Chapter 15: "Forever Changed"

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Date point: ??? AV

Classified Facility, Earth

There was a change in the texture of nothingness, a return of some of the functionality of his body. Six wasted no time in extending his sense of self outwards from its cloistered life inside the implants, and into the meat he was wearing.

It was, surprisingly, not too bad. His mouth was dry, and his head ached a little, but he awoke to find himself lying - clean, clothed and dignified - on a bed.

It wasn’t exactly a comfortable bed, but nor was it torturously hard. It was just a simple mattress, with a pillow-shaped raised bit at one end in lieu of an actual pillow, and a blanket. It was the sole feature of a plain grey room, other than a door which looked, if anything, even more solid than the walls around it, and a sturdy yellowish light panel in the ceiling. There wasn’t even a window.

He sat up, enjoying the feeling of his limbs moving again, appreciating the way they reported none of the discomfort he had felt when last conscious and pinned face-down to the San Diego sidewalk.

His link to 72 was dead. The micro-wormhole connecting him to the Hierarchy had, somehow, closed itself. Wherever he was, it was at the very bottom of a communications black hole.

No matter. Unexpected complications or not, the mission remained the same: gather information. Something would, presumably, be happening soon. He would record it, he would remember it, he would find a means of escape, and rather than being a disaster, his hive-poking would turn out to be a triumph.

For now, he sat, and waited.

He didn’t need to wait long. Though there were no obvious sensors or cameras in the cell, pretty soon there was a sliding sound - a panel had opened about eye level on his door. It shut immediately afterwards, and was followed by a second, larger hatch at about waist height, through which was thrust a tray.

The smell wafting off it immediately reminded him that he was hungry. Unbidden, his stomach emitted that peculiar growling sound again, and his mouth went into overdrive, salivary glands anticipating the arrival of food.

It turned out to be quite bland fare next to his last meal of just a few days ago. Some white substance, like a dry… gel, almost, or paste. Its taste was pleasant but simple. The chunky brown-white fluid in a separate compartment went well with it, and also with the brownish crumbly item. There was certainly nothing to complain about there, but it wasn’t a patch on the steak and burgers he had so recently eaten.

But then again, what did he expect as a prisoner? In truth, he would have expected far worse than this. A comfortable bed in a clean, dry and warm cell? A filling hot meal and a tall container of cold water? It was a conundrum.

He was still puzzling over this peculiarity when there was a banging on the door, which opened. Three humans stood without, holding blunt black weapons.

Ah. THIS was more like it. A beating. This was closer to what he had expected.

The human in the middle spoke to him. “Detainee, please face the far wall.” He instructed. “Crouch on your knees, place your hands on your head and interlock your fingers.”

“And if I don’t?” Six challenged. He could handle a beating. This… nice treatment was getting to him.

“Detainee, please comply. We will be forceful if we must.”

There was that word again. “Please”. It seemed so strange to have the armed guards address him politely and respectfully, even if they were being impersonal.

He glanced at the far wall, wondering if he should just comply and see what awaited him if he did. After all, why go through all that pain unnecessarily?

The guard spoke again. “Detainee, this is your final warning. Your compliance is mandatory for everyone’s safety, including yours.”

So. No beating. They’d just restrain him and… what, take him somewhere? Either way, there was no point in suffering the inconvenience.

“Fine. I comply.” he said, turning to the wall and kneeling. The guards stepped into the room.

“Hands on your head and fingers interlaced please, detainee.”

Six obeyed.

There was an efficient bustle of movement. His hands and feet were bound with metal, though from the looseness at the ankles he would be able to shuffle a walk. Something dark went over his eyes, something soft over his ears. His world became a purely tactile one, full of no sensation but the hard floor under his knees, the weight on his limbs. Strong hands lifted him to his feet, and he could sense - he wasn’t sure how, but his body reported certainty of the fact - that two of the guards moved into position near him, guiding him with physical contact, pushing him forwards just enough to get the message across that he should be walking. As predicted, he couldn’t hit any kind of a stride, but he was able to walk after a shuffling, slow fashion.

Six tried to judge the route as they left the cell, but quickly gave up. There were so many turns and he was spun around a few times at some points, completely throwing any attempt to track where he was or how far he had gone. For all he knew they could have walked past his cell door five times before he heard - faintly, through the stuff on his head - the sound of a door.

A chair was bumped gently against the back of his knees, and those same hands that had guided him for the last few minutes helped him sit down. There were a few tugging sensations, and sound and light returned in a rush, making him blink and grimace.

“Hello.”

The greeter was seated opposite him, smiling faintly as the handlers filed out of the room. It wasn’t a large room - in fact it was just the two chairs, a desk, and a conspicuous camera mounted on the ceiling. The only features on the desk where a small laptop, turned towards the human so that Six couldn’t see the screen, and a slim paper dossier and pen.

“My name’s Stephen, I’ve been assigned to your case.” the man opposite him continued. “My goal here is to learn as much as I can about you and your associates, but before we begin… Have you been fed well? Are you comfortable enough?”

This was not, Six thought, how an interrogation should go.


Date Point 3y 8m 3w AV

Something was very wrong in the life of Adam Arés.

He’d never realised before just how small his Dad was. In fact, Adam had stood taller than his old man for a couple of years, but he’d always seemed large to Adam.

Now, wrapped up in hospital gown and blankets and violating tubes as he was, that illusion was shattered. Gabriel was a small man, but not a frail man. Not usually. Right now, though…

That alone felt like a crippling loss, and he thanked Jesus Christ and all the angels that it was the only loss he’d endured. Gabriel was, miraculously, very much still alive, and according to the doctors recovering nice and strong. The bullet had entered in the small of the back, bounced off a vertebra, obliterated a kidney and exited through the flank, leaving behind bruising of the lumbar spinal cord and a badly perforated bowel but - crucially - it had missed the renal artery. By which small grace, Gabriel’s life had been saved.

They hadn’t let him stay. He hadn’t been there when Gabriel had first woken up. He hadn’t even been able to visit until after a shouting match with his Mom and a heated phone call with Mrs. Almodóvar.

But he’d finally been able to visit, and now…

Gabriel shifted, then woke. He blinked at his son, confused for a second, and then smiled. “Hey, Amigo.”

Adam gave up on trying to be manly. He threw himself forward and felt Gabriel bring his free arm - the one without an IV drip in - up and around to hug him, albeit with a grunt of pain.

“Sorry…” Adam muttered.

“It’s okay.”

“Jesus Christ, Dad, I thought…” Adam couldn’t even say it, it just made the tears hurt more as they forced themselves out. “I thought…”

“I know. I’m sorry little man, I dropped the ball. I should have been keeping an eye out.”

A laugh forced its way out between the sobs. “Yeah, you’d better be!”

There was a minute’s silence, and then Adam pulled away, wiping his eyes. “Shit, Dad, please don’t ever do that to me again.”

Gabriel smiled, but sobered. “From what the doctors are telling me, I might be taking early retirement.” he said. “Between the kidney and my spine…”

Adam’s eyes widened. “You’re gonna be able to walk aren’t you?”

“Four out of five.” Gabriel promised. “Or so Doctor Boylan says. I heard it’s all about willpower, so I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be in a wheelchair. But pretty sure I’m never passing physical again so…” he shrugged. “Guess that was my career. It’s okay, I’ve got plenty saved up and invested.”

“You love your job, though.” Adam said.

“Yeah. But it’s just a job, Amigo. There’s more important things.”

Gabriel ruffled his son’s hair, then sat back. “Shit, I get tired quick.” he complained.

“It’s okay. I… Ava and I are having another go at dating tonight, I should get ready.”

Gabriel smiled. “Good for you, man…” he said, closing his eyes.

“Yeah. Hopefully it’ll go better this time.”

Gabriel chuckled, then yawned. “Yeah. Pretty sure dates aren’t s’posed to have… shooting…” he mumbled.

Adam let him fall asleep, then let himself out.


Date point: ??? AV

Classified Facility, Earth

“Um… yes. Thank you, I’m quite comfortable.” Six admitted. It was true, in fact: the seat was cushioned and ergonomic, and he felt perfectly fine sitting upon it.

“Good to know.” Stephen replied. “So… I’m going to start this interview now. Could you please tell me your name?”

“Mr. Johnson.” Six replied, promptly. That particular feature of the drone’s cover was hardwired into the same implants that now hosted his personality.

Stephen nodded. “I was hoping for your full name.” he said softly, drumming his fingers on the table. The combination of the drumming and Stephen’s mild tones did something very strange to Six - the sounds were actually pleasant, in a way that he had never encountered before. He shook it off and focused on the task at hand. This was still an interrogation, however alien it might be, and Six had five hundred thousand years of experience to draw on to help him. A human who wasn’t even an infant relative to that lifetime wasn’t going to get the better of him just by being nice.

“I don’t know your full name.” he pointed out.

“True. I’m Moore, Stephen Moore.”

“Thank you.” Six said, but didn’t reveal his cover’s first name, although this was in large part due to the cover not having been assigned a fixed first name. He remained silent as he rifled through the biodrone’s past mission history in search of the most recently used first name.

