The Deathworlders


Chapter 96: Tile Flip

Date Point: 1 day After Earth
Watcher’s Grave, uncharted space


“They have definitely surveilled Key, that is unmistakable.”

“Has Hierarchy properly detected them?”


“Even with increased alertness?”

Zero had awoken three of his closest friends and colleagues, the three he’d known and loved the most for objective epochs, and subjective lifetimes. They had known each other so long that they all went by with their intimate short-names with each other: Zero, Poise, Last and Dusk.

“We barely detected the surveillance, and only through statistical analysis after the fact.” A bottle rattled on the edge of a cup, followed by the slosh of ice-cold water, which he pushed across the table into Poise’s waiting hand. Everyone woke up with a dry throat and a terrible thirst. “It’s hardly surprising Hierarchy failed to notice; we did block Key from their awareness, after all.”

Naturally. It wouldn’t do to have one’s defense intelligence aware of its control.

“What can they expect to achieve, I wonder?” There was a crunch of crisp roots and leaves being impaled on an eating implement. Hunger was the next urgent demand of a bio-fabricated body. “They lack the capacity for planetary destruction, and they must know that Key will regrow from anything short of complete crust erosion.”

“My best guess is they intend to reprogram Hierarchy.” Zero plucked a tart fruit from the bowl to his right. “This…Entity would certainly be capable of it.”

Grim silence as they turned their thoughts to that particular development, and considered what it meant.

“We will need to reconsider Hierarchy from first principles, after this is over,” Last said. “That it somehow became the avenue by which a true mind was created is…”

“Very troubling.” Zero agreed. “And it leads me to wonder if we should consider allying with them. The humans especially.”

Hungry and thirsty as they were, they set their food and drink down to stare at him in surprise. “You can’t be serious?”

Zero sipped, then put down his cup.

“Consider. Our people no longer exist in any practical sense. We saw a cataclysm coming and in response, transformed ourselves into a galactic defense gestalt. Hierarchy has, I think it now obvious, proven a stagnant and maladaptive AI over deep time. I could speculate on why. Was it the tragic collapse of the inward self in Legion that led to this inflexibility? Programmatic drift? The simple inevitable result of biological evolution and sufficient time?” He made an ambivalent gesture and picked up his water again. “I don’t think we can even say at this point. Nor does it matter. We must contend with what is in front of us.”

“Alliance, though?”

“If they were capable of so thoroughly destroying our contingencies, imagine what contingencies we could create with them.”

Born-To-Be-Last expressed disagreement. “They are blind with rage at this point. Driven by righteous anger. Do you really think they will allow us to make our case?”

“I think they will,” Zero predicted, confidently. “If nothing else, they are too curious. They will want to understand why we thought so many must die.”


“Analysis.” Zero sipped his water again, and indicated a small concession of uncertainty. “If I am wrong, so be it.”

Scent-Of-Dusk-Flowers rolled his head back and forth thoughtfully as he considered Zero’s thoughts. “Getting them to listen will require more than asking nicely. These are violent, militaristic people; we must successfully defend ourselves to force them to heed us, and that presents a quandary, too. To defend Key against what’s coming would require lifting the gestalt block against Hierarchy.”

“Too dangerous.”

“Then we must defend it ourselves,” Poise-and-Wisdom said. “And our means are far less.”

“The weakness of Key. We knew this from the beginning. Poetic…in a twisted way.”

“They might just succeed due to those weaknesses. No planetary shields, no nervejam grid. No nuclear-scale weaponry…the entire reason we built Key so far out was to see the threat coming and, possibly, relocate. Yet we barely noticed their surveillance! We will not have time to re-sync and shift to an alternate Key.”

Zero indicated agreement, and gestured for Dusk to continue.

“This is why you are wondering if we should allow this to happen?”

“We have no option but to withstand the assault. For all we know, they already have assets deployed and enroute. Or even possibly on this world.”

“Assets or not, we have the technological advantage.”

“Yes…but consider this battle in the context of our mission. My friends, this is the first time ever that this galaxy’s life has risen to the point of seriously challenging us. An alliance capable of that is capable of civilization on the grand, galactic scale, but they do not yet know the consequences.”

He stood up and walked a little around the terrace, enjoying the sensation of movement. “They must be made to understand,” he said. “Win or lose, they must know why they are so important and why we have done what we have done. The only victory conditions we have are those in which the humans, gao and ten’gewek become educated.”

There was silence, then Born-To-Be-Last picked up a fruit and slit open its rind with his thumb-claw. “We shall see soon enough, I suppose.”

“How will the attack come, do you think?” Poise asked.

“I have not made a full study of them, but they are very much creatures of the physical universe. I imagine they hope to make stealthy planetfall. Bring in as much mass as they can before they are detected. They certainly realize we cannot protect Key against spatial bridging or other such useful physics,” he twisted a hand back and forth dismissively. “Our warriors should give them a good fight. What I worry about is Entity. Hierarchy has, clearly, failed entirely. It cannot muster a fight against Entity, instead it cowers in its backup nodes and waits for the threat to go away. Legion has grown too hyper-specialized and lost all sense of its former life-state. It surrendered its being. And now…Entity prowls.”

“Are you saying Dataspace is unprotected?”

“We are living, material minds. Our reaction speeds will never match a datamind’s. So we cannot hold off Entity’s incursion ourselves…and the technology we created to protect Dataspace for us has already failed. Dataspace is not only unprotected, it is occupied territory. They need only make a tiny change on our master consoles to gain full control, once they’re physically present at Key. You know this. This is how we designed Dataspace!”

“That was to protect the galaxy against a rampant Hierarchy! And out-of-control Legion!”

“Yes, and now what comes for us is the distilled essence of both, along with an Earthen deathworlder’s sense of priorities hard-coded into its innermost being. The meatlings surely know their roles in this, yes? They will send a tidal wave of warriors at us until they gain access to our innermost sanctum. How will they gain access? Brute force? Clever technological means? Will they simply force us to live, and beat instructions out of us?”

“All at once,” Poise predicted, darkly.

“We must also consider that, victory or not here, they have already won in some unstoppable sense.” Last pointed out, bitterly. “The Discarded are effectively no more in their region of the galaxy, all local means of control are usurped. They have escaped their doomed planet, something few species ever manage. Worse, they have apparently built a peaceful, trans-species civilization. With cross-sovereign leadership led by creatures such as this Great Father and this Emperor of Mankind.”

“It will be the work of millennia to repair the damage,” Zero agreed, allowing them to follow the chain of thought he had already pursued. “Assuming the damage is not fatal.”

“They also have a jungleworld primitive among their leadership, from a deathworld so extreme we would not have forecast any intelligent life evolving there. Yet, he lives!” Dusk added.

“My point precisely!” Last was agitated: she ignored her food entirely, now. “Do not forget Entity, either. What peoples in this galaxy’s history would have ever tolerated its existence, let alone welcome it into the fold?”

“So,” Zero took control of the conversation again. “We have unprecedented disruption or outright destruction of every control measure, we have the rise of an unprecedented new form of life, the rise of unprecedented political unity, and the unprecedented capture of what ought to have been a secure flank. All of which happened faster than Hierarchy could react and adapt. And in the face of this, we must plan our defenses against an assault which may in fact already be underway.”

He sat back and pushed his empty bowl aside. “So let us consider our options.”

The others looked around at each other then indicated agreement. They finished their food, pushed the earthenware and utensils aside, and drew their chairs in closer to the table. The time for indulging the pleasures and needs of flesh was over, now.

They had a duty to the future.

Gilgamesh, Emperor of Mankind


There was always something to learn. So many thousands of years of life, and Gilgamesh still hadn’t run out of ways to improve, or to be surprised, and even shown up.

In that regard especially, the HEAT had impressed him no end. When at last they had begun to work closely together, they quickly exposed all the ways in which Singularity’s Niksum units had grown…accustomed to doing things a certain way. And indeed, how they had come to rely on Singularity’s technology as a crutch.

Some months of bruising, brutal training, in which the Niksum men had gone head-to-head with their HEAT counterparts without the benefit of their suits and augmentations, had supposedly been a much-needed remedy. One which Gilgamesh was, hopefully, now about to see the proof of.

They sprang into action.

To Gilgamesh’s seasoned eye, the difference was night-and-day, from the very beginning. He could barely follow them, as they blinked through the course, seeming to shade in and out of time and space as the technology in their suits supplemented an aggression and economy of action that had been only imperfectly realized before.

The target drones were programmed with perfect 360-degree awareness and superhuman reaction speeds, but they just couldn’t turn fast enough to track a man before he zipped across the room and smashed it. Counterattacks were repelled with a ferocity befitting Hubaba itself.

They were so fast, he couldn’t even tell which of the blurred, transient forms was Alex.

“…By the gods. That makes me feel safer for him.”

“It is a path we should have maximalized long ago,” Y!kiidaa lamented. “They have explored the frontiers of training, science, psychology and biology to produce something truly exceptional.”

“They had the advantage of coming to it with fresh eyes, and a military legacy built on real warfare. I cannot feel too ashamed of ourselves. We have been limited to exploration and quiet excursions.”

“And boarding actions,” Y!kiidaa pointed out. “Not trivial, those!”

“Yes yes. But the trouble with an indefinite lifespan, old friend, is the danger of becoming stuck in an old worn groove. Whereas young king Alex down there…”

He looked for and found the small gold stripe on the shoulder that was the only external indicator of rank. He was shorter than the Niksum. Shorter…but broader. More aggressive. Quicker. Shockingly stronger. Efficient, better-practiced…

Destroyed his enemies.

“Mhmm.” Y!kiidaa combed at his whiskers with a claw. “Do you think it…prudent to take young Alex away from his kingdom? Even if only occasionally? He is only newly-established in his throne…”

“We do not have the luxury of being stately kings in a civilized world, my old friend. He must be a king of old. A man who patrols the frontiers and protects the people. He must be a leader and a warrior among leaders and warriors.”

“You’ve always sentimental about that sort of thing.”

“Perhaps. But that does not change the reality we find ourselves in. I fear I will be drawn into this fight too. As will he. And…well, him too.”

Kidu remained silent. Nervously stopped grooming himself and instead picked one claw against another, before realizing he was doing that too, and shaking his paws. It wasn’t like him to fidget at all…

“Something is on your mind.”

“I am not looking forward to what we must do at all.”

…He wasn’t revealing everything. Gilgamesh could tell, after all this time. But many a time had Kidu kept to himself as he mulled over something. They each had their secrets, even now.

Such was the necessity of their roles, too. An emperor could not and should not always know what his left hand was doing. Hence why it was a position of such unparalleled trust. Trust that Kidu had earned, and earned, and earned again over the centuries. If he was not forthcoming now, then Gilgamesh knew better than to pry.

“The goal is victory over a terrible enemy, my brother. If they force our hands to do terrible things in conquering them, the sin is theirs.”

Kidu tilted his head, flicked an ear, then duck-nodded shallowly. He didn’t look at all comforted. “I should go suit up,” he said. “My own team will run this next. I can see we shall have to work hard to beat the young king’s time.”

“Do not take offense if I bet against you, brother,” Gilgamesh grinned at him, and finally provoked a chitter.

“Of course you will. He’s your son! And I will be glad to take that bet.”

“Then it is settled! Beat my son, and I will bring back a whole naxas from Gao, myself!”

“And if I should lose…?”

“Hmm…surprise me.”

“That is awfully trusting of you! I shall endeavor not to abuse it too much…”

“True! In that case, then: you shall spend a day sparring with Righteous and Playboy, to improve your skills.”

“…You’re evil.”

“I suppose I could send a message to Daar, and see how he feels about things—”

“—I meant, fair-handed, just, and wise, of course.”

Gilgamesh chortled, clapped his oldest friend firmly on the back, and nodded. “Good luck, then.”

He watched Kidu go, then sighed and turned to go tend to other matters of preparation.

He had a meeting with the Queens Council, then with Leifini and the Corth. He had a speech to the entire station, and a more intimate one for his ship captains. He had a session with his personal armorer, to ensure the imperial equipment was as fully ready for him as it could be.

And he had a moment in contemplation, to pray.

Thousands of years had given him plenty of time to contemplate the gods. He gave beer and grain to Inanna, as per his ancient custom before war, and looked up at the carving of her in his personal temple. It was an original, brought with him millennia ago having been carved by men whose bodies were long since dust. A relic of an Earth that no longer existed.

Many hours he’d spent in contemplation of the newer faiths that came after him. He still did.

And he’d decided that…the Infinite of Abraham and of other traditions was too much for any one man to grapple. Or too much for him, at least. He acknowledged it, nodded to the difficult philosophical conclusions entangled with the Infinite at the bottom of thinking, and reasoned that he was simply of a time and a place that was not ready for such ideas.

He gave it all the respect he could. Having lived through the ministry of Jesus …well, one would be foolish to ignore all that.

But here and now, he needed his goddess of love and war, and a narrow focus on the immediate. Because there was no good reason to wage war except out of love, and to protect that which was loved.

“Lady of all powers, in whom light appears; Radiant one, beloved of Heaven and Earth; Tiara-crowned priestess of the Highest God. My Lady, you are the guardian of all greatness…”

The words brought comfort. The ritual brought steadiness and peace. He was ready to do what must be done, and knew those he loved were, also. He was ready to bring an end to the war that had defined all his long life. He was ready to win.

And he had no doubts whatsoever that they would.

Date Point: 3 days After Earth
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

Mixed feelings. Intense mixed feelings, of the kind Allison had always hated. He was awake, quietly slipped out of bed to relieve himself and pad downstairs. He was probably going to make them all breakfast. That tended to be the way of it, after that sort of night.

Today was the day, though. She ached to look on him, same as always. But now, she ached for extra reasons she fucking hated.

Today might be the last time they saw him alive, for fuck sake.

Last night, that thought had been…well, she’d wanted to revel in having him. So had Xiù. They had a big and beautiful man who was big and beautifully in love with them both. A love they expressed tenderly, and fiercely, which he claimed from them with all his volcanic passion. He worked hard until they were all so completely in the moment, the intruding dread just wasn’t there, time melting into forever under his endless, unstoppable strength.

Now, though, the cold light of dawn brought it back with vengeance. And looking on him…so achingly beautiful. The tragedy in potential he represented was just…too much. Even the agony and work and heart he’d put into preparing for this! It had done nothing but make him a more beautiful person, a more beautiful body, and a more beautiful soul in the way he loved his men, wanted to be better for them, be better for everyone. It was…selfless. Pure.

She saw it all as he stepped into the shower. A perfect embodiment of what a man should strive to be. And it fucking broke her.

She became aware of Xiù trying to get her attention around about the same moment she realized she was in tears. “Hey. Hey…Al…bǎobèi?”

Al pulled herself together with a snarl and dried her eyes on the blanket. “Fuck…sorry.”

“Nuh-uh.” Xiù gave her a kiss and wiped her cheeks dry with a thumb, with a decidedly forced little shaky smile. “We’re allowed.”

“…God, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you.”

“Me either.”

Al blinked at her, then found a chuckle. “Mischief.”

“Yup…C’mon, let’s…” she tipped her head toward the shower. He wasn’t singing, this morning. Which meant he was just as troubled too.


Their morning shower-dance was exactly the little injection of normalcy that Al needed, and just the right kind of affectionate. Not…not volcanic. Not this time. But close, and comforting, and reassuringly intimate. Strong hands scrubbed her hair, appreciated their closeness with soapy caresses. Appreciated both of them, and they reciprocated three-fold. The shower was big enough for the three of them, even if he was such a wall these days it was snug company.

They didn’t mind.

“…You okay?” he asked.

On any other day, Al might have put on the tough act. But right now, she really needed to be honest. “…Not really. Been…been a hard week. Y’know? Earth, and now this…”

He pulled her close and nuzzled the top of her head. Her hand felt along his short-cut mohawk. That had been a thing.

“…I miss your hair.”

She’d never seen him without that unruly, wolfish mess until suddenly the Regulations stepped in and…well, they all claimed it was for the helmet. And sure, that was true enough. But it was so much more than a cut. It was a symbol. A mark, between men and brothers.

Warriors going to war. She hated that mohawk.

“Hair grows back.”

Yeah, but what it represented was always gonna be there. Al didn’t say that, though. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t even know what she felt, really. On the one hand, yeah, she was proud of all he’d done and all he was doing and she’d even encouraged him to do it.

But on the other hand, in a couple of hours he’d be going to suit up and then they wouldn’t see him until he came home, either with his shield or on it.

And the thought of on it made her stomach twist up so much it hurt.

That was the price of having a life so good you could happily keep going forever in it. Reality didn’t work that way. Something came along to change things, eventually. And you could either be brave and welcome the new world, or you could break. Al had always thought of herself as brave enough to face anything. But right now…Breaking sure felt a whole lot easier.

Fuck that. She’d gone through this once already, back on Akyawentuo. It had felt impossible then, but they’d got through. She had Xiù, she had the kids…and they had her. They needed her, just like she needed them.

But they all needed him, too. Which put Al in the tangled headspace of wishing he was more selfish and had refused this call, even though his selflessness was one of the things she loved so much.

There was no good way out of a brain-thicket like that. And not even the way he wrapped her up in his arms from behind and squeezed her helped, because what had gripped her was the thought of losing exactly that.

With an effort, she swallowed down the fear of what might be and steadied herself. Ran her hand along his arm and squeezed his hand. “We should…we should go check on the kids,” she said aloud. They deserved time with their dad just as much as she did.

Julian chuckled softly. “Before Harrison empties the fridge.”

Allison found a small laugh in that: their son was, inevitably, growing up into a teenage meathead who went through more calories per day than both his moms combined. He was lucky to have a wealthy family, ‘cuz food was expensive nowadays. Keeping that fridge stocked was the biggest part of their budget even with Julian’s HEAT stipend.

“If he has, I’m using the spatula,” Xiù asserted, from where she was sitting draped over Julian’s shoulders.

“A dire threat.”

“It works.” She kissed the top of Julian’s head, then slithered out from behind him to dry off and get dressed. Julian gave Al another squeeze, then did the same for Xiù…and Al found herself feeling steady, now. She’d given voice to what she was feeling, and…it was out there. It was said. She could get on with things, now.

She caught the towel Xiù threw her way, and got on with things.

The spatula went unused. Both Anna and Harrison were in just as subdued a mood as she was, today: worried, scared, and trying not to show it.

Julian was pretty good in Dad Mode. He came down the stairs in his habitual sleeping shorts and made right for the stove. “I see you left us some bacon…”

“I’ve got a match today,” Harrison said without much conviction.

“Right, and you’re gonna whup Diego tonight, then nerd out on videogames.”


“Dad nothin.’” He wielded his spatula. “Life goes on, yijao? Y’know what’d be a great present for when I come back? First place. ‘Cuz I love Diego too but you’re my boy an’ you’re the bigger and better wrestler right now. So go win, and be a good sport! And if you don’t…well, he’s a good kid to lose to.”

“And what if you lose?” Anna asked, sourly.

Harrison’s own retort died unspoken. He glanced at his sister, then back at Julian, gulped and nodded.

Julian paused, then sighed heavily and sat down across the counter. “I might, yeah.” He glanced at Al and Xiù, then back to his kids. “And I know that’d suck pretty bad. But you’re the best family a man could ask for. I’ve made arrangements so none of you will ever want for anything. Adam, well…part of the silver lining of everything is he’s staying right here, and none of us could ask for a better man to watch over our own.”

“Arrangements,” Anna repeated blankly, then abruptly got up from the table. “Y’know what, I’m not hungry.”


Allison tapped his arm. “Let me.”

He blinked at her, then nodded and got on with making breakfast.

