The Deathworlders


Chapter 94: The Waiting Stars

Guāngjing, Shuòshěng province, planet Lucent

Colonel Shen Changming

The man known to his neighbors and coworkers as Han Heng woke to the horrible, cold knowledge that he was not alone in his bedroom.

He didn’t know how he knew, exactly. But the certainty gripped him that it didn’t matter one bit that he had seven locks on the door, and motion sensors throughout the house, and that he lived on the top floor…he could feel the presence in the room even before he finally willed his panicked eyes open.

Standing in the corner with baleful, pale eyes was a powerfully-muscled creature too broad and squat to be properly considered a man. He was dressed a bit like a tourist…but there was no hiding his extreme build, no disguising what he was.

The Hero had come for him.

With glacial slowness, Changming started moving his hand toward the gap between mattress and bedside table, in which his pistol was attached to the table’s underside. “…You,” he said, stalling for time. English, he guessed. The man who’d killed General Petrovich had to be an American, surely.

“I’d rather you didn’t ruin my shirt,” the man growled out. “You’ll just make me angry.”

Changming lunged for it. His fingers scrabbled where the weapon should have been and found nothing.

The man-ape sighed.

“You supervillains are so fucking predictable. It didn’t work for Petrovich, and like I said…I’d rather you didn’t ruin my shirt.”

Changming slowly sat up. Well. He was dead. The moment he’d feared ever since the fateful day was here. Oddly, he found he felt quite calm about it.


“You got a better word for a man responsible for so many deaths?”

“Dutiful.” Changming stood. “You are here to kill me because the men I served under and whose orders I obeyed are dead. Are you going to kill the men like me who obeyed similar orders from your own government? Everyone knows the American weapons killed more than anyone else.”

The American gave him a cold look that said he really didn’t care at all. “I have questions,” he said bluntly.

“And why should I answer?”

“I’d let you do the honorable thing yourself. Fuck, put on your dress uniform or whatever.”

“And all I must do is betray my fellows?”

“Nah. We know the Israeli minister of defense reached out to you. We’ll find him, sooner or later. You know we will. But sooner is better for you.”

There was a long moment of silence. Colonel Shen ended it by breaking, looking down at his bare feet and pajamas, and sighing. If he must die tonight, and it seemed he must, and if it changed nothing else…

“I work at the stasis facility now,” he said. “I hid the minister’s bag in the racks under the name Nat Dreyfuss.”

“Thought so.”

The man-ape tossed Shen’s uniform onto the bed, neatly pressed and clean. Shen looked at it mournfully.

“…Why do I get better treatment than Petrovich?”

The American shrugged. “You weren’t the cause of this, just the means. Shoulda been braver.”

“I’d have been dead either way.”

“Yes, but billions of others wouldn’t be.”

True. Shen swallowed, and nodded. “…May I have a moment to prepare?”

“Prepare how?”

“Shave. Write a brief note…”

The American nodded, once.

Colonel Shen took his time. He savored every moment, every step of the process of lathering the soap, brushing it onto his jaw and cheeks and throat. The little ritual of loading a new blade into the razor. He calmed himself with slow breaths as it glided through two days of graying stubble, and felt oddly tranquil by the time he’d wiped his face clean.

He put on his uniform, taking time and care over every detail. Cuffs to the very middle of his wrist bone, the jacket set just so on his shoulders, the hem of the trousers perfectly level with his ankles…

The squat man let him dress in peace.

Then a few minutes at his writing desk. The process of grinding ink, loading the brush, selecting the paper, and calligraphing three careful, traditional characters.

對 不 起

The man looked down and glanced at the paper. “Fair enough. Anything else?”

Shen thought for a brief second, but… “No. No, I am ready.”

He rose, turned around and faced the man, who handed him his pistol.

“It’s quickest if you point straight up into your brain. Hollywood doesn’t know anything.”

“…I’ll leave such a mess.” He…laughed. On the edge of some strange energy. “I feel bad for the cleaning lady!”

“Commendable. So sit on the bathroom floor, back against the tub wall. I’ll clean up after you.”


The man shrugged. “I try to be considerate.”

“I see. Well. Thank you. Is it…strange, that I feel so much more concern for inconveniencing the cleaner, than I do for my role in what happened?””

“No. It’s very human. Now…it’s time.”

Colonel Shen nodded, and sat. He felt the weapon in his hand. He’d had the old thing most of his career, and always kept it in perfect order. Never fired it except on the range. In a way, it was rather fitting that the only life it would take in his service was his own.

The familiar checks. Magazine—one round. Insert. Draw the slide. Safety off.

He didn’t even think of turning it toward the American. He knew how that would end. Instead, noting distractedly that his hands were perfectly calm and steady, he raised it and tucked the barrel under his chin. Tried to think of something to say, some parting comment…

No suitable words came to him. There was nothing to say, nothing left to do except die.

He pulled the trigger, and never heard the hammer strike.

Hosing down the shower stall was easy, but he couldn’t leave the body there. A message had to be sent. So, he laid the corpse out on the bed, all neat and tidy. Laid his hands out, made sure he looked good. Even put a plastic bag around the pillow, under the pillow case. More dignity than most in his position would be getting.

Corpses didn’t tuck themselves into bed. That would send a message, too.

The last step was egress. He didn’t want a bloodbath in his wake, so there was a long wait until shift change, and a report from his overwatch that the guards were well-distracted. He disabled the sound suppressor, pocketed it and quickly, quietly, took advantage. Then, he walked. It was a long way to find obscurity, but he could blend in with the Russian diaspora well enough if nobody was really paying attention. It was more about movement than anything else; people tended to act the most noticeable when they were afraid of being seen.

Ten klicks out of the settlement, and Hoeff activated his jump beacon. Back in the Residence.

“How went the hunting?”

“Merciful and discreet. But undeniable. And our next target is lined up.”

“Well…I won’t say ‘excellent’ in an affair like this, but…well done. You look like you need a good night’s rest.”

“Yeah. Been on mission for sixty hours at this point. And I’ve got my wife to answer to…”

“Good luck, then.”


Early morning in Folctha. The ground was still dark and damp from last night’s rain, and the city had that familiar well-rinsed feel to it. Good to be home, really. There was a nice big truck waiting for him, not one of those little Johnny Cabs that he’d put his foot right through with his weight. Instead it was one of the ubiquitous vehicles from SOR’s motor pool, something that could take his now Warhorse-grade heft. All arranged ahead of time, ready to take him home like it had just been another long day at the office, nothing special.

He climbed in, put the seatbelt on, rested his head back, and dozed all the way home.

Garden Station, Ink Spatter Nebula

Bonhomie Sousa

Bonhomie had never lived anywhere so nice in his life than on Garden Station.

Back on Earth, he’d been comfortably middle-class. His appliance business had kept his family in a nice condominium in Flamengo that was, okay, maybe a little small for them, but nicely decorated and well placed in the city.

As thanks for his services managing the evacuation in Rio, the Entity had paid him with a home unit twice the size of their old place, equipped with every convenience a family could ask for. And out the front door, the lush green of a hydroponic farm extending from the third floor up to the top of the station cell that filled the air with the smell of living herbs. And below that was a communal park area, complete with a playground and small swimming pool and ringed by what would, in the fullness of time, be a rich assortment of shops.

Most of the units were still empty, but there was an electric feeling of potential about the place that said when the evacuation was over and everyone was all moved in, it would be a lively, characterful place to live.

They had a front window opening out onto the hydroponics, too. Some considerate part of the Entity’s thought process—Daemon, most likely—had decided to make it double as storage and a seating space, with a little padding. You could sit there and read, or look out and watch the tiny, intricate little drones zipping around among the plants like jeweled dragonflies.

People outside the Entity’s influence didn’t really understand how many it was. Or, in its own weird and inscrutable way, how human and compassionate. But once aboard Garden Station, all you had to do was look around to see it both knew how to make a place beautiful, and wanted to.

But it had done so in such a special way, too: it had created a beautiful canvas, and then invited its residents to paint on it. Already there were murals on the support columns that encircled the park.

Bonhomie’s favorite was of the Earth. Just the Earth. Somebody had installed a votive stand beneath it, and there were always at least a half-dozen lit candles in it. A little heartfelt shrine to what humanity was losing.

But also a shrine to what humanity was gaining, because the Earth was just the bottom of the mural, which extended up as high as the bottom row of hydroponics racks, so that much more of it was the stars, the whole galaxy.

Bonhomie didn’t know who the artist was, but he hoped to find out someday and thank them.

He glanced at the wall clock, and rose from the window nook to wander through into his home office. He’d brought his family to Garden Station at the outbreak of the Kazakhstan conflict, and been working from home ever since. All he had to do was sit down, log in…

Join the conference call.

“Bom dia, senhor Sousa,”

“Olá!” he replied. “Tudo bem? How is today coming?”

“It’s good news! We have thirty thousand Ticuna people waiting for somewhere to go. We were just discussing where to put them…”

Bonhomie nodded and listened as the different options were put forward. Effectively all of the Ticuna tribe spoke Portuguese nowadays, so the Portuguese-speaking diaspora on Gao was one option if they were to be kept live. Option two of course was to put the whole tribe in stasis, but an intriguing option three was to note that here were a group of people already used to living in a rainforest, so why not send them to Akyawentuo?

“Daemon? What do you think?”

A brief pause while the Entity found time and attention to look their way and replay the conversation.

“…We don’t know enough about the Ticuna to have an opinion,” Daemon said.

Bonhomie nodded. “We’ll talk to the Hurt Institute then.”

“That would be best,” Daemon agreed. “Thirty thousand, though? That’s great news!”

“We’ll have more for you soon, I’m sure.”

“You always do! Sorry, gotta run…”

There was the indefinable sense of attention being withdrawn.

That was the general pattern of a work day for Bonhomie. Calls and conferences and letters and just…keeping track of numbers. Large numbers. The northern hemisphere’s nuclear war was becoming a nuclear winter, which in turn was becoming a global problem as the temperature dropped to unseasonal lows everywhere. For the many people in South America still living as subsistence farmers, and especially for the indigenous peoples, that was a problem: the whole seasonal cycle they depended on was being thrown out of balance.

All of which complicated the evacuation with the need to evacuate the most vulnerable peoples first.

The Hurt Institute shot down the idea of moving the Ticuna People to Akyawentuo almost instantly, with the observation that just because they lived in a rainforest on Earth didn’t mean they’d automatically find it easy to adapt to a completely different and alien rainforest where none of their inherited knowledge was applicable, nor their hard-earned skills useful. The bows they’d need to down a werne were far too powerful for even most fit men to draw, even as compound bows, and neyma weren’t reliable enough prey to subsist on, just as an example of issues in their little corner of the vast planetary jungle. Different plants, new alien venoms…

By the end of the day, the consensus was that the Ticuna would have to go into stasis, but their population was sufficiently small for Garden Station to handle them all: no need to split them between multiple facilities and worlds. Bonhomie passed the plan along to their field agent, who promised to put it to the Ticuna…

And that was just one of the dozen decisions they had to make today.

It was stressful, knowing that so many lives were in their hands. But at the same time, it was a blessing, knowing they were actively involved in saving people and cultures. A man could step away from his computer and sit down to dinner with his family with a full heart, after a day of work like that.

Millions. So far, they’d saved millions, or more accurately they’d helped millions to save themselves. People were really coming through, putting everything they had into saving as much of humanity as they could, not just their loved ones. It seemed to Bonhomie like everyone who safely got themselves and their loved ones off-planet then immediately turned around to join the effort in turn.

And though there may be millions more to go, he felt certain they could do it.

And would.

Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Martina Arés

Adam had a mission again, and Marty had mixed feelings about that.

To be completely fair, he was keeping his promises to her, and there were limits he respected: he could train as intensely as he wanted, but that was a daily job now, not his obsession. So, every day at the crack of dawn he’d head off to put in an unimaginable effort to catch up and (in his mind, anyway) hopefully reclaim all his meathead titles. Then he’d come home, bone-tired and deeply happy in a way that just…made it impossible to argue against him. He’d snuggle the kids, find a second wind after dinner, spend some family time, then studying time…then he’d study her, like clockwork, with all the fire and passion he’d ever managed.

Then he’d pass right the hell out, dead to the world in the deepest, most peaceful of sleeps.

Rinse, repeat. Every day he came back a little stronger, a bit more energetic. They didn’t fight, in fact they had a fairly tranquil domestic life, and any disputes they did have were over little things that didn’t really matter. The biggest argument so far had involved rent forgiveness for their new refugees; Adam wanted to be a bit more generous than Marty thought they could afford, and she was unhappy to have won that argument.

Even so, they found a way to make it work for everyone, and the happiness he expressed over that resolution, well…it was hard to hold a grudge with that kind of reward on offer. Besides, she knew deep down that pursuing his purpose was a big part of why that was true. Honestly, despite the trials they’d experienced over the years, or how endlessly busy they were these days, it was hard to see how life could be better.

Why was she worried, then?

Life had been a whirlwind since the war. It was such a sea-change it was honestly hard to put into words. Something like after Chicago, after San Diego, what her parents had said 911 had been like. Except this time, something like normal wasn’t coming back. Because how could it? The world would have been permanently changed even if it wasn’t ending.

But people were doing something about it. Families were opening their homes to refugees and handing out spare clothes, workers were putting in long, long weeks, which meant that stuff was getting built. Ten’gewek building and welding crews were now a major talent export from Akyawentuo; Yan and Vemik had been busy! She’d parked a camera out on the rooftop terrace, aimed toward the construction along the coastal highway, and set it to time-lapse mode, a photo a minute. In a few months, she’d be able to watch the buildings fling themselves into shape.

It was hard to put a finger on what the zeitgeist was like. But there were some themes. Folks were determined that the human race’s history wouldn’t end in ignominy, war, destruction, and as the helpless subjects of an alien king…

Not that Marty disliked Daar. On the contrary, that was the infuriating thing about him. Even knowing he could be an absolute monster, you just…couldn’t hate the guy for long. His true nature was much more fatherly and jocular in a positive sense, rather than violent and oppressive. There was no king she’d more gladly follow, if she had to have a king at all. Besides, what could they do? Say no? Of course not. The only thing to do was deal with it.

Or even thrive. Apparently, the very best in the human spirit shone through when times were at their bleakest.

Just like Adam, really.

It was honestly his less obvious strength that impressed her more about him. The physical power was there for everyone to see, but he had once literally climbed out of a death pit by his fingernails, in incomprehensible agony, and saved everyone there by doing so. Saved the Gao, and as Daar himself was keen to state, not for the first or last time, either. To Marty’s thinking that was even more incredible. Now, she was seeing an echo of that power all around her: the human race was climbing out of a death pit too, and pretty much everyone was rising to the challenge in their own way.

And their fellow Deathworlders were helping. Somehow, human tragedy was bringing out the best in them, too.

Nowhere was that more obvious than Folctha’s new street market. The population had expanded dramatically more-or-less overnight as people flooded off Earth, and things had changed a lot in where…well…everything was coming from. Spices, foodstuffs. Labor and supply. By necessity it was a bit of a free-for-all right now, and almost anything could be had.

For example, Akyawentuo’s women had begun a small herb and spice export business and it looked like business would be booming in short order. It was a good toe-dipping in agriculture for them, and a great way to see what they could cultivate without hurting their jungle too much; ten’gewek were intensely aware of the changes they made to their home, and women most of all (through Singers) had the biggest responsibility in leaving no permanent mark on the forest.

Meanwhile, orangecrest day laborers had become some of the best you could hire: they were smart, dextrous, unbreakable, and generally had endless work capacity. They were short and pretty damn broad and averaged well over three hundred-ish kilos or more of basically pure muscle, with the kind of proportionate ant-like strength that simply had to be seen to be believed. They were built incredibly tough too, but above all, they were built for power.

Power equally on the ground or in the trees. Pound-for-pound, they were about five to ten times stronger than a regular man in any test and had good heads for heights. Their huge, broad feet were made for long-distance walks under extreme burdens over any terrain, but retained full digits and were as dextrous as their massive hands. They had long, prehensile tails that were often strong enough in big males to cut a tree through by simple constriction. All that together meant they could climb anything safely. Falls even from great heights were barely an inconvenience for them.

It wasn’t just men, either. Some of their young women were into it too, and though they weren’t so strong and tended to choose other work, by and large they weren’t comparably weak, either. An average woman among them was still a muscular creature as massive as any silverback gorilla, and much more powerful to boot.

For construction especially, having someone who could weld or fasten bolts while hanging upside-down from their tail? Who could leap literal stories straight-up, while carrying loads? They were becoming heroes to many, with the literal superhuman kind of help they could give.

But ten’gewek weren’t drop-in replacement labor, either. It was humans and gaoians who taught them how to do all those things. It was humans who kept much longer hours than the others, who had the experience and know-how to build quickly. Who understood working smarter. Which ten’gewek thought of as a good kind of human sky-strength, but they knew what they were best at and were happy to leave the tricky sky-thinking bits to their foreman. Hammer bolt, lift beam, move this, carry that. Weld or rivet. They made the carpenters and such better by helping.

Some of the women found extra work as guardians and assistants for the Clan of Females, which in the present multi-species chaos meant they were happily protecting and mothering human children, too. Daycare children in Folctha of any species were possibly the safest in existence.

The inter-species partnership had grown deep, and grown quickly. Not just in manpower, but markets, too.

Clothes, for instance. Nobody was importing Chinese-made t-shirts because, well, China wasn’t making them any longer. But it wasn’t hard to sew a shirt together, and silkscreening wasn’t magical tech, either. The real thing in short supply was the textiles themselves, but that was changing in quick order. Turned out flax quite liked much of Cimbrean, and cotton did very well on Lucent. Sheep liked the cold of Gao, and synthetic fibers of course only needed chemistry…

And Gao had some pretty good mills. Genuine linen and cotton had become premium fabrics in galactic trade, and the demand would only ensure their long term supply. Wool was already being marketed as a new wonder material, and on the same trading routes was almost as expensive as silk. Daar was apparently making huge bank off that now.

“Which jus’ gives me moar cash ‘ta invest in our recovery,” he’d grunted over steak, one day.

The result was a market in tough second-hand clothes, and new rugged apparel that could go forever with maintenance. Expensive. Yeah. Everything was expensive. And woe betide you if you wanted silk! But you were getting a shirt that would last you the rest of your life with a bit of care.

Honestly, she could dig it. Living with a meatwall like Adam had long ago turned her away from disposable…anything, really. People would adapt.

Something similar was happening with electronics, too. There were no more phones, consoles, TVs, computers and stuff coming from Earth, so what you had was what you were gonna be stuck with for a while, unless you somehow had access to nanofactory runtime. Xiù’s brother had brought all the stuff from his prototyping company with him, and now his entire business seemed to be 3d-printing spare parts for washing machines and the like.

Rumors of a ground-breaking for a new chip fab were circulating, too. One near Franklin, which had facilities for advanced metallurgy and engineering space that, after having been rebuild post-Chicago, largely sat idle…

Major archeology and preservation actions were underway, too. Earth was falling into nuclear winter. Probably. Maybe. Time was short, either way. Everyone was closing up shop, and everyone who could was getting evacuated. But it wasn’t all being abandoned. Orderly shutdown was…somehow mostly finding itself. Byron Group, historical societies, the Church, allied secular groups…all were mounting expeditions to bring back as much of humanity’s treasure as could be managed.

Really, there was too much going on to really keep it all straight. But life went on, and people had too much in front of them to really dwell on any of it.

And maybe her heart was cold, but she found she really couldn’t work up any feelings regarding the sudden assassination of Petrovich by…well, Hoeff, obviously. She couldn’t even mentally add “or somebody who looked suspiciously like him” because nobody looked that much like Hoeff.

Anyway. She couldn’t feel much of anything except a sort of grim satisfaction at his performance. And happiness it wasn’t Adam who’d done the deed. On the whole, really, on balance, everything was looking up. In a fiercely determined, knuckle-down-and-get-shit-done kinda way.

So why was she worried?

She blinked as she realized Diego had said something to her, and refocused. “…Sorry, angel. What was that?”

“It’s okay…are you okay, Mom?” Diego was a good kid, like that.

“Eh…lot on my mind,” she shrugged it off, not wanting to worry him. “Weren’t you gonna work out with your papá?”

“He said I need a rest day.” He shrugged those big Arés shoulders of his unselfconsciously. “And I feel a little sore, so…”

Marty laughed. She wasn’t going to argue with a preteen who’d built up a set of softball-sized biceps.

“He’s probably right.”

“Yeah…think he wanted to crank the gravity up past three, too.”

“Have you done three yet?”

“Not on lifting days. Just…like, wrestling or gymnastics or whatever. Oh! Come see next time, I can hold an iron cross forever! And I can punch real hard!”

Thankfully, neither he nor his friends were any kind of bullies—in fact, they tended to be protective of their “little friends”—but between themselves they were constantly brawling. Diego usually won. He was still the shortest of his friends but also the heaviest and strongest, even next to Joseph.

Hell, the three of them were officially Heroes now (whatever that meant) and the first Crude babies born outside of Singularity. They were growing like goddamn weeds and Diego already handily outweighed her. He’d be properly man-sized before his eleventh birthday, at this rate. Thank God he was such a gentle-hearted boy.

He noticed her looking at him and gave a sweet, shy grin, then wandered over to the fridge and pouted at its lack of content. “Aw, man. Isn’t there any juice?”

“‘Fraid not. And it’s just sugar water anyway. We have some apples…”

Diego uttered the classic preteen-boy disgruntled grunt, and headed for the fruit bowl.

“Try it with some cheese!” Anything to get some protein in him.

“No ham either…I miss being able to make a big sammich whenever,” he griped, but also fetched the cheddar from the fridge. Thank God they had local dairies. Their daily milk-egg-cheese delivery was worth every penny.

Marty tuned her ears and listened, and….yup. There it was. Even through several floors, she could semi-hear, semi-feel the distant thrum of the grav plating in the basement. Or was it the chug of Adam’s lifting music? The shit he listened to down there when moving serious weight in serious gravity was a sonic weapon with violent lyrics.

Like nothing had happened to him.

…That was it, right there. Not so very long ago, he’d had barely enough strength to roll out of bed and stagger to the bathroom and back. Not so very long ago, she’d wheeled him out of a hospital in a chair. Shit, not so long ago he’d had his brain taken out and extensively operated on by the very best doctors the Corti had because it was that or he’d die by epilectic seizure.

And now he was back at it like he’d never been slapped down. It was like his recovery had given him a sense of invulnerability and he was determined to claim back everything he’d lost.

And so far, he had. He was the best version of himself ever, in every way. It was only the fact that his own efforts had pushed his…Hero friends so far forward, that there was anything to catch up to at all, really.


Marty blinked back to reality again. “…Ugh, sorry.”

Diego sat opposite her. “…Something’s really bugging you, huh?”

Arés men were such sweetly perceptive meatheads. And Diego was very much an Arés man. Marty smiled at him, and shrugged.

“It…probably shouldn’t be. It’s not even something I can put my finger on. Just…he got hurt so bad and now he’s back and better than ever.”

Diego’s handsome, squared-off manboy face twisted as he tried to figure out why that would be troubling her, then puppy-tilted on that super thick Arés neck of his. “Isn’t that…?”

“It’s a good thing, yeah. Like I said, I can’t quite figure out what’s bothering me either. That happens sometimes.”

Diego chewed thoughtfully on some cheese, then shrugged. “…Wanna do something fun?”

Marty smiled at her son. “Sure. We’ve got time before we gotta go pick Sam and Paz up from grandpa’s house. What do you wanna do?”

“Ninja Taco?” he asked, both hopefully and predictably. Marty laughed, thought about it, then thought…fuck it. Why not? Cool Mom time.

“Sure. But it’s not been the same since Leela sold it…”

“It’s still good!”

Well, he wasn’t wrong. Marty nodded, stood, grabbed her coat and shrugged it on. “Alright then.”

She dropped in on Adam in the basement as they left. He was doing bent over rows with a stupendous stack of weight, and in gravity so strong she could feel it pull slightly on her even outside the boundary. He looked up at her…stood tall and pretty, spun around and showed her just what the rows were doing for him…

God, he was something else. Adam was his own kind of beautiful, and she could tell just at a glance that he had it in him to do exactly what he said he’d do. He’d be on top again, one day. He was too damn stubborn to do anything else! And he’d be that even pushing everyone else past their own limits, too.

They traded little waves, and he went back to his work. Training time was his.

Marty relaxed, and headed out in pursuit of her impatient child. Whatever had been bugging her, her man was happy. And really, that was all she could want, wasn’t it? He was happy, and he was alive, and he had a purpose again to keep him that way. She should just relax, count her blessings, and enjoy life as much as she could.

She tried her best.

Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

Daniel and Claire weren’t some gentle husband-and-wife duo who quietly collected stamps or whatever. They explored the world around them, they ate at excellent restaurants, even nowadays. They dressed up to show off for each other and anyone watching. They reveled in each other.

They fought with passion too, usually about silly things in the grand scheme, and they made up like the best of the ten’gewek: hard and aggressive, with as much strength as they could manage, for as long as they had endurance to persevere. Hoeff had a shitload of both, and the kind of well-equipped body (and libido) to make any Given-Man grin in encouragement.

It took a special kind of woman to deal with a man like him, especially lately, being one of Adam’s Big Projects. Fortunately, Claire had the fitness and attitude to match his enthusiasm. God, he loved her.

And it was a good thing too, because despite their plans to start a family…it hadn’t happened yet. Their first was a miscarriage owing to a severe bout of food poisoning, and since then…

Well, lots had happened. Hoeff had grown into a true monster of the Line, a Beef at the top of the game. He was still the shortest of shortstacks, but now he could stand (or at least lift and perform) toe-to-toe with fuckin’ Warhorse and Jesus fuck did that feel good. People joked about the Beef Bros being built like cavemonkeys, but in Hoeff’s case that was legitimately true. Long heavy arms, short massive legs, body as wide and thick as possible. If he were in the Lodge he’d have a pretty damn high rank these days, and that was saying something.

In response to her monstrous new man (and everything else) Claire went on the Crude too, once the mission got dire and it became obvious she’d be on Akyawentuo permanently.

Which…well, it turned out you could have babies on spacemagic, but if you did there were certain…concerns. You needed Hero genetics. Or more specifically, you needed certain kinds of resiliency in the right combinations for it to work. Hoeff had them, and so likely would his kids. He’d shown that, and was now formally registered and of the Line. Apparently he had a pretty high index too, which, okay. Not really his thing, but there was some caveman part of him that enjoyed being validated as having top-tier genetics. Claire, though?

She needed to prove out too, to eliminate the risks. So there was testing to be done, to see if Crude plus Baby would equal a Good Idea. It was important they knew, but Claire had reservations about getting tested. Which Hoeff understood, because…well, sorta creepy. So for now, family on hold. They had a lot of time, after all. As much as they wanted.

Besides, right now he had a much bigger problem to deal with, and he wasn’t sure even her legendary tolerance would be enough.

The news. Not even on Akyawentuo was Claire safe from the news. And Hoeff was all over it, having brazenly broken the Butcher of Mankind in full public view. The news had no idea who he was, of course, and he’d had a pretty good prosthetic face on…

But that didn’t fool Claire for a microsecond, and he’d known it wouldn’t.

All things considered, she took it pretty well.

Which meant, the first thing she did on his return was slap him across the face with all her Akyawentuo-trained, Crude-fueled strength.

It actually hurt. In more ways than one.

“So this is what you are? This is what you do?!” She stabbed an accusing finger at the TV.

Hoeff sighed, put a hand up to his face where she’d struck him.

“…Yes. But you more or less knew that from the beginning. I was honest with you.”

“Honest?! It’s a hell of a fuckin’ leap from ‘quiet operator’ to that, don’t you think?”

“That is the sort of thing quiet operators sometimes do.”

“No it fuckin’ isn’t! What the fuck was quiet about literally stomping a russian general to death in broad daylight? Do you—fuck, everyone we know has seen that video. That stupid mask of yours ain’t hidin’ shit!”

“Yes,” he agreed, patiently. “You’re right. This particular mission is public retribution for destroying mankind and essentially enslaving us to god-kings to survive, and I don’t care how good Daar or Gilgamesh are or how much they care for us, we’ve just regressed into subjects and serfs. We are doing this to take care of a human problem without alien interference. It’s important, and sending a public message is part of that.”

“Who the fuck is ‘we’?”

“That would be the people I ultimately work for.”

She made an ‘aargh’ noise and walked away from him for a second to pace off some rage. Hoeff…well, he wasn’t intuitive in the way most people were. Sometimes, the curse of extreme intelligence in a man was emotional alienation, and nothing he’d experienced in his life really prepared him for this. So he did the best he could: sit down and wait.

After a minute she sat down next to him. “Goddammit, knowing you’re a professional killer in an academic sense is one thing, but seeing you actually do it…”

“They showed the whole thing?”

“With some pixelation, but…yeah.” She shot him a sour look. “I suppose the ‘we’ you ultimately work for arranged that?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.” He nodded. “Don’t overestimate our reach, but…yeah.”

She looked down at her fingers. She was fiddling with her ring, he noticed.

“…What did you feel?” she asked, after a moment.

Hoeff was totally honest. “Satisfaction.”

“Jesus.” She huddled up around her arms. “…That’s really fucking scary, Dan.”


He turned to face her. And let himself feel, as much as he could.

“Claire…do you remember when I told you that I love you? Do you remember why?”

Her face screwed up, but she nodded.

“Well, I’ll say it again. I love you because you’re the one person I’ve ever met who makes me feel human. I want to be better for you. Not just for myself, anymore.”

“And this is what better looks like?” She gestured across him, but was obviously referring to more than just his body.

“No. This is what necessary looks like.”

“Why? Who does it serve? I mean, okay, that guy’s responsible for the war, fine. What does killing him like that do? If he deserved to die, why couldn’t it be above-board? Or just…like, he’s one life against all the deaths he caused. Just let God sort him out in the end…but instead you’re…you’ve…”

“Because there is no above-board in this game, Claire. What he and the others did in starting this war didn’t merely kill billions, doom the planet…well, doom it earlier…anyway. It goes beyond all the death. That’s Disney-level morality. What they really did was destabilize society itself. The people at the top won’t respond to us quietly dealing with the problem. They’ll just…carry on in their psychopathic ways, sneaking and worming their way into the new System of the World.

“No. What we are going to do is kill them all. Kill them all in the most violent, bloody, public and terrible way we can manage, so that fear will finally grip them, and they will make mistakes. So we can flush them all out and deal with them once and for all.”

She gave him a sickened look. “Are you listening to yourself?!”

“Yes. In fact I rehearsed this a bit because I won’t lie to you or spare you the truth. We are not fighting bad guys. We are fighting evil. Evil on the order of the Nazis, frankly. Some of these characters welcomed Armageddon, Claire. Took the opportunity and used it without remorse ‘cuz they saw it as the chance to destroy the people they hated. What we’re going to do to the Iranians…”

“Don’t. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know…”

Hoeff accepted that, and moved past it. “Like post-World War II, there’s cleanup. This is evil that cannot be suffered to exist. And it’s either we do this, or the Great Father himself does. And that would have consequences.”

She drew her knees up to her chest and curled into the corner of the couch, silent. Hoeff gave her space and time to think. No pressure, not now. He needed her to…well, he needed her.

After a minute, she rubbed her face. “…Who gives you the right to do this? Why you?”

“Our survival gives us the right, Claire. I’m not acting alone and we’re not acting without grave consideration. Did you think we could possibly do this without him approving? Of course he knows! He knows because I told him directly over steak.”


Hoeff shrugged, helplessly. “We do our business over meals. And there’s another reason it has to be us. And me, specifically. Because the Big Damn Heroes need to be kept that way. You’re taking this all very well. Most people won’t. And we can’t have pretty fucks like Julian or Adam getting blood all over their pretty faces in the public eye. People need heroes.”

She actually dropped her wall a bit, lowered her leg and opened up to blink at him. “I’m taking this well?”

“You’re here and talking to me…” he put out a hand, questing for hers. She stiffened, but let him hold it. “You’re giving me a chance. I was honestly afraid I’d come home and find you’d packed your shit and gone.”

She shook her head. After a second, her fingers tightened around his and she looked away from him. “Fuck…but you did it anyway?”

“I didn’t think you would. You’re too good for that. Too honest. And if you had, maybe I’d deserve it, too,” he rubbed her knuckles with his thumb. “I was kinda expecting the slap in the face, though.”

She looked at him seriously. “And I guess you’re just home to catch some sleep before you head out murdering again, huh?””

He gave her a complicated look, trying to tell her that he couldn’t actually say as much out loud because secrecy, but at the same time leave no doubt. She got the message, looked away from him again, and muttered a heartfelt ’goddammit…’

“Claire…I am a professional operator of the highest tier. My entire purpose is to do the terrible things that good, decent folk shouldn’t ever be burdened with. You know that.”

“Look, just…shut up.” She stood up and went to make herself a coffee. “I need to…I can’t be…Ugh. You go do what you gotta.”

Hoeff paused, wondering if he should say or do anything else, and what…but she turned and gave him a solemn expression. “…I’ll still be here,” she promised.

Hoeff wasn’t prone to big, overwhelming emotions. But something happened inside his heart that felt like a slipknot suddenly twanging straight. He swallowed it down, nodded, and retreated to the garage. He needed to sleep, but he knew he wasn’t going to, yet. So instead he may as well work with his hands for a bit, build something, and there were still some of those custom boards to cut for the kids at Firth’s place…

She brought him a coffee, a few minutes later. Touched his arm, and left without speaking a word, though she’d said a lot.

He was a lucky fuckin’ man. Luckier than he deserved. Hoeff wasn’t sure how to navigate the rest of the night, but…well. He would. And after that…

He had lunch tomorrow with an old friend.

New Dodge, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Austin Beaufort

Farming from the comfort of his living room couch meant, inevitably, office work. Always, there was office work. Sometimes it was fun shit like GIS toys and satellite imaging and data management—basically farm simulator, except for a real farm. Most of the time though, it was bills. Lawyers. Invoicing. More lawyers. Accounts payable.

Today he didn’t mind though. He was going to pay his two favorite blond-headed cavemen. Their company had just finished the last of his grain bins and all the intricate belt work, control work, pipe work, blower work…

And he owed them a check. Actually a check, too. It was one of those weird situations where the escrow agent was going to be there, concluding contracts were going to be signed, and money would flow in a billion different directions in a single swoop.

Money well spent, though. Buehler Bros. was rapidly making a name as the best company on Cimbrean for what was proving to be a big, booming business.

Tanks. And bins. Bins and tanks. And belts and things. And stuff.

Tanks for all sorts of things. Fertilizer, chemicals, insecticides, water, waste…you name it. Metal, plastic, fiberglass, whatever. Bins too, and that millwright side of the business they still mostly did themselves, running a pretty big crew that could fling up bins and silos and elevators pretty much overnight, once all the gears were turning.

Doing it as a big, quick team gave them free time too, since half the job was marshaling parts and other project management stuff. That gave them a lot of opportunity to be, what else? A genuine stereotype of Julian’s family. They were big into promoting sport and competition, and had their fingers in small things like baseball diamonds and youth leagues.

They compete themselves, too. Wrestling, natch. And baseball! Which as far as Austin was concerned was the most American goddamn thing ever and he was happy to sponsor. They each had their own team and they each sponsored their own leagues. Between the two of them they had basically built a world series out of volunteer armies. And they were fierce competitors, too. Nowadays they were both so identically tough and strapping, you couldn’t really tell them apart by their silhouette, only by their faces and slightly different voices.

And if Austin wasn’t mistaken, there was something going on between Tristan and his cousin Ellie.

Honestly…he was okay with that. Smart, well-raised, strapping young man, and that by the exceedingly elevated standards here on Cimbrean. They’d make a beautiful family, and…shit, he hated to be the type of guy who thought in terms of “connections” and “good matches” but the fact was, Austin really was a fuckin’ land-baron nowadays, and the Buehler-Chang-Etsicittys were effectively Cimbrean royalty. They had titles now, too. As old-fashioned and stupid as it was to be pleased by the politics of the match…he was.

Such was the new world they’d stumbled into. New, but with a big splash of the old. Such as the fact that he was formally The Count Austin of New Dodge. Bleh.


Such was the weird patchwork overlapping system they had, with Cimbrean itself being British territory, and Franklin being ceded by treaty to America, and with both America and Britain being kinda rump at this point, so while the planet itself clung to British-style constitutional monarchy, Franklin and her related colony city-states had remained locally republican, except the titles like Count and Baron and whatever were planetary under the Cimbrean Governor-General…

It was a fucking mess. But it meant Austin got to dress up in an awesome costume at Halloween, so he wasn’t complaining, even if Lauren did.

All the titles and wealth and prestige and suchlike were payment for the huge responsibility on his shoulders, though, and the huge expense he’d put in up front on getting this whole megafarm up and running. He was flying a drone over the fields right now, getting a good look at them while waiting for the Buehler brothers to show up, and…

Well, fuck, they’d come a long way. Couple of years ago, all that land out there had been native trees, roots, shrubs and rough ground shot through with a whole quarry’s worth of rocks. Today, it was a sea of low, rich, lush green as the year’s cover crop basked in the perfect growing conditions. In a week, maybe, he’d till it all under to enrich the soil, let it ferment a bit, take some samples…

And plant his first crop. A quick-growing legume of some kind, he was leaning toward peas. They dried down nice, kept forever, were nutritious as fuck and didn’t need much more than rain and sun. They were nitrogen-fixing, too. That was important. Anhydrous ammonia was in short supply since (apparently!) production of that relied on hydrogen, which without an oil industry only came from electrolysis, which was slow and expensive…

Anyway. Nitrogen-fixing plants were a good first crop. Peas it would be, then.

He doodled some numbers on his tablet, then sat back and shook his head in mild awe at the size of the resulting number. That was…that was a lot of peas. A fuckuva lot of peas.

Well, that was why the Buehler bros were getting a check for thirty million today.

Thirty! Million! Pounds! Ah! Ah! Ah!

Lauren glared at him from her desk. “Oh, God, stop that.”

“I didn’t say anything!”

“You were doing the gestures and giggling.”

Which was right when they came sauntering in, of course, each filling the doorway in turn.

“Is he being weird again?”

“Want us to beat him up?”

Austin chuckled, rose from the couch and shook their hands, pleased to say he could give as good as he got in the finger-crushing department.

Though honestly…maybe he’d avoid provoking them into proving themselves. He didn’t much feel like being tossed out of his own house by a half ton of Buehler Bros today.

The water trough was ice cold the last time that had happened.

“Will you take my lunch money, too?”

Ramsey gave him a corn-fed grin. “Nah, Lauren already feeds us good.”

“Damn right I do! I want those bins built right! When is the escrow agent supposed to—ah.” She looked out the window. “There he is. The most Goldpaw of Goldpaws.”

They chuckled and headed out onto the porch in anticipation. What flounced out of the definitely-overcompensating supertruck was a hypnotically flowing, bouncing mess of fur, beads, chain and general over-groomed…well, actually, it kinda did look neat in a weird way. Like a braided collision between King Xerxes and a Borzoi.

You could always spot a human banker by the subtle understatedness of their wealth, in the cut of their suit and the value of their watch. You could spot a gaoian banker by the way they knew that drip should never be subtle.

“Ah!” Buumi greeted them with a paw-flourish and a pant-grin. “I see my favorite rural bruisers are only moments away from a brawl! Please, continue.”

“Why are you like this, Buumi?”

Like all Goldpaws, he was flamboyant. Unlike most, he was flamboyantly masculine. He wasn’t very big but he was sturdily-built, and clearly enjoyed playing at the tough life, even if he’d probably never roughed it any harder than a rich-bitch Stoneback fitness club with an enthusiastic personal trainer. His truck could probably handle even Julian’s leaden ass without much complaint.

And like every Gaoian in existence, his need for kitsch was like oxygen.

“Hollywood! Everyone knows American rural folk are all banjo-strumming, toothless giants!”

“Please, no banjos,” Austin chuckled. “And we have all our teefs.”

“You’re still gonna brawl though, right? Like last time?”

“No! What if that endangered the payout?”

“You’d lose again,” Tristan muttered under his breath with an evil grin.

Buumi didn’t hear or pretended not to notice. “Oh! Well then by all means, cease immediately. And what a transaction we have before us today!” Right to business. “Thirty-seven subcontractors! It’s a logistical marvel for a company so modest. Why so ambitious?”

“Gettin’ aggressive was the only way to get parts. I never thought I’d be doing interstellar logistics for something as simple as screws or rubber belts, but here we are.”

“Yes, and I’ve quite enjoyed all the perfectly reasonable fees I’ve collected over this!”

Austin chuckled darkly. “Oh, I’m sure.”

“Hey now! Do you know how much work it has been to coordinate today’s transaction?!” More hearty chitters as Buumi carefully scrubbed his paws clean in the little dust bath that Austin had found was necessary for gaoian visitors. “Or, indeed, the others I’m handling today? This is a busy time for me!”

Austin nodded, there. His own farm was just part of the equation, because all that land he owned amounted to an area rather larger than Disney World, far too much for one man, or even one family, to farm. The greatest part of it was now what he called his “college” farms—smaller, more manageable plots where newcomers to agriculture could cut their teeth and though he extracted a rent from them, most of that rent went into an account to help them buy and set up some land elsewhere when the time was right.

There was no point in being stupidly fuckin’ rich if you didn’t use it to do some good, in Austin’s view. None had yet graduated, but they would. And in the meantime, that land was doing something useful. Buumi no doubt was running around taking care of all their needs today, too. There was…a lot of complicated legal and financial stuff up in the air and between Buumi and his lawyer, he was glad to see it taken care of…

…Even if he was probably buying them a new yacht from the fees. Goddamn.

Well. Probably not a yacht. Nobody was building them right now, and something so ostentatious would be political and social suicide in the current climate. But a future yacht, definitely.

“WIll you stay for lunch?” Lauren offered. “We have beef!”

“I would be delighted,” Buumi duck-bowed with a musical clatter of beads.

Steak and drink lubricated the business proceedings wonderfully, so that they were almost painless. It was a lot easier to sit through a closing transaction with a glass of home-brew. It was almost…normal. Different, very much textured by the new world and new context they were in, but still basically business as usual.