“Okay, if you don’t feel like sharing yet, that’s fine.” Stephen said. He tapped on the keyboard of the laptop in front of him, and the gentle tapping, clicking noises the keys made as they were depressed again elicited that same strange pleasantness in Six’s head. It felt… relaxing, warm, comfortable.

He immediately stiffened. What if he was under the influence of some kind of drug? Humans were particularly susceptible to hallucinogens and similar substances, perhaps that meal had been full of some kind of compound that would open him up to speaking the truth.

The stiffening attracted Stephen’s attention. “Is everything alright?” he asked.

“What was in that food I ate?” Six demanded.

“Uhmmm.. mashed potato, biscuits and gravy, peas and carrots.” Stephen replied, after checking his notes. “Why?”

Six was an inexpert reader of human expressions and body language, even with the aid of the specialist subroutines that lurked deep inside any translator implant, but there was no mistaking the honest curiosity in his interrogator’s reaction. It implied that either the food had not been drugged, or - less likely - that Stephen did not know about it.

Perhaps the sensation was just another symptom of human strangeness, one to which he had not hitherto been exposed. He didn’t know. For now, it was safest to withhold his suspicions rather than voice them and out himself as nonhuman. If the reaction was perfectly normal and he commented on it as if it weren’t, then he would have blundered.

“I’m…” he thought how best to make an excuse. “…I was expecting something less pleasant.”

Stephen nodded. “I understand. But we’re professionals here, we don’t do that kind of thing. You have my solemn promise that you’re perfectly safe.”

“That seems… counter-intuitive.” Six told him.

“Perhaps. We’re interested in information, and a peaceful resolution. That’s the first and most important priority. As for you, your person and rights are protected by…” here, Stephen paused and thought for a second, “Oh, a whole mess of laws, which we’re not interested in breaking. It’s better for everyone that they remain unbroken.”

“How noble.” Six scoffed. “Or maybe you’re just trying to get me to relax so you can catch me off-guard.”

Stephen inclined his head. “Is that what you’d do?” he asked.

Six didn’t answer, and after a few seconds Stephen shrugged. He typed something on the laptop in front of him, letting the silence slide.

“Shall we move on to the actual questions?” he asked. “What’s your name again?”

“Mr.” Six emphasised the word “Johnson.”

“Still no first name?”

“No.”

“Not, for instance, Edward? That’s the name you used on your flights to and from New York.”

Unbidden, a detail from the biodrone’s most recent mission surfaced. Yes. Edward.

“…Edward Johnson.”

“Thank you.” Stephen tapped on his laptop again. “But is that your real name?”

Six sneered at him “Of course it is.”

Stephen gave an uncomfortable little grimace. “So, why did you rent a car under the name Paul Johnson a few weeks prior? Why is the name on your apartment’s lease Mr. Richard Johnson?”

He smiled. “Most people don’t change their name as often as they change their jeans.”

They sat in silence for a minute, with Stephen just staring at him, giving Six time to think. There was, he realised, simply no way to maintain the facade of being Mr. Johnson. The damnable drone’s recall was too disconnected from his control, the details of its cover too vague, too hard to retrieve on short notice. A change of tack was in order. He would stick to what he himself knew, without relying on the drone.

“Call me… Six.” he said, finally. It wasn’t like the simple number would reveal anything.

“Six. Fair enough. Thank you.”

Six only stared at him, awaiting the next question.

“Okay, Six… you’re not human, are you?”


Date Point: 3y 8m 3w AV

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada.

♫♪There’s just an illusion of something different / the very reason they keep telling you something’s missing / but whatever it is you won’t get from…♪♫

“Y-hello?”

Jenkins, it’s Tremblay.”

Kevin yawned and sat up. “Morning, General.” He squinted at the glowing numbers in the dark. “Dude, it’s like oh-five-thirty.”

Yeah, well, ET intel consultant’s a job that puts you permanently on call, eh? I’ve got some fine gentlemen from down south want a word with you, AND a priority message from the colony. Grab some of that wonder coffee you make and get up here.

The advice to make himself a coffee was sensible on two levels: even if he hadn’t needed to drum up some alertness and drive away the effects of inadequate sleep, it was five-thirty in a winter’s morning in British Columbia. Next to his native Austin, he may as well be above the arctic circle, and three years hadn’t yet served to acclimatize him to the cold. The little disposable cup of triple-strength Mocha served to keep his fingers warm as he grumbled a path through the snow.

A helicopter added to his misery as it came in low overhead while he was passing the security checks to get into the base’s command building, kicking up a blizzard that even made the Quebecois guard flinch inside his greatcoat. Getting inside the heated complex of offices and briefing rooms was heaven.

He knew the way to Tremblay’s office by heart, but as ever there was an escort. Even three years as a civilian contractor and consultant didn’t buy the freedom to walk the base unescorted.

Fortunately, the guard was known to him, and they swapped some small-talk on the way up.

Tremblay’s office was verging on being crowded, occupied as it was by the man himself - looking, Kevin was pleased to note, just as groggy and dishevelled as he felt - plus another CA general, this one with the little crown above his crossed sabers that indicated a Lieutenant-general, superior to Tremblay’s own rank of Brigadier-General, and four men in suits.

“Who’s this then?” the senior officer asked as he entered. He looked disgustingly alert and well-groomed.

“Major-General Paul Rutherford - Kevin Jenkins.” Tremblay introduced. “Our ET intel consultant.”

“I know you!” Rutherford exclaimed. “You were the one in that interview that got all the ETs so shit-scared way back.”

Kevin grimaced and nodded. “Yeah, that was me.”

“You said some rather nasty things about your own species there, Jenkins.” Rutherford pressed, earning him Kevin’s best cool stare. It lasted for several seconds.

“When I said those things, I meant every word.” he said. “Still do, too. And from the looks of things, history has proven me goddamn well right.”

Rutherford snorted, and looked at Tremblay. “You were right Martin, he’s a dick.” he said.

Tremblay’s glance shot around the room as Kevin raised an eyebrow at him, and he cleared his throat. “Commander Higgins and Group Captain Temba here are with MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service.” he said. “Agents Hamilton and Williams here are CIA, and Lieutenant Leclerc behind you is with our own CSIS.”

Jenkins turned around. Leclerc was a tiny woman whose feet weren’t even touching the floor as she sat behind the door, watching and listening. She gave him a faint smile.

“I assume you have some ET intel you want me to consult on?” He asked, settling in the last remaining seat after dragging it away from Tremblay’s desk and turning it around so he could straddle it.

“Before we begin, I want to make it clear that this meeting is classified and its content is Need-To-Know only, under all the relevant laws of, and treaties between, our respective governments. If you don’t accept that, then get out.” Rutherford said. He fixed Kevin with an especially challenging glare, and seemed only grudgingly satisfied when Kevin nodded his understanding and acceptance. This was far from being the first classified meeting he’d attended. “…Martin?

Tremblay just extended an open-palmed hand, inviting the CIA agents to speak first. Williams stood, and the lights dimmed as she turned on the projector.

“Five days ago we apprehended this man in San Diego.” She said. The slide showed a bearded, brown-haired man of indeterminate age and nondescript features. “An accomplice - “ the slide was of somebody who looked effectively identical “ - was gunned down after badly wounding San Diego PD homicide detective Gabriel Arés.”

“Arés? Shit!” Kevin ignored the disapproving looks his interruption garnered. “Is he okay?”

“He’s recovering in hospital. The doctors give him a good prognosis.” Williams assured him. “May I continue?”

She cleared her throat. “At present, we’re holding John Doe here in a stasis box while he’s moved to a secure holding facility for interrogation. The good thing about that is that we’ve got plenty of time to get our intel together. At this point, however, The Company considers it extremely likely that he’s a member of an extraterrestrial organisation known as “The Hierarchy”, with unknown but apparently hostile motives towards Earth and the whole human race.”

The lights came back up. Rutherford took over. “The purpose of this meeting is to compare notes and to furnish the CIA with everything they might need to aid the interrogation. Mr. Jenkins will reiterate everything that he has learned about the Hierarchy.”

“And the Brits?” Kevin asked, looking at them.

Temba cleared his throat. “As a British Overseas Territory, the settlement of Folctha on the planet Cimbrean reports any intelligence or developments directly to us, and classified.”

Higgins elaborated. “The most recent of that information appears to be somewhat relevant.”

“Let’s hear it.” Jenkins challenged.

“We’d prefer to hear from you first, Mr. Jenkins.” Higgins said, softly.

“Hear what, exactly?” He asked.

Hamilton leaned forward. “Everything.”


Date Point: ??? AV

Classified Facility, Earth.

“Well, dropping the nonhuman bombshell early seems to have paid off. Pay up.”

One of the team - there were eight of them total in the room for today - rolled his eyes and dug out a fifty dollar note, which he handed over. The bet didn’t really mean anything: that particular note had been changing hands from bet to bet for so long that nobody could remembers whose wallet (or wager) had originally produced it. “Interesting session.” he commented, as ‘Stephen’ entered the room.

Stephen wasn’t his real name - that was just the booth persona, a tool to give the detainee the convincing illusion of forming real trust and a relationship with a real person, while hopefully shielding the interrogator from getting too close. It was a tough line to tread, though - any hint of insincerity could set back the interrogation a long way. It was a damn tough job.

