Chapter 20: Exorcisms

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Date Point: 4y 9m 2w 6d AV

Hierarchy Communications Relay

Session 18 262 577 319

++0018++: This is an unmitigated disaster.

++0004++: I fail to see how. The operation was a failure, yes, but there was no repeat of Six’s capture.

++0018++: Eighty-Four killed a human child.

++0084++: And? The child would have died anyway had the operation succeeded. You can’t possibly be suggesting that the humans would be motivated more by the isolated death of a single juvenile female than they would have been by the destruction of the entire colony.

++0018++: I am suggesting precisely that.

++0084++: That is the most abjectly irrational thing I have ever heard.

++0018++: Then you are not considering how evolution on a deathworld must affect a species’ decision-making process. Consider: you live in a world in which you are surrounded by mortal threats. Which do you prioritise?

++0084++: The most dangerous one, obviously.

++0018++: On a Class Twelve? When your available tools are sticks and sharpened rocks?

++0007++: You prioritise the ones you can actually do something about.

++0018++: Precisely.

++0084++: I don’t follow.

++0007++: Consider: Anything capable of killing hundreds or thousands of individuals at once is not something that can realistically be defeated with spears and thrown stones. Erupting volcanoes, virulent plagues… the humans have a word, “Tsunami”.

++0084++: “Harbor wave”?

++0007++: The term refers to several million tonnes of water travelling at two hundred meters per second.

++System log: no activity for [30 seconds]++

++0004++: This is a… common phenomenon?

++0007++: They have killed an average of seven thousand human civilians every year over the last 40 years. This in an era of early-warning systems and the resources available to an Information-Age civilization. Do you see the logic? How are creatures barely more intelligent than an animal supposed to deal with a threat like that using primitive tools?

++0018++: They aren’t. And impotently worrying about such events would lead to neuroses and paralysis. But a smaller threat - one that picks off individuals, directly threatening you, or your genetic heritage in the form of your children… One that you can gather your spear and fight

++0007++: Precisely.

++System Notif>cat?on: User ???? h■s j!!ined the <error: undefined exception>++

++0025++: Again?

++0004++: Seven, I thought you said you fixed this.

++0007++: No, I said I’m fixing it. The software is a tenth of a galactic rotation old, identifying exactly why it should start to misbehave now is my priority for now. Once I know that, patching the issue should be trivial.

++0025++: How long will that take?

++0007++: How many terms are there in an equation? It takes as long as it takes.

++0004++: Prioritise it. Eighty-Four, you are reassigned to the question of what the Discarded are up to. See if you can get in touch with Twenty.

++0084++: Yes, Four.

++0004++: Terminating session

++System Notif■■■■■■■ <Error>

<Error>

<Redirecting: Subnet Mask ????????? Port ?????>

++System Notification: Welcome to the Cabal.++

++????++: I think Eighteen is starting to get it.

++????++: Shall we bring him in?

++????++: Vote.

++System Notification: Vote now.++

<…>

++System Notification: All votes have been cast. The Ayes have it.++

++????++: Good. Make it happen.

++????++: And Four?

++????++: Don’t worry about Four.

++????++: Six will handle her.

++System Notification: Session Terminated.++

___

Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

Doctor Mark Tisdale was a large man, known to regularly deadlift nearly six hundred pounds.

Gabriel Arés, by contrast, had always been a small man who couldn’t have matched that even at his peak. Hampered as he was nowadays by lingering femoral nerve dysfunction as a result of being shot in the lower back, the physical disparity between them was huge. Tisdale’s deadlift was nearly triple Arés’ bodyweight.

Fortunately for him Tisdale was, to the core of his soul, a totally nonviolent man. But everybody had their limits, and in one sentence, Arés had transformed himself from a sympathetic authority figure doing his best for the sobbing wreckage of a grieving father, into the focus of that grieving father’s disbelief and anger.

“No charges?”

Tisdale stood and leaned forward onto the desk, which creaked. The sentence seemed to wind up around his dropped jaw, taking seconds to finally force its way out, weakly, as he pointed out the door. “My…” he panted “my little girl is dead!” his voice broke on the word. “And you’re saying no fucking charges?!

“He’s being shipped back to Earth for questioning. If they decide to charge him there…”

Fuck you Arés! I don’t want to hear you passing the buck! I want my daughter back!”

All of that impressive strength failed, and he sagged down, weeping freely all over Gabriel’s desk. “Or just… just hold her, just… just… Anything! God…”

He looked up and speared Gabriel with a gaze that was more a tear-soaked desperate plea for understanding than it was actually angry. “Why, damn you?”

There was a professional line that could not be crossed, but not crossing it broke Gabriel’s heart right down the middle. Every fear that had erupted in him on the two occasions now where Adam had been in harm’s way were realised in Tisdale’s shaking shoulders, but he could not give in. It was all the Folctha Colonial Police Authority could do to stop the mass of colonists outside from turning into a lynch mob and storming into their flimsy jail to drag the man inside it to his death.

The part of his soul where Adam lived wanted to let them. But he knew what they didn’t - that the poor bastard in the cells was completely innocent.

The dilemma before him was how to let Mark Tisdale know that without actually telling him. If Sara’s death proved anything, it was that the Hierarchy was as active among Humanity and as dangerous as ever. If they would shoot a teenager in cold blood to accomplish their objectives, then any edge, no matter how tiny, had to be carefully shepherded, and that included the certain knowledge of the Hierarchy’s existence.

Which meant that he would have to hate himself for the rest of his days for doing this.

“Doctor Tisdale.” he said, feeling his face adopt that cold, blank expression that it had to when he would allow no emotion to reach it. There was nothing he could do about the threat of his own barely-restrained tears, and try as he might he just could not look the man in the eye. “Your… Sara’s… the accused is…”

He gave up, and started over. “You need to know. I understand. Really, I do, Mark, I’m a dad myself.” He finally found the strength to look Tisdale in the eye while he said the next. “So I know what I’m asking of you by this, but I need you to swear to me that you can take this secret to your grave.”

“Secret?”

“I can’t and won’t even drop a hint without that solemn promise, Doctor. That’s how deadly serious this is.”

It was a gamble. If Tisdale wanted to he could walk out of the office, incite the mob, and Gabriel would be in serious danger of swinging alongside the poor puppet in the lockup. Assuming they weren’t just kicked to a pulp in the street.

Fortunately, Tisdale was a peaceful man who was naturally inclined to look for the best in everyone. Gabriel was relying on that.

Still. Tisdale thought long and hard about it, and his reply when it came was quiet and defeated. “I have to know, Arés.” He said. “If promising something like that will get you to tell me…”

It was good enough.

“Sara’s death is… related to other recent incidents. Recent serious events, in which a great many people have died.” he said, glancing up at the Chargers scarf pinned to the wall above his desk to ram the point home. “And to the recall of cybernetic implants issued last month.”

“…That’s it? That’s all you’re giving me is a fucking hint?

“Doctor.” Arés said. “I know. But I am talking about an ongoing investigation here that, if it’s not handled properly, could mean that Sara will be only one of the first victims. There are lives at stake here, a great many of them.”

“This is the worst thing I have ever done to a man.” he added. “And… God willing some day I’ll be able to tell you the whole truth and you’ll understand why. But if that day’s ever going to come, then this secret needs to stay kept, and a hint is all I can give you. I give it in the hope that an educated man like yourself will be able to decipher it.”

Tisdale was an intelligent man. He may have been a hopelessly idealistic ultra-liberal with the appearance of a death-metal viking warrior, but he was also a scientist with well-honed powers of deduction. It didn’t take him long to mull over the hint.

“you’re saying there’s… okay, so, the implants connect to the brain so… God, are you talking about some kind of mind control conspiracy?”

“I can’t say.”

“Is that why you’re just going to shuffle this guy off to Earth rather than charge him? Because you think he’s under alien mind control?”

“I can’t say.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

Gabriel choked on his next I can’t say, and instead picked his words with great care.

“Five years ago, if somebody had claimed they’d been abducted by little grey aliens, I’d have thought they were crazy.” he said. “Since then I’ve met those little grey aliens myself.” He cleared his throat. “I really can’t say any more than I have, but I promise you - nothing I’ve said to you has been misleading.”

Tisdale finally found the strength to stand up, and he advanced around the desk. “Alien mind control.” He growled. “Alien fucking mind control. THAT’S what you’ve got for me?”

Gabriel stood his ground, and managed to keep himself from shaking, but it was an effort, especially when Tisdale’s fist left a dent in the wall by his head.

“Give me one good reason why I should believe you, Arés. Go on.” he said. his voice was unnervingly level.

Gabriel could think of several. But the answer was out of him without conscious thought.

“Adam.” He said, simply.

Tisdale blinked at him, then retreated a little.Then there was a blur of motion, and Gabriel was crushed against the huge man’s chest in a bear hug, which moments later turned into him trying to support Tisdale’s weight as the big scientist broke down crying again.

He just hoped that meant that he’d won Tisdale’s support.


Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 3d AV

HMS Caledonia, Cimbrean Space, The Far Reaches

Captain Rajesh Bathini

“Signal from HMS Myrmidon sir. Captain Manning welcomes us back to Cimbrean space and asks to come alongside so he can come aboard.”

“Respond that we did and grant permission. Have the galley prepare a meal for the officer’s mess, all senior staff who are able, to attend. And… yes, invite some of our Gaoian guests as well.”

“Sir.”

“That blight’s got bigger.” one of the officers said. “Look, it’s nearly at Folctha now.”

“I’m sure Captain Manning will have a full update for us in due time. Heave to in a stable orbit and throw out our WiTChES.”

“Aye Aye.”


Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 3d AV

HMS Caledonia, Cimbrean Space, The Far Reaches

Gyotin

If there was one thing that Gyotin really liked about humans, it was their approach to food. The meal served to them was a succulent white meat in a kind of piquant red fruit sauce, served alongside crisp orange root vegetables that sent a delightful crunch through his head as he bit them, and delicately scented powdery tubers that glistened with some kind of spiced oil. It was all delicious, and making a show of appreciating the food gave him the excuse he needed to watch the Deathworlders.

Bathini seemed to be in a more relaxed mood than at any time he had been over Gorai. He was making inconsequential conversation, enjoying his meal, and recounting a humorous interlude from when he had been a Midshipman on shore leave for the first time in some place called New Zealand.

The concept of paying to mate with a female was a very alien and shocking one to all three of the Gaoian males there present. Bathini had not, apparently, ever done so himself, but had been called in to discreetly extract a colleague from a compromising position at an establishment providing exactly that service. The story was crammed with innuendo but seemed to be going down very well among the Deathworlders, even the female officers, and Gyotin had to admit, himself. Bathini was an engaging storyteller with an excellent sense for comedy that seemed to transcend species barrier, and when it came to the part of having to deliver the crewman to the ship’s doctor past a suspicious Lieutenant, even the Gaoians were chittering along with the human laughter.

The story finished, the laughter cleared up, and there was a general looking around and then, as if prompted, one of the humans - an Ensign, if Gyotin had learned to read their rank insignia correctly, stood and raised her glass. All of the others picked theirs up.

“To the King, Great Britain, and Earth.” she announced.

The humans murmured what sounded like agreement and sipped their drinks.

“And to our spouses and lovers.” the Ensign added.

“May they never meet.” somebody quipped, prompting general smiles as the drinks were sipped again. This seemed to complete the ritual, and the whole affair relaxed considerably.

“So, what news?” Bathini asked of Manning, who looked suddenly more grim.

“There’s been a murder in the colony.” he said. “One of the children.”

Shock and dismay rippled around the room, though the few officers from Myrmidon seemed to already know the news and just nodded. “There’s only a handful of kids down there!” McDaniel protested.

Manning nodded, solemnly. “It’s been a huge blow to morale.” he said. “When they shipped the guy back to Earth rather than charge him here, a few of the original colonists quit and went home in protest.”

“Who was it?” Bathini asked.

“Sara Tisdale. Fourteen years old.”

Just a girl…” somebody muttered, emotionally.

“God. I never would have expected it here…” Bathini said. “Do we know the motive?”

“I couldn’t tell you.” Manning said. Some unspoken communication seemed to pass between the two men and not for the first time Gyotin wondered if humans weren’t a little bit telepathic. Such a thing was supposed to be impossible but then again, so were sapient Deathworlders.

“The cleanup project attracted the help of a billionaire from Earth, one Moses Byron.” Manning continued. “He’s brought in a lot of his own contractors, invested a lot of his own money. It was one of those contractors who…” he tailed off.

“So not one of the first wave, then.”

“No.”

Bathini sighed. “I suppose we were going to bring our shit with us to the stars sooner or later.” he mused, unhappily.

Manning glanced out of window. Parked as they were in geosynchronous orbit above Folctha, the creeping brown stain across the continent was clearly visible, and there was definitely a tendril of sickly yellow-green in the waters south of one of the major river estuaries.

“In more ways than one.” he said.

Gyotin was surprised to find himself chiming in. “You can’t blame yourselves for that.” he said.

This attracted the surprised attention of every human at the table, which was enough to flatten his ears in discomfort for a second. “You aren’t responsible for the way the universe made you.” he said, pressing forward. “That-” he pointed at the planet “-is not your fault.”

Manning nodded. “I suppose naivety and inexperience aren’t crimes. But they can get people killed. We need to start being more cautious.” he said.

“How much more cautious can we be?” Bathini asked. “We fill our ships with biofilter fields we didn’t design, use an alien-made medicine that we barely understand to try and regulate our diseases, and it all seems to work but the fact is that none of the things keeping the rest of the galaxy safe from us are of our own making.”

“Well, what’s the alternative? Wrap ourselves up in airtight suits with breathing masks?” McDaniel asked.

“The alternative is that you kill all of us.” Tagral said, putting it so bluntly that the humans blinked, flinched, glanced at each other, or shifted in their seats and made some kind of coarse noise in the back of their throats.

“Tagral…”

“No, Gyotin, they need to understand this.” Tagral pressed. He stood up and pointed out at the planet again. “Gyotin’s right, that is not your fault. It’s a lesson, and the galaxy is going to be holding your species to account for how well you learn it.” He sat down again. “If you aren’t willing to take every necessary measure to limit the harm you cause, up to and including sealing yourself up in containment suits and using medicines and technology you don’t understand, then you have no business leaving your homeworld.”

Manning gave a slow, thoughtful nod. “Hear, hear.” he said.


Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 3d AV

UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Knadna

“I have to admit… it is a very good disguise. If I didn’t have detailed metrics on her calorie intake and the environmental settings in her quarters, it might even fool me.”

Knadna had to agree. “I learned first-hand not to underestimate humans, Lesry. But you’re right. Her cover story is so well-researched, and she has so many of those little Gaoian mannerisms down that you’d think she spent years living among those bleeding-heart furballs.”

