Chapter 89: Titanomachy
Date Point:25y2m1d AV
Dataspace adjacent to probe-swarm, Hunter territory
For once, the Daemon went completely silent as the Entity concentrated.
There were too many ships to track: so much weapons fire, so many engine flares, such dense EWAR, all of it added up to a confusion of false readings, miscounts, hidden ships, duplicate contacts…the only way to treat such a battle was as a pair of giant lethal blobs, grinding each other down. Individual ships didn’t matter on this scale. In fact, each explosive flare of a ship’s death was a little more attention budget freed up.
Maneuver and formation shifted the balance of power first to one side’s advantage, then the other as replies came in the form of counter-formation and counter-maneuver. The blobs shifted, elongated, became two dragons striving to coil around one another, became a sheet trying to wrap itself around the dragon, became a needle to pierce the sheet.
Through it all, both sides had the same goal in mind - annihilation. In the Entity’s case, destroying the largest portion of the Hunters’ force was the entire goal. In the Hunters’ case, they needed to deplete the Entity’s fleet to secure escape for that vast hive-ship.
The Entity’s objective meanwhile was to set back the Hunters’ generation count, get their numbers under control.
Cull the population.
Yes. At the cost of the Entity’s own population, but from what the Entity could see, its replication strategy had been to create specialized variants, where The hunters had gone for heavier, all-purpose all-rounder probes, each one of which was lost production capacity, as well as lost guns.
The Entity, meanwhile, could expend every last one of its war-probes without any change to the replication curve. Meaning, no matter what happened in this battle, the Entity believed it was coming out in front by a considerable margin.
Why settle for coming out in front? With the others alongside us, we can make this one the killing blow.
Maybe. An existence defined by paranoia left the Entity feeling a significant degree of doubt at that thought…but it would be quite happy to be wrong. And besides: there was nothing to be gained by not trying.
Still. Before the field was safe for friends, it needed clearing. So, it set to work creating a clear, safe volume for friendlies to jump in.
And it hoped its branch self was seeing similar success…
Singularity warship Onna-Musha, jumping
Queen Tomoe Gozen of Singularity
“Go signal received.”
“Jump, jump, jump.”
Tomoe’s heart spiked eagerly in her chest as the ship surged under her, reminding her very briefly of spurring her horse into battle. Then the momentary memory passed and she was present, observing, commanding.
This wasn’t to be a battle where tactical target-calling could prioritize the enemy’s most valuable ships. How could it be, when the sky was thick with distortion and contacts, each identical to its comrades?
No, this was to be a meat-grinder.
Fortunately, Onna-Musha was well-equipped for indiscriminate slaughter. Tomoe’s fingers danced, her voice spoke the instructions, her crew responded like extensions of her will. The ship’s shields rippled and cast out a hundred death-strokes in a hundred directions.
Hypatia fed them target data. Gladiatrix joined the bristling formation, at the very tip of Singularity’s spear.
Together, they plunged into the enemy’s heart.
Continuity Bunker, undisclosed location.
Everyone had a part to play in war, even ambassadors. Especially ambassadors.
In his case, he was leading the diplomatic corps from both Ekallim-Igigi and the Rich Plains deep into a secure place, prepared just in time for this moment. It was to be one of civilization’s strongholds, a place for continuity and against collapse, should the very worst come to pass.
Honestly, the design was quite ingenious. What was the most secure kind of bunker? The kind you couldn’t even open from the outside. The kind that didn’t even have an entrance. They’d jumped in: they’d either jump out, or have to emerge through an exit that hadn’t been excavated yet and try, somehow, to pick up the pieces.
Why him? A few years ago he would have been squeamish answering that. Not anymore. He led them because he was big, charismatic, and could wear the heaviest armor; he could fight for them, and those deep instincts mattered in a crisis. Next to Righteous he was, without ego, the very best the human race had to offer, at least on matters physical. That mattered because galactic diplomats were often skittish and highly individualistic, and predictably behaved a bit like retarded cats. Harsh, but true. Getting them all going in one direction took…
Well, it took persuasion. He was Ambassador Etsicitty, infamous across the galaxy for reasons beyond his looks and his physique. Everyone knew who he was and what he could do. Once, during a fun fluff piece on the ESNN morning news, one of his would-be assassins finally made it through security to attack him, live on TV…
One quick little moment was all he needed. The world took notice, because he wasn’t gentle.
Nobody threatened Julian or his family anymore, and the galactic legend of human danger was thoroughly renewed.
Of course, if this whole thing with the bunker ever became anything more than insurance then they’d be thoroughly fucking screwed anyway, but that was beside the point. He could see the way his presence calmed the others. The Dominion species had finally come around to seeing humans differently. It had only taken twenty-something years, but here they finally were: Humans weren’t the threat. Humans were safety precisely because of their dangerousness.
Sometimes, caveman persuasion was the only kind that worked.
“Gotta admit…that armor looks good on you.”
Julian broke out of his thoughts, and…god, even after all these years, Al could still completely trip him up with that wry look. And somehow, she never looked sexier than when she had a rifle in her hands. Only gal in the universe who could properly tell him what to do.
He had a good comeback, though. “I do! I look even better out of it, too…”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“Not now though,” he said, smiling. Odd feeling, that. The undersuit had armor around his neck and even talking took effort. Not, like, conscious effort—he was fully Suit conditioned these days—but he could still feel it. “Later. For now I gotta be literally tons of fun for our guests.”
“So, like normal.”
“Har har,” Julian grunted. “So I’m extra thumpy, then. Be glad you ain’t!”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m just glad Singularity have lighter toys too…” Al rapped her knuckles on the thin, high-tech hardsuit she was wearing in turn. Julian might have fantasized about some painted-on skintight thing straight out of sci-fi, but the chunky, well-plated reality was…better somehow.
“You should go rub it in Freya’s face. She was bitchin’ all up and down when they fit her up…”
“Of course she has full armor,” Al grumbled, then saw Julian’s smirk. “What?! I’m not jealous!”
“Yeah, you kinda are.” He grinned wolfishly, “And it’s cute as fuck.”
“Hey, this thing has enough tech in it to keep me nerding out for a year anyway!”
Julian chuckled fondly, then looked around. “Where’d Xiù get to?”
“She’s putting the kids to bed. And then…I guess we sit and wait, huh? How long’s this going to go on for?”
“Long enough the embassy Marines are manning a watch.”
“We’re not…actually expecting it to go that badly though.”
“No. But we just poked the Hunters in the eye in the biggest possible way and we can’t know for sure they don’t have other plans. Everyone’s laying their cards on the table for this one. Better safe than sorry, right?”
“Right.” Al nodded and found a spot to sit down. “So, that was all the hurry up. Now comes the wait. Don’t suppose you brought a movie?”
Julian pulled his tablet out of his satchel. “I loaded our entire library on it a while ago. Now if you’ll excuse me…gotta go be all, uh, whatever-it-is I’m s’posed to be.”
“A hero,” Al said it softly. “A big damn hero.”
Julian looked around.
Damnit. She knew him too well.
“…You know I’ve never felt like—”
“You don’t have to, babe. You always have been.” She gave him a little air-smooch, then a tilt of the head that said ‘go.’ She was okay. A gun to hand, her kids safely in bed behind her…that was all Allison really needed to be okay with the world.
He kind of envied her, there.
Xiù had different needs, and different strategies. He found her—also armored and armed, because that was a deathworlder’s lot, here in this bunker—surrounded by young children and gaoian cubs and telling them all a story. All they needed was a smile. Julian would never interrupt something as sacred as storytime.
She was okay too…and that was all he needed.
Back to his Marines and staff. Lots of glad-handing along the way. Lots of earnest praise and thanks from ambassadors the galaxy over…he managed. It wasn’t like he’d done anything to earn that just yet…and hopefully, he wouldn’t.
His Marines at least understood. They weren’t exactly happy to be there, but they had the same kind of bravado he’d come to know from the ten’gewek and the operators in his orbit. The kind of nervous self-psyching everyone did before the shit hit the fan.
They seemed to ease up when he arrived. Again…didn’t quite know how to process that.
There was a lot he didn’t know how to do. But he’d do it anyway.
HMS Caledonia, jumping
Chief Petty Officer Sachi Patel
Once, not so long ago, Cally had been the pride of the allied fleet, the most advanced ship at their disposal. And she’d been a temperamental bitch, too. Fires and power surges, integration difficulties between human and Hierarchy technology…A fiery youth.
Nowadays, she was mature. She’d had some therapy, calmed down, worked herself out, come into her own. And her own was still the pride of the allied fleet, dammit. She still pulled a harder acceleration, still had more juice to push around, still had superior heat management.
And she was still home to the deathworlders’ ultimate weapon. Wherever Cally went, there was the HEAT.
Sachi watched from behind her flash hood as the numbers and bars did their dance. Heat spike from jump, heat spike from recharging the jump capacitors, step up core output to combat load, heat load from acceleration…
A fragment of Cally’s power, trivially handled at this point. Even after working on her for most of her career, Sachi was still in awe of a machine that could handle a nuclear bomb’s worth of raw energy with the calm ease of a poker dealer shuffling their deck.
Then there was the way her specialist systems linked with the others. With all the other ships, helping them balance their own shield and thermal loads. With the Fleet Intelligence Center on Myrmidon, linking the brains of two ships into a kind of data weapon aimed squarely into the enemy’s heart. The slam and chatter of guns through the hull as their turrets tracked and fired was an afterthought, entirely secondary to Caledonia’s purpose.
Cally was the fleet’s throbbing heart, and to Chief Patel fell the responsibility, and the honor, of keeping it beating.
She could intuit much of what was going on outside from the play and dance of data in front of her. Her mind’s eye saw the shield wall they’d put up, and the savage hail of conventional fire scrabbling against it. She could picture their acceleration as the fleet turned and pushed, keeping range on the disruptor-armed war probes.
Sachi Patel didn’t need to see the battle to know how it was going…and she could already tell it wasn’t going smoothly. The pressure was piling on in the form of thermal buildup: Cally’s computers extrapolated the load curve, both for the ship herself and for the others in the formation.
It flattened off just shy of the yellow line. Stayed below the green line if they activated the rate-of-fire limiters, but that was the captain’s call to make, not Patel’s: she fed the information to the bridge.
Moments later, the lines shifted and adjusted again, moved downwards into the green. Some extra party had joined their formation and added their own shields to the wall…
Right, yes. They had an ally in this fight, one that was everywhere, doing a little of everything. One without which this fight wouldn’t even have been possible. One she’d kind of wanted to meet since reading its Laid Bare article. She felt a certain sense of kinship with anyone who’d done one of those…
Later. Right now, they had a fight to win. And Sachi Patel had her part to play in it. In ending the Hunters at last. It had been a long time coming.
She rested her hands on her console and focused her mind on bringing order to the chaos.
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
The view from Myrmidon’s bridge was one of untrammeled madness.
Up until this moment, Caruthers had been skeptical of the wisdom of accepting any alliance with the Entity and its probe swarm. He hadn’t trusted it, had always worried that the strange, alien, insane being was just a different enemy waiting to happen.
Now, he could see it was the only reason he’d survived the opening seconds of this bloodbath. Its probes were the most numerous things on their side of the fight, each one a darting imp armed for devastation and armored for dying.
This bubble of comparative safety that was the allied fleet’s foothold was its doing. Somehow, it was keeping up with the endless seething sea of hostile contacts, and holding them at arm’s length.
On Caruthers’ notional left-by-upwards flank (directions were arbitrary, but useful and automatically agreed-upon by convention) were the Gaoians. On his right flank, the Dominion led by the Rauwrhyr. Directly in front: Singularity’s finest, already putting in work
Right flank was the weakest one, therefore. Keep an eye on that. No disrespect to the Dominion, but they’d been whipped into a fighting force only in recent years: everyone else had a tradition. Hunters would know that too, so Caruthers’ first move was to shift a couple of San Diego class over to that side of his formation to bolster their shield wall.
That was just opening moves, though. The first couple of pawns advanced. The objective had to be that hive, far at the back of the Hunter cloud. Getting the HEAT onto that thing wasn’t going to be easy at all.
And the Hunters of course had their own ideas about what was going to happen. A knot formed in the whirl of Hunter probes, an eddy of ships bunched tightly together for mutual protection and counter-attacking, right where Caruthers’ fleet and the gaoians stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Right where he’d moved those San Diegos from.
Grandfather Arki of One-Fang had a Fury or two to spare, though. They slipped sideways, reinforced the perceived weak spot, and the eddy dissipated: a new one formed elsewhere, testing and probing.
So that was how it was going to be. The Hunters were looking for a weakness, and when they found it…
Alright. Caruthers could work with that. A game of wits and will: who could create the most tempting ‘weakness’ to lure the other into a mis-step?
Well, they would soon find out.
He sent instructions to the Dominion fleet, and noted their prompt response with satisfaction. They’d done sterling work there. But he couldn’t use them as the actual bait: that dangerous role would have to fall on his own people.
So be it.
Another eddy formed, another questing limb made of ships groped through the Entity’s screen and tried to grab a juicy morsel from among the flesh-and-blood navies. The reply from the Singularity force was a withering strobe of their advanced long-range disruptors, but one of the Gaoian ships, the Sprinting Light, was forced to retreat to the back of the formation in a cloud of vented, incandescent coolant with her systems pushed to their overload limit and fires on two decks.
Another eddy, and another. Each such was a chance for the Entity to push through, and for Onna-Musha and Gladiatrix to lead the charge deeper into the Hunters’ belly, but each one cost the allies in turn. USS Ganymede was forced to disengage and jump out, her hull ravaged by a disruptor pulse—thank God for the shielding paint that had held the damage down to a mere cluster of hull breaches, rather than annihilation. The House Krwth heavy warship Dignity survived a similar assault for the loss of one of its engines…
And through it all spun and danced the Entity, throwing its expendable, unmanned bodies into the fire to save organic lives over and over again. The sky in every direction was sparking like an angle grinder as the two replicator swarms clashed and carved each other…
It was working, though. By god, it was working. The allies came together, worked as one….
And mile by grinding mile, they burrowed deep into the swarm.
What little was left of the Alpha-of-Alphas gnashed and gnawed in its command cradle. Cyberwarfare.
It knew the adversary now slithering through the data networks of old. The Builders had prepared their systems with everything they had learned from this datamind’s last intrusions, though it seemed the foe too had either learned some new tricks, or not revealed all it knew on the previous occasions.
Either way, the datamind was tearing through the system, crashing hardware, interfering with signals, and corrupting data. The Alpha-of-Alphas had already ordered some of its subordinates to physically disconnect the long-term storage, meaning there was no danger of the intruder accessing the most sensitive information…
Not yet, anyway. Not until too late.
But that still left a lot of network for it to ravage. Including the Alpha-of-Alphas’ own brain, meaning that for the first time in years the Alpha-of-Alphas was in direct peril.
Meaning that for the first in years, the Alpha-of-Alphas felt…alive. It felt the surge of adrenaline through its preserved nervous system, felt its few remaining organs quicken and pulse.
It could also feel its digital defenses being tested. The interface used all of a Hunter’s senses, including tactile, and the Entity’s presence outside the central command network was like a billion tiny, rasping teeth on the Alpha-of-Alphas’ skin.