“How’re we doing?” He asked, grabbing a cola and sandwich from the little desktop fridge in the corner.

“Plenty of data points. He seems to respond well to politeness, and he changed tack nicely when you caught him in the lie about his name. And he definitely had a moment of panic when you dropped the “not human” bomb on him.”

“I saw it.” ‘Stephen’ agreed. “He telegraphs a lot - I was expecting an alien infiltrator to be more… stone-faced.”

“We’ve still not really established that he’s actually an ET.”

There was a gentle throat-clearing from the team’s psychologist. She was the sort of person who spoke only rarely, but commanded total attention when she did. “He pegs almost maximum on the Hypochondriasis and Psychopathic Deviate scales.” She commented, referring to something on her tablet computer. “We haven’t seen enough to rate him otherwise yet, but already, he’s a long way from ‘normal’.”

“Good start, then. What would you like for the next session?”

“Hmm…” She conferred with her assistant for a second, ending in a mutual nodding. “Schizophrenia and/or Hypomania, please?”

“Makes sense…” There was a general taking of notes.

“Lots of interesting tics. Especially that thing when I drummed my fingers.” ‘Stephen’ commented.

“That looked like ASMR to me.” the assistant psychologist chimed in.

The facility commander frowned. “ASMR?”

“Eh, the acronym’s pure pseudoscience.” said one of the team. “but the phenomenon itself is… kind of a pleasant warm fuzzy feeling in the head in response to certain stimuli.”

“What stimuli?”

“Oh… gentle tapping and scratching, soft speech, personal attention, that kind of thing.”

“You sure that’s a real thing?”

“I get it myself.” admitted the psych assistant.

The one who had explained the phenomenon nodded. “Same.”

“Sounds like it could be a useful reward. Easy to control in the booth.” added the second ‘gator.

“We’ll try it.” ‘Stephen’ agreed. “I’ll do some research ahead of tomorrow’s session.”

The lead interrogator rubbed his chin. “What are you thinking of going with? If anything?”

“Still probing for now. I think ego’s going to play a big role going forward, but as for up or down… I dunno.”

“We’ve got more material for ego-down.”

“True, but we should save that.” the lead ‘gator said. “For now, I think we keep it slow. Direct questions, pounce on any lies we spot, build the relationship and get a better picture.”

“Yeah, it’s still early days.” agreed the second ‘gator.

“Okay. We happy with that?” There was general agreement. “Okay. We’ll call it there, start working on the next session’s questions in the morning. We’ve had a long day people, good work.”


Date Point: 3y 8m 3w AV

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada

“During my travels, I ran into the idea of the Hierarchy a few times, always in the same way that we’d talk about… you know, the Illuminati, or Area 51, or… fucking lizard people from Venus, or whatever. You know, a legend, a myth, a… conspiracy theory. Nobody took it seriously.”

They did the unnerving thing of listening to him and NOT asking any questions.

“Anyway. I met Terri Boone on V-day. She was a P. I., and her client had employed her to tour the country looking for real abductees. Not the idiot anal probe mothership motherfuckers: the real deal, like me.”

“She was literally in my bar when the Hunters hit Rogers Arena. Everyone’s flipping their shit over the monsters on TV, and I was grinning like a madman because, you know, I knew what was going to happen next. Been there, done that, worn the blood spatter. I took a group that big damn near solo, just a Rickyticky with a broken arm called Kirk for backup.”

“This is the same Kirk who flies for the GRA now? The one who supplies Cimbrean?” asked Temba.

“Same guy, yeah. So anyway, after that I went along with Terri on her job. I had a load of money saved up and nothing to spend it on, so I thought ‘why not?’ and this… plan, just formed. About getting all the abductees to chip in their experience in this big scrapbook of sketches and personal accounts. We got news of this base being set up and we just… bounced up here, from abductee to abductee, collecting life stories along the way.”

“The Hierarchy was mentioned a few times in there too. We just stuck it in the ‘weird shit’ section. We figured it was, like, ET pop culture, you know? Anyway, that scrapbook was pretty much turned wholesale into the EBM.” he continued, referring to the Extraterrestrial Briefing Manual that had gone out from Scotch Creek to Toronto, from there to world governments, and from a leak in one of them onto the Internet in short order. “Most of the convoy gave their interviews, gave up their last little bits of intel, most of them went home. I stayed here.”

“Terri left before we even got up here, though. Think we were in… Colorado, maybe? She got a phone call, and just took off. I didn’t hear from her again until about, uh… eight or nine months ago, when she just showed up at my bar here on base. She said she was betraying her employer’s trust, handed over a USB stick full of the names of people who’re probably still off Earth right now, and a letter which she promised me not to open until I knew it needed opening.”

“That was the login and password for the online drive.” Hamilton said.

“Yeah. I think she must have known she was messing with some really dangerous people, and was going to get maybe killed, you know? She… we had… fun, you know? Which, I didn’t complain at the time, but I didn’t think she’d liked me that much before, so I guess she was… trying to squeeze as much out of life while she could.”

“Focus please, Kevin.” Tremblay reminded him.

“Right, sorry. Uhm… Anyway, last I saw of her, she left for San Diego, and the next I ever heard about her was Arés calling me a couple months ago to let me know she’d been killed, and question me about the murder.”

They listened, and he kept talking to fill the silence.

“I went to the funeral. Had a talk with Arés, he said there wasn’t much he could do to follow up on some of the leads on that cloud drive. Jurisdiction and all that bullshit, you know? But he did let me know the name of this guy Ravi Singh in New Jersey.”

“His name wasn’t Singh.” Williams said.

“I know. But, that’s how I knew him. He said he was this… nuclear disaster, fallout specialist kinda guy for the Indian nuke program. I’ll spare you the full story - I recorded it though, Tremblay’s got the recording - but the TL;DR version is that he visited… think he said eighteen planets, all class ten or higher, Deathworlds like Earth, and they all had the remnants of civilization on them.”

“Now, we’re supposed to be unique, right? The only Deathworlders in the galaxy? But here there’s eighteen ten-plus planets full of cities, all nuked to shit and gone. Apparently the Corti who took him felt that was really good evidence to support the existence of the Hierarchy. Guess it was on the money, because their ship got boarded, the Corti and the Ukrainian that they’d taken alongside Singh got iced, and he only escaped because he’s smart and paranoid and learned their language. Got back to Earth, went dark in New Jersey and stayed there. I don’t know how Terri found him.”

He shrugged. “He could probably tell you better what the Hierarchy’s all about than I could.” he confessed.

“They bombed his apartment building a couple of days after you visited.” Williams revealed. “Collapsed half of it. Five dead, including ‘Singh’ himself.”

Jenkins just closed his eyes and grimaced.

“Alright. You want my opinion? What I think the facts mean?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“I think the Hierarchy keep the conspiracy theory going because it’s… what’s that term? Plausible deniability. I think they’re real, and I think they wipe out deathworld civilizations.”

“Do you have any idea why they might do that?” Higgins asked.

“Fear! I mean, look at how much the others are shitting themselves over us.” Kevin replied. “Shoving up a forcefield, telling their ships and stations to throw us to the wolves… While I was up there I got moved on as often because they were shit-scared of me as for vagrancy. One little show of some supernatural feat like picking up a forty-pound crate in point seven Gs - you know, nothing to us, but to them it’s like “he’s an unstoppable monster, get him off the station!”. You know, I heard one of us got involved in the Dom-All war like, thirteen years ago? That stupid motherfucker’s the reason every station in the sky has a locker full of nervejam grenades nowadays. Even if the, like, general public didn’t know about us before my dumb ass got on the news mouthing off about religion? The authorities sure as shit did, and they armed their security guys accordingly. They’re fucking afraid of us, man.”

“To the point of genociding… how many planets?”

“Fuck if I know. But… yeah. See threat: destroy threat. That’s how they’re thinking, most likely.”

“How are we a threat to them?” Rutherford asked.

Kevin half-laughed the word “Bro!”, shaking his head. “We’re the end of them. We’re the end of the way things used to be. Once we’re out there - like, really out there, not dipping our toe in the kiddy end like we’re doing right now? We. Will. Eat. Them. Alive. Because we can’t not, alright? Shit’s gonna get Darwinian out there, and we’ve got a four point five billion year head start over every single one of those poor dumb assholes.”

He sipped his coffee and, finding it cold, set it down next to him in disgust. “The Hierarchy are just the only ones smart enough to know it. And they’re the ones doing the sensible fucking thing and wiping out threats before they become a threat.”

Higgins frowned. “You make it sound almost as if you admire them for that.” he said.

Kevin shrugged. “How hard would you fight, if defeat meant the world became a place where everything you loved and lived for could no longer exist?” he asked.

“Do you mean to say you think they should succeed?” Higgins inquired.

“Hell the fuck no! I’ve been out there man, it’s a crapsack! If it’s not violently insane, it’s corrupt and callous, and if it’s not corrupt and callous it’s dumb as a stump! And that’s the status quo the Hierarchy would kill us all to protect! Things need shaking up out there! That’s the only way the galaxy’s going to become a better place, is if we head out there and start banging heads together. Gently, so they don’t burst.”

“How Texan.” Higgins noted, drily.

