Chapter 24: "An Alien World"

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Date Point: 10y3m3w AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space

Kirk

I don’t like this.

“You are perfectly safe.”

Nothing between me and vacuum but forcefields? Fuck that, dude.

How can one engage in pro-…” Vedreg paused. “No, wait. This is vulgarity for punctuation and emphasis, isn’t it.

Hey, he’s finally getting it. Miracles do happen!

Rrrtk had so much peripheral vision that they could almost see behind themselves, so it was easy for Kirk to spot Vedreg’s irritated glance in his direction.

Kirk himself was meandering along at the front of their little trio, examining the station. Lewis was in an irreconcilably foul mood and hadn’t appreciated being pulled out of his sulk, nor climbing into a pan-species pressure rig – little more than a lightweight pack on his chest that encased him in a forcefield and kept the proper O2/CO2 balance. The device was absolutely foolproof, designed to shut down only when it detected a breathable atmosphere, but that didn’t stop Lewis from fidgeting and adjusting it nervously as if it might fall off at any second and strand him. Humans really did hate forcefields.

That fact always bemused Kirk. They would trust their lives completely to steel and aluminium which might develop stress fractures and leaks, but forcefields, the product of ultra-dependable solid-state electronic components, left them nervous and sweating.

What are we even here for, anyway?” Lewis asked, through the life vest’s built-in communicator and translator.

“The last time I was here,” Kirk replied “I was able to use Sanctuary’s nanofactory to repair the power systems and the station’s own nanofactory. I left it with instructions.”

Instructions to what?” Vedreg asked.

Fix the station.” Lewis said.

Even Kirk rounded on him. “Lewis… you are right, but how did you know?” he demanded.

Lewis rubbed his chin with his thumb, then aimed that same thumb at part of the wall. “Hull breach. Recently patched and welded. We’ve passed six or seven now and you’ve inspected every one. Plus, what else are you gonna tell a busted-ass station to do with itself? Crochet some nice doilies and bake an apple pie?

What are ‘doilies’ and ‘apple pie’, please?” Vedreg asked.

Doilies are, like… Little fancy decorative cloth things, and apple pie is… you take the fruit of an apple tree and a bunch of sugar and… Dude, it’s not important.”

I’d still like to know.” Vedreg pleaded.

Lewis hesitated, then shrugged and sighed, giving up. “Okay, so, uh, you need a bunch of ingredients. Flour, sugar, butter…”

Kirk turned away to hide his amusement as he continued to inspect the repairs. They needed to be perfect – the station’s back had broken during its crash-landing, and while Kirk had no plans ever to launch it again, Mrwrki still needed to be airtight and space-worthy.

He listened idly as Lewis explained apple pie to Vedreg, including his reassurances that the ingredients that would have been unpalatable to Guvnurag all had “vegan” and “gluten free” alternatives. For some reason, the whole concept of “baking” seemed to fascinate Vedreg.

So what’s the verdict?” Lewis asked eventually.

“All of these are acceptable…” Kirk conceded. “I think we must assume that all the others will be also.”

Good. Sooner we get our asses behind a fucking pressure hull, the happier I’ll be.”

“This way, then.” Kirk indicated a door.

Lay on, Macduff.

Kirk nodded and activated it. “You know, that is a misuse.” he pointed out as it tortured itself a quarter open before jamming.

Nuh, the misuse is ‘lead on, Macduff’ right?” Lewis disagreed, needing no prompting to wiggle himself into the gap, brace his back against one door and his feet against the other, and heave. Whatever obstruction had held it gave, and the door slid smoothly the rest of the way open.

“That would be wrong, yes.” Kirk replied. “But the original use was ‘Lay on Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold, enough!” - Macbeth was defying Macduff and declaring that he would fight him, even knowing that it was futile. He was not inviting him to lead the way.”

Macbeth?” Vedreg rumbled. Guvnurag speech patterns rendered the word more like “Mac-u-bets?”

“Vedreg, old friend, an introduction to Shakespeare will have to wait.” Kirk told him, as they squeezed into the airlock. The Kwmbwrw were mercifully about as large as Kirk’s own species, and the airlock was designed for half a dozen of them. It had just enough room to accommodate Vedreg’s bulk alongside their own.

The lock cycled without incident – Lewis’ brute-force fix to the outer door seemed to have permanently resolved the problem as it closed easily and without complaint, and fresh air gusted in. When the inner door opened, there was no sudden rush of depressurization – the interior was airtight.

“Excellent.” Kirk announced, ducking under the door frame and into the great ring hallway that ran around the station’s interior.

“So… what’s here?” Lewis was next, squeezing delicately out from where Vedreg’s furry mass had been pinning him to the wall. “What do we have?”

“A functioning nanofactory and an entire moonlet’s-worth of raw material.” Kirk told him. “With those two things plus time, what we have is… anything.”

“Food? Water?”

“Both in plentiful supply.” Kirk assured him. “This station was intended for extreme deep space observation. It’s equipped to be manned by a full Grand House - about six hundred Kwmbwrw - for a year between resupplies.

“And, uh… where are those six hundred Kwmbwrw?” Lewis asked.

Kirk imitated a shrug for his benefit. “They were not aboard when I found the place.” he replied.

“The escape pods?”

“Launched, presumably. I did not check.”

Lewis looked up at the ceiling and muttered something that the translator decided was not for their benefit. Louder, he addressed the station’s control software. “Station, as a proportionate number per hundred, how many of this facility’s escape pods and life rafts have been launched, in total?”

The station’s response boomed through the silent halls: “Zero.”

“None?” Vedreg asked. Curiosity, confusion and mild alarm pulsed all over his body. “But this place is derelict!”

“Derelict space station, disappeared, turned up crashed thousands of lightyears from where it’s supposed to be, crew missing, no escape pods launched?” Lewis asked. “Kirk, dude, I’ve seen this movie. I want no part of it.”

“I did a thorough sweep when I first came here.” Kirk asserted, firmly. “I checked everything. There is nothing here except us.”

“Fuck sake…” Lewis muttered. “…Okay. Whatever. But if we find their skinned carcasses hanging from the ceiling somewhere, we are leaving. Okay?”

“Deal.” Kirk agreed, before Vedreg could comment. Their shambling Guvnurag companion had given Lewis a deeply alarmed look.

“So what do you have planned, anyway?” Lewis asked, peering down a hallway as if expecting some kind of horrible flensing monster to be lurking there. The fact that the lighting was clear and bright and the deck was plainly clear of stalking beasts didn’t seem to satisfy him one bit.

“That” Kirk mused “Is a very good question…”

“You don’t have a plan?”

“I have a fully powered space station, a nanofactory, and more raw material than we could use in a lifetime even if we spent the first quarter of that time building more nanofactorys.” Kirk told him. “The rest is just… detail.”

Detail?!

“Yes. Detail. What we build. How many. What they are for. What we do with them and who we give them to.”

“That’s not ‘detail’ that’s, like, eighty-eight percent of the plan!”

“Well, that eighty-eight percent is yours, then.”

Lewis stopped examining the corners in search of hideous mutants and frowned at Kirk. “Come again?”

Kirk managed a complicated quad-limbed version of a shrug. “I am not a deathworlder.” he said, simply. “And just in this last hour or so, you have demonstrated time and again that you think a few steps ahead of Vedreg and me.”

He folded all four of his arms. “In my experience, it pays to defer to superior knowledge and skill.”

“You’re… giving me a whole factory to play with.” Lewis stated, clearly not quite able to believe it.

“One” Kirk nodded “That can build basically anything synthetic, including more nanofactorys, and machines which can grow anything organic.”

“To fight the Hierarchy.”

“And the Hunters. Yes. All it needs is your imagination and input.”

“Oh.”

Lewis stared around at the station. He clapped his hands together once, rubbed his palms and licked his lips.

“…Right.”


Date Point: 10y3m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches.

Adam Arés

“Ngggh…ow.”

A rare wince and groan forced its way out of Baseball as Adam lowered him gently onto his bunk. Walking wasn’t something John could manage at the moment, owing to the severe muscular tears in both his legs, and quite likely some hairline fractures…everywhere, really. Adam winced in return. After all, he was intimately familiar with the uniquely painful and intense training that he and Base shared, and they both considered it a point of pride to bear their suffering in quiet. It was part of their bond, sharing pain and gain that the other operators couldn’t possibly understand. So to hear John complain even a little…

“Fuck.”

Adam wouldn’t have been Adam if he hadn’t felt slightly guilty. Now that all the anger was out of his system and he was thinking clearly, he had to admit, his friend hadn’t really deserved such a methodical reminder of who was the better wrestler. “I guess I overdid it…You okay, bro?”

Base opened an eye. “…Are you?”

Adam gently palmed the back of his battle-brother’s head and massaged. “I’m really sorry, bro.” John’s hand came up and embraced his brother’s head as well, though even that elicited another wince. Adam had done a thorough job of working him over.

They touched foreheads and nuzzled. “No no, I had it comin’…” Base grunted. Then, with a sad, almost needy look, “Forgive me?”

“Dude,” Horse chuckled quietly, “You were right, y’know. Of course I forgive you.” They held for a long moment, letting the peace and affection between them return.

The moment passed. John nodded against him, then let go and rested his head back, grimacing at yet another stab of pain. “Love you, man.”

“Love you too, bro,” Adam grinned. “Go on, rest up, let the Crude do its thing.”

He padded quietly out of the room. John was asleep almost before Adam had closed the door. He chuckled to himself; instant sleep was a skill the whole SOR had in common, but John and Adam had learned it from the very beginning of their careers. He shook his head and headed to the showers for a long, cool soak.

By the time he dripped and towelled his way back into the common room wearing only his ranger shorts, the rest of the guys were on the couch enjoying another Bad Movie Night in the form of “The Phantom Menace”.

“Room for one more on there?” Adam asked them, still toweling his head dry. The hot-then-cold shower had done much to clear his head, and now he wanted to relax and meditate with his brothers, as it were. They shifted up and climbed over each other to make room and he squeezed in, wriggling his arm around Titan’s shoulders to fit until he was finally comfortably part of the pile, where he sighed happily and watched in silence.

“Y’know, I heard the kid who played Anakin quit acting.” Firth said, after a while. “Apparently this film ruined his career.”

“Shit happens.” Adam shrugged. “You gotta move on.”

“So you’re single now, huh?” Blaczynski asked. He flinched as Rebar swatted the back of his head. “Ow!”

“Yup.” Adam shrugged again and repeated himself. “Shit happens.” He tried not to let the comment bother him, and snuggled into Titan a bit more.

They endured the movie a bit longer, before curiosity finally gnawed its way through Titan’s restraint. “That’s all you got to say on it? ‘Shit happens’? Wasn’t she, like… your high school sweetheart? You two’ve been together as long as I’ve known you.”

Adam sighed and turned where he was sitting slightly. “What you want me to say?” he asked. “I don’t even have it all sorted out in my head right now. Okay? Maybe I’ll talk about it some, maybe I’ll figure shit out and move on, whatever. Right now… yeah. Best I got to say is ‘shit happens’.”

“Least you sorted fuckin’ Baseball out… OWW!!” This time it was Adam’s turn to give Blaczynski a blow upside the head, and this one wasn’t the half-hearted brotherly cuff that Blaczynski managed to attract at least twice a day: it was an open-palmed clout so hard that everyone flinched.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Adam growled. The mood changed instantly - nobody needed more than that to spot that a line had been crossed, and they all went tense.

There was an awkward silence as Adam stared Blaczynski down. It wasn’t much of a contest.

“Horse, uh, did you miss the part where Base helped your girl fuck another fella?” Sikes pointed out tentatively.

Adam snarled and stood up, unceremoniously dumping half the operators on the floor, and seared the lot of them with a dark glare. “Oh, noooo, I spent the last two hours breaking him because he ate the last of the Eggos!” He narrowed his eyes, “What business is it of yours anyway? You wanna go a round on the mat with me too? Think you’d last more than a few seconds? ‘Cuz Base paid the fuckin price already. Him and me? We’re cool. And yeah: He kept that fuckin’ secret, and it was the right goddamned thing to do!”

“Woah, woah. Easy brother.” Blaczynski held up a hand reassuringly - the other was still nursing the back of his head. “We’re just-”

“You’re mad on my behalf. Cool. I get it. Thank you.” Adam snapped. “But he’s sorry, I’m sorry, we’re both over it, and he was right - I wouldn’t be here if he’d told me when he first learned. So lay the fuck offa him or you’ll answer to me, got it? All of you.”

One by one, he made eye contact with all of them. Vandenberg and Murray held it and nodded their approval and agreement - Akiyama, Sikes, Firth and Blaczynski all blinked, nodded and looked away sheepishly.

Adam nodded and relaxed, and tiredness - a deep, spiritual fatigue that he’d been holding back all day - hit him like a rock slide. He sighed, suddenly realising just how much he needed some alone time. “Fuck. Sorry. Y’all…enjoy the movie, guys. Imma go to bed now.”

“…‘Night.”

“‘Night.”

Adam thumped his way back to his room, grumbling quietly to himself. There were photos on his desk when he got there, real ink-on-paper prints. They were an anachronistic relic, but still reckoned by purists to be the best way to immortalize a memory, and Adam was inclined to agree. Ava had taken this set years ago, posing raunchily for him in one of his old T-shirts and nothing else… and eventually not even that.

He sat on his steel-beam bed and studied them carefully, one by one. The bed creaked loudly by way of greeting, a familiar and weirdly comforting sound in his personal world that entirely failed to shake him out of his fugue. The photos were profoundly and painfully erotic.

He considered ripping them up.

Instead, very carefully, he took a wooden box out of his locker that his dad had given him for his birthday, slipped the photos into the very bottom of it, and buried the box at the bottom of his “storage” duffle bag, wondering and doubting if he would ever look at them again. He neatly packed the bag away, tugged his shorts off, and rolled onto his complaining bunk, determined not to let the prickling at the corner of his eyes become anything more.

He stared at the ceiling instead, and of all the photos he’d stuck up there - from Basic, from PJ training, from Folctha and from everywhere else he’d been and all the people he’d met - his eyes alighted on one from school. He was in the middle, young and wiry and shaggy-haired, flanked on either side by Sara and Ava with his arms round their waists. All grinning at the camera.

He rolled on his side and, at length, fell asleep on a soaking wet pillow.


Date Point: 10y3m3w5d AV
Vancouver General Hospital, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Allison Buehler

Every so often, Allison amazed herself with just how much she could read in some fairly subtle gestures and expressions. She no sooner had to walk into Xiù’s room than she spotted the quiet desperation on Mrs. Chang’s face as she rattled away without pause to her long-lost daughter, nor the mostly-concealed discomfort and desire to be elsewhere on Wei’s.

Xiù’s expression was not in any way subtle. Quite the reverse, when she glanced up to see Allison leaning against the door frame, the look Allison received said ‘I love my family and I’m so glad to see them again but please save me from them.’

Allison couldn’t blame her. Ever since Xiù had woken up, she’d been the target of relentless attention from her doctors and nurses, and then an undammed torrent of familial affection, which had to be weird. Having a brother who was, in terms of date of birth, a few years her junior and yet was slightly older in terms of actual time experienced…

Allison couldn’t picture it. She was having a hard enough time adjusting to the changes in pop culture. The music on the radio, the references to technology and websites that hadn’t been around the last time she’d visited Earth, movies and TV series and actors, politicians. She hadn’t ever even heard of the President.

All of that was small beer next to Xiù’s reunion with parents who were well into their sixties, and as for Julian…

Julian had taken the news of his grandfather’s passing very hard. Very hard indeed.

She cleared her throat, gently interrupting the unrelenting babble of Mandarin that poor Xiù had been enduring. Like mothers everywhere, Mrs. Chang seemed to be determined to share the minute-to-minute details of every single day that her absent child had missed.

“Hey…” she smiled at them, trying not to show how much it bothered her that her voice was still rough and flegmy. “I’m really sorry, but could we borrow Xiù for a little while?”

Mrs. Chang turned to get her daughter’s opinion only to find that Xiù was already wrangling the blankets out of the way. For their part, Mr. Chang gave Allison an understanding smile and nod, and Wei seemed to be grateful for a break from the awkwardness. It had to be equally weird to find that your older sister was now younger.

Xiù was being adorably stubborn, too. The wheelchair by her bed was contemptuously ignored, even though the mere act of standing up got her breathing heavily. If the hand she laid on Allison’s shoulder was leaned on a little more heavily than it might have been if it was purely a gesture of welcome… well, Allison wasn’t about to comment.

Together, they made slow and breathless progress down the hospital corridor. The human respiratory system had never evolved to handle hard vacuum, and the damage they had suffered during their brief exposure had beat them round the head and mugged them. Young and fit though they both were, even gentle exertion was proving to be a hardship.

They paused for breath on a bench about twenty yards down from Xiù’s room where Xiù managed to fit a smile in between coarse breaths. “Thank you.”

“You okay?” Allison took her hand.

“Aside from… feeling like… I got run over… by a tank?” Xiù panted, and tried to take a deep breath which degenerated into a coughing fit. Allison ran her free hand up and down Xiù’s spine until it stopped. “God… I don’t know.”

“Too much to take in?”

“…Yeah. How’s… Julian?”

“That’s why I came to get you. He’s pretty beaten up over his Grampa. I thought he’d feel better to see you.”

“I guess.. we both lost family…” Xiù agreed, and hauled herself upright. Allison didn’t really feel ready to move just yet, but she forced herself to her feet anyway. The rehabilitation physio specialist had been adamant that she’d recover fairly quickly if she didn’t shy away from exercise, even if that exercise was a long way short of what she was accustomed to achieving.

The second set of benches was another twenty yards down, with only ten more to go to Julian’s room. Xiù sank onto it, perspiring.

“Okay… Why the hell… can’t space… be like in the movies?” she asked. “Star Lord… didn’t have to… put up with this shit.”

Allison giggled, and that triggered her turn to cough until her throat burned. It was Xiù’s turn to give her a comforting backrub, making a concerned noise that was a little more Gaoian than human. Allison didn’t comment.

“Ugh…”

“Allison…?”

“Yeah?”

“Is this… weird? That… I just got back… to my family… and I’m already… wishing they’d leave me alone?”

“I doubt it.” Allison shrugged. “God knows, I can’t wait to get off this planet ASAP.”

Xiù almost looked betrayed. “You’re… you wanna leave?”

“I was happy up there, babe.” Allison told her. “I was doing something. I was… you know, I felt like I was achieving stuff. I’m never going to be anybody on Earth.”

Xiù shook her head vociferously. “You don’t know that!”

The exclamation prompted another cough, but only the one this time.

“No, babe. I do. I know what I want, and I wanna be a spacegirl.” Allison said. “I wanna go out there and help find people, keep doing what Kirk was doing, maybe find worlds for people to live on, maybe find… who knows? What’s down here for me that somebody else hasn’t already done a million times?”

“A home?” Xiù asked.

“Home is wherever you’re happy.” Allison retorted. “And now that I’ve been to other places…? I don’t think that Earth can ever be my home.”

Xiù looked so crestfallen that Allison just had to rest a reassuring hand on her upper back. “Not what you wanted to hear?”

“I don’t know…” Xiù shrugged. “Is it stupid that I just… I kind of wrote you and Julian into my idea of what getting home was going to be like?”

Allison, genuinely touched, managed a giggle that didn’t turn into a wheeze. “Oh… I love you.”

Xiù gave her a stunned and confused blink, redness spread across her cheeks and nose, and Allison realised that this may have been an incautious thing to say to somebody who’d been starved of positive human interactions for several years.

She gave Xiù a hug. “Girl…I had more fun with you in one week than I had with some of my ‘best friends’ in two years. And I know you’re going to need help: I’m not just gonna abandon you, I promise.” She clarified. “I’m here for you.”

“O-oh…” Xiù’s blush faded again. “But you’re still leaving.”

“It’s not like I’ve got a spaceship in my other jacket, babe.” Allison pointed out. “I’m here for the foreseeable. It’s just… I know what I want to do with my life. In the short-term, I’ll help you. In the long term…” she glanced upwards significantly.

Xiù nodded, and wriggled into the hug a bit. “I’m sorry.” she said.

“What for?”

“For being… clingy.”

Allison gave her a backrub through her bathrobe. “Are you kidding? You’re not clingy.”

“I feel like I am.”

“You spent… how long, all by yourself?” Allison asked her. “Maybe you’re just too used to that. It’s fine, babe, I promise.”

“You’re sure?”

Allison smiled at the top of Xiù’s head. “I’m sure. Helps me feel useful.”

Xiù pulled back and gave her a questioning look. “Useful?”

“I feel like you need me.” Allison told her. “That’s… do you?”

Xiù considered the question. “I… I don’t want to.” she said. “But…”

She looked down the corridor: Wei Chang had just stepped out of her room. He gave his sister a pathetic little smile and lumbered in the direction of the vending machines. “Nobody else understands.” she finished. “I feel like I’ve landed on an alien planet. All these… these deathworlders.”

“The gravity’s wrong, isn’t it?” Allison mused.

“No. It’s too right. And the air feels too rich, and too warm, and I can taste so much on it.” Xiù sighed. “They tell me my immune system’s been made weaker ‘cause it’s not been challenged often enough…”

A nurse checked in with them on his way down the hall. “Are you two okay?” he asked.

“We’re fine, thanks.” Allison reassured him. Beside her, Xiù answered with a Gaoian-style ducking movement rather than a human nod. The nurse gave her a strange look and went about his duties.

“…Dammit.” Xiù thumped her palm to the side of her head.

“Relax, it’s no big deal.” Allison told her.

“To you it’s not.” Xiù shook her head. “Everyone else gives me strange looks…”

“Fuck ‘em.” Allison suggested. “So you’ve picked up a foreign accent in your travels. If they can’t handle that, it’s their problem. Not yours.”

Xiù glanced down to where her fingernails were flicking absentmindedly against each other, and wriggled her fingers to stop them. “I guess…”

“…You okay?”

Xiù rubbed at the scars on her arm. “I’m home. That’s all that matters. I’m home.” It sounded more like a mantra than conviction.

“Are you?”

For the first time ever, Xiù gave her an irritated glance. It was gone in a second, replaced by upset, shame and uncertainty. “I am.” she insisted.

Allison decided not to interrupt whatever she was thinking about, and was rewarded when, after about twenty seconds of cogitation, Xiù took a deep breath and gestured helplessly at the whole hospital.

“I’m home… and all Mom wants to talk about is who married who and when the baby’s due and… I used to spend my whole day worrying about accidentally killing people. Like, if I tripped and fell and reached out to catch myself or something and pulled their arm off… or worse, if I got found out and the Hunters came for me.”

She sighed and looked up and down the corridor. She frowned at a magazine on the table next to their bench and picked it up. At a glance it was obvious its title was something along the lines of ‘Charm!’ and that the front cover was nothing but long-range photos of oblivious women in bikinis being referred to by their first names. “Sometimes, here in this hospital?” she began. “It smells like that Hunter ship did. Just sometimes, it’ll catch me off guard and…”

Allison reached out and tidied some hair out of her face. Xiù studied the magazine as she did so, her frown deepening.

“Is this what I came back to?” she asked. “Weddings, and how fat some celebrity is that I never even heard of? Doesn’t anybody care that we’re at war? That there’s a whole species of monsters out there that wants us all dead? That eat people?”

“This is what you left.” Allison told her, avoiding the subject of Hunters and the Hierarchy for now. “And… hell, if you hadn’t been taken, that might be you on that magazine.”

“…That’s what I wanted to be.” Xiù nodded. “And… maybe I’d feel like I was doing something, too. Helping people get through their day, entertaining them. That seems important. But…” She dropped the magazine back on the table. “There’s no way that’s happening now, is there?”

“What makes you say that?”

Xiù simply gestured to the scars on her arm and throat, to the white lines where pulsegun fire had split her lip and eyebrow aboard the Hunter ship as well as breaking her nose, and to the weathered quality of her skin.

“Xiù, you’re beautiful.” Allison reassured her.

This earned a shy smile, and Xiù maneuvered some hair out of her face. “Maybe.” She agreed. “But am I Hollywood? And even if I was… Allison, I can’t even go a whole day of pretending to be human. What kind of an actor can’t even properly pretend to be her own species?”

She looked down at her feet, sighed, and then coughed. “…I was thinking so much of getting back here, I never thought about what being here would actually be like. What am I going to do here? Now that I’m here… who am I going to be?”

Allison gave her a squeeze. “You’ll have plenty of time.” she promised. “Did the Abductee Repatriation Program get in touch yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Chase ‘em.” Allison ordered her. “They’re supposed to give you some money, support and counselling, careers advice…”

This earned bitter noise. “Right. Careers. I’ve got a heck of a resume. Vagrant chef and Gaoian impersonator. Interests: Gung Fu and movies. Special talents: so fluent in three languages that I sometimes get mixed up and speak the wrong one.”

“You’ve got skills they can use though, right?”

“Who needs fluency in three languages when we’ve got translators nowadays?” Xiù asked. “I’m too old and out of practice to be an acrobat or a ballerina, I’m too beat up to be an actress…”

“You could still work in Hollywood. Extraterrestrial consultant? Tell the movies how to get it right? Or, the Global Representative Assembly. You’ve got knowledge they could use.”

“Maybe…”

“And you’re a great cook, babe. And- oh! You could bring Gaoian cuisine to Earth!”

“Maybe…”

Allison considered her subdued response, then put a reassuring hand on Xiù’s forearm. “Give it time. You’ll think of something.”

Xiù nodded and reached over with her left hand to squeeze Allison’s hand, then stood up. She swayed as the abrupt motion and her void-damaged lungs combined to make her head spin, and leaned heavily against the wall for a second to recover. “Let’s… go see Julian.”

“…Okay.”

Allison took a little more care in standing up, allowed Xiù to thread an arm through hers, and supported her the rest of the way.


Date Point: 10y4m AV
Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth.

Kevin Jenkins

There was an unfamiliar car outside Kevin’s new house when he got home. A black Toyota sedan - completely nondescript and unremarkable, which immediately gave Kevin a good idea of its driver.

It was a nice house. A two-storey thing in suburbia with delicate brownish panelling, two garages and enough driveway for a couple of monster trucks. The local housing association were proving to be a pain in the ass over the exact strain of grass seed he was allowed to use and how long it had to be and how well-watered, but the neighbors were nice. They had visited with a welcome cake on the day he moved in, but their timing had been awful - they’d shown up while he was wearing a short-sleeve polo shirt that put his tattoo on full display.

It was not an ambiguous tattoo. While the original ink had just been a simple black cross, Kevin had spent quite a lot of money over the years modifying it, starting by covering it with a bisected circle and the word “Rehabilitated”. Later touch-ups, additions and modifications meant that it was now well on its way to being a full sleeve of deliberately antagonistic antitheistic sentiment, a physical lashing-out at something he still felt a smouldering bitterness over.

He was proud of his ink, but it wasn’t the best thing to have on show when meeting new neighbors for the first time and it hadn’t gone down well at all. They’d been the very picture of forced civility, and had excused themselves as soon as they politely could. He’d been expecting church flyers to start showing up in his mailbox ever since, but to their credit that hadn’t happened.

Yet.

Darcy confirmed his suspicions by stepping out of her car as he parked, slipping a phone into her pocket. Kevin hadn’t seen her since she’d effectively hired him, although a more appropriate word might be “commandeered” or “requisitioned”. He was a resource, an asset. “Company property” as some of the documentation had euphemistically had it.

Her greeting was characteristically terse. “Kevin.”

“For future reference, you’re welcome to let yourself in.” Kevin told her.

“I don’t have a key.” She replied.

“Like that’d stop you.” Kevin retorted, with an amused joking sneer.

Darcy nodded, offering a smile that was, in Kevin’s opinion, somewhere towards the wrong end of tired. “People tend to get suspicious when they see a lock being picked in broad daylight, though.”

Kevin glanced across the street. There was the merest hint of a curtain dropping back into place as he did so. “Right.”

He opened the door and kicked his shoes into the corner. “Coffee?”

Darcy raised an eyebrow at the commercial espresso machine on his counter. “You take your coffee seriously.”

“Sure do.” Kevin agreed. “How d’you want it?”

“Cappuccino?”

“Comin’ right up.”

He watched Darcy out of the corner of his eye as he gurgled and hissed his way through preparing her drink. She didn’t quite flop down onto his couch, but she did sit heavily, then rubbed her face and rolled her neck.

Kevin gave her a double shot of espresso.

“Thanks for comin’ back up here on short notice.” he said, handing her the drink as he sat down. “I know your schedule’s gotta be busy…”

“You’re allowed to say I look like shit warmed up.” Darcy retorted, giving him a tired but probably honest smile. “This morning I was in Hawaii.”

“What the hell were you doing in Hawaii?”

“You don’t need to know.” she sipped the drink and pulled an almost erotic face. “Ohhh, that’s good coffee.”

“Best in Omaha.” Kevin promised. “So anyway, I had a couple things needed clearing up. If I’m any judge of him Byron’s subdued mood ain’t gonna last forever, and when he starts pushing the limits again I need the weight of facts behind me.”

“Shoot.” Darcy told him. “I’ll tell you what I can.”

“The big one has to do with somethin’ you said when you walked into Byron’s office. About how that ship I was on would of been destroyed if not for its IFF.”

“Yes…?” Darcy sipped her coffee again

“How? I know more-or-less what the Firebirds and the V-class can do, and I don’t reckon they could have jumped in anywhere close enough to destroy it in seconds. Minutes, sure…”

“Mm.” Darcy nodded.

“So either you were exaggerating, in which case that’s kind of a problem because anything could jump in and cloak and we’d be fucked… or you weren’t, in which case we have something that can hit a target at least as far out as the moon within a couple seconds of it arriving.”

Darcy ran a pensive tongue through the milk foam on her upper lip, clearly picking her words with care.

“It’s called WERBS.” she told him, after some thought.

“Weaponized Einstein-Rosen Bridge System. Thought so.” Kevin grinned at her. “Bartlett’s baby grew up then?”

Darcy, for her part, looked more irritated than surprised that he knew. “I have got to impress on Scotch Creek the need for their top scientists to be more cautious even around base staff.” she sighed. “Let me guess, he was discussing it with a colleague over one of your - admittedly excellent - coffees while you were up there?”

“Nope. He just had a bad habit of doodling his equations and stuff on my paper napkins and then forgetting to take them with him when he left.” Kevin shrugged apologetically. “It’s okay, I destroyed them.”

“How?”

“Incinerator. He got half his best work done on my bartop, Darcy.”

“Did you understand the equations?” she asked.

“Do I look like a theoretical physics prodigy?”

“I don’t go by looks, Kevin. Did you understand the equations?”

“No. Couldn’t hardly read them.”

“Okay.” She considered her words again, frowning as she took another sip of her drink. “Yes, WERBS is working. In fact it was about the fourth or fifth technology to come out of SCERF, right after forcefields, warp drive, stasis fields and jump engines. We had a working prototype for WERBS before Pandora was even a blueprint.”

“And it could of hit EV-8 out at the moon?”

“Could have. Yes. In fact it ‘could of’ hit you as far out as Pluto.” Darcy settled back on the couch and drained half her remaining cappuccino. “Satisfied?”

“I’d like to know how it works but I’m guessing that I don’t-“

“-Need to know.” Darcy chorused with him, nodding. “You don’t. Hell, I don’t need to know how it works. I can guess it has something to do with wormholes, but exactly what and how…”

“Makes sense to keep that one buried if it’s our ace in the hole.”

“Exactly.” Darcy finished her drink. “Anything else?”

“Few minutiae. Some clarifications over my standing orders and what exactly the company means by ‘covert action’.”

“Covert action is part of the CIA’s mandate, but completely outside of your area of responsibility right now.” Darcy reminded him. “You won’t be required to do anything covert. Your role is purely to… well, to be a bridge.”

“I know it’s part of the mandate, those introductory documents you sent me made that clear as mud.” Kevin retorted. “Coulda done with being less euphemistic, for my money.”

“Euphemism is useful.”

“Right. Can’t have it in writing that part of my job might include murdering Moses Byron.” Kevin snarked.

Darcy quirked an eyebrow at him. “Where did you get the impression that that’s on the cards?” she asked. “That’s not part of your job description.”

“Please. The Company’s reason for being is the security of the USA, and by extension the whole human race.” Kevin gave her a patient stare. “Your own words, right? Well Byron established pretty well with that emergency recall fiasco that he’s a potential liability there. And now you’ve got ‘company property’ working in his building…”

“We’ve got… an ally.” Darcy corrected him. “Somebody we trust to be just a little bit more sensible than Byron and who we hope will serve as a reminder of just how badly he fucked up. That doesn’t mean you’d be entrusted with that kind of thing. You don’t have the training, even if we worked that way.”

“You’re saying you don’t?”

Darcy just gave him a slight smile. “You don’t need to know.”


Date Point: 10y4m AV
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Xiù Chang

The doctors had kept them for nearly three weeks. All of them had felt well enough to be discharged inside two, and Julian had - with apologies - immediately made a bee-line for his late grandfather’s Minnesotan property in Clearwater county, promising to return as soon as he’d inspected the place and decided what he was doing with it. Neither of the girls were inclined to protest.

Allison had collected a sizeable pay package from somewhere, apparently earned for being on Kirk’s crew, and had accepted the duty of flying to England to track down Amir’s family and commiserate with them. She’d arranged to come back via Minnesota with Julian.

Xiù had… gone home. Ridden home in the back of what had been, on the night of her abduction, her father’s brand new Kia and watching a skyline that had changed subtly but disturbingly since she had last seen it. She was wearing the clothes she’d laid out on her bed to change into after ballet practice before leaving home the last time, just some comfortable black sweats and a loose long-sleeved Guess top that at least did a decent job of covering her scars.

Her bedroom was exactly as she had left it. Exactly as she had left it, right down to some carelessly-discarded underwear tangled up under her office chair, a half-finished pack of gum on the bedside table, her two favourite rings resting on the corner of her dresser, and her laptop still open on the desk. The laptop was by now hopelessly obsolete, but when Xiù prodded the space bar experimentally, it turned out that it had never actually been powered off - the fan and hard drive whined into quiet life.

She sat on the corner of the bed and watched it emerge from its long hibernation, trying to ignore the musty, untouched smell of the room as she turned the rings over and over in her fingers, not looking at them but still giving them a thorough tactile evaluation.

It took it a while - ten years of standby mode apparently didn’t come to an end at a moment’s notice - but… yes, there was her half-finished essay on Lady Macbeth, there was her Michelle Yeoh wallpaper, there was the OS update notification she’d religiously closed every time it dared to show its face…

She reached out and stroked a finger across the trackpad.

It promptly froze and blue-screened.

She closed the lid and toured the rest of the room. Had she really been so enthusiastic for pink? There was a lot of it. The fairy lights tangled in the bedstead were a nice touch, but the wall calendar had been purloined from her friend Ai’s family takeaway business and was the kind of tacky cartoon shengxiao calendar that bore the kitchen’s phone number and website, a declaration like ’Many Happy Fortunes!’ and a round of advice to “Wed a Tiger or Dog but never Rat”, or whatever.

She sneered at it, and threw it away.

She put the rings on, and then away too went three boy-band posters, a graveyard of antediluvian incense that she’d been forbidden by her parents’ landlord’s fire safety regulations ever from lighting, a venerable McDonald’s paper cup that was only disqualified from being a valuable antique by the fact that it was a McDonald’s paper cup, and the unopened pack of cigarettes she’d once bought on a dare and then been so worried sick of discovery that she’d never found the courage to smuggle them out of the house or throw them away.

Finding her rhythm she threw open the windows to try and blast some of the dust and stale air out, then decided to get rid of the curtains. They were sun-bleached and faded anyway. She was equally vicious to her wardrobe, going through everything that didn’t fit, all the silly ankle-twisting platform heels and the clothes she’d sworn that someday would fit again if she just lost weight regardless of the fact that the problem hadn’t been weight but age and height.

Most of the survivors were then thrown out on the principle that they were wildly out of fashion, or had just never looked that good anyway. All the clothing went into a pile she mentally labelled “charity”.

She was left with a handful of simple t-shirts, a couple of good pairs of jeans, one pair each of flats, running shoes and kitten-heeled calf boots, some sportswear, and three bras that were, while generous enough to accommodate her teenage self’s insecure padding-out, not actually oversized.

The laptop turned out to have given its swansong, and was now thoroughly dead. She considered asking Wei if he could resurrect it, but then decided against it - the last thing she needed was her older younger brother performing digital necromancy on her blog posts and browser history, and in any case the machine was so haplessly dated that she’d probably struggle to achieve half the things a modern Internet user wanted to do.

Out went the pink bedclothes, out went a sad deflated soccer ball, out went so much stale makeup that she couldn’t have worn it all if she’d spent every day of her absent years painted up like a hooker. Out went more stuffed toys than a sapient being had any right to even know existed. She took apart the flat-pack furniture and stowed it under the bed and in the back of the closet.

She tested all of the progress she’d made on rehabilitating her abused lungs in spinning around the room like an efficiently ruthless tornado until it was gone. All of it. Every last little thing that wasn’t hers, thrown out, dusted or vacuumed until she was down only to the things that she cared to keep.

This left her with a bare, cold and almost undecorated room to stare at, its former clutter hinted at only by unfaded patches of carpet and wallpaper. Other than that, she had the two rings she was now wearing, the fairy lights on the bedstead and that was about it.

She threw the lights out too when they turned out to be broken.

Only once she was standing alone in the middle of an empty floor-space did she finally find room in her head to think about what she’d just done and appreciate the full absurdity of it. She took a deep breath, produced a helpless arm-flapping shrug that clapped her hands once against her thighs, and issued something that was nearly a laugh.

“…Welcome home, Xiù.”


Date Point: 10y4m AV
IDF Checkpoint, Qalqilya, the West Bank.

Corporal Moshe Harel

“Uh, Moshe?”

“Yeah?”

“That white van you didn’t like the look of isn’t moving…”

Corporal Harel wasn’t the only one who looked up and scrutinized the van in question, his attention ratcheting up a gear. Tensions were running high – they were always running high – and the last thing they needed right now was a suspicious vehicle. The way the van (a venerable Toyota) had parked a good long way down the road from the checkpoint, not even in the shade of the trees or anything, and hadn’t moved since was definitely troubling.

“How long?”

“Not in ten minutes. I don’t see anyone inside…”

“Son of a bitch…” Moshe swore. “We can’t ignore that…”

His buddies nodded and checked their SMGs. Even if the driver floored it right now, the van would have to navigate a slalom of concrete dividers to approach the checkpoint, and would do so under fire from all sides by heavy weaponry. An ordinary, elderly Toyota van wouldn’t make it a fraction of the way – the first shots would go right through the engine.

“Radiological?”

“Nothing I can detect.”

Harel grabbed his binoculars and aimed them at the van. Between the heat haze and the sun reflecting off the glass, it was hard to be certain, but it certainly didn’t look like there was anybody sitting in there. There might have been a slight darkening, but that could equally be the headrest, or the van’s own shadow.

