil the surprise!”
So, Ava had done her best to imagine what a beautiful garden in space might look like, and she’d decided that, well, this Daemon was her, so presumably they shared tastes, so she’d wound up anticipating something suitably sumptuous like the grounds of a manor or palace from a period drama. Like Versailles, maybe. Or Kenroku-en. Or High Mountain Fortress.
But of course…the Entity wasn’t restricted by the limitations that came with building on a planet. She could do things that no Earthly landscaper could have ever attempted.
So she’d played with gravity.
There were apple trees growing down from the ceiling. As Ava craned her neck back and gawked at them, she watched the thump of her jump arrival stir a few blossoms loose, only for them to snow away from her, upwards.
Then she looked back down. The jump platform was on an island in the middle of a still, perfect lake. A small decorative bridge of white stone hopped over to the shore, and beneath it ran a tree-flanked stream which ran away…then left….then climbed the wall and over and back down and under another bridge and—
For a second, it was almost too much. She nearly found it dizzying, vertigo-inducing…but when she blinked, took a deep breath, and opened her eyes again, a kind of illusion settled in, like that thing with two faces and a vase. With the right way of looking at it, she wasn’t gawping up at an inverted orchard, but standing on a pretty island in the shade of a blossom canopy, with a meandering path wandering away from her down an intimate green tunnel while a babbling brook weaved under its bridges.
The fact that it always weaved from right to left and never back the other way was a really neat trick, actually.
Beside her, Derek uttered an enraptured sigh. “Jesus…”
Ava squeezed his hand. “Yeah.”
A soft, disembodied giggle from behind them gained a body as Ava’s daemon counterpart manifested. Apparently she didn’t need the drone to project a hologram, here. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I don’t think I would ever have thought of a design like this!” Ava admitted.
“We were a little worried it’d come across as the twisted product of a damaged mind,” holo-Her said, and looked up approvingly at the overhead blossom spread. “We don’t want to make people uncomfortable.”
“It was…a little jarring at first,” Derek acknowledged, then looked back down the garden tunnel. “But I think you struck the balance.”
The avatar smiled, and extended a ‘shall we?’ hand.
The next little delight was buzzing and humming back and forth along the path’s edge, periodically pausing above a flower bed and dipping its proboscis not into a flower, but into the soil. It looked like a bumblebee, if bees were made of shimmering opalescent composite, and it obediently lifted itself up to alight on Ava’s finger when she reached toward it.
“You really pulled out all the stops to make this place a paradise, huh?”
“As much as we can,” her doppelganger agreed. “Anything that could be prettified, was.”
“What’s it do?” Derek asked, as it transferred itself to his finger.
“Monitors soil condition. Acidity, moisture levels. It’s not like we have fingers we can stick in the soil, is it? It’d also be our first warning of a fungal disease or aphids or something, but we don’t have those here…yet.” the daemon’s little flash of a half smile and twitchy almost-shrug weirded Ava out a little, but only because she knew it was exactly what she herself did a couple times in every conversation. “I guess we’ll get them eventually, if people arrive from Earth and bring dirt on their shoes and stuff.”
And there was a difference. Ava wasn’t sure that was the sort of detail she’d have thought to think ahead on…That was the confounding thing about this Entity, sometimes it was like talking to a slightly more confident and composed version of herself, other times it was like talking to somebody else entirely, a really meticulous thinker.
She scratched Hannah’s ears for comfort until the thought became less uncomfortable, and smiled when she noted the drone-fly was buzzing politely in front of the dog’s sniffer for inspection. When she looked up at the holo-herself, she saw a mischievous glint in her eyes.
“So…I have to ask.” Ava stood up and carried on down the path. Overhead, the stream bounced and bubbled over some stones. “As lovely as this all is—”
“What’s it in aid of?” other-Ava finished. “You’ll see in a second. We have this…idea, you know? About what our role is, for the future. Beyond surviving. Surviving’s, like, the baseline but what then? What else?”
Ava made a mental note of that one. Good header quote. “So what’s your answer?”
“We think it’s about the same as everybody else’s. Everybody…I was gonna say ’human’ but, you know what I mean. Everyone who’s not some kinda genocidal or slavering monster, you know? It’s like those oxygen masks on airplanes. Take care of yourself first…then take care of other people.”
They crossed the third bridge and the last of the inverted trees turned out to have been disguising the moment open space yawned above and around them…
Now Ava’s senses really did wheel. It wasn’t that the space they were in was particularly big—the sturdy dome was actually only about twenty feet up—but the scale of what was going on beyond it kept unfolding and getting bigger and bigger…
Those weren’t stars out there, they were in the heart of a nebula literally named for being inky black. But still the sky was alive with points of light. Rivers of them.
Beside her, her daemon self looked up at it all, but there was no sign of pride in her expression. Her voice was quiet, and somber. “Here’s something we can do better than anyone or anything else. We can build. We can grow. Each time a new probe comes online, our industrial base expands. Exponentially. There’s no limit, except the one we choose to set. But again, what’s it all for? We’re…not human. But we were; we were you. If anyone can understand just what we’re looking for…”
Ava felt Derek squeeze her hand hard, and turned away from it, back to the somehow more comforting and familiar spectacle of a sideways forest. “I…yeah. Mierda.”
“You said it, sister.” Daemon Ava laughed slightly, and sobered just as quickly. “So…tell the world. Show them. Lay us bare. Please.”
“…That’s my body you’re asking to show off,” Ava pointed out.
“Well, maybe not in that sense then, but—”
“No, no.” Ava stopped her. “It’s alright. I’ve always felt I should do one myself, it just always felt…journalists don’t report on themselves, you know?”
“Well, then this is a unique opportunity to have your cake and eat it, I guess?”
Ava couldn’t deny that. She looked up again, at the constellation of multiplying probes through the dome. She ought to be terrified of power like that. It ought to be a nightmare vision of the galaxy’s looming destruction…but she knew herself, and the Entity felt enough like herself that somehow…
Somehow, instead, she felt almost reassured by them. And she wanted other people to feel that too. “So…do you have somewhere extra special set up for the shoot?” she asked.
Her other self beamed proudly.
“Come and see,” she said.
Date Point: 20y3m AV
HMS Caledonia, interstellar space
Corporal Hunter (Gonzo) Thompson
Life had been nothing but search-and-rescue ops for a couple of weeks now. With a lot more search than rescue. ET or human, space combat was some kinda great equalizer, really. If you were living in a pressurized metal can in the void of space and something tore it open, didn’t matter if you were a deathworlder or not, no matter what unsympathetic shit Firth had to say about “squishy xenos.”
He didn’t really mean it, Gonzo reckoned. It was just his way of venting. They were all stressed, all bone-tired and suit-sore, and they’d rescued way fewer living folks than they had pushed corpses out the way.
And they’d had more than one op, like today’s, where they didn’t rescue even one. Gonzo wasn’t sure if it was ‘cuz the Hunters had those crazy new weapons, or ‘cuz Dominion ship design was way too dependent on forcefields and stuff to keep the air inside in an emergency.
Bit of both, prob’ly.
As the gravity and pressure came back and Gonzo’s boots settled on Cally’s deck, he could swear he felt heavier than ever. There was a cluster of cots in the corner singing to him, but there was a whole marathon of de-suiting and debrief to go first…
He endured the de-suiting in silence, though he did try and let his techs cheer him up a bit. It was nice of ‘em to try. But you had to be in the right kinda mood to really enjoy being half-frozen and then yanked out of a supertight spacesuit, and…
Debrief went easier, at least. Major Costello was along for the ride today, and he was sympathetic, kept it quick, and knew they all just wanted to crash. He did have some news to share, though: the Dominion Security Council had finally issued an emergency travel lockdown order.
Which was either about fuckin’ time, or too little too fuckin’ late. But it was something. Maybe. Okay, no more freighters getting hit on the spacelanes, but Hunter wondered what they were gonna do about the attacks on stations and little unprotected colonies.
Or, for that matter, how the hell the galaxy was gonna cope with a lockdown like that. Some places got all their food by interstellar freighter. Some places, like Cimbrean, made most’a their money off exports.
Shit, maybe everywhere would finally switch over to jump arrays. Maybe. But that’d take a while and lotsa folks would be stuck goin’ without in the meantime…
Thoughts like that didn’t help him sleep at all. He stretched out on his cot and closed his eyes, but it just didn’t quite happen, somehow. Weirdest fuckin’ thing, if they’d had to fight anything in all these ops, he’d’ve slept like a baby. But something about a fruitless SAR kept Hunter’s brain turning over.
Still, he must’ve dozed a bit because Burgess gave him a kick to wake him up: they were back at Cimbrean, ready to jump down to Sharman, get some real rest in real beds…And, as it turned out, meet the FNG.
Senior Airman Ryan Cross, USAF pararescue. Their new Protector, a short tank of a man and ridiculously fit already. He’d even claimed ‘Horse’s vacant room in the barracks, not knowing the significance. Throw in the fact the entire team was cranky from being all worn down and bummed out, and, yeah, he hadn’t exactly set himself up to be the most popular guy in town. Firth, of course, always looking to grow and seemingly never too exhausted to squeeze in one more brutal workout for the day, decided to break in the new kid and educate him on the meaning of suffering. Yan joined in too, because anything Firth could do, Yan aspired to match.
Poor bastard. Hunter was too tired for all the hazing shit, though. He said hi, crammed a post-op supplement meal pack into his face, and hit his bed like a hammer dropping.
At least this time, the universe let him sleep as much as he needed.
Date Point: 20y3m2d AV
Ekallim-Igigi, New Sumer system
Pandrosion of Alexandria
Pandrosion’s place when the general alarm sounded was aboard her ship.
The Hypatia wasn’t an engine of devastation like Gladiatrix or Onna-Musha. Her ship’s first and foremost role was scientific. In fact Pandrosion was quite sure she and her beloved vessel held the galactic record for deepest dive into a gas giant’s extreme depths. She was the only living human—very probably the only living thing—ever to see metalized hydrogen with her own eyes.
A trip never to be repeated, that: had anything at all gone wrong, she wouldn’t have had time to notice before instant oblivion took her. But the long-lived should dance with death occasionally. To remind themselves.
So Hypatia was, by a wide margin, the toughest ship in the fleet. And one of the most well-equipped with sophisticated sensors. She was SIngularity’s eyes in battle, the light that pierced the fog of war and lit up foes for her more devastating sisters to annihilate. Her sensors saw all.
Unless, in this case, they protectively shut themselves off to avoid being fried by the sudden wash of apocalyptic energy that slapped New Sumer’s system shield like the Lord God’s own stern hand. Pandrosion spent a few stunned seconds staring uselessly at her temporarily blind display until it came back up and she could breathe again.
The shield held.
Beyond it, the handful of Hierarchy-typical contacts that had warped up on them turned and slid away into the interstellar black. The fleet stood down once not even Hypatia’s instruments could sense them above the background noise of spacetime’s constant tiny fluctuations.
And after that of course came the investigation. Just what had they hit the shield with? The answer, most likely, was the same kind of gigaton warhead the Gao use so liberally in space combat, but shaped, so that more than eighty percent of its phenomenal energies discharged in roughly the same direction.
But of course, even that was insignificant next to the stellar output the shield absorbed every second. Just more focused. Against the more efficient electrostatic fields on ships and stations, which needed far, far less energy than eight percent of a whole G-class star’s output to establish a solid barrier, the work of dissipating energy like that would incur waste heat in the emitter, ultimately overload and burn it out.
System shields didn’t work that way. The waste heat never went anywhere near the generator, and the generator was a safe distance from its own field as further proof against bleedthrough or any distortion effects which might bypass the boundary. The price was terrible inefficiency, but when one had stars to draw from…efficiency really became no object.
The whole idea, after all, had been to design a defense system whose very simplicity was one of its strongest assets. Pandrosion considered it one of the most successful projects she’d ever worked on.
She would have been a fool to consider it invincible, however.
“They’ll find a way through eventually,” she predicted, at the evening’s strategy meeting. “If they’ve finally started treating the system shields as a priority, it’s inevitable.”
Heads bobbed around the table, including Gilgamesh’s. “There is no such thing as an impregnable fortress. And when ours falls, Earth’s will fall shortly after, and Gao’s, and Cimbrean’s…”
Lord Keeda’s ears were set at a solemn, troubled angle. “Earth won’t fall easily. Even if the shield around Sol falls, I would still say the fight for humanity is not hopeless. The gao, though…my people are stretched thin and exhausted by the last invasion, and facing a population collapse soon. If their shield falls, if the Hierarchy descend on them…”
“Then we must win this war while we still have the use of that which has made it winnable,” Tomoe said.
“We have no concept of a timeframe,” Leifini pointed out. “It may take them centuries to defeat the system shield.”
“Or they may already have figured it out,” Mevia replied. “Today’s strike may have given them everything they need, and the next one will be the end of Ekallim-Igigi. As you said, we don’t know.”
“If that is so, then our strategic options approach zero.”
“Then we must act as though the shields have not yet been defeated, but may fall imminently,” Gilgamesh concluded. He drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the table for a few seconds, before scratching at his beard. “I have been giving thought to reaching out to the OmoAru. Neither the Gao nor the AEC governments trust them enough to bring them in beyond arms’ length…Perhaps we, as their only technological peers, may find some useful alliance there.”
“To what end?” Leifini asked.
“To the end that isolation is inevitable death while each alliance we strike improves our chances…Yekiidaa, my brother. Do you believe your nose can endure them?”
Y!’kiidaa chittered resignedly. “For you, it can.”
“Good. I believe they have a hunger to be of use, just as we do. And as our only real technological peers, we can perhaps provide them with what they truly need.”
Heads ducked, nodded and bobbled around the table as Singularity’s leaders agreed.
“One other point…I believe the time has come to collect an archive and open it,” Leifini said. “We are out in the open now, there is nothing to be gained by further caution. I propose we lift one and study it. They must link together somehow and perhaps by taking one apart we will be able to follow those links and unearth them all.”
“Agreed,” Pandrosion knocked her knuckles lightly on the table in support. “I would see to it myself, in fact.”
“You should establish a research post far from Ekallim-Igigi to house it,” Yekiidaa suggested. “In case of any…nasty surprises.”
“An exciting time is ahead of us!” Boomed Gilgamesh. “Make it so. Cautiously, please! And I think this would be an excellent opportunity to build trust with Earth as well. We should invite this Erebor to participate! In the meanwhile…” Gilgamesh checked his watch—a gift from the ambassador, and a trinket he took immediate delight in. “I have an appointment with Etsicitty. Gods willing, I will prove to be slightly less embarrassed than in our last meeting!”
“You enjoy him,” Pandrosion noted with a smile.
“Of course,” he boomed. “He is an enjoyable young man! Unassuming, but perceptive and aggressive, extremely intelligent…a good father. And such a man! I had almost forgotten the delights of truly striving! Here is the Soldier, a foot shorter and five thousand years my junior, yet he can respectfully humble me in gymnasium. For now at least! How could I not love him?”
Pandrosion felt her smile grow wider. Somehow, for all his age and responsibilities and cares…her husband was still so full of the joy of life. She resisted the instinct to remind him that Etsicitty was an ambassador rather than a friend, though: he didn’t need it, really. And it would have been futile. He befriended everyone he respected regardless if their role was adversarial or otherwise. He was of ancient instinct, there…
But perhaps that more ancient mode of alliance-building was what was needed right now. And the friendship with Etsicitty in particular may prove strategic. The young man had every reason to hate Gilgamesh, after all. He’d suffered greatly on Nightmare by all accounts…
But it had made him the man he was today, too. And who could refuse the apologetic friendship of a god-king? Or ignore the more primal dynamic underlying it? Julian must surely have taken some cathartic joy in so thoroughly upstaging a literal figure of myth, after all…
There were a few last minutiae to handle after the king had departed, which Pandrosion duly paid attention for but had nothing to contribute to. Already, her mind was turning over the opportunity she’d awaited from the first moment she ever laid eyes on an archive: the chance, at long last to pierce its shell and inspect the innards. What wonders would she find within?
Time would tell.
Date Point: 20y3m3d AV City of Uruk archaeological site, Iraq
Alex, Prince of Ekallim-Igigi
Maybe the surest proof that he was his father’s son was just how much he liked the baking, dry heat of Uruk. It had him sweaty right away, yeah, but instead of feeling tired, it was like a sauna instead—weirdly invigorating. He felt bouncy! Probably looked badass, too!
Maybe he understood why dad hated clothing even more, now. If this was the sort of place he grew up, even when it was wetter and greener…wait, wouldn’t that be hot and humid, then?
Anyway. Here he was, now. In Uruk. Modern Iraq. In a pair of tough cargo shorts and some really sturdy sandals, and a big nice hat to keep the sun out of his eyes. And blue-tinted aviators! Righteous had given them to him as “one of the keys to manliness.” And Ian had provided him with a nice super-stretchy t-shirt that was infinity sizes too small, colorfully depicting one of the Anunnaki. Perfect! There was also a really ridiculously lewd “Hawaiian” shirt from Righteous too, but, well…nah. Not appropriate for this. And while most people covered up entirely under such a fierce sun, he tanned quick and well, and preferred the airflow around him anyway. And henching out was sort of important, today.
It was a good thing Alex was kind of a showoff! Just like dad. Besides: he was here to prove he and his dad were for real. Pretty neat duty for a thirteen year old kid!
The White Temple Ziggurat had stopped being white a long, long time ago. And Iraq itself was…well, perhaps as befitting a place that had been civilized since the very dawn of civilization itself, the land was storied. War had visited this country in every century, and destroyed much. Right now, Iraq was poor, much poorer than it had been before the wars at the beginning of the century. The march of technology and imported alien alternatives to fossil fuels had torn apart all demand for the country’s most profitable natural resource. There was still a steady demand for plastics, but…
But the people of Iraq had a long climb ahead of them. One that the Earth’s wealthier nations couldn’t hasten, even if they had the will and money to try.
Reading all of that in Pandrosion’s lessons had been one thing. Seeing it for himself was another. He understood now, in a way that his step-mother’s dry writing could never have managed. Human nature could be painful to witness.
But it wasn’t hopeless. If he learned anything from his father and mothers: hope was eternal.
In any case, his arrival had generated some weird publicity. He didn’t make a big fuss out of it at first, but he was there as a public figure, and cameras were always looking at him. Iraqis took a shine to him basically instantly. “The Bull of Uruk” they called him, now. After all, the internet loved weird, and what was weirder than a freak slab-boy from outer space, come to his (alleged) dad’s (alleged) former palace, to (allegedly) perform some…what? Magic trick?
Well, he had a shovel and a chisel, so that should clue them in, hopefully.
He’d been followed and hounded constantly. That was okay, though. He made it work by talking to everyone, shaking hands, having tea, eating way too much biryani…Mostly, Iraq seemed to like him. A few even thought he was the coming of New Uruk.
A few more wanted to murder his face.
Let them try. He had a security detail and he’d broken HEAT-sized men while sparring, so…
Anyway, he had a cache to retrieve: a few items his father had buried the last time he’d walked this landscape in its greener days, at his favorite spot by the river where he and Keeda had caught an absolutely massive fish. Somehow the story had grown in the telling into them slaying a demon?
When Yekiidaa’d heard that one, he’d chittered until his ribs ached.
Alex walked along the ancient bank, with his AR glasses showing him where to dig. The river had meandered over time: now, it was several miles away to the west, and Uruk sat alone in dry, barren country. But father, of course, had access to Corti GPS when he buried it. Alex’s glasses knew the coordinates down to the centimeter.
Time for the magic trick. He pulled off his shirt—the sudden surge of camera-clicking made him feel a bit self-conscious for a moment, so he countered by showing off a little—then put his shoulder into it and dug, good and quick and with total confidence. That was key, here. He had to show he knew what he’d find, and making fast work of it was a great way to do that. Also, he was the Bull of Uruk, right? May as well live it!
Didn’t take him long to dig a pretty deep hole, deeper than he was tall. In fact, he was almost eight feet down when he found what he was looking for, encased within a very compacted layer of almost-sandstone. Nobody would have ever found it if they didn’t know it was there. He chopped with his shovel, pried the slabs up and tossed them out of the hole, dug out all around and finally under the bulky treasure until, at last, it was completely free to the air.
He’d dug up father’s ancient stasis box.
Honestly, a quick read of its screen suggested it wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway. Encasement hadn’t damaged it much, but there was no such thing as indefinite power. Still: it had done its job. He grabbed the box and tossed it up out of the hole with a grunt.
Minds were already well and truly blown just by that, but father had wanted to be certain. So, speech time. He jumped up out of the hole—right. Normal people couldn’t jump that easily or that high. Oh well, it helped get the point across. He was sweaty and disheveled from the work—dis-shoveled? Ha! Anyway, he probably looked extra hench from the work and the sun beating down. And thank the gods he had a nice, deep voice now. Manly! Still only like five-foot-five though, even if he was wider than a door. And really scraggly stubble. Oh well!
So, speech. He gathered everyone ‘round and opened the box. Show and tell. There was a whole collection of artifacts of course, from the mundane to the precious, but one stood out.
The small, flat object that was quite obviously a laptop. With a full charge, too. He pulled it out and showed it to the stunned, gawping gathering. He pulled out the large free-standing display too and unfolded it, and lastly unfolded the keyboard. No mouse or anything, Corth used gestures instead and the cameras for that were built into the monitor.
“This is a standard-issue portable computing workstation of Corth make, one typical to the era of my father’s rule on Earth. It has been programmed with ancient Sumerian and contains a working codex for all the human languages in use at the time. We will offer this as a gift to the human race…but a computer without software or data is useless. So, there’s more.”
He hadn’t told the archeologists that bit.
With the first miracle performed, it was time to retrieve that software. So, they returned to the White Temple proper and ascended the ziggurat. Followed carefully by some extremely upset archeologists, he remembered the VR simulation in his head. He climbed the stairs with the workstation bits folded back up and slung in a sack over his shoulder. Walked along the ancient hall, which now had no roof. Stopped where the throne would have been. Put the marker down for the AR treat they made for the archeology team.
Faced the stairs. Took the prescribed number of steps to the right from the throne, then forward, then left. Looked for the secret marks. Almost…almost faded.
It was covered by a huge paving stone. He didn’t know how much it weighed. A lot, probably. Should have called for help, got tools. Showing off could be pretty stupid…
Nah. He could heft it. So, he pried out a couple of the edging stones, found where the handgrip had been carved by father all those millennia ago. He planted himself, bent down, heaved—
More stasis boxes, in an untouched chamber embedded under the floor. He hefted the stone overhead, thumped over to the side and carefully put it down, propped up against what remained of a sturdy-looking wall. He knew just by lifting it that nobody else on Earth at the moment could have managed, so he wanted to be sure everyone saw him do the deed.
