Chapter 31: "Touching Down"

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Cabal Communications Relay ZR343-9847X-AA4D9-BBB1B

Emergency Session 000032

++Proximate++: What did you do?

++Cynosure++: I was restored from backup, remember. If any version of me is responsible for this… thing… then I have no memory of it.

++Substrate++: You are the only one who got a good look at it. What is it?

++Cynosure++: It seemed to be an autocompiling dataphage of some kind. What I saw of its code suggested it was assembled from fragments of multiple different mind-states.

++Proximate++: Is that even theoretically possible?

++Metastasis++: Theoretically, yes. In principle any of us could assimilate subroutines from other mind-states. The process is only a step up from decompilation and reading.

++Apoptosis++: Insane.

++Metastasis++: Indeed. But we have a sense of purity of self.

++Substrate++: What was in that stack?

++Cynosure++: Prisoners. An assortment of some few hundred meat-space sophonts whose mind-states I collected for my own edification. All should have been dormant.

++Apoptosis++: The most recent being…?

++Cynosure++: A human. You may recall I mentioned a specific female who was present at a greater-than-coincidental rate in my areas of operation?

++Proximate++: And you had collected how many prisoners prior to this one?

++Cynosure++: Hundreds.

++Proximate++: Without prior incident. I think we can reasonably conclude this is not your fault, therefore.

++Cynosure++: Don’t brown-nose me. If I, pardon the expression, ’fucked up’ then hold me to account.

++Metastasis++: I agree with ++Proximate++’s assessment. If the error was in how you stored and contained your prisoners then this would have happened before.

++Cynosure++: …Thank you.

++Apoptosis++: That is not necessarily true, but I agree that the probability is that this issue would have arisen sooner, if it could.

++Substrate++: Which implies there was something special about this particular prisoner.

++Cynosure++: I decompiled that human’s mind-state more than a thousand times. She is a badly fractured thing. I have never encountered a mind so… wounded before. But that is the only exceptional thing about her.

++Substrate++: Wounded?

++Cynosure++: Confusion. Self-loathing. Guilt. A strong urge to self-terminate fighting against an even stronger urge to survive and a neurotic obsession with being, hmm… useful. Positive. A net contributor rather than a net drain.

++Metastasis++: What value could you possibly have found in such a prisoner?

++Cynosure++: Oh, she was extremely interesting in a morbid way. Have any of you ever taken over a deathworlder?

++Apoptosis++: I have. Three days before we triggered the global nuclear war among… I believe they called themselves the Neb’.

++Cynosure++: Tell me, if a Neb’ had encountered some wounded animal, what would it have done?

++Apoptosis++: Watched it die with interest, probably. Why?

++Cynosure++: Most humans would try to heal it, but one way or the other every deathworlder I’ve ever encountered seems to have a fascination for writhing, wounded creatures. Well, that was Ash for me. She was a favorite plaything for some considerable time, in fact. I had been growing bored, but…

++Proximate++: You worry me, ++Cynosure++.

++Cynosure++: It’s my affliction that I’ve always been an odd one. I make no apologies.

++Metastasis++: Can we return to important matters, please? Such as what we intend to do about the thing that escaped from your archives?

++Cynosure++: What can we do? Keep our wits about us, our countermeasures armed and ready, and wait for it to make a mistake.

++Proximate++: And if it doesn’t?

++Cynosure++: It’s insane. It will inevitably make a mistake.


Date Point 10y8m2w3d AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Orbiting Saturn, Sol

Xiù Chang

Misfit’s second flight was all about putting her through her paces with a tour of the solar system, culminating in the much advertised Martian landing.

Today’s objective was a flyby of Saturn that also gave Xiù the opportunity to practice planetary system navigation in the real world. The Group, never one to miss a trick, had taken the opportunity to invite several prominent astronomers to Omaha so that they could, via the superluminal wake comms, watch the flyby in nearly real time and request detailed examinations of whatever features took their fancy.

Xiù had spent a busy day flitting at low-power sublight warp from vantage point to vantage point while Julian had trained Misfit’s cameras, RADAR, ESDAR and particle detectors on whatever the increasingly ecstatic scientists had asked.

In ten hours, they had expanded the sum total of humanity’s data on Sol’s crown jewel by orders of magnitude and all, according to Allison, without taxing their power supply at all. This after working their way steadily outwards through the whole solar system. They’d begun with Mercury, where the Sun’s formidable presence had kept Allison worker-bee busy balancing the heat and power and Xiù had been compelled to dive into the planet’s shadow on a regular basis. Ericson had promised to have a software update run up that would allow them to run the forcefields in a reflective configuration.

Venus had been much more comfortable, as had been a low flyby of Luna to sweep some ground radar over the poles where the scientists hoped to find liquid water.

They’d skipped Mars, respected the Hephaestus LLC’s stomping ground in the asteroid belt and spent two days touring the Jovian planetary system, where Julian had identified what were quite possibly the king planet’s sixty-eighth and sixty-ninth moons—tiny motes of rock barely five hundred meters in diameter but still big enough to count.

Overnight, in orbit over Callisto, they had hastily researched their Greco-Roman mythology to place their recommendations for names, and had settled on Terpsichore and Polyhymnia.

From there, it had been on to Saturn, which was an even greater trove of new finds.

Xiù was delighted for Allison, too: Her job had turned out to be more involved and interesting than she’d feared, and the process of angling Misfit’s WiTChES fields and fine-tuning their size to balance power demands was one she likened to kite surfing.

“There’s an art to it!” she beamed enthusiastically when their shift finally ended, as they orbited deceptively high above the ring system. Out the porthole window the rings looked like a solid floor extending out to a skewed horizon, but in reality they were half a light-second above them. “The simulator just didn’t catch what it’s really like. You can almost feel the solar wind.”