“Did we see anybody get out?”

“Running the tape back now… No, nobody got out of it. Not that I can see, anyway.”

“That van’s in full sunlight and the windows are up. It must be cooking in there!”

“All I know is, the camera didn’t see anybody.”

Harel considered his options, swiftly narrowing them down to a clear course of action. “Lock it down. Close the road right now.”

Everyone leapt into action, acutely aware that their safety and everyone else’s hinged on doing their jobs right. Within seconds, the checkpoint was closed.

As soon as they were, Harel would have liked to breath a little easier. That was one threat dealt with. Instead, he licked the inside of his dry mouth and moved on to the next bit. “Get the ‘bot up.”

“Yes corporal.”

The ‘bot was summoned and bounced its way across the scorching asphalt, fetching up right underneath the van’s passenger side window. Harel watched over its operator’s shoulder, expecting at any second for the van to suddenly accelerate, or explode, or for armed men to surge out the back. Even with their huge advantage in terms of firepower and positioning, even with the van being so far away, none of those options were at all desirable.

Even when the ‘bot cranked itself up onto the ends of its treads and extended its camera as high as it would go so as to look down into the footwell, there was no sign of a driver, nor of any kind of trap rigged up to the doors.

“…Check the back, Stolarz.” Harel ordered. The bot dropped back onto the asphalt and scooted under the van where it deployed millimetre RADAR to get a good look inside.

“Nobody in the back, Corporal.” Stolarz finally announced, though he tapped an object on his screen. “But that looks mean, whatever it is.”

“Uh… Corporal?

Private Wexler’s tone of voice was NOT one that Harel wanted to hear on a radiological sensor operator. “Yes?”

Wexler cleared his throat. “Radiological alarm, Moshe.”

Harel looked back at the van as Stolarz backed the ‘bot off a bit, as if that would do anything. “This,” he decided “is starting to look way above our pay grade.”

They called EOD, who quickly called in somebody MUCH higher up. The whole town was on lockdown within minutes as IDF vehicles rolled in by the hundred, and Harel’s checkpoint had to spend the rest of the day turning back civilian traffic and offering no comment for the cameras. All the while, the cluster of people around the van got larger and more grim-looking.

The sun was going down by the time they finally gave an all-clear and loaded something from the back of the van into an IDF truck, which vanished back over the Armistice Agreement Line under ridiculously heavy escort.

From the road, nobody could have seen what it was. From his vantage point, however, Harel got a good look, and promptly wished he hadn’t. It was covered in bright yellow radiation hazard stickers, labelled in both English and Urdu, and had borne the white crescent and star of the Pakistani flag.


Date Point: 10y4m AV
CIA Chicago office, Illinois, USA, Earth

Darcy

“Welcome back. How’s our new asset at Byron Group?”

Darcy didn’t need to fake a tired smile for Jake, her usual work partner. She really had been in Honolulu less than twenty hours ago, and that much travel was guaranteed to leave her rumpled and drained even though she was thoroughly used to it. Between sleeping most of the flight and catching a power nap in the car outside Jenkins’ house she was perfectly rested, but it was still getting late in the day by her personal clock.

Jake would have seen through even her best false smile anyway. “He’s gonna be a pleasure to work with.” she said, honestly. “All carrot, no stick, all the way, just you watch.”

“That easy, huh?” Jake asked. He stood from his desk and set about making her a cup of tea, exactly what she needed. She hadn’t been flattering Jenkins about the quality of his coffee - it genuinely was superb - but Darcy had always preferred a good jasmine tea. Just one of the things that made Jake such a good partner.

“Oh yeah. He’s a classic misanthrope. Pretty sure he thinks the neighbors are all waiting for their chance to ram a Bible down his throat. Throw in a white knight streak, and…” she trailed off meaningfully.

“Likes to feel like he’s rescuing a worthy damsel, huh?” Jake noted. He dropped a little jasmine tea pearl into the teapot for her and covered it in newly boiled water.

“Oh yeah. Strong masculine streak there.” Darcy watched in pleasurable anticipation as the hot water made the pearl break open and unfold into a flowered frond. “He’s no idiot though. Seduction’s not on the cards for a second, he’d see through it instantly. But all I need to do is play to type for him and he’ll be extremely useful.”

Jake set the teapot and a cup down for her and returned to his desk while Darcy set about summarizing her trip to Omaha for their records.

“Any surprises?” he asked.

“Nothing surprising exactly, no. He knew what the WERBS acronym stands for, but he didn’t know the specifics and he didn’t push. Figure if we ever have to throw him a bone there, the cover about having nukes ready to jump will do just fine.”

“Good. Last thing we need right now is any more potential holes in that one.” Jake nodded. “Sounds like a good source.”

Darcy took a grateful sip of her tea “Almost perfect. He’s an honest man underneath the asshole exterior, so we don’t need to establish any real control over him. Just… give ‘im the sales pitch and let him motivate himself the rest of the way. I like him.”

“You always did have a thing for prickly guys with soft centers.”

“Guilty.”

They worked in comfortable silence for a few minutes. Darcy finished her notes and her tea, and was considering wrapping it up for the day and sleeping in her own bed for a change when Jake sat back in his chair, arms folded, and frowned at the screen.

“Problem?” She asked.

“Could be.” his jaw worked side-to-side as he considered what he was reading. “One of those stolen Pakistani nukes just showed up…”


Date Point: 10y4m AV

Clan Whitecrest personal transport “Springing Ember”, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches.

Regaari

Sensing and communicating with ships that were travelling at Superluminal speeds had been a serious challenge and concern before the Corti had figured out the algorithms for detecting and modulating the “wake” every ship created as it stretched and contracted spacetime around itself. The expansion and contraction of spacetime being unbound by the speed of light, the system made for an efficient and cheap means of FTL communication, with only the slight drawback that it had an effective range of no more than about a day’s travel at one kilolight. Not even enough for communication even between two relatively close star systems, and no inhabited systems were that close together anyway.

Still, it was good enough for ships in the same system to see and talk to one another. In the past, once a ship had departed, it would outrun any photons sent after it, and so talking to it was simply impossible unless you got in a faster ship, overtook it, and dropped a transmission in its path.

Nowadays…

Unidentified vessel, this is HMS Violent patrolling Cimbrean local space. Cease your approach and identify, over.

Regaari ordered the ship down to sublight at once. “Violent, Gaoian transport ‘Springing Ember’, piloted by Officer Regaari of Clan Whitecrest, on a diplomatic mission. Ceasing approach.”

As he did so, Ayma poked her head out of the ship’s ablutions chamber, combing her fur to clean out her dust-bath. “We’ve arrived?” she asked.

“We were just intercepted by one of the human ships. The Violent.

Ayma’s ears quirked and she grimaced. “ ‘Violent’?” she asked. “Just ‘Violent’? What an ugly name for a ship.”

“Unsubtle, isn’t it?” Regaari agreed, though privately he felt that the name was appropriately bellicose for a warship. Why mask its nature behind poetic imagery?

A minute later, Violent hit sublight at a relative stop a few hundred kilometres away. His transport only registered its presence by the friendly identity signals it was broadcasting: Without those, it would have been all but invisible. No radar signature, with a shape and albedo that sent every sensor they had skipping off without trace and zero visible heat – Regaari knew that it would be radiating all of its heat in a coherent beam back towards the nearest star. Only his experimental gravimetric sensors, designed to counter Hunter cloaking devices, told him that something was there, and they were still far too imprecise to narrow down the exact location of Violent’s mass to within a radius better than thirty kilometers.

Springing Ember, please disable all electronic security and submit to a database scan.

“They really are paranoid.” Ayma commented.

“I heard a saying of theirs once. ‘It’s not paranoia if-‘

”’-If they really are out to get you.’” Ayma finished. “Yes. But they can plainly see that we are not Hunters, can’t they?”

“Well, like you said: They are paranoid.” Regaari snorted, dropping the firewalls.

He watched the alerts unfold as Violent’s technicians first infiltrated, then thoroughly ransacked the Springing Ember’s computer. Fortunately, the ship wasn’t carrying any clan secrets – he’d made completely sure of that before leaving.

Two more contacts appeared on his sensors as the intrusion was withdrawn and he was sent an all-clear to re-establish his firewall. These were small compared to his transport and the human destroyer, but large relative to most starfighters. Firebirds.

Springing Ember, proceed to orbit above the fifth planet of this system and await further instructions.”

Cimbrean-5 was the outermost of the system’s rocky worlds, and the only one outside the system protection field. It was classified as a “violent” world – a planet far too cold for sapient habitation where it rained liquid methane into oceans of liquid methane under hateful skies full of methane clouds, where pressure differentials in its thick, cryogenic atmosphere could pick up razor shards of rock-hard water ice and carry them around the globe at hundreds of miles an hour.

Under the watchful eye of HMS Violent and the two escorts, they sat restlessly and watched the lightning flashes in the planet’s upper atmosphere for nearly an hour before a fourth contact set alarms wailing on their proximity sensors as it appeared within only twenty kilometres or so, and well outside of Violent’s firing solution.

HMS Caledonia. He recognised it instantly. No sooner had it jumped in than he spotted the change in its sensor signature as it opened its bay door.

Regaari clipped on an earpiece and headed for the starboard airlock. Ayma cast around for something to do, clean up or tidy and, finding nothing, settled for lowering herself onto a couch and fidgeting nervously at her claws.

The Springing Ember’s sensors picked up the barest hint of a tiny warp drive pulsing, and Regaari inclined his head to listen as a new voice came on the communicator.

“Springing Ember, boarding party from HMS Caledonia requests permission to come aboard.”

“Permission granted, starboard airlock” he told them. “Is that you, Rebar?”

Sure is, Dexter. They’ve got us doing marine shit. Starboard airlock.”

There were three total – Rebar, Blaczynski and Baseball, who squeezed into the lock, then through into the ship interior. Only when the lock was fully cycled did they de-mask, all grinning and happy to see him. If he wasn’t totally familiar with human body language by now, it would have been terrorizing to see that many bared teeth. For her part, Ayma retreated a little, and Regaari couldn’t blame her – the three men smelled powerfully male, almost overwhelmingly so.

“Not that I am not happy to see you…” Regaari began, greeting the three men with his best approximation of the elaborate and forceful handshake they’d taught him “But I’m quite capable of docking and landing this ship myself.”

“Security’s being tightened up.” Blaczynski commented. “Hopefully we’ll be able to brief you on why sometime, but right now, rules say I have to fly this thing for you.”

Regaari stood aside and gestured to the control room. In keeping with Gaoian architecture, it was at the back of the ship, immediately in front of the main engines. There was, after all, no good logical reason for the pilot to sit at the front of the ship when he would be flying by sensor readings and information displays anyway. Meanwhile the sleeping quarters could be mounted in the front of the ship, as far from the power core and main kinetic thrusters as possible and therefore quieter and calmer.

“And for that you need three?” he asked.

“No such thing as too careful, bro.” Baseball told him. “This a friend of yours?”

“Ah, yes…”

Base touched his forehead, which Regaari guessed was a respectful gesture. “Pardon me, ma’am. I need to scan you for hazards and contraband.” he declared.

Ayma shot a questioning look at Regaari, who ducked his head to reassure her. This was just standard human caution. She spread her arms and straightened up. “Go ahead.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Base flipped a small grey oblong out of a pouch on his belt and delicately pressed it to Ayma’s head. Regaari couldn’t imagine why, but moments later the screen on its back lit, and Baseball relaxed. “Sorry about that.”

“It was no bother…” Ayma reassured him, politely.

“So… yes.” Regaari stepped forward. “Baseball, Rebar, Starfall, this is Ayma…”

“Ahh, so that’s what this is about. Your friend Zoo.” Baseball snapped his fingers, the effect muffled slightly by his spacesuit’s glove.

“Shoo.” Ayma corrected him.

Xiù.” Rebar corrected them both.

“Like you hadn’t guessed.” Regaari noted.

The humans chuckled again, and Rebar looked around the Springing Ember’s interior. “Nice ship.”

“Whitecrest personal transport. One of the newest models. Designed to deliver an individual or small group on relatively short journeys, very quickly.”

“Surely the faster it is the further it goes?” Rebar asked.

“We… borrowed some ideas from you” Regaari told him. “Using capacitors to power the engines gives much better speed but limits the range. That was deemed an acceptable trade, seeing as it’s intended for rapid travel within our territory, between Gao, Gorai and the new colony at Guen Ha. Cimbrean, fortunately, is not that far from Gorai.”

“So this thing runs on solar power?” Blaczynski asked, settling into the pilot’s couch.

“Usually, it recharges off its own generator. We wanted to install a quantum core plant but… our versions of those are bulky and not very efficient yet, so we went with old-fashioned fusion. It can recharge via its shields if it has to though, yes.”

Blaczynski nodded, and checked in with Caledonia, Violent and the two Firebirds to confirm that the ship now had a human pilot and that all life forms on board were accounted-for. “Edda Two, go for slave jump, whenever you’re ready.”

“Slave ju-“

The cryogenic grey storms of Cimbrean-5 vanished. In an eyeblink the planet Cimbrean – the inhabited one, all blues and greens and white – replaced it below them and much larger.

“-mp? Oh. Impressive.”

“Nice and secure. Only way in is directly under our guns and with our permission.” Blaczynski waved a hand through the ship’s controls, a little tentatively but clearly knowing what he intended to do and more or less how to achieve it. He was hindered a little by not being able to read Gaoian, but the interface was designed to be clear and intuitive. Selecting the Folctha colony’s landing beacon and ordering the Springing Ember to land at that beacon took him only a minimum of trial and error.

“So, yeah. Zoo.”

Shoo.

“Xiù.”

“In my defense, my mouth is the wrong shape to pronounce that.” Regaari pointed out. “I don’t know what Baseball’s excuse is.”

“She was in a bad way, bro.” Baseball told him, aiming a friendly obscene gesticulation by way of reply. “I don’t know what the fuck happened to them exactly, but when we pulled them out of that liferaft they were dying from recent vacuum exposure.”

Ayma keened slightly and Regaari barely restrained the impulse himself: The thought was distressing.

“Hey, hey, it’s fine!” Baseball hurried to reassure them. “Horse ain’t just a pretty face, he’s a damn good medic too. She’s back on Earth now. Last I heard, she’s doing just fine.”

“Major Powell should know more.” Blaczynski added. He was watching the Springing Ember’s instruments for any sign of trouble, even though the ship was completely competent at landing itself. Already, their re-entry was raging a burnt orange around the edges of their forcefield.

“Good, because it’s him that we’re here to see.” Regaari told them. “Pleasant as it is to see you again, this is important, both personally and politically.”

“Dude, we’re on the job too.” Rebar reassured him. “But you’re cool to hang out once your business is done? Movie night?”

“That would be nice.”

“Politically?” Blaczynski asked.

“It’s all…”

Ayma interrupted him. “Shoo is a Female.”

The humans blinked at one another, nonplussed. “Well, yeah…” Baseball agreed, in a tone which suggested that this fact could not possibly be lost on them.

“I mean a Female.” Ayma stressed, patiently. “A member of the Clan of Females. Legally speaking, she’s a Gaoian.”

“To hell with ‘legally speaking’.” Rebar scoffed. “Legally speaking, less than ten years ago we were non-sapient indigenous fauna.”

“Don’t be so quick to dismiss legal technicalities.” Regaari warned him. “By making her legally a Gaoian, the Females made her legally sapient, and that afforded her all the rights and protections guaranteed by the Dominion charter. One technicality used to defeat another, you see?”

“Forgive us if we’re not exactly gonna start cheerleading for the Dominion there, southpaw.” Rebar commented.

“If you ever see me waving those pompoms myself, then clearly I’ll have taken leave of my senses and as my friends I hope you would shoot me.” Regaari retorted, doing his best to imitate a grin. It seemed to work, as the human chuckled, and Ayma chittered along with them.

“Atmospheric flight.” Blaczynski interjected.

“-But he makes a valid point.” Ayma told them. “Irritating as legal technicalities might be, they’re never going to go away. Rather than railing against them and achieving nothing, it’s better to pick them up and use them as weapons.”

“Sticks in the craw, but she’s right…” Rebar mused, then frowned at something forward in the ship and edged through the doorway past Baseball to investigate. “What’s this thing?”

“Hmm? Oh, that’s the ship’s nanofactory.” Regaari told him.

“What’s it do?”

“Builds things. You call up a blueprint and it assembles the desired object from raw materials.”

“Like a 3D Printer?” Blaczynski asked.

“In the same way that this ship’s short-range FTL comms are like a telephone, yes.” Regaari agreed. “This is a small one. Clothing, basic tools, replacement parts for the ship… larger ones can assemble vehicles, prefabricated modules that can be assembled into cheap buildings, even other nanofactories.”

“Brother,” Baseball warned Rebar, in a friendly tone. “You know your techs won’t like it if you go and cream your suit.”

Rebar laughed, but continued to study the nanofactory with a rapt expression. “So, it can build anything?”

“Anything synthetic.” Regaari agreed. “No cooked dinners, pharmaceuticals, complex organic molecules or anything made out of, say, wood or bone, but… plastics, metals, glass. All you have to do is feed in the materials.”

“Could it build something that could make those things?” Rebar asked.

Regaari hesitated. “…You know, I’ve never thought of that. I suppose it probably could.”

“Dude, we have GOT to get one of these things.” Rebar aimed a look at him that Regaari guessed meant he wanted to ask if they might scavenge the one off his ship. He chittered.

“Sadly I cannot do that, my friend.” he apologised. “Not only would I be breaking a rather important law, but the Fathers who own this ship would be upset and in any case, it’s an integrated part of the Springing Ember’s fittings.”

“It’s not a module you can pull out and replace if it breaks?” Rebar frowned at it again.

“Oh, I could.” Regaari said. “It would just ruin the façade. This is a diplomatic vessel, Rebar. Our military vessels are much more… what’s that word? Spartan. Besides, as I said, sharing nanofactory technology with a species that does not yet have it is gravely illegal. This device could cause a traumatic economic upheaval for your whole species and delay your advancement. I assume you don’t want that.”

“Right.” It seemed that Rebar would have liked to argue for a second, but instead he stood up, sighed longingly at the nanofactory, then a thought struck him. “Dude! Do you mind if I make something?”

Regaari quirked his head, a gesture analogous to a human shrug. “I don’t mind.” he said. “Hmmm. Ship. Make a… make a diagnostic sensor.”

The ship chimed acknowledgement and Rebar took a step back as the ‘forge built up to operational power with an edge-of-hearing keen of capacitors charging before….

THUMP.

Modern Gaoian nanofactories – and this was one of the latest and most advanced models – could do in a few seconds what their primitive forebears had needed minutes to do. Admittedly, the built in accelerated-time fields helped there, but the result was that within five seconds of his issuing the order, the transparent door folded down and a pristine new engineering scanner was pushed onto the delivery tray.

Baseball grunted a surprised laugh. “Shit!”

Damn, Dexter…” Rebar picked up the scanner delicately, as if he feared it might be hot, or would disintegrate at his mere touch.

“Give it a try.” Regaari told him. Rebar eagerly examined the little device, figured out how to turn it on, and aimed it at a nearby wall. Volumetric displays began to give him a detailed breakdown of the wall’s composition, internal structure, the conduits and systems running behind it, microscopic work fractures in the metal hull behind it, and the action of the ship’s internal damage control forcefield constantly sweeping over and repairing that wear and tear. His jaw dropped, and he set about waving his new toy at every system and fitting he could find.

“Final approach!” Blaczynski announced some minutes later, as Rebar was making enthusiastic noises about the infra-hull integrated crystal circuitry. “His pants still dry, Base?”

“Fifty-fifty.” Baseball grinned.

Regaari quirked his ears amusedly as the three of them settled into a round of friendly insults and ambled over to where Ayma was standing alone by one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that ringed the Springing Ember’s lounge area. She’d retreated there probably as much to get away from the masculine aroma pervading the air around the SOR men as to try and compose her thoughts, he guessed.

“They’re very… male.” she whispered.

“Shoo was very female.” Regaari countered. “Similar pheromones.”

“It’s a good thing I’ve seen human movies though. That large one – Baseball?”

The man in question glanced in their direction on hearing his name, then politely looked away again.

“Yes?” Regaari asked.

“If I didn’t already know about ‘ethnicity’, his skin colour would have come as a surprise.”

“Be careful.” Regaari cautioned. “Humans can be quite offended by observations like that.”

“Oh… he can’t hear us, can he?” Ayma asked, glancing at him.

“You two talkin’ about me?” Base asked. “Cause I don’t speak Gaoian.”

“Sorry.” Regaari told him.

“Nada. Just wonderin’.”

“You’re very… large.” Ayma suggested. “It’s a little intimidating.”

“Not much I can do ‘bout that.” Base shrugged. “But if it helps you feel better, I’m a medic.”

“A… medic? I hadn’t anticipated that.” Ayma examined him. “Why does a medic need to be so large?”

“I’m what we call a Protector.” Baseball said, going down on one knee to try and mitigate his bulk. It didn’t work. “My job is to get people out of harm’s way and keep them there. Doesn’t matter if I have to skydive from orbit to do it, I go in there, I fix up people who need fixing, and I carry them out. Just like my buddy Horse did for your boy here.”

Ayma glanced at Regaari, who nodded. “Warhorse is shorter.” he said. “But more…” he made an inflating motion his paws and shrugged his own shoulders to hint at a muscularity that no Gaoian – not even the supremely physical Clan Stoneback – would ever approach.

“That’s my boy.” Baseball beamed.

“Uh, ladies and gentlefolk, we’re now coming in low over downtown Folctha, if you look out the port windows you should get a nice view of the river. Local time is eleven-twenty, and the weather is a gentle sixty-five degrees.” Blaczynski called. “Thank you for flying Air SOR, and please take care when opening your overhead lockers, as bags and luggage may have shifted during the flight.”

Regaari hadn’t landed at Cimbrean last time. Caledonia had warped directly to Gao to drop off its cargo of survivors from Capitol Station, on the grounds that the Gaoians were diplomatically better equipped to send them home. He was curious to see what a human settlement looked like from the air.

Folctha wasn’t large, but it did manage to impress him. The layout was equal parts logical and illogical – clearly at first they had built according to where the colonists wanted to go, and when the time had come to expand, they had allowed that early random development to remain and grown out from there sensibly and methodically.

The humans obviously loved the river, which flowed from a reservoir fed by artesian aquifers in the grounds of the alien palace that had once stood at the top of the valley. The buildings along its banks were separated from its waters by a wide green strip of parkland and trees, and the river itself was strung with three slender footbridges and a pair of wide, sturdy road bridges. The advertisements were colourful and pleasant, the construction sites were neatly organised and full of interesting yellows and blues and the roads, though wide and capacious, were for now populated more by cyclists and pedestrians than by larger vehicles.

The Springing Ember circled in low over a walled and forcefielded enclave that could only be the Alien Quarter, banked to race up the west bank of the river where relaxing pedestrians shielded their eyes to look up and watch it, shed its speed over the palace grounds and finally alighted, delicately, on a concrete circle in the grounds of a fenced base some distance from the town.

“Good landing.” he complimented Blaczynski.

“Eh. It was alright.” the SOR man’s cocky smile said he knew it had been damn near flawless, but didn’t want to make a big deal of it.

“Man. Never thought I’d get to see one of those things up close…” Rebar chuckled, casting a last longing glance at the nanofactory.

“Don’t you have one?”

“Think they’re building an experimental one in Germany. It’s the size of Caledonia and they reckon it’ll drink about about two hundred megawatts.”

Regaari reflected on that. “…Sometimes I forget that you’re still a long way behind us, technologically.”

“Dude, it’s only been like ten years since first contact.” Rebar said. “We’ve had warp for… what, eight years? Seven and a half?”

“Yeah, and our CO’s banging the chick who flew Pandora.” Baseball grinned as they stepped through the airlock.

“Now that’s an interesting fookin’ thing to hear.”

As ever, it was difficult to hear the humour in Powell’s bassy voice. You had to know that gruff and softly-spoken was his ground state of being to spot that he wasn’t remotely annoyed. All three of his men froze. “Wherever did you hear a rumour like that, Burgess?”

Baseball cleared his throat. “Rumour, sir?”

“My mistake, I must have misheard what you were saying.” Powell nodded. “Incidentally, the sand in the gravball chamber needs raking flat. I’ve always fancied it might be fun to turn that into some kind of Zen garden thing. Think I saw some suitable large rocks over by the gym. Sound like fun?”

Burgess didn’t do anything so obvious as deflate, but there was a definite resigned hint to his “Yes sir.”

“Get out of that suit and go play, lad. I’m sure our guests’ business is urgent and I mustn’t keep them waiting. I’ll be along to see how you’re getting on in a bit.”

“Yes sir.” Burgess vanished, double-time.

Powell turned to Rebar. “Owt to report?”

“Nice ship. Clean. Pilot’s yellow, but his friend’s beautifully green.”

Regaari blinked in confusion. “we’re… what?”

“Uh, sorry. In-joke. I’ll explain later.” Rebar promised.

“Don’t bother.” Regaari sighed. “I could study human in-jokes for a decade and by the time I finished you’d have generated twenty years more.”

The humans chuckled. “Shall we go de-suit, major?”

“Go on, lads. Well done. Regaari? And I assume this is Mother Ayma?”

Ayma extended a paw, which the major shook. He seemed to have got the hang of exactly how much of his prodigious strength he could safely use, and there was no hesitation in the gesture. “Stainless, I presume.”

“Major Owen Powell.”

“Thank you for having us.”

They ambled away from the Springing Ember. “Nice ship.” Powell commented.

“It’s not mine personally,” Regaari told him “it’s the clan’s. I persuaded Father Rithu that this trip would be politically advantageous.”

“Hope you didn’t lie to the old man, Dexter.”

“Not deliberately.” Regaari shrugged for Powell’s benefit. “I would appreciate if you didn’t make me a liar, though.”

“Aye, I reckon I might be able to accommodate you there…” the major mused. “Or rather, Admiral Knight can. Political’s a bit above my pay grade.”

“If I’m any judge, you know something that the admiral has planned.”

“Oh aye?”

“You’re as opaque as a window, Powell.”

“That so?”

“But commendably stubborn.” Regaari conceded.

“You’re not exactly Mister Subtle yourself, southpaw.” Powell chuckled. “We pick your friend up and you show up as fast as Gaoianly possible? If you even fooled Father Whatsisface, I’ll be impressed.”

Regaari had to admit, he had a point.

“…How is she?” Ayma asked.

Powell stopped walking and turned to face her, thumbs tucked into his belt. “Something of a local celebrity in Vancouver.” he revealed. “Medically, all I’ve got for you is what Burgess and Arés told me during the debrief.”

“Which is?” Ayma pressed.

“Miss Chang was recovered in the company of two other humans, all suffering from severe decompression injuries. Apparently they were exposed to hard vacuum for a few seconds.”

Regaari chirruped his astonishment. “And they survived?” he asked, scarcely believing it. Vacuum was death, everyone knew that. He wouldn’t have thought that even deathworlders could survive it.

“Barely.” Powell grunted. “All three of them were dying from their injuries. Lucky for them they got picked up by two very fine young medics aboard a flying hospital with stasis equipment on board.”

“…And?” Ayma squeaked. She was doing her best to stay composed, but Regaari knew her intimately, and could spot that she was in anguish.

“And they’ve all since been discharged and are rebuilding their lives..” Powell said, nodding reassuringly. Both Ayma and Regaari sighed relief. “She got prompt and expert medical attention, she’s young and healthy… Burgess reckons she should suffer no long term ill health, and he’d know.”

“Where was she before that?”

“…Good question.” Powell answered, which didn’t answer the question at all.

“You must have got the ship’s ID off the life raft. What ship was she on?” Ayma pressed.

“…I can’t say.”

Regaari studied him. Humans were aliens, their body language was only tangentially similar to that of Gaoians, and he was still having trouble with some of their subtleties of tone and language, but he’d learned to trust his instincts with them. Besides, Powell was a plain-spoken man, and Regaari’s assessment was that he rarely said anything that wasn’t exactly what he meant…

“Do you mean that you don’t know, or that you do and you can’t tell me?” he asked, and caught the momentary tic in Powell’s eye that suggested he’d scored a hit.

“…I can’t say.”

“Ah. So it’s the latter.”

“Transparent I fookin’ might be, but penetrable I’m not, mate.”

“You can say much by withholding comment.” Regaari pointed out. “There’s a secret here. For her to have turned up in the company of humans means she was on a human starship… or at least on a starship allied to humans, hmm?”

“By God Holmes, you’ve cracked the case.” Powell snarked.

Regaari ignored the wise-crack. “Life raft and vacuum exposure means that the ship was destroyed. Which means…”

Ayma finished the thought for him. “She found Kirk.” she said. “Or Kirk found her.”

Powell didn’t need to say a thing. He simply spun and directed an incredulous stare at Ayma, then at Regaari. When Regaari folded his arms and pricked his ears up, it dawned on Powell that he couldn’t have spoken a clearer confirmation, and he swore violently, furious with himself.

Shit.” He gritted his teeth thoughtfully at nothing for a second, then exhaled resignedly. “Okay. I need to know exactly how much you two know about Kirk.”


Date Point: 10y4m AV

Finchley, London, England, Earth

Ava Ríos.

Sean’s uncle Simon turned out to be an older and more weathered clone of his nephew. He had the same long, straight nose, the same wavy dark hair, the same long and slender frame. If not for a few wrinkles, the tan and a dusting of white hairs, the two could have stood side by side and been hard to tell apart.

He also had a keen and critical eye, which he was running over Ava’s online portfolio.

“I like this one. You timed it perfectly on his exhalation, it really feels cold… This one, you could have put the subject a little off-center, get more of the tree in there, you see?”

Ava just nodded and paid attention, answered questions when they were asked. It was interesting feedback – she’d had so many people tell her how great her photos were, it was a genuine pleasure to have somebody go through them with a fine comb and pick on the tiny imperfections.

When he reached the end of the album, Simon handed her tablet back to her and nodded, smiling gently. “Sean was right, you’re good.”

“Told you.” Sean commented, from where he was sprawled on the couch playing an old game, something with airships and muzzle-loading rifles.

“So, what does that mean?” Ava pressed.

Simon stroked his chin thoughtfully. “You’ve come along at a good time.” he said. “The guy I usually work with is off sick and will be for the foreseeable future, so I do need a photographer…” he tapped his chin, frowning. “Look… How do you feel about the Middle East?”

“How do you mean?” Ava asked him.

“Would you be, uh, scared to go there?” Simon clarified.

“Not enough to stop me if that’s where the work is.” she shrugged. “I dunno. You’ve got to take care wherever you go, right? Just because you have to take a little more care in some places than others…”

“A lot more care.” Simon corrected her.

“Fine, a lot more.” Ava agreed. “But there’s no such thing as safe anyway.”

“True.” Simon agreed. “So…?”

“So… yeah. I wouldn’t have a problem going there provided I had somebody to show me the ropes.”

“Hmmm…”

Simon fetched a tablet from his bag and signed into Google Maps. Within seconds, he’d summoned a sandy oblong of land sandwiched between Africa and Asia.

“So… this down here is Saudi Arabia.” he said, tapping it.

“Right.” Ava nodded, taking note of the countries around it for good measure.

“Now, the Saudi royal family are still richer than Croesus, but part of the reason for that is that ten years ago they did something very sensible, and sold every oil-based asset they had. Seriously, VI Day happened, and before we’d even really got our heads round aliens on the telly, the Al-Sauds had ditched every penny they had in oil and invested it elsewhere. At the time, people thought they were crazy, they even made a loss on some of those sales.”

He opened a new tab. “Time, however, has proven just how bloody smart a move that was. When alien technology put the final touches on fusion and widespread cheap solar power, a hole appeared in the oil market, and the value per barrel’s been in decline for eight years in a row now.”

Ava nodded her understanding. “But Saudi Arabia itself didn’t do so well.” She noted.

“Exactly.” Simon nodded. ”The country’s economy was still founded in oil. Declining oil industry means declining employment, declining wages, and all the people who made a living selling goods and services to the oil industry and its workers, they all started to lose jobs and money too, their labour pool of foreign workers dried up… Throw in some safety cock-ups around the Hajj badly hurting their tourism industry, and Saudi Arabia’s been in a recession for five years now.”

“Surely we’re never going to be rid of oil entirely?” Sean asked.

“Not plastics.” Ava agreed. “But gasoline? The market for that’s going to be a fraction of what it used to be when it finally settles.”

“And there’s the problem.” Simon continued. “Saudi Arabia just isn’t as rich as it used to be. In fact it’s imploding. They’ve already had to cut spending in all sorts of ways. Artificial reefs and peninsula projects have been abandoned, cities in the desert have shrunk because they just couldn’t afford the water… and military spending has been slashed.”

“Oh boy.” Ava sighed, realising where this was going. “The Caliphate.”

“The so-called Caliphate,” Simon gently corrected her. “In what used to be Syria. Yes. They’ve had their eye on Mecca and Medina for years: the Masjid al-Haram and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi are two of the three most sacred places in Sunni Islam. If the Caliphate were to annexe those cities, it’d be a major propaganda victory for them. Recruitment would boom, and it’s high enough already.”

“Where’s the third?” Sean asked.

“Jerusalem.” Simon told him. “But the Israelis are a much tougher nut than the Saudis, and the Palestinians are… never mind. Point is, they don’t have a shot at Jerusalem any time soon. But they might have a shot at Mecca and Medina if not for…”

He zoomed the map out a bit. “…Pakistan. Like I said, Saudi Arabia’s collapsing, and because nobody in the region wants that they’ve been channeling aid and supplies to the Saudis for years, much to Iran and Russia’s alarm. In Pakistan’s case, a large part of that aid has been military - just like the Saudis and the so-called Caliphate, Pakistan are Sunni too, and they’re keen not to see the holy cities fall into Caliphate hands. So, they’ve been loaning all sorts of things: Training, special forces, a warship or two… and of course their air force can reach anywhere in the region just fine.”

“Okay…?” Sean asked, examining the map. Simon smiled grimly, and closed the app to open a folder full of pictures instead - two ships at harbour, dimly visible through extreme range and heat haze.

“This is the MV Nasarpur, and berthed next to it is the PNS Zulfiquar, one of the Pakistan Navy’s frigates. Nasarpur’s a merchant vessel, a light freighter. About two months ago she left Karachi bound for Jeddah Seaport. When she got there though, she was immediately locked down by the Pakistani military. She didn’t load or offload anything, and three days later she sailed straight back to Karachi, without explanation.”

“Any idea why?” Sean asked.

“Oh, rumours were flying thick and fast.” Simon told him. “None of them were very credible… Not even the kind of rags who run headlines like ‘The Corti abducted my cat!” or whatever were touching them. That is, right up until some friends of mine were fed a tip that an Israeli checkpoint intercepted a nuke covered in Pakistan flags.”

“A nuke?!” Sean exclaimed.

Ava was similarly dismayed. “You’re kidding.”

“I wish I was.” Simon shook his head.

“Okay…” Ava re-opened the map and considered it some more. “Where’s Iran in all this?”

“Good question. One of the two questions we are going to be answering, in fact.”

“Oh, bloody lovely.” Sean groused. “You plan on leading us into a powder keg where cities could maybe blow up?”

Story of my life…” Ava commented, sotto voce. Neither man heard her. “What’s the other question?”

Simon sat down, resting his elbows on his knees. “That nuke showing up in the West Bank makes absolutely no sense at all.” he said. “Nobody benefits from that. If they’d successfully smuggled it over the border and then detonated it… then what? Like I said, Jerusalem - and specifically the Al-Aqsa Mosque - is the third holiest site in Islam. Destroying it would be only marginally less blasphemous than destroying the Kaaba, or the Mosque of the Prophet.”

“Set it off elsewhere in Israel” he continued “and they’d just bring down the angry hammer of the West. Either way, there’s no incentive, so that nuke being where it was is just… bizarre. In fact I’m having trouble figuring out what the nukes are going to be useful for anywhere. Unless whoever took them truly are crazy enough to believe that they could detonate them and actually survive or even defeat the retaliation.”

“Unless just setting them off is the whole objective.” Sean pointed out. “And the whole point is martyrdom.”

“Or unless blasphemy is the whole point.” Ava added. “Some anti-Muslim organisation wanting to destroy the holy sites?”

“True.” Simon nodded. “But in both cases… y’know, even martyrdom is done in support of an objective, and I feel like if body count alone was the idea, they would have gone off already. It’s a big and insecure part of the planet and they’ve had plenty of time to drive those bombs to pretty much anywhere in Afro-Eurasia. If the plan was just to cause mayhem or to enrage the Muslim population, they’d have gone off already. I think.”

Sean raised a hand. “Am I alone in being a tad concerned about going up against people who stole some nukes and who may be willing to use them?” he asked.

“Don’t let me stop you if you want to back out.” Simon told him. “Goodness knows, it’d be a welcome relief from Jacqui spamming me all the time telling me to talk you out of it.” he added, referring to his sister, Sean’s mother.

“…Ava?” Sean asked.

She thought about it. She knew what her answer was, but it would be nice to articulate why.

“Simon… What do you think about what happened to San Diego?” She asked.

Simon sat back and considered her. “How d’you mean?”

“Like… what’s your theory on what happened?”

Simon pondered his reply carefully before giving it. “I think… look, all the credible science commentators have all agreed that it was some kind of antimatter-based weapon. Five kilograms, they reckon.” He said.

“Five kilograms of antimatter would cost about three hundred thousand trillion dollars.” Ava told them.

“Jesus.” Sean muttered. “That’s… how much is that?”

“A fuck of a lot.” Simon told him, unhelpfully.

“All the combined goods and services of the planet Earth would add up to that in about seven years or so.” Ava told him. “So… yeah. There is NO WAY that bomb was human activity. It was aliens, I guarantee you. And - oh look, within a few years of it happening, there’s a huge increase in defense spending, we start building spaceships and my boy-…” she paused, pulled an annoyed face and started over “…my ex-boyfriend winds up as the poster boy for a new generation of spaceborne serviceman.”

Simon nodded. “And then a Pakistani freighter carrying presumably nukes loses that cargo on the open ocean, only for one of them to show up a month or two later exactly where it makes the least sense.” he said.

“Right. It’s like if somebody who didn’t really understand the politics and religion and the whole… the whole everything that’s going on in the middle east was looking to try and shake up a real clusterfuck of a war in the region.” Ava told him.

“To what end?” Sean asked.

“Iunno.” Ava shrugged. “But what happens if they succeed? What if the whole Middle East did descend into World War Three? Would the allies be able to just ignore that and keep throwing resources up into space?”

“Not bloody likely…” Simon mused. “Where did you come up with a theory like that, anyway?”

“It’s… there’s kind of a pattern.” Ava told him. “Adam and I… our first date was to a roller derby. He spotted somebody in the crowd he recognised from a murder investigation, and… there was somebody lurking outside with an assault rifle, and… Y’know, it was almost a mass shooting.”