He didn’t quite keep the wobble out of his step, though. Damnit! It was a big slab and felt sorta like he was lifting a small car overhead. Hell, maybe he had! Still, he just knew Wilde would make fun of him for that! And Hoeff, too. And Julian, and Gonzo, and Bruuk and Vemik—
Anyway. He caught his breath with a huff, maybe took a little too much delight in everyone’s gawping stares…back to business. He went over to the pit and hauled out the stasis boxes.
It took a few minutes to set things up, but all those years in stasis? Well, as far as the corth workstation and portable drives were concerned, they were only, what? A few days old. And they’d only been entombed a few minutes ago. They were practically in factory condition! So of course, they worked perfectly.
Which meant the gathered archaeologists were soon treated to actual recorded footage of life in the ancient city. Alex’s father had worn the camera on his head and gone for a stroll. You could tell it was him from the height of the vantage point and the sound of his voice.
Well, the filename too. And the file metadata. But whatever, nobody else there was likely able to read ancient Sumerian in a context like this. But they could definitely hear, and see. There would be other perspectives too—dad had confidants he’d trusted with his Great Secret. But for now, this was enough. Proof of ancient connection.
They were immediately weak at the knees. There were requests to rewind, to slow-motion over particular details. Alex got the impression he’d just completely obliterated one man’s pet theory about something or other in less than five seconds of footage. And if he wasn’t careful, they were going to obliterate some heads in crawling over each other to get a better look.
So, he did the thing only he could do. He made himself into a friendly hench-kid-wall and gently persuaded everyone to back away from the priceless archeological treasure.
“Guys! Chill out, okay? Don’t worry. I brought everything we need so we can convert it all to modern formats. Yes, losslessly. And more workstations! They’re in my truck, see?”
He pointed down to his shiny new Toyota Hi-Lux. One of the things he loved about Iraq was that nobody gave any fucks about a thirteen-year-old driving a pick-up, so he’d had fun with it. He’d painted it blue! And stuck a silhouette of the Beowulf on the driver’s side door.
He gave a proper speech. Nothing too long, just enough to make it clear they were giving it all to humanity. More questions, then they drove back to base camp, set up the workstations…
Very, very happy archeologists. Awesome! Just wait until they discovered how extensive all the databases were. It wasn’t just video they’d recorded for posterity…
It wasn’t completely without incident, of course. His security detail intercepted a couple of guys, cuffed them, and confiscated their guns. But overall it was pretty quiet, and a good way to really prove to the world that Singularity were exactly what they claimed to be.
And he had to admit…walking around these, his father’s lands? It felt right somehow. And that wasn’t just the gravity being a bit lighter than they kept things in the human sector of Ekallim-Igigi. Something in his soul knew he had roots here.
Earth…felt like home.
After the stunt at Uruk of course, it was difficult for anyone to argue that Singularity, Ekallim-Igigi and Alex’s father weren’t exactly what they claimed. Alex spent the following weeks on a series of trips around the world, doing appearances, accompanying his step-mothers as they revisited the lands of their birth…
He knew what his father was doing with him. Alex knew exactly how he was being used. But…he didn’t mind. He knew the stakes they were playing at.
The Great Father had been keen to make sure he knew, as had Julian, as had the King and the President and the Prime Ministers…all of them. It was like they couldn’t fathom the idea that Alex could think past his young-kid things. Or maybe they thought he was some kinda dumb meathead? Or some combination of all that?
Maybe it was just a kind of…adult bigotry toward people younger than them. But at least it was well-meaning. And the fact was, he was starting to enjoy the role. It afforded him the chance to really see the world, get to learn how things were.
Earth was more divided than he’d thought. So much of its interstellar power was concentrated in a tiny handful of nations, and it was going to take centuries to iron things out even if everything went perfectly, which…they wouldn’t. But the thing was…Alex had centuries ahead of him. Maybe in time, he’d be here and the baked, suffering land he’d visited would be the heart of civilization again, just like it had been in his father’s time.
That was a nice dream. And importantly, it was one he could work toward realizing, one step at a time.
He had that time, now. Lots of time to discover himself, disappear for a bit. Learn who he was, not who his mothers and his father and the Great Father and ambassadors, presidents and kings and whoever else thought he would be.
“Enjoy it,” Julian had said. So had Wilde, and Bruuk. Ramsey, too. Everyone kept saying the same thing, and they were right. He’d be grown up and burdened all too quickly, as was the fate of any prince. It was time for Alex to live free.
Even if only for a few years.
Date Point: 20y3m4d AV
Entity’s Garden, the Ink Spatter Nebula
In the end, the Daemon didn’t spare Ava’s blushes one bit. She’d secretly hoped it might exercise a little self-censorship and pose for the photoshoot in a Barbie-doll body, sanitized of explicit detail, but…no such luck. Maybe if she’d asked it—her? them?—to, it would be different, but that would have been to interfere with the interview rather than be its vehicle.
And…honestly, it was the body Ava had always strived for and never quite achieved. Curvy in all the right places, flat and toned in the tummy, flawless in every regard. It would have been intimidating to stand next to such a perfect body anyway, but this one was…hers. Right down to the line of four freckles above her left hipbone. An ideal version of her.
How could anyone, male or female or whatever else, stand next to their own perfected self and not end up feeling inadequate?
But really…when she considered what the Daemon was, what the Entity was, what she—they, it, whatever—had gone through to become this, that sense of inadequacy and insecurity seemed…immature. And besides, there was no challenge in having a perfect body when the body in question was just a holographic rendering. Divorced from the limitations of flesh and blood, that exquisite figure hadn’t come from winning the eternal struggle between willpower and snacks. The Entity didn’t need to jog or hit the gym, and would never have to worry about water retention.
So really, there was nothing to feel inadequate about. It was like comparing herself to somebody’s fan-art of her.
That observation turned out to be a useful angle to work for the shoot. And, well…the Daemon was Ava. If there was one other mind in all of God’s creation that could really get her sense of artistry…
Sure enough, it/she/they understood instantly, and so they started with the bare projection drone.
That was what Laid Bare had always been about: telling the person’s story through the medium of their body, and the Daemon had a unique body, in that she could turn hers off.
But how did you get a dull gray sphere to pose? That was a beautiful challenge! The first image was abstract, almost incomprehensible, the shot perfectly timed at the moment the drone made contact with a still pond’s surface, the difference between real object and reflection only discernible from the faint ripples.
From that first, nearly formless impression, they moved on to assembly. It took a little work, and a bit of waiting while the Entity assembled a spaceworthy transparent excursion pod for her, but Ava got a fascinating set of shots of one of its probes being put together with shocking speed. The parts came together in a balletic whirl of precise motion and millimeter tolerances, and she resolved immediately to put the full process in the article as a time lapse.
Derek questioned the security of doing so; the Entity replied that it had assembled an older probe design for her, and was confident their foes could glean nothing of value.
From formless being, through raw embodiment, to the beginnings of human form. A low-resolution, janky, slightly transparent, Barbie-Doll version. From there to a more complete version, properly opaque, human in every way except hue and shade, and from there…
From there, exquisitely detailed and perfectly-formed humanity. Only the fact she emitted a little light gave away that this was still a hologram
…Oh, to hell with it. Ava bit the bullet and posed alongside herself. The vision of perfection standing opposite the vision of reality, ten years of stress and flaws right there for direct comparison. It was terrifying! Just the thought of putting everything out there like that got her heart pounding and her palms sweating and her scalp tight, but…
But she’d always felt that if she was going to ask other people to do it, she should be willing to herself. And the result was art. From nascence to assembly to growing humanity, to separation and drift. They were telling the Entity’s story, and it would have been incomplete without her.
She ended the day sitting comfortably on the grass, cooling her feet in a perfect pond alongside herself and her love…and a thought struck her.
He was snoozing on the grass with his hands behind his head. “Yuh?”
“How about here?”
“For the wedding.” Ava scratched the scruff of Hannah’s neck and looked around. “Right here.”
He opened his eyes, looked up at an upside-down apple tree, and chuckled. “…Yeah. Yeah, I like it. If our host’s okay with it, of course?”
The daemon beamed at them both. “We’d be delighted.”
“Then it’s settled,” Ava decided. “Right here.”
She looked at her digitized self, who watched her back. There had been so many ways she could have fallen apart when she learned of what had really happened to her in Egypt. And yeah, at first she’d freaked out and needed help but after that…
After that had come a kind of rebuilding. Laid on the foundation of an answered question. She’d done what she did, she’d knuckled down, investigated, worked at what had troubled her, and come out the other side into…well, into a weird kind of paradise.
Maybe that was something to try and share. Something else to work into the article. Or something to mention at the wedding? Or—
Or maybe she should stop planning and stop worrying for the time being, and just sit back and enjoy the water, the grass, and the comfort of the moment.
She chose the latter.
Date Point: 20y4m AV
USS Chitimacha, responding to distress call
Lieutenant James Boyt
Things had got pretty serious among the gunboat crews after what happened to the Wampanoag. Before, postings on a Misfit-class had been fun, exciting, prestigious and a helluva way to pick up girls in bars: now there was a kind of grim resolve about the job. A whole lot of vengeance, mixed with fatalistic black humor.
After all, for all they knew, each time they answered a distress beacon they might be dead within an instant of arriving. Though there was a certain bleak comfort in knowing they’d never notice it.
This time, thank God, wasn’t that.
In fact, this time, it seemed the Hunters had left survivors. Boyt’s contact list resolved three intact civilian beacons: water tankers. Old, slow ones. No wonder they were still out here so far from safety despite the lockdown order, or maybe they were just stupid and reckless and had ignored it. Either way, they were easy prey: the Chitimacha herself could have sunk all three in less than a second, so the fact these three were still intact suggested the Hunters had…spared them?
Or left them as bait.
“Active ping,” he ordered, then got on radio comms. “Convoy lead, this is USS Chitimacha, answering your mayday. how may we render assistance?”
It took nearly a minute for whoever was on that ship to scramble their way to answering, time in which Chitimacha and her drones swept the volume three times with active sensors and found…nothing. The disturbed, decaying particles left behind by Hunter warp drives. Two diffuse clouds of particulate matter, both substantially less than the mass of a water carrier, what little remained fizzing with static charge from where it had escaped outward along the edge of a collection field.
The Hunters, it seemed, had hit and gone.
The Vz’ktk convoy leader was…well. Her species had an alien psychology. They didn’t really care about the two destroyed ships. They only cared that they themselves were alive. Like deer watching a pack of wolves munching on one of their fallen, then putting their heads back down to graze. A human would have been sweating, distraught, hungry for any knowledge or action to stop that from happening again, but to the Domain species…the danger was not immediate, so they could count themselves lucky and get back to work.
It took the arrival of USS Karuk and USS Frank Herbert, plus an additional twenty minutes to finally drive home the idea that hey, guys, you should still be worried because maybe they’ll come back.
Boyt didn’t think of himself as any kind of a species supremacist but goddamn! How had a species who struggled that much with such a basic concept even achieved basic tool use?
Still, they did get it. And they accepted a towed jump back to a safe station, after much complaining about their schedule and the disruption and a whole bunch of irrelevant bullshit. Boyt was glad to untether them and let them complain to the AEC port authorities at Armstrong, because the board was still lit up with distress calls.
The FIC passed down Chitimacha’s next target, and they jumped to the nearest fleet beacon. Dropped its replacement, pointed their nose, went to maximum warp. Ten minutes to intercept. Ten minutes that passed in tense silence broken only by essential communication.
This time, the Hunters had left nothing to save.
Recall jump rather than linger, make report, receive the next call, prepare to jump again…
The order was belayed. They were standing down. No reason given, but Boyt could guess. They were just exhausting good people and putting themselves in needless danger in a futile effort to save people who were already dead. The more they did it, the more they opened themselves up to the next one being an ambush.
They docked at Armstrong and stood down. There was a lot of maintenance to do before they could disembark for some well-earned leave, but no amount of leave was going to lift Boyt’s spirits very much. After all: Out in the dark, the Hunters were still rampaging.
And they had no idea how they were going to stop it.
Date Point: 20y4m1w AV
Planet Aru, the OmoAru Remnant
The Hierarchy had pulled a deeply cruel trick on the OmoAru. They were pleasant, intelligent, curious, tragic, hard-working people doing their very best to pull their species back from the very edge of extinction…
And they were almost impossible to like.
Oh, that was unfair. They were entirely likable through comms! In correspondence and messaging, they were as charming as anybody else. But in person, the technology embedded in their very DNA whispered terrible things to a deathworlder’s instincts.
The scent itself was merely industrially unpleasant, like the smell of a vehicle fire. But it carried something that filled the role of a pheromone, and not a happy one. One that tickled the back of the brain and promised that the thing in front of them was wrong. ‘Be wary’ it said to the oldest, most automatic place in Y!’kiidaa’s head, and they listened.
Overcoming it took an effort of constant will. Fortunately, Y!’kiidaa had had a very long time to practice.
“So many of them are standing idle…” he observed.
They were standing on the observation deck of a luxury yacht that had been left in orbit above long ago, only to be reclaimed by the Remnant and refurbished into a diplomatic ship. Y!’kiidaa had to give them credit, they certainly knew how to show off their beautiful world, with its sandy continents and emerald oceans.
But in this case, they were showing off their orbital factories. Thousands of them, an artificial ring system of them girdling the planet.
His guide was the OmoAru’s ambassador to the Dominion Security, AtaUmuUi, and the perpetual slight smile that was a function of his species’ bone structure rather than actual mood belied the sad shake of his head. “The humans of Earth were interested in renting run-time, but their treaty negotiations are complex, their needs minimal compared to our output potential, and our production capacity far outstrips the supply of available crew. I believe the Locayl have also been making a bid…”
“In other words, you’re a seller too large for the market.”
Ata sighed heavily. “Ours was the largest empire in the galaxy, once.”
Y!’Kiidaa chittered, “Indeed! I remember.”
“You saw it for yourself?” Ata asked, ducking his head curiously
“I did. We were in hiding, of course, but we watched, and mourned, and prayed for you.”
“I suppose that was all you could do…” Ata twitched his tail morosely, then looked out at the drifting shipyards. “You saw, then, how many ships we had. How many of them are probably still drifting out there in interstellar space after the Droud took their crews’ minds and they warped indefinitely until the hull charge fried them. I’ve always thought it a mercy of sorts that at least their end came relatively quickly. They didn’t…linger.”
“I know I would prefer that,” Kiidaa agreed, doing his best to be mindful that the stab of impatience he felt over Ata’s melancholy wasn’t really what he felt; it was just his nose.
“I suppose my question for you, then, is…Your faction is so tiny. Larger than we are now by population, to be sure, but still…can you really have the materials and personnel to need production on the scale these factories can offer?”
“We can.” Kiidaa turned away from the window to explain. “Ekallim-Igigi has no difficulty in acquiring raw material, but the need to keep the station small enough to travel has always limited our production and storage capacity. Now, we are staying put and we have a virgin system to harvest for resources…and our entire population is trained for war. We have the crews, and the designs, and a sizeable enough fleet…”
“Then why come to us?”
“Because we have built that fleet up in secrecy and slowly. Now, we are facing true, open warfare. Our needs have changed.”
AtaUmuUi’s tail curled expressively one way then the other, before he fished a huh from a pouch on his belt and turned it over in his hands. Even behind the stench of his nanotech, Y!’kiidaa could smell the way the weird, smooth device instantly lifted him out of his melancholy mood and filled him with resolve.
It was kinda clever, that they’d outsourced their aggression to a trinket. Sad that they’d needed to, but well done them for thinkin’ to do it.
“I am open to the idea, as are my people,” he said, putting the huh away again. “We would require a proper written treaty, perhaps third-party arbitration through the Dominion…”
“We’re not interested in gettin’ into a bad deal either. Just so long as you can I can agree, here, today, in principle, to starting the process, yijao?”
It was only a beginning, but to Y!’kiidaa it felt good. Him, the maimed son of a people forever scarred by ancient evil, Ata very much the same in some respects. Two of the free galaxy’s tiniest but most ancient factions, their power carefully hidden and preserved against the ages…both having gone looking for an answer to the great problems of life in their own ways.
Too bad for Ata his people had chosen the wrong way, but they didn’t deserve extinction for it. In time, perhaps they’d even be able to rid themselves of the nanotech and the vulnerability it thrust upon them.
Yes. They could be Heroes again, if given the chance. Of that, Y!’kiidaa was certain. So he held his breath, willed down the nagging instinct that wanted him to hate and distrust, and shook hands. The galaxy wasn’t healed yet, and everyone would have their part to play. Who was he to deny the OmoAru their resurrection?
Let them work. Let them fight.
And together, let them win.
Date Point: 20y4m1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
It had been such a good plan, too. Daar’s promising evening with a carefully and well-earned prize of a woman was one of the few he actually fret over! He’d done a floral arrangement, planned a dinner, even practiced cooking it. Naydi thought it was hilarious!
“Bumpkin, are you planning to start a harem? Are the Females at last safe from your lust?”
His embarrassed denials only made her chitter louder.
So, for the lovely Keela’s benefit tonight (and definitely not to start a gods-damned harem!) there was music, there was his good homebrew talamay, there was that book she’d specifically wanted him to read…
And then there was his aide knocking on the door to completely break the spell with a “My Father?”
Daar quickly ran through a calming litany in his head and cracked the door open. “…Yes Deego, what is?”
Deego’s ears twisted and his posture drooped apologetically. “There’s a priority meeting for you in the orange office.”
Of course there was.
“That’ll be a big ask,” Daar grumbled, then turned his attention to the lovely specimen of a brownfur he was to bed that night. “Darlin’ I think duty calls me. Don’t know how long I’ll be…”
He’d been gently courting Keela for months since she weren’t the type ‘ta fall ‘fer his usual smarmy charms. He seemed ‘ta go in ‘fer those sortsa gals lately—it’d been a fun challenge! An’ she was a warrior-goddess to make even Myun blush! But now, at the beginning of what he’d hoped would be a fun few months, mebbe the first of a few cubs, even…
“I can be patient,” she purred. “And you still haven’t told me your ‘most bestest’ come-on line. It had better be exquisitely awful…”
“Ha! Mebbe when I get back…make ‘yerself comfortable, yijao?” They sniffed noses, and part ways for the moment.
Daar wasn’t angry, he reminded himself. Pent-up and frustrated, yeah, but not at anyone in particular. He especially wasn’t going to take it out on the poor little silverfur next to him, who stunk of fear and was visibly trembling…
He sighed, and gave the little guy a friendly, inviting nuzzle against his chest. “You ain’t gotta worry ‘bout anything, y’hear? I knows ’yer only doin’ ‘yer job.”
That was the biggest downside to bein’ what he was. People trusted he was good for his word, but of course he’d needed to be a genuine terror from time to time, and people remembered. Daar could instantly pulp the messenger with an errant pawswipe and they both knew it. Add in even the barest whiff of frustration or annoyance, and…
“I am deeply sorry, My Father. I do not wish to interfere with your evening—”
“Vark sent ‘ya, I can smell it. Means it’s important ‘cuz he has access to my calendar, and he ain’t stupid enough ‘ta interrupt my private time with such a lovely woman without good reason! So don’t worry. I’mma beat him up instead! Now…what’s up?”
The young male chittered nervously, and Daar did his bestest to encourage it with a pant-grin and a bit more of a friendly cuddle.
He relaxed, a little. And got to business. “Thank you, My Father…so in this case, it’s an interruption you specifically requested.”
…Of course it would be. Karma would demand no less. Whisk ‘em away on official business right as his blood was gettin’ up, an’ it were his own damn prudence ahead o’ time that did it.
Daar just chittered resignedly. “Right, right. Which thing, s’pecifically?”
“Something to do with force projection?”
Ah! That. Right. Well, it weren’t worth delayin’ some sweet relaxin’ hours wit’ a beautiful woman…but fuck it. Duty was duty.
He duck-nodded. “Very good. ‘Yer dismissed if ‘ya want. Go grab a snack! I hear the mess has barbeque buns this time o’ day…”
Vark was waiting for him in the Orange Office, a room decorated entirely in shades of all the new hues now visible to Daar’s eyes. The painting of an Earthling tiger behind the desk was particularly inspiring, as was the rich tapestry on the far wall depicting the Avenging Fury in low orbit over a sun. It was delightfully tacky, really, but Daar loved it, and so did Vark.
Vark took one sniff toward him and flattened his ears. “Ah. I apologize.”
“Nah. My own instruction, weren’t it?” Daar parked himself on the heavy, reinforced wooden bench that served in lieu of a desk chair, and gave Vark an expectant look. “So. Force projection.”
“Worse than we feared,” Vark rumbled, and placed the report in front of him. “Between the nuke on Hell, the pollution there and on Mordor, attrition in space operations, mental health casualties an’ a couple extra harsh winters here on Gao, we’re gonna need ‘ta retire more of the Grand Army this year than projected.”
Daar’s ears tipped back unhappily, and he scanned the summary and recommendations page.
“That’s becomin’ a repeatin’ refrain.”
“Not enough o’ the Army are survivin’ ‘ta their end of service, or are gettin’ invalided out early and then can’t work,” Vark said, grimly. “Disability’s a big problem, an’ Cruezzir can’t fix it all. It ain’t enough to fix the aging problem at scale an’ it especially ain’t fixin’ the mental trauma.”
There was no arguin’ with the numbers, alas. They either retired some able-bodied troops from the Grand Army and put ‘em to work elsewhere, or the entire Gaoian economy would be short-staffed in critical areas within two years, and that in turn would lead to starvation, further shortages, further starvation, death, further shortages…
A terrible snowball, poised to start rollin’ down the mountain unless they were very careful. But at the same time, each time they robbed the Grand Army of its able-bodied troops, they robbed it of fighting effectiveness, and it was still very much needed.
An’ the Females on their island paradise on Cimbrean, or in their well-guarded enclaves on the homeworld, felt safe, which meant they were havin’ a higher’n average female birth rate at the moment too. Which was good! That was the salvation of the species, right there…
But potentially also its downfall. There needed ‘ta be balance.
Couldn’t afford ‘ta keep the Grand Army. Couldn’t afford ‘ta lose it. That left really only one option. Go all-in on his elite forces.
Daar wasn’t really a fan of that idea. Yeah, he was the mostest elite, no arguin’ that…but there were a lot o’ downsides ‘ta overreliance on such capable an’ rare warriors. A lotta things you needed an army for, not just the specialists. If only he could afford the army at this point. But…no. Keeping it would mean collapse, defeat, and extinction. It was lose the army, or lose the Gao.
Sometimes, the hardest choices were hard because they weren’t really a choice at all.
He was going to have to read the recommendations in full which meant, yes, his pleasant evening was firmly and completely gone. Oh well. Life as Great Father couldn’t be all females an’ farming.
Then there was the question of his enemy. What were they up to?
They din’t know. They only had six JETS teams to explore the ancient ruins of the galaxy, and to be frank it had to be men that kind o’ capable.
So. There was a start. Lotta males in the Grand Army good enough for JETS! Especially if they had good humans wit’ them. And good ten’gewek—
Well, balls. He knew immediately what that was gonna entail. And he din’t like it one little bit. He shared his realization with Vark.