He turned to General Rutherford. “Shall I share our part of the briefing now, sir?” he asked.

Rutherford nodded. “Oh, yes. Please do.”


Date Point: ??? AV

Classified Facility, Earth.

Time behaved strangely in the cell. There was nothing to do, nothing to look at or inspire him. For the sake of having anything to do, Six found himself doing some exercises he could remember seeing being practiced on the beach in San Diego, though he had no idea if he was doing them right.

That alone might be an indicator of his non-human status, and he was undoubtedly being surveilled, but it was that or… nothing.

So, he exercised, he slept, he was fed, and led - ears and eyes covered - to a simple bathroom where he was allowed to perform his stolen body’s necessary ablutions and clean himself. They even provided him with clean clothing. It was the only vaguely interesting thing to happen for what felt like it must have been the best part of two days.

It was a strange relief, therefore, to be finally retrieved by his taciturn handlers - never the same handlers twice, nor did they speak to him except to issue orders - and ushered back into the interview room.

The questions became, oddly, less pointed, less targeted. They started to query him about some bizarre things, claiming that it was all about “getting to know him”. Questions like his favourite foodstuffs and his preferred recreational activity were easy enough to answer, from his limited pool of human experience. Others, however, were truly strange. A favourite colour? As if there was something preferable about one narrow slice of the EM spectrum over any other arbitrary slice? The question was impenetrably strange to him. He just took a random stab and replied “green”.

That was after what felt like weeks, however, once he had bored of playing the game of refusing to answer. Nothing seemed to faze Stephen, who seemed equally content to ask the same stupid questions again and again, and was equally comfortable with any answer, or even none. It was strange, he seemed to just… genuinely enjoy Six’s company.

Six found he had no option but to look forward to Stephen’s company and his interrogations. They were the only thing that broke the monotony. Sleep. Eat. Excrete. Every so often he was taken to a large featureless room where there was room to walk, and the floor was padded for basic exercises under the watchful, silent eye of his handlers. Every day he was given the opportunity to clean up and put on fresh clothing. Every time he returned to his cell after leaving, it had been cleaned, and the bedding replaced. He was being exceptionally well looked-after, but there was nothing to do. At all.

The introduction of a second interrogator - “Carl” - almost felt like the opening of a whole new world of experience. He was similar to Stephen in most respects - a little lower and more gravelly of voice, a little less handsome, but equally polite, equally patient, equally… insightful. Neither man allowed even the faintest hint of a discrepancy to pass: they would pounce on it, pry at it, probe it with questions and unrelenting logic. They would repeat the same question over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN! It was like being slowly and inefficiently murdered with words, and no matter how often it happened, no matter how aware he was of what they were doing, the sheer irritation of it always teased out just a little bit more from him, just another detail in the hope that maybe this crumb would convince them to stop asking. With each one, they eroded yet another fragment of his lies, exposing the truth one grain at a time until all his falsehoods were gone, dissected in painstaking detail and incinerated under the glare of incomprehensibly patient scrutiny.

Despite this, the sheer novelty of having a second person to talk to was like emerging to feel the cool breeze on his face.

That became his routine, if such a word could even apply to something that seemed to happen totally at random throughout his “day.” Sometimes it was Stephen. Sometimes it was Carl. Either way, the sessions became the only interesting part of his day.

Today, it was Stephen. He didn’t even acknowledge Six’s presence for several minutes. He just… read the dossier, occasionally jotting a note or something in it. As they turned, and as the pencil scritch-scratched its way across them, those thick paper pages made a noise that echoed pleasantly in Six’s head, and he entered a kind of trance just listening to the soft sound.

He was jolted out of it when the dossier was flipped closed with a sharp snap.

“Hello Six.” Stephen said, as if he hadn’t just spent who-knew-how-long ignoring the detainee. They both always began the session with those same words.

“…Hello, Stephen.”

“Did you sleep well?”

They always asked that. The answer was always the same.

“…Not really.”

“Hmm…” Stephen frowned. “You’ve been here a while now, I would have expected you to adapt to it by now. Maybe you need a more comfortable bed.”

By Six’s starved standards, even a change to a slightly more comfortable bed sounded like bliss.

“…Is that an option?” he asked. One personality module in one implant sneered and chastised himself for the pathetic eagerness that he totally failed to keep out of his voice.

“It could be. But you ARE a detainee here, you know. Why should I give you special treatment?”

“…Of course, you wouldn’t just offer something like that without a price. Quid pro quo, yes?”

Stephen didn’t react beyond a slight uptick in the light smile he always wore. “I’m going to repeat a few questions we’ve gone over before.” he said.

“Oh, go on.”

“What’s your name?”

“You’re asking me that again?” the absurdity of it jolted Six right out of the terse mood he’d been trying to slip into. It had been the very first question Stephen had asked him, long since answered. Why would he pointlessly resurrect it now?

“What’s your name?” Stephen repeated.

Six snorted. “Mr. Johnson.” He replied, sarcastically.

Stephen’s head waved around and he smiled slightly as if the sarcasm were amusing, rather than irritating. “Please tell me your name?” He insisted.

Six sighed. “…Six…”

He was pleased to discover that the keyboard sounds were just as pleasant as ever when Stephen wrote something.

“…What’s your real name, Six?”

“That is my real name.”

“Really? Sounds more like a number to me. Surely you weren’t born as little baby Six?”

“You presume a lot about me, Stephen.”

“What, that you were born? I think that one’s a pretty universal constant. Even if you ARE an ET.”

Six said nothing. Stephen just smiled that gentle smile of his. “I’m sorry, I didn’t ask you if you were comfortable.”

“I am. thankyou.”

“How was your meal?”

“Filling.” that was about all it had been.

“That’s good. So… which is it?”

“…what?”

“Well, Six is a number, and no culture I ever heard of name their kids after numbers. So either you’re not human or else you’re lying about your name. Or both, of course.”

“We name our kids some pretty strange things.” Six said.

“Who do?”

“Humans.”

“But you aren’t human, though. Are you?”

“So you keep claiming. But when there’s a woman called Moon Unit Zappa out there, you can hardly use the fact that my name is ‘Six’ as evidence of that, can you?”

Stephen’s little tilt of the head might have indicated concession. “That argument might hold more water if your head wasn’t stuffed full of alien technology.” he said.

Six considered his response, trying to map out the potential future paths of the conversation. He could claim to be a former abductee, but that would fall apart soon enough - too many inventions stacked on top of each other, he’d slip and allow a discrepancy eventually. He could -

“So why did you bomb that apartment in New Jersey?” Stephen asked, completely throwing him with the non-sequitur.

Fortunately, the truth here would work to his advantage. “That wasn’t me.”

“That was your associate, then? Considering you aren’t brothers, you really look very much alike.”

“And how do you know we aren’t brothers?”

“Genetic testing. You may look identical, but you couldn’t be less related.”

“I-“

“What about that roller derby? What did you hope to gain by shooting up a bunch of kids and their parents?”

“I didn’t have a gun. I wasn’t-“

“Why did you kill Terri Boone?”

“…Who?”

“San Diego, the car park? You killed her with a grenade launcher. Why?”

“I didn’t do that.”

“That’s funny, because for that one, we have DNA evidence that says it was you. So why did you kill her?”

“Like I said, it wasn’t me.”

“We have all the evidence which proves that it was you. So why did you kill her?”

“This is getting tiresome.”

“Why did you kill Terri Boone?”

“…”

“Why did you kill Terri Boone?”

“Would you stop that?”

“Answer the question and I’ll stop. Why did you kill-“

“It. Wasn’t. Me.”

“You’re lying. Why did you-“

Fine!” Six exploded. “I’m not human! I’m an independent consciousness capable of uploading myself into any appropriate host! I wasn’t even on Earth when this body killed Boone!”

“Thank you.” Stephen said, mildly. He tapped away at his computer again, and Six calmed a little, shaking as the full weight of what had happened hit him. The words had erupted out of him on a tide of frustration, driven by his total deprivation of anything resembling an intellectual stimulus for… he didn’t know. Months? It felt like months. Parts of him could only figuratively gape, aghast that the secret he had guarded all of that time was finally thrown away, mined out of him by nothing but boredom.

“What, you believe that?” He asked, trying to fill his voice with scorn, hoping that mockery might salvage his failure.

“We already knew that’s what the Hierarchy is.” Stephen said. Still typing “I just needed to hear you say it.”

“Now you’re lying.” Six accused. The door opened behind him and his handlers returned.

“Detainee, please stand.” they ordered. Stephen gathered his things, nodded to him, and made to leave by the opposite door.

“Come back here!” Six snapped, surging to his feet as far as his restraints would allow and straining against them. “Come back here, you! You’re LYING!

Stephen didn’t even dignify that accusation with a response.

Six’s handlers… handled him. He seethed in the dark every step of the long and winding walk back to his cell, which seemed to take twice as long as it usually did. When they finally arrived, he found that his bed had been replaced, and a small table and chair introduced to the room. There were some coarse paper pages and a graphite stick.

Six’s bruised pride hated himself for the way he was pathetically grateful for them.


Date Point 3y 8m 3w AV

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada.

