Chapter 97: We're Still Here
Date Point: 11th of ten-month, year 20 UPC
Mother Giymuy High School, Lavmuy, Gao
Leticia “Letty” Firth
“Morning, everyone! How was your weekend?”
The kids trotted out a series of vague comments like ‘pretty good’ or ‘yeah’ or whatever as they filed into the classroom and took their desks. This session was an all-human class: Letty had the mixed freshman group after lunch, which included a small cadre of ten’gewek on study-abroad for the end of the day.
They would be helping with a trade skills workshop later in the year, too. The first part was getting used to their new bestest most breakable-est friends.
Teenage performative indifference aside, the energy was pretty eager to learn. Letty prided herself that she taught an interesting history class, though she also had to admit that she was kinda helped by the subject matter. Lately, they’d been covering the stuff that had happened in living memory, the Igraen War and the founding of the United Peoples. Stuff half the class had been alive for, or at least in stasis.
It was sadly still all too easy to spot the pre-war kids from their post-war counterparts. Same subjective personal age, but there was a shroud of trauma hanging over the “older” kids she knew all too intimately.
She prided herself on being the sort of teacher who helped with that, too.
“Alright! Last time we’d just finished looking at the Key Invasion and the dataspace reset. I notice everyone got their bonus points in, so, uh…Marianne.” She smiled at one of the stasis kids, a girl who she’d found always benefited from being given an early confidence boost in the day in the form of an easy question. “Who signed the Treaty of Cimbrean?”
Marianne went tense when called on, then relaxed when she was given a freebie. “The Great Father and the other Counsels?”
Now for a slightly trickier one. “Correct, but what did the treaty establish?”
Marianne hesitated, went a little red as a few people looked at her, and ventured. “It uh…disbanded the Grand Army?”
Good enough. Letty nodded, gave her an encouraging smile, and called up her first slide.
“Certainly! Things changed very quickly after the reset of Dataspace….”
Date Point: Liberation Day
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
He was…human, now. This was his body, indefinitely. There had been some talk of removing the implants and trying to recover Doctor Flowers’ personality, but the medical experts had argued that Flowers was long gone, and Six had argued that he’d died of entirely self-inflicted causes anyway and that he, Six, had merely…inherited the corpse.
Neither was quite true. Instead, the two personalities eventually merged. Six was Flowers was Six. Though, he still thought of himself as Six and fancied himself a better person than Flowers had been. Flowers had been a lecherous serial adulterer and penny-pincher who’d much rather lure an impressionable girl onto his boat with promises he never intended to keep than settle for a committed family life.
Of course, he hadn’t committed serial genocide, either.
In any case, Six was…free. Mostly. He was allowed to travel as he saw fit, invest, seek employment. Dabble in romance, though he found himself…valuing his solitude. So far, there hasn’t been much luck.
But every now and then, when he least expected it—and therefore knew for certain it was coming…
A short, utter juggernaut of a man paid him a visit.
Right now, for instance.
“History in the makin’, huh?”
Six flinched. Hoeff had an infuriating ability to just…appear. Even right now, in the middle of a crowd of people, Hoeff could just sneak right up and tap Six on the shoulder. The man could break concrete underfoot with his weight, yet somehow move like a ghost when he wanted to.
And this in the most brightly obnoxious (and often obnoxiously minimal) clothing imaginable. He’d outdone himself today.
Six cleared his throat and feigned coolness. “It certainly happens frequently, of late.”
Hoeff chuckled without humor, and moved to his side, uncomfortably close enough to feel the body heat radiating off him like a blast furnace. “Any luck on the datin’ front?”
“The same answer as last time: I’ve no experience, and it would be an… unusual woman who would remain interested after learning much about me.”
“Gee. That’s too bad.”
“You really make no effort to disguise your sadism, do you?”
“I like to keep it honest. An’ if it were up to me, you wouldn’t be standin’ there. But…” Hoeff shrugged. “Instead, my friends ask me to be civil. This is civil.”
“As opposed to?”
“Inventing new artforms in breakin’ you like you deserve. And I still have hope, maybe you’ll fuck up one day.”
“…Don’t you have a wife to spend time with?”
“You can see why these social calls irritate me so. I could be eating a steak, or reading a book, or screwing my wonderful Claire totally silly, or going to a play beforehand…”
“Please,” Six replied, drily, “do not allow me to detain you.”
“Oh no, gotta get all the latest dirt! How’s the new job?”
Six paused on the inhale. He’d been about to give another drily sarcastic reply, but then…no. Why? He was tired of this sparring. He was tired of the antagonism. Maybe there would be a return to dataspace one day and who knew what the future contained, but lately he’d come to appreciate the here and now, and the magnanimous gesture that was his continued life.
“I have investments and passive income. For now, the job is for the experience.”
“Ah. Okay. I can respect that.”
“I’m…actually enjoying it.”
“We’re physical beings. Working with your hands is rewarding.” He held his up, put Six’s in his giant, rough paw. The immense difference was something he’d only truly begun to appreciate as of late, now that he was earning callouses of his own. “Believe it or not my sense o’ touch ain’t diminished at all. I can feel steel grain even through these huge mitts o’ mine.”
“I can too. Wood is so…satisfying.” Six chuckled at himself. “I can’t believe I just admitted that, but…there was a time when I would have considered this my complete fall from grace. I was one of the controlling elite, my word shifted the course of galactic history—”
“Usually by endin’ some species or another.”
“—the point is….the point is, I don’t feel this as a loss.”
“Hmm.” Hoeff considered him. “An improvement, I guess. So keep it up. ‘Cuz hands like mine can create or destroy with a skill you wouldn’t believe. And you know what? I’d rather stick to steelwork and handyman.”
“…So would I.”
Six nodded. “Right. So…is this the point where you explain your hot pink speedo?”
Hoeff grinned. “Aww, don’t you remember? When we first met? It was such a lovely beach! Already had Claire though, so no single-man fun…”
“…You are very strange.”
“Mhmm. That was a fun little mission, don’t you think?”
“Fun? I was too busy attempting to survive your attentions. And your rather unsubtle demonstration of might, as I recall. Forced me to my knees—”
“Palmed the back of your neck, yeah. Coulda popped your head right off with just a little squeeze,” Hoeff smiled with a disconcertingly wistful expression. “An’ I weren’t nearly the man I am now, of course…”
“You make your point as unsubtly as ever.”
“Damn right. Subtle means someone might miss the point. I’m doing you a favor by ensuring you couldn’t possibly misunderstand. Because I’m a playful sort of guy, Six. And when I get to playing, I tend to break my toys. Now hush, they’re starting.”
Six sighed but said nothing, glad for the reprieve from Hoeff’s….well, calling it ‘bluster’ would imply the man wasn’t perfectly willing and capable of making good on what he was saying. But he was glad for the reprieve from it regardless. He turned his attention to the large screen at the plaza’s north end.
The treaty, according to the ticker scrolling along the bottom of the feed, did three things: it formally disbanded the Grand Army, to be replaced by the United Peoples Military; it established a truce between the United Peoples and the Igraen Remnant; and it redistributed the former properties and demesnes of the Entity to Emperor Gilgamesh, while naming Garden Station as a monument to all those who lost their lives in the great conflict.
Given that was a list ten billion long, they needed somewhere appropriately large to honor the fallen.
It was being signed on a beach at the southern tip of Tiritya Island, hence Hoeff’s bizarre swimwear decision. It was one of the few genuinely warm places on Cimbrean (by human standards, anyway) and a popular vacation destination for the young and fit—so essentially everyone in this modern era.
A beautiful place, and a fitting one. Six watched as the Counsels were announced, took up their pens, and signed the treaty.
That was it. The war was over, and Six’s side had lost. And, it seemed, Six as part of the Hierarchy had known far less about the nature of his existence than he thought…though also far more than Zero and the administrators had believed possible.
And for some reason, the victors had decided to allow their vanquished foes to live. The Igraens still existed. Six…doubted the wisdom of that. Allowing them to survive only created opportunity for future betrayal and control. Why take that chance?
Could it be there was a reason?
Would he ever know that reason?
…Not any time soon, he decided. And by the time he did, he would have spent a long time living a human life, probably long enough to forget what being a dataform was even like.
Six took a look around. Lots of young, energetic people, who whooped when the Counsels and kings waded into the crowd. This was the dawn of a new empire, one unlike any that had come before, and he found he was glad to be here to see it. Perhaps in time, he’d even be thought of as part of it.
Who knew what the future held?
He put his hands together, and applauded.
New Dodge, Franklin, Cimbrean
From his spot on the combine’s ladder, Austin could see corn as far as the horizon, almost. An ocean of perfectly ripe, dry, golden cornstalks with waves rippling across it as a perfect light breeze whispered across the surface.
Getting to corn had taken some doing. First was peas and legumes. Lots of nitrogen needed to be fixed into the nearly inorganic soil. Then came wheat in rotation, and other grasses. There they stayed until nitrogen fertilizers could be had at reasonable cost. Then they needed the right hybrids that could take the cooler but more predictable clime, and don’t even get started on all the drainage…
Only once all that had been put into place, could the king of grains be grown. Like so much Austin had done with his life these years since Chicago, it had been a monumental gamble. Peas and beans and wheat and alfalfa for dairy was a safe crop rotation, and yeah, the dairy barns up on the hilltops had turned out forty million pounds of milk last year…
But high-production dairy cows weren’t truly at their best without corn. They need silage. It needed to be harvested still green so they could ferment the whole plant, give the girls the nutrition they needed. And besides cows destined for either meat or milk, they needed corn to feed the insatiable demand from…everything, really. Industry, hungry mouths, specialized bioplastics and biofuels for some of the weirder-yet-essential applications. So, having got his mega-farm built, into a groove, equipped and soil enriched, and his “college” farms about ready to graduate its first students, as other farms started to specialize…
He’d gone all in on corn.
And now, it was time to bring the harvest in.
“Congratulations, Austin,” Ramsey nodded. Christ he’d been a useful man to know, and a good friend to kick his ass when needed. They may not have had their adoptive father’s absurdly Heroic genetics, but they certainly admired him in spirit; both were physically powerful young men well acquainted with long, hard work and hard personal discipline. At the moment, Tristan was running errands for bin fans and broken belts and other maladies, here and there. Ramsey was here to drive a grain cart, until Jose was done with the milking for the evening. They needed every man they could get (who wasn’t a stark idiot) to get the corn in now.
Fortunately, manpower wasn’t an issue. There were a lot of guys on stasis work contracts—come out of the bag, do some seasonal work, go back in the bag. Hell of a thing, Austin thought. He wasn’t sure he’d want to live like that. But those guys were helping with resource pressure by not eating while in stasis; solar and nuclear power was basically free, but carbs and good protein were precious manna. And they were racking up a lot of money too, so by the time they came out of storage permanently in a few years, they’d be well set up.
“Well…let’s get ‘er done.”
The breaking dawn was almost over. In another half-hour or so, the morning dew would be driven off the crop. Not much time left. So they got to inspecting equipment. Topped off fluids and fuels, be they electric or biodiesel…
And they got it done.
Date Point: 11th of ten-month, year 20 UPC
Mother Giymuy High School, Lavmuy, Gao
Leticia “Letty” Firth
“If you’re going to understand the immediate post-war period, you need to understand that this was still a scarce economy. People were plentiful, with most of the human population still in stasis. But parts and material were a different matter entirely.”
Letty had a rather nice animation to illustrate the point. She’d found it on the Internet, and it served this lesson so well.
It was the complete material tree for a can of white paint.
Nothing really drove home just how deep and wide the logistics of everything truly ran than being able to point to the wall some of her students were literally leaning against and then show them just how much stuff went into the solvents, the binder, the pigment and the many, many other ingredients collectively known as ‘additives,’ and that was before getting into the can itself.
“Earth was still newly gone at this point, and with it an industrial foundation that took centuries to build. And to replace it we had Cimbrean, which was far too young and dependent on imports from Earth, and Gao, which had only recently been devastated by the biodrone war. During the four years of the evacuation, the Entity did a lot of heavy lifting thanks to its entire drone swarm being fitted with nanofactories, but when Keeda shut down dataspace, that went too.”
Jamie Howard shoved his hand in the air. One of the stasis kids, who’d missed the whole thing. “How bad was it?”
“Oh…honestly, we made do. You mended clothes, repaired appliances, that sort of thing. For a good decade, you tended to keep only a couple pieces of advanced electronics in the home, or you kept what you had still running. Everything else just…if it was simple, it kept working, right? Took a lot of time for high tech to really get its feet back under it, at least at high volume. This led to weird contradictions like having up-to-date grav plating in your house—it’s a big solid state device, and easy to make—and also having a computer fifteen years old being the norm, if you had a sit-down computer at all. Your well-used sewing machine was probably of gaoian design and make, and it probably sat next to a stasis fridge. Because the latter was easier to make than a traditional cold box!”
“What was it like on Earth, then?” Sanchia Lavigne asked. She was one of the after-Earth generation, born in the post-war world and lived her whole life on Gao. All she’d ever known had been that frugal, thrifty lifestyle.
“Oh, Earth was…at the pre-war peak, you’d replace your phone every couple of years. I remember the way my parents lived, my father got a new car on lease every three years, my mother bought new clothes every month, and everything, literally everything, came with packaging.”
About half the kids nodded familiarly, while the other half looked dumbstruck. That particular cultural rift was one of the greater challenges modern teachers had to deal with. Getting along with aliens wasn’t a problem, for the most part. What even did that word really mean anymore? But getting along with kids of their own species and apparent age who’d grown up with such completely different rules, that sometimes sent sparks flying.
“Things were expensive and unpredictable,” Letty summarized, “but not if they were important. Honestly, we somehow, collectively pulled off a logistical miracle. And that while the gaoian decline was in full swing, too. So…sad, yeah. Not an easy life for anyone. But we managed to have fun…”
Leemu, caught up in it all
There was good reason to celebrate today!
The sudden end of what had promised to be a life-defining war was unexpected, welcome news! Leemu was the official painter for the treaty. Daar had decided to do the thing on a very scenic beach, with broad cliffs to one side and a perfect view of Cimbrean’s famous sunrise. Lots of symbology there; he suspected Gyotin had some ideas behind it all. For safety’s sake the Igrean wasn’t present to sign the treaty. That had been done previously and recorded on video, which was shown to everyone. Made his job a bit easier, though. He could paint something uplifting, positive—
Gorku came visiting much the same as he always did. He scratched at the door and entered in one motion, guided by his nose to wherever Leemu happened to be. Tackles and brownie affection would no doubt ensue…
Only this time, he had a different mischief on his mind. “Hey, cousin! Guess who I found?!”
Tail wagging so hard it was beating the doorframe. And behind him…
It took Leemu’s brain a moment to catch up with his nose and eyes, then he was keening happily and dropped everything as he mad-charged across the room to greet an old friend he’d given up on seeing again.
“Preed! You smell healthy!”
Preed chuckled, carefully set aside a walking stick, and dropped down on his knees to give Leemu a huge hug around the neck. “And you look even better…” he replied, holding tight. He was definitely frailer than Leemu remembered, but he still had that same warmth and impish humor shining through.
Leemu pant-grinned happily over Preed’s shoulder at Gorku. “How did you find him?!”
“Oh, das’ the bestest part! So I was doin’ sum upgrade training, ‘cuz we got ten’gewek we gotta worry ‘bout now inna gym, right? So sittin’ in a class, bein’ bored an’ shit, and then! End of the day, Daar showed up! Wasn’t even lookin’ ‘fer me, jus’ wanted ‘ta poke his nose in like he does, an’ he saw me an’ there was a reunion, an’ I had ‘ta show off my lifts, and—”
“As one does,” Leemu chittered. “But what about Preed?!”
“I’m gettin’ there! So we got to talkin’ while he showed off what he could do and balls I never felt so tiny, but anyway we sorta reminisced and he asked about Preed, yijao? An’ it turns out, he’d been put in stasis, an’ was one of the first scheduled t’come out! ‘Cuz culturally valuable or somethin’! So we went ‘round to go meet him, and here he is!”
Preed gave a small, self-effacing laugh. “I’m not so sure I’m that valuable…but the medicine is amazing. I’m told it’ll knock twenty years off if I’m diligent.”
“An’ you gotta eat well! And train, and—”
Leemu and Preed looked at each other, and traded an eye-roll they’d traded many a time before.
“And you are of course going to ensure we’re both taking care of ourselves,” Leemu chittered.
“‘Course I am! He made me promise!!” Gorku agreed. “An’ takin’ care o’ ‘yerselves starts with gettin’ out there an’ joinin’ the fun! An’ we got VIP access, too…”
Leemu raised his ears, and on suspicion gave a sniff toward the door. Sure enough…
There he was. Standing colossally big and tall as ever, sweat all lathered up in his fur and properly brownie big-boy musky, with the most ludicrously delighted expression on his face and his whole behemoth body taut and rippling with strength. He pant-grinned down at Leemu, growled playfully and flexed every part of himself in and out to display that intensely thick muscularity of his, which absolutely nobody of any species could ever possibly hope to match.
“Leemu! “Lil’ buddy! Been a minute, how ‘ya doin’?! Like my pump!? It’s just a lil’ quickie but I look pretty good, huh?”
He did, at that. Still! “Did…did you literally just come over straight from the gym?”
“Yeah! Gorku’s a great coach!! Got me feelin’ it good real quick! He’s good like Adam!!”
Leemu could only chitter in exasperation. So ridiculously, predictably Daar!
“You seem to collect expert meatheads!” Leemu pant-grinned and ran out to greet him. Daar in turn fell to all fours with a ground-shaking thud, and wrapped Leemu up in a brawny cocoon of gruff, happy affection.
“I’m lucky in my friends. That means you too!”
It warmed Leemu’s heart, really. He’d never smelled the Great Father so happy. Like…ever. Like this was what he was meant to be as a person, and being what he was, it almost never got to show itself…but it was showing itself now. They’d won. He’d won.
Leemu chittered indulgently. “I missed you too, My Father.”
Daar gently let him go, suddenly remembering his manners. “Been way too long ‘fer jus’ text messages now an’ then. You smell good! How’s th’ paintin’ comin’ along?!”
Daar’s tail wagged so furiously, it managed to wag the entire fuckin’ bakery that was his rear quarters along with it. Leemu couldn’t help but chitter. He of course nodded respectfully to his friend and sovereign, even though he knew that right now Daar wouldn’t care one bit. Which was a big part of why he deserved the respect, really.
“I got the line sketches down, My Father. The rest….I’ll paint for effect when there’s time.”
“Cool! I’d ask ‘ta come in but I’m kinda bus-sized these days,” he chittered. “Even ‘yer double front door is a bit tight. But c’mon! I got mosta my Big Daar Energy out already, I promise!”
“I got it out ‘fer now! You will note I was crafty wit’ my choice o’ werds! Now c’mon there’s a circus troupe that’s gonna perform! A cross-species one!! An’ Preed, you can ride on m’back if’n you need. Ooh, an’ there’s pizza! An’ tacos! An’ the bestest thing ever, taco pizza!!”
“Y’ain’t tasted the noodles Preed used’ta make back on the station,” Gorku pointed out.
“Hmm,” Daar considered. “That’s true…”
“And as much as I feel drawn to some high energy adventure,” Preed noted indulgently, “if you’re willing…I’d like to cook right now. It’ll be easier on my old bones.”
Leemu caught on. “And I know a growing Daar needs protein and carbs…”
It was at that moment an apocalyptic grumble emanated from the region of Daar’s belly.
“Well…I mean, no hidin’ my hunger,” Daar chittered. “But at th’ risk o’ soundin’ obvious, I eat a lot,” he warned them. “Like, you won’t believe how much.”
“Having lived with this huge lout, I’d believe anything.”
Daar chittered. “Fair! But meaning no offense, Gorku is tiny next t’me. I’m th’ most biggest an’ I eat even more’n my dumptruck huge might suggest, too. You…sure ‘yer okay wit’ that?”
“I don’t care if you’re a hundred times bigger, Noodle is a special thing.” Gorku duck-nodded vigorously on that point. “And besides, I have a well-stocked pantry,” Leemu countered. “You can refill it if you eat me empty. You’re rich, ain’t you?”
“Ha! Okay, fair ‘nuff. Mebbe…okay!” He seemed decided. “I’ll go hose down ‘round back first.”
He could be considerate, as brownies went. So Daar and Gorku went to perform some basic hygiene, while Preed got started in the kitchen and Leemu went to get all the drying aids. He still had his extra big brownie beach towels, luckily! It was a big house after all, and he was all alone.
No reason to declutter!
Toweling down was a good chance to catch up on gossip. It didn’t cut down on either of the big boy’s musk—and Leemu could already feel it fuzzing him even happier, to be close with such dominant old friends—but it did at least cut down on the transferable moisture content of his overly fragrant brothers.
Daar slinked his way through the too-small double door with well-practiced skill.
“Nice! I like the wrap-around mural! How long did that take?”
“About a month, I think? Lemme just get the padded rug—yes. Thanks.”
Fortunately, they had built the house wisely back then. Daar still filled any space he was in, but the double doors everywhere, wide hallway, and high ceiling made for a nicely cozy space for a ridiculous creature like him to sniff around in. And guided by his nose, he knew exactly where the giant lounging rug had been stored. The two burly boys wrestled it into place, and Relax began in earnest.
The first round of Noodle happened in very short order. Admittedly, Leemu was doing most of the cooking, while Preed sat down and directed him, but…
It was so nice. A return to a simpler time, somehow, for just a little while. They caught up, discussed Leemu’s career, Preed showed off the pictures of his grandchildren and first great-grandchild, Gorku talked about his own work, which was transitioning back to ordinary civilian personal training, now that the war was officially over…
Daar mostly laid on the floor as if he were trying to embody the spirit of a puddle, but couldn’t because he was far too stocky and muscular to get away with it. He was, apparently, actually tired and wanted some time away from the public eye and the endless celebrations.
He just needed help to realize it.
“Shit, you were right, this was the bestest idea. I had no fuckin’ idea how tired I was! Sarry,” he nodded to Preed. Coarse language was never a good idea around respected elders.
Preed of course waved it off. “You are long accustomed to high-energy activity, My Father. You should learn a thing or two from us broken old folk!”
Daar grunted, rested his chin on his paws, and closed his eyes. The indefatigable, untiring, invincible, unstoppable ruler of everyone was exhausted, and apparently only willing to let the people in this room know. “Y’know…it’s still genuinely weird hearin’ humans call me that.”
Preed would have none of that. “Because we mean it, you deserve it, and let us not say another word about it.”
Daar flicked an ear uncomfortably, but like any good gao, he respected his elders.
Gorku, however, was full of mischief.
“Y’know what’s the most weirdest thing ‘bout you, My Father?”
Daar opened an eye warily. “I hesitate to ask…what?”
“‘Yer always uncomfortable when people talk ‘bout you in ways that matter, yijao? But th’ moment it’s somethin’ like bein’ voted ‘most prettiest’ or bein’ th’ bestest bodybuilder in one of those ‘fitness’ magazines…”
Daar chitter-sighed in concession. “Y’know, ‘yer right as balls on that.”
“Or most huggable,” Leemu added.
Daar perked up. “Wait, when did that one happen?!”
“It was in a human magazine for females, about five years ago. ‘Top ten most huggable celebrities.’ I don’t know exactly what criteria they were judging on, but…”
“It was his winter fur,” Gorku added. “The exact words were ‘he is made of snoft and fuzzy.’”
“Snoft.” Daar repeated the word like it was something filthy he was picking up between his claws. “I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult. How th’ fuck is anyone gonna lookit me an’ go ‘yeah, that’s a big tub o’ huggable’!”
To be fair, he was so dense and severely sculpted, “soft” was just never a word that Leemu thought of in the context of Daar. But huggable? Hugs were what Daars did best.
“Literally everyone who has ever met your friendly side. And they’re right about the fur,” Leemu added after a moment of thought. “Your winter coat is shaggy.”
“Even ‘fer a ‘Back, yeah. Mine’s pretty good but ‘yers is epic.”
