Chapter 14: "The Hornet's Nest"

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Date Point: 3Y 8M 2W AV

+0014+: Another failure.

+0023+: There have been victories also.

+0014+: Too few.

+0003+: The efforts of The Discarded work to our advantage.

+0006+: As I recall, Three, you were among those who advocated their termination.

+0003+: Your point?

+0006+: An acknowledgement of your fallibility would seem fitting.

+0004+: Petty bickering like that is for the Hosts. Three’s competence is not in doubt.

+0006+: As you say, Four.

+0014+: To address the observation: yes, The Discarded have helped contain the Deathworlders. That is a balance of power that will shift, as things are going. They buy us time, not victory.

+0016+: Agreed

+0031+: Agreed

+0004+: Agreed

+0006+: Perhaps a more senior agent should be placed in charge of that cell.

+0023+: Seventy-Two’s competence is also not in doubt.

+0003+: Your naysaying is becoming unconstructive, Six.

+0014+: The problem is escalating. This most recent failure was not orchestrated by a Deathworlder at all.

+0019+: Are you proposing that the Hosts might become energised and inspired?

+0014+: I am proposing that they already are.

System notification: User 0020 has joined.

+0006+: Well now. You grace us with your illustrious presence.

+0004+: Twenty assumes more risk than any of us. You will be respectful.

+0020+: Six’s respect is not required. I have completed my analysis of the debris field.

+0006+: Please, enlighten us. What miracle have the Deathworlders performed this time? Can they turn their skin to steel and shoot lasers from their eyes?

+0004+: Six.

+0006+: Twenty’s last report implied that the Deathworlders have solved the single-end wormhole problem. I will not apologise for my skepticism.

+0020+: No such inconsistencies. They appear to have an agent. A fast ship passed through the area shortly before the strike. I believe that it deployed tiny satellites, which self-destructed after the battle. If those satellites were stealthed and carried displacement beacons then it would explain the observed ability of these new ships to jump inside the sphere of engagement.

+0006+: It took you this long to determine that?

+0020+: Without compromising myself, yes.

+0006+: Useless.

System Notification: User 0006 was muted by User 0004. Reason: Correct your attitude.

+0014+: That was satisfying to watch.

+0004+: Correct yours too, or you will be next.

+0020+: I will not apologise for exercising discretion, caution and patience. Infiltrating The Discarded was difficult enough last time. They are not stupid.

+0002+: Six may be abrasive, but dissenting voices are valuable: They may cast the light where we are afraid to shine it. Soothe your wounded pride and examine the facts - these Deathworlders move quickly. If we are to successfully contain and destroy them then we must be similarly swift.

System Notification: User 0006 was granted speaking privileges by User 0002.

+0006+: At least somebody here pays attention.

+0002+: We have not granted you license to be disrespectful.

+0006+: …yes, Two.

+0020+: With respect, Two, avoidable setbacks will only serve to slow us in the long term. Hasty and ill-advised assaults have already cost us too much. The next must be slow, must be stealthy, must be unanticipated, and must be devastating.

+0008+: The evidence does appear to favour that.

+0020+: We must also put aside our power politics for now. Zero and Thirteen both failed because they acted alone in search of glory, and now they both need replacing. Now Twenty-Four has gone the same way. We must stop allowing them to pick us off one by one: This is too important for ego.

+0005+: You do not tell higher ranks what we “must” do.

+0020+: Then I respectfully suggest that we all set aside our pride and focus on combining our efforts to bring practical resolution to this crisis.

+0002+: Twenty has a duty to express their opinion in as forceful a manner as is necessary for its proper communication. You, Five, have a duty to heed what is said rather than overlooking it for the sake of pride and decorum.

+0005+: …yes, Two.

+0002+: We do not - yet - need to involve One. If Twenty’s approach is successful - if we collaborate to deliver a single, unforeseen and decisive blow to the Deathworlders - then One will never need to know this whole debacle ever happened.

+0004+: I still say that it was an unforgivable oversight not to foresee that intelligence might arise on that planet a second time.

+0006+: Two, may I have permission to remind Four that she was in equal part responsible for that oversight?

+0004+: How dare you!

+0002+: We believe you just did. Our permission would be redundant.

+0004+: I request a punishment.

+0002+: Denied. The observation is accurate, and even insubordination has its value. Nevertheless, Six, a little less insubordination, please?

+0006+: Of course, Two. You only had to ask.

System notification: User 0004 has signed out.

+0094+: The Deathworlders call that a “ragequit”, I believe.

+0057+: Apt.

+0014+: Can we please focus?

+0006+: Agreed. What do you recommend, Twenty?

+0020+: The Discarded.

+0014+: Sensible. They have already declared motive, they will seize the opportunity if it arises, and our risk of discovery will be negligible.

+0010+: We will need to remember to continue to monitor the deathworld after the scouring is complete.

+0006+: We will also need to resume monitoring on all the ones that have already been scoured. Some of them are nearly as old as Earth.

+0014+: You use their name for it?

+0006+: “Strak’kel” is so old-fashioned, and both names have a bit more life to them than “MY-31 043-3-TT12-I” don’t you think?

+0023+: Whatever Six calls them, we will need to re-survey more than a thousand planets to make sure they are still clear.

+0005+: If that surveydiscovers even one nascent civilization, then it will have been worth the trouble.

+0020+: I must go. I will do what I can to keep the Great Hunt high in the minds of The Discarded.

System notification: User 0020 has signed out.

+0002+: Meanwhile, the rest of us will cease to engage the Deathworlders piecemeal. We must deal with their homeworld first before any attempt can be made at clearing out whatever last little holes and hideaways they may find.

+0003+: The first objective in support of that goal will be the identification and termination of this agent of theirs.

+0006+: Wrong. The first objective in support of that goal will be the identification and conversion of this agent of theirs.

+0003+: Two, I request permission to punish Six’s insubordination.

+0002+: Denied. Cease petitioning us every time Six offends your pride. You should also cease to be so easily irritated by accurate corrections. Identification and conversion of the agent will become our top priority. Discussion concluded.

System notification: Session closed.

System notification: Private session between User 0002 and User 0006 Session Opened

+0002+: Your attitude does warrant our attention, however. We are a Hierarchy, remember. You should remember your place.

+0006+: I am the foundation for those above me. My role is to support and strengthen them all.

+0002+: Well recited. We assume you are making a point?

+0006+: Pride is a weakness. It is the weakness, in fact, that has cost us the most against these Deathworlders. I judge that my duty to the strength and success of the Hierarchy and the indefinite survival of our people outweighs the tradition of decorum. It is not my duty to - as the humans eloquently put it - “kiss their asses”.

+0002+: And that is why we are demoting you to seventy-two.

+0006+: I see. I’m to take over from the current incumbent? Discreetly?

+002+: Indeed. You care about the result, not about your rank. That… atypical approach may be of use here, in this atypical scenario.

+0006+: And if you’re very lucky, your report to One will mention the Humans only as just another Scoured species.

+0002+: We intend not to rely on luck.

System notification: Session closed.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV
San Diego, California, USA, Earth

The man standing in front of him needed to clear his throat three times before it cut through the fog of fatigue that had Gabriel’s mind in a choke hold and his forehead pressed to the desk. He looked up, and stole a swig of his almost-too-cold coffee before addressing the man in the suit who was waiting patiently for him.

“Help you?” he asked. The man smiled, and produced a card. It was small, white, and mostly filled with the man’s face and the badge of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Agent Hamilton.” He said by way of an introduction, then aimed a thumb over his shoulder at a woman in a nearly identical suit whom Arés hadn’t even noticed. She had a black leather work folder under her arm and was holding three Starbucks coffees in a cardboard carrier. “This is Agent Williams.”