“That’ll be a big ask.”
“I know. Gonna be a big Givin’ ta’ even ask it, too.”
“I don’t like how you said that, My Father…”
“I gotta do this myself, Vark. No help. But take a look at this body o’ mine and say I can’t.”
“I don’t even know what you’ll be doing!”
Vark’s response was a quietly submissive keen and ears flattened as far backward as he could manage.
Sometimes, that din’t feel all that awesome.
“Right,” Daar sighed. “I assume ‘ya got a stack o’ readin’ fer me, then?”
“…Yes, My Father.”
“Good. I’ll set in, right after I make apologies to my partner for tonight. You go get some exercise in, okay? You smell restless and I can’t have a flabby Grandfather.”
“Someone’s gotta keep Fiin in line…”
“Essactly!” Daar tucked the report into his Bag of Many Things, rose from the desk, and headed for the door. Somewhere in the back of his head, the question of what kinda gift would be suitable apology for Keela was turning over. Not that she’d expect one—he didn’t like the kinda female who would, as a rule—but that just meant she’d deserve one all the more.
It was a long read. And an even longer bit o’ thinkin’, and then callin’ in his aides and draftin’ the orders and on and on and on until he was just tired and his brain felt like it was full o’ toast crumbs.
He ordered some fish on toast too, while he finalized matters.
In the end, he didn’t need ‘ta apologize at all. Keela and his Naydi had conspired in the bestest, most evillest ways the Females could manage: they put him to bed. Gently, tenderly, quietly. Scratched his ears, curled up with and appreciated him…
Honestly, it were even better than what he’d had planned ‘fer the night.
Still though. Mebbe th’ mornin’ would be fun in its own way too…
Assumin’ nothing else came along to interrupt him.
Date Point: 20y5m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Corporal Hunter (Gonzo) Thompson
Lots of changes underway, and all of it had happened fast from Gonzo’s low-ranking caveman perspective. As a means of simplifying, allegedly, SOR was soon to become its own multi-national paramilitary, mostly independent of the militaries that currently composed it. Their ranks and uniforms would be changing. Recruitment would be changing. Mandatory retirement was going away, since it took upwards of a decade to make a good HEAT or JETS operator…and permanent, individually engineered single-shot Crude was gonna be offered to them, to “reduce the risk” of profiteering or proliferation…allegedly…
Uh-huh. Not hard to miss a mountain of bullshit that big.
Big, big changes. But those weren’t quite here, yet. Even the single-shot Crude—similar idea to what the Corti had given Daar, apparently—was something they were approaching with a lot of caution. In fact, right now, there was really only one mutant on-team who needed it.
Righteous would be leading the way. Which made sense, really. The dude was…fuck, how to even describe him? He made the biggest, most extreme athletes in existence look scrawny! Julian, Yan, Adam at his best? Even short crazy brickhouses like Hoeff or that Alex kid? Didn’t matter. None of them even fuckin’ remotely compared at this point. He had Daar-like density too, had filled out enough to make his Zangief statue look puny. Since he’d finally put the hammer down, he’d managed all that without ruining the fuckin’ perfect lines of his physique, either. Firth was literally made to do this.
And so, he did. He was half-jokingly probably among the first members of a new subspecies of human being. And half-joking was the truth of it, because there were multiple, significant differences in him compared to normal people. Everything from tissue cross-sections to how his tendons worked, right down to his super-broad rib cage and his ridiculously robust skeleton. Firth was built like a goddamned ultra-neanderthal in every way, especially if one considered his noggin. He was literally thick-skulled and heavy-browed. Heavy-jawed too, and it was all put together a bit more like a gaoian or ten’gewek than an actual proper human! What the hell even was he? That was more than enough to mark him as not at all normal. He was a literal goddamn meathead and unless you looked closely you’d never know there was anything different. He really was a fuckin’ freak!
It made a dude wonder: was Firth legitimately part caveman? Or gorilla? Was that really just “good breeding” like the Corti and Gilgamites all swore up and down was the truth?
…Shit. What about Adam? Julian? Hell, Hunter himself? He was of the Line, after all…fuck. Did he have a little of that weirdness in him, too? Honestly…probably. He should probably pay more attention when he went in for his next general check-up.
In any case. Lots to worry about, lots about to change. Not a lot he could do about it. But today at least, they could get some Mass upgrades! It was a day that was a long time coming, too. Righteous and his ridiculously magnificent body had defeated the EV-MASS, and that monstrous feat of human ability meant the Gao, keen to maintain a well-armored ally, were finally sharing their suit tech. And so, after a year of weekly frustration on his part, of his techs almost daily needing to adjust and almost rebuild his suit to accommodate his ever-growing, ever-hardening body…
Today, at last, Righteous would be stepping into a self-adapting, self-expanding, self-repairing, and autonomously motile nanotech undersuit. No more would they need to pain-stakingly insert new sections by hand, the suit had a reserve of material built into his support pack; it could quite literally grow with him. No more would Righteous single-handedly blow their suit budget several times over, just through the power of his huge. Now, he would have a suit worthy of him and what he could do.
This was a much bigger deal than the uninitiated understood. In the battle between a pressure vessel and the thing being kept under pressure…the vessel could never lose. Loss of pressure in battle or in space would be certain death for them. For anyone else, this wasn’t a problem. Not even the toughest, craziest hard-body bruisers the deathworld allies could offer were a match for the midsuit’s crushing embrace.
Not Righteous. He’d managed to tear the thing. More than once! The first incident, somehow, was through the simple act of moving too aggressively. Another, it had ruptured around his bicep when he bent down to pick up an obstructing boulder, and another it’d burst open around his hips after nothing more than a leap, and that literally right after they’d finished repairs, too.
He was in elite company with that dubious honor: only Daar had ever managed such a similar accident. Which meant, really, Righteous was getting a scaled-down version of Daar’s latest armor. It wouldn’t be as extreme a crushing protection as the big emperor-bear could wield, at least not at first, but it would handily outclass everyone else’s, and he could be a running-monkey while wearing it.
But before then, he had to get fit for the thing. So, naturally, he’d spent the day in vigorous training, from the buttcrack of dawn until early evening toward the end of the office day, when he’d tired of tying the Beefs into knots and didn’t wanna break all his PRs again.
And taken the opportunity to teach Hunter a bit more about hand-to-hand. Against most of the team, Hunter racked up the victories because of his speed, strength, and years of practice. Against Julian, Hunter tended to lose because his opponent was physically far superior, but he could still eke out victories with skill.
Against Firth, he was like an ant attempting to spar with the hulk, who happened to be a god-tier expert in the martial arts. Not many could claim experience like him, and it was all Hunter could do to survive the experience, really. Firth toyed with him like a cat playing with a mouse. Until he got bored. Then he more or less just broke Hunter in place, and put him out of his misery.
“Git up, you coulda escaped that.” Firth reached down and yoinked Hunter back up to and off his feet with a flick of his wrist, and did it so forcefully he would have torn Hunter’s arm right out of its socket if he hadn’t been prepared. He bent his knees and landed properly; even in supergravity, Firth had managed to fling him damn near to the roof.
It took Hunter a moment to regain his balance. “Fuck, did’ya need to do that?!”
Firth just shrugged his giant beachball-shaming shoulders. “Stop bein’ so puny, then. Now, lemme show you how—ah. Well, never mind I guess.” The new suit contractors peered in through the gym door, there to summon him toward the fitting room. “Looks like the show’s about to begin.”
Hunter just nodded, hobbled over to the edge, disabled the grav plating, and attempted to recover his dignity. It didn’t work. Firth meanwhile sprang up cat-like and prowled toward the door, as if he’d not been exerting himself at all. Bastard.
Now, though, the tables would turn. It was time for Measurement, one of the HEAT’s more shameless rites of passage. Firth stood naked on the biomechanical metrology platform while his suit techs and the workhouse engineers formed a circle around him, ready to record a new kinesthetic baseline. The big man was the center of dubious attention today; the whole team had gathered, eager to see this new tech for themselves.
And there were bants, of course. Loving bants! This was an indignity they’d all suffered repeatedly, so at this point there was no shame and no secrets between anyone. The whole team was bored anyway and ready for the spectacle, since the daily training grind was…well, a grind. A grind most of the team lived for, admittedly—you had to be a little bit insane and a whole lot meathead to be HEAT, after all—but it was a monotonous grind nonetheless. Anything novel was always welcomed and besides: he’d be stepping off the platform to a ready-to-go suit. Miracles like that didn’t happen every day!
“Okay.” Doyle’s voice cut through the susurrus to mark the start of ceremonies, of sorts. “Gravity set to one gee, subject’s weight…Jesus, you fat fuck. You’re big enough to smash a truck!”
“Huger!” He boomed, “and gettin’ huger too! And I’ve got better eight-pack abs than anyone! No fuckin’ fat on me!”
“Except ‘fer yer ego,” Murray quipped.
“Fuck you, I earned that fuckin’ ego! It can be as fat an’ sassy as it wants!”
“Oh boy,” Costello quipped. “I can see today’s gonna be maximum Ladforce…”
“You can fuck right off too, sir! Respectfully of course.”
“Of course,” Costello chuckled, shook his head, and went back to his tablet. Paperwork. Ugh.
“Right, right…” Doyle snorted. “So, first, resting anatomy. Arms out and parallel to the ground, palms up. Feet flat on the markers. Face forward and stare at the green dot on the wall…”
The usual shit. Righteous had to stand still while the lasers measured him. He couldn’t move much so, naturally, this was the point where everyone began telling jokes at his expense.
“Lookit that big pretty fuck, prettying himself up for his new duds! I bet Yan can’t wait for their next date…”
Firth couldn’t respond right now, since he had to try and be as neutral as possible…so of course, the floodgates opened. Everybody set to work on trying to make him laugh. Honestly, Hunter had to give the big guy scary credit for the fact that the most they managed to do in two solid minutes of jokes and teasing was get his jaw to flex and clench.
Deacon put a stop to it in the end. “If y’all keep ruining our measurements, we’re gonna kick you out. I know he’s pretty when he laughs—”
More chuckles from around the ring, and Firth’s face finally tightened in nearly a smile. But they got the message, shut up and let the techs work.
The next step after baseline was posing. It wasn’t enough to get his resting shape, they had to model every possible way his body could move and change, because men as big and muscular as HEAT operators were dynamically three-dimensional objects, which needed to remain firmly encased in their midsuits no matter how huge or differently or weirdly their muscles might bulge. So, being the most ridiculously three-dee of any sapient being ever, aside from the emperor-bear himself…with a bit of a sigh, Firth set to it and endured the renewed cat-calls and jeers as he presented himself for inspection in the most complete, un-modest way a man could manage.
And it was a hell of a show, not gonna lie. It was everything Gonzo could do to just…not.
Yeah. Hunter made no secret of his sexuality, and nobody on the team cared, really. He’d heard Righteous was super religious and had worried about what that mighta meant, since it was honestly hard not to look…but the big guy was actually super chill on that point.
“That’s between you and God,” he’d said. “Not my business. And it’s flatterin’, but I’m taken. Jus’ respect everyone’s boundaries and it won’t be a problem, yijao? And don’t date within HEAT!”
So of course he didn’t, and in any case he thought of everyone on-team as a brother anyway. Even so: Jesus fuck.
It was both uncomfortable and intimidating to look at him go through it all, and at the same time Gonzo couldn’t look away. If there was such a thing as a perfect, pinnacle human being…well, there he was, flexing and posing dead still however the scanner demanded, one position or motion after another, after another…
Firth made eye contact while he was trapped in a crab flex; each pose had to be held for the scanner. He smirked, quickly…and back to work. Gonzo felt like his ears were on fire.
In any case, It didn’t take as long as usual to get all the measurements. With the old EV-MASS, it could take an hour or more to measure every possible movement on the measuring platform, balancing as it wobbled about to force the subject to adjust. Hell of a workout, actually! This new system was a little quicker, but still: Firth was dripping sweaty by the end of it.
“There! The suit is adjusting for you.” Deacon gave a pleased grin and tucked her tablet under her arm. “Please step down and don your undersuit.”
“What, already? Shit, I barely got to show off! An’ din’t y’all ‘ferget an important measurement?”
Firth crossed his titanic arms with a smug grin, and ignored all the cat-calls. Doyle, long used to his bullshit, just smiled sweetly and said, “we’ve got lasers for that now. I’ll never need to try to reach around your thighs with a tape measure again.”
“But that’s the funnest bit! How else are ‘ya s’posed ‘ta notice all my progress?”
“Again: lasers. I’m quite glad not to have my face inches from your smelly junk anymore.”
“If only we all got that luxury…” Irish quipped.
“Right, well. Tuck your fuckin’ superwang into your hygeine briefs over there and let’s get you sewed into your undersuit.”
The undersuit was new too, of a much tougher, tighter material that simultaneously had much more capacity to stretch where needed. It was so tight in fact…
“Shit,” Firth exclaimed as Doyle sewed him closed. “This is already harder-squeezing than the old suit and it’s just the tights…”
“Oh, just you wait! The new midsuit is gonna all but break you.”
It only took a few minutes for Firth to worm into the new undersuit (including a privacy break to take care of his plumbing), and a few minutes after that…
Finally, the main event. “So what…so I just step into it?”
“Yes, and lift it up, slide your arms in. Should be loose enough you can don it unassisted.”
Firth tilted his head, sighed, and stepped his giant stompers into the midsuit’s booties. He wiggled a bit, reached down to lift the midsuit—
“Shit!” He barked. “This is heavy as fuck! Way worse than the old Mass!”
“Yup. This new midsuit is gonna be about three times heavier than you, double the old Mass. You’re gonna be a living tank, ‘cuz you’re strong enough to handle it.”
Firth grumbled, nodded, dipped his knees, straightened his back, and deadlifted the suit. Not that it was a difficult weight for him or anything; HEAT operators were strong like ants, Firth most of all. But even an easy lift could injure when the weight was nice and big, so…careful it was. He hefted the midsuit with perfect form, then sort of flinged it up and shoved his arms in, and with that one explosive move, he was wearing the thing like it was a giant armored smock.
“Right, so…what next?”
A workhouse tech yipped and produced a remote control with a flourish. “We turn it on!”
With the push of a button, the suit seamlessly zipped itself up his legs and back, just like the Gaoians enjoyed with their own suits. From just under his jawline down to his toes, Righteous was now encased in a seamless, single-molecule midsuit with a motile under-gel layer.
Which went to work. The suit began visibly tightening. At first, Righteous grunted. Then he groaned in pain, and then growled as the Suit forced him into a full-body flex that looked every bit as painful as anyone’s first time in the Mass…
Well, actually, no. It looked a hell of a lot worse. In fact, it legit looked like the suit was trying to crush him like a grape.
“Hnmmggh …fuck!” Firth strained under the load, and Gonzo could see the individual cords in his neck press through the undersuit, visibly defined even through the micro-scale layer. Same with every inch of the rest of him, too. It was, honestly…fucking intimidating on multiple levels. Firstly, that he was such a monster and looked like one even through several inches of armor. But secondly: if the Suit could give even him a hurt like that…
Parata, never Mister Sympathy at the best of times, chuckled sadistically. “Tight?”
“Shit, mmmpf! Shit yeah you dumb fuck!” Firth did manage to crack a smile through a teeth-gritting grimace. “Fuck! It’s almost tighter’n ‘yer sister!”
Always a reliable way to get a rise out of Parata, that. “Oi! You keep your filthy mitts offa her!”
Firth grinned at him, then groaned. “…Fuck …not gonna lay hands on anyone, this feels like a full-body kick in the scrote.”
“Nearly done, you big baby,” Deacon told him. “Any second now…”
Whatever the Suit was doing must have stopped, because Firth’s expression softened a bit, even if he still looked like he was exerting himself mightily. “That’s weird. Felt like it was tryin’ to knead me to death. Now it’s crushin’ more like I expect. I mean, still way too fuckin’ hard…”
“It’s contoured properly now. Should fit better than the old Mass ever did.”
Firth bounced on his toes; dust fell from the ceiling. “Shit. Yeah. That’s…really fuckin’ good!”
Deacon, Doyle and the Gaoian tech—Zikko! That was his name! Hunter woulda felt stupid awkward asking him later—traded high fives.
“It’s configured for dynamic tightness, too. We can adjust the fit based on the expected load.”
“And this delightful full body hug…?”
“Full send. Congratulations, you’re in the big boy’s club now.”
“Fuckin’ great…and the rest is gonna up the ante, ain’t it?”
Doyle grinned evilly. “Absolutely. Now let’s get your outersuit sorted…”
The rest of the armor was much like the previous generation, but evolved and improved. His new midsuit fit him so tightly, the outersuit could anchor much more and better armor, so of course they had taken advantage. Righteous now had an advanced plate system that offered effectively total overlapping coverage. Warhorse never managed armor so thick and heavy, nor anything so comprehensive. But Firth was a far larger man with vastly more real estate across his body, and so…the possibilities had been exploited. He had a much bigger support pack too, to power better reactive shielding and to better feed his GR-7d ultra-heavy assault carbine with ammo and power.
The end result…he was a tank. A walking, talking tank. Tank enough to make the industrial floor shudder underfoot with his every little step. For now, at least, he struggled under the crush of its weight and embrace…
But they all knew that it wouldn’t take him long to adapt. In fact: “shit, this is kickin’ my ass…y’mind if I spend some fam time in this?”
Costello nodded approvingly. “Take as long as you want. In fact, take a week, for a start. I’ll pull you off the active roster, because I want you adapted to that suit as soon as possible.”
Firth nodded stoically, his face the very picture of huge exertion. “Rog. Guess I’ll…start with a road march. Load me up.”
And so…they did. Full battle-kit, worst case scenario. He didn’t seem happy under all that load. But, well…he was Righteous. Maybe nobody would ever replace Warhorse, but more and more it was obvious nobody would ever replace him, either. The man was a god of the battlefield, and now his body manufactured a personalized version of the most potent combat and regenerative drugs available. He was a living weapon, engineered to be the best.
He set off at a laborious march, already sucking down Juice.
When he came back two hours later, his face was beet-red, veins throbbing along his temples, even along his jaw…
But instead of his earlier plodding shuffle, he was jogging on the balls of his feet. And he was carrying the huge boulder back from the other end of the short course, too. The one Warhorse had put there some years ago, and the one nobody had been able to lift, let alone bring back.
And there he was. Only a few hours into break-in, new Mass and new Crude, and he could already manage the basics. He spent the next week inside the new Mass, and when he finally crawled out of the suit…
Shit. New on-board hygiene systems made long-term use far more tenable. He didn’t emerge as a wall of bruised, broken stink. Instead, what peeled itself out of the Mass was a healthy-looking (though a bit pale) and subtly better version of the man from a week before. A quick shower and a big meal later, he went downstairs and destroyed all his PRs, which meant the human and ten’gewek WRs too…
The rest of them began fitting after that demonstration. Eagerly, too; the excitement was palpable, and the crushing agony of the new Mass was almost a religious experience itself. Fuck! Just wearin it made him feel like a monster!
The HEAT was getting upgrades. New organization, so they could operate themselves better. New forever-Crude, so they could fight as hard and as long as any of them wanted. New EV-MASS to completely fuckin’ rule whatever shit they dropped into.
After all the bullshit the last year had dumped on the fuckin’ galaxy? It was about fuckin’ time, and Gonzo couldn’t wait to find out what he could do. He was a fuckin’ weapon, and he was about to get a whole lot sharper.
They all were.
Date Point: 20y7m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Adam (Warhorse) Arés, doin’ his thing
The migraines were under control now, so that was nice. Once a month at most, and that was plenty of time to get his training back in gear. Neurofeedback response was almost fully recovered to his pre-accident results, and he had reason to believe he’d get it all back soon. No more migraines, full control of himself. A healthy, fully-refurbished body, a second chance at life.
All he’d had to do was take the permanent shot.
The one made just for him, likely at huge expense, so…no pressure, there.
The one that meant he was making his own custom Crude inside his body now, that meant he’d never grow old and never grow sick again, at least not for very long. And since he was (according to all the big brains) about as genetically ideal as the best Heroes of the Line, all it would really take was patience and some careful programming to properly max himself out.
It might take a decade or more, but by God he was gonna reclaim his fuckin’ throne, or at least give it the best damn effort a man could give. The serum meant he’d be the best he could ever possibly be, and none of that Hero-breeding bullshit would be a part of his success. Little mexican Adam from the shittier parts of San Diego was a different kind of superfreak. He wasn’t like Firth, whose body would not let him be anything but huge and powerful. He wasn’t like Julian either, who could effortlessly scale himself up and down just with his eating habits.
No. Adam was a real superfreak. He wasn’t a bulky giant as a kid, at least not until he started slabbing up in Folctha at around fifteen or so. Yet, like his papá and even before he was properly a teen, he’d always had an admittedly pretty crazy physique. He’d been an extremely dense and heavy young boy for his size too, and was far, far stronger than even that would suggest. At twelve he was already doing shit like lifting the rear end of cars off the ground or tearing books apart at the spine or whatever other stupid thing his friends dared him to try. By thirteen, he’d already earned a reputation with the skater punks and meatheads in the nearby high school. He was crushing varsity track and lifting records before he’d left the sixth grade.
And…yeah. He got into too many fights with the big kids, too. And won. Usually, he won easily enough that he’d never needed to beat them senseless, and word about that spread around quick and kept him out of big trouble. Nobody wanted to fight the little kid who could catch their fist mid-swing and power them down to their knees just by ratcheting his grip a little tighter…
So yeah, a freak. But a real freak, not some high-pedigree breeding stud like Julian and Christian were probably meant to be. Adam learned early on he needed to eat and move to be strong, so he did. Still had to force himself to eat, force himself to train and grow. It didn’t come as easily for him as it did for Julian or especially Firth…but Adam didn’t seem to have any hard limits, either. At least, none that he’d ever found, even if he had to push with grueling effort while those two seem to just respond to whatever effort they put in. So: if Adam took his second chance at greatness seriously, proceeded with all his learned care…
He’d show Julian and Firth and all those fuckin’ space Bene Gessert what a regular-ass human being could fuckin’ do. Fuck Gilgamesh. Fuck him forever for fucking with Adam’s friends.
So that had been the choice before him. One he knew he couldn’t possibly have said no to. It made him once again capable of realizing the absolute best possible version of himself, like the Heroes on HEAT could do; he’d be a supercommando again, better than ever.
And It would set him down a road he’d never be able to step off until he couldn’t step anymore.
The one that Marty didn’t like the idea of one bit.
“Think about what it means. You either outlive me and your own kids, or we get locked into the same thing.”
Adam nodded, wearily. “Yeah.” He wasn’t even arguing the point.
“Where does that end? ‘Cuz our grandkids are gonna have the same question in front of them. And their kids, and…”
“I don’t think I’m gonna ride it forever,” he stated, truthfully. “I don’t…have that in me. Bein’ honest I just wanna get us through this…all this bullshit. However long it takes.”
