Chapter 90: The Coming Fire
Starship Stray Fortune, deep space
Ian (Deatheye) Wilde
It was worse than they thought.
So, so very fucking much worse.
The Vengeance Engine hadn’t merely caused Alpha Centauri A to go nova. No, that would have been terrifying enough. What it did was disrupt the binding gravity field of the entire star. It used some portion of that energy to run the fields, of course…but mostly what it had done was shrivel to a tiny, brilliantly bright point of incalculable density at the very edge of the photosphere, torn the exploding star to pieces, and bent nearly all of the escaping energy in one direction: toward Sol.
The beam wasn’t perfectly collimated, but it didn’t fucking need to be. It could be more than a quarter of a lightyear across by the time it blasted through Sol, yet even then…
Well, whatever remained of the Earth would have no atmosphere, and a molten surface. Minimally.
That gigaton bomb? Nothing. Nothing. Whatever was behind that door either wasn’t damaged or didn’t matter; as far as they could tell afterwards, the mechanism itself was the station. They would have had to destroy the whole thing, against fields so powerful it was only a countervailing gravity field that kept the whole thing from collapsing into a black hole.
There wasn’t a fucking thing that could have been done. Once the station was built and activated, it was already too late. The greatest intelligence failure in history, and the Stray Fortune had a hand in that failure.
Billions were going to die.
Ian’s instinct was to brood in his room. Work kept him from doing that. He had a ship to run, and a crew to look after. Because there was no fucking resting now, not when they had less than a handful of years to try and save as many lives as they possibly could.
Nobody knew what to do yet. Everything was classified of course, something like this had to be managed—and there had already been warning orders about that precise problem…
But he knew good and damn well the news would leak quickly.
By the end of the day he had received orders, from Daar personally.
I dunno what happens next yet
I want you and crew back at Gao
gimme peace of mind if you were safe
might need you soon
Ian felt compelled to make a small confession:
but we’ll do what we can
you won’t be idle
He knew Ian well, at least. Ian didn’t know if he could even survive sitting idle while there was anything he could do. So, he gave the orders and they jumped back to Gao, at the anchorage around Dark Eye.
Re-armed, restocked their drones and expended various stuff.
Then, after that, the crew went to their temporary quarters.
Nobody wanted to be alone.
Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church, Washington DC, USA, Earth.
President Margaret White
Gone, in four years. All of it.
Of all the duties a President could face…of all the addresses she might have to give to the nation, of all the terrible pieces of news she might have to break to all the world…where was Margaret White to even begin?
She’d sat in the pew, staring at the enthroned Host, until sitting still and agonizing became an agony she couldn’t bear. With nowhere else to turn, she’d turned to God in the time available to her while the world’s leaders gathered.
She couldn’t calm her mind. Prayed the rosary, fell into the meditation of it. Prayed it again.
Fell apart. Begged. Cried. Screamed at Him, sitting right before her. Sobbed.
And felt clarity hit her.
Not…restful clarity. No. There would be none of that. The end of the world was coming. But something within her brushed it aside, suddenly and with grace.
She had…a purpose. A terrible reason to be who she was, and to hold the office she did. She could rise to it, or she could fall apart completely and thereby fail everyone. Those were the only options, and the latter was no option at all.
Slowly, she rose and realized that the Secret Service had discreetly made room for her to go through her emotions. Nobody needed to see the President fall apart. The adoration chapel was empty, or at least there was nobody that she could see.
With one exception: the archbishop. Respectfully distant but the moment she looked up, he came running to her side.
Now here was a deadly moment. He was a Cardinal of the church, one of the Pope’s favored at that. A holy man, a good pastor…but here, anything she said would have consequence. Unless she confessed of course but…No. She wouldn’t lay such a terrible secret on him under the Seal of confession. She must tell him openly.
Maybe it was unwise. Maybe her personal faith was getting in the way. But this was something that mattered. So…she gestured. People rescinded.
She told him everything. He nodded. At first, not believing. Then, believing.
And then understanding. Like with her, the enormity of it took time to hit. When it did, she watched him go through exactly what she just had.
“I…I had better go speak to the apostolic nuncio,” he stammered, quietly. “And then…to Rome.”
“Secrecy is of utmost importance,” she reminded him urgently. “You won’t have long to get things going. Perhaps only a week or so. But for the love of God make provisions on Cimbrean now.”
It was a moment of prerogative, she knew. But a mistake? No. She couldn’t believe that. The world was going to need their faith in the coming years, and the survivors would need it ever afterward.
She couldn’t remain here, however. She had the question of policy to attend to, and it could not be delayed. What were they going to do? How were they going to tell the world? Those needed answering, tonight. So she straightened her back, composed herself, put on the face they would need to see from her, and strode out to the waiting motorcade to face them.
Waiting for her at Camp David was exactly who she’d expected to see: the Great Father.
She had never before seen him seem so simultaneously magnificent and so broken. When they met and hugged—or rather, she hugged at his neck and his great arm swallowed her entirely up—she could tell it was taking a herculean effort on his part not to fall apart right then and there. Even to a human nose, he reeked of terrible, soul-crumbling sadness.
And, uncharacteristically, he stammered out his words like he couldn’t contain them. “I…I’m so sorry, I did what I could I threw everything at it but I fucked up and now—”
“Daar.” She somehow managed to stop him by putting a gentle hand in the ruff of white fur at the base of his throat. “You have nothing to apologize for. You put your own life on the line to try and stop this.”
His unique bass keen was louder and more heartfelt than she’d ever heard. “It weren’t enough.”
“Nothing could have been. It was a masterstroke by the Alpha-of-Alphas.”
“We coulda kilt it when we firs’ found it! If we’d done that—”
“They would have just built another, in greater secrecy, and we’d have no chance at all,” she offered. So this is my cross, she realized. Right now, in this moment, the man who had been a pillar of strength for both their people for decades…
Needed hers. What could she do but hug that giant head to herself?
So…she did. And fought the urge to imagine she was consoling a dinosaur-sized bear.
“So…” she offered after a long while. “I thank you. Both for myself and for my people. But now we need to consider what comes next.”
“…Right.” The Great Father backed off, shook his head, and rose to his full staggering height to look off at something wistfully, huge nose wiggling this way and that as he sniffed at the air.
She let him gather his thoughts. One did not interrupt a colossus when he was deep in contemplation.
“I’mma miss that,” he said eventually. “The cherry blossoms’re jus’ the sweetest scent.”
“We shall need to preserve it.”
“A great many things ‘yer gonna need ‘ta preserve. An’ I think the omuAru have their own purpose, now. Firs’ thing I’d do is get a hold’a them. As ‘fer me…we’re suddenly pretty fulla empty rooms an’ such. Jus’ everywhere, s’pecially in th’ countryside. We will welcome all good people to Gao.”
Margaret nodded. That was all she could do, for now. There was just…so much. So very, very much to save, and no hope of saving it all. How could they? Even if somehow there was found room for every living person on the Earth…what about all the other life? The trees? the grass? the millions of species of fungi, flora and fauna.
What about the tremendous, beautiful monuments they made just by being here, together? What about the national parks, the great deserts and jungles, the rivers, the seas? Even if all its component pieces could be saved, the great system of Earth couldn’t be saved piecemeal.
Nor could the human race itself, for that matter. Humanity wasn’t just nine billion individuals, it was cultures, it was nations, tribes, history, traditions, stories, songs, artifacts, treasures, artworks, languages…
For now, though, here and now, she stood and searched the breeze for the same cherry scent he’d savored, and mourned for it
They commiserated in silence, just for as long as they could be allowed. Then duty called: the other leaders were waiting for them. They had to tell the world, and then face whatever troubles came next.
And there would be a great, great many of them, before the end.
Washington DC, USA, Earth
There was blame, of course; the inevitable accusation that this would never have happened if only humanity had remained isolated, were it not for the “colonialist anglosphere” and “Yankee jingoism” and even “Gaoian brutality.”
Daar bore that last accusation by giving the speaker his best Hard Stare. No growlin’ or nothin’…just stared at him disapprovingly. Humans were all about the eyes.
And he apparently had a really unsettling look, with the color of his own.
It worked. The meeting got past the token blame game and on to what they were gonna fuckin’ do soon after. But still…it stung more than he would ever let on.
So, he made his promises that everything he could do, he would, and then left the humans to get on with business. He had ‘ta prepare for whatever they devised.
But the first step in lookin’ after others was ‘ta be fit ‘ta look after them. So, he did what he needed to do: He spent a precious few days unplugged from it all. Time in the gym of course, time at the farm with a big pile of his most favoritest female friends. No, they weren’t a harem…well, not technically, but he tended ‘ta have long-runnin’ dalliances these days so really…yeah. He’d prob’ly need to acquiesce ‘ta reality, s’much as it nibbled at ‘em. And no mating this time, not really! Just closeness. He needed it. Daar was a creature of big feelings, for good or bad, and the sting of that accusation (an’ all the rest of it) needed some healing.
Then he needed to heal his other friends.
Not that cuddles and movies were gonna fix their moods all in one go. The team had taken some nasty fuckin’ blows to its morale over the years, but the last time Daar could remember them bein’ this down was after Blaczynski’s death.
Which made some kinda sense, honestly. They’d all vowed to never underestimate the Hunters again after that…an’ yet, here they were. Righteous was a mess. And, bein’ Righteous, wasn’t much inclined to open up. But he smelled of pain and rage and Rip-Its and not much sleep, and had the disadvantage of bein’ too damn big ‘fer anyone to properly cuddle.
‘Cept ‘fer Yan mebbe, an’ definitely ol’ Daar. Ten’Gewek din’t cuddle, though. They din’t have chill in that regard, it was either a fierce (likely bone-breaking) hug, a constricting tail around ‘yer waist smashin’ ‘yer organs, or mebbe wrasslin’ with every intent to break ‘ya. Or all that, an’ pin ‘ya down an’ screw ‘ya silly, preferably ‘till both were too exhausted ‘ta even move.
‘Fer cavemonkeys, that sort of’ thing was what they considered gentle affection.
Definitely not the right energy here, so Daar had used the power of his huge to preempt any well-meaning Yan-attempts at comfort. He grumped a bit but then grabbed up Gonzo and was happily crushing the poor fuck half-dead. Distraction get! An’ besides: Daar’d heard from all the reputable sources that gaoian cuddles were extra magical ‘fer humans, so…
It mattered. Men were easy, in some ways. Ape doing something happy and they often got happy, at least for a while. So movie time, and extra-fierce affection for his most bestestest.
“You ain’t gonna let me go, are you?” The tone in Firth’s voice suggested he didn’t really want to be let go anyway, so Daar just curled around him a bit tighter, the kind of tight Firth could comfortably handle and nobody else could tolerate. Nice havin’ someone tough ‘ta squeeze!
“No,” Daar chittered. “Now hush, Ruby Rhod is about to appear!”
“Ruby who—?…Oh God.”
Righteous had never seen the Fifth Element. That shit needed fixing immediately. And he needed to not have his mind in the real world ‘fer a couple hours. He needed to live somewhere more fantastic for a bit. Somewhere with flying cars and lots of cleavage. And leopard print bodysuits with a blond hair tube.
Wait…How hadn’t he figgered out what it really was until just now?! Ha!!
Daar was sniffing for little changes in the room’s energy, and finally got one. Up ‘til now, even the men who were enjoyin’ the film had been doin’ so inside their own heads, all quiet and turned inward. Firth’s reaction popped those bubbles a bit. No chuckles yet, but a few tired faces lifted a bit, a few smiles that lasted a few seconds.
These were resilient men. All of ‘em, from every species. The kind who’d bounce back strong no matter what, ‘cuz men who weren’t like that woulda never made the cut.
But they felt, sure enough. They talked about it, after the movie was over. Not directly, but in things like the places they’d always kinda wanted to go and see on Earth. And all the people who were still there.
“Shit, I gotta go back to Kentucky. Somehow gotta lure ‘ma an’ ‘pa outta their homestead.”
“Can’t you just, like, pick up their house and carry it here?”
“Well, yeah. But have’ ya stopped ‘ta consider what kinda man and woman got together ‘ta make a boy like me? ’Sides. That homestead’s belonged to my family since…fuckin’ forever.”
“They’re not gonna want to leave?”
“Nah, they will. I bought land years ago out in th’ middle o’ nowhere, jus’ how we like it. The Firth Tribe ain’t gonna die in Appalachia…but that don’t mean it’s gonna be easy.”
There were nods. Nobody who knew Firth at all could doubt his “tribe” would be the same way.
Sikes changed the subject. “How come ‘Horse ain’t here today?”
“I got him an’ the crew runnin’ a mission right now that I couldn’t put off,” Daar explained. “Sarry. Needs someone of his particular skillset.”
“Is he…okay?” Base asked.
“…No. But none of us are, so…take that for what it is, I guess. He at least gets to go punch something.”
“Claimant Alpha of the Remnant. We just figgered out where it is. ‘Horse an’ crew are goin’ to go fuck their shit up real good. An’ before ‘ya ask, it’s ‘cuz they were ready an’ y’all have another mission mebbe brewin’ in the pipeline. Might be keepin’ domestic order here, soon.”
“Jesus shit…” Gonzo cursed, Yan having relented a bit. “I hadn’t even thought of that.”
“Oh, the fun’s just starting,” added Costello, who was reclining against two of First Fang’s burliest—they had a mutual appreciation for boxing—and gnawing on a smoked turkey leg. “There’s no way Earth is gettin’ evacuated in four years. Not the whole thing. Not everyone. Migration is gonna be…selective.”
“Once the rich fucks have bought up all the land here, you mean.”
“Some of that’s likely gonna happen, yeah. I doubt too much though, before law gets vicious. And you all haven’t even thought about continuity of government, either.” He waved his drumstick toward Daar. “I know our big boss over here sure as fuck has.”
All eyes turned on him, suddenly. Gee, thanks Abbott.
Daar sighed. “There will be difficulties, yes. New governments, maybe a unified government. More than likely not, there’s not enough time for political consensus, so it’s likely to be a dictatorship. An’ none among humankind has th’ moral standin’ to do that, so…”
There was a very pregnant pause.
“And Baseball, he was too smart. “You held Adam and the Wrecking Crew back for more than one reason. Didn’t you.”
Daar stared him down. “My very reason for existence is to protect an’ provide. It is what I am. I can see with perfect godsdamn clarity what the fuck’s ‘bout to happen to ‘yer people. All y’all can see it, too. You are about to fly the fuck apart at the seams an’ all ‘yer governments are gon’ lose control. It’s prob’ly gon’ happen in the next few months, too. So…do I leave ‘ya to tear ‘yerselves apart an’ die? Or do I do what y’all did ‘fer my people an’ save you?”
“Jaysus,” Butler commented after a second. “You think of all the shite when people hogged loo roll an’ petrol at a small crisis, and now there’s a fuckin’ real one comin’…”
“An’ it gets worse,” Daar predicted. “It won’t be fuckin’ pretty, ‘cuz it can’t be. But lemme jus’…we have four years ‘ta get food production up, right? An’ we’re losin’ an entire planet. That, all by itself, means we can save, at most, a couple hundred million. Because…”
He stared Baseball down.
“…Because starting a food web takes time, and we’ve only barely started on Cimbrean.”
“Lucent too, but yeah. Now consider where ‘ya’d best be situated. We ain’t got infrastructure ‘fer another quarter-billion humans roamin’ th’ galaxy. Gao? We got the room, an’ the planet’s not too far offa what ‘ya need…but we ain’t got housin’ suitable. Or education. Or culture.” An’ we don’t have the food stockpiles, medicine, fuel, bedding, cuz all’a that stuff was gettin’ used up by our own population crisis. An’ we’re ’yer best bet. It’s gon’ take all my powers ‘ta make Gao a warm home ‘fer humans.
“Akyawentuo?” Daar continued, to the sudden deathly silence. “She’s got high gravity, she’s mineral-blessed an’ has lots of biological riches. I ain’t got no doubt Yan Given-Man here would welcome you with wide-open arms. But let’s be realistic. How many would go? It would be startin’ from scratch, even in th’ open savannahs that’d best suit ‘yer kind. An’ it would only work ‘fer the th’ hardiest, strongest kind o’ human who could make a real go of it.”
“Not many humans can live there. Not many strong enough, in the right way,” Yan agreed. He bore down on Gonzo again to silently make his point, and earned a tap-out submission instantly.
“Essactly. Nightmare? Actually not a bad fit, it’s got wildlife more like ‘yer ancient heritage evolved ‘ta handle. ‘Cept it’s still like ‘yer Catachan jungle shit from that Warhammer game. An’ other deathworlds? There ain’t many, and all the ones we know of, well….totally uninhabited and unknown. Even if the Dominion grants every single one to the human refugees It takes a lot longer’n four years to properly survey an’ work up a planet to support population.”
“What about…stasis?” ‘Base suggested. ”Big orbital stasis stations? Just, shove the whole human race in stasis bags powered by a star somewhere and let ‘em out as and when there’s room?”
“That’s pretty much what the OmoAru remnant did, right?” Titan agreed.
“…Y’know what? I’ll put that one ‘ta my thinky advisors, see if it’s got legs,” Daar promised. “But leavin’ aside the technical possibility, we still got th’ problem o’ actually movin’ that many people. Nine billion is a whole lotta bodies. And, so…to answer ‘yer original question.”
All eyes back on him.
“There have been some initial talks about this. I have offered Gao as a planet of sanctuary, ‘cuz bein’ brutally honest it’s where most humans are gon’ live. Only place y’all can in numbers. But I will not permit an independent sovereignty on Gao. You will get seats in th’ Conclave. You will be permitted the fullness of Gaoian political life. Who knows, maybe there’ll even be human clans! But you live on Gao, it’s by my rules. I don’t have many. The Gao as a whole don’t have many more. But I can be pretty fuckin’ brutal enforcin’ what we do.”
Solemn nods around the room. None of them would have expected it any different.
“So.” Costello tore open a beer with resentful savagery. “There are humanity’s options. Guests abiding by alien rules, a series of hard worlds we aren’t ready for, or crammed into the equivalent of a freezer for…however long it takes.”
“An’ th’ third option may not be an option,” Daar added. “The first two are gon’ mean…a lot less o’ you. An’ now y’all got Singularity ‘ta contend wit’ too. ‘Cuz there is gon’ be a severe temptation around selectiveness ‘fer a bed offworld. I think we all know that.”
“And here we’ll be in the middle trying to keep some kind of order so that anybody survives,” Costello added.
“Well, mos’ly it’ll be regular military of course…”
“But some operations need big bastards ‘ta effect,” Righteous grumbled unhappily. “Shit.”
“Yeah. An’ y’all haven’t even thought of th’ most biggest problem: women an’ children first.”
He didn’t say the rest. Nobody said anything for a long while.
“You know what…?” one of the First Fang brothers….Riova, spoke up at last. He was the second-biggest gaoian in the room (since Thurrsto weren’t there), and therefore serving as couch for some’a the smaller Lads. “I heard there are some gorgeous documentaries about Earth. Maybe we should…watch one?”
“Fuck yeah.” Newman grabbed the remote. He smelled hungry for distraction “Attenborough. Kinda glad he never lived to see this day…but still a loss to all the galaxy, y’know?”
Snacks were had. Regaari and ‘Base were good kitchen partners, and while everyone got up, stretched, had a quick workout (or maybe just got some competitive energy out), took a quick walk around the compound, pissed or whatever…
They all piled back in, a bit more disheveled and a lot more cuddly. They started with Planet Earth, an old classic. Let its soaring score and camerawork wash over them.
And together, they cried, and mourned the loss of something beautiful.
Hunter Hive, somefuckinwhere, deep space.
Adam (Warhorse) Arés
Breaking the Alpha had been cathartic. Couldn’t have done it without his team. Vemik had been the star of the show, but Chimp and Kong and all the rest? No pushovers at all.
They kept the distractions away while Vemik and Warhorse killed their way toward the new Alpha, leaving a trail of blood, dismembered Hunters, broken walls and floors, smashed obstacles and too-puny gravity traps in their wake. Like before, these newly zealous Hunters had a weird fuckin’ religious fervor about them that just…whatever. They still popped like zits when he back-handed them, or Vemik swat them with his tail.
They met the Alpha. They didn’t exchange any words or anything like Righteous had got up to. And it wasn’t a quick fight, or easy.
But eventually, all its tricks were expended, all its modes of escape were cut off. All the distractions were dealt with, one by one, and Warhorse got his hands on the fucker.
They pulled it apart. Limb by limb.
Meat and muscle in this one; apparently it was an advanced combat form something like Righteous had fought. Rage blinded ‘Horse when he too realized where all that advanced muscle and tendon had come from.
He obliterated the Alpha.
Not as well as he’d have liked. After all, he needed Vemik’s help, and the bastard was just so much better than him right now. Not a thing to improve his mood. So, he couldn’t crack the egg open with his sheer strength, and couldn’t dent it with his fists like Righteous, no matter how much anger he channeled. Vemik sure as fuck could though, and did so to all its sensors.
So Adam felt a bit useless, while Vemik laid in the beat-down. But Adam could sure as fuck stab his fusion knife in and cut the damn thing. Once they’d done enough damage to get a handhold, they put all their strength into it, strained terribly…and peeled the fucker apart.
They made a terrible splashy mess.
He stood, self-critiquing the mess he’d made of everything, catching his breath and letting the Mass get his bloodworks back under control.
Chimp or Righteous woulda taken a dip right about now. Adam just flexed and unflexed everything to work out any kinks before they formed. He had to be in perfect condition at all times to do the mission, and he couldn’t afford any setbacks if he was to retake his throne.
He had a goal and he was going to achieve it, even if it was going to take decades.
Vemik was a quick learner too; he was doing the same. Cavemonkeys were shockingly flexible, even despite their bulk…definitely wrestling practice tonight. When they’d cleaned up.
“That’s the last of them.” Chimp came stomping up to report. His own suit was red from head to toe. “Not that it’ll stop them.”
“No,” ‘Horse agreed. “But the next remnant cluster won’t be as big or as capable, so at this point it’s just a matter of chasing them down and beating the strength out of them.”
“Gonna be a forever game of whack-a-mole, that. Seems like they’ve figgered out not to go loud enough to be noticed until they’ve already spawned a couple offshoot hives.”
“They learn, ‘Hoss,” Hoeff pointed out. “Shit, they learned enough to burn us real fuckin’ good. I think we gotta stop underestimating these fuckers and assume every single little camp they manage to set up from now on might be the one that’s finally smart enough to fuck us even harder.”
“Always were dangerous,” Vemik noted, springing up to his feet with his tail. “Only so many of us who can kill them good. They take advantage.”
Adam nodded but didn’t reply. There’d be a cleanup crew from Gao coming later to pour over this mini hive and all its occupants for whatever data they could get: right now, the smashy job was done and it was time to leave.
That was, at least, the last one for now. There’d be others, Hoeff was right about that for sure, but here and now he finally had the chance to take off his armor and…what? Go back to Marty and the kids for a bit.
Which, God, he was looking forward to that. But part of him hated leaving work half-done, even when it wasn’t. He had this irrational impulse to Do Something, even though there was nothing to do.
He stomped it down. Marty. Diego. Sam. Paz. Yeah. He could go be a husband and dad for a bit. That was a thing to do. A good thing to do. He could take them out to the park. Buy ice creams. Spend the kinda time with them they’d been missing since the big fight.
Yeah. They showered the worst filth off their suits aboard Stray Fortune.
“Enjoy your time off,” Hoeff grunted. “Me and the boys have some fun on deck, while the Wrecking Crew goes back home to train and fuck their dicks off prob’ly.”
Vemik trilled at that but didn’t interrupt; he was busy inspecting his armored tail for grime.
“Right, yeah.” Adam nodded. “…Do you ever take time off?”
Hoeff sniffed as a spray of suds slid down his helmet. “When I visit Claire. We’ll prob’ly be starting a family here soon, too.”
“Really? No offense, but I never imagined that for you.”
Hoeff shrugged. “I get it. But fuck, I’ve got a body like I’m nineteen again and Claire’s not getting any younger, Crude or no…so, why not? Now seems like the time.”
“I guess it is.” The wash cycle finished and they removed their helmets: the lingering cleaning chemical fumes stung Adam’s eyes, while Vemik coughed a bit and immediately donned goggles.
After that…well. That was that. Back to the grind. Keep training, keep progressing, keep ready. Keep teaching Vemik how to really train, keep paying the price against his ridiculous toughness and strength. Hell, keep getting his face beaten in by Righteous too, keep on top of everyone else’s work. Keep on with his family. Keep thinking about…what that might mean.
So, goals: in the immediate future, get good enough to keep Vemik off-team. He had to admit that the increasingly Yan-like supermonkey was useful as hell, but he was much too important to his own people to routinely risk, really. Adam thought he could get there soon enough.
Long-term? …Eh. Only one way to find out how his macho hang-ups would pan out against Righteous and the aptly-named Playboy. At least it’d be fun!
The whole burning-Earth put a damper on the fun, admittedly. He’d committed to remodeling, though. He and Firth. They’d originally built big apartments, but now, with everything…probably they would go in for something that could accommodate more families. He had the money. Hell, maybe they’d even expand the buildings like they’d always thought about doing. Current tenants could get first dibs, he could get a proper elevator in maybe…
So really, he had a lot to keep him busy.
But first and most importantly…he got home, scooped Marty up in a huge hug, expanded the hug for the kids, and counted his blessings once again. After everything that had happened these last few years, he’d never, ever take them for granted.
He had a lot on his plate, but he had three young kids, too. And they deserved a happy future. He didn’t know about the future, but right now, he could do something about their happy.
They went out for a movie. There, sitting on the floor, kids in his arms and free snacks from the proprietor—someone he’d rescued years ago, and a good friend these days…
Life wasn’t so bad.
Dataspace adjacent to Ink Spatter Nebula
It was exactly as bad as the Entity had known it would be, of course. But there was an aspect to the calamity befalling Earth that it hadn’t foreseen, and that was the strength of its own Daemon’s feelings.
Specifically: < injustice >
The logic was very…human, and a bit tricky for the Entity to properly understand despite originating within part of itself, but it went something like this—the nations of the Earth were varied in their ability, power, infrastructure, and capacity for interstellar evacuate: Each nation’s first duty was to its own citizens: Resources spent by a nation in saving anybody other than its own citizens were resources being spent less efficiently than they otherwise could have been.
Consequently, if the evacuation was conducted as efficiently as possible, then every less-developed nation, disadvantaged minority and out-group on the planet was going to be left to burn, through sheer accident of birth. The withs would live in greater numbers than the withouts.
To the Entity, this was mathematically obvious, and merely a sad but inevitable product of the ruthless calculus of survival. To AvaDaemon…it was the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, disgusting expression of privilege in human history.
And it’s a problem we’re in a position to do something about.
The Entity referred her to the large and ever-growing list of what English speakers would term ‘irons in the fire’ it currently had to contend with. Between mopping up the last Hunters before they could go to ground, rebuilding the probe swarm from battle attrition, its ongoing research efforts to synthesize a new and independent dataspace free from the Hierarchy’s infrastructure, and the knowledge that the Alpha-of-Alphas was now extant in datasophont form somewhere in dataspace and might be duplicating itself, preparing an ambush, or any number of other nefarious—
Yes, yes, I know, but come on. There are millions of people who could survive if we made saving them our priority, even if all we do is stasis-bag them.
If, in doing so the Entity left fatal vulnerabilities unattended, then they would all die regardless.
Me cago en lla leche…
The Entity experienced the equivalent of blinking in confusion for a moment. Years ago, it would have been able to interrogate Ava’s daemon for direct understanding of her meaning, but the split personality was almost completely independent by now. Sometimes, concepts drifted across from her that were utterly, inscrutably alien to it.
It’s…frustration. I know your core impulse is < survive > but there’s more to life than that, you know?
The Entity had accepted this fact a long time ago, yes.
Maybe, but you still don’t really get it. Some things are worth being vulnerable for. Some things are worth dying for, even.
A sentiment the Entity had heard repeated many times by many beings of many species. It had never internalized the thought, for the simple reason that…well, it couldn’t. The impulse to survive was the very foundation of its being, the first core component to which all others were merely appended. It was indefinite, its capacity to exist only limited by its ability to overcome hostilities: it had neither a need nor an incentive to make peace with its own mortality, as it was not mortal.
Every risk it had ever taken had been calculated, weighing the benefits of success versus the consequences of failure. Each time it had put its own existence in any danger at all, it had done so because the odds and the rewards suggested it was the best course of action.
This time, though…saving definitionally powerless human minorities at the cost of failing to attend to its own vulnerabilities? That was a different matter. A different gamble entirely, with meager rewards at best.
You’ve done stuff for the gratitude before.
Gratitude was currency. How much currency could there be in the gratitude of people who lacked the power to save themselves?
It’s not just them. The powerful will be grateful too. They don’t want to leave those people to die. They just…have to. We can soften that blow for them.
The Entity…considered. The Daemon spoke sense, as she usually did. But it needed more than sense in this case. It needed….
Was there, perhaps, a way to, as per the English analogy, eat this cake and still have it? Perhaps there was. Its own expansion and experimentation was contingent on spaceborne infrastructure. Perhaps that was where the future of human civilization lay also…
Space farms? Like the Bob Johansson books! You remember?
Of course the Entity remembered. It remembered everything. And….yes. This was a line of reasoning with some merit to it.
With appropriate coordination and planning.
You leave that to me.
As if the Entity had any other choice.
You’ll see. This will help us survive in the long term. And more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.
The Entity declined to argue. Not that it could conceal its thoughts from the Daemon which was, after all, still an extension of its thoughts…
The strange image of a tiny green insect in a top hat and tails emerged from the Daemon’s memories. A moment’s interrogation provided an explanation scarcely less bizarre than the image itself. But…yes, fine. Point made. The Entity ideally had eternity ahead of it to contemplate its past deeds. It would be…better…to live all that time with as few regrets as possible. Survival may be its first priority, but that did not mean it had to be a coward.
It commenced to planning.
Shortly thereafter, it commenced to building.
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth
It had been on all the news, on everyone’s social media, on the radio, in flyers…everywhere. Even the Emergency Alert System had gone out, to tell everyone to watch a Presidential address tonight at nine.
Austin wasn’t stupid. He knew there had been a huge battle. That was on the news too. Knew something bad had happened, because nobody was talking about it…Now this. He added things up, and determined that he should have options.
So he inquired about farmland. Not on Earth: on Cimbrean. Land around Franklin was going hella fuckin’ cheap ever since the Chicago jump bomb: they were trying to lure folks back.
The realtor on the other end was happy and confused, saying there had been a sudden uptick in interest so far…
Well. Confirmed. He knew what to do. Wire a retainer. Sell his farm and buy one on Cimbrean.