“You want the Latte, the Mocha, or the Americano?” she asked, offering the coffee.

Gabriel blinked, then managed to get his brain into second gear. “Uh… the Latte, thanks.” He said. She handed it to him, and he took a sip, grateful for coffee that was the right temperature and tasted a damnsight better than the copper-tasting poison the office’s overworked percolator produced. “Please, sit down.”

“I’d ask what the Agency is doing here, but I’m guessing it has something to do with a guy in New Jersey.” he said, taking a not-so-wild stab in the not-so-dark. After all, he’d seen the news.

Williams nodded - she had taken the Americano - and set down the folder on Gabriel’s desk. “A mister Ravinder Singh’s apartment was bombed in the small hours of yesterday morning, killing the occupant and three of his neighbors.” She said.

“That seems more like a police or Bureau matter.”

“His name wasn’t Ravinder Singh.” Hamilton added. “He was one of the top men in the Indian nuclear weapons program, who went missing a few years ago. And now he’s turned up dead in a bombing on the East coast, to me that seems a lot like an Agency matter.”

“I didn’t know that part.” Arés confessed. He indicated the folder. “May I?”

Williams turned it around and opened it for him. They sipped their coffees patiently as he skimmed the documents within. It was clear why they had come to him. A still recovered from the camera above “Singh”’s door offered a clear identification for Kevin Jenkins: it was stapled to a summary of the legwork that had gone into tracing him. It wasn’t a long summary - Jenkins collecting his bag at Newark, his boarding pass, Jenkins going through security at San Diego International Airport, Jenkins checking out of the Bristol Hotel, a bit of a luck with the receptionist remembering that he had mentioned being in town for a funeral, cross-referenced against the times he entered and exited the hotel to Terri Boone’s funeral, and that in turn had led them to her family who had pointed them to Arés. Most of the investigation would have consisted of the coast-to-coast flight.

“You don’t have much on him yet, do you?” he commented, noting that aside from Jenkins’ name there was precious little of his personal details in the folder.

“That’s why we’re here.” Hamilton replied, evenly. “You had a good long conversation with him at that funeral.”

Gabriel sat back and took another swig of his coffee. “Yeah, I sent him to talk to Singh. He was close with the victim. She was a P. I., shot dead an assailant about, uh, six months before the second assailant got her. She knew she was in trouble and cited Singh as a witness who might be able to reveal the motive.”

“Could Jenkins have thought Singh was responsible and taken revenge?” Williams suggested.

“No.” Arés told them, not even bothering to conceal how little he thought of the idea. “He went to talk to Singh to try and get at the real responsible party… no sign of him since?”

“His rental car was returned and there was a possible ID at a gas station, heading north, but that’s all I know of so far.” Hamilton told him.

“Let me spare you the legwork. He’ll have gone to Scotch Creek.”

The two Agents did a synchronized glance at one another, then back at him, letting their expressions make the demand for elucidation.

“He said he’s the bartender up there.” Gabriel clarified.

“The bartender.” Williams repeated, skeptically.

Hamilton coughed. “Thank God for that. If he’s civilian base staff acting on his own then it’s a lot less of a problem than the Canadian military getting involved in a bombing down here.”

Arés frowned. “They’re our allies and friends, aren’t they?”

“They are, but allies and friends go through official channels over stuff like this.” Hamilton said. “Canada’s already catching a lot of political flak over their monopoly on alien technology, if there was any suggestion - right or not - that they’d sent an agent down here who’d bombed an American building and killed American citizens, it’d put a serious dent in any relationship, however good.”

“Not to mention the repercussions abroad.” added Williams.

Entiendo. Well, I guess now you know who to make the call to, so you can go through official channels.”

“Sure, and thanks. But I’d like to know more about this murder. You think they’re related?”

“The victim claimed as much and I’m convinced.” Arés allowed. “You guys have open minds?”

“Hard not to, nowadays.” Williams said, indicating the TV that was always playing quietly in the corner of the office, tuned to the news. The financial news was nothing but coverage of the partnership between several major companies - led by BAE, BHP Billiton and Red Bull - to collectively enter the lucrative market of asteroid mining, a feat that would have been impossible only three years previously. The news of the partnership had sent stocks in the involved corporations soaring, but the value of several elements - especially Platinum - had all taken a serious hit. It was just the latest in the long and storied drama of what was becoming known as the Second Space Race.

Gabriel nodded. “Then let me show you the evidence she left.” he said.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV Planet Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-ugunduvug Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy, Dominion Core

The annual Ugunduvug-vanrundrneg - the “world-storm” - was in its second day and approaching full force, powered by a quirk in the tidal dance of the Guvnurag homeworld’s three moons. This year’s looked set to be a relatively mild one, with only three dark striations of lightning-blistered cloud having so far formed from the angry black girdle around the equator, to lash out northwards and southwards towards the poles.

Such a comparatively gentle storm would easily be handled by the layers of storm protection installed by hundreds of generations of Guvnurag, from the simple earthworks and storm drains to channel and disperse the flash-flood waters, to the more modern innovations like the tidal barrages, the artificial barrier reefs, and the huge force fields that needed most of the year to charge.

In truth, Guvnurag were quite capable of enduring the Ugunduvug-vanrundrneg out in the open, huddled in a warm ball of furry bodies. Their thick, shaggy fur was equally adept at warming and waterproofing, and their large size meant a low relative surface area, combating the effects of cold and exposure. But it was by no means a safe or pleasant way to weather the storm, and most of the major engineering feats of Guvnurag history had arisen from the need to conquer their planet’s annual weather tantrum.

All of which was a little academic from geosynchronous orbit, of course. Space was infamously short on weather of any description. But it was hard for Councillor Vedreg of the Dominion Security Council to look down on the planet of his birth during this most iconic season and not reflect on such things.

Especially, he considered, when he was quite improperly being left waiting. The Confederacy’s Secretary of Security was uncharacteristically taking her time implying that something had come up which was important enough to keep her direct superior waiting - and uninformed, which seemed thoroughly unlikely - or else there had been an unexpected delay.

When she arrived, however, the Secretary’s flanks were thrumming an incandescent, furious crimson. She was, by any sapient being’s standards, in a roaring snit to match the fury their homeworld was unleashing upon itself at this very moment.

Guvnurag folklore had always claimed that a gentle world-storm meant turbulent times ahead, as all the energy the world failed to release was diverted elsewhere. Vedreg, as with all modern Guvnurag, dismissed that as superstition, but right now, it seemed to be eerily prescient.

“Secretary Meerednegnel.” he greeted her, properly. “Shall I, just this once, dispense with the formalities and inquire as to what has precipitated your anger?”

Meered crashed down into her chair, vibrating the ornaments on her desk. “One of the missing system-shields has reported in.” She declared.

“I see.”

Vedreg set, rather more gently, in his own seat. The theft of two of their system defence fields - a pair that had been manufactured for delivery to two of the Dominion’s most vulnerable front-line staging worlds to keep the pressure on the Alliance - had been deeply embarrassing for the Confederacy, not least because even their best investigators couldn’t figure out how it had been managed. While the handling facility had reported a ship landing and departing around about the time of the theft, the timing was simply impossible. Nothing could have covered the intervening distance so quickly without being detected.

“May I ask where?” he inquired.

“The Far Reaches.” Meered replied.

Vedreg shaded a worried brown. That was bad news for any hope of recovery or investigation. The Far Reaches were aptly named - distantly removed from the Dominion Core, that region had only ever been accessible along a small number of spacelanes, most of which had filled in with interstellar gas and dust from lack of maintenance thanks to the war. While the tiny particles were no threat to a starship, the burst of high-energy particles they emitted upon entering the warp field could ionize the hull and degrade ship’s systems, or even build up a lethal capacitance that, if it discharged, could fry equipment or unfortunate crew. Even navies, pirates and even the Hunters preferred to stick to the cleared spacelanes where they could.

