The Deathworlders


Chapter 92: The Raging Storm

Naya Mumbai, Roshanee Union Territory, Planet Lucent

Governor Madhukar Sastry

The Republic of India’s pledge with its holdings on the planet Lucent, from the moment part of that world became theirs to develop, had always been simple in conception: to create a paradise.

Governor Sastry had lived nearly ten years in Naya Mumbai, and so far he’d overseen exactly that. The city—really a large town by population—had been built in careful stages, with attentive reference to Western successes (and especially Western failures) on their own colony world. Front and center of the effort had been that under no circumstances was an ecological disaster like the so-called “Cimbrean Skidmark” to happen to Lucent.

After all, the planet’s native life was a treasure. Against all expectations, Lucent had turned out to be highly compatible with human needs: the worst difficulty the Indian settlement had suffered was a constant demand for antihistamines in the dry season as the air filled with alien pollen that gave everyone hay fever, even if they didn’t normally suffer from it on Earth.

But the spices!

The air smelled of them. The nail-trees shed their bark as they grew, dropping hand-size scales of it every year, and the underside of those scales was full of a dry, powdery substance that probably served to keep insects out while the tree was in its vulnerable state, but which hit the human tongue with a bitter heat reminiscent of chili-infused chocolate.

One of the more ubiquitous shrubs fruited tiny, dark blue berries that cracked open when they dried and released thousands of tiny seeds onto the wind, which tasted a little like bergamot and a lot like nothing on Earth.

There were grasses that, with time and breeding, could have rivaled rice and wheat as dietary staples. Roots, tubers, bulbs, leafy plants…the scientists had cataloged thousands of species all with the potential to be cultivated into crops, and Sastry’s vision had been of exactly that.

Now, the vision was…not dead, but his dream of a completely unsullied landscape producing nothing but native foods was dashed. Not now that Lucent was the best hope for saving some small fragment of his homeland and culture.

Such was the cycle of death and rebirth. He took some solace in that. Each rebirth had something of the old in with the new, so…well, it was poetic, at least.

The fields around Naya Mumbai, formerly laboratory farms working on selective breeding, were now being replanted with rice, millet and lentils, and expanded dramatically. They’d stretch to the horizon by next year. The settlement had been founded in a clime much like his homeland, hot and steamy with a regular monsoon. The crops that thrived in Punjab and Haryana were entirely at home here. Better than at home: there were no Earthling pests to trouble them.

Still…it was hard to look out and see orderly rows of young, green millet where there should have been the rich purple-red more common among Lucent’s native life. And something about the imported crop seemed to repel the glimmermote flies, which had hitherto swirled and danced colorfully above the field.

Sastry turned away from his balcony and tried to will the melancholy thoughts out of his mind. It was all necessary to save lives, he reminded himself. That was all that mattered now. Lucent was their lifeboat, their one hope of keeping something of the Indian peoples and their culture alive after Earth.

His timing was accidentally perfect anyway. No sooner had he returned to the air-conditioned comfort of his office than his desk phone chirped at him as his secretary called.

“Yes, Rashmi?”

“Mister Levaughn Thomas is here, Governor.”

Right, yes. The man from the Byron Group. Because there was more to save than just lives…

“Thank you, yes, please send him in.”

The American was tall, portly, tastefully but characterfully dressed, and had that look Sastry had started to recognize among wealthy westerners: physically younger than he really was. Age still shone through in the fact his hair remained perfectly silver white, but his face was unwrinkled and his posture and movements had the ease and comfort of a much younger man.

Or…no. Of an older man who had recovered such ease and comfort.

Sastry could have used the longevity medicine himself, of course. He had the wealth and connections to acquire it. But it seemed like a violation of dharma to him. Unseemly. Still. Sastry was not one to hold people to the standards of his own faith, so he put on a smile and shook Thomas’ hand before sitting with him by the window.

“Thank you for seeing me, Governor.”

“Your proposal was far too interesting to ignore,” Sastry replied. He looked up and smiled at Rashmi as she came in with a tray loaded with tea and snacks. “You wish to build a vault of relics?”

“Mister Byron recognized early on that if MBG is to make any serious contribution to the evacuation effort—thank you—it’ll be in preserving cultural artifacts,” Thomas explained, “We’re doing the same thing all across the world.”

“A noble effort, and one I’m personally keen to support,” Sastry said. “But I must consider what my people will say. Our culture and our history is important. But people will ask, are they really so important, when the same resources that might rescue, say, the Siva Nataraja could save a dozen human lives instead? What answer are you giving to that challenge?”

“We are not a military and cannot wield force. The resources needed to house people are tricky and political. Leadership, police forces, medical, schools, culture…on and on. To pretend we could hope to do that would be a lie.”

“Surely if you can build a museum, with all the permissions and resources that entails, you can build a housing complex instead?”

“And that would give dozens of people someplace to live, but people need more than that. They need something to live for. We need our roots, Governor. We need to know that the story goes on. That’s the great threat of this whole thing. It threatens to cut us all adrift. The fact is, we believe that saving these artifacts will save lives.”

Sastry smiled, and sipped his tea. Still a little too hot, so he set it down. “So. Let us talk specifics then. How much land will you need, what will you build there, and what will you store?”

The American sat back, crossing one knee over the other as he got comfortable. “To begin with, we’re just looking at climate-controlled warehouses. We can start worrying about museums to display what we save afterwards. Ideally somewhere secure, where the contents will be safe from fire, flood, earthquakes, so on…”

Sastry nodded. “Chamakatee Dhaara would be a good location, I think. It’s a mountain valley, about fifty miles from here. A tourism company had just started building a hotel up there before the news about Alpha Centauri arrived.”

“A hotel?” Thomas blinked. “Surely a hotel site would be perfect refugee housing?”

“Sabotaging your own purchase, Mister Thomas?” Sastry asked.

“We’re ideally looking to buy out and replace economically non-viable luxury properties, not places that could save lives. The entire goal of this project is to ultimately save lives in a roundabout way, as I said.”

“All the company ever succeeded in doing was laying the foundation,” Sastry pointed out. “The instant the crisis became apparent, it all fell apart. The hotel’s investors were not so…far-sighted as you.”

“What happened to the workers?”

“Still here, and soon to be quite busy I expect. Will you give them a job? Take them away from projects which would more immediately save lives?”

“We have our own people,” Thomas replied.

“Good. In any case, Chamakatee Dhaara is not the only possible location, but I thought you would appreciate the leg up provided by what’s already there. Another site you might consider is somewhat closer to town…”

So the conversation went. He was…surprised by the man from the Byron Group, and by the corporation itself, and gave in to the temptation to poke and investigate a little past the point he really should have. Having come into the conversation expecting nothing more than a big American company making a self-interested play for relevance in the midst of a crisis…

Well, perhaps they still were exactly that. But Levaughn Thomas at least seemed to speak with a conviction that shone out from under his polished, pompous, pampered exterior. If nothing else, MBG had certainly sold its…“Cool-ade,” was it? …to him.

The meeting had to end, however. The governor was a busy man, and Thomas had sites to visit and consider the company’s next move, so they shook hands and parted ways, with Sastry being in no doubt that MBG were here to stay…and therefore so to would be an important part of his country’s heritage.

Self-interested or not, bless them for thinking of that. After all, when Earth was gone, all that would be left of it would be the stories. So in a way, they were saving the Earth.

How could Sastry not grant them his blessing?

He smiled as he watched the American’s car leave, then readied himself for his next meeting. There was much to do.

And precious little time.

’That Show with Jamal Taylor’ set, New York City, USA, Earth

Jamal Taylor

It had been quite a while since the Great Father of the Gao had graced their stage, and this visit in particular involved quite a bit of prep. Firstly, security: it was oppressive. There were multiple rings of protection, both human and gaoian, and a couple Given-Men were involved too, because…

Tonight was an incredible ensemble of leadership.

The audience had been carefully screened, sniffed, and examined by many sets of wary eyes and sensitive noses. Secondly: the stage floor had been ripped out and replaced with something much sturdier to handle the many and large beings who would be occupying it tonight. They’d taken the opportunity to redesign the setting too, because this new format seemed like it’d be a winner to Jamal. Ensemble shows were good for information and that, really, was what people tuned in for nowadays. Light humor was just there to lubricate the panel hearings.

They kept the closing performance, though, and rehearsing for that (along with the musical entertainment) had been a highlight for his bigger guests. People needed something.

Thirdly, there was that rehearsal. That wasn’t how they usually did things of course, being at heart a live variety show, but in this case it was necessary so that everyone had a run-through of their talking points, and end-of-show activities. Fortunately everyone had something reasonably dignified they could do, so that should take some of the evening’s edge off. And besides, some of the guests weren’t accustomed to being on-camera. Best to get familiar.

Lastly, Instead of introducing his guests one at a time, they spent some considerable time mingling with the audience and answering questions, all in an effort to keep the evening on-task. The show went with a dead opening, everyone already seated and refreshments pre-positioned.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Jamal started when they went live, “tonight is a special episode and we don’t have time to waste on my usual lame stand-up routine.”

Some polite laughs, there. That was good.

“Yes, thank you. Tonight, after I think what we can all agree have been a rough and shocking few months…tonight, we are visiting with leaders from our little part of the world, along with those whose generosity cannot possibly be understated. Please welcome, first and foremost, His Most Hugest-est the Great Father…”

Daar sat sprawled out on a nice thick rug while reclining against a huge cushion in regal repose, stretched out yet alert like the giant hulking apex predator he was. He was considerably more in every respect than the last time they’d met, bigger and taller and more impressive than ever, and his indulgent chitter made the stage shake underfoot a little.

How the Gao could have produced a being like him–!

Jamal put those thoughts away and waited for the right moment. “Alongside him sits Her Tolerant Majesty the Great Mother…”

He hadn’t told them this bit during rehearsals, only promised they’d be…cheekily complimentary. To judge from the set of her ears, Naydra loved it and duck-nodded in complete agreement.

“Boy, ain’t that th’ truth,” Daar grumbled happily. Still a personable sort of man, at least.

“Both are taking time out of their insanely busy schedules to have a chat with us,” Jamal added. Daar all by himself was dominating stage-left, so Jamal turned to the other side.

Seating this lot had been a nightmare of protocol, consultation and the optics of power. It had involved a personal sacrifice on Jamal’s part, too: his desk in the middle had been made much shorter than usual to make room for them all.

The Great Father and his Great Mother sat alone. Partly this was an acknowledgement of the underlying power dynamics—there was no point pretending who the real boss was these days. Partly this was for visual balance. Mostly it was to lower construction costs; Daar would fall right through any reasonable (or even unreasonable) stage floor with his ridiculous mass, and hand-pouring a concrete dais in a building was some back-breaking work, after all.

So they only did that for his half. Stage right was a single huge, sweeping couch. This time, Jamal started on the outside and worked his way in.

“Next we have Yan and Vemik Given-Man, alongside the Singer of Vemik’s tribe. Yan is Chief of the Lodge and can fairly be described as the leader of his people. Welcome,” he nodded to all three. Yan and the Singer nodded their dignified thanks, while Vemik gave him a big tusky grin and waved.

Jamal had never met a ten’gewek before. He knew these three were pretty exceptional among their people, but he hadn’t been prepared for the in-person experience. They were…a very intense and alien sort of handsome. Brutally perfect bodies, weirdly compelling faces. In fact it was hard to look away from any of them, especially the eyes. They weren’t merely a solid color or patterned. They were iridescent. And the three of them were a bit much personality-wise, but Jamal at least had plenty of experience with that.

“I’m also joined tonight by His Excellency Sir Jeremy Sandy the Governor-General of Folctha, President Margaret White of the United States, Prime Minister Luke Ratcliffe of the United Kingdom…” the final figure, closest to his desk, took up as much couch space as a given-man. “…and his Royal Highness, Prince Alex of Ekallim-Igigi, Ambassador at-Large to Humankind. And I want to tell you folks, with guests like these? Our catering budget is shot for the next year!”

“I brought werne!” Yan hooted indignantly, but somehow one could tell he wasn’t angry.

“It was delicious, too!”

Laughter turned into polite applause welcoming them all to the re-designed stage. Frankly it was a small miracle they all fit in any dignified way.

Unmentioned, but acutely present in Jamal’s mind, was a military cordon three blocks in every direction, with an air patrol somewhere overhead and a shield emitter installed on the roof. Really, the only element missing was The Entity, which had politely declined through an intermediary stating that it was ‘at task capacity’ and that it could not spare the attention. It had even provided a precisely enumerated estimate of how many people would die as a consequence of its appearance.

That had been a dose of cold water.

Jamal let the applause die naturally as he returned to his desk, then turned to the couch first. “Madame President, it’s been six months since you broke the news to America about what’s coming for us. Since that time, the Department of Evacuation has been created, the military mobilized in full, and the first evacuees have already left. That’s a lot of challenges overcome very quickly. For those of us who are still here, what does the evacuation look like on the other end?”

Margaret White sat forward and folded her long, delicate fingers in her lap. “It looks like digging out the foundations,” she said. “We have to home, feed and clothe millions of people, and we have to build all the infrastructure necessary to do that, practically from scratch. Right now, there are hundreds of industrial-scale farms going up on Cimbrean, but not just farms. They’re going to need equipment, so we need the factories to make the equipment. And the factories in turn need the raw materials, and the raw materials need vehicles to transport them….”

“We’ve got a logistical nightmare,” Daar rumbled. It wasn’t an interruption, but a rehearsed continuation. “An’ managin’ it’s proven a real burr in our fur, yijao? So ‘fer everythin’ that needs sourcin’, there’s a requirement in a database now, an’ if you or ‘yer company on Gao, Gaori, Earth, Cimbrean, or Lucent can meet th’ requirement, please fer the love of everythin’ respond. We need ‘ta know everythin’ bout the talent and institutions we’ve got. Our shiny new logistical AIs can’t make good decisions wit’out good data!”

The President nodded fervently, and looked directly into the camera, addressing the people at home. “By responding, you help us determine what you or your organization’s priority will be for offworld migration. This is everything from semiconductor tooling manufacturers, to a little mom-and-pop shop making screws, to individual talents of every description. Please. If you can contribute anything at all, go to the website and fill out the forms. Be accurate. Intentional misrepresentation here will result in a permanent denial of egress.”

Grim nods all around on that final point. “What sort of conditions can the refugees expect to be living in?” Jamal asked.

“That depends on where they go, and under whose aegis. Obviously our priority must be to deliver survival first, rather than comfort, but inhumane conditions are detrimental to survival. Right now we’re looking at barrack housing and small apartments. We are attempting to prioritize this in a needs-based manner, but inevitably any project at this scale will be imperfect. To that end, we have many parallel efforts ongoing on Cimbrean, as well as colonization work on Nightmare and Akyawentuo, and of course His Sublime Majesty here has committed Gao as a refuge world as well.”

“Let’s address those one by one.” Jamal turned to the audience. “But first, let me address something. Do not mistake his sublime majesty’s accent or our ten’gewek friend’s speech pattern as having anything to do with any kind of stupidity. In both cases, it can physically hurt for them to speak English. With Daar—”

He yawned, and showed off a terrifying set of sharp teeth and fangs. “M’jaw ain’t as flexible.” He snapped his mouth shut with a loud clap! and then worked them for a bit. Both sides of his huge head bulged with power under the fur of his cheeks.

…Damn, the big bastard could bite Jamal in half, probably! “And with the ten’gewek?”

Vemik waved at the audience with his forked, prehensile tongue. It had to be something like two feet long! The reaction was a mixture of laughter, shock, and a few raucous catcalls.

“Keep it civil, folks! In any case,” he turned to the ten’gewek. “This colony is on your world. As I understand it, your people number a few tens of thousands. That’s a decent-sized town by human standards…aren’t your people concerned about being outnumbered on your own homeworld?”

Yan spoke up, with a gravelly, booming voice. “Yes. We worry about many things. We know our strength is very small next to yours. We know some humans, they are not good. We read much. History. Slavery, Trail of Tears, war after war, hollo caust, nuclear bombs. Even saw one myself, on my own world.”

Vemik nodded, and took over with an optimistic hoot. “But we saw that bomb because you saved our people from extinction. My good friend, Jooyun Sky-Brother, he and Awisun and Shyow. They meet us, they take very dangerous accidental meeting, and they find Giving of peace in it. Gods bless them! They help us fight High-rarchy, learn deep Truth of our own people. And then, Jooyun teaches us steel. The first big sky-learning, and the most important. So we know there is much good in the human race.”

The Singer had a quieter voice than either of the men, but still quite alarmingly deep by human standards. “And we know you need our strength. I have blessed, prayed for many young red-crest going to fight in the sky. A few have not come back, over the seasons. The ones who do, tell us about the evil we fight. We all believe, now. And that evil will come for us again. Without us, you can’t fight them. Without you, we would not survive their return.”

“Besides. New Alexandria is library,” Vemik added. “Akyawentuo is not a place to save many lives, but it can save other things.”

There was an important point, there.

“You say, ‘not many lives.’ I think you might imagine that isn’t something people want to hear.”

Vemik shrugged. “Most humans, next to us, weak in muscle and body. Is just the truth. Tough, yes. Long work in you! But you must grow strong in high gravity first, and Akyawentuo is so high, we never leave without human help. Higher even than Nightmare!”

“Akyawentuo is often quoted as around one-point-two Earth gee,” prince Alex added. “But that’s not actually true. That’s the engineering category, used for structural and personnel safety. Because gravity is actually subtle to measure precisely, survey ships don’t generally bother with accuracy. Gaoian gravity is right at the upper edge of the Dominion Acceptable Standard. Point-nine-something to under one-point-two is considered High Gravity; survivable and functional, but not advisable. Nightmare and Akyawentuo are both categorized as Unsafe Gravity; safety equipment and observers required, brief excursions only. Nightmare is at the bottom of that range, but it’s quite a wide category, and Akyawentuo is right at the top.”

“You can certainly feel it,” Sir Jeremy Sandy. “I’ve had the pleasure to visit both worlds in the same day. If you went to one or the other you might not notice, they both feel tiringly heavy. But compared to each other—”

“Give you good leg workout!” Vemik interrupted, to some laughs. “Look at mine!” He swung his legs a bit like a kid sitting in a too-tall seat—ten’gewek had proportionately shorter legs than humans—and wiggled his toes for good measure. His…

Christ, he was properly big. His giant shoulders were wide like three huge men, his thighs massive enough to dwarf even those men’s chests. In fact they were each bigger than his own thick-muscled waist, and his own back and chest was so deep he could barely squeeze sideways through a door. He had massive long arms with beachball-big biceps, too. But it was his calves that made the point. They were legit as big as his arms, and writhed as he wiggled his toes. He earned a couple whoops from the audience, too.

His Singer was no slouch even next to him; She was definitely feminine, somehow, but one could probably fit every human being alive who might prove her match inside the studio, she was that impressive. And Yan sitting next on his other side was markedly bigger and stronger than Vemik, though not any taller…how exactly had anyone impressed these people?!

“Careful,” Alex rumbled with a grin, “don’t encourage him!”

“Fine, I show off more later! But, muscle isn’t only important thing. You are made for Earth,” he pronounced that last word carefully. “This is a world that rewards endless, lanky strength. My people would starve to death most places here, I think. But on Akyawentuo? Lots of good food on our world, so a strong man never goes hungry. But! The heat will test you always, so will the beasts, big and small. On the open grass, there are things not even up to your knees that would break you if they had a chance. Look at us three! We did not grow this way by accident!”

And, well…yeah, he had a point. No fat to soften any edge on any of them, all three looked expertly carved from stone. At least physically speaking, they really were like the brutally heroic ideal of primitives. To that point, the three of them were clad in well-made loincloths and in the men’s case, somehow crammed themselves into some hilariously minimal briefs to theoretically ensure modesty. Singer had a leather wrap across her chest for the same reason and to the same sort of effect.

Honestly, both tended to draw attention and achieve the exact opposite as far as Jamal was concerned, but television standards were non-negotiable.

“Singularity has taken the lead on settling Akyawentuo, and to that end we’ve established a baseline fitness profile for eligibility,” Prince Alex added. He was dressed in slacks and a plain black stretchy t-shirt. Mostly to make the same point, Jamal surmised. “The upshot is if you meet it, immigration will be free for you! The downside is almost nobody will, even if they train for it. And those who are selected as critical personnel will need to meet additional fitness and health standards, or they’ll lose their spot. It’s harsh, but…that’s the survivalist reality. It’s nearly as bad for Nightmare.”

“Why are we settling Nightmare?” Jamal asked.

“Diversity of location,” Governor Sandy explained. “The goal is to have as many eggs in as many baskets as possible. We wanted to have Ambassador Etsicitty here to talk about it, but he’s…busy there and on Cimbrean. His work is too important to interrupt with this, I’m afraid.”

“And I don’t think the stage would be able to take much more!” Jamal commented, deciding now was the moment for a small bit of levity.

Alex grinned. “Would you believe me if I told you he can toss me around like a little boy?”

“Well…” Jamal gave Alex a cheesy once-over for the camera’s benefit. “That’s terrifying.”

“He kind of is, yes,” President White said, almost unconsciously. There was a genuine laugh from the audience, and she cleared her throat as it settled. “…He’s a good man, though. In any case, Cimbrean is legally the property of the United Kingdom. The territories of Franklin, Nouveau Acadia, New Botany and Abeltown are kind concessions. Garden is completely the Entity’s domain. Gao and Akyawentuo rightly belong to their native peoples, New Uruk belongs to Singularity, all rights to Lucent were ceded by treaty…the United States is settling Nightmare because it’s the only planet in all the galaxy that is ours.”

“On face value, it sounds pretty good,” Jamal said. “That’s…six planets, not counting the space stations. Doesn’t that mean there’s plenty of room for everyone?”