Lesry inclined his head curiously. “First-hand, you say? You’ve had an encounter with Deathworlders before?”

She gave him a thin smile. “Surely you must have speculated on my reasons for moving from Zoology to Archaeology.” she said.

“It occurred to me to wonder about that, yes.” Lesry admitted. “But I prefer not to speculate ahead of my evidence, and so had made no assumptions. Did you have a bad experience with an escaping Deathworlder?”

“Well, I’m still alive so I’d say the experience was relatively pleasant.” She retorted. “Specimen Four seemed to be genuinely delighted to have been collected, for some reason. He described himself as ‘nerding out’, whatever that means. Very docile, very compliant. He seemed almost eager to receive detailed and uncomfortable-sounding investigations of his lower gastrointestinal tract.”

She paused and thought about it. Four really had been strangely obsessed with the idea of having a probe of some description inserted into his anus. “I suspect he was mentally stunted.” she added.

“I can see why you would switch fields.” Lesry agreed.

Chilly as their exchange sounded, compared to the usual antagonistic dynamic between two Corti of equal rank working on the same project - Knadna as its lead researcher, Lesry having provided the ship, funds and hired help - their conversation was positively warm, bordering on the flirtatious. Knadna was beginning to find that she quite liked Lesry, and she suspected that the liking was reciprocated.

“So why are we keeping our “Gaoian” chef’s secret?” she asked. “Surely she would be much better used doing the heavy lifting?”

“Have you tasted what she cooks?” Lesry asked. He delved into a hip satchel and produced a little foil parcel, which, when opened, turned out to contain a number of shrivelled, wrinkly, translucent dark pink lumps.

Knadna accepted one and popped it into her mouth. “It’s… familiar. But I can’t place it.”

“MuAku grape.” Lesry said. Knadna expressed surprise - the fruit, an Aru native perennial, was unpalatably tart when freshly picked, and disintegrated into emetic watery mush very swiftly. The sweet spot in the middle where the grape’s disintegrating chemical structure was deliciously piquant without puckering the mouth lasted barely a few hours. “She takes the freshly-picked grape and heats it in an oven for some time at a low temperature, drying it out and preserving it - as you can no doubt taste - at the pinnacle of its palatability. The discovery of this technique alone might be the most valuable thing we find on this expedition. It would turn MuAku into a viable export crop.”

That was another reason to like Lesry. His imagination wasn’t sadly limited to his field like so many Corti’s were. He saw the opportunities.

He was right, too. Prestigious and highly-paid though this expedition to the OmoAru homeworld was, neither Knadna nor Lesry foresaw discovering anything which might finally shine light into the mystery of elder species decline. The Corti, as the oldest extant civilization, were doomed to begin their own decline at some point in the next few thousand years, and the Directorate was keen to learn what, if anything, could be done to avert, or at least delay, that fall.

So far no such expedition had yielded anything useful, and both of them were too experienced and comparatively modest to truly believe that theirs would be the one to stumble upon the great secret. Anything at all which would earn them some money and prestige was therefore welcome.

“Ah, yes.” She agreed. “I can see now that she would be quite wasted on manual labor, especially when we have the hover-palettes and drones to do all the heavy lifting.”

“Quite so.” Lesry agreed. “And after all, the other laborers need their exercise.”

Knadna was beginning to entertain the idea of exchanging DNA with him. “As you say.” she agreed.

They left the “Gaoian” cook to her work and strolled away from the camp around their ship, towards the city proper.

The planet Aru was a class nine, baked by the UV-rich output of its star, which it orbited closely. The land was largely arid, shading to temperate only very close to the polar oceans, which never cooled enough for ice caps to form.

That same heat lashed the planet’s wide oceans, giving Aru a regular hydrological cycle. The effect was endless desert, punctuated here and there with rich, sluggish emerald rivers and vast freshwater seas absolutely choked with life, and it was on these waterways that the OmoAru themselves had, naturally, built their cities during their ancient prehistoric expansion from their evolutionary habitat at the south pole.

Hence the city of UmOraEw-Uatun. Built around a huge oxbow lake where the great three kilometer wide river Uatun had once described a loop with a radius of several miles, it was a city of glass and white stone buildings that made alien eyes ache unless they wore protection. Here and there across the river, great bridges, engineering masterworks that looked far too delicate to even hold up their own weight, and yet were wide, flat and strong enough for a starship to land on - as indeed Lesry’s “History Paradox” had done.

It was a slightly odd ship, but Knadna quite liked it. Lesry had clearly put some thought into the design, reasoning that any archaeological dig effectively boiled down to heavy lifting and meticulous filing, and that the easier the former job was made, the more likely the latter job was to be done properly by the hired labor.

The Paradox was therefore built around a cylindrical hold, divided neatly into six storage segments around the central column which housed the largest of the ship’s five kinetic thrusters. The other four were mounted on outriggers, well above the head height of even the tallest species where they sprouted out of the rest of the ship - the sleeping quarters, galley, recreational room, nanofactory, the hydroponics ring which ran completely around the circumference of the ship, and the bridge blister mounted on top.

Landed, each outrigger deployed an elevator to ground level, and the six cargo bay doors opened outwards like a flower, meaning that the ship was theoretically stable enough to endure deployment to some of the more atmospherically violent deathworlds. Simple enough, but some of the engineering solutions involved in making the configuration both spaceworthy and serviceable by some of the stupider species who would be crewing it, had been strokes of genius on Lesry’s part.

There was an OmoAru at the dig site, watching the laborers strip neglected furniture, abandoned electronics and discarded art pieces out of an apartment building. It - while OmoAru had sexes, there was effectively nothing in the way of gender dimorphism for Knadna to be able to commit to a “he” or “she” - didn’t seem to be more than passively curious about the ransacking of its ancient city. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand - the ones Knadna had tried to converse with had turned out to be perfectly eloquent and intelligent beings who knew full well why the expedition had come - they just didn’t seem to care. Events simply unfolded around them, and while they watched and understood and could even be drawn into discussion about it, they just shrugged off any possibility of their getting involved. You could literally have stripped the bond-pairing jewelry from their ears and they would have neither protested nor helped.

The two Corti ignored it. The OmoAru themselves never had anything useful to say.

All of the junk being stripped out was just being taken so as to turn a profit on the mission of course. all of those things would find their way into the hands of private collectors and wealthy fashion hounds, none of it was relevant to Knadna’s research. That was where the books came in.

It was a near universal constant - a trend bucked only be the Allebenellin - that every species invented the book, which never again fell entirely out of fashion. Of course, come the information revolution any given civilization might find that more and more of its literature was being read in a digital format on whatever portable electronics they may invent, but the book never went away. It became a status symbol, a declaration of passion. Books were the physical embodiment of an interest in the archiving of knowledge and fiction, and there wasn’t a sapient race in the history of the galaxy, that Knadna knew of, that didn’t have a hard core of bibliophiles.

It was for this reason that there even were books in the building, and every single one had - with meticulous care - been entrusted to the most expensive, precise and sturdy cargo drone they had.

“Things are going well, it seems.” Lesry commented, looking sidelong at her, allowing a subtle hint of amusement to show. Knadna stopped rubbing her hands together and returned them to a more professional posture at her side.

“Yes. Quite well.” She agreed. She grabbed one of the newest books from the top and glanced at a page, taking in every feature of that page instantly. Her translation implant did the rest, decoding the OmoAru written language and converting it into useful concepts, remaining as faithful as possible to the linguistic subtleties it found.

“Cookbook.” she grunted, dismissively, and put the book back. “Thirty meals to help you keep a nice fat tail.”

“Look at this one.” Lesry said. “The top fifty holiday destinations in North UluUaba Province.” He turned a page. “Hmm. Actually this mineral mud spa sounds rather good.”

“An autobiography.” Knadna said, identifying her next one. “Contemporary with the start of the Decline, too. Potentially useful.”

Lesry was about to reach out for the next book when he paused, tilting his head slightly as if listening to something only he could hear.

“Ah. I think I shall have to leave you to catalogue these on your own.” he said. “You would think that simple instructions such as a cataloging system would be easier to follow for species capable of inventing space travel, wouldn’t you?”

“Hmm?” Knadna looked up from the book. “Oh. Yes. I’ll be quite happy here, thank you.”

She pretended not to notice the admiring way that Lesry looked at her before he left. Today was shaping up to be a good day.


Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 3d AV

Starship Sanctuary, Deep Space

Julian Etsicitty

“Ice cream? God, I don’t remember, I went without it for so long… I guess…Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Okay, uh…. hmm…. What was the first band you saw live?”

“Oh. Uh… I’ve never been to a live show.”

“What, never?”

“Nope. Maybe I should? Uh… Okay, did you have a pet growing up? I had a hamster called Mr. Mopes.”

Julian smiled. “Oh yeah. Sidhe. He was this huge black dog. Like, part labrador, part Dobermann, part… I don’t know, part tank. Mr Mopes?”

“Hamsters sleep a lot, right? But I was six, I thought he was just sulking, but he sulked all the time, so… yeah. Mr. Mopes.”

“That’s adorable.”

Allison gave him a little playful punch, as she had done every time so far he used a word like “cute” “sweet” or “adorable” to describe her, and he was about to ask his next question when they were interrupted by an exclamation of “fuck’s sake, dude!”.

Lewis and Amir had taken over the common room couch to play a game of some kind. Superman and Green Arrow were beating the crap out of each other on the screen, with the surprising result that Green Arrow seemed to be winning, much to Amir’s dismay. That hadn’t been the cause of the outburst, though. The cause of the outburst had been Zane, wandering right across the screen and interrupting Lewis’ line of sight long enough for Amir to activate his special move and punch Green Arrow into orbit.

Zane just made an unconvincing noise that sounded like in somebody who cared it might have been an apology, and vanished in the direction of the galley.

“Fuuuck. That guy’s really starting to bug me.” Lewis complained.

“I hear ya.” Julian said. “Guy hasn’t said five words to me since he came aboard.”

“You’re not missing much.” Amir told them. “Every time he talks to me he’s checking up on whether our ETA has miraculously changed. It’s the only thing he’ll talk about, is finding this Shyoo person.”

“Xiù” Allison corrected him. “And yeah, that worries me. You said they only spent, like, a week on the same station, Lewis?”

“Eight days, total.” Lewis said, selecting Wonder Woman for their rematch. “She was there, he arrived, she left, he’s all like Xiu this Xiu that. Dude’s obsessed. ”

“That sounds like… trouble.” Allison said.

“Yeah, but what’re we gonna do? Let the trail go cold?” Julian asked. “We owe it to her to find her and bring her home, if that means we have to deal with whatever happened between her and Zane…”

Allison fidgeted with her hands a bit. “I guess…”

He lowered his voice to speak privately with her as the guys started their rematch. “What?”

“Just… There are some kinds of trouble that guys will never get into, Julian. They only ever cause it.”

He frowned. “You think…?”

“I pray to God not.” she interrupted. “Can we drop it? It’s a subject I don’t like talking about.”

He hesitated, then gave her a little squeeze, watching the game. “Favourite superhero?”

“…Iron Man, I guess. I dunno, I never really got into comic books, but I liked the movies… Hey you didn’t tell me yours…”


Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 3d AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Adam Arés

“You were her best friends. I think she’d want you to be involved.”

“I… know. and it means a lot to me that you’re asking but… y’know, I’m Catholic.” Ava said at last.

“I’m sure your God would understand, Ava.”

“I guess. But… this is Sara, she taught me so much. I can’t lie at her funeral. I can’t say words I don’t believe. I’m sorry.”

Hayley Tisdale paused, then she nodded sadly and wiped away a tear. “You’re right. She wouldn’t want that.” she agreed. “Adam?”

He sighed. “I… look, I don’t know. I’m not sure I believe in anything any more.” he said at last. “So, I’m with Ava, I can’t do… this stuff here.” he tapped the printout they were going over. “but… I’d like to do this one here. If that’s okay?”

Hayley read it and smiled. “We were going to give that to Jack. But… yes. Please.”

“Thanks for asking us, Hayley.” Ava told her. “Really.”

She hugged them both and let herself out, leaving the pair of them to sit in silence for a bit.

“Did you mean that?” Ava asked. “About not believing any more?”

“It’s hard to.” Adam confessed.

“I know…” she sighed. “I just… I need this to all be happening for a reason, you know? I don’t think I could cope if there wasn’t a plan behind it all.”

He hugged her. “There’s something going on, I know that much.” he said.

“There is?”

“Oh yeah. There’s a pattern. Something behind it all. Mr. Johnson, back home, now Sara… it’s all connected, I just know it. I think my Dad’s in on it.”

“Are you gonna ask him?” She looked up. “I mean, I think he’d have told you by now if he could.”

“…Yeah. He would have.” Adam sighed. “But I’m still going to ask him. And if there is something going on, then I’m going to find out what.”

“How?”

He shrugged. “However I have to.”


Date Point: 4y 9m 1w 5d AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

“Legsy” Jones

“Intel package for you… sir…”

Anybody else might have said that Captain Powell’s office looked like a bomb had hit it. Legsy, being acutely aware of exactly what bomb damage actually looked like, tended not to use that phrase, but it would have very nearly been accurate.

The office doubled as Powell’s private space and sleeping area, and it was invariably pristine. One the one occasion that Legsy had seen Powell take his boots off, they had been lined up neatly under his camp bed with the laces tucked inside them. While the captain had once muttered a repetition of the old saw that any unit in battle-ready condition would fail inspection, he nevertheless was a stickler for keeping his own space immaculate.

Today was different. The filing cabinet was open, folders were strewn across the desk, the camp bed’s blankets were a bundle at the foot end, the captain’s kettlebells and weights were strewn across the floor rather than stacked, and a neglected ration pack on the table that had clearly been aborted halfway through preparation.

Powell himself was an even worse sight. He looked… rumpled. The skin around his eyes had gone dark, the eyes themselves were reddened, and he was sporting a fine crop of reddish and grey whiskers.

“On the desk.” he grunted, not glancing up from what he was reading. It looked like he was revising literally everything that Humanity knew about the Hierarchy.

That was hardly surprising. The captain had taken the girl’s death hard, harder than he let on. One of the obvious symptoms of that was obsession with her killers, though this was by far the worst case that Legsy had ever witnessed.

His terse response, however, was troubling. Only long experience of working with him had allowed Legsy to even tell the difference, but while Powell had never exactly been a cuddly personality, he was never usually rude or dismissive with his men. He’d gotten tougher since the girl died, demanding a full and complete inspection of every last detail of the rescue attempt, searching for anything that could have been done better.

Nobody wanted to be the one to voice the opinion to him that they’d done as well as humanly possible.

“Where on the desk, Captain?” He asked, unable to identify any spot that looked like it was more ready to receive the latest report than any other spot did.