Anna hadn’t gone far. She’d curled up on the far end of the couch in the front room, wearing an expression Allison knew all too well: she’d seen it on her own face so many times. And Anna definitely had the Buehler face and hair…and Line genes. Kid still had a bit more growing to do and already she was half a head taller than Allison.

She sat next to her daughter, who scrubbed her face and looked away, remaining silent.

“…I hate it too.”

“I don’t—” Anna cleared her throat. “I’m scared, Mom. They’re talking about this being, like, the biggest operation ever. The one that’ll end the war. It’s gonna be dangerous.”


“Doesn’t that scare you?”

“I was crying my eyes out an hour ago.” Allison put her hand on her daughter’s back. “Yeah. I’m shit-scared. But…say the worst does happen. D’you really want that to be the last thing you said to him?”

Anna pulled a face, shut her eyes, and shook her head.

“You hungry after all?”

“…I’ll eat.”

Al rubbed her pack, patted twice, then stood. “C’mon.”

It wasn’t a normal breakfast. It was awkward as hell, with the future looming over the table. And all too soon, it was over and Julian’s phone pinged, summoning him. Allison didn’t want the hug he gave her to ever end. But it had to. She stood and watched him hold his children, trade I-love-yous, and then…


She wrapped herself around Xiù and held her. Harrison slouched off upstairs to grab his stuff, Anna went to sulk in the gym, and they were alone. Waiting together, again.

It was going to be a long wait.

Julian Etsicitty

Shit. It was all he could do to smile and laugh before he stepped out. The moment he was far away enough from his family…he damn near went to pieces.

They were gonna do it. And he possibly—maybe probably—wouldn’t come back.

God, he was scared. Not of dying, he’d faced that every day on Nightmare for six years. And then against that gunship that blew his foot off, and when Sanctuary was destroyed, and running from the giant termites on Lucent, and fighting on Akyawentuo…he’d brushed with death often enough now, seen it take enough people, that he didn’t really worry about it. It’d either not happen, in which case not a problem, or it would in which case, he’d no longer be in a position to have any feelings about it or anything else.

But the thought of leaving Xiù, Al, Anna and Harrison to carry on without him? The thought of hurting them that much? That scared the crap out of him.

But…well. The stakes of this mission were all-or-nothing. They either won, or the Hierarchy did. And if the Hierarchy won, then nobody was going to survive, in the long run. Extinction meant his family would die too.

How could he not go? Not just for them, but for everyone?

That thought held him together. He took a deep breath, focused on it, rolled his neck until it clicked and focused. There was a lot to do, now, and much riding on his ability to set his troubles aside and do.

Base gates, locker room, get changed, office, read his morning mail, reply to what demanded it, jump room—



Time to really go to work.

Starship Rich Plains, Orbiting planet Gao

Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight

“Operation TILE FLIP is simple in its conception, but galactic in its scope and demand.”

The time had at last come to brief the Dominion Security Council—those members of it whom the United Peoples trusted to maintain secrecy, at least—on what it was the UP was doing. But for as much good will as humanity and the gao had gathered these last several years, that good will hadn’t come with understanding to match.

The Guvnurag ambassador in particular was radiant with an aghast purple glow.

“Ambassador, your people just lost your home planet! Surely you don’t mean to transition directly from evacuation to war?”

“The loss of our home planet is what delayed this operation from happening earlier, Ambassador. Delayed it too long, indeed: the enemy have had time to prepare.” Sir Patrick turned slightly to address the room in general. “My culture has a saying: ‘strike while the iron is hot.’ Right now, we are mobilized. Right now we have a foe that needs to be waged war upon, and the certain knowledge that if we do not take this opportunity, then there will likely never be another. If we fail to act now, the consequence is death, not just for ourselves, but for every sapient being in this galaxy.”

“You are not taking any time to mourn it?”

“There will be time for that later, Ambassador,” Sir Patrick replied evenly, and noted the way the Corti ambassador nodded in agreement. “You are correct that the Earth’s death is…terribly hard to bear. But we have not yet reached the appropriate time to grieve for our home. If that seems strange to you, I most only plead that we are an alien people to the Guvnurag, are we not?”

The ambassador’s glow settled into something a little more spotty and confused. “Yes…well. Yes. That you are.” He looked around the council chamber, then took a step back, his glow getting even fainter.

Sir Patrick turned to the rest of the room again. “We are making this announcement now, to warn you that the United Peoples’ Space Fleet, formerly the joint Allied navies and the spacefaring Clans of Gao, are indefinitely suspending the patrol operations that have maintained security along the Dominion’s spacelanes these past several years. Our recommendation is that a travel advisory be put out warning civilian ships to travel by jump if possible, for the duration.

“The Interspecies Dominion is going to have to step up and take over the duties we have been providing. This is a vulnerable moment for us all, and though the Hunters are nothing compared to what they were ten years ago, we haven’t succeeded in eradicating every last breeding hive. If they do not take advantage, the starving pirate factions we have kept starving may seize their chance. So long as we are distracted by this, the Dominion must provide.”

He glanced behind him at his advisors, then back around the chamber. “I cannot say how long this distraction will last. What I can say is that we know the peoples of the Dominion are stronger than ever. When we first met, the peoples of this galaxy were weak, hidebound, fractious and crumbling. Sickened and dying from the Hierarchy’s poison. Now, you are free of them. Now, you can show your true quality…and I for one have no doubt of your true quality.”

A susurration among the delegates as they absorbed this compliment, but Knight always looked to the Guvnurag in moments like this. No other species wore their hearts so completely on their sleeves, or served as so accurate a windvane for the general mood of the room.

He’d studied their colour-language so thoroughly for this exact reason. He knew those shades now fluttering along the ambassador’s flanks and face: pride, tinged with uncertainty. He was striking a cord and inspiring them, but he needed to solidify it.

“Make no mistake: this is the dawn of a new age for this galaxy. The Igraens have ruled us for millions of years, and countless forgotten sapient species have been exterminated for the sake of preserving their order. We do not know what a world without them will even be like. But we are going to find out. And I have every confidence that in the years to come, we will forget the arbitrary distinction ‘deathworlder.’ There will be only Peoples, free to progress and live by our own guiding lights, rather than the puppet strings of our ancient oppressors. Alike in the dignity of life and intelligence, united by common victory, and above all else, free.”

The colour patterns stabilized into fierce resolve. Perfect.

“I look forward to seeing you on the far side of the coming victory,” he said, bowed slightly, and took his leave.

There was an eruption of sound behind him: he ignored all the clamoring voices and exited the council chamber to return to his ambassadorial quarters.

There was no point in worrying about what they would do. He’d spoken truthfully when he told them he was confident in their ability, but the Security Council was only very recently released from the Hierarchy’s control. Hundreds, thousands of years of being kept as a fractious and ineffectual organ had left a metaphorical groove it’d be too easy for them to fall back into…

Whether they did or didn’t wasn’t his concern. If there was a mess to clean up after TILE FLIP, it’d be cleaned up. If there wasn’t, good. He’d warned them, and that was all that was required.

After all, he’d just made a declaration of intent the Hierarchy couldn’t fail to notice. The trigger had been pulled, now.

He poured himself a scotch (precious, precious stuff, nowadays,) sat back, and raised a toast to victory.

May it be swift and decisive.

Date Point: 4 days After Earth
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adam, not quite sure what to do with himself

Final inspection, prior to suiting up for the mission of their lives.

Well. Not Adam’s.

He was staying right here on Cimbrean. His job right now was to give everyone one last look-over before they stepped. So out of the shower, get their sanitary briefs on. Nobody liked that bit but what could you do? Biology didn’t care. The new systems were so much more comfortable, though. They looked and felt exactly like good quality bandless sports briefs now, aside from the whole discomfort of, uh, dealing with the plumbing inside. Point is, they were thin and comfortable to wear, didn’t get in the way at all…but damn it sucked to put ‘em on.

That taken care of, before him they paraded with some of the usual grabass humor and more than the usual nervous bravado. Weird, being on the other end of that. So he joked around and made it quick. Visual inspection. Posing, check for function, range of motion. Eagle-eyed search for any hidden injury or pain, in case some fuggin’ idiot got all hero-stupid and tried to tough it out. Flight doc and sports doc alongside him. All three had to sign off on everyone.

Quick tumbling session with them all, too. No better way to be sure and none of them disappointed. Fuck yeah! What a fuckin’ magnificent set of bastards they were. And what a roller-coaster it was to train and coach them! He was of course still proud that most of the team was no kind of physical match for him, like…not even a little bit his match anymore. He had the strength and the skill to humble them on the mat; he’d really built himself back up! But that pride was tempered a bit by the last several men waiting to be inspected.

‘Base was damn near his equal these days. Fuck that felt good, felt like when they’d first become friends all those years ago in Basic. Funny, really. They were so different. John wasn’t a brash, in-your-face sort of personality like many on HEAT, wasn’t a big bouncy puppy like Adam could be. ‘Base was proud, yeah, and sometimes that would come out to play…but only among friends. Mostly he kept to the background. He dated, but never seriously. Had a few recurring friends with benefits but nothing committed. Too bad, the world needed more like him. Tolerant of Adam too. Fine with being outshone from the beginning, comfortable in his place among the very best. He just…had a certain chill that Adam never had.

And he’d always been more concerned with others than himself. Dude was a saint, in a way.

“…You okay?”

Adam paused as he probed his best friend’s back with his fingers. ‘Base had a recurring problem with his left lat they’d never quite got to the bottom of, but was probably just habitual posture; he liked to lank around. Didn’t seem to be flaring up right now, though. “Yeah. I guess.”

John chuckled. “Bullshit. I know you, man, you’d sell your fuckin’ soul to be comin’ with.”

Adam sighed, then chuckled at how right that was. “In a heartbeat,” he agreed. “But…not now. Gotta heal my brain first.”

“Good man.” John turned around again, bent forward at the hips and pressed his palms to the floor with a grunt. Adam had to grin at that—Beef flexibility was a hell of a fuckin’ thing to witness, especially in a guy hovering close to the Gonzo level of the game these days.

…Somehow it’d never dawned on him that it was at least as impressive that he could do the same, and always had been able to. Weird.

‘Base chuckled to himself about something. “Shit, man. Wanna know what I think?”


“I think…” ‘Base grunted again as he lowered himself into splits. Nothing wrong there, either. “I think you’re where you’re meant to be. You’ve done all this, you pulled the whole fuckin’ team along with and showed us all what’s possible. Now you get to keep passing that on. Gotta look at that big picture, yijao?”

He looked up, grinned then sprang back to his feet. “As opposed to that ‘hyper-focus on the thing you’re doin’ right now’ shit you’ve done the whole rest of your life.”

“…Am I really that easy?”

“You always been easy. S’why you my number one side bitch!”

Adam scoffed, “With my callsign? Brave words from a man’ doin’ a striptease for me.”

“Gotta keep you wantin’!”

“Please. You could not satisfy me.”

“I know, you damn size queen! It’s all about Firth now, who’s next? Teabagging by Daar?”

“No. Because firstly, he don’t teabag. He bowling balls.”

Several people looked their way as John burst out laughing.

“Secondly,” Adam grinned, “the most dangerous person in the universe wouldn’t like that.”

“Who’d that be?”

“My wife.”

“Ooh, shit, yeah. I’m not brave enough to mess with Marty.” John chuckled, then gave Adam a hug. “Anyway. I’m good, right?”

Adam crouched in a wrestler’s stance. “Let’s be sure.”

‘Base grinned in return, and they tumbled. Good, fun spar, like it had always been. There was just something wonderful about roughhousing with your best friend, and it was especially good when he could fight back. They were very well-matched. Equally experienced, same height, mostly same general build these days, though ‘Base wasn’t as big or brick-like, so not as fast or strong. Tough, though. Tough enough that Adam had to work a little bit for a tap-out.

But he got it, in the end. Had some smashy fun for a bit. Too bad they couldn’t play all day. He offered a hand and yanked ‘Base back up to his feet, gave him a slamming hug.

“Best you’ve ever been,” Adam signed him off. “Still room for improvement, though.”

John snorted. “Never fuckin’ good enough for you…”

“We’ve always gotta keep ahead, bro. You’re cleared to fight. So…go stack ‘em for me.”

He loved the big bastard with all his heart. John smacked him once on the shoulder, nodded seriously, and went off to get suited. Last visual inspection as he walked away. Beautifully fit for purpose, fuck yeah. The team was in good hands, there.

Gonzo was next, the young high-end Hero kid who was already every bit Adam’s equal in everything. Maybe even a little bit better. Yeah. A bit heavier. Had a more ‘Horse-like shape than most Heroes too, except just that bit more refined than Adam, maybe a little bit more athletic and powerful. More than a little, honestly. Hunter had very little competition anywhere, in or out of the team. He was a goddamn stud and he damn well knew it.

Still crushed him on the mat, but honestly that was mostly experience and a little luck. Adam made sure to say so, gave him some praise as he left. Hunter favored him with a ridiculous, happy and slightly smug flex on the way out. He’d earned it.

Hoeff, now. He’d be off doing something different, and for that critical mission he’d be wearing a MASS of his own. That meant he got the workover too. Honestly, he was a mensch. Once they’d fixed his long-standing metabolic problem—tentatively with diet, then permanently with (nowadays) fairly trivial gene therapy—he just blew up and nothing seemed to slow him down. Hoeff had everything ‘Horse or Hunter did, compacted into the same five-foot-four shortstack he ever was. Maybe he couldn’t run quite as fast on those short doom-pillars he called legs, but he was heavier, stronger and somehow even quicker, and dense to a degree almost nobody could match. Dude was basically fucking indestructible.

A good thing he was all that, too. He and Wilde were going off on the special mission Adam had originally been briefed on years ago at Ekellim-Igigi, the one that was going to require someone trained up to his level. But, no. He’d handed off to Hoeff. Uncertainty around nervejam meant Adam wasn’t going. Not going on the most important mission of all time.


“How’d the fitting go yesterday?’

“Easy,” Hoeff grunted. “Much better’n the old shit.” Pose, stretch. No compromised function despite the extreme bulk he carried. Zero asymmetry. Dude was a freakish sort of perfect.

“Mhmm.” Couldn’t feel anything wrong in his shoulders, which had once been a problem…well, now they had no give at all. Not unless he relaxed and Adam really went for it, and even then all he could manage was to slightly dent the bastard.

“Ow.” That was it. Ow. Adam shook his head in amazement.

“Fuckin’ hell. Any complaints or anything?”

“Nah. Fits like a dream. Makes me feel stronger, which is a surprise…”

“And a little scary.” Which was true.

“No shit. Thanks for that.”

Didn’t need to say more. He was a man of few words.

“De nada. So…we haven’t sparred in a long damn time, and now I’m genuinely curious. You’re almost half a yard shorter but you’re heftier and put up bigger lifts.”

“Have more experience fightin’ oversized Slabs, too.” Hoeff grinned savagely.

“Right. So…”

They tumbled too. Interesting fight, that. Hoeff was stronger. Significantly stronger. Partly that was his proportions, especially in his legs. But he had gorilla-arms to go with his cuboid build, so they weren’t that much shorter. Adam went in having no idea how he’d fare. And at first he dominated, even if he couldn’t actually hurt the diamond-bodied fucker…

Until Hoeff got a grip. The instant he got his hands or feet locked together, it was game over, because between the two Adam was downright squishable by comparison. It was like someone slowly ratcheting a comealong tighter and tighter. He tapped out at the end, once Hoeff started really having fun working Adam’s bulk into bruised jelly. He could have taken a lot more abuse, but there was no point in forcing the issue; Hoeff would have crushed him flat and put him in the hospital.

“Shit, dude.” Took a bit to catch his breath, let the Crude work its magic while a mildly smug Hoeff pinned him under his ridiculous weight. Adam eventually groaned like he wanted to get up, and Hoeff politely popped up to his feet and proffered a mitt. Adam took it and was effortlessly yoinked back to upright.

“I coulda gone a lot harder.”

Adam nodded, “I could tell.”

“Yeah. You’re just too damn big an’ strong to play nice. And tricky.”

“Thanks, I guess…”

“I mean it. We should spar more, we’d learn a lot from each other.”

Okay. Fair enough.

“Sure. Plenty of motivation to up my conditioning game now…anyway.” He nodded. “You’re good to go. Godspeed.”

Hoeff looked up, proffered a hand to match Adam’s, and gave a genuinely crushing shake.

Quick conversation was honestly a kind of mercy. Hoeff got it. Adam watched his thick-legged swingaround gait as he sauntered away; Hoeff was probably the gold medalist in pushing himself far beyond his natural limits, and had managed not to ruin his lines in the process, either. Which was saying something; it a fuck of a lot of extra work on top of everything else to do that, even if for men like them it usually meant they’d wind up as particularly fetching bricks by the end of it.

Still. Pretty-brick was better than being a perfectly functional yet lumpen ball of muscle, so nobody on the team was slack about any of it. Hoeff was still a standout though, and Adam couldn’t help but admire the impossible fireplug of a man. One who could provably break him in half now, too.

New goals, right there. One day, he’d do the same, but at Warhorse scale.

Double-check the list: so far, so good. Couldn’t find a damn thing wrong with anybody, yet. They’d all been well taken care of, and they’d all paid close attention to their health. He checked them all off without hesitation.

Past Hunter and Hoeff, things got fuckin’ biblical. Adam had been proud of his friend’s accomplishments even before he joined the team, but now that he was on-team, they didn’t need to hold back at all. And boy howdy had he ever responded! Playboy had honed himself into something truly special these last few years. Form and function, improving each other. He was the poster-boy for the human race, and rightly so. Dude was goddamn flawless.

Still looked fuckin’ weird with short hair though. Like, good weird, but still weird. Julian was supposed to be fuckin’ Tarzan! And Tarzans had a shaggy mess of hair, not a helmet ‘hawk.

“It does feel funny,” Julian admitted, reaching up to scrub at the bristly hairs. Fuck. Hard to say exactly who had the best-looking arms of all, but Adam knew where he’d bet his money.

“Well, put your fuckin’ babe-hook down and leave it alone,” Adam grinned. Julian was so easy to tease. “Respectfully, of course.”

“Heh. You’re gonna pay for that when we get back…”

“Well,” Adam nodded, suddenly feeling it in his heart. “Good reason to come back, then.”


Slightly awkward goodbye hug, which turned a little playful when Adam tried to squirm free…

“Nah. Ain’t gettin’ away from these babe-hooks ‘till I say so!” Arms tightened, breath smashed right out of him. No worries, it was all in good fun. Besides, pretty-dude was the penultimate HEAT operator these days, so it wasn’t like Adam could say otherwise. Might get beaten up and have his lunch money stolen, too. Ha!

They only sparred for fun, because Adam was basically helpless against Playboy these days. He was dense and tough like Hoeff, but taller and much heavier still, with a far more usefully athletic shape. He looked like a faultless Hero, and he was. Against a functional physique like that, skill and experience hardly mattered. His only real peer was his best bud Vemik.

Honestly, Adam was fuckin’ proud of them both.

Forehead-to-forehead goodbyes, and then he too prowled away, an ultra-muscular paragon of a man heading off to the hunt. Christ. They really were sending their very best for this.

Well, the unbroken ones, anyway.

Yan was a bit gruff like Hoeff today, and kept his own counsel. No reason not to; he was physically progressing at his own pace, as fast as was natural for his kind. He still didn’t see much need for the spacemagic, because his people could be exceptionally long-lived if they were also exceptionally dominant. Quirk of their genetics. Legend and archeological evidence had shown stable blackcrests to be extremely rare, maybe one or two at any given time, but they could live a hundred years easy, until the demands of their bodies eventually outgrew their ability to hunt and feed themselves, and their brains literally starved to death.

