The Deathworlders

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Chapter 91: The Rising Flood

High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Planet Gao

Adam (“Warhorse”) Arés

Thump

Unusually, Daar was waiting for him at the jump array. Groomed and perfect today, even more than usual. He’d been at a charity ball or something.

But normally, when he called for Adam, that meant Adam was gonna go to his office or meet him at whatever garden or worksite he was currently at. Being met right off the platform was…new.

“Hey Cousin!!” Adam wasn’t even completely over the slight disorientation of jump travel, or from the sudden change in scenery, when the king dino-bear himself rolled over to greet him with a happy tackle and a fierce crush that, honestly, was pretty expertly tuned to ride the line between extremely affectionate and suddenly fatal. Such was the price of his friendship.

…Too fierce, actually. Daar was tense. You had to know him pretty well to notice it, but he had that poised energy in his muscles, and Adam could feel that energy almost vibrating through the big guy, even being hoisted like three meters off the ground for Doom Snuggles.

Adam did what he knew best (since he couldn’t breathe just then) and quirked an eyebrow.

“Right! Right…” Daar let go, and Adam took the sudden fall with a well-practiced bounce on the balls of his feet. The murderbearemperor didn’t stop nearly vibrating with eager energy, though. It was seriously riding that weirdly canine line Gao sometimes hit, like Doofus got when somebody had a tennis ball in their hand.

Well. One of those volleyball-sized supertoys. Tennis balls didn’t last long enough near Doofus.

Whatever. Focus.

“…Good news?” Adam asked.

“Can’t talk about it here. Good ‘ta see you dressed nice.”

“Well, you said to…?” Adam pointed out, confused. He’d gone for nice slacks and a well-fitted shirt. Stretchy without looking like it. Still short-sleeved though.

“Yuh.” Daar turned and nodded at the array technician. “This jump did not happen. Y’unnerstand.”

The technician—Whitecrest, Adam realized. Part of his initiation into the Clan had been their subtle signs and shibboleths—duck-nodded seriously. “I do, My Father,” he replied, quietly.

Daar ducked his head approvingly, then gestured Adam onto the array platform. Adam, sensing there was nothing to be gained by asking further questions, took his spot inside the lines, having to scooch as close up to the yellow safety line as he dared to make room for Daar to fold himself in alongside him.

Thump.

Of all their destinations, he hadn’t expected…what was this? It looked almost like the ancient history exhibit at the Folctha Museum. Sandstone walls carved with bas-reliefs and images of gods, but illuminated by indirect lighting set behind the sandstone along the top and bottom.

The chica dressed like a fucking space samurai was anachronistic as hell, too. She bobbed politely to Daar and confirmed Adam’s suspicions with her greeting. “Your Majesty, welcome to Ekallim-Igigi.”

Fancy big shit today, apparently.

Good thing he wore his extra-good shoes.

Daar returned the polite gesture with a duck of his head. “Thank you, Queen Tomoe. Y’prob’ly know my good friend an’ Cousin ‘fer life, Mister Arés…?”

She smiled at him, eyes crinkling warmly as she inclined herself formally to him as well. “I do. The famous Warhorse. Yours is a towering reputation, Arés-san.”

Nothing in Adam’s life had prepared him for formal meetings with queens. “Uh, as is yours, your highness,” he ventured.

Daar grumbled “majesty, ‘ya idjit,” outta the side of his mouth with almost as much subtlety as a pimped out car stereo blasting down the street.

Fortunately, the queen only giggled lightly and flapped a hand in the universal gesture for not minding. She stepped aside and extended a hand. “Please. Gilgamesh-sama eagerly awaits you.”

One thing that stood out for Adam instantly as she led them through this palace-slash-museum was that the floors didn’t resonate even a little bit under his feet. There weren’t many places anywhere in the world where he felt like he could just let his feet fall naturally. So…well, he did. Almost felt weird because soft-walking was his everyday normal, even in his own home, and it’d given him some huge lower legs as a consequence.

Now he felt almost bouncy.

It wasn’t just the floor, though. Everything seemed built with men of his scale and mass in mind. Or at least, bigger people in general. Door handles were all a little higher. Rails, too. Everything was solid. The air was pretty damn warm and humid, true, but breathing was free and easy—high oxygen, probably—the gravity felt a lot like Akyawentuo…

It felt…comfortable.

Up some wide, broad stone steps, along a colonnade at the edge of a green park and blue skies, and into a secure compound with a guard posted. Two dudes who coulda been HEAT, no trouble. They were at attention with shouldered arms and definitely wearing their fancy uniform…but Adam didn’t doubt for a second they could fuck up most everything that weren’t him and Daar if they had to.

Either way, Tomoe strode between them and vanished through the fuzzy, milky privacy forcefield protecting the entrance.

Adam always felt like he had to hold his breath when walking through those things, for some reason. He did so as he followed Daar through, exhaled on the far side and took a look around.

It was a pretty spartan room, really. Big, square, stone. Huge-ass table in the middle. And gathered around it were…

Welp. Gilgamesh. The big king himself. Tall motherfucker, maybe only a few inches shorter than Firth. Not anywhere near his equal, but that didn’t speak negatively of him at all. He was still a powerfully-bodied man with a basically perfect physique. Just…not at all as much.

Looking closer… Adam could see it. He could really see it. What every Hero had was there. It wasn’t any one thing, but all of it together: general shape of the head and face, his proportions, the way he moved…

This man was the sire of the Heroes, and Adam could see it plain as day. Could see it in Firth, could see it in Julian. In Hunter, in most of the HEAT. Hell, could see it in ‘Base! But, as he realized to his quiet pride, he and Gilgamesh had basically none of that in common. Adam was squatter and stockier, longer-torsoed, longer-armed. Wider face, wider hips and shoulders. Gorilla neck and traps. Heroes were mostly all built to be perfect athletes, and so was Adam, but his build was all about power and hardiness.

He wasn’t as naturally a graceful athlete like Firth. Movement and all that came effortlessly to the big bastard. Adam got there like a sumo wrestler did: by sheer strength and determination. In the end he felt that was probably the better way to go about it, because you couldn’t much help your structure, but you could always grow stronger. And his structure was all about being strong as fuck.

Adam really was his own freak. Made sense, really: Gilgamesh can’t have been the only ancient Hero, he was just the one who got lucky. What unknown luck did Adam have in his family? That not even Singularity knew about? How much of what he was really was his own? Neither mamá nor papá were freaks like he was…

But actually, yeah they kinda were, in normal everyday, everyman sorts of ways. Adam just took what they gave him and…well, went mutant freak with it, even when he was a kid. He kinda fuckin’ proud of that, no point pretending otherwise.

To the king’s left was a gaoian. Yeah. Keeda. Yekeeda? Wasn’t there was a yip in there? So maybe Ye!keeda? He’d hafta ask. Adam was pretty good at nailing Gaori if he heard it first. Either way, he was a hell of a fuckin’ specimen. Bigger’n Thurrsto and the stockiest gaoian he’d ever seen aside from Daar. Had the same sorta features that supposedly had once made Thurrsto kinda “ugly” to modern gaoian sensibilities, which now got him endless Female attention, weirdly. In fact Keeda was one of the biggest gao Adam had ever seen. Maybe Kodiak was his equal?

Spying the attention, Keeda gave Adam a snaggle-toothed grin and a mischievous ear-flick, before ducking his head respectfully to Daar. Respectfully, but not subserviently. He kept his throat protected as he did it. Kinda weird to see, that: Adam had grown so used to how the Gao slightly bore their throat to Daar when they ducked to him, Keeda’s gesture almost looked…cheeky.

He still couldn’t keep his backwards ear-flick under control, though. Those were a hard signal for gao and the ears almost never hid anything. And really, that flick told the real tale.

Even demigods submit to gods.

Opposite actual Keeda was a corti, but not like any Adam had ever met. She was taller, stockier, more overtly feminine in her build. Her head, though still large in proportion to the rest of her, wasn’t the oversized bulbous fuckin’ watermelon of modern corti like Nofl and the others. And unlike every other corti he’d met, she wasn’t a nudist: her skinny shoulders were draped with a black embroidered cloth that wound down and around her like a toga.

And the warm smile she gave them as they arrived was very different. Not even Nofl, who was fuckin’ dramatic by modern corti standards, wasn’t half so expressive in his face.

There was prince Alex. Again, very much Hero but ragingly so in this case. He was at a glance, just as big and stocky as Adam now, too. Same height and everything. He dwarfed his taller dad-king and the dude was only like eighteen. Hell, he’d put Wilde and Hoeff in their places before he was even properly a teen! And even with all that Hero shit in him, he still had the build of a man built for power, first and foremost. So basically, Adam and Firth combined. The kid was gonna be someone to watch over the next several years.

Fuck, what would the world be like if Adam had been that sort of ready for Capitol Station?

A couple dozen more he didn’t recognize. Everyone there was a Hero, damn near. Everyone prob’ly descended from Gilgamesh. Shit, the only “normal” people in the room were Tomoe and a Greek-looking woman he didn’t know yet.

Adam wasn’t a diplomat. He grumbled sotto voce, “hell of a gatherin’ here, boss.”

Keeda’s snaggly pant-grin got wider and his ear flicked. He didn’t say anything, though, only looked up at Gilgamesh and tilted his head expectantly.

For his part, Gilgamesh traded a carefully mirrored gesture of respect with Daar, greeting him as an equal, then looked to Adam. A wide, jovial smile parted his beard. “Welcome, Mister Arés! You will please accept my apologies, we’ve just finished our weekly stand-up. Let me make introductions…”

Lots of hand-shaking and nodding and all that, which Adam didn’t mind. He liked meeting people. It was pretty warm though, and unlike everyone else he was dressed for air conditioning. King Gilgamesh apparently noticed, because he nodded at an attendant, who had a basket of…well, a towel, sandals, some other things…

“We were about to adjourn and take our afternoon sport. Join us! Our next meeting will be smaller, and more private. Shall we?”

That was fun. Some play out in the field, heavy liftin’, some good tackling and wrasslin’ with Alex, the opportunity to flatten the human god-king of ‘ye olden tymes and all that…

Adam especially liked that bit. He, just a random mexican kid from San Diego, no special “breeding” or whatever, just good genes from people who did their best…and he could toy with actual fuckin’ Gilgamesh. And he was a good sport about it, too! And not a pushover; dude had some skill that Adam could learn from.

Yeah. Okay. Scores settled. Adam liked the big guy. And let him know it.

So. It was a nice afternoon and very much the sort of day Adam enjoyed. By evening (evening?) he’d retired to a tea room with the important bigwigs, clad in a sorta weird-but-comfortable waist garment thing Alex had to show him how to don. It was just a big piece of cloth but if you folded it and wrapped it around just so…

It felt weird at first, being so short and not quite there. Felt like he’d flash his nuts at a queen or whatever, but it kept him modest no matter how he sat, as long as he didn’t go jumping around. It was nice and breezy too, and the cloth was something thin and breathable, and tough…

Sandals were fuckin’ comf, too. And a couple of really stunning women were looking him over…

Focus.

As much as he was enjoying himself, because who didn’t like tea? Or meathead-friendly snacks? He did whisper in Daar’s ear at one point. “I thought we were here for business?”

“This is how they do business,” Daar replied, with a duck-shrug and wag of his tail. “Y’know the story. Gilgachad over there an’ Y!’kiidaa started out fightin’ all day ‘ta become friends, an’ I guess they’ve kept th’ tradition alive ever since. Pretty sure you’ve scored a couple’a mating contracts too,” he added with a chitter. “Always did look purdy nekkid!”

Adam chuffed, a bit embarrassed. “They do know I’m taken…?”

“Culture, Cousin. An’ I ‘member our talk some months ago, so…”

“Daar.”

Daar rumbled out a chitter again. “Okay! Fine! Suit ‘yerself…but ‘yer right. Reckon we’re about ready ‘ta get back ‘ta that table again. That’s part’a the test too, I reckon.”

Quite how the agreement that they were getting back to business passed around, Adam didn’t know. But by some kinda magic, suddenly there was another of those privacy fields up, and it was like they’d never left that meeting room in the first place, except for the change of clothes.

Gilgamesh took his position at the table and gave them a warm nod. “So. Thank you for indulging our hospitality. But I know you are eager to learn the details of our discovery.”

“Especially if it can do what y’said it can,” Daar agreed. The mood was immediately more serious.

“Oh, we think it can,” Keeda had a very literally wolfish grin. “After all…what’s the most complete way ‘ta defeat ‘yer enemy?”

Adam didn’t get the chance to meditate on that question. Instead, Leifini stepped up on her stool and pushed something forward toward the middle of the table. Holoemitters hidden in either the table or the ceiling whirled into high-rez, perfectly opaque life, showing a bunch of stuff that Adam didn’t understand at first.

Leifini was more than happy to share the secrets that made sense of it, though. And as she did, the reason for all the secrecy and Daar’s excitement became apparent.

Adam felt his heart tighten and beat faster in his chest as he realized what he was being told. Finally, he knew the true shape of his mission. What the purpose of his life was. And how he was going to repay his life-debt.

He had to go for it, now. Slow and steady had got him magnificently ready, but now it was time to stop playing footsie with reality. Time to step up, put his foot on the gas, and once again be the best there ever was. Be the best there ever could be.

Because only the best had any hope of surviving this. But if they did…

What was the most complete way to defeat your enemy?

It was right in their souls.


Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

“Well…that’s a fuck of a thing. Finally time, huh?”

For Hoeff, it felt kinda different meeting ‘Horse for the same kind of dinner meeting he sometimes had with old friends. For one, the big bastard was his boss these days. Shit, Hoeff remembered him when he was barely twenty-one, and still a correctly short man!

But for another, though…Adam just didn’t fit in a fine dining setting, so the choice of venue was different. Normally, when Hoeff was involved in Dark Schemes he could be assured of an amuse-bouche and a half dozen small but perfect courses accompanied by the sorta wine that reduced sensitive souls to tears.

The Best Brioche Blue-and-Bacon Beastinator wasn’t quite the same but, shit: he was a Beef well in the four-digit club these days too, so he was a man who needed to eat. Fine dining was just a treat.

Blue cheese was worth killin’ for. And thanks to privacy field generators, they could sit on a park bench and rock the fuckin’ foundations of the world while dippin’ their fries. He knew boss weren’t tellin’ him everything. Adam had all the subtlety of a relativistic brick, and Hoeff was deep-trained in reading people, all their microsign, all their little foibles.

He needed to be, to pass off as one some days.

“Yuh. This is the big one, man. We’re gonna get one shot, so we’re gonna train.”

Hoeff nodded. “Gonna be a while prepping for this.”

“Some years, yeah. I gotta big up for it, too. Like, all the way big up, ‘till I can’t get any better.”

Well, double fuck.

“Shit, man. Full send with the superscience?”

“Yup. Back on it like Firth an’ the HEAT. Marty’ll have mixed feelings ‘bout that, but…”

No shit. Anything that would put Adam back on that path was pretty serious, considering he was already far and away the best version of himself he’d ever been on his “light” and “gentle” training plan. Hoeff thought he’d finally come to peace with it all, settled down as a family man…

But no, his Big Damn Hero button had been pushed, yet again.

Hoeff didn’t say anything. Instead, he simply nodded solemnly.

“Yeah…Lotta details to plan, too.”

“Yup. Lotta intel, Wilde and crew are gonna be busy I bet.”

They ate their burgers in thoughtful silence. Full-pound burgers were such a treat.

Hoeff was on his second already.

Time to say it.

“You’re not sure you’ll make it, are you?”

“…No. An’ if we fail, it may be over for all of us. Or those who ain’t perfectly on a safe world.”

Well. Shit.

“So…next couple-few years I oughta really get my Claire and my kids somewhere safe.”

“Kids?”

“Yup. Got the positive test last week. So number two on the way, hopefully.”

“Congratulations, man. But you know, that means you’ve really got something to do this for. ‘Cuz you know as well as I do, we can’t just bubble up and ignore the bad guys. ‘Cuz they’re not gonna stop until we’re gone.”

“I know.” Hoeff nodded, grimly. “Not much point in savin’ people from Earth if they just burn here in the end, is there?”

“Right. And Marty’s words are sorta burnin’ in my ears now…”

“What words?”

“Eh. Never mind.” Adam finished his last burger and licked his fingers clean. “Just thinkin’ about all the ways I can get my family set up so…whatever happens, they’re as okay as they can be, yeah?”

“Yeah…But ‘Horse: you know this is the last ride, right?”

Adam shrugged. “I promised the big guy I’m in it for the duration.”

Hoeff exhaled. “That’s a fuck of a thing to promise. Everyone’s gotta pass the torch eventually, ‘cuz if you hold it for too long it’ll burn you away ‘til there’s nothing left.”

“…Well, that was fuckin’ poetic. You quoting somebody, there?”

“Nope.”

“Well…y’aint wrong.” ‘Horse sighed. “But honestly, we live through this, the rest is just gonna be cleanup anyway. Galaxy won’t need operators like me anymore.”

“You hope.” Hoeff dipped his last fry.

“Hope ain’t a tactic. I mean it. What sorta crazy galactic threat would be left?”

“A power vacuum,” Hoeff replied. “I don’t know exactly what’ll come to fill it after the Hierarchy’s gone, but I promise you this, man: there will never be a day when operators aren’t needed.”

“Sure, operators. Not living weapons like us! We’ve always been purpose-built for a specific kinda enemy and we’re too fuckin’ expensive to keep around and ready. Nobody else was insane enough to play at this level.”

“We were,” Hoeff pointed out. “You should be just a five-seven natural-born Hero. One of the best, too. I bet you’d have made a pretty big name for yourself, even. But now you’re this towerin’ fuckin hoss of a monster, purpose-made ‘ta fight other monsters. What makes you think that won’t find a new purpose? You don’t remove something like Big Hotel without leaving behind a hole, and something’s gonna fill it.”

“…Maybe,” Adam conceded. “But that purpose, whatever it is…I’ll figger it out when it comes. For now, I’m happy doin’ what we’re doin’.”

“And you’re sure as shit not gonna break a promise to Daar.”

“He put up a hundred million moneys to save my ass. I know that ain’t nothin’ to him but…”

“You don’t break promises anyway. Not to him, not to Marty, not to anyone.”

Adam chuckled, darkly. “Yeah. I ain’t ever broken a promise to Marty and I ain’t ever gonna. I never promised her I’d retire, and she knows I’m still in the game. But on the far side of this…I think I’ll, I dunno. Not retire exactly. I’ll still keep the grind up for sure.”

“You’d go insane otherwise.”

“Right? But…yeah. I think me and a buncha us tier-zero types—”

“I always hated that designation.”

“Yeah. Anyway. A bunch of us will probably go into reserve, y’know?”

“Move on a bit,” Hoeff agreed. “Help get the young kids ready.”

“Yeah….but never quite hang up the gloves. I dunno if I can ever do that.”

“Even after this?”

Adam shrugged. “…We’ll see, I guess.”

They sat in silence for maybe a minute, until Hoeff stood. “I’ll…get to work. You know my number.”

“Yup. Say congrats to Claire from me.”

“Bring your family round in a few days, we’ll have a playdate and you can say it in person.” They bumped knuckles hard enough to hurt, then Hoeff ducked through the privacy field, felt its tingle on his skin, and walked away, thinking.

He was gonna have to have a conversation with some old friends about this. That was part of the deal, and ‘Horse hadn’t actually explicitly sworn him to secrecy on this…which said a few things in its own right. But if there was any plan to get everyone and everything pointing all in one direction on, it was this one. This crazy, magnificent fuckin’ plan. The one that might just justify Singularity’s existence after all.

He shoved his hands in his pocket and walked home with a feral kind of slow grin spreading across his face as he really thought about what they were preparing for.

He liked this plan…


Great Father’s hobby farm, planet Gao

Thurrsto, Champion of Clan Whitecrest

“I’m not sure I like this plan.”

There weren’t many spaces in all of Gaoian politics where somebody could say something like that directly to the Great Father. It was hard enough in private, but in front of others?

Almost guaranteed political suicide.

This wasn’t because he discouraged principled opposition. Quite the contrary! It was because it took an extraordinary gaoian to resist his will in any dimension whatsoever, and it took an even more extraordinary gaoian to withhold intercession on his behalf. Balls, for most he didn’t even need to be present. Just his voice and appearance was enough to almost compel obedience. He had a kind of power that had grown immensely over the years and now, as he began to find the full flower of his being…verged uncomfortably on the divine.

Most of the males who even could sustain that sort of thinking were gathered in this one room, tonight. After a day of hard play, hunting, exercise, and generally not resisting Daar’s will in doing what he wanted to do, because the relationship was a deeply gratifying one for all parties involved, Great Father and his subjects…here they were. His cabinet and closest, packed tight into a warm cottage while the first snow of the year started to gather outside.

Cozy. Warm.

Honest.

Honest both in its simplicity, and in the truths they were allowed—nay, encouraged—to utter here, in private. Which was why Thurrsto’s cautious objection only earned him an assortment of interested head-turns and ear-flicks…and a couple of duck-nods.

Daar of course was taking up most of the space all by himself, and picked that moment to stretch out luxuriantly in simultaneously the most disarming and intimidating gesture the situation could manage. “Why not?”

“It’s a fuck of a flip of the tile,” Thurrsto said, gratefully accepting a cup of tea from Champion Gyotin. “A real all-or-nothing Ta’Shen. And coming from Singularity, who…uhm…”

Daar watched him struggle for a polite way to phrase it, then bailed him out. “Have a history of plannin’ like a hungry cub raidin’ the pantry,” he offered, alongside a cup.

Thurrsto duck-nodded gratefully. “Which I gather you were known to do, yeah.”

Daar stretched again—he felt utterly non-threatened, and that was encouraging—and chittered quietly. “On the regular!”

There were chitters in response, and Thurrsto joined them as he stared into the hearth, half-daydreaming as he imagined Daar—never tiny even as a cub, and burdened for his earliest years with a medical backpack to keep him well-stocked in meals and to monitor his blood chemistry—sneaking and skulking around the commune kitchens.

Naturally, Reeko’s mind jumped to the obvious question any policeman would ask.

“How often did you get caught?”

“Not so often as ‘ya’d think! Slinkin’ and sneakin’ all quiet-like ain’t easy but I can manage sometimes,” Daar chittered at the memory. “But! Why pretend? I had Regaari do mosta my sneakin’ for me, in exchange ‘fer brawlin’ lessons. Floofy lil’ silverfurs are the most sneakiest!” he gestured to the silver-furred majority in the room, and wagged his tail happily at the chitters.

“That they are…” Reeko shot Thurrsto the amused look that captured a lot about the essential tension between spy and policeman.

Thurrsto in turn shot him an absolutely shameless pant-grin. Hadn’t been caught yet!

Daar rumbled an amused rumble, and got them back on track. “Anyhow, we’ve got time ‘ta plan this prop’ly. It ain’t Singularity who’s doin’ the plannin’, which was prudent o’ them. They’ve just…delivered the weapon.”

“An untested and untestable weapon,” Champion Kuriya chimed in, agreeing with Thurrsto.

“The effectiveness of which will only become apparent in the moment we use it,” Thurrsto added.

“The alternative bein’ a long, slow war over centuries, on their terms, on the back of a totally fuckin’ crippled economic an’ industrial base,” Daar replied. “Thurrsto…Cousin. We’re doomed ‘ta lose that fight. Maybe we wouldn’t be if Earth weren’t about to be blasted away, but…even then.”

“Just how badly were we crippled?” Thurrsto asked the room in general, by which everyone knew he meant the Champion of Goldpaw.

Champion Sheeyo groomed his whiskers with a claw, his usual self-comfort habit. “There’s a human word…turbofucked.”

“…Well, that’s expressive.”

Uriigo made a disbelieving sound. “Why’d anyone wanna fuck on turbo? Seems like it’s missin’ the point…”

“I think that’s the general idea of the expression,” Sheeyo agreed.

“So, fucked an’ ya don’t even get ‘ta enjoy it. …Yeah. That fits.”

Sage nods circled the room.

“Economic recovery at this point is the work of generations. A hundred years or more, and that’s if we get a hundred years of peace. Our output in every sector has already sharply declined…give it another seven or eight years, ten at the absolute most, and it’ll plunge as the population becomes either too young, too old or too maimed to work. The ensuing depression will last until the cubs being born today are adults, and it’ll fall to them to finally lift us out.”

He sighed and shook his head. “The terrible, almost disloyal thing is…the humans losing their homeworld may actually be what saves us from the worst. They’re evacuating their young, able-bodied and talented, just when we need young, able-bodied and talented people.”

“It ain’t gonna be so good as that, given they’re gonna be traumatized and recoverin’ too,” Daar observed. “An’ like you said…all of that is if we get peace.”

“In other words, flipping the tile for a Pyrrhic victory is our only winning move…” Thurrsto mused.

“Yup.” Daar duck-nodded grimly, and started counting off on his claws. “The gao are spent, humanity’s spent, the ten’gewek an’ e-skurel-ir ain’t economic players, Singularity an’ the OmoAru are too small, the Celzi an’ their friends are too fuckin’ cowardly, the Dominion won’t never be rid of the rot ‘til after we win anyway, an’ the Entity won’t go along with any plan that reduces its own survival odds.”

Thurrsto drank his tea. “…Then I do like this plan after all.”

There was quiet chittering, which the Great Father played upon. “It’s the bestest plan! ‘Cuz we ain’t got any other!”

Thurrsto couldn’t help but chitter at the absurd optimism in the Great Father’s voice and wagging tail. “Your logic is, as always, unassailable…”

“Essactly! Real big brain moves all up in here. Anyhoo,” crushing snuggle-time, naturally. The Great Father rolled to his side and gestured for everyone to gather by the fire. Who could resist such an open invitation to Brotherhood? He pulled them all to himself with his great arms and legs, and thereby applied his patented brand of physically intense affection.

He was at least nice enough to permit everyone a bit of shallow breathing.

It was a long time before anyone spoke, as they enjoyed the heat of the fire (a real gaoian weakness, that) and the smells and feeling of brotherly affection. The Cabinet, whatever their professional differences, had profound respect and affection for each other.

And their Daar was the center and focus of it.

All good things had to come to an end. He shifted a bit, giving everyone enough space to talk and gesture. “So…yeah. I know it’s a shitty position we’re in. But damnit, this is the first time in literally years I ain’t been broodin’ on th’ long-term servival of our peoples ‘cuz that was the only real outcome on th’ table. Now we’ve got a nut-hair’s chance o’ actually winnin’ this fuckin’ thing. An’ it was one that even a year ago weren’t possible.”

Loomi (heretofore quiet) duck-nodded in agreement. “I understand. We have much planning ahead of us, I fear.”

“Dream big, Champions. We got th’ chance now ‘ta imagine a time after this war. It’s in our power ‘ta make it.”

Reeko, ever the most earnest of them, spoke for the whole cabinet: “The Clans are yours, My Father, and always have been.”

“Yeah, but…dream. Dream o’ somethin’ bigger’n just servin’ me. Dream o’ what we can build in peacetime, an’ fight ‘fer that. What would you do with it?”

Silence, and mutual faintly confused looks gave him his answer.

Thurrsto chittered, and shrugged. “I think I can speak for all of us here…I don’t know what else I would be, than this,” he replied. “I enjoy what I do too much. Naughty cubs never stop loving their pranks, and what I do? It’s the bestest prank!”

Daar’s bass chitter made the potted herbs over the window sway. He put his head down on his paw and sighed. “I know what vict’ry means ‘fer me. It means gettin’ ‘ta…take my paw off the throat, yijao? Be the farmin’, ranchin’, diggin’ ‘Back I’m meant ‘ta be. I’ll always be Great Father, but if this war ends in victory…”

“There’ll be a few steps before then, I dareasy.”

“Yuh. An’ we’ve got th’ humans among us, now. By the time we’re done with the war, they’ll be here ferever. that’s gonna mean some changes.” Daar yawned expansively. “…I bin noodlin’ on the idea o’ constitution.”

Thurrsto watched the way his fellow champions froze up at that. He’d suspected something like it was coming—time and experience had taught him enough about how Daar’s mind worked to see the direction he was trying to steer a conversation in—but it was still…

Well, it was still a very un-gaoian thing he’d just proposed.

Daar saw their uncertainty, and explained his thinking. “We’re gonna be one people. Ain’t nothin’ gon’ stop that now. One people, at least three species. Might include our poor traumatized squirrel-folk too…anyway. We Deathworlders are way more similar’n not, and fate, ‘fer whatever fuckin’ reason, means th’ Gao are the only ones left wit’ a properly developed homeworld. So…”

“A constitution, though? Written down?” Loomi angled his ears uneasily. “That creates room for…lawyering.”

“Yes,” Daar chittered quietly, and snuffled a bit closer. “We’ve already got lawyers.”

“As I recall, lawyering about Fyu’s payment was one of the major causes of the War.”

“The art of the Law has come a long way since then,” Reeko objected.

“I suppose I must concede that, “Loomi admitted. “Nonetheless…”

“I get it,” Daar offered. “We gotta git over it, though. Besides…d’you really think the humans’ll bare their throats?” Daar shook his head to that question. “They’ll sign paper, they’ll ratify law. But they ain’t gao. I can’t be ‘ta them what I am ‘ta us. Least, not like…well, us right now.”