“During the deployment of the civilian colonists, we were able to send over a smaller version of the jump array installed right here at Scotch Creek.” Higgins began. Jenkins raised a hand.

“I’m sorry, ‘jump array’? I thought they were travelling on Kirk’s ship?”

“The Jump array is, as far as we can tell, a uniquely human invention.” Tremblay said. “Bartlett came up with it. Point-to-point transport of materiel via wormhole between two Array stations. One end’s here on base, the other end of that big array is on Kirk’s ship.”

“…cool!”

“Well, anyway.” Higgins continued. “We assembled a smaller version, which we’re calling the ‘postbox’. It’s a useful way to support the colony - they can send back written messages and USB sticks to stay in touch, we can send over spare parts, medical supplies… Right now we’re sending over the pieces to construct a coffin-sized version for transit of individual persons.”

“Yesterday, the military commander there, Captain Owen Powell, sent us back this urgent report.”

The lights dimmed again and Temba selected a video file.

The face addressing the camera was a tired-looking, bearded man wearing a black pullover and a dull green beany. “Project Starstep CO’s daily report, Fifteen-thirty hours, mission day eighty-two.” he recited, in a thick accent that reminded Kevin of Sean Bean. “Saunders came back, broadcasting IFF this time, thankfully. He’s given us a couple of starships he claims he stole from the Hierarchy. I’m going to repeat my request to get some experts in ET tech assigned here ASAP: he’s right, we NEED people who can take these things apart. Bad news is, the bloody things don’t have jump drives, so we can’t send them back to Earth for analysis.

The worse news is, that this is just two - Saunders kept a third - out of probably a whole lot of this class of ship. They have better-than-best cloaking tech, and so do their missiles. These aren’t small ships, neither. They’re bigger than an aircraft carrier, about as heavily armed as a cruiser, and from what I saw they’re equipped for assault, bombardment, and invasion. There’s got to be some kind of a shipyard out there making these things.

I’ve talked it over with Sir Jeremy, and our recommendations are as follows: One: We need to get the Coffin set up and bring forward the schedule for the full-scale Array. Two: I want to raise the system shield and go public. Sooner we do it, the less likely we are to have some infiltrator sneak in and drop a beacon. Three: I’m going to need naval crews to assign to these things, and somebody who knows how to refit them with a jump drive. Four: Saunders thinks we should keep them here to defend the colony. I disagree: I think there’s a shipyard out there that needs capturing if possible, and blowing the fook up if not. My lads are itching for a real mission. No further recommendations at this time.

He swigged some water before continuing.

The other half of Saunders’ delivery, which you’ll probably find more immediately useful, is enclosed. This Hierarchy he keeps talking about apparently have the ability to treat a mind like a data file - transfer it, store it, run it on computers. I’ve gone over that in a previous report. This time, he’s delivered the - he called it the dissected consciousness of a Hierarchy agent known as ‘Zero’. We can’t make heads nor tails of it, but he’s got a friend who can interrogate it - enclosed is what’s been learned so far. I’m inclined to trust it.

He rubbed his beard.

The existence of a Hierarchy cell on Earth seems likely. Hopefully the information in this document will help Intelligence catch the buggers.

He examined some paperwork for a second, thinking.

Nowt else to report militarily. Colonial militia training is going well. Sir Jeremy’s civilian report will follow in due time, I consider this high-priority so am sending now. Powell out.

Higgins turned the lights back up.

“Saunders is an Australian abductee.” he clarified. “And apparently something of a practical expert in alien technology. He crash-landed an Alliance cruiser on Cimbrean a few weeks ago, and was cooperative in sharing intelligence and technology with the project. It’s thanks to him that this facility has a working cloaking device to study. Educated by his own example, some of the SBS divers were able to retrieve examples of working alien power generators.”

“As for the content of the report,” Temba picked up “It details - pretty much in full - what, exactly, the Hierarchy is.”


Date Point: 3y 11m 2w AV

National Air and Space Museum, Washington D. C., USA, Earth.

“It’s amazing how much you can come to care about an inanimate object.”

Rylee wasn’t accustomed to public speaking. Nor was she accustomed to dressing for official functions or historic moments. She felt more comfortable in a jumpsuit or her flight suit than in a dress.

“I admit: I’m in love with Pandora. Together we created history. I’d fly her forever if I could. But Pandora doesn’t belong to me. With the retirement of the Lockheed-Martin TS-101 X-plane, she now belongs to history, and I am proud that she will continue to serve and inspire mankind, here in this illustrious Smithsonian Museum.”

Camera flashes caught every moment. She knew they’d comment that she was crying: she didn’t care. She was allowed to mourn the turning of this page. She stretched up on tip-toe to kiss Pandora’s nose, and rested her forehead against the plane’s cool hull, ignoring the redoubled sparkle of the media for a few seconds.

Then she collected herself and turned back to the microphone, accepting the museum director’s offered handkerchief as he asked the reporters for questions.


Date Point: ??? AV

Classified Facility, Earth.

“So what did he write?”

“Looks like mostly doodling…”

Monitoring the detainee’s scribbles and notes was a routine operation, done whenever they cleaned up his cell while he was outside of it. It wasn’t a difficult process. One or two quick snaps with the camera was all it took. There was a lot that could be learned about the detainee from what they chose to jot down by way of entertaining themselves.

The pages were densely packed with what appeared to be mostly nonsense and doodles: scribbles, spirals, zig-zag lines. There was a kind of aesthetic to it, albeit a spartan, mathematical one. Six’s lines were mostly either parallel or perpendicular, or at least as much so as could be managed by unpracticed human hands. Beyond that, he didn’t seem to care what he drew so long as the graphite made a stimulating sound on the paper. Mostly, it was just a geometric right-angled mess.

“Not a lot to go on.”

“No…”

She looked around at the team. Her job went both ways - as psychologist, not only was she there to analyze and hypothesize about the detainee’s reactions, she was there to keep an eye on the ‘gators and their intel support, make sure they were holding up okay.

It was a fact little suspected by the civilian world that interrogation was practically as hard on the people conducting it as upon their detainee. While the interrogators had the luxury of seeing the outside world, freedom of movement, nice meals, unlimited entertainment and all the perks of being a free American citizen, at the end of the day they were still tearing a man apart piece by piece to learn the things he held most dear.

Only a true psychopath could have done that without being torn up in turn, and a psychopath simply wouldn’t have a place on this team.

And Six was proving to be a tough nut to crack. ‘Stephen’ and ‘Carl’ were both veterans and experts, having done this many times before. Their information had saved lives, they knew how to cope.

But there was always the possibility that this time might be the time that all their experience and coping mechanisms failed them. Their veterancy was not an excuse for her to become lax in monitoring them.

She watched the two booth-guys for a minute. They were talking, quietly, and while both looked stressed and subdued there were no immediate causes for alarm that she could detect.

Long-term…

Well. Maybe she could recommend something that would be good both for them and for the detainee.


Date Point: 3y 11m 3w AV

Dominion Embassy Station 172, Terra/Luna L1 point.

“Are you okay?”

Sister Niral had elected to remain aboard the Embassy station until her pregnancy forced her back to Gao. The preliminary results were encouraging - she was expecting triplets, and if she’d been human, might have been called “glowing”.

As it was, she was the first person Rylee went to after the unpleasant necessity of the Smithsonian meetings, speeches, interviews and photographs. Any awkwardness between them was long since past, and over the months since, as the last few flights of the TS-101 had wound down, they had become fast friends.

Niral, it turned out, loved to groom her sisters’ fur, and this quirk extended to human hair. Rylee kept it short by necessity - long hair and space helmets did NOT mix - but it felt good to let her nonhuman friend work on it.

Rylee sighed. “I will be.” she said. “I always knew Pandora was an X-plane, a prototype. She’s wonderful, but she’s not a patch on what companies like LockMart can produce now that they know what they’re doing.”

“You’ll be flying the replacement?”

“Hey, my career’s not over just because they’re retiring my sled.” Rylee told her. “Though, I’m being headhunted by the private sector. Lots of big money being flashed at me to try to get me to quit NASA and test-pilot their designs.”

Niral issued a kind of melodic purr that Rylee had learned passed for the equivalent of a “hmm” in her species. “That doesn’t sound like you at all.” she said.

“Nope. I’m in it for the science, for the species, not to get rich while I make some billionaires even richer.”

“What do you think it’ll be like? The replacement?”

“Similar.” Rylee admitted. “A lot went right with the one-oh-one, but it was… you know, the tolerances were looser because we didn’t know what it’d be like, and that hurts performance.”

“I think only you would notice the difference.” Niral commented, chittering a Gaoian laugh. As a diplomat herself, the fields of aeronautics and piloting were outside her experience, but she had gathered enough from the arguments between the two pilots in her life to know that Rylee’s constant maintenance and tuning of her ‘sled’ was enough to earn margins that any Gaoian pilot would have considered not worth the effort.

“Hey, the little differences add up. Point-five percent might not sound like much, but at the kind of accelerations we… think these things will get up to in the field, that could be the difference between a fatal hit and a clean miss.”

“There’s other things, too. Our ES field tech’s improving by leaps and bounds, the JPL’s turned out their most efficient warp engine yet… you watch, I’ll always love Pandora but I’m not dumb enough to think that her replacement will be worse. It’ll be better: WAY better.”