“Fookin’ anywhere, do I look like I give a shit?” the captain growled.

“Yes sir.” Legsy put it down on top of what he hesitantly guessed might be the ‘in’ pile.

Powell didn’t react, just turning the page. He only glanced up when Legsy cleared his throat.

“Carry on.” he snapped.

“Sir… have you slept?” Legsy ventured

“I don’t see how that’s your fookin’ business, Jones.” Powell said, sharply. “You’re dismissed.”

Legsy saluted and turned for the door, deeply troubled, and then decided that he had a duty to perform.

He turned back. “Permission to speak candidly, captain?” he asked.

“Pretty fookin’ sure I dismissed you, Jones. So no, permission denied.”

That was a red alert.

Oh well. To borrow the motto of a sister unit: who dared, won. “I don’t fuckin’ care, sir, you’re gonna fuckin’ listen.” he announced.

The sheer audacity of it snapped the captain out of his revision and earned Legsy a trademarked Powell glare. “Look at this place!” he said, keeping the momentum up. “This isn’t like you sir, I’ve worked with you long enough to see there’s something fuckin’ wrong here. You’re not yourself.”

Powell lurched to his feet, face thunderous. “Sergeant Jones, if I have to order you out of my office again…” he began.

“Get yourself to counselling, sir!” Legsy told him. Powell froze, as shocked as if his subordinate had reached out and slapped him.

“I’m fookin’ fine.” he asserted. “And YOU are this fookin’ close to-”

“Psych’s a wound like any other!” Legsy recited desperately, interrupting him. “You get it seen to just like you’d get a bullet seen. Your own words.”

He swallowed, stiffened, and stared hard at the back wall. “Sir.”

There was a long, dangerous silence.

Finally, Powell spoke. He had always been a deep-voiced man - now the words practically rumbled out of him, as quiet and as full of smouldering danger as the voice of Vesuvius. “Sergeant Jones. I am ordering you to leave this office immediately. If you do not give me a perfect fookin’ salute and then fook off post fookin’ haste and without another fookin’ word, it will go fookin’ badly for you, am I crystal fookin’ clear?

Legsy’s salute shook a little rain of dust from the ceiling, and he effected the speediest exit he had ever managed.

He just hoped that it would turn out to be worth it.


Date Point: 4y 9m 2w AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Gyotin

The central hall of the Faith Center had been cleared out - all the furniture, cushions, books, even the carpet had been rolled up and taken away, leaving behind bare floor which had been marked with an eight-pointed star of some kind.

Gyotin and his Brothers had elected to lurk in a corner, out of the way, and watch. Most of the humans seemed to be equally as uninformed as he was to the nature of this ceremony, which he found interesting. There was a lot of milling around and talking in quiet confusion, much of which centered on a small, overweight human female whose age-silvered head fur was long enough to reach her knees, about half of which had been tied back away from her face.

“So, is this their senior Mother or something?” Tagral asked.

Gyotin indicated not. “I don’t recognise her.” he said. “Besides, they don’t have a clan of females like we do.”

“Then who-?”

The question was interrupted by some angry, loud words being spoken on the opposite side of the room, which got louder and angrier as their speaker stormed towards the door, which had just admitted Captain Powell and his team into the room.

“How dare you?” The speaker was an older man, small and balding and looking positively tiny next to the soldiers, who all glanced at each other in dismay at being so accosted. “How dare you come here?! You FAILED her!”

He was the very picture of righteous indignation in any species’ body language, and the shocked expressions of so many of the other Deathworlders suggested that his accusation was not a widely shared one, but what struck Gyotin was the soldiers’ composure. They fidgeted and some of them looked ready to retort, but all it took as a slight turn of Powell’s head to quiet them instantly. Even the silver-haired elder who had been hurrying to soothe out the conflict paused.

It was Powell’s face that rooted Gyotin to the spot, however. On a human’s mobile and subtle features, the total absence of any expression whatsoever communicated volumes.

“…You’re right.” Powell said. His voice was deep, and soft, and emotional. “We did.”

He took a step forward, and the little man backed off. “Think about what that must feel like, and you’ll understand why we’re here.”

There was a general awkward clearing of throats and shuffling of feet as the soldiers took up a respectful position towards one side of the room, standing in a formal posture with their feet apart and their hands behind their backs.

Awkward silence descended again, finally broken by a syncopated drumming from outside the hall that got steadily louder, being joined by the high-pitched voice of some stringed instrument playing a lament. As the musicians crossed the threshold and stood playing on either side of the door, the soldiers snapped their feet together and removed their berets.

It was a small coffin, carried by only four people and laid solemnly on the table in the middle of the room as the music came to a gentle stop.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” the Elder began as the bearers retreated to positions around the room. “…as you may be aware, Sara’s family have requested that we remember her life in accordance with Pagan traditions. There should be nothing in what we are about to do that can cause offense to anyone, but if you would prefer to pay your respects now after your own fashion and then wait outside, we will take a few moments of silence for you to do so. I’m sure that Sara will not mind.”

A few of those present did exactly that, approaching to touch the box, or mutter words. The little man who had accosted the soldiers and a female of similar apparent age - his mate? - knelt stiffly and whispered for a little while, before standing and leaving, both weeping openly.

Once they had gone, the elder stepped forward again. “Thank you. You’ll find the order of the ceremony in the leaflets we handed out, but please do not feel pressured to participate if you don’t wish to. As one of Sara’s friends-” she nodded to Ava “put it so eloquently, we don’t think that Sara would want us to lie on her behalf.”

“And so… let us take a few deep breaths to prepare ourselves. Breathe deeply, and remember the love you have for Sara and the joy she brought you. And so we begin.”

She took a deep breath of her own, and raised her hands. “Let us call for peace, that in Peace the voice of the Spirit may be heard. May there be peace in the East! May there be peace in the South! May there be peace in the West! May there be peace in the North!”

Reading from the booklet, most of the mourners recited with her. “May there be peace throughout all the worlds.”

The Elder turned towards one of the points of the star on the ground. “Spirits of the East, Powers of Air, we call you. Bring us bright memories of our beloved Sara and of the laughter that surrounded her. Blessed be!”

As she turned through each of the cardinal directions, invoking in turn Fire, Water and Earth, Gyotin had to prod Tagral to get him to stop fidgeting, eventually having to deploy a claw to get his Brother to really quiet down and start showing some respect. He would be the first to admit that he himself didn’t understand what compass directions, air, water and so on had to do with anything, but whatever was going on, it seemed to be working for the humans.

Or at least, for most of them. The huge soldier, Legsy, was wiping water off his face every other second, as was almost everybody else in the room. In fact, there were only a pawful of dry eyes in the whole building, and they belonged to the Gaoians - unsurprisingly, for physical reasons - and to Adam and Ava who simply looked… tired? Gyotin had become adept at reading a human’s expressive face by now, and weariness seemed like the closest approximation he could think of for what theirs were showing.

The last dry face was Powell’s. His usually inscrutable mask was now a scowl, an expression of the most deep and deadly anger, directed at something that Gyotin was desperately glad he couldn’t see, and was infinitely more glad wasn’t him.

He was so busy watching the captain and speculating about what colossally stupid entity it was that had attracted such depth of ire that he completely missed the eulogies, and only returned his attention to the ceremony when the priestess started to speak again.

“O Great Spirit, Mother and Father of us all, we ask for your Blessings on this our ceremony of thanksgiving, and honouring and blessing of Sara. We stand at a Gateway now. A Gateway that each of us must step through at some time in our lives, and which Sara already passed.”

“Her soul is immersed in the shining light of the Unity that is the Mother and Father of us all. The sadness and pain that we feel now is in our knowledge and our experience of the fact that we ourselves cannot yet cross that threshold to be with her until our time has come. We do not weep for our beloved sister, for she is beyond all pain, all fear and all illusion. We weep instead for ourselves in the pain of our separation.”

“And so to ease that pain, let us all now spend some time in silence to remember Sara, to call her up in our minds and to speak to her in the private places of our heart and free ourselves of our burdens, saying to her all those things that we always wanted her to hear.”

This part was familiar to Gyotin. Silence. He filled it by stepping on Tagral’s foot when his Brother started fidgeting again.

The silence was broken some minute or two later by the priestess, who turned to the younger Arés. “Adam?”

Adam smiled weakly, nodded and swallowed, then stepped forward, turned to the coffin and read from the booklet, a little shakily.

“Did you know it was time to fly?” he asked. “I didn’t want to say goodbye. But… but we all know this is not the end… Fare-”

Finally the weariness broke, and he paused, bit on his lower lip and looked down, squeezing his eyes shut. Alone in the middle of the room, he sobbed once before finally managing to rally himself and continue.

“Farewell for now, my dear, dear, friend.”


Date Point: 4y 9m 2w AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

“Hey, Dad?”

Gabriel turned and smiled weakly at him. He had been watching the memorial stone being placed, a solid slab of blue slate imported from Earth and engraved.

Sacred to the memory of a child of Earth,

And to all who shine with her among the stars.

“Hey.” He croaked.

“I have a question.”

Gabriel’s weak smile remained and he nodded, a little sadly. “Figured you would. You can see it, can’t you? The thread linking her and… all the others.”

“Yeah. And I’m guessing you can’t tell me the details.”

Gabriel nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Just tell me what I need to do.”

“Adam…”

I need to know, Dad. So tell me what I have to do. How do I earn it?”

Gabriel closed his eyes and nodded, then hugged his son as hard as he could. “Hey, amigo?

“Yeah?”

“You’re a tougher man than I am. I’m not just proud of you, okay? I respect you.”

Adam softened just a little, and returned the hug. “Y yo también te respeto.” he replied.

Gabriel nodded, then straightened, as much as he could around his faulty leg. “Go talk to Powell.” he said. “That’s how you start earning it.”


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Lesry

Ooooh. Now that thing looks like a mover!”

Lesry had to admit that it did. If the black sphere which made up probably eighty percent of the craft’s mass was its power core, then even with an old-fashioned distorted-space Apparent Linear Velocity drive it would have been blindingly fast. Lesry, however, had a few of the high-end firmware upgrades to the implants in his optic nerves that were available only to ranking Directorate scientists, and they were reporting that the ship had one of the Blackbox engines.

Which meant, at a very rough mental calculation, that he may well be looking at the fastest vessel in the galaxy.

The few rather more refined calculations that he bounced off his cerebral coprocessors confirmed that he almost certainly was.

It landed easily enough, settling down to thrum gently on forcefields as it finished its descent level with the same bridge that his own History Paradox was parked upon, extending a gangplank to link the laughably small amount of ship that wasn’t power core to the shore.

“Somebody unusual visiting us.” He said. “Look busy! If I’m impressed I might throw in a small bonus.”

That one never failed to get the hired workers motivated, and they threw themselves into the cataloging and loading as he tucked his thumbs into the belt of his sand-robes and took his time wandering over to the end of the arriving ship’s gangplank.

He wasn’t expecting the human who strode down it with an expression that promised serious pain to anything in his way, nor the two other (rather paler) ones who followed after him shouting what was presumably his name.

Nor was he expecting one of the most famous beings in the galaxy behind them.

“Well! Councillor A’ktnnzzik’tk! You have a talent for making an entrance!” he observed, having to raise his voice to compete with the untranslated barking sounds the humans were making at each other.

A’ktnnzzik’tk produced an old-fashioned translation device from a satchel and held it idly in one of his stronger hands as he finished crossing the bridge. “Not by choice.” he said. “May I take it that I’m addressing the leader of this expedition? Thank you for meeting me in person.”

“Co-leader.” Lesry admitted, both intrigued by A’ktnnzzik’tk’s apparent lack of a translator implant and pleased by his manners. “Had I known one of the more… hmm… notorious politicians was coming, I would have torn my colleague Knadna away from her research as well, and believe me, that’s not a risk that a sane being would take lightly.”

A’ktnnzzik’tk chuckled deep in his lanky throat. “I’m retired now. This is a personal project.” he said.

“Collecting Deathworlders? Most beings start smaller, with Gricka, or perhaps a pet Vulza.”

“It’s an entertaining hobby. I recommend it.”

Lesry allowed himself the luxury of a stab of amusement. “Well, the most we have here is an unaccountably sturdy Gaoian who wears concealing robes.” he said. “She’s our chef. I do hope she doesn’t turn out to be a human in disguise or something tiresome like that, this expedition will be far less pleasant without her culinary talents.”

A’ktnnzzik’tk blinked at him. “Information so freely volunteered?” he asked. “My thanks.”

“I suspect that you would have found her more or less instantly anyway.” Lesry said, and inclined his head towards ‘Shoo’. “After all, she is brandishing a knife at that dark-skinned human you brought with you…”


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Xiù

You stay the hell away from me, Zane!

He started to babble at him in that same dense Patois and Xiù’s temper eroded even further. “Shut up! Shut up and fuck off!” she screamed.

The blonde woman - and oh God was Xiù happy to see a fellow female - stepped forward and said something a little too quietly for Xiù to catch, but it did the trick. He paused, then stepped backwards, eyes still fixed on her, then spat in the dirt, spun and stalked off between the scattering aliens.

The blonde woman exhaled, then turned to her. “Xiù Chang, I presume.” she said. It was so weird hearing somebody pronounce her name correctly.

Xiù put the knife down. “Uh… hi.” she said. It wasn’t what she’d imagined saying when she finally got back in touch with the human race - the real human race, not Zane - but then again nothing in the last four years or so had gone like she had imagined, so why should greetings?

“You’ve got to be sweltering in that disguise.” said another voice, a male one, from slightly behind her. She grabbed the knife and spun, prompting the man who had snuck up on her to back off, raising his hands defensively. “Woah, woah!” he protested. “Easy!”

Xiù lowered the knife, cautiously. This one was hot. Okay, she’d thought the same thing about Zane when they had first met, but this guy…

She shook it off. Handsome didn’t mean trustworthy. Nor did female, come to think of it, but…

But if she was ever going to get home, she’d have to trust somebody a little, wouldn’t she?

She put the knife down again, and Mr. Handsome nodded and circled around to join Blonde Girl. “Just making sure you didn’t stab him.” he said.

That didn’t exactly endear him to Xiù, but she understood. “Sho wia yu, uwa wa mé Xiù.” she said.

That earned her a pair of blank looks, until she realised that she’d spoken in Gaoian rather than English. “Uh… yes. Yes, my name’s Xiù.” she said. “Sorry, it’s been… since I last…”

“Five years? Not counting that guy?” The blonde said, smiling. “It’s okay, I understand. My name’s Allison. This is Julian.”

Xiù blinked. “I… had a friend called Allison.” she said. “Back on Earth.”

That detail seemed more relevant in her head than it did in the conversation, but she really was out of her depth here.