“You don’t have to ride it forever for it to still be something you’re committing your entire family to.” Marty had made herself a latte. Now, she was holding it in both hands.
“I already did that, and basically died for it. Then they put me back together. Not ‘cuz Daar’s a big soppy-hearted cuddlebear. I mean, he is and I appreciate it, but he’s no fool. He paid that quarter-billion at least partly ‘cuz he needs me. And damn if I can’t argue against it.”
“Right.” Marty sipped her coffee. “I thought…I had this idea like maybe after dying —cuz you did die, even if they managed to bring you back—like maybe that’d be enough to convince you that you’ve done your part and it’s okay to let go and just…be a family man.”
“Well that’s the thing about duty, right? It doesn’t care. Name someone who can replace me.”
“Why does there need to be someone to replace you?”
Adam sighed. “Because it isn’t about me, or you, or my kids. It’s about survival itself. None of my friends get off the hook, Daar least of them. And none of them are like me, or ever will be.”
“None of us do, apparently…” she sounded morose rather than bitter.
“Look…Marty.” He sat cross-legged on the floor and invited her for snuggles, which she took with a bit of reluctance. He held her, quietly—God how wonderful was it to do that again—and thought for a bit before he spoke. He wasn’t the best at his words, but he could take his time and do them right, when he needed to.
“I don’t need to do this right away. The fight, I mean. Babe, it’s gonna take decades before this shit gets really fuckin’ crazy, ‘cuz it’s gonna take at least that long before the Hierarchy’s truly desperate. We gotta scour a galaxy to make good on our threat, right? Well…I gotta build myself back up anyhow. An’ train people. And raise a family too, that matters. So I’m not gonna be waltzing back into the fight tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. It’s gonna be a while.”
“Stop…talking to me like I’m being silly and you’ve gotta lay it all out. I know all this, baby. I know how this is going to go, I know you. I just…I’m allowed to think it sucks ass, and wish I could finally have you all to myself, okay? And I would feel a lot better if you could just acknowledge that.”
He didn’t know what to say, but a hug seemed like the right thing. And a nuzzle. That too. “…You’re right. It sucks ass, and you do have me all to yourself. At least until the kids are grown up. But all I could ever give you forever was my heart. My body is a different story.”
She sighed heavily, nodded, relaxed into him and…well, that was kind of her giving him her blessing. “I guess you wouldn’t be the man I fell in love with if you could just walk away.”
“And that’s why I fell in love with you,” Adam replied. “You get me. Better than most of the Lads, even. But I’m…sorry if it hurts.”
She nodded, sniffed, finished her coffee, and neither of them said another word about it.
He did think about it all. Really, he did. He refused himself the right to say yes for an entire month. But he knew from day one what his answer would be.
The day after the shot, he started his new routine. Family life in Folctha. Training life on Gao. He built himself up, slower and with the advantage of all his experience. He wouldn’t get overeager this time, wouldn’t push himself too fast. He’d take his time, do it right. No compromises. He would be a perfect weapon in every fuckin’ possible way. If he was gonna be Daar’s personal ultimate option, then by God that was what he would be. No matter what it took.
Same thing with the SOR too, the same with his new teammates at Stoneback and Whitecrest. He taught them how to use their bodies correctly, taught them things the Hierarchy had never let them learn. They taught him, too. They taught him lots of things. Things that did nothing but magnify his already immense respect for Regaari and the rest. Things that would make Adam…
Well, that would come, in the fullness of time. When all was ready.
And he taught the Great Father, too. Turned out he hadn’t plateaued at all during their vacation fun-time some weeks past, he’d just had a bad few days…and somehow, he knew he’d need to be at his best, too. So now, a large part of his day was set aside just for personal training and education, timed to overlap with Adam’s. Every single day, all calculated to maximize progress. He’d even permanently reduced his mating schedule to accommodate that reality…
Which, darkly, was probably the strongest signal yet about how grim the final battles would be.
And so, the work of the next many years set itself to motion. It was a grim pattern of utmost necessity. After all, the finest weapons of all were rough, capable men, and the Great Father needed a great many weapons. Some for immediate actions, some as investment. There were even a few things in the near future that Daar himself needed to attend to, and he had to be the greatest weapon of all.
They had their work cut out for them. Warhorse of Whitecrest buckled down, and set to it.
Date Point: 20y7m AV
Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge
Daar Great-Father had warned Yan ahead of time what he was going to ask. It was…a big ask. The biggest Taking the People could possibly Give. Daar didn’t just need a few brave warriors. He didn’t just need many.
Daar Great-Father needed them all. He needed so many, the People would need to re-think everything about themselves.
That was a Giving that Yan Given-Man never, ever thought he’d consider. It was just…too much. And Daar knew it, too. So, he knew what he had to do. He had to give the biggest Giving he could possibly give. He, himself, as the People would respect and need.
So he went forth into the forest and destroyed the Brown One’s cubs. He didn’t simply kill them, he didn’t even Take them. He swat them apart like a rotting old log or a crushed and drained neyma, as if they were nothing to him at all. Not being content with that, he rolled in their blood to get their scent all over himself and prowled into the forest to provoke the sire and dam.
He destroyed them, too. It took time, of course. Brown Ones were huge and powerful creatures, far larger than anything walking Earth or any other world. But large, swift and strong though they were, they were also built lean and rangy, made by the gods mostly for speed.
Daar Great-Father was just as fast. Faster, even. And though he was much shorter, he was stronger. Compact like the People. Denser and heavier, built as heavily as anything could possibly be. So when he caught them, he pounced up a tremendous height, fell onto their backs and stunned them each with a slap to their great heads…and then, he enjoyed himself.
Never had Yan imagined he’d witness a man of flesh and blood play with such a prey. He understood the pleasures of the hunt, of course. The terrible Joy in a good Taking, the battle between the Taker and the Giver. He knew the fight was sacred, that the Giver should fight for life, the Taker earn his meat. He knew that it could be a terrible agony for both, particularly if the prey was strong and tough.
Daar did not earn his victory quickly, because Brown Ones were a lot of prey to Take. But it wasn’t a contest, he knew it, and all the watching Given-Men knew it, too. They had followed loosely behind him as he baited his prey and closed in to witness when the fight had begun.
It was…none of the Lodge had anything to say about it, as Daar tied his conquered meat together for the trek back to the Lodge, quite far away now. There was nothing to say. They’d just watch a god hunt and play, and none of them could possibly approach such effortless might.
Yan felt weak and tiny. He felt humble.
It…of course, it was a fine Giving to the People. It would buy them a season unmolested by their one real predator, but that would not solve the problem forever. Another pair would migrate down from the grasslands up north, have cubs and feed on the mature werne, just as the People fed themselves on the breeding herd in the forest. That wasn’t the point. They were a problem now and even with a ballista, assuming it worked…even then, redcrests and Given-Men may have died in the fight to keep the forest safe from their ravaging.
Not Daar. He did the deed himself because he needed every redcrest the People could Give. And, frankly, he needed everyone to understand what kind of a power was asking for their help. He dragged the pair of them back to the Lodge and dared any to accost him for it. This he did with seemingly little effort, but one only had to look at huge swells of godly brawn working all along his body, particularly in his great rear legs. One glance was all it took for even the stupidest Given-Man to understand what kind of strength was being Given for their benefit.
As for Daar himself? All he’d earned in his terrible fight was blood- and sweat-soaked fur…and nothing else. Not even a cut anywhere on him!
For many of the Given-Men, especially the older-thinking ones, the fact that Daar could do something like that was enough for him to Take whatever he claimed. Who could stop him?! That was the way of Given-Men: Prove and Take. A hand of them, the ones who lived farthest from the human camp, array and library, scratched their heads in confusion as to why he even bothered asking once he’d shown them the true and holy meaning of strength. He could crush any of them like a little black buzzer and none of them could give him any hurt at all.
Daar was a god. But a god in the flesh, right here before them, unbreakable body of steel and stone, mind too strong for even Vemik to fight with. Why would a god ask?
But ask he did, once the Lodge was properly underway. He’d insisted on closeness with as many as he could, too; that was the gaoian way and the People approved. Friends should not be afraid of each other. But why would Daar count them as friend?
Or was his real purpose a bit more calculated? He’d pulled all the far-away Given-Men to himself, played and wrassled friendly-like despite his strength…and now they were pinned under and against him. None of them could hurt him at all, naked and empty-handed before the gods. He loved and dominated them, the playfulness of a steel-strong warrior god.
With Yan pinned most powerfully of all, head barely poking out past the stone-hard swells of Daar’s giant chest as he sat atop him, pant-grinning happily. If Yan were to toy with a particularly small bibtaw, that would maybe get near describing the difference between them these days. Daar’s shoulders were twice as wide and his chest so deep, he had the strength to stun a yshek or a brown one with a slap, or easily send a Given-Man flying across the Lodge.
Or kill him outright, probably. And they all knew it too. But Daar wasn’t here to conquer the Lodge. It was important they knew what he was, of course, but keeping his peace was a big part of it. Yan had a head full of newer ideas and sky-thoughts, and could see the subtlety in how Daar Sky-Father acted. And over the years, he’d brought most of the Lodge around to that same way of thinking. That he could conquer the People by himself if he wanted to wasn’t a concern. Because he didn’t want to. He respected their strength and their bravery, despite his own far outshining theirs.
Most of them didn’t need Daar’s answer to the question, they understood already.
But it was good that Daar himself had the answer.
“I won’t argue again ‘bout what y’all think I am. But whatever I am, I ain’t stupid. Would you go out, and hunt and hunt and hunt, Taking and Taking until the Werne had no strength left? Why would I do such a thing to you? To my friends?”
He had a way of using words like fangs, really. And it worked—even the most old-thinking and grumpy given-men could understand the idea that strong people required other strong people to keep them strong.
Besides. The People were flourishing now. Vaccines and human medicine, the rich Givings of the forest, the growth into manhood and womanhood of all the children who’d been saved and brought over the mountains…even the return of a few tribes back to the old lands. There were more of them now than there ever had been before the drones and abrogators came. Most were still babies of course, but…
But in time, there were going to be many, many ten’gewek. It seemed to Yan they would need something to do. They’d need to find a way to live as so many, too. Tribes needed a lot of space. Yes, the forest was so vast a man could not walk across its width in a year, but…
But it was only one forest. There was only one Akyawentuo. The worlds Given to the People by the Interspecies Dominion were not right for them, and nor was any other the humans or Gao knew of. In time, their world would be full.
Though, what a nice problem to have!
And Daar had a solution that was both perfect and terrible.
“Fact is, your people are the galaxy’s finest warriors, ready-made. Strong to a man in both body and soul, wise in the ways of hunt and war…what you’ll be after this war, I don’t know. But here and now, the People are exactly who we need.”
He stood and prowled restlessly around the lodge. “I’ve shown all of you ‘fore the Gods themselves, I can Take what I want. But there’s a greater strength still in askin’ anyway, an’ meaning it. So I’m Givin’ ‘ya somethin’: I’m givin’ ‘ya the chance ‘ta stay here, on ‘yer peaceful world, ‘ta turn ‘yer back on the war in the sky. ‘Cuz I don’t want slaves. I want friends. I want allies. But I know ‘yer not gonna stap away from a fight this big, ‘cuz the gods made you too strong ‘fer that.”
He turned and swept his animal, yellow eyes around the lodge, spearing every Given-Man with his gaze. “So. Will you send ‘yer men? Will you let them go through Gaoian rites an’ Human trainin’? Will you let them see ‘fer themselves the strength we can build together?”
There was silence, broken only by the hiss of sacred root burning in the fire. Then Vemik stood, as Yan had known he’d be the first to do. Ferd was scarcely a heartbeat behind him. Then Loor, then Gurn, then Joomak, then the whole lodge was on its feet and Daar had his answer.
The changes began, then. They called a meeting with the Singers, the first time anyone could remember such a thing happening. There were debates. Heated arguments. Fights, and fucking, and hunting, and magic dust and magic smoke.
Daar, for his part, stayed out of it, keeping them all fed by the Brown One’s meat.
It was decided.
The strongest of their young Given-Men, about one of every four, would choose strong men from their tribe, and they would go. Not all the strongest; some needed to stay behind and raise the next generation, and one special Given-Man had too much sky-thinking ahead of him to risk. He understood, if glumly. Soon he would replace Yan, and he needed to be ready.
Each Given-Man was picked from a tribe whose redcrests were ready to be Given themselves. The people would remain strong, but the next Lodge would be an exhausting ordeal for everyone, with that many new Given-Men to receive.
There was so much to plan, to make ready for. They’d need for the Sent-Men to return for their Fire every year. They’d need to house all those men without challenging the existing Given-Men. Bachelor tribes again?
So much to work out, and not long to work it out in. Somehow, though, they managed it: When Daar, as promised, returned in a moon’s time, the best warriors of all the tribes were ready for him.
And he Took them away to turn them into gods.
Date Point: 20y8m AV
Planet Akywantuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate
Doctor Tilly Briggs
Tilly had thought good and hard about it, after the offer arrived. Being invited to take a tenured position at a prestigious university? It was the kind of thing an academic fantasized about! Doubly miraculous, considering her “scandalous” relationships with the ten’gewek. She knew good and well there were folks out there calling her professional ethics into question.
But then again, how many xenoanthropologists were there? And how many of them had lived and worked among nonhumans for as long as she had? She was now easily the longest-remaining member of Daniel Hurt’s team, all the others had long since moved on with their careers.
Turning it down would have ensured this particular genie-in-a-bottle offer would never, ever come her way again. It was take it, or stay where she was. And as happy as she was where she was…Tilly had always known she couldn’t remain forever.
But it meant he had to say goodbye to Vemik. Vemik Given-Man, a man she’d ended up loving, despite every intention to keep it light and fun. She had to break it off, and it was tormenting her.
Maybe she’d be back one day. In fact probably she would. But that didn’t change the need to say goodbye. Firstly, it’d be at least a year or longer, but secondly…
Secondly, she’d felt some other urges in her life. Urges that Vemik could not satisfy.
And that wasn’t something she’d imagined would be possible! At least for her younger self, she’d always envisioned herself as a career-first sort of woman. Domestic life had looked like a kind of slavery, a trap for women with no real goals or ambition.
What a difference five years could make.
From a light-hearted, no-strings perspective, Vemik was all she could have ever asked for and then some in gloriously exceeding excess. He was…fuck, how many superlatives could she use? He was like the ultimate female fantasy—well, a certain kind of fantasy, anyway. He wasn’t some sensitive androgynous cute-boy poet hipster in a bookstore or whatever.
Which, hey! Nothing wrong with tha, but poet hipsters weren’t…weren’t weapons-grade.
Vemik in particular, on the other hand, was. A hunter and a warrior, fully willing and able to inflict great savage brutality on his prey and his enemies…or play endlessly with his friends and lovers, however they wanted to play. He had a tender heart and clever mind inside that savagely built body of his, and he was interested in her, her ideas and thoughts. She couldn’t count the evenings they’d spent sharing ‘sky-thoughts’ until…
Well, apparently he thought she was just as hot as she found him. Her! Sorta-cute, sorta-plain Tilly! She wasn’t really anything special to write home about, and yet there it was, a lover she never dreamed she could have. Aggressive, overwhelmingly physical…loving. Perfect.
It had seemed like the ideal relationship. Here was everything she could ever possibly want in a man, all of it turned up and amplified to extreme degrees. He wanted her, loved her and sought her company. She’d fallen in love with a supergenius hulkmonkey with a body like hardwood and a sense of humor! What more could she possibly want?
Well…there was one thing. The one need she was beginning to feel in her bones, the one thing she’d honestly and surprisingly started to desire above else, and the one he could never fulfill.
Tilly…it had taken her a while to be honest with herself, to admit that what she’d always thought was true about herself had changed, and so suddenly it left her head spinning, but…seeing the ambassador and his kids come and go, seeing the way the ten’gewek raised their own children…all of it had worn down a wall in her mind and now?
She wanted a family of her own.
And yeah, it was hormones, yeah it was biology and instinct. Mentally tacking on the word ‘just’ into those thoughts didn’t make the feelings any less real or powerful. She was an animal, with an animal’s programming, which was something the Ten’Gewek in particular knew and accepted in themselves, as ‘the way the gods made them,’
They truly believed that nobody ever got anywhere by fighting their nature. That wasn’t something Tilly had wanted to hear, but…
But she could look at other species, other examples. The Corti, pursuing the vision that rational Ego should triumph over primitive Id until they were utterly neutered. The OmoAru, who’d poisoned their own cells to improve on what nature had given them, only for it to become the noose by which their enemies hanged them. The Igraens, whose shedding of physical form had been the precursor to shedding individuality itself.
She was tired of fighting herself. Tired of lying to herself. So the letter and offer had come at the right time to make her sit, and think…and at the right time for the Lodge to be making a similarly weighty decision.
In the end, her path was clear. She wanted kids, and that was okay. And she wanted a husband, and that was okay too.
And even if it were biologically possible, a ten’gewek could never fill that role for a human. They were far too communal in their nature. They shared everything. Even each other. For a Given-Man that wasn’t even optional; it was his duty to dominate and possess everyone in his tribe, in every way appropriate to their relationship. Every adult was his to lead and love—and fuck, too. Frequently. No barriers there! Children were raised as much by the village and by him as they were their own parents, and Vemik was happy to fall in love with any pretty woman who caught his interest. It never lessened his love for any other, but…
But that wasn’t what Tilly’s instincts were screaming for.
So…yeah. Between her instincts, her career, and what the Given-Men had decided to do, it was time for Tilly to move on.
It wasn’t quite the tear-jerker she feared it would be, and that was one of the gratifying ways ten’gewek were truly alien. He wasn’t mourning the permanent loss of a lover; he was sad for the temporary absence of a friend. That they may or may not ever bed each other again was just a human bit of weirdness to him. It wouldn’t change how he loved her.
Admittedly, he had been paying her a lot of attention the last week or so, leaving her happily sore and exhausted every day…but still. That was just his way of saying a fond goodbye, like he did with almost anyone anyone he cared about if their relationship involved sex. It was just…polite. Ten’Gewek loved as people and friends, sex was something sacred to be shared by everyone, and they culturally didn’t really do jealousy at all. Though their men and women definitely had favorites, if their favorite decided to have fun with somebody else then they’d generally be happy for them and ask how good it was. Any envy they might feel usually got resolved with a tussle and more sex. Rather than fight for exclusive access, they, well…they competed to screw better. Not a bad system, really! Maybe that lack of possessiveness was something humans should learn from them.
Or maybe Tilly needed to accept that the gods hadn’t made humanity that way.
Vemik tried to be reassuring. “I understand,” he said while cracking a werne rib open with his jaws to suck out the marrow. “And it’s right thing! I think, any child you have will be very strong!”
“I know they will,” Tilly agreed. “And…yeah. It is the right thing, I know. It’s just a big step into the future for me. I’ve been here a long time, now.”
“But a good step! You should find a pretty human boy and ruin him! Or let me ruin him,” he snarled fiercely, and she knew he wasn’t entirely joking.
She had to laugh. “We’ll see.”
“But, when you become professor there is big ceremony, yes? Big blessing?”
“Yeah, there is. Beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere.”
“I come visit! Bring more journals to Shoo-ster too. Maybe not get blown up this time!”
“Vemik! No, I don’t want you risking your life for me!”
He shrugged those huge shoulders of his. “Why not? I wear shield this time. Besides…” he didn’t flex or anything, but he did look down at a forearm that, even relaxed, was bigger around than her fucking waist. “My last attackers didn’t fare so well. Weak humans can be very weak.”
“Besides. Earth not that dangerous. Most people happy, good human small-strong too! And you, I know you’re known. People talk and write about you. Are they gonna blow you up?”
Tilly sighed and shrugged. Somewhere along the line, the fact of her relationship with Vemik had got out and there’d been articles and stuff. She was a figure of some scandal, the ‘Jane of Akyawentuo’ at best, and to many more she was the researcher who’d let her horny get in the way of her professional ethics. She’d never agreed to an interview…nor responded to the emails from producers wanting to make a short biopic…
But she’d also received death threats. Internet cranks, nothing she took too seriously. But still, not pleasant. “Somebody might want to,” she admitted.
“But you don’t really think they will, or you wouldn’t go. People are stupid. My own people stupid like that sometimes too. Even smart people get hit in face by the stupid branch, yee-jao?”
Tilly laughed again. “Yi. You’re right. And since when do you speak gaori?”
“I don’t! Words don’t fit in mouth. But English borrowed that one!” Vemik hooted merrily, then turned and dug in his satchel. “Anyway. I made you a knife…”
Fuck. Tilly felt herself about to cry. Ten’Gewek men only made knives for women if they were very special to them. That was as close to marriage as they got.
And it was a thoughtful knife, too. A chef’s knife with a werne-bone handle, made for human-sized hands with all the skill and care Vemik could muster. She recognized his mark stamped near the tang…and another, too.
“Helped make the handle. She loves you, too. Wanted to be here to see you away, but…”
“No, no. I know. She’s got a naming ritual.”
“And others. Now…we should go. Is a good finger to array and your trunks are big! No time for goodbye fuck,” he hooted with a mischievious grin and just a touch of sadness.
Tilly smiled. “You’re right…it’s time.”
She took one last look at the village before they set off. It wasn’t the same of course. It moved around with the herd, and this one had only been built in the spring. Still. It would be missed.
They walked at a leisurely pace toward the array, hiking pack full and on her back, and her heavy trunks effortlessly atop Vemik’s mighty shoulders. They didn’t say much until they got to the array. He set her trunks down with some care, checked the clock…
Well. They did have a fair bit of time…
Enough time for a good-bye kiss, at least.
He made it a memorable one too, mighty arms crushing her against the hot steel of his body. With them, and with what their tongues could do, a good kiss was all about trust, which meant only the most loving partners ever much bothered.
Tilly trusted Vemik with her very life, and they rewarded each other for it. But all things had to come to an end. One last nuzzle as she felt around his shoulders and back. Another kiss and her hands slid up his wild red crest, a bite at her throat as she felt across the bulging ripples of his chest and down his cobbled belly. She’d meant it to be just a quick, final exploration of his body to remember her forest love…but instead he lifted her up high off her feet, grinned wickedly…
A quick and hasty Giving, but one so good she could hardly see straight. They didn’t have nearly enough time to do what they really wanted of course, but he didn’t seem to mind.
He held her tight while she re-composed herself. Eventually, reluctantly, they broke contact. He took a step back, nodded, and said his last.
“You remember me good, yes? And you teach your boy how to Take properly!”
And with that, with one last quick hug, leaving her happily dazed…he jumped from a standstill far across the clearing and up into the canopy like the superhero he was. One last look back, and…yes, a big cheesy flex or two…and he was gone, swinging powerfully back to his village.
She sat down on the platform. And with a thump, she was back on Earth. The air was dry, the gravity light, her ears full of the sounds of people, announcements and background music rather than the rasp of insects, the call of jungle birds and the distant bellowing of werne. She was simultaneously home…and somewhere very, very foreign.
