Although Hume decided to bow out of writing her story, they were kind enough to ask for it to be continued as part of The Deathworlders.
Date Point: 2y 8m AV
Diplomatic shuttle, docked at Kwrbvlwek Galactic Shipping Interstellar Cargo Waystation 832.
As always, Xiù wasn’t in her bed when Ayma awoke. Ayma’s human sister had got into the habit of waking early so as to exercise under the punishing gravity of her homeworld before Ayma and Regaari awoke, and had been sleeping restlessly for the last few days in any case.
She had taken Triymin’s death hard. They all had, in their way, all blaming themselves for the innocent, broken little Sister’s untimely end. Ayma had berated herself for not making Triymin feel more welcome, for not being more sisterly to her. Regaari - enigmatic, handsome, driven Regaari - had redoubled his endurance training, spending longer and longer on the treadmill as if by training himself until he could keep pace with a human, he might somehow in some small way undo what had happened.
Ayma had seen Xiù’s grief before. The human tended to go quiet, curl up somewhere dark and sob until somebody dragged her out of it. This time was different, and she had been puzzling over why for some days. While Xiù had gone quiet, it had been the kind of quiet that Regaari had mastered, as if she was being silent so that she could watch without disturbing what she was watching.
That worried Ayma. And so, checking on Xiù had become the first task of her day.
Regaari growled something and turned over in his sleep as she padded past him. He really had been beating himself up recently, and Ayma didn’t doubt that his muscles were aching and fatigued from it, though this was the first he’d actually shown of it.
Well, that and being the last to wake. That wasn’t like him either.
There was something off about the ship. They had docked last night at a private corporate cargo relay station to take on basic supplies, synchronise with the galactic data network, degauss the hull and generally tend to the business of keeping their ship flying. Now, in the morning, it seemed eerily still, and colder somehow. Maybe even quieter.
That was it. Xiù was not a large person, but the characteristic density of a Deathworlder meant that when she was moving around, the whole ship vibrated just a little bit. She wasn’t heavy, she was…
Firm. that was the word. The ship trembled a little wherever she went inside it, as if it was just a little afraid of her. Ayma loved her sister, but having felt the full force of Xiù giving her an angry deathworld glare, she could relate just a little.
There was no music, either. None of that raucous pulsing noise that Xiù liked to pollute her personal space with when she was alone and could get away with it.
Only one thing caused her to pause as she headed towards the gym. The cabin that contained the modified cargo container, with its salvaged stasis field generator, that served as Triymin’s coffin until they could somehow get her back to Gao, and to a proper funeral. She always paused by that door.
The gym itself, however, was dark and empty. When Ayma experimentally waved a hand over the threshold, she didn’t feel the tug of any extra gravity.
“Shoo?” she called.
“She’s not here either?”
Ayma flinched. Regaari raised his paws apologetically. “Either?” she asked, grabbing the important word.
“You woke me up.” He explained. “When I went up to the galley, her cloak and disguise were gone.”
Their eyes met, then simultaneously widened, and they scrambled back towards the sleeping cabin, Regaari beating her there despite his battered muscles. Ayma didn’t need to get there first though. She was already feeling the urge to make a mournful keening noise, and the impulse only grew stronger when she saw the open compartment under Xiù’s nest-bed. Xiù didn’t own many personal effects, but they were all gone.
“I’ll… check the security footage.” Regaari said. “Check every compartment, just in case?”
It was something to do, but Ayma didn’t need to look very far. Glancing into the room containing Triymin’s coffin was enough.
This time, she really did give voice to her sorrow, and the noise soon attracted Regaari.
Resting atop the coffin was a datapad, projecting a short, simple message.
Take care of yourselves.
I love you both.
Two years later.
Date Point: 4y 9m AV
A motel somewhere along I-84, Utah, USA, Earth
“Cimbrean’s appointed governor, Sir Jeremy Sandy, was quick to dismiss any suggestion of blame, stating that the damage was beyond any reasonable prediction.”
The footage of decaying foliage and the aerial shots of creeping brown pestilence cut to the image of a silver-haired man who looked like he hadn’t been getting enough sleep, standing at a podium in a garden under grey English skies.
“I came to Cimbrean for many reasons - the future of humanity as an interstellar civilization, to realise the ambitions of generations of dreamers, and to preserve its unique biology for posterity and for the benefit of the human race and others.”
“The thought that we are going to lose it all, that the biosphere of the entire planet was doomed even before the first colonist set foot on Cimbrean, is gut-wrenching. But the fact remains that, devastating though this tragedy is, it is not the result of an act of malice. The circumstances of this disaster were uncontrollable, therefore we shall not be naming the person responsible, nor apportioning blame - there is none to apportion, as they could not have foreseen or avoided this outcome by any realistic means.”
The governor paused significantly, and adjusted his glasses as he looked directly out across the crowd and at the cameras.
“Blame will accomplish nothing, and if nothing is accomplished then Cimbrean will die. It is that simple.”
The footage cut to Sandy shaking hands and standing alongside other politicians for the press as the reporter continued.
“This morning, the Global Representative Assembly’s Office for Extraterrestrial Policy issued a statement confirming that the search for other potential colony worlds would remain essentially unchanged.”
The statement was displayed even as it was read out.
“…Although the news of ecological disaster on Cimbrean has of course been taken into account, the Assembly’s survey of potentially habitable worlds was already focusing on so-called “death worlds” which are likely to be more well-suited and resilient to human habitation, including being better able to resist the kinds of microorganisms which are behind the Cimbrean tragedy…”
The footage returned to Cimbrean, showing teams of scientists patrolling the infected area in protective clothing, sampling the ravaged greenery.
“While the decision to supplant Cimbrean’s native species with ones from Earth has attracted widespread protests and accusations that the colony and its sponsors in the British government have failed to fully explore the available options for containing or reversing the bacterial spread, it seems likely that the plan to import Terran plants and animals is set to go ahead. The British Prime Minister has already pledged the continued support of his government to Cimbrean despite criticism from the opposition that saving Cimbrean will be a waste of time and money.”
Kevin didn’t recognise the next man on screen, but he was clearly a British politician. Nobody else could wear a bad suit, bad teeth and bad hair so comfortably.
“Everything we’ve seen and been told about the galaxy says that there are literally thousands of planets out there waiting to be claimed, most of which have ecosystems much less fragile than Cimbrean’s and gravity much more suitable to our needs. So this so-called ‘terraforming’ project seems to me to be a case of throwing good money after bad, especially in today’s fragile economic climate.”
A commentator gave their opinion from in front of a green-screen depiction of the New York skyline.
“Have we REALLY exhausted all of the options here? ‘cause as far as I can tell the situation on Cimbrean went from A-Okay to Apocalypse overnight. Where’s the in-depth investigation, the planning?” He raised his voice to shout over the interrupting objections of his opposite number “I don’t believe that a whole planet is so fragile that we can write it off the second some hiker takes a.. a comfort stop in the woods!”
Screen time was then given to the person who had tried to interrupt him.
“The criteria laid down by the Interspecies Dominion for classifying a planet are well-established and clear. I know, I know…” She paused as she was interrupted, and the footage cut to her continuation. “I know it’s hard to really get your head around the idea that our own home planet is so incredibly deadly, but all of the samples and information coming back from Cimbrean so far, all the abductee accounts, all the scientific resources we now have access to all point to the fact that we’re statistical outliers, right on the far end of the bell curve.”
The next speaker was clearly being interviewed in his office, and had the air of big business about him. It wasn’t long before his name was displayed at the lower edge of the screen, proving him to be the CEO of some company or another. Moses Byron.
“Cimbrean isn’t going to be abandoned for one simple reason: Oil. It has a lot of oil. Sure, we may be moving more and more on to using solar energy collection fields to power our cities, but we’ve got a lot of cars still on the road that aren’t about to stop running on gasoline anytime soon, and we’re never going to stop needing plastics. Cimbrean represents an opportunity for the West to break our dependence on Middle-Eastern and Russian oil, and this ecological disaster doesn’t change that. In fact, it represents a golden opportunity.”
“If we’re replacing the ecosystem of an entire planet with one of our own design anyway, then we don’t need to worry about the conservation and preservation efforts that… I don’t want to say ‘hamper’ industry on Earth. Conservation and environmental preservation are obviously hugely important, and I don’t want to give the impression that I think they’re bad things, ‘cause I don’t.”
“But if Cimbrean’s already written off then there’s no longer any reason why we can’t have huge GMO farms over there, growing crops in a low-pest environment, meaning a gargantuan food surplus for Earth. The same goes for oil drilling, fracking, for open-cast mining…The incentives that exist not to do those things on Earth no longer apply to Cimbrean because the fatal damage has already been done. So instead we can stop damaging our own planet and make the best of a tragedy.”
The reporter asked a question directly to the interviewee at that point. “Don’t you think that’s a cynical way of looking at it?”
The businessman gave an uncomfortable little exhalation.
“I won’t deny you could call it that, but I don’t think I’m being cynical. I think I’m trying to look at the ways we can turn a bad situation to the good.” He said.
“Sure, it sounds heartless at first glance, but at second glance I’m talking about the opportunity to… to wipe out famine, to limit the damage we do to the Earth. Imagine if we never cut down another inch of Amazon rainforest ever again because we’d moved those tree species and their logging operations over to Cimbrean instead? That’s got to be better than just letting one planet die while we continue to wound the other, right?”
He shrugged, sat back and folded his hands in his lap. “If that’s cynical then… guilty as charged, I guess.”
Kevin stopped listening as the reporter signed off, and sat back thinking as the anchors segued into the next article, about a recall of translation implants, scratching idly at the bald patch in front of his own temple where his own crude version had been installed, supposedly the first one custom-built for a human nervous system.
Eventually, he reached a decision.
“Still doesn’t seem real…”
Date Point: 4y 9m AV
Cimbrean Consulate, London, United Kingdom, Earth
Sir Jeremy Sandy
Sir Jeremy became aware of his aide, Jack, entering the office and reached forward only reluctantly, and took his time removing his earphones and turning the music off. He’d been enjoying a few moments to himself.
“Mister Moses Byron will be here in five minutes, Sir Jeremy.”
“Already?” Sir Jeremy sat back, folding his hands on his stomach. “I know the man has a reputation for alacrity, but…”
“He has a reputation for buzzing around like a blue-arsed fly, sir.” Jack smiled. “I understand he got in his jet the second you agreed to see him.”
“And a reputation for being such a straight-talker that you could draw a triangle with him.” Sir Jeremy finished.
“Shall I keep him waiting?”
Sir Jeremy thought about it. The presumption on his time was a little irritating, but on the other hand… “Ordinarily… no, no thank you Jack. See him in directly when he arrives will you? And, have some coffee ready.”
“Yes, sir Jeremy.”
Sir Jeremy cleared up a few letters and some of the shorter reports as he waited. Moses Byron was a self-made billionaire, a man who had stepped out of the relative obscurity of the business sector within the last four years already with a few million to his name, and had put that money to work in spectacular fashion, capitalising on all the domestic, terrestrial opportunities afforded by the discoveries coming out of Scotch Creek and the universities as the secrets of alien technology were unpicked.
Byron owned the production of volumetric projectors, stasis fields generators, solar collection fields and at least two kinds of alien-derived power storage cells that promised to give the latest generation of smartphone a full month of life when charged. Thanks to him, the near future promised to contain true 3D cinema, the stasis “fridge”, self-sufficient electric cars.
He also, to the public’s delight, seemed to be an intensely moral man, unafraid to court controversy by telling the truth as he saw it.
Sir Jeremy had an immediate mistrust of the man, but rose to shake his hands when, after a few minutes, Jack opened the door and ushered him in with a soft “Mr. Moses Byron, Sir Jeremy.”
The handshake was crushing, and Moses himself was loud. “Hey, so I got a question, do you mind if I call you Jerry, or do you prefer Sir Jeremy?” he asked.
“I prefer Sir Jeremy, if it’s all the same to you.” the governor replied, retaking his seat.
“Then Sir Jeremy you’ll be, and sorry for asking.” The twinkle in Byron’s eye said that he knew he was playing to type, and that no force in the galaxy could induce him to care even a little bit. Sir Jeremy congratulated himself on predicting that Byron, for all his bluster and bluntness, would turn out to be deeply shrewd.
Two could play at the excessive directness game.
“So what do you want, Mr. Byron?” he asked. “I saw you on the news, giving the impression that you rather thought you could annex Cimbrean into your growing empire.”
“And save the world with it.” Moses beamed, revealing the kind of white, even teeth that could only be the product of extensive expensive dentistry.