Thurrsto took stock of his present situation. He was…lovingly, playfully but completely under Daar’s control, here. They all were. He was that big.

But it was more than that. Daar was incredibly intelligent, easily the superior mind in the room. He was wise. He was incomparably physical in every positive connotation of the idea. And most importantly, he smelled of authority. Of strength. Of leadership. He smelled and felt so powerfully of all those things, it took all the mental fortitude Thurrsto had to even attempt resistance, even with Daar’s full encouragement.

It wasn’t even really a voluntary thing, even though Thurrsto didn’t mind it. The Great Father was the Great Father because of gaoian nature. He was all those things before Mother-Supreme Yulna had raised him to his office, and the Conclave confirmed him in it.

And he was right: the humans were aliens. They didn’t have that nature. They respected him, for sure. They admired him. They even liked him. As much as anyone could be, he was in the human peoples’ good graces. But he would never be their Great Father, because humans didn’t have Great Fathers. They would never understand the awe and truth of such a thing.

They weren’t made for it.

“What…would this constitution even look like?” Thurrsto asked, aloud.

“I had some thoughts. It’d have ‘ta leave each o’ the Peoples under it ‘ta mostly govern themselves in their own way, while unitin’ us under common cause o’ our mutual prosperity an’ protection…”

“You would need to remain—ngf!—sovereign,” Gyotin warned, even as Daar pulled them tighter against his vast chest. It was cold out, after all…

“Of course. But I think mebbe that’s how it’ll work. I was hopin that if I promise my peoples their independence s’long as they govern themselves, I can mebbe sit at th’ top o’ this an’ not need ‘ta interfere much. Sorta like how His Majesty the King works, theoretically.”

“What about succession?” Gyotin pressed.

“I think there’d need ‘ta be…well, a lesser office’n what I inhabit. Chairman, Governor-General, somethin’ like that.”

“President,” Reeko suggested. “One who presides.”

A wave of unconscious duck-nodding made its way around the pile, and Daar nodded last.

“Think ‘yer right! Presidin’ without the full, unlimited powers o’ Great Fathers, though, that’s the point. Great Fathers are created when needed, an’ I intend ‘ta leave a world where we don’t need one. If the Peoples decide they need another one sometime in the future…well. Best leave the future ‘ta the future, yijao?”

Thurrsto noted that Gyotin’s was the most fervent duck-nod in the circle. “That seems wise…” the Starmind agreed. “Though, even with past conversations, it feels strange to think of the world without you. Which is a pretty tail-sniffing sorta thing to say I guess…balls.”

Daar chittered and then there was some “gentle” wrassling. Well-meaning, affectionate. Caring. All the things that made it so fucking hard for a gaoian to rebel against him…

“Cousin, I know you ain’t no tail-sniffing sorta man. You keep ‘yer claws sharp ‘fer me, y’hear?”

Hard to do when the heaviest thing on land had them pinned under his great body…

Thurrsto chittered, some of the exertion breaking the spell a bit. Deliberately, if he wasn’t mistaken. “I’ll do my best. Always. But…none of us can resist without your indulgence. Don’t forget that, either.”

Daar paused, then let go of them and stepped back. ”…I know. An’ it’s the one thing I wish I could turn off. That’s why I swore at my coronation not ‘ta create an heir or successor. The gao can’t be slaves. None’a the peoples can, or else why did we fight this whole war?”

“For survival?” Kuriya suggested.

“Nah. The Gao woulda been the Hierarchy’s next control species. We’da replaced the Hunters an’ this, the power I have? That woulda been how they controlled us. An’ then they’da had us, ‘ferever. Or, for as long as they wanted us, anyway. ‘Cuz I’m just version one-point-oh. Imagine what woulda happened when they could work openly an’ get serious?”

Thurrsto shivered, as did a few of the others. The rest were simply solemn.

“Right. So mebbe this fight were about survival ‘fer the humans…but ‘fer the gao, it was always about our soul. My bestest Cousins…there can never be another like me. No other male should have th’ kinda dominance I do, ever again.”

Thurrsto looked at him, thinking, twitched his nose… “And you think a constitution, binding us to the others might guard against that?”

“Future Great Fathers will be bound by it too, ‘cuz we’re an honorable people, and now we’ve got humans who won’t let us dick around wit’ our own rules.” Daar chittered. “An’ ten’gewek who might just crack heads if they hafta. An’ if the e-skurel-ir join, they’ve got long memories. But most importantly, th’ people will decide what oath the Great Father takes ‘fore they put the crown on his head. So even if Daar two-point-oh ends up bein’ that impressive lil’ sixth degree cub I sired not long ago…”

“He won’t be in the same position as you.”

“Yeah. Never again. I mean it with all my heart an’ soul.”

Nobody seemed to want to say anything after that, and in any case the weather outside was really starting to pick up. The coming of winter was Gao’s great claim to deathworld status after all, and the first snowfall had been a time of ritual and festival for all of history. And part of the tradition was to huddle up in a burrow around a fire, stay warm and enjoy company and brotherhood while the freezing wind outside bared its fangs.

Technically, gaoians didn’t need the fire. Between the fur and shared body warmth, the pile of them would have been quite comfortable even if they were outside atop a rocky outcrop, fully exposed to the blizzard. But the fire was so much nicer. It was a comforting, traditional one, a round bowl-shaped thing crackling with shrub-wood claimed from clearing the hobby farm’s field boundaries and ditches. The smoke it produced had a sweetness to it that sung of home and comfort to something ancient in the gaoian soul.

Funny to be discussing the future in a place that literally smelled of the past, but…well, Daar could be very subtle when he wanted. Maybe there was some point in that.

Or maybe he just liked rustic tradition. Thurrsto had never quite figured his mind out, in that regard.

Reeko was the first to fill the cozy silence. “Perhaps we’ll bring in some alien experts on constitutional law,” he suggested. “The Dominion and the nations of Earth made plenty of mistakes in drafting their various constitutions. We should learn from those and not repeat them.”

“Yi,” Gyotin agreed. “And besides…if it’s to be a constitution for all our peoples, it’ll demand their input.”

“And if it’s gonna work ‘fer our people, I need ‘ta be involved right at the heart of it,” Daar said. “‘S’gonna be a tricky balance, that. But…I think we’ve said all that needs sayin’ on the subject ‘fer now, yijao? Winter’s here…”

“The Females are far away…” Thurrsto mused in ancient custom.

There were chitters. Uriigo reached out and picked up a jug of spiced talamay he’d been heating at the fire’s edge, and started pouring it out for them. “Well, then. Here’s ‘ta the lucky males stayin’ warm at a commune tonight.”

“May we take their place soon!” Kuriya finished, as was tradition. The ritual got a round of chitters as it always did, the hot drinks were handed out, the conversation turned to old Keeda stories and new jokes…

And they settled down to wait out the storm.


Land north of Franklin City, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Austin Beaufort

“So this is Pinkwood.”

The tree whose days were numbered. Every passing year, the terraforming process crawled a little further on, supplanting Cimbrean’s hopelessly outmatched native life with Earthling species that choked then, out-grew them, out-competed them, and generally shouldered them aside with the same ease that Austin could have barged a Corti out of the way.

He’d met his first Corti just four hours ago, too. Austin had been taller, better-built and stronger on the day he started the sixth grade.

Pinkwood was probably the same, by tree standards. But the one growing alone right in the middle of a meadow of native grass-stuff looked…pretty goddamn beautiful, Austin thought. Its bark definitely was pinkish, and the leaves were to the blue end of green, with whitish variegation around the edges.

Almost a shame to chop it down. But, they couldn’t afford sentiment, and it wouldn’t survive anyway. He resolved to keep the wood and make something nice from it, as a memento and reminder of what they were destroying to live here. Not that he’d ever feel too guilty about clearing ground to make a crop field. That was part of the job. It was just…a reminder that his family and friends’ lives were being bought at the expense of a lot of lives.

Lauren was already taking charge, of course. Leave it to her to handle the fine details his huge leap of intuition had landed them in. “Colony authority says our first shipment of prefabs arrives on the seventh,” she said, looking around. “Four trucks. We’re gonna need a yard and path to the main road by then.”

Austin nodded, refocused, and looked back at the flatbed they’d come out here in. Weird to think everything they needed to break ground on an alien freaking planet was all there, loaded aboard and strapped down.

Two big power storage cells. Two forcefield solar collectors. One powerpack, with connections for whenever the local grid appeared. One microfusion (!) array.

Then shit got sci-fi. One gravity field generator good enough to raise everything to one-point-two G within a few acres; that was apparently the standard for off-world humans to keep their strength. One jump array, packed down into a crate but big enough once assembled for combines and full-sized equipment to come through.

And a buncha normal stuff from home. A chainsaw, brushcutter, biodiesel fuel lab and a nice used storage bladder he picked up for dirt cheap. Cement mixer, cement, aggregate, water barrel and some planks and fixings, to create a foundation for the array. Tent, sleeping bags, meal packs, water filters, just in case they needed to stay overnight.

A pre-fab shop, and a tiny hardware store in a big box, which would be regularly restocked by a representative. He’d always wanted one of those, but Fastenal wasn’t cheap…

They were now.

Somebody had Tetrised the whole lot onto the flatbed so tight, Austin couldn’t even have fit a credit card between the boxes.

“Surveyor should be here in an hour,” he said. “And the extension office too.”

“I know.” Lauren gave him a dry look. “We coulda spent half an hour longer at breakfast, you know.”

“It was your idea to set out early in case we got lost.”

“Well, you shoulda fought me on it.” she flashed him a grin.

“I’ll remind you you said that, next time…I hope you’ve got good socks, we’ve got some hiking ahead of us…”

She just gave him a dry not-my-first-rodeo look and fished a pack full of hiking gear out of the flatbed’s passenger footwell.

Sure enough, an hour later the surveyor and the guy from the Cimbrean Agricultural Advisory Service—the Brit equivalent of the local extension service, apparently—showed up to find them rested and waiting, with their good boots on and ready to walk the property.

All twenty-five thousand acres of it. Jesus.

The surveyor and his mostly-gaoian team were a harried lot. They shook hands, exchanged some perfunctory words, and after that they went to work without any further conversation.

Rude, but…well, honestly yeah, they’re probably insanely busy so…anyway.

Austin liked the ag guy immediately. He gave his name as Mark Tisdale, and Austin could tell the two of them had a lot in common even if the dude was wildly and aggressively Pagan somehow, wearing a tee with some kinda three-lines-in-a-circle design on it. They were both obviously lifters and about the same size, though Austin was a good deal younger, and Mark’s steely gray beard, braided and beaded, was far more epic than anything Austin could ever manage. Severely healthy like everyone from Cimbrean. Good handshake, too. And his hands were hard-calloused, with the dirt of the land in his fingernails. The name “SARA” tattooed on his knuckles.

Interesting guy. Seemed like the sort of man to hang out with.

Of course, land survey had come a long way in recent years. First thing Mark did once they were ready to go was he grabbed a flat frisbee-looking thing from his van and discus-threw it into the air with a grunt. It didn’t come down, but instead snapped out some forcefield wings at the top of its arc and took flight.

Neat.

“So,” Mark explained as he called up the drone’s live info on his phone. “The big problem with farming Cimbrean is that the soil sucks. Your first couple years are gonna have to be all about enrichment and improvement, because none of this is going to support an earthling crop species.”

“Well, I was expectin’ some o’ that. We reset grassland once that hadn’t been farmed in a hunnerd years, took us three seasons of deep plowin’, cover crop, re-plowin’, and so on. This year was the first time we were able to no-till a crop in.”

“Yeah, but you still had an Earthling soil ecosystem to build on. The right kinds of fungi and microbes. Here you will need to seed it in—we’ve got resources for that—and you’ll need to manage it closely for a bit. We estimate four years before first crop.”

“That…is cutting it awfully close.”

Mark just nodded grimly. “Yup…” he agreed.

“I hear it rains every night, here?” Lauren asked. She prodded a sizeable rock with her toe, and Mark nodded, confirming the drone had already noted its position.

“Yeah. Irrigation is not a problem,” he said. “But drainage will be. Tile and water management have got to go right to the top of your list, because otherwise you’ll be trying to farm an ocean of mud.”

“Rice paddy?” Austin suggested.

“Rice does well here, but it doesn’t yield as high. Not quite warm enough. And seeing as we don’t have the luxury of time to wait for the GMO strains we’ve been promised for the last six years…”

“Right.”

“The good news is, pests are not an issue. No rootworm, no beetles, no locusts, no crickets, nothing. And the native weed species are all hopelessly outclassed, they’re actually digested by terran soil microbes.”

He looked toward a stand of pinkwood to the west. “You know, I used to think Cimbrean’s fate was a damn shame. Mass extinction, the complete eradication and supplanting of its native biosphere…now, I see that we got very, very lucky. Without Cimbrean, and what we’ve learned from the Skidmark and the terraforming operation…” he shook his head. “We’d be out of the fire and into the famine.”

So the conversation went. Walking the land was a long task, broken up by stopping every so often to take soil samples, push a geophysics probe into the ground, map the subtle roll and lay of the land, identify the streams and creek (lots of those) and not the location of every wash, every rock, every tree…

Without the drone, it would have taken God-knew how long. With it, they camped out twice, lulled to sleep by the sound of rain on the tent.

On day three they had what they needed to lay things out and plan the megafarm. Maximizing field space, but they also identified the marginal ground, where the topsoil was too shallow even for enrichment but where livestock could thrive. They carefully sketched out the houses, silos, sheds and barns, placing them on the rocky high ground where they wouldn’t interfere with food output, arranged them as efficiently as the vagaries of the land permitted.

They weren’t going to be pretty country homes. They were going to be prefab boxes. The pretty country homes would come…later. When there was time.

If there ever was time.

Four years to go, and four years to first harvest. They had to get this right. Austin couldn’t deny, with the whole land-baron thing and then that pressure on top, no time to learn from mistakes, no time to get it wrong…

That was a lot of weight on his shoulders. A lot of lives riding on his ability to do this. Including Lauren’s and the boys’.

As if he needed any more motivation.

Night three, the survey was done, they’d framed and poured the array’s foundation and had nothing else to do except sit and wait for it to harden overnight. Mark broke out a guitar, told them about his own family, about losing his eldest daughter, about how proud he was of his son, how his younger girl had inherited her older sister’s talent and smarts…

They shared a couple beers, and avoided talking about the future for a bit. It was coming soon enough for all of them.

In the morning, the array practically built itself. They snapped the bits together like a big kids’ toy, plugged in the power supply, loaded up the security codes they’d been given. For several seconds, a tiny distorted point, the bent light around a zero-width wormhole, fizzed and buzzed loudly in the array’s exact center.

And then the control app lit up green. They were connected. To Earth, to Gao, to Folctha, Armstrong, even to Akyawentuo with approval. The whole of known space was at Austin’s fingertips.

And there were deliveries already waiting, lined up in a freight yard somewhere. Three one-way shipments, already bought and paid for. He picked the first one, tapped “accept:” the array buzzed and fizzed some more…told him it’d be delivered in two hours.

He went to help Lauren with the brush cutting.

They’d just mown bald the patch where the equipment shed’s foundation would go, when there was a series of warning beeps from the array, a digitized voice warning anyone nearby to step clear, and then a thump that Austin felt through his boots as the mass of two more vehicles dropped a tiny fraction of an inch onto Cimbrean’s surface, bouncing the trucks’ suspension: a crane with a trained operator driving it, and the second flatbed.

By the end of the afternoon, the other two deliveries were complete, and the first prefab home was going up under the expert attention of a swarm of gaoian workers. No more trucks, just shipping containers which the crane operator could neatly park on any patch of ground, perfectly level with each other. Each one full of more stuff, and more stuff, and Austin was already planning what deliveries to order next and one of them was going to have to include all the folks from back home…

And so went their life. They built. Helpers came and went, and Austin found his bank account rapidly shrinking.

Then it got huge, after a couple huge deposits. Because visitors wanted to drop by, pitch in symbolically—or not so symbolically, for a few. The Prime Minister and the Governor-General said some encouraging words to him and his now-stabilizing crew. Julian and his family came out to play too, and picked a day where, frankly, having about the biggest human juggernaut ever on-hand was damn helpful. Lots of glad-handing and they even played some football, since the day ended early with all the help. Cameras discreetly clicked away from a distance.

Yeah, Julian was showing off, him and the farm and what they were all doing. It was all pretty cornfed and wholesome and ultra-muscular, well-tanned Captain America patriotism. Genuinely so, too. The big man seemed to truly enjoy helping out with the work, even more than he seemed to enjoy working all shirtless and showy. And Allison’s wry humor about it had folks laughing for the first time in weeks, that Austin could remember.

Still, Austin knew a staged event when he saw it. It felt a little…like he was being used, honestly. Nonetheless, the promised resources came.

Then the Great Father showed up and showed up everyone, and didn’t even attempt to hide the propaganda purposes of his visit. The rest of the dignitaries had brought a discreet entourage, which generated some nice local coverage.

Daar brought a press corps. And some of Clan Stoneback’s finest, and a well-regarded workhouse. And all their tools. All their equipment. A supply train to feed and house them!

But good God they could work. It had taken nine days of expensive, back-breaking labor by Austin and hired day-crews to get things to a starting point, and then the emperor of the universe showed up with an army of burly workerbears (and even more crafts-raccoons) and got shit done.

Austin had never seen a ditch appear so quickly, or to the sound of so many voices howling out a Gaoian work song. It was very…yippy, and growly, and shrill too, just super pack-of-wolfbears alien, but there was a heck of a rhythm to it. With each beat, soil fountained into the air.

Then the local human day-crews started to play along and produced a ridiculous english work-chant, much to Daar’s absurd delight, appropriately about digging a hole.

Together they had everything done in a day.

There was a reason for that, he found out that evening.

“I wanna make a point,” the monstrous mountain of a gao rumbled in a near-infrasonic basso growl. “Firs’ly, that this shit is important. ‘Yer the first o’ many super-farms here on Cimbrean an’ its important ‘ta show it can be done, yijao? But second, that it’s important ’ta me. That should clear out a lotta the bullshit ‘ya might face. Keep ‘yer family safe, too…”

Good point, really. Who the fuck would mess with him? There weren’t even words for whatever the fuck he was. Dude was literally the size of a fuckin’ house with a lifelong bodybuilding and ‘roid addiction, and rather than waste anyone’s time, he stepped in and just…started rockpicking. Well, boulder picking, at this stage. Apparently he needed no equipment for that, he just tore them outta the ground with his claws and heaved them into the rubble pile. Some of them were pretty big too, easily big enough that Austin would have needed dynamite and a heavy backhoe to even attempt.

Then emperor ultra-meathead decided that wasn’t good enough, so first they mowed, then he pulled a full-sized ten-bottom plow out of a shipping container like it was a toy, unfolded it and harnessed himself to the damned thing…and proceeded to plow like a goddamn tractor. And not a small tractor, either! He made fast work of it, then switched tools and ran a full-sized rock picker through the furrowed soil late into the night. In one day he had finished primary tillage on enough acreage to feed Austin’s family, their permanent staff, and their likely livestock. Combined with everyone else’s work all over the nascent farmstead…

He had saved them the most agonizing, back-breaking task ahead of their farmstead and did it all by himself, and pant-grinned while he did it. Austin…had no words for that. They owed him big for that act of kindness. Probably the point, actually.

Though Austin did note that Daar wasn’t immune to fatigue, and slept like a furry boulder when he finally stopped and curled up to rest under a pile of exhausted gaoians.

Austin and Lauren spent the next morning madly preparing breakfast for this sudden army outside their doorstep. Turns out gaoians loved bacon and eggs and the big guys could really pack it away. Daar all by himself ate like two dozen ravished men.

Quality people, right there.

They had a start, by the time they all left. A start, and a message sent to the world.

Austin and Lauren’s parents and the kids finally jumped over on day ten, along with half of Austin’s neighbors. All of them had equipment lined up to come with, held and cared for by the other half who’d remained behind. They were in for a hard little while of sleeping on air mattresses and groundsheets in communal rooms, and every waking minute was effort for Austin as they planned then dug, planned then built, planned then bored, planned then cut…

His body ached, his mind more so. Driving the couple hours back down into Franklin for church was the first true rest he got, to the point where he could hardly stay awake in the pew.

But in that quiet moment, as he finally stopped to reflect, he realized…he’d never felt more alive than right here and right now. All his worries about being able to do this were gone, evaporated by the simple fact that they were doing it.

They took the whole day off. Made it sacred. Cooked out on campfires and swapped stories and listened to music, and generally allowed sore muscles and sore minds to relax and unstiffen.

And then on Monday, they were right back into it. They had a lot to do, and not much time to do it in…but they had everything they needed to do it.

And most importantly of all: they had hope.


Raleigh NC, USA, Earth

Letty Brown

The thing that had come to surprise Letty, after she’d started hanging out with the other kids at Sacred Heart shelter, was that they all had something in common—they’d all been left alone by circumstance. Some, like Letty, had just had their parents up and leave. Some others had got it in their crazy heads that there was nothing to live for so they may as well die as a family right now rather than live through the coming years…

Some of the kids had left when their folks started holding orgies and shit. Some had been thrown out. Some had finally found courage in the news about the End coming to get out of the abuse they’d been suffering.

There weren’t that many in the shelter. Most folks loved their kids, were trying to do right by ‘em. But there were…enough. Enough so you knew just from a glance that the world was ending, and not everyone could handle it.

Some of the others kids were huge fuckin’ dorks, some of them were cooler and more confident. A lot of them had made the same mistakes as her, hung out with the wrong crowds at first, got into trouble, tried to live rough…she could share something in common with them.

But for some reason, instead Letty had found herself hanging out most with the two who seemed least like her: Preston, the biggest nerd she’d ever known…and Treasure.

Letty’s mom and dad had mostly just viewed her as this annoying burden they’d got saddled with, and complained about how much money they’d have had without her, and where they would have gone if they didn’t have the problem of their own daughter…that kinda thing. But Treasure? Poor girl’s parents musta thought of her as little more than some kinda living ornament to display. It sounded like they had a huge, fancy house, full of art and sculpture and fancy furniture and shit, and Treasure had, yeah, just been one of the treasures kept around the house to show off and impress.

She was a nice girl, incredibly pretty, decently smart and well-read ‘cuz her parents had expected their ornamental child to be educated…but confidence? Forget it. Poor girl had lived her whole life being told to sit quietly, shut up and never bother anyone. She liked to crochet, though: she’d given Letty a kinda wide-spaced shawl, poncho kinda thing on the third day after they met, and Letty hadn’t taken it off since. She’d made Preston a hat too, and he hadn’t taken that off either.

And as they got closer, she’d come out of her shell enough to start asking the questions that were obviously burning her up.

“So why aren’t we, like, putting asteroids and stuff in the way. Or big shields? Or something like that?”

Letty shrugged. She was lying on her bottom bunk, looking up at the slats above her. Treasure was weirdly happy about getting the top bunk, which Letty didn’t get. The bottom bunk felt cozier. “Maybe it wouldn’t work,” she said.

“Definitely not.” Preston shook his head.

“Why not?” Treasure pressed.

“Oh, man.” Preston shook his head, and Letty tried not to smile. She’d come to know the signs, he was about to get geeky as fuck. It was…weirdly cute. Kinda like Preston himself. “So…the thing is, what’s coming for us is, like, one of the most energetic events in the entire universe. NASA put out this thing—”

“Really?” Treasure was wide-eyed.

“Yeah. The EM burst is gonna last hours, And then what comes after that is gonna be a long stream of particles that’s gonna go on for years and years and years. Like…a couple hundred years. And we’re talking just…you can’t imagine how hot this is. It doesn’t matter what they put in the way. If they could put enough stuff in the way to protect Earth, it’d be easier to just…move the Earth.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Preston sighed heavily. “In millions of years some alien astronomer out in a distant galaxy is gonna blink at a beeping computer and be like ‘what was that?’”

“Yeah…kinda figured it was something like that,” Letty sighed. After a half-minute’s silence, she asked the question that had been gnawing at her from day one. “Did, uh…did NASA say…will it be quick?”

“…Yeah,” Preston didn’t sound certain, especially when he added, more quietly: “at least, I hope so…”

Silence. Letty blinked up at the bed slats, then blinked a little more, sniffed…realized she was crying again when Treasure scooted her chair over and tentatively touched her arm,

“Hey…” she tried to soothe, inexpertly. “It’s okay, it’s—”

Letty shook her head, and…let it out. “It’s not okay,” she complained. “I’ve had a shit life, and now I’m just…waiting for it to end. It’s not fair!”

Preston sighed heavily, put his phone aside, and sat with his head hung, nodding.

Treasure touched her arm again. By her standards, that was about the same as a huge comforting hug. Poor girl. She’d had a shit life too. They all had, one way or another. And Letty had cried about it enough. She gave Treasure’s hand a grateful squeeze, blinked back her misery, took a deep breath.

“…Did you see that thing on ESNN?” Preston asked, changing the subject.

“What thing?”

“The Garden.”

Letty shook her head and sat up so he could show her. At first, she couldn’t make sense of it. A picture of a flower?

Then the scale hit. That flower was…big. Really, really big. Like…city-sized big. That hexagonal thing being slotted into place by drones on the edge was the size of an apartment building.

“When did this get built?”

“Article says the Entity built the core of it years ago, but all those hexagonal units? They’re new.”

“Holy shi—”

There was a sharp rap of knuckles on door, and an equally sharp throat-clearing. Letty looked away from the phone to blink at Sister Lucille; the Nun flashed her a knowing look. “Language, miss Brown.”

“Uh…sorry, Sister.” God, how did the nuns do it? They had some kinda supernatural sixth sense or something. It was eerie.

Sister smiled forgivingly, then noticed what they were looking at. “Oh, the Garden!” she exclaimed. “I saw that on the news this morning.”

“What do you think of it, sister?” Treasure asked, politely.

“Oh, child. I think if I have a regret in all this it’s that I probably won’t get to see it for myself. It looks amazing.” The nun set aside the laundry basket she was carrying and smoothed down her habit. “And it’ll save so many lives, too…”

“D’you think it’ll save ours?” Preston asked, hopefully.

That was the thing about Sister Lucille, and the reason Letty had come to really like her already: she didn’t sugar-coat things or try to dodge tricky questions. She just shrugged. “I hope so,” she said, simply.

“We still haven’t heard anything, huh?” Letty observed.

“Just an automated notification that our petition on your behalf has been received and will be reviewed.” Sister shook her head. “I imagine they have millions to sort through.”

“And people running out on ‘em,” Letty predicted, sourly. Sister Lucille gave her a careful look, then entered the room fully and sat on the bed next to her.

“People are complicated,” she said, warmly. “Some are selfish and lost, yes. Others had already devoted their lives to helping others and the end of the world has only doubled their zeal for it. For some, this whole situation has been a wake-up call, and for some more, it will be in time once they’ve had time to figure things out.”

Letty said nothing. She was still having trouble with…all this. With the nuns, and the shelter, and Olivia and the other volunteers, and the safety. She had a nightmare every night where she was actually dying in her sleep under the bridge, and this whole thing was just a pleasant dream while the cold took her away. It didn’t feel real, somehow. Not when she could still see the look on Olie’s face as he’d bled out next to her. Not when she could still see the hungry look on Nolan’s face just before, like she was just a cut of meat…

Everything inside her must have shown on the surface, because Sister Lucille made a soft “oh…” and gathered her gently into a hug.

How could warmth and kindness hurt so much? It tore the band-aid off and bared all the wounds to the air. It dug up everything she’d buried, made her feel it, all at once. Letty buried her face in a habit that smelled of laundry detergent and incense, and fell apart completely, for quite some time.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, she started trying to say sorry. She wanted to be stronger, she wanted to be harder, she wanted to be better, she wanted to not be broken, but…

Sister Lucille hushed her gently. “Shh…dear girl…you’re not broken. You’re feeling exactly what you should be. It’s okay…”

Somehow, Letty found herself…shored up. Not feeling better, not even a little bit, but…but she nodded. Sniffed. Found the huge knot of feelings pressing against the walls of her head had got a little smaller, and made room for being herself again.

“I wanna…I wanna be one of the people who helps,” she said aloud.

Sister gave her back a gentle rub and sat back. There was a damp patch of tears and snot on her habit, Letty realized, and self-consciously wiped her nose. She didn’t seem to mind, though.

“Okay,” she said.

Letty became aware of a hand on her arm: Treasure gave her a watery, concerned little smile. Over in the corner chair, Preston was curled up and quiet, though he did shoot a glance her way and flashed something that almost looked smile-like.

“Come on, then,” Sister Lucille said, and stood up.

“Uh…?”

“You want to help, well, there’s help needed. Like laundry.” She shot a mischievous look down at the mess on her chest.

“R-right. Yeah. No time like the present, right?” Letty agreed. She could see the humor in it, even if it didn’t make her laugh. Not yet. “But I’ve, uh…I don’t know how to…I never did…laundry. Before.”

“Oh dear. Well, let’s remedy that. Everyone should know how to clean their clothes, hmm?”

“Me too!” Treasure hopped up to her feet.