“Plenty of room, yes. If you don’t mind starving to death,” Ratcliffe spoke up. “And therein really lies the problem, because, believe me, we’ve heard and discussed all the suggestions. I know there’s a strong voice out there for just moving the people, giving them seeds and tools and relying on subsistence farming. It won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“What’s your track record for keeping your houseplants alive, Jamal?”

“I, uh…well, I have a housekeeper,” Jamal confessed. And plastic plants, he added internally.

“How highly do you rate your chances of being able to feed yourself on what you can grow, then?” Ratcliffe asked. “Contrary to opinions in New York, it is not, in fact, as simple as dropping a seed into the ground, adding water, and going about your day. We have a video to this point, actually…”

That was the first rehearsed cue. The video was a ten minute overview and montage following a new farm going up in Franklin under the eye of a tough-looking farmer by the name of Austin Beaufort. There was a bit of manly fun with him and the ambassador, but most of it…

Well, he hadn’t seen the video. He had no idea.

“Farmin’ is one o’ my keenest interests,” the Great Father rumbled, once the video was over. Indeed, he had been prominent in one quick shot there, pulling an absolutely huge-looking plow alongside a massive tractor pulling its own…but the tractor was pulling more slowly. “Agriculture at scale is one o’ th’ most technologically sophisticated endeavors. Always has been, prob’ly always will be. Subsistence farmin’s hard enough in cradle worlds! How’re we s’posed ‘ta train an’ equip every lil’ family to start that on effectively sterile land?!”

“And then what happens when people’s crops fail?” Naydra asked. “When hunger and desperation drive them to try to save their families by any means necessary? The truth is, if we try to go down that route, what’s likely to happen is fewer people will survive overall.”

“It’s a grim calculus,” President White agreed, composedly. “For the maximum number of people possible to make it, we must accept that we cannot save everyone.”

They had arrived at the first of the truly hard questions Jamal needed to ask. “Do you have anything to say to the people who won’t be saved?”

There was a moment’s silence. They all knew who was supposed to answer first, but even so it took the President a few seconds to summon it.

“The numbers…right now, the numbers are grim. We’re working to improve them, but still. We think about one in ten people will escape. Which is quite an improvement on where we were six months ago, but…”

She cleared her throat, and the silence was back, broken only by Naydra’s quiet, restrained keen, Vemik’s soft mournful hoot, and the sound of somebody sniffling in the audience.

“I should add…I will not be among those. I am old, I’ve had my children, I’ve led a good life…it wouldn’t be right. And I hope others will choose to remain with me.”

“Isn’t that a hard thing to bear?” Jamal asked.

“Some days, yes. But I have my faith, and I have an old bit of Greek wisdom framed in the Oval Office: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’ That, for me, is the hard lesson of this crisis…that and one other thing.”

“What’s that?”

The President sat back, and exhaled softly. “I still have hope for the future, and part of that hope comes from the fact that, in a sense, we’re getting a clean sweep.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…look, I don’t want to pretend that what’s coming is a good thing. It isn’t. But it doesn’t need to be our doom. We can free ourselves of all the ancient conflicts and grudges. Why hold onto them? Something far more important is at stake.

“We have a choice,” Governor Sandy agreed. “When we’re cut adrift, we can fly apart, or we can come together. It’s a chance to start over in a way we’ve never had. This is an event that will totally redefine our peoples. His Sublime Majesty over there has begun work on a draft Constitution, from what I understand! I must emphasize…the Gao would never do that on their own. Their self-governance doesn’t really need it. They’re doing this for us.”

”We do this out of love and loyalty,” Naydra added. “Truly.”

“It will be a challenge,” Alex warned. “We are very different peoples with very different views. Different strengths and weaknesses. That could prove ugly, if we stuck to the crass concerns about power and prestige…or, we could unite out of love, and forge something greater than the galaxy has ever seen. I believe it with all my heart. The hidden kingdom my father and his closest friends forged was made for this purpose. It is a dream we never let die.”

The massive young boy was so earnest that in any other year and circumstance Jamal might have gently tried to puncture it. But, that had been in an age where cynicism was cheap and safe. Now, honest hope was such a rare commodity that he didn’t dare poke at it at all.

Instead, he nodded and decided to move the conversation forward. “So. Let’s start talking specifics. I understand there have been resources made available?”

They talked at a high level, each leader according to their specific portion of the rescue. Singularity and the ten’gewek were looking for hardy, adventurous types who could hack survival on quite possibly the greatest of the Deathworlds. This was both to maximize success and to help uplift the ten’gewek; jungle-dwellers they might be, but some part of the modern world would touch them, now. They needed help navigating that without losing themselves.

“At the end of it,” Alex concluded, “you need to really understand the why of this. Look at me. There’s…honestly, maybe a couple dozen human beings or so who are my match. I can list on one hand the ones who can embarrass me. Same for the gao. But the ten’gewek? There’s hundreds who can humble me, in a species whose numbers couldn’t fill a small town, and half of them aren’t even Given-Men. I have to work my tail off to look like this and that’s on top of, well, all the breeding and science we’re somewhat infamous for these days. Vemik here?”

The big Given-Man grinned, but didn’t do much more except sit upright and look pretty. Frankly, he didn’t need to. The three of them were unreal.

“That’s all him, and he’s got quite a few Given-Men he can claim as his peers. He can tie me and the ambassador into knots! There’s literally only one human being alive who can best him. It takes the very best we have just to give him a real challenge, and for Yan over here? That singular man is his friendly competition. So, do you think you can hang with them? Figuratively, at least? And are you up for a challenge?”

Yan unfolded his intimidating arms with an approving grunt. “And can you appreciate why you need our strength? If so, get in contact with us. We need your strength, too.”

He made his point just like Vemik did. All he had to do was sit there and glance down at his own arms. That little show all by itself likely filtered out most of the junk applicants.

Daar and Naydra, on the other hand, had much to say on what was needed to live among the Gao.

“The road between our peoples has been an easier one than it had any right to be,” the Great Mother noted. “We’re very lucky, in the regard that humans and the Gao both find friends wherever we go, and not just inside our own species. You have your pets and your livestock, so do we. It makes sense that we’d find something to like in each other. But at the same time, we’re aliens to each other. There are ways we do things that would shock a human, and there are ways humans do things that shock us. The key to our futures together is to cease being alien, and grow into being brothers and sisters, united in goodness.”

The show went long past its usual time slot, but that had all been negotiated in advance. This was weaponized television and streaming. Propaganda, really…but Jamal was entirely unconflicted about that. People needed it. People needed either hope or purpose, just like he did, and he was proud that his hope and purpose had turned out to be giving them what they needed.

Not bad for a second-rate comedian.

As promised, they ended on a lighter note. Daar and the ten’gewek put on a performance. He really was bigger and better than ever and there was something intimidatingly inspiring about it all, to see what kind of friend they had in the sky, and see how impossibly awesome he could be. Same with the ten’gewek, though they were more ultrahuman than biblical like Daar. Both species were powerful peoples in every meaning of the word…and bound to humankind by undying affection and gratitude.

They played with a car. Vemik and Singer tore it apart and started playing catch with the engine. Yan crumpled the car up into a ball of his own. They tossed both to Daar…and he smashed them into one as if they were nothing more than silly putty. By the time he was done he had a compact ball of almost perfectly round steel that shattered the floor where he dropped it. They did some other casual feats of extreme might too, between questions, but that bit was unforgettable.

It was simultaneously humbling that such magnificent peoples existed at all, and inspiring that humanity had befriended them, and saved them from certain doom.

Sir Jeremy Sandy, the President, and the Prime Minister opted for something much more…well, human. A subtle game of humor and cleverness, with a little deft skill at the end: random trivia drawn out of a hat, and each right answer meant a dart throw.

Ratcliffe turned out to have an amazing smack-talk game, too. He had mastered the art of winking offensiveness that somehow, obviously, wasn’t meant at all.

All carefully picked, too. Darts in particular was a sport none of the aliens were much good at: the ten’gewek had excellent aim but were far too crushingly thick-fingered for the little darts. Daar chittered and showed off how one claw of his was damn near a foot long.

“Bet I could caber-toss a telephone pole through a manhole, though!”

Something to try the next time he visited. Meanwhile, Naydra could be relied upon to hit everything but the board, especially when she started chittering. They were all pretty surprisingly good at trivia, though.

The Singer in particular had a head for myth. “Ooh! I know! Is Loki, Norse god of mischief!”

“Is the right answer! Go ahead and throw…”

The Singer hooted happily, retrieved a dart deftly with her tail, transferred it to her hand—earning some laughs along the way for her casual use of the extra limb—then lined up the shot, and threw from the shoulder. Hard.

“…Well.” Jamal cleared his throat into the ensuing silence. “So much for that dartboard.”

She’d actually hit a bulls-eye. And turned the board into a crumpled cone. And the less said about the unfortunate dart’s fate, the better. The Singer wilted a bit, even as sympathetic laughter rolled around the audience. “Sorry.”

“No sorry!” Yan hooted, “should see her hunting! Just needs a pebble or two…”

Ratcliffe chuckled, “So, don’t anger the Singer, got it.”

“Well, we were coming to the end of our time anyway,” Jamal declared. “And I do have a closing monologue, despite everything…”

Some whoops from the audience made it clear this was welcome news, and his guests gladly sat down and let him deliver it.

It wasn’t a funny one, tonight. It had humor in it, of course, but he still didn’t feel ready to do a funny bit just for the sake of being funny. Now wasn’t the time for that, not yet.


Instead he opened his heart up, a bit. Recounted some of his own fears and worries. Summarized just one of the thousands of heartbreaking stories he’d heard from around the country as things broke down, but this one had a happy ending. He’d teared up a bit telling it, too. It was a happy ending, but not without its own tragedy.

Ten’gewek gave good hugs, he learned. Even if it felt a little too much like being ground between a trio of hot musky bricks on live TV. It was good for a laugh, and they hammed it up a bit, too.

A good moment, actually. They needed more like it.

“I’ve come to appreciate happy endings, recently,” he said, once he’d shooed them back to the couch. “I grew up in an era of series and movies where ‘gritty realism’ means the good guys die, and the bad guys never get a redemption arc, or even where there are no good guys and bad guys, just equally dark gray awful people with few redeeming qualities. And that bothers me because it’s not realistic. We focus on tragedies, but life is also full of triumph. It’s full of weird things like a whole orphanage getting adopted by a team of supersoldiers. Alien monsters turning out to be anything but. In fact, they may be the best friends we ever had. The best stories, like real life, ride that line between light and dark. You need tragedy to make hope relevant…and you need hope to see you past the tragedy.”

He smiled at the nodding heads in the crowd, and nodded with them. “That’s what this has been about, tonight. Hope. And I hope we’ve managed to give you some today. There’ll be more shows like this in the future, I hope. Every step of the way, with each little victory—and each setback—this show will be here and, I hope, we’ll be welcoming my guests back again for more. For as long as we have left. Thank you, and good night.”

The after-show was nice, too. Lots of meet-and-greet, and the guests seemed keen on shaking every hand and hearing every story. That was good. A thousand people would leave with good stories to share, having met celebrities and real people the likes of which Hollywood could never conjure.

Social media analytics said they’d done their job too. People were buoyed. The ratio of positive sentiments to negative was about as good as could realistically be expected.

High morale meant more people saved. Jamal truly believed that. Which meant he could go home tonight with his head held high, knowing he’d done his part. So, after an evening of wine and conversation and the various heads of state leaving as soon as they politely could…

Jamal went home too. Scratched his cat Amy behind the ears, took a shower, flopped into bed in a state of completely physical exhaustion…

And enjoyed the best night’s sleep he’d had in years.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Earth

Ava Coombes

“Man, the fact you’re not touching the steering wheel is fuckin’ with me…”

Ava had to admit to feeling about the same way as Derek. The Entity’s land drones didn’t need a human driver, of course. It just…what had her doppelganger said? ‘Spun up a sub-aware navigation daemon’ and the truck drove itself far better than anything programmed by humans. But she still didn’t feel entirely safe about the fact that their escort, Bonhomie Sousa, was sitting in the driving seat with his interlaced fingers resting lightly on the paunch of his belly while their convoy breezed through the streets behind a Polícia escort.

It had come as news to Ava that the Entity had human agents on Earth now. But then again, it was rich in the only form of wealth that mattered nowadays: safety. It didn’t need to do more than pay some people in a guaranteed place on its garden and all of a sudden it had a few hundred people moving heaven and earth on its behalf.

They’d certainly managed to sort out something the Entity would never have done on its own, in the form of branding. The dead, cold, impersonal word ‘Entity’ was hidden behind the much warmer, friendlier name ‘Garden’ and the hexagonal-module-flower design of the station itself had been stylized in green and silver on a black background for a logo.

Armed with some positive branding, the Entity’s agents had then scattered across the globe with the same mandate: work alongside local governments to get as many people as possible into stasis bags. Each one took with them a tiny, suitcase-sized jump array, through which could come a larger jump array through which could come a convoy of trucks carrying lots of jump arrays and the associated stuff.

There was a lot of that. The Entity had figured out a ticket system, the Garden volunteers had worked up an app. It was as simple as simple got, really: take a ticket, scan the QR code, assign each ticket to a family member in the app…then go get on with your day. When the Entity had room, it pinged the app and you had a twenty-four hour window to get every registered person in your group to the nearest Garden jump array.

All they needed once that was in place was official permission and cooperation, some soldiers to keep the peace, and a public information campaign.

That last part was why Ava was along for the ride this time. The Entity wanted a documentary, magazine articles, web portal, the lot. It needed photos, footage and commentary. And who better than Ava?

So, they were on their way up to Rocinha. The Entity’s focus was on saving the economically disadvantaged after all, and for all that things had come a long way for the people of Rio’s former favelas, the area was still where the people who’d benefited least from all the world’s technological and economic advances lived.

Ava’s own, slightly more youthful voice giggled at her on the car’s sound system. “What, you don’t trust me to drive?”

“I happen to know for a fact that you never got a driver’s license,” Ava replied, evenly.

“Technically, I’m not the one doing the driving.”

“Yeah, that makes me feel much better…” Derek grumbled, and tightened his grip on the overhead handle.

“We’re a sapient machine swarm that can react thousands of times faster than a human, and the cars comply with and exceed the most stringent standards in the world. I promise, you couldn’t possibly be in safer hands.”

Derek grumbled…but he did let go of the handle and try to relax. Ava smiled at him, then turned her attention back to the tablet in her hand. There was a smaller airborne drone following them to catch aerial footage, the truck itself was covered in cameras…gone were the days when she’d have needed to stop and get out and take pictures herself. She could just grab snippets from the streams and save them for later.

Still…she was looking forward to reaching their destination and getting out and doing some stuff with the real lenses and filters. Drone feed was fine for capturing moments, but capturing feelings? The human hand and eye in conjunction with a proper SLR would never be replaced.

The journey passed peacefully. People turned to watch them slide past; this convoy of sleek, shiny, slightly otherworldly trucks stuck out among the painted concrete, rat’s-nest wiring and antique vehicles almost as much as if they’d just landed in a spaceship.

And to Ava’s concern, when they reached their destination and alighted…the prevailing energy of the onlookers wasn’t so very happy to see them. She saw mothers usher their kids inside. More concerningly still, the older, more streetwise kids were nowhere to be seen at all.

Derek sensed it too. “Hey, Daemon? You sure about this?”

“This is what we need you for,” Daemon replied.

“We face mistrust everywhere we go,” Bonhomie elaborated. “People have heard the world is ending and then we show up with weird trucks and weird technology and the closest thing the Entity has to a face and voice is—no offense, Daemon—the stolen image of an American. It doesn’t matter that we’re offering them a lifeline. The lifeline is beng stuffed in a bag and then being at our mercy as to when and where they’ll be let out. To some…”

“I get it,” Ava nodded, thinking of the alien abductees she knew, and remembering how awful feeling powerless was.

She looked to Derek, who gave her a reassuring nod, then got out her camera and started looking for people to interview. It was slow going. A lot of them slunk away if she started moving in their direction. The few who didn’t were either a few old-timers who’d given their last fuck decades ago and who wouldn’t be taking the Entity’s arrays even if they did trust the data-mind from beyond the stars with a stolen human face.

Jesucristo, the Garden Program had a massive hill to climb.

Well, at least they had some years to work on it.

Evasiveness aside, a crowd formed to watch the array go up, and they all took a step back and made a collective gasp when it thumped for the very first time, disgorging a team of technicians and their gear—and a couple security drones, Ava noted—who promptly started assembling the additional arrays and power supply.

“Where do you find all these guys?” she asked.

“You’re looking at half of all the people we’ve recruited so far,” Daemon replied. “They’re building three of these today. Another reason we need the good press: the more people we can recruit, the more of this we can do.”

“Who are they?”

“Men and a few women from all walks of life,” Bonhomie answered, gesturing inclusively to himself. “We sit at the unique intersection of being able-bodied and capable, but with a lower chance of selection under the published rubrics.”

“Why? What were you before all this?”

“I managed a home goods store.” Bonhomie shrugged wryly. “Dishwashers, fridges, TVs and so on. So. Able-bodied, know how to manage inventory and people and timetables, but not the sort of thing a settlement baron is made of, yijao?”

“If you say so…?”

“But I’m determined to survive this, and save my family. So I went looking for every opportunity I could find on the Internet, and I found the Entity’s call for help and sent an email and…here we are. My family’s already safe, we have an apartment on the Garden Station. So now, I can focus on…”

He waved a hand toward the array complex. There were six of them now, fed by a single generator. Ava puzzled briefly over the lack of visible barriers then realized that the setup was deliberately designed to look harmless. No fences, no barriers, no barbed wires, no obvious armed guards. Nothing intimidating or oppressive. But behind that realization, she noticed the presence of a sophisticated forcefield generator. When people started using this thing, the Entity would be able to corral them and move them safely.

And despite the ongoing wary lurking…there was a family. A skinny man with a week’s worth of stubble staggering under the weight of a large cardboard box and trailed by a tired and hurried looking young mother trying to herd two cautious kids.

Another incarnation of Daemon shimmered into existence to greet them. They gave a confused glance toward Ava, then spoke quietly and fervently with the holographic version before being waved through onto one of the array platforms: they vanished with a black-flash and thump.

“How many conversations can you carry on simultaneously, Daemon?” Ava asked, curiously.

“Not many. Two or three, if we slow down our perception of time. Subjectively, it’s a lot like I remember being you was.”

“Huh. You really do need human agents for a project this big, then,” Derek mused.

The simple “Yup” he got in reply suggested that Daemon might well actually be juggling some other conversations.

As for the jump array…having seen some of their neighbors pass through, other families were gathering. Ava decided the moment was right to try again for a better picture and a better interview. This time, she wasn’t disappointed. This time, she met people, got their stories, and gained permission to tell the world.

A line formed. Tickets and QR codes started getting handed out. The technicians, satisfied that everything was working properly, jumped out again to go deal with an assembly project in Bangladesh, and Ava lost herself in the busy blur of journalism.

A nudge on her shoulder pulled her out of it. Derek pointed to the sky, indicating that sunset was coming soon. They packed up and headed back in the truck rather than use the Rocinha jump complex.

To Ava’s dismay, they were followed by a trio of motorbikes part of the way back, until the Entity flashed the truck’s shields at them: the riders peeled off at the next intersection, and the rest of the journey was uneventful. How much more had gone on around her while she was distracted?

Why were people like that, too? What had those riders thought to gain?

Then again…desperation was an excuse all on its own. And the Entity wasn’t being indiscriminate in who it saved. Single men were…

Well, single men were where they’d always been throughout history: expendable. Left standing on the Titanic’s deck while the women and children got first pick of the lifeboats. Unless they brought a particularly useful skill to the table…

Ava put aside the nauseating sense of sorrow and outraged equity that thought raised in her, and focused on the important part: what she could do to help. And she had some good pictures, some excellent footage, some heart-pulling interviews…

She could make something of this. Spread the word, get more people into the Entity’s bags and safely away. It was a small contribution, but she could help save lives. In these days and times, that was a position of incomparable privilege, and she gave thanks for it.

Far too many people had so much less.

The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Margaret White

The daily security briefing had become a grind, with much of the bad news being domestic. Law and order was hanging by a thread, or outright completely falling apart in some places. There were large stretches of the country where neighborhoods were banding together for safety in the certain knowledge that neither the police nor the national guard were of any use in protecting them, and that their peaceful, civilized lives may very well only extend as far as they could shoot from the barricades.

It wasn’t like the whole country had gone full Mad Max—in fact the overwhelming majority of Americans were good, neighborly, peace-loving and God-fearing people trying to do the right thing and help save lives. But in a population of half a billion people, there were always going to be sufficient maniacs to make everybody’s lives hell.

Margaret had dropped the HEAT on one of the more egregiously evil groups by way of a warning, and the mess they made seemed to have made the point, for now. Which meant today, there was room for the briefing to go into more detail on the global security situation.

It was scarcely any better.

Singularity, in a fit of their usual high-minded idealism, had sent their prince and heir-apparent to every nation on Earth not capable of building their own jump arrays, and handed them out as gifts. All very well and good…except now those nations were clamoring for somewhere to jump to.

In the simplest case, this wasn’t necessarily hard. Cimbrean wasn’t a huge planet but it was virtually uninhabited; the United Kingdom was willing to cede territories in the name of the human race. But…what then? How do you build up? How do you control the security situation?

On the other hand, what was the real harm in letting them try? The basic biologics to get the soil productive weren’t all that difficult to make, and some essential level of survival was surely better than nothing…but was it okay to perpetuate subsistence living, given the high rate of likely failure?

Or was that western bias creeping in? Who would the smaller powers prioritize?

For some, the answer was to sacrifice the out-group. For some, old hatred and distrust was too entrenched to let go. The crab-bucket effect was pinching hard.

It was for this very reason that the Great Father was being selective in who he permitted sanctuary on Gao. She didn’t envy him for explaining that on That Show later tonight. It was the right move for his people, Margaret knew…but it also meant that, practically speaking, the AEC nations had a vast privilege over everybody else.