How quickly things moved. Next year would be the first cash crop, next year all those investments and grants would start to pay off, and the year after that…well, they’d be cut loose from Earth and running self-sufficiently. They had to be.

But they would be, that was the point. That was something to raise a glass to.

Tristan made his excuses and left early. He had a date with, sure enough, Ellie. Ausin just grinned and toasted him approvingly as he left. Buumi was next to go, citing much business to finish in the afternoon.

Ramsey Buehler took the check and headed out last, promising again that the company’s work was covered for a year and if there was anything they needed, just call. Lauren wrapped herself around Austin’s arm as they watched his truck rip dust back toward the main road, then vanished inside to get on with some of her own work.

Austin put his boots on and headed out to the north-east field. There was some early-planted cover crop to till under. Somehow, they’d achieved business as usual in unusual times.

He felt pretty damn proud of that. It meant people were going to eat. People were going to live.

What more was there?

Ekallim-Igigi, orbiting New Uruk, Relic Space

Josh Hartl

Jess was out on the balcony, half reading and half watching the city chasm again when Josh got home. And why the hell not? She had a cozy book nook out there with candles and cushions and no need to worry about pesky weather like rain so she could keep her books scattered all over the place.

It was the only clutter they had, really. Otherwise the apartment mostly stayed straight with a bare minimum of effort, ‘cuz neither of them owned very much, but Josh was finding he kinda liked it that way. Less stuff meant less time keeping stuff tidy, meant more time for enjoying each other.

“Hey, I’m home.”


He leaned around the corner to kiss her. “Still on that same book?”

“Third read-through. It’s not exactly a gas station romance novel, yijao?” she replied, and consulted some handwritten notes beside her. As it turned out, raising livestock aboard a space station was a deep science and she was back to being the equivalent of a freshman…and so far as Josh could tell, loving it.

“Ugh, tell me about it. And I thought I had to sit through a lot of lessons and stuff back at my old job!” Josh wandered into the kitchen to grab a drink from the fridge and make Jess a cup of green tea. Having to learn a whole new language and writing system was leaving his head with that stuffed-with-leather feeling. How the hell was Jess managing it so much easier?!

“Yyyup…” Jess licked a finger to turn a page, then perked up. “Oh! Game night with Maria on Friday?”

“Sounds great!” Maria had opted to move out to go live and work down on New Uruk rather than stay aboard the station with Josh and Jess. Which…honestly, that was best. Josh wasn’t nearly smart enough to manage two girlfriends at once. He barely had enough survival instinct for one.

Making Jess a cup of tea was always a good move, he’d found. She wrinkled her nose gratefully at him as she accepted it, then set the fuckin’ tome she was studying aside as he settled onto a cushion opposite. Their apartment was about a third of the way up one of the huge megabuildings that stretched from City Chasm’s floor to its ceiling, and it made for a hell of a view.

Life was…good?

It was a weird thought. Between the apocalypse and the war, he’d kinda felt weird about feeling happy ever since, as if some new disaster was gonna land on them if he relaxed for too long. But it was really true. They were alive, healthy, had careers and education, had a good place to live, had each other, were building a circle of friends…

Every so often he’d remember his grief over his parents, or they’d fret over the people still on Earth, or he’d feel sorta vaguely guilty about everything in general and nothing in particular…but it didn’t change the fact that life was as good as it had ever been for either of them.

He sat and city-watched for a bit. There was a nightclub out there on a terrace jutting from of the far buildings, which supplemented the music with holographic special effects you could see from the other side of the chasm. They’d gone there a couple times already, and the music was definitely weird, but it turned out the general attitude to getting drunk and high on Ekallim-Igigi was ‘so long as you’re sober at work, bro.’

Music was still weird, though. Singularity had their own genres, their own history influenced by their own legendary artists, and not all of them had been human…on which thought, he grabbed his guitar. It was the one thing he’d spent any money on yet: Jess had her books, candles and cozy stuff, he had his guitar. He wasn’t exactly the ghost of Hendrix, but he could strum out some pretty chill jams…

It wasn’t to be today, though. From inside the apartment came the sound of his phone receiving a message. He met Jess’ eye, then shrugged, set the guitar aside unplayed, and rose to go answer it.

It turned out to be unwelcome news. He’d known they’d send him to Akyawentuo sooner rather than later, as he’d already been selected to work there before the bombs fell. But he’d hoped to have more time to get settled, figure out the language and finish the Singularity equivalent of Civics 101…but nope. He had orders.

“Fuck.” Before the bombs, Akyawentuo had been his lifeline, his ticket to escape the apocalypse. Now, though…

“Babe?” He heard Jess pause, then set her book aside to rise and come investigate. “Is it bad news or something?”

“I…shit, I don’t know.” He showed her the phone. “I got selected for a spot on Akyawentuo before the war, I guess they want me to, y’know. Come and fill it.”



“But I mean—”

“Yeah. What about here?”

“What about us?” she asked, rather more urgently. “I’m just settling in here! I don’t wanna have it all torn out from under me again!”

“Believe me babe, I get it. But, well…I gotta earn my keep. And, well…”

“You can do that right here, can’t you?”

“I mean…not really? If I get a job up here, I’m gonna have to go through all kinds of education and training. But I’m already qualified for terrestrial firefighting and that is, I dunno, urgent now I guess?”

“That’s great for you, but all I’ve got is right here!” Jess said, urgently. “Didn’t they say Akyawentuo is only for, like, the rare few who can hack it? I heard the gravity there is—”

“I mean…yeah,” Josh interrupted, gently. “But you’re pretty fit! I bet you could! Hell, it’s half of what makes you so hot!”

“I…damnit.” that seemed to short-circuit her a bit: she laughed, but there was a fair bit of frustration in it. “You big—! Dammit, don’t do that?”

“What, don’t call you hot? ‘Cuz you’re hot as fuck.”

“There’s a time and a place!”

He couldn’t help but grin. “Well, this is definitely the place. How ‘bout right now?”

“No, no, look, Josh, Babe…no. I—are you thinking of taking this?”

He sighed. “Babe, it’s not a matter of thinking. I already signed up, remember? And I’ve got my marching orders. We don’t live in a democracy anymore, we’re subjects of an emperor.”

“So, what, it’s got Gilgamesh’s signature on it? You’ve been given your marching orders?”

“Pretty much. It’s got the seal of…I dunno, but it sure fuckin’ looks official though.”

“So you can’t say no?”

“Yeah. I can say no. And then we’ll be off the station.”

Jess looked at him appalled. “They…wouldn’t! Would they?”

“We’re not in America any more, and even if we were…I mean, shit’s hit the fan, Jess.”

“…So you’ve been drafted.”

“I mean, sorta? I kinda volunteered for it already. So, I’ve got the duty I signed up for, and that’s all there is to it. And, uh…well. All the jobs on-station are going to women first.”

She blinked, then frowned at the huge coursebook she’d been reading. “…They are?”

“You didn’t notice? They’re keeping you safe, Jess. I mean, y’know. Future of the species and all that.”

“I guess I’ve had my head down working on…” Jess paused, and Josh saw her brain run ahead of the conversation several steps. “Oh, Jesus, that’s caveman! Keep the women safe at home to tend the hearth and raise the kids while the men go out and do the dangerous jobs, is that it?”

“I mean, it isn’t like they’re forcing y’all to stay here, but, uh…yeah. Prob’ly.” Josh shrugged helplessly. “It’s what it is. A lotta people just died.”

“Great. Fuckin’ great.” Jess hugged her arms uncomfortably to her midriff and looked around their apartment like she was seeing it for the first time in a new and much less pleasant light. “…Alright, well. That settles it. I’m coming with you.”


“I’m more than just a babymaker with a brain, and you’re more than just a stack of muscles they can send somewhere useful as soon as you’ve pumped a kid in me. And I’m gonna fuckin’ prove it by coming with you.”

Josh blinked.

“I mean…first, hot.”


He couldn’t help himself. She was so easy to tease and teasing seemed to almost always be the right thing to do with her.

And also, it was hot as hell. Goddamn, he’d lucked out!

So, he grinned stupidly, like the big dumb boy he was. But he wasn’t completely stupid. “Right. So, second…I’m not gonna say no. But…I…” he trailed off, not knowing the words to make the half-formed thought in his head come together.

It went something like…He’d be sad if she didn’t come with, but at the same time kinda relieved to know she was safe, and he guessed she was probably tough and determined enough for Akyawentuo but at the same time part of him worried she wasn’t, but also there were some fuckin’ specimens runnin’ around Ekallim-Igigi, and a lot of free-love culture…

She touched his arm and snapped him out of it. “…I wanna stay with you.”

Touched, Josh wrapped her up in his arms and kissed the top of her head. “Love you.”

“…Do you?”

He blinked. Looked down at her. Nodded without realizing…hugged her tighter.


She sighed hugely and rested her head against his arm. “I do too. God, I just…”

“I get it.”

“No, not…I mean. I…I was really afraid, on Earth. Going to parties and stuff was kind of my way of pretending it all wasn’t happening, and getting my degree was my way of trying to have a useful skill that’d get me off-world, but I was really freaking out that I’d never be good enough for anyone to give me a place, and I kept having nightmares about still being there when the end came, and now I’m here—”

…Well, shit. She was shivering, now. But she exhaled, and he felt her steady herself. “And then Maria and I met you and we got stupidly fucking lucky. And I don’t know if I should be more grateful to you, or Gilgamesh, or to God, but…I’m gonna deserve it. Whatever that means.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want,” Josh said, carefully. “I, uh…I hope you haven’t been…?”

She sniffed, and found her smile again. “Oh, don’t you worry. I’ve enjoyed myself. But now…I think I mean it, more.”

Well…that stung a little. But…actually, he could appreciate the honesty.

Good enough. “So you’re definitely coming with?”

“Yeah.” She gave a determined nod. “I’ll either hack it, or find some other way to make things work.”

Josh smiled, suddenly proud. “Good girl. So! I’ve got a few free days though. Wanna…bowling! Let’s do that! And see what Maria is up to!”

She laughed at him, in some sort of weird space between frustration and acceptance. “Yeah, okay. Bowling. Let’s go do that.”

Heh. Alright. Dumb idea. He nodded slowly.

“Well, did you want to do something else?”

“I…I dunno. But I was hoping…maybe tonight, could we just order some room service? Enjoy the view and stuff? I mean…” she gestured to the city out the window. “How many people have ever had a view like that?”

He wasn’t totally stupid. “Alright. We’ll order in and city-watch and just….chill out, huh?”

“Sounds perfect,” she agreed.

And it kinda was. Josh strummed his guitar, she cuddled up to him, they sat back and soaked in the ambience, ate baklava…

Then retired to bed, and Josh realized…marching orders or not, life really was pretty fuckin’ good.

And like Jess, he was gonna do his best to deserve it.

Governor-General’s official residence, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

“Ah, there you are. Coffee? You look better rested than I feared you would…”

“Thanks,” Hoeff knew Sir Jeremy Sandy quite well by now, knew how he delighted in tricky turns of phrase and backhanded truth that would have wrong-pawed Keeda himself. ‘Better rested than I feared you would’ had plenty of wiggle room in it for Hoeff to still look like a lukewarm shit bath. Which was about how he felt.

Fortunately, if there was one advantage to being in a circle of the world’s most influential people, it was access to coffee. The best coffee. Black as deep space, but subtle and complex. Just the scent of it dragged a little more mood into Hoeff’s head.

“How did it go?” Sir Jeremy asked as he bustled around the kitchen. It looked like he was in the middle of preparing breakfast for four…

Hoeff sipped his coffee and growled out a pleased noise as it hit. “She’s stayed.”

“Not that you were in any doubt…” Sir Jeremy checked on the poached eggs, and turned the induction cooker down one point.

“Always some doubt. She’s not some shrinkin’ violet, malleable, submissive type of gal. She’s got her own mind.”

“I would hope so! Nothing worse than an empty, pretty head!”

“No matter the gender,” a new voice agreed. Hoeff turned his head and betrayed a bleary blink. He…certainly hadn’t expected a silk bathrobe. Its wearer was an older woman, her hair long since completely grayed, and right now pulled over her left shoulder in a braided ponytail. Familiar, from somewhere. Definitely a Friend.

Wen she met Sir Jeremy’s eye, there was almost a crackle of flirtatious chemistry between them, only reinforced by the way she touched his shoulder on her way past to secure coffee for herself. Goddamn. Hoeff hoped he and Claire would be that kind of old-person-hot.

Sir Jeremy chuckled, nodded, and made the customary introductions. “Daniel Hoeff, Alicia Black. A mutual Friend.”

“We did actually meet briefly, a few years ago,” Alicia said, grabbing an orange and pouring herself onto a barstool opposite Daniel. He looked her in the eye and frowned, wracking his memory…

“…Chicago, right? The fundraiser just after the blast.”

“Good memory. You were Jeremy’s bodyguard.” She worked the orange peel open with a thumbnail. “I was a little too busy for a proper chat.”

“That will certainly happen when half your business goes up in flames,” Sir Jeremy—or just Jeremy, according to Alicia—agreed, pressing some english muffins into a skillet that smelled luxuriantly of butter. Hoeff nodded as more memory rattled into place. Black as in the B in BFTLL, the major freight transportation and logistics company that had operated most of the civilian jump arrays between Franklin and the continental US. Hence the get-together at the fundraiser: When one of their number suffered some calamitous business setback, the circle of friends tended to gather round and help each other out.

As for what she was doing wandering around Sir Jeremy’s kitchen in a cream-hued silk bathrobe and little if anything else…well, that wasn’t Hoeff’s business.

“Anyway. On the subject of the lovely Claire and your work so far, Daniel…” Sir Jeremy inspected the bacon and found it good. “I wanted to discuss stepping back a bit. Lucent is…delicate territory right now. Given how successful we’ve been elsewhere, I think the message has been firmly sent, hmm?”

“Message, sure.” Hoeff tried to will his stomach not to growl. The eggs benedict he was assembling already smelled amazing. “But I thought the plan was justice. Who’s the message for, and what even is it, if it’s not ‘your turn is coming soon enough?’”

“At this point, the men with the most blood directly on their hands have met justice. The ones remaining are men like Colonel Changming.”

“Cowards who shoulda had the spine ‘ta disobey. Some of ‘em did,” Hoeff sniffed. “At least in few places.”

“Places with a history of lawful orders and all it entails,” Sir Jeremy nodded. “Not everyone can be Vasily Arkhipov…but they’re not our ultimate target. You and Warhorse have serviced the targets. What remains will not poke their heads above water, or risk your attention.”

“Still deserve it, don’t they?”

“That they do.”

“But what does everyone else deserve?” Alicia asked. “Prosperity, peace and a chance to rebuild, maybe?”

Sir Jeremy nodded, and served the eggs onto a warm bed of muffins and bacon. “A little targeted justice helps to secure that. But some of our mutual friends are worried that the dividing line is thin.”

“Nah,” Hoeff shook his head. “That’s the ‘too important to fail’ argument, and it’s ultimately self-serving. If we’ve got Friends who are entertaining that thought, well, honestly? It’s ‘cuz they’re afraid their oxen will be gored by the fallout. Which, y’know. Says something.”

“And who are we to say how far we go?”

“Who are we to do this in the first place? We’ve already crossed that line. So, firstly: there’s a natural stopping point. We get everyone who is directly responsible for, y’know, the end of sovereign humanity. If we have to pass through an indirect agent of our demise, like I did with Changming, then sure. But there we stop. Or…we redefine the mission, or give up or whatever. That will be a mistake remembered for generations. If we don’t take this one opportunity to punish genuine evil, we’ll watch it flower in a few generations, yet again.”

“Hmm.” Alicia smiled as the eggs benedict landed in front of her, but the expression she turned to Hoeff was serious and curious. “Where I’m from, the wisdom is that if you find yourself in a hole, you stop digging.”

“What hole would that be? The one where the Great Father himself and the Emperor of Mankind—as an aside, what a fucking preposterous title that is!—both tacitly approved what we’d already taken on ourselves? Or do you dig that hole until it’s done digging?”

Alicia considered that in silence, then shrugged and reached for the orange juice. “…Who’s left, now?”

“There’s the minister of defense for what used to be Iran. Whitecrest thinks he skipped out. After that…I think that’s prob’ly it. ‘Horse was, uh, productive in his last little space mission.”

“That he was.” Sir Jeremy sat down.

“What is he like?” Alicia asked. “Do you think he might make a good Friend?”

Hoeff considered for a moment.

“Well…he’s the reason I’m this kind of strong. To the point that I’m what would happen if you took him and squashed him down like half a yard. Hell, these days I’m even a bit heftier and more than a bit stronger! Which…” He boggled at that, really. “But he’s a pure sort of guy. This is actual evil we’re going against, yijao? I don’t know that has the kind of, uh…”

“Serene detachment?” Sir Jeremy offered.

“Yes. That. Exactly that. It’s all a big game of good and evil for him. Sorta. He’s actually a hero, and that hero shit got him severely injured, too. You know the rest.”

“Pity.” Alicia sipped her orange juice.

“…He could make a good Friend,” Hoeff offered, carefully. “In the interest of honesty. But I’d ask y’all to keep ‘yer mitts off of him. He…matters to me. No offense intended.”

“How could I be offended? You and I might be friends, but we only just met a few minutes ago.” she quirked a small smile at him past her glass, then set it down. “…I just worry. There are precious few of us left, and I don’t just mean our little circle. I mean humans in general. Everyone talks as though getting everyone off Earth will mean we’re all saved, as though nothing else comes afterwards. As though most of the next few centuries aren’t going to consist of unbagging people when the world is ready for them, along with all the confusion and integration trouble it’s going to entail.”

She shook her head. “And you said it yourself, we’re no longer sovereign over ourselves. That’s not tolerable. We need new friends in this little informal club of ours, people who can help solve that problem.”

Hoeff nodded, and ate in silence for a minute or so. Damn, those were some good eggs…

“I can think of one,” he said, after a moment.

“Do tell?” Sir Jeremy asked, pouring his own coffee.

“TIlly Briggs. Open-minded, tough enough to really not care what people have to say about her, got that…serene detachment you were talking about. At least, she takes the rough with the smooth when it comes to ten’gewek.”

“Takes a lot of the rough, from what I hear…” Alicia had dark eyes, almost black. Right now, they were creased with amusement. “But, that’s like the old joke, isn’t it? You can build bridges, heal the sick, dig wells and care for the poor—”

“But you fuck one alien monkey-man…” Hoeff chuckled. “Trust me though, that’s why she’s Friend material. She can hack life on Akyawentuo, she’s unapologetic and authentic, and she represents humanity well to the ten’gewek.”

Alicia and Sir Jeremy traded a glance, held a brief but dense conversation without uttering a word, then nodded at the same time.

“We’ll have to extend an invitation,” Sir Jeremy said. “But, Daniel. For the love of God man, take a few days off, smooth things over with Claire, and get some proper sleep. You’ll get to complete the task of justice in the fullness of time—do see it doesn’t come at too steep a price, yijao?”

“…Think I’ll start with the proper sleep,” Hoeff acknowledged. He polished his plate clean, set his knife and fork cleanly aside, and stood up. “Thanks for breakfast.”

Sir Jeremy smiled, and slid a small stasis box, the latest high-tech version of tupperware, over the counter at him. “Here. For her. Hopefully it helps.”

“She does love her bacon and eggs…” Hoeff picked it up and tucked it under his arm.


“Don’t be a stranger,” Alicia warned him.

“Oh, you know where to find me…”

He headed out. Snatched a backwards glance while waiting for the gate to open and…yup, through the window he could just about watch Alicia pour herself around Sir Jeremy for a kiss. Good for them!

Rather than pry further, he took the extra portion home for Claire, who was still being distant and thoughtful, but good food could work miracles…or at least, achieve progress toward a miracle. Still, she thanked him, leaned against him, and sighed.

Hoeff counted that as progress. And with it, he decided to catch up on his overdue sleep. What was a day off good for if you couldn’t take a nine o’ clock nap?

There’d be plenty more work to come, after all.

Stealth ship Turkeyholic deep space

Gumi, Brother of Clan One-Fang

Piloting the stealthy scout ships had become one of those prestigious roles within the Clan that every brother wanted, but only the select few who actually understood it for what it was could ever get. The brothers who sought it as a ticket to tail and mating contracts were inherently disqualified.

Gumi on the other hand viewed himself as carrying a terrible, dangerous burden. Stealth missions had killed Tooko, after all. And while Gumi knew he was damn good, one of the best…he’d loyally admit to anyone who ever asked that Tooko had been just that little bit better.

And now he had a precious cargo to deliver.

He liked JETS Team Four. Three veteran human operators, two Brothers of Whitecrest, and a big redcrest ten’gewek by the name of Skoob Dawn-Watcher, whose name amused the humans for reasons they’d so far declined to explain, except that sometimes they’d address him in a funny airy voice and say untranslatable things like “zoinks” and “jinkies.”

The only problem from Gumi’s perspective was that, well…he was their pilot, not one of the team. His job was to deliver them, then stay on the ship and monitor. And there was something maddening about spending time in proximity to a brotherhood like that, without actually being one of them. They gamely did all they could to be friends, and he appreciated it…but they were a rough-and-ready sort who just…well, they were on another level, and in a different world. They were both elites in their domains but the overlap between them was so small…

And small was the operative word. He wasn’t very big, and even the Whitecrests were huge, brutally powerful warriors. All of them exuded the kind of absolutely self-assured confidence only well-practiced killers ever achieved. When they weren’t in stasis, they were training their bodies, training their tactics, meditating…

He missed his own brothers and cousins. Long-haul deep space flight was no place or time to feel like an outsider, and long-haul when everyone was in stasis was…

Well, it wasn’t how gaoians were meant to live. He needed company.

Of all the team, the one who seemed to get him best was Senior Sergeant Karlsson, who was easily the smallest of the team in a wiry, indestructible, endlessly enduring way. So the sound of his stasis booth shutting off and letting him step out again was an all-too-welcome part of Gumi’s day.

“That’s gotta be disorienting….”

“Feels a bit repetitive, sure. Step into the booth, step right out again, get the daily update, step back in…” Karlsson chuckled and squeezed through into the galley. “Getting kinda hungry though. How’re you holding up?”

“Oh, you know, flying a ship basically alone for a solid week.” Gumi turned his chair and hopped out of it. “It’s what I trained for, yijao?”

“Mm.” Karlsson shoved a meal pack in the microwave. “Not my idea of fun. We’ll be arriving tomorrow, right?”

“Yup. Well.”

“I’ll stay out of the box then. Get some real sleep.”

“Well, come have a look at this, then.” Gumi called up the forward telescope feed for him. They were close enough and slow enough now that they could get a good look at the target system’s radio emissions, albeit blue-shifted to gamma by the effects of the Turkeyholic’s drive field.

Karlsson leaned closer to inspect it as the microwave hummed. “What am I looking at?”

“See those two spikes?” Gumi indicated a wavering line in the top-right corner. “That’s two separate radio sources. The taller one is the star. The shorter one is a weaker source very near the star.”

“First glimpse of our target, then?”

“Exactly. Just where the briefing said it would be.”

“…Where exactly are we, relative to everything else?”

Gumi chittered mirthlessly. “Absofuckinglutely nowhere near anything at all,” he replied. “This is barren space, outside the so-called ‘temperate ring.’”

“I never took a class on galactic geography…” The microwave pinged, and Karlsson juggled his burrito from one hand to the other before giving up and setting it on the counter to cool.

“So, the galactic core is uninhabitable. The stars there are huge, young, active, short-lived, and if they don’t blow up and form black holes themselves, they’re all doomed to become part of the accretion disk of an existing black hole. Massive background radiation levels, huge particle count, no such thing as a stable orbit—at least, not in the time frames that life needs—totally uninhabited. But the reverse is also true, if you get too far from the core then it’s all long-lived red dwarf stars and low-metal planetoids and things are too slow and sparse and cold for life—”

“So there’s a goldilocks zone in the middle—uh, Goldilocks is a children’s story—”

“I know it. And yes. The temperate ring. We are…about fifteen percent of the galactic radius outside that ring.”

“Why would the Hierarchy build out here?”

“Longevity.” Gumi decided to fix himself a meal of his own. “Miniature red stars are the longest-lived things in all the universe. The ones out here will burn for trillions of years, orders of magnitude longer than anything else. And even though they’re incredibly dim and cold compared to, say, Sol—”

“It’s still enough to power a node world.”

Gumi duck-nodded. “Store energy from lots of these stars for later use, and you’ve got the makings for a digital existence well into the degenerate aeon.”

Karlsson frowned at the telescope telemetry. “A whole fuckin’ planet covered in batteries…”

“You’re not thinking big enough. By the Unseen, the things we’re going to witness in a couple days’ time…” Gumi shook his head in anticipatory awe.

Karlsson just grunted in agreement, and unwrapped his burrito.

They ate, played a round or two of ta’shen, worked through an exercise routine that burned off much of Gumi’s nervous and listless energy, then slept. For Gumi, it was the first decent night’s sleep he’d had in days, made more bearable by the existence of somebody alive and present in the flow of time nearby. There was a weirdness to being thousands of lightyears from the nearest living soul, as if the psyche could somehow sense how incredibly far away everybody else was. Having just one person there made the ship seem paradoxically larger.

The next morning, they woke everyone else up, and the ship was back to feeling tiny again. Karlsson wasn’t a very big man by human standards. He was, maybe, eighty kilos and a bit over one point eight meters tall. For someone in SOR that was tiny.

Everyone else dwarfed him. Even the second smallest—a Whitecrest—was more than double his weight. But that was okay, because what he lacked in heft he more than made up in grit, guile, alertness and a disarming softness of voice and step.

Even their ten’gewek paid him attention when he spoke, and they weren’t subtle about who they respected instead of merely tolerated.

“So, is not like normal planet,” Skoob summarized.

“No way in hell. Wrong kind of star. Whatever we’re landing on is gonna be small, low gravity, likely airless, and bare of life.”

Skoob sighed, the universal emote of discontentedness. “Of course would be.”

“Jinkies, Skoob,” Williams chuckled. “You don’t like the idea of wearing the suit all that time?”

Tail-twitch, fangs bared…

Yeah. Time to get out of the way, as Skoob rolled up the team and pinned them all.

Williams, somehow, thought it was funny. Skoob was about half the team’s tonnage all by himself, he could easily crush them all at the same time…but play was a universal thing. Gumi left them to make the ship rock and returned to his flight chair. He needed to be well ensconced before they got inside the ten lightyear perimeter where slow, stealthy flight took over from interstellar cruise.

He slowed to minimal-wake superluminal at eleven, staying cautiously inside the best-guess deceleration curve. Adding a few hours to their arrival time was acceptable—drawing notice was not. They’d traveled thousands of lightyears from their jump site in a matter of a week and a half: the last five took six hours.

Behind him, he could hear the sounds of the team checking their equipment, suiting up, going over whatever the Turkeyholic’s sensors were seeing of their destination.

What the sensors fed to Gumi was still just a spike of blue-shifted emissions, but by the time they dropped to sub-light and started the long, unpowered coast in-system, he had a good picture of the system.

Tiny, dim, nigh-immortal star? Check. Planets three and two were in such high and weird orbits they didn’t really qualify for the word…and planet one was tidally locked a mere three light-minutes above its parent’s sullen photosphere, generating a surprising amount of radio EM.

Unsurprising, considering its dayside surface was absolutely covered in forcefield energy collection arrays. Gumi doubted even an insect could sneak down sunside without disrupting one of the fields and making its presence known, assuming it could do so without frying. So, nightside it was.

Not that the nightside was any less strange and developed.

He took a good look at it as they decelerated into orbit. Karlsson had envisioned a planet covered in batteries, but that of course would be no good. Such an arrangement would have overloaded long before it could store more than an infinitesimal fraction of the star’s annual output. The only way ordinary matter could store the energy of a star was to be a star…or something worse.

The target world known to the Hierarchy as a reserve power archive fell into the “something worse” category. According to their sources, somewhere deep inside that otherwise nondescript ball of rock was a kugelblitz, a captive and artificial black hole made solely of energy, being steadily and slowly pumped full of energy so that, by the time the degenerate age of the universe arrived, it would itself be able to power the Hegemony for an inconceivably long time.

And it was just one of thousands such planets.

Gumi had once wondered how the Hierarchy could be so ancient and have left so tiny a footprint on the galaxy that people could fail to notice it. Now, he was older, wiser, and had realized why. The Hierarchy’s footprint was so large that people hadn’t noticed it for much the same reason they didn’t normally notice air, light and gravity. If you didn’t pull your perspective back far enough to see them, they were invisible through sheer omnipresence.

And that was the problem, really. How did one get a foe of such impossible size to cooperate? How did a gnat sting a giant to the point where it provoked an earnest slap? That was what TILE FLIP required, after all.

Well. Perhaps threatening to shave a few billion years off the Igraen Hegemony’s future would do it.

Their arrival in orbit hadn’t provoked any response. There was no sign on Gumi’s sensors of anything powering up, locking on to them, or otherwise reacting to their presence in any way. And fortunately, this world lacked an atmosphere so he didn’t even have to worry about the blind and radian fireball phase of descent. All he had to do was get them down there and find someplace to land. The team would do the rest.

He just hoped they’d do it quickly. Something about this place made the fur on his back crawl.

He started the descent, and hoped they wouldn’t be staying long.

SOR Training facility, New Alexandria, Akyawentuo

Adam (Warhorse) Arés

Watching Gonzo run the training course was like watching a son grow up. The kid was a fucking violence artist. Shit, if he’d been on the team at Capitol Station, he’d have embarrassed all the rest of them. From the observation booth, Adam watched as Thompson flowed through a scenario he’d never seen before without once putting a foot wrong.

Advance, drill two holo-hunters right in the fucking mouth, into cover, three more shots—three more kills—out, around, forward, a double-flash of knife, two more kills, turn, shoot, turn, kick, grenade, pause, blast, enter, cleanup…

HEAT had grown up. Where before Adam represented a ludicrous stand-out even in a group of extreme excellence, nowadays he was merely first among peers. It wasn’t so much that he’d fallen behind…it was more that he’d pulled the rest of the team up to his level. Felt good!

Wasn’t perfect, though; he wasn’t on top anymore. As much as he hated it, the fucking Paragons were well in the lead, and it didn’t look like that would change anytime soon.

Thankfully two of them were on-team, and king Alex was available if needed.

Still. They were in the lead ‘cuz they were trained by him, too. Raw talent (by accident or conspiracy) didn’t mean shit if there wasn’t the earned skill to use it. But he had to admit, they had their own educations too, and Adam was happy to learn from them. Alex had ancient masters in his own family to learn from, Christian a lifetime of experience—he had been the one to teach Adam the dark arts, after all. Julian was a remarkably fast learner, exactly like, well…like he was made for this shit. But that just proved the point; knowing how to use what you had was an art in itself.

Gonzo was a master of both.

“Alright, he’s had enough time to get comfortable. Hit him with something mean.”

Their ‘dungeon master,’ Senior Sergeant Holding, grinned and started clicking through the little drop menus in the scenario software. “Thought you’d never ask…”

Forcefield trap. Oof. Adam grimaced at the unpleasant memories that sprang up as he watched Gonzo suddenly get grabbed and yanked around by invisible tendrils of force.

He floundered. Strained to try and reach the dump-web on his belt, and made progress but too slow. Another second and he’d be a “kill…”

Fortunately, a flying freight train in the form of Julian hit him like pretty much like a literal truck. Now…Adam wasn’t sure how he felt about all this “Paragon” bullshit. And to his credit, neither were Julian or the others. But damn if the big pretty fucker couldn’t perform. And perform far better than anyone else on the team, aside from Yan and Firth themselves.

With a strain and a surge, Playboy reached and activated Gonzo’s dump-web: a flash of light blinded the cameras, and Holding chuckled in delight as his software beeped angrily at him. “Well, we’re gonna have to replace those emitters again…” he declared.

“Got anything else for them?”

Holding just let out that sadistic chuckle and clicked something else.

Now, it was Gonzo’s turn to pull the LT out of a tight spot. Suddenly, Julian was dangling from Thompson as the gravity turned sideways. He held on, but then Holding flipped it one-eighty, jolting them the other way. Then back, and forth, and back again. The infamous ‘cocktail shaker.’

The way out of that one required hideous core strength combined with quick timing, and Gonzo had both. He picked his moment, kicked out, and rather than plummeting and jerking from him he managed to get Julian safely across to a wall, where he could anchor himself and the cocktail shaker couldn’t whip them around so bad.

Some critique, there: he was trying to save one of the biggest men alive by far, who was in turn running about under a worst-case combat load. He wasn’t quite fast or strong enough under that kind of extreme load to evade Holding’s killshot.

They’d never seen Hunters configured like marksmen with high-powered accurate anti-materiel rifles, but they could theoretically exist, and so they existed in Holding’s toolkit. So there Gonzo was, clinging to the wall like a spider and about to put his anti-G-fuckery moves into motion when the cloaky bastard at the far end of the kill-hall domed him right in the helmet. He cursed, and called “Out!” at the same time as his icon went red in the overview.

“You’re an evil hombre, Holding,” Adam observed drily.

“S’what they pay me for.”

The team rallied well. Yan swooped in and held Etsicitty with his tail, punching his grippy feet right through the wall to grab the thicker structural beams. Playboy trusted the big guy’s strength and hung from him as he returned fire on the cloaked sniper, while Haruuk shot the fuck out of the grav plates. Holding nodded and tapped the control to lock that corridor into zero-G mode, and Adam grunted in satisfaction as he watched the Lads go to work.

Their newest Protector was Roberts, AKA Styx, and Adam had to give the young PJ credit: he wasn’t honestly sure he could have shouldered Gonzo so easily at the same stage in his own career. Yet another score for the latest generation, and the improved training. Gonzo just grumbled quietly as he was scooped up and delivered back to the safe territory at the back of the formation where, in a real mission, he’d have been jumped out.

Here in this training scenario, he just stumped out of the course griping and bitching about Holding’s sadism. Adam chuckled, patted the dungeon master on his shoulder, then ducked out of the control booth to go say hi and left Holding to whittle the rest of the squad down.

Gonzo had taken his helmet off and was sucking down a gallon of citrusy mouth-rape while he waited. He looked up and gave Adam an air-toast. “Sadistic fucker got me good, huh?”

“You held still for too long,” Adam replied.

“Yeah, I know. Half a fuckin’ second too long.” Thompson shook his head ruefully. “Not quite strong enough to manhandle our most biggest prettiest occifer!”

“Good, you noticed.” Adam sat down next to him, struck by just how much Gonzo’s reaction reminded him of…well, of himself. “‘Course, Holding will always find a way to push you further than you can go. The fight for perfection’s a never-ending one.”

“Yeah, and we lose it eventually. I know that.” Gonzo slurped another mouthful of juice, and cleared his throat. “It ain’t never stopped me yet!”

There was an alarm whoop, and the sound of the training range powering down. Moments later, the team emerged looking…well, beaten, but not unhappily so. Holding had triumphed yet again.

“That man is evil,” Playboy commented as he removed his own helmet.

“That’s what we pay him for. But you made him work for it,” Adam replied. “He was almost sweatin’ up there.”

“Good to know.” Julian plopped down with a heavy thud, and broke with tradition by opting for the watermelon flavored juice. He looked Adam up and down. “…When was the last time you stepped in the ring against him?”

“Just before I got m’brain fried. Beat him, too.” Adam grinned.

“You should test yourself again,” Yan rumbled. “No good sitting on old strength.”

“Wise words,” Julian agreed, and glanced up the stairs toward the booth. “What do you think, Holding?”

Holding descended them with tablet in hand. “Sounds good to me, LT. I got some tricks I cooked up special for ‘Horse I never got to try.”

“Well shit, challenge accepted,” Adam grinned. “I’ll go suit up.”

Things were different now, of course. His old EV-MASS had been ruined in the fight with the Alpha, and medical retirement meant he’d never got an exact replacement. Instead, when he’d gone on business with the Wrecking Crew, he’d worn the kind of armor they wore, the subtle slimline stuff concealable under a baggy sweater and pants. It had none of the load-bearing reinforcement of a MASS, none of the ablative plating, none of the thermal regulation, active blood lab, compression or combat computing. It was…just armor. Good armor that’d stop most things, but nothing more. Next to wearing a modern MASS, he may as well be running the course naked and with his wrist tied to his ankle.

But, fuck it. Yan was right, he hadn’t properly tested where he was at in a while. Numbers in the gym were one thing, but next to seeing how that translated into the real world…

They set up again. Holding returned to the control booth with a sadistic little smirk, and they ran the scenario anew.

And Adam was into it. Instantly. Like a switch in his head, that familiar feeling of dropping straight into Warhorse mode and fuckin’ doing his thing. He grinned, and delved deeper and thought no more, just acted.

Moment flowed to moment. There was pain, effort, progress made by split seconds and action that went deeper than thought. He moved, he fought, he was.

And despite Holding’s best efforts, this time they won.

Definitely sore, though. He’d gone into a HEAT-grade fight, with HEAT-grade battle rattle, while wearing light armor. Good thing he’d spent decades forcing himself to grow tough and robust. And it was fuckin’ worth it to see how the younger guys on the team reacted. Even Hunter looked at him like he’d just watched a monster go on a rampage. Good shit. Time for cool-down. They de-suited, stretched, and went for a soak in the sauna.

“Shit, man. What do I gotta do to get that good?”

“No shit,” Julian chuckled. “I’m like, three times stronger than you nowadays, on paper—”

“More,” Adam added proudly, for his own reasons. “A lot more.”

“Shit! All that and you still embarrass me.”

“Us both. I can match your speed, match your lifts, I’m prettier too…”

Adam snorted, opened an eye and grinned at him. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Hey, which one of us has seduced a dashing starship captain?”

Julian raised a lazy, smug hand.

“…Alright, bad example,” Hunter conceded.

“We’re both bad examples,” Adam chuckled, and sopped the sweat from his face. The heat felt good today. He could feel it seeping in, working loose what would otherwise have become a nasty little muscle-knot. “Anyway. Lessons I learned the hard way. There’s no secret formula, you can grunt and lift and fill yourself with Crude and be the strongest there fuckin’ is, but you still gotta put in the hours.”

“It’s more than the hours,” Julian sighed. “You just…have something in you. It’s not just tactics or training. I don’t even think it’s experience.”

Well. Why not. “You’re right. It’s the Hate.”

He’d never told them about the Hate.

“…the…what, now?”

“That’s what I call it. Just…y’know. All the shit I went through. My home, my mom, my friends, then coming here, Sara…” he shrugged. It was a weird thing, how grief could still sometimes hit like a lightning bolt. How he could miss somebody so much whom he’d only known for a year, when he was a kid…

He cleared his throat and snapped back to here-and-now. “Somewhere along the way, I figured out how to turn it all into something I could use. I call it the Hate. For all that’s wrong, and cruel, and evil in the world. And then I tap into it, and it fuels me, and…”

He shrugged.

“Fire,” Yan grunted. His trimmed crest had gone stiff and luxuriant in the heat and humidity—it didn’t sag at all as he tilted his head thoughtfully. “You sound like human Given-Man.”

“Is that what it’s like for you?” Adam asked.

Yan shrugged and shook his head. “Never put words to it. I know it in what you say, but for me…comes from the belly, something old inside. Not from my life. Still, the Fire is Fire, and it burns hot. Can burn you up, or if you have strong mind, you can use it.”

Gonzo was nodding thoughtfully, his expression distant: Julian on the other hand just looked blankly interested. Well…understandable. He was…Adam and Yan were warrior types. Which was a word he didn’t like using because it was so overused and lots of idiots had their own ideas about it all, but for what Adam meant, it worked. The two of them were what they were out of a deep need to excel. It was part of their being. The need to be…well, dominant.

Julian had different reasons for being here. He was a man of duty more than Fire, though anyone who could hack it on HEAT had a huge ridiculous heaping of both. He found fulfillment mostly in the more fatherly, soldierly side of it. Duty, service, protection. That sort of thing. Adam and Yan did too, but really…they were darker souls.

They liked breaking their enemies. Defeating the evil was its own powerful reward.

Which was why today’s success felt so good, Adam realized as he picked up his drink bottle and took a hefty swig, basking in the moment. Today hadn’t just taken the team a step closer to TILE FLIP, it had been important for him on a deeper, more personal level too. He’d come back in, handicapped by the lack of a MASS, and still shown he could crush the worst their sadistic dungeon master could throw at them. He was still in the fuckin’ game, injury be damned. He could still be what he was.

It felt really fuckin’ good to be back.

Adam grinned to himself and soaked in the heat. They’d just have to see what came of it.

High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao, First Counsel of the United Peoples

Daar crashed into bed with a thump, and was suddenly, utterly immobile, more tired than he could remember being in decades.

Humans were exhausting.

On multiple levels.

First, Daar maybe kinda underestimated Adam’s determination to retake his throne. Not that Daar din’t want him to succeed…but he wanted Daar to succeed, too. As hard as was physically possible. And balls was that some effort, ‘fer a ‘Back who could outmuscle tractors and do other such silly shit. It was happy work, and fulfilling! But nonetheless…

Well, not only was it draining for a giant like him well into the five-digit club to perform at the edge of his abilities and endurance every single morning, it was hard to eat enough just to recover. He was already the heaviest land-walker anywhere and damn near ever, so that was no small concern! After a few weeks, all his reserves had been burned away—though admittedly, he’d never looked better—and from then on it was a delicately-balanced act between progress and setback, and having enough energy just to get through the day.

Which was fine. Daar was a tough boy and he could hack it. But lately, his daily training was only the prelude to the constitutional discussions, and by the Unseen… if he’d thought ‘Horse could go forever torturing the two of them towards perfection, that was nothing compared to the endurance of men and women in tidy suits doing the same thing to the Law.

They just would not stop. Daar had to sit there on his throne, with crown on head and mace in hand, and listen to it all. Sanctify it by his presence, or at least legitimize it. His body was desperate to move usually an hour after training, but finding opportunity in the gaps between topics wasn’t an easy task. And he couldn’t just get up and leave, since the whole thing needed sovereign backing. His opinion was only rarely required…but it was required, which meant he had to pay attention to weapons-grade lawyer-talk for literally hours every day.