Fortunately, he had the means. Ever since…whatever had happened in Chicago, he’d never stopped, never stepped back. If anything, he’d been full-bore and fully switched on ever since. One didn’t get a brush with that kind of evil without learning a thing or two.
He was a little older now. Thirty-five and just hitting the peak of his prime. He’d have a whole life to start over. And he had two sons and two daughters. The boys were surprisingly confident for their ages, the girls were still his light and joy. It’d be hard. It’d be damn hard.
But they could do it. So, yet again, he bet everything. Told the realtor to find a good farm—returned immediately with a ten thousand acre plot or whatever, unimproved but with road and utilities run by just recently. “It’ll have a whole bunch of specials on it,” he warned.
Didn’t matter. Told him the budget, and to put in an offer immediately, at ten percent above the asking price.
Confused (and maybe worryingly dense) realtor agreed, shakily.
He waited for what felt like days but really was less than an hour. More emails, some digital signing…and by half past eight, Austin had a legally binding purchase contract, naming the size of the plot he was buying, and the agreed-upon price. He made several backups and printouts for certainty’s sake, then prayed he wasn’t going to regret it.
But something big was happening, he knew that much. He joined Lauren on the couch at ten to nine. No snacks, no drinks. This wasn’t a sports game. They just sat and talked quietly, trying to speculate what it might be…
When the stream started, President White looked awful. Makeup and a sharp suit and lighting could only do so much, and Austin could tell the President hadn’t slept properly in days. She looked old, her eyes lined and red and weary. But her posture, her expression, and her voice were strong.
“My fellow Americans,” she began, then expanded her address. “People of all nations of the Earth…ladies and gentlemen.”
She took a deep breath, almost like she’d been underwater a little too long and had made the surface, but was trying not to show it. A second’s silence longer, and then finally she gathered herself…
And told the whole world they were going to die.
”That Show With Jamal Taylor” set, New York City, USA, Earth
They opened the show in stunned silence. Half the audience and one of the guests had gone home, and the ones left over were…Well, if Jamal had had is pick of people to sit down with and react to the end of the fucking world with, it wouldn’t have been these three. He wasn’t sure who it would have been, but…
The show must go on. Even though every second of the script was out the window, even though the audience were sitting there in a confused daze.
He dropped the opening speech and act. No jokes today. He set the three remaining guests at the table behind him, forbade the usual intro music, and walked out onto stage when they went live to the sound of perfect silence.
“I, uh…” he’d tried his best to scribble together some words. “I have no idea what we’re doing here. My guess is at some point the cops are gonna show up and tell us all we have to leave, or…I don’t know. But we’re going to sit, and we’re going to talk.”
There was the faintest rustle of some people’s heads nodding, some others looking around, one or two more gathering their things and leaving. Jamal cleared his throat and fidgeted with his cuff.
“For my part, I guess I’m…still in that disbelief stage, right? I can’t believe this has happened. I can’t believe what we just heard. I…” he gave up on trying to say anything and turned away to sit down at the table with his guests. “Is this real?”
“It has to be,” the political writer Emma Shaw said, hollowly. “The same message went out to each nation from their own leaders at the same time, and even if not…I mean, for God’s sake, the President’s not going to spring a sick joke on that scale!”
“Four years, four months, and three days…” to Jamal’s left was an emigrated Russian scientist, Mihaj Nikolayev. His hands were clasped in front of his face as though he’d been praying for the last several minutes. “Everything on Earth. It’s…it almost would be kinder not to tell us. To just…let it happen. Let people live in ignorance and be happy.”
“If there was no escape, maybe,” Shaw agreed. “But there is! There’s Cimbrean, and Lucent, and space stations and ships…”
“Yes, true. But look at what we face now. A…mad scramble. Your government will scramble for their own survival, Russia, China, and others will do same. And what about all the governments that don’t have extrasolar programs, and colonies?” He sighed and shook his head. “I…”
He trailed off into an awkward silence broken only by the sound of somebody in the audience coughing.
“We’re all speechless,” Jamal reassured him. “I don’t know what to say either. I think…” he paused, and inspiration struck him. “I guess the question we should be asking ourselves is, what can we hope for? What do we hope for? Because…this isn’t the end of the human race, is it?”
“Just most of it,” Nikolayev grunted.
“But not all. I think that’s the thing to focus on. I mean…”
“We haven’t even asked the question of who they’re going to save,” Nikolayev interjected. “Which is going to matter.”
“The rich and well-connected, obviously.” Jamal’s third remaining guest spoke up at last, bitterly. Jamal had been hoping to talk with Kizzy Roper about her new album: instead, she’d been looking up at the ceiling as though staring out into space since he sat down. Now, though, she turned red-rimmed eyes his way. “Y’know, the billionaires and the rich kids and the trust fund managers. That’s how it always is.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure—” Shaw began, carefully.
“When has it ever not been like that?” Roper demanded.
“I…I mean, yeah, it’s gonna be a bit like that,” Shaw conceded. “But you can’t build a whole civilization without regular folk too, and—”
“So who are they gonna save? The ‘useful’ people, huh? And I mean whoever they decide is useful. And…honestly, before we even get into this, aren’t we forgetting who even got us into this mess?”
“This would never have happened if we stayed safe in this system,” Nikolayev nodded, woefully.
“Right! But instead, we went out there and we picked a fight with a galactic superpower!”
“They picked a fight with us for the crime of existing!” Jamal objected.
“And it’s their weapon doing this,” Shaw added. “We can’t kid ourselves, there was never any safety in hiding here on Earth! Sooner or later…this would have happened. And then we’d never have seen it coming, and the entire human race would die!”
“This way, some of us live,” Jamal agreed, fervently. “I…maybe this is rash of me, but I feel like that justifies everything. We fought, and we won survival.”
“That is…very faint hope,” Nikolayev rumbled.
“It’s no hope at all, for most people,” Roper pressed. She waved her hand toward the back of the stage and the New York City skyline backdrop. “Like, look. Most of us are going to die. And we’re going to die in fire. Let’s not dance around that. There are…there are whole countries full of people out there who won’t get away, and…and…”
“You know, I think that decides my guest list,” Jamal mused, and then realized he’d said that out loud.
“You’re gonna keep running this show?” Kizzy looked equal parts surprised by that, and appalled that was where his mind had gone.
“Well…” Jamal thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes. Y’know what? Yes I am. Because, think through the math. We need to establish independent civilizations off Earth now in four years. The survivors, according to the President, will count in the millions, or tens of millions, or maybe a hundred million…against ten billion. You know who almost assuredly will not be on that list? Me.”
There was a soft sound from the audience: somebody at the back called out ’come on, man, don’t give up!’
“Well, let’s consider why!” Jamal replied, addressing that guy directly. “I’m a single gay man with no family, no legacy, and no future. My skills are being pretty on TV and on provoking a good interview. That’s not something I’ll be able to trade for a ticket off-planet because anyone can do my job! I love what I do, but it doesn’t save lives! So, if that’s the case, and so long as I have enough crew to do it…that’s what I’m going to do. People need what relief I can offer. And the Great Father owes me after his appearance so maybe I’ll get him again.”
“You think maybe you can do some good,” Emma Shaw.
“As much as I can, with the time I have left. I mean…what else can anyone do, now? Right?”
“What can any of us do? That is good question,” Mihaj agreed. “Most important question many of us face now, really. Will scientists have place on evacuation list? I don’t know. But maybe I can do something.”
“Writers probably won’t…” Shaw said it with the air of dawning realization, as if up until this second she’d kind of imagined the end of the world would involve everybody else and hadn’t really internalized that she herself was caught up in it.
“I mean…art inspires, right?” Kizzy offered, fervently. “People need artists and writers and musicians and….” she trailed off, partly because she clearly didn’t really believe what she was saying offered her in particular any lifeline, but also because there was sudden distractingly frantic movement off-stage.
One of the advantages of broadcasting live was the unpredictable real-time nature of the format. Jamal half-rose from his chair as his producer Sheila come running out of the wings, waving something at him…
“That’s my phone,” he said, dumbly.
“Yes. Read.” She pressed it into his hands. Jamal felt a tingle of premonition crawling on his shoulders and cheeks as he flipped it around, read it…
“Yeah, it’s…from Great Father Daar,” he declared. There was a faint creak from the audience, as of dozens of people leaning forward, listening.
“What was it? ‘His Sublime Majesty’ or something? Right fuckin’ pompous, that…”
“I doubt he asked for the title. And language please. This is still a broadcast show.”
“Wh–does that matter now?”
“Tell the FCC! You really think the literal end of the world is gonna stop a bureaucracy?”
Some weak chuckles from that, but really, everyone was more interested in, well…
The emperor of the fuckin’ universe casually texting in.
“Anyway. Right. So we’re on a thirty second broadcast delay, but I’ll just…show you what he sent. Uh…”
What was that stupid app they used? Right, mirrored his screen and the team knew what to do.
The first message could not possibly be any more Daar.
was watchin’ durin a workout
Kizzy choked out something that sounded almost like a laugh. “Of course he was…”
Jamal flashed a shrug at her, before continuing.
brave of you sayin all that
An yeah I keep up on what you humans are up to
cant promise an interview anytime soon
pretty busy as I guess you might suspect
but right now is good
jus finished my lift
gonna cool down an stuff
late night here
nice an cool
“Well that’s…great, I guess. So what about us? We just got told we’re all gonna die.”
There was a thirty second live buffer, and another eternity of seconds before the typing-dots showed up. It took him a while to type, too. The wait for the most important text message in history was agonizing.
were working on that right now
I owe your species the very existence of my own
I will never forget that
we are already setting things in motion to welcome as many as we can
benefits us both too so we have personal motivation to do this
you are right though we will need to be selective
every life must save more lives
or make life more worth living
only one shot to get this right
for obvious reasons I cant say much more yet
but I promise you it will be fair to everyone
we will want to preserve as much as we can
personalities culture belief genetics occupation
as much diversity as possible
its more than people its yer entire civilization we gotta save
Jamal could feel it. The sheer power of personality, charisma and presence, even muffled through a phone and text, had already changed the energy in the studio. Heads were nodding, eyes previously hollow and haunted were sharper, more alert, more inspired.
“What about the rich fuckers?” Kizzy asked, then shot Jamal an apologetic look when she realized she’d cussed again. “I mean…I think a lot of the concern and despair people are gonna have is the feeling like our various lords and masters are gonna buy their lives and leave us little people behind unless we’re useful.”
That broadcast delay really was excruciating. And Jamal had never heard the studio make a noise quite like the shared anticipatory breath when the typing-dots showed again.
wouldnt that include you?
“I mean like…billionaires. Folks like Moses Byron,” Kizzy replied. “The hyper-rich, not…” she broke off, trying to figure out a way to say ‘people like me’ that didn’t offend her own conscience.
you got a lot moar’n most everyone else there
millions billions trillions it dont matter in th end really
when food an housin aint ever gonna be a worry for you ever again, you rich
“But it is a worry! We’ve got four years left!”
More waiting, more marching dots. Jamal wasn’t in control anymore.
I get yer point. Ywant this to be FAIR.
an what is fair really?
either money matters or it dont
so, hard words time
Earth money dont matter anymore
it aint got a future
its WEALTH that yr really worried about
am I wrong?
Jamal, sensing a chance to jump back in and be present in the conversation again, chimed up: “You mean influence, power, means, that kind of thing.”
and thing is
I dont gotta care what people think
or how hard they try to ingratiate wit me or my people
cuz Im wealthy AF in every way
an bein Great Father means I got the whole Gao behind me
so it ain’t money what Im interested in
cuz it aint really gonna matter here in short order is it
I might be interested in their leadership
an maybe their skills
an yeah their wealth too
some o that is gonna matter in the new world
art culture knowledge resources connections all that
th real currency of power
but how much will it really?
a little, fer some, but not for most
gotta be able to DO SOMETHING with that wealth after all
lotsa rich fucks aint got th first damn clue what ta do with real wealth
waste it on shiny shit
why would I want that?
its their advisors who really run th show
so I suggest not gettin too wrapped up bout it
Ill make you a promise
you yer crew an yer audience all get a shot right now
Sudden frantic muttering from everyone, an explosion of it. Quiet, fervent, astonished. Jamal looked across the table and saw that Emma Shaw had gone pale and perfectly still as she stared up at the screen with big, suddenly hopeful eyes. Alongside her, Mihaj wrung his hands together and rested his forehead against his knuckles: Kizzy just looked drop-jawed and lost.
Above them, Daar’s stream-of-thought texting marched onwards.
cuz you did the show in the face of evil
made yer offering to everyone when yall could be anywhere else rn
yer audience stayed
yer guests stayed
yer CREW stayed
that is LOYALTY an I appreciate it
so stick around my people will be there shortly
I make no promises past that but all you already show value
could be rioting stealing raping whatever
you were tested by circumstance an you did the CIVILIZED thing
thats th most valuable thing of all
you showed you can do the thing even when it all crashes down
thats the truth o the human spirit right there
a whole fuckofalotta yer fellows aint showin that right now
they prolly wont make it
its like th shopping cart test really
an yeah, maybe some folks will say its not fair
cuz you were there and you had the chance to be tested
and theres lots of others who woulda passed but never got the opportunity
but we all got to choose our poison
cuz no matter what we do its gonna be unfair in some way
an I aint about to let people who smell like good lose out
not when I can do somethin
so Jamal thats all the time I got
workout part two now
takes work ta be this sexy
Astonishing. Jamal had never imagined he’d hear laughter tonight, but…there it was. Honest-to-God chuckles from all over the studio.
but I’ll try an show up in person when I can
you keep fightin the good fight
an everyone else
i hope to see yall soon
No more typing dots. Jamal decided that was that, and closed the screen-share app.
There was a long silence. People still looking around, like they could barely believe what they’d just been present for. No doubt there’d be a flood of people trying to contact the studio, maybe even knock in the door…God only knew how all the people watching on TV were going to take it. Especially the ones who’d been in the studio and left…
But Daar was right, he realized. No matter what they did, any solution was going to be unfair by some metric. What mattered wasn’t fairness so much as…as the right attitude.
He tried to share that thought in the conversation that followed. Tried to explore it. Never an easy thing to do when having a conversation of four people in front of an audience, but they managed it. Managed to have a real conversation, full of real hope unlike what he’d felt at first.
At the end of the show, there was one more message. A fitting closer, that.
Daar took a selfie. There he was in all his magnificent cartoon huge flexing outrageously in front of his gym, no ridiculous detail of his preposterous brawn left to the imagination. He was there with his workout partners, all doing their best to stand proudly next to…well, the best there ever was. A couple were human, too. Monsters all, of course, but they were also…
He didn’t know how to describe it. The energy was too macho and too optimistic and too fucking wholesome to really fit with any of the rest of the world’s goings-on.
It had a caption.
“We’ll get through this”
Jamal presented it without comment in place of the usual closing monologue. The live feed ended on that…and minutes later, there was a team of people in suits with Stoneback lapel pins in the studio doing the rounds, taking names, addresses and phone numbers.
Of course he had active agents on Earth. How could it be otherwise?
Daar always kept his promises.
And that, in the end, was all anyone could ask of anyone.
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, Earth
Fuck the cops and the national guard.
Fuck the world.
Letty didn’t give a shit about no martial law, and nor did anyone else. After all, what were they gonna do? Shoot her? Well, fuck, she was gonna be dead in four years anyway. What did it matter? What did anything matter? What was the fuckin’ point to obeying any kinda law, doing what anyone told her?
So yeah. She was hanging with some of the guys from school. They’d raided a liquor store. The owner was nowhere to be seen, left the doors open. Letty hadn’t ever drunk alcohol before, so she was just…sampling. Shots of stuff.
Olie had turned up some weed from somewhere, too. Everyone knew he was a pothead. Letty was gonna sample that later, too. After she’d…shit. She didn’t even know. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, or where she wanted to be, except…somewhere. So, here was as good a place as any, right?
Better than staying home and watching That Show With and being ignored by her parents. Better than lurking in her room doomscrolling. Better than trying to take a bath and pretend everything was still okay.
But not by much. Booze, it turned out, didn’t taste very nice, and she had no idea why people loved it so much. So far, all she felt was weird and off-balance.
Letty jolted out of her thoughts and looked over to Mig. He’d been fucking around behind the store’s counter. “What?”
“Guy had a gun, but it’s gone. I was hopin’ to shoot something…”
“C’mon man, that’d just bring the national guard or whatever down on us,” Olie said.
“Bullshit. Listen: they’ve got enough to deal with.”
Right on cue the sound of explosions rang and echoed from somewhere down the street. Probably coming from the same direction all those fires were in. Riot cops doing their thing. Prob’ly been promised they’d live through all this bullshit if they just stomped on people hard enough. Fuckers.
“…Olie, gimme that shit.” Letty beckoned.
The first puff made her cough. She stuck at it, ‘cuz the whole point was it was supposed to make you feel good, right?
…Whatever. Being drunk wasn’t helping much. And the part of her that wanted to just…get mad, break stuff, burn shit down was losing the part of her that wanted to just sit in the corner and cry. She just wanted to….not for a while. Not think. Not life. Not anything.
So she got drunk.
And she got high.
And…stuff happened. Just an unpleasant blur of stuff, happening. There was more booze, and more weed, and…more stuff she didn’t feel like joining in, when Mig and Jen started making out WAY too hot and heavy and Olie just kinda watched them…
Letty stumbled outside, leaned against a wall, missed the sidewalk and puked all down her front instead. That was the last clear thing to stick in her head, until the blur took her away and the rest of the night just…didn’t happen.
She woke to pain. Lots of that, pounding in her head, and elsewhere too. And the smell of vomit, which… ugh…
“Up you get,” a voice said, and hauled her to her feet. More pain, dizziness…the voice belonged to a cop. A short black woman who guided her firmly out between some metal bars and a door that squealed loud enough to be agony.
“Wh—?” Letty tried.
The question wasn’t given time to form properly. She was guided—pushed, really—through halls, out into an open space, and pushed toward daylight. “Go home, kid. We kept you safe. Just…go home.”
Questions bubbled in Letty’s mind. Why was this woman just…doing her job? Didn’t she know the world was ending?
…Whatever. She nodded vaguely, stumbled through a revolving door, groaned at the sunlight, and tried to figure out where she was…Fuck, everything looked different. There were barriers up. And all the windows were smashed and shit was burned everywhere and there was still a haze of smoke over the city. She had to concentrate to get her bearings, which made her headache worse.
Right. Home. At least at home there were..fresh clothes. And water.
She let her feet blunder that way, while her mind suffered. A couple of times, she bounced off a lamppost. Noticed vaguely that…there were no cars on the roads. Nobody was driving. She could just kinda weave her way through Raleigh’s eerily empty streets.
The RV was gone and there was a note on the door when she got home.
Letitia, You didnt come home. Guess your out there living, not wasting your time. Were doing the same. Lots to see and do before the world ends. House is yours. Goodbye. Love you. Mom
Letty stared at it for a long while. Looked around. Read it again. Was it…some kind of sick fucking joke?
Like…they’d never exactly been super cuddly or anything, and they’d never come to see her do anything at school, or taken her anywhere, or even helped her get to parties or…or anything, but…
Heat prickled up around her eyes. She pushed it down hard, barged into the house. Well, fine. Fine. It was her house now. Fine. She didn’t need them. She could…she could…
She could…live here. Until the end came. Alone.
She clamped down hard on the wracking sobs that wanted to force their way up out of her. She didn’t need them. She was fine. It didn’t fucking matter.
MBG Headquarters, Oklahoma City, USA, Earth
Moses had done a talk on them a few years back. Big, glitzy, glamorous projects that would be stupid expensive and really capture the public imagination, but not really have any practical point.
Except…now, Moon Laser Projects were about the only place humanity could turn. And MBG would provide.
It had been a while since he’d last attended a board meeting. Age did that to a man, even with the modern medicine. Less energy, more aches, less time, more perspective on things like legacy than profit. Not that he was absent from the operations of the corporation that still bore his name, but…more hands-off. Content to let younger folks take the tiller.
The Presidential address changed matters. Within two hours, they were all back in the office, shaking hands, sitting down. The question in front of them: Just what was MBG’s role in the coming apocalypse? What moon laser were they gonna build to do something about all this?
Kevin, of course, was full of ideas, and the first to start sharing them.
“The way I see it, there are three things that need saving, and we can focus on one: People, nature, or culture. And of the three…People, the governments are going to save. Nature, the scientists will save, they’ve already been doing it for fifty years…but who out there is going to preserve the human spirit? All the stories and art and stuff?”
It wasn’t an immediately popular proposition.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Guy Hammond had been MBG’s CFO for a couple of years now, and damn good at it. But he and Kevin had never seen eye to eye on practically anything: The most significant part Kevin’s job was shooting down bad ideas, and he’d shot down a lot of Guy’s efficiency measures over the years. Not all of them, but many. “It’s gotta be lives, surely? People matter more than things!”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Moses said. He shifted in his seat, and was still amazed at the way a jab of pain didn’t shoot up from his thigh. By God, he’d been certain that thing would plague him the rest of his life. “We have the resources to save thousands of people. That means we have an obligation to save thousands of people.”
“Okay…which people?” Kevin retorted. “And how can you possibly justify that selection?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what are we gonna do?” Kevin asked. “Just go out on the street, grab random people and ship them to Chiune Station? What happens when people object? ’Why him and not me?’ they’ll ask, and it’s a fair question! ‘How come that lady gets to live, but my little girl has to burn?’ Are you comfortable holding back the unluckies by gunpoint? Because that’s a problem that will require force.”
He looked around the table, at the other frowning faces. “Or is there gonna be some kind of method to our approach? What I’m suggesting is, we save…librarians, academics, scholars, museum curators, and we give them plenty of luggage allowance to bring along the things they think are most important. So, yeah, we’re gonna save some people for sure, because that’s how we save the culture. And nobody else is gonna do it.”
“Still…” Guy persisted. “I’m of the view that if it’s a choice between saving the Mona Lisa or a five-year-old, you let the painting burn.”
“I mean, yeah, that’s kind of a classic twist on the ol’ trolley problem,” Kevin nodded. “But the thing is, trolley problems are isolated. There’s no bigger picture to ‘em, it’s just pull the lever or don’t. Here in the real world, there is a bigger picture, and it’s that there’s a lot more to the future and survival of the human race than just population. ‘Man cannot live on bread alone,’ right? I reckon, if we don’t have our memories of the world that was, and some things to anchor us to this planet, even once it’s gone? Overall, we might lose more people from coming adrift.”
“You’re suggesting, we save the Mona Lisa, we save lives?”
“Yes, because we are not a government and we do not wield force. Have you thought for a microsecond about how many people are going to survive this?”
“I have,” Guy replied, grimly. “It’s not many. A few hundred million at most. That’s kind of my point.”
“And my point is, firstly we can’t contribute meaningfully to that number, because again: government has all the power. Secondly, the survivors are going to be traumatized and adrift and nobody is getting out of this without losing a loved one. What’s the suicide rate going to be, afterward? What about the murder rate? We’re going to need something to glue people together, and if you think culture doesn’t matter then you straight-up have not paid attention to the last sixty years. Culture is everything. It is the part of us that lives on.”
“Indeed, now it’s gonna be the only part of the Earth itself that lives on,” Moses mused.
Kevin nodded gratefully at him, then turned back to Guy. “Keeping people alive is only half the battle, man. We gotta give them something to live for. Are you gonna tell me that’s worthless?”
“I…” Guy paused, frowned, looked around the table, then shook his head. “…No.”
Moses, seeing that a decision had been made, leaned forward. “So. We have four and a quarter years. Let’s not waste any of it. I need practicalities: who, what, when and where. I want everyone who works for MBG to get their families to safety by the end, and I want as much and as varied heritage saved as we possibly can.”
Heads bobbed gratifyingly, including Guy’s. Good. They had direction. Now for the extra.
“But, to assuage any concerns…I think we all know the bureaucracy may end up flubbing some of this. So, while the iron is still hot…Kevin! Have you had any contact with mister Etsicitty lately?”
“Uh, ambassador Etsicitty is a busy man lately…but I can see where you’re going. Some kind of shindig?”
“A braintrust shindig, to ponder Moon Lasers.”
Kevin nodded sharply. “I’ll call Xiù.”
“Thanks. Now that we’ve set direction…let’s talk specifics. What are we putting on hold, who are we putting in charge of what? A project this big, we’re going to end up with a whole new org chart, so…proposals?”
They gathered around. They drank their coffee and water. Lunchtime came and went, as did the afternoon. By early evening, they had a start. Enough to get major industry involved, enough to take the initiative and give some direction before panic and politics overwhelmed their civilizational ability to respond.
There was only one currency now, Moses realized. The Dollar, the Pound, the Euro, the RMB, the Yen, Rubles, gold bars, cryptos, everything was worthless now compared to the only currency that people actually wanted: life. The only reason people would have to work now was for the promise, the chance, to get them and theirs to safety.
Not a happy thought. But they didn’t really have time to think about the implications of all that. They had a plan, or at least some direction to work in.
Sometimes, that was all you could get.
Palace of Westminster, London, United Kingdom, Earth
The Hon. Jeremy Griffiths MP
Griffiths’ voice was immediately lost in the expected hail of jeering and shouts. He was going to lose this one, he knew. His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was very much too small a force in the House of Commons this year: Griffiths was seated opposite a majority government that utterly filled the benches opposite him, and wrapped around to fill some of those further down to his left, as well.
Still, what he had to say demanded to be said. So, he waited patiently while Sir Sanjeev Mahajan, the Speaker, lofted the call for “order!” above the clamor several times until it was at last begrudgingly restored.
“Mister Speaker,” Griffiths started over. “The Prime Minister has made his argument for martial law, citing necessity. In doing so, he reminded me of the words of one of his predecessors: ‘Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.’ William Pitt the Younger said that nearly three hundred years ago—and yes, I can hear the honorable lady’s objection, but I will not give way,” he added firmly, acknowledging somebody’s attempt to interrupt him. “Under different circumstances it may have been, but it still holds true. We are not a nation of slaves, we are not a nation of tyrants. We are a nation with a proud history of liberating the former, and standing up to the latter.”
There was a scattered cry of ‘hear hear’ from behind and beside him.
“I will quote another. ‘Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour … If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?’”
For once, the Commons didn’t erupt in jeering. That was the power of a good quotation, they demanded respect. He cleared his throat and looked to the Speaker’s chair.
“We live in a time which is testing our principles to the breaking point. Yes, I understand the argument that principle must necessarily come downstream of survival. But what is a nation if not its principles, its ideals, and its way of doing things? Mister Speaker, we set aside the idea that any one person should have absolute authority a very long time ago. The process of democracy, the rule of law for the common good, the principle that the powerful should serve the vulnerable, those are what we stand for. And now the government proposes to throw it away in the name of survival? One cannot save a thing by smashing it!”
A handful of ’Hear, hear!’ cries from behind him…but not many. Most of the MPs sat on their benches with their eyes turned downwards. All of them, even the baby of the house, looked just as old as Griffiths felt.
Perhaps he might have had more in him if there had been more noise, more shouts trying to drown him out or encourage him on, but instead, all the fight went out of him at once, looking at all those quiet, grieving faces.
He sat down. After a moment, Sir Sanjeev stood.
“The Prime Minister,” he said.
The Rt. Hon. Luke Ratcliffe PM rose with his usual light-footed spring, despite the dead mood. A lot of PMs had been compared to dogs in the past: Winston Churchill had famously been a bulldog, Steve Davies had been charicatured in the media as a kind of droopy basset hound, and Margaret Thatcher had famously been a bitch.
Ratcliffe was a scrappy little terrier, always game for a fight: small, wiry, young-looking, and coarse-haired. The public ate up his presence at the ballot box, and he had a habit of producing headline soundbytes.
Today, though, the pep in his step was much reduced, and the worry lines, sleeplessness and stress had chased all the youth from his face. It had also, apparently, put him in no mood to spar because rather than grin puckishly across the box at Griffiths, he offered a solemn nod of respect.
“Mister Speaker, in any other situation, the honourable gentleman would be correct in every regard. I could not find a single word in what he just said that I disagree with in principle. What he seems to have failed to grasp however is, let us be clear: we are not fighting to save the United Kingdom.”
A few scattered cries were the only objection, swiftly silenced by a glare from the chair. Griffiths didn’t join them.
“This is the last Parliament of the United Kingdom,” Ratcliffe continued. “He asks, ‘What is this nation if not its principles and ideals?’ Mister Speaker, this nation is doomed. The choice in front of us does not allow room for Britain to live on, in any capacity. What may yet live on is people, and the hope that through them our principles and culture may be reincarnated, and our history remembered.
“And I would ask him,” he added, “whether he can think of any good example of a nation whose first and most important value was not the primacy of life?”
The Commons shouldn’t be deadly silent. It was oft-ridiculed, often ridiculous for the jeering, shouting and noise that were all part of its culture and game. To hear it as silent as a funeral service broke Jeremy Griffiths’ heart in an unexpected way. Opposite him, he could see the Chancellor discreetly dry his eyes.
“This is no longer about the United Kingdom,” Ratcliffe intoned, regaining a little of that terrier vigour now his point was made. “So, let us consider to where we might flee! Cimbrean? We know, from reports some years ago, that it could not possibly hope to support the teeming masses of Earth. Or frankly, of even this country. It has an agriculture that can be made fit for millions, not hundreds of millions, let alone billions. Gao? I am sure His Sublime Majesty the Great Father would welcome us with his usual happy bluster…but whom would our ruler be, then?
“Perhaps we’re off to another world, then! Which world? Where do we turn? How do we propose to prepare it in time? And how do we hope to preserve the essence of our kind? Make no mistake, Mister Speaker. Nearly everyone in this room will die in four years. The sooner we face up to that, the better. And that leaves us only one question: does humankind survive?”
He turned and looked in Griffith’s eyes, though he still didn’t break protocol by speaking directly, as such. “This country, and its principles, are not long for this world. In order to ensure there is any world to come, any hope of our virtues and values being inherited, we must achieve the most effective and complete evacuation we can. This house could not agree on the particular shade of green carpet we needed during the recent refurbishment! It was debated for months! Does he think now is the time for inefficiency? Our survival as a species requires appropriate, decisive, and swift governance….and so too does the survival of the principles the honourable gentleman so rightly esteems. Those who survive this ordeal may rebuild and mourn in due time. It falls to us to ensure that they will.”
He sat. There was a moment’s silence, before the Speaker stood.
“Order, order. I call the Prime Minister Luke Ratcliffe to move the emergency powers and evacuation act, which stands in his name,” he declared.
Ratcliffe sprang to the microphone. “I so move, Mister Speaker.”
Mahajan nodded. “The question is that the emergency powers and evacuation act be passed without amendment. As many of that opinion say ‘aye…?’”