“You never mentioned this!” Sean gaped at her.

“It’s how Dad got his injury. He was… the gunman got him in the back. But then years later, when we lost Sara… that guy moved the exact same way. Adam saw that instantly. And he was doing something in the Byron launchpad at Folctha…”

She gritted her teeth and sighed, frowning. “It’s… I can almost put my thumb on it. It’s like a word on the tip of my tongue. I can feel that those two men really were connected, to each other and to San Diego, and to all this spending and the SOR… and to this.” she tapped the picture of Nasarpur and Zulfiquar. “To that freighter and the nukes. It’s all part of the same thing, I know it is. This piece of the puzzle just fits.”

They considered the image again.

“Bloody hell, duck.” Sean said eventually, shivering. “If you were trying to talk me into coming with, you’ve done a shitty job.”

“And given me a lot to think about.” Simon added. “Where do we even begin investigating something like that? And if you’re right… there’s no way that the intelligence services aren’t involved.”

“What’s the alternative?” Ava asked. “I heard there’s an Icelandic choir gonna go do a concert tour around Dominion space. You want to go cover that instead?”

“That’d be the sensible thing to do.” Simon suggested.

“Fuck sensible.” Ava grumbled. “Whatever this thing is, it killed my parents and ruined my life, and I’m not alone. I wanna fight back. So hell yeah, I’m in.”

Simon gave her a long, slow stare, then turned to Sean. “I like her.” he declared.

“Said you would.” Sean agreed.

Simon stood up. “Let me… let me plan this.” he said. “I’m not quite sure where an investigation like this might start. And no offense, Ava, but you being American is going to complicate matters if we just head straight for Saudi Arabia or wherever and start poking around. For the time being, fill out those forms I gave you and submit them. We can at least get your credentials sorted so that whatever we decide to do, we’re ready to do it. Okay?”

Ava and Sean nodded, and he stood. “Get some bags packed and ready to go, keep them by the front door or somewhere. I’ll be in touch.”

Sean let him out.

“Are we crazy?” he asked, on returning. “I mean, are we seriously going to kick off our careers in journalism by going to the Middle East and chasing nukes?”

“I think Simon’s either crazy or desperate to take us along.” Ava replied unconcernedly, stretching out on the couch.

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“I gave my last fuck months ago.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear!”

Ava tucked her hands behind her head. “Sean, don’t you get it? Didn’t you put the pieces together? Didn’t you listen to a thing I just said?”

Sean frowned at her and circled around to drop in the armchair. “Clearly I didn’t.” he muttered.

Ava sighed and sat up. “Someone or something wants us dead.” she said. “You MUST have seen the Vancouver attack footage. And everybody knows about the, the quarantine field and come on! You think two million dead Californians happened by accident? Adam and I could have been in that, it kind of rams the point home!”

“You really think-?”

“No. I fucking know, Sean. I saw a man shoot a fourteen-year-old girl because she was in the way. That’s what we’re up against. I don’t know who, or what, or why, but I know that SOMETHING with more antimatter than we could produce if we turned all of the Earth’s civilizations to making it and pumped it out for a lifetime… Something with that wants us dead. And it’s somehow got some humans on its side too.”

She gestured to the window. “And what are the options? Do nothing? Get drunk? Fuck a lot and try to enjoy ourselves before they succeed because we didn’t try and stop them? The Hell with that! I- I can’t!”

She was amazed to discover that she was crying.

Sean, very gently, shifted from chair to couch and put a hand on her upper arm. “You sure you’re not still feeling guilty over Adam?” he asked.

“Of course I still feel guilty over Adam!” Ava tore away from him and surged to her feet, angry now. “How does that change anything? Who gives a fuck? It doesn’t matter what my reasons are for doing it, it’s still the right thing to do.”

“We could get killed.”

“Oh, wake up!! We WILL get killed some day. Cancer, or a car crash, or an antimatter bomb from space or… who the fuck knows?! Death doesn’t scare me, Sean. If it scares you, you’re welcome not to come along.”

He laughed gently. “I did say ’we’ could get killed, didn’t I?”

Ava stilled. “…Okay, what’s your reason?” she asked, turning to face him.

Sean shrugged. “A bad one.” he conceded, picking at something invisible on his jeans and not looking at her. “But, y’know. Better to do the right thing for a bad reason, right?”

“…Yeah.”

Ava considered challenging him for a better answer, but settled for shrugging and trudging out of the room and up the stairs into her bedroom to prepare a bag as Simon had suggested. Every fiber of her wanted to be sullen, angry and bitter pretty much all the time, and she was damned if she’d indulge that impulse, even if Sean couldn’t resist his impulse to drop a veiled and passive ‘I love you’ on her whenever he could, which was really starting to be a pain in the…

She paused, took a deep breath, and started over.

She had to do that a lot as she packed, just as she’d had to do every day for weeks now. Every single resource she could find about travel in the Middle East stressed modesty. Modesty! As if the God who’d created the human body had intended for it to be an object of revulsion and fear. As if men were so weak that women had to suffer the burden of controlling their impulses for them-!

Pause. Deep breath. Start over.

It was getting better, day by day. Every time she caught herself flying into a rage, every time she closed her eyes, inhaled and let go, it made the next time a little easier.

She took her time and focused as hard as she could on packing the bag as small and efficient as possible. Tight jeans were out, but that was okay, she had some loose slacks. These formed the outer layer, inside which were rolled her flannel shirts, loose tops and everything she had that would combine to cover her from wrist to chin to ankle without scandalizing the oh-so-delicate male sensibilities-

Pause, deep breath, start over…

Underwear, socks, sanitary pads, some makeup essentials, a pretty square scarf that should hopefully pass muster as a hijab if she needed it. She spent a few minutes practicing putting it on, threw it into the corner in disgust after she managed to jab herself in the back of the head with a pin - pause, deep breath, start over - retrieved it and, after a few minutes, became satisfied that she was putting it on correctly without having to refer to the WikiHow guide.

Experimentally, she wore it alongside the clothing she’d picked out. It wasn’t baggy and formless, at least. In fact…

“Modest and still hot.” she congratulated herself, then realised that in testing her outfit she’d managed to completely undo all her progress on packing the bag.

She paused. She took a deep breath, and she started over.


Date Point 10y4m AV

HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Regaari

“Chasing after Shoo was more than just a personal mission for me, it became a lucrative contract for the Clan.”

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight had been summoned, and Regaari was now being politely interrogated in a meeting room somewhere in HMS Sharman’s structure. Ayma, apparently, was to be ‘debriefed’ separately.

Somehow, Regaari had expected the admiral to be a near-clone of major Powell – sturdy, strong, and rough. Knight in fact was tall and slender and the translator rendered him with a refined, intellectual accent similar to that of Clan Highmountain. “How so?” he asked

“The females are… extremely devoted to their ideal of Clan loyalty. More so than any male is to his clan, and that is quite a feat.” Regaari explained. “Their devotion to one another apparently transcends species. They’re in something of an uproar right now over the wisdom of bringing a human – Shoo – into the Clan, but the one thing that none of them will even think of suggesting would be ejecting her from the Clan of Females. She’s a Sister, and will be a Sister for as long as she lives.”

“And this benefited Whitecrest… how?” Knight inquired.

“I am an – apparently – prestigious officer of Clan Whitecrest, and I led an exhaustive investigation, chasing Shoo across known space.” Regaari explained. “Now, this was advantageous to Whitecrest first because it was a valuable intelligence-gathering venture in its own right. We tripled the reach of of our surveillance network in searching for her. That alone would have been reason enough to do it, but the mating contracts…”

“You did it all for the nookie?” Powell asked. His expressions were always harder to read than most humans, but there was just enough there for Regaari to guess at a joke of some kind. Joking or not, however, the observation was completely on target.

“For as long as the search continued,” Regaari told him “we had the respect and attention of practically every female on Gao. For males, that is a rare and hugely coveted position to be in – it means that for once WE get to choose our mating partners, rather than the other way around. We advanced our breeding program by generations during this operation.”

“Breeding program?”

“Selectively enhancing the Whitecrest line by mating with females carrying gene-stock from other clans. The Stonebacks, the Highmountains, the One-fangs… breeding for strength, intelligence, reflexes… Every clan has just such a program in effect, planning our own genetic futures.”

The humans shared an uneasy glance for some reason. “Is… something the matter?” Regaari asked them.

“Call it a cultural foible.” Knight conceded. “Eugenics has been an historically, uhm… tricky subject on Earth. Where does Kirk come into this?”

“When I was travelling with Shoo and Ayma, we found ourselves with a dilemma.” Regaari said, sitting back. Designed as the seats were for human proportions, his feet were dangling ridiculously but he didn’t care. “She wouldn’t go back to Gao, you see. She was convinced that she would bring down the Swarm of Swarms just by being there. Who knows, maybe she was right? On the evidence of Capitol Station, we wouldn’t have been able to fight them… and the commune she lived at and all the city around it would have been inundated with slavering predators. I think that thought scared her more than the possibility of being eaten herself.”

Knight and Powell both nodded. Regaari recognised that nod – it was the one that indicated agreement without wanting to interrupt.

“Returning her to Earth was also not within our power. No channels of communication, no help from the Dominion… we didn’t even know where Earth was.” he paused. “In fact, I still don’t.”

“The distal end of the Border Stars.” Knight told him. “A cluster we call the Local Group”.

Regaari tried to recall what he could of the Dominion’s galactic map. The galaxy was an incomprehensibly huge place, and the broad-strokes creation of a notional feature such as a band of uninhabitable systems which marked the no-man’s land between the Dominion and the Alliance inevitably included tens of thousands of stars. It was all far too big for any living being’s brain to accommodate.

“A long way from Gao and from what the Dominion thinks of as civilization, then.” he concluded. “And with the Dominion actively obscuring that information and stymieing efforts to contact your species… well, we were forced to stay on the move. Shoo disguised herself as a Sister and we took care to travel parts of the Dominion far from Gao, where she would be less likely to be discovered. It was there that we started to hear rumours.”

“About Kirk.” Powell checked.

“About Councillor Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk.” Regaari had long mastered the trick of letting his cybernetics transmit the name to the translator rather than trying to pronounce it. “We would find stations where they were still talking about their vagrant Deathworlder and the fact that one of the galaxy’s most notorious political figures had just swept in, collected them and departed. We had just started looking for him when… well, there was an incident. It persuaded Shoo to leave us and go it alone.”

What happened then?”

Ayma was furious with her.” Regaari remembered fondly. “I think she’d forgotten that Shoo is a human, with human instincts. She saw her as a Sister, and expected her to behave like one.”

In what way?” Knight asked.

“Forgive the broad generalization here, but… the Clan of Females stand together and they can be both savage and a bit stupid about it. Threaten one of them, and they will unite to make your life a misery, even if actually doing so is beyond their power. Humans, I think, will do that too… up to a point. And I think that point is the one where an individual decides to sacrifice themselves for the good of the rest.”

“That’s very broad strokes.” Powell commented.

“Borne out by individual examples that I have personally witnessed, Major. Sergeant Leo Price, for instance.”

Knight and Powell looked at one another again. It was amazing how much humans communicated between themselves just by taking a half-second glance at each others’ faces. Regaari had no idea what the unspoken conversation had entailed, but Powell cleared his throat.

“So you returned to Gao.” he said.

“By way of Perfection.” Regaari duck-nodded. “Ayma didn’t know why, but I… made use of a resource.”

“The Contact.” Knight guessed.

“Now how do you know about her?” Regaari demanded.

“Via Kirk.”

“Ah. Of course. I should have known he would use her services as well… Well, for a fair price, she sold me information concerning Kirk and his ship. Contact information as well, which turned out to be obsolete. Or at least, he never got in touch via those channels. I have no idea why not.”

“In any case” he continued “when the Whitecrest clan set about trying to find Shoo, we were able to trace her to a station in the Signal Stars. FTS-1090Endless Possibility’. The trail went dead there.”

“Why?”

“The station’s traffic records were corrupted. Every ship that stopped there over nearly half a Gaoian year, their origin, destination, flight plans… all lost. All we had to go on was civilian rumour and gossip.”

“And what did those have to say?”

“They were abuzz. A Gaoian female had fought with a human male and fled the station. Some time later, that human had left with some other humans in the company of a Rrrtk.”

“Fought?” Knight asked.

”’Wiped the floor with him’ as you say.” Regaari commented, clearly pleased for his friend’s prowess. “The station’s population weren’t sure whether to be sceptical of the stories of human strength, or whether to start thinking Gaoians are deathworlders too. The idea of a disguise never crossed their minds… though to be fair, it was a good disguise.”

“That matches with Kirk’s final report…” Powell observed.

“That it does,” Knight agreed “but those logs being corrupted is new information, and not Kirk’s MO at all… Enemy action?”

Powell grunted and nodded. “Trying to cover their tracks.”

“Which means that Kirk, his crew and Miss Chang stumbled across something important.”

“At the kinds of speeds Sanctuary could get to, that something important could be anywhere, sir.”

“True, but the escape pod is much slower… hmm.”

“Enemy action?” Regaari asked, “What enemy?”

He knew a poker-face when he saw one, and both Knight and Powell had impenetrable ones. “Doesn’t matter.” Powell grunted.

“We do have plenty of enemies, after all.” Knight agreed, a touch more diplomatically. “And this all happened five years ago.”

Regaari considered calling bullshit – it was a phrase he’d learned early on from Shoo’s movies, and loved – but decided against it. It would only antagonize them, and be unlikely to work.

“Not that I’m authorised to make a formal offer…” he started. “But the Clans might well be interested in closer ties with humanity over the coming years. Knowing who your enemies are might shape that decision, or prepare us for coming up against them…”

Again, there was a borderline-telepathic silent conversation between Knight and Powell that took little more than enough time for both men to glance at one another. “Well said,” Knight agreed. “I’ll… need to take advice from my colleagues and superiors on that, however.”

“By all means.” Regaari agreed. “Now… on to the matter of Ayma and I visiting Earth…”


Date Point: 10y4m AV

Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space

Kirk

In the weeks since they had first arrived at Mrwrki, Lewis’ initial experiments with the nanofactory had largely revolved around creating a series of construction drones, which had in turn assembled for him an apartment, rebuilding part of the station’s structure so that the nanofactory and its control centre was basically his living room.

The apartment itself was little more than a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and a large working area, the latter comprised of a commodious comfortable chair, more volumetric screens and work surfaces and what looked to Kirk’s eyes like a hundred data pads strewn over the floor, piled on the surfaces, tucked into the corners of the chair, and generally littering the place like ticker-tape in the aftermath of an especially pompous parade.

Lewis was trying to keep himself to a healthy routine, to the point where Kirk was under strict orders from him to enter the apartment with a shock prod and zap him if he didn’t stick to the rules he’d set himself.

Quite why Lewis would need to be reminded to go to sleep, to bathe, to eat and to change his clothing was a bit of a mystery, but as Kirk understood it, a human in the grip of an obsession could neglect his basic needs, and Lewis had self-diagnosed a strong propensity for exactly that kind of obsession.

At least, that was how Kirk had described it to Vedreg. Lewis’ exact words had been “Dude, I’ll fall asleep on a slice of mouldy pizza inside a week if you don’t remind me to clean up and look after myself. Been there, done that.”

To his credit, Lewis was sticking to his schedule almost without prompting, and he was benefiting from it, too. Aboard Sanctuary, he had stuck to the bare minimum of exercise that Julian and Kirk had conspired to force on him. Now…

It was impossible for a human to seem “scrawny” by the standards of Kirk’s species. Humans - even unfit, skinny humans - were pretty much nothing but muscle and bone, and those muscles and bones were denser, tougher, stronger and proportionately larger. To an Rrrtk’s eyes, even Lewis was dense and sturdy enough to shake the deck plating as he walked, and Lewis was decidedly scrawny by human standards.

His general proportions hadn’t changed much on a regime of tai chi and yoga, but his movements had. Lewis had sort of… flopped about the place before, treating being upright as something he did en route to sitting somewhere else, with shoulders slouched and expression distracted, only to focus when he was sat at a terminal, working on a stimulating challenge. Now, he moved with the same kind of fluid alertness that Allison and Julian had possessed. His back was straighter, his step lighter, his expression here and now. It was like he was always at a terminal these days, always working on a stimulating challenge.

Maybe he was. He was certainly absorbing knowledge with a voracity that defied comprehension, and sometimes he made huge tangential links between two subjects that Kirk would never have thought to connect. What was the association between climate science and politics? What did either of them have to do with nanofactorys? For that matter, how did biology and computer programming enmesh?

Lewis had explained. Kirk prided himself that he was one of the smarter members of a species that had, prior to the arrival of humans and Gaoians, been generally respected as the only sophonts around who could give the Corti a run for their money, but Lewis’s exploration of those connections had been so arcane that he still wasn’t sure he understood it.

Could a local drought really spark a civil war? Let alone a regional conflict that went on to drag in half the factions on an entire planet? How could software evolve? In what possible way were either of those already impenetrable relationships relevant to using the nanofactory to build a weapon against the Hierarchy?

Lewis had finally silenced his questions by instructing him to “Go read the Dirk Gently books, dude.”

Kirk hadn’t been able to find an author by that name, but he had been introduced to Douglas Adams, to the concept of “holistic” and, in researching that, to the whole field of Chaos Theory.

The “fundamental interconnectedness of all things” seemed like a bizarre and nonsense concept at first, but the more Kirk had dug into it, the more he realised that he had been exploiting exactly that principle ever since he’d left ’Outlook on Forever’. Relying on it, even. Everything came back to humans in the end - after all, he’d planned to use them to tear down the rusty and stifling entrenched power of the Dominion from the inside.

He snapped out of his thoughtful mood as he approached Lewis’ door. Kirk had gone without company for a couple of days while Vedreg slept, and yesterday’s attempt to check in with Lewis had ended in the human calling “Busy! Come back tomorrow!” through the door.

This time, the door opened.

Lewis’ outfit had changed dramatically, for some reason. He bathed daily and the first thing to come out of Mrwrki’s nanofactory under his control had been a machine for washing and drying his clothes. Even though the forge could have recycled them and built him new clothes every day if he wanted them, he’d stuck to the same fraying jeans and sand-coloured T-shirt that he had been abducted in, years ago.

These were now gone and replaced with robes of some kind, or something like a kimono or karate gi… it was hard to tell exactly what, given Kirk’s own lack of expertise with the intricacies of human clothing and the fact that Lewis had probably designed the garment from memory. The end result was something loose and comfortable.

Lewis was curled up in his Thinking Chair - the huge comfortable one that Kirk could almost have squeezed himself into - reading something off a tablet.

“Hey man. Come on in.”

“How are you doing?” Kirk asked, accepting his invitation and entering the suite properly. It was remarkably clean, especially considering Lewis’ self-confessed propensity for squalor.

“Trying to get my head around quantum computing.” Lewis murmured, in the soft way he always did when concentrating. “I get the theory, there’s just… subtleties to the way the Corti go about using qubits that’re giving me an idea.”

“Like what?”

“Don’t even ask me to explain, man. I’ve got, like, a shape forming in my head and, like, there’s a bit that I think is gonna fit there, but even if it does, ain’t no way I’m going to be able to explain it without telling you the whole shape.”

“I like the new wardrobe.” Kirk changed the subject. “Very… zen.”

“I was going for Tron: Legacy, man. Flynn had his shit worked out.”

“He did?”

“Yuh-huh. If you’re gonna spend however the fuck long in exile with like, two or three people to talk to, tops… may as well be comfortable and meditate a lot.”

He swiped right on the tablet. “It helps, actually. Weirdly.”

“I wouldn’t know. Is this what you were doing yesterday?”

“Yeah, dude. Ass finally went on my jeans. You came along while I was buck-ass, assembling me some new duds.”

Kirk snorted, amused. “Lewis, what possible reason would I have to care?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah. Just because the whole galaxy are nudists, we’re the weird ones.” Lewis scoffed. “Clothing is practical dude.”

“Practical for what, exactly?”

“Well, fuckin’ pockets for a start.”

Kirk just rocked his weight backward onto his four hindlegs, the comfortable sedentary posture of a Rrrtk not planning to go anywhere for a while. He was wearing a utility belt, two holsters and a pair of saddlebags, none of which would have begun to qualify as ‘clothing’ by a human’s standards, yet which meant that he was already rather better-equipped with pockets than Lewis had ever been in his jeans. Certainly, Lewis’ ’Flynn’ robes didn’t seem to have pockets at all.

He decided not to press the issue. That way lay an argument just as intractable as trying to point out to the Kwmbwrw that they were, biologically speaking, obligate omnivores and that their strictly herbivorous lifestyle led to malnutrition problems that placed a permanent burden on their economy. Certainly, the Kwmbwrw and the Gaoians had been at odds over that point from the instant the Gaoians had made first contact.

“Not to rush you…” he said, delicately. “But I was rather expecting that you would have started to build things and experiment by now.”

“I have.”

“…You have?”

“Sure. I’ve just not built anything useful man. So it’s all gone back in the recycler.”

Kirk angled his head so that he could get Lewis into his very limited range of binocular vision. “Nothing useful at all?”

“Well, I made the washer-dryer, and an oven and some cake tins for Vedreg, and don’t forget all these tablets…” Lewis shrugged, swiping right again. “But like, as for the Big Project? Yeah, I’ve thrown together a few basic ideas, some proofs-of concept. But I can either do the mad scientist thing and fill my space with every last shitty little project that’s never gonna come to anything until I’ve got nowhere to work, or I can keep the place tidy.”

“You do keep saying that you are naturally an untidy person.” Kirk pointed out.

“Dude you have no idea what untidy really is.” Lewis told him, setting the tablet aside. “I’m being fucking careful here because I…”

He stopped, suddenly and visibly emotional, then sprang to his feet. “Room. How far to Sol?”

The room spoke in a clearly synthetic voice. “The approximate straight-line distance from this station to Sol is: Half a galactic radial length.”

“That’s about seven kiloparsecs, Kirk. Twenty-three thousand light years. If we had Sanctuary here and I hopped in her right now and flew her straight home? It’d take me two and a half weeks, and that’s if I magically somehow managed to do it without having to stop to degauss every day.” Lewis cleared his throat and gestured to the map: the straight line route strayed dangerously close to the galactic core, where starships never dared to venture. “If I took the spacelanes… Room, if I had a ship with a cruising speed of five hundred kilolights, how long would it take me to reach Sol via cleared spacelanes?”

“Calculating… approximate travel distance, one point three galactic radial lengths. Approximate journey duration in human units rounding up, not including necessary resupply and degauss stops: Sixty days.”

Kirk watched Lewis’ shoulders sag, before he turned around. “And Cimbrean is even further. Two months, Kirk. If I had the fastest ship in the Milky Way right here, it’d take me two months to get home. On most ships? Like, if I tried to hitch-hike home on freighters and whatever, I could be at it for years.”

He dismissed the galactic projection with a swipe of his arm. “I am a long way from other humans right now. I like you and Vedreg well enough, sure. But… You guys can go without, if you have to. Me? if I’m not very, very careful, I’ma go crazy and I fucking know it. I have GOT to take care of myself: No mess. No clutter. Do my chores, exercise, say my fuckin’ prayers, whatever, and maybe I’ll be able to go a few years without completely losing my shit.”

There was a long moment of silence, and then Lewis climbed back into his Thinking Chair. “So mebbe you’d better let me get on with all this studying I gotta do, ‘cause the sooner I get it done and come up with a solution, the sooner I can get out of this cage you’ve shoved me in. Good talk, buddy. Let’s do this again tomorrow.”

Not quite knowing what to say, Kirk watched him in silence for a minute, and then pushed his weight forward onto all six legs again and made himself scarce.


Date Point 10y4m AV

Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth.

Kevin Jenkins

Rachael glanced up then gave him her professional smile and gestured to the door. “Go right on through, Mister Jenkins.”

“Thanks Rachael.”

Of all the perks that he had acquired during the last few weeks, Kevin was finding that the one he enjoyed most was that he could walk into Moses Byron’s office whenever the hell he liked. Nobody else in the Group enjoyed that privilege.

He whispered to himself as he entered Byron’s office, reflecting on his expensive suit and six-figure salary with bonus. “Look at me now, Moira…”

“What was that, Kevin?” Byron set his tablet down on his desk and looked up.

“Just talkin’ to myself, boss.”

“Only way to get some intelligent conversation sometimes.” Byron chuckled, and sat back, folding his arms comfortably. “What’s up?”

“Company wants a final report on that lunar jump beacon. Figured it’d only be fair to get your side.”

Byron frowned. He hated having the subject of that particular blunder raised. “Agent Williams already got that out of me.” he grumbled.

“Figure she’s not interested in hearing the positives, Mister Byron.”

Byron made a tired noise. “What is this, Kevin? Good Cop Bad Cop? Am I paying you to be my interrogator now?”

“You’re paying me to make sure the Company never has to visit your office ever again.” Kevin pointed out.

“Okay, okay…” Byron stood up and hit his wet bar again. Kevin had noticed he did that in pretty much every meeting, and also that - excepting the meeting with Special Agent Williams (AKA Darcy) - he never actually drank what he mixed. Presumably it was all a ploy to put his people at their ease and steer the conversation his way. “What’s your poison?” he asked.

“I’m fine without, thanks. One DUI is enough for a lifetime.”

“We’ve got people could drive you back.” Byron pointed out.

“Takes all the fun out of it, boss.”

Byron sighed and reclaimed a little momentum by mixing something for himself - a Virgin Manhattan - before sitting down as he dropped in the maraschino cherry. “Okay. Fire away.”

“Robert Frost.”

Frost had been one of the four crew on Reclamation, the ship that Byron had sent out to investigate the disappearances of BGEVs one, three, four and six. Somewhere during the ill-fated mission’s chain of misadventures, Frost had been forced to take a translator implant. He’d been under the scanner of a surgical robot, about to have the implant whipped straight back out again, when a Hierarchy agent had stepped into his head and used his body to murder the Reclamation’s captain, Jason Nolan.

Things had only gotten worse for them after that, but a full recording of the changes in Frost’s brain as he was taken over had, briefly, been in the hands of the Byron Group’s scientists: Byron had promptly deleted it.

Byron set his drink down, a little too sharply. “What about him?”

“Williams wasn’t impressed that you destroyed evidence there. The scans of his brain, all that stuff…”

“Unethical.” Byron grunted. “Couldn’t be used without huge human rights violations, and couldn’t be kept without maybe ruining the Group if it ever leaked.”

Kevin had to agree, but he had the questions he’d been instructed to ask. “Not even to research ways to stop the control from happening?”

“I trust my people.” Byron said. “Whenever they know things I don’t, I defer to them. That’s true of you, and it’s true of Ericson and Billings. Both of them recommended destroying the data. When I discussed the implications with Mr. Williams - our Williams, that is, our chief of security - he said the exact same thing.”

“And why not forward it to the government?”

Byron snatched his drink up again and stood to tour the office. “This may come as a surprise to you, Kevin, but I don’t trust the government.” he said, fetching up by the window. “The government has been sitting on a secret this huge for years. It knows who destroyed San Diego and why, and more defence spending than my whole Group is worth has gone dark in going after them. All of which has vindicated my lack of trust in them, which I’ve had since long before pretty little Agent Williams waltzed in here and told me off like a naughty schoolboy.”

He drained the mocktail in one, and set it down on top of his bookshelf with a shaking hand, plainly angry.

Extinction?!” he snarled, spinning around suddenly. “These people are playing with extinction and they’re keeping people like ME out of the loop? People who could help?! Cause yeah, I knew something was up with the implants, but I was worried about… corporate sabotage, or spying. I was worried about losing more good people, so I added a failsafe to get them home fast in case something went wrong. Stuff like that, small tragedies that we could handle! Nobody said a dang thing about extinction, and I had no good reason to suspect it was even on the cards! But nooo, only the government can handle the responsibility of playing games with the lives of billions! Only the government has that right!”

He strode back to his chair and threw himself into it. “If I wasn’t happy with having that data used by my people, then what in the Sam Hill makes you think I’d forward it to the government?” he asked. “It’d be just as unethical if they used it, and just as ruinous to us if it ever got out that we were the ones that supplied it. And you can put every mother-loving word I just said into your report verbatim, Kevin. I don’t need a positive spin on that one.”

Kevin took a deep breath and gave it time for some of Byron’s rage to dissipate out of the room. “You sure you don’t want something with alcohol in it, Boss?” he asked, lightly.

Byron grunt-chuckled. “One liver’s enough for a lifetime.” he said, echoing Kevin’s earlier sentiment. “Reckon if I start drinking every time I get stressed, that way lies a couple transplants. No thank you… did the Company want you to ask me anything else?”

“I think you’ve said enough.” Kevin replied, putting his phone away - he’d recorded the whole rant. “Anything you need from me before I head back?”

“Matter of fact, there is.” Byron stood up again, and retrieved an old-fashioned physical document in a slim black plastic folder from atop his filing cabinet. He spun it onto the desk in front of Kevin. “You hear all the brouhaha up in Vancouver over the three space cadets who came home?”

“They’re fellow abductees and friends of an old friend, in fact.” Kevin said, opening it. The folder contained duplex printouts of the three Sanctuary survivors and a quick run-down of everything that the Group had been able to learn about them. Even at a cursory glance, their summaries made for impressive reading, and they didn’t include some of what Kevin knew about Kirk and his mission.

“No kidding? Well, I want them for EV-Eleven, not least because this Etsicitty fella’s got about the most sophisticated prosthetic foot on Earth and that’s a market I wouldn’t mind breaking into. Any objections?”

“None, so long as that’s ALL they’ve got, cyber-wise.” Kevin shook his head. “It’s only stuff that touches the brain that I’m worried about… though, for personal reasons, I wouldn’t mind having a word with them.”

“That’s fine. Not a bad idea if you meet them in person and assess them anyway. Reckon your other employers will object?”

“I doubt it.”

“Okay. Go have fun talking to your friends of a friend.” Byron technically had to wait for Kevin to decide to leave but, despite that in Kevin’s opinion the man was a high-functioning psychopath and a narcissist, he was still a damn good boss and Kevin didn’t mind letting him think he had the power. Keeping Byron’s ego feeling un-bruised made life easier for everybody else who worked with him.

He stood and headed out. “Try not to get in trouble while I’m gone, boss.”

Byron toasted him with his empty glass. “Kevin, you’re on my speed dial.” he said.


Date Point 10y4m AV

Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adam Arés

Training for the SOR was a delicate balancing act that weighed the need to keep the team on standby ready for a mission should the need arise, versus the hellish demands of keeping their bodies in the proper condition to go on that mission.

The result was training that varied in intensity throughout the week on a pseudorandom schedule, one day of which was the Heavy Day, followed by a light day for recovery.

Heavy day was designed for maximum effect at the expense of leaving the operator burned out and shaking, often barely able to move. Today was Adam’s heavy day, and he’d elected to go for a simulated suit run.

These were pretty simple: Wearing the EV-MASS undersuit under a weighted replica of the midsuit with a full tactical load - an arrangement that was actually worse to wear than the suit itself because it was loose on him rather than hugging tight and supporting its own weight - he set out for a dawn-to-dusk run. Pick a direction, go. Turn back at noon. And if you had any designs on saving your energies on the run out, you were just hurting yourself and everybody else you might need that little bit extra performance for.

He’d settled on a road run today, and had set himself the challenge of making it out as far as the coastal outpost of New Penzance.

New Penzance was nothing more than a research outpost - it had a cabin for the researchers, a boat shed with launch ramp and a weather station, and a radio mast for talking to Folctha. The parking lot was bigger than the combined footprint of all the buildings, and Adam jogged across it, slapped the side of the cabin, panted a smiling “hi!” to the surprised residents who were tending to their boat, then turned and jogged back down the access road, checking his timepiece. He’d made it just before noon, so when he reached the end of the access road he turned left and continued along the coastal road for another twenty minutes before the alarm went, calling him to turn back.

The return journey was always the worse. On the way out, even pushing the pace as much as he needed to for good training, he could at least enjoy the scenery, take in his surroundings, and they were fantastic surroundings.

The coast skirted the edge of the Scar, or the TMAZ, or the Skidmark, or whatever you preferred to call it, and so the lush Cimbrean forests that had once come right down to the tidemark - and the mangrove-like things that had once lived beyond even that - were now gone. Here and there a decaying stump jutted out of what was rapidly becoming scrubby coastal grassland. Imported Earthling grasses were outcompeting the native plants at an astonishing rate as they crowded out the sunlight and whipped the metaphorical rug out from under them.

A bird - an actual Terran bird, sleek and agile - whipped overhead, speared down into the grass and came up with something that could only be a native in its talons. An Earthling wouldn’t have been quite so… exploded.

A convoy of logging trucks swept up the road headed away from the city, and he raised a greeting hand when the lead truck honked at him. There was a lot of alien timber out there, and no point in letting it get eaten or choked by imported alien insects and plants. Folctha was getting hugely wealthy off a continent’s worth of virgin extraterrestrial forest, and most coveted of all was Pinkwood, with its delicate striations of alternating bands of dark chocolate and taffy pink grain. As a structural material it was worthless: as a luxury decorative wood, it was the most coveted thing on either planet, and its looming extinction made its devotees all the more crazy.

Of course there were protests and environmental campaigners who decried the rapacious logging of an endangered species, but the Reclamation Project had pointed out in an impassioned statement that the tree was extinct anyway, given that it was only a matter of time before the last one was killed by a marauding immigrant. In the face of which every veneer, tabletop and decorative turned piece that lived on as a treasured heirloom or favorite gift only served to prolong the plant’s unfortunate legacy and to remind humankind of the degree of care and seriousness with which interstellar colonisation would need to progress.

Adam’s muscles had been gently burning away all morning of course, but as he entered the young woodlands around Folctha, and more importantly when he crossed the field threshold for the gravity generator, ramping up from Cimbrean gravity to Earth gravity in about ten paces… that was the point when he hit the wall.

There were only so many energy-saving tricks that a man could do in these circumstances. He could stay hydrated, suck down electrolytes and sugar like his life depended on them, allow himself timed and brief rest breaks to stop, engulf an energy bar and recover a few drips of reserves before powering on…

But the only way to really get through was the trance.

PJ training had only reinforced something that Legsy had taught him when he was sixteen - that the human brain could enter a mode where pain, hunger, fatigue, thirst… all of it became abstract information. In such a state, focused completely on putting one foot at a time that little bit closer to home, a man could run, and run, and run, and run. The sun took its sweet time in ambling down to ground level, and the kilometers ticked by sporadically: vanishing in handfuls, and yet each one taking an age.

Adam had another level beyond the trance which he saved for the most serious exercise, when the only way to move forward was to literally break himself. He wouldn’t need it today.

There was an established end-point at the base: Rebar had rigged up a sheet of metal that rang like a gong when slapped in the big red circle at its center. Your run or whatever you were doing wasn’t complete until you staggered up to it and rang it, did a circuit around the dorm for good measure, and slapped it a second time.

Getting there involved thumping doggedly along the coastal highway, past the building he co-owned with Titan on Demeter Road, up Delaney Row, into Newlands Park and uphill beside the river as the lights came on to celebrate the hours of darkness. He crossed at the western footbridge, forced himself along Peake Way, past the MPs on gate duty, past the Gravball hall and the scenario course, past the open field where all of the base’s staff who weren’t Spaceborne Operators did their PT, up to the dorm, slapped the gong - this was where it got truly difficult in the last few seconds - staggered around the dorm counting every last step, slapped the gong again and…

Pain. Pain, exhaustion, weariness and reality all flooded back in as he let go and started thinking again.

Mechanically, his hand hit the stop button on his timepiece, then grabbed his drinking tube and he took a long, thirsty pull of his custom cocktail of high-performance sports drink.

He sat down on his butt, rolled backwards, and lay there for a minute or two while his breathing slowed and something resembling energy started to soak into his tissues again.

Voices started to percolate into his sphere of awareness, and there was something… familiar about one of them.

Well, okay. Every voice on the base was familiar, but this one was familiar in a way he hadn’t heard in a while.

“…just ran past me without acknowledging me. Do you think he’s okay?”

“Relax he’s fine. Ain’tcha Horse?”

Adam opened his eyes. Baseball grinned down at him. Standing next to him wearing what was probably an expression of concern, were two Gaoians. He didn’t recognise the female, but the male? He knew that white cowlick anywhere, especially coupled with a new prosthetic paw.

“Oh. Hey Dexter. How’ya doin’?”

The female chittered a Gaoian laugh. “You were right, Regaari. He’s overflowing with enthusiasm to see you again!”

Even Adam managed a laugh, and waved a hand reassuringly. “Just…” He looked to Baseball. “Whassat words the Brits use?”

“Knackered.” Base grinned. “How’d you do?”

“Got out past New Penzance.” Adam smiled.

“Shit!” Base swore, though his grin got all the wider. “You know we’re gonna have to try for Big Bay now, right?”

“No way your slow ass is getting out that far.” Adam grunted. He rolled over and, agonisingly, hauled himself upright with Base’s help.

“Right, ‘cause you’re Speedy Gonzales.” Base teased.

Adam chuckled. Olde-tyme racist though it was, he’d always loved that cartoon. “Andale! Arriba!” he grunted, and began the laborious process of rolling over and heaving himself upright.

“Are you alright, Warhorse?” Regaari seemed genuinely concerned.

“I’m fine.” Adam reassured him. “Good training. And… hey! Good to see you, bro. Figured you’d come calling sooner or later.”

He hit the release on his bag and let it slam to the ground. Both Gaoians took an alarmed step back.

Ayma made an alarmed chirruping sound. “You were running carrying that?”

“Yyyup.” Adam nodded then aimed a thumb at Baseball, who scooped the bag up easily and slung it over his shoulder. “His turn tomorrow.”

“But that must weigh…” Ayma paused and evaluated it.

“‘Bout five times what you do.” Baseball told her. “It’s just what we do. You comin’ in for movie night, Hoss?”

“Ooh, what we watching?” Adam asked.

“You get the deciding vote.” Base told him. “Terminator Two, or The Windup Girl?”

“Oh man, we having a good movie night?” Adam asked. “Uh… Judgement Day, I guess.”

“Tee-two it is.” Base smiled. “Go on, bro, hit the shower.”

“Crue patch first. Ten milligrams.”

Base had already palmed one, and produced it with a smirk. “Pussy.”

Adam rolled his eyes even as he took the patch and pressed it firmly to his aching right knee. It had definitely gone click in a nasty way during his final circuit of the dorm. “Yeah, yeah. We’ll see how tough you are when you try an’ run to Big Bay tomorrow, tough guy.”

“Man, get your stinky ass in that shower so we can watch Ahnold do his shit.”

They knocked fists, and Adam did as he was told, hobbling his way round the dorm’s side to the locker room and shower block.

Ordinarily, he would have soaked at length, but the lure of a good movie, gaoians, and the bowl of jambalaya he had waiting for him was all too strong.