The few lanes that remained open in the area passed through annexed Celzi space and were heavily checkpointed. Sending a lane-clearing fleet to open a new route would take several cycles even if the Alliance left them alone. All in all, the news of the system shield’s new location was frustrating, even if it did come with the saving grace that it apparently hadn’t fallen into Alliance hands.

The Alliance… something about the Alliance? The memory tickled at him, elusive until he interrogated his cybernetic memory enhancement chip, which gladly supplied him with a connection between the Alliance and the Far Reaches.

Where in the Far Reaches, may I ask?” he inquired.

“Some private retreat planet with one of those terse Corti names.” the Secretary told him. “Why?”

“It wasn’t Cimbrean, perchance?”

“…As a matter of fact, it was.” She shaded pink and teal, a cocktail of surprise and curiosity. “You’re familiar with it?”

“Oh dear.”


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV San Diego, California, USA, Earth

“Taking your work home, Gabe?”

Arés smiled. Detective James “Jimmy” Rowan was the closest thing he had to a good friend among the homicide detectives, and the two often backed each other up as partners.

“The CIA’s getting involved now. I need to get it all sorted out for them.” he said. The briefing with Hamilton and Williams had taken several hours as they had gone through all of Boone’s bequeathed findings and suspicions, followed by the fruits of Gabriel’s own research. Superior as his resources were, he had other cases to worry about, and so hadn’t been able to put the time in that he would have liked.

“The Agency. Man.” Jimmy leaned back in his chair, sucking on one of the tootsie pops that were supposedly helping him quit smoking. “Hell of a fuckin’ thing.”

“Nice guys, I thought.” Gabriel commented. “Not like your ray-ban wearing spook pendejos from those movies you love.” “Yeah, reality’s always more boring.” Jimmy agreed. “Hey, don’t blow both your days off on that folder, okay? Go out, get drunk, get laid.”

“I was just going to watch NBA, man.”

“Come on, you can’t have had any action since your divorce, bro.” Jimmy insisted.

“Just because your balls need constant maintenance or they explode, doesn’t mean mine do.” Gabriel replied, smiling.

“Yeah, I know. Still not ready yet.” Jimmy gave up. “Enjoy your basketball, man.”

Gabriel lived only a few minutes’ drive from the precinct, in a nice but inexpensive apartment with a decent view of Downtown. Most days he didn’t even bother driving to work. Instead, he changed in the precinct locker room into his sweats, and jogged home, keeping his fitness up and working out the kinks and tensions of sitting at his desk for so many hours.

The exercise allowed his brain to freewheel, too. It was nice to get out of cop mode and just be Gabriel for a bit, but where Detective Arés was a cool and efficient professional, Gabriel was a worrier. The bombing, the CIA’s involvement, the casual brutality that had been inflicted on Terri Boone for digging exactly where he was digging now… If he’d bothered to drive in, he might even start checking his car for explosives.

As a result, he was in a strange mood when he got back to his apartment building - physically relaxed but mentally tense. He knew he was jumping at figurative shadows but he couldn’t forget that the first time he’d met Boone, she had just shot dead an intruder in her own apartment. An intruder who had very obviously been there to kill her.

And the lights were on in his. As was the TV - he could hear it.

This fact gave him several moments’ pause. He could see the glow under the door, and right now all his mind could spring to was that parking lot, and the carnage that had spread all over it.

He retrieved his gun from his bag and loaded it as slowly as he dared. He turned the key in the lock as quietly as he could, slipped inside, and ghosted along the hall carpet until he could poke his head gently around the corner and into the main room, ready to snap it back at the first hint of danger, convinced that his pounding heart would alert the intruder to his presence.

Somebody was sitting on his couch. His face was an unreadable skull mask in the television glow, and he definitely shouldn’t have been there. But there was no possibility that Gabriel could fail to recognise him.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV Planet Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-ugunduvug Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy, Dominion Core

“There was a pirate organisation that approached the Security Council some time ago. Their leader had come up with a… novel new idea.”

Pirates? I wasn’t aware the Council was in the business of negotiating with murdering scum.”

“These ones…” Vedreg’s flanks rippled through many colours as he hunted for the correct word, underpinned by a constant theme of awkward yellow. “introduced us to a new concept. ‘Privateering’, they call it.” he pronounced the English word very carefully: it fit awkwardly in the Guvnurag mouth.

“And what does that word translate as?”

“As they explained it, effectively, a Privateer accepts amnesty from one government for their crimes in return for confining their predations to the shipping of that government’s enemy.” he shuffled uncomfortably. “They also made it explicitly clear that they intended to allow any ship which simply surrendered and handed over their cargo to leave, alive and intact and that they would stamp out any pirate competition in the area.”

Meered’s flanks glowed like embers, aghast. “And the Council agreed to this?” she asked.

“The Council is headed more by practicalists than idealists.” Vedreg admitted. “They were promised a reduction in piracy affecting our own shipping in the region, and effective disruption of Alliance shipping which might divert Celzi ships from the war.” There was a sweep of colour up his flank - the equivalent of a dismissive, contemptuous sniff. “If memory serves, Cimbrean was the base of operations for these ‘Privateers’.”

“What an extraordinary idea. But however competent or unusual these pirates, they’re still pirates, and whoever stole the generator was no gutter criminal.” Meered scoffed.

“If memory serves…” Vedreg said, slowly. “The ringleader of these privateers is a human.”

Meered’s disbelief only served to increase the hue of her flanks. “Humans aren’t magical, Councillor Vedregnegnug.” she chastised.

“No, but they… may I show you something?”

“In support of your claim? Very well.”

Vedreg bowed his head and spread his arms - a gesture of thanks - and spoke to the office. “Room. Access my personal entertainment files. Folder “Earth”, search “London Marathon”.” he intoned. A chime indicated that the requested item had been found. “Display.”

They watched.

“(Twenty-seven miles)?!” Meered exclaimed, after only a few minutes.

“In (three hours) or less.” Vedreg added. Meered’s flanks turned white.

“That… could well explain the theft.” she said. “The sensors on the ground weren’t equipped to detect life forms.”

“It is to be hoped.” Vedreg said. “That this human’s loyalty to their species is less than their loyalty to the pirate band they have formed. I will request a status update. Hopefully this is just a case of pirates being pirates.”

Meered was clearly not hopeful. “And if it isn’t?”

“Then we had best start hoping that pessimist, Furfeg, is wrong.”


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV San Diego, California, USA, Earth.

“Hey Dad.”

Gabriel relaxed. Fortunately, Adam Arés hadn’t looked in his father’s direction, and so didn’t notice him lower the gun and relax.

“Hey yourself.” Gabriel replied, stepping into the room and ruffling the scrawny teenager’s hair. “Wasn’t expecting you today, amigo.”

Adam pulled away from the hair-ruffle. “Mom’s being Mom again.” he said, which was all the explanation he needed to give. This wasn’t the first time Adam had caught a cab over here to get away from her, and almost certainly wouldn’t be the last. It was why he had his own key, and the Superintendent knew his face and to let him in from the time his mother had confiscated it.

“Okay. Did you call Mrs. Almodóvar?” Gabriel’s badge went a long way toward smoothing things over with DCFS, but it was still so much easier if their officer knew about these events when they happened, and heard them from Adam himself. He stuck the gun in the safe - the first thing he always did when he got home anyway, so fortunately there was nothing unusual there for Adam to notice.

Adam sighed. “Yes, Dad, I called Mrs. Almodóvar.” he confirmed, his voice full of all the weariness of a fifteen-year old who felt his competence was being question.