“Very ethical of you.”
Byron laughed. “Ah, Ethical is a product, Sir Jeremy, and it sells so well because it advertises itself. Hell, it’s a brand. You Brits have that little red tractor you stick on your food to say it’s been locally sourced. Ain’t no little sticker for cheap imported stuff made by Chinese kids for a dime an hour, is there?”
Sir Jeremy sat back. “Your point being…?”
Byron shrugged. “Did you read my proposal?”
“I did. Despite what you said on TV last night, I really don’t see what you stand to gain. Your own proposal is so self-limited that you wouldn’t see a return on your investment for… decades.”
Moses Byron grinned again. “If we’re talking about the return on the investment directly from the investment itself, then you’re not wrong.” he agreed. “But to be honest, how much money does a guy need? I can afford to fly to London on a whim, no big deal. Seriously, I could lose that kind of money in some inventive tax paperwork, if I was the kind of guy to stiff the public sector like that. How much more do I really need?”
“That’s an attitude which is slightly at odds with my past experience of business billionaires.” Sir Jeremy observed.
“Man, I feel sorry for you. You’ve been hanging with the idiot crowd, I can tell. The kind who think profit equals dollars, am I right?”
Byron leaned forward. “But yeah, I have an angle, sure. It’s just not one that puts me in control of the planet like you’re worrying about. That’d just limit me and make me look like the bad guy, and the Byron brand is all about looking like the good guy. Ethical is a brand, right?”
“I see. The cynical good guy.”
“You got it, yeah. I know common wisdom is that people don’t like a hard truth, but it’s worked for me so far.”
The meeting paused as Jack entered, carrying a cafetiere, cups, sugar, cream and some files, which he handed to Sir Jeremy before retreating.
“Coffee, Mr. Byron?” Sandy asked, depressing the filter.
“Black and sweet.”
Sir Jeremy poured. “You’re creating an opportunity.” he said, as he did so.
Byron threw his hands wide and smiled. “You caught me.”
“But I don’t think that opportunity is on Cimbrean. I think you meant every word you said during that interview but ultimately I think that my planet is just the, um…” he paused, considering how to phrase it. “The floodgate that you want opened.”
He dropped a sugar cube into the coffee. Moses held up two thick fingers. When the second cube went in, he curled one of those fingers down.
Sir Jeremy poured his own coffee before adding the third cube. “How much money does a man need? I’d submit that it’s less than you already have.” he said. “And yet here you are. If it was about being the ‘good guy’ then you could do that here on Earth. Any charity in the world would be delighted to receive this kind of money, so: Why Cimbrean?”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Jerry.”
Sir Jeremy issued a humourless laugh, and added the third sugar cube.
“If we are going to prevent the total collapse of Cimbrean’s breathable atmosphere, the first step is almost certainly going to be phytoplankton.” he said, handing the drink over. “But the water is so rich in nutrients that the algae will get out of hand almost overnight unless we have zooplankton and krill to eat them, and unless we want the seas to be solid pink with krill, we’re going to need something that eats them in turn. How do you import a whale?”
“More to the point,” he continued, “how do you import a sustainable breeding population of whales without harming the whale population on Earth? What complications might arise from that? If the whales we choose migrate to the Caribbean to breed every year, then how are they going to fare on a planet that doesn’t have a Caribbean? And that’s just the, the primary school science class version of that food chain, and only one food chain.”
He poured cream into his own coffee. “Nothing like this has ever been attempted. We’re bringing on board science fiction writers because those are the only people who have even considered these kinds of scenarios. The expertise and knowledge to make it happen all but don’t exist.” Before sipping his drink, he looked Byron straight in the eye. “There are noble causes right here on Earth that could boost your Ethical Byron Brand, and Cimbrean meanwhile can offer no guarantees that we shall succeed.” he added.
“So as useful as your money will no doubt be, you appear to be treating me like part of the so-called ‘idiot crowd’.” Sir Jeremy said. He took a sip, levelly holding Byron’s gaze. “Not to try my hand at equine dentistry, but I’ve always preferred the aphorism ‘if it looks too good to be true, it probably is’ so I ask again. Why Cimbrean?”
Moses Byron’s jovial attitude was gone, revealing the hardened veteran businessman underneath.
“You’re gonna turn me down?” he asked.
“I hope I don’t have to. As I said, we need the money and to be frank I don’t care what you have planned. I require only an added clause.”
“Do you have any neural cerebral augmentation implants, Mister Byron?”
Byron frowned at the apparent non-sequitur. “No.”
“No translator implant or anything like that?”
“God no, I prefer my head the way the good Lord made it.”
“Good. The stipulation I am adding is that you will provide - under supervision by an observer of my choice - medical evidence to prove that you don’t, to be repeated on a regular basis. In the event that you ever do acquire any such implants, any and all property and developments you own within one parsec of the Cimbrean star will immediately be ceded in their entirety to the Cimbrean colonial administration or, if that’s not acceptable, to a private owner of the administration’s choosing.”
Sir Jeremy nodded and sipped his coffee again. While he typically preferred tea, he had to admit that Jack prepared excellent coffee. “Yes.”
“Well, ‘not to try my hand at equine dentistry’ here, but what the hell does it matter?” Byron looked downright confused by the demand.
“I’m not at liberty to tell you. Suffice it to say that I’m eliminating an ulterior motive.”
Byron took a swig of his own coffee to cover his bemusement, then set the cup down on Sir Jeremy’s desk. “Fine, whatever, I accept the term as given.” he said “Have your people call mine, write it in.”
Sir Jeremy smiled, and shook his hand, pleased to note that Moses Byron’s grip was much less certain and strong this time. “I look forward to seeing what you have in store, Mister Byron.” he said.
4y 9m 3d AV
Starship Sanctuary, deep space
Julian had an irritating habit of cleaning and maintaining his gear on the coffee table in the Sanctuary’s main lounge, which was compounded by his grumbling that he couldn’t concentrate on the job while any kind of entertainment was on. Six years of having nothing to distract him but staring into the campfire meant that any movie, TV show, game or anything else on the big screen opposite the couch commanded his attention.
Allison had, therefore, waited until he was pretty much finished before poking her head round the door, acutely aware that they hadn’t exchanged more than three words at a time in a couple of weeks now.
“Hey, uh… you busy?” she asked.
He glanced up, and gave her a long, cool, evaluating stare before moving over on the couch. “Just finishing.” he grunted.
+God, he’s sexy when he’s pissed.+
She sat down next to him and put the box she’d brought with her down on the table. He frowned at it.
He blinked at her, then shrugged and twisted the catch on the front of the box.
She’d worked hard, with Lewis’ help programming the nanofactory, to produce an almost exact duplicate of a Smith & Wesson 22A. “My Grandpa taught me to shoot with a gun just like this.” she said. “I was… hoping you’d let me teach you. You said yourself you’ve never fired a gun before.”
“What, you want an excuse to rub up next to me on the shooting range?” Julian put the gun back down again.
“I’m not your fucking plaything, Allison. You wanted a perfect peace offering? Well how about a goddamn apology?”
“UGH!” she stood up and left the gun behind. “Whatever, Etsicitty. You want to learn how to fire that thing, you let me know.”
She was glad that nobody on the ship was between her and her quarters to see her expression. The moment the door closed behind her, she drove her fist into the wall, denting it slightly and bloodying her knuckles, which prompted a round of swearing and running her hand under the cold faucet.
“That was an apology, you jackass.” she muttered.
4y 9m 5d AV
The Cimbrean summer was gentler than Sara remembered from Earth. Back there, even in notoriously grey and mild England, she had always had to wear sun cream when thesun was out, and lots of it. She’d always hated it.
Cimbrean was much better. Its thick Ozone layer and the Cimbrean star’s comparatively low UV output (low relative to Sol, anyway) combined so that on an afternoon like today, you could stretch out face-down on a rock and just feel warm, with none of the burning or dryness.
She flinched as water splashed across her back. “HEY!”
Her little brother and one of the newcomers, Stacey, grinned impishly at her and kicked away from the bank, scrambling back towards the middle of the lake to escape her wrath. She let them go and tried to settle back again.
They had come swimming every day since the news broke. Everyone knew that Lake Junkyard was on borrowed time, that sooner or later the bacterial filth would reach it, and they wouldn’t be able to swim in it any more without risking dysentery. Squeezing out every minute of good swimming time before the day the bad news finally came was important.
Adam sat down next to her to dry out in the sun, having swum out to the sunken spaceships and back as he usually did. He was really taking his exercise seriously, but he didn’t seem to really enjoy just fooling around in the water like most of the others did. He’d arrived late on an ATV of his own, and had dived straight in without even saying hello, a sure sign of something on his mind.
Sara had been sleeping in the spare bed in his house while her parents and Ava had been away, and it had killed some of her crush on Adam, replacing it with a solid friendship. After all, who else was she going to talk to? He and Ava were the only others in her kind of age range, the rest of the Cimbrean children were all ten years old or less, and hardly anybody seemed to be bringing families with them any more.
“Hey.” she returned the greeting rather more sunnily as she rolled over and sat up. “Do you have any news? I heard maybe there’d been some word today, but I heard it from Kieron and he wouldn’t tell me where he heard it from and you know how he makes stuff up.”
Adam smiled a little, his mood breaking down in the face of Sara’s unrelentingly cheerful motormouth. “No.” he said. “Stupid military hospital won’t share anything with us. ‘Patient confidentiality’ they say.”
“But I’m their daughter! And your dad’s Ava’s guardian, right? I mean I thought he was and if he is then that’s pretty much the same thing as being her parent and don’t they usually tell parents about what’s going on?”
“Yeah.” Adam agreed. “But he called the guy he has to deal with, and I’m quoting here, ‘A bureaucratic sadist with a phone pole up his ass’.”
Sara giggled. Adam’s imitation of his own father was uncanny, and not just because they were related. He had Gabriel’s mannerisms down perfectly.
“Is that all he said? Because I’ve seen your dad when he’s having a tough time and I didn’t know half of what he was saying until you taught me what they meant and I don’t see how he could just stop there when Ava’s in the hospital and they won’t tell him how she’s doing.”
“Hell no, it wasn’t all he said.” Adam agreed. “But I’m not allowed to teach you how to swear in Spanish any more, remember?”
She laughed again, remembering. The first couple of days of zero contact, not knowing what was going on with all the people who’d been shipped back to take care of their Cimbrean Tea poisoning, had been the hardest. By way of trying to find a method to release the stress harmlessly, Adam had been teaching her a few choice phrases in Spanish, right up until the point where his father had walked in and just folded his arms disapprovingly.
It had worked though. “So what else did he call him? Come on, spill it, it’s not like anybody’s around who’ll tell us off.”
Adam chuckled, shaking his head. “Guess.”
“What about… hmm… a puto?”
“Plenty of that, yeah.”
“Ooh! I know! Did he call him a pinche idiota?”
Adam grinned. “Oh yeah. To his face.”
“And then some. The guy stood in Dad’s office explaining ‘national security’ this and ‘discretion’ that and Dad told him to métetelo por el culo, right there.”
Sara was in awe. “Your dad is amazing!” she enthused. “He really told the guy to do that right there in his office? That’s so cool.”
“I know, right?” Adam nodded, then sobered. “‘But he said he regretted it afterwards. Said he could have got more done if he’d stayed frosty, yeah?”
“I guess…” Sara thought about it. “It’s been, like, two weeks hasn’t it? Nearly. Yeah, it was on Saturday the week before last wasn’t it, and then… wow that time’s gone fast hasn’t it? All those scientists and reporters and everyone coming and going and everything…”
“More of them today. Apparently some really rich dude wants to give us a whole load of money, it’s big news.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s the really rich dude?”
“Some guy called, uh… Moses… something.”
“Moses Byron? Mum and Dad talk about him a lot, like he’s… like, they think that all businessmen should be like him, they say he’s really honest and he’s one of those people who got money and didn’t turn into an asshole, and he’s making the world a better place and stuff. He’s, like, the only person in a suit I’ve ever heard them say something nice about.”
Which wasn’t exactly true. They’d also been fairly flattering about Sir Jeremy, and about Gabriel Arés, but she knew what she meant.
“Oh yeah. He does stuff like lobby governments to legalise Marijuana so he can… what was it Mum said?” She concentrated, trying to remember a speech he’d given that Hayley had admiringly quoted. “Something like ‘Rehabilitate the global trade in drugs and take it out of the hands of unethical pushers.’ Mum and Dad’re really in favour of that.”
Adam bobbled his head. “I guess that makes sense.” he conceded.