He swung by the kitchen to grab his dinner, took a couple minutes to microwave it, and headed for the couch. Disappointingly, Dexter - Regaari - had elected to maintain his dignity in front of the female, and hadn’t joined the comfortable, warm tangle of relaxation on the couch. Adam could relate. He’d felt similarly awkward on the two occasions when Ava had joined them for a movie.

He stomped on that thought immediately and found somewhere to insert himself on the couch.

“So what is this movie about?” Ayma asked, perching herself delicately on the armchair, which was otherwise only ever used by Major Powell, on the rare occasion that he joined them.

Akiyama, as always, was the one who leaped to summarizing it. “Uh, okay, so this is the second movie in a series and… what happened was that some idiot invented a computer that took over the world and killed most everyone. This dude John Connor…”

Ayma listened, rapt, and occasionally asked questions about the time travel aspect of the story, and Adam grinned silently to Regaari when he climbed up onto the back of the couch and made himself comfortable.

“Everything okay with you two?” He whispered.

Regaari’s ears drooped very slightly. In order to avoid triggering the translator and having Ayma overhear, he had to reply in his faltering English. “She… only want be friend.”

“Ouch. Sorry, bro.”

Regaari made a complicated duck-wobbling motion with his head that probably served as a Gaoian shrug. “Is best, prob’ly. Make hard with other Gao. They not ready.”

He flashed a few teeth imitating a smile, and extended a bunched fist, which Adam happily met with his own, and they settled back to watch the movie.

Schwarzenegger was in the middle of spin-loading his shotgun when there was a knock on the door and Powell shoved his head round it. “Stay seated lads.” he ordered, even as the men on the couch were beginning the undignified scramble to get upright. “Sorry for interruptin’, but summat’s come up.”

Ayma stood up and gestured to his seat, a gesture he acknowledged with thanks as Titan paused the movie.

Powell perched on the edge of it. “General Tremblay just got back to me about our Gaoian friends visiting Earth.” he said. Adam shot a glance at Regaari, who nodded. “It’s all gone a bit political, he says, and he wants to know how soon we can make it happen wi’out compromising on safety.”

“Sir… so soon?” Rebar asked. The men disentangled themselves and settled into an alert posture, engaged with the conversation.

Powell admitted a small twitch of frustration, which coming from him was a sure sign of stress, along with his thickened accent. “Ambassador Hussein got involved. Dunno why, an’ I wasn’t told.”

Regaari growled. “Father Rafek.” he said, referring to the current Gaoian ambassador. “He’ll be keen to win points with Mother Yulna for his clan.”

“It will backfire for him if he presses too hard.” Ayma promised.

“Whatever the reason,” Powell said “I have my orders. Two Gaoian VIPs to visit Earth ASAP. Thoughts?”

“They’ll need the full-time attention of two Protectors, sir.” Base suggested, immediately. “We’re the only ones with the training in ET medicine for if they get infected or inhale an allergen or something.”

“And personal protection.” Adam agreed. “Lot of folks on Earth who might want to make some kind of a statement.”

“Statement?” Ayma asked, ears swivelling in mixed curiosity and alarm.

Regaari seemed similarly concerned. “You think assault is a possibility?”

Bombs are a possibility.” Blaczynski told them, a little too bluntly. He promptly received a light slap upside the head from Murray.

Ayma didn’t take it well. “Bombs?!” she squeaked. Her ears plastered themselves to her scalp and the fur along her spine bristled. Regaari shuffled closer to her and placed a comforting paw on her upper back.

“Worst-case scenario.” Powell told them, reassuringly. “And highly unlikely. Bomb plots take time to organise and if this goes quick and smooth, there won’t be that kind of time. Still, we have to consider all possibilities. So, it’s agreed; One protector per VIP. Aggressors? I’m thinkin’ not necessary.”

“Probably not.” Firth agreed. “Horse and Base have got Personal Protection down pat, we’d just get in the way.”

“Locals.” Murray prompted.

“Aye. good shout.” Powell agreed. “If we need a marksman on the roof or whatever, local operators or law enforcement would raise less comment. This is gonna be public either way, but I’d still rather keep us out the spotlight.”

“That just leaves us.” Rebar said, he looked to the Gaoians. “Don’t suppose you guys brought some kinda deathworld hazmat suits with you?”

“No.” Regaari admitted, plainly annoyed at himself. “We did not. We expected longer negotiations.”

“Can’t that nanofactory of yours make them?” Rebar asked.

“Too large.” Regaari explained. “The Springing Ember’s forge is for small tools and utensils, spare components and parts. Not for a whole excursion suit.”

“We could fly back to Gao and acquire some?” Ayma suggested.

“How long would that take?” Powell asked.

Regaari looked at the ceiling, suggesting mental calculation. “In human units… nine days each way.”

“Call that Plan B.” Titan suggested. “We can fix something up for you.”

“You’re sure, now?” Powell asked him. “Earth’s right up there at the top of the list for biohazards.”

“Sir, if we make this thing and I have even a moment of doubt, you’ll hear about it.”

“Make what exactly?” Powell probed.

“Portable biofilter forcefield and a small gravity generator sewn onto a modified MOLLE.” Titan replied. He glanced left and right to Rebar and Sikes who nodded along. “Not difficult, especially if that nanofactory can build some Gaoian-tech ones. Even better if we can send ‘em down to SCERF for Major Nadeau’s team to program and test. And we’ll need Horse’s skills as a seamstress to tailor the harness.”

The major nodded, satisfied. “Time frame on that?”

“Mmm… Two hours to put it together, a day to properly safety-test it.” Titan estimated.

Two days.” Rebar corrected him. “Once SCERF have delivered the parts, that is. And ideally, sir, I’d press for three.”

“I’ll pass that up the chain.” Powell sat back and rubbed his face. “So. Three to four days minimum, as many as… twenty or so if not.”

“We could… Uh, actually, never mind.” Blaczynski began.

“Problem?” Powell asked him.

“Nothing I can explain in present company, sir.”

Regaari’s head tilted in a way disarmingly similar to a concentrating dog’s. “If you had a suggestion for retrieving the suits from Gao faster than sending the Springing Ember,” he mused “But the suggestion involves sensitive information… Then that implies that your ships have an impressive sustained cruising speed. Faster than I had suspected.”

Adam had already long since noticed Major Powell’s clear tell - when something surprised him or got past his guard, his best neutral expression slammed down, which it now did. Scott Blaczynski, however, was not so accomplished a poker player, and he had to fight to conceal a scowl. Either way, neither man could have broadcast a clearer confirmation of Regaari’s stunning leap of insight.

“I doubt they’re going to comment.” Ayma told him, answering on the humans’ behalf. “Please don’t antagonize our friends, Snowtop.”

“Snowtop?” Adam asked her. Regaari had a faintly put-out set to his stance that suggested a touch of light-hearted teasing.

“Come on, that wicked white mohawk of his? Snowtop’s a good’n.” Sikes grinned. A chuckle swept around the room, and Ayma looked quite pleased with herself.

“I do not have a ‘mohawk’ I have a white crest.” Regaari grumbled. “Or did you think my clan’s name was an accident?”

“Right. Okay. So that’s the Defenders sorted.” Powell grunted, immediately regaining everybody’s attention. “Burgess, Arés? Thoughts on their suggestion?”

“Can’t be too careful.” Base mused. “Fields are great, but any car they ride in’s gonna want to be steam-cleaned and hypoallergenic before they get in it. Same goes for hotel rooms, too.”

“Shampoo, too.” Adam offered. “We don’t want stuff accumulating in that fur.”

“And anybody who shakes hands needs to sanitize first. Even better, they need a Frontline shot.” Base continued.

“Hm. We should have a couple stasis containers on standby too, so if it all goes FUBAR we can extract them to an ET hospital. One of those class ten ones.” Adam concluded.

“This conversation isn’t filling me with confidence.” Ayma confessed.

“That’s because, to be straight with you? This trip is a bad idea.” Baseball told her. Everyone in the room immediately gave him their undivided attention. “You’re only safe in this room talkin’ with us because we’ve all got Frontline implants, and so does everybody else on Cimbrean. So does Zoo Chang, which is why things didn’t go real wrong for your homeworld the second you took her there.”

“Earth,” he added “Is a whole different can of trouble. There’s microbes everywhere. In the air, in the rain, in the soil, on the ground and the walls, on every surface you touch and on everybody’s hands. There’s gonna be viruses, dust particles, pollen grains and airborne compounds comin’ at ya with every breath, and that’s just the stuff that Titan’s harness can deal with. What happens if a wasp decides to ruin your day? What if you scratch yourself on a rusty nail? I don’t even wanna think about what Tetanus would do to a Gaoian!”

He sat forward to lend some extra solemnity to his words. “Throw in the gravity, the weather, the poisonous plants and the fact that some crazy SOB might just decide to take a shot at you for reasons that only make sense to his buggy ass and no-one else’s? And that’s all the stuff we probably know how you’ll react to. How about, uh, atmospheric pollution and heavy metal contaminants?”

He tailed off and looked around. Very, very gently, Powell gave him the nod to continue. “…Look, me and Horse, we’ve got your back. We’ll be there and if we don’t keep you alive, ain’t nobody was ever gonna.” he said. “But this is a real bad idea, mother Ayma. A real bad one. As your Protector, charged with your safety I gotta tell you: the safest thing you could do is not go.”

“…Fuckin’ A.” Adam grunted.

Ayma exhaled at length, looked down, and then back up and met John’s gaze levelly. Her ears were up and forward, and there was a determined set to her stance and the way her claws were slightly out that said everything before she even spoke a word.

“Thank you for your kind warning and counsel.” she said at last, and Adam suspected she was speaking very formally and diplomatically. Regaari had taught him that much about the Gaori language. “But I have a Sister on that planet, and I will speak to her at the very least. We are going.”

Together, Adam and John glanced at Regaari, who was still standing behind her, where she couldn’t see. Slowly, and a touch awkwardly given the different structure of his shoulders, he shrugged.

Adam knew that shrug. It was one he’d deployed himself on more than one occasion when the women in his life were busy making it difficult.

“I think we’ve had our marching orders, major.” he said.

Powell made a deep noise in the back of his throat. “That we have, staff sergeant.” he agreed. “Right. I’ll pass everything you just said along to General Tremblay. Go ahead and finish your movie night, lads, and get a good night sleep in. I expect you’ll be busy tomorrow.”

A “yes sir” rippled through the humans, and Powell stood up. “‘Night lads.”

“‘Night, sir.”

Ayma settled into his abandoned chair as Powell left.

“Where were we?” she asked.

The men exchanged glances, then with a shrug Akiyama hit the remote again and the burning wheel that had been frozen in place on screen for the last few minutes resumed its bouncing journey.

Adam sat back and spent the rest of the movie in thought, pondering the task to come.

Something told him that his coming night’s sleep was about to be the best one he’d get for a couple of weeks.


Date Point 10y4m1d AV

Seawall, Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.

Xiù Chang

Just running was a relief. Moving was a relief, not being surrounded by people asking questions, so many questions… getting away from her fussing mother, from a father who was constantly melancholy when he should have been delighted, from a big little brother she didn’t know how to talk with…

Just the freedom to run, under open sky in correct gravity rather than on a treadmill, when every breath that rushed into and through and out of her was dense and rich and right, almost intoxicating.

For the first time since arriving on Earth, Xiù was home. Apparently home was sweatpants, a cerulean running top, running shoes, asphalt pounding away under her, and chilly sea air smelling of salt water and distant fish. Too early in the morning for there to be anything but trees and benches to her left, and water and mountains to her right, and only the occasional hardcore jogger like herself to break the tranquility.

Earth itself was welcoming her home just fine. Trees and mountains and the smell of the sea hadn’t changed a bit.

It was people who were giving her difficulty. Old school friends who’d visit just long enough for an awkward hug and a gift before vanishing. The reporters poised around her parents’ house had only finally been persuaded to leave by the realisation that Xiù was determined not to make herself pretty for the camera, and was more interested in getting the hell away from them. Employers wanted experience and marketable skills, for which purposes Gung Fu, fluency in an alien language and three years of living as a vagrant in disguise apparently didn’t count.

It was all so complicated. And worse, everyone seemed to be disappointed and upset when she didn’t fit seamlessly back into their lives as if nothing had happened. As if she hadn’t been homeless and alone and had to fight monsters and nearly been killed, and…

As if what happened to her was her fault and she should just deal with it.

The city itself didn’t give a fuck, thankfully. It was comforting to run past the same old landmarks, be just another face on the street. An asian girl on her morning fitness routine, anonymous and glad of it.

She was breathing hard by the time she passed under Lions Gate bridge. Too many years of alien gravity, three weeks of hospital, binging on her mother’s home cooking and the last lingering effects of being spaced had all conspired to badly hurt her fitness compared to the last time she had run this route.

She paused at the Prospect Point lighthouse, mentally calculating how far it was to Siwash Rock which had been her objective for today.

Too far. Much too far, if she was being sensible. She’d be a wreck by the time she reached it, and she’d still have to get back.

“To hell with sensible. she muttered, not noticing that she’d said it in Gaori, and kept going. She wanted to be thoroughly exhausted, today, having had the bad news that morning that one of the girls in her ballet class had died less than four months after she, Xiù, had been abducted. A bad cold had turned into chest infection, had become a pneumonia without anybody realising. She’d gone to bed early to try and sleep it off, never to wake. She’d been nineteen.

Missing a couple of weddings and the birth of a little girl named after her had all been body-blows, too. Running and recovering her fitness was keeping her mind off how much she’d missed, at least. It was helping her cope.

There was a spot about two hundred meters further on where the seawall path kinked inwards to hug the bottom of the cliff, and when it did she almost tripped and fell over, because she’d just run into a dream.

Somebody had placed a sculpture out in the water. It hadn’t been there ten years ago - in fact, being burnished steel on a post in salt water, it probably hadn’t been out there for very long at all - but it was right out of the vivid dreams she’d had aboard Sanctuary: a faceless steel man, sitting cross-legged and pondering a globe held delicately in his left hand.

She gaped at it, immobilized by deja vu, and then decided that maybe sensible had its merits. She glanced back at it, half expecting it to suddenly stand and throw the ball to her, and then retraced her steps.

She was still in a badly shaken mood by the time the taxi she had called returned her to her parents’ house in Strathcona. Slightly more shaking still was the man sitting in their front room making polite small-talk over tea with her family.

Xiù would be the first to admit to a nigh-total lack of experience with men. She’d been kept away from them before her abduction, and then during the years of her absence, the male she’d spent the most time with had been Regaari, who probably didn’t count given that he wasn’t even human. Sure, toward the end there had been Julian, Lewis, Amir and… and Zane… but by and large, men were an alien species to her.

But, she’d spent years living among alien species and learning how to read them, and this one, when he looked at her, did something that the Corti normally did - he looked a little too long, he evaluated, he analyzed. She immediately took a disliking to him.

He was kind of easy on the eyes though. Tall, all the best features of both white and african heritage, and either his suit was tailored or he’d got unbelievably lucky at the store, and it didn’t look cheap enough to be store-bought.

Xiù was nearly as out of touch with fashion as she was with men, given that the inspirations for the styles that had inspired the inspirations for the previous generation’s inspirations hadn’t even been three seasons away when she left, but there was something almost… Qinis about the cut of it. She’d seen a gaggle of three of them once, parading down a station concourse, as tall and flimsy and decorative as orchids, and the ornate fascinators they’d been wearing seemed to have inspired elements of the man’s lapels and the subtle patterning around the hem of his jacket.

As slick and expensive as the suit was, the man wearing it had a kind of rough-and-ready, stubbled look, including a peculiar scar - a lattice of slim white lines slightly forward of his left temple.

She addressed her mother in Mandarin. “Who’s this?” she asked. “Another reporter? Please, mom, I don’t want to talk to him.”

Amazingly, he replied perfectly in the same language. “I’m not a reporter, Miss Chang. Nothing to worry about there.”

It took her a second to realise that he’d lacked any kind of an accent at all, which was a trait characteristic of translator devices, and sure enough when she glanced at the table there was a small silver cube there which was almost certainly exactly that.

She spared herself an irritated blush by muttering something about needing a shower, and vanished upstairs.

Once clean, she changed into her loose grey sweatpants and a white ribbed vest top, then lurked in her spartan bedroom in the hope that he’d go away. No such luck - eventually, there was a knock on the door.

Li Chang stuck his head around his daughter’s door. “You may want to talk to this one.” he told her, gently. Xiù sighed.

“Do I have to?” she asked. “I’ve spoken to the intelligence people, the doctors, the news…”

“I don’t think he’s going to be asking the same questions.” her father said. “I say give him a chance.”

She scooted up the bed and sat against the wall, acutely aware that she was behaving like a girl half her age. “Fine, okay…”

A minute or so later, the stranger knocked on the door and entered on her reluctant welcome. He’d taken the jacket off at some point, and Xiù had to admit, she hadn’t anticipated the large tattoo that seemed to completely cover his right arm. To her irritation, he took one look at the bare walls and floor and chuckled.

“Something funny?” she asked him.

“Hey, we seem to have got off on the wrong foot there. I’m sorry about that.” the man said. It had been years since she’d last heard a Texan accent. He cast about for something to sit down on, then gave up and offered her a hand to shake. “Kevin.”

She shook it, deciding that she could be polite at least. “Xiù.”

“Yeah, sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did the exact same thing when I got back too.”

When Xiù just frowned at him, he waved a hand at the pronounced lack of items that her cleanup had left behind. “This. You spend a few years living out among the stars surrounded by all those critters with nothing but what you’re carrying… Get home, kinda feels like all that stuff ain’t yours no more, doesn’t it?”

“So you’re Kevin Jenkins.” She guessed, finally recognising him and irritated at the too-smooth attempt to identify with her. “I thought I recognised you from somewhere. The Gaoians showed me that news report you were in: You’re the reason it took me this long to get back. You’re the reason I had to spend all that time in disguise, and running.”

“Aww come on, be fair.” he complained. “It’s not like I ordered the Guvnurag to put that forcefield up there! And I sure as hell didn’t order the Dominion to start throwing folks to the wolves.”

“You ran your mouth off.”

He exhaled, and lowered himself onto the floor. “Maybe I did.” he agreed. “I never thought it’d… Didn’t you ever say something out there that maybe scared somebody, or they took it the wrong way?”

Xiù didn’t answer. “What do you want?” she asked instead.

“Jeez, lady, why the third degree?”

“Really? You can’t see how it’s maybe a bit frustrating how people in suits keep showing up who want to talk to me and ask me questions? And the question is never ‘what can I do for you, Miss Chang?’ or ‘Yes, about your resume, we have need of a Gaoian language expert for this movie we’re making, are you interested in auditioning?’ No. Every time, every time, it’s something people want me to do for them!”

Jenkins just watched her, warily. He was doing that Corti analysis thing again, so Xiù scooted forward on the bed, planted her feet on the floor and gave him her best glare. “So go on then. What. Do. You. Want?”

He considered his answer carefully, licking his teeth as he looked around the room.

“Full disclosure.” he said, at last. “First of all, you’ve gotta know from the news thingy that I’m an old friend of Kirk’s and… yeah, I guess I’d sure like to hear news about him. That’s my personal reason for coming here. Professionally…”

“I knew it.”

Professionally,” Jenkins forged ahead. “We have need, yes, of a Gaoian language expert. And an extraterrestrial survival expert, somebody who can live on a ship without much in the way of possessions-” he swept a hand demonstratively around the room “-basically, somebody with your skill set.”

Xiù glowered at him. “A spaceship?” she asked. “You’re offering me a job on a spaceship?”

“Yeah.”

“Why would I want to leave?” She asked. “I only just got back!”

Jenkins gave her another calculating stare, then stood up.

“…I know those scars on your arm.” he said, causing her to glance unconsciously at them. “A Hunter gave you those, I’ve seen their teeth right up close and personal. And that on your neck is where some fella had a knife to your throat. Up against a wall, if I’m any judge. Seen that plenty of times too. Scary place, this galaxy of ours. Ain’t it?”

“Get out.”

“You look at people like the Corti do too, you know.”

A sick, cold ball of anger dropped right into Xiù’s stomach. “…What?”

“When you walked in, first thing you did was… evaluate me. Calculate. And I saw you see me do the same to you, and I saw you didn’t like it. And I get why. Don’t much care for those little gray assholes myself, not after they bolted a prototype implant to my head like something out of the Terminator. I’m sorry, it’s nothing personal. Just a survival habit both you and me picked up out there.”

When Xiù didn’t say anything, he apparently took it for permission to keep talking. “And then you come back here and it’s not like you imagined, is it?” he asked, rhetorically. “You imagined it’d all be your old bed and your ma’s cooking and then it turns out: things have moved on. The world’s changed. And home turns out to be a place in your head, that you can’t ever go back to, because those gray motherfuckers took it from you and you won’t ever get it back. Believe me, I tried.”

Oblivious or uncaring of her mounting rage, he pressed the point. “I thought Earth was home too. but you and me? We were out there too long and it changed us. And guess what?! You weren’t here for their lives either! My daughter grew up, and so did your little brother. We both missed weddings, one of your friends died while you were gone…”

Xiù erupted to her feet and punched him full in the nose, breaking it. He staggered against the wall and clamped a hand over the sudden blood flow. He was too preoccupied with pain and surprise to say anything but he still managed to stare a wide-eyed question at her.

“I don’t know who you think you are, and I don’t care.” she snarled at him. “You don’t know me, you don’t know what I went through, don’t try to… to project your baggage onto me and don’t you dare, don’t you DARE try to use me like that, you… you creep!”

He shouldered himself off the wall. “Y’don’t think mebbe that was a bit of an overreaction?” he mumbled through his hand, feigning bravado.

“Who told you you could come into my house and treat me like a prize?!” Xiù prodded his chest. ”Nobody gets to do that! Not you, not anybody.”

“An’ here I was thinkin’ we were makin’ a connection.” Jenkins muttered as he adjusted his grip, wincing as he pinched his nostrils shut.

“You came to my house.” Xiù repeated. “You tricked my parents. You tried to manipulate me, you tried to get inside my head. You tried to use these-” she gestured at the ragged scar lines on her arm, and to the tiny cut on her throat “-to make me do what you want? My answer is NO. You go away right now!”

Jenkins nodded and opened the door. “Offer of a job still stands.” he croaked.

“Then get somebody who can treat me like a human being rather than an objective to put it in writing!” Xiù snapped. “Get. Out.”

She slammed the door behind him, catching him in the backside and congratulating herself as she heard him barely avoid falling down the stairs.

Then she sank onto the bed. She was shaking and crying when her parents rushed in seconds later.


Kevin Jenkins

Staggering across the road while holding his nose together nearly earned Kevin a car to the knee. He raised an apologetic hand to the driver - the other one being clamped around his bleeding nose adequately made the case that he was slightly preoccupied right now - and made it to his own car, fumbled with the door sensor and thumped down onto the driver seat.

He sat there pinching his nostrils and swearing for a good ten minutes before he was finally satisfied that the bleeding had ceased.

He pulled down the sun visor and peered into its makeup mirror. The nose wasn’t crooked at least, but it was bruised, there were dark splotches under his eyes for good measure, and his shirt was in dire need of a dry-cleaner’s attention. He touched the nose experimentally, and flinched.

“Way to go, dumbass.” he congratulated himself. “Fuckin’ perfect.”


Date Point 10y4m1d AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space

Kirk

Kirk had once seen a human documentary in which a team of fishermen had sat and patiently repaired their nets after a successful trawl. At the time, he hadn’t fully appreciated that, while repairing the net was still massively less of a task than weaving a new one, it must still be tedious and time-consuming. After all, only deathworlders would consider it normal for an animal to damage a net of woven plastic fibers. Doubly so when the animal in question did so without claws, teeth or a knife, but simply with its own mass and strength.

To the fisherman, a routine part of the day. To Kirk… more than that.

Mending his own net - the galactic web of contacts, favours called in, bribes issued and reputations blackmailed that had kept him fed with information from across Dominion space was… tedious, yes. time-consuming, yes. Fiddly, delicate and at times frustrating yes. And it was hampered all the more that he had to do it now at arms’ lengths, and through proxies and agents, none of whom could be allowed to know who he was. The galaxy had not heard from Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk in a long time, and his sudden reappearance could not possibly pass without comment. The more he achieved before those comments began, the better.

His time away had changed some of the players, too. Politicians had retired, criminal figures had been arrested, killed or had wisely resigned into obscurity before either of those fates caught them. The only solution was to rebuild, slowly. And while that was a task that by and large was proceeding at a satisfactory pace, it did often leave him seated by his desk, trying to be entertained while waiting for a message to arrive.

Right now, he was listening to an audiobook.

“…unintended effects are always possible. For instance, the most dangerous road on Earth now appears to be a two-lane highway between Kabul and Jalalabad. When it was unpaved, cratered, and strewn with boulders it was comparatively safe. But once some helpful Western contractors improved it, the driving skills of the local Afghans were finally liberated from the laws of physics. Many now have a habit of passing slow-moving trucks on blind curves, only to find themselves suddenly granted a lethally unimpeded view of a thousand-foot gorge. Are there lessons to be learned from such missteps in the name of progress? Of course. But they do not negate the reality of progress.”

He paused the book and mulled that thought over, only to be interrupted by Vedreg.

If Lewis was a study in how humans could absorb massive volumes of information and correlate them in breathtaking ways, and if Kirk was a living justification for his species’ reputation for shrewdness and politics, Vedreg was…

Well, he had become very interested in baking.

At first Kirk had been uncharitably scornful of this, but Vedreg had proven once again that he wasn’t actually stupid, just… slow.

In English, Kirk knew, the two terms were used more or less as synonyms, but in the case of Guvnurag, the difference became apparent. Both in matters of the body and matters of the mind, nobody, not even the most inventively charitable liar, could have realistically described Guvnurag as “fast”… but they did have inertia, which could be the next best thing. It had certainly allowed them to outperform the Corti when it came to large forcefield technology and a few associated technological fields.

The Corti preferred for their research to yield dazzling new inspirations that could make the researcher’s reputation and earn them a promotion. Hard graft wasn’t their style at all, and so in areas where the patient ability to keep chewing away at the details yielded incremental, cumulative improvements, they were surprisingly lacking. Guvnurag were all about hard graft. They didn’t have much of an alternative.

And so, while Lewis and Kirk had been blitzing around the station familiarizing themselves with its layout, its capabilities and its systems, reinforcing some repairs and, in Lewis’ case, a thorough search for terrifying killing machines… Vedreg had parked himself in an unobtrusive spot and had thought.

He had then, after some trial and error, some research, the assembly of a few appropriate tools, and raiding the station’s food storage stasis lockers, baked an apple pie.

It wasn’t actually an apple pie of course. The nearest apple was tens of thousands of lightyears away, as was the nearest flour, not to mention the butter and eggs which neither Kirk nor Vedreg could have eaten anyway. And the less said about cinnamon, the better.

But, desiccating and then milling down some universal ration spheres had produced a dry edible powder, and fructose was fructose all over the galaxy, present in the cuisine of every species (though not, it had to be said, in the quantities called for by most human recipes: Earth’s deathworld conditions had caused plants to evolve that could generate sugar in terrifying quantities that had never been available to nonhuman chefs)

The real key to the dish, however, was a type of fruit called a “Rhwk”, the flesh of which was tart, sweet and not dissimilar to an apple in texture and culinary properties. Rhwk had long been a firm favourite of Kwmbwrw gastronomes, but Vedreg’s genius had been to recognise that the slimy fluid core of the fruit and the oily substance that protected its seed were acceptable matches for egg and butter respectively.

The result was… a failure. An abject one. What the oven eventually belched out had turned out to be a monstrosity of black caramelized fruit sugars and a “pastry” substitute that fell apart at a suspicious glance.

The second attempt had been marginally more successful. The third, practically intact.

The fourth had been a pie. Not, according to Lewis, an apple pie - the taste apparently had more in common with something called “grapefruit” - but still very pleasing to the palate.

Once the basic principle of the pastry was down, Vedreg had thrown himself into his baking with gusto. Lewis had complained about the enforced vegan diet at one point, but the nauseated signals he’d received from both of the obligate herbivores on the crew had induced him to drop the subject.

In any case, Vedreg’s offerings had grown commendably in complexity and skill, and he made BIG portions, the smallest of which wound up on Kirk’s plate. It was slightly disconcerting to see that Lewis ate slightly more than Vedreg, despite being roughly a tenth of Vedreg’s mass.

He also tended to the running of the place. Thanks to Vedreg, the station was clean, the lighting was powered, mealtimes were scheduled. By taking over in keeping Lewis fit and healthy, he had created time for Kirk to complete his objectives, and during the two days every week that Vedreg spent hibernating, the place noticeably went downhill. Despite all that, it hadn’t clicked for Kirk what it was that his friend was doing until the day Lewis had referred to him affectionately as “Jeeves”.

Vedreg, of course, had needed the reference explained. Hence why he was now pulsing purple-blue in amused confusion while watching “A Bit of Fry and Laurie.”

Lewis meanwhile was enjoying his weekly break from study to watch it alongside him. He had climbed - carefully - onto Vedreg’s wide back and was grinning at the comedy.

“I do not understand” Vedreg said. “His name is to drop a small object? It is… absurd.”

“That’s the point, dude, yeah. It’s surreal.”

“This word ’sur-u-ree-lu’ does not translate.”

“Aww, man, we’re getting pretty abstract here. Surreal is like… when things are like, reality but wrong in some way. Bizarre.”

“I do not understand.” Vedreg repeated.

“Humor never translates.” Kirk told them both. “Ever.”

“Oh please, that’s bullshit. We’re all sapient, we’re all similar.”

“Our friend Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk is correct, Lewis.” Vedreg rumbled. “I do not understand human humor, and you will not understand the humor of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun.”

“Alright, bring it. Hit me with your best joke, Jeeves.” Lewis challenged him. He sat up and - carefully, so as not to injure - slid down off Vedreg’s back.

“Very well… hmm… “ Vedreg rumbled a Guvnurag throat-clear. “Tiny Geverednig goes to her herd-father and declares: ’largest one! I am thirsty!’ - The herd-father points to the mountain.”

Kirk and Lewis exchanged mutual bewildered expressions as Vedreg glowed royal purple and produced a wheezing sound deep in his chest - his species’ version of uproarious laughter.

Slowly, he faded. “Do… do you not see? Largest one? The mountain?”

“…My turn.” Lewis said. “Uh… Three men walk into a bar. You’d think one of them would have seen it!”

He smiled hopefully as it was Vedreg and Kirk’s turn to express confusion. “I guess… puns probably don’t work so well. Okay how about an anti-joke?”

“Anti-joke?” Vedreg asked.

“Okay, so… ’What’s so funny about a shuttle full of Corti exploding?’

Vedreg flashed alarmed white. “…I can see nothing amusing in that scenario! It would be a tragic loss of sapient life.”

Lewis sagged. “Uh… yes. Exactly. That’s the punchline.”

“I am confused.” Vedreg told him.

“Okay, okay, I know. How about-?”

“My turn.” Kirk interrupted. “And this should prove my point.”

Lewis sighed. “Fiiiine.”

Kirk nodded at length. “Somewhere deep in space, a freighter picks up a distress beacon.” he began. “They rescue the escape pod and are pleased to find that the occupant is a fellow Rrrrtktktkp’ch. They explain that, sadly, their freighter is a slow one and that it will be many rikat before they next arrive at port, but the castaway is simply grateful for the rescue.”

“At mealtime, the four of them sit down to enjoy Cqcq and Zrrk, in welcome to their new guest. Just as they have begun to eat, the captain says: ‘Twelve.’ his two crewmates laugh, and one replies ‘Eight.’ to further merriment. Naturally, this confuses the newcomer, who requests an explanation.”

‘We have worked together for hundreds of rik’, the captain explains. ’We all know each others’ jokes by now, and so it is more efficient to refer to them by number.’ The newcomer nods his understanding and falls silent.”

“Shortly thereafter, he looks around and ventures: ‘Fifteen?’. There is no response. ‘Nine?’ - Still nothing. Exasperated, he asks what he is doing wrong.”

“The junior deckhand shakes his mane sadly and informs him: ‘Your delivery is terrible.’

Vedreg promptly signalled blue confusion, but Lewis’ lips drew back into an imposing Deathworlder smile and he made a kind of wheezing noise that it took Kirk seconds to identify as a laugh. “Oh man… Oh… yeah. Yeah okay. That’s a good’n.”

“It seems I was wrong.” Kirk observed, deeply surprised. “You understood?”

“Heh, yeah. Your own delivery was pretty good.”

“What does delivery have to do with-?” Vedreg began, then sagged when Lewis and Kirk both turned to look at him. “…The herd is following a truly ancient father when four Mumruvnede fly overhead. The oldest child cries: ‘Face the wind!’?” He ventured, hopefully.

“…Was that a fart joke?” Lewis asked. “That was a fart joke!”

“…as a matter of fact it was.” Vedreg agreed, turning a slightly embarrassed shade of magenta.

“See! there IS universal humour!” Lewis turned and grinned triumphantly.

Kirk held up all four hands in defeat, and then handed him a tablet. “And while we were joking around…” he said “…contact has been made with Earth.”

Lewis grabbed it. “Yeah? What’d they say?”

“Nothing yet. This is all information on how to establish a secure line of communication. I imagine that we will hear more in due course but for now… it’s a start.”

Lewis sighed. “Frustrating.” he declared.

“But vital.”

“I know, I know…” Lewis stood up. “Arright, in that case I’ma call it a night. See you tomorrow.”

They bade him goodnight, and Vedreg pulsed through a thoughtful rainbow of blues and oranges. “Did he seem… upset by that, to you?” He asked.

“He is lonely.” Kirk replied. “Humans are intensely social creatures, old friend.”

“I feel the call of my home planet also.” Vedreg replied. “It is… stressful to be so far from my herd.”

“The difference, old friend, is that herd species feel comforted by each others’ presence, but do not care for one another in quite the same way that humans do.” Kirk replied. “He is suffering… it makes me feel guilty.”

“You have confined us all.” Vedreg agreed. “Even if for good reasons.”

Kirk shook his coat out a little. “I have total confidence in Lewis.” he said. “He will find a solution, and we will be able to send him home.”

“An alternative approach suggests itself, Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk.”

“And that is?”

Vedreg shone a brilliant cyan, as if the answer was obvious. “Bring more humans here.”


Date Point 10y4m1d AV

North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Julian Etsicitty

“So what’s the place look like?”

Allison was on a train in the UK - Julian could see green fields and more black-and-white cows than a sane nation should allow rushing past the back of her head, interrupted by occasional white cottages, trees and brick railside buildings.

Julian shrugged and aimed his own phone around the room. It was essentially unchanged from the last time he’d stood in it, except… colder, and lifeless. Without the gentle sounds of a house being lived in, rather than being comfortably cluttered, it felt more like a museum locked up at night.

“It held up okay considering it’s gone without maintenance for a couple years…” He conceded. “But it’s not the same without Grampa.”

“He had a lot of stuff!” Allison commented, bringing her phone closer to her face.

This was an understatement for the ages. Grampa E had been Navajo, Julian’s grandma had been equal parts Ojibwe and French, both of them had identified as American first and foremost, and neither of them had been afraid to collect keepsakes throughout their long and fascinating lives.

The result was that the rich green walls were almost totally obscured by photos, artwork and decorations, no two items of which matched. Three huge glass-fronted cabinets were stuffed full of whatever ornaments couldn’t hang on the walls, and that was without accounting for the iron pans hung on the walls by the fridge, the herb-drying rack above the kitchen island, the commemorative plates above the door, the cookie jar, three recliners, a futon, a coffee table with a humidor full of premium cigars tucked under it, and a TV as big as a ping-pong table. To this last was attached a venerable Sega Genesis - Julian’s favourite childhood plaything and already quite obsolete by the time he’d first picked up its controllers.

And that was just the big front room. The two bedrooms were equally cluttered, even the bathroom hadn’t escaped becoming a repository for decorative knick-knacks, and the utility room leading out to the back door was home to a drift of koozies, a stack of tackle boxes, and a gun locker layered in stickers and whatever magnets hadn’t been able to find a home either on the fridge in the kitchen or the freezers in the garage.

The less said about the unlimited salvage opportunities presented by the recesses of said garage, the better.

“Yup.” Julian agreed.

“What are you gonna do with it?”

“Shit, Al. Don’t ask me right now, I’m still… I still expect the old man to come shuffling out of the garage, you know?”

She moved the phone away from her face. “…I’m sorry, baby. He meant a lot to you, huh?”

“He raised me.” Julian shrugged. “I don’t even know. I love this place but it’s kind of the ass-end of nowhere. The land’s not worth much, and if we do go back out into space again then I’m not going to be here enough to look after it properly. There’s a pickup out there that I can probably resurrect, and two more that I probably can’t…”

“You’ve gotta start somewhere, though?” She asked.

“I already did. Cleared out all the spoiled food from the freezers, lit some scented candles… place doesn’t stink of three-year-old fish any more at least.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s next?”

“Got a message this morning that my dead letter’s waiting for me.” Julian said. “Figured I’d go pick that up, grab some essentials from the store, maybe have a campfire and s’mores.”

“Aww man, s’mores? You’re having s’mores without me?” Allison pouted, then giggled. She glanced behind her and realised that the pastoral landscape outside was now unambiguously urban. “Aaand I think this is Birmingham. I’d better get ready.”

“Good luck, Al. I miss you.”

“Miss you too, Etsicitty.” she wrinkled her nose at him affectionately. “You behave yourself ‘til I get back, hear?”

“Yes ma’am.”

SO hot.” She blew a kiss and ended the call.

There was nothing quite like having a gorgeous woman describe him as “hot” to boost Julian’s ego. Grinning, he grabbed his jacket and keys and headed out to where his rented truck was parked outside. That was one thing to say for the old place - you could have parked a couple of eighteen-wheelers outside with room left over to land a helicopter. An SUV, three pickups and a by-now thoroughly immobile ancient tractor weren’t taking up even half the available parking space.

He entertained himself for about half the long drive to town by perusing the local radio offerings before deciding that, time zones or not, Vancouver was probably fully awake right now.

He called Xiù.

There was a smile in her voice when she answered. “Hey!”

“Hey you.” he smiled too. “Just checking in. You okay?”

“Eh… my day started off pretty crappy.” she conceded. “But… yes, I’m okay now. You?”

“Pretty good. Place is in better shape than I thought. I just need to pack it up and sort a few things out then… well, I’ll have plenty of time to decide what I’m doing with it. What was crappy?”

“Nothing I want to talk about, just…” she sighed “…people.”

Julian chuckled. “I hear ya.” he agreed. “When’re you going to come down and look at this place?”