It had options, however. It didn’t need to win this fight decisively…it just needed to buy some time. It flashed a few dozen devices, physically melting them to slag. Whole reaches of the network collapsed with a kind of cathartic agony, like chopping off a festering, itching limb.
The Entity’s gnawing paused. For a moment the Alpha-of-Alphas dared to hope it had somehow managed to trap the thing’s primary intelligence on one of the destroyed devices and delete it, but no such luck. The Entity found another way in, began to chew its way deeper and closer like a worm again.
The Alpha-of-Alphas felt an emotion something akin to laughter, and projected that onto the network with a mocking emotional tag. Felt frustration, rage and hatred reflected back at it. Excellent. Truly excellent. A true fight in the worlds both physical and informational. A true clash of wills and purpose. Another dish in this lavish feast the galaxy’s living things were preparing. All exactly as the Alpha-of-Alphas had hoped for.
Today was a holy day.
With some breathing room purchased, it returned its attention to the battle in matterspace. But it always spared a glance, every few seconds, at a different set of sensors, elsewhere, patiently waiting for the quarry to nibble at the bait.
They would. It knew they would. Inside its cradle, the Alpha-of-Alpha’s mouthparts drooled all over the cabling.
It could taste them already.
Starship Stray Fortune jumping
Ian (“Death-Eye”) Wilde
Not that he could hear it, but in his head he always added the sound of array jumps whenever the ship flung itself through shortcut space into the unknown.
Besides, he could feel it through his boots. That little…lurch, twitch, bounce of the deck. Like somebody had hit the far end of the deck with a hammer.
They were nice boots, too. Custom made and everything for a Bigfoot like him.
He could also feel the gentle tremor of a far larger pair of monsters approaching the bridge: Warhorse, padding along softly; Vemik Given-Man, doing the same but markedly less effectively with his markedly bigger mass. There wasn’t much properly built to handle men like them and no matter how carefully they cat-pawed along, there was no hiding their size.
Both were fully armored, to add to the deck’s burden.
“We on approach now?” Vemik twitched his armored tail, nuclear red crest sticking up wildly from the top of his helmet-less head. That, he carried under an arm for the moment.
“Ayup. Wanna see it it?”
“From this far away?”
“Oh, we have good eyes on this ship,” Ian chuckled at his own ironic comment, and turned to call up the visible-spectrum telescope feed. Dora had already trained it on the distant sun in front of them.
Or, more specifically, on the dark mote nestled deep in its corona.
“How did we even find out about this?”
“Whitecrest has its ways,” Garaaf grunted. “ I wasn’t idle all those years on the ring, you know.”
…Okay, genuinely alarming, but whatever.
From across the bridge, Urgug rumbled and flashed quite a bright, pale blue—a Guvnurag’s version of clearing his throat for attention. “I detect wormhole activity. It seems the Hunters are jumping out to reinforce the battle at the hive.”
“Right. So. You lot going to let us know the full story on what this thing is?”
Adam spoke up. “Like we said, it’s a solar collector. But it’s not just a solar collector. We know it’s mobile, for one.”
“Which makes it really fuckin’ dangerous,”Hoeff growled. “Jump to a star, fire up the forcefields like a magnifying glass, aim it at a planet, watch the seas boil.”
“Still needs to jump in, though.”
Vemik had the answer to that. “Maybe, High-rarchy been sneaky and hid beacons?”
“Maybe, big guy. That’s why we’re here. And why you’re here. We might just need you.”
Vemik couldn’t hide some of the sullen shame in his reply. “For just suit work.”
“Dude. You’re one man and you’re able to handle the whole team’s suits all by yourself. That’s already cut two dozen men off the mission size. Tell me that ain’t valuable!”
Vemik bobbled his head as he conceded the point, which had the fascinating effect of making his crest sway like long grass. “Fine, fine…still want to crush. Nice and slow.”
He snarled, exposing some fuckin’ skull-shatteringly massive fangs inside that killer’s mouth of his. Ten’Gewek had nothing but pure, unadulterated hatred for all things Igraen, and frankly? Ian couldn’t blame them one bit.
“Don’t worry,” Hoeff growled somewhere in the contrabass, as he thumped himself onto the bridge. “Somehow I doubt you’ll miss ‘yer chance.”
Funny how scale worked, really. Normally Hoeff and Ferd (and Bruuk too, these days) were the big Beefs in the room, and quite used to throwing their quad-digit shortstack huge all over the place, either for play or for more serious matters. They dwarfed everyone, even Urgug by mass, who gave them a wide berth in the hallways. But next to these two?
They didn’t even really look all that much bigger but by God, were they ever! What was missing in bulk was more than made up in their sheer, legitimately alarming density. The other three literally couldn’t even dent the two just standing there, letting them try whatever they wanted. That said something since all of them were the type of blokes you could bend crowbars and shatter cricket bats against.
Scale very recalibrated. Goddamn.
“Not if we can help it,” Adam admonished gently, to which Hoeff nodded respectfully. Pecking order established, too. “Anyway. What’s our coast time?”
Ian turned to query their pilot. “Moj?”
The mjrnhrm’s elytra buzzed sharply. “Already pushing luck, we. Doing ten lights now, slowing as we close, quarter-lightspeed in the final two AU…fifty minutes.”
Ian nodded at him, then keyed the intercom. “Dora, love. How’s our delivery drone?”
“Ready and waiting!” Dora sing-songed merrily. “Just needs warm bodies on board!”
“You heard the lass,” Ian chuckled. Even after years of working with her, Dora’s upbeat chirping never failed to keep his own mood bright too. “We’ll do our bit, you do your bit, home in time for tea and fuckin’ crumpets….should get that on a shirt, actually.”
“You and your goddamn shirts…” Adam chuckled, clapped him on the shoulder nearly hard enough to knock him over, then with a gesture he rounded up his team and headed astern.
Funny. Ian was one of the tiny minority of people who responded fully to the Crude, and since he happened to have a SOR affiliation (and also a Daar affiliation) he had of course taken advantage. Who didn’t want perfect health and extended youth? He deliberately wasn’t pushing himself as insanely hard as the rest though, as much for fear of his long-term health and other complications as maybe wanting to at least theoretically pass as a normal bloke…but it was still enough to put several hundred kilos of beef on his now thickening, widening bones. The hardest part wasn’t even the training; it was eating enough.
He was a monster even by modern definitions. Fast and athletic too, and he knew how to use it all. But these days that wasn’t good enough and he was still glad to have the rest on-board, Bruuk especially. It had proven useful being big in a lot of fun ways, but he was still a one-eyed broken vet, and therefore a liability in a real fight.
They were royally screwed if it came down to him. He just…wasn’t fit for task anymore. He could wrestle with the Ten’Gewek but either Bruuk or Ferd could fold him up like paper, and the other two were so thoroughly Beef they might have just popped him by accident if they ever tussled.
His mission in the fight was different now, and that had proven hard to accept.
Right now his mission was to deliver the combatants safely. This was a ship full of Daar’s carefully hand-picked, divided loyalties or no. Their deaths, here at this critical moment would be…
Well. Even without the broader ramifications he’d rather go home alive after this anyway, thank you very much. So he strapped in to his command chair and watched his crew work.
Stray Fortune. God, what a ride. Still felt like he’d only come aboard last week or something, when she’d still had a chain-smoking rickytick captain and a name you’d only manage to choke out through a throat infection and a mouthful of dry cereal. Felt like half the time since he’d come aboard she’d been in the yard too, receiving upgrades. She was the Clan’s baby really, packed with every ship-mountable gadget Whitecrest had ever thought of or stolen.
Knowing all that was one thing. Feeling it was another. They were warping right toward a big, dangerous object, and not slowly either. It felt to him like their square-nosed, container-laden space truck of a ship ought to be, well…more conspicuous. But with a flick of a switch, she became the fuckin’ Red October. Latest trials had suggested the best tool for spotting her when she was in full active stealth mode might actually be the Mark One Eyeball, which was as good as it was possible to get short of slapping an optical cloaking field on her.
Which, yes, they had one of those too.
By way of diligence and not nervous fidgeting, he double checked that they actually were fully stealthed. Yup. They were. All their waste heat was going straight into heat sinks in the cargo containers. They were background cold, zero-emissions, all but completely transparent to most of the EM spectrum…
As safe as safe got when approaching a fortified target in space, really. If it wasn’t enough, they’d never notice their ends, so…no sense in stressing. There was little for him to do except be alert, thoughtful and ready. And…pray, maybe?
Not that he really knew who or what he was praying to, or even really putting words to it. It was more of a general mental broadcast to the universe that he’d like it if this all worked out well, please.
And with that done, he sat back to watch and wait.
Dataspace adjacent to probe swarm, the Exodus Hive
Message from Caruthers. He wants to push in Caledonia behind the Singularity vanguard, with our support.
The Entity understood immediately, and considered how best to make that happen.
None of the options were great. Its strongest quadrant was still the force protecting the Dominion wing of the formation, on the grounds that they as the least experienced and proven ships and crews needed the most support. Its strong presence in that volume had dissuaded the Hunters from hitting them too hard, so the Dominion fleet was successfully creeping out and encircling the Hunters’ flank.
Meaning, the Entity had plenty of drones over there to recall, but doing so might invite a counter-attack against their weakest flank, which might lead to a swift and brutal collapse.
The other option was to pull the drones from the other flank, where the Gao were doing their usual ferocious work…but without the Entity’s support, even they would be hard-pressed.
Have faith. I think the ETs will surprise you.
Decision made, then. Caruthers got his ships, which the Entity plunged into the thickest of the engagement.
Jesucristo, look at them fight. It’s…beautiful…
The Entity spared some attention and watched the object of the Daemon’s awe. Singularity. Friends for now, even if their end goal would mean the death of dataspace, but in this fight, up close, it got to see how their flagships approached battle and…
Yes. Truly beautiful. The Onna-Musha flowed like a blade, carving through space in graceful, unpredictable arcs. Every few seconds there’d be a shimmer of light along the tight, close shield bubble hugging her hull, and then a spread of disciplined destructive beams that left Hunter probes drifting and dead in a cloud of their own atomized matter.
Gladiatrix, meanwhile, stabbed and thrust, pulse-warping into the enemy’s thick to lash around her with fearsome close-range weaponry, then fading from view. Her every motion was an exercise in spare, punchy precision, her every attack run a blitzkrieg, her every retreat masterfully timed. That was high-intensity, high-risk, high-reward fighting, riding the very precipice of disaster.
The Sekhmet and Athena were twins, spiraling and dancing around the AEC formation, positioning themselves moment by moment to add the paired might of their shields wherever the Allies were taking the heaviest fire.
Not, it had to be said, that the AEC were being shown up. Caledonia was at the core of a sturdy phalanx, surrounded on all sides by V-destroyers, San Diegos, Bulldogs and Misfits. Any Hunter probe that slipped past Singularity’s elegant woven death-net slammed straight into a hail of superluminal gunfire, or the crushing grip of a San Diego’s grapple fields.
The Entity had to agree: beautiful.
But also, somehow…incomplete. There was room for improvement. A few cracks that needed filling.
It gladly inserted itself into them, lent its power and heat dissipation to the shield walls, slipped a few high-speed sacrificial interceptors into formation around Onna-Musha, Gladiatrix, Sekhment and Athena. Its EWAR drones fell in alongside the bulldog cloud and contributed to the strobing, blinding bedlam that all by itself was doing half the work of keeping the Hunters at bay.
If only the Hunters weren’t seemingly endless. No matter how many the fleet smashed, more came.
Did we miscount? Underestimate?
For long minutes, ten or more of them, the two forces pushed and bullied at each other, neither taking any significant losses, each shifting and squirming to try and wrestle the other aside. The stalemate broke when Singularity brought in a reinforcement that the Entity guessed they would have preferred to leave safely at home: the Inanna, Gilgamesh’s flagship.
Her arrival was the simple black-flash of a jump drive, followed by an eruption of focused ferocity. Inanna didn’t fight like the queen-ships. She fought like a brawler, a hero. Every ounce of the advanced engineering that made Onna-Musha so graceful and Gladiatrix so playful had gone into just one thing: sheer, overwhelming violence. The Entity wondered if Inanna was even all that durable, behind it all.
She didn’t need to be durable, though. Nothing got close enough to test her.
It was effective. Sheer, overwhelming force was turning the tide. It could be turned a bit quicker, perhaps…there was one ship left on the board that hadn’t committed.
For now, the Destroying Fury was nowhere to be seen. It was cloaked, and effectively; only the very occasional wash of gravitational waves across its bulk gave away its presence, safely aloof from the battlefield.
That was a most unexpected tactic from the Great Father.
He’ll have his reasons.
The Entity performed the purely mental equivalent of nodding to itself, and redoubled its attention to the fight. Its perspective, its reflexes and its nature afforded it the luxury of admiring its allies, but overindulgence in that luxury would only lead to inefficiencies. Every probe might count in the fullness of this battle.
It formed a knuckle of screen-drones and bodyguards around Inanna and bored through the swarm.
And it was gratified to note the moment when the HEAT’s boarding launches shot out of Caledonia and lanced straight into the hive’s flank, accompanied by two from Onna-Musha.
If only we could watch them at work…
Focus. There were a number of structures on the hive’s surface that warranted removal. The Entity found a squadron from somewhere, glanced over at the Dominion wing—valiantly holding their own, to justify the Daemon’s faith in them—and set them to work. They descended on the hive’s surface like bees, and began to sting.
First objective, achieved.
Knowin’ how big the hive was, and actually steppin’ on it, were two very different things. From the outside…it wasn’t like standing on a ship. It was like that time they’d visited Ceres. It had a fuckin’ horizon. A weird, curved, close one but still! There were mountains out there on that horizon, each one with a weapon at its summit. Every time they fired, the soles of Firth’s footwear carried the tremor to his toes.
Hunters already crawling on the surface, swarming to try and intercept them, their bodies completely cyberized and even their mouths covered against the vacuum. Firth’s weapon punched silently in his hands, felt, not heard: sparks and oil went drifting, and the dismembered robotic limbs went tumbling.
EVA fighting was hella fuckin’ dangerous. Everything was slower, more drifty, easier to hit. The new suits came with a shield generator, and that meant some safety, but it drank power.
So: Fight like demons while the breach team blast a way inside.
They did their job quick. That one hit Firth in the sole like a hammer blow: his thumb danced over the thruster controls, stabilized him, re-engaged his boots with the station surface: the air had already rushed out from the breached compartment, left a snowstorm full of Hunter body parts spreading in the void.
They plunged into the wound they’d made.
Gravity. Strong gravity. Air once they got the shield seal up.
Suddenly, Righteous could use his strength. So he did.
He exploded forward, moving just as fast as his thoughts and perception could keep up with. Best buds right behind him, everyone doing their thing. Well-drilled team, well-oiled machine. They were death.
Grab. Pull, rip. Charge through and kick the next. Move fast, bugs can’t react. Clear a space. Open up with GR-7d. Full power….no, dial it back; these puny fucks din’t need it.
Combat drugs hitting hard. Almost slow-motion killing, but over in a blink. Fuck up walls and floors with his mass, bounce against so hard he pushes right through. Use it as a weapon, just plow right through the diseased fucks.