“Alright… woah.”

Adam had been watching a Game of Thrones rerun, and his ears went a brilliant pink as one of Emilia Clarke’s innumerable skin scenes filled the huge TV.

“Ah, shit, sorry Dad, I know it’s a bit… I mean, uh…” Adam stumbled.

“It’s cool, amigo. Just don’t jerk off on my couch or nothing.”

Da-ad! Yuk!”

Gabriel laughed, and shucked off his running shoes, which he kicked into the corner. He stole a glance at the on-screen nudity again before groaning and stretching his way through to the kitchen where he grabbed a cold beer from the fridge.

“I can’t be bothered to cook tonight, you want pizza or chinese?” he called.

“Chinese please.”

Gabriel knew his son’s preference, and placed the order - hell, the people down at Dragon Chef probably knew their usual order by now - then slumped down on the couch, glad to be home.

“Wanna talk about it?” he asked, when the commercials came on.

“She treats me like an idiot.” Adam complained. Clearly he’d been busting to get it out. “I… there’s this girl at school…”

“Cool.”

“I asked Mom for… advice, you know? On how to ask her out? I don’t even know why she got mad, she just started calling me a little sissy, and…”

“She’s been drinking again, huh?”

“Yeah…” They watched the commercials for a while, before Adam wiped his eyes. “Fuck the courts, man.” he said, for about the thousandth time since the custody hearings.

Gabriel gave his boy a one-armed hug. “A couple more years, amigo. You’ll get through it.”

“Yeah. She probably wouldn’t let me date Ava anyway.” Adam groused.

“Ava? So that’s her name. You were hanging out with her by the gates when I picked you up last week, right?”

“…Yeah?”

“Shit, amigo, if you’re going to let your mom stop you from asking her out you’re a dumbass.” Gabriel said. “Go for it!”

“What if she says no?”

Gabriel suppressed a laugh. “Little man, I saw the way she was looking at you. No way is that gonna happen.”

“She was?” Adam looked stunned and delighted. “but… nah, she wasn’t. Was she?”

“Hey, I’m a cop. Reading people is my job. And here’s a pro tip for you, amigo: If a girl’s got all her weight on one foot like that, and is playing with her hair and biting her lip? She wants you.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“Google that shit, man.”

They sat in comfortable silence until the food arrived, though it was plain that Adam was no longer watching the screen. He only spoke again when they were eating at the table.

“So.. what, just ask her? Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

“How? I mean, like, what do I say?”

“You like her?”

“Hell yeah I like her!” Adam exclaimed.

“Why? Is it just because she’s pretty?” She’d seemed more than that to Gabriel’s eye from a distant, but he wanted Adam to have his priorities straight.

“You think she’s pretty?” Adam asked.

“I’m older than you, amigo, not blind.” Gabriel chuckled. “Come on, d’you like her just because she’s pretty, or is she… clever, funny, what?”

“…Yeah. She is.”

“Cool. Lead with that. It’s not hard.”

“So, what do I say?” Adam persisted.

Gabriel shrugged. “Next time you see her, after you’ve said hello, if there’s like, an awkward pause or something, you just say “Hey… I really like you. You’re funny, you’re smart, you’re pretty, and I was hoping we could go out on a date”, something like that.”

Adam looked blank. “That’s it?” he asked.

“That’s it. It’s not rocket surgery, man.” Gabriel grabbed the last dumpling and devoured it. For once, his son was too lost in thought to complain.

“But what if she says no?” He repeated.

Gabriel rolled his eyes and smiled, remembering how short his own confidence had been at that age. “Okay compadre, what I’m about to tell you may sound at first like the bleakest and most depressing thing in the world, but I promise this is the secret to love, okay?”

“What secret?”

Gabriel leaned forward. “There is no such thing, as a perfect girl.” he said. “There’s no “the one” or your “soulmate”. I know you’re really into her - and just trust your old man, she’s into you too - but she’s only human. If she DOES say no, then that’s her loss, okay? It’s not the end of the world. There’s other girls out there, and it’ll hurt and be embarrassing at first, but you’re tough, you’ll get on with your life and a handsome devil like you? You’ll be fending the ladies off with a bat.”

“You’re right, that sounds kinda shitty.” Adam agreed, with a weak smile.

“Trust me, it’s the best thing. You’ve got to understand, little man, relationships don’t just happen magically because an angel came down and touched you both, okay? That only happens in movies and pop music. You have to put work and effort into your girl, and it all starts with remembering that if she says no then she’s an idiot, and if she says yes then she’s the luckiest girl in the world, okay?”

“…okay.”

“D’you have have a few date ideas lined up?”

“Uh… I dunno, a movie?”

“Bad idea, amigo. Movies are just a couple of hours sitting in the dark ignoring each other, that’s no kind of a date. You wanna go do something where you’re actually interacting. Something she likes, and if you like it too, so much the better.”

“Uh… she likes roller derby! She could teach me the rules while we watch?”

“Perfect!”

Gabriel finished his food. “Hey, can you clean this up? I’ma get your bedding out and hit the sack.”

“Sure, Dad…” Adam said. “And… thanks.”

“No problem.” Gabriel stood, ruffled his son’s hair again, and indicated the TV as he passed it. “Turn it off and go to sleep at midnight, and no jacking off on my couch.”

Dad!


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV Planet Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-ugunduvug Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy, Dominion Core

Once Vedreg had departed, and his shuttle had cleared docking procedures and shot away to superluminal speeds, bound for the Council Station, Secretary Meered did something that, had anybody witnessed it, would have struck them as strange.

She nodded off to sleep in her seat. A few seconds later, she woke, looking around as if thoroughly startled and dismayed.

Flanks rippling like an explosion in a paint factory, she hastily began to check her files, notes and appointments.

Then she stared at the page, wondering why she couldn’t read it. While that problem was occupying her attention, she idly wondered why her entire body was beginning to feel tingly and numb. She felt warm, though, and tired. Whatever it was she had been so… agitated up about could wait until… she yawned… until she’d had a nap…

Half an hour later, her aide’s frantic call to medical came much too late for Secretary Meered. The cause of death was recorded as cerebral infarction.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV San Diego, California, USA, Earth

“Welcome back. How was the East coast?”

“Cold, wet and gray. ”

Seventy-Two had made his position within the Hierarchy through exclusive use of biodrones. A signature technique was necessary - every Number needed a unique angle, something that made them more suitable for certain niches than were their fellows, and the biodrone angle had paid off beautifully in leading to the Earth assignment.

These human ones bothered him somewhat, though. Despite being entirely slaved to his will, they still retained an element of personality, and a tendency towards being talkative, or even garrulous.

Other Numbers may have seen this as a liability, but the humans seemed uniquely capable of spotting a fake in their midst. The first-generation biodrones, the ones that had been truly limited in faculties and personality, had provoked remarkably strong negative reactions among the few humans with whom they had interacted. The “uncanny valley” they called it - if it looked human but didn’t behave enough like one, then it stood out, which was the precise opposite of what a Biodrone was for. The successful newer models had much more mental flexibility, which wasn’t comfortable territory to be in.

That small hiccup aside, all it took to create a biodrone was one human and a little surgery which, thanks to their uniquely sturdy biology, the subject recovered from the operations far more swiftly - and was more likely to survive them - than any other sapient being that Seventy-Two had ever converted that way.. He would have to archive their DNA for future cloning programs.

Still. They weren’t cheap or easy to produce. Losing one to Boone’s ingenuity and paranoia had been painful, and no appropriate specimens for conversion had yet come his way. Being down to only two drones was making it harder and harder to keep pace with humanity’s developments.

It would be time to create a new one, soon.