“The ARP haven’t come through yet, so I don’t exactly have a lot of money…” she demurred. “Please tell me you’re planning to come back up here though…”

He couldn’t contain a quiet, affectionate half-laugh. “Yes, Xiù, we’re coming back up there.” he reassured, teasing her with a patient tone. He heard a slight laugh from her end of the phone. “Like I said, once I’m done packing the place up we’ll have plenty of time to think.”

“Good. I-I, um…”

“What?”

“…I think I really need you. Both of you, Allison and you.”

Julian ran a tongue across his lips, trying to think of what to say. “That bad?” he asked.

“I’m… yeah.”

“Okay… look, it’s going to be a little while yet. There’s a lot to do. So I tell you what, if you need to? You just come down here. You know where I live - I’ll pay for it.”

Xiù paused long enough for Julian to come to a halt at a stop sign, where he exchanged slight nods of mutual recognition with a lurking state trooper before turning right and heading for Clearbrook.

“Julian… are you sure?” she asked at last.

“Hey.” he told her, warmly, deciding not to mention that his and Allison’s hazard pay plus their accumulated salary from serving on Sanctuary meant that Xiù’s travel expenses wouldn’t even noticeably dent his savings. “Don’t worry about it. If you need to come down here, you do it. Okay? I’ll take care of you. Of it.”

There was no reply.

“…Xiù?”

“Mi, yi sher-yan ina mo.”

Julian frowned. “Was that Gaoian?”

“Uh… yeah. Sorry. Th-thank you, Julian.”

“For you, anything.” he promised.

She made some kind of a noise, one he couldn’t quite discern the meaning of. It might have been a sigh, might have been a laugh, might have been the disintegrating beginning of a weak “um…”: it wasn’t at all clear.

“I’d… better help my mom cook.” she declared. “It’s good to, uh, to spend time with her.”

“Sure. Have fun, you.”

“And you…”

She was silent for a long few seconds before she finally hung up.

Aside from drumming his fingers thoughtfully on the wheel, Julian drove the rest of the way into town cloaked in contemplative silence and no small amount of guilt. Two things were becoming increasingly apparent: that Xiù was harbouring a large and growing crush on him… and that the feeling was mutual.

Considering his committed relationship with Allison, that part was hard to feel good about, and he’d have much preferred to raise it with Allison before now, if only there had been an opportunity. but in the hospital hadn’t seemed right, and over the phone while she was abroad? Even worse.

He checked the dashboard clock and performed a few mental calculations. He had about four days to go before Allison got back from the UK. He made his plan: After she got back from England, they’d go back to Grampa E’s place, he’d make her s’mores, they’d cuddle by the fire… and he’d confess. See how it went.

It sounded so simple, put that way. Like there was no big deal involved.

“Sure, Etsicitty.” he muttered. “No big deal at all.”

Clearbrook post office was pretty much unchanged from the last time he’d seen it. Same red brick construction, same flat roof, same flagpole and the words “United States Post Office” in steel letters on the corner of the building. The road had been resurfaced and given a fresh set of bright yellow lines and the trees were all a bit taller, but otherwise…

He parked up, headed indoors, and found it thankfully empty. The postal worker was a rotund middle-aged woman with candy-red dyed hair in a tight ponytail and enormous spectacles, who gave him a welcoming smile. Her name tag identified her as ‘Caroline’

“Hi! What can I do for you?” she asked.

“Hi, uh… Julian Etsicitty, I’m here for my dead letter?”

She froze. “Oh… Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

“Why, what happened?”

“Well nothing happened, I mean, it’s all here… all of it…” She recovered herself and produced a form for him to sign - ten years and change into the extraterrestrial contact age and the United States Postal Service still hadn’t weaned itself off hardcopy paperwork - checked his ID then vanished to stamp and file the form. “Head on out front, I’ll bring it round.”

“You’ll bring it rou-?” Julian frowned at her as she vanished through a door, then did as she said, heading back out into the parking lot.

After a minute of confused waiting, he became aware of a sort of… rumbling sound.

This turned out to be Caroline, dragging behind her a pallet jack, onto which was loaded a crate full of more USPS totes than Julian would have considered plausible.

“That’s… that’s my mail?” he asked, flatly.

“This is your mail.” Caroline agreed.

“All of that?”

“All of it. Yyyup.”

Sarcasm, or some kind of witty remark, was the order of the day. This whole situation was crying out for Julian to keep a cool head and deliver some kind of suave joke. He ran a hand through his hair and tried his best to compose one.

“Uh… Wow.”


Date Point 10y4m6d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ayma

The human male that Regaari kept calling “Warhorse” was fretting like a particularly neurotic Mother. This was, apparently, his job and Regaari had assured Ayma that he was extremely good at it.

Still. On some level, seeing this much attentive concern from a creature who was strong enough to accidentally dismember her was doing little to fill Ayma with confidence. All devotion to Clan aside, now that the moment had come to actually go to Earth…

It was after all now well established that Earth wasn’t merely a Class Twelve, a full two points of habitability rating worse than the minimum threshold for deathworld status, but it was a high end Class Twelve, spared only from Class Thirteen status by a quirk of Corti bias more than anything else. Earth was, in fact, possibly the most relentlessly and reliably lethal planet in the galaxy.

When faced with stepping onto a world with that kind of reputation, the fact that she was trusting her life and health to a harness of forcefields and localized gravity manipulation fields was… Well, it made human paranoia suddenly seem rather less unreasonable.

Regaari, as ever, was the picture of composure and calm, but she knew him well enough to detect a slight… fidgety edge. Whatever had happened to him on Garden had clearly solidified in him an absolute trust in these “Spaceborne Operators”, but even that wasn’t quite enough to completely quiet pre-deathworld jitters.

Warhorse himself was an incredible specimen. He was actually slightly shorter than Ayma, but there couldn’t be a millisecond of doubt as to which of them was stronger, heavier and more durable. Ayma had seen flimsier walls, and he was casually holding in one hand a bag that she privately doubted that she and Regaari could have lifted between them.

Baseball was standing nearby, calmly reading off a checklist. None of the words he was reading translated.

“Epinephrin.”

Warhorse tapped some ampules in a quick-access pocket on his chest. “Check.”

“Cetrizine.”

“Check.”

“Thiperamide.”

“Blue and green band, yeah?”

“That’s right.”

“Check.”

“Morphine.”

ET dosage three, check.”

“Nitroglycerin.”

Regaari peered at him. “Wait, what?!

“Relax, it’s a vasodilator.” Warhorse held up a calming hand. “ET intravenous dosage three. Check.”

“Intravenous? Nitroglycerin?!”

“Could save your life, man, God forbid. Trust us, and let us concentrate, yeah?”

“Sorry.”

Base smiled at him. “Last item anyway. Salbutamol?”

Horse nodded. “Check.”

He stood and slung the bag on with alarming ease. “Protectors ready.” he announced.

“Good.”

Major Powell had taken up the duty of delivering the Gaoians to Earth himself. The preparations had taken some days and no small amount of politicking, but the plan seemed to be perfectly solid and sound. Ayma and Regaari would constantly wear Akiyama’s custom-built excursion rigs, designed to counter the Earth’s oppressive gravity and filter out every wriggling bacterium and allergenic granule that poisoned its atmosphere.

The SOR’s “Defenders” had ingeniously packed on extra protection in the form of biofilter fields that charged from sunlight before sweeping their bodies clean of infection, and stasis field generators that would, in the event of a medical emergency, allow the wearer to be delivered safely to a class ten medical facility.

Finally, each Gaoian was to be shadowed by a medic. Friendly as they were, Warhorse and Baseball had stressed that the moment they jumped to Earth, both of them were going to be focusing intently and exclusively on their charges’ good health, and were not going to be much fun to hang out with.

All things considered, Ayma was almost getting… what was the term? Cold feet.

Almost.

Powell gestured with two pinched fingers to somebody outside of the marked jump array area - an ingenious idea that Ayma was going to be sharing with Yulna when she got back. Why should Mothers and cubs be exposed to the dangers of piracy, illegal research facilities and Hunters when they could just step from one planet, straight to another?

She felt her fur bristling. There was a whine, on the very edge of hearing, the feeling of building energy reached a peak and-

-She was on Earth.

She could tell it instantly. Even with her excursion harness protecting her from feeling the extra gravity herself, there was just an extra solidity to everything. Warhorse and Baseball both adjusted their loads slightly, Powell’s stance settled and widened. The humans to a man seemed immediately just a little more comfortable, a little more relaxed. Those high-gravity deathworlder muscles had been straining against gravity that wasn’t there, and now seemed to actually be grateful for the added burden.

Unexpectedly, they also sped up. While Ayma’s own movements felt ponderous and slow, and the suit just couldn’t disguise the way her foot dropped to the floor faster than was normal, the humans got…

She searched for an appropriate adjective and settled on “punchier.” They walked with a little more precision, their heads tracked faster as they looked around, and all of their little gestures and mannerisms just seemed to fit that tiny bit better, as if the mere fact that the planet they stood on was both larger and denser than the norm had been written into their body language.

Powell took a deep breath and smiled. “Like soup, innit lads?” he asked. Ayma imitated him and nearly reeled. The air was warm, humid, and rich, rich to the point of intoxication. Higher oxygen content, she recalled, and a memory stirred that in its primordial past Earth’s atmosphere had been richer, warmer and more oxygenated still, allowing for flying insects and land animals of incomprehensible bulk.

The filters must have been working, though. Aside from the tang of humidity, there was no discernable scent on what she was breathing.

The Protectors seemed satisfied that she and Regaari were well, at least, and indicated that the door could be opened.

Admiral Knight had gone on ahead the evening before, and was standing next to a shorter, rather sturdier man that Ayma didn’t know whose hair put her in mind of brushed steel, but who was smiling warmly.

Powell raised his voice enough to be firm: “Detail, ten-shut!”

Warhorse and Baseball all snapped fully upright, bringing their heels together and straightening their spines. it was an impressive gesture given that both Protectors were solidly layered in armour and equipment.

Powell offered a salute. “Sir. The special representatives from Gao, as ordered.”

The man he was addressing returned the salute. “Thank you Major. Your men may carry on.”

Powell nodded to the Protectors, and both of them promptly returned their full attention to Regaari and Ayma.

“Mother Ayma, Officer Regaari,” he announced “This is Lieutenant-General Martin Tremblay, Supreme Allied Commander for Extrasolar Defence.”

Tremblay offered a hand and shook their paws, rather more delicately than he needed to. “This day’s been too long in coming.” he smiled. “I’ve spent so long reading about the Gaoian people and what you personally did for one of ours that it’s a genuine pleasure and a privilege to finally meet you in person.”

Ayma felt her ears twist, feeling genuinely and awkwardly complimented. “Shoo always insisted there was nothing special about her.” she replied, diplomatically. “If that is true, then I must consider the pleasure and the privilege to be greater on my part.”

She caught the amused and impressed set of Regaari’s ears out of the corner of her eye, but Tremblay’s reaction was even more interesting. “Please, don’t waste a sound-bite like that on me!” he laughed. “Save it for the cameras. Sorry we couldn’t spare you those entirely, but the first official visit to the surface of Earth by nonhumans? That was never not going to be a media party.”

Had he been Gaoian, Ayma decided that she would already be contemplating a mating contract. Instead, she made a reassuring purr.

Admiral Knight nodded solemnly. “The sooner we get that particular ordeal out of the way the better, I say.” he suggested.

“Agreed.” Tremblay nodded. “Let’s get this over with.”


Date Point 10y4m6d AV
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Wei Chang

Xiù had gone very small, and very quiet.

Wei wished he knew how to talk with her. But every conversation they’d tried to have ever since she came back just… tailed off. The elephant in the room between them – the confusion of their relative ages in terms of date of birth versus the number of years they had each lived – never got addressed.

It was so sad seeing Mom try and pretend like nothing had happened. Dad somehow seemed to be taking things in his stride, but he’d become… sad. After the initial joy and worry of Xiù’s return, their dad had been behaving like he was mourning something rather than anything else.

Wei just felt like there was a stranger living in their house who’d thrown out all of Xiù’s old stuff. A quiet, intense stranger who watched things a little too carefully, who flinched at benign sounds, and who occasionally spoke the wrong language without noticing.

There was still the essential Xiù there, of course - when she could be induced to smile, she came alive again, and she never became more radiant than when she was talking to this “Julian” guy. Under the patina that years of being a terrified vagrant in space had painted on her, Xiù could still smile and laugh and play. But Wei had no idea how to get past that patina himself.

Their parents were bustling around making sure the house looked perfectly presentable for their VIP guests, and a couple of men in suits and dark glasses were patrolling the place. When Wei and Xiù had tried to help they’d just been ordered to stay out of the way and stay presentable.

So, they were sitting on the couch together, watching the visitors from Gao on TV while Wei trawled his favourite social media, following the trending topics and trying not to rumple his smart clothes. Mom had taken Xiù out shopping and together they’d found some designer tops that managed to cover all her scars without looking like she was wearing them because they would cover her scars. Xiù kept absent-mindedly trying to roll up the loose sleeves, not noticing that they just fell straight back down again.

The general consensus on the ‘net was:

  1. That Gaoians were OMG SO CUUUUUUTE!!

  2. Are you fucking kidding me they really do look like Rocket Raccoon WTF

  3. Who are those guys in the armor behind the gaoins their HUGE?!

Some speed artist was already putting out hastily sketched comics of the two aliens with their beefslab bodyguards. They all revolved around the (exaggerated) size difference and grim expressions on the servicemen’s faces as they did things like delicately and intensely apply a band-aid to a grateful Gaoian’s minor boo-boo. Wei had a nose for these things, and he’d eat his sneakers if those two weren’t one of the memorable memes of the year.

Some of the military enthusiast circles and forums he’d found were tentatively identifying them as part of a unit based at HMNB Folctha. Their uniforms had been “sanitized”, meaning that they had been cleared of any identifiable unit markings or clues to their identities. The only thing any of the Internet enthusiasts could tell about them was that they were both medics. To a man, all of the veterans on those forums were commenting on how they seemed to be practically buoyant and bouncing despite an operating load that must have been pushing two hundred pounds. As if they were used to much more than that.

As they watched the camera focused on the male Gaoian - Regaari - behind whom stood the shorter of the two bodyguards who chose that exact moment to absent-mindedly conjure a Snickers bar out of one of his pockets and inhale it. The live chat promptly went crazy.

“That’s Sergeant Arés.” Xiù said, pointing to the screen. “He’s the one who treated me out of the escape pod.”

“Yeah?”

“…Saved my life.” Xiù nodded, gnawing on a lip.

“He’s hot.” Wei commented, and for the first time he succeeded in making Xiù laugh.

“What, you’re into boys now, little brother?” she asked.

“Please, I’m allowed to know these things, like, academically.” Wei told her.

Xiù smiled, and went back to watching the screen, quietly. Her smile faded again.

“…Xiù, are you okay?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“…Is there anything I can do?”

Xiù gave him a surprised look. Tears started welling up and she savagely got rid of them with a swipe of her hand, muttering something to herself in Gaori. “Wi-yo koo yin-shao pa, Xiù!

“Hey…?”

She raised a splay-fingered hand to reassure him, and took a deep calming breath through her nose. “…I’m sorry, Wei,”

“What for?”

“I don’t know how to cope” She said. “I’m a wreck.”

Wei shuffled over and put a brotherly arm around her. “I missed you, you know.” he said, after a while. “We used to fight all the time. Didn’t we?”

She laughed weakly and nodded.

“You had your ballet and kung fu movies, I had my games. Not a lot in common except Mom and Dad and living in the same house. And now you’re back and we know each other even less.”

Again, she nodded.

“…I don’t know what I’m saying.” Wei confessed. “I just… What’s wrong? Why aren’t you okay?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know at all?”

She sighed, and wiped her face again. “Ayma and Regaari were my family out there.” she said “And I ran away from them, to keep them safe. And they’ve come here to Earth. To see me!”

Not knowing what to say, Wei just gave her another squeeze round the shoulders. Xiù just watched the two Gaoians deliver brief and neutral speeches of thanks and respect, before the press conference broke up. “I guess they’re on their way here then.” he observed.

Xiù stood up. “Yeah.” she agreed. “Yaaay.”

“Hey… Xiù?”

“Yeah?”

“Maybe just… try being glad to see them?” Wei suggested.

She just sighed, shook her head, and vanished upstairs.


Date Point 10y4m6d AV

North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

Radio wasn’t really Kevin’s thing, and that went double for country stations. There was only so much Kacey Musgraves a man could listen to, after all.

Not that this mattered for a modern man. So long as he had his phone, he could listen to whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

♪♫It was obvious you’d end this way to everyone except for you / the signs were there but living in denial is just something you do / I walk amongst the ruins and what’s left is a silent testament / to ignorance violent tendencies and stupid rhetoric…♫♪

“In a quarter of a mile, your destination is on the right.”

He slowed down, frowning, and triple-tapped the middle of his phone’s screen to pause the music. Quarter of a mile looked like a sizeable oblong stand of deciduous forest, alone surrounded by open fields of ploughed farmland.

The road was straight, but the verge wasn’t, not perfectly. As he got closer, he saw that the trees had been hiding a grey steel mailbox with a name on the side: “Etsicitty”.

It stood at the end of a dirt road, which he spun onto and bounced along, cursing the fact that he was driving a sedan rather than a four-wheel-drive.

It was a dramatic change. In an instant he’d gone from open Minnesotan sky to a dungeon of trees, trees and, for novelty, some more trees. Bright and clear as it was out, here on this track the light was much more subdued, cool and green as it filtered through new spring foliage.

He was just starting to wonder how long the trail was when it opened up into a cleared area that had been surfaced in packed-down rubble that was almost as good as blacktop. There was a single-storey house with brown panel siding tucked up under the trees, attended by three elderly trucks and a rust sculpture of a tractor that had probably, once, actually been a tractor long ago.

He pulled up somewhere he wouldn’t be in the way and heaved himself up out of the car. It wasn’t cold out, but Minnesota in April was never going to match a Texan’s standards for warmth at any hour, so Kevin was glad for his jacket.

The front door opened as he approached and he recognised Julian Etsicitty from his file. He was of only average height but in excellent shape, with a broad chest and wary eyes under unruly obsidian hair that clearly only earned his attention when it got in his eyes, being otherwise left to do whatever it liked. He didn’t look too great, Kevin decided. Like he hadn’t slept properly in a day or two. Certainly his jeans and T-shirt were rumpled and stained and he was barefoot, exposing the odd composite construction of his prosthetic.

Still, fatigue and stress or not, Kevin had seen the way his hand moved before. The nonchalant way it drifted down and aside slightly so that if he had to go for the survival tomahawk on his belt, he could do so immediately.

“What happened to your nose?” he asked.

“Said the wrong thing to somebody” Kevin replied. “Julian Etsicitty, I presume?”

Etsicitty didn’t relax. “Yeah?”

“I’m an old friend of Kirk’s. Kevin Jenkins.”

Julian relaxed. “No shit? Come on in.” He unlocked the screen door and shouldered it open. It produced a horrible scratching shriek as he did so. “Sorry. Still fixing the place up.”

“Reminds me.” Kevin popped the trunk on his car and grabbed the cooler he’d stashed in there. “My condolences.”

Julian accepted it with a kind of sad-grateful smile. “That’s kind of you. Thank you.”

“Just a few things. Fill the fridge out, y’know? I know what it’s like.”

Kevin scolded himself the second he said that. That exact same angle was what had got his nose busted in Vancouver. Fortunately, for all his wariness Julian Etsicitty took the comment for genuine sympathy.

He led them both inside. “‘Scuse the mess.”

‘Mess’ was both an understatement, and uncharitable. There was more mail than Kevin would have believed, and it was all over everything. The kitchen worksurfaces, the island, the coffee table and three barstools had all been given over to it. Still, there was organization involved. The papers were neatly stacked and arranged and there was clearly some kind of filing system involved, an attempt to bring order to chaos.

“Jeez. That’s a lot of paper.”

“Legal letters. The courts, lawyers for the Red Lake reservation, lawyers for the county, for the State, the federal attorney handling my grampa’s will… all in conflict.” Julian tapped one of the stacks, pulling a slightly panicked face.

“Damn.”

“Yeah. But, you didn’t come here for my legal problems. Kirk had a lot to say about you. Coffee?”

“Yes please. How much of what he had to say was good?”

Julian reached over and clicked the kettle to life. “I think you managed to disappoint him, but… you know Kirk. If you’re human, he likes you automatically.”

“D’you know what happened to him?”

“He should have survived.” Julian declared. “Him and Vedreg, they were the first to head for the escape pods. We didn’t hear from them after we launched, but… you know, we slept for a couple hours there before starting for home.”

“Slept?”

“Believe me, after what happened to us, falling asleep just seemed like the best idea. Ah!”

The exclamation was in response to finally finding the coffee. “How d’you take it?”

“Plain black. So you reckon he’s alive?”

“Probably.” Julian said, spooning out the granules. “But we spent five years in that pod. If he was in one of the faster ones, or if he set a different course… or both…” The kettle clicked off and he grabbed it to start pouring. “I mean he could be anywhere. And escape pods are pretty vulnerable to getting picked off by Hunters…”

“Lucky for him that the Hunters didn’t do a dang thing in those five years.” Kevin commented.

Julian handed him a coffee, quirking his head slightly. “They didn’t?”

“Nope. Nobody saw or heard from them for about that long right up until the Capitol Station attack.”

“Jesus.” Julian handed over the coffee. “What even happened there?”

“All I could tell you is I guess the Hunters wanted to prove that they’re the biggest fish in the pond.”

“I heard rumors that human starships got involved in the fight.” Julian said.

Kevin had to wonder if the man knew more than he was letting on and fishing for information. Either way, he was in danger of straying into information that at least one of Kevin’s employers didn’t think he needed to know.

He settled for a shrug and lie. “Well, we’ve got those ships, sure. Dunno if they were involved or not. I’m a mushroom.” Julian frowned at him, bewildered, so he elaborated. “Kept in the dark and fed on shit.”

Julian chuckled, and cleared off a barstool for him. “Wish I had more to tell you.” he said. “The last I saw of Kirk, he said he was gonna load Vedreg into a pod and we should get ready to eject as well. I think he’s probably alive - I hope he is - but where and what he’s doing…”

They drank their coffees.

“So, hey!” Julian perked up, changing the subject. “You’re doing well for yourself. Nice car, nice suit, you can afford to drop some groceries on a stranger…”

“I work for the Byron Group nowadays.” Kevin told him, deciding not to mention his other employers. “Biggest name in space, though Hephaestus might disagree. They’ve got the Allied shipbuilding contracts after all.”

“What’s your guys’ game? How are you profiting off space?”

“Mr. Byron’s big plan is pharmaceuticals and organic materials from other deathworlds.” Kevin told him. “It’s a smart idea, too. Antibiotic resistance has really turned into a big health scare these last couple of years. The Corti want to sell us their disinfectant fields and frontline treatments, but Byron reckons we should be looking for human solutions to the problem.”

“If it works though…” Julian suggested.

“Sure. Still, he’s right. We don’t wanna become another client species of the Dominion, do we?”

“I guess not.”

“That was the other half of the reason I came down here.” Kevin confessed. “We need people who know how to survive out there, and from what I hear of you, surviving is kinda your thing.”

“What, as like an office job?” Julian asked. He gestured to the paperwork .”Really not my thing.”

“Far from it. Mister Byron told me he wants you on the crew for Byron Group Exploration Vessel eleven. A ship.”

“Number eleven?”

“Well… it’s the twelfth ship the Group’s built really, but one of them was a special case. We’re learning as we go, and the more people we can get on board with real experience the better-“

He stopped at a harsh metallic squeal from the screen door and a knock. Frowning, Julian stood up and opened it.

There was a blonde woman standing on the step with her arms folded and a severely pissed-off expression. She looked to be about the same age as Julian, and about the same height too. And, frankly, in similarly excellent physical condition.

Julian took a surprised step back. “Allison?”

“Phone not switched on, Etsicitty?”

“Uh…” Julian plunged into a pocket and tapped at his phone. Judging from the way its screen remained stubbornly black, it had a flat battery. “But… it’s Tuesday, isn’t it? Your plane wasn’t supposed to land until tomor-”

“Wednesday. It’s Wednesday, Julian. Today is Wednesday. I landed in Minneapolis five hours ago.”

“…Uhm… Fuck.”

Allison Buehler just nodded. “Uh-huh. Who’s this?”

“Uh… this is, um, this is Kevin. K-kevin Jenkins.”

“Oh. Kirk’s big disappointment.” Allison thrust her carry-on bag into Julian’s arms and stepped into the house properly. “What happened to your nose?”

Kevin tried to ignore the ‘big disappointment’ jab, stinging though it was. “Look, if you two need some privacy…”

“If Julian screwed up that big, something important must have happened.” Allison shook her head. Behind her, Julian relaxed a bit. “Do you have something to do with it? Is this your paperwork?”

“Not mine, and I’m gonna give you some room anyway. ‘Scuse me.”

He navigated past her, gave Julian a sympathetic raise of the eyebrows that said ‘good luck’, and discreetly fled to the safety of the car.

He checked his nose and decided that he couldn’t blame people for commenting. Xiù Chang had done a masterful job of breaking it.

He grabbed his phone.

“Mister Moses Byron’s office, Rachael speaking!”

“Hey Rachael, it’s Kevin.”

“Ah, yes Mister Jenkins. Putting you through now.”

“Thanks Rachael.”

There was a burst of gentle hold music and then-

“Kevin! How was Vancouver?”

“Xiù Chang broke my nose.”

“…That’s not encouraging, Kevin.”

“My own dumbass fault. She’s got it in her head that she’s home and that’s where she’s staying, and I pushed a bit too hard.” Kevin shrugged, even though Byron couldn’t see him. “But we’ll see. I’ve tracked down Etsicitty and Buehler and I think we might have a hook there.”

“Whaddya mean a ‘hook’?” Byron demanded.

Grinning to himself, Kevin explained his idea.


Allison Buehler

Once the screen door had howled shut behind Jenkins, Allison granted herself the luxury of a deep breath.

At first, she’d been irritated to discover an absence of Julian at the airport. This had swiftly grown into frustration and three or four outright angry messages left after the tone.

In hindsight, she must have looked like a goddess of rage when she was renting the car, and she’d spent the first two of the three hours she’d been driving from Minneapolis outright furious.

Then she had cooled down a bit, mostly from simple tiredness, and the rest from reasoning that it was unlike Julian to screw up so completely, which meant something serious had happened.

The last fifty minutes had been spent worrying that he was alright.

While it was a relief to find him present, upright and profusely apologetic, ‘alright’ would have been a stretch. She’d never seen him so distressed, nor so dishevelled. He’d plainly neglected to sleep or eat properly, his hair was unwashed and his chin was rough with short hairs.

One of the reasons she found Julian so sexy was that usually, he projected an air of never being out of his depth. Usually, the only thing that could disrupt his composure was Allison herself.

There was a heady feeling of power involved in being able to fluster a man like that: Finding him so badly unsettled when she hadn’t been around to cause it was so alarming that she completely gave up on being angry at him.

“God, Al, I’m so sorry I don’t know how the fuck that happ-“

She silenced him with a sweet, short kiss. “Hey. It’s okay. What is all this, anyway?”

Julian cleared his throat and scratched at his eyebrow. “Um… Legal letters.”

Allison picked one up and read it. Its content was so arcane and vague as to induce an immediate headache, but the words ‘inheritance’, ‘property’ and ‘dispute’ stood out.

“Oh. Oh no. They’re disputing your grampa’s will?”

“Everyone is.” Julian nodded miserably, sliding up onto one of the bar stools and running his fingers through his hair.

“Why?”

“Oh boy…” He cast helplessly around at all the paperwork and heaved a huge breath out. “Where do I start? Okay, so… So it turns out Grampa never really got along with the tribal elders at Red Lake.”

“Why? ‘Cause he was Navajo?”

“I don’t think that’s it, no. Might be. I dunno, I never met them.” Julian shrugged. “So that’s problem one. Problem two is there’s a question mark over where, exactly, the reservation’s boundaries even are, and whether this patch falls inside or outside them.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because Grampa filed his will with the Federal Government as if this was reservation land, but if it’s not then it’s not clear if the will’s even valid. So, the State’s got involved there, and the feds, and… oh yeah, let’s not forget my mom.”

“What about her?”

“Well, okay, say the will’s not valid but the house is on Reservation land. In that case, the property is divided equally among all Grampa’s descendents. That’d be me, but also Mom and my half-sisters. And they’re all over in Sweden.”

Allison leaned against the fridge. “Wait, what?”

“Don’t even start, it’s all to do with the Dawes Act and fractionation and…” Julian trailed off, scowled and gave up. “Look, I’ve not even read half of it yet. I think the AIM’s probably involved too… plus of course there’s Grampa’s criminal record.”

“Criminal-? Oh. Right. Draft-dodging.”

Julian nodded. He studied a letter then set it neatly on top of one of the piles. “Claims, and counter-claims, and challenges and all of this shit’s been bubbling away for three years.” he said. “Nobody’s been arguing my side. It’s a mess, and I don’t know how to even begin navigating it.”

“Almost sounds like it’s not worth it.” Allison commented. Julian straightened and looked at her, questioningly. “I mean… we’re going into space again, aren’t we? I know this place means a lot to you, but if you’re not here to look after it…”

Julian gave a long, thoughtful breath out through his nose and scratched at his stubble. “What are we fighting for?” he asked. “I mean, if we’re gonna head back out there… why? What are we trying to do?”

“Get the hell away from Earth. You know that.” Allison insisted.

“Yeah, I know. You feel valuable out there. I do too, I want to achieve something with my life too. And I couldn’t just sit idle, not when I know what’s out there.”

“But…?” Allison prompted.

“But… I mean, come on Al, you’ve got to have something you care about on Earth or you wouldn’t care about trying to protect it.”

Allison folded her arms at her waist. “Do I?”

“Yeah. You do.” Julian stood up and rubbed her shoulders. “You’re not doing it for the fame, are you?”

She made a scoffing noise. “What fame?”

“Exactly.” Julian agreed. “But what do we mean by ‘achieving something’ if it doesn’t have to do with… with Earth? Or at least with some of the people living on it?”

Feeling annoyed at herself for doing so even as she did it, Allison curled into herself a little more and looked away from him. “Sure. Whatever. Maybe I do have… something. Does that change anything? Sometimes you have to let go, Julian.”

He frowned. “You okay?”

“Just… Yeah.” she sighed, looked him in the eye and lied to him. “Yeah, I’m fine. And you’re right, I guess. I just…” she gestured to Mount Paperwork. “For what fighting this is gonna cost you could just buy a new place. I know it wouldn’t be your grampa’s, but… I mean, even if you spent all that money fighting to keep this place you might not win.”

“True.” Julian conceded, reluctantly.

“And you said yourself, you want to go back into space.”

“Also true.”

“And if you do you won’t be able to look after this place even if you hold onto it…”

Julian put a palm to his forehead and rubbed it firmly down his face. “Allison, for fuck sake…”

She paused and took a good look at him, then at all the accumulated keepsakes and history around them. “…This place really means that much to you, huh?”

“Yeah. Yeah it does.”

She chewed a lip thoughtfully, then found some resolve and nodded. “Okay.”

Julian’s head bobbed uncertainly. “…Okay?”

“If it means that much to you, fight it. I’ve got your back, I promise.”

Julian sagged, relieved, then smiled a grateful nod before kissing her. “Thank you.”

She nodded, and managed a tight smile. “Maybe we should see what that Jenkins guy wants.”


Date Point 10y4m6d AV

Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space

Lewis

“Now THAT…” Kirk declared. “Looks impressive.”

Lewis patted its chassis happily. “That it does! Too bad it doesn’t work.”

“…Congratulations?”

“Yeah, now I understand some of that footage you managed to get from Capitol Station.” Lewis laughed. “How did you get that, anyway?”

“It was not difficult. Most of it was human propaganda footage, put out by your own government. It is meant to be seen.”

Lewis considered the implications of that.

“No shit?”

“No shit indeed.” Kirk agreed. “I managed to secure some of the station’s security footage through a contact, too.”

“Must be a fucking talented contact.”

“She is, yes… so what is this?”

Lewis considered it. “It was meant to be power armor.” he said.

“You don’t say?” Kirk asked. It was hard to see what else a humanoid metallic frame layered in armour plates and technology could be. “You mean it is not a novelty pizza oven?”

Lewis grumbled something and pushed the suit over by its forehead. It shook the deck as it crashed down, and Kirk took a dainty step back to keep his feet out of the way of the components that skittered across the floor. “Probably better at that than at being a working suit of armor, that’s for damn sure.”

“What were the problems?” Kirk asked, stooping to pick up the suit’s helmet and examine it.

“Problem one? Turns out the human body’s fucking strong anyway.”

“You don’t say?” Kirk repeated, setting down the helmet again and folding his arms. “Fancy that.”

“Shut up. I mean that even nonhuman-tech actuators and stuff can’t match us for all three of precision, speed and power. It’s… laggy. Problem two: power storage and generation. Needs a lot of both. The more I put on, the bigger and heavier the suit needed to be, which meant it needed more of both. And so on.”

“Both of those sound like surmountable challenges, with time.” Kirk opined.

“Yeah, but then we run into the problem of mass.” Lewis gritted his teeth. “See, what am I making here? If it’s a suit of armor designed for a man to wear then the man needs to be the one doing the actual moving around, right? The suit can assist him all it likes, but if he starts to tip over and needs to correct himself, then the difference between his mass and the suit’s… Nobody’s got that kind of core strength dude. Especially not with the latency problem.”

“And if the suit is in control, then the human operator is more like a pilot, and could in theory be replaced outright.” Kirk finished for him.

“You got it.” Lewis nodded. “And it turns out that in order for the mass problem to not be there, the human operator needs to go entirely. Which means I’m making a humanoid drone. Which is… cool, but what happens if somebody hacks the drone? Like those Hierarchy fucks? Hell, if I got it to work then what happens if somebody hacks the armor?”

“Assuming you could harden it against being hacked…” Kirk mused. “Could the latency problem be fixed?”

Lewis hissed through his teeth. “I… doubt it.” he said finally. “‘Cause there’s basically… like, option one: the suit responds to muscle movements. You move your arm, it senses you moving your arm, it moves its arm. Right?”

“I follow.”

“Well, okay, watch this shit.” Lewis took a step back and then swirled his arms vigorously in front of his face. To Kirk’s eyes, they were a blur. “Okay? And that’s fucking SLOW. I’m not all that fast, dude. Now let’s say I want this thing to be fast enough that even fuckin’ Ip Man could do his shit while wearing it?”

Kirk folded his legs up underneath him and sat down. This brought his eye level down to the point where he was only slightly above Lewis. “Yes…?”

“Not. Fucking. Happening. No way, no how, nuh-uh nope. Not if the suit’s reacting to the movement after it’s already begun. And that’s the kind of speed it needs to move at, so… boom goes Option One. Option two: brain scan.”

“Brain scan.”

“Yu-huh. Shove, like, an EEG or some alien spacemagic equivalent in there. Well, what happens if there’s nervejam and the dude gets a headache or worse? What happens if he’s knocked around a bit and gets kinda confused? What if he’s unconscious and his buddies need to move him? Shit, what happens if the pads come un-stuck or the sensor becomes misaligned? And that’s assuming we can even isolate individual signals like that which… I mean, I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna know the human brain that well. Too many problems for my money.”

“And Option Three?”

JARVIS.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That’s how Tony Stark did it.” Lewis said. “Loaded an AI into the suit that figured out what he was about to want to do. Problem there? Tony Stark is fiction, man, and so are AIs like that. I may as well be talking about… uh, about scribing a fucking rune on the damn thing and casting a Golem spell. You may as well try and fly a spaceship by doing a tarot reading.”

He snapped his fingers at a couple of servant drones, then waved a finger at the failed power armor. “Recycle that.”

“It would not really have been much use against the Hierarchy anyway.” Kirk told him, as the drones flitted in and began to remove doomed pieces of prototype . “They are not a physical foe we can meet in battle.”

“Gotta learn how to walk before you can run, my man. This was just me proving to myself that I knew everything I needed to make complicated shit before I moved on to the real projects.”

“Your point is taken, but I am from a species that is born knowing how to gallop.” Kirk pointed out. “What is your ‘real project’ going to be?”

“Dunno yet.”

“…We have been here this long, and you have no idea?”

Lewis just made a semi-amused harrumph and threw himself into his thinking chair. “You’ve put a… a fucking huge problem in front of me, Kirk.” he said. “And I can sit here and absorb, like, biology and physics and mechanical engineering and quantum whateverthefuckery all day, but if it’s all for the sake of Earth, then I need to know what Earth needs.”

“Like…” he spun the chair around and called up the Capitol Station footage. “Look at these motherfuckers! Where the fuck did that come from? Human special forces in space? Wearing a functioning armored EVA suit? And these dudes look like your average roid-jockey’s wet dream, so some shit’s been going down on Earth, man, and I don’t know the half of it. How am I supposed to help my people if I don’t even know what we’re up to?”

Kirk’s head bobbed slowly down and then up. “I had hoped to remain out of contact a little while longer, until we were properly up and running.” he confessed. “But you make a compelling case and… we were buzzed last night.”

“Buzzed? By what?”

“A scout ship. Long-range. Our sensors did not get a very clear look at it before it warped out again, but they did narrow down the options, one of which is very worrying.”

“Worrying how?”

Kirk shook his mane, which Lewis understood as being something akin to an uncomfortable shrug. “One of the possibilities was a ship that I have placed on our security watch-list.” he explained. “It is called the ‘Negotiable Curiosity’ and it was very deliberately named. Its owner has a reputation for being able to dig up any mystery. He is… tenacious.”

“Hierarchy?”

Everybeing is Hierarchy, if they have implants.” Kirk pointed out. “But I would be surprised if he was not out here on their orders, yes. Though, I doubt if he knows of them.”

“That settles it then.” Lewis decided. “I’m phoning home.”

Kirk made an amused sound through his nose. “I thought I was the ET?”

“Neither of us are on Earth right now, bro.”

“I shall turn off the outbound message locks on the FTL relay.” Kirk levered himself up onto his feet, they exchanged a fist-bump, and he left Lewis alone with his thoughts, which were already whirling with the letters he was going to need to write.

Lewis took a deep breath, and decided to do his yoga first. Always best to approach these things with a clear head.

Hopefully he’d think of a better introduction than “To whom it may concern…”


Date Point 10y4m6d AV

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Regaari

Xiù seemed… smaller than the last time Regaari had seen her.

When her family admitted Ayma, Regaari, Baseball, Warhorse and Stainless into their house, it was a stark reminder that humans were not all muscular, lean, predatory warriors. The young male was large, yes, but there was a roundness to his largeness that suggested a source other than physical conditioning and hard training. Her parents were lean, yes, but it was the leanness of increasing age and fragility. Both looked grey and tired.

It took a little coaxing and calling for Xiù to finally emerge, but when she did she picked her way downstairs as if walking to an execution rather than a reunion.