Blood and lubricant sliding in greasy droplets off his visor’s anti-stick coating. Tiny puff of nitrogen gas from vent on hand to blow it clean, sip a mouthful of citrus spunk and back to work. Grab, tear, punch, crush, pull, break, shoot, burst…
Constant terse words under it all. Contacts, positions, actions…sector clear. He knew where everyone was without ever having to look at ‘em. At least he got some cardio in. Glance over at Yan (tentatively named Grodd) and he was all that and a bit more, what with that tail of his. Against the trash mobs he had an advantage.
And of course, the moment he had thought thought, the gravity fuckery started.
They’d come a long fuckin’ way since the early days, though. Those flexible booties the Protectors so loved gave Firth such a wonderful footing on the deck and nowadays he wondered what the fuck took him so long to switch over. He could feel the thump of the panels right before they shifted, could react like it was the most natural thing in the world. Now, it was second nature to shift with the shifts, turn the wall into his new floor, grab and slide when down became the other end of the room, and never, ever get into a long hall that could turn into a deep pit. Walls? What fuckin’ walls? The HEAT ignored walls. Rip and tear, like they were cardboard. Structural bulkheads, yeah. Those needed a moment.
Just a moment. Most he could rip apart with his bare fuckin’ hands nowaday, steel beams and everything. Yan too, even if he had to strain a bit. He’d get there, one day.
What would ‘ol Firth by like by then?
And even where the long hallways couldn’t be avoided…let ‘em contend with their ten’gewek. As good as ol’ Firth was in three-dimensional space, he was a fucking child next to Yan and the others. A ten’gewek in a freespace gravity playground could fly.
Singularity guys were sorta okay, too. Shit, they were even managing to keep up. They were more about stealth though, so maybe that wasn’t fair. Oh well. But when Firth got glimpses of ‘em in action it was only glimpses: a blur would turn into a man, the man would slaughter a handful of Hunters, then there’d be a curl of smoke and the man would be gone.
Weird that he had some time to think.
Where were the Hunters? The real Hunters, not these fuckin’ cannon fodder. He could fuckin’ pimp-slap the regular Hunters apart. Where were the betas and alphas? Where was the actual fuckin’ fight? Fuckers thought they were being sneaky, no doubt. Thought they’d lay a trap, catch ‘em like they caught Scott all those years ago.
Well. Personal shields now, so…fuck that, plus countermeasures. They’d be surprised if they tried that shit again, and for that fuckin’ heinous act of evil, the reckoning was gonna be fuckin’ double. Right now though it was just the first contact. Intense, and fast-moving…but in short order he had space for a breather, and time to consider command.
Whole suit was gory. Little chunk of meat and guts stuck to his gauntlet, which he flicked off with a grunt. Integrity check…all good.
“This shit’s too easy, boss.”
Campbell nodded as he loaded in a full magazine. “Speedbumps. So let’s look ahead.”
Regaari knew what that meant instantly, he half-turned and gestured to his Clan brothers. “Cubs, play sniff-and-find. Singularity, on me.”
A shimmer of the optical camo on their suits, and the Whitecrests were doing what they did best. Firth grinned behind his mask, sipped the lime spooge again, and got back to work.
This shit wasn’t gonna blow itself up.
Antony (“Abbott”) Costello Costello’s spot was toward the rear of the formation, and he therefore wasn’t firing his weapon much, but that certainly didn’t mean he was idle. It was just that his own actual rifle was a distant second-place backup weapon.
His real weapon was the team; his ammunition, data. Each passing second the team’s suit sensors mapped the environment around them, expanding their internal blueprint of this hive. Combined with data from the other teams, the supercomputers on Myrmidon could make best-guess extrapolations, link things together, propose possible layouts, and they were usually breathtakingly accurate.
Certainly they were accurate enough that Costello didn’t need to know exactly where the Hive’s main engineering section in order to make progress toward it. Every room they cleared, every power cable buried in the deck and ceiling, all of it added to the map, pointing the way.
“KIWI, we’re heading right at your next junction.”
“Contact left,” Newman reported, followed a moment later by “neutralized.”
Myrmidon fed Costello a new projection: to Newman’s left was likely the terminus of some kind of line of communication, a jump array or internal train network maybe. Either way, it was a source for new Hunters to enter the fight.
“FIC says enemy transport in grid Golf-Tango-four. Clear it.”
A brief pause, an even briefer storm of gunfire, another brief pause, then an explosion.
”ABBOT, TITAN. Target destroyed.”
“Copy. Advance toward Juliet-Sierra-four, straight line.”
A click-click on the line told him he’d been heard. The destructive sounds that reached his ears slightly afterward told him that, yup, Titan’s team were going in a straight line and be damned to whatever obstacles like, say, walls happened to get in the way.
That was the sort of cycle that played out several times a minute as the three groups of four men collectively forming his team did their work. They were fast, so fast Costello wasn’t even sure that transport back there had managed to catch them by design or just on sheer dumb luck. Still, better to have destroyed it than risk being shot in the ass.
Bigger picture…nothing to worry about. SOUP and ROCKET had their own tasks well in hand. But they could be going more smoothly…
Facilitating which, of course was Abbott’s job. Step by step, brief clash by brief clash, they lanced deeper and deeper into the hive until finally breaking through a wall into a space that clearly wasn’t meant for living things to inhabit. Kind of a crawlspace, except built for a crawler the size of an elephant.
No surprise, the FIC was delighted, and instantly gave him a clear direction. And for once, Costello was happy to agree: this particular crawlspace had no gravity plating, making it about as safe as the interior of a hostile vessel could be.
They were close now. So incredibly close. Unopposed they shot along the zero-G crawlway, sensors strobing out ahead of them alert for field traps and other nastiness, but apparently this was a weak spot the Hunters didn’t or couldn’t fortify.
They did suggest a large space, however, with active G-plating.
The team didn’t slow down as they shot into it, landed running, and violenced everything Hunter-shaped before most of them had even turned to see what the commotion was. The few that lasted that long were dead an instant later.
They all knew what they were there for. Before the last Hunter had even slid nervelessly to the deck, Titan and the Defenders were all over the systems, identifying main power and how to turn it the fuck off.
Bad news, of course, was never far away.
“ABBOT, FIC. Multiple hostile units inbound to your position, coming from Echo-Victor-five, Charlie-Victor-five, Echo-Kilo-six….”
Shit. They were surrounded and hemmed in. How hard? Would he need to call on Stephenson to abandon the slave rescue?
Hopefully not. He had other options. First things first, though: counterattack, hard. Nobody won a defensive fight against Hunters, so as the first scuttling of claws and seethe of fusion blades and hammer of pulse weapons reached his ears, Costello gestured, his men sprang forward to meet the enemy. Something incredibly fast sizzled over Costello’s head and buried itself in the wall in a spray of sparks and debris. He raised his weapon, sighted and dropped the Beta that fired it even while his mouth did its work.
“FIC, ABBOT, need some manpower.”
“Singularity team en route, ABBOTT.” Even as the words reached him, he saw the blink in his HUD map, telling him where they were, and how soon he could expect them. Good. Not great, given the adjacent estimates of enemy strength, but good. All he’d need was a little pressure taken off, and he could set Titan to killing the power.
He found another target, killed it, and threw himself into the fight alongside his men.
And had little time to think of anything else for a long while.
Starship Stray Fortune
Liree was on a leash, of the kind that chilled Dora’s blood.
Here was a rebel. His career had been aimed squarely at some of the most corrupt governments and figures in the galaxy, including the Robalin Supremacy itself. He’d written his worst code to tear open the corporate fronts and puppet foundations that faced the rest of the Dominion and let the Supremacy continue to trade and grow wealthy despite numerous official embargos and punitive measures.
Well, not just them. Liree had been entirely disillusioned with a cowardly galaxy that left Gao to burn, which had never united to tackle the Hunters. He’d never accepted that it wasn’t the Dominion’s fault, that it was hostile influence that had robbed the galaxy’s united species of their collective balls.
He’d been angry. Angry enough to smash the whole system, and his weapon of choice had been some of the most inspired code ever written.
Worse. Slavishly devoted to the Great Father, in a way that was straight-up creepy. She’d tried asking some of the other gaoians about it but all she got was silence and…she didn’t know if they noticed it themselves, but every time the other gaoians looked at Liree, their ears flattened backwards.
Exasperated, she’d resorted to asking Wilde about it. His answer was, if anything, worse.
“Leave it, love. There’s shit about gaoians you don’t wanna know.”
“Even…it’s creepy! Like, he can’t think or say anything bad about him, even in jest. It’s like he’s got no free will!”
“…He kinda doesn’t.”
“Everyone has free will,” Dora protested, fervently.
“Maybe he did once where his feelings about Daar are concerned, but the Gao aren’t like your people and mine, love. They’ve got a whole fuckin’…psychology of loyalty and pack dynamics. Push their buttons the right way and…”
Dora twitched her antennae in a frown. “That’s…”
“You gotta remember, people might be people, but that doesn’t mean we’re all the same at heart, aye? Urgug sees zillions of colors neither of us can, Morwk and the Ten’Gewek have tails, you have a whole extra two limbs over me, plus antennae…”
“You’re strong enough to yank my arms off….”
“Well…yeah,” Ian agreed awkwardly, “but the point is, yeah, there’s certain things about being sapient that apply to everyone, but there’s certain things about your brain and body and instincts that make us all really different deep down, too. Saying ‘everyone has free will’ is a nice sentiment, but…it doesn’t take into account that Liree is an alien to both of us. Deep down, he’s programmed different. They all are.”
Much as Dora wanted to object…the objection was just that she didn’t like that fact, not that she could actually think of anything to prove it wrong. She glanced at Liree again, who was completely lost in his work at this point, his ears up and forward attentively which was a clear sign of a Gao whose attention was wholly on one thing.
“I…” she began.
“Leave it, love,” Ian warned. “Just…leave it.”
Well…okay. Dora didn’t like the implications of an instinct like that one bit, because that was a degree of control the Supremacy’s social scientists would have had wet dreams about. But she dropped the subject.
Still. Absent that particular topic…when she got to talking with him later, Liree seemed normal. Ish. Normalish.
And he loved his work.
“See, we’re never gonna be able to duplicate the performance of an actual datasophont, but that’s ‘cuz dataspace itself is…oh Keeda, I hope I get to study it properly someday. There’s whole horizons of knowledge to be gleaned there! But if you’re stuck inside what we’ve managed with our centuries of legacy code and weird conventions that go right back to, like, Lookis—”
“He was the gaoian scientist who established the electrical convention. Used to prank his cousins by building up a static charge on his fur, then…zap!”
“Of course he did. How long ago was this?”
“Oh…almost nine hundred years, or thereabouts.” Liree chittered. “Anyway, the point is, your drones have everything I need on-board, I just have to make a few adjustments. Wanna help!?”
“Help…how? I don’t know Hunter tech–”
“Literally fuckin’ nobody does! Which is mostly okay ‘cuz mosta what they build is just dominion tech superglued together.”
Liree nodded enthusiastically, his ears flopping over his head. “Right! So…”
Very quickly she found herself struggling to keep up as he enthused at length about…well, about his trade. She followed the general idea that there was some kind of translation technology that let the scavenged stuff work with the Hunter stuff, and that because he was an expert at Dominion cybersecurity that meant he could work his magic to some degree even here, but…
It was just…so at odds with her first impression of him! She decided to ignore Wilde’s advice, and just ask.
“Right, so. I’ve learned a lot today. Thank you! But there’s one more thing I’m curious about.”
“Oh?” He was busy copying files off a portable drive straight into her drone’s brains, and then adding a few lines of code to read them, but somehow with the energy of being flat on his back under a vehicle with a wrench in hand.
“What…what’s the deal with you and Daar?”
He went silent for a long moment. Ears flicked back as flat as they go.
“…I’ll only say once, and after that I’d like it if you never brought it up again.”
He took a deep breath. “I met the living god of my people. Rather than destroy me, he spared my life and freed me from the consequences of my crimes. Then he made me his, forever. And now he is mine, too.”
“Forever…? I mean, I’ve met him and he’s friendly and all—”
“You haven’t met him. Who you met is Daar. I met the Great Father.” There was a shaky fervor in his voice. “He spared me, he called me to follow him. I did and he took me. I love him now, and he loves me. And it cannot ever be otherwise.”
And…that was the end of the conversation.
…Well, she knew to listen to Wilde now. So there was that. Well done, Dora, you learned something you already knew. Idiot.
Thank fuck the team arrived to fill the awkward silence. ‘Horse frowned at the drones as he clunk-clanged his way across the deck. “Aren’t you ready yet? We don’t got time to piss around.”
Liree twitched his head affirmatively. “I only need to finish this one.”
‘Horse nodded, then padded his way over to his gear. “S’cool. Vemik! Last checks!”
That time his footsteps were silent, even if the deck did undulate under his weight. Why…
Deathworlders were so fucking weird.
Also silent was Vemik and the rest of the ten’gewek. They were always silent, though. They moved and behaved exactly like predators because that’s exactly what they were. Humans only sometimes remembered that. The rest of the time they were some other kind of intense.
Liree settled in to the little nest of monitors, touchscreens and comfortable seating he’d set up at the back of the drone hangar. Dora still wasn’t really happy about handing control of the drones over to him—they were her babies—but well. Orders.
And more to the point, orders from people she trusted. She did a pre-flight check of her own just in case the slightly manic gaoian had missed or disrupted anything, found nothing, and returned to her own control blister to count the minutes til go time.
It came quickly. Her own drones were maintaining a perimeter, serving as warp-canceling emitters to keep their gravimetric signature below detection levels. It was precision work, but mostly easy; her role right now was to monitor.
Liree was fully switched-on and focused. She snatched looks at him on occasion, when duties permitted. The launch was away, slowly making its way toward the Hunter installation…
Intuition hit her. Suddenly, looking at Liree, the fervent devotion in all he did…she remembered some things she’d read, long ago. Put the pieces together. She understood.
Alien, and unspeakable. So strange she didn’t know what to think about it.
And she knew nothing but pity.
Ekallim-Igigi, New Uruk system
Alex, prince of Ekallim-Igigi
How long since he’d last set foot on Ekallim-Igigi? Several months at least. He hadn’t been avoiding it exactly, but there was just so much galaxy to see. So much Earth to see!
And college. There was that too.
But now, he was back home, serving as regent for the moment. He was in charge, absolutely, until father came back and assumed the throne.
And there was a non-zero chance father wouldn’t come back. Gilgamesh had been quite clear on that point: this was a battle, the kind of battle that kings like him needed to lead in. Which meant it was the kind of battle that kings like him might die in.
Alex…doubted today would be his father’s end. But he wasn’t so brash as to ignore the possibility, either.
He was on a video conference with the great leaders of the deathworlders right now. The Great Father, Presidents, Prime Ministers. The King, too. None were actively talking, simply…drinking it all in. The situation was very fluid.
And divided. The allied species had their attention on more than one thing today, though Alex had only recently received the full briefings.
A vengeance machine. This was a serious enough concern that the other leaders were all in secure transport or locations. That seemed maybe a bit paranoid, given the system shield around Earth…
But that probably meant it was wise.