Unable to think of anything interesting to say, Sara picked up her camera and focused it on the first thing that she saw, other than Adam himself. The reflection of the tree line of the opposite shore was perfect, almost mirror-still, and she zoomed in on it.
A thought seemed to occur to Adam “Hey… did your folks ever do drugs like that?” he asked.
“Like what, marijuana?” Sara asked, pressing her eye to the viewfinder and twisting at her telephoto lens.
“Sure they did. They said it was part of their whole ‘being in touch with nature’ thing. They were really big on that. Grandma said the only reason they moved out of that teepee village in Wales was because of the child protection service.”
“Did you ever…?”
She nodded, and hummed a confirmation - “Mmm-hmm.” - before smiling sheepishly at him. “Dad used the same number for his PIN and for the safe, I figured it out really early on. Three three eight one, his birthday. So, when they went out one time I… y’know, I tried out some of their stash.”
She rolled her eyes internally when he gave a dismayed little head-shake in response to her answer, but his next question at least showed how open-minded he was. “What was it like?”
Sara invented furiously. The truth was, she had been sick and scared and hyperventilating too much to tell how much of the experience had been the drug and how much had been anxiety. “Just… weird, I guess.” she said, borrowing what she’d seen of her parents when they got high. “I don’t really remember, I just coughed a bit, found everything really funny for a while, got hungry, ate a whole tub of ice cream and fell asleep.”
“Didn’t you get in trouble?”
She laughed a little, lining up her camera to take a second picture of the distant trees in case the first wasn’t satisfactory. This question, she could answer honestly “Mum and Dad don’t believe in trouble, or grounding me or whatever.” she said, omitting that they’d gone easy on her in part because she’d had such an awful time. “Dad just changed his combination and his PIN and asked me to wait until I’m eighteen.”
Adam laughed, a little disbelievingly. “How the hell did they get to come here?” he asked. “I thought the first colonists were supposed to be, like, the best and brightest.”
“They are!” Sara protested, indignantly defending them. “They’re both botanists, really good ones! And there was never, like, anything official, they didn’t get caught or arrested or anything like that, ever. As far as the authorities knew, they’re a pair of doctors with a bunch of published papers, the best and brightest like you said.”
“But you said child protection…”
“I said they moved out because of it, not because the child protection people ordered them to or anything. They moved out because they knew child protection wouldn’t approve, so they moved out before that happened. My parents are really smart people, Adam!”
There was an awkward silence, during which she turned away, cheeks burning, and took an angry picture of the reflection of a hilltop where it blurred and distorted around the swimmers. It took Adam a good few seconds to finally apologise. “I’m sorry Sara, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“No, you did.” She said. People always said that whenever they insulted her parents to her face, and Sara had long since given up on being upset by it. “It’s okay, it just means you don’t understand them.”
She put the camera down suddenly. “I really miss them.” she added. “Nobody else around here thinks like they do, everyone’s all closed-minded, talking about banning the Tea stems when the plant’s all over the place right now, and going to be extinct pretty soon anyway. What’s wrong with a little bit of fun? Does it really matter if people are… are chewing something, or smoking it or whatever? Why does that matter?”
“I don’t know.” Adam confessed.
“See, that’s why you’re cool. That’s, like, the honest answer.”
She sat back and stretched, pointing her toes. “Why do people have to make things so complicated?” she asked.
Adam made an interrogative noise. “Mm?”
“There’s this… saying thing that Mum and Dad like.” She told him. “‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that? Why do we need all these rules and stupid laws that just stop people from having fun? Why can’t people just do what they want so long as they’re not harming anybody?”
Adam went quiet for a bit, and she was about to change the subject before he spoke. “People hurt each other.” he said. “They’re not like you, Sara. They don’t… hold themselves back just because they were asked all nicely. They’ll do things like… like go to a sports event planning to shoot random people in the crowd, or they’ll blow up a whole city. Or they get drunk and they…”
He went quiet again, then started laughing a little strangely.
“Isn’t that weird? I can talk about the roller derby, I can talk about the bomb, but I find it harder to talk about Mom and her drinking.”
Sara scooted up to him a bit. “Did she hurt you?”
“Not like… not physically, or anything like that. She never touched me. But she… said things, you know? Painful things.”
“Yeah, but… Sticks and stones, right?”
“…No.” Adam looked away, and scooted away from her a little too. “No, that’s… I don’t wanna talk about it.”
After the awkward silence had gone on a little too long, Sara finally found the courage to break it. “Wanna swim instead? Race you to the big ship?”
“Race me? Come on, the only way that’s fair is if it’s a race for me to get back here before you make it out that far.”
“You’re on!” she sprang to her feet and sprinted for the water, laughing at his dopplering “Hey!”
She hit the water at full tilt and dived in, still grinning, enjoying the cool liquid feeling of freedom on her skin as she wriggled a few dolphin-kicks under the surface.
Win or lose, at least she was going to have fun.
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w AV
Clan Fastpaw Orbital Defence station “Pride and Vision”, Orbiting Planet Gorai.
“Brother? What are you doing?”
Gyotin coughed, embarrassed, and unfolded himself slightly. The Zafu he’d had imported from Earth wasn’t really ideal for Gaoians - humans had longer legs with a slightly better range of motion in the hip and a slightly different take on the theme of “spine” - but he had found a comfortable, straight-backed position that served the purpose of keeping him steady and centered and pain-free.
“It’s… something I picked up from the humans.” he said. He rose and embraced his old friend. Tagral had been a cub in the same commune as Gyotin, and had followed his sire into the Fastpaw clan, whereas Gyotin had chosen a slightly more wildcard route in life under the now-notorious Chir.
“Picking things up from humans seems to be very easy.” Tagral sniffed, returning the hug. “You should see what the females are all eating these days. The mother of my most recent cub seemed to be looking forward to these “pancake” things more than the actual siring.”
“You don’t sound like you approve. Congratulations on the cub, though.”
“We can’t ever be deathworlders, brother.” Tagral warned him. “I’m worried that if we try to imitate them too much, we’ll forget what being Gaoian is like.”
Gyotin lowered his ears slightly. “I don’t think we’re in danger of that.” he said.
“No? When you’re doing… whatever that is.” he indicated the Zafu, candle and incense.
“Meditayshun.” Gyotin said, using the English word though it fit awkwardly in his muzzle. There was no word with an equivalent meaning in any dialect of Gaoian that he knew of.
“And what does that translate to?”
“You see? An alien concept. A Deathworlder concept, brother. You’re playing with something very dangerous.”
“I know that better than you do.” Gyotin retorted, hackles rising slightly. “Humans are incredibly dangerous, I’ve seen it first hand.”
“So why this?”
Gyotin looked his brother in the eye and quoted. “Ignorance is comfortable, but deadly. Recognise that?”
“No.” Tagral admitted.
“You don’t recognise the words of your own Clanfather?” Gyotin asked.
“Really? The Clanfather said that?”
“He did. Humans are dangerous, but so is a pulse gun, and what are the first things you learn about pulse guns, before you’re allowed to even fire one?”
“Keep your claw off the trigger unless you are firing, always assume that it will discharge, never aim it at somebody unless you intend to kill them if you must, beware of what you might hit should you miss.” Tagral recited.
“Exactly. How to handle something dangerous, in a safe way. That’s ‘why this’.” Gyotin said, indicating his meditation equipment again. “Nobody knows how to handle humans safely, yet.”
He looked his brother in the eye and repeated that last word for emphasis. “Yet.”
Tagral had opened his mouth to retort, but shut it again, ears starting to droop as he thought through what Gyotin was saying.
“What… what is this meditayshun thing anyway?”
“You… sit and think. Breathe in and out slowly while concentrating on the breathing.”
Tagral blinked. “That’s all?”
“It sounds simple, doesn’t it?” Gyotin said. “But… well, sit down and try it…”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbren, The Far Reaches
“Hey, these are good!”
Sara beamed. One of the great frustrations of her life this last couple of weeks had been the abundance of real news crews and real reporters to try and talk with, to try and get some kind of an education from in how to become a journalist herself, and pretty much every single one had just chewed her out for daring to address them, or at least just shooed her away.
It was a real pleasure to meet a reporter who was more than a stuck-up pretty face in a suit who could stand in front of a camera.
She blushed happily as the Al-Jazeera reporter scrolled through her camera, admiring shots she had taken. It kind of helped that he was really handsome too. “Oooh…” he suddenly examined a few of her snaps with considerable interest. “These are some great ‘before’ shots. We could use these for our next report.”
“Oh yeah. This one… no, no. This one especially. Hey, you used exactly the right filter on this.”
She knew her ears were going pink, but was too happy to really care. “Thanks!”
“Tell you what, I think I’ve got some… yeah, here we go. This is our standard contract, if you can get your folks to sign this on your behalf then I can use your pictures and you’ll get credited and paid for them. Does that sound good?”
It sounded like everything Sara wanted, and her delight didn’t contain itself. She practically bounced on the spot as she took the paperwork and her camera back and dashed away, promising to get the pictures to him ASAP.
The mental image of her own name appearing on a global news broadcast had her so distracted that she only noticed the convoy of trucks when a hand grabbed the back of her collar and firmly yanked her back from the road.
“Watch yourself there, love.”
Sara watched the huge vehicles rumble by, thoroughly sobered by the sight of those huge, crushing wheels that she had very nearly run under. “Shit. Thank you!”
Captain Powell seemed amused, which was a strange sight on his face. Usually he looked so intense. “Oi, didn’t your mum and da’ teach you not to swear?” he asked.
“Not really.” Sara shrugged. “Dad says that ‘fuck’ is one of the oldest and most important words in the English language and that everyone uses it anyway so there’s no real point in being squeamish about it… besides, I’ve heard you swear all the time!”
This seemed to amuse the captain no end. “Aye? I’ll have to watch myself in future I guess. You never know what bad habits you might pick up off an old war-horse like me… Wait, I recognise you. You’re the one who tried to sneak onto the base trying to take pictures of us.”
Sara laughed. “Yep!”
Powell shook his head, clearly still amused but also clearly wanting to be serious. “You know that’s all top-secret stuff in there, aye?” he asked.
“All those classified tents and portacabins?” Sara teased him. “Please, it’s not like I actually managed to sneak onto the base.”
“Yet.” She added.
“By ‘eck you’ve got some cheek.” he said, but the glitter in his eyes said that he enjoyed that, to some extent. “Seriously though, you could have got in very serious trouble, and the only reason you didn’t is because I’m a foo- a big softie and I don’t want to have to throw that kind of trouble at you. It’d ruin your hopes of becoming a journalist.”
“What, for being curious?”
“Aye. Those rules exist for a reason miss, even if you don’t know what that reason is.”
“But if I knew the reason why, then the rules wouldn’t be needed, would they?” she objected “Rules should be explained.”
Powell gave a rueful shake of his head. “I thought you’d say summat like that.” he said. “Alright, would it persuade you not to try again if I just asked nicely?”
He rolled his eyes. “Okay, well. Asking nicely, I’d be grateful if you - seeing as I just stopped you from being run over - never tried a stunt like that ever again.”
“What’s the magic word?”
Powell made a kind of a laugh, one big silent one that rushed out through his nose. “Please.” he said, though his expression was starting to get serious and Sara decided not to push her luck.
“Okay. Since you asked nicely.”
Powell stuck out his hand and they shook on it, after which he nodded at the departing rear of the last vehicle in the convoy.
“Get on with you, go on. And try not to become the next lorry’s hood ornament, aye?”
“I’ll be careful.”
“I hope so, my arm’s not that bleedin’ long. Off wi’ you.”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w AV
Starship Sanctuary, Free Trade Station 1090 “Endless Possibility”
The Mwrwkwel system, the Signal Stars
“That was an apology, dumbass.”
“You’re kidding. Giving me a gun is her way of saying sorry?”
Lewis laughed. He was surrounded by holographic screens, the central one of which was, for now, blank. Around it floated a halo of smaller screens full of notes, useful lines of code, or places for him to write notes. All the tools of the hacker’s trade.
“Julian, dude, you and Allison are, like, the craziest fucking badasses I’ve ever met, but you both SUCK at being real with each other.”
“Docking in ten minutes.” Amir called.
“Real with each other?”
It was Amir’s turn to laugh. “Bruv, I could lean against the sexual tension between you two.” he said.
“What sexual tension? She treats me like I’m a goddamn toy!”
“Dude.” Lewis grinned. “Trust us. She wants you.”
“She wants you bad.” Amir agreed.