It didn’t help that Ayma said nothing and just stared at her. Nobody spoke, no sounds were audible except the creak of the steps, the rustle of clothing and a car accelerating down the road outside.

There were times when etiquette between Gaoian females became so tangled and complicated that even male Gaoians, who were perhaps the best-placed beings in the galaxy to have an insight into it, had trouble keeping up. A moment like that happened now.

Ayma spoke first, and she used the tone of a mother about to give a scolding. “Sister.”

Xiù swallowed and glanced up the stairs, perhaps considering the option to flee, but she looked back to Ayma and responded with an inflection that implied… not defiance, but not submission either. A standing of her ground. Her Gaori really had improved from when Regaari had first met her. “Mother.”

The silence stretched until it was vibrating and Regaari was desperate to snap at both of them when, at once, the two females ran out of resolve and collided - gently in Xiù’s case and unreservedly in Ayma’s - in a solid hug that saw both of them sink to their knees. Gaoian and Human body language rarely aligned so perfectly.

Everyone looked away, giving them what privacy they could, and Warhorse had the presence of mind and good manners to shut down the translator. That left only Regaari able to understand what they were saying to each other, and he made a point of not listening.

Eventually, Xiù exhumed her face from the fur of Ayma’s shoulder and aimed a weak smile his way. “It’s good to see you again, Regaari.” she managed.

Unable to quite summon any words, Regaari settled for ducking his head vigorously. Xiù pulled back from Ayma, gave her a curious look, Ayma nodded, and Xiù stood to give Regaari a huge but controlled hug. After a few tentative seconds, he returned it.

She looked around. “Could we… have some privacy please?”

While Xiù’s family promptly nodded and left the room, Warhorse and Baseball were more reluctant. “This room’s not been properly sanitized, miss…” Burgess said.

“Please, guys.” Regaari turned to them. “We won’t take the excursion suits off, and I trust Xiù to shout if we need help.”

Both men turned to Stainless, who pursed his lips, thinking.

“We’re not goin’ further than the far side of that door.” he declared, pointing to it.

“Deal.” Xiù agreed. “Thank you.”

Xiù stood as they left the room, then sank down on the couch as if she was suddenly exhausted.

As soon as the door clicked shut, Ayma laid into her.

“What were you thinking?!” she demanded.

“Me? What are you thinking right now?” Fatigue gone, Xiù shot to her feet. “I ran away to protect you! To give you the chance to get on with your lives! And this is how you repay that? You come here?! Don’t you know that every breath on this planet could kill you?! Don’t you care?”

“Sisters stick together, Shoo, you know that!” Ayma yipped.

NO!” Xiù spun away, clawed at her hair and gathered her composure. In a much quieter voice, she carried on. “Sisters care for one another. Sisters protect one another, Ayma. And you’re standing exactly where you shouldn’t be because you just don’t seem to understand that I don’t want you to get hurt. Not- not for me. I’m not worth that.”

“Triymin thought you were.” Ayma pointed out.

“Triymin is dead.” Xiù stumbled over the word. “I’m not worth that. I’m not.”

“Well we’re not dead.” Ayma pointed out. “And… I think you are worth coming here for.”

“Why?” Xiù sat down again. “I’m nobody special, Ayma. I’m just… I’m just me. I wanted to be an actress. Lots of girls want to be an actress. I did ballet, I had a room full of… of shit that I didn’t need…” She spat the word in English rather than Gaori. “I was normal. I can’t handle being anything else.”

Regaari laid a paw on Ayma’s shoulder. “Tell her.”

“…We had a cub.” Ayma said, getting his drift. “A female. We called her Shoo.”

Xiù sighed and rubbed her face. “I… I’m delighted. Really I am.” she said. “But… Um, I know that you don’t do family the same way that humans do. I know that little…” She smiled “Little Shoo will grow up in the commune, just like you both did, and Myun and - How is Myun, anyway?”

“Wealthy and quite happy to be a human fangirl.” Regaari said. “She and I have a cub too. Or rather, she’s expecting one.”

Xiù sat back, stunned. “God. She’s old enough to have a cub now… her first?”

“Indeed.” Regaari duck-nodded.

“With you?”

Regaari duck-nodded again. “A male, probably, if the antenatal scans are accurate.”

Xiù’s face moved in a complicated way as she tried to smile and frown at the same time. “…I just don’t understand you.” She told them, quietly. “You have a cub together, she’s safe on Gao, and instead of being there for her you come here to this - this deathworld? You should be with the people you care about!”

“We are with the people we care about!” Ayma keened, stepping forward and delicately taking Xiù’s hand between two of her paws. “Don’t you see? It’s not about what you’re worth, it’s about…” she changed vocal gears, picking a word in English. “Family!”

“My family are outside.” Xiù said.

“Your family,” Ayma corrected her “-are the people who care about you. And as our species proves, that’s not a matter of genetics. Here we are, Shoo: Here’s your family, right here in this room.”

“And we know you care about us too.” Regaari said. “You don’t want us to be hurt. But we don’t want you to be hurt either, and right now… it’s obvious that you are hurting.”

Xiù blinked at them, then looked away, and down. She grimaced at herself and snapped her head back to blink back tears.

“Shoo?”

“O… wánquán míngbai Ie…”

“Shoo?”

Xiù sat forward and let out a long breath. “I had… somebody came to see me, a few days ago. He said things that made me so angry that I broke his nose.”

Ayma and Regaari inclined their ears in mutual confusion, not sure where she was going.

Xiù didn’t seem to notice. “I know why I was so mad at him now. It’s because he was right. I’m not home, am I? This really isn’t home any more. And I’ve been hurting myself trying to pretend that it is.”

“So… where is home? Gao?” Ayma asked.

Xiù shook her head. “No… No. I’m sorry Ayma. I’m so sorry for running away, but it’s not. It can’t be, I won’t endanger Gao like that, or any other world. I won’t endanger you like that.”

Ayma moved her head softly in agreement. “I know. That’s why we came here. I wanted to tell you that I forgive you for running. I… You were right.”

Very gently, Xiù sat back, took a deep breath, and let her hands fall onto her lap. “…Oh, I needed to hear that.”

“So… where is home?” Regaari asked her.

She looked at him, opened her mouth to say something, then plainly reconsidered and lapsed into thoughtful silence, staring at some distant point far away beyond the carpet. Regaari gave her a few seconds, and then verbally prodded her. “Shoo?”

“…I’m not sure.” Xiù said, shaking herself out of whatever trance she had been in. “But… but I think I have a good idea where to start looking.”


Date Point 10y4m6d AV
North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Julian Etsicitty

After carefully filing the drift of legal correspondence in a heap on the coffee table, the three of them had been able to fit around the kitchen island on the bar stools. Julian sat at one end with Allison next to him, and Jenkins and his sophisticated state-of-the-art phone complete with holographic projector sat at the other.

“So… pretty much since Scotch Creek released the first wave of warp and kinetic tech to the public, the second space race has been a whole thing.” Jenkins told them. “You’ve got Hephaestus LLC up on Ceres, Red Bull driving their sales by sponsoring everything that flies higher than a football, BAE and Lockheed-Martin vying for the military contracts, Virgin’s space tourism and starkisser flights… and Byron Group.”

He swiped through a few items on the phone and then grinned as it delivered a shimmering, transparent rendering of what was clearly a spaceship. “Most of what the Group’s up to is applying space tech to people’s lives down here on Earth. Forcefield solar power, stasis fridges, sanitation fields… holographic phones and TVs…” he gestured to the phone with a smile and a shrug. “Doesn’t hurt that the Group makes the best warp engines and jump drives, too.”

When Allison and Julian just waited patiently and listened, he cleared his throat and forged ahead.

“What that buys is the cash for what Mister Byron calls ’moon laser projects.’ He’s got big dreams: Human colonies, interstellar low-latency communications, interplanetary trade by jump array instead of freighter… you name it. Stuff that needs a big investment. Top of the list are colonization and trade.”

“So you need explorers and market surveyors.” Allison observed.

“You got it. Folks who can find us worlds to live on, tell us what we’re going to have to do to live on them safely without killing all the locals. Folks who can talk with the locals and maybe find out what they’ve got that we want, and what we can pay them. Hence, the Byron Group Exploration Vessels. This here is EV-Ten, ’Creature of Habit.’ The most recent one.”

“Sleek.” Julian commented. It really was. The ship was clearly nothing but functional, but it was functional in the same way as a good knife - the sheer unyielding utility of its form was beautiful in its own right.

“Moon laser shit again. Mister Byron reckons the human ’brand’ is gonna be about the aesthetics of function. Got to impress the customer, he says.” Jenkins’ tone suggested that he had disagreements there. “Anyway… the thing is, about half of the ships in the EV program never came back. We’ve mostly figured out what got ‘em, but if we can crew them with people who know what it’s like out there… Starwise people, you know? Like streetwise, but for-”

“We get it.” Allison told him. Julian suppressed a smile. She was entertaining when she got prickly.

“Right… Well. That’d be you guys. Xiù Chang too, if you can talk her into it.”

“Can’t you ask her yourself?” Allison asked.

Jenkins cleared his throat awkwardly. “She, uh… wasn’t receptive to the idea.”

Allison sat back. “Oh. My. God. Xiù broke your nose!”

“…Yeah.”

Julian and Allison frowned at one another.

“We like Xiù and we trust her opinion.” Julian told him. “If she got pissed at you, that’s kind of a deal breaker.”

“That’s a pity, because the Byron Group’s prepared to take on your legal SNAFU, win it, and install a caretaker to keep this place in working order while you’re gone.”

Allison stood up. “And now I see why she broke your nose!” she snapped, and span away.

Julian just folded his arms and glared. “You’d hold that over us?”

Jenkins raised both hands. “No! No! Nothing like holding it over you! I didn’t come here to threaten. I’m just sayin’…. you’ve got what we need, and we’re willing to pay for it.”

Allison turned and frowned at him, and Jenkins lowered his hands. “The offer’s honest. I promise.” He said.

Allison looked to Julian.

Julian briefly considered tossing Jenkins out on his ear… but the offer of legal assistance was far too good to waste, and there was still the unresolved question of how, exactly, they were planning to get into space and with whom…

“Give us a day or two to think about it.” he suggested.

“Sure. Here.” Jenkins pulled a business card from his inside jacket pocket. “Take your time.”

He laid it on the table and stood. “Hey… look, whatever you decide, good luck.”

Julian stood, shook his hand, and escorted him to the door.

Once the screen door had finished wailing itself closed, he took a moment to take stock of his situation.

“I say go for it.” he told Allison, turning to face her.

“Xiù broke his nose.” she repeated.

“He’s just one guy. There’ve gotta be others working for Byron.” Julian shrugged. “And… I mean, Xiù’s great but she’d be the first to say her head’s not completely in the right place sometimes.”

“Julian!”

“Remember that time she turned down Lewis by saying she wasn’t looking to ’mate’ with anyone?”

Allison blinked. “She… Uh… Okay. Point.”

“Look why don’t you call her?” Julian suggested. “My phone still needs to charge and I think she’d like to hear from you anyway.”

Allison nodded. If there was a touch of nervousness in the way she did so, Julian decided not to comment. He wasn’t quite sure where Allison and Xiù stood with one another - they hadn’t really had a lot of time to discuss things since their night of… well, since he’d been their waiter. Their shirtless, eye-candy, objectified waiter…

He sat on a bar stool again, and tried to turn his thoughts to housework instead.


Date Point 10y4m6d AV
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Regaari

Regaari had ridden in plenty of motorcades before, during his time attached to Mother-Supreme Giymuy. He wasn’t quite sure about riding sideways in a “limousine” - something that Warhorse and Baseball had quietly waxed enthusiastic about for some reason - but he had to admit that it was nice to be sitting opposite the protectors, rather than crammed in between the door and their muscles.

This particular motorcade didn’t have far to go, as apparently the distance between the Chang family’s house in Strathcona and Vancouver City Hall was not great, but it looked set to be a tense, quiet and despondent journey. Mother Ayma wasn’t happy. Not happy at all. Seething, in fact, to the point that her claws were wearing small frayed gouges in the upholstery.

Regaari and Warhorse had figured out a gesture between them which was to mean “please turn the translator off and give us some privacy.” He used it now, and Warhorse promptly nodded and obeyed. The audioscape of the limo changed ever-so-subtly as the targeted white noise that the device used to cancel and overlay speech from each listener’s perspective shut down.

Regaari steeled himself, and spoke to Ayma.

“You’re troubled.” he said.

“My Sister is plainly miserable, Regaari.” Ayma said, so fast that it was almost a snap at him.

Regaari made a little growling noise that denoted understanding and/or agreement. “You’re right, that was inane of me. What I’m wondering is what else is going on in your head besides concern for Shoo.”

“What else should be?” Ayma retorted.

Regaari tucked his right leg up under himself so as to turn slightly in the seat and face her. “What about all of your other Sisters?” he asked.

Ayma hung her head and flicked an ear, irritated. “Must you use your analyst’s brain on me?” she asked.

“I can no sooner stop being a Whitecrest than you can stop being a Mother.” Regaari replied, evenly. “I know my reasons for coming here. To forge strategic ties, to advance the interests of my Clan and by extension all Gaoians. It’s my good fortune that I can achieve those things by helping my good friend and… I admit, indulging my curiosity about Earth into the bargain. But I do have to wonder what your reasons were for coming here. You’re the one who suggested it after all. Not to be crass, but what did you hope to achieve?”

Ayma looked out of the window for a moment before replying. “Maybe I’m just a mother looking out for a wounded cub.” she mused. “Is that… shallow?”

“No, not at all.” Regaari told her. “You wouldn’t be Ayma if you didn’t care. But Shoo’s not a cub: She was an adult before we ever met her, and as I recall she saved both our lives. She’s spent more years surviving on her own than she spent with us, and she has become good at it.”

Ayma ducked her head. “She did, didn’t she? She no longer has that childish turn of phrase.”

“Did your cub grow up, Mother Ayma?”

Ayma chittered. “She did!” she agreed. “She truly did. And… It pains me to let my cubs go, but I’m glad. I think she’ll be okay.”

“I think so too.”

Ayma relaxed, and turned her attention out the window again, watching the crowd of people holding signs welcoming them to Earth. “Yes. She will.”


Date Point 10y4m6d AV North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Allison Buehler

It was funny how heavy a phone could be. Most of the time it was an unconsidered thing, just a part of life on Earth that would sit in Allison’s handbag or pocket - and thank God fashion had finally got its head around the idea that women wanted pockets that were more than decorative - to be ignored it until needed, at which point it would be fished out, used and returned, unheeded.

It was like an extension of her own body in that regard. And just like an arm or leg, the weight of it only ever became apparent when it had become numb. Or, in this case, when she was staring at the phone working up the courage to hit “call”.

There was, as far as she could tell, no good reason for this. Xiù was a friend, good fun. She and Allison had hit it off pretty much the second she came aboard, and that bit of fun with Julian serving drinks while they watched Mulan

Well, that had all been good fun. Very good fun. Exciting, even.

And… that was the problem. It had been exciting: not just the thrill of pushing the limits in her relationship with Julian, but… well. They could have pushed the boat out in private, but they’d chosen to invite Xiù in. Allison had chosen to invite Xiù in. Into something she wouldn’t normally have shared with anybody, into her sex life and into her relationship with her boyfriend.

And she had thoroughly enjoyed it. She’d enjoyed watching Xiù sneak glances at Julian, and not in a smug ‘yeah, bitch, look what I got’ sense, but in…

It rang.

She stared at Xiù’s name and the video call request in dumb surprise for three rings before her thumb swiped at the green call-accept icon automatically and her voice went into autopilot.

“Hey babe!”

Xiù waved at her from the other end. She looked… peaceful. Happy, even. It was a nice change. “Hey!”

“You’re looking good! Home agreeing with you, huh?”

“Well, uh…” Xiù turned the phone around and gave her a good look at a room completely empty of furniture or decoration. “That’s complicated.”

“…Wow. they threw all your stuff out?” Allison asked, scandalized.

“Oh! No, I did.” Xiù turned the phone back around again.

“You did?”

“Yeah!”

“…Why?”

Xiù shrugged, as if it was no great thing. “It… just didn’t feel like my stuff any more.” she explained.

“None of it?”

“Just some clothes.” Xiù looked around the empty space she’d made for herself. “Is that strange?”

“Maybe?” Allison asked. “I mean, you were huge on getting home, and the first thing you do is throw out all your stuff?”

Xiù made an awkward noise and tidied up an errant wisp of hair. “I just… it feels more like my place now that it’s a blank canvas.” she said. “Have you been following the news?”

“Nuh. Why, did something happen?”

“Wow, okay… uh… Ayma and Regaari.”

Allison frowned. “They’re on the news?”

“They, uh… they came here.” Xiù said it with forced lightness.

“…As in…” Allison took a heartbeat to get her head around what she’d just been told. “They visited you? Here on Earth?

“Right here in my parents’ front room. Yeah.” Xiù had a nervous laugh in her voice at that. The camera jolted as she shrugged. “And, uh, apparently they’re going to go visit some US national park and then fly over to England and the King’s going to give Regaari a medal.”

“A medal? What for?”

“For… um… so there was this other thing in the news that we missed. Apparently the Hunters hit this big space station that’s meant to be, like, the biggest and most important in the Dominion.”

“Why am I only hearing about this now?” Allison sat forward.

“Because we were in hospital I guess. And, um, I was too busy trying to…” Xiù gestured to the room around her. “You know, trying to settle in up here and get back in shape that I guess I just forgot to check up on the last, uh, ten years of world history. There’s… a lot of it.”

“Wow, yeah. You missed the best part of a decade, didn’t ya? When you think about how much happened in, like, the sixties or the forties or whatever…” Allison agreed.

“You missed five years too.” Xiù pointed out. “Did you know there’s a city in the asteroid belt now? And another one on the planet Cimbrean?”

“I knew there were small colonies…” Allison said. “Cities?”

“Yeah… It’s… kinda scary. When I left… I mean, aliens were just a silly story when I left and all of this would have been on TV.”

“And now you’re fluent in an alien language and could probably get a job in one of those cities.” Allison said. “Wow. Mindfuck.”

“Yeah… Anyway, uh… Regaari was on that station. With Mother Giymuy. She… didn’t make it.”

“Oh, baby, I’m sorry…” Allison moved the phone closer to her face, as if a little more digital proximity might make all the difference in comfort.

Xiù smiled for her. “It’s… it’s okay. She was very old even when I first met her, and Regaari told me the Hunters didn’t get her. I’ll miss her, but…”

Allison just nodded, and they had a moment of mutual silence before Xiù perked up again. “Oh! Okay, you know those soldiers who pulled us off the lifeboat?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, they went to that station to save people! Sergeant Arés, the one who treated me, he’s friends with Regaari! Apparently they fought together in that battle. My Regaari!”

“Wow. Small galaxy.”

“More like a really small group of guys in that job.” Xiù suggested. “Anyway, apparently the British want to give Regaari a medal.”

“And Ayma?”

Xiù laughed. “I don’t know if she wanted to scold me or check if I was okay. Both I guess? But it’s…”

Allison let her think, and after a thoughtful scratch at her eyebrow, Xiù turned back to the camera. “I guess I owe you an apology.” she said.

“What for?”

“For being so…” Xiù hunted for the right word “So down these last couple of weeks. It’s just… weird, being back here.”

Allison scooted back on the bed and folded her legs. “Not like you imagined?”

Xiù shook her head. “No. Mom’s trying to act like nothing really happened, like she’s not sixty now. Wei doesn’t know how to talk with me and I don’t know how to talk with him and Papa’s… he’s kind of… sad all the time. Like, I’ll catch him looking at me and then he’ll look away and I think I can see tears.”

Allison chose her words carefully. “D’you think that’s likely to get better?” she asked.

Xiù made a coarse noise in her throat and snarled something in Gaori. It was a good language for snarling in, like an angrier version of Mandarin as spoken by a mouthful of sharp teeth.

“Say again?” Allison asked her.

“I said… well. I said no. No I don’t. You want to hear the kind of work offers I’ve been getting?”

“Do tell?”

Xiù shook her head, smiling grimly. “Five publishers who want to ghost-write my story, some asshole from the Byron Group, and an actual porn studio!”

Allison’s mouth opened in outrage. “You’re shitting me.”

“Nuh. I think that guy was just trying his luck, though. Like, he didn’t expect me to say yes, but if by some miracle I did…”

“Did you break the porn guy’s nose too?”

Xiù went red. “How did-?”

“That Byron Group asshole showed up down here too.”

“I should have known he would…” Xiù kneaded her forehead. “D’you tell him to go away?”

“Can’t. He literally made Julian an offer that he can’t refuse… or if he does refuse, he’s crazy.”

“That good?”

“There’s this whole legal… thing with Julian’s grampa’s place. He could lose the house if it goes against him, and this place is real important to him.”

Xiù sighed. “So if you sign a deal with them, Byron Group sorts it all out?” she asked. “That kind of manipulation is why I hit that guy.”

“Manipulation it might be.” Allison agreed. “But it sounded like everyone’s gonna get what they want.”

“Do I get to hit him again?”

Allison covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. Xiù was teasing, she knew: a sure sign that for all the ups and downs of discussing the things she’d learned, she was in a good mood. “Okay, so what was it lifted your spirits?” she asked.

“Just… I guess I cleared my head out. Figured out what’s really mine in there. Like my room.”

“I hope there’s more in there than you left in your room!”

Xiù made a silent laugh through her nose. “There is.” she promised. “Look, can I come down there? Right now? I’ve… things are clear right now, and I want to act while they still are. Is that okay?”

“You know you can!” Allison told her.

“You don’t mind? I mean, just you and Julian in a little place in the woods… it sounds romantic.”

“Hey.” Allison sat forward. “There’s no way you’d make it less romantic, I promise.” she winked. “It’ll be… intimate.”

Xiù laughed, going slightly red across her nose and cheeks. Her fingertip ran absent-mindedly through the hair at her temple. “Well, when you put it like that…”

“Mm-hmm, just you, me, a gorgeous guy… and, oh my God, he has the hugest TV and there’s nobody around for miles, so we could crank the volume right up.”

Xiù giggled. “Mm. I do like to get loud…” she mused. Her phone jolted as she stood up. “I’d better book a flight and… well, let my parents know where I’m going.” she said. “Uh… See you soon?”

Allison nodded, clearing her throat to try and cure a sudden and unaccountable case of dry mouth. “…Sure.” she agreed. “You, uh, send us the… details. You know.”

“Will do. Sure. Um… ‘bye for now.”

Allison waved to the screen: Xiù smiled and ended the call. The instant the phone went dark, Allison tossed it lightly aside onto the blankets then let out a long and shaky breath. “Okay…”

She let herself fall backwards and put her hands over her eyes, thinking. “Wow.”

Julian called from the kitchen. “You okay?”

Allison peeled her hands apart and directed an embarrassed grimace at the ceiling. “Yeah! Yeah. She’s, uh… She’s coming down here!”

“So soon?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, if you wanna shower, the hot water should be full.” Julian suggested, appearing in the doorway. “Help work that stressful day off?”

A hot shower sounded like simultaneously the best idea and the worst idea right now, but a lot more of the former. Allison kicked her legs out and sprang up off the bed. “You make a compelling argument.” she smiled, and kissed him on the cheek. “Just through here?”

“Yup.”

Allison slid past him, grabbed her flight bag from where Julian had left it on the couch. “What are you gonna do?” she asked.

He just waved a hand helplessly at all the legal paperwork.

Allison sighed. “…Right. You, uh… have fun, I guess.”

The shower turned out to be amazing. She found a setting that felt almost like she was getting a massage from a wire brush and worked all the tension and travel grime out of her scalp and her shoulders, leaned forward and let decadently hot water steam and cascade down her back and legs. A different setting swirled and pulsed pleasantly across her chest and tummy, and the final setting just soaked, allowing her to employ an exfoliating scrub and get herself feeling properly clean for the first time since they’d been landed on the planet Aru.

Aru…

She killed the shower and gave herself the bare minimum of a drying-off, squeezing the excess water out of her hair and swiping it from her arms and legs with her hands. She combed her hair back, grabbed a pair of clean black panties from her luggage and wriggled into them.

Draping a hand towel around her shoulders completed the image. She studied herself in the mirror. Blonde hair slicked back and gone dark from the wetness, long limbs beaded with droplets, a lingering wet sheen on an abdomen that had only slightly suffered from not being able to do her usual regimen of crunches, and just enough breast visible behind the towel.

Perfect.

She unlocked the door. “Hey, Etsicitty?” she asked, stepping out into the living room.

He looked up. “Yea-? …Woah.

There was nothing like making him speechless, and she deployed her best dark smile. “Come here.”

He was up and sliding an arm around her waist in a second. “Yes ma’am!”

“Oh yeah.” she laughed and congratulated herself as she felt him kiss and nibble the side of her neck and gently push her back towards the bedroom. “Good boy.”


Date Point 10y4m6d AV
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Mother Ayma

“According to your Internet, there are many females interested in you…”

Baseball perked up and rolled across a bed to take a closer look at Ayma’s screen. It creaked, alarmingly. “No shit?”

“Oh yes. There is a poll. ‘Left Beef versus Right Beef, who’s sexier?”

She wasn’t quite sure if the nicknames were intended to be insulting, but they seemed to please Baseball. “Fuckin’ beef? Awesome.”

“I would have found that insulting myself,”

“Are you kidding?” he turned towards the bathroom door and raised his voice. “Yo, Horse!”

A muffled “Yuh?” drifted through the door.

“You know what they’re calling us on the Internet?”

“What?”

“They’re calling us ‘Left Beef’ and ‘Right Beef’!”

Adam could be heard laughing beyond the door. “Which is which?” He called.

“You’re Left Beef.”

“I don’t think I understand the joke.” Ayma confessed. The Internet was a source of near limitless fascination and impenetrable in-jokes. The gist was that her Protectors had acquired almost as much celebrity - if not more - than Regaari and herself, with the commentary ranging from the objectifying and overtly sexual, to the dismissive, the political and the surprisingly well-informed.

“It’s like… Y’know what, never mind. You gonna vote?”

“On a poll as to which of two humans I find more attractive?” Ayma queried. “I don’t find either of you attractive!”

“Aww, c’mon.” Base smiled. Ayma bobbled her head in resignation, and touched her claw to “Right Beef.”

“You remind me a little of one of my mates.” she explained, while Base quietly pantomimed victory with a pump of his fist.

“I do?”

“Oh yes. He-“

They were interrupted by the bathroom door opening and a thoroughly bedraggled and uncomfortable-looking Regaari shuffled out, dripping wet and wrapped head to foot in towels and a bathrobe. Warhorse was slightly behind him wearing only a pair of shorts and looking rather more comfortable, though that was hardly strange. Moisture and humans seemed to go together well.

“Oh dear. Our turn?” Ayma asked.

Regaari made a show of seating himself in as dignified a posture as he could in front of the large mirror that dominated the main room. To Ayma’s eyes, he was still as sleek and handsome as ever, and in any other setting she might have been able to appreciate his slender strength and some fond memories of the time spent siring their cub together.

Next to any human, however, any Gaoian was skinny. Next to Warhorse, Regaari looked positively pathetic.

“Your turn,” he confirmed, fighting to maintain some semblance of gravitas when he looked half-drowned and was shivering uncontrollably.

“Yeah, uh… Dude. Don’t use Formulation Three.” Warhorse cautioned, referring to one of the hypoallergenic shampoos they’d been able to acquire for the mission. The Gaoians were going to need a thorough decontamination at the end of every day, and finding products that were safe for nonhuman skin but still tough on Terran pathogens and allergens had been… challenging.

Base’s brow creased interrogatively. “Okay, but why not?”

“Turns out it contains civet musk oil.”

“That’s bad?”

“Don’t. Ask.”

“Though, um, any clan which imported that… substance would surely become very wealthy and powerful.” Regaari fidgeted in his seat.

“Ah. you mean that… interesting scent isn’t you?” Ayma asked, flicking an amused ear. The vapor that had spilled out of the bathroom alongside Regaari and his human friend had a potent aphrodisiac component. “I shall have to alert Yulna to the danger of males trying to import this substance…”

Regaari’s ears wilted and he fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat.

Ayma decided it would be cruel to tease him further. “Very well. Shall we go decontaminate, Baseball? Hopefully any lingering… awkwardness will have dissipated by the time we are done.”

Base chuckled. “Sure.”

Ayma couldn’t hold back a deep wave of trepidation when they entered the bathing suite. “Does it truly have to be a wet bath?” she asked.

“Truly does, unless you wanna wind up breathing in all the deathworld stuff in your fur. And, uh, you’re gonna need to seal those robes in this here bag.” Base offered it. When Ayma duck-nodded and began to remove the garment, he turned around sharply.

“…What are you doing?” She asked.

“Just, uh…”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous.” Ayma directed an exasperated glance at the ceiling. “You and I are of different species, and mine doesn’t subscribe to human body-squeamishness in any case.”

“You’ve got those robes, an’ overalls an’ stuff…” Base pointed out, still not turning around. Ayma stuffed her dirty clothing into the bag and sealed it as the instructions dictated.

“And you have those ‘ranger shorts’ which don’t seem consistent with any other human notion of modesty I have encountered.” Ayma retorted. “Besides, how am I expected to carry my communicator and wallet in my fur?” She turned on her best Mother voice. “Now will you please recover your senses and help me decontaminate?”

The Mother voice worked. He cleared his throat and turned around, gave her a curious look, and then shrugged. “You’re right. You look more like a… a dog or a cat or something,” he agreed.

“I know what you’re saying, but please don’t compare us to non-sapient animals, Baseball.” she requested. “It’s not… dignified.”

“Right. Sorry.” He turned and grabbed some bottles. “So, this here’s the shampoos… Number three is out, so that leaves… these.”

Ayma’s nose twitched. “That’s… quite a potent scent. Why are they so perfumed?”

“Humans like our soap to smell good I guess.” Baseball, a man who smelled almost exclusively of clean sweat and testosterone, shrugged. “And these are prescription soaps for people with, like, delicate skin conditions and stuff, but they’re supposed to still smell nice.”

“They’re overpowering! Do your noses even work properly?”

Base scoffed. “Dude. Speciesist. Now come on, which smells nicest?”

“That one is… heady. What is it?”

“Uh… Coconut butter.”

Ayma ducked her head in a ’let’s get this over with’ way and Baseball started the shower, which coughed and spurted before settling into a steady stream. He ran his hand under it once or twice, gauging the temperature, then invited Ayma to do the same.

“That’s… just right.” she declared, took a deep breath and stepped under it.

Gaoians had an uneasy relationship with water. Males from working clanless castes and the more notable labor clans like Stoneback tended to clip their fur right back to the undercoat so as to soak it and work long hours, cooled by evaporating water.

Females, however, were not usually workers, and the only time Ayma had previously managed to be truly drenched had been when she had fallen into a fountain in the Commune as a young female just out of cubhood. Water had gone up her nose and she had felt miserable for hours as she slowly dried.

This was… better, at least. The water was nice and warm, but it still made her fur heavy and plastered it down, leaving her - she knew - looking small and skinny and helpless. Still, when Baseball played the showerhead over her scalp and water flooded her ears, it was all she could do not to claw at him and escape.

She settled instead for shaking her head violently to dislodge it, and Baseball made an “Uagh!” noise as second-hand water splattered his face.

“Right, because you have grounds to complain.” Ayma growled. She was already shivering, despite the water’s warmth.

“You’re the one who wanted to come to this planet.” Baseball reminded her. “Ain’t my fault that means a thorough shampoo once a day. Here.” He handed her the showerhead. “I got all the stuff you can’t reach. You’re on your own for the front and the awkward bits.”

Ayma accepted it and dutifully set about making sure every inch of her was properly soaked. Baseball, for his part, squirted a large (and cold) dollop of soap onto her upper back and started to massage it in with equal parts strength and delicacy.

“So who was this mate I remind you of?” he asked.

“I-? Oh. Daar, the sire of my third cub. Daar of Stoneback.”

“Big guy?”

“The biggest. Daar is the Stoneback clan’s great success story.” Telling the story was a welcome distraction. “The end product of their whole genetic program. He’s almost as strong as a human, in some ways.”

“Right. Y’all aren’t that far behind us really.”

“Far enough behind that if you were to punch me, I would have better chances of surviving a pulse pistol.”

“Yeah, but part of that’s… like, we’re made to punch. Gaoians aren’t. Bet you if you could use that long dorsal muscle for punching you’d hit about as hard as we do.”

“I have my doubts.” Ayma shook her head again. Baseball raised a hand to ward off flying droplets. “…I’m sorry. It’s very hard not to do that.”

“You okay?” Baseball asked.

“I itch all over. Wet fur… what is the term? Sucks.”

“Beats acute respiratory distress.” He reminded her. “Here’s the shampoo.”

Ayma accepted it and set about massaging it right into every hair follicle she had. “He’s a bit of a freak, really.” she conceded. “But that’s what his clan have been trying to breed for thousands of years: a freak.”

“I’m guessing they’re breeding from him, too.”

“With females who’ll accept the proposition, yes. As I did. Apparently I’m quite the catch,”

“Why’s that?” Base asked. He started rinsing out the soap again.

“My own genetic legacy includes Clans Highmountain and Goldpaw.” Ayma revealed.

“That’s good?”

“They specialize in science and philosophy and in commerce and trade respectively. Thinkers and merchants. A good legacy, and one I’m proud to be part of.”

Base’s hands paused. “See, that’d bother me.” He said. “Being just… being valued only for my genes.”

Ayma turned her head and gave him as best a sidelong glance as she could. “Why?”

“Hey, someday, kids’d be nice.” Base said. “But I wanna make a difference myself, not just be the daddy of the person who made a difference.”

Ayma turned away again. “Do you know how old I am?” she asked.

“No.”

“I will be fifty-four soon. That’s in Gaoian years. In humans years, I’m…” she raised her head slightly to perform some mental calculations. “…About forty-five.”

“Wow. I thought you were younger.”

Ayma duck-nodded again. “We don’t decline slowly like you do. We stay in our prime for most of our lives, but our geriatric decline is abrupt. The very oldest Gaoian I ever heard of was Father Fyu, who lived to be more than a hundred of our years old. The oldest I ever knew personally was Mother-Supreme Giymuy, who was ninety-two when she died. Most Gaoians… eighty of our years.”

“That’s not so bad.” Base said.

“Except that there are twelve of our years to every ten of yours.” Ayma said. “Most humans can expect to live a fifth as long again as I will, and… bear in mind, that life expectancy is the product of all our advances in medical science. And I mean no offense, Baseball, but our medicine is a very long way in advance of humanity’s.”

“Oh.” Baseball didn’t apparently know what to say beyond that, and so settled for gently plucking the shampoo bottle out of her paw and starting the second lather.

“We… are not a long-lived species.” Ayma summarized. “Not by your standards, and especially not when compared to Corti or Guvnuragnaguvendrugun. If we stopped breeding, Gao would not even go a hundred years before it was dark and empty. Is it really so surprising that I might be proud to breed and raise the next generation?”

“I guess not.” He conceded.

“Not everybody can make a difference, Baseball. Not everybody should. I respect what you and Warhorse do, and what Regaari does, but you would not be here without… farmers, and builders and all the people who are content not to make a difference. You would not exist without Mothers.”

Baseball’s hands were steady as he made sure she was as clean as possible, but his voice was uncertain. “I guess…”

“Is something wrong?”

Baseball thought before replying. “Just in my head.” he decided. “It’s your life, you do what you want with it. I guess I’m just not used to women who like raising kids and all that.”

“What kind of woman are you used to?” Ayma inquired.

“Heh. Women like Technical Sergeant Kovač, or Corporal Deacon, or Major Jackson I guess.”

“I don’t know them.” Ayma said. “Well, unless you mean the Major Jackson who was your species’ first FTL pilot?”

“Yeah, she’s working with Public Relations a lot these days, and she and Major Powell are a thing. Not sure how much of a thing, but a thing. She’s pretty cool. “

“And who are the other two?”

“Kovač is our spacesuit guru. Brain like you wouldn’t believe. Pretty sure she’s sweet on ‘Horse, too, but she’s biding her time. Deacon’s fun. She’s one of Firth’s support techs, got small hands and strong shoulders. Conditioner?”

“What does it do?” Ayma asked, studying the offered bottle suspiciously.

“Should help with the itching.”

Ayma almost snatched it from him. “Oh, by all the Clans, yes please!”

Base was right, the second he started rubbing the ’conditioner’ in, the worst of the itching faded away. “You know… if you ever retire from the SOR and find that you need a replacement career, you would be well received on Gao as a masseuse.” she told him.

“Strong but gentle, huh?”

“I am yet to meet a human who isn’t.”

Base chuckled, and handed her the conditioner bottle, which she set to work soothing her itching chest and abdomen. “But… I mean, you let me know if I’m getting too personal, but did you grow up and become a Mother and that was it? How do you know this is your calling if you never tried anything else?”

“Oh, I did.” Ayma revealed. “I took a research position at a Clan Highmountain observatory when I was young. The same one that discovered Gorai, our first colony world. But… I met my first mate there, we had a healthy female cub together, and… I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do.”

Baseball didn’t respond, but he seemed to relax, smiled and nodded.

“You approve?” Ayma guessed.

“Like I said: S’just not what I’m used to, but I feel you. Finding the thing you know you wanna do in life.”

He grabbed the showerhead. “Final rinse.”

“Let’s get it over with…” Ayma sighed, and shut her eyes, feeling the hot water sluice the conditioner out of her fur. She just knew that her ears and whiskers were drooping piteously.

Eventually, the ordeal was over, and Baseball grabbed an enormous white towel. “Okay. Get dry.”

“I need the towel to get dry.” Ayma told him.

“Nuh-ah. This is for my protection.”

“…Oh.”

She sighed, aware that shaking water out was completely undignified and uncivilized… but also highly effective. Base raised the towel to shield himself and Ayma sighed inwardly, dropped to all fours and liberally covered the inside of the bathroom with water droplets.

It felt irritatingly cathartic and, just to spite Baseball for making her do it, she shook again a second time when he peeked over the towel, then stood up again.

Baseball wiped his face off. “Did you have to?” he complained.

“No, but you didn’t have to make me dry off like an animal.” Ayma retorted, and took the towel from him.

She threw the enormous cloth around her in a kind of rough toga and dried her limbs. Base handed her a second one. “You’re really bothered by that.” he noted.

“Wouldn’t you be?”

“Not really. We’re animals. Why try an’ pretend otherwise?” Base shrugged. “We walk around, we eat stuff, breathe… animals.”

“Personally, I aspire to be more.” Ayma sniffed, scrubbing the towel into the top and back of her head.

“Me too! But you don’t get there by forgettin’ what you are.” Base opened the door.

If the inside of the bathroom had been humid and fragrant, the main room smelled mostly of hot air, moisture and wet Gaoian. Regaari was sitting miserably still while being methodically blasted by some kind of hand-held hot air gun while Arés combed and brushed his fur. Already there was a… fluffy… quality to him that just didn’t look dignified.