“So what are you doing in the interim?” Niral asked.

“Classified, sorry babe.”

Niral knew better than to pry, so the two sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes before the quarters spoke an untranslated sentence in a Gaoian dialect. To Rylee’s untrained ear, it sounded not dissimilar to Korean.

“A launch!” the Gaoian said, abandoning Rylee’s scalp to spring over the window. “I still can’t quite believe your people still use rockets…”

“Well, they’ve got kinetics and ES fields now.” Rylee said, joining her. There was something fun about watching a launch, from orbit. “And Earth’s gravity hasn’t changed - they’re still the best way to haul bulk stuff into orbit for us.”

Technically, “Kinetics” was a gross misnomer which routinely earned an impromptu lecture on correct definitions for anybody who was so incautious as to utter it within earshot of scientific pedants, or on the Internet, but the translated alien vernacular was tenacious. It was hardly surprising that it had been one of Time’s words of the year, given that the introduction of what was, after all, an extremely small and efficient engine had decimated the cost-per-kilogram of material transport from ground to orbit, revitalizing the space industry practically overnight.

From where the station rested at the Terra/Luna L1 point, Earth was much, MUCH too far away to make out such a tiny event as a launch with the naked eye of course, but the station took care of that, zooming and magnifying to an incredible degree, so that the vehicle became a spike of light atop a pillar, smoking its way up from the curvature of the planet. The perspective was a little false, but it looked cool as hell.

“How much can this thing zoom in?” she asked. Niral spoke to the room in Gaoian again - it was curious how directions to the station’s controlling systems didn’t get translated - and the view zoomed in even further, until the rocket itself filled the view, a slender white spike marked down its flank with the livery of several world-famous companies, the so-called “Big Ten” that were co-operating in the Second Space Race.

“Oh my God! That’s Hephaestus One!” Rylee exclaimed. “I forgot that was today!”

“Hephaestus One?”

“Yeah! It’s the first flight out to Ceres.” Rylee explained. “They’re going to set up an asteroid mining hub and shipyard out there.”

“Your people move fast!” Niral remarked, clearly impressed. “It took us ten Gaoian years to launch our first asteroid mining operation.”

“How long is that in Earth years?”

“Room?”

The room displayed a conversion table on the window alongside the view of the rocket. Rylee read it and nodded.

“I bet I know the reason.” she said. “Will this room take voice commands from me?”

“It should do…”

“Great.” Rylee looked around, then shrugged and commanded: “Uh, Room: Display side-by-side comparisons of the estimated number of asteroids in the Sol system versus the Gao system, and display survey maps for rare earth elements on Earth and the planet Gao.”

Graphs and two globes appeared side-by side on the walls and windows as the station’s interface systems interpreted the command and expanded on it, trying to guess not only what Rylee had asked for, but also what she might not yet know she wanted.

She had to admit - as unimpressive as some of the achievements of nonhuman life were, when it came to user-friendly interfaces, they were the absolute masters. It looked like something straight out of a movie, but practical. Every element was clearly presented, its relationship to every other, obvious. She took a moment to appreciate the accomplishment, before turning to the relevant data.

“See here? Sol has a HUGE density of inner-system asteroids next to Gao.” she said. “And then over here, look: Your homeworld’s pretty rich in Rare Earths and they’re all spread out pretty evenly. But Earth is poor in Rare Earths, and they’re mostly here, under the control of only a couple of political factions. But there’s a boatload in the asteroids.” she indicated a chart demonstrating the estimated absolute tonnage of various elements and minerals in the asteroid belt. “And we need rare earth magnets to build ES field generators. And ES field generators are a huge boom industry right now.”

“So getting out there quickly ensures that the supply remains constant and averts a future problem? Sensible.” Niral said.

Rylee laughed. “So getting out there quickly ensures that a whole bunch of very rich people get even richer.” She countered.

“You don’t sound like you mind that.” Niral said.

“Why should I? It works. You said it yourself, it took you guys twice as long to do this.”

“It sounds… greedy.” Niral objected.

“Yeah! Greed is good, girl!”

Niral just stared at her. “Rylee, if it wasn’t for the sex thing, that would be the most alien thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Rylee just shrugged. “Room, clear the data, focus on the rocket again.”

They watched it separate a stage. Force fields unfolded around and behind it, catching the solar wind and reminding Rylee of an ancient sailship as they swept Hephaestus One’s path clear of orbital debris and sucked down power for the warp engine. It took only seconds: in a flare of light, the private rocket leapt into the impossible distance and was gone.

“Alien or not honey, there’s the proof.” she said.


Date Point ???

Classified Facility, Earth.

“Hello, Six.”

“…”

“How are you feeling today?”

“…”

“Did you sleep well? How’s the new bed?”

“…”

“Not talking to me?”

“…”

“Okay. Let me know if you want to talk.”

The unspeakable bastard just got out a deck of playing cards and started to deal them out on the desk in front of him, playing some kind of a game as if Six’s stubborn silence were of exactly no consequence to him.

The sound washed over him, as it always seemed to. He wondered if that was why Stephen used these tools - because he too enjoyed the sound they made. Was it a quirk of the way humans saw the world, that simple things could be so… mesmerizing?

“Beats me why I bother with the cards.” Stephen commented. “I could play on the computer instead…”

That didn’t seem like an attractive option.

“Hey, do you want this deck?”

The offer surprised him. Surely Stephen wasn’t serious? But then again, he’d been true to his word about the bed…

No. It was just a trick to get him to give up and start talking again. He wouldn’t be swayed that easily, and so Six folded his arms and continued to glare.

“Suit yourself.” Stephen finished his game, and put the cards away. Surprisingly he stood up. “I guess you’re not in the mood today? That’s cool, we’ll do something a little different. See you in a few minutes.”

He exited the room as the guards entered. Six knew better than to resist by now, but he was curious about this ‘something a little different’, and his pulse picked up a little as the guards led him to somewhere that had… an indefinably different texture to the area around his cell and the interrogation room. It was hard to tell - the human body had senses he was sure weren’t quite analogous to anything else he had experienced. Despite the total disorientation of the darkness and silence, he could still somehow feel that the area around him was not the same, somehow. There was a feeling of volume.

The sensation was validated when his blindfold was removed. He WAS somewhere new, a larger area - still totally enclosed, but big enough to run if he so wanted. There was a hoop of some kind attached to the wall a little above head height, and some markings on the ground.

Stephen and Carl were both waiting for him, having apparently changed into plain, loose clothing that looked much more comfortable than their suits, and a pair of soft shoes. Carl was holding a stippled orange sphere with black lines on its surface.

“What’s this?” Six asked, then cursed himself for giving in to the surprise as his shackles were removed and the guards retired to stand watchfully at the door.

“Basketball.” Carl said, and threw the ball to the ground. It bounced back up, and he gently flung it down again with his other hand. “The idea is to get the ball to fall through that hoop on the wall, and stop me from doing the same. You can’t run while holding the ball, though - you have to bounce it on the floor like this.” he demonstrated, swapping the ball from hand to hand via the hard surface.

“What’s your angle here, gentlemen?” Six asked, suspiciously.

Carl threw the ball gently to Stephen, who caught it and spun it on one finger in a display of impressive coordination. “No angle. This is a morale and welfare session now. You need the stimulation and exercise.” he said.

“So, it’s a reward for good behavior.”

“That too.” Stephen agreed. “Come on, you going to play or not?” His arms punched straight out, flinging the ball at Six, who astonished himself by catching the high-speed object.

He considered resisting, but after the sheer grey sameness of the last few weeks, how could he? He knew he was being manipulated, he knew this was just another tool in the arsenal that these people were using to dissect him and extract his valuable knowledge, but no amount of willpower in the world could stop him from being, on everything but the purely cerebral level, shamefully eager to move, to play, to do something different.

He bounced the ball.

When the session ended, who-knew how long later, he was exhausted, but he felt alive, and something approaching happy for the first time since arriving in this place.


Date Point: 4y 3w AV

Asteroid Ceres, Sol System

Construction work on Ceres Base had begun well before the first engineers had arrived. Cargo modules full of the raw materials, equipment, prefabricated units, life support systems, artificial gravity generators and ES field generators necessary to construct a working facility had been injected into orbit, revolving slowly in the asteroid’s pathetic gravity.

It had all come together with only a few minor disasters. With the ability to deliver engineers to the worksite to remote-control the construction vehicles without significant communications lag, gentle landings in Ceres’ miniscule gravity had been trivial. Setbacks, however, were inevitable. One of the modular base components had suffered a failure of its landing, running out of fuel and falling to ground several hundred meters from its intended location. Moving it had required the assembly and delivery of a specialist module-refuelling drone

The planned landing site for another module had turned out to be the sheer edge of a crater. Fortunately, the module had not been a location-critical one, and its eventual installation on the far side of the base was just going to be one of those peculiar quirks that lent it a unique character.

That was Phase One, just making the place livable in the long term, appropriate for habitation and experimentation. It had consumed only half of the orbiting equipment.