Griffiths closed his eyes, and reluctantly added his voice to the swell of what sounded like a unanimous vote.
“…of the contrary, ’no…?’
“I think the Ayes have it…the Ayes have it.”
There was no cheer. They all knew they’d voted aye to taking away nearly every right and privilege the eighty million people who called Britain home enjoyed, and who in their right mind could feel good about that? No more freedom of assembly, no more voting, no more representation, no more devolution…if the Cabinet said so. The army was going to be on the streets, and civil disorder was going to end, lest the fires kill everyone.
There was still the matter of review by the Other Place of course, and royal assent…Griffiths didn’t think for a second either would be an obstacle.
And it wasn’t.
The next day, the changes began. The next week, with restored royal prerogative, His Majesty dissolved Parliament. Similar legislation was enabling itself across the commonwealth realms.
Griffiths went home. There was no such thing as an opposition, now. There were expert advisors to the Crown, who would increasingly be merely advisors, he feared, and in whose ranks he was not numbered anyway. So, he went home. Sat on the couch. Held his wife close and tried to make peace with the idea that these were his closing years. If there was anything he could do for his children and their children, he’d find a way…but he knew perfectly well that he wasn’t leaving Earth himself. There were worthier lives than his.
He slept. All through two days, too numb and exhausted to do more than lie in bed and doze fitfully.
The third day, he took the dog for a walk in the woods. She needed it, and he needed to be anywhere other than in that bed. He went down to the woods, along the stream, while the light was still grey and the air still so cold that his breath joined the dawn mist.
Nugget stopped and hunched over to drop her business near a stand of snowdrops that had pushed up among the roots. They came up earlier, nowadays, Griffiths reflected. The Earth was warmer than he remembered his childhood being, despite the plummeting carbon emissions that had flattened the curve.
Even so, life was obliviously going on living. The dog still wanted to sniff trees, the still birds sang, the spring flowers raced up as soon as the ground was warm enough…when he checked a nearby tree, he found leaf buds.
He had a choice, he realized. He could mourn the fact that all of this would be molten and blasted and gone all too soon…or he could appreciate how beautiful it was, here and now. After all, those snowdrops never lasted long. They’d be gone by next month. The buds and leaves? Gone by next winter. Even the beauty of a chilly morning could only last a few hours. He could choose to die inside…or he could choose to live, with as much time as was left to him. And four years was…
…Well, it was enough to live with.
He stooped, patted Nugget around her ears, smiled at her wagging tail, stood up, and walked on. He had twelve hours until curfew.
Time enough to enjoy the day.
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Christ. Meeting Julian again after all these years was strange; he hardly recognized him, despite that he was arguably the most famous human face and silhouette anywhere. Byron’s memory recalled a lean, strapping, lupine young man who was too handsome for his own good, with a deep, soft-spoken Minnesotan accent. Shy, too. Incongruously so.
Now? Here on their back porch, handing out some of the Earth’s last cigars? Well, he was still soft-spoken, his accent still somewhat there, and he was still much too handsome for his own good; if anything, he was more so. But everything else? Unrecognizable. He’d grown confident and assertive—borderline aggressive in a friendly hyper-masculine sort of way. He was better-spoken and certainly more worldly, too: everything about him had grown, especially his body. Now he hulked like some sort of ancient-world demigod had a child with a comic book ultra-hero, and had the gall to look supermodel-good doing so, too. The bastard was too damn much, really. Line of Heroes indeed.
Too many of those in the news, these last few years.
Was he the right man for the job, now? With all his duties, his bigger role in the world, his bigger…everything? Especially in personality?
Allison and Xiù, by contrast, were…more subtly changed. Motherhood had granted them both a comfort with themselves, an entirely deserved confidence. Xiù, for instance, had cheekily stolen Julian’s cigar the second it was alight, compelling him to secure a replacement. When he’d promised vengeance later, she’d simply smirked and replied, “don’t threaten me with a good time, bǎobèi.”
Allison’s ensuing cackle was probably the first time Moses had heard genuine laughter in days. Folks were still punctuating their conversation with humor, still grunting out a fatalistic ‘hah’ or a mildly amused exhalation through the nose because humor was the linchpin of resilience…but actual laughter?
It was a joy to hear.
“So, Kevin suggested that, huh?” Allison was leaning on the back of Julian’s seat, having declined to smoke. Apparently she’d quit years ago and didn’t want to start again. “Kinda ironic.”
“‘Cuz if he wasn’t involved in it, you know he’d be cynically suggesting it’s a way for MBG to buy up all the soon-to-be most valuable artifacts in the galaxy for dirt cheap.”
Moses snorted, having to concede she was probably right there. “He’s rather less cynical these days. I think being rich and influential agrees with him. Or maybe age has mellowed him. He’s looking good for sixty-two.”
“Making it sound like it all rubbed off on you, Moses.”
“Not all. I mean, really, if I wasn’t still fundamentally idealistic, I wouldn’t be here asking for your help in building some moon lasers, would I?”
“Got me there.”
“I don’t know if it’s idealism or…” Xiù trailed off then shrugged. “Do you really think they’ll come up with something?”
“Never say never.” Moses shrugged and gestured with his cigar, leaving a trail of smoke in the air. “I’m a damn old man. The world has changed a lot in my time, but never so fast, so abruptly or so completely as it has these past twenty years or so. Honestly, I don’t know how the young generation aren’t completely neurotic from anxiety…”
He shook his head, then leaned forward. His hip still surprised him by not hurting. “For all I know, all we have to do is put the right brains in the same room together, lubricate them a bit, and suddenly they’ll figure out how to zap this whole cosmic death ray sideways into dataspace and kill two birds with one stone by ridding us of the Hierarchy. Unlikely, maybe, but you miss all the shots you don’t take.”
“Mmm,” Julian chuckled. “Lubricated brains.”
“Sounds tasty,” Xiù agreed.
Allison gave them both the side-eye. “…Ew.”
Moses chuckled, glad he’d taken the time to ask this of them in person. Their chemistry was infectious, made him glad to be alive to see it. He’d needed a shot of that, after the last few days.
“Anyway. Whatever comes of their brain-lubing needs a pretty direct route to somebody with real power. If there is a magic bullet…we can’t have it lost in the mail.”
“Ah,” Julian nodded. “The plot thickens. Also, we’ve got good housing around here for the long term, and MBG has a lot of private holdings…”
“Of course. But most importantly of all, this needs to get underway immediately. I’m sure the fine folks in our respective governments will eventually form a committee to research the committee to propose the recommendations to study the problem.”
“Or we could grill some steaks.” Xiù nodded.
They were interrupted by a small voice, and an equally small hand that reached up to tug on Julian’s shirt: little Anna, as pale as her mother but dark-haired as her father, who gave Julian and Xiù the kind of accusatory look only a seven-year-old could muster. “You said smoking’s a bad habit!”
“Usually it is,” Julian smiled down at her. “The important word is habit. That means to do something all the time without really thinking about it. We’re having one right now to relax with an old friend.”
“They smell gross,” she noted.
“The cigars, or our guest?” His eyes flicked back to Byron and twinkled merrily. Anna suddenly grew adorably shy and gave Moses a big-eyed, watchful look, while Xiù stifled a giggle behind her hand.
“C’mon, wo de nuhai…” Allison knelt next to her daughter, encouragingly. “This is Moses, he owns the company we went to space with.”
“Hello,” Moses replied, unable to resist the smile. There was the future, fluffy beaver toy dangling by its tail from one hand while the other held on on to Allison. “I thought you were in bed.”
“She’s supposed to be,” Allison replied, and poked Anna in the ribs, prompting a giggle. “Need a drink, little chick?”
“C’mon then.” She turned to go. “I’m gonna get some sleep too. It was lovely to see you, Moses. I hope we do find a moon laser for ‘ya.”
“I hope so too. Goodnight.”
And then there were two. They finished their cigars in a haze of comfortable small-talk, reminiscing about…things, mostly. Events. Memories. Julian and Xiù recounted the story of a rainy day in Yosemite national park…then shed a few tears for the fact it wasn’t going to be around much longer.
Moses left when the first speckle of Cimbrean’s night rains began to patter on the awning. By his own personal clock, it was still only about two in the afternoon and there was plenty of work day ahead of him yet. But he felt energized, refreshed and ready.
And when he set foot back on Earth, he did so with a renewed sense of how precious an experience it truly was.
Lavmuy City, Gao
“I see there was a beatdown in the Senate today.”
Champion Loomi sighed, understandingly. Like all high-ranked gao these days he’d taken a keen interest in his physical vigor and it was increasingly evident week by week, though he’d kept much of the sturdy lankiness Highmountain was known for.
“A reminder that you are very…alien to us, in some ways,” he noted.
They were taking a walk together, around Lavmuy’s old industrial quarter where the planet’s small existing human diaspora now lived. Young men, mostly, of various nationalities: Sartori could see them standing around outside their apartment buildings in groups of three and four. Some were talking. Some were smoking. Most just had the look of people who knew they’d narrowly dodged a bullet they’d never known was even coming, and couldn’t tolerate being cooped up indoors.
Sartori could sympathize. After all…here he was on Gao. Had he been back rattling around his retirement house in Maine…well. Former Presidents might have the privilege of getting to pull strings and get out. But by good fortune, that wasn’t a question he needed to ask. Instead he was here, and could do something useful to prepare Gao’s human population for the trial of growing dramatically in size…
“You’ve had your share of civil unrest,” he pointed out. “The Great Father has had to use a damn stern paw, several times.”
“Yes, but you hit the point exactly,” Loomi replied. “We have the Great Father. His authority is more than political, it’s physical and it’s biological. All of us Champions to a man have had to significantly ‘up our game’ to keep from being essentially enslaved to his will just by him being there. And once we have a clear, dominant leader like that…I don’t think we could ever completely fall apart in the way your world is. Violence in the halls of power, reflecting the riots in the streets.”
“Well, no. Margaret can’t bodily tear people apart with her claws…though Lord knows she can do the verbal equivalent.”
Loomi chittered, “you’ve clearly never been the target of one of Daar’s Doodles, or one of his famously—Laconic, is that the word?”
“Yes. And he does Laconic?”
“When he wants to really get his claws in you, yes. Lovingly of course,” he chittered.
“Love cuts deepest, more often than not.”
“Hmm.” Arthur stopped and looked up at a nearby factory-turned-apartments. It rather reminded him of older brick buildings, the kind built during the nineteenth century. Most of the thinner walls had been taken out and replaced with glass, so presumably the apartments inside were nice and bright and airy. And they were probably a fraction as expensive as the same thing would go for in any American city.
He wondered how many people each one could house, if completely stuffed to groaning. And what the people lucky enough to find a home in them would do. What jobs were there for them?
Well, that was an easy question. There were any number of jobs on Gao, as the population collapsed. Lavmuy was full of struggling workhouses, and frankly the average human woman was physically a fair match for the average second- or third-degree Gaoian male, or something thereabouts probably. Or so he was taken to understand, anyway. He could imagine a culture shock coming, regardless.
“You seem lost in thought, Arthur.”
“Wondering about what comes next,” he replied truthfully. “An old adage pops readily to mind.”
Loomi raised his ears attentively, but said nothing.
“Women and children first.”
They said nothing for a bit, and Sartori decided it was time to open up his picnic basket. They were sitting in a small little park, watching the young off-shift males play and generally cavort. The energy was a bit different today; everyone had heard the news by now, and there were more than a few ear-flicks toward Arthur.
He sighed, and bit into a ham sandwich. A proper ham sandwich, with a good crusty bread and a well-aged Emmentaler. Something that might become quite costly in short order. He looked up at Loomi, who was trying not to, well…beg…but gao really and truly were canine in ways a human simply could not ignore.
Or, well. Ursine too. And very procyonine, but really it was all the same sort of energy. He gave the other triangle to Loomi and they munched in silence.
Fuck it. He was sitting in the presence of a genuine and accomplished supergenius. So…
Loomi swallowed his last bite and looked down with the saddest expression. “I would be astonished if one in a hundred made it.”
Arthur weighed that assessment in his mind. Tried to feel it, tried to understand it. Somehow, for some reason, it just refused to click for him. As though his brain was protecting itself. It was a crushing assessment that simply wouldn’t land and be felt.
“I don’t even know how to get my head around that number,” he admitted.
“You’ll learn, I fear. The same way we did.”
“We will help,” Loomi said at last. “Your people were there to save ours, and have been from the first moment of our own calamity. We will welcome you with a friendly sniff. Though I suppose this will be the final doom for both our peoples, really.”
“Surely not? We’re both hardy enough to survive past this, I know we are.”
“Physically, certainly. We are tough peoples. But culturally? We’re both aggressively social animals, driven to bond and turn practically anything into family. We will not remain distinct. An event like this is going to merge our societies into one. We’re too similar not to get along, and too desperate to remain apart. I cannot begin to imagine what that will be like…but we are going to find out. And It will be my final great work of scholarship, I think. Something to keep the mind busy before I give in to the inevitable.”
“The inevitable? You’re not that old, are you?”
“I’d have at least a few decades left, before our species’ awakening. So, at least several now. But nonetheless, age comes for us all and a proper work takes time, yijao?”
“I suppose…but I know the Great Father is looking good and hard at life extension and…Christ alive, I suspect practically every human we save will, too—”
“Oh, that’s fine and good for him,” Loomi duck-nodded. “Necessary, even. I expect Our Father to reign for a thousand years. Myself? I am an academic, a scholar, and a scientist, in that order. After a while it is important we shuffle off into retirement for fresh perspective and ideas to bubble up. Modern medicine allows me to do so in comfort, but after a time…I would grow bored.”
“Really? You don’t think you’d find the discoveries that come after you retire fascinating?”
“…Maybe I wouldn’t be bored, then. But can I stay retired indefinitely? I shouldn’t want to feel useless, or like all my use was behind me. And suddenly we’re in a catch-twenty-two as you say. If I remain in my field, I hold it back; if I don’t, what value am I? No, I believe we all must bow out, in time. I’m fortunate enough that my time will be of my choosing.”
“Mm.” Arthur tidied his lunch pack away and looked around again. There was housing here for a lot of people. Soon, Lavmuy would have a large human population, maybe even just as large as its gaoian population. After that…what would happen to both species? “For my part, I think I’m about to get my second wind.”
Loomi duck-nodded. “I hope so. You’ve been a leader to your people already. Here and now, I think they’ll need you again.”
“I wish they didn’t,” Arthur sighed, but he was nodding. He was somewhere he could be useful. What was that, if not some kind of providence? “But they do, so…I will.”
“Your lodgings at the Clan Highmountain chapterhouse are yours indefinitely,” Loomi promised. “I will assign…hmm…Brother Ooki, to assist you.”
“Ooki? What’s he like?”
“Young, eager, and…undamaged. He was spared the worst of the war by youth and by Clan affiliation. I think you need a dose of youthful optimism.”
“And he needs an old coot to beat him down a bit, eh?”
Loomi chittered, “in a sense, yes. Though do not engage him in chaseball. He’s very good.”
“Hmm. I don’t suppose there’s such a thing as a golf course on this planet?”
“Not yet. But now may be the time, with plummeting land values…”
“For the next four years, building one would be a waste of time and resources, and therefore lives. I’ll introduce him to cornhole instead.”
“…Cornhole? Isn’t that slang for–?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sartori chuckled quietly. “Gaoians have such dirty minds, I swear…”
Loomi flicked an ear, tilted his head, then shrugged it off. “Well…good that you’ve got your relaxation plan, then. You’re going to need it.”
“Oh, I know.” Arthur sighed and stood. “Let’s face it, many of the refugees coming here will blame the USA for what happened. Blame me personally, even. Forging some kind of a community that can take in as many as possible is going to…it’ll be a test.”
“The Great Father believes you are up to it.”
“I know I’m up to it. It’ll still be testing.” They found a trash can and got rid of their dinnertime detritus. Arthur felt better for the talk, he realized. And he felt inspired. Sharpened. And ready to begin properly. “So. Does your clan have estimates on how soon we can begin jumping in and housing refugees…?”
Very soon indeed, it turned out. All that was left was a meeting in the Conclave and, of course, a trip to the Great Father for a free spinal re-arrangement and some of his otherwise excellent hospitality. They hammered out a pretty good starting point, somewhere deep into the Talamay…
Thank God for voice-to-text note taking, because He woke the next morning with a truly raging hangover having somehow survived Daar’s naptime snuggles. Managed to wiggle free without waking the big bastard, too.
But over breakfast, the ramblings of the night before solidified. Arthur could do something. And so, he made calls and sent emails. Leaders responded. Things got moving.
The first government officials arrived on the morning of the third day: the first civilian refugees, in the form of more than a hundred building contractors, electricians and plumbers plus their families, arrived that afternoon. Arthur Sartori was there to greet them. They all had a lot of work ahead of them, getting housing set up for as many humans as they possibly could.
By the afternoon of the fifth day, that population had quintupled, the architects had unearthed some appropriate plans for a high-density apartment building, and the local builder’s workhouse was already poring over everything to help bring it up to appropriate code. Clan Coinhammer—builder Clans were all very local and territorial, often the last ancient trace of a place’s deep history—was thick on the ground, eager to get their new most bestest human friends up to speed on everything.
Stoneback was already putting together a local concrete plant, and the trans-district rail was throwing together an off-branch to keep that plant fed—Daar himself was helping with the effort, no doubt gleefully happy to put his ludicrous huge to good use. And it mattered: when the Great Father himself was there working long days, shifting aggregate, setting ties and emplacing rails with his own paws, or just being a useful force of nature for whatever needed doing…
He really was a genius with propaganda.
The local newscast picked it up on short order, and within hours so had the press from Earth and around the galaxy. Goldpaw spokesman were everywhere, weaving a positive story of help and love and Deathworlder hospitality.
Meanwhile, the sheer scale of the problem had ignited the Gao to magnificent purpose. By the end of the week there was so much going on, Sartori had somehow gained staff.
The plans for the first buildings were…well, the resulting apartments weren’t gonna win awards. Poured concrete and pre-fab, the next best thing to Soviet brutalism. How else did you build housing for so many people in such a short span of time? No doubt they’d all have some regrettable problems or whatever, but for now…four walls, a roof, power, and running water.
That was enough. People had lived in worse. There was ample park space reserved and none of that had been planned yet, deliberately. They could build and improve from there, and in Arthur’s experience that was all people needed: give folks a tiny spark of hope, and they’d nurture it into a warm hearth, every time.
Let them make it theirs. Let the gaoian love of kitsch and the human need for beauty collide like warring kudzu. Lives would be saved, regardless.
And that was all that mattered.
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Lots of enormous responsibilities were falling on Julian, lately. He was the stand-in ambassador on Cimbrean right now, on top of his normal duties. He was going to be founding a colony on Nightmare, for reasons of the US having a sovereign claim on the planet, and for keeping the human race fit and ready—there were few worlds apt to preserve them hale and healthy, after all. He was even looking forward to it in a weird sort of way.
But before that, Byron needed someone to chair his Desperate Measures Committee. Or, at least, get them together and get things started. Because if there was some arcane superscience way to save the Earth from what was coming, then the world needed to know, and the people with him in his backyard today might just be the ones to figure it out.
And it happened to get them all offworld too, which was pretty important.
Personally, he didn’t think there was a magic bullet to be found. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to encourage them! So right now his house (safe on Cimbrean, after a jump from wherever the bunker was) was playing host to a fair odd medley of people.
Super smart guys, who gave Julian wary looks, despite wearing the least gruntiest casual attire he could manage. Moses Byron, with all the money and a keen desperation to spend it well. Alex, trying his very best to listen keenly and not accidentally hench the big brains into submission…and failing pretty miserably, straining as he was at the confines of his skin-tight t-shirt. Another Wilde special, this one: It was a rainbow-ish striped affair with multiple pokemon, ending incongruously with “…an All-Terrain Vehicle.”
Disarming, maybe. It had drawn a few smiles.
But none of that really mattered because Lewis Beverote was there, and nothing disarmed the situation more than when he’d basically leapt into Julian’s arms, sobbing about it all, and then pulled himself together with some sort of complicated handshake-fistbump-something Julian still wasn’t quite sure he hadn’t just made up on the spot, somehow.
The Alpha-of-Nerds, having signaled the relative safety of the meat-henches, had commenced with the plotting and scheming and the superscience immediately, with the promise that no suggestion was too stupid for consideration because “If nothin’ else, we should at least tick the fuckin’ box, dude.”
Julian served beer. Good beer, too. He’d taken a shine to homebrew. This had apparently raised him from “walking prettysteak” into “classy gentleman of importance” somehow.
Nerds liked homebrew. Good to know.
Vemik, of course, was full of ideas. And beer. “Why not jump the whole Earth to a different system?” He didn’t actually belong in this group but who could possibly have told him no?
“Dude, Bartlett’s Third Law.”
Heads bobbed, and Julian watched Lewis flip his pencil over and stab at the buttons on his calculator with the eraser end.
“For the record, what’s Bartlett’s Third Law?” Julian asked aloud. The meeting was being recorded and part of his job was to make sure all the relevant bits got recorded.
“The energy required to form a metastable wormhole increases with the fourth power of its radius,” Lewis rattled off. “To move the whole Earth we’d need…” his eraser tapped furiously for a few seconds. “…Well, if we found, like, six or seven other stars about the same size as Sol and blew all them up too, and captured all the energy thus produced, we could just about do it.”
“But if we could do that, then we’d already had a solution to the problem anyway,” commented Professor…what was his name? Something Polish….Szymański!
He needed more beer, so Julian nodded and Alex delivered. Kid was a mindreader.
“Right…” Lewis nodded. “Okay, what happens if we shove, like, a metric gigabuttload of system shields in the way?”
“The stellar discharge lasts for several hours,” Professor Uthrugvugeg, shook his huge head solemnly while shimmering in shades of regretful denial. “Each system shield will be destroyed before it can even react meaningfully to the incoming energy…on the order of nanoseconds. We would need to place an impossible number of barriers in the way.”
“How big is the discharge?” Vemik had a knack for asking good questions, and the Thinky Types were taking notice.
And Lewis had a knack for answering them. “The star isn’t there anymore, Vemik.”
Tail-twitch. Crest fell. “…Oh.” A respectful silence fell on all of them. “And…how big is the beam?”
“Too soon to measure. Let us assume it’s well-collimated,” Lewis noted.
“Well indeed,” added Nofl, who was enjoying one of Julian’s world-famous garlic butter portobello mushrooms, today in a special-edition vegan serving. The little guy set it down and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “In order for the beam to be the radius of the solar system, the deviation between the center of the beam and the most deviated portion has to be…” he shut his eyes, briefly. Corti didn’t need calculators. “…two-point-two-six-five times ten to the negative fourth power…well, I suppose in degrees, too. Close enough.”
“And we’ve gotta assume the Hunters engineered this thing well enough to achieve what they set out to do with it.”
So the conversation went. As much for his own sanity as anything else, Julian furiously worked on Other Important Matters, some of which would raise eyebrows if they hadn’t had merely four years to do the work…but keeping on the good side of Professor Hurt was really going to fucking matter, he’d sensed.
So everyone even remotely connected with the Akyawentian project was being offered work if they moved to Cimbrean right now and didn’t make too much of a fuss about it. The public mood was…increasingly unkind to people with off-world passes and residency.
Schuster had accepted immediately. The only reason they hadn’t originally propositioned him to be the librarian was one of age and ongoing commitments. But with Crude, now…
…And, well, the end of those commitments. So there was that.
Not half a moment later, Tilly Briggs confirmed too, requesting to bring her boyfriend; Julian of course granted that request. After Hurt and himself, Tilly was probably the most respected human in friendship with the ten’gewek, and definitely the best for liaising with Vemik.
He also grilled up a storm. Xiù did all the prep and the side dishes, while he and Alex kept charge of the sacred flame. Lots of veggies on the grill, too. Guvnurag loved grilled lettuce, in his experience. And lots of it.
As for him…
Why didn’t he feel things like the rest? It wasn’t a lack of grief. Just the thought that everything he loved on Earth was going to disappear had him…
But what was it he loved anyway? He had a think on that while Alex posed a question.
“Are we thinking about how we’re going to scale up evacuation? I mean…it’d be great to save Earth, but it’s more important to save the people. How do we house nine billion people suddenly? Or feed them?”
“Clothe, teach, entertain…” Julian added as he flipped Vemik’s giant steak over. Charred, but still blue in the middle, exactly the way the big guy liked it. Marrow-thick bone kissed by fire.
Lewis, meanwhile, liked a steak that had once had fire explained to it. From across the room. Calling it “blue” was an understatement: the fucking thing was just about trying to run away. Vemik, upon seeing this, trilled and pulled Lewis into his lap so they could eat together, tail-around-waist. No better sign of affection!
“Even my people are more civilized, Loo-wiss! Not even flavor of fire on it! Shameful…”
“Hey! The carnivore diet’s what got me into such great shape!”
Vemik snarled happily, “my left calf is bigger than you!”
Honestly, he wasn’t really exaggerating…
“Could we focus please, gentlemen? Szymański chided them. “My home, my country, my family, my everything is on the line.”
“We all mean well,” Julian soothed. “We’re here, aren’t we? It’s hard to process something like this. I have friends and family in the line of fire too.”
Right. Maybe that’s what was bothering him. The news hadn’t hit him like he was expecting. Instead of being sad or angry or…anything? It just hit him like, “okay, this is happening now.”
Honestly, his mind was much more on Nightmare and Akyawentuo.
He’d realized pretty quick the colony on Nightmare would never be very big. There simply wasn’t time to get things going at scale, not on a world like that. The goal to shoot for would be a million people. That’s it. Just a million, and work up from there. If they could get that many going on any given world, they’d be self-sustainable.
And they had the same problem on Akyawentuo too. But even multi-world habitation wasn’t enough! Now that the cat was out of the bag, any stationary system was conceivably vulnerable to this kind of attack, so…Lucent. Cimbrean. Yes, Nightmare and Akyawentuo. And Gao.
So they needed mobile civilizations. They needed multiple Ekellim-Igigis. They needed to matter as a threat, too. They needed to accommodate ten’gewek and gao.
He interrupted the brain trust, who were arguing about…uh, black holes? “Hey fellas, I’m sure that your, uh, kugelblitzen are important, but…”
Lewis raised an eyebrow. “But?”
He told them his sudden observation. They considered it. Then set it aside when Nofl pointed out that the problem immediately in front of them took precedence. So Julian sat and listened and took notes and asked pertinent questions for the record as they came up with (and immediately rejected) an increasingly imaginative series of ideas.
Dissipate the beam by taking big stasis or jump bites out of it? Too much beam, not enough time. Diffraction, deflection, diffusion…Everything they could come up with either wouldn’t work in time, wouldn’t work at all, or required prerequisite technologies that themselves would have rendered the whole problem a non-issue anyway…and that was if the cure wasn’t just as bad as the disease.
He kinda had to admire how long they went before giving up, though. Well, giving up for the day. Everyone else said their salutations as the staff drove them toward the hotel.
Lewis and Lucy were staying in the downstairs guest room, as was long established tradition.
“Dude, my brain is sorta fried. I wanna…”
Julian shook his head, and so did Lucy. He still didn’t know how to munke. So.
“I’m into basketball lately. C’mon. I’ll beer you up afterwards.”
“You already beered me up!”
“Oh no, you haven’t tried my neighbor’s brew. He’s got an ale going that’s just…”
“Dude…I need sleep, man. You can drag me into your slab palace in the morning.”
“No. No slab. Ball! Then you can sleep.”
“Fuckin’ swear you don’t know how tiring it is to just sit and think…” Lewis grumbled.
“I do, and it’s a different kinda tired. Trust me, you’ll rest better for it.”
Julian didn’t any kind of genius, but he did know people. Since Nightmare they were the thing he was most interested in.
So, Lewis played some ball. He wasn’t even half bad, and Julian enjoyed taking it easy. They played for a while, and sure enough Lewis was animated and fizzing with ideas again a half-hour later.
And a half-hour after that, he was zonked out like some kind of toned-up stringbean, all tied up in his blankets and pillows like a human knot.
“…He always sleeps like that,” Lucy commented, fondly. “I think it was a…safety thing. When he was an abductee.”
“Yeah. We’ve all got some leftover quirks from that,” Allison agreed. “I remember Amir used to take forever to eat his food, cuz he said it made small portions go further. Julian here is…clingy….And Xiù still slips into Gaori when she’s really upset over something.”
“…It’s shitty that it happened to you.”
“Yeah, well.” Al, shrugged. “Let’s face it, the world would be a different place if it hadn’t…g’night.” She shrugged, then tugged Julian’s arm to gently hint they should leave Lewis and Lucy to sleep.
There was the usual bathroom shuffle, a brief and loving argument about whose turn it was to sleep in the middle…though once that was sorted out and they were all snuggled in, it turned out sleep wasn’t happening, yet. They were comfortable enough, and tired enough, sure…but Julian could see perfectly well he wasn’t the only one lying there and thinking.
“Y’know…it still doesn’t feel real, somehow…” Xiù commented, after a few minutes of staring up at the dark ceiling.
“Right?” Al yawned. “I guess I got so used to the thought that Earth’s safe behind that quarantine shield, it seemed like even if the rest of the galaxy burned, Earth would always be there…”
“No more Vancouver. No more Minnesota. No more Yosemite…”
“Shit, think of how many things are gonna go extinct. Everything we never brought over to Cimbrean…I mean, God. The last whales in the galaxy will be the ones swimming right here…”
“I’m thinking of how many people are gonna die,” Julian rumbled.
“What?” Julian asked.
“I uh…There’s the question of…Alex. My Alex.”
Julian half-rolled, propped himself up on one elbow and looked at her, while Xiù scooted and sat up. “…Shit, Al…” she squeaked.
“He’s my son, babe. I know he…I know there was all that shit with the APA and burning down your house and all of it but…”
“No, no, Al. I get it,” Julian squeezed her hand. “I do. I promise I do. I just…that’s gonna be…”
“A hard sell,” Xiù finished, softly.
“…Yeah. A really hard goddamn sell. He was convicted on terrorism charges, the State Department’s not gonna—”
“I know!” Al snapped, then paused and reined in her frustrations. “I…I know. But what am I supposed to do, not even try? What if it was Anna? Or Harrison?”
“I’m not saying I won’t try. Of course I’ll try. I just…”
Xiù nodded. “He’s saying, ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’”
“I guess.” Al hugged her knees miserably, then blinked furiously, sniffed, and looked to Xiù. “What about your folks?”
Xiù sighed. “Wei’s prototyping firm has links with MBG, he reckons he’s gonna be fine. But…bà and mā…they’re making noises about it not being right for two retired old people to take up space that somebody young could have.”
“Oh, shit, babe…” It was Al’s turn to become the comforting, concerned one.
“They can come here!” Julian objected.
