Chapter 93: The Silent Earth
Raleigh, NC, USA, Earth
“I confess to almighty God, and to you, my Brothers and Sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…”
Even underground, in the bunker, surrounded by layers of carpeting and curtain, the sirens filled the world. Their endless, overlapping howl covered all sound and made it difficult for Olivia even to hear her own words as she prayed.
“…through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…”
Her knuckles were white. Her spine crawled, as if at any second she might feel the briefest touch of terrible heat, or the crushing weight of concrete and stone landing on her in the instant before death…
There was the opposite of a noise, a pulse of sheer overwhelming event such that for a moment there was a kind of ur-silence that drowned out everything. The ceiling failed to cave in. Olivia remained, kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder with the others. The words never faltered, even as the world shook.
“…And you, my Brothers and Sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
The priest raised his hands.
“Brothers and Sisters, please bring your sins before the Lord in your own hearts…”
Olivia turned her thoughts inwards. Shone a light on every corner of herself. Her sins…
So many of them, really. The pangs of envy she’d been feeling for the kids who escaped to Cimbrean, the unkind words she’d said when her fear and anger had broken to the surface, the nights spent with Lucas which had been happy enough but never official, the vengeful fantasies imagining what the HEAT had done to the guys who caged little Jenny, all the unfinished business and all the things left unsaid…
She wasn’t exactly…well, she’d only recently become Catholic. Hadn’t even believed in anything at all until recently, and she was still growing, still learning what it meant…
Right now, it meant forgiveness. Sorrow for so many things…and forgiveness.
Father O’Brien raised his hands up high, as though placing them atop everyone’s heads. “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The nearest sirens had fallen silent. Maybe something had knocked them out. In the silence, she could still hear a few distant ones wailing away, but now there was relative quiet, punctuated by a distant crack-boom. Olivia let out a long, slow, shuddering breath, and looked to her right. Lucas, his eyes glinting in the darkness, swallowed, nodded, and took her hand. Squeezed it tight. She gave him a tight, tiny smile, feeling better that he was there, and…warm, somehow. At peace, no matter what happened next.
Father O’Brien lowered his hands. “I will now take individual confessions,” he said. “Starting with the youngest. Come forward as I—”
There was an instant of terrible, brilliant heat.
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
At the moment, High Mountain Fortress’s morning coincided with D.C.’s. So, after a tense week, and a blissful night o’ relievin’ tension with as much vigor as Naydi an’ Leela could handle…
Well, the mornin’ was a rude awakening.
Daar knew the sniff of it right away. It was gonna happen. An’ just like in his own War, the cold feelin’ of terrible duty was slitherin’ down his back. So: stretch, big breakfast, get pumped-up an’ brushed, an’ all the important lil’ details ready. Alert the Fangs, alert the fleet. Send a special note to Champions Thurrsto an’ Gurrum.
He spent the morning in communication, keeping his blood up, refining the plan. Making sure to give absolutely no sign whatsoever what he was plannin’. ‘Fer the good o’ everyone his intent had ‘ta be secret. So, when allies called…he was truthful. And reassuring.
And careful. He had Thurrsto and Sheeyo by his side to help with that.
And then it happened.
Whitecrest had some stealthy imaging, nuclear detection, and tight-beam communication micro-satellites up in extremely high polar orbits over Earth, well away from anything the humans might be using. It had been a masterstroke slipping those in, and one of their deepest, bestest kept secrets. If any of the allied governments knew they were there, it would have severely damaged relations. But, well.
Friends kept an eye on friends. Especially powerful, passionate, volatile deathworlder friends who were young to the games of power. And disunited.
The launches had only just begun when Daar decided to act. Now was the moment. None of the powers on Earth would be considering the full strategic situation; they were mired down in existential tactics, and that would be their doom. In a few hours, there would be no effective governments. Or if there were, apologies and amends could be made afterward.
For now, it would be an orgy of destruction. The Great Father could not allow that contagion to spread. Could not allow it to destroy irreplaceable assets. And, so…
He issued his orders, fetched his regalia, and thumped down to the jump room.
If he was going to do something like this, he’d better do it in person.
All he could do now was hope.
Dataspace adjacent to Earth
Sneaking close enough to watch was a near-suicidal gamble, but the Alpha-of-Alphas could no sooner resist the urge to witness this holy moment than a brood-omega could resist the spawning instinct. And besides…the Entity was probably too distracted to notice, if the Alpha-of-Alphas did not provoke it. It had grown adept at navigating the dangerous ecosystem of the drone swarm. It could not seize control, not yet. And if it did, the Entity would notice and destroy the compromised drone.
Waves of < grief > and < doubt > and < self-recrimination > rolled off the much larger mind like the dataspace equivalent of stormy weather. It had transferred much of its drone fleet to Earth’s low orbit, doubtless entertaining fantasies of intervening, somehow. Against Humanity, in its element? Nonsense. No doubt the galaxy was about to receive a masterclass in true terrestrial aggression. The Alpha-of-Alphas could penetrate security well enough to peer through borrowed eyes and watch the war unfold. It expected to be dazzled and entertained.
Indeed, what unfolded was the most beautiful thing imaginable.
China, in the end, had only sent three warheads toward the United States. It was probably an honest accident. But it was enough to trigger DEFCON 1, and enough to get the airborne command post up in the air. The CAPs and the bombers loaded and ready.
That, in turn, was enough to send Russia over the edge. They shot everything. Pakistan shot everything. India shot everything. Everyone fired everything they had. The USA spoke last of all, but when it did, its voice was the doom of the world.
The first few strikes in America’s salvo were water-borne, a medium of warfare the Alpha-of-Alphas had simply never conceived of. But the logic was immediately apparent. A highly conductive medium like seawater was all but impossible to maintain a stable shield in: nuclear torpedoes could slip in under the shield domes and detonate inside, to devastating effect. Port cities along every belligerent nation’s coastline were the first casualties.
The second wave, scant seconds behind, was thousands of heat blooms as every missile rocketed out of their silos. Peacekeeper II hyper-acceleration ICBMs with thirty blink-warp stealth warheads each, against Russia’s latest and greatest. The boost phase for both had lasted less than ten seconds before breaching the troposphere, and the weapons themselves blinked up and out of the atmosphere into stealthy coast orbits, all of it so fast that even the most sophisticated orbital defenses had hardly any time to react. Indeed, the resulting radiation wash from warping even in thin atmosphere swept clear the orbits directly above the warheads of any unshielded satellites—which now became visible to counter-force on-orbit targeting.
Wormhole suppression? Useless. Forcefield protection? Functionally impossible in low orbits. Rapid microwave laser targeting? Well, Russia shot down some missiles, the US shot down more, but both powers managed to slip a huge number of weapons through the gauntlet, through simple saturation. The next few minutes were a frantic effort to identify and destroy the invisible, nigh-undetectable warheads as they coasted through to their final destination.
Russia’s own underwater attacks were smaller, and doubtless there was some furious sea-war at play that, sadly, the Alpha-of-Alphas could not witness. An underwater explosion here and there showed its echoes. A few were obviously nuclear. Whatever happened, Russian submarines managed to strike a number of American ports before they were undoubtedly destroyed.
Brilliant, really. All of it. Just the right blend of advanced technology and simple physics, combined with the sheer numbers of weapons to defend against. Even with most great powers not even controlling the sea or the orbitals, the result had been a gloriously unstoppable weapon concept. Humankind’s idea of nuclear warfare had advanced considerably since the advent of contact, and on this front, the great powers had spared no expense.
Further missiles boiled out of the sea too, here and there, nowhere detectable in advance, in no meaningful way stoppable by this phase of the war. Bombers, last of all, took to the sky on their final missions, before missiles arrived and after everything else was in motion, and these might have been stopped before they took off, but it didn’t matter. The bombers were final retribution against Russia and China for having triggered this glorious Apocalypse, and stopping them would have not prevented the major consequences, anyway.
The Alpha-of-Alphas watched a glorious hypersonic rain of warheads descend across the entire globe.
Whatever new means it had to feel thrill did so at this sublime, ultimate, holy expression of mastery in the art of killing. The deadliest species in the galaxy had truly outdone themselves in this moment.
It watched the shield war, a nanosecond game of hard counters as various national systems did their best to hold off the apocalypse, with varying levels of success. The British enjoyed the strongest success, owing to simple engagement geometry; their location and their size made for a favorable defensive solution, especially thanks to the dense crowding of shield emitters they’d put up. There had been, apparently, much mockery and complaining about the Pridwen system when it was first funded and built, but now it turned out to be the most sensible investment the UK ever made. They even protected Ireland, by proxy and owing to quiet treaties between them.
The Alpha-of-Alphas in its new datamind existence had begun…broadening its horizons. Studying others, on their terms. That was an option, now. It wasn’t as if it had a species to command, any longer…
Well, not directly, anyway.
The United States was too big to fully protect. Too much of its interior was open farm and grazing land, many of its cities too widely spaced to enjoy the overlapping protection of its largest metropolitan areas. Most smaller cities were safe against indirect strikes, at best.
Russia’s ballistic targeting had never much improved, so they did not bother with anything below ten megatons. Size, and sheer warhead count. By this did Russia doom its foe.
But the Alpha-of-Alphas dared linger no longer. The emotional context pouring out of the Entity was changing now. It was growing focused. Resolved. < Fiercely determined >. Clearly, it had reached some internal conclusion about its next course of action.
Like a fish in dark waters, the Alpha-of-Alphas flickered away into the depths of Dataspace before it could be detected, and left no trace of its ever having been there. Had it still been corporeal, its heart would have been racing: even in this digital state, its soul was still singing with glee. It had succeeded beyond its wildest dreams!
And it could not wait to see what the Humans did next.
Chief Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth
Everyone was waiting for the deployment orders to come. They came just as news began to trickle in about some event in Israel. To nobody’s surprise, the full team was being deployed.
A situation like this might escalate very quickly.
Details to follow, for the moment it was simply to re-deploy and they were getting going as fast as they possibly could. All-hands on deck to get everything going in record time. The Lads could self-suit now, leaving the techs to verify and maintain, and that meant they could all take care of themselves while their techs got everything unplugged, rolling forward, and onto the pad.
They were already three fully-packed jumps out and working on the forth (and final) load when Christian pushed the button, his Mass self-sealed and Righteous stepped off the pad, armed, armored, loaded for bear, and ready to fuck shit up.
So was Yan, and two of his biggest fellow Given-Men. Vemik-grade, they were, or even a bit better. Telling though, that it took veteran Given-Men twice his age to best the young manic gorilla, and one could count on their fingers the number who could.
Yan looked up and grunted. “This is first rapid de-ploy-ment for us…” Slightly nervous tail-twitch.
Firth put a hand on the big bastard’s shoulder. Yan was an all-natural freak, still not riding the Crude yet still rapidly improving. Respectable. He was huge by any standard, an easy six-foot-three in a big ten’gewek male’s perpetually bent-leg, sloped-foward cavehulk posture. Dominant men of his kind like him grew continually through their lives and he’d taken full advantage, packing every millimeter of his insanely wide and robust frame beyond full with muscle. And that didn’t even cover the academics. Ten’gewek in general were fast learners but Yan was much like Vemik and drank it in like a sponge, as fast as Costello or the team could feed him. His were a people made for excellence.
Nonetheless, the gap between them had only widened, because Firth was even bigger and stockier, doing the exact same thing only far more aggressively. Yan still saw Firth as a mentor in all things warrior-like and “strong.”
…Which he was. Technically. Never stopped feelin’ weird, really.
And he couldn’t wait to one day see what Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge would finally become.
He smiled, genuinely. “You’ll do fine, you’re a tough and smart people, and you know everything we could think up to teach you. So let’s ask boss here if we’ve got any details yet?”
Costello ambled over from his own station, suited up with visor retracted.
“No mission details yet, this is a readiness deployment. Could be on watch for a long while so I hope y’all have kept your barracks clean and your pack-out plan posted…”
Some rough chuckles, there. Because of the nature of their job, every member of HEAT had to maintain a room in the barracks, one fully-stocked with everything they’d need for indefinite deployment. All of it had to fit into a double wardrobe on wheels, be in or bolted to their desk (which had a lid that went over the top), or fit under their bed. The reason being, all of it was designed to unplug and wheel out easily. The only thing that should be left behind was whatever they’d left on the wall—though the techs were good about pulling those down, too.
That meant the junior logistics staff was busy packing up their rooms right behind them, and that meant they’d need to do a BBQ or something for them, whenever this was over.
…Well, assumin’ it’d ever be over. No news in this case wasn’t exactly reassuring.
Hurry up and wait happened, like it did. Whole lotta tension in the air, but also a whole lotta nobody really knowin’ nothin’ about what was goin’ on…
Costello remained sat at his little corner desk listening and talkin’ to somebody about somethin’, but whatever was reachin’ him, he didn’t share it yet.
Until he did. He nodded once, firmly, then stood up and called out for them to get on the array platform. No briefing? No objective?
…Okay. They huddled on, pulled in close so nobody was gonna get part’a their kit snipped off by the field edge, and…
Of all the places Firth hadn’t been expectin’ to go, High Mountain Fortress wasn’t it.
“…Sir? Shouldn’t we…”
Thump, thump, thump.
That could only be one man.
Daar’s rhythmic, impossibly heavy gait resonated through the stone floor, being felt through Firth’s feet long before it was heard. The giant armored blast doors to High Mountain’s jump room groaned on their hinges as he effortlessly pushed them open. All…fuck, twelve-plus feet of him? All of him walked calmly through the door, ears brushing against the top frame. They were built both to accommodate him comfortably and to withstand almost any conceivable attack; most anyone else wanting to swing the doors had to push a button and wait for the machinery to struggle against their weight.
The whole team took an automatic step backwards when they saw him, because that was the correct thing to do in the presence of a genuine living god-king. Everyone was wimpy and pathetic next to Daar on full display.
…They weren’t being deployed. The Great Father was sending a message.
He showed up wearin’ his full fuckin’ regalia, too: the crown, the cape, the kilt, his mace in hand…everything. He was a magnificent, terrible bear-king hulking out of his fur, conditioned to a highers standard than anyone or anything else alive. He stood there with all of it on display, even through his fur, those colossal shoulders of his wider than Firth was tall, brushing against the frame of the giant door.
And his expression was of terrible sadness. He surveyed them all for a few long seconds, then delivered his news.
“Earth just went to war. The kind that’ll be over in a few minutes.”
Christian blinked. He looked to Costello, who swallowed, and asked the question they were all suddenly thinking.
“So…what’s our mission?”
“The hardest mission you’ve ever done. Nothing.”
“But—” the word left Gonzo’s mouth early, then got bitten back in when Daar glanced at him. Not unkindly. But with the full force of his authority. His terrible, complete authority.
“Right. So. Lemme make sure you unnerstand what’s just happened.” Daar sighed, and…yeah. He went to the side to grab a huge bench and settled his weight down on it. Everyone gathered around, and a darkly amusing image flashed through Firth’s mind: little kids gathering ‘round papa bear to hear the tale of the end of the world. “The details are fuzzy, but a full nuclear exchange is underway. We’re at second strike right now. Some major AEC cities have already fallen. Much of Asia will be erased. Japan and South Korea seem to have escaped the worst of it…but Taiwan is gone, China is destroyed, Russia is about to be bombed into the stone age. The middle east is gone.”
He rested his paws on his mace like it was a walking stick. “Europe is…hard ‘ta predict. North America…well, lots o’ towns an’ such will prob’ly servive, but the port cities won’t, an’ all th’ major lines o’ communication flow through major targets. Not clear essactly what’s good and what’s gone, jus’ yet. So…severe logistical disruption, at a minimum, an’ what’s left in most major cities ain’t gonna last ‘fer long. I dunno exactly how many are dead or gonna die, but…it’s gonna be billions, mos’ likely. Which brings me to you.”
Firth’s stomach had sunk into his boots as the words came. Fuck…his family. The folks at Sacred Heart. Everyone. His whole body was going numb, but his ears listened to what Daar had to say.
“In a matter of minutes, most every important Earth government is gon’ be destroyed or crippled. AEC just effectively died, ‘cuz whatever’s left o’ the Five-Eyes an’ NATO ain’t gonna be up to spaceborne combat; y’all have literal fires to put out.”
Gathered around Daar, the Lads stood rigid, watching and listening. The only sound was soft breathing, and the faint buzz of the array’s capacitors recharging.
“So,” Daar summarized glumly. “That’s the current state o’ play. I won’t sugar-coat it, you know that. At best there’ll be a set o’ rump governments ‘ta lead AEC after this. They’ll be entirely focused on evacuation an’ keepin’ order, an’ they won’t be doin’ no spaceborne anything after today. Does…y’all unnerstand that, right? Like, in ‘yer guts unnerstand what’s happenin’?”
Firth didn’t, not really. He was still hung up on worrying for his folks. Okay, sure, they were way up in the hills out in the backwoods, but fallout was like an especially deadly form of glitter—it got everywhere, with unconscious malice.
And then there were the folks at the Sacred Heart shelter. If Raleigh took a hit…fuck, what was he gonna tell the girls?
“So. Back to you. Revenge is gonna be foremost in th’ mind o’ whoever’s left alive down there. Knowing all this, and of the Great Enemy we have been preparing to strike, and in accordance with the succession terms of the Alliance Treaties, I am taking full and personal ownership of the SOR and assuming command of Earth’s space navies. By this, I sequester priceless, irreplaceable forces from the ongoing fight. An’ jus’ in case anyone is feelin’ itchy, well…here you are, and soon the entire fleet. My guests, until this settles down.”
Christian’s first instinct was to argue. He wanted to get back, to help with cleanup, to try an’ save some folks, any folks, but especially his folks…
Then his brain finally started working again, and thought about the whole situation again, and he saw the ruthless, cold-hearted logic they all had ‘ta work with right now. And as that settled in, he let the tension out that had been building in him, sagged…and nodded.
This was Daar, after all. He’d earned a lotta trust over the years. But the next thing he said was really putting that trust to the test.
“Furthermore, to assure the survival of a key ally, I am declaring both Earth and Cimbrean as protectorate worlds of my people before the Dominion Security Council, in accordance with my authority as a senior member. Your worlds are to be held in trust until…well, bluntly? Until I’m satisfied ‘yer capable of self-governance.” He sounded like a disappointed parent, now. “I have no desire to take your species’ sovereignty from you. But right now, there is none to take. And in any case…your leaders just attempted ‘ta obliterate your people’s homeworld. So yeah. Y’all’re here ‘ta keep you from bein’ wasted in a senseless act o’ collective insanity.
“But,” he continued, “‘Yer my Cousins’ an’ Brothers. I know y’all well enough to know you’re all thinkin’ about what you could do, the lives you could save, how useful you could be right now if I weren’t doin’ this. Right?”
He looked around: when he caught Firth’s eye, Christian could only nod. “Surely there’s something we can do—?” he asked.
“There is, yeah. You prepare ‘fer TILE FLIP, ‘cuz we are runnin’ on fuckin’ fumes now, Cousins. The gao are on our last leg ‘fore we gotta focus our full attention inward, the ten’gewek ain’t got theirs under ‘em yet an’ won’t ‘fer centuries. No offense, Yan.”
Yan just grunted, acknowledging the obvious truth.
“An’ as for humankind? Y’all just basic’ly committed fuckin’ suicide…right now, the Hierarchy is winnin.’ All they gotta do is play the long game, an’ they’re far too good to lose at that. But mebbe—maybe—if we can somehow get TILE FLIP ‘ta happen anyway? Then maybe all our peoples somehow survive ‘ta build a future. That is what you can do.”
The mace thumped down as he hefted it onto his shoulder and sat up tall. “Champion Loomi’s gonna go to the Corti, we’re gonna super-science as hard as we can. You, me, my Fangs, our cavemonkey volunteers…we only get one shot at this, an’ we gotta be the best we can all possibly be. Even now it’s gonna be a while ‘fore we can strike, ‘cuz we gotta win when we attack. So…’fer now, there’s ‘yer mission. ‘Yer only mission. ‘Ta get ready. I’ll be askin’ everything o’ y’all, soon enough. An’ I suspect there’ll be new members joinin’ too… but ‘fer now, there’s one thing I need from all’a you.”
He looked at Costello.
They all looked at Costello. Every man in the room. He was their commander, after all. Shit, Firth could remember when he’d first come on the team, baby-faced and, yeah, already damn good at what he did ‘cuz he’d have never made the team otherwise. Now he was a Beef in his own right, all of the officers were now. Fuck they’d all come a long way since the beginning.
Daar rose to his feet with a sad expression and a quiet keen. “Colonel Costello, I have no desire to ask this. But you know what’s happening. What’s really happening, here. I need you to state your loyalties, and I need you to do it now.”
…Well, shit. Christian felt his pulse skyrocket. This was happening. Jesus fuck.
“Your Majesty,” Costello chose his words carefully. “You have issued wartime flash orders to redeploy the HEAT, which we obeyed lawfully, and in good faith. Nonetheless, we have sworn oaths of loyalty to our respective governments and sovereigns.”
“Yes, you have. In the stand-up of SOR as an international entity, those same powers acceded to a treaty which addresses this very situation.” He turned and held out his paw, which Tiyun pressed a tablet into. “To quote the relevant text on succession…”
“A Signatory to these Instruments retains Authority therein by their capacity to mutual defense and aid of member Signatories. Under this Instrument, that capacity shall consist in staffing, maintaining, sustaining, and advancing sufficient spaceborne capability to participate in the defense of the Signatory’s collective territory, commerce, peace, and other equities.
“In the event a Signatory is incapable of maintaining these commitments, they will withdraw from the Instruments at their earliest convenience, subject to agreements among the Signatories. Should a Signatory find themselves incapacitated owing to warfare, conflict, or force majeure, other Signatories shall provide all necessary aid and comfort.
“Command of the Alliance shall, in times of uncertainty, rest with the senior Signatory.”
“Gentlemen,” he said, handing the tablet back, “I am the senior Signatory, and this, ‘ta put it mildly, is a time o’ uncertainty. Your governments ain’t fit ‘ta command under the terms of the treaty and I am exercising my rights of continuity. There…ain’t no goin’ home, my friends. You know this. Whatever’s left ain’t even gonna be able ‘ta feed y’all. So, I’ll put a choice before ‘ya instead. If any man here wishes to walk away from the SOR, he may do so an’ try ‘ta find a place among the human diaspora here on Gao, or return ‘ta Cimbrean. Balls, I’ll even help ‘ya get on ‘yer feets. But if that ain’t the path ‘fer you, I will accept ‘yer loyalty, here an’ now.”
“You…Daar, you are asking us to break our oaths of service. You must understand that!”
“They’re already broken, Colonel. They broke th’ moment ‘yer governments blew each other up an’ abandoned ‘ya on a distant world. There ain’t nobody home. I know you’ve been tryin’. Balls, I’ve been tryin’ too! An’ what essactly is gonna come callin’, eventually? How are they gonna sustain a force o’ men that need a minimum o’ fifty-thousand calories a head o’ specialized food every damn day just ‘ta live?”
Costello didn’t have a ready answer for that, and Daar pounced.
“No, Colonel. ‘Yer oaths are fulfilled, ‘cuz there ain’t nobody y’all can serve anymore.”
“…Our governments may not take that notion very well, Your Majesty.”
There was a lot said in that statement. Daar narrowed his eyes.
“There are two ways outta this room, Colonel Costello. One of ‘em is that jump pad. Take it, an’ ‘yer free, but you’ll never be in th’ fight again. Th’ other is the door behind me, an’ there’s only one way I’m lettin’ ‘ya pass. Let us consider the situation very carefully.”
A few seconds of silence. Costello gave Firth a quick look. Christian very carefully did not react in any way. Because, frankly…
Once, the HEAT in its entirety managed—after an absolutely grueling fight—to take down the Alpha-of-Alphas. Shortly thereafter, Daar took down its replacement, an even more terrible Alpha…basically by himself. Right now? Sure, everyone here was armed, and Daar was just standing there in his fur…
That they could see, anyway. It wasn’t a huge space either, and the giant bastard was just so…
When they’d first met, he wasn’t more than a tough laborer at heart, one who preferred workin’ and sports and maybe the occasional brawl. For his size he was a lanky sort of heavy-muscular, like a cross between a big basketball player and a furry Vin Diesel, maybe. He knew how to lead, how to run a military. Yet importantly, he didn’t know how to fight a human up-close. Which meant Murray, a huge man in his own right, was able to best a literal talking bear well over twice his weight.
But it was earned more with luck and grit than anything else. Daar moved too fast to shoot. He used cover, understood tactics. He was so fucking strong even then that only ‘Horse could beat him, and then not entirely. Daar may have only managed one paw-slap hit on Murray, when the fight got up close, but that one hit had shattered four of his ribs and almost punctured a lung. How Murray didn’t let it show was still something Firth marveled at.
Since then, Daar had made it his life mission never to suffer such a defeat again. That, along with all the other insanity wrapped up with the gaoian species, had made him into a creature that was simply too much to be believed, if you hadn’t met him up close. He was the most massive land-walker anywhere. Nothing was physically stronger, nothing was quicker or faster. He had ant-like explosive power and could fuckin’ leap over buildings, maul steel in his hands, crush Alphas with his bare fucking paws. He was so stocky and densely built, small arms fire basically bounced off of him. And he was so thick everywhere, what would a knife do besides annoy him? Assuming it could even cut the big fucker in the first place?
And he knew his close-quarters combat, these days. Christ, did he ever. Now, sure, Firth and the rest of the HEAT could do similar things these days, too…but none of them were so extreme and total in their ability as Daar. He was better than everyone at everything.
Which meant the fight before them wasn’t a fight they would win, no matter the outcome. Wasn’t a fight any of them wanted. Firth hated that the thought was even there to be entertained in the first place…
Lookin’ around, everyone else was havin’ the same thoughts. Nobody wanted this.
Daar burst the tension by sighing and sagging. “Look. I respect th’ fuck outta all of ‘ya, especially you, Colonel. I know what I’m askin’ of ‘ya. If there’s anyone left after this, I will have words, an’ we will work it out. But I need ‘ta know you will obey. I’m doin’ this because I’m considerin’ what’s at stake, beyond Earth. I’m askin’ ‘ya ‘ta do the same.”
Costello looked at Firth again. This time…
This time, Christian gave the smallest, most painful nod he’d ever given.
The rest of the men followed suit. All of ‘em, deadly silent.
Costello nodded once as well, then stepped forward, and holding himself in the most dignified pose he could, squared up in front of Daar, and sank to his left knee. The click of his armor on the concrete echoed off the silent walls.
Daar made the quickest display of acceptance he could. His ears were flat as he sank down and snuffled in Costello’s short-cut mohawk, the same helmet-compatible haircut they all had.
Then he reached over and lifted Costello back up to his feet.
“Git up, Cousin. An’ may this be the last time you ever bend th’ knee ‘ta anyone. You an’ ‘yer men are now unner th’ Gao’s protection.”
“What about our families, sir?” Firth asked.
“Call ‘em,” Daar replied, simply. “Talk to ‘em. Mebbe we can even make arrangements ‘ta bring ‘em here if we have ‘ta. An’ I ain’t abandonin’ Earth. I intend a full mobilization o’ aid.”
This time, when the Lads looked at each, the energy was….
Not happy. No, not happy at all. How could they be? But God-fucking-dammit, the logic was right there for everyone to see. Daar had said it himself: the Hierarchy was winning. And if they did win, then nuclear war or not, everyone was doomed.
And there were the brutal practical realities at play, too. Firth quite literally ate more every day than ten huge and extremely active men, just to live. He needed special food supplements to fuel his science-experiment body, to keep his bones and tendons strong and healthy. With his literal tons of muscle mass and his hyperactive metabolism, he could starve to death in just a few days. Same with the rest of the team. Earth could not provide for them anymore, and he had his wife and kids to worry about too, all of whom were unambiguously superhuman Heroes and very, very hungry mouths to feed.
That wasn’t even considering his new refugee guests that had been moving in, either.
And his soul needed more than just calories. He needed purpose. He needed to be in this fight. And if the only way to stay in it was to through an ally? A friend?
Daar never lied. The one thing Firth knew to be true besides God himself. He knew, in his bones, Daar had said it exactly the way it was. They were fucked.
…So be it.
Daar was at least polite and dignified about it. Which, honestly, was a head trip all itself. Normally, his Big Daar Energy macho flexing extravagance was a disarming tactic. It was hard to be too afraid of anyone who was so gleefully goofy, after all.
But this time, all stately and perfect? Takin’ their loyalty, after implying he’d whup their collective asses with his blink-quick, supreme bulletproof hulk of a body if they dared do otherwise?
Well, they believed him. Daar could slap Firth into giblets.
So it was a bit of an honest relief when he’d bustled off to attend to the rest of his…coup, or whatever it was. They were escorted to waiting quarters. The Third Fang guys already stationed there were happy to fit ‘em in, happy to sit and talk and sympathize.
But all throughout, Firth couldn’t shake his feeling of…what?