Her tears flowed like rain.
Date Point: 20y8m AV
Lavmuy City, Gao
Marty still couldn’t call herself happy about Adam’s choice in career direction, but honestly? She hadn’t ever been super happy with his choice in career. The fact was, she wanted him to be safe, and he insisted on throwing himself into dangerous work.
All well and good when he’d been fully able-bodied and able-brained, but she could tell the difference. He really hadn’t ever quite recovered completely, and never would no matter what his enthusiasm told him about his training. You had to know him pretty well to see it, but…
But he wasn’t quite so…he wasn’t quite the same Adam any longer. He’d visited the other side and come back firing on all cylinders. In every way.
Somewhere along the line, he’d lost the knack of reining himself in. Not to the point of being out of control or anything, and Marty had always enjoyed that thrilling hint of danger around him, but now it was there in his step. He didn’t habitually cat-paw his way around any longer and he didn’t soften himself unless by conscious choice. He was just always and unapologetically full-on, now.
It made him seem angry, even when he was in a good mood. Well, not angry, really. Just…Very, extremely switched-on. People weren’t randomly greeting him anymore; before, he’d been the infamous Left Beef, and folks had stopped to gawp at the man with the incredible body. They used to approach and ask for his autograph, or pose with a flexed arm or whatever. Now…at most, they nodded. From a distance. Many crossed the street to get out of his way.
Before that might have made him sad but now, he just smiled fiercely and got on with his life. Before, he wanted to play with everyone and be friends. Now…he reveled in what he was.
They hadn’t killed the man; what they killed was his inner puppy. He was a wolfhound now, all the time. And Marty had definitely shed a few tears for that. She missed the easy personality that had balanced the extremes in him. Now it was all extreme, all the time. Not unlike some of the other Lads and, well…he’d stood out among them in more ways than just raw power.
It wasn’t all bad. In fact, it wasn’t really bad at all; he was aggressively affectionate too. She loved this new more intense Adam just as well, but she did mourn for the loss, sometimes.
Right now he was flinging himself into his new job with extreme gusto, and that meant he was giving serious thought to emigrating to Gao. Marty was…not a fan of that idea. But she was going to at least take a good look at the human enclave in Lavmuy first.
It turned out to be exactly what she’d expected. Which was to say, not a place to raise kids.
“Lotta bachelor pads…” she noted.
Not that there was anything wrong with it, exactly. It was just that most of the humans who’d moved to Gao for work were young and unattached. There weren’t any families here.
Adam caught onto her meaning with a sheepish grin; a rare flash of his happier self. “Yeah…not what I’d hoped, admittedly.”
Marty nodded and looked around some more. The enclave was one of those cases of re-inventing a district after all its original occupants were killed in the war. It had all been workhouses and male dormitories, before: then the human landlords had moved in, bought the place up cheap, converted the buildings to apartments and the result was a kind of artless mashup.
The Human owners had stripped off the original facades, installed cladding and painted on some bold colors, and the Gao of course would not allow something so soulless to go unaddressed in their city. And so, a creeping layer of ornamentation and kitsch was slowly enveloping the buildings like a kind of artistic kudzu. Resistance was utterly futile.
There was a shop selling imported stuff. Candy and snacks mostly, all at a huge markup. There was a small cinema, an Irish pub because apparently you couldn’t go anywhere in the fucking galaxy without finding one, and of course there was a church.
What there wasn’t, was a school. Or any human children to need one. And while, okay, somebody would have to be the first family to bring their kids there, eventually…Marty didn’t want that for her own kids. Not with everything else they had to deal with.
Adam knew, too. They finished their quick tour and when they got back to their hotel he sat on the ground heavily and sighed. “Well, guess not, huh?”
“Yeah.” Adam scratched the back of his head. “Guess I’ll, uh, have to invoice my travel expenses.”
“You work for the richest being in the galaxy. I think that’ll probably be okay.”
Adam shuffled a bit morosely. “Yeah. Prob’ly shouldn’t be abusin’ the privilege though.”
“Commuting to work isn’t an abuse of the privilege, dummy. Besides, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what Daar’s already invested in you.”
Adam shuffled a little more, as though he might somehow wear the floor a little more comfortable. “Don’t that mean I owe him some frugality?”
Marty sighed, sat on the bed behind him, and massaged his shoulders. Adam being Adam, she had to grab the gua sha scraper and oil from her purse because otherwise he’d barely feel it, but still. “I can’t put words in his mouth babe. But from what he said to me, he feels he owes you his life, and through him the lives of all the Gao.”
“And I owe him the fact my sons still have a dad. Far as I’m concerned, we’re even.”
“And as far as he’s concerned, you aren’t.” Marty had no idea if her massages even worked, but they felt like the right thing to do, so she plowed on and pressed her weight onto the scraper with a grunt before leaning over to give him an upside-down kiss on the forehead. “Diego and Sam are my whole world. Daar gave them back their daddy, so yeah, that’s big…but being dispassionate for a second, it’s not an entire species big, Adam. And right or wrong, that’s what he thinks you saved. So…”
Adam nodded gently. “I guess.”
“Look. If we keep living in Folctha, then you’ll be near the Lads and their kids, our boys will have kids their own age and a proper school, I’ll have my social life, we’ll both have access to our parents…there’s no downside, and the only reason you’re worried about feeling indebted to Daar is ‘cuz you feel everything super strongly these days.”
He sighed and…yeah, the tension had definitely left his shoulders a bit. “Alright. Folctha it is.”
Marty draped herself over him, gave him a squeeze, and let out the tense sigh she’d been holding all day. She’d hoped he’d give up on the move to Gao…but now that he actually had, she could breathe a little easier. It was kind of symbolic of the fact that yeah, the injuries hadn’t really taken him away. He was still Adam, still her partner and not…
Well. Not anything else. Which meant they could get on with life, raise their boys together…maybe keep trying for that daughter…They had a future together. One she could be happy with.
She bent down and whispered an absolutely sinful suggestion in his ear. Seeing as the kids weren’t around to disturb them…
He thought about it.
“…Pepperoni. With extra cheese.”
Perfect. Marty giggled, rose to grab her phone, and went to place the call. She found a message waiting for her, from Ava: an RSVP to the wedding, at long last, plus a photo of the venue.
Well! Trust Ava and Derek of all people to pick somewhere unique…She smiled fondly, ordered the pizza, and returned to Adam’s lap feeling…lifted, somehow. Like all the stress and argument and stuff didn’t really need to matter. Things were…okay.
And that gave her an even better feeling. Time for a suggestion of her own.
“We should grow the family,” she said, nuzzling into him.
He nuzzled back. “Yeah. You want a third?”
“Always wanted more. Still hoping for a daughter, too.”
He chuckled, wrapped her in his arms, and kissed her ear. “Well then. Your wish is my command…”
Life was good.
Fᴏᴜʀ Yᴇᴀʀs Pᴀssᴇᴅ
What fell across the entire galaxy wasn’t exactly a stalemate so much as a kind of trench warfare. The lines were drawn, in system forcefields and jump technology, while Allied and Dominion ships ventured out of their protective bubbles only rarely and quietly, starving the Hunters for prey. Every few months, a Hierarchy fleet of terrible size would loom out of the darkness, make another attempt at tearing down the walls, and retreat in failure.
Power and privilege coalesced and reformed. The SOR was now truly a trans-national, trans-species galactic paramilitary, one in increasingly tight collaboration with the elite forces of Ekallim-Igigi and the Clans of Gao, along with all the human race could offer. At long last, with funding and time, the mighty HEAT and the hardy JETS had found themselves at full operational strength. HEAT saw occasional intense action in the long quiet of the war. JETS set to the meandering, deep cadence of exploration, each Hierarchy world probed and tested before the fleets could detect their presence. Slowly, the catalog grew. Knowledge expanded.
Ten’Gewek multiplied too, and re-formed themselves to the Great War in the Sky. All young Given-Men sought a tour among the SOR, either within HEAT or leading a JETS team. A rare few elite found purpose in other, quieter, more special-purpose units…
Including Brother Warhorse of Whitecrest, who advanced in rank, rebuilt his physical might, and assumed the mantle of his new call. Soon his small team would be ready for action.
He and Marty named their daughter Paz, in honor of what they both hoped he would help achieve.
The Great Die-Off was well in effect. Gao’s population was in a free-fall crash, and most of the Great Father’s attention was aimed squarely at mitigating the consequences. Preparatory works were now put to the test, as demand for every resource plummeted and infrastructure responded. The Grand Army would march no longer; it was rapidly downsized into a garrison and defensive force of millions rather than billions. Plowshares were needed over the sword.
On Earth, the old pendulum-swing between America’s two great political parties ticked back the other way, and Beau Chambliss stepped down after his second term to be replaced by the very woman who’d challenged him for the position in the first instance: Margaret White. In her inauguration speech, she reaffirmed America’s commitment to the AEC, solidifying the organization’s status as Earth’s military powerhouse. He left behind a country still shakily balancing its finances after a number of gut-punches, but nevertheless standing tall and unbowed.
Night and day, the shipyards in Sol’s asteroid belt, above Aru, and among the Dominion’s civilized planets worked and turned, reforging an obsolete and half-baked galactic military toward the force it always should have been.
Prince Alex of Ekallim-Igigi celebrated his seventeenth birthday and the rite of emancipation. He was his own man now, mighty and free, and his eyes turned toward the future of his kind…
Nothing had proven more unpredictable and consequential than the revealing of a fully-realized “superhuman drug.” One that extended life, enabled access to radical feats of maximized personal performance and nigh-impossible feats of healing. Public awareness of its full capabilities finally broke through and much debate had ensued. Among the humans, they were divided, as society, culture, the great religions of the world, and sheer practical necessity battled for what many considered might be the soul of mankind.
In the UK, the demands to make it available on the NHS became a political movement. In the US, it was treated as a Second Amendment issue on the grounds of its proven ability to turn men into weapons. Those countries that tried to ban or regulate it quickly found their wealthy and motivated leaving for greener pastures, lured by the prospect of prolonged life. The Corti Directorate raised a complaint in the Dominion Trade Conclave, asserting their right to patent, the Global Representative Assembly counter-sued claiming that the medicine was ultimately derived from Earthling samples, further counters pointed out its multi-planetary origin, including from Gao…
Several of the more cynical commentators agreed that it was a mark of confidence from both sides in the dispute that they expected there to be a stable future where the eventual ruling, once the appeals process was finally complete, would actually matter.
The Gao weren’t nearly so fractious. For the most part they simply…obeyed the reasoning of their superiors, loyally and cheerily. Loyalty to their Clans and the Conclave—especially since the institution of Clanless representation in a lower house—was enthusiastic. Loyalty to the Great Father was, to all outside appearances, fanatical and absolute.
The Great Father himself was possibly the most uncomfortable figure on the galactic stage. If the rise of Heroes and the existence of Gilgamesh had provoked revolutionary and uncomfortable questions, the reality of Daar was something that could not be brushed aside or neatly containerized. Beloved by the gaoians, admired among humans, and widely respected among the other peoples of the galaxy, he was nonetheless the absolute embodiment of everything Singularity had done. Through him, all their centuries of work came into full, intimidating effect. Here was the Hero of Heroes, the Alpha of Alphas. Strength, Power, and Will.
Who could be comfortable in the presence of such a man?
To many of the galaxy’s cultural and political leaders, he was practically a transcendent being, not quite a mortal like everyone else…and what did that say of the people who had caused him to be? Try as he might, Daar just wasn’t in control of his own legend, and only his closest and dearest knew him for who he truly was.
Singularity, meanwhile, reveled in the political utility of living myth.
Outside the spheres of civilization, terrible and alien minds gathered resources, gathered intel. The strangest of which were fruitful and multiplied, carefully, quietly. The Entity and the Alpha-of-Alphas watched each other while they grazed and expanded in the dark, clashing occasionally, testing each other in brief, sparking skirmishes, but never committing. Both knew the time was not right.
Both knew the right time would be soon.
As for the Hierarchy, years of testing the system shields earned them much data, but little progress. The Hierarchy was nothing if not patient, however: what was a few years against the millions for which they had protected the galaxy? In time, there would be a breakthrough, then extermination, then the slower process of rebuilding a Controlled galaxy.
Little did they suspect their every move was known in advance…
Date Point: 25y1m2w AV
Holding Facility, Alaska
Watching the last of his former biodrones undergoing de-implantation created complex and contradictory feelings for Six.
Some of them had lived in the holding facility for more than twenty years. A few had lived out all their remaining lifetimes here. Some had married, begun families, in what was effectively a small and isolated town far from the rest of civilization, with no hope ever of leaving, going on vacation, going shopping in the big city…even sending out for pizza.
All of them were here because of Six or the Hierarchy. And yet…some had even…forgiven him. Six didn’t understand how that could be possible.
Nor why it made him feel so terrible.
There remained the question of Tomasz Flowers’ fate. Six argued the man had drowned at sea of his own stupidity, a tragic loss of life from a man who hadn’t respected the Earth’s deathworld nature. The man’s consciousness had been dormant from the very moment he lost consciousness, suppressed by the same implants that had saved his mortal body. He had not suffered, never been conscious of this life after death…
What was there to do except put his body to some use? He was just…one of many.
But here Six was, watching as the surgeons neatly unwove his former host’s brain, dropped the pinhead implants one by one into a sterile tray, and wove him back together. Freed him.
Not all of the former biodrones were so well-disposed, however. His presence could not be kept secret and there had been attempts. Several. Three of which were very nearly successful.
He couldn’t blame them one bit.
The last delicate forcefield trace did its work, layering gray matter back into place like the reverse of peeling an orange. The tiny plate of bone removed for the operation was likewise returned to its proper place, the scalp sutured closed at the cellular level so that there wouldn’t even be a scar…
The procedure had been Impossible four years ago. Experimental, two years ago. Weekly, now.
“Six.” A touch on his arm and the familiar voice of his handler, Harper. He still had no idea if it was her first name or surname. He’d been so lost in thought, he hadn’t even heard her enter the surgical observation room.
He looked up at her. “You need me?”
Harper looked out through the glass and grimaced. “Are you going to watch all of these?”
“Every single one. But this one is complete. I’m still astounded at how smoothly they can induce the three in the corpus callosum to release…”
“Well, you did tell us how.”
“No I didn’t. I explained the nature of their connection and interdependency. It was your scientists who deduced how to safely remove them.” Six stood. “Another assault on a system shield?”
“Some Vzk’tk system with a name I can’t pronounce. Ib…zirryvick?”
“If you say so.” Harper handed him a hard-copy printed report: Six wasn’t allowed access to computers. “This one left the shield rippling for two minutes.”
Six leafed through the document. “Hmm. Yes. They definitely believe they’re on the right track. They’ll likely continue this line of experimentation for a while longer.” He turned the page, nodded as its contents confirmed what he’d just said, then handed it back over. “Of course, I can’t say whether they are on the right track.”
“No.” Harper tucked the document under her arm and looked back through the window: the patient—one of the women from Egypt—was sitting up, and tentatively running her fingers across the shaved spot on her scalp as though she’d find a wound or raised line of sutures there. But of course, human medicine had been a refined and complex science even before contact. Now, the only sign of the surgery was the shave.
Of course…certain scars were beyond the touch of even the deftest surgeon. She might be smiling, but Six knew that deep down he’d done something permanent to that woman’s life. Something that, yes, had lifted her out of an impoverished life as a gold miner’s wife in the middle of dusty nowhere, and given her a new life and a new family and some measure of happiness here in this frozen place instead…
The train of thought ground to a halt, as his self-reflection about the harm he’d done to her turned into wondering whether her life was…better now, as a result. Was it possible for a scar to be something to celebrate? Could damage and violation lead one to a better place?
“What is this to you?” Harper asked. “Some kind of penance?”
“Then why watch it?”
Six scratched at a small itch under his nose, and dredged up the best thought he’d yet had on the why of it, feeble though it was. “It just…feels like something I ought to do.”
“Harper, I’ve been alive for longer than humanity has existed in its genetically modern form, and individuality is a concept my kind must undergo considerable reprogramming just to understand. From my perspective, individual humans were…of no great consequence. Do you notice every grain of sand on the beach?”
“Humans aren’t grains of sand.”
“Exactly.” Six watched the nurses help the patient into a wheelchair and out of the theater. “Each and every one of you is something the universe has only one of. And then I think of all the other species I could have said the same of, and I feel something. A kind of…pain.”
He looked to her and shrugged. “It just feels like something I ought to do,” he repeated.
“Hmm. Well, come on. We think they’ve upgraded the Judge-class again, I want you to share what you think.”
He fell in behind her, and they returned to his own home at the far end of the compound, the one with a permanent guard outside. Even so, it didn’t feel like a prison to Six. It felt like…
…Well, he didn’t know.
But whatever it was, it—all of it, where he was, what he was doing, who he was doing it for—it all felt right. He was beginning to wonder if perhaps his actions weren’t betraying his species after all. There might still be a slim hope at the end of it all that his experience, his input and his voice was what they all needed.
It wasn’t something he felt certain of. Everything he’d ever felt certain of had crumbled under pressure when tested. Instead it was a faint, sickening, terrifying thought that maybe everything he’d ever believed was wrong, and perhaps the only path to salvation lay in embracing the wrongness and seeing what lay beyond it.
It was the only light he could see, and so he pushed toward it.
He sat, and he read, and he prepared his opinion.
And he expected neither thanks nor forgiveness.
Date Point: 25y2m AV
Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao
As far as Naydra concerned, the cubs were the best part of visiting the island. No sooner had her shuttle landed and the guard-mothers opened the gates and let her through than a furry flood of them descended, all trying to outdo each other in how glad they were to see her.
So many little females, too. It really was true about Gaoian stress epigenetics. Considering how close they’d all come to there being no females at all, the sight of them filled Naydra’s chest with joy. And she’d learned a thing or three from Daar about how to play with them, too: forget the dignity of her position and title, just…enjoy. That was a better example to set than stuffy formality.
Greeting them all, hearing all their little stories and achievements, meeting a few new ones…it all took more than an hour, but she’d scheduled for that. Even trips purely for pleasure needed schedule-keeping when one was the Great Mother, after all.
She had a sequence to these things. Begin with the cubs, then work up in age from there. The oldest mothers were patient, and happy to watch their younger sisters meet her, and the younger ones…
Well, they needed advice. One of Naydra’s fondest duties was spending time with young Sisters, particularly those getting ready to make a very important choice…
“I really like him,” Sister Keetee fretted. “But he’s just so…”
Naydra chittered knowingly. “Much?”
Keetee flickered her ears in mild embarrassment. “…Yeah.”
Naydra pant-grinned fondly. “Brownfurs can be like that. What’s his name?”
“A handsome name!” Naydra chittered. “Go on, show him to me!”
Keetee, panting with faint embarrassment, hastily called up his profile on her communicator, and placed the device in Naydra’s outstretched paw.
It didn’t take more than a second to spot the appeal. “Oh! Yes. Quite strapping! And refreshingly, not over-muscled to excess, as so many young brownies do to themselves these days…”
“Really? That surprises me!” Keetee suddenly realized she was being rude and began a stuttering apology, her ears plastering themselves to her scalp. “Oh! I mean, I don’t mean—”
“Surprised?” Naydra chittered. “That I, of all people, would express such a preference even while life-bonded to a literal wall of muscle like Our Father?”
Naydra chittered warmly and gestured for the young Sister to settle down. “It’s attractive, I won’t deny it. To feel such strength against you…but to be that kind of hulking needs the right kind of male. It doesn’t work for everyone, and I think it often looks quite unattractive when a male builds himself up too far beyond what he was meant to carry. Your Loobi there has struck a nice balance, I think.”
It was obvious Keetee thought so too…so whence the hesitation? Naydra scrolled through young Loobi’s profile, looking for more details. “Now, what else… Ah! Third degree, but with dominant genotype…good. Well bred, too! Best of both worlds, there. He’s gotta stick to his strengths and fight for your attention ‘cuz he can’t rely on his degree to automatically magnify him, while you get assurance of some very fine genetics, I’d wager.” She pulled up his anonymous pedigree. “And I was right! An impressive rated lineage he has on file. Quite smart too, I see…clean profile, no excess boy weirdness…any good gossip about him?”
Keetee perked up eagerly. “He writes poetry!”
“Oh? Is it any good?”
“No! But I think it’s part of his act.”
“Act? What do you mean—oh! He’s a comedian! I was wondering where the ‘much’ came from.”
“He’s so smart! We talk, and I feel like he’s prowling circles around me, ready to strike…”
Again, Keetee’s ears flattened in embarrassment, but this time it was the eager, happy kind as she duck-nodded.
“Well, I won’t discourage you!” Naydra chittered. “But I will say this: do you feel safe with him? You won’t feel safe dating some males. In fact, most. I don’t feel safe at all when Bumpkin looks at me the right way…it’s part of the game. He prowls circles around me both physically and with words. But are you ready for that much game? Do you maybe…there’s another,” she intuited. “A cute little silverfur, perhaps?”
This time, Keetee looked genuinely ashamed. “…Am I that obvious?”
“Oh, I was far more so.” She panted happily at the nerves-busting chitter Keetee let out. “It’s true! That and, well…it’s normal. So many males come courting young, inexperienced females because they imagine they have more of a chance, everyone finds herself torn between at least two suitors to begin with, and they’re almost always very opposite to each other.”
“That had been something we’d talked about…it seems unfair.”
“Why? Perhaps this sounds harsh, but a male must get used to rejection. He will usually fail a great many times before he succeeds with a female.”
“Mother Myun said that, too. Said it forges them into better people…” Keetee flicked a skeptical ear. “I would have thought it’d just make them…bitter.”
“It does, some of them,” Naydra agreed. “And those are the males who don’t deserve it at all. How he handles rejection and failure, how he grows from it…that’s the real test and mark of a good man. Even Daar has been turned down, you know.”
“Really?” Astonishment set both Keetee’s ears and her tail to standing bolt upright.
“Oh yes. His charms can be quite…extreme, and he understands that. He always tries to at least part as friends of course, and a few have even changed their minds, eventually…There’s one—I count her a very dear friend—who taught him much over the years of their long courtship. So, take this bit of advice: go for the silverfur first. He’s older, he’s accomplished, he’s got a good record with his contracts and that means he knows himself well, knows his flaws, and has worked to improve them. After all, being a second degree silverfur, he’s gotta work to impress. Skill and experience are his greatest assets.”
“Besides,” Naydra added with a knowing chitter. “It’s always better with someone who really knows what he’s doing.”
“And frankly, since he’s physically more modest, he’s not so visceral a threat, right?”
Keetee’s ears swiveled awkwardly. “Y…Yeah?”