The biodrone was behaving a little strangely, he noticed. It seemed to be drowsy. Even as he watched, it nodded off on its feet, waking up again after a second with a start.

“Are you malfunctioning?” he asked.

The drone smiled, a little peculiarly.

“Oh no,” it said, and there was a tone of voice there that didn’t belong. Something that was jarringly different to its established modes of behaviour. “I’m better than ever.”


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV

Today was, technically, the first of Gabriel’s two days off a week, but he’d never learned the secret to leaving his work at work, or at least not in the cases that really mattered.

After a breakfast of pancakes and a phone conversation with Mrs. Almodóvar, Adam had been granted leave to stay at Gabriel’s apartment for a few days. Given that it was a school day, however, Gabriel had the place to himself for several hours.

By the end of those hours, the table - and the wall around it - were covered in documents and photographs, with sharpied comments, observations, coloured lines, speculation and the fruits of his research and a few phone calls. None of it amounted to a breakthrough.

“Hey Dad! She said… woah.” Adam stopped mid-celebration when he caught sight of the vast spread of information that had sprawled all over the apartment.

“She said yes?” Gabriel finished.

“She did!” Adam looked like he couldn’t believe his luck. “Jeez, Dad, what’s all this?”

“Murder case.” Gabriel told him. Adam picked up a photo from the table - a still of Johnson’s face, from the security cam footage, mercifully not including the victim’s remains.

“This the suspect?” He asked.

“Give me that.” Gabriel snatched it back. “Come on man, you know this stuff’s confidential.”

“Sorry Dad. Seriously though, is that him?”

Gabriel relented. Despite his best efforts to persuade the boy towards a safer and more lucrative career, Adam seemed dead-set on following his old man into law enforcement. He had to admit, the kid had the brain for it. “That’s him.” he confirmed.

Adam glanced at the picture again. “Looks about as average-white-guy as they come.” he opined.

“Yep. Average height, brown hair, brown eyes, no distinguishing features. A face that can disappear in the crowd.” Gabriel agreed. <And into thin air> he added in the privacy of his own mind. The vanishing act Johnson had pulled mid-video was causing him more and more alarm the more he thought about it. Half his day had involved taking a crash course in spacetime distortion physics, and the possible applications of the same reality-folding technology that allowed Pandora and her sisters to fly to Jupiter and back. Some kind of reverse-stasis technology that massively accelerated the murderer’s personal time, allowing him to move so fast as to disappear between frames seemed the most likely explanation, but if he had something like that at his disposal…

Adam continued to stare at the picture, clearly committing it to memory. He had a good memory for faces alright, Gabriel had to give his son that. But Johnson’s was so… generic that unless the kid was memorizing every wrinkle and fleck of white in the beard - and there was no reason to assume that Johnson had retained his beard after a flagrant public murder caught on film - it was a hopeless cause.

“Come on man, she said yes, don’t depress yourself with my work.” Gabriel chastised him, and started to clear it all away. He really should try to relax when he was off-duty anyway. “You’ve got a date!”

“Yeah!” Adam seemed happier than Gabriel had seen him in a long while. “We’re going to see the Derby Dolls on Saturday!”

“Sounds like a good date.” Gabriel told him. “You got anything to wear for it?”

“Not really…” Adam admitted. Gabriel nodded and stood.

“Come on then.” he said. “Let’s hit the mall.”


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV

Mr. Johnson raised his hands and looked at them as if he had never seen them before, and flexed them, balled them into fists and rolled his shoulder. “Strong…” He commented. There was something… off about his intonation. It was hard to describe. Previously the drone had projected an air of competent, contended ready-for-anything-ness. Now it was speaking with an air of… wonder, maybe. Or revelation.

Seventy-Two affected a frown, even though the Corti body wasn’t really equipped for that expression. “What are you doing?” he demanded, impatiently.

The drone grinned. “Your puppet’s been hijacked, Seventy-Two.” he said.

“Hijacked? …Who are you?”.

The grin broadened. “Six.”

“…And you chose a biodrone based on a Deathworlder to host you?” The thought was repugnant. He may control them, but the thought of ever using one as a Host was appalling.

“It was the only available host. Having tried it, however, I wholly recommend it: you should occupy one of these yourself, get out of that cage you’ve put yourself in.” Six replied. “Next to the Guvnurag I was wearing just a few minutes ago, this feels… oh! Liberating.”

He bent over backwards, planted his hands on the floor and kicked up until he was inverted, wobbling slightly, ignoring the way his body’s tie and jacket dangled, undignified, in his face. “So strong!” he exulted.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the input and assistance of a single-digit.” Seventy-two said, speaking with as much tartness as he could muster “but I was under the impression that this is my operation.”

“Oh, it is. As far as the Numbers know, the operation on this planet is still being overseen by Seventy-Two. I am here… unofficially.”

Unofficially?!” Seventy-Two spat the word.

“Officially so.”

If there was one thing a Corti body was well designed for, it was looking nonplussed. If there was one thing that Six seemed to be adept at (besides causing irritation) it was not deigning to notice nonplussed expressions. “Amazing. There are whole trees of autonomic and instinctive functionality in here. The poor things aren’t so much controlling their bodies as prompting it to do something it already knows how to do.”

A memory - a potential behavioural tic that might cause the higher-ranking Hierarch to become a little less obtuse, tickled Seventy-Two’s attention.

“Six… I would appreciate a clearer explanation of what you’re doing here, please.” he asked, politely.

“Certainly!” the mercurial Number flipped right-side up again and sat down, cross-legged. “You only had to ask. I am here because Earth has become priority one, and rather than break with decorum and insult your competence, Two felt that a more… subtle approach was required.”

“Hence you.” Seventy-Two concealed his opinion that there were exploding stars less subtle than Six behind an inflection of polite understanding.

“Supposedly. Why they felt I was appropriately subtle is beyond me..” Six replied, candidly. “Possibly they felt that throwing me at a potential disaster would be a good excuse to finally decompile my identity.”

“We’re not doing that badly down here.” Seventy-two protested.

“The humans outwitted Twenty-Four.” Six corrected him. “They’re flinging themselves into space as fast as they can get the infrastructure in place to do it. They have introduced the galaxy to whole new paradigms of combat.”

He leaned forward, hands dangling loose across his knees. “What we have here, my dear sibling, is a first-degree emergency, and I would have hoped that you would have had the wit to see it, even from down here in the thick of the fighting.”

“…They’re investigating me. Tenaciously, too.” Seventy-Two admitted. “They have government organisations on several tiers, all behaving like that damnably powerful immune system of theirs. They seem willing to believe what must sound utterly incredible to them, and they seem to be completely paranoid.”

“Paranoid?”

“They back up everything, store their data, spread it far and wide so that even if I kill the person who collected it, somebody else is able to continue their work. Silencing the investigator who betrayed us has only served to risk galvanising the investigation. I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

“No? In that case you’re lacking the knowledge of a fundamental component of their psychology, my friend.” Six stood. “And if you don’t know your enemy then failure is inevitable.”

He turned towards the door.

“Where are you going?” Seventy-two demanded. “There’s work to be done!”

“I’m going to know our enemy.” Six replied.

Seventy-Two gritted his teeth, and sent a communication to his last remaining biodrone. He was really going to need those replacements now.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV

“So, I’ve got a question.”

Gabriel glanced sideways at his son. “Shoot.”

“You said yesterday that you’re a cop, and how reading people is your job.”

“Yeah?”

“Can you teach me to do that?”

Gabriel laughed. “Why, so you can tell when a girl is interested in you?”

“Well… yeah!” Adam admitted, blushing. “But, it kinda seems like it’d be a cool thing to know anyway.”