He had a sit-down with the leadership: Yan, Regaari, and the officers. Fortunately, their new barracks were sized for exceptionally large brownies, so the HEAT found them nice and comfortable. Yan and Regaari sat a bit apart, aliens observing a huge change in their world.
Firth didn’t say anything for a long moment, wool-gathering.
“We’re…he’s pretty much in charge now, ain’t he?”
“He was exquisitely careful to delineate the boundaries of that, but…yes.” Abbott looked like he needed a stiff drink or ten. “By rights he could declare the alliance null and void. He could probably have got away with outright annexing its assets too. This whole ‘protectorate’ business was really the kindest possible way of gaining his new empire.”
“Meaning us,” Firth grunted. “So are we, what? His conscripts now?”
“No,” Stephenson added, morosely. “‘Cuz he says so. But we’re never going back to…whatever’s left on Earth after this. Do we get nuclear winter? Did defenses hold up? Who the fuck knows?”
“Whitecrest probably does,” Campbell pointed out. “That he knows what he does means they have assets in orbit. Simple as. Now think long-term. He’s planning a Constitution, planning to host the majority of the human…remnant…on Gao. I bet he’ll be formally annexing Earth before long, maybe the rest, too. And we’ll praise him for it.”
Remnant. Fuck. But…
Yan looked uncomfortable, for obvious reasons. “You say, annexing?”
“Yeah, and it’s fucking brilliant.” Costello rolled his helmet over in his hands, and rubbed a thumb over the red-and-white maple leaf on the side. “He played our leaders like fucking violins to set this up, and took full advantage when his long game suddenly became instant. We’re all going to be his loyal supersoldiers under his direct command.”
He looked…defeated. Then he looked over at Regaari. So did the rest of them.
“I…I don’t know what you want me to say,” the Whitecrest offered at last, helplessly. “I can only…trust in My Father to act with everyone’s interests at heart. He has never done otherwise.”
“No, he hasn’t.” Campbell shook his head. “I’ll give ‘em that. We’ll all love it too, serving a competent god-king-hulkbro, living on his world at his expense. His personal property of a world. Most of humanity will be here with us, and he is generously allowing us a voice in our own governance, as invited guests. Who, then, will be the sovereign over the largest numbers of humans? And who will have the orbitals?”
Costello was nodding along as Soup laid it out. He scratched his jaw at that last point though. “…The Entity’s gonna have something to say about that, I reckon.”
“Daar doing this will maximize everyone’s chance of survival. The question answers itself.”
“….Yeah. If it really wants to save people, it’s gotta work with him.“
“But this is Daar we’re talkin’ about,” Firth said. “I mean…” he trailed off, ‘cuz he wasn’t exactly sure what he meant.
“Don’t let your personal loyalty to a battle-brother blind you to the fact he is also the most powerful individual in the galaxy, and he didn’t get that way by accident. He’s the Great Father, and thus compelled to turn that ultra-genius brain of his toward his people’s advantage at all times. We just witnessed what the smartest and strongest god-king to ever live can really do. Because he’s completely right, and he’d have pushed our shit in if we dared to disagree. Done it without cripplin’ us too, I bet. Which makes it even fucking worse! That he can protect us in the deal and put us to productive use is just a happy bonus. All it will cost…is our freedom.”
…Christian didn’t know what to think about that.
“Well.” Campbell grunted. “Look what we fuckin’ did with it…”
Costello sat back and folded his arms. Damn big, these days. And right now, filled with the sort of tension that suggested he needed to punch something. “Oh, just wait. Things will be fine under Daar. He’s a good man, truly, but wait until he’s gone. By then the Gao will have the numbers. They’ll likely have bred themselves into something better than us too, because eugenics is something they’re totally down for and their gene base is unlocked, now.”
“Ekallim-Igigi,” Yan pointed out. “Is safe-guard for this.”
“Ayup. The Gao will soon out-power, out-number, and just out-size us as a civilization and honestly, unless we get with the program, quite literally in our cases, they’ll curb-stomp us individually too. But that’s a moral quandary for another day. Right now, consider this: the Gao were made to control the Galaxy and given the potential to do so. And, so, they will. With a smile, and a cuddle. We’ll be their pets if were not very careful, and we’ll probably love it.”
“…Daar sees us and the ten’gewek as something to be admired.” Firth realized. “To aspire to. And to surpass. And they can do it. Shit, in his lifetime, maybe.”
“Yes,” Regaari added, seriously. “Hopefully without making the same mistakes or falling into the same evolutionary traps. I can pay your peoples no higher compliment than that; you are both something we aspire to.”
“Even with…nuke disaster?” Yan questioned. “Or us, nothing bigger than a village?”
Costello sighed, “and we can pay yours none more than that. You have the social means to be whatever you choose to be. It’s just a matter of time, now. And who will oppose you? The Hierarchy won, really. They have a control species. Except they don’t control you.”
“And will for a thousand years. At least.”
They pondered that for a long while, in uncomfortable silence.
“So…where does that leave us?” Campbell asked.
“Well…” Costello scratched his ‘hawk, thinking. “Right. So. We must maintain something independent and sovereign for as long as possible. We must unite now. Balls, y’know what? I bet Daar would even prefer it that way. He’ll probably encourage us to do it. I think he knows everything we just said—fuck, probably he knows everything we ain’t thought up, too. And I’d bet he’s no more thrilled by the prospect than we are. So…let’s not force his hand. Because he wants what’s good for all of us, but he will act to advance the Gao, first and foremost.”
“So…we need to keep him invested in our well-being.”
Firth nodded. “…You officers have phone calls to make, then.”
“And you’ve got the Lads to settle in,” Costello agreed. “This is a delicate moment, chief.”
“Understood.” Purpose at last. Something to do. He stood, nodded politely, then set to work being Chief Sergeant. Getting things organized, getting the Lads straightened out and focused again. Getting the lay of their feelings, too.
Get them back to some sort of training routine, tomorrow. Tonight…well, Third Fang were already being the best damn bros. Which Daar knew they would, of course. Makin’ friends with the natives (and, slowly, seeding their target peoples with equipment and training) was what they were trained to do. And what came naturally.
You couldn’t help but like a gaoian. They were so…earnest.
Shit. No wonder the Hierarchy picked them.
A lotta work ahead for Christian. At some point he’d need to call home, talk to Freya. Check how she and the kids and Jenny and Letty were doin’…and as for the Firth family on their land in the Appalachian foothills, the only thing he could do there was wait for news.
And, when he found a moment to do it, to pray.
Columbus, Ohio, USA, Earth
The noise gave way to silence. Long, empty, silence. Nobody spoke for what felt like years, just waited, and waited and waited. The sirens had been silent forever, and ever since their last call, the only sound in their shelter had been men breathing, the occasional cough, and the faint creak and rustle of their clothing and gear.
The all clear cut into the silence like light into a collapsed mine.
Jesus fuck, the shield had held. He lived.
He fuckin’ lived!
“Masks on and seal up, boys. We gotta go out there.”
Spurred by the Chief’s words, Josh remembered how to move and heaved himself vertical. Most of his suit was already on and sealed, he’d done that hours ago. Now came the hood and helmet, the mask and air supply. Damn thing was…well, it was full-body armor, specifically for a hulk of a firefighter like him. It was heavy but he was at the point where it made him feel powerful and protected, instead of slow and encumbered.
Nobody else on the crew could even lift it off the ground, so that was pretty neat. In any case, It was something like half again his own weight, so his already heavy thumping steps made the basement stairs’ handrail shake and bounce as he clamored up and out of their shelter.
Everything was intact in the station. Lights were on. Computers were on, in fact the dispatch queue was starting to grow.
He could just see to the edge of the shield bubble, and it was a fuckin’ hellscape out there.
Inside the shield edge, though…
The grass was scorched and smoking. The stars and stripes flapping overhead was singed at the edges and ragged. Ambient temperature was hot. Not, like, deadly hot, but the road surface was radiating it like after a really long hot day. He’d be marinating in his own ballsweat in the next few minutes, no doubt about that.
Ionizing radiation…elevated, but the sensor wasn’t fuckin’ shrieking at him like he’d expected. It wasn’t much worse than a long flight at altitude.
So, clearly some of the bomb’s heat pulse made it through. Obviously not much, but that meant the shields didn’t reflect it all perfectly. Which meant—
“Chief, we better get over to the shield’s heatsinks.”
“Yup. We just got dispatched for that, in fact. Let’s ride.”
They mounted up and rolled, lights and sirens on. The city was a weird mix of fucked, and intact: people’s homes were scorched, a few trees were smoking, lawn fires everywhere. There was a haze of smoke over everything.
His engine was the only one with a dude like him, and so they’d be dealing with all the weird shit today. But the rest of the engines?
One look at the board and Josh blanched. Dispatch was rolling everyone somewhere, even if it was just to hose shit down before it let on fire. And they didn’t have much water to use. Municipal water was off until they could flush the treatment plant, so it was all gonna be foam and micro-mist. Lord help anyone if they actually caught fire.
The first shield site was out in Dublin, right next to the fairway. Lots of people had no idea what it was and assumed it was some kinda water treatment plant or something, ‘cuz from the road it looked like nothing more than a tangle of pipes, and a couple of small dams creating a pool for the pipes to plunge into.
In actuality it was a giant water cooling system just like the one in Josh’s gaming PC. Except the pipes were glowing cherry-red and the reservoir was fucking boiling.
Chief looked to him and raised an eyebrow. “Son, I won’t lie. I’ve read the documents on this and done the fam training, but…”
Yup. It was on him. He and his engine crew were the only ones who really knew this shit.
“Well…okay. There’s an operator’s panel around here…”
He went looking around, found the concrete shack where it was kept, well away from the generator itself. Took a fair bit of strength to rip the door open after the heat pulse had basically welded it shut, but after that he could take a look at the panel. It wasn’t a modern-looking beast at all, but a solid slab of steel with big lights and big buttons, designed to be rugged above all else. And, Josh suspected: usable by big-ass Hero mitts like his, wearing radiation gloves.
Unfortunately, one of the more important lights on it was the bad color.
“Fuck…red light on floodgate one.”
That was the upstream gate. Which meant, right now, all the water flowing in from outside the shield and all the fallout it carried was gonna be pooling above the dam. Irradiated floods were bad. Cold water not flowing through the cooling pool was bad too. Just a whole fuckin’ badness sandwich, right there.
“How’s gate two?” Brady asked.
“Green light. Should open automatically.”
“Alright…let’s get up there.”
Sometimes, Josh got an ugly reminder that the whole world was built for guys a lot smaller and lighter than him. Like how the access to the jammed floodgate was a metal catwalk rather than a sturdy concrete shelf. He grit his teeth and shuffled gingerly out along it, willing it to hold together rather than break and drop his half-ton ass (and the extra weight of his armor and kit) into the boiling water below.
“Fuck that’s a lot of energy…” one of the guys noted behind him.
“Yuh,” Josh noted. “Most of it is kept in null sinks, but they can only contain it so long as they have outside power. It’s important they drain it all off as quick as they can. And this is only a tiny bit of it, too. Most of the rest will have been reflected into space when the shield mirrored up.”
“So…this is the heat from reflecting the nuke?”
“Basically, yeah.” So far the catwalk was wobbly but holding up.
Josh grunted in agreement as they reached the ladder, which had the decency to be a good bit sturdier than the catwalk. The problem became obvious pretty much straight away when they got to the top. The control box had caught fire and burned itself into an ugly mess of scorched wiring. But that too was designed to be rugged and easily fixed. This wasn’t delicate electronics, this was the sort of system that a high school kid could put together in their parents’ garage with junk found in a dumpster.
Well, they were trained in some basic repairs for this shit, and all the high voltage stuff was safely behind the other panel, which looked intact…
Fuck it. Caveman repairs. It took them ten minutes to fix. And it was pretty obvious when they did, because there was a heavy noise, the whine of a motor, and the rush of water starting to leak through as the floodgate opened and let the water flow. By the time Josh was back down on the catwalk, it was a torrent. By the time he was safely back on the shore, the lower gate had opened too, and all that boiling water had washed away downstream, to be replaced by nice cold water from upstream.
Too bad it happened to be carrying a shitton of fallout, but fallout wasn’t forever and it could be flocked out at the water treatment plant. Right now, the first concern was getting the shield emitters battle-ready again in case there was a second wave to this world war.
Fortunately, the shield emitter and its power supply were both okay. The cooling system had done its job and kept the thing from melting and exploding. They swapped out some consumable spares that were stored on-site, got a bunch of green lights on the panel, and that was good enough.
One down, three to go.
It was a long, hard, dreary day. Josh spent large parts of it up to his armpits in water—always a serious danger for a member of the four-digit club—or spraying a fuck of a lot of water on the small goddamn volcano that had sprung up at the John Glenn airport emitter where one of the heat sinks had melted itself and several meters of surrounding rock.
Sure as fuck took them shield techs some sweet time to get there!
And that was just the start. There was so, so much more to do. Fires that caught hold ‘cuz absolutely everything got cooked. Lotsa them were cars, a few were houses or other buildings. Safely moving people out of their fallout shelters was a whole logistical exercise in its own right.
And every time he went in the water, he had to decontaminate with a foamy scrub-down before moving on to the next job.
The sun set, and the work went on all night. The sun rose, and the work went on all morning. Throughout, Josh kept having to remind himself not to be tense, because being tense wouldn’t change shit. Either the sirens were gonna sound again, or they weren’t. Either the nukes had all flown, or there were some left to come. Him worrying wouldn’t change a thing either way.
By evening, everyone on the crew was spent, Josh included, but he was beginning to think maybe that had been it after all. One last thorough decontamination and he finally, finally got to take the suit off and massage all the places its quarter-ton embrace had bruised and pinched him.
He found his bedroll in the station and slumped down on it. Found his phone. There were pings from Jess asking if he was okay, telling him she and Maria were still hunkered down in his basement at home like he’d said. He replied, let them know he was okay, apologized for being out of contact…
There were no messages from his parents.
He lay down and tried not to be sick with worry. Maybe the network was just down. Yeah. Small miracle the network was still up in Columbus, actually…
He stood up, despite being tired in his goddamn bones, and staggered through into the chief’s office. The old man was sitting at his desk nursing a coffee so dark and strong it set Josh’s nose on fire from the doorway. He looked up as Josh knocked, and gave him a nod with heavy, baggy eyes.
“You should be asleep.”
“My folks haven’t contacted me,” Josh said, simply.
“…Sit down, son.”
Josh had bolted together the seat on the other side of Chief’s desk himself. It was strong enough for him, and he sunk onto into with a nod.
“Do we know…anything?” he asked.
“I’ve been listenin’ in. National coordination, in case we gotta go deal with a forest fire or stuff, yeah?”
“LA is gone.”
“Don’t blaspheme, son. ‘Specially not right now.”
“Uh, sorry Chief.” Josh rubbed his face. “Anywhere else?”
“Do you think—”
“Stop right there, son,” Chief shook his head. “Right now, we’ve got a job in front of us. You’ll find out one way or another when the time is right, but right now I don’t know and I need to focus on what I’m doing. And you need to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. Understand?”
“Alright. Now get. Sleep, ‘ya idjit.”
Josh nodded, “Yes Chief” -ed again, rose, and returned to his soft pile. This time, when he lay down, his brain stopped churning over the worry and relaxed into the idea that whatever had happened had already happened, one way or another, so…there was nothing for him to do but be ready. Not a happy thought, nor a relaxing one, but it was one he could fall asleep to anyway.
So he did.
He did not dream.
Regional Headquarters building, Guāngjing, Lucent
“Still no contact with Beijing?”
“No…you were right, it seems.”
“Good thing too, or we’d all be facing arrest soon.”
Chenguang nodded grimly, but really things had played out exactly as she foresaw. From the moment the Russians invaded Kazakhstan, she’d seen the shape of the future as clearly as watching the arc of a ball.
She’d moved accordingly, and surprised herself. Up until now, her career had been predictable in much the same way as anyone entering politics in modern China. She’d faithfully attended conferences, taken the assignments given to her, worked hard, networked harder, built herself the kind of reputation that got her sent here, to a quite senior position in the provincial government. Up until a few weeks ago, she’d been the model of a good Party politician.
But she had been on Lucent for three years at this point. It was home, her project, the place where the people she was responsible for lived. In that sense, her duty was to here, not to anywhere else. The Party could make as much noise as they wanted about the United Front strategy, the moment Chenguang had seen world war looming on the horizon, especially in light of the colony’s coming role in the safe evacuation of a lucky tiny minority of Chinese citizens…she’d known that change was inevitable.
So it may as well be change she had a hand in realizing. She’d gathered allies, whispered in the right ears. And when the war started…well, in the confusion she’d seen to it that Guāngjing was locked down and receiving no incoming jumps. In case the Americans sent a bomb to them through the array.
It had worked. There was no People’s Republic of China any longer, and the colony of Shuòshěng had not been invaded by the fleeing madmen who’d pushed the button and ended the world early. They were…
…what were they? Free? Hardly. Shuòshěng did not produce enough food to feed every mouth that Beijing had crammed through the jump arrays in the first days of the evacuation. She’d raised objections, politely dissented, pointed out that there was not the resources to support so many, but to no avail. Beijing had kept sending people and insisting they be housed and fed, and indeed they had sent tractors and seeds…
But what use was a tractor without tillers, planters and sprayers to pull? What use were combine harvesters without grain bins and trucks? In time and with pressure, Chenguang could have got it all sorted out, and by the time the Centauri blast came, they would probably have been at least capable of looking after themselves for a few years.
Now, thanks to the war and her country’s suicidal insistence on escalation, famine was not only looming, but imminent. They had emergency stockpiles sufficient to feed everyone on a strictly rationed diet for four weeks at most.
…And medicine for maybe a single week.
Chenguang turned upon realizing that the new arrival was talking to her. She hadn’t quite internalized that idea yet, but it was true. She was technically now the chairman of the Shuòshěng provincial government, by dint of seniority.
Quite a promotion.
…Come to think of it, if the continuity measures in Beijing had failed, she might just have become a lot more senior even than that. She put that thought aside and looked expectant. “Yes?”
“Call for you from the Governor of Naya Mumbai.”
So it began. Either the recriminations, or the cooperation…let it be the latter.
“I’ll take it,” she said.
The conversation touched on much. Mutual assurances that neither colony was interested in continuing the violence in which their parent nations had partaken, a laying-out of their respective supply and production situations…
They quickly decided to reach out to the Russian colony of Gagarin. Mayor Stepanov’s position turned out to be even bleaker than theirs, he didn’t have enough people for real self-sufficiency. At first glance, without any of their settlements having taken a full and thorough accounting…it seemed they were all in very deep trouble.
The conclusion, when Chenguang put it forward, was inevitable.
“We are going to need outside help, and soon.”
“Yes,” Shastry nodded grimly. “But who?”
“Who is there?” Stepanov asked. “The Interspecies Dominion?”
“I have worked with their representatives for some time,” Chenguang said. “They do not know our needs, they do not understand us, and they move slowly. We will starve before help comes from the Dominion, and what help does come will not be enough.”
“…How have the Americans fared?”
“Unknown, but my suspicion is they will have their own to attend to, come what may.”
“If the Americans cannot help, then the AEC will not be in any position, either.”
“Which has…many implications beyond that.”
The line was silent for a long, uncomfortable moment.
“What…what about the Gao?”
“Daar is an Emperor by another name. His help will undoubtedly be quite generous. And it will have a price.”
“What price do we put on survival?” Shastry asked.
‘’What guarantees will he give? He has his war in the sky. The West may have been content to bow to his will…must we do the same?”
“If the alternative is to starve…”
“Maybe there is another alternative,” Stepanov mused. “There is this…Singularity.”
“That is just trading one god-king for another,” Chenguang pointed out.
“Maybe. But if our only option is to submit to a god-king either way…I would prefer one from my own species.”
“Does that truly make a difference?” Shastry asked. “The Great Father has dealt with our kind openly. King Gilgamesh has spent literally millennia running a secret breeding conspiracy among us as if we were prize cattle!”
“I think it matters, yes. I think an alien will never truly know human needs. Besides: Daar’s first love must be his own species. What is it he says? ‘He is the Gao.’ Humanity must always come second in his thoughts, however much it serves his purpose to treat with us fairly and openly.”
“True,” Chenguang agreed.
“Is it that he has aligned himself with the AEC nations?” Shastry asked. “Are we going to cling to West and East even now?”
“Since you mention it…the AEC nations include Britain and America. All three of our parent nations suffered great injustices at their hands. Empire casts a long shadow, does it not? They will look to themselves first too, and historically, looking to themselves has come at our expense,” Chenguang said.
“We must do what is right for our people,” Stepanov agreed. “We must not let them be a charitable afterthought.
“Together?” Shastry asked.
There was another pause on the line. The moment had come.
“…We share a world, and our hold on it is tenuous at best. If there is one lesson I would like to take from Earth, it’s that we rise or fall as one. This world can be the jewel of the galaxy, I know it. Our people can thrive. Or, we can divide, fail, and sink. Either way, we shall do so as one. So…yes. Together. Whatever treaty we need to make, whatever constitution we must write, whatever we must do, I say we do it.”
Another pause, as everyone considered the ramifications of what they were about to do.
This was the fire in which nations were born.
“Even if it means swearing fealty to an immortal king, though?”
“At the moment, I will take food and shelter. Revolution will be at our leisure, when needed. Our peoples are no stranger to throwing off oppressors.”
Another thoughtful pause, then Shastry spoke. She could almost hear him nodding, even from the moment he exhaled. “Yes. Very well. Together.”
“Together,” Stepanov agreed. “But how do we contact Singularity?”
“We have some of their ‘Heroes’ here,” Chenguang paused and felt herself slipping into prejudice before she took a moment, stepped back in her mind’s eye, and corrected herself. “They have been enormously helpful in many ways, but feeding them is a severe burden and they cannot go long without a heavy meal. I am certain the good king will be keen to rescue them. And I have no doubt they will know how to contact him in turn.”
And so it proved. By the end of the day, they had received official acknowledgment from Singularity, and by the end of the next day, the first ambassador had arrived.
By the end of the week, a decision had been made. There was aid coming, and all it cost them was an oath of loyalty. In truth, Chenguang was glad just for the thought of not going hungry. Three days of rationing meant her stomach was already beginning to feel dissatisfied. The agony of actual starvation?
She would bow to a king to avoid that, if that was the price to survive. And at least their king was human. She would most likely be exhausted by the time he arrived, as there was much to do both to get Shuòshěng as properly operational as it could be…
But by the time King Alex arrived, he would find them ready and waiting. And then, for better or worse…they would be his.
She hoped she could live with herself.
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
“So, they do see the danger.”
He knew they would. Too bad he didn’t quite know who the nucleus of this polite resistance was, but…probably that was for the best. It eliminated a source of temptation for Daar. He was very good at these kinds of games.
And he liked playin’ ‘em, too. Nothin’ better’n winnin’ against a worthy adversary. Balls, sometimes it was almost as good as fuckin.’
So long as humankind were kept strong and on-team, it was all good.
“Franklin, Folctha and the other city-states have all publically entered negotiations for Union, and the remnants of their home governments have not raised any objections. That by itself is a remarkable statement, My Father.”
“Means someone wit’ a lot o’ foresight an’ good networking has noticed. Ain’t many who can fill those boots…”
“Margaret White and Arthur Sartori are top of the list. Old friends and colleagues from his administration, yijao?”
Daar considered that for a few seconds, then shook his head. “…No. Conduits, sure. But this is something beyond their influence.”
“Then…” Thurrsto’s ears lowered, raised, rotated then flicked as he thought. “…There is one possibility, then.”
“One of our unconfirmed hypotheses is that there’s an organization of some sort at play in human global politics, one we’ve never knowingly encountered directly, but which the Clan has inferred by absence, and by human rumor.”
Daar tilted his head curiously. “Go on…”
“Humans are a conspiratorial lot. They like to imagine ‘secret societies’ maneuvering behind the scenes. Some of the more ridiculous ideas include that many of the executive elite are shape-shifting reptilian aliens, or that there’s a group of immortal wizards in the shadows—”
“Sounds like they’re two ‘fer two, there. If you count the Hierarchy and Singularity an’ throw in some artistic license.”
“And the Illuminati.”
“…’Enlightened ones,’ eh?”
“A real organization that was little more than a group of like-minded German thinkers, and which lasted no more than ten or fifteen years or so. But since then, there’s been a lot of, ah, mythology about them. Plus a novel that only a particularly deranged couple of humans could have written, under the influence of strong drugs. You should read it.”
“Fun times,” Daar chittered. “You gotta come to Lodge wit’ me one o’ these days!”
“I have experienced a wide range of mind-altering substances,” Thurrsto replied, ominously.
“Well, that’s a heck of a flex…”
“Against you, I will take what I can.”
Daar chittered, and restrained himself to a quick, fun little display of how his arm was comin’ along lately. “Always knew you were a smart one…anyhoo. So this…Presence. A human Clan Whitecrest?”
“Without the distracting public face. Their membership is likely small, but their reach global and subtle. Up until a few minutes ago, they were just one of several plausible hypotheses. Now, it seems likely they exist and have someone close to Gaoian politics. Most probably, ah, one or some of your human employees. You are quite fond of them…”
“And would indulge them.” A flash of insight, and Daar understood. “…Oh, that sneaky lil’ Keeda-fart!”
Realization struck Thurrsto, too. “…It’s Hoeff, isn’t it?”
“Has’ta be.” Daar chittered, ”who else has balls big enough?! And who else could? Nobody keeps secrets from this sniffer.”
“So he didn’t keep any secrets at all,” Thurrsto agreed.
“Yeah! He was entirely honest that he’s had numerous clandestine associations and several influential friends. And you checked ‘em out…”
“…and confirmed that he was indeed very well connected, just as he said,” Thurrsto finished. “So, yes. Daniel Hoeff has never told you a lie, not even a lie of omission. And thereby he managed to keep an absolutely huge secret directly in front of both our noses.”
“Well, balls. Now I’m really impressed. Think I’mma feed ‘em a dinner! Might pummel him ‘ta goo too, but we’ll see how it goes. Where is he right now?”
“I don’t know, My Father. It’s not impossible he’s on Earth.”
“Find out. Meanwhile, I got a machine swarm ‘ta negotiate with…”
“She’s waiting for you in the orange office, My Father.”
Daar nodded, and ambled over to his desk. “‘Kay. I’ll be there in a bit. Send ‘fer Liree, will ‘ya?”
“Yes, My Father.”
Thurrsto bowed out and Tiyun was on his tablet, sending messages. “He’ll be here shortly.”
Daar duck-nodded and woolgathered for a bit. Addressed a couple items in his inbox, kept an eye on the scroll of information comin’ in from Earth…not that there was much, really…
There was a scratch on the door. Liree’s. Daar didn’t quite know why, but the li’l hacker always scratched three times, paused a beat, then scratched twice more.
“C’mon in, li’l buddy.”
Liree opened the door, poked his nose in, sniffed…waited. He was such a tragedy in some ways. Away from Daar he was a bright, sarcastic, confident, aggressive personality. In his presence? He was meek and almost disconcertingly subservient.
Which Daar had done to the poor guy. He din’t really have a choice anymore. But for his crimes, that was the price he’d chosen to pay. Bondage to Daar, and a chance to do good.
And he was, bar none, the best expert Daar had to hand on the subject of dataspace and its denizens.
“Got the Entity sittin’ in the orange office, waitin’ for me,” he informed Liree, as soon as the door closed.
Liree perked up immediately. “The Daemon herself! Well, this promises to be interesting, then…”
“Any idea what it might want?”
“I would guess it’s worried about survival. Well, obviously. That’s the only thing it’s ever concerned with. But right now that probably means humans.”
Daar made an interested noise and stood to prowl the room, gesturing for him to elaborate.
“See…the Entity suffers fundamentally from a problem. It’s theoretically capable of mitosis, calving off a branch awareness from itself. It doesn’t, most likely because it fears value drift and believes the greatest threat to it at this point would be a rogue and hostile version of itself. But because it remains a single mind, it has finite attention. Dataminds—well, okay, the dataminds we’ve been able to decompile and attempt to understand—are just like our minds in that regard; their attention is limited by tightly-coupled processes.”
Liree flicked his ears forward, prompting Daar. Liree liked to teach this way. And Daar had cultivated a close friendship, so this was one of those foibles he found he enjoyed indulging.
“Meaning…” Daar felt his brow furrow, thinking out of his comfort zone. “Meaning it can’t scale its awareness, uh, horizontally I think ‘ya term it.”
“Very good! Yes. Awareness requires tight synchronization, so only vertical scale is possible.”
“So no spammin’ probes ‘fer more thinky.”
“Well, aware thinking. Communication latency slows synchronization, and remote communication increases the risk of value drift. Ideally its awareness will be in one well-protected computation device. It can still benefit from all of its swarm’s processing power, it’s just that its own subjective focus of awareness is on, oh, some small, finite number of things at a time at most. Much like you and me.”