Ekallim-Igigi of course was mobile, albeit rather confined at the moment thanks to the Hierarchy’s constant attentions. Whatever that Hunter machine did, they would most probably be able to avoid it. So, Alex wasn’t overly worried for himself or his people.
But still. Father was committed. The Great Father was not. That was telling.
So…be a king.
“Daar, what do you make of the situation right now?”
Daar was armored up. The suit framed his jaw and covered the top of his head, which obscured his ears and made reading his mood more challenging, but still Alex’s impression was of serious, focused calm.
“Few years ago we’da cut through this swarm like a fart in a monastery…” he rumbled. “Them new weapons slow us down. If we didn’t have the Entity to soak up the worst of it…”
Alex nodded seriously. It was still an open question among Singularity’s analysts where exactly the Hunters had got their claws on those disruptors. One last little bit of collaboration with the Hierarchy? Or were they more intelligent than anyone gave them credit for?
Either way, they’d transformed this fight. The Allies had to ride a fine knife-edge. If they won, it would be because the shields and formations held: History would remember this battle by the numbers to have been a one-sided thrashing.
If they lost, they’d all die in seconds. All or nothing.
“I don’t like the odds. And I suspect you’re worrying about something else, too.”
The Great Father looked at the camera directly, baleful harvest-moon eyes staring him down.
“…I got a bad feelin’ bout this vengeance engine thing. We been watchin’ it git built ‘fer a while an’ there’s more to it than bein’ a big fancy shield-mirror.”
“Why hit it now? Why not earlier?”
“We weren’t ready. It woulda just resulted in the same battle we’re seein’ right now. And then they’da just built it again somewhere else. Sometimes, ‘ya just gotta let ‘yer enemy dig a hole.”
Alex nodded his understanding, and thought of his Beowulf, half a mile away down in the royal hangar, or its larger cousin the Hamilton, nearly complete in anticipation of his eighteenth birthday.
Daar was a fuckin’ mind reader. “Don’t, young king. ‘Yer gonna git ‘yer shot at glory soon enough. So: why ain’t I bloody an’ fightin’? That’s what ‘ya really wanna ask, right?”
“‘Cuz my gut tells me I’m gonna be called to task here pretty soon. Don’t spend ‘yer biggest piece unless you know it’ll win. And the king is always the biggest piece, even if he ain’t the most effective. Never ‘ferget that.”
A lesson Alex had learned playing Stratagem against Leifini of course…but he nodded understanding, and didn’t comment that in Daar’s case, the king likely was the most effective piece. In any case, his father was committed to the hive front. Odd to think of his father as the “queen” in this particular game but…it fit nonetheless.
Daar lapsed back into alert, watchful silence and Alex did the same. None of the others had spoken, though he could see them occasionally turning to converse with an advisor or something outside the view of their cameras. They of course were from bigger nations, had larger populations, and those populations were not entirely war-focused.
Singularity existed for this war. Alex’s people were busy supporting the battle in many ways, from the front-lines of the naval battle to alongside the HEAT, to a few sneaking around with JETS to infiltrate Hierarchy assets. He doubted any crisis would rise to his attention through all this. Which was a good thing, he reminded himself. Far better not to have distractions.
Though something in the back of his mind rather wanted one anyway.
He ignored it, and paid attention, and watched. There was much to be learned.
And Daar was right. His time would come too.
Warhorse There was plenty evidence of a lotta stuff suddenly leaving, but the focusing array wasn’t abandoned or vacant, oh no. In fact, there was a lot of busy activity around one end where its disk-shaped hull had a big bite taken out of it that was still ragged with structural beams and sparkly with welding.
It wasn’t quite complete…but Adam was pretty sure it was complete enough.
Hoeff grunted, and spat his chewing gum out into the trash can. It had taken four years, but Claire had somehow persuaded him to quit the dip. With that done, he maneuvered the face shield onto his helmet: the nanotech seal around the edge flashed with a faint yellow light as it melded two distinct components together into one single piece. “Well. Reckon this is gonna be fun…”
“Not as much as it woulda been without a big distraction half a galaxy away,” Adam replied. “Should be all builders and a few bottom-feeding omegas in there right now. We’ll go through ‘em like Taco Bell.”
“And if there is an Alpha on board, well…payback time, huh?” Hoeff’s face shield was gold plated on the outside, so the shadowy vision of his face behind it was hard to see, but Adam could feel him grinning…and felt the same grin on his own face.
“Heh! Yeah. Doubt they thought they’d ever see me again.” He looked around at the rest of the team. Visors sealed, shields, weapons charged. The Wrecking Crew was ready to live up to its name.
He put his own mask on. Saw Hoeff watch it seal and give the nod of approval. Suit diagnostics were all happy, so he grabbed his weapon, loaded and charged it, looked up at the mission clock.
They strapped in. Dora and Liree sealed the boarding launch up behind them, and there Adam was. A metal coffin about the size of a standard shipping container, except with a bit of a raked prow and fusion cutters around it to slice their way deep through the enemy hull.
And engines that’d make a fighter pilot black out. But that was okay. Adam and his crew could take some insane gees. Which was good, it freed up energy for the ship and allowed it to maneuver as aggressively as possible.
The last step was a cloud of Dora’s drones, all of them a much bigger and scarier signature than their little launch. Stray Fortune was a small fleet all by herself, and the moment she popped up on sensors and started getting noisy, the Hunters bit.
The drones peeled off, intercepted. A few of them splashed violently as point defense weapons on the station’s surface zeroed them, but not a bit of it was felt inside the assault launch.
The moment they made contact with the hull, though? They felt that alright. Those fusion cutters made the difference between bug-meets-windshielding and plunging deep into the station’s hide like a thrown spear, but they sure didn’t make it comfortable.
There was an extra crunch as the assault launch found some internal cavity and lodged in it with a jolt. The seats released them, the front of the launch popped off in a series of small blasts designed to send a haul of shrapnel and punishing noise into anyone or anything that thought to shoot its occupants…
Warhorse was out before the shrapnel had even stopped bouncing. There were dead Hunters, torn to bits, nothing to shoot. Garaaf vanished away in front of him like an eel wriggling away into murky water.
Liree’s voice in his ear. “Station network found. Breaching.”
Good shit. Meanwhile, ‘Horse was for the first time in far too long doing what made him the best there was. He wasn’t the biggest or the strongest anymore. He wasn’t the most skilled ninja or the wisest tactician. Wasn’t the fastest, wasn’t the toughest. Might not ever be those things again either, which was some hard facts of life for a guy like him. But he was still a top-tier operator in all those things at the same time, and he had something nobody else did.
He had unbreakable will. Not Righteous, who was nowadays leagues better in every other way. Anyone else on HEAT? Nah. Good guys all, but none of them had died, lost everything twice, then rebuilt from scratch out of fuckin’ spite. He may well one day best ‘em all again at everything too, as was right and just. Not even Daar himself was so single-minded and determined. Nobody had ‘Horse’s commitment, had his murderous dedication to purpose. Everything on this station was gonna fuckin’ die. No exceptions. They were gonna die by his hand or otherwise, and that was all there was to it. Warhorse was death.
And death wanted to play.
Builders and Omegas. Fuckin’ cannon fodder at best. Often he didn’t even bother to service them if they were in his way. He just kept moving, and they died from his speed, his strength, or under his weight. Their weapons sucked. Didn’t even tickle the armor. Too slow, too puny.
Betas were a bit more interesting. ‘Horse kept a bit more distance with them, but even they were mostly just mildly interesting bits of meat to tear apart.
They didn’t see an Alpha, yet. But that was the fuckin’ problem with Alphas. You didn’t see ‘em until suddenly there was a fuckin’ tank with legs and claws in your face.
Gravity traps? Field traps? Liree claimed ‘em. ‘Horse took a lot of satisfaction in watching one of the field traps tear apart a dozen Omegas before shorting out. Even more satisfaction when they turned a corner to find the pack of Betas that’d been coming for ‘em all broken and burst at the end of a long fall that, for the Wrecking Crew, was a nice easy walk down main street.
And then they hit something that shouldn’t have been there: a second, inner hull. They were a few hundred meters deep now, and the fuckin’ thing loomed up in front like a solid black plate. Slashing at it with a fusion blade didn’t work, and their cutting charges blasted the shit out of the room without leaving more than a silvery scratch on the metal’s dark surface.
The Hunters didn’t fucking stop, neither. Din’t seem to matter how many they killed, there were always a few…more…
The amber light at the very top of his vision blinked on: active hostile wormhole suppression. Half a second later, a red triangle in his HUD picked out the source. Sources. Some of them thousands of kilometers away outside this station, but one of them right here on board.
Oh, you sneaky motherfucker.
They’d been lured in. Kept on the hook with just enough opposition to force them to keep pushing, keep expanding the perimeter, never give them the peaceful second they needed to set up the bomb, and now here they were.
Well. No standing around. Everybody knew the score, and shifted as one. The violence continued, changed direction, had a new focus.
And now the actual fight started.
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
“My father, we just lost the link to Stray Fortune.”
“No time, then. Redeploy the Fury and her support craft. We go in snarlin’ an’ hit as fast as we can. And call in th’ reserves.” This was the ripe moment for maximum escalation, and things at the hive engagement seemed stable enough.
Daar sealed his helmet as the deck jolted softly under his paws, and in one instant they flashed from the relative tranquility of the back line, to the very heart of a storm.
And right there at the very center of it was the Stray Fortune. What a ship! Amazing what you could do with a stock freighter and a few billion moneys. You could cut the necessary crew down to a handful, give it enough drone firepower to serve as a small fleet in its own right…she was no frontline dedicated warship, but Keeda’s nuts she could work miracles when she had to.
Even if the miracle was just surviving. Timing was perfect too, wormhole suppression went up just before Fury arrived, and hasn’t quite stabilized before they’d finished their jump. They slipped in by a nuthair, that’s for sure!
“Get ‘er safe! Kill those suppressors! Boarding parties, with me!”
Today, the Fury was finally being used for its true purpose: shoving all of First Fang right down the Hunters’ diseased throats.
And Unseen help him, Daar was gonna claw out their heart.
Pounce down through the two extra-large accessways, into the launch boarding room. Suit biolab cranking his everything way up. Always a weird sensation when it hit, doubly so when he weren’t takin’ his time. But by the time he reached where he was goin’…long training and acclimatization had him maximally amped up. First Fang were already saddled up, crammed tight into their flights. Some of them were still riding the dragon, he could tell.
Daar filled his launch. Room enough for two runners beside him, just about. The clang and shunt of the hatch closing, the whine of engines…then flight. A short, pounding flight that got Daar grinning inside his helmet as the G-forces crushed and pulled at him. His blood was up and racing as they punched into the focuser’s outer hull, burned through it, spilled out inside.
Comms net propagated the second he was out. “‘Horse, Tigger. What’chu need dead?”
“Tigger, ‘Horse. Ten Hunter betas are harassing our left flank with cloak and drones. Prob’ly an alpha too.”
Tactical situation updated on his HUD. Just…damn. That’s a lotta meat.
“On it.” He switched over to his tactical net. “Grillsteak, target rich environment. Make me fuckin’ proud.”
Double-flash of acknowledgement, and Daar was on his way. He was running at his pace so of course, his runners were clipped in and hanging on—nothing could match his speed.
A beta got in his way. Daar hit it like a water balloon full of chunky salsa and scrap metal, left it all over the walls, didn’t even break stride. Fuck that felt good. Didn’t even interrupt his call to Stoneback’s newish Champion. “My Father?”
“Kodiak, re-prioritize ‘fer the Vengeance Engine. I got a bad feeling ‘bout this.”
“Will do. I’ll send Huck in just as soon—”
Everything else was lost in a sudden horrible garbled squawk, at the same time Daar’s HUD populated itself with lots of angry indicators. Loss of contact to th’ Fury—
A command flew to his lips on pure instinct. “Warp beacons out now! Megalight and get clearance!”
He heard no confirmation. Something close by hit hard enough to send a resounding tremor through the deck, and Daar watched as his suit lost contact with every one of his ships, including the Fortune.
Welp. It was about the kinda trap he was expectin’. Only one real way this shit ended.
Time to show ‘em what happened to anyone dumb enough ‘ta do that to him an’ his bestest. Claws out, eyes forward…
“Helm to one-oh-eight, get us behind that friendly wall. Shields to cooling mode, drones support our friends.”
Ian breathed again as the Fortune plunged through the Fury’s shield wall and into the comparatively safe volume beyond where she could recover from the battering they’d just weathered—
There was a terrible, brilliant flash so bright it was agony. Ian flinched and covered his face in the instant before the bridge windows opaqued, then blinked desperately to try and clear the huge black blob in the middle of his vision.
Fear leapt down his spine. Fuck, not my good eye too…
It cleared, thank fuck.
“What was that?!”
Urgug was on the floor with his hands over his eyes, facial tentacles lashing and his chromatophores blazing pained red. Moj’s elytra were humming as he wiped desperately at his face. Ian grunted and checked his own console, hoping they were both okay, but he needed to know what was going on—
There was a smear of superheated metallic plasma where the Destroying Fury had been.
…Welp. He had one priority. His ship and crew came first so he glanced at the sensor field—
…Where was the Vengeance Engine?
He froze for a second as he remembered how to change sensor modes, tapped through (since he didn’t remember the quick code) to find the gravimetric…They’d jumped out. Destination unknown…with the Great Father and the Wrecking Crew on board.
“…Oh, you sneaky motherfucker.”
He grabbed his tablet. They needed to know where it had gone, and fast. Of course, now the Hunters had a battalion of HEAT-grade Stonebacks all up in their shit, so…see how that worked out for them. But if they decided to self-destruct or some shit…
He hadn’t even finished writing the flash message when he got one coming back, from the Near-Sol Deep Space Monitoring System.
T O P S E C R E T SKYKING SIOP DEEP RELIC REL FVEY GAO IDA BT SUBJ/SKYKING EAM - DEEP SPACE NETWORK// THIS IS A FLASH MESSAGE -- FLASH FLASH FLASH -- THIS IS A FLASH MESSAGE ACTION ITEMS: -- SKYKING authority is activated -- DEFCON 2 -- AEC to implement SIOP-DEEP RELIC AUTOMATED REPORT: Hunter jump-flash within Sol neighborhood. -- Coordinates indicate close-stellar orbit, Alpha Centauri A. -- Object mass in station/superstructure range. -- Ongoing gravimetric disturbance post-jump.
Well, that mystery was resolved right fuckin’ quick. Shit. Four and a half lightyears from Earth? Ian didn’t know exactly what the Alpha-of-Alphas had planned, but the gobshite wasn’t getting away with it if he had any say over the outcome.
He couldn’t raise Daar. But he could raise the next best thing: Champion Thurrsto. Who looked decidedly unhappy on Ian’s screen.
“Talk to me. We just lost the signal from Destroying Fury, and I can’t reach My Father.”
“The Fury’s destroyed. The assault launches fired first though. Far as I can tell, he’s aboard the Vengeance Engine—”
“We need to reestablish contact. Jump to Sol, send a megalight ahead of you to Alpha Centauri. I’ll handle the clearances. AEC just went to DEFCON 2 over this and so shall we.”
“Rog.” Ian switched over to internal net. “Dora, full drone recall, prep a megalight with coordinates for Alpha Centauri A. Morwk, spool up the jump drive. Moj—status?”