“Would you like to see her again?” this Allison asked her.

“I…” Xiù looked at the ship they had arrived in, and it finally hit her.

A ship. They had a ship. And these were humans, from Earth. Who had come here in that ship. From Earth.

Suddenly, she couldn’t see a thing through the tears.

They had a ship.

She could go home.

__

Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Adam Arés

“ ‘Eeey, Adam!”

Legsy always had a friendly manner about him, which Adam liked. He’d shown plenty of intensity while training the militia, but outside of that role, Legsy was pure earthy charm and humor. It made militia training a charm, and while a lot of the colonists preferred not to use the gym at the same time as the soldiers, Adam found he really didn’t mind being outperformed by them. They served as examples of what he might one day be able to manage himself.

It also meant that he and Legsy practically had the gym to themselves, which was perfect for what he had in mind.

“Hey Legs.”

Adam watched the older man swing his kettlebell around. Legsy trained for endurance, and while Adam had seen people like Mark Tisdale working with more impressive weights, Legsy could apparently go all day, working his way steadily up and down through the set until he was red and reflective with sweat, but never seeming to tire.

Adam himself was still working up to that. He elected to use the cross-trainer instead. Legsy gave him an encouraging grin and nod as the device swirled into action.

“So uh… I’ve got a question.” Adam asked, after what he judged was a decent interval.

“Go for it, pal.”

“What the hell is going on?”

“…How d’you mean?”

“Home, Sara… how come they’re not pressing charges? There’s a pattern there, I can see it.”

Legsy didn’t answer at first, just continued to swing his weight, but his expression had clamped down beautifully.

“Yeah, I reckon you can.” he decided. “I can’t tell you though.”

“No, I know.” Adam agreed. “but Dad said if I want to know what’s going on then I need to talk to Captain Powell.”

Legsy really was an open book - he had so many different blank expressions. This one said that there was something serious going on with Powell at the moment that he, Legsy, was not comfortable discussing.

“I’d give him a few days.” he said at last. “It’s rough on an officer when an op he commanded ends that way, right? He gave me a bit of a row the other day.”

“Did you deserve it?” Adam asked. Legsy laughed, but his heart wasn’t as in it as it usually was.

“Maybe. He was tampin’.” he said, using a Welshism that Adam had deduced meant something like ‘furious’. “I’d give it a few days, butt. Let him simmer down, I’ll get you in to see him when the time’s right. Fair?”

“Thanks, Legs.”

“No worries, pal. Now come on, I know you can go faster than that!”

Adam quickened his pace and settled his mind, enjoying the heat building in his muscles.

He felt like he’d just set his first foot out the door on a journey.


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Starship Sanctuary, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Allison Buehler

“What do you think?”

Xiù had been introduced to a vacant room - on the opposite side of the ship from Zane’s, and next door to Allison’s, and was, from the sound of it, busy taxing the abilities of Sanctuary’s water recycler with a hot shower. Julian and Allison were, by mutual unspoken agreement, hanging out at the junction down the deck where they could make sure Zane didn’t try to get at her, be on hand should she need them, and converse unheard.

“About… what, now?” Julian asked. “About Xiù herself, or about whatever went down between her and Zane?”

“Xiù herself, for now.”

Julian thought about it. “At first glance, I was thinking ‘damaged goods’.” he confessed, and pressed on when Allison made a “hmm” noise and nodded.

“But here’s the thing, though.” he said. “She’s in great shape. She’s kept up her exercise and ate right, and that puts her a cut above most everyone else out here. Physically, she’s perfectly fine, give or take a few scars. Mentally? I dunno, what does five years alone with nobody but raccoon people to talk to do? She was nineteen when she was abducted. Then there’s the…” he checked to make sure nobody was listening, then lowered his voice anyway even though none were. “the Hunters. And the nervejam.”

“Yeah, I read her file.” Allison agreed. “She saved a whole starship! Took on one of the big Hunter ships solo! That’s… shit, that’s big damn hero stuff.” she frowned at him. “But, you’re one to talk. What does six years alone with nobody but trees to talk to do?”

“It fucks with your head.” Julian said, honestly.

“You’ve always seemed… fine to me.”

“We’ve not slept together yet.”

“You mean actual sleep, right?”

“Yeah. Can’t even do it without an axe next to my hand.” Julian told her. “And I wake up at the slightest noise, reaching for it. Do you snore?”

Allison shook her head. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“Lewis does. That’s why I moved away from his room. I kept thinking there was a Murderpig near my camp.”

“Murderpig?”

“This big.” Julian held out a hand at rib height. “This long.” He stretched his arms as wide as they would go. “Teeth like this.” he drew one of his knives “and it hates you. Murderpig.” He put the knife back in its sheath.

“You came up against shit like that?”

“Yeah. Lucky for me, it’s all nose with a Murderpig. Their eyesight’s fucking awful and they snore when they breathe, like a fat guy asleep on the bus. Getting the drop on them’s easy. Good eating on them too. But if there was one near the camp I needed to be up and armed like that.” he snapped his fingers.

“What happened if you didn’t?”

“I never didn’t. If I ever hadn’t, then we’d never have met.”

“Oh. Damn, Julian.”

“Eh, it was only for like four months out of the year. Rest of the time, Nightmare was nice and quiet. I used to- hey, she’s done.”

Xiù had poked her head out of her room, wearing a towel and a blush. “Uh… hey, are my new clothes ready?” She asked. “I just realised how nasty these robes are…”

“I’ll go check.” Julian told her, and trotted down the stairs.

Allison turned to talk with Xiù, and noticed that their recent rescue was watching Julian with catlike fascination as he went, her blush deepening and spreading to her ears. Allison couldn’t blame her - Julian had an amazing ass - but that couldn’t be allowed. “Sorry, girlfriend. I’m not into sharing.” she said, not unkindly.

“Uh…” Xiù blinked, then coughed. “Sorry. You guys are…?”

“We’re…. yeah. We are. How are you feeling?”

“Clean!” Xiù said, rebounding. “I mean, my own actual shower. With real shampoo! And conditioner!”

Allison laughed. “Hah! With hair like yours, I can see why you’d miss those.” she said. “Don’t expect miracles with the clothes, though. It’s all practical stuff, not decorative.” She grinned. “Unless you can rock a pair of yoga pants.”

“If it fits properly and breathes, I’ll be happy.” Xiù promised. “And we’ll be going back to Earth soon, right?”

“We don’t need to. All we need to do is get to a station with an FTL relay and schedule an Array send with Scotch Creek.”

“Huh?”

Allison paused. “Okay, so, I’m not exactly Miss Technobabble.” she said. “But… did you ever see this old TV show, Stargate?”

“Sure. My brother Wei brought all the DVDs on eBay.”

“Well, we’ve kinda got one of those downstairs.” Allison said. “but, like, less dramatic. It’s called a Jump Array. Neat piece of kit!”

Xiù gaped at her. “Wait, so… you could send me home right now?” she asked.

“Not right now, no. We need to get to a station with an FTL relay, send a message to Earth via Cimbrean, wait for-“

“Where?”

“Cimbrean. Humanity’s first colony world. You didn’t hear about it?”

Xiù made a strange ducking motion with her head, then blinked and carefully shrugged while shaking her head, as if remembering the gesture. “I… didn’t really pay attention to the news.” she confessed. “It just got me down. There’s not much about humans in the news, and it’s never good when there is.”

“Yeah?”

“It was always about how we would bring the Hunters down on them and get them all killed.” she elaborated. “But how does this Cimbrean place protect itself?”

Allison grinned. “You know that big forcefield protecting Earth?”

Protecting it?”

“Yeah! It sure as hell isn’t containing us, but it’s stopping the bad guys from getting in. Anyway, Julian stole one.”

Xiù blinked. “That Julian?” she asked, pointing after him.

“Yep. Actually, he stole two.”

“Wow. So, uh, where’s the other one?”

“Kirk won’t say.”

Xiù sighed. “So we need to send a message to Earth.”

“Via Cimbrean. And then we have to wait for them to get back to us and say ‘Sure, send on this date at this time using this code’ and then… bam! You’ll be back in Canada.”

“Just like that?”

“Unless you decide to stay, yeah.” Allison told her.

“Why would I want to stay out here?”

“Why would you want to go back?” Allison retorted.

“Wh-? It’s home!” Xiù said.

Allison nodded, a little sadly. “That’s fine. And if that’s what matters to you… Sorry, I shouldn’t have even mentioned it, it’d just be nice to have another girl on board.”

“I guess…” Xiù said. “but… I had my dreams. I was going to be an actress. I still could be, if I go home now.”

Allison kept to herself the fact that Xiù was going to need a lot of post-production and makeup to cover all the scars she seemed to have picked up during her time away from home. There were a lot of them. The ragged tears down her forearm were the largest and most disfiguring, but the one that kept drawing Allison’s attention was a little raised inch-long mark on Xiù’s neck, dangerously close to her carotid artery.

She was spared the discomfort of the conversation tailing off by Julian’s return, as he handed across the clothes the nanofactory had printed to Xiù’s measurements - four simple black sports t-shirts, two equally simple navy blue fatigues, four changes of undecorated but comfortable underwear, a dark grey fleece sweater , four pairs of thick socks and a pair of hiking boots.

“Here you go.” he said, handing them over. “Not exactly red carpet stuff, but it’s warm and comfortable and you can clean them real easy. Just rinse ‘em and hang ‘em up. Lewis can show you how to program the nanofac later if you want a bit of variety.”

Xiù took them gratefully. “Thanks.”

“So you want to be an actress?” Allison called through her door after she had shut it.

“Yeah! That’s why I took up Gung Fu, I wanted to be in martial arts movies!” Xiù called back.

“Not drama or anything?”

This was met with a bitter “Hah!” from behind the door. “Have you ever heard of a Chinese version of Downton Abbey?” she asked.

“Not in America.” Allison confessed.

“Exactly. Hey, these are a good fit!”

“Lewis figured out how to lift your measurements from the biofilter field.” Julian said. “Bespoke tailored printed clothing. Neat, ain’t it?”

“Do they have stuff like this back on Earth now?” Xiù asked

“Not yet. I mean, four years and change isn’t that long anyway, and this is alien technology.”

Xiù opened the door so she could finish talking to them unimpeded as she pulled on her boots. “Yeah, but… we’ve got spaceships and a colony and stuff now.” she said.

“I think a lot of what comes out of Scotch Creek is just copying and pasting.” Julian confessed. “We’ve been bit in the ass a few times by now, especially with the first-generation translator implants and what happened to San Diego.”

Xiù stood up from tying her laces, frowning. “Why?” She asked. “What happened to San Diego?”

“…Ah.”


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Starship Sanctuary, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Lewis

“Hey, Amir?”

“Yes?”

“Whaddya think went down with Xiù and Zane, anyhow?”

Amir sighed and set aside his checklist. Self-maintaining and robust though Sanctuary’s systems were, he felt safer for manually checking them while landed.

“Why the fascination?” he asked. “It seems cut and dried to me.”

“You think?”

“I knew men like Zane back in Birmingham.” Amir said. “All ego, very intense. Charming, if they liked you, but if you irritated them…”

“You did?”

“Sure.” Amir replied. “My cousin was married to such a man.”

Lewis nodded sagely. “Good looking dude turned on the charm, huh? Got her wrapped around his finger before he turned it off again?”

“Sort of. Arranged marriages didn’t go away just because my grandparents left Pakistan, you know. They just brought them to England.”

“Wait, shit, your cousin had to marry some dude?” Lewis protested. “That’s not cool!”

“She didn’t have to.” Amir corrected him. “That would be forced marriage. But the marriage was arranged between his parents and my uncle and she…” He coughed. “Well, she didn’t think too hard about it.”

“Were you cool with that?”

“Oh, it happened after my abduction. I had the pleasure of meeting the husband after getting back. I didn’t like him. And Maleeha was a different person to what I remembered, very subdued. I’m sure she even flinched a little bit when he raised his voice.”

“So, not cool with it then?”

Amir sighed. “It’s… a good arrangement.” he said. “He’s a dentist, she cooks, cleans, looks after the three children… a traditional marriage. Her parents are very happy.”

“So, you’re not cool with it, then.”

“…She was sixteen.” Amir admitted.

“Ah. Shit, is that even legal?”

“Oh, yes. Perfectly legal.” Amir said. “English law only requires parental consent for sixteen year olds, even if the husband is more like thirty.”

“Damn…”

“I get the same vibe off Zane as I do off my cousin’s husband. ” Amir said. “That same… Pride. Is there anything in his file?”

“Lemme check…” Lewis said, followed seconds later by: “Huh… Hey, Kirk encrypted it.”

“He what?”

“Yeah. Locked this shit down tight, too. No breaking it, no way no how.”

“How do you know it was him?”

Lewis gave him a tired ‘please’ look. “I’m the only other dude on this boat who could, and I didn’t.”

Amir got out of the flight chair and went to look over Lewis’ shoulder. “Why would he encrypt Zane’s file?”

“I’m gonna ask him.” Lewis said. “Worst case, he says he’s not telling us.”

“Go for it.”

Kirk responded to Lewis’ summons a few minutes later. “Something come up?” he asked.

“Sort of.” Amir said. “You encrypted Zane’s file?”

“It seemed like a good idea.” Kirk replied. “I didn’t want people to read it and become prejudiced against him. This is supposed to be welcoming ship.”

“Like, uh, why would we be prejudiced?” Lewis asked.

Kirk made the noise that was his species’ version of a resigned sigh. “The Corti experiments of the last fifty years or so were beginning to focus on human weaknesses.” he revealed. “Genetic disorders, mutations, personality disorders, mental illness…”

“So our Zane’s got a… maybe a personality disorder of some kind?” Amir asked.

“I’m not saying. I don’t want to exacerbate the friction between him and Xiù by prejudicing the rest of you against him.”

“All well and good, but if he’s dangerous…”

“You’re proving my case.” Kirk pointed out. “You all took an instant disliking to him. That’s acceptable, I don’t much like him either. But he still deserves his privacy and unbiased treatment. He’s not actually done anything other than be unpleasant.”

Lewis and Amir shared looks that mutually said ‘He’s got a point’.

“Alright, cool. You’ve got a strong argument there, boss.” Lewis finally admitted.

“Thank you. Where is Zane right now, anyway?”

Lewis ran a search script. “Not aboard. Last seen… like, ten seconds after we landed…”

He tapped again. “Neither’s Vedreg.” he added.


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Rios

The Tisdale house was a mess. Ava couldn’t blame them, in fact she knew exactly how they felt. After the bomb which killed her parents, it had taken weeks before she began to notice things like mess, rumpled clothing and the state of her hair again. The first night she had run a brush through it had been a painful one both physically and emotionally, extracting a tangle that had been well on its way to becoming a dreadlock.