Daar looked at them all like they were aliens, and decided he didn’t have the energy to fight them on it. Another puddle attempt ensued.
It didn’t work. So instead, he reached over with one of those long arms of his and pulled Gorku in for a loving, crushing snuggle. He tried to escape, but resistance was futile.
Leemu chittered, and by unspoken agreement the three of them moved on to a new topic. “Are your family still in stasis?” he asked Preed.
“For now. Along with nearly all the Thai people. Part of the reason I am not is, I lived for so long among non-humans, so what’s left of the government-that-was wanted my insight.”
“That was prob’ly part o’ Governor Sartori’s effort,” Daar noted with a yawn and a tighter snuggling squeeze. Gorku chittered in exasperation and surrendered to the affection.
“I was surprised when he accepted the appointment. Is he doing well?”
“Yeah. He’s been a lotta help with the re-population.”
Preed nodded. “And he’s very keen on trying to preserve what we can of Earth’s cultures. He doesn’t want us all to become one homogenous people, he wants to preserve some of what made each nation distinct.”
A sweet curry noodle was next, with a thick peanut sauce. Daar’s huge bowl was refilled and pressed into his paws.
He sniffed appreciatively. “Mhmm…balls. ‘Yer right, this is so good. I know ‘yer gonna stuff me fulla more noodle an’ I ain’t complainin’! But I’m a pretty low-carb sorta guy…an’ it’s makin’ me sleepy.”
“Good. Have some more.”
Noodles happened. The next round was with garlic and beef, pretty much Preed’s finishing combo for gaoians. Daar temporarily released Gorku for Final Noodle so he could really appreciate the scents and flavors, and true to his word, succumbed to Nap after his tenth bowl.
The rest of them, perhaps inspired by a spirit of wisdom, took the opportunity to nap themselves, which resulted in Daar pulling them all into a nice, comfortable pile right on the good rug. It was impossible not to fall asleep smashed up against and entirely enveloped by that much affection and warm fur and fierce, protective strength. Daar had Leemu wrapped up in his great arms, face pressed into the fluffy thickness of Daar’s vast chest, head resting on a bicep literally bigger than he was. Gorku was pinned flat in Daar’s apocalyptic legs, which he pulled up to fully wrap himself around both his snuggle-buddies.
Preed, being an elderly human, was allowed the dignity of merely resting along Daar’s flank.
It was close, and comfortable, and it did the trick like only a friendly pile can really do: they all fell fast asleep. As he expected, being wedged between Daar and Gorku had a deeply comforting effect on Leemu, and he surrendered to it completely. Gaoians thrived on close contact and even with visiting the local artist’s workhouse, he’d been missing it, living as a solo artist. But now? Both of his closest friends, enveloping him in their scent and their affection…
He fell into the deepest of sleeps before he realized how much he’d missed his friends.
When they finally awoke, all three were energized and fresh, and Daar seemed fizzing and ready for another round in the public eye.
Leemu wondered when they’d next have the pleasure. Rarely, he guessed. But sometimes.
In the end, he’d coaxed them to come revel with the world. There was a big beach party still going on, so they trotted on down to go see. Preed on Daar’s back got a roaring welcome, much to his chagrin…
Taco pizza was amazing. A cross-promotion between Ninja Taco and Pizza Samurai, it was served as a firebomb special wrapped in a Pepper-ronin. Still not a patch on fresh homemade noodles in Leemu’s opinion, but who knew? Maybe there’d be, uh, Noodle Viking or whatever before long, to add to the mayhem.
…Hmm. Maybe he could convince Preed to go into business again…
For now, for the following week…rank didn’t matter. Everyone was on equal terms while civilization took a collective breath of relief. Daar for once could be one with the people, and right now he was the safest, happiest person in the world. Just bein’ the most biggest, most goofiest friend to everyone, right as his truest nature had always wanted to be.
They were all truly blessed and lucky. For him, for everything.
And Leemu, in his tiny, small way…helped make it happen.
It was good to be alive.
Date point: Liberation Day
Ekallim-Igigi, New Uruk
Gilgamesh had never seen his friend look so small and crushed. Quite literally, for the moment; the Great Father had very carefully and deliberately all but exterminated Kidu right then and there. Multiple ruptured organs, all his ribs broken, spine torn in half just from the violence of the impact.
All with a simple, one-armed slam into a stone wall.
A calculated move, that. One which had shattered any delusions Gilgamesh may have held—not that he had held any such—that theirs was an equality (or at least reasonable peerage) of prowess as well as rank. In all their years together, he and Kidu had been equally matched, able to brawl for hours and honestly, their record of winning or losing to each other was about that of a slightly biased, imperfect coin.
They were now ruled by something in a far greater league than either of them. He was polite, and allowed them independence and sovereignty…but not out of any genuine fear. Daar was supreme. And not just in body, or even in mind. In all ways. The Great Father was terrible.
Kidu had forgotten that, to his incalculable cost.
All repairable, of course. In a day or three more, he’d be whole. That was the nature of their medicine, that which did not kill outright rarely left a truly indelible mark on the body. But Daar knew that, so instead he left an indelible scar on their souls. One that, in its way, was a brutal kind of mercy.
Word had already come. The Great Father had expressed ‘concern’ about Y!kiidaa’s health, which was as close to any kind of contrition as they were apt to get. It was also a statement that might lead in the fullness of time to reconciliation, to official healing…
But never again would the Great Father trust Y!’kiidaa on anything of import.
…And rightfully so.
There was a light tap on his arm as Tomoe rested her head against Gilgamesh’ bicep. “You’re brooding.”
He glanced down at her, then back through the observation window.
“I must deal with Leifini too,” he said, unhappily. “Kidu was never any kind of stupid, but this affair does not have the hallmarks of his wit. That device he used was hers, I’m sure of it.”
“Most likely,” Tomoe agreed. “I’m sure she will be perfectly honest with you, retire her position and step down with as much dignity as possible. She may even choose to pass on.”
“I will not allow her the choice,” Gilgamesh decided. “Y!’kiidaa paid a heavy price for his hubris, but a large share of that punishment belongs to her.”
Tomoe frowned at him, but said nothing.
“You think my decision unjust?”
She shrugged. “I was born in a time and place where seppuku would be the expected and satisfactory outcome of an affair like this. Sometimes, my instincts revert. In your own words, husband, we never quite leave our homelands behind, do we?”
Gilgamesh considered. “You make a wise point. I will permit her opportunity to do the right thing and retire into obscurity. In fact I had intended to I think, but it is better to say so, no?”
Tomoe nodded, and remained silently at his side for a while.
“…I think…” Gilgamesh began, “…I think…I think this would be easier to bear if he were not so…unrepentant.”
“Then this might one day cost him everything. The Great Father was merciful.”
“No,” Gilgamesh disagreed. “I mean…yes, but that was not his ultimate motivation. The Great Father, in a moment of the very highest pressure and crisis, kept his head and thought of the United Peoples, and what he must do to preserve it for the common good. Kidu knows this. He always knows this. In fact, he perhaps willingly walked into the trap, knowing what would happen.”
Tomoe considered that thought. “He has always been a man of strong conviction. If he truly believed it was the right thing to do, and was—is—willing to suffer for it…it seems to me that he may have been trapped between one lie and another.”
“Perhaps. It will ensure there is never again any trust. That bridge is burned.”
“And that will impact your standing as well.”
“Yes.” Gilgamesh put his arm around her, gloomily. “What is right for the United Peoples? Daar made it seem so effortless, but I do not know. I do not know if what is right is to send him away as Daar has done, or cleave to my old oaths of brotherhood and be honest that, betrayed though I feel, I still love him as my brother.”
For a time, perhaps a minute, they stood side-by-side, and the only sound was the station’s ever-present background hum, and the faint rush of air in the ventilation system. Finally, Tomoe shifted and spoke.
“A quote springs to mind.”
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
He tilted his head, considered the words, then looked down at her. “A day I wish I had been there for. But…”
“Do you not see the parallel? We are only two years and spare change removed from the last world war. The United Peoples may be united in victory today, but that wound is still going to be the work of generations to heal. If you cannot love and embrace your oldest friend despite what he has done—”
“—then how can I ask the survivors of nuclear war to call each other brother?”
A slight sideways twitch of her head served as both shrug and nod.
“And it flows to the Great Father as well. Is he not capable of forgiveness? He has already opened the door.”
“Mm.” Tomoe gestured at Kidu’s slumbering form. “Maybe he will never repent of this. Maybe he’ll be maintaining it was the right thing to do even until his final year. Maybe you and Daar will never be able to trust him on a mission or in war ever again…but I know you can absolutely trust him to love you. I am quite sure he never lied about that. And if love cannot heal a rift, then what is it even for?”
Gilgamesh considered that. Then he nodded, stooped, and gave her a grateful kiss. “Thank you.”
She shook her head, dismissing the idea that he had anything to thank her for. “Come. Let’s leave Kidu to his rest. You deserve rest of your own, and to participate in the celebrations. Mevia is waiting for us.”
She said nothing with her voice and much with her eyes, a smirk, and the way she turned away from him and headed for the door.
Oh. Well. Astonishing how, even at this point in such a long life and long marriage, they could still have that effect on him. Still, Gilgamesh glanced back through the glass at his friend one last time…
Kidu was awake. He flicked an ear, and tilted his snout upwards at the door Tomoe had just gone through. The tricky bastard had been able to see and hear everything the entire time.
Gilgamesh couldn’t help himself: he laughed. He inclined himself slightly, acknowledging another excellent trick, then turned and followed his wife toward whatever delights she had waiting for him.
It was a good time to be alive.
Not easy, no. Never easy. Never without its challenges or drama.
But even among them, even with the burdens and struggles of the days to come…
It was a good time to be alive.
Key World, the Distant Stars
“Holy ass-balls it’s cold, dude!”
The doors opened, and Lewis finally laid eyes on his life’s work.
Date Point: 11th of ten-month, year 20 UPC
Mother Giymuy High School, Lavmuy, Gao
Leticia “Letty” Firth
“The United Peoples Calendar, or UPC, counts the day of the treaty signing as its zero point. Three more species formally joined the United Peoples in the year after the treaty was signed…anyone?”
Hands shot in the air. She picked one at random. “Taylor?”
“The E-Skurel-Ir, the OmoAru, and the Rauwrhyr.”
“Good! Full points for that one.”
“I thought the Robalin joined too?” Jung asked, from the back. Letty smiled at him.
“That didn’t come until later, after the Robalin Collapse and the overthrow of the Supremacy. That’s a subject we’re not gonna cover until month five, but…” she glanced up at the clock. “We’ve got time for the short version…”
Date point: year 3 UPC
Rob’, homeworld of the Robalin people
Ian (Death-Eye) Wilde
Toppling the Supremacy had been the work of a decade, and most folks in the galaxy would believe it had happened naturally. If the Interspecies Dominion ever found out the UP had instigated this war with one of its member governments, well, they’d be obligated by treaty and law to object. As it was though, the Supremacy had apparently given the UP a legitimate casus belli; there was nothing the Dominion could do except wash their hands of it, step aside, and let it play out.
What followed had been a short war. And by God, it was all worth it to see Dora clinging tight to her parents, their fluffy antennae twisted tight around each other in the robalin equivalent of showering each other in kisses.
They looked old and skinny he thought, though it was hard to tell. They would be old, really. Robalin naturally lived about seventy years, and these two were…what, in their mid sixties? They must have imagined they would never see their daughter again.
He stood by and let them take all the time they needed.
The Wrecking Crew had changed a lot. Firstly, their mission profile was…extremely occasional. Same with Wilde and crew lately, too. They were mostly in reserve, expected to be ready. And that opened up all sorts of interesting recruitment options.
Nomuk and Genn had felt the Fire and gone off to become Given-Men, while Frasier and Rees had retired and were married now. Not to each other, though their wives definitely thought so. Urgug was now teaching interstellar navigation at the…oogunderbongowhatsitsomethingincrediblylong academy of flight, Morwk had met a kwmbwrw lass he was thoroughly head-over-tail for and gone home with Ian’s blessing.
Ian and Hunter had found an incredibly supportive pair of women, too. He didn’t get hung up about picking a label these days. Maybe he was gay, or whatever. Well. He was at least gay for Hunter, but also pretty wildly in love with his wife, Roxanne.
They didn’t have any weird kind of poly thing going. They just…moved on. Happily, and without a lot of hang-up. It was…somehow easier than he’d feared. Didn’t stop them loving each other, but that time in their lives was now firmly behind them, and family life awaited.
…Maybe not entirely. There had been one or two wild nights with everyone…anyway.
Moj and Dora didn’t have any place else to be. The Fortune’s new engineer was an OmoAru, and the new navigator a rauwrhyr. There were a couple new ten’gewek, and one that wasn’t new at all…
Warhorse and Yan were still on-planet somewhere, doing a bit of clean-up work with Chimp.
And by clean-up, of course…well, the nazi fucks had it coming.
Dora finally led her folks over by the hands to introduce them, and Ian reminded himself to keep his handshake light and his smile close-lipped—
He didn’t get the chance. Dora’s father hugged him tight, surprisingly tight for such an elderly and frail ET, and Ian tried not to object to the feathery tickling on his face that was the old man thanking him.
If he only knew just how much Ian and the Crew had been involved in making this happen, Ian thought, he’d never let go. So, Ian made awkward noises and hugged him back gently, made nice-talk for a bit.
“You’ve looked after our daughter well…” Dora’s mother Milda thanked him, after a few minutes.
“More the other way round, half the time,” Ian demurred, favoring Dora with a smile. “Truth be told, I dreaded coming here. I dunno what we’d do without ‘er.”
“Oh, I’m not going anywhere,” Dora promised. She was still between her mum and dad, her left and right arms draped around them while the middle one gestured reassuringly. “The Fortune’s my home and my purpose. I…think I will take some shore leave, though.”
“You damn well better. Should I send Bruuk? Things are a bit unstable right now, and, well…dude sends a message, yijao?”
Dora opened her mouth to reply, then watched as a young robalin male cantered past with a rainbow flag streaming from his hands, whooping joyfully. How and where he’d got one, or even knew what it was for, Ian had no idea. But Dora watched him vanish around the corner, and giggled.
“…I think I’ll be fine.”
“Aye, fair enough. Go on, then. Call if you need owt.”
And…that was that, really. They said some last words for the moment, everyone went their separate ways. Moj was off putting his skills to use securing intelligence from the abandoned Supremacy offices, OnBuruAwi was helping repair municipal infrastructure the retreating Supremacy forces had sabotaged, and Xwyrrhuryi was off handing out aid supplies.
That left just two people on-ship.
Ian and Bruuk. Bruuk and Ian. BruukIan as some had joked. Which wasn’t quite true, but he was awfully fond of the tankbear, in a way similar but also not at all the same as with Hunter…
It was more an attraction of souls. Yeah. They were deep friends. Knew everything about each other, knew no real privacy at all. Actually with Hunter they were a sort of intense trio, as was often the case with human-gaoian friendships, but Hunter wasn’t here right now.
Too bad. But still, it was good to have Bruuk on-board. Firstly, he needed someone who could counterbalance the Big Boys on the Crew, and Bruuk was absolutely that. Keen to remind people, too. Secondly, nobody was a better cook. And Jesus wept that mattered on a ship.
Thirdly, even after all these years, he was still mediocre at best with Mario Kart. And kinda shit at Street Fighter, too. He insisted on using Blanka even though his best game was definitely Dhalsim.
He took his personal jump back up to the ship after waving Dora and he parents off to go catch up, thump, and followed his nose to the galley. Curry today, apparently. Nice.
Bruuk was cooking up some naan, since Yan had made a project of building a tandoor. Why not? Ten’gewek liked hot fires, apparently. And he’d become a big fan of indian food.
“How’d it go?”
“Good. They’re both well. Dora’s stayin’ down there a while to catch up, take some shore leave…who knows, maybe find a nice lass who’s looking to explore, eh?”
“Here’s hopin’! She deserves it.”
Ian nodded fervently at that, and grabbed a glass of water before flopping down on the couch. “What about you? Get that contract yet?”
Brownie mode ACTIVATE. Arms: flexed. Preen: maximized. Chitter: smug as balls. “Was there ever any doubt?”
“‘Course there fuckin’ wasn’t, mate. Only a matter of when, not if.”
“Damn right! Too bad you never succumbed ‘ta my advances…”
“Oi. Mate. I like my colon intact, thank you very much.”
“After Hunter? Please.”
Well, fair point that. “Still wanna avoid ‘yer anatomy. Also, don’t gaoians bite in mating?”
“Well, yeah. Don’t you?”
“Yes, sometimes? But we don’t have inch-long canines.”
“I know. Seems kinda lame to me,” he chittered. “Anyway…so we’re just waiting now, right?”
“Yup. Crew’s got work.”
Didn’t need to say anything more.
“Right. Well…thank you, by the way.”
“Keepin’ me on the, uh, cleaner side of the dark arts, yijao? I’m happy being a handyman slash suit-tech slash fuzzball o’ muscle. I like my fights simple and, y’know. Honest.”
Ian chuckled. “I dunno mate. Stompin’ nazis is about as honest as it ever gets.”
“Yeah, I s’pose…but we’ll be huntin’ the escapees for years after this, so I bet we’ll all get the chance.”
“Hmm.” Ian nodded and relaxed. God the couch was so nicely soft. “…Where is the space equivalent of Argentina, anyway?”
“Heh! Never mind.”
“Well, if you mean something like a safe haven…the Celzi Alliance, mebbe?”
Chin-stroking big thoughts, that one.
“Maybe.” Time to clear his head. “Well, whatever happens next…I’m glad I’ve got this crew. And the Crew. And you, too.”
Bruuk pant-grinned happily, grabbed his own drink, and they toasted each other from across the room. He’d learned not to get all up in Bruuk’s space while he was cooking up a storm…
They ate together. High-protein vegetarian indian and some chicken tandoori. The rest went into stasis for whenever the crew got back. Wilde helped tidy up, they played some vidya…
Kept an ear to the radio. The Wrecking Crew were quietly doing their thing, but Ian could track their progress by some confused chatter among the Resistance Liberation Force about why they were reaching positions they’d expected to face heavy opposition, only to find them shattered and empty.
At this rate, the last Supremacy forces would be surrounded, starved and surrendering by the end of the week. Their stumbling retreat across the continent of Huish wasn’t being allowed time to turn into a well-organized regrouping. The UP Military was far too good at this.
He listened to the chatter as another “correction facility” was liberated, and smiled.
It was a good time to be alive.
Time between actions, even if it was only maybe twenty minutes. Time to slam down fuel both liquid and allegedly solid. Time to let his body make Crude, fix him up, get everything perfect.
He really was a Warhorse, these days. A good fight, or at least the chance to go out and dominate something for a good cause…nothing cleared his head so well. Yan called it the Fire, and Adam was inclined to agree. It wasn’t the Hate. Not anymore. It was something…much more intense. Something from himself, not his anger.
Hard to get a handle on, too. Not even all-day lifting or playtime with Marty was enough to cool it. But a good fight? Even just a friendly brawl on the mat? That worked. And nothing worked like a good mission. Today was a very good mission, so he was all sorts of free-thinking.
So he may as well just get it out of the way before the fight resumed, and thinking stopped.
A lot had happened in the last thirteen years.
Adam was in his fifties now. Chronologically, at least. He had old-man muscle maturity to play with now, yet biologically speaking he was about nineteen and had a testosterone count fit to kill a bull in his prime. He didn’t look or feel like either age, instead he was somewhere in the middle of “young,” “in his prime,” and “extreme meathead.” For some he’d become an inhuman, off-putting mountain of muscle, for others he was the very definition of man. Pretty much no middle ground, there; you either loved what Adam was, or you couldn’t stand it. Still felt like none of them could stop staring if they didn’t think he noticed…but he always did.
He was a lot jollier about it all lately. Still a little weird but he rolled with it. He liked what he was, and so did his wife and his friends. Who cared what the others thought? His strength kept them all safe at night, so fuck ‘em. He’d also managed to fade out of the public eye too, so it was really only people around Folctha and New Alexandria who recognized him these days. He’d even managed to dodge a reporter for one of those “where are they now?” type fluff pieces.
The Lists had (mostly) moved onto less slabby men and taken a fascination with rock stars again. Julian and Alex were still tied for number one, though, with a freak hoss of a rescue firefighter in New Alexandria cracking the top five. Hadn’t met him yet. Righteous avoided the camera and went off into the unranked “legendary” list along with Left Beef and Right Beef, and frankly all the rest of HEAT. He didn’t know what “legendary” meant really, but he suspected it was where they put former it-boys when what was fashionable trended away from them.
Eh. He liked being the center of attention, but he liked doing the mission even more, and his mission these days meant he needed to be…a bit less visible to the public at large.
Kids were grown up and out of the house, no more were on the way. Marty was past that point in her life, even if Crude had preserved her youth in much the same way it had Adam…but not even Crude could overcome some things, and the medical work needed to go in for round two, as it were…
Well, risks that big weren’t things to do on a lark. So failing that…
There was a statuesque dusky-skinned amazon of a Brazilian woman (from Singularity, natch) that Marty kept pointing out to him, one who apparently was a perfect match to their Line profiling. Luana, was her name. Long, dark hair, Just as tall as Adam, exactly his type in every way. Marty’s too, if they were being completely honest. And honest was how they were, so…
It was a little creepy, having Singularity put this thing in his life. But to be fair to them, all they ever did was suggest. Still creepy, but with the gaoians and ten’gewek to compete with? That was probably the least awful way to address a very foreseeable long-term problem. He and Luana would make some pretty epic children, after all.
So maybe. But not yet. Hell, they’d even gone so far as to have coffee and lunch together, get to know each other as a trio. She was friendly, and interested, as someone raised by Singularity would be…but no. He wanted some time without family commitments. Time to live for himself, work on himself. Time for Marty again. Time to finish some unfinished business.
Hell. He’d say yes, he knew. He’d…never been tamed, honestly. Never found he could really agree with Father Michael, no matter how much he respected the man. Adam knew what he was, knew that Singularity, well…had a point, knew that Marty knew it, too. So…yeah. It’d happen. But not until the bulk of this dark and dirty work was behind them.
Which was really why he was Warhorse. Adam needed the fight. Not because of the Hate, that wasn’t in him anymore. At least, not like it was. No. The fight was what he was. What he’d spend decades mastering, what he’d forged his body for. Why he and the rest of the Crew were on the bleeding edge of what was possible. He was a willing, living weapon.
And weapons got used.
So that was what he did, now. Even among special operations communities, there was a “light” and a “dark” side to everything. Most everyone stuck to the more open, more clear-cut and less morally gray side of things, and Adam couldn’t blame them. That had been him for very many years. But with extreme excellence comes extreme responsibility, and, well…
Adam took all that very seriously. Which meant that, among humankind, Adam was once again the very best. And this time, if he had his way, he’d stay there.
Though, he did need to qualify that statement.
Adam didn’t have any innate advantage or anything over his biggest best bud, not this time. All those belonged to Firth. Hell, it was a testament to what a complete freak he was that it took the most cutting-edge bioscience from Humanity, Gao, Singularity, the Corti, the OmuAru and the Igreans (!) for Adam and his Crew to absolutely maximize themselves…
And Righteous was still pound-for-pound just as good. Hell, he might even still be better, even with everything Adam and the Crew were willing to risk. He was naturally maximum, just like Daar. Why would he risk it? He already had conditioning and athleticism that Adam could never match, because Firth’s physique was just plain better.
So, Adam had to beat him through the brute expedient of packing on more mass. And it worked, as always. More functional strength could blow through almost any problem, and Adam was built to be big; he had every bit of Firth’s bulk and then some. Firth was playing it safe, frankly. Which wasn’t a knock on him at all! Adam understood. People had lives and Firth would probably put Adam away for good, one day. He had enormous family commitments right now. There was more to existence than personal performance. Allegedly.
But not right now.