It would be worth it, in the end. The whole process had thoroughly enraptured Clan Straightshield, and rightfully so. The cross-species debates about the Law would, quite probably, become one of the greatest works of civilization the galaxy had ever seen. Observers from nearly every species and government were there too, all with aides taking furious notes. No doubt all of it would be picked over endlessly, as human and gaoian worked to uncover the Law.

That would be a hell of a legacy for his people, so obviously he was keen to see it through! It was just…the Gao had fought many wars, and he was no spotless leader. But this was one of the most vicious fights Daar had ever witnessed. His brain felt like it had been scooped out and replaced with neutron star matter: hot, unthinking, and impossibly heavy.

…Maybe he should decree half-day sessions for primary debate. Tempting…

No rest for him, though. After all that, every day without fail, Daar went among his people. Again, it was wonderfully rewarding and utterly exhausting. The arrival of millions, then tens and hundreds of millions of humans, with more coming all the time, had kicked society into a sort of turbo-mode rebuilding that was impossible to put into words. And they didn’t have unified Law yet, so lots was being made up as they went—

Well, not building and electrical codes thank fuck, Daar put his paw down there.

Anyway. Trends were emerging, and they stemmed mostly from…well, him. Specifically, accommodating him and accommodating each other. Every little building complex had a Daar-friendly park and meeting place, now. The reason being humans and gao preferred to build cozier places when they lived together, but some gao (and humans, too) could be big as hell and Daar was the size of a gods-damned bus. And living together was the new rage. Workhouses and apartments and strip malls filled with bodegas and little shops all tended to mushroom up close to each other as many of the mostly-abandoned mid-sized cities underwent complete rebuilds, since zoning really wasn’t a thing except for major industry—another thing Daar refused to encourage. He’d been to America and seen the consequences. No thank you.

In fact the economy, which had been in a permanent downward trend ever since the biodrone war, was getting a shot of adrenaline right to its heart. All the areas where they’d been struggling, suddenly there were humans able to fit straight in after just a little training.

Actually, that prompted a thought: Gao’s great cities would still be mostly gaoian spaces. Maybe the humans needed a city or two of their own? Hmm…

So many ideas buzzing through his brain. He was simultaneously exhausted and unable to wind down. It was exhilarating! But he needed grounding. So, he visited. He praised where things should be encouraged, gently offered advice or otherwise when needed. Shared some lessons he’d learned himself, and his staff did likewise a hundred times more for each unique little corner of the economy or social fabric they were exploring that day.

It was all powerfully educational. Daar knew the fundaments of civilization and could talk anyone’s head off about concrete and planting season, of ranching and mining, but all the stuff built atop that? Novel learning experience for him, because humans liked to share instead of defer. Which was nice! But humans also tried to speechify everything and make it all formal or whatever…no, Daar wouldn’t have that. So his meathead side tended to come out as a disarming tactic.

He’d gotten awfully good at flattening iron balls for people’s entertainment—that was the trick they always boggled at. He’d made a show out of every way he could do it: In his paws, wedged into the crook of his arm between his forearm and bicep, behind his knee for the really big ones. Or he could smush ‘em flat with his chest even! That one hurt but always garnered the biggest gasps. Or maybe he’d try something even more unbelievable and ridiculous, if the energy of the moment encouraged it. Full-speed sprints were fun, throwing boulders even funner…

He was happy to clown about, so long as it kept those damn speeches at bay…

Afterwards was usually fun, where he gained some much-needed rejuvenation from wrasslin’ the kids and talkin’ to Proud Mommas and Papas, who often teamed up with the local communes to raise their kids alongside the gaoian cubs. After all, it was the youth who would grow up in this new strange unified world and navigate it for the first time. Best if they made friends from an early age.

No small challenge, that: Daar had become Champion and Stud-Prime at fifteen, the day of his manhood. Which in earth years meant he would have been twelve. And he was already mostly the size he’d be for many years later, because gao grew up fast. Humans did not. So they couldn’t easily school together, couldn’t really be raised together…

But they could definitely be friends together. Playtime was scheduled accordingly.

So it had gone for seemingly forever. The ordeal of Law to drain him, the ordeal of Warhorse to test him, and the joy of people to recharge him. But now, here he was, in his own nest-bed, at home in High Mountain…

And he still had the happy ordeal of the women he loved to come. Gods, he wasn’t even sure he could lift his head, let alone…

Three, now. Naydra and Leela had befriended Maaryi, an absolute specimen of a brownfur woman, one statuesque enough to make even Myun blush—they were apparently fast friends at the commune. She was beautiful, athletic and powerful…and like Myun she was bubbly and simple, but not at all stupid. She was so unlike the other two they all became fast, instant friends.

And like any good brownfur, she didn’t take no for an answer.

Oh well. Daar could be heroic, when called to great service! He couldn’t let them think they could team up and subdue him! Every inch of him was exhausted, but he regretted nothing.

He just needed to…sleep. First. Yeah.


He woke to the slow realization that it was fully the middle of the day outside, and his nose was telling him that although he’d had three warm and lovely bodies cuddled up to him all night, they’d woken and started their days before him.

Musta really needed the sleep. Damn!

Still, he felt amazing now that he’d recovered. He heaved himself to his paws, stretched until his spine rippled and crunched, shook his fur out, scratched an itch, and allowed his rumbling stomach (which was plugged directly into his nose) lead him toward the scent of breakfast.

Leela chittered at the sight of him. “At last! Naydi was starting to get worried!” she flowed up from her reading to nip his cheek affectionately, then wave a paw toward his stasis fridge. He had one, the three of them shared the other. It turned out to be full of new, hot, freshly made breakfast tacos, just how he liked ‘em with pickled (an’ extra oily!) smallfish.

“I don’ even remember last night…” Daar admitted, transferring the platter to the table.

“Maaryi was very annoyed,” she chittered again, and sat opposite him. “Are you okay? I’ve never seen you so tired…”

“Been a long time since I ever felt that tired…” Daar agreed, and scooped three tacos off the platter with his tongue. For once, she didn’t grab a handy nearby utensil and thwap him with it for his lack of table manners, but instead tilted her head and made a sympathetic noise.

There was the swish of Naydra’s office door sliding aside, followed by a happy warmth as she flowed across the room to greet him and tidy his sleep-flattened fur. “Finally! I was worried you were sick!”

“Jus’ worn out. Th’ negotiations took it all outta me.”

She chittered and combed her claws across his shoulder, which felt perfect. “Figures it’d be sitting and talking that you can’t tolerate.”

“Sittin’ an’ listenin’, mostly. Which is fuckin’ exhaustin’ when so much of it is…kinda beyond me.” He leaned into the scritching. “Or at least beyond my education.”

“Well, forging different species together under one government was never gonna be easy…” Naydra agreed.

“Yeah. Still, I worry ‘bout th’ long-term consequence. We…as a people, we’ve always believed the Law should be as minimal as possible. It should rely on our nature first an’ foremost. An’ human law supposedly believes that too, but that ain’t how th’ lawyers are goin’ at it! Every day it’s a furious attack of ‘define this, spell this out, what if we did this’ an’ so on! It’s exasperatin’ ‘ta watch ‘cuz the Lawgivers in Straightshield spend almost all their time shootin’ shit down.”

“Sounds good to me,” Leela said. “Things should be well-examined and watertight.”


“She’s right, Bumpkin,” Naydra agreed, scritching his ears.


He pant-grinned happily at their stereo chitters, and ate the rest of his breakfast in appreciative silence, aside from asking, around a mouthful, “Wher’f Maaryi godoo?”

“Commune. Sword training with Myun.”

“I think she had some pent-up frustration to work off…” Layla added, mischievously.

“Can’t blame her, really,” Naydra chittered. “Anyway. You are going to rest properly. Great Mother’s orders.”

Daar chittered too, and duck-nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

That was the point of course. In fact, one of the things the human diaspora were adapting to really well in a why-the-hell-didn’t-we-think-of-this-sooner way was the traditional gaoian eight-day week with five working days and three rest days. Daar had to concur: the seven-day cycle had just seemed exhausting to him. You’d finish your week, have one day to flop and recharge, and then one day to actually do something fun, but tainted by the knowledge that tomorrow was back to the grind.

Three seemed the right number to him. Flop and recover, then have a genuinely free day, then have a second one to energize oneself for the week ahead.

What was he gonna do? Spend some time on the farm, maybe? Do some flower arranging? Or painting! That was always relaxin’…

Farm. Ranch, mebbe. Dig sum hole!

He could indulge all his hobbies there, and escape Warhorse for a bit, do some practical heavy labor to change it up from the relentless precision science of megaweight training.

Could plow all his fertile fields, too…heh.

He sclormphed the last tacos, licked the platter clean, then rose from the table feeling good about life. “Well. Lemme go fetch Maaryi, I’ll make it up to you three good an’ hard out at…oh, how ‘bout our lil’ fishin’ shack? There’s that field that needs plowin’ up too…”

“Oh, so you intend to plow something besides us?” Leela snorted.


“I jus’ thought that joke in my head!”

“You might be the most intelligent pile of meat in this here galaxy, but you’re also one of the most predictable, Bumpkin.”

“Prime grade meat, too!” Daar preened, because of course he did. “But you ain’t wrong,” he chittered. “Anyway…”

Of course, Great Fathers didn’t really get to have days off. But as far as Daar was concerned, reading a quick summary of the day’s security issues was just something to do during the short vehicle ride from jump array to commune.

News from Lucent—a miscount in the stasis racks had led to an investigation, the missing bag had turned out to have been placed by the late Colonel Shen in his guise as a civilian worker. And it was surely entirely coincidental that the Israeli defense minister had recently turned up dead and literally torn to pieces, having been apparently warehoused in that very same facility under a fake name.

Hoeff’s work, no doubt. And having the intended effect. There was a list of names below it of critical figures in the cascade of Stupid that had instigated WW3—Russians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis and especially Iranians—who’d suddenly popped up on Whitecrest’s monitoring, scared out of their hiding holes by the panic of knowing that the Circle of Friends was coming for them.

Well…that was an affair Daar felt compelled to permit. There was house-cleaning afoot, and it would be best for everyone if nobody else got involved.

There was a lot more, which he speed-read on the way over, then deleted the report and put his tablet away. Should he have run instead of taking a flatbed? It was always nicer to get wind between his ears…

Nah, best get the daily reading out of the way ‘fore any more interestin’ activities.

Reunion with Myun was always fun, and it was gratifying to see that a beastly-hot creature like Maaryi could find someone generally her match…gods, he was so blessed!

And there was no time to lose. There were some pleasantries. Some innocent wrasslin’ like brownies do.

Then some travel, some blessed peace and quiet…then it weren’t so peaceful!

Life was good.

Now if he could only find some way to tame those damn lawyers…

One step at a time. And step one was to relax in the time he had available.

He made the most of it.

Lavmuy City, planet Gao

Evie Sato, senior partner of Sato, Thomas and Earp LLP

Everything hurt. Her throat hurt from talking, her back and feet hurt from standing in heels all day, and her mind hurt from the constant effort of intense thought. All of which was ignorable in the debating hall, but came back with interest the next morning.

Gao were just inhuman. Every day, that unfathomably huge beast of a man they called the Great Father sat on his throne like a colossal ultra-bodybuilder bear, expression never breaking, serene and attentive at all times…

Even now, a month into the constitutional convention.

Even to Evie, the process was beginning to drag on. They’d begun with speeches and grand sentiments, the clear-laying out of intent and a sketch for what the United Peoples should be, for all its people. There had been televised debates, there had been closed meetings, there had been huge bull-pen socials where everyone kind of somebody milled around, met, talked, discussed and generally pickled in the process.

Then had come the splitting apart, the factionalization, and the manifestos as each group formed committees and hammered out their specific practical implementations of the intent, wrote and revised their draft proposals…

And now they were into the third phase, where each faction’s legal experts came back and argued their case.

That was Evie’s job.

Daar’s job, apparently, was to listen to all of it and…preside. Evie had no idea what his actual opinion was, just that he had a terrible habit of asking the most skewering questions.

At a glance, one might be forgiven for thinking he’d be a stone dead idiot. He was an absurdly muscular superjock with a too-perfect body and, somehow, had that sort of broad-jawed, too-damn-manly face only the most massive testosterone-poisoned Neanderthalic meatheads ever managed. Too damn handsome to think too, and that was an accepted stereotype across species. He was so ludicrously extreme on all counts, one might be surprised if he could even read.

But Evie knew better. She’d been among highly competitive people all her life and knew the dumb jock stereotype was mostly a lie. In fact, most of the most aggressively competent counsel she’d ever done battle with were all much like the Great Father in that sense. People who were very good at competitive sports were, more often than not, good at nearly everything else, too. If only they applied themselves.

That was certainly true of the rich-shit moneyed family lawyers she had to tolerate back on Earth. What remained absolutely true about those types was their sexual development never progressed past their college frat days. She couldn’t fucking stand them, with their clumsy come-ons and reliance on their pretty faces. They’d spent so much time competing with each other to be the “best,” whatever that meant, they’d missed how to be decent human beings.

Or people with personalities, really. Personalities beyond “hey bby lemme smash.” People about whom American Psycho had been a fucking documentary.

Daar…wasn’t like that at all, and it was uncomfortably disarming. He had the same energy, sure, but with him it was…playful. He rolled in on all fours, taller than most everyone even then. His sheer presence was something else: commanding and powerful like a prize bull yet sleek and powerful like a tiger. That impossible combo let him dance around them all, every line in his vast muscles rippling sinuously under his fur as he silently weaved himself among and through the crowd, all while the floor literally trembled under his stupendous weight. He had his charming, pretty-boy way with everyone on the first day, and somehow his size just…didn’t seem all that threatening. He blended informal greetings with the trappings of state so seamlessly, it all seemed…natural. Perfect. Light-hearted somehow, even a bit flirtatious!

But then Daar put on his crown, his cape, picked up his mace of state. He went from personable and friendly on all fours to this towering figure of every kind of might, instantly. He listened, with unyielding attention.

And that was when she knew they were all screwed.

He’d ask questions. Deep, piercing questions. At the most unexpected times, and with just the right energy to totally throw off any line of argument. He was a fuckin’ master of the zen koan, in legalese form.

And he never seemed to tire. There were a couple breaks every day, during which he’d go exercise or attend matters of state or do both at once. He didn’t recharge, he just worked harder. Worse yet, their sessions were just one part of the day for him, and the easiest part at that, apparently. The bastard was a fuckin’ machine.

He was perfectly gracious and friendly at the end of each day, too. Like this was all a fun distraction for him! How was anyone supposed to keep up with that?!

Just as bad were her colleagues and “opposing counsel” in Clan Straightshield. Thank Christ they had three days to recover…she was going to need every minute.

And coffee. Lots of that. God bless the farmers who’d rightly realized it was just as important as, say, corn. Humanity could not function without the bean, and already there were plantations getting started on Akyawentuo and Garden Station.

On that thought, she followed her nose into the kitchen. They’d been given a sort of residence for the duration of the convention, the whole professional team and their families under a total of five roofs. It was gaoian-style living, built with…different…ideas about privacy and alone time and suchlike, but quite tolerable.

Gaoians also had different ideas about things like breakfast food, as anyone who’d ever blundered into the peanut-butter-and-anchovie bagel could attest. But there was a human-owned bodega not far down the street that had the best coffee Evie had yet found on this planet, and her husband Keitaro had been considerate enough to go get her the sort of breakfast that could wake King Arthur.

Among his few flaws as a husband and as a person was that the only kind of cooking he’d ever mastered was hobo stew. On account of how he’d literally been homeless for a year at one point.

He’d been a lot of things, at one point or another. Carpenter, calligrapher, shop owner, tailor, tour guide, beekeeper, librarian, handyman, competitive cyclist…even, very briefly, an apprentice at a shinto shrine. His love of sake and sex ended that dream pretty quick…

Now, he was a teacher, and his students lived in awe of him. He’d never made much money but he had so much life experience that, honestly, he was worth his own weight in gold. And his lack of culinary expertise was more than made up for by his considerate streak.

“So, uh…” he handed her a bacon-egg-cheese, still hot and steaming and perfect from the stasis fridge. “A…herald? I think? Just stopped to visit.”

“…A what.”

“Well I don’t know exactly what he is, except he’s Clan Straightshield, and he was dressed exactly like some kind of fancy messenger. He had an invitation for you.”

Evie blinked at the paper message, then shrugged, opened it, read it, blinked, and read it again.

Gaoians, it seemed, also had different ideas about professional separation. Father Meeku had invited them to come play ta’shen and share a few drinks in the evening.

“…This sort of thing is going to take some getting used to,” she said out loud.

Keitaro leaned against the counter and lifted his eyebrows. “How so? The way I see it, you’re both trying to bash out a constitution that works for all our species…”

“That doesn’t make us colleagues. The gao are bargaining for what they want, we’re bargaining for what we want…”

“Sounds adversarial.”

“No more than it has to be. Constructive adversary, yijao?” Evie considered the invitation again, then shrugged. “Oh well. When in Rome!”

“I can think of worse ways to spend a…what are we calling this, anyway? Saturday?”

“…Sure,” Evie agreed. She declined to point out that it was technically Wednesday on Earth, and instead bit into her bacon-egg-cheese before sagging in delight. It was perfect. Maybe even one of the best she’d ever had.

Or maybe that was full-body exhaustion talking.

But yeah, a night of gaming and drinks with a peer and counterpart might be….fun. And even productive! It was just…not the sort of thing she’d have expected from the opposite side in such an important conference.

Maybe the gaoians just didn’t see it that way? Learning that all by itself would be useful. So much of the slow progress had been down to not really entirely understanding each other. The two species were similar enough to get along well, but the differences still mattered. They’d never forge any constitution at all without knowing and preparing for the differences.

She scanned the code printed at the top of the invitation, which opened a message app and let her RSVP with brief, polite gratitude to say they would be there. The response soon came back that Father Meeku was looking forward to it, and to ask whether she had a favorite flavor of taco.

Different indeed. Alien, really. But impossible not to like.

Evie could tell she was going to enjoy working here.

Great Father’s ranch, planet Gao

Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao

“Are you up yet, Maaryi?”

Vague grumblings and complaints issued forth from under the pile of blankets in their nest bed. “Mmmf…I’m alive, at least…”

Naydra chittered. “Well you shouldn’t have teased him like that! Did you forget that even you are tiny in his embrace?”

“I’m not complaining! Jus’….”

Very telling silence.

Time for executive intervention. Naydra made tea. Maaryi could never resist a fresh pot of green tea.

Sure enough, another series of groans, and a shambling, gloriously ruined she-beast slunk her way out of the nest bed and plopped herself down at the table.

Slurp. Gazed at Naydra uncomprehendingly.

“…How are you like this?” Maaryi commented, blearily.

“Oh, I’m very much breakable, so I’m not fool-hardy enough to push his buttons that hard,” Naydra chittered. It was amazing how somebody could just stumble into your life and become instantly focal to it. Or rather, how the right words at the right time could recontextualize an entire relationship. She and Maaryi had been acquainted for years, ever since the Grand Commune was founded on Cimbrean. She’d been a guard, selected and trained by Myun herself, and one of the very few who physically surpassed her.

A natural choice to escort the Great Mother, and so their relationship had been entirely professional…until suddenly, one day, it wasn’t. Maaryi offered her resignation, having fallen in love with them both by proxy. That might have been a dangerous moment, but brownfurs were just so wonderfully guileless, really…how could Naydra not embrace the opportunity? She knew her feelings instantly, and knew Daar was fond of her, too. The world always needed more love.

So, having passed the Naydra Test, the next step had been the Leela Test, and watching the two verbally spar and play with each other had been a delight. Just like Daar, Maaryi seemed to think getting thwacked on the nose with a spatula was heart-meltingly cute, and so the Leela Test had been passed.

And having cleared those two hurdles, the Daar Test. Tougher than it sounded—it was one thing for Daar to welcome a female for a brief contract. Indeed, he had a waiting list and was always keen to shorten it, as it were. It was another entirely for him to welcome a woman into his home for as long as she wanted to be there. Because of course, he was such a male that he had to consider the permanent effect his mere habitual presence could have on any target of his affection. He valued people and their freedom too much to abuse that power.

He was, therefore, quite picky by necessity. Not everyone was ready for such an intense relationship, and not everyone was well-suited to help him bear his great burdens, if only through listening and keeping their silence.

But, Naydra had known she’d pass. She had the qualities he loved: discretion, a wicked sense of mischief, a tenacity of spirit, quickness of wit…and she had something else. Maybe she wasn’t the sharpest conversationalist, but she could handle his deepest passions.

And that meant a lot more than just being physically robust. Passion, after all, was a word that covered broad territory. It meant keeping pace with him, body and spirit. Which was exactly what they needed. Together, the three of them were quite complimentary partners.

But not even Maaryi could hope to match Daar’s endless strength, even as one of the very few women who could handle his love-play at its most dauntingly physical. She chittered, slurped her tea again, and perked up. “Your loss…” she flicked a wicked ear.

“I happen to rather enjoy all my bones, thank you very much.”

“Well, yeah, my love of big ‘ol bones was the whole point—”

As Leela was out building her taco empire, Naydra took up the solemn duty and spatulated Maaryi firmly ‘cross the nose in her place.

They were still chittering when the thud of heavy paws outside and the scent of freshly-dug earth announced the arrival of the object of their joking more effectively than a fanfare of trumpets could have. Daar was pumped up and muddy to the elbows, and had a general case of happy-boy field dirt worked into his fur from head to toe.

He gave a sniff. “Hmm! Smells lewd up in here. Hope it’s ‘bout me!”

“Smells muddy in here, that’s definitely about you,” Naydra retorted, and brandished the spatula, menacing the inevitable harmless slap across the snout if he didn’t go clean up. He pant-grinned, and headed through to go comb and wash his fur.

He looked so much more relaxed already.

Of course, never a day went by without Tiyun, Daar’s ever-present aide. He was the one man who knew Daar perhaps better than anyone, including Daar himself.

He appeared in the room, as was his way, just as Maaryi was cleaning up the tea set and as Daar returned shaking his arms dry. He got Daar’s attention with a respectful throat-click. “My Father, we received a herald from Clan Straightshield. Father Meeku is inviting you and guests to a small get-together.”

“He invited me?” Daar uttered an amused rumble as he plucked the small paper invitation from Tiyun’s claws and slit it open to read it. “Well, das’ pretty cheeky…I think I like it. Anythin’ on m’schedule that conflicts?”

“No, My Father. We managed to keep your weekend open. Shall we accept?”

Daar turned toward the three of them, looking at Naydra.

“Smells like mischief to me,” Naydra said. “I say yes.”

“Me too!” Maaryi agreed.

“Then please tell Father Meeku we accept!” Daar duck-nodded. “Y’think Leela will wanna come?” he asked Naydra.

“Probably. I’ll ask her.”

“‘Kay. Meanwhile…I think I’mma relax ‘fer now. Got my PT in…twice this morning…” He cast a smug look over at Maaryi, who chittered unapologetically. “So yeah! Naptime. Gods that sounds wunnerful…”

“Nap. Recharge. You’ve earned it,” Naydra encouraged. “I’ll get us an appropriate warming gift…when is Meeku’s get-together, Tiyun?”

“Tomorrow, My Mother. Twelfth hour.”

“Oh, it can wait then. I’m relaxing too! And you should as well, Tiyun. Don’t you ever take a day off?”

Tiyun just ducked his head self-effacingly and retreated toward the door. “I’ll take the rest of the day, shall I?”

“You do that!” Daar agreed, heading for the bedchamber. “C’mon Maaryi, I need somethin’ ‘ta squish…”

“But I like my bones!” Maaryi chittered, shooting Naydra a cheeky look. Daar’s head tilted and his ears swiveled as Naydra burst out chittering, then he shrugged and padded out of the room with a yawn and an earflick…along with a weapons-grade preening display, which he held as he heavily prance-thumped his way out of the room. Maaryi chittered and followed, looking generally happy with life…

And, hardly a minute later, as predictable as the rising sun…

By the sound of it, they had some unfinished business to attend to before naps. Naydra chittered, snuck a peek in and admired the show for a moment. Maaryi was utterly swallowed up by his hulking brawn and crushed tightly within his grasp, a tiny and helpless dot pinned against the vast rolling ocean of his strength. Daar was quite a sight when he was performing at his most animalistic, body at maximum tension, his words just…not there. He never held back, and could go from zero to warp speed in a heartbeat. The only question was how much Maaryi could handle, really…

All of him, they’d learned, and she had enough stamina herself to withstand him right through the evening. Probably. It looked like they were both getting exactly what they wanted. Suddenly, Daar snapped his gaze to Naydra and snarled a room-shaking snarl, flexed tighter and doubled his efforts…

Pretty clear message, there: she would be next, and he wasn’t asking nice.

Good. She snarled back and swished away to her favorite chair. Naydra wasn’t foolish enough to wade into such a one-sided love-war until he was good and worn down, so she was, for the next long while, alone.

Not a hardship. She grabbed a half-finished book, curled up in her favorite spot by the window, and settled in for some light reading until Maaryi needed rescuing.

They all needed to let loose, after weeks like this. There’d be more work to do soon enough.

Lavmuy City, Gao

Evie Sato

“Y’know…I think I like the Gaoian way of doing this…”

Evie was…drunk. Well. Tipsy. Definitely tipsy. Talamay had that way of sneaking up on you, and honestly it had been a while since she’d last had much to drink too so maybe it was hitting harder because of that. But she was definitely tipsy.

But then again, she wasn’t the only one.

“It’s not really the gaoian way of doing things…” Father Meeku replied. He was lounging languidly on the opposite side of the table, carefully loading a ta’shen tile onto his palm to flick it into the formation. Funny how different a gaoian’s paws where, really. A human could load the tile on the side of their index finger and thumb-flick, but goaians had to use their palm and middle finger.

Evie blinked and refocused. “It’s not?”

“I heard once that the humans of ancient Babylon used to discuss matters of serious import twice. Once while sober, and once while drunk…” Meeku flicked, and the tile danced for a second across the table before spinning to a stop. He hissed in disappointment, leaned in and tidied it up with a claw, neatly adding it to the unfolding game pattern in front of them. It had landed Loyal-side up, and he was playing Trickster-side: points to Evie.

“Riiight, I heard about that,” Evie agreed, and grabbed one of her own rare and precious safe tiles, the one that was brave on both sides. “And an idea was only a good idea if it sounded good in both states.”


“I dunno if that’s true. You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet…” she concentrated, and sent the tile flying with a ping! it landed, rattled, spun, and came down perfectly aligned. Meeku groaned, pushed his stack into the middle to concede the round, and they leaned forward to regather the tiles and set up for the next one.

“Even if it’s not true, it sounds like a smart way of doing things…though…it’s funny how humans get drunk differently. You’re more…impaired.”

“I am not impaired!” Evie protested, and sipped her talamay. “I’m just….merry!”

“Merry, as you have it.” Meeku chittered. “But as you say, this is a rather more fun way to work out business, isn’t it?”

“We’re arguing over the founding constitution of an interstellar federation…” Evie pointed out, and dragged a white tile to claim the Loyal side for this round again. “Where I’m from, that’s the kind of thing you take seriously, yijao?”

“There’s such a thing as too serious.” Meeku collected a black Trickster tile with his claws and waggled it at her. “Have you ever read Grandfather Heek’s meditations?”

As the victor of the previous round, Evie had to take the disadvantage of first flip. She selected a bland, low-scoring tile from her hand and pinged it casually into the table. “I’m not well-read in Gaoian classics, yet. Who was Heek?”

“Grandfather of the extinct Clan Storm-Pelt, before it was swallowed by Clan One-Fang. He lived about eleven hundred years before Fyu. His meditations are a series of…hmm…poems, prayers, koans? A little of all three in one.”

“Meditations on what, though?” Evie finished the last of her talamay and wondered if she dared have another glass.

“Perversity, the inherent absurdity of life, Keeda stories…they called him the merry grandfather.” Ping, rattle, clink. Evie had to admit, she liked the sounds of ta’shen. It had a chunky, weighty quality to it that card games lacked.

“Oh, is that why you remembered him? ‘Cuz I’m merry?”

Meeku chittered. “A little…I don’t even know where I’m going with this. Just that…wait, yes I do.” he combed his whiskers for a moment. “One of Heek’s parables was about two Champions who met to duel over which Clan would have the naxas grazing lands near the Shishu river. Their battle lasted until one of the Champions saw a fish leap from the river.”

“Okay….?” Evie tossed her tile. Eh. Wrong side up…

“The champion who saw the fish conceded the fight, and even sold his clan’s naxas herd to the winner. With the money, they bought fishing nets, and fished the upper river, and his clan never went hungry.”

Evie frowned, trying to see where he was going with it. “…And then what?”

“That’s it. That’s the whole thing.” Meeku chittered. “It’s meant to be something to think about and draw your own moral conclusions from, not a single clear, over-simple analogy. What do you think?”

“I think…I need another glass of talamay,” Evie decided. Meeku chittered and gestured with a claw: a waiter swung by, and just like that Evie’s glass was full again.

“But please. Indulge me. What moral conclusions do you draw from that story?”

“That, um…” Evie shook her head and shrugged. “That a clever mind can turn defeat into a victory.”

Meeku duck-nodded and tossed his tile. His eyes were turned to the table, but his ears remained pointed straight at Evie.

“Uh…that even when you’re fighting for your life, you should always be alert for other possibilities. That’s a good one.”


“That it’s….okay to settle for second best.”

“Do you believe that?”

“Me?” Evie shook her head. “No, not really.”

“No, I could tell. You’re a most uncompromising negotiator.”

Evie chuckled, sipped her talamay, then picked up and threw a tile, almost at random. The game was too bland right now, too conservative. They needed something crazy to work with. “Thank you!”

“It’s vexing.”

Evie looked over her glasses at him, then put her drink and the game aside for the moment and leaned forward. “Look…the reason we’re pushing so hard is ‘cuz we’re already losing…” she paused, groped for a word, then blew and shrugged. “…Everything? Is this thing meant to be the United Peoples, or the gao and their guests? ‘Cuz if it’s a union, it needs to make concession for the fact that we’re, well, not gaoian. The Great Father doesn’t have the same power over us.”

She sighed as Meeku tilted his head at her. “Right now, the draft you’re putting forward is a ready-made road for a dictator to have perfect, absolute, unchallenged and unchecked power. That’s…that’s just as evil to us as the thought of somebody deposing the Great Father is to you. What are we supposed to do when we run smack into two competing and incompatible definitions of evil?”

“The Great Father already has perfect, absolute, unchallenged and unchecked power. That is in fact what he is for.” Meeku pointed out, pushing his own tiles aside.

“Yeah, but…that’s an idea that doesn’t sound good to me, as a human, both sober and drunk.”

“I thought you were just merry?” Meeku flicked his ear, disarmingly mischievous.

“I’m….look, tell me straight, am I slurring yet?”

“A little.”

“Right, well…I dunno. Fun as this is, I dunno if I’ve got the brain to have a big conversation about power and dictators and constitutions an’ all that right now…” Evie sighed. “I just…our team wanna make it work. We just don’t see that there’s something which satisfies everyone.”

“Maybe there’s a fish,” Meeku replied.

“Huh? Oh. Like in the story.” Evie peered at him suspiciously. “…You think you’ve spotted one?”

“Let us suppose for a second that the human diaspora accepts the Great Father as he is, for however long he is.”

“Indefinite, thanks to medicine, but go on.”

“The sticking point then becomes the avenue for creating future Great Fathers, and the possibility of exploitation and misuse, yijao? What if there were no rules? What if our constitution simply had nothing at all to say on the matter, beyond acknowledging the existence and unlimited power of Great Fathers in general?”

Evie thought about it. “…I’m….hmm. I’m not sure I have that much faith in the caution and reserve of future generations.”

“As opposed to the caution and reserve of the present generation?” Meeku picked up and finished his own talamay glass.

Evie felt a sudden desire to be sober again. That comment had a sting in it, one she didn’t feel at all equipped to deal with right now.

Meeku leaned forward to press his point. “The less we set in stone, the fewer loopholes there can be.”

“And the more abuse that might occur. Meeku, I mean…look. Our history is filled with terrible tyrants. So is yours!”

“Yes, and My Father is the most terrible, absolute tyrant there ever was. And he’s very fond of your people. That’s the hangup. He already is that, and the obedience we gave him at the outset, and that your leaders have submit to, mean that power is not ours to take back. It is his to spare. That’s already a done deal. So…what comes next?”

Evie’s reply, whatever it would have been, was denied by the sound—or more accurately, the feeling, through the soles of her feet and her butt in the chair—of a heavy, rhythmic thumping tread with the most propitious timing.


There he was. The Great Father. Gleefully waving at them through the door with a gigantic paw, because he was far too damn big to fit through the thing.

She shot a look back at Meeku.

“You are full of mischief, I see.”

“Mischief may be the antidote to our problem.” Meeku chittered, and stood. “Shall we?”

Accompanying the Great Father were his three consorts, along with another woman Evie couldn’t identify, and a passel of cubs clinging onto his back, gleefully along for the ride.

He somehow rolled over without endangering the cubs even in the slightest, and ended with them all piled atop his chest, great arms hugging them tightly.

[“Now I gotta do some grown-up talk an’ stuff, yijao?] There’s a nice big field real close—”] he gestured in its general direction with his nose for the unnamed woman, obviously the cubs’ caretaker. [“An’ I smell some human cubs over there, too! Y’know humans are really good at throwin’ things, right?”]


[“Absolutely! Great Father’s honor! What say you, Neeryani?”]

The cubs and Daar gave her Puppy Eyes, which…well, Evie couldn’t completely restrain a grin as the cute little drama unfolded, and pretty soon a tidal wave of playful furry mischief had gone racing away to find these legendary throwing humans.

Daar watched them go, chittering somewhere deep in the bass, then switched back into his accented but otherwise flawless English and pant-grinned at Evie. “Miss Sato! Nice ‘ta see you with ‘yer hair down. Smells like you’ve been at the good talamay.”

“It’s dangerous stuff,” Evie admitted. “Sneaks up on you.”

“That’s how good talamay be!” he chittered again. “So now…how are m’two most exhaustingly brilliant legal minds doin’ today?”

He gave her a Look that somehow…

“Oh thank the gods,” Meeku chittered. “I had no idea how I was going to broach that.”

“So there was malice aforethought in ‘yer mischief today, I see…”

“My Father, those are big legal words you’re using!”

Daring, that. But what good was a lawyer who couldn’t dare? It seemed to please him.

“Been doin’ lotsa readin’ lately, hopin’ ‘ta keep up wit’ the discourse.” Daar was a completely different creature in person, on four-paw, without the crown and kilt and mace and other trappings of authority. Still immense, of course, and Evie’s instincts were still wrestling with that whole directly-in-front-of-a-cave-bear jolt of adrenaline that was sobering her up really too quickly, but…very personable.

“I know it gives me a headache,” she admitted. “You don’t collide two species’ legal traditions together without some pain.”

“No, ‘ya don’ really. Which has me sorta thinkin’ that mebbe the attempt, noble as it is, may be the wrong tack ‘ta the problem. I din’t wanna talk too much business but—ooh, beef!”

Most of a cow, in fact. Staff had rolled in dinner, the sight of which was frankly enough to reawaken Evie’s vegetarianism. She knew intellectually that meat came from animals, but supermarket packaging or paper wrapping could keep that fact at arm’s length. This was a little too…well, almost literally visceral for her, except that the viscera were in fact absent.

…Change of subject. “So…your majesty?”

“Eh,” he waved that giant paw, picked up a small sword and started carving off servings for everyone present. Okay. So really it was a huge roast, and there were platters of roasted vegetables underneath. That wasn’t so bad. “I ain’t too fussed. ‘Sir’ is jus’ fine.”

“Okay…so what was your idea, sir?”

“Well, I ain’t no lawyer, if’n my infamous preoccupation with weights an’ women were a clue—”

“Not at all a disqualifier, alas. But continue.”

He chittered. “Hope ‘fer me, then! Anyhoo…I got ‘ta thinkin’ on minimalism. We’re three—-no, four species, in different levels of development, wit’…uh, however many governments, at leas’ five of which are arguably sovereign in their own right…so what if we thought more, uh, UN-like? ‘Cuz we’re not a united people, we’re a united peoples, an’ I can’t help but think there’s somethin’ important in that turn o’ phrase.”

“We’ve looked at examples from human history, gaoian history, the Interspecies Dominion…the problem, sir, fundamentally is…you.”

“Oh, I know. An’ it’s worse, ‘cuz—” Daar paused, then sat his rump down. “…No, y’know what? I’ma listen, ‘stead o’ talkin’. I got a habit o’ domination that ain’t always so nice.”

Evie inclined her head gratefully then, on the grounds that he was sitting, cast around, found the edge of a planter to sit on, and perched on it. “You are the Gao,” she said. “You’ve said as much in those exact words, many times. Fundamentally that creates an obstacle to the transition of power, because right now at least, there is no gaoian body to bind by treaty and law. You’re the source, the whole thing. Any apparatus of government or representation that exists does so because you allow it. From a constitutional perspective…well, you are a constitution.”

Daar duck-nodded slowly, and remained silent.

“So what are we trying to create? If we’re trying to write the grand document we all live under, that fundamentally requires you to surrender to it. But you can’t.”

“No,” Daar agreed. “It’d all fly apart real quick.”

“But you can make promises,” Evie added, warming to her subject. It felt so good to be actually addressing the problem outside of the formal, courtly context.

Daar duck-nodded slowly. “Yes…provided they ain’t in conflict with my oaths of office. Which require me ‘ta remain free from any allegiance whatsoever.”

“My Father is by his own word and honor constrained from subordination to anyone or anything, willingly or unwillingly. As the embodiment of the Gao, he cannot be anything but absolutely sovereign.”

“And there’s the problem, right there,” Evie sighed, and wished she’d had another talamay after all. “How do we create a constitution that includes the Gao? How is it even possible, in light of that fact?”

“Right.” Daar took the opportunity to hook the last of the roast on one of his terrible claws, and gobble it down in one, easy bite. There was no pretending he wasn’t a predator of the highest order, with a set of teeth like that. “Mebbe we’re askin’ the wrong question,” he noted.

They both turned to look at him.

“…Wat?! It’s an honest question! ‘Yer tryin’ ‘ta rewrite the world that is, right? Well that never really works out, so…which constitution are we really arguin’ over? Are we arguin’ over some grand document we’re all supposed ‘ta live unner? Or are we addressin’ the more immediate concern of what’s happenin’ wit’ my direct holdings? ‘Cuz listenin’ real hard ‘ta all this, I don’t think we even agree on that bit. Which type o’ problem are we tryin’ ‘ta solve?”

“Which problem can we solve?” Evie mulled it over. “We can…address the world after you, at least.”

“That would have precedent in a number of human constitutions,” Meeku noted. “I won’t comment on their success records…”

Meeku and Evie looked at each other. Then Evie felt a smile start to replace the frown she’d been wearing for the last few minutes.

“Let’s start with the immediate concerns…”

Out came phones, and she and Meeku huddled up to pore over the same document they’d been staring at for far too long now, but now…

Well, now they weren’t on opposite sides of a chamber, making their case to an ineffable embodiment of authority. Here and now, with a little booze and lots of food and some gaming to lubricate things, they were working with rather than against each other.

It wasn’t enough to resolve all their problems in one fell swoop of course. But it…recontextualized things, enough for them both to put the work away and rejoin the fun an hour or so later with new thoughts bouncing around their heads.

The formal proceedings resumed two days later. Much the same as they’d been before, back to the formality and the crown and mace and careful precision of it all…but progress resumed. It took the rest of the week to finish hammering it out, but at the end of the week they were able to present a constitution.

It was voted on. Failed narrowly, went back, was altered in light of the concerns, was voted on again…

Ten days after their little get-together, the Constitution of the United Peoples was finally approved and recommended by the Conclave. Daar declared a week-long holiday of rest and contemplation for everyone, while he pondered the text…

Evie answered many calls from him. Personal calls. From the Great Father. Some clarifying a point, some posing theoreticals. He really could have been a lawyer in another life. Presumably he was grilling everyone else too, and sure enough there he was on gaoian social media, kicking off flurries of furious debates and postings.

With doodles, illustrating various points. Now there was a constitutional first!

Not something she’d ever thought she’d see. But people were invested in this. Evie was astonished to discover she’d gained a kind of celebrity through the whole process. Though, she decided it was probably best for her sanity not to explore that rabbit hole.

In any case, her role was complete for now. This iteration of the United Peoples was strictly about Daar’s holdings. It did not include Singularity or the Entity, or any of the rest. That would come via invitation and amendment, presumably very soon. They even had draft text ready to go.

None of that was really her concern. Let the great powers talk it out. She remained on call, but took a week to relax and recuperate before moving on to other matters that had been waiting for her attention.

She did attend the signing ceremony, however. It lasted two hours, and from what Evie later gathered was one of the most widely-viewed events in galactic history. It didn’t bind the Great Father, though he promised to respect the new Constitution, and all its provisions for the future. It provided for a Presidency to act in the Great Father’s place, which was a properly-constrained office and presumed that would be the operating normal going forward.

There were other details, all very important. Details on the creation of new Great Fathers (very difficult), on new Counsels (also difficult), on the process of amendment (easy, by a Great Father’s decree; harder, by legislation and plebiscite). But perhaps the greatest achievement of the Constitution was how little it had to say on local governance. A few powers were reserved to the Great Conclave, fewer still for the Counsels of State. Anything else was according to the custom and decorum of each people, as they saw fit, and each people were required to respect the law and customs of each other where they were. For the most part, it was a thing to glue existing societies together, while leaving everything mostly alone.

No doubt time would test it. Evie knew perfectly well there was no such thing as a perfect one-size-fits-all solution. But as a starting point, and as the foundation for a future not just for humanity and the gao, but for everyone, she felt she could be proud. And if there was anything that needed fixing…well, she planned on being around for a good long while to help.

And next time, she’d resort to drink and ta’shen sooner.