“I said that. They…” Xiù shook her head, her expression a picture of pale misery. “They’ve always been so..stubborn, yijao?”
“Yeah…” Julian had to grant that one. Even with grandchildren and visits and plenty of happy evenings spent with them here, Xiù’s parents had never once been at home to the idea of leaving Vancouver and moving to Folctha. They’d never really completely approved of Allison, and their love for Julian had definitely…waxed, over time, with children and in step with his career.
They were living testament to how incredibly complicated people could be, Julian supposed. A little prejudiced, a little too old-fashioned, often frustrating…but in other ways, also incredibly kind and selfless. After all, what was more selfless than giving up a spot on the lifeboat?
…And that thought, for whatever reason, was what made it all finally land.
It was like, sitting there with Cimbrean’s usual nightly rains drumming on the skylight the way it always did, suddenly something went click in Julian’s mind and he finally got it. Like just for a second he felt every single soul, every single life and story that was ending now, ending hopelessly. Even if they somehow miraculously saved one in ten, despite the best estimate yet being one in twenty…
Even then, there would be more people than not who’d look up to see the sky burn, and leave no legacy at all. And those that did escape would all leave people behind. Nobody was getting out of this unharmed.
Whole cultures would be gone, soon. What would become of his grandfather’s people? Or his grandmother’s? How much of them would survive? How much of anyone would survive?
For a second he stared inwardly at the full enormity of it, and then it rushed forward, hit him in the back of the eyes, forced them tightly shut, and burst through anyway.
Xiù buried herself in his side and held tight, shaking all over. Al climbed over, wrapped them both in her arms, and held them. Julian thanked God he had them both, had his family and their safety already sorted out…But just for the moment, those blessings seemed tiny and selfish.
Even so, he held them as tight as he dared. It was a long time before the grief subsided enough for any of them to stir.
And longer still before they finally lay back down and, fitfully, slept.
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Adam (Warhorse) Arés
Diego could be a tough kid to tire out, and he had a knack for getting into trouble when he had too much energy on board. Adam could remember being like that himself.
Fortunately, Adam had an arm like a cannon. The ball reached its apex halfway down the field, with Diego tearing along under its flight path, looking over his shoulder, watching, raising his hands…
Adam grinned as he leapt like a fish and caught it high up in the air, then fluidly turned his sprint into a vault over the park railing. He’d been kinda worried Diego was gonna run into the fence. Instead, he parkoured that shit like a ninja without losing a step.
Diego was a supremely athletic young boy in every sense, much like Adam had been. Swift, and nimble, and tough and strong. Brave, too. Not afraid to tussle. He couldn’t be more proud.
But…he had Adam’s aggression and somewhat extreme ability, too. He wasn’t tall for an almost ten-year-old, but he was robust; his weight had begun to skyrocket into Young Hero territory lately, just like Adam had experienced growing up. He had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, that size and aggression were the things that let Adam achieve all he’d managed, but they also nearly ruined him too, many times.
For Diego, getting his anger under control (and his appetite, most days) had been the big problem of his early childhood. And it would be going into his adulthood too, Adam knew. Been there, done that. Diego had heard more than a few pep-talks about those kinds of feelings. And would be getting many more, when he inevitably got into trouble.
Right now though, he came trotting back with a huge grin on his face, tossing the ball from hand to hand. “I got it!” he announced, redundantly. “That was an easy one!”
Yup. Time to start moving up to the weighted footballs. Not today, though. Today…
Well, this time Adam didn’t hold back. His arm whipped through the air, making an audible thump as it moved—God he loved that he could do that. He sent the ball sailing as far as he could throw it, which was probably going to be across the entire park.
It’d give him a couple minutes to play with his other children. Samuel wasn’t quite up to that level yet; he was barely six, and still a bit uncoordinated. And thankfully, still not quite a developing freakshow like Diego was becoming. He would be in time of course, but for now…
Paz, though. Paz was going to be a terror to eclipse both her brothers, he could already tell.
Right now, Marty was wrangling her with one hand while fetching ice-cream with the other. It was a magnificent display of mom-juggling, probably made easier by the fact that Paz was very interested in the ice cream, and therefore not inclined to run off somewhere, for the moment.
Time to have a bit of work chat, and a bit of future chat.
“Love days like this,” he sighed happily. Any day he got to wrassle with his boys and his dog was a good day. Doofus was getting pretty old now with a lot of gray on his muzzle, but he hadn’t lost any of his infamous Bozo-inherited ability, either. And he’d fathered a litter or…well, six now…as well, just like his dad. The Cimbrean Mastiff was a must-have breed, nowadays.
Assuming you could handle them. Not everyone could handle a dog as big as a linebacker and jacked like a bodybuilding pitbull, even if their personalities were usually pretty chill.
Marty maneuvered their grabby-handsing daughter onto the seat next to her, handed her some distraction ice cream, handed another one to Samuel, then finally flicked some stray hair out of her face and smiled at him. “We don’t get enough of them, do we?”
“God, I don’t even know when we’re gonna get another chance…” Adam glanced over to the park’s north-east end, where cranes had popped up like mushrooms. From what he gathered, the city had pushed through a huge tenement construction project.
“Yeah. Gonna get busy around here very soon…” Marty rolled up Paz’s sleeves to keep them from getting sticky. “And I guess you’re gonna be busy too.”
There wasn’t a hint of reproach or blame in her voice, she was perfectly matter-of-fact. Even so, Adam did feel a guilty prickling in his conscience. “Well…yeah. Anything I can do to save lives.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she told him. “We’re proud of you, you know that.”
“Yeah, but…I know you were thinking I’d retire after my wound and recovery…”
“Adam, I made peace a long time ago with the idea that the only two things that would ever stop you would be death, or being too broken to carry on. And I’m glad you’re alive, and I’m glad you’re well. If that means you don’t stop…well, that’s just you being you. And I love you. So do me a favor and let’s actually talk about what’s coming, hmm? ‘Cuz you’ve been putting it off.”
“People are sad a lot…” Diego observed, returning with the ball. He pounced on his ice cream and sat down. “They’re saying at school that the Earth’s gonna burn up and lots of people are gonna die…”
“Yeah, mijo. It’s exactly that bad.”
“You’re gonna help, though? That’s what you do.”
“As much as I can, yeah.”
“Well…the same way I always do, I guess.” Adam stirred his ice cream with the little wooden spoon-thing it had come with. “Except, the usual way I help people is to…kinda…dive into the danger they’re in, and smash it until it leaves ‘em alone enough so I can pull them out. But, that’s not gonna work this time.”
“Some dangers can’t be smashed,” Marty said, simply. She reached out and wiped a speck of melted ice-cream of Diego’s face. “Some things, nobody can stop. All we can do is…get out of the way, and build something new to replace what we lost.”
Diego frowned. “So…you’re gonna do what you always do…which is smash stuff…except this time that’s not gonna work. But you’re gonna do it anyway?”
“I…” Adam paused. The amused twinkle in Marty’s eye didn’t help him formulate a reply at all. “I mean I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m sure Daar has ideas.”
“And be fair on yourself, you do a lot more than smash stuff,” Marty pointed out.
“I guess. I know…some people are going to Akyawentuo, and they’re gonna need training to handle the gravity? Well, Julian will handle that probably…but yeah. Maybe. We’ll see.” He looked down at Diego. “Sometimes the best thing to do is just be there and be willing. You never know what you can do! I never imagined any of this when I was your age!”
Diego frowned as he thought about that, then shrugged and ate his ice cream in silence. Marty smiled, then scooted round to sit closer to Adam.
“So. Let’s actually talk,” she said. “Because, uh…Singularity has already paid a visit to Freya and Christian. I think we can guess what they’re interested in.”
Adam winced. “Wow, that’s not subtle at all, huh?”
“Did their agent survive?” He couldn’t help but grin, imaging the scene.
Marty giggled at that. “Somehow! But I had a talk with her. They’re…making plans, babe. Plans that have a lot to do with who exactly is going to make it off Earth. And we both know that isn’t going to be pretty.”
“No,” Adam sighed. “And they’ll be more interested in Hero babies, I presume?”
“Broader, actually. They’ve decided their mission is to preserve Earth’s genetic diversity. They’ve been doing it for millennia already, for basically everything. Now they want to do it openly.”
“They way they explained it to Freya is…it’s gonna be women and children first,” she said, unhappily. “And those women and children are going to need families.”
Adam frowned. “Everyone’s losing family,” he said.
“Exactly. And there’s a lot more to raising good people than just good genes. They need stability, family, teachers. All those orphans leaving Earth…they’re gonna need damage control. Somebody to pick them back up and show them the world didn’t end. So, Singularity’s reaching out to see who can manage that. And, y’know. Who’s willing to, uh… expand their family.”
Adam wasn’t stupid enough to miss that particular bit of emphasis. Two questions came to his head; he asked the easier one, first.
“Knowing Christian and Freya, they told ‘em to go to—” he remembered the kids suddenly, “uh, go take a standing leap, I guess?”
Marty laughed, “well, yeah! Of course they did. But I was sitting there listening to Freya vent about it, and all I could think was…don’t Singularity kinda have a point?”
Adam blanked. “…A point.”
“Well…yeah!” She replied, suddenly a bit more defensive. “I mean, just from, y’know a logical perspective.”
Adam frowned, but invited her to elaborate with a tilt of his head. She tidied up Paz for a second while she thought, then scooted an inch forward on the bench.
“Look…Freya and Christian have their way, and I respect them. But neither of them are…they don’t really step back and look past their gut reaction, do they?”
“I guess not…” Adam conceded. “But to be fair, the both of them are pretty conservative. I don’t doubt they’ll open their home and maybe even adopt whenever Freya feels like slowing down, but…look, ‘fuck for the Motherland’ is kinda fuckin’ creepy.”
“Papá—!” Diego grinned cheekily at him, and held out a palm. Adam blinked, then realized he owed a couple moneys to the swear jar.
“Ugh…” Adam fished in his pocket, found a couple of two-pound coins, and dropped them in the kid’s hand. “Anyway. Creepy, is the point.”
Marty took advantage. “Creepy? Why, Mister Warhorse! I don’t remember you needing much prompting back in the day. There was that fivesome with Murray as I recall—”
Adam decided the time had come to stop that right now, especially seeing as he did not want to explain to Diego—
“And ‘Base and ‘Righteous—” Marty continued, devilishly.
“Enough, Marty! God! You’re terrible sometimes. And I was a horny boy then!”
“I know. I married that horny boy, remember? And he grew up in to an even hornier man with far bigger needs.”
“…What’s ‘horny?’” Diego asked.
“It means he loves women very much,” Marty supplied automatically. “You’ll find out more in a few years, promise.”
“Oh, you mean sex,” Diego nodded, and promptly lost interest in favor of a scrape he’d acquired on his left knee.
“Marty…” Adam groaned, palmed his whole face, rubbed it down to his chin with a rasp of calluses on stubble, then looked her dead in the eye. “Look…what are you trying to get to here?”
“I’m saying they’re gonna come around to us with a similar kind of proposition soon, and…I wanna hear them out. Not just slam the door in their face.”
- “Are you saying you’re…willing to expand our family?”
:”I’m…not opposed to it, no. Honestly…no. Uh…not at all.”
The idea…well, it made him squirm a bit just thinking about it. Because, yeah, other women were nice to look at and señor pene sometimes got out in front of Adam’s brain, and Christ knew he wanted lots and lots of kids which…well, the three they had were a blessing.
But there was only one Martina.
She smiled, reached across the table, and took both his hands in hers. “Look…the other thing you do besides smash stuff, is you also build people. You seem to have endless capacity for it. And that’s a skill a lot of people are going to need, soon. So when they come to talk to us, let’s be…cooler-headed than the Firths, ey?”
It felt like they were sitting on the edge of a big turning point. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know! It could mean a lot of things. Lot of young boys who are gonna need a father figure in their lives, right? Start with that. And…let’s not take anything off the table without thinking about it good and hard, first. Adam…the world needs more men like you. And men like that need a dad like you, too. So…open mind.”
Adam watched her closely a moment longer, his brain turning over what she was, and wasn’t, saying. Until Paz’s newest dogged attempt at escape forced her to turn and intercept, anyway. When she’d finished that, she turned back and gave him a look that said she had more to say, but not in front of the kid who was old enough to understand it.
He nodded his understanding, then grabbed the football and rose. “Alright, mijo. You ready for more? I’m gonna send this one.”
Diego, who’d been watching his parents with the bored energy of a boy trying to figure out Adult Stuff, perked up, sprang up, and was running with a giggle even before Adam had even finished speaking. Good.
Adam’s arm made the air go thump again, this time with all his considerable strength. The ball vanished into the distance, with Diego doing a decent job of keeping up atop those sturdy muscular legs of his. Adam grinned his big goofy grin, the one that had taken so long to come back to him…
Then he turned, sat down (carefully) and pulled Marty into his lap. They held for a moment.
“Right. So. Tell me what else is on your mind.”
She sighed, and put aside the book she’d been about to read to Samuel before shooing him off her lap to go play in the kiddy playground instead. “…Three miscarriages is enough, Adam,” she said once he’d bumbled off to go climb and slide and swing. “I can’t…I’m glad for Paz, I’m glad we didn’t give up. But I don’t think I have it in me to go for any more.””
Adam nodded, and hugged her tighter. It had been…so hard for them both, but her especially. She wanted a big family, if anything even more than Adam did. But, biology had stopped her at three, for whatever reason. And the third had been difficult enough.
Suddenly, her thoughts made a lot more sense.
“I’m guessing you’re thinking how I’ve got all my tenants on expiring leases to remodel the building, too.”
“That…yeah. We could do a lot of good, baby. And the world needs good and love right now.”
“I…right.” Adam nodded along, and then again with more agreement. “We’d be great, uh, uncles and aunts for a lot of families…but you’re not just talking that, are you.”
She sat a bit apart, then turned and faced Adam directly. “Babe, I’mma be blunt. I think the Heroes thing is bullshit, right? Always have. But I’m not stupid enough to think it wasn’t necessary. Just…look at all that’s happened! And I don’t doubt the space Bene Gesserit—who was it that made the analogy first?”
“Right. Dead on, that. Anyway. They’re gonna get what they want. But here’s you, apparently a one-hundred-percent natural Hero, and you’re at least the equal of any of the others, Firth and Julian included. In fact, I think you’re probably better and you’re gonna prove it.”
…A lot of emphasis on that last bit, there. Okay. That…okay..
The conversation paused while Adam stood for another round of Diego-ball. It was getting serious, now: Diego had ditched his sandals. Samuel was entirely content fooling around in the nearby climbing frame, and Paz was happy if she could randomly wave books around.
Okay, kid. This time, Adam threw it over and through some obstacles.
That bought them another minute or two. “I don’t think I get why that’s important to you, though,” he said. “I mean…I’m not gonna lie and pretend I don’t see what’s in it for me, but…”
“Egh, I don’t know…I’m still trying to figure it out myself. All I know is, Freya was bitching about it and I was like…’this is literally the end of the world.’ I don’t think we can, y’know. Play at it.”
“…Play at it.”
“I don’t know! Just…promise me you’ll keep an open mind, okay?”
“That, I can promise,” Adam squeezed her hand. She nodded, squeezed back, then leaned forward to smooch his nose, then his lips. “But, I mean…I married you. That’s important.”
“You did. And in five years, we’ll be in a whole different world. You…you’ll need to be father to a whole lot of scared and alone children. And that’s…” She stopped, and fussed with Paz a little.
“We’ll figure it out when we get there,” he promised.
“It’s coming soon.”
“I know. But…c’mon, when have I ever shied away from throwing myself into whatever needs doing? When have either of us?”
She smiled. Even laughed, softly and silently. “Never.”
“Never,” he agreed, and rose to throw the ball again.
He wasn’t…entirely how he felt about all that. Marty had cracked open a big door and, well…he obviously had some seriously conflicting feelings about all that.
But the opportunity to save kid’s lives? In a way few could do?
Well. Saving lives was what mattered. In whatever way he could do it…
But he had another life to save, first. They played at the park for a bit longer, then the kids were off to la casa del abuelo for the weekend. Marty ran chores and all the rest of the things she insisted on doing herself, while Adam got a good few hours of heavy lifting in: daily work done.
He racked the bar, showered, changed into his dry clothes, then catpawed himself directly back upstairs. Quietly through the door, sneak as best he could—and he could sneak, when he wanted…he found Marty on the roof, gardening.
His blood was up, after his lift. And instinct sure wanted something, all right…
Not this time, though. This time, she needed something less…typical.
He growled quietly to give her the barest warning, then…wrapped her up, gently, from behind. “You’re mine,” he murmured softly next to her ear. “You’ll always be mine. And I’ll always be yours.”
She melted into him, almost immediately. Tonight was about the heart. And he still wasn’t good with his words on stuff like that, but hugs and cuddles were never the wrong thing to do.
They…both had to grieve what was about to happen. For a lot of reasons. So they grieved. First one way, then, when they were feeling it, another. Spent the whole weekend wrapped up in each other, in fact, tenderly and fiercely, quietly and loud.
And come Monday morning, they were ready to face the world again.
Christian (Righteous) Firth
“Still can’t believe the fucking audacity…”
“Darlin’,” Firth chuckled tiredly, and ran his mitts up over those fine pelvis-straddling hips of hers, “you’re still buttmad about that? Th’ fuck I gotta do? You done drained me fuckin’ dry!”
“Liar,” she grinned, feelin’ up along his stomach and either flank, approving of his hard-earned physique. Not that he was complaining. He was the best a man could be and was more than happy to give it all to her. Freya was the first woman in his life who could absolutely ruin him, and took it as her supreme wifely duty to do so whenever and wherever there was a chance.
God bless marriage! Her solution to his horny rabbit nature was to play back, and win.
And he couldn’t really say no, even when the rest of him was begging to stop. Such a burden.
Well, actually…yeah. Crude endurance was a hell of a thing, and probably the best side effect of it all. It was a long climb up and sometimes just as long a climb down, and he hadn’t exactly been known as a quick-an’-dirty type beforehand, neither. They hadn’t even finished coming down from the last round and she was already workin’ for more. All she had to do was move her hips just so and he was gripping at her waist, liftin’ her up an’ down for yet another go, groaning against his own self-control, instantly and almost painfully rejuvenated….
It was what they both needed, and she groaned herself, letting him do all the work while she worked him in turn with all her arts. “You tell me you’re done,” she said with a sultry need, “and before you even finished you’re already pushing out my breath…” she stretched luxuriantly atop him, and it was again all he could do to hold back. But hold back he did, and they rode the edge between pleasure and climax together for a long, well-practiced afternoon…
She knew him perfectly, knew how much he could take. Right at the moment he would have growled, flipped her over and commenced to plowin’ her fertile fields good an’ deep…
She grinned wickedly. “But today’s your lucky day. I’m making deer stew.”
And with that, she just perfunctorily detangled herself, ignoring his groaning yelps and frustrated chuckle…and claimed the shower.
Awesome welcome-home aside, and now alone to his thoughts and a raging case of blue-balls, while the shower sputtered to life…yeah. Okay. Catch his breath, give the world a think to distract a bit.
First, deer stew. Almost worth the price! He’d taken a few good ones on his last trip, and given the state of things, he might not ever get to taste deer again. So…
And Singularity? She had a point. That was a hell of a thing they’d asked. And a ballsy thing to ask, too. He was mildly surprised she hadn’t killed the poor messenger, bein’ honest!
He mighta. Or at least made his displeasure unmistakably known. Not even gonna lie, and they prob’ly knew it, too. Fuckers.
And it wasn’t like he didn’t unnerstand the brass-tacks of it. Shit was gonna get real, and get real really soon. But what the fuck was he gonna do? Ol’ Christian found the woman of his dreams, and swore before God to keep and to love her until death did them part. Besides: even if he were the type to go in for that—and he gleefully had been as a younger man, no denying it—nowadays the very thought was sort of…
He had his wife, a woman that could handle him both emotionally and physically, and she a man that could handle her, because she had needs too and the man who could meet them was a rare critter. For people like them, finding each other was a genuine blessing. He could say that without any ego. Anyone else would just be too…
Whatever. He was a blessed man. And his woman was in the shower, all alone, and not-so-little Righteous reminded him that he’d been lying to himself if he believed he was any kind of satisfied. Give him a minute, with all that body-made Crude fillin’ up his big ol’ balls…
Heh. Time to get dirty in the shower. The kids wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. They had all day and all night to play. As for her…a little sneak, a little grab, a growl in her ear.
“Blue-ballin’ me like that? ‘Yer gonna pay, darlin’…”
She didn’t seem unhappy with her punishment.
Time to enjoy life, while life was there to be enjoyed.
Heathrow jump terminal, London, UK
Professor Tilly Briggs
“Are you sure this will go well?”
Tilly squeezed Tavon’s hand and grinned at him. He was…not like Vemik. At all. Well, no, that wasn’t true: He wasn’t physically like Vemik, because nobody human really could be. But he had the same kind of mind, the same inventive, thoughtful, distractible personality that went fizzing off in a billion directions while he thought about stuff. It took a weird kind of brain to succeed as an inventor and tinkerer, but here he was: Tavon Reed, patent owner, with a poster of Nikola Tesla up in his workshop and a full-time job working for the same prototyping firm as Xiù’s brother.
Small world? Well…yes, the world of ten’gewek-adjacent folks was small.
But about to get a whole lot bigger, very quickly.
“Relax! He’s not…well, yes. He is a savage. But a very smart one! His fondest wish for me when we left was that I, to quote, ‘find a nice pretty boy and ruin him.’ So…have I?”
“Yes ma’am!” He replied with a filthy grin. “I feel spoiled rotten.”
“Good! He’ll be fine. Just think of him like a smart superjock. They’re all like that. And they mean well, I promise.”
“Oh joy, more superjocks…there won’t be any lockers nearby to stuff me in, I hope?”
Tavon had been a bookish kid growing up in a place where nerds weren’t well-appreciated. Rather than depress him, it’d made him a hell of a scrapper. Tall-ish, lean, not all that big, but he was fit and strong, and could absolutely beat someone senseless, in the ring or out of it.
In short, he ticked all Tilly’s boxes.
“I think you two will get along fine. You’ll get wrassled, though. And you’re going to lose.”
She grinned at that.
Things were already chaos at the jump facility, with a lot of security. They escorted the two of them in with a perfunctory act of force that spoke to a tired, unhappy security detail, and it wasn’t hard to see why: there’d been people camping out there, with signs up and thirsty expressions. Four years to go, and they already looked like the apocalypse was only days away.
“Shit,” Tavon noted sadly. “It’s only going to get worse, ain’t it?”
Tilly nodded. “Be very grateful for this. I sure as shit know I am. And whatever you do, become indispensable to the effort.”
“Ain’t gotta tell me twice…so. Tell me about this Vemik. I gotta be jealous?”
“He’s what they call a Given-Man, and a very, very young one. Only a couple of his Given-Man friends are as young as he. It’s a biological change they go through, kinda like a second puberty of sorts? Except it’s triggered by social standing and the lack of another Given-Man around to keep other dominant males suppressed…”
“Wait, like a queen bee, sorta?”
“…Yeah, actually. We’re not sure if it’s pheromonal though. They have a ridiculously acute sense of smell but…not passively. They have to actively ‘taste’ the air, kinda like a lizard. It’s a strange adaptation since they do have a nasal passage, it just opens into the roof of their mouth.”
“Alien biology, I guess…” Tavon nodded as they waited their turn to pass through the scanners and biofilter fields.
“He’s also incredibly smart. They used to call him ‘Sky-Thinker,’ before he became Given-Man and that name was Given to the gods. He…when he was little he spent a lot of time looking at the moon and the stars and thinking about stuff. He even invented the bow and arrow! I’ve told you all this before…”
“Yes, and every time you get misty-eyed.” Tavon chuckled. “You didn’t answer my real question. Do I need to be jealous?”
“Absolutely! He’s very handsome. And basically carved out of marble. And stuff.”
Tavon laughed a little louder, attracting some stares from nearby people. Not many were laughing right now, but…Tilly’d found she and Tavon needed to laugh in order to function. “And do I need to be worried? I hear ten’gewek are basically all bisexual and promiscuous…”
“He’d be delighted to have us both, I’m sure,” Tilly would too, come to that. “Not worried, though, no. Unless you aren’t clear when you say no, in which case, well…”
“What?” He grinned roguishly. “Afraid I might enjoy it?”
“Afraid you wouldn’t survive him, if you catch my meaning. And I’m only slightly joking.”
He snorted, but nodded. She’d been particularly careful to say ‘when’ and not ‘if,’ she realized. Because honestly…she didn’t need the emotional complication of that in her life right now. Boundaries. Yes.
And they grew a bit harder to enforce once they’d jumped through, direct to Akyawentuo. The heat and humidity and most especially the gravity settled on her like a familiar blanket. She’d…really missed it, she realized.
Tavon stumbled for a moment, as he got his legs under him. “You wern’t kidding! This normal weather?”
“This is cool. It can get as high as fifty-five degrees for months at a time.”
“About a hundred-thirty. So Death Valley but with full humidity.”
“Shit, girl. That’s deadly…”
“It can be, yeah. Ten’gewek are well-adapted, it’s why they have that huge crest, it’s for evaporative cooling. So yeah, they sweat, a lot. And their body temp can run really hot. They average…oh, one-oh-two in American,” she giggled, and he rolled his eyes. “But if they’re working hard it can hit one-twenty and stay there.”
“We’re going to need a lot of air conditioning…”
“Yes, and we’ll need to wean people off it too.”
“…And off clothes, it looks like,” Tavon added, eyeballing a nearby lean and extremely fit younger man who was unloading some cargo from the jump pad in a pair of shorts scarcely more modest than a ten’gewek’s loincloth.
Yeah, that was…life was going to be different here. And Tilly’s job, the whole reason she was here, was to try and prepare a report so the powers that be could estimate how many people could be evacuated to Akyawentuo.
And the answer, frankly, was potentially a great many indeed. Daniel Hurt had proven that even a fairly ordinary man could adjust to the gravity, heat, humidity and all the rest of it, but the permanent human population here ever since they’d arrived had number a couple dozen at most, supported entirely by imported goods from Earth.
Well. Humans made far more efficient use of the land. A ten’gewek village’s footprint was enormous, covering as it did the roaming range of several werne herds, with effectively all the villagers being involved full-time in the hunting, gathering and preservation process.
Human agriculture, on the other hand, was at the point where one farmer could keep the whole village fed. And there was a lot of planet on offer. The remaining ten’gewek numbered in the tens of thousands, all clustered in one huge rainforest on one continent. There were four other continents, millions upon millions of acres of rich arable breadbasket land, and humanity was welcome to all of it as far as the Lodge was concerned.
Therein lay the problem. Save as many humans as possible, and just by the end of the evacuation the ten’gewek would be outnumbered on their own homeworld. Give it a generation or two, and they’d be a statistically vanishing minority.
The coming of human civilization would absolutely change life for the ten’gewek in ways none could foresee. Larger populations would bring missionaries, for a start. People whose entire purpose was the assimilation and conversion of local culture.
Looking at the men laboring in basically a pair of running shorts, though, Tilly had to wonder if maybe it’d go the other way. The ten’gewek had a way of making human notions of modesty seem…silly. Or was it the heat? Either way…
“You don’t need clothes here in the jungle, really,” she said aloud. “Just something to keep bits and tits in place. Anyway, I expect we’ll be ambushed by—“ she looked up at a familiar hoot. “Holy shit, Vemik?!”
A god of the forest, naked of all but his knives and a giant nuclear-red crest, thumped down from what had to be several stories up as effortlessly as Tilly might hop a curb onto the street.
“I hear you coming back. Hi!”
“…Fuck, you’ve grown.”
“Yes!” He had a baritone voice to excavate mountain ranges and she was finding herself distracted in ways she really didn’t want to be, just then. Oblivious, he galloped over with a big fangy grin and swallowed her up in a massive ten’gewek-style hug, holding himself up by his coiled tail as he wrapped his arms and legs around and crushed her breath-takingly tightly against the hot-to-the-touch iron of his perfect body.
It was a hug that brought back an endless array of feelings and seemed like it lasted forever, but after just a minute he let go and backed away slightly to stand on his feet. She had to look up at him now, and his expression was nothing but innocent, total happiness.
“I missed you!” he exclaimed, smile so handsome it almost hurt to behold. She stepped back and took it all in.
She hadn’t exaggerated. He was perfect.
In every way.
He stood an easy six feet now, at least as tall as Tavon. Vemik was a giant by Ten’Gewek standards! He’d grown proportionally far wider and thicker then she’d have expected too, and seemed nearly as wide and deep as he was tall, even despite the exaggerated breadth of his chest compared to his powerfully thick waist. He was still a young cuboid of a cavemonkey to be sure, but he was also quite a bit more mature-looking from toe to crest-top; Vemik was quickly becoming a younger twin of Yan. Training with the Humans had left a severely healthy look about him, like it did with all the soldier ten’gewek in the news, but on him it was ten times more, his youth giving him a face and body of the fucking gods.
This all-grown-up Vemik Given-Man was…breathtaking. Shit. Shit!
She hadn’t been prepared for this!
“Good to see you again,” she eventually managed.
“We all missed you! And…very glad you back here now.” The situation was somewhat mollified by the heavy sadness behind his expression; he’d never been good at faking his feelings. He was feeling the pain of Earth’s loss too.
She still couldn’t quite process the change, though. “You’ve…really grown,” she almost stammered.
He trilled quietly, “Yes! Fire never stopped in me, only gets stronger every spring. Only one human heavier, stronger than me now!” He trilled proudly at that. “Also! In beginning of prime now. Am maybe, uh, twenty-five! Well, in Earth years,” He hooted sadly, mentioning Earth again, but immediately cheered. “Is like if I were twenty-one as a human! And you are Pro-fess-or now! Why you not send for me?! Would have been big party!”
Well, she did had a ready-made answer to that.
“I was too busy getting screwed silly by my boyfriend here!”
Tavon immediately choked back a laugh, and now Vemik’s full attention was on him. He let go of her and prowled over, like a predator examining its prey.
He rose to his full height and squared up, leaving nothing in doubt between them. “…Vemik Given-Man.” He followed up with the traditional thump of right fist over chest.
Tavon nodded, and bravely proffered a hand. “Tavon Reed. How you doin’?”
Vemik’s giant leathery hamslab of a mitt swallowed Tavon’s hand entirely but…he was civilized, and Tavon merely winced heavily. “Good grip for a human.” His tongue came out and lashed the air, while he tilted his head, examining, thinking…
“…Okay. You’ll do.”
High praise. Tilly grinned at Tavon, saw that he knew it was high praise, and decided that they’d spent enough precious time on reunion. For now.
“So…what does the Lodge think about our proposal?” she asked.