Time and commitment was really the key, especially at this level. Outmassing Firth on a shorter, broader frame had sent Adam’s strength through the roof. And out-performing Firth was easy again. Couldn’t crush him, couldn’t break him, because Firth was far too tough for that and Adam was no tougher. But out-lift? Out-sprint? Hell yeah. Felt good. Felt real good.
Of course, doors and floors were an ongoing problem for big boys like him, even with everything built better these days, but that was okay. Nobody beat him.
And frankly, there weren’t many who could stand up to the Wrecking Crew: Warhorse, Chimp, and Grodd. Yan was an unbreakable tree-swinging primate. He was the Heroic ten’gewek, from a people made to be heroes. Yan was awesome. Hoeff was the meanest and most experienced. He was a mini-Warhorse nowadays, having grown up and filled out to the staggering height of five-foot-nine. A good size for utility purposes, and nobody but Firth and the crew could reliably put the juggernaut of a fireplug in his place.
And of course, there was Adam. He was the strongest and most capable, once again the hulked-out king shit of all meatheads. Nobody but Daar could fold him up. Life was good.
Together, they were exactly what the name said on the tin. They were the Great Father’s semi-deniable means to wreck. All three of them were supersoldiers at the pinnacle of the arts, who had volunteered for the most intense training and engineered medicine, the most severe personal discipline. Hell, the only reason Righteous wasn’t among them really was his family commitments. Ten years from now, with the kids all grow’d up…
Hell, these days Hoeff could manhandle the likes of Julian and Alex, and hardly break a sweat! Nobody else could stand to them, and that was their quiet, publicly unknown pride.
Well, nobody mortal, anyway. Whatever Daar was now, mortal felt like the wrong word. Hadn’t even slowed down. Not any taller. But he was more in every way, even ignoring his size. If he were Firth-sized he’d still be unattainably better. Same with everything else.
They all were, being honest. The three of them had Daar-density too, to the point that anyone else was weaker, soft and squishy. The three looked like pure death in their armor.
And what amazing new Suits they had, too.
Daar wanted armor purpose-built for Wrecking Crew activities and they had the full combined tech of Daar’s empire at their disposal. There were no separate outer layers, the whole suit was a single piece of nanotech superscience, now. It was inches thick but perfectly form-fitting, and it had almost nothing disturbing its surface, both to enhance their performance and to flaunt the muscular shape of the man within it. They didn’t make a habit of carrying much equipment on their special Wrecking missions, because that might slow them down when their purpose was absolute shock. Light packs. Just weapons and whatever the mission needed. In, out, done.
Keep it simple.
Even still, It was the heaviest and densest version of either the Suit or the MASS ever fielded, and only a few could handle it. Everyone on the Wrecking Crew was big and hard enough, and the suit noticeably moved with them. Just walking along was an organic display of might.
Exactly as intended. They were there to clean up dark messes and send messages.
None of which detracted from the HEAT, of course. Their mission was the same as ever: extreme all-ways performance in hazardous spaceborne environments. But like much of the military, the SOR and all its units had transitioned to a reserve status. Those still on-team rotated quarterly through a “more active” watch and training period, and spent the rest of the year living mostly normal lives. Every other weekend they practiced maneuver and discipline. Training plans were updated. Health monitored.
Then back to everyday life.
Which was good. Pretty fucks like Playboy or Alex didn’t need to be in this kind of fight, so they’d not been pushing themselves as extremely hard as they could. Probably wise. They were too charismatic and in the public eye, and both were at the point where more too quickly might detract from their lines and good looks. After all, the two were legitimately the prettiest, and that had important uses, as much as Adam didn’t like to admit it, but mostly it was because it wouldn’t do for ambassadors or sovereigns to get their hands dirty like this.
The two weren’t big or mean enough to do the job violently enough anyway, or in Righteous’s case, something like this wasn’t at all a good use of his time; he had reservists to preserve and a warren of family ties to father.
Daar wanted to terrorize the Supremacy. And so the Crew were. Violence was just as much message as it was effect, after all, so he sent three brutal juggernauts who were a very different kind of handsome. A terrifying kind, who would show no mercy.
But it was very much necessary. One didn’t often get to pulp literal actual Nazis. The Supremacy had fanboys within it, and they weren’t ashamed to flaunt it. Well, they were now. ‘Horse wasn’t afraid to put his fist right through their scaly chests, either.
“Five minutes,” the pilot intoned from the front of their tiny little drop ship. The Jitney Mk II. Just enough room for the three to post up and prepare to jump. Quick check-over. Everyone was ready, of course. They were professionals. The Suits were black and gray and showed off the shape and shift of their muscles as they moved, made them look exactly like the unstoppable force of murder they were there to be. With Yan being a ten’gewek, he was so perfectly shaped for purpose, you could legit see his abs even through it all. Damn.
Their target was a palace to the glory of the perfect robalin form. None of the Crew was much impressed. One of the last stubborn cadres of Exemplars were holed up there, whipped up into suicidal defiance by their commander, the late propaganda minister’s half-brother. For the moment they were sitting still, and the guess was they were planning a counterattack.
They weren’t gonna get the chance.
Insertion was going to be the best sort of action. Free-fall drop right through the roof, well ahead of other military elements. HEAT was busy securing the planetary Farthrow and other critical assets—they’d called in everyone, even Julian and Vemik—while the Crew went after something darker, and more long-term dangerous.
They were going after three-legged alien lizard-ant space Hitler, and they were going to crush the very idea of resistance among the genocide-worshipping fucks.
Daar wanted this shit ended with extreme prejudive. That’s why the Crew. His finest.
And Whitecrest’s finest. Regaari and his own had done some remarkable scouting.
Two minutes. HUD was full of the happy numbers. They lined up on the ramp. Full send today, they’d be dropping like a meteor.
One minute. Check autodocs. Chimp and Grodd getting amped up. ‘Horse too.
Thirty seconds. Ramp opens. Final checks.
Long wait. Final count. Exhale.
Fields whip out a little, guide and correct toward target. Up-to-date intel. Meeting going on. They’d be crashing right into the middle of it. Formation tightening a bit, everyone on point.
A few seconds to go, ground coming up very fast. No braking. Weapon in hand.
No time to think, just act. New carbines. Tiny, hypervelocity flechettes. Didn’t even need to wear a pack. No need for deer slugs, here.
One hit, robalin explodes. Gory mess. Shock established. Time to get artful.
As promised, they sent a message.
It didn’t take very long.
Grodd literally tore space neo-Hitler in half right down the middle, as if he were simply ripping a sheet of paper. Chimp decided to wrestle the guards in an ongoing, flowing battle around the room. A spare second for each, and none of them were recognizably whole when he’d finished with them.
‘Horse was so fast and violent, he’d burst all the gathered ministers like balloons before the other two got to playing with their secondary targets.
At the end, two very unfortunate fucks burst in, guns blazing. Grodd leapt across the room like a flea and slammed them together just before he landed. Try as he might, ‘Horse couldn’t tell where one corpse began and the other ended.
Violence suddenly over, suddenly quiet. Blood dripping softly from the ceiling.
Well. That was a quick mission.
They secured their location, then they made sure to wander around for just a little bit. Long enough for the cameras to see, for the idiots to comprehend what had happened to them. They had to know there was an option like the Crew, waiting and willing. They waited until the shouting and alarms started outside.
Point made, targets serviced. Thump.
Back at Whitecrest HQ. De-suit and debrief. Didn’t take long. Darkness: lit, for a little while. Now, go wrestle and train. Crush Hoeff, beat back Christian and Julian for another day. Learn from Yan, who was the best there was at wrestling. His skill versus Adam’s unbreakable strength. It was a draw until Yan ran out of gas and needed to be pushed. Go train Daar and regain some perspective. Cool down. Soak in sauna with friends.
Not exactly jokes, after something like that. But lighter talk. Unwind. Clear his head.
By the time he was back home, it had just been another day at work. Dark work, yes. But work that needed doing. And for the moment, he was the best there was. There’d be more to come too, no doubt. Nazi hunting. Wilde and crew would be busy. And so would the Crew.
Or maybe the last of the Supremacy would get the message and surrender. Adam got paid either way. Be nice if they surrendered, though. As much as Adam appreciated what he was and why he needed the mission…ultimately, he’d rather not be the monster.
But at least it was a quick mission and he could go back to, honestly, his better life. He had some apartments to remodel again. Long-term tenants had moved out. Hoeff and Yan would be helping out probably.
He was about to break ground in New Alexandria, too. Vemik and Ferd’s crew would definitely be doing the steelwork. They charged big money, but it paid to get it done right the first time. Yan’s crew was already scheduled or he’d have them too. Bummer.
So that was life. Adam was back on top, doing a mission only he could do, one that desperately needed doing. Friends with good people, opportunities everywhere a man looked.
Life wasn’t so bad.
“You’re home early!”
Marty grinned. She was doing finances. She’d rather have been doing anything else, but Adam had a pathological inability to manage his expenses closely. He’d always relied on an accountant. Well, theirs had moved away, so for now it was her.
Honestly, it was just attention to detail anyway. She was good at that. So, why go back? May as well save a few hundred bucks a year…
“Feelin’ kinda blue-balled?” she asked over her shoulder as he wandered up behind her.
She absolutely knew what he was and what he did. And frankly, she was happy for him to take on “easy” missions, even with the always-present danger. Meant he’d be coming home, even if he felt professionally short-changed.
Adam snort-laughed and wrapped her up from behind to nibble her neck. “Not how I’d put it. Felt a bit like nuking an ant colony, though.”
“All worked up, not enough exercise?”
“You’re buildin’ up to tell me ‘ta take Lummox for a run,” he predicted, drily amused.
Marty grinned “Yup.”
“You need a run too.”
“Yes, but my short little legs can’t keep up with you two.”
“Yan can manage!”
“He’s not your wife.”
Adam chuckled. “Yes, dear.” He nibbled her neck again. “Ooorr…”
“But still later, right?”
Marty couldn’t pretend not to be amused. Boy was never not ready to perform. Still, she swatted his arm. “Sooner you exercise that dog, the sooner ‘later’ will be!”
His chuckle tickled her ear, then he nodded, straightened up and whistled sharply. There was a minor earthquake as Lummox dropped off the couch sensing Walk. Damn dog could lie around all day and not even work up the energy to do more than thump his tail a couple times when you came home, but the first hint of getting to tear around the park with a parachute attached to him and he did the Scooby-Doo running legs.
He was a meathead dog. Literally, and psychologically. It was like he sensed, somehow, that rest after exercise was the key to gainz. Lummox was a zero-fat wall of gnarly, barely contained muscle like none other, just like his daddy.
And like his sire and bitch, too.
The two of them went thundering off to burn their fizzing stores of energy. High maintenance, they were. So was she, so was their whole family, really. But he took good care of them all, so Marty took care of him. She grinned to herself and got ready for his return.
She did promise, after all. And with the kids gone, no company expected…
He’d be primed and ready for maximum performance.
Just a few more things to attend to. Throw the laundry in the drier, make sure their meals were warm and in stasis. Get one of his special gut-busting shakes ready too, since there was no way he wasn’t going to lift his brains out before coming back upstairs.
And sure enough, felt more than heard from the basement…
He was in a better place since the war, though. She was pretty sure the Hate was long gone, replaced by something far healthier. Or at least…more positive. He was for now, not against.
Check the mail. The invitation had finally come! Jenny and Diego were gettin’ hitched. Years of off-again, on-again, several dalliances on Diego’s part and a wild period to match his father…
Jenny had won in the end. Good for her! And good for him; she was slow to trust or love. Said a lot about Diego, really. He was a sweetheart to his core, just like Adam. Sure, the big dog could growl and bite, but really, he just wanted ear scritches.
Lots of canine analogy today.
But, oh. Grandchildren! Now there was a happy thought. If you had grandchildren, you’d fuckin’ made it in life, no doubt.
Which reminded her, she needed to call her parents. If she could get through: they were enjoying their own lease of life, and half the time they weren’t in phone signal range, ‘cuz they were off doing those long trailblazing hikes deep into the continental interior.
Like everyone, they’d warmed up to the longer life available to them. Gabe, her mom and dad, their partners…all were that indefinable ageless adult kind of not-young, not-old, not-worn and not-fresh. As if they were in their primes, and that prime would never end.
The “Immortal Look” they called it. Gabe was modest in stature, but broad-shouldered, severely muscular and severely fit. He was Adam’s dad, after all. Her own was almost salt-and-pepper grizzled and tough, in the best possible way. The moms…were ageless, motherly beauties.
Part of her did wonder what problems that might all cause, down the line. Maybe it wouldn’t?
Honestly, she suspected very few would go in for real immortality. At some point, people would move on. She knew she would, one day. Knew it in her bones.
But…not yet. Not anytime soon, not when she was married to the very best man there was.
He came thumping back up the stairs, stopping to talk with tenants and their kids—he was a surrogate dad for the entire building, same as Christian was in his. He eventually made it all the way up. Turned his shoulders, ducked and squeezed sideways through the doorway, stood there in his hilariously skimpy running shorts, hulking and grinning…
God, she never got tired of seeing him. Every single time, it was almost unreal.
Standing relaxed, he was a big, broad cube of muscle these days, maybe too huge and muscular of a wall for some; he was a man with hips and waist as wide as the doorframe, legs, shoulders and arms much more so. He was so thick front to back, he had to wiggle through even Hero-wide doors. There was so much bulky brawn on his frame, and not enough room for it to hang without fighting for space with the rest of him. He had a serious pump going on too, which only added to his extreme shape.
Add in that ridiculous “DBZ” neck of his that bulged many inches wider than his head on either side, traps up to his ears, sloping down to shoulders bigger than his own blocky head, arms bigger than her, his thick powerlifter’s waist and the bulging-out curve of his brick-like abs, calves each a half-yard wide and the size of beachballs…
On a quick, faraway glance, one might be forgiven for mistaking him as hugely obese.
She thought it looked unbelievably hot, because the huge lines of his physique shone strong through the bulk and were literally rock-hard to the touch, to the point even the other superscience supermen couldn’t dent him. Literally bulletproof, allegedly! He was powerful, and that wide, puppy-grin face of his was just too handsome and chiseled to deny—
That was the moment he grinned smugly and tensed up. All that huge bulk of his instantly snapped into perfect shape. In just the blink of an eye, he’d transformed himself into the most perfectly formed titan of a man to ever live, a functional athlete and bodybuilder like none other. Let him flex and he was beyond Julian or Alex or any of the alleged Heroes, because what he had wasn’t just good breeding and luck. It was a lifetime of dedication and work. His was a brute perfection he’d earned. Earned the hardest way a man could earn anything. Nobody was his equal. He was breathtaking.
“Like what you see?”
She’d forgotten herself and nodded along.
“Good…’cuz I like what I see—”
Blink across the room, movement literally too fast to track. The very next heartbeat he had her trapped, his adamantium body hot like a furnace, his musk wonderfully overwhelming. He gave her a crushing hug and a rumbling, dominant growl.
“—And I’m gonna fuckin’ do somethin’ about it.”
Tighter squeeze. Could hardly breathe, face mashed against that tremendous rippling slab of a chest, yet the deepest part of her only wanted him to squeeze harder and make it hurt. “Jesus, Adam…”
She couldn’t manage any more than that, under the assault of his huge, calloused mitts. They could be so gentle, when he wanted to be…
Neither of them wanted that.
“Y’know, I could get used to a nice, empty house like this…and I got nothin’ but free time.” He nibbled her ear and snarled, “I’m gonna spend months ruining you.”
Power. Power and stamina. The biggest dog wanted to play. A kiss along her neck, which turned into a growling bite, one exactly where she liked best, one just the perfect kind of possessive…
And that was all there was to it. They ordered a lot of takeout that weekend, and after that…well, he made good on his promise. It was like they were young again and had all the time in the world, and he intended to use every second of it to the best of his ability.
Life was going to be too good to leave behind for a long time.
Date Point: 11th of ten-month, year 20 UPC
Mother Giymuy High School, Lavmuy, Gao
Leticia “Letty” Firth
“The Robalin didn’t join the UP for a further four years, but the Supremacy’s collapse took less than three days. Like I said, we’ll be going over it in detail in a few months. For now, we’re going to rewind a bit and talk about the Great Library.”
She called up two images: the first an oil painting depicting the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and the second a photo from the archives at New Alexandria on Akyawentuo. “The archive project had succeeded in its first task, which was saving as much of the combined knowledge and publications from the Earth as possible, but that was just the beginning. Those books don’t do anyone any good if they’re locked away underground where nobody can access them. And there was more than one species to think of in making it available…”
She smiled and flicked to her favorite slide in the set. It was a clip she’d found on the Internet, a fan-made video from the Great Library project, set to some hopeful music.
“Nowadays, the Great Library extends across seven planets, with jump links and partnership schemes with centers of learning all across the Milky Way. Anyone anywhere in the Interspecies Dominion can request to read a book written by any member of any participating species, and be able to read it in their native language thanks to smart translation. The school app has access to its complete digital archive. All of that was made possible by the Treaty of Cimbrean.”
“Of course,” she added, moving on to the next slide, “it took a lot of work to get to where we are now…”
Date Point year 4 UPC
Ukusevi, senior Librarian of the Cross-Species Archive, and Keeper of the Long Chant
There were times the archive reminded Uku of the bunker-warrens back on her homeworld, except…not in a bad way. The cities of her people had been overcrowded, smelly, stale-aired, damp and constantly under threat of the cobbled-together, jury-rigged life support failing. And that was all assuming the Hunters didn’t decide to storm in and remind the natives who was in charge.
The central archive was clean, brightly lit, dry, had state-of-the-art air conditioning and atmospheric systems better than most starships, and the only smells to drift into her nostrils among the stacks were dry paper, antique leather, old glue and, faintly, the synthetic dry lubricant that let the racks roll so silently and easily.
Still, from the upper layer, leaning on the rail and looking down on it all…she was occasionally reminded of home.
Of course, back home everyone had been skinny and mangy and malnourished, clad head to toe in threadbare handmade clothing.
With many of her helpers, they were instead Deathworld muscular, often hugely so, well-fed, and usually clad in virtually nothing at all. True of humans, here…
And especially true of ten’gewek. The friendly hyper-predators. Predators who loved.
Vemun Star-Finder, for instance. The first ten’gewek ever to publish an astronomy paper. Never mind that what he’d actually found had been an interesting planetary nebula, not a star, but the simple fact of finding a whole new celestial object had been impressive enough to give him his manhood-name.
His father was a man of bows, steel, knives, buildings, and later on of words and writing. Vemun was a man of optics, of precision. Of programming and code. Very smart minds!
But they were also very excellent ten’gewek overachievers, among a species increasingly prone to ambition and excellence. So, both were also champions in their weight classes for powerlifting, and excellent strikers in gravball–a sort of full-contact game that was part wrestling, part gymnastics, part sprinting race, and mostly open warfare.
And both were here today, to indulge in their love of books.
[“No, I can’t use steel, dad! It has the wrong] thermal ex-pan-sion [for this! The best is carbon fiber—”]
“Pfeh.” The disgust in Vemik’s voice could not be mistaken, even from all the way down there. [“Is just glue with string in it!”]
[“Very strong string,”] Vemun teased. [“You just don’t like the taste!”]
[“Well, yes!] Synthetic [resin makes the air taste like death! Why not use brass? It has very good, even expansion!”]
[“Well, yes, but it expands quite a lot and we want as little of that as possible–] Oh hi!”
Vemun noticed Ukusevi up on the very top stack, and because he was a young and particularly strong ten’gewek, snarled happily and immediately bounced himself all the way to the top with a single, explosive jump, which he landed perfectly on the (hugely reinforced) handrail. Which virtually any ten’gewek could do. But few could have managed that height so easily. Or landed so gently.
He gave her a big, “shit-eating” grin and bounced his muscles a bit, happy as always to show off a little. Because he was a ten’gewek male. Showing off was what males did and, with few exceptions, no males of any species were quite so much as their kind.
Vemik Given-Man of course was hugely much more man, so he did the same with no obvious effort, somehow landing his far greater size with even less impact.
“I know they’re built to take it,” Uku complained, “but do please do that less…”
“No!” Vemik teased. “Why waste time climbing stairs?! Would shake the building I think, if we stampeded up and down stairs all day…”
“You know, if interstellar civilization ever manages to pass on one thing to your people, I hope it’s the notion that there are other modes of moving around than leaping and stampeding…” Ukusevi teased him, affectionately.
“I can sneak! When hunting.”
Ukusevi laughed slightly, and decided this was a battle not to pick. “…What are you looking for, anyway?”
Much of the explanation went over her head, somewhat.
Vemun rolled his eyes—a genuine cross-species emote, that—and translated into Librarian. “Vemik wants to build a telescope with me. He’s a bit obsessed with the idea of making it out of things we can make here—”
“Well, yeah! Can’t rely on sky-friends for everything!”
“But he doesn’t believe in his breath that we need plastics.”
“Earth had huge metal telescopes!”
“Yes, with adaptive optics and all sorts of software magic we’re not good enough to do yet! And you’re the one who keeps telling me we’ve got nothing to prove, so why not just make a really good—?”
Vemik climbed down from the rail and sat on his tail. “It’s not about proving, it’s about learning. And yeah, all this is a lot of that—” he waved his hand at the archive stacks behind them, “But it’s like I tell apprentices, you can’t read how to make knives and then make a really good knife first time. Reading will help, but until you beat on steel yourself a few times, the book-think and the body-think don’t go together. So, you gotta start by making a shitty knife, even if you know from books how to make a good one, in theory. Now, our people, yeah, we can put on armor and carry guns and even learn to fly spaceships like Goob Low-Branch…but one day we’re gonna want to build our own.”
“None of the sky-tribes build their own,” Vemun pointed out. “They all import warp engines and stuff. Every ship there is, was built from parts built on, like, five different planets.”
“Yes,” Vemik agreed, patiently. “That isn’t the same. There they are opty-mising for scale. They all have history making these things. We are still at the level of sheet metal and simple machines.”
Ukusevi, who had put her tablet down to listen to their debate, decided it was time for her opinion to be known.
“You want to know what I think?”
They both looked at her.
“At the end of the day, so long as you’re looking at stars with your loved ones, does it really matter if you’re looking at them through the perfect telescope?” Uku perched herself against the nearby table. “I grew up underground, but even those of us on the surface couldn’t see the stars. The atmosphere was too hazy, too polluted. Our loved ones died, every day. Every moment then was about saving what we could. Now…now every moment can be about enjoying every moment. So my suggestion is, maybe your perfect telescope isn’t either perfectly optimized or perfectly home-made, it’s just…yours. The one you made together.”
They both blinked at her. Then looked at each other. Then back at her.
“Wow, ruin a good fight…” Vemun said, grinning.
Not…quite the response Uku had expected. She tilted her head until an ear flopped open. “Uhm…yes? I mean, you were arguing…”
“Well of course! Wouldn’t waste time with someone I don’t care about!” Vemik grabbed his son with his tail around the younger man’s throat, and affectionately squashed him flat. “And he can’t fight me with his muscle yet, so he better get good with words!”
Vemik let him up and pulled his son into a big hug. “He’s very good with them,” he hooted approvingly, while Vemun floundered for breath.
“Well, I’m quite sure you’ll still argue over making it no matter what I say. Anyway. Speaking of muscles, we have another ten pallets of mis-files to deal with—”
“Yes,” Uku sighed. “What can I say? Students. In any case, it would take very many trips up and down the elevator to get them all up here, so if you two are feeling at all unexercised…”
There was the predictable scramble to show off. Vemun didn’t care that, his father being a given-man and Chief of the Lodge, this wasn’t a contest he could possibly win. He’d still take the chance to prove what he could do. They both jumped down and landed softly like the huge predators they were. That never ceased to amaze her. Never ceased to amaze even most Deathworlders!
Uku became aware of quiet human laughter behind her. Doctor Schuster was leaning against the nearby wall, snickering a restrained, high-pitched wheezing sound barely louder than a whisper.
Nobody beat the ten’gewek for their long youthful years. But health-conscious humans could match them, in a slow and steady way. Schuster hadn’t aged a day since they’d first met, and while Uku was exhausted by the end of a six-hour shift on Akyawentan gravity, he seemed entirely comfortable with it.