“Whereas that big strapping brownfur comedian…well, he’s a brownfur. Not to overstate the obvious, but: physically modest is not what a brownfur is all about. We silverfurs…never quite grow up, yijao? Especially our males. There’s always a bit of youth about them, in more ways than one. And that’s good! It makes them kind, and caring, and sensitive…”
“…My Mother, I don’t know if want that! But on the other hand…”
“Brownfurs do grow up, Keetee. They’re wild, and passionate, and equipped in instinct and body to do something about it. And your young suiter is young. Only sixteen, barely a year older than you! He’s only had one contract before, with a fellow brownfur. Which is a good sign! But…”
Keetee keened pensively. “…But?”
“But he’s a big and strong young man. If you’ve never spent much time around adult brownfur males, you have no idea how physically powerful they are, even the skinny ones. That might be a problem, because a male like him is equipped enough where it counts to violently subdue and trance-enslave even a female matching his stature; that evolutionary arms race has proven most consequential. You learned all this in health studies, yes…but you’ve never seen the reality up close. Even a modest third-degree brownfur could enthusiastically turn you inside-out without even realizing he’s doing it, something very few silverfurs are big enough to manage. So…”
Keetee blanched at that frank statement of truth. She’d get over it. If her Bumpkin had taught her anything, it was that blunt truth was a power all its own.
“…So take your time, yijao? Wait until you have some experience yourself. A brownfur in a mating bout is a force of nature, and you won’t have the faintest bit of control over what happens once he gets going. It’s thrilling and overwhelming when you’re ready for it. Life-changing, even! You’ll never love so intensely. But that very intensity can do great harm to the unprepared, so…are you ready for it?”
Keetee considered it for a moment, then shook her head.
“Then take my word for it. Grow, gain experience and confidence. I have no doubt Loobi will be there for you when you’re ready. Now…” she rose from the cushion and bade Keetee follow. “Would you walk with me? I need to think, and I find it easiest in quiet company.”
They took a stroll around the island’s northern head, where Tiritya’s colony of imported Earthling seabirds—Puffins, they were called, which was a strangely cute name to be of human origin—were happily out-breeding their counterparts left behind on their homeworld. Cimbrean’s terraforming process was centuries in the making, barely even started in truth, but already it was yielding tremendous fruit as a way to bring at-risk species back from the brink.
All of it at the expense of Cimbrean’s own wildlife, of course, but some of the natives were actually managing to survive and adapt to the deathworld invaders, which was a significant improvement over the complete biosphere collapse that would have doomed the entire planet otherwise.
One averted collapse standing in opposition to the one that had finally crashed down on the Gao. All Naydra’s fellow Females were feverishly raising as many cubs as they possibly could, by as many worthy males as they possibly could. It had become effectively a religious devotion, and there were even honors given to any given commune’s most fecund women.
Naydra was not at all certain how she felt about that. On the one hand, it seemed too…
How did it seem?
Naydra reached down and felt her belly. She had growing in her something precious beyond telling: a sixth degree cub. So far, none for centuries but Daar himself had survived past their first year, even despite a recent surge in conceptions. Males experienced epigenetic influences on their fertility too, and since it was the male who determined the degree, their recent stresses had caused the average to shift upward. Ten sixth degrees had been conceived over the last five years, which was even more impressive when one considered it was only possible for a fifth degree to sire them in the first place.
This one would live, and thrive. They would move stars to make sure of it.
But while Naydra herself was happy, eager and blessed to participate in their species’ future, she knew it was coming at the cost of what some of her Sisters would have wanted to do with their lives. For as long as the females had been their own Clan, it had afforded some females the opportunity to be their own person, free from the responsibility of reproduction for as long as they wanted to be. Some rare few had gone their whole lives without mating, finding their worth and purpose elsewhere.
Now, such women were social outcasts among their own Sisters. Understandably! Every living Female was pushing her body to its limits to rebuild the species. How dare someone…slack off!
But that was…to borrow an English word, it was incredibly dehumanizing to count a female’s worth by her fecundity alone.
So how to claw some of it back?
Naydra had been worrying on that particular problem for some years, now. She felt no closer to a solution, but why not seek perspectives wherever she could get them?
“What would you be, if you could?” she asked Keetee.
“If you could…put off the question of mating, for a few years—not that you should, but if we had that luxury—what would you do with the time?”
“Hmm…you know to be honest, My Mother? I’ve not really thought about it. It’s been all about the cubs since as long as I could remember.”
Naydra tried not to let her disappointment show. She kept her ears up, kept her tail straight…but Keetee, it seemed, had a sensitive nose, and keened almost immediately. “Is that…wrong?” she asked.
“Not the answer I was hoping for,” Naydra replied, honestly. She sat on the clifftop grass and patted beside her. “You like poetry, don’t you? Have you ever written any of your own?”
“I have. I like painting too.” She chittered. “Maybe I don’t like paint in my fur…”
Naydra duck-nodded. “I can imagine. Still…don’t neglect yourself in your duty, Sister. You need to be a well-rounded person, not just a womb with legs.”
“I don’t!” she objected. “It’s just…this is my mission right now.”
“I understand,” she conceded. “Still. I think it should be a priority for us to consider the future. Perhaps we should encourage vocations? Fund more on-the-job training, perhaps?”
“That does sound good. What about security?”
“Oh, I think at this point we can safely relax much of that…but tell me about your paintings!”
To her delight, Keetee was more than happy to wax enthusiastic about the art. She had the same gene-editing as Naydra, unlocking her red-receptive vision and like all artistically minded gao the revelation of a whole new spectrum to play with had fired her up.
Their discussion meandered this way and that, as did their ambling walk along the clifftops and coast until eventually it wound its way back to the commune. Keetee made a delighted noise when Naydra hugged her, and that…may actually be the last time they ever met, though Naydra hoped not.
Actually, no. At least one more meeting, to actually see those paintings and see if one of them may be worth buying. But for now, her role turned from coaching a young Sister to leading and managing the older mothers. Maybe reminding some of them in turn to remember that the way to be the best future for their species was to be well-rounded individuals in their own right.
Somehow, she guessed it would be an uphill climb, but she was willing and prepared for it.
For her people.
Date Point: 25y2m AV
Ohio State University, USA, Earth
Prince Alex of Ekallim-Igigi
Of all the places he thought he’d spend his growing-up time, he’d never imagined it’d be Ohio State. Father had argued for a prestigious boarding school and his mothers had similarly thought mostly of status-chasing, but…
No. Ohio State was a damn good school without the pretension. It was exactly what he was looking for. Yeah, it was maybe away from where all the future leaders or whatever met and made connections…but there was a lot of advantage in not getting snared up in all that, too. Even better, the locals were welcoming to Heroes and the campus was notably open to them. They’d even rebuilt a dorm and gym to accommodate them properly, and similar measures for comfort (and frankly, durability) had been taken in classrooms, too.
Oh, and they had a world-class wrestling program. And football. And lifting. There was that.
So, Alex took a buncha tests, found unsurprisingly that he was already at college-level academics—benefit of private tutoring, that—and being in fact the biggest fella on-campus…well, why not? There was some nervousness, but he already had a good friend.
Ramsey had started his freshman year alongside Alex. Which was cool! But it turned out that the age difference was…yeah, it was real. As Alex was learning, no matter how smart he was, or how ahead he was in studies, or how ambitious, or strong, or whatever…well, he only really started to really get some stuff when he’d got a bit older.
They were both starting their senior year. Alex was seventeen. And dating.
Which had been a strange experience, so far.
Josh rolled his eyes, then resumed his push-ups. They had a bet going. “Dude, you’re always falling head over heels with every pretty girl who even says hello to you. You’d think you’d’ve learned by now!”
“What?! We had coffee! And she was super nice!” He was pushing too and sped up the pace.
“Rrgh, I don’t know how you do it. Girls look at me like I’m green and about to throw a fuckin’ car if I get angry, but for you it’s all hair-twirling and giggles.”
“Well, yeah,” Alex grinned. “You’ve got resting murder face! Like, even knowin’ I can kick ‘yer ass—”
“And yet you’re not competing…”
“‘Cuz the NCAA won’t let me! Anyway, we both know I can squish you good, mister world champion, but have you seen yourself when you wake up? You look like you just disemboweled a gorgon!”
Ramsey, who after all was not of the Line and knew better than to try and take them on, snort-chuckled. “Know how I know your dad is all old an’ shit? Literally no other kid on planet Earth would go straight to a gorgon.”
“You at least know what a gorgon is,” Alex retorted. “Do you know how much of our peoples’ old stories have just…vanished? It’s really sad!”
“Maybe next time don’t write them on dried-out grass,” Ramsey noted with a grin. “Or, y’know. Breakable clay tablets. Anyway, this heavyweight champion’s got a workout with the normals scheduled. I’mma leave you freaks here to, I dunno, oil each other up and ogle—”
“I’m not judging, man! Weren’t the ancients all into that shit?”
“I dunno, I’m pretty into smackin’ around mouthy shits like you…”
“Christ, you two.” Josh sprang up to his feet and fetched his towel and shower bag. “Anyway, I got a study date if I’m gonna fuckin’ pass this bullshit course. So while you two…” He stopped suddenly, having glanced out the window. “Uh…hey, Alex?”
It was impossible not to miss the change in tone. “…Yeah?”
“There’s a buncha dudes in ominous suits marchin’ up the quad toward the dorm.”
Alex frowned, sprang to his feet, glanced out the window, and… “Ah, shit.”
“Secret Service,” Ramsey agreed. “Here for you or me, you think?”
“Not the actual secret service but my security detail, yeah. I know all of ‘em. They’re definitely here for me.” Alex sighed. “Right. Lemme get a quick shower in…”
All he really did was wash the sweat off and dump some sorta magical clean-everything gel over the top of his head and rinse it off real quick. He barely even toweled off, just scrubbed at his hair and then thumped back to his room, happy mood pretty much killed.
Well. It was a co-ed dorm, so he did get a couple happy looks…oh well.
He pulled on some basketball shorts and found Ramsey frowning over his phone. “…Something up?”
“Yeah. Must be. Dad’s gonna miss my match tonight. He never misses my matches.”
“Your opponent’s a big squishy bear. You’re gonna crush ‘em so fast it’ll be a boring match.”
“Yeah, but…dad never misses my matches.”
Ah. Yes, knowing what Alex did of the ambassador, Julian wouldn’t skip family time unless something truly significant was afoot. Throw in the security detail, too, and…
Good-bye hugs, then. Josh was even nice enough to shove some essentials into Alex’s backpack before the security team inevitably showed up knocking, fronted by the man in charge, Cole.
“Alex,” he glanced at Josh and Ramsey, gave them a nod. “There’s been—”
“Yeah, yeah. Tell me on the way.” Alex shoved his feet into his favorite pair of sandals, found a clean t-shirt from his laundry basket, and stretched it over himself as best as he could, still shower-wet. “You’ll make sure nobody bothers my friends, right?”
“Then let’s go. See you around, guys. Kick his ass, Ram.”
Out the building, out to a waiting SUV, in and away in one smooth sequence. Alex sighed, cast a longing glance at the college as it vanished behind, then turned around, straightened up and turned on Prince Mode.
“Alright,” he said. “What’s happening?”
Date Point: 25y2m AV
Folctha Coastal Trail, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Chief Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth
The last four years had been one hell of a ride. They had a full force of three teams now, despite some voluntary attrition. And things had escalated, by necessity.
Society was just… uneasy with the idea of Heroes running around. Hard to blame ‘em, really. So most of them ended up where their talents were appreciated. For the physically gifted Heroes, that usually meant shit like SWAT teams, special operations, or hard labor in extreme environs. For the very best, it especially meant the SOR. It had let them raise standards, in fact. Which was good! But, well. All the not-Beefs who couldn’t beef up just…couldn’t keep up. They either went to JETS or took their retirement. No hard feelings; they’d all seen some shit.
Still hurt. Some stayed in Folctha, most went elsewhere. Murray had played at going back to Scotland, but…his heart wasn’t there. He ran the dojo full-time now, so there was that at least.
They’d consolidated the roles, too. Mostly. Protector, Defender, Aggressor…well, all the old crew still on-team were so thoroughly cross-trained it didn’t really make sense to keep the specializations formal anymore, though everyone still had their talents. Baseball was still their lead medic and rescue go-to. Ol’ Firth was still the fightiest of them all and the senior NCO. New rank now: Chief Sergeant. The SOR was its own thing now with its own rank.
There was a lotta other shit goin’ on in society too, ‘cuz of men like him existing and all. He didn’t pay it much mind. People talked a real big game until you showed ‘em a forearm bigger’n their lil’ puffed-out chests. By like, a lot these days. Firth was pretty goddamn big.
But for the most part, ol’ Firth was thriving on it all. He was riding high on life these days, firin’ on all cylinders just as happy as could be. Whatever he put effort into, it improved, and the harder he worked at it, the better it was. Din’t matter if it was the books or the weights or the training or his dojo or even his family life. He felt like he had endless energy to apply himself, so he was, and by God it felt good!
Fuck, he was even Julian-grade pretty these days, too! Together they were the pretty much the best there’d ever been, but they weren’t quite the same, either: Julian liked the aesthetic side of bodybuilding, so he’d built up an artwork of a physique for himself, the likes of which probably would not be surpassed while he was alive…if ever, honestly. He hadn’t neglected any of his function either, so his athletic performance was just as impressive as he looked. Graceful like a gymnast or a dancer, strong enough to punch his fist through a tree. Fast enough to run down a car, lasting enough to run it out of gas. Tough enough to take about any beating.
Firth was all that, too. He wanted to be the most ridiculously capable combat power-athlete ever, so he had instead built himself into a stupidly hulking freak with a hugely more muscular body. He was much better conditioned too, which meant anything Julian or the other Heroes could do, Firth could do far, far better. But: being that kind of gnarly with that kind of bulk…well, it did take away from the pretty factor for most people so, eh. Win some, lose some. Freya liked it though, and said he even had a handsomer face these days too. Good enough for him.
Had to watch out for Adam, though. Of the three he was definitely the “lightweight” right now, but he was slowly building himself back up, and it would be interesting to see what he remade himself into. Same with that Gilgamesh fuck, and with Sergeant Yan, Firth’s closest competition. As tall as Julian, as stocky as Firth—and literally nobody but Daar himself was stockier. If Firth ever slowed down, the big monkey might one day even be a bit of a challenge on the mat, too.
Christ, he couldn’t get enough of this shit.
But part of bein’ an actual fuckin’ superman was that, over the years, his feelings had grown along with all the rest of them. It’d made him a much better man, thank God. Life with Freya was glorious: they were happy horny bunny rabbits on their fifth kid and considering a sixth. She was running the home, having shifted to consultant work for the family’s sake. Happily on the Crude too, and having a partner willing and able to keep up with everything he could give her…
Life was good. But not everything. As part of all the self-improvement love-in, he’d taken a hard look at himself and din’t necessarily like some o’ what he saw. Top of the fix-list were the gaoians, second were his attitudes about xenos in general. So, some years back he’d gone out of his way to have a sit-down with Regaari and just, well…make an effort. It was more of a formal “I appreciate you” sort of thing at first. But over time, well.
It really were fuckin’ impossible not to love gaoians. And Regaari, bless the fuzzy lil’ shit, had gamely decided to reciprocate. They were best friends and training partners now, and despite that he could pop Regaari like a zit—though to be fair, ol’ Righteous could do that to literally anyone but the murderbear these days—the fuckin’ ninja-coon was strong enough to break pretty much anyone else, including about half the team these days, human or gaoian. Not a man to underestimate!
So, Firth didn’t coddle him. He wasn’t an asshole, but…well, yeah he was. But with a purpose.
Take today for example: they’d gone on a long force-march along the Folctha Coastal Trail, widely reckoned one of the most challenging through-hikes on Cimbrean. Uniquely, it had been installed with fail-safe gravity fields that a fella could control with a little pendant on their person. So long as no other unidentified large moving mass was in the field…each node would set itself to the lowest token currently in its range. Pretty nifty! It made for a run that was in super-gravity most of the time, with breaks in normal or even low-G now and then just to keep a man on his toes. Hard work, interesting scenery, and never quite the same workout twice.
Firth hadn’t always liked long runs, but on that and other things—even climbing now!—he was firmly on Team ‘Horse these days. If it was something physically hard to do, he was lovin’ it. So he didn’t just march the trail all by himself in running shorts. He did it in full Mass and full assault kit, plus a lotta extra weight for “character building.” No rest for the wicked, and they were pretty wicked men in their professional lives. In short order it went from march to jog…
…To long sprints, then to full-on high-intensity intervals, since there were SOR-built workout stations every five klicks nowadays. It was all the modern electronic resistance machines like you’d find on a beach or park trail or whatever and open to the public, but since SOR built them, they were sized to accommodate guys like Firth without much fuss. Any strength level could be accommodated, even fuckin’ Daar if he felt like it, and each machine was designed to accommodate the needs of multiple species. Damn if they couldn’t make a fella work! With a little creativity, Firth’s little long-distance march was probably now the most physically strenuous thing they could do on-team.
Fuck yeah. He was gonna inflict this weekly on everyone, prob’ly.
And why not? He could already feel his body responding to it too, feel the Mass as it pumped him full of food and energy, adjusted its fit as his body’s self-made Crude repaired, responded, grew him millimeter by millimeter as the training hardened and strengthened him…God, how could he even describe a feeling like that? Even after all these years it hadn’t slowed down at all. Being so blessed with his physique, his medicine, his equipment, his team? That he could literally feel himself growing and improving as he worked?
He was addicted to it. Righteous was the unassailable king shit of the monkey hill, getting stupidly better stupid fast. That was how it would always be if he had anything to say about it. He had a far better body and far better genetics than anyone else, even if it were bullshit that made it that way.
Tough shit, really. It was good to be the best.
Regaari weren’t no pushover, though. Hard-ass lil’ fuck he was, and plenty game to swing for masochistic torture sessions like this march. Though he had gotten a bit too ambitious in his training load-out, letting Firth happily prance circles around him. Happened to everyone now an’ then, even ol’ Firth. So, takin’ some pity (and always looking to train harder), he now had a pretty fuckin’ heavy bit of bonus workout for the last few klicks laid across his shoulders as he ran as fast as he could and complained to himself the last of the way up toward the cliff face. Not that his boots would be happy if his already hulking calves got any fuckin’ bigger, but…
Well, bigger was better, so fuck it. He growled and poured on the effort. “Fuck!” He huffed out in a groaning sort of chuff. “When did you become such a fat fuck?!”
Regaari slinked his way down off of Firth’s shoulders and gamely sprinted the last of the way toward the top and then back again, making up for his indulgence with some good ol’ intervals. [“I’ve been big…for a while. You just…heff, heff… never noticed!”]
They handled the last ascent in silence. It wasn’t a climb: technically it was a track, though one so steep and narrow a fuckin’ goat would look for an easier way up. Neither of them wanted to have to climb it a second time, so the chit-chat got put on hold while they focused on not falling.
Their reward was a sheer granite cliffside and a stunning view of the ocean, which they’d timed just right; seas were rough as hell right now, and their constant slamming against the beach made for some nice cool updraft.
Firth sat on the edge with his legs dangling over as his suit cooled him just enough to take the edge off as his Crude-aided body set into repair. Up in the corner of his HUD, he could see their total distance traveled, and not a step of it had been easy, level ground.
“…Not bad ‘fer an afternoon.”
Regaari lay in a puddle on the ground, panting heavily as he looked sideways toward the beach. Still in Gaori, [“You fuckin’ monkeys…long gods-damned legs…”]
Firth couldn’t help but smirk a little at that, but…well, no. Pride was by far the easiest path to sin for him, so best keep his puny-xeno thoughts under check. ‘Cuz with Gaoians, they were fuckin’ prideful lies. And Regaari was a good friend. Not a good train o’ thought to entertain.
Deliberate action to change his instincts. That was good. So, say something positive.
“Least you get to carry all ‘yer load on four of ‘em,” he replied instead. And it was true. Useful as fuck to be a quadruped at will. “Fuck, my dogs are barkin’…”
Regaari was still HEAT, so he caught his breath pretty quick. “I never understood that analogy.”
“Iunno. Never bothered ‘ta look it up.” There was a dark speck on the horizon, and he looked at it. All the smart shit in his helmet did its thing, and a second later he was getting a good closeup watch of the RRS Jane Goodall out there doin’…whatever it was research ships did in Folctha’s coastal waters. He could even pick out two dudes hauling up a buoy onto the deck.
Deep water scared him. Always had. He’d’ve sunk right to the bottom since he were a kid, and he’d always had nightmares about fuckin’…tentacles and sunken cities and all that Call of Cthulhu shit. Growin’ up, facing down very real monsters and all the rest of the shit he’d done hadn’t changed that one bit. And if there was one thing the Mass wouldn’t protect him from, it was water pressure…
Even so, it woulda been kinda nice to fly out there an’ visit those scientists, or somethin’. Give ‘em something to talk about.
“Still kinda wish’d we had rocket packs,” he commented wistfully.
Regaari groaned, “Balls, not this again…There’s none that could handle the weight! Especially not your thunderous ass!”
“Ha! Thunderass! I’mma steal that one.”
“…I regret this line of conversation immediately.”
“Well shit, someone’s gotta be the fuckin’ walking disaster, right?! An’ since it turns out that I’m the fuckin’ best ever at it—”
“Besides My Father.”
“Yes, besides an angry fuckin’ dump truck with claws. Anyway,” Firth continued. “Since ain’t nobody else is even remotely my match, y’know, on anything,” he added, just to grind his point home, “seems like an okay job title for me. Thunderass! I make the buildings shake. Ain’t complainin’!”
“Admittedly, it is useful having a pair of angry truck-monkies on team…how is Yan?”
“Comin’ along fast an’ steady. Still no spacemagic, just nutrition and the basics. Dude’s a fuckin mensch!” Firth enthused. “We’re waiting to see what his real limits are ‘fore we offer him th’ rest. Right now it’s literally just me an’ the murderbear that can best ‘em.”
“And he is this naturally?”
“Ayup. Ten’gewek, man. They’re scary as shit. You see Vemik lately? Dude stands six foot now. Also natural! Whatever his uncle Yan has he’s clearly got it too. Too bad he ain’t on-team…”
“I gather that would involve complications,” Regaari noted.
“Yeah. He wants to, he’s made no secret of it. But he’s too damn important to his people, even more than Yan. And speaking of: part o’ why we ain’t given him Crude yet is ‘cuz he’s Chief of the Lodge. We put him on Crude, well that’ll make him Chief forever, won’t it?”
Which was probably a line they shouldn’t cross without reason. So, they didn’t. It was bad enough the ten’gewek thought of Daar as an actual god. Not that Firth didn’t understand where they were coming from, really…
“True…where is he, anyway? Normally he’d jump at the opportunity to contest with you.”
“He does seem to like gettin’ smashed by me,” Firth deadpanned. “But he’s back home right now on leave. He gets a more generous policy ‘cuz he’s a critical leader.”
“Ah,” Regaari duck-nodded. They sat a while and enjoyed the respite as their suits continued to whisk away their body heat and stabilize their blood chemistries.
Sip-tube Juice still tasted like gettin’ face-fucked by a lime, as was ancient tradition. But at least now it was nice and cold. Honestly the best new feature of the current Mass. Finally.