Spaceborne Operations Command, New Alexandria, Akyawentuo

Chief Sergeant Christian (Righteous) Firth

The issue with training up somebody like Julian Etsicitty wasn’t his physical fitness—in that regard, he was already a purpose-bred supersoldier honed by the sternest regime Warhorse could devise, and had been a freak of one kind or another since before he was properly a teen. But there was more to being a military man, and especially to being an officer, than just being fit. There was a mindset to inculcate, a lifetime of bad habits to break, enculturation to perform, customs and courtesies to teach, a set of new habits to form…

Straightforward enough to do with teenagers and early-twenties kids who barely knew who they were, whose soft clay could be molded, shaped and fired by training sergeants and other educators. But Julian was now older than the maximum age of enlistment, and had a full career behind him as castaway, space explorer and diplomat, and more than a few serious fights under his belt. He knew good and damn well who he was and what he could do.

Fortunately, who he was, was a man who’d gone through the BGEV training program’s infamous Cube, along with Allison and Xiù. That gave him the right kind of care in his soul. Meaning he really and truly did care, and he had no problems leading or following.

What he was struggling with was the necessary detachment.

In that, he was a lot like the Mustangs that Christian had known all throughout his long career, back when he was just a simple combat controller or whatever. They often came in full of enlisted camaraderie, and for company-grade officers that even sorta helped, sometimes…

But that could become a serious problem when you had to command men. Not simply lead them.

Command them. Discipline them. Serve as judge, jury, and executioner. Be the law for them. Officers had to be a petty king, in many ways.

And Julian wasn’t exactly arguing the point, but he was having a bit of trouble interpreting what he’d observed among them. Understandable, really: military etiquette could be subtle.

“Okay, I get it. Really. But I’ve seen you and Costello hanging out at parties and you alway seem to be getting on like old friends.”

“Yes, the same way Kevin Jenkins hangs out with Levaughn at the company Christmas party. I’m sure they have a friendly understanding. But they are not friends, and they are not peers. Me? I am awfully fond of Costello. He’s a good man. And I’m sure he’s fond of me, too. But fond is all we can be. Makin’ instant friends is prob’ly one o’ the biggest military skills there is an’ bein’ honnest, it’s a big part o’ why its such a male-heavy space, even today. But there’s diff’r’n’t kinds o’ friendship, right?”


“I’d die for anyone on this team. Costello would do the same, if his role didn’t prevent ‘em from doin’ that. ‘Cuz we all love each other, in a lotta ways deeper’n we love anyone else. But that love ain’t the same thing as buddies. We enlisted can do the whole band o’ brothers thing, an’ officers can have that sorta bond with their men, too. But they ain’t buddy-buddy wit’ anyone in this unit, not even each other. Me especially, ‘cuz I’m the senior NCO. I’m over th’ other men, but all th’ officers are still over me. If one of y’all lawfully orders me an’ my team ‘ta die, my job is to salute smartly, gather my men, and go die.”

Not a happy look, that. Julian nodded seriously.

“Even worse…y’all gotta be ready and willing to give that order. So you can’t be emotionally attached. We’re…in a weird way, we’re like how a prized bull might be a farmer’s pet. He takes care of ‘em, he admires ‘em, mebbe he even loves the damn thing. But he’ll still send it to the butcher when it’s time.”

“Christ.” Julian rubbed his forehead and turned a weary gaze on the stack of books on his desk that Costello had given him to read through. Study time was, in its own way, just as grueling as gym time. “I…I know all these guys, yijao? You can’t wrestle around all up in each other’s sweat and pain and not get to be friends. It’s…that’s not natural. It isn’t how people are wired!”

“‘Yer right, it is unnatural. Which is gonna be hard ‘fer you since you an’ me are the best there ever was. It’s gonna be real hard doin’ to keep that caveman gregariousness of ‘yers contained. That’s a big reason Costello prefers to box, by the way. Basically anyone on the team can fold him up in mixed sparring because aside from you, for whatever reason our officers ain’t the same grade o’ Hero-meat as the rest of us. In boxin’ though, he can more than hold his own against most everyone. He punches way above his not inconsiderable weight an’ the men respect the fuck outta that.”

“He’s got an arm like a fucking cannon,” Julian commented with no sense of irony, scratching at the back of his head in his trademark embarrassed gesture. Big fuckin’ arms on him, goddamn. A guy could tell why he was such a photogenic pretty boy by the way the huge shapes in his arm jumped at the slightest movement.

Frankly, you could tell a lot about a man from his hands and his arms. Every decent gymrat had bigass shoulders and biceps, sure. His were crazy huge too of course, about the best there were and as big as his big cro-magnon head. But it was his forearms and triceps that told the real story. They were severely well-developed and more than a match for the rest. It took more than weightlifting to build up lean, gnarly muscle like that. You could tell just by looking he was a powerful man used to long, grueling work, and his supermodel body wasn’t just for show. Crazy genetics be damned, he’d suffered for and earned everything he had. Strength like his could only be built the hard way, in the real world.

Same with his hands. Huge and broad, with thick, blunt fingers. So calloused he could crush glass or obsidian in his hands without any worry, or maybe even smash a knife. Thick wrists that only looked slim next to the writhing sinewy mass of his forearms. His fists were not only dangerous, they had already taken a man’s life back in Canada. He’d been a far smaller man at the time too, so now…

Probably better remind him of that.

“Sir, you punch so much harder and faster than him it’s legit dangerous. You punch way above your weight too, and considerin’ ‘yer weight that’s a hell of a thing to say. S’why I ain’t lettin’ you box with most o’ the team. You’d honestly kill a guy like Sikes or even Titan if you let ‘yerself off the chain. And it’s worth mentioning that you take full-power hits from Costello with barely a grunt. He’s been known to lay out men a lot bigger than him, but you barely notice. Get some experience under your belt and you’ll be untouchable by anyone but me.”

He watched the way Julian’s face moved; it didn’t. The word sir produced an interesting tell, in that it made him lock down some. He wanted a word like ‘dude’ or some other informality, and being called ‘sir’ obviously didn’t sit right with him.

Bad habit, that.

“So, yeah. You’re used to being one of the Lads. And I get it. You can hang with them, fuck you can straight-up dominate any of ‘em but me. You’ve got that brotherly bond. But now you’ve got to get some distance. And yeah, this right here is part of why you’re only a reservist. We know it ain’t easy. For any of us, but you especially.”

“…Do you have any idea what being alone for six years is like?” Julian asked after a moment.

Oh, fuck that. Gotta nip that victimhood right in the bud.

“No, but I do know what running around naked and alone for a month straight in pacific winter Washington state is like, while being actively hunted by training cadre who will absolutely push your shit in until you’re hospitalized. I also know what waterboarding feels like, what solitary confinement feels like. I’ve done some pretty crazy missions over the years, and I’m an OG member of HEAT. I’ve had a pretty good taste of an awful lot of shit. So no, sir. Here I am. I got over myself. Don’t pull that with me.”

“….Jeez, put me in my place…”

Firth couldn’t help but laugh-sigh. “Because you needed it, sir. And who the fuck beat all the swear outta you?! How fuckin’ Minnesota can you be?”

He switched into the lilting sort of brogue unique to Minnesota natives. “Well, I haven’t force-fed you any tuna noodle haht-dish yet, or taken you to the Lutheran potluck. Or ran over your dog, ope.”

“…Shit, I should get a dog,” Firth realized.

“I just borrow Dingus off Adam. But I s’pose I can’t anymore, huh?”

“…I dunno, is he under your command?”

“…No? We’re not sure yet. Part of that whole big cloud of ‘we-don’t-know-how-this-works-yet’ that sort of hangs over everything.”

Firth grumbled. Annoying.

“But yes, you should get a dog. Dogs. Big dogs! I heard Doofus had a litter with Smart-Ass over in Franklin. Those should be Sufficiently Durable Pets for your clan.”

“Mebbe I will. And call the dog somethin’ normal like Bear or Tyson.”

“Nah. Go full Lad. Name it Swollforce or Broseidon or something!”

Firth laughed, but…right.

“I’ll take that under advisement, sir.” He still smiled, but maybe what Julian needed was some…nudge. Yeah. Just enforce the distance a little bit more than he would otherwise.

He seemed to get the message.

“Right. Fuck. This is going to be my cross to bear, isn’t it?”

“Probably. You can shoulder-press fuckin’ cars like they were a sack of flour, toss my infamously capable men around like they wuz little children…but buildin’ up a bit o’ formal distance is prob’ly the hardest thing you’ll do. We don’t pick our battles.”

Playboy nodded firmly. “Right.”

“But I sincerely hope you can manage it, sir. I can tell you, you don’t often find a relationship as tight, and as loving, yet as professional as what we’ve got. You’ll be the best of us, if you can build up the right character of leadership. It’s all mind and heart for you. The rest is cake.”

Etsicitty just nodded thoughtfully, then picked up a book, opened it to the bookmark, and got back to his studies.

Well. No. he’d been at it for hours. Firth gently reached over and took his tablet away.

“…And you won’t build that up frying your brain. You need to go punch something. So c’mon. I heard Hunter talk some shit, so if I might make a recommendation, sir…”

Julian grinned, “You don’t need to tell me twice. Uh…thanks, sergeant.”

“Jus’ doin’ my job, sir. Now git. His big dumb face needs uglifying somethin’ fierce.”

Julian’s grin went predatory now, and he stood, flowing gracefully to his feet. Even after all these years, Firth had never got used to that in any of the Lads, least of all himself. It was probably the most unnerving thing about them all, honestly. Their physical grace.

Which made their power that much more devastating, really. And all the rest of it, too. Firth understood Julian pretty damn well, because in a lot of ways, Julian was a lot like him. Or as Costello had put it, Julian would easily be Peak Human if Singularity hadn’t caused Firth to happen. He was a walking, talking answer to the question, “what does too far look like?”

That wasn’t ego, either. He had word from emperor Gilgamesh himself. He’d told Firth the whole story, in private, with profuse apologies and an offer to effect justice, if he wanted. Not even the god-king himself had known the full details of what his minions had been up to.

Fuck, it was a tempting offer. His whole family had been snared in this, Freya’s whole family, too. Going back centuries. Further! Same deal as Julian’s history but the Corti had gone much, much farther. Julian and Alex were what human beings had within them, if it was pushed as far could go, focused to a razor’s edge and polished to perfection. Freya and Firth…they were something more.

He’d only ever told her the full details, and they’d only ever talked it over with Daar himself. Who else would understand? Nobody else knew, but really…of course they did.

Christian Firth was so far ahead of everyone else at this point, there was no hiding it. He understood Julian perfectly because he was Julian, just pushed much, much further in every way a man could be pushed. Nobody would come out and say it, but he knew. Freya knew. They were alone. No human or ten’gewek would ever remotely touch them. Daar had to exert himself slightly against him, which, if you knew what the big fucker could really do…

Christian was a singular monster. So many little details added up to make him a very different creature than everyone else. And honestly…it kinda fuckin’ sucked.

But what point would justice serve at this point? None. Singularity might have made him into maybe a different subspecies of man, but…what then? They couldn’t exactly make him normal. And why would he want to be normal? If he was gonna be a freak, bein’ the best wasn’t a bad reward, right? And hadn’t he had to build up into what he was anyway? That’s what he’d told Daar after all, when he’d started on his own freak-of-nature journey…

He shook his head. No time now to ponder. Christian had other senior NCO shit to do, and that included his daily meeting with Costello. He knocked on the door and—

Actually, didn’t have to wedge himself through sideways for a change. Shit, that was nice. Having a base that was actually built to handle them, unlike the pokey narrow improvised hallways back at Sharman and the regular-people-sized doors.

“Afternoon, boss.”

“Afternoon,” Costello was typing something. “Give me just a minute. Have a seat.”

Firth took the proffered chair, again marveling that it took his weight without complaint and that he wasn’t spilling over the sides of it or whatever. ‘Course, it was basically a hunnerd-kilo angular kitbash of welding-practice metal, so it’d damn well better…

Costello had that little fun flourish he did when he hit ‘send.’ The one that said he was done with some bullshit, and glad to be rid of it.

“Sendin’ something particularly acid, sir?”

“Oh, it’s fuckin’ corrosive. I’mma bout ready to shove several fuckin’ pineapples right up Fleet Command’s pissholes.”

“I’ve met some of them, they’d prolly enjoy it.”

“Mosta them are gaoian, so I don’t know what you’re into these days…”

“You shut your whore mouth, sir. Respectfully.”

“Respectfully.” He nodded with a grin. “You’re still a good Christian Christian, I hear.”

“Well, yeah. I’ve got enough family. Anyhoo. Julian’s comin’ along nice. Ahead of the reading plan.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. He was under ambassador Rockefeller’s wing for a good few years there, daresay he’s already read half of it before he ever got here…how’d your talk go?”

“In his words, it’ll be his cross to bear. I think he’ll manage. Also, you’ll be amused to learn he had no idea he’s a better boxer than you.”

“Ah, that doesn’t surprise me either,” Costello chuckled. “He’s physically basically perfect, like you but smaller. He just needs experience. Which means I’ll need to pick my fights carefully.”

“Yessir. He’s beating on Hunter at the moment. So…intel?” He didn’t see analyst Miller anywhere…

“Just had the brief. Sorry, he had to run or I’d have kept him. He’s got other Millers to attend to.”

“Of course.”

“The big delay right now is we’re still waiting to hear back from the Turkeyholic and JETS-four. Mission schedule is they should have arrived sometime around about now.”

“Kinda waiting I hate. What about Stray Fortune?”

“Asset re-jiggery, I don’t know the details of course. I do know they’ll be swinging back to pick up the team very soon. ‘Horse and friends got sent on a quiet little mission.”


He’d hate to be on the wrong end of his wrath. Him or Hoeff. Chimp was his callsign for more reasons than his climbing ability, when he’d been metabolically stuck on little-guy mode.

He was mean like a chimp, too. Angry and brutal. Warhorse and Chimp made for a hell of a combination. Add in the rest of Ian’s old team…

“Can’t be much house cleaning left to do, is there?”

“There’s a few who hopped on interstellar transports, got jobs on cargo ships or whatever. It’ll get sorted out. There’s nothing new that’s really relevant to us, yet. Just…waiting.”

“And training.”

“And waiting to train.”

“And training to wait,” Firth finished the ancient joke. He knew the situation they were in, knew good and damn well they had a lot of known unknowns to resolve before they moved on the prime node and put the plan into motion. What kinda defenses might they face? Just how hard did you have to poke the Hierarchy to make them instantiate One? Just what tricks did the bad guys have up their sleeves that they’d never showed yet?

And what was the good guys’ backup plan? The JETS were quietly the most important part of this whole thing. They’d spent now years exploring and mapping out Hierarchy worlds. Now that Singularity was…well, an independent agency? They’d formed a sort of unified super-government under the new Constitution. Daar, Gilgamesh, and the Entity were each Counsels, in addition to their existing titles and so forth. They were each sovereign over their bit of the whole mess, and collectively sovereign over all of it. Daar, being the biggestest and with the mostest of everythingest, had veto power all by himself, and the other two had it together with either of the others. King Alex, Yan, and the e-skurel-ir, as Colleagues, had the same powers to vote but could not initiate proposals.

So far, they’d all shown a lot of restraint, and the new politics of this big mess was only getting started. To that end, Singularity was now…what? A hidden-village-ninja-agency? Slash breeding program? Slash intel collective? That had an emperor, and a subordinate kingdom under king Alex?

Wisely, the constitution for the United Peoples had nothing at all to say about anyone’s internal structure beyond a basic and, if needed, enforceable charter of rights. Singularity could remain a usefully weird singularity of weird.

And the Entity could remain whatever the fuck.

Rewind. The point was, among its many abilities, Singularity had some seriously capable operatives that sat in some middle ground between HEAT and JETS. They’d only just started integration training in earnest (as opposed to just throwing everyone together in an emergency, like when they killed the Alpha of Alphas), but so far things had gone pretty well. Alex had grown up into a king by any definition of the word, and whenever he visited on a cross-training exercise, it was fun to watch him and Julian wipe the floor with everyone else on the team.

Well, not Firth, of course. Those were fun workouts. Somebody had to keep the two in line!

And they had knowledge. They’d been watching the Hierarchy for ten thousand fuckin’ years, and learned a lot, and the only reason all the stuff the JETS were poking at now needed poking at was because Singularity hadn’t wanted to tip their hand too early. But if Firth’s guess was accurate, the intel community’s picture of the Hierarchy, the Igraen Hegemony, and all of it, was a lot more complete than anyone would admit.

And each mission closed a gap. Maybe even revealed a previously unknown unknown. But that was the thing: until the picture was satisfactory, all they could do was prepare. Because this was a one-time-only, one-chance-to-get-it-right deal. If they fucked up, that was it.

He could handle waiting for the trigger-pull, therefore. Even if he was gettin’ fuckin’ itchy.

Well, may as well get business out of the way. Paperwork, compare notes, do the usual administrivia, and by the time all that was done with the end of the work day was looming. He wasn’t going home tonight. Much as he wished he could, he needed to be on Akyawentuo rather than Cimbrean all week…

Well, according to the monkey grapevine, the new church was built. Maybe he’d attend, get some things off his chest, meet the new Padre. It sure as shit sounded better than moping around the base all evening.


He traded “good evenings” with Costello, changed into what passed as modest wear on this sweltering armpit of a jungle-world, and clocked out. New Alexandria was still a half-built kind of town, lotsa prefabs and, well, quickly-built amenities. It looked more like a construction site than a settlement, but from the right angle you could see it taking shape. Firth’s mind’s eye could look forward to the town that would be.

It wasn’t gonna be as nice as Folctha, he reckoned. Folctha had been planned right from the start to have pretty parks and plazas and stuff and to basically be as nice as possible. New Alexandria was built to pack in the maximum of people in for the minimum resource expense. Give it a couple hundred years for expansion and reconstruction and maybe it’d be different, but here and now it was gonna be a dense knot of humanity on an alien planet that only a select few could even handle.

It had to handle ten’gewek too, a people so ridiculously capable in every damn way, their only actual weakness was their inability to handle cold. Building a town that could handle them and all their instincts to climb, crush, jump and hoot…

Dense, solid, and cheap. That was New Alexandria, for now.

But among the first things to appear in any town were the places of worship. Right now, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was basic and modest. But it was still there, ready to receive him. It lived right next to the edge of the ten’gewek’s jungle, so actually on the edge of town, not in its growing center. That seemed an odd placement unless you knew some Catholic insider knowledge.

It wasn’t a parish church. It was a missionary church, in this case run by the Jesuits. Well, Jesuit for now, apparently. Anyway. A church was always placed in the middle of its intended congregation.

And the Padre apparently intended his flock would be more than a few Christian escapees.

All the more reason to meet him, Christian decided. He didn’t have a problem spreading the Good News, but at the same time…well, he liked the cavemonkeys. They were good in their own way. And maybe he felt a bit protective of them. Or something.

Or maybe he just wanted an excuse to go for a jog.

Good enough. He swung by the gym, grabbed his heaviest training vest, and went for a run.

Starship Turkeyholic, Hierarchy reserve power archive, deep space

Gumi, Brother of Clan One-Fang

The hardest part about landing on the power archive had been finding a spot that was, for starters, neither out in the blazing open on the planet’s starward side, nor too far around to the perpetual night side, and simultaneously large enough, clear enough, flat enough, and concealed enough for the ship to set down.

Landing on the terminator of a tidally locked world was easy. What made it so otherwise difficult was the…technology that covered the landscape like a silvery ecosystem. Gumi didn’t know exactly what crushing any of it might provoke, but he wasn’t interested in finding out.

There were trees out there.

Of a sort. If trees were made of metal and had perfectly uniform hexagonal cross-sections at every level from trunk to twig. And grew at regular intervals, as much as the vagaries of the landscape would let them.

There, at least, the planet worked to the scouts’ advantage. Airless, tiny, low-gravity planets did landscape in an especially dramatic way thanks to their complete vulnerability to meteor strikes, and complete lack of any erosive atmospheric or tectonic action to wear the resulting craters smooth again. So Gumi was able, after a few minutes of searching, to find a bald spot on the inside rim of a large crater that was just about level enough for the ship to land.

Just about. The landing systems beeped worriedly at him as they settled on quite a steep slope, and when he turned the grav plating off…well, it was a good thing all the cupboards were locked closed. As it was, he was going to have to be careful getting stuff out for the duration of this mission, or else it’d fall on his head.

At least it’d fall gently. The gravity was pitiful.

Skoob made a disapproving hoot as he bounced experimentally. “Feels like nothing holding me down at all. Weak world.”

“Stronger than it should be, though,” Gumi noted as he settled the ship into silent standby mode. “It’s a good, oh…five percent stronger than you’d expect for a planet this small of this type.”


“Not unexpected, though. If Big H really are growing a tame black hole deep in the core…”

Skoob shrugged. “Stronger than should be or not, is still…very little. Will have to be careful not to jump and never come down!”

Gumi debated whether to point out that even Skoob’s best probably wouldn’t come close to reaching escape velocity, but decided against it. “Yup,” he said instead.

Well…time to get on with it.

“Alright,” he declared as the last of the systems transited into minimal-emissions mode. “We’re all powered down, ship’s as invisible as it’s ever going to get…over to you.”

“Yup,” Karlsson nodded. “Alright. Foot survey. Let’s have a look at those trees…”

They cycled through the airlock and climbed out in pairs, moving slowly and cautiously in the vacuum and tiny gravity, and fanned out to inspect the immediate area around the ship. It didn’t take them long to find something. Gumi watched out the window as Karlsson stooped and brushed some regolith aside with his gloved fingers.

A moment later, his voice came through clear on the net. “MYSTERY MACHINE, FRED. Seems that bank you’re parked on isn’t as free of the…flora…as we thought. There’s little silvery tendrils all through this stuff, like roots.”

“Roger, FREDDIE. Check under the landing gear to be sure, please?”

Karlsson disappeared out of sight under the ship. A few seconds later…

“Confirmed. Roots under the wheels.”

Damn. Well…hopefully there was no sensory component to the technological growths. Still, Gumi felt his hackles rising.

The team moved on to photography, taking pictures of the “trees” from every angle. They surveyed, taking the average distance from trunk to trunk. They climbed to the rim of the crater and took a good look at the view, taking in the fact that everywhere the things even could grow was covered in them. The whole world was carpeted in a dense, sharp, angular, silvery forest.

They retreated into the ship to discuss their next move.

“Fuck, I’m stumped,” Pearson shook his head. “It’s like…okay. So we got a metal forest. Now what?”

“Is there anything on this rock that isn’t….that?” Brother Jaal waved his paw outward.

“Not that I saw on sensors. We could always take off and do an orbit?” Gumi suggested.

“Risks?” Karlsson asked.

“Takeoff is always the highest-signature moment for a Turkey-class. We’d be quite visible, and just as visible if we jumped up to orbit. Much more so than we were on coasting approach and de-orbit burn.”

“Meaning it would be lower risk to just hoof it in a more or less straight line, see what we can see, and come back when Skoob’s air supply dictates it.”

Always a bit of a hang-up, that. Skoob, being literally half the team’s mass, also breathed in significantly more than half the team’s oxygen, because of his innately high-performance body and higher metabolism. His liquid air tanks were therefore quite a bit bigger. JETS weren’t optimized for vacuum work, after all.

And he was both their pack mule and heavy weapons guy, so there wasn’t any leaving him behind if they could avoid it.

“Perhaps things get more interesting the deeper into the ‘forest’ we go?” Jaal ventured.

“It seems like the best plan we have,” Riigu agreed.

Karlsson bobbled his head thoughtfully, then nodded. “Alright. We go as far as our air will let us, come back…if we find nothing, we return to orbit and do a complete ground mapping. If that turns up anything provoking a response, we investigate, otherwise we withdraw and let the analysts chew over what we found.” There were nods and murmurs of agreement. “Alright. Refill your tanks, eat, drink, shit….we’ve got a hike ahead of us.”

Twenty minutes later they were back out through the airlock. Gumi watched them trudge away down the slope and into the metallic “forest” below, striking out toward the very middle of the crater. He had his doubts they’d find anything different…but they’d be remiss if they didn’t try.

For his part, he returned to the ship’s command seat and kept watch.

He wasn’t going to relax until they were all safely away from this place.

Church of the Immaculate Conception, New Alexandria, planet Akyawentuo

Father Michael Paternostro, SJ

The first and most important thing to do was to respect the children of God. All His children, in whatever setting they might be found. Having been relocated off Earth, the Church had taken as its renewed mission the goal of spreading the Good News as far and as wide as possible.

But they would not repeat the mistakes of centuries past. They’d learn from the great successes, fight against the grave errors. And so, here was Father Michael, living his Witness among the most fascinating people he’d ever imagined. A people new to the art of civilization, who were so much more than your average human being it was a challenge and a delight just to be among them. They asked questions! Good, piercing, thoughtful questions. They tussled and wrestled and insisted on stuffing you full of food, and considered taking naps tightly tangled up together (which they did often) as the friendliest, most innocent of gestures. Once they’d learned he was celibate, they respected that thoroughly, though maybe not without some teasing; his mere existence was something they found endlessly fascinating. They kept their distance but always wanted to explore the church they’d built, learn the sacrifice of the Mass…

He had no doubt some new and wonderful witness of Christ was on the verge of being born. Now was the time to tread very carefully. He wanted to share the Good News, not corrupt a magnificent people. All that was good was of God, after all. It was their place to discern what was good and nurture it into full flower. Doing so was a supreme balancing act.

One that some humans were outright hostile to, even here on this fierce, hostile world. To be fair…Michael understood. The past could be painful, and there were many who saw his cassock and collar not as a symbol of something beautiful, but oppressive and evil. Lord, have mercy. So much misunderstood history. So much that was terrible was glossed over, much that was good made into crimes. So much misunderstanding.

All he could do was bear witness.

And wait for his staff to arrive. That, too. It turned out that the intersection of “faithful parish staff” and “top-tier fit” was a very small group of people indeed, and finding recruits was proving difficult. Oh well, there were a few who seemed promising, and a couple on the construction crews who had come to faith, while he was here…

Every day was a struggle. The temperatures were dangerously high, even in the dead of night. The humidity was oppressive. The air was so thick and so heavy with oxygen, it could make a man dizzy. The gravity was well north of one-point-two gee, the wildlife either cautious or aggressive, yet always dangerous. Venomous critters were once thought to be rare, but it turned out that wasn’t true at all; the ten’gewek were simply immune to most venoms, assuming the critter could bite through their skin in the first place. It was supple like well-worn leather, yet so tough that took an exceedingly sharp edge to cut at all.

He knew this because ten’gewek loved hugs, and who was he to say no? It was a good thing he’d kept up with sport, because here was a world where five-foot-three, three-hundred kilo young men with boulder-crushingly strong tails and their impressively well-matched women would jump up and wrap themselves around the object of their affection as a matter of course. Being tackled to the ground was just a particularly fond hello.

And of course, mature adults could be vastly heavier and more powerful. Fortunately, they tended to have a good deal more restraint. Not Vemik or his Singer of course, but…

The little children were his favorite, though. They were bold! And climbers. Climbers who liked to bring him fruit from literally hundreds of meters up in the giant ketta! And somehow, they all respected his cassock, so if he was willing to suffer under full-length fabric (though cunningly engineered with built-in cooling, these days) he could get a little peace.

At the moment though, he had a more traditional concern. Milling about the chapel (wearing the locally preferred almost-missing running shorts, natch) was without question the most colossal and hulkingly muscular mountain of a man Michael had ever seen or even imagined could be. He was broad and thick from head to toe like a human version of Yan maybe, despite his towering height; easily seven feet, maybe closer to eight?! Too tall to honestly tell, and he was such a compellingly animal three-dimensional artwork of a man, it was hard to look away.

He must have heard Michael appear, because he turned around and squared up, gave a friendly grin, and sort of sauntered over on legs so big he had to swing them around each other with every thudding step. He was, if anything, even more impressive from the front. So, feeling more than a bit intimidated, Michael did what a priest was supposed to do. He approached, noting to himself how his own shoulders were quite a bit narrower than merely this man’s chest. He boggled at it all for a moment—this mountain of a man seemed used to that. So perhaps a bit ridiculously, he cracked a grin and asked, “is there something I can help you with, my son?”

The giant looked down, puzzled at him for a moment, then broke out in a friendly-seeming grin. “I dunno, padre. How you doin’? An’ in a cassock?”

“Tropical white! Also, it has air conditioning.”

“…Okay, that’s clever.”

“I have Brother Roberts to thank for the idea. Father Michael,” he held out his hand.

A…paw reached out, so big it swallowed up his entire hand, his wrist, and much of his lower forearm, and very carefully did not grind his own to powder. It was a paw built in proportion to the rest of the giant’s own forearm, too. A forearm too exaggerated and extreme to believe.

And so went the rest of him, head to toe.

“Uh…callsign’s Righteous. Don’t, uh, read too much into that.”

“I bet there’s a story behind it, though.”

“Not exactly one I’m too proud of, yeah. Look. Don’t take this in any way as disrespect, padre. But how old do you think I am?”

Michael considered that carefully. This ‘Righteous’ character had a remarkably young and handsome face, quite unburdened with more than the faintest of worry lines. But he was extremely heavy-jawed in a way young men weren’t, had strong, well-trained stubble, and his ice-blue eyes had that complex quality you found in older people, without seeming dimmed.

“…Oh….mid thirties?” he hazarded.

“Most people would look at this mug o’ mine and guessed much younger, usually early twennies or less. But no. I’m sixty-two.”

“…You know, I hope I look that good at that age.”

“Heh.” There wasn’t much humor in his voice. “You’d need to put yourself on advanced alien pharmacology and live a life of experimental super-science. And, y’know. Endless training.”

“Ah. I think I know the color of your worries, now. Shall we sit?” He gestured toward one of the large pews.

Righteous instead nodded, folded himself down and sat cross-legged on the floor. A remarkable study of a lot of man in a surprisingly small space, especially considering the girth of his legs…

“That could have withstood you. It was built to take anything the ten’gewek might test it with.”

“I am much heavier than any ten’gewek, padre. You wouldn’t believe me if I said by how much.”

“Even Yan?”

“You know him? Well of course you do…yeah. I’m much heavier’n even him. To the point he has trouble even pickin’ me up. So let’s just…not test ‘yer shiny new seats.”

Okay, fair enough. The floor was nice and clean anyway, so Michael did the same.

“Pretty neat trick, that. That cassock can’t have made that easy.”

“You’d be surprised. It keeps the sun off, it lets me run…”

“What,” Righteous laughed, “izzat some kinda sports cassock?”

“Nah. The trick is to spend what little pennies I have on a good one. Anyway. I can’t claim to be very old, but I certainly know a troubled man when I see one. I have some time right now.”

Righteous looked unconvinced, but Michael gave him a grin and a raised eyebrow, inviting him to try. That seemed to be enough.

“Alright, why not? So…start at the beginning. You know what I am, right?”

“You are HEAT,” Michael said, simply. “The details I suspect are mostly secondary.”

“Mostly, yeah. But not completely. I’m a HEAT operator, yeah. Obviously. Prior to that I was caught up in all the elite-tier sorta stuff. Before that I was just…this absolute, total and complete freak growin’ up, right?”

“One of the Heroes.”

“Apparently the best hero. Mebbe alongside a couple others, and they’re all my friends. Anyway. I’ve always been the best at whatever I tried, right? Sorta…grew up that way. Din’t have to even try. I just was. Then fast forward years an’ years, I join the HEAT, and this, what? Five-foot-seven tank of a mexican at the time? Goes by Warhorse.”

“Wait, him? Wasn’t he Left Beef on the old news clips? Then…he got taller? Somehow?”

Probably showing his youth there, but whatever. Righteous laughed heartily.

“Yup, that’s him! He’s grown since, compliment o’ the Crude. Well, also ‘cuz of his own insane determination too, ‘cuz we’re not on-team together for very long and suddenly he’s showin’ me up. Big time. I fall behind for the first time ever, then…the weirdest thing, right? I start enjoying the competition. It gets fierce, and I prob’ly don’t gotta say, but things at that level can be a kind o’ fierce ‘ya might not imagine were even possible.”

Michael nodded. “High stakes, access to the most advanced sports medicine and all that…”

Understandable. He’d been tempted by some of that in his own young athletic career. Tempted, but never succumbed. Wouldn’t have been right for football and baseball. He wasn’t so certain about situations like this, but…seemed like a devil’s deal, either way.

Righteous must have perceived his general thinking. “Most people are sorta weirded out by all that. They think it’s sinful.”

“Do you think it is?”

“Depends on the purpose, I think. S’long as you ain’t cheatin’ good people or ruinin’ other people’s lives…”

Well, fair enough. “Would you have done any of this, barring your career?”

“Prob’ly not. I, uh…I really din’t need it. They banned me from most sports in middle school.”

“Wow!” Michael laughed, “okay, so you’ve got purpose, and some ego too…”

“Er, um…”

“But that’s not itself a sin. Having just met you…seems like you have considered reasons for doing all this. You’re not in any competitive sport or anything like that, I presume…?”

“Not unless you consider competition among the Lads—uh, that’s my fellows on the team.”

“Well, barring a definitive teaching on this…Intent and consequence are really what matters. Moderation in all things, yijao?”

Righteous titles his head. “…Can you honestly look at me and think moderation? I mean…”

All he had to do was close his fist to make his point. The man seemed like he had more muscle in one forearm than Michael had in his entire body.

He shook his head in amazement. “Well…fair. But moderation can have different meanings. You are as you are because presumably that is needed for your work. Which…fair enough. I’m not smart enough to really know what dangers and evils you protect us from. You or your brothers. But I do know there’s possibly an immortality on offer with all this…am I right?”

Righteous squirmed a bit uncomfortably. “…Yeah. I’ve got the body to prove it, and I’ll be this way for…basically as long as I want.”

“Do you intend to live forever?”

“What? Oh, God no. Sarry,” he looked up quickly, and grumbled to himself. “But I don’t think I’ll, uh, not take advantage. It’s gonna be a while to do this thing anyway.”

“That speaks to a powerful worldly attachment.”

“Yes, but it also means less people gotta be like me. Ain’t that a good thing?”

“It might be. Hard to say. Why should you take on such a burden? But you didn’t answer my question, really. How long do you hope to live like this?”

Righteous gave him a thoughtful look. “…Honestly, I think we get this big thing done, I’ll be happy to let go. Even letting go is gonna take me literally hunnerds o’ years though, by the nature of the medicine. My body makes it all by itself now, and it won’t even begin to fade for…a really long damn time.”

“I thought it was a gut bacteria thing.”

“Yeah, but the version I’m on lives in my endocrine system too. Sorta. It’s…really specifically a supersoldier thing, and almost nobody could handle it, I guess? Look, I’m not smart enough to really say. But a bad case of the runs won’t stop this for me. It’ll come right back. You’d need to, like, kill off my gut biome, rip out my thyroid, do some brain surgery, cut my nuts off…”

“So,” Micahel grinned, “No take-backs, then.”

“Naw, I like my balls!”

“As HEAT is well-known for.”

“Of course! Also I like the rest of my glands in one piece, too.”

“And your brain, presumably?”

“Meh. Overrated.”

“Right.” Michael chuckled, and thought for a moment. “Well…I suppose, in this mostly uncharted territory, we’ll just need to play it by ear, huh? Moderation—and by that I mean in intent, not application. Detachment, care for others…that’s the important bit. Listen to God in all you do. I think the reasons you do this matter much more in this case than some of the consequences. You will live an extremely long life. Perhaps that is your reward, and perhaps it is also your cross. So long as, say, cheating death isn’t your motivating reason…”

Righteous nodded. “Right. Thanks, Padre. But, uh…back to my story, if you don’t mind.”


“So…Warhorse. Competition.” He took a moment to get back on track. “So I start learning how to actually train instead of just being automatically awesome, right? Gotta undo decades of bad ideas. Gotta repair decades of wear an’ tear on my body, too. Crude—the Cruezzir—it works its magic over some years, turns back the age clock. S’why I look so young, biologically speakin’ I’m something mebbe nineteen or a bit older nowadays. It’s all much stronger an effect with the permanent version I’m on, too. Anyway, I get all fixed up and all that finally starts bearing fruit some years ago, I start catching up in a big way, then I’m about to earn the spot away…and Warhorse ends up being a Big Damn Hero.”

“Earned a medal of honor too, as I recall.” It was all over the news.

“Yeah. And a medical discharge.”

Okay. He could read between the lines. “And while he was convalescing, you shot ahead, and maybe feel a bit guilty for it?”

“A little, yeah. But that was at his insistence too. He wouldn’t let anyone slow down on his account. He’s all about seeing just how far excellence can go, human or gaoian or otherwise. Or now cavemonkey with Yan now, I guess, he’s gonna be the first one.”

Michael raised an eyebrow. “Really? I’d have thought…well, that puts them in a different light.”

“Don’t it just? Vemik is all natural. And for the moment so still is Yan. So are all of them.”

“…God can truly work wonders.”

“Well…” Righteous shrugged. “Yeah. I’d say evolution is the guilty party in their case, but…”

“Who said the two were any different? Anyway, I keep derailing your story.”

Righteous gave him a smile. “Right. Anyway! You’re right, I’ve got a big ego, always have. I mean…look at me! I’m proud of my body an’ what I can do with it. Proud of all the work I’ve put into it. So there’s a little guilt, but not much, ‘cuz…well, I wanted to see where my limits really are. And that’s when I discovered the answer. The answer, apparently…is yes.”


“Yes. I’ve not found them. I just keep getting better. I can say without any ego whatsoever than I’m faster, stronger, quicker, an’ tougher’n anyone and it’s a bit of a mind-fuck when I think on how much I am ahead of fuckin’ everyone. If it’s somethin’ athletic there ain’t nothin’ I ain’t the best at. The gap between me and any other human being, even the other guys on the team…fuck!”

“Which is saying something,” he noted. “And is this true across species?”

“Yeah, even against gaoian or ten’gewek! I mean honestly? I don’t think even Yan’s ever gon’ come close, ‘cuz I’m built bigger an’ he’s over a foot shorter. Only one better’n me is Daar himself and he don’t count ‘cuz he’s literally made ‘fer all this and, y’know, he’s a talking dire bear. Fuck. Makes the idea of a dire bear seem puny! Dude’s a furry dinosaur, but if he were shrunk down ‘ta my size, it’d be pretty hard to know who’d be the better monster, I bet. I’m just a much smaller human version o’ him, really. An’ all that means, what I am is straight fuckin’ ridiculous. Sarry,” he added quickly, which Michael waved off.

“And now you’re here, on Akyawentuo.”

“Best place for us. Politics an’ stuff.” Righteous sighed. “…I get to see my fam’ly on weekends.”

Ah. Another worry.

“You miss them,” he stated rhetorically.

“Yeah. I’ve got…a mix. My own kids, two girls we adopted—Lord, that was a mess.”

“What happened?”

“We had…some work to do on Earth. A bit before the war. Some militia turned straight evil, killed a buncha folks, kidnapped the children…we rescued two of the kids. Just two.” Righteous paused, sadly. “…After, I thought, there was no way I could leave ‘em there. So I went back, adopted the one who had nowhere else ‘ta go, and this other girl she’d kinda bonded with, and took in as many of the other kids from that shelter as I could find room for. There were…a lot more we didn’t have room for, yet. And then the war happened and the, uh…the ones we left behind didn’t make it. The shelter took a direct hit. And now I’m here, a long way from them, I don’t barely get ‘ta see them an’ help them through it…”

Michael nodded. Each word of that summary seemed to gnaw at the big man as he spoke it. But he didn’t interrupt. Righteous cleared his throat and looked up toward the ceiling. “But I gotta be here, ‘cuz I’m the very best there is, now,” he said. “Ain’t nobody else can do what I can and…that’s gonna be important. So I got a duty, yijao?”

“And you feel pulled in two directions by two different duties?”

“Not…really? I mean, I feel bad about not bein’ around as much for my kids, especially the girls, but I gotta think of the bigger picture, don’t I? So I ain’t torn over it, I just…” He paused, chewing over his thoughts. “…My wife’s of the Line, too. She’s basically, like…honestly if she were on the team she’d be one of the best. She’s that good. And that’s got us worried, too. Because we met by an introduction.”

Lots implied, there.

“But at the same time, she’s about the only person around I feel like I’m the company of a peer with, y’know? Like, things are the way they’re meant to be.”

“Because you’re at the point where other people are accidentally breakable.”

“…Yeah.” he shrugged. “Even Yan Given-Man ain’t quite…it’s not just that I’m way out in front of him and always will be unless I slow down. Some day. Maybe. It’s that when I tried to talk about this with him, he was no help at all. To a ten’gewek, strength is good. And I don’t mean strength is a good thing. I mean strength equals good with them, you know?”

“And you feel, in part, you need to live up to that when you’re around them.”

“That and, y’know. I don’t think a human’s really made to stand so far out ahead. Being the best is nice, ‘fer a while. But it’s fuckin’ lonely, and Yan….he jus’ looked at me like I was bein’ weird. He didn’t get it at all.”

“I have talked with him. You must be the man he admired so much.”

The big man chuckled. “I dunno if that helps me any, Padre.”

“Well, maybe it should. He sees you as a goal, you know. The impression I get from him is utter confidence that one day he’ll be at least your match. As an aside…you and your entire circle are all fiercely competitive, I gather. Has it always been like that?”

“…Yeah. I mean, we are pretty stereotypical I guess. We’re all big meatheads, we’re all big jock types and type-A personalities. All completely obsessive over all this, every little detail of everything. But we’re also a team. We’re the way we are because it pushes us to be better.”

“And there’s no point where you’re ever good enough.”

“No. Not any of us. The enemy can just keep making more and better…everything.”

“Right. So, if I can summarize?”

The big man nodded.

“Leaving all the details aside, you have found yourself in a position of singular excellence where before you had competition. Before that, you were a younger man who just skated by on his own ability. I’m guessing back then, the stakes were not so high.”

“…No, I suppose not.”

“So, now that you have found yourself atop this mountain, to use an analogy, maybe you want to reach down and help your fellow climbers…but you’re too far ahead.”


“Well, we’re human beings, right? We’re meant for teamwork. Specifically, we’re meant to be on a team of peers. Ten’gewek are all about individual prowess. They’re all warriors who happen to get along with each other very well. Gaoians are pack animals, meaning no insult. To have an alpha is natural for them. You get what I’m saying?”