“Oh come on. I knew girls like her back in high school, they’d flirt and giggle at you then laugh in your face if you asked them to Prom.”
“I’m sensing a life history there.” Amir deadpanned.
“You’re not in high school no more, man.” Lewis told him. “And that’s not what she’s up to.”
Julian watched him work as lines of code assembled themselves on the large central screen directly in front of Lewis’ face. “So what IS she up to?”
“Come on, do we need to spell it out for you?” Amir asked.
“Apparently you do!”
“Dude, it’s simple.” Lewis told him. “She’s nervous around you. She doesn’t know how to talk to you.”
“Give me a break, she’s got confidence for years.”
“All a front, bro.”
Amir nodded. “You’re shit with girls. She’s shit with dudes. You get flustered, get mad at her and go hide. She gets flustered, doesn’t know what to say to you, so she gives you a bit of T and A because she’s hoping you’ll take the bait.”
“That’s not what she told me.” Kirk ducked into the room. “How are we doing?”
“Docking in, uh… seven.” Amir said.
“Piece of cake, they’re still using version four point two.” Lewis said. “And yeah, I saw that conversation. Protip, Kirk, women never tell men the whole truth about what they’re thinking.”
“Sexist, bruv.” Amir chided him.
Lewis just shrugged. “True, though.”
“What did she say?” Julian.
“Doesn’t matter.” Lewis said, dismissively. “Point being, she wouldn’t be acting like that if she wasn’t into you.” His screen chirped and he grinned. “In like Flynn. Running our sniffers.”
“Six minutes.” Amir added.
“So, what do I do?” Julian asked.
“Fucking… take the bait, dude!” Lewis said. “She gives you an ass to stare at? Stare away! She wants to get up close and personal on the mat or in target practice? Fucking enjoy it!”
Julian turned to the only nonhuman present. “Kirk?”
“Leave me out of this.” the alien said. “I don’t do that whole cliched ‘alien commentary on human behaviour’ thing.”
“Isn’t that itself a…?” Amir began, then abandoned the question when Kirk gave him what they all guessed was a tired, patient stare, though the effect was spoiled slightly by the fact that the positioning of his eyes made it hard for him to look at anything nearby with both of them. “Never mind. Docking in five minutes… mark.”
“I still kind of feel like I’m being used.” Julian objected.
Kirk slapped him upside the head as hard as he could. “Mind on the job. You two can sort it out between yourselves.”
Chastised, Julian nodded. “Right. Sure… what’ve we got, Lewis?”
“Oxygen recycling, grav plate power draw and… yep, food ration dispenser bills are all up by a bit next to her population.” Lewis said. “Right up to half an hour ago. Reckon we’ve got a human on board, boss.”
“Good.” Kirk did one of his slow nods. “We’re a long way from Hunter space here so hopefully he’s been able to live openly.”
“Hey, this is weird.” Lewis added.
“Looks like all those metrics spiked by one human’s worth about… five months ago. There was somebody else here, but they either died or moved on, and there’s nothing in the census logs about a dead human, so… yeah, she moved on.”
“Yep. Definitely a woman. The one still on board is a dude.”
Amir frowned at him. “How do you know that?” he asked.
“I programmed the sniffer to check the sewage processor logs for haemoglobin contamination warnings every fourth week.”
“Blood, dude. Every month. Think about it.”
Amir blinked then realisation dawned with an uncomfortable grimace. “Oh! Oh, right! Uh… three minutes.”
“Weird though. See here? This was just her, then there’s two of them on the station for, like, a week or so, then it’s just him. You think they didn’t get along?”
Kirk patted Lewis on the shoulder and turned to Julian. “Go get Allison and meet me at the airlock.”
“Uh. D-do I, uh-“
“Get over it, Julian. I need you two working together. You can sort out your [unpronounceable crackle of untranslated alien syllables] when we’re back in deep space.”
“Something else, K.” Lewis said, as Julian exited the flight deck.
“I’ve synched with the military relay. Look at this.”
Lewis called up a graph of four writhing coloured lines: piracy, smuggler activity, Alliance scouts, and Hunter raids.
The Hunter line became a vertical cliff at a date three weeks previously.
Kirk leaned in, as if by his taking a closer look the data might change.
“No sightings? No raids? Nothing?”
“Just this.” Lewis zoomed in a little, and a tiny blip in the otherwise flatlined Hunter activity became visible.
“What is that?”
“The whole Swarm-of-Swarms, tracked by a Kwmbwrw listening post, hauling ass back towards Hunter space at ninety kilolights.”
As Kirk stood back up, Lewis looked up at him. “What does that mean, dude?”
Kirk’s four arms described a convoluted approximation of a human shrug. “I have no idea. But it worries me.”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Returning to Cimbrean was a lurch, not least because the trip was so much more crowded this time around. Everyone was jammed in as much as was safe.
Adam wasn’t there to see her step through the decontamination field. Gabriel was. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to face him yet but…
The thought got abandoned as he stepped forward and hugged her, hard.
“Me asustaste.” he said, simply.
Tears sprang up unbidden. “Lo siento.” she whispered back, returning the hug, realising just how lucky she really was. “I swear it was an accident, I do.”
“It’s okay… You’re lucky it was only the once. The doctors reckon that plant’s probably really addictive, and the Tisdales and a few of the others who were using it are apparently really suffering.” He turned back down the hill towards the town, which seemed to have grown alarmingly justin the few days of her visit to Earth. “How are you feeling?”
“It sucked.” she confessed. “I had the shakes, I felt weak… it hurt.”
“Weird how there’s no drug on Earth that’ll hook you so bad, but there is here on Cimbrean.” Gabriel mused.
That brought a slight frown to her face, which she tried, and failed, to suppress. Okay, so her return to Cimbrean had only been authorised an hour or so ago, so if they’d gone down to the lake there was no way he could have known, but it still bothered her that her boyfriend was hanging out with Sara, and how.
“Have they been… doing that a lot?” She asked.
“While they still have a lake to swim in, yeah.”
They passed the faith center. There really were a lot of people running about the place, wearing tough clothes, one or two half wrapped up in plastic protective gear. A gang of men she didn’t recognise were busily moving crates and pallets of equipment out of the barn that served as the cargo terminus for the jump array, hoisting the equipment easily in the low gravity.
“While they…? Why wouldn’t they have a lake to swim in?” she asked. “And are these those research teams you mentioned? What are they doing here?”
Gabriel stopped. “You mean you didn’t hear?” he asked.
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w AV
“How are you finding it, sir?”
The captain didn’t hear her at first, but eventually the question seemed to percolate into his brain. McDaniel could hardly blame him. Her own experience of Gaoian politics was an awful lot like trying to conduct international negotiations with nations that occupied the same land, cities and facilities rather than having their own geographic territory. It wasn’t that Gaoians were deliberately abstruse, or at least not more so than any human diplomat. It was that the only time you could be absolutely certain which clan a given Gaoian belonged to was if they happened to be female.
That fact alone might have been a comfort and help, had Gorai been home to a larger female population. Apparently the route from homeworld to colony was less than perfectly secure and more than one colonial transport had gone missing en route. The Corti Directorate had been unsuccessfully implicated in a few of those cases, the Hunters in most of the rest, and the best efforts of the male naval clans to patrol the spacelane linking the two worlds had not completely restored a sense of confidence that might encourage Mothers to bring their Sisters and cubs with them to the new world. Despite the much larger population and more complete infrastructure, Gorai was in some ways less of a success story than Cimbrean.
In any case, two weeks of dealing with Gaoian politics was starting to wear on her sanity, and she was much more comfortable with such things than the Captain who, she guessed, had probably been staring fuzzily at the same document for five minutes before she entered.
“Sorry Lieutenant, what was that?”
“I asked how you’re finding it, sir.” McDaniel repeated herself, patiently.
“Like hiking through a minefield.” Bathini confessed. “This is a diplomat’s work, not a ship captain’s.”
McDaniel nodded. “I brought you a cup of tea, sir.” she said, setting it down. Technically, as Caledonia’s First Lieutenant, delivering tea was a bit below her, but she had always found that little touches like that went a long way, especially when it came to meetings involving sensitive information. The captain accepted it as if she was a beneficent angel.
“Good news also, I think we may be able to eliminate Father Mo from the list of potential Hierarchy agents.” she said. “The out-of-character behaviour Father Reyiki mentioned to you is almost certainly because the most recent cub he sired died shortly after the birth.”
“With their medical technology, I’m amazed that still happens.” Bathini mused, reading the note she handed him which elaborated on the subject. “A genetic defect?”
“Yes sir. A mutation. Not his fault, but if I understand their society correctly then that kind of thing carries a substantial stigma and has probably shot his chances of ever arranging another mating contract ever again.”
“Plausible.” the captain conceded “But I’m not convinced it’s enough to take him off the list entirely. The Hierarchy are ruthless, they might have arranged the cub’s death to provide plausible deniability for his behaviour. Knock him down to a yellow.”
McDaniel nodded, and jotted a quick note to herself, recording the instruction. Orders fresh from Earth, delivered by a member of Tawhaki Flight, were now to assume Hierarchy activity wherever neural implants of any description were involved. Given that neural augmentations were practically ubiquitous among Gaoian diplomats and senior clan leaders, that meant that every single one had to be considered not only in terms of what they were trying to achieve for their clan and their disposition towards humanity, but also in terms of their potential to act as a Hierarchy agent.
Bathini’s comparison to hiking through a minefield was, if anything, understatement. The orders had included a rough-and-ready risk colour-code to try and classify the probability that any given person was host to one of the enemy, running from green (no implants), then yellow for lowest risk up through orange (“Possible”), red (“Likely”) and finally black for “confirmed Hierarchy Agent.”
Of course, the mere existence of the Hierarchy was still need-to-know information, but Caledonia’s captain and her First Lieutenant both definitely needed to know.
Bathini signed a few more documents, sipped his tea then leaned back and stretched. McDaniel could hear the popping in his spine as he worked the kinks out. “God I’m sick of politics.” he groused. “What’s that you’ve got there?” he indicated the folder she was carrying.
“Latest update on the Type 2 space destroyers, captain.” She handed it over. “Ceres Base is restructuring but a lot of their people are recovering from having their translators removed, including the team leader who was overseeing construction of the shipyard. The project’s delayed by a good few months while they find a suitable replacement or wait for him to convalesce.”
“Funny how getting the damn thing installed was so easy but getting it out again proved to be so major.”
“Well it might work to our advantage. BAE say that the delay is giving them time to test some systems that they would like to update the Type Two’s design with.”
Bathini snorted. “A bird in the hand, Lieutenant…” he said.
“Not to argue with you sir, but I don’t think we can count on the Hunters to have failed to learn anything from our last battle. Some new tricks might be just what we need to keep our edge.”
“On which note, any news about Myrmidon?”
McDaniel shook her head “As per their last prediction I imagine sir, seeing as we haven’t heard from them.”
“Good, I suppose.” Bathini said.
“You suppose, sir?”
“Oh, this is more Manning’s thing than mine. I keep hoping they’ll make a sudden unexpected leap forward so he can take over… “ he tailed off as he sipped his tea again. “how soon can we be done here?”
“We’re fully charged sir and the last of the ETs shipped out this morning. We’ve had a request from Gyotin, however.”
“He said he wants to come back to Cimbrean with us. Apparently he’s attracted a few males to join him in forming a new clan, and wants to set up a Gaoian enclave and embassy in Folctha.”
Bathini considered this. “He is aware of the ecological disaster, right?”
“He says so sir, yes. He says he’s confident that they can protect themselves.”
“Fair enough. What’s in it for us?”
“He’s offering to bring a Dominion-spec FTL comms relay with him, sir.”
“For us, or for the embassy?”
“One each, sir.”
Bathini raised his eyebrows at her. She smiled shyly. “Yes captain, you do have me to thank for that.”
“How long does he need?”
“Two days, sir.”
“Well then. Sound out the Gorai planetary authority, ask them if there’s any way we can arrange shore leave for some of the crew during those two days, what precautions they would want us to take and so on. And tell Chief Williams that I will be coming down like a tonne of bricks on any seaman who displays anything less than exemplary behaviour during shore leave.”
“Aye Aye. Will that be all, captain?”
“Thank you, it will. I need some rest, see you at oh-six-hundred.”
“Yes sir. Good night.”
McDaniel let herself out and took a second to catch her breath.
There were moments when the sheer strangeness just caught up with her. The promising start to her career as a Midshipman aboard the decidedly aquatic HMS Duncan really hadn’t prepared her to be First Lieutenant aboard a captured alien spaceship, nor for negotiating with an alien species, let alone one that looked so disarmingly Procyonid. And all just days after a vicious skirmish with monsters straight out of a Hollywood movie.