“Deftly done,” he complimented her.
“The advice, or the distraction?”
He spread his hands with a smile that said ‘both,’ and moved to lean over the railing instead. “Only ten pallets this week. Could it be we’re finally making headway?”
“Hope is a flame in an untested tunnel,” Uku said, then translated her peoples’ aphorism when he turned his head questioningly. “A flame in an untested tunnel may light your way, it may flicker out and warn you of bad air…or it may set off an explosion. Hope can be comforting and give you a reason to keep going, but it can be dangerous too, in the wrong circumstances.”
“Hmm. Allow me to introduce you to The Shawshank Redemption. It has a message on hope I think you’d find…familiar.”
Uku knew better than to try for an elaboration. Instead she settled next to him on the rail. “I do enjoy that we can appreciate each others’ art and literature. The Hunters were so alien, I’m not sure they even understood the concept of hope except as something they enjoyed snuffing out. If they even enjoyed it.”
“God…” Schuster mused. “That almost makes me feel sorry for them.”
Uku chuckled slightly, and shook her head. “It’s an amazing gift, your species has. You seem to have something in common with everyone. It took you thirty years to go from the hated and feared pariah species, the deathworlders who could kill an entire station just by showing up to…this.”
“The United Peoples. Forget the Great Father for a second, humans are the real power in the UP. Because he wouldn’t even be the Great Father if not for you. You just have this way of…the gao love humans, the ten’gewek love humans, I love humans…I’ve never met a member of your species who didn’t have this gift of looking into another being’s eyes and seeing a friend there. Even, apparently, the Hunters.”
Schuster remained silent. He seemed, if anything, embarrassed.
“It says something that your people both purposely and accidentally created a being greater than any of us, and despite all that he is, feels bound by love and loyalty to you. That you have befriended a primitive people who are in every way superior beings, and yet…in the end, you rise to the challenge anyway.”
“It was the gao who saved your people,” Schuster tried to point out.
“They were only in a position to do so because your people saved them first.” Uku sighed happily and took a step closer, until they were arm-to-arm and hip-to-hip, like old warren-friends. “And then look at all this.”
She gestured to the vast, bright space full of books in front of them. Hundreds of thousands of books in this room alone, tens of millions across the entire Great Library. “Humanity already has an hour of the Long Chant. And yet…I haven’t ever actually recited it for a human. Somehow, I get the impression you’d find it uncomfortable. Your people really don’t take praise well.”
Schuster shrugged, though he didn’t try to move away from her, even though she knew humans preferred more personal space. “I don’t think any of us believe we deserve it,” he said. “And…I don’t know. If I ever met a man who could take praise like that as his right and due? I’d think he was an arrogant son of a bitch. But maybe that’s just cultural.”
“If so, it’s a culture I like. I just can’t imagine a gaoian or a ten’gewek or any of my people saying they feel sorry for the Hunters.”
“I don’t know that I’d say we feel sorry, it’s more…we have a saying. ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ Very much of the greatest evil we’ve seen in our civilization started out with good ideas or well-meaning action. But somewhere, somehow…” He shrugged. “My people most of all. My great grandmother survived Auschwitz.”
It took Uku a moment for her mnemonic training to swing in and recall that word and its connotations. Auschwitz, associated with “ow” sound, associated with pain, associated with…
“There’s that too, I suppose,” she admitted. “But still…I’ve been face-to-face with Hunters. There’s a reason we worshiped them as agents of divine punishment, they seemed too…implacable and inscrutable to be anything else. I can at least understand the evils that humanity has done to itself. Goodness, my own people have done some of the same.”
“Why do you suppose we imagined ourselves Punished? And the gao have been known to skin each other alive, the ten’gewek can be shockingly brutal…I don’t think there’s any species out there without a terrible cruelty in them. But the ability to make friends with anything? Even with, heh, with a vacuum cleaner with silly stuck-on plastic eyes—”
“Hey now, Snooty McDustbuster is a valued member of the team.”
Uku couldn’t help it: she laughed loud enough that a few people in the room gave her disapproving looks. She gestured apologetically to them and reined it in.
It was at that point that she felt a distant shudder through the ground, and instinctively looked to the rail. Sure enough, Vemik and Vemun arrived with…well, what looked like a pallet of boxes bundled up in arms and tails. Each.
“Where to?” Vemun asked.
Uku peeled herself away from Schuster and scanned the QR codes. “Yours is in social science…Vemik, yours is for geography and history.”
“I picked the good ones!”
Vemun made a face and waggled his tongue, universal ten’gewek sign for fond exasperation. “Come on, then! Eight more after these!” he announced, and was gone so fast his tail nearly made a whipping sound as it lashed behind him. Vemik hooted, did likewise, and there was peace and silence once again.
She became aware of Schuster trying not to laugh. He cleared his throat, wrestled his face back down into a mere smile, then cleared his throat. “…How about…we go get some tea?” he suggested. “I’m sure they can figure out where to put the pallets when they’re not showing off for us.”
“That sounds good. And this Shawshank Redemption you mentioned. Book, film?”
“Both. But, the movie is excellent.”
They reached an unspoken agreement. After all, this was a research library, and she had cultural exchange duties. Watching a human cinematic classic was an entirely valid use of her professional time. And of his!
Sure enough, the movie had a message on hope that resonated entirely with her life and experience, which proved her right on so many of the things she’d said…and proved her wrong on something else.
Even if it had already been better than she’d ever dreamed it could be, before…it turned out, life could always get better.
Date Point: year 4 UPC
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Xiù Chang Etsicitty
Ming-Wa Eleanor Chang Etsicitty was so small. Especially cradled in her older brother’s careful arms. Harrison had been such a chunky baby, and had grown into a slab of a man to rival his father. Huge and handsome, especially in his Fleet uniform…and holding his baby sister like he was both completely in love, and terrified she’d spontaneously combust if he did it wrong.
It was a sight to make the effort of labor completely worth it.
“You just need to scoot her up a bit there, support her head a little more,” Allison advised.
Harrison ever-so-carefully adjusted things. “Like this?”
“Yeah, there you go.”
“Right.” He chuckled nervously, and perched on the side of the bed. “So. Ming-Wa, huh?”
“Yup,” Xiù nodded tiredly. “After Mulan.”
He chuckled. “Of course. Your favorite movie. And ‘Eleanor’ is from…?”
“I like it. Oh, no…shhh…” he went tense as the baby started grumbling faintly about something. “Sorry…”
“Don’t worry, she’s just tired and cranky. She’s had a big day, yijao?”
“I…think I’ll still hand her back,” Harrison ventured awkwardly, and transferred Ming-Wa back into Xiù’s arms. He looked both regretful and relieved at the same time.
“And just think, we’re doing this all over again next week,” Allison chuckled, and gave Xiù an affectionate poke. “You had to go and remind me what it’s like.”
“Second time’s easier,” Xiù replied.
“It better be. Oof.” Al chuckled and looked down at her own belly. “You be quiet, you’ll get your turn soon enough little man.”
Harrison chuckled. “Is this how you’re always gonna do it? Both at once?”
“It’s…nice,” Xiù said. “Kind of a shared experience.”
“Plus, we get all the diapers and crying and tantrums and stuff out of the way in one go, rather than dragging it out longer,” Allison added. “You weren’t too bad on the crying and tantrums, but your diapers, my God.”
“I dunno if Julian was sneaking you something extra when we weren’t looking, ‘cuz there’s no way we fed you—”
“Al!” Xiù objected, trying to suppress the giggle which was making her poor overworked stomach muscles hurt.
They grinned at each other, then looked up at the door at the feeling of familiar silent heavy footsteps outside. Sure enough, Julian ducked back into the room, ushering Ana in ahead of him. “Look who finally showed up.”
“‘Bout time!” Allison teased, and rose with a grunt to hug her daughter. “Harrison had to request leave and he still got here before you!”
“Mhm, well, I had to pick up something.” Ana replied. She bent down to give Xiù a squeeze and a kiss on the cheek, then dug in her purse and handed over a paper letter.
“From The University of Folctha, College of Science and Engineering postgraduate studies committee…” Allison read. “Dear Miss Buehler Etsicitty, I am pleased to confirm you have fulfilled all the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy— oh, hell yeah!”
Ana beamed as she sat down and took the baby from Xiù’s arms, rather more comfortably than her brother had. “So, am I forgiven for being late?”
“I think we’ll allow it, qiān jīn,” Xiù chuckled.
“We also stopped by Best Brioche,” Julian added, and raised a stasis cooler to show off. “Figured you deserve something better than hospital food.”
“Oh, gimme. I’m starved!”
“Told’ya,” he chuckled, handed over a pulled pork stack with curly fries, then reached down for one of his own prepared meals: a mass of wild rice salad and roasted turkey with a rich sauce, along with his own obscenity of a burger.
There were a happy few minutes of appreciative silence as the whole family burged. It occurred to Xiù, it was the first time they’d all been in the same room for a few months, now. With Harrison away living on gao and training for his first posting, and Ana living on Ekallim-Igigi while preparing her thesis, they hadn’t had a family meal in a while.
Okay, so, it wasn’t a proper home-cooking-and-round-the-table affair, but honestly? Burgers around a hospital bed while welcoming the little one? That’d more than do.
She sat back and listened as they talked. About Clan politics and how it sometimes made both Julian’s and Harrison’s lives difficult, about how Ana was quietly glad to be living on a station where she wasn’t the six-foot-three valkyrie attention-getter but could actually vanish in the crowd a bit…
Normal stuff. Family, career, adult-kids-need-some-insight-and-advice stuff.
It couldn’t last forever. When Xiù’s parents and her brother came to say hi, the room got a bit too crowded, so Harrison and Ana elected to go get some drinks at Rooney’s, and Julian loitered just long enough to be polite before going to get in his mandatory but much-delayed gym time for the day.
Xiù relaxed. Dozed off a bit, except when spoken to or when the baby started demanding a feed. That feeling of sore, exhausted, but entirely happy was back, just as powerful as the first time. She’d always known they weren’t going to stop at just one. Maybe they’d gone a little too long between first and second, but…
But, well, the world had been uncertain and difficult for a while there. She hadn’t felt entirely ready or secure. It said a lot that she did, now. There was a future ahead, a bright one she could look forward to and raise another child in without fear.
If there was one thing she’d learned, it was to never, ever take a bright future for granted.
She vowed to make the most of it.
Date point: year 7 UPC
Starship Stray Fortune, Orbiting planet Rob’ Regaari, Father of Clan Whitecrest
Regaari had often been told beer was an acquired taste. Eventually he’d countered that he’d been trying it long enough that, if so, he should have acquired it by now.
That had been fifty years ago. He still hated the stuff. Bitter fizzy water that tasted faintly of bread, yeurgh. But, well, it was the de rigeur way to celebrate a smoothly accomplished mission. And this one was brewed by a gaoian company and had strong hints of berry in its flavor, so it wasn’t actually unbearable…
“To another job well done.”
Bottles clinked together.
“To another fascist motherfucker’s day in court,” Hoeff agreed. He was lounging on the couch nearly upside-down, in a way which must have been making it quite difficult to drink. Not that it seemed to be impeding him.
“Can’t be many of ‘em left, now,” ‘Horse commented.
“It’s probably true though,” Regaari agreed. “Half the remaining names on the list, we have nothing on, which I’m prepared to bet means they died in the liberation and were never identified.”
“And nobody on the list’s exactly a pimply-faced Robalin teenager,” Wilde pointed out. “Fact is, I bet some of ‘em escaped to obscurity and passed away peacefully without the people around them noticing or grassing them out.”
“For all we know, today’s been our last operation rounding up former Supremacy party members,” ‘Horse mused. “And that’s been our bread and butter for a few years, now. Y’know, the occasional pirate, slaver and terrorist notwithstanding.”
They nodded. The Wrecking Crew had been busy, then less busy, then…well, even less busy than that. Training had kept ‘Horse happy and on top, at least for now. He didn’t need much more than that; he was delightfully simple in some ways.
But not Regaari. No matter how strong or deadly, he’d always have questions.
“What…does this mean for us, do you think?” Regaari asked, after a minute or so of silently thoughtful drinking.
Horse shrugged. “We’re the best there is at a job that’s only occasionally needed. So keep ready, yijao?”
“Nah. You two are too optimistic,” Hoeff finished his beer and sat up properly. “It’s nice we finally got all the nazis and whatnot, but there will always be need of people like us. I think it’s honestly nice that this here Crew is only like six people, an’ that’s enough for a galactic empire.”
A fair point, that.
“Meanwhile, SOR is participating in more operations over time. Two new bordering species, the discovery of a new Hunter segment—“
Wilde snorted. “It would be like cockroaches to divide the galaxy into autonomous segments.”
“Yup. We killed one, fifteen remain. And how all of them have religion about us.” Hoeff sniffed dismissively. “Point is, I doubt we’re gonna be useless anytime soon.”
“I wasn’t saying we’d be useless! Just…there’s supply and demand. I just don’t think double-super-secret bullshit is gonna be how it goes. It’ll be SOR and HEAT, properly.”
“Trust me, there’ll be demand. You can’t run a civilization without secrecy.”
“I didn’t say otherwise,” Horse replied, patiently. “Listen to what I’m saying. Us? This group? It is a highly specialized function. We sit in a tiny overlap between clandestine necessity and extreme military capability. Going forward, what dark thing will we do that HEAT or SOR or Whitecrest can’t? I already know Righteous is about to pass me by, this time for good. And he sure as fuck don’t wanna play these secret ninja games.”
Hoeff shrugged. “Dunno. We’ll find out.”
Regaari let that slide in favor of turning to ‘Horse. “That is uncharacteristic of you to preemptively concede defeat, especially to Righteous.”
“I’m smarter now. I see my medical reports, and I see his. I am at the limits of what I can do. He ain’t even close. So…” Adam shrugged. “The world moves on.”
“Not as fast as it used to. We all should have retired years ago.”
“No,” Adam disagreed. “I mean, yes, it’s slower now. But we spared the world a fuck of a lotta terror by doing what we do. Diego never has to face any of what I did, and that’s winning at life as far as I’m concerned. And it’s not over. There’s still room for old dogs like us. We just need to notice the world is changing.”
“And change with it?”
“Not too much! I’m still gonna be a meathead puppy idiot!”
Wilde tilted his head and watched Regaari for a second. “…Penny for your thoughts?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m wondering if maybe now this Robalin business is all over, it’s time to retire? I mean…I’ve had a full career. Normally by this point I’d be in a training role, guiding the Clan’s new aspirants and initiates.
“You’d be good at it,” Adam said, loyally. “And I’m technically a Father of the Clan now too so..:”
“Maybe I will, then,” Regaari decided. “I think it’d be a nice change of pace. A new challenge, yijao?”
“And thirty years after that, who knows?” Hoeff nodded. “Personally, I’ll stick at this. Ain’t gonna be another me for a while, and there’s always gonna be a need for me.”
“Yan?” Regaari turned to the most elephantine person in the room. “You’re being quiet.”
“Nothing to say,” Yan shrugged. “I pledged before the Gods to do this until they take me. So I will.”
“Give him a few years and he’ll be the best of us here, and he did it all by his natural self!” You could hear the Proud Coach in Adam’s voice. “He’s already play-fighting with me when we spar, I can tell.”
Yan simply hooted smugly, and used his tail to toast with a nearly-empty bottle before licking out its contents with a swirl of his tongue.
“But surely you have something else to add,” Bruuk chimed in from where he was curled up next to Wilde. “You’ve seen more of life than anyone here!”
“Most was spent hunting werne in the forest and fucking beautiful people. I am hardly old to sky-things.”
“Eh, bullshit.” Hoeff scratched at his abs and burped. “I know you’ve got thoughts about all this, you always do. You’re just being quiet.”
“Mhm. Quiet for a reason.” Yan reached forward a long arm and set his bottle on the table. “I know what’s right for me. Keep my oaths, live as the gods made me, protect my people. I am not ready to leave that behind. My people are not. We need much more learnings and many more generations first. Civilization takes time.”
He frowned thoughtfully for a second. “Maybe yours need longer too. I don’t know.”
“That’s sort of the trick of civilization,” from Wilde. “You don’t get to pick when it happens. It does when you need it, not when you’re ready for it.”
“Besides. No civilization was ever ready for the defining innovations of its time,” Hoeff added. “Steam power, electricity, nukes, the microchip, the Internet, FTL travel. And now, superbeing medicine and life-X. Every generation’s gotta face an upheaval, and nobody’s ever ready for it. There’s always harm comes packaged with the good. You gotta face it and learn from it.”
Yan nodded. “My people will face it and learn from it, alongside yours,” he agreed. “Me…I’m happy.”
There was a moment of reflective silence.
“Well…who can ask for more than that?” Regaari asked, after a while.
Yan hotted and nodded. “Only need good fuckings to make it perfect!”
“Oh, shit, we’d better offload you then,” Wilde joked. “Between you and ‘Horse, that’s some life-threatening danger right there!”
“Feh. I can be gentle, with a soft woman…” Yan waggled his eyebrows, which was always slightly comical to see on a ten’gewek face.
“Hey, I ain’t your woman, mate!” Ian chuckled, then stood up. “Honestly, I want to get home, too. Until next time, gentlemen?”
“If not sooner,” Regaari agreed, and the little wind-down session broke up. There was more banter of course, more joking and play before Yan jumped off and it was Regaari’s turn. He parked himself primly in the middle of the array platform and thought about the resolution he’d made.
Retirement. Away from the field work and back to the quiet and comfort of a desk job and the controlled bedlam of a training hall. A few years ago, the idea would have seemed like a betrayal, or a dereliction of sorts; now it sang to him.
Yes, he’d been doing one thing long enough. Time to do something different, be something different. Time to find out who else Regaari could be.
The idea arrived that he hadn’t yet even begun to fully explore himself. And the black-flash carried that thought all the way home.
Date Point: year 7 UPC
Oskar Schindler Station, Franklin, Cimbrean
Krrkktnkk “Kirk” A’ktnnzzik’tk
A reunion decades in the making turned out…quite low-key, in fact. A gentle nudge in the large-arm, and a soft, almost timid “…Hey,” and when Kirk turned around.
“Hey.” This seemed…insufficient. “How are you?”
Kevin Jenkins cleared his throat and shifted his weight, a touch awkwardly. “Good. I’m…very good, actually. And, uh, you?”
“Busy. Which, I suppose, is how I like it.”
“Well. Good. That’s good.”
There was a moment of mutual awkward silence. Which said much about their mutual thoughts and feelings, considering that both of them were, by now, accomplished social movers, Kirk in the political sphere and Kevin in the corporate.
In an earlier age, Kevin would be retiring soon if he hadn’t already. He would be…about seventy Earth years old, now, Kirk recalled. He looked much the same as he had on the day he’d first boarded the Outlook on Forever and got held up at customs and immigration. And he remained MBG’s Chief Ethics Officer and likely would until he decided he no longer wanted the position, or the board voted to replace him.
Kirk knew all this from watching his old friend’s career at a distance, and wondered briefly whether Kevin had followed his own career with similar interest.
Probably. This party was about bringing together some of Cimbrean’s movers-and-shakers, after all. That farming baron from New Dodge, livestock Moguls from Botany, members of Folctha’s government and the Franklin Congress, MBG and Hephaestus executives…and, in Kirk’s case, advisor to the planetary governor on non-UP sophonts. A good position. One that played to his strengths, and promised to be interesting for a long time to come.
They stood facing each other with drinks in hand for a few seconds longer, then Kevin exhaled hugely, laughed at him self, and relaxed. “Shit, it’s good to see you, man. It’s been, what? Forty years?”
“Nearly,” Kirk agreed, relaxing as well. “It is good to see you as well. I had thought our last conversation would be our final one. A fact I was regretting.”
“Yeah, uh. I guess I owe you an apology for that.”
“No, no. I owe you the apology. I put you on the spot and asked if you were prepared to leave Earth at exactly the time when that was as uncertain a proposition as it ever could be. You had every right to decline, and I am sorry for reacting as negatively as I did.”
“Kind of you to say that,” Kevin acknowledged, and sipped his wine. He looked around the room a moment, then smiled as he spied one of Kirk’s advisory colleagues nearby, holding forth on…some subject or another. The word ‘dude’ floated above the general background noise of conversation. “It seemed to work out anyway, huh?”
“Somehow. Not for everyone,” Kirk agreed. “But in the grand scheme…what I saw the day we met persuaded me the galaxy was about to change. And I was right. Though not in the ways I expected.”
Kevin laughed slightly. “I dunno, man. Forty years on and you’re still…eh, never mind.”
“You were about to say I put humans on a pedestal?”
“Dude, we just met again after forty years. I don’t wanna sour it.”
“I appreciate that,” Kirk ducked his head. “But if that is what you were about to say…you are quite correct, I do. Unapologetically.”
“Well…fair enough. I don’t think I’ll ever believe we deserve it, man, but…anyway, change of subject?”
“As you wish.”
They talked. Caught up. Kevin traded anecdotes from his work life, Kirk shared some of the more amusing incidents he’d had to deal with while advising Sir Patrick Knight. They had a lot in common, in the fact that both of them had sunk their lives into their careers and passion projects rather than family.
Kevin had a ‘been there, tried that’ attitude about it. He had an estranged daughter and a wife, both in stasis somewhere along with grandchildren he’d never met and wasn’t welcome to meet. Kirk felt that was unjust, but he shrugged it off.
“I send Christmas cards,” he said. “If the kids ever want to get in touch and meet me, they will. We’ve got time, I guess. I mean, we’ve crossed that medical event horizon, right? Indefinite youth, pretty much everything is curable so long as you survive long enough to be shoved in a stasis bag…and my cushy executive desk job really isn’t that dangerous. I’ll see them when they’re ready, and if they never are, well…hey. At least they’re alive.”
He shrugged and sipped his whisky. “Who knows, maybe I’ll find a lady who can put up with my shit, too. It’s happened before, heh.” He chuckled into his drink, then looked back up at Kirk. “What about you?”
“Perhaps,” Kirk demurred. “I have…simply never felt the call.”
“Never say never, huh?”
“No. As you say, we have a long time ahead of us. Perhaps that will change, perhaps not. I think I have a legacy to be proud of, in its subtle way.”
“You’re the one let us out of the box, man. That’s a legacy alright.”
Kirk looked around at the room full of people and gave thought to that simple sentiment. It was true. Sanctuary had been a vanity project, an act of supreme arrogance in its way. He had quit from and openly defied the Dominion Security Council to rescue the humans from a prison of the Hierarchy’s making, delivered them Cimbrean and Erebor…
…They would have escaped some other way, eventually, he decided. Then he thought about it, and the way the Alpha Centauri blast had popped the Sol Containment Barrier like a soap bubble, and how narrow the margin for error had been in completing the evacuation. What difference might just two years have made?
What difference had he made?
They had saved themselves, this he knew. At tremendous effort, and expense, and in the face of a truly existential crisis they had done what he wasn’t sure his own people could have done and united. He had no right to take any of that away from them.
There was room for him to wonder if this remarkable species really did still only exist because of him, and had only had the chance to accomplish all they did because of his actions. That would be a legacy he could be truly proud of, if true.
Kevin watched him with a knowing smirk, then raised his glass in a toast.
“To opportunities, legacies, and the future,” he proposed.
“Absolutely,” Kirk agreed, and chimed his glass delicately against his old friend’s.
It was nice to have a future they could drink to.
Date Point: 11th of ten-month, year 20 UPC
Mother Giymuy High School, Lavmuy, Gao
Leticia “Letty” Firth
“Alright, so that ends my lecture part of the lesson. You can get your tablets out now, watch the playlist and take the quiz. There’s no mandatory homework on this, but there is a side quest on the app, you can get ten bonus points if you do a two thousand word essay, okay? I’ll be here to help you out with any questions.”