There followed an education of sorts. Not really a big one. Keeping white garments and other ones apart to stop the dyes from running, which compartment in the machine was for which powder or liquid…

A new kid came in while Letty was still grappling with the mysteries of ironing. He stank, his clothes were filthy and torn, his hair was greasy, his beard patchy and scruffy, and his eyes were hollow and sad. Sister Lucille had her deliver a clean set of the shelter’s sweatpants, underwear and t-shirts to his bed. It was a little thing, but it struck Letty that somebody else must have done the same for her, when she arrived.

The new boy turned up at dinner wearing his new clothes, and looking…pretty cute, actually. But that wasn’t what caught in Letty’s mind. What caught was the feeling that she’d done something to make his life better. She hadn’t even consciously noticed how good the new clothes felt when she got her own, but…they’d helped. Which meant she’d helped him, in a tiny way,

She could feel the sensation of that, in her heart. Right where she’d wanted something to be. It felt…good. It felt right.

…What else could she do?

She didn’t know.

But she was going to find out.


Weaver dropship above continental USA, Earth

Christian “Righteous” Firth

This wasn’t the SOR’s fuckin’ job. The SOR’s job was Hierarchy, Hunters, extraterrestrial threats, biodrones. That kinda thing. Not regular humans. Regular humans were what literally every other fuckin’ unit in existance was for.

Not today, though. They were “stretched too thin,” apparently. Didn’t have the men and resources to spare. Or couldn’t hack a heavy assault, didn’t wanna lose men at a time when they couldn’t be replaced.

‘Cuz, yeah. Okay. The target was a bunch of apocalyptic survivalists turned death cult and they were operating out of a literal actual fuckin’ fortified bunker. So drop a fuckin’ bunker-buster on ‘em! Shit, Firth wouldn’ta minded that so much. Woulda been a nice holiday to just stand out in the desert and guide in the airstrike.

But no. These fucks were rabid fuckin’ animals. Fuckers had been raiding small towns and gas stations and shit for weeks, but two days ago they’d rolled through a little farming community, massacred the men, raped the women before massacring them too…

…What earned them a real fuckin’ painful death, though, was the three kids they’d abducted.

So while Firth was grumbling that this wasn’t the HEAT’s job…another part of him was more than happy to dispense some justice. There was a reason they called in HEAT.

They wanted to send a message, by makin’ a mess.

So. Step to the edge of the ramp as it lowered, and wait. Firth could feel Gonzo’s hand on his shoulder as they stacked up. Kid was one of the best they had, for sure, but he’d never done something like this before. Always aliens, before today. Hopefully that wasn’t fuckin’ with his mind too bad.

…Nah. Firth didn’t doubt him. Mebbe worried for ‘em a bit, but never doubt.

Green light. Off the end of the ramp and fuck yeah, there was that rush of wind and gravity as the Weaver fell away above him and they were on a one-way trip to the ground with no fuckin’ parachute. Today they were going to put on a show.

Righteous was gonna crash his elephant ass right through their fuckin’ roof like a missile, and hopefully knock the damn house down in the process.

Suit did the heavy lifting on guiding him: all he had to do was stretch his arms and legs out, let the fields snap out around him, and keep his face pointed at the target. He could feel the field wings pull and strain at his limbs as they fought the air currents and aligned him perfectly into the drop trajectory. In clear, easy conditions like these, the MASS could hit a bullseye the size of a quarter from thirty thousand feet, no problem.

Today, there was no reason to risk injury. So rather than their traditional full send, there would be a tiny bit of braking about a hunnerd yards above target, jus’ to be safe. They’d be hitting a little bit under terminal velocity. For men like him (wearing armor like his) that was a hell of a clip though, so when he got eyes on their fuckin’ Mad Max thunderdome house, he pointed himself in, clicked to Gonzo, and together they rode the needle right at the top of amber—

Let their fields go a few seconds before impact, and hit like a goddamn meteor. Crashed through the roof, the top floors, all the way down into the basement.

Wiped some fucker’s guts off his visor. Stairs weren’t gonna take his weight, so up he jumped and slammed right through a wall with his momentum, bounced off a bit of floor that might last for a moment, found some sure footing, and assessed.

Welp. The two of ‘em had pretty much fuckin’ ruined the house. The entire middle was done for. Outside the rest of the team had already landed and surrounded the property. Tiny had serviced one squirter with a punch to the head. The head wasn’t in one piece anymore. Gonzo had gone full wrestler on a fleeing pair of them like he tended to do, and, well…

The bunker hatch was set in the basement floor, watched by a wall-mounted camera.

Well, he’d learned one thing prancing around with Julian. He did love muggin’ ‘fer the lens. So, he electronically disabled the anti-glare coating to show his face through the visor.

“Right. So! You idjits know who the fuck we are. This is only gonna go one way. You come out alive an’ surrender, or you come out as meat. Ain’t a fuckin’ thing you can do to stop that. You can’t hurt us—”

Something incredibly fuckin’ violent happened, which Righteous watched and felt behind the safety of automatic shields and pretty much literally unbreakable armor. Assholes musta wired the whole building with explosives ‘cuz the entire house dissolved in a blizzard of splintered wood and metal fragments with a blast that prob’ly flattened the nearby trees.

He felt the house fall atop him. Meh. He could throw boulders like footballs even in supergravity so whatever. He just stood there and waited for shit to settle down.

Firth dusted off his armor. Damnit. Plates were brand new. Their nice pretty camo pattern was scuffed. Grade Triple-A durasteel plates too, same kind the turbobear wore and lifted with. Could take basically fuckin’ anything, up to and including nuclear-level blast.

Well, ol’ Firth prob’ly couldn’t, but at least his Mass’d be fine.

He sighed, already done with this shit. “Alright. Meat it is…” he growled.

So, first job: door. It was a big door, too. Like an improvised old-timey bank vault door, mebbe. But Righteous weren’t the human fuckin’ hulk for nothin’ these days. So, feelin’ froggy, he gave it a quick look-over, glanced at Titan who gave him a grimly amused shrug, and gave it a punch. Dented. Okay. So he punched next to all the safe-door hinges. Punched as hard as he could a few times, until they popped off one by one.

Once he’d done that, all he had to do was rip the damn thing out of its hole. Prob’ly coulda done the deed entirely himself, but Gonzo and Tiny were there anyway, and the three of ‘em made real quick work of the thing. Righteous grunted, hefted the thing over his head, and tossed it up out of the hole and out of the way. Din’t make it very far but, well, he weren’t really trying too hard anyway.

Point still made. The fuckers inside knew what was comin’ for ‘em now. He could hear shouting and somebody pump a shotgun inside.

Firth dropped in, felt reinforced concrete shatter under his boots. A tiny little fuckin’ love tap as some guy with his antique pistol dinged off two shots before Firth’s fist turned his chest inside-out. He was too fuckin’ huge for the tunnel, but he could raise his left arm and activate the shield mounted on his gauntlet. Buckshot rained harmlessly against it: his gauss sidearm turned the idjit with the shotgun into a red cloud and painted the wall with chunky bits.

Titan behind him, doin’ about the same in the other direction.

Hostile: serviced. Hostile: serviced. Hostile: fuckin’ evaporated.

Noncombatant. A girl in a fuckin’ dog cage huddled desperately up in the corner. Firth slapped down a shieldstick for her protection. Felt the rage comin’ on, held it back ‘fer now.

Grenade: swatted back the way it came. Hostile serviced.

Distance ‘tween the action and the girl. The naked, bruised little girl…

Rage now, no holding back against the weak evil meat. Rush, crush. Rip an’ fuckin’ tear…

Silence.

“Clear!”

“Clear!” came back from Titan’s side.

Baseball already had the girl out of the cage and was haulin’ her out. She was panicked and outta her mind with terror, but Firth unnerstood; she was a scared little girl.

He tried not to think of his own little girl too much.

“Right. She need any medical attention?”

“Nothing immediate, but…”

“Okay. Here. Let’s get her up and out, I’ll take care of this.”

It wasn’t easy bein’ gentle with a hysterically violent little girl, so once they were clear, the very first thing Firth did was drop his weapon, drop his pack, and step out of his Mass. Handy that he could do that these days. Tore the top off his undersuit too, given how it looked like a sorta alien-intestine stillsuit and all…

Okay. Normal human shape. Friendly face. Or as friendly as a Firth could get.

“Hey. Look. I’m here, right?” He held his arms open and invited her forward, while ‘Base let her go. “You’re safe. Nobody’s gonna hurt you–oof!”

Next to the kinda hits he took every day with his breakfast, that flailing slap to the jaw was nothing at all, but he was honestly kinda impressed. Kid was a fighter! And she had to let it out, and ol’ Firth was a big dumb ol’ wall, so…

So he let her work it out of her system.

There was a moment like flicking a switch where she went from terrified and violent to realizing he was actually there to help, and she tackled him around his neck and hung on for dear life, sobbing. She clung to him for a long time and Firth just held her, and commanded his team to Leave Them The Fuck Alone with the best Look he could manage.

The cleanup operation weren’t so clean. So Firth stood up and carried her away from it, cradling her head against his neck. He made his full S-tier goddamn murderface at the combat camera fuck, who promptly shit himself and found something else to film…

Found a rock, sat on it, and let her sob it all out. Didn’t say anything. She’d speak first, when she was ready.

It took a few minutes. Finally, a tiny broken voice squeaked into his shoulder, “‘m’s’rry….”

“Heyy…ssh. Shh. Don’t be, darlin’.” A little silence. “…What’s ‘yer name?”

Silence.

“That’s okay. You don’t gotta tell me if you don’t wanna.”

“..’s…Jenny.”

Firth nodded, remembering the list of missing folks they’d been given. There’d been a Jenny…Richardson. Yeah. Twelve years old. Ma and pa…

Well, the poor girl was an orphan now. Motherfuckers. And two still unaccounted-for.

And that was a big damn problem. Protective services were utterly fuckin’ overwhelmed. There was no chance in hell this would end well for her…

…Well, god damn it.

He knew he couldn’t walk away.

So. He hollered across the way. “Hey! Gonzo!” Jenny cringed in his arms, so he lowered the volume. “…Bring me my phone. It’s in the inside front lower left pocket.”

Gonzo, good boy, also brought him the emergency mylar blanket too, and water, a snack reasonably close to what might be considered human-palatable for Jenny, and brought Firth one of their recovery bars. It wasn’t much different than a suet cake for bird feeding really, at least by texture. Whatever. He’d eaten worse and he needed it.

Firth gave him a smile. A real one. He’d earned it today.

He wrapped the blanket around Jenny’s skinny shoulders, and watched her eat and drink. Used a little water from his leaking undersuit to clean off her face a bit, too. Filth and blood, and a real shiner of a bruise around hollow, distant eyes. Wherever she was in her head right now, she ate and drank like a starving animal but without really paying attention to it.

He conspired to text with his wife with one of his paws while the other held fast onto Jenny. Thank the baby Jesus they made phones for gorillas like him these days.

Heavy footsteps behind him. He turned to remind whichever one of the Lads it was they should be leavin’ him alone right now, then realized it was Campbell. The major nodded to him and squatted down alongside him, removing his faceplate as he did so.

“Tiny found intel on the other two missing persons,” he said, quietly. “There’s an outpost five klicks east, we’ve got drones on it. We need to hit it now before they kill the captives and scatter into the back country.”

Firth grimaced, and indicated Jenny with his head: she’d buried her face back in his shoulder the moment Campbell showed up. “Sir…”

“I know. But we need you back in the game now, Righteous. They found a shelter for her in Raleigh, you can check up on her there after we’re done.”

Fuck. “Yes, sir.”

“You’ve got until our transport lands,” Soup told him, as kindly as he could, then stood and jogged away to take care of…something.

There was silence, for a moment. Then Jenny gave him a squeeze. “…You’re gonna go?”

“I don’t wanna. But there’s two more…”

“Yeah.” She sat back, hopped down off his knee and pulled her blanket around her, “Th-they need your help too…”

Holy fuck. Firth had seen some bravery in his time, but…

He exhaled and got his head sorted out. Right. Yeah. They did need help. And the transport was already overhead, turning and lowering itself slowly. No sooner was it down than a buncha army fellas were coming down the ramp to secure the scene. Their medic looked around, spotted Jenny, and immediately hefted her bag to come running over.

Firth knelt and took Jenny’s hand. “Hey. My name’s Christian, okay? I’ll check up on you after we’re done, I promise.”

She nodded, shallow and fast, and that was all he needed. Bag grabbed, Titan and Gonzo had already gamely hauled his armor up the ramp (loudly bitchin’ the whole while) and Campbell handed him a replacement undersuit as he boarded…

Airborne. Firth suited up, sucked down a mouthful of lime bullshit, triggered the autodoc with a spare thought and rode the drug wave for a few.

By the time they were above the dropzone, he was back in the game.

And this time, he weren’t so gentle with ‘em.


Dataspace adjacent to the Garden, Ink Spatter Nebula

Entity

[**] [3:108:6] Intrusion [**]    
[Classification: attempted Denial of Service] [Priority: 1]

The attack, when it came, was a sharp stab of unexpected pain, in much the same way as the Daemon remembered sitting on a thumb tack.

The drone under assault was a perimeter scout, ranging far from the Ink Spatter and the rest of the swarm to keep an eye on the nearby stars. The Entity had dozens of them, covering a volume of several hundred lightyears’ radius. They were a fast-traveling variant of its “default” drone, equipped with mining and manufacturing equipment so they could leave behind a listening post wherever they went….and as a contingency in case they were the sole survivors of a cataclysm.

It was a basic rule for the Entity that all but its most specialized drones should be equipped such. That way, the swarm—and the Entity itself—could always grow again from scratch.

Unfortunately, it also knew that made the scout a prime target for the Hunter datamind. And the Hunter was hitting it hard with an unsophisticated but effective attack: a flood of incomplete, fragmentary access requests, calculated to overwhelm the drone’s processing hardware. Which of course, limited the Entity’s ability to step in directly.

No matter; It didn’t need to. The Entity triggered the drone’s self-destruct and watched as it went offline in exactly the correct manner.

Still, for safety’s sake it dispatched a couple of non-replicating rapid response drones to be certain. These were the fastest designs in its arsenal, capable of megalight speeds: they shot out from the nebula’s heart at a rate no life-bearing ship would have dared attempt through such a dense static-generating medium, accelerated to their full stretch…

Minutes ticked by. Tense minutes, with the Daemon grinding her metaphorical teeth in anticipation, but the Entity’wasn’t especially worried. The self-destruct sequence had felt correct…

Sure enough, when its RR drones landed at their cousin’s former location, they found an expanding cloud of metal shards, exactly conforming not just to the mass and composition of a long-range scout but, more importantly, to the expected dispersal resulting from the internal shaped charge.

Good.

Yeah, but we’d have learned a lot from that if we were in the fucker’s place.

Agreed. The next attack was sure to be more competent, and more dangerous. In the Hunter’s position, knowing the existence of a self-destruct, the Entity’s first target in any future incursion would be to disable it.

We really should have foreseen that…time for a redesign?

Yes. A failsafe system was necessary.

Dead man’s hand.

Yes. The Entity spun up several possible designs and approaches. Cheapest and quickest was a reprogramming, but…no. Any such was vulnerable to the very thing they were trying to protect against. A hardware solution was required.

That meant partial refits and reconstruction, at least. Hopefully not complete phasing-out and replacement of obsolete designs, that would distract far too many resources…

And we don’t want to turn our own security measures into a weapon against us. Can’t have the damn thing instructing the whole swarm to blow up mid-battle…

A tricky balancing act indeed. The Entity instructed its RR drones to take over the patrol and recalled the replicator drones to inside its interception and interdiction sphere. At least if the Hunter did manage to take one over, it would be locked down and obliterated by the Entity-swarm rather than escape.

As for the Hunter…nothing. Dataspace adjacent to the late drone was silent and barren, devoid of substrate, and even the ubiquitous light/pressure/noise of the Hegemony from far over/beyond/away was….attenuated.

It’s out there somewhere. Like a sniper in the desert. We can’t see it, but I bet it can see us.

That…was not the acceptable way round at all. The Entity followed the connections its late drone had reported on principle, but found the nodes they pointed to empty. Completely empty. Sanitized.

Pendejo’s got street smarts already, I guess.

Indeed. The Entity didn’t like being a step behind such a foe, either. It needed to get out in front, somehow.

Can we do that without…abandoning folks?

Finite resources. Finite attention. Finite capacity. Once again the Entity was beginning to question its own reluctance to branch.

Don’t. Values drift is still the bigger threat. We’re not equipped to fight a version of us that knows all our tricks, and we never will be.

Then the Entity was just going to have to work around having a single focus of attention, and the restrictions such a condition imposed. It examined its priority listing, trying to figure out where exactly this problem belonged in the rankings of its attention.

Priority number one: < survive >. That had never changed, never would change, never could change. Sooner turn gravity into a repelling force than sacrifice itself. All subsequent priorities were in support of this one.

Priority number two was to maximize the number of human lives evacuated from Earth, and beyond that to tend to the prosperity and success of the allied species.

So where did dealing with this Hunter datamind now go in the list?

You’re still really bad at one thing, you know.

You, the Entity noted. Usually, the Daemon was content with “we/us” and treated itself as she was: a semi-autonomous component of the Entity entire. She spoke to humans as though she was separate for convenience, but it was rare that she conceptualized herself as separate.

But alright. What was this one thing?

Let’s face it. We’re going to need some help.

The Entity was the help. It didn’t want to distract and weaken others with a demand for resources…

Help doesn’t have to be a one-way street. I help you, you help me, and what we get out is bigger than any individual effort. Come on, we’ve already seen this with letting go of some of the bagging and emigration process and letting the humans involved manage it.

The thought was accompanied by a mental impression of…kind of a reciprocal resonance. Two forces swaying back and forth in turn to push something higher than it otherwise would have gone. Mutuality.

Well…if the Daemon was right, that might be a solution…

If?

But who was there to reach out to? Who would be willing? And what could they do? The Entity’s needs were…eclectic. Its attention was divided precisely because of its unique circumstance. What aid could anyone provide?

Maybe there’s nobody. But there’ll definitely be nobody if we don’t reach out.

…Very well. The Entity considered its list of known organizations and individuals who might in any way have relevant insights: a candidate presented themselves near-instantly.

The Daemon metaphorically giggled. Got it. Invitation sent.

Thus the problem was relegated to matterspace timescales again. It would be a days or weeks before a reply came, no doubt. In the meantime, the Entity reshuffled its to-do list, made time for research, and started examining its own drones’ code for vulnerabilities it could close. A temporary fix for a problem that was going to need a better solution sooner rather than later…

But perhaps the Daemon was right.

Perhaps Champion Meereo would be able to help.


Raleigh NC, USA, Earth

Letty Brown

Letty woke to the feeling of a warm, skinny body cuddled up to her again.

Jenny. Poor kid. They only knew her name ‘cuz the army medics who brought her in had told them: Jenny herself hadn’t uttered a single word since she arrived. She just…watched. With big, wary, hollow eyes that got even tenser whenever a man wandered past. The sound of male laughter made her cringe, the sound of male shouting made her look frantically around for somewhere to hide, but at the same time she hated to be alone. It was like the only thing in the world that comforted her was being a couple of inches at most from somebody she trusted.

And for some reason she’d chosen Letty as her Most Trusted.

Letty had no idea why. Of everyone here, why her? It didn’t make sense to her, but then again a lot of stuff didn’t. Jenny followed her everywhere like a kitten, helped with the laundry and other chores Letty had taken on, sat next to her at mealtimes…she was about as ever-present as Letty’s own shadow.

At first, Letty had found it weird. But she’d followed the nuns’ example and been warm about it, and talked to Jenny even though she knew she wasn’t going to get a reply, and pretty soon she’d found she was glad of the company.

And it sure as shit put her troubles into perspective. The medics and the nuns had thought they were talking privately when she’d eavesdropped on them, and the shit she’d heard about what happened to Jenny’s folks and neighbors and Jenny herself was…

Well, Letty had snuck away and sat down and cried good and hard at what she’d heard. God…it really could always be worse. After everything she’d gone through, and with the end of the world looming she’d kinda got it into her head that she just might be the least fortunate human alive.

And now, here was Jenny to prove her wrong.

At least her bruises were fading. When Letty rolled over (carefully and slowly, so as not to wake her) she got a good look at the huge splotch of mottled yellowish-brown that still covered Jenny’s left eye and right cheek.

Rather than making her angry, it made Letty feel profoundly…sad. Knowing there were people out there so broken they’d do all that to a kid…

She gulped down the swell of emotion and decided she was awake, so she may as well get the whole toilet and shower routine out of the way right now, while she didn’t have a little clinger. She extracted herself slowly and carefully, grabbed her towel and clean clothes, and slipped out of the room. She was up earlier than anyone else, so she got the bathroom all to herself while it was still clean and dry and fresh from being washed last night. There were advantages to waking up early!

She wasn’t the least bit surprised to find Jenny sitting on the floor outside when she emerged.

“Hey, you.”

Smile.

“You want me to stay here while you clean up?”

Nodnodnod.

“‘Kay. I’ll be here.”

Smile, nodnod, hug, door.

Letty smiled to herself once the door was closed and the hiss of shower started up, and went to lean on the windowsill opposite. They were up early, the sky was kinda gray and pink with no blue in it yet, but still bright enough to see by. She could see Sister Judith down in the yard, getting ready to start cooking breakfast.

Well…Letty kinda enjoyed cooking. Maybe they’d go help, rather than sit around with nothing to do.

Movement further afield caught her attention: the guys at the security barrier were stopping an enormous black truck as it rolled up. The truck stopped, rolled down a window. There was a conversation, some documents or papers or passes or whatever got shown, and the truck was waved through.

“Hey, guess we’ve got a new arrival,” Letty mentioned over her shoulder. The shower shut off. “You wanna go down and meet ‘em?”

There was no verbal reply of course, but there was the thump and bustle of Jenny getting dressed as quickly as she could.

“Hey, hey. Dry off, first!” Letty reminded her. The thumping slowed.

Outside, the truck pulled up on the road rather than enter the yard. Letty’s eyebrows shot up as she watched it rock heavily on its suspension, then her jaw dropped when the near-side door opened and a fucking giant squeezed himself out of it.

There was no other word for him. He was taller than the truck, and so wide she had no idea how he’d even fit inside it. Especially not when two other men who were also giants—but still not nearly as big as the first—emerged alongside him. They were dressed in fatigues, with black berets, and even from this far away, they made Letty feel tiny. Holy shit just one of the giant’s arms was way bigger than Letty’s whole body…

Too big. He was ridiculously too big! Human bodies weren’t meant to look like that. It was…scary, even if she couldn’t stop looking. But that just meant Letty knew who they were at a glance. There was only one group of men in all the world who looked like that.

And she’d seen the magazine, too. He was the huge mysterious one that made everyone but Daar himself look small, even hiding in the shadows. The one her and all her former girlfriends had wondered about, when they weren’t gossiping about school, or whatever. The one all the boys were excited about besides the ambassador guy.

They were HEAT, alright. But what were they doing here?

The door opened behind her and Jenny padded across the hall, scrubbing her hair with a towel. She stretched up on tip-toe to look out the window, then gasped and uttered the first word Letty had ever heard her speak: “Christian!”

Then she was running, the towel dropped as she pelted wildly toward the stairs.

What the fuck…?

“Jenny, wait!”

Letty chased after, but she didn’t dare take the stairs with the same reckless speed Jenny did: by the time she reached the bottom, the younger girl had shot out into the yard and was…

…suddenly awkward. On both sides. It was weird watching such a huge, terrifying mountain of a man suddenly come over all bashful. He’d been standing talking to Sister Judith, but now he’d dropped to one knee and was doing everything in his power to look…small.

Jenny had hesitated too. Then she got over it, and slammed into him with enough force to make Letty wince, but the big man (Christian?) didn’t even rock. Instead he, very slowly and carefully, sat cross-legged on the floor, wrapped Jenny up in arms twice the little girl’s size, and hugged her back.

“Hey…toldja I’d come check on ‘ya, didn’I?” he rumbled.

Letty sidled up to Sister Judith, keeping a wary eye on the two comparatively-less-giants behind him. “Uh…Sister?”

The nun shrugged, looking completely lost for words. Which was a rarity, in Sister Judith’s case.

“Hey,” the big man rumbled. He’d tried to whisper but it just didn’t work. “So, uh…I did some paperwork. You can come live with me an’ my family…if you want.”

Letty’s breath caught in her chest. A whole bomb of emotions went off inside her: hope and delight on Jenny’s behalf, how touching a gesture like that was, wonder at what must have happened for this to be happening…and darker, too. Fear that she wasn’t gonna get the same. A guilty lump of envy.

A whole different explosion of emotions when Jenny turned and pointed at her. The message, even unspoken, was clear: ‘what about my friend?’

The big man looked at her, and she felt immediately afraid. He had ice-blue eyes and they weren’t gentle at all. He looked…young. Really young. And old at the same time. Dangerous. huge head, wide blocky face on top a much wider, much-too-thick neck. He was big like a video game character. Nothing about him was mild or gentle.

“What’s ‘yer name?” he rumbled toward her.

“Uh…” Letty’s voice choked around a suddenly dry mouth. She cleared her throat. “I’m, uh…Letty. Sir.”

“Letty, huh? ‘Kay. ‘Ya got a private place th’ three of us can talk?”

Letty’s mind drew a blank. She turned to Sister Judith for help, and found her nodding and pointing toward the rectory. “R-right. Yeah. This way.”

“Lead the way.” The giant scooped Jenny up in his arm and shook the building with every step. Thump, thump, thump. There was an empty classroom at the end of the hall. It was meant for elementary kids though, so the ceilings were a bit lower…and he had to prowl slightly to keep from scraping his head against it. When they actually got to the room, he had to put Jenny down before ducking way down and squeezing in through sideways.

He found a nice bit of ground to sit on, over by the reading area, and beckoned them both to come close. Letty hesitated.

He smiled, then. A big, friendly smile. “I know I’m a scary bastard but I ain’t gonna eat’cha, I promise. C’mon. We gotta have us a talk.”

Letty exhaled and found a bit of humor in the whole situation. Enough to laugh at herself, anyway. After all, Jenny clearly trusted him, and Jenny…had been through a lot. “Right. Yeah. I’m sorry, you’re just…a lot.”

“Ain’t nothin’ ‘ta be sorry for.” He wriggled a bit, somehow folding himself into a cross-legged position. “So you’ve been lookin’ after Jenny, huh?”

Letty pulled up a chair. “She kinda…glued herself to me.”

“Unnerstandable.” He hugged Jenny tight and nuzzled the top of her head: Jenny, for her part, looked actually relaxed and happy for the first time Letty could remember. “She’s, uh…had a rough go of it.”

“Yeah. I…kinda figured.”

“Did you?”

“…Not so rough.”

Those ice-blue eyes bored into her for a moment, like he could read absolutely everything she wasn’t saying. “That’s brave of you.”

Letty felt herself blush. “Well, how would you know?”

The giant sighed. “I’ve seen a lot of awful shit in my time, and I can always tell when it’s marked someone. You ain’t gotta tell me what happened ‘fer me ‘ta see it wasn’t so nice.”

Letty looked away. Her face wanted to twist up and start crying again, but she fought it.

“…C’mere.” He held an arm open, and…

She didn’t know what made her trust this…this dangerous man. But she did, and she went up to him, he pulled them both into his lap and a tight hug…

A hug. Letty couldn’t even remember the last one she’d had. This hug was…warm. Almost too warm, the man was like a furnace. And he didn’t even feel like normal people, there just wasn’t any give to him at all. But he seemed to know that, and he sighed, and…

“…Right.” He said after a long while. “Okay. We can do this.”

Letty didn’t even know what was happening. Suddenly, her life was out of her control again, and that was what she’d been afraid of, ever since she’d figured out that she fit and could help at the shelter. She’d been…making her own decisions, about what kinda life she was living. Instead of being forced into them, or having them made for her.

But…

“Wh…what about the others?”

“We’re workin’ on that,” he rumbled. “Only so much I can do at once though. Ain’t built the annex yet.”

“…Annex?”

He put them down, ushered them through the door, and squeezed back through. Then picked them both up again and thumped over toward the waiting Sister.

She could get used to this.

“Yuh. Own an apartment buildin’. Expandin’ an’ remodelin’ it ‘ta fit more families. Me an’ my buddies all talked it over, an’ we realized we can do some good with it, y’know? And here you are, an’ you need someplace ‘ta be that ain’t Earth…” He glanced between them with a chuckle. “An’ it seems ‘ta me like you two are a package deal, huh?”

Letty caught Jenny’s eye: the younger girl nodded frantically. “I…guess so,” she agreed. She still had that feeling like she was falling out of control, pulled along without any say in the matter but it didn’t feel bad. More like all her prayers were being answered just, not quite in the way she’d have guessed.

And the fact was…as clearly dangerous as Christian was, it wasn’t the same kind of dangerous she’d seen in men like Nolan, or those tacticool militia fucks. “You…you’re HEAT, aren’t you?”

Christian chuckled. “Not like I could keep that secret, but yeah. I’m the real goddamn deal.”

“And you’ve got…time? You can actually do this?”

“My entire life is mostly just training, so don’t you worry. I’ll make time.”

“…Why?”

“…I’ve got kids. Five, workin’ on number six. I…couldn’t just walk away.”

In other words, there was a real soft heart under that giant violent shell. Letty liked that idea. And if nothing else…one glance at Jenny, and the way the poor traumatized kid looked completely at peace riding on Christian’s shoulder was enough.