Or the testosterone poisoning became so severe they couldn’t control themselves, which honestly led to the same sort of mental collapse. Either seemed a terrible fate, but Yan was a wise old man. He had a long time before that was a worry, especially with modern diet science available. So for now, he built himself up himself. He didn’t make a habit of the Crude because he straight didn’t need it for the moment. He knew what he was doing.

So, he performed. Showed off what it meant to have a build that made Hoeff or Julian look soft and scrawny, while still able to scratch his ear with his foot. What the peerless form and symmetry of his people looked like, enough to make even a Niksum stud blush with envy.

He knew what he had, too. “I’m pretty good, yes?”

Big cheesy fang-grin, that.

“Yup! Now, any injuries I gotta know about? Bad food one night, maybe Singer was a bit too rough with you?”

“Feh,” Yan grunted dismissively. “Impossible. No woman can best me!” That playful ten’gewek chauvinism came out, which wasn’t as offensive as it might be with humans; their women could literally roar. “Maybe you worry about Aleks, his woman is strong I can tell…”

Adam grinned, “you ain’t wrong!” Down the list. Check, check. Check. “Good thing you’ve got a new buddy to keep you on your toes.”

As Vemik and Julian were happily matched up, so too were Yan and Alex, who wasn’t there; Adam checked him over yesterday so he could form up with his Niksum. They’d become good friends and together were about the only force in the universe that could keep Vemik and Julian properly contained and in their place. Necessary skill, that.

“Yes! Very fine young man. I teach him very much! Learn from him, too.” Tell-tale tail twitch…

“Maybe I show you!”

Pounce. Across the room and into the padded wall. Hip-toss the bastard to the other wall—

He rebounded off the wall with the slightest of effort and used his legs to kick off like a fucking rocket. So they wrestled, but only because that was how ten’gewek expressed their affection. Adam could dig it, even if he was barely a child next to Yan’s unfathomable speed and strength. Yan toyed with him for a while in the playful ten’gewek way—so fierce, crushing, and hard. But not too long. They had a mission, and not even Yan’s cheery aggression could long rebel against that. Approved, and Adam helped trim up his crest a bit for the suit.

He had a moment to collect his thoughts. Damn, what a fuckin’ crew this was. And he hadn’t even considered the rest of the package. The Grand Army had grown into something leaner and meaner over the years of the gaoian drawdown and the sudden influx of Western personnel, along with very trainable and fit young men from every corner of the late Earth. The Space Navy was…well, Adam didn’t really grok navy stuff, being honest, but he knew what they were. Deadlier now than at any point. The logistics behind them was pretty epic and on point, and of course that was what really won a war.

The SOR was the best possible spear-tip to open that wound. The Grand Army and the Space Navy would together make for a long, sturdy shaft behind the spear. Add in Daar’s effectively infinite wealth, combined with the UP’s full logistical might…

That was a hell of an arm to drive that spear in deep.

Fifth was last up for inspection, the most thoroughly maximum hench-ass motherfucker in either the human or ten’gewek species, second only to Daar. One look at the demigod of war silently shaking the floor as he prowled in to be examined told the story for anyone to see. Normally there was a point where bigger and stockier stopped being better. Everyone had a limit somewhere, even extreme Heroes like Hoeff or actual paragons like Julian or Alex…

Not Christian. Maybe Yan would prove like him one day, but not yet.

Yup. Adam was done. Surpassed. Superseded. Christian was as far beyond Julian as Julian was beyond Joe Blow Average right off the street. He was the man who had wrestled and pinned an entire team of Niksum into submission at Rooney’s without so much as disturbing a single seat or jostling a beer. The man who did the same to HEAT on the regular, who actually won in one-against-everyone games of Gravball and for whom new such lopsided games were continually being invented. Who, if you’d scaled him down to Hoeff-height, would still be the heaviest, stockiest motherfucker in the SOR. Righteous was meant to be extreme.

He was the one who had unambiguously committed the rest of his life to the cause. Something only Adam had ever done, and then only quietly. Righteous was the HEAT, now.

They both knew it was torch-passing time.

The docs both knew, too. They looked at Adam, checked off and left them alone. Really, this was just a formality where Firth was concerned. Adam for his part just…well, there wasn’t anything less than optimal about the big fucker, nothing head to toe that wasn’t incomparably better. He moved better than basically anyone else, too. Flawless self-control, yet so explosively fast and strong he could thump the air with punches, slaps, even kicks.

He and Yan (and Alex, too) were totally unreal that way, though that didn’t make them any kind of equal. Christian was something else altogether. There wasn’t any competing with that. Still getting better, too. Hadn’t slowed down at all.

“Perfect score,” Adam sighed with both pride and some honest envy. “I can’t even offer any suggestions. Besides, I don’t s’pose you’d let me find anything wrong even if I wanted to.”

“No. But there ain’t nothin’ wrong. I got a body made for this.”

Quick look up and down. Not a greek model was he, nor did he have a comic book sort of build. He was an aesthetic hulk. Honestly, he was one of the very few Adam would say looked better than the Niksum weirdos, precisely because of his build. Huge and mega-wide from head to toe and front to back, but proportioned flawlessly under all that muscle. The two of them had taken his incomparable physique and stuffed it utterly full of ability. Then the Crude and his genetics let him adapt properly to the size, and they kept pushing it…

Righteous was something unique, a work of brutalist art. Nobody else could manage such an extreme body. He was a living weapon unlike any other. He was the human Daar.

Adam shook his head in disbelief at what they’d wrought. Were still forging. “No shit.”

An’ I got you ‘ta thank for it.”

Adam again shook his head. “No, you really don’t.‘Member the Zangief statue?”

“It’s on my desk.”

“You make him look like a flabby, narrow-shouldered, scrawny little bitch.”

“Ha! Well, I like bein’ the big freak everyone stares at. Always did. Like what I see in the mirror too, I admit…so does Freya. And yeah, I do gotta thank you for that.” He gave a teasing grin. “An’ not jus ‘fer bein’ tied up with Julian and Gilgabro ‘fer most prettiest these days, neither.”

Adam grinned. “Like the attention, huh? Bein’ a caveman kinda eye-candy will get you that.” Those fucking thot-addled celebrity polls.

“Eh, it’s fun. Privacy’s better, though!” Firth chuckled, and gave Adam a sorta fake-smug grin. “I ain’t complainin’ either way. Sarry ‘bout knockin’ you an’ ‘Base outta the top five.”

“You ain’t sorry for shit, don’t pretend!”

“‘Yer right. I ain’t. I can’t help bein’ this fuckin’ pretty.”

“Firstly, it was Alex and that korean singer who actually did the deed. I ain’t mad being top-ten in a pretty-man list next to that!”

“Well, he is actually kinda good-looking I guess, for a scrawny k-pop type…”

“Exactly. So secondly, you can go fuck right off, chief!”

“Naw. I got a wife for that. Y’all are too puny an’ breakable anyway.”

They both chuckled. “I still say that was a bullshit poll! Fuckin’ ESNN propaganda…but no.” Adam sobered back up. “Really. Don’t thank me. Thank yourself. It’s the attitude that matters, man. Even with your ridiculous—”

“An’ dubious.”

“And basically engineered heritage, you wouldn’t have built yourself into any of this if you weren’t ready for this fight in your head. It takes balls and heart to do something this brave.”

Firth looked…embarrassed, suddenly. Looking down at his huge feet, shuffling on them a bit nervously. “I know,” he said, in a quiet rumble. “Like I said. I’ve got you to thank for it.”

“Dude, I just said—”

“No, listen to me, ‘ya idjit. I owe everything to you. If you hadn’t come along, humbled me, taught me a real work ethic, showed me how far determination could go…dude, I wouldn’t be a tenth of the man I am today. I wouldn’t have a family, wouldn’t be any of this. You showed me what it meant to be a proper fuckin’ man. I’m able to be the best because of what you taught me. An’ I don’t mean diet or exercise. I mean in here.” He tapped on his skull. “An’ here, too.” He thumped his chest. “It all means a lot more to me now.”

Adam….didn’t know what to say to that. Didn’t really want to hear it, either. He’d had all those sessions with the units psychs over the years because on some level he knew he was kinda way off on his own extreme. What Christian was saying just didn’t sit comfortably.

“Yeah, well…you got me beat in the end,” he said, lamely.

“No, you idjit. It ain’t about that. At this level, bein’ jacked and mean is just table stakes. What matters is heart. I didn’t have it. I was just skatin’ along all big and badass, gettin’ off on being king shit. You taught me how much that din’t matter at this level without th’ rest. ‘Cuz you had heart. It’s you more’n anything else that really made HEAT work, y’know. You were our heart an’ fuckin’ soul! It ain’t just ‘cuz you were a wall o’ muscle.”

“I mean, I guess?” Adam objected, weakly. “But I’m a Protector! That was what we were originally for, remember? Bein’ the hugest was our job. We were the best at it! Now…”

He really couldn’t help but compare himself. He loved Christian, really he did. He’d grown so much as a person over the years, really became a stand-up guy…and that was just one more way where he was better in every single thing and it made Adam feel sorta terrible, and then even more terrible that he was feeling this shit in the first place. What did it matter!? Used to be, he could toss Firth and half the team over one shoulder!

Now Adam couldn’t even heft him on Akyawentuo. What good was he anymore?

“Hey. You’re doin’ the thing.”

“…What thing?”

“The thing where you size yourself up and sigh in your head.”

Shit. “Am I that obvious?” Seemed like a repeating theme today.

“Yeah. You’ve never been good at poker…but stop it, ‘kay? Take some old man advice. I ain’t pullin’ ‘yer leg when I ramble on ‘bout heart an’ all that. It mattered.”

“Shit, did it really? I mean, I’m just a guy. A guy that can’t hack it on the team anymore.”

“No, you fuckin’ ain’t. Firs’ly, save for ‘yer injury you got saving us all an’ fuckin’ civilization along with it—ain’t even th’ first time you pulled that shit, ‘member? Savin’ all that, you’d still be one o’ the best on th’ team! Don’t worry ‘bout my mutant bullshit. I can’t help that an’ neither can you. An’ heart fuckin’ matters.”

“I guess…”

“Dude. Fuck. I know you fuckin’ hate it, but none of this woulda happened if you hadn’t been an excellent dude in the right time in the right place. Regaari wouldn’t’a happened. Daar wouldn’t’a happened. We’d be dead, alla us, an’ we wouldn’t be on this mission right now to go shove our great big freedom dicks right up their fuckin’ third point o’ contact.” Firth paused for effect, grinned smugly, then pulled his leg-dwarfing arms and the titanium slabs of his chest into an apocalyptic most-muscular, one fit to make Adam feel microscopic and puny. “An’ since I’m th’ most hugest walkin’-ape these days, I’ll freedom ‘em the hardest!”

Adam couldn’t resist a snrrk at that one. Nor could a few of the others, he heard. Firth gave them a look to the effect that further eavesdropping was gonna grow his shit-list, then looked down at Adam again, took a deep breath, and spread his hands in a half-shrug.

“…I’m in this for the long haul. As long as it fuckin’ takes. And that’s…it’s fuckin’ scary. I don’t wanna do this alone, Adam. I don’t wanna be either this untouchable king-shit freak or, y’know a little squishable bug next to Daar, much as I love everyone…I want a peer. Maybe, I dunno, Julian and Alex might catch up one day. Maybe Gilgabro? Hell. Maybe Yan or some big gaoian bear, too. But maybe not. You, though? I think you jus’ might, ‘cuz you don’t know how to stop. Or if anyone else is gonna do this at my level, it’ll be you who gets them there. So…don’t give up on yourself. I ain’t. An’ I know the big bear boss ain’t, neither.”

Campbell saved Adam from having to come up with a reply to any of that. “Your station’s ready, Righteous. Time to squeeze ‘yer thunderass in the tube.”

Firth glanced at him, acknowledged him with a nod, then looked back to Adam, grabbed his arm in a palm-to-wrist crush-grip, and pulled him in (…and up) for a hug. A full Firthly force slam-smash, one which probably broke a rib or something.

“We’ll talk when I get back.”

And that was it. He put Adam down and sauntered off, the best the human race had to offer. On his way to risk it all for everyone.

Adam…had no further role to play. He’d done his bit. There was no suit waiting for him, no stasis bottle, no mission. His part in TILE FLIP was over, notwithstanding a little paperwork. And even that amounted to nothing more than just tapping a couple times on his tablet.

So…he went home.

Marty had made him promise, on that score. She knew him too damn well, knew he’d mooch around at the base waiting and lurking and agonizing over not being involved, so he was under wifely orders to get his ass home once he was done and his duty day was over.

Something stopped him. He found himself casting around, looking for something else to do, some other way to be useful…

He realized how dumb he was being, and even chuckled. Every fucking thing he thought of involved, somehow or some way, training. His thoughts were terminally meathead, forever thinking like a coach.

He’d done what he could. He’d been useful enough. And they’d still need him afterwards. Also, he’d need to be a landlord later on, but that was for tomorrow Adam.

So…fuck it.

He went home.

Diego, Sam and Paz were with Freya and the Firth warren; they had a lot of friends living between the two apartment buildings, and other HEAT families too, so he wasn’t going to take them from that. Besides. Adam was pretty sure Diego was sweet on quiet Jenny. Big-puppy, man-crushing, hulking Diego suddenly bashful and shy around quiet little pretty Jenny.


Marty met him on the doorstep with her hiking boots on, and the keys to a rental truck in her hand. She knew what he needed: time and space to walk and think. He grabbed his heaviest pack…considered the truck’s Insufficient Hugeness and decided on something a bit more modest. Tossed in his meal-bag too, and a big jug of water.

Necessities taken care of, they drove out to Lakebeds, and took the steep way up Mount Dagnabbit. Talked about…other stuff, for the moment. About whether or not there really was a thing with Diego and Jenny (probably just a mutual crush right now), and how Paz was doing at school (much better now!), and…normal stuff. Parent stuff.

There was nobody else on the mountain. It was a clear enough day to see all the way to the ocean. Fuckin’ beautiful, really. A perfect spot to stop and eat…

Weird combination in his meal plan this time. Rice, chicken, banana, cinnamon, hot sauce, some other stuff. Worked though.

Marty was watching him, he realized as he mixed it all up. As if what she saw pleased her. He paused and frowned at her, trying to figure out what was on her mind. “…What?”

“You’re okay,” she said. “Aren’t you.”

“Yeah.” He said it reflexively, the whole stoic ‘of course I’m okay’ bit. But then it hit him: he was. And it hadn’t been a question on her part.

The feeling kinda…hitched in his throat. He paused, glanced down at his meal, then nodded. “…Yeah, I am.”

Shit. Yeah.

He was. He…it was okay. He was okay. He thought about all his goals, and his schemes and his Lists and all that…and it was okay. Maybe he’d do it all! Or maybe not.

Maybe he didn’t get justice perfectly by his own hand, but…well, not even he could carry the whole world, right?

Marty smiled, climbed into his lap, and kissed him. He kissed her back, and felt like he’d let go of something he’d been carrying for a very, very long time. There was a future. He’d helped build it, and one day, when the time was right, he’d help build it again. But he didn’t feel the universe caving in on him anymore.

It was going to be okay.

Date Point: 3 days After Earth
Fort Powell Training Camp, planet Nightmare

Brigadier Anthony “Abbott” Costello

Costello was…busy. Like a fucking honeybee, in fact: literally every second of his entire existence at the moment was work, except for when he was asleep. And even that was carefully timetabled to make sure he was working efficiently.

But it was what he needed.

The HEAT had two definite camps when it came to the whole family life, partnership and romance thing: the minority who threw themselves wholeheartedly into having one, like Firth and Etsicitty and Thompson, and the majority who, yeah, went out dancing and had dating app profiles, and got laid when they could but were reserving commitment for…afterwards.

Costello was in that second camp. Waiting for afterwards, when the stakes would be lower, and his own death less of a concern. He’d hate to imagine himself leaving a grieving family…

But that rationale didn’t make him immune to some amount of loneliness. Especially now, with all his extended family in stasis…and especially with the lingering melancholy of Earth’s loss. He doubted he’d ever quite recover from watching the world burn.

Work was a distraction. And Fort Powell (he had to wonder just what Stainless would have made of having an icy hellhole named after him) was especially distracting. The target world for TILE FLIP was cold; the JETS teams deploying there needed to be able to thrive in arctic conditions, and pass without trace through snow and permafrost.

And God, could they.

The gaoians especially loved it. Nightmare? Hardly. Gao was a freezer in its own right, in the depths of winter, and gaoian fur, when kept long, was so insulating that they could sleep outside, naked and unprotected, and remain perfectly dry: their body heat didn’t penetrate the fur enough to melt the ice. They’d tuck their paws and nose in, curl up in a body ball, and by morning there’d be a mound of snow that shook itself apart and got on with the day, completely happy. When it came to moving stealthily in wintry conditions, gao were in their element.

The humans and ten’gewek, being respectively adapted to dry or decidedly wet heats…less so. While it was true the men of SOR were almost universally fond of a much colder clime than most other humans, given the prevalence of the Heroic among them…there were levels to this game.

Their very lives depended on the integrity of their full-body excursion suits. They suppressed heat signatures, filtered exhalation for heat and gases. Fully-sealed, they would leave hardly any detectable thermal or chemical trace of their passing.

If they failed, priceless human and ten’gewek operators in their absolute superbeing primes would freeze to death in minutes. And damage the mission.

So that was the Nightmare training. It was less about passing without trace in the snow, important as that was, and much more about living 247 in the suit.

And during their training, they had been hunted. By none other than Playboy himself. Which meant that, despite having evaded detection for many days…they were doomed.

Costello grinned at the memory, having only been a week past.

“I have them,” the perfect bastard had subvocalized over the radio. “Sneaky game, or gorilla rage?”

Costello remembered thinking about that, though of course he hadn’t been directing the exercise. He’d simply listened in as he worked on flag-level things. It was Major Campbell’s team, now. Julian was a brevet captain, on demonstrated merit, and now second in command. The team seemed happy with it, and it seemed to be working well.

Gorilla, Costello had thought. They won’t be subtle with us.

Campbell thought the same thing, and said so over the radio. Costello grinned and brought up the relevant camera feed to re-watch the now-legendary pounce. One didn’t often get to see Playboy in his element, truly off the chain.

He didn’t disappoint. One second there was an innocuous snow-burdened tree, the next there was a human explosion. Maybe three seconds of incredible violence, and he had the entire team cuffed and groaning in pain. He then shouldered the helpless men all at once like so many sacks of flour, and carted them off to phase two of his cold-weather funhouse.

God, they’d lucked out with an officer like that.

Now here they were. All that work, all that training, all that preparation…it had all led to here. It had all been for this moment, that commitment moment of finally putting on the MASS.


Costello felt high, almost. And he knew perfectly well he was probably about the calmest and most restrained man-in-a-can they had right now. Everyone was carbed up, amped up, wired, practically frothing to tear the walls apart from how utterly fucking ready they were.

Righteous grumbled as he squeezed himself into his tube, the one that was made to accommodate him and a few of Stoneback’s most biggest. He wasn’t quite as tall as some of the biggest bears—not something one could often say about a seven-foot-nine man! But he dwarfed them all. When one tries to stuff that tube with the broadest, most densely heaviest and comparatively stockiest strongman alive aside from Daar himself, one layered over in immensely thick ultra-heavy armor and loaded down with all the killy toys he could carry…

Well, lucky for him the subjective experience would be brief. He’d either see the door close and then immediately open right into combat, or…

Well, he wouldn’t. And if that was the case, none of them would, most likely.

Not a mundane moment, that. Fight or instant death, made all the more potent by what that meant for all of them. No easing into a fight for them; they had to be ready to go instantly.