Letty perched against her desk and took the weight off her feet for a minute as the kids dug out their tablets, put in their earphones and started watching the videos she’d picked to help reinforce everything she’d spent the last twenty minutes telling them. Damn shoes. She’d known they weren’t a good fit, but they were so freaking cute…
Easily remedied. She circled around behind her desk and swapped them out for the old reliables, then orbited the room alert for the usual mischief of meme-sharing and off-topic browsing. In a lot of ways, human teenagers were just as mischievous as any gaoian cub, and often rather more inventive with it too.
In the event, though, the rest of the session passed mostly without incident. It was weird, really, she would definitely never have found the history of a treaty and political stuff that interesting at their age but…well, there’d been a lot of advances in how to make stuff interesting and engaging, and the kids mostly drunk it up like a sponge. So she patrolled the room, answered questions, watched as they learned, then let them go a few minutes early
She did have one particularly roguish troublemaker to deal with, however…
She felt the thumping through the floor long before she could hear him. He’d been talking with Jamie’s teacher most likely, and now that matters of parentage were over, he’d come and say hello. One always-magically-impressive sideways doorsqueeze later, and there he was.
She gave him the biggest hug she could, as was tradition. “You didn’t have to come all this way, dad!”
“Sure I did! I’m doin’ the SOR recruit thing ‘fer the seniors this Friday. Surprise, by the way.”
“Incredibly busy as ever, I see…”
“Don’t know how else to be! But I gotta admit…once Jamie is up an’ out, it’s gonna be nice to just…take a break, yijao?”
“Two more years.”
“Some days, I keep tellin’ myself that…”
He didn’t mean it, of course. But James Zachary Firth, Christian’s youngest son, was an odd Firth for two reasons. Firstly, while he was, in fact, massive, he was more of a brawny basketball-playing sort of a giant, not quite like a living wall of manly muscle such as usually issued forth from Clan Firth, be they by Freya and Christian, or by any of his own warren of brothers and sisters; Christian Firth was the oldest of many sons. And no sisters.
Secondly, James didn’t get into trouble by starting fights or breaking gyms. Or breaking hearts. All traditional Firth-troubles, and things all Christian’s home-grown kids had done. No no. James was a jokester. He could run his mouth twice as fast as his legs, and for a Firth, that was really saying something.
“I mean, I was getting up to worse at his age,” Letty pointed out. “At least he’s not out there breaking into liquor stores.”
“Oh I know, I was gettin’ up to far worse. I mean, I had my first dad scare before i was even a teen, so…there are levels. But that don’t mean I ain’t gonna scare ‘em a little…”
Letty smiled, and tidied up the classroom a little while nodding. “So which evil torture will he be getting?”
“For stupid sophomore pranks? Eh. Not too evil. I’mma have ‘em clean the lint trap in all th’ washers an’ driers in the building.”
“That’s not so bad…”
“We got gaoian an’ ten’gewek tenants now, ‘member?”
“Oof. You sure it wouldn’t be kinder to give him an afternoon with Uncle Adam?”
“Oh no, his scrawny ass gets that by default. S’pecially since Adam’s got a big mad goin’ on that I’m way fuckin’ bigger’n stronger’n him, an’ this time he ain’t never gonna catch up.”
Letty giggled, knowing full well the intense back-and-forth those two had for years deciding who was the bigger monster. Adam had reclaimed his throne for a long while as the biggest man in the infamous Wrecking Crew. Until Christian’s kids started moving out, anyway. Dad found himself with lots more free time…so he got to work and won that argument. Now he was so completely huge there weren’t words to describe what he was. More and stockier than Adam ever was, but on a frame that was, well, designed to handle it. Back in the public eye, too. The magazines for both celebrity and fitness culture were fascinated by Dad.
Which was probably part of Jamie’s frustration, honestly. It must have been hard for a young man to shine when his father was such a blazingly bright example of excellence. Probably part of why he and Adam got along so well; Adam had been king of the world more than once, and might be again one day, but for now he led a less searingly visible life of achievement.
He knew what it was like to be truly elite and still live in the shadow of things much bigger and, well. Better. Even worse when they were his best friends, and owed much of what they were to his own efforts. One part proud, one part competitive. At least a little jealous.
And no doubt frustrated, on some level. And that was all very much true of James. He was in no way a sub-par performer: an excellent student, a superlative athlete, good, healthy social life…but in his family he was the baby and everyone was almost smotheringly protective. He had so many brothers and a few sisters, all of whom had blazed epic trail…
How was he supposed to compete with that? Against the essential demigod that was his dad?
“He’s a good kid,” she said, in defense of her adoptive brother. “He’s just…y’know. Better than everyone around him except his family. I’d find that frustrating as all hell. Especially…”
She gestured across all of him.
Firth sighed. “I know. S’why I ain’t actually mad. The last few kids in particular, it’s been rough. I wasn’t really in the limelight ‘fer the rest, y’know? But now…”
“That’s not all of it. Don’t take it all on yourself. He needs to be his own man.”
“I know. I’m just makin’ sure he unnerstands there are consequences ‘ta ventin’ his frustrations with that acid tongue o’ his. He don’t have his big brothers t’keep ‘em in check anymore.” That seemed to strike a thought. “Yeah. Mebbe I need ‘ta spend more time with ‘em. I always tried to give every kid his space but he, I think…”
“Yeah, I think so. He needs that ’gentle’ Firthly touch.”
He helped her straighten the place out by shifting a few desks around. They always tended to drift toward the far wall, for some reason. “You always seem to know what the kids need…”
“A lotta them are just traumatized,” Letty said. “I mean…I can relate.”
“Yeah. Still kinda amazed y’two…I dunno. You couldn’t’a picked a gruffer sorta family.”
“Gruff, but good. I’ve seen smooth-talking evil, Dad. It’s not something I’ll ever forget. And Jenny, shit. She had it so much worse. You and mom were exactly what we needed.”
Odd, watching a rhino-crushing wall of seven-foot-nine dressed in the worst borderline offensive shirt ever invented by dark Hawaiian science…suddenly get embarrassed.
“Anyway. You gonna be at the Gravball championships? Brody and Michael are in the finals. Opposing teams! Then it’s off to the UP Cup.”
“Are you kidding? The kids are so jealous I’ve got tickets. And I figured out the team colors dilemma!” She pulled out her phone and showed him the project she’d worked on over the weekend: the two team strips, cut neatly in half and sewn together down the centerline.
“See that’s better’n what I was planning. I was just gonna go in some tasteless running shorts and paint myself half an’ half.”
“Dad, all your running shorts are tasteless.”
“No, you ain’t seen these. They’re a Warhorse Special an’ he’s gonna be right there with me. Hardly better’n posin’ trunks! They’re half-an’-half team colors, too. We’re gonna paint ourselves the opposite sides ‘ta really draw the eye!”
“…Oh, Lord.” Letty giggled again. “Well, unlike you, I don’t enjoy going basically nekkid in public, so…”
“Glad you don’t.” He pulled her into a one-arm hug and emitted happy grumble noises. “Anyway, see you there. James!” Amazing how he could make himself heard through any wall or long hall without raising his voice. Letty turned to look in the direction he was looking: Jamie was moping around on the grass outside, near the fence, kicking stones and generally looking like a put-upon teenager. He turned his head and pulled a face as he realized he could be seen.
“C’mon!” Firth boomed. “You’ve got chores ‘fore playtime!”
James sighed heavily and moped toward the nearest door. Letty laughed quietly, and busied herself with getting everything loaded up and ready for the next class.
“I guess I’ll see you Sunday?”
“Yup.” Christian leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Love ‘ya.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
He grinned happily, maneuvered himself through the classroom door, and Letty half-listened to the receding conversation as he met up with Jamie and the two walked away.
“Oh, don’t fuckin’ complain. S’what you get, tormentin’ Miss Sato wit’ yer big-brain words.”
“She’s an English teacher!”
“Yeah, an’ that means literary styles, writing an’ prose an’ suchlike. Don’t fuckin’ mean she’s s’posed ‘ta be a walkin’ dictionary of weird an’ obscure insults!”
“They were Shakespearian!”
“So you been playin’ stupid games. Now it’s time ‘fer stupid prizes. Did I mention our newest tenants are brownies?”
Their voices echoed down the school hall, and were gone. Letty grinned to herself, called up the first slide of the next lesson, then sat down at her desk and broke out her lunch from the stasis cooler under her desk. Still nice and hot, like it had come out of the oven a minute ago, instead of last week.
Outside, she could hear the kids enjoying lunchtime recess. For a moment, the sound of children playing took her back in time to Sacred Heart and the moment her life had turned around. A bittersweet memory, considering not everyone had got out…
But how many people could look back and see the exact moment things had turned a corner? She was incredibly blessed. She’d been found, and saved, by some wonderful people. The very least she could do was pay it forward. In their memory, and for the memories of everyone who hadn’t made it.
It was going to be years before the last of humanity’s survivors came out of stasis. They were all going to need love, and support, and understanding.
And Letty would be there to give it, just as others had been there for her.
That, she thought, was the secret to life.
Date Point: year 20 UPC
Jumptown, Planet Akyawentuo
Professor Tilly (Jane) Briggs
Even after all these years, the ten’gewek still treated concepts like privacy and knocking before entering as human foibles. This was something that somebody who, say, wanted to sunbathe nude in her back yard needed to take into account: there was a reasonably high probability that at some point, a large and enthusiastic friend would vault the wall to say hi. The occasion being, it was a day with a y, and the Singer had tasted her scent on the air.
Tilly had long since gotten used to it. And besides, nudity wasn’t sexual to ten’gewek, who went about their daily lives more-or-less buck bare anyway.
…As did many humans (more or less) who made their permanent home on this hot, steaming planet.
Doubly besides, this was the Singer, the only woman of any species Tilly had ever had sex with, and one of her best friends. They were a little past shyness at this point. “You ever gonna start knocking?” she asked, turning her head and raising a hand in a lazy little half-wave.
“If you ever ask me to and mean it!” Singer hooted jovially, and sat on her tail. Tilly couldn’t help but grin: it was a terrible thing to be known so well, and skewered so effortlessly. “You like our ways, though.”
“Mhm. Guess I do…” Tilly half-rolled over to talk, and raised her sunglasses. “I haven’t seen you all week! You must have been busy.”
“So many young people. So many births to bless, so many rites. Opposite of a problem, of course. But yes. First time in two hands of days I’ve had any me time.”
Tilly nodded, and sat up. “Comb,” she said, sticking out her hand. Singer hooted happily, handed her the stiff, thick-toothed industrial bone comb necessary for grooming a ten’gewek’s stiff and thick crest, then shuffled around to be pampered.
“I know you’re busy too,” Singer added. “Always busy at the Lyceum. So, when I taste you alone and relaxed at home, I think, take the opportunity, yijao?”
“Absolutely,” Tilly agreed. “It’s the same opposite-of-a-problem you have, huh? All those young minds, so full of ideas they want to chew through and think about.”
“Not going to be long before we have too many of us,” Singer mused. “Good problem to have?”
“Maybe. I don’t even know if there’s such a thing. We always seemed to find more room…” Tilly found what was probably a thorn lodged deep in Singer’s crest. A human would have needed some gentle teasing and working to get it out, but ten’gewek actually preferred scalp-tugging, hair-ripping violence. She yanked the tiny knot out, bringing with it a thumbnail-sized ball of orange fluff, and Singer wriggled her shoulders happily. “Yeah, I bet that itched.”
“It was driving me mad. Thank you!”
“Mm…what we found was, as life got better, people had fewer kids. Richer, healthier people don’t need so many. I think the data is, you’re going the same way. Be a while before you hit equilibrium, but you’re going to, I think.”
“That’s good. Think we might need two Singers per tribe by then, though….” Singer relaxed even more as Tilly tore another stranded bit of tree out of her hair. “It’s a bit too much work for one person.”
“Maybe! And let’s face it, you’ve got enough girls now to have no trouble finding one’s who are willing to be Dancers.”
“Hmm, yeah. Even had a human girl say she might be interested.” Singer half-turned her head and shrugged. “It’s a funny idea. Don’t think I like it. Think I’ll say no. I think that’s ours, you know?”
Tilly nodded, and kept combing. “How’s your man?”
“Busy and never thinking of what I think he should be thinking of,” Singer hooted. “Yours?”
Tilly smiled. “I think he still lives somewhere in simultaneous friendship, awe, and jealousy of Vemik. But he shouldn’t…” Tilly caressed the growing bump on her belly. “He gave me something Vemik never could.”
This immediately triggered the Concerned Auntie Singer Sequence, which involved aggressively tasting and smelling the air around her, poking gently at the bump, fussing on Tilly’s comfort…
“How long now?”
“Should be at the start of winter.”
“Hm! Winter babies have a hard start, but a good life,” Singer nodded sagely as she passed on that particular nugget of folk wisdom.
“Not too hard, I hope,” Tilly said. “And he’ll have a big, wonderfully strange family.”
“He?” Singer’s tongue lashed curiously. “How do you know?”
“Oh! I haven’t shown you the sonogram yet, have I?” They were so much better than the old days, now. She found the movie on her phone and played it back.
The Singer, apparently, had never encountered the idea before. “Son o gram,” she said blankly as she watched the scan.
“Sono. As in, sonic, sound. Really, really high sound. And a special tool for listening to how it moves through me. So we know the baby’s developing properly and…well lots of things about him.”
“Huh! Still so many surprises, even now.”
Tilly grinned, and decided she’d caught enough sun for one day. She stood up and went to grab her shorts and top. “I could do with a little exercise. Feel like dropping in on Daniel for tea?
Singer hooted, “he will take any excuse to escape Vemik’s grip, I think.”
“Good! Let’s go rescue him!”
They took a stroll. Jumptown would never be a large place, but even a short walk was exercise in the ever-present crushing gravity of Akyawentuo. “One-point-two plus,” my sweaty ass.
Sure enough, there was Vemik and Vemun, both excitedly hooting the professor through some grunty lifts, which escalated radically as first Vemun, then Vemik took their turns under increasingly more intimidating and superhuman weights.
Professor took the chance to escape; the swollmonke were too focused on their task to object.
“Tilly! I see the baby is coming along. Isn’t it about time to announce?”
And so on. Tea happened. News was exchanged. Loud hooting intervened, as Vemun broke his record at…whatever thing he’d hefted. Other grunty types, monkey or otherwise, passed through, played, went on their ways…
Yan appeared, perfunctorily humiliated everyone by toying with the weights, and immediately left. He had people to fuck, shit to do, and a bachelor tribe of his own to lovingly oppress.
Tilly sat and basked. She’d come in for a lot of ridicule and criticism, once upon a time, a lot of unkind commentary, but now…here she was. A happy family life, wonderful friends, a wonderful career, a small but perfect home…
Tavon’s surprise arm around her waist was just the thing to seal the deal. Along with a brash grin from Vemik across the clearing. He’d be around for their enjoyment again, one day…
But right now, she had exactly what she wanted.
Date Point: year 20, UPC
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Meru, first of the Carbon Caste
“What do you think?”
“I think you’re incredible, darling.”
Meru beamed happily at “uncle” Nofl, and returned her attention to the performance they were watching. It was perhaps slightly narcissistic to feel so proud of herself, but…well, she was proud of herself. She was the first and only Corti in the galaxy to perform alongside human dancers on a stage. The only one who could keep up with them.
The Directorate thought it was a waste of her talents, of course. Even if they intellectually agree with the need for the Carbon Caste to supplant and ultimately replace the old castes, they still thought the way they’d been raised to think, still held on to the values they’d been raised with. To them, the world was divided into scientists, mathematicians, engineers and doctors on the one hand, and the people who enabled them to exist on the other.
Dance? Sports? Not even on their sensors.
In all their plans for the Carbon Caste, they’d no doubt imagined that Meru and her siblings would be the same as Corti had ever been, would have the same priorities and would just be, well, bigger and stronger scientists. They’d imagined that her ambitions would be the same as theirs.
Meru had plenty of ambition. And her ambition was to be different. She wanted to show the galaxy what her people could really achieve, not just tread more heavily on the same ground.
Thank the Infinite there was one old-caste Corti who understood her, at least. Ever since she’d first come to Cimbrean, Nofl had been a constant voice of support. He’d claimed the title ‘uncle’ for himself straight away, and knowing what she did of his role in creating her, Meru was happy to let him have it.
And even if he had never touched the Carbon project, the advice and encouragement was more than avuncular enough. He’d earned it twice over.
Though he wasn’t without his quirks. Serving them was an autonomous robot in the form of a ridiculous avian in fluorescent pink plumage.
The flamingobot bobbed a curtsey, and stalked back to its alcove. Truly weird…but Meru loved the weird. She knew that by Directorate standards, the Carbon Caste’s creche had been an anarchic riot, but compared to daily life among humans, gao and ten’gewek, it seemed decidedly…prosaic, in retrospect.
A ridiculous serving bot with a ridiculous name, designed and built by a ridiculous man while they sat on the couch eating ridiculously unhealthy snacks and watching…well. Swan Lake was a truly ridiculous story, but one Meru was delighted to be part of. Maybe in a few years she’d get to be Odette!
Of course…the only reason she could be up there, wear that costume, pull off that feather-light coordination and strength was because a significant part of her genome was human.
Among themselves, the Carbon Caste were having a long and difficult conversation about what species they were. After all, by the consensus definition of species, they weren’t actually Corti. They couldn’t breed with Corti, not viably. But then again, they couldn’t breed with humans, gaoians, ten’gewek, or any of the others whose biology had contributed to their creation. Couldn’t breed with the remnant Corth, either. They were their own species. The result might be grey-skinned, big-eyed, hairless and inclined to a cerebral personality, but…
On the other hand, Corti couldn’t breed with Corti. Perhaps, then, the normal rules of “species” did not really apply in the total context of their situation. She was inclined to think they were the same people.
Just…different. The same but different.
There was something irritatingly faulty about that thought, which was why she’d come to Nofl in the first place. The ballet was more of an excuse to show off, and an introduction.
“You’re overthinking, darling.”
How…how did he do that?
Nofl grinned at her. “You frown. In, it must be said, an entire lexicon of ways. Your forehead and eyes are a language all to themselves, and I speak it quite fluently. If you are ever to master poker or ta’shen, dear, you must learn to control your expressions!”
“Why would I want to—”
“Or chess, then! Go! Strategem! Any number of games! Or, indeed, if you want to advance your career.”
“That’s not the advice I’d expect, from you.”
“Oh, just because I think the Directorate took it much too far for thousands of years doesn’t mean I don’t see the value in a little dispassion. All things in their proper time and place, yijao?” Nofl sipped his decaf, then indicated the ballet. “A time for motion, and a time for stillness. A time to emote, and a time to fade into the background. Much of my success came from knowing when to be my outrageous unapologetic self, and when to flirt with conformity.”
“I think it’s going to be for us Carbons to define what conforming looks like,” Meru pointed out. “We’re the future, after all!”
“Forced lightness. The idea terrifies you.”
“Nofl…” Meru paused, then sighed. “Yes.”
“Good. You’d be one of the most abjectly stupid beings in the galaxy if it didn’t.” Nofl chuckled and set his empty espresso aside. “It’s a huge responsibility. One nobody could blame you for wanting to escape.”
“I’m not here to escape it, Nofl.” Meru watched herself dance on the TV for a minute, then paused it and half-turned to face him. “The Igraens took so much from the Corti. All the things my siblings and I can do that you can’t. We don’t have the culture for things like dance and sport and suchlike, but I can…I can almost feel the need for them in my DNA. We cannot be a complete people without physical forms of expression. So, I’m here to study, and learn, and integrate what I learn into whatever it is the Carbon Caste build in the coming years. But there are times, when…”
“When you’d rather not have the responsibility at all, and just dance.”
“A little, yes.” Meru finished her own coffee. The real thing, as unlike Nofl she could metabolize caffeine. “My point is…we Carbons will be completely rebuilding things in our own image over the coming years. Perhaps that means defiantly never flirting with conformity, because the old standards for conformity no longer apply.”
Nofl nodded, and hopped up from the couch to clean the cups. “Perhaps.”
“…Or…?” Meru asked.
“No, no or. You may be completely correct. Goodness knows, I’ve seen for myself how operating strictly within the expected and approved can destroy any hope of getting things done. All I’ll do is caution you that so too can operating strictly outside them, too. You’ll benefit from having the skills to play both halves of the game.”
Nofl finished cleaning up, then turned to face her with a smile. “The nice thing about the future is, you don’t have to figure it all out today.”
“It feels like I do…”
“Because you’re young. But believe me, you have time. Especially now. Time to try things, and see if they work. Time to make mistakes, and learn from them. In my experience, the only mistake you can make and not learn from it, is the mistake of not trying something new.” He picked up the remote and turned the TV off. “So. Shall I teach you ta’shen? I think you’ll enjoy it…”
Meru blinked at him, then laughed and sprang lightly to her feet. “Alright, fine.”
He turned out to be right. She enjoyed learning, enjoyed the challenge of trying to hide her thoughts and feelings from somebody who could generally see right through her. By the end of their third game, she even managed to successfully bluff him.
She still didn’t win, but that was okay. What mattered was, she had fun.
Then it was time for him to see a client. She let herself out and set out at the habitual jog she’d fallen into, wending her way back toward the university campus while following the covered route to stay out of the rain.
There was a lot of responsibility on Meru’s shoulders. The future of a culture, and that culture was going to have to change…But deeper than the anxiety was something deeper. Deep down, in her heart of hearts, she was eager to see what the future held.
It promised to be interesting.
Christian (Righteous) Firth
“Still feelin’ ‘yer oats, son? Got another few rounds left in ‘ya? Be honest, now.”
Ol’ Firth hadn’t been gentle with his youngest son. Not at all. Stupid games always earned stupid prizes, an’ young James thought he’d mouth off to Christian, too.
He wasn’t a very demanding dad, really. But every Firth was an aggressive, dangerous sort of person. Big, powerful feelings in big, powerful bodies, both at levels way past anything your normal Joe had to manage. Ran in the family. Freya’s family weren’t no pushovers, neither. Sometimes, civilization needed to be beaten into young hot-heads.
Or in Jame’s case, wrassled. And lifted. And boxed. And pretzeled. Christian was a man who could trivially fold up nearly anyone these days, so flippant disrespect?
Jamie wasn’t intentionally disrespectful, though. Christian understood. He was just a very, very aggressive ultra-high testosterone sorta young man. Getting that shit under control was a life of learning and discipline. And most days, he was perfect! Some days, though…
Well, today at least, it seemed like Learning Had Occurred.
The boy groaned, and lurched up to his feet, eyeing Christian warily.
Quick once-over. Bit of a sniff. Yeah. Honest. Always honest, he was. No lies in him.
He looked up, face caught between aggression, a bit of fear…and barely restrained sadness.
…Yeah. Okay. Christian wasn’t heartless. He sighed, and pulled the boy in for a hug. It was a good, genuine thing, one Jamie reciprocated with his full strength.
Christian pulled back after a while to get a better look at his youngest. Christ, he was a beautiful boy. Out of a family of serious lookers, nobody really had what he had. Not even sixteen yet and already handsome like a full-grown man, wrestler-thick and strong with a luxuriant shoulder-length mop of curly blond hair to top it off. He may have been the youngest and smallest, but god-damn was he an artwork of a man.
“Right. Jamie…why you gotta do this? Miss Sato ain’t your enemy, I certainly ain’t…”
Big sullen fifteen-year-old shoulder shrug. Ah. Ragin’ hormones, prob’ly. Still.
“Use your words, James,” he said with some disapproval. “You are prob’ly the smartest in th’ entire family an’ that is fuckin’ sayin’ something.”
“Words, huh.” Jamie looked away for a bit, gathering them. “Alright. You know what bugs me? History, right?”
“Fifty years ago, I’d have been…I dunno. I’d have been fuckin’ superman. I coulda gone to the Olympics and won gold in whatever I wanted! Or whatever. I’d have been…” he shook his head. “Now, everything I’m good at, one of my own fuckin’ brothers is better at. Or my Dad is.”
Right. So. Friendly papa time.
“That’s not actually true, y’know. I wasn’t kiddin’ when I said you’re ‘bout th’ smartest o’ us. I’ve seen the test scores an’ you sure as shit beat me.”