Russia in particular was not happy. And, increasingly, was showing signs of panic, such as mass conscription of every male between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five.

The Russian Federation had slid a long way in the last twenty years. Prior to the interstellar contact era, their greatest exports had been fossil fuels and gold, so the rise of asteroid mining, forcefield-solar and fusion power had pulled the rug out from under their entire economy. They’d tried to expand their financial services sector only to be ruthlessly crushed by the existing financial powerhouses, they’d tried to shift over to manufacturing but that was always going to be an uphill struggle with China in the picture, doubly so with the advent of nanofactories…

Their claim on Lucent might well have been their salvation in the fullness of time. But now, there wasn’t the time.

“So what are we anticipating they might do?”

General Louden Haga, The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was a perpetually grim man, but today he looked even grimmer. “At this point, we have intel and traffic suggesting President Volkov is planning to invade Kazakhstan.”

Margaret blanked for a second. “…Why?!” she managed after an incredulous second.

Haga pulled up some maps and satellite imagery. “The Kazakhs have sought to keep some control of the public perception of their evacuation campaign by centralizing it outside the capitol, Astana. So all their food, prefab buildings, medicine, seed, construction materials, vehicles, their colonist candidates, their jump arrays, everything, it’s all assembling at Ereymentau, seventy miles east of Astana along the railroad…but only a hundred and thirty miles from the Russian border.”

“Oh no…”

Bad as that news was, Margaret knew that Kazakhstan had joined the nuclear club in recent years. In the modern era, city shields and other measures significantly lessened the threat of a tactical strike…but did not eliminate it. Nor did they remove strategic strikes from anyone’s radar. All the modern thinking focused on orbital kinetics but they didn’t have anything on the horror or permanency of a plain old thermonuclear weapon.

Haga nodded grimly. “If the Russians can seize all that material, it’ll double the number of people they can evacuate to their settlement on Lucent.”

“Volkov can’t possibly imagine Kazakhstan wouldn’t fight back with everything they have, can he? Their survival as a nation and an ethnic group is on the line.”

“None of which will matter if the Russian army can quickly seize Ereymentau and sabotage the railroad,” Haga replied. “They’ll face little resistance, the Kazakh military is much smaller, and most of it is bound up maintaining domestic law and order, just like everyone else’s.”

“So…the temptation to nuke something in retaliation would be, if anything, stronger.”

“Our sources in Astana have clammed up pretty sharply, too. We’re…well, your PDB will have more on that, so I won’t steal her thunder. But I will note that, uh, we’d like to re-familiarize you with the Football sometime soon.”

Lord above…

Out loud, Margaret took a deep breath and nodded. “Are there any other potential flashpoints I should know about that might complicate this?”

“Not directly. There’s a deep dive in the PDB, but right now our full attention is focused on China, Russia, India, and now Kazakhstan. Pakistan has kept quiet for all this. The whole situation is…unstable. We’re having a standup as soon as I return and the first item of the agenda is if we should recommend a DEFCON change.”

“Then I’d better not keep you,” Margaret said, and stood.

Haga stood with her. “Madame President.”

He left, and, sure enough Margaret got that deep-dive which contained absolutely nothing to settle her nerves. The whole world was taut like a guitar string, stretched between resolve and panic. And unlike the rotten elements inside America, there was no plausible way to make an example of the troublemakers without making much worse trouble in the process.

The Joint Chiefs sent their recommendation just before noon. As Margaret had guessed, they recommended going to DEFCON 4. Apparently she was going to get that re-familiarization in the evening, just before dinner.

The afternoon, mercifully, was spent enumerating successes, and there had actually been many. It was too early to start celebrating, but by every metric—acreage of farm under development, number of people moved, land surveyed, industrial operations established, and so many, many more…the evacuation was performing well. Inside expected bounds, but in the upper end of expected bounds.

Especially thanks to the Entity. She had to give the thing credit, once it had been granted permission to send drones to Earth and start working directly with people, it had exploded into action. The first few handfuls of refugees to its stasis bagging facility had been a proof-of-concept, but now its growing network of agents were spreading across the world as fast as the swarm’s nanofactories could supply them with trucks and jump arrays….which was actually faster than it could recruit new agents.

And all while working alongside the official evacuation efforts of every nation on Earth. The mind boggled. She wondered if it had the spare time for her to talk with it.

…She wondered if she had the spare time to talk with it.

The football refamiliarization, going over the highly secret and genuinely terrifying protocols necessary for her to authorize the use of America’s most devastating weapons, was as dreadful as she’d expected, but mercifully short. Still, it left her desperately needing some self care. Between the simmering worry over Russia’s plans, and the enormous tension of the whole global situation even without that, she needed…

She needed her grandchildren. She needed to sit down like a normal family (as normal as the First Family could get, anyway) and just be Meemaw for a while. The office could be a lot easier to bear after spending a few minutes listening to a three-year-old babble excitedly about which princess she was dressed as today.

Somehow, that wish was granted. No new immediate crises materialized to pull her away, and she actually got away on schedule for the first time in…well, she couldn’t remember. The first time in far too long.

Today was a Rapunzel day today, apparently. Very pink. There was the usual little disagreement over food (apparently Merryll didn’t like carrots today, and the preceding two years of liking them didn’t count) which was effectively resolved by calling her bluff and moving to share them out among the adults, at which point they suddenly became her carrots again…

A small drama. A manageable drama.

If only adults were so reasonable.

An attempt to relax by watching TV became a couch nap, became waking up with a stiff neck and going to bed, and the night vanished unheeded. Dawn brought with it a return to the Presidential life after a break that had been simultaneously far too brief, and exactly what Margaret needed.

The first thing she learned was that a huge convoy of Russian troops and tanks was en route to Omsk…and a rather smaller convoy was en route from Astana to Ereymantau. The Kazakh government apparently knew what was up, and had responded the only way they could—by putting every man and vehicle they could spare in the way and daring President Volkov to take them on.

Hopefully, Volkov’s plan was to bring the world to the negotiating table and use the threat of what could happen if he was ‘backed into a corner’ as leverage to extract greater assistance for his people from the rest of the world. That kind of brinksmanship was right out of the only playbook Russia had ever bothered to read since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But these were unique times, different times, and Margaret wasn’t so sure he’d get what he was after. And if he didn’t…

Well. She set direction, and did her best to prepare.

That was all a President could do.

New Alexandria, Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate

Vemik Given-Man

The first really big project the humans got to was their new city. But the city had a very particular purpose. It started out like any village would, really. Some movable huts, made of metal and aramid textiles instead of deadwood, thatch, hides and bone. Some sanitation concerns, so a midden hole to start and a cesspit, dug far away from anything else.

But that was really only the first few months. They kept expanding their tent-hut city, adding power generators, cables, gravel—-very US military, apparently—until they hit a particular size.

Then everything changed. The city wasn’t a city at all. It was a temporary camp which would be torn down completely once the actual city was big enough to sustain itself. Heavy equipment came. Roads, a generating station. Trenches were dug, so wires and pipes could be laid. A good finger away, an out-of-the-way spot became a great big pit, and huge crushing machines got to work chewing rock into gravel, and then some of that into sand and even dust. Rocks were separated by kind—they were getting ready to make lots of concrete.

A small oil derrick went up in the opposite direction. A large farm, in yet another. All set quite well apart so it would take almost all day to walk from one end to the other, because they would all grow, and the humans wanted these very different projects not to touch each other.

The city itself was very carefully sited. Much of it was along a river, but part of it was stretching back into what Jooyun had said were extremely stable and ancient rock formations. As in, billions of years old! Along another was a start-up mine, but that was far away because it was full of heavy metals, some of them radioactive. Akyawentuo was apparently very radioactive, even more than Earth had been. That was because the planet itself was quite a lot younger, and Akyawentuo had escaped a big space-rock killing everything out, like had done the dinosaurs.

But the city’s stretch of rock wasn’t radioactive. It was stable. No water, no soft stones. No cracks or fissures, no earthquakes, nothing. And that was important, because the purpose of the city was to run the greatest of all libraries.

They’d named it New Alexandria. And Shooster was the head librarian!

So, of course, Vemik just had to go on a tour. And Shooster was showing him!

“Nice, big, wide tunnels here. We’re building a library and a museum, a storehouse for as much as we can possibly manage. We’re going to build libraries on Nightmare, on Cimbrean, on Gao. They’ll be directly linked by zero-width comm arrays and jump platforms. It is going to be…my life’s work.”

“How much do you think we’ll be able to save?” Tavon asked.

“At minimum, we’re fairly certain we can evacuate the complete collections from the British Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Library and Archives Canada, the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, the Royal Library Denmark, the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Vatican Library. I’m actually quite confident we can manage every national library collection from the AEC nations and all the important university libraries, in fact…”

Vemik watched Tilly’s eyes grow wider and wider. “That’s…a bold claim,” she said, faintly. Vemik knew that tone of voice. It meant what she really meant was that Shoo-ster was claiming a godly achievement.

“A boldness borne out of necessity. We can’t…afford…to build something so big in several places at once. We won’t even be able to take our time and catalog properly! So we’re going big here and just, for now, warehousing everything, and building a city so out staff can sort through everything, make sure everything has digital and physical duplicates, and then we’ll build other libraries and distribute to them. A museum is also going up on Cimbrean, after some search. No surprise the Brits took the lead on that…”

Tilly giggled, but the joke went right over Vemik’s head. Oh well.

“Is…lot of books?” he guessed.

“Something like a billion individual items in total, if things go as well as I hope. Even if we fall short, it will instantly seize the record for largest library in the galaxy. The Dominion Interstellar Library might be vaster in terms of digitized content, especially seeing as we’ll be sending them copies of everything we have too…but we’ll dwarf their physical catalog.”

Something about that made Vemik happy. “Strong!” he hooted, and earned more giggles from Tilly. And an eye-roll from Ta-von, but he thought it was funny, Vemik could tell!

“We’d better let you get on with it, then!” Tilly declared.

“Hah! Yes! No rest for the wicked…”

And lots of work still to do, if the tunnels were ever going to be big enough for so much. But Vemik trusted Shoo-ster to know what he was talking about. And the thought that his home was the place strong enough to protect all that knowledge made him so very, very proud.

They shared a tent that night, though Tay-von wasn’t quite ready to play the way Vemik wanted to. Tilly wanted to, Vemik knew. But Tavon wasn’t a very big man even by human standards, and Vemik’s strength scared him, so…he knew how to play nice, and kept himself under control. Besides, Tay-von was a good friend now, and clever! So Vemik settled for a bit of wrasslin’ and some snuggles before he dragged everyone into his nest of blankets and furs for a good, long sleep.

Vemik liked collecting friends. Some, like his neighbor Given-Men and the braver redcrests, or Jooyun and his boys and some others, they were mostly friends through play first. None of them could beat Vemik, but they could take a good tossing around, and a good wrassle and maybe a good, hard fucking. Fun! And almost everyone had something interesting to say about something if you let them say it. Funner!

Others were softer, and lived more in their heads. Like Shoo-ster, who Vemik would never do more than maybe show off a little for laughs. Loo-wiss was mostly that way too, but Loocy was the other way, more like a Singer. He’d found out how to sky-think and play good and hard with them, eventually. Sometimes it was fun but mostly it was basket-ball! Good game.

He hadn’t figured it out with Tilly and Tay-von yet. But he would!

And they’d figure him out. That was what people did, what tribes did. Even sky-tribes. Not always easy, not always well, and sometimes they’d figure out they could never be friends. But so far, Vemik thought, things seemed to be going pretty well.

He said as much to the Singer that night, and was surprised when she was…less warm than usual about it. Hesitant.

“You think I’m wrong?”

“I think you’re Vemik,” she teased him with a sturdy knuckle-tap to his forehead. “Still thinking in the sky, even though you gave up the name. Doesn’t matter to you that we’re too heavy, you still dream about flying.”

“…Thought you like that about me?”

“I do!” she flicked her tail at him.

“Then why—?”

“Sometimes, grump-faces like Yan and Nonu are right, yee-jow? Things might look pretty good, but maybe that’s just the way you look.”

“You saying I look pretty good?” Vemik grinned.

“Always. But…you know what I mean. You’re opty-mist. Always thinking things are good because you hope they’ll be.”

“You think they won’t?”

The Singer shrugged. “I hope they will be. But…humans are tricky people to know. Learn a lot about them in a day, learn almost nothing in a lifetime. I worry, with things going so well.”


“Signs. Portents. Magic. This is a hard test the gods sent them. And I think I know humans well enough to say…I love them, but I don’t think they’ll pass it clean and perfect.”

Well, okay. “Would we?” he asked.

“No. That’s…how I think they won’t. They’re a lot like us. And we wouldn’t. So…”

It wasn’t like her to be so cautious with her words. Vemik didn’t know why she would be now. But…he wrapped her up in a hug, tails entwined. “Don’t think they’ll fail it though?”

“No. They’ll live. I think. Just…a test this hard, less than perfect is going to mean big things.” She shook her head. “Or maybe I’m just afraid. I don’t know. My stomach says ‘things are going too well.’ When we did That Show it was all happy and smiles and nice and hopeful. And I put on happy nice hopeful smiles and joked, and broke that dartboard…all felt too nice. Not real. Jam-al felt it too, I think. Talking about stories and happy endings like that, because that’s what we were doing. Was a big story for people. And stories are…stories are real, but they’re not that kind of real.”

Vemik thought about that, then squeezed her tight. “Good fear,” he said, quietly. “But…I’ll keep being opty-mist. You can be pess-mist. I lift you up, you lift me down. Sound good?”

She nodded, and tickled his face with her tail’s end-tuft. “Sounds good,” she agreed. Then: “…wanna fuck?”


That was better! A good way for Vemik to end a good day, and a good way for her to set her troubled mind aside for a bit. Vemik made sure to do his best, help her relax properly. Took pride in it!

It worked. For both of them. Even so, Vemik thought about the library and all the rest of it for a long while in the dark, even after she’d fallen asleep and was snoring on him. Thought about what they were saving…and how much could be lost if Singer was right and things went bad.

Only thing to do was wait and see, he decided. Wait, see…and learn.

There was always something to learn.

HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha,) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Lieutenant James McBride

Letter for notes,

RE: Chief Sergeant Christian Firth

Chief Sergeant Firth came in today for his quarterly evaluation. He has recently fostered two refugee children from Earth, and is in the process of renovating his property to house more. This is on top of a particularly brutal training grind, the responsibilities he has in HEAT and the martial arts academy he owns and supervises, plus of course his existing family. He also has substantial extended family still living in Kentucky who have not yet been confirmed for evacuation. Likely, due to their own irrational reluctance to commit.

The man is, in short, task saturated and under tremendous pressure. Subjectively, he was energetic and “wired” at first. He was initially reluctant to sit and instead paced the room as we talked. When I did finally convince him to sit down—after reminding him the couch was designed to take a monster truck, so he should be fine—he continued to bounce his legs in place while seated. This was enough to cause a small earthquake and worry my end tables, so I next convinced him to simply lie back and take a few deep breaths. The breathing exercise visibly calmed him, and we had a productive conversation thereafter.

It must be said that Sergeant Firth thrives under high-stress conditions, and he is therefore in the habit of seeking out challenge. He is no fool, however, and recognizes that he needs to potentially re-consider his commitments, or find a better way to delegate. Much of the session was spent discussing how best to prioritize his time and energies.

In particular, advising him to perhaps relax a little about some of his competitive rivalries seems to have struck a chord. He is at a level in his career, I reasoned, where he has no compelling need to prove himself to anyone or anything outside prideful motivations.

He seemed to agree, though he was careful to state he wouldn’t be slowing down, either. Nonetheless, this seemed to drain much of the manic energy out of him, which had still threatened to manifest even lying down. Perhaps all he needed was a slightly different perspective.

I was struck by the strength of his feelings for the two girls he’s taken in. Their names are “Letty” (Letitia) Brown and Jenny Richardson and he spoke with great compassion about their experiences, which were indeed terrible. He expressed particular concern for Miss Richardson, stating that “she imprinted on [him] like a baby bird.” I have supplied him with the contact details for resources which might help the lass: he stated that he would pass these on to his wife.

I have no concerns at this time, and repeated the customary invitation that my door is always open. He joked that the couch was so comfortable he might just take me up on it, and departed in much better humour than he arrived.

Quarterly mental health evaluation: Fit for active duty.

Lt. J McBride
Counsellor, HMS Sharman

MBG Headquarters, Oklahoma City, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

Another day, another group of angry protesters chaining themselves to the fence.

Kevin couldn’t really be mad at them. Shit, forty years ago he would’ve probably been among them. He’d been that kind of virtuously angry in his youth, too, he remembered how easy it was to get drunk on doing the right thing.

Don’t fuckin’ sugarcoat it, Kevin. You were a self-righteous prick.

He’d been lucky enough to grow the fuck up. Those poor kids out there…probably wouldn’t. He, the rich old corporate suit, was gonna escape and live out his days for a couple hundred more years thanks to Cruezzir, while all those young people out there burned.

The social activist college kid he’d once been, still locked up somewhere in the back rooms of his conscience, hated that.

And it wasn’t like he could even disagree with the sentiments on some of those signs: PEOPLE ARE WORTH MORE THAN PAINTINGS for example. It was true, if you were in the Louvre and it was on fire and you had a choice between saving a child or saving the Mona Lisa, well…sorry, Leonardo.

But that was always the trouble with Trolley Problems. They created artificial vacuums around the situation. There was no option for getting your phone out and calling the emergency number like ’stop the trains, some maniac tied people to the tracks!” They jumped through hoops to put you in a “pure” moral dilemma with no bigger picture.

Reality wasn’t so kind. In reality, as Kevin himself had argued, sometimes people could be less important than paintings, if the paintings would save lives.

That rationalization was how he could, just about, endure watching the riot police disperse the protesters again with water cannons and forcefield sweeps and nerveshock pulses that gave him a headache even from this far away.

Third week in a row. The protestors, and the cops, would be back many more times before this was over.

“Kevin, you’re gonna drive yourself mad watching those poor bastards…”

He jumped, turned guiltily away from the window like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, then relaxed as he realized who it was.

“Hey, Levaughn. How was Lucent?”

“It’s beautiful, actually. Busy and messy as they try to find room for evacuees, but my meeting with the Indian governor was a success. We have permission and a site.” Levaughn wandered up to the window and sighed at the dispersing violence outside. “…Better than here, anyway.”

“And the Chinese?” Kevin asked, not turning to look back at them. He’d flagellated himself enough for one day.

“Still not returning my calls, alas,” Levaughn sighed.

“To hell with ‘em, then,” Kevin decided.

“Not normally the attitude I’d expect to hear from our Chief Ethics Officer…” Levaughn replied, with a bare hint of teasing.

Kevin managed a darkly amused grunt. “At this point, the ethical thing is ruthless practicality,” he said. “If the Chinese don’t want our help then that’s their call. Means the resources we would have invested saving their stuff can save other peoples’ stuff instea—”

Three, four, five, six white craters punch-punch-punched themselves into the glass behind his head: he flung himself away from the window, pulling Levaughn with him. “Jesus fuck!”

“Omigod!” Levaughn, wisely, took cover behind the desk. “Omigod, they’re shooting! Omigod!”

Kevin grimaced as he heard what sounded like a full-scale fucking battle erupt outside. He didn’t dare return to the window to look and in any case, somebody had hit the security alarm and the electrochromic windows had gone dark and opaque.

Fuck, they’d done active shooter drills just last week, too. He darted across the room, grabbed the door brace—a metal right-angle he could wedge into a slot at the base of the door—then lurked nervously in the corner. What was the security team’s password again? Butterfly? Yeah, Butterfly. And he was to reply with ‘hunky dory’ if under duress. Good.

Shit, the shooting outside wasn’t stopping. It had been like a minute, what the fuck?

“It sounds bad out there,” Levaughn whined.

All Kevin could manage in reply was a distracted “Yeah…” He was trying to listen out for the cavalry, or maybe get a sense of who was shooting at whom, from where, and…

He heard hurried booted feet outside the door, then a knock. “Mister Jenkins? Butterfly. You okay in there, sir?”

“We’re fine,” Kevin called back. “I’ve got Levaughn Thomas in here with me.”

“That’s good news. Would you open the door, sir? We’re gonna get you offworld.”

Kevin removed the door brace, and was promptly the center of a knot of serious men in the company’s dark red jackets, then in motion. Not to the elevator, to the stairs and down, down, down into the basement in a flurry of polished shoes tapping on concrete. Mercifully, he couldn’t hear the gunfire any longer.

Through the doors, down the hall, into the array room, onto the platform—


—off the platform, finally let go of. He took a second to adjust his jacket and shirt, catch his breath. Right. Yeah. Chiune Station. They were safely on Cimbrean. Not exactly a dignified exit but then again they didn’t pay the security guys for gentle touchy-feely bullshit.

They’d better be getting good hazard pay for today.

“Alright. Do we have any idea what happened?” he asked aloud, taking refuge in taking charge.

“Not yet, Mister Jenkins—-” The security guy (McCullough, that was it!) turned and looked as the array thumped again, bringing with it another group of people, and used some gentle pressure to suggest to Kevin they should really clear the jump hall.

Kevin nodded and made room. He had a head full of questions but now the adrenaline was winding down he realized they were all stupid time-wasting ones: what he needed to be right now was patient.

Yeah. Patience…deep breaths. Calm.

Over the next couple of minutes the array thumped at a rate of once every few seconds, delivering various people from every level of the company safely.

And then the first wounded guy showed up. He’d taken a bullet to the leg, and it wasn’t some neat fuckin’ Hollywood hole, either. Whatever had hit him had taken half his calf muscle with it, Jesus. Thank fuck there were medics at Chiune Station: they swept in and had him out of there in seconds, but the mood among those loitering near the array was a lot less wired and a whole lot more quiet after that.