If it were just those things, she speculated that maybe she’d be adjusting. But when Gyotin had expressed an interest to live among humans and study Buddhism… and had attracted friends who shared that interest?
It kind of drove home the fact that less than five years ago, during her first days aboard HMS Albion, humanity had still been treating the idea of being alone in the universe as a big unanswered question. Every so often, the absurdity of it all gave her a ringing slap in the face.
She could hardly blame the Captain for wanting to get the hell out of Gaoian space. What the shit had happened to the world? It used to make sense.
She shook the thought off. When it came down to it, keeping a ship running smoothly hadn’t changed much. The universe might have turned out to be indescribably weird, but the realities of a warship were a comfortable anchor.
She ducked past a petty officer and his team, who stood aside en route to whatever they were doing, and bustled towards the bridge, glad to be busy.
Date Point 4y 9m 1w AV
Free Trade Station 1090 Endless Possibility”
Mwrwkwel system, the Signal Stars
“I think I found our human.”
“Good. That’s good, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t understand half of what he’s saying.”
Allison stopped alongside Kirk, who shared a confused glance with her. “What do you mean?”
What followed over Julian’s shotgun microphone was scarcely comprehensible, but Allison recognised it immediately.
“I an’ I cyaan do it, bredda. Dis ya’s dread heavy, ya no see it?”
She laughed. “Man, we’ve got a lively one. What’s he doing?”
“Arguing with some Kwmbwrw shopkeeper. Listen.” his mic rustled again.
“Blood clot gwan f‘dem ya Locayl saps?! I an’ I need-“
“What is he saying?” Kirk demanded.
“Fuck if I know.” Allison shrugged. “Here’s hoping he can tone the Patois down.”
“Good luck.” Julian muttered over the link.
As always, she cleared the crowd simply by being there and looking lean and dangerous, but this was definitely a station that was used to having a human about. The glances she received weren’t the usual disbelieving “could-that-really-be-one-of-the-legendary-Deathworlders?” stares, but simple curiosity at seeing more of her species. She had learned to tell the difference.
Their target turned out to be a tall guy who, yes, was vigorously arguing with a Kwmbwrw shopkeeper over the matter of a large sign which the alien seemed to expect him to lift into place and mount over the shop’s window all by himself, obviously overestimating the famed Deathworlder strength.
“This guy giving you trouble, fella?” She asked.
The human turned, and an almost cliched brilliant white smile cut across his face, causing the shopkeeper to flinch away. “Well would ya look at that.” he said. “I an’ I get an actual angel take me away from all this.”
Allison mentally rolled her eyes. Give her Julian’s awkwardness over too-smooth any day. “Cute. You say that to every girl who walks into your life?”
“Only the beauties.”
Her comm crackled. “Jesus. Laying it on a bit thick there, pal.”
As Kirk stepped forward to introduce himself, Allison exploited the dermal patch microphone on her throat to mutter a reply. “Just a bit.” she agreed.
“Can we leave him here?”
“What’s the matter, Etsicitty? Jealous?”
Answer came there none. Allison smirked, then returned her attention to their new rescue, who treated her to another smile.
“So what’s your name?” She asked.
“I’m Zane.” He said, extending a hand.
She shook it. “Allison.” She replied, then nodded to his side. “That’s Julian.”
“Juli-? Ya!” Zane flinched a good foot sideways upon glancing down at where Etsicitty had appeared next to him. “Coo yah screechie creation stepper! Bad bwai gone fi give I a heart attack!”
“My bad.” Julian’s remorse didn’t extend beyond the words themselves. His tone, expression and language said otherwise. “Kirk, Lewis reckons he’s got a lead on the woman who was here five months ago.”
“This Lewis bwai found Xiù?” Zane asked.
“You met her?”
“First human she laid eyes on in years, sight? She move on though. Restless child, that one.”
“You didn’t go with her? People tend to band together out here.” Julian noted.
“Dawta had her fund, ya nuh see? She made her way sellin’ food. ET nyam her cooking right up.” He shrugged. “She wan’ fi move on, I couldn’t afford it, seen?”
“Did she say why?” Allison asked. Again, Zane shrugged.
“Babylon.” He opined.
“Well, I guess we’re going after her next, while the trail’s warm.” Allison said. “That might mean a delay getting you back to Earth.”
“Ah, me donkya. ‘S a dread galaxy out there, no place for a biscuit on her own, nuh?”
“True enough.” Allison agreed.
“We’re parked on flight deck two-thirteen.” Kirk informed him. “If you have any personal effects you want to gather, we’ll move on as soon as you’re aboard.”
They watched Zane go as he produced a vigorous agreement that he’d be there.
“I hope the ship’s translator can handle him.” Kirk said.
“Mm.” Allison agreed. To Julian, very quietly, she murmured “Did something about his story about this Xiù seem off to you?”
“I didn’t want to say it.”
Allison nodded, frowning in thought. “He creeps me out.” she decided.
“Yeah. Who comes up with a line that smooth at a moment’s notice the first time he sees a woman in months?”
She laughed a little, ignoring the way Kirk’s ear flicked as he tried to eavesdrop. “Jealous, Etsicitty?”
She paused mid-stride and turned to look at him, but he’d vanished into the crowd.
Date point 4y 9m 1w AV
Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Folctha had changed drastically in just the last two weeks, since news of the disaster had broken, on the same day that Ava and a few of the others had been shipped back to Earth. What had been a large-ish clearing out of the forest had been cleared right back for more than a mile around. Heavy forestry equipment: Bunchers, Forwarders, Harvesters, Loaders, Skidders and more had been JA’d to Cimbrean as rapidly as the Earth end of the Array could charge, the aim being to create a “safe zone” around Folctha with a buffer of Terran plants that would, hopefully, prevent the bacterial filth from ever reaching the town.
The drive into Folctha, therefore, had gone from being an exhilarating blur of trees and undergrowth whipping by on either side, to a dreary crawl across an open and increasingly muddy field that was being turned and tilled ready to receive the planting of Terran crop species.
Exactly what was to be done with all of the now-endangered lumber was unclear. If the evidence of the forest was anything to go by then the living wood, once dead, decayed rapidly under the aggressive attention of Deathworld bacteria, and if that was the case then the only hope for the wood to have any use at all was to ship it offworld and sell it to alien collectors who might be interested in the definitely finite quantity that might survive.
The alternative, Adam guessed, being to burn the lot, but that could only exacerbate the huge CO2 emission problem than the Decay Zone was already causing.
In any event, the picturesque little forest town that Folctha had once been was gone: in its place was a field of machinery, lumber stockpiles, tree stumps and the tarpaulin-shrouded blocks of crated spares and equipment. The plans that Adam had seen drawn up would leave Folctha looking beautiful again, but that would come only after a months or years-long process of interventive botanical therapy.
It was like the whole of Cimbrean’s story in miniature. Destroying Folctha had taken days. Building a replacement that might match it would take years at the minimum, assuming it was possible at all.
The sight, plus the bad news about the lake, put him in a melancholy mood that was only lifted when they pulled into the vehicle pool only for Ava to be waiting for him by the side of the cleared patch of compressed dirt that served for a parking lot. She was dressed in her hard-wearing colonist’s clothing - thick hiking trousers, study boots, a jumper and the tough jacket with the custom “From The Ashes” embroidery that mirrored his own, plus a sheepish smile, but she looked just as beautiful as if she had been wearing a summer dress.
They collided in a huge hug.
“No me hagas eso de nuevo.” he begged her, through her hair.
She giggled and tightened her hug. “Te extrañé.” she replied.
“Sí.” she reassured him. “Siento haberte asustado.”
Spanish had become their private language. So few people spoke it on Cimbrean that it was perfect for intimate moments like these, even though English was first language to both of them.
“Me alegro de que estés bien.” He told her. “Te amo.”
“Yo también te quiero.”
That was everything he had needed to hear. They switched back to English as he took her hand and they started to head back towards the palace, neither noticing Sara’s little harrumph at being ignored. There was a Thing scheduled for tonight, and they were hunting the local game animals as much as they could, appreciating what they could get before the poor creatures went extinct. The smell of roasting meat was already on the wind.
“This place went to Hell while I was gone.” Ava commented. Adam sighed.
“Yeah.” he agreed. “Two weeks ago it was paradise, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah… “ she looked down. “Hard to believe one person did that much damage. How was the lake, is it still good?”
“For now, yeah. We’re, uh… planning to head down there again tomorrow after school, while there’s still time.”
“Can I come with?” She asked. “I want to try again.”
Adam hugged her tight around the waist. “It’s okay to have hangups.” he said. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to…”
Ava laughed and stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “I want to.” she reassured him. “Its… important.”
“You’ll enjoy it.” Adam promised her.
She smiled a little uncertainly, then looked him up and down. “So look at you! You’re all tanned and fit! You’ve been keeping up your exercise while I was gone.”
“Yeah.” He grinned. “You like?”
If her expression was anything to go by, she liked. But her tone was light as she reached up and ruffled his hair. “You’ll do.”
They stood aside as a Mule towing a variety of heavy equipment grunted its way down the street, which was beginning to be in dire need of a proper asphalt surface. “Where the heck did that come from?” Ava asked. “The Jump Array’s over that way isn’t it?”
“They built a new one.”
Adam indicated a team of men in high-visibility jackets and hardhats who were riding in a trailer being towed by another Mule as they bounced past. “Some guy called Moses Byron got involved.” he said. “Big billionaire hombre, said some stuff about wanting to turn Cimbrean into ‘the breadbasket of the human race’.”
He shrugged. “Like half these people work for the guy. They’ve got their own Array over that way now, twice the size and I heard they’re going to build one twice the size of that.”
“How the heck is anybody keeping this whole thing organised?” Ava asked
“You got me. I don’t think anybody really is.” Adam told her. “It’s been insane. There was, like, a quiet day or two after the news broke, and then people and gear just started arriving and it hasn’t stopped since. Dad reckons we’re either going to completely screw this up or settle into a rhythm sometime soon where we can start getting organised again, but for now it’s… he called it ‘anarchy on a good day’. I offered to help out with policing but he said… Well, he said no.”
“You sure he didn’t say ‘over my dead body’?”
Adam laughed. “Yeah, that’s closer.” he admitted. “There was swearing.”
“Do you think there’s anything we can do to help?” she asked.
“I wish.” Adam said. “I’ve been trying to find something useful to do and everybody says things like ‘just don’t get in the way, kid’ or whatever.”
“Ugh.” She grimaced. “I hate that.”
“You and me both. I need to be doing stuff, you know?”
“Tell me about it. I had a lot of time to sit and think in the Hospital and it just…”
She trailed off, but Adam knew exactly what she meant. Quiet time, thinking time, was remembering time. Remembering time… hurt. On e of the news crews that was covering the unfolding events on Cimbrean because the reporter had a SoCal accent and tone of voice that reminded him painfully of his mother.
“Hey… you’re here, and I missed you.” he said, taking her hand. “Can we just forget about all this and just… hang out?”
She paused, smiled, and wiggled her head into his shoulder, hugging his arm as they approached the warm and noisy circle where the first of the night’s whole roasts was just starting to be sliced up.. “Yeah.” she agreed. “Let’s do that.”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
Starship Sanctuary, deep space
“It’s kicking harder than I thought it would.”
“How much harder?”
“Well, like… this gun’s kicking about as much as the kind you see in a movie, but the bullets are tiny.”
“Yep. Basic rule, Etsicitty. You don’t learn anything about guns from Hollywood.”
Sanctuary was a yacht, not built for transport capacity, so its cargo rooms were long and narrow afterthoughts tucked away in an unused structural space on either side of the power core’s equator. Aside from the slight curve, they were about perfect for use as a shooting range, and Allison had found a micrometeoroid protection foam that doubled perfectly as a bullet catcher, which she had sprayed all over the back wall. After that, the nanofactory had made it trivial to construct some targets.
“Okay, so you’ve got a feel for it.” she said, and stepped up to him, just a little bit too close for innocence, aiming her left foot downrange and miming the gun he was holding. “So just aim a little bit lower, and remember you want to squeeze the trigger…
+That’s not the only thing I want to squeeze… focus!+
He slowed his breathing a little and directed his attention to the weapon. This was no different than mastering throwing his hatchet had been, all he needed was repetition.
Aim a little lower…. squeeze on the exhale.
“I hardly felt it that time.”