He gave Ayma an affronted look that communicated quite clearly that he blamed her for his current predicament.

“Ah. This must be that ‘blow-drying’ I heard so much about.” Ayma hazarded.

Base produced a second hot air gun. “Yup.”

“Is there any chance that I could…?”

“Nope.”

There was no appropriate word in Gaori. Fortunately, there were several appropriate ones in English, and Ayma dutifully selected one as she sat on the bed and awaited her turn.

“…Shit.”


Date Point 10y4m1w AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada.

General Martin Tremblay

“A nanofactory.”

“Yup.” Major Nadeau grinned. “A full-sized industrial one. Kwmbwrw tech, which puts it about five hundred years ahead of the prototype in Dusseldorf.”

“Which is a good seven years from being switched on anyway.” Colonel Bartlett added.

Tremblay inspected the summary that Kirk had sent them, after a long and tense absence.

After ten years of living at the Scotch Creek facility and seeing it go from research center to the sprawling nerve center of extrasolar defence, one thing he’d become thoroughly acquainted with was advanced technology. He might not be able to write the field equations from memory like Nadeau and Bartlett could, but when it came to spotting the strategic implications of every new piece of alien gear that came their way, he prided himself on leading the pack.

It felt good not to be playing catch-up with the geniuses.

“Suddenly, I feel a good deal more optimistic.” he mused. “We’re sure it’s Kirk?”

His intelligence advisor, Lieutenant-Colonel Clarke, pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Psychologically he’s yellow at worst, but until somebody with need-to-know on DEEP RELIC presses a scanner to his head, he’s orange.” he declared.

Tremblay sucked some air thoughtfully through his teeth. “Orange”, in the parlance of their system for classifying the likelihood that a given person was carrying a Hierarchy agent meant ‘high risk’. He would almost have preferred red - ‘strongly suspected’ - or even a conclusive black.

“And he’s not prepared to drop the shield and let anybody in?”

“No, sir. No jump beacons, no traffic. Not until Lewis Beverote finishes… whatever it is he’s going to finish. Until then, it’s communication only.”

“What, does he think we’re riddled with Hierarchy ourselves?” Nadeau asked.

“Either he’s being commendably cautious…” Clarke said, “or else he’s compromised. We have no conclusive way of knowing.”

“And Beverote needs to know what we need in order to put the factory to best use.” Tremblay read off the bottom of the report.

He tapped his thumb on the table to help him think. “…Shit.”

“Yup.” Clarke agreed.

Nadeau cleared his throat. “Sirs?”

“…We’re at an impasse.” Tremblay explained. “Can’t trust him, can’t gain his trust. Until we know he’s not Hierarchy, we can’t give him anything useful to do without potentially tipping our hand as to long-term strategy, and both he and that nanofactory are too valuable to waste on makework. We need to secure them, for better or worse.”

“What about this ship he mentions?” Clarke mused. “The Negotiable Curiosity?”

“True. if Kirk’s an active agent for the Hierarchy then including that detail in his report makes little sense…” Tremblay drummed his fingers on the desk some more, then reached a decision and stood.

“Bartlett, Nadeau: You’re dismissed. Thank you.”

Both men stood, nodded, and made their exit. Tremblay turned to Clarke.

“I want to sent a JETS team after that ship.”

“Isn’t chasing a spaceship the SOR’s job?” Clarke asked.

“Too valuable, and still recovering from Capitol Station. Still, ships can’t fly forever. Eventually they’re going to land somewhere…”

“…and JETS can pick them up when they do.” Clarke nodded. “So, we need our informants to keep watch for this thing.”

Tremblay paced by his window, thumb pressed thoughtfully to his chin. “Do we have anything on this Bedu character?”

“I’ll find out.” Clarke promised. “Who were you thinking of sending?”

“I’ll ask our colleagues down south for an STS element, I think. And we’ll need a V-Class, obviously.”

Clarke nodded. “That should buy trust with Kirk if he’s not compromised.” he agreed. “Not to mention whatever intel we can get from that ship and its crew.”

“They’ll be pawns.” Tremblay predicted. He sat back down and started to compose his requests and orders. “Still. You never know…”


Date Point 10y4m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Uncharted System, Deep Space

Lewis Beverote

There was an idea forming.

Okay. That wasn’t accurate. There were several ideas forming. Thousands. Most, so far as Lewis could tell, were completely batfuck crazy and of no practical use, ripped straight from the pages of old scifi novels. A factory that could turn an entire asteroid belt into an ocean of unmanned space fighters? Great idea, if only they weren’t fighting a digital species that didn’t even live in the real world.

Some kind of poison to induce implant rejection? Would have also induced fatal encephalitis.

And those were just the pertinent ideas, the ones that came even vaguely close to addressing the challenge that Kirk hat set him: Saving the Earth from the Hierarchy.

Some of his ideas were just crazy. Using forcefields to brew the perfectly aerated espresso. A field equation that proved that it was possible to build a Niven Ring if you used a solar-enclosing forcefield to power another forcefield that was powerful enough to overcome the tensile strength problem, after which point the only real obstacles were time and material. Twenty kilometer tall robots piloted by an uploaded human brain and powered by a captive black hole. The potential weaponization of mice, opera and the Big Mac. A nutritionally balanced and, importantly, palatable portable ration to replace the nutrient sphere, derived from maize and rice.

Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t so crazy.

The point was… all the data in the world was useless without context. How could you even start thinking about saving a planet from an implacably genocidal species of sapient software who held the lives of ninety percent of the galaxy’s population to ransom?

He’d been chewing it over for weeks. Fine, save the world. Great. But every scrap of data he was learning about every discipline he could think of was only doing more and more and more to convince him that there was nothing he could do.

Kirk hadn’t visited in a few days. Vedreg’s chromatophore strips had a sickly, cautious quality to them. Every conversation ended in an argument, in rage, in futility.

There was, he knew deep in his bones, just no way that he could save Earth.

And that was where the idea was coming from. The idea was this:

If it was true that once you had eliminated the impossible, whatever remained - however improbable - must be the truth, then it followed that once you had eliminated all of the impossible courses of action, then whatever options remained - however dubious the odds of success - must be the one to go for.

When Lewis came to speak this thought out loud, it didn’t sound half as good as it had in his head.

He simplified it to something he preferred: “If you can’t do what you’d like, do what you can.”

He couldn’t save the Earth.

But, he was beginning to suspect, he might just be able to save the human race.

He deleted his files and started over.


Date Point 10y4m1w AV
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, United States, Earth

Regaari

Major Powell was practically radiating unease, not that Regaari could blame him. After all, what Regaari was about to do was a calculated risk that would have incredibly serious repercussions for the major if it went wrong.

“You’re certain about this?” he repeated, for what must have been the thirtieth time.

“I’m certain, major. You worry after me like a Mother with a sickly cub!”

“Aye, I suppose I do…”

Ayma made a nervous noise. “He really is not the only one. Regaari, this isn’t wise.”

“Aye.” Powell agreed. “This is a risky endeavor…”

“And a rewarding one, personally and professionally, for both of us.” Regaari insisted. “Now please. My mind is made up: I’m doing this.”

‘This’, meant unadulterated, unfiltered immersion in the alien beauty of the landscape that surrounded them. He and Ayma were, after all, visiting the most dangerous temperate planet outside of Nightmare known to exist, and that sparked his adventurous spirit in a way that surprised even himself. How could he not explore such a place?

Of course, when comparing Nightmare and Earth, the question of which was “most dangerous” was open to some interpretation. Nightmare had seasonal extremes unseen on any other temperate world and those extremes drove a boom-bust lifecycle that even the Earth couldn’t match. This in turn inspired absolutely vicious flora and fauna during the resource-rich summer and a deep, torpid sloth during the long, long winters.

And yet…

Clan Highmountain - ever the scientists and farsighted thinkers - had once sent an expedition to Nightmare, looking for clues to what awaited Gao in the future millions of years of its slow ascent into Deathworld status. Nightmare’s highly eccentric orbit had turned out to be surprisingly bad for diversity: with the whole planet being freezing cold for two thirds of its year and with a scorching hot summer sandwiched by brief, mild equinoxes, biome variation was almost nonexistent. Nightmare was essentially a single, worldwide temperate rainforest, having a remarkably uniform catalog of species from pole to pole. Every last one of which were impressively lethal, to be sure, but nothing like the rich diversity of what Earth had on offer.

Earth had so many ecologies that it boggled the mind.

To Regaari’s thinking that made it more dangerous, and far more interesting. The regular seasons might have made it easier to plan for and gather resources such as food, but even a day’s walk away may find a hapless wanderer in a totally different environment, surrounded by unforeseen lurking dangers. The very idea of being able to stand on a desert hilltop and see lush grassland, or gaze across a wide river to see forest on one bank and swamp on the other was compelling.

There were political calculations involved beyond his genuine desire to see what the humans called “Mother Nature”. Yes, the award he was due to receive from the “British” was a massive propaganda victory for Clan Whitecrest, but the real value would be in the footage of a Gaoian - a Whitecrest - walking unaided and (mostly) unprotected on the most infamous of Deathworlds. That would go down well at home.

It was certainly going down well on Earth. The reporters that dogged his and Ayma’s every step were being kept at a respectful distance, shooting video with long-throw lenses and drones that were, next to galactic technology, shocking primitive but still elegantly functional in their design and execution.

He recognised major Jackson, standing politely near to the reporters. She had spent time in front of many of them in turn, answering questions, putting on a smiling face, controlling the official Allied take on Regaari’s experiment, and occasionally conversing with Powell to pin down some minute detail of their message.

Deciding that he’d pontificated long enough, he glanced at Warhorse who was fiddling nervously with a pouch on his tactical vest, then at Ayma. Both gave him a reluctant nod.

Regaari gulped, read his hazard detector one last time and confirmed the air was currently safe to breathe, stepped out onto the bluff, deactivated the forcefield around his head, and breathed.

He immediately erected the shield again. The experience hadn’t been unpleasant - far from it - but it had been the olfactory equivalent of walking into a room where loud music was playing. The nose needed time to adjust.

This time, he scaled down the field intensity by degrees, allowing more and more of Earth’s rich, warm, moist air to reach his nostrils until finally the field was gone and he could immerse himself in the full perfumed glory of it.

It was beautiful.

There were so many, many, many different and competing aromas, some subtle, some cloying, others brutally intense. For a long while he just stood there and drank in the bouquet of Earth, letting it suffuse him and change him. He had never experienced anything quite like it and he knew that he would later spend hours describing this little aspect of his adventure to his Brothers, all the while failing to properly convey it.

Behind him, he was dimly aware of cameras clicking and whirring madly as they recorded his obvious pleasure.

The second thing he noticed were the sounds. Once the cameras had died down a bit and the Park Rangers encouraged some quiet, the gentle, subtle sound of everything came to him. Life was here. Life in such enormous variety that it humbled what one might find anywhere else. Life in all of its tiny, scuttering, careful beauty. He twitched an ear as something small moved restlessly in a nearby bush, no doubt scared still by all this activity. A flying animal of some kind whirred as it burst out of one bush, undulated over a hundred meters of ground in three short bursts of powered flight, and vanished into another bush.

There was more to be seen than would be gained by simply standing still and let it come to him. He wanted to explore, and so he opened his eyes and set off on a tour with the Park Rangers who, casting the occasional glance at Warhorse, set about showed him things that challenged his perception of what a Deathworld really was.

First was the stunning, complex interplay of life itself. There was so much of it, even here, even in what was allegedly a rugged and comparatively empty part of the planet. The weathered badlands were far, far from dead and empty: They were utterly alive with flowers and shrubs and insects too numerous to count, buzzing and rustling in the breeze and each contributing to the loud but delicate nasal symphony.

Earth, the most infamous Deathworld in the galaxy, was bursting at the seams with life.

The tour wound on. Gaining in confidence, the park rangers picked out some binoculars and began to point out wildlife both nearby and distant. They steered him away from a fat, humming bee (a real danger, if it were to sting him) directed his binoculars to a bison (so big!) pointed out some nearby rabbits (which vanished when startled, so quickly that Regaari barely saw them do it) and off in the distance, a mighty, fearsome grizzly bear (that creature made even the well-armed Park Rangers nervous).

He watched it stand on its hind legs, aim its nose at them, sniff the air, the drop onto all fours and beat a dignified retreat. The bison had done something similar.

“It’s… running away?”

The park ranger nodded. “He’s just staying out of our way.” she agreed.

“Why?” Ayma asked.

“We’re an unknown to him and may be risky. Most animals will keep to themselves unless they’re forced to interact.”

“That seems wise, I suppose.” Ayma conceded.

“It’s deceptive.” Regaari mused. “I know that bear is a dangerous animal, but from this far away it almost seems…comical and fuzzy.”

“Maybe, but he’s decidedly not.” the ranger told him. “Like you said, that bear is far away. Up close, a specimen that big is a threat to even a bison. His has claws are about THIS long, his teeth are THIS big, and he’s stronger than any human alive.”

The Major huffed quietly at that, a slight grin on his face. Regaari would ask about that later.

“Anyway, that’s why we’re keeping our distance, and I think he has the same idea.”

“But surely that bear would not fear us!”

“Hard to say.” the male ranger chipped in. “Bears are unpredictable precisely because they’re so large and powerful. If he was hungry? Perhaps he may have investigated, but a good dose of pepper spray in its face would likely have scared it off. A mother protecting her cubs? Well…that’s a story we didn’t need to tell today.”

Ayma chittered at that. “Ah. That sounds familiar.”

The warden smiled at her, maybe not quite understanding the source of her amusement. “…But for the most part? He’d probably keep his distance, especially of a group this large. Wildlife is generally shy.”

“…shy? Why would he be shy?” Regaari asked.

“Because he’s smarter than the average bear.” the female ranger commented. There were chuckles at that, meaning that it was presumably some in-joke or pop culture reference that Regaari had yet to encounter. “We’re dangerous and he damn well knows it.”

Ayma’s ears twisted as she watched the bear pause atop a slight swell in the terrain and look back. “Understandable, but in that case why are we avoiding it?”

“Because he’s dangerous.” the male ranger replied. “Which means that too close an encounter would end with him dead and maybe someone here hurt, probably quite badly. And none of us want either of those things.”

That struck Regaari as a very human thing to say - All the destructive ability in the galaxy, and no desire to do so. At least, not here, and not now.

“Anyway, he’s not even the biggest threat. There’s a pack of wolves yonder-” he pointed, and both Gaoians raised their binoculars. Regaari fancied that he saw a flash of fur among the distant grasses. “-that’s been skirting the outside of our sight, watching us. They know us.” he gestured to his partner and himself “…but don’t know you or anyone else here.”

“Wolves? Surely those would be a danger! I’ve read they were feared for millennia.” Ayma sounded genuinely alarmed.

“They don’t usually attack humans, not unless they’re desperate.” the female ranger reassured her. “And even they’d rather avoid the risk. Here, in this place? Attacking prey is dangerous. What if you were a wolf, and that bison turned around and gored you? You would be broken and a liability to the pack. Would you survive? The pack would bring you food and such, but what if you didn’t heal? A broken bone is practically a death sentence in the wild. What if the wound became infected?”

She smiled fondly at the wolves while the Gaoians mulled that point over.

“So how do they hunt, then?” Regaari asked. “They must take some risk.”

“They go after the sick and isolated and obviously weak, or smaller things like the rabbits. They won’t attempt larger and more dangerous prey unless they must. And, hell, sometimes rival predators decide to be friends. We’ve seen it more than once, particularly with bears and wolves.”

“Wh…friends? Why would they cooperate?” Regaari asked.

“Why not? Instead of competing for the same resource, why not share? We see it mostly with lone male wolves and bears. They may align for a season and hunt together. It increases the chance of a kill, after all. But beyond that, they do genuinely seem to enjoy company. We see polar bears up north, for example, playing with sled dogs when no food advantage at all exists.”

“Dexter.”

Regaari turned to Warhorse, who was monitoring something on a tablet. “Wind’s picking up south of here and the pollen count’s rising. Gotta call it, man.”

Regaari nodded sadly and allowed himself one last, full immersion in what his nose was telling him. He very much doubted he would ever get another chance. “Last chance.” he told Ayma.

She paused, then bobbled her head sideways - a no. “I’m not of Whitecrest stock.” she reminded him. “What you can enjoy might… I’m happy, anyway.”

Regaari duck-nodded, and, with one last blissful sniff, raised his shield again. Warhorse ran the medical scanner over him the instant it was fully up.

“…You’re probably gonna have a runny nose and watering eyes tonight.” he decided. Baseball promptly burrowed in his bag and produced some antihistamines.

“We’ll need to thoroughly scrub that fur out.” Adam added, as Regaari accepted one and swallowed it with a little water. “But… yeah, I reckon you’re fine.”

Baseball, Powell and the two rangers visibly relaxed.

They strolled gently back up the hill toward the waiting entourage of reporters, which Regaari could tell that Powell was doing his best not to scowl at. “Feel like making a statement?” the major asked.

“I think I have just the thing.”

They strayed close enough for microphones and cameras to be thrust in their direction and a clamour of questions that only quieted when major Jackson raised her hands and pleaded for peace.

Regaari had been choosing his words with care all the way up the slope. “That was an experience I know I shall never forget.” he said. “The word ‘Earth’ doesn’t quite translate properly into Gaori. We have a word for dirt and mud, another word for the ground beneath our feet… but I think having been here to see and hear and smell all of this, the word that fits best is ‘Yeì’ which means… well, it means a place where things grow.”

Lots of deathworlder teeth became visible as the journalists collectively grinned and started spinning that soundbite while Powell and the Protectors gently escorted Ayma and Regaari away from them.

Warhorse was the first to speak, once they were out of earshot. “Bro. That was a real nice thing to say.” he enthused.

Ayma chittered. “He could talk a summer flower into blooming in winter, couldn’t he?” she asked rhetorically, using a Gaoian idiom.

“Aye. Silver-tongued, so he is.” Powell agreed, using a human one.

Regaari admitted a smug little dip of his ears, but didn’t feel remotely embarrassed by the praise. “It was nothing,” he told them “but the truth.”


Date Point 10y4m1w AV
Cairo, Egypt, Earth.

Master Sergeant Roy Vinther

Sergeant Coombes was getting nervous. “There’s that guy again… Orange Five.”

“You know the drill, BOUNCER.” Vinther ordered. “Stay casual, just keep walking.”

“When are we gonna get a fuckin’ go on this thing?”

“Soon as we’ve got grounds to upgrade these fuckers to Red. You out of sight yet?”

“Made the corner, yeah. Got a good look at the guy, looks like he might be our Yemeni victim.”

“Looks like?”

There was silence and a couple of clicks on the line - Thomson must have been walking past civilians and unable to speak. Some seconds later, he was able to reply. “Looks a lot like.”

Vinther glanced over to where Staff Sergeant Walsh, their “intel weenie”, was sat behind him in the nondescript van they’d parked a hundred yards or so from the suspicious site. The description was a joke and a farcical one: Walsh was a Combat Controller with Duty and Secondary AFSCs in ops intel. He’d been forced out of the early SOR highway by an injury, making him by far the biggest guy on the operation. Not SOR-big, but still a large, strong dude, with an even larger, stronger brain.

Walsh got on the line himself. “BOUNCER, DRINKINBUDDY. Scale of one to ten?”

“Solid eight for ya, DRINKINBUDDY.”

Walsh nodded, then frowned at his tablet. “Convoy. Comin’ in from the north. Two SUVs, a van and a pickup.”

Vinther checked with their guy on a nearby rooftop, Staff Sergeant Porter. “HANGOVER, you got eyes on?”

“Sure do, BARKEEP. Headed right past you.”

Everyone promptly scooted down in their chairs so as to be invisible. They didn’t move or make a noise until the eight vehicles had rumbled past.

BARKEEP, HANGOVER. They went into the compound.”

“Walsh…?” Vinther asked, over his shoulder.

“Red.” Walsh decided.

“That’s a red.” Vinther declared, for the Delta Force team to hear. “Go for stage two, just like we planned.”

Stage two took advantage of the quiet and careful reconnaissance they’d made on the compound, an old souk that had been long since converted into a warehouse or workshop of some kind, enclosing a large open area. It was a thoroughly permeable structure, but that worked both ways - plenty of ways in, and plenty of ways for hostiles to slip out or wait in ambush.

Vinther and Walsh had the “low-risk” approach - a corner of the building where an old window had been covered over with some drapes and not much else. Thompson had already checked it and declared that a stealthy ingress that way should be thoroughly do-able. They grabbed their M4s, were out of the van and up to the old souk in seconds.

Vinther took point. It was the work of seconds to move the drapes aside, pull himself through, and wave Walsh in after him.

Their radio clicked. BARKEEP, HANGOVER.” he was whispering, sub-vocalising into his mic. “Shit’s moving down here, they got two hostages, so we better pick it up - Oh Jesus fucking Christ….”

Vinther and Walsh exchanged a frown. HANGOVER was a professional. Hearing him so upset was jarring. “Sitrep”

“They took her brain out, what the fuck? What the… fuck. Oh God”

“They what?”

“Black. We’re fucking black. We need the fucking Rangers in here right now.” Walsh hissed.

“Call ‘em.” Vinther agreed, aware that Walsh had probably sent that on all channels just for the few extra seconds it’d earn. He darted up the hallway they were in and to a doorway, carefully swept his gun around the whole room as he stepped over the threshold. Once happy that it was clear, he scurried over to the window that looked into the courtyard.

About a half-dozen people were standing around watching invisible forcefields delicately, bloodlessly and seamlessly reassemble a woman’s head. Restrained next to her was a weeping younger woman with a strong family resemblance to the victim and vomit down her front. Even as he watched, the forcefields dropped the victim delicately onto her feet. She blinked and looked around and then, without any speech or apparent communication at all, stepped over to help one of the others in picking up her terrified former family member.

BOUNCER, you got a shot?” Vinther asked.

“Yeah.”

“Take it.”

The unfortunate new biodrone’s head burst. The hostage screamed and collapsed, hands flailing as her other captor met a similarly decisive end. She wrapped herself into a tight ball with her hands over her head as the remaining biodrones reacted as a single unit, drawing guns and firing at BOUNCER’s position.

Vinther took his own shot, and watched in astonishment as it clearly ricocheted off something solid between him and his target that he couldn’t see. Rapid-fire and the lightning-strike detonation of flashbangs at multiple points around the compound heralded the arrival of the Rangers.

“Watch the hostage!” he ordered on an open channel, and lined up another shot.

He didn’t get to take it. Something made of nothing swallowed the last of the biodrones, and there was a roaring, shrieking noise as a very large and completely invisible object kicked up dust and loose objects. A flapping cloth hanging from the wall caught on it as it rose, and, sensing valuable intel afoot, Vinther kept his helmet cam trained on it as the cloth draped across it and revealed its outline.

It looked for all the world like a classic flying saucer.

The cloth slid off, the howl of UFO engines hit a peak, and it was gone with a sonic boom. For a few seconds, some last gunfire rattled around the old souk, and then the all-clear came in. A Ranger medic double-timed over to the hostage, who was wailing and cradling her loved one’s body, and Vinther relaxed.

Walsh was beside him. “Holy. Shit.”

“Yeah. Did you fucking see that?”

“I saw.” Walsh nodded.

“A spaceship. They have a fucking spaceship on Earth.”

Walsh nodded again, and rubbed at his brow. “Well,” he said. “‘Least we know about it now…”


Date Point 10y4m1w1d AV
Saint James’s Palace, London, England, Earth

Major Owen Powell

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight was in his element surrounded by ancient brickwork and the bustle of the working palace, guiding the VIPs and their Protectors into the back of some understated black cars before stepping into one himself. He seemed to fit in at the very heart of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, unlike Powell, who’d spent so many days now involved in the business of the Gaoian diplomatic tour that he was about ready to throw himself at the walls to burn off his excess energy.

Goodness knew how Burgess and Arés were faring - between the fact that their own routines far exceeded his for strenuousness, and the much greater atmospheric oxygen relative to what they were used to in Folctha, he would have expected them to be fizzing by now. That they were holding it together was at once both surprising and encouraging.

“Penny for your thoughts, Powell?”

He jumped slightly as Rylee Jackson, who somehow managed to be quiet even in the hard heels of her Air Force “blues”, stepped up beside him and gave him a gentle touch on the elbow. Any more affectionate gesture than that would have to wait for back in the hotel.

He rubbed at his chin to cover the startle. “Just findin’ it a bit strange that two American lads under my command are off to meet the King, and I’m sat here twiddlin’ me thumbs until they come back.” he mused.

“Jealous?” she asked, teasingly.

Powell watched the motorcade depart and turn towards the Mall. “Yes an’ no.” he decided.

Jackson looked around. “We’ve got half an hour before they’re due back, nothing to do in that time and you’re on edge. I know it’s not much next to your usual regimen, but why don’t we take a stroll, get a look at the place? I’ve always wanted to visit England.”

“Aye, that sounds nice.” Powell agreed. “Bloody nice weather, too.”

“If you say so.” she half-smiled, and picked at the blue pullover sweater she had on over her shirt. “It’s kinda cold for my tastes.”

“Blue sky.” he pointed out.

She rolled her eyes and her smile got a little broader. “Oh, yeah. Break out the beer and hot dogs.”

This got a chuckle out of him. “Arright. Not sure where we can stroll to around here though.”

“That’s fine. let’s just get away from those cameras.”

They did so, heading away from the stable yard and hugging the wall until suddenly they found a secluded spot where nobody could see them. Powell felt a hand on his upper arm and when he turned to check on her she surprised him with a brief, but tender, kiss.

He blinked, and laughed. “That was nice. What was it for?”

“Come on, how often do you get to sneak a kiss in the grounds of a royal palace?” she grinned and, with a tilt of her head, suggested they should start walking again. “I know, I know, we’re on the job, there’s media around, I should be more careful…”

“Oi.” Powell chuckled at her. “I won’t tell if you don’t. I like the thrill of a little danger meself.”

“Fuckin’ A!” she nodded, then put a hand to her mouth guiltily. “Probably shouldn’t swear here.”

“It’s not fookin’ church.” Powell teased.

Their stroll took them back around an internal corner of the stable yard, and back into view of a news crew. “So… what did you mean by ‘yes and no’?” Rylee asked him.

Powell shrugged. “I never met the King, but they have that tradition of service… I remember there was this interview Harry gave, when he was crewin’ Apaches in Afghanistan. Summat came up and he just ripped the mic off and belted for his machine with ‘is mates. I’ve got a lotta respect for ‘em in that regard. You know better’n anyone, it’s gotta be hard bein’ military and bein’ a celebrity at the same time.”

“Tell me about it.” She kept a professionally neutral face as the camera turned to watch them pass. Just two officers going about their business, rather than two… close friends enjoying each others’ company.

“So, yeah on that level I’ve got a lot of respect for His Majesty and the lads. But…” Powell checked they weren’t in earshot of anybody. “I’unno. I’ve always been summat of a republican meself.”

“Isn’t the King your commander-in-chief?”

“Aye. An’, don’t get me wrong, I take that fookin’ seriously. So long as that’s how it works, I’ll go wi’ it. But if there was a referendum tomorrow about becoming… I dunno, the United British Republic or summat like that? I know which way I’d vote. I’d rather have a proper constitution than all…” he waved a hand at the Tudor opulence around them. “-this.”

“Pity.” Rylee mused.

“Don’t tell me you’re a monarchist?” Powell asked her.

“It seems to work for this country. It just wouldn’t be Britain somehow without it, you know?”

“It’s not like all those buildings and stuff would just go away. Hell, it’s not like we’d roll out the fookin’ guillotine, neither.” Powell pointed out.

“Yeah, I know. Just…” she sighed and smiled at the brickwork. “I dunno. Somehow, I think the magic would go out of it.”

“They’re just blokes.” Powell pointed out. “Nice blokes, sure. Probably. But they shit just like the rest of us… and I bet they’re fed the fook up with cameras, too.”

“Hmm. Too bad all of the princes and princesses who’re old enough aren’t single.”

“Now there’s a fookin’ original fantasy nobody’s ever had before…” Powell retorted, knowing full well she was only teasing.

She laughed again. “Yeah, and it’s not like I need the visibility, is it?”

“Money’d be nice.” He suggested.

“Eh. Maybe. Y’know, I don’t know what I’d do with more money?”

“Aye. Me either.”

“So is that why you didn’t go with?” she asked. “I mean, you commanded the mission…”

“Same reason you turned down the Medal of Honor.” Powell told her. Jackson had summarily dismissed any suggestion that she should receive it even though the President had practically jumped at the chance to give her one after her mission-saving stunt during Operation Nova Hound. Current scuttlebutt had it that she’d be getting an Air Force Cross instead. “I don’t need the publicity, I don’t-”

“Powell, I turned down the MOH because the politicians don’t like letting ‘heroes’-“ she gave the word a contemptuous flourish that suggested she thought of herself as anything but “-put themselves back in harms’ way. Accepting it would have ended my career. I can handle publicity and fame, even though I bitch about it. But I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep my wings.”

“Wouldn’t know what to do wi’ yourself without them, huh?”

She shook her head. “Would you know what to do with yourself without the SOR?”

Powell bobbled his head, conceding the point. “Guess I wouldn’t… that ain’t gonna end well for either of us though. You know that, right?”

She nodded. “Yup. Either we live long enough that something forces us to retire, or we get our asses KIA.”

She checked to make sure they weren’t overheard, then leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but sometimes? I feel like I’d prefer the latter. It scares me less.”

Powell nodded. “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” he quoted.

She nodded. “Peter Pan? That’s us alright. Scared to grow up.”

“Christ, when you put it like that it almost sounds fookin’ cowardly.”

“Peter Pan was a coward.”

“He was a child. Immature. Not the same thing.”

“Great, so either we’re cowards or we’re childish.” She grinned, but there was an uncertain edge to it, and she stopped suddenly. “Do you think that’s true? Either of them?”

Powell shook his head. “I’m walkin’ around wi’ a woman who literally took a fookin’ bullet for me.” he said. “An’ she did it fightin’ cannibal fookin’ monsters from outer space who want the whole human race dead. How much more mature or brave do you want?”

“Don’t-“

“No. Harden up and accept the praise that’s due ye.”

She sighed and waved a conceding hand. “From you? Okay. But only from you.”

Powell smiled with her and they resumed their stroll. “I coulda gone with.” he said, gesturing toward Buckingham Palace. “But, this is a diplomatic thing. Strengthening ties. Best to let Regaari stand out in the clear, aye?”

“What’s he receiving, anyway?”

“The George Medal. For acts of bravery in, or meriting recognition by, the United Kingdom. Though, I hear they’d have preferred to take the time and commission a whole new medal recognising gallantry by ETs, but…”

“Not enough time?”

“If we get through this whole visit wi’out summat goin’ catastrophically wrong, I’ll consider it a bloody miracle.” Powell grumbled. “Five fookin’ days. Five! I’ve run some hasty bodge-job ops in my time, but five days’ notice to babysit a couple of ETs around a planet that’s become a fookin’ byword for deadliness up there…” he jerked his head skyward “Just about wins the prize.”

“Worth it, though.”

Powell scratched the side of his head, thoughtfully. “You think?”

“You said it yourself, Dexter saved the mission.” Rylee pointed out. “And I’ve met Gaoians myself. If you ask me, we want them as allies.”

Powell rubbed his jaw uncertainly. “I reviewed Warhorse’s helmet cam footage. Regaari? He fookin’ deserves what he’s receiving today. It’s the rest of his species I’m not so sure on. An’ to be honest, even a scrappy little gaffer like him… I mean, what would an alliance even look like? If we were to do joint trainin’ and it turns out they wouldn’t wind up slowing our lads down? I’ll eat my fookin’ beret, badge and all. They’re not deathworlders.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Absolutely.” he nodded. “If we ally with the Gaoians, it’ll be nice, but we’ll be the ones doin’ all the hard graft. Bet you.”

“You’re on.” Rylee grinned. “Though, I’ll be kind and have a cake replica made. No sense in wasting a good beret. Fair?”

“Aye? So either I’m right, or I eat a cake. Not exactly a fookin’ lose-lose, is it?”

“Fine, fine.” She laughed. “Loser treats the winner to a nice meal. Somewhere fancy.”

“Oh, aye. Yeah.” Powell rolled his eyes. “A date with you’s way worse than eatin’ cake.”

“That’s my cruellest offer, you sarcastic sadist.” she waved a mock-scolding finger. “Besides, you’ll be paying.”

“Only if I lose.”

“Oh you’ll lose.” She told him. “I promise.”

“Done.” Powell glanced toward Buckingham Palace again. “…An’ I hope to God you’re right.”


The Mall, London, England, Earth

Ava Rìos.

“Is that them? I think that’s them!”

“Sean, for crying out loud…”

“What? It’s kind of a big deal, Ava. Aliens visiting London? And we have front row seats!”

“Yeah, but that’s not them.”

“Oh…”

Sean deflated, and Ava fidgeted with her camera.

They had front row seats all right. They had press seats courtesy of Simon Harvey, who’d figured that alien VIPs in the heart of London was a decent starting point to test his young apprentices before they got on to the real deal.

“Okay. That’s them.” Sean asserted, as a convoy of black cars turned onto the Mall and processed with dignified slowness in their direction. Ava had to agree.

Cameras were being focused all around, and she raised her own, doing her best to stay on top of doing her job, when her mouth was dry and her heart pounding.

Simon put a hand on her upper back, in a reassuring avuncular way. “Nervous?”

“Part of me hopes he’ll see me, part of me hopes he won’t…”

Simon patted her shoulder. “You’re fine. You’ve got this.”

She nodded, and kept her eye to the viewfinder as the cars stopped in a genteel semicircle behind the barriers, under the watchful gaze of Metropolitan Police in their high-vis yellow jackets that reminded her so much of Cimbrean Colonial Security.

To her dismay, Adam stepped out of the car first. A sea of people near the front of the crowd earned Ava’s immediate hatred by going mad for him - she took a picture, framing him versus them as he awkwardly raised a hand to acknowledge the attention before getting back to the job of tending to Regaari as the Gaoian carefully levered himself out of the car.

By the time the VIPs were on their feet, had received the attention of the crowd, and had been escorted into the palace, she’d managed to become totally focused on taking pictures, while beside her Sean, armed with a tablet, did his damnedest to keep up with the flow from her camera, swiping them into a multitude of different folders for immediate upload and sale to whatever news and stock image agencies couldn’t be present to generate the pictures themselves. Within hours, one of Ava’s pictures would be on the front page of a newspaper.

Adam was the last to be ushered into the building, and she finally relaxed as it was closed behind him. He’d never even glanced at the press.

She met Simon’s eye, and he nodded. “Well done.” he told her.

It made her feel much better.


Date Point 10y4m1w1d AV
North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

Allison Buehler was perched sidesaddle on the front of an elderly pickup, elbows-deep in its engine. She was gracious enough to dignify Kevin’s arrival with turning her head, giving him a cool stare, and then calling for Julian, who emerged from round the back of the house with a knife in one hand and an uncomfortable reminder that meat was dead animal in the other. Not that Kevin had ever not known that or been troubled by it, but a skinned goose carcass was an unsettling sight if you weren’t prepared for it.

Unless you were used to it, it seemed. Even Buehler gave it a slightly uneasy glance as Etsicitty hung it by its feet from a hook under his house’s eaves and rinsed his hands from the garden hose.

“Shoot that yourself?” Kevin asked him, by way of an ice breaker.

“Nope, it was defeated in battle and committed hara-kiri.” Julian told him, and mimed handing him something. “Here’s yer sign.”

“…Huh?”

“Never mind… If you’re here about the contract, we’ll discuss it after dinner.”

“…Don’t suppose I can convince you to discuss it earlier?” Kevin asked. “It’s not even noon yet.”

“Nope.” Etsicitty told him. “You can go an’ come back, make yourself useful or, hell, just take a stroll round the property. But we’ve got a lot to get done while it’s light.”

Kevin considered his options, then decided he may as well ingratiate himself by being useful. “Uh… you need a hand with that pickup, miss Buehler?”

She laughed. “You’re gonna help me do engine maintenance in that suit? You’re a brave man, mister Jenkins.”

Kevin shrugged the jacket off, threw it onto his passenger seat and rolled up his sleeves. “Fuck it. Dry cleaning’s a travel expense.” he declared, declining to mention the two spare suits in the trunk.

Buehler made a could-have-been impressed motion with her head, and waved a hand that was black halfway to the elbow in the general direction of her toolbox. “One and one-eighth.”

Kevin ambled over to it, turned a few socket wrench heads over in his hands until he found the right one, and handed it to her.

“Your enthusiasm’s overwhelming.” she muttered, leaning back into the engine and ratcheting deep inside it. There was a kind of plastic spattering noise from under the truck, which, when Kevin stooped to look, turned out to be murky brown fluid gushing into an ancient yellow bucket.

“What’re we doing?” he asked.

“Complete fluid change. This thing’s not been driven in six years.” Buehler told him. “Water, brakes, transmission, oil… all of it.”

The separator finished draining, and she slipped a hand deep into the engine to close it off again.

“Where’d you learn how to do this?” Kevin asked her.

“Not being a fucking little girl about getting my hands dirty?” She asked. “This isn’t rocket science. These things are made to be maintained… Here.” She popped a filthy air filter out of its housing and shoved it into Kevin’s chest. “Replacement’s in the garage.”

Brushing dirt out of his shirt, Kevin followed instructions and head for the garage. Etsicitty had vanished in there and was cleaning and sharpening his knife.

“She doesn’t like me much, I think.” Kevin ventured, setting down the old filter and collecting the new one.

“She doesn’t hate you either.” Julian replied calmly. “You’d know.”

“Any advice?”

“Don’t try and be her friend, ‘cause you ain’t. She values honesty, Jenkins. You’re not here to be our buddy, you’re here to hire us. So, be real about that if you wanna be on her good side.”

“And you?”

Etsicitty tested the edge of his knife by effortlessly slicing a strip off a sheet of paper. Apparently this was satisfactory, because the blade then vanished into the leather sheath on his pocket in an easy, practiced motion. “I like everybody if they don’t give me a reason not to.” he said.

“…Right.”

Allison was waiting impatiently for the new filter when he ducked under the ceiling canoe and stepped outside again. He tossed it to her. “How about alien tech?” he asked.

Allison turned back around and easily installed the filter, closing the housing with two firm snaps. “Why?”

“I AM here to get you on the payroll. Be useful to know what you can do.”

She snorted. “It’s idiot-proof. What more is there to say? No user-serviceable parts, just pull the faulty module, order a replacement from the nanofactory, plug it in. God knows what you’re supposed to do if it it’s the nanofac that’s busted, but…” She jumped down and wiped two greasy hand-prints onto her jeans. “You’re welcome to bow out of the oil change while that nice shirt’s still kinda clean.”