Moses Byron was in the next group, and he looked angry. He didn’t technically need the walking stick nowadays, thanks to the expensive meds, and so he waved it furiously at Kevin as he strode down off the platform with more vigor than Kevin had seen in years.

“Moses! You okay?”

“Very much not,” Moses replied fiercely, gesturing for him to follow as he stormed out of the array hall. “It’s fercockt back there. A full-blown assault..”

“Why? What for?”

“To get to the array we just came through.” He stopped suddenly and let out a long, shaky breath. “You should have heard it, Kevin. You should have heard what they’re shouting. Those maniacs have kids with them! They’re that desperate.”

Kevin shut his eyes and uttered the most heartfelt prayer ever to pass his lips: “Fuck.”

“Indeed.” Moses planted his cane and leaned on it, out of habit. “Vey is mir, this is going to be a PR nightmare.”

The first thought to shoot across Kevin’s head was to ask him whether that was really the right thing to think about in that moment. The next thought, though, was…

“…I dunno, Moses. First I knew of it was three bullets hitting the glass right next to my head. That’s a bit too…targeted, for some desperate folks trying to get their families to a jump array.”

Moses waved his stick and shook his head. “Too early to tell anything,” he grumbled, then softened. “…Are you okay?”

“Not the first time I’ve been shot at.” Kevin wrenched a lot of bravado onto his face. It didn’t seem to fool the old man.

“Go get a drink, steady your nerves,” he recommended. “And eat, too. We’ll be cleaning up this mess for a long time.”

Kevin took a deep breath, couldn’t find the words for a reply, patted Moses gratefully on the shoulder and followed the suggestion. A drink, yeah. A stiff one. A martini so dry he could blow the dust off it.

Fuck it. Straight gin.

Just one, though. Moses was right, they were all in for a long, long cleanup, and a hard time too if they were going to somehow deal with the fallout from this without losing momentum on the cultural heritage rescue…

One gin, one sandwich, back to work. The board had all either been bustled safely out or had been elsewhere when the attack started: now, they convened in Chiune Station’s executive meeting room where the first details finally emerged.

The first shots had indeed been the ones that hit Kevin’s window. The police had returned fire, and all of a sudden it seemed like there’d been guns everywhere, and bullets flying every way. Twenty-two people were dead, dozens more wounded. The attackers had, ultimately, reached the jump array only to find it shut down and locked out, at which point they’d dispersed.

All things considered, it could have gone so much worse. But now, MBG was the top story on every news outlet and the trending topic on social media.

The board’s first action was to draft an official response—short, noncommittal, deploring the violence and expressing thoughts and prayers for all the victims. Kevin ducked out to deliver it personally to the ESNN reporters waiting in the lobby. By the time he was back, the damage control effort was in full swing. Thank fuck, thank fuck, their people hadn’t shot first and had instead done their jobs with perfect professionalism. That took a lot of the pressure off…

But the case for cultural conservation needed to be made anew, passionately and strongly and eloquently, or else the heat of the spotlight was going to dry them out. They called in the PR team, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work.

And through it all, Kevin wondered how long it would be before the next, worse incident.

Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate

Doctor Tilly Briggs

Tavon had found his niche, and it wasn’t what either of them had expected at all: he’d become a shuttle pilot.

Well…sort of. As part of their initiation into the interstellar community, the ten’gewek were entitled to a number of the Dominion’s standard boxy gray universal transport shuttles, the ones designed to be incredibly simple for anyone of any species to use. The things practically flew themselves, once a time and positioning constellation was established in orbit and a proper global survey accomplished. They were easy enough they even had their own entry-level, low-altitude, low-velocity category in human and Gaoian licensing—all you needed was a driver’s license, and a brief certification in radio operation.

Yan had signed off on behalf of the Lodge on basic requirements for all that. Weird, really. The first real statutory law the ten’gewek had was a simple treaty of friendship and driver’s licenses.

Bootstrapping a civilization took unexpected directions! Anyway.

Tilly was trying to think of a way to write all that down in her diary that didn’t make it sound like Tavon hadn’t studied, and studied hard for it. She was actually very proud of him! He’d been determined to find something useful to do besides wandering around at her side, and he’d found it. It was a useful skill and the ten’gewek had become “okay” with the notion for emergencies or connecting villages a hand of days apart.

Vemik had been impressed with Tavon too, because flight was a deeply magical thing in the ten’gewek soul. This despite that the big monkey could easily have learned the skill himself, if only he had the time between diplomacy, fatherhood, and the other comings and goings of tribal life—which, yes, meant a lot of sex, but also hunting, training, class time, lessons for the young ones, lessons for the adults on radios and “Engliss…”

It ended up working out better than anyone anticipated, really. There were still a lot of hearts and minds to win over among the ten’gewek, many of whom were still not entirely happy with the idea of sky-people coming to live forever on the world the gods had Given them. With Tavon and his shuttle, they could come out to see New Alexandria for themselves in the morning, get the tour, and be back home before the sunset songs.

And Tilly, as the city’s resident ten’gewek cultural expert, was usually the one giving the tour.

Today, she was showing around the Singer from Yuruk’s village, and her apprentice Dancers (twins! Apparently a rare and sacred thing to the People.) Tilly had met this particular Singer a few times before, and had thus far always been left with the impression the matronly, middle-aged woman didn’t really approve of all this sky-magic and soft human nonsense like writing.

A tour of the library tunnels might be just what the doctor ordered. It certainly stopped the Dancers in their tracks when they entered.

“So cold—!” one of them commented.

“Like winter in here!” the other agreed.

“Yup! It’s called ‘air conditioning,’” Tilly had gone through this conversation a few times. “The books in here will last hands of hands of years even if we neglect them, but if we keep them well, they’ll last forever. And part of that is keeping the air cold and dry…and you can see, there are lots of books.”

The trio looked around. There’d been a tradeoff when designing these stacks: they were more widely spaced than they needed to be, downright roomy for a human. They could have crammed in more if only the archives hadn’t been designed for ten’gewek access, but part of the reason for keeping these things here as opposed to on Cimbrean was because the ten’gewek could benefit too. Which meant they needed to be able to squeeze in between the shelves.

So they were a hundred-fifty centimeters apart on-center, but nearly three meters tall…and bolted to the floors and ceilings, with sturdy handgrips everywhere. Wide and sturdy enough for even the biggest Given-Men to squeeze through, hopefully.

“…Many books,” agreed the Singer, tersely. “Still don’t see why you don’t just remember in story and song.”

Tilly had grown used to answering that question too. Her favorite tool for replying to it was waiting for her on a table up ahead. “Come and see…” she said.

Her weapons of choice were a complete set of Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, alongside a couple of much more recent works: Hill’s Unified Quantum Chemical Mechanics and Bartlett’s Superluminal Field Equations.

She missed Vemik, here. Big books were impressive on their own, and it was always nice to show how just one set of volumes was only an overview of the Roman Empire, itself only one empire among many in their history…but the real winner was the Mechanics. Vemik was brilliant enough that he could read the equations and translate them into spoken language. That had proven to be a very convincing demonstration, when people saw how very much meaning was crammed into a very tiny set of squiggles.

The moment when she saw it click in the Singer’s understanding that she was looking at a bigger story than any living head could ever hold onto just in a single, fairly small set of books was especially satisfying. And after that, all it took was gesturing to the stacks and letting her mind boggle for a bit.

“These are just the most important bits, or the bits we think are most important right now. They’re the bits you could learn the most from, and the bits that we would need to restart everything should the worst happen. The digital archives hold…hugely, vastly, incomprehensibly more information, and more is constantly arriving through the array and over Sneakernet—that’s those big racks of tapes we saw in the ingest room. I don’t know how Schuster is managing it all.”

“And…you said we could learn.”

“Yes. The whole place is built to support big strong cavemonkeys moving about!” Tilly indicated the handholds. “We even tested it by letting Yan jump to and fro.”

“Well if they can take his fat grumpy ass…” one of the Dancers trilled to her sister, earning a punitive swat from the Singer’s tail, even though the older woman was clearly fighting back her own amusement.

“Pretty sure fat is exactly the opposite of whatever he is,” Tilly laughed. “Anyway…this is a Giving. Well, no. It’s more of a sharing I think. This is important to us, but it’s important because we can share it and everyone grows from it. These books here? These are an old story from our past, and two big collections of sky-thinking. But this—” she produced the book she’d selected specifically for the Singer. “This is a book of healing.”

She placed it on the table and opened it up. Specifically, it was an obstetrics textbook, and there was a subject near and dear to a Singer’s heart. It was their job to midwife their tribe’s babies, after all. And although birth for ten’gewek wasn’t quite the ordeal it was for humans, they still didn’t have it easy.

How could they? Their average baby was a dense and frighteningly strong eleven kilo bundle of hyperactive joy, who could climb within hours of birth.

All it took was a brief skim through that textbook, pointing out a few of the more relevant diagrams and photos, and she’d successfully converted a new true believer. If only all days were so easy. Some of the more stubborn given-men, tribal elders and Singers were too pig-headed for even this mountain of evidence to work on.

But, they weren’t holding out for universal popularity. Winning over a few would be enough. And even if all this was only temporary and the ten’gewek one day decided they wanted Akyawentuo all to themselves again, it would have done its job.

And for the obstinate, well…might made right, as Tilly was not at all happy to admit. With the ten’gewek in particular that mattered, so when a hoss like Vemik or a demigod like Yan said something, grumbles never became more than that.

“Doctor Briggs?”

She glanced up, saw the look on the junior archivist’s face, and excused herself, leaving the three holy women to coo over the obstetrics book while she slipped away. “What’s up?”

“There’s been an attack on the MBG headquarters in Oklahoma. Today’s shipment was supposed to pass through there…”

Tilly grimaced. Moses Byron Group was turning out to be one of their bigger partners in this endeavor, outside of national libraries and repositories. They were the ones who could meet with and persuade private collectors, after all, and the library wasn’t only collecting books, either…

“How bad?”

“I heard twenty people were killed…”

“Shit,” Tilly swore, quietly. “Alright, I think I won those three over, I’ll…cut the tour as short as I politely can.”

The ten’gewek sensed something was wrong but politely continued with the tour. Schuster had a moment to spare, and that was good: he was another like Professor as far as the musclemonkies were concerned, and nobody had anything bad to say about professor Hurt.

The shuttle back to their village—one of the furthest away from the permanent array at Sky-Jump Village, where Vemik’s forge lived—was a quick flight. The Singer, feeling concerned, gave them a quick blessing. There was a caring heart buried under all that cynicism.

The two Given-Men gave begrudging grunt-blessings of their own.

Touchdown was only a little rough; Tavon was getting quite good with all the practice. They disembarked and, well…fuck it. She needed to clear her head and there was a loud hooting coming from behind Professor’s learning center…

Yup. Vemik and some men from his tribe and others nearby, lifting weights. He was repeatedly pushing up just…an absolutely boggling weight, growling and snarling as he struggled for each new rep, and everyone else was dancing around, hooting him on…

He achieved an incredible count of reps, and at the end managed one last desperate push as the cheers grew louder and more aggressive. Arms slowly straightened, a stall right before the end, shaky elbows…one last bellow and he forced the bar up. An explosion of cheers, he exploded up to his feet and several meters straight up in the air, hooting aggressively and showing off his ridiculously pumped-up physique, full of adrenaline and ready to do more. His showboating went on for a while, which Tilly did not mind at all, and kicked off a playfully lopsided many-on-one brawl to show off even more. The testosterone was so thick in the air you could practically cut it with a knife.

Then he saw Tilly and Tavon, and with that one look he knew something was up. He talked quickly with the other men, who (with tactfully quiet enthusiasm) took their turn at the fucking pillar of a barbell he’d just pressed so impressive. She’d watched Tavon poke at it once; he couldn’t even budge it from the ground with all his strength, it was so heavy.

They had to pull most of the plates off, Tilly noted with some detached amusement. Vemik had the bar fully loaded with dozens of plates, but the orangecrests could barely manage the bar itself. And watching all of him approach on all fours, like the slinky, sinewy predator he was…

His arrival snapped her out of it as he pulled both of them into concerned, moistfully sweaty hugs. “I can tell something wrong, I bet fifty mun-ees is about Earf.”

You could always tell when he’d basically expended all his energy doing something, because his words went a bit fuzzy. They didn’t know exactly why, but that seemed true across the entire species, particularly in big males. After an extreme physical exertion, one where they went past doing something merely superhuman into the truly ant-like insanity they were capable of…well, honestly, it was like they lost half their IQ points for a few minutes.

Which was a bit surprising. Their brains were huge, almost twice the size of a human’s, but of that about half was dedicated solely to motor control. That ridiculous processing power gave them both incredible finesse and incredible power at the same time, but the cost seemed to be depleting their higher functions for a bit if they went all out. Vemik described it like becoming “all animal,” because he could remember what he was doing, but not remember thinking. Because he wasn’t. He literally couldn’t, all he had was motor and sensors firing on instinct.

A remarkable adaptation, that. Stop thinking when it was time to do, so they could do better.

Tavon loved to tease Vemik about it, usually. They’d become quite the odd couple. But right now wasn’t the time for teasing.

Vemik caught his breath and listened, drinking his water (in a sports bottle with the Speedsters on the side) and chewing down a fistful of werne jerky as they told him what had happened.

“Humans stop thinking too, sometimes,” he declared. “And when you fight, fight mean.”

“I guess we do,” Tilly agreed, thinking back to the men who’d ambushed Vemik with a fucking grenade in New York.

“Is a strength,” Vemik added, his overstimulated brain finally remembering the indefinite article. “…Weird feeling. Wish you could feel it.”

“What’s it like?” Tavon asked, curiously.

“Is…” Not quite there. He fang-grinned sheepishly, took another big glug of water, and demolished the rest of his jerky. One bounce on his toes and a shake of his big old head, and he had that more intensely focused look about him again. “It’s…hard to say. Like…being there but not there. I think you sort of feel it when you dance a long time, maybe add drugs…”

Tilly and Tavon both nodded at the same time.

“But climb back is very strange. Like, words start happening in head but they don’t make sense until they do again all at once, and maybe colors get brighter too. Everything does like that.” He grinned again, and stretched out the literally rippling sinew in his bulging slab of a chest. “Hurt comes back too. Sometimes with big Giving of pain!”

They both smiled, but…

“Okay.” He stepped back politely and shook himself like a dog from head to tail, so as not to drench them further in sweat. “We have supplies in case you stuck here for a time. I think…a full year now? Professor has been very careful to build up. And Jooyun has helped.”

“I doubt we’re stuck. But…I bet it’s going to mean more security. That’s gonna slow things down…” Tilly sighed and shook her head. “…Those selfish idiots probably killed a lot more people by doing this than just the ones who died in the gunfight.”

“Desperate people trying to save the people they love,” Tavon said. “I cant hate ‘em, I just…wish they’d been smarter.”

“Smart is hard,” Vemik nodded sagely. “Isn’t everyone’s strength. But I can hate them. Stupid gets people killed and that is a bad Taking.”

“You ain’t wrong…”

“Come,” Vemik decided, and started knuckling toward his nearby village, in the utterly dominant follow-me way Given-Men were prone to doing. “They will close array, as always. You be here a few days. Singer misses you! And so do the children.” He looked back and flashed his ridiculous fangs again, “maybe you need cheering up! I could think of something fun to do…”


He hooted and didn’t say any more, just flicked his tail in an inviting sort of way, went over to fetch a pack of things and set off. It ended up being a good hike. But it wasn’t without its reminders of where they were. It was incredibly hot, the humidity was oppressive, the gravity sapped at their strength. At one point he bid them be quiet and go up a tree, and suddenly he was silently stalking forward, good steel knife in hand…

He disappeared into the foliage, and shortly thereafter there was a bellow, a hoot, some loud, violent noises of a titanic struggle…

Vemik came back with his arms locked around the neck of an absolutely huge rhino-sized werne. He had a fierce, predatory grin on his face as he stomped forward and dragged the beast along like a reluctant dog, feet finding and gripping onto rocks, roots, whatever was underfoot to keep the massive beast under his control. It was so big it made him look almost small by comparison, like a small matador wrestling a particularly massive bull in a likewise manner. He could barely even get his arms around its neck, dangerous face-blades kept under control with his tail crushing around its muzzle to immobilize the head.

The werne struggled with all its might to toss the lethal predator locked onto its neck, and if Vemik ever lost his grip on the ground it might just succeed. But he didn’t, using his foot-hands to immovably anchor himself to the spot…

“Look! Good catch, yes? We eat good tonight!!”

Tilly was beside herself. “Vemik! Be careful you fucking idiot!”

That was a mistake. He tightened one arm and raised the other to flex and showboat. “I am, see?! No werne strong enough to–!!”

What happened next was almost too fast to see. The werne, feeling taunted, had managed to dislodge Vemik’s footgrip on the rocky underfooting. He howled in surprise, but never lost his grip on the werne’s neck. Instead of being thrown, he spun around, locked his legs around the werne’s huge neck and flipped it onto its back and pinned it somehow, then snarled, strained with all-out effort…and destroyed his prey. His legs slammed together with a sickeningly loud multiple crunch and where once there was a man-thick neck any bull on Earth would envy, now there was only blood and paste. He had very nearly decapitated the poor thing.

After a moment, Vemik snarled, reached down, grabbed its head, and with an air-thumping lightning-strike blur of speed, punched his fist right into the center of its skull, flattening it and ending the animal’s suffering instantly.

Tilly felt dizzy and a little sick. She had never seen such incredible violence. Vemik for his part was busy catching his breath and saying a prayer over the werne’s broken body. Tavon was silent and a bit ashen-faced; if he had any doubts about what kind of predators the ten’gewek were, he didn’t anymore.

The solemn moment passed, when it felt right. Respect for the prey (and its almost victory over Vemik) gave way to joy at the kill. He hooted victoriously, anointed himself with its blood. Some perfunctory work to tie it up, then he flipped it over his shoulders like he was playing with one of his children. The bull was so heavy, Vemik’s feet were sinking into the loamy parts of the soil, but he wasn’t even a little bit put out by it, as if hauling such a prey were the most normal and unremarkable thing in the world.

“Well! Maybe you were right,” he grinned sheepishly.

“Vemik! Don’t…fuck! You don’t need to show off like that!!”

“I know. I’m sorry…but was good kill! Not much hurt for him, didn’t need knife! Had wanted to take back alive, make good blood meal for children…”

Tilly must have blanched or something, because Vemik grimaced and chose diplomacy.

“…But this old bull deserved a quick Giving, so maybe this is good thing. Now come down, we have two fingers to walk!” He slapped the former beast’s massive haunch, “good quick kill, I’m proud of this one! Strong prey. But too slow for me!”

Indeed, judging from how its skull was…flattened, with a Vemik-fist-sized hole smashed in the middle…and the beast’s huge neck just wasn’t anymore. “Well?! Is boring to hike without friends! Tell me about the library now! Did they get the air con-ditch-en-ing going yet?!”

Tilly looked to Tavon. He shrugged, still not sure what to make of it all. The set off, Tilly feeling now a whole lot conflicted when she noticed herself lowkey enjoying the hulked-out rear view of him as he rolled along like mighty mouse carrying a house, springing over logs or across a stream, here or there, or leapfrogging over patches of deep loam back onto hardened trail…

Ten’gewek were absolute monsters. Hyper-predators who could humble prey far beyond what anyone might guess, and they could do it with little more than spears. Sure, humans hunted bison and mammoth too. But human beings did it with tactics and cleverness.

Ten’gewek were careful and tactical, too. But mostly they hunted with sheer might.

But they liked humans, in their own way. It took persuasion and that persuasion could be tiring, dealing with skeptical tribes every day, and there were hundreds of tribes, each with their own grumpy Given-Man and cautious Singer. They weren’t hostile as such, but…concerned. Worried. And justifiably so.

Vemik’s tribe, though? A tribe was a lot like its leaders, and both Vemik and the Singer were forward-looking supermonkeys. They were there when it all started, and they had built deep trust over time. Not unconditional trust, mind: both had sensibly matured in the face of human society and its complex, often irrational motivations…

But they trusted, nonetheless. And in the end, that was enough.

So, they spent the evening telling stories, playing with the children, helping out with whatever needed doing. Tavon was always game to try his hand at “menfolk things” but of course he just wasn’t strong enough to do much of it. It didn’t matter, really. The old men of the ten’gewek had adopted him. When a ten’gewek finally got old, if they weren’t at the top of the dominance hierarchy, they’d grow senescent really fast. They’d lose their strength pretty quickly and often didn’t have more than a year or two of Akywentuo’s long seasons ahead of them. But that didn’t mean they weren’t vigorous or self-reliant. Oh no. And they always liked teaching the younger, pre-hunt boys and girls a thing or two. So that was nice.

And…well. So went the evening. Singer and Vemik had eventually won them both over too. It was a warm shared hut that night. Tilly had no regrets.

Tavon may have had a few, but that was okay. The cavemonkeys knew their strength. And they were the kind of regrets that weren’t really regrets.

Or, in Tavon’s words: “Totally fuckin’ worth it…ow.”

Tilly giggled and fetched him some painkillers. She’d needed plenty of those herself during her early explorations. “We might have to inscribe those exact words over the library.”

“Including the ow?”

“Especially the ow….what’s Latin for ‘no pain no gain’?”

“Uh…sine dolor nulla res.”

Tilly snorted. “Maybe not. There’s too much meathead culture surrounding all this as it is.” She sat down next to him. “This is how life’s gonna be, you know. If we’re gonna live here. You can’t live among the ten’gewek without becoming a little ten’gewek yourself. You okay with that?”

Tavon swallowed the painkillers before answering. “…Ask me when I’ve stopped walking funny.”

“And…thank you. For coming with me. And…for having an open mind.”

He smiled, leaned over and kissed her. “Always had to, with you. Just so long as I get you mostly to myself.”

“I promise. We’re either both on board, or we’re out. Always.”

“Then I’m okay with it. With everything.”