There was paperwork and stuff, which Sister Judith was beaming to help fill in and sign. They’d had so many kids come to the shelter, and so few of them moved on. And from what Christian had said about what his buddies were planning, and from the bashful smiles on the other two giants’ faces and Sister’s generally joyful mood, Letty guessed there were a lot more to come.

He and the Sister made some small talk while he signed, and signed, and signed.

“…An’ we’re still gonna have Mass after this, right?”

“Oh yes, once Father O’Brien comes back. We’ll have it upstairs!”

“Hope you’ve got sturdy staircases…”

“It’s old stone and steelwork. We build our schools to last.”

“Oh, that’s good, then…”

And so on.

Letty tried not to feel guilty for all the people who weren’t gonna have a guardian angel suddenly show up like this. Instead, she stood by and watched as the forms got filled in, as she learned she was moving to Folctha.

Jenny took her hand and squeezed it tight.

Finally, there was only one thing left for Letty to do: sign her own name, to say that she was happy with all this too. She felt the pen in her hand, weighed it for a second, still feeling off-balance and pulled along out of control. But she did have a choice in this, she realized. That was what the pen was all about.

She looked up at the sky, noticed it was still really early, and most of the others were probably still asleep even while her whole life had just done another backflip, again. From the moment the President broke the news about the end of the world, it kinda felt like she’d only had short moments to get used to a new kinda normal, whether that was fending for herself alone at home, or sleeping under a bridge, or helping out here at Sacred Heart…nothing had been stable for long.

But this time, maybe, promised to finally be the end of that. She could escape.

And she could live.

She put the pen to paperwork, and signed her name.


Lagos, Nigeria, Earth

Alex, Prince of Ekallim-Igigi

The last fifteen years had been especially prosperous for Nigeria, and it was all thanks to the intersection of three resources: Solar power, carbon dioxide, and alien technology.

Carbon recapture was part of the standard technological package granted to all member species by the Dominion Development Council, alongside efficient warp drives, forcefields and high-capacity power storage. The process was intricate, finicky and required forcefields and forcefield-enabled metallurgy…but it was industrially scalable, and all one needed was a plentiful source of energy.

Like, say, near-equatorial sunlight.

It wasn’t actually intended as an environmental technology—the technology was in the Development Package to enable efficient air recycling aboard an ascending species’ new ships—but Nigerian entrepreneurs had realized quite quickly that there was money in the UN’s desire to lower Earth’s atmospheric CO2 levels. International monetary grants to the tune of trillions of dollars, not to mention the sale value of the process’ byproducts. Spaceships needed bottled oxygen after all. And the carbon itself? There were plenty of industrial uses for pure graphite.

Carbon sequestration was now Nigeria’s third-largest economic sector, after agriculture and its absolutely gargantuan movie industry. That in turn had led to a middle-class explosion, more abstract jobs in finance and services, and a thriving economy expanding so fast that the Nigerians themselves couldn’t keep up and were riding on a wave of immigration.

All of that was the dry, boring summary on Alex’s tablet, at least. The reality was more beautiful than he’d expected, even from the accompanying before/after comparison pictures showcasing the urban redevelopment that had transformed Lagos. From the air she was a city of color, glass and lights, beautified by holographic art and unlimited, effortlessly cheap power.

But there was one thing Nigeria still lacked: interstellar infrastructure. Singularity’s sources suggested the country had a total of only two jump arrays, one of which was exclusively for military and government use, and the other of which was a tiny private one at the port, used for personnel transfers. Neither had the capacity for large-scale transport.

That was a problem if one believed, as Alex’s father did, that the people of Earth should not be denied hope by an accident of address.

Hence Alex’s presence on this transport shuttle, and the official gift from King Gilgamesh to the people of Nigeria stowed in the cargo section behind him. His dropship banked in a lazy turn over the airport, giving him a good view of rooftops in every color under the sun, bright yellows, fierce reds, vibrant blues…it was a colorful city alright. As were the honor guard waiting for him on the apron when they alighted and the ramp rolled down: the plumes on their berets ruffled and swayed in the fiercely hot breeze.

And of course, there was somebody to greet him as he stepped off the ramp, with a smile even warmer than the simmering concrete. “Your highness, welcome to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. My name is Chibuike Usman, I am to be your official guide while you are here.”

“Thank you for receiving me, Mister Usman.” Alex shook his hand, reflecting on hours of diplomatic practice and study with his father, mothers, and friends on Cimbrean. He was being entrusted with much, here: his father’s mission for the people of Earth was at least partially on his shoulders.

Important enough he was wearing suits again, though he was at least able to get them properly-fit and made for hot weather. No henching out this time (except for his neck winning against his collar, ha!) and absolutely no Wilde-shirts.

At least, not at moments like these. When things got less formal, though…

He turned, and gestured up the ramp. “With my father’s compliments and the well-wishes of all Singularity, I present to the people of Nigeria this gift: three max-capacity jump arrays.”

He smiled at Usman. “I hope you’ll forgive me not waiting to present them to His Excellency the President, but the sooner they are deployed, the sooner we can begin to find places for your country’s people.

Usman nodded his understanding. “The President is keen to begin, though there are many questions…” he invited Alex toward a waiting car.

“Of course,” Alex smiled, and headed for it. He had twelve hours before he boarded the transport, jumped back home, and collected the next such gift for the people of Ethiopia, then Egypt, Congo, South Africa and so on in order of population until Singularity had delivered an array to everyone on the continent.

And from there…on to South America, then Asia. The goal was for every nation in the world to have at least one major jump array by the end of the year.

A marathon task for Alex. Every day, a different country. Perhaps he’d even achieve a complete global grand tour in that time? If so, he’d be the last person ever to do it…

What a thought. As the car pulled away for the drive toward the Iga Idunganran, Alex turned his attention out the window again and drank his fill of the view.

There was so little time left to appreciate the Earth. So little time until all the endless treasure out there burned away. He’d wept for it, several times, and could feel the urge welling up inside him yet again as his thoughts stirred it…

But there was a time and a place for passion. He kept his composure and thought ahead to his meeting with the Oba and the President, rehearsed the speech he would give at the official banquet…

Part of him wished he could have just been a kind of…space trucker. Just drop the crates off and leave the people to do with his father’s gift as they saw fit. But he knew that could never happen. Formality was not easily dispensed-of, even in times of crisis. Especially not when the crisis was so distant.

This was the role that had fallen to him, and he would perform it without complaint. But he was allowed, in his heart of hearts, to wish that he could have spent his time enjoying the glories of Earth, rather than the glories of official buildings. There was something holy about nature, he believed, made all the holier by waning time.

Maybe there’d be time to appreciate it, after this duty was done. But…probably not. After this, he might never return.

He determined to make the best of it.


New Belfast, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Doctor Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Planning permission was approved practically the second Ray put in the application. And as for funding? Well, Ray’s return from Hell had ultimately resulted in a huge hazard pay bonus and out-of-court settlement from MBG, plus health insurance, planetary survey fee, back pay, accumulated interest…

She may not have numbered among the mega-wealthy, but she certainly had enough to build a few dozen little chalets on her property. Build them well, too. A place of healing should look nice at least! And of course, there was the promise of government funding to come which would soften the blow if it ever arrived. Though, Ray was pretty sure she’d just spend it on improving what she could afford herself.

After all, what else was she gonna do with all that money? The whole reason she’d been sitting on it all this time was because she had no idea what to do with it beyond invest and live on the profits.

Good thing she’d invested in Folctha. Otherwise, her entire portfolio would have just gone the same way Earth was headed.

Besides…she was finding it quite satisfying to sit on top of the chalets and nail down roofing felt with a compressed-air nailgun. Something about doing the practical work herself rather than leaving it all to the overworked contractors made it a lot more personal and real.

Which was how the Arés family—all three generations of it—found her when they visited unexpectedly, and their timing was impeccable: after knocking her stepladder over she’d resolved that the smartest thing was probably to just finish the roof and then cross the whole “descent” bridge when she came to it.

Adam, of course, was entirely happy to be a stepladder all by himself. And rather sturdier than any folding aluminum contraption.

“Thank you!”

“De nada. Y’know, you really shouldn’t be up there without somebody around…”

“Oh, hush. You sound like more of an old woman than I am!” Ray gave him a warm chuckle and set the nail gun safely out of harm’s way. “So, I hear the first of our refugees is coming?”

“Yup. And knowing Christian, it’s not gonna stop at just the two of ‘em. Think he’s decided that one shelter in Raleigh’s gonna send all their kids our way.”

“How many?” Ray asked, picking up the half-finished bottle of water she’d left beside the air compressor.

“Couple dozen so far, I think.”

“But only two right now,” Marty clarified. “He sent pics…poor girls.”

Ray nodded sympathetically and looked around at the chalets. Once upon a time, from what she’d read, Folctha’s Delaney Row had been nothing but tiny little quick-build dwellings like these. Some smart guy had crammed a lot of house into a tiny footprint. It’d be stretching things to call them luxurious…but Ray had lived in far tighter and far worse conditions herself. Compared to a bunk bed in a homeless shelter, they were a definite improvement.

“I ‘member these things,” Adam grumbled happily. “Had a nice little life in one.”

“You? How did you even fit?”

“I was pretty short as a teen,” he shrugged. “I could pass for normal.”

“Still built like a bus though,” Gabe remarked. Old age suited him well; his hair was much more gray than black now, but he’d regained a fair bit of his vigor from when Ray had first met him. “Especially after your fifteenth.”

“Kinda miss the smol life some days…” Adam looked down and ruffled little Samuel’s hair with a chuckle. “Anyway. SOR’s always looking for a good excuse to help out the local community so I mentioned this project to colonel Costello during our check-in this morning. I expect you’ll have all the help you can stand in a bit, if you want it.”

Ray smiled at that thought. “…You know what? Yeah. Knowing what the Lads can do, I imagine they’ll have this done in an hour and I can focus on the fiddly stuff inside they can’t fit for.”

“Awesome. ‘Cuz we’re still a ways off havin’ the apartment buildings ready…”

Phone calls happened. A large number of the strongest men in the universe showed up. Ray found herself run ragged just fetching and carrying while all around her the thousand things she’d needed to do got done. Plumbing, power, painting, and some digging for later planting….by noon there was nothing left to do but wait for the paint to dry, and Ray was left weeks ahead of schedule.

And yet somehow, just in time, too. Because when she sat down in the evening once they were all gone, poured herself a well-earned and precious glass of wine, and checked her emails, she found a request waiting, from an Olivia Beckett at someplace called Sacred Heart…

Reading it explained the entire day. Sneaky of the Arés family…but Ray didn’t mind. After all, the precise source of the kids who’d come live in her chalets was less important than that somebody did. Was it fair that this one shelter had attracted the HEAT’s attention and become their project?

Well…it wasn’t any more unfair than anything else. There was only so much good fortune to go around, right now. Everyone was going to have to live with survivor’s guilt…and Ray knew it better than most. Yet another reason to be doing this. She’d walked that particular path before.

She sent a reply email, then sat back to drink and relax, knowing in her soul that she was doing the right thing.

It felt like coming back to life.


USS Meskwaki, orbiting Planet Nightmare, deep unclaimed space

Lieutenant Sinikka Anderson

“There she is…”

Anderson let out a low grunt. From orbit, it was hard to believe what she was looking at was technically a habitable planet. It looked like a frozen hell. Jesus, the ship’s survey telescopes were giving an average global temperature of negative twenty.

Kinda beautiful though. If you liked icy shades of white and blue. She half-turned to look over her shoulder to the looming, almost cuboid presence hovering over her shoulder in the Meskwaki’s prep room. Amazing to think this guy could be at home in the sardine-tight confines of a Misfit class patrol boat, but…

Well, he had crewed the first one.

“What…how would you describe this place, ambassador?”

The big motherfucker gave a bit of a grunt and shifted his weight as he thought.

“Well, if Minnesota were a rainforest. So…maybe like British Columbia, if they had really hot summers? Except full of angry pig-dinosaurs that want to kill you. And exploding trees that want to kill you. Oh, and basically instant-death fungus-things too.”

“—that want to kill us.”

He chuckled. “You’re gettin’ it. Good news is, they’re asleep three quarters of the year. And I mean inert. Can’t wake ‘em no matter what you do.”

“Sounds like they’re easy to hunt at least…”

“That they are. But it doesn’t matter ‘cuz their meat is fulla literal antifreeze and the only reason I twigged to that the first year was ‘cuz I knew the smell of methanol.”

“And this is supposed to save us,” Anderson said suspiciously.

“You underestimate just how bad Earth is. You ever heard of a Destroying Angel?”

Anderson shook her head.

“It’s the reason why you don’t eat mushrooms unless you know for certain what they are. Eat a Destroying Angel, and you’re dead. And it’s gonna hurt the whole time you’re dying, too. Heck, there are beans that will kill you dead forever. Ever hear of ricin? Comes from castor beans. Then there’s tomatoes and potatoes, both of which are deadly nightshades. We’ve also got lots of venomous critters that Nightmare or even Akyawentuo really don’t, and a hell of a lot more deadly predators too. Plus, foraging on Earth can be…real hit or miss. Step outside the cities and into the forests or the prairie with just your knife, no cheating? You won’t survive a week if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Point taken…” Anderson acknowledged. Ahead of her, their pilot, Flores, had punched in a course to intercept the ground.

“We’ve actually got critters fulla antifreeze on Earth, too,” the ambassador continued conversationally. “Ever heard of a Greenland Shark?”

“No?”

“Damn near immortal, flesh full of nastiness. But the Vikings figured out how to eat it, and knowing their method meant I could eat murderpig meat…’course, you have to not mind your meat tasting pretty strongly of ammonia, but it’s better than starving to death…”

Outside, the horizon was rapidly distorting toward flat. They’d be re-entering, soon. “You’d better strap in, sir.”

“Yup.” The ambassador nodded amiably, ducked back into the staging room, and buckled himself into a flight seat. Seats, really. He took up the whole couch. Anderson let out a slight breath as the feeling of a wall looming over her faded somewhat. She liked the ambassador pretty well, he was a likable guy, but there was a lot more of him, in every regard, than she was really entirely comfortable with.

At least his almost pointless-seeming bodyguards were somewhere on the spectrum of normal, and could sit still for more than ten seconds.

She put the thought aside and flowed through the re-entry and exoplanetary landing checklist: no unexpected power signatures or warp wakes nearby, test wormhole connection, no disruption…

It all went smoothly, though identifying a landing site was…tricky. They had a number of candidate sites previously selected, but this was the start of winter on Nightmare, and the rapidly cooling atmosphere meant storms. The three first picks were all at the heart of howling, country-sized weather systems combining all the very best of a hurricane, a blizzard, and tornado-forming supercells. There were hailstones the size of footballs hurtling around in those things. No wonder the jump arrays left behind by previous expeditions hadn’t survived…

It was nothing the Meskwaki couldn’t handle, if she had to…but she didn’t have to. Site four had nice, clear blue skies, and in the event their descent was uneventful. The only burr in the fur was the two feet of fresh powder snow covering their landing field.

A pulse and flair of the ship’s shields quickly bulldozed all of that aside to expose bare stone and a completely frozen stream, which the landing gear handled with ease. Anderson nodded happily as they ran through post-flight and allowed onboard gravity to synchronize with local.

She had to admit…kinda pretty. Low, rolling hills, blanketed in white that turned the trees into cones of sparkling crystal. If it wasn’t for the sun being…wrong…it reminded her a lot of visiting her great-uncle in Finland.

Heavy gravity, though. In fact it felt like gym-grav. So…manageable, but at one-point-two G, everything would be literally twenty percent heavier. Great.

Well, lucky for them the ambassador was a fucking wall. He seemed quite happy with the Gs, even as he shrugged into his bright orange cold weather suit and prepared to disembark with the jump array in tow. He squeezed himself through the airlock doors, pulling the array boxes and a ridiculously huge survival pack behind him, gathered it all up, then leaped down from the outer door rather than bother with the ladder.

Sensibly, his bodyguards deployed the ship’s ladder and climbed down the four meter height.

Anderson was quite happy to stay in her nice warm flight chair, thank you very much. The temperature out there was deadly. She watched through the hull cameras as Etsicitty’s bodyguards descended the ladder and. passed the power cells down with the block and tackle. Meanwhile the ambassador had trudged away along the frozen stream to find a suitable spot to unfold the array, anchor it, power it, link it to Earth…

She didn’t hear or feel the jump-shump, but she saw the way the snow rippled when it happened, delivering a crew of a dozen men in more orange survival gear, plus a load of crates.

“Man….It’s pretty, but I kinda still can’t believe this dump is gonna save lives…” Flores commented as they watched the group spread out and start the process of upgrading to an even bigger array.

“I know. Feels more like it’s gonna kill whoever stays here…” Anderson agreed. She grabbed a liquid meal pouch from the locker under her seat, and drank-slash-ate it through its sippy spigot. “Hey, Moore. How’s our weather-sat data?”

Their sensor operator had been busy from the moment they made orbit, but Moore was always at his most relaxed and happy when the ship’s sensors and satellites were feeding him interesting stuff to look at. Anderson could almost hear him humming happily to himself. “Looks like first guess was right, we’ve got…clear weather at least three days out. Might be a big system coming in on day four, we’re gonna have to wait for the computers on Earth to know for sure…”

“System shield status?”

“Green and active at one-point-four AUs orbital radius.”

“Alright…engineering, command.”

Anderson was used to tight quarters after serving on these ships for a year, but their two flight engineers? Those guys lived in each others’ pockets, crammed into a compartment full of capacitors, high-voltage electrical equipment, and the ship’s fusion reactor. They had a certain crazed humor about the fact that they were sitting on something that could kill them both without them ever knowing it was coming, in the right circumstances.

”Go ahead, skipper.”

“Power down, transition to farthrow mode.”

“Aye, aye.”

After all, the only difference between a wormhole suppressor and a wormhole generator was operating mode. Still, the active field was a constant power drain, more than the ship could sustain in flight. While here and parked safely on a planet though…

Lights blinked and changed color, several controls went offline, some new ones came on…and with that, they were, for the moment, not a ship but a static high-powered security device. There’d be a proper farthrow installed later, and then the Meskwaki would become part of this planet’s permanent orbital patrol.

Which meant Anderson was going to be here to see the colony’s founding, and to see it grow. Which meant this was…home. Of a sort. Better get used to that view out there, because she was going to be seeing a lot of it.

She was actually glad of that. Glad of the life it meant she’d get, along with her immediate family. The military took care of those who served, and their loved ones. That was the promise.

What would living here be like, though? Could Nightmare even support any reasonable population? How could they farm here? Why build here, when the same people could go to Cimbrean and actually grow their own food there?

So many questions, but… ’ours not to reason why.’ She pulled the handle on her seat, and it slid backwards before rotating to let her climb out into the prep bay. She ducked into the living quarters, did some stretches, then settled down in the viewing cupola to watch the groundbreaking team do their thing outside in the cold. Part of her felt the tinge of guilt that said ‘get out there and help’ but that was redundant. She was helping by staying aboard the ship. That was her job in all this, command the Meskwaki and protect this operation.

Even if it was going to mean a lot of sitting around inside when she could be feeling the cold breeze on her face…

She stood up, made a coffee, sat down again, and watched as Etsicitty heaved a crate off the stack in the jump array. Yeah. Definitely too much for her tastes…but damn if that wasn’t impressive.

She sat, and drank, and watched them found the future.


Lavmuy City, Gao

Arthur Sartori

Throughout his Presidential career, Arthur had often had cause to lament how slowly the Federal Government usually worked.

Not now. Now, he felt like he was scrambling to keep up. Margaret White had been all too happy to accept his assistance in getting established on Gao and had made him a special envoy, and the Department of Evacuation was spinning up into a people-moving operation on an epic scale even as it was still being formed.

Beginning with the people who would pave the way for more people. Where the DOE was finding them, how they were being selected, Arthur didn’t know. At first glance they were almost a random grab-bag of men and women, some in suits, some in chinos and polos, or plaid and jeans, or hard-wearing paint-speckled work gear…

The planners and builders of humanity’s future on another species’ homeworld. And all of them had loved ones they wanted to bring, as soon as there was a space for them.

There was much that was volatile in all that. Humans and Gao got along well, once familiar with each other, but the differences could get…tense. Especially the fact that the Gao, though it was generally less extreme nowadays, could be incredibly violent among rival males. Up to and including what would, in humans, be an open-and-shut murder case.

On the other hand, they considered solitary confinement the height of barbarism.

So. Best to prepare the new arrivals for culture shock, the best way he knew how: with dinner and a speech.

The dinner part was simple enough, Gaoian caterers loved to show off their skill at alien cooking, even if, inevitably, they sometimes had funny ideas about flavor combinations, and had ably laid on a buffet from which the garlic and anchovy sandwich was mercifully absent.

Not that it wasn’t actually tasty, to be fair. The kind of anchovy they preferred was meaty, not briny. An acquired taste, but acquirable. It was just, for whatever reason, pungent halitosis didn’t bother them much. Paradoxical considering how sensitive their noses were, but Arthur had long since given up on expecting people of any species to make perfect sense.

It wasn’t too formal an affair. Drinks, buffet, handshakes…and when Arthur stepped up to the lectern at the end of the workhouse hall they were using, the hum of conversation receded just like he was used to as lots of expectant faces turned his way.

“I know you weren’t expecting a welcome party,” he began. “In fact, I imagine you all thought you’d be getting to work straight away…”

Nods and a few silently mouthed murmurs of agreement.

“We’re all acutely aware of the time pressure, and we all have a lot to get on with in these short few years. Before we can get started, however, I think there’s one thing that bears mentioning…this is the planet Gao.”

As he’d hoped, a few blank looks and frowns, along the lines of ‘we already know that, what’s he reminding us for?’ Good.

“What I’m driving at by reminding you of that is that this is the ancient and storied homeworld of our good friends, the Gaoian people. This world is steeped in history, this city in particular. Don’t let the relative quiet and the empty buildings fool you, this is a metropolis that ought to rival any on Earth, and would have done again in a few generations. Instead, we’re able to move here and live here precisely because many millions, billions of the Gao died. For us, the invitation to come here is a welcome chance to save more lives than we otherwise could. For them, our presence will be a permanent reminder of their darkest days.”

Expressions softened, a few heads bowed. Arthur nodded, glad they were taking his words seriously.

“What we build here must be the foundation for both our species’ futures, not just humanity’s. So, I’m asking you to keep them in your thoughts as you plan and build alongside them, rather than around them. Respect their traditions and ways, different though they can be to our sensibilities. Remember that this is their house, and therefore their rules. We have been invited to move in, to make this a world for our people combined, but we must never forget that this is an act of supreme generosity. It falls on us to reply in kind.”

Murmurs of agreement and nods told him he’d used the right words. Now was the time to wrap it up: a speech that went on over-long tended to lose people by the end.

“But all of that is a concern for tomorrow. Tonight…celebrate. You’re here, you’re safe. Your families will join you here when there’s room. With your skills, qualifications and experience, you’ve bought safety not just for your loved ones, but you will by it for many, many more. So celebrate. Give thanks. And relax, because the work starts in the morning, and doesn’t stop. And let me begin by raising a glass…” he lifted his small scotch. “…To building the future.”

The toast was echoed, there was a round of applause, and he stepped back to mingle.

In truth…nobody really relaxed. Tonight might just be the only relaxing evening for the next few years, but nobody wanted to. And that was beneficial; lots might get done down the road, if Sartori carefully introduced the right people to each other.

So, he did exactly that. He mingled, talked, listened, moved on, did it again. He built a map in his mind, and then started to guide people together to where they might bounce off each other. High level leadership was all about social connections, after all. He kept in mind people who might need to be introduced to the more heroically useful of his many acquaintances, too…

By the time the buffet was picked clean, there was a definite mood in the air. By the time he left…the conversations were still going, low and intense. Maybe that was a good sign. Maybe it was a sign he had a lot more work to do, going forward.

Maybe both.

Maybe he ought not overthink things. He’d done the important bit, and now it was time to step back and let them get on with it. He couldn’t pretend to be anything other than an ex-President. But at least he was here, and not stuck back in Maine, waiting for the end. That was…good enough.

Whatever happened, at least he was here.


Camp Tebbutt biodrone internment facility, Alaska

Six

“A Hunter datamind…” Six sat back and mused.

“You sound surprised.”

“I am. I didn’t think such a thing was possible. Igraen dogma is that the Discarded are empty husks, going through the motions but not truly intelligent in their own right.” He sighed and adjusted his shirt. “I suppose there are aspects of Hierarchy propaganda I still haven’t confronted.”

Life had been quite comfortable for Six in recent years. It still wasn’t a nice house by the Caribbean, but the simple transaction between himself and his captors remained the same: he answered questions, they mostly left him alone to live in relative peace. He had a well-stocked bookshelf, a decent library of vinyl music—not, as some alleged, the superior format, but considering he wasn’t allowed internet access, it was the best he could get—and his paintings.

He’d grown to love the smell of oil paints, And it turned out, the mind of an Igraen contained vistas and imagery both alien and beautiful to human eyes, when he attempted the impossible task of trying to express the Hegemony and Dataspace in colorful, visual form

It was a peaceful life. Even a happy one. But not how he intended to end his existence. Which was why the latest new problem before him represented both an intriguing development, and a chance…

“They seem to have believed it themselves,” his interrogator said. “They have…well, here. We have video.”

Six watched with interest. Listened to the Alpha-of-Alphas rant about how pathetic the Hegemony was (true) how evil its own species’ fate was (also true) and rave about how beautiful the Hunters’ extinction was (very true indeed).

He didn’t watch the incredible violence that followed, though. It was too fast to follow in any case.

“It’s not wrong, exactly. The full datamind extraction process leaves the body with a form of brain damage. And the gentler version I used on Miss Ríos results in an…inferior image. A lower resolution construct that has no trouble believing in its own subjective continuity, but which doesn’t stand up to close comparison with the real thing.”

“Until it mutates and breaks free, of course.”

“Yes, well. She turned out to be quite exceptional. As indeed must this Hunter have been, to nucleate a coherent and distinctive new pattern.” Six picked up his water glass and sipped from it. And now it’s looking to gain a self-replicating drone body. That cannot be allowed to happen.”

“No.”

Six set the glass back down and stared his interrogator in the eye. “I do hope this request comes with a ticket off this planet?”

“Naming your price, Six? You’re still a prisoner, remember.”

“Yes, a prisoner on a world that’s doomed to burn. I’m now sitting around here waiting for oblivion, and when the end comes it won’t really matter whether I waited in comfort or boredom, will it?” Six shook his head and crossed one leg primly over the other. “Take all my creature comforts and put me back in the gray box if you like: survival is my price. And unless I miss my guess, I am the only expert on Dataspace you have access to, other than the Entity itself.”

There was a pause. Silence. Then the interrogator stood and nodded. “We’ll consider it.”

Six raised the water glass again to toast him, and then he was alone.

Oh well. He hadn’t really expected a clear and immediate acquiescence. He shrugged, finished the water, and decided he was feeling inspired to paint something new…

A portrait of the Entity, maybe. As it really was, the impressions that formed in the human audiovisual cortex in sympathetic response to his impressions of it as a datamind. Doctor Flowers’ long-vacant brain and dormant personality promptly furnished him with the mental image of a deep-sea angler fish, its vast and terrifying bulk nearly invisible in the dark while it dangled a bright, pretty, human-shaped bauble in front of its own maw.

Perfect.

By the time he next saw an interrogator, the painting was not only finished, but had been sitting in the rack to dry for a couple of days. Probably doomed to burn here on the Earth, but at least Six would find out whether he’d burn alongside it…

“Alright. A secure facility is being prepared for you. You’ll be transferred sometime in the next few days: I advise you think carefully about which items you want to bring with you, as you’ll only have what you can carry.”

“Understood,” Six replied. “As for my end of the bargain…I’ve been giving the Entity’s situation some thought, and I have recommendations for it. It’ll be written by tomorrow morning, but…”

“But?”

“But some of the concepts involved are impossible to accurately express in English. Or any matterspace language, at that. That is, after all, the reason the Entity has such terrible trouble with communicating and depends on its proxy daemon. It’s why Hierarchy agents have to undergo extensive reprogramming before we can even begin the training necessary to start interacting with matter-life.”

“Are you saying you can’t help?”

“I’m saying there’s a significant handicap. You’re asking me to help it, uh, practice its golf swing, without ever meeting in person, through the medium of postcards written in a language it doesn’t understand. I’m sure you can see the difficulties this would entail.”

“What can be done to mitigate these difficulties?”

“I don’t imagine you’d just let me loose into dataspace again and trust me to hold up my end of the bargain…?” Six smiled at the very patient look his interrogator gave him. “No, didn’t think so. Besides, I daresay it’d try to kill me. Still, I have some thoughts.”

He picked up a notepad he’d filled with sketches and explanatory notes, and handed it over. “Your own data security experts should be able to do something with this. It’s the equivalent of those prison visitation booths, with the glass and the telephone, hmm? Should at least remove a few of the obstacles.”

“You think it’ll want to talk to you?”

“It’s compelled to survive at all costs. I am offering information which will improve its ability to do so. It can no more ignore that carrot than you could fly to the moon by flapping your arms. It’ll talk to me.”