“How in Fyu’s poetic nards does it run a whole machine swarm, then?”
“Quasi-independent control functions, background processes. We don’t know how its awareness experiences things like time, and there’s ways that could increase its effective attention. Flitting back and forth between problems extremely rapidly, for example.”
“But we don’t know.”
“No. But I’d love to ask its communications daemon all sorts of questions! Maybe if—”
“Not today,” Daar chittered affectionately. “But mebbe! We’ll see. Now c’mon, y’ain’t seen th’ orange room yet, have you?”
“Well, now that ‘yer in Club Red, I think ‘yer gonna like it. It’s delightfully kitsch!”
Liree pant-grinned. “How kitsch? I have high standards, My Father.”
“C’mon. Do ‘ya know me ‘ta do anythin’ sloppy or lazy? Keeda himself would be proud, an’ I should know. Keeda himself couldn’t stop chitterin’!”
It was a short walk to the Orange Office. After having his fun with it for a while, Daar had finally caved to Naydra’s advice and hired a human interior designer to make it a bit less…explosive. And it had worked! Brown, it turned out, was basically just dark orange, and that opened up all sortsa room for wood tones and leather. Throw in some splashes of green for contrast, in the artwork on the walls and in a couple potted plants, an’ it was cozy.
And kitschy. Still that.
But mostly cozy.
The Entity’s avatar stood with a smile, smoothing out a dress that could never wrinkle as she did. “Hello, Daar. And, please…call me Daemon.”
Daar considered the holographic woman standing in his office and flicked an ear. Seemed like every time he met the Entity’s avatar, it had refined the design somewhat. Now, he could barely even hear the hum of the drone inside Ava’s—Daemon’s—head that was doing the job of projecting her. And he certainly couldn’t see it.
Only the total absence of any smell gave away that there wasn’t a real young human standin’ in front of him, in fact. An’ that tickled the ol’ gao-brain in essactly the wrong ways. The fact he couldn’t offer her a drink or invite her to sit down was messin’ with his sense of bein’ a good host, too.
Fuck it. He sat down, and gestured for her to do so too. The animation was smooth and convincing: she didn’t clip through the couch at all. “I take it you watched,” he said.
“We wanted to intervene and stop it, somehow, but…” Daemon sighed and shrugged.
The AEC nations had defenses the equal of anything we could add. And their weapons…” Daemon shook her head. “The tech advantage they gained from the Dominion and from their alliance with you was just…insurmountable.”
“Yeah.” Daar keened softly. “Keeda’s nuts, I gotta give thanks ‘fer Fyu. He managed ‘ta unite th’ Gao long before we ever got ‘ta the nuclear age.”
“He had Keeda’s direct help,” Daemon pointed out. “But…you’re busy, and we’re busy. Do we have time for a conversation? Or shall we coordinate?”
“Whaddya have in mind?”
“An adjustment in strategy. At our present rate of expansion, we can achieve the capacity to have stasis-bagged half a billion individual humans by the time the Alpha Centauri blast arrives. You meanwhile intended to welcome conscious, productive humans to Gao and integrate them, yes?”
“At least a billion, hopefully. We got the farmland an’ infrastructure.”
“Leaving, by our estimates, a further half a billion to one billion.” Daemon looked like she was listening to something for a second. “What happens if we switch over to directly supporting your economy instead? Before, the bagging facilities were the most efficient option. But that was because we were trying to work alone…”
“You’re sayin’ you could do more if you worked with us?”
“We think so. We think…if we redirect into supporting your industrial infrastructure, it’s possible we could expand your capacity. Maybe even save everyone who’s left.”
“Well if you had a way ‘ta save more lives than the bag-an’-tag approach, why din’t you go with that in the first place?” Daar demanded.
“We aren’t…we aren’t perfectly rational,” Daemon replied, uncomfortably. “We have our biases, our core impulse to survive, and that’s subject to interpretation. This course of action would make us…vulnerable. We weren’t capable of entertaining that, before now.”
- “What changed?”
:”Well…Earth, obviously.” She spread her hands. “If you ever needed an object lesson in how self-destructive it is to be concerned solely with your own survival and to brook no vulnerability, look no further than what just happened to Russia. We have. And we’ve…recalculated. And here we are.”
Daar sat back and tilted his head. “…An’ where does independence factor in ‘ta ‘yer calculations?” he asked.
“For whom? Ourselves, or humanity?”
“We’re not surrendering our independence. We…can’t, really. And I don’t mean won’t, I mean that as a practical function of what we are versus what you are, it’s impossible that you ever could take our independence. The vulnerability I’m talking about is that we’d be committing our probe swarm and resources, which makes us less flexibly able to respond to rapidly adapting circumstances.”
“An’ the human race?”
Daemon sighed. “Independence rests near the apex of the pyramid of needs. You can only build independence on a solid foundation of food, water, shelter and safety. And right now, my species blew all that to hell.”
Daar flicked his ear curiously. “Your species? You still think o’ yerself as human?”
“I remember skinny-dipping in the lake with my friends. I remember the taste of ice cream and cola, and the smell of the dawn while I was out jogging. I dream sometimes about strong arms wrapped around me, and a tongue between my lips, and the hush of rain on the bedroom window. I know what it feels like for time to stretch and shrink to infinity in a perfect moment. I know what faith feels like, the way it lights a warmth in your heart and lifts your soul…and I know how it feels to be fucked senseless.”
Daemon did have a disconcertingly lifelike way of looking him firmly in the eye with a wicked smirk, and for once Daar found himself momentarily matched on the heartfelt bluntness front. “I’m a human mind, Daar,” she said. “Or at least, the ghost of one. And I still love my species, despite what they just did to themselves.”
“…Yeah.” Daar chittered. It turned into a keen as he suddenly felt the full terrible, terrible sadness of the situation weighing on him. “Yeah…I still love ‘em too.”
But, well…that din’t change the fundamentals.
“…I don’t love what I gotta do to ‘em, now. What I’ve already done. I don’t want more subjects. But I can’t afford ‘em bein’ independent right now. Their leadership is pathological and a legitimate threat to themselves an’ my own interests.”
“There’s nothing you can do to humanity that’s so terrible as what humanity just did to ourselves. You don’t want them as subjects? You don’t have to keep them as subjects forever. Stop the boat from sinking first, then navigate to your destination once it’s available.”
“Forever is a long time, Daemon. A very long time.” Daar stood up and stretched, while the Daemon watched curiously. Snack. Cronch cronch.
“We’ll outlive even you, remember. We know.”
“The future is always a mirage.”
She made a curious hmm sound. “…I like that. Fyu?”
“Nah. That’s me. Figger I better have a few good ones m’self…I’m going to annex them. Lucent too, if I can move fast enough. They’re not ready to stand on their own and they are basically the only functional bits left of their cultures.”
“And the destination for all the antagonistic powers who started this war.”
“…Do you intend to pacify them?”
“Yes. With a velvet glove on m’paw. The treat will be food and development resources.”
“And the stick?”
“Whatever is needed. I ain’t so foolish as to think a human being submits ‘ta conquerin’. That’s the reason all this happened in the first place.”
“You’re right. We don’t.”
“So I do not intend to conquer, or erase. Instead, I will obliterate the foolishness that generated this tragedy. If I find it there, it will die. Hopefully, words should be enough now.”
“…We think humanity might still have some ways of surprising you.”
Sensibly cautious, it seemed. But Daar had an advantage the Entity did not. He was friend to humanity without being human himself, and both smart and intuitive enough to analyze them dispassionately. No human could think on the human condition without bias. Daar could.
And this kind of thinkin’ was the kind he could, without ego, honestly say he was the best praticitoner there was, prob’ly the best there ever was. It was the true purpose for which he was made. All the rest of it were merely tools in his inventory. Instruments of power, of charisma, of awe. Li’l Liree there, sitting in the corner drinkin’ it all in like a sponge were th’ perfect example o’ that. He was a mind Daar had bent to his service, one he could use to analyze digital people with, an’ be assured of perfect loyalty. His talents had use, but as far as he was concerned, they weren’t there so he could smash his enemies. Not primarily. Knowing, loving a people…that was his true design goal.
One could not lead or rule that which he did not know and love.
“I am counting on it. This is the work of centuries, my digital friend. I am a patient man.”
“Here and now, we have more immediate work,” Daemon pointed out. “Jump arrays to deploy, people to find room for. There are large parts of the Earth where the evacuation must happen now, before mass starvation finishes what the nukes began. Where do we send those people? Can we bring them here? Is there room for them?”
“If we have ‘ta, we’ll put ‘em to work makin’ their own stasis bags,” Daar said. “We’ve got a lot of farmland and it’s hugely productive, too. Gao is a deathworld, ‘member? An’ she always was. Now we ain’t held back we’re unleashin’ her like she was always meant ‘ta be. We can take a huge surge o’ people.” Daar turned his attention to Liree and Tiyun, “Could ‘ya two figger out th’ numbers on that? Or get my staff ‘ta do so. We can start now but we gotta know the curb we’re workin’ on, yijao?”
“Yes, My Father.”
“We’ll leave this drone here with you,” Daemon said, indicating her own head. “The closer we work together….”
“The more lives we save,” Daar duck-nodded. Then he looked back at Liree, still paying rapt attention. “…Later on, when we’re not swamped under existential crises…”
“How very optimistic of you.”
“How d’ya think I pull so much tail?!” Daar chittered, and earned a virtual eye-roll from Ava-daemon. “Anyhoo, Liree here would love ‘ta jaw wit’ ya ‘bout datamind things, if ‘yer willin’.”
“There will be lulls and downtime. We’re always glad for something to do in such quiet moments.” Daemon stood. “Now, however, is not a quiet moment. Now that we have the beginning of an agreement, there are things we had on hold that need to resume.”
“Please, do,” Daar agreed.
“Goodbye for now, then.” With those words, the Daemon’s holographic form shimmered, and faded from view. The drone descended and settled into Liree’s paws with a faint whine before going dark and inactive. The little hacker held it like it was a treasure.
“Do not take it apart, Liree.”
Li’l brother flattened his ears and cringed backward slightly. Daar chittered quietly. He was so…readable.
“…Yes, My Father.”
“Or x-ray it, stick it in an MRI, or go find your science-friends an’ dream up something else I ain’t got th’ time or patience ‘ta essplicitly ‘ferbid. ‘Yer to respect its privacy, y’hear?”
“…Yes, My Father.”
“Oh, don’ be like that. C’mon, I got a bit ‘fore my next meetin’ an’ I need ‘ta unwind. Les’ go get some tacos!”
Tacos, in the strange and foreign land that was Liree’s mind, clearly ranked second to drone studies, but he hopped up on his feet with an adequately enthusiastic duck-nod, and that was the meeting done with.
They got tacos. Not Leela’s, alas, which was a shame ‘cuz nobody did tacos so good as hers an’ she hadn’t re-opened her stand. Yet. But still…it was a welcome break from Earth an’ humans an’ all his worries, for a few minutes.
They resumed soon enough anyway.
Daar carried through the day, and planned his arrival to Cimbrean.
Starship Stray Fortune, Low Earth Orbit, Sol
Daar’s orders had been to monitor the situation and pass intel back to the analysts on Gao. A simple job, for a ship like the Fortune. Jump, send out the drones, set up the stream so their telemetry found its way back to whoever was gonna turn it into something useful…
Then float and watch.
It was hard enough for Dora. She’d always dreamed of going down to Earth, somehow. In a hazard suit and G-harness, for sure, but sometimes when she was alone in her blister with nothing to do, she put on human nature documentaries until she was completely surrounded by the canyons and jungles and savanna and ice floes, and the thousands of other interesting places.
She’d imagined herself going to Burning Man. She’d imagined going shopping in Soho, or watching a Broadway musical, or standing on the Great Wall of China…
The news about the Alpha Centauri hit everyone hard, but Wilde and Bruuk were taking it the worst by far. They spent almost all of their waking hours together, doing big-man things, or doing lazy, depressed people things. So…beat each other up, then pass out in front of the TV.
But right now, Ian was standing on the bridge with a blanket round his shoulders, a cup of tea in his hands, and his forehead resting against the glass, staring out and down at his homeworld with no expression at all on his face.
The only reason Bruuk wasn’t there was because he was trying to cheer Ian up with a big pot roast dinner. It was very…gaoian. But it wasn’t going to work: humans lost their appetite when depression gripped them. They were like Dora’s own species, in that regard. Dora wasn’t feeling hungry either.
No, Wilde didn’t need a gaoian’s brand of comfort. He needed something closer to home. He needed a hand on his shoulder, and a soft voice asking him a stupid question.
“…You okay?” She wafted an antenna across his cheek, the equivalent of a friend giving a friend a small kiss. The overwhelming chemistry of human misery was almost too intense to bear, and the coarse stubble on his jaw rasped painfully across the feathery organ.
He rolled his head across the glass by way of shaking it.
“…The UK’s mostly still there…” Dora offered. Nuclear torpedoes had taken out a couple of the island’s major ports, but sheer density had protected much of his homeland under an overlapping umbrella of high-powered shields.
“You’ve got a strange definition of mostly.” Ian sighed, sipped his tea, and grimaced as he realized it was stone cold. Dora took it off him with her middle hand, and handed over the fresh hot one in her right. “…Cheers. I just…I don’t care, any more. So the UK’s still sorta there. Great. What’s it fuckin’ matter?”
“It’s your home, isn’t it?”
“So me an’ mine lived while billions of other less fortunate buggers died.” Ian sipped the new tea, and sighed heavily. “I dunno, love. I guess I had this stupid Star Trek optimistic notion that now we had a big fuckin’ galaxy and a common enemy we’d set it all aside and pull together. I even thought that after we got the news about Centauri, right? I was like, ‘here it is, here’s the moment we finally grow the fuck up.’ But…here we are.”
“Well…maybe now is the time,” Dora suggested.
“God…Dora. Just…no. I can’t deal wi’ fuckin’ optimism right now.” Ian shook his head.
Well…okay. Dora knew when to be silent and let him have his misery. But she also knew better than to just go away again. Quiet company was better than no company at all, so she became quiet company for a good long while, occasionally nudging Ian to remind him to drink his tea while it was still hot.
A change came in the form of Urgug, who padded across the bridge with the disarming soft quiet of which Guvnurag were capable, one of his facial limbs coiled gently around a tablet. “…Orders, captain,” he said, quietly. His bioluminescence was respectfully, mournfully dim.
Ian tore his hollow gaze away from Earth, looked up, nodded, and took the tablet. Dora collected his empty teacup as he read.
“…Shit, things move fast.”
“What’re we doing?”
“Collection run to Aru.” He handed the tablet back to Urgug. “Alright, well. Uh…we have a beacon out there, don’t we.”
“Load it up. Dora, leave four observation drones in polar orbits, drop a W-comm relaysat, and pull the rest in…” he stalked off across the bridge, throwing his blanket onto his chair as he went, and hit the intercom to order the ship to jump readiness, prepare to receive array travelers, all that stuff. Dora nodded, secretly and quietly glad that Wilde had something to distract him for a few minutes at least, and scuttled off toward her command blister. She didn’t want to be the one slowing them down.
She settled into her chair, recalled most of the drones, left a few watchers behind, and then sat back to watch the Earth below. It felt…a little wrong, somehow, to know that something so terrible had happened down there and yet left so very little sign visible from above. To her eyes, Earth was just as blue and white and beautifully marbled as ever.
The cold thought slipped down her back that maybe this was the last glimpse she’d ever have of it. For all she knew, the next three years would never bring them back this way. After all, they were going to be busy and the Fortune would probably be of use elsewhere…
She blinked, then leaned forward and stared, memorizing every detail. That straight stretch of coastline down there…she didn’t know it immediately. Calling up the overlay told her it was the Chukchi Sea and Wrangel Island. Obscure, desolate, practically uninhabited and freezing cold.
She was still staring at them when they vanished, Earth’s frigid brown and icy blue replaced by the disconcertingly orange sands and green rivers of Aru in less time than it took Dora to blink. That might have been it. That might have been her last view of the Earth…
The thought made her sadder than she’d ever have thought it would. But moments later, there was no time to be sad at all. The huge wheel of an OmoAru factory station was coming up in front, and already their cargo handling system wanted to talk to her.
Ian was right. Things moved fast.
May as well go with the flow. She threw herself into the work of receiving and load-balancing, and that was the last thing she truly thought about for hours and hours…
They departed for Cimbrean that afternoon.
Great Father’s Hobby Farm, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff
“‘Bout time you fuckin’ figgered it out.”
Loud, uproarious infrasonic chittering, and a gleeful home-shaking prancing wiggle as Daar served him a second helping of steamed meeshi greens. Delicious. It was paired with a thick, rare naxas steak tonight, grilled and served by the Most Biggest himself.
Christ, Hoeff could get used to this.
“Oh, I knew what you were th’ moment I firs’ sniffed ‘ya. It were the details that eluded us. Din’t think literal illuminati were in the cards!”
Hoeff snorted and dabbed some meat juices off his lip. “We aren’t the Illuminati. Those guys were just a bunch of coffee-shop Bavarian intellectuals who liked to make a lotta noise about how smart and anti-clerical they were until the Church had ‘em banned. They fuckin’ delighted in bein’ a secret society.”
“What’re y’all, then?”
“Just a well-connected and influential circle of friends. Nothing more.”
He watched Daar’s nose twitch. It was an unconscious gesture in gaoians, but in Daar’s case it also was a reminder that he could smell even the faintest whiff of bullshit. Which was why Hoeff had never spoken any to him.
“…So how the fuck does a guy like you get in?” Daar asked.
Hoeff shrugged. “I got the worst little-man syndrome ever in some ways. Got into lifting when I started wrestling, so like five years old, right? Got real serious about it for football, a few years later. Between the three I ended up good at most any sport, so I played ‘em all.” Hoeff shrugged, and took another bite. The steak was perfect, right up there with really great beef. And Daar’s pan sauce was heavenly.
“Anyway, same story as a lot of guys like me so far. I went way harder, yeah, but whatever. Bein’ a handsome sporty ultra-heavy in high school wasn’t enough to get the girls though. ‘Cuz firstly, I’m short as fuck, but secondly the smart pretty girls I actually wanted to date din’t like my accent. It was pretty thick texas german. So, uh…I joined Mensa. For a bit. I dunno, I was pretty high on myself, really. Point is, that and trying my hand at theatre let me smash lots of tail, an’ I met some people there and, uh…this sorta snowballed.”
“Just that informal.” Hoeff sat back and sipped his wine. “There’s no pledge, no initiation, no logo, no secret handshake. You’re just…either you’re in the circle, or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you don’t even know it’s a thing. If you do, you know who else is in.”
“So, I can about guess, but…what’s your in?”
“I’ve got an IQ over one-sixty and I could flip a car end over end as a sophomore in high school. I’m good at a lot of things, and I know how to use what I’ve got.” Hoeff shrugged again. “Honestly that’s it. Me and, uh, my first acquaintance…”
“Wait.” Daar’s nose twitched again. “….You mean ‘ta tell me your first in ‘ta this ‘circle’ was a girl you were bangin’?”
“Why not?” Hoeff grinned. “Smart move on her part. She wanted to know what kind of man I was, know if I was suitable to join her circle, so she got good an’ close. I mean, I saw right through it, but we both thoroughly enjoyed the game. Then later on they wanted someone who knew how to use violence, an’ my life plan was to join the SEALs anyway, so…made it to team six, advanced from there, did some shit, they brought me out to the Farm, and before I knew it, I was balls deep in this thing.”
“Balls! ‘Yer like the lil’ version o’ me!” Daar’s huge head shook, slowly.
“I’ll take that as a compliment, but honestly not really. I’m a much colder man than you.”
“Hmm.” Daar grunted. “When you wanna be, yeah…Let’s get serious. How many of your circle are left?”
“A lot of them have investments and business on Cimbrean. Automatic ticket to evacuation, and they took it. We…hoped the war wouldn’t happen. Some even insisted it couldn’t. But most of the circle were safely off-world before this all happened…shit, has it only been a day?”
“Edgin’ close ‘ta two days, now. An’ me gettin’ a bit tired o’ usin’ caffeine.”
Hoeff snorted into his gaoian-made wine, unable to help himself. “Isn’t that like the equivalent of meth for some of ‘ya?”
“Hits me fuckin’ harder than any Hunter ever did. Bein’ th’ size of a house does take the edge off a little, but I dunno how Regaari an’ Thurrsto can down that shit like fuckin’ fruit juice. Anyhoo.”
“…Right. So, many of us have found our way over. We’re not hard to find, once you know what kind of people we are…We obviously haven’t heard from the ones who chose to stay on Earth, yet.”
“So what sort o’ people are you?”
“All sorts. Most are people in positions of power or influence, who can keep an open mind about what kind o’ people they oughta keep relations with. So…kings, and ministers, especially ministers who can bend powerful ears. And also people like me…” he sipped his wine, then thought of a perfect example. “Tell you who we had our eye on bringin’ in to the circle? That Austin fella. He’s exactly the sort of friend we like to have.”
“Right…” Daar duck-nodded. “An’ who are they that stayed?”
“People with jobs to do. People with positions they couldn’t in good conscience leave empty. People with people they couldn’t abandon. In any case…much as I wanna eat ‘ya outta house and home—”
“Pff. Like you could manage.”
“I’m a Beef these days, so don’t bet against me! But anyway. Business, if you don’t mind. The Circle is…apprehensive, about you. I think that’s fair and reasonable to say.”
Daar duck-nodded. “Yeah, I unnerstand. But if these are the kinda people you say, they’ve gotta know just what a fuckin’ situation the settlements are in right now. Can Cimbrean stand on its own two feet right now?”
“It is top of mind, yes. My phone’s been blowin’ up basically constantly. We were gonna risk it all an’ plot a get-together, but…then you texted me. By the way,” Hoeff added, “you pretty seriously upped my clout among the Circle with that message. In a way that hiring me directly somehow didn’t. So, y’know. Thanks.”
“That’s a bit o’ advantage I din’t expect ‘ya ta give,” Daar noted, seriously. And started cutting into his own whole-animal fuckin’ counter-sized slab of meat. “Oh! Seconds, ‘fore I tuck in?”
“I’m good. Growing Daars need to eat their meat and potatoes.”
“Ha!” Hoeff always marveled at a gaoian eating meat. It was clearly what they were made for, and Daar disappeared a chunk of steak bigger than Hoeff’s whole portion in only one swallow. Rip and tear, until it was done. Or bloody rare, as the case may be.
Hoeff finished off his meeshi greens. Really nice. Peppery, the right kind of spinach flavor, and drowning in butter. Any species that used butter in their cuisine was alright in Hoeff’s book.
“Advantage is a currency, and right now what it buys is…what? ‘Cuz what we’re worried you’re gonna do is annex Cimbrean and Lucent for our own good.”
“Because that is essactly what I am gonna do. Ain’t ‘fer your own good, though. That’s a happy bonus.”
“…For the Gao’s own good,” Hoeff realized.
“Yup. We live or die on TILE FLIP, an’ it ain’t happenin’ without ‘yer spaceborne assets, ‘yer specialized industry, an’ some o’ ‘yer uniquely human talent. So what’s my choice? Let y’all fart around an’ spend precious time debating government an’ structures an’ treaties an’ all that? ‘Cuz that’s already happenin’ here on Cimbrean. Any delay is gonna cost literally millions o’ lives, an’ they are lives I very much need contributin’ to our species’ mutual survival. Rebuildin’s gotta happen at fuckin’ warp speed. The stakes are much fuckin’ bigger than human leadership seems ‘ta grok.”
“So why not communicate that to them, directly?”
“I am. By showin’ up in ‘yer skies, with aid, resources, protection, an’ a plan. Which ain’t things y’all have and ain’t gonna have in the next…oh. Five or six hours.”
“…You have all that lined up already?”
Daar put down his short-sword of a knife and small dining pitchfork, then looked Hoeff directly in the eyes.
“Hoeff. Earth fell. The very first thing the black water captains had ‘ta consider was provisionin’ their ships. They are gonna fuckin’ starve before humanity figgers this shit out, an’ all I had ‘ta do was show them video o’ the fuckin’ nuked-out remnants of Earth’s orbits. Fuckin’ Kessler Syndrome, I think y’all call it. Shipyards? Nuked. Shuttles? Nuked. Your fuckin’ Farthrow? Nuked so hard th’ ground won’t be walkable for a thousand years. Not that it’ll matter. Surrender ain’t so hard ‘ta secure when you’re an ally with food and shelter.”
“So, you own all our ships.”
“And the SOR. Shit, I own the whole of AEC by treaty, what’s left of it. That’s the other bit on what made takin’ the navy into my own so doable. Why duke it out an’ starve or die, when an ally already legally commands you anyway?”
“…Slick, I’ll admit.”
“Eh. I got good negotiators an’ a big economy. So you tell me what’s gonna happen next, in light o’ that.” Daar gulped down the last slab of meat, licked his platter clean with a tongue the size of a wall poster, then sat back. “The choice ‘yer friends have in front of ‘em is whether what comes next is a hopeful union of peoples coming together after a tragedy and strikin’ out toward a common future, or…”
“Or an alien warlord confiscating the independence we were too dumbfuck to use wisely.”
“I don’t wanna be a warlord, Daniel. Please don’t force m’paw.”
Hoeff sighed. “I like the hopeful union of peoples bit. That sounds…good.”
“An’ I’m gonna need smart, competent people ‘ta help tie this crazy thing together.”
Hoeff stood. “Give me a minute. I have a call to make.”
Hoeff wandered outside. It was raining of course, this being night-time on Cimbrean, but tonight it was just one of those super-light rains that was more like a dense fog. He ducked under the cottage eaves and took a moment to center himself, closing his eyes, breathing through his nose, listening to the faint white noise and drip-drip-drip of Cimbrean weather.
Then he got his phone out and placed a call. The number wasn’t stored on his phone, but in his memory.
It rang three times. “…Daniel. How are you?”
“And your host?”
“Hungry. He wants this to be a positive story. A coming-of-age for both our species, I guess. That sort of thing.”
“What we hoped for, then.”
“I told you, didn’t I?”
“That you did.” The voice on the other end of the call was silent for a beat. “I take it he’s listening in?”
“I’m outside right now, but he’s got literally superhuman senses. I have no doubt he can hear every word…” Hoeff glanced over his shoulder. Daar was cleaning the table, but he definitely flicked an ear. “…yup.”
His friend chuckled softly down the phone. It was a tired, old sounding that spoke of a lot of released stress. “Well then. I have a few friends here right now, and we want it to be a positive story too…we hope due consideration will be made for self-governance and the like, yes?”
“He isn’t lookin’ for slaves.”
“No. I wouldn’t think so.” There was a pause. Hoeff imagined his friend looking around the room to their gathered mutual friends, making eye contact, counting the nods. “…Please, go ahead and tell him we’re open to his vision.”
“I’ll do that, Sir Jeremy.”
Hoeff hung up.
“‘Ya hear that, big guy?”
Daar rumbled from inside, puttering around the kitchen for a bit. He came out carrying some exquisite lil desserts. “Sir Jeremy, huh? That helps.”
“You’d recognize a few other names, to, if we shared them.”
“Keep ‘em ‘fer now. Like you said, I don’ want slaves.”
“…Right. So…what now?”
“Now, we act quickly. A combined fleet is gonna jump here in th’ next few hours. If the governments o’ Cimbrean welcome ‘em, then I will be ready wit’ a treaty of protection. It will have terms that favor my interests, of course.”
“But they will not be unfair, I promise that. An’ they will not be a vehicle of conquest.”
That…well, okay. Lotta trust on the line. So he had to ask the question.
“I ain’t gonna provoke a fight. But I would hafta reconsider my own logistical nightmares.”
Honestly…the implied threat there was just as bad.
“Right. Well. I’m gonna make some more phone calls, then.” Hoeff took one of the desserts and popped it into his mouth. Honestly, it was just as good as any of the ones he’d shared with friends at any fine restaurant. Pretty incredible, considering they were cooked by a guy with paws the size of a truck tyre.
“How th’ fuck didth you mak’ thifs?”
“Not easily! But I enjoyed th’ practice. Now if you don’t mind, I’m gonna make calls o’ my own.”
Right. A nod, and Hoeff went his way, out into the rain to place his calls while speculating on what Daar’s were going to be like.
Then he decided he’d rather not know. Hoeff preferred being a smart meathead of action. The sooner he could leave the power games to the powerful, the better.
He finished his dessert, and worked his way through his friends.
There was much to discuss.
Starship Hamilton, on approach to Naya Mumbai, Roshanee Union Territory, Planet Lucent
Alex, Crown Prince of Ekallim-Igigi
Six years ago, Alex would have never imagined himself riding down onto a world as its young benevolent conqueror, with gifts of food, medicine, industry…and stability. But here he was, merely nineteen years old, his first betrothed on his arm—arranged by the studbook, of course, with their consent—ready to meet the soon-to-be Governors-General of his new world.