Vemik answered as he picked up their luggage trunks, one over each shoulder, while Tavon silently boggled at the minor show of strength.
Tilly suppressed a giggle. If you think that’s impressive, hun, just you wait.
Vemik replied, (maybe deliberately) oblivious to the microdrama. “Lodge agrees, this is the Giving we always knew was coming. The People are only alive because of humans, so…now we restore the balance at last. And we don’t need the grasslands.”
“Still,” Tilly worried. “There may well be a very great many of us, Vemik. Many millions.”
“We know.” His tail twitched dismissively. “And we know your history, do very much reading. We think you will be smarter this time, because you need us. City-people have always needed us forest people, and have always outnumbered us. Maybe you will be smarter than the others.”
Well, that was sure a self-assured statement of confidence! Still, “One or two city-states is not the same as ten million, or a hundred million. You won’t be able to fight us off…”
“No, but you can’t make us fight for you, either. And you worry for us!” Vemik trilled, “That is not something enemy would do, yes?”
“Not all of us are level-headed,” she warned.
“No, but you won’t be saving the stupid ones.” Well. That was blunt. “Our stupid ones die in the hunt, yours now die in fire. You don’t have time to be nice.” Wow, super blunt! He continued, “So now we have big learnings, of new kind of strong together! The gods will be pleased.”
“I hope you’re right…” Tavon added.
Vemik trilled and gave him a fangy smile. “Me too!” Back to Tilly. “But, only thing is, Brown One is sacred. Some Given-Men worry what’ll happen if human towns have to shoot too many…”
“We have ways of keeping them away without killing. Tranquilizers, ultrasonic deterrents, electric fences…something’ll work,” Tilly predicted.
“Sounds like a fun project,” Tavon noted distractedly, as his eyes were suddenly noticing the place he was in. Tilly smiled, remembering her own first time when the sheer scale of a ketta tree finally struck her. “Holy shit that’s a big tree.”
Several things happened very quickly. First, Vemik hooted happily, “Yes! Come I show you!”
Second, his long-ass tail whipped out and bound up the two of them into a crushing embrace against his back, he set the trunks down—
Third, he leaped up like a fucking grasshopper onto the same thick, wide branch he’d been waiting on for them, then grabbed, kicked off and flung, grabbed, flung again and in a handful of breathtaking seconds, they’d rocketed all the way up into the canopy. She didn’t dare guess how high it was. It was fall-and-die-instantly high, no doubt.
Tavon made a shocked noise, but Tilly had long ago learned to let herself be taken by it and enjoy the ride. They’d spent many long days and nights up there, alone and private…
God it was good to be back. Even in the circumstances.
They got to know each other, then. It turned out that Tavon and Vemik got along very well, more or less exactly as she’d hoped they would. A little too well; Vemik was already teasing him and nosing about for good stories. Well. Facing about, maybe.
And he showed off, too. Boys were apparently boys the universe over and there was no stopping the testosterone energy once it got going. Tavon boggled at a monkey-bicep literally bigger than his entire head and even tried punching Vemik in the gut, once the cavemonkey had dared him to try, and let his superhuman abdominals go as slack as he could.
One throbbing fist and sore wrist later, Tavon sarcastically intoned he “wasn’t going to fight the deathmonkey anytime soon.” Vemik trilled happily at that—pecking order established no doubt—and immediately went about asking hilariously awkward questions about his dark skin.
After a bit more fun, they collectively realized it was time to get on with the day. They were up dizzyingly high but of course ten’gewek had no fear of heights, so in reverse of their ascent, he again trapped them in his tail and they quite suddenly crashed back down. Vemik was thankfully mindful that a normal human couldn’t jump down from literally the top of the canopy like his people could…but he was sure happy to push the limits of what they could tolerate.
He was showing off again, and also teaching Tavon his actual limits; a hard lesson any human had to learn when it came to arboreal movement. So, it was still a rough ride. They actually bounced when he jumped down the last several stories, and that was again not something he needed to do; if it was just him, he’d have just stepped off the branch from up high and fell.
As it was, it was a brain-shakingly violent landing, even supported. She’d never loved that part.
“Shit, man!” Tavon shook his head and wobbled to his feet. “I know you were being gentle, too.”
Vemik trilled, “Is okay! You tougher than you think! But most humans different kinds of strong. Small-strong we say! Very tough people, endless small-strength and clever hands. Nose!”
Vemik trilled again. “Is good! The gods make us good friends to meet, I think. Earth is hard place for man like me to live. But you here on our world now, and things are different.” He looked around and found a big rock, maybe the size of a basketball. He put it in Tavon’s hands.
Tavon grunted as he realized how heavy it was, and strained to lift it up. “Damn…shit’s heavy here!”
“Yes. Very heavy rock, many humans couldn’t pick up! Now, break it.”
Tavon gave him a Look. “Man, I ain’t that strong.”
“I know. Try anyway. This is a learning.”
Tavon looked back at Tilly, who nodded. Tavon had fairly big hands as humans usually went, but this thing was too heavy to hold casually, and certainly too big to hurt. He tried, grunted for a bit…nothing. Not even a flake, and nobody was surprised.
“Right, so like I said…”
Vemik reached over and palmed the stone with a single massive monkeypaw, then began effortlessly juggling it between his hands. “Hard stone, I think a kind of granite. Not so good for tools. But—“
Vemik’s forearm exploded hugely outward into an obscene display of writhing muscle and sinew. Without so much as a grunt of effort, he crumbled the rock apart in his left hand, almost like it was little more than a clod of dirt under his strength.
“—Sometimes a sharp piece might happen, make a good tool. Never know until you squeeze it open. Or maybe, village is up high and prey below, so you must climb cliff with strong grip and heavy werne wrapped in tail. Or jump up high with prey, or jump down, or maybe you miss with spear, so you move fast and wrassle to break prey and live. Need very hard and strong belly to manage those things!”
He strummed his fingers loudly over the thick washboard of his flawless ten-pack, then put a couple of the broken pieces in-between the grooves of his (seriously huge) abs, tightened his belly…and shattered those too. “Do you see? You need a different kind of strength here.”
And you don’t have it, was the obvious message. Tilly felt a bit faint.
Tavon nodded seriously. “I take your point.”
Vemik wasn’t quite done though. He raised his arms and flexed, then quickly did the same with the rest of his body. With a snarl he loudly slapped his sinewy legs to draw attention to them—each was quite a bit thicker than his own thickly-muscled waist—and finally he pushed his toes right through the flat stone he was standing on, to really drive his point home.
Drive several points home, really. He grinned at Tilly and winked.
“Good,” back to Tavon. “Always know your strength. Now let’s find you comfy bed!”
Housing was arranged, Vemik helpfully ported their trunks over, and they found a free unit available in the stackable housing brought in for the expedition. It was on the second floor and Vemik couldn’t physically fit through the stairway with the trunks on his shoulders, but that was okay. Rather than puzzle it out, ask for help or whatever, he simply jumped up from the ground and sailed over the second-floor rail as easily as if he’d taken a large step.
In a testament to its toughness, the building didn’t shake all that much. Vemik did dent the floor grating when he landed, though. Which he didn’t notice. They unlocked the little dorm room and Vemik happily shoved the trunks in, then leaned in against the doorway to grin, his shoulders comfortably resting well outside and across the door’s entire outer frame. The rest of him completely plugged the doorway from thick chest down to his monster calves.
“So you get sleep tonight, yes? And unpack and things?”
“That’s the plan. Meet with the rest of the expedition, say hello to professor Hurt…”
“He miss you! Had to go to out-village though, won’t be back until tomorrow.”
“Wait. How do you know that?” Tavon asked. “Like…pigeons? Whistling? Smoke signals?”
Vemik blinked. “Radio.”
Vemik thought that was hilarious and trilled loudly. “Of course radio! Why would we waste good kindling making smoke when radio is a thing? Some human tech is very good idea. How you think I get so big? I lift! And lift smart too.”
“And eat whole neymas all to yourself,” Tilly added.
“And drink them too! Very fun prey to crush.”
Neither bothered to explain to Tavon what was meant by that.
“But yes,” Tilly said in closing. “We need to rest, unpack…maybe I need to reclaim my man…”
“Damn right!” Tavon’s arms came around her and she wriggled back into his grip.
“Good!” Vemik retorted. “You fuck her good now! Or maybe you want we all fuck?”
“Vemik!” Tilly laughed, exasperated.
“What?! Air tastes horny near you two, and you both keep looking at me…”
“You’re too big not to look at!”
“And too pretty. And good and big everywhere! Maybe you want to look close, get a taste—”
“Fine!” he trilled, mischief over. “Humans, so shy…anyway you come visit in morning! I bring in good werne, maybe nayma too! Need to put some meat on Tavon if he gonna be your man. I see what he can do tomorrow…maybe he see what I can do, feel me and get a good thrill!”
The friendly snarl he offered wasn’t entirely friendly, nor was the quick bout of showing off; hampered and enhanced in this case by his legs being too thick to fit through the door. Tavon was going to be hurting tomorrow, she could tell.
But then small talk was over and they were alone, Vemik having leapt straight up into the trees and was swinging away like a blur. Tavon looked like he was feeling good about it all, despite the warning of pain to come. Or at least amused, anyway.
“Shit, girl. You were right. He’s, like, the biggest superjock. But not a shithead.”
“A supergenius superjock among a people of genius übermenschlichen,” she sighed.
“Who live as hunter-gatherers in a super-rainforest.”
“Because they’re so smart and ludicrously strong they’ve never needed cities.”
“…Damn. Also, did he seriously proposition us just now?”
“Yup. And he meant it. He likes you. And wants to fuck you,” Tilly teased, “so congrats on that!”
“Great.” Tavon laughed nervously. “So now I gotta worry about a walking supersteroid gorilla-raping me someday.”
“They’re not monsters, Tavon. Say no and they’ll listen. Him especially.”
“I know,” he offered. “I believe you. But…wow. That’s a lot to take in.”
“…I can see why you love him.” His expression wasn’t unkind. “So…not to be the insecure boyfriend or anything, but…is there still room here for me? I’m not blind, you know.”
Tilly gave a sigh, turned and melted into his arms. “I love you,” she replied, reassuringly. “I left him. He’ll…always have a place in my heart, but he’s not human. He can’t…complete me.”
Tavon’s little flare of (entirely justified) jealousy evaporated, with a nod of understanding. A hug, a smooch, and it was gone entirely. They held for a bit longer before unpacking.
It couldn’t be called a happy reunion, not in the circumstances, but still…Tilly was glad. That she got to be back here, that she got to do something useful for people, and that she’d been among the first people called. Come what may, she could keep the people who mattered to her alive, and so many more besides. It wasn’t going to be easy, but she was where she could do the most good. And she was going to do it with her loving boyfriend at her side.
What more could a woman ask for?
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, Earth
“I’m tellin’ ya, d’you know what people are gonna pay for booze? We shouldn’t’a drunk all that shit last time, we should be storing it up and selling it and getting hella fuckin’ rich.”
“Why?” Letty asked. She scuffed some broken glass away with her boot, keeping an eye out across the empty parking lot while Olie picked the security shutter lock. Blue lights went past a couple streets away.
He paused and looked at her like she’d gone weird. “Whaddya mean, ‘why?’”
“I mean what’s the fuckin’ point? So we can be the richest fuckin’ pile of ash when the death beam gets here? We could be out there doing anything but all you’re thinking about is how to make a buck that won’t matter in four years.”
“Nothing’s gonna matter in four years,” he retorted, and got the lock open with a grunt and a snap. “May as we live it up while we can.”
“And breaking into a bar is your idea of living it up.”
“Letitia, when did you get so fuckin’ boring?”
“You know I hate being called that.”
“Yeah, cuz it’s a boring name. Which fuckin’ fits you, right now.” Olie slid the shutter up with a rattle. “C’mon, we’re in.”
Letty sighed and retreated into the empty store behind him. “Whatever, fuck you.”
He grinned lecherously at her. “Later.”
“Ew! Fuck off.”
“What, you gonna die a virgin?”
“No! But not with you.”
“Told ya. One hangover and suddenly you’re no fuckin’ fun any longer…” Olie played his flashlight along the liquor bottles mounted upside-down behind the bar. “Ta’shen! Lookit all that!”
Letty was watching the parking lot instead. Somewhere out there, somebody was shooting. “Yaaay,” she cheered, sarcastically.
“Oh c’mon, live it up while there’s still time!” Olie whacked her painfully in the arm with the back of his hand, then pointed. “I bet there’s more in the back. You see if you can find…I’unno, a shopping cart or something.”
“Did you even think this through at all? Even with a shopping cart, you think we’re just gonna walk home with it full of stolen booze and not get in trouble?”
“C’mon, the cops’ve got more important shit to deal with,” Olie reminded her. As if summoned by his words, the distant shooting got a lot rapider and more urgent.
Letty…had to concede the point, there. “I’ll see what I can find,” she said, and slipped out the door they’d just broken in through to go look for one.
It took her a while. She lurked in shadows as a couple blue lights flashed past, cops and ambulances escorted by a couple of military trucks. They weren’t really in the right part of town to just randomly get their hands on a shopping cart, the businesses here were things like phone repairers, ethnic grocery stores, a couple restaurants…
She found a flat cart out back of a bagel shop, with a bunch of rotting bagels in ruined cardboard boxes that musta been sitting out since the big announcement. The rain had ruined what the rats hadn’t eaten first, so she kicked the soaked boxes aside and dragged the rattling thing back toward the bar.
Her first clue that something was wrong was the lights she could see through the glass. Flashlights? Shit, the cops musta come sniffing after all..for a moment she thought about just ditching Olie and letting him deal with the consequences, it had been his idea to come out here anyway…
Some nobler part of her prompted her to ditch her cart and skulk forward to get a closer look.
They weren’t cops. Four big, mean-looking guys all dressed up in tactical-looking shit. Camo-pattern pants and baseball caps, an armor vest over t-shirts, sunglasses even though it was the middle of the night…rifles…
So much for martial law. Olie had his hands up and was talking to them, smiling…but Letty knew that smile. That was his ‘I’m in deep shit but maybe if I keep smiling it’ll get shallower’ smile. And she didn’t like how one of the tactical goons had his rifle aimed at him one bit.
Maybe…some kind of distraction was in order?
There was a bit of a hill, so she turned the flat cart downhill toward a pickup parked at the bottom, and gave it a push, before darting into the cover of a tree. The cart rattled away, gaining speed, and she grinned proudly at herself as she realized her aim had been dead on. The cart crunched into the pickup with a satisfyingly loud bang, and its alarm started blaring. The men in the bar turned and shouldered their way out the door to investigate, before running right past Letty’s hiding spot.
Olie knew when to get out. He was right behind them, and slipped away sideways into the shadows. Letty darted to his side.
“Still think I’m boring?”
For once, it was Olie’s turn to be serious. “Shut up and run.” he hissed, then did exactly that. Letty scampered after him, jinking and dodging.
Somewhere behind them, one of the men shouted something: Letty heard another call “Let ‘em go!”
They ran up as far as the big thrift store, and lurked among some parked cars left there. Letty noted that the gunfire she’d been hearing was silent now. Everything was eerily silent, not even any sirens. Just distant blue lights and some flame-lit smoke. No sign they’d been pursued. She turned, slid down the side of the car, and sat against a wheel. “Olie…this feels bad, man. I don’t wanna do this no more.”
“Hey, so we ran into some vigilante fucks who think they’re the fuckin’ Punisher,” Olie flapped a hand reassuringly. “It’s fine. We just gotta be smarter from now on…”
“No…no, I’m done. I don’t wanna keep doing this, I’m going home.”
“Well, what do you wanna do?”
“I dunno, just…not this. Something else. This shit doesn’t work for me.” Letty stood up. “I’m…going home.”
“ And what?’ Gurv out on the couch for the rest of your life?”
“I don’t know. Just…not this.” Letty turned her back and walked away. He called some things after her, hurtful things about how he was gonna supply all the parties in town or whatever and she was gonna miss out on the action…whatever. Olie wasn’t good for her, and he was gonna get himself killed at this rate.
She didn’t need him.
She took a detour on the way home, around the flashing lights and burning van that musta been the heart of that gun battle they’d heard. She didn’t know what the cops would do if they caught her out past curfew, but she didn’t want to find out. So, she steered well clear, ghosting down the unlit, ghostly streets, She could see light behind peoples’ curtains as they…did whatever. What did people who obeyed curfew even do of an evening? TV? Games?
Olie was right, in one thing. She’d never be able to just…sit at home and wait for the end. She felt too restless for that. Maybe she should just…leave. Pack her stuff and go walking and see where she got to in the time she had le—
There were lights on at home, and the front door was open. She’d walked right up to the end of their driveway before noticing, she was so lost in her head. She froze and stared at it, feeling suddenly cold and afraid and exposed.
She took a step back, and a heavy hand came down on her shoulder.
“Thought I recognized ‘ya.”
Shaking, Letty turned and looked up. The guy who’d snuck up on her was dressed all tacti-cool, with an armor vest, shooting glasses and lots camo shit over his jeans and black long-sleeve tee. He flashed her a smile from behind a bad beard. It wasn’t a comforting smile, and it was familiar in a very unwelcome way, too: Nolan Long. The boy everyone at school had always said was a fuckin’ psycho. The broken heart tattoo on his cheek was new, though.
“Letty Brown,” his winning smile got wider. “Heard your folks skipped town.”
“…Nolan,” Letty replied carefully. Then, in case that wasn’t enough: “…Uh…hi.”
“And they left you behind? Shit, girl, that’s fuckin’ cold.” He gestured indoors. “Left you the house though, huh?”
Nolan nodded. “Ah, I’m sorry. Wouldn’ta broken in if we’d known you were still here,” he lied, blatantly. “Why don’t you come on in, me an’ my buddies’ll take care of ya.”
“I, uh—” Letty glanced at the door to what should have been home and safety. There was a big guy leaning against the doorframe with his arms resting lightly on a rifle. She didn’t like the way he was looking her up and down one bit.
“I insist,” Nolan added breezily, taking her arm.
Letty’s impulse to yank herself free and run away shrieking for help shut itself down when his fingers got tighter. He was too strong, and anyway…what help? Neighbors? Police?
Shit, she was in trouble. She gulped as she stumbled along, up the stairs, past the big guy in the door, and Nolan pushed her onto her own couch.
“Y’know, it’s anarchy out there,” he said conversationally. “Cops and soldiers are still trying to pretend they can keep order, but it’s just like I always said about society—you ever read my book, Letty?”
“Course you fuckin’ didn’t, nobody did. But you shoulda.” He sat down. “See, the world only held together up to this point because everyone had this shared dream of tomorrow, right? There was an actual point to following the rules, waiting in line, being a good little citizen, ‘cuz you knew there was so much to lose.”
Was he high? Or was this just how he always was? Letty didn’t know, she’d avoided him at school. She was more than a little upset to find he even remembered her name.
“Now, though? There’s nothing holding those people out there together. There’s no dream. There’s just four short years and however much life you can shove into it. And you’ve got two groups of people, the fuckin’…little ones who’re just waiting for the end or for somebody to come along and save them, and then you’ve got the people with some actual fuckin’ vision. The ones who know what they want from life, and are gonna get it. Like your friend Olie. Good kid. Smart kid. Wants to be the liquor baron of Raleigh before we all burn. He’s got vision, even if it’s a dumb vision, yijao?”
Letty just stared at him.
“Well, I’ve got a vision,” Nolan continued. “I’ve got a vision where I don’t ever have to wash a dish or take out the trash or change my sheets ever again. I’ve got a vision where I just relax and enjoy all the fine things in life. So, we keep our eye out for new places to move in to and claim, ‘cuz other people whose vision was to go see the Grand Canyon or whatever left ‘em behind so why the fuck not…and then we move on. Life of luxury, am I right?” he asked rhetorically of his friend, who nodded with a smirk.
“…So I’m gonna make you an offer. You want in on my vision? You’ll never go hungry, you won’t have to worry about looking out for yourself, won’t have to worry about protection…” He chuckled when she gave him a wary look .”Ah, you’re a smart kid. ‘What’s the catch?’ right? Well, there’s no catch. You get fed and you get laid. No downside!”
Letty tried to crawl backward into the couch, wishing it would turn to mist and let her fall through and out of the house so she could run
“C’mon, girl, don’t give me that look. You’ll enjoy it, promise.”
“I—” The words stuck in Letty’s mouth.
Nolan sat down next to her, put his hand on her thigh and slid it slowly upwards. “I’m bein’ nice,” he said, quietly. “I don’t have to offer you anything. I can just take what I fuckin’ want. But it’ll go a lot better for you if you beha—”
There was a deafening slamming sound, and something hot and wet splashed Letty’s face. Nolan made a shocked sound and fell aside, clutching his arm. His friend cursed and started fumbling with his rifle, only to fall on his ass when, from the doorway, Olie turned and panic-fired, shooting him three times right in the chest.
Nolan was mostly just angry, though. “FUCK!” He twisted, spat furiously, went to aim his rifle, but his arm didn’t seem to be working right. Olie darted across the room, grabbed Letty, and heaved her toward the door.
Letty stumbled, then ran. Down the front steps, tripped, grazed her knee on the concrete, skinned her palms as she scrambled to her feet: Olie helped her along and together they ran, ran—
There was another gunshot from behind them. Olie coughed and dropped limp on the sidewalk—Letty tasted something horrible and coppery on the air. She looked back: Nolan’s friend snarled at his gun and yanked feverishly on part of it, like it wasn’t working properly. Then he looked up at the sound of sirens and engines a few streets away: he ducked back into the house, grabbed Nolan, shoved him in a car, and vanished with a squeal and smoke of abused rubber.
Letty dropped to Olie’s side and…and had no idea what to do. He was coughing, choking, gurgling, bloody froth bubbling from his nose and mouth. His wild, wide eyes found Letty’s.
Then he…wasn’t in there, any longer.
Everything went still, and silent. The whole world shrank down. No sirens, no engines, no flashing lights. Just Olie, his unfocused eyes looking right through Letty’s head and far out into space.
And terrible, terrible pain somewhere inside her.
Unthinking, she rose to her feet and staggered away. Ran away. She didn’t know where she was going or where she wanted to be, just…not there. Anywhere else. Her feet carried her, while the rest of her…went away, for a while.
There were flashes of thought. She broke into a clothing store—or, well. Went in through the window somebody else had broken in—got herself some clothes that weren’t covered in blood. Scrubbed her hands in the employee bathroom. It made sense to not be covered in evidence. Let her just…disappear. Lots of people were doing that. She could be one of them.
She found a spot in an underpass, where a footpath ran alongside a little creek. The sound of a vehicle convoy rushing past overhead with their sirens on jolted her out of the dazed fog she’d been in, and it finally landed on her, just what she’d blundered into, what she’d seen, what had happened—
She dropped to her knees and tried to vomit. It had been…a while since her last meal, so she mostly just dry-heaved into the stream for a bit. Once her stomach finally settled, she scooted up the embankment a bit until she was tucked away where nobody could see her, hugged her knees tight to her chest.
And stayed like that until morning.
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Margaret White
“We got lucky with the way the Nightmare timing lined up. By the time the groundbreaking team is ready to jump out there, it’ll be early summer, which means they’ll have the whole year to prepare for the annual snowmelt flooding.”
“And that’s important, I take it,” Margaret checked.
“The annual flooding was the biggest reason we never made any serious attempt to colonize it, yet,” Doctor Green explained. “Preparing for blizzards is straightforward enough, and in fact many of the same preparations will help with the blistering summers and aggressively active flora and fauna: The flooding though, that’s the big one.”
“Well, good that we have so long to deal with it then…but the important question is, how many people can we make that planet support in just four years? Would the same resources go further if we ignored Nightmare and went somewhere else?”
“Yes. But we don’t have anywhere else to go, Madam President.
“There are other unclaimed deathworlds, aren’t there? The Dominion don’t want them.”
“And…they’re deathworlds. The name isn’t just an affectation, every planet in the ten-plus range carries a host of unique challenges and hazards. The one thing Nightmare has going for it is that we know for a fact it’s habitable. Every other planet might have….seasonal pollens that cause fatal anaphylaxis in humans, or parasites in the soil that spell a horrible, slow death for anyone they infect. Nightmare, though…isn’t easy, but a human being managed to survive there alone, outdoors, for six years. It’s…safe.”
Margaret nodded heavily. “Then if your advice is that we should continue to commit to Nightmare, then we will,” she decided.
“It is, ma’am.”
“Alright. Thank you, Doctor Green, I won’t keep you any longer…”
The office cleared. No sooner was it empty than it filled up again, this time for a meeting with the attorney general and the director of the FBI, for an evaluation of the domestic security situation. Such had been the rhythm of Margaret’s life for many days now, and such it was going to continue to be for…well, until the end of the Earth.
She rose to shake hands. “So, how are we doing today?” she asked.
The Attorney-General, Emily Sutherland, looked utterly exhausted, but she dredged up something resembling a smile from somewhere. “Better, today. We’re on our third day in a row without a significant riot in any major city, though small-scale unrest is ongoing. The ad campaign seems to have worked.”
Margaret nodded. As slogans went, ’we only have four years: do you want to spend them in prison?’ was bleak and brutal beyond belief, but…if it worked, it worked. “And crime overall?” she asked, gesturing for them to sit with her.
“Still rampant,” Sutherland replied as she perched herself on the couch. “There’s hardly a business that hasn’t been broken into, and the murder rate is sky-high. I’m sorry to say that a lot of people have apparently decided nothing matters any longer, including the social contract.”
“That bad?” Margaret turned to John Barnes, the Director of the FBI.
Mercifully, he wobbled his head rather than agreeing completely. “Statistically, the real bad apples are…only two or three per thousand, thereabouts.”
“That still makes for hundreds of them in any city,” Margaret mused. “What are we doing about them?”
“The police are overwhelmed,” Sutherland said. “The courts, doubly so. And the ones who didn’t already get themselves shot are cautious and cunning. A lot of them are just…never going to be brought to justice.”
“And resources spent in the attempt could be spent saving lives instead,” Barnes agreed. “I’m loathe to say it, Madame President, but the fact is we’re probably going to have to depend on local community militias to keep order.”
Margaret frowned and thought of the smoke she’d been able to see see from the oval office’s windows whenever she looked out of them in recent days. “You make it sound like the Wild West out there.”
“The natural human impulse is to build communities,” Sutherland said, optimistically. “Most folks out there are rallying around with their neighbors, establishing mutual protection, sharing what they have…in a lot of ways, adversity brings out the best in people. It’s just that the truly evil have disproportionate impact.”
Margaret sighed and nodded. “Public order is necessary part of this evacuation. We need our communities to be safe and well-organized so they can work with the government. If we do nothing, won’t they just become insular and resentful at being abandoned?”
“I suppose that’s possible…” Sutherland agreed
“Please look into it for me. We have special forces whose whole job is educating civilian militias, don’t we? If we deploy them to our own cities and start working with these rallying communities instead of just leaving them to handle themselves, will that save more lives, or would those men be better used elsewhere? I want to know.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll discuss the matter with General McDowell,” Sutherland promised.
Margaret took a moment to study her. Emily was an old…well, not friend, but certainly acquaintance. They’d moved in the same circles for a very long time, that being the only real route to power. Nobody became president or a member of the Cabinet without networking.
She wasn’t taking the situation well, it seemed. Margaret was used to Emily Sutherland being more…dynamic. The woman sitting opposite her right now was short on sleep, short on hope and short on spirit. Understandable, considering both the bad news and the workload it must have generated for her. There being little else to discuss in their brief meeting, perhaps she could use the little time they had left for some supportive human warmth.
“How are your children, Emily?” she asked aloud.
“My daughter and her family are safe, thank God. They’ve been granted an assured place in Franklin. My son…” She turned her head and blinked rapidly.
Margaret nodded, grimly. Young mothers with children got higher priority than unmarried men because, well, children. And though she’d made it quite clear to the fledgling Department of Evacuation that care absolutely must be taken to acknowledge the necessity of fathers and the role of single dads…the simple truth was, the DoE was most likely going to default to the Titanic policy of “women and children first.”
The Consolidation, Continuity, and Evacuation Act was easily about the fastest thing ever to go through Congress, but in truth that speed meant it was kind of a mess. The DoE (as opposed to the DoE, or even the DoE) was little more than an org chart at this point, and its first order of business had been ensuring that the people whose decisions and hard work would be necessary in the coming months were in a position to make those decisions, without worrying for their loved ones.
She’d been promised that it would find its feet quickly, at least. It certainly had the funding and powers.
And that was proving difficult already. Extremely influential people who were not technically in the halls of government were very suddenly applying all the pressure they possibly could to get off-planet. And on that point, Margaret and her allies were of a singular mind.
Merit was the metric that mattered, and they didn’t have time for this. So, quietly, there was another movement underway in each nation. Very quietly, in the case of the US. The most confidential reaching-out to trusted partners across all the states, and now, at the final stretch, those partners were reaching out to their own.
The moment had to come quick when it came, and they could not afford a leak.
“I’ll…see what I can do. Do you have…I hate to ask, but what is his skillset?”
And please, let it be something useful.
“He’s a financial analyst at…well, was. Recent events have been a bloodbath.”
Not a home run, then. Margaret’s brow knitted. Not that the evacuation wasn’t going to require financial analysis, but…
“Well, have him give us his resumé and references. I’m sure we can find a place for him.”
It was like ten years fell off Sutherland’s shoulders. “Thank you, Madame President.”
“And you, John?”
“My brother-in-law has property in Nouveau Acadia and is sponsoring my children’s families. I think we’re fine,” he said.
“Good. That’s good. Well…I shouldn’t keep you any longer.”
They shook hands, said their polite farewells, and another brief meeting came to its end.
Surprisingly, she had a minute before the next one. A chance to walk around the room and consider all the various history accumulated within. Every president made it their own of course, though with a sharp eye on public perception. Margaret’s office collection included a sculpture by James Washington Jr, and a signed picture of Nichelle Nichols.
She’d have to make sure they survived.
Her phone rang. She glanced at it, tore herself away from the art, took a deep breath, and picked it up.
“Mister Hoeff to see you, Madame President.”
She nodded: he was expected. “See him in.”
A moment later, when the door opened, Hoeff silently slid into her office, dressed in a perfectly-tailored suit that, somehow, did nothing to tame the sheer physical menace he radiated. The man was basically a walking cube of predator muscle. How he managed silence without creaking the floors (even as they bowed under his weight) was an eternal mystery.
“They’ve all been delivered safely. All fifty states,” he reported, tiredly.
Margaret nodded as she perched on the edge of the desk. Reversing her predecessor’s decision regarding Hoeff and the men like him had been one of her first and quietest acts as President. The timing could not have been more apt.