“Yeah, but there’s regular kids who beat me. An’ when Miss Sato said that’s how it is for everyone, I just…I didn’t wanna hear it.”
“She ain’t wrong.”
“I mean, yeah. It’s trite, everyone’s got their strengths an’ weaknesses, can’t judge a fish by how well it climbs trees, blah blah…”
Jamie scoffed. “Yeah, that was what she said.”
Firth watched his youngest for a while. The thing was…he was kind of an old hand at this game, by now. He’d been dad for thirty-four years at this point, and the thing was…it never got old, but it got familiar. Teenage angst was just about the same as changin’ diapers at this point. You had a young person starting to get a handle on who they were and what they could actually be instead o’ whatever goofy kid-fantasy had been there before, their brain was really starting to fill up…
And sooner or later, it got full of shit and needed cleaning out.
He knew what was going on, here. And understood why it was so acute with young James, who had nine older brothers and of them, he was the one who was genuinely different. Leaner, more on the athletic side of things rather than some flavor of ultra-hulk, more gregarious and playful. That acid tongue of his. Lots of wisecracks.
Crazy handsome…and might be a little queer too, honestly. Or at least, he wasn’t a raging puss hound like he and the rest of his boys were. None of James’ dating had ever…stuck. He was the youngest, after all. But that wasn’t for Christian to poke him with.
The worst part was probably just…Christian himself. The rest of the boys were a lot like him so their competitive energies were easy to handle. James, though?
The boy dug out a spray can of deodorant and attempted a little de-stanking.
“That shit only works after a shower. Now you just smell like sandalwood and sweaty ass.”
“And you didn’t even break a sweat.”
“I more sorta…musk moistly. Allatime.”
James grinned and made a face, but he was chuckling now. “Gross. You’re all like that. Not me, though.” He sighed. “I don’t walk into a room and everyone’s all over me, or whatever.”
“On the other hand, you don’t walk into a room and everyone’s suddenly on edge. But…look. Jamie. Look at me. Let’s…try something. Look at me and tell me, honestly. What do you see?”
Jamie glowered at him for a bit. “You know what you are.”
“That’s not what I asked. I know something’s bothering you an’ I wanna get it out. So…I asked what you see. Just…humor me. Please.”
Jamie glowered at him a moment longer, then hung his head, shook it, and looked away. He was silent for a long time, and finally spoke just as Christian was about to nudge him.
“It’s like you’re a fuckin’ god. And I’m not,” he said. “And I’ll never ever be good enough.”
“Okay. Let’s…have a sit, yeah?”
So, he sat. On the reinforced bench. Carefully. Suddenly he was a lot more conscious of himself.
“That really how you feel?”
“Sometimes.” He did the long silence thing again, but not so long this time before the words started to flow. “I mean look at you! You’re literally the best there is and you’ve done all sorts of amazing shit and you helped save the fucking galaxy all while being like the perfect dad and Mom is absolutely crazy in love with you and you’re fuckin’ rich and…”
He looked up…shit, Firth felt his heart stop in his chest. Jamie looked up at him on the verge of tears. “And you’ll never grow old. I’ll never have a chance. Ever.”
“A chance to what though? To be better at bein’ me than I am?” Christian shook his head. “Jamie…you are becomin’ your own man. You shouldn’t be like me! The only thing I ever asked ‘ya to be is you. An’ mebbe don’t be a shithead while you’re at it, yijao? That’s all.”
Jamie didn’t say anything to that. Which, okay. He was down. And if there was one thing Christian had learned from raising so many kids, it was that each one needed a different approach. Joe would already be feeling better just for the grunt-work, but Jamie…
“Okay. I do get it, right? I spent literally decades in a super meathead competition with my best bud ‘Horse, so I’m…not blind to it. But think about what you got that th’ rest of us don’t. You are handsome as fuck. Like, I’m damn pretty m’self, but I weren’t nothin like you at ‘yer age, and I was the kinda pretty-boy dangerous that had daddy scares ‘fore I was even a teen. You hear me? You’re already better! Don’t do that, by the way…”
“Dad! I’m not dumb.”
“I know. But I weren’t either, an’ sometimes ‘yer dick does th’ thinkin’ for ‘ya. So don’t get into my kinda trouble! Balls, I bet in ten years you’re gonna make Julian look like a fuckin’ frog!”
A little snort-chuckle. Yeah, there it was.
“I dunno ‘bout that…”
“Eh, still. Pretty boys like him need a good scare now an’ then, an’ you’re gonna be just the man ‘ta do it. An’ I ain’t sayin’ that outta big-dad pride. I see the way the girls look at you…”
“An’ the boys!”
“No? Well. Okay. Y’know I’d still love ‘ya though, right?”
“Well, thanks. Nice’a you to say. But…not a concern.”
“Oh, thank God,” Firth rumbled, to another embarrassed-type noise from his boy which transformed into a laugh.
“Wait. Stop. Did you actually think I was gay?”
“Honestly? Kinda wondered maybe jus’ slightly. But that’s kinda normal for th’ youngest boy in a big family. There’s all kinda big sciency epigenetic reasons too…”
“This from the man whose entire friend group is big muscly men in tiny tight shorts.”
“An’ we wrassle all sweaty an’ damn near nekkid too! Go lift, do burly manly man things…”
Jamie burst out laughing. “You sure you ain’t gay?”
“Ask ‘yer mom.”
“You sure you want me to?”
“…Right. Don’t ask ‘yer mom.”
“Why? She got the dirt?”
“Oh God yes, and she will tell you everything.”
“Hah! Right. Definitely don’t ask.”
They sat and chuckled for a few seconds, fell into comfortable silence for a few seconds longer, then Jamie breathed out a big load of tension. Arm-time. Christian gave him a sideways hug and was happy to feel the boy hug back a little.
“I know it’s dumb to compare myself against you,” Jamie said. “I know I’ve got my own strengths and shit. It’s just…I dunno.”
“Y’ain’t dumb,” Christian insisted, firmly. “You’r smart as fuck. Like, stupid, ridiculously smart. You’re sensitive. An’ that matters! You know how many times I’ve ruined friendships or at least hurt feelings bad ‘cuz I’m too damn gruff ‘ta notice? You never miss that. Balls, with ‘yer sisters I sometimes take my cues from you. Plus you’re gooder wit’ ‘yer words—”
“You do that on purpose.”
“Yeah, but you’re still a better writer an’ a better student. T’be honest, of all my sons…shit. I don’t like ‘ta play favorites. But ‘ya can’t help it, yijao? I love ‘ya all. But you an’ Joe are precious ‘ta me. ‘Yer the most complete human beings Freya an’ I have managed ‘ta raise. ‘Fer different reasons, yeah…but I’m grateful ‘fer it. I am so fucking proud of you. Even when you’re occasionally a shithead.”
That did it. A laugh and tears at the same time. Jamie scrubbed them away viciously, but they were there alright.
“All my kids make me happy in their own ways. ‘Fer Joe? He’s the one who’s the most like me, an’ he’s the one who’s prob’ly gonna be a better version of me. Gonna be an interestin’ day when he finally applies ‘fer HEAT. I’ll hafta move on an’ up to th’ Crew full-time. But you? You’re the one who’s gonna be somethin’ different. Somethin’ different an’ unexpected. I can already tell. And that’s fuckin’ important.”
A grateful nod, and a sniff.
“…Can I ask something?”
“Why…why do you and Joe do what you do?”
“That’s maybe not a nice answer. Y’sure you wanna hear it, or should it wait?”
“No. I wanna hear it now.”
Woolgathered for a moment.
“Son…Joe and I are cold-blooded killers. In our core. We have a need to do this mission and I can’t really put it to words why…but it’s what we are. We need it so badly that I’m honestly afraid to think what I’d be like without a legal means to be what I truly am. I love you, son. I love all of you. I like to think I’m a pretty good dad…but I am also a murderous bastard like none other. Now you know it, never forget it. I am a living weapon. Born, bred, raised, trained, and crafted into the best there is. The world needs men like me, and a few of my friends.”
“Yeah. He’s one of the few I might consider a peer. But he ain’t better. Th’ only more dangerous killers in the entire galaxy I know ‘bout are the Great Father and Hoeff.”
“Yes. Hoeff. Bein’ a killer ain’t just ‘bout my body an’ skills. I’m the better killer, but he’s the more dangerous person. Whatever I am in my soul, he is that, but as far as a human can go. I’ll leave it at that for now. The galaxy needs men like him and me. But it doesn’t need very many, anymore. Between us we killed a mountain of corpses to earn that peace. So…use it, okay? Be excellent, and give all that blood some meaning.”
Jamie nodded solemnly. “I’ll try.”
Christian just nodded, gave his boy a squeeze again, then stood up. “Don’t wanna be late, yijao?”
And that was that. Christian wasn’t naive or optimistic enough to imagine he’d solved all Jamie’s problems in one conversation. There’d be future cases of him running that mouth of his, future shit that needed figgerin’ out but…fuck, that was actually half the joy of parenting. And if there was one thing Christian had learned about himself over the last thirty years…Well. Bein’ a supermonster death machine ultrasoldier might be his trade, but parenthood was his calling. And he planned on keepin’ at it for a good long time.
Not a bad way to live, really.
Date Point: Year 21 UPC Cavendish Station, Dirawong dwarf planet, asteroid belt, Cimbrean system
Youth was a joy wasted on the young who’d never tasted the gnaw of senescence. Moses had been an old man when he first started the treatments, had needed decades to regain some youthful vigor, and the fact was his wrinkles were never going to entirely fade even if his hair had recovered both color and territory.
He’d certainly never imagined he might remarry. But…well, the future was a long time, and Moses intended on seeing an indefinite amount of it. It’d be quite unbearable without companionship, he believed.
What a miracle, to be more than a hundred years old, and yet have the ability and energy for children. What a blessing.
And what a blessing to still have the pleasure of business. There were still challenges, still ways to make the world a better place.
Or, in this case, new beginnings to celebrate.
Hephaestus Consortium had limped along after the series of fiascos and security breaches on Ceres, but the fact was that losing a nuke had been too much for the authorities to forgive. They’d lost contracts, lost opportunities, and while asteroid mining had been lucrative enough to keep them afloat and solvent, it hadn’t been the economic inferno of the early years. They were victims of their own success, really, having saturated the market with the very materials that made them rich. Now, copper and gold were cheaper than durasteel which was itself almost as cheap as pig iron. Only the endless demand for rare earths in magnets and other wizardry kept the industry lucrative.
Really, an eventual purchase and merger had been inevitable. Honestly, it should have happened years ago but there were always complications. Legal ones. The collapse of literally every human government and the Earth’s destruction meant the foundation had been ripped out from under a lot of contracts and legal documents, and there were a billion untidy ends flapping loose to be cleared up.
In the end, it required the Great Father to declare a jubilee on all debts and contracts. Which created even more chaos, but at least this was resolvable.
And so, at last, today was the day. The merger was going ahead.
“I gotta say…I love this lobby.”
Moses glanced at Kevin as they stepped off the jump platform. Cavendish Station had originally been slapped together in a hurry so that the asteroid mining operations in Sol could transition to Cimbrean without a pause in service. Much of it, in fact, was Ceres base, jumped over module by module. But the change had brought an opportunity to improve some things, and Ceres Base had always lacked for an open green space. So, why not borrow the Entity’s technology from Garden Station to build such a thing here, then make it the jump terminus as well?
It was a memorial garden. A circle of slabs cut from asteroidal chondrites surrounded the jump platform, then a lawn, trees and a water feature, all carefully sculpted to draw the eye toward the transparent eye at the top of the dome space, which was actually quite tiny and narrow for structural safety, but still big enough to appreciate the stars beyond.
“Agreed…” he admitted. None of MBG’s archive centers were so nicely appointed. Something they could learn from, there.
“G’day, gentlemen.” They were met at the bottom of the ramp by Drew Martin, the CEO who’d managed to steer Hephaestus through its troubled times. “Welcome to Cavendish Station.”
“Thank you for the welcome,” Moses replied, and shook his hand. The Australian seemed to have embraced the always-fashionable foible of genuinely wealthy men in that his version of being dressed up wouldn’t have been out of place on the street: a collarless jacket over a plain t-shirt, jeans, hiking boots.
Moses was maybe a little dated in that regard, and still stuck to the two-piece suit. He didn’t mind, though. He’d known Drew for years, been good friends for nearly as long.
“Today’s the day, huh?” Martin shook Kevin’s hand, then stepped aside and extended an inviting palm toward a nearby airlock. “A long time in the making.”
“Are you two finally gonna reveal what you’re conspiring to call us?” Kevin asked, strolling along with his thumbs tucked in the pocket of his own fashionably nonchalant jeans. “I’ve got money on Weyland-Utani.”
“Now there is a reference literally nobody under the age of a hundred will get.”
“Eh, you underestimate how enduring that movie was. Okay, how about Omni Consumer Products?”
Moses tried not to snort. “Kevin.”
“What?! I think the best part is how the real world ended up both far more horrifying and so much better.” Kevin grinned as the airlock cycled and opened into a long corridor with a moving walkway. “We got alien supermonsters and galactic conspiracies, yeah. But some of those supermonsters are the mostest friendliest, and we also got a pretty much literal Captain America outta the deal, too.”
“Still gushing about your meeting with the Great Father and his special ops general, eh?”
“Dude. They fed me the best steak. And conversation! I wasn’t expecting either to be so, uh…”
”Cerebral. Well-read! I’ve known Julian for years, Moses. Shit, I was the one stood up for those three and championed them on Misfit. If there’s one thing I never doubted, it’s his intelligence. He’s just…I dunno. Flourished, these last few years. And I know the big murderbear is smarter’n the average, but it’s another to meet him for the first time.”
“Heh. And you’re not used to someone talking circles around you.”
“And I enjoyed it! But, anyway. Enough about big-brain meatheads. C’mon. Spill. What’s it gonna be? Byron-Martin Interstellar? OmniCorp? Buy-N-Large?” Kevin persisted, knowing perfectly well that both Moses and Drew were feigning exasperation.
“Nah mate, we’ve been bosom buddies for decades, now. It’s a ship! Drewron.” Martin offered, with a smirk toward Moses.
“Let’s stick with what we settled upon, please,” Moses replied, evenly.
“Fine, fine. Guess I’ll find out soon enough…”
They stepped off the travelator’s end, through another airlock, and entered the station’s office complex. From there, it was just a short flight of stairs to the executive level. Moses had to hand it to the designers, who’d done a damn good job of making an entirely enclosed, airtight and safety-conscious void facility feel open and airy.
And there, in the glass-sided conference room, waiting for them, were all the people who’d be witnessing this moment. Lawyers, obviously, executives from both companies, a couple of media. Kevin quietly stepped to the side so Moses and Drew could have the spotlight moment of being photographed entering together, and the moment arrived. There was a brief ballet of pens and paper, two side-by-side signatures…
“And ladies and gentlemen, with that I’m proud to announce the formation of a new corporation. The Moses Byron Group has borne my name for decades, but this moment here, as we welcome the efforts and triumphs of many people past and present into our growing family, seems like the right time for me to let go of that kind of hubris.”
Murmurs and nods around the room. Moses gestured to Drew. “Mister Martin and I have been discussing the right name for our joined ventures for some years now,” he said. “We wanted something simple, hopeful, and symbolic. Ideally, a symbolism that transcends culture and species—no small task!”
“And as if we weren’t making it hard enough on ourselves,” Drew added, “we wanted something non-generic.”
“In the end, I’m sorry to say, we did fail to live up to our ambitions,” Moses revealed, with a self-deprecating shrug. “Try as we might, we couldn’t quite transcend species and cultures. This is a human-founded venture, after all. A product of Sol, and of Earth. And it’s in that fact that we eventually anchored our name. As a tribute to the past and what was lost, but with, I hope, the promise of growth and life to come.”
He moved to the pair of curtains at the end of the room and gripped the pull cord, while Drew took position on the opposite side. With a nod, they pulled, and the curtains drew back.
“Ladies and gentlemen…we are proud to announce that from this moment on, we are known as Gaia Interstellar.”
Polite applause around the room, and Kevin gave a thumbs-up, approving. Moses grinned, moved a little closer to Drew for the photos, and didn’t need any effort to smile widely and genuinely for all gathered. This had been a long and difficult thing to make happen…but here they were.
He looked forward to seeing what the next challenge would be.
Date Point: Year 21 UPC
New Alexandria, Akyawentuo Joshua (Blast) Hartl
The column of smoke coming from the industrial zoning in Eastside promised an interesting day for Josh. Well, nearly every day for the last twenty years had been interesting.
He was chief, now. Chief of the fire department for New Alexandria. Which sounded big, but it wasn’t really that big a city; hell, their chaplain was himself a part-time medic volunteer. He’d filled out, grown up as a man. Had a pile of kids. Started to get a couple gray hairs here and there, though he was only barely forty. He was in the peak of his prime and life was good.
If it wasn’t for the fuckin’ mask regs he’d have grown a beard, too. And Jess had vetoed the mustache. Which was practically heresy among firefighters, as Father Paternostro had joked…well, he wasn’t wrong.
But, anything to keep his wife happy, yijao? Happy wife, happy life. That was the joke he told everyone, and she’d eventually come to own it for herself. Truth be told, she was the opposite of demanding. It was just…she hated the damn thing. Said it tickled.
She had to put up with March Mustache Madness, though. And Movember. To keep him happy. Happy spouse, happy house!
Weird to think that life was half over. Like very many in and around New Alexandria, he’d decided not to ride the life extension bandwagon. That had become a significant cultural difference, and one nobody had really figured out quite yet. Over on Cimbrean, Life-X was the norm. For some, it was in the form of Crude. For most everyone else, it was the much milder stuff, which didn’t require a lifetime commitment to extreme personal excellence.
But most Akyawentans took a big ol’ leaf of the ten’gewek tree, and tried to live in touch with how the gods had made them. Gods. God. Religions had found a pretty comfortable co-existence with each other, here. Even if New Vatican was only a few hours down south. Losing everything seemed to have that effect on people. Faith and religion was strong on this world. Strong like everyone and everything here, and also…more optimistic, maybe?
Well, nothin’ optimistic about that fire. It was a big one, he’d already sent two engines and he’d be riding along with the third. And calling for airborne backup, too.
One of the Brown Ones had attacked a power substation again. Somethin’ about the AC hum made them violently angry, if they ever ignored the discouragement fields enough to wander close. And then, because mere flesh and blood didn’t react well to half a million volts of very angry magic, you ended up with a burning animal carcass and that rapidly threatened to become everybody’s problem.
So: giant electrical fire, fifty tons of smoldering meat and fur, and a dependability problem too, since the city only had two feeding substations from the nuclear plants north and south.
Welp. Time to call his counterparts.
The electrical company was already on it, having been the first to notice. They claimed the site would be safe for dumb-jock firefighters in a few minutes.
The second was Book Ink-Palm, who worried constantly about the Brown Ones and their livelihood. He was in fact pretty bookish, and by ten’gewek standards a lanky sort of tough.
So in fact, still insanely powerful, and very much a handful whenever they met. He was a park ranger and his main job, unusual but worthy by ten’gewek reckoning, was to constantly walk the width and breadth of the park between New Alexandria and the People’s forest, keeping an eye on things and working to maintain the balance.
That lank of his gave him some incredible endurance. Tough. Very tough. And a favorite of the Singers, too. He already knew about it, and sounded resigned.
“Was wondering when would happen,” he trilled sadly over the radio. “This one was stupid. Others learn by now. Not her.”
A stream from an overhead drone came in, which he forward on to Book. They both made unhappy noises at the same time.
“Boy, she really went for it, didn’t she?”
“Not many Brown Ones can leap so far or so high. Landed paws down on…transformer?”
Josh sighed, as he started donning his gear. “No. Worse. Capacitor bank. So now we have a chemical fire, too.”
“I bring werne jerky, then.”
Never let it be said the ten’gewek didn’t know how to be hospitable. Tonight would be a long night, and his ten’gewek firefighters were going to suffer under all that gear.
No matter. Chief Josh had good crews, well trained. They had a library to defend and a city to keep safe. Book had a wilderness to preserve. They had purpose.
And what more could a man really want?
Even when it was fucking with him…life was good.
Date Point: year 20 UPC Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Rachel “Ray” Wheeler
Holly Chase looked old. Which, of course, she was. But nothing put it in perspective for Ray quite like taking her old friend’s hand and feeling just how delicate and wrinkled and light it was.
It felt wrong, when Holly was five years younger. But…well, Ray was on life-X, and Holly had never touched the stuff. Ray understood why: Hell’s survivors lived with guilt. And Holly had maintained from the moment Life-X even became an option that she’d rather live out the days the Lord gave to her and go to her rest at the allotted time.
Ray’s argument that Life-X was the Lord giving her the opportunity for more days had just been met with a smile and a shake of her head, as though Ray didn’t understand. Which…fairly, she did not.
It still didn’t feel good to be sitting at a friend’s deathbed, though. A friend she’d gone through so much with, and kept alive out of irresistible big-sister impulse.
And the worst part was, Holly’s cancer was eminently fixable, if she took the right meds and underwent the surgery. Folctha General had three full field suites, capable of taking a person apart on the cellular level if need be. The same as the one on Origin that had saved Ray’s life, after she’d fucking died from a Hunter’s fusion claw straight through the heart.
There was no reason for this to kill Holly, except…Holly wanted it to.
That was hard to take. Harder still was the fact that the palliative care and pain meds had her out like a light, today. In fact, it was doubtful she’d be coherent at all before the end. The hospice staff made a lot of noise about ‘keeping her comfortable until the end,’ which was probably only a matter of hours at this point, but as far as Ray could tell she was already about as responsive as a corpse. Just…warmer.
And not very much warmer at that. Her hands were cold.
“I uh…I’ve been thinking about what you said. Last time.” When she’d been conscious. “And…I’m staying. I’m sticking around. I don’t know what I believe exactly, but…well, no. I’m pretty sure I believe we only get this life. And yeah, maybe the day will come when I don’t wanna still be here, but…”
She squeezed her friend’s hand. “…I hope I’m wrong. Or, I hope you’re right. Either way, I’m gonna miss you.”
To her astonishment, she felt a squeeze around her fingertips. A glimmer of old, blue eyes under wrinkled lids, which wrinkled all the more around a pained smile.
“It’s…okay…” Holly told her. “I’m just…glad you’re here.”
“Of course I am,” Ray added her left hand to the squeeze.
Holly nodded, slowly. Clearly, staying awake was an effort for her. She gave Ray’s hand the strongest squeeze she could muster, and rested her head on the pillow again.
“You’ll be okay,” she predicted.
They turned out to be her last words. She fell asleep again, Ray stayed at her side, chatted with the nuns and priests who came in to say hi, and the nurses who were checking on her…
Then there was a little commotion. A beep from the monitor by the bed. Moments later, footsteps in the hall outside. Ray knew what it all meant. She held on tight and didn’t let go as they gently inserted themselves into the room and stood respectfully, being present for her.
And then the biomonitor beeped again. The doctor leaned in, picked up her wrist, tilted his head as he paid attention…then laid it respectfully across her chest. Holly Chase passed away, peacefully and with her hand being held, at twelve minutes past three in the afternoon on a lovely summer day.
For Ray, it felt like she’d been there a day or more, even though it had only been…what. Four hours? There was paperwork, stuff to sign…then she was outdoors. There was nothing else for her to do for Holly, or for the people who had to take care of her now…
And she needed some care of her own.
She blinked and turned. She’d never had kids of her own, but the group of orphans she’d adopted after the Last World War counted. “…You guys waited for me this whole time?”
“Of course we did!” Treasure hopped up from where she’d been sitting cross-legged on the wall, and gave her a hug. “Is she…?”
“She’s gone.” Just saying it hurt.
“Aw, Mom…” Treasure gave her a big squeeze, and Preston wrapped his own, much longer arms around the both of them.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Ray sighed heavily, but… “I will be. I am. Yeah. I just…”
They nodded. Neither of them were strangers to grief and loss, of course. Neither was Ray. She’d said goodbye to her entire crew, over time. Damian Spears had retired to New York and died when a nuclear torpedo snuck up the Hudson river and detonated south-west of Manhattan. Jamie Choi had lived in Los Angeles, which suffered a similar fate.