“…I think I do, yeah.”

“So what I might suggest then, is that God has a special plan for you. He does for all of us, of course. We are all His children. But some of us are called to special purpose. There is nothing wrong with that, my giant friend! You are made for excellence, and your cross to bear may well be that excellence itself.” He grinned, as a thought occurred, “He has a sense of humor, too. I can’t imagine getting through daily life is easy for a man your size!”

“Ha! Well…gettin’ easier. Everything here on Akyawentuo’s pretty accommodating. But not usually, no. Can’t ride in a truck when ‘yer heavier’n the truck!”


“Right? Anyway…okay. I think…it helps to talk it out. You’re sayin’ a lotta the same things our unit psych says.” He shrugged, “mandatory regular evals.”

“Not surprising. It always helps to talk. But let me go one step further, if you don’t mind. You have this big family. Kids of your own, adopted kids, rescued kids…I’m assuming you and your wife were, uh, good Catholics?”

Righteous snorted. “Yeah. We hit number seven and then started on NFP religiously. Truth be told we’d be happy with even more, but…I’m not made o’ infinite money. Or bedrooms!”

Michael nodded, understandingly. “Lots of kids you’re protecting, and not all your own from what you’ve said. A team, too. Lots and lots of Big Dad Energy right there.”

Righteous chuckled, then looked thoughtful. “Yeah. I guess that’s it. I mean, I know I don’t look my age, but…I feel it, sometimes. I’m startin’ to feel like…I’ve proved everything I wanted ‘to prove. So, now what I really want from life is family.”

“You already have it,” he said automatically, without thinking. The Spirit had its ways.

“Yeah, but…right now I ain’t there for ‘em more than a day or two out of the week. For good reason, but it still eats me.”

Michael nodded.

“And even if we do get housing here and all that, it takes time and…well, they’re kids. They grow up.”

“What is important is the time you do spend with them, then. So make the most of it. And, well, I’m a Father but not a dad, right? I remember growing up. For me, the best times with dad were just…being there. We didn’t need to do anything crazy. Just watching TV maybe, or go for a walk. He liked to encourage me but he was pretty busy. I get it. But there’s one more thing.”

“Name it.”

“I sense it isn’t just that you’re ahead that bothers you. It’s how you’re ahead.”

The giant gave him an intense look. “…Yeah. It don’t sit right with me.”

Michael invited him to talk.

“Right. So I’m not like I am by any kind of accident. Me nor my wife. We’re…we were expected. I am so physically…performant, I guess? Words don’t really work. I’m like a sci-fi experiment, or an actual damn superhero. I’d show you what I can really do, if it didn’t feel so weird, but…”

“No no, maybe another time. Besides, I’ve kept up on the news. To include ESNN’s reporting. I am not a Hero of the Line. But I am here, on Akyawentuo. Because I can hack it. I passed their testing and they seemed quite confused when I steadfastly refused to join their Line.”

Righteous chuckled at that. “Yeah, I can’t imagine they really get celibate men! I mean, bein’ honest, neither do I, but…”

Michael waved that off. “In any case…growing up I was pretty sporty. But I didn’t do videogames or any of the other stuff. I got caught up in books. At some point, it drew me to God. And, so, this and that…I entered the novitiate as soon as I could, and here I am.”

“Heck of a journey.”

“Not like yours. I remember something from the news…are you the one they called the Warrior?” There had been a lot said about him, his family, how he’d come to be…

Michael had a lot of powerfully mixed feelings about that. But now wasn’t the time.

The giant sighed. “Yeah, that was me. Born the best, I guess.”

“Perhaps. But it was your effort that built you into what you are, not simple circumstance.”

“True…still. It feels…is this it? Is this what I was made for?”

“You were made for love,” Michael answered automatically, and truthfully. “Whatever designs ancient god-kings and other men may have had for you, you belong to God first.”

“Yeah…” The big man sighed. “Guess I found out how true that is, recently.”

Michael tilted his head curiously, inviting him to say more.

“…Yeah. Everything you said is true. I get it. But none of it could save those kids.”

“It saved some of them.” Michael knew what to do immediately. “As for the others…” Without elaborating, he stood and walked toward the sacristy. Curious, the giant man followed behind.


“Well, there’s only one thing to do. We’ll offer Mass for them.” He pulled an alb off the hook and began his prayers.

That seemed to touch the giant. “I–y-yeah. That would be…shit, I ain’t dressed ‘fer—”

“We came into Creation naked as the day was long, servant-priests to the Lord. He won’t mind. You are made for love, Righteous. Let Him love you a little right back.”


Well. It turned out Righteous was fond of hugs, too.

Michael offered the Holy Sacrifice. The Spirit guided him, whispered that it would be good to chant this private little Mass instead of drone his way quickly through. Righteous had a beautiful voice, in a coarse, rough-edged sort of way. They filled the air with a sacrifice of praise.

It clearly was exactly what was needed.

Afterwards, Michael left the oversized warrior to his private contemplations. He had other duties to attend to after all; they were just getting established here and he didn’t really have any staff, didn’t have any real schedule yet…

It came as a genuine surprise, however, that maybe ten minutes after Michael had left Righteous alone, there were voices at the door, and two new arrivals he’d never met before entered. The first was a young, dark-haired woman, quite lovely. The second was a tall lad of about the same age, but built as if he could have been Righteous’ own son. Both were clearly fresh off the boat, as it were.

Well, now. How interesting…

Michael went to welcome them.

“Father! Hi. We, uh, just got here and, uh, it’s been a while since Reconciliation…”

“Ah, spiritual tune-up! Lucky you I’m running a special today. Two for the price of free!”

The young lady laughed—the large lad chuckled nervously. He had the energy of a young man who hadn’t been much of a church-goer before.

“Right. So, I have a screen, or we can just go for a walk. Let me go get my stole first, okay?”

“Thank you, Father…?”

“Michael. I prefer that over my last name, which is Paternostro.”

“Patern—your name is literally ‘Father Michael Our Father’?”

“Oh, yes. And I once married a young couple where her first name was Bride, and his surname was McBride.”

That one earned an explosive laugh from the big boy, who relaxed substantially. The young lady beamed up at him, then shook Michael’s hand. “Jess Brown. This is Josh.”

“Josh Hartl,” he elaborated, shaking Michael’s hand but staring off toward the back where Righteous was sitting. “Who…?”

“Righteous. Yes, the very one from the Laid Bare series. Please respect his privacy, okay?”

“Oh, of course…”

“Anyway. Good to meet you both. I’ll be just one minute…”

He ran back to the sacristy and got what he needed. Time to put some more mileage on this stole of his. Holy water, too. Why not?

“Right. So, screen, or…?”

“Let’s go for a walk,” Jess stated. “If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all!”

Reconciliation was his favorite Sacrament, he wasn’t too proud to admit. They were all profoundly beautiful and filled with their own graces, the Eucharist most of all, but none of them gave such a direct feeling of helping quite so much as, well, helping a soul confront their secrets, their shames, their sins. Everyone felt like they were uniquely awful.

Michael knew better. Most everyone was a boring sinner. Everyone sinned in the same boring ways, all the time. In a way it was…weirdly comforting. God’s children were equally broken, equally in need of grace. If only we could get over our pride to truly understand it!

Like many priests, there was a special grace involved, too: within the seal of the confessional he had the functional memory of a clam. Five minutes from now he wouldn’t remember a single detail about whatever was so bothering her.

It was a productive walk.

“…And I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”


“Right! All tuned up. Let’s go check in on our big boys, hmm?”

Josh, it turned out, hadn’t needed to respect Righteous’ privacy—the huge warrior had decided to say hello to his younger and much smaller cousin, and already had a vast arm affably around the young man’s shoulders, telling a story of some kind.

Michael gave them room, sensing the encounter would be good for them both. He still had plenty to do, after all. In many ways, it was just another day at the office.

…No. A good day at the office. He could feel that, and be glad of it.

Lavmuy City, planet Gao

Gurrum, Champion of Stoneback

Gurrum wasn’t the sort to shirk hard work and hard training, gods knew. He’d never have made it to Champion if he was, never wrassled it from ex-Champion Fiin, Unseen rest his soul. But today was a day for gentler work, and by Fyu’s flowery swords, he was ready for it. There were only so many days of combat trainin’ and pitching in on work gangs a body could take, even a fifth-degree Brownie body in peak condition.

Or frankly, meetings and planning sessions and staff stand-ups and so forth a mind could take. His weekly get-together with two of the other Champions was entirely welcome, therefore. Tea with Gyotin and Sheeyo.

You couldn’t have stuck three more different gao around a table if you tried. One urbane, neatly-trimmed silverfur who embraced thrift and modesty, one silky-furred walking jewelry store who made a virtue out of flamboyance, and a hulking scarred soil-shoveller who was a fuck of a lot more biggerer than both of them combined.

Maybe it was the fact they had such completely different areas of expertise that let Gurrum get along with ‘em so well. There was no competition between them, and they all adored their Great Father. And he, them. They could sit down in the Starmind monastery garden, savor the delicate aromas of Gyotin’s preferred tea blend and talk business.

“I hope you have plenty of this stuff saved up, Gyotin…” Gurrum took a deep, heady sniff of the infusion, and briefly lost himself in a shiver of serenity. There were fragrances in there that transported him to windswept meadows on a world he’d never seen with his own eyes.

“Enough for a few years,” Gyotin duck-nodded. “The humans are already growing tea on Cimbrean, of course. And we are growing it at our monasteries, too. It will become an expensive luxury, as it once was on Earth, but I promise you this. If you were to construct a list of plant species the humans would never allow to go extinct, tea and coffee would be in the top five for certain.”

“I believe it. I’ve seen the seed vaults. And the genetic vaults.” Gurrum sniffed the tea again, then sipped it. He had no idea what the humans intended to do with all the animal species whose genomes they were archiving. Would they regrow them using Corti tube technology and unleash them on some other planet? But he could hardly blame them for keeping those genes in storage, just in case.

“It’s a remarkable effort,” Gyotin shook his head admiringly. “Transplanting an entire economy? Building it again on alien worlds, practically from first principle? I still can barely believe they’re doing it…”

“Mm.” Sheeyo’s ears came up from the carefree, relaxed slouch they’d been in, “I hate to say this, and I don’t mean it unkindly…but the humans losing their homeworld might just be the best thing that ever happened to the gao.”

He ducked apologetically when Gurrum scowled at him. “The alternative for us was total collapse. I wouldn’t wish what’s happened to the humans on anyone, but…thanks to them we’ll be spared the worst of our own disaster.”

“And they’ll be spared the worst of theirs in turn,” Gyotin combed his whiskers thoughtfully.

“How essactly does a buncha humans comin’ here alleviate our population crash from not havin’ enough females?” Gurrum asked rhetorically.

“By alleviating the knock-on effects. Insufficient females means insufficient young males to be apprenticed in necessary roles. When the older males age out of the work force, quite suddenly we wouldn’t have enough workers to keep infrastructure maintained, machinery repaired, livestock husbanded and crops tended…”

Gurrum nodded, seeing it. “Which all adds up to starvation.”

“Right. A self-compounding problem, yijao? But instead, the human refugees are arriving at exactly the right time to step into the roles the gao need filled. Their loss is saving us.”

“And it wouldn’t work with anybody else,” Gyotin added. “Think of any other species in the galaxy. Can you name even one who could be what the humans are to us? Especially now? Can you name another that could even survive this crisis?”

He shook his head in reply to his own question. “We have been fortunate in a most cosmic way. To make friends with a people who first showed us our chains, then helped us break them, and now help us survive the breaking even while they’re fleeing their own destruction.”

Gurrum flicked an ear at him. “Very poetic…”

Gyotin chittered and drank his tea. “I detect skepticism.”

“You’re mythologizing them. I’ve worked with humans a good long time, now. I respect ‘em but we can match them. Balls, I’m stronger, faster an’ deadlier’n most humans myself. It’s really just that Righteous freak nowadays I can’t swat like a fly. An’ there’s the Great Father—”

“Don’t go looking for general rules in the extreme outliers,” Sheeyo cautioned.

“And don’t go looking for the measure of a being in their capacity for violence,” Gyotin added. “That was the mistake the whole galaxy made, in the beginning. You remember the early days? When the caricature was of a walking disaster capable of toppling buildings, ripping arms from sockets with an errant twitch, and dooming millions with a sneeze?”

“I ‘member.”

“That was all the Dominion species saw. ‘Be afraid, they are Deathworlders, they’ll kill us all.’ That’s what they were told to think and feel, and so they did. Isn’t it interesting how quickly the truth shone through?”

Gurrum finished his own tea, and took his turn to pour. “I’ll play. What truth would that be?”

“That the humans have built far more than they’ve destroyed, far more quickly, and despite terrible opposition.” Gyotin accepted his fresh cup. “The whole galaxy has become unrecognizable even in my lifetime, thanks to them. And I’ve still got just as long again before I go white and blind, probably. What will it look like then?”

“The United Peoples could not exist without them,” Sheeyo agreed. “Who would we unite with? The ten’gewek aren’t advanced enough and never would have been without human intervention. The e-skurel-ir are too broken and would have remained an unknown slave species if not for the humans. The OmoAru would still be blissfully waiting for extinction, and we ourselves would be the Hierarchy’s puppets.” He sniffed his fresh cup and duck-nodded happily. “They’ll be the glue that binds this whole thing. They already are.”

“What a fantastic deal! An’ all it cost them was their home, their identity, their nations, their independence an’ billions of lives,” Gurrum rumbled, feelingly suddenly quite bitter on the humans’ behalf. “An’ I’ll point out you are again, mythologizing. They are an impressive people, it’s true. But they are what they are by a combination of absurd coincidences, impossible luck, ancient conspiracies, only one of which they had anything to do with, and what more and more looks like a distressing level of incompetence. They were well-positioned and, by luck, took advantage of the propitious moments when they came. So I give ‘em credit where it’s due, but don’t turn ‘em into somethin’ they ain’t.”

“If you think they will lose their independence in all this, I think you need to spend even more time with them,” Gyotin chittered. “Sure, they may be bending the knee to the Great Father, but they’re not gao. They don’t have our instincts. Our Father is quite worried, you know. The humans too shrewd, too willful, too driven and too ambitious to be second-class citizens. So, with respect to Sheeyo’s opinion…while their coming here may be what saves the gao from collapse, I’m not entirely convinced it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to our people.”

“We’re shrewd, willful, driven an’ ambitious too,” Gurrum objected.

“We’re also loyal. Pathologically, genetically so. We go where our friends and dominants lead us. After all…when you stand and head to the field for play…will we two not follow?”

Well…fair point, really.

Still. “Y’make it sound like humans are treacherous.”

“They can be. In ways we usually aren’t.” Sheeyo drained his second cup and set it down.

“It could be that’s a weakness of ours, yijao?” Gyotin flicked a darkly amused ear. “Or not.”

“Either way, it justifies the Great Father’s caution. With respect to Gyotin’s talk of how much they built, let’s not forget that they also just bombed the largest part of their population out of existence out of pure greed and panic. Kazakhstan was an act of treachery unlike any in gaoian history. They are…aliens.”

It was Sheeyo’s turn to pour. Gurrum watched him do so, then looked Gyotin in the eye. “…you were inspired ‘ta build ‘yer entire clan on what you found in the humans,” he said. “So I unnerstand why you think so highly of ‘em. An’ I get it, we owe them much. Owe them everything, even. But Gyotin, Cousin, there are times when you give humans too much credit. The extreme outliers matter, an’ Our Father is their master now. One wise enough ‘ta know them well an’ win their loyalty. Their extreme outliers matter too, an’ in that sense…”

Gyotin accepted his refilled cup and perked his ears up attentively. “Go on.”

“Right. So. There is one human being who can best me. But that’s an old example. So consider this: they hugely outnumber us right now, but how many scientists, how many engineers, how many thinkers an’ dreamers have we got? We’re easily their match. Balls, we’ve got entire purpose-organized Clans t’ bring out the bestest in us, an’ that matters. So yeah, in my limited little slice o’ things? Righteous can kick my an’ anyone else’s ass. But he’s the only one. I an’ dozens o’ my bestest can make any other human our bitches. An’ that’s gotta be true in other Clans, too. I hate ‘ta think what kinda profit Goldpaw’s makin’ lately…”

Sheeyo set the empty teapot down. “The rising tide lifts all boats. Our profits are matched by theirs.”

“Are they? Money’s just a number. You more’n any of us know that. What can they really do wit’ all their new-found earnings in Gaoian moneys? An’ who is bankin’ it for ‘em?”

They both gave him thoughtful looks. Point scored, there.

“An’ another thing. Whatever in us ain’t perfect competition ‘gainst ‘em, well, the Females will correct that in due time. Their tastes change, an’ they’ve got the pick of pedigree. Always have. That ain’t quite eugenics but it’s the next best thing. Humans don’t got that. An’ never will.”

“I wonder what effect contact with our culture will have in that regard…?” Gyotin mused.

“Ain’t culture that’s the issue. It’s the fact they got a fifty-fifty ratio of males to females, more-or-less. So where our females drive things jus’ by dint of pickin’ their mates, the humans’d need to deliberately plan if they wanted ‘ta specialize like our clans have. An’ given how they reacted ‘ta Singularity, I’d say the idea creeps ‘em out.”

“And yet Singularity exists, as part of this new confederated empire—which by the way is an oxymoron so potent it pains me to even think the word,” Gyotin chittered. “But what else works to describe it? Under the Great Father it will work. I don’t know what comes next.”

“SIngularity was founded by Corti outcasts, guided by a gaoian demigod, an’ realized by an ancient human king. They ain’t exactly a good litmus test for what the humans leaving Earth are like.”

“Nor was that my point. Singularity exiting at all as it does is proof that they will adapt as the situation requires. And on this narrow topic of breeding, this Line of Heroes likely eliminates the question. Have you met the so-called Paragons?”

“Yeah. Good people. Julian is crafty, but squishable. King Alex is a handful. An’ I am but a cub in Christian’s grasp. Actually,” Gurrum mused, “I wunner where th’ Line’s great bankers an’ philosophers might be hidin’…”

“I don’t think they were imagining a better banker in this project,” Sheeyo chittered.

Gurrum took his victory. “Essactly.”

“But the royal treasury have proven…very shrewd. They kept Singularity supplied with whatever they couldn’t produce themselves for thousands of years without once being detected by us or the Hierarchy.”

“Eh,” Gurrum shrugged. “Impressive, I guess…but I think we all know there have been some pretty stinkin’ ancient secrets an’ conspiracies kept by our own Clans. Th’ War leaves no doubt ‘fer that. Kinda refreshin’ really.”

Thoughtful silence reigned while they finished their tea. Gyotin broke it, after washing his cup out with hot water and leaving it upside-down to drain on the slatted wooden tray.

“So,” he said, and flashed a pant-grin. “You mentioned something about play?”

Gurrum chittered, and silently agreed that the time had come to move on from the big important talking to…well, something a little more fun. He leaned forward as though to answer, then in a lightning fast motion he snatched up Sheeyo’s favorite deck of cards, still sitting in its ornately-carved wooden box.


Gurrum was already running. Steal-and-chase was one of the bestest cub-games, it never got old. And it was the sort of game where eventually, the thief allowed himself to be caught and the stolen item reclaimed. There was no real chance they might actually catch him and wrest it from him otherwise. Although…he slightly hoped they would. It would be an interesting upset!

For now though, he plunged through the garden with the other two champions in hot pursuit, reached the lawn, and piled on the speed. The chase would go on for a few minutes, they’d have their fun…maybe they’d sit and talk about serious things again afterwards.

But it was important to set time aside for tea and play and pleasures, in a life otherwise full of business. A person of any species would go mad without them. And Gyotin and Sheeyo needed reminding of that most of all.

He chittered, and led them on the merry chase.

Play was the most seriousest business.

Starship Turkeyholic, Hierarchy reserve power archive, deep space

Gumi, Brother of Clan One-Fang

The hours of radio silence weren’t unexpected. On the contrary, the team exclusively used a line-of-sight commsnet while scouting, which meant once they’d vanished among the tech-trees Gumi had quickly lost contact. Barely four minutes into their long hike, there’d been the faint tone, and the team’s suit status panels all went dark, covered by the solemn words OUT OF RANGE.

Patience, however, was the supreme virtue of a stealth ship pilot. To even be sitting in the seat he presently occupied, Gumi had needed to show he could sit still and stay focused for as long as necessary. Windows of opportunity could be only seconds long, and appear in the middle of long hours of nothing.

The Clan had trained him well, building on his natural disposition. Gumi had always been something of an introvert and loner, often content to just sit quietly with his own thoughts. Although, working with humans in recent months had quickly taught him that a gaoian introvert was a downright party animal by their standards.

A gaoian introvert could handle being alone and out of contact and waiting for news. That didn’t mean he liked it.

So he sat.

And he waited.

And he sat.

And waited.

Minutes turned to hours. His mind chewed slowly, mulling over what the trees might be for. They were beautiful in their odd, geometric imitation of the organic world, but the Hierarchy had never been known to do things just because they were pretty, that he knew of. No, they had to be here for a purpose.

Could they be the shield generators and power collectors? But why tree shapes? Maybe they grew themselves, using some kind of self-assembling technology like you’d find in a nanofactory?

Plausible, he decided.

But what about the deep technology? The intel source said the Hierarchy were channeling the star’s energy deep into the planet’s core, converting it into a format they could keep effectively forever, or certainly for trillions of years. Just how far down did those trees’ roots go? All the way?

Gumi had the sudden mental image that perhaps the planet he was sitting on was, at this point, more ancient tech than rock, by both volume and mass.

But then again…it would have to be, wouldn’t it? If it did what the intel source said it did.

Maybe that was part of the reason behind the trees, too. Self-repairing, growing, replicating technology based on life might last longer than more conventional machines. They could regrow, reforest after asteroid strikes and the degrading effects of solar radiation. But what about ‘genetic’ drift? Wouldn’t there be cumulative copy errors over time?

Maybe there were ways around it. Ship pilots had to be reasonably tech-savvy, but that didn’t mean he had the knowledge and imagination to solve all those problems. And he might be wrong anyway. He—

—there was a timeless instant of agony.

Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adam (Warhorse) Arés

Warhorse was back. Jesus fuck it felt good.

He could do it. Goddamnit, he was doin’ it! He still hadn’t caught up, still…had a ways to go, even now, making his past-self look like a little bitch. There were better people on the team. Several of them, people with better “pedigrees” and better bodies. He wouldn’t begrudge them that. A combination of timing, innate talent, and their own willpower had taken everything he’d taught them and pushed it far, indeed. Fully catching back up was taking a long time, and honestly he’d probably never manage it until everyone found their true supersoldiering limits.

But he was beating all their times through the course. He was dominating all the objectives. Experience, instinct, and pure unrelenting cold calculated hate was pushing him through, in ways the rest were still learning from. He was giving them a goddamn masterclass in how to fuck the enemy, save lives, and look good doing it.

Christ, it was better than sex.

Well, okay. Maybe not. Top three in his List, though. He was fuckin’ Warhorse again.

Of course, he wasn’t on HEAT anymore. He and the rest of his team were members of SOR again—honestly, that felt so good he didn’t have words—but he wasn’t an assigned operator this time. His official rank (or rate?) was that of chief training sergeant. That put him off the team proper and made him directly responsible for everyone’s ongoing training, which was a job that went further than his usual meaty endeavors. Now, he was responsible for tactics, ongoing education, all of that. Mostly he set direction and let his long-experienced training cadre and kitchen staff do the legwork. His preferred job was to give individual attention.

Nobody wanted Warhorse paying too much attention to them, it turned out. He had a reputation and his methods were effective. And for his purposes that was just fine. It meant nobody let themselves fall slack, lest his eye be drawn to their deficiencies.

When training up the real freaks, though, often the shoe was on the other giant foot.

Like right now, as Julian slowly, methodically, and purposefully ground Adam to mush with his ludicrously superior strength and conditioning. He might have been six inches shorter, but he was in every damn way bigger, better, and harder-bodied by a huge degree. And they both had ridiculous pain tolerance and supersoldier healing, too. So…really it was a contest of endurance, meaning they’d been at it for a long fuckin’ time, and Julian wasn’t keen to stop. Wrestling him (and his fellow few freaks) was like being toyed with by a sweaty diamond statue.

Fuckin’ bastard had the balls to look a billion times better doing it, too. Pretty-boy fucker.

Fitting, then, that Daar came to visit, since he happened to be visiting someone or something nearby for business. He’d poked his nose in like he was wont to do these days, sniffed a bit…

“Hey, ‘Horse. ‘Ya got a minute?”

Julian’s enormous beachball-big bicep bore down on Adam’s head with granite-shattering force. A deep chuckle issued forth near Adam’s ear.

“Nah. He’s too busy tellin’ me how awesome I am.”

“Oh fuck off you giant—hnnnngh!”

Adam had been particularly sadistic today, in an attempt to soften the big fucker up before they sparred. It didn’t work. He was fresh and warmed up, Julian had been at it all day so far…and he was still squishing Adam head-to-toe with seemingly little effort.

So little in fact he was being playful, the right proper bastard. Adam’s inability to breathe right that second was just the price of Julian’s superiority; his other arm was crushing Adam’s chest, one of those freakshow legs was curled around and flattening his middle.

And the other was smashing his legs immoble, too. Yup. Julian had learned well.

“Sorry, didn’t hear you,” he growled playfully. “Ready to tap out?”

He then, just to prove how much better he was, smashed Adam’s waist flat and almost caused him to retch, and did it just by tightening that huge goddamned hamstring of his.

Adam couldn’t breathe. He endured it until he was about to fade out, and, yeah. Tapped. Again.

The next moment was a fuzzy blur of being pinned and mauled ten ways from Sunday. Julian got his practice in with seemingly every form of compressive torture he’d been taught. Eventually he musta been bored and Adam came back to it flat on his back, Julian sitting astride his hips, legs again pinning him with unbelievable force. Cocky shit was really feeling his oats today, and had his arms up in a conquering pose, admiring himself with a big, cornfed grin. Honestly, looking up at the huge bastard as he gloried in all his better-in-every-way, feeling smashed to the floor like a bug under his huge weight, even under normal Akyawentian gravity…

…Yeah. Adam didn’t feel too bad conceding. He chuckled, groaned a bit in pain. “Okay, fine! Pretty boy’s got some skills.”

“Oh, it ain’t just skill…” he growled happily, and still having a bit of fun, tightened his legs around Adam’s torso with alarming force. Fuck, just how goddamn strong was he?!

Adam was gonna be sore as fuck today. He squirmed, pointlessly, hands trying and failing to pry at least his lower legs apart before he got his ankles locked—

Nope. One lightning-quick movement and now his hands were pinned awkwardly against his ribs under Julian’s basketball-sized calves. He flexed those too, and…well, damn. That shit was embarrassing, and it fuckin’ hurt like hell. They were bigger than his hands, a lot bigger and harder than his own huge calves. Try as he might to escape, it was pointless. Julian just ground down with a wicked grin and pointed his toes forward. Those iron calves balled up hugely, compressing Adam’s ribs inward and causing him to suppress a yelp of pain. He couldn’t pull free and now he couldn’t feel his hands.

“I learned that trick from you years ago, by the way. Sucks, huh?”

Adam grimaced around his grin. “Yeah, hnngh, sure as shit does.”

“Never thought I’d be big or strong enough to manage, especially against you! So thanks for teaching me all this.” Tighter, the pressure pushing bones apart in his hands and Jesus fuck did that ever hurt. “But y’know, a fella’s gotta get his payback now and then—!”

It was at that point where a gigantic furry paw descended, yoinked Julian off Adam like he was a ragdoll, and slammed the big Tarzan to the ground. He pinned him with that chest-wide paw and pressed down, just a little…just enough to make pretty-boy Julian flail desperately.

“It’s a fun game, bein’ th’ best. Jus’ ‘member there’s always someone bigger an’ he’s prob’ly frens wit’ ‘yer playmates.”

“Yeah!” Adam jeered, suppressing a cough from the sudden relief of freedom. “Serves you right!”

At which point, there was another blink of motion, and Adam found himself under Daar’s other paw. “Same goes ‘fer you. Now,” Daar growled, “what should I do with such durable lil’ playmates, huh?”

“Let me up ‘cuz I asked nice?” Adam tried.

“Sure!” And just like that, Adam was free, and Daar was wrapped around his new chewtoy.

Ask, and ye shall receive. Now what? He shook out his hands; nothing broke, thankfully. Maybe he’d just stay on the floor for a while, and recover. Not like he had any dignity left to reclaim…

“Fuck!” Julian struggled against the furry dump truck karmically compressing him into a meatball. “Why’d you let him go?!”

“He asked nice!”

“Shoulda asked nice,” Adam taunted tiredly. Daar wrassled a bit more, and it was sorta hard to see where Julian had disappeared to, really. Muffled complaints emanated from somewhere inside the big bear’s limbs, but…

“Y’know, if you lock your ankles together, it’ll squeeze him more.”

“Nah, that’d break him,” Daar chittered, and instead tensed his legs harder, which was a show. Muffled desperation intensified from somewhere under the fur.

“True. Prob’ly oughta let the golden boy go, boss.”

“Eh. S’pose.”

A thoroughly disheveled and crumpled-looking Julian emerged from his muscular prison, bitchin’ up a storm with a big grin on his face.

“This is discrimination! Pickin’ favorites and what not!”

“Well, yeah. Whatchu gonna do ‘bout it, little guy?” Wagging tail.

“I’ll write a letter to my Champion!”

“Oh no, I better silence ‘ya then!”

Back inside Daar’s embrace for more crumplin’ fun. Julian got wrassled.

The careful listener could just make out various muffled threats of retribution and pleas for mercy, over the thuds and thumps of play and the gigabear’s happy growls.

Nobody of course was any kind of actual angry. They played rough, and it was probably good if they got all their testosterone poisoning out of the way, anyway. No point pretending they were anything but what they were. So, Daar had some fun, and played at a level Julian could handle. Not that ‘Horse could manage these days, so…good training. Really. For real.

Or something like that.

“Pickin’ on lil’ guys, tsk. Here I thought you Minnesota clan were all nice and stuff!”

“Hnnngh…! just havin’ a bit of fun…fuck, lemme go!”

Also, definitely some Schadenfreude watching Daar manhandle him so effortlessly. No better proof that size mattered, really.

The doombear let his little snack up with a contrabass chitter. “Alwright, fine.” Hoisted back to his feet, bro-hugged and a quick head-rub—gaoians could be really canine—and all was better. “Anyway, much as I wanna wrassle two o’ my most favoritest meatheads…I ain’t got time to play too much today. And don’t be breakin’ our genius coach too hard here, ‘kay? Now git. You two can make love later, I gotta talk to ‘em.”

“Aww. Almost had him seduced, too.”

“Fuck off!”

“Don’t play like you weren’t into it,” Julian chuckled, nodded, thumped over and yoinked Adam to his feet with a flick of his arm. They bro-hugged it out, all grudges forgiven, and Julian stepped away to stretch out and nourish. “Right. Got cardio left on ‘Horse’s torture sheet before I head home for the weekend anyway.”

“Say hi to everyone for me!”

He nodded, and left them to talk privately.

“Right! So. I see train-up is going well,” Daar chittered.

“Yeah! Super proud of ‘em all. The fuckin’ holodeck thing is helpful too. We’ve been coming up with all sorts of evil shit. I think the programmers like havin’ an operator whisperin’ nasty ideas in their ears, too.”

“Bet the team don’t.”

“Yeah, well. I want us to survive this, whatever it ends up being. We can settle grudges later.”

“Kinda why I came calling, actually. You…let’s go for a walk.”

And so, suddenly, they were outside, heading toward the forest on the edge of the base. Adam followed behind, pondering what the talk might be about. He pondered Daar for a bit, too. Same as every time he got to stare at the giant fucker’s haunches: they were as tall as Adam and about that same measure wide, which taken together made him bigger than an elephant, big like a Brown One. Shorter, yes, but vastly stockier. More like a really big bull on super-steroids, really. A dinosaur-smashing tank of a man. He was a walking, squared-broad brick of rolling supermuscle, with a thick-chested, heavy-legged saunter to his gait. Part bear, part tiger, part gorilla.

A well-trained gao could play the ape or the leopard. Could be a beast of burden or a clever, dextrous artisan. Could chase anything down on foot, or curl up and spend almost no energy at all. No other species was as physically adaptable as they were.

Nobody had maximized all his potential to such extremes as Daar had. He could do it all. Emperor of the universe and the greatest athlete there ever was or ever would be.

And somehow, they were friends.

They meandered for a while, enjoying the forest until they came upon a neat little clearing, not too far from where they started. Nice, really. A recent treefall, it looked like. There was a pretty black flower crawling up everywhere.

Daar plopped himself down on his haunches and sat there, waiting. Even sitting like that, his face was level with Adam’s.

Time to see.

“So…what’s up, boss?”

“Th’ future. Gotta think beyond th’ immediate, yijao?”

“Uh-huh. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing full-time lately.”

“A very narrow, specific future, yeah. An’ I’m glad ‘yer doin’ it! Ain’t nobody else better.” Daar shook his fur uneasily. “Me, I got a bigger future ‘ta think on. One that begins wi’ TILE FLIP. Ain’t no good doin’ a thing if we don’t got a plan for what comes after…”

Adam did the tricky thing and remained silent, listening.

“I think you an’ ‘yer own are gonna figger pretty big in that future,” Daar continued, still orbiting the point rather than driving straight at it like he would do if he was feeling comfortable.

Adam didn’t have time for that.

“Daar…your majesty. I’m a big boy. Fuck, I’m in my forties. Just say it.”

“…I still ain’t convinced TILE FLIP is th’ best use o’ ‘yer skills. Gotta think past it, weigh risk an’ reward, yijao? Weigh what you’d add ‘ta the operation by bein’ there against what you’d add ‘ta the whole o’ everythin’ by bein’ kept safe. An’ in ‘yer specific case, there’s a big ol’ extra risk in that battered thinker o’ yours.”

Right. Adam had no answer to that, except the usual.

He sighed. The sigh to end all sighs, really. A sigh worthy of a List.

Dark humor was a lot like food. Not everyone got it.

“What do you want me to do? I’m not stupid. I know good and damn well I’m training up my replacements and I’m not so broken I forgot my medical retirement. But this fight is still a ways off and the suit coatings are basically perfect, so…ain’t I allowed a little hope?”

“Hope ‘fer what, essactly?” Daar shook his head. No mane right now, he was in his lightest summer stud-clip. “I mean…Cousin, look at me. Do you see this body? I was made for the fight. At every fuckin’ stage of th’ makin’, this is what I am for. I was engineered, bred, educated, trained, and later activated and given over to your tender ministrations, all to build me up into this. I am the deadliest piece o’ meat there ever was an’ likely ever will be. An’ I’m not goin’ on mission if it can at all be helped. Not this time. Y’know why.”

“Yeah. you’re completely irreplaceable. The king on the chessboard. But that’s the thing. I’m not. And not using me lowers the chance we succeed! That’s a big risk, too.”

“Does it, though? Adam…look beyond your skills. Look at th’ long-term risk you pose. Now, I just watched a man vastly your superior these days put you through the wringer after you spent all day tormentin’ him, I bet. Din’t matter. Still made you his bitch. And there’s several more who could do th’ same. Am I wrong?”

“Well…” He had a point. “No, you aren’t. It’s a bit of a list these days. And I’m proud of them! But—”

He held up his giant paw to command silence. “But nothin.’ I know good and damn well that th’ thing needed mostest is knowledge an’ experience, an’ that matters a fuck of a lot! It’s why you’re still makin’ ‘em look like fools in the sims. But you have a brain that’s on th’ edge of fallin’ apart. What’s in that brain is more valuable than ‘yer big muscles an’ your ability ‘ta use ‘em. I’ve got all the muscle I’ll ever need now. What I ain’t got is operators on your tier.”

Adam really hated the way Daar could run circles around him with his words even better than with his big-ass fuckin’ super-haunches.

“What prompted this?” he asked. “We’ve had this conversation before…”

“Sorta, yeah. Like I said. Thinkin’ past th’ victory.” Daar scratched his muzzle with a claw the length of a chef’s knife.

“Well, I know what I think. I know my brain might have been reupholstered a couple times and it’s held together with spit and glue, but fuck it. You need what’s in it you said, and TILE FLIP is gonna hinge on experience and knowledge like mine. You want to think past the victory, you’re going to need the victory to happen first.”

“And it ain’t gon’ happen if you fall apart in the middle of th’ fight.” Daar said, pointedly. “Like I said…risk. An’ you ain’t in a position ‘ta be impartial ‘bout it.”


“Fine. Then just give me orders. That’s what you do, right?”

Shit. Too far. The wounded note in his keen…

“Sorry.” Adam said automatically, and meant it.

“No, no…but…right. So I’m gonna make a point.” Daar sidled up, rested his giant paw on Adam’s head. It was heavy, and as with Julian, big enough to span his chest. The arm attached to it was in proportion. And from there, the rest of him.

…Jesus Christ he was big.

“It ain’t always ‘bout force, Cousin. I could right now push my paw down with a tiny little bit o’ effort, put m’paw right through and fuckin’ explode you. That’s force. Or I could order you as you said, as your king, commander, and Great Father, an’ First Counsel. Or I could bend my mind to it an’ convince you, an’ we both know I’d win that game, too. If you were a gao an’ anythin’ short of extremely dominant, you’d get a whiff, fuckin’ pant-grin stupidly an’ do it anyway ‘cuz disobeyin’ me would be damn near instinctually impossible. Or, shit! I could jus’ find ‘yer price an’ pay you. There ain’t any form o’ power I don’t have, more’n anyone…and I ain’t usin’ it here. Because I love you, Adam. I can’t ever put into words how important ‘ya are ‘ta me. I’m not a good enough poet. An’ I respect ‘ya far, far too much ‘ta ruin that.”

Adam felt himself tearin’ up a bit. “So…what? You protectin’ me now?”

“Always have, as you’ve protected us all. But no, I don’t mean like how you mean it. I’m sendin’ Regaari on this mission too, ‘member? Good chance it’ll kill ‘em and I love him just as much as you.”

“So why—?”

“Because he’s clear-eyed about what he is and what he can and can’t do. ‘Member when he finally ditched his cybernetic paw? That were from self-honesty. He’s not pretendin’ he’s still somethin’ he ain’t. An’ that’s somethin’ you ain’t got right now.”

Adam grit his teeth at that. Daar never hid honest criticism, and it was always honest criticism. But there was still the hate burning in Adam. That was an honest part of him, too. It was part of what built Warhorse, it had been the fire that guided him since…shit, since Sara died.

A whole fuckin’ lifetime ago, that.

Daar’s nose twitched, sniff, sniff. “It’s hard, becomin’ somethin’ new an’ different.”

He always had the sharpest goddamn verbal knives.

“Harder still turning into something you were never meant to be.” Adam shook his head. “I know what I am. I have purpose. Fuck, I’ve known exactly what I’m supposed to be doing since I was a kid.”

“Yeah, since you were fifteen, really. Now ‘yer in ‘yer forties, never even thought’a doin’ anythin’ different…an’ shit, you never had to, ‘cuz we got this supersoldier biomedicine flowin’ in us, right? You weren’t never faced with the gettin’ older an’ slowin’ down part of life. Shit, you’ve bounced back from somethin’ that shoulda ruined you. You ain’t never been stopped my friend…but that means you’re still a kid, in some ways. You’ve managed to dodge one o’ the big life experiences.”

“…And you?”

“I’ll jus’ say I once got bitch-slapped by a scotsman less’n half my size, even after I broke six of his ribs. The fuckin’ bastard!”

Adam choked out a laugh. “God, that was a while ago. You were only eight feet tall then!”

“I know right? Barely half a ton, such a tiny lil’ bear…anyway. Trust me, I could tell ‘ya so many stories. Balls, even m’firstest matin’ contract! I mean, still got laid, but…”

They laughed together quietly for a bare moment, but sobered quickly. “So yeah. Had a lotta failures, Cousin. I’ve been put in my place many a time.” Daar tilted his head. “You though…you got put in ‘yer place really only the once, an’ you’re doin’ ‘yer best ‘ta pretend it didn’t happen.”

Daar picked him clean up off the ground and hugged. “An’ I come to realize I mighta been enablin’ some o’ that. So…I’m sorry, Cousin. You deserve better’n’ all this.”


Not even Adam’s patented hugs could compare to the Daarbear’s bestest. Honestly, he felt exactly like a little boy, held up like that. Even felt dangerously close to just letting go…

But, no. Shit. He was right. Everyone had been trying to tell him. Sometimes with sharp words, too. But almost nobody wanted to make him angry…


‘Cuz he was a giant, dangerous, angry fuckin’ meathead.

And he wasn’t gonna listen to any puny little shit tellin’ him what to do, was he? Not until the biggest badass there was slapped some sense into him.


He could see clearly, now. It all hit like a ton of bricks.

He wiggled loose a bit, so he could look Daar in the eye. “So why you, and not anyone else?”

“Risk management,” Daar said, point-blank. “You in a fight with any of ‘em would only end one way. Badly. But not even you are meatheaded enough ‘ta pick a fight wit’ me.”

Adam laughed in that explosive way one does on the edge of tears. Laughed, because what else could he do?

Well, fuck it. He was crushed in a big fuzzy hug with a friend he didn’t even deserve. So, he buried his face against Daar’s titanic chest…and let it out.

“…Fuck. Life is so goddamned unfair.”

Daar’s chitter had a bitter, mournful note to it. “Nah. Stainless used ‘ta say it’s just th’ opposite. Life’s perfectly fuckin’ fair, an’ we all wish it would be unfair ‘ta our benefit.”

“‘We never want to pay the price, which can be everything for fookin’ nothing if we’re not careful,’” Adam quoted. “…Fuck, I miss him. I should drop in on General Jackson sometime…”

“She’s a busy woman right now. She was gonna retire…now, she’s prob’ly gonna get that fourth star on her shoulder. We don’t got many general officers left with her kind of experience.”

“I thought she was gonna stand for election to Champion?”

“Naw. Clan Folctha has others who would be better, and she knows it. Anyway…”

Daar put him down. Realized he really couldn’t be personable while towering like that, sank down and sat on his haunches again.