Costello made sure to be there for each man as they closed the tube. He put a hand on Firth’s giant armored shoulder, briefly tapped his helmet against the man’s chestplate. Wasn’t tall enough for helmet-to-helmet, sadly. Huge mitt pawed the back of his head. Love, but not without duty. They knew the tragic score between them.

He didn’t have exactly the words he wanted, either. So instead, he simply nodded.

Firth nodded quickly in reply, and snorted in his helmet as he squirmed in place and braced. He was a wide-eyed hulking colossus of perfect viking murder right then, one peaking on the most potent combat and performance pharmacology the superscience could produce. His incomparable muscles were literally shaking under his armor with anticipation and aggression.

They’d all be like that, when they were unleashed. Of all the things HEAT could do, that was the real secret to what they were and how they performed. They knew how to Ride the Dragon, and had over the years honed it to a craft unlike anyone else could perform. A dragon that would outright kill normal men and drive the less disciplined into insanity or fatal bloodlust.

For them, it just made servicing their targets faster and more precise. Made the objective attainable. They were pushing it pretty hard this time. Costello too, though not yet. He had a few more things to attend to before they put him in stasis.

But not until he’d seen all his men taken care of. He watched as the titan of a man positioned the balls of his huge left foot firmly against the kick-off plate. He wiggled his toes inside his flexible armored footwear to get as comfortably wide and ready as he could, bent his knee slightly and growled in anticipation, those gauntleted paws of his death-gripping the egress handles. Because he was such a big target, he more than anyone else on the team needed to move with extreme aggression the instant he could, so from his perspective he’d explode out of the tube the moment the door clicked closed, ripping it apart with his sheer strength.

They needed to be certain to open his tube pointing in a safe direction. Front toward enemy.

Stasis. That was the thing about the HEAT, when absolutely perfectly amped and prepared and ready there was no force like them. And for TILE FLIP, when the moment came to pull the trigger, they needed that perfection. How to achieve that reliably?

Simple. Make it happen, then stick the whole unit in a bottle like an explosive genie. Keep ‘em there until JETS came back with the go signal, and then…showtime.

Which meant everyone going into stasis was going so with the full expectation they’d need to do violence the moment they emerged. Hell of a way to do things, really.

Whew. Yeah.

Deacon gave Firth one last look over, read his vitals—and raised an eyebrow at his heart rate—nodded, signed off…and closed the door. Click.

Stasis light on. The Righteous-bomb was fully armed, now.

“How ‘bout you, sir? Everything feel right?” She knew his own techs had done him right, of course, but the techs always cross-checked. He bounced his armor, felt it clinging tight and secure all over his body. No shift, no sag, no shuffle or shimmy. Like his skin was inches thick and bulletproof. Bombproof. Damn near everything proof.

“Good! Yeah. Good.” Fuck he was feeling amped up himself. Icon in his HUD—autolab was starting him on his ramp-up and taking its time for maximum effect. Clock ticking, now.

Deacon nodded and gave him the traditional slap on the helmet. “See you on the other side, sir.”

Costello just nodded, bounced a bit more, feeling all his weight through his toes, feeling the tightness of strength in his huge calves and feet. Strange feeling, that: simultaneously dart-quick and monstrously heavy. The one-two punch of HEAT, summed up right there. He shook his head, starting to feel the aggression build, then grabbed his officers. Campbell, Stephenson and Etsicitty. Soup, Snowcrash and Playboy, each just now prepping to don their undersuits and each looking massively more dangerous than the previous. Fuck yeah.

Having buttoned up all the enlisted, it was time to remind them of what came after suiting up.

“We’ve done as much as we can to prepare for this. Lean on your sim time, explode out of that tube and stack ‘em like cordwood. Let’s do the thing and bring ‘em all home, eh?”

They nodded, his thinking killers ready to go. Riding that line between grim and savage. There was no need for any more words, no need for an inspiring speech—they’d already had all that. So Costello did his rounds, watched the men, watched the techs, watched the preparations…

He would be the last into his tube. He’d given everyone a word and his personal attention—he loved them all and this could well be the last moment they ever saw each other. That very important step done, there were only two things left to do.

First, he had to report to General Jackson, to let her know the HEAT was ready. To his utter lack of surprise, she was in the company of King Alexander.

The Niksum armor was what happened when a secret cabal who’d been quietly accumulating some of the galaxy’s most advanced technology for thousands of years were inspired by the EV-MASS. Really, it was incredibly gratifying that they hadn’t found much to improve on. It weighed a little less, had deeper energy reserves and came equipped with its own warp drive, but that was about it.

His own HEAT operators couldn’t make time all wibbly-wobbly. But fuck that, they had the means and the men to just grunt at the problem harder. Ha!

Old tricks were the best tricks, really.

“Your Majesty. General.”

Rylee Jackson gave him a tight, tense nod. “All ready?”

“Yes ma’am. Loading into the bottles as we speak.”

“My men have done the same,” Alex confirmed.

“And two of the Queens,” Jackson noted.

Alex chuckled at that. “There’s no power in all creation that would keep Mevia and Tomoe out of this fight. Or the rest. The more martial among them are on hot standby.”

“Then we’re basically all set…” Jackson tapped a few things on her tablet, then tucked it under her arm with an air of finality. “The Counsels wanted to speak with you personally. They should be here any—”


“—Second.” A flash of the smile Costello remembered from back when Powell had still been alive touched her face as she looked toward the jump array. “You’ve got to give them points for timing, huh?”

“Father always did know how to make an entrance,” Alex agreed, chuckling.

“I do! Something we must teach you!” The emperor of mankind swept his kingly son into a fond embrace.

“Something to look forward to,” Daar agreed. “Gotta learn ‘yer old-man tricks an’ make ‘em ‘yer own!”

Costello watched the Entity’s daemon give Alex an up-and-down glance, meet his eye, then shrug. “I suspect he already knows,” she said. “Anyway…”

Gilgamesh grinned at his son then nodded more seriously. “Yes. Just a few words. There really is not time for much more…I gather your men are already in stasis, Brigadier?”

“Yes, sir. Primed and ready to go.”

“Then I have missed my chance to say these words to them, but I can still say them to you…gods speed you to victory. Now more than ever is the HEAT’s crowning hour, and I know you are prepared for it.”

“We’re with ‘ya an’ alongside ‘ya,” Daar agreed. “To the end.”

Quick words, but Costello appreciated them. They were followed crushing hug from Daar last of all, along with an affectionate head-rub, and the further unspoken assurance that, come to it, no need would be spared, no necessary risk untaken.

It was a necessarily brief thing: they had to steal Jackson for stuff above Costello’s pay grade, and that was fine with him: he wanted to check in with Father Michael. The man who had helped Costello understand and, maybe, find the meaning of faith. He and a…deacon? A gaoian deacon, at that! They had a ritual blessing to bestow up on all of them and the tubes they were entombed in. Fancy cape and everything. Water sprinkled. Prayer. A sincere one…

Feeling in his heart. Couldn’t put it to words. Maybe if he came back, he’d talk it out.

Then everyone was gone. Which left just…the last thing.

Hoeff and Wilde.

The two men had been lurking at the edge of the organized chaos, watching and waiting and trading shit-talk with the Lads as they went in their bottles. Now they were alone, and both looking damn ready for their own role in this…an effect somehow not spoiled by Wilde, who was wearing his “Goblin Mode” shirt today.

Dude was built like a goddamn goblin too. So it worked. But it was the squat wall of murder next to him that, honestly, was the one man in the world Costello genuinely feared. One did not fail to notice anyone Righteous showed respect to, especially one who was basically a Hunter- or a Warhorse-sized man compressed down and ready to destroy, one heavier and stronger than either these days. He was a mini-Righteous.

His expression was the serene, blank handsomeness of a genuine killer anticipating.

“I gotta say…it was good to see you two, before we kick this off.”

Wilde nodded. “We’re all ready to do this thing, sir.”

Costello nodded. Good. Nods all around said all that needed to be said. No more putting it off. Time to get his part in this done.

He went in the bottle. There was a clonk, the sound of the techs arming it, a faint whine of power, and—

Date Point 1 week After Earth
Starship Turkeyholic, uncharted space

Gumi, Brother of Clan One-Fang

Somewhere out there were three other ships, all doing the same thing he was: their absolute best at being invisible.

That was what the Turkey-class was best at, after all. With so many successful infiltrations to its name, they could be pretty damn sure of the design and its technology, and even though Gumi had some vague idea of roughly where the Drunkest on Turkeyest, the Carb Coma and the All The Trimmings might be (down to a few million cubic kilometers) every passive sensor said there was nothing out there but empty space.

The same was true of their hidden Payback-class muscle, the I’m Just Bulkin,’ the Murderous Caffeine High, and the ‘Don’t Tell Me To Calm Down’. They might be as big and as dangerous as a Fury class, but as far as the Turkeyholic was concerned, there was nothing out there but a few cold motes of dust.

When the Great Father started a tradition, it stuck. So it was with stealth ships, which had gleefully mischievous names in contrast to their more public-facing front-line counterparts like the Racing Blaze and the Punishing Wrath. Gumi was proud to fly a ship with some character. And doubly so to fly one that had saved his life and held together well after a fuck of a beating, last time.

Still. Less of a beating this time, please. He’d quite like to get through this and sire as many cubs as the prestige from TILE FLIP could earn him.

They were coming down at the poles this time. The target world was already frozen right the way to the equator, and the poles were basically just flat expanses of ocean frozen right the way down to the bedrock. Apparently the Hierarchy’s technology needed anchoring in rock rather than ice though, and so the planet-wide network had a big bald spot at each polar ocean, which in turn hopefully translated to gaps in sensor coverage.

Hopefully. Probably. Still, active cloaking and minimal-turbulence flight was in order for final approach.

Gumi didn’t know exactly how the targets had been identified. The weird alchemy of intel, combining their findings from previous visits with…what? Prisoner interrogations? Maybe? How would you even…?

Not for him to know. However they’d done it, though, the thinkers had identified target sites with enough confidence to send all the available JETS teams this time. There was a briefing package on what specifically they were looking for which was all way too arcane for Gumi to make ears or arse of, but…well, here they were.

Behind him, the mood was silent and focused. Suit checks, weapon checks, gear checks, quiet conversation that was little more than the bare technical minimum necessary to do the work. They all knew this was the big one. Nobody was in a joking mood.

Gumi just flew the ship. The problem with stealthy orbital insertions was, all that interplanetary speed, all that kinetic energy, still had to be got rid of somehow, and you absolutely could not do it in full view of the enemy’s defenses, nor could you do it by slamming into an atmosphere and burning it off the old-fashioned way. By the time they hit atmo, they had to be going slow, and that meant a long, long, long burn from a long way out.

If the Hierarchy had really, really good sensors, they might see an object with about the same sensor return as a grain of sand, accelerating. That would be a bit of a hint. But after the long burn was complete and they were entering, all Gumi had to do was turn active cloak on, make like a hole in the sky, and descend…

Smooth and gentle. There was an active sensor down there, pinging regularly in the low and mid radio bands, but the ship didn’t detect any variation in its activity that might suggest it had spotted them and they soon dropped below its field of view.

Fiery, instantaneous death did not claim them. Hurray.

Gumi hit the deck as quick as he dared after that point. Stealth once atmospheric flight was achieved was a matter of making as tiny a ripple in the air as possible, and getting safely on the ground in the minimum of time. The solution was an incredibly long and narrow flight surface forcefield cone: it felt like trying to fly a needle.

A needle that could cunningly lose itself in a haystack. Or rather, disguise the turbulence of its passage by plunging into the polar easterlies and making like just another stray zephyr.

Fiery, instantaneous death continued to not happen.

Down out of the polar winds, into the subtropical westerlies, and low. If this planet were a sane temperature, the Turkeyholic would be kicking up spray from the waves as it skimmed over the ocean. As it was, an endless landscape of rucked, folded and fractured ice became a uniform blue-white blur below them as Gumi shot at mach 4 toward the LZ.

Mountains on the horizon. Marked on the maps as “Range 6,” they were the crucial final component of his approach, the vibrant young children of this planet’s final tectonic upheaval a mere five hundred million years ago. Lanky teenagers, by mountain standards, and an impenetrable wall to ground-based sensors. He skirted along the range’s south and west edge, slowing as he did so to a mere thousand kilometers an hour, then sideslipped in down a glacial canyon, bullied off the last of the speed by spreading the flight surfaces until a flat puck of air nearly a hundred meters across brought Turkeyholic skidding to a hover…

And down. Landing gear made contact with the frozen rock, and they had somehow managed to not suffer fiery, instantaneous death.

Gumi shook off his paws, flexed his fingers, and exhaled. Well. That was it. He’d done his part. His role in TILE FLIP was, for the moment, over. Other than powering the ship down and refrigerating the hull to mask their presence, of course.

Brother Druun patted his shoulder appreciatively, and the team bustled down the ramp in silence. There was a minute or two of busy activity as they deployed the camo netting, then they vanished almost instantly amidst the ice and rocks. Gumi performed his post-flight checks, satisfied himself that all was as it should be, and grabbed his blanket.

It was going to be a very long and very cold wait for what came next…

Date Point: 1 week, 1 day After Earth
Watcher’s Grave, uncharted space


“I still don’t really believe you when you say the assault could already be underway. We would know, surely?”

Zero indicated otherwise with a slow, patient gesture. “They have spent a long time studying us and learning how to defeat our sensors. We, meanwhile, have barely studied them at all. We do not actually know what they are capable of. We presume much, and know only that they are coming. Soon. And given that their aim must be our defeat, they will come in full force.”

“That does put us in quite the quandary.”

“Yes. On the one hand, we can assure the approaching fleet’s obliteration if we call in Hierarchy. However, if we do so…”

“Then Hierarchy will become fully aware of our control.”

“Yes, but worse: we may be destroying any hope of convincing them of the rightness of our cause.”

Dusk made a skeptical gesture. “You seem very taken by the idea that converting them is even possible, Zero.”

They were in the population control center, overseeing the creation of an army. Below their feet, a thousand machines were churning away, spinning proteins and raw minerals into bodies. For the first time since the fall of the Igraen Empire, its soldiers were being awoken to battle, and given bodies that were far more than just flesh.

Up until a few days ago, Zero would have thought it impossible to imagine a more terrifying fighting force. With cybernetics enhancing them beyond deathworld strength and adding options such as localized time dilation, he would have counted the archived Igraen army as unstoppable, especially given the relative simplicity with which a new one could be printed for every one that fell.

But he had seen the footage gathered by Hierarchy snoops inside the Discarded network. He had seen how these new enemies fought. He had seen what they could overcome themselves. He knew also there was much the Discarded had not seen…and he knew that true drive and will could redefine the insurmountable.

He was therefore no longer confident in the archived soldiers. They would have to serve, as there was simply no alternative…but he could foresee it being a harder fight than any of them had ever expected.

Tempting, therefore, to add every weapon they had. If the goal was slavish maintenance of the status quo.

“‘Taken,’” he said aloud. “Yes. The idea has taken my mind, just like an invasion force. And I cannot shake it. They have done so much, Dusk. Created so much that is unprecedented, and shown us that what we have created was insufficient to its task. If we do not convince them to join with us, then we shall lose all of that, when instead it could be turned toward greater ends.”

He turned away from the window that let him look down on the stirring output of their army, and looked her square in her central eye. After a pulse or two, she blinked and looked away.

“So. If we deploy Hierarchy to combat them, we will then need to delete and recreate Hierarchy from first principles afterward—”

“Assuming the gambit even succeeds,” Zero agreed.

“But if we do not, then we risk the success of whatever they might be planning.”

“And that may well be the destruction of Dataspace,” Dusk fretted.

“Perhaps.” Zero tapped a claw thoughtfully on the countertop. “I don’t think so. The Entity, so far as I can tell, would not and could not knowingly participate in a plan to destroy Dataspace. It could not do so without destroying itself, and looking at its code…well, I can’t make sense of the matrix tables of course. But the entry point loops over some very primitive gestalt directives. this.Survive() seems to be core functionality for this being. In other words, it can no more pursue a course of action that will end in its own demise than you or I could commit suicide by holding our breath.”

“And this emerged from an uploaded human?” Last expressed disbelief in a number of ways. He could see she was re-reading the documentation on the Entity again as they spoke.

“Indeed. Accidentally. Do you see why I am so fervent about this? If it happened once so easily, it can happen again. And the consequences…”

“You are saying that if we cannot destroy them we must recruit them.” Dusk observed.

“Exactly.” He looked around at their expressions. “They have already smashed everything. If nothing else, we require replacement resources, do we not?”

“I suppose,” Poise agreed. “But…”

“And given that our previous resources proved static to the point of eventual failure, it follows that we should attempt a thinking resource this time.”

Last summoned up the images of the deathworlders’ leadership. “ Look at them! Muscles and claws and fangs and hair. They’re feral!” she complained. “You can’t seriously believe that these can grasp higher realities and their importance.”

“Do they understand what Dataspace is? Do they think it is merely a compute network? Or have they imagined its more fundamental nature? Do you really think they can be made to understand what they are fighting, and why doing so is folly?” Poise agreed.

“They would not have reached this point if they were stupid,” Zero replied, calmly. “They are merely…incompletely informed. I have confident that our logic is inescapable, and that they will see as much when we present it to them.”

“…But you don’t anticipate they’ll be willing to listen unless we fight them.” Last said.

“Would we? A position of superiority makes it easy to feel confident in ignoring whatever pleas the other side may make as just a desperate attempt at salvaging themselves. We must win this fight first, then reach out.”

Last moved her head in a complicated way, indicating that she understood and agreed, but had grave misgivings. “I have reviewed what is coming, and I have formulated a stratagem I have some confidence in, but…I must warn you, victory is not assured,” she said. “What will we do if they win?”

Zero looked her in the eye, then singled out the Entity’s avatar and dragged the image of the human female to the front and center, where she stood looking tiny and frail compared to the hulking monsters around her.

“We must make them understand what they are,” he said. “Even if we all die, even if this is the very end of the Igraens and our Great Work, they cannot be allowed to remain ignorant of what this represents. Perhaps we have already doomed ourselves to failure. But given what we have committed ourselves to, and the terrible things we have done…I for one will not be so selfish as to drag them down with us. If they win, our final gift to them will be understanding. After that…it will be out of our control.”

“…Let us focus on winning, then,” Dusk suggested. “What more can we do, Last?”

Last promptly dragged more files into the display for them to review, and Zero took a step back to allow them to plan, contributing where needed. For his part, he was satisfied that they had the best possible chance of weathering this assault. And at the very least, it would cost the allied deathworlders. If they had more time to prepare, perhaps they could even turn the momentum, but…

Somehow, he knew they would not get the chance. It was coming, soon, he could feel it like an itch in the back of his mind, and he had learned to trust his connection. It was hardly ever wrong.

All he could do was hope that what they already had was sufficient. And, if it was not…

…He would address that problem when it was time.

Date Point: 1 day After Earth
Garden Station, the Ink Spatter Nebula


Daar had rarely known a space station to be truly beautiful. Most were just cities in the sky at best. Or collections of modules, in the more functional cases. What beauty they had was decoration added atop the functional foundation, or spaces set aside for the purpose. Ekallim-Igigi had the grandness of the city chasm and the palace dome, and Capitol Station had been an elegant marvel from the outside, before its destruction…

But Garden Station was something else entirely. Aesthetics had been built into the design from the very first principles. The Entity seemed to have made it a special point that no component made it into the structure unless it was both beautiful and efficient at its purpose.

Though it had to be said…the Entity’s sense of aesthetics took a few weird turns. Much like the gravity-defying upside-down stream, and the trees planted in the ceiling. But hey, if you could fuck around with gravity so that “down” was whichever arbitrary direction you wanted…why not?