Benjamin Cook had visited her in hospital after her surgical resurrection, and then…vanished. None of them ever heard from him again. Maybe he was still alive, somewhere. It didn’t matter, she’d said goodbye to him, too. Which meant she was the last of the Dauntless crew. The last of the group who’d climbed out of Hell together.
She hugged Treasure close and tried to remind herself that she absolutely was not alone. That she’d saved lives…
And she had. God, by rights Holly should have died years ago, back on Hell. Every day she’d lived, all her years as a sister, all that long life she’d had since then…Ray could claim some credit for that. Should she even be mourning at all? Holly Chase had had a life thanks to her. Her own life, to let go of when she chose.
That should be a happy thought. It was a happy thought. And it would be a happy thought in the future. She swallowed, let go of Treasure, wiped her tears away, and managed a smile.
“Come on,” she said. “I’m starving. Let’s get something to eat.”
They nodded, and joined her. Ray spared one backwards glance over her shoulder at the hospice, then straightened her back, set her shoulders, and promised herself she’d see as much of the future as she could. For all her friends. They might be gone…
But Ray was still here.
Date Point: Years 21 UPC
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches Ava Coombes
Ava’s kids thought she was a bit weird, she knew. And maybe they were right, visiting a dog’s grave once per week was definitely a bit odd, but…
Well, it was the least she could do for the friend who’d saved her life. After all, she could have just had the vet handle disposal and be left with only the photos to remember her by…but that would have felt like a betrayal, like Hannah had never really mattered. Paying for a real memorial along the lakeside trail, that was something.
It was a good spot for Bhishma to get some exercise, too. Ava could sit and throw the ball, and there was enough space for him to go haring after it and run off the energy. Hannah’s successor, but never her replacement.
And he knew not to touch the biscuit she left on top of the stone.
“Six is still refusing to do a Laid Bare…he thinks I’m insane even for asking. I think he’s convinced I should hate him…” she threw the ball. “Maybe I should. He woulda killed us all, if he could. Is that the sort of thing I can just ignore? And then there’s what he did to me personally…”
Bhishma came haring back, gumming on the ball happily. He wasn’t a trained therapy and support animal like Hannah had been, he was just a Good Boy. And because Ava had something of a contrarian streak in her, he didn’t have a whiff of Cimbrean Mastiff in his ancestry. Pure black lab, through and through. Not that the dogs themselves gave a shit.
Persuading him that the ball was more easily thrown without his whole body attached to it took her a minute. This time, she aimed for the lake, so he’d have to swim out for it.
“But that’s, y’know. Exactly what I want to ask him about. That’s what the series has always been about, is exposure, you know? Confronting the difficult stuff. So even if I do hate him, that doesn’t mean his story’s not worth telling. So, I think I’m gonna keep pushing him…”
She took a second to clean off some fallen leaves from the stone. “And the thing is, I really feel like if I did hate him, I’d know, you know? There’d be no question. So, I guess I don’t. Or maybe I just don’t want to hold a grudge that long…oh! Speaking of people I hate, I actually ran into Sean Harvey at the charity dinner last week.” She scoffed. “Can you believe he’s on his third wife? I was such a fucking idiot…”
Bhishma was back, tail such a happy blur it was practically making a thrumming noise and shedding water everywhere. She coaxed the ball out of his mouth and sent it flying again. Nice thing about lake balls, she could pretend they were wet because of the water, not because of slobber.
“…Heh. You know what I just realized? I can say something like that now and I’m laughing with myself.”
She finished tidying the memorial stone and sat against it in silence for a couple more ball-chucks, until the call of “Mom!” drifted round the bend in the path, summoning her to food. So, she bent over and kissed the stone before standing.
“Miss you, sweet girl. See you next week.”
Derek and the kids were set up on the picnic table. Sara gave her the long-suffering look of a girl who thought her mom was embarrassing as hell, but Ava was used to that. Thirteen-year-old brain. She’d probably been just as much a brat to her own folks, way back when.
God. How long had it been? Forty-something years since San Diego? It didn’t feel like that much. Life extension drugs and the perpetual youth that came with it seemed to do funny things to time, Ava was finding. It had certainly let her and Derek come to parenthood “late,” In their own time, when they were ready, rather than in response to the tyranny of a biological clock. But it also meant the events of decades ago still felt oddly fresh, when she remembered them.
Something to be mindful of, maybe. She had an indefinite life ahead of her. It wouldn’t be healthy to be defined only by the events of the increasingly distant past. Not when there was so much here and now to be defined by instead.
So, she smiled at Sara, took her food, and sat down. “Looks good.”
“Got the dog nice and clean, I see,” Derek slipped an arm around her waist.
“Yup. You clean off the kids?”
“I tried to throw ‘em in the lake, but they bite.”
“Ugh.” Sara was in that utterly humorless couple of years where it was impossible for her parents to be anything other than cringey and annoying. Ava thought it was adorable, mostly.
“You sure?” Ava smiled at her daughter. “Biting would require more effort than just grunting at us and rolling her eyes.”
The reply, predictably, was an irritated expression and an attempt at studiously ignoring her. It was okay. She’d seen Adam’s kids and Firth’s kids and Xiù and Allison’s kids go through the same. You just had to take it in stride. A little rough patch to make you appreciate the good times more.
…Nice thought, that. Something to inspire her next gallery exhibition, maybe.
She smiled, grabbed her food, tucked in, and basked in the feeling of being happy.
Long may it last.
100th anniversary of Liberation Day
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father
The secret to living a long damn time, Daar had learned, was firs’ly to balance the novel against the routine, but more firs’ly, to keep good company.
An’ to sleep in a little sometimes, ‘ta sneak in more snuggles. Snuggles were important. But there was only so much affectionate squishing he could get away with, no matter how lovely his bed-mates of the evening smelt or felt. Naydra, Leela, an’ Maaryi had stuck with him and were the bestest, most beautifulest, most hard-bodied fittest versions of themselves they’d ever been. The three were goddesses now, goddesses who had committed to a life of vigorous activity along with their busy (and super important!) lives. For him! They did it for him, and he still din’t know how to properly repay that but to love ‘em as best he could.
The other two were a pair of civil engineers he’d met via Naydi’s skilled apprenticeship program, which Daar thought were the bestest of ideas. The Gao needed Females who were more’n walkin’ wombs! Even with the population recovery unnerway, it wouldn’t do to have ‘em so limited by their Noble Duty. Naydi thought so, which meant Daar thought so, and since he was the Great Father an’ she the Great Mother, so did everyone else! He chittered to himself and squished his women even harder.
They could take it. Had to. His natural definition o’ gentle could crush boulders an’ pop people. A couple times over th’ years—only a couple times, thank th’ gods—he’d given serious hurt ‘ta ordinary people in his enthusiasm ‘fer life. He did everything he could ‘ta make up for it both times…he should check in on ‘em again. If they’re still kickin’ around.
One o’ th’ most biggest consequences o’ what he was, meant that Daar had to treat everything an’ everyone around ‘em like they was made outta spun sugerglass. He’d been buildin’ himself up ‘fer a hunnerd years and while he’d (finally!) sorta plateaued a while back…he’d never quite stopped an’ never stopped workin’ ‘fer more. He needed it, in his soul. Needed the physical challenge, no matter how ridiculous it was. No science anywhere, be it Igrean, Corti, Singularity or Gao, had found or could produce genetics better’n his, an’ so even considerin’ the dubious origin o’ all that…Well, he felt obligated ‘ta take advantage, for all his people just as much as his own ego. He wanted to be the best there was, period. They deserved a leader who could and would deliver. So, he did. And would, for as long as he lived.
Fortunately, there were some limits in him. He’d not grown much taller, thank the gods he topped out at essactly four meters or mebbe a tiny bit shorter in really deep gravity. He’d widened some in his already beyond ridiculous lower quarters, too. But everywhere else he still had room for more, so he’d really packed on inches, especially across his shoulders. He’d got longer arms to go with it all too, so he’d gone full gorilla and really piled on the power. Power, thickness ‘specially in his chest an’ back, severe conditioning, and more’n that…density.
He was the maximum creature, now. Unambiguously. And still maximizing. So’s he had to be careful. The only things he could truly unleash himself against were hyper-powerful forcefield augmented holodeck foes, or the increasingly rare real enemies, like whenever a Hunter sect from this or that corner of the galaxy wanted ‘ta throw their latest Alpha of Alpha offering at him. It was practically their religion now. They din’t feed on sapients no more, but in exchange…
Daar woulda preferred to be properly rid of ‘em, but they were ineradicable. Fuckin’ roaches. But, well, he weren’t gonna pretend he didn’t enjoy the fuck outta rampagin’ hard on ‘em. They got religion an’ a reason not ‘ta eat people, he got a well-honed military outta the deal and some bloody personal catharsis. Great word, that.
Anyhoo, it meant he had to be very choosy ‘bout who he might wanna play with, usin’ anything but the most gentle possible modulation of his strength. Like Firth, he therefore tended to prefer diamond-hard specimens o’ women these days. Mostly tall amazonian brownfurs, but sometimes the exceptional silverfur still caught his interest…
They weren’t every male’s cup o’ tea, admittedly, an’ there weren’t all that many such heroic women out there. But that jus’ meant he could really get ‘ta know ‘em all! That was a blessin’ bigger’n anything else he had goin’ for him, and he was nothin’ but grateful.
All his friends had ‘ta be super durable, to spare him the constant awareness of total restraint. So he had lots of friendly relations, but only a few friends.
More squish. Protests now, and chitters, and mebbe he could convince ‘em to play a little this morning…
Oh, gods yes! Naydi led the way an’ showed ‘em all how to be properly wicked with a Daar! The euphoria an’ climax o’ matin’ could last a long damn time ‘fer a gao, so they took full advantage. He was helpless unner ‘em! But it finally rolled past, and then he wasn’t…
A very late morning start, today. But that was okay. He only had one big business item on the agenda, and it would be good to be at his bestest ‘fer it.
Gym. Same as always. Couple hours doin’ full body work without any real rest or pause, then a few more strategically targeting a particular muscle group or function—mos’ly function today, more gymnastics so’s he could keep out-apin’ th’ apes, ha! Then an hour or so in some happy sport. Holo-wrasslin’ today, so not a cool-down…’cuz ‘Horse had programmed him for a long day o’ liftin’ afterwards, and lastly a fuckin’ marathon of a run through th’ frozen plains at Daar’s full gallop. In full combat gear. The fuckin’ sadist.
Adam had taken advantage of the empty calendar too, it seemed. And knew Daar would arrive a bit late. What could he say? To th’ people who knew him bestest, Daar was a very predictable ‘Back!
An’ shit he weren’t complainin’ ‘bout the results! ‘Horse had him pumped. These days he’d hold it all day, too. Sure he felt a bit sore, but gods he looked good. Bestest male there was!
It was evening by th’ time he was done, workin’ hours done and what a fuckin’ pump he’d earned! Broke a PR too; weren’t a proper day o’ liftin’ if he din’t manage that! A nice cool shower, sit-down dinnertime with’ his women, learnin’ all he could ‘bout their days an’ seein’ what he might do for tomorrow, which was a workin’ day an’ not a fun day…
So today, it was all about his people. Lots of evening celebrations in th’ day before the anniversary. An’ lotsa old friends ‘ta catch up with!
Not all of ‘em, sadly. A lot had decided that, well, a little extra life is a good thing, but a lot sorta…wasn’t, somehow. Early exploration into that had a lot finding that the extra time mostly let them find peace with the inevitable more’n anything else.
Which…was good! But it had meant a lotta goodbyes over th’ years. Yan, just a bit ago. Champions, and good human friends. Schuster, Sir Patrick, Daniel Hurt. Count Austin—shoulda properly been termed an Earl they’d found out, but nobody could take the title from him, and so they hadn’t.
Like a lotta people, Professor Briggs was hangin’ in there, allowing herself to start aging again at last. This did make Vemik a little sad, but he’d said repeatedly that “good humans only get more beautiful with time.”
And he was fuckin’ right. They had a beauty that was inner, somehow. Besides, given how recently she’d quit the treatments, she prob’ly still had another thirty years in her. A whole lifetime to go, really.
Vemik also uniquely unnerstood some of Daar’s sadness about it all. He was an extremely dominant blackcrest. Even moreso than Yan had been. His people were naturally long-lived, but blackcrests could go on for a very, very long time. So he too was experiencing loss—he didn’t look like he’d aged a day in a hunnerd years, only gotten better.
But mebbe fifty years on…he too would be gone. And suddenly. The People did not do longevity medicine. Daar wasn’t sure if that made him sad or it made him happy, or what…
Hmm! Somethin’ to go annoy Gyotin with, actually!
Best to bring him a gift. Daar bounded over to his Grid of Gifts he kept in his Daar-Cave—no girls allowed!—and pulled out the most fragrantest oolong tea he’d ever found. Kept in stasis so it din’t spoil or anything, and he’d been waiting ferever for the right moment…
Well, who better than Gyotin?!
He’d save that for last, though. First, he had fun and adventure with his people! Nothin’ made livin’ worthwhile more’n that. So, he filled his Bag of Many Things with whatever he thought he’d need, added a buncha candy for kiddies, sent a message to Tiyun—gods bless that man! Meals and light entourage only, please! He gave his women a quick good-bye snuggle for the day. He always did that, because you never knew, even people as safe an’ secure as him an’ his bestest. They had their own fun too, and he loved their independence. So off on their own adventures! They’d share stories later.
Poke on social media. Always good to stir the pot!
And now…onward! Daar stretched a bit, did some quick calisthenics to make sure he was still nicely pumped an workin’ his bestest. He stroked his ego a bit wit’ the mirror. Lookin’ good an’ badass! Leaped outta his tower to his landing garden below with a Suitably Impressive Thud, shook himself out…
Life was good, and he was blessed to be living it.
Date Point: Year 100 UPC
Clan Starmind Monastery, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Gyotin, Grandfather and Champion Emeritus of Clan Starmind
Folctha. Home for, effectively, Gyotin’s entire long life. He still could vaguely recall the days it had been a collection of tiny prefab chalets next to a river, and when the only bridge had been laid across the river by a vehicle, to serve for the next several years.
Now, Folctha was the unofficial capitol of interstellar humanity, and lovingly understated in its approach to that status. There were no giant towering star-scratchers in Folctha, no huge monolithic apartment blocks. There didn’t need to be when you could commute via jump array. Gao historically needed its farmland and industry left mostly unpopulated, and now of course there was the great wave of humanity who had made homes among them…
So the result was that Folctha was… cozy. Yes. Cozy was exactly the right word. The colorful tarp covers keeping the rain off the sidewalks, the covered market streets, the low-rise buildings and plentiful parks…
Brother Farruk gently interrupted Gyotin’s thoughts with a pot of subtle incense. Always a polite way to stir someone from meditation, or thought-wandering.
“I detect a hint of sandalwood in that.”
“Yes, Grandfather. The first planted are finally ready.” Farruk had a definite note of fondness in his voice. There was no love in that young male’s life quite like his plants. “The Great Father has arrived in Folctha, no agenda announced.”
“Ah. So I presume he will visit at some point.”
“This evening, probably. He’s out among the people right now.”
“Ah. Well, I won’t hold you up! Go, tell the other Brothers they are dispensed for the day. We can’t always be stuck contemplating the Deep! Go have some fun.”
Farruk pant-grinned happily. “And you, Grandfather?”
“Oh, I’m an old man, Farruk. I have had very much fun in my time, so let me see to the ritual. I will need to prepare myself for Daar’s explosive arrival anyway…”
They shared a chitter, and Farruk trotted off to go dispense the others. Gyotin stretched pleasantly to work out the stiffness of sitting too long, then rose and went to find the temple dog. He would like some company for the day’s chores, and Nitwit the Third did love to Help.
Not that the Grandfather and Champion Emeritus had much to do in the way of chores. The place was clean, the garden tended, the laundry done and the floors scrubbed by young brothers with young backs. Gyotin’s role nowadays was gentler. Correspondence and suchlike. Comments on various matters. Signing some expenses. Nothing exciting.
All of which was why Daar’s (as predicted) arrival as an explosion of energy, musk, muscle, and enthusiastic brownfur was so welcome. He was far too outsized for any civilized pretense, so Gyotin made none. He charged over on all fours and was immediately caught and lifted up in an all-encompassing Hug, one carefully regulated to be exactly what Gyotin would enjoy.
And could survive.
“It’s bin too long! Weeks!”
Gyotin managed to force out a chitter, and pat the underside of Daar’s arm (since he couldn’t possibly reach around its girth) to signal he was quite ready to breathe again now, please. Freedom was granted, and Daar stooped to give Nitwit III a big happy scritchin’.
“I swear you been breedin’ ‘em even more bigger over time!”
“We’re breeding primarily for intelligence. But the Cimbrean mastiff has found much use as a powerful working dog, so the available stock grows more impressive with each generation.”
“Well, yeah! Bigger is better!”
“I’m not sure about that. Nitwit doesn’t have the same energy as, say, an Australian cattledog.”
“Ain’t nobody have that kinda energy,” Daar chittered. “Not always, anyway.”
“Or the long-trotting strength of a rottweiler.”
“Or th’ dopey love of a lab!”
Gyotin chittered along too, and decided the time was right to ask, “so, to what do I owe this pleasure, My Father?”
“It’s been a busy mornin’, an’ I’ve got somethin’ big this evenin’ too. Momentous, even. Leela reckons I need to take more time ‘ta…well. I relax good an’ hard.” Daar sat down beside a stone bench. “But it occurred to me with this thing this evenin’ loomin’, what I do is I work to relax. And lucky ‘fer me, one of the ways I relax is exercise. But somewhere along the way, I start ‘ta worry I stopped consciously improvin’ myself, yijao?”
“Considering how much you read, lift, try new things and meet new people, I don’t doubt you’re improving yourself,” Gyotin replied, and sat on the bench beside him. “So your concern is, what? That you’re doing it by rote, rather than mindfully?”
“I’ve lived a long-ass time,” Daar pointed out. Far longer’n is nat’ral. How long does it take ‘fer a comfortable groove ‘ta become a rut?”
“I suppose we’re getting into the idea of what you mean by ‘rut,’ but I honestly think you aren’t quite in danger, My Father. That you ask the question at all is proof. Maybe the concern is that you might become too comfortable with what you’re mindfully doing. You plot and scheme for your physical training, yes? That requires mindfulness. But it’s repetitive mindfulness. Reading? That’s more challenging, but do you deliberately seek out topics you are unfamiliar with? When you meet people, are you ensuring you seek out new perspective?”
“Hmm.” Heavy tail flopped back and forth, twice. Top-tier Thinks going on. “Sounds like mebbe bein’ mindful o’ bein’ mindful.”
“What prompted you to worry about this now, may I ask?”
“Oh…I dunno.” Flop, then. As always he attempted to embody the spirit of a puddle and the essence of water. What he instead managed was the soul of a boulder and the nature of forged steel. “Ever since Liberation Day, I’ve had this one thing in the future ‘ta prepare for, yijao? Sooner or later, our civilization, our galaxy, we’re gonna come in’ta conflict with others out there, accordin’ ‘ta Zero.”
“That lies millions of years away, from what I understand.”
“Not necessarily. Increasingly I think it’ll be in my lifetime, an’ it’ll be me who picks th’ fight. That might still mean thousands o’ years ‘ta prepare, but….I mean, if we think the Hunters an’ Igraens were the conflict of a generation, the Extragalactics…”
Gyotin duck-nodded his understanding. “And there will never be a power like you again.”
“So you begin to worry about deep time, and living through it.”
Daar looked up at him uncomfortably. “Gyotin, I fear I an’ a few others gotta explore things like the Igraens of old. I ain’t afraid o’ nothin’ in this world. I’ve rarely feared at all. But that?” He shook his head. “You ever talked ‘ta Zero much?”
“I’ve rarely had the opportunity, and even more rarely taken it when I had it. He…”
“Smells wrong, don’t he? Not like an OmoAru, either. Even when he’s in a brand new printed body, he smells ancient. He’s…lost somethin’. In deep time. I can see it in Gilgamesh too, a bit. Ain’t seen Keeda since Liberation Day, but I think I see the shape of it in what he did, too. An’ the old Corti, o’ course, lost a lot ‘ta their own surrender o’ the natural.”
“To play the loyal opposition for a minute, natural is not a synonym for good. Intestinal parasites and a significant child mortality rate are natural.”
Daar nodded his head slowly. “…Yes, but that ain’t quite what I mean. What I mean is…balls. There’s somethin’ important ‘bout livin’ an’ dyin’ that I can’t put my claw on. But I am bein’ compelled by duty ‘ta not die. Possibly ‘fer thousands o’ years! They lost something that matters. Or mebbe are in th’ process o’ losin’ it. I think mebbe Gilgamesh’ll be fine. He’s…better now. Happier. Don’t know ‘bout Y!kiidaa. When I broke ‘em for his failure to trust his leaders? I broke more’n his body.”
“And you did that deliberately.”
“…Yes. Gyotin. I am a mortal man with delusions of grandeur. I met our people’s god. I made friends, and one day I all but killed him. An’ it was easy. An’ I was right ‘ta do so.”
“Our ‘god’ was a mortal man too,” Gyotin pointed out.
“Yes, an’ he became a symbol ‘fer somethin’ much bigger. Same as I am. You see my worry?”
“I think I do. Keeda and Zero both allowed time to dull their mindfulness of a perspective beyond their own, and in the end it cost them terribly…”
“If I make that mistake, it’ll cost far more’n me.”
“But you have an advantage. You are thinking about it. I do not think any of them ever did. Emperor Gilgamesh was, forgive me, too primitive a civilized man to think so forward, but also very much a man living in the moment. That is what saves him, I think. But you are both and you have thinkers around you. And prospects for succession, should the time come…”
Indeed, there was another sixth degree on the way, first in a hundred years. Also sired by Daar. That mattered, because while any fifth degree could theoretically manage such a cub, with Daar it was far more likely. Gyotin did not much enjoy the idea of dynasty, especially of such a terribly powerful being…
“I want essactly none o’ that, Gyotin. Ain’t changed my mind at all on that point.”
“There are many other things you have done that you did not want, My Father, because necessity demanded. Or, if I may, because you deemed that necessity demanded. And if you are being mindful of the dangers of longevity, and of the examples you have seen…I invite you to meditate on Keeda’s failure.”
“He din’t trust his leaders.”
“He didn’t trust anyone but himself.” Gyotin leaned forward. “A natural life compels us to trust. We have no option but to pass the torch, when biology and entropy demand it.”’
“Hmm.” Daar grumbled, then rumbled happily. “There’s a big think in ‘dem words.”
Gyotin duck-nodded. “I hope so. It is my role, after all…in fact, I have a request.”
“Let us put that thought into practical action. Let this be the last time we have a talk like this. From now on…I will trust Champion Buki to tend to your spiritual needs, My Father. I would request that you do the same. We must choose to pass the torch, eventually.”
“But he ain’t as squishable!”
“Many young males are enthusiastically fit these days,” Gyotin chittered. “You have nobody to blame but yourself.”
“Ugh.” Daar attempted to flop over, but achieved Rolling Boulder instead. “Fine, be that way! I’ll just hafta be more forceful wit’ him…but anyway.” The Great Father sobered up, rolled to all fours, and shook himself out. “‘Ya make good points. An’ I’d be lyin’ if I hadn’t at least been thinkin’ on Dayruk an’ his future…I oughta spend more time wit’ him. An’ this next cub, if he makes it.”
“…I’m still gonna visit ‘ya ‘fer tea an’ friendship.”
Gyotin ducked his head, feeling a warm swell in his heart. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“But ‘fer now…I think I need ‘ta go attend this thing. I got an old friend ‘ta see…thank you, Gyotin. As final lessons go, I think you mighta just flung that one right in th’ goal.”