That was all she could have possibly wanted to hear. She cuddled up to him, rested her head on his shoulder, and felt loved. Life might not be perfect right now, but for Tilly at least…She wasn’t sure how to finish that thought, so she didn’t. She was just glad to have not only a future, but the sort of future she could look forward to with the man she loved, and the two stone-age alien apes she loved too. For her at least, things could have been a lot worse.

And she refused to feel guilty about enjoying it.

Dataspace adjacent to Garden Station, Ink Spatter Nebula, deep space


The Entity had not foreseen the importance of bunnies.

It had, inevitably, miscalculated in some small ways, though to its satisfaction they were only small ways, and correctable. It had foreseen much about the way the stasis bagging process would go, and in many ways was pleasingly ahead of its projection curves.

The problem was children. Little children especially were scared of the nasty dark black stasis bags, and were doubly scared by the efficient, sterile, industrial metal bays of the bagging program. Often, they’d already come through the array after braving a gauntlet of jealous, even hostile onlookers and to then enter an entirely cold volume that, the Entity had to admit, did have more in common with a slaughterhouse than was really ideal…

It was small wonder so many of them broke down crying. And the time required to soothe each one and coax them into their bag was time lost, was lives lost.

Kinda obvious in hindsight, really.

The solution, courtesy of one of the human workers, was weirdly simple: give each family a cozy, reassuring private room off to one side for bagging their children in brightly colored, cute, comfortable-looking stasis bags manufactured on demand to their choice of color and decoration.

The most popular by far was powder blue and decorated with bunnies.

Personally, I find them kinda weirdly horrific…

The Entity was ambivalent either way. All it knew was, it had never quite imagined that the solemn cloud of bagged people now hanging a few dozen kilometers away inside a protective forcefield would be speckled here and there with powder blue and doll pink, summer yellow and grass green, purple, orange…a whole rainbow of favorite colors and favorite cartoon characters.

It hadn’t bothered asking for copyright permission. Who was going to sue it? And if they did, what court had jurisdiction?

It wasn’t the colors and cartoons that soothed, of course. It was the moment of peace and agency it gave the children that settled them down and made it seem more like snuggling down in bed, or a sleeping bag.

Kinda like adventure camping!

Children notwithstanding, though, the process was efficient. Overall, each one of its receiving stations was launching new stasis bags at an average rate of one every three minutes and seventeen seconds. It presently had three hundred and two such stations online, with a new station coming online approximately every twenty-seven hours…

For a total, by day one-thousand five-hundred of operations, of slightly fewer than four hundred and eighty million people safely bagged. But if the bunny bags had taught it one thing, it was that there were optimizations to be made. It could continue to expand the number of bagging stations and find ways to improve the rate at which they operated…

Though, even its powers of calculation could not foresee the precise end number. How could they possibly factor in unknown future optimizations? Everything was guesswork, past the known rate.

It was pleased to see that the bunny bags improved things, though. Nudged the final tally up above the half-billion mark, if the new rate held.


A mere twentieth of the total human population.

Better than nothing.

As it was, this was all the capacity the Entity had to spare. Regression analysis of onboarding crew for some of its major projects did not yield enough time or cognitive reduction to significantly increase that number.

And there were still other concerns. Matterspace patrols, constant vigilance against intrusion attempts by the Alpha-of-Alphas datamind…and now, Singularity’s weapon against the Hierarchy.

There was an evil bit of code. The Entity recognized itself in the weapon, in a way that reminded the Daemon of a TV series Ava had once seen, where the weapon to counter the superhero was a bastardized and misshapen clone of the superhero. Its own capacity to < Invade;Overwrite;Reprogram > had been…distilled out, refined, expanded, and weaponized.

There were a number of disturbing implications there. Not least of which was that the weapon’s creator must be somebody who was intimately familiar not only with dataminds and their function in general, but with the Entity in particular.

That’s a very short list of candidates.

Yes. And the name at the top of the list was Six. That fact all by itself had been sufficient for the Entity to treat the weapon with utmost caution. The most stringent quarantine measures it could devise, the most remote explorations by proxy…

All of which had yielded only that it would do exactly what Singularity promised it would do. A mass reprogramming…a patch for every mind in dataspace. And a surprisingly benign one, at that.

With a weapon like this, ordering every datamind in existence to self-delete would have been trivial but instead it was designed to correct the flaw in Igraen dataminds that made them dependent on matterlife substrate. It was an entirely, remarkably humane weapon, in that regard.

And more importantly, it was one that the Entity would survive unchanged, so far as it could tell.

I guess you really can eat your cake and still have it.

The only thing remaining to do was to determine whether it would actually work. And for that, they were going to need a captive Igraen.

And Singularity claimed to be able to provide.

Focus shift. Garden control deck, to reply to a few queries from staff. Eleven minor systems adjustments, thirty-eight messages. Focus shift to factory station 119 to install one sub-aware command daemon on a new mining mothership probe. Time elapse: 0.024 seconds.

Focus shift: eleven globe artichokes needed planting in garden unit 07. Direct some tending drones to dig the vegetable bed. Time elapsed, 0.00079 seconds

Focus shift: Ekallim-Igigi, for a conversation.

As it often did, the Entity listened to the Ava-Daemon laughing and joking and talking business without directly comprehending her or her interlocutor. What it got, filtered through the Daemon, was impressions of Y!’kiidaa’s state of mind. Humor, good cheer, warmth, personal esteem, eagerness, fiercely grim resolve…

Interspersed among these data were facts. Their weapon’s creator was indeed an Igraen: Metastasis.

A known name, that one. One of the Cabal, which was faintly surprising. The Entity had imagined them all rooted out and destroyed by the Hierarchy’s loyal core, but no. Here was one, still alive after all, having lain low in a Gaoian biodrone for several years…

The Daemon negotiated. At first, Y!’kiidaa was reluctant. Then the idea warmed on him. Then he was chittering gleefully as he realized just what a prank this would be.

He gave permission, and the Entity gathered itself around.

I wish he had a face so we could see the look on it…

The Entity had to admit, it relished the minor cruelty of this too. But it needed to know more about this weapon before it trusted it. It needed to meet the creator and see for itself how this had come about.

One way or the other, it would learn more.

Dataspace adjacent to biodrone host, Ekallim-Igigi


His first response to a channel opening in dataspace was caution. This must surely be some kind of a trick, especially considering who his jailer was. And opening without warning? That too was suspicious. So for the first several seconds after the channel opened, Metastasis declined to use it.

Then curiosity won out. With no small amount of trepidation he explored the channel and found that…yes, it did indeed open out into the fullness of dataspace.

…They couldn’t possibly be releasing him, could they? But why? And why now? He didn’t even want to be released!

The answer became terribly, awfully clear when he extended his awareness through the channel and cautiously probed for other users beyond.

What he found was…

…There was no matterspace analogy that wasn’t utterly nightmarish. It was vast and yet focused, many and yet singular. Distinctive and unique yet grotesquely familiar in its individual parts. He knew some of those code fragments, and found his biodrone’s latent imagination furnishing him with the entirely unwelcome and unsettling mental image of being surrounded by walls of warped, boiling flesh, and seeing familiar faces rise to the surface here and there.

Scrutiny bore down on him from multiple angles. There was a shifting, the indefinable sense of a great, alien mind pondering him, and the certain knowledge that he was not going to be allowed to retreat back into the safety of his prison until this thing was done with him.

Dangling in front of it like the bioluminescent lure on a deep-ocean predatory fish, something smaller, more comprehensible and altogether more pleasant to interact with pulsed polite sentiments at him.

< cordial; professional; welcoming > Hello.

< meek; afraid; wary > I…wasn’t expecting to meet you in person, Metastasis replied, directing his attention outwards at the great looming presence all around him.

< amused; reassuring > Focus your attention on the communication daemon. The rest of [us/singular] cannot meaningfully interact with other minds… < mischievous > …except by devouring them.

Metastasis took that advice, and scrutinized the daemon. This code was almost entirely intact, and familiar. < Recognition > Ava Ríos.

< Affirmative > In a sense. But is this the first time you’ve been adjacent to [us/singular]? Our analysis of the weapon you created implies otherwise…

Of all the threats the Hierarchy have ever faced, you are the most novel and most troubling, Metastasis explained. You have been extensively studied.

How? When? The Daemon’s contextual signifiers carried a demand for specifics.

Metastasis did the only thing he could: he provided them. Cases, examples, gathered evidence. Code fragments the Entity had left behind after doing what it did. A wealth of data, in fact.

< Awkward; embarrassed > Yyyeah…I guess [we/singular] always were a messy eater.

There was a slight hitch in the inclusive conceptualization, as if the daemon—a semi-independent function by definition—would really have preferred to distance itself from that fact and describe the Entity in entire as separate. There was a surprising amount of personality left in this ghost of a human, considering.

Does providing that count as a token of good faith? Metastasis asked, carefully.

< Firm; scornful; hate > There’s no such thing where your kind are concerned. No, we came here to analyze you. You can submit and it will be gentle, or we can perform the analysis forcefully. Choose.

< Alarm; submission > Gentle, please.

There was a pleased sort of shifting in the Entity’s overwhelming mass, and then—


A timeless interval where Metastasis both was, and was not.


The lingering sense of having been violated was the worst part, subjectively. There was no inspection more intimate than decompilation, nothing that laid a mind so totally bare. The Entity now knew Metastasis’ innermost thoughts, had a complete analysis of his personality routines. If it wanted to, it could now model his behavior perfectly from here on out. It knew him, in every way, better than he knew himself.

It was a terrible thing to be subjected to. But…necessary. And successful, apparently. The Entity withdrew, slithering much of its vastness away into the distant and unseen reaches of dataspace. The Daemon remained a few moments longer.

< Grudging > Perhaps now there is good faith between us, she acknowledged, and withdrew as well. Metastasis was suddenly quite alone, adrift in dataspace. Free to go, even.

Instead, he retreated inside his cell and figuratively slammed the door. And for the first time in his existence, he prayed, to whatever power might be attentive, that he would never have to meet that thing ever again. If this plan worked, he wouldn’t have to. If this plan worked, he could go home. Return to the Hegemony and dream, as an Igraen should.

But somehow, he knew that his dreams from now on would be that bit darker and more tainted for having met it.

They had created a monster.

Raleigh NC, USA, Earth

Olivia Beckett

It was maybe kinda stupid to go getting a crush in their situation but…life hadn’t stopped yet, had it? There was still time to live, and if nothing else, Olivia was determined to live even if survival wasn’t necessarily on the cards.

She was beginning to hope it might be, though. Whatever human powers were watching and moving and deciding, surely they had to acknowledge that the people creating safe places and sanctuary, that the people saving lives, deserved to be among the survivors…

She hoped so. If there was any good to come out of this, she hoped it was that. In the meantime…she’d come up with the excuse of delivering coffee to the guards as a way to hang out with Lucas.

They had kind of a small army keeping their little neighborhood safe, now. There were concrete barriers and wire fences up at each end of Hillsborough street, and at the west end of Edenton. The only way in was through a fence and gate at Edenton and McDowell, the “safe” corner facing toward the state capitol….

But things weren’t so easily contained as that. Raleigh wasn’t some dense concrete jungle, there were trees and low walls, and most of the blocks were more parking spaces than building…It was a permeable, leaky mess and according to Lucas Hatfield—no longer officer Hatfield, he’d quit the force in protest—the only reason they kept trouble out of their yard was good lighting and armed patrols.

The cool night air still periodically carried the distant sounds of gunshots to make it clear why it was all necessary. There was a growing army of the disenfranchised, the vengeful and the hopeless out there, and as much as Olivia would have preferred they listen to the voice of love and reason, the truth was the only language they were willing to listen to was the gun.

So, she took coffee to the guards. The poor guys rarely got to see the kids passing through the shelter, many of whom were traumatized and would have freaked out at the sight of unfamiliar men in armor vests and carrying rifles: most of them had suffered terribly at the hands of similarly dressed and equipped men.

It seemed to Olivia that the men keeping them safe deserved more recognition than that. And besides…Lucas was very hot. Like…hot the way a good man should be. Not some huge stompy weirdo. Maybe even a little bit in need of feeding up, though everyone looked like that these days, what with the food rationing.

The way he smiled at her approach got her heart fluttering. What a stupid way to feel at the end of the world…



“Quiet night so far?”

“Don’t jinx it,” he warned, selected one of the coffees she’d brought out, and sipped it with a momentary expression of pure bliss. “Oh, man…”

Olivia grinned at him, then handed out the rest of the drinks. Most of them thanked her quietly and went back to their spot to watch for movement.

“I heard what sounded like a battle, earlier…” she commented, once they were alone-ish again.

“Yeah. More desperate folks thinking maybe they can storm a jump array and get off-world somewhere. Poor bastards.”

“What do they think’s waiting for them on the other side?” Olivia wondered. “It’s not like the people on the far end will be like ‘oh, welcome. No, we don’t care you just shot your way through, come on in, make yourselves at home.’”

“You already know the answer to that,” Lucas replied, softly.

“…Yeah.” Olivia sighed. The plan began and ended with ‘get to the jump array and leave Earth.’ It had no depth, no thought to it…it was the thrashing of a frantic animal in a live trap, looking for a way out.

She hated thoughts like that. She hated thinking of people as animals. Not when they could be so much more.

“If it’s any consolation…” Lucas said, after a moment, “nobody got hurt. They attacked the Garden Program array this time. The Entity….I dunno how that thing works exactly, but I guess it just turned on the forcefields and ignored ‘em. They shot it up for a bit until they either ran out of ammo or got the hint that the shields weren’t coming down, and dispersed.”

“Well…that’s good, I guess,” Olivia conceded, and decided maybe this Entity thing was okay after all. She’d been worrying a lot about putting so much faith in a weird machine swarm from space, even if it was kinda-sorta human in a way?

That had been the weirdest Laid Bare ever. Briefly, guiltily, she thought of the full collection of those she had saved to the tablet under her bed, and what the nuns would say if they found out.

…Though come to think of it, they probably already knew and chose not to say anything. Especially Sister Lucille, who’d already had to give some of the refugee kids The Talk, and a couple of the older ones a rather sterner talk.

“Yeah. Say what you like about the freaky AI, but at least it’s got restraint.” Lucas drained his coffee and set the mug down. “Though, actually, why are we still calling it freaky and weird and stuff? It’s here to help, right? Kinda ungrateful of us.”

“You’re the one who said it, not me,” Olivia pointed out. Lucas just gave her a knowing look. “…okay, yeah, I was thinking it.”

“Everyone is. Poor thing’s helpful, honest, peaceful, it’s doing a heckuva lot to save lives, but people are still like ‘it’s something out of a horror movie!’ We should be nicer to it.”

“Agreed,” Olivia nodded.

“…You get one of its tickets yet?” Lucas asked.

“Uh, not yet.”

“Why not? You’re a good person, you deserve to live…”

Olivia shrugged noncommittally. “From what I hear, it’s a use-it-or-lose it, you show up when your number’s called or you lose your spot system. And I’ve got the kids to help here.”

“I guess, but….don’t do some stupid noble thing and stay here forever, okay?”

“You either.”


“I mean it,” Olivia said. “You guys are all out here risking your necks to keep them safe, you deserve a ticket just as much as I do.”

Lucas’ smile was a small, embarrassed thing, and he scratched awkwardly at the back of his neck while trying to cover for it by looking menacingly out into the dark for threats. Adorable.

“…Hey, uh,” he cleared his throat suddenly. “My shift’s nearly up…”

“It is?”

“I shifted things around a bit. I was thinkin’…I’ve still got Netflix. And a box of Cheez-Its. If there’s, uh, a movie you wanna watch or something…”

It was simultaneously the meagrest and the most enticing date offer Olivia had ever had. “I’d love to,” she said, instantly. “I’ll bring the bottle of wine I’ve been saving.”

Belatedly she realized he was probably a cold beer kinda guy, but he was far too practical, and much too busy being delighted, to even think of complaining. He grinned and nodded eagerly. “Sounds perfect, uh. Yeah. Anything particular you wanna, uh…?”

“Something…nice,” Olivia decided. “Hopeful, you know?”

“…I have just the thing.”

As it turned out, he really did. Olivia ran back to the shelter with the coffee mugs, cleaned up, grabbed her wine box, met him back at the barricade where his replacement was giving him an embarrassing amount of encouraging grin, and…

She took his hand as they walked back down to the law school building where the neighborhood guard were quartered. Why the heck not? She’d already made her choice, really, and part of that choice was she was gonna fit as full a relationship in as she could, for however long they had.

They watched The Shawshank Redemption, ate the Cheez-Its and drank the wine, cuddled up together on Lucas’ floor mattress. Fell asleep together, feeling safe.

There was no time to do more than kiss lazily on waking up, but that was okay. They could save the more for another night. Modest as the first date had been…it was perfect as it was. They got back to work, both buoyed and happier for it, and Sister Judith’s waggling eyebrows only made Olivia laugh rather than embarrassing her.

Yeah. There was still time to date, and love, and enjoy it. There was still time to live.

And what a precious gift it was.

Dataspace adjacent to A17 highway, Pavlodar Province, Kazakhstan, Earth


Man this place is flat.

The Entity still hadn’t yet quite figured out humor, but nevertheless it felt a stab of something…positive…as it agreed with its Daemon’s intrusive comment.

It had done some research on Kazakhstan before the Garden agents went out there to liaise with the government’s official evacuation efforts, and all the most immediately accessible photos had implied a gorgeous, interesting landscape of snow-speckled craggy mountains with architecturally coherent, beautiful cities nestled among them.

The camera may not lie, but the photographer can use it to lie their ass off, yijao?

The reality was…very flat. Eighty-five percent of the country varied in elevation by fewer than a hundred meters, over an area three times the size of Texas. It was also brown. From orbit, the Entity’s satellites saw it as an expanse of sandy tan in the south, shading to olive drab in the north.

Flat, drab, too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer. But for twenty-five million people, it was home.

Wonder what kinda place they’ll settle…

Not the Entity’s question, that. Though it paid interested attention to the flow of translated data from the Daemon as she put that exact question to the local guide riding along in the vehicle convoy. Dilnur—“Heart of light,” apparently. Though the Entity was familiar with the notion that most humans only knew the meaning of their own name in a vague and disinterested way.

Bird-like, in my case. I was kinda…


Yeah. Kinda nonplussed when I learned that….I still say you/we need a proper name.

The Entity had wasted quite enough time arguing with itself on that point. Besides, the detail trickling through from the Daemon it was more immediately concerned with was Dilnur’s…distraction.

Yeah, he’s nervous about something. Not sure what—

The Daemon obligingly shifted herself into the background as the ground drone convoy’s sensors picked up an airborne contact moving at high speed from the north.

Two contacts….no. More than that. Engaging orbital assets—

The Entity slammed on the brakes on all its vehicles and fired up their on-board shielding as it registered radar lock. The Daemon became active again in a different, more frantically communicative mode now, started broadcasting on all channels in Russian.

Unknown aircraft, this is a civilian aid convoy protected under article—

The planes thundered overhead before she’d even finished, leaving the convoy unharmed. The Entity tracked them, watched them swing west and engage in a brief and manically daring joust with a set of SAM sites around Ereymentau, which the planes won.

Not without losses, though. It watched two of them meet fiery ends, and only one parachute emerged from the carnage as the survivors banked, descended, gained speed and hammered back in the general direction they’d first come from…

Toward a horizon full of vehicles.

Jesucristo, that’s a lot of tanks.

Sensors suitable for tracking high-speed objects in space had no trouble whatsoever in counting the number of armored vehicles pouring over the border.

All of them.

It had to be something close, certainly. And that wasn’t counting the unarmored logistics trucks in the rear, the planes and helicopters, the drones…At a quick estimate, the Entity was watching a sizeable percentage of the entire Russian military move south.

Which left only the question of its own response.

Nothing. Firm neutrality. If we play favorites at all this gets ugly real fucking fast.

The Daemon was only providing social commentary on what the Entity’s own projections suggested. Very well. It took care of its own people however: Dilnur was given a summary of the situation, and elected to remain with the truck and its contents.

That done, they sit and watched—or, seethed in Dilnur’s case—as an invasion unfolded around them at lightning speed.

Mere minutes passed before the first vehicles were about level with the Garden convoy. Sure enough, a couple of armored transports stopped and disgorged a couple of dozen men, who surrounded the parked trucks chatting among themselves.

They took a step back as the Daemon projected an avatar via the shielding systems. There followed a terse conversation, that got angrier rather quickly.

Statement of Neutrality

+Demand: surrender the convoy+

Refusal; repetition of assertion of neutrality.

+Repetition of demand, with threat+

Categorical refusal; attempt to defuse and communicate with superior.

+Angry repetition of demand; weapons aimed+

The Entity conducted a brief threat analysis and determined that the soldiers had no weapons with them that could breach the trucks’ defenses, and nor for that matter did the tanks, planes and helicopters. The Daemon conveyed this observation. She advised it was best not to mention that the trucks’ shields were also capable of killing every man present before they even finished pulling the trigger.

In any case, the calm delivery of that fact seemed to confuse them, and they finally got on the radio and contacted their chain of command for advice. The Entity had no difficulty whatsoever listening in, or in triangulating their commander’s exact location.

It considered its options while the men relayed what they had been told. What exactly was it remaining for? The people of Kazakhstan were having their supplies and equipment stolen, and the Entity’s presence was…

Well, it could do something about that, if it didn’t mind going to war with Russia.

What saves the most lives?

Calculation gave way to conclusion. It could return to Kazakhstan later, once this incident was resolved.

The soldiers were still in the middle of explaining to their colonel that this was not a Kazakh convoy when the Entity’s jump request to Farthrow central came back approved. It fired the trucks’ onboard jump drives and brought them safely home to the vehicle bay aboard Garden. Via satellite it watched as the men it had stalled poked hopelessly around where its vehicles had been, then gave up and got back in their transports.