Their action was a race against Daar’s own machinations, and they’d made it just in time to make an offer first, and better than the giant bear could make at the moment. It was tentatively accepted. Alex would be King. And king for real. His father would remain king of Ekallim-Igigi, and now emperor of the burgeoning independent humanity in space.
Ironic, really. His kingdom was coming to him by way of generosity and guaranteed protection, much as kingdoms had always been established. What might be in the coming centuries was yet to be known. For now, he had a people to lift up, to protect, and to rule. And they were asking him to do it.
And it was obvious why. Nobody else was neutral, nobody else could be trusted. Nobody else had clean motives. But more importantly, nobody else had food.
Or the orbitals.
Nobody else felt kingly either, but that was an egotistical thought for later.
The three major settlements on Lucent had done something remarkably sensible in the aftermath of the world war: they’d talked to each other. And each, as their respective parent powers committed murder-suicide on Earth, had distanced themselves from the decisions of their leadership. The Chinese colony in particular had undergone a full-blown coup, up to and including rather callously shoving the deposed Party secretaries back through the jump array to whatever brief fate awaited them in Beijing.
By such moves had peace been maintained. That and the fact, of course, that none of them really had any military to speak of in the first place. But it left them in a tricky position because now what? All three were now suffering from the complete absence of their supporting governments and facing a famine of every conceivable supply, which left them with a choice: turn to Daar and AEC, or turn elsewhere.
No surprise, really, that they had preferred the only remaining human power that was not Western.
The tap-tap-tap of feet on the deck plate behind him brought him out of his thoughts: he half-turned and looked up as Gabiya leaned herself on the back of his pilot chair.
“…You look radiant,” he told his bride-to-be. And she did. They were still feeling each other out, becoming friends and confidants…but she never failed to inspire decidedly uncivilized thoughts in him. And, he in her.
So far, it was a good match.
“And you look pensive,” she replied, and slipped down into the copilot’s seat alongside him, brushing her silk skirts expertly out of the way before adjusting the bronze armband wrapped around her right bicep. “Of the two, pensive seems more appropriate…”
“I know what you mean,” Alex agreed. The war was barely sixty hours behind them. It felt like they should be wearing somber, funereal garb. Not vibrant silks in spring blues and golds in her case, and a rich wine red in his.
They looked like Heroes. Tall, tanned in his case, dusky in hers. Physically perfect, he could claim without ego, figuratively sent from heaven with food and drink and healing for the lost and needy, to unite them under a single banner and lead them forward toward a better future…
It sounded trite and ridiculous in Alex’s head. Three days ago, the people they were about to meet had been the pioneers of proud nations making their stamp on the stars. Now…
He set the thought aside as they swept low over the city and he had to focus on flying for a moment.
He had to admit, of the three settlement capitols, Naya Mumbai was the one he liked most. Guāngjing was undeniably the larger and more beautiful city, as it had been a point of pride for the CCP that their colony should be the jewel of interstellar humanity. The whole thing was architecturally harmonious, its street layout optimal, its housing districts taking the form of rings of spacious apartment buildings facing inward toward groomed parklands.
And up until the evacuation began, it had been largely empty. All the actual jobs and work had been back on Earth. Guāngjing had the buildings to support three times as many people as had actually lived there, and so the West had derisively called it a Potemkin village. Then the news of the Centauri blast had broken, and all those empty apartments had filled practically overnight while construction crews worked overtime to build more and more of them.
Gagarin, on the other hand, suffered from the opposite problem: a total absence of any funding, investment or official interest whatsoever. Only the truly idealistic and hardy—or desperate to never endure a Siberian winter ever again—had migrated to a colonial capitol that barely deserved the word “village,” and which Alex could have jogged the length of in five minutes. It was a depressed place whose sole economy was in shipping alien samples—pressed flowers, nailtree wood, glimmermote honey and megatermite jelly—-back to collectors and companies on Earth. Russia’s desperate attempts to evacuate people and start building a real colony had been much too little much too late, transforming it into a muddy, desperate shanty town rather than a refuge.
But here was Naya Mumbai. The real thing. Neither a shallow propaganda project, nor a neglected backwater, but an actual settlement. A real frontier where real people with real vision had come to live and work, with the backing of real investors and a vision for life. It was architecturally imprecise, messy, organic…authentic.
If Alex had anything to say about it, Naya Mumbai would be the unified planetary capitol.
He could see the welcome party waiting on the governor’s residence lawn as the Hamilton identified, marked, and settled down onto its landing site. Governor Shastry was front and center of course. To his left was the mayor of Gagarin, Andrei Stepanov, a weatherbeaten man who looked more like a mining foreman than a politician. And to Shastry’s right was…well, Alex wasn’t entirely sure what her rank and title were. Things had moved quickly in Guāngjing, and there certainly hadn’t been an election or a leadership conference or anything. But somehow, Lǐ Chenguang had wound up as representative for her people.
He wondered just how much say the residents of Shuòshěng colony had really had in the decision to welcome him and Singularity’s resources….
Gabiya touched his arm. “Hey. Distraction is not a kingly look.”
“I was just wondering how much the people here really had a say in all this. The people need a voice, if we’re going to make this work.”
“You will be king, my love. You can be the change you want to see.”
Well, true enough. The Mandate of Heaven had shifted, and King Alex (who wasn’t even king yet!) had been in the right place, with the right gifts, and the right kind of helpful might, at exactly the right time. He nodded, rose from his seat, took her hand, and nodded to his guard as they headed to the rear of the ship, to the top of its ramp, and from there…
Out and down, to his new kingdom.
He laid out the terms. They were reasonable, really. He had no intention of overly interfering in local affairs. He wasn’t going to be a tyrant, and he hoped he’d conveyed that well. After all, he was dealing with three major settlements and a smattering of smaller territories granted to various friends and allies. A human patchwork of incompatible languages, heritage and culture, with no glue to bind them together beyond shared loss and mutual desperation.
Getting their leaders to welcome him and agree to name him monarch, and acknowledge his father above him? That had been easy. Turning this mess into an actual civilization? That was going to be so much more difficult.
“None of us doubt your intent, Your Majesty.” Shastry was already thinking past the sale, apparently. “You would not have brought billions in much-needed aid if it was an insincere power grab.”
“It only made moral and rational sense,” Alex offered. He reclined a bit, enjoying the gentle, soaking heat of the place. “We have aid to offer, and our very reason to exist has always been to protect the human race against the deepest of threats. We of course do not see His Sublime Majesty as a threat, per say…”
“But it would be wise to retain a degree of human independence.”
“Exactly. Ironically, that requires unity, now, and I think we all agree it requires stability.”
“You are a kingly man who thinks as kings do. Remarkable, for one so young…”
Alex made a mental note to dissuade him from brown-nosing…Was it brown-nosing? Maybe a bit of exploration was in order.
He looked down to Stepanov. The Russian struck him as the kind of hardy man who’d come to the very edge of everything to do lots of hard work for not very much pay. He had a tempered look to him, with a lined face, thick arms, watchful eyes and a beard that was probably better groomed right now than it ever had been since he first grew it. He didn’t seem like the kind of man to brown-nose. So it was interesting, therefore, that he stiffened under the attention, as if he would have liked a little advance warning to straighten his shirt.
…It wasn’t brown-nosing, Alex realized. It was a deeper instinct and that made him a bit uncomfortable. Well, best not to show that.
“I thank you for the compliment, but for now, let’s focus on the here and now. You seem like the kind of man who’s good at solving problems.”
“Ones within my power, yes,” Stepanov replied, evenly. “Supply problems, we are used to. But before, I could get online with somebody in Moscow, shout at them, threaten to jump back and make life difficult until we got what we need. Now…”
“Ah.” Alex understood what ‘difficult’ meant in this case. “I assure you, that will not be necessary. Ask for what you need. If it can be had, I will make it so. If there are ‘difficulties’ I will not be kind to anyone involved. The stakes are too high, and I will make this clear.”
Stepanov nodded, and produced a tablet from his inside pocket, which he laid on the table. “Lots of fish in these oceans. Enough to feed everyone.”
“Native, or seeded?”
“Both. Lucent is a class-ten and the local life is thriving…and good to eat! Fish as big as your leg.”
Alex grinned and bounced on the balls of his feet. “You’re butterin’ me up!”
Stepanov chuckled darkly. “I was not exaggerating, your Majesty. They’re big fish. So, if we can catch them…if we have trawlers and ships…we can feed people.”
“Cool! I’d like to see that happen. I would also like to have a fishery management plan in place. Big fish tend to grow slowly, after all…”
“Is that…is now the time for that?”
“Yes. Now is precisely the time for that. We cannot eat our seedcorn, or our spawning fish. And fishermen care about fishing, not stock management. We need to know what level of harvesting the fisheries can take. If we don’t, then we at least must be proactive and cautious. I must feed humankind for all time, not just tomorrow.”
“It was short-sighted thinking that got us to this point,” Li agreed. “We will have enough problems in twenty years’ time: why add to them now?”
Alex nodded at her, then returned his attention to Stepanov. “But your point is well-made. The gaoians have a grand naval tradition, and there are two impressive shipyards on Cimbrean. We also have strategic alliances with the OmuAru and the Entity. With all that in mind, I think we can provide the start of it in quick order. But I will absolutely need data on the fish! Their nutrition profile, how fast they spawn, time to mature…”
“Of course, your majesty.”
“And we will need to organize staff to oversee this, and many other things. I have brought advisors who can assist, but it will be you and your own who do most of this work. I am here to reign, but rule only when necessary. I have no desire to take that which is rightfully yours.”
“As for crop farming, we have that in abundance,” Shastry said. “What we lack is manufacturing to keep the tractors and equipment in working order. And the harvest, it must be said, is still some months away…”
“And we have a large workforce with no work to do,” Li added. “Which will quickly become a small workforce if they starve.”
“Organizational problems, by the sound of it. I shall provide the authority to get things done, and the advisors to help design a working government. It is my desire this be a unity government with devolved local powers where it makes sense. I will not be kind to kingdom-building. There is one kingdom here, and it is mine. But the prosperity of my kingdom will belong to all of us. I hope I am well understood on this point.”
He was standing tall, he realized. Tall, and postured in just such a primal way that there wasn’t any doubt among any of them why he was king. He hadn’t done that consciously.
But it worked.
“Perfectly, your majesty,” Li agreed.
“Very well. Then, with your permission, I will order aid distribution…”
He acknowledged their current authority with that, and was intentional in doing so. They all deserved his respect. They nodded in return. But very soon, the order of things would change.
“…And tonight, I will accept your fealty and the acclaim of the people, and claim my titles for all to see.”
Deeper, slower nods this time. Serious, and thoughtful…but submissive. Again, that feeling of eagerness was there. Shit. This was really happening.
“At which point,” Gabiya said, “the real work will begin.”
Things after that were…cordial, and mostly ceremonial. Important ceremony, of course, but it was primarily a social engagement. He got to know a great many of the local importants, many of whom would gain titles under his kingdom. Yes, in some ways that represented a big step backward. But also a step forward; few titles he granted would inherit. Most would be on merit alone. And constitutional constraints on everyone would be baked in from the beginning.
He’d get his way, too. It was just…
He proclaimed his kingdom. There were cheers. And they were genuine, he could tell. There was no feeling of forced joy as he waded into the crowd to shake hands, offer hugs, hear stories, maybe goof off with the younger kids. He would not be a stiff, humorless king. He would be of his people, and the energy was infectious. It was a giant lovefest, all for him. Real love. The love born out of respect, and fear….and hope.
And he knew why. So did his now-queen.
“None of them were Heroes, my love. You are the first many of them have ever met.”
“…How? We spread the Line everywhere on Earth!”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean they were known beyond their village, or they weren’t emigrated to Ekallim-Igigi for their own safety. You and I are a genuine shock to them and they’re just…following instincts. You were king among them before you left Ekallim-Igigi.”
Alex frowned at that. He hadn’t really appreciated how much that actually mattered until he’d arrived. The palpable sense of relief and, uncomfortably…awe…that radiated off everyone he met was hard to forget. And it made sense, in a hindbrain sort of way. He stood just over two meters tall and everyone else was considerably shorter. His shoulders eclipsed the beam of a doorframe, and he had a head, hands, and feet big enough to make his proportions look pleasingly stocky, instead of freakishly wide. He was, in other words…Heroic.
It shouldn’t have mattered, in any right and just world. Ideas and souls should be more important than…what? His good looks?! Was that what really won him this?
…Or was he simply being childish? He was dressed to show it off, after all. Traditional dress from Ekallim-Igigi was nothing if not minimal, and Lucent had exactly the climate to embrace such a thing. Nor had he been bred the way he was on accident, and it was maybe a bit churlish to presume that didn’t matter. Wasn’t it? After all, between him, Julian, and Christian…well, there was deep purpose behind their natures. They were supposedly the human Pinnacles. Made for essentially this very thing. To lead and protect humankind.
But why should the simple luck of genetics have the final say? Hunter supposedly wasn’t as well-bred a Hero, yet he was easily in their company. Or Adam! He was a total unknown with no documented pedigree whatsoever, and yet he stood proud and unashamed next to Righteous, the unstoppable runaway success story of the Line. How could Alex or any of the rest of them claim any pedigree in the face of that?
And more importantly…Warhorse was a hero in the truest sense of the word. Didn’t that matter more? What had Alex ever done except look pretty and train?
Well…he was doing this, right now. Maybe the trick was not to deserve it from the beginning, but to come to deserve it. Yes, that was a thought he could work with. He was having much faith placed in him, from two directions: he would prove worthy of it all.
Gabiya gave him a curious look. “Heavy thoughts?”
“Oh. Well, yes.”
She nodded her understanding, and squeezed his hand. She didn’t need to say anything beyond that small contact; it soothed so many of Alex’s worries all by itself. It didn’t matter to him that theirs was an arranged marriage, they were an excellent match already. He could sense already that theirs was the partnership that would build a world.
He smiled at her, nodded, and returned this attention to here, and now, and the people around them. The responsibility around them. He was ready for it. He’d serve them well.
He knew he could.
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Somehow, Julian’s backyard had become the site of titanic upheavals and power-plotting at the highest levels. He didn’t really understand quite how that had come to be, but he wasn’t so stupid that he’d fought against it. Besides, it let him grill, and Julian had a bitchin’ grill.
Also, Daar was too big to fit in his house.
“How you want your steak done? We’ve got grass-finished local beef!”
“Jus’ barely flame-kissed, mebbe some o’ that wunnerful black pepper…”
Easy. He plucked his biggest t-bone from the platter and laid it on the grill. “You’re in luck. Xiù cleaned the local grocery out of peppercorns when things started to get weird. I hope we can get some growing offworld here soon…”
“Smart of ‘er.”
“She said it was the one thing she always wished she could get while she was out there wandering in disguise…” Julian twisted the pepper mill over the meat, giving it a healthy coating. “Salt? Everyone salts their food. But there’s no replacing pepper or chilis in a Dominion spice market.”
“Dude,” Lewis added with perfect clarity, despite his cheeks literally bulging with barely-dead meat. “We’ve fought literal wars over black pepper. Not little ones, either! It’s the king of spices for a reason.”
“Ain’t nobody got anythin’ quite like it,” Daar agreed. “An’ I hear in Paris there was a whole store dedicated jus’ to pepper! All sorts from all over th’ world!”
Most of Paris had survived the nuclear exchange. But luxury stores weren’t gonna make it.
Julian turned his mind away from that depressing thought. “…So. Lucent,” he said.
“Yeah.” Daar twitched his nose appreciatively over the grill. “Not part of the plan, that, but I don’t mind. Gilgamesh has his own ideas ‘fer how post-war humanity should look, an’ I’m not lookin’ ‘fer a war o’ conquest.”
“Y!’kiidaa’s a gao allaway through, an’ the only gao who ain’t mine. He’ll be loyal ‘ta his oldest friend.”
“Thus resumes the age of kings…” Lewis proclaimed, swirling the last of his beer bottle before draining it, tossing the empty into the recycling box and grabbing another from the cooler next to him.
“Go easy on those things, man. Who knows when we’re gonna get more,” Julian warned him.
“Dude, beer will be like the first thing we start makin’ again. It’s the fuckin’ bedrock of civilization.”
“Literally,” Daar agreed.
Lewis toasted him with the bottle. “Oh yeah. Beer is the entire fuckin’ reason we invented agriculture, d’you know that? Hunter-gatherers don’t got malted barley.”
“Same with the gao an’ talamay,” Daar duck-nodded.
Tristan frowned at them. “You mean to tell me civilization is basically just an excuse to get drunk?”
“Oversimplifyin’ it a bit dude, but…yeah.” Lewis pinged the top off his bottle and took a swig. “Ain’t just us, neither. You think a zrrk gets really properly putrid on its own? Hell no! Rotting those things down until they’re nice an’ pungent is what got the Vizzytick and Rickytick civilized.”
“There’s some kinda cycle, there…” Tristan mused.
“Beer leads to civilization, civilization leads to kings, kings lead to…stability I guess? And that leads to technology, technology leads to the end of the fucking world, the end of the world leads us back to kings and beer.”
“Speakin’ as one’a those kings…” Daar rumbled, indulgently.
“Aw, shit. Sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“Nah, nah. I know you din’t.” Daar chittered and plucked the steak off the grill with his claws, rather sooner than Julian would have. Barely flame-kissed? Damn thing had barely blushed at the flame from across the room. Then again, compared to ten’gewek literally drinking a werne’s blood straight from the source…
He really should be used to aliens preferring their meat ultra-rare by now. And he didn’t mind that, either! But medium rare was objectively perfect.
He’d punch anyone who said otherwise.
“‘Sides, ‘yer right,” Daar added. “It’s a step backward.”
“But if you think it’s a step backward, then why are you…?” Tristan asked.
Daar didn’t reply: he was too busy chomping down a slab of meat that could just about still moo. Instead he waved a paw at Lewis, inviting him to share his thoughts on that question.
Lewis swirled his beer for a second. “Well you said it yourself, dude. Kings come early. Why is that? ‘Cuz it’s a simple, direct system that doesn’t need much of a foundation. Shit, monarchy is what builds the foundation. When we talked about nuking ourselves back into the stone age, it didn’t mean shit like metallurgy and quantum mechanics was gonna be forgotten. It meant we’d have to regress to government structures that could function in a broken world. You follow me?”
Tristan nodded his understanding. “Modern democracy can’t run without the infrastructure, any more than a computer can run without power.”
“Pre-fuckin’-zactly.” Lewis swigged the beer. “So, what do you do when the power goes out? You sure as shit ain’t playing videogames or watchin’ TV for fun no more. So you go back to books an’ boardgames an’ stories an’ singing.”
Daar swallowed his hunk-o’-cow, duck-nodding and licking the juices off his chops. “An’ whaddya do when civilization collapses? You go back ‘ta kings. ‘Fer as long as you need ‘em.”
“What did you expect?” Julian asked, flipping his own steak over. He was gonna have his medium rare, thank you very much. Like a civilized human being. “Things were never gonna be the same after this.”
“Yeah, but I thought…” Tristan scowled in thought. “Like, Folctha wasn’t attacked. I can understand regressing to monarchy in a place that’s been nuked to hell, but why here?”
“Folctha might be peaceful, but it’s not really independent,” Julian reminded him. “Do you know how much stuff we imported from Earth? Little stuff you’d never know about, but which you’ll absolutely start to know about in a couple months when something breaks that needs a spare part we can’t get any more ‘cuz the factory’s gone.”
“Dude, forget the factory,” Lewis said. “The factory might be intact, the warehouse might be full, but how’re we gonna order that part? What fuckin’ website are you gonna order it through? Or what call center? Shit, what dead-tree paper catalog? There could be enough spare parts sitting around to keep Folctha farming for a thousand years, but it’s not like Kevin fuckin’ Costner’s gonna show up with a mail bag.”
Julian snort-chuckled at the confused look on Tristan’s face. “Stick to references from this century, man. It’s not fair on the young folk.”
“Fuck off, that movie is one of the all-time American classics.”
“One of the worst films ever made you mean.”
“That’s what I said.”
Daar had turned a circle on the grass before slumping down heavily to rest. “‘Yer beginnin’ ‘ta see the problem though, kid. Gotta put out the fire, first. Stabilize things, yijao? It’s the exact same situation as the gao were left in after the war on our homeworld. When Yulna created me Great Father, she knew full well what she was doin’, an’…yeah, we’ve regressed. But at least havin’ regressed we can put the foundations back in place to move forward again, yijao?”
“I hope to shit whatever we build next ain’t so stupid as what just went up in smoke…” Lewis muttered.
“Won’t be if I get a say,” Daar said. “Which, I fuckin’ do.”
“Hmm. Speaking of you getting a say…” Julian fished in his pocket and handed over the letter he’d received just that morning.
“An invitation. From His Imperial Majesty Gilgamesh the Immortal, Emperor of Ekallim-Igigi, Bull of Uruk, Master of Beasts….et cetera.”
“Emperor, is it?” Daar sniffed. He unfolded the paper and flicked his eyes across it. “…Eh. fair, I s’pose. Beat me to Lucent! So he’s callin’ every child o’ the Line home, huh?”
“Seems that way.”
“Y’gonna heed th’ call?”
Julian shook his head. “We’ve got a good life and home here. I don’t wanna uproot Al, Xiù and the kids. Besides, if we’re gonna live under an emperor either way, I’ll stick with the emperor I know and love.”
“Love ‘ya too, buddy.” Daar rumbled. “But.”
“…You think I should go for it?”
“How much thought have ‘ya really put into what ‘yer gonna be doin’ next? ‘Yer an ambassador ‘fer a country that don’t really exist no more. Washington’s gone, th’ President an’ her Cabinet are over in Frankin draftin’ up their official acceptance o’ my sovereignty even as we speak…where’s that put you?”
“I’m still Jooyun Sky-Brother, the only human alive with a ten’gewek ritual name. I kinda figured you’d still want me in that role.”
“‘Yer also the only trained an’ experienced ambassador who’s of Singularity’s vaunted Line,” Daar pointed out. “Gilgamesh is settin’ himself up as my equal. If we don’t handle that prop’ly, it’ll mean humanity’s split down the middle, in’ta the half with a human sovereign, an’ the half with an alien sovereign…”
“And the part with a digital sovereign,” Lewis added.
“Right. Can’t ‘ferget the Entity don’t answer ‘ta neither of us. But where’s that leave the human race? With a big ol’ split down th’ middle. An it’s a natural split ‘fer blame-throwin’ too, considerin’ one side is the AEC nations, an’ the other side…”
“Are the guys who shot first,” Tristan said. “Uh, at least that’s what a lotta folks are gonna start saying,” he added when they looked at him.
“Maybe even rightly,” Lewis said. “But it was the American weapons that killed the world.”
“Killed civilization, anyway. You see my point,” Daar growled. “There’s a nat’ral rancor there. What happens if we let it brew? We got one opportunity to bring all o’ humanity together an’ say ‘fer fuck sake, ‘yer all the same species.’ I don’ intend ‘fer it ‘ta slip between my claws.”
“…Well, I mean…I do appreciate the praise. But…Daar. If I’m gonna be honest with myself, me being an ambassador was only ever to cover a unique situation. I’m not stupid or anything, but…well. Deep down I’m just…”
“Good at your job?” Daar shook his head. “Here’s the thing, big guy. You represent some of the best the Human race has to offer. You’re smart, you’re strong, you’re tough, you’re sociable, you’re good working alone or in teams, good following or leading. You’re a Hero who can do it all. Because that’s what you were bred to be.”
There it was.
“…Like I was bred to be,” he repeated, not liking the sound of it. “The Soldier, I think they call me?”
“Yes. The ideal soldier, by his reckonin’. Physically an’ psychologically. If there’s anything to this whole Heroes of the Line thing, then you, my shaggy-headed friend, are what it embodies. If I were ‘ta think up an ideal human being, you’d be one of ‘em. You an’ some o’ ‘yer bestest, in their own ways.”
Julian didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing. Instead he checked the timer he’d set on the smoked baked beans and, finding them ready, removed them from the grill.
Daar wasn’t done, of course. “An’ here’s the thing, Julian. You might be all set up, but right now you can’t just sit passive, doin’ what you were already doin’. ‘Yer talents are needed elsewhere.”
“Mebbe. I think you’d do well there. But so would others who are more readily replaceable. There’s dozens of ambassador Knights. There’s only one you. So mebbe ‘yer needed, fer example, even more in or with th’ HEAT. ‘Yer already top Beef-grade an’ you know it.”
“I mean…cool? I guess? But I’m not military, I’ve not done any of their combatives training or anything, though…”
“You have full Mass fam and training. You spar with Christian every week, and you have the discipline to keep up. Trust me, you would thrive there, if you wanted it bad enough. They’d teach you. An’ I’ve got a move comin’ up that I think means you can sorta be both.”
“Yeah. Close-hold ‘fer now, but lemme jus’ say we might have th’ perfect job ‘fer ‘ya. It’ll be askin’ a lot, though. Askin’ what I know you can give. I think it’ll be a good match, an’ you’ll be relievin’ posts ‘fer others.”
Well, okay. That sounded promising. “How so?”
“Our pool of people ready for high office has just become distressingly small. An’ th’ number o’ people who are either qualified or who could reasonably expect to qualify for things like HEAT operations is almost nothin’ right now. We are in desperate need of both, and both you and young prince Alex happen to satisfy either need. So…what is your track? Because, bein’ frank, young Alex is a king, now. I wasn’t expectin’ Gilgamesh to move as fast as he did, so fair game to him. But now, Adam’s got a hole in his team, an’ if I recall you’re still kickin’ both their asses…”
“Only ‘cuz Alex is still young and Adam’s kinda…well, recovering from a setback.”
“‘Fer now, mebbe. But by the sniff of it, you an’ ‘yer most bestest friends’re the best there are. Don’t unnerestimate ‘yerself. You’re keepin’ up with fuckin’ Vemik after all, so if you want it, I bet you’ll keep up or even keep ‘em in their place. With y’all it’s really ‘bout willpower an’ commitment more’n innate ability; ‘yer all freaks o’ humankind. But it’s more’n brawn here. That’s the insurmountable bit ‘fer supersoldiery shit, yeah, but it’s not th’ most importantest.”
Tristan interrupted. “What about me and Ramsey? I mean…we’re useful! Just…maybe not Hero useful.”
“Oh, you damn sure are heroes, if you wanna be. But don’t. Th’ world needs fathers an’ husbands an’ craftsman and all the rest a fuck of a lot more. Balls, y’know what we really need? Millwrights! That’s the people who put grain elevators an’ silos together an’ shit! It’s essactly where a couple normal human-sized…ish…meatheads could be useful!”
Good way to hide a compliment in a truthful assessment, that. Still.
“Okay, firstly, yeah. I told you two goons,” Julian said, directing his attention to the boys, “go work for Austin! Maybe Daar’s got a point. You can do a lot of needed good and you can live a young man’s life at the same time. That’s a rare gift right now. Think about it!”
They both nodded seriously. “Yessir,” Tristan acknowledged.
As for him…
“And I appreciate the advice for me in turn. I just…military service is never something I’ve been…I dunno. All of ‘em tell it like it’s a calling for them, yijao? Every single person there knew from a pretty young age what they were going to do. Adam’s the odd man out in that he only figured that out when he was like, almost seventeen? Something?”
“So is that really the fit?”
“Well…mebbe not! ‘Ya gotta want it ‘ta succeed. All I’m sayin’ is you sit in th’ middle o’ a really weird, uh…Venn diagram?”
“Overlapping circles? Yeah.”
“Right. I got people who can do high-level statecraft. I got people who can make unbeatable supersoldiers in whatever lil’ corner o’ this war needs fillin’. I ain’t got enough o’ either, an’ I got essactly one guy whose top-tier in both. So…don’t’cha think we oughta put ‘ya where you’d best be used?”
Again with the praise, which…it was ten times worse coming from Daar because he never lied. So instead of dwell on it, Julian plowed forward. “Where I can do the most good,” he translated.
“Yeah. However you define it. I want ‘ya there. An’ I want ‘ya ‘ta want it, too.”
“If I go to Ekallim-Igigi, I can help build a bridge. Maybe help heal that rift you talked about. That sounds like it would save a lot of lives.”
“You can, yeah. An’ it would. But I have others who’d be good in that role. You could just, I dunno, join the HEAT…”
“Well, I don’t know. How many lives is the HEAT going to save?”
“Mebbe none. Mebbe all o’ them. They’ve certainly done both in their short time.”
Julian scratched at the back of his head, realizing what Daar was doing. He was being guided somewhere, he could tell. But what?
No help from Lewis or the boys. They were more or less popcorn-eating right now, watching the godzilla king kong bearthing torment him.
“I think…I think you could send anyone to Singularity, but what I’ve seen of Gilgamesh, and what I know of him…he’s been out of touch for millennia. We saw it with their reaction to the world, and the world’s reaction to them.”
“True. An’ you think ‘yer th’ man ‘ta bridge that gap?”