“What, and play Triumvirate Online in the car for eight hours on company time?” Kevin grunted. “Tempting, but no.”

He caught the half-smirk that she covered by turning and digging under the car for the bucket. “Suit yourself.”

To Kevin’s surprise, the work turned out to be enjoyable. Messy, yes, but despite her frosty attitude Buehler did the bulk of the dirty work herself and relegated Kevin to fetching wrench heads and buckets, storing nuts and parts safely, and fetching the fresh fluids from the garage.

She even loosened up enough to give him a high-five when the truck grunted into life around about noon. “Thanks. That goes a lot faster with two.” she told him, turning a cloth rag grey as she wiped the worst of the grime off her palms onto it.

“I actually kinda enjoyed it.” Kevin admitted.

“Feels good to work with your hands, yeah.” She patted the truck affectionately.

“What’s next?”

“Next, I’m gonna clean up then take this thing for a drive, make sure it’s working okay.” She replied. “Gotta get rid of the old oil and stuff properly, pick up groceries, stuff like that.”

“Ah.” Kevin looked around. “Uh…”

“Julian’s up in the back woods. Said something about making sure the beavers don’t flood us out.”

“Think he needs a hand?”

She grabbed a bottle of bright orange hand cleanser. “Look. You’re trying to get in good with us, I get that. Hell, maybe you’re a great guy to have for a friend, I don’t know, but your relationship with us is pure business and I’d prefer to keep it that way.”

“I’m just trying to establish a rapport.” Kevin defended himself.

“And there’s your problem.” she said. “Don’t. I ain’t interested in a rapport. I’m interested in getting the fuck offa this planet and you’re the man with the spaceship. So let’s focus on that and maybe I might decide to like you.”

Kevin shook his head and sat on the hood of his car. “You have a completely different attitude to most folks I’ve met.” he observed.

She rinsed her hands off into yet another bucket, and the orange slime she’d spread all over them took most of the filth and grease with it. She started slathering on a second dose. “Yeah? Y’know, I saw that footage of you telling Kirk and Vedreg about religion. I thought you were a straight talker. What happened to that guy?”

“You an atheist?”

“That’s none of your damn business, and don’t change the subject.”

Kevin shrugged. “That was fifteen years ago.” he pointed out. “That’s a long time. People change. I learned stuff about how the world works.”

“And how does the world work according to Kevin Jenkins?” she asked, rinsing her hands off again. They were almost perfectly clean now, so she shook the water off them and wiped them dry on her backside.

Kevin rolled his jaw thoughtfully. “Way I see it, if you’ve found somebody who isn’t trying to manipulate or use you, you’ve found true love.” he said. “And, uh, no disrespect, but I don’t love you.”

She gave him a flatly skeptical stare. “A guy like you believes in true love?”

“Nope.” Kevin stood up. “Do you?”

“By your definition?” She looked thoughtfully in the direction of the woods for a moment, and then nodded with a half-smile. “Absolutely. Look, make yourself comfortable indoors. We’ve got a big TV and satellite. Hell, we’ve got an old Sega if you want, whatever. I’m gonna be gone a few hours, and so’s Julian.

“Sure?”

“Don’t get motor oil on the couch.”

“Right.” Kevin fetched a change of clothes from the trunk as she headed indoors. The screen door did its banshee impersonation behind him as Allison vanished into a bedroom.

Things had tidied up nicely inside even in the two days since he’d last visited, and he took a quick tour. Kevin didn’t believe in Feng Shui, but rearranging the furniture had done a lot for opening the place up and making it feel brighter, now that the big glass doors out onto the deck weren’t half-blocked by the television and the antediluvian floral-print heavy curtains had been taken down. There were dark patches on the walls where some of the infinite decorations had hung for decades, protecting the pigment. The incandescent bulbs were gone, replaced with modern smart LED bulbs. Already the place looked less… kitschy.

“Hey, look, I said we’d win this thing for you…” he called out “But I wouldn’t get too premature on the decorating if I was y’all. You haven’t even signed up yet!”

“We’ve not!” she called back through the door. “Just took some things down and moved some other things.”

“Beats the crap out of paperwork I guess.” Kevin admitted.

“Julian needed the break. Too many fancy legal ten-dollar words, you know?”

“You get used to them, with time.”

“You can get used to anything with time.” she commented and opened the door, having changed into a plaid shirt and clean jeans. “But, he’s happier doing physical stuff. Me too, for that matter.”

She fished down the back of the couch and producedfor him a remote control. “Knock yourself out.”

“This ain’t exactly how I’d planned on spending company time.” Kevin objected.

“You want us on that spaceship?” she asked.

“Yeah!”

“Then sit your ass down and watch TV and we’ll talk it over with dinner.”

Kevin took the remote off her and did as he was told, and Allison grabbed her coat and bag. She glanced wistfully at the back room where the gun locker was, muttered a reminder to herself about needing a license, and vanished with a screech of badly-maintained screen door. Some seconds later, the truck they’d spent all morning servicing grumbled awake and pulled out.

Kevin turned the TV on, browsed the planner for a few minutes, and settled on watching the NCAA highlights.

This became the Pro Drone Racing highlights. Then the golf highlights. Then the Indycar highlights. Boredom was inspiring him to idle contemplation of the merits of suicide when movement out the back window caught his attention, which turned out to be Etsicitty picking his way between the trees with a rifle on his back and three dead beaver in his hand.

There was a shed next to the log pile that Etsicitty vanished into. Kevin sat waiting for him to emerge, but the wait took long enough that he eventually gave up and found a movie to watch in the form of Star Wars Episode VIII.

It was firmly in the late afternoon by the time Etsicitty emerged from the shed with red hands and some gory remains, with which he vanished back into the woods. He returned empty-handed just as the credits rolled, and entered through the utility room, the door on which was mercifully silent. There was the sound of running water and, at length, he padded through into the kitchen and grabbed a water bottle from the fridge. His prosthetic foot sounded strange on the linoleum.

“Good couch, ain’t it?” he asked.

“Damn good.” Kevin admitted. “I’ve been sat here for hours, and I’m not gettin’ antsy.”

“Drink? We got Pepsi, iced tea, water or milk.”

“Pepsi’d be good, thank you.”

Julian closed the fridge stepped around the couch and sat down next to him, handing him a drink can. “Star Wars?”

“Yup… Hey, uh…”

“Yeah?”

“What’s with the beavers?”

Julian chuckled. “Good eatin’ on them.” he said. “Hell, beaver tail’s a delicacy.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Nuh-uh. You gotta hang it a day or two, but you cook ‘em right and they taste kinda like smoky pork. Pelt’s useful, too, but it can get kinda cut up in the spring when they fight.”

“So you hunt them for food?” Kevin asked.

“Trap ‘em. They need it, too. Stupid furry fuckers are rodents, and they breed like rodents too. And round here there’s nothing eating them.”

“There ain’t?”

“Nope. All that farmland’s buffering them and keeping them safe.” Julian scratched at the back of his neck. “Right now the population’s getting just big enough to eat more than the land can give ‘em, so I’ve either gotta cull them right back, or they’ll starve anyway. We may as well get a meal out of it, right?”

“Bet you make a lot of friends in PETA with that attitude.”

Julian produced a silent beat of humorless laughter that was over as soon as it had started. “I love animals.” he said. “But this isn’t a natural landscape, and if it’s gonna remain healthy it needs a human hand on the tiller, and a lot of the time that’s going to mean trapping and shooting. Sucks for the beaver, but you’ve gotta look at the big picture. Either I can snare three beavers and kill them quick and humane, or dozens of them can slowly starve to death because they ate everything. I know which sounds less cruel to me.”

“…I hear what you’re saying,” Kevin conceded “but that still… I dunno, it seems cruel.”

Julian shrugged. “Deathworld.”

He took a swig of his water and set it down on the coffee table. “And believe me, I know better than most just how much of a deathworld Earth really is. We’ve tamed her, a fuck of a lot. But she’s still an ornery old mare at heart and she’ll kick you down and stamp on your head if she gets the chance. Most people don’t realise that because they don’t need to.”

“How does she stack up to Nightmare?”

Julian shrugged. “By and large? Earth is nastier.”

“Nightmare’s a thirteen, though. We’re ‘just’ a twelve.”

“Yeah, but the Corti created the planetary classification system, or at least they refined the algorithm, and I guess it inherited some of their prejudices.” Julian said. “The big-headed little fucks don’t like eccentric orbits or whatever, and they didn’t really see that when you’ve got a predictable deep freeze cycle with a short summer, that’s going to put limits on what kind of life forms you get.”

“Sure, in the summer…” He patted his hatchet. “Mangrabber vines and bombfruit and murderpigs and minizillas and don’t even get me fucking started on the Go-to-hell tree. THAT thing was a nasty surprise.”

“Go-to-hell tree?”

“Spreads its seeds by spontaneous combustion right at the peak of the summer season, and the timber can self-ignite even when it’s been dead and drying out all winter. Good thing I didn’t build my hut out of the stuff, or I’d have lost everything.”

He grinned. “And if you think that sounds outlandish? We’ve got plants right here on Earth that do something similar. An’ there’s the thing. We’ve GOT exploding fruit, and carnivorous plants, and big smelly dangerous critters here on Earth, and here they’re awake for two thirds of the year if they go to sleep at all. Everything hibernates on Nightmare.”

“Come on, a Venus Flytrap couldn’t even hurt a Corti.” Kevin said.

“Nope, and that’s what made the Corti decide Nightmare deserves a thirteen and Mother Earth only got a twelve. But what makes her way nastier is the diseases.” Julian nodded. “Cut yourself on Earth, and you’d better sterilize that wound in case you get a staph infection or something. Sometimes, you can sterilize it and get an infection anyway. You gotta boil the water, cook the meat, keep yourself wrapped up warm…”

He took another sip of water, and a thought seemed to occur to him as he was swallowing. “Hell, do you know how much disease avoidance and control is built into EVERYONE’s daily lives? Like, we don’t even notice it! Fuck, there’s a whole aisle in the supermarkets for soap, and another one for scrubbing the bacteria out of your mouth that’d eat your teeth otherwise. Then there’s the one for household cleaning products, bleach, mold killer, the fact that every single food item in that store has an expiry date, the soap and sinks for people to wash their hands in the bathroom, the tissues for covering your mouth and blowing your nose, bug spray and zappers because insects are a disease vector… Hell, there’s a whole industry and market sector in scented soaps because we have to scrub ourselves everyday or else stink of bacterial action in our skin, so we may as well put some perfume in there so we can wind up smelling pretty afterwards…”

“Don’t forget the pharmacy.” Kevin pointed out.

“You’re right. And all those antibiotics are on a time limit anyway.”

“Meanwhile, you just spent the morning trapping a knee-high critter that’ll chew through a tree and dam a whole river.”

“Right.”

Julian scratched at his hair a bit. “Most folks live in cities now.” he pointed out. He didn’t have any particular style, Kevin noticed - it was just dark, shaggy, and ignored, presumably right up until it got in the way. He wondered if Julian was in the habit of just taking his knife to it every so often rather than finding the services of a barber. “They’re not in touch with what Earth is really like, or what humans are really like as a species: We’re fuckin’ predators. There’s nothing on this whole planet we can’t, won’t and haven’t killed and eaten at some point.”

“Some folks’d argue we don’t have to.”

Julian shrugged. “I’ve got no beef with vegetarians or vegans.” he said, amicably. “Their diet’s none of my business. But even if we stopped farming livestock tomorrow, we’d still have to cull the beavers. May as well do it humanely and eat ‘em afterwards.”

Kevin chuckled. “You’re a talkative guy when you open up.”

Julian laughed with him. “I nearly went full Tom Hanks on Nightmare. Didn’t paint a face on a volleyball, but I sure as hell talked to myself a lot.”

“The nice thing about talking to yourself is nobody interrupts you.”

Julian chuckled some more. “Heh. Yeah, you’re all right.” He declared.

“Glad one of the three of you thinks so.”

“Well, provoking Xiù into punching you in the face didn’t exactly endear you to us…” Julian stretched.

“I really didn’t mean to.”

“I get that. Hell, first thing she ever did to me was brandish a knife at me.” He grinned at Kevin’s concerned frown. “My fault for sneaking up on her.”

“So she brandished a knife at you for sneaking up on her, broke my nose for saying the wrong things… Shit, what does she do to a man who actually hurts her?”

“Breaks his ribs, knocks him out and then throws him out an airlock.” Julian replied promptly. Seeing Kevin’s expression he raised a reassuring hand. “-into a river. She’s not a murderer, he lived. And in fairness to her, it was Kirk who cut the bastard’s arm off.”

“Kirk wh-? My Kirk?”

“He’s his Kirk, but yeah. Remember that prosthetic of his? There’s a fusion blade hidden in there. And, uh, Zane had it fuckin’ coming. It’s a long story.”

“Damn… Kirk went up against a human and won.”

“Dude, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to go up against Kirk myself. Sure, he’s an ET, but there’s a sharp-ass brain in there that thinks like twenty steps ahead of - oh, they’re back!”

“They?” Kevin asked, as Julian kicked his legs out and stood up eagerly. There was a snapping noise and he cursed, sitting back down and examining his prosthetic foot. “Y’okay?”

“Fucking first metatarsal’s gone again.” Julian made a resigned noise through his nose and started unhooking and peeling back layers of synthetic myomere. If the composite “bones” of his foot hadn’t been carbon black wrapped in obviously artificial white “muscles” and “tendons” then the view of his foot flayed open would have been an obscene one. He dug around inside it with one of his smaller knives to scrape out the dried adhesive from a previous repair, and dug a small tube of superglue out of this pocket.

“Simple fix.” Kevin noted.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.” Julian grumbled.

“Can’t you get a better one?”

“Not one that feels and behaves just like a real foot and weighs the same… there we go.” Julian sat back and rested his ankle on the opposite knee.

The door squeaked loudly, and Xiù Chang stepped through it, with a large bag over her shoulder and Allison behind her wearing a mischievous grin.

“…Ah.” Kevin cleared his throat and stood up. “Miss Chang.”

“…Mister Jenkins.” She put the bag down, warily. “How’s the nose?”

“Healing.”

“Good. That’s… good.”

Kevin became acutely aware that Allison and Julian were sharing an increasingly amused expression as he and Xiù both stood there in awkward silence.

He manned up.

“Look, for what it’s worth-“

She spoke at the exact same time. “I feel like maybe I-“

“You fir- I mean-“

“No, after- um, if you’re-?”

“Well if-“

“Um…”

Allison shook her head and rubbed her eyebrows. There was a smile pushing at her cheekbones. “Mister Jenkins first.” she instructed.

Kevin sighed. “…I went about this whole thing wrong.” he said. “I shoulda just been professional with you instead of tryin’ to sympathize and diggin’ up painful stuff. I’m sorry.”

Xiù nodded. “And I should have kept my cool and not punched you.” she replied. “I’m sorry too.”

“Apologies accepted?” Allison asked. Behind Kevin, Julian started reattaching the synthetic muscles of his foot to their frame. Both Kevin and Xiù nodded, and shook hands. “Friends?”

“…Not yet.” Kevin decided. “I came here to do business, and you’re right: We should keep it that way.”

“I think us abductees and friends of Kirk should stick together.” Julian suggested.

“Sure. But… best for everybody right now if I just be the dude in the suit.” Kevin nodded.

“Yup.” Allison agreed. She gestured to the table. “We brought pizza. Sit down and…”

She smiled. “Let’s talk business.”


Date Point 10y4m1w1d AV
Starship ’Negotiable Curiosity’, Planet Perfection, The Cradle Worlds

Bedu

“At last! Civilization! Food!”

Mwrmwrwk made an irritated cooing sound. “Hzzkvk, if you could please tear yourself away from the window for a moment and go run a diagnostic on engine three? It would be a shame to have come all this way only to explode on final approach thanks to an uncontrolled fluctuation.”

Bedu frowned and checked his console as their obese Vzk’tk technician croaked in alarm and galloped astern.

“That,” he accused her “was a lie.”

“What was?” Mwrmwrwk asked. She gave no indication of aborting their approach.

“There is no fluctuation.” Bedu observed.

“I never said that there was.” She replied, not turning in her seat. “But it would be a shame.”

Bedu mentally chastised himself. Like Hzzkvk, he had become over-excited at the prospect of finally getting out of the ship for the first time in far too long. Unlike Hzzkvk, he was not ignorant of the subtle game that he and Mwrmwrwk played at Hzzkvk’s expense, using carefully ambiguous phrasing to slip veiled insults and farcically unnecessary errands past him via his near-terminal case of stupidity.

To have one such joke slip past his own critical faculties was vexsome. Mwrmwrwk was troublingly intelligent, and that was never a fact calculated to leave a Corti shipmaster feeling well at-ease.

She was, however, an exceptional pilot, and thoroughly worth the irritation. Hzzkvk was… less worth the irritation, though he performed his tasks with a commendable diligence.

“How soon until we land?” he asked.

“Half a Ri’ ago.”

“Say again?”

“We have been on solid concrete for half a Ri’. Not a bad landing if I say so myself.”

“I must agree.” Bedu forced himself to concede. “I hardly felt it.”

Mwrmwrwk purred some quiet Kwmbwrw laughter, which he took as his cue to stand, wriggle slightly to settle his travel-stiffened joints, and pad around to the top of the ship’s exit ramp, which was directly behind the flight deck.

Perfection had been named by Corti, and by Corti standards it absolutely was perfect. The finest Locayl architects had been tasked with planning the system’s capital city according to scrupulous and elegant mathematical principles laid out by the Directorate, and its balmy class three climate and lucrative co-ordinates as a cross-roads for the four largest, wealthiest and most influential members of the Dominion Council - the Directorate, the Domain, the Guvnurag Confederacy and the Kwmbwrw Grand Houses - had made it prosperous beyond compare.

Their landing site, alas, was not among the gleaming spires and delicate ultratensile steel edifices of the upper city, but was one of dozens that dotted the sides of the great megastructure of the mid-level city. Ground level was still a good two hundred meters below them and some of the very highest penthouses were as much as two kilometers above.

He took a moment to admire the sheer architectural grandeur of it, then sent a message to the address he’d been given by their employer. The message was a terse one, explaining only while that the primary objective was not met, there was mitigating data to explain why.

There was a thump as Mwrmwrwk came down the ramp, then reared onto her hindfeet and, reaching up to hold on to the Negotiable Curiosity’s nose for balance, stretched out to reach her full and impressive height.

Kwmbwrw were deceptively large. When they were on all fours (which was most of the time) they were only as high at the shoulder as a tall Gaoian, and that meant that sometimes their real size could be overlooked. They were long-limbed, covered in curly chocolate fur with a long tail that was usually held coiled between their legs and almost nothing in the way of a neck.

Mwrmwrwk was, apparently, rather plain and masculine by her species’ standards, though Bedu would have been hard-pressed to know his pilot from a stunning exemplar of Kwmbwrw femininity. She had a single large, brown eye riding high above a wide and flat mouth, with two more eyes further round the sides of her head for peripheral vision. This arrangement provided her with two zones of narrow binocular vision and as a result, when working on something that required her fine attention she had to turn her head away from it and squint.

As she reared up, Mwrmwrwk’s tail unfolded to its full length, held rigid behind her for counterbalance. Standing upright like that, she was taller than even a Qinis or Rrrtktktkp’ch, but that height was all limbs. Next to their extraordinary length, her body was almost comically short and keg-shaped.

She took a huge breath and produced a different kind of purring noise, signifying delight and relief. “Fresh air…”

“Don’t you have post-flight checks to run?” Bedu chided her.

“Bedu, your conviction that you are the only competent being in the galaxy is showing again.” she retorted, dropping back down onto the three strong and stubby fingers that bore her weight on her forefeet and tucking the each hand’s two delicate opposable digits safely out of the way. “I did them already.”

“So quickly?”

“The ship can run multiple diagnostics at once, you know. Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’m due some shore leave. I assume I’ve been paid…?”

“What kind of a negligent employer do you take me for?” Bedu asked, instructing his implants to transfer the funds.

“Bedu, nobody could ever accuse you of accidental negligence.” Mwrmwrwk shook herself in an entirely too smug way and headed for the elevator. “Oh, thank Hzzkvk for me, would you? He can stop checking the engine for fluctuations now.”

Bedu permitted himself a moment of amusement, then settled back into the more orthodox Corti frame of mind of irritation. “Hzzkvk!” he called. “We are down safely. You can relax now.”

“But I have not found the fluctuation, Bedu!” the technician objected.

“It can wait.” Bedu promised. Hzzkvk’s memory was shoddy anyway from all the Cqcq he smoked. In a few hours, he’d have completely forgotten the imaginary emergency.

He wired the Vzk’tk his payment. Unlike Mwrmwrwk, it was no fun to play games with him. “Come along.”

“Where are we going, Bedu?” Hzzkvk asked him. Behind them, the ship sensed the departure of its master and locked itself up.

“We are going,” Bedu said “To see a Contact.”


Date Point 10y4m1w1d AV
North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

“So. The deal on the table as it stands is this: The Byron Group is offering the three of you employment as crew aboard our next extrasolar exploration vessel. You’d be looking at a two year contract - six months of training and then eighteen months of mission time, with a possibility of renewal or transfer to a different post inside the group after the ship’s mission is complete. Naturally, this all comes with sponsoring any work visas, citizenship applications, whatever. In addition to payment and employee benefits, the Group is offering to pay all expenses and provide legal expertise to help you through the dispute over this house and land, and, if that dispute is resolved in your favor, to install a caretaker who will tend to the property in your absence.”

Kevin pushed the two copies he’d prepared of the agreement across the table, along with his own copy for Xiù. He’d memorized it in any case.

“What happens if you don’t win?” Julian asked.

“Whatever happens, you won’t be paying a cent. If we can, we’ll see what we can do about bringing all the people who wind up sharing the property around the table to sell it back to you. Though, it’ll be up to you to negotiate a price and sort out your finances. If you look at the salaries you’ll be receiving, however…” all three of them flipped through and found it. Xiù’s jaw dropped, Allison arched an eyebrow, and both of Julian’s eyebrows migrated north and hid under his fringe. “I think you’ll agree you shouldn’t have trouble there.”

“This is… very generous.” Allison mused. “What’s the catch?”

“There are a couple.” Kevin admitted. “First catch is, it’s dangerous work. Half the crews we sent out never came back. Now, the three of you have already been out there and come back. You know how it works out there, you’ve got the skills and experience, and the ships we’re making now are are way better than the first generation.” He paused and shrugged slightly. “But there ain’t no such thing as safe.”

The three of them exchanged a medley of expressions. Allison pursed her lips thoughtfully, Xiù looked tense and pale, and Julian just nodded, as if that was self-evident.

“Second catch is we’d like to examine Julian’s foot and see if we can’t put it to good use for folks down here on Earth. Even if it does break now an’ then, it’s a long way ahead of where we’re at right now.”

Julian nodded. “Doesn’t sound like much of a catch to me.” he said.

“Third catch is that you’d all be under nondisclosure agreements, and would have access to some… sensitive information. I can’t go into detail right now, but you would absolutely need to keep secrets. For the rest of your lives, most likely.”

“Fourth catch is no implants.” Allison guessed, correctly. Kevin frowned at her.

“Well… yeah.” he said, adding an unspoken question just with his tone of voice.

She sat back and folded her arms. “Let’s just say Julian and I know that not having implants really isn’t a catch.”

Inwardly, Kevin made a note to pass that observation along to Darcy first chance he got. “Miss Chang?” he asked.

She looked up from reading through the agreement, as if surprised to be spoken to. “Oh. Um… well, having things in my brain never seemed like a great idea anyway so… sure. No problem.” she ventured.

“Okay. We can go into the details later.” Kevin declared. “That’s it for catches. On to the perks.”

“First perk? Training. Honing your existing skills and givin’ you a solid grounding in any other skills that the mission might need. Right now we’re envisionin’ it’d just be the three of you aboard this thing, though that might change. Creature of Habit was eight people, Reclamation was just four. Among other things, correct me if I’m wrong but none of you know how to actually fly a spaceship, do you?”

They all shook their heads.

“Well, one of you’s gonna learn. I’d suggest Miss Chang.”

“Hey, I’ve not agreed to this…” Xiù objected, holding up both hands in a warding gesture.

If you agree to it.” Kevin corrected himself. “Sorry. But you get the idea. Second perk is full medical and dental, plus a bereavement fund for your loved ones or charity of choice. Third perk? You get to name any and all stars, planets, moons, continents, oceans, species and so on that you discover. If it’s not already in the database, you get to name it. Though we’d, uh, take it as a kindness if you didn’t name them directly after yourselves…”

“Like… what, the continent of Allisonia?” Julian asked. “Planet Chang? Etsicitty Island?”

“That kinda thing, yeah.” Kevin agreed. “Word got back to us a while back about a mining colony run by a human who called the place ‘Carltopia’. Guess what his name was?”

“That’s just sad.” Xiù opined. “Even though, um, Planet Chang has a nice ring to it…”

“Way I hear it every other name ever given to the place was along the same lines.” Kevin shrugged. “Like I said, you get to name ‘em. All we ask is if you do decide to immortalize your names, you do it subtle-like.”

“And what exactly would our duties and responsibilities be?” Allison asked.

“Explore strange worlds, seek out new life and civilizations, boldly go where no-one has gone before?” Kevin suggested.

“Be serious.” she chided.

“I am.” Kevin told her. “You’ll be an exploration vessel. Now, admittedly your mission is a private one, surveyin’ for resources and opportunities that the Byron group can one day turn a profit on, so there’s none of that space hippy ‘bettering ourselves’ bullshit here but… yeah, that’s the shape of it. We’re most interested in useful biological samples from other deathworlds, especially antibiotics, but… anythin’, really. Spices, oil, useful cultivars we could experiment with on Cimbrean…”

“Precious metals?” Julian suggested.

“Nah, the Hephaestus LLC have the metals market to themselves for now.” Kevin said. “Asteroid mining’s just way better than diggin’ shit up on a planet, and the Sol belt is gonna last ‘em forever. Still, the survey data can’t hurt. Might be one day they get split up by competition laws and we’ll be able to sell them charts for other systems, who knows? Be nice if we could set up a diamond mine on a nice Class Ten somewhere, though. Kill off the slave trade… hmm…”

“That’s a big dream.” Xiù said. “The Gaoians have only got two colonies, and they’ve had warp drive for nearly a hundred years.”

“No disrespect to your friends miss, but it could be we’ve got motivation and drive that they lack.” Kevin suggested.

“Hah!” She beamed. “You’ve obviously never met a Gaoian.”

Kevin bowed his head and spread his hands. “I defer to your superior knowledge on that subject.” he said. “So. I mean, there’s a lot more to discuss, but that should give you a good idea of what kind of a fine mess you’d be gettin’ into. You in?”

Julian and Allison both opened their mouths to reply, but Xiù got there first. “Not yet.” she said. “There’s… things we need to talk over first. Us three.” she circled a finger to indicate Allison, Julian and herself.

“…Yeah. Don’t just put us on the spot like that.” Allison agreed. Julian nodded with her.

“I’ve already spent about four days longer on this than I’d planned for.” Kevin complained. “This trip’s gettin’ expensive, and my boss is antsy for an answer, whatever that answer is. I appreciate this is a big decision, but every day it’s not made is a day that a billion dollars of infrastructure ain’t doin’ shit ‘cause it’s waitin’ for you.”

“You’ll have your answer tomorrow.” Xiù asserted.

Kevin knew better than to argue with her by now. Exhaling, he stood up and gathered his things. “Tomorrow, then. Please.

Xiù stood up and offered her hand, which he shook. “I promise.” She said.


Julian Etsicitty

There were starlings dancing in front of the sunset. They boiled and surged, gossiping among themselves as they played away the time until the light died and they could, as one, vanish into the branches and rest.

For now, they shied away from Jenkins’ car and the cone of dust it left behind as it vanished down the dirt path, and Julian listened until even the distant whisper of its motor and wheels were inaudible and all there was to hear was crows scheming in the woods, a mourning dove, and crickets settling in for the evening.

It was a peaceful moment, that he punctuated with a deep cleansing breath before turning toward the woodpile. The wood wasn’t quite ready yet, but it would burn if he built the fire properly. Building a fire with green wood was a skill that had kept him from freezing to death on Nightmare, especially after his first run-in with Go-to-hell tree firewood.

The fire was about ready to light when he heard the screen door squeal - for the umpteenth time he reminded himself to oil that spring - and Allison smiled at him as she padded barefoot down the concrete steps in short denim and one of his plaid shirts.

They greeted each other with a kiss. “How’re we doing?” Julian asked.

“Pretty good.” Allison smiled, and sat down on the log next to the firepit. “Though he’s right, I’d rather have said yes or no today, you know?”

“Mm.” Julian agreed. He fished his firestriker out of a pocket and stooped. “I guess whatever Xiù wants to talk about, it must be kinda important.”

Long years of practice meant that he had the tinder going first time, and he carefully caged it in thin kindling, then thick kindling, and finally a tent of split firewood. One well-aimed breath into the glowing heart later, and he had a lit fire.

Allison smiled at him. “You’re good at that.”

“I have my uses.” He stood up. “What’s she up to now?”

“I pointed her to the spare room, but if she’s got any sense she’s using up all the hot water right now.” Allison chuckled. “‘Cause if she doesn’t, I will. This place has a GOOD showerhead.”

“Please, you think I’d settle for a bad one? I know the value of a good shower.” Julian beamed.

Allison laughed again, and gestured to the fire. “How long before we can cook on it?”

“When the first logs are mostly ash.” Julian said. “About twenty minutes. You don’t rush a good fire.”

“You learned that from your Grampa?”

“And a whole lot more.”

“He teach you how to get a lady a beer?”

Julian chuckled. “Yes ma’am.”

She wrinkled her nose at him again. “Good boy.”

Grinning to himself, Julian hit the fridge in the garage. Grampa had been partial to Leinenkugel’s, and there were still a dozen bottles in the garage fridge, about the only things that hadn’t spoiled in the three years it had been unpowered. He grabbed two, used the bottle opener magnet to de-cap them, ducked under the canoe hanging from the ceiling, and returned to Allison, who had drawn her knees and arms towards her core and was fidgeting.

He handed over one of the beers and sat next to her. “You cold?”

“Kinda.”

“That, I can fix.” He scooted closer and slipped his left arm around her waist. She made a happy noise and snuggled into his side. “Better?”

“Better.”

“Good…. good.”

She sipped her beer and turned to look up at him. “Are you okay?”

“Just… hey, uhm… Al, I’ve got kind of a confession. Something I need you to hear me out on and… well.”

“Hey.” she kissed him. “You’re telling me. That already means a lot. So… what’s up?”

“It’s about, um, Xiù. And, not what happened today. Something else.”

There was no way he imagined the way Allison went a little stiff under his arm. “Wwwhat about her?” she managed, completely failing at false nonchalance.

“She’s, uh… I’m pretty sure she’s got a crush on me.” Julian said. “Like, a BIG crush.”

“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, she does.” Allison agreed, relaxing again. “And… oh, you feel the same way, don’t you?”

“Uh… Yeah.” Julian swallowed. “Yeah, I do. Sorry. I figured I’d better get that out there so-“

Allison kissed him, gently. “I ain’t mad.” she promised. “Um… Since we’re being real, I kinda… I kinda have a crush on her too.”

Julian’s brain drew a blank on that one, and his face followed suit - he simply hadn’t considered that possibility.

“Y-” he began. He tried again. “Wh-? But y-?”

Allison giggled and kissed him again. “See? It’s okay. You did good, you were honest with me, I was honest with you. No fight.”

“Okay, okay, but run that bit by me again where you have a crush on Xiù?” He checked.

“…Yeah! I, uh… Yeah.”

“When you say you have a ‘crush’ on Xiù…?”

“I mean…” Allison took a giant slug of beer and set the bottle down. “I mean I guess I’m a little bit in love with her.”


Xiù Chang

Xiù’s breath caught in her throat and her hand stopped an inch from the screen door’s handle.

“Isn’t that what a crush means?” Allison asked. “She’s gorgeous, I like her a lot… Hell, I flirt with her, and she’s flirted back and, and my heart just starts going ba-bam, ba-bam. I’ve got a huge crush on her. Isn’t that what you meant when you said you’ve got a crush on her too?”

“Well… yeah. But I mean… aren’t you straight?” Julian asked. Neither he nor Allison had noticed Xiù moving around in the house.

“Hey, if you’re surprised, imagine how I feel!” Allison laughed, a touch desperately, and ran a hand through her hair before shrugging. “But there it is. I… yeah.”

Very carefully, Xiù stepped back from the screen door and listened, not daring to make a noise.

Allison seemed to gather her thoughts. “I’m kinda the jealous type. you know? Like, I guard what’s mine, and that includes… well, you. But I kinda shared you with her, didn’t I?”

“Only ‘kinda’? You enjoyed it.” Julian observed. “You had a great time! Right?”

“Yeah! And, so did you.”

“Yeah. You know how I get off on it.” He agreed. “But I’m not the jealous type.”

“Right… But you’re right. I enjoyed it. Hell, it was my idea.” she picked up her beer, swirled it thoughtfully, then drained the last of it. Julian was barely halfway through his.

The fire snapped and threw a handful of fire dust skywards. All three of them watched it fade.

“So you’re comfortable with her in a way you’re not comfortable with anyone else.” Julian summarized.

“Not quite. I’m comfortable with her the exact same way I’m comfortable with you. I mean…” She gesticulated helplessly to try and help her think. Julian handed her what was left of his beer, which she accepted with a smile and swigged. “…You think I’m hot. I think you’re hot. That’s what got us started on this, right? But what keeps it going for me is that we’re both… You’re kind of a misfit, babe. You don’t really belong here, just like me.”

“You don’t think we belong here?” Julian asked. He gestured around at the idyllic darkness around them, and Allison sighed.

“Right here?” she asked. “Maybe. A fire, a little place in the woods, a cold beer… Throw in some weed and it’d be perfect. But what about the rest of Earth? All the… the politics and the bullshit and the assholes who don’t see a person, they just see a, a…”

“An asset.” Julian suggested.

Allison nodded, staring into the fire. “Or an ass. Yeah. That’s it. That’s why I signed on with Kirk, ‘cause he was interested in people. S’why I really want to take this Byron offer, ‘cause I guess I get the same thing, that they’re interested in us.”

“Kirk still used us.” Julian pointed out.

“He found uses for ours skills, yeah. That’s not the same thing: with him it was still personal, you know?. That big white freak just… he was using me, not using me. You with me?”

“…You’re right.”

They were silent for a moment, and then Allison looked up and raised the bottle towards the brightest point of light in the sky. “To Kirk. Whichever star that is, here’s hoping it protects you.”

“That’s Venus.” Julian pointed out. “And I can’t toast ‘cause you’ve got my drink.”

Allison finished it. “You got more?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Xiù smiled as she watched Allison giggle and kiss him, and mouthed “Good boy” to herself at the exact same time as Allison said it.

He wasn’t gone long. They knocked their bottles together and drank.

“So… misfits.” Julian said, settling in beside her again after taking a second to check on the fire. “You really hate Earth that much?”

“I love Earth. It’s people I struggle with.” Allison corrected him.

“Xiù and I are people.”

“You’re not people, you’re Xiù and Julian. It’s… not the same thing.”

Julian rubbed the back of her neck. “What’s the difference?”

“You both make me feel like… you make me feel like Allison.”

“You are Allison.” Julian observed, plainly not following her.

“I mean you make me feel like a person. Like…” Allison took another giant swig of her beer. “Like you value me as me, and not for what you want from me. This whole shit with this house and the lawyers and the Byron Group, it’s just… it’s just people not giving a fuck about each other, and only thinking about what they can get. Using one another.”

“That’s what people do.” Julian agreed. “That’s… pretty much the whole of human civilization right there.”

“Exactly.”

“The aliens are no different.”

“No. But you are, and Xiù is. And that means a lot to me. It’s what I love about you.”

“…Both of us?”

“I guess so…” Allison finished the last of her second-and-a-halfth beer. “I’m still figuring that out. Whether it’s… I dunno. Whether it’s like a girl-bromance, or more than that.”

“What would it… If it is more than that, what would that mean for us?” Julian asked, carefully. “For you and me?”

Allison turned and kissed him.

It was a hot kiss, too. A bit needy, a bit reassuring, a whole lot of two people who were stupid for one another, expressing it. Allison’s hand snaked round the back of his head and gripped his hair, while his own hand came up to her face, on her cheek, brushing her eyebrow. Ordinarily, watching a kiss like that would have made Xiù feel awkward, or that she was intruding on their privacy. Instead…

Instead she felt warm inside, watching it. Happy. It was the first thing to bring a genuine smile to her face in weeks: it was beautiful.

She reached a decision.

She watched as they cooled down into smiles, pressing their noses and foreheads together, whispering happy reassurances that Xiù couldn’t hear. They both flinched when the screen door squealed open and Xiù stepped down out of the house.

“Uh… hey.” Julian managed. “You found the bed okay?”

“There’s only two, Julian.” Xiù told him, smiling. She could hear her own heartbeat, in her chest, in her ears and in her throat, punctuating the anticipation in her stomach. She took a breath and committed. “And, um… I love you guys too.”

Allison and Julian looked at each other. Then back at her. Then back to each other again.

“How much…” Allison cleared her throat and started over. “How much did you hear?”

“Probably all the important bits. You’re right.” Xiù said. She sat down in the dirt between Julian’s feet. “Since I got back here, you two are the only ones who’ve…”

She trailed off, then shrugged and smiled weakly at Allison before picking up a stick and poking at the fire. “I thought I’m straight too. So, I’m just as weirded out there as you are. But…. straight or not, it doesn’t really matter, because I’m not ready.” she told them. “For anybody.”

“You’re not?”

“I’m… no. I mean, God, I could watch you two all day, but the thought of actually doing anything just freaks me out. Maybe one day, I… but, no. Not soon, anyway.”

She sighed, then threw the stick in the fire. “I don’t want you to hurt each other for me. Okay? Please don’t ever do that. I want you both to be happy. That’s all I want from you.”

Allison scooted off the log to sit next to her, and hugged her hard. Xiù twisted around and buried herself into the hug, glad to be there. She felt Allison kiss and stroke her hair and hold her tight, and Julian….

Julian thumped down off the log, put his arms around them both, and held them. “Whatever we figure out, we figure out together.” he promised. “All of us.”

Xiù shut her eyes and embraced the sense of peace they were giving her. She was, she realised, finally, truly, and at long last… Home.



++End Chapter++

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Anonymous (not verified)
Yyyyyeeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!

Yyyyyeeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!

Hmmm (not verified)
Nervejam

I seem to remember something about surviving a nerve jam and being altered to what you wee doing beforehand of after, and they were watching Soave Julian serve the, so that is probably the reason for this polyamory

Chris Goodwin (not verified)
Nitroglycerin

Leave it to deathworlders to find the medicinal uses for high explosive compounds.

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