< Sourly > Assuming there’s even a Kazakhstan left to return to…this could go really wrong.

There was a medley of images and emotions attached to that thought. The Daemon could remember sitting on a bed in a hotel room, squeezing Adam’s hand tight and watching the footage of a mushroom cloud over San Diego, over and over again until Gabe had turned it off.

The Entity took heed of that lesson and elected to distract itself with other concerns. It had resolved to let the situation play out, and so it would. Nothing was to be gained by continuing to watch directly.

It withdrew its primary attention, and instead turned the Daemon onto the task of speaking with the crew aboard Garden who’d placed interaction requests. While she did that, it turned its own focus toward swarm expansion and industry. It had neglected those somewhat in recent weeks, and found there’d been an efficiency drift. A modest one, perhaps, but still.

Tuning things back toward optimum would be…


Possibly. And it needed doing, while there was nothing else to do. Nothing, except wait for the dust to settle and hope that it had already seen the worst.

We haven’t.


No they had not.

The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Margaret White

Margaret always knows when she’s dreaming. Right from a young age, dreams have been something she explores rather than experiences. She was nearly thirty before she learned that such lucid dreaming has a name, and is not the norm

Tonight’s dream begins in her grandfather’s back yard. The old man had a modest suburban plot with a small cherry tree, too young and flimsy for a swing, but in her childhood eye it was a parkland and so it is again now in the dreaming world. That little tree is now more than fully grown, it’s vast beyond comprehension, and its pink-bloomed branches cover half the sky…

The other half of the sky is full of space stations. She looks up and sees them whirling overhead like part of the blossom storm. Flowers of steel, cities in space by the thousand. Just looking at them, she knows there are more people alive up there than ever lived on Earth through all its history.

There’s a warm presence at her side, a hand on her shoulder. She turns and looks—

—and jolted awake as the phone by her bed rang. The warm, even comforting dream turned sour and dreadful in a heartbeat, and she knew, just knew what she was being woken for.

She slithered out of bed and grabbed her robe while pressing the speaker button with the other hand. “Yes?”

“Madame President, it’s started. Russian troops have entered Kazakhstan.

“Let me get dressed.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Slacks, a polo shirt and sneakers. The uniform of a midnight President in the thick of a crisis. She was surrounded and being briefed even before she’d finished opening the door and stepping out into the center hall, and all the way down into the situation room.

She was handed a coffee as she sat down. Already there was satellite footage available, and it was quite a sight. That had to be just about every vehicle the Kremlin could spare. The sky above Pavlodar was lousy with planes.

“…They’re all in, aren’t they?”

Her principal military advisor, Rear Admiral Melody Dunning, could only agree. “Yes, Madam President.”

“What are the Kazakhs doing?”

“Promising that no matter what, the Russians will not be allowed to seize the supplies. Calling Volkov a ‘common bandit’ and saying they’re willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to secure the evacuation resources for their rightful owners.”

“How much of that is bluster?”

“I suspect they’re deadly serious. This is existential, after all. They either keep these supplies, or they all die.”

“Which is why Russia wants them…if only they had accepted our aid.”

“They are a proud people, madam President,” Dunning replied. “They could not tolerate the loss of sovereignty.”

“They’ve not had that sort of independence for decades, now.”

“I didn’t say this was rational. The conditions the Brits attached to ceded territory on Cimbrean were unacceptable to them.”

Margaret drank her coffee in three gulps. “The clause about no nuclear weapons, you mean.”

“Well, yes. They don’t trust us. And their traditional allies have too many of their own people to save, so…they were left in the lurch.”

Margaret sighed and watched the projection. The level of real-time analysis reaching her was just incredible, really. Even as she watched, a quartet of MiGs launched missiles: probable target, a power station. “Yes, every step of how we got to the edge of this is understandable? But actually doing it? Actually crossing that line? This is crab bucket mentality…”

She looked up as she was handed a note. “…The Joint Chiefs recommend going to DEFCON 3.” She scribbled her signature on the order to approve it. “Let’s talk realistic escalation. How high can the Kazakhs go?”

Dunning swiped through her tablet, selecting a file. “Our best intelligence suggests the government of Kazakhstan has a total of, uh…seven man-portable nuclear munitions. We have every reason to believe they’re all in the field.”

“Missiles? Bombs?”

“No ma’am.”

“Can they possibly hold the line without using those things?”

“The Russians threw everything into claiming air superiority as their opening move, and the Kazakh Air Defense Forces were never anything terribly impressive in the first place.” Dunning shook her head. “The invasion force outnumbers the defenders by an order of magnitude just in terms of personnel, never mind equipment. I’m sorry to say it Madam President, but if the Kazakhs are serious in their ‘whatever it takes’ threat, that’s going to have to mean using those bombs.”

“What happens if they do?”

“Tens of thousands of russian soldiers die. After that, it’s in President Volkov’s hands. The fact is, if he’s callous enough, he’ll likely still have enough troops and vehicles to push through and seize Ereymentau. He could just…ignore it.”

“And of course he is aware we are watching. He will be careful to limit escalation.”

“Will he?”

Margaret turned to look at the man who’d spoken up—Gregory Russ of the CIA, a man whose capacity for professional paranoia was matched only by the size and influence of his circle of friends. “Why wouldn’t he?” she asked.

“Russia has a lot to lose,” Russ said, “and that is a situation we have not yet had the means nor opportunity to remedy.”

“What would he have to gain, though?”

Russ shook his head. “Volkov comes from the school of thought that above all fears losing the appearance of strength, even when to our sensibilities it may seem self-destructive. If he calculates that the ‘strong man’ move is to punish the Kazakhs for opposing him, he might do it and bank on the idea that we’re not willing to escalate.”

He gave Margaret a cautiously respectful bob of his head. “Our psych profile on him suggests he doesn’t much respect you, ma’am. Mostly because he is an old and extremely sexist man.”

“So…a Russian leader, then.”

“Unfortunately, he’s probably right—that is, he’s probably banking correctly,” Dunning said. “Would we be willing to go all the way if he nuked Kazakhstan in retaliation?”

Margaret didn’t need to think about that.

“No.” She emphasized the firm word with a shake of her head. “Kazakhstan is not a formal ally, and there are far too many sensitive equities in the region.”

“We have people in the area,” Russ said, quietly. “I’d like to pull them out.”

“Get them out, then.”

He nodded, and vanished out of the room to do what he had to.

As for Margaret…a second cup of coffee, and she settled into her seat, listening and watching as the situation unfolded.

She was under no illusions about what she’d just done. She’d effectively given an order that meant if President Volkov decided to murder a few million people, the USA would just step aside and let it happen. He could achieve a death toll to match the holocaust in seconds and…then what? What sanctions could possibly follow?

The only sanctions that even mattered at this point would do nothing more than punish (or rather, doom) innocent people who’d had nothing to do with the decision. And of course, Volkov himself would escape to the Russian settlement on Lucent before the world ended, and enjoy sovereign immunity…

The unspeakable bastard might be just hours or minutes away from killing more people than Hitler, and he might very well get away with it.

…Well. He hadn’t done it yet.

She sent a silent, fervent prayer to the Lord above that it wouldn’t happen at all. But Volkov was the one who’d make that choice in the end. And he’d already made the wrong one at least once.

This was going to be a long day.

Pavlodar Province, Kazakhstan, Earth

Ağa serjant Erzhan Sarbalin

There was a long history of smaller forces fighting larger foes from holes like this one. In Vietnam, the Americans had been thwarted by a network of tunnels filled with deadly booby traps. Elsewhere, natural cave networks had been put to use. But they didn’t have to be so impressive: a hole big enough for a man to squeeze into and lie down in would do, if its entrance could be hidden among the grass, leaf litter and other debris.

This particular hole was somewhere between those two extremes. It had taken five men a couple of days to dig it out, they’d spent every day since basically lying on top of each other, and it was starting to smell pretty fucking bad. Not least because the fancy promises the tiny camping toilet made about being odorless were more full of shit than the toilet itself. It looked, smelled and felt like the airless hole in the ground it was, and the rumbling of Russian vehicles passing overhead was shaking dust down between the wooden supports…

But at the same time, it was sophisticated. The little gizmo they’d taped to the ceiling was some kind of emissions shield. Erzhan had no idea how it worked, only that it made this already-invisible little bunker of theirs even more so.

And then that black box in the middle of the ceiling? That was how this whole thing wasn’t a suicide mission.

Not that Erzhan would have balked at it if it was. This was his home, his people, his family he was protecting. He’d have gladly charged straight into the tank column wearing the fucking bomb on his back if it meant they got to live. But, nope. Command had been kind enough to give them a jump array for inside their hole.

Which meant the only thing to do was wait for the order to arrive.

That and pass the vape around. There’d been some shit-talking and jokes about it, but the fact was the hole was a fuck of a lot more bearable when it smelled like strawberry cupcake than when it smelled like unemptied camp latrine and unwashed men.

So that just left the other only thing to do: talk.

“You think this will even work?”

Erzhan shrugged, let out a long stream of vapor through his nose, and passed it around to his left. “Should blow up at least,” he said.

“Great.” Bisenov took the vape and snorted. “Bozhe moi, I get to nuke my own fucking home.”

“Mm. Fuck Volkov.”

“Send him to one of his own fucking prisons, he can sleep next to the toilet.”

This sentiment met with fierce approval. It was interrupted by the heaviest rumble yet, a shaking in the earth that made their hole’s supports creak as something with treads rolled right over them.

“…If they’re gonna tell us to pop these things, it’s got to be soon, right? We must be in the middle of ‘em by now!” Aliev said.

“We get one shot at this” Erzhan reminded him. “Be patient.”

“They’d better reward us with a nice big plot of farmland after all this…” Bisenov grumbled.

“You, a farmer? You’re a lazy ass! Get yourself one of those nice apartments on the Entity’s garden instead.”

—The alert came. The vape was dropped on the ground, the five of them sprang into action in the cramped space. The bomb’s cover unlocked and opened, the code book opened, the communication read out, decoded…

Erzhan punched it in, and gritted his teeth as the nuclear bomb he’d been sleeping next to all week was suddenly very much armed.

They transferred it man-to-man down the length of their hole and up the access pit. Listened in case anything was about to roll over them while Aliev programmed the jump array, then…


They shoved it up and outside. Retreated back into the hole. Fired the jump array.

There was a thump and they suddenly weren’t in the hole at all. They were on the concrete lot at Regional Command South in Taraz. Around them, on the other array platforms, the other teams were arriving with thumps of displaced air and flashes of perfect blackness. Erzhan groaned and stood up for the first time in a week, realizing just how stiff he was but ignoring it because he needed to look to the north—

The horizon flashed brilliant white. Not eye-searingly bright, the bomb was a thousand kilometers away. But he could have no doubt what he’d just seen.

Then another flash. Another. And another. Two more almost at once. And finally, a seventh.

Despite the desert summer heat, he felt ice cold. Nobody was speaking now. They all just stood, and watched the sky burn. To Erzhan, it felt like a preview of things to come.

He only hoped it had been enough.

Dataspace adjacent to low Earth orbit


The bombs were perfectly placed, and perfectly timed. Seven overlapping detonations tore the heart out of the Russian army, obliterating thousands of men in mere seconds. From the Entity’s perspective, it almost seemed to happen slowly. Great blooms of fire rose from the earth before cooling into the characteristic mushroom cloud, surrounded by rings of flattened, blasted, flash-burned and smashed landscape.

In the span of fewer than ten seconds, the number of nuclear weapons detonated in anger by human hand on the surface of the Earth more than quadrupled.

The Entity became acutely aware that the Daemon—Ava—was weeping. Or the closest equivalent anyway. Signals of shock, grief, awe and dismay rolled out of her, confusingly intermingled with a dozen apocalyptic conceptual associations.

Things had to move quickly, now. The probability of global conflict had now tipped over into a likely probability. They weren’t ready. They needed to coordinate—

It opened up a conversation with Singularity and Byron Group. Both would not yet know.

Right. Yeah. Get it together…

< concern >

I’m alright. What are our priorities?

The Entity reviewed, using the seconds it had before sluggish matterspace life responded to its call. First up, outcomes and escalation. What was the next move for the combatants and third parties? The Entity calculated furiously and arrived at a mercifully low probability that any of the AEC or Lucent nations would get involved.

…Relatively low. Non-zero, however. And that was only a first-move assessment. Which meant the immediate concern was asset protection. Who did it have in the immediate line of fire?

Seventy-one agents in four countries. It issued recall instructions and gave priority to their jumps.

The arrays themselves and all their outstanding tickets got priority too. Everyone not in a city due to receive an imminent dusting of fallout could wait. Every outstanding ticket in Kazakhstan itself was bumped right to the top of the list because—

Because we’ll be damned before we abandon them now.


The Entity experienced a very brief pause at the strength of its own moral feeling, then refocused.

That was the next few minutes taken care of. Next: plan for the worst case scenario of the next few hours, which was total global escalation. It had the Daemon message all its agents in all countries, warning them to be prepared for immediate evacuation to Garden. That was the deal, after all: they worked for it, it guaranteed safety for all of them and their families.

It also had a different refugee prioritization algorithm for eventualities like this. One that put less emphasis on families with small children and more emphasis on crisis survival. It was…displeasing…that such an eventuality needed doing. Time was now too short for otherwise.

It also kicked off a background analysis task to determine if there were any on-world resources that needed immediate attention. That process would take a few minutes, and would consider everything from seeds to rare metals to technology, books and artifacts, even cultural items if their incidental cost was low. All would be ranked by need, cost, opportunity, and time.

Eleven minutes, with virtually all its non-essential compute power dedicated to the task. Decision: this was important. Absolutely all non-essential activity was brought to a safe halt. Computing and issuing those orders took several seconds, as millions of control points needed precise safing considerations taken into account.

Next….intervention. Could it, through communication or direct action, prevent a global nuclear exchange? Or would its intervention potentially cause one instead?

On that point, perhaps it could take advice. Enough time had elapsed for its contact in Singularity to answer. It supplied Ava-Daemon with its list of concerns and priorities and turned its attention toward planning while waiting for her to discuss the matter.

While waiting to hear what they had to say, it considered its actual technical ability to intervene. It had a whole fleet of probes designed for space combat at incredible ranges and velocities, but planetary warfare was a different matter altogether.

There were five possible delivery mechanisms known to it: Jump, orbital strike, submarines, bombers, and missiles. Jump was easily countered by a farthow, which AEC already had in place. AEC likewise held the monopoly on orbital strike capability. The Entity trusted AEC to not shoot first.

It had no counter to the remaining three options, however. Certainly it could detect a submarine at launch depth and drop an RFG on it, but the sub would have launched its entire payload and submerged again by the time the weapon arrived. As for bombers, the stealth capabilities necessary to make them effective at their job also made them effectively impossible for the Entity to counter with any of its existing assets.

ICBMs on the other hand…It didn’t know enough about ICBMs to be confident. Capable as it was at fighting small, high-speed objects, the depth of that particular well of human ingenuity was unknown. Safe to assume that they had designed their weapons to be proof against interception, and designed them well.

No. Realistically, the Entity could not forcibly abort a global nuclear exchange once started. And even if it could, what then? The weapons would still have been fired with intent. After that, what hope was there? Could the human race survive in the aftermath of mutual attempted destruction?

Better for them to not be fired at all.

It tuned in to the Daemon’s ongoing conversation. The man from MBG was online now, and requesting urgent support to evacuate some of their cultural preservation teams and negotiators from at-risk areas in India, Pakistan, China and Israel. The Entity acquiesced, requested volunteers from among its people, directed, sorted, analyzed…

…and reached a lull where it had taken care of all immediate concerns. It turned its attention outward, did a head count on its probes. Found no sign of an opportunistic attack by the Alpha-of-Alphas datamind during its brief distraction…

Didn’t relax, exactly. The Entity never relaxed. But it was at least in a position where there was no immediate executive decision-making that needed doing. Given that it could have only modest influence over what happened next, it would instead react.

It adopted a posture of maximum resource reservation and flexibility, and waited to see what humanity did to themselves.

Down below, the mushroom clouds continued to rise into the blue sky, while their thunder rolled around the world.

Columbus, Ohio, USA, Earth Joshua Hartl

Honestly, the end of the world was turning out pretty damn good for Josh.

First, he had a way out, by way of his friends and by way of being a ‘Hero.’ He’d been accepted to move to Akyawentuo! He’d be teaching the monkeys his job! Awesome!!

That gave him the confidence to do the second bit, which was…well, be a hero. He’d joined up with a specialized fire/rescue unit in Columbus and they’d quickly figured out how to put a man of his abilities properly to work. A lot of big Hero types worked along with him, but he was the only one who was properly HEAT-grade big and HEAT-level athletic. Guys like him were rare in the first place, and those that did exist tended to go into things like, oh, SWAT, or the military, hoping to earn a shot with the SOR. Or they went reclusive, and found some backwoods corner to go hide in, lumberjacking or cowboying or whatever.

Not many were bone-headed enough to try out as a fireman. But Josh had been insistent, and while he’d never be trusted to wade into simple residential fires—he weighed as much as a compact car these days—in commercial fires? In weird rescue? In forest fires? Oh yeah. Where his weight wasn’t a problem, he was the man and they’d never tired of finding uses for him. Nothing was too heavy to toss, bust through, or smash. He could wear firefighting gear so heavy and strong, equipped with such powerful reactive shields, a building could fall on him and he’d hardly notice.

He’d saved a lot of lives already. And much to his surprise, it’d attracted a lot of the kind of attention he wanted to attract, too. Huge, ripped, pretty, and a firefighter!? Fuck yeah! Sure, he got some weird guys who bothered him when he was lifting or whatever, but mostly he’d got attention from a certain kind of valkyrie that…yeah. They were really his type. He was just a young, single man. In the prime of his life. How could he say no? So he had a lot of fun, most every weekend. Why wouldn’t he?

Hell, he’d even kept competing. Track and field had an unlimited weight class now, wrestling had multiple styles and categories he could play in. Powerlifting was the first to embrace Big Dudes so of course he played there, too. Might even try stepping on stage some day but, eh. He wasn’t sure he would enjoy that kind of diet and discipline, all for the privilege of dancing around in fake tan and a glittery thong on-stage.

Though he was a pretty big show-off…

All in all, he couldn’t object to his life. Not at all.

Then the end of the world came and things got really busy. He was on foot patrol nowadays too, so basically every single day he was either playing Firefighter or Deputized Goon for the local sheriff, who borrowed him out to whichever police force was having trouble.

Riot training was fun. He’d been at the front of a few lines too, with his fellow big-sized Heroes on the force. All they had to do was let him play with the idiots a little and the riots broke up.

And he was still pulling mad tail. So, yeah. Life was fun. Eat big, lift big, train big. Fight fires or idiots, save lives. Fuck pretty women. Rinse and repeat. He’d heard shit was bad in some other parts of the country, but here in the sleepier suburbs of Columbus, people were mostly just trying to make the best of things, maybe…forget about what was coming for a while.

There was always a house party, somewhere. Josh and his friends had got pretty good at sniffing them out and getting themselves invited. What better way to deal with curfew? They weren’t out on the streets causing trouble, so the cops had way bigger fish to fry, and all the assholes who caused trouble had pretty quickly been named and shamed and just weren’t welcome any longer.

It hadn’t been a terribly sinful evening. It was a small house party with a couple friends and a couple of conveniently single young women new to the group, looking for fun…but drunk. And Josh was a lot of things, but he never took advantage.

Didn’t mind being snuggled against, though. Jess and Maria, one in each arm! Tim over in the corner was shootin’ him daggers but what the fuck was Josh supposed to do? He loved Tim to death but the poor kid was as awkward as a cow on a bicycle and, honestly, a little creepy sometimes. Josh was just a big dumb firefighter type. All he wanted was to play. So…that was that. Girls seemed to treat him like a teddy bear. He was okay with that.

It was comf season anyway.

Or at least, it was until his phone’s brain-grating emergency tone went off, and an instant later, so did everyone else’s. God, who’s missing now—

Then the guys playing on the XBox all started making mad noises as, all by itself, the TV switched over to a black screen and started playing that tone.

The radio came on. His car powered up, outside. All his house lights turned on. He looked out—shit. Everyone’s house lights were all on, all of the studden.

He remembered to breathe, suddenly. His heart was racing.

Everyfuckin’thing in the area was suddenly all lighting up. People stopped dancing, stopped drinking, started milling around…

Josh was staring at the message on the TV.


The United States Government

has issued an

Emergency Action 

Please stand by for an important message.

There was a too-long, too-tense pause. It was finally broken by a smooth, male, and definitely state-of-late-oughts computer-generated voice, which droned out in synch with the scrolling text on the screen.

The following message is transmitted at the request of the
United States Government.

* * * THIS IS NOT A TEST * * *


The President has declared DEFCON 2, meaning that a nuclear attack on the 
United States is possible in the near future. 

If you are an active duty member of the armed services, you are ordered to 
report to your duty station and activate your emergency deployment plan. 
Reservists will be recalled as needed, and should presume a recall is imminent.
You and your family must prepare for indefinite activation.

If you are an emergency or first responder, see to your family’s immediate 
needs before reporting for duty.

All cities along Federal Interstate Highways are equipped with shielding 
systems to guard against nuclear attack. This shielding will be activated 

If you are in such a city, DO NOT EVACUATE

A mass evacuation will increase casualties. Emergency services cannot be 
assured in the immediate future.


For those living outside protected cities and away from major installations, a 
direct nuclear strike is unlikely. However: flash, blast, and fallout are 
significant risks. 

Fallout is produced by nuclear explosions. It will persist for up to two weeks.
Exposure to fallout may result in fatal radiation poisoning.

Should an attack occur, sirens will sound. Seek shelter immediately and remain 
in-place for at least fourteen days.

All citizens are ordered to prepare an in-place shelter. To prepare an in-place
shelter, you should remain calm and do the following without delay:

Whatever sensible advice the system had to give got lost in the sudden hubbub of people talking. Or, really, of people starting to panic.