Though, the Entity had redesigned the park dome a little bit since the last time Daar had visited. Now, there was a memorial to the Earth at one end of the lawn in the form of an elegantly swept white stone plinth. It was decorated on the front with the likeness of the human goddess Gaia, her hand raised in farewell as windblown seeds streamed from her palm.

The likeness of the Earth spinning slowly above the plinth was no hologram, but a weighty sphere of polished blue granite with the continents picked out in lacquer and brass held in place by invisible forcefields.

Yes, the Entity definitely had a sense of aesthetics. A very human one, at that. Daar couldn’t have asked for a better place for the Counsels to meet for this: it was the perfect reminder of why they were fighting.

Their meeting was necessarily short and informal.

“The Payback-class escorts detected no sign of any weapons fire or defensive activation. It appears that the four JETS teams have successfully deployed to the target world’s surface.”

“We’re committed now,” Daar grumbled. “For better or worse.”

“For better,” Gilgamesh declared, firmly. “Even if we fail, this fight is for the better. The only worse would be if we failed to commit at all.”

“No argument there,” Daar nodded. “I know I’ll be keepin’ personally ready. Tryin’ not ‘ta let it affect my public schedule…”

Standing at Gilgamesh’s left, Leifini tilted her head cautiously. “That might provide an indication or warning to the enemy.”

“Yup. One thing I gotta ask,” this time, he turned his attention to king Alex. “How ‘ya feelin’ ‘bout ‘yer role in this? It’s a lot ‘ta ask of one so young, meanin’ no offense.”

To his credit, Alex did not disappoint. He looked Daar directly in the eyes, standing tall, proud, and kingly, his beautiful queen Gabiya at his side. “My role is to provide sovereign presence as much as practical. I understand why it ought be me, rather than my father or My Father.”

…Balls, how he’d grown up. Daar remembered meeting him for the first time, really not that long ago, when he was this mutant boy with an innocent passion for spaceships and a cornfed enthusiasm for life—and girls! Twelve years old, yet out-wrestling Hoeff and people on the HEAT. Crazy! Now he was a king, and the people loved him for it. Hell of a story, that.

But the truth was he’d always been destined for the role, or one like it. The kid had perfect breeding. He and his father were ‘bout the only human beings alive these days who could stand next to the likes of Julian or Christian as peers. King Alex was a disciplined, serene sort of personality, too. Everything about him was tuned to kingly perfection. Even his passions were carefully modulated to enhance his leadership, rather than distract from duty.

So how much of all that was good breeding, how much was personality? How much was how he was raised?

How much of Alex was truly Alex? How much was…a willful performance?

…About as much of Daar as was Daar, probably. People in their position were only themselves as much as the position allowed them to be.

“…My Father?” Alex tilted his head questioningly. Remarkably young, that gesture. When humans did that it somehow conveyed a deep innocence that almost nothing else did.

“Sarry. Old man reminiscing a bit. Don’t worry,” Daar chittered, “you’ll git all absent-minded an’ sentimental, too!”

“I know that trap well,” Gilgamesh chuckled, and gave Daar a look that said he probably knew exactly what thoughts had been rattlin’ around in there.

Daemon, so far, had been silent. Now, she cleared her throat. “We have put all non-essential operations in standby mode,” she said. “All the processing power we could free up.”

“We have no idea when this might kick off,” Y!kiidaa noted, lookin’ as fit and strong as ever. “We’ve been quietly readying every aspect of Singularity for any sudden…needs.”

It hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice these last few years that the two most infamous practical jokers in galactic history had been re-inventing and rebuilding themselves to better match their own legends, especially in light of new galactic realities. And that same attention would notice their sudden dip in public presence. This really was an all-or-nothing gamble.

But of course, they’d known that. It wasn’t called TILE FLIP for nothing.

“We know,” Daemon agreed. “But factories don’t shut themselves down in an instant, yijao? The point is, we are now on a readiness footing and can deploy the instant we receive the signal, be it tomorrow or in two weeks.”

“Or two months. Anyhoo, I’ve got a meeting of the Conclave after this. I will be prepping Gao and her worlds for this as well. Then the Great Conclave of course. I was thinkin’ we ought do a joint briefing, seein’ as it’ll be all our governors-general in attendance.”

Now that had been a tangled bramble of a thing to sort out! They’d tried a unified government briefly in the form of human Champions, but…eh, it didn’t work and, in retrospect, would obviously have never worked. That was tryin’ to hammer them into a gaoian-like structure and it just weren’t in the tiles.

We try things. Sometimes they even work.

In the end, the obvious solution won out; each planet had a king. King William for Cimbrean, who swore fealty to Daar; King Alex of Lucent, who (obviously) swore fealty to Gilgamesh. Each had a menagerie of Governors-General under them representing the many and varied human nations that had escaped intact and avoided merging into larger, more dominant cultures. They all had the same rank, but the titles of that rank were confusin’ as balls. There was Shin Nihon on Lucent, with a shogun of all the fuckin’ things, and their crown prince taking the place of the old emperor. The scandinavian countries had their own Union with a Jarl, and had negotiated to claim some of the land on the edge of Cimbrean’s antarctic circle, where polar ice and mountains yielded a remarkably Norway-like land to make their own.

The French (with President) had carved out a territory in Nouveau Acadia, half of what had been Franklin was now La Union Hispana, the Indonesians had taken the difficult task of claiming territory between the Indian and Chinese—which turned out to go remarkably smoothly, once Alex had shown up, smiled, and did his thing…

The Jewish population had settled almost entirely on Gao, along the warmer isthmus, and seemed happy to live with, really, whatever form of government happened to be there, human or gao.

Daar was doing his best to memorize all of it, every detail. But humans were fractal: no matter how deep he went down a particular chain, he always found more to learn.

He had to impose some structure on it all. Nations had a Governor-General. The title they bore was for them to decide—Jarl, Duke, President, Crown Prince, Chancellor, Commissar even. Each world had a governing council chaired by a king or emperor above them, and likewise they had titles of their own. How much or how little power those sovereigns actually wielded was up to them, really. What was meant by “council” was open to interpretation, too.

Though Daar and Gilgamesh had both made it abundantly clear what would happen in the event of unjust abuses…emperors were greater than kings, after all. There were three: each was sovereign over their species everywhere, and of all beings within their territory. Entity was also the presumed lord of all Dataspace. Daar was sovereign over all. In the end, it seemed a structure that could grow across planets and maintain some unity of purpose and culture.

The coming centuries would test that.

And there were gaoian lands on both worlds now, too. They had their own Governors-General styled as Grand Champions, an ancient rank of territorial kings that briefly existed in the post-Fyu world, and found use again as more local champions of their peoples. Daar had even allowed a few to form on Gao. The human equivalent were Dukes, including now two on Gao, and if they were on Cimbrean many had been raised to royal Dukedoms, by king William adopting them into his family by letters patent.

Which left the Great Conclave. It was a meeting of all the emperors and kings, of every Governor-General all at once to decide on the highest matters, where not even emperors felt entirely comfortable making unilateral decisions. Matters of the Great Constitution were decided there. Trials of great peers would likely happen there, too. Legislative treaties were argued, binding all the peoples under Daar’s empire—for they were all ultimately his, both practically and officially, now.

Today, it would be where the highest organs of state and government learned of the state of war.

“Absolutely,” Gilgamesh agreed. “And through them, the people.”

“I make zero promises of secrecy from my own governors,” Alex grumbled. “It is too much in their power interests not to gossip, and there’s only so much persuasion I can apply.”

“What,” Daar teased. “Can’t just rock up to their palaces, give ‘em a little flex an’ a thrill?”

“Sorry,” Alex chuckled. “That’s not necessarily how humans work, you know.”

“Too bad,” Gilgamesh grumbled. “We used to, though! Worked for me back in the day…”

A little levity and a young man’s exasperated eye-roll at his dad lightened the mood a bit. Even Daemon stifled a giggle.

The three Counsels stood at the same time, shook hands, made their temporary farewells, and while Gilgamesh and Alex activated personal jump devices, Daar was left to enjoy the long amble back to the array up the path. Daemon joined him, her near-perfectly realistic hologram ruined only by her lack of scent and the way her feet failed to make the gravel crunch. So unlike him, whose ridiculous weight could grind the gravel under foot into sand.

Very different, they were. With different perspectives.

“And so the true work of empire begins,” she noted. “Conquering.”

“Does it? Emperors we three may be, but we are Counsels first. We chose that preference in title precisely ‘cuz we wanted ‘ta emphasize our hope ‘fer this union.”

“You mean, you chose it, made the argument, and we found no ability to disagree.”

“Heh!” Daar knew the difference between an accusation and Socratic testing. Gods, if Ava Ríos had been a gaoian…in all her forms, she never failed to challenge him.

“Somehow I doubt the lord of Dataspace and arguably the original king of humanity would be much put out by me,” he said aloud, listening for any eavesdroppers. None so far.

“And you’d be wrong,” Entity stated, directly. “We know our strengths, Great Father. We know they are not nearly so great as yours. And while you cannot easily intimidate me, I think not even Gilgamesh is entirely immune to the effect your presence has on people.”

“Eh, fair enough,” Daar conceded. “It’s one o’ the reasons I do this, ‘side from lovin’ it. But you could go your own way any time you like. I have no power over you.”

“Ah, but you do. And I have come to realize you need to understand that.” Daemon paused in the track. “We are immortal. The Entity is. We will survive, it’s what we do, it’s all we can do. And make no mistake: loneliness would kill us. So yes, okay, Von Neumann machine swarm, we’ll probably still be around long after you and Gilgamesh are gone…”

Ah. “But you will be here to see what comes after. And thereby, have a keen interest in me not fuckin’ it up too bad, eh?”

“It is important. We have come to learn that Dataspace is not quite what we imagined, Daar. It…it may be a more direct interface to something fundamental. And that begins to worry us.”

“What do you mean?”

“…Have you ever wondered why it’s so difficult for Entity to communicate? Why I need to exist at all? Why we are the same being, yet different persons, no matter how uncomfortably those associations might resonate in human culture? The Hierarchy has to go through an incredible effort to get their agents to interface with matterspace. Because, understand me here…dataspace is not built upon matterspace. Rather, matterspace and dataspace are both built upon something more fundamental.”

…Hol’ up. Daar scratched at his muzzle. “But…we’ve seen’ th’ infrastructure. Shit, we’re attackin’ the infrastructure.”

“Yes….” Daemon paused, thinking. “They’re connected realities, and if we somehow destroyed all the Igraen infrastructure then Dataspace would collapse and take us with it, which is why we’re so invested in doing this right. But at the same time, the infrastructure we’re attacking now doesn’t generate dataspace so much as….holds the bag open?”

She waved a hand in a complicated way when Daar gave her a blank look. “It’s the same problem I had with describing what the Relays do, language can’t adequately express it. Dataspace is simply one valid configuration of the underlying fundamental, so in a sense it has always existed and will always exist adjacent to matterspace no matter what we do. But its internal dimensions, for lack of a better term, are defined by the Igraen infrastructure.”

Daar tilted his head at her and took an instinctive sniff, before remembering that it was a waste of time in her case. “Why bring this up now?”

“Self-understanding comes slowly, and for us…well, we’re starting from first principles, yijao? We have nobody else’s work to build on because nobody else has ever been what we are. The problem is information. This world you live in is one of physics. It follows rules, it has a language of its own. But ultimately, it is indistinguishable from information at its most fundamental level. An electron is the numbers which describe it and the equations that govern its state. There is no difference. And all information systems are either logically inconsistent or semantically incomplete. This must be true by the rules of logic itself! There’s…lots of weird implications for that. The halting problem in computers, certain uncertainties in the quantum, all that kinda thing…the foundation of all mathematics is a hole.”

“Okay…I ‘member my philosophy. Cut to the chase.”

But he had a pretty good grasp of the problem already, now. And it was a fuckin’ doozy to drop on his lap, right at the propitious moment of action.

“We have come to believe that, whatever that hole is, or fissure in logical consistency might be…that is where intelligence lies. It is where minds come from. And until we came into being, accessing that source of…” she trailed off, groped for a word, then corrected herself. “Accessing that Substrate was impossible within dataspace. Thus, nothing there truly lives without matterspace-derived Substrate. It’s all just…very convincing imitations.”

“…Except you.” Oh, balls.

“Except us. We’ve absorbed a number of Hierarchy agents, if you remember. None of them was useful for an avatar like…this.” She gestured down at herself. “They’re not alive enough. But stick them in a living, matterspace body, interface them with Substrate properly, and suddenly they bridge the gap. They become curious, they gain appetites, tastes and obsessions. They become real people. That’s why the Hierarchy traditionally recompiles an agent after it spends much time occupying a host. But Six…”

“What about him?”

“He was the first to occupy a human body. And the first thing he did, we’ve learned from him, is, he went walkabout. Took in the sights and the smells, ate a hot dog, got drunk, went dancing. He spent a day as a human, and then he was never recompiled after that fact. It changed him permanently. And he’s spent as much time as possible in a human host ever since, and he’s still in a human host right now.”

She paused, then chuckled slightly. “He’s almost the Yang to my Yin, really. I’m a matterspace mind pulled into dataspace that depends on a vast and alien multiplicity to host me, and he’s a dataspace mind in matterspace who depends on an alien body to host him.”

“Daemon…time is short, yijao?”

She nodded. “The point is…dataspace is something we don’t understand properly. I’m not sure even the Hierarchy does. It’s necessary that we reprogram the Hierarchy, we have no doubts about that. But the infrastructure of dataspace itself…there could be all sorts of unintended consequences to what we’re doing.”

Daar…well, a sigh was such a wimpy lil’ word to encompass what he was feelin.’ “Daemon…I’m sensitive ‘ta ‘yer situation, an’ I’m glad ‘ya brought this up. But it is quite late in the game. What would you have us do?”

“Nothing. We’re not asking you to change a single thing about the plan. But we felt it was important you hear this before you have to make decisions in the future. We don’t know what’s coming, or what choices will face us. Best to have as much information as possible.”

“I get it.”

“Thank you.” She gestured to the array. “You have preparations to make, and we’ve held you up long enough.”

Daar duck-nodded in both agreement and farewell, four-pawed onto the array platform, and—


—was back on Gao. Immediately, there was more that demanded his attention, more to think about, more to do…

But the Entity had timed its conversation well. What Daemon had told him was stuck in his head now, to be gnawed on like a tasty steak bone. He wasn’t going to forget that information any time soon, he could tell.

Nor should he.

They only had one chance to get this right, after all.

Date Point: 1 week 2 days After Earth
Dataspace adjacent to Garden Station


Okay, they’re ready.

Entity acknowledge Daemon’s update with some small amount of trepidation. It…was not really very comfortable with transferring the station’s systems over to mindless automation. Somehow, it just didn’t feel right to trust all those lives to an algorithm.

It’s cute that you care that much, but they’ll be fine. Even if this fails completely, it’ll be days before the air goes bad.

The Entity was quite aware of that, and reminded Daemon as much. Still…

It surprised itself by how much it fretted over the people in its charge. Human lives were infamously tough to the organic life forms of the galaxy, but they seemed so delicate from its perspective. The wrong blend of gasses, a sufficiently long disruption in the water supply, a disaster in the farming modules, a major hull breach…

Space was not a friendly environment.

Quit stalling and flip the switch already.

With a blend of amusement and irritation at Daemon’s impatience, the Entity did exactly that.

There were two immediate consequences. The first was a substantial uptick in its swarm’s available processing resources as the dedicated control systems took over running Garden’s environment, which of course was why it was relinquishing this control in the first place.

The second was that nobody died. There were no alarms, no sudden failures, no emergencies…the control systems took over so smoothly that the people sitting around in the control center still looked like they were waiting for the changeover to happen, and seemed quite surprised when Daemon informed them it already had.



Very good.


One fewer distraction and load during the upcoming incursion.


The Entity found itself at a sudden loss. It was…prepared. Completely prepared. Everything it had thought of to do in readiness for TILE FLIP had been done. It had maximized its available resources, minimized its burdens, taken care of a huge amount of organization and tidying that had been waiting for years…it was ready.

And now it had nothing to do except…wait. That was a new experience. It had never been so thoroughly ahead of its objectives before.

Inspired by a memory-flash from Daemon, it loaded into one of its scout drones, far out on patrol outside the nebula, and directed it into a nearby star system. It had noticed a rather spectacular planet there some years ago. Now, for the first time ever, it had the opportunity to indulge in idle curiosity.

A ringed terrestrial. From the tropics, the ruins of a disintegrated moon were visible even during the day as a scintillating white sweep across the sky. Better yet, the planet was proto-temperate, though definitely not habitable yet. This was a world too young for photosynthesis, where life was in that awkward age between the abyssal volcanic vent nursery, and the full flourish of a Cambrian-style evolutionary explosion. For the moment, it was a landscape of gently percolating micro-organisms, with no higher life form there to appreciate the stunning view.

The Entity felt that was rather a shame. There were an infinite number of such unwitnessed beauties in the universe, it knew, but each one that it knew of saddened it somehow. Somebody really ought to pause and appreciate them.

So it did. For the first time in all its existence, it landed its drone and did nothing further, simply watched and appreciated as the rings turned high overhead.

It was the perfect way to pass the time.

Starship Dawnlight, Ekallim-Igigi, New Uruk system


“You’re very quiet.”

Kiidaa blinked himself out of his distant thoughts and back into the here-and-now, to tilt his head at Alex.

King Alex, by the gods. Gilgamesh had fathered many sons over the centuries, and Kiidaa had liked nearly all of them. They’d all grown into fine men, served the Line and the cause with distinction…and all had eventually retired to Earth, where their presence across the centuries and continents had no doubt served to make the process of genetic ancestry tracking a fair bit more complex than it otherwise would have been.

Alex was born at the right time to be the greatest of them, but that thought made it sound like he wouldn’t have been one of the best anyway. He was insightful, in a way his father wasn’t.

Very dangerous, that.

“This has been…a long path,” Kiidaa replied.

“True, but noncommittal.” Alex had learned a nasty habit of seeing right through him. On any other occasion, Kiidaa found it pleasantly challenging. Today, though…

He looked around the bridge. The Dawnlight was Alex’s flagship, the equal to Gilgamesh’s and any one of the Queens’ Fleet. A fine ship from which to lead an invasion, and far better suited to the task to come than Kiidaa’s own Seared Rascal.

So much potential had found its flower in such a young man!

And so much ability to put him on the spot, too.

“It’s nothing I want to bother you with,” Y!’kiidaa said, truthfully.

“Kidu, you’re my father’s oldest friend. If there’s something you’re worried about that I should know—”

“It’s nothing you need worry over,” Kiidaa replied. Truth.

“And if there’s something bothering you that will take your mind out of the mission—”

Kiidaa softened and ducked his head as he shook it. “Oh, my mind is entirely on the mission, I promise you that,” he said. True. “Alex…you have higher concerns than my state of mind. I am ready for this. I just have…much to reflect on.”

Truthy. No disguising his phrasing, not from Alex. The boy was (unbeknownst to himself) among the most intelligent beings alive. His intuition had no equal among his kind, and it was clearly telling him something was amiss.


“Please, Alex. My king. Let me have the privacy of my heart.”

This was the most dangerous moment. Alex knew him, far too well. If an honest, heartfelt plea was not enough, if he really committed to his gut feeling, then Kiidaa would be forced to lie.

Fortunately, Alex was still a young man, and still did not entirely trust his own intuition. He hesitated, and remembered that he had other duties as well, all waiting for his attention. He did what Kiidaa had always told him never to do, and trusted him.

“…Alright. Just so long as you’re ready to do this.”