She stepped around him and this time there was contact as she indicated what he had done right. “You didn’t jerk the trigger, so the gun didn’t fly up like this, so the recoil didn’t make it worse. You see?”
He saw, and flexed his grip on the gun. He also saw the way her eyes flicked to the movement of the muscles in his arm. Then they flicked up and they made eye contact.
By some effort of will he held her gaze, and this time… this time, she was the one who finally broke eye contact and looked away, clearing her throat and pulse raised.
+Jesus. Lewis is right.+
She took the gun off him, gently. “So, uh… watch me.”
Stance. Aim. Fire. Fire. Fire. Click.
She ejected the magazine, checked the gun was safe and set it down on the bench before pressing the button to recall the target.
Their paper Hunter had a trio of holes inside the ten-point circle of its razor-toothed mouth that Julian could have fit his thumb over.
“Show-off.” He said.
She smiled over her shoulder at him, confidence restored. “Jealous, Etsicitty?”
“Eh. With practice you might be half as good as me.” She teased, putting the gun back in its box.
“I wasn’t talking about the gun.”
She turned, and he was astonished to find that his own feet had carried him up behind her, so that when she did so their belt buckles were practically touching. She put her hands behind her, bracing herself on the table.
“That smooth son of a bitch upstairs?” She asked.
“Please. Like he’s half the man I am.”
She tried to laugh it off. “Ego, Etsicitty?”
“Planet Nightmare. Six years. Figure I’ve earned it.” He leaned just a little closer, watching her lips part and her skin flush. “Problem is, that planet doesn’t teach you how to be real with somebody.”
She swallowed a little. “Being real, huh?”
“H-how real do you want?”
+Fucking tell her you stupid son of a bitch!+
“How…” he cleared his throat. “How real have you got?”
+Good job, man. Way to wuss out.+
She blinked at him.
Then she kissed him.
Sheer surprise almost stopped him from kissing back. Almost. Instinct saved him, driving him forward to meet her with a back-of-the-throat noise of delight that came out of nowhere, sending his arms around her waist. She gripped his hair with one hand while the other splayed on his chest over his heart, then moaned softly as he put a hand on her ass and pulled her hips towards his own.
Her own hand went straight down the line of his torso and pressed against the front of his jeans, gripping lightly and lingering there for just a second, before she broke the kiss and recoiled as if his dick had burned her. “Fuck… fuck! Too real!” She gasped. “Too real! Jesus! Whoah…”
They let go of each other, pulses pounding.
“Too real?” He asked, unsure what to make of that.
“Too…” she kissed him again. “Much. Too much, I meant too much. But real enough. God!”
“I just… Can we go for real talk before we do any more… real anything else?”
He slipped his hands around her waist again, gently this time. “Talk.”
“You are… unbelievably sexy, you know that? All of my turn-ons in one guy, it’s crazy.”
“Good, I guess?”
“I just… I can’t… oh for fuck’s sake Julian, I really, REALLY want to fuck you.”
“No, shut up and let me say this. I really WANT to, but we’re not GOING to, okay? Not so long as we’re on this ship. Not happening.”
+What a fucking tease!+
+No. Think, dumbass.+
It took an effort of will, but Julian wrestled his frustrated libido into the corner, and the logic presented itself. “…you’re worried about the ship, the mission?”
“Oh, fuck sake, do you have to understand as well?!” She exploded. “Yes. The mission. Being on this ship. Doing something with my life. Mattering. I don’t want to lose that.”
“So… what do you want?”
The question shut her down for a second as she thought about it. “I guess… I… what about you?”
“Are we just physical?”
“I… shit, I don’t know. We’re a pretty good team and… I like you.”
“A fuck of a lot, yeah.”
Julian smiled sadly. “Have we ever done anything other than exercise and flirt? What about… what’s your favourite movie? Band? I don’t even know where you grew up or what you did before your abduction. I like you too despite all the taunting but…”
She shut him up with a kiss. “Okay. That’s enough real right there.” she said. “Let’s start with all that shit and… figure out the rest, yeah?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“That’s what I want.” she confirmed.
“So… what is your favorite movie?”
Allison froze, then glanced up at the ceiling. Julian frowned. “What?” he asked
“Just checking there’s no cameras in here.” she said. “I don’t want the guys to hear this.”
“So wait, you’d be fine with them watch-?”
She interrupted him. “It’s ‘Tangled’.”
“I’ve, uh… Never seen that one.”
“Oh.” She cleared her throat, tugged down her shirt a little and put her hair back in its ponytail. “Uh… Do you want to?”
“There’s, uh… just one thing, yeah?”
“I, uh… like to sing along.”
He blinked at her, then smiled. “I think.” he said. “That this is going to work.”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
Folctha colony palace, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Sir Jeremy Sandy
While Sir Jeremy had always found Gabriel Arés to be an excellent man to work with - he wished all such senior police officers, superintendents, chief constables, or whatever equivalent rank he had dealt with during his career had been so reasonable. But long years of experience had granted him a sixth sense for when he was about to have a difficult meeting, and from the tone of the polite request that Arés had sent, today’s was going to be a tough one.
He knocked, poked his head into Gabriel’s office, and asked “Are you busy?”
Arés issued a humourless, monosyllabic laugh - hunh! - and beckoned him to enter.
Sir Jeremy sat down opposite his closest colleague. “So, what can I do for you, Gabriel?” he asked.
Gabriel finished up what he was doing, flipped a sheet of paper into one of the piles on his desk that, presumably, meant something to him, and gave Sir Jeremy his full attention. “You realise we’ve got an independently owned jump array allowing people onto this planet now, right?”
“Run by an organisation owned by a man who doesn’t know about the Hierarchy.”
“I don’t trust Byron to keep it a secret. What’s the matter, aren’t your people screening the immigrants?”
“My people don’t know why they’re screening for neural implants.” Gabriel said. “And in any case that represents one thin blue point of failure, right here in Folctha. The traffic coming through the Scotch Creek array is at least being checked several times and properly by people who know why it’s so important.”
He frowned. “Why ARE we keeping it a secret, anyway? It’s no crazier than some of the other stuff that’s happened these last five years. You think people won’t believe it?”
“To avoid spooking the bastards into doing something rash.” Sir Jeremy replied. “The more people we tell, the more clear it is just how seriously we’re taking this threat. So long as the Hierarchy think that we aren’t really taking them seriously…”
When Gabriel frowned uncertainly, he pressed forward. “Besides, we don’t want a witch hunt on our hands. We can’t let the Hierarchy terrorize us into jumping at shadows.”
“That’s a dangerous game.” Gabriel said. “A known security hole versus the possibility that they’ll get more dangerous if we take them seriously? They know we’re onto them already, and for fuck’s sake they’re trying to genocide us.”
“It’s the considered opinion of the GRA, the UN and NATO that keeping the existence of the Hierarchy a secret is, for now, the best course of action.” Sir Jeremy stated, firmly. “I am inclined to agree.”
“And, sure, they’re right.” Gabriel said. “But Jeremy, if even one of their agents gets through that Array undetected then we could lose people. We could lose the whole planetary reclamation project. As the closest thing you have to a spymaster right now, I’m telling you - Byron needs to know.”
“Byron’s a loudmouth.” Sir Jeremy responded. “Gabriel if I thought he was at all trustworthy with the secret, we wouldn’t be having this conversation - it would already be done. But we are speaking of the literal survival of our entire civilization and species here - caution must rule the day.”
Gabriel sat back, sighing. “He’s really that bad?”
“His exact words to me were ‘Ethical is a brand’. I think he thought he was making a witty commentary on human nature and being so famously honest.”
“…I see. That’s a tough call.”
“One that I’ve made. I just hope that your men are vigilant.”
“Vigilant isn’t the problem. Overworked is the problem. Our ratio of cops to citizens is way too low right now.”
Sir Jeremy sat in silence. “Gabriel, I’ll… see what I can do.” he said. “Maybe Byron can be persuaded to tighten security on his side without being told why. I wouldn’t hold on to much hope, though.”
“Do what you can. I’ll do what I can.”
“And God can take care of the rest.” Sir Jeremy said. “Very well. Thank you, Gabriel.”
Sir Jeremy paused outside Arés’ door and, despite not being a praying man by inclination, still took the time to glance upwards and offer a silent “please” to the heavens.
Frankly, he was quite sure that it was the most he could do.
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
The Lake, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
They didn’t have long left before sunset, and Adam was putting in his two lengths to the submerged wreckage of the big ship and back, leaving the girls on the bank to enjoy the last of the sunlight.
Ava was quiet, watching the lake, the sun, the trees and the little animals that were flying, climbing and occasionally jumping between them, all singing a quiet chorus that wasn’t quite like any birdsong ever heard on Earth. Sara didn’t want to intrude; her friend’s expression was serene, her lips curled up at the corners. Ava looked completely at peace.
Sara just wished she could have taken a picture without disturbing her.
It didn’t last. Eventually Ava noticed that she was being watched, and fidgeted a little, though she acknowledged the attention with a smile rather than with awkwardness and said. “Sorry, I was… miles away.”
“You looked really happy.”
Ava tucked a rope of wet hair behind her ear and looked up at the painted sunset sky, still wearing that faint smile. “I feel… lighter.” she said.
“Well, yeah. Your jacket always looked heavy to me.” Sara joked.
“Not just the clothes.” Ava laughed. “Just… I don’t know.”
She looked out across the lake again. “…Lighter.”
Sara’s curiosity had always been her weakness, and her resolve not to intrude on Ava’s peace finally gave in. “What changed?” she asked.
“Well, I’m really happy you’re here, but a couple of weeks ago you were freaking out over this and now…” she waved a hand at both of them to indicate their mutual skyclad condition. “What changed?”
Ava put her head on one side, thinking. “Being high was really scary.” she confessed.
“Oh yeah.” Sara agreed, glad that Ava’s experience had mirrored her own. “It is, isn’t it?”
“You’ve been high?”
“I never thought it would be frightening.” Ava said. “Mom and Dad always made it sound like a horror story anyway, but not, like, a scary horror story. More like a kind of mind-control horror story, where the drug makes you do bad things.”
“Oh yeah. I tried some of…” Sara tailed off and dismissed the rest of the story with a wave of her hand. “…But I got so scared. I thought I was going to die.”
“Yeah…” Ava looked at the lake again. “That’s exactly it. I thought I was gonna die. And then there was the hospital, and I felt REALLY sick for days, and the doctors were all serious, and some of them looked really worried, like they were out of their depth. That was scary too.”
“And then I… I kind of accepted it.” Ava said. “Like… I dunno. Like, I wasn’t happy about it, but I guess I…”
Sara did something uncharacteristic and shut up, letting Ava finish the thought.
“…I guess… I realised, like, everyone’s going to die someday, aren’t they? Everyone. Everyone. So why be scared of it? Its going to happen one day, and then there’s Heaven waiting on the other side, so…”
Sara very carefully didn’t snort or roll her eyes, or give any indication what she thought of Ava’s naive belief in heaven. Instead, when Ava drifted off again, looking at the distant black dot that was Adam turning around and beginning the last return leg of his swim, Sara prompted her to continue. “…So…?”
Ava shook herself out of it. “So… I’m alive, aren’t I? I’ve got the chance to do some of the things I’d regret not doing, and this was one of them.”
She looked back at the sunset. “Im glad I did. This is…” She smiled a little bashfully. “If I died tonight, my Heaven would be right here, exactly as we are.”
That sounded like one of the most Hippie things Sara had ever heard, but it wasn’t a cynical thought: Instead, she felt a swell of vicarious happiness and, apropos, she scooted over and gave Ava a sideways hug. “Thanks for being okay.” she said. “You really scared us.”
Ava returned the hug with extra warmth. “Thanks, Sara.” she replied. “I’d never have had this without you.”
The sun was just coming into contact with the top of distant hills when Adam reached the shallows near the shore and stood up to wade the rest of the way. “Got some bad news.” he reported as he shook himself off and used his hands to scrape water from his limbs and trunk.
“What’s up?” Ava asked, standing up and offering him a hand to help him up the bank.
“Some of the trees on the west bank are looking kinda yellow, and they didn’t look like that yesterday.”
Sara broke the silence that greeted his news. “…That’s it then, I guess. No coming back here.”
“That’s life.” Adam said, causing Ava to nod in agreement. “You’ve just got to enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it.”
To Sara, that seemed like a very sad thought, but neither of her friends seemed to be very upset. Instead, she watched them watch the sunset, holding hands, before Ava took a huge breath, flapped her arms in a kind of little shrug, and turned away from the lake to retrieve her clothes. Adam paused a few seconds longer before following her.