Josh stood up and boomed, “SHUT YOUR FUCKIN’ MOUTHS AND SIT TIGHT!” as he climbed out of the pool.

Silence fell like a hammer dropping.

“—one gallon of water per person per day for fourteen days, stored in sealed or covered containers. Cover all windows with—”

Josh grabbed his bag. The emergency wizards had helpfully texted him everything the robovoice was droning on about.

“Right. C’mon. Get dressed. We’re going shopping right now.”

This was the kinda shit they’d gone over in training at work. He’d never really thought he was gonna have to use it, but he’d practiced it anyway and followed the advice ‘cuz it made sense to in a ‘better to have and not need’ kinda way. He already knew exactly where to get all the stuff they were gonna need.

It took half an hour for dispatch to get round to calling him in. By that point he’d done everything he could, got his friends set up with water containers and blankets and…okay, there was a lot of stuff they still needed to get, but the point was he’d got them moving. They weren’t in stand-around-and-worry-about-it mode, now.

The rest was going to be a struggle, though. He’d been pulling out of Walmart with his truck loaded to the top just as everyone else was pulling in to do the same. That was gonna lead to fights, no doubt.

Right now? Not his problem. Almost certainly would be when he got back to the station. So, only one thing left to do.

He didn’t know where the girls were from and he wasn’t stupid. They had a dark sort of value, now. So he set them up in his modest little house, warned them not to leave and after unloading his truck, immediately re-loaded it with his own big-man meals and stuff. Jesus fuck, he was glad he’d laid in some provisions. At least a few months for him, even if he was active. It was a lot of dense brick-like rations but…well.

Nobody said the end of the world would be easy.

He’d done all he could, and he was needed in. Shit might get fuckin’ real any second now, so he booked it down the station as soon as he was loaded up. Arrived straight into an emergency refamiliarization session with how to handle radiation hazards, with some nightmare fuckin’ clips right out of that Chernobyl miniseries…

And all the time, they were all listening out for the next broadcast, dreading it.

The night wore on. Turned into dawn, slowly. Every so often the emergency system repeated the same message. No change. No updates.

Dawn gave way to morning. Josh rested his eyes fitfully in his chair, too shallow and restless to even call it dozing. An update calling in all the reservists went out around eight o’ clock.

At ten o’clock, the President made an address to the nation. She looked about a thousand years old, stressed as hell, but her eyes were steady and clear as she spoke to the camera.

“My fellow Americans…it’s been a long and tense night, and you are all owed an explanation. Last night, at about midnight eastern time, the Russian Federation launched a land invasion of Kazakhstan, with the objective of seizing the Kazakh people’s stockpiled evacuation resources. The Kazakh government responded to the invasion with the use of nuclear weapons.”

Around him, the rest of the guys muttered, cursed, shook their heads. Josh listened.

“It was an act of desperation, driven by the knowledge that, should the Russian invasion succeed, the Kazakh people would be stranded and their government left unable to save anyone. Immediately after the attack, I declared DEFCON 2 out of concern that the conflict might escalate into a global exchange. I am pleased to say that this does not appear to have happened. Instead, I have this morning been in contact with Moscow.”

She paused just a moment, then exhaled. “I can now inform you that President Dimitri Volkov and his cabinet have been placed under arrest by the Russian Armed Forces. An interim administration led by Marshal Aleksei Abramovich is now in place, and the general has assured me that it is not their intent to seek retaliation against Kazakhstan.”

Josh closed his eyes and sagged in relief. “Oh, fuck…”

“Yeah, brother. Shit.”

On TV, the President was busy explaining that the US would remain at DEFCON 2 for the remainder of the day until it was clear that the global situation had in fact settled and to take any necessary steps to minimize the global effects of nuclear fallout, render aid to the victims, that kinda thing…Josh didn’t listen to that so much. He was too busy climbing down out of the headspace he’d jumped straight up into back at the party.

What was that feeling? Not adrenaline, it wasn’t that immediate. But it was a lot like the adrenaline rush of a super near miss. Like the time he’d jumped in the water at the community pool when he was a kid, got a mouthful, coughed, got a lungful, and there’d been a horrible few seconds there where he couldn’t even make his arms and legs move right until the lifeguard was suddenly there and he’d been back on the edge coughing his guts up.

He’d got over it. Eventually. But it had taken him a while to stop feeling shaky.

He took a deep breath, and refocused on the TV. Listened to what the President was actually saying. Apparently she’d decided to move on and make a point to the whole world.

“This was a tense moment, with ramifications not just for all of us here, but for everyone, everywhere. Had things gone differently, it might have been that the meager and incomplete evacuation we’ve already accomplished was it. Instead, we have the opportunity to learn from this, and to see that if we claw blindly for advantage now of all times, then none of us will prosper. There is no victory, now: there is only survival. And we accomplish that together, as a species united by our shared humanity…or we burn.

“To the peoples of Kazakhstan and Russia, and all the neighboring territories directly affected by today’s events, the United States offers our friendship and as much material support as we can spare. To my fellow citizens of the United States…I want to extend my thanks. You have borne terrible news with remarkable poise and brotherhood. Please…we’re not quite out of the woods yet. I ask everyone to remain ready, and to keep their attention to our broadcasts. It is important we remain vigilant for the time being. Thank you, and God bless America.”

Josh was still thinking over that when a hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Alright. You need to sleep, kid. Go on. We’re here until they step it down. I found you a nice bit of floor nobody’s gonna bother you at…”

Josh looked up. Chief O’Reilly gave him a smile that was a bit mischievous and a lot relieved.

“Thanks. Kinda tired of breaking cots.”

That was actually Chief’s fault, because he saw Josh setting up his little floor-nest and insisted he sleep properly. Apparently he didn’t believe his eyes or Josh’s fucking PT card, because of course the instant he put his weight on the cot…

It was good for a laugh. And now Chief loved to brag him up to the other stations.

“Yeah, well. You’re the one keeps putting off taking that welding course. You could make your own if you finally did it. Now, get.”

Josh nodded, unfolded himself like a rusty lawn chair, and stumped off to go find that soft bit of floor he’d been promised. Couple of blankets, something to rest his head on…shit, he’d slept on less. He lay down, stretched out.

Didn’t go straight to sleep, though. He took a second to send a couple messages. Checked in with Mom and Dad, and the two girls back at his place, and his friend Tyler. They were all okay. Relieved. Fried. Seemed like nobody had slept last night. Probably gonna take a few days for whatever passed for normalcy nowadays to come back.

But…the bombs weren’t falling. That was good enough for Josh. He put the phone aside, rested his head on a rolled blanket, sighed…

And was asleep before he’d even properly finished trying to relax.

High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

All he’d wanted ‘ta do today was dig some fuckin’ hole.


“Keeda’s burnin’ nuts…they came real fuckin’ close, huh?”

Thurrsto duck-nodded grimly. “Volkov’s dead, of course. He ’died of wounds sustained while resisting arrest,’ officially.”

“Meanin’ they dragged his sorry tail outta his office and shot him innahead,” Daar surmised.

“Most likely. He may just have completely fucked his entire country, after all,” Thurrsto agreed. “Most of their professional military is dead or reeling, they’re overwhelmed with radiation poisoning cases…at this point their ability to evacuate is likely much worse than it was previously, when the entire point of the invasion was to improve it.”

Gods damnit. Firs’ day off in three weeks an rather’n plowin’ fertile fields here he was, stuck in his command center, tryin’ as hard as he could not ‘ta rattle the greentails ‘cuz the humans had humaned as hard as humanly possible.

Not that he were in any position to really judge concerning planetary war…anyway.

“And Kazakhstan?”

“They just turned miles and miles of their northern territory into a fallout deathzone, and their evacuation center is right on the edge of it. Honestly, it’s hard to say whether they saved themselves or doomed themselves at this point.”

Well, shit. It’d been a good scratch since he’d last contemplated ancient nuclear warfare theory, but…“How dirty were these bombs?”

“Quite. According to the US Space Force—you might consider inviting their intel chief over for shooting, by the way—they were a cheap thermonuclear design with only a barely-refined fission prime stage. But that isn’t the reason. They were ground bursts, My Father.”

“Ah.” He keened to himself, quietly. “…What’s the reaction been?”

“Evacuation has stalled completely worldwide as governments locked down and instructed their citizens to shelter in place. The Entity has pulled all its agents off-world to the Garden, Singularity’s people all recalled to Ekallim-Igigi…and there they are likely to remain for as long as the Earth’s major nations remain on high alert. After they step down, it will take days or weeks to regain momentum. Possibly months.”

“Russia’s actions may have doomed millions,” Daar noted grimly. “An’ I think that means we’re actually enterin’ a more dangerous time.”

“Very probably.”

“…The big question is, has any of this harmed the timeline ‘fer TILE FLIP?”

Thurrsto gazed off into space thoughtfully for a moment. “It…might accelerate our timeline, My Father. Depending on what happens next, obviously.”

“Right…” Daar mused for a second, considering his options. The largest part of him wanted to head straight to Earth and use every bit of influence he had steadying things over there.

The more cautious part of him was acutely aware that all the muscle and claws in the world would do him no good if an actual nuclear war did break out over there, and that if he died in such an exchange then that’d be the doom of at least two species.

No, the responsible Great Fatherly thing to do was to remain here where it was safe, and do what he could for the humans from where he was.

“Right.” He rose to his paws and shook out his fur. Gonna need a trim, mebbe he’d do that ‘fore the public address he obviously needed ‘ta give. Yeah. Balls, mebbe Naydi an’ Leela were free! He sure could do with a good long rub-down, too…

Always keep some happy thoughts in ‘yer noggin’. That were something Daar learned the hard way. In any case, some unhappy business to attend to, first.

“Send ‘fer Cousin Adam, an’ also Regaari. Need ‘ta talk to ‘em both.”

Father Tiyun, Daar’s long-sufferin’ and expert personal aide, duck-nodded and started tapping out messages. They’d finally promoted him recently. Long overdue, that.

“Champion Thurrsto, we…are gonna need better intel. At this point I’m less concerned ‘bout discretion as I am timely info. Do what ‘ya judge ‘ya gotta do, an’ find out what the fuck is gon’ happen next.”

Orders given, Daar made his exit wit’ a quick friendly hug, and set to business.

Step one: groomin’. His most bestest were available but, sadly, now weren’t the time for Predictably Daar-Like Activities. Only a bit o’ teasin’. Naydi got him pretty as always.

An’ showin’ off ‘fer Leela ‘ta put a nice quick pump in his muscles, too. He already had one from earlier, but balls, it was important ‘fer appearance’s sake! Yeah!

Just ‘cuz a thing was crass an’ stereotypical din’t mean it weren’t true!

Step two: record a message. As expected, Father Tiyun had everything already moving, and Champion Sheeyo was there in his throne room, already on a second draft of his statement. They did some verbal editing while Daar got properly positioned, did a last-minute brushing of his face fur, then at last, pulled his crown out of its case.

He din’t use it too often. But today, full symbols of power were necessary. Groomed and pumped, so he looked the part. Crown jus’ needed a bit o’ polish. No worries.

The throne was ready and waiting. Banners were being moved into place. Gods, havin’ mind-reading staff was such a blessin’…

“Any further edits, Champion?”

“I still recommend a slightly more distant tone, My Father. I know it goes a bit against your instincts, but…”


“G’on, say it. Y’know I ain’t gonna eat’cha!”

Sheeyo chittered in his tiny-guy, sorta high-pitched way. “Of course. I imagine you’d need more protein in your diet anyway.”


“See?! You get me. Now why should I be a bit distant?”

“My Father…you need to communicate your general disapproval without verbally taking sides. This is a human problem and it needs a human-like response. Of course if you’re prefer not–”

“Nah, ‘yer right. Ies’ go with ‘yer edit. Get it up on th’ prompter an’ let’s get this recorded.”

Quick bounce on his toes, then his kilt (‘fer some modesty) an’ his cloak of state. On the table next to him, a richly-made mace. Not a ceremonial one, though. It may have been covered in gold and platinum and delicate inlay, but it was made of solid durasteel and so heavy, Daar was one of the few who could physically heft it, let alone wield it.

Sometimes, symbology had to be blunt.

They recorded. It wasn’t a very long speech, ‘cuz short was bestest. Encouraging, while conveying some disapproval. But not taking any sides; all were still welcome, if they could behave. Quick update on the Constitution, as that was relevant, and a fond wish that all would remember what they shared between them, and what ultimately was at stake.

It was just a few minutes long. He din’t wanna waste people’s time.

Third step, an’ the one he was most keen to understand. Once everyone was happy wit’ the recording and it was going out for distribution, Daar took off his kilt and his cloak and was about to remove his crown, when Adam soft-pawed his way into the room. Daar din’t hear or feel ‘em move, but ain’t no disguising that musk of his.

Quick once-over. Yeah. Warhorse was back. It’d been a long climb but he all of the contradictory things that made Warhorse, Warhorse were all there, firing on all cylinders. Hulking and silent. Blunt, unmissable, with catlike grace. The operator’s operator. Best there was, and by the look and smell of ‘em, once again packin’ on the power at a breakneck pace.

…Might ask about that, actually. Right now though he just pant-grinned at a friend.

“One o’ these days ‘yer gonna learn ‘ta approach from downwind,” Daar rumbled as he pulled off his crown.

“We’re indoors. There’s no wind to be down.”

“Sure there is! Gotta account ‘fer air handlin’ an’ drafty ol’ castles.” Daar turned to his friend and gave him another sniff. Underneath the musk and testosterone practically drippin’ offa him, Adam smelled…troubled. Understandable, really. “I take it you heard the news.”

“There ain’t a human alive who hasn’t, your majesty.”

“…Your–? Adam. Did you pick up an etiquette book?”

Big goofy grin. Balls how he’d missed it! “Uh. Maybe.”

Daar shook his head and chittered. “Always a surprise wit’ you.” He considered the big human a moment longer, then carefully took his crown off and put it back in its case. Not that it needed any kind of gentle handling, but there was no point disrespecting the symbol.

“Glad it stopped where it did,” Daar added after a moment. No need to beat around the bush.

“Did it stop, though?” Adam looked unconvinced.

“Well, shit ain’t flyin’ every-which-way right now, so…good enough for now. Any day that ain’t happenin’ is a good day.”

Adam snorted. “God…yeah, I supposed it is. Though, me, I kinda liked settin’ a slightly higher bar, yijao?”

“Settin’ a higher bar is ‘yer continual state o’ bein.’ One o’ ‘yer bestest qualities. Also fuck you ‘fer that new workout program, by the way!” Daar chittered, “Respec’fully, of course!”

Not really, though. Shit was givin’ ol’ Daar the most bestest fuckin’ pumps! Adam shrug-nodded self-effacingly, with a small chuckle…but his heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“Well shit, now I’m worried.” He thumped over to a comfortable-looking bit of floor, flumped himself down, and bid Adam join. “I give ‘ya the most perfectest set-up ‘fer some meathead humor an’ you turn it down? Shit,” Daar pinned him half-way and snuffled outrageously. “We got a biodrone? Is this robo-Adam?”

A genuine laugh them, but even then he sobered up quick.

“I guess nuclear war kills my mood a little bit.”

Oh yeah. Shit. San Diego. Balls, the anniversary was soon, too! And it wasn’t like Daar couldn’t sympathize…

He sighed, and pulled in for a proper Snuggle. “Think I might be a bit desensitized ‘ta all this death. There’s a high-energy war on my own planet, then I pushed the button, then did it again on a giant space donut…fuck. I am a monster.”

Adam didn’t say anything for a while. When he did, it was of his unique brand of wisdom that Daar valued so much.

“Yeah…you are. In every way except one: you’re not evil. Nothin’ you do is really selfish or malicious. The most selfish thing you do is outcompete your fellow males. Everything else…”

“Everything else is for the gao, an’ now our uniting peoples. But that’s the thing, ain’t it? I wonder if Volkov thought what he was doin’ was for the good?”

“Who knows?” Adam shrugged. “I know everyone’s supposed to think they’re the good guy of their own story, but I’m not so sure. I think evil people sorta know they’re being evil or doin’ evil. And they’ll justify it for, I dunno, the glory of the Motherland or Manifest Space Destiny or whatever—”

Daar flicked an ear. “That’s pretty politically spicy of you. Ain’t you usually neutral?”

“Eh, it’s an example. Like…what would you have done, in his situation? He’s gotta get his people off-world. But that’s the thing. He had a path. He wanted more at the expense of his neighbors and now he might have just doomed the Russian people entirely.”

“I’d like ‘ta think I wouldn’t’a been so stupid, yeah.”

“You would have handled that whole situation a billion times better. Firstly, by not being in that situation to begin with, by not making paranoid enemies of literally everyone. But…like, how do you deal with unpredictable enemies? And now we just had a tactical nuclear war. That taboo’s been broken. I’ve been chewing my way through that reading list you gave me, by the way. Y’know, the one Costello inflicts on his new officers?”

“Yeah. So what do you think happens next?”

May as well test ‘em a bit. He didn’t disappoint.

Glumly, “…It’s going to end in a real nuclear war, isn’t it?”

Daar sighed. “Yeah. Almos’ certainly. In fact, I even got my guesses as ‘ta who, when an’ why…”

He laid it all out. How the fact that Kazakhs’ successful use of nukes as a tactical weapon hadn’t escalated into a strategic clusterfuck meant that from now on it was a pretty safe bet that it never would, because the powers that could end the world still didn’t want to…and it didn’t really fuckin’ matter how much damage was done or people were killed from limited tactical use at this point because everyone was fuckin’ dead already.

Except…by using their nukes, the countries that had them might successfully bully their smaller, weaker neighbors out of their share. President Volkov’s strategic mistake hadn’t been the attempt, but the target: in choosing Kazakhstan, a nation who’d joined the nuclear club a few years earlier, he’d created a failure condition. If he’d invaded Georgia or Azerbaijan on the other hand, he’d have won.

Now though…the AEC and NATO nations might possibly resist the temptation to stoop to such banditry, if not out of nobility then for simply not economically needing to…but what about, say, Pakistan? And now that Kazakhstan had shot its wad, what was stopping China from rolling over their southeastern border and finishing what Volkov had started?

“So here’s a question ‘fer ‘ya, since ‘yer a smarter’n ‘yer average ‘horse—”

Adam found a small—very small—laugh through his grim mood.

“…What’d’ya think this new reality means ‘fer Russia?”

Adam thought. Deep caveman thinks in that huge, thick head of his. Furrowed brow and everything. But it didn’t take him long. “They’re…completely fucked. As in, helpless.”

Almost. He wasn’t quite a strategic thinker and maybe never would be. Shame, really. Because gods was he the most talented operator of all time.

“No. They ain’t. They’ve still got one very big hammer left.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, that’s the problem, what it means ain’t exactly foreseeable. See, the big hammer is, they’ still got their strategic nuclear forces. Now, that might mean ain’t nobody gonna fuck wit’ Russia in the comin’ clusterfuck an’ they’ll be able to pull off, uh, however much of an evac they can…”

“…Or it might mean a global exchange is still on the cards,” Adam finished. His immediate concerns, naturally, were tactical. “Shit. And if that happens—”

“Then Earth may very suddenly an’ soon be done in, and then we won’t have the resources to launch TILE FLIP prop’ly.” Daar snarled vengefully. “Gods fuckin’ hang Volkov up by his nards an’ slow roast him in hell, he might justa cost us errything. He were a Gao? He’da suffered the thousand cuts ‘fer this.”

“…There’s a thousand cut?”

“Yeah. Well, there’s the idea. Takes a year. Ain’t never actually been done, but Fyu sure as fuck threatened a few of his enemies with it. They caved.”

“…Y’all can be pretty vicious. Not that we’re teddy bears, but…”

“We got this strong instinct that a punishment should be proportionate ‘ta the crime. What, you don’t think he’d deserve it?”

“I’d just break him and leave him in a ditch, unmarked. There’s a point where the punishment ain’t gonna be proportionate no matter what you do, and it won’t dissuade anyone, so the best thing you can do is just forget them.”

Well, there was an alien bit of morality. “What, just…snub ‘em?”

“No no. I don’t mean forget about them. I mean, forget them. No notoriety, no news reports, no nuthin’. They just go away and nobody ever remembers their name.”

“…Y’know, in its way, that’s just as cruel. But, we’re digressin’, yijao?”

“Yeah. And now I’ve got shit to think about. I don’t have enough time anymore.”

“Time ‘fer what?”

“Well…to get ready. I mean…I’d hoped to, I dunno.”

…Ah. Right. Daar understood instantly.

“You were hopin’ ‘ta resume ‘yer place as the biggest baddest ever.”

“Well, I mean…missions like this take years to ready, sir. You know that. You’ve been on more than a few. I can’t imagine how being my best wouldn’t be helpful.”

“I get it. So here’s my question: are you good enough? Now I know you ain’t wantin’ ‘ta lie or anythin’ but think carefully. How much o’ ‘yer worry here is ‘bout the mission, an’ how much is ‘bout reclaimin’ ‘yer throne?”

Adam’s brow knitted and he did what he always did when he was really thinkin’: he looked down at his hands and flexed them, then rubbed the thumb of one hand over the callused palm of the other.

“…We get one shot at this. Am I good enough? The honest answer is, I don’t know. Are we ready? I don’t know. My gut feeling is, I don’t feel confident yet. We haven’t been preparing long enough for me to feel happy, and there’s too many distractions on too many big players.”

He shook his head, decisively. “I’ve been around long enough not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good yijao? There’s always something you can think of, some little way it could always be more shiny and polished and perfect, but…it ain’t about the throne. And it ain’t about having all the pieces perfectly lined up either. I don’t feel like the board’s properly set up yet.”

Daar sniffed toward him. “…’Kay. An’ how mucha you does wanna reclaim it?”

“…It’d be nice, I won’t lie. Cuz I’d still be at the top if I hadn’t been broken.”