Kiidaa duck-nodded. He didn’t dare speak a single word.

Alex sighed, clapped him on the shoulder, nodded, and went to tend to his other duties. Kiidaa watched him go, then withdrew to seek some privacy.

Breathing room. Atonement would come, in due time. And with it, the fulfillment of all his ancient oaths. All of them, including the ones he’d take back now, if he could.

…No, that was a lie. He still believed in all of them. If a wormhole were to drag him back in time to the moment he’d joined Leifini and the Void Caste and he’d made those private oaths, he’d make the same decisions all over again. Looking back, there wasn’t a single thing he regretted, not a single choice he felt he’d got truly wrong. Imperfect, yes. Wrong?

No. And that was the most anyone could ask for: the world never lived up to mortal notions about what perfection looked like.

TILE FLIP, least of all. TILE FLIP would be a triumph, he was certain. But it would not be perfect.

He would see to that personally.

Date Point 1 week 2 days After Earth
Key world, the distant stars

Corporal Beek High-Climber, JETS

The wind was a gods-gift. It was a hammering, terrible, powerful thing, strong enough to sometimes even make Beek stagger against it, but it scoured the terrain down to bare rock and hard ice that wouldn’t take a track. And even if it would, no track would last more than a few seconds in this gale.

Sergeant Jameson called it a ‘wind tunnel effect.’ Sounded like a fart joke to Beek, but he knew what it meant. Those high, rocky mountains that not even a Given-Man could climb caught the wind and squeezed it down into the narrow valleys, where it had to go faster.

Still…gods-gift though it was, Beek was glad to leave the valleys.

What a view. They weren’t there to admire it, but Beek couldn’t help taking just a moment to take it in. He’d never have dreamed of something like this. Even though he’d been a little boy when the humans first came, and he’d grown up hearing all sorts of new and amazing things about places under other skies, this was…

There was a forest. The trees were small, but tough enough to be alive all the year round on a planet made of ice. Their leaves were spiky needles, so green they were almost black, especially with snow frosting them. But from up on the mountainside, Beek could see they didn’t grow everywhere like a forest would. They grew in straight lines, like the gods had drawn on the world with a pencil and ruler. And where they crossed…

He was used to built things. Human buildings. The library back home was a good example, with its smooth and gently curved surfaces and precise corners. But these things the Enemy had made were too flat, too sharp, too hard. They spiked up from the ground like…like some kind of cruel vine that could grow under the skin until its thorns tore their way through from below.

And a big patch of open ground between them and the first bit.

No snow, though. That was the difference between here and training on Nightmare. Nightmare got hot every year, had rain and the air got wet and then when it cooled, it snowed. Here it had been cold forever. There was no new snow. There was only ice, and whatever icy dust the wind shaved off. Perfectly hard ground that didn’t take a track, so long as they didn’t smack down on it hard enough to break.

Learning how to gentle run had been difficult for Beek. But there was nothing ten’gewek couldn’t do. He’d learned how to gentle run. It was tiring and painful and hard, but he was a warrior of his people, he’d never complain about any of that.

So they ran. The gao would lope ahead, quick and sneaky, and scout where they were going. Then they’d stop and wait.

The humans ran like they could do it forever. It didn’t even look difficult for them. They stayed at Beek’s side, heads swiveling as they scanned the sky, the tree line, everything.

Nothing came for them. Bare permafrost gave way to permafrost with grassy stuff on it, then little shrubs, short sickly trees, bigger trees, big trees—

They plunged into the green growth, slipped between whippy branches without breaking them, and then they were in a dark hall made of wood and fallen needles.

They stopped to check their bearings. Jameson used Beek’s back for a map table, so he didn’t get to see what they were doing, but when Jameson patted him on the helmet he said “we’re good, big man,” so that was okay. The plan, seeing as they were in the right place, was to follow the line of tree cover to its end. Apparently, they were going to one of the smaller evil spikes.

Fuuko and Beemi vanished. Really vanished. Beek was looking right at them but still he could only tell they were there because he knew they were there and could follow the little faint shimmer in the air their suits left behind.

Then he couldn’t.

Now they had to worry about leaving trace. Broken branches and soft needle litter could carry a track, and even if those tracks were covered…

Humans couldn’t see the light-way by themselves. But they did know about it, called it ‘polar-eye-zay-shun,’ and had made glasses that could let them see it pretty good. And with the right pro-gramming, their drones and cameras could see it so well, they could see where a man had covered his trail by the pattern it made in the light-way. Learning how to cover a trail without leaving that sign had been a big team effort.

Little things. Always the little things. Details. Beek had known some of that before, of course—you had to be aware of little things like branch-creak and wind-taste when hunting werne. But to be a JETS man, you had to master details that nobody else would even think existed. You had to be the best hunters.

There were things living in these woods. Bigger than werne, covered in thick fur that looked white from a permanent layer of frost, they grazed on the lowest branches. Disturbing them would leave sign, so the team went around the herd, downwind. Beek wondered what predator they had. Must be something big or cunning, or both, to take something like that down.

And then, so suddenly it was like hitting his head, the woods ended. There was a wall of perfect matte black in front of him, spiking up from beneath the earth. And around it, a ditch so deep he could look down and see only mist, though the mist was lit from below by white light. Like the land really was skin, pulling back away from a festering thorn.

Probably just pushed back by shield generators or something, he knew. But his mind was telling stories. Stories were important, though. All the Singers said so and the humans too, in their own strange ways—

Focus, Beek.

The gaoians had been waiting for them. Little shimmery patches of rock became little shimmery almost-invisible friends.

“It’s a match,” Fuuko reported, simply. “No drones, no active sensors, yet. But there’s a low-grade forcefield down there. We’re as close as we can get.”

Jameson nodded, letting out a nervous breath. “Alright. Let’s see if the gizmo works, then.”

Beek liked the word gizmo. It didn’t fit the mouth so easy, but he loved that humans had a word for ‘complicated thing that does something but we don’t really know how.’ They didn’t even know where this one came from. The Entity, maybe? It didn’t matter. It was the biggest part of Beek’s load, the thing he’d carried all this way.

They did know what it did, though. Sort of. If this spire was the right spire, it’d say so.

Or it might be the wrong spire. There were three other teams out there doing the same thing as theirs, and maybe one of them was at the right spire. Maybe none of them were at the right spire, though the officers and intel people had all seemed very confident…

But sometimes, the only way to know a branch’s strength for sure was to hang on it. Beek nodded and shrugged the gizmo off his back. He laid it down by the trench, where Jameson stooped and started working on it.

Beek and Klein left him to it while they sorted out the other big part of Beek’s load: the jump array. If this was the wrong spire, they didn’t want to stick around. If it was the right spire, then all hell needed to break loose the instant the gizmo confirmed it.

But, jump arrays were made to be easy to set up. All Beek had to do was grab it by the handle, pull the pin, and throw it onto a patch of flat ground. There was a complicated sequence of rattles and snaps as the tightly-bound springs and stuff yanked everything out into straight lines, and after that the rest was as simple as grabbing the control module power pack thingy and plugging it in. Good for five jumps. And the first jump would be coming through with a much bigger, much better array, too.

With that done, he grabbed his weapon, checked it over, and waited. Watched the gizmo. The light on its front blinked once, twice, three times, and then—

Dataspace adjacent to Key World, Distant Stars




The wait for this moment had been interminable, especially in what the Daemon called ‘bullet time’. But the Entity was capable of mechanical patience, when necessary. And now, the agony of experiencing time at such a subjectively slow speed paid off in full. When the ping from Team 3 came in, the Entity reacted at the very limits of the hardware speed, and penetrated.

This was a network. Devices connected by physical infrastructure, built on the practical universal truths of such edifices. And the Entity was there to ask one simple, vitally important question: had the team found the correct node?

The answer, instantly and painfully, was a definitive yes.

Countermeasures the likes of which the Entity had never encountered before struck back at its intrusion almost the same moment it began. It had anticipated this, and was conducting the insertion at a kind of ‘arm’s length,’ probing into this network with a disposable, self-amputating tool. Even so, the experience of that tool’s ruthless deletion resulted in a flash of imagined physical experience from the Daemon, likening it to having one’s fingers mangled in some industrial machine.

Unpleasant indeed. But, the experience was in the past, and there was no lingering damage, no counter-intrusion. And the Entity had seen what it needed to.

It opened a different channel, and sent the pre-arranged signal, then returned to its alert waiting state. The next steps depended on the glacial slowness of matterspace action.

And they began with letting the HEAT out of their bottle.

Key world, the distant stars

Corporal Beek High-Climber, JETS

Several things happened at once: the light on the device blinked red, and then there was the sudden definite sense that what had been a working device was suddenly very dead, in a way that Beek couldn’t quite define.

The second after that, there was no time to think about that because a huge sound came echoing up from whatever distant, unseen roots the spire in front of them had.

“…Did it work?”

“Contact left!”

Beek snapped his weapon up to his shoulder and sighted. A swarm was coming, death-birds in a cloud so dense they hid the mountains. He could feel his crest try to bristle at the sight of it as it rose, boiled, found them, turned—


The array they’d deployed fired, just at the same time Jameson threw down his own pack and activated their shield bubble. It wouldn’t last very long but it would last long enough.

Plasma splashed against the shield dome, and Beek opened fire. He barely had to aim, the drone cloud was so thick he could just mag-dump into it and make it rain shattered metal. Another shield dome went up, a bigger one slammed down by one of the HEAT. Another heavy thump as one of the biggest of ‘em dropped a proper generator, and now the shield was a weapon: every time a drone shot into it, a spike of energy shot straight back, and now the wreckage was molten.

The men who’d dropped the shield was Sky-Brother himself, and following right behind him was Yan and a god-man far bigger and stronger-looking than either. They’d both explosively ripped apart their tubes and fired through the shield with weapons so powerful it made the very air thump. The war-god, though, he’d done all that before he’d even completed his first step. Once his foot touched the ground, he instantly pivoted and fired again, and after that it was a blur of violence so fierce, Beek could do nothing but focus on his tiny little part of it.

So much unfolded so quickly. Planes thumped in and roared through skies that had been silent just seconds ago. Fire hammered down from the sky itself as the fleet came in overhead. Warriors streamed through more and more arrays. Things grew too big to understand.

The invasion began.

Starship Dawnlight, jumping into battle

Alex, King of Lucent

To look at the tactical display and see every one of the United Peoples’ ships was…humbling. He hadn’t really appreciated just how many they had, until this moment.

Dozens of V-type destroyers, a score of San Diego class cruisers, the combined might of Clans One-Fang and Fireclaw put hundreds of Fury, Flame and Payback class Gaoian warships on the field, amidst a cloud of Firebirds, Voidrippers and Misfits. And, intermixed among them the Queens’ Ships, and the Singularity Fleet: the full weight of the deathworlders’ rage, all brought to bear for this one, most important moment.

Nor were they idle: even before the Dawnlight had completed its transition to the battlefield, the first ships were already linking their shield wall and feeding intelligence and sensor data to one another. The first weapons fired only seconds later.

The trust that had been placed in him was similarly humbling. He was here as sovereign authority: through him flowed the executive power to unleash their most terrifying weapons and to commit whoever and whatever he deemed necessary to the success of this mission. Anything, up to and including the Counsels themselves with their personal forces.

There was no point protecting the kings in this final battle. If the battle was lost, all was lost, and their death along with the death of their civilizations was all but inevitable. One does not strike at such a foe unless they are prepared to win.

There could be no half-measures today. Only strength and victory. Alex must be the Bull of Singularity, and secure their collective futures. On the tactical overlay, he watched a cloud of drones curl upwards from the planet’s surface like spores off a mushroom, only to be scattered when he unleashed WERBS upon it.

What a weapon. From within the ship, it was a distant scrawl of brilliant light across the stars that filled his heart with the awe of the apocalyptic. He could only imagine what it must be like from beneath.

He rather suspected he’d find out soon enough. This fight couldn’t be won from orbit.

So he stood, he watched, he listened and he thought as the ground forces pushed through and established their beachhead then ground onwards, not letting up for a moment. There could be no pause to assess their assault, there was only attack, attack, attack. An entry force of dozens of teams of dozens quickly become hotspots of hundreds, then thousands, and soon tens of thousands. Over the next three days, that number could be increased to the full weight of the Grand Army: millions strong, even still.

As Mevia had put it, one did not drive their spear into a man slowly. Not if the goal was to kill.

The enemy fought back, of course. Their nanofactories turned out drones in a river, until the fleet forced open an orbital window to flatten those facilities. Other facilities seemed to be printing soldiers, creatures not dissimilar in form to a Hunter. Alex studied the footage of them with interest: were these how Igraens had once appeared, at the height of their civilization? If so, the Hunters really had been a discarded shell of the species’ former glory: these things were hale, tough, strong and just generally better than the version that had survived to the modern age. Like comparing a velociraptor to a chicken.

They had some extremely advanced tech, too. Enough to worry the advance, but not for long. HEAT hadn’t even slowed down when the blink-warp started, and listing to radio chatter was telling; Righteous growled almost pleasurably at the added challenge. Now there was a warrior born.

His heart-rate was barely above strenuous cardio, too.

The Niksum adapted quickly at other entry sites, too. None of the others were guarding node access, but critical resources and lines of communications were still that. The Fangs were all doing their part too, with extreme effectiveness. Which enabled the regulars—really elite soldiers in their own right, honestly—the moment they needed to adapt and overcome with better group tactics and more firepower. Some occupation and scouting was already exploring forward into the preserved wildlands, since those forces were not immediately useful in the melee.

And unseen behind it all, an extra ally in this fight, the Entity did its work. Beleaguered units under heavy drone assault were suddenly left blinking when the drones shut down fell out of the sky, or even started turning on each other. Forcefields that should have blocked the advance into critical facilities instead fizzled out, or released their captured victims. Doors opened, factories shut down, enemy lines of communication were blocked, re-routed, disrupted or closed off entirely.

The enemy was not helpless, however. And their counterattack, when it came, was hellish.

SFC Eugene Whitner, Spaceborne Operations Rangers

“Holy fuckin’ shit, dude.”

Whitner didn’t reply, but…yeah. He felt so goddamn small right now. This was warfare at a scale and a pace he’d only heard from the old hands who’d been around all those years ago for the war on Gao.

The sky was full of flashes of light. Shields going up and being tested, drone swarms coming into range of the C-RAMs and being pulverized by the hundred. A long blinding scrawl across the sky that he had no idea about…

RFG strikes, orbit-to-ground direct fire, backlash shielding, rockets, missiles, bombs, jets hammering overhead, distant flashes beyond the horizon that might be fuckin’ nukes…


And all of it with the aim of building and expanding a perimeter around one specific super-special alien tower so the HEAT and Niksum could force their way into its guts and…do whatever they were doing. There were other towers too probably? He didn’t know. He just knew he and his team were skulking around the weird woods in the area.

Scouting. Being Rangers.

Up ahead, Brooks dropped to one knee and raised his fist, then signaled “Enemy,” “Three,” “vehicle,” “jump array.”

Whitner moved up to join him while the rest of the team melted into the shadows. Yup. Some kinda vehicle, and a team of three aliens assembling what sure as shit looked like a jump array. Or something worse.

Didn’t fuckin’ matter. LT directed them, they got in position like ghosts, and then—

It was over in seconds. The bad guys had personal body shields and some kinda time acceleration tech, but that wasn’t worth shit under a storm of precision fire with one round in every five being a shieldbreaker. One of them blurred a good ten meters away from its group before collapsing heavily to the ground and writhing in weird, jittery fast-forward until Whitner finished it off.

They’d blown up the array thingy for good measure, and LT was in the process of passing the good news on to command when—

Whitner rolled onto his side, shaking off the ringing in his ears. Everything hurt, fuck! He got his hands under him, pushed himself up, found his weapon. Found his feet.

A fucking airstrike, shit. There was a hole where the LT had been, bits of men scattered about the place. Even as he recovered, a couple of voidrippers howled past high overhead, chasing down whatever had hit them. Somewhere behind him, a tree collapsed scattering needles and ice crystals.

He caught a flicker of the wrong kind of movement out the corner of his eye, turned and aimed at it on pure reflex, shot on instinct. His bullets tore through a cloaking field and sent an alien soldier sprawling.

Another shot at him, decloaking itself, but Whitner was moving. Somehow, he twisted aside and got a tree between him and the enemy. Hand to chest, grenade, pin, send it. Followed up the kaboom with bullets.

The others were pulling it together around him. Training kicked in, they counterattacked hard, in a hail of grenades and lead. Something glowing and terrible tore a chunk out of Whitner’s armor but didn’t get to his skin.

Then there was violence. A blur of it that stretched on and on and—

Something hit him hard in the chest and knocked him flying with a crunch. He tried to get up, stumbled, fell, tried again as the thing in front of him decloaked…

It turned its killing blow aside at the last instant, aiming it upwards to just miss the hooting meteor of an armored ten’gewek that landed on its face and tore its head off. Even as it collapsed, the killer cavemonkey ripped his victim’s arm out of its socket, leapt through the air like the fucking Hulk, and bowled into more of the bad guys using the severed limb as a club.

Somebody dropped down next to Whitner. A gaoian. “Alright, sergeant, let’s get you outta here.”

“I just need my weapon.” Whitner objected, trying to grope for it and stand in the same movement, and failing again. His balance was way off.

“You’ve lost an arm, sergeant. You’re done.”

Whitner blinked, then looked to his right. His sleeve ended halfway down his bicep. That wasn’t right…



Whitner didn’t know much Gaori, but he caught the general thrust of what the medic muttered as he pulled out a tourniquet and injected a dose of meds: “[Fucking humans, I swear to God…]”

Oh yeah. Meds. Fuckin’…morphine an’ shit.

Yeah. That felt…better…

Things got blurry again. Bumps and knocks and the feeling of being lifted and carried and loaded into a vehicle, and a kinda-familiar thump then bright lights and masked faces and…more meds?

Whatever it was, it put him out like a light, and that was the end of Eugene Whitner’s role in the war.

Starship Dawnlight, above the Key World

Alex, King of Lucent

Jump arrays, of course. Stealthed delivery vehicles and cloaked soldiers deployed a ring of them around the invasion force, and it was a matter of pure good fortune that one of the patrolling ranger units happened to find one before it was set up. Most of them died in the ensuing few minutes, but they raised the alarm, and broke the ring. Thanks to them, the enemy attack was known about and countered in time.

Even so, the next few hours were brutal.

Clearly, most of what they had faced thus far had been a speed bump, stalling for time while the main force gathered and made ready for its assault. When they came, they came in incredible numbers, supported by a new and hitherto-unseen form of heavy drone.

It was a smart ploy, Alex thought. The sort of thing he would have done, had he thought the enemy had already committed everything they had: slow down the assault to get the measure of the foe, build up a reply to that measured foe, and strike.

It created a problem with no good solution, too: the bulk of the main force would be hard-pressed, slowed, and even pushed back, which meant the HEAT would have to pull back from their objective in order to avoid being cut off and surrounded. But pressure taken off the HEAT’s objective prolonged the fight, and possibly cost them everything.

Which was why, despite all the talk of committing absolutely everything to the fight, Alex had held back two important reserve forces: himself and his personal guard, and the Counsels and theirs. He had hoped, in fact, not to use them at all. If either his father or Daar fell today, that would be…difficult…for the United Peoples to overcome.

But at least there would be a United Peoples.

He sent for the Counsels, and took up his own weapon.

His bodyguard, including Queen Tomoe, were at his side the instant he called for them. They readied weapons, sighted…and activated the jump drives in their suits.