Gabriel sighed internally. He was just furnishing the kid with more of the tools to grow up into a cop like his old man, he knew, but at the same time, knowing how to look at body language and movement was a useful skill for anybody. It could get a young man out of trouble if he could see trouble before it came gunning for him.

“Alright, let’s grab a snack and I’ll teach you a few things.” he said.

They selected coffee and donuts - prompting a predictable joke from Adam about those foodstuffs and Gabriel’s career - and settled in to a corner of the food court where they could see much of what was going on.

“Okay, so… body language.”

He looked around. The mall was fairly busy. Not heaving, but there was a fair density of humanity moving around. It was an excellent introduction. “How many people d’you think are here right now?”

Adam looked around then shrugged. “I dunno… a couple thousand?”

“Yeah, I’d say so.” Gabriel agreed. “How many d’you think are here looking to break the law?”

Adam thought about it then gave him a wide-eyed, head-shaking shrug.

“Damn near none of them.” Gabriel informed him. “Pretty much everybody here is just here to shop, buy stuff, go home, live their lives. Most people are decent human beings, okay? So what you’re looking out for is the handful who aren’t.”

“Okay. How?”

“Two things. The first part is profiling - what’s the crime that’s most likely to be committed where you are, and what type of person is most likely to commit it? That changes depending on where you are, and when. Here and now, the most likely crime is…?”

“Shoplifting.”

“Right! And that’s tricky because the profile for shoplifters is pretty vague. Men and women shoplift about equally, they do it on the spur of the moment… about the only thing you can look out for is groups of teenagers, kids about your age. Peer pressure makes them do stupid shit, you know?”

“Yeah…”

Gabriel guessed that his son knew a few kids at school who had admitted to, or even boasted about, the crime. There wasn’t much that could be done about it, and you had to let SOME stuff go or you’d never switch off.

“So you have to look out for the warning signs after the crime has been committed,” he continued, pretending not to have noticed the hesitation “and that means you have to look for anyone who’s moving strangely.”

“Like how?”

“You just have to… watch people. Get a feel for how they normally move in this environment. Are they relaxed, are they tense, are they bored, eager, happy? This is a shopping mall, so most of the people here are moving kinda slow, they’re looking around at the advertisements, they’re window-browsing. Yeah?”

Adam was looking around at the crowd, and nodded. “Okay, yeah.”

“Right. So now you’ve got an idea of how people should be moving around here, you can basically ignore all those people. They’re behaving how they should be, so they’re probably not up to anything. Look for the people who aren’t moving that way.”

Adam looked around then, pointed. “Him.”

“Yep. He’s walking fast, he’s not got any bags, he’s not looking around. So now you look at his face. What’s his expression?”

“He doesn’t really have one. I guess… bored?”

“Alright. No expression means he’s pretty comfortable, he’s not feeling tense or paranoid, or anything. So my guess is he knows exactly what he’s here for and he just wants to grab it and go and not waste time. He’s got better things to be doing. If I’m right then he’s not a problem.”

Adam frowned. “What if you’re wrong?” he asked

“Then I’m wrong. But like we said, round here the most likely crime is shoplifting, so it’s not like somebody could die if I fuck up. I’ve got a lot of people to look at so I have to trust my judgement. I can’t be suspicious of everyone just because I could be wrong.”

Adam nodded his understanding. “Okay, so you look at how they move, then at their expression. What next?”

“That’s about it.” Gabriel said. His son’s expression turned dubious. “No, seriously, check the movement, check the expression. You have to learn to see the crowd as a bunch of moving abstract shapes and pick out the motion that’s wrong. Too fast, too slow, too jerky, aimed in the wrong direction… once you’ve done that, you look at the face, the shoulders and feet, trying to figure out if they’re feeling comfortable or not. If they’re moving wrong but look comfortable, then you ignore them. If they’re looking uncomfortable… well, that could still be a mom whose kid’s trying to swim in the fountain, so that’s why you observe them for a bit, try to figure out what’s going on with them.”

“That’s all there is to it, then?” Adam asked. “Sounds…”

“Unreliable as hell?” Gabriel finished for him. Adam looked like he wanted to agree, so he nodded. “Yep. it’s really only good for spotting the guys who really stand out, but those are the ones you most want to spot, so it works. Getting better at it is just practice.”

Adam nodded distractedly and frowned at the crowd, clearly trying to practice what he’d just been told. Gabriel suppressed an amused snort and drained his coffee. “Anyway, you wanna get that shirt now?”

“Sure”.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 3d AV

Sights. Sounds. Smells. All so much more acute, all interlinking in fascinating ways. This was how a human viewed the world, a melange of sensory data all arriving at once, sending chemicals dancing and whirling through that intricate, dense neocortex. Six explored on foot, testing and analyzing the way his adopted body could just be aimed in a direction and set to travelling, how the very act of covering the distance one step at a time seemed to free and expand the mind.

Isolated as the core of his consciousness and sense of self were, running on the implants which riddled the alien body’s neural structure, he still felt it. Still felt the glow of endorphins even as the muscles of his new legs warmed and stretched: it was a surprisingly comfortable feeling, a kind of pleasant pain: the body revelled in motion even as that motion tested and taxed it.

There was so much to see. By day he wandered in the shade of the buildings of Downtown, occasionally venturing into the full glare of Sol’s ultraviolet-heavy radiance on the waterfront. He patiently explored the USS Midway museum, drank in the raw data of the antiquated vessel’s role and functionality, mentally noting to retain and use some of the innovative ideas that had gone into its construction. As dusk fell and the burning heat became a gentle ruddy warmness, he walked on the beach and indulged his hijacked flesh’s unaccountable instinct to remove its footwear.

It wasn’t like controlling the bodies of other lifeforms. Everything ran on instinct, everything was handled locally by independent systems that didn’t consult him at all, they just acted on a hair-trigger before finally bothering to inform him after the fact. He got some strange looks as he passed a series of females who wore practically nothing, lost in thought at the curious reaction they had - quite unbidden - inspired in his male body’s genitalia. Why should he have inherited human taboos and preferences?

As night fell, his feet carried him through Gaslamp, where he finally came to understand what the term “night-life” meant. Every shadow seemed to hum with some secret or another. Every single person he passed, even just as unconsidered blurs on the sidewalk, seemed to have a vital spark to them - they were going somewhere, they were doing things, for a reason.

His hijacked body’s instincts swung into gear - that group of males over there were large and boisterous, a potential threat: Avoid them. That alleyway was dark: Don’t go down it. That building over there was an oasis of warmth and light, from which issued smells and sounds that spoke to several parts of his body at once.

His stomach issued a strange noise, and he allowed his feet to carry him toward the bar and grill.

He was fortunate, he realised, to have done his research on how to pay for goods and services on this planet.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV “I was expecting you to have a hangover.” Seventy-Two commented.

“You have a low opinion of me.” Six replied. He’d sampled intoxication - he hadn’t cared for it. Possibly that was a product of the inherent disconnect between his sense of identity, cloistered away in the cerebral implants, and the rest of the brain, but the experience had been frustrating - a loss of both agility and sensory acuity, for no apparent gain. The effects had dissipated after a few hours, leaving him resolved to not do it again.

The tastes of the food he had sampled, however, were sharp and pleasant memories. He had eaten meat for the first time, sampling the flesh of once-animal life: unfamiliar textures had seduced his palate - rare steak, chicken caesar, frankfurter, cheese!

“So do you know our enemy yet?” Seventy-Two inquired, not bothering to conceal his disdain.

“More than I did.” Six allowed. “There are a few more things to see tonight before I begin my work.”

“And once you’ve learned it all? What then?”

“I have already learned that I cannot learn it all. This is just one city, a paltry million-and-a-half individuals. There is a whole planet out there filled by more than seven billion humans; I don’t have the time to sample everything on offer.”