Doctor Hayley Tisdale at least was fortunate enough to have straight hair, which would help there. But she was still a mess when she opened the door, wearing food-stained pajamas and red eyes.

“Ava?”

Ava lifted the box she was holding. “I… Gabriel was able to get Sara’s stuff back from the military…”

Hayley stared at the box like it was simultaneously the most beautiful and the terrifying thing in all creation.

“Oh…”

“Can I come in?”

Hayley nodded quietly and stepped inside.

The clutter about the place was just… stuff. Things that had been left where they were no longer useful: clothes, mugs… a few bowls and plates, but not many. They weren’t eating much. Ava knew how that felt - you just weren’t interested. You’d grab books then discard them, pick things up just to put them down again.

There were a lot of wine glasses around though and the house reeked of alcohol, plus another scent that she hadn’t smelled since high school back in California. She didn’t know how that one felt. Ava didn’t know how they had even managed to get cannabis on Cimbrean, but she wasn’t about to comment. The smell was stale, as if they hadn’t indulged for some time.

Hayley swept aside an arrangement of small crystals and semiprecious stones on the table to make room for the box.

Sara hadn’t had much on her when she died, and her bloodstained clothing had tactfully been omitted. What was left was a tiny assortment of jewelry - Sara had been addicted to rings, and had always worn her birthstone, an Emerald, as a necklace. There were a trio of the same kind of crystals that her mother had just swept aside, her phone, spare batteries and a MicroSD card for her camera, and the camera itself.

Hayley didn’t say a word, she just picked up the camera with trembling hands, turned it on after a second’s investigation to figure out how it worked, and started to scroll through the pictures her daughter had taken.

Ava grabbed a brush and gently started to sort out the worst of Hayley’s hair, watching the screen herself.

It was a catalog of the changing face of Folctha, playing backwards. Brown dirt, tree stumps and grey construction sites gave way to a bloom of life here and there. Sara had been gifted with an eye for finding beauty, and for showing it off to its best advantage, finding the little flowering plants that were still struggling gamely against the Deathworld invasion, or the forester, whose high-vis jacket and yellow hard-hat practically shone against the lifeless stack of felled logs he was leaning against.

Things got greener, more alive, and Sara had continued to pick out whatever was *most *alive in each scene. A cloud of little iridescent shimmerflies. A creature that lived somewhere halfway between squirrel and lizard, stuffing nuts into a pouch on its back. The curve of Ava’s own naked back, the little hairs and the bumps of her vertebrae luminous with the light of a setting sun that was framed by her coiled lock of wet hair. She hadn’t even noticed Sara take that picture.

There were no pictures of Sara herself, though. She had only ever used the camera to record what happened around her, never turned it on herself.

Finally, Hayley set the device aside with a sigh. “I still… I don’t believe it.” she confessed.

“I know.” Ava replied.

“How do you cope? How do I…? I think the only thing that keeps me going is that I’ve still got Jack to look after.”

Ava’s brush never stopped, but the rest of her did, for a second. “I think… I think you just have to keep the people you’ve lost alive.” she said. “Live for them. Carry on their work.”

“Have you?” Hayley asked. “You lost your parents, do you think you’re keeping them alive?”

“I hope so.” Ava said. “I try to be somebody they’d be proud of. I tried to get better and move forward because… I guess because I knew it’d hurt them to see me in pain.”

“D’you think Sara…?” Hayley aborted the question, half-formed. Ava gave her a little hug.

“She loved you both.” She told Hayley. “She talked about you a lot, about the things you said, about what you taught her.”

“She did?”

“Oh yeah.” Ava laughed slightly. “It was hard to get her to stop.”

That prompted a miserable laugh from Hayley too. “She always was a motor mouth…”

Ava smiled, and put the brush down. With the tangles gone and some of her hair’s shine restored, Hayley was already looking much improved. Hopefully, she’d see that in a mirror and it would help her, just a little. It had for Ava.

Hayley picked up the camera, and then unexpectedly she turned and handed it to Ava. “Keep it.” she said.

“Me? I…”

“Please? It’s… a way to keep her alive.”

Ava took the little black device nervously. “Are you sure?”

Hayley nodded, and then gave Ava a kiss on the forehead. “Honey.” she said. “You’re a wiser girl than I am. Maybe you can…”

She trailed off, then just looked down and shook her head. “Just take it. Please? I think she’d want you to have it. It just feels right. Carry on her work.”

Ava considered the picture on the screen at that moment - Cimbrean sunlight, somehow turning the industrial devastation around Folctha pretty just by being framed a certain way - and doubted that she was up to the job.

But she had been wondering where to take her life, now that movie makeup wasn’t an option. Maybe…

Maybe…

“I’ll… thank you, Hayley.” she said.

She meant it.


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Starship Sanctuary, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Xiù

Hitting something felt good. Gung Fu was a martial art after all, and while practicing the movements had (she hoped) allowed Xiù to keep her form, you could repeat the bào hu gui shan all day but it couldn’t duplicate the feeling and experience gained from landing actual physical blows. The best way to practice punching was… well, to punch something.

The fact that it was cathartic had nothing to do with it. Really: Nothing.

The Sanctuary’s punchbag was therefore getting the most brutal workout of its existence. While the Gaoians could easily have built one for her, she had never asked for one. It would just have been too embarrassing to break the first few, and too… impolite to flaunt just how much stronger she was than them by doing so to a bag it would have taken three of them to lift.

Now, though, she could feel just how long it had really been since she had last received proper guidance in her form. Her wrists and forearms hurt, and in the first few minutes she threw a few strikes where she misjudged the distance and either punched the air just short of the bag’s surface, or else overextended herself striking a point somewhere inside it. She wasn’t off by much, but she was still off, she could tell.

She only finally ended her workout once she was satisfied that she had restored some of her muscle memory and that her form had healed a bit, by which point she had spent nearly an hour focused on that one task, giving her brain time to process the news about San Diego and the devastation that its destruction had wrought on the entire Pacific coast. Nobody had been directly hurt in Vancouver thank goodness, but the ash from Mt. Rainier’s sympathetic eruption, caught by a prevailing wind from the desert, had dusted across British Columbia and even reached as far as Alaska, causing respiratory distress, clogging air filters and lightly polluting the water across thousands of square miles.

She hoped that it hadn’t set off Wei’s asthma.

Julian and Allison had admitted to both knowing the specifics of what had happened, but had also said that, so long as Xiù intended to leave the ship and return home, they weren’t in any kind of a position to discuss it. It was a mystery, but one that Xiù would happily forego illumination of for the sake of going home.

As for all the dead…

Well, it didn’t register. It wasn’t that it didn’t seem real, they had shown her the footage and news reports, too many and varied to be fake. It was definitely real. But it was also abstract. She didn’t even know what two million living people looked like, let alone two million dead. The mind simply couldn’t get a grasp on ideas that big.

She jogged a few laps around the gym to warm down, then collected her boots and headed upstairs, wondering what kind of food they had on board. The clothing she’d been given was really impressive, made of some high-tech performance textile that had kept her cool and dry and not noticeably aromatic. And it was made by humans, for humans, understanding human needs. Luxury! With luck, the galley would be similarly impressive.

Upstairs, however, the crew were talking quietly and their expressions were worried. When she entered, Allison stopped speaking mid-sentence and gave her a gently apologetic smile that said that while she, Allison, was glad to see her, Xiù had managed to arrive at an inopportune moment.

“Is everything alright?” Xiù asked.

“Sunset was half an hour ago, and we’ve not seen Zane since you came aboard.” Kirk told her. She hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know the tall white being, yet. It wasn’t that he had ignored her, but he seemed to be extremely busy with something or other and had given her only a polite welcome aboard and his assurance that they would become acquainted later on, if she liked.

“Pff, Zane? Leave him behind.” Xiù said. It came out as more of a snap than she had intended, but she had to stop her hand from touching the mark on her throat.

“Even if I were inclined to do so-” Kirk said, making it very plain that he wasn’t, “we just found out that Vedreg isn’t aboard either.”

“Vedreg?”

“You ever met a Guvnugundragonbunny?” Lewis asked.

“Oh! You have a…?” Xiù asked, ignoring Kirk as he tried to correct Lewis. “I didn’t see them…”

“He went straight into the city when we landed. Said that he was testing a theory.” Amir revealed. “You were too busy waving knives at Zane and Julian to notice.”

Xiù blushed. “Julian snuck up on me! And Zane…” she paused.

“Is missing.” Kirk reminded them.

“Well, what do we do?” Julian asked.

“We search for him.” Kirk said. “Julian, you and Amir can sweep the north quadrant. Allison, you and Lewis take the east. Miss Chang-”

“No.” Xiù folded her arms.

Kirk blinked. “I see…” he said. “Not to press the issue, but I understand that you’re rather physically formidable yourself and…”

No.

There was silence as everyone glanced back and forth at one another, which Lewis broke by clearing his throat. “Uh… Hey, the hell happened with you two?”.

“That’s between me and Zane.” Xiù told him. “If you need me I’ll come running, but that…” She shook her head. “Just… No.”

Kirk lowered his head, exhaling slowly. “I can see that is the end of it. Very well, Amir, if you could accompany me instead?”

Amir finally stopped giving Xiù a calculating stare and nodded. “Okay.” He agreed, though reluctantly.

Allison stood. “Sooner we get moving…” she said.

“I’ll… be in my room.” Xiù said.

She held it together until the door was closed and locked behind her before the shakes started.


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Classified Facility, Earth

“Steve”

“Shitty luck. You got that right.” somebody said as he entered.

Steve sighed and grabbed a coffee. “It was a fucking understatement.” he replied.

Christof Lehmann - the poor bastard who’d been puppeted into shooting a girl on Cimbrean - had not taken the explanation of his situation well. There had been shouting, there had been crying. Both had been easier to bear than the dreadful, broken silence.

“I think it’s pretty clear he needs to be on the suicide watchlist.” Carl said.

“Pretty clear, yeah. Fella looks like he took a dump and found his liver in the bowl.”

“Give the man some respect, Simmons. News like that’d be rough on anybody.”

“Sorry, Boss.”

Boss nodded. “Guess he’s headed to Alaska then.”

“Oh yes.” Steve said. “That implant the Corti shoved in him may have cured his epilepsy, but it’s too deep and invasive to remove. He’d be a lobotomised vegetable once the surgeons were done, assuming he even lived through the operation.”

“Then there’s his reputation.” Simmons pointed out. “Poor bastard was used to murder a little girl. No way to explain that one to the public without ruining him or blowing the lid on the Hierarchy.”

Boss shifted in his seat. “I’m going to be advising the director that we can’t keep that particular secret much longer.” he drawled. His Georgia accent always got stronger when he was feeling emotional, thought that was the most sign he gave. “There’s too much pressure now. The seizure all the people with translators had, San Diego, now this… the Internet’s already working overtime.”

“Isn’t there some plausible deniability, there?” Balistreri had always fallen comfortably into the role of devil’s advocate. She wasn’t actually an argumentative woman by nature, but she had a knack for spotting the alternatives and presenting them. “If the story leaks then we can just claim too much time spent listening to the Internet conspiracy theorists.”

“Nope. Only a matter of time before Herr Lehmann gets his case taken up by a journalist or a human rights lawyer. The cat’ll be out of the bag before long, you mark my words. But if we let it out ourselves, then the details of Operation Exorcist can remain secret.”

“You’re the boss, Boss.”

“Yep.”

“What happens if the Hierarchy do panic and step up their plans?”

“At least we’ll have taken the initiative.” Carl said. “Rather than playing catchup.”

“Best we can do.” Boss agreed. “Alright folks, get some rest, do your paperwork, whatever, I’ll see y’all when I get back from DC.”


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Allison Buehler

If there was one thing Lewis was terrible at, it was taking a hint once he was fixated on a train of thought. “Seriously though, what do you think? ‘d he rape her or something?”

“She doesn’t want to say and that’s the end of it.” Allison told him.

It was cold in the desert at night. She’d known that, but still hadn’t quite registered that the temperature would be in freefall within minutes of sunset. She was almost mentally counting down until the first fog started to appear on her breath.

It didn’t help that the deserted city had an eerie, unsettling quality to it. If the place had been truly abandoned - plants growing all over everything, walls falling down, that kind of thing - then it wouldn’t have been so bad, but the place was still slightly alive, thanks to the automated maintenance and civil engineering systems that the OmoAru had laced through the ancient conurbation at the height of their power. Everything was still clean, still standing. Just… empty. It was almost like walking through her own home city of Phoenix, except that the road signs were alien, the proportions wrong, and the silence…

It was cloying. It stuck to everything. The desert breeze and the hiss of sand only seemed to amplify the silence, rather than dispel it, and when occasional little animals or robots moved around in the dark, it set every ancient monkey danger instinct in her body off.

She’d always hated the dark.

“You gotta speculate though, right?” Lewis persisted.

Allison stopped and grabbed his arm, hard, prompting a wince and a noise of complaint. “Lewis: Shut. Up.”

She let go and listened, ignoring Lewis as he rubbed his arm and made irritated subvocalizations.

There was definitely noise and a glow coming from a nearby building

“Zane? That you?” She called, grateful for a chance to have something other than Lewis’ insensitive speculation to break the silence.

It wasn’t Zane. Instead, an OmoAru shuffled out into the street, raising a glowing white stick.

Aliens came in all shapes and varieties, and the temptation was always there to compare them to mixtures of human species back on Earth. Blue giraffes, white zebra-giraffes, raccoon persons and so on. It was always an unfair and inaccurate comparison - they were their own species, the products of evolution that had nothing to do with Earth - but comparisons with leopard geckos and big-eared bats sprang to mind anyway when considering an OmoAru.

This one was about twice Allison’s height and shrouded in robes against both the sand and the cold night air. Its skin - dry, tough and scaly - was the colour of the desert, mottled here and there with patterns of a surprising turquoise and ochre hue that became thicker and more vivid around the base of its huge furry ears. The tufted end of its tail ticked back and forth behind its back, folding over into a question mark.

UmUa WenUatu WoUem WioYuwu?” It asked.

“Bah wheep grahnah wheep nini bong, man.” Lewis replied amicably, and offered the alien a Vulcan salute for good measure. Allison rolled her eyes and put a hand over her mouth to cover her smile.

WumuaAmo SuOumu?

“Sure dude. Whatever… Guess there’s no point in asking if you saw a big black dude who talks even weirder than you go past, huh?”

Huh?

“Huh. Guess ‘huh’ is a universal, huh?”

Huh.” The alien disappeared into the building again.

“Lewis, you’ve got a talent for communication there.” Allison quipped.

The sentence was barely out of her mouth when the OmoAru returned and handed Lewis a little dull grey metal ball about the size of an apple.

“Huh?”