“I think if we send somebody who’s not of the Line to him, he’s subconsciously going to not respect that so much.”
“Mebbe! ‘Course, he might also see that as panderin’…”
Well…shit, that was true enough.
“See? It ain’t easy bein’ me!” Daar chittered a bit self-indulgently.
“Well…look, Daar, the honest truth is, you put those options in front of me, and one of them just sounds better.”
“What about the ten’gewek?”
…Ah. That was his spear. And it was a goddamn good one, too.
So, first counter-attack. “Okay…without meaning anything but love and respect for them…”
“Yes, yes. Say it.”
“Do they…matter to you as much as Ekallim-Igigi?”
“Yes,” Daar answered without hesitation. “If anything, they matter a great deal more. Can ‘ya figger out why?”
Oh, so now he was going Socratic.
“I…well, I know they’re basically the core of JETS these days…”
“And those teams are deployed basically constantly…”
“Yes. Also they’re fantastic ‘fer the local construction industry more an’ more but that’s a side argument. So…go on.”
“But I’m not the only one they respect now.”
“True enough! They like professor Hurt pretty well. But he’s approaching seventy, Julian. He’s not on the Crude, ‘least not habitually, an’ I’m not gonna question ‘em on a matter of conscience like that. He’s got a shelf life. Who is his replacement?”
“Doctor Schuster, maybe? I hate to say it, but a large part of his work just went up in flames…”
“Not really. Mosta the archives were safely unnerground on Earth or in bubble cities. Virtually all of it’ll be recoverable.”
“In fact that makes his work way more urgent,” Lewis chimed in. “So he’s out.”
“So…what? You need ten’gewek for JETS? Is…is that it?”
“I need ‘em for JETS, yeah. But I also need their world an’ their goodwill ‘ta save human civilization. I need to uplift ‘em. An’ I need ‘ta lead ‘em. But I do not have the time.”
“So…doesn’t that put us right back where we started, then? This whole conversation began with being ambassador!”
“Correct! It did. An’ then I drew a couple’o circles ‘round ‘ya. So…’yer a Soldier. Made ‘ta be, an’ I think happiest bein’ someone o’ duty and purpose. An’ you, my shaggy meathead friend, are a very particular kind o’ talent. So, again…?”
Julian sighed. “I’m happiest providing for my family. If I can do that by being useful beyond them, so much the better.”
“Damn right. ‘Fer you humans it is the highest callin’. I think I ‘member Gyotin sayin’ that in the Christian world they call it vocations. Like, vocation to marriage, vocation to…other stuff, I’ll admit I was too busy shoulder-pressin’ at th’ time to catch it all…”
Julian grinned, but he was tired of being jerked around by a burly behemoth superbrain.
“Look, Daar…I’ve been in combat a few times. The first time, I lost half of everything below my knee. The second time, I only survived ‘cuz the cavalry arrived. I know good and well that I will fight when I have to, but if I have a choice…I’ll take the diplomacy job, every time.”
“Essactly. All those things happened ‘cuz o’ circumstance an’ a terrible lack o’ trainin’. So, now that I’ve annoyed ‘ya long enough, lemme jus’ say it. I want ‘ya as a reserve officer on HEAT. I want that ‘cuz need ‘ya to be both ambassador to th’ ten’gewek, an’ I need someone they an’ th’ various allied militaries will respect. That’s always informally been you, but now I need ‘ya only doin’ that. That means I need ‘ya to train up, to learn th’ military, to learn all their customs an’ needs. Mostly that’ll be SOR, but it’ll be gaoian service too, an’ whatever Gilgamesh wants ‘ta teach ‘ya. Because I need ‘ya, really, ultimately ‘ta be th’ bridge ‘tween human, ten’gewek, gao, and Ekallim-Igigi. ‘Yer literally th’ only one who’s got a pawprint in all of it. You an’ ‘yer family are unique that way. Respect’d an’ loved by all sides at once, an’ everyone knows ‘yer honest dealers. No better fit. An’ there’s one more detail.”
…Well, that was a lot, all at once.
“I’m movin’ SOR to Akyawentuo. They don’ know it yet, but it’s necessary.”
“Diplomacy. I am voluntarily surrenderin’ some symbolic control I’ve got over humanity’s spaceborne infantry by puttin’ it on neutral-ish ground. Trust me, it’ll help damp a lotta drama. Yan will swear pacts of friendship wit’ me an’ Gilgamesh, an’ become a protectorate nation o’ both. We had a call ‘bout that jus’ ‘fore I showed up in ‘yer backyard.”
Welp. No arguing with that. Julian sighed, “…Right. I get it.”
“Right. But now, here’s the real question. Do you want it? Because you really, really need to want this. It’s an arrogant an’ ambitious thing I’m askin’ of ‘ya. An’ I ask ‘cuz I know you can. Consider what th’ good emperor Gilgamesh calls you. The Soldier. Not the Warrior like he does Christian, or the King like he does his own son. The Soldier. Now…don’t let me be th’ guy who tells ‘ya that genetics is destiny. I don’t really believe that. But I’d be the biggest hypocrite ever if I thought genetics din’t have a fuck of a lot ‘ta say ‘bout you. I mean, I’m livin’ proof o’ that, an’ so is my entire species. An’ so is the Line. I can think of literally nobody better equipped ‘ta do this than you. Mighta been Alex, an’ I think that was what they’d planned ‘fer him…but shit happens, yijao? He’s gotta be king now.”
“Okay, but where’s that talk of me joining the HEAT come in. Is that really what I have to do to fill the position?”
“You can’t lead men like ‘em, or advocate for ‘em properly, if ‘ya don’t really grok what they are. Right now, I want you to earn your street cred. They gotta believe truly that ‘ya can walk the walk. An’ so do all the other military powers ‘yer gonna be in th’ middle of, in likely hostile negotiations over resources, personnel, mission, and so on. You are gonna be the gatekeeper ‘tween th’ ten’gewek an’ the rest of ‘em. They need it desperately, and it matters that’d be you ‘cuz they won’t trust anyone else ‘ta have their interests at heart. An’ lastly, I can’t make ‘ya leader of anyone if they don’t believe ‘ya can’t hack it.”
“…You’re going to make me a general.” Fuck.
“Mebbe, eventually. That’s entirely on you, an’ in any case it’s a long way off, if ever. ‘Fer now, I wanna make you an officer, so I can make you a proper ambassador. What you are right now ain’t gon’ be enough ‘fer the job, an’ this right here is why ambassadors historically had military experience, more often’n not. We’ll see what ‘ya grow into after that.”
Well, shit. That was a universe of possibility he hadn’t considered. Still. “I’ll…I need to think.”
“Mhmm. It’s a big ask. So, ‘cuz you know I want ‘ya, I’ll just say…be grateful you get the choice. I sure as fuck din’t.”
Ouch. Julian kept the internal grimace that last jab prompted from becoming an external one, and rose to his feet. “I’ma go grab a beer from the fridge,” he said, carefully.
“An’ talk ‘ta yer girls. G’arn.” Daar duck-nodded, not unkindly. “I’mma jus’ squish these three squishable frens o’ mine…”
And…like a lightning-bolt, he had them pinned. Gently, but inescapably pinned.
Friendship with Daar was not for the unfit.
Chuckling, Julian collected plates and such while the three laughed in futility, because Daar wanted snuggle and he was damn well going to get snuggle. He washed his feet in the little foot-sink by the door, and thumped his way into the kitchen.
By the…well, natural tendency of parties to self-segregate, Al and Xiù had elected to sit around the bar in the kitchen to hang out with Naydra and Leela. There was quite a large bottle of talamay in the middle, nearly empty. Apparently they’d been setting the world to rights.
…Well, that’d be hitting them like a sack of concrete before long. Oh well.
Al toasted him as he entered. “Hey, you…something wrong?”
“Oh, just…Daar landing a huge life decision in my lap. Again.”
“Oh dear,” Naydra sighed and stood up. “That.”
“Yeah, you’re going to want to talk about that,” Leela agreed. “Besides, you’re leaving the grill abandoned. Can’t have that.”
Julian chuckled. “No, I guess not…thanks.”
The two gaoians let themselves out, while Al poured out the last of the talamay into a glass for him. “So what does he want you to do?”
“And where?” Xiù added.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“Oh come on, bǎobèi, Daar doesn’t have the luxury of just taking a break and eating steak with friends right now,” Xiù pointed out. “We knew he was here for a reason, and that reason was always gonna be you.”
“I…right.” Julian sighed. He didn’t quite know how to process that. “He wants me to be a military ambassador and sorta-advocate for the ten’gewek.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?”
“Mostly. First, he wants me to drop the rest of what I’m doing, I’m pretty sure. But also, he wants me to get some military cred, too. And that’s gonna mean…well.”
Al and Xiù looked at each other, then back at Julian. “Yeah,” Al nodded. “I suppose it would.”
“He’s talking about making me an officer. Reserve officer, but still. Which makes sense…”
“Yeah. And you’ll probably be deployed now and then, too.”
“Are…are you okay with this?”
“Babe…you’ve been best friends with them forever. Realistically this isn’t a big step. It’s just now you’ll be stepping there with them for real, instead of just in spirit. Which, I’d rather you didn’t! But no moment of your life has been any kind of safe since we met.”
“Besides, you’ve always done what needs doing,” Xiù agreed. “And yeah, I’m not gonna pretend I like the thought of you going into battle either. I mean… mā de, if I had it my way we’d all be enjoying a nice cozy retirement right now, but you’d have gone out of your mind with boredom inside a month, yijao?”
“I don’t know exactly what he’s planning,” Julian admitted. “I don’t even know if he does. I think he’s…”
“He’s placing tiles.”
“And you are a powerful, unique tile.” Al drank the talamay. “That’s how the game’s gotta be played, at his level. So…go kick ass and take names, my prettyslab. I’ll always support you.”
“Yeah,” Xiù nodnodded.
“…Just like that?”
“I mean…as soon as the war broke out, we kinda figured it was gonna mean a career shift for you,” Al said.
“Honestly, I’m surprised it took him this long,” Xiù shrugged. “I’m just waiting for ours…but we know what it’ll be.”
They both gave him a Look.
A very, very well-earned Look.
“…Right.” That was honestly a depressing thought, really.
“And in any case, you can’t pretend with us. You’ve wanted to play soldier on some level for a long time. It’s…hard to miss. So…go do the thing, babe. Some part of you wants it, and you’ll be fuckin’ good at it. The Great Father himself wouldn’t be here if it didn’t matter.”
Julian sighed and sat. Looked down at his hands and forearms. Considered them for a bit.
He didn’t have the hands of a poet or a politician. He didn’t have the forearms of some well-spoken gentleman. He had paws to do with. He could be gentle, he preferred a tender touch…but his forearms weren’t built for delicate play. They were thick like a man’s waist and writhed with power. So did the rest of his arms. The rest of his body. The rest of him.
It wasn’t just crude blessings like, well, his almost too-good looks, his huge useful muscles or the permanently model-ready shapes of his physique. It took him a long while to really accept those about himself, but along the way he’d discovered he had all sorts of power at his command. Gigantic reserves of it, if he was honest. And he was being called to use it all.
And…dammit. He wanted to.
He wanted to see what he could really do. And that just left…one more thing.
“Thanks,” he said, and went to hug them both. “I know it’s asking a lot. I don’t even…”
“Yes, you do. You knew the moment he asked. Don’t lie to yourself.”
Tight hug. Feet-off-ground, slightly breathtaking, warm and tight. The best kind.
Nuzzles and hugs were the best.
The moment passed. He put them down, gave them each a quick kiss…went back outside.
Daar released his chewtoys as soon as Julian returned, with beers in hand (and a full-size growler for Daar) and apparently, a scent that told all. Daar sniffed the air…
“…Thanks ‘fer agreein’.”
“I’ll never get over how good your nose is. But, one more question.”
“Why me? And I mean, really why me?”
“Oh, that’s easy. ‘Yer a smart man but you humans have a blind spot in ‘yer own souls that’s kinda baffling. Why HEAT? Well, ‘yer not jus’ a soldier. ‘Yer also a warrior.”
“Absolutely. An’ that’s why they’re the place ‘fer you. Err’one on HEAT is a warrior at the very highest level o’ their craft. They seek out th’ violence ‘cuz they’re driven to it, an’ nowhere else gives ‘em a safe direction ‘ta be what they truly are. They’re driven ‘ta adventure, to protect what they love, to prove their excellence, an’ so on. So are you, in ‘yer own way.”
“You see that in me? I mean…I guess some of that, sure…”
“More’n you think. You jus’ think of ‘yerself as a nice guy, an ‘you are! But th’ two ain’t mutually essclusive. What d’ya think was in ‘ya that went to th’ Lodge and endured their rites? That defended Yan’s village against rival tribes? That keeps ‘ya buildin’ ‘yerself up an’ alongside Vemik? It’s th’ thing that makes ‘ya do all th’ work ‘ta be the best, an’ all the extra work ‘ta be what ‘ya are: physically dominant in every damn way there is over every member o’ yer kind but ‘fer Righteous himself. That’s real hero shit. Ain’t no wimpy soul that does all that!”
Julian…like so often when people were praising his…whatever…didn’t know what to do. So, feeling defeated, he just scratched the back of his head and sighed.
Daar chittered in turn, and pressed on. “Th’ other bit though? ‘Yer really a soldier, ‘cuz a soldier is driven by duty, an’ duty is the essence o’ every fuckin’ thing ‘ya’ve done since ‘yer rescue. Now, it’s all kinda trite as an analogy, ‘cuz ain’t nobody is all of one or all of th’ other. So don’t read too much into this…but that’s essactly m’ point! You got a pretty spectacularly violent an’ dominant streak in ‘ya. SOR are all good an’ dutiful men unner all the snarl. An’ all of ‘ya would be limited in any other company. So…I’m sendin’ ‘ya where ‘ya can be o’ unique use, where arguably only you could manage, among people who are already ‘yer bestest frens an’ who you relate to at th’ deepest levels. Only thin’ y’all don’t share is duty.”
Julian felt himself nodding, felt himself growing into the idea. “Now we can.”
“Ayup. Now be warned, they’re gonna train th’ absolute shit outta ‘ya, an’ Righteous an’ ‘Horse won’t be so nice…nor will Costello. I hope you like reading!” Daar chittered, then got serious. “An’ neither will I. You agree to this, then for a good long while we ain’t gonna be friends, least ‘till you make it through or give up. You gon’ be okay with that?”
Julian met those baleful amber eyes of his with a challenge of his own. “I’ll make it through. I’ve been through one Nightmare, right?”
“Yeah. But you’ve never seen me mean, Julian. Not personally. You do this an’ I will spare you no hardship if I think it’ll forge a better weapon outta you. Nor will colonel Costello, nor Righteous, nor Warhorse. You think th’ Lodge was hard? I’mma put you through worse near every damn day for th’ next five years. Wit’ books an’ studying. An’ ‘yer still gonna do ‘yer job. You’re gonna train, an’ study, an’ you’ll be tested harder’n any of ‘em in SOR ever were, ‘cuz you need th’ credibility. So…if ‘yer up to it? If ‘yer ready ‘ta step up with the best there ever was, an’ prove ‘yer worthy ‘ta fight wit’ them?”
Daar stood, stretched (…and maybe gave him a warning show of what kind of pain was to come) and went over to his women. “Be at Sharman’s front gate, five AM next Friday. Show up in just ‘yer runnin’ shorts, leave everythin’ else behind. Even ‘yer phone. You’ll be there an’ incommunicado ‘fer four months, no exceptions. An’ that will be th’ mos’ basic o’ beginnin’s.”
With that, Daar nodded at Lewis and the boys, then left.
Stunned silence, followed by beer drinking. Still silent.
“So…” Lewis finally broke the tension. “You gonna do it, big man?”
The boys looked at him. Up to him.
Julian didn’t have an answer, then. But the expressions on their faces…
He was at the gate on Friday, met by the men who would teach him everything.
He had no regrets.
“We have a lead on some very necessary cleanup that you might be interested in doing.”
“Yes. Cleanup of the kind best suited to your talents.”
His short-statured behemoth of a friend considered quietly, staring him down in the intense, evaluating way he’d grown so used to enduring. His was a face that was a study in extremes: masculine, handsome, stern and severe. Yet relaxed, it was almost…unremarkable. Extreme and somehow plain. With any emote whatsoever he was transformed into another man entirely.
Dinner was frugal today. Simple but well-crafted, of local ingredients. Quite delicious, actually.
He did splurge a bit on the wine. May as well enjoy it now, before the drought came.
His friend took a bite, savoring the meal.
“Discretion will be a thing to pull off. Most of my resources and contacts, well, aren’t anymore.”
“In this case, we think an overt act would serve everyone well.”
“Must be a big clean-up job…”
He slid the folder over. Friend raised an eyebrow.
“Well then.” He finished the last morsel on his plate, and downed the last sip of wine. “I’ll get going on it.”
“Good. This is…it is important we do this. Settle a human affair, with humans. Our new benefactors should not be involved.”
“Agreed. Will they be a problem?”
“Right.” The man stood up, floor complaining under his weight, and they shook hands. Grip like fighting a vice, but as usual he knew his strength. “Shouldn’t take long.”
They parted ways.
The contact consulted his phone, and sighed. Lots of business to attend to, these days. But some business could not be left alone. Not if humankind would ever respect itself again.
He almost pitied Daniel’s next target.
Columbus, Ohio, USA, Earth
They finally let Josh start wearing his regular gear again two weeks after the bombs, by which point the heavy armor had rubbed and pinched him pretty fuckin’ bad in a few places, and a couple weeks of showering frugally at best had him smelling like gymbro satan’s sweaty groin.
But, water was coming on for full residential use today, now that the fallout all clear was sounded. And when that moment finally came…
Oh. Oh God. Glorious fuckin’ shower. He must have spent a fuckin’ hour under it, and the first splashes of water had come off black.
For once, nobody jealous-teased him about anything, either. They were all so fuckin’ gross it was unbelievable. The station (or the engine itself) might never shake the funk, it was so bad.
He got to go home too, at last. Now that the all-clear was sounded and people were allowed to come out of their shelters. He found Maria and Jess wearing his t-shirts while they put the clothes they’d been wearing on doomsday through the laundry at long last. They both looked…in the nicest way, they looked fuckin’ rough. Two weeks marinating in the same clothes, with not enough food and carefully rationed water, not to mention surviving where so many other people had…Josh probably wasn’t exactly looking like a Michelangelo himself.
But they were glad to see him, and he was glad to see them. More than glad. Just knowing they were alive and okay was enough to bust a lot of the remaining tension.
The stasis fridge had stayed on the whole time he’d been away, and upstairs out of reach for the girls so they raided it for a big lunch. Onions, carrots, potatoes, chicken thighs…
Well, Josh had been eating pretty damn good the last couple weeks. They hadn’t. So he tortured himself a bit and made sure they were fine, first.
“Don’t eat too much!” he warned. “Uh…refeed syndrome. It’s a thing.”
Jess snorted. “We weren’t starving down there,” she said, and swigged from a coke can with a relieved gasp.
“Besides,” Maria added. “Nursing student, remember? You let me worry about our health.”
Oh. Right. “…Yeah. Sorry.”
“And while we’re at it, your health. What are all those band-aids for?”
“Pressure sores. From my suit.”
“…Fuck! How long were you wearing that thing for?”
“My whole shift, every day since it happened,” Josh replied.
“Okay, wow. You need to get some cream or something on—what was that?!”
They all stiffened at once at the crack-boom that made the windows and screen door rattle, listening warily. Josh’s heart was suddenly thumping hard in his chest again. Fuck, and they’d finally shut the shields down for maintenance too and…
…No, wait, the missiles moved way faster than sound. If that had been another missile, they’d never have heard a thing. He relaxed a bit, moistened his suddenly dry mouth, and stood up to go check out the front door.
There was a spaceship swooping in and slowing down to hover over downtown. Not a big one, it was kinda airliner-sized, but it was hanging up there in that way planes didn’t, without wings. It looked kinda like somebody had lacquered a banana. Weird.
He watched it descend out of sight toward the west, and became aware the girls were peering out the door behind him watching.
“Wonder who the hell that was?” Maria asked.
“Beats me. That didn’t look like a human ship. Or a Gaoian one,” Jess said.
“You sure?” Josh asked. “How d’you know?”
“What?! You know how fucking boring it was down there? And, well, Netflix was still working…”
“We’ve got Internet?”
“Came back up on day three. Sorta.”
Shit! Josh had been so busy he hadn’t noticed. He completely forgot about the spaceship, ducked back inside and grabbed his phone. If there was internet then maybe he could get hold of Mom and Dad—
…But if the Internet was back up, they would have tried to get hold of him. Wouldn’t they?
A dreadful certainty settled on him. But he had to know for sure. With shaking fingers, he typed out the words Charleston WV.
The search engine knew there was only one reason anyone was gonna be searching for a given city right now. He got his answer right at the top of the first page. Charleston WV. Status: Destroyed.
His parents were dead.
He closed his eyes. Set the phone down. Leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees and was suddenly just tired. Tired and lost and broken. He’d…known, really. Kinda. Somehow. But having it confirmed was too much to hold back
A tear dripped off his nose and he scrubbed it away. There was a warm hand on his shoulder, Jess’. She sat down next to him, saw what he’d searched, and rested her head against his arm, whispering something sympathetic that he barely heard.
From the moment the alerts first went out, he’d been useful. He’d been planning, leading, serving, doing. Useful like nobody else could be! Now he had a bit of time off…and he realized he was actually helpless. He’d survived this far on luck and the work of other people, and he was who he was because of Singularity’s machinations.
What could he actually do besides…well. Put out fires?
The wretched thought was rolling around in his head when the phone buzzed, sidestepped half an inch across the table, and started to ring. It was the Chief.
Numbly, he reached out and picked it up. “Hello?”
“Josh. Got…a couple of interesting characters here asking after you. You’ll wanna come in and talk to them. And…bring the girls who were staying at your place.”
“Yeah, I know. Just…trust me.”
Josh sniffed back the last of his tears, frowned at the phone as Chief hung up, then pocketed it. “Alright…uh…how’re your clothes?”
“Uh.” Jess blinked in confusion. “Dry, I guess. Probably. Why?”
“We need to head downtown.”
“Dunno. But…well, I trust the Chief, so, we’re doing it.”
Jess and Maria exchanged a glance, a mutual shrug, and Maria vanished into the laundry room to grab their stuff from the dryer.
He looked over at a mirror while he was waiting. He looked…
Well, not a wreck. Food and sleep had done him wonders. Clean clothes and scrubbed hair helped too. But still, it took a moment for his brain to realize that was him in the mirror. He looked like he’d gained several years in the last couple of weeks.
Maybe he had.
The ride over was mostly uneventful, with the girls combing the last neglected tangles out their hair as he drove. He’d had to insist they get a move on, but he wasn’t gonna deny them basic hygiene. He may have been a meathead guy but after all this…he got it.
For the first time in weeks, Columbus looked some kind of normal. It had been a ghost town since the bombs fell, with everyone sheltering in place against whatever fallout did manage to sneak in under the shield…or in case the shields themselves failed and dumped the dirty carpet of dust they’d accumulated onto the city. Now people were out and wondering what to do next, where they were going to find food, all that stuff. Lots of pedestrians…not so many vehicles, still.
Power was being rationed right now.
Local radio was back up at least, and rather than commercial breaks they were putting out public information between the songs. Which was nice. But the border where the shield had fallen really told the story.
Mostly, the shield fell in open space. In some places, it fell through buildings, and it had cleanly bisected them, leaving some of them like strange doll houses, or as interesting industrial remnants.
Outside the shield, desolation and destruction. Anything organic had been vaporized. All was dust, ash and rock. Paint on roads, gone. Signs flashed down to the underlying metal, if they were there at all. Shadows of people against buildings. Ash. Everywhere.
But outside the shield was where they were going. The rescue HQ had been moved out toward London; by some miracle, it had not been directly struck by Russian warheads, a town in the eye of a thermonuclear storm.
It was such an incomprehensible contrast. Some places seemed almost functional. Some were like Hollywood disaster movies. He could run his dryer at home and enjoy hot water, but not even ten minutes driving and he entered a land where life had been deleted.
“Fuck…” Maria pulled her feet up onto the seat in front of her and hugged her knees. “It really happened.”
They were silent for the rest of the drive. Every so often they passed a vehicle going back the other way, and Maria shut off the radio after a few minutes. Josh nodded and said nothing: the music had been grating on his nerves, too.
They reached London’s outskirts, and were back among green leafy trees and vertical power poles and buildings that hadn’t been smashed flat. He had no idea how anyone had survived out here, but they had. Most of the work out this way had been helping people whose fallout shelters had failed, dosing them up on iodine, washing them off and transporting them back inside the Columbus shield perimeter…
He caught a glimpse of something between the trees, and had a sudden inkling why they were there. That black banana-shaped ship was hovering a couple hundred feet above the center of town, where the rescue HQ had been situated at the Parks and Recreation office.
He pulled in and parked next to the community center and they climbed out, looking nervously up at it like most everyone else in the area. Things like that shouldn’t just hang in the air, at least not so peacefully. But there was no howl of engines, no thrum of spinning blades, just an infrasonic hum felt through the soles of the feet and in the lungs rather than heard.
And waiting for them in the Chief’s office were two Heroes.
Christ, they were uncanny. Both were beautiful, almost too much so, in the same weird kinda way as a show dog with a perfect pedigree was too beautiful when compared with a loving, stupid, face-licking mutt.
Josh liked mutts better.
“They look just like you,” Jess said under her breath. He looked over at her, confused, but Chief got the meeting underway.
“Joshua. Let’s have a serious talk.”
…Pained. He looked pained.
Josh understood instantly.
“No, Joshua. You’re gonna sit down and listen.”
Josh paused, glanced at the two people from Singularity, then settled himself carefully on the floor, there not being a sturdy enough chair at hand.
“You’re going to argue,” Chief said, bluntly. “You’re going to object. You’re going to want to stay and help people. I know you’re going to do all these things because you’re a good man with a good soul.”
“I’m also like ten fuckin’ times stronger than anyone else in the department! At least! I can wear nuclear armor! There’s shit I can do! There’s—”
“Because there’s a bigger picture, son. And you’ve gotta turn your mind toward it. You can stay here putting out fires and lifting rubble and pulling people out of trouble all the livelong day, and God knows I wish you could, but that’s a lot less than you could be doing with your talents.”
He leaned forward, thick strong fingers intertwined. “It’s one of those trolley problems, right? D’you save five people, or one? You’re loyal to the guys you work with, to the people of this area, and I respect that. But our job sometimes comes down to harsh decisions about saving who you can when you can. And this here is one of them. You stay here, you’re wasting your potential, and I don’t mean that in a selfish, small way.”
Josh glanced at the two people from Singularity. “You came all this way for me?”
The one he took to be the senior of the pair, a statuesque woman built like a healthily tanned She-Hulk, nodded her head. “We have several reasons,” she said, in an odd accent. “But the one relevant to you is that the colonies all need the very best people they can get, if they are to succeed. There are still hundreds of millions of mouths to feed, house, clothe, protect and provide for.”
“The Line was created because we knew humanity would face great upheaval upon our entry to the galactic community,” her male colleague said. “We…did not exactly envision this war, or the Centauri blast. But we knew there would be a crisis, and so there is. Now, our species needs the children of the Line if we are to overcome the crisis. We need you.”
“There are still billions of people on Earth—!”
“…No, mister Hartl. That number is reduced. Our priority now is rescuing those who remain.”
“Exactly! Which is why I need to stay here!”
“Which is why you are needed off-world. The bottleneck is food and shelter. Lucent, Cimbrean, even Gao are all undergoing tremendous building surges. Human civilization must be expanded rapidly, now, before it is too late and we must rely on historical reconstruction.”
“In other words,” Chief said, “more lives will be saved if you get your giant ass over there, doing the sort of work that will really save lives. We’re…rescue operations are winding down. You know that, right?”
“Most everyone who’s going to survive, already has.”
“What about the rest? What about everyone in my firehouse?”
“They will be needed too, mister Hartl,” the woman from Singularity said. “In short order.”
“But you are needed in the first wave,” her colleague agreed.
‘You’re worth five of us, Josh. And ten normal men. Don’t play coy. We all know it. And you do too. And one of you is easier to feed and work than ten older, broken men like me.”
“We respect that you have commitments and attachments here,” the Singularity man said. “Your companions are invited to come with us as well.”
Josh heard Jess gasp, and Maria went white-knuckle tense. They’d just been thrown a lifeline, except it was in Josh’s hands…
…Oh, the bastards. That was manipulative as fuck.
But what was he gonna do? Say no just to spite them, at the girls’ expense?
Chief knew, too. “It’s a done deal, Josh. You’re fired, ‘cuz there’s better waitin’. C’mon,” he stood, “let’s go say bye to the boys.”
Josh opened his mouth to say something, drew a blank. Shut it again. Opened it again to say something else, which vanished from his brain before he could put it into words. He looked down at his knees and muttered “dammit…” before rising.