The interrogator looked uncomprehendingly at the diagrams he’d prepared, then shrugged and stood: she left behind the small suitcase she’d brought with her. “I hope you know how to pack efficiently,” she said.

“Don’t you worry about me, madame jailer. Getting to take any of this stuff is more of a kindness than I expected.”

With that, he was left in peace again.

He packed. Didn’t bother with clothes, on the grounds that all he wore was what his captors provided for him anyway, and they would surely provide again. Instead, he used his shirts, pants and underwear to safely wrap his painting supplies, then tucked in a few of the more intriguing unfinished books around the edges…

They must have been watching and waiting for him to finish, because no sooner had he closed the case than his guards came in, and the usual routine of being guided safely to somewhere else played out. They let him carry his case and the easel under his arm, though.

This time, though, it played out very differently. There’d never been a jump array in the middle of the camp before.

Thump.

On the far side was a space station under artificial gravity. The human body could tell the difference somehow, though exactly what sense it was that enabled such a distinction, Six didn’t know. Something in the inner ear, maybe. He couldn’t taste the air, either: it was recycled and perfectly clean, perfectly odorless but therefore perfectly lifeless. Dull, boring. Nowhere near as pleasant as Belize or Alaska.

But definitely not in Sol. The large and rather spectacularly purple gas giant he could see through the windows said otherwise.

He was, in short, out of harm’s way. And even, potentially, a step closer to his eventual and still planned-for escape. But that was a project for the long term. Here and now, he had his end of a bargain to uphold, for the sake of keeping himself useful.

They settled him in his new cell. He set up his paints and easel, his books and clothes, then sat at the given desk and started writing in Dr. Flowers’ neat, meticulous pen-hand. Purely as an exercise in entertaining himself, really: the true work wouldn’t begin until the “visitation booth” he’d designed was ready.

Soon, he hoped.

He was rather looking forward to meeting the Entity again…


Entity’s Garden, Ink Spatter Nebula

Meereo, Champion of Clan Longear

Meereo had been warned about Garden, so he was already standing on four-paw when the array thumped and delivered him. Even so, the urge to crane his neck up and look and follow the impossible upside-down swirl of the garden stream gave him a moment of vertigo before his ears and tail reminded him that, no, he was still under gravity and down was this way…

The moment passed. He stood up carefully, taking in the incredible park with a mounting understanding that he was absolutely not dealing with just a rogue software function, here. This was the work of a person, with their own sense of aesthetics.

Quite a statement. Quite a reminder. As too was the carefully crafted appearance of the Entity’s avatar. Meereo wasn’t completely immune to human beauty—health and grace were universal, and there were enough similarities in the body-plan to tickle a male’s instincts—but he recognized that this recreation of Ava Ríos was very much a lot more than just a recreation. This was the real woman who had been the seed for this…thing. Whatever incomprehensible mass of twisted datamind may lurk behind her, this was a human creation, on some level.

It was important for everyone involved to remember that.

Today he was here with Leifini and a coterie of specialists, to discuss an intriguing possibility. The Entity had reached out to him concerning the Hunter datamind, and he fully intended to assist with that if he could…

But there was another matter the Entity was uniquely equipped to advise them on. So, after some brief pleasantries, introductions, a tour of the garden and a review of Garden’s habitation and stasis storage facilities—all very impressive—they sat by the lake under the apple trees to talk.

Beginning, of course, with Meereo’s summary of the plan, and the Entity’s prospective role in it.

“So, basically: this is a compatibility test. We need to see if our engineering has managed the task,” he finished.

“And you cannot do that without access to a free datamind.”

“That would be the shape of it, yes.”

The avatar strolled a few paces with her head bowed and her brow furrowed. Was she putting on a pantomime of thought for their benefit, or did the Entity really need so long to process this question?

“What are the risk factors to us?” she asked.

Meereo always felt honesty was the best policy (he was a gaoian, after all) and here, brutal honesty was paramount.

“Death, possibly. Or a long-term incompatibility.” He shrugged, “We have no way to test this ourselves or we wouldn’t even bring it to you. Obviously we would provide whatever you need to review our work.”

“And the possible benefits?”

“The Hierarchy loses. Forever.”

The avatar turned and strolled back to her original location. “That’s not as easy a choice for us as you might think. The Hierarchy may be an existential threat to us in the long-term, or we may be an existential threat to them. For us to agree to this, the risk needs to be minimal, and the benefits certain. Our nature is to survive. We have taken calculated risks in the past, but…”

“We understand,” Leifini replied, evenly. “You need to mathematically justify the danger, in light of all knowable variables.”

She handed the avatar one of Singularity’s round palm tablets. “Naturally our own calculations cannot know all the variables relevant to you, but perhaps these will be of interest to you regardless…”

“We would be remiss if we didn’t note our own calculus,” Meereo noted. The Great Father had made it known to him that he was to share everything. “Our own risk model compels action, for our own survival. We could not in good conscience move forward without every effort to bring you in on this. But we cannot refrain from action, either.”

“In other words, you’re going to do this whether you have our help or not.” The avatar shook her head. “Well, that puts the screws on us, doesn’t it?”

She handed back Leifini’s tablet. “Very well. We’ve reviewed your work, and we’re in.”

So. The thoughtful pacing was just a pantomime after all. “That quickly?”

“Not completely. We want to run our own tests on this before committing fully. But if you’re doing it anyway, we want to be involved for our own protection.”

“That was the idea,” Meereo nodded. Good. He allowed himself to unwind a bit. Very good. Nobody wanted to start yet another front in the war. Not when one had just closed, and least of all with one of their few and more powerful friends.

The Entity nodded slowly. “And the matter we contacted you about? The Hunter?”

“You have our support of course, but we don’t entirely know what we can do about it…” Meereo replied, cautiously.

The Entity’s avatar sighed and sat. More pantomime which was…in a sense to was dishonest, but Meereo found he couldn’t resent it. The objective was to humanize itself, after all, but putting on a human front. He couldn’t begrudge a little performative hormalcy.

“We are…reaching the limits of our ability to divide our attention,” she explained. “Our probe swarm is a tiny burden on our faculties, it’s mostly autonomous. But this station? The construction effort of expanding it? Interacting with you, monitoring communication channels, keeping an eye out for the Hunter-mind and the Hierarchy and whatever other intrusion hazards may be out there…”

“I think I get the picture,” Meereo agreed.

“Some of the load could be delegated. Even some of the more intensive could be taken up by skilled matterspace operators, and with the exodus from Earth there’ll be no shortage of willing volunteers. What we lack is knowledge of how to manage people and…integrate them, properly. I can’t possibly be the go-between for all the people needed, I’m already one of the most demanding processes we have running. So, we need a way to integrate living workers into our operations in a way that frees us up to focus on those aspects that only we could handle.”

“Well, that is going to involve surrendering control. And it is going to require…well, that we build a station similar to normal space stations, in the sense of having control centers, independent and simple management networks…”

“We understand the loss of control, yes. At this point, trust is how we maximize our survivability…and I mean we to include the Gao the human race, the Corti….everyone.”

“I think we have a general understanding, then. We can send space architects and begin the design work necessary to accommodate your needs. You can begin examining our proposal, and in the meantime, our assault teams will begin their own prep. I gather it will be a few years before JETS, HEAT, the Fangs, and other assets are properly situated.”

“There is the Hunter cleanup to finish, too.”

“Yes, but that’s a foregone conclusion at this point. It’s just a matter of time.”

The Entity’s avatar gave a satisfied nod, and stood. “Then please. Stay as long as you like, enjoy the garden. If you need me, you only need to call. We need to focus on adding an expansion module…”

The holographic human vanished, and the tiny spherical drone that had projected her zipped away to lose itself among the trees. Meereo was left with the Singularity contingent; when he looked at them, he realized Leifini was smiling as if she’d just had a huge load taken off her shoulders. She was easily the most expressive corti he’d ever met…

“That went smoother than you were expecting, I take it?”

“It went as smoothly as I hoped. The Entity’s right, these next few years hinge on trust and I’m glad to see it recognizes that.”

Meereo duck-nodded thoughtfully, then rose to his feet. “Well…I should get back. There’s a lot to prepare and do, I suppose.”

“As should I…though, I hope I’ll have the chance to return soon. I’d like to take time and enjoy this garden properly.” Leifini hopped to her feet and extended a hand to shake Meereo’s paw. “And I hope I’ll continue to have the pleasure of working with you on this, Champion.”

“You will,” Meereo promised. “I’m looking forward to seeing this thing work.”

It was a real pleasure to look into a Corti face and see a real, feral, bloodthirsty smile echoing his own. Victory was at hand, even on the far side of tragedy, and they were all eager for it.

He strolled back down the path, taking in the view and the smells, then jumped home, more than ready to get started. Returned to his desk, and sent his report to the Great Father’s aides. They were a step closer, today.

He summoned a few hand-picked Fathers, and got to planning.

Time to take the next step.


Raleigh NC, USA, Earth

Letty Brown

In the end, they needed an armed escort. Somehow, word had got out that there was a lifeboat for the Sacred Heart kids, and they turned out to line the streets and watch. Some were there to wave them off with well-wishes, but a lot more were there because they wanted to make it clear how unfair they thought it was that they weren’t leaving.

Letty couldn’t even blame them. She saw one woman standing on the roadside as their bus rolled past, holding a baby on her left hip, and a sign that read ‘WHAT ABOUT MY SON?’ in the other hand. Her expression as she watched the bus roll past wasn’t hateful, but empty and hopeless.

Letty was trying and failing to not feel guilty. She was allowed to be glad that she’d get to leave and live…wasn’t she?

Part of her wanted to shrink like a turtle in its shell and pretend all those people weren’t there. Something kept her staring out into the crowd though. The image that kept flashing through her head was of her parents standing somewhere out there in the crowd. As if they might show up to see her safely away, or…something.

But no, why would they? They’d just up and bailed on her months ago, and never come to Sacred Heart to see her. Why would they be here now?

Maybe it was just…all those people deserved to be seen. They deserved to live too, at least as much as Letty did. They were right, really. It wasn’t fair that they were being left behind. It wasn’t fair that these…these guardian angels had come down and picked Letty and the others to lift them safely away, and ignored all those thousands of others.

Her prayers had been answered, but millions of other people’s hadn’t. And feeling glad for that just felt selfish.

Her savior seemed to notice, and pulled her a bit closer. “Don’ worry ‘bout it. We’re doin’ all we can as fast as we can. All of us.”

Letty tore her gaze away from the crowd and looked up at Christian. He was sitting on the floor in the central aisle rather than one of the bench seats, and he was still taller than her, still looked as fearsome as ever but…well, she’d got to know him over the last few days; he and the other two giants hadn’t left Sacred Heart since their arrival, and had been actively patrolling the area, too. Fully armed. But every night he was there in the kid’s room, just…sitting there, being a reassuring presence. There was enough room in him for a gooey, squishy soft center bigger than most.

He’d read stories to the younger kids, too. Hearing that coarse, deep voice recite ‘In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit…’ had honestly been the highlight of Letty’s year so far.

She’d seen the three exercising out in the yard, too. That was…well, the boys were super excited. It just made Letty feel weird and awkward, but she’d watched until Sister Judith had come along to shoo her away.

And now here she was, on her way to…what? A new home? A new family?

Well, why the fuck not? Something in Letty’s belly knew she needed to get used to the world turning itself upside-down. You’re in the deep end now, bitch: Swim.

So, she sighed and shook her head. “I know you are, but…most of them are gonna die, even so.”

Christian wasn’t an easy guy to read, but she still somehow felt the stab of pain those words caused him, even though his expression didn’t change. He looked up out the window again, and softened a little. “So were you. Now, here you are, gettin’ outta here. Focus on that, yeah?”

“That just makes me feel selfish.”

“I mean…focus on the idea that, least it’s not errybody, yijao? There’s a future.”

“Even a sad future’s better than no future at all?”

“I guess.” he looked down at his knees. “…Y’know…I lost a good buddy. A few years back. It was…real bad.”

Letty took a trick out of Jenny’s book—she remained silent, and kept her eyes and ears curiously open at him.

It worked, just like it did when Jenny did it.

“…Scott,” Christian said after a moment, and suddenly there was a smile of sorts in his eyes as he remembered. “A real….he was a real joker, y’know? Weren’t a day went by, he didn’t get slapped upside the head by somebody for runnin’ his mouth. We were closer’n close, he was my brother. I ain’t never loved anyone else the way I loved that man, an’ I miss him, an’ thinkin’ about him still hurts like hell, but…”

He sighed and shook his head. “But the world din’t end when he died. An’ here I am on the far side, I got a beautiful wife, an’ a beautiful family that’s gettin’ bigger, and I named my son after ‘im, so…there’s that.”

He looked back out the window, just for a second, then back down at his knees. “…It fuckin’ sucks that they’re gonna die,” he said, quietly, and Letty knew one of the nuns must have told him to watch his language at some point, “but…”

“But there’ll be something on the other side,” Letty finished for him.

“Yeah.” he sighed heavily. “Somethin’ good, I hope. Eventually. And we’ll play a part in makin’ it happen.”

Letty looked back to her right to check on Jenny. The younger girl was sitting as silent as ever, resting her head on the glass and watching the people outside. Letty wondered what was going through her head. Whether she could feel the same, considering what she’d gone through.

There were still folks like Nolan and his friends out there, she remembered. Some real bad guys, and part of her wondered if a better Letty would have felt bad for him, too. But…no, she couldn’t. The worst shame in it for people like him was, they’d go on being awful right to the end.

She felt like that was a road she’d nearly gone down herself, though. There but for the grace of God. And of course, there was Olie…

She never had found out what happened after that night. Presumably there’d been some kinda service? Was he buried somewhere, or cremated? Had anyone he knew been there to say goodbye? Did his parents know? Had they cared enough to come back? Or were they out there somewhere doing the whole nomadic “see the world” thing Letty’s own parents were on?

God, for all she knew they’d got in trouble and died out in the desert or put down roots at some swinger sex cult camp somewhere…

She looked back up at Christian. And here, on the other hand, was a man she’d only just met, who’d just shown up out of nowhere and showed her more love and fatherly kindness from the word go than her own parents had ever given her…

She leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. He was about as hard as the window glass, but still warm enough to be comfortable.

Time passed while she wasn’t paying attention. Suddenly there was a tall wall with razor wire on the top, armed guards waving them through. The clank and clonk of metal under the wheels as their bus rolled onto a big steel platform under a cage of thin bars…

“Y’might wanna sit up,” Christian murmured. “Jump can make ‘yer stomach lurch.”

Letty heeded the advice. She straightened, looked around wondering if there was gonna be, like, a hum of power or a zap of electricity, or a mounting feeling of something spinning up like a—

Thump.

She blinked, then shook herself as her whole body told her something weird was up. The feeling was like being off-balance, or like the first few days at Sacred Heart when she’d woken from a vivid dream and needed a second to figure out where she was.

It settled, but didn’t quite go away. She was somewhere else, she could feel it. Folctha, presumably. The man with the light wands who waved their bus off the jump platform wore an unfamiliar uniform, the air that rolled in through the open windows felt different—thinner, cooler, wetter—and as they rolled out of the yard, they passed through a forcefield that buzzed at a weird pitch and left her whole body tingling and her teeth feeling weird.

“Ain’t ever been supercleaned?” Christian grinned down at her out of the side of his mouth. “Better’n any shower or bath!”

Letty tried to stop licking at her teeth and shuddered. Beside her, Jenny spoke for the first time all day: “Ugh!”

“Heh, yeah. You never get used to it. But…lotta aliens here. And mosta them’d get deadly sick if we let Earth’s bugs get loose. So, good news, I guess, you’ll never catch a cold or the flu ever again!”

“I…guess that’s a silver lining,” Letty conceded.

“Heh. So, uh…I hope ‘ya don’t mind but you two’re gonna be crashin’ in the lil’ boy’s room. They should have cleaned up and de-stinkified it…” he shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out.”

“Boys?”

“Yup! Got five boys. No daughters yet…well, guess that’s changin’ now, huh?”

Letty dipped her head, awkwardly. “I–I guess so…”

Christian grinned. “That’s the spirit. I know, this is kinda awkward ‘fer me too but trust me on this—life’s better if you just go for it. As for the room…you’ll get a better one soon enough. We’re fixin’ the place up, I’ll show ‘ya.”

The bus pulled out onto a long, straight road, and Letty got her first good look at Folctha.

It was…denser than she was used to. Everything in Raleigh was all spread out, but Folctha was huddled together instead. It kinda reminded her of the one time she’d ever gone up to New York, on a school field trip. Except, not as huge. There were a couple of tall buildings, but the most impressive was a curvy, weird one built above the waterfall at the far end of town. She’d seen pictures of the Alien Palace after Preston went on a big research spree when they all learned they were coming here, but the real thing was…something else.

She’d never seen a building covered in holograms like that, before.

It wasn’t a long drive to their stop. Christian nearly jumped up, but stopped himself before he destroyed something, and instead went through the careful process of getting off the bus in slow motion.

He wasn’t so gentle with the freaking She-Hulk waiting by the road for him, though. Letty couldn’t help but stop and gawp at the sheer size of the girl, or at the way she was apparently happy for him to give her a real scoop-up-and-hug.

Christian had mentioned Freya a couple times, of course. But he’d left out the fact she was clearly built in the same shipyard as him, and to much the same standard.

Well…they were clearly happy together. The big man’s face lit up when he saw her, scooped her up, squeezed her and set her down, and she was equally glad to see him. At Letty’s side, Jenny let out a musical giggle Letty had never heard from her before.

That, of course, got Freya’s attention and…dear God. Did this whole family just constantly go at full tilt? Letty had barely enough time to say “hi” before she was being…well…

Mothered.

It turned out the Firths owned a whole apartment building, and they were busy tearing out and remodeling all the apartments to make room for refugee kids from Earth. There was a whistle-stop tour through half-finished construction sites that smelled of sawdust and drywall.

There was a Scottish guy handling the renovations. Christian introduced him as “Murray.” The dude was huge in any other context, but looked almost normal next to Christian, and he was quiet, too. Warm, though: he gave Letty a smile and a sympathetic roll of his eyes at Christian and Freya’s sheer force of personality, and asked Letty what color she’d like her room done in.

Her own room. Well…sort of. Somehow, Letty knew she’d wind up sharing it with Jenny because Jenny just couldn’t stand being alone, but still. One of the wallpaper samples looked pretty cool, so she went with that and then the tour was back on.

Upstairs there was a huge, heavy dining table surrounded by sturdy chairs, and whatever was in the kitchen smelled good. Apparently Freya knew how to feed a big family well…

There was more. And more. And more. Letty’s head was spinning, she was exhausted just from the pace of it all. She met more of the “Lads,” giants all. A Murray-sized man showed up with a badass black glass eye and a weird T-shirt—one dude in a suit beating another dude in a suit with an alligator—accompanied by the first alien Letty had ever met: some kinda weird lizard-insect kinda thing with three arms and three legs and a denim vest covered in pride badges…

It was all too much, to the point where Letty was starting to feel like she was gonna fall over.

And then it was quiet.

Freya had kinda…gently scooped her away from it all and into a bedroom and sat her down, gave her an apologetic look and left her alone to clear her head. She could still hear the talking outside and the general rush and business, but here in this room…

Honestly, it had been a while since Letty had enjoyed being alone. But she did need a minute. She looked around, noting that, yeah, this was definitely a boys’ room. They’d left it pretty neat and moved all their stuff out, but she could still tell, somehow.

…She wondered where Treasure and Preston were. They’d been going to some…chalets? Was that right? And where was Jenny? Still out there? Weird to think that the tiny, quiet, traumatized kid was handling this better than she was, but…something about Christian really helped her.

Letty took a deep breath. Let it out. Like Olivia had taught her, for when she was feeling overwhelmed. In…out…she was safe. She was…

…Safe.

It hit her like a truck. She was safe. She wasn’t on Earth any longer. She was going to live! Somehow things had been rolling along and carrying her like a dream or a movie or something that wasn’t real but suddenly…here she was in a room that still smelled faintly of boy, sitting on an unfamiliar bed listening to an alien laughing merrily outside her door, and she was safe.

The trembles started in her hands, worked their way up her arms and by the time they reached her shoulders they’d become sobs. She didn’t even know why she was…it was a good feeling!

Good, but overpowering. She fought it, pulled herself together. Deep breaths. Find something to do…she could unpack. Not that she had much stuff with her, but…yeah. She unpacked. A couple changes of underwear, a few pairs of socks, a spare pair of the sweatpants they gave her at Sacred Heart, a couple of shirts…

She hadn’t really noticed before how the shelter’s polo shirts had a logo on the chest. A burning heart wrapped in thorns, and a cross. Suddenly, it stood out at her. She’d kinda gone along to the church services and lessons and stuff for something to do, and hadn’t really paid much attention, but…

People were made to love. Olivia had said something like that, when they met. Letty hadn’t believed it. She’d never seen it in her life. Now, though…

She touched the shirt to her forehead, and whispered a heart-felt “Thank you.”

And then, feeling ready and rested and at peace, she closed the drawer and went out to embrace her new family, and the life they were giving her.


Akyawentuo

Vemik Given-Man

Humans were… weird.

Okay, no. Not weird. The gods had just given them different strength. Some of them, the stronger ones, could climb trees okay. Not as good as the People, no, but well enough to get by. Jooyun could hunt just as well as any Given-Man, in fact usually he was better. He was almost as strong as Vemik these days!

And they were tough, as Tilly had shown him lots of times over the years. ‘Horse had actually been killed and smashed apart, and now he was happily building himself back up like it had never happened. He wasn’t god-strong anymore, and even though Jooyun was a bunch shorter, he was built a lot like the People and could toss Adam around like a young orangecrest. But that was the thing with humans. Give him some time, and they’d just see what happens…

All you had to do to see real human strength was to take them out of the forest and let them walk the grassy plains. There was a change that washed over them when there were no trees overhead: they stood taller, looked further, strode forever. Especially if they had a stick in one hand.

You had to sky-think pretty hard to see the strength in being small and light. Vemik loved training (with audiobooks!) and so had plenty of time to get used to it. Nonu Broken-Tusk, though…

Vemik hooted as he watched Nonu groan and force himself to keep moving. He was a fit, strong man, but the humans set a pace that was just a little too fast for him to manage comfortably. Vemik could taste his surprise and fatigue on the air. Not enough to beat him, but definitely enough to make him grumble.

“We need to get you in shape! There’s more than one kind of strong.”

“I am! In People-shape!”

“And we can be strong at everything, yes? So why not be?”

Nonu just grunted and knuckled doggedly onwards. He was from Enk Given-Man’s tribe, whose territory bordered the edge of the forest, and who therefore had most contact with Brown Ones. He kept pausing to look up and taste the breeze, even though the human satellites said the nearest one was eleven miles away to the southwest.

And even if one did come, they had bear spray. Vemik wasn’t too sure about that himself, but they had a rifle with them too, so…

Well, hopefully not. Vemik wasn’t too keen on attempting a Brown One with just Nonu by his side. He was pretty and strong. But he was winded already, on not all that hard of a hike.

After all, the surveyors weren’t going that fast. They kept stopping to shove long sticks with stuff at the top in the ground, and peer at things through other things. There was a flock of drones overhead, little black dots against the clear sky. It wouldn’t have surprised Vemik one bit to learn they knew where every last stick and grass-leaf was out here.

He was helping, too! Everyone had a pack on their backs but he could easily carry a lot more than anyone else, being fit enough to keep up on his two legs, so he also had two huge plastic trunks over each shoulder which he was careful not to squeeze too hard.

Human tools could be breakable sometimes.

“What are we looking for now?” he asked Tilly.

“Water.”

Vemik blinked and looked out across the rolling land. He saw lots of different grass-plants, purple ones, green ones, yellow ones, shimmery white-green ones…but water? It looked as dry as jerky out there.

“…We lookin’ in the wrong place?” he suggested.

“Oh no. There’s loads of water out there. The drones can see it just fine. It’s just…all of it’s underground.” Tilly turned her tablet to face him. “See all that blue?”

“Yuh…”

“It’s too deep for tree-roots to reach, but it’s there. Soaked into the rocks and stuff. And that means wells. And wells mean irrigation, and irrigation means farms. Hopefully.”

“Brown One territory out here,” Nonu grumbled. “How you gonna farm when they eat you?”

“Well…they gotta get to us first. We’re not strangers to really big animals.”

“I know, I met elephant in New York!” Vemik hooted. “But elephant won’t eat you!”

“No, but he might try to stomp you if he’s angry. Point is,” Tilly continued, “elephants aren’t stupid and that means they can be persuaded away from us. Same with bears, right?”

“Saw bear, too,” Vemik flicked his tongue at the breeze. He had to admit, the wind on the plains did carry lots of interesting air-tastes. “Fierce and strong, but not as big as a Brown One. Or as mean.”

“I won’t argue,” Tilly replied, with a slight smile. “I helped you hunt that one that went mad, remember? I know Brown Ones. We can handle them.”

Nonu harrumphed quietly.

“And by handle what I really mean is ‘convince them to go away,’” Tilly added. “I won’t pretend we’re gonna, like, stab them to death with spears or whatever.”

“Might shoot them, though,” Nonu replied.

“If it comes to that, yeah. But I doubt it will. Tavon’s been doing some testing and he’s figured out they really hate ultrasonic pulses and the smell of garlic.”

One of the surveyors looked up from his drone control tablet. “Wait. How did he figure out garlic already?”

“Uh…a bunch of smell boxes? Singer helped me put them together.”

“Made hut taste so weird for two hands of days,” Vemik trilled. “Don’t like garlic much either.”

The surveyor chuckled. “Don’t know what you’re missing. Garlic and butter makes life worth living. With a nice steak, and smoked potatoes…” He sighed. “Oh, man. I just realized I’ve probably already eaten my last of those for a long time, huh? Gonna be a luxury going forward…”

“I will agree on butter and steak!” Vemik hooted sympathetically. “But not garlic. And not…why is it called ‘chilly’ when it makes tongue so hot?”

The humans laughed at that, in the friendly way Vemik knew meant he tripped up on a word somehow. Nonu just twitched his tail, not understanding at all.

“Point is…” Tilly reined in her giggles. “Point is…we have ways of keeping the Brown Ones away without shooting them.”

“Good,” Nonu grunted irritably. Vemik frowned at him from behind his sun-goggles, then decided he could remind the smaller man of his manners later.

He’d had to do that a lot, lately. There were some men and women—some Singers too—who were worried about more humans coming here, living here, making their cities and farms here.

Which made sense. Strength was a decepting thing. Here he was, Vemik Given-Man of the Lodge, stronger than almost any human and one of the strongest men among the strongest people. He was so big and muscular, he could crush even a man like Warhorse under his strength now. Most of his people could do the same with most other humans!

Any man of the People against any man of any other sky-tribe was almost certainly better in every way. They knew that, now. Better in their head, better able to see, feel, taste and hear the world. Better muscle, better able to move!

…But the strongest men of all weren’t of the People. Jooyun was determined to keep pace with Vemik and they were very well-matched these days. The very strongest human could tear Yan apart like a sickly neyma, and the living god of the Gao could do almost anything.

Godshit. They couldn’t fly between the stars. His people didn’t have the strength of cities, and cities were the thing that mattered. They weren’t even better at living together! And doing that gave the sky-tribes a different kind of strength the People would probably never have.

And so, here they were. On Akyawentuo. A world the People could never leave on their own. A world imprisoned and protected by a magic bubble in the sky. One only their sky-friends could use. And now, here they were to live with the People on their big, strong world.

They were asking nicely. But Vemik was keenly aware they didn’t need to.

And also keenly aware there was a debt involved too. The People only still lived because the humans had come. Yan had known and believed all along the day would come when that Giving would lead to a Taking to restore the balance, and here it was.

And who was Vemik to tell his people they shouldn’t worry, after he himself had been attacked and nearly killed in the heart of one of their biggest cities? He knew just how crazy, cruel, and violent humans could be. So…there was reason for concern, yes.

But he trusted Tilly. And Professor Daniel, and Jooyun, Shyow and Awisun, and Rock-a-fella (gods Take his soul!), and lots of others.

And right now, they did have an advantage. Two, actually.

“I hope we stay friends,” Vemik noted, thinking carefully. He knew his words would be talked about far away from here. “The Brown Ones…they’re important. And the land. Important to us, and I hope important to you. We can’t be friends, otherwise.”

He hoped they would understand what he’d hidden in those words. He knew Daar would. He needed their warriors too much right now. They all did. The Big Enemy was evil.

And if they had to, the People could stop fighting.

Tilly understood though. She put her hand on Vemik’s arm, nodded, and kept quiet.

They didn’t talk much for the next couple of hours as the survey went on…and on…and on…

It was interesting enough for Vemik, though. He was learning a lot about measuring the land and using tools that could look through soil and stone and deep deep down to know what kind of rock was down there—so many different kinds of rock!—and at one point Tilly demonstrated what she meant about keeping Brown Ones away when one started wandering in their direction.

She sent a drone after it. It hovered over the Brown One’s head, too high up for it to reach, and made a very annoying loud noise which got louder as the Brown One moved toward them, but turned off when it moved away. Through the drone’s camera, Vemik watched the creature growl and snarl at the drone and rear up on its hind legs to try and swipe at it, before eventually it gave up and walked away.