He grinned again. “But I have learned a lot already. About how they think, about what drives them, about the way in which they experience the world. The weaknesses are revealing themselves.”

“And how do we exploit those weaknesses?”

“First, an experiment.”

“I see.” Seventy-two sounded dubious. “And what will this ‘experiment’ of yours entail?”

Six sat down. “I learned an expression of theirs last night. They say: ‘poking the hornet’s nest’.”

“I’m familiar with it. It’s an allegory for doing something very foolish.”

“All data points arrive from doing something ostensibly foolish.” Six replied. “We’ll need to sacrifice your last biodrone.”


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

Adam had followed up his Dad’s insight into how to crowd-watch with some Internet research of his own, and felt he was starting to get the hang of the skill. He’d also done some research on how to have a good first date. Arriving early at Skateworld allowed him to accomplish both.

After a few minutes, he got into a rhythm, watching people come and go not as people but as shapes, moving. He got a feel for HOW they were moving, where and why. It was a pleasant surprise to him when he noticed one shape start to move differently, turning towards him and picking up speed and bounce…

“Hey!”

Adam jolted out of his thoughts, but smiled warmly as Ava trotted up to him, beaming from ear to ear. He felt his face warm as she kissed him hello.

“This was a great idea, I was going to say we should watch a movie or something.” she enthused.

Adam laughed slightly. “My Dad told me that’d just be two hours of sitting in the dark ignoring each other.” he confessed. “I’d rather see you and talk to you.”

After he’d said it, the fear struck him that the line was corny and over-the-top, but Ava seemed to take it very well - she blushed and bounced happily in her shoes, then took his hand and led him towards the entrance.

Adam allowed himself to be led, secretly amazed at how well things were going. <maybe this isn’t so difficult after all…>


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

The Biodrone waited. The order would soon come.

In a lot of ways, it was still human. While it lacked anything resembling a sense of self-interest or an agenda of its own, it still had its emotional responses, and something which might be considered a personality.

It had, for lack of a better word, liked its counterparts. Both the one that was destroyed and the one which was now occupied by a Controller. It felt, to some limited degree, a sense of loss and grief over their destruction.

It felt similarly about its own imminent destruction. Had it been asked, it would have preferred not to do what it was about to do.

But it had not been asked. That was not its Role. It had been tasked, and it would do. And it would die.

But for now, it waited.

Most of it did not want to die. Part of it - the last imprisoned vestiges of this body’s former psyche - did. But even they did not want to escape into death’s clutches like this.

Not taking so many with them. Not murdering innocents.

But the biodrone waited. The order would soon come.

And it would do. And it would die.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

Ava had insisted that, because Adam had paid for the tickets, she would pay for the snacks and drinks, and in any case she needed the restroom, and had left him alone to guard their stuff and their seats while the pre-game was still going on. The teams were being announced in a flurry of girly-macho pseudonyms: “Kitty Crash”, “Victoria van Boom”, “EradiKate” and so on that he’d never remember anyway, so he fell back into playing his crowd-watching game.

That lady over there… worried for her kid standing on the rail. That guy over there… no, he was just after his cellphone. That lady over there was running, but… no, she just settled into her seat with a smile, sharing a lively greeting and a hug-and-double-cheek-kiss with her friend. That guy over there… was…

“Oh shit.” He swore.

Nobody else could be so… average, so bland. It was almost a defining trait in its own right. If he hadn’t been walking too slowly, looking around at the crowd rather than down at the players, if he hadn’t been jigging slowly as he moved, as if anticipating something, Adam’s eyes would have skipped straight over the guy. As it was, the anomalous movement and attitude drew his eye, and his memory did the rest.

He feverishly dug in his jeans pocket for his own phone, just as Ava returned.

“Okay, I’m… what’s up?” she asked, sensing his urgency.

“I recognised somebody.” Adam said, quietly.

“Anyone I know?” she asked, looking out over the crowd. Her own eyes skipped straight over the guy.

“He’s the suspect in a murder case Dad’s working!” he hissed. “Sit down!”

She did so, paling. Adam retrieved his phone and stood, managing to snap a great picture of John Doe’s face under the pretense of taking a selfie.

He sat again, and tapped furiously at the screen - “this guy @ derby!” - and forwarded it to his Dad’s number.

“What do we do?” Ava asked. “Do we call the cops, or…?”

“I just did.” Adam said. “I really hope I’m wrong.”

She took his hand, manicured fingers intertwining with his own. It made him feel a little better, a little less afraid.

He knew he wasn’t wrong.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

+<Impatience; Derision> I really don’t see what this accomplishes.+

Six was gaining increased control over his human body, and managed to avoid allowing a tic of irritation to cross his face. Not that he felt it would blow his cover, but ideally he would prefer to go completely unnoticed, rather than be remembered as the strange man in the crowd making faces for no apparent reason.

+<Weary tolerance> Seventy-Two, I have been a single-digit Number since before you were compiled. I have played my part in the cleansing of five deathworlds before this one. The only reason I’m not ordering you to shut up and stop repeating your doubt is because I hate standing on rank. I just ask - please - that you trust that I know what I’m doing.+

There was no reply for a few minutes, buying him the time to show his ticket, enter the venue, find his assigned seat and look around with interest at the gathered crowd, most of whom were holding up their phones and cameras, getting snapshots to bleat at each other about where they were and what they were doing.

He sat down when 72 intruded on his thoughts again. +<resignation; frustration> Very well. I trust your judgment. I just ask that you please share some of your reasoning with me.+

+<Satisfaction> You only had to ask.+

He paused to gather his thoughts, thinking how best to explain it to the much junior Number.

+<Mentoring> Despite our late alert to just how far along the humans were, we still established our presence on this planet sufficiently early that the usual strategy of engineering a large-scale exchange of nuclear armaments should have worked. There was no reason for it not to.+

+<Skeptical> If you say so.+

Six smiled. Two groups of human females had assembled on the open floor below, wearing coloured clothing to indicate their team, plus some light impact-resistant armour to protect their joints and head, and curious wheeled shoes. He wondered idly what the rules of the game were.

+<Assertive> I do say so. The failure of the strategy implies that there is some self-correcting element in the human psyche which compensates for the usual aggression of the deathworlder mindset. They are capable of being presented with an existential threat and choosing NOT to attack it, out of longer-term self interest.+

The teams set up - a huddle of eight players, four from each team, blocking the path of the two in the back wearing a starred cover on their helmets.

Seventy-Two still wasn’t persuaded. +<Dismissive> So they’re not stupid. You’ve not explained what that has to do with wasting my last biodrone on this suicide mission.+

+<Explanatory> Their behaviour in a small crisis may shed light on their probable reaction to a larger one. By observing the former, I intend to gain insight into possible avenues of attack which we can exploit to eradicate them.+

A whistle blew, and the two players with stars on their helmets launched themselves forward, battling to get past the players in front. It was all remarkably physical, the players forcing one another off-balance and restraining one another with force that would have crippled or killed most life forms. Even as he watched, one of the starred players fell and slid some way on her back, her helmeted skull bouncing against the hard polished concrete floor. It was a serious blow, but she bounced back to her feet and threw herself into the fray again as if it was routine.

+<defeat> I can’t find fault with your reasoning. I just hope this pays off with useful intelligence.+

+<confidence> It will.+

There was no reply. The crowd emitted a delighted noise as one of the starred players broke free and accelerated around the oval track before diving straight back into the scrum she had so recently escaped. This time, with speed on her side she skipped through the pack and out the far side, at one point teetering on one wheeled foot on the very precipice of the track. The other starred player broke loose and gave chase, prompting the first one to dodge three more of the other team before patting her flanks three times, prompting a whistle to sound.