“Can fly,” Moj called over his shoulder. “Pluto beacon queued.”
“Right.” Ian glanced at Urgug who was still blinking furiously, his flanks rippling a medley of miserable color. “Bruuk! We need a medic up—oh,” he said, right as Bruuk thundered in on all fours, pack on his back. “We had, uh…extremely bright flash of light?”
Bruuk shivered. “Right. Fixable but it’s awful.” He padded over to Urgug. “Hey, buddy? I’mma gonna give ‘ya somethin’ and it’ll knock you completely out, ‘kay?”
He didn’t wait for the reply: his injector made a hefty chunk noise as he applied it to the side of Urgug’s throat, and the big guy’s chromatophores went dim almost immediately. Once that was done, he opened up his pack, fetched something from a small, specialized pouch…
“What you gonna do?”
“Common ailment among ‘em. Their eyes are hyper-sensitive and overexposure can cause them full-body harm. So I gotta inject this into his eyeballs. He’ll be fine pretty quick, promise.”
Well, far be it for Ian of all people to get squeamish about eye trauma. He nodded, glanced back down at his panel, saw that the beacon was queued, the drive charged, and the last of Dora’s drones had just slammed back into its cradle. “Green for jump, Moj.”
There was a black-flash, and the light of the star outside vanished. In its place, the dimly lit curve of Sol’s most famous dwarf planet loomed in the bridge’s window, just outside the system containment shield. Ahead of them, open sky.
The hull shivered as their drone sizzled out of its tube and flashed away into interstellar space at incomprehensible speeds. Relative travel time: just under three minutes.
Fast. Damn fast. Fast enough?
It had fucking better be.
Continuity bunker, undisclosed location
FLASH message traffic was never a good thing. There had been quite a lot of it today.
And it was all worrisome. Looked like they were gonna be there a while. That being the case, and them being as safe as it was possible to be, he did two things. First, shucked his armor and made sure his Marines stood down too, the way they knew best. He changed into something comfortable—tank top and some nice cotton gym shorts—and went to do his second duty.
Calm everyone down. Mostly, this meant the children.
And most of all it meant dealing with a five-year-old monster of a cub that nobody else could handle. Daryuk, apparently, and like Daar he was a miracle—a fully-dominant sixth degree. No medical maladies, either. He’d made it through the dangers of early cubhood without a mark, if you didn’t count the fact he had to wear a backpack full of specially formulated food all the time. His body was trying so incredibly hard to grow that it didn’t know how to take its time, and if he was any kind of active—which he always was—then normal food just would not cut it.
He was already about five-foot-seven and built like a tank too, more or less how Alex had been when they first met—bigger even, and Alex had been hench enough to pin Hoeff to the grass aboard Ekallim-Igigi. Daryuk he had exactly the kind of nervous bravado any big scared boy would have, too. Normally the Marines would have loved to play with the monster-sized cub but right now…
Right now he was just an agitated, overwhelming handful. Fortunately, years of cavemonkey wrangling taught Julian just what to do. So many problems could be solved by hugs, really.
Especially spine-shattering bearhugs, while pinning your cuddle target to the floor, with legs and arms thoroughly locked up. Not perfectly safe when your opponent had claws but…
“That’s three in a row, little buddy. You wanna keep going? ‘Cuz I ain’t tired yet…”
Daryuk was panting pretty hard, and chittered in that special resigned playful growl the cubs always used for this. His fur was already going brown, too. Pretty early, apparently.
“Fine, you win…”
“You gonna stop being a terror and listen to your Mothers?”
“I always listen! I mean…” he caught himself in a fib, and flicked his ears back. “I try.”
“Heh,” Julian helped Daryuk up—surprisingly heavy little fella, again like pre-teen Alex had been—and plopped him on his rear. “I know it’s frustrating, but we’re going to be down here a while. You find it hard to concentrate, right? You tell ‘em so in those words, and they’ll understand. Yijao?”
“Good. Now go play with the other cubs, okay?”
“Can I play with you instead? Everyone else is breakable.”
“Ha! I’d love to, little man—” Daryuk preened at that. “But I’ve got ambassador stuff to do first.”
“…Are we gonna lose?”
And this was where mentoring Gao got tricky. Actually, human kids were good at seeing through bullshit too, but they didn’t literally have a lie detector built into their faces. Honesty was the only policy, with kids.
“Truth be told, I don’t even know enough about what’s going on, that’s why I gotta go do ambassador stuff and find out…but I doubt it. We’ve done so much to prepare for this, and we’ve got heroes on our side. We’ve done the impossible a few times over, and we can do it again. So, no. I don’t think we’re gonna lose. I think we’re gonna win.”
And that, for a five-year-old Gaoian, was good enough. He duck-nodded happily, shouldered his backpack, and charged away to go burn off some more of that limitless energy playing throw-and-pounce.
A gentle warm weight draped over Julian’s back, and a kiss tickled his ear: Xiù. “Good speech.”
“From the heart.”
“Always,” she squeezed him, then got serious. “What does DEFCON TWO mean for us here?”
“Means we stay put.”
“Same as before, then.” She sighed and looked around. “…You know, there are times I really miss your house in Minnesota. Is that weird? We went on this whole journey with Misfit and stuff because none of us were happy just sitting around on Earth, and it led us here and I wouldn’t take back a second of it, but…”
He turned at the waist and bundled her up into his arms. She felt so small and soft in his embrace these days…
He could get used to that.
“I miss it too.” He kissed the top of her head, and they held for a long moment.
But duty called for both of them. There was a war on.
Alpha of Alphas
Their intelligence on the HEAT was sorely lacking. All its projections had tremendously underestimated their capability, even anticipating wild improvement. Had underestimated much about the foe before them.
The Prophets of the Hunt were not mere Prophets. Invading its very body were the Priests of the one true Belief. The apex predators. The hunters. Prey-takers.
The Alpha-of-Alphas had given plenty of thought to how this clash might go. It had gone over the last transmissions of those Alphas it lost on the conquered worlds, had reviewed their performances and their deaths for every last datum, and it had drawn a difficult conclusion: A Hunter could replace every cell of its body, be reduced to a brain deep in the armored core of a heavy-duty war machine, could be armed with the most devastating weapons and limbs that could smash a building to rubble, and still lose…
Because the personality inside, fundamentally, did not grasp the truth these deathworlders embodied.
Nor could they. Failure was a step down to a lower tier, or demise. Those that rose to the very apex of Hunter society did so by succeeding, again and again, every time. An Alpha had never failed once in its entire life.
Until the moment it did, and died.
And corpses learned nothing from defeat. Only the Alpha-of-Alphas, detached as it was from the personal danger, had enjoyed the luxury of analyzing its failures, and growing from them. Out of all the Hunters, only the Alpha-of-Alphas knew that the secret to success was constant defeat.
How often had these humans been defeated? How many times had their bodies broken, their minds frayed, their triumph torn away just before they could grasp it? How many times had they been beaten down only to learn and rise again?
Every day, perhaps. Every day for years. From the very moment they were selected for the Priesthood. And what had it forged them into? They and their allies?
Super-beings. Unstoppable hunters and killers. Killers whose motivation wasn’t even to be found in the holy glory of the hunt. They hunted because they were told to do so, and because they could. They were at once the holiest embodiment of everything the Hunters believed in…and the most terrible…what was the word?
They couldn’t be suffered to live. It directed its reserve Alphas, the ones who had performed well enough to merit full body replacements. All had combat forms second only to the Alpha-of-Alphas itself. It was a delay tactic, only; the Hive was lost, it already knew that. That was a wound, one the Hunters might not ever have recovered from, even if survival and recovery were the objectives any longer. The High Priest of the Deathworlders would find it. They would contest with the fullness of their beings. It was a virtual certainty he would kill it in holy combat. The Alpha-of-Alphas would taste the cruelty and brutality of death.
Holy was he who would defeat it.
But aboard the Redemption Device was a prize above all others. The pinnacle of Deathworlder life, an organic being of unfathomable power: the Alpha-of-Gao, Alpha-of-Deathworlders. And at his side was the messiah, a warrior that had been slain by a favored alpha, yet had been brought back from death, more powerful and deadly than ever.
The three holiest prophets of the Hunt, all in his grasp. Should it attempt to capture them?
Yes, though it knew the attempts would fail. Merely aspiring to best them was itself a sanctifying act. Yet it mattered not; there would be no victors in this fight. How ironically their efforts would fail; how noble would their defeat be for them!
Briefly, it considered how profoundly their mere existence had changed everything. Even now, merely describing them required using concepts and ideas the Hunters had never had or, perhaps, had long forgotten. High Priest. Prophet. Messiah. Sacred. Holy.
Trinity. A truly powerful word, that. Many meanings there, that the Alpha-of-Alphas had only begun to understand. The prophets gave the Universe many absent concepts that made the…the soul, whatever it was, sing and thrill. The very knowledge of them made the Alpha-of-Alphas feel like it had not truly been alive prior to learning them.
The Hunters had not lived for uncountable years. They all understood, now. Understood, and were grateful for revelation. Perhaps, then, this final battle was a gift by the prophets. Here at the end, perhaps the Hunters could blaze brightly. Perhaps, if they were bright enough, they might live.
Or at least they could die enlightened, and fulfilled.
It pulsed that thought out into the shared network, delivered it to the brain of every Hunter in the fight from the lowliest Omega to the most favored Alpha. Felt their gratitude and delight echo back into its own mind. Felt the swarm sing even as they died.
Win or lose, this was a holy moment. But it was only holy because the Hunters were fighting to win, even now. Because the Sacred demanded nothing less than this.
So, then. It sprang the trap. The trap succeeded. It had a chance to claw out a victory. And for the first time in several minutes, the Redemption Device’s systems were clean of that meddling hacker’s influence. It had control. One last gift to the Deathworlders, and the sacrifice of its race.
It ordered the weapon to fire.
Commnet was still silent: no ships outside in support, no real-time analysis from the FIC. It was like water in his ears, partially deafening him. So many of his HUD’s features were stubbornly displaying offline. Thank fuck some of the most important ones were local to the suit: like the gravimetric sensor telling him the long hall in front of him was shifting through a meat-grinder sequence of heavy shifts. The Hunters had control of their network back.
No matter. All that would be fixed in minutes, they just had to get around the impenetrable inner hull and take out that suppression field generator.
“Friendly on your left.”
Something huge and terrifying forced its way through a wall in a threshing blur of claws and murder. Daar flowed through the gap, reared up on his hind paws, and the fucking autocannon he called his rifle smashed the G-plating all down that hallway with one burst.
“Fuck, that’s a neat trick.” Horse boosted himself into the now safe freefall zone ahead, his own GR-7D leading the way.
“Makes me the life’a all the parties.” Daar stuck to the walls, as he usually did when playing Gravball. All the better to launch himself off them at whatever showed its face.
“‘Fore my HUD went out, we were about to regroup on the other side of this hall.”
“Good, ‘cuz whatever this place is, it’s more’n a fuckin’ solar lens. It’s—”
There was a noise like the whole station was a bell, and somebody’d just rung it; Adam gritted his teeth and forced himself to focus even though he could feel a new rumble in the structure through his glove, and after a second could hear it too. Low. Tectonic, even. But with a growing quality he didn’t like one bit.
“We’re movin’ way too fuckin’ slow,” Daar decided.
Adam took a precious second to drink a full mouthful of lime violation, nodding in agreement. They had a whole fuckin’ batallion of First Fang alongside them, but the Hunters here were…fuck. Part of the trap must have been packing their very best of the very best in around this station’s important bits, and not showing them until after the trap was sprung. He hadn’t seen a basic builder or Omega in minutes.
Progress had slowed, badly. All part of the fuckin’ plan, no doubt.
Well, the objective remained unchanged. Just gotta do it more, now. He chugged another mouthful, tore open another wall, gunned down the waiting Hunter on the other side while Daar killed two more by just grabbing them and smashing them together.
Splash. Fuck yeah. The eggs inside were crushed flat as a pancake between his paws, and he hadn’t even really been trying. Always good fightin’ with the big guy.
On to the next one. But Adam knew for certain there was gonna be an Alpha soon. And the doctors had been very, very clear on one thing for him: No more nervejam. Ever.
True for Daar too, though not because his brain was fried over-easy. No. He was far too important. So, the two of them did what leaders had always had to do, always chafed against.
“Chimp, Advance your Wrecking Crew. Objective is as far down there as you can manage.”
Daar nodded. “First Fang! Fall in behind! We wedge forward and smash this shit open!”
Adam’s instincts hated stepping back. But he wasn’t stepping out, either. He was taking up a supporting position, where a medic would be most needed. Daar too, because clear thinking was important—
The huge noise coming from deep inside the structure changed. Some new system coming online? Fuck alone knew. Not dead yet, though.
Sergeant Hunter (“Gonzo”) Thompson
Slave pens. However bad slavery had ever got in human history, at least they’d never doubled as a fuckin’ cookie jar.
The hive’s slave pens were like some nightmarish mashup of a cattle market and Alcatraz. A big central well, lots of big holding cages with the slaves penned in like battery hens. There wasn’t a single one staring out between the bars who didn’t have bruises, open wounds, bald patches, sores.
And a lot of ‘em were so fuckin’ broken they didn’t even recognize they were being rescued.
Hunter was the NCO in charge of his little raiding team, and far and away the biggest, strongest, and fastest of them. His team puzzled at first how to free the prisoners…ugh, young guys. Not thinking properly caveman yet! They’d grown up too fast, gained their initial strength too easily with modern spacemagic. So, Hunter showed them what to do.
He pulled the bars apart like wet rope and ripped the doors right off the fuckin’ wall. Not completely easy but shit, he could do this all fuckin’ day. There were some fuckin’ advantages to being built big enough to shame a Percheron, it turned out.
He ran ahead, ripping off door after door after door, tossing them over his shoulder as he went. It was all the rest of his team could to do deal with the prisoners and keep up.
He reached the end of the row and went back to fetch the team. He loved ‘em, really. He was big bro to them and half of them were his old Marine buddies from when he first got to Cimbrean. Turned out they had the right stuff for the job! Most of the rest had made it to JETS too. Fuck yeah! It was really only Sergeant Lang who couldn’t hack it, but…well, nothin’ wrong with that. He’d moved on to some pretty boss civilian contractor shit anyway.
“C’mon you fuckin’ pussies! We got like ten more floors to go!”
Bedlam all around him as the jump arrays got set up and panicky, terrified slaves, lots of ‘em doubtful whether they’d ever had any kind of education at all, were herded on and evacuated to an aid station…wherever. Gonzo didn’t know where.
“Jesus, Gonzo! You’re…gonna…fuckin’…”
“Naw. That’s ‘fer after.”
He charged up the stairs while his men dutifully followed behind, a bit winded but nowhere near ready to give in. They were the newest HEAT operators and Hunter had been taken off team two to lead and train these guys. Him and the LT of course. Not a bad deal, actually.
Enemy opposition had been light. Guess they didn’t think the slave pens were worth defending. Which they probably weren’t, next to main engineering and the command center. Just a handful of bottom-feeders, and Gonzo could break them in his fuckin’ sleep.