The second phase, and the other half, was to turn the facility into something that would, ultimately, turn a profit. The smaller part of that, equipment-wise, was the Survey Center, a launch and control platform for a fleet of Unmanned Space Vehicles that would - assuming their design and technology worked as intended - survey the tumbling, diffuse rocks of the Belt in search of Platinum, Rare Earths, Iron, Nickel, Titanium, and of course water.

The larger part, dwarfing the facility despite not yet being complete, was the sprawling industrial monstrosity of the refining and smelting equipment, literally “printing” itself into existence piece by piece out of local materials.

This edifice couldn’t possibly have been built on Earth - it was an eyesore testament to low-gravity industry, constructed around a functional contempt for aesthetics.

Drew Cavendish loved it.

But then again, Drew Cavendish didn’t have much patience for aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics. His sense of beauty revolved around the practical, the working, the mechanically efficient. He was the sort of man who would squint bewildered at an art gallery, but wax poetic about an example of expert welding.

Ceres Base was therefore the perfect destination for him, after a career spent working oil and gas rigs in the North Sea. That was a field that had been in terminal decline even before the arrival of effectively free solar energy in the form of ES field technology and - rumour had it - the long-awaited holy grail of nuclear fusion.

Taking up with BHP Billiton’s fledgling asteroid mining program had just been sensible for somebody with twenty years of experience in Atmospheric Diving Suits. Not least because the basic salary was 50% higher than he’d been earning at the peak of his Earthly career, with a promise of simply huge annual yield-based bonuses.

Naively, he’d assumed that piloting a Red Bull spacesuit wasn’t so very dissimilar to driving an ADS. Both were bulky, rigid, prevented you from scratching your itches and served to keep you more or less comfortable when surrounded by a medium - or lack thereof - that would kill you, for all intents and purposes instantly.

That had been driven out of him in simulator time with a VR headset. Movements that would have been perfectly safe when welding a deep water rig, where the water would cushion and stop any stray movements, could send an incautious spacewalker drifting. A ‘walker could get in serious trouble just millimeters from a handhold, with nothing to kick, swim or exert any force against to move them the tantalizing distance back to safety.

He had been surprised to learn that, in freefall and when out of contact with any surface, moving his arm also pushed the rest of his body around in accordance with Sir Isaac Newton’s most ancient and famous principle of reaction. Unnoticeable when your boots were firmly on a surface under even the most tepid gravity - but enough to set a man spinning when floating free, and surprisingly tiring.

But, he had cleared training. Quickly, too, and with straight As. And now… here he was. Ceres. And beyond one glamorous tour out here getting the place set up, once the first bonus rolled in?

Well, he’d always promised himself that he would one day leave the grey and choppy seas of Northern Europe behind for waters that were clearer, calmer, and garnished with bikini-clad waitresses and fruit drinks. He’d never anticipated that his route to paradise would be via deep space, but that was life. He’d get there.

All he had to do was work.

“Bloody impressive.” he commented, watching the pressure doors swing themselves closed behind the Hephaestus vehicle that had delivered him and some other newbies. Technically, the landing bay was perfectly pressurised by the gossamer curtain of an atmosphere retention field, but Health and Safety regulations insisted that the vehicle’s own airlocks were not to be opened until the physical pressure doors were closed and the seals had been checked.

It was a source of considerable bemusement for the handful of nonhumans who had been taken on as consultants and advisors to the operation that the LLC would simply not hear a single word about relying on atmosphere retention fields. They seemed to regard it as quaint to be leery of relying on a system that could fail in a heartbeat if it lost power. Drew wondered just how bloody daft and foolhardy these aliens must be to rely on a bloody force field to keep their air in, without redundancies or failsafes.

Still. Questionable attitude to safety aside, they knew more about mining asteroids than any human did, and that made them sufficiently valuable to the operation that translation and disease-suppression implants had been mandatory for all personnel. Drew was already in the habit of running his fingers over the slight ridges of metal that adorned his temple, which was already being called the “Spacer’s Tattoo”, but he’d fortunately managed to suppress the urge to lick the back of his too-clean teeth.

Sugoi.” agreed Heikichi.

Heikichi Togo’s ship suit bore the three diamonds of Mitsubishi. He was an expert in industrial robotics whose English could charitably be described as “abysmal”, but that simply didn’t matter thanks to the implants. He could rattle away in Japanese all he wanted and, despite not speaking word one of that language himself, Drew would know exactly what he meant. That had significantly freed up the LLC to recruit from all over the world without regard for language barriers.

“D’you know where you’re sleeping yet, Togo-san?” he asked. Drew may not have spoken a word of Japanese, but he knew about calling people ‘-san’ if you wanted to be polite, and it seemed to be appreciated.

“Not yet.” Togo admitted. “If the company hasn’t got a place picked out for me, I think I’ll just have to pick out my own.”

“Well, I’m in D-block, and you seem like you’d make a good top-bunk buddy.” Drew told him as the safety teams declared the hangar sealed and the H-vehicle popped its seals.

“Thank you, Cavendish-san.”

“Hey, we don’t stand on ceremony like that where I’m from. You can call me Drew if you want.”

Daroo.

“Close enough, mate.” They shook hands and parted ways, bound for the offices of their respective company reps.

The complex was eerily quiet compared to the staging platform in Earth orbit. Where that was a space station, made oddly loud by the absence of any medium outside to carry away the sounds so that they echoed around the interior, here the facility’s modules were anchored to the rock of the asteroid and had a layer of sound insulation on their underside that conducted noises away into Ceres itself. It was much more peaceful, and cooler too for the same reasons.

Still, it WAS cramped, full of narrow corridors lined with equipment, conduits, cables and piping, all hung with instructions and safety posters. He could see why a maximum BMI had been one of the conditions of employment - anybody too bulky in these corridors would have been a serious obstacle to the flow of traffic that already involved turning sideways every few steps.

The B-B administrative module felt almost like any office complex back on Earth, albeit one that was after-hours, or maybe open on a holiday. The only movement so far was a trio of IT techs getting the computers set up, and the Dyson robot vacuum cleaner that was methodically patrolling the carpet. He was just wondering which office was to be his and whose he should report to when a slick-haired skinny blond man with a chestnut tan and a few too many wrinkles for his age stuck his head out and shot him a very white smile. He was wearing a loud blue aloha shirt over his company overalls.

“G’day! You Cavendish?” he asked. He couldn’t have been more stereotypically Australian if he’d been wearing a hat with corks in it.

“That’s me.” Drew agreed.

“Beaut.” The antipodean extended a hand. “Drew Martin, mate, I’m yer foreman.”

“Ah, you’re the other Drew?” Cavendish returned the handshake. “Good to meet you, mate. I heard good things about you from Dai Dawson.”

“Good old Dai.” Martin grinned. “Bloody good miner that one, had Bauxite in his bones.”

“He said something similar about you.”

“Ripper. Come on, step into my office.”

Martin’s office was, mercifully, not as Straya’d up as the man himself - in fact it was the purely professional space of somebody who took their job completely seriously. The walls were already thoroughly papered in charts, rotas, schedules, checklists and more - the paraphernalia of a mining director. His desk was a line of four monitors, all currently on a screensaver.

“Good news is, we’ve found our first rock already.” he declared. “One of the USVs caught a nice first prospect, and it’s in a stable Ceres orbit too, so no time limit either. Perfect first score.”

“How big?”

CB group, two hundred and eighty meters. About twenty-seven metric megatons of bencubbinite.”

Both Drews grinned. That one rock alone contained enough nickel and iron to assemble the entire facility.

“So we’re just installing the stability thrusters.” Drew C mused, thinking ahead. There would be no need for anything else for an asteroid that was orbiting Ceres itself. Just enough to correct its orbit whenever it became perturbed. His team’s job was to fly out to new stakes and fit them with the engines that would gently nudge them into Ceres orbit for the mining teams to take over.

“Bloody right!”

“When?”

“Your team arrives Thursday. I want you checking the suits and gear, make sure everything’s up to code. We’ll go when you’re happy.”

“Great. I’ll get settled in for now, start on all that in the day shift tomorrow.”

“Bonzer. Looks like it’ll be good workin’ with ya, you pommie bastard.”

Drew chuckled, knowing full well that Drew M was just being friendly. “Looks like.” he agreed.


Date point: ??? AV

Classified Facility, Earth

Six hated himself.

He hated humans.

He especially hated Stephen and Carl.

But most of all, he hated the conclusion he was starting to form.

The conclusion was this: That victory was impossible. There was, he was coming to realise, simply no way to withhold the information that his interrogators wanted. He should suicide now, pop the implants in his head and rob them of their victory before they won it.

But something was stopping him and the thing that most frustrated him was that he simply couldn’t figure out what it was.

He was being played like an instrument - little rewards were given when he surrendered, snatched away the second he fought back. The incredible boredom grated against his very essence as a thinking being, relieved only by interrogation sessions and - he had come to truly crave these - Morale and Welfare sessions.

He felt like he had been stuck in his hole for a YEAR. Time had lost meaning. He slept because there was little else to do. He rationed the meager entertainment he was allowed, mourned it whenever his noncompliance took it away from him.

And he knew - knew - that they weren’t being cruel. Not really. The rules were clear, and were enforced without malice. If he complied, he was granted some perks. If he didn’t, then he lost them. In that regard he might as well have been enduring the attention of a machine rather than of people, and he couldn’t blame the system when it was plainly clear that the degree of stimulation and reward he received was a product of his own actions.