“…Right. Anyway. I gotta worry. I can’t have you becomin’ a sudden liability in what is likely th’ most important mission we ever do. An’ I can’t lose what’s in ‘yer head. You’re an investment, an’ the Union is gonna require special forces after TILE FLIP. I want you ‘ta train ‘em. I think that’s a damn good purpose, mesself.”

“…I mean, it is, and I don’t…I’m not ungrateful. I’m not.”

“But you know you can operate, in ‘yer heart of hearts.”

“Yes. That.”

“Right. So les’see what happens in fifty years, when ‘yer brain mebbe heals all th’ way up. Or the battlefield changes. Whatever. In th’ meantime, I still need a discrete option ‘fer shit here an’ there. You an’ ‘yer team been doin’ that marvelously. An’ I need someone in charge o’ training. Who better? We gotta establish an academy ‘fer our most specialest forces, in this big weird united ball o’ military we’re buildin…”

Adam grit his teeth and squirmed. “I don’t think I’m exactly cut out for—”

“Yes you are! I ain’t makin’ you Commandant. What you’ll be doin’ is much more focused. ‘Yer a senior NCO, ‘member? Time ‘ta face up ‘ta reality an’ be the leadership we need. An’…”

Daar sighed. “Look. Even if, at th’ end of it all, ‘ya don’t really feel ‘ya fit in that role…please, give it a try. Because ‘yer somethin’ unique. You, ‘Base, an’ now a couple Crude babies? ‘Yer special ‘fer a lotta reasons, but one o’ the biggest is ‘yer perpetually young, ‘cuz you never grew up. That means you ain’t got limits. Julian? Christian? They do, mebbe. Prob’ly. But they’ll find ‘em eventually. I don’t think you will. Been talkin’ a lot ‘bout this with my big-brains. You an’ yer kids an’ their kids are a rare kind o’ special.”

He settled his rump on the floor. “An’ this is only th’ start o’ the long-term. The cleanup is gonna last centuries even if TILE FLIP is a perfect success. So…how fit an’ ready ‘ya think you’ll be in five hundred years? Don’t ‘ya think I’d best start collectin’ people like you now? I told ‘ya last time we had this talk…I can’t be lookin’ only at the here-an’-now. An’ I can’t be spendin’ somethin’ as rare as you so easily.”

“How rare will I be in five hundred years?”

“I have no fuckin’ idea. Shit, if folks like you an’ gods ‘ferbid me somehow became the new standard in that time? That’s a scary thought…but also an irrelevant one. I work with the treasure I already got, not the treasure I dream of.”

“Five hundred years is a scary thought, too.”

“It is. It’s gonna take brave men ‘ta explore that. An’ ‘yer one of the bravest men I ever met. I’m…I’m gonna need good friends alongside me. I hope you’ll be one of ‘em.”

“…Why does this feel like that one bit in Star Wars?”

Daar chittered. “What? ‘Join me and I will complete your training?’ Wouldn’t it be th’ other way ‘round in our case?”

“No. I mean…I don’t know what I mean.” Adam shrugged. He really didn’t know what he was feeling right now, besides unease. He wanted to have it all there, to lay it out in some clear argument, but…he didn’t even know what it was.

“Right. Well, there is a whiff o’ evil empire here, admittedly…’cuz think it through. What’s gonna replace the Hierarchy? They exist as they do fer reasons an’ I bet none o’ us are gonna like findin’ out why. Which is why I need people like you. Like Regaari. Like Gyotin, or his successors. I am dangerously powerful. I desperately need people ‘ta help me stay in check.”

“And you can’t have a successor,” Adam realized.

“Ideally…no. An’ that’s my point. I never spoke t’you ‘bout that sorta thing. I’ve spoken to others…but not you. An’ you ain’t heard from ‘em on this point, I bet.”

“Which means…you’re the only chance we have to wield this sort of power.”

“And it’ll take everythin’ I got wit’ every trick I know ‘ta not turn into Darth whatever-his-name.”

“Daarth Sidious?”

“…I oughta pretzel ‘ya.”

Adam laughed, feeling a large chunk of the negative emotion break off and fall away. “Prob’ly, yeah.”

“But Julian might feel jealous! So instead…you ever go on a hunt?”


“Good a time as any. Send Vemik a text, I promised Naydi a werne when I came back. You’re gonna learn.”

Adam saw the political maneuver inside the fun distraction straight away. The ten’gewek were part of the United Peoples too, and anyone who was going to command their respect—well, Adam had the strength but he hadn’t yet carried home a kill on his shoulders. If he was going to train their Given-Men, adding that card to his deck was a smart move.

He said so, and Daar just…commended him on his perception.

That was Daar’s life. Even when he was having fun, he never got to stop working the angles.

And so, that day he received an education. About himself, on multiple fronts. He’d never really understood killing. Hunters were somehow…not real. He’d killed men too, but that was just duty. It never hit, and none of them ever suffered too much from his attention.

Killing a werne, though, not dispassionately but with intent, and with some struggle, because physical monster or not, it was his first time doing the thing, naked and nervous, not even a spear or whatever…it was a rite of passage. Somehow, the agony of its death and the rush of ecstasy he’d felt having successfully snuck up on one and taken it with his bare hands…

And the sudden grief that came with it, too. He knelt and placed his hand on its forehead after it died and apologized to it. They were both there with him. They knew. He’d just murdered an innocent being for his meat. Somehow, that was much, much more real than anything he’d experienced before.

Everything the ten’gewek did after the kill was about showing the proper gratitude. They’d Taken, and the balance must be restored. He’d never really felt or understood the wisdom of that until now. He really wasn’t a killer, before. No matter what he thought about sheepdogs and wolves and slavering monsters in the night. He was just doing a job, and that job dealt a lot of death. He was fundamentally a clean-up man. Cleaning up evil.

There was nothing evil about that werne. It didn’t deserve to die. Now, Adam was a killer.

Christ. It seemed like everyone he knew, knew him better than he knew himself.

Something to learn about that. And maybe, something to trust.

He finished the day up. Training session with Hunter to get his work in, and at least that was a brawl between equals. A good way to let off steam.

Thoughts floated through his head on his jog home. Email ping. New job offer from Personnel, like Daar had alluded to. He never forgot a single detail or trick, that one.

Family time. Diego won the unlimited class in junior’s wrestling that night—there weren’t many in it of course, because there weren’t many kids like him—but he still won. They celebrated with steaks grilled up on the rooftop. These days, that was an expensive treat. Mostly they got by on hamburger or ground naxas. Marty wanted to raise chickens in the backlot. He couldn’t object.

Head floating in thoughts.

They seemed to notice, and left him mostly alone. It ended as a quiet night, cosily wrapped up in bed with Marty snoring softly next to him in her way that usually lulled him to sleep rather than keep him awake…but not this time. This time, sleep came slowly and late.

Adam had a lot to think about.

Starship Turkeyholic, Hierarchy reserve power archive, deep space

Gumi, Brother of Clan One-Fang

Gumi clawed himself back to a consciousness that felt like his brain was raw in the middle and charcoal on the outside. Just being awake hurt, and the insistent cacophony of emergency beeps from the ship didn’t help one bit.

There was a sharper, more stabbing, more localized pain in his throat, and the mental agony drew back like receding floodwaters. He managed to focus on his HUD, which explained much with a single terse sentence:


It was one of several alarms going off, but his soft-boiled eyes turned toward the team’s monitor panel. Their suits had reconnected, and were giving him multiple medical alarms. He slapped the recall button with an aching arm, and watched them go dark as their suits jumped them back to safety.

His turn, and the Turkeyholic was not in good shape at all. All the energy dumped into it by that attack had to go somewhere, and Keeda’s nuts, they must have hit him hard. System waste heat was well over the red-line, meaning he couldn’t even safely jump without frying himself.

But he couldn’t stay here without getting his brain scrambled either.

Fuck it. Hit the recall and pray….

There was a black-flash, a full-ship thump, and the master alarm as the jump tipped Turkeyholic over the safety line and into emergency heat dump mode. Somewhere behind and below him, explosive bolts blew open the vents in the belly and incandescent coolant blasted out into the void. He was instantly slammed painfully against his chair’s straps by G-forces as the grav-plating and engines went offline and the explosive venting threw the ship into a fierce spin. Everything went offline and dark. Somewhere behind him a small detonation and fireball was followed by a shorter and sharper bang as the fire suppressant system went off and flooded the burning compartment with foam.

Gumi groaned and strained his arm against the centrifugal force, forcing it down onto the controls and willed himself to remain conscious despite G-forces and nervejam damage alike trying to drag him down into the red and the black beyond. Main engines were offline, grav plating was offline, but he had maneuvering thrusters…

Tumbling on all three axes. Timed bursts without computer assistance, each successful squirt making the terrible strain on his limbs just that little bit weaker, made the effort of not suffering a red-out that little more achievable…

Slower…slower… his pulse climbed down in time with the tumble as he got the Turkeyholic under control.

Okay. He wasn’t in imminent danger of passing out and dying. Status check.

Status was, uh…badly damaged. Yeah. Huge heat damage to critical systems, including flash-fires. Life support was offline, he was breathing the bottled stuff from his seat. No hull breaches, thank fuck, but power surges had tripped several of the main breakers and from the angry sizzling, fizzing, spitting sound he could hear back in the engineering compartment, that wasn’t a problem he was going to fix anytime soon.

Aviate, navigate, communicate. He finished getting the ship under control, canceled out the last of the spin until Turkeyholic was merely drifting, and ran a second assessment. Several of the systems had automatically rebooted, but main engines and G-plating were not among them.

Well, at least he had comms. He twisted the dial to TACNET Guard 7700 and keyed to broadcast. “Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is SWIFTEYE-ONE-SIX, Suffered massive systems failure, lost engines, lost FTL, lost life support. I have one soul aboard, suffering…argh…nervejam exposure…”

They didn’t keep him waiting. He’d barely finished calling than the reply came through.

“SWIFTEYE-ONE-SIX, UPSS Caledonia, we hear you. Please confirm number of souls on board?”

“Just one,” Gumi keened despite himself as a fresh stab of agony shot through his entire body. “One soul aboard SWIFTEYE-ONE-SIX.”

“Copy that, SWIFTEYE. We are en route to your transponder…”

Gumi sat back and sagged, allowed himself a moment to appreciate being alive…and a moment to whimper at the thought of what had just happened. Then it was back to the business of seeing if he could get his ship back in some kind of working order.

He was, at least, able to maneuver himself onto Caledonia’s dorsal docking port and clamp there for the ride back to Armstrong. There was the usual business with the HEAT and their head scanners…he endured it numbly. Doubly so when he finally saw the extent of the damage.

Turkeyholic looked like she’d taken the full fury of a lightning storm. He didn’t even want to imagine what sort of energies had ravaged her hull, and just what that shit would have done to him if she hadn’t taken the brunt.

That was a tough fuckin’ ship he’d just flown.

There was no time to process, no time to recover and think. He barely got a glimpse at the ship’s ruined state and the damage control teams swarming over him before the HEAT fellas had him bundled onto a jump platform, and from there….

Corridors, doors, an infirmary full of mercifully dim lights that smelled of antiseptic and…friends. His team. Three humans, two gao, a ten’gewek…

They smelled alive.

That thought was all Gumi needed to finally stop clinging to consciousness by his claws and let go. He trusted the doctors to get him through, relaxed, and passed out.

It was, frankly, a relief.


++0004++: < confusion; seeking elaboration > A power archive?

++0311++: Standing instructions are to investigate all anomalies. The power archive sent a minor alarm, which my double-digit superior assigned to me to investigate. The planet itself is tectonically inert, and there was no seismic event which might match an asteroid strike despite the fact that inner-system monitoring detected a small unpowered object that may have impacted the surface.

++0004++: So you activated the defensive discharge. That’s nearly forty cycles of stored power, you realize?

++0311++: I did so in accordance with standing order—

++0004++: < Interruption > I know. And I commend you for your diligence and caution. You did the right thing. Dismissed.

++0311++: < Relief; gratitude > Yes, Four.


++0004++: Alright. Now what could they possibly be doing poking around on a power archive? What do they hope to gain from it?

++0005++: How did they even find it?

++0003++: They have captured and interrogated senior agents, and the Entity has devoured several of our number. Not to mention the traitorous collaborators. Any one of those sources would be able to tell them what to look for, or even give specific coordinates.

++0004++: But still. Why? They lack the technology to have any impact on our power archives.

++0005++: So we believe.

++0004++: It is possible to overestimate your foe.

++0005++: Still, they must have been there for a reason.

++0003++: Curiosity? Desperate hope? Their presence does not automatically point to any really threatening capability. Especially if it was a simple scouting mission to see what was there.

++0004++: Agreed. Still…it is worth noting this event. A threatening pattern may yet emerge. We must monitor our matterspace assets more closely, from now on. Especially seeing as the defensive discharge seems to have been insufficient and they escaped.

++0005++: < Agreement >

++0003++: < Agreement >

++Consensus achieved; intent registered; implementation delegated to Agent 0021++
++Agent 0311: commendation noted. Promotion deferred until crisis is resolved++
++Session closed++

Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Letty Brown

Jenny was back in silent mode again, but Letty had learned not to worry about that like she’d used to. She’d never really figured out what was going on in the younger girl’s head when she clammed up like that, but…it didn’t necessarily mean things were bad. Jenny only got vocal when she was either feeling completely relaxed, or when she wasn’t coping at all.

Doctor Ross called it “Selective Mutism” and “post-traumatic stress.” But Letty knew the silence meant Jenny was…okay. Just okay. And it wasn’t like she was uncommunicative otherwise. She’d smile and nod and shrug and gesture. She’d even use sign language! Heck, as the two of them got better at it, she’d ‘talk’ Letty’s ear off with flickering hands.

But you’d never hear a peep out of her if Christian wasn’t around.

Honestly, there were days Letty could understand the clamming up, too. The Firths had…a big household. He and Freya had managed seven children between the two of them, adopted her and Jenny, sorta…quasi-adopted an entire apartment building full of desperate families, most of whom didn’t have dads anymore…and he’d become basically a surrogate dad for all them. If she missed her guess, he might be a bit more than that for a few, too.

And Letty had found a niche for herself as kinda the big sister to all of them, somehow. She had no idea how it had happened. But somehow, she’d gone from being ignored and abandoned by parents who didn’t give half a shit about her, to being here, in the middle of a freaking human hive. She had Jenny following her around like Piglet following Pooh, and Joseph (their giant of an eleven-year-old) definitely had a puppy-crush on her which was cute and all…

+No, it was definitely him,+ she signed. +I don’t care if he was wearing a…+ she faltered, then gestured to her face. “Mask?”

Jenny covered her face with her palms, then moved her hands away to either side like a pair of slide doors. +Mask. He’s dangerous.+

“Well, yeah. So’s Christian.”

Jenny nodded, but her expression was wary. +He scares me. Not like Christian.+

“I know what you mean…” Letty muttered.

“Girls?” Freya’s voice drifted through from the other room. “Your laundry’s holding up the house!”

“On it!” Letty called, and hopped off the couch. The Firths were just the right kind of chill about chores—all they really asked of Letty was that she clean up her own mess, do her own laundry, and help out with at least two meals a week.

It was so nice. Maybe Letty just had a skewed perspective from her old family and from living under the bridge, and from her responsibilities at Sacred Heart shelter (a sting of sadness at the thought of them…) but she hardly felt like she was being asked to do anything at all.

Besides. Jenny was always a help.

“But I mean…we know a lot of scary guys,” she pointed out. “I mean, look at the Lads.”

+Not like Hoeff,+ Jenny signed, fervently.

Letty shrugged. She’d had her own run-ins with truly dangerous men, and Hoeff was dangerous and a killer for sure. But he’d never given her that chilled-to-the-bone dread she’d got from that fucker Nolan, back home…

No point in arguing, she decided. They got their stuff folded, packed it away, and had just settled on the couch again when a familiar heavy thump signaled that Christian had just got home, which immediately triggered a happy stampede from all corners of the building, including Jenny springing up with a squeak.

Letty followed at a calmer pace, chuckling to herself. Sure enough, he was being swamped all the way up the stairs, and it would be a few minutes before he could break free and get to his own apartment.

Freya smiled, and took that as her cue to get ready.

He arrived by “kicking” open the door all stompy and boomy-voiced, and found himself tackled by all his boys at once. A sort of walking six-on-one pro-wrestling-slash-hugfest ensued. Firth gave all the girls a smile and a wink, while he crushed his boys into squirming compliance.

Then Jenny was up on his shoulder, and Letty got a one-armed affectionate squish and hair-scrub unlike any she’d ever received from her own dad, and Freya welcomed him home with a smooch and life was so good…

There was a bustle of activity, pulling out the extensions on the table, setting it, getting a banquet laid out, the line to wash hands, the scramble for chairs, the brief silence of everyone saying grace…

And then the pile-in for food. Plates and cups and bottles and stuff moved in mysterious ways before ultimately landing in front of their respective owners. Letty’s was the second-smallest serving, after Jenny’s, but that was hardly surprising. They were the only ones at the table who weren’t big stompy Heroes of the Line, or whatever it was.

That had worked to their advantage, really. All the boys were very protective of the two. Not that Letty needed it, but…

It was a good meal. Freya was a fantastic cook and the boys weren’t adverse to helping, because that meant they got to eat more. A good time, full of laughs and jokes (especially Stupid Boy jokes and Big Dad Energy jokes) and the kind of warmth that Letty had glimpsed with old friends, but never been part of until she came here.

But she noticed that, unusually, Jenny was still silent throughout. Normally, Christian coming home turned her into a happy chatterbox.

Christian noticed too. Maybe an hour afterwards, when the table had been cleared and the dishwasher was churning away and the boys had run off to go do Boy Things in the park, he checked in on them.

“Hey. Quiet mood today, huh?”

Jenny nodnodded.

He took a seat in his giant made-for-him recliner-slash-loveseat and invited them to join. It wasn’t a chair that could be comfortable for anyone who wasn’t like him; the padding was very thick, but so dense and unyielding that it may as well have been wood. He sank right into it however, with a happy and relieved sigh.

Letty and Jenny joined him anyway. Affection was free-flowing and expected in this house, so they settled on either side of him along his vast flanks, wedged firmly between the overstuffed armrest and the more than two-foot-wide slabs of granite stuffed into each of his great legs. He stretched out like a giant tiger and reclined, sighing happily, then carefully wrapped a man-dwarfing arm around them both for a tight, reassuring hug.

He’d cleaned up before coming home of course, but he already exuded the super-musky, slightly acrid guy-type scent that defined the Firth household. It was strongest by far in him, but she didn’t mind. It smelled like home. Like safety. He felt like safety, too; there was absolutely no give to him at all in any sense of the word, even at his gentlest and most relaxed, but that more than anything made him far more of a dad than her own.


Jenny shrugged and pointed at the TV.

“Hoeff was on the news,” Letty translated.

“Ah.” Christian sighed.

“I mean, he had a fake face on. But it was definitely him. Nobody else is built that way.”

“Oh yeah, I saw the clip too. Knew it was him the second I saw it.” He gave Jenny a concerned look. “Upset ‘ya, huh?”

She shrugged expressively, looking down at her feet poised comically alongside his. Hers were a bit big for a girl’s, but his were absolutely huge and built to an entirely different industrial standard. They were so wide and sturdy he wore custom-sized shoes and boots, because even if anyone made a size so big, they wouldn’t be nearly wide or thick enough for his feet. Everything about him was so outsized and extreme, it was hard to believe he was the kind of man who doted on his adopted girls like they were his own firstborn daughters.

True to his nature, he never spared them the truth of anything, but he had a way of delivering it that was pure reassuring comfort, no matter what that truth was.

“Well, there ain’t nothin’ wrong ‘bout being upset. It’s an awful business, yijao? An’ you know I can’t comment on much. But…girls, I don’ need ‘ta tell either of ‘ya the world ain’t a nice place. And neither of us are nice guys. You get to see my good side, I hope. But…”

He sighed. “I’m really just a bigger version o’ him. Don’t get the wrong idea ‘bout me. I know Jenny here knows exactly th’ kinda monster I can be, when I gotta.”


“So, trust me when I say he’s a good man. I know ‘em better’n almos’ anyone else, ‘cuz he an’ I are mostly the same. An’ I don’t just mean ‘cuz we’re the same kinda gorillas, neither.”

“They said the guy he killed was the man responsible for the war.”

“One of ‘em. Don’t be surprised if ‘ya see ‘em on the news again, ‘kay? There’s bad guys who need killin’ out there. Also…you know he’d never touch a hair on ‘yer head, right? ‘Cuz firs’ly, he’s a good man. Which ain’t nice, mind. But secondly…if it ever came to that, what I’d do to him’d make what he did to the general look kind and playful.”

“Oh, I believe it,” Letty said, fervently.

“Yeah,” Jenny agreed. It was one quiet syllable, but it meant a lot.

Firth pulled them in for a tighter snuggle.

“…I’m a monster. But I’m your monster, okay?”

Nods from them both.

“An’ so is he. He’d sooner die than let anythin’ happen to you or anyone else who din’t deserve it. That’s why we do what we do. We an’ th’ rest o’ the Lads.”

A moment’s silence, then he changed the subject. “…School treatin’ you better?”

“Your plan worked,” Jenny grinned.

“Oh yeah?”

Letty nodded, with a chuckle. “We got Lindsay on video, saying all that mean shit to Jenny. Last I saw of her, her mom was dragging her out the door with a red face, screaming at her about being grounded until college. It was perfect.”

“Hah! Aw, man, I love it when a plan comes together!”

“Eh, she’ll come back at us,” Letty predicted. “But I think we can handle her.”

“Attagirl. You gotta fight ‘yer fights, y’hear? But fight ‘em smart, fight ‘em honest. Don’t be a dumb boy like me an’ use ‘yer fists unless you gotta!”

Letty met Jenny’s eye and they traded the faint, tolerant eye-roll they always did when he was being corny. “Promise,” she said aloud.

He chuckled, stretched comfortably in his chair and kicked off his giant sandals. “Well, I got a weekend. Thought it was due time we hung out some…got any ideas what you’d like to do?”

Letty nodded. Christian knew how to handle the oversized family he was building, and he’d set a routine. Everyone got a Saturday, on rotation, and tomorrow was her turn. She’d been thinking what she wanted to do with it since last time.

“I uh…left all my nice stuff back at my parents’ place. Like, my makeup. I was thinking, shopping?”

He chuckled heavily. “Oh, man. Me in a makeup store?”

Letty grinned. Part of her choice had been mischief, she had to admit. Not that she was gonna admit it out loud… “There’s a place in the covered market, all their stuff is locally made!”

“I know it. Right next to where Ian buys his shirts, right?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“Murray buys his beard stuff there. Tell ‘ya, soon as the guy retired and was free of regulations, he went full highland warrior…”

“Why don’t you do a beard?” Jenny asked.

“Ha! Should I? Actually…I think we’re allowed now, or we could make the argument anyway. Not like the gaoians have to shave…”

“You’d look good!” Letty agreed.

“You think so? Hey, Freya? Beard! What’dya think?!”

“I think you’d look like a hick mountain man!”

“I am a hick mountain man!” he called back. “So is that a yes or a no?”

“No! I like your jawline!”

“Fair ‘nuff!”

“Aww!” Jenny grumped.

“Now now, Freya does so much for me. If she wants me pretty, she gets me pretty. No argument!”

Freya came wandering in, squirmy infant on her hip. She was…perfect for Christian. Letty never imagined a woman so tall and, frankly, brutally muscular could be beautiful, too…

Maybe handsome was a better word. In a good way! But still…

“Well…okay,” Freya grinned. “Maybe I’ll allow it as an experiment. But I reserve the right to shave it off!”

“Fair deal. Actually, you girls mind if I bring Joseph along? And maybe Harrison an’ Diego too. They ain’t even teens yet but they’re all already getting whispers o’ chin hair on ‘em…”

“Already?” Jenny gave him a surprised look.

“Heh. We do be cavemen up in this weird circle o’ ours.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Letty agreed.

So went the weekend. They went shopping, Christian only sometimes able to squeeze into the tiny little shops that sold her type of clothing. He’d admonished her to be frugal, “‘cuz you’ve got a lot of brothers and friends we gotta care for,” so she tried to be strategic with her picks. He and the boys got haircuts while she was picking everything out, and came back with some Manly Things of their own when it came time to try everything on.

She realized how much she loved them all when they could honestly say what was nice and what wasn’t, and she didn’t feel any kind of upset. Though Christian did get a bit squeamish with the cute little skirt she’d found…

“That’s awfully short…” he said, uncomfortably. “You…could you go a bit longer, for my sake?”

Sure. She could do that. Maybe she’d come back and buy it with her own money, later.

God. To have a family who cared.

Saturday night, though. That was for Christian and Freya, which they often spent on the roof of their building. So that night, Letty gave back to them in turn. She big-sistered the house, stayed up to babysit so they had the time to go on a real date, go out somewhere nice.

She watched them for a bit as they walked away. Freya was a valkyrie of a woman, one who carried more muscle on her frame than most Heroes, even HEAT Heroes…but in Christian’s embrace, she seemed positively delicate. Couldn’t reach her arms around his wall of a back while they kissed outside, before walking off hand-in-hand on their date.

It was heartwarming.

She’d snuck a peek upstairs after they’d come back late that night too, stumbling a bit around the house. Maybe bring them a snack, some leftover pizza. All she saw was him sitting on the edge of their concrete bench, the incredible slabs of ropey brawn that was his superhuman back, broad and bare to the world—

…Nope! She retreated before seeing anything else. They didn’t need anything from her!

And that, more than anything else, made her feel the happiest of all.

Daar, jus’ tryin’ to get through a drama-free day

There were three very special times when Daar was likely to be interrupted with world-shattering Bad News. Only three. Either he was makin’ love ‘ta beautiful females, or he was doing something wholesome with kids and the public…

Or he was balls-out liftin, most especially if he was breaking PRs. Not when he was out for a sprint, or some track-sport, or even a long-distance run. Not while he was gamin’ assault scenarios in tactics training. Not when he was wrasslin’ virtual opponents in his holodeck rig or squishin’ real ones however. Not huntin’ Vulza or Brown Ones or even watching Earth predators on those very rare safaris. Never when he was pullin’ plow or diggin’ hole, thank the Unseen!

Nope. Only liftin.’ Prob’ly ‘cuz that was his most favoritest kind o’ exercise an’ the universe seemed ‘ta love its jokes. Figgers. It had got to the point where every time he broke a new record, he jus’ fuckin’ knew some kinda hot liquid bullshit was gonna land all over ‘em.

It seemed to grow with him, too. So nowadays it could be pretty bad. He was used ‘ta liftin’ in the strongest grav plates that could be had, with weights custom engineered ‘fer him, with their own field effects to make themselves even fuckin’ heavier an’ all that sorta silly shit…

That was th’ moment. Right when he was really makin’ progress an’ needed ‘ta keep it up as hard and ‘fer as long as he could fuckin’ stand, that was of course th’ moment he smelled Tiyun comin.’

“O’ course…” He growled, racked the bar (…after a bit of a struggle, where he did in fact break his one-rep bench PR), caught his breath then kipped up to his feet, shook his pelt out and steadied himself against the wall with a paw. Quick check in the mirror. Fuck yeah.

But gods damnit! It’d taken him hours to get there! Daar sighed, knowin’ how quickly th’ Crude and a topped-off belly would effect recovery; he’d need to start all over again. Balls.

“Room. Standard G.”

He felt floaty and momentarily dizzy with the sudden release in pressure, but he’d long learned how to cope with such a dramatic grav-shift. He was down from everything-crushing gravity literally only he could take, back to Earth one gee, the new standard. It was close enough to Gao’s gravity anyway, and it was aspirational and doable for basically every gao. So, since his humans needed to be healthy, and he din’t want shitty landlords cheapin’ out…

Father Tiyun scratched at the door, realized Daar was already waiting for him.

“…I was downwind, too. How…?” Liree was there too. Tiyun was a pretty dominant male, especially for a silverfur, but Liree absolutely was not. His smell was so much his and Tiyun’s these days it was sometimes a bit hard to notice him. He’d learned to be sneaky with it, too.

Still. The most animalist part o’ Daar couldn’t help but deeply enjoy how both Liree and Tiyun stepped back, gasped, flattened their ears and just generally submit once they saw an’ smelled him. Daar tried not ‘ta let it go to his head, but, well…he was just a big ‘ol breedin’ ‘Back unner it all. It were important not to lose touch wit’ what a man was.

“Easy! Here I am, rockin’ along on one o’ my most bestest liftin’ days ever. My pecs feel like they wanna essplode an’ I just beat all my records. Good ‘fer more, too! So, naturally? You showin’ up with bad news is jus’ the spiritual physics of th’ fuckin’ universe, Tiyun. So…”

Daar gave th’ little guys a fuckin’ show before whatever th’ news was that was gonna ruin his day, which got a suitably impressed look from Liree and a carefully not-too-annoyed ear-flick from Tiyun. Part o’ why Daar liked him so much was how resistant he was to all his meathead nonsense, and even more importantly to his natural dominance. Most gao…just couldn’t. Too long in close contact an’ they’d have a real hard time even thinkin’ past whatever Daar wanted. It’d always been a bit of a problem for him, even as a late cub, but now…

Which was why there weren’t nothin’ Daar admired more’n a resilient spirit, really, an’ Tiyun din’t get all weak-kneed ‘fer long, no matter how fierce Daar got. Good!

Anyway. “What’s so important I gotta stop when I’ve got such a nice fuckin’ pump goin’?”

“JETS Team Four are back. Emergency recall, all wounded. Seems the Hierarchy fitted the planet with some kind of nervejam system.” Tiyun fidgeted for a second and coughed. “The, ah, whole planet.”

Daar found his head tilting in honest astonishment. “The…Tiyun, do you have any idea how much energy that musta took?”

“It is, it must be said, not a very large planet…” Tiyun coughed again. “Which they have converted into a titanic mega-battery capable of storing an incalculable amount of energy…”

“I feel like I mighta missed something…Itchy, context please!”

Human and Longear giganerds had figgered out how to make gaoian and human internets play well together. Mostly the dumbest, lowest-level stuff was running human protocols these days—internet protocol? Whatever. But the software on top was this wunnerful weird merger of both. Human infrastructure, but gaoian software expertise. Or so he surmised.

Anyhoo, that meant every damn room or building or whatever had a local listening AI for things like lights, temperature, gravity, anything unique to that place. But everyone also had an assistant AI, and combined with…stuff he wasn’t so sure about, honestly, probably it lived in mobile communicators or some other such witchery…all he had to do anywhere in gaoian or human space was call for his digital assistant, and it’d answer.

He named his Itchy. Because like a persistent jock itch, it followed him around whether he wanted it to or not. But at least this one could show him a nicely useful holoscreen, now and then.

“Operation BLIND GIANT,” Liree added, helpfully.

Itchy was listening, the sneaky bitch. She suddenly had lots to show Daar about it.

He speed-read the floating overview…

“Oh.” Memory jogged. “Right. I ‘member we dispatched a mission a while ago, but I guess staff wasn’t sure yet ‘bout what they’d find.”

“It didn’t quite warrant your full attention yet,” Tiyun noted. “But it does now, My Father.”


“Because the team’s excursion suits and ship both had a full counter-nervejam coating and the whole team got an immediate stabilizing dose, and they’re still in…well, they’re in bad shape. The Turkeyholic is going to need extensive repairs, or maybe even decommissioning.”


“Yes, My Father.”

“I thought that coating was meant ‘ta be…impenetrable? That the right word?”

“Up until now, no nervejam weapon available to us has managed to defeat it,” Tiyun said, carefully. “Whether it’s a matter of this being some previously unknown variant, or just the sheer amount of power the Hierarchy put into the pulse is…we don’t know, yet.”

“Right. So, is there immediate action needed?”

“No, but staff would appreciate some general guidance, so they can have something appropriate ready for the next stand-up.”

“An’ th’ Cabinet meetin’ right afterward.”


Right. Well. Maybe his day wasn’t quite ruined. In fact no, just the opposite really, ‘cuz he’d need ‘ta meditate on this…

“Okay. So I’mma just stream-of-thought ‘fer a moment, ‘kay? Take note an’ don’t worry if other smart people already thought o’ it.”

Tiyun duck-nodded. He knew the drill. “Of course. Immediate planning actions?”

Well, as much as Daar wanted to pump-chase all day, prob’ly that weren’t in the cards. Maybe he could do some runnin’ work? He decided he should probably clean up either way, an’ also let his sweet fuckin’ shower beat the shit outta him ‘fer a bit. Shower was always where some of his best thinks got thunked.

So he took one last look at himself in the really good posing mirrors, maybe a bit wistfully, then fell to all fours and thumped toward the locker room.

“Right, so. In no order, uh…Corti. Gotta review sensor data. Clans ‘fer that too. Shit, let’s do a two-fer and use it ‘ta spin up th’ human university system. It’s jus’ gettin’ its legs unner itself, an’ this’ll help. We’ll need research! It’s an arms race an’ we can’t afford ‘ta lose. I am not gonna spend top-tier operators like biodrones. Uh…coatings. OmuAru?”


“Them too. Need ‘ta get staff going on all that at once. Uh…longer-term.” He paused a moment as he climbed into his stall, which started its program right away. Oh, bliss. He enjoyed it for a long moment as he let the problem marinate in his brain.

“Shit, this is gonna monkey-fuck everyone’s training, ain’t it? We’d all assumed strong nervejam mitigation, but now we’re back ‘ta, what? Tactics from three-plus years ago. Especially fleet, now that I think ‘bout it. That weapon fucked up a ship.”

“One-Fang and Firefang are already shedding fur over it, My Father.”

“Good. So…hmm. This is gonna require a big team re-think, mebbe. Depends on how research goes…but I’m guessin’, no matter what, it’s only gonna be mostly effective.”

“Optimistic I feel, but…yes. That seems right to my admittedly not-a-Warmaster brain.”

Daar chittered darkly, right as the turbo pressure-washer sprays really kicked in and started working him over. “I like ‘yer brain, Tiyun! Couldn’t make it through th’ day without—oh fuck that feels good…y’sure ‘ya don’t wanna try this?”

“At that pressure I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t enjoy the consequences, My Father.”

“There is a pressure control, an’ it only goes full power if I’m in th’ stall…”

The spray picked that moment to ramp up to full pressure. It took lots of force to beat his muscles into submission these days, and that made his shower jus’ th’ sweetest kind o’ agony.

It fuckin’ hurt. But gods, the fuckin’ relief when it’d passed by…

“No thanks. I had some related thoughts, too.”


Tiyun tucked his tablet under his arm the way he always did when he was about to say something Daar weren’t gonna like. “Champion Gurrum and Nofl have both asked to reopen the research into neural cybernetic augmentation.”

“Gurrum asked that?” Daar blinked, genuinely surprised. Kodiak was an old-fashioned Stoneback from nose to claws. “I mean…”

Daar didn’t say. Some of the ancient secrets of Stoneback included a semi-mythological and severe aversion to brain augmentation—well, really a warning against the spirits of machines and the sanctity of body and mind—which only made sense in the post-Hierarchy world. Granted, it was only the more…superstitious, or maybe religiously inclined who obeyed…

But Daar was one of them. And so was Gurrum.

“I believe Champion Gyotin is also weighing the idea.”

“Keeda’s nards. Why?”

“Three overriding reasons, My Father. The first is the simple reality of modern combat. Brain damage is one of the consequences we must contend with, because of the nature of the weapons in use. Nofl believes a…” Tiyun glanced at his tablet then shrugged “…well, it’s a bit beyond me but the upshot is he believes that he can develop a protective technology.”

Well…Daar could immediately see the utility of that, even though his mind immediately turned to the OmoAru and the tech they had throughout their systems, which was a thought to make his skin crawl and his nose itch…he gestured for Tiyun to continue.

“Second, we are reaching the limits of in-suit HUD and assistive AIs. Our best warriors have a virtual cable tying them back to Fleet, and that’s a severe vulnerability. You experienced such vulnerability yourself, on the last mission you participated in.”

Daar rumbled and nodded as he thought back to Alpha Centauri. Could things have gone differently? He often asked himself that. But, there was no use asking hypotheticals. They’d never know for sure whether neural cybernetics could have somehow changed the outcome of that fateful day, so there was no sense and gain in dwelling on it.

“Third?” he asked aloud.

“Third…you and a few others have reached a point where you are unambiguously superbeings. You can perform faster than you can think, and perform to genuinely devastating effect. That’s resulted in a whole new training methodology inspired by Righteous’s thinking, which involves taking instinctual training to the same extremes as we’ve already taken physical excellence. My Father…some would argue that poses risks as grave as augmentation might.”

Fair and reasonable point, so he duck-nodded along. “Still….it’s a big ask.”

“Nofl cited Singularity’s own use of cybernetics among their ‘corth’ population and…” Tiyun frowned at the tablet again. Nofl must have tried blinding him with science. “Well, there’s much here about the Hierarchy’s back-doors and how we might start the technology anew using what’s already known but designed to never be usable for biodroning. He specifically mentions that the synthetic myelin in Warhorse’s brain could be considered an augmentation.”

“…Okay. I will need to think on that. I think…yes. Let’s schedule a Cabinet meeting on the idea. This isn’t up for political debate, I want to make that clear…”


“But I will, tentatively, concede that brain damage is not a great thing and we should be researching into that. We already allow augmentation for similar things. That, mebbe, we can put to a vote. Still wanna run it by Cabinet first.”

The massage beat-down finished, and he took a moment to enjoy the cold rinse spray before the blowers turned on and talking was impossible. A welcome moment to think, that.

Jet-blasted dry, he thumped over to the mirror. Quick run-through of the mandatories, because he really did have a great pump. Nothing wrong with form or posture that he could see…

“How am I lookin,’ you two?”

“Moist,” Tiyun snarked. Liree looked more unabashedly thrilled, but he chittered along too.

“Fine! Be that way.” More careful look. Full range of motion, so he’d probably not earned any injuries today. He’d see how he felt in a few hours. Definitely a minor fur disaster, though. He managed that even in a short coat, which was a uniquely-Daar talent! No doubt Naydi would pick over him and fuss and complain and tidy him up…he decided to leave it as it was.

He knew his weaknesses.

“Right. As for the rest…I’m a conservative sorta guy in a lotta ways. I think I’d stick to what we can do with our own biology first, ‘cuz I look at myself in the mirror and I think, firs’ly, ‘damn I’m sexy!’”

He earned a surprise chitter for that. He chittered along, sank to his haunches, and handed Liree the slicker comb.

“But secondly, I see how much we can do on our own, and th’ only real dependency we got is food. That’s a valuable defense I don’t wanna surrender. So…let’s focus on everything else first. Suit augmentation. Better on-board and local computation. Miniature zero-width comm support in-suit! Balls, imagine how useful that’d be! An so forth. Brain aug is a dangerous sword t’unsheath. Actually…Liree. You first! What d’you think ‘bout this? An’ don’t hold back.”

Liree was usually silent unless prompted, at least around Daar or Tiyun. So, a little encouragement was in order.

Liree considered it for a second. “I think if I was going up against nervejam, I’d want every protection I could get,” he decided. “But I wouldn’t want anything in my head that could compute, yijao? Like, the only thinker I want inside my skull is the one that’s already there. Anything I attach to it would need to passively make my own brain better and tougher, not…do anything active. And even then, I’d be kinda squirmy about it, I think.”

“Squirmy, but not completely averse?”

“…Yeah. If it was augment or die, I’d augment. I think.”

Daar grunted a thoughtful sound and decided it was time to move on with his day. Tiyun was doing that subtle thing where one of his ears was turned toward the wall clock, reminding Daar to be mindful of the time and the rest of the day’s commitments. Very well.

“You’ll let me know how the team are doin’, Tiyun?”

“Yes, My Father.”

“Arright. Up next, I got…no, don’t tell me, I remember. Tour of the high-density housin’ in Lavmuy.”

Tiyun chirped, “Surprisingly, no! We’re doing a charity barbeque. You’re honorary pit master.”

“Oh!” Well balls, that sounded fantastic! “Whereabouts?!”

Liree pant-grinned, joining in some mischief. “In the high-density housin’ near Lavmuy!”

“Hah! You lil’ goblins!”

Smashy hugs were in order. But just a quick bit o’ bullyin’ fun. Important barbeque-related matters were before him!

He did feel bad for the wounded men, and he’d look into seeing them once they were out of surgery or whatever. He couldn’t guarantee visits for everyone, but he’d always try an’ make time, s’pecially for that. And he couldn’t wallow in negative feeling more than the occasional sting, so he put them to the back of his mind for now and turned his mind to the barbeque.

This would be the kinda one where everything had already been planned out ahead of time, so best not surprise ‘em by taking along a naxas from his hobby herd, more was the pity. But he could take along a bottle of sauce…and some pickles? Yeah. Nice cronchy ones.

As substitutes for a good workout went…not that bad.

Not bad at all.

Diplomatic starship Rich Plains, Orbiting Planet Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Sir Patrick Knight

“Do we have any idea what they’re likely to announce?”

The greatest blessing of all in Sir Patrick’s medical regimen was that he could, nowadays, look up at his tallest advisor without the faintest hint of discomfort. And that was saying something when the advisor in question was a bit more than twice his height, and when Sir Patrick was very firmly an old man.

Chronologically, anyway. Physically, he was starting to feel like he had in his forties—the twinges and aches and general bodily indignities were occasional rather than constant. His knee? Shiny and new, completely resurfaced with cartilage cultured from his own tissues. His knuckles? Small and comfortable. His scalp? Flourishing.

Kirk, on the other hand, was one of a fairly long-lived species, to the point where a hundred of Earth’s years was reckoned to be retirement age, and he was ten years younger than Sir Patrick. Even if one was familiar with the signs of aging in an Rrrrtktktkp’ch, Kirk wasn’t showing them yet.

Plenty of time to have gone around the block, plenty of time left to use that knowledge usefully. His head swayed thoughtfully back and forth and he groomed the long whiskers around his mouth with his smaller and more delicate pair of hands as he considered the question.