The boys understood. Gave him some affectionate shit for it, too. They had promises off-world too, so really…How high a price were these two actually paying for him? They can’t have done the same everywhere!
They did make him take his suit, armor, and all its tools, because “nobody can lift that shit and it smells like your unwashed nutsack anyway.”
As much shit as he got, there was an equal amount of hugs, handshakes and backslap. Fuck, he hoped they were serious about getting their own place off-world. They fuckin’ deserved it.
As for the girls…Maria was eager to go. She kept glancing around nervously like the offer might evaporate at any second. Jess had made an emergency phone call to her family and was fretting about her parents and her little brother and her cousins, but Josh heard her dad’s voice through the phone saying ‘just go, you idiot,’ which seemed to settle things.
The last thing he ever did on Earth was shake the chief’s hand.
They got beamed up. Not in the Star Trek sense, but literally like an old UFO cult thing, with a beam of light that did fucky things to gravity so they “fell” slowly and gently up into a bay on the ship’s belly, before being set gently down on metal decking.
Things immediately felt weirdly comfortable. Everything was at about the right height, the doors were wide enough, the decking so sturdy that Josh could feel secure in his movements. Everything had a solid, well-built feel to it that was just perfect for him. Really…unsurprising, not unexpected even, but Josh had been treading lightly and sitting gently more or less since he hit puberty. Even a bit before that, honestly, and he’d joined the four-digit club in college. To suddenly be in a place built by people like him, for people like him was…
Well, actually kinda discombobulating, honestly. And an undeniable reminder that he was leaving. Leaving home, leaving Earth…leaving…everything. Shit, all he had with him was the clothes on his back, his work gear, a phone that probably wouldn’t work where they were going, and a wallet full of cards and ID and stuff that had just become so many slim plastic souvenirs.
At least the quarters they were shown to had a view outside. A long, thick oval window set in the outside hull. With a jolt he realized that they’d already left the ground far behind and were at airline cruising altitude, high above the clouds. He hadn’t even felt them accelerate.
Maria sighed heavily and sat on the bed. “So…that’s it. We’re just leaving. Just like that.”
“Yeah.” Josh put a hand on the window to look out and down. Below him was…fuck. What should have been an endless and fairly regular grid of fields and roads with the occasional circle of green from center pivot irrigation, instead had…shit. He could see the curves of scorched, devastated, blasted lands outside the Columbus shield cluster. The line was weirdly clean, too, marking the limit where the heat from the explosions had no longer been enough to set crops on fire.
“I wonder where we’re going?” he asked aloud. He realized they were accelerating, smoothly and rapidly again, heading….southwest?
“Probably gonna pick up some more of these ‘Children of the Line,’” Jess said. “How many are there, do you think?”
“Not many,” Josh shrugged. “There’s maybe three-hundredish in the whole US. And we’re mostly small-town kids, ‘cuz Singularity wanted to keep it low-key.”
“Sounds like every single one could fit on this ship…” Jess mused.
“Could be.” Josh sat on the bed next to her, and felt a little bit warmer inside when she leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. His arm went around her before he knew what he was doing, and to his mild surprise…she didn’t mind at all.
“So…what are we in all this?” Maria asked, gesturing to Jess and herself. “Just a bit of leverage to get you to come?”
“To them, maybe.”
That earned a small smile, and she sat down on the other side from Jess. “Well…if it means I get to live through this mess…” she said, then trailed off and left the thought unfinished.
“It’s not gonna be easy,” Josh warned.
And that seemed to be all any of them wanted to say, for now. Josh couldn’t do more than exhale slowly, lie back and rest on what turned out to be a very comfortable bed. Easily the most comfortable thing he’d laid on in weeks.
He wasn’t thinking of anything, really. He was too tired, too…numb. Maybe his head would wheel and spin later, but here and now he was just…here and now. On a spaceship, leaving home forever, heading for an uncertain future with two girls he, if he was being honest, hardly knew at all…
Well. There’d be time to fix that later. Right now…he didn’t even have the strength to pull off his shirt.
He fell asleep almost immediately.
Velilky Novgorod, Russia, Earth
Novgorod wasn’t really even there any longer. The nice bits certainly weren’t. The Cathedral of St. Sophia, a thousand years old, had been smashed down flat along with the rest of the Detinets. The trees had been splintered to matchsticks, and the matchsticks burned to ash. A few of the old Soviet-era housing blocks in the north-west part of town still had a few vertical walls on them…
Yulia turned little Mila’s eyes away as she realized she could see human silhouettes baked onto the concrete. The poor girl had nightmares enough already.
Even so, the roads led to Novgorod, and one of the bridges was still standing, somehow. Whoever was left to make decisions had decided there would be a jump array in the city, and that everyone from the surrounding area should travel there for transit to Lucent. No word on where they would live when they got there, what they would do, or anything. For all Yulia knew, she was leading her children to the world where they would starve.
But…it was something. Some glimmer of hope, however jaded and hopeless she might be feeling. And at least in Gagarin there would be some hope of living through this and seeing Mila and Maksim grow up. There was no such hope on Earth.
So, they were standing in line. They’d been there for sixteen hours, now, and had moved forward maybe two or three miles. Yulia’s feet were in agony, she was tireder than she could ever remember being, her whole body ached from carrying her baby boy all this way…
She didn’t know how much more she could take.
Desperate for anything to take her mind off the agony in her feet, she was people-watching. Not that there was very much to do. Mobile phone coverage was non-existent, not that she had any way to charge her handset anyway. The people around her mostly looked much the same as she did. Downtrodden, wearing their hardiest clothes, shuffling along nursing aching soles and bruised souls and the guilt of still being alive when so many weren’t.
Even so, she found some to look at.
There was a girl some distance ahead with black hair, starting to return to blonde at the roots, and interestingly dyed with a rainbow underneath. She was hand-in-hand with a tall man in a bright blue puffy jacket. What a mismatched pair…
That old grandma hobbling alongside the rest of her family. Was she looking to leave too? Or was she just here to see her children and grandchildren safely away? She looked so sad…or maybe just in pain.
Up ahead, the line turned a corner and she blinked. She’d worked in government for a few years, and she knew men like that. Tall, solid, blunt…almost faceless in a way. Muscle. So who were they escorting?
Whoever he was, he was an older man. Steel gray hair brushed to one side, a round jaw, a lampshade mustache…She blinked at the nagging feeling that she recognized him from somewhere. Then Mila started complaining again, and by the time the little one was settled the man and his muscle were out of sight.
Well. Good to know the powerful people who needed muscle were stuck waiting in line like the rest of the peons. A small flicker of justice.
She stamped her feet, flexed her toes inside her shoes. Not far to go now, and she could rest for a time…who else was there to watch? She turned and looked behind her and her eyes skipped over mostly identical people wearing the same mix of street clothes and dogged expressions…
Movement caught her eye. A…man sauntering up the street, not part of the queue. She boggled at him, suddenly finding she could not look away. He was apparently not much fussed by the cold and wore a riotously colorful button-down, short-sleeve shirt, along with cargo shorts that cut off a bit too far above the knee, huge mirrored sunglasses, and a pair of heavy sandals. But his questionable taste in clothing wasn’t what was so out-of-place.
It was his body. His impossible body.
The blocky man stood quite short but was built like a dire bear, as wide and thick as a barge from head to toe. He had an armor-plate slab of a chest, a huge blocky head atop the thickest neck she’d ever seen on a man. Heavy muscle bulging up to his ears sloped down from his neck toward his soccer-ball shoulders. Arms like great hams hung from them, easily bigger than her chest, and his tremendous bowling pin forearms were bare to the air, sinew and muscle writhing obscenely under tan skin heavily fuzzed over with straw-blond hair. He was built to such an extreme that at first glance, she’d puzzled if he was a man at all.
Yulia realized she was staring and men like that seldom enjoyed the attention, but couldn’t help herself. It wasn’t just the shape of him that struck her, but the way he moved. He wasn’t swaggering like the hired muscle around the man up ahead, throwing their weight around like they were a big deal. This man’s swagger was unavoidable because of his sheer size. He moved with direct purpose, swinging his great legs around themselves, head and gaze level and fixed. His footsteps were so heavy that Yulia felt them thump through the ground as he strode. And now that he was up close, the scale of the man was easier to grasp. He was—
She sorta…short-circuited trying to get her head around this monster in their midst, and suddenly more people than just her had noticed him. They all watched him nervously, all backed away. His extreme size was no less evident from behind. He strode forward atop calves seemingly the size and hardness of bowling balls. They and every hulking bit of him from his rear up to his shoulders was in the sort of powerful, organic motion that made one think of a predator stalking its prey. The line broke up ahead of him and gave the respectful distance he deserved, especially when the man lifted his head a bit and called out a name.
“General Sergei Petrovich!” He bellowed powerfully, voice deep to the point of gravelly. In oddly-accented Russian, “You have debts to pay!”
Petrovich. The name alone jogged Yulia’s memory. Of course! He’d been all over the news during the Kazakhstan campaign, justifying it, telling the whole country how many lives the invasion would save! He’d worn a full beard, then, parted his hair differently and not worn glasses, but it was definitely him.
The bastard who’d taken her children’s father away.
Petrovich’s muscle turned and visibly blanched. Suddenly they didn’t seem all that intimidating, with this hulking bear essentially daring them to fight. Two automatically stepped in front of the general, while the other two glanced at each other and advanced on the man, reaching inside their coats…Yulia knew. She instinctively turned Mila around and hugged the little girl’s face into her clothes in the second before the violence exploded.
But the man…she couldn’t entirely process what happened, it was so fast. She blinked and he was on top of them before they could finish drawing their weapons.
The first, he grabbed by the wrist and yanked, sending the huge man flying across the square like Yulia would have thrown a ball. He crashed to the ground with an agonized shriek, his arm flopping limp and useless while he tried to cradle it.
The other caught a backhand to the side of the head and dropped like a potato sack. He was dead before he hit the ground, head crushed in and broken like an overripe melon.
The thrown man groaned, attempted to move…
The enormous bear-man again flashed over to the broken-arm man as if the many meters of distance weren’t even there, put a huge foot on the poor thug’s upper leg and stepped down. It snapped, loudly.
Thrown-man screamed. His leg wasn’t quite destroyed but somehow, she knew that was only due to bear-man’s mercy.
“Don’t.” the bear looked down, warning. The two remaining guards sized their foe up, this short impossible tank of a man, this…beast easily bigger than the both of them together…and charged forward, opening fire.
Bear-man jinked left and right, almost too fast to see. Bullets pinged off the ground exactly where he wasn’t. In less than a breath he’d closed the distance—
The nearest man drew a knife. That was a mistake. Bear grabbed the man’s knife-hand with his own far bigger paw and exploded it in his grip. His other huge fist landed with a solid whump right into knife-man’s gut. He fell to the ground, vomiting and clutching the stump of his hand.
Far-man emptied his weapon in firing at the bear, but it didn’t seem to matter. The bear caught his prey and perfunctorily mauled him, throwing him to the ground a whimpering, broken mess.
Bear took the man’s rifle and, well…basically tied it in a knot and threw it at the general’s feet.
Then he turned his attention back to the broken thugs.
“‘Yer fit enough to get up and hobble away,” the man declared, rolling his square-jawed head on top of his freakishly muscular bullneck. “So leave or I’ll break you some more.”
Petrovich blinked in shock and dismay as the hired thugs agonizingly found their feet, then fled. “Where are you going?!” he demanded.
As if they could do anything to save him.
“If they’re smart, a hospital. Knife-guy ain’t got any kidneys anymore, an’ if he’s lucky that’s all he’s really gotta worry ‘bout. I don’t like gettin’ shot at, so I weren’t too nice with rifle-guy. Prob’ly ain’t gonna make it.” Bear took off his glasses and stuffed them in one of his side pockets. “Now. Let me be absolutely sure I’ve got my man. Are you, in fact, General Sergei Petrovich? And be warned,” the man tapped his nose. “I can smell lies.”
Petrovich’s mouth opened and shut a few times as he stared first at this terminator, then he looked around at the crowd. Yulia looked around too, and realized she wasn’t the only one who was starting to feel a burning hatred in her heart, now that she’d recognized him.
Up until now, the flicker of justice she’d held onto had included the thought that at least the men responsible for the war, Volkov and all his cronies, were answering to God for their crimes. Knowing one of them had escaped…
It didn’t matter what Petrovich said now. Whether he lied or not, he was a dead man. Even if the bear walked away, the crowd would take their revenge for dead sons and husbands and fathers, and for the whole world beyond. He realized it too. Stopped floundering, took a deep breath, shut his eyes, and straightened. Suddenly, the tall-backed general from the news was there again.
“…That is me,” he said. “And you are an American.”
There was an accusation in that statement. America’s bombs had been the most ruinous of all, everyone knew it. Yulia found she couldn’t care. They hadn’t started the war.
This re-used гондон had. Everyone knew that, too.
The short wall of a man nodded curtly. He pulled off his painfully American tropical shirt with businesslike contempt, and…
Yulia heard herself do the same, and felt her heart hammering. The blood drained from Petrovich’s face. He knew what he was facing, now. This was no man. No mere human being could possess such an incredibly, impossibly powerful body. He wasn’t just some weird bodybuilder or big-ego athlete, and he wasn’t just some random drug thug. This bear was so far beyond any of that it went past beautiful, through disturbing and into superhuman and didn’t stop there. He was…there was so much purposeful muscle somehow crammed onto him, it was sort of repellant in its extremes, and yet so perfect she couldn’t look away.
The man wasn’t a human or a beast. He was something else.
This man was an angel of death.
…No. He was a Hero. He was one of them they’d seen on the news, had dismissed as Western propaganda, as cheesy Photoshops. But no. He was here, in front of them. Thick-wasted, thicker-legged, a broad, heavy chest and back sized to proportion. He was built for power, not to prance as a cover model, even if he honestly could. He was real.
And not too happy. He examined his shirt, vast swells of brawn jumping to and fro in his upper body as he found holes—!
“Texan, sir. And this was my favorite print, too.” He tsked, seemingly more at himself than anything.
“…You were shot.” Petrovich stammered, unbelievingly.
“Yeah. Fuckin’ hurts. You gonna try and shoot me, too?”
Боже мой! There were some red dots across his abs and flank, now that she looked…
Did…did he actually survive being shot? Bullets bouncing off him like Superman?!
The implications were not lost on Petrovich. “…N–no. I…surrender.”
The angel nodded. “Thanks. And thank you for being truthful. But your surrender means nothing, general. We’re not playing by the Geneva Conventions.”
Everyone backed up even more, including the general. The angel seemed unperturbed.
“Still…honesty and courtesy should be rewarded, I think. I’ll grant you a bit of a mercy.”
“…Mercy? What mercy could you poss—?”
He never got to say another word. There was a blur, a sickly crack. Several cracks. In just a second or two, the texan had utterly, perfectly broken the general. He let his foe fall to the ground, unable to do anything but wheeze in agony. Petrovich tried to flail—couldn’t. Somehow, the angel had already broken all his limbs.
The angel picked him up by the head, his vast paws fairly swallowing up the general’s head.
His terrifying chest and forearms bulged. There was a soft series of cracks. He only squeezed for a moment before he hefted his toy up and did the same to the general’s ribs, paws instantly pressing closer together by several inches. He didn’t finish the job, though he’d exerted so little apparent effort, she had no doubt he could have crushed his torso completely flat. One hand clamped onto the general’s shoulder to hold him up while the other slammed a punch to the gut that was so powerful, she could hear the air thump behind his fist, see him fly up like a punching bag. Hear his spine snap from the force of it.
Yulia felt sick, but like everyone else she felt compelled to watch.
The show was over, though. Satisfied with his work, the angel of death dropped the utterly broken general to the hard ground like so much trash. Ribs and limbs obviously shattered, head misshapen and lumpen, brains leaking out of his ears and nose.
Yet his eyes still moving. Иисус Христос, he was still alive!
The angel contemplated his victim for a moment, then put his huge foot down in the center of general Petrovich’s chest, who writhed under what must have been incredible pressure. Rumor had it the Heroes could weigh many times more than what they looked, so the weight of this bull of a man must have been pure agony. And considering how easily he’d dealt with the hired thugs…
“My mercy is I ain’t gonna leave you to the lovin’ embrace of your people. Good-bye.”
The Hero stepped down.
She’d guessed right about his weight. General Petrovich was very suddenly no more.
And now, spread all over the square. The man’s foot was flat to the ground, as if he’d just stepped in mud and not the bone and sinew of a living man.
Yulia had…never imagined she would witness such an incredible display of such powerful, unstoppable, uncaring violence. This was the sort of enemy Petrovich had picked a fight with? The Americans had men like him?! The angel of death had casually stomped general Petrovich out of this life like a cockroach. Snuffed him as if the Americans had held back a small and very personal nuke, one meant just for him. Just for the butcher of mankind.
The American wiped his sandal on the corpse’s trousers, wiped the general’s blood off his knuckles with a pocket tissue, then returned to his discarded shirt.
He gave the crowd a warning glance as he picked it up.
“Y’all are gonna behave when you get to Lucent, right?”
Face a study in handsome, dangerous aggression. Everyone backed further away.
He didn’t bother putting his shirt back on, just flung it over one of his shoulders. Everyone watched him in terrified, morbid fascination as he sauntered away toward the open space of the square, legs thick as a big man’s chest swinging around each other’s girth with each heavy step. With a sudden spherical flash of blackest-black and an ear-shattering thump, he was gone, taking with him a divot of the rough road surface and leaving behind nothing more than a perfectly smooth round hole to mark where the angel had returned to heaven.
Up ahead, somebody cleared her throat. Yulia tore her gaze away from the neat crater and the ruined general, and found there was a young woman standing waiting by the jump array, her dress glowing impossibly.
“Please do not delay the evacuation,” the apparition requested, and beckoned Yulia to come forward. Yulia’s feet moved of their own accord, her hands shooing Mila past the ruined Petrovich and not letting her look while cuddling Maksim who was too exhausted and miserable to cry any longer…
The holographic woman waved her right through the checkpoint. The metal plate of the jump platform clanked underfoot, and lettering around the edges warned her to keep everything inside the yellow—
—line. Yulia nearly fell over at the suddenness of the transition. Suddenly, she wasn’t on Earth any more. Everything felt light, the air smelled strange, suddenly it was a…what, sunset? Instead of an overcast, cloudy morning?
A woman with a kindly face encouraged her and Mila off the platform. She was asked her name, numbly replied. Was ushered through between parked trucks and portable homes, into a slightly larger structure.
Exhausted and unable to think any more, she followed every instruction she was given. There was…a shower. She had to clean herself and the children thoroughly. Then there was a yellow forcefield that swept over them and left Yulia’s teeth feeling strange, and past that was a room with new clothes waiting for them in sealed plastic bags. They weren’t good clothes, being just a pair of pants, a t-shirt, a jumper and a warm hat, all in shades of gray…and they didn’t fit properly either. Yulia had to tie the drawstring on the pants tight, and still felt like she was waddling around about to have them fall off her. And the plastic sandals that replaced her shoes were no good for her aching feet at all.
But..she was clean, and dressed. And they promised to return her own clothes once they had been properly washed…
And then there was food. The first proper meal she’d been able to give Mila and Maksim in weeks. And the first proper meal she’d been able to eat for herself since long before then, even…
And then a small room. It had an adult-sized bed, a pull-out sofa bed, and a cot that was basically just a plastic crate with a mattress at the bottom, but…oh, lord. Rest.
With her belly full and her clothes clean for the first time since her Aleksander had been called away to war, she put Mila and Maksim to bed. They were asleep in seconds…
It struck her. She’d done it. They’d done it. They’d escaped. Her babies were safe!
And the butcher, the man who’d robbed her of Aleksander and her home and nearly killed the whole world was dead.
The full weight of it landed on her, and she broke down crying.
And she didn’t stop until exhaustion carried her down into a deep, long, dreamless sleep.
SOR temporary headquarters, High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Colonel Antony (Abbott) Costello
One of the harder parts of all this was adjusting to his temporary office. It had a different phone, with a different ring. Which was a weird little detail to get hung up on, but it was a constant reminder that he wasn’t in the same place any longer. That his life had taken a sharp turn, not completely within his control.
The United States was a rump government, now. It belonged to Daar, because the President and what remained of Congress had signed an Instrument of Protection. As had the United Kingdom and whatever was left of the AEC. As had Franklin, as had Folctha. As had the rest of the colony cities. As had substantially all the remaining governments on Earth.
Daar had conquered them all in literal hours through the simple expedient of aid, a welcoming paw, and a promise not to nuke them into oblivion. And as promised, he’d protected the HEAT. Their status was the first non-negotiable bit he’d enforced.
It was…nice, to hear kind words from leadership, and all that. He’d taken his team on a big leap into the murky world between duty and treason and not known which might have been which. In the end, he’d relied on trust of an ally, and even moreso on his ability to feed them.
He’d probably figure out how he felt about it all one day. But not today.
At least for now, they were likely going to expand, including another sorely-needed officer. And what a guy to get! Too bad he’d only be a reserve officer to start with, but…
Anyway, that was a matter for later. Right now, he shook his head clear and answered the phone. “Costello.”
It was Stephenson. “Sir, JETS team seven is back. I’ve sent Tiny and Gonzo up to do their head check.”
Thank fuck, some good news. Preliminary scouting of a complete unknown was the riskiest kind of work the SOR did, with a not insignificant chance that the scouts would just never return, never make contact again…getting them back was an answered prayer.
“Alright, thanks. I’ll clear my schedule.” He pressed the intercom button, “Firth, get in here.”
Distant muffled thuds. Closer, less muffled thumps. A couple of entirely un-muffled seismic events outside his door, followed by a knock, and a gym-soaked, almost-naked Firthhulk squeezed himself through the door and into his office. “Boss?”
“Enjoying Daar’s gym, eh?”
“Hell yeah, dude’s got some awesome toys! Always love the lift-all-day life. Anyway. ‘Sup?”
“Pleased to say we get to tell JETS seven about all the fun shit that’s been happening while they were gone.”
“Well, okay. S’pose that’s worth postponing my bench record. Any advance reportin’?”
“Not yet. Tiny and Gonzo are up there scanning their skulls. Guess we’ll hear what they found soon enough, though…”
“Right. This is the team that’s got all silverfurs on it, ain’t it?”
“Yeah. No brownies. And two ten’gewek, rest are human.”
“Well shit, why don’t we jus’ have it in the kitchen, then? We’ve finally got it set up good.”
“Works for me, I’m about due to eat anyway.”
“Well, let’s get a spread goin’.” And with that, the giant squeezed back out of Costello’s office. He stepped out and followed behind. A useful tactic, that; Firth was as wide and tall as the hallways in this bit of the Fortress, so he did an excellent job of clearing out traffic. Costello only had a brief moment to contemplate the daunting mysteries of Firth’s inhumanly wide and thick mega-back (or how he fit his legs through the door) before they arrived at the kitchen.
They both of them loved to cook, actually. It was a good hobby to have on this team, since there were always lots of willing helpers. A quick glance in the fridge suggested they could whip up a nice spread from leftovers. By the time they heard the scout ship settle down on the landing pad, they’d got the sort of meal that’d taste like ambrosia itself, after a few weeks of MREs. Not a conventional way to hold a debrief, perhaps, but…
Firth had somehow decided that grilled cheese and tomato soup was a good idea too. And why not? Easy to make, and they had condensed soup in big number ten cans. “The secret is to dump in italian herbs, a buncha basil, black pepper, and a bit o’ Tabasco. Canned tomato soup is easy to jazz up.” He grinned, “this has been my single-man living TED talk.”
Costello grinned, “those’ll all be rare in the coming years.”
“Eh. Mebbe. I’m optimistic we’ll figger it out. But Freya started an herb garden, so…”
“Here’s hoping, I guess.”
A new voice intruded on them. “That…whatever it is, that smells good.”
“It is!” Firth chuckled, and looked to the naxas stroganoff reheating on the stove. “Have a seat. I see ‘yer ears are lookin’ as big as ever.”
“Naturally.” Champion Meereo pant-grinned as he entered. “My Father wanted me to sit in on the debrief.”
“Figured as much,” Costello nodded. “Have a bite with us! It’s pretty random but all good.”
The team piled in just as the soup was hot and the sandwiches were gloriously toasted. They all had that look, the one that said they’d showered maybe an hour ago at most, and had been seriously fuckin’ grungy for an extended period before that. JETS teams never came back looking fresh and comfortable, they came back having spent weeks moving slowly and unseen through an alien wilderness, covering their tracks every inch of the way, with very few if any opportunities to tend to their personal hygiene. Every single one of them was gonna be squirming under the doc’s attentions for the next few weeks, probably.
Sergeant O’Reilly gazed upon the spread with the look of a man who’d been crawling on hands and knees in the desert only to stumble across an oasis. “Oh, man, cheese!”
The one universal was cheese. So far, no gaoian and no ten’gewek he’d ever met was opposed to cheesy goodness. They might need some Lactaid beforehand, but…
They gathered round, grabbed their share, sat down and feasted a bit while the intel team got together and piled in too. Firth was a man who didn’t have too many openly happy and agreeable moods, but cooking food for people was one of them. HEAT were all generally like that: kids, puppies, food. The trinity of turning dangerous monsters into big happy boys.
Firth was the most like that. He’d even toweled himself off before starting, too. Whataguy.
Pretty soon there were tablets and recording devices strewn across the table alongside the food, and they got down to business, with Firth taking up his seat next to Costello, since they were the SOR’s senior leadership. Which a comical size difference between them.
Which…it shouldn’t matter, but dammit it did. Costello never failed to feel dwarfed into insignificance next to the big guy. Not even Adam had ever really triggered that, but Daar and Righteous had never failed to do so. Maybe it was part down to how they carried themselves? Adam had always felt much more on the puppy end of the spectrum, despite having been the biggest and most dangerous man on the team for many years…
Silly, maybe. Maybe. Still, it was sorta nice having a literal human wall backing his authority. Honestly, Righteous being his senior NCO had made his job vastly easier among men like these. None of them were stupid neanderthals, of course.
The whole team was filled with extremely smart and disciplined neanderthals. Therefore, having the biggest caveman of all time on his side was a hell of a luxury, really.
Thoughts for later.
There was the usual set of forms for the team to fill on their tablets, all the necessary procedures. By the time that was done and they were ready to start asking the good questions, the meal was mostly gone and they were down to drinks and snacks.
“So what’s it like over there?”
O’Reilly shook his head in mild disbelief. “It’s fuckin’ weird. Average global temperature is like five celsius, the permanent ice comes nearly all the way down to the tropics. But the landscape’s studded with structures. Pyramids, at least on the surface. Might be more to ‘em underground. They’re all perfectly black and smooth, like those archive cubes, and the local critters live on ‘em.”
“Live on them?”
“Well, around them. They’re warm,” O’Reilly explained. “Way warmer than the surrounding landscape. There’s whole ecosystems huddled ‘round those pyramids, kinda like a deep sea vent.”
“Each one’s a little microclimate,” Gurung added. “Above the tropics is so fucking cold it hardly rains or snows at all, ‘cuz the ground and seas are frozen solid. All the weather is equatorial. But the pyramids are hot enough to create their own precipitation cycle.”
“Tricky to climb,” Beng Spear-Breaker noted. ”Very smooth everywhere, like glass. Not even tiniest crack. Was tricky! Had to be careful to break nothing, not even for grip.”
“Anything up at the top of them?”
“No sir. Just sharp point. I climb all over one, find nothing.”
O’Reilly nodded. “I guess there must be buried cables connecting them or something, ‘cuz there’s a corridor of plant life in a straight line between each one.”
“Nice and warm, yes.”
“They were the very first thing we noticed,” said the team’s pilot, Brother Feekee. “Long-range thermal telescope picked them up instantly. Each continent is covered in them.”
“How many?” Costello asked.
O’Reilly shook his head, wide-eyed. “We couldn’t count ‘em exactly. We guess they’re about two miles apart, on average? So…tens of millions, something in that ballpark.”
“A fuckin’ planet-scale datacenter,” Firth noted idly, before stuffing damn near a whole sandwich in his face.
“Keeda’s nuts,” Meereo was staring off into the invisible distance. “How big are these pyramids?”
“Big. There’s a few different kinds, but the most common one’s about three hundred meters tall.”
Tumun Fire-Watcher nodded enthusiastically. “Also, nobody watching.”
“Nobody at all?” Firth asked.
“No drone, no ab-ro-gator, nothing.”
“No satellites either,” Feekee agreed.
Now that was interesting. It rather confirmed everything their informant had told them about the target world, actually: that the Hierarchy considered its sheer remoteness and anonymity to be sufficient defense. And why not? There were a hundred billion stars in the galaxy, and this one was faint, remote, and unspectacular. If they hadn’t been told about it, they simply would never have found it at all.