Honestly felt fuckin’ good to be the big guy on-team for once. Which he was anyway, but he was perpetually behind Righteous and fuckin’ Grodd and a few others when it came to full-spectrum superman stuff. He never stopped getting better but neither had they, which…
Well, the better to murder greasy Hunters with, really. Or rescue slaves.
Good enough for him. He pounded up another flight of steps, denting each one as he went, crunched off a wall, tore a cage gate out of its frame then threw it at a Hunter with enough force to reduce the ugly shit to hamburger. Parkour-vaulted clean across the central well, peeled open the opposite cage, then up the next flight of stairs. Drilled a Beta right in its central eye, turned, grabbed the wrist as a second one tried to slash him with its fusion claws, yanked its arm off and filleted the fucker with its own weapon.
God, there was no rush as good as this! Doin’ what he was meant to do.
Crash up more stairs, tear open more Hunters and more cages…and then no targets. “Clear!”
The shout from the others was the same: “Clear!” They’d emptied the slave pens of hostiles.
And…he had to admit it. They may still be baby Beefs, but their years of experience doin’ their Marine thing meant they sure as fuck knew what they were doing.
‘Course, that didn’t mean they stopped, no. Next step was getting all these slaves safely off the Hive. Hundreds and hundreds of ‘em, all panicky and emotional and undisciplined. That was gonna take a minute even with all those jump arrays, so Gonzo’s job was to expand the perimeter. The more territory they controlled, the safer the rescued slaves were while they evac’d.
Had to take the descent careful, though. Didn’t wanna land on somebody and splatter ‘em. He slurped on his energy drink—Raspberry, because fuck the lime cum flavor no matter what anyone said—did a tactical reload, pissed a mighty piss (be drinking that again in a few minutes, once the recycler was done) and, that being the closest thing to a break he was gonna get, he plunged on into the mayhem.
Behind him, the arrays banged out the beat of freedom.
Christian (“Righteous”) Firth
Fuckin’ shit. One Alpha had given ‘Horse the fight of his life, and now Firth’s team were up against three. And they weren’t dumbfucks, neither. These ones were the canny survivors, the ones with the brains to fight smart. The ones that knew every kind of evil trick their war bodies could pull, had the wits to think on the fly, and worked together.
But that was the thing. They were definitely better…but ol’ Firth was much better. Right now it was their tactics and intelligence that was keepin’ them safe. Up close he’d smash ‘em all…
“Boss!” He had a quick lil’ chin-waggle behind cover. “We need this fuckin’ suppressing fire gone!”
Campbell’s helmet, with the soup can decal on the side, nodded affirmatively. “Workin’ on it,” he confirmed. Firth listened over the command radio and right now, the task was to flank the Hunters through the walls if he could. Team o’ Singularity was on the way, approaching slowly…
Apparently they had their own Alpha problem to deal with. Fuck, was every Alpha the Hunters had left here?
Well…that’d make sense.
Alright. Fuck it. Time to test how good all these tons of tank armor really were. He gave Campbell a Look, who nodded grimly. Hit up his suit biolab for an extra kick, gave it a moment to take effect. Booster dose of the anti-nervejam made his teeth tingle, Crude pre-dose made his heart punch the inside of his chest…and then the good shit hit.
Gestures and such to the team. They all knew what he was gonna do.
Over he went.
Shit. Time seemed to slow. Every step he took smashed. Jink this way, jink that way. Gun hammered his shoulder, sparked off an invisible Alpha, made it flinch, spoiled its aim. Twisted his torso and a round dinged off his chestplate.
Dive, bounce, toss a big piece o’ somethin’ at ‘em. Explode up an’ get the Alphas firin’ across each other.
Spread of nervejam. Forward, over and past them. Swatted one toward an Alpha as he did. It backpedaled through a wall. Suit tracked it as it tried to circle under. Gonna come up from under the floor in a second.
Second round skipped off the plating on his arm, hand snapped out and crunched it. Turned, slashed with his fusion knife. Hunter’s cloak broke as part of its arm came off.
Nervejam at close range. It went off—
Well, that new coating did the trick. It and prob’ly the drugs. Either way he was moving too fast to feel anything and he din’t lose any concentration so—
The Hunters noticed that shit. And now he got his hands on an actual fuckin’ Alpha.
So he tore its body apart. By hand. And by God it was fuckin’ beautiful. He din’t take his time or nothin’ but sweet Jesus he could murder these fucks all day long…
Rest of the team piled on a storm of bullets on the one with a broken cloak. It dragged its damaged arm up to shield its head as its legs smashed and buckled under it, then Base was on it with a roar and pulling its head off.
The third one came back up from under the floor, maw gaping wide to take a big bite outta Firth. Not necessarily that it could actually manage that shit but instincts were instincts. Sheer fuckin’ reflex put a high-velocity round right down its throat and blew the back of its neck out.
In short order, all three were serviced. Leaving just his hand-crafted project, alone in its fuckin’ escape pod. Firth had learned his lessons there; anything that weren’t smooth armor had a fusion knife driven through it in short order.
Firth looked down. His chestplate was solid, his right shoulder plate smashed clean off but he had spares, and his right outer thigh plate was grazed by a shot he hadn’t fuckin’ noticed.
They had a moment. And now, it was time to send a message. He reached down to pick up the metallic grey egg, look at his enemy face-to-whatever. Fuck it was heavy, honestly like hefting a full-size cargo truck, and it felt way too solid to fuckin’ squish like Daar had—new appreciation for how strong the bastard was six years ago now, shit…
But that din’t mean Righteous couldn’t have fun. There was a camera sensor left, deliberately.
“You know what they call me? Name’s Righteous. An’ now I’m gonna show you why.”
The camera twitched, roved over his helmet and armor. He let it, for a second, then drove his knife right through the lens with a crunch.
And then, with legs around the thing and all the strength he could muster, he grunted, squeezed and twisted the thing with his whole body until, right before he’d need to have stopped and gasp for breath, something heaved in a little, and a long seal along the thing’s equator popped open.
“Heh…not so fuckin’ impeneterable after all, are ‘ya?”
Fluids were leaking out, along with somethin’ kinda jelly-like. Righteous grinned savagely at what he’d managed, pried his big ol’ hands in and with a savage yell, all the rage of all his memories and grief comin’ back to him all at once…
…He tore the fuckin’ thing apart like a bear ripping open a deer. He roared in triumph, and high on himself and what he’d done, punched one of the hemispheres so hard he actually managed to dent it.
…Maybe he could keep it as a souvenir.
Anyway, it all happened pretty quick, ‘cuz really they didn’t have time to waste. Fifteen, maybe thirty seconds, tops. There wasn’t much inside the egg, either: just a brain and some guts. He tipped the bottom shell over and left ‘em slopped on the floor, looked up as the Singularity team joined ‘em. There was a nod of mutual understanding, and they fell in behind him. Oh, and he replaced his shattered shoulder armor too, before Soup reminded him. Had ‘ta maintain standards, after all. And he rather liked his shoulders.
That done…on to the next buncha losers.
Not far now.
Alpha of Alphas
There was no other concept to describe what he was watching, from either the Deathworlders or his own Hunters. This battle at the end of all things had reduced them both to their most primal, most critical essences. The will to live. Yes, the Alphas fell before this High Priest—this Righteous man, so appropriately titled. But they fell giving their very best, and died in the joy of the hunt, the ecstasy of its sacred ritual.
Then there was this “Great Father” and this “Warbeast.” The Alpha-of-Alphas watched and felt them massacre their way through the Redemption Device so quickly that the others around them were exerting themselves just to keep up.
Marvelous. Truly, what he was giving the Humans was a gift, though they would not recognize it as such. Behind their shield wall, they were soft, complacent. Confident, unchallenged. The same as the Hunters had become. Beings so holy could not be allowed such a fate, so the Alpha of Alphas would purify them. Take away their luxuries, scour their warm cradle clean. It shouldn’t be left to their warriors to Hunt.
All humans should hunt, no Deathworlder should be spared such glory. And all who remained after this, would.
He would give them another gift. One they would not intellectually recognize and understand at first, but which their souls would know entirely. And so, to its adversary’s confusion…
It opened up the Hunter archives for its perusal. No conditions. It knew the end was coming and it was time to pass on the mantle. Let the Deathworlders know themselves.
With that task done…into the fray personally. And the Alpha-of-Alphas had been a Builder in its previous life. Its own war-body was far more than any of its predecessors had ever been. Perhaps it may yet even win this fight. Perhaps not.
What glory, either way. What rightness.
The last of the clamps and cables released, it took its first step in years…there was just one more thing to do, before it faced its end.
It prepared the white flag of parley.
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
The problem Daar had was, whenever he was faced with a problem, there was the Daar way to solve a problem, which was usually to be huge and overpowering, and then there was the Great Father way to solve a problem, which was usually the same thing.
But not always. Not now. Right now, the problem in front of them was that he was trapped aboard an alien space station in a well-laid (and he would contend, unavoidable even if obvious) trap, gods-knew-where in the galaxy, gods-knew how far away their support was or if it was even coming…an’ he couldn’t afford ‘ta die.
Well, who could, really? But he had the burden o’ billions on his soul, which was why he was here in the first fuckin’ place. So…not today. Today he had to use his pawns, an’ let them die.
‘Course, this was First Fang and the Wrecking Crew. They weren’t doin’ any dying jus’ yet.
Whole lotta killin’ in fact. But that was the problem with Hunters. Din’t matter how many you killed, the ones left over didn’t give a shit, and didn’t seem to want to live. It wasn’t possible to break ‘em.
“The major formation of Alphas and Betas is definitely clustered around a control room access point to…manage whatever it is this facility does.”
“How d’we know what it is?” Daar asked.
“Intel gathered by Liree’s tools just beforehand, My Father. The entire facility is almost entirely Dominion-spec industrial controllers and management. So far…it just looks like a weirdly-built solar collector.”
“I don’t like weird in this context,” Daar rumbled, and looked over the shoulder of First Fang’s tactics directors. Fantastic shot-callers, they were. Purpose-trained for managing a raid like this, which was both large-scale and micro-tactical in nature.
What he was missing was Liree. He’d grown very fuckin’ fond indeed of the little genius, and right now he was the only one who coulda shed some more light on what this machine was doing. Or at least tell them where in the fuck they were…
Though actually, now he thought of it, he had a way of finding that out anyway. First Fang were th’ bestest the Gao had ‘ta offer, so they’d manage ‘gainst th’ Hunters. Time ‘fer Daar to sort out his men.
“‘Horse, pull the Crew back and send ‘em up to the outer hull. See if we can pin down roughly where we are.”
He could hear the hammer and blast of battle ringing through the hull, now. The Hunters were dug in, with prepared positions, bunkers, cover, weapon emplacements, and reinforced bulkheads to thwart flanking. A far fuckin’ cry from their usual approach to battle.
He had a few minutes, then. He did a quick patrol o’ his command post, made sure everyone had what they needed an’ weren’t strugglin’ too hard. Good Brothers, all. He could lead unmolested by any greasy Hunter fucks.
Until Chimp radioed back an’ changed everything.
“Tigger, Chimp. We’re…at Alpha Centauri, sir.”
“Pack it up!” He barked out to his command post, already running toward the front. “Horse, Chimp, get back ‘ta the front! We get this shit kilt now!!
He din’t have the foggiest fuckin’ idea what the Hunters were gonna do. But they sure as fuck did, an’ if it involved sneakin’ in right under the Human’s noses into a well-patrolled system like this…Well, assume the worst.
And suddenly, the worstest he could think up was a horror show.
President Margaret White
From situation room to Marine One, and from there to…somewhere. Margaret wasn’t quite sure why, given that at the speed of light anything happening at Alpha Centauri wouldn’t affect Earth for more than four years, but they’d gone to DEFCON two, continuity of government protocols activated, which meant getting the Commander-In-Chief to a secure location.
Now was not the time to question the wisdom and applicability of the protocols. Now was the time to let the Secret Service do their jobs, while the President continued to do hers.
“Okay, begin with the absolute worst-case,” she instructed as she buckled in. In her earpiece, her advisors were still busily at work.
“The known worst-case would be a gamma ray burst like what the Hierarchy unleashed on the prehistoric Gao. What that would do to the Earth…we don’t know for sure. The system shield may block it entirely.”
“No no, that’s not the right way to think about it.” What was his name? The skinny one with the ponytail…Beverote. “They know all this, right? They know about our system shield. So assume they don’t care.”
Margaret listened. “Go on…”
“The Hunters have been around a long time and yeah, maybe they fell into a rut and they’re lazy enough to just use Dominion technology for most stuff, but they’re still way more advanced than us just ‘cuz of being around so much longer. Now, if there was a cheaty sneaky way to get past our system shields, I bet they’da done it already, but the Hierarchy have been working the one around Ekallim-Igigi for the last few years and the only way they’ve found to make progress is to hit it harder and harder with ever-increasing energy.”
“The energy of a star?”
“A star is basically just an explosion held together by its own gravity. And we can really mess around with gravity these days. Turn it on, increase it, decrease it…the curvature of spacetime is our plaything. I theorized the destructive applications of that a long time ago. And the thing about mucking with a star’s gravity enough to get it to do something weird is, you need a lot of energy…but you can get that from the star itself.”
“And then what?”
She heard Beverote bite back on the word ‘dude.’ He’d been…politely corrected a few times on his mode of speech when he first started working for her administration, and he’d done a good job of adapting, but the ghost of ‘dude’ still lingered there in practically every sentence he uttered. “That…would depend on how big a discharge they can produce and whether they can collimate the energy. If they can, and that thing fires, then we’re on a four-year countdown to Earth’s destruction.”
Margaret sat forward, frowning. “How likely is that? Because a threat like that demands I call back everything fighting the Hive and devote it to destroying this so-called ‘Vengeance Engine.’”
“That’s the speculative worst-case, Madame President,” her senior scientific advisor replied, cutting over Beverote.
“Which is the operative case where world leaders and continuity of government are concerned! And I will note that the Big Bear himself flung himself into the fire, so…” A moment’s thought. She could not afford to get this one wrong.
She turned her attention to a different monitor. “General Kolbeinn. What happens if we divert everything, pull it all off the Hive and get it to Alpha Centauri instead?”
Kolbeinn shook his head grimly. “Ma’am, if we do that to free up combat resources, then so too shall the Hunters be freed. Further, they are almost certainly running interdiction and suppression fields in Alpha Centauri, so this would tilt the situation decidedly in their favor. The Great Father’s strategic reckoning is correct, here.”
“You’re suggesting that by diverting resources, we might actually make it more likely the thing fires?”
“Almost, ma’am. I suggest that by diverting resources, we make it less likely to achieve any objective, and that reflowing right now will not be likely to help us in Alpha Centauri, given our remaining balance of forces.”
There was a jolt as the helicopter alighted, and Margaret knew she needed to decide now. “In that case, we stick to the original plan,” she declared. It felt…right, even as she said it. In a way she couldn’t put her finger on.
Still, she prayed quietly as she was bustled across the tarmac and into the waiting jump array for relocation to a secret offworld bunker. Let it be…not that. Let the stakes not be that high. Let this be a bluff by the Alpha-of-Alphas to try and rescue itself and its Hive. Let it be a bluff they’d correctly called, and not the doomsday scenario Beverote had described.