“I would be…surprised if they have reached the point of an official response to the Earth situation,” he said, carefully. “But I cannot see why else they would come to Cimbrean. And these are strange times. All the foot-dragging, obtuseness and bureaucratic delay we are used to were enemy action…”

He twisted the whiskers between two fingers, then effected a humanoid shrug. “Honestly, I do not think anything would surprise me at this point.”

“Famous last words,” Sir Patrick chuckled. “…But I have to agree. So much has changed so quickly, for all I know they’re about to bend the knee to Daar as well.”

Kirk creaked something from the spectrum of his species’ laughter. “I take it back. That would surprise me. But almost anything short of it…”

There was a soft, plangent tone that filled the whole ship: the first chime calling all council members to attend session.

“Time to find out, I suppose,” Sir Patrick said. He finished his cup of tea, set it aside, and together they headed for the door.

All representatives were in attendance today, including a couple that Sir Patrick had never seen even at the height of the House Henen crisis. The galaxy was a big place and a few of its species had adopted the firm policy of ignoring it entirely, if they possibly could. Species with all the natural instinct for curiosity of a fallen log, or with a terrible fear of the unknown, or for whom the only winning move in the great game of galactic politics was to not play. Whatever their reason, their empires consisted entirely and solely of their home planets, and they had only developed warp technology as a byproduct of their efforts to make ground-supporting orbital infrastructure more cost-effective, or through the work of a singular individual who was widely regarded to have been insane.

Such isolationists had often been dismissed as a case of ‘they’re aliens, why should their thinking make sense to us?’ but Sir Patrick had noted that the three such species now present had all gone in for cybernetic augmentation in a big way, and in that observation he had seen another possibility…

Well, they were here now. In fact, the Rich Plains’ council chamber was packed elbow-to-appendage, and absolutely everyone was dressed in, or bearing, their appropriate finery. Silvery chain veils, meters-long caste banners, precious metals and gems on various rings and wires and necklaces and bangles.

He caught AtaUmuUi’s eye. The OmoAru sleeper dipped his head respectfully, then rolled his huh over in his hand. Alongside him, the e-skurel-ir delegate Gwemuruki was standing next to his assistant scribe, pen in hand and ready to record the day’s events in a particularly impressive tome.

Amidst all that flash and finery, Yan Given-Man almost vanished. He was much the same as ever, given that a ten’gewek’s idea of formal wear was a slightly fancier loincloth with a few extra bone beads on it, and his knives of manhood strapped across his chest.

Of course, Yan cut an impressive figure no matter what he was wearing. Bigger and fitter than ever, and looking younger himself. His two-foot-tall crest was trimmed though, so instead of a wild spray of hair, it looked like the neat curve of a centurion’s helmet, that ran from the crown of his head and trimmed down toward the tip of his tail.

It was a very good look, and did much to both civilize him and make him somehow more fierce-looking.

Towering next to him was the ever-capable mister Etsicitty, who these days served in a role akin to military attaché for Knight, and as an honest-broker liaison between the slowly-amalgamating military capabilities among the United Peoples.

He was also Knight’s bodyguard these days, whenever they needed a show of force. And rightfully so. He and Yan were now well-matched roughhousers, and both of them had a good, friendly reputation among the peoples of galactic civilization. Julian was a huge, potentially terrifying man, but soft-spoken and friendly. Relatable. Second only to Righteous for sheer human might, yet he didn’t radiate god-of-murder nearly so violently. In other words, Julian was the perfect partner in crime for a job like this.

That soft chime sounded again, marking the beginning of council. The lights dimmed, illuminating the polished stone circle in the chamber’s center, and Knight thought to glance down at the agenda.

There was only one item: “Statements regarding the Earth.”

He looked up again. It was the Directorate’s turn, as one of the five core members, to have one of theirs as chairbeing. The hush was broken by the light slap-slap of First Director Velrm’s bare feet as he padded into the spotlight, followed by the drone bearing his personal banner.

He looked around, then his oversized dark eyes settled on Knight, and he inclined his head.

“The last time a member species broke out in such tremendous and terrible internecine war as the one that played out on Earth, the Council convened to condemn it and to place sanctions upon the species involved,” he said. “I will begin my statement today by assuring his excellency the Human ambassador that, for my part, the tone today will be quite different.”

Knight blinked, then tipped his head gratefully. Velrm matched the gesture, then turned to face the largest part of the room. “The difference,” he explained, “is that the war of Robalin Supremacy appeared to be a purely internal affair, a tragedy of the species’ own making. The human World War Three is no less tragic…but it is not of humanity’s own making, as his Majesty the Great Father of the Gao was so keen to stress.”

“From the moment the first human ambassador stood before us and made accusations about the state of galactic society and the forces at work behind it, this council has scoffed, denied, downplayed, stymied, interfered with, obstructed, bullied and sanctioned the human race. All of which should be seen for what it is: evidence of just how deep the malign influence went, that it reached here, into the very minds of all our predecessors, to the point where Doctor Hussein was assassinated in council and the investigation that ensued could only be called ‘perfunctory’ if one was inclined to tremendous charity.”

He stepped a few paces aside, and was suddenly alongside a holographic Guvnurag, recorded in the middle of quite an impassioned speech to judge from the flares of vibrant red and orange lashing all over her flanks. “Here is the late Councilor Ugnonvurvegi, passionately arguing for the necessity of quarantining the Earth behind a modified system defense field. The motion carried with only one dissenting vote—that of the Clans of Gao.”

Another hologram, this one quite familiar to Knight. “The late Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr, on the day this council received its first and only ever communication from the Hunters, in the form of an ultimatum that any station which harbored humans would face the swarm-of-swarms. On that occasion, there were two votes against, and three abstentions, but the motion to advise all ships and stations to evict human passengers still passed with a clear majority.”

He paused, then turned back to face Knight. “Following these and other incidents, the humans have, rightly, objected. They have correctly claimed discrimination. They have appealed for the reparations to which they are due. And at every turn, this council has ignored its duty, its charter, and its very purpose. Time and again, we abandoned a people whom we should have welcomed as fellow sophonts. Time and again, we exploited them in their hour of need.”

“Humanity, of course, turned out to be entirely correct. Most of us were not stirred into action, even after the events on Gao precluded any doubt as to the truth. Yet the evidence only accumulated. Look at it!”

More images, more clips, lists and data. “The fate of the OmoAru, the attack upon the ten’gewek, this very council’s perpetual inaction in the face of the Hunters yet unaccountable jingoism in the face of the Celzi Alliance…the list, if one searches for it, is indefinite….and I daresay there are few places where the enemy’s influence is writ larger than in my own body.”

He gestured to himself. “I am not a product of evolution. I am a product of technology. My species long ago became physically sterile, capable of reproduction only through artificial wombs and cloning technology. At the time, and for much of history since, we viewed it as evidence of our technological and mental superiority. Now, we see it for the control mechanism it was. Strip us of our machines, and the Corti will be extinct within a generation.”

“I am pleased to say,” he added, “that we have reversed this mistake. Councilors, the Corti Directorate is pleased to announce that the first of our newest caste have reached adulthood. I give you, the Carbon Caste.”

There were gasps as a new figure padded into the spotlight. Sir Patrick blinked in astonishment. The newcomer was most definitely a Corti in her grey skin and large eyes, but she stood rather taller than Velrm and her figure was anything but skinny and androgynous. She was built, in fact, like something akin to a gymnast—tiny, punchy and powerful. She was even wearing clothes, in the form of a black cloth wrap around her chest, and a short skirt.

“Meru here represents in many ways a return to an earlier form, but she is also an advancement upon it. If the deathworlders have taught my people anything, I would suggest it is the need for resiliency and the widest possible personal capability.

“Her caste represents my peoples’ rebirth. My line, and all others, are genetic dead-ends. We will cease to exist in the fullness of time. Our task now is the transmission of culture. When we pass, it will be her, and her fellows, who define what it is to be Corti. This is the length we have been forced to go, to shed the Hierarchy’s deleterious influence.”

Meru fidgeted nervously with her clothing, and Sir Patrick wondered exactly how old the Carbon Caste girl really was. If she’d been human, he would have guessed she was seventeen or so. In any case, when Velrm gave her a nod, she scuttled gratefully back out of the light with decidedly un-corti-like emotiveness.

“Of course, my people are hardly the only evidence of this,” Velrm continued. “One need only take a trivial glance across the Gao. Their people bear all the hallmarks of genetic engineering, and their world shows wide-scale geoengineering in their late pre-history. We have even witnessed it! It is known to Directorate records as Anomalous Stellar Event two hundred and seven, and can be reviewed by any ship willing to move out in front of its light: a perfectly average main sequence star going nova…briefly. It stopped only twenty-seven minutes into the event, but the beam was not omnidirectional. It was collimated. We have, of course, recently witnessed such an event again, though Earth’s was taken to conclusion, while this event was stopped shy of total destruction.”

He looked around the chamber. “At this point, I would hope I need not spell out where this beam was aimed. We are also aware of dual influences within our Directorate extending from that time period. We are aware both used our science to engineer the Gao towards competing and aligning ends. We know that effort was instrumental in engineering the modern gao, and it was instrumental in the Great Father’s existence. Many have suffered, and rendered great service in their burdens.” He looked toward Etsicitty. “I wish to thank you, and apologize on behalf of the Corti. What was taken from you and what you have given have proven priceless, yet the ordeal inflicted upon you is unconscionable.”

Etsicitty blinked, then had the presence of mind to acknowledge the gesture with a small tip of his head. There was muttering in the wings now as the various delegates reacted to this grand speech.

Velrm turned to face the other four senior members, the Guvnurag, Kwmbwrw, Vzk’tk and Gao. “All I have just said and shown is groundwork for the Directorate’s formal stance on the matter of the Earth, its impending destruction, and the recent war. And our formal position is this: we condemn the extermination of a world to spite its children. We condemn the extermination of any species, and wholeheartedly we condemn the machinations that enabled this war. The Directorate has long acknowledged the existence of the great enemy, and committed some small token assets to assistance and research: now, we commit to bending the full might of our minds, our factories, our facilities and our people toward the Enemy’s defeat, and to the assistance of the human race in their time of need.

“There are difficulties. The question of human sovereignty has never been simple, but now it isn’t even aligned by species or planet. To protect the humans, we must aid the gao, which means we must ally with the ten’gewek, who are protectorates of Singularity, an entity formed long ago by an exiled offshoot of my own people, and which is now governed by a literal god-king from Earth’s ancient past. What does this mean? Are the Corti now, in some strange manner, subjects of the Great Father? Does Gilgamesh owe us his allegiance? If I were prone to humor, I think I would be paralyzed by the absurdity of it all.”

There were chuckles, chitters, hoots, flashes of violet and assorted other expressions of mirth at this dry comment, to which Velrm remained perfectly deadpan.

“Because of the Deathworlders, we live in a galaxy now free of Hunter raids. Because of the Deathworlders, we are on the verge of living in a galaxy free of a malignant influence that has sent uncountable species into forgotten extinction ahead of us. What heights can we reach by ourselves, free of the Hierarchy? We do not know. But the Corti are eager to discover. Which is why the Corti Directorate formally moves that the Dominion Security Council commit all available resources to the assistance of Earth, humanity, and the Gaoian peoples.”

The Guvnurag councilor stood, her chromatophores dancing with crimson resolve. “The Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy seconds the motion.”

“Do any of the core powers wish to exercise their veto?” Velrm challenged, looking to the Kwmbwrw in particular, who immediately indicated in the negative. He gave a satisfied grunt, then turned and addressed the guards. “Seal the chamber for voting!”

This was primarily a ceremonial gesture, which involved closing the outer doors which were then inspected by each council member’s idea of security. For Knight, that meant Julian soft-footing it over in a quiet, subtly predatory way toward the doors, to give it his once over.

It never failed to draw the intense attention of everyone present. For whatever reasons applied, most aliens found it fascinating to watch.

The sealing was by far the longest part of the process: the vote itself was practically instantly: the ayes had it. Only the Robalin abstained.

Sir Patrick sat down as the fullness of what had just happened settled on him. This was what he’d been appealing for ever since the news of Alpha Centauri first broke, of course. Suddenly, it was like he’d been pushing hard against a stuck door with his shoulder, and it had given way to send him hurtling into the room beyond. The feeling of paused momentum returning was enough to quite literally knock him off his feet.

Everything he’d asked for, every assistance, every resource…it was all pledged. More than pledged, votes were taken and binding instruments were signed.

Part of it, he knew, was that all the resources now being committed were those that had previously existed to prevent Hunter incursions. The very triumph that had doomed Earth had freed up the materiel to assist its survivors. An irony, perhaps. He didn’t care. Previously, they had been looking at saving…most of the survivors. Now, with the Dominion’s vast economic might, it was entirely possible that literally every living human might make it off Earth, unless they chose to stay.

He retired at the end of council session feeling happily drained. Exhausted in his very soul, but for all the right reasons, chiefly that he’d finally let go of a tension he’d barely noticed from holding it for so long.

They celebrated, of course. Drinks, toasts, congratulations, laughter….an impromptu party, really. The delegates of the United Peoples stayed up for hours playing ta’shen and poker, simply celebrating their triumph.

Julian and Yan had to call it short, though. Their schedules meant they would be leaving in the morning.

“Probably for the best,” Sir Patrick decided. “There’s still much to do tomorrow.”

“Is important I stay close to sky-doctors now,” Yan intoned. “Will soon leave it all to Vemik and join HEAT for good. My people…need a different kind of thinking, now. And I have strength like none of them. This is best. Is what blackcrest is for.”

“And so, now instead of Giving yourself to fight the Brown Ones…”

“I Give myself to fight something evil. Besides,” Yan snarled, “I think Righteous needs someone to beat him up!”

Julian rolled his eyes, but affectionately.

“What about Vemik?” Knight inquired. “He’s…what, not even thirty yet?”

“Yes, beginning of his prime, now, already the best of us. I will leave, he will become Chief of the Lodge in spring. Much strength in him.”

“More everyday,” Julian nodded. “He’s becoming a wise old forest monkey these days.”

“Not old! Still a young man!” Yan hooted, protectively.

“I think he meant in his heart,” Patrick added. “We have a word for young men wise beyond their years: ‘old souls.’ A good word, I think.”

Yan accepted that with a lash of his tail and a nod of his head, and with that he and Julian were gone, headed for the Rich Plains’ jump room. Sir Patrick pottered around, cleaning up the drinkware, tiles and cards while bidding the others good-night, then retired to his own bed.

He wasn’t quite ready to sleep yet, though. He had one last thing to do.

He sat on his bed, put on one of the first real smiles he’d worn in months, and called his daughter to share the good news.


Jumptown, planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate

The Singer

Cities, it turned out, were a good idea. A lot of the Given-Men and the older Singers who knew the old stories of the city-People, and who knew what the human archaeologists had found, had come to scoff at that idea, but the Singer saw it differently.

There was magic in cities.

Take the market, which was a fire-circle for the Giving and Taking of all sorts of things. Whatever a tribe had too much of, they could trade for something they needed here, in one central place rather than go searching around and sending messengers.

Or then there was the library and school, where children from all the tribes came to learn how to read, and that meant being able to learn all the miracles from human and gaoian and other civilizations.

Take the hospital, where the werne-gored, the troubled births, the broken-backed and the sweating-sick usually walked away healthy again…or else passed away comfortably at least, which was the last Giving they could ever receive.

She hadn’t needed much effort to persuade most of the other Singers that here, in Jumptown, was where they should meet to talk. The Lodge could remain far away and isolated, that being the best thing when Given-Men felt their fire. But the Singers needed somewhere they could come and go to meet and talk and plan, then return home in a short trip.

Their old meet-villages weren’t so good as all this. They hadn’t got to hear from everyone, before. Hadn’t got to share what they knew with whoever really needed it. Hadn’t got to make sure everyone heard the same thing at the same time, because words and ideas changed with re-telling and sometimes things got lost.

The biggest magic of all, though, was what those voices let them see. It let them plan, and it let them see dangers before they became dangerous.

The first: werne.

One of the Dancers had decided to start counting them. How many bulls there were, how big their harems were, how many calves they had, how large the bachelor herds were…and more. And then she’d written all those numbers down and kept doing it, and watched how the numbers changed, then she’d showed the numbers to her Singer, and her Singer had brought them to the other Singers…

And the problem was this: the herds were getting smaller, and weaker. Men made it a point of pride to hunt the really big bulls. And that made sense: the most food for the least effort, and the bulls had spent many years siring strong calves. And whichever bachelor then won the harem herd would be a strong one too, because it beat the weaker ones.

But if it had been the strongest then it would have been the bull already. So the bulls were getting steadily weaker. Or was that wrong? The Dancer argued for it, but the more Singer thought about it, the more she realized it really wasn’t a simple question…

So she talked to the other Singers, and the Singers talked to the Given-Men, and between them they decided the thing to do was to see what insight the humans might have because this seemed like the sort of problem they’d probably already dealt with a long time ago.

Which, of course, they had.

She and a few others dropped in on Professor Daniel. He had an official residence nowadays, with a round garden. It originally had a fence, but there was little point to it—anyone could get up a tree and look over, and most of the People saw it as a jumping challenge anyway. So, it came down and now, if Professor wanted some privacy, he just went indoors.

So of course, by “drop in” they did that literally. None of the People ever really got tired of surprising the humans that way.

He was doing that slow water-dance-exercise “Tie Chee” thing, the one that really showed off how elegant even an old human could be. It was so precise, so controlled. It didn’t look like a display of strength, but it sort of was, in the same way a tree-dance or something like that could be. It definitely had the same sort of magic in it…but for grass-apes, instead of tree-apes. He didn’t stop when she and the rest thumped down, but kept up his form until he was done with the movement.

“Be with you in a moment…”

That was Professor’s way of handling sudden drop-ins. He made you respect his time. Singer could appreciate that, so nod-nodded and sat on her tail to wait. Around her, the others took her cue and did the same.

He didn’t keep them waiting long. Finished his routine, took a sip of water, then grabbed a chair and sat down with them. “It’s been a while, Singer. How are you?”

“Busy, busy. We think very much about city-building lately. Lodge and Singers think, maybe it is becoming time for us.”

“Big change! And I agree, but why now?”

They told him. The Dancer produced her numbers and graph, which he only had to glance at to raise his eyebrows and look quite impressed.

“Firstly, excellent work, young Dancer! Second…that happened fast. But I suppose it’s not really surprising. Between sanitation, vaccines, and the wisdom my meathead colleagues are teaching…your people have grown much hungrier.”

“More of us than ever,” one of the older Singers agreed. “More than before the death-birds and High-rarchy machines came. I haven’t had to send a baby back to the gods in…years.”

“And young men grow up stronger, and wiser,” Dor Given-Man added. “Learning sport makes better play-war, and better at avoiding hurt or anything.”

“Childhood’s always been a dangerous time for your people, hasn’t it?” Hurt swigged his water again.

“Yes. When grown…we are hard people. Very little hurt us from anything. But big hurts before the magic of growing gives us strength, can follow for rest of life.”

“Now, instead…they don’t get hurt, or if they do they heal. Which means more mouths to feed,” the Singer nodded. “There is old song, about the Brown One that ate all the werne and got very fat, then starved later.”

Hurt nodded. “I’ve heard it. But yeah, you’re running into the exact same problem we once did.”


“We’re not sure, exactly. Ten or twelve thousand years ago. Possibly much earlier. We don’t have written history much before, oh, five or maybe six, depending on what you mean by written.”

The older Singer made a disbelieving noise—her Dancer, the one who’d come up with the graph, just trilled at her mentor. Singer could tell which one of the pair knew humans better, but all the Dancers did, really. Soaking up the magic and wisdom of elders was their role.

Hurt chuckled and swigged his water again then set it aside. “Believe it or not, your people are actually older than mine! We came to the Deep early because it was the only way to survive our world. Yours are among the oldest people, but you survived differently. You are proof that the gods solve the challenge of the world in many ways. Anyway. This particular problem of growing population and food led to what we now call the agricultural revolution, and it’s the reason cities came to be in the first place! It’s also how we discovered beer and wine…”

“Once heard it was the other way around,” Singer said, smirking at him. “Heard you discovered beer and wine, then made cities to have more of it.”

“And to anyone who knows anything about human nature, it’s a plausible theory,” Hurt chuckled. “I think it may be harder for you, though. My people can survive off grain. You can’t even eat it. You’re obligate carnivores, roots and vegetables are how you pad out a meal, not a staple of it. So for you, it’s all about animal husbandry.”

“…We have to marry the werne?” Dor’s tail twitched as he tried to puzzle out if Hurt was making some obscure joke.

Hurt shook his head with a laugh. “You know, I have no idea why it’s called that? But no. The idea is to influence how the werne breed, so that they become more like what you need. You already do this with yourselves and don’t realize it. The strongest, prettiest men have the most children, yeah? That means their children will be pretty too…now consider how very old your people are. Is it any wonder yours are the strongest?”

There were thoughtful head-bobbings and tail-lashings from the whole group.

“So this husbandry, looks like what?” the old Singer asked.

Hurt frowned as he searched his memory. “When we manage herds…I believe the traditional method is to observe the herd closely, and reserve the strongest fifth against hunting or slaughter. They are kept to breed. Each year, we re-observe and keep the strongest fifth. As a bull gets older, he will likely fall from the lead, but it’s likely because he’s old and stiff, not innately weak.”

“This kind of management…I think it will require more strength of your men. Because werne will not farm easily. They attack on sight and they only come to the forest to breed, yes? Well, this means your strongest men are going to have to pick out the strongest werne, hunt them, wrestle them, mark them, and then set them free. Every season. And leave them to breed.”

“While hunting the younger werne.”

“Yes, who will need more work to separate them from the stronger bulls you’re now leaving alive, or from the bachelor herds. So you will need to be stronger, too. Work harder for the same meat.”

“A chance to grow,” Dor rumbled, looking pleased rather than wary.

“Yes. And it will enable specialization, too. The work will be harder and need more men, but I suspect it will also take less time. That will give you more free time to do other things. That may let you do things like expand the size of the hunt, for one. Or it may mean more time to learn. Or to train, or to build. In fact…I’m surprised Yan isn’t here for this.”

Singer shook her head. “We wanted…to talk this without him here. He has very strong sky-thoughts and…for this, better we find them first together before he decides for us. So we can help give him best ideas.”

“Also, Vemik Given-Man almost as strong, now,” Dor added, and glanced over at Vemik, who had been uncharacteristically quiet and reserved. “Yan may soon take the Big Sky-Magic and go fight for us…but if he does, he can’t be Chief of the Lodge, he thinks. So he is waiting.”

Hurt looked over at Vemik. “Keeping your own council, today?”

Vemik shrugged those broad, strong shoulders of his. “If I say what I think, everyone will agree. Same reason Yan mostly says nothing.”

Nods all around. They all knew it was true.

“Right. So then, maybe what we need to do is start thinking about cities, then. We’d need to study it, but…small villages hunting their own herds may not work, going forward. Or maybe it will, if everyone agrees to preserve the strongest. That might be enough for now, even if it means much more work for the men.”

Dor hooted in an approvingly grumpy way. “Good. Young palecrests, lazy unless you kick their rump, fuck them until they go further for prey! Always want closest werne…or just bring home small nayma. Or root-birds! What woman is turned on by that?!”

“Every man brings home root-birds sometimes,” Singer observed, wryly. “Sometimes, the gods decide to give you a bad day.”

Dor’s grumbling (and amused) tail-lash was all the confirmation she needed, as was Vemik’s silent shoulder-shaking suppressed trill.

“Right! So.” Daniel stood, and went to his radio station off in the corner of his little yard. “That sounds like a good idea to share. Would any of you like to use my radio? I know your tribe is almost two days away, Dor…”

“Would be good far-talking, yes. Thank you. I bring you root-birds!”

“What, not a big juicy werne?”

“Not trying to seduce you! Unless maybe you feeling adventurous…”

His gesture made it perfectly clear he was being both playful and serious, and maybe a bit hopeful.

Professor laughed and held up his hands. “No no, I wouldn’t survive you!” he said. “Root-birds are fine. I’ll roast ‘em up!”

There were lewd trills and Dor beamed proudly at the compliment. Professor turned down everyone of course, but never quite said no forever, and he always did it with praise. Singer thought he enjoyed the game even if he wasn’t a man for casual fucks.

Oh well. Not like that strange, holy priest…no fuckings ever! He gave his very cock to the gods! How could he even?!

He must be one of the strongest men alive.

Dor got on the radio and talked to his Singer so far away. The other tribes were listening too, and soon there was a lively conversation over the radio; nearly everyone immediately saw it was a good idea and of the hands of hands of hands of tribes, many came on with ideas on how to do the thing, how to mark the werne. Professor suggested a leather thong, driven through the werne’s ear and brightly colored, then someone thought they could use different colors to mean different things, like this was an old bull, this was from that…

Lots and lots of talkings would be had soon. And Dor brought back root-birds and a neyma, full of blood and life. A good sharing for everyone.

Food for knowledge. A good trade, especially because Hurt made tasty sauces in his very nice metal pans for his meat.

Onyo was such a wonderful root to eat. They should try and grow some!

Everyone left that evening, trilling excitedly between each other, having probably solved the immediate worry about meat. It might be a bit lean for a year if they weren’t careful, as they got into the branch-swing of this new idea, but it was so obviously the right way to strengthen the werne, nobody doubted they’d be groaning with full bellies after next spring.

And there was a lovely Giving to it, too. The People were strong on the Taking of the werne. Fitting that, now, finally, they could Give to the werne, too.

Vemik and Singer hung back once everyone else left, to talk longer about cities, or at least towns and villages. Lots of ideas. Many, maybe not for now, but some would come very soon. They talked about Vemik and Yan, too. Vemik wasn’t quite the natural successor to be the next Chief yet…but soon. His strength and wisdom would come. All in time.

They slept together outside, under warm blankets and with warm hugs. The future was good.

Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Doctor Claire Farmer



“…How was work?”

“Innocent, today.” Daniel slipped in alongside her and rested a stubbled chin scratchily on Claire’s shoulder.

Maybe it was the tone in his voice, maybe it was what he’d said, maybe it was just that deep down she…didn’t really mind? Maybe it was just dumb animal instinct to lean back into his arms and sigh. Smile, too, when his lips touched her ear.

“What about you?” he asked. “What’s this you’re writing?” His thumb traced the line of her neck from the base of her skull to the point of her shoulder, clearing her hair out of the way. Those were killing hands touching her. Hands that could destroy a man as casually as Claire would squeeze a ketchup bottle. She’d seen them do it, more or less.

So why did she feel safe still?

“Oh, it’s an expert opinion for…fuck, I don’t even know who it’s for, exactly. Some kinda government body, born from the Department of Evacuation.”

“Mhm. Reshuffle every week, huh?” Daniel let her go and vanished into the kitchen. A moment later, she heard him brewing coffee.

“Yeah…” Claire rubbed her eyes and sat back, realizing that her head felt like it had been packed overfull with sedated bees. She needed a break. She needed…human contact. Working from home was a little too lonely for her to really enjoy.

And, well…here was her favorite human to make contact with. Still her favorite, despite everything. She’d been worrying about that, a little. What did it say about her that, after the initial shock, it hadn’t taken much soul-searching to realize that she still wanted to be with him, even knowing much more clearly now, what he was and what he did?

She’d even felt a certain twisted satisfaction. Some dark instinct like a snake in her heart had shifted its coils in a pleased way and she’d thought, that’s justice being dispensed, pretty or not. And it’s my man dispensing it.

And now here he was, making her a considerate drink ‘cuz he could tell she was tired and frazzled. Here he was, despite being a literal compact juggernaut of death…oddly vulnerable. Not just in having his guard down and relaxing at home, but in the way he glanced at her. You had to know Daniel well to read the worry in that glance. That was the look of a man in love, who was afraid of losing what he loved.

Well…good. Claire could actually feel good about that. Because it meant she could trust that whatever he did ‘at work’ had been done with weighing things up and deciding it was still worth doing.

But it wouldn’t be right to keep that looming over him like a blade. She loved him too, even if he’d shocked the hell out of her. She wanted a future with him, and they wouldn’t have a stable one if he lived in constant fear of her approval.

There was a solution to that. It was her turn to indulge, slide in alongside him and run a hand approvingly along everything he’d earned over many long years. Everything he’d given to her.

“Hey, um…about—” she faltered, realized she hadn’t thought enough about what she wanted to say, or how to say it.

Fortunately…men were creatures of doing more than speaking. Somehow, everything she wanted to say, everything she felt, all the knot of tensions and all that…

He held her, and that was all he needed.

All she needed.

“…The coffee can wait.” She pointed with her head, upstairs. She needed human contact. She needed him. She needed to love, and be loved.

He smiled, took her hand, followed her, and gave her all that and more.

College of Xenomedicine hospital, City 03, planet Origin

Senior Sergeant Erik Karlsson

Being alive came as a surprise, and such a welcome one that Karlsson even forgot to be in pain for a few seconds.

There was light. Dim and yellowish, with a splash of something brighter to his right. When he turned his head that way, he realized the gaoians were curled up in a nest-bed over there, snuggled into a big furry pile like they preferred. Jaal,Riigu, Gumi…okay. Good. And that slumbering hillock over there on the floor rather than a bed was definitely Skoob…

He turned his head the other way. Pearson looked like shit, more tubes coming out of him than a distillery, but…still with them.

No sign of Williams. He…hoped that didn’t mean what he guessed it might.

The fact he was conscious must have been communicated to a doctor: an asian lady in scrubs that were probably blue but looked black in the light, accompanied by a corti wearing nothing very much at all, not that there was anything to look at on a corti.

“Good morning, sergeant. Bed told me you’re awake…how are you feeling?” the nurse-probably was at his side and ran an eye upwards at some holograms above him.

“Like shit…” Karlsson acknowledged. “Where are we? What happened?”

“You’re on Origin being treated for nervejam injury.” She fished a tool out of her scrubs’ chest pocket. “My name’s Siobhán, I’m the resident human nurse here at City Three Xenomedical College hospital. Gonna need to shine this in your eyes, check your pupil response, okay?”

“Uh…sure…” Karlsson grimaced as she promptly skewered his eyes with brilliant light, but it was over mercifully quick.

“Okay…that’s good. Anyway, this is Surgeon First Class Forln, he’s the one who treated you.”

Forln had gone to fetch a small motorized…well, he’d gone to fetch a box to stand on. Now he stepped up on Karlsson’s other side and stood there with his hands behind his back, his expression unreadable rather than Siobhán’s professionally friendly smile.

“You’re very fortunate, Senior Sergeant,” he said. “If your suits hadn’t been coated, I daresay you’d have been killed on the spot.”

Memory elbowed its way back into Karlsson’s bruised mind. “…I believe it. It was like a lightning storm just sorta…happened.”

“Yes. I’m…very sorry to report we could not save Corporal Williams.”

Having his worries confirmed added a new pain, which Karlsson shoved aside and used to sit up a little straighter. “…How bad are we?”

“A little too soon to tell, yet,” Forln said. “There is minor inflammation, certain recovery therapy options available…we have made rapid progress in nervejam treatment these last few years.”

“Yeah, I bet I know a patient of yours, too…”

“If you mean Warhorse, it is in part thanks to him that your own treatment has been so successful so far. Your long-term prognosis is, I hope, a good recovery. But trauma like what you survived leaves its mark no matter what we do.”


“So medical retirement is in my future.”

“…That is likely, yes.”

Karlsson tipped his head back and rested it, closed his eyes. “Fuck.” He rested for a moment while Siobhán checked him over. “…All of us?”

“Patient confidentiality means it is not my place to tell you your comrades’ prognoses…” Forln replied, in a careful tone that may as well have been a clear ‘yes.’



He nodded his understanding and remained silent. Complied with Siobhán’s instructions as she finished assessing him, accepted some painkillers and a cup of water, but said nothing…by the time he’d taken his pills, Forln had discreetly left.

Well. He was alive. He could be glad of that. It was gonna be a fuckin’ adjustment, but it beat the alternative at least. He’d find something else to do…somewhere.

He just hoped whatever their suits recorded had been worth it.

Planet Akyawentuo

Vemik Given-Man

The spring Fire was coming. Both he and Yan were really feeling it this year and it hadn’t properly hit yet. And so were all the other men. Even the women this year! Gods be praised.

What that meant for Given-Men though was a busy time. Some would be facing challengers from the men of their tribes, soon. Others would have trouble with young men thinking they could get away with mischief unseen. Many young women coming into their flower needing guidance, many rites of manhood to prepare. The time to trade daughters was always fraught.

Not to mention raids. A high spring had always meant testing the other tribes, testing their strength, Taking what they couldn’t keep….

These days, raids were more like…a sport. Dangerous, yes. But fun! A very good test of a man! Even very good friends needed to fight now and then. Lots of good fucking afterward to mix the blood of the tribes. And it was important to know who was stronger between Given-Men and between tribes. Always, they needed to know. It was part of their history.

Their deepest, most ancient history.

This was a very strong spring already. No doubt a big part of that had been their new ideas for herd management. Yes, it meant the werne they Took were smaller. A man usually had to come back with two now, one over each shoulder. He needed to be stronger to manage that, and stronger still to Take two yearlings from a strong, angry bull.

But werne bred fast and now, only two human years later—a little more than a long Akyawentan year—the herds had recovered amazingly.

Now they had more meat than ever. Blood meals for every child now, with so many yearlings to hunt. This one change had made the People far stronger.

All of it as an idle suggestion by Professor Daniel!

“It’s a funny idea, isn’t it?” He had Ferd Given-Man pinned under his strength, but they were just play-fighting around his village fire. He gave him a good tight squish for a while, especially with his legs bound up around his, until Ferd wiggled to escape. Vemik “fought” to keep him pinned, hooting all the while, then found himself surprisingly well-pinned on his back in turn, chest-to-chest with his grinning best friend. It was always important to be some kind of gentle in play. What was the fun if the other man always lost? What would he learn?!

They knew the truth between them, and that night Vemik would Take his Singer, and Ferd too. But that was for later. For now, it was friendship. And Ferd was a very good friend. Lots of sky-thoughts in his head. They tussled for a bit, and Vemik found himself pleased at how well Ferd could wrassle now! He hooted, happy to tap out for now and save his strength for later…

Ferd hooted happily at his win, sat up to show off for the children, who celebrated by scattering into the trees to go play and wrestle among themselves, and then nodded at Vemik’s question. “Tells you a lot about the way humans and gao think,” he agreed, and finally climbed off Vemik’s hips to sit on his tail and poke at the fire. “Or maybe, shows the limits in how we think.”

“Maybe…” Vemik shook himself off as he sat up too, then sat up against Ferd. “Funny thing about the People. Maybe we had these thoughts before. Or, the city people did. You ever go look at the dig site?”

“Only once. Interesting, I guess, but…” Ferd shrugged. “Why?”

“Was not just one city there. Many cities. Many, many cities. All burned down or something. Professor says, that site had cities on it longer than humans existed.”

“We are an old people, I remember.” Ferd grabbed a log with his foot, transferred it to his hand, and dropped it in the fire.

“No,” Vemik trilled gently, and wrapped his tail around Ferd’s waist. “You don’t see. The cities were destroyed. Many times.”

“Yes,” Ferd trilled in reply. “So let me guess! You were surprised to think it was us who did it?”

“Not what I mean. I mean…the city-People had these thoughts. Animal husbandry and stuff. So you say, talking about the limits in how we think, except, we can think those thoughts just fine, because they did. And we can see the sense in them now.”

“Yes, of course they did! They had to, because they were so much weaker than us. Not much stronger than humans! You know the stories. We would leave them alone, happy to trade, happy to fight for them, happy even to let them tend to their own werne…but always, one day their chief would get prideful, and they would try and Take what was ours. Then we would need to remind them how weak they were. Many times, this happened. Yan even remembers his Given-Man telling him about the last time…” he paused, then looked Vemik’s way. “Remember you saying, when you first met Jooyun and Awisun, Yan could have torn them apart. Guess we’re lucky you were there.”

“Maybe. We didn’t know about guns, then.” Vemik trilled softly. “Not even Yan can survive a shotgun to the face.”

“Probably not. But you survived a grenade to the face, so…”

Vemik dismissed that with a twitch of his tail. “Wasn’t to face.”

“Yes, yes. But Vemik, you train with us. You know what we can do. You know that not even guns hold much fear for us. We’re fast, hard to shoot, and it takes a lot of shooting to hurt us anyway. Add in armor and…”

Vemik thought about that. “Makes me wonder about the cities even more.”

“Have you talked to Professor about this?”

“…No, actually.”

Ferd hooted. “Then come! It is time for a learning. And this is an interesting one…”

Well, Vemik was never going to object to learning something new from Professor Hurt. But, there had to be a Giving as payment, and two Given-Men could hardly show up with root-birds or neyma. So even though Jumptown wasn’t too far, it still took Vemik and Yan a couple of hours to arrive. They had to get some werne, first.

Not difficult, for them. Just took time, ‘cuz the werne were in the wrong direction. But once found—

Easy kills. Young bachelor werne were much easier than a bull or yearling calves. Bachelors had no loyalty to each other and scattered the moment they jumped down. The hard part was landing on one. From there…

Well, smaller men would probably drive a spear or knife into the beast’s neck. Safer that way. Vemik didn’t need to. He could just grab, wrap, crush. The werne’s neck broke with a crunch and he rolled as it crashed to the ground, hopped up alert for a panicking male that might gore him as it tried to escape…but no. They were fleeing into the forest.

Almost too easy, nowadays. He grabbed his prey, dragged it up, and sank his fangs into its throat to drink, saw Ferd doing the same. Not much in such a small prey, but they were strong, and squeezed out every drop of its life. It would save Professor time in the butchering.

They drank their fill, then gutted the beasts and left the offal for the scavengers. A Giving back to the forest, at this time of year. Later in the year, when preparing for winter, they’d keep everything, but spring had its own rules.

Besides. Prepared, there was nothing to slosh around or burst from a particularly rough jump; not an experience Vemik ever wanted to repeat. Much more comfortable for travel, and an easier gift to receive, too. Vemik happened to know that the professor’s freezers were always full with such gifts, and he sent most of the meat the hunters brought him as payment for his thoughts through the jump array to be donated to soup kitchens. Which was fair enough! Once given, it was his meat to do with as he wanted, and otherwise he’d need a freezer twice as big as his house.

He always repaid the gift of meat with tea, though, which Vemik thought was more than fair; Professor’s tea was delicious, and very sweet.

He listened to Vemik and Ferd’s telling of their earlier conversation as he poured it, nodding along. “It’s been a while since you thought about this stuff, hasn’t it?”

“Had my head turned to other things,” Vemik admitted.

“Understandable. You’re juggling a lot of big thoughts. I figured you’d want to know about this when you got around to it, though…”

He finished pouring, then picked up his tablet and tapped through until he found the folder he wanted.

“Here. I prepared this for you a while ago.”

Numbers and statistics, to begin with. Vemik found he liked numbers. You could make them do all sorts of interesting things, even play with them, move them around, pile them up, sculpt them like clay…

Or, in this case, tell a story with them. A story of long years, of generations who came to the fertile flat ground where the growing was best, who built walls and storehouses and temples, and then…nothing, for a few generations, before more people came back and built and grew there again.

All as Ferd had said. A story told in soil and layers of buried stone, where old buildings had been built on, or torn apart to be used to build new buildings.

“Where did they come from?”

“Hard to say. Here and there. By boat, by land…” Hurt shrugged. “We haven’t had long enough to find everything we need to say for sure. What we can say is that this city, time and again, was built where it is for much the same reasons the earliest human cities were built in Mesopotamia—because of the rivers. Fertile land, easy to work. Even basic crops would produce much food there, and sustain large herds. And for hundreds of years, it’d work. They’d produce food, and pottery, and they’d bring things down the rivers to the workshops, and bring in more people and grow even larger, and they’d thrive!”

Vemik swiped, and frowned at what he saw. Art. A…floor, made of lots of little chips of bright stone. It showed the People alright. But…strange. Skinny and tall, with blonde crests like children.

“They were a different people to yours. Smaller, yes. More like…burly humans with tails. Maybe like we tended to be built in the neolithic era, perhaps. They enjoyed swimming and water, they had sailing boats. But eventually, they’d outgrow the small spot of land they were on, and that meant encroaching on the forest.”

Another picture-floor. This time, with proper-shaped people on it. A Given-Man, from the height and redness of his crest and the shape of him. It was pretty damaged, though. Most of it was missing, in fact.

“This one mosaic sparked a long conversation,” Daniel chuckled ruefully. “There’s one school of thought that says you only make a decorative floor to depict your friends and trading partners, but…well, I think that’s a very human way of thinking and we mustn’t forget these people aren’t us. And, considering they’re gone forever, we’ll never know for sure.”

“They knew us, though.”

“Oh yes. Respected you, too, I think. Feared, maybe. It’s…archaeology isn’t an exact science, xenoarchaeology doubly so. We just can’t know how accurate the stories we make from what we dig up really are…” he reached over and swiped the tablet. “Which is why the Corti observer’s footage is so vital.”

The observer’s drones had captured footage of a raid on the city. Maybe twenty Given-Men and ten men each had shown up, and at first they simply stood and waited in a loose, ragged line while the city-people’s soldiers formed ranks ahead of them. From a safe distance, the cloaked drone took a good look at them: all would have been standouts at the Lodge. They were led by a pair of blackcrests so powerful-looking, even Yan would have been impressed. Two hundred of the forest people against…thousands of city People. Maybe ten of the city soldiers for each forest warrior. Their bronze-tipped spears, shields, even breastplate armor gleamed in the sun as they formed tight, disciplined ranks. The forest men stood before the city-people’s army wearing nothing more than loincloths and their knives of manhood.

Politely, the forest-people let them form up. Then the blackcrests raised their fists and led the charge.

It was a massacre.

It was such a massacre that Vemik couldn’t look away. Bronze spear-tips bent against the forest men’s skin and bodies. The city’s men were killed almost without effort. In seconds, those organized ranks and columns that had taken so long to form buckled and collapsed. Men broke ranks and fled, only to find themselves trapped between the advancing warriors and their own city’s high walls. The warriors fell on them, quite literally tore them apart, then swarmed up and over the walls as easily as children leaping to the low branches of a ketta.