He would punish himself out of pride. Then he would spend what felt like weeks desperately clawing back what his stubborn foolishness had cost him.

He couldn’t win, and he knew it.

And it was this thought that finally blossomed into an understanding of why he didn’t just self-terminate.

He was SIX. A single-digit, architect of the death of species. He knew himself to be among the very, very best that the Hierarchy had at its disposal. Above his rank, they became administrators and planners, divorced from the reality of the fight. Below his rank, the other Numbers lacked his experience and competence.

And he couldn’t win.

And if he couldn’t… could the Hierarchy?

In the dark hours in his cell, he thought about it, scratching idly at the one perk he had retained - his paper and graphite.

And when they came to collect him in the morning, he walked calmly, surprised to find that the worst was over, now that he had given up.

Today, it was Carl’s turn to interview him.

“Hello, Six.”

“Hello, Carl.”

“How are you today?

“…beaten.”

Carl raised his eyebrows. “Beaten?”

Six wept.

And he started to speak.

He told them everything.


Date Point: 4y 2m 1w AV.

Orlando, Florida, USA, Earth.

Gabriel Arés leaned heavily on his cane as he watched the kids shoot down the ramp into the water at the end of the Jurassic Park ride, in a white plume that soaked some of the spectators.

The fight to take Adam away from San Diego for a few days had been an arduous one. His ex-wife had fought it every step of the way. But, by mercy and probably the hand of an archangel, the courts had agreed that a police detective who was recovering from near-fatal injuries had every right to take his only child on vacation.

Securing the permission of Ava’s parents to bring their daughter along had been much easier. She and Adam were totally devoted to one another. That fact had been the light that kept the depression at bay while Gabriel convalesced.

He was treating them - and himself - to a week-long tour of the major theme parks.

The kids bounced up to him a few minutes later, hand in hand. Both were now past their sixteenth birthdays, and Gabriel wished his own love life had been so good at that age.

“Where next?” Adam asked. Ava nudged him in the ribs and rolled her eyes.

“Are you okay, Gabe?” she asked. Gabriel had insisted that she use his first name.

“I’m a bit sore.” he admitted. “I could do to sit down. You guys want ice-cream?”

“Sounds good.” she agreed. Adam looked like he’d have preferred to run straight to the next ride, but he relented, knowing that Gabe still wasn’t fully recovered yet. He’d spent so long in a hospital bed thanks to the spinal damage that all the muscles in his legs had atrophied, and his rehab therapy hadn’t yet quite restored him to full working order.

Bueno.” Gabriel fished a few dollars from his wallet and waved them in the general direction of the last vendor they’d seen, then puffed and grimaced his way to the nearest available bench and lowered himself into it, enjoying the sun.

Life was, all things considered, pretty good. He was alive and on the mend, his boy was in love, and his novel was coming along nicely.

Considering it hadn’t been so long ago that he’d been racing to save the kids from a mass-shooting only to be shot himself, life was pretty damn good.

Dad! DAD!!

The kids were pelting back towards him, and their expressions drove the ache and fatigue out of him. He lurched to his feet.

Children shouldn’t have worn such expressions of terror.

“What happened?!”


Date Point ??? AV

Classified Facility, Earth.

At some point during Six’s final failure, Carl had moved his chair around the desk, and was just sitting there, rubbing a hand up and down Six’s spine. It was contact, real contact, a genuine gesture of comfort and compassion from one of the men who had broken him.

There was a long silence after the last secret spilled from him.

“Hey… Six? I’m sorry man.”

Six looked up, and the sight of tears in Carl’s own eyes shook him deeply. He’d known that he had built something of a relationship - even a warped friendship - with his interrogators over his long incarceration. But he had always persuaded himself that it was a distant one, with a thick professional barrier in place.

<They hurt themselves to break me> He thought. But he wouldn’t have been Six if he hadn’t tried to fight back, to claim something here and now, in Carl’s moment of weakness. To hurt him, on an emotional level.

Fuck you. You’ve beaten me. I’ve betrayed everything I ever lived or cared for. I’ve DESTROYED the Hierarchy. And now you’re fucking sorry?!” he exclaimed.

“More than you can know, man. I’ve been through this, it’s how I learned to do it.”

Carl looked down and wiped his eye, before looking back up, and now there was a determined set to his face.

“You and I are a lot alike, Six. We’ll do anything for our people. Me… I’ll bleed for them. I’ll hurt myself in all kinds of ways for all the lucky fucks out there -” he waved an arm at the wall, indicating the whole world beyond “- who don’t know the first goddamn thing about what kind of pain gets put into keeping their lives happy and safe. So yeah, I get it. And I’m so very, very sorry that I did this to you. I mean that. And Stephen would say it too, if he was here.”

Six just looked away. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sorry or not. You’ve won. I’ve lost. And if your people wage war like they get information out of people, then my kind are doomed.”

There was a long silence. Then Carl stood, returned to his side of the desk, and grabbed a folder from under his laptop.

“…Do you remember one of the first things you were told when you arrived here, Six?” he asked.

Six just stared at him blank. But, too tired and defeated to put up a fight, he reviewed his memory archives of the very first session. One of the - he had now learned, few - advantages of being a machine intellect was perfect recall of details like that.

“I was told… That Stephen was assigned to my case.” he said, reciting the memory in order. “That your goal was to learn as much as possible about my associates and me. That my first meal here consisted of mashed potato, biscuits and gravy, and peas and carrots. That you don’t do ‘that kind of thing’, meaning the torture I had alluded to moments earlier. That I was perfectly safe. That your first and most important priorities were information and…”

He paused. “And…”

“…And a peaceful resolution.” Carl finished for him.

“I’ve just told you that the Hierarchy’s objective is your extinction, and you’re saying that you still want a peaceful resolution?

Carl rested his elbows on the desktop. “My nation has fought bloody and difficult wars in opposition to genocide all across our planet. And from what you’ve told me, your species and the Hierarchy are about the same thing to each other as this organisation is to the American public. Which means that your people are… more or less - blameless of plotting to destroy us.”

He shrugged. “For me, the idea of wiping out your civilization of trillions to save our civilization of billions sticks in the craw. Never mind that doing so would mean having to slaughter every other living thing in the galaxy.”

“Which you could.” Six said.

“Easily.” Carl agreed. “If we wanted to. We don’t.”

Six snorted. “You aren’t authorized to speak for your whole species.”

“Nope.” Carl agreed again. “But still: we don’t. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we’ll just sit back and invite you to wipe us out. If it comes to it, if the only way to survive is to wipe out every living thing in the Milky Way? We would, if we have to.”

He locked eyes with Six. “Do we have to?”

“What’s the alternative?”

“The alternative is, you and I come up with a way to save both our peoples.”


Date Point: 4y 2m 1w AV.

San Diego, California, USA, Earth.

Seventy-Two was panicking, and now was a terrible time to be doing that.

He had planned to switch safe-houses immediately upon the fiasco at Skateworld, but that was a complicated and risky process which demanded biodrones for maximum security. Things were just too sensitive to rely on local resources - these things weren’t Vzk’tk, Robalin or Allebenellin. They weren’t stupid or mercenary enough to fail to notice something amiss.

So, against his better judgement and good protocol, he had been forced to remain where he was for months, hoping that finally some appropriate human subject would blunder into his stasis trap for conversion into a biodrone.

That hadn’t happened. Instead, months had passed without development. Six had been declared killed, and restored from his last backup. The replacement Six had not returned to Earth, but had remained offworld to ponder the implications of the almost prescient response to their planned hive-poking. 72 was, for the time being, on his own again while the Hierarchy decided what to do.

For now, he needed to rebuild his assets and await orders.

Then the assault started.

It came from nowhere. Cars converged on the building in whose basement he lurked, peeling out of the ordinary city traffic all at once, parking synchronized in the alleyways and streets around him, while vans hauled into place and heavily armed, heavily armoured soldiers deployed barricades, holding back the city public.

There were three layers of door and wall between 72’s inner sanctum and street level. The outermost layer was breached almost before he had become alert to the attack, physically smashed off their hinges by men with steel tools.

The second layer of doors were thicker and sturdier. They bought him time to consider his options.

There were almost none. While every Hierarchy safehouse had contingencies in place to destroy it and leave no evidence of its having been there, all bar one of them relied on the sanctuary not being under attack at the time.

Well. That settled it then: all bar one meant there was only one option. He began his backup as the second doors were opened by means of explosive charges.

It finished just as those same charges were being rigged on the third and final doors.

They blew inwards just as Seventy-Two sent the command.

Kilolightyears away, undetectable in interstellar space, an ancient repository received a signal it had not been sent in nearly four million years. In response to that signal, it sent one of its stored packages directly to Earth via wormhole displacement.

Light bent and reality warped in the middle of the room as the first soldiers barged in. The event horizon collapsed, leaving behind a sphere of perfect blackness, like a black hole hanging in the middle of the room.

Without its power source, the stasis field collapsed within a microsecond.

Very, very briefly, five kilograms of pure antimatter were let loose in the heart of downtown San Diego.

They forever changed the face of the Earth.

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