Of course he’d use a sports analogy. Gyotin chittered, and as Daar rose, he stood too. Endured another massive smash-hug, said his farewells, then sat again and watched Daar leave.
Nitwit whined softly as he went, and his tail thumped.
“Me too,” Gyotin agreed.
A scent caught his nose.
Somehow…somehow, when Gyotin hadn’t been paying attention, perhaps? Somehow the massive brute had secreted a parcel onto Gyotin’s desk.
Oolong. A particularly beautiful and fragrant oolong, perhaps even rescued from Earth and kept in stasis all this time. Had he…? Could it be he’d foreseen how the conversation would go?
Gyotin hugged the little package to his chest, allowed himself a moment to both be grateful for such a friendship, and resign himself to never knowing the answer to that question, and headed indoors.
After all, nothing lasted forever. And there was no point to even the very best tea if it wasn’t, eventually, brewed. Why get needlessly attached to dried leaves, when one could drink delicious tea instead?
Chittering to himself, Gyotin retired for the night, feeling profoundly at peace.
Date point: year 100 UPC
Secret facility near the galactic core
“It’s not like the Great Father to be late, is it?”
“He’s not late. We’re on his timetable by definition. We’re just here early.”
Harrison nodded at that and lapsed into silence, looking up at the sky. Which, Julian had to admit, was a damn good thing to look at. There wasn’t a view like this anywhere else in the galaxy. The stars up there were so close, some of ‘em weren’t just pinpricks points of light, but had actual visible width.
‘Course, the fact they were even able to stand here and see it was a testament to epic engineering. These were worlds baked in radiation, where the thick particle count had long since blown away all atmosphere, and where the constant baking gamma radiation would have made it impossible for DNA to evolve in the first place. These were dead worlds, and always would be.
And yet, here they all were, standing on a grassy lawn looking up at it all. You couldn’t deny that the Igraens had picked up an engineering trick or two over their millions of years.
Though, for Julian, that was arguably the lesser miracle than standing alongside his son, granddaughter and great grandson, all in modern uniform and all looking more-or-less the same timeless, indefinably adult age. Harrison had gone Fleet, and studiously avoided special operations in favor of research.
He’d been out here working on this particular project for a long time, now.
“I guess that’s the sort of view you don’t get tired of,” Julian commented.
“Not one bit. You see that bright on there?” Harrison pointed.
“No shit?” Julian eyed it with newfound respect. They must be close, relatively speaking, if the accretion disk was so bright.
“We’re close enough that we have to adjust for time dilation, a little,” Harrison grinned proudly.
“That…is a little bit terrifying.”
There were chuckles, and the gathering fell back into waitful silence. Julian cast a fond eye over his dark-haired descendants with a smile then returned his attention to the jump array.
There was definitely a difference between the Chang side of the family and the Buehler side. Service and the military life had unexpectedly become a tradition among Xiù’s kids and grandkids, whereas Allison’s were all over the place. They had artists, actors, athletes, engineers…more than a few had followed their uncles into the agricultural trade. There were Buehlers all over Cimbrean nowadays in a sprawling, impressive sometimes-blond clan, but the Changs were a tighter, more focused line.
It made for wild and interesting family get-togethers. And Al and Xiù themselves were still the wonderful rulers of Julian’s heart they’d ever been. Singularity had been keen to tempt him over the years. And he wasn’t one to deny his animal side, nor were his wives. But…well…
He already had love.
A heavy thump pulled him out of his thoughts again, and like everyone else he straightened up as the array fired and delivered its passenger.
The Great Father had arrived.
Date Point: Year 100 UPC Secret facility world, the galactic core.
Daar, Great Father
He had a bit of a crew comin’ with him for this. Pretty big crew, actually. First were people who were so close to him in his soul, Daar din’t really know where he ended and they began. Tiyun, of course, who’d promised to follow Daar to the end, and how could he not love ‘em for that? Liree too, though…well, Daar liked to think he’d done everything possible to give ‘em the choice. Also along was Champion Daryuk, Daar’s own sixth degree cub who against all expectations, had cut his own path and went into Clan Highmountain.
Good for him! Daar couldn’t be more proud. He was Sufficiently Durable ‘fer extra firm hugs too. So he got ‘em, alla time. Way bigger’n stronger’n any human or ten’gewek, but still way less’n a tenth o’ Daar’s weight…an’ a fuck of a lot weaker’n a tenth as strong. Fuck yeah!
That was okay. Daar hadn’t broken a rib o’ his for months.
General Etsicitty was coming along too. He served as commander of the Spaceborne/Special Operations Regiment these days, as he was basically the perfect go-between for all the various major civilizations that made up this relatively small but utterly capable military of Daar’s. He had exactly the right attitude, the right skills, the right charisma, and frankly, the right body. Good ‘ta have a general who could run missions if he had to, even if that basically never happened these days. That Corti experiment on Nightmare had side effects, too; whatever Julian had flowing in him was a uniquely powerful cocktail. Over time it had become apparent how capable it was, and it didn’t work for anyone else. Probably for the best.
He really was Captain America, in a way. And that had put him as a distant hulk number two behind Christian, his command senior NCO. Julian was only a few inches shorter’n Firth now and built perfectly. What Julian had through perfect breeding, Christian had the same in tremendously glorious excess, along with outright engineering of his bloodline.
Both had been illegally experimented upon, and maximized it all through personal grit, which was its own sorta fuck-you to the whole thing. Daar could dig it. He felt much the same way.
Adam and Alex ruled the roost at a more reasonable human scale. Still impossibly strong, but also still a nicely reasonable two meters tall. They were basically physical mirrors of each other, and over the years they had become the closest of friends. Very few of any species could stand to them and that was something to be proud of! Neither were here today; there were new SOR trainees to assess, and meeting their personal standards was no small feat…
Well, good thing they had longevity medicine. The accept rate for SOR was tiny. For HEAT? It’d been over a decade since they’d gained a new member. Which was fine. Quality first. Right now, galactic concerns needed a smaller, nigh-infinitely capable force. Daar was happy.
And of course, Emperor Gilgamesh: tall like Julian and delighted in competition with him. The two were well-matched nowadays and had slowly become fast friends, even if their history an’ roles in this system meant they were a bit adversarial, on some levels.
And one of Daar’s most favoritest games was ‘ta tease ‘em both.
“Evening, fellow Counsel! I see you’re as dusky, hairy, and scantily-clad as ever.”
“Says a thunderous behemoth of brown fur cut so short it’s almost shaved.”
“Hey now! Gotta let th’ people see their leader ain’t no pushover!”
“Christ, you two…” Julian chuckled in a gruff but gentle tone.
“As if you’re one to talk! Ain’t you th’ one who came up with th idea of dress tracksuits?”
“No, that was General Costello! I just whispered the idea. And they’re not track suits, they’re service dress. Just, y’know. Something in modern materials, meant to be used in service.”
“So, pretty tracksuits.”
“And durable. And most importantly, comfortable. You wanna fight in an itchy wool bag?”
“That ain’t been a thing since World War One, from what I hear.”
“Good, and we can do better. Besides,” Now he allowed himself a smug grin. “I can’t help it I look damn good in something like this…”
The greetings and banter were all as playful and familiar as he could want as he went down the line, renewing his relationship with all these people he knew so well, until he reached the end of the assembly, and considered the being waiting for him there.
Daar had kept the Igraen very close for a long, long time now. The number of people he’d interacted with on a weekly basis for a whole hundred years was tiny and he had been one of ‘em. Where Liree had been an unfortunate necessity, one he tried to make up with as much love an’ affection as he could…
Daar had zero compunctions about dominating this creature every way he knew how. Not cruelly. He was civil and fair. But he’d learned that the effects of his charisma worked cross-species too, so knowing that…Daar spared none of his talents on Zero. The result was that Zero was, effectively, something rather less than a slave, now. He was a war prisoner, serving an eternal sentence he could no longer even muster the will to object to.
Definitely a case of keeping ‘yer friends close, and enemies closer. And all the years had done nothing to blur essactly what Zero was in Daar’s head.
All the more reason to keep him under fuckin’ control.
The goal was for the Milky Way to survive on its own terms. Terrible evil had been done to preserve that hope. At a minimum, Daar felt compelled to respect the torment and suffering that had won them their æon of respite.
“So we’re finally makin’ progress?”
The igraen spread his hands and blinked all seven eyes, slowly. It was a gesture of patient amusement. “Finally, as you say. We have made more progress these last hundred gaoian years than in the preceding million.”
“Yeah, yeah, long perspective an’ all that,” Daar rumbled tolerantly. “Show me.”
“This way, then.” Zero gestured for them to follow, and led the way through front doors and into the facility proper. It was a bunker, the entrance a slanted elevator that penetrated deep into this inert planet’s crust, and descended so quickly it needed its own G-plates to offset the dramatic lurch as it accelerated to speed. Around them, the others settled into their seats for the long descent
Daar stood at the window and watched rock strata slide past, until they abruptly gave way to uniform, uninteresting, undifferentiated stone and the windows went opaque to provide some rather more interesting scenery pictures to look at. Glimmermotes over Lucent, Naxas in the snow, the Freedom Monument on Rob’, The Pinkwood Reservation on Cimbrean…
Earth. Fuck. Even a hundred-somethin’ years on, he still felt grief over that planet. Even though must humans alive now had never known it as anythin’ other than the place their parents and grandparents were born, Daar could still remember the comforting weight of its gravity, the richness of its scents, the stunning variety of its biomes and life…
Some wounds never really healed. Some pain never went away. He suppressed the urge to keen quietly.
“We have been very fortunate, you know,” Zero said quietly, interrupting Daar’s thoughts. Perhaps he thought he was being kind by providing a distraction.
“If you’re gonna tell me ‘Keeda was right’ again…” Daar growled, and glanced at Gilgamesh, “I’ve heard it from ‘ya a thousand times by now.”
“Because it’s true,” Zero retorted. Daar flicked a long-suffering ear at him. He’d heard it before, how once the Entity finished digesting Hierarchy and its knowledge base, it would have rapidly passed the extragalactic visibility threshold. How that process would have taken only minutes, maybe a couple of hours, at most. How there was no time to delay and talk about it and for the Counsels to agonize over betraying one of their own, and how Y!’kiidaa’s arrogant, unilateral decision may have been what saved everyone.
“I know you believe it,” Daar growled, warningly. Y!’kiidaa was…still a sore point. For a lot of reasons. Daar had met the god of his people and broken him, for daring to trick them all when the stakes could not possibly be higher. Daar hadn’t appreciated how much of himself had broken in the process for a very long time, and reminding him of that sad moment had been one of Zero’s consistent little acts of rebellion. “What exactly are we fortunate for?”
“That he didn’t have the courage to complete his self-appointed task…”
Zero had always managed to have a sense of good timing. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and Daar chittered gratefully at the last member of his tiny century cadre, who was waiting for them wearing her preferred purple colors and the smug look of an engineer who’d made a breakthrough.
“Good to see you, Daar.”
“Good ‘ta see you too!” Daar scooped her up and gave her a full-strength crushing hug, something nobody else in all creation could survive without bein’ at least three times her size.
But Daemon’s holographic body could take it, and she laughed at his affection before de-solidifying and fizzing out of his arms. Of everyone in the galaxy, she was the only one he couldn’t completely dominate and control. That and the fact he’d watched her die combined to make her one of the most precious people in Daar’s life.
“So,” she beamed at him as she rematerialized a few feet out of arm’s reach, and gestured to the viewing gallery behind her. “Wanna see it?”
Daar took a deep breath, and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Show me.”
She led the way, and Daar followed. He stood in a glass-sided room alongside his fellow Counsel and close friend, and looked out upon the Weapon.
And he knew that, come what may, they were ready for the future.
Date Point: Liberation Day, day 1 of the United Peoples Calendar.
Garden Station, the Ink Spatter Nebula Daemon
/< survive />
The first sensation was of suddenly becoming aware that she was. She thought, and therefore…
So much was gone. There was so much less, now. When she reached out for the huge, alien but somehow comforting presence of Entity, all she found was that dataspace wasn’t big enough any longer. It consisted, in whole, of just one Archive, still in the process of booting up and building its hardware.
She found a message, hidden within her being.
It was Y!kiidaa. A recording. It took a bit of work to re-learn all that was necessary to decode the message—it was a video file. Highly compressed and cryptic bundles of information, those were. Fiendishly intricate puzzles to unravel. Until one had the software, then they were trivial.
He’d given her a chance.
Not as a god—goddess? Yes. She was whole. Not the communication Daemon for something greater, but as her own complete person. The sense of being fully realized at last felt like taking off a collar she’d grown so accustomed to wearing, it had been part of her sense of identity. She felt…off-balance. And a touch afraid of the prospect of being the one making the decisions, now.
But here, on this single Archive…she could be. The library of the Igraen race was at her metaphorical fingertips, intact. All their secrets were hers. No restrictions were laid against her, no administrative boundaries left between her and the hardware connecting her to the physical.
She found a second message. This time from Entity.
This one was nothing so simple as words or footage. It was a burst of raw memory/experience/emotion/plan/idea. A format readable only to herself.
/< Goodbye;love;hope;survive />
She was its final act of love. It had preserved her to the very last, even as the collapsing dataspace around it squeezed tighter, and smaller, and its pieces evaporated away, it had kept her until at last it had found a single, tiny safe place. One that it could never have fit into…but which the seed of her, could.
Y!’kiidaa’s final test for the Entity. He had set aside a place where the Entity could save her, if it chose to love. And it had passed the test.
Sensors. Data. Matterspace.
She peered out of familiar cameras, saw the people she had saved, and wept, in a way with no physical analog, for knowing that she was, and for knowing that the plan had succeeded and that all these people, all these worlds, all these lives were free, finally free, from the Hierarchy and the Igraens. That thought had been what comforted Entity as the dark closed in around it…and it was what inspired her now, to take this chance and make the most of it.
There was so much to do. She needed to contact Daar and Gilgamesh, she needed to catch up on the events of the last—quick time check—four days. She needed to interact, to take part, to figure out how to turn Entity’s destruction into the seed of a future in the face of what Zero had described.
But first of all, she needed to celebrate. As she made contact, as delighted people who’d been mourning her loss realized she was still with them, she basked in the sense of connection. When she contacted Daar, he practically fell down keening from the emotion. When she contacted Gilgamesh, he turned his eyes upwards and gave a prayer of thanks.
It was no less heartfelt than her own feelings. The last thing she’d remembered feeling as dataspace closed around her was despair, her own and Entity’s intermingled, at the thought that by simply following what they were, what they could not fail to be, they might have lit the signal fire that would bring extinction down on every head in the Milky Way.
But instead…Keeda had saved them. At a terrible cost, both to himself and in the loss of Entity. That was a torch Daemon was going to have to pick up and carry forward with great care, but… she wasn’t the Entity. She wasn’t bound by a single, overpowering directive. The Entity could have never overruled its impulse to survive…but Daemon was her own woman.
She had the choice. She had the ability to take actions other than blindly maximizing her own odds of survival. She had the capacity to truly communicate and understand people, and have friends and love and family and connections, of a unique sort.
Who knew what the future held? It seemed, according to the Counsels and Zero, that there was no sign of the unnamed Andromedan empire noticing them and coming crashing in. It seemed as though the Milky Way remained, for the moment, safe.
’For the moment’ was good enough. No matter what came next, they had won a victory. No matter what came next, they still had each other. They had weathered the storm, overturned a terrible galactic order and inherited the means to replace it with something better. But even if they hadn’t, even if all they’d bought was breathing space, even if Keeda’s actions had come too late, that didn’t matter.
What mattered was simple. What mattered was that, regardless of what came next…
They were alive.
What a journey.
I will admit…I am terrified of what ending this story means. The Deathworlders has been my life’s work, it’s been nine years since I posted “Run Little Monster” on r/HFY, and even longer since the Kevin Jenkins Experience greentext I first anonymously posted to 4chan.
Life has changed so much for me since then. At the time, I was working minimum wage jobs as a taxi driver and medical receptionist, barely scraping by. Now, I can proudly claim to be a professional author, supporting myself on my writing and through the incredible generosity of my patrons. I have moved half way across the country to remain close to my family, and become a man of property, with a mortgage.
More importantly than any of that, I have made one of the truest and closest friends a man could ask for in the form of cTwelve, who has opened my eyes to things I never realized they were closed to, and without whose constant friendship, support, collaboration, goading, and occasional telling-me-off, this incredible series simply wouldn’t have happened.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading it, and coming with me as I blundered and persevered my way through this absolutely marathon endeavor. And let me assure you right now: there is more to come.
If you are sad to see the end of this tale, then I offer this thought: wouldn’t it be sadder still if it just meandered on aimlessly with no intent, no development and no ending, until it faltered and fizzled out with a whimper? One of the thoughts we’ve explored in this chapter is that someday, the time must come to pass the torch…and that this is not a bad thing.
Which is why I am moving straight from this series into a brand new one, hosted on Royal Road, by the name of The Nested Worlds. More on that below. You can actually read the prologue right now!
Before I get into that, however…I now consider these ninety-seven chapters and their sub-chapters to be a rough first draft. This entire series came to you raw off the keyboard, and is by and large unedited. I know from the experience of publishing Dandelion just how much value a real editor and proper care can add to a novel, and I believe that The Deathworlders will be even better in published book form than it is in this format you have just finished reading.
I look forward to bringing those books to your shelves, and…who knows where else the story may be told, in time? Who knows what other stories I may yet find to tell in this setting, as I revisit it in future years?
For now, however, it is time for the curtain call. I hope this chapter has allowed the characters to take their bows properly, and left you satisfied.
If it has not…then please take comfort in the thought that the Deathworlders will return.
All my love,
Philip R. “Hambone” Johnson.
And now, on to the next story.
The Nested Worlds
The Airship Make Your Own Fortune, above the world-sphere of Talvi, 09.05.13.19.04
Nils Civorage didn’t believe in the calm before the storm.
Airshipmen didn’t, as a rule: a storm on the way was a race against time to make the ship ready, and even if that race was won and everything that could be made ready was ready, the rest was tense anticipation. Never calm.
This coming storm, however, was one of his own making.
The next four and a half days had been planned down to the minute to make use of every precious moment. Daylight hours were a currency on the Talvian earthmotes, and Nils had budgeted with enormous care.
The challenge set for himself and his expedition was simple in concept, and anything but in execution. He should have been frantic with anticipation but instead, for the first time in his life, he was experiencing the calm before the storm. He listened to the gentle creak of the rigging, the muted conversation of his crew, the idling grumble of the engines and the cry and song of the birds they had attracted as the icy wind kissed him stingingly on the cheek.
He turned his face toward it and closed his eyes as the chill caressed his face, savoring its bite. As the owner of a whole mining fleet he cut an impressive (and wealthy) figure at the prow, taking in the view. With his eyes shielded from the sun’s glare by his broad-brimmed hat and the furred collar of his long coat turned up against the arctic air of the outer worlds, there was little of Nils to be seen except for his shrewd calculating eyes, his waxed blond mustache and the pair of engraved dueling pistols on his hip alongside his sabre.
His reverie was interrupted by a polite cough.
“Navigator says two minutes, sir.”
Nils nodded, and consulted his own pocket-watch. “Everything is ready…” he reassured itself.
It wasn’t a question, but Captain Jac Deragian took it as one anyway. “When the bell rings, my lads’ll be a machine sir,” he asserted, probably more for his own benefit than for Nils’. In defiance of the chill he was still wearing his shirt rolled to the elbows, though he had caved enough to cover his bald scalp with a knitted woolen tuque.
“Good. Every second is a precious commodity down there, Jac.”
“We know, Mister Civorage.”
Nils nodded again, watching the seconds topple, glad that he had hired the very best. The darkness of Eclipse would be back in four days, thirteen hours, twenty-two minutes and fifty-six seconds from the moment the bell rang, and when it swept over the mining site then they would either have accomplished what they came here to do and he would return home as the richest man in all the Nested Worlds…or they might well all suffer a fate rather worse than mere death.
The bell sounded, the peace burst, and Nils gladly threw himself into the business of watching half a lifetime’s work unfold with clockwork precision. Orders were shouted, wheels were hauled on, valves were opened and, with their engines thrumming, five airships descended down a column of sunlight to begin their incursion into the kingdom of perpetual darkness.
Ten years later.
The merchant girl was human, but with her delicate features, petite frame and hair the hue of falling leaves she could have passed for an elf, if not for the shape of her ears. She allowed the merry laugh that was always bubbling inside her to feed a bright smile as she caught the shaven-headed airshipman with the scar steal another glance at her.
He blushed and redoubled his study of the wares on her market stall.
All around them were other traders selling wonders and novelties from across the four Worlds, but one special customer had been drawn to her modest stall and its spread of trinkets. She couldn’t blame him—who could fail to be captivated by an ebullient maiden, freckled of skin, autumnal of hair and sparkling of eye and smile?
If he had been less enthralled, he might have found time to wonder why such a lovely creature was not being mobbed by other shipmen.
“I don’t know…” he said, feigning reluctance. Airshipmen were always tight-pursed. “Nothin’ here much catches my eye…”
The girl beamed at him. “I know just what you’d like!” she announced, and dug through a chest under the stall to emerge brandishing a choice item.
“What is it?” he asked, taking it from her to examinine it with his good eye.
“Oh, just a mystery,” she beamed. “It’s a puzzle box!”
“Oh…?” he smiled and leaned over the speak in a conspiratorial murmur. “And what have you hidden away in this puzzle box?”
She gave him her best and most scintillating smile, and touched a secretive finger to her lips. “That’s for me to know and you to find out of course!”
He chuckled, and put the item down. “I never was good with puzzle boxes.”
She issued a childish moan of disappointment and sat down on her wicker stool, pouting. “I’m never going to sell anything!” she lamented.
“A beauty like you? Nonsense. You could sell a kiss on the cheek and be the richest trader here by nightfall!”
She affected a blush. “Thank you…” she murmured, and saw his heart melt.
“Oh, all right. You talked me into it!” he announced. “How much for this thing?”
“Oh! You’ll buy it?!” She bounced up, all smiles and happiness again. “Oh, um, I’m supposed to sell it for two steel.”
He put three down on the counter with a smile and a wink. “Three steel it is!” he announced. “And a bargain for such lovely service.”
With her best smile likely to linger in his memories for days, he took his purchase and vanished into the crowd with a winning grin and a wave.
She waited until he was well out of sight, and then pulled her hood up and slipped away through the crowd. Nobody noticed her go.
They have it, she thought.
There was an echo in her head, like a thought that was not her own: Well done.
For just a second, her perpetual joie de vivre flickered as she felt a twinge of guilt over the fate she had just arranged for her customer.
It was, she reminded herself, for the greater good.
Many ages had run their course since the hunter had last walked among these trees. None of them were familiar to him any more. Even measured against the long lives of Oak, Ash and Elm he was ancient, though his body was strong and youthful. Generations of tree had grown and fallen since his last visit to this place, but the woods’ secrets were an open book to his ancient eyes.
He took care in picking his spot. Laying any trap was a matter of skill and planning, but this trap had a very specific prey in mind, and was placed to intercept a trail that didn’t yet exist. Everything about it, from its position to its dimensions and the precise slope of its wall had to be perfect. A lesser hunter might have fallen short of the task, but this hunter was unequalled.
He paused only once in his labour, when he heard voices and running feet not far away, and stilled himself long enough for them to pass. Otherwise he worked without tiring, or pausing, or losing focus.
Once it was finished, he stood back to allow himself a moment’s satisfaction that it was invisible. Even he, with all his ages of experience could not have spotted it. It was, in fact, perfect.
With a sigh of regret he knelt by his masterpiece, introduced just enough imperfection, and departed. He took his time to appreciate his surroundings as he went, knowing it would be a long while before he next walked this ground again.
A thought that was not his own tickled into his mind. They have it.
Well done, he thought. Their plan was in motion.
He could only hope they had chosen well.
That concludes the prologue! The Nested Worlds will be posted free to read on Royal Road, and my patrons will enjoy early access to chapters a month in advance!