The Taking began.

None of them wanted to watch it all, and they couldn’t have anyway. The forest men spent days feasting on werne, crushing every man and raping every woman and child to death.

They were much less considerate with the chief. With him, the blackcrests…got creative. He wasn’t even dead when they dragged him back to the forest, already broken and pathetic.

The Corti had recorded it all with scientific detachment, and Hurt hadn’t edited anything out. There was footage of many more men, working to tear down the walls. They made a game of it, seeing how far they could toss huge stone blocks. Later, but not many days later, judging by the light, the city had been reduced to rubble. They had taken everything fire-friendly and gathered in the middle, where the Singers lit a sacred fire and cursed the land underneath.

“We don’t quite know what crime the city had committed,” he intoned quietly. “Usually, there would have been delegates and trading, we think. But it’s very clear the city People were a distinct subspecies, or maybe even species. There was evidence of sex to seal agreements, but never any inter-breeding. They feared the forest. Had your people as powerful spirits, or even gods in their stories, so far as we can tell.”

Vemik let out a breath, and found himself…quite shocked, and disturbed. He shouldn’t be, he thought, but he was.

“This is how it went,” Ferd said. “For…forever. I study this, and I learn, every time the city people started to grow strong, we forest people stopped it. Showed them what our strength was. Never let them grow into the sky-thinking strength. Over and over again, older than stories.”

“We have a theory,” Hurt added, noting the dismayed look on Vemik’s face. “We think the conflict was unavoidable. Something about where they came from meant they landed in the same few coastal spots over and over again. The island theory, right?”


“And so, to grow beyond that, the city people would have needed to expand into your forest. And to do that, they would have needed to start cutting it down.”

“Which we would never allow.”

“It would have been a grave danger for your people. You need lots of land, and lots of prey. You are such a powerful people that you need a huge amount of resources. The difference is you are also extremely intelligent, because intelligence is a strength like any other. You were easily intelligent enough to understand all this, even without writing…”

“And so, we kill them before they starve us.”

“Something like that. We can’t know for certain, but this footage, with your stories…”

Vemik had heard enough. “It tells a story of its own.”

“One that repeated many times through history.” Hurt shook his head and sighed. “There were other obstacles in your way on the road to the stars, of course. But it seems one of the biggest was just…yourselves. How the gods made you. You couldn’t be as the city people are, and you couldn’t let them grow either.”

“I see…”

“Knowing it helps me see the size of the human Giving,” Ferd said. “The gods put a powerful lesson in us. We could never save ourselves without them. Could never walk the stars without them. Thanks to them, we get to have forest-strength and city-strength now. The Singers are all eager for city-strength, too.”

“They see a world of safe children and guaranteed food,” Vemik replied, a bit remotely. He was thinking. “Yan sees us…losing what we are.” And that prompted a new thought. “And we can’t! Isn’t just us who grow. Our sky-brothers grow too! They need what we are! We can’t let…”

His crest fell.

Ferd was watching him with his head turned slightly, his own crest and ears perked up as he listened. He’d thought about this, Vemik could tell. Thought good and hard and long and deep. Just like Professor and others did.

“You already thought about this,” Vemik accused.

“My Singer gave me the push, Professor helped me…I’m no big sky-thinker. But I’m not stupid, either.” Ferd shrugged. “Really just putting words to thoughts I had and did anyway. Joined the team, do work, did all of that without really knowing why. Now I do. And what I see is…” he paused then indicated the tablet. “If things had gone different, we could have been more. But now, we get to look at them, look at what our grandfathers did, and see how it hurt us, and see a different way.”

“Maybe hurt is the wrong word,” Professor offered. “You can’t easily judge the past. If your people had not done what they did, you would not be here, we would have not met, and the galaxy may not be on the cusp of freedom. You could even argue my people wouldn’t be around anymore, either. Exposing what was done to you was what allowed us to finally kick the Hierarchy off Earth and Cimbrean for good.”


“And as it is…now you get the best of both worlds,” Hurt added. He cleaned up the tablet. “We all do, really.”

“…You’re losing your world,” Vemik pointed out. Hurt paused, sighed heavily, and nodded.

“Yes. All too soon, too. I should have gone back more often, I suppose…” he rubbed his jaw, then shrugged. “But…it won’t stop us. If I know anything about humanity, it’s that we’re far too stubborn to just give up and cry about it when there’s real hardship to overcome.”

“I can’t imagine us without this place…” Vemik looked up and around at the ketta. “Ten’gewek without Akyawentuo would be…we’re part of this place. Made by the gods to be here. We can leave, but always have to come back, for the Fire, for the werne, for the seasons…”

“I suspect we’ll carry the Earth in our souls,” Hurt replied. “Anyway, gentlemen. As much as I do enjoy your company, you’re busy Given-Men and I’m a busy professor…”

Ferd hooted, amused. “Should carry you up a tree,” he replied. “But…yes. Vemik has thinking to do, I have boys to teach…and we both have Singers to go back to, yes?”

Vemik nodded. Already, he was drifting off and thinking. In his mind, he was watching that raid on the city again, and wondering how different life could have been if somehow the forest-people and city-people had found a way to live together. Would it have looked like life with the humans did, now?

Maybe. He gave Professor a thank-you hug, a stronger more crushy one for Ferd, and headed home with his head in the sky again. Things…made a little more sense now. Like knowing where the herds and villages were relative to each other, he had a better idea where his people were relative to everything else, now. And okay, maybe he was a little annoyed with himself for not really getting it earlier…

But like Ferd had said. He had other stuff to think about too.

After all, he had more than his own people to think for, nowadays. He knew the humans were going to make it, the gods had made them soul-hard. But part of that hardness was, they’d made the right friends, including ten’gewek. Part of how they were going to thrive after Earth was with the People.

It was time for him to step up and stop relying on Yan so much, he realized. Yan needed to go be Given to the sky, not distracted by villages and tribes and people-things. Vemik had been slacking, there, depending too much on the old black-crest’s knowledge. That was a Taking that needed to end. Which was probably what Ferd had been quiet and smart enough to lead him toward without saying it aloud.

He hooted in satisfaction, glad to have such clever friends, and turned his mind back to the trip home. The sun was getting low…did he have time to bring home meat for the tribe?

…No. Tribes that relied too much on their Given-Man got weak. The others could get the food if they really needed it. Besides, he had nothing to prove, there. He could go home, check on the forge apprentices, spend time with Singer, be there for sunset song…

He nodded to himself and plunged onward through the trees.

But he didn’t stop thinking about burning cities.


Time, from the Entity’s perspective, was a strange mix of things.

It was a datamind, its very existence hinged on neat divisions of time, the clock speeds of its supporting devices. Time was so critical to its inner functioning, it needed to account for the curvature of relativity.

But its subjective sense of personhood also experienced time in the same way as organic life. It could somehow lose hours, when it was interested in something. Or, conversely, when it was waiting, minutes could stretch to feel like hours. Switching from the one flow of experience to the other was analogous to a human’s experience of optical illusions, that snap moment when suddenly the cube was jutting in the other direction, or the faces became a vase.

And always, without fail, there was that sensation of looking back and realizing that what had seemed so distant in the past was…close, now.

Terribly close. Four years had shrunk to a matter of….well, it was no longer ridiculous to measure the countdown in hours. A three-digit number of hours.

Carajo, I wish I could get drunk…

The Entity thought that sounded like a good way to miss a good chunk of what little time was left, but then again it had never understood the allure of intoxication. Probing Daemon’s memories had yielded no insight either.

Yeah, cuz every time I got drunk I either fucked my life up a little more, or got super fucking melancholy. And yet…

Daemon pinged out a knot of fuzzy, complex, unresolved emotions which the Entity could only summarize as longing for the impossible—both for a miracle to save the Earth and for a stiff drink—and pain for knowing that they were impossible.

The Entity ventured positive thoughts in reply. The substantial success of the evacuation, the apparent stability and growing prosperity of the United Peoples, the growing galactic unity, the fact that Hunter raids were now a matter of galactic news for being so rare, and none had been successful in years…

It got back the mental equivalent of a groan and a face buried in hands. Frustration, despair, loneliness…a small tinge of gratitude regardless.

Time was a strange thing. The entire exchange had taken less time than a human eyeblink, in absolute terms. But in subjective terms.

I need some human company. I’m gonna…go talk to people.

The Entity would have blinked, had it the proper apparatus. Daemon had rarely expressed need before. She was a semi-autonomous process of its own mind. One which necessarily was as true to Ava’s personality construct as possible, but…

Ah. Right. Yes. In this circumstance, Ava would need company, therefore Daemon would need company.

Or maybe I’m a little more independent than we both like to pretend. Don’t wait up.

What a peculiar thought for a piece of its own psyche to have. But, the Entity decided some things were best left un-probed and turned its attention elsewhere. There may not be many hours left for the Earth, but there was still much to pack into those hours. Its operations would continue right up until the moment the blast destroyed them.

It intended to use those hours well.

Starship Stray Fortune, Interstellar space between Alpha Centauri and Sol

Ian Wilde

Only two weeks left to go.

Lots had changed, but he wasn’t really all that concerned with most of it. Same old boring mission, these last couple of years. Adam and the Wrecking Crew were preparing for the Big Thing. Stray Fortune was…not. It was being held for something else. And so, the Fortune crew landed the job of keeping an eye on the doombeam. There was a lot of science in that thing, and Dora’s daily job for the last several months had been firing probe after probe into the Centauri Collimated Mass Ejection’s path and recording the interesting ways they burned.

They had a pretty clear picture of the thing now. It was an insanely tight cone, tight enough that the projections from their gathered data said that Saturn would probably escape unscathed.

Sol itself would too, probably. Oh, it’d burp and flare and have the stellar equivalent of a shining black eye after spending a couple centuries fending off the particle stream, but Singularity’s scientists reckoned humanity’s star would do little more than shift course by a few degrees in its long galactic path.

Earth on the other hand? Earth would be dead in seconds. The leading wave of the blast was five minutes of gamma radiation so intense that it’d kill every living thing instantly, burn it all to ash, then the particle beam coming behind would blow all the atmosphere and ash and dust and water off into space and start grinding away at the bedrock and mantle.

There’d still be a ten thousand kilometer iron ball left behind once the beam was finally gone in two or three hundred years. Mother Earth would be molten and polished smooth, and God knew what would have happened to her orbit, but she’d still be there…

Ian hated to dwell on that image, but he found he couldn’t help it. So long as they were on this assignment, he had a huge reminder every day of what was coming. It made it hard to forget.

Though he did have some help, there.


Ian blinked out of his thoughts and half turned only to be snuggled up from behind and surrounded by huge arms and huge affection. Hunter kissed him on the left temple and gave him a crush, one to literally take his breath away. Fuck, he was riding that line of not knowing his own strength these days, and the way it made Ian feel….

He had given up on feeling weird or self-conscious about the fact he fucking loved being the little spoon, that even as Beef-sized man himself, Hunter could just do that and take charge without even realizing he was. Ian grunted off the crushy-hug and leaned into it.

“Didn’t know you were coming today?”

“Bit o’ rescheduling. We’re on the gaoian week, now. Three days, break day, two days, weekend.”


Hunter tilted his head. “…Don’t like that?”

“Ah, fuck. I don’t know.” Ian sighed. “…I guess this job’s got me down and I can’t stop thinking about what we’re losing. I mean, I guess that gaoian week sounds pretty good, but it’s another little bit of home we’re not gonna keep, you know?”

“…You’ve been here staring out this window too long,” Hunter decided.

Ian let out a bitter chuckle. “Heh! Probably have…” he shook his head and turned away from the window. Honestly, he didn’t know why he bothered staring out of it as though he was watching the beam. It wasn’t like there was some glowing line across space out there, they were a couple of light-days ahead of the damn thing.

“Definitely have. It’s not good for you! I should kick Bruuk’s tail for letting you mope, you mopey fuck!”

That got Ian chuckling properly. “I mean…it’s understandable though, right?”

“…Lemme show you something.”

Hunter let go of the cuddle-crush and produced his phone. He opened an app of some kind, and set the phone down on a nearby shelf to do its holographic projection thing. In this case, the hologram was just a floating screen, a web page.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a news app!” Hunter enthused as he sat down. “The Bright Side. Kinda the antidote to the doom and gloom from the end of the world getting close, yijao?”

“What are you, their PR guy?”

“Fuckin’ would be if I didn’t have more important shit. I love these guys. They’re like ‘no news is good news? Fuck that!’ and then they go and give us all the silver lining they can find. And there’s, like, actually a fuckin’ lot of it. See?”

Ian shrugged and took a closer look.

Then scrolled a bit. “…Shit, really? That many?”

“Fuck yeah!”

“Isn’t that…basically everyone who’s left?” Ian scrolled and read some more.

“Yup. I don’t know how, man, but between the gao, the Dominion, Singularity and the Entity…we’re on course to save everyone.”

Most were going into stasis, Ian saw. But the Dominion had done a really smart thing there, in that they’d realized the immigration and port facilities on literally all of their stations were already equipped to handle large numbers of alien travelers, and the matters of isolation and decontamination were solved by forcefield tech. With one Council Order, hundreds of trade stations across the Dominion had set aside a bagging and storage facility near the port, set their nanofactories to make bags, and then set up a jump array to receive refugees.

“Thank God for stasis, eh?”

“Yeah. Fuck knows how we’d do this without it.” Hunter stretched out comfortably on Ian’s bed which, in deference to the fact this was a ship built for alien crew, was basically just a big soft patch of floor covered in blankets. “I mean, I get down about it too. Earth’s…it’s like losing our mom, right? She’s always been there for us. I know most every other species thinks she’s the next best thing to hell, but…hey, where’s your favorite spot on the whole Earth?”

“Uh…good question.” Ian had to think about that for a moment. “Fuck it’s….actually been a long bloody time since I lived on Earth. I can’t really remember, but…Rivelin Valley, maybe. It’s this long, thin bit of parkland in Sheffield, with waterfalls and stepping stones over the river. Used to go there with my mum when I was small. You?”

Hunter shrugged. “I mean, I grew up in suburbia. Nice enough, but there’s nowhere that really sticks in my memory, you know? Dad was a lawyer, we didn’t do a lot of father-son type stuff, ‘cept maybe on weekends. And I enlisted young and then it was straight to Cimbrean. All my good memories of Earth are, y’know, Christmas at grandpa’s place, stuff like that.”

“Your dad’s in stasis right now?”

“Oh shit no. He’s an estate planning lawyer, he’s busy as fuck!” Hunter chuckled. “What about your folks?”

“Mum’s in a bag on Garden Station,” Ian scratched his jaw and sat down. “Don’t know about my old man, don’t fucking care.”

“Right, yeah.” Hunter frowned for a second, then shrugged. “Point is…I get down about the Earth too, but for me, all my big memories of Earth are of people, not places. And I’m lucky enough I haven’t lost nobody. So, maybe it’s easier for me to think it’s a shame but I’m not so tore up over it? I dunno.”

“Maybe. But…eh, let’s talk about something else.”

“Or nothing at all?” Hunter suggested. “Could just hang out, play some games, eat some snacks, do whatever…”

He curled up an arm and gave Ian a lop-sided, corn-fed grin, and God he was just so achingly, impossibly, beautifully handsome…

Later, he’d let Hunter have his way. For now….

“Street Fighter and nachos does sound good…”

Videogames with Hunter were inevitably a pretty physical affair. He was the type to lean into turns or punches, jump up and down or bounce in place, wrap himself around Ian and half-wrestle, half-cuddle with the kind of force that would pulp normal dudes…

Naturally, the presence of Big Boys At Play attracted the attention of Bruuk, who was, if anything, even more physically into it. That led to some Smash Bros, followed by the newest Zelda. Bruuk was stuck in the second dungeon.

The distraction turned out to be exactly what Ian needed. He sat back, smushed happily between the two loving meatmonsters in his life, let Hunter cheerlead Bruuk through the dungeon, and returned to that Bright Side newsfeed.

Things…really were going well. All the major libraries were already evacuated, so were the seed banks, the museums and art galleries, there was housing and storage for everyone…humanity was going to live on, and keep more than he’d ever dared hope for.

There was a page for opinion pieces, and one in particular caught his imagination as he read it. It was about how there really didn’t need to be borders any longer. They didn’t have a one-world government or anything like that, they just had…humans. Survivors, united by a common tragedy. By the time things had completely stabilized and humankind had settled into its new paradigm, it would be something they’d all built together.

That was a silver lining, alright. Maybe a bit of a naively optimistic one, given the lingering split between Lucent on the one hand, and Cimbrean and Gao on the other, but Ian liked the idea. It’d be nice to think a wiser and more mature species was going to emerge from this all.

He set the phone down, smiled, and monched on some nachos as Bruuk finally got past that damn motion-sensor puzzle with a whoop and a cheer from Hunter. He’d needed this, more than he knew. He’d needed a reminder that the present moment could still be fun and worth enjoying, in any context.

Fuck it. He cracked open a beer too, and raised a vague toast to the future. May it be…

He paused, thought for a second, then inspiration struck, and he completed the toast with a small smile.

…May it continue to surprise.

Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Lieutenant Julian (Playboy) Etsicitty

Julian dozed rather than sleep. That was his whole night, actually: Half-conscious, and aware of the sounds around him. Allison’s gentle snores, Xíu’s soft breathing, the semi-rhythmic rush and drum of rain on the skylight above their bed.

And, spoiling whatever sleep he did get, a recurring nightmare vision.

He’s in the woods out back of grandpa’s house, out at the low spot with the culvert the beavers always come back to and dam up each year no matter what they do. He’s watching his grandpa work, wondering at how a wiry old man can work so long and so hard tearing apart a dam with not much more than a digging bar and his bare hands. The memory is an old one, stuck in his head his whole life. Tonight, though, it ends when Julian looks up and sees the sky turning a terrible burning red from horizon to horizon—

Grumbled, fidget, half-turn, and the dream looped over from the beginning, then again, and a third time that finally woke him to the gray light of the new day starting to creep in around the edge of the blind.


The countdown was nearly over, now. Four and a half years had inevitably whittled themselves down and down, and now here they were. Just under two weeks to go.

There’d been a burst of optimism somewhere in the middle of those two years as things really ramped up, but now? Now, fuck. Now it was so close.

Beside him, Xiù whimpered and cuddled up to his leg, which he curled around her automatically. She’d always had vivid, terrifying dreams for as long as Julian knew her, the lingering damage from shoving a nervejam grenade down a hunter’s throat with her bare hand. If his dreams were so bad, then hers…

She relaxed when he palmed the top of her head and stroked with his thumb along the line of her brow. And, well…he wrapped himself around her too. Big spoon was a great way to fall asleep. He even managed it, for a brief moment. A contented sigh, put his head down, out like a light—

But his bastard phone had other plans.

Al flinched as it went off, half-turned, snatched it off the dresser, slapped it down in front of Julian chest, mumbling something aggrieved he didn’t quite catch. Julian couldn’t find any humor in it, though. He knew that message ping.

Warning order from Costello. They would be entering pre-mission lockdown this weekend.

Fucker. It was his one day off every week, since he was still being trained up, even if HEAT already considered him properly mission ready; he’d done all the school and all the jumps, falling from the fuckin’ sky, done missions…but for them, experience and the hardness you only earned through time were the metrics they cared most about.

There was no such thing as too experienced, or too ready. So the ping, at nine in the morning after a delightfully tiring evening…well, all things considered, that was pretty considerate. Even if it was fucking unwelcome.

“Don’t tell me…” Xiù groaned and raised her head. “Day off canceled?”

“No, just a warning order.”

“Ugh, he could have waited a couple more hours. Tā mā de…” she flopped onto her back, massaged her eyes with her fingers, then groaned, wriggled away from him and somehow managed to gracefully roll-flop out of bed before heading toward the en-suite.

Julian was definitely not above watching her sway, nor distracted enough by the warning order. He was never gonna get tired of that view…

He glanced down at Al once the door was shut, caught her scowling. “You okay?”

“Egh.” She sat up. “…Yeah. Just grumpy. Slept like shit.”

He nodded his understanding and kissed her. “I’ll get breakfast on.”

“Mm.” Her grunt was accompanied by a small smile, though. “Good boy.”

The kids were already up, and enjoying their own day off school with a videogame. They’d been building a big wall around their base all week, and from what Julian could gather the tricky part was making it look nice. Anyone could pile up a big ugly flat expanse of stone and call it good enough, but Anna had inherited both a perfectionist streak and a sense of aesthetics from her two moms. She was not going to be content with such an eyesore, no sir.

And Harrison was as happy as a dog with two tails if he got to tinker with automated ways of generating obscene amounts of stone for her to use. Finding a game they could play together that played to both their strengths had sure as hell cut down on the early morning arguments and aggrieved cries of “Daaaaad!” up the stairs.

Or maybe they were growing out of it. Shit, Julian didn’t know. They both looked older than they were. Hell, either of them could have passed for college kids if you didn’t look too closely.

But today’s silence was more than just concentrating on their game. They were listless too, he realized.

“Hey, dorks.” He scooped them both in for a quick hug. They weren’t so featherlight these days, even with how ridiculous his…well, everything was now. They were ridiculous, too. Young fifteen-year-old teens, Heroes of the Line and born to the Crude, apparently like the finest prospects from Ekallim-Igigi.

Harrison was a monstrous lout exactly like young Alex had been at this age. A teen Beef and all it entailed, from food to girls to his thing-smashing heft to his endless font of aggression that very few could understand. But he still had a certain…intense sweetness about him, too. He wasn’t a moody bastard. Not really.

He still had some of the right kinds of innocence.

Anna, on the other hand, was beating the boys away with a stick and enjoying the hell out of it. Carefully, so she didn’t kill them. She’d inherited the Buehler blue eyes and high cheekbones, Julian’s dark hair, and a skin tone between the two that…well. She used a big stick.

Luckily for her, she’d inherited a full dose of her mom’s sharpness. She probably didn’t need her Big Scary Protective Dad, but honestly, any boy that survived her attentions was probably on the straight and narrow.

Also, Harrison could get mean when someone he cared about needed it. And so could his bestest friends, who included Diego and Joseph.

In any case, the two were basically mind-readers, and knew something was up immediately.

“Yeeurgh. You look rough today, Dad.”

“Yeah. Didn’t sleep well.”

“Nobody’s sleeping well right now…” Harrison sniffed, and indicated his phone. Even as Julian watched, it buzzed a quick beat and a message bubbled up on the screen.

“Furiously texting your Goon Squad, eh?”

Harrison grinned at that. “Yeah. We were sorta, I dunno. Plotting.”


“Yeah. Leela’s running the Ninja Taco today, and then maybe we’d go play like baseball or something. The whole class is feeling weird.”

“So, a freshman flash-mobbing of poor Leela, and then go take over a park somewhere.”

“Pretty much.”

Well, that seemed wholesome enough. Julian whipped out his own phone and sent an alert to The Parental Conspiracy, just in case there was anything to be aware of.

Not even ten seconds later…

“Aww man, why’d you tell on us?” Harrison griped. “Everyone’s parents are grillin’ them now!”

“Because I’m evil, and spoiling your fun brings me endless joy.” Julian scruffled his son’s hair and turned to the kitchen. “Also, the answer is yes. Just be back before dinner!”

“Told you,” Anna smirked at her brother, and closed the game so she could hop up and set the table. Looked like Julian was frying up eggs and such.

Folctha had, somehow, remained a relatively small, safe community. Mostly this was because there was a whole planet’s worth of land and, relatively speaking, not all that many people they could or would be housing directly. That would come in time, as economies rebuilt and the hundreds of millions of people in stasis bags emerged. So rather than crowd together into big (…and vulnerable) cities, people spread out. Way out. Only a few little cities even crested a hundred thousand people, and Folctha was barely one of them.

That meant a small class size at Harrison and Anna’s high school, but there were enough other schools around to enable rivalries and all that. Given the confluence of everything, those young kids were all disproportionately excellent people, too. Heroes were well-represented among them. Poverty and the cycle of despair that went with it was basically non-existent, at least for the moment. Long may that last!

A few more text messages, and some general agreement amongst the Parental Conspiracy, and they were off, having lured another group from another school to play with them. Hard to say no to baseball when the lower grav let boys like Harrison hit such colossal home runs…

That gave Julian some time. He applied coffee, applied meal-plan catch-up. He Slabbed, and stretched, did his posing check-ins before Adam started grumbling at him via text…

More phone pings, this time in the officer chat, The Brainboyz. The whole team had a chat too, and its name constantly changed on a whim with every passing in-joke, because everyone was admin. Right now it was The Sultan of Slam’s Slabgical Journey.

Firth was on a pro-wrestling kick, lately. Probably because his family were huge fans and had finally acquiesced to leaving Kentucky, and were settling into a nice out-of-the-way little town about an hour’s HEAT-speed jog away. It wasn’t quite like the hollars, but they’d probably be doing dangerously illegal hillbilly shit in no time flat.

And watching Wrestlemania reruns. Constantly.

Some furious texting commenced. Some stupid jokes, some serious questions. Hunter was on leave, which he was now canceling, but at the moment was in the middle of some body painting in one of Garden’s little vacation spots. Lots of jeering and cheering when he shared pics. Inevitably, the chat dared Julian to do the same.

“Meh, I already look better naked,” was all he replied. Lots of jeering replies, and the memes floweth’d over with bad photo edits and terrible animations. It always got a grin from him.

In any case, clearly a get-together was in order, and that smelled like barbeque.

And it was enough they needed to rent out a shelter at a park, too. Because, being the junior officer, he got to organize this little shindig. Text invites to everyone, acquire food (and lots of meat) with minimal budget…

Honestly, that was the sort of hazing he liked the least. He’d rather let Righteous gorilla-rape him into pretzeloids all day long than dig out his purchase card and track receipts.

Maybe he went werne hunting too, once he’d got the orders and messages out. He still had time. And he had lots of help, once food was on offer. It was a busy couple of days. So busy he had no time to focus on much else, even as he dragged others along with him. But somehow, he never forgot the ticking clock in the background, the precious days and hours trickling away of the Earth still…being there.

In a sense, practically speaking, for Julian Etsicitty the Earth was already gone. He’d never set foot on the planet of his birth ever again. He’d already seen it for the last time, and hadn’t even known it was the last time, at the time. There was an ache in his heart at the thought that there was no time or capacity for him to go stand in the woods and breathe deep, just once. How could there be? The arrays were firing non-stop to get every last of the Last Guard off-planet, every last treasure of humankind they could snatch up. Whole areas of the planet had been abandoned in a planned retreat that left industrial and nuclear disaster in its wake…because there wasn’t time to do it properly. And no point. All the space industry was moving, asteroid mining was underway until the last possible second…

It was just too much to really understand. Too much all at once. He hadn’t said goodbye to the Earth, and that hurt, terribly. In a way he wasn’t sure he’d ever quite forget or heal from.

But knowing it was still there for these last few days felt like having an anchor, somehow. Everyone knew the time was precious, and even the people who had taken a moment to say goodbye wanted one more.

Perhaps that was why the barbecue wound up feeling a bit like a wake.

Oh, it was a happy wake, to be sure. The kids were there—and the SOR had its own army of burly superhero boys and tougher-than-dirt girls to keep the chaos energy sufficiently high. Lots of Bozo’s prodigy too, as the unit’s unofficially preferred breed of supercanine companion. And it ended up being a nice way to being everyone together before…well…

Before everything went down.

In the end, like seemingly always with this level of fight, they called most everyone in or put everyone on hot reserve, and they all showed up for some camaraderie. All of them. Ten’gewek, gao…Singularity.

Julian had only met Singularity’s niksum a couple of times. They were…well, they were prize specimens. One didn’t become a niksum without being an exemplar of the Line, one of its most highly-conforming sons. They were also, to a man, off-putting in that larger-than-life range of being a bit too pretty and well-built. Perfectly proportioned, so that from a distance you could forget how goliath they were.

He knew it was maybe a bit gormlessly self-unaware to criticize them, given what he was, but still. Their faces and bodies were so flawless, it kind of dropped them into the uncanny valley a bit. The kids avoided them. But Julian knew something the kids didn’t: that under the pedigree perfection, these guys were veterans who’d been pulling off covert actions against the Hierarchy for a lifetime.

In fact they were refreshingly normal once you got to know them. And Julian had found time to get to know their team leader in particular during their training exercises. He was quite pleased to know he could kick the man’s ass ten ways from Sunday, too.

His name was Girin, and apparently he was something like twenty-seventh in Ekallim-Igigi’s line of succession. “You know, I will never get used to the beer out here,” he commented, swirling a glass of pilsner.

“Why not?”

“It’s so…minimalist. Bitter, fizzy water, hardly any flavor. The stuff we brew is sweet and spiced.”

“That’s ‘cuz it’s cheap and drinkable. You’re not downing it to ponder the ineffable mysteries. You’re doing it to unwind and relax. Ideally in your backyard, watchin’ the stream, plotting against the beavers…”

Girin chuckled. “Oh, it’s crisp and refreshing I’ll grant you…beavers?”

“…You don’t know beavers?” Julian laughed.

Girin, a man born and raised on a space station, spread his hands and shrugged. “There’s much I don’t know. And much you probably don’t either, hmm?”

“Uh…well! They’re a big rodent. Love water and chewing trees down. They build dams. Big dams across natural streams and creeks, and then build lodges in the ponds they make. They’re a keystone species in the north american forests.”

“…This is going to be like those ‘drop bears’ I was once told about, isn’t it?”

“No. ‘Drop bears’ are just exaggerated koalas. Here.”

Phone. Video. Some assembly required. Girin watched with interest, which quickly tinged with some sadness.

“They’re delicious, too. But you have to keep them under control because if there is water, they will come, they will dam it, and they will cut down your shelterbelt to do it.”

“They’re cute. I like them,” Girin decided. “But they sound like the sort of species that will never be resurrected from the DNA banks. Too disruptive to alien ecosystems…”

“I think it’s the other way around, actually. They’ll be brought back precisely because they create habitat. Keystone species are like that. Just keep ‘em offa my property!”

“Hmm. Well…I think I’d like that.” Girin smiled, and raised his glass. “To beavers!”

The men overheard. And there was much sudden cat-calling, because of course Julian hadn’t had time to explain its extra meaning.

Girin took it in amused stride. “…I take it I tripped over a hidden double entendre.”

“Yes. I’ll let you figger out how.”

“Hmm…” Girin thought about it for a few seconds, then a puckish smirk finally revealed a human blemish in the form of lines around his eyes. “…Well. I’ll drink to every kind of beaver. May we all have as many as we want.”

The coarse chuckles from his men did a lot to puncture the unapproachable air that had kept them at one end of the party.

Julian had one more bit of ribbing left. “Right! Now that this here working dog has approvingly sniffed around the pedigreed showdogs…”

Girin raised an eyebrow. “You are hardly one to talk.”

“Eh. I’ve got some fetchin’ wear an’ tear on me!” He patted the big man on the back. Tall motherfucker, and that was saying something; Julian stood about two meters these days.

Shorter than Girin, yes. Still bigger though. Inner caveman grunts approvingly.

So it was with a confident smile he moved on, proffered a handshake and put a bit of a wince on the big too-pretty man. “Meanwhile, I’ve got a ‘Q to supervise. So drink up!”

Pecking order: established. That inner caveman of his was most pleased today.

He fell back into Ambassador mode. Turned out the skills he’d needed to do that job were still damn useful in keeping a shindig shiny, so he flitted around, mingled, ate and drank…

Thank fuck the ten’gewek had brought their own food, ‘cuz they’d brought some other men and their Singers from a few tribes along, too. Julian wasn’t quite sure when they’d got it into their head that tonight was so important, but…apparently it was. It was a Big Giving, and the People…well, despite their deeply hyper-predatory nature, at their very best they were a generous and Giving people.

The Singers had a giving for them, especially. They’d brought a song. A particularly sacred one, both lament for a friend losing their home forever, and war-song for a tribe about to get revenge.

They weren’t the only ones there to add their voices to the blessing, in whatever form. There was Champion Gyotin and a couple of Starmind fathers, there was Father Paternostro from New Alexandria—Julian had only met him in passing before, now he got a chance to really talk for a while. He was…well, he was young, sturdy, intelligent, friendly and relatable. Basically the perfect unit chaplain, and the younger men tended to hang on his every word.

The weirdest blessing, though, came from the fact that an actual god-king was present, accompanying his troops. Though when Gilgamesh described himself as such, he did so with a disarming twinkle and self-effacing half-shrug. One didn’t often see a literal seven-and-a-half foot dusky bearded warrior-giant manage humble, but at this point in his life, Julian was always ready to expect the unexpected.

“I come from an extremely old tradition!” He boomed. “And I am glad to see something worthwhile eventually grew from it…” he gave a playful nod to the priest. “So, perhaps, if I may offer a much older form of human respect for the Divine…”

The Singers paid rapt attention, because Julian had made sure to explain just who and what Gilgamesh was. They thought of him as a human “Blackcrest Singer” and why not? He’d certainly not sat on his laurels over the years. He and his son were really the only ones who could stand next to Righteous or Yan without embarrassment. Natural, then, that (arguably) the most important confirmed Hero in human history had something to say.

Or, uh. Sing. It was a hymn, Julian guessed. Offered full-throated and unabashed with eyes closed, head tilted back and palms out and upwards. He didn’t know the language—probably almost nobody did. But somehow, it felt right, deep in the deepest part of instinct.

He also kept it mercifully brief. ‘Enough to get clean, not enough to wrinkle,’ as Julian’s grandpa would have had it.

So…what then?

He circulated, socialized…pondered.

This really was a desperate mission they were about to try. True, Daar and Gilgamesh would be staying firmly behind, even if ready. But king Alex would be present, in overall command; they needed someone with strategic authority to be present. Hopefully, that was all he had to be.

For Julian’s part, he had a team. Bunch of good kids, and together they’d been through a few interesting missions in the lead-up to this. Some quiet ingress here, a rogue Hunter attack there, though those were downright rare these days…he wasn’t a totally green officer. He’d learned a lot, and it had been life-changing. This certainly wasn’t his calling in life, but, well…

It did sing to him. Duty done well just seemed to satisfy in a way he couldn’t quite put to words. And he was damn good at this job, too. So, being the bruiser in the officer corps (and aside from Yan and Firth, the team as a whole), and having inherited Ferd, Nomuk and Genn, along with blessings from Adam, Rees, Davies, and even Hoeff…

Everyone was ready to go fuck shit up. Everybody. TILE FLIP was a freaking black hole of an operation, pulling in people from everywhere. Even the Rauwrhyr had a role to play, being the one Dominion species who’d proved they could be trusted to hang with the deathworlders.

Julian shook his head, to clear out some of the cobwebs. The time had come to strike. New protections for nervejam had been devised, though how effective they’d be wasn’t perfectly known. Equipment was readied. The specialized mission package was prepared, and a few techs trained up and tested enough so that, if they needed to intervene directly, at least they wouldn’t get themselves instantly killed in a fight.

Or reveal their presence, in a sneak.

So that was the sum of it. Everything was prepared as best they could. Everyone was ready as much as could ever be expected. Adam had brought up everyone to his level, nobody was lagging. The enlisted were all close peers now, Hunter leading but everyone else only a little behind. The gap between enlisted and officer had finally closed, too.

Julian was a standout freak though, and just about the best on the team. The warrior side of him enjoyed being so dominant, no point denying it. He wasn’t quite top dog and never would be, but that was okay. Yan was Yan, riding high on his never-ending Fire. Alex was an old-ways king for all the right reasons. Righteous was his own legend, now.

So, what was left to do?

Eat. Everyone was carb-loading and building up reserves with the kind of food-happy gusto only strength athletes would ever understand. Eat, and find some closure. There was a good chance a lot of them never came back.

God, there was a thought. When he thought of Al and Xiù, Anna and Harrison, Freya and Joseph, Claire…many of the Lads had reasoned that, fuck it, they were biologically immortal right now and perpetually young, so they may as well see the thing through and then worry about the whole family thing afterwards. They were in a damn dangerous job, and without a biological clock to put the time pressure on…was it even ethical to have a family, and expose them to growing up without a dad, if they did fall?

For about a third or a half of them, the answer was no. They had girlfriends, fuck-friends, booty calls, off-and-on-again things, married couples they were the bull for…whatever fit them. But there was still a small army of SOR kids. And Julian was going to be responsible, in part, for bringing their dads home again. Or if he couldn’t, for making damn sure it was worth it.

No pressure.

…No pressure. Not right now. He dragged his brain out of the melancholy mood it was threatening to slide into, and went to find his own family. There was precious little time left

It would be a crime and a sin to waste it.


Or maybe resurrection. Or perhaps just waking up. The process certainly felt like waking, after a sleep so infinitely deep and dreamless that there was no sense of time having passed. No dry mouth, no numb limbs, no urgent need to excrete waste, nor any other physical sensation of having been at rest.

Because of course, the body he was occupying had not existed up until a few minutes prior.

It was hungry, though. Not gnawingly, agonizingly so, but the belly was empty. Quite why the biofactory couldn’t print a meal in there to spare him that slight discomfort, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps the peckish discomfort was intended? A first sensation, to anchor him to this new flesh, make it his, for as long as he needed it.

To be alive was to suffer, after all. To awaken without any suffering would be to feel like one was still dreaming.

He rose from the chamber that had created this instance of him, and the window became transparent in response to his approach, granting him a new view of this garden moon, deep in the heart of Igrean superiority. Food was there for the taking, great lush swathes of it stretching to the horizon. Fruit bushes, root vegetables, grains and nuts, all tended carefully by a trillion glittering insectoid robots and their supporting mechanical ecosystem. Enough food for a million people.

It would never feed more than a handful, unless all was well and truly lost.

Beyond the fields and the horizon they stretched too, the gas giant loomed at him. It was rather different to the last time he’d seen it: there had been rather an interesting megastorm on the equator in bruised shades of purple and puce. Likely it had dissipated an aeon ago.

He clothed, and went into the garden to eat. For the moment, he was the last true Igrean alive, almost certainly. His colleagues would not be awakened unless and until he so ordered it, and he’d long since stopped thinking of the minds in their dataspace fish tank as “alive.” How could they be, when the very concept of individuality was foreign to all but the infinitesimally rare few who, after training and conditioning to completely break and re-write their minds, came to form the first line of defense known as the Hierarchy?

He read some reports while drinking a hot infusion. Maintenance first: how much had the planetary system’s replication errors and program values drifted since last he drew breath? Difficult to say, of course. Far, far less than a biological ecosystem would have changed in the same interval. Organic life adapted by the year: mechanical infrastructure, ideally, changed not at all.

The indices by which he measured such things were within acceptable bounds. Good.

Now, to the reason he had been awoken. Which bothersome species had escaped containment this time…?

There were three, in fact. He studied their holograms with distaste: hideous and alien, all. Hairy. Bestial. The least so were, compared to the others, tall and upright, their fur mostly sparse and confined to a few patches around the head, joints, and what could only be reproductive organs. Ghastly.

Next, the feral quadrupeds. Claws and fangs and fur, hardly any different from a carnivorous beast. And the genetic variance—! Astonishing that one species could contain such massively different extremes. What had the Hierarchy been thinking, choosing that for a contingency control?

And the primitives. Literally a stone age people, only lifted out of their ignorance by contact with the first two…and so trapped in a cycle of death and savagery that they would never have risen to the stars at all. Apparently the Hierarchy had been content to simply leave them alone, until the risk of discovery and uplift by the first species became too great.

Human. He considered them again. A logical enough body plan, he supposed. Plenty of room in that skull for a large and efficient brain. Likely an efficient gait, to both cover ground and leave hands free for tool use. Physically speaking, nothing much to remark upon other than the obvious deathworlder resilience and strength…

Holograms, of course, had nothing to say about culture, mindset and charisma. He was not going to get the full picture from merely looking at them.

Of course, he was awakened for a reason. His purpose was not to strictly enforce the continuance of dataspace. His purpose was to ensure the safety of intelligent life. There were threats out there. Threats so evil, so vast, his species had done drastic things to avoid drawing their attention toward their comparatively peaceful and unremarkable little galaxy.

And so, his purpose was distinct. He was Zero. He was the system administrator of Dataspace.

And these species had done something remarkable. They were in alliance. They had forced the Hierarchy into hibernation, not for the first time…

But they had also found the node world. And if his sensors were not misguided, had found the Garden, too. That provoked Zero’s attention, because anything that managed that feat of escape, exploration, and aggression could prove useful to the galaxy’s defense.

Especially now. After so many millions of years, the Hierarchy had become exceedingly efficient at its job. It was software, after all. Software seeded from the minds and souls of billions, harvested to create the ultimate defense system and engine of stability. And yet…organic life always, eventually, found a way to defeat them.

Perhaps it was time for a re-think.

There were others like him. A few fellow administrators. They were all Zero, for Zero was their rank and job title, the first value in any primitive array. They were the index to the entire edifice.

Just what were these upstarts planning?

…Should he let them try?

He sat under the light of boiling clouds, and thought for a long time.


If you have enjoyed the Deathworlders story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:

Dandelion: audiobook now available!

Dandelion by Philip R. Johnson and Justin C. Louis, produced by Podium Audio

Amber Houston was born light-years from Earth, aboard the enormous colony starship Dandelion. By the age of fourteen, she has spent her entire life training as a “Ranger,” ready for the day when she will be among the first humans ever to set foot on an alien world & build a new civilization.

When Dandelion suffers an emergency toward the end of its journey, Amber & her fellow young rangers are evacuated & land on the planet Newhome years ahead of schedule. While the adults left behind on Dandelion slow the ship & turn it around to come back—in eight years—Amber & her friends must build lives for themselves amid revelations that will change Humankind’s destiny forever.

Meanwhile, aboard the ship, secrets that were buried over three hundred years ago finally come to light…

Co-authored alongside Justin C. Louis, Dandelion is my debut novel, published through Dataspace Publishing, and the Audiobook is produced by Podium Audio.

And now, without further ado, on with the chapter!


This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money



Sally and Stephen Johnson

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31 Humans


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His Dread Monarch

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60 Friendly ETs, 139 Squishy Xenos and 329 Dizi Rats who imitate the infamous squonk and dissolve in their own tears.

“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work are the property of their respective owners.

The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not necessarily share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.

Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 95: Silence.