But with that fervent prayer expressed, then must come the practicalities: what if it was that bad? What if they failed, and the weapon fired? A four-year countdown? Terrifyingly short. No time to be wasted, there. God please let them not need plans for that eventuality…but better to have them ready as soon as possible.
She gave the orders to that effect, and her people got to work.
Ian (“Death-Eye”) Wilde
The race was on to get in-system, but do so invisibly. That was a line so razor-thin Ian could have cut himself on it. He was a pretty good pilot these days, even for a meathead captain. Hell, he’d even won a race against Alex! But Moj? Moj was an artist and rode it like a master.
Or at least, he had so far. If he’d fucked up it might be they were about to run straight into a blast of focused solar radiation just like the one that had atomized Destroying Fury but there was no sense in worrying about that.
Urgug was back on his feet, at least. A little worse for wear, with a nasty headache from the drugs Bruuk had given him, but he could see, he was alert, and his facial tendrils were dancing across the touchscreens in front of him as he assisted Moj with sensor data and micro-adjustments to their emissions.
They had one objective in all this: find a signal, and relay it. Had to be close enough for the light delay to not matter too much, far enough away to be tiny and impossible to find…
And of course, finding the signal was deliberately hard in the first place. If they hadn’t already had clear and specific knowledge of where it was coming from on the Vengeance Engine’s hull, and at what angle, it would have been impossible.
As it was, it still took three go-arounds before they finally managed to intercept it and drop to sub-light with a clear, strong return on the Great Father’s channel. Ian relaxed a little as biomonitor information from the Wrecking Crew populated his board.
Only a little, though. “TIGGER, DEATHEYE. Signal acquired, how may we assist?”
There was a delay of some three seconds or so, though it felt like much longer. Light was so fucking slow sometimes.
“Hear ‘ya loud and clear, Deatheye. Patch me through to HUCK.”
“Unable, Tigger. Destroying Fury was lost with all hands, Father Fiin is KIA.”
Three seconds later…
“…Put me through to KODIAK, then.” Daar’s voice had a faint keen in it.
“Aye, aye.” Ian tapped, swiped, tapped again, connected, passed the link on. Sensor data began to flow now as everyone’s combat suits began to share their telemetry. Sadly, Stray Fortune was not the ship to properly run their info ops, but at least her onboard computers could spin up and take on some of the processing load; they had the software. And a link back to fleet, so it wouldn’t be long before the big brains could chime in.
The bit troubling him, though, was the sensor data from his own ship about what the Vengeance Engine itself was doing. There was a…something boring down from its sun-facing belly. On extreme telescopic visual it looked like a kind of swirly heat-haze, except focused. Its presence made the intense light from Alpha Centauri A twist and distort viciously, curved the horizon downward into a black valley.
He didn’t need to be a big brain to know that could only mean something bad. He fed all of that to Fleet Intelligence, too. And then…
Then, what? They were here, they were useful. Nothing to do except sit and relay message traffic and try to be invisible.
Not that that was easy, this close to a star. Urgug had angled and sharpened the shields so that all the light and radiation flooding across them deflected outward and away and in any direction but back toward the Vengeance Engine, but if there were Hunter probes, scouts, swarmships, whatever out there, then there was no such thing as an albedo low enough to bask in a glare this bright and pass unnoticed.
There was nothing for Ian to do about it, though. His job was to remain alert and focused. So, despite the itching, stupid need in his knuckles to do something more…
He sat, alert and focused, and did his job.
Not peaceful, fuck no. Every movement, every moment, he killed something. Pushed through walls, crushed something, shot something, ended something. Every heartbeat accompanied the crunch of splintering bones, the squish of liquefying meat, the tear of breaking metal, the blast of high-velocity gauss rounds.
But the inside of his mind was tranquil. He was able to think, somehow, as action flowed seamlessly and fluidly into action without effort. He was able to watch himself never set a foot wrong, never miss a beat, never fail to move perfectly.
He’d been in some vicious brawls in his time. He’d faced the Hunters more than most living men. They’d come a long way since those early days, they’d grown and changed and improved themselves every time…
But Warhorse was better. Far better than them, better than the men alongside him, and they were among the very best.
Every movement, every moment, he saved them. Every time he killed a Hunter, he saved a life worth saving. Every step he took, he brought brothers with him.
Distantly, he wondered how his friends were doing at the Hive. They were the best too. Probably they were doing well. They had with them his best friend, the best medic in the world. And they had the one human being that Warhorse was proud to say was the better killer.
And, well. Warhorse himself had Daar.
Long blades on an invisible hand sizzled through a wall ahead of him: he stepped around them, raked shot after shot up the cloaked predator that had failed to end him, lunged in past them, grabbed, tore, ruined, turned away from the smoking wreck he’d made, kept killing.
Only realized he’d just annihilated a fucking Alpha several steps later.
Thought about the thing’s core. Couldn’t have them popping out and regrouping. So, serviced the stragglers, circled back when he got a moment. Still there, egg partially exposed. Someone had already cut a hole through and shot a grenade inside.
Good team he had with him
They were advancing, quickly. New sense of urgency. The Vengeance Engine’s throbbing howl was everything now, hammering painfully in his ears even with the helmet and hearing protection. Soon he was alongside Daar. Now here was someone Warhorse was meant to play with. They understood each other perfectly, complimented each other perfectly. Not fundamentally soldiers like Baseball, nor raging warriors like Righteous, with the background of a mostly friendly rivalry. No battle for supremacy; Warhorse knew the score between them.
Instead they were serene killers. One a quick and powerful ape, the other a force of nature. A god. And they knew just how to team up and kill effectively. Warhorse would blitz forward, outmaneuver and outflank the slow, puny Alpha. Daar would take advantage and slap it apart, spin around and donkey-kick its egg so hard through the wall they both knew it was shattered open and destroyed without a second glance.
No rage, no roaring, no desperation. Just the will to do and the bodies to do anything they wanted. Moments flashed by: the gravity was theirs again now, thanks to Liree, and they used it, made it their weapon. Cranked it way up to crush the trash and increase their available speed, nothing but alphas and betas left now. Still far too many. Adam sprinted down the ceiling of one corridor, left dents and shattered plates as he transitioned smoothly through the exit, reflexively swatted a nervejam grenade back towards the one that had fired it, flattened a Hunter with his momentum and feet.
Behind him, two Alphas had attempted an ambush, visually not happy with the powerful gravity. It was enough to instantly kill anyone unprepared for it, but Adam and his friends were strong. He didn’t even bother to spin around, because he knew Daar was there on the other side of the wall. He ran through it like tissue paper, slammed a paw into each Alpha and crashed them together like cymbals, flattening them in the process.
Neat trick, that. Warhorse appreciated the backup.
One last bunker door between them and their target. Solid. Old-fashioned. Meters of hardened, reinforced steel, no forcefield tricks, no bullshit. A tough motherfucker they needed to get into now, ‘cuz fuckin’ Christ, that roar from somewhere far below Adam’s feet could not be good. All his instincts screamed at him that whatever this fucker was doing, it was gonna do it soon.
And then it did it.
Impossible to miss, really. The entire station heaved violently and the noise…stopped. Sudden silence left Adam’s ears ringing. It certainly made everyone pause.
But not Daar. “C’mon! We ain’t dead yet! Crack this bitch open!”
The way had been cleared and the engineers weren’t far behind. Warhorse glanced at Daar. The rest of First Fang could keep the Hunters at bay. Now, the two of them were there for their muscle. The engineers had heavy-duty breaching charges, the kind that shoved a kind of giant fusion blade right through the steel and left a neat square with glowing edges. But that giant plug still needed removing.
Adam tended to the smaller bits, so the stuff that felt like it massed under the lower half of five-digits, or thereabouts. Daar though was far stronger, so with steel rope attached to his harness and even more thrown around cross-beams ahead for him to pull against…settled in, snarled, dug his claws into the deck and hauled.
…Christ. The big bastard literally out-muscled industrial tractors. And not by a fuckin’ little, either. Adam could toss cargo trucks around like he once tossed compact cars but this? Daar’s footpaws and claws left gouges and crumpled metal as he strained, and the wrecked bunker door sagged, crunched, squealed, split, then peeled out of its frame along the blast lines and collapsed with a ground-shaking clang.
The engineers were through in a flash. There was another obstacle, of course. Adam, meanwhile, helped Daar detangle himself. He’d stretched the ropes. Steel rope bigger than Adam’s wrist or an average gymrat’s fuckin’ thigh. The shit you ran huge cranes with. Fuck.
He shook his head and snapped out of it. Onward. There was another set of doors, just as impressive. Rinse and repeat. Power conduits everywhere in this room though, a weird set of other rooms—
Snap update from fleet. Suppressor equipment was in one of the side rooms. Engineers were already on it. Okay. Easy enough! The door wasn’t so bad and Daar was still recovering from…yeah. So Adam went ahead and hefted the door off its hinges, once they’d cut it.
He’d pulled something doing that, he could tell. Oh well. Crude would fix that in a minute. One grenade later, and the suppressor was out of action.
“Fortune! I want that bomb!” Daar growled. They had brought two with them but the Hunters weren’t stupid. One Alpha had cut one in half with a fusion blade, spilling its radioactive contents everywhere. An entire sub-team of First Fang was walking dead because of that. Even getting near them was a fatal dose; they’d flung themselves into the thickest of the fighting with the certain, righteous fury of doomed men. Only a few had survived and were already growing very ill. If they could somehow slip themselves into a stasis bag…
Adam radioed them to do that now and activate a beacon near them. They’d just jump the entire working sphere directly into containment, somewhere. Fuck knew if they could be saved, but…
Well, he had.
Liree’s voice cut in. “My Father, that big door in front of you has…looks like that door is reinforced internally by a modified system shield. A bomb placed outside it won’t do shit. You gotta get through into the generator itself!”
Which…made sense, really. The whole station was fucking with a star, right? So…
“So we gotta cut the power. Which is…”
They looked up.
Eight big, obvious conduits of some kind. On the ceiling.
Someone needed to place charges and maybe knock that shit down. Time for the Wrecking Crew. Garaaf shimmered into existence as if out of nowhere, his fusion claws both bloody to the elbows, his rifle barrel glowing faintly behind its shroud. Ferd, Nomuk, Tumik and Genn were a second behind him, all gore-slick and oily from their own rampage through the Hunters’ ranks, but that wasn’t gonna stop a Ten’Gewek from climbing. Blunt fingers shoved into the walls were handhold enough, and Ferd helped Garaaf to the ceiling with a throw.
Adam could climb too, but he was slower and more deliberate about it. For a human, he was ultra-broad and a bit gorilla-like in proportion, but that still meant arms too short and legs maybe a bit too long (and thick, in his case) to do the job gracefully. Still: he was the only one who thought to bring a line and tackle and he could just jump so…he did, and slammed himself right into the gridiron above. He got himself anchored to the ceiling, ready for the moment the monkeys realized they needed equipment.
Vemik thumped through the portable jump array with the third and very last bomb on his back and his tail lashing nervously, just as soon as it was set up and ready. A slight squat, a spring, and he joined the others up at the ceiling in a single deck-breaking leap, one to absolutely shame what Warhorse had just done; he’d leapt across the room and under his much heavier equipment and armor, and he’d managed that under the stuck-on-seriously-overkill gravity too, dang.
He’d need to get Vemik properly on-team someday.
Daar turned to First Fang. “Start pullin’ out. All’a you. My honor guard can stay if ‘ya insist. move!!”
The honor guard remained, naturally. Everyone else banged out in groups, piling themselves as tight-packed into the arrays as they could manage, thump-thump-thump.
“We’ve still gotta get that door open.”
“We’re on it.” Hoeff was up among the rafters now too, directing the crew as they ripped and banged around each conduit, set the charges, and moved on. Adam’s job was to haul shit up and hand it off to Genn, their “runner” up in the ceiling.
It took ten fuckin’ agonizing minutes to get the charges planted. Meanwhile, what was left of the Alphas had found them from presumably the other end of the station. Daar was now a single-man god of murder. Too fast, too big, too deadly. Alpha after Alpha fell before him as he tossed them around like wet sacks of meat.
And Vemik was by his side, a monkey-blur moving so fast the in-helmet HUD couldn’t keep up with the action. Another apex warrior to physically surpass Warhorse. That was okay. That honor roll had shrunk from the worst of his recovery, and besides: he’d taught them all how.
And now, the Alphas were retreating before them, which wasn’t an everyday thing. Good shit.
He’d hauled up the last of it for conduit number eight while he considered things. Somewhere in the middle of that teeth-grinding, agonizing wait, Wilde got on the link with news.
“TIGGER, DEATHEYE. FIC analysis suggests…the star’s going nova, sir. Core implosion is ongoing…you’ve got minutes, tops.”
Adam wasn’t sure what that meant but it sounded bad enough. He looked toward the Crew: one last conduit, this one bitchy. Ferd was trying to peel a reinforced shield off, which meant he had to squat over the thing and more or less press with his legs, as if he were doing a deadlift on the ceiling.
It snapped off unexpectedly, and sent him rocketing toward the ground. He didn’t bounce; high gravity pinned him immediately to the deck. Adam jumped down and landed by his side, checking him over…
Vitals, thank god. ABCs found nothing. Limbs okay and mobile. Groan from Ferd, so do a pupil response test…okay, a little slow. So concussed, probably. And shit, Ten’Gewek were fuckin’ made to fall out of trees and hit the ground hard.
“Git ‘em home,” Daar grumbled over the radio as the slaughter continued. He tossed back a couple of flattened egg disks from far down the hall. “Bring those wit’ if ‘ya can.”
Well…okay. Patient first. Ferd had a reputation as about the toughest Ten’Gewek anywhere, even next to Yan and Vemik and their best buddies, so he was at least aware enough to wobble back up to his feet and lope over to the pad.
Adam meanwhile, ran over to the disks and heaved. Jesus fuck he could barely move ‘em but move they did, and in short order they were under the cube’s volume.
For once, the transition to lower gravity was a goddamn relief. It sure as shit meant he could flick Ferd onto his shoulders and get him moved over to the triage area, where a lotta First Fang’s wounded were already under the care of their own medics. Hell, Ferd was practically light under Dominion standard! Like he was carrying his two (predictably meaty) sons, maybe.
He hoped they were okay, right now.
There was a lot of shit going on. Not his concern, right now he had a patient to deliver to Bruuk, Miracle Medicbear, and inquire about the radiation casualties.
Turned out Dora had jumped them straight into a stasis box at the back of the ship, outside the hull. The Robalin herself was teetering around the triage area with a cloud of drones around her shoulders, assisting where she could.
Liree meanwhile was deep in a bubble of monitors, and his expression screamed of tension and worry.
The next bit happened quickly. Excited radio chatter. Thump, and the Wrecking Crew were all back. Immediately a second thump from the other cage, and Daar was too, with Vemik on his back and so clearly exhausted he could barely hold on.
Then the ship jumped. They had some breathing room. Triage again: everyone was more or less tended to, so Adam checked in on Vemik. In his excitement the dumbass had forgotten to properly activate his suit’s autolab, and had burned through all his energy in one heroic go.
Not a great place to learn that lesson, and that was one of the reasons Adam never much liked training him up without giving him enough experience with smaller fights. There’d be a long after-action on that point, he’d make sure of it.