Huh!” The tail lashed and its ears perked up. Allison got the distinct impression that a human would have been nodding vigorously and smiling.

“…Oh! Huh! Well thank you very much, my man.”

WemUei!” the alien agreed.

“Ming mang mong, dude.” Lewis told it.

Allison watched the alien return, apparently happily, to its domicile “…the fuck?”

“Hell if I know.” Lewis said, pocketing the gift. “Nice guy, though.”

“What do you think that thing is?”

“You heard the dude. It’s a huh.”

“Lewis…”

“Well how the fuck am I supposed to know? Could be the dude’s car keys, could be his porn stash, could be his grandma’s ashes.”

Allison sighed. “Okay, okay…”

She raised her torch and looked down the street, expecting and receiving no sign of any living thing beyond the pool of light where the giver of the Huh was living.

“No sign of anything where we’re at, Kirk.” she said, activating the contact microphone by pressing lightly on it where it was stuck to her throat.

I was just about to let you know: we found them.” Kirk replied.

“You did?”

Both of them, yes. Vedreg believes that he may have uncovered a breakthrough in the mystery of elder species decline.

“He has?”

Vedreg’s simulated voice - the translators always rendered him with a gentle Received Pronunciation accent for some reason - came on the line. “Oh yes. Do you see the large, lit building at the apex of the oxbow lake?”

Allison looked around. It was hard to miss in the dark. “Sure. You’re there?”

Indeed. If you could collect the others and bring them here, they may wish to see this…

“Julian?”

I heard. Xiù’s lurking in her cabin, so I’ll meet you ther- ah, shit.

Allison frowned. “Problem?”

Yeah, my foot broke again.

Allison sighed. Julian insisted that the prosthetic was perfect for his needs in terms of moving around and stepping silently, but it achieved that by being a near-exact replica of the human foot made using carbon-fibre “bones”, and its “flesh” was a synthetic muscle tissue that Julian called “myopolymer”.

It worked just fine, when it worked. Unfortunately, the same alien materials science that made Kirk’s prosthetic by far his strongest limb didn’t quite match the performance standards of a healthy human body in terms of both weight and strength. Julian’s decision to go for accurate movement and mass rather than high performance, so as to minimize his rehabilitation training time, meant that he periodically suffered the equivalent of tendon ruptures and stress fractures. “D’you need us to help you back?” she asked.

Nah, it’s a field repair. Price I pay, I guess.” The advantage to a prosthetic foot, of course, was that he could perform the equivalent of surgery on it himself with glue.

“See you soon, then.”

Sure.

Lewis spent most of the walk examining his “Huh”, poking it and turning it over and over in his hands. Allison was pretty sure he surreptitiously licked it at one point, all with no apparent effect. It was an improvement on his speculating about Xiù.

Kirk, Vedreg, Zane and Amir were waiting for them in the street. Both the humans were hunched over and shivering from standing around in the plummeting temperature with nothing to do to keep themselves warm, and Kirk was fidgeting in the cold, but Vedreg’s species had evolved to spend a week every year standing around in the driving rain of the World-Storm: He seemed perfectly comfortable, producing great monsoon clouds with every exhalation.

“Ah, there you are!” he exclaimed upon laying eyes on Allison and Lewis. “Come and see!”

Allison looked upwards. “It’s… a building.” she said. Though it was an admittedly impressive one, taller and more sprawling than any other around it, and looking quite clean, well-maintained and lit compared to its neighbors.

“It’s a hospital.” Vedreg corrected her.

“And we’re going to find the secret to species decline in there, are we?”

Vedreg turned and spread his arms to indicate the city and its surrounding sprawl of infill as a whole. “A hospital this large has catchment for the entire river valley.” he said. “It should be absolutely thriving with activity, should it not? Despite the much reduced population, some hundred thousand souls still live inside this hospital’s coverage.”

Allison nodded yes, then remembered that without translators she had better do Vedreg the courtesy of speaking aloud. “Sure.” she said.

“And yet… no ambulances are landing.” Vedreg indicated the dormant landing pads. “The ground vehicle parking area is all but completely empty. No pedestrians are coming or going. The Injury and Emergency department is silent. Clearly, the OmoAru who live around here don’t care in the slightest about their own health. And yet the building remains open, the power is still on, and the reception drone is ready to receive and help.”

“Automated?” Lewis asked.

“The staff parking.” Kirk chimed in “Is not vacant. Somebody is still at work inside.”

“Who?”

Kirk’s imitation of a human shrug was getting better with practice, but his extra limbs still made the gesture look strange. “Unfortunately, I don’t read OmoAru.”

“Huh.” Allison mused.

Lewis laughed. “Don’t start that shit again.” he warned.

His admonition earned a wry huff from Allison, and baffled expressions from everyone else, so he explained, producing the “Huh” to show off, passing it around. Vedreg and Kirk promptly fell to debating its meaning and significance, while Zane just inspected the little object, turning it over in his hands.

Allison sidled over to Amir, who had been silent so far, staring up at the hospital. “Thoughts?” she asked.

“Fifty quid says the cybernetics ward turns out to be open and the Hierarchy’s behind it all.” Amir challenged her. “Wiping out whole species when they start to become a threat seems like their style, doesn’t it?”

“And with an advanced species whose heads are going to be full of implants like the OmoAru…” Allison mused, following his line of reasoning. “…No bet. Have you-?”

Something very painful happened to the back of her head.



Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Captain Owen Powell

“Hello, captain. Major Tony Ford, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Major.” Powell looked around the office as he shook the psychiatrist’s hand, finding it uncomfortably familiar to the other ones he had visited for counseling in his career. The couch was different, though. Long, low and square. A sofa, rather than a psychiatrist’s couch. He appreciated that. “Guess I sit there, do I?”

Major Ford smiled slightly and shook his head. “If you want. Or over there, on the floor, walk around… you can even sit at my desk and I’ll sit on the couch if you like. There’s coffee and tea if you want them.”

“I’ll… take the couch, thanks. And, uh… yeah, a cup of tea would go down about right.”

Ford nodded. “A Yorkshire man like yourself I’m thinking… strong and sweet?” he asked, smiling.

Powell produced a very, very little tired laugh through his nose. “Aye, you’ve got me bang to rights there.” he said.

Ford made the drinks quietly, giving Powell time to settle in and get the measure of the room a bit more. On second glance there were personal touches everywhere, not least of which was a dog basket in the corner, in which a dark little terrier was sat, watching him with wide-eyed interest. Her tail flopped over uncertainly in response to the attention.

“Oh, that’s Peggy.” Ford said. “Don’t worry, she’s as good as gold, won’t even leave the basket without permission.” he added fondly, smiling at her as he handed over the tea.

“I’m not going to wind up talking to the dog, am I?” Powell asked.

“Not if you don’t want to. But she’s half of the partnership, and there if you need her.”

“…Aye, let her out.”

“C’mon Pegs! Say hi.” Ford ordered. The dog bounced happily across the room and sat in front of Powell, giving his hand a little lick as he scratched her ear.

“Were you always a psych, Major?” he asked, noticing a few other personal effects around the office, one of which was unmistakably a large piece of shrapnel.

“No, I cross-trained.” Ford said, settling back down at his desk. “I was escorting EOD teams on my first two tours.”

“Nice one.” Powell said, genuinely impressed. “But why the move?”

“We lost a man. They never did figure out exactly why that carbomb went off, they thought the robot had made it safe but… well, everyone took it hard. I coped best by helping the others, and from there I decided to switch career paths.”

Powell nodded.

“What about you, did you sign up intending to go into the SBS from the beginning?”

“Aye, I did.”

“What attracted you to it?”

Powell sipped his tea. “My old man’s sister was an A and E nurse at Sheffield Teaching Hospital. She had these stories about when they sent the SAS lads along there for medical training in the ‘70s.”

Ford listened, drawing him to continue. “Okay, so… this is all second hand, but apparently one of them was really fond of his motorbike, and one day after shift he went out there and found it’d been stolen.”

“Oh dear.”

“Aye. Apparently he turned up on it next day and all he’d say on the subject was ‘he won’t do that again’.” Powell chuckled, then paused and scratched Peggy’s ears some more. “…When I were little, I used to think that was well cool. Fookin’ unprofessional is what I’d call it nowadays.”

“Is that what attracted you to the Service? Stories like that?”

“At first, aye. I wanted to be hard, you know? Be a tough bastard. That’s what got me in the Cadets. Then I saw all me mates getting in trouble with the law, all their parents losing their jobs, and I could see this career ahead of me if I stuck at it. It was only really later that I started to believe in the message, right? Keeping our country safe, making the world a better place…”

Peggy gave him a lick as he looked down at her and scratched at her ear again. “…Shall we get started?” he asked.

“If you like.” Ford said. “What happened?”

“What happened?” Powell exhaled. “A kid died. You’re… briefed, right?”

“About the Hierarchy? Yes.”

“Right, well… emergency mission. Hierarchy in the colony, doing summat dodgy down the starport construction site, one of the kids had snuck in there to try and take a picture. We mobilized, were there in less than two minutes. Swept the site. We nearly had the bastard when he shot her.”

Peggy made a little noise and shuffled a touch closer to him, warm against his leg. He couldn’t resist the urge to pet her some more.

“Ten fookin’ seconds.” he said. “Less than. Seven, maybe. If we’d been there ten seconds earlier…”

“Could you have done anything differently?”

“No.” Powell shook his head. “I’ve gone over it. We did everything bloody perfect. I can’t bear to tell ‘em this, but my lads pulled out the best day’s work they ever done, there’s not a single fookin’ learning point in the entire bloody operation. Perfect.

He sighed. “And we still got there ten seconds too late.”

“I’m interested… why can’t you tell them?”

“Well what’s that going to achieve?” Powell asked. “Sometimes there’s not enough silver fookin’ lining in the world.”

“And that’s hard to accept?”

“No, that part I can accept. Failure’s always an option, no matter how well you do. That’s not what hurts.”

“Hurts?”

“Ah, I’m injured.” Powell replied. “Sure as if I’d been shot in the gut. One of my men had to chew me the fook out to make me come in here.”

“Do you think he was right to?”

“Abso-fookin’-lutely.” Powell asserted. “I’ve been beating myself up, losing sleep, takin’ it out on the lads. I’ve been a bad commander the last few days, and that’s got to fookin’ stop.”

“You sound angry at yourself.”

“Yeah, I am. I thought I was just angry at the Hierarchy, but… no, fook that, I am angry at them. And at myself. And at…”

He fidgeted, then patted the dog when she whined at him.

Ford gave him a minute, then suggested, softly. “Anger can be constructive.”

“Yeah.” Powell said. “I know that. Me and anger are old friends, we get on just fine, mostly. And I reckon that’s what’s giving me trouble, is that it’s not constructive to be angry with the person I’m most mad at.”

“Who?”

Powell picked the dog up. “The girl.” he told her, very softly. “I’m angry at the victim.”



Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Allison Buehler

Uwsm!”

Blurs. Noise. A warm hand on her cheek.

“A-sn!”

Julian.

“Allison!”

Now, how did speech go again? Oh yes.

“Aaargh…”

“Oh, shit, you’re awake! You had me scared there.”

“…hurts…”

“Hey, look at me, okay?”

Allison forced herself to focus on his eyes. He shone a light into her face and stared intently at them for a second, checking the dilation of her pupils, before finally nodding. “Okay. You’re okay… I hope.”

“…happened?” She tried to move, then collapsed as nausea washed over her.

“You tell me. I got here, you and the guys are all unconscious. Kirk and Zane are missing and Vedreg…”

He indicated a breathing mountain of dark fur that was crumpled at the foot of the hospital stairs with shoots of dark red moving up and down it. “I think Zane was just planning to knock him out as well, but… I think he’s really hurt. I can’t get him to say anything.”

Allison squinted at him. While she knew every word in what he had just said made sense, and so did the arrangements too, for some reason she just couldn’t quite…

It clicked. “Shit! Vedreg…” She stood again, squelching the nausea this time.

“Woah, hey, maybe you shouldn’t…”

“Maybe I should.” She grunted, teetering on her feet as she staggered towards Vedreg. “The hell did he hit me with?”

“Looks like… a steel ball of some kind.” Julian held it up.

“Oh. The… Huh. The Huh.”

“What?”

“Forget it. How… how are the guys?”

“Alive, but barely responding. You’ve all got serious concussions, I don’t know…”

“Nothing we can…” the word she was looking for was a fuzz that just wouldn’t resolve, so she aborted the sentence and concentrated on remaining upright just long enough for her legs to gratefully give out and dump her by their Guvnurag comrade’s head.

“Vedreg?”

It was hard to tell, but she thought he moved slightly.

“Vedreg I… guess you don’t handle pain like we do, but I need to know if you’re conscious. Just do anything, okay?”

One of Vedreg’s huge bloodshot blue eyes rolled open from behind three layers of nictitating eyelids and looked right at her for just long enough to confirm he was still among the land of the living, then screwed shut again in agony.

Allison knew how he felt. “Come on, I can’t stop the pain if I don’t know where you hurt.” she said, grateful to have something to focus on. It was helping her work through the concussion.

“…chest…” the big alien coughed, eventually, moving his hand where it was cradling his flank. There was an obvious dent there.

“Shit, no wonder you’re like this…”

She was carrying two medical kits. The smaller one, the green bag on her belt, was made by and for humans, any one of the painkillers and treatments it contained might kill Vedreg outright. The other - a metal box about the size of her forearm - was intended for use on aliens, and came with the major advantage of being pseudo intelligent, capable of diagnosing, prescribing and prognosing injuries and ailments in all known interstellar species. Humans, sadly, weren’t in its database yet, and probably never would be. Allison knew from past experience that most ET drugs simply didn’t work on Deathworlders.

“Guvnurag patient, fractured ribs.” she informed it, and held the device’s black end - a low-powered, short-range medical scanner - over the break.

She held her breath as it took the measure of the damage, and exhaled happily when it reported that the injury, while undoubtedly agonising, was not life-threatening, and ordered her to apply its injection end to three spots around the wound.

It hissed alarmingly as she did so, but Vedreg seemed to appreciate whatever it did, as he relaxed and made a noise very like “Aaah…

“Painkillers?”

“A local anaesthetic and a regenerative, most likely.” Vedreg replied, returned to his usual communicative self. “Thank you, Allison. I fear had he punched me much harder then I would no longer be with you.”

“You rest. Look after Amir and Lewis.” She told him. “We’ve got… uurgh…”

She had stood up, and had to steady herself on Julian.

“Allison, you need bed rest.” he told her.

“Fuck that, we’ve got to get back to the ship.”

“…of course. Xiù.” Julian said.

“Right. He’s obsessed, I knew it. He saw his chance and took it.”

“You should be flattered.” Vedreg commented. “He rendered you unconscious first.”