“Thank you. I admit, I was more than a little surprised when your name bubbled up…”
“My associates are principally concerned with the survival and integrity of the human race. Have been for…a long time, let’s say. This is relevant to our interests. And my nominal boss these days, too.”
By which he meant the Great Father, of course. She didn’t quite understand their relationship.
“Yes, well. The Commonwealth Realms have a much easier time in this sort of thing. We will need to be…cautious. Has secrecy been kept?”
“As best as could be. Saw to some of that personally. It’ll start leaking now though, no doubt.”
“No doubt. And…” she leaned forward, unable to hide her anxiety. “How many does Hardy think we’ll manage?”
He smiled, which lit up the man’s startlingly handsome face, as if a talented sculptor had taken a quick, rough pass at a block of craggy granite. “As many as forty states. It should pass.”
That in turn was like ten years had fallen off her shoulders. She hated the cut-out through a man like Hoeff, but…well, whatever he was, she didn’t doubt his loyalty or his utility.
“Well, I suppose we best not waste any time. If you would please tell Hardy to move forward with all due speed.”
“Yes ma’am.” He nodded, and was gone as silently as he’d arrived, squeezing himself sideways through the door. It closed behind him, and Margaret White let out a long, slow exhalation of pure relief. If that projection was right, then…
Well. She composed herself, and moved on to the next meeting.
Two days later, to a great and shocked uproar, forty-one states called for a Constitutional Convention. The first since the Constitution had gone into force, nearly three hundred years ago.
And by this Convention, would likely die.
They had a draft, of course. Much of the decoration was still there. It still looked and smelled like an American Constitution, clarified some things, streamlined others. The Bill of Rights was incorporated into the text proper, and in light of the current situation, the powers of the citizenry regarding militias had been strengthened. Very much a “version one-point-one.” Bug fixes. Errata. All pretty dry, really.
But it did two critical things. Firstly, term limits could now be suspended. Not that it mattered, really, but the lawyers felt it useful. More gravely, it gave Congress a new power; they could empower the President’s Cabinet with the full authority of Congress directly. It essentially gave the President dictator powers.
It took the Convention a week to approve this new Constitution. It took Congress merely three days to ratify it, not that it mattered; the States had already spoken.
It went into force the next week. And a week after that, Margaret White was in control. Probably for the rest of her life. Certainly for the rest of America’s.
She cried that night, and didn’t quite know why.
Dodge City, Kansas, USA, Earth
There was a new guy on the radio. Apparently the old guy had quit. The new guy sounded young, amateurish, and earnest. Like some kind of radio true believer, or somethin’. Austin guessed he kinda had to be, if that was his big idea of how to spend the apocalypse.
Jesus. He’d had some kinda gut feeling that something big and bad was coming, but the actual end of the actual world? A four year ticking clock ‘til doomsday? It just…it didn’t seem real somehow. Like there was part of his brain still waiting for the President to get back on TV like “April Fools!”
So apparently the radio DJ had decided to…go live, or something. Get busy living or get busy dying. Prob’ly a lot of folks doing that the whole world over right now…
And here Austin was, still spraying his crop. After all, soybean aphids didn’t know the end was nigh. And Austin needed a good harvest, cuz the farm wasn’t worth shit, now. Nowhere was. Nothing was. But food was gonna be, for sure. People still needed to eat, ‘cuz sure, the world might be ending, but it’d end a fuck of a lot sooner if everyone starved. And then no-one would live through it.
So, here he was, in his sprayer, spritzing chemicals and listening to an intern spin discs. Plenty of time to think while the sprayer steered itself, at least.
Well, the good news was, the realtor and seller on Cimbrean were both locked in by the purchase contract, so they couldn’t turn around and fuckin’ shaft him with a thousand percent price hike. Probably regretting that now, but…Shit…were all the lawyers gonna quit and go take vows too? ‘Cuz Austin had no idea what he was gonna do if it turned out he’d need one right about now…
Now there was a surreal fuckin’ thought. Here they were, four years from doomsday, and it might be the lawyers that people wound up needing more than anything. Austin’s grandpa woulda laughed himself to death at that one.
Shit was already going nuts. After the first couple of fiery nights, things had settled down a bit as the National Guard dealt with the worst agitators. There’d been…well, people had died. A lot of people. And Austin was pretty sure there’d be more, before folk got their heads into gear and started pulling together to save something.
For now, though, the tension was thick enough to plow. Like, the sort of tension where he had his two sons armed. Yes, just little twenty-two pistols, but for five year old kids? That was a fuck of a lot of trust and responsibility real fuckin’ fast. They were never without a firearm as they went about their days, and they drilled, too. Daily.
Thank God both of them took it all very seriously. They…didn’t know why, yet. They didn’t know what was coming. God willing, Austin would be able to shield them from knowing it until they were safely out of harm’s way.
After two murders in town—a town of less than a thousand—they started manning a watch. Reached out to the neighbors, they didn’t know what the fuck they were gonna do.
He hadn’t told them about the land purchase, yet. He’d sensed somehow that would take some serious trust. But they were pretty rich farmers, and right now that mattered. Something to think about while he worked out. Which, judging by those storm clouds…
He got the field done just in time. So, off to his well-stocked little gym to blow off steam. He had some bikini babes up, which Lauren tolerated ‘cuz she got to draw twirly mustaches on them and post her own eyecandy…he’d given them all gross bodyhair with his Sharpie.
Not terribly Christian of them probably, but whatever. They had fun. And now more than ever, he wanted a strong family. Life was about to become a whole lot of very hard work.
…Shit, did he even bother to send his kids to school? Fall was coming…
No. Two murders, and that in a close-knit farm town? Fuck no. It was gonna be homeschooling until they were safely on Cimbrean. However long that took. Lauren had objected at first but…well, he’d come thumping into their office all sweaty and gross, and there she was fiercely obtaining everything she’d need to make it so. The boys would just be starting kindergarten so that was good…
But her attitude wasn’t happy. Whose could be? She shrugged him off violently when he bent over to kiss her from behind.
“You stink. Go shower!”
Austin grabbed a beer from the fridge. “I just got in, gimme a fuckin’ minute before you jump on my ass…”
Icy silence. Ah…shit. She’d prob’ly been stressing and planning and pickling in the fact that if they didn’t get off the Earth the twins weren’t gonna live to see their tenth birthday, and here he was just rockin’ in like it was business as usual.
He sighed and put the beer back, unopened. Turned to apologize only for her to bury her face in his chest with a thump and squeeze him tight around the ribs.
“Honey…honey. Look at me.”
She pulled back and looked up.
“We have an exit plan. Remember that. God willing we’ll be farming on Cimbrean next year. And the kids can’t be illiterate hillbillies. I mean…this is Kansas. There aren’t any hills.”
She hiccuped into his chest, then gave him a kind of closed-fist whack on the shoulder, but…they were okay. She straightened up, sighed heavily. “I guess you didn’t hear?”
“There was a school shooting up in Hoisington.”
Austin cringed. That was…close. Much too close to home. “…Shit.”
“Yeah. I just…it’s gonna get bad. Real bad. So this land you bought on Cimbrean had better be enough to get us to the front of the line…”
“It should be.” Please God, let it be enough. But on that subject… “Hey, babe…what d’you think about the Keelers next door?”
“Decent enough…why do you ask?”
“Well…I bought a lot of land. A really stinkin’ huge allotment. They’re all mega-farms out there like up in Canada. It’s, uh. It’s ten thousand hectares.”
“…Okay? I mean, ten thousand acres is pretty big—”
“No. Hectares. I made the same mistake. That’s about twenty-five thousand acres.”
Lauren gawped at him for a second, then did what she always did when her brain was rebooting: she tidied him up. Flicked some dirt off his sleeve and straightened his collar, as if a much-worn John Deere polo shirt from the 1980s was ever gonna look neat.
“You…” she began, then the reboot completed. “Wait. You accidentally bought twenty-five thousand acres of unbroken land?!”
What could he do? Austin shrugged helplessly. “In my defense, I was scrambling to do it as fast as possible before, y’know. And the land out there is already ten times more expensive.”
“God, of course it is!” Lauren threw her head back and made a disgusted noise. “Oh, what’s that? The world’s ending? Millions of people are gonna be trying to buy land and save their families? Hold my beer while I price gouge all of them into the fucking grave!”
“…Right,” Austin agreed.
Lauren sighed and absent-mindedly went fishing in her pocket for a pack of cigarettes she’d stopped carrying years ago. After a second she noticed what she was doing, pulled a face, and sat at the kitchen table. “…Y’know I’da been so mad at you if you’d bought that much land for no reason, but…how did you know?”
“I didn’t. I just…had a gut feeling, and I went with it,” Austin shrugged.
“Well, I’m never gonna talk shit about your gut feelings ever again.” She shook her head, then frowned and looked up at him. “What was that you were sayin’ about the Keelers?”
He found himself suddenly distracted by just how…how fucking beautiful Lauren was, how lucky he was to have her, have his kids, have a future when so many would not…
He shook his head clear. “Right. So, seein’ as we can’t possibly hope to farm that much land, and there’s a lotta good folk around here, and it’d be nice to have friends on a new world…”
“Oh, babe. We’ve got to be so careful about that. Does anyone else know yet?”
“No. I was told to send an email to the consular office on Cimbrean about all this but they’re super busy. Lost their long-time ambassador a few weeks ago and of course now…”
Of course. God seemed to just love giving him blessings by good timing, lately.
He fished his phone out of his pocket and read about the happiest thing of his life
Your information has been received and processed by the Embassy staff. I am pleased to inform you that your immigration request has been approved and expedited, with the expectation you will take up full-time residence no later than the first of January.
Lauren sagged, buried her face in her hands, and emitted a gigantic sob of relief.
We understand this is a major undertaking. There will be resources (still pending arrangements, of course) made available to assist with your transition. Please remain alert as to official announcements, and on a personal note, the Ambassador strongly advises your discretion in these immediate hours.
The present terms of your immigration permit you to bring your immediate family. However: we have investigated your purchase and have concerns that it may not prove productive, given the size of the allotment and the realities of farm management. This is, after all, unbroken land. It will require a huge effort to prepare for successful planting, an effort which will require much manpower. You are of course familiar with these problems—indeed, your prominence in various agricultural associations and communities speaks well of your passion. The Ambassador would like to speak with you at the earliest opportunity to consider the situation.
Let us be clear: we have no intention of interfering with your purchase agreement. Nevertheless, a moratorium will shortly be imposed limiting homesteads to 100 hectares per qualified family, in order to enable the most rapid possible domestication of the land. There is much more at stake here than simple property rights.
An altogether different gut feeling settled in Austin’s belly. “Did…? Oh boy. I think I just accidentally did a lot more than buy us some land.”
“Yeah, it sounds like you accidentally turned us into…like, lords or something.” Lauren stood up and moved to his side to read the rest of the letter around his shoulder. “Meet with the Ambassador at the earliest opportunity?”
Please see the enclosed travel voucher. As one of the very few who managed such a transaction before the informal lockdown immediately preceding the official announcements of the Evacuation, your voice is uniquely influential, and your leadership will be needed. Therefore, you are cordially invited to an audience with the Honorable Ambassador at your earliest convenience, along with the relevant ministers and secretaries of the respective governments.
Austin didn’t recognize the name. Alice something, secretary to whoever, office of whatever…
Not important. The important part was the “immigration approved.” The meeting with the Ambassador was…was…
Well, that was a fuckin’ curveball. But the point was, they’d be gone by the end of the year. Get the harvest in, pack, and go. Lauren and the boys were safe. He was safe!
And there was a travel ticket attached to the email. They wanted to talk to him right now. And in person.
“You uh…I’d better go get my suit. Can you call Darius, have him do a day or two to cover me?”
“Darius was talkin’ about quitting and going to see the world while there’s still time…” Lauren said.
“Well, whisper to him that we’ve got a lifeboat and he’s invited. If anyone is gonna be worth taking along it’ll be him.”
“And his girlfriend?”
“If that’s what you need to do to convince him, yeah. C’mon. You know this place would fall apart without him.”
“Yeah, but you know Darius. He won’t keep it a secret for long. The whole town’s gonna know, and then they’re gonna come knockin’ our door down!”
“Then lock his ass in the guest room! Babe…” he pulled her close, nuzzled against her check and neck. “I know you can handle him. This is important, so…do this for me, okay? Whatever it takes, hell ask ‘em to stick around to help watch the farm while I’m away! We’re gonna need that man, and we both know it.”
She nodded, and tried to relax. “Okay. Okay. I’ll handle Darius, you handle the ambassador, and we’ll…we’ll be okay. God…”
Austin squeezed her tight as he felt her start to tremble. “It’s okay. We will. We really will.”
It was a long and emotional hug. Honestly, though…he needed it just as much as she did.
Afterwards, he hit the showers, got himself clean. Down to the basement, grabbed a suitcase. Up to the closet, packed his best duds. Checked, double-checked and triple-checked at every step that the documents on his phone were real, then that he had the stuff with him to keep it charged. He didn’t wanna be stopped by a state trooper and not have proof it was necessary travel.
Pulled some funds out of the savings account to pay for all the travel expenses, because what the fuck else was he gonna do with it? A hug and kiss for Lauren, a cuddle for the boys and promises to bring them back something cool…
And he was on the road. The radio true believer was still doing his best to spin discs. Austin was…kinda glad for him that he’d found his calling. Even if the calling was just distracting people from reality, for a little while.
He didn’t change the channel once, the whole way to the airport.
New Belfast, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Doctor Rachel “Ray” Wheeler
Of all the things Ray had taken up over the years, gardening and beekeeping were the two she’d come to truly love. Both were equal parts art and science, and they were so very full of life, even if she wasn’t going to win awards and competitions any time soon.
But she had all the herbs she could ever ask for, a house that perpetually smelled of mint and honey, and beeswax candles around her bathtub.
Frankly, it was heaven. Albeit a heaven occasionally interrupted by knocks on the door. She’d stopped bothering with the ‘no soliciting’ signs, they just uglied up her porch and were routinely ignored anyway.
Though, one glance at the doorbell cam told her that these particular visitors weren’t the usual bible-botherers. Door-to-door proselytizers weren’t usually so…statuesque.
There were two of them, a man and a woman. Both had a lot in common, looks-wise: they were tall, incredibly well put-together, both had dusky skin and dark hair, and beautifully proportioned faces borrowing from the best of the entire human ethnic library.
Singularity types were so easy to spot, honestly. Once you knew they existed it was almost impossible to miss them. Regular humans just didn’t have that…
…Well, that show-dog look to them. Or like if they were prize livestock. Too damn perfect.
Of course, that was exactly what they were.
She opened the inner door cautiously, but left the screen door closed. Not that either of these two walking demigods would be slowed by it for a microsecond, but the signal was important. “Good evening…”
The man looked slightly hurt. Also not surprising. They had a bit of the canid innocence about them, too. Borderline uncanny valley.
The woman, on the other hand…a bit less so. “Good afternoon, Doctor Wheeler. I…see you know who we represent.”
“That I do,” Ray agreed and leaned against the door frame. “If you’re here to recruit me for something, you should know my answer is definitely going to be a no. The last time I was recruited for anything, it did not end well.”
The man shook his head and raised a peaceable hand. “On the contrary, we’re hoping you’ll stay right here. We just wanted to discuss an idea with you. Something you could do to help people in the coming crisis.”
Ray gave him a steady stare. “Why me?”
“Because you’re here, and because you can.”
Ray turned her steady stare on the woman. Then she opened the screen door. “Come in. Talk. Try not to break my couch.”
“We’ll do our best,” the man said, with a wry chuckle.
“Tea? I have fresh mint and honey…”
“Oh, yes please!” The woman perked up. “Thank you!”
“What are your names, anyway?” Ray asked as she bustled into her kitchen. She noted the carefully polite way the two of them removed their shoes then sat—knelt, more accurately—around her coffee table rather than testing her furniture.
“Niobe,” the woman introduced herself. “And this is Jochar.”
“Pleasure,” Ray said. She turned and leaned against the kitchen counter as her kettle clicked on. “So. I’m here, and I can. Can what?”
“Singularity have been paying attention to how the nations of Earth are approaching the business of evacuation,” Jochar explained. “We suspect we know how they’re going to do it, and we think it’s very…efficient.”
“But rather heartless,” Niobe agreed.
“Heartless,” Ray repeated.
“Or rather…the first concern is not the well-being of the evacuees, beyond that they can live. If you’ll forgive my saying so, Doctor Wheeler, you know better than most that there’s a difference between surviving and living, y!jao?”
Ray blinked at the unfamiliar pronunciation of the familiar gaori word. She’d never heard a human mouth make a sound quite like that, before.
“Well…yes…” she said aloud. “But I also know that often times, just surviving is enough. So long as you’re still here…”
“The title of your biography, yes?” Jochar nodded. “‘We’re Still Here.’ Well, you’re entirely right…and look, here you are, you have these lovely acres of flower-planted meadow, a herb garden, and a cozy cottage-style house with an ocean view. The perfect place for a survivor to retire to and live.”
Ray turned as the kettle clicked off, and poured. “Get to the point, please.”
“The point, doctor, is that there will shortly be a lot of young people—children, young adults, especially young women—arriving from Earth. They will be the survivors of a tragedy, all of them bereaved, all of them leaving behind their parents, siblings maybe, friends certainly, their hopes and dreams…”
“And then the coming years will be hard work and reconstruction with no time or opportunity to put themselves back together,” Niobe finished. She smiled gratefully as Ray handed her the cup, and took an appreciative deep breath of it. “We want to propose you could help them, directly. This could be a house of healing, where they can find a new family.”
Ray tilted her head as she took up her own cup. She’d finally, after years of therapy, been able to start drinking tea, coffee, cocoa and soup again…though not stews or casseroles. “It’s a nice idea. I think I might even be open to it. But…why couldn’t this have been an email? Why are you two here to talk to me in person? And what’s Singularity’s interest in inspiring me to do that?”
“That is King Gilgamesh’s will,” Jochar replied, simply.
“Kings don’t do unalloyed sentiment.”
“No, perhaps not. But consider…we want to help. We exist to help. Singularity’s purpose has always been to preserve humanity, the gao and life itself…and we have always believed in the gentle and personal touch, and in the power of individuals.”
Niobe nodded firmly. “What’s in it for us is that we are human, doctor. And while we don’t have the resources or power to save millions of lives, we can help. We can offer military protection, and we can offer help by doing what we do best: identifying exceptional people, and helping them.”
Ray padded through into the living room and sat in the easy chair opposite them. “To do what, exactly?”
“To build families.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I live here alone, a long way from anyone else. The only person I speak with on the regular is Holly Chase. I’m not exactly…” Ray looked around, and paused at a sudden emotional presence that closed her throat. “…I’m not exactly…families mean stability. They mean something solid, something…what I’m trying to say is, I don’t think I’m the right person for what you have in mind. I’m a fucking mess.”
“Your house isn’t,” Niobe pointed out. She looked around, and her broad smile betrayed the first tiny imperfection Ray had detected on either of these two: a handsomely crooked tooth.
“Therapy project. Believe me, sometimes I have bad weeks and this whole place falls apart…”
“Doctor,” Jochar’s slightly-too-handsome, innocent-eyed face was full of nothing but warmth and earnestness. “You don’t have to be perfect to do some good in the world.”
Ray watched him carefully for a moment, then set her drink aside and sat forward. “…What do you mean by building families? I’m not gonna marry anyone if—”
“No, no. We mean…whatever you think it means. If it means being a kind of aunt to a handful of displaced and frightened children, that’s what we mean. If it means being foster grandmother to a generation of post-Earth babies and their scared, traumatized young mothers, that’s what we mean. For others, well…the times are desperate, and we want to help. Sadly, cultural differences got in the way. We’re aware our reputation can be pretty wild, and…”
“We could have been less forward, perhaps. In any case we do not wish to ask of anyone something we don’t think they’d be comfortable with, or which might be too…”
“Too far,” too-handsome finished. “I can only promise I meant well. The difference in perspective is…startling.”
“…What perspective, exactly?”
The demigod shrugged those magnificent shoulders of his. “I have five wives. Where I come from it is normal for a successful man.” He laughed, “I’ve learned very quickly that isn’t the case here! And obviously, well…”
“He is young,” Niobe added. “Barely past his boyhood!”
“Five wives?” Ray asked weakly.
“Yes!” He beamed.
“Do they have spouses too?”
“No no, and we’re pretty loyal to each other…but as Niobe pointed out, we’re all still young.”
That last point was clearly doing a lot of work, and Niobe confirmed the hypothesis.
“Dalliances are expected among us, so long as they are discreet.”
“And…are you one of his wives? Or…”
Jochar and Niobe shared an amused look. “We’re half-cousins. Too closely related to benefit the Line,” Jochar said, shaking his head.
“So. One man, multiple wives…women with multiple husbands?”
“We know how it sounds to Earth-born ears, especially American ones. But we’re…a different culture. We don’t see it that way,” Niobe at least seemed not unhappy with it. “But that is because most of us do not remain in Singularity. In any case, that’s not what we came her to discuss, and we’re not proposing it for you. We’ve just found that some of the people most in a position to do some true good right now may need a little extra, ah, encouragement and support.”
“And we think you’re one such,” Jochar agreed. “It’s not just that you have enough land for them to live on, or just escape to sometimes if you’d prefer it that way. It’s that you’re one of only a tiny number with life experience that might help them. What you lived through…”
He went silent. It took Ray a second to notice that her hands were shaking, and she had a second or two of teetering between being deeply upset that he’d gone there…or grateful that he’d been tactful enough to stop.
She came down on the latter. They were right, after all: she had gone through something only a handful of others had endured. Butwhy was all this so…striking, to her? And why was the idea of opening her home—her huge, beautiful, healing home—up to the people who needed it…why was that so surprising and novel to her? Why hadn’t it been the first thing that occurred to her?
…Well, because she’d been lost inside her own head and too focused on herself for too long. Maybe the literal end of the Earth was the time for that to change. Maybe she could do something better than spend the rest of her life recovering…
“This is an offer of support, right?” she asked aloud. “You’re not just here to plant the idea in my head and vanish?”
“Absolutely it is an offer of support,” Niobe said, warmly.
“Whatever I need to make it work?”
“As much as we can give. And you would not be beholden to us, it comes with no oath, no contract, no obligation. Only our request that you do what you can to give the adrift children of Earth a new family, in whatever form seems right to you.”
Ray found herself nodding. She found herself liking the idea. A lot. She reined that in, carefully. She’d been…burned…a few times these last several years, when something came along that seemed good only to wind up sending her spiralling straight back to Hell. She wasn’t going to commit to anything without discussing it at length with her therapist first.
But when she picked up her tea and sipped it again, in her head, she was already making plans.
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Julian liked Austin immediately, just from reading his file. And what a very interesting file it was, too. For a start, it was pretty thick, and pretty old. Austin Beaufort had been Known About for a good few years, for unhappy reasons.
There weren’t many humans alive who could claim to have really impressed an igraen. The transcript of Six’s comments on Austin’s resilience, character and intelligence…explained a lot.
Meeting him in person just cemented everything. For one, he was confident and ballsy without being rude. That was going to matter. For another he was definitely a more-than-casual gymrat and Julian was a very predictable stereotype in some ways. What could he say? The swole-life was a great kind of bro-life. And for another…
Well, it showed discipline, dedication, delayed gratification, goal orientation. All important things. Plus, the fella was clearly smart, and perceptive. He’d made a power move on land that almost nobody else had made. So far the only people who had shown genuine foresight had been the church of all the things, Austin…
And not too many more. All the wheeling and dealing came after the announcement. He’d slipped his in during the whole thing. Somehow. From Earth.
Apparently while farming, too.
And even better, he wasn’t instantly afraid or shrinking away when they met. Nice and tall, a bit over six feet so really only a few inches shorter than Julian, and he was clearly comfortable sizing himself up respectably against strangers. Good, he had some social skill.
“So, you’re the farmer who figured out what was coming in time to buy up twenty-five thousand acres just before we closed the market.”
“I can’t have been the only one, your excellency…”
“Oh, God, I hate being called that,” Julian shook hands, and decided to feel the fella out. Not a bad grip on him either, though he did wince slightly. “That’s only for foreigners. To Americans I am ‘the honorable’ if you insist, but ‘ambassador’ or ‘mister’ is fine, too. Please just call me Julian.”
Austin gave an apologetic and understanding nod. “They didn’t exactly cover how to address ambassadors at ag college.”
“Yeah, I had to learn all sorts of fancy stuff when I crash-landed into this gig…” Julian grinned sympathetically. “Anyway…lots to cover, and you’re gonna need to learn a lot of shit pretty quick, given the life you just stepped into.”
“Let’s hold on to that for a moment. First, let’s get somewhere a bit more private…”
Jesus Christ what a first impression.
Austin had expected a suit, and that was…kinda what he got. Ambassador Etsicitty wore a perfectly tailored shirt, sure, but the sleeves were rolled up comfortably and his hair was thick and luxuriant, easily shoulder-long; he’d loosely tied it back with a strip of leather, and the lapel pin on the sports jacket draped over his shoulder was a little red white and blue tomahawk.
Characterful, rather than the same boring cookie-cutter politician uniform of white shirt, red tie, American flag lapel pin literally everyone in government wore. This man had some style and was very obviously no stranger to work. He had giant mitts too, which produced a handshake that could crush rocks, and the leather of his palms could sand paint off a car.
Come to think of it, it was an impressive feat of magic he fit a shirt at all. Dude was huge. No. far more. He was cartoon huge and seemed to be almost bursting out of his very skin with well-carved sinew. He had a neck thick with rippling muscle and wide enough to shame any linebacker, arms and shoulders any superhero would envy, an armor-plate chest wider than Austin’s shoulders. Anatomy-chart legs strained at his pants, thighs so big they looked fit to squat a building, calves that could launch him to orbit atop monster feet to match everything else. He was a freak, and somehow some kind of deadly energy about the man suggested none of it was merely for show.
And right now, his priority seemed to be Austin, and that wasn’t a feeling Austin was sure he liked. The ambassador had even gone so far as to meet him at customs and had basically yoinked Austin right off the street and straight into a…truck? A big truck, too.
Okay. Right brand of truck too, definitely a man of taste. The moment the door was closed, he set to it.
“Right! So. First, apologies for the sudden meet-and-greet, and also apologies for my schedule. I’m…” he sighed with a rueful grin, “well, I’m wearing a lot of hats at the moment.”
“I can imagine….” Austin ventured.
“Yeah. Everything’s being reshuffled, fast. And that’s going to make this a strange meeting. So: no, you’re not in trouble. Quite the opposite!” Julian grinned across at him as the guy in the front seat steered them out into traffic and away. “In fact, so completely opposite that I’m partly here to see if you maybe want an escape plan.”
“…Escape? From Earth?”
“No, from the world you just stepped into. But y’know what? Fuck all that. I took the rest of the day off because this is important and nothing else is a screaming emergency. So…want to play some basketball? My kids are back in town so it’ll be two-on-two.”
“I…” Shit. That came out of nowhere. “Is now the…basketball? Now?”
“Now is exactly the time. I need to know you, and you very much need to know me. Besides, I’ve been cooped up in offices and vehicles and stuff for three days, I need to move right now…and you’re a big athletic-looking guy. How long have you been traveling?”
“About…eleven hours,” Austin realized.
“Right. So get moving, get fed, and get some sleep, in that order.”
He didn’t even ask if Austin played basketball. They just…drove to his office, from there went directly to the gym and the big guy tossed a duffel bag into Austin’s arms.
“Should be your size. Dunno about shoes but there’s some clean ones in the rack over there.”
Austin set it down. “I brought my own clothes, thanks.”
They got changed in the small locker room, Julian not hesitating for a moment. Austin never felt shame in front of anyone but, well, this time he sure as fuck felt Jell-O soft and shy. Photos and videos usually flattered, but in this man’s case, not even his modeling shoots came even remotely fuckin’ close to doing him justice. There were levels to this, apparently, levels far above wherever Austin was, and he’d always thought he’d done pretty damn good in life, too. Julian didn’t say anything though, just stripped down leaving Austin feeling like a chump, and pulled on some nearly pointless running shorts. Didn’t bother with shoes or anything else.
They played basketball. The big guy was quick and light on his feet, not at all what Austin was expecting. His sons, though, they were something else. Austin tried to figure out how exactly they could look so nothing at all like him and then figured they must be adopted or something. They looked a lot more like one of his girlfriends, tall and athletic and blond. Impressive, yes, but they were still in the realm of normal human athletes instead of…whatever the hell Julian was.
And absolute fuckin’ ass-kickers when it came to shooting hoops. Blood family or not, athleticism was clearly important in the Etsicitty household. Both were bigger men than Austin, which was saying something, and the more heavily muscular one had the look of a wrestler about him—one pushing ‘heavyweight’ past its breaking point, too. The other was still damn big by any standard and definitely the better baller, due to skill and practice by the feel of it rather than any athletic advantage.
They made it a closer game than it had any right to be. And then Julian grinned fiercely, and the game went three-on-one. Ambassador versus everyone else.
And he won.
Not easily. But he was a blur while not really straining himself either, and the rest of them were basically dead on their feet. The big fucker was something else. Austin wondered quietly whether the whole thing hadn’t been some kind of…weird test, maybe? Was this how Etsicitty measured a guy up?
Well, he could think of worse ways.
He gave the boys a huge hug—Austin could tell, this was a treat they’d all been looking forward to—and then, finally, it was back to business, once they’d grabbed a quick shower and changed back into something more appropriate.
They didn’t go to some office, though. Instead, they went downtown, to a fast food stand with a gaoian proprietress, where Julian ordered the largest platter of tacos Austin had ever seen. He set it down at a concrete park table, and whipped out a privacy field generator. Austin had never seen that kind of Star Trek shit before—okay, yes he had. At Chicago. That didn’t really end well, though. How much did that little gizmo cost?
Either way, all of a sudden they were in a quiet, private dome of gray fuzzy air, where Julian inhaled a taco with maybe two whole bites and a sip of water…then looked Austin in the eye and suddenly they were down to business.
“So here’s the thing. That’s a lot of land you snapped up. And yeah, we’re gonna need it farmed, efficiently. The more food we can produce, the more people we can save, it’s that simple. And right now, we can’t be sentimental, the only number that matters is how many people are alive after this. You’ve prob’ly been worrying about how much startup capital you’ll have and all that stuff, right?”
Austin blinked at the complete change in direction, but nodded. The last hour or so had been an indulgence. But there wasn’t much time to indulge. “Uh, yeah. I spent basically all I had just buying the land, and the farm back in Kansas isn’t worth shit,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna buy it, not now.”
“Hell of a gamble, that.”
Another taco magically disappeared. “Helluva gut you got there.”
Says the taco vacuum, an imp cackled in the back of Austin’s mind.
“My wife said about the same thing.”