Still. No local security whatsoever? The Hierarchy had a history of overconfidence to be sure, but…
But of course, their whole strategy was to make it so that it fundamentally didn’t matter if a species broke free to the point of destroying the node world. The Igraen Hegemony could go dormant and play dead for millennia, then regrow from a single unconsidered archive buried on an overlooked random planet anywhere in the galaxy and then the Hierarchy would deal with the problem from a position of having long since faded from memory.
That was the point of TILE FLIP after all. Rather than destroy the Igraens, the idea was to remove their need for control and genocide and then leave them to live out the rest of eternity in their digital limbo.
Meereo was still looking quite stunned. “…Champion?” Costello asked.
Meereo shook his head in disbelief. “I was just boggling at the sheer scale of the computation achievable with something like that. I always knew it had to be some quite impressive hardware to produce something like dataspace, but this?” he shook his head again, then frowned. “What about the less common kinds of pyramid?
“We identified a few. They’re not all pyramids, either. Every so often there’s a cuboid, or a cylinder.”
“Any indication at all what their function might be?”
Tumun hooted affirmatively. “Cuboids sit on the big warm lines. Cylinders, always in middle of a circle of pyramids.”
“Different feel too, grippier for hands and feet,” Beng supplied, helpfully.
Meereo made a thoughtful noise, duck-nodding as he tapped away on his own tablet.
There were lots of details to go over. Hours and hours of helmet cam footage, huge high-res images taken from orbit, details on the native flora and fauna that had evolved in this peculiar artificial ecosystem…it took hours, and by the time they were done Costello felt like every other useful fact in his head might have been forced out by all the new information he now held in there.
God alone knew what kind of things were going to fall out of the really in-depth analysis that followed. But they did, eventually, reach the point where there was nothing more to question the team on and no reason to keep them further.
Which meant he now had a different duty. They wrapped up the briefing, dotted every i, crossed every t…
“Alright. Before I dismiss you, I’m afraid I now have to deliver some solemn news about Earth, which will go some way to explaining why we’re here and not back on Cimbrean right now.”
O’Reilly chuckled, unsuspecting of the grim news he was about to receive. “I had wondered why it smelled like Daar after a particularly heavy workout…”
“Aww c’mon, you know I don’t mean it bad! But he is pretty musky. Legendarily so.”
“Leaves taste everywhere he steps,” Tumun nodded sagely. “All of High-Mountain, smell like his hut.”
One last bit of humor. He wouldn’t deny them that. Lord knew it’d be the last bit they got for a while. But they had to know.
“Gentlemen…World War Three happened.”
The smiles dropped right off their faces. Everyone blinked at him in silence.
Costello knew his face was solid and grim, but inwardly… “Yes, it’s exactly as bad as you’re thinking. There was a global nuclear exchange, full send. The SOR is here on Gao because the Great Father invoked treaty to keep us out of the fire.”
“But….” O’Reilly began.
“I mean…” he tried again.
“…What happened?” he settled on, at last.
“The Russians got greedy and invaded Kazakhstan to try and steal their evac supplies,” Costello told him. “Kazakhstan fought back with their own man-portable nuclear munitions, that broke the taboo, shit sparked off in the West Bank, Iran tried to nuke Israel, Israel nuked them back, Pakistan escalated, India escalated, China escalated…and of course, when China launched their shit, some of it was aimed at the US.”
“We held off though, until Russia went full send,” Firth growled. “So there’s that, I guess.”
“Sir, I’ve got family in Milwaukee—”
Firth put one of his chest-crushing mitts on O’Reilly’s shoulder with remarkable gentleness. “Communication is really spotty. Best thing we can do is put in a Red Cross query, it’s literally the only thing that works everywhere. You can try and send email, too. Mosta social media is slowly comin’ back, sorta. But really jus’ for sending messages and it’s super fuckin’ spotty who’s got internet. Full-on Kessler syndrome too so satellite internet ain’t a thing either, so…email, text, phone calls, Red Cross. That’s what they’re tellin’ everyone ‘ta do. An’ I’ll be sendin’ Red Cross messages ‘fer all of ‘ya. Lemme know who I need ‘ta ask after.”
O’Reilly gave him a frantic look that faded into tense resignation. “…Thanks, Chief.”
“Any news on Nepal?” Gurung asked, quietly.
“I wish I could say,” Costello replied, shaking his head. “But it will likely have escaped direct hits. It’s…”
“We’re not all that important,” Gurung noted, nodding, but with his eyes turned down.
“Small blessin’s,” Firth rumbled. “I’m hopin’ that kept m’family alive, too. Be a bit ‘fore I can check up on ‘em. They, uh…well, pop din’t trust digital anything too much. I still ‘member his rantin’ ‘bout mobile phones controllin’ ‘yer mind an’ all.”
Feekee keened softly. “Wasn’ wrong.”
More uncomfortable silence.
“Well. Fuck this.” Firth rose and stood heroically, probably without meaning to. “This shit’s depressin’. I wanna go fuckin’ break shit. I know y’all just got back, but…well…I dunno.”
He sorta deflated again.
“You did great work,” Costello told them. “I’m sorry I have to dump this on you when you should be celebrating. But, well…the Great Father is now our boss. Not just de-facto, now it’s official. What’s left of Earth’s governments have more or less all signed Treaties of Friendship and Protection. Same with Cimbrean. He’s preparing an official response too. Actually…when?”
He looked to Firth, who had a beartrap mind for these sorts of things.
“Uh, actually tonight. I think that’s part’a why he wanted to play weights with me today.”
“Had to disappoint him, did you?”
“Well firstly, I didn’t” he bragged, and everyone seemed glad for a bit of banter. “I’m the only human being alive who can make him work for a win. Also, ‘Base an’ Horse took over for me. They’re pretty okay I guess.”
“Didn’t they used to kick your ass?”
“Years ago, and only after they got big. Then I got bigger.” Crude grin, but…well, not even the ‘mostest HEAT’ had it in him to play the game for long. “…Right. Okay. Well, let’s go see to ‘yer gear an’ git y’all settled in. We’ve got all the good beds moved over now.”
“Sleep somewhere warm for a change,” Tumun hooted, relieved. “Had enough of ice and snow.”
“We’re on Gao, Tumun. And it’s winter out there. You’re not done with the ice and snow yet.”
“You’ll be able to go home shortly. I suspect after tonight. So…honestly?” Costello stood up and decided, fuck his meal plan, he wanted a cola. So he grabbed a can and cracked it open. “Fuck it. I’m gonna go watch some fuckin’ cartoons. Day’s comin’ to an end anyway.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” O’Reilly agreed. “Goodnight, sir.”
Costello took his can, scooped up a hitherto neglected snack bar, and headed out. Actually, what he’d have really liked would have been a gaming session but, well, wrong planet.
He checked his own phone first, though. He was waiting on his own news from the Red Cross, on the status of his brother’s family in Toronto. Still no word. Two weeks and change, and still no word…
He reminded himself that the city itself was still there. But still…he wouldn’t be happy until he’d heard from them, or better yet until he’d had the chance to personally welcome Jamie, Emma and the kids to Gao.
Until then, he was just going to have to wait.
It seemed like he’d be waiting forever.
Alien Palace, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
President Margaret White
Of all the things she’d hoped to be remembered for, Margaret would not have chosen to go down in history as the last president of the United States of America.
Then again, Folctha’s Thinghall also, today, contained the last king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the last prime minister of Canada, the last prime minister of Australia, the last prime minister of New Zealand, the last chancellor of Germany, the last president of France, the last emperor of Japan, the last queen of Belgium, the last king of Norway, the last president of the Republic of Korea, the last president of Ukraine…
…Albania, Bulgaria, Croation, Czechia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, latvia, lithuania, Luxembourg…every NATO member, every AEC signatory, and all the others who, given the choice between Daar and Gilgamesh, had chosen Daar. All were the very last leaders of their respective nations and peoples.
All had expected to be the last, of course. One couldn’t be sovereign or president of a country that didn’t physically exist any longer. But all their various preparations (by dire and forced mutual understanding) had been for peacefully(-ish) acknowledging the rise of new human nations, and some of them had planned to remain with their people to the very end.
But, here they were instead, about to sign a treaty that changed…everything.
How had things…progressed so fast?
It was all as legitimate as it could ever be. The objection and outrage that their strongest ally among the stars would take advantage was, in short order, tempered by what he was offering them: survival for their species and each nation’s culture, in a way none of their governments could afford. And really, his reasoning wasn’t so strange; most of them would have done something similar, if a younger, powerful allied species had just tried to nuke itself to death. He needed assurances in the face of everything, and he was right about their timeline, too. It made sense. Truly. The crush of reality falling upon them all had made Daar’s argument for him more than any other point he might have made, forceful or not.
So…that being their choice: phone calls were made. Leaders were hesitant. Margaret, seeing this, took the lead and committed to the process, then bullied the remnant of Congress to agree. She’d received Senate consent to the treaty in less than two days—and it only took that long because the Senate had to confirm over eighty new appointed members after the war. The irony of such seamless unity was not lost upon her.
The other nations followed suit in short order. But what country had ever included clauses for its own dissolution in its own constitution? The fundamental assumption of a nation was that it would proceed in perpetuity.
Nevertheless, each in their own way had set the ball rolling. Each, in their own way, would formally cease to exist when the Earth did and each, in their own structured way, would hand over power, resources, personnel and assets to this new cross-species union.
The nuclear war hadn’t killed the species. If they had been confined to Earth and it wasn’t about to be blown up by space monsters then, honestly, it would have been possible to rebuild. Nuclear winter didn’t seem likely, at this stage. Crops were lost, and many would die to cancer and other illnesses…but it was survivable, in some fashion or another.
Whether they’d ever rebuild back to the heights they’d known…
All of it together was too much to handle. It was all just too goddamned much and Daar…well, he had taken advantage. As he had to. His people depended on the alliance, on what humans could offer. After all, his own people were in rapid decline and the window to action against the great enemy was very small…
Thank God for the balance in him. He could be a blood-soaked monster or the pinnacle of civilized. Indeed, Margaret had enjoyed the chance to hear him think out loud, and it was clear that Daar thought of the two as complimentary facets of a complete whole. One could not be truly civilized without having equal capacity for the precise opposite. He could literally crush his enemies with his bare paws. Or he could arrange flowers and write poetry.
He’d made a hobby of both.
It was a worldview that was, to Margaret’s thinking, painfully masculine. Tautological, perhaps: he was the Great Father after all, his very being was defined by male-ness, warts and all. All the virtues, and all the vices, all the chivalry…and all the chauvinism.
Though, honestly…in their best possible forms. Men were seldom chauvinists in the sense that women should be silent, obedient and barefoot in the kitchen, and he certainly wasn’t that sort of man. He favored strong women, in fact. But he did see them as different and complimentary, and therefore worth heeding.
It made him extremely solicitous of her views and also…difficult to navigate. Margaret was a feminist through and through, and Daar was perfectly not. She just…didn’t believe anyone should be so limited to something as silly as gender roles. It went against freedom itself!
And yet…there he was. And there people were. Acting them out, usually unconsciously.
Was it so wrong that they did? Or was her objection more that so many never thought it through? Had she, before this point? Here, at the moment when all the old civilizations collapsed, and they came together to forge a new one…
Here, the act of creation. Never neutral, that. It was an aggressive act, some would say. Imposing your will upon the canvas.
The Great Father was creating something. The “United Peoples.”
Margaret found she rather liked the name. The thought that there might actually be some unity and peace after all this seemed like a small mote of light in the darkness that had filled her thoughts ever since the fateful day itself.
She kept asking herself what she could have done differently. If there was something she could have said or done to steady world events and avert the war, or if she shouldn’t have just refused to launch and instead trusted that America’s shields would hold. Did she really have to kill all those people?
But she had. In the moment, she’d done what was expected of her. And it had left her ashamed, guilty, and more profoundly sorry than she could even fathom. Something fundamental had fallen out of the bottom of her soul, and taken all her strength with it.
Fitting, therefore, that the last thing she was summoning her strength to do was to resign.
She turned, blinking at the interruption to her melancholy, and straightened herself as she realized Sir Jeremy Sandy had approached her. He, she realized, might well be setting aside more than anyone else in the room. Folctha after all was the largest and most successful human exo-settlement. But Sandy in turn was appointed to govern on behalf of His Majesty the King, and had noted that there was nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by gracelessly clinging to a shadow.
Margaret could respect that.
“I hope I’m not intruding?”
“Only on self-reflection,” Margaret replied.
“Ah,” he nodded, and offered a diplomatic change of subject. “I was just wondering whether you’d made plans for where you will go and what you will do after…all this.” He waved a hand, indicating the gathered leaders.
Margaret shook her head. “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Nothing seems right to me.”
“Well…I could go into stasis. That seems appropriate, to remove an old woman from the resource burden. But what about my family? I don’t want to miss their lives, if they stay. But to just retire into obscurity and stay with them seems more selfish than I can bear, and…” she shrugged. “I don’t know what other options there are.”
“I hope to be of use still,” Sir Jeremy replied, and gently settled into a seat alongside her with a grunt that Margaret could entirely sympathize with. Old knees were a burden. “In many ways, I doubt my position will change much. It’s just that instead of holding my position at the appointment of His Majesty, I’ll be at the appointment of the Great Father.”
“I wouldn’t feel right,” Margaret said.
“But nothing feels right?”
“No. Not yet. Maybe nothing ever will.”
“You’re an experienced politician and leader. And we’re still going to need—” Sir Jeremy trailed off as Margaret shook her head. “…I take it you’ve already ruled that out.”
“I have. It’s…gratifying that you’d say so, but that feels least right of all. And I think, as a matter of closure…it would be appropriate if I stepped down. I already stated I would remain behind yet here I find myself.”
“I imagine the Secret Service didn’t give you much say in the matter.”
“They did what they were trained to do. And if they hadn’t, I would be dead now.” DC, naturally, had been a more focused target than any other. The city’s defenses had been overwhelmed in seconds, as had Baltimore’s. Everyone still in the White House, people she’d known and worked with…
Well, she had the consolation that they very likely hadn’t felt a thing.
“I…intend to make the best of that, however I can,” she said.
“But you feel that the best of it lies somewhere other than politics,” Sir Jeremy concluded.
“Then, I wish you well in your future endeavors. And if I am not mistaken…”
There was a commotion up by the arch doorway.
“We have a solemn duty ahead of us.”
Margaret nodded, and stood up. Old knees, again. “That we do.”
Sir Jeremy had an old-fashioned way about him: he offered her his arm. “Well. Let me take you out to dinner after this is done. Nothing extravagant, but simple food prepared well lifts any spirit, I find.”
“…Yes, alright.” Margaret decided. “Why not?”
“We’ll be joined by a few friends of mine, if that’s alright. People you’ll want to know.”
“This sounds suspiciously like you want to keep me in the game after all, Sir Jeremy…”
“No, not at all. I’m friends with many people, some of whom don’t play the game at all. But…you’ll want to be in touch, I think. Just in touch.”
All very mysterious, but they’d run out of time for Margaret to interrogate him into being less cryptic. They lapsed into respectful silent as, shoulder to shoulder with the Earth’s other leaders, they passed through the archway and into the chamber beyond, where history was waiting in the form of the Great Father.
Time to make it official.
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
He didn’t like giving these sorts of speeches. When he spoke with Crown and Mace and Cloak and Kilt, when he sat upon the throne and held court, he was doing something that could not ever possibly be undone. In his time as Great Father, he’d sat upon his throne exactly thrice.
Two of those times were regarding Earth, and this would be the third time. Once had been for an errant Champion before the conflict. The other times had been about human brilliance and human folly.
And now, he was going to annex them all.
He looked up at the small swarm of camera drones now hovering in his orbit, and some part of his brain that wanted to think of anything else right now wondered at the weird juxtaposition of ancient sovereignty and modern technology that was a king in medieval panoply, reading off a holographic prompter to address every planet in the civilized galaxy via a network of tamed wormholes.
He’d hafta commit that to a poem, later. Much as he wasn’t half the poet Fyu had been, it was a skill he was still cultivating. Maybe it’d be the one he sealed the register with.
Behind the cameras, the director held up ten fingers, and started lowering them. Daar shifted his posture one last time, straightened it, settled himself, lifted his head and stared forward, doing his best to project reassuring strength.
The “On Air” sign behind the cameras lit up.
New Dodge, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Austin Beaufort
“Hurry up, it’s starting!”
Austin ducked through as the living room fell into an expectant hush. One advantage to the big farmhouse: they could fit everyone in for a moment like this. Today it was Lauren, the kids, the Goons—Julian’s seriously jacked-up, stacked-up, and impressively grown-up boys apprenticing as millwrights, and giving Austin some cheap and ridiculously capable labor while they learned—a few other friends who happened to be over…
…literally everybody who worked for him…
History was turning yet another page. It had been a busy few months, in that regard. Fuck, it had been a busy lifetime.
The picture switched. There he was, all Big King on his throne, just…as balls-to-the-wall impressive as ever, really. Austin wouldn’t believe it was real if he hadn’t met the bastard in real life and watched him outperform a fuckin’ tractor. Today though he was throwin’ his power around in a different sort of way. There were banners behind him that Austin thought looked almost Japanese in their design, a big-ass and worryingly practical-looking club in one paw, that twisted metal ring of a crown on top of his huge wolf-raccoon-bear-monster head. Add a cloak with some fur trim around it, and some sorta woven thing that sat between a loincloth and a kilt, trim it out with some well-tooled leather and maybe just a tiny bit of gold…
Honestly, he’d never imagined Daar would use understated finery for something like this, but there it was. It wasn’t like kings on TV or in movies. You could picture him running around all day in a getup like that, Great Fathering or whatever. He’d combed out his fur, too.
Daar didn’t bother with any opening hello phrase like ‘My fellow…’ whatevers. He just launched right into it after a silent second to let the cameras get a good look at him.
“It’s all too easy ‘ta compound tragedy with tragedy,” he said, and his amber eyes bored deep into the cameras and out through the screen, grabbing Austin immediately. “And these have been tragic times, for more than one species.”
Austin picked his way between all the sitting people and squeezed in next to Lauren on the couch. The few times he’d met Daar, the Great Father had growled his words out in a comfortable drawl. Now, he was speaking English as carefully and clearly as he could.
“That’s th’ way of things, and we Deathworlders know all too well how tragedy can compound itself. There are few statements so brief and yet so true as ‘when it rains, it pours.’”
He shifted slightly on his throne. “Sometimes, the trend cannot be stopped. Sometimes the great poem of life must play itself out. Here we are now, in the wake of a tragedy that, perhaps, could have been stopped, perhaps could not have been. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It happened, and we must deal with its consequences. But now is the moment when we say ‘no further.’ Now is the moment we stop this chain of tragedy.”
He sat forward. There was a tap as the end of his mace came to rest on the stone between his paws.
“The lowest moments of gao and humanity are behind us,” he declared. “Our peoples have suffered loss unknown by any other in the galaxy, yet we are still here. We have been struck, again and again, by the Great Enemy of all free life. It has robbed us of everything, and would shape us into its tools or erase us entirely.”
He leaned forward, growled slightly and tensed up as if recalling a terrible memory. Those baleful eyes bored right into the camera, looking straight into everyone’s soul.
“You know this, of course. Among your kind they got to work late, yet kindled the great political conflicts of Earth’s modern history. Make no mistake, this war was their doing—they laid the foundation for what happened, among your people and among mine. They kept you divided, they kept you armed and at odds, with terrible whispers in the minds of the wrong people. They fed the very worst in both our peoples, robbed us of our history, our self-determination, our home and the futures we all dreamed for ourselves.”
A second of dead silence. Austin realized his skin was tingling.
Daar lifted his head slightly. “Yet, we are still here.”
He shifted forward in his throne, bristling now. His ears were up and forward, his hackles rising. Aggression rippled across his body. “We have fought ourselves. We have fought each other. We have died in our billions, yet we are still here. This evil stops now. It stops here! in front of the galaxy, in front of our enemies, and in front of you, I say we will not be broken any longer! Our peoples will not be divided. We will not give in, we will not be th’ playthings o’ digital malware! We will free ourselves and the galaxy of the greatest evil to ever creep between the stars!! That is our way! The way that unites us! We are still here no matter what happens! We persist, no matter the setback. We will have our victory!”
He rocketed up to his feet, bouncing on his toes, crackling with the energy of the moment, pacing—no, prowling around the room—and the camera followed him. Apparently he’d brought some things with him to Folctha’s palace. A suit of Gaoian armor, its lacquered surface painted with a slinky-looking script. Opposite, an equally baroque example of human armor. Flanking both were modern armament, an early-generation EV-MASS and the Gaoian equivalent. The only nod to decoration on either was a fierce stallion’s head decal on the human suit’s helmet.
There was a lot more besides. Weapons, paintings, photographs, books…it looked like he’d had a whole museum transported to Cimbrean just to make this point.
“Look at these. Much of this is gaoian history, but I’ve become an avid collector o’ human history, too. Both our peoples are martial at heart and prove it with deeds. We fight. That is what Deathworlders do. This can be on many levels, and today we must tend to the most dangerous fight of all: the war for our spirit. I will not spare you the truth, ever, and this is the most importantest thing you must know about me. So I will say without flinching that watching the war on earth…it broke my heart.”
He paused in front of the EV-MASS for a second, then sighed and turned to face the camera properly again.
“It hurt much more than I had imagined it would, and it’s taken some meditation to understand why. It hurt me—my entire people—because we feel such a powerful kinship with humanity. You were there at our darkest moment with a friendly face, a fierce determination, a helping hand. You committed what little spaceborne ability you had and the vast logistical powers of your terrestrial militaries toward saving my people. That is an infinite and unrepayable debt.”
Lauren’s hand found Austin’s and he squeezed it.
“Jesus,” she whispered. “This is really happening…”
Austin could only nod, and keep watching. “Yeah.”
On screen, Daar let the tiny moment of silence he’d paused for end. “In the unfolding hours of this great tragedy, I knew it fell to me to give the same in turn,” he said. “And I knew it would not be easy, or comfortable. Indeed, to save humankind, I have needed to act with swift and severe aggression. And, so: to that end, I have annexed Earth and Cimbrean, and named your nations as protectorates of the Gao. I have done this firstly by treaty power and secondly through the simple persuasion of logistics, of food and shelter.”
He returned to stand next to the throne and rested a paw on it.
“Some of you might feel this is a step too far. I sympathize entirely and I wish it were not. When the Allied Extrasolar Council saved my kind, you did so from a position of surpassing strength and safety. I, alas, cannot return that favor. My people are now suffering the worst consequences of that war. Our population is in severe decline and will be for another generation. We will drop below a billion in less than ten years.”
Another pause, and a quiet, solemn keen. It was a deep, resonant, and less piercing sound in his throat, but somehow that made it all the sadder.
“Is it…really that bad? “ one of the Calloway brothers asked.
Tristan and Ramsey glanced at each other, then nodded. “Daar’s honest. Always,” Tristan said, grimly. “They lost ninety-plus percent of their females and many of the males either died in the wars or are aging out of productive society.”
“Shush. He’s talking again.”
The room fell silent and attentive again. “—but far worse is the timing of our war with the Great Enemy. We are at a propitious moment. For the survival of both our peoples, I cannot allow anything to jeopardize our efforts. And, so: the brutal arithmetic of numbers compels me to consolidate. Apart, we will be destroyed. Together, we might find victory. We do not have time for this to play out as our gentler instincts might prefer, and what remains of your leadership knows this. Therefore…”
He gestured, and the camera drone pulled back. Austin blinked as the view widened to cover all the people standing in front of him, watching the speech. He recognized President White, the King…and a lot of other faces he vaguely knew from sometimes watching international news. Maybe half or two thirds of the world’s leaders were in that room.
Shit, as if they needed any more confirmation that what Daar was saying was real and official.
“Most of Earth’s governments have mere minutes ago signed or begun the act of union with myself, or with His Imperial Majesty Gilgamesh, the Emperor of Ekallim-Igigi. He will address his own peoples in a separate announcement. Yes, this has all happened very quickly, and no doubt comes as a great shock. Let us consider why it must be so: in a few years, Earth will be no more. The social and governance structures necessary to lead our peoples through that difficult evacuation have all but been destroyed. Historical animosities remain, and the pressing needs of survival compel all parties.
“Now, I have come to value Emperor Gilgamesh as a friend. He is a wise, benevolent leader, and I am happy that he should prove an ally and advisor, as I hope to be with him. Many of the former eastern bloc and unaligned nations have chosen his leadership over mine. This pleases me; I would not want all our eggs to be in one basket, as someone in both our species once said. We hope, in the coming days, to formalize freedoms of movement, trade, and commerce between ourselves. We hope to cooperate on matters of defense, of mutual aid, of research and, eventually, the community with which we hope to bind ourselves together.
“Therefore, myself and the Emperor will sign Instruments of Friendship to enable all these things, and to establish the United Peoples as a council of equals, binding our species and nations together. The ten’gewek and the e-skurel-ir will participate as protectorates, bound to neither empire and friend to both. We hope this new council will learn from the lessons of previous efforts, and will preserve our freedoms and autonomy while joining us together in the things that truly matter.”
As the camera refocused on him, Daar sat himself back on his throne.
“It is true that my sovereignty will reign supreme among my peoples, as will the Emperor’s among his. This is necessary for immediate stability, and necessary to build our future. But rest assured: I have no intention of ruling your daily lives, or quashing many of the natural freedoms so many of you enjoy today. You will have a real voice in your own governance, and it shall largely be accomplished by the people, for the people. My role will be to ensure its proper function. Details will be forthcoming over the coming months. I ask…for patience, and your trust. We will get through this, together.”
His tone softened, and his voice became warmer. “Today, we are united, and we commit ourselves to the freedom and prosperity of all. Our new civilization is forged by tragedy, but our response is not to look at our neighbor with recrimination and bitterness, but to extend a hand or a paw in camaraderie. Our community will love and be faithful to each other, united by our common dignity…and our shared loss. For we have all suffered greatly. But the day is coming, soon, when we will be free, when this war will be won. And then, we will build a new and brighter future for everyone.”
At this, he straightened up, and held that mace of his pointing straight up. “May the Unseen bless us all.”
Ekallim-Igigi, orbiting New Uruk, relic space
Gilgamesh, Emperor of Singularity and Lucent
“We congratulate you on a fine rallying speech, Cousin. It felt…right. Right for the moment.”
Daar was still wearing his regalia, having taken Gilgamesh’s call as soon as he could after completing the broadcast. ”Thankee. Y’sure ‘ya don’ wanna come visit ‘fer a hunt? It’s spring an’ the wild naxas are that perfect sorta lean when they’re buildin’ up ‘fer the rut…”
“You know how to tempt me well, but I must decline. I’m sure you would too if I made you a similar offer. We are both far too busy, are we not?”
“It’s okay! Truthfully, I were hopin’ you’d turn me down! More wild naxas ‘fer me…”
“Save me a roast, then!” Gilgamesh chuckled, then sat forward in his seat. “I think this is a useful division we have stumbled across.”
“Is it even really a division, though? Centralization is good…to a point. Then it’s kinda th’ worstest thing ‘ta do.”
“You have a fine understanding of human nature, my good cousin,” Gilgamesh agreed. “Now, the former eastern bloc and former western bloc do not need to try and trust each other—they could not possibly, I think. Instead, they need only trust their emperors. A much more natural fit, yijao?”
Daar did not reply verbally. Instead, he poured himself a glass of something orange-colored and drank it all in one go. “It is my intent that trade an’ travel be free between our empires,” he said. “We are fundamentally one civilization, goin’ forward. Not one wit’ homogeneous views or anythin’ like that, but friends and brothers, in the gran’ scheme o’ things.”
“I concur wholeheartedly…though that being the case I must press you for an answer to the questions I raised about the SOR and the fleet.”
Daar duck-nodded as he poured himself a second glass. “I’m movin’ the SOR ‘ta Akyawentuo. Yan an’ the Lodge are prepared ‘ta execute instruments of Friendship and Protection with both o’ us. The SOR will, in turn, be made a power of both our governments, with me bein’ th’ senior partner. I trust that answers ‘yer concerns?”
Gilgamesh nodded, and poured a glass of wine for himself. “Completely. The fleet, I suppose, must remain with its orbital and ground-based infrastructure at Cimbrean.”
“No other way ‘ta do it.”
“In that case…” he raised the wine cup toward the camera in front of him. “To our one civilization. May we share victory and peace.”
“Hear fuckin’ hear,” Daar agreed, and tapped his talamay against the side of his own camera.
“Incidentally, there is a species of ruminant on New Uruk that makes excellent sport, and I daresay is the equal of a naxas for the quality of its meat and leather. Perhaps you will join me in hunting it, when we have the time?”
“When we have th’ time,” Daar agreed, and glanced at something outside his camera’s field of view. “Which, you’ll have ‘ta excuse me, I’m short on right now…”
“As am I, cousin. Farewell for now.”
“Until next time.”
They closed the call practically at the same time, and Gilgamesh stood. He could not say he was pleased exactly with how things had turned out—far better if Earth’s last war had never happened at all—but they seemed to be forging the best possible future out of the range of options left to them in its wake.