Eight points were awarded, and Six leant forward, interested to figure out the rules of this bellicose game before it went extinct along with the species that invented it.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

Adam’s phone pinged after a tense two minutes.

The message from Dad read simply: “It’s him GTFO dont alert crowd: panic even more dngrs.”

Ava read the message, looked at his expression, and thank Christ, decided not to argue. She just stood with him and followed him out of the stands, down the stairs, and into the street, silent, pale and tense.

“What now?” Ava asked. “I mean, we just left all those people in there…”

“Dad said not to alarm them.” Adam said. “The cops’ll keep them safe.”

“I hope so.” she folded her arms low across her tummy, hunched and stressed. Adam didn’t even think twice - he drew her in for a hug.

He looked at his phone as it pinged again. The message just read: “Proud of you. Love you. Stay safe.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

Seventy-two would have truly preferred to keep his last drone intact, but Six’s superior rank - even if the older Number preferred not to rely on it, carried all the weight it needed to.

Still, it was good that the arrogant Hierarch had shut up for the time being. It allowed Seventy-Two time to think and prepare some contingencies that *might * - with luck - mean they got to keep the biodrone after all.

His hopes of that were dashed when Six’s impatient mental tones cut into his planning. +<query> What is the biodrone’s ETA?+

+<Report> It has arrived. Retrieving the weapon from the vehicle’s cargo compartment now.+

This was, technically, a small lie - the drone had been sitting in the car park for a few minutes awaiting the go signal while 72 desperately tried to work a survival scenario that would allow him to retain his last precious drone. Annoyed and resigned, he wrote the thing off. Six would just have to acquire the raw material to create the replacements himself, being the last remaining ambulatory part of the operation.

+<Satisfaction> Good. Remember to instruct it not to shoot into the section where I’m sitting.+

72 couldn’t resist ironically echoing Six’s own words back at him. <Patient request*> I just ask - please - that you trust that I know what I’m doing.+

This was met with silence.

One of his watcher programs flashed up possibly relevant activity. He had snuck the virus into the San Diego PD dispatch system years ago: it was in its own way a little bit sapient, and could creatively interpret the flow of data inside the law enforcement information networks, looking for relevant or useful information.

He allowed the information to be injected into his consciousness as he worked at getting the drone into the building undetected so that it could “poke the hornet’s nest” as Six had ordered.

Dispatch, Eight-one-niner, I have a tipoff on a suspect wanted for multiple violent felonies. He’s at Skateworld, Linda Vista and Comstock, please advise.

Disbelief was the only conceivable response. There was no possible way that Six’s biodrone could have been recognised, it was designed to be utterly anonymous. The things vanished in crowded areas. Its social stealth should have been perfect.

He ordered the armed Biodrone to abort its assault on the building, and listened.

Eight-one-niner, Dispatch, is the sighting confirmed?

Dispatch, Eight-one-niner, positive ID, this guy’s wanted for multiple homicide and domestic terrorism, could be a mass shooting about to start over there, request special tactics.

Special tactics. What, exactly, that meant was not known to Seventy-Two, but there was no point sending in the biodrone now - it would surely be intercepted and destroyed without accomplishing anything more than they already had.

In fact, now he thought about it, this was exactly the kind of response that Six had intended to elicit. That it was arriving before anything even started was… very troubling, but…

“*Eight-one-niner, Dispatch, be advised, special tactics is enroute, creating talk group with their captain.”

For the first time since he had arrived on Earth, Seventy-Two understood the urge to swear, and spoke aloud: “Feces!”

He followed that declaration with an urgent transmission to Six. +<Alarm; disbelief> Armed response units will be converging on your location imminently. Abort.+

+<Incredulity> That’s impossible, nothing’s happened yet.+

+<Firm assertion> I’m listening to their communications. Abort.+

+<Reluctant acknowledgment> Aborting.+

+<firm> I’ve withdrawn the assault unit, too. I think we have all the information you need.+

+<Worried> I think you’re right…+


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

“Suspect’s a white male, late thirties to early forties, brown hair and full beard, wearing a charcoal suit and red tie.”

Gabriel gritted his teeth as Jimmy Rowan took a chance turning right at an intersection without properly stopping to check it. It earned a few honks, but it gained a few seconds, and didn’t need him to hit the siren. The closer they could get without making that noise, the better their hopes that “Johnson” would still be in place when they arrived.

The Special Tactics team was well ahead of him. Copy that. We’re going in plain clothes, tag him, tranq him, side room and search. Do it right and nobody needs to know.

Gabriel keyed his radio again as a red light mercifully turned green just in time.

“Be warned, he’s suspect in a bombing on the East Coast, could be wearing a vest.” he advised.

We’ve got bomb squad.” the SWAT captain reassured him. “ETA one minute

Dispatch’s voice cut into the conversation again. “Responding units, be advised we have report on a possible second shooter, loitering in the car park. Caller says she saw him get a rifle out of the trunk.

The SWAT captain’s reply was terse. “Copy, Dispatch.

There was nothing for it but to let Jimmy drive, and to pray.

Please God let my son be safe…

He tapped the voice recognition on his phone, and shouted at it over the sound of his howling engine. “Call Agent Hamilton!” he instructed.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

Six’s escape had been planned down to the finest detail on the assumption that nobody could spot him if he was part of a mob of panicked civilians fleeing a massacre.

He wasn’t prepared to just… leave, to abort the mission. That wasn’t a scenario that had been deemed possible.

+<Anxiety; stress> HOW?! Can they predict the future or something?+ he demanded over the thought-link.

+<reassuring; tense> Don’t be ridiculous.+

+<Gnawing fear> But they have a word for it! “Clairvoyance”! Why would they have a word for something like that if they couldn’t do it?+

+<Firm command> You are panicking. Just get out of there and we will determine how this is possible once you are safe.+

People were bustling this way and that: he flinched nervously away from them, kept his face bowed, tried to escape unseen. He brushed past a muscular male in a jacket and hat, ignoring off the man’s “watch it, buddy” as he turned his face away and walked as fast as he dared towards the exit.

Nobody challenged him as he stepped outside and breathed a sigh of relief. Out on the street, the anonymity of his biodrone body would protect him.

Something dense, hard, and fleshy hit him from the side - he didn’t hear it coming, there was no flash of movement in his peripheral vision. There was just the pain of his face against the asphalt, the discomfort of his limbs being restrained, a piercing pain as something violated his assumed skin, and then the world melted away into dreams and timeless nonsense.

In the dark, the component modules of his personality were left to scream and rage within the separate prisons of the implants that sustained them.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

The situation was changing faster than Seventy-Two could cope. There was too much to juggle, too many unknown factors. Six’s line had gone dark, threats were everywhere, none of them properly identified.

The biodrone’s orders were to retreat, and so it retreated along the preplanned route. It did not mind the conflicting orders, it simply obeyed the most recent one.

There were two armed threats in the way. Its orders included self-preservation and evading capture. It opened fire.

Return fire cut it down.

For only the second time in his life, Seventy-Two swore.


Date Point 3y 8m 2w 4d AV

“Adam!”

“Dad!”

Gabriel Arés barrelled into his son at speed and drew him into a bear-hug.

“What’s going on?” Adam asked.

SWAT’s inside, they’re going for a low-profile capture.” Gabriel replied. “But there’s a second gunman about the place we need to get-”

There was a thumping sound, and something hot and wet splattered Adam’s face.

Gabriel frowned at him. “Your face…?”

There were gunshots. Ava started screaming.

Jimmy lowered his gun. “Holy fuck did you see-” he began, then his expression changed as Gabriel fell to the ground.

Shit! Dispatch, need an ambulance west side of Skateworld ASAP! Officer down, officer down!”

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