“And I doubt he’d have done it at all if Julian’s foot hadn’t broken.” Allison retorted. “Come on, let’s get after him.”

She was damned if she was going to let a few spinny buildings and the way her own limbs felt blurry stop her from getting payback.


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Captain Owen Powell

“I first… We were…”

Powell exhaled, and started over. “We spent a month on Cimbrean getting set up, just me and the lads, getting things ready for the civilian colonists. Day they arrived, I remember she… the girl fookin’ rampaged down the ramp the second it was down. She was racing her brother to be the first civilian colonist to set foot on a new world. She won. Right proud of it, too.”

“You have a soft spot for children, don’t you?” Ford asked.

“Never met a soldier who doesn’t.” Powell retorted. Peggy seemed to have fallen asleep on his lap. “You were at Camp Bastion, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, you’ve got to remember the kids around the camp, right? The locals? They become mascots, don’t they? I always remember how jaded some of them were, though. They got it, aye?”

“It?”

Powell grimaced and scratched the back of his head. “It’s… this is going to be a bit hard to explain.”

“Don’t worry about explaining it to me. I think I know what you mean, but for your own sake just… think out loud.”

“I think the other two teenagers around Folctha get it as well. Adam and Ava. S- The girl’s… Her friends. They’d come from San Diego, they were out of town when the bomb went off. Lost fookin’ everything. Their homes, friends, schools, family… and they got it, they understood what S-she didn’t.”

“Which is?”

Powell exhaled. “Okay, right. So…” he thought for a second. “People say ‘life is unfair’, right?”

“Yes…”

“Bullshit. Complete fookin’ rot. Totally backwards. Life is fair. Terribly, terribly fookin’ fair. Life doesn’t give a shit if you’re a forty-year-old soldier or a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, it’ll kill you like that-” he snapped his fingers for emphasis. “-and not even give a shit. The stars keep burnin’, the worlds keep turnin’, but that’s it. That was your fookin’ lot. It’s fair because it treats everybody exactly the same, that way.”

Ford remained silent and kept eye contact, letting him say more.

“I get that.” Powell continued. “Adam and Ava get that. The kids in Afghanistan and Iraq got that. This gi-” He paused, then frowned at himself and gathered the strength to say her name. “Sara… didn’t.”

“And you’re angry at her for that?”

“No! Not…” Peggy made a protesting noise as Powell set her aside and stood up to pace the room, hunting for the right way to start a sentence. “She was the… I mean… You’d…”

“Describe her.”

That stopped him. “What?”

“Who was she? What did she look like? How did she behave?”

Powell looked back at the couch, and smiled faintly when the dog gave him an uncertain tail-wag.

“I don’t… no, wait, I’ve got it. You ever go round a council estate, Major?”

“Occasionally…”

“They’ve always got those same kids on ‘em, don’t they? Like there’s a fookin’ machine somewhere, stamping out exact copies. The scrawny skinhead boy who thinks he’s hard, the pretty girls who’ll be pushin’ prams and chain-smoking before they can drive. You know the ones. I should know what that kind of kid is like, I used to be one.”

“I think I follow you.”

“Imagine… the complete opposite.” Powell said. “Somebody who fookin’ broke that machine. Somebody who’d never in their life wind up mooching around by the Co-op trying to talk strangers into buying them fags and vodka. Somebody… Different. Better.”

“And Sara was such a person?”

“All three of them, her and the two others. They’re… She was… Alive. Living in the moment. Real people. They know who they are, which I sure as fook didn’t at that age.”

“And who was Sara?”

Peggy licked his hand as Powell picked her up and sat down again. “Like something out of a bloody Enid Blyton book.” he said. “You know, the plucky children investigating fookin’ mysteries, thwartin’ gangs of gun-runners and what have you?”

“I’ve never read them.” Ford confessed.

“Not worth it, mate. Naive fookin’ horse shit, every word of the fookin’ things.”

“You said that you’re angry at her though. Why?”

“That’s just it, I don’t fookin’ know!” Powell seethed. “I wasn’t mad at that kid in Kenya, or at those Yezidi girls in the Persian Gulf, so why should I be angry with Sara? She’s the fookin’ victim here!”

“Well, turn the question around. If you can’t figure out why you are angry with Sara, perhaps it will help to think about why you were not angry with the others.”

That seemed reasonable.

“Well… you know about what happened, right? In those other two cases?”

Ford nodded that he did. “I’ve read the notes, but it’s probably best if you recount them in your own words.”

Powell sighed. “Karatina market, Kenya. There was a little boy. Like, five or six? His parents had given him…” he laughed a little at the memory. “I remember it was this really cheap fookin’ knock-off plastic ‘Ben 10’ backpack… and the fookin’ thing was full of C4 and ball bearings…”

He patted the dog’s side. She had her chin on his lap and was looking up, listening. “His Mum and Dad were sitting in the car with one of those old Nokias. We saved the kid that time, and a lot of other people too, but he didn’t see that. All he saw was the nasty white men who’d come and killed his Daddy. Never fookin’ mind that we’d shot the evil bastard to stop him from calling the bomb and blowing up his own little boy, we were the bad guys.”

“You don’t blame him for that, though?”

“‘Course I don’t. He was a little’n, didn’t fookin’ understand what was happening. Never crossed the poor little bugger’s mind that his parents might murder him like that. It got to me, but… y’know, that’s dealt with. I can deal with being the bad guy if he’s alive and doin’ summat with his life. Who knows, maybe after all these years he’s figured out what happened and forgiven me.”

“And the Persian Gulf?”

“Different story. That one were a freighter involved in slave trafficking, they’d got a handful of Yezidi girls in a shipping container, going to some buyer in Thailand. There was a cockup at the Thai end, the buyer spooked and the freighter chucked the container overboard. Worthless cargo, now. All the drone operator could do was fookin’ watch.”

“You were angry then?” Ford asked.

“Fookin’ raging.” Powell nodded. His expression darkened. “We boarded the ship, had all these bastards sat in a circle, and they were jawing and joking and asking for cigarettes - they thought we were Americans - and all acting like they didn’t know what had been in that container. Like they hadn’t heard the banging and screaming from inside. Like they weren’t slave-trading fookin’ scum who’d just murdered five little girls. I wanted to bundle every man of ‘em into a crate and tip ‘em over the side myself. But that wasn’t the hard part.”

He paused. “No, the hard part were that the container burst. Pressure difference, right? So all the bodies came back up. We had to fish ‘em out, these skinny little blue-eyed girls, and there were tiger sharks following the ship. They eat whatever falls overboard.”

His fists clenched. “Aye. I was angry there, but, at the right people, you know? Only reason we didn’t shoot those cunts in the kneecaps and throw ‘em to the sharks was pure bloody professionalism, and I still think it’d have been no less than they fookin’ deserved.”

“What do you think the difference is between those cases and this one?”

Powell thought about it for some time, petting Peggy as he did so. “I think… I think I’m angry at her because she got herself into it.” he said at last. “Like, this brave, beautiful, stupid fookin’ girl had to go in and help when the cavalry was already on the way. Like, if she’d just been smart about it, she… I…”

He swallowed, then started to shake. “I never looked in a child’s eyes while she was dying before.” he croaked. “She said her last word to me. She was scared. She… When I closed her eyes, her- she’d been crying, she was so afraid, and the tears made my glove wet…”

He stared at his hand. “I couldn’t bear to take it off for hours…”

He sat, staring at his fingers for a few moments until the dog, very gently, inserted her nose under his palm and hauled herself into his lap, wagging sympathetically. He laughed a little, grabbed her and hugged, sobbing into the fur.

Ford let him get it out of his system. Finally, the captain made a weak “woo-ugh” noise and sat up, wiping his face dry.

“Fookin’…. I never cry.” he said.

“You needed to.” Ford observed.

“…You know, I think you’re right.” Powell agreed. “I’ve just not done that since I were a kid. Sorry.” He wiped his face again.

“Don’t be. In fact, I’d have been worried if you hadn’t.” Ford reassured him. “…Are you really angry at her, do you think? Now that you’ve had time to think out loud?”

“…No. I don’t think so, not really. Not any more. She’s like that poor boy in Kenya, isn’t she? She didn’t know any better, it never crossed her mind that maybe her parents had led her wrong.”

“Her parents?”

“Aye. These Dippy-Hippie tree-hugging free love pagan parents of hers. Her dad’s got these tattoos - ‘an it harm none, do as thou wilt’.” He gestured along his forearms to show where the two halves of the phrase were inked into Mark Tisdale’s skin. “Sexually open, no boundaries, no rules, no fookin’… sense of consequence. I’ll just bet you they never once told her that no, there’s things that you can’t do. You know? Like, they’ll have told her ‘you can do anything”, trying to empower her and that, and it got her killed.”

“How do you feel towards them, then?” Ford inquired. “You’ve compared Sara to the child in Kenya, but what about the parents?”

“It’s… not the same.” Powell mused. “The bastards in Kenya, they had the phone in their hand. May as well have dug the little guy a trench and put a gun to the back of his head, they were going to murder him just as dead either way. But the Tisdales loved their daughter, so fookin’ much. They’d have never deliberately hurt her, but they coddled her so much that she never learned one of the most useful survival skills in the world.”

“Which is?”

“Knowing when it’s time to stop fookin’ playing.”

He sighed. “What’s saving them is that they didn’t know they were doing it. They’re as fookin’ ignorant as their daughter was.”

“Do you think you can forgive them for that?”

Powell inhaled and exhaled deeply through his nose, but didn’t answer, beyond shaking his head and stroking the dog.

Ford nodded. “Why not?”

“I can forgive a child for not knowing how the world works.” Powell replied, after a moment’s thought. “It’s bloody cruel, but there it is. She didn’t have time, and the first chance she got to learn, it killed her. She could have been smarter, should have been, but… y’know, she was just fourteen. A girl. Part of the cruelty of it is that we want them to be innocent at that age, don’t we? We don’t want to spoil their fun.”

“But adults should know better.” Ford finished the thought for him.

“Fookin’ right.” Powell sniffed and shook his head. “I’m not sadistic, I’m not going to rake ‘em over the coals for it, they’re suffering enough. But…”

He shook his head again, breathing out. “…But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at either of them without thinking, y’know… ‘You’re the reason I had to watch your daughter die’.”

“What are you going to do?”

Powell finally made eye contact, and there was a hardness in his gaze now that had been absent throughout the interview, one that looked quite natural and comfortable there. “I’m going to find something important of the Hierarchy’s, and when we’re done with it I’ll use the largest piece that’s still intact for a fookin’ paperweight.”

Major Ford smiled appreciatively. “I think this session has been good for you.” he opined.

Powell nodded. “Aye, I think it has.” he agreed. “I feel sharp again. More myself.”

“I would still suggest you come back for at least a couple more sessions.” Ford added. “After that, it’s up to you, but at least two more seems prudent.”

“Aye. At least two more.” Powell agreed, and stood, putting Peggy down but pausing to scratch at her ears one last time. “Don’t want to undo all our progress, do we?” he asked the dog.

“Indeed not.” Ford agreed. “We’re available any time, Captain. You let me know if we’re needed.”

“I will.” Powell shook the major’s hands “Thank you, sir.”

“Good luck.”

“Don’t fookin’ need it, mate.”


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

“Kirk”

“This isn’t going to work, you know.”

“Hush ya.”

“I’ve read your file. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A terrible thing. You were receiving a lot of therapy back on Earth to help you cope, weren’t you Zane?”

“I say hush!

Kirk wriggled a little as Zane’s grip tightened around his upper arm, feeling the bone creak alarmingly in the Deathworlder’s grip. “Not had any since you left Earth of course.” He continued. “But you could do. We can still take you back, you can still get the treatment you need. If you keep behaving this way, though, that may not happen…”

Zane broke his arm. Kirk fought down the rattling creak which was the Rrrrtk equivalent of a scream, while Zane just cursed and shifted his grip to the lower, sturdier arm. “Blood clot, why ya ET bruk so easy?!”

Kirk turned his pain into a slightly hysterical laugh. “Evolution!” he replied. “Different worlds different -” he creaked in pain again “- bones.”

“Hush, ya.”

“Even if you do get us to the ship and we take off, Xiù isn’t fragile like me.”

“Oh, she be. Dawta care, yah know. The I’s me leverage- she too soft let the I come ‘arm.”

They were nearly at the ships. As they entered the area lit by their industrial lights, alien workers turned to watch the sight of a human dragging a Rrrtk three times his height towards them.

“You’re not well! You’re not thinking straight!” Kirk protested. “We’re offering to take you back to - aah! - to Earth. Other women! You don’t need this one! You’re acting out, this is a crisis!”

HUSH. Ya.

“You’d better let him go, Zane.”

Allison stepped out from among the packing crates, aiming her sidearm at him. She was clearly in a bad way, squinting against the glare of the floodlights and swaying a little bit, and her aim was not up to its usual rock-steady standard.

Zane twisted around, dragging Kirk into the line of fire. “Ya cyaan shoot, seen? ‘Less ya wan’ hit ya boy.”

“True. Julian?”

“Ah, ah!” Zane chided, raising his hand to wrap around the base of Kirk’s throat. “I know ya creechie tumpa-foot man a’ try dat. I make a move and me break ya boy here, sight?”

“And then what?” Kirk rasped around his hand, as Julian stepped into Zane’s sight-line and hefted his hatchet warily. “You kill me and you’ll lose your advantage. Your plan leaves something to be desired, Zane.”

“The I still be dead.”

“I admit, the prospect doesn’t thrill me, but you’re threatening to make the situation worse for yourself, not better.”

“Hush, ya!”

Kirk waved an arm, beckoning Julian and Allison to fall back. Over the dermal patch microphone on his throat, he explained his reasoning, subvocalising so low that even Zane couldn’t hear him, and the translator certainly couldn’t.

He’s histrionic. He was so convinced of his superiority that now we’ve punctured it he’s liable to panic.

“What do we do?” Allison replied, murmuring so that Zane wouldn’t hear.

If we give him the chance to calm down a bit, we can build him back up. Get him to calm down. Get him to think that doing what we want is his idea.

“And if we can’t?” Julian asked him. “He seems pretty close to breaking point, boss.”

If it comes to violence, it comes to violence.” Kirk said.

“Greeaaat…”

I’ll try to leave him alive.

They were passing through the middle of the field of equipment and crates surrounding the Corti research craft, when the Corti in question decided to interfere.

“You appreciate of course that there is a third option.” the male - Lesry - observed. He and Knadna were in Zane’s way, and they ignored Kirk’s attempts to signal for them to move.

“Get away.” Zane ordered.

“Rather than resort to violence…” Lesry said, stepping forward, “you could sign on with us. A bit of muscle would be useful, and we have the means to deliver you back to Earth, without your being a prisoner in the ship you arrived on. What say you?”