On to other business. Pandrosion was waiting patiently at the door to his chambers, wearing an optimistic expression. She smiled at him as he slipped an arm around her waist and kissed her.
“What do you think?” Gilgamesh asked.
“I think things could have been so much worse,” she replied, echoing his own thoughts. “And I have news. The Light of the Levant has returned carrying children of the Line from Earth. They’re being tugged into dock as we speak.”
“More than I had dared hope. The ship is quite full!” Her face lit with the first genuine smile he’d seen from her since the day of the war. “You said you would like to greet them…”
“I very much would.” Gilgamesh finished his wine and set it down. “Let’s give them the welcome they deserve…”
Hierarchy closed communications session, Dataspace
++0004++: Your report is dismayingly imprecise.
++0016++: The situation is changing too rapidly for precision.
++0002++: There was a global nuclear exchange. This has historically been the fulcrum moment of victory over a deathworld species. But now your report implies otherwise? You estimate that the exchange has actually increased the threat they pose?
++0016++: In the short term. They have limited and dwindling resources, meaning they must act imminently and decisively or else lose the ability to act at all.
++0004++: Define imminently.
++0016++: Within the next gaoian year ideally, within the next ten at most. Beyond that, their economy will necessarily be in reconstruction mode for at least two hundred years.
++0002++: Our own reconstruction will not take so long. Progress is continuing on the relay redesign. Re-engineering an implanted substrate will take far longer…
++0004++: What might they strike? What is their plan?
++0004++: Let us maximize caution. What is the worst possible target they could strike?
++0016++: It is not clear that there is any target they could meaningfully strike. Singularity’s campaign against the regrowth archives is futile, we can seed them faster than they can be destroyed. Even if they somehow identify the current node world and destroy it, they cannot prevent Hegemony restoration.
++0002++: Such is the intent and design of the final failsafe. We foresaw a breakout species millions of years ago, and planned accordingly. It doesn’t matter if they “win,” the Igraen Hegemony will restore and continue after a suitable waiting period.
++0004++: < Uncertain; thoughtful >
++0002++: Share your thoughts in full, Four.
++0004++: They are incomplete thoughts. I have no specific hypothesis. I simply note that we have been unpleasantly surprised many times during this brief campaign. Indeed, it is the definition of a breakout species that they are capable of surprising us and bypassing our contingencies. There may yet be unconsidered factors that render us vulnerable in ways to which we are blind.
++0002++: Yes. The very nature of the scenario is we haven’t thought of them. How do you propose we further safeguard against unknown unknowns? The restoration fleet is already reconstructing itself and should be ready in fifty years. The worker-bodies will be maturing over the next few years, new resource worlds have been found…
++0004++: I have no additional suggestions at this time, with regards to the meat-life. My greater concern is the Entity.
++0002++: It is a singular dataform, and apparently no longer willing to branch. It can no longer penetrate the Hegemony or infiltrate our agents unnoticed thanks to Three’s security updates. The problem of destroying it is therefore now merely a matter of dataspace coverage and computation resources. It too is a problem we shall outlast.
++0002++: < Accusation > You believe I am overconfident.
++0004++: I believe at the present juncture, any confidence is overconfidence. So many factors are unprecedented. The creation of a dissident cabal within our ranks—
++0002++: Identified and reprogrammed.
++0004++: The existence of a datasophont arisen from the mind of a breakout specimen—
++0002++: I have already addressed that concern.
++0004++: My point is there is a conflux of factors which takes this scenario outside of what we planned for, and so it behooves us to be prudently paranoid.
++0002++: You need not lecture me on prudence, Four. Do not mistake my satisfaction that the situation is coming back into alignment for complacency. The Hierarchy will not rest easy until all of the presently extant interstellar sapients have been decommissioned, their technology purged of all record of this conflict, and the galaxy repopulated with new, untainted substrate and a properly pliant control species. Nothing will be taken for granted until that point is reached, and for long after too. Does my assurance satisfy you?
++0004++: Thank you, Two.
++0002++: < Satisfied > Sixteen, your report is adequate for the moment. You are expected to continue monitoring the situation and keep the single-digits apprised.
++0016++: < Understanding; compliance >
++0002++: Does anyone have other business to raise?
++0002++: Then this session is concluded. Continue your assigned tasks. We shall reconvene tomorrow as scheduled. Dismissed.
++System notification: User 0002 disconnected.++
++0004++: Out of interest, Sixteen?
++0004++: Were you able to gather information about the design of human weapons and defenses? The data may prove useful in future control cycles.
++0016++: I will focus on gathering that information and present it tomorrow.
++0004++: Good. Until then.
++System notification: User 0016 disconnected.++
++System notification: User 0004 disconnected.++
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Ekallim-Igigi, orbiting New Uruk, Relic Space
Jess was holding his arm for comfort, and Josh really couldn’t blame her one bit. He’d heard space stations could get pretty big, but this one was…was…
There was a whole fleet of ships all around them, held delicately inside cages of metal and forcefield, with umbilicals and cables and tubes stuck into them here and there. He could see one high above and on the far side of the vast, echoing space that was still only half-built. The light of welding flashed and strobed inside its skeletal hull.
And what ships, too! Several of the ones he could see stuck to the same general pattern as the one they’d traveled in, but several more were completely different. There was one at the far end of the docks like a crescent moon in red and white, another as black and sharp as a commando’s dagger, and a genuine titan that could only be described as “kingly.”
There were announcements in a language he didn’t speak, drones zipping back and forth through the open space.
“So…what are we doing?” Maria asked,
“Uh.” Josh looked at the pamphlet he’d been given. “We gotta do physicals and medical, then a sports eval…mine’s gonna take all day. Tomorrow there’s an outfitter? And then a few more days for, like, shipping and paperwork. I guess they’ll help us get a few things back off Earth.”
“Oh, and pilot training!” He enthused. “Just the basics though. For, like, emergencies.”
Maria nodded vaguely, then looked strangely relieved about something. “Oh, thank fuck. There are normal-sized people here too…” she indicated a couple of men walking past in high-vis clothing, accompanied by some kinda wheeled cargo drone. Sure enough, they were both regular-lookin’ guys, who gave the trio a nod as they passed by.
“Hey!” Josh felt himself in a bouncy mood. “I’m not that bad, am I?”
“Yeah, you sorta are.” Jess said, with a smile and a poke in his ribs.
“You all are,” Maria agreed, looking back toward the ship.
The other passengers were still disembarking and, looking at them, Josh had to admit the girls maybe had a point. He knew he himself was kinda big, but seeing the others their ship had picked up was…fuck, was he really that big?
…Well, yeah he was.
They hadn’t really spoken to each other yet. All these “children of the Line” who’d been picked up from all over North America may have had something in common, a lot in common even, but Josh…he didn’t know. He felt awkward at the idea that they were all basically distant cousins of some kind. Like he’d just showed up at an extended family reunion and didn’t know any of them or how to talk to them.
He’d picked up a couple of names in passing. There was Luke, squeezed into a max-sized Seahawks jersey that fit him tighter than his own skin. Mallory, who looked like someone had squeezed three regular girls into a single amazonian ad for sportswear. Bruce, whose whole look said he belonged on stage at a metal club fuckin’ ruining a drum kit, and his sister Amy who would probably have been the one screaming into the mic…
They all, like him, had a couple of ‘normal’ friends and relatives along for the ride, and the general mood was of milling around like ‘…well, now what?’
Everyone seemed to be giving each other a pretty wide bubble, too.
Well…fuck it. May as well take the initiative. Josh checked the pamphlet again, then looked around for a sign like the one it described at the top. Couldn’t read the text, but the pamphlet promised they’d get translation stuff as soon as they were through physical and medical.
“Uh, this way I guess…” he said.
They was a short walk down a tunnel, through a series of yellow forcefields that shimmered as they passed through and left Josh feeling too clean somehow, especially inside his mouth, and caused Jess to grab his arm together while licking her teeth with a weirded-out expression.
Then a waiting area, with seats big and sturdy enough for Josh to flop casually onto. Nobody was waiting though: instead, the first ET he’d ever met in person was waiting patiently for them with a tablet in one slim gray hand.
Josh had always thought Corti were supposed to be really fuckin’ tiny and freakishly proportioned, but this one was just built like a twelve-year-old boy, with huge eyes so dark they were nearly black from edge to edge. He assessed the three of them at a glance, then looked down at his tablet.
“Hartl, Esperanza and Brown, party of three, correct? One of the Line, two not.”
“Uh…” The urge to get protective of the girls rose up Josh’s back like a wave of tension, and he glanced at Maria, who frowned back at him. “This whole Line thing ain’t gonna mean anything negative for them, is it?”
“Not in the least,” the Corti shook his head with a reassuring smile. Fuck, weren’t they supposed to be all stone-faced and emotionless too? Josh guessed there was a lot he didn’t know.
“It’s important to you, though,” Maria noted.
“It’s the work of centuries. But if your concern is that you will be second-class citizens or some kind of outsider, I can promise you that’s not the case.” The Corti shook his head. “Anyway, please, this way. My name is Frethn, of the Void Caste.”
“Directorate society is stratified into the banner-castes. Primary colors below, elements above…the Corth of Singularity reject all that. We are the Void Caste, outside of the system entirely. Alike in dignity regardless of genetics.” He led them into a side room. “Here and now, our intent is to determine your medical needs. You did just survive a nuclear war…”
“I think we’re okay…” Josh hazarded. “The shields kept the worst of the fallout out, the girls sheltered in place, I had a suit on, none of us have shown any symptoms of radiation sickness…”
“Good. Then this should be a mere formality.”
In fact, it was as simple as standing under a large archway and letting it hum and beep at him for a few seconds. Frethn tilted his head and nodded as the results came through.
“Some active healing going on in your thyroid glands…I’m guessing you took potassium iodide? I see no particular alarming abnormalities and I doubt much will come of it, but I’m going to prescribe you a regenerative to assist the healing…Miss Brown?”
Jess and Maria got even cleaner bills of health thanks to the fact they’d spent all two weeks in Josh’s basement behind dust filters, rather than out and about doing stuff in the community right after the bombs stopped falling. Frethn was certainly happy, and bade them a pleasant farewell by way of handing them each a sealed packet of clothing and information, with the promise that quarters had already been prepared for the three of them.
Well, if the docking bay had been a huge cavern full of ships, the next compartment over was a city. A weird kind of city without rooftops, ‘cuz all its buildings stretched from floor to ceiling, but there were plazas out there, huge balconies and terraces. Parklands on the bridges that stretched from structure to structure, and shuttles flitting between them like birds in a forest. Jess rushed to the edge of the terrace they were on and leaned out, gawping at it all.
“Holy shit!” She twisted and craned her neck to look upwards. “How huge is this place?”
There was a chuckle from nearby. The deep, gruff, gravelly chuckle of a very old man, though when Josh turned to face the chuckler, he found himself looking up—a rare experience in his life—into a bearded, tanned face with a kind of timeless middle-age twinkle in his eyes.
And he was huge enough that Josh felt small next to him! But he recognized that face. He’d seen it enough on TV, never mind the educational materials and pamphlets on the ship.
“Uh…” Josh ventured, which was about all his brain could achieve.
Gilgamesh chuckled all the more in a kindly way and stepped forward to offer Josh a handshake. A wrist-grabbing one, rather than palm-to-palm, accompanied by an avuncular pat on the elbow. “I came to welcome the first arrivals from Earth. And your story is one I’d very much like to hear!”
“Uh…well…I’m, uh, Josh. Your Majesty.”
“Ah! The firefighter.” The Emperor of Singularity nodded in a pleased way. “Won’t you please introduce your lovely companions?”
“Uh…your majesty, these are my friends, Jess Brown and Maria Esperanza. They’re, um. Students. Jess was majoring in animal nutrition, and Maria in nursing…”
Gilgamesh smiled at his awkwardness, and greeted the girls with a tip of his head. “You don’t need to fuss with titles,” he reassured Josh. “Just the once at the beginning is the rule. Most of us don’t stand on formality unless of course it’s a formal moment.”
“You, uh…caught me off guard a bit, is all.”
“I can be sneaky, so I won’t blame you! And to answer your question, Miss Brown, the city chasm is three kilometers across at its widest point, and five hundred meters from floor to ceiling. More or less.” A smile twinkled behind that intricately ringleted and beaded beard. “If you want open green space and blue skies, the royal parkland is…” he aimed a finger as thick as Jess’ wrist upwards.
“Uh…thank you,” Jess nodded, having retreated to her safe spot on Josh’s arm. The emperor’s eyes met Josh’s as he noticed that fact, and there was an approving twinkle in them.
“Please,” he extended an open palm toward the city. “Go get settled in. Receive your training, continue your education. We have no shortage of need for firefighters, nutritionists and nurses, and your careers here will reach heights they never could on Earth. And if nobody has yet welcomed you properly…allow me to be the first. Welcome.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Gilgamesh nodded, and strolled away into the building they’d just left, no doubt to go greet the others. Maria exhaled slowly as the door closed behind him.
“Yeah,” Josh agreed.
“Weird to think that’s, like, your very-very-great grandfather, huh?”
“That’s what the Line means, isn’t it?”
“I…” Josh paused. “I guess it is. Wow.”
There was a pause, then the three of them collectively shook themselves back to reality and set about the business of, well…settling in. They were fresh-off-the-boat immigrants in an unfamiliar city, but they had a pamphlet, and the address where they were going to be staying at first, and apparently the public transit was free to use…
Things could have been a lot worse. Things had been a lot worse. So when, a few minutes later, the three of them climbed into a flying taxi and sat back as it zipped off among the pillar-buildings to deliver them to their new apartment, Josh found he was feeling…hopeful.
Weeks and weeks of terrible things were behind him. There’d been tension, preparations, the war itself, the cleanup and lifesaving afterwards…his mom and dad…
…He shut his eyes as that sneaky ball of agony reminded him it was still there, then looked out the window again, taking in the view. It was one he’d never imagined he’d see, and if he ever had he’d never have guessed to see it in such circumstances.
He wished his parents were there to see it with him.
But…he had a future. So did Jess and Maria. He’d done that for them, and as he sat there focusing on that thought he realized he’d quite unconsciously put his arm around Jess and cuddled her close, and she seemed perfectly happy with that.
He had a future.
He gave Jess a squeeze, and without speaking a word, made a promise to her. If he had anything to say about it, it would be a good future.
For all of them.
Gagarin settlement, Lucent
Another day, another queue. A different, shorter, better-organized queue, and one Yulia and the children were rested and ready for.
Even so, Yulia felt a mix of uncertain emotions about this queue’s purpose. A little dread and anticipation, and furthermore a little shame and anger. After all, it was quite dehumanizing to be told that the most useful thing you could possibly do was go into storage.
And what a storage. For now, they were just laying the stasis bags out in a field, but the queue to get bagged wrapped around the foundations for a full-sized warehouse, which were being poured at the edge of town by people in those black overalls with the green flower on them. The Garden people, working on behalf of a weird…robot, or something? A computer that was also somehow a human mind? Yulia hadn’t really followed the explanation at all…
Looking at the size of the hole they’d dug for foundations, and the scale of the pile of metal sheeting that was to become walls and roof and storage racks though? The warehouse was going to be as big as that airliner factory she’d seen on TV a few years back. That really drove in just how many people were in the same position as Yulia of being a net drain on resources.
She would have liked the chance to prove otherwise. This time, she kept her head down and shuffled along, not out of pain and exhaustion, but out of shame.
There was a zig-zagging set of temporary barriers in front of six prefab units. A couple of stewards with radios lined the path, each with a small drone hovering over their shoulder. This Entity thing was watching, and Yulia didn’t like that idea one bit.
It looked like a seventh and eighth prefab were going up, too. And more after that, no doubt. Was Gagarin really going to be come just a storage for people in stasis? It certainly looked that way.
But…if it saved lives…
She stepped forward again, and realized she was at the front of the line. There was a brief pause, then the steward pointed her toward unit three. She bounced Maksim on her hip, led Mila by the hand…
And found herself in a spartan but quite comfortable office, with a wide bed at the back. And, importantly, a play-mat and toys for the children. Mila pounced on it at once, and when Yulia set Maksim down he crawled eagerly over to join her. Actual toys. It had been weeks since Yulia had even been able to give them something to play with…
The woman sitting at the desk smiled at them, then at Yulia. “Hello, my name is Maria,” she said, warmly, and invited Yulia to sit with an open-palm gesture toward the comfortable chair opposite her. “May I take your name and your children’s?”
“Ah…Yulia Kozlova, and my children are Mila and Maksim.”
“Lovely names,” Maria typed for a few seconds. “And where are you originally from?”
“Ah, there you are.” Maria nodded. “It says here you’re married? Is your husband with you?”
“I’m…fairly sure he’s dead,” Yulia said, quietly.
Maria sighed. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, in a polite but vague way that suggested she’d heard similar news many times by now, and typed a few notes. “Alright, well. That’s all we need. Let’s get you and your children into stasis.”
“Do we have to?” Yulia asked. “I…I hate feeling like I’m a burden. If there’s anything I can do to help, instead of—”
Maria shook her head, not unsympathetically. “It’s harsh, I know. But the truth is, while a single mother and her young children are worth saving, what can you do to save other lives? You have your hands full with these two.” she indicated the little ones: Mila was busy snapping together little plastic shapes with magnetic edges into the general shape of a house, while Maksim happily waved around a green triangle before jamming one corner experimentally into his mouth.
“So we have to sleep instead…” Yulia gave the wide bag on the nearby bed a wary glance.
“It won’t be like sleep at all. You won’t have any sense of time passing; you will go in the bag, the bag will close, and then the bag will open again straight away.”
“When? How long will we be, uh, out?”
“We can’t tell you exactly. There’s too much we don’t know. But the Entity thinks that people in your group can expect to be in storage for a minimum of fifty years.”
“Fifty years?!” Yulia blinked at her, stunned.
Maria was clearly used to this reaction, too. “That’s the minimum estimate of how long it will take to be sure there’s space for you, food for you, a place for you to live and a school for your children to attend. But you won’t have aged a second.” She gave a sort of half-shrug. “If I may be honest, Mrs. Kozlova…I envy you. Those of us who aren’t going into stasis have a lot of hard work ahead of us. You get to fast-forward to the end and reap the benefits.”
Yulia blushed and looked down. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“Most haven’t. Now, please…the sooner we get you in these bags, the sooner you get to wake up in a brighter future. And I have a lot more people waiting in the line behind you.”
Right. It occurred to Yulia that when the bag opened, the woman she was speaking to would very likely have passed away from old age. The thought made her shiver, and hurried her up. “Mila? Come here. Hold mama’s hand.”
Mila cringed—for weeks now, those words had meant something bad was about to happen. But, dutifully, she rushed to Yulia’s side, and Yulia scooped up the baby with her other hand. At least he was clean and freshly changed…
Clean diapers were a luxury all to themselves, she’d discovered.
“Just lie down and tuck your feet into the bag,” Maria said. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
It took a little coaxing to guide Mila onto the bed, scoot her across and lie down next to her. Yulia cuddled her daughter up into her arm like they were taking a nap or reading a book together, then looked down as the worker tucked the bag over her feet and started to zip it closed.
Mila squirmed nervously. “What’s she doing, mama?”
“Shhh, рыбочка. It’s a magic trick. You’ll like it, I promise.”
The bag closed over their faces and Yulia hugged her children tight in the dark. There was a rustle as Maria smoothed out the bag and flattened them down, then click, an electrical whine of power.
New Alexandria, Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate
Senior Sergeant Jack (Two-Seventy) Tisdale
Gods, it was so much work.
For months they’d been jumping back and forth six times a day, hauling everything from heavy equipment to the tiniest, stupidest little supplies. Two-ton grav plates (let the Lads handle those!) down to fuckin’ Post-It notes.
Jack had spent a whole day moving nothing but barrels full of armor gel. Sure, the new-gen suits’ capacity for self-expansion was neat and all, but it still needed regular gel injections into the mid-layer. Armor gel had a density beyond aluminum somehow before it reconfigured itself properly and it was sticky and it smelled like mechanical death and—
At least he didn’t have to help move the gym.
The buildings went up quickly. Rapid pre-fab buildings, sorta, on top of well-prepared foundation. The Lads lost their sand pit (for now) but he suspected ‘Horse would dig a newer, even more horrible one. The rest of the training facilities would take time.
But they were up and running. Barracks ready for move-in. Kitchen broken in. And now, everyone dug in to prepare.
The Lads were going to be doing their warrior-monk thing for the next several years and they couldn’t afford distractions. So…
So here they were. An unfamiliar world, unfamiliar plants, unfamiliar gravity, unfamiliar everything. Basic facilities for now. But over time, they’d build up a full base. The ten’gewek’s jungle was a short hike away and the plan was to make it parkland between them, if possible. And by park, it was meant in the American sense of a national park. Wild. Untamed. Left alone. So far the local tribe had left them alone, but there was plans for a feast. Soon.
Once they get unpacked.
As for Jack, about the only comforts he had with him from home were Rihanna, a few candles, his book of shadows, the pen Adam gave him when he made petty officer (and then immediately got cross-ranked to sergeant), and some of his favorite clothes.
The years had treated him well, and life around the Lads was exactly what one would expect. He was full-grown now. Two-Seventy was still his callsign, but now that meant kilos instead of pounds, and that just seemed the right way to leave it. He knew enough about what it took to do what the Lads did for a living, so he entertained no romantic ideas whatsoever of going for that himself. He didn’t have yard-wide shoulders or unbreakable bones; he was very much a normal, not-ogre type of gymrat, and he was happy to be a regular sort of strong.
And he was! Good genes from dad. Though…he would have to get his hench-bench back up to two-seventy here on Akyawentuo too, so…he wasn’t totally without ambition!
Other things were more important, though. He had to keep Rhianna impressed! Still hadn’t married Ree, but…soon. He had the ring. He’d have asked before all this happened…
Finally, at long last, he had a leave day.
Life was finding a weird new normal. Rolling shortages of everything, but they didn’t last long. The market was in fact responding and that sort of answered the age-old question of economics for Jack. Dad was grumbling about it, but he grumbled about a lot of things. Old, too. Not hobbled-old—he’d taken some of the modern therapies like everyone else, so he looked and generally performed like a salt-and-pepper gymrat at the tail-end of his prime. Still had it, but…no crazy stupid macho henching for him these days, no sir.
Sis was a gem. Hope really was their hope, and it was a miracle she’d got off Earth.
To be sure, Jack had asked a favor from Hoeff and his mysterious, dangerous friends…and it got done. No payment necessary. No favors “you wouldn’t be uncomfortable with.”
Jack believed him. Because the price was silence. Tell anyone and Hoeff would visit him one night…
A small price to pay to still have his baby sister.
There not being much else to do around town or base, they decided to go exploring. Advice was to not stray too far from the perimeter fields, just in case of Brown Ones, but there was a website up to keep track of the big beasties, and the nearest one—a big and dominant female the community had named “Bess”—was about twenty miles away to the east.
But in any case, the forest was more interesting. And there were always a few ten’gewek in the area, keeping an eye on their tribal territory. Etiquette was pretty simple, if one showed up you offered a small gift, promised that your purpose was peaceful, and obeyed whatever rules they set you. If there was any trouble, pass it along to a Given-Man.
Of course, there was a reason to this beyond just taking a stroll.
“I know you love nature,” Ree commented as they picked their way over the roots of a ketta right at the forest’s edge, “but what’s wrong with the plains?”
“The forest is sacred.”
“To the ten’gewek?”
“Just…sacred. Can’t you feel it?” Jack smiled as they stepped into the canopy’s shade and were suddenly surrounded by woody smells, soft leaf litter, the sweet scent of shelf fungus and tree pollen—mercifully, the human immune system just ignored ketta pollen—and the creak of high branches swaying in the soft breeze.
Ree looked up, then sighed softly. “…Yeah. Yeah, I can.”
Jack followed her gaze, and exhaled as he saw just how high the barky columns all around him rose. It was like they’d just stepped into the nave of a vast organic cathedral. Instead of the ribs of a gothic vault, there were branches, and the leaves were just translucent enough to stand in for stained glass.
And then, like that moment when an optical illusion flipped, part of the vault moved and became a pair of ten’gewek. A woman and a younger girl, who dropped down from the branch they’d been perched on in a series of confident bounds, hooting peace-calls as they came.
Jack had read up on the people, and knew those markings on their foreheads and cheekbones. They were a Singer and her apprentice Dancer. He spread his hands, proving that he was unarmed.
The Singer dropped from the last branch like a rock, and landed with a heavy thud right in front of him. The jump would have shattered most humans’ legs, but in her case it seemed as natural as trotting down a flight of stairs. Her tongue lashed the air for a second.
“…You HEAT? Too small, but taste like HEAT arm-or.”
“We’re HEAT technicians,” Jack explained. “I’m Jack, this is Rihanna.”
“Tech-nish-an?” the Singer turned to her Dancer, who trilled out a translation. “Ah! Tool-makers and fixers, yes? Like smiths?”
“Saw you coming, long off,” the Dancer said. “You come to talk, trade, hunt?”
Ree looked at him, as if to say ‘actually, yeah, why are we here?’
“Uh…to pray, actually,” Jack said. “If that’s alright.”
The Singer’s tail lashed. Clearly, he’d intrigued her. “Alright? Yes, alright. You find gods-grove that way.” She turned and pointed with an arm as long as a pool table. “No need for Giving, just no Taking either, yes?”
“We watch out for you, let you know if Werne come close. Herd nearby, we are hunting.”
She hooted amiably, and then with a superhuman leap was away up the tree again, moving with remarkable grace and speed. The Singer trilled, followed, and in seconds Jack couldn’t see them any longer.
“Y’know…it’s nice knowing we’re being watched out for in here,” Ree commented.
Jack nodded, and headed in the direction the Singer had indicated. He hadn’t actually needed the directions—the gods-grove was marked on the map, and had been their destination all along—and he knew they were by custom a place where everyone was welcome so long as they showed respect. But it was nice to have the Singer’s tacit blessing.
It was a further three miles deep into the forest, along the werne-trails and shallow streams. And it was not hard at all to recognize the gods-grove when they found it.
It was a rock. A really big, craggy one thrusting up through the soil that even millennia of roots and leaf-litter hadn’t conquered, creating an open clearing where there was no canopy and the sun shone right the way down to the ground. The ten’gewek had painted it and cleaned off the moss, left offerings and cleared the space around it for dancing. The edge of the grove was marked with a ring of white stones.
The mere sight of it made him smile.
“I really need to learn more about ten’gewek beliefs…” Ree noted, setting her pack down outside the grove. “I’ve heard them talk about gods, but I don’t know any of their gods’ names…”
“I want to learn more too,” Jack agreed. “But I asked Yan about it when I got the chance. He said you can pray however you like, here.”
She kissed him and sat down to watch. After years of being together, Ree and Jack had come to an understanding about their respective faiths, and she knew how important this was to him. Besides, she’d once told him that quiet time spent in reflection was never wasted. So…
So he set things up. A quiet rustling in the branches outside the gods-grove was probably the Singer keeping an eye on him as he opened his book and picked out the ritual he’d prepared for this.
He performed it in silence. It was a simple, focused spell to both God and Goddess that he’d have…well, courage. In the coming days, in the coming war. He’d already had the strength to ask for help, now let him have the strength to pay the price. He’d had the fortune to survive, along with his family, now let him have the grace to accept his fortune humbly and without undue guilt.
He had an opportunity…now grant him the courage to act.
His breathing slowed. He felt calm, at peace for the first time in months. He felt warm, not just from sunlight and the heat of the Akyawentan climate, but from within his soul, and a general feeling of approval and rightness. The ring held in the palm of his hand felt like it was almost burning with energy, ready to fulfill its purpose.
He asked Ree to marry him, and she said yes.
There was a future. There was, after everything that had happened, still a future.
All they had to do was build it.
++END CHAPTER 93++
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Dandelion: audiobook now available!
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Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.
When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…
Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.
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
Sian, Steve, Willow, Zoe and Riker
Joshua A. Demic
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As well as 49 Deathworlders…
Adam Zarger Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Preece blackwolf393 Bralor Ironwolf Brandon Hicks Brigid Bruce Ludington Chalax Chris Bausch Christopher Plemons Crimson Nova damnusername Daniel R. David Jamison Eric Hardwick Henry Moyers Ignate Flare Ironclad Ivan Smirnov Jack Weedon jmal116 Jon Katie Drzewiecki Kevin Neely Kristoffer Skarra Loaf of Orange lovot Matt Bullock Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. Mikee Elliott Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oli Tusig Olli Erinko Patrick Huizinga Ryan Cadiz Sam Sean Calvo Stephen Prescott Thanatos walter thomas Woodsie13 Yeania Aeon Zod Bain
55 Friendly ETs, 128 Squishy Xenos and 310 Dizi Rats who have packed their bags but just can’t seem to find their jump tickets…
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 94: The End of the World