Left alone on the shore, Sara took a moment to squint at the far treeline, just to confirm that, yes, there was a patch of sickly yellow over there.
“Sara? You coming?”
She glanced back just to acknowledge that she was, then curtseyed to the landscape.
“Goodbye, lake… Thank you.”
She spent most of the trip back wondering why she wasn’t crying.
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
HMS Caledonia, Orbiting Planet Gorai, Gaoian Space
“Human starship Caledonia, this is Whitecrest clan personal transport three hundred and thirty-seven, requesting permission to approach and dock.”
“Copy three-three-seven, hold distance and stand by.”
There was a long pause before the human flight controller’s voice returned. “Whitecrest three-three-seven, please state your business.”
“Caledonia, I am a personal envoy of Mother-Supreme Giymuy, my mission is a diplomatic one. I have no cargo or passengers, and this vessel is unarmed.”
Again, a long wait. Finally, his anticipation was rewarded. “Whitecrest three-three-seven, power down your engines and shields and prepare to be tugged into our port flight deck.”
Anybody else would have probably felt that the humans were being paranoid, but Regaari knew there was no such thing. In a way, their caution was comforting. It was like being surrounded by the terse professionalism of his own clan.
He was met on the deck by a squad of male soldiers and a female in a more comfortable dark blue uniform with some kind of rank marking worn on her chest. The former watched him like a hawk as he alighted, clearly alert for danger and unwilling to relax even though he was plainly unarmed - he approved. The latter, however, held out two pieces of equipment - one was plainly a translator device, which she handed to him. The other was a flat paddle of some kind.
“I’m subjecting you to a quick search.” she informed him. Regaari ducked his head in acknowledgement and then stood with his arms and legs outstretched.
Curiously, she began with his head, grunting as the wand beeped. It beeped a few more times as she ran it over him, wherever it passed over a metal fastening on his coverall, but she seemed to find that acceptable.
“You have neural implants.” she said. It may have been a question, but Regaari didn’t detect the uptick at the end of her sentence that was characteristic of the way Xiù had asked questions, and which he assumed to be a standard human vocalization.
“Yes…” he confirmed, wondering where she was going with the statement.
“So long as you’re aboard ship, you will remain under marine escort. These are for your protection as much as anybody else’s, this is a working warship and we don’t want you getting lost or injured.” the officer informed him, in an apparent non-sequitur. “the gravity in sections of the ship you’ll be visiting has been turned down, but you could seriously hurt yourself if you stray outside of those areas.”
“Thank you.” he said, agreeing that the escort seemed safest.
The officer relaxed, and extended a hand, shaking Regaari’s paw with a human’s trademark firm grip, but not with their equally trademark crushing power. “Welcome aboard. I’m Lieutenant Ellen McDaniel, this ship’s First Lieutenant. Captain Bathini apologizes for not meeting you in person - you come very highly recommended, but he does have a ship to run.”
“Thank you.” he repeated. “I completely understand.”
“Will you come this way, please?” McDaniel gestured towards a hatch with one hand.
The ship was not originally of human construction, Regaari could tell. There was a clear mismatch.
The human technology was like stepping into a museum. It was all sturdy metal painted a dull and hard-wearing grey, with visible and almost shockingly low-tech dials and physical controls. Sturdy bulkheads had been installed, lined with easily accessible pipes, power lines and conduits, every one festooned with bright warning labels, simple diagrams demonstrating their use, and terse blocks of text.
Visible below all of that functional steel, however, was something altogether more ornate and elegant. The corridors seemed to be surprisingly wide and tall, as if built for the galactic average, which was decidedly at odds with the small, narrow pressure doors that had been spliced in at regular intervals. The deck plating was totally standard, the product of any shipyard in the Interspecies Dominion . The firefighting system in the ceiling, on the other hand, had clearly been ripped out and replaced for some reason.
The bit that really surprised him, however, was that every last scrap of electronics had been replaced. There wasn’t a single recognisable wall screen, processing unit, terminal or display to be seen. The humans couldn’t possibly have computers that were on par with those of a more established spacefaring civilization. Could they?
McDaniel made a familiar amused noise - a lot of her mannerisms were very much like Xiù’s, though possibly that was just because she was a fellow human female. She was, after all, only the second such that Regaari had ever met. But there was a lot to differentiate her from Xiù. McDaniel marched, moving at an efficient brisk pace that Regaari could feel in the deck. Xiù had always glided, disarmingly soft and silent. Xiu’s head-fur had been long, shiny and dark black. McDaniel’s was much shorter, and a kind of matte yellowish hue that Regaari couldn’t remember ever seeing in Gaoian fur, and where Xiù had gone everywhere with her head bowed a little and hunched inwards, making herself small, McDaniel moved like she owned the place, and to judge from the deference shown to her by the ship’s crew, she very nearly did.
“Impressed?” she asked.
“Intrigued.” Regaari admitted, conscious that while everything he spoke and heard was reaching him in perfect Gaoian, the human would be hearing them in English thanks to the targeted interfering sound waves the device was emitting. The effect had always disconcerted him. “You’ve clearly taken somebody else’s ship and reworked it to your needs, but I don’t recognise the design.”
“I can’t discuss the details.” McDaniel told him. “but yes, this ship was captured and repurposed. A large part of its internal systems are back on Earth now, being reverse-engineered.”
Regaari glanced around. It was hard to gauge the level of advancement that the ship had originally been built at thanks to the human replacements, but he got the impression that it had originally matched or likely exceeded the very cutting edge of Gaoian hardware. Earth had achieved impressive results with just a few mangled scraps of Hunter technology - he wondered what they would achieve with these new, intact trophies.
One thing he did notice was that it was eerily quiet. A warship this size should have been permeated by the background hum of its power cores. On Caledonia, the sound came from the crew and the air systems, neither of which were loud.
After they had gone down a flight or two of extremely steep stairs - almost ladders, really - McDaniel opened a hatch and politely gestured him into a meeting room of some description, where he sat down. The chairs were a little awkwardly shaped for a Gaoian, leaving his feet extended outwards well above the ground, and sliding his hips forward so as to bend his knees comfortably only induced an uncomfortable bend in his spine. he eventually settled for swivelling the chair a quarter-turn and sitting on it sideways.
The marines had remained outside.
“So. To business, then.” McDaniel said. “Would you like some coffee? How does caffeine affect your species?”
“I don’t know.” Regaari confessed. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Probably best not, then.” McDaniel said, ruefully. “You don’t mind if I have a cup, do you?”
“Not at all.”
McDaniel opened a thermal flask and a strong scent assailed Regaari’s nose as she poured out a steaming, blackish-brown liquid. It smelled… quite nice, he decided. but it also promised that the substance itself probably wouldn’t taste as good as it smelled.
At least, not to him. McDaniel sipped it and seemed very pleased with the result. Then she set the cup aside. “So, your diplomatic assignment.”
“A plea. One of our own has gone missing. One of your own, too.”
“I don’t follow.”
Regaari scratched behind his ear. “How much do you know about our clan of Females?” he asked.
McDaniel shrugged. “less than I would like to before drawing any conclusions.” she said. “They’re certainly - no offense intended - the most powerful of your clans by dint of sheer population, and control over the breeding rights, but I can’t say I know much more than that.”
“Well, one thing you may not appreciate is that you don’t necessarily have to be Gaoian to be part of a clan.” Regaari told her. “Though that precedent was actually set by a human.”
“Really?” McDaniel looked intrigued.
“Oh yes. She saved a colony group of Mothers, Sisters and cubs from an illicit Corti science facility some five homeworld years ago, before your species’ first faster-than-light flight. She couldn’t go home - we didn’t even know where Earth was at the time - so the Females declared her one of their own and took her in. She’s officially a Sister.”
“And she’s gone missing.”
“That’s right. I think in your terms, I last saw her just under two years ago.”
“You last saw her?”
Regaari ducked his head, ears rotating slightly. “Shoo is… a friend.” he confessed. “I was tasked with looking after her and did so for more than a year.”
“Her name is just impossible for Gaoians to pronounce correctly. Shoo Shang is the closest I can get.”
“And she just… vanished?”
“I think I had better tell you the whole story from the start.” Regaari told her.
Some minutes later, his account was briefly interrupted when a junior of some description arrived and handed McDaniel a hardcopy file - little more than a brown folder and a few sheets of paper, but the face looking out from the first of those pieces of paper was definitely Shoo, albeit looking younger, a little rounder in the face and a little less stressed than Regaari remembered her.
“Xiù Chang.” she said, also mispronouncing the name slightly, making it sound like ‘jew’. “Abducted from… huh, Vancouver, three days before the Hunter attack there. Turned twenty-four last month. Was studying acting at UBC at the time of her abduction. Last known sighting… nearly two years ago. Pretty much a full year before the Abductee Reclamation Program really swung into gear, aboard a private corporate cargo relay station.”
“That station was handling hundreds of ships a day.” Regaari said. “By the time we woke up and found her missing, dozens had come and gone. She could have been on any of them. And from there…” He made a helpless gesture, ears downcast. “I’m the one who taught her how to cover her tracks. Apparently she was a good student.”
“It says here that she’s known to have been wounded by a Nervejam pulse.” McDaniel said.
“Yes. It nearly killed her.”
“That’s good-bad news. At least it didn’t kill her, but those weapons have some terrible long-term effects… How did it happen?”
“Well, as I was saying. We were having a tough fight of it…”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
Docked at Free Trade Station 1090 “Endless Possibility”
The Mwrwkwel system, the Signal Stars
Zane’s dense patois, fortunately, was handled perfectly well by the translator, though only after Lewis was instructed to reprogram it. Apparently Zane didn’t approve of having his own creole echoed back at him. It certainly made conversation much easier.
“So where did she go?”
“Flight deck four-oh-four. I nearly didn’t find it.” Lewis snickered. “We got real lucky there, these things only log the deck plating power draw about every half hour, but the last log was on that deck aaand… flight log and itinerary for a light bulk transport headed for the Aru system, departure time five minutes after that deck plate log.”
“The Aru system?”
Vedreg had woken from his nearly three-day-long sleep cycle, and was fizzing with energy, or at least as much so as an alien the size of a Big Rig cab could fizz. He couldn’t fit into the flight deck itself, but was filling most of the corridor behind it, peering in eagerly. They were still figuring out what his colours meant in the absence of translator implants, but the medley swirling all over him almost certainly denoted fascination and awe.
“Curioser and curioser…” Kirk mused.
The three human men glanced at one another before Lewis said what they were thinking. “So, uh, care to tell the ignorant monkey dudes what’s special about the Aru system?” he prompted.
“It’s the home of the OmoAru, the oldest remaining civilization.” Kirk said. “Nearly two hundred thousand Terran years old.”
“So, younger than the Igraens and Hunters then.” Amir said.
“I’m quite sure I said civilization.” Kirk replied, a touch frostily. “They’re in late decline nowadays, and will most likely be extinct within a few decades.”
“Why?” Lewis asked. “What happened?”
Kirk and Vedreg exchanged a glance “We… don’t know.” Vedreg admitted. “Species die eventually. They stop building, they stop expanding or trading, eventually they stop reproducing and just die out. Nobody knows why.”
“Isn’t that kind of a huge problem?” Lewis said. “I mean, shit, EVERY species does this? Why isn’t… shit, why isn’t everyone looking for a cure?”
This was met with the mutual equivalent of unknowing shrugs from the two aliens, who then shared another glance. “Maybe we should look into that.” Kirk admitted. “It does seem strange.”
“Now that you mention it… yes it does.” Vedreg agreed. “Anyway. The OmoAru are one such species in the last years of their existence.”
“So who goes to their home system?” Amir asked. “Psychologists? Counsellors? Suicide hotline workers?”
“Scavengers. Picking over the artefacts, artwork and advanced technology of the most ancient civilization in the galaxy. Exactly the sort of work where a human’s brawn would come in useful, actually.”
Zane nodded. “Well, let’s get after her then.” he said.
“Peace.” Amir said. “Degaussing is going to take another three hours.”
Zane paused. “I’ll go… pick a bed then.” he said, not bothering to say any more as he stalked out.
Amir watched him go. “Something seem off about him to you?” He asked Lewis.
“Dude, we ship with a white zebra-giraffe-dude with four arms named after a Star Trek character, a two-tonne Mr. Snuffleupagus who glows in the dark, and two of the most sexually frustrated badasses in human history.” Lewis said. “What does ‘off’ even mean on this ship?”