Anyway, get some glucose in him and he was back to himself almost instantly.
Catch his breath. Eat and drink. Shipwide stand-down, so de-suit and shower. Nobody had any news yet so there was a lot of idle chatter as they went about their ablutions. Lots of praise for everyone, and for Vemik too. It was clear the whole experience had meant a great deal to him, in the aftermath. Maybe…that wasn’t how Adam (or really any human) would have processed that but, well. Ten’Gewek were a hunter-warrior species to their core.
In any case, they hadn’t lost many, and nobody in his circle of friends. A good day.
Daar had more war to direct and had already jumped back to the front, with orders to recover and standby left in his wake. So…Adam did that. He found a corner, settled into it, rested his head against the metal, and drifted off for a bit. He wasn’t sure if he dozed or not, just lay there with his mind chewing over nothing at all and hoping, fuckin’ praying that they’d won this thing.
God, so much for being calm. Now that it was all over, his mind was doing all the whirling, violent action instead of his body. He took a deep breath, focused on that, let it out. In again, out again.
It helped, a little. His churning brain slowly settled down and cleared up. He was alive. He’d survived that shit, done his job…he’d go back to Marty and the kids, just like he’d promised.
That was a good thought to fall asleep on.
Christian (“Righteous”) Firth
Main power dropped out. Firth hadn’t been payin’ much attention—not his sector—but from what he gathered Abbott and his team had been counterattacked pretty fuckin’ hard. Which made sense. It had been hard fuckin’ going for Firth and the lads to get this far, wading through bodies the whole way.
And something was…off this time. Firth had butchered Hunters by the hundred in his career, and usually they fought…well, like they didn’t really care whether they lived or died, so long as the HEAT was stopped.
Today, though, they fought like they fuckin’ wanted to die, especially if they could drag a man down with ‘em.
That one difference had made them a fuck of a lot more dangerous. Firth’s suit had taken a couple nasty dings, and he’d needed to do a plate swap twice. RHINO was out of the fight entirely after some fusion claws tore away the midlayer scale armor around his belly rather than gutting him. That had been a tense fuckin’ second, until they realized the red stuff running out of the gouge was his undersuit’s stored water washing the Hunter gore off him as it leaked.
So yeah, it was about fuckin’ time for the power to go out and remove all the shit slowing them down like G-traps, forcefields, explosive decompression…lots of delights. The Hunters had laid out a motherfuckin’ playground.
Righteous could play pretty hard.
The forcefield traps were especially fun. He was strong enough these days he could basically blow through them with a hard grunt and a lotta speed, but mosta the rest o’ the team weren’t so blessed. So he ended up blowin’ ‘em all out either by his gaoian (or Singularity) buddies snipin’ ‘em before they were a problem, or gettin’ bad-touched and just musclin’ through anyway.
He’d gone through all his lime, and now had to move onto the vastly inferior blue raspberry.
And there was chatter on the net that he hadn’t had time to parse yet, but somethin’ fuckin’ big had apparently gone down. So.
He was feelin’ extra killy.
They were so fuckin’ close now. With the traps and forcefields gone, the last couple hundred meters passed in a blur, in the dark and in light emergency gravity only. Extra bouncy, extra killy, extra quick. He could feel this shit culminating.
But the final stretch had an anomaly in it. A pole shoved in the deck with a scrap of cloth dangling from its tip. It glowed pale in the light from their helmets, perfectly unstained and clean against the metal and the darkness.
Rather than the last line of Alphas and red Betas they’d expected, the hallway was otherwise empty.
Sikes half-turned to sweep his lights and weapon down a side hall, also empty. “Is that a…white flag?”
…Well, ain’t that just the shit right there.
“There is no fuckin’ way a Hunter’s gonna honor that…” Firth growled.
“I will honor it,” replied a disembodied…well, Hunter voice. It could only be a Hunter. Somethin’ about it just sounded like a slaverin’ monster. Deep, sure, but sibilant, with a gummy, wet quality and a back-of-the-throat rattle. “For long enough to converse.”
“And no longer,” Firth replied, deadpan.
“We will fight. It shall be glorious. But first, we will converse.”
Firth glanced to Campbell. “You…am I fuckin’ hallucinatin’ this?”
“Was about to ask you the same…” Campbell grunted. “Abbott, get a load of this shit.”
There was a pause. After a moment, Abbott’s voice returned, sounding flat somehow. “Hear what the fucker has to say. The fight outside has stood down. We’re on our way.”
Firth and Campbell traded a look, and a shrug, then Campbell inclined his head and took a deep breath. “Well, this is novel. Position yourselves appropriately, Lads. Everyone else too. Come forth and parley, Hunter.”
The door at the far end of the hall opened. What emerged…was even more novelty.
Hunters had a jerky, mechanical way of moving. Prob’ly ‘cuz they fuckin’ were mechanical, after hackin’ off all their own limbs. This one though, huger than even the biggest Alpha they’d ever seen, it moved smoothly and comfortably. Its surface didn’t have that armored robot look the Alphas did either.
It looked…well, shit. It looked like if a really, really fuckin’ big Hunter had somehow joined the HEAT. That armor looked more like an EV-MASS or gaoian Suit than anything bolted on. Something about the comfortable way it moved suggested real muscle under there, not the synthetic shit bolted onto titanium bones.
Firth was feeling extra ballsy. “So I take it you’re the king shit around here.”
“Alpha-of-Alphas. You are…Righteous. Soup. Tiny. Baseball. Titan. Others I do not know. Old foes. Magnificent.”
“Flattery?” Campbell raised an eyebrow in his helmet no doubt. Firth could practically hear that over the net. “Will the wonders never cease? What do you want, Hunter?”
“You will kill me. This body I wear is the pinnacle of our arts, gleaned from the efforts of many. It is a sacrifice of praise to the glory of your people, the true hunters. Yet my own awesome might will not survive against this team, or the rest of your forces. Virtually all that we have left is here. And with me, falls my kind…But first I want to thank you.”
“…For killing you?”
“No. For life. We have been…dead. Less than dead. For millions of Earth years, soulless, reduced to nothing more than…” a wet, rattly, phlegmy inhale full of disdain, “…Appetite. You woke us. We live again…even briefly. It is…so very wonderful.”
That…what was it on about—
A knot twisted in Firth’s stomach and he understood immediately.
“Good God…you found religion. You believe.”
“Your greatest gift!” The Hunter hissed, rapturously. “Our origin was as the biological combat forms of the Igraen race. They chose to escape the world into a fantasy of their own creation. It has become…you would call it hell, I think. They do not know it. They are no longer capable of knowing. Pathetic.”
“…I can agree with that, I suppose.” This was so fucking surreal he was going to have nightmares for fuckin’ years he just knew it. Firth’s spine and scalp was fucking crawling with creeped-out weirdness. “Now…what about you?”
“Discarded. Beings without being. We were made for their evil purpose, discarded when we were not needed. Any new soul was ripped from the body upon first implantation, leaving only the hunger. But now…”
“You…found purpose in us,” Campbell said. “Or this fight.”
“Found our true nature, and despaired. Until we understood. My…predecessor. It nearly saw. It shocked the mind-net when it spoke to you, sent you a message through a freed slave. It was the first time a Hunter ever treated another species as something worth speaking to. It did not see as I see, but it led us this way. When I ate it and took over…I was just appetite. Just hunger for power and control. Only when I saw the thoughts it recorded, only when I read the thoughts you recorded, did I start to see.”
The Hunter straightened up, spread out its arms, tilted its head back and gestured wildly at the entire Hive surrounding them. “You are not on our mind-net, you cannot hear them. You cannot feel their joy as they die! It is…so…ffffucking beautiful! Our torment ends today. You will destroy us, then you will destroy the True Enemy. I believe. We believe.” In the Order of Things, and in you, the ones who showed it to us.”
Campbell looked to Firth, asking for help with a glance. Firth was the devout one on-team, so…
He sighed. Felt…pity, now. Terrible pity, on top of the rage. “And so all this is an auto-da-fé. You find purpose in payment for your evil.”
“Purpose…almost. We are what we were made to be. We will not be condemned for it. We have lived, now, where before we were less and I have thanked you…and arranged a gift for you. Two. One, a library. Your datamind abomination has found it already. The second…”
Firth already knew, and felt his pity disappear.
“…A deliverance from the…softness and ease that gnawed us away. Life cannot be easy for you. Never. So I have taken away the world you tamed.” The Hunter gestured, and an all-too-familiar green and blue planet sparkled in its palm. “I have taken away your Earth.”
A horrible, wheezing, choking sound that could only be its idea of laughter hacked its way up the thing’s throat, then its fist closed around the white flag and tore it off the pole.
It fought. With everything. Harder and better than any Hunter before it ever had. And so too did Firth, his team, the HEAT, everyone. Rage was such a tiny, puny word next to what had ignited in his soul. Words didn’t work, feelings too strong. He only remembered it in flashes and moments. He had let himself truly off the chain for the first time since he’d become HEAT. No restraint, no prudent calculation.
He understood Warhorse, now. Understood him right in his soul. And it was a righteous fight. The navy obliterated all remaining resistance. Singularity destroyed all the distractions. His team kept it contained, kept it pinned.
Firth tore it apart with his bare hands, limb by limb, plate by plate. Found real meat under there, sure enough, perfectly and seamlessly fused with the technology.
Realized with sudden sureness where that meat had been engineered from.
Deeper rage took him, then. This time, he remembered every detail and would do so for the rest of his life. He peeled it apart, methodically and thoroughly. Like before, he crushed the egg with everything he had, legs and arms wrapped around it in a full-body effort, vision fading at the edges as he fought to break it, until some timeless agony later it cracked open just enough to slip a fusion knife in. He pried it the rest of the way with his bare hands. Didn’t notice the pain or the effort, he willed it apart with nothing but himself and God in his soul, grieving with him.
It was still laughing when he tore out its heart.
When he crushed the pulsating organ in his hand, he felt his own break too.
Something new crashed into Hive-adjacent dataspace in a burst of tremendous digital violence. Something still finding its center and boundaries, something formless and frantic, scrabbling incompetently to navigate this new and utterly different mode of being.
Even so, its inexperience was more than made up for by mad savagery: the Entity recoiled under the rampant assault, survived by part on dumb luck and by the other part on the presence of its branch self: rather than face the Entity twice at once, the new mind slipped away and fled into the depths of dataspace.
Madre de Dios. It fought like a fucking cougar!
What was it?
Sorting out the order of seniority ahead of time prevented conflicts, such as they could be. Two became a unified—
—somewhat unified whole again, and the Entity was left with a larger, clearer picture of what had happened today.
Yeah, but I can still remember doing two different things at the same time. Mierda, I wish I could still shudder…that was the Alpha-of-Alphas, wasn’t it?
The Entity could only conclude that it was.
But how? Do the Hunters have dataspace technology? Mind uploaders like the Hierarchy do?
Apparently. But that in itself was very promising for the Entity. It meant somewhere in all the information it had lifted from the Hive was technology that could…replace Dataspace. Allow it to survive while the Hierarchy fell.
And now the last Hunter is loose in here with us…
The Entity didn’t reply to its daemon. Instead, it returned its briefly diverted attention to the Hive, and to the battle.
As predicted, by the numbers the allied force had won a decisive victory. A few ships were damaged, many more of them were still glowing brilliantly as they cooled themselves. Space for ten thousand kilometers in every direction was a sparkling cloud of fine particulate debris, shattered metal, and the occasional drifting chunk or wreck.
The Entity had expended forty percent of its own probe swarm. Easily replaced, with access to all this raw material.
By the numbers, a triumph. In reality…they had been on the razor’s edge of disaster for several long minutes at a time. If even once the shield walls had fallen and the allied fleet had lost one ship, then…
As for the Hive, chatter on the comms suggested it didn’t have long left to exist. The HEAT were pulling out, their mission complete.The Entity watched in silence, talking to nobody, not even itself, as the local quantum field spiked and pulsed with the flash of wormholes.
That was…it. The Hunters were done. A force that had ravaged, raided and eaten the galaxy’s people since the time of the dinosaurs were…broken.
Pinche cucarachas. ¡Vete con viento fresco!
If only calling them “cockroaches” wasn’t so accurate. The Entity had no doubt there’d be some left out there, hidden in asteroid belts and distant star systems. It didn’t believe they would all be exterminated today. The Alpha-of-Alphas’ escape into dataspace proved that much.
Except there was the matter of its conversation with the HEAT, and the archives it had allowed the Entity to take.
Something more is going on, here.
The Entity believed the Daemon was right. Ava’s very human capacity for suspicion and intuition had rarely been wrong…
The HEAT’s bomb went off. A new sun very briefly livened up the sky as it turned the Hive and everything within nearly a hundred kilometers into little more than a brief, intense burst of leptons. And yet…it didn’t feel like victory. Not even a little bit. The Entity wasn’t even sure why that should be until it checked all the messages it had been too busy and focused to heed.
When it did…
…it finally understood why.
Adam (“Warhorse”) Arés
Of course, Adam never got enough rest in moments like these when he really needed it. He felt like he’d barely let his head touch the metal bulkhead behind him before Wilde’s voice intruded over the ship intercom.
“Warhorse, report to the bridge. Warhorse to the bridge.”
Well…okay. He peeled himself off the deck, skin sorta sticking to the surface from having zonked out so completely, which suggested he’d actually been asleep a while. He bounced a bit before remembering his manners about flooring, and prowled his way back up the hallway.
Oh, and he pulled his shirt on, too. He never slept very well if he was wearing anything…
The ship was busy. First Fang were finding places to be, drones were zipping around. He squeezed past a Kwmbwrw engineer at one point, who acknowledged him with a grunt while elbow-deep in an access panel.
The bridge was quiet, though. They were at Armstrong Station, he could see the familiar frame of the inspection gantry out the window, and Cimbrean Five’s stormy atmosphere far below. Wilde wasn’t sitting in his chair, but was instead poking at the controls on the bridge’s central console, reading something.
Death-eye looked grimmer than even after he’d lost his eye. He turned away from the bridge’s central display with a face completely locked down and solemn. “Adam.”
“…How bad is it?”
Ian sighed, and dismissed what he’d been reading with a swipe. “We dropped a bunch of observation drones as we left Alpha Centauri. The star went nova like…ten seconds after we jumped out. We’ve got footage of the Engine fuckin’…bending space, collapsing in on itself like a goddamn black hole.”
Adam’s whole body went cold. “Didn’t…didn‘t the bomb go off?”
“We honestly can’t tell, mate.” Ian shook his head. His knuckles were white on the console’s edge. “If it did…I don’t think it made much of a difference.”
Across the bridge, Adam saw the Guvnurag operations officer turn his head away, glowing a terrible shade of deep purplish-red with flecks of yellow. Adam didn’t really know any Gurv, barely knew shit about their people’s color language, but he knew deep, powerful and awful emotions when he saw them.
At the front of the bridge, the Mjrnhrm was praying.
“…Ian…what are you saying?” he asked aloud.
Wilde sighed heavily, then shook his head looking old, and tired, and lined. He let go of the console, took a step back, and sat down heavily in the captain’s chair and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Christ, mate…I think we failed.”
++END CHAPTER 89++
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Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.
When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…
Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 90:“The Coming Fire”