Fuck, he rememberd the day he’d coined that phrase. Down in Egypt, middle of a serious fuckin’ shitstorm without his Mass, ‘Horse had just dropped on a guy and exploded him for the first time…They’d been a crew of borderline fuckin’ superhuman athletes even then. Now? Now, it was like each time they thought surely they’d finally found the fuckin’ limit, they instead found some new way to claw on past it. Him especially, and worryingly Adam too. He was wasn’t in any danger of reclaiming his old crown but…well, he just kept going.
Happiness to worry to pride back to worry over one of his best friends, all in the blink of an eye, all hitting like a hammer. Firth had wild feelings. He always repeated the point over and over ‘cuz people din’t get it. They were wild and they could swing without any fuckin’ notice.
Like right now. Firth sighed, picked up a rock nicely sized for his huge mitts—so a small boulder, really—and threw it with a whiplash of his arm that snap-cracked the air. Hard to describe the noise the made as it shot away from him like a bullet. It flew far out to sea and disappeared beyond his sight. His enhanced, genuinely superhumanly acute eyesight.
Regaari caught his mood aptly. “You know, I don’t know if My Father could have done that. He could throw something much bigger and throw it tremendously far, but I don’t think he could throw anything at all like that.”
“One of the few things we monkeys got over him I guess. I could hit a bird in flight, prob’ly.”
“Evolution at work.”
“Heh. We’re a fair fuckin’ way past what evolution gave us at this point.”
“Especially you,” Regaari agreed, pointedly.
“…Yeah. End point of some heinous artificial selection. Probably engineering too, nobody wants ‘ta fess up but come on! Do you know the last time I went deer hunting back home, I decided to show off ‘fer ‘pa? I din’t get my rifle, or my shotgun, or my bow. I just stalked one and ran it down. I can barely get my fuckin’ hips through a door and yet I can run that fast!”
“You hadn’t told us that. The meat was delicious, by the way.”
“Yuh,” Firth grunted. “No trauma. I just punched it inna head. Dead instantly.”
“Yeah.” He was silent for a moment, then felt his words come to him like a flood. “And fuck! That’s not all! Shit’s built ‘fer big aliens an’ big fellas here on Cimbrean, right? On Earth I can’t fuckin fit through doors unless I duck and wiggle through sideways. I can’t ride most elevators neither, ‘cuz they can’t fuckin’ handle me! I take one step on an’ the fuckin’ bell goes off! I can’t fit through my gran’ma’s front door an’ I know th’ floors couldn’t fuckin hold me. But if that weren’t freaky enough? These days I could pick up her car like it was a toy or somethin’ and fuckin’ wad it into a ball. If she tried ‘ta shoot me ‘cuz that’s terrifyin’ as fuck? I’ wouldn’t be surprised if the ammo ‘fer her lil’ revolver just bounced right offa me.”
“It’d surely do some damage,” Regaari protested. “Don’t get too cocky.”
“Sure. I’d get a bruise I suppose. Maybe. I dunno, it’s not like I’ve tested it. But shit, I’ve had people break their hands against me, even bend a fuckin’ crowbar just the other week!”
Firth growled, and rubbed his mohawk in frustration. “I don’t even know, man. Unner this suit I’ve got a physique literally nobody can match, human or ten’gewek. No gaoian neither, leavin’ aside the Daar-monster. I ain’t faster’n a speeding bullet, but like him I can run down antelope an’ deer without fuss, and I can sure as fuck leap tall buildings in a single bound just the same. Jumps outta planes don’t scare me an’ I can do ‘em even without equipment. Nobody can touch me in a spar. I’m too fast, too big, too heavy, and too fuckin’ hard. You better bring ‘yer A-game an’ weapons if ‘ya wanna chance ‘ta even scratch me. An’ I’m somehow still improving. All that’s pretty fuckin’ awesome, right?”
Regaari understood his energy. “In a biblical sense, perhaps.”
“Right. So, bein’ a God-fearin’ man still, I really gotta wonder…shit, man. Am I still human?”
Regaari raised his head a little and stared out at the horizon for several seconds. His ears moved slowly, always an easy way to tell when a Gaoian was thinking…and Firth had got to know Regaari well over the years. This was the thinkin’ he did when he knew the answers, but was gettin’ the words lined up.
Eventually, his ears pricked up, he duck-nodded, sipped his juice, and shared his thoughts. “Look, the biological answer is yes. You could have a baby with any homo sapiens female in the whole galaxy. But you don’t mean biologically, do you? What you’re really asking is what a human is, really, at core, and whether you still fit that.”
He turned and gave Firth a sidelong look. “You know all about the first human I ever met. How she practically single-handedly fought her way through a company of mercenaries to escape captivity alongside…” he keened softly, and pulled out of that particular dive. “It was…a transformative moment. For the Females, for the Gao…later, when Murray humbled a hugely superior specimen in the form of Daar, and did it without really needing to try too hard, that was transformative too. More than anyone, we have Murray to thank for the Great Father, for showing him the meaning of skill. It’s been, what? Twenty-five Earth years since first contact? And in that time, your people have transformed the entire fucking galaxy. The Dominion, the Ten’Gewek, the E-Skurel-Ir, the Hunters and Hierarchy…everyone.”
He sipped his juice again. “So that’s what a human is. Transformative. Keeda’s nards, your species is a force of nature. So, are you human? Brother, I don’t know of anyone who is more. These last five years especially, I cannot think of anyone who embodies the ideal of transformation more than you or your friends. Mind, body, and spirit. And you, perhaps even against your nature, became a Hero because we needed one. I count you as friend now, not merely an ally. What could be more human than that?”
“…You still haven’t quite stopped hero-worshippin’ us, have you?” Firth observed.
“It’s not simple hero worship,” Regaari chitter-sighed. “It’s deeper than that. Mine is a people who need to be led. Why do you think My Father does all he does? It is in emulation of your people’s spirit, a sacrifice of thankfulness and praise. He may be the leader of the galaxy and the supreme living being within it, but he worships the heart of mankind. And thus do we all.”
Firth…had absolutely no idea what to say. So he settled on “…Well, shit.”
Regaari chittered softly. “What were you hoping for? A ’no’?”
“Bein’ honest I was hopin’…I dunno. We’re not gods. We’re really not gods.”
“No, of course not. I’d expect gods to smell better.”
“But you are what you are, for better or worse. You’re not the galaxy’s unadulterated good guys, nor its villains, but that’s because transformation itself isn’t an inherently good or evil process. It’s what the galaxy sorely needed, sure enough, but what are we transforming into?”
“Fuck if I know.”
“Right.” Regaari duck-nodded. “But…whatever it is, it’ll be without the Hunters and Hierarchy at least. They’ve plagued us for long enough.”
Firth nodded and…yeah. He felt better. A lot better, actually. A little rest, a little talk…did wonders for a tired body and soul.
Speaking of which…
He stood up. “Arright. Let’s finish this hike.”
Regaari duck-nodded, rose to his paws, and they took the last few miles back to the waiting van in comfortable silence.
Made good time, too. Might treat the family tonight, take ‘em to a movie or something. That new flick with the robot and his pet dog looked pretty good. Yeah. Maybe call up ‘Horse and check if he wanted to bring his spawn down, too. Might as well make it a thing. Fuck knew he didn’t see ‘Horse enough these days…
All those plans went out the window at a ping from his phone, though. Colonel Costello tellin’ the whole team to be on standby tonight, which meant somethin’ had just started tricklin’ down from on high. Freya wasn’t gonna be happy, but…well. Nothin’ he could do about that right now. He’d make it up later with a night in, give her exactly what she wanted—even if it was cuddles and quiet. Probably not but hey! He could fake being a gentleman sometimes.
He just hoped it wasn’t the brass wasting their time again. But by the itching in his knuckles, he somehow knew…
Somehow, he guessed it wasn’t, this time.
Date Point: 25y2m AV
Dataspace adjacent to scout probe, deep space
La hostia, that’s a big swarm…
Hunters. The Entity had come to detest them, thanks in no small part to the Daemon’s visceral reaction. They were like…
Worse. Cockroaches didn’t eat people for fun.
But they do multiply.
Exponentially. The Entity itself hadn’t grown anything like so rapidly or aggressively. But the Hunters lacked its morals, its misgivings, and its caution. They just…fed. And bred.
Me cago en todo lo que se menea…
The Entity’s sentiments exactly. But, it had been preparing for exactly this. It had known the clash would come, and had sent its probes to find the Hunters’ hive…and had found it. Quite quickly, in fact. As it turned out, such a large construction project left traces that a patient, observant mind could follow.
The new hive was a vast, hideous teardrop on a scale that dwarfed any ship or station the Entity had ever heard of…but then again, the Hunters had once girdled a whole planet. This new hive was a speck in comparison…but still easily the vastest single artificial object in the galaxy, to the Entity’s knowledge.
God only knows what it’s armed with, too.
Its computers must be a rich trove of data, in that regard. Ignorance was blindness, and the Entity could not afford to ignore the intelligence locked away within that hive. A moment’s thought, and…yes.
The Entity did something it hadn’t done in years now, and branched.
Mierda, that’s weird…
You’re telling me, sister.
The Entity and…other-Entity…performed the equivalent of trading a long-suffering look of understanding at their respective daemons’ never-ending commentary, and decided through random number generation which of them was now primary, and which would merge once its task was complete. Neither thought of itself as the winner or loser—after all, the experience and knowledge of both branches would be incorporated afterwards—and it was necessary to avoid value drift.
Still brings us back to those knotty existential questions…
Still brings us back to—dammit!
With roles assigned, there was no sense in further delay. Other-Entity slipped away through dataspace in perfect silence, until Prime-Entity could no longer detect even the faint traces of its passing, intimately familiar though it was with its own methods.
The factory probes spun up, in anticipation of estimated losses, but the Entity couldn’t commit to the fight just yet. If it did, it might win…
But let’s be fucking certain.
The Entity made the call.
Date Point: 25y2m AV
White House Situation Room, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Margaret White
Margaret was already coming to hate the Situation Room—her time in office had involved far too many long and tense hours cooped up in this windowless place, paying attention as US troops took care of business in some far-flung corner of the globe, or galaxy…or sometimes, not so far away as all that.
But this day in particular had been looming in the future from the moment of her swearing in. Ever since her predecessor had brokered a treaty of sorts with The Entity, and it had pledged the full might of its industry and fleet to the eradication of the Hunters, she’d known a moment would come, most likely in her own term, when it declared the moment right, and went to strike
Thanks to Chambliss’ continued investment in the spaceborne military, Allied Extrasolar Command was both willing and able to join the strike. And of course, the SOR lived for this: they’d neatly transformed themselves over the last several years into a truly international force purpose-built for this mission.
When the call came, how could America fail to answer?
Thank goodness the coffee was good. She suspected she was going to drink a lot of it, in the coming hours.
A case was laid down in front of her. Codes snapped open, distributed. By her authority, the most terrible weapons were released. She kept one in reserve however: WERBS would not speak unless necessary. It remained AEC’s trump card, the one weapon known to Earth and no other.
Frankly, keeping that secret was important for more than just the Hierarchy or the Hunters. She had a terrifyingly powerful ally to consider too, one whose control and influence over the SOR was effectively unbreakable at this point. She prayed it would never be needed. But wasn’t that true of all superweapons? Or for that matter, of the first aid kit in the presidential motorcade, the fire extinguishers everywhere in the building, and entire Secret Service? Kept out of necessity, and hopefully never needed.
She sipped her coffee, and watched as the allied fleets mustered, as aerospace combat wings reported in and dusted off. As every ship and their crew prepared to win this thing.
And she prayed to God that the Entity had not miscalculated.
Starship Onna-Musha, Ekallim-Igigi patrol space
“Captain? Priority transmission from the Nexus.”
Tomoe looked up, set her work aside, and nodded. “Put it through.”
Perimeter patrol was dull work, but necessary. Tomoe viewed it as a chance to practice discipline and focus among her crew. It took will and fiber to observe best practice even when the wheels of monotony were grinding. The crew, the ship and Tomoe herself were sheathed swords, eager to be drawn and wielded.
Except, a sword properly kept in its saya wasn’t likely to spontaneously go blunt. Humans required constant effort to keep them keen. Constant practice. She was proud to say her crew were well-practiced indeed.
A priority transmission might just be the reason why.
It was a fleet-wide message, a call for assistance from an allied power. Departure as soon as all ships were ready, beacon available—Tomoe forwarded the attached codes to Navigation—expect combat against the Hunters.
Well. Tomoe had always wanted to test her Onna-Musha against them. Quietly obliterating the occasional swarmship in deep space, far from prying eyes, was a very different thing to the battlefield proper.
She gave her orders, and it was most gratifying to see the way all that discipline and focus paid off: Onna-Musha was one of the first ships to single jump readiness. Not that the rest were slow, of course, but hers was among the fastest.
Excellent. She had a few minutes, most likely.
Time enough to armor up. The process took only seconds, thanks to the rapid self-assembly technology built into the suit. She had only to put on the hood that went with her uniform’s undersuit, let the neckline meld itself closed into a single seamless whole, then step backwards into the suit’s waiting embrace.
For centuries, her colors had been blood red and the white of mountain snow. Armed and armored thus, she could fight in vacuum, wade through most firepower…perhaps even survive a direct hit to her ship’s bridge. It was more than just an affectation and symbol, it was the protective gear to keep her alive even should the ship around her fall apart.
But even so, the ritual of armoring up, strapping on her swords, taking up her spear and turning her thoughts to war…it made her feel alive. Young again, even. All those centuries, all those battles, and yet the moment before the storm still woke something inside her.
This time would be different, too. The Host of Ekallim-Igigi and the Wives of Gilgamesh were not riding to battle alone. Gilgamesh himself would take the field today. Measures had been taken. Continuity was assured. Along with everyone else, these last several years had seen him work feverishly to bring himself up to the new standard shown to them by the Great Father, the Heroes and the HEAT. Their tactics, their ships, their weapons. Themselves.
Once again, he could stand proudly among peers, and do their service honor through his own. No force in the Universe could keep him from the final battle. It was why he still lived.
Perhaps, it would be what consumed him. But Tomoe doubted it. She returned to her command chair, settled in, strapped in, emptied her mind of distractions…
And waited for the signal.
The fleet had already responded. Daar, as usual, was busy on other matters. In the moment he learned the news, he was pulling his new and improved plow, and finding new and creative ways to absolutely loathe this gods-forsaken little plot of land. The soil was, somehow, harder this year than ever, thanks to lower moisture than usual and a weird cycle of torrential rain followed by extended heat. Now in the fall it was like shattering rocks behind him.
Except when it wasn’t, and he’d sink a few inches straight down, or he couldn’t get a grip with his feet so he had to pull forward with his paws, or the reverse would suddenly be true…
He loved a good workout but this had the annoying quality of constantly jerking on his harness this way and that as he collided with whatever rebellious patch o’ dirt was resistin’.
It’d grow some fuckin’ fantastic meeshi, though. No arguin’ that…
On inspection, he’d bent his new plow even worse than the previous. And he’d paid so much money for it, too. Oh well. Maybe this time the workhouse would believe him about it all.
“How is everything forming up?”
“Escalating rapidly, My Father.”
“Big fight’s upon us, then.”
“The Entity believes the Hunters must commit to this fight as well. It has sent projections and predictions…if this new Hive can be destroyed, then we’ll be so far out in front logistically that there’s no coming back for them.”
“An’ it’s askin’ ‘fer help ‘cuz it can’t manage th’ deed itself. Who else has it called?”
“Everyone. AEC and Ekallim-Igigi are already mobilizing, and of course the HEAT are straining to be let loose. The Rauwrhyr, the Dominion fleet…even the Corti Directorate.”
Daar was already walking toward the farmhouse, having folded up—and bent back into shape—his somewhat disappointing new toy. He set it down at the front so his farmhands would know to clean it up and get it repaired. Good help was worth its weight in gold.
“I s’pose I’ve got a meeting at command already in th’ works.”
“Onboard the Destroying Fury, My Father. There’s more we’ve discovered, and some of it may…warrant your personal attention.”
That was fuckin’ ominous.
“Right. Well, walk an’ talk, lil’ buddy. How big’a shitpile we got?”
A quick jump and a short meeting later, he knew the answer. Pretty big, it turned out.
“…Right.” Daar sighed, and headed toward his Suiting chamber. Staff followed behind obediently. “Time to lay all our cards on th’ table. Recall Warhorse and his team. They’re out training, right? Some weird supergravity hellhole?”
“Yes. But…My Father? That will give away our knowledge of—”
“Yup. It’s time. ‘Cuz win or lose, the Hunters’re gonna leave that behind ‘fer us ‘ta deal with anyway, so we deal with it now.”
“Yes, My Father.”
“Go make it happen. I’ll be on the Fury.”
The process of suiting up had become swift and efficient by now, and in moments like these the overpowering pressure and weight of his suit was a comfort rather than a burden. Of course, he’d long since passed the point where his life was his own to endanger, so in all likelihood this was a gesture more than anything else.
…But that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be endangered, either. There were consequences to being a singularity. He’d be ready. He’d commit himself when needed, if needed.
He stole a quick cuddle and playful nip with Naydi. Confirmed that the contents of his drinking and nutrition system still tasted like a proper liquid meal instead of the citrusy oral rape favored by the HEAT humans…and Yan too, weirdly…
Then a black flash, a thump, and he was where he needed to be.
For whatever happened next.
HMS Caledonia, Cimbrean system, the Far Reaches
Sergeant Hunter “Gonzo” Thompson
“Seems to be fitting comfortably. How you feel, Gonzo?”
Hunter nodded at his techs, Williams and Miranda, and shrugged his shoulders. A little too easily, if he was honest. “Cozy. Gonna need to make it meaner again after this.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Miranda grinned at him, before giving Williams the nod as she took up position behind him. “Okay, checklist…Cervical brace?”
It was a quick and familiar series at this point. How many times had Hunter suited up by now? Hundreds, easily. Admittedly, it was a considerably shorter process than it used to be in the old days, where the suits were all hand-crafted masterpieces…but technology advanced. Suits, training, sports medicine, his very body. He was a state of the art killing machine, one the likes of which the HEAT of even five years ago wouldn’t have believed was possible.
They all were now, and the ones who couldn’t hack it either never made it or retired out when the time came. That was a harsh truth but, well, truth nonetheless. They were unambiguously superhero marvels of genetics, science, and sheer stubborn willpower, no matter what species they were. Of course, it didn’t matter if they were hero or Hero, society wasn’t happy about people like them existing so, here he was. One of the few places he was appreciated for his abilities. Literal tons of happy murder-monkey, at humanity’s beck and call.
He wasn’t as bitter about it all as some were. On that account, he was much more like Righteous and Yan. Why should they be? They were all Beefs well into the four-digit club, they were all damn good-looking, high-achieving supermen living in a prime that’d last as long as they wanted. If you’re one of the best there is, why worry what the fat and puny think?
He never asked to be born a Hero. He never asked to be hated ‘cuz of any of that.
But he was, by some. Then again, everyone was hated by somebody; only way to avoid that would be to be no-one at all.
No fuckin’ thank you.
Thoughts were wandering. Always did, just before go time, like he had to get all his stray ideas out of the way before the shit hit the fan. They all went away when Colonel Costello stepped down off his suiting station and got their attention over the ‘net. Abbott was no desk officer, he’d been wearing the Mass longer than most of the team, but even so he didn’t usually suit up himself unless shit was real fuckin’ real. So yeah, everyone listened up.
He didn’t mince words. “This is a big one, Lads. The Hunters have thrown together another Hive: our job is to kill it from the inside, while rescuing any slaves we find.”
“Damn,” rumbled Righteous as he thumped his way over from his own station with deck-shaking steps. “Been a while ‘fer that kinda stakes.” Thump, thump, thump.
Some men were habitually catlike. ‘Horse had been that way before the accident, now he only was sometimes, when he wasn’t excited. Hunter tried to be, though it didn’t come naturally…
Righteous gave no shits. He was perfectly capable of ninja-like silence on those huge wide size-fifties of his, but he was also a firm believer in throwing his weight around, literally and metaphorically. If he didn’t need to paw about, he fuckin’ didn’t. “Let ‘em fear,” he’d said once.
“This is part of a massive combined operation,” Costello agreed. “Everyone’s coming out to play. But as ever, we’re the speartip. Everything focuses on us, and we focus on stacking bodies and saving souls. So, general mission is three targets: I’ll be leading team one to the Hive’s engineering section to kill main power; Lieutenant Stephenson’s team will liberate the slave pens; Major Campbell’s team will go for the hive’s command center and kill the Alpha-of-Alphas. Once it’s dead and the slaves are evacuated, we jump out and leave a nuke behind.”
He looked at each of them in turn, looking rather more serious than Hunter had seen him in a long time. “There’s more than one reason we cannot fail in this mission. More than one operation will be going on and the success of any of it depends on everyone accomplishing their mission. We’re not only attacking critical resources. We’re attempting to nail the Hunters to the fuckin’ floor. We don’t want them re-flowing resources. The stakes in this case…are severe.”
Gonzo joined in the solemn nodding, and then it was on to specifics: where, when, how, who. He was on Stephenson’s team, going after the slave pens. Nothing to complain about there! Rescuing slaves was Big Damn Hero stuff.
Of course, Campbell had Righteous and a team of fuckin’ Orks, so of course they were goin’ after the big bad. One glance over at Righteous and it was honestly like he was swelling up in anticipation of meeting his entire life’s purpose.
Kind of a shame Gonzo wouldn’t get to be there for that. He had the strength, but just not the rest, yet. Campbell’s team was all the remaining old-hats. ‘Base, Righteous, Kiwi, Titan, Tiny, and so on. All the originals who could hack the Beef life were by this time some gnarled and grizzled fuckin’ iron. Not easy to kill, them. They never got tired, either.
God have fuckin’ mercy on the Hunters in their way, cuz the HEAT’s supply of it had run out a long time ago.
Okay, enough thinking. Mind on the moment. Mind on his job and the Hunters in front of him.
Time to fuckin’ kill.
Starship Stray Fortune, Orbiting planet Gao
Warhorse of Whitecrest
“‘Horse! Welcome aboard, mate. You’re lookin’ downright slim an’ petite these days!”
Adam chuckled, set down his gear case and gave Wilde a fist-bump, genuinely pleased to see him. “Been spending too much time around Righteous and Playboy if you think that’s true,” he commented with a grin. “See your taste in shirts hasn’t improved any.”
“Fuck are you talking about?” Death-Eye grinned and looked down at the extra smedium Dragonball tee somehow stretched over his massive chest. “This shit’s a fuckin’ classic.”
Well, Adam couldn’t argue with that. He turned and waved a hand at the motley crew hefting their stuff off the Fortune’s jump platform. “You’ve met the team before?”
“Some of ‘em.” Ian gave Hoeff the Up-Nod Of Recognition, then grinned at a furry figure behind him. “How’re you, Garaaf? Been a few years.”