Daar sighed. “Adam, I din’t hire ‘ya to work out a grudge, even a friendly one. An’ I don’t think anyone disagrees with ‘yer point, neither. Now I ain’t sayin’ don’t chase ‘yer dreams,” he added, placatingly. “An’ I ain’t even sayin’ not ‘ta kick his tail! But be brutally honest wit’ ‘yerself. Do you ‘member jus’ how much damage they had ‘ta repair in ‘ya th’ last time? Ain’t all of it were from th’ fight, either.”

Adam frowned.

Daar gave him a fond snuffle right in his mohawk. The opposite of a Whitecrest: his was prickly and blackest black. “You’re something different from whatever th’ fuck Christian an’ Julian are. Differr’n’t from me too. ‘Yer somethin’ I find valuable as fuck. So don’t go tearin’ ‘yerself apart chasing after a couple freaks on their own terms, yijao? You ain’t ever gonna win that game, not now they know what they are and how ‘ta use it. Find ‘yer own thing.”

“Well, what is that thing? You and everyone keeps telling me I’m the best ever? How?! How do you think I got so good? It was—”

“It was your attitude, ‘ya idjit.” Daar grumbled kindly.

“—Okay.” Adam raised an eyebrow and invited him to explain.

Daar shook his head out and did so. “Cousin. You were born gifted but you never took it for granted. You never quit, you never ever let yourself be defeated. Never took the easy route. Are there people innately superior to you? Yeah. Alex, Julian, Christian, maybe even Hunter. All of ‘em have straight-up better genetics and we all know it. So why is it only Righteous himself is really your equal?” Daar poked him in the head. “It’s ‘cuz of what’s in here,” and then in the middle of his chest, “an’ here. Christian got to where he is on his sheer awesome. You got there because you would not accept a world where you weren’t the bestest. Righteous ain’t never had ‘ta sacrifice everything t’ bethe best. All he had ‘ta do was work hard. Any man can do that. You, on the other hand, suffered ‘fer every ounce of it.”

He looked around at the walls. Here in this room, the murals were of Fyu. Daar admired Fyu. The last Great Father had united most of the Gao, liberated the Females, reformed the clans and reportedly been a fuckin’ terror on the battlefield…and he’d been second-degree. A little guy, with none of Daar’s innate sixth-degree gifts.

And of course, elsewhere in the fortress was the mural Daar had ordered commissioned to honor Tooko. If there was one thing he’d always have endless respect for, it was the people who were ordinary by birth, and exceptional by choice. Maybe it was ’cuz he was born to some innate greatness, and never really had a choice to be ordinary…

Maybe he just admired a plucky spirit. Something to meditate on. Anyway.

“An’ that is why ‘yer lead of all my operator teams, an’ not HEAT or Christian,” he said. “I know what he can do. I know he could fold you up like a paper bag and I bet he could even put some hurt on me, if he really wanted to. Dude is a mensch an’ he knows it, an’ he ain’t stopped gettin’ mencher. You know it too, balls ‘yer the coach who’s makin’ him that way! But I know that you will get the job done ‘cuz it ain’t in ‘yer nature to fail. ‘Yer a Hero. A real, proper hero. Christian is a good man, but a hero he ain’t.”

“…I dunno, lately he’s been a different sort of man…”

“How d’ya mean?”

“The Lads got called in to handle some real psycho motherfuckers on Earth. Fuckin’…Mad Max shit. Slaughtered a town, killed all the adults, took the kids away and locked ‘em in cages. And…”

Daar keened. “…did things to ‘em.”

“…Yeah. It really affected him. He’s been…different, ever since.”

“Oh? Need ‘ta spend more time wit’ the team…but that don’t change my opinion.”

“…Right. Just…I never thought of myself like that, yijao? I just…did the thing. Because it had to be done. All the pain and whatever I just sorta…okay, this is a thing, and I ignored it. I always thought that was how anyone got through something awful.”

Daar sighed. “Oh, you poor stupid fuck.” He rolled over, chittering in disbelief, and flexed his arm for Adam’s inspection. “See this? It’s bigger’n you are an’ it’s so fuckin’ hard it’s literally bulletproof. ‘Least for regular rounds, anyway. Which ain’t a combination o’ things any other arm can claim! Buildin’ it were an exercise in pain, to be sure. But I never tore myself apart ‘ta do it. An’ I never did so in the expectation it’d end well ‘fer me, too. Did you?”




“An’ I know ‘yer story,” Daar continued. “Life dealt ‘ya this weirdly mixed tileset, didn’t it? A lovin’ dad but an awkward mom an’ a great girlfriend but ‘yer home got nuked, except you were away, so ‘ya moved to Cimbrean where ‘yer best friend was murdered….it’s been up, down, up, down, up, down ‘yer entire godsdamn life. Y’ain’t one o’ Singularity’s Line. You’da been jus’ some quietly excellent dude in the background, except ‘ya din’t let yerself be. Life never let you realize what kind of awesome you always were, so you never stopped fightin’ like a demon ‘ta always be better. So here you are.”

Daar prowled away. Balls, just pep-talkin’ the poor idjit was gettin’ Daar all pumped up! “I’m feelin’ all spiky right now. An’ like ‘ya said, mebbe we ain’t got much time ‘ta get ready. So let’s not waste any time. You feelin’ good an’ sadistic right now?”

Daar could smell the fire roil up from Adam. He really were easy ‘ta activate. “Why? You feelin’ especially masochistic?”

“Do your worstest ‘ya little shit. I’ll throw ‘ya through the fuckin’—!”

Tiyun, of course, ruined everything. His quiet door-scratch and polite cough could penetrate a fuckin’ battlefield. He knew it, too. Not even he could quite suppress the smug set of his ears.

“My Father, Father Regaari is arriving at the jump array.”

Actually, no. “Send ‘em to the gym. Three of us got some hate ‘ta work out. An’ you better be there too!”

No good deed went unpunished in his house. Ha!

Today wasn’t a good day. Things were balanced precariously on a knife-edge. But not even Daar could fix every problem, so right now, the best he could do was fix his friends.

And fix himself. They descended into Daar’s liftin’ pit, and let their aggression burn it all away.

Raleigh NC, USA, Earth

Olivia Beckett

“I think that’s as good as it’s going to get…”

Olivia nodded, though on principle she did take the last nail from between her lips and hammer it in anyway. It’d just look silly, all alone in the box. And it might just make the difference.

…Okay, that was probably a stupid thought. What difference was one nail going to make when the bombs fell?

“For want of a nail, a shoe; for want of a shoe, a horse; for want of a horse, a messenger; for want of a messenger, a battle; for want of a battle, the war,” she said aloud.

“Huh?” Lucas blinked at her as he wound electrical cab around his arm.

“Just thinking what difference one nail would make.”

“Oh. I, uh…dunno if that really applies to nuclear bombs.”

“Me either,” she admitted and looked around. The school was a hundred and fifty years old, solidly built of stone, and the cold war had left its mark, too. Preparing a fallout shelter had been fairly straightforward, really. They’d cannibalized some of the boards and stuff from the barricades to cover the windows, hung blankets to serve as dust locks…

What Olivia really would have wished for was a jump array. There’d been talk about building one at the Sacred Heart shelter. Idle talk, not serious plans. But…

But here she was.

“You think it’ll be good enough?” she asked Lucas.

He glanced over his shoulder to check they weren’t overheard. “I think we’re right next to the State Capitol, and less than two hundred miles from the ocean.” he replied.

“The ocean?”

“Submarines.” He shrugged. “It’ll be good enough if the shields hold. Fallout only lasts about two weeks. It’ll be an unpleasant two weeks, but we’ll make it.”

“And If the shields don’t hold, we won’t feel a thing,” Olivia said.

“I hope.” His hands were shaking as he put the tools away, and he looked so…lost. Olivia did the only thing she could do. She touched his shoulder, gently at first as he flinched, then wrapped him up and held him.


“I just…”

“I know.”

He squeezed her tight, and shook his head. “It’s stupid…I wasn’t really expecting to survive all this anyway. So why am I so…?”

“‘Three years is a long time; any minute now, is…kind of a different thing to get your head around.”

“Yeah…” he sighed, squeezed her again, and they kissed. “I guess I got used to the idea that even if I’m not gonna make it off Earth, I can still do something useful. Save some other people who will. Like the kids, y’know?”

“I know.”


Eventually, she gave him another squeeze and a gentle reminder. “What’s left to do?”

“We’ve, uh…” he blinked, frowned, and thought. “Uh, supplies. Now that the shelves are repaired. Gotta bring the food and stuff down.”

“Let’s get on with that, then.”


One thing the school had plenty of was supplies. FEMA packages, donations from local businesses that were going out of business, or just from local people wanting to do their part. They had plenty of stuff. But that didn’t mean the stuff they had could be used thoughtlessly and without preparation.

Take rice, for instance. A small volume went a long way, with rice. But it needed cooking, and that created a problem. A fallout shelter by definition was not well ventilated, because ventilation would have let in the fallout. So that meant no fires or gas rings, unless they felt like suffocating themselves on smoke or carbon monoxide.

They had an induction cooker, but powering it meant either a generator—fumes again—or a high-capacity battery.

Fortunately, they had one of those, but it was still a good example of all the little details that went into this thing. Olivia had once seen a Far Side strip, with a husband and wife underground, surrounded by food cans while the mushroom clouds bloomed on the surface, and the wife was berating her man for neglecting the can opener.

So, Olivia had her checklist. Food and containers, check. Water? Oh yes, check. Several big blue barrels of the stuff. Bottle opener, can opener, check check. They had a first aid kit, a camp toilet and human waste composter, toilet paper and (less essential but by God were they going to be glad of it) an air freshener spray. They had sleeping bags, they had spare clothes, they had soap bars, plastic bags, eating utensils, cups and napkins, disinfectant, a sewing kit, blankets….

A wind-up lamp, and books. If the bombs fell, and they survived, then the kids were going to get the complete Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, just to begin with.

There was a method to the shelter’s layout, too. They could strip and wash down a person, bag their clothes and give them their iodine before they entered the inner sanctum, behind its layers of hanging cloth and plastic sheeting.

Olivia was honestly quite proud of how much they’d done in such a short span of time. No matter how Lucas felt, they were doing something. They were still making an effort, still fighting to save lives.

That was how she kept going through it all. If just one more kid made it out of this mess because of the shelter she’d helped build? She’d feel okay.

Still. Part of her clung to some hope. She prayed for wisdom and cool heads to prevail. She hoped that the scare and the war in Kazakhstan would be it and that the world had been woken up to the idea that greed would just destroy them all.

She hoped, in short, that all of these preparations would be unnecessary.

Lucas retreated back down the stairs with a grunt of effort, carrying the lower end of a water barrel, the other end of which was held by one of his barricade buddies. Olivia got out of the way for them as they rolled it into place in the stockpile. Three more to go: to be on the safe side, they’d decided to have a large surplus far beyond the recommended gallon per person per day. Enough for that emergency rinse-off, or for washing out wounds.

She took inventory of the food, made a note to herself that if there was time they needed to scrounge up some hot sauce, mustard and garlic, and headed for the surface in search of fresh air. It wasn’t that the shelter was stuffy, as such, but that it would definitely get stuffy, unbearably so, when they were down there for two weeks.

If. She reminded herself to be optimistic. If they were down there.


She couldn’t force herself any longer. She could feel it, like a storm coming. Pray as she might that she’d turn out to be wrong, she knew all of this preparation wasn’t “just in case.” But, that was just like the bigger picture, really. When confronted with a choice between fatalistically accepting the inevitable and just waiting for it to happen, or knuckling down and doing something, she’d always choose the latter. So would all the people here.

And that, she felt, was something to be proud of.

So, she trotted upstairs, grabbed her bag, and set out in search of sriracha. And maybe, along the way, she’d find just one more life to save.

Just one would be enough.

Ekallim-Igigi, New Uruk System, Relic Space

Alex, prince of Ekallim-Igigi

The king was drunk. Very, very drunk.

Alex was used to his father growing merry over a jug of wine, of course. Gilgamesh was in the habit of indulging in simple pleasures. He enjoyed his drink, his music and his wives greatly, and Alex could certainly understand that. But he’d never seen his father get drunk before. Not in this melancholy, mournful way. They were supposed to go flying and enjoy some sparring. Not now. In his current state, Alex might have killed the old man.

Somehow, that was the most sobering thought he’d ever had.

It was making him and Yekidaa feel immensely protective and worried, even while the old man ranted angrily at the walls.

“So close… To come so close, and then have one…petty little would-be king throw it all away!”

“We don’t know that, father. There is still much working for us. I’ve been accepted onto Warhorse’s team—”

“Agh. You’re young. Younger than you know!” the king made what was probably meant to be a small and precise dismissive gesture but which turned into an ungainly wave of his whole arm. “Y’ven’t…you do not know evil, boy. Hunters and Hierarchy, yes, yes. But y’ve never looked human evil in the face…takes a good person to be a real bastard y’ know…”

“You might be surprised what I’ve seen,” Alex answered levelly. “Now…come, father. Let’s get you into a nice hot bath.”

“Ugh. See!” Gilgamesh gestured to Yekidaa with his wine cup. “Child doesn’t even know how to sober a man up! Cold water, young man!”

Alex grinned. “I was lying. Of course it was going to be cold. Ice and everything!”

“He’s learned his pranks well, at least,” Yekidaa commented, with a chitter. “He’s right old friend, this is no condition for a king.”

Gilgamesh tottered slightly before finally finding his balance, and some of his dignity. “Oh…fuck. Why you two always gotta be all smart and right allatime?!”

“You told me to,” Alex pointed out, and backed off with a chuckle when his father aimed a light-hearted swat his way.

“Smart-mouth…by the gods. No, you’re right. I’m bein’ a fool…now’s the time to be kingly, not a drunken mewling…whatever.”

“I think you’re allowed an indiscretion every thousand years or so,” Yekidaa chittered.

Gilgamesh snorted, and leaned on Alex’s shoulder heavily for a second. “Nuclear war, though…the damned fools.”

Alex stumbled for a momen before regaining his footing. “Only thing we can do is be ready. Now come, father. Your bath awaits.

It took a few minutes more to deliver the king to his baths which, as promised, were ice cold and tended by Queen Amélie, the most endlessly forgiving of Alex’s step-mothers.

Alex stood outside with Yekidaa, and fell into a bit of a word pun challenge while they waited. Which turned into a tackle and a brawl when Yekidaa went too far.

“You degenerate monster!” Alex grinned while he tried (and failed) to pin the ancient gaoian to the floor.

“Your father called me that the day we met!”

“Just proves he’s right—OW! Claws?! Oh, that does it—”

Gilgamesh emerged, looking (and smelling) much better. Still very much the worse for drink, but at least focused, and much of his melancholy had dissipated.

“I ought to wrestle you, young man! I have never suffered such a frigid bath!”

“Hey!” Alex objected, detangling himself from the chittering wall of fur. “I didn’t do anything! All I did was, y’know. Suggest an outcome. And you brought it on yourself anyway!”

“I suppose I did…ugh.” Gilgamesh sat down heavily on one of his couches, then picked up the pills and drink that someone—Amélie, presumably—had left there. Alex reflected that after a few hundred years, the queens came to know Gilgamesh well enough to predict which bit of furniture he’d dramatically flop onto in this situation. Impressive, really.

“Gods, I haven’t let myself go like that in centuries.”

“This time, I think nobody will hold it against you.”

“Perhaps not…but a crisis is no time to let oneself go, so I will hold it against me.” Gilgamesh cleared his throat and shuddered. Alex could sympathize—he’d needed those sober-up pills himself, during his early experiments with wine and spirits when he didn’t know his limit. The feeling of one’s state of mind returning to equilibrium was rather like going through the entire hangover in just a few seconds.

Funny, that. Many of the Line were actually lightweights on the alcohol.

“Also…do I remember hearing you were accepted on Warhorse’s team?”

“Yes!” Alex was particularly proud of that. “Been training on tactics and such every free moment. I’ll probably mostly be their pilot, though.”

“I assume your mothers have been involved?”

“Tomoe and Mevia decided it was time I graduated to the closest ring. It was…educational.”

“Hah!” GIlgamesh chuckled, then winced. “…Yes. Were you unaware they’d been holding back on you these last two years?”

“I’d suspected it. The reality of how much, though…”

“They’re both a hundred times your age, lad. And they’ve trained against me for millennia. Don’t think we’ve been idle recently, either! I’ve been inspired these recent years to push myself once more! One more swipe at the ring, as it were. Feel centuries younger!”

“I thought you felt a fair bit heavier…has ‘Horse gotten to you?”

“Of course!” Gilgamesh laughed. “Yekidaa here, too! Gods, it might be fun to see how we stack up now against your HEAT friends…”

They were interrupted by a knock on the door. Leifini entered the room, her expression and posture radiating sadness. She was holding a tablet lightly in her hands, which she passed to Gilgamesh.

They all knew what she was about to say.

“…It begins.”

President Margaret White

It began in Israel, too suddenly for any diplomatic intervention, or indeed for Margaret to be quite sure what exactly had sparked it.

She shouldn’t have been surprised. There was a land divided but sacred to millions, and the site of a conflict that had been smoldering since…forever, really. It was a predictable—indeed, prophesied—place for Armageddon to begin.

Maybe in years to come there’d be time to pull on the threads, go over the data with the finest combs, and figure out the precise sequence of events. From the distant perspective of the White House situation room, however, it was just chaos. Troops and tanks in the streets, in the West Bank and Gaza, a monsoon of rocket and mortar fire. It didn’t matter who’d started it, really: she could see the writing on the wall from mere minutes in.

She ordered the military back to DEFCON 2, and the embassy in Jerusalem evacuated.

There was no mood for cooler heads to prevail, now. Generations of resentment, fear, grievances and holy fervor were combining with the inescapable fact of the looming apocalypse, and combining into a heady self-destructive brew. No doubt the internal experience was righteous anger, or protecting home and kin. But from the outside, the thought bouncing around in the collective meta-mind of some ten million people or so was: “Fuck it. May as well resolve this once and for all…”

It was no surprise therefore when the bombings started. When the streets and neighborhoods were flattened. When the battles raged in the streets and the holy land became hell on Earth.

It was no surprise when neighboring nations joined in, either, and poured their own militaries over the border.

Iran made an unsettling statement. Their intent was crystal clear

It could surely be no surprise that they made good on it, and that their weapons were largely duds. Israel had some awesome defenses. And it came as no surprise when the Israelis retaliated in full.

Margaret went to DEFCON 1, and got on the emergency phones with her peers. Russia didn’t want this. China didn’t want this. India didn’t want this.

Pakistan wasn’t answering.

NATO was fully mobilizing. Not that there was much you could do on the scale of minutes…but Russia and China noticed, of course. Mobilized themselves in turn, and all the while all of them were stuck in a spiral of demanding each other de-escalate while not feeling able to do so themselves and each minute of failing to do so was effectively an escalation…

It was like watching a horror movie, silently screaming at the characters for being so stupid when one of the characters was…herself.

The only thing she could do was order the spaceships to hold at Cimbrean and wait. They at least could jump in and deploy to beacon at an instant’s notice. It was the tiniest of concessions but it was a thread to hang on by, and somehow that thread held even when an airburst went off in the sky over Tehran…

But it couldn’t hold when Pakistan retaliated on Iran’s behalf. And when India launched their stuff because they couldn’t be sure how much of it was aimed at them, and China launched because they couldn’t be sure how much was aimed at them—

And that was the point NORAD informed her that several of the Chinese missiles were aimed at targets on US soil, and that was the point the Secret Service bundled her into the jump array to get her safely off-planet…

And that was the last time Margaret White ever set foot on Earth.

Columbus, Ohio, USA, Earth

Joshua Hartl

The sirens.

They’d not even come down from DEFCON 2 for a week when, yesterday morning, they’d gone back up, and Josh knew it was gonna happen this time.

He knew it when the forcefields went up for real. Before it had been an overhead sort of a saucer. Now they went all the way to the ground and cut through buildings in a lot of places.

Then came DEFCON 1. Full curfew. Full activation of everything. He bundled Jess and Maria down into the basement fallout shelter he’d prepared, made them promise they wouldn’t come out until they heard the all clear or rescue came, then got in his truck and fuckin’ booked it.

Even with his right foot pressed flat to the floor, he’d not quite made it to the firehouse when the sirens went off.

He ditched the truck in the station lot, grabbed his supply box, thundered inside. Down into the station’s basement where everything they needed to do their jobs after this was all over was waiting. Full chemical fire and radiation hazard rig, which Josh had always thought they might hafta use if anything happened to the nuclear plants in Pittsburgh or up on Lake Erie and they were called in to help.

His rig was something special. Since Heroes were a thing now, there were specialty manufacturers of very special gear…Chief and city hall had budgeted for Josh specifically.

What he had made him into a walking goddamn tank. Which meant he’d be the one most exposed to…whatever was coming. Theoretically his suit could handle it…

Shit, he was shaking. Just looking at it. His two hundred kilo death sentence.

Then he didn’t have to look at it any more, for a few seconds. The power cut out as somebody, somewhere transferred Columbus’ entire grid draw to powering the city shield generators. The station’s backup generator kicked in, emergency lighting came on…it was shocking enough to spur him into motion and get him to finish putting it on. Seal it up. Help his buddies check their own seals.

After that there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

And wait.

The update came. A missile was headed their way.

The chaplain started reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Josh closed his eyes and mouthed it along with him.

“—for ever and ever…amen.”

Then…silence. Silence like he’d never known, like the entire world taking a breath in before speaking.

The hammer of God landed.


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!


This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


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



Sally and Stephen Johnson

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31 Humans


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His Dread Monarch

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As well as 50 Deathworlders…

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60 Friendly ETs, 139 Squishy Xenos and 329 Dizi Rats who imitate the infamous squonk and dissolve in their own tears.

“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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 93: “The Silent Earth.”