Lewis glanced back down the corridor, past Vedreg. “…Yeah. Something’s off about that guy.”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
HMS Caledonia, Orbiting Planet Gorai, Gaoian Space
“That’s…” McDaniel wiped her eye. “Dammit. I’m sorry.”
Regaari ducked his head. “Please, don’t be. Thank you for caring so much.”
McDaniel nodded, taking a sip of her coffee to recover her composure. She was too professional to speak poorly of the Dominion while in her official capacity as an officer of the Royal Navy, but the story of how they had apathetically kicked that poor confused slave from pillar to post rather than putting her on a shuttle straight back to Gao had frankly disgusted her. How could ANYBODY have that kind of a lack of compassion?
She realised that Regaari had meant two things by thanking her for caring.
“Officer Regaari… do you know how many of our people are scattered all over the known galaxy?”
“I don’t.” He conceded. “Not many, I assume.”
“We’ve managed to contact, recover and bring home a few dozen, and there are about three times as many that we know for certain are dead. That still leaves more than ten thousand unaccounted-for, taken over the last forty or fifty years.”
His ears pricked up and forward. “That many?”
“I suppose as Deathworlders we were particularly fascinating. But it’s a big galaxy out there. How many stations are there? Of all kinds?”
“I don’t know exactly. Millions.”
“FTL-capable ones of all sizes? Billions, easily.”
“And sapient beings in the trillions. And that’s just in and around Dominion space which takes up… what, a third of the galactic habitable ring?”
“The whole galaxy, officially. But yes, in practical terms… about a third.”
McDaniel nodded. “We have an expression. A needle-”
”-in a haystack. I’m familiar with it. It’s an understatement.”
“Then you see my point. We have only a tiny number of ships, and you’re asking us to look for one specific needle out of the thousands of needles scattered across an entire continent’s-worth of haystacks.”
“You must appreciate that that’s… not exactly feasible. I admire miss Chang a lot from your description of her, but I can’t treat her as being any more worthwhile than any of the other abductees.”
Regaari lowered his head, crestfallen. “I suspected you would say that.” he said. “But, Ayma insisted that I had to at least ask.”
“From the way you described her, I’m surprised she’s not here in person.”
“She would be, but she… our cub was born a few days ago. The timing was just wrong, so she asked me to come.”
“Shouldn’t you be there with her? I mean, your child…”
“It doesn’t work like that for us.” Regaari said. “We don’t do it the way you do. I’m happy, I know the little one will grow up and be an excellent Gaoian, just like her mother. That’s where my involvement ends.”
That sounded cold and tragic to McDaniel, but she held her peace. Refraining from commenting on alien cultural differences was one of the basic rules of diplomacy. “Well… I’m sorry that I can’t offer more than we’re already doing.” she said.
“I understand.” Regaari assured her. “Knowing the scale of the problem… doesn’t help, exactly. Xiù is important to me, and the Mother-Supreme has taken a personal interest in her as well. But I understand.”
“Perspective’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
Regaari wrinkled his nose as he interpreted the painfully literal translation of that sentiment, then he gave one of those Gaoian nods. “It is.” he agreed, and stood. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“No, thank you for helping us. If nothing else, the Chang family can be told. And now that we know she’s likely to be in disguise and what that disguise looks like, it might just help the search.”
“I hope so.” Regaari agreed, keeping his private doubts private. “Please, don’t let me use up any more of your time. You have a ship to run.” he stuck out a paw, keeping the wince off his face as McDaniel shook it a little too hard.
She opened the hatch for him. The two marines waiting outside snapped to attention. “Bon voyage, officer.” she said. “I hope we’ll have good news for you. Gentlemen, please escort our guest back to his ship.”
“Aye aye. This way, sir.”
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility
British Columbia, Canada, Earth.
Brigadier-General Martin Tremblay
“You’re sure about this? I don’t exactly trust the Byron Group to know what they’re doing.”
“Browning my pants, but… yeah, I’m sure. And they’re never gonna get better if no fucker’s dumb enough to fly with ‘em, right?”
“Yeah, well… watch yourself out there. Our very first scout ship went missing on its first mission.”
“The Governess? Yeah, I know. But I’m gonna be one of a crew, that’s gotta make a difference…”
“You hope…” Tremblay cleared his throat. “Be careful.”
“Dammit, Martin, I don’t wanna tear up…”
They shook hands. It didn’t seem personal enough, until Kevin shrugged, and turned the handshake into a hug.
“Gonna miss you, man.”
Tremblay laughed a little, and broke the hug. “Same. The place won’t be the same without your coffee and pancakes.”
“Just don’t let Maurice change the name.”
“You’ve got it… Goodbye, Kevin. Thank you for everything.”
“Take care of yourself.”
Tremblay sank back into his chair and allowed himself just a moment’s peace as the door shut behind Kevin, but he allowed himself no more than that.
There was still a research facility to run.
Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 2d AV
Starship Sanctuary, deepace.
“Okay, your turn.”
“What’s your favorite movie?”
“…PLEASE tell me you like to sing along with ‘Let It Go’.”
“I used to sing it on Nightmare.”
Allison looked up at him in mild disbelief, then smiled delighted at the way his face was turning red. “It kept my spirits up!” he explained.
She smiled, and snuggled her head into his shoulder. “Oh yeah. This is going to work.”
Date Point: 4y 9m 2w 6d AV
Folctha colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“What about… The mountaintop?”
“They’re building an observatory up there.”
“Contaminated last week, come on Sara.”
“This place got boring.”
Adam and Ava nodded. There were no longer any interesting knots of forest to explore, no lakes to leap into, no view that wasn’t the clean-picked aftermath of the ravenous logging, and with the ballooning population of Folctha beginning to seriously tax the capacity of the colony’s basic power grid, rationing had been imposed which made Adam’s Playstation an occasional luxury rather than a reliable source of entertainment.
He’d already used up all his credits. So had the girls.
A convoy of trucks bullied past the school, further mutilating the dirt road which was already in dire need of a more permanent surface.
“Maybe we could go see what they’re doing?”
Sara made a disgusted noise to match her equally revolted expression. “I guess.”
They jogged after the convoy, which pulled in at one of the Byron building sites on the colony’s edge - a promised starport, currently an industrial mangrove swamp of cranes and scaffolding, putting their roots down in excavated but unfilled foundations.
The kids lined up at the chain link fence, peering between the corporate hoardings and safety notices, taking it in. The artist’s impressions certainly looked pretty, but for now this was just another eyesore. It was hard to imagine how one could become the other.
With nothing better to do, they just stood and watched the workers fan out across the construction site, picking up where they had left off the previous night.
“Guess they’re pouring the foundations today.” Sara commented, pointing at a family of cement trucks that were entering the site from the other side, reversing up to one of the foundations, which was basically just a pit, filled with a welded industrial cage of rebar.
Adam frowned. “So… what’s that guy doing?” he asked.
He didn’t point, but managed to indicate with the direction of his gaze which worker he was referring to. He hadn’t practised crowd-watching since leaving Earth, but the skill had apparently stuck with him. It wasn’t just that the guy wasn’t with all the others, it was that he seemed to be carefully keeping some concealment between himself and his colleagues.
“…maybe he’s sloping off for a fag break?” Sara asked. When Adam and Ava gave her a strange look, she sighed. “Cigarette.”
The lone worker found somewhere he was apparently satisfied with, and pulled a brick-sized object of some description from inside his high-vis jacket, which he promptly stuffed into a cement mixer.
“That didn’t look like a cigarette.” Ava commented.
“I don’t like this, I’m calling my Dad.” Adam said.
“Are you sure about that? I mean, maybe we should find out what it is first…” Sara said.
“No. If it’s a false alarm it’s no big deal, but if it’s dangerous we should let the FCPA handle it.” Adam said firmly.
Cellphone coverage in Folctha was at least ubiquitous - the colony was far too small, flat and open for that to be an issue, and Gabriel answered on the third ring.
“Dad, we’re down by the Byron spaceport site, there’s somebody down here acting real suspicious.”
“I’m on my way.” Gabriel said. Adam grinned, relieved and delighted that his Dad trusted his instincts so implicitly. “What’s he up to?”
“Slipped away from the other workers and hid something in a cement mixer. Could be a drugs drop.”
“How big a something?”
“Uh, about the size of a big cellphone, I guess.” Adam shrugged off a tap on his shoulder
“Right. Keep an eye on him but don’t get close okay? I need to hang up and get down-”
“Oh Shit.” Adam swore, as he glanced around in response to the increasingly urgent tap on his shoulder, just in time to see Sara’s boots wriggle out of sight under the fence. He rushed to the fence.
“Sara what the fuck are you doing?!” he hissed.
She raised her camera “Getting a picture of this guy in case he slips away!”
She ducked behind a pile of girders.
“SARA! FOR FUCK’S SAKE GET BACK HERE!” Adam hissed, as loudly as he dared. She didn’t reappear.
“Oh God, Dad, Sara just went in there, she’s trying to get a picture of the guy…”
To his horror, he saw the guy who had dropped the whatever-it-was in the machine pause and glance back, clearly having caught some movement out the corner of his eye. A second later, he began to march purposefully back toward the mixer, tugging something from the back of his jeans.
There was something both wrong and familiar about the way he held it though. Something in the way he moved. Something that flashed him right back to a roller derby in San Diego.
“Dad.” He said, his voice becoming too calm, too flat, as if his subconscious knew how critical it was to speak clearly now, despite the dryness in his mouth and the pummeling in his chest. “The guy just pulled a gun and he’s… walking like Mr. Johnson did.”
“Mierda! Adam, please don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
“Sara’s in there…”
“Mantener la calma! you go after her and you’ll just give him more hostages, and maybe victims.”
Adam nodded, swallowed. “Entiendo. Hurry.”
“Estoy corriendo. I love you.” Gabriel hung up.
The phone rang. “Powell.”
“Powell, it’s Arés. Possible Hierarchy at the spaceport site, armed. One of the kids is in there.”
Powell didn’t even respond. He just dropped the handset and rushed for the door, erupting from it in a whirlwind of screaming orders. “GEAR UP! Jones, get me the ATVs this second!!”
Legsy, who never went by “Jones” unless the situation was beyond dire, practically teleported in his haste to obey. They were mounted and moving in less than a minute.
“We’ve got possible Hierarchy at the spaceport construction site!” Powell yelled over the engines, performing his weapon checks as they went. “At least one child mixed up in it, possibly hostage, so check your fire! We’re going for live capture if possible, but keeping the child alive is priority number one. Be aware of other workers in the area, we’re going to be checking them once the kid’s secure, don’t let your fookin’ guard down!”
Satisfied that his gun was in working order, he hopped off the ATV as it slid to a halt only a few dozen meters from the site.
“If there are any questions, make them fookin’ quick.” he said.
There were none.
Silent as ghosts, quick as nightmares, they stormed the construction yard.
“Oh God.” Ava was suddenly animated, pale and shedding distraught tears. “Oh God, oh God, he’s gonna find her.”
“She’s hiding in those cement bags over there…”
Adam didn’t have time to get to the fence and see which ones she meant before he was paralysed by the firecracker popping of gunfire and the sound of Ava’s anguished scream.
Armoured, armed and ready to kick ass was one thing, but knowing there were kids in danger and hearing the gunfire had rooted even the SBS team to the spot for just an instant.
“Fook. Go. Go!”
In the next instant, they exploded from among the construction and equipment. Their quarry turned and raised his gun towards the first flash of movement. An unseen trooper crashed into him from behind, disarming and restraining him in one smooth motion.
“Find the kid!”
His men fanned out, calling out for the girl. Powell didn’t need to. The second he stopped and listened, he heard her.
He stuck his head over a stack of cement bags. The girl was whimpering and weeping, she was covered in white cement dust, and there was a smear of horribly familiar red around where she was cradling her side.
Powell grabbed the bags and heaved, spilling them everywhere as he dug her out. The girl was small, brown-haired, skinny. The only clean spot on her was where her tears had washed away a pink track in the cement dust, revealing a few freckles.
There was a LOT of blood, and it was staining her mouth as she sobbed.
“Hey, we’ve got you, okay?” He said, taking her hand. Ross was already joining him, pulling stuff from his bag. “You’re safe now, we’ll get you fixed.”
Her grip was weak, and trembling. She whispered something to him.
Powell was used to death. He had seen men and women die, often by his own hand. Some, so close that he could feel their last breath. He had lost comrades in action, seen what modern weaponry could do to a human being.
He had seen death take all kinds of people. He thought he had seen it take children. He had seen enough sad little corpses.
But never like this.
When he closed her eyes, her tears soaked his glove.