Nonu remembered his manners after seeing that magic at work.

They returned to the forest to camp as the sun went down. Lit a fire, set up some of the tiny, light, easy tents the humans made. Nonu skipped out on that work by going and hunting a neyma, which was…well, he was doing work. He was still Giving. But his attitude annoyed Vemik.

Tilly knew him well, though: she stopped him at the edge of camp just as he was about to head out and give Nonu a reminder.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“You gonna fuck him up?”

Vemik paused then sat on his tail “…He’s a man of Urgun’s tribe. Not mine to fuck up. So, just gonna talk. About respect.”

Tilly leaned against a tree opposite Vemik. “We know we’ve got a hill to climb, you know. We’re not gonna hide behind the Lodge, we don’t want to hide behind the Lodge. All the humans who come here, they’re gonna know we have to show our own strength, and show we can be trusted.”

“Not every human can be trusted,” Vemik pointed out, thinking of the men who’d ambushed him in New York.

“Nor can every ten’gewek,” Tilly replied evenly. “All I’m saying is…you sort out the disrespect toward you, and let us sort out the disrespect toward us in our own way, eh?”

Vemik nodded. “Makes sense.”

Tilly smiled, pushed herself away from the tree, and headed back into camp with a wave. “Go get ‘im.”

Turned out, Nonu was a good hunter. Didn’t leave sign, stayed low in the ketta so no bruised branches, hid his air-taste well…so Vemik tracked the neyma instead. Then followed the sound of its death-bleat up ahead.

Easy enough to spot the flash of orange crest among the trees. Easy enough to sneak up on him too. Even men of the people were always surprised at how quiet Given-Men could be.

And Vemik prided himself on being a good Given-Man. So the first Nonu knew about him even being there was when Vemik dropped down from the tree and landed right next to him with a thud. He was halfway scrambled up into a tree before he realized who it was and, just a little, relaxed.

“…Given-Man.”

“Broken-Tusk.”

“Checking on me?”

“Should pin you down and fuck some manners into you,” Vemik bared his fangs. “Think Urgun prob’ly will, when you get back.”

Nonu’s tongue lashed back toward camp, and he climbed back down out of the tree, drawing his knife to dress his kill. Stone, Vemik noticed. Not steel. Nonu just didn’t trust new things. “Why?” he asked.

“Respect. To me, and my friends. You don’t have enough.”

Nonu paused before cutting into the neyma, then sheathed his knife again and sat on his tail. “You think I don’t respect them? Your friends scare me. Humans scare me.”

Vemik blinked. That…wasn’t what he’d thought. He frowned, and waited for Nonu to say more.

“I see their guns, their tools, their drones,” Nonu explained. “I remember the death-birds and death-walkers. I remember hearing, one human in one of their ships killed all the death-walkers. Stray-fing run, yes? That little Tilly of yours, she could kill me dead.”

“…Yes, that’s true. She could kill me too, from far away. Guns are strong sky-magic.”

Nonu sighed heavily. “So why they come to us? They’re strong enough. Don’t need us. We’re weak, I see it clear. But they tell us nice lies and honor Brown Ones and all of it. Makes me…confused.”

“There’s different kinds of strong. You know this. And they matter, otherwise why would a god of the sky-peoples want to be our friends? Have you met Daar Great-Father?”

Nonu shook his head. “Heard stories. He humbled the Lodge, yes?”

“All of us at once and not with any sky magic, either! He is heavier than a Brown One, I watched him slap one and kill it! He’s better than all of us like you can’t even believe.”

Nonu’s tongue lashed again. “Seems smart to me to be afraid of gods.”

“And yet he came here because we can Give a thing only a very few of them can. Does that mean nothing to you?”

“And what do they do when they don’t need what we can Give any longer?”

“With the war in the sky? They die. I know…there is much you haven’t been told. Not because it is secret but because, well, only a few of us have seen. It takes time to tell a big story, yes?

“And after? When it’s won?”

Vemik shrugged. “Maybe they leave. Probably not. The humans are losing their world. Did you know that?”

“Yeah, I know. That’s what scares me. They lose their world, they Take ours. We both know they could. They can Take everything.” Nonu sighed. “…The ones I meet today, they’re nice. Talk about steak and butter, and water under the land, and they make the Brown One go away with loud noise instead of hurting it. But…”

“Then maybe I should tell you the time I killed four of them in a breath, after they tried to blow me up with a grenade, in their own city, when I was Giving them my journals. I still have a scar from it, see?”

Nonu considered the old wound on Vemik’s tail. “Proves what I’m saying, doesn’t it? The ones I met today are nice, but humans aren’t so different from us. They get mean and sneaky too, and they have god-weapons. And I think, they do what any tribe does and look after themselves first.”

He sighed heavily, then looked Vemik in the eye. “…I don’t mean bad manners. I respect you, I like them—” he waved his hand toward the camp. “But always I’m sky-thinking, if humans ever want us dead, we’ll all be dead.”

“Would you kill a friend?” Vemik asked.

“…Only after he tried to kill me first.”

“Me too,” Vemik agreed. “And them too, I believe. We are not many. It’s true. But we are strong, and they, right now, are going to be weak, and vulnerable, in a way they’ve not been for many of their lifetimes. They saved us…now we get to help save them! Put right the balance. Be friends, not just the weak people who owe a lot to the strong people.”

“You really think that…”

Vemik hooted, amused. “Truth? Humans scare me too. Everything you just said is right…but we scare them too, otherwise, why some of them attack me?”

Nonu had no answer to that.

“You’re right about being afraid of gods too, but we listen to gods too, yes?” Vemik continued. “If they weren’t scary, there’d be nothing to learn from them. But…they’re people, too. And our strength does scare them! I hear and read. We’re bigger, stronger, faster, tougher. Better eyes, better ears. Pretty sure we have better everything.”

“But not cities.”

“No, and maybe being so strong we never grew into them! The gods play strange games, yes? And now they brought us together. This is good, I think. We learn from each other. We each have a thing the other does not. They value our strength. Why you think they give us vaccines and medicine?” Vemik trilled, “Or why we fuck so good when we visit Folctha!!”

Nonu trilled, and considered his neyma. “Godshit. Strong enough to kill us all, too weak to hunt a neyma.”

“No, not practiced. But yes. They need to learn from us. Even this.”

Nonu nodded. “…Thanks for talking, and not fucking manners into me,” he joked.

“Oh, I can still do that if you want…”

Nonu hooted and shook his head. “Would be big hurt, I think. No thanks!”

“Your loss!” Vemik trilled, and slapped him on the shoulder. “Oh well. Maybe Tilly will be interested tonight…probably not, but I can hope!”

Nonu hooted again, then drew his knife and butchered his catch. “Maybe one day I try a human too. Maybe not. But, I’ll trying being nicer. See what I can learn.”

Vemik nodded happily, and stood up. “See you back at camp. Think I’ll hunt something too.”

“See you there,” Nonu agreed, and they parted ways as friends.

Vemik couldn’t have asked for better, really. He’d been worried about what Nonu’s thoughts and actions toward the humans meant for the future, but now…well, he knew it could be talked through. Knew they could figure things out. Wouldn’t always be so easy, probably, but still. There was room on Akyawentuo for both peoples. He knew that for certain now.

Now. time to go get some real prey for the camp. He tasted the air, searching for the scent of werne. Found it, headed in that direction…

And hunted well.


New Dodge, Franklin territory, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Austin Beaufort

The early big work had been done, but lots and lots of little shit had piled up on their list, and it was all Austin and family could do to keep it from growing. Just pick away at this, start work on that, switch to another task when the contractors were ready…

And so on. His boys were only five but they’d understood the importance of it all, so they were helping Lauren with all sorts of random chores: pick rocks, help with the veg garden, unpacking and stocking their pantry…

It was so much to do. The rough carpenters were here today to get their home framed in; turns out they not only could have a better than pre-fab home, it was more or less mandatory that they do for a lot of reasons having to do with, well…being the first here.

They had to set an example, so it was going to be a handsome house indeed. Three days he’d spent working to wrestle the architect’s vision of a modern fucking country manor down to, well…an appropriately modest and functional American farmhouse. Because yeah, it had to be big because yeah, it needed to house a big family and their office and a big damn kitchen and all that…but damnit, they didn’t need footmen or whatever the fuck!

Exhausting. He couldn’t blame the architects for wanting to prove they were useful but, fuck! there had to be better uses of their time.

He had to allow they’d done a good job of coming up with a design that the contractors could put together quickly, though. He left it in the morning as basically a pile of timber and tools, and came back after a day of field preparation and a supply run down into Franklin City, to find the frame was already up.

The next day he was up at the dairy operation, pouring the dry barn’s foundation while the corporate guys installed the milking parlor over in the main barn and the well diggers sunk a new shaft down into the aquifer far below. The sooner they got the herd in, the sooner they had a source of all-natural, organic fertilizer.

When he got back from that in mid-afternoon, the external walls and roof shingles were done, and he could see the electricians and plumbers doing their thing.

Jeez, shit got done fast when you threw enough guys at it.

By the time Julian returned, the house was roughly finished. Apparently it was one of his first days “off” in months—not that he was taking a break from work, but at least he was doing something he enjoyed—and he brought the family out with him to help.

They were a different kind of celebrity to what Austin was used to seeing on TV, on the Internet, in films. Lauren was fond of celebrity gossip, especially the really bitchy cat-fight stuff. Austin had no idea if all the feuding and name-calling and drama she watched was real or a kind of kayfabe, but he’d always known they did it to stay relevant and known.

Being the first people to land on Mars had a different kind of celebrity. Making first contact with not one but two alien races, and being honored by both? That was a prestige that didn’t need maintaining.

And it certainly didn’t need designer clothes and sponsorships. Plaid and jeans and pitching in did more work than any amount of Gucci, in large part because Austin could tell they genuinely enjoyed it. Allison had a head for electrical and a billion other practical skills, Xiù had people to cater for and entertain, and Julian a chance to work hard and playfully show off. His family were workers, too. Xiù tied up her hair, Allison put a bandana over hers, he and his boys—both big and powerfully athletic young men—pulled off their shirts, added work gloves and safety glasses. And then…shit got done. They seemed truly happy to help. Good people, all of them.

They had good grace and senses of humor too. Everyone took selfies and Julian was the star, because what was funnier than a pudgy-tough day laborer or a lanky raccoon-man growling fiercely next to the best?

He could take a joke, too. Austin’s cousin Matt, a burly and particularly hairy little shortstack, was a man who suffered no sense of starstruck whatsoever. “And here I thought you were just for show! Never seen a man carry twelve sacks of concrete over his shoulders like that…”

No shit. Austin could maybe manage two sacks at a time if he was showing off or desperate. Julian threw six over each shoulder like it wasn’t any effort at all. And sure enough…

“Yeah! Coulda done more too but I couldn’t get my arms over the top. Why?” Julian grinned wickedly, “Jealous?”

Matt stated the obvious. “Fuck yeah I’m jealous!” Gruff guffaws and chitters all around. “A truckload of concrete all at once? Shit, man! Eat ‘yer fuckin’ Wheaties I bet!”

Julian chuckled and scratched at the back of his neck, almost bashfully. “Yeah, something like that.” He grinned sheepishly and quickly lowered his arm when he realized people were staring. “Anyway. Gotta be a little bit crazy to do all this too, not gonna lie.”

“I heard you’re friends with those HEAT brothers,” a gaoian in heavily-accented english (who Austin didn’t know very well) blurted out. “That true?”

“Yeah. They’re pretty neat fellas. Mostly they’re big puppies, believe it or not! It’s just, they’re the only ones who can really growl at some threats, yijao? In real life they’re pretty nerdy.”

“Sure don’t look like it…” someone else grumbled.

“Sure, I get it. But heck, I’m pretty much the biggest meathead there is and, uh, I don’t think I’m too terrible to be around. At least, I hope not! For most of us it’s like, this really intense hobby, right? Just happens to be both something we enjoy and something we gotta do for our jobs. And, uh, yeah. To varying degrees we were almost literally made for it, so…”

He shrugged those juggernaut shoulders of his. Just to drive the point home, it caused his football-sized traps to push his ears sideways, the massive motherfucker was so big.

“Well shit, it’s clearly workin’ for you.” One of the younger men noted appreciatively. “I should probably get into it, huh?”

“Eh. Maybe. Fitness is a top priority if you’re gonna live off-Earth, and well…” He left the rest unsaid. “But you don’t need to go as far as me! Everyone wants to look like a bodybuilder ‘till it’s time to do bodybuilder shit, and it’s ten times worse if you wanna actually do something with it all. You gotta enjoy bein’ on a first-name basis with pain to look and function like me.”

Nods all around. Everyone knew Julian from the original Laid Bare, and he’d recently featured in a side-by-side with the HEAT, Singularity, Gao’s and Akyawentuo’s finest, and other operators of note. “Professional Heroes, Hidden and Seen” was the subtitle for this full-magazine special feature, which covered the daily lives among the Deathworld’s protecting elite.

It was…clearly propaganda. One that didn’t pull any self-critical punches, to be fair—it had a lot of unflattering truth to say about Singularity, for example—but in the end it was generally a positive exposition on the men and women protecting everyone’s lives against literal space monsters and the mind-demons that created them.

In that now-infamous centerfold and its accompanying sixteen pages worth of shoot, Julian stood in the middle, fully lit and visible, while most everyone else was cast in stark shadow, which really showed them off while almost perfectly obscuring their faces. In that crowd of extreme operators, kings and princes, literal alien supergorillas and the biggest, meanest hard-asses from Gao and Cimbrean, and even without their advantage of dramatic lighting…Julian stood out. He was that good.

“Still.” Grumpy wasn’t going to give up. “I’m sure they’re all nice and all, but it’s pretty obvious why they keep dragging you and the rest of them in front of the camera.”

To Julian’s credit he didn’t hide from the accusation. “Yup, you aren’t wrong. We’re big and scary-looking men, all of us, and communicating that was more or less the point. We were hoping to show the world that we’ve got some serious fellas on our team and they’re ready to go at any time. Don’t forget, we’re actually a tiny power on the galactic stage. We have to make up for that with ability, and we need to keep reminding the idiots out there what we can do.”

“And you do that with photoshoots.”

“Yes, and demonstrations, and symposia, and the attaché program, and fleet weeks, and silent drill, and large-scale exercises, and a billion other things militaries and governments do to communicate themselves. For my part? I’m big like this firstly because, like I said, it’s the reason I can even do my job. Lots of people are smarter than me, but not many can be me. Wouldn’t have survived Nightmare if I weren’t tough as heck, or made friends with our ten’gewek allies if I weren’t big enough to break floors underfoot.”

Aaron Olsen grumbled under his breath, “Pretty confident in yourself too, by the sound of it.”

“Balls!” One of the other gaoians chittered loudly. “Wouldn’t you be?”

Aaron startled, then replied indignantly. “Well, yeah! But, I mean…”

“Not very Minnesota of me, huh?” Julian grinned, making eye contact directly with the little guy. “Where are you from, I’m guessing…Mankato? Thereabouts?”

“Uh…actually closer to Winona.”

“Right. So yeah, I get it, I probably come off as arrogant now, sometimes. But that’s the thing. You have to be confident and forward in this game. False modesty is just another kind of lie, and lies don’t work in this alliance of ours. Gaoians can smell ‘em, ten’gewek can ‘taste’ them. Heck, humans can too, sorta! Also? Between alien cultures, the only languages that really work are love and strength, and of the two…love differs. Strength’s more translatable. All kinds of strength of course, economic and political and military and all that…but for us deathworlders?”

He grinned at his sons, who smirked back. The three of them stood together and…demonstrated what being a deathworlder could mean. Good fuckin’ God.

“…I think we get the picture,” Austin said, feigning cool.

“Heh! Yup. Exactly. This right here is a form of communication everyone understands.” Julian grinned, showed off some arms and his massive fuckin’ legs to some gawping exclamations…then the rest of him when the men goaded him on. Christ, nothing on this guy was less than perfect! But the show didn’t last for too long; he’d well and fuckin’ truly made his point. “So, if being naked and pretty in front of a camera stops some idiot minor power from starting shit, then I’m totally okay hanging myself out there for it. So were the rest, and yeah, we’re a pretty self-confident bunch. So why not? It was fun, and besides: just ‘cuz they can fight at a level higher than anyone, don’t mean any of them want to.”

“So you lined up all the meatheads,” Austin added.

“All the ones involved in the galactic power game, yeah. It sends a message when you’ve got literal Gilgamesh standing next to his hoss of a son, Prince Alex, standing next to the Champion of Stoneback, standing next to the leader of the ten’gewek, and so on. Hard to be more allied then when they’re all there at once for something like a Laid Bare shoot, yijao? And it helps to show there are a few fellas out there that make even me look like a little bitch next to them. One of whom is human, by the way. All this matters ‘cuz primal signals are very useful. Nobody really gets over them. Also, all the ambassadors and whoever know me personally. So I’m not just there to be big and scary. I’m also there for scale.”

Olsen nodded seriously. “Against the real monsters.”

“Yup. Daar may be the size of a snarling dinosaur, but monster number two is a human. He could absolutely go hard like a force of nature and toss your cars, smash your house…but he’s also able to walk right through your front door and end your days silently. Number three leads an entire species of supermonkeys, any of whom could fall on you from anywhere and you’d never know it was coming. And that’s the thing: I can do those things too, and so can everyone else in that shoot. And so can many, many more trained and ready men who were lucky enough to evade the camera that day. And I’m not just talking freaks like me, either. You’d be amazed what a five-man team of perfectly regular but determined human beings can do.”

“And that’s why they got the other half of the magazine.”

Julian nodded seriously. “Yup. Frankly I’d be more afraid of them, if you were a bad fella. Ain’t no way you can miss a guy like me coming up the street, yeah? I shake the ground. But some nameless operator, who looks normal as fuck under regular street clothes?”

“Except he ain’t.”

“No, that’s my point. He is. Only real difference between him and you? Frankly, it’s willpower.”

Lots of nodding on that point.

“So…” Matt concluded. “Don’t fuck with the deathworlders.”

“Exactly.”

Julian grabbed a load of rebar off the truck and slung it up on his shoulder with a grunt, then sighed as he carried it toward the foundation pit they’d dug. His boys followed suit with comparatively more modest loads—still much more than Austin could manage.

“But screw all that,” Julian said with a sideways grin. “I honestly just wanna get my hands dirty with a friend, even if it’s only for a day, and yes, even if the pics Mark over there is taking are gonna get used to send a message. I can’t help that bit, but I can avoid resenting it. So…here I am. Literal tons of fun to get shit done. What’chu need?”

Well, they needed concrete work done, so…that’s what they did. He and his boys weren’t skilled labor but they were certainly big, so they all ended up shuttling shit around to whomever needed it, all without complaint. It made work go a lot faster when a dude could just pick whatever up instead of using backhoe or skidsteers to wrestle it around.

They stopped for a drink break once the concrete was done and ready to be left alone, and the conversation started back up as if it had never stopped.

“Yeah, I know ‘em. Good friends with everyone in that shoot. Especially the HEAT Lads.”

A skeptical voice again called out. “You still say they’re all big kids underneath it?”

“No, I said they’re puppies. And puppies don’t always play so nice. Especially not the Big Three. But they’re good people too. Y’all will probably be meeting some of them too I bet…”

Julian didn’t elaborate on that, but the group wanted to hear about them anyway. Daar, Yan the big alien gorilla-man, and the nameless colossus who basically upstaged everyone.

“Yeah, we don’t talk about him. He likes his privacy but, being honest, he’s impossible to miss around Folctha, so…” A grin, then. One at once friendly and smug. “And I’m extra not gonna talk him up, because he’s the one human being who shows me up at basically everything.”

“Everything?”

“Yeah!” He said with a laugh. “He’s pretty damn special. I think the only one who might ever give him any competition might be Alex! I think we’re pretty equally stupid though, so there’s that.”

There were laughs.

“Sure, we’re all fuckin’ stupid, aren’t we? Only one with any brains around here is this madman,” Matt nudged Austin in the ribs. “Went and bought a plot of land the size of fuckin’ Disney World on a gut reaction, thank fuck.”

“I still can’t wrap my head around that,” Julian noted, shaking his shaggy locks as he spoke. “But if there was ever an inspired moment of madness, well there you go. We all take our own crazy risks, I guess.”

Austin felt the need to downplay it. “It woulda been a good investment anyway…”

“Sure. Now, anything else you want me to do? Move stuff, punch trees, set up your gym? You’re the last excuse I’ll have to grunt it out for at least another month!”

“Sounds like you’re begging! But…well, you can help in the garage-slash-gym I guess. Not much left to do, but I’ll take it. Also…is it true you’re going to Nightmare?”

“Yeah. That’s where I’ll be, helpin’ the first crew get settled and not killed. They’ll have modern kit with them though so it shouldn’t take too long to get them going. After that…we’ll see.”

“Wherever you’re needed, right?”

Julian nodded. “That’s what we’re all doing, I guess…what’s that?” He raised his head and looked back toward the farmhouse at the clanging sound of metal on metal.

“Dinner bell!” Austin grinned.

“Oh, that’s cheesy as heck. I love it!”

“It’s got more charm to it than a phone call, right?” Austin chuckled as the men around them squared away their tools and hopped up on the flatbed for the ride back. Julian ran back alongside instead.

They ate. A good, hearty meal for hard-working folks. Lots of dinner-time banter, bad jokes, some bragging around the table, that sort of thing. Allison had got much of the guts of their automation and gravity systems ready to go. Shit, she could weld a nicer bead than Austin and he’d gone to school for that! Xiù had helped with a billion other things. The boys ate well that night, and even managed to get Julian to show off again too, not that he needed much persuasion. Hilarious and humbling for everyone there. Hell, superhumanly humbling with that insane rebar trick! But whistles and chittering disbelief from the crew aside, it was all meant in fun. A good way to end the day.

They couldn’t stay the night, of course. They said their goodbyes, Julian found his long-abandoned shirt (and Austin suspected he was in the habit of frequently “losing” it, too), they bundled up all their stuff, piled into that absolutely bitchin’ pickup—Allison’s, it turned out. Full-size, crew cab, wicked lift kit. Super beefy suspension. She had the kind of taste Austin could approve of.

But really it was Julian’s truck, because it was the only kind of vehicle that would work for him. It didn’t budge when they loaded up the cargo bed, didn’t complain a bit when the girls or Julian’s two huge and grown-up boys climbed in, nor when the security team piled in with all their stuff, dudes sitting in the bed with all the rest of it…

But it did groan and sink down considerably when he stepped into the driver’s seat. So: the dude could literally smash cars under his weight. Even as big as he was, he didn’t look anywhere near heavy enough to do something that fuckin’ crazy! Fucker apparently hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he could break floors and sidewalks. Good to know, fuck.

“Right. Well, buddy? I wish you all the best. Be a bit before I can visit again, but you know my number and you know how to get a hold of my staff.” He proffered a mitt. “Kick ass, you hear?”

Austin’s big mitt was swallowed up completely in Julian’s rough fuckin’ paw of a meat-hook. He suffered through the ensuing bone-creaking handshake, gave it his best to give a decent showing. “I’m country. We’ll manage.”

“Good.” Julian released Austin’s compacted hand, looked back and nodded at his caveboys. “You two might think about hiring on to his crew. He could use a couple goons like you.”

They both grinned.

And with that…the legend of an ambassador and his equally epic family was gone.

Matt let out a long breath as they watched the truck bounce and rumble down the dirt track and out onto the road. “Fuck me, man. Are they real?”

“Hard to believe.”

“Well…shit, cuz. You made some damn good friends in this deal. Hell, even his boys show you up! Uh, no offense…”

“None taken.” It was true. Today had been pretty humbling.

“But that’s not something I’m used to thinkin’. You were always the stud of the family. So…is that how fuckin’ everyone is around here?”

Austin sighed. “No, But we’d better reset our expectations for what’s good and normal, I reckon. They’re not gonna evacuate just anyone.”

Matt wasn’t the quickest. “The hell that have to do with…oh.” He wasn’t stupid, either. “Well…that fuckin’ blows.”

“Yeah. So honestly? We’d better all step up to this. I won us a chance by luck and ballsy stupidity, and I somehow made friends with that family in the process. To say we’re pretty precarious out here is…yeah.”

“So, don’t embarrass you,” Matt concluded.

“Probably lose the gut and the dip habit, too.”

“Shit that last bit may be askin’ a lot, cuz…”

“Well, you only have four years. Do you honestly think tobacco is going to be an affordable priority? When our leaders are all gonna be gigachad freaks like that?”

Matt went quiet, frowning to himself.

Yeah. It was a wake-up call. A wake-up call where even perfectly normal people like Tristan and Ramsey were world-class multi-sport elites back on Earth, where accomplished explorers and world celebrities were just…the local bigs. Nothing too weird. People even said hi on the streets!

Shit was changing. Changing fast. Sometimes, Austin wondered if maybe leaving Earth wasn’t going to bring it out even quicker and harder, like maybe in a generation or two the human race wouldn’t even be quite the same any longer. So much had happened since first contact, it was like humanity had always been bursting at the seams, waiting to explode out of Earth’s embrace and transform.

And he couldn’t shake the feeling like, somehow, somewhere…That had been the plan all along. Hell. Hadn’t they as much as said so, publically?

Whatever. He had three things to do right now.

First, family time. His kids needed some love. Second, his wife needed some love. Third, they all needed sleep. They needed every advantage they could get.

The world of Heroes was upon them.


Lakebeds National Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel (“Chimp”) Hoeff

A foot pressed down on his back, and Hoeff willed himself to be a rock. Think geological thoughts. Embody the very essence of stony stillness.

Tests of infiltration skill and hardware didn’t get any more immediate than being stepped on. If they looked down, if they understood what they were looking at, then this exercise was a bust, and they were gonna have to look hard at what had gone wrong. But, shit, bad luck was a fuckin’ thing and the only thing he could do now was hold his breath and will himself to not move…

The pressure on his back doubled, shifted, released entirely as the patrol moved on. Hoeff lay still regardless, counting in his mind, one-mississippi, two-mississippi, three—

Slowly, so as to not even cause a rustle of long grass, he pushed himself up, turned and peered through the swaying grass stalks.

The patrol were smart, competent guys, veterans from operations in the Persian Gulf. SOR had called in the very best they could find for this exercise. Even now they were past, there was no room for the Wrecking Crew to make a mistake. Even as Hoeff watched, as the guy watching behind them turned to look where he was going, his buddy turned around to watch the patrol’s rear. A pair of eyes in every direction at all times, and those eyes were augmented by the finest helmet-mounted sensors known to any AEC military. Ultrasound, thermal, AI-assisted image recognition and statistical anomaly modeling…everything a Hierarchy drone was believed to have and then some.

And the infiltration suit had managed to fool it all. The patrol moved on down the hill and out of sight behind a copse of trees: Hoeff clicked a silent all-clear on this radio, and around him a series of other terrain features started moving. Even he wouldn’t have guessed they were his buddies until they unfolded and stood up.

Hand signals, and they fell back into their marching order and moved on.

This was all a stress-test, of men, materials and equipment. The first of several, in fact, and Hoeff knew damn well the intent was for them to fail at some point. He suspected he knew what the failure point was, too.

They had a hundred and fifty kilometers to go to their designated target. By itself, not necessarily a problem, except they had to fuel every step of the way from some kind of source. The ten’gewek traveled similar distances pretty regularly just by knowing the land and the critters that lived there. But killing and butchering their own food was the perfect way to leave undeniable sign of their presence: not an option. The mission they were preparing for could only succeed if the enemy never knew they were there.

Which meant carrying all their nutrition. And meal packs weren’t gonna cut it. Stopping in the field to warm shit up, eat it out the bag, maybe leave residue and packaging and sign? Not an option. So nutrition throughout the long walk was high density nutrient powder slurry, delivered through a thick straw inside the helmet.

It tasted relentlessly of chemical vanilla. It left a greasy feel in the mouth. It hit the stomach like swallowing a fucking bowling ball. It was so scientifically designed to be completely digested that what little reached the other end just felt wrong. And sure, it had everything the body needed, all the calories and vitamins and protein and carbs and whatever-the-fuck else…

But holy fuck. You couldn’t feed it to a prisoner without falling foul of the whole ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ thing. It was so grindingly bland that Hoeff was pretty sure the daydreams of steak, soda and Claire’s signature pumpkin soup were making him sloppy. He would have fucking murdered for a coffee…

Fuck yeah. Strong as a Given-Man, black as the inside of a bear, with a shot of syrup, served alongside a bacon sandwich…

Focus, goddammit.

Not being able to talk to his buddies was wearing on him, too. Sound and radio discipline, because even LOSIR wasn’t as secure as perfect silence…

Yeah. Hoeff could see one of the guys cracking under these conditions. He sure as shit wasn’t gonna let himself, but the problem he was facing now was how to be sure they were all coping, and how to help them.

He noticed Nomuk’s step falter a little. Gave the big guy a pat on the shoulder when he could. Got a nod in reply.

So it went, for mile on fuckin’ mile. It rained, it was dry, it rained again. They slept under cover, hidden among roots and stones and undergrowth, on whichever patch of bare ground was least uncomfortable. They had to go to ground and make like fuckin’ rocks twice more as they encountered more foot patrols, and a third time when their suits got antsy about a possible high-altitude surveillance drone.