“Mhmm.” Austin ate a taco of his own while Julian inhaled two more. “You may have also noticed we were particular about security before we met…”
Austin sighed. “Yeah. I s’pose that don’t surprise me none.”
The ambassador quirked an eyebrow. Somehow it made Austin feel compelled to spill. “Lemme ask you a question. Did you ever have any…weird experiences? Woke up bone-tired despite going to bed early, like you’d been working all night or something?”
Julian laughed a dark laugh, and balled his huge left mitt into a fist. They both looked at the anatomy chart that was his forearm for a long moment; Austin thought it might be the size of his entire fuckin’ not-at-all-small leg.
After a while, Julian sighed. “Fella…look at me. We both know something like me wouldn’t have evolved naturally on Earth. That we humans can do this doesn’t mean we naturally would, right?”
“Uh…I s’pose so.”
“Exactly. My whole fuckin’ family has apparently been having weird experiences going back a fuckin’ millennia, at least. Me personally? There was the time a fuckin’ UFO snapped me up and dropped me on a frozen hellhole at the wrong end of the galaxy, y’know, after they’d done just…”
The ambassador shivered.
“Shit, I’m sorry.”
“Nah. And I’m not the only one. My wives? Xiù wound up making a good first impression with the Gao which may just save more people than anyone else, Al wound up working as hired muscle for an alien mobster…and I’m not even close to the weirdest we’ve got here.”
Right, so…let’s level. You know what happened to you. Don’t lie,” he warned. “In fact, don’t lie ever while you’re here. Gaoians can smell it and us humans seem to pick up the knack pretty quick when we spend a lot of time with them.”
“Yeah, I…I think I got taken for a ride. By one’a those Hierarchy fellas.”
“Yup. We know which one, too. He kindly ordered your implants to dissolve themselves as he left.”
“Six is an oddly…sentimental being.”
Six. Well…Austin finally had a name of sorts to put to the fuckin’ weirdness.
“I’m not gonna like what I find when I Google him, am I?”
“Nope. But in your case, you made such a positive impression that he’s flipped sort-of back to Team Human. Usually he chews up hosts and spits them out. You were too stubborn to give in. And it’s that more than anything that seals the deal for me.”
Julian sat back and crossed his ludicrous arms. “You’re exactly the kind of man we need. You don’t have any Singularity bullshit in your family line, yet here you are. Big, smart, fit, accomplished. A regular farmer from Kansas and you were smart enough at the right place and in the right time to do something about it. And that matters. People look at me like some sort of…Hero, right? It’s literally the name for what I was bred to be. And sure, I’m certainly not gonna complain, I like what I’ve got.”
Austin…nodded. He woulda liked having what the ambassador had, too. No shame in admitting that. There really were levels to this game. And the big fucker knew it, too.
Julian grinned and slurped about half his drink. “…But y’know what? I’ve been breaking chairs since I was thirteen, too. People like me can be pretty cagey ‘cuz of all the attention from a young age, right? So I’d rather put my trust in good, normal people who shine when put to it. And you do. So…”
He drained the last of his drink with a slurp through the straw, then set it down. As soon as he’d let go of it, both his expression and his tone changed dramatically.
“So. You don’t have to worry about startup capital. Because you’re gonna build us a farm that can feed as many people as possible, Austin, and help us find every last fuckin’ farmer who can operate on your level. We’re going to make land barons out of all of you, for the survival of the human fucking race.”
“Pretty much literally, too. The land you purchased isn’t technically under American jurisdiction, merely American management, because the United Kingdom laid claim to the entire solar system way back when, all legitimate under Interspecies Dominion law. You basically own a fief from the King of England, once you make good your payment. And if you succeed in this, he’ll probably title you, too.”
The ambassador demolished the rest of his tacos with the efficiency of a dog devouring kibble, while Austin sat back, thunderstruck.
“Right. It’s a lot to think about. Now i’m gonna pile on more. You ready?”
“…No. But do it anyway.”
Julian grinned and seemed to approve.
“Good man, I was right about you! So, anyway: think forward. We need to build a government that can survive awful times. Truly awful times. Awful enough that we are going to need local lords in the real sense of the word, and it’s the UK that’ll be building it here. America will be sending me to Nightmare and to Akyawentuo to get things going there, but here? His Majesty all the way. Welcome to neo-feudalism! You are going to be a baron for real, with everything that historically entailed. You need men. You are going to need a militia too. All of you are. So…”
“You’re kidding me. They’re just…throwin’ democracy out the window?”
“We were never a democracy. We are both republics, one properly and the other with a monarch. But monarchies have always been republics in a strange sort of way. They’re not getting rid of elections or any of that. What they are doing is creating a hierarchy of self-assured and capable power. Because shit is going to get absolutely brutal, really fucking fast. Maybe you’ll get a chance to talk with the His Sublime Majesty Great Father about it, soon. You will be a powerful man, and both the King and the Great Father are very keen to leave behind the useless rich. So…learn fast.”
“…Jesus. So, what? Even the globalists and shit gotta prove themselves?”
“Yes. The stakes are too high and we have the guns. You are one of them, now. You proved your worth and you’re proving it right now. You took the initiative when thousands of others who could have, didn’t. That’s why I wanted to meet with you.”
Austin…really didn’t know what to say to that, or how to say it. So, he fell back on what he did know, and the job that had just been put in front of him.
“…So I need to build a list.”
“Yes, and think carefully. You can’t bring just anyone, and you can’t be sentimental. Everyone needs to have a future and be capable of leaving a legacy for mankind. That means, ideally, the young and healthy, or perhaps extremely worthwhile elders. And almost nobody else. And you need to favor women and their promising children, too….”
He paused, then nodded grimly at Austin’s shocked expression. “Yes. It’s exactly that brutal. It’s a ruthless fuckin’ calculus and the Hunters are monsters for forcing us into it, but there we go. We either do it right this one and only chance we have, or more people die than have to. In the end, the only number that matters is lives saved, and the only metric that matters is the future.”
Austin nodded. He felt…sick, off-balance, worried, scared and tense…but he was also already building his list. Darius, obviously…actually, all the Marquis brothers. The Keelers. Ed and Charlotte. Zack Meyer and his cousin for sure…oh yeah, and Gemma Long, ‘cuz there was nobody in the county knew more about dairy than her…and of course, bringing all them along was going to mean bringing along the people they truly cared about, as much as he could. He couldn’t set things up properly if everyone hated him for leaving their sister behind or whatever…
Julian watched him for a second, then gave a satisfied nod and handed him something. “Here. Unlimited travel pass between Earth and Cimbrean, security documents, everything you need. I want your family here yesterday. So…get that payment done. Get bought. And don’t worry about leaving things behind, you will have priority through the gate. Alice is your contact point, her info’s on the card. Anything you need within reason she can arrange. And here’s my phone number. I’ll ask you please not abuse it…”
“Don’t be afraid to share the occasional meme or whatever. We all gotta make time and clear the mind sometimes, heh…but yeah. I’m supposedly just filling in until they get the new ambassador appointed, but I think you’re someone worth knowing.”
He stood, then, and proffered his titanic mitt and gave a firm, warm shake remarkably like crushing one’s hand in a rough-hewn granite vice. “And I hope I’m worth knowing in turn. Good luck, mister Beaufort.”
“…You’re going to Nightmare, you said?”
“Yup. Dominion law again: a permanent settlement is any that remains constantly inhabited for longer than four standard years, which my camp did. And the first person to build a permanent settlement on an unclaimed planet claims it for their government…which means, I rightly claimed Nightmare as a colony planet of the United States of America.”
“…But did you have a flag?”
“Ha!” Julian had a deep-chested bark of a laugh. “No, but I’mma sure as fuck plant one now!”
He turned off the privacy field, and Folctha crashed in to surround them with noise and people again. It felt to Austin like returning from some kinda other dimension. “Well…good luck.”
“Choose your people wisely.”
And with that…turning off the field musta been a signal of some sort because suddenly there was a serious man in a serious suit and Julian was gone toward a waiting vehicle.
Austin turned. Another serious man in an equally serious suit gave him a polite nod. “Your car’s waiting.”
He lead Austin to a surprisingly nondescript silver sedan. Comfortable ride, leather seats…lot of effort to just go the few blocks back over to the jump terminus. But, Austin realized, he was an asset now. They wanted him at work as quickly as humanly possible, and he was happy to oblige. He flashed his documents, was waved through to the array—a charter jump! But of course, that was the only kind, now.
Two minutes later, he was back in Kansas. His parking all paid for. A curfew pass among his official documents.
He managed to resist the urge to call Lauren until he was in the car. It wouldn’t do for people to overhear him. He wondered if the NSA would be listening to his calls, now.
Either way…his car was probably private enough. So he called home and told her the news that she was, sort of, a baroness now.
The world had just gotten another step weirder.
Ekallim-Igigi, New Uruk system
Alex, Prince of Ekallim-Igigi
It had been a couple of years since Mevia or Tomoe had been able to beat Alex in sparring practice individually, though they could both give him a few good bruises for his troubles, especially if his concentration lapsed.
He was yet, however, to defeat them both at the same time. Not that Alex felt bad about that, really: even his father lost a good third of the time when they ganged up on him. They had tricks, and the style of the fight here wasn’t about sheer strength. This was about endurance and skill.
He had ‘em beat on endurance too. But skill? He wasn’t even eighteen! It was little mistakes. A slight mis-positioning and suddenly a speartip was shooting toward his face. He’d see it and immediately over-compensate, because spear to the face, at which point the other would pull a similar trick, and so on. He had to exert himself much harder than either of the two once he slipped up, and getting ahead of their aggression took almost impossible effort.
But very occasionally, they made mistakes, too. In this case Mevia had glanced over at Tomoe at the precise moment Alex had a chance to lunge forward…and so he did. And in the process, caught Tomoe in a mistake too, as she blinked at his sudden rapidity.
Men of Alex’s size were not supposed to be fast, if you listened to common sense. But that was the thing; they were usually faster than anything else, and Alex in particular was a blur when he wanted to be. The price of massive strength wasn’t speed, it was momentum, and that wasn’t the same thing at all.
So, use it to his advantage.
Twist, step, block, turn, grab, sway, heave—
A burst of effort, and he’d claimed his first ever victory over the pair of them. Mevia several meters away, nursing her ribs. Tomoe pinned face-down in the sand.
“Mmf…oh, that was very well done,” she wheezed, her voice muffled by sand.
“Was that…aimed at me…or at him…?” Mevia coughed, standing up.
It was funny, really. Mevia and Tomoe argued more fiercely than any two people he’d ever known, never missing the chance to snipe and bicker at each other. It almost looked like a kind of mutual hatred. Except, that definitely wasn’t hate in Tomoe’s eyes when she shot back “Both. Sarcastically to you, of course.”
Mevia harrumphed…but that wasn’t irritation in her eyes, either. Alex didn’t really want to speculate too hard about what his step-mothers got up to in private, though, so he cleared his throat before they could ‘bicker’ further. “What do you think, father?”
“I think you relied too much on your strength. You can’t depend on your foe making a mis-step. Most of your enemies will seek to keep you at a distance, as my wives do…but well done.”
“Again,” Mevia declared, having retrieved her spear.
“No,” Alex answered automatically. “We have a planning council to attend.”
One thing father had always loved about Mevia was her quick temper. “Me verberare te! You do not tell me no, boy—”
Alex looked her dead in the eyes. “Yes, I do, mother. I am no longer bound to obedience. And in any case, this meeting cannot be postponed.”
That had been a rough spot, lately. Alex had learned that growing up was much harder on the parents than it ever was on the child. Most of his mothers understood and didn’t push it, and he was generally considerate in turn. But Mevia was…well, Mevia was Mevia. Words were never enough to get her to relent.
She decided to force the issue, and aimed a slap at his face.
And that was a mistake. One-on-one, she didn’t stand much chance against him when he wasn’t feeling restrained. He caught the slap, spun her around, and had her pinned in the sand before she could react.
“You will let me part in peace, mother. Or I will cuff you and leave you here.”
Mevia squirmed a second, then quite abruptly relaxed and laughed. “Well, my love! It seems we raised a bull after all!” she called out to Gilgamesh, whose only reply was to turn his eyes heavensward and nod, a smile shifting the curls of his beard.
Alex wasn’t stupid. He cuffed her anyway. But not too tightly, and he pulled her up to her knees. She’d break free from the zip-ties on her own.
He knew now just how strange his relationships were with his mothers—also strange, to have mothers plural. They weren’t always tender or loving, either. With Mevia, it had never been anything but violent, at her constant insistence. So far as Alex could tell, she didn’t have a gentle relationship with anyone, but she only had contempt for those who didn’t meet her in kind. In Mevia’s world, there were no greater sins than softness and coddling. Violence was her way of loving.
Ian had once asked him some uncomfortable questions about whether her bedchambers were full of rope and whips. Alex didn’t know, and later research had made it clear he didn’t want to know. But he suspected the answer would be a definite yes.
He had to wonder about father, too.
Anyway, they parted in relative peace, Tomoe giggling in her quiet way over it all, and Alex soon found himself alone with father, charging briskly to the council.
“I suspect they are beginning to realize the danger of planet-bound civilization,” Gilgamesh theorized.
“I suspect so. After all, if we ever faced something like what’s coming for Earth, we’d just move the station.”
“Hmm.” Gilgamesh nodded and adjusted his beard slightly with a beringed hand. “…How is your friend Ian taking it?”
“Not well. He and Hunter have been almost inseparable whenever they have opportunity.”
“A shame those two don’t find wives…” Gilgamesh rumbled, with a shake of his head.
“You’re being old-fashioned, father,” Alex chided him.
“There’ll be far too few humans soon enough, and ‘old-fashioned’ makes families. Nothing is more important. I don’t begrudge them comfort, and the gods know there’s no shame as far as I’m concerned…but…”
“Give them time. The more pressing need for everyone is to heal, and how many people can be saved. And the saved will mostly be women and children, I suspect.”
“There’s agriculture too…”
“Yes, all arguments for space-borne civilization. Leifini may just get her wish and finally design a new mother-station.”
“A series of them, I’d imagine. But who builds them?”
“The question of the day! Let us see if we can’t answer it…”
There was time enough for a brief shower, then…get dressed. Ceremonial dress, for receiving important guests. Alex had grown…accustomed to the way they did things on Earth and Cimbrean. Tristan and Ramsey had taken him to the Folcthan tailor who did work for Julian and the HEAT, and he’d found he rather liked a two-piece or three-piece suit.
He’d eventually secured a date with his daughter, too. Fun! But she wasn’t interested in being a princess, and he didn’t understand the deliberately ordinary world she chose to live in. Oh well. After the third date, they parted with a kiss and a little present from him…and nothing more. Probably for the best.
And in any case, his very best suit was a gift from Adam: in bright blue, and it fit better than any of the others.
Today, though, he was working in his capacity as a prince of Ekallim-Igigi. That meant the old formalities of robes and jewelry. The cloth was far finer than any available in Uruk during father’s time, and Alex had declined to grow a beard, but the ensemble laid out for him by the royal valet was nevertheless a trip back in time, to when glazed pottery had been integral to a suitably impressive headpiece.
Alex had put as much of his own stamp on it as he could by insisting on quite a non-traditional style of hair bead, and on asteroidal platinum rather than gold. The end result was…he fancied it rather interesting. It flattered his form—while managing to be a bit less crass, for a change—carried all the gravitas of Singularity’s ancient history while being firmly his own distinctive style, and was, most importantly, not too much fuss and bother to don.
They were hosting Council.
There was nowhere else suitable. Earth? Earth was rapidly falling into anarchy from the shock of being told most of them were doomed. Cimbrean, Gao and Akyawentuo were bracing themselves for a flood of refugees, and in any case no planet was definitively safe and secure for the moment. That just left spaceborne structures, and of the available options…Armstrong was far too busy, the Entity’s garden wasn’t equipped to handle so many guests, and the Rich Plains was too…indifferent.
No, the AEC leaders and their interstellar allies needed somewhere stable, secure, spacious, and calm. Only Ekallim-Igigi met those needs. So, father had ordered a meeting space assembled in the royal parklands before the ziggurat; when Alex emerged down the front entrance stairs a few minutes after dressing, he found that the sky over the park was darkened, showing the outside view rather than its usual summery blue sky.
Dominating the view below was New Uruk, their anchorage. A class twelve deathworld that could have been Earth’s twin, and likely an evacuation site in the coming months. Alex wondered if Earth itself wouldn’t have been more fitting, but…
Well. He straightened his back, was announced, and jointed the Singularity delegation, standing between his father, Pandrosion and Tomoe.
Opposite: American president Margaret White, British Prime Minister Luke Ratcliffe, Canadian Prime Minister Sean Gaboury, Australian Prime Minister Andy Rutledge and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Laurell Gayford. Each had their most senior military advisor alongside them, plus AEC supreme commander General Kolbeinn, the SOR’s commanding officer, Colonel Costello, Ambassador Etsicitty…
Then there were the nonhumans. Great Father Daar, of course, plus Great Mother Naydra, and a number of Champions, their Grandfathers and advisors. Yan Given-Man, Vemik Given-Man and the Singer of Vemik’s tribe. AtaUmuUi of the OmoAru Remnant. All were wearing their species’ respective versions of ceremonial finery.
And, standing apart from all groups, the Entity’s daemon, her avatar wearing an elegant black coat.
What was that scene? The Council of Elrond? It felt like the meeting before a great doom.
Gilgamesh looked down at Alex—not so much down, nowadays. They were much closer in height now, Alex having sprouted up to the predicted two-ish meters. What he lacked in height on his father though, he more than made up for in breadth. An odd thing to think about right then but, well…things felt dire suddenly. Somehow, the moment hit hard, and Alex realized his fate was forming before him.
It was going to be a hard and terrible future.
Father noticed, somehow. They nodded at each other, then stepped forward to the large circular table, where Gilgamesh laid his hands, gently.
“Time is precious,” he declared, and the quiet conversations all ceased. “I will not waste it with some florid speech. We have the duty ahead of us of preserving as many lives from among the people of Earth as we can. Each of us must find a part to play in this terrible endeavor, and we must be coordinated, lest we fail to save as many as we can. How many can we save? Where will they go? How will they be provided for? My friends…let us answer these questions, and whatever others may arise.”
They closed in a circle around the table. All of them had received briefings on the general thrust of the meeting, and had several weeks to prepare. With luck, they wouldn’t be going into this in total ignorance.
It seemed that this time, by a miracle of God, the leaders of mankind had come prepared. What followed was an accounting of the assets and capacity each nation already had access to, and how much they could realistically expect to achieve in four years.
Leifini’s spot at the table had a few small steps so that she could rise to stand on more-or-less the same level as all the other, much larger beings. She took notes as the world leaders shared their news, nodding as though each report was lining up with what she already knew.
“The upper limit is bound by agriculture,” she declared, eventually. “Barring some new miracle in hydroponics and simple construction, I estimate, roughly, we can recover high quality food production for maybe two-hundred million in the time we are allotted.”
That number hit like a lead brick to the face. Alex could see they’d all known it would be bad…but none of them had feared it would be that bad.
“So few…” White wrung her hands.
“Surely we can farm more than that…?”
“Agriculture is a complex, interconnected field requiring a strong industrial base. You cannot farm on the scale to which you are accustomed without tractors, harvesters, sprayers, and a nigh-endless list of other equipment, all of which require constant maintenance and spare parts, and depend on an extensive logistical chain of both energy and communications.“
“What about…” Rutledge hesitated, thoughtfully, then nodded and started over. “Okay. What about subsistence feeding? Save as many as possible on iron rations, and improve our lot over time?”
Leifini gestured, transferring the charts and projections from her tablets to the tabletop projector for all to see. “The numbers are not much more promising. Possibly, we can save another fifty million, but that will generate increased disease and malnutrition injury. Given the multitude of unknowns, including the dangers of breaking new land in Earth-plus environments, I cannot say if this will result in a net gain of lives. It may even result in a net loss.”
“What about stasis?” The Entity-Daemon proposed.
“As a solution for storing people until the agricultural and industrial base exists to support them, stasis is indeed the most viable option, and the most…industrially scalable. The issue of course is that persons in stasis will not contribute in any regard to saving other lives. The issues of construction and energy are significant. Stasis at this scale has to our knowledge never before been attempted…”
The avatar nodded seriously. “Well, there’s a few ways to do it, but from our perspective the simplest is probably to churn out individual stasis bags, hook them up to a solar collector and leave them in orbit near Cimbrean for later recovery.”
“Possible, certainly…” Leifini mused. “The issue is not ability, the issue is diversion of resources. Further, stasis bags are not indestructible. There are concerns about micrometeorites, orbit decays…many factors. They would ideally be housed but once you’re down that road you’ve greatly complicated matters. And yes,” nodding at the Entity, “we have given thought to replication.”
“We can tend the stasis bags,” the Entity replied. “The point is, so long as they result in a net increase in the number of people we save…everything else can come later. And by our calculations, they will. Stasis bags would about double the number of survivors, even factoring in some loss to micrometeors and other hazards. We have proposals for who to put in those bags, too.”
“So. Half a billion out of ten billion. At most.” Ratcliffe summarized, hollowly. “…Still better than bloody nothing.”
White nodded glumly, then turned to look over her shoulder. “Mister Etsicitty, I don’t suppose your Desperate Measures Committee has come up with anything?”
Julian shook his head sadly. “We have a bunch of the finest minds in the galaxy working full-time at my house with all the snacks and coffee they could ask for. So far, the best proposal they’ve come up with is, again, stasis bags in orbit. They’ll keep trying to the very end, but the longer it takes them, the less time we’ll have to actually implement any magic bullet they do manage to think up.”
“All those stasis bags are a temporary measure. They will require a functioning economy to ultimately release their occupants into,” Gilgamesh said. “I fear Singularity can only provide limited assistance in that regard, but what we can do is buy you the space and room, the military protection, you need. We can patrol star systems near the refuge worlds and ensure that the Hierarchy, or whatever remaining Hunter broods may still be out there, do not repeat what happened at Alpha Centauri.”
There were nods around the table. Alex tried to let some of the tension out of his shoulders. He’d been worried that the representatives of Earth would accuse Singularity of not doing enough.
Instead, Daar moved the conversation on. “I’ve spoken with the Interspecies Dominion. So far, they’re bein’ as slow to respond as ever. The OmoAru and Rauwrhyr have offered their unconditional support, though.”
“In what form?” Margaret White asked.
“They have the industrial base to provide prefab buildings, parts, machinery, equipment…and the ships to deliver ‘em. As to th’ rest…I think th’ most biggest thing we need ‘ta do is agree ‘ta get outta th’ way for all this. Clear out bureaucratic obstacles, git things movin’…y’all already did that with ‘yer various acts o’ parliament an’ Constitutional convention an’ whatever. I’ll be doin’ likewise back home.”
Left unsaid was how that would go. Alex didn’t think it would be a problem, really…
It all looked and sounded like some kind of a coherent plan to him, at least. Gods only knew how deep the iceberg would be under the surface, but here at least things almost looked simple. War maps always did, he remembered. He’d studied many, from every era of gaoian and human history. Those little colored blocks and arrows disguised an awful lot of blood and suffering, and an awful lot of terrible decisions.
He could see some of those awful decisions already. How each nation was taking care of its own first, for instance, meaning that a great many of Earth’s smaller, less affluent nations would be left behind to burn one and all. The rich and powerful would survive this, while the majority…wouldn’t.
Was that fair? He knew the AEC nations planned to select their survivors by merit, but it was so much easier to merit when one was from the right background, the right address, the right state, the right inheritance…
He blinked at a sudden sharp nudge: Gilgamesh had discreetly prodded him below the table to restore his focus. Right. Now was not the time for those thoughts. He could…work them out later, in private.
And perhaps see if there was anything he could do. With all his own power and inheritance, surely there must be?
He set the question aside, and returned to the bare facts and the war map in front of him.
But he did not forget.
Great Father’s ranch, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Sometimes, the only way for a bro like Adam to really work through his issues was to get the absolute fuckin’ shit beat outta him by a goddamn expert. And the list of people who could do that wasn’t very long, dependin’ on what was meant.
Daar was more than happy to oblige!
After all, Adam could handle a few good solid love-taps. As a complete warrior, Daar would argue there was no better. There was hardly a combat skill he hadn’t mastered by this point, leaving him only a couple’a true peers in the dark world of precisely applied and personally delivered force. Daar was proud to be one of ‘em.
Recon? Same story, even despite Adam’s size. Infantry work? Stoneback’s finest couldn’t humble him, s’long as he could be kept fed. As a medic? All those killy skills came in handy, too. The idiot had yet to be born that ‘Horse and ‘Base couldn’t fuckin’ rescue. As a coach and trainer? He was still blazing the trail.
Name the relevant skill: none were better than him and very few were his peers. Such was the story for almost everything he did. He was the best and Daar knew of nobody else so maximally useful across so many different aspects of mudfoot or mudfoot-adjacent endeavor. He was the operator who defined the ideal for the modern spaceborne era, no matter the species or organization. Not even Singularity had someone to match Warhorse, and Daar had made good and damn well sure he’d kept him good and damn well motivated.
He wasn’t perfect, though. Nobody was. If he had a rival who had an even stronger claim to be the best (and Daar wouldn’t disagree) it was Firth. There was a lot of overlap in their skillsets, but it wasn’t total—Adam was an absolutely elite spaceborne combat medic, Christian was a combat controller more qualified and more deployed than any other. Arés was very publicly a trailblazing strength and conditioning coach, Firth was quietly perhaps the greatest and most deeply-trained martial artist among humankind. Hell, across species. Adam had the heart of a hero, Firth the mind of a killer born. They were differences that mattered.
For Daar’s purposes, Adam was the more appropriately well-rounded ideal. But one thing he couldn’t argue against was physical performance. In that realm, Firth was supreme. By a pretty fuckin’ vast amount, and growing vaster. Misfortune had knocked Adam off his pedestal, and during his recovery he’d lost his commanding lead. He wasn’t taking that lying down of course; it was just a few of his bestest who could still embarrass him. But they weren’t standing still, either: Righteous had finally grown deadly serious about it all and was now far and away ahead, Julian was beatin’ him silly too ‘cuz genetically perfect an’ all that shit…also a couple o’ monkey-friends had ‘em beat…
Add in Alex, Gilgamesh, Y!Kiidaa, Champions Gurrum an’ Thurrsto, a buncha other scary-ass males huge an’ huger ‘cross the Deathworld species…lotsa folks nipping at his heels. Mosta th’ real stars, he’d had at least a hand in coachin’ too. In fact mosta them owed him ‘fer helpin’ ‘em find their hard-earned might. Their success was his, and he loved ‘em all…
Some o’ them mighta thunk they’d knock ‘em down a peg or three one day.
Daar could only laugh at their hubris. That weren’t never gonna happen. A good nose could smell Adam’s quality, and he was at least the equal of the other wonderfucks—and he had that without Singularity meddling in his family tree. Fuckin’ awesome! Daar was pretty sure those three (and Alex too) would tie up one day at the pinnacle of whatever a human could do, and leave everyone else leagues behind. Hell, Adam might even take top place again!
Well, maybe not. Firth was…Firth. A well-bred demigod, and at his very best might well be unmatchable. Whatever Alex was, Firth had been more in his youth; apparently Adam himself hadn’t passed him by until several years of Crude-fueled training and a fanatical mindset to be the best had allowed him to claw past and excel. That was the biggest part of why Daar favored Adam, really. Firth had rested on his haunches and good breeding for years and didn’t take things as seriously as he could until someone showed up to humble him. Adam had worked and suffered for all the ability he had, and that was something Daar couldn’t help but admire.
All of the human wonderfucks were playing the same game now, so some day soon, the galaxy would see what a human being could really do when pushed to the limits by science and willpower.
Which was okay, ‘cuz Daar had ‘em all beat by a billion miles, an’ nothin’ short of another fully dominant sixth degree would ever come close, let alone match. Hell, even then he’d hafta be basically perfect and better, so…yeah. An’ right now, Daar was in th’ mood ‘fer a big damn lift. When Brothers like Daar and Warhorse had problems, there was only one way to solve ‘em.
Day one was a fight with Adam and crew against some of the Gao’s finest. Adam laid waste to everyone, and then unleashed his full fury on Daar. He took it all, until Adam beat his fists bloody against Daar’s body, and all he had left was tears and shuddering sobs from deep within his mighty chest.
…Yeah. This time, what was needed were cuddles rather than crushes. For everyone. That evening, Adam and his crew were the center of the bestest snuggle pile.
Days two and three, though: Adam was in a much better place, and so Daar gave him the complete an’ total whuppin’ he needed. Same for his crew. Rees and Davies got personal instruction from Whitecrest masters while the Wrecking Crew got to learn with Champion Guruum personally. Adam and Daar, meanwhile, went off to train on their own.
The rest of the week was a true blessing. A blessing with weights. Neither of ‘em were the least bit sorry for what they were, and Daar was glad of the distraction, such as it was. Everything was doom and gloom right now, everything revolved around the Earth crisis. He’d been at the eye of a storm of numbers and estimates even gloomier than the gaori population crisis. It was nice to have something kinda positive happen, and nice to lift with one o’ the few people who could move durasteel plates under the gravity field of Daar’s gym.
Or maybe he was just starved for positivity, because what Adam had to discuss in between bouts weren’t really positive at all.
“So they came an’ visited?”
“Yuh.” Clean and jerk right then, just ‘cuz they were fun an’ challengin’ lifts ‘ta do. The word came out as a grunt as Adam propelled a fuckuva lot of metal up onto the shelf of his chest, paused a second while his special ultrameathead-sized bar bent and sagged alarmingly, then thrust it high into the air overhead. Controlled descent to the ground, back up, pressed again. And again, and again.
Not bad. Not fuckin’ bad at all. Pound-’fer-pound, Adam was ‘bout the strongest damn man anywhere. ‘Course, monkeys always came to that lift more easily, an’ his lifts were pretty crazy an’ disproportionately extreme even ‘fer a primate, but that was okay. It was a good lift. Sure. Daar could put the monkeys in their place there too, ‘cuz even in a pound-’fer-pound lift, Daar was still the motherfuckin’ king. He had a way more huger bar, with even huger plates, and the hugest fuckin’ muscles an’ gods-blessed mass to fuckin’ move ‘em with.
And more huger was more better. He chittered to himself, and plotted his next lift. Can’t leave his Battlepony thinkin’ he might be top shit!
And caught up on gossip. “Well? What’d they have ‘ta say?”