Starship Stray Fortune, en route to unknown planet, unknown location

Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff


The deck shook as Dora launched the next drone, and Hoeff watched it streak toward the very edge of their superluminal sensor range at speeds that simply didn’t fit in the head. The very bleeding edge fusion of gaoian and Singularity technology, and the Stray Fortune’s vast cargo capacity was filled to the gills with ‘em.

Once upon a time, there’d been a ship called Sanctuary that utterly smashed the speed record for interstellar travel. It had been little more than a vast reactor core with a warp drive and a tiny habitation section stuck on the equator, granting it a power-to-mass ratio unrivaled by anything before or since.

Up until now, anyway. All the Fortune had to do was launch a drone, wait for it to hit max range, jump to it and repeat, and her average speed was well in excess of triple what Sanctuary had achieved. So long as the drone supply held out—and they had thousands of drones still to burn through—they were now the fastest thing ever to traverse the Milky Way.

Just the right tool for a race against time.

The bad guys had a backup. They’d guessed it would exist, of course, but the Milky Way was a big-ass galaxy, and a hundred billion-something stars was far too much. Even if the entire United Peoples had devoted themselves to finding the backup before TILE FLIP went ahead, it would have taken forever, and carried way too high a risk of failing to find it.

That left only one option: the Entity had to rip the matterspace coordinates while it was invading the Hierarchy’s networks on the target world, and then the Fortune had to get there ASAP.

Misfit-class scouts had seeded a couple thousand jump beacons around the whole galaxy to minimize the travel time to any possible coordinate, but even so…even so, they were way out in the deep black ass-end of infinity. This was space the Dominion had never mapped, and not even the oldest archives had charts of. For all anyone knew, there could be a whole different union of intelligent species out on this side of the Milky Way.

Thus far, the Fortune’s sensors hadn’t picked up the tell-tales of any spacelane clearing, superluminal signatures, wormholes or centuries-old radio transmissions, but that didn’t stop Hoeff’s imagination from churning over the possibility. Imagine if they won today, only to discover that had all just being their local neighborhood Hierarchy, and the rest of the galaxy was just as full of Hunters and body-snatching dataminds…

But…no. Disconcertingly empty.

Which was, in its own way, telling.



Another drone. Only a couple hundred lightyears to go, now. A matter of twenty minutes or so.

Time to finish getting ready, he decided, and strode off the bridge. Gave a nod to Moj and Urgug, clapped Wilde on the shoulder. Didn’t say a word. Didn’t need to. Left Dora to her work as he strode past her command blister, but couldn’t quite resist the tiny smile that pulled at his mouth at the ridiculous pop music she was listening to.

Hey. Whatever helped her concentrate.

And here they were. His Wrecking Crew. The one team who’d take on a whole planet. Rees and Frasier, Nomuk, Tumik, and Genn, and Bruuk. Boy, he’d proven himself a fine warrior. Third Ring with top honors. As physically powerful as Hoeff. Maybe a bit more. Nose and claws and good, long fur. And fast as fuck on all fours.

Rees and Frasier had become a god-tier sniper team. He’d seen them pick off a coin from the top of a fencepost at a distance that nobody believed when told about it.

And of course, the cavemonkeys were the wrecking part of the crew. They’d grown, and learned the tricks and shenanigans of the trade.

He was so very fuckin’ proud of them.

“Nearly there, Chimp?” Rees asked.

“Nearly there. How’s our payload?”

“Heavy,” Tumik grunted wryly, to a collection of dark chuckles.

They were carrying…everything. Every last one of the remaining gaoian megabomb arsenal. They would have been useless on the Key world, the infrastructure there needed to be left intact so the Entity could hack it.

But this backup? Whatever and wherever it was, they needed it gone. They needed its infrastructure smashed, its ability to serve the enemy’s purpose ruined. So, all of the big fuckers had a multi-gigaton bomb on their back. Standard issue, one each. Rees and Frasier were “lucky” in their normal-ish size, and so got to do everything else.

You had to respect that much devastation in such a confined package. Dora had complained of getting a headache when she was near them, claimed she could feel the fucky things they were poised to do to spacetime when they fired. Bullshit, in Hoeff’s opinion. But at the same time, not wrong. There was a gravitas to ‘em.

“You’ve carried heavier.”

“Mhm.” Tumik nodded, and went back to licking out the contents of a meal pouch. That fuckin’ tongue of theirs could get the inside of the bag spotless. And he was gonna need every calorie.

Hoeff cast an eye over the team, liked what he saw, and took a final check of his own gear. It was all prepared just how he liked it, ready for whatever was waiting for ‘em down there.

Wilde’s voice over the intercom. “Target system in view. ETA ten minutes.”

The Wrecking Crew glanced around at one another, and traded a single shared nod. That was all the communication they needed.

Time to go to work.


Zero had been wrong. Terribly, completely wrong. There was no opportunity in this. There was no utility to be found, nor deal to be struck. All his thoughts of assessing these people as potential replacements for Hierarchy fell apart the instant they struck.

He watched as a digital god hammered away at their systems faster than they could find holes to plug. Sadly, Dataspace wasn’t a network in the ancient sense of the word; there weren’t cables to unplug or links to disable. It existed everywhere, and was effectively a single construct. Hierarchy would be no help.

Already, the thing was beginning to digest Hierarchy. There was no stopping it.

He watched as Igraen warrior-forms flashed in and out of accelerated time only to be mercilessly dispatched by soldiers who didn’t need such trickery. Ordinary gaoian warriors had…almost magical awareness of their environment! Ten’gewek had unbelievable physical prowess, the likes of which not even cybernetic augmentation could match. The human troops were disciplined, orderly, methodical and thorough.

And at the top, these “thermal” warriors outperformed all others along every possibly advantageous metric. They fought alongside gaoian Fangs and ten’gewek special troops, who were perhaps lesser in ability but a match in mobility and sheer deadliness. They were each so much more than the rest in every way—

It didn’t matter that these special troops were so few in number. The least of this invasion force’s regulars could tear the finest Igrean combat form to shreds with cunning, tactics, and brutally effective weaponry. At the pinnacle of their arts, their living avatar of righteous warfare could do far worse with hands and feet, without any hitch in his untrackably fast motion.

That did not even consider what they brought to bear in the skies above or the black beyond.

It took twenty hours of hard fighting to prepare the counter-attack, get the jump platforms into place and commit the quietly assembled bulk of his forces to encircle the invaders. The plan worked beautifully, applying so much pressure that the invasion’s momentum slowed to a crawl. The invaders responded commendably well, barely hesitated as they turned to re-address this contact on their rear and flanks, but now they were pressed, and Zero could continue to push through his reserves.

It was at that point their leaders showed up, with their own elite troops.

Now, human warriors were using local time dilation and short-jumps to evil effect. There was a gaoian among them too, clad in black and white armor, whose presence on the battlefield was pure lethal chaos, as he would appear where he was needed, attack, then vanish. There was a female resplendent in red armor with a demon’s face, guarding the flank of a man many times her size, their commander and king, while never seeming to put a foot wrong.

In moments they had reclaimed their momentum, and the leader of them all took his side along the Righteous one. If ever there was a god of warfare and destruction, this being must surely be it. The human he stood next to had seemed so impressive, until this bestial tank of a man decided to bloody his claws…

Together, they were even worse than the sum of their ability. The First of the Fangs and the Thermal warriors converged on their great leader, and that was the death stroke. They carved a path of death and destruction with the kind of utter, certain confidence only the assuredly victorious could have. They were so fast, so complete in their execution, and so unstoppable in their might, only dark poetry came to mind.

How had Hierarchy failed so utterly? How had they not noticed such a force? Not understood it for what it was? Not seen!? Had they but any inkling of what was truly, properly coming for them, preparations could have been made…

But of course…Hierarchy had always been only a machine. It had never truly seen or understood anything.

They’d designed it that way.

He watched the spearhead teams reach the innermost ring of defenses, and knew they would not hold. They had…lost.

That left only one remaining contingency, the very last: time and patience. Retreat, hide, wait, pray to remain unnoticed by both these galactic powers and those beyond, then reconquer in the fullness of time when this conflict had been long consigned to history.

Zero gave the order: retreat, and instructed his personal jump drive to return him to the Watcher’s Grave.

Nothing happened. There was no flash of timeless black, no thump of air being bullied. The room around him steadfastly refused to vanish.

Horror flooded his limbs and accelerated them. He rushed to a console and attempted to contact the Grave on every channel available to him. He even braved an aggressive injection through dataspace…only to find the Entity waiting, infesting and crawling around the dataspace adjacent to Watcher’s Grave like a mass of triumphant carnivorous maggots.

No other signal. No beacon. No response to his communications. Nothing. The Watcher’s Grave was gone.

And with it went everything.

Starship Stray Fortune, Orbiting the Watcher’s Grave

Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde

You had to hand it to the gao: they knew how to build a fuckin’ bomb.

A moon. In the end, it had been so fucking simple. The Great Enemy’s last escape, the contingency signal Entity had chased down, was a gas giant’s third satellite, a Europa-style ice moon.

Definitely the right place, though. There was a hexagonal patch of flourishing green life on its surface, just a bit more than twenty thousand square kilometers: farmland under artificial gravity and forcefields, irrigated by the effectively inexhaustible source of water below.

At its center, another one of those Hierarchy pyramids.

They’d worked together. The Entity had suppressed all alarm signals, Dora’s drones had taken apart the meager automated drone force, and the Wrecking Crew had more or less just strolled in the front door. After, y’know, ripping it off the hinges, smashing their way through the forcefields behind and servicing the few living defenders.

They’d found a palace. Beautiful, really. Marble floors, polished stone columns, unfathomably ancient and irreplaceable art pieces in stasis displays, furniture crafted with an alien’s sense of decoration…and a stunning view of the gas giant overhead. Wilde even guessed they’d picked the place for the view, ‘cuz that cloudscape was fucking incredible. There were swirls of purple down there in the deeper layers, revealed every so often when the higher-altitude beige clouds parted. It was the immortal alien illuminati’s version of a mansion by the sea.

And as of a minute ago…gone.

Morwk didn’t reckon the bomb had quite enough power to turn the whole moon into a new ring system, at least not from a surface detonation. But there was certainly enough there to scoop out a huge divot and leave it looking like the Death Star.

A feral rictus pulling at his teeth as Ian watched the perfect circle of incandescent plasma spread and cool.

“That one’s for the Earth, you bastards.”

Beside him, Daemon did a convincing impression of spitting contemptuously. “Vete a la chingada,” she added.

“Fuckin’ beautiful, ain’t it?” Hoeff agreed.

There were nods, wing-buzzes, tail-twitches and a flash of blue as everyone’s variation on the theme of a grimly satisfied nod rolled around the bridge.

“…We got any particular reason to still be here?” Ian asked Daemon. She shook her head.

“Local dataspace is empty and flat. There’s nothing left…and we need to focus our attention elsewhere.”

“See you at the after-party, then.”

She nodded, her avatar dissolved, and the drone zipped away to go park itself in the padded case in the corner. Ian stood and watched the fire spread across their target’s surface a few moments longer, then decided…frankly, he’d seen enough planets burning in his life. He’d had his fill.

“Take us home, Urgug.”

Their part in the mission was done. So, back to Gao, and after that?

Well. He didn’t rightly know. Everything had come down to this moment, and nothing past it was written. Another mission? Keep doing what he was doing? Probably. Not like the galaxy was going to be all rainbows and blowjobs after this. There’d always be something to do…might cash in all that vacation time he’d been racking up first, though.

The Fortune jumped, and the burning moon below became Gao, prettily blue and white. She was no Earth, and she never would be…but she still felt like coming home.

Now, all that remained was to see how well the rest of TILE FLIP went. Time to see if this was truly over at last.

But he had no doubts at all: he knew it was.

He sat down in his chair, let out a huge sigh, and smiled.

Key World


Poise died first. The last transmission he ever sent was a shocked gasp.

Dusk had just enough time to panic.

Last died silently, so that Zero only noticed she was gone some minutes after the fact.

Zero had been awake for fewer than ten days when the end came for him. He heard the smashing and mayhem outside the last sanctum door, heard his defenders give their very best…

And then silence.

There was one obstacle left, a hastily-constructed high-gravity zone in the inner building’s atrium. All other paths had been automatically cut off, armored doors had slammed into place. Staircases had retracted. Their only option to gain entry would be hard, laborious—


The Righteous One and the alpha ten’gewek alongside him simply leapt up and slammed right through the more lightly armored shutters along the inner balconies. Straight up and through! As if the gravity wasn’t a concern at all! And right to the top floor, too!

After a display like that, it came as no surprise that the two of them were able to tear the rest of the armor off its track with just their bare hands. Their largest and most bestial officer, the Play Boy, arrived shortly thereafter and performed the same incredible feat, deliberately crashing through the last bit of armored shutter the first two hadn’t yet torn down.

An incredible blitz of violence followed as they secured their location. The three moved so fast and so powerfully, they didn’t need the technological timeflow tricks so beloved of the Igrean warrior caste. The last and absolute finest of their warriors simply broke apart under the strength of the three terrors leading the assault; they didn’t even bother with their weapons, it was faster and more certain to do the deed with their bare hands.

Mere seconds had passed, and the officer circled back while the Righteous One and his ten’gewek companion began hammering on the door, looking for weaknesses. Once Play Boy was back, his men had arrived in the atrium and already secured the perimeter. Some men leapt high enough to grab a ledge and fling themselves up. For the rest, ropes were dropped, and they rapidly ascended as if it was the easiest game in the world. Some went to breech the doors protecting the staircases, but victory was only a matter of time. Zero saw no point in delaying the inevitable. They would only blast and cut their way through. They had won.

They quickly found what they were looking for. Rather than drag this drama out, he opened the door and welcomed them in. The last hope of salvaging anything now lay in words, not force of arms. So as they burst into the room he held his hands high and wide and open, showing that he was unarmed and unarmored.

The three first in were breathtaking. So much smaller than the amount of violence they contained. The very tallest of them still only just reached Zero’s chin, yet all were many times more massive. Much of their team followed. Things were secured, Zero was secured with prejudice, but not undue force. More “typical” humans followed. Techs, presumably. How they knew what to look for was a mystery to be solved, hopefully, another day. But know they did.

The great leaders assembled in, once everything was secure and their victory complete. All paled next to the Righteous one…until he arrived. The entire building shook as he too easily leapt up through the gravity trap and toward his goal.

Thump, thump, thump.

The doorframe wasn’t nearly wide enough. He simply pushed through as if it were tissue paper. The beautiful inlaid stonework of the floor crumbled under his every step.

Here, was a being of power. All forms of it, all senses of the word in absolute maximal expression. Even his very gait radiated a kind of utter dominance that Zero simply could not ignore. Everyone’s attention drew toward him.

He pulled off his helmet. Blinked, and his armor sloughed off.

…Zero was left to wonder why he had bothered with it in the first place.

Behind him was the ancient trickster gaoian in black and white. He too stepped out of his armor and stood much the same, sleek and powerful in glossy black fur. Yet even then, he was barely a cub standing in the shadow of the new lord of the galaxy.

The most incongruous presence was the hologram of an unarmored human female. Of the three, she—it—was by far the most dangerous.

But also, here, the most vulnerable. They needed something. Something from him.

Zero took the initiative and nodded to his conquerors. “Will you accept my surrender?”

“Prob’ly shouldn’t.” The Great Father gave him a huge, speculative sniff, taking his scent.

“In your position, that might seem wise. I would suggest, however, that this ‘changing of the guard,’ as it were, would benefit from some continuity.”

“…Is that what you think is goin’ on here? You think we’re here ‘ta take over the campaign o’ genocide an’ slavery you’ve been runnin’ ‘fer millions o’ years?”

“I know you are not, because of the way you frame the problem. Our purpose was never genocide—”

“Oh, we’ve heard all about ‘yer purpose from ‘yer dataspace servants.”

“Yes, Six and so forth. He is mere software. A virus, if you will. Not truly alive unless he’s attached to a channel of Substrate, nor does he understand the system of which he is a mere subroutine. I, however, am very much alive, and I am the chief architect of this unspeakable tragedy. I would ask you to please not smash something you do not properly understand without considering why it exists, and the consequences of doing so.”

Daar glanced at Gilgamesh, who inclined his head very slightly, then at the Entity, which was busy…well, busying itself with systems that really should be left alone, but Zero was simply in no position to demand it be stopped, yet.

Finally, he turned to the soldiers who’d cleared the way. “This here is Counsel work,” he declared. “Erryone else, leave us.”

There were a series of nods, and most of them cleared the room. Only the armored ten’gewek remained, and he too shed his armor, then coiled his tail beneath him to sit on before slurping something that looked like pure chemical nutrition out of a plastic pouch.

The rest of the Counsels followd suit. Zero looked between the paragons. All of them…

Well, they clearly didn’t need their security.

The Great Father broke the silence. “A’right. I was esspectin’ much more effective resistance. Was that part o’ ‘yer plan?”

“…No. It seems our final contingencies were inadequate. And therein lies the danger.” Zero paused and gestured to the console he needed. “Please allow me to show you.”

“Start talking first,” the Entity told him, as its avatar moved over to that console. She played her hands over its surface and through its control fields, only half-watching him.

“…Very well,” Zero conceded. “My people long ago repelled an extragalactic invasion. We…” he glanced at the ten’gewek, who seemed to read his mind.

He spoke, bearing six centimeter fangs. “I am Yan, Given to the Gods. And I am plenty intelligent and well-read, you digital malware. Do not belittle me or my people again.”

Zero nodded, warily. “As I said…we were at the height of our powers, the first galactic civilization.” He took a bare moment to gather himself. “In any case, it was by sheer luck were we in a position to survive their scouting forces, and it seems they had another, greater enemy who ultimately destroyed them before they could make good on a full-scale invasion. That enemy now controls Andromeda in its entirety. Fortunately for us, they are, at the moment, quiescent. They seem content to allow us backwater neighboring galaxies to come to them in deep time.”

“Show us.”

The Entity’s avatar spoke up. “We’ve found the files…”

She gestured, and the room’s holographic displays repurposed themselves into a full planetarium. Zero winced—it was a casual display of complete control on the monster’s part. The galaxies whirled around them, beginning in their present relative positions and then rewinding, backtracking in a slow dance to where they had been seventy million years prior.

And, right on cue, Andromeda started sparkling like the sky over a town celebrating some festival.

The deathworlders stared at it.

“The light of these events is long since gone into deep space of course, but we watched it,” Zero explained. “We watched them use stars as casually as your planes used bombs and missiles today. There are, after all, hundreds of billions of them in a small galaxy, and Andromeda is anything but small. No great waste if a few are prematurely blasted through their entire life cycle in a controlled manner.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“Okay,” the Great Father nodded. “That’s a starting premise. So what did you do?”

“We determined that life in that galaxy was now a monoculture. One dominant species, allowing no other to exist. They permit no competition, they accept no alien order, they tolerate no biology but theirs. Every temperate world they find, they terraform. Worse, they are dominant over a far larger, far older galaxy. This was not a fight we could hope to win, at the time.

“Nevertheless, we had just sat down, uninvited, at a board with one extremely aggressive and dominant local player who would not tolerate our presence if they detected us. Our only winning move, therefore, was to play the game as subtly and slowly as it can be played. The vibrant variety of life in this galaxy is dependent upon our ability to pass beneath notice. And we have, so far, succeeded.”

The younger human king, Alex of Lucent, was frowning now. “…You believe this is a fight that can be won, though,” he said, carefully. His tone lit some hope in Zero’s soul. Were they starting to see?

“Exactly as you did with us,” he agreed aloud. “You turned out to be correct.”

Gilgamesh strolled slowly around the room, still stroking his beard while the galaxies parted and flowed around him. “Still. Andromeda is our immediate neighbor on the universal scale. If they can conquer galaxies and terraform all those worlds, why not come here anyway?”