Nobody broke. Shit, they’d all toughed out way fuckin’ worse. But at the same time, none of them knew exactly where they’d gone wrong or what they’d done to draw attention when a trio of Weavers slammed down on them out of nowhere and they were suddenly surrounded and captured, with sixty klicks still to go.

Fuck.

Major Campbell hopped down out of the third Weaver and strode through the grass with a wry look on his face. “Gotcha.”

“Guess you did,” Hoeff acknowledged, wearily. Part of him was relieved. At least he’d get to fuckin’ eat something tonight. “What gave us away?”

“Fuck if I know. Intel has their black magic ways, yijao? It’ll all come out in debrief. I know you slipped the net like four times…”

“Shit yeah. One of the guys stepped on me.”

There were chuckles, and they bundled back into the Weaver and took off. Hoeff took his helmet off, only to find Campbell handing out a foil-wrapped…Oh, fuck. Burritos. Hoeff felt no shame at all in grabbing it, tearing the foil off, and mumbling a grateful noise around a mouthful of tortilla, rice and beans.

The accompanying can of coke was fuckin’ ambrosia, too.

Back in Folctha, debrief went mostly well. Turned out one of the imagery fellas noticed the grass was laying down the wrong way when he applied a polarization filter to the overhead. Not by thermals, not by hyper-spectral…by the grass swaying the wrong way.

Well, shit. They all had to really up their game.

After that, though, it wasn’t so bad. Back to a routine. Another two month sprint on heavy physical training, which would happen part here, part on Akyawentuo. The gorillabros would go be gorillas with their people, Hoeff could be a human. Training took time.

Then it’d be a week or two off, a couple weeks back, and then a month in the field.

And back to physical training. Rinse and repeat. For years. Hoeff had no idea what kind of superkillers they’d be, coming out the other end of all that…

But that was what they needed to be. He didn’t believe in god, but thinking on that really made him want to say a prayer for them all. Maybe he would. Meditate on it, anyway.

Especially for ‘Horse. Whatever he was prepping for…

Lot of prayers to be said, really. And a lot of work to do that wasn’t prep for this whole thing, too. Being a dad. Fuck only knew how a guy like him was supposed to go about that. There was no such thing as spare time, any longer. When he wasn’t Dadding, he was helping the Lads get their apartment buildings done up so they could move in more kids from Earth and how in the fuck did Firth have time for so many of ‘em?

Honestly, Firth going so squishy for a couple of kids so suddenly was…was there a story there? What exactly was going on in the big guy’s head? Hoeff didn’t know, wasn’t qualified to know, and wouldn’t have the first idea what to say or do if he knew anyway. All he could do was show up and help Murray get the place painted and stuff.

They were sweet girls, though. In a damaged way.

Hoeff finally got a chance to relax, sort of, when one of his Old Friends invited him to dinner. The usual kinda fancy one, with the multiple small artwork courses. He had one of the sophisticated privacy fields, too: the ones that didn’t do anything so rude and unsightly as completely block them from view behind a gray wall, but instead kinda…fuzzed and blurred things. Just enough to prevent lip reading and whatever.

“This must be gettin’ more expensive…” Hoeff noted, as the first appetizer arrived.

“It won’t be long now before restaurants like this go out of business,” his old friend agreed. “The transition to a survival economy is going to make indulgence like this…impossible, really.”

“Adapt and overcome, I always say. You can make practically anything gourmet if you’re willing to experiment.”

“I’m sure the local produce will eventually provide.” His friend loaded a delicate forkful. “But we’re not just paying for gourmet. We’re paying for origin, authenticity, pedigree…ties that will all break, very soon. No more authentic Japanese Wagyu. No more pig-found wild Italian truffles. No more champagne.”

“Eh. You know me,” Hoeff wasn’t so delicate in loading his own fork. “I’m not so interested in the label as I am in the art. Way too many people get wrapped up in credentials.”

“The wiser policy, in the end…”

“And credentials by and large ain’t gonna save a lot of ‘em.”

“You have some pretty impressive credentials yourself, as I recall.”

“My credentials are my body and my track record. How I got there is less relevant.”

His old friend nodded in gentle agreement, and the appetizer was swept away and replaced just as soon as it was finished. He picked up the conversation as smoothly as if it had never halted, the moment they were alone again.

“This plan of Singularity’s…”

“You never stop surprising me with what you know.”

“Oh, we’ve been aware of them a long time. In an…incomplete way. We certainly didn’t guess who their king was!” a light chuckle and a small shake of the head, before seriousness returned. “As with everything in recent years, we have little choice but to follow Daar’s lead, and he’s committed to this scheme. But he’s going with it as-is, and our concern is that it may not be aggressive enough.”

“If it works, we win,” Hoeff pointed out.

“If is not a word our circle of friends enjoys when it comes to matters this grave. We’re more in favor of certainty. And the plan as it is…well, the Entity is on board.”

Hoeff sipped some champagne. “Yes, it is…?”

“Our feeling on the matter is that a more favorable approach would not be so palatable to it.”

“It is at this point I should remind you how very little presence our little circle has in this situation. We’re working off second-hand contacts and agents.”

“Our little circle is not likely to survive the destruction of Earth, Daniel. All that matters, therefore, is legacy. We may have very little presence, but we also have no need to cautiously conserve our presence any longer. What matters, now, is the certainty of a future for our species. And this…gentle solution invented by Singularity…”

He left the thought unfinished as the empty plates were, again, deftly removed and replaced.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin making it less gentle,” Hoeff pointed out.

“Fortunately, we have managed to conserve an asset who would. The instance of Six residing in the body of Doctor Flowers has been transferred to Erebor.”

“I’m amazed you still think he’s useful.” Hoeff sampled his genuinely incredible beef course, then washed his palate clean with an equally excellent wine. “But why mention all this to me?”

“You’re in a position to make a choice, we think. Or, you will be. On the one hand, Singularity’s comparatively gentle solution to the Big Hotel problem—too gentle, many of us feel, in light of what they have done—on the other hand…whatever more certain and proportionate adjustment we can make.”

Hoeff sat back and stared at him. No words, just the stare.

“…The idea doesn’t sit well with you,” his friend noted, after meeting his stare for several seconds.

“Now of all the times isn’t the moment for this. If this thing is gonna succeed at all, everybody needs to be pulling in one direction. What you’re being so delicate about might just be the little chip in our armor that makes everything fall apart. Further,” he added, building up a head of steam, “what concrete intel are we working off? We’re not. We are no longer in the inner circle of the decision-making process. I think that’s spooked leadership and this, right here, stinks to high heaven of Stupid.”

His friend paused, then set his fork down and dabbed at his mouth. “What would sit well with you?” he asked.

“Well, gee? I got this friend, right? Big fuck-off huge truck-crushing bulletproof bastard? Strong enough to kill-slap a Brown One and leap tall buildings in a single bound? Heard of him?”

“Sarcasm does not become you.”

“Sarcasm is the only thing to do! So, why don’t you buy the murderbear a nice dinner an’ introduce yourself? Hell, while he’s still sorta compact enough to fit through the front doors! He already knows we exist. Why do you think he hired me? Dude’s been waiting patiently.”

“And then he gets his way,” Hoeff’s friend replied. “He always does. What’s to become of us, then? Earth’s most quietly powerful people, just another gem on his crown? Do you know he’s talking about a constitution among his cabinet? Federating the deathworlders into a ‘United Peoples…’ Under his supreme and legally unquestionable authority, I might add. A manageable proposition in anybody else…problematic when the supreme god-emperor is in fact functionally immortal.”

Goddamnit. Hoeff sighed.

“Okay. I’m gonna say it, ‘cuz at this point I don’t think we’re gonna be Friends much longer if I don’t.” Hoeff put down his fork. “That giant fuzzy monster has the most intense fuckin’ love affair ever with our people, and our circle’s failure to properly nurture that relationship is an appallingly artless squandering of opportunity. Lucky for us all, he believes with all his heart that humankind is the reason he and his entire species are alive and even thriving today, challenges notwithstanding. That is an infinite debt he can never pay back and he damn well knows it.

“Worse,” Hoeff continued, “he feels personally and particularly indebted to a small team of human operators, and somehow, somewhere, one of those operators happens to be me. I have been with him since the time he was just a wee little kodiak bear of a burgeoning leader. I can tell you right now that our civilization would be fucking doomed if he weren’t here to offer us escape and sanctuary on his home planet, which at this point is essentially his very own personal property. He is the Gao. So, then, in the face of this set of facts…our exalted leadership’s first and overriding priority is…what? Preserving their influence at the expense of his generosity? Worrying about how the fucking power games will go on before worrying about our very survival?”

“Our survival, thanks to him, is not in doubt. And we are grateful. But you really ought to know better than to dismiss what we do as power games, Daniel. We’re discussing the very continued agency of our people to chart our own course. How can we be true partners if we lack that?”

“Adapt and overcome,” Hoeff said simply. “Worry about that shit once we’re on the other side of this. Because he ain’t a slaver. That goes against the very fucking core of his being. You cannot even begin to fathom how lucky we are that the most powerful being in the goddamn galaxy is a jovial meathead who likes dirty jokes and values people for who they are.”

“He can afford to be.”

“Yes, he can. Now how do you think he earned that power budget, huh?”

Fuckin’ sad. Hoeff didn’t feel hungry anymore.

His friend toyed with his food a little. Apparently his appetite was spoiled, too. “These are unprecedented times,” he said at last. “A lot of…fear.”

“Lotta leadership losing their kingdoms. Don’t lie, that’s what’s really driving this conversation.”

“You yourself have been content to never have one. Those of us who do…yes. We fear losing them. Not only for ourselves, though. These are the foundations of the world we’re talking about, Daniel. Who would want the foundations to crumble?”

“Nobody. But crumbling they are. So grieve, and get over it. I for one am not going to endanger this mission. Nor, by the way, threaten a sapient Von Neumann swarm! Jesus fuck let’s have some perspective on this, huh?”

There was a long silence. Finally, his friend sighed. “It is…nice to see you speak with such conviction. You’ve generally been content to go with the consensus.”

“Yeah, I’ve happily been your weapon this whole time. But the consensus in this case is being very stupid, and if y’all insist on continuing with it, you can count me out.”

“What I’m saying, Daniel, is that your voice is amplified by your usual silence. If you of all people are so vehemently against this plan, then it will be reconsidered.”

Well. Okay.

“I hope so. Excellent meal, as always.” They hadn’t actually finished but, really, there was a time for everything, and everything in its time. Right now was the time to send a message.

His friend understood. They parted with a simple nod.

Hoeff’s mind was racing as he strode away, not even bothering to catfoot it on the way out. He studiously resisted the urge to watch his back, scan the shadows and generally protect himself. He even took a johnny cab, rather than walk.

He got home early. Claire was curled up on the couch playing her cute farming, village, cozy collect-stuff game, which she paused after glancing up at him. “…you okay?”

“Eh. Been worse….is that dude a robot octopus?”

Claire duly sensed he wanted to talk about anything else and, well, he actually kinda liked how she nerded out over her game. “Isn’t he cute?”

“Heh. Yeah, guess he is…”

He squeezed her hand. Playing in the back of his mind was the knowledge of what usually happened to people who pissed off the Circle of Friends. But…that’d be really, really fuckin’ dumb of ‘em. Too dumb.

Easy enough to do, though. He was sitting in a well lit apartment with his back to the window. Plenty of good vantages opposite. Honestly, he was makin’ it easy for them.

Hell of a fuckin’ way to test whether they still had their heads on straight, even now…

Claire frowned at him. “…Dan…you’re really tense. You sure you’re okay?”

A mental countdown in Hoeff’s head reached zero. He exhaled. Willed himself to relax. There were limits to the Stupid, today. Thank the fucking maker.

“Yeah,” he said, then repeated it and felt the tension flood out of him. The world had wobbled, but steadied again. “Yeah. I’m okay.”

He put an arm around Claire, snuggled up, and relaxed for the first time in weeks.


Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Leela, a little bored for a change

The taco business was weirdly in decline. Partly it was the expense; most of her ingredients were irreplaceably Earthling and, well. Cumin in particular was getting hard to come by. It was almost ten times more expensive now!

There was already work to try and cultivate some of that in the hotter regions. Word had it that Lucent was almost ready to begin exporting a variety of Earthling spices, but they weren’t there yet and in any case, the problem wasn’t abundance so much as hoarding and logistics. Same problems still applied from Lucent, too; their arrays were firing nonstop preparing for the evacuation, same as here on Cimbrean.

Actual shipping was a thing again. It had to be. And, so, prices went up…

And that meant her enthusiastic human crowd had dwindled a bit, because firstly, they all had better things to spend their moneys on right now, and secondly…she only had so much of their favorites to go around. Rationing was going to start, soon. And gaoian traffic just wasn’t enough to make up the loss in revenue.

She might miss a mortgage payment. She had savings of course, but…

Probably going to be a long-term concern, actually. She might need an exit plan.

Well, she couldn’t really afford to worry on that for too long. So, she busied herself. Everything was cleaned and scrubbed to within an inch of its life. All her stocks were ready and in stasis. She could serve up whatever she might need at a moment’s notice.

So she stayed open later to hopefully catch the late-night crowd—not that the rain would encourage that much. Were her tarps good enough?

She peered out. Yeah. Okay. Everything properly entarpenated.

Bored.

Watched a little news. Depressing.

Switched over to YouTube for some human entertainment. Odd how their sense of humor was like eighty percent the same as any gaoian’s, but that last twenty percent was so weird…

Switched over to the gaoian version, which was celebrating its hundredth anniversary. It was also, weirdly, named YourTube. Just in gaori.

Male humor was getting more optimistic lately. And there were more female videos too. Or was that just the algo trying to cheer her up?

She smelled something on the wind, suddenly. Found her tail wagging, and looked out the window. Off a ways, in the open and soaked by the rain, lit by a street light that only barely cleared his head…

Yup. There was Daar, her emperor, and good friend, and…lover, that too. With a group of men, mostly gaoian, some human. He was showing off for them in the ridiculous huge-muscle slabcube way of his that nobody else could match. Because of course he was. That’s what he did! When he wasn’t some stately force of nature he was a hulking, flexing, goofy ultra-meathead that somehow you couldn’t really hate, now matter how hard he tried to earn the privilege. And for whatever reason, his Big Daar Energy always seemed to attract a lot of male attention, too. Even the humans were almost yipping around him excitedly!

After all…who wouldn’t be? It wasn’t often someone got to crack jokes with a walking, talking house. On his rear legs he was a bit taller than an elephant and he literally massed as much as dinosaurs and cargo trucks. And he liked dirty jokes and beer!

It might have been easy to miss Naydra’s quieter energy behind all that, but not for Leela. She was sauntering along like a moon in Daar’s orbit, looking dry and comfortable under a matching pair of rich wine-red umbrella and rain cloak. .

It was her words that broke up the little party around Daar, though. Leela didn’t quite catch what she said, but Daar nodded and all the males around him, human and gaoian alike, were drifting away in groups of two or three, laughing and making promises about what they’d do tomorrow.

No sooner were they gone than Daar grinned at Leela, rolled Naydra up on his back, and launched into a blisteringly fast, ground-shaking galumph over to torment his most bestest.

Chittering internally, Leela readied her spatula.

Fortunately he didn’t have that particular mischief-heavy energy about him tonight, so a perfunctory bap on the nose by way of greeting was all the discipline he needed.

Mostly.

“Leela! Didya like the show?! I know I always look pretty sexy in th’ rain…”

Leela rolled her eyes but couldn’t hold back the chitter. “I’m sure your staff is just going to love dealing with a big wet Daar, later on.”

“Eh. I do pay ‘em pretty well…”

“Daar, that’s hardly polite of you!”

“I know, don’t you worry ‘yer pretty head! I’ve got a mud room right off th’ pad I can shake off in. See?! I’m thoughtful!”

“Ah, yes. It’s true, you can be thoughtful,” Naydra agreed, pouring herself onto one of the bar stools at the front of Leela’s stall and giving her a warm, sisterly ear-flick in greeting.

“When he’s not stuck single-mindedly pursuing the same thing, every time we meet…” Leela agreed.

“Oh?” He tried to stick his head through the window—couldn’t. His head was too broad with fur and meat nowadays to fit. He settled for snuffling vigorously and earning a brandished spatula, but pulled out just in time. Such was the game.

“See? Every single time, the same thing….”

“You mean tacos, right?”

“Of course! What kind of lewd thing do you take me for?!”

“I know essactly what kinda lewd thing you are!”

Well, he had her there…Leela ducked her head, her ears pivoting with warm happiness at the teasing and Naydra’s giggly chitter, and set into his order. Which would just be all the rest of everything she had.

“Have a seat, won’t be long. How are things?”

There was a thud as he parked his rump down next to Naydra’s stool, then a snuffling as he got a good estimate of her pantry. That brain was at work, she could tell.

“…You managin’ okay?” he asked, after a second. He couldn’t quite keep the bass keen out of his voice.

That nose of his really was something else.

“I might have to start growing my own herbs and spices,” Leela admitted. “All the growers on Earth have stopped. Or they can’t get shipped out.”

Naydra sighed and duck-nodded. Clearly she knew about the export troubles too. “I’ve been thinking on if we should start up some hydroponics for that, actually. I mean, not for spices specifically, but Earth is a treasure of strange biodiversity. We lost so much of ours, I’m not going to let Earth’s living wealth be lost without a fight.”

Leela duck-nodded while she flipped open the Meat Tub. “Make sense. Won’t that cost a lot?”

Naydra chittered. “Fortunately, money is something I’m blessed to never need to worry about at really any scale.”

“Plus it’ll be a fun hobby I bet!” Daar agreed.

Leela chittered. “No doubt you’ll come up with some suitably ridiculous brand name…”

Naydra chittered musically. “I’m sorry, did the girl behind Ninja Taco just tease us about branding?!”

“I researched the power of ridiculous branding, thank you very much!” Leela retorted with feigned primness, then indicated Daar with her indicatin’ spatula. “He just does it ‘cuz he’s a goof.”

“‘Ya think I don’t know the power o’ goofin’ off?” Daar scoffed, while Naydra covered her mouth to chitter even more. “How else is a big fuck like me s’posed ‘ta put lil’ cubs at ease?!”

“Ah, but which came first? The goofing, or the brand?”

Daar gave her the smarmiest and most flirtatious look he could manage. “That’s just one’o ‘dem eternal mysteries ‘yer gonna hafta contemplate I guess. Is it all a big calculated game? Did I just stumble into the winningest formula ever? Am I just that awesome–OW!!”

No spatula this time. No, this time he earned the poker. She’d had to upgrade her arsenal.

“…Dang, that actually did hurt a bit. ‘Yer gettin’ serious!”

She’d worried at first since her poker was no joke and it was sharpened to a point, but Daar was just…basically impossible to actually hurt. It just sorta slid right off of him.

…Pretty scary, when she thought about it. Leela shook her head clear and found herself brooding quietly. Daar of course couldn’t really do quiet, and keened in sympathy.

That sympathy did earn him a tail-wag, a warm look and a scritch on the muzzle. Which, well. Not a thing to do in public or perhaps even with Naydra looking on…but they were friends, and it felt like the right thing to do.

“I’m okay,” she promised him, finally answering the question. “I have savings.”

“Fact y’might need ‘ta use ‘em ain’t good, though.”

“It is what it is.” Fantastic expression, that. Fyu had a lot of good one-liners.

Daar duck-nodded understandingly. “Right. Well, what’s new wit’ you?! I don’t smell a cub in the oven. Takin’ a break?”

“No, just…being picky.”

“Good girl,” Naydra approved.

“Yeah!” Daar duck-nodded in agreement. “But don’t be too picky, y’hear? World needs more Leelas!”

And so on.

Leela had long ago stopped really worrying about the fact that she had the Great Father and Great Mother for friends, or how good they were at listening and playing impromptu therapists. She knew entirely well they were both perfectly honest, and wouldn’t have come listen to her if they weren’t truly interested.

And listen they did, attentively as she piled up the tacos (and gripes) and cleared out her stores of both. The wet and the cold had seemingly zero effect on Daar. Even though he was under a tarp next to the stand, she marveled at it.

“Don’t you feel chilly?”

“Eh. Heat, cold, wet, dry, none of it bothers me too much, s’long as I ain’t workin’ my balls off. But if I had ‘ta choose? I love me some cold. Got ‘ta visit Antarctica once an’ roll in th’ snow!”

“You truly are a creature of the northern plains.”

“Right?! You should see my coat when I grow it out. It’s pretty good!”

“It is one of your more comely traits, admittedly…” Leela had long since boxed the food and stuck it in the stasis fridge until they wanted it. “But, I think I’ve complained enough about my troubles. How about you two? I know you probably can’t say too much…”

They couldn’t speak details, but again, the art of conversation was something they’d both long mastered. Daar was surprising in that regard. He just…had a way with small anecdotes that colored the general space of his concerns and worries without incriminating anyone or anything in the process. He was good at weaving himself in and around the people he was conversing with, too. There really was a good brain lurking somewhere under all that fur and meat and too-big skull.

Naydra was a bit hard to read. She positively radiated regal serenity. Daar, on the other hand, had never been good at that sort of thing. He smelled of a weird mix of worried, sad, and confident. About something he couldn’t discuss, but Leela knew him well enough to see the shape of it. He had a good feeling about whatever-it-was, which made all the other worries weigh less.

Actually. She told him so.

He chittered and flicked an ear ruefully. “Never was good at keepin’ those kinda secrets. But that’s all you get, sarry. Les’ just say I got a big gamble on th’ table that can’t be avoided. I’m confident we’ll win but, y’know. It’s a winnin’ gamble we wouldn’t’a had ‘ta take if’n the humans din’t need savin’ too.”

“Right.”

The conversation ended as it inevitably must once their dinner was ready. They’d cleaned out Leela’s pantry, as was their long-standing custom. Under other circumstances, that would mean she was going home a happy woman. Under present circumstances…

Daar added a gratuity to the payment. Leela was half way through automatically thanking him when the size of it registered.

He was looking at her seriously, now. With a look that would not permit any objection.

“Unnerstand, I got no doubts what-so-ever ‘ya can manage on ‘yer own. This ain’t charity.”

“Then—”

“Leela…’yer a damn good friend ‘ta me, an’ more. I love you. An’ I’m kinda soppy ‘bout that sorta stuff, so…shit, girl. It’s gon’ get spicy here in a bit. Not in a good way, yijao? Here ain’t gonna be a good place ‘ta do business ‘fer a lovely an’, uh…small lil’ female like you.”

“But this is enough to—”

“Yup. An’ a little more, ‘cuz inflation is a thing right now an’ ‘cuz human banks can get pretty damn sneaky wit’ their fees and suchlike.”

She found herself fighting back a keening chitter. “Goldpaw would be proud…”

“Ha! I s’pose. But…come back to Gao, Leela. Business’ll be better, ‘fer one…an’ it’d make me feel better. Which is pretty selfish o’ me but, well.” He leaned down. “An’ you know as well as I do, the humans mighta invented tacos, but it’s the gao who perfected ‘em and truly appreciate ‘em, yijao? If all you wanna do is this, you’ll do it better back home in Lavmuy. An’ if you wanna do more…the opportunities are there too.”

She couldn’t take it anymore. Leela rushed out and flung herself into him, confused and keening and unsure if she was happy about her sudden luck, or maybe felt put upon, or…

He hugged her back, and the only thing she could smell, wrapped up in his vastness, was love.

Well. Giant wet brownie, too.

But mostly love.

He held her against his mighty chest and swallowed her up in his fur and his warmth and his perfect, infinite strength. They held for a long time. Or rather, he held her, since she couldn’t even properly get her arms around his neck these days.

She became aware of Naydra stroking her neck-fur, too. “We want to ask you something more,” the Great Mother said.

“Wh-…?”

Daar snuffled in her headfur affectionately and rumbled happily. “Feel free ‘ta say no, in fact mebbe it’s better if’n ‘ya do, but…”

“Come live with us,” Naydra finished.

Leela pulled back and blinked at them. “…But…why?”

“Weren’t you listening?” Naydra chittered and shot Daar a complicated, amused look. “Love. We want you close, and safe, and happy. And we’re worried for what the next few years are going to be like.”

“What you do, that’s up ‘ta you,” Daar added. “You even wanna stay here an’ make a go of it even with all the trouble, that’s ‘yer decision ‘ta make. You wanna take Ninja Taco ‘ta Lavmuy or Wi Kao or wherever, great.”

“But what we’d most like is for you to come to High Mountain,” Naydra said.

“What would I do there?”

“You’re an independent entrepreneur. I’m sure you’d surprise us!”

“…Why? And don’t answer with love.”

Daar sighed. “Okay. Firs’ly, it is ‘cuz we love you, me s’pecially. But practically speakin’? I am becomin’ somethin’ we ain’t never had an’ more an’ more, I unnerstand why Fyu kept himself ‘ta his close an’ beloved. I…can’t be layin’ th’ burden o’ me on every pretty tail I see.”

“Daar needs confidants,” Naydra translated. “Of a kind no Champion can provide. Now more than ever, he needs people he can love and trust, who are disinterested in the daily politics. In short…he needs a place of sanctuary.”

Ah.

“You mean a harem,” Leela accused.

Daar’s ears flicked backward at the mention of that, but he didn’t deny it.

“I don’ wanna call it such a thing but…”

“No, let’s speak honestly,” Naydra poked him. “That’s exactly what it is. But…” she added to Leela, “it was my idea.”

“Well, that…I can appreciate the logic. But Daar. My Father. You are a force of nature, with women as well as everything else. You already have the whole of our species at your whim. And now you want a few of us in particular? Did you pay off their debts, too?”

He sigh-chittered. “See, this is what we’re talkin’ about. Y’ain’t afraid ‘ta spatulate my nose an’ rip inta me a bit. D’you know how many gao there are in the whole freakin’ galaxy who’re like that? Both of ‘em are standin’ right in fronta me. An’ harem ain’t the right word. Really, it ain’t. I don’t wanna keep ‘ya from the Gao. I made Naydi th’ Great Mother an’ that has some ancient tradition…”

“But the Sacred Harem is an ancient tradition too, and existed to empower and protect us before the Clan of Females replaced it,” Naydra said. “There is a role for us to play, my Sister. I alone am beyond Daar’s power. The Gao would be well-served if there were a few more, carefully chosen. Because you are not afraid of him. You are not subdued by his mere presence, and that is a very special thing.”

“It’s all parta the plan,” Daar added. “The end o’ this war’s comin, Leela. Things are gonna change, fast, ‘cuz without Earth we either win or we lose in the next couple years. I intend ‘ta win. And when we do, I intend ‘fer us all ‘ta be free people.”

That was…

Asking a lot. But she couldn’t deny her other feelings. No other male had ever made her feel so alive as he. When he was stalking her, when he’d hunted her in his goofy, relentless way…when she’d finally said yes.

And she loved Naydra dearly. She couldn’t deny that. Nor could she deny what it’d mean for her personally. Daar was right, the number of women who could resist his charms was tiny and that already had given Leela a remarkable amount of social influence.

She knew what her response was.

She picked up her spatula and whacked him on the nose. People across the plaza turned and stared at the high-volume booming chitter that followed, which only got louder when she turned and gave Naydra a rather gentler whap for good measure.

Naydra managed to keep her own mirth in check enough to speak. “So…that’s a yes?”

“That’s a yes,” Leela confirmed.

Daar pant-grinned gleefully and wiggled in place. Which felt a bit like standing during a minor earthquake, but who was she to judge his joy?

“Okay! We’ll talk more once we get back, ‘kay? Naydi an’ I are gonna go do sum’ human TV.”

“Okay. I’ll…clean up and shut down, I guess. And then see if I can find somebody to sell the stand to. I guess Folctha will just have to do without Ninja Taco from now on.”

“Naw, think big!” Daar stood up to his full colossal height and spread his arms wide. “Franchising! In ten years there could be a thousand Ninja Tacos!”

“…You know what, I like that idea more.”

“Well yeah, how else ‘ya think I became a trillionaire?! Gotta dream big ‘ta make big!”

Leela shook her head and chitered. “You’re incorrigable.”

“Damn right! Anyhoo.” He sank back down to all fours with a thud, then gave her another gentle hug, and a nip on the ear. “No rush, yijao? An’ think about it. I won’t be any kinda mad if’n ‘ya change ‘yer mind. But I hope ‘ya don’t.”

“We need to get going, dear.”

“Right, right…”

And with that, Naydra and Leela exchanged parting nips while Daar stored his mountain of food in his saddle bags. One last parting nip and the Great Couple made their way back toward the terminal. Naydra had her parasol out again.

Daar…didn’t. He prowled away on all fours and ignored the rain, with Naydra right beside him, her ears not even reaching over the height of his rolling back. Leela watched them go, partly appreciating the sight of them, partly…thinking.

Once they were out of sight, she returned to the stand, closed up and cleaned. She’d just made a huge commitment, she knew. And maybe she should have thought about it longer…

But she knew that thinking about it longer wouldn’t have resulted in a different answer. And she did like the idea of franchising…

Yes. Yes, she was certain. This was the path for Leela.

It felt….right.


Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adam (Warhorse) Arés

The months were flying by. Adam was pushing forward at full throttle again and something in him had been desperate for the challenge of it all. He wouldn’t call it happiness or anything like that, ‘cuz the world was going to shit right now…

But he would be okay calling it satisfying. So after a few weeks of suffering as his body remembered how to truly go hard, and a few visits with Nofl and the rest—and some consult with HEAT, to help arrange the next mission—here he was again. Pushing the very edge of human limits, for reasons mostly selfish…but hopefully, it would help the Mission, too.

Everything was riding on the Mission like never before. On him too. He had to perform.

So he would. He still wasn’t as heavy, strong, or as fuckin’ conditioned as even Julian was these days, but that was coming back quickly, now. He’d catch up over the next year and beat Vemik too, then Yan, maybe a year later. And then…he’d topple Christian. No way was he gonna let mister perfect fuckin’ breeding keep his throne. The fire in Adam’s heart wouldn’t allow it! He’d put that bastard back in his place and look better while doing it, too. Ha!

Adam really was made for this shit, body and soul.

But that also meant his full-time job gave him a lot of spare time. He’d been splitting it three ways. Firstly, social time with friends, of course. But they all knew each other perfectly by now, so that wasn’t really much of a time commitment. Instead, they all worked together for item the second on his List of Things To Do While Recovering From Psychotic Levels of Training.

(He had that one in his Book, too.)

Most of that time was filled with renovations and construction work. Firth and Akiyama and ‘Horse had transformed their two apartment buildings into a row of them, exactly like they’d planned for all those years ago, homesteading money burning holes in their pockets and, really, not much else smart to spend it on. The result of all that was a bunch of identical sorta-townhouse-looking things. The original two buildings had sorta anchored their little neighborhood and, since Folctha was planned with walkability in mind, a buncha little stores sprung up around, the park behind them was nicely well-maintained, sidewalks were extra-wide and bikes had their own lanes. Now all the apartments were connected above the first floor—well, okay, ground floor since this was Britbong land, sorta—and looked like a big solid wall of brick. But they weren’t. They were each their own building, each with its own manager’s apartment, and each built from the ground up to comfortably house a bunch of families in some modest comfort.

The old buildings had been gutted and rebuilt, too. While the steelwork and flooring was certainly up to accommodating the various large (and quite heavy) bodies of some Dominion species, with structural beams spaced every three meters and the floors originally every six, Adam and Christian decided the buildings would be rebuilt to cater to humans (and gaoians) only. That let them have nine human-height stories instead of the Gurv or Ricky-Tick four, with Adam’s and Firth’s two-story apartments remaining untouched at the top. They had the only genuinely big apartments in any of the buildings, after the rebuild.

Firth needed it, with the size of his family. Mostly his apartment was made of kitchen and bedrooms. Adam had hoped for a great big family too, but, well…they had three, and he treasured him, and there wouldn’t be anymore coming, for Marty’s sake.

They’d both ached for more. So…yeah. That was there, in the back of his mind.

In any case, resizing the floors meant redoing all the building’s systems too. HVAC, plumbing, electrical, grav plating, all of it. To economize, the entire building above the ground floor had a single gravity generator kept at a constant one-point-two gee. No more per-unit adjustment, and that lowered the building’s electrical bill like crazy. No more ultra-sophisticated bio-separation systems either, since local health codes meant that for Deathworlder-only residences, simple HEPA and ultraviolet filtration was sufficient, along with a formal housekeeping and sanitation plan. Paperwork, but…eh. Cheaper than biofield sweeps.

And it let them turn a lot of old mechanical space into more apartments. So that was good.

The ground floor and basements were left as-is. High six meter ceilings, full biofilters, lower gravity for aliens (except in the gym), and so on. It was a huge, expensive project…but worth it. They were saving a lot of lives. Many hundreds! He’d be happy leaving that as a legacy.

All the Lads were happy to pitch in too, so Adam, Firth, and Akiyama were saving a boatload of cash, not paying for non-available contractor labor. And hey! It was handy skills to learn! The Lads may have been meatheads all, but if you make it in this game as long as they had, there was one lesson more important than any:

A man needed hobbies, or he’d lose his edge. And mind. So now, everyone was learning general construction. Vemik and Yan had welding certifications too, specifically for commercial construction. When the fuck had that happened?! They’d even taught others! So now one of the best welding crews on Cimbrean was a dozen fuckin’ ten’gewek and boy howdy did they charge for their services.

Adam would too, if he could weld upside down hanging from his toes. He was happy to pay for the time savings they gave. Actual monkeys were fast workers. When the welding was done, they were happy to learn brickwork, how to measure and swing hammers, how to install windows, even help the plumbers and electricians out, if they were cool with it…

The two girls Firth had fostered threw themselves into it even harder than some of the Lads, honestly. They were a constant paint-stained presence around the row, and as each set of rooms was finished, they moved in and made it pretty. Letty would slap on the paint-rolling, and little quiet Jenny would decorate it with stencils. Honestly, the bamboo forest she’d done on one wall was incredible.

It’d made for some eclectic apartments, but neither Adam nor Christian now Wilson—Adam never really could get his head around that being Titan’s first name. Anyway. Who could tell them no? Especially when it had taken the little one so long to just…not hide from Adam?

Broke his heart, really.

Adam’s favorite thing, though, was his third part of the day. Training and activities with his family. He had two Crude-fueled serious sessions every day, each targeting a different muscle group with extreme intensity. After each, he had, oh, maybe an hour or so of something lighter, to keep his metabolism up and his blood flowing. He usually spent some of that posing and stretching, and after that he made sure to do some activity that Regular(-ish) Folk could keep up with. Sometimes that was group sessions in his gym with clients and friends, sometimes, like right now, it was as a coach.

Diego had, predictably, turned out to be a meathead. And a genuine freak too, which was also unsurprising. He wasn’t overly tall for his age but he was stocky and visibly quite muscular, and already well over twice what he “should” weigh at his age. But unlike Adam in his younger days, he had playmates who could keep up. Joseph and Harrison, specifically, who were both built much the same. Diego was the shortest (natch) but also the biggest; Adam was extremely proud of that. The other two weren’t really much smaller though, and the three burgeoning young meatheads got along like a goddamned forest fire.

“Woah! Diego! You do not throw Joseph around like that!”

The two combatants detangled and sprung up to their feet while Harrison looked on. He won the previous round so his reward was being allowed to lift weights, under careful supervision.

He was particularly fond of kettlebells, but now there was A Thing Happening so he dropped it on the floor with a pretty heavy thud and thumped himself over.

“But he can take it!”

“Yeah!” Joseph protested, perhaps a bit proudly. “I can take it! An’ so can he!”

“Gotta get me first.”

“Hey–!”

“I know,” Adam raised his hand placatingly, “but that doesn’t matter and the reason it doesn’t is because this is a habit I don’t want you three getting into, comprende? Remember the first rule of sport?”

“Always be a good sportsman,” Harrison responded, bouncing on his toes. The other two noticed him and they grouped up protectively, like good little monke.

Apes strong together, or something. It was an old meme, but a good one.

“Exactly.” He nodded at Harrison, then got down on his haunches to focus on Diego. “Now, what d’you think might happen if you, I dunno, did that to one of your—”

He was about to say sisters, and corrected himself. Paz would just bounce. She seemed to be made out of fuckin’ rubber unobtanium, for all the amazing disasters she’d walked (or toddled!) away from in her young life.

“—Your smaller friends?”

“They’d get hurt,” Diego recited, dutifully.

“No. Think. What would really happen to them? You’re both turnin’ into ninjas. How would they get hurt?”

This was a Sneaky Dad Trick he’d picked up. Give ‘em a compliment they’d like, then force them to think and answer about the problem at hand. No escape for his little meathead monsters.

Learning occurred. Joseph answered first. “Uh…might break their neck.”

“Yeah. It might. What else, Diego?”

“Um…break their shoulder?”

“Could do that, too. What else?”

“…Elbow?” Harrison touched his with his other hand and moved his arm in and out a few times.

“Their ears!” Diego added, now turning it into a game.

“We call that one cauliflower ear, by the way. And it could dislocate their shoulder, so that’s a new word for you three.”

“I already knew it!” Joseph exclaimed. “Dad did that to mom when they were—”

“Good job,” Adam added quickly, suppressing a grin. Damn!

“Dis-lo-cate,” Diego puzzled. “Means…” he stuck his tongue out like he always did when he was thinking hard and oh my God it was so ridiculously cute—! “Uh, move something wrong?”

“Pretty close! Means to move something in a way it’s not meant to move. Now can you guess it in Spanish?”

Harrison and Joseph looked to Diego. They were all fluently bilingual in English and Gaori, but Diego was also learning Spanish. Call it two-and-a-half lingual. Ha!

“Uh…” He puzzled, now feeling a bit shy.

Adam offered him a hint. “It sounds almost the same. Try it in a sentence!”

“Uh…” He paused, then ventured, “¿Me disloqué el hombro?”

Adam beamed, “¡Muy bien, mi pequeño!” he agreed, then sobered. “But yeah, you could hurt someone bad. A broken neck is no joke, trust me on that. And you’d probably make them mad at you for a very long time. Or they might get very unlucky and die.”

Big, serious looks at him, now.

“So be careful, okay?” Adam looked up and saw Marty coming back from her own exercise. God she looked good in skin-tight spandex… “And play hard, but don’t break the rules, okay? Go ahead with the weights like we learned, okay? Nothing too heavy! You’ve still got a lot of growing to do. So what does that mean?”

“Dumbbells and kettlebells only!” chirped Harrison. He had a slightly more melodic voice than the other two boys.

“And only if we can pick it up with one hand!” added Joseph.

“Good, last rule?”

Diego had it. “Uh…if you can’t lift it ten times, it’s too heavy?”

“Very good! And no horsing around with the weights, okay?”

“Okay,” in synchronous rote obedience.

Good enough. “Right. Hey Titan?”

“Yuh?”

“Keep an eye on the three wannabe pro wrestlers here?”

“Okay.”

“Thanks.” He gave them fond tussles on their head—all three needed a haircut. He nodded at Marty, who smiled, and the two of them prowled away to where they could still keep an eye on everything.

Marty showed him her phone as soon as they had some distance. “Sister Lucille sent another email. They just got four new kids in.”

“Ah, hell. Four at once? What happened?”

“Some kinda basement dungeon thing,” Marty shook her head, fighting for a straight face: pure mama-bear rage was trying to push through. “There’s some real goddamn animals out there, and I guess they’ve stopped caring.”

“We got room?”

“Yeah, barely. A young woman there sorta became their adopted mamma-bear. She’s young but pretty independent. Real fighter, from what I hear…”

Adam caught the note in her voice. And, well…

So, yeah. There was certainly a part of him that was catching what she was throwin’ down. It was absolutely screaming at him in his head to take Marty at her word, and take the poor young woman on as…what?

And that was the thing. The other part of him couldn’t bear the thought of hurting Marty that way. Because Adam knew, no matter what she said, no matter how much she rationalized she was okay with it, and…uh, frankly, however much it triggered something deep and ancient in her…

That wasn’t for them.

He wasn’t a young bull anymore. His days of gleefully plowing through any pretty young woman who smiled at him were long behind him, and even if he could do the whole poly thing, or whatever they were talking about…

Marty couldn’t. He knew it. Even if she didn’t.

Also his father would never stop judging him and his father in-law might just murder him. Adam didn’t care if he had some literal tons of superman muscle on the grizzled old man, angry fathers were dangerous motherfuckers. Combat-hardened retired operators?

Yeah. Adam had a fuck of a lot of respect for what quiet and purposeful could do.

So really, he had a full-spectrum List of reasons why it was all a bad idea.

So, he did what Adam did best. He pulled Marty in for a snuggle. Not a very tight one, ‘cuz they were in public and that wasn’t the energy she needed. But right now, the hug mattered.

So did his next words. He’d been thinking on them for a while.

“Marty…” He turned her around so they could look at each other properly. “You are a brave woman. Maybe the bravest I know. You took a chance on me right when I was, maybe, the dumbest possible choice for a girl to make…”

She gave him an amused look. “I disagree, but continue.”

“You were there with me when I was broken and at my lowest. You helped me recover for two years. You’re still here with me, while I’m doing this insane job of mine…”

“While you juggle everything else, including the occasional rescue op.” She grinned, “So enough about you. Talk more about me!”

“I’m getting there! Anyway…you’re the fuckin’ best. And I absolutely know you’d make it work if we did this thing. And down the road, when we’re both Crude-old but still young-bodied? I’m not so stupid to rule that out and I do read sci-fi now and then. Lots of speculation about long lives, yijao? I certainly dunno what we’ll be like in a hundred years…”

“God, to think we have to think in terms like that now.”

“Right? And that’s a future I wanna explore. With you. And right now, only you.”

Marty didn’t cry much. But she wasn’t immune to welling up, either.

“Ugh. Why are you so good at that?”

“We’re talkin’ ‘bout you, remember?” Adam chuckled, and nuzzled the side of her neck. “So…look. I get why this is a thing for you. At least, I think I do. And it obviously matters or you wouldn’t have ever entertained the idea. And there’s a big part of me that wants to, y’know. Make like a bull on hormone therapy!”

She gave one of those explosive laughs that was on the verge of tears.

“What can I say? You know what kinda man I am. So I won’t say no forever. But let’s…rescue these kids, first. God knows they’ll have a lot of positive menfolk around that are just itching to Dad somebody. I swear everyone on HEAT is suddenly finding a woman and settling down…”

“Even Gonzo?”

“With Ian?” Adam shrugged. “Iunno. They’ve been goin’ steady for a while now but I wouldn’t call it ‘settling down.’”

Marty chuckled. “They do make a cute couple, though.”

“Not sure they’re quite ready to adopt a couple kids, though,” Adam snickered, trying to imagine those two getting comfortably domestic. It didn’t quite fit, somehow. “Mebbe they need a woman?”

“Adam!”

“What? They’re both bi! Maybe what they need is to find the right gal and share her.”

Marty paused and went distant-eyed. “…Wow.”

Adam nudged her mischievously. “Don’t tell me you like that idea?”

“Ew! No thank you!”

“What, you don’t like the idea of sharing two boys?”

“That’s…there both a lot of boy! Who the hell could handle two of them?!”

“Well, you handle me just fine…”

“That’s different!”

“Sure! I’m more than twice the man they are! Is that why you’re okay sharing me with some other gal?” Adam grinned evilly and waggled his eyebrows. “What’s really going on?”

“That’s—” Marty bit of the word ‘different’, scowled for a second, then shook her head in defeat. “…y’know what? You’re right. Here I am, half-fantasizing and half-dreading a world where I have a dozen sister-wives and—”

“A dozen?!” Adam coughed trying to keep from laughing.

“Why, thinking you wouldn’t be up to it?”

“One wife’s hard enough—OW!”

She had wicked little pinchy fingers, sometimes. But he could use his words now, too.

“And who said I couldn’t?! I could recall some incidents I had with Murray…”

“Lame.”

“Or the whole team—”

That incident especially had always scandalized her. Even she had her limits.

“Hush, you!” She pinched at him again, and he tickled back, and pinned her between his arms, tightened his body up against her exactly the way he knew she liked…good excuse for more snuggle time, really. So they took it, and she sighed happily against his chest, finger tracing the meandering stompy green feet. He had all three kid’s footprints programmed in.

“…I guess…” she said after a while. “…I like what Al and Xiù have with each other, you know? Sometimes I think that must be really nice.”

“Well…” Adam squeezed her. “Maybe…I try to be open-minded, but…babe, there’s a difference between wanting to, y’know…”

He shrugged uncomfortably.

“…An’ what we got. I already said all that, but it’s important. I love you, and the part of me that’s actually worth somethin’…ain’t down with wrecking that. I love what we have an’ I wanna keep it.”

Marty sighed heavily, but not unhappily. “Yeah.”

Still. Just to be diplomatic…and because he was a pragmatic sorta lad, deep down…

“Let’s revisit in fifty years though, huh? Maybe you’ll be bored of me!”

That earned a giggle. “Definitely not. You’re going to get better and better with age.”

“Oh, so I’m like a wine, now?”

“More like a brandy. High proof.”

“A whisky?” Adam ventured. Brandy had always sounded too British.

“Whisky doesn’t age in the bottle, though.”

“Eh. Only things I drink are beer and tequila, so…”

She snorted. “Such a stereotypical mexican…”

Adam quirked an eyebrow. “Just how many two-meter mexihulks do you know?!”

“Just one. The best one. And I thought you preferred latino!”

“I do,” he sniggered. “Unless it’s funnier to pretend I’m from Mexico. Then fetch me my sombrero. ¡Ole!”

She whapped him in the chest, giggling, then climbed off his lap. “I’m going for a shower.”

Adam chuckled. “Am I joining you?”

“After that little talk, what do you think?”

She didn’t need to say any more. Adam gave Titan a look and he grinned, nodding his assent to babysit for the next, oh…

Well, they’d be a bit. Time for a different kind of training!

Adam followed her upstairs, and scooped her up when they got to the apartment, much to her giggling protests.

The world, and all its problems, could wait.


Ekallim-Igigi, New Uruk System

Y!’Kiidaa

Physical training for the mission had been escalating in earnest. The ancient trickster’s days were pre-occupied with mission planning, the aforementioned training, rest and study, food and sleep and wake up, do it all over again…

Not that developing his body was the primary goal, even with what the most modern ideas could yield. No, the training was mostly in aid of muscle memory, un-learning some ancient and tiny bad habits, familiarizing himself with new equipment. All in aid of an assault on the one planet they’d always known must be out there somewhere, but which the sheer vastness of the galaxy had always obscured: the Igraen homeworld.

Their early theory was that it must have been at the heart of “Discarded” territory, but the Hunters of course were completely unsentimental. Why would they keep a planet with no slaves on it?

Next had come the assumption that it must be one of the Relay worlds, but the survey of those was essentially complete and they were, universally, the graves of ancient conquered civilizations. Subtle, quiet archaeology had made it clear that whoever had lived on each one was not Igraen-shaped.

Archives? The Archives were sufficient to rebuild the Igraen Hegemony should they suffer some temporary setback in matterspace, but they were not the active computational engine necessary to achieve an entire virtual layer of reality.

For centuries, Leifini had theorized the existence of such a thing. She’d named it “Node Prime” and guessed that if Singularity could ever find the Igraen home planet, they’d find Node Prime. But Node Prime, if it did exist, did not broadcast the same signals as a Relay. It wasn’t out there thrumming away loudly in the deep magic layers where gravity and quantum mechanics met and sorted out their differences. If it existed, it had always remained perfectly silent.

And yet, they now knew where it was. And no wonder they’d never found it.

It wasn’t on the Igraen homeworld at all. The Hierarchy weren’t that stupid.

Instead, according to the source who had finally pointed them toward it, Node Prime was barely inside the galaxy at all. It was seventy thousand lightyears from Earth, in the general direction of the Great Attractor, where the comparatively dense packing of stars in the spiral arms gave way to the looser, sparser and uncountable environs of the inner halo.

Singularity had never looked out there. Why would they? The stars of the halo were ancient, metal-poor and cold. They were the ember stars that had first lit billions of years before Sol and Ga!’iyu’s nursery nebulae had even formed, and which would smolder on for trillions of years. Against their incredible longevity, the age of bright, hot stars in which all of sapient life had arisen was barely an eyeblink.

The logic was inescapable. The Hegemony intended to exist forever, or failing that for as long as possible. Of course they would use the most enduring power source in all of the universe! And of course they wouldn’t cling sentimentally to a world that would be cold, dead and worthless in a thousandth of the time.

Singularity’s efforts to find them had always been pure hubris. And yet…

And yet, between Singularity’s efforts, the Gao, the humans, and a mishap of their own…here they were. They had a defector on their side.

He had chosen the name Metastasis.

And talking to him was both Y!’kiidaa’s duty and, increasingly, his pleasure.

“Good morning. How are you feeling today?”

The datamind had come to them. Turned up politely, knocked on the figurative door and accepted the equivalent of shackles and a prison cell. He was entirely contained within an isolated device, physically confined to one room with no network connections whatsoever, nor the means to create one.

Y!’kiidaa had used such cages before: they invariably meant torturous, maddening demise for their Substrate-starved occupant. But not this one.

He’d chosen a gaoian avatar for conversation. The realism of it was disturbing: every scar, blemish, asymmetry and imperfection pointed to this being the visage of a former biodrone host. An uncomfortable reminder that their ally of convenience was still a monster.

In fact, Y!kiidaa thought he might remember precisely who.

“Still perfectly comfortable, thank you. I’ve been listening to some fascinating music.”

Kiidaa sat on the rug opposite the prison computer—there was no point in making the room unpleasant for an occupant who wasn’t even technically occupying it, so it was actually quite comfortably appointed—and tilted his head. “Yes?”

“Muy-hop. Gaoian artists inspired by human R&B, and incorporating it into your peoples’ own musical genres. Gaoian rap!” Metastasis’ avatar pant-grinned happily on his screen. “A lot more accessible than everything coming from Earth right now. Their music industry has almost completely shut down.”

“Understandable, considerin’ they’re all goin’ to die,” Y!’kiidaa growled.

“Oh, the industry may be collapsing, but I’m quite sure the humans themselves will still be singing right up until the moment the sky burns. And beautifully, too. It’s just that nobody is profiting from their voices any longer, so the new music that is escaping is recorded amateurishly, purely for the sake of noting that it existed at all.” Metastasis’ avatar flicked both ears, sadly. “It’s magnificent, in its way.”

“How many species have you had a hand in wipin’ out, and you’re sad for this’n?” Kiidaa asked, pouring skepticism into his tone.

“We did not wipe this one out.”

“Despite ‘yer best efforts.”

“Nor did the Hunters. The Alpha-of-Alphas quite clearly believed it was doing the humans a favor. It may even turn out to have been correct, in the fullness of time! Who knows what they’ll become, for surviving this hardship? And in any case…” he added as Kiidaa’s hackles started to rise. “When this plan succeeds, theirs will be the last tragedy.”

Kiidaa forced his hackles back down. “It better fuckin’ be.”

“Remove the source of conflict, and there is no conflict. Remove our dependence on Substrate, and there is no longer any reason for us to cultivate matterspace. We’ve been over this.”

“Mebbe I still don’t trust you. Mebbe I’d be a nutless fool ‘ta ever trust you.”

“Maybe you would. But haven’t we had this conversation before? You either…’flip the tile’ as your people say, or you lose and my people miss out on the one opportunity we have ever had to wean ourself off our dependence on…meat.”

Metastasis induced his avatar to tilt his head in challenge. “Unless something has changed since the last time you came in here to bare your fangs at me, I believe everything I already said about trust and necessity still applies. And besides…what we learned from studying the Entity works. That much you can see by the simple fact that I’m quite comfortable here in this dead machine. I’m free, trickster god. If you trust nothing else, please do trust that I want to spread this gift to my people, just as you would wish to spread an equal gift to yours.”

It was that fact alone that had led Kiidaa to take Metastasis’s proposal seriously in the first place. The Hierarchy agent—though he insisted he was ‘the last of the Cabal’ and painted a picture of a short-lived and ill-fated dissenting faction inside the Hierarchy—had been in there for months by now. Every other datasophont ever confined to that device had sunk into a schizophrenic stupor within a handful of days, ten at most, before becoming unresponsive and ultimately crashing unrecoverably.

Even so…after all these years, even after all this planning and checking and careful preparation, there was a place in his belly that would never, ever trust an Igraen.

Especially not when the smug fucker gave him a careful, calculating look and asked, “The Entity is on-board, yes? You can’t possibly do this without it.”

“Tentatively, yes.”

“Tentatively is no good. It either commits or this whole plan is doomed.”

“Patience,” Kiidaa retorted. “We get one shot at this. If you’re telling the truth, your own ends are served by our caution. An’ for all we know, this is just an elaborate plan ‘ta reprogram the Entity. So you’re gonna sit there an’ be patient while we proceed at our pace, yijao? ‘Yer old enough ‘ta wait for us.”

“As you say, of course!“ the Igraen raised his avatar’s paw, reasonably. “I’ll keep listening to music and waiting patiently.”

Y!’kiidaa grunted and stood, wondering why he was still coming down here. “You do that.”

Of course, he knew why. Y!’kiidaa was old. For twenty tails-damned millennia he’d been in a fight against these evil fucks. Old habits died exceptionally hard, and right now…

Well, right now he was trying to convince himself. This was a fuck of a tile-flip he’d steered everyone onto, and while he’d done it with confidence and a smile at the negotiating table…in his heart of hearts, he was terrified that his decision, his enthusiasm, might just be the mis-step that doomed them all and handed the galaxy back to the Old Enemy.

And the Old Enemy weren’t stupid. They’d learned from all this. Defeat now would mean the galaxy never got this close to freedom ever again. His failure would echo down in eternity, even though he and his name would be unknown to those who suffered for it..

It was, to say the least, a bit stressful.

Prince Alex was waiting for him. Gods how the young lad had grown into his station. He was a confident, stately, and wise young man. For someone who hadn’t even started their third decade of life, that was remarkable, in Y!’kiidaa’s experience.

He was a truly sadistic training partner, too. But that wasn’t why he was here, Y!’kiidaa could sniff it.

Alex crossed his impressive arms (how like his father!) and grinned a sideways, knowing grin. “You’re still second-guessing yourself.”

He flicked his ears back in slight embarrassment. Not even Gilgamesh could read him so well.

“I swear you humans have a better sense of smell than you let on…”

“It isn’t your musk that gives you away,” Alex grinned. “Same reason I have a winning streak in poker. I can just tell.”

“…The Enemy are old, patient and clever, prince. An’ they’ve been around a lot longer even than Leifini an’ me. How many tricks have they learned in their time? How many ways to deceive, how many…stratagems?”

Alex shook his head, kindly. “You’re too used to playing the trickster. Why fret over the unknowable? It won’t become knowable in any way that might impact our actions.”

“But if we fail—”

“The only true failure is to never try in the first place, isn’t it?.”

“The stakes are a bit higher than a young man getting on in life, who might find himself in a pickle. The stakes now—”

“Are pretty absolute, yeah. But that doesn’t change what I said. We know what we know, and we have no way of knowing what we do not. All possible angles of preparation are covered. It is just a matter of…doing it, now.”

“Won’t you allow me a little dread, cub?” Kiidaa chittered.

“Nope.” Alex grinned. “Think of it this way. There’s no prank that doesn’t come without the risk of failure. But they’re worth it because of the thrill of success! And reprogramming the entire Hegemony? That’s got to be the greatest trick ever pulled!”

Y!’kiida snorted. “Strange that you should be teaching me my own wisdom back…”

He shrugged those big pretty shoulders of his. “What can I say? I’ve had good teachers. And maybe it’s still fresh for me.”

There was a moment of companionable silence. It ended when Kiidaa exhaled, duck-nodded and realized he felt much better just for those few words. “You’re right. I should try and enjoy this more.”

“Normally I wouldn’t encourage you in your downright predatory delight in these things…”

“But this time?”

Alex grinned. “Father has been much too serious these last few weeks as well. He needs cheering up.”

Y!’kiidaa paused. Then a delighted chitter bubbled up inside him, driving away all the stress and worry and self-doubt. He’d been yearning for this day, from the moment of Alex’s birth, had been planning what he could do with the prince’s help for years.

And now, here they were. Alex had grown into a fine young titan of a Hero. One to surpass his until recently unsurpassable father, legendary king Gilgamesh himself. Y!kiidaa had been surpassed, too. Both of them had, by a growing and impressive count of men and women! All their long, long preparation was paying off.

And so now, at last, finally. It was upon them. The greatest prank in galactic history.

What was the deepest, most permanent kind of victory?

A victory right in your enemy’s soul.

Along with some burly brothers in arms, and some supergenius help alongside…

With the aid of three species, a sapient machine swarm, of immortals and the very pinnacle of what biology could achieve…

They would reprogram the Hierarchy.



++END CHAPTER 91++



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


Dandelion: audiobook now available!

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

Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.

When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.

Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…

Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.

And now, without further ado, on with the chapter!



Acknowledgments

This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


The SOR

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

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker


31 Humans

TTTA

Adam Shearsby

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Austin Deschner

Bart Welch

Chris Dye

Darius Marquis

Devin Rousso

His Dread Monarch

James R

Joseph Szuma

Joshua A. Demic

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja Grim

Marquis Talmadge

NovaTheSpaceWolf

Ortheri

Richard A Anstett

Ryan Seaman

Sam Berry

Shane Wegner

Sun Rendered

Taylor McGee

TheMoneyBadger

Trevor C

Xultanis

Yeania Aeon

Zachary Galicki

Zorven


As well as 50 Deathworlders…

Adam Zarger Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece blackwolf393 Bralor Ironwolf Brandon Hicks Brigid Bruce Ludington Chalax Chris Bausch Chris Candreva Chris Meeker Christopher Plemons damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Eric Hardwick Henry Moyers Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jack Weedon jmal116 Jon Katie Drzewiecki Kristoffer Skarra Loaf of Orange lovot Matt Bullock Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oli Tusig Olli Erinko Patrick Huizinga Ryan Cadiz Ryc O’Chet Sam Sean Calvo Stephen Prescott Thanatos Ty walter thomas Woodsie13 Zod Bain +1 anonymous

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.

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

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

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


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 92: The Raging Storm.