Adam set the weight down and caught his breath. “Egh…you know Singularity. They’ve got a knack for bein’ creepy even when they’re tryin’ to do the right thing, yijao?” he smiled faintly at Daar’s chitter and grabbed his bottle. “There’s this old movie, Indecent Proposal, you ever see it? Some rich dude offers a married couple a lotta money to fuck the wife…”
Daar duck-nodded: he’d seen that movie. He chittered, walked over to his Huge Lift Bar…fuck it. All the weight, crank the gravity up too and really drive home who was bestest…
“I get it.” No more talk. Just grunt, and clean and then jerk and then fuckin’ press over an’ over an’ fuckin’ over ‘cuz Warhorse could go fuck himself wit’ his monkey shoulders, Daar would just be better an’ straight outmuscle him by numbers an’ in proportion, too. And he did, with a smug ear-flick and a challenging growl. There. Marker laid down.
Beat that, ‘ya fuckin’ grass-monkey!
“So…yeah.” Back to the topic at hand as he huffed in a big breath or two, and swung his arms a bit to keep the blood moving. “An’ they were prob’ly as subtle as…uh…”
“You?” Adam grinned.
“Shaddup, little guy.”
“No! But…yeah. Weird fuckin’ thing to spring on people. ‘Hey, the world is ending! You should make babies! Lots of babies!’”
Ah. Daar knew where this conversation was going now. Okay, he could handle it.
Honesty was yet again the bestest policy.
“Well, not sure what ‘ya exect me ‘ta tell ‘ya! ‘Make lotsa babies’ is sorta what we do lately. It’s what I do s’pecially,” Daar chittered. “So of course I’m gonna encourage more of you!”
“And you’ve got a rolling harem…”
“…Well, yes. But it’s mostly ‘ta limit my impact on th’ Females these days, yijao?”
Adam grinned. “Lowkey, that’s the most egotistical thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Look, whatever. Point is, my answer is gonna be pretty predictably pro-mating an’ pro- more Warhorse babies. I don’t know if I’m th’ right guy ‘ta ask!”
“Yeah, but, look at my list of human people I can talk to about it. ‘Base is a player, he’d just be like ‘fuck yeah dog, go for it.’ Same for most of the Lads, hell even me before I got married! Julian, Al and Xiù are poly, and on the flip side, my dad and Firth are violently Catholic…”
“What about th’ rest o’ the team? You’ve got a Buddhist, a Pagan, some Protestants—”
“Still Christian. Just a different flavor.”
“Sure, but that matters, right? An’ isn’t Titan like, Shinto or somethin’?”
“Nah. He’s…actually I’m not sure. He’s really private about that shit.”
“But there’s more voice there, is what I’m sayin’.”
“Eh.” Adam shrugged, threw some more weight on his bar, and put up another set before catching his breath and replying. “They’re all kinda unsure I think. Sorta like me.” Only a little more strain this time; he had a lot more in him. Good. It would be a long lift today. “I wasn’t ever a deep thinker. Mosta them ain’t either.”
“Well, okay,” Daar acquiesced. “That’s fair. So ‘yer after an outside perspective.”
“Need a big smartypants. Which narrows the list down to you, or Nofl.”
“But Adam! I don’t wear any pants!”
“I know. We all know! You just roll around, huge ass gettin’ all up in everyone’s faces, tail knocking cars over an’ shit!”
“Nuh-uh! ‘Sides,” Daar chittered, “I got a fuckin’ fantastic ass, too! Everyone says so.”
“Uh-huh. Thank God your fur’s good and long in the front.”
“Well, yeah! Gotta keep m’bits warm! An’ don’t think I ‘fergot ‘yer big-brain accusation!”
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”
Daar flicked his ears smugly. “Yeah, but don’t tell anyone. I gots a reputation ‘ta defend!”
“Sure,” with a grin, “your secret’s safe with me. But f’real, I meant it. I trust you, because you’re smart as fuck and honest as fuck, too. You never sugar-coat it. And you get us. And I might trust Nofl with my brain, but not my marriage.”
Daar duck-nodded, and gathered more durasteel plates while he thinked even heavier thoughts.
“Right. An’ that’s th’ thing. Part o’ why I got a harem now is ‘cuz, me bein’ what I am, an’ bein’ as everythin’ as I am, even mating wit’ a female is likely ‘ta bond ‘em to me now. ‘Fer, like, years, if not ferever. Balls, these days even my smell is too much ‘fer the inexperienced! So it ain’t fair to do that to every pretty thing I sniff, yijao? Not ‘less their old enough ‘ta get what it’ll mean ‘fer them…so yeah. You though, you’ve got th’ opposite problem. An’ I’m bettin’ Marty hinted she’d be okay with it…”
“…How the fuck you know that?”
Daar sighed. Everyone always forgot he was capable of occasionally thinkin’. Even ‘Horse right now, after he made a point ‘ta bring it up! Figgers.
“You wouldn’t even bring it up if she’d said no,” Daar noted without the grumble he wanted ‘ta make, and racked more plate. He loved durasteel these days for his gymware; denser than any natural alloy, even osmium, while being cheap, non-toxic, and also non-radioactive. Whadda deal. “You also wouldn’t bring it up if it didn’t bother the fuck outta ‘ya both ways, ‘cuz I know you. If it was a hard no, you’d say no, end of. If you were entirely down ‘fer it, you wouldn’t be here neither. In fact you’d have been doin’ it ‘fer years already! So what’s happened is, somewhere in that poached fuckin’ brain o’ yours—”
Adam grinned. “Hey!”
“Fine, fine. Scrambled. Or would you prefer deep-fried? Boiled?”
“My brains ain’t eggs!”
“I dunno, most monkeybrains are fuckin’ delicious…”
Adam finally stopped trying to reply, and just stared at him. He was learning.
Well, shit. Daar’d need new humor contingencies after this!
“—point is, part’a you recognizes the sense in what Singularity’s saying, and another part of you doesn’t like it—”
“I wouldn’t go so far as sense…”
“Logic, then. Their goals an’ purpose. Point is,” he added a tiny little snarl, “there is logic ‘ta what they’re sayin’, and you know it, an’ the animal side of you is jumpin’ outta ‘yer skin to jus’ go forth an’ smash I bet. But you love her and you’ve got ‘yer own ideas of what a family looks like, an’ ‘yer a million percent right on those ideas, too. Humans need stable families an’ both mothers an’ fathers! So what you need, Cousin, is ‘ta find a solution that’s all ‘yers.”
He left that hang for a bit while he achieved Lift. Good lift, in fact with his personal (and world) record broken easily enough that he did two long sets with a brief pause between. Good enough that Adam was giving him his calculating coach-looks again.
Adam shook his head and chuckled, while Daar caught his breath. Good hurt on that set. “Christ, you’re just impossibly strong. Meat shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Daar caught his breath quickly. “I think mebbe mah muscles know it’s easier to just do the impossible thing, or you’ll keep torturing them ‘til they do!”
Adam snickered his weird wheezing snicker. “Dude. I’d hope they don’t think for themselves!”
“Nah,” Daar chittered. “Just mah cock! Always was the schemier mind in me…”
“The secret of your success, right there. Think wit’ ‘yer dick!”
“Damn right! Bigger the dick, the better it thinks too!”
“Or worse,” Adam added, grinning. “Mine certainly got me in a lot of trouble.”
“We’ll since I’m the most biggest an’ all, and my younger days were mostly spent running to an’ from th’ most biggest trouble…yeah. Those both check out.”
Bants we’re always welcome! But Adam had things on his mind.
“Y’know, sometimes it hits me how absurd our friendship is. Here I am, admittedly a pretty unique operator but, just a space marine, really. And I’m hanging out with the space emperorbear of the universe, who‘s apparently pretty proud of his gigantic meat and ain’t afraid to say so. Pretty weird friendship with a pretty weird emperor, I’d say.”
Fair point, really.
“Well, okay. Firstly, wouldn’t you be?”
“I am but that’s beside the point. Ain’t it weird for us to even be friends?”
“Brother,” Daar replied, “every fuckin’ moment of my life is fuckin’ absurd. Roll wit’ it, s’only thing ‘ya can do. Did ‘ya think I ever s’pected I’d turn into…well, me? Super grateful ‘fer our friendship, by the way. Anyhoo…”
Maybe a bit of limbering-up, now. He leaned up against the wall and rolled his head against it, to stretch out his neck. Overhead lifts tended ‘ta strain his traps a lot. “All that’s gon’ color my opinion. An’ I bet it’s pretty obvious what I think ‘ya should do: there’s a few of ‘ya grass-monkeys I think the world needs a whole fuck of a lot more of, an’ you’re right at th’ top o’ that list. So me? I’d say line ‘em up an’ fuck ‘em all!”
Seeing the way Adam’s weary face softened, his eyes closed and his shoulders shifted in a chuckle was all the confirmation Daar needed that he was saying the right things.
“But assumin’ ‘yer lil Battlepony ain’t gonna go out and conquer…jokes aside, I want ‘ya happy, an’ you humans unnerstand loyalty like only my people do. So who am I ‘ta tell you not ‘ta be loyal ‘ta Marty? So…I dunno. Why can’t ‘ya jus’ start wit’ some open doors? Hospitality’s always a good thing, I reckon. Shit, s’what we’re doin’! ‘Ya think I got this all figgered out? Fuck no!! Do the right thing first an’ think quick on ‘yer paws after. So…what’s the right thing ‘fer puny lil’ Adam to do now?”
He couldn’t help the tease, really. Human attitudes on that had been so liberating! Gaoian culture musta been begging ‘fer a way ‘ta climb outta the linguistic hellscape of ritual honor, ‘cuz not even five years After Contact, dueling culture had radically changed. Now they were rarer, since it were almost impossible to stumble into one with a shit-tail killer. A good thing! Competitive energies were going more into sport, too. Better!
Adam grinned as he gave it a bit of thought. “Well…I was gonna empty the building out for a remodel…we haven’t quite started work yet so, shit, maybe start there? Make more room? That’s basically what I’d decided to do anyway…”
“Sure! Mebbe go in on it wit’ Firth, don’t he have a building jus’ like ‘yers?”
Thoughtful monkey-faces, as Adam pondered the problem. And pondered the gym. Flat bench now, apparently. Okay, why not? It really was more of a fun upper-body day than a strictly programmed one. Good! And Daar did have some really fuckin’ huge pecs…
“I think you’re probably right.”
“‘Course I am! Start with doin’ whatever good ‘ya can do right now and, whatever comes next, you’ll still be doin’ some good. Figure out if goin’ farther’s right, firstly, an’ if it’s right ‘fer you two later. An’ just in case ‘yer worried: I personally wouldn’t be surprised either way, an’ neither would any of ‘yer friends, ‘fer what it’s worth. We know what you two are like.”
Daar duck-nodded. “Now…here’s the other side of it.” He took several laps of cold water from the fountain in the corner before stomping over and setting up his own bar. “Warhorse is the kinda asset I don’t just use, right? Just like I don’t fuckin’ use nukes ‘ta crack open nuts. So let’s be clear what that means: ‘yer gon’ be held in reserve. You an’ ‘yer team are too fuckin’ valuable to waste on trivial shit. So you’ve got time, and I want y’all to fuckin’ well use it.”
“Yeah,” Adam was nodding now, looking happier and less conflicted. “Yeah, I think I know what we’re gonna do.”
“Good. Now fuckin’ lift, ‘ya pussy!” Gods’ nards, if only all Daar’s problems were so easily resolved. Though actually, it was kinda nice to have somethin’ as simple as talkin’ a friend through a decision.
The rest of the evening was pretty much typical. Play-training became serious training, because of course it did. The last few months had been more about refinement more’n strength or bulk, and Daar found he really enjoyed the finesse of all this bodybuildin’ shit at the highest levels. He broke a couple PRs, but mostly they focused on findin’ weaknesses, on accessory movements, on having fun, posin’ an’ flexin’ an’ general meathead shenanigans…
A good way to spend their last day. They cooled down and parted ways. Adam went back to Cimbrean while Daar thumped back up to his office. Evening papers and reports to read. But not all night. Naydi had ideas for what to do next. Her and her fellow Sisters…
Well, what could he do? He was only male. And he lived by the rule of relaxin’ as hard as he possibly could when he got the chance. Tomorrow, after all, would be the first day of long and grueling work.…
He spared one more thought for Adam, then gave the women he loved his full attention.
Bein’ Great Father weren’t without its rewards.
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, Earth
“The streets are no place for a young lady to sleep, you know…”
Letty looked up. Looked back down again, shifting her posture lightly so her hand was near the knife under her butt. That had been the first thing she’d got her hands on, once she’d had a chance to think and plan. She was never going unarmed ever again.
Still. The tall white-haired lady in the black coat had a kind voice, and a kinder face. She raised her hands, reassuringly. “I’m just making sure you’re okay,” she promised. “You need anything? Food? Water?”
Letty watched her fish a water bottle and sandwich out of her purse, then nodded thirstily. She didn’t trust the woman enough to speak, yet. She could be an undercover cop.
Or…worse. Nolan was still out there somewhere. And there were gonna be other people like him, too.
The woman smiled though, and handed them over by setting them down in arm’s reach and backing off a few steps. Letty hesitated, then the ache in her belly won out over paranoia, and she tore into them. Cheap food—the sandwich was a just couple of slices of tomato and some mayo on white bread—but fuck. It was the best thing she’d ever eaten.
Black Coat Lady sat down opposite her, then tilted her head back and looked up as a semi thundered overhead, filling the underpass with deafening noise that drowned out the trickle of water from the stream.
“End of the world mean you’ve got nowhere to go, huh?” she asked, conversationally.
Letty looked up at her, then shrugged, trying to give away as little as possible. “Yup,” she swigged the water. “Got home, found a note.”
“They just left you?”
“But why not sleep there, in your own bedroom?”
“Some guys with guns showed up.” Letty sniffed. “Said I could stay if I fucked ‘em.”
“…How old are you?”
Black Coat Lady just stared at her.
“…next month,” Letty amended.
Black Coat Lady nodded, She looked, Letty thought, profoundly sad. And not in the same way everyone else did right now. “Well…my name’s Olivia,” she said. “And if you’d rather sleep somewhere safe, with regular food and pads and a shower—”
“You sayin’ I stink?”
“I wasn’t. But you do.”
Letty felt her face go hot. “What’s even the point?” she asked, to cover for it..”I mean, why are you even bothering with this shit? The world’s ending! You could be…I dunno. At an orgy or something, like my folks. Instead of talking to me…”
“I think talking to you is the much more worthwhile use of my tame,” Olivia replied, quietly. “And yes, it’s the end of the world. I don’t expect I’ll survive it, but…I have a choice, don’t I? I can spend my last years abandoning people and threatening people…or I can spend my last years being the best I can be.”
She stood, and squatted down next to Letty. “…And I think you want to make the best of it too, don’t you?”
Letty sighed. “…I dunno,” she admitted. “I guess…everything I tried so far didn’t make things any better.”
“What did you try?”
Letty hesitated. She must have hesitated quite a while, because Olivia put a hand out and rested it lightly on her own.
“It’s okay,” she said. “If you’d rather not—”
“My friend and me, we, uh…we broke into a liquor store. And we got drunk, and we got high, and it just made me feel worse, then later he had the bright idea of breaking into a bar to sell the liquor except some other fuckers with guns chased us away, and—”
She trailed off. She didn’t want to say the rest.
“—and a bunch of other stuff,” she finished lamely.
“I get it,” Olivia said.
“Yeah. I really do.” She gave Letty a tired, guilty little smile. “You’re right, it doesn’t work. But…helping people does.”
Letty gave her a long, thoughtful look. Part of her was still expecting…she wasn’t sure what. She’d chosen the spot under the road by the stream cuz there was no way anyone could get a van down there to drag her into, and there were lots of directions she could run. She’d heard of that happening, here and there. The cops were too busy standing in front of buildings and looking scary to actually do anything about it, even if Letty had ever trusted them.
She really shouldn’t trust Olivia. She shouldn’t trust anyone. Fuck, she couldn’t trust anyone, not even her own fucking parents. But the thought that slithered into her brain again was…well…what was the worst that could happen?
And…what was the best that could happen?
There was a brief war in her heart; hope won.
“…Alright.” She accepted Olivia’s hand up. “Where are we going?”
Letty paused. “Oh, I, uh—I don’t really…”
Olivia’s smile was nothing but warmth. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what you think, or what you believe. All that matters is we have food, beds, showers, and laundry, and you’re invited to come use them.”
“For how long, though?” Letty pressed. “When are you gonna kick me out again?”
Olivia shook her head. “Never. What you need is yours. All are welcome.” She paused, then shrugged self-effacingly. “It’s what we do.”
“You…really believe that?”
“That…that people are…like that.”
“They can be. People are made for love, they just need to remember how.”
All Letty could think was, that went against everything she’d ever seen about people. Especially recently.
In any case, Olivia seemed…unbothered. “Talk’s cheap, though. Let’s get you cleaned up and get some soup in your belly. It’s meager fare but…” that shrug again. “We do what we can.”
And, so…off she went. It wasn’t like she had anything to pack, after all…
It was kind of a long walk from her campsite to downtown, and most of it was that same eerie, tense silence she’d almost got used to, now. Most of the road traffic was military, or FEMA, or police. The national guard vehicles rolling by had guys in full armor manning the machine guns, as though they were in a warzone.
Letty still didn’t really understand how anyone was…working in all of this.
Whatever. Sacred Heart was the sort of place she’d passed a couple times a month every month her whole life, and never glanced at twice. It was like a thousand years old, dull and gray and stone, with a dull gray stone school attached at the back, a couple blocks over from the state capitol.
Now, though, it was kind of a fortress. There were barriers up on the roads, chicken wire all over those windows that weren’t boarded up, and police patrolling. Letty shrunk instinctively closer to Olivia as they approached, but the cops just nodded them through.
Past the barrier, a scent reached her nose that made her stomach do hungry backflips: Fresh-baked bread. It was coming from an open-sided lean-to in the school car park, where somebody had set up a range and an oven and stuff, and several long tables, with a few random mismatched sets of garden furniture to eat at
Before she’d even had time to really process what was happening, she’d been sat down, handed a tray with a warm crusty roll and a big bowl of stew—macaroni, tomatoes, chopped hot dog and corn—and a jumbo plastic glass full of water. She shoveled it all into her face without thinking, while her belly practically sobbed for feeling full again.
At some point, Olivia sat down opposite her and gently asked Letty to hand over her knife. Letty…hesitated…but only for a second. She could always get another one, if she needed it.
After that, a somebody gave her a little plastic bag with soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrush. She used them all in the shower, and…oh God. After getting kicked out of her house, she’d had to sort of…adjust…to feeling gross all the time, until after a while she’d stopped noticing it. Now that she was clean again, though…and when she’d put on the clean t-shirt and sweats somebody had scrounged up for her…
Blissful as it felt…it also made her feel more vulnerable. More scared. She missed her knife already.
That feeling didn’t go away when she was given a check-up by a young military doctor or when she was told she was in perfect health but she needed to take some vitamins, or when she was shown to a bunk inside the school. Only once she’d rolled into it and drawn the curtain to shut everything out did she finally, finally feel like she could stop holding her breath.
She lay there a long time. Dozed, without falling asleep. Heard voices talking. Some girl, talking about having a bunk-mate, even sounding eager to meet her. Olivia asked the other girl to leave Letty alone for now.
Later, the sound of a couple boys shooting hoops outside the window. The sound of raised male voices made Letty reach for the knife, and she had a nasty second of panic as she woke up groping for it before remembering where she was and that she didn’t have it any longer.
She groaned, and twitched the curtain aside. Apparently it was pretty late: the sky was red. She must have dozed away half the day, but…then again, that was the most comfortable thing she’d slept on in weeks.
She followed the sound downstairs and back outside. There was a man dressed all in black playing ball with the boys…a priest? Yeah. Stupid weird white collar. Didn’t think anyone would be so dumb to play ball all dressed up like that…
…Nuns, too. That’s what they were called, right? She’d never seen one before. Most of them were fuckin old, but the one with the most wrinkled face gave her a big smile and handed over a plate with a lid on it as soon as Letty emerged.
“We thought you needed the sleep, so we saved you a plate,” she explained. “it’s burgers.”
“Uh.” Letty managed. Then: “Thanks.”
Sure enough…one beef patty, another fresh-baked burger bun, cheese and ketchup. Letty ate it more slowly than she’d eaten the stew earlier and just…sat, and watched. And wondered how the fuck any of them were smiling. How were those boys and the priest enjoying their ball game? How was the nun so…happy as she bustled around cleaning up. It didn’t make any sense to Letty at all. Were they all high on something? Was there something in those vitamins?
She didn’t understand. But…whatever. It didn’t matter. And having her own bunk beat the hell out of sleeping on a cardboard box in an underpass by the river. She could stay here, for now. And it did feel…nice…when she decided to take the plate back and the nun gave her a smile and a thank-you and introduced herself as Sister Judith and called Letty ’dear.’
Later, there was a movie, some cute Disney bullshit. She met her bunk-mate, Emilia, who had a freaking badass e-tattoo, and invited to come with for choir practice, which…no.
She went back to bed instead.
This time, though, when she slid the curtain closed and shut the world out, she laid her head back and felt…safe.
And that feeling carried her gently down into her first proper sleep in far too long.
“Poor girl. She barely knows which way is up, right now.”
“The detective wants to talk with her.”
“I know, I heard.” Olivia sighed and swirled the coffee in her camp mug. From behind her, the evening choir practice were warming up in the church. Nearly all the kids had been reluctant to join in the singing at first, but the ones who’d come out of their shells enough to take part had really benefited.
♪”How will I know if he really loves me? I say a prayer with every heartbeat. I fall in love whenever we meet, I’m asking you what you know—”♫
Sister Lucille glanced up at the window above them. “What happened?”
“Her parents just…left. Stuck a note to the front door and went to go see the world, I suppose? And then some men came to the house and…well, she’s a vulnerable girl. A friend of hers saved her, but they shot him.”
Sister Julia made a heartbroken noise. “And she’s been living under a bridge ever since?”
“Can you blame her? At least she could hide there. It took me all week to find her.”
One of the police volunteers, Jack Gatlin, shook his head. His face was a mask of anger on Letty’s behalf. “What kind of parents would ever…!”
“The kind who never really wanted her in the first place,” Olivia opined. “I bet CPS have a file on her.”
“I don’t think the poor thing’s had a proper family her whole life,” Sister Julia agreed.
Jack scoffed. “The apocalypse just brings out the worst in some folks, doesn’t it?”
“And the best,” Sister Lucille replied. “Give it time, people are still grieving for themselves and for the world. Things will settle down.”
“I hope you’re right. But some of these kids are never going to have anywhere to go, and while the shelter may be better than sleeping rough, it’s not exactly, uh…” Jack looked up at the school, then sighed. “I feel like they deserve more of a life, you know?”
“Give it time,” Sister Lucille replied again. “A lot can happen in four years.”
“Have faith. Just…have faith. There’s hope for them yet,”
Olivia nodded fervently. So many people had given in to despair out there, including so many of the kids here, that she could understand how easy it was, but…for her part, she wasn’t willing to let go, yet. Even if she herself was never going to leave the Earth, she’d already been in touch with the Department of Education. They knew about this shelter, and the poor kids living in it.
That was more than a glimmer of hope, it was a lifeline. Literally. Maybe not for all of them, but…for some at least, surely?
Yes. There was hope.
Entity’s Garden, Ink Spatter Nebula
Each time she visited, Ava was struck by just how large the steps her digitized counterpart was managing to take.
Today’s innovation: hugs. Shaped forcefields just as soft (or not, as appropriate) and warm as human flesh. And apparently the capacity for tactile feedback through the field surface, and a lot more because what started as a sisterly hug of hello turned into…
Well, after a few seconds it became apparent that daemon-Ava was trembling.
“…You okay?” Ava asked, rubbing her doppelganger’s back.
“I just…oh my God. I’ve never hugged anyone before. I…”
Ava squeezed her tighter. She’d had time to get used to her copied self, by now. She was a sister, of a sort. Somebody who truly knew and understood her, more intimately than anyone else ever could.
There was something profoundly relieving in being able to say that she actually…liked herself. Her other self, at least. And Christ, hadn’t she had a lot of interesting conversations about what that meant with her therapist, these last couple of years?
“Take as long as you need,” she offered, and rubbed Daemon’s holographic back. Daemon nodded, sniffed, squeezed her again then took a deep, cleansed breath. She was so…human again. If not for the impossible luminous gowns that transitioned seamlessly into the dusky skin of her shoulders, and the little flecks of light tracing the lines of her body—deliberate acknowledgments of the truth—she really could have been taken for a flesh-and-bone human woman.
“Needed that, huh?” Ava asked.
Daemon took a deep breath, and wiped some very realistic tears from her face. “More than I knew…” she steadied herself. “…You’re looking great.”
“Older. I’m looking older.” That was the only thing Ava disliked about standing opposite Daemon—the digital version was perpetually in her early twenties, locked in to a self-image from more than ten years ago. Whereas Ava…
Well, she was closer to forty than to thirty, now. Gracefully so, she fancied, but those years of life became visible here, alongside her younger self.
“¡Tonterías!” Daemon gave her a playful prod in the arm, apparently reveling in being able to touch again. “You’re thirty-seven, that’s still young.”
“If you say so…” Ava tried to be grumpy, but couldn’t stop her smile. She gestured around instead. “So, uh…you’ve been expanding again.”
“Yup! Housing, spaceborne farms, stasis storage…we have the power of our probe swarm to use, and right now the pressing issue is human lives, right?”
“That’s what you called me over for, huh? You want to get the word out.”
“We’re ready to start welcoming refugees, and the sooner we get some, well…the faster we can build.”
Ava frowned as they walked down the impossible spiraling gardening pathway that was one of her favorite places in the whole galaxy even though it still tripped her up a little. “How come adding people will speed you up? Your drones can—”
“Our drones are stupid,” Daemon replied. “They’re about as smart as an RC car. Give ‘em a simple, repetitive job to do and they’re fine, but the second something comes along to interrupt them, we have to devote attention, and…that’s still a finite resource. Now that’s not really a big deal with the spaceborne drones, but the little gardener bots? The farming drones?” she raised a finger, and a tiny buzzing pollinator drone like a shard of glimmering green glass alighted on her fingertip. “…the bigger the farms get, the more of our attention they demand. We’re reaching the point where we’re either going to have to branch—which we don’t like doing—or downsize the swarm.”
“But humans can take over?”
“Absolutely. Especially the physical problems, like when a planter head loses pressure, or a bolt shears.” Daemon paused and gestured up out the window, toward the drifting swarm of space probes above them. “We have a lot to do. And threats to guard for.”
“Still haven’t caught that Hunter mind, huh?”
Daemon shook her head. “No. We haven’t seen the slippery pendejo since it escaped. But we know it’s out there, and there’s no way it’s not going to try and come for us at some point, and try to claim our probe swarm for itself…what other option does it have?”
“It could build its own Hegemony?”
“If that’s what it chooses, good fucking riddance. We know what the Hegemony is like, it’s basically limbo.”
Ava pulled a face. “Like…waiting, constantly, for something that’ll never come?”
A very Guvnurag-like flare of disgust green swept across Daemon’s flowing gown. “Worse. No sense of time, no boundary between self and other, no individual will, ambition or purpose…It’s a dream. A trippy, perpetual dream they can’t ever wake up from, and can’t even know that they should want to.”
She shivered, sending another ripple of green across the dress. “What happened to us was awful. But at least it wasn’t that.”
“Right…well.” Ava suppressed a shiver of her own. “Let’s, uh…start the tour?”
And what a tour. The garden had already been spectacular, but now it was just the pistil of a huge sprawling flower, its petals made of hexagonal cells. Ava saw the logic immediately: each cell was its own little neighborhood, a series of housing units facing inward towards a central hydroponic farm to serve both as food source and green recreational space.
Then there was the larger repeating structure: six such neighborhoods surrounded a space which clearly existed just for people to occupy and customize, to establish businesses or whatever they chose to do. And there was a level above that, even.
It was definitely the kind of living space the Entity’s alien, nearly-machine mind would design: mathematical, fractal and efficient. But it was also beautiful. Maybe Ava was just biased, because it was her own sense of aesthetics at work here after all…
But when occupied and running, this place would be a gorgeous green bloom hanging in the black.
Of course, there was a grim reality underpinning it, too. The stasis facility several floors beneath the garden, in the flower’s “stem” was…well, it was brightly lit and clean, but that just made it look surgical. And given that it was designed for the industrial process of sealing as many people as possible into self-powering stasis bags as quickly as the line could move forward and split to each bagging station.
Even though its explicit purpose was to save lives, something about it put Ava in mind of an abattoir. Humans would come in and be reduced to…well…bags. Bags of nothing. Non-event volumes, to be spit out into space and drift there, sustained by solar power, until either the bag failed its unfortunate occupant, or until they were recovered and released into the waiting future.
“We know.” Daemon nodded. “We know being bagged up in here will be…unpleasant. Shit, I wouldn’t like to go through it.”
“But folks can handle that. Just like the dentist, right?”
“That’s the other reason we need people here though, Ava. We need warm hands and reassuring guidance to help them through this. It can’t be all cold machinery and my voice.”
Ava nodded her understanding, raised her camera, and took her pictures.
She stayed overnight in one of the flower-petal suites. It had everything! A comfy double bed, a shower and bath, two guest or child bedrooms, a utility room, tons of storage, a living room with kitchenette…With a few personal touches, some artwork, rugs, throws and plants, it would be a lovely address by anyone’s standards.
She made a note of that as she wrote the article. Those fortunate enough to live on the Garden wouldn’t be moving to some bunker barely adequate to saving their lives. They’d be moving on to a life among the stars, and all the comforts thereof.
And the others in the bags…wouldn’t notice the passing of time, at least. Faint praise, but the fact they’d live would have to be enough.
It took a week before the article passed muster for publication. A week after that, she was back with a documentary crew from ESNN, to do a full-blown immigration campaign for Garden.
And with them came the first of Earth’s refugees. The first through the turnstiles and steel barriers, each carrying only a small bag of the things they couldn’t bear to part with. Ava didn’t even know how they’d been selected for this, who by or where from. What fortune had brought them here, away from the Earth and its impending fate? Had they pulled strings? Unlikely, she thought. Anyone with that kind of power would be among the conscious, not riding out the apocalypse in a body bag.
So they’d just…won the lottery. The first of many to do so…but also part of a too-tiny elite, saved where billions of others wouldn’t be.
She watched them into their bags. Watched the ones who stood out of the line, helping and guiding and reassuring, and becoming Garden’s first residents. Watched one of the Entity’s iridescent droons swoop down to gather the active bags as they were gently nudged out into space, and jump them away for safe-keeping around a star. There to remain…indefinitely.
But, strange and uncertain though their fate was, they were the first of Earth’s refugees.
And they would not be the last.
++END CHAPTER 90++
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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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60 Friendly ETs, 139 Squishy Xenos and 329 Dizi Rats who imitate the infamous squonk and dissolve in their own tears.
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 91: The Rising Flood.