“I want.” Zane growled. “Xiù.”

“And ask yourself if that scenario seems likely right now, hmm?” Lesry pushed. “Be realistic.”

He stepped forward again. “I’m offering you the chance to part ways peacefully, as a free man. That seems like the most rationa-“

Zane backhanded him. It was a casual, almost gentle motion, but it highlighted the huge disparity between Human strength and Corti mass by flipping Lesry head-over-heels over a crate with a sickening noise like a baseball being thrown at a sack full of cockroaches.

It was all the distraction Kirk needed. He twisted, turned, darted sideways and his prosthetic arm lashed out, extending its concealed fusion blade.

Kirk went one way. Zane reeled the other. Zane’s left forearm left a crater in the sand where it landed between them, smoking, glowing and bloodless at the cut end.

Rrrrtk had a decent turn of speed over very short distances, but Kirk knew Humans well by now. Zane’s scream may have been of agony, but there was a very large component of adrenaline and rage in there as well, and no short-term turn of speed was any good at all when a pursuit predator was angry at him.

The only recourse open to him was to turn at bay and get ready with his sword, prepared to strike a lethal blow if he could, but that much mass, travelling that fast, would quite probably end very badly for him even if he did.

Facing the Hunters had been bad enough. Facing the murderous fury in Zane’s eyes was worse. Julian and Allison had retreated on his orders, and were now sprinting to catch up, but they were too far away, on the back foot. Zane was going to beat them.

Xiù got to him first.

If Zane’s casual backhand had hinted at the disparity between Deathworlder muscles and Corti bones, then what Xiù unleashed on the enraged Jamaican was an object lesson in just how physically far ahead of the rest of the galaxy humans truly were. Zane had time enough only to register her presence as she rose up in his path before she delivered four blows, any one of which would have exploded through Kirk’s body like heavy pulse-gun fire.

The first exploited his missing arm, driving into his chest, knocking him off-balance and driving the wind out of him. The second was laser-targeted on his jaw, stunning him. As he staggered, the third blow was delivered to his left eye, and the fourth to his right.

Her precision flurry of violence took less than a second.

Zane’s headlong berserk charge turned into him staggering, dropping to his knees in the sand, wheezing, and falling over when he tried to support himself on a hand that was lying several meters away.

He wasn’t out, though. Running on adrenaline and anger, he still tried to haul himself to his feet, swinging wildly with his remaining arm even as his eyes swelled up and blinded him.

Xiù just stepped and flowed, and wherever the flailing limb went, there she wasn’t.

She was angry too, Kirk decided. Furious. But it was a different kind of fury. Zane in a rage was a bellowing beast, roaring and thrashing around like a wounded Vulza.

Xiù on the other hand became a machine. Her face locked down, her eyes locked on, everything about her unified into a cold and methodical instrument of violence that simply took the most efficient path to avoid harm and then, when the opportunity presented itself, she stepped forward and delivered a straight punch to Zane’s skull, just behind the ear.

The delicately balanced tug-of-war that kept bipedal humans upright and moving ceased instantly, and Zane crashed into the dirt, unmoving.

In the stunned moment of stillness that followed, Xiù made hardly any noise, simply allowing her breath to hiss out from between her teeth, and then she straightened, inhaled through her nose as she touched her fist to her palm in a Bau Quan, then exhaled as she let her entire body relax. Only the hardness in her eyes remained, though even that thawed a little when she glanced at Kirk.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

“He broke my arm, but I am alive, thanks to you.” Kirk said, and meant it. “I am… impressed.”

“Understatement central there, boss.” Allison chimed in. “Holy shit, girl!”

“You cut his arm off…” Xiù observed. She didn’t sound happy about it.

“Necessary, I’m afraid.” Kirk replied.

“Yeah, but… oh, God.” A distinct green colour rose in Xiù’s face and she turned away, breathing heavily. Allison rubbed her back, making soothing noises.

“Allison, can you tend to his injury?”

Allison looked up at him, then reluctantly nodded. “…Sure. Julian?”

The pair of them hoisted the unconscious Zane onto their shoulder and dragged him - and Allison herself, Kirk suspected - in the direction of Sanctuary and her medbay.

That left Kirk and Xiù alone. The Corti team were tending to their wounded shipmaster, who seemed to be alive, thankfully.

“Are you alright?” He asked.

“Just…” Xiù slowed her breathing. “…I’m okay. Oh God, they left his arm…” She turned away again and bent over, trying not to vomit.

“Are you sure?” Kirk asked her, as soon as she seemed to have recovered a little.

She laughed a little. “I never thought it’d be like this.” she complained, and wiped at some tears that were threatening to form. “Monsters and fighting and cutting peoples’ arms off.”

She sniffed, and after a few more cleansing breaths she stood up and raised her head, staring at a night sky and stars that only six specimens of the entire human race had ever laid eyes on. “I want to go home.”

“And what do we do with Zane? Does he get to go home as well?”

Xiù blinked at him. “You’re the shipmaster, aren’t you?” she asked.

“I am, and I say as shipmaster that it’s your decision. To hell with my arm, you’re clearly the one he really hurt. Whatever it was that happened between you.”

“Then he…” Xiù began firmly, but paused. “I…” She sighed. “Let me give him one last chance.”

“By all means. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m in rather a lot of pain, and we need to send Julian back for the others…”


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Starship Sanctuary, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Zane

Zane had been knocked out in bar fights in his time, but returning to consciousness this time wasn’t like those other occasions had been. It was just like… waking up.

“What…?”

You were drugged, and treated. You’re actually in pretty good shape, Zane.

It was Xiù’s voice, sounding oddly tinny, and that suddenly made Zane aware of his surroundings - he was curled up on the floor of one of Sanctuary’s airlocks. Big enough for a Guvnurag to use, it was a large room by human standards.

Xiù’s face was at one of the windows. So pretty. So… cold. That same look that had made him angry at her. Didn’t she know who she was dealing with?

The stump where his arm ended just below the elbow felt cold, and beyond that was a strange numbness. That should have bothered him more, but his ego ratcheted into gear, redirecting all the grief and insecurity that somebody without his personality disorder would have felt into pure grim anger. There would be a reckoning.

“Ya gonna let me out?” he asked.

One way or the other.” Xiù replied, speaking through a microphone. “Look behind you.

Zane blinked, and did so.

There were stars beyond the opposite window. It took him a second or two to make the connection between that fact, his being in an airlock, and what she had said.

Please. Who did she think she was bluffing?

“Ya wouldn’t.” he declared. “Me know I, Xiù. Ya don’ do that kind of badness.”

To be rid of you?” She declared. “What happens when we get back to Earth, huh? You come after me again? You hurt more people? You hurt me again?”

He laughed. “Gwan, then.”

Bluff called, he congratulated himself. There’d be a showdown with Kirk, he’d have vengeance for his arm. And the others would fall in line. They’d see what kind of a man he was.

The howl of the alarm and the sound of the doors whining into gear when Xiù pressed the button drove all of his confidence out of him in a rush of cool air threatening to escape.

“Xiù! Xiù, no! Ya can’ do this!” he rushed the door she was behind, knocking and shouting. “Xiù no! I’m sorry! I hurt ya, that was wrong o’ me, me leave ya ‘lone! Just let me go back to Earth!

The alarms didn’t stop, and her hand on the release didn’t fidget.

You want to go home too, huh?” She asked.

Those eyes were so cold. He’d hurt her. He’d hurt her, and now she was going to murder him. He couldn’t believe that she would. He couldn’t believe that the others would let her.

But there were the hungry stars, waiting for him.

“Yes!” he screamed “PLEASE, Xiù! I’m beggin’ you, PLEASE!

She paused, her eye contact drifted away. Her hand moved away from the final release. She softened, and the relief trembled down him. He meant every word, she’d be left alone if only she-

Walk home, asshole.

She hit the button.

The overpressure in the lock flung him shrieking out of the ship… and into the river Uatun, a mere four meters below.


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

Folctha Colony, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

“Legsy” Jones

“Alright…”

Legsy Jones took a minute or so to check he was in absolutely pristine military trim before knocking. He knew the captain had actually gone to counselling, but after the last meeting with Powell, he was damned if he was going to be on anything but his most perfect behaviour.

“Come in.”

Moment of truth. He poked his head into the captain’s office.

Powell looked rested. The darkness around his eyes was gone, he’d tidied up the drifts of paperwork into a more organised system, and his camp bed was made. The captain himself was standing at the washbasin, rinsing shaving foam off his face.

“Latest from Intelligence, sir.” Legsy said.

“Cheers. On the desk, please.”

So far so good. But he wasn’t about to relax just yet. The dossier joined some of its fellows on Powell’s desk.

“Do you need anything, sir?”

“No thanks, I’m good. Carry on.”

“Sir.”

He was halfway through turning and leaving when Powell suddenly threw his towel onto the bed. “Sergeant.”

“Sir.” Legsy turned around. The captain blinked at him, expression unreadable, then crossed the room and stood in front of him.

He wasn’t a large man, Legsy realised. He just seemed that way.

“I, uh…” Powell began, then fell silent. His clock ticked out six seconds before he shook his head. “Ah, never fookin’ mind, Legs. Keep up the good work, mate.”

“Yessir.” Inside his head, Legsy wanted to punch the air and grin.

Powell snorted “Well go on, carry on then!” he said.

Instead, Legsy grabbed him in a bear hug.

”-‘Ere, what’re you- fookin’ - let go!” Powell protested, and Legsy did so. Powell straightened his jumper and frowned at him. “The fook was that about?” he demanded.

“Sorry, sir.” Legsy straightened to attention. “It’s just… good to have you back.”

Powell hung his head and shook it, smiling. “Get out, you big fookin’ softy.” he ordered, kindly.

“Yessir.”

Once Legsy had gone, Powell retrieved the towel and hung it neatly to dry, checked the room for any other signs of things out of place, and allowed himself a satisfied nod.

“It’s good to be back.” he agreed.


Date Point: 4y 9m 3w AV

UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Knadna

Knadna squinted at the figure staggering towards them out of the dark. It had been only a few minutes since the Sanctuary had taken off, vanishing over the horizon with all the power that its gargantuan power core could produce, and she had watched the evicted psychotic Deathworlder struggle ashore with some interest.

Not to mention satisfaction.

“You have to admit, they are extremely tough.” she observed. An amputation, a concussion and a four-meter fall into the water only seemed to have annoyed the dark-skinned human, really. He was, if anything, probably as dangerous now as he had been a few hours ago. More so, possibly.

“Are we taking him with us, ma’am?”

“I think not.” Knadna replied, not even bothering to show her contempt for the moronic inquiry. “Get the last of the equipment stowed, I want the ship locked up and ready before that human gets here.”

The Kwmbwrw crewman rushed to obey. Knadna herself enjoyed the leisurely stroll back to the ship, arriving just in time to turn in the airlock, check everybody and everything was on board, and then activate the ship’s primary shields right in the approaching Deathworlder’s face.

This move did not seem to please Zane, who sprinted the remaining distance in an eyeblink, and Knadna had to clamp down hard on an instinctive reflex to flinch, cower, or run.

“Let me in.” He demanded, his tone of voice promising all of the impressive capacity for violence that his species was capable of unleashing, should she fail to comply.

“Now, why would I do that?” Knadna asked him. “You rather badly injured somebody I quite like. You seem to have an alarming inclination to use viol-”

Zane interrupted her and proved her point by slapping the forcefield, which rang and flashed alarmingly, but Knadna kept calm.

“Not even a human can punch through starship-grade weapons shielding, you barbarian idiot.” she told him, keeping a tired inflection in her tone.

LET ME IN!” He roared.

Knadna mentally sent a few commands over the ship’s control circuit, telling the pilot to begin the launch sequence.

“Frankly, the only thing stopping me from using one of this ship’s plasma guns to vaporise you where you stand is because I think leaving you all alone here with a dying species seems more… poetic.” she said.

“I can be useful.” he said, changing tack. “You want a nice strong human on your ship, I can do the heavy lifting, fight off pirates.”

“You already rejected that offer.” Knadna pointed out, but she made a show of mulling the suggestion over. “Besides, you would be a lot more useful if you still had both arms…”

She let him rant for a few seconds, ignoring the content, and interrupted him after a careful internal countdown.

“I tell you what.” she offered. “You can come aboard if you help me expand the limits of Corti scientific knowledge.”

“…What?”

“Well, I have this hypothesis that what happens to a Deathworlder when he’s standing directly beneath the primary kinetic engine of a starship at takeoff-” she made a meaningful upwards glance. The engine in question was beginning to whine, barely audible to Corti hearing but presumably quite clear to a human’s more acute senses. “-Is much the same thing as what happens to everything else in the galaxy.”

Zane stared upwards, swallowing and breathing heavily. There was an alarming blue glow beginning to manifest somewhere inside the device.

“If you’re not willing to test my idea,” Knadna told him. “Then you can always run away. You have… oh, eight seconds.”

He looked back down at her, plainly afraid now.

“I’d start running.” she said, sweetly.

Once they were airborne, she dusted off her hands, shrugged out of and hung up her sand robes, and visited the ship’s medical bay. Lesry was sitting up, expression taut as he endured the procedure of having regenerative medicines injected directly into the extensive damage at his shoulder by the surgical robot.

“I saw how you got rid of him.” He said, waving his undamaged hand at a floating projected monitor. “Nicely done.”

“I took the liberty.” She agreed. “I assume you don’t disapprove?”

“Oh, no.” he said. “If he was too ignorant to know that absolutely nothing happens to a being standing beneath a kinetic thruster when the ship takes off, then he would have been of no real use anyway.”

“Besides.” he added, grimacing as a fresh needle delivered a shot of Cruezzir deep into his flesh. “I believe your own words were something like ‘Never underestimate a Human’.”

“Absolutely never.” she replied. “Predictable though his attempt to take over the ship and chase after them would have been, it would also have been alarmingly plausible that he might succeed.”

“Best to leave him behind.” Lesry agreed. The surgical robot finished its work, leaving his arm bound up and immobilized, but the pain had clearly faded. “You continue to impress me with your competence, Knadna.” he said, easing himself down off the medical bed.

“I think we work well together.” She replied, internally glowing at the compliment.

“I think we do.” He agreed. “Shall we continue our association?”

“Make it more formal?”

“Indeed.” Lesry said. “A DNA exchange, perhaps?”

“I’m agreeable to that.”

They widened their pupils at each other, a rare Corti expression of genuine warmth and affection not dissimilar to a human shy smile, and Knadna congratulated herself.

Today had been a good day.

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Steve (not verified)
Holy shit hahahaha. Well done

Holy shit hahahaha. Well done with the kinetic engine. Got me real good lol.

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