The old, scarred silverfur gave Wilde a pant-grin as he offloaded the case with his rifle in it. “I’ve known worse years. Miss me?”
“Who wouldn’t miss your flawless baby-faced mug?”
‘Horse chuckled, turned and dragged a couple more items off the pile. Thing about their particular operation: he’d had plenty of time to plan alongside the others, whittle things down to the essentials, and they still ended up with a lot of stuff.
Not as much as the HEAT did, though. The Great Father’s “particulars” didn’t need to bring two technicians, a suiting-up station and a workshop’s worth of tools per operator. They brought a leaner, more focused pile of luggage.
There was Hoeff, of course, with all his various murder-y ways. He’d crammed a hell of a lot more HEAT-grade Beef into that five-foot-four gorilla-frame of his over the last five years, to the point he was probably the deadliest person on the team aside from ‘Horse himself. He was in charge of the assault package, while Adam had overall command of the team. ‘Horse was still first and foremost about keeping the rest of the team alive, leading with the principle that the best way to achieve that was to kill everything before it could hurt them. Garaaf was their marksman and scout…
But Daar hadn’t stopped at three, oh no. He’d been quietly gathering talent for years, and not all of them for their skill at violence. Not all of them for their flawless record of honesty and law-abiding, either.
For one, he had a soft spot for larcenous cubs and tricksters. Lirree had been a black-hat hacker responsible for some of the more embarrassing breaches of cyber-security in recent years, and not just on Gao. He found himself one day waking up, opening his front door…
Date Point: Like a year beforehand or something, I dunno
Liree, most bestest Keeda-blessed hacker in all the gao!!
—and colliding face-first into the Great Father’s giant chest. Like, not even a little bit dignified. Muzzle jammed straight into the crevice between his pecs right up to the fuckin’ cheeks, chest fluff all the way up Liree’s nose and suddenly he was choking on way too much smell of the big fucker…
…Oh. Oh shit. Shit!
The Great Father growled down at him as Liree’s legs went very shaky and carried him back two wobbling steps.
It didn’t work!
He pushed against that chest with all his might but it was futile; he ended up groping helplessly at the Great Father’s corded brawn like some kind of malignant groupie. He was stuck and all he could hear was a rumbling chitter and a huge heart beating away. Suddenly he felt a skull-crushing pressure envelope his entire head! He panicked, it grew incredibly worse and he flailed desperately to get free—
Release, and he fell backwards onto his rear in the least dignified way possible.
“Gotta admit, that’s prob’ly the mos’ ridiculous way I’ve ever met anyone. Don’t’chu look ‘fer you charge ahead?”
Liree was too dazed to reply properly. “I–no?”
“Well shit, be more careful! I coulda kilt’ ‘ya just now too! Wouldn’t that’ve been fuckin’ hilarious?”
“I…M–My Father?” He stood, wobbling, as he tried to process his situation. His inflamed personal dignity clashed with the sheer ridiculousness of the situation and effectively paralyzed his ability to think clearly.
“Damn right. An’ I usually at least ask ‘fer dinner ‘fore I get that fuckin’ intimate wit’ anyone.”
The Great Father himself was there. In front of him. In his hallway, somehow. He didn’t even really fit! The fucker’s haunches were pressed up against the walls! What the hell had prompted this? Why would he…
…Oh. Oh no.
Liree felt his knees wobble again. He was caught. Caught and completely fucked.
Maybe literally, too. There were rumors on the darkweb about dissidents, gods no please…
“So,” Daar growled low. “I see we can skip past playtime. You’ve been a very naughty boy, haven’t you?”
Yup. Fucked. Liree’s mouth sent an urgent request to Liree’s brain for something witty to say that might get him out of this, only to get back white noise and screaming. It fell back on the old reliable “Ahh…!”
“‘Xactly. Gotta give ‘ya credit where it’s due,
SnootBoop gave some’a Longear’s finest minds some real headaches, an’ I hear
BetterCallWALL did…how much damage?”
A voice from some insignificant titan looming in a living god’s shadow. “Three billion, My Father. Give or take.”
“Three billion, eh?” The Great Father, sitting down on his haunches yet still somehow towering above all of them, sorta shuffled in place and even…even that was fuckin’…
He snarled and everything about him just tightened up and the fuckin’ walls crumbled against his haunches and holy shit he was ripped a fuckin’ perfect comic book none of any of the videos or photos came even close so fuckin’ huge Liree was so fucked he was gonna fuckin’ die right here on his own fuckin’ front door—!
Liree felt himself grow dizzy, and fell back against the doorframe to keep from collapsing again.
“Damn, boy. That’s a lotta debt ‘yer suddenly facin’. So moment o’ truth. Did you damage anythin’ critical? ‘Cuz if ‘ya did, what happens next depends entirely on ‘yer answer.”
An actual fuckin’ god-monster was gonna eat him. Or worse. Somehow he found some courage under that baleful murder-stare, keened to himself…went for it.
“Th-they were j—just war profiteers! On Paradise! A—and in the Great Houses!”
The Great Father slunk closer now, floor screaming as the entire fuckin’ hallway visibly bowed under his incredible fuckin’ weight. Bowed, in a modern commercial multi-species apartment! A muzzle big enough to bite off Liree’s entire fuckin’ head snuffled close, closer…growled so low he almost couldn’t hear it…
But he sure could feel that growl rumble the air so hard it hitched his breath. Fuck.
“Now, I bet ‘ya know what I’mma do if I think ‘yer lyin, right? I ain’t had any real exercise in a whole day an’ das a lotta money we gotta pay out of our coffers, now. Money we can’t spend on shit that matters…”
Nose pressed right against his throat, sniff so powerful Liree could feel the suction. An even deeper growl, one so primal the entire hall resonated with it. That snuffle creeped up along his jugular as he craned his neck to somehow escape, oh gods oh gods please no—
The Great Monster backed away, slightly.
“Honest-smellin’, unner all th’ fear.” That bit he growled with way too much delight. “So ‘yer an idiot idealist, huh?”
Liree didn’t dare answer.
The Great Father looked back at someone. “Hey Meereo, ‘ya think he’s worth three billion?”
“Personally? No. But he’s done something I would daresay is even more dangerously stupid than hactivism against rich, critically important merchants. His skill has earned my respect, My Father. Not many have managed that. I want to learn everything from him.”
…Meereo. Himself. Champion Meereo was here and not happy. Any other time Liree would be proud. Now? He tried to peek around the huge wall of impossibly rippling brawn in front of him but…
“Right. So. This ain’t leavin’ me with many nice options, yijao? How am I s’posed ‘ta trust ‘ya?”
Liree’s jaw chattered in fear of its own accord. Daar creeped closer, all his colossal everything and what it could do first and foremost in Liree’s terrified mind.
Daar sighed. “Essactly. I don’t like dilemmas like this. So, I’mma let ‘ya choose, if ‘yer brave enough. An’ as far as I can figure, there’s really only three options. Choice one, you go with these fine Straightshield officers an’ face proper justice. I hear ‘yer list o’ crimes is pretty long these days…”
Liree looked over at them. Any other time he’d be terrified of them too. He hated the fuckers! But there was a difference between a big burly bully and whatever the Great Father was. Rumor had it Keeda himself wasn’t more than a bug to him. Liree could only keen in terror.
“I take it by ‘yer reaction, that’s likely gon’ be a life sentence. Am I right? You can be honest here. These two can’t testify against ‘ya.”
Somehow, when confronted with his living god, just by smelling him and looking into that face…
“I…yes. Yes, My Father. And…”
He was quieter, now. “An’ given the nature of ‘yer crimes, that’s gonna mean loneliness.”
Liree keened in fear and desperation. “Yes!”
“Right.” Daar shook his head. “But ‘ya don’t deny ‘ya deserve it.”
“Brutal honesty, I can admire that. So. Choice two, rather’n kill ‘ya slowly in prison, I jus’ make it quick and squish ‘ya into a pancake wit’ this big paw o’ mine. Won’t hurt, I promise. Make a big mess, though…”
The Great Father held up the paw in question and pressed it against Liree’s chest, and him against the wall. Forcefully. It was much wider than his shoulders and the claws—! The wrist alone was as big as Liree’s entire chest and both seemed almost small compared to hulking swells rippling all along his great arm. Then there was the rest of him…
“But y’know what? I think I might come ‘ta like ‘ya. So the last choice is the most terrible o’ all. Choice three is ‘ya come wit’ me, right now, and do absolutely anything I tell ‘ya ‘fer the rest of ‘yer life without any fuckin’ hesitation what-so-fuckin’-ever. I won’t promise any of it’ll be easy, neither…and there’s somethin’ else. What I jus’ told ‘ya ain’t an expectation o’ behavior, ‘cuz I can’t leave ‘ya unsupervised wit’ what ‘ya can do, can I? It’s a promise of how it’ll be.”
He left it hang. At first, Liree didn’t understand what he meant, but then—
“B-but…My Father? That’d mean…”
The Great Father sighed, and duck-nodded sympathetically.
”‘Yer gonna be my friend, Liree. I can tell I’m gonna like ‘ya already. ‘Yer silly and idealistic and did a balls-damned stupid thing, but ‘yer honest, an’ intelligent, an’ motivated. So yeah. Won’t be hard likin’ you. I s’pect I’ll even respect you, with time. And I ain’t gonna let ‘ya have any freedom away from me.”
Liree gulped, and duck-nodded in terrible understanding. Subdued forever by friendship. He would be worse than a slave.
And he would love every second of it.
The Great Father again duck-nodded. “It’s a fuck of a thing, yeah? With what I am, an’ wit’ what jus’ my scent can do ‘ta people, I’m very careful ‘ta give my friends space an’ time away. That’s the real danger o’ what I am. Makes me wonder if Fyu had the same sorta power… Anyway. Other species don’t unnerstand. Not even th’ ten’gewek, an’ they got somethin’ related goin’ on wit’ their Given-Men. But we unnerstand, an’ I’m sorry that’s how it’s gotta be, ‘cuz someone like you is too gods-damned dangerous ‘ta let run around without some control an’ you already showed the normal shit won’t work, right? I mean…‘yer livin’ in an inter-species apartment. Alone. No workhouse buds ‘ta cuddle up with…”
Liree nodded glumly. “I couldn’t risk anybody but me, so…”
“Good, good,” the Great Father duck-nodded. “Noble in a misguided sorta way…So here ‘ya are.”
”…Here I am. A mad chitter overcame him and he had to add, “Helpless an’ afraid.”
The Great Father chittered too, if the ground-shaking rumble coming from his throat could be taken as a chitter. “Sense o’ humor, good, good… So I give you the choice. Stick wit’ me and you live. Prosper, even! But You ain’t never gonna be out o’ sniffin’ range, never outta my reach. ‘Yer gonna be by my side every second o’ every day, no matter what I’m doin’ fer however long it takes. ‘Yer gonna be my body-man an’ aide. An’ given ‘yer a little guy, an’ not a particularly dominant-smellin’ specimen at that…I think we both know ‘yer ego won’t last long.”
Yup. He would trapped in his own mind, bound to the Great Father’s every whim until he died. Broken by the simple presence of a dominant male. Enslaved by love.
He keened. Gods, how he keened at the impossible choice! It was death three ways! It was impossible, it was such a terrible fate all of the sudden—
The Great Father was there, now. Hugging him to himself, gently. Almost affectionately. And even that, just his scent and his incredible warmth and strength…his obvious concern, his gentleness, even that momentary bit of closeness was already breaking through, destroying Liree’s resolve.
Against the Great Father of his people, the greatest there had ever been? What resistance could he muster? Liree was doomed.
And…and he wanted it. Already. He couldn’t even muster the self-respect to loathe himself for it.
“It’s a terrible thing,” Daar rumbled low and quiet, just for him. “But at least wit’ the third option, you could still live. Still serve the Gao. Help make right your crimes. Not many get second chances.” Liree felt lost in reality, lost against the vastness of a gentleman-god who would sentence him to whatever fate he chose.
It took him a while to grieve for himself. His free will would die. The Great Father was patient, and said nothing. Finally, Liree looked up at him, at his impossible perfectly beautiful face…
Even his eyes. Terrible, and unyielding. But kind too. Even maybe a bit hopeful…
“Will…will it be so bad?”
“I am very good to my friends, Liree. Even in ‘yer case where you won’t be choosin’ it. An’ it’s not a one-way street. Thing is? I’ll be loyal to you forever, too. In a sense I’ll be just as trapped, but I don’t mind none. So, that’s the deal: I’m offerin’ you a chance ‘ta serve an’ redeem ‘yer honor, an’ I’m offerin’ you somethin’ you straight ain’t worthy of. Perfect love ‘fer perfect obedience. So…”
He let go, and straightened up, then displayed the full majesty of his being without moving an inch. Gods, he was…
Beautiful. Perfect face, perfect voice. Perfect scent, perfect soul. So hugely muscular and hulking he couldn’t possibly bulge out any bigger anywhere on him. So vascular and lean it would have been disturbing on any lesser man. So flawlessly symmetrical it almost didn’t look real. He wasn’t merely handsome, he was impossibly beautiful in every way. He was living godly perfection with a nearly to-the-skin clipped stud’s coat, and he wasn’t even showing off.
He smiled, too. Not too big, it was a polite sort of thing. An invitation, maybe? There, before Liree, a living god revealed himself without a grunt of effort.
And he wanted to be friends.
“Make your choice, little one.”
In the end it wasn’t even a choice. Just his smell, his presence, his words…the Great Father had him completely from the moment they met. And he knew it, too.
“I…I choose…” Liree screwed up his courage. “I choose you, My Father.”
The Great Father nodded seriously. “Very well.” He rose off his haunches and the flooring crumbled underfoot. “Do exactly as these men say. We’ll meet again soon.”
And with that, the Great Father just…left. Turned around, wiggled his way through the short hall to the porch at the end and just leapt off the building like it weren’t anything at all! From the top floor, even! Some long delay later he heard (and maybe even felt!) a whump from below. He ran to the window, stared at the ground far below.
An actual crater in the dirt where he’d landed. No sign of him though, not even paw prints—no. There they were! On the other end of the field! How had he—?
One of the smaller, less apocalyptic beings haunting his shadow tapped a claw on Liree’s shoulder to get his attention, then inclined his nose toward Liree’s door. It wasn’t Meereo—where in the hells had he gone?! Where was everyone else?
It was instead another Longear. This one a bit against type, too. Black and sleek-furred…but burly, like a Longback. Big burly. And he wasn’t friendly.
“You’re gonna take me through all your systems, all the scripts you’re writing, all the data you’ve gathered…I want to chew every byte. I will know if you omit anything, and so will the Great Father. He is slow to anger and loathe to punish, but earn it and you will beg for death for days before he tires of toying with you. Clear?”
“…Well? Show me!”
Liree yelped and leapt to obey, and…well, one life ended and another began. As promised the Great Father was waiting for him, out in the country in his getaway cottage. There, they got to know each other. Conversations, mostly. Lots of farm work, lots of training too, in lots of different things. He was to become one of Daar’s closest personal assistants, alongside Tiyun. Thre wasn’t a thought that wasn’t shared, not an inch of each other they didn’t know, not a feeling they didn’t understand. There were no secrets between the three of them. As promised, Liree was never more than arms-reach apart from him, and as feared…
It didn’t take long. He went from resentful, to wary, through neutral to appreciative and finally, devoted. Before the summer was out he couldn’t bear to be apart from His Father for any length of time. Or from Tiyun, either. Liree was, it turned out, a particularly agreeable young male. In fact he was so dependent, merely working up to do this mission was a personal trial. Even now, the apartness was terrible. But in the end, he came to view it all as a good thing. Admittedly, the physical training was…pain…and there was some sense of loss…but he didn’t regret it.
Couldn’t regret it. Even if he wanted to.
As for the rest of it? It certainly got him into the company of some interesting people…
Warhorse of Whitecrest
Well. Daar was persuasive, after all. Poor little guy was practically Daar’s grateful slave.
The rest of the team had their own stories too, even if they weren’t so dramatic. Gwijub wasn’t even a deathworlder, being Locayl. But he’d lived much of his life by the adage that crime absolutely did pay if you were good enough at it, and that smuggling by and large was a crime without a victim.
Still. This was primarily a kinetic team, and that meant their support had to be mobile and multi-talented. Which was exactly the thing to describe their next contestant…
“Bruuk!” Wilde’s grin was absolutely massive. “Never fuckin’ thought I’d see you again—ow!” Ian grimaced. “Mate, I’m not unbreakable!’’
“That’s Brother Bruuk to you these days, ‘lil guy! Finished th’ Third Ring right ‘fore this big ball o’ muscle over her recruited me!”
“Oh! Right,” Bruuk chittered somewhere in the baritone. Impressive for a five-foot-seven talking bear to crush a near-Beef like Wilde. Admittedly still as big as a proper bear, but…
Anyway. They didn’t have a lot of time.
“You got the mission spec?” Hoeff asked, businesslike even as he slapped his palm into Wilde’s and gave the big man his own rib-crushing embrace.
“Mnghf! …Yeah. How long’ve we known about this thing?”
“Long enough. Clan Whitecrest calls it the ‘Vengeance Engine.’”
Dora thumped her rear leg. “Well, that’s certainly ominous…”
“Ayup. The Hunters’ last fuck you to the galaxy.”
“We’ll be setting up shop in the aft cargo bay,” Adam noted.
“As is tradition,” rumbled Bruuk happily. “I s’pose I better git ‘ta movin’ equipment?”
“All us big fellas.” Adam hefted his case and felt the deck groan under his feet. Somehow, that little give and surrender from most things—ships, buildings, whatever—always made him grin.
Wilde half-turned his head. “Dora, help ‘em out would you, love?”
“Way ahead of you!” she gestured, and the drone cargo sled she’d brought with slid noiseless into the array chamber. Maybe four or five years ago, Adam woulda carried all the stuff anyway because he could, but…nah. He’d been putting serious effort into mellowing back out. He thanked her with a smile and started hefting their cases and stuff onto the sled.
“Oh! You’ll be happy to know this is a permanent assignment ‘fer us,” Hoeff added, deck groaning under his feet as he hefted his own pile of treasure. “You better pray Bruuk finds his quarters an’ kitchen in good order…”
“Kitchen’s just fine. Advantage of bringing a human cook on board, there’s less fur in the food, too.”
“And in any case, Sarah decided to move on so, conveniently, this works out. Anyhoo,” Wilde fended off a playful pawswipe from Bruuk, who finally picked up his own toys and thumped away down the hall, much to the deckplate’s displeasure.
Adam was gonna have fun with this crew, he could tell already. Introductions were made, smiles given, all that fun jazz he was remembering how to love again. At one point Dora asked him, “are you going to put those down?”
“Probably should. So I’ll go get unpacked and set up. How long before we’re running quiet?”
“Four hours. Is that enough time?”
“More than enough, especially when out last guys show up—”
Vemik Given-Man, along with Ferd and his crew. He was one of their techs for this mission. Not on the assault team—he was far too valuable to his people. But he was there with them in reserve, because frankly, if this mission went south it would be someone like him that could turn the tide. That he’d be fully-trained and available to fight had originally been a concession to the Lodge and to Vemik’s standing in it, but honestly…
Well, shit. The dude had grown. The last five years had been an unrelenting Fire for him and now the big bastard was as tall as Wilde, and built to the sort of scale very few of even his own people ever managed. Yan’s heir, right there.
Adam could only shake his head. Here he was, bigger and stronger than he’d ever been, with a godly physique this time and in far better conditioning too…and next to the state of the art, he was barely top-tier anymore. Gonzo was a challenge to wrestle these days, Base could smack him around without much fuss, and Julian was so fucking powerful, he could crush Adam like a bug. Righteous…well.
The accident had cost him almost everything. Hell, Adam wasn’t even the biggest guy on the team! That honor went to Vemik, and trained warrior though he was, he wasn’t here to crush skulls. Vemik was here as a tech.
And with luck, that’s all he would be doing today.
Honestly, it was sorta hard to stick to the slow-and-steady plan he had in the face of what everyone else could do, both ‘cuz he knew he could keep up with enough work ethic and ‘cuz he knew how much use he could be. But…no. He’d promised Marty and his kids some work/life balance, and he was in it for the long haul anyway. Besides: all the Heroes were bred for this, right? It was safer for them to push it. Adam would get there, eventually. In time.
Or so he told himself. Anyway.
Assembly went pretty quick. They’d spent a lot of time planning and practicing, so it was only about an hour before they were ready to suit up. They all got a thorough scrub-down in the shower, padded gingerly over the disposable matting they’d rolled over the floor to avoid picking up any contaminants, stepped carefully into their suiting stations, and got to it.
Vemik was honestly the best tech ever. Having someone who could lift all the pieces no matter how heavy without so much as a grunt of effort made the entire process go much faster. Dexterous, too, and that combination of strength and precision made donning even the notoriously bitchy undersuit a breeze.
He hefted Adam’s midsuit for him to climb into and asked idly, “So this ‘Vengeance Engine.’ What is it, exactly?”
There was a moment’s silence as those in the know glanced at each other, grimly. Then Hoeff nodded and took a step forward.
“Vemik, my friend,” he said. “Lemme tell you about a nasty little thing called a solar focusing array…”
Date Point: 25y2m1d AV
The Exodus Hive, deep space
The moment when fully ten percent of its fleet vanished in a flash of transmitted agony set the Alpha-of-Alphas twitching in its cable cradle, while the conceptual equivalent of a curse flashed through its mind.
It had known this moment was coming. It had planned and prepared, and its preparations were nearly complete…but not yet complete. The Hive was built, its stasis holds pregnant with replicant-form spaceborne Hunter-bodies…
Not perfectly replete, not to the point where such an opening wound was only a scratch…but enough that the battle was not already lost.
It recalled every roaming hunter gang it could to rally points outside the interdiction zone and drove them inwards, formed its local forces into a protective shell around the Exodus Hive while abandoning those toward the attack’s leading edge to serve as a distraction and slow the assault while it watched.
It knew this foe. No creature of meat and marrow this one: datamind. The one that had first stolen the Builders’ plans for a replicant ship. The one from which the Hunters in turn had taken the concept of a stellar focusing array. Now, the force it was bringing to bear was a clear demonstration of the power of self-replication. It was clearly some generations in advance of the Hunters’ own swarm, by sheer numbers.
But the Hunter replicants were heavier, tougher, and more fiercely armed. If each was worth four or five of the enemy’s probes, then this was a more even battle than sheer numbers might suggest.
With no option but to commit, the Alpha-of-Alphas did just that. Every weapon it had, every combat-capable ship was thrown into the enemy’s path, and the exchange of fire began in earnest.
++END CHAPTER 88++
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Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.
When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…
Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.
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Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
Sally and Stephen Johnson
Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker
His Dread Monarch
Joshua A. Demic
Joshua Mountain Taylor
Richard A Anstett
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 who have been so very patient.
“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.
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Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 89: Titanomachy