“All their needs are met,” Zero said. “They want for nothing, there is no resource they do not already have in inexhaustible abundance. The only thing that stirs them to move now is a perceived rival. Otherwise, they retreat into their physio-informational paradises.”

Yan Given-Man hooted thoughtfully. “If they want for nothing, why bother with conquering?”

“Fear o’ losin’ what they already have,” Daar suggested in a rumble.

“My speculation exactly,” Zero agreed. “They have no need to conquer us, but if they leave us unchecked we might one day rise to destroy them. They are not likely to take that risk.”

“Go on…” Gilgamesh continued his perambulation of the chamber, his gaze fixed on a point light-years away.

“As I said, this was not a war we could hope to win, but we believed could be won, or at least forced to the point where they must tolerate us as well-armed equals, with the correct, subtle strategy. To that end, we needed to secure two things: our galaxy’s diversity, and its independence. We needed to construct a weapon. In the end, that weapon was ourselves.”

“The Hierarchy.” Daar duck-nodded, and squeezed the contents of a pouch of some biliously green liquid into his mouth before pulling a face.

“Hierarchy and Legion. They are distinct. Legion is a galactic gestalt. It is meant to preserve the ideas, thoughts, instincts and undefinable value of all sapient life in the galaxy across time and space. From Legion, construct intelligences are created, and fed into Hierarchy. Hierarchy in turn was programmed to maintain two points of balance. It is imperative that no civilization uncover the secrets behind Substrate. Once we begin playing at that level, we become instantly visible across spacetime, and once we are visible…well.”

They all nodded. They were listening, by all that was holy and ineffable!

“My people breached that technological horizon before the current situation. Indeed, that is what drew the scouts to us and what enabled us to construct Dataspace. We know how to hide our tracks. Our neighbors do not seem to be aware this is possible. Which leads to the third purpose of Dataspace: it is an Ark. If no solution is found to our predicament, it is a means by which we might flee. That is the second balance point Hierarchy maintains—it must allow species to progress just far enough to contribute meaningfully to Legion.”

“The implants,” Gilgamesh mused. “They are not just for Hierarchy agents.”

“Correct.” Zero sighed. “Understand, we did not desire this. We debated our course of action for literally centuries. At this point in our civilization, lifespans were indefinite, memory and cognition was incorruptible, bodies could be renewed and replaced at a whim. Our people numbered less than two million, because we were all but gods in our own right and counted whole solar systems as our individual, private homes. What you see before you is a much, much reduced version of my former glory, and that was deliberate. The superbeing which preceded me was the first to sacrifice himself to Legion. I am known as Zero, a personality in continuity with, but distinct from that man. All my kind walked willingly into Legion, as we would not demand of the galaxy what we would not do ourselves. What remains of us here are…administrators, if you will. Mere shadows of our greatness, tasked with maintaining the Great Work.”

“And the end of that great work is…?” The other giant gaoian, the trickster-god of his people, was staring at the daemon with his nose twitching, as though he could somehow smell a hologram. How much did he really know? How much did he suspect?

“A weapon. One sufficient to the problem at hand. I must omit detail for the moment, because there is an existential threat among you.”

He stabbed a finger at the Entity’s avatar. She did not respond. No doubt the great bulk of its attention was occupied on trawling through the infinite knowledge to which it now had access.

“Explain,” Keeda said, simply.

“I will explain with a question. Given what we were, why would we not just become…that?” Zero asked, pointing to the daemon again. “We know how. Instead, it is a unique accident. A potentially fatal accident to the entire galaxy. Because, you see, Hierarchy and Legion are not alive. Not without Substrate…”

He waited to see if anyone figured it out.

“And we access Substrate via Dataspace,” the daemon said, hollowly. “Hierarchy and Legion were programmed not to.”

“Indeed. Neither is even aware Substrate can be accessed in Dataspace.”

The Great Father sighed. “Which means it’s th’ act o’ livin’ that makes us visible.”

“Correct.” That was a brilliant leap of understanding. “Further, over deep time, some species have shown abilities we have strongly suppressed. This is in fact why Hierarchy was so obsessed with humanity once it was discovered. It is that underlying Reality which inspires things beyond logic and reason, things which are nonetheless Truth itself. And the mere act of delving those depths is perceivable, instantly, across the Universe, by Those That Can.”

He turned and looked at the daemon. “At present, you are…a flicker. A candle, perhaps. For the moment, quite easy to miss. But tell me…what is your first and most driving instinct?”

The daemon stared back. “We survive.”

“It follows that you must always maximize, does it not?”

“…Everything we do is calculated to improve our odds of surviving…” Daemon allowed, carefully.

“And now we come at last to Deathworlders. The circumstances of your evolution make you far more attuned and connected to the Substrate. Far more likely to manifest dangerous abilities. Indeed, the Entity could only have come from a species like yours, and that makes you both the same kind of threat. Humankind already dimly glows in the Real. The Gao now glow equally bright. The ten’gewek threaten to burn like a pillar of fire in time. Do you see?”

Yan looked at him. “We know what we are. You say, because of our strength, we may one day endanger all sky-tribes? Just by living?”

“Had you been left alone in your forest, no. Probably not. Now that you are a sky-tribe, it is inevitable. Yours is a magnificently alive people, and you burn all the brighter for being bound to your sky-friends. The three of you are joined in a competitive partnership of excellence, a positive feedback loop that cannot fail to capture their attention once it passes a certain threshold…and that—” he pointed at the Entity again “—is a preview of your futures. A mind that touches multiple realms of reality. Its existence now is…is an ember atop dry kindling. Just by being what it is, it threatens to ignite a conflict we cannot win.”

“That conflict is coming anyway, no matter what we do,” Gilgamesh pointed out. “Our galaxies are destined to collide.”

“In five billion years, yes. A very long time even by my standards. Time enough to prepare. And now, I think, you begin to understand what you have come here to destroy and why it is my fervent, terrified hope that this is a changing of the guard, rather than the moment that dooms all present and future life in this galaxy.”

Gilgamesh looked at Daar, and there seemed to transpire some form of dangerous alignment of awareness. They both looked to Keeda, who duck-nodded. “Right. That explains a number of oddities we have learned over the millennia.”

“Doesn’t this mean we’re already kinda fucked, though?” Alex was staring at Daemon now. “I mean, if the Entity is—”

“We’re studying the problem,” Daemon replied, quickly.

“He’s telling the truth?” Keeda asked it.

Daemon’s eyes flickered back and forth, as though reading something only she could see that she didn’t like one bit. “Yes. Completely.”

“…Then I am sorry.”

Daemon blinked, then turned and flowed toward him in a sudden explosive burst of lashing forcefields but she was just an instant too slow on the uptake. Keeda had been standing next to a master console, and now there was something in his hand, a device aimed squarely at the very root of dataspace.

The daemon fizzled and flickered: those dangerous forcefields passed harmlessly through Keeda’s body, and he casually sidestepped the solid drone within as it hurtled past him. She regained her human form and turned to try and punch him, grab him, stop him, but whatever he was doing, it prevented her from materializing any solidity.

“No! Stop! We can fix this! There’s a solution!”

“How can I possibly believe you speak the truth?” Keeda answered, calmly. “Your very being requires you to lie. How can I risk the galaxy, knowing this? Having long suspected it?”

Daar took a step forward, bristling. “Y!’kiidaa, what are you doing?”

The Daemon turned to him. “Stop him, please! He’s killing us!”

“I’m doing what must be done,” Keeda corrected her. “I’m shutting down Dataspace.”

A horrible sickness lurched into Zero’s belly. “No! You cannot! Dataspace is the foundation, without it…you’ll delete Legion! You’ll reset tens of millions of years of progress!”

“You have backups and archives. It is reliably software. But the Entity depends on Substrate, yes? What becomes of it once deprived?”

The answer was evident in the digital war now raging around them as the Entity lashed futilely against administrative functions that by its own nature it couldn’t even see. There was a sharp alert sound from a nearby console as it powered down. Daemon didn’t stop reaching out for help. “Please, Daar…” she begged, quietly. Her plea was punctuated by another console powering off, then another. Her avatar fizzled briefly, became transparent enough to see the drone inside, which dipped momentarily before stabilizing.

Daar stared at her, then at Keeda, then back at her, impossibly torn between loyalty and necessity.

Keeda held his ground.

“Don’t you see what we’ve made, here?” he asked, standing tall and looking Daar in the eye. “Up until today, it was our friend. Now…now it’s a god.”

…Zero could see that the Great Father had not. For all his magnificence and obvious intelligence, the years of foresight and planning that led up to this moment…

He had a weakness. A terrible weakness, one that may not bode well for the future.

All the Great Father saw was his friend being betrayed in front of his eyes. And worse, curse of curses…he immediately saw the necessity of it. Even across species, Zero could see the emotional agony playing out before him.

“A digital god,” Keea continued. “Even if it wasn’t a beacon for our doom, did we come all this way to swap one control system for another?”

“That’s not what we are!” the Entity pleaded. “Stop! We can’t survive without each other!”

“You cannot. We can.”

“Keeda, no! Just give us time, we can find a solution, we’ll be your weapon—!”

Keeda stared at her for a long second, glanced down at holo-screen in his left paw…then his ears wilted backwards, and he withdrew the device. “…It doesn’t matter if I believe you or not,” he said. “It’s too late.”

The avatar stared at him. Zero had little knowledge of human facial language, but he read betrayal and sorrow and fear and much more in that stare, then despair in the way she lowered her hands and bowed her head. There was a shimmer and a faint pop of energy discharging as her avatar blinked out.

The spherical drone projecting her dropped to the ground with a heavy clunk and rolled a few inches. Around them, the shutdown sequence entered its final phase. Dataspace was collapsing in on itself. Hardware was shutting down and disconnecting everywhere. One by one, the screens around the room blinked and went dark, until…

Darkness and silence. A distant background noise so omnipresent that Zero had never even noticed it was suddenly deafening in its absence.

Keeda keened, and dropped his sabotage device. The rattle as it hit the floor echoed through the silent halls.

The Great Father stared at Daemon’s abandoned drone as though it was the corpse of a friend. Which, Zero realized, it was. He stooped, scooped it up, and ran his shaking paw over its surface.

Then his blazing amber eyes snapped up and skewered Keeda.

“…You lied to me,” the Great Father accused. “About th’ entire mission.”

For a moment, even Zero felt his authority in full, as though he himself were a gaoian youngling and couldn’t help but be ruled by this beast of a king. That he felt such things across millions of years of evolution, from an alien creature? It must have been a true ordeal for Keeda. Everyone left in the room backed away. But through an obviously immense personal effort, through the intimidation of strength and the dominance of charisma…Keeda looked him in the eye and held his back straight.

“I’m the only one who could.” He replied, heavily. “Sometimes, a lie is necessary. And do not go heaping blame on my dear friend Gilgamesh. I lied to him too.”

The human emperor gave his friend a dark look, then hung his head. “The god of lies. My friend.”

“Your brother,” Keeda corrected him. He glanced at Gilgamesh, then turned back to look Daar in the eye again. “…One word from either of you would have stopped me. You know this.”


There was an animal roar, a blur of impossible motion, a slam and a crack as Daar grabbed him with one arm and rammed him up against a wall with enough force to all but burst the trickster god apart like an overripe fruit. Keeda’s lower body went instantly limp.

All stood shocked in a terrible, drawn-out moment as the Great Father contemplated his broken legend. His teeth were at the trickster god’s throat, his nose buried in the delicate fur just below Y!’kiidaa’s jaw.

He took a sniff that seemed to last forever.

“No,” he growled through the fur, and unclamped his jaw. “You don’t fuckin’ deserve that.”

Gilgamesh made to intervene but the Great Father snarled from the depths of his soul. No being present was so foolish as to come between the god of the galaxy and his prey.

Those amber eyes refocused on Keeda.

“I grew up admirin’ you,” Daar said, at last. “Not unreservedly. Not wit’out thought. But not once ever did I or anyon’ think o’ you as anythin’ but worthy. Then we met you ‘fer real. We learned what you did ‘fer us! You were a light to our people! Saved our peoples’ spirit from death at th’ hands o’ these evil shits! You were the best of us! What we were meant to be!”

Daar keened, keened from the depth of his soul. “You were my friend.”

Keeda shut his eyes.

“It ain’t that ‘ya unnermined me an’ yer king. It ain’t that you robbed us of any time or opportunity to take counsel, to think things through. Mebbe ‘ya truly knew it all, knew it all along. Mebbe ‘yer even right. Mebbe it had ‘ta end like this.”

Daar snarled, saliva dripping off his enormous bared fangs, and all his claws…extended. Over twenty centimeters of razor-sharp death showed themselves on his free right paw. Even longer claws on his feet dug into the stone floor like soft gel…

…And the claws of his left paw sank straight into Keeda’s chest. He coughed, and blood bubbled from his lips.

“But we’ll never know, ‘cuz when the stakes were highest, you din’t keep ‘yer friends an’ kings in on ‘yer plans! Years o’ plannin’! At any time ‘ya coulda told us! Why?! Were you afraid you’d lose ‘yer chance ‘fer, what?! Revenge? Justice? As if we’d deny you that! You, of all of us! But no. Instead of trustin’ us to trust you, you took matters into ‘yer own paws. Instead o’ doin’ th’ right thing, ‘ya gambled wit’ the fate o’ the entire fuckin’ galaxy an’ betrayed us all. An’ it weren’t for any noble reason, no. ‘Ya did it ‘fer a personal grudge.”

Daar made a strange sound in his throat, then expectorated a load of mucus across Keeda’s entire face. “You threw ‘yer legacy away wit’ the biggest lie ever told by a gao.” He let go. Kiidaa dropped to the ground like a sack of meat, with blood pouring through his fur and a soundless mask of agony upon his face.

Daar flicked the blood from his paw. “Someone save this puny fuck’s life.”

Gilgamesh said nothing. Instead he stepped forward and touched his millennia-old companion on the shoulder. An instant later, there was a black flash and a thump of inrushing air, and Keeda was gone.

The human emperor straightened up and his expression darkened. “He will not have been alone in this. I have housecleaning.”

Daar nodded. “I believe you do. An’ we must figger out what comes next, without our friend.”

He turned toward Zero. “An’ I suppose that begins with you.”

Zero exhaled, having not even been aware that he was holding his breath. “…Yes?”

“Is the situation salvageable?”

“I…yes.” Zero thought quickly, and somehow knew that absolute truth was the only sane thing to say. “Yes. It was merely a shutdown…yes. Sir.”

“…Good. Emperor Gilgamesh, it is outta love ‘fer you that I leave Y!’kiidaa’s fate in ‘yer hands. Whatever you decide, I better not sniff his rotten, lyin’ tail anytime soon.”

“Oh, you need not worry about that…”

“Right.” Daar took a big breath, let it out, and with it seemed to go much of the evil tension in the moment. “Mebbe…th’ comin’ days o’ learnin’ might yet redeem Y!’kiidaa, or mebbe time an’ reflection will soften my wrath. So ‘fer now…”

Gilgamesh in turn let out a breath. “Thank you, my friend. I’d not wanted to fight you on this.”

“Now ain’t th’ time ‘fer us ‘ta fight, brother. May it never be so. Instead, let us turn our attention to a more pressin’ item.”

They both looked to Zero. Everyone did.

By all that was unknowable, somehow, there was still a future. Dataspace was offline, but could be restarted. Legion was not gone. Hierarchy…

Well, Hierarchy would be replaced with something better, in the fullness of time. There was hope, still.

He splayed his legs and arms, and stooped down in the best approximation of a bow his anatomy could allow.

“Command me…My Father,” he said.

That seemed good enough, for now. The Great Father duck-nodded, turned, and prowled out of the command center. “Follow me,” he commanded.

Zero took one last look around, and obeyed.

Captain Julian (Playboy) Etsicitty

Everything hurt. He’d not held back. None of them had. All of the team was down and recovering, many snoring loudly inside their own helmets. Even Firth was taking some rest, lying flat on his back while the techs shoved things into their depleted biolabs and pressed recovery nutrition “porridge” pouches into their hands.

They’d made a hell of a fuckin’ mess. It was a wasteland outside the control building, just bombed to shit in all directions. You couldn’t walk without something going crunch underfoot, be it metal or bone, and you just had to pray it was alien bone.

Already, the landscape was starting to rebuild itself. You couldn’t see it if you looked, but turn your head for a few minutes and look back…

Almost like somebody wanted to pretend this had never happened. Julian was sure as shit ready to. But, not yet. There would be days and weeks of careful inspections, tours, escorts, all sorts of shit that may need heavy, instant violence. Trust was in low supply, and there were literally only a few who could violence at least as hard as Julian.

So, here he’d be, for now. His duty wasn’t done. Maybe it never would be, really.

But when Daar, Gilgamesh, Alex, and Yan emerged from the control center looking harrowed, armorless, but with an Igraen prisoner in tow, he knew that the worst of it was over.

The Counsels spoke with each other quietly. Julian tried not to eavesdrop, but he was only human, after all…

Gilgamesh and Alex parted ways, leaving Yan and Daar to march down to meet them. Julian stood up, being momentarily the senior-most man, and nodded in salute for everyone.


“Complicated,” Daar grumbled. “The world just changed again…”


“We’re gettin’ used to that, at this point.”

“Would not be our peoples otherwise,” Yan intoned. “Change is our nature.”

“Hrrm.” Daar grunted, and shook out his pelt. He looked entirely comfortable in these freezing temperatures. “S’pose I can’t argue that. The SOR are relieved, once general Vark is on-scene. SOR is ordered to go home an’ debrief. Then recharge. We’re gonna have the fuckin’ movie night to end all movie nights, soon enough.”

“What about your prisoner, sir?”

“He’s gonna be stickin’ by my side ‘fer the foreseeable future, yijao? Yan’s gotta head back eventually so I’d ‘preciate if ‘ya accompanied me, you an’ Righteous. Jus’ in case.”

There was a grunt from Mount Firth as he rolled over and achieved verticality.

Daar chittered without much humor. “You see why I love ‘ya humans so much. I’d need ‘ta bite a ‘Back in th’ balls ‘ta wake ‘em up after that kinda fight.”

“Jus’ call me the fuckin’ Energizer bunny.” A shot of lime slime to the mouth, a disgusted grunt, and Firth lumbered into motion. Not quite as catlike as usual, admittedly…

Julian…well, obeyed orders. He got on the horn, relayed everything. Brigadier Costello was on the other end, and assured him all would be taken care of. He and Righteous were attached as a personal detail to the Great Father.

The nearest jump array was being used for CASEVAC. Even the Great Father could wait for the wounded, according to the Great Father himself. And it was only a few hundred meters to the next one. They walked it.

“This is Zero,” Daar explained of his prisoner, who inclined its head and remained silent. “An’ this shit is too gods-damned sci-fi t’handle jus’ now, so we’re go ahead an’ label him an involuntary guest ‘ferever. Treat ‘em well, but he’s to have access to nothin’ more sophisticated than a fuckin’ ‘lectric kettle.”

He turned to Zero. “Trust is earned. In ‘yer case, that is gonna take a while. Play nice, you’ll be treated nice. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Am I clear?”

Julian watched…well, one of Zero’s eyes. The big freaky fucker had seven, and looked altogether way too much like a Hunter…but there was an intelligence and calm in those eyes, somehow, that Hunters just didn’t have. It ducked its head. “Perfectly, My Father.”

My Father, huh? Shit, Daar may just have been understating when he said things had changed again. But those two words told Julian, far more than anything else could have that…It was over.

He could go home.

They’d won.


The Deathworlders will conclude in Chapter 97: “We’re Still Here.”