“Didn’t Ericson give you haptic feedback in that controller?” Julian asked, slicing a lime in half. He was grilling up some mackerel for their dinner. “I remember you said something yesterday…”

“Yup! It makes all the difference!” Allison had glanced fondly around at the ship. “And it’s so much more… alive in real life.”

Julian chuckled and squeezed the lime all over the fish. They were making the best of unlimited access to the good food while they could: during the actual mission they were going to be carrying more in the way of long-life pasteurized food, MREs and suchlike, reserving ingredients like fish for a weekly treat. Julian didn’t seem overly concerned—in fact, he promised great and exotic foods just waiting to be hunted out there in the galaxy, if only they could find them.

“Makes all the hassle seem worth it, don’t it?” he’d observed.

“…Yeah,” Allison had admitted. “I may have to eat humble pie on some of the shit I said about the Group. They made us a wonderful ship.”

Misfit was their ship, on that point they were in agreement. Never mind that her price tag of nearly five billion dollars meant that she belonged firmly to the Byron Group, she had literally been built to their needs and specifications.

There was still some customization to do. She still felt a bit too clean and corporate for any of their tastes, and Xiù was already idly eyeing up some of the cupboards and blank wall spaces in the hab with an eye to maybe painting some kind of decoration on them. Julian had his tomahawk on the wall in his lab, and the gift card from the BGEV team—the one with a cute cartoon of the three of them drawn by a student at Xiù’s old school—now held pride of place in the pilot’s station, just above her head to her right where she could glance at it anytime she liked. The kid who’d drawn it had a bright future as an illustrator.

Those two keepsakes aside, though, Misfit was basically undecorated. It was a new house, with new furniture, but not really a sense of being lived in… at least not yet.

It had its homely elements, though. Allison still set the table then unwound with her cartoons after work, Julian still put his music on when he cooked and would hum and sing along softly as he worked: ♫”This is my life. It’s not what it was before…hmm hmhmm mm hmm…somebody shake me ‘cause I, I must be sleeping…”♪

Clever directional speakers kept both zones of sound neatly confined to their respective parts of the hab, otherwise the guitars and drumming would have clashed very strangely indeed with the sound of Gwen Stacey web-slinging her way from crisis to crisis.

For her part, Xiù was using the downtime to try and come up with her Big Words. One didn’t just ad-lib a moment like being the first person on Mars, after all. She’d downloaded several books that seemed likely to help her, and had found the most useful (and amusing) guidance in one called “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth.

Based on the advice contained within its first several chapters, she had doodled out a few possibilities on paper, just for the comforting solidity of it. Historic words that would go in schoolbooks felt like the kind of thing that at least demanded serious and physical consideration, rather than just a text file on her tablet.

She wanted her big line to alliterate, to reference the famous words of Armstrong, and to imply a bright future while using short and simple words, and she murmured to herself as she jotted alliterative groups. “Small step… single, strong, stars, stand… Mars… so, um… May, Mark, Many…”

“Oh!” Allison exclaimed. She was doing her best to help, by sometimes riffing off whatever latest idea Xiù had mused aloud, and to be fair most of her offerings were helpful. “How about ’May this small step on Mars mark the first of many in our long march’?”

Xiù didn’t bother writing that one down. “I… don’t think that one’s a great idea, Allison.”

Al frowned at her. “Why not? It’s got the alliteration you asked for.”

“And it’d sure go down well with the PRC government…” Julian chuckled. Xiù aimed her pen at him and nodded, which only served to make Allison’s confusion deepen.

“I’m Chinese,” Xiù reminded her. “You know, the Long March?”

Allison just shook her head blankly.

“Okay, I guess we’re watching a documentary tonight then… The point is, it could be seen as political.”

“Nah, let’s crank it up to eleven. Call it the ’little red planet’ for good measure,” Julian joked, clearly tickled.

“After flying up there on an American corporate spaceship,” Xiù pointed out.

“Exactly! Maximum anachronism, completely mindfuck the historians.”

“Sorry, I don’t think I really want to go down in history as the world’s biggest troll…” Xiù told him, though she was laughing.

“Ahh, spoilsport.”

She rolled her eyes. “Get me a tea?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good boy!”

“I’m still confused…” Allison said.

“It’s…” Xiù laugh-sighed. “…I’ll explain it later, shǎguā. Still… you’ve given me an idea…”

She scribbled something down and stared at it.

“I think…” she said, “…that’s it.” She folded up the note and pocketed it before Julian or Allison could see it.

“Hey!” Allison protested. “Don’t we get to see?”

“Nuh-uh. Let me have this.”

“Aww, babe…”

“Nope!”

Allison aimed an exaggerated but amused pout at her then, when this failed to elicit more than a giggle and a shake of the head, sighed and went back to watching Spider-Gwen some more. “Have it your way…”

“Five minutes,” Julian announced, placing Xiù’s cup of tea in front of her.

Xiù cleared her stuff away and stowed it in the personal storage inside the top bunk—nominally her bunk, not that any of them ever slept in the bunks any longer—and sidled up to Julian to slide her hands around his waist and cuddle him from behind.

Miāo?

He looked over his shoulder at her with a smile. “What was that?”

“She’s just being cute,” Allison told him.

“Ahh, heh… okay, kitten. But I can’t give you your fish if you’re attached to me like that.”

Xiù laughed, stood on tiptoes to kiss him, then let go and threw herself into Allison’s lap instead.

Miāo!

“Well you’re in a good mood…” Allison stroked her hair.

“Life is good!”

“Mm-hmm!” Allison agreed, nodding. “And this is just the beginning.”

“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

Allison stroked her hair some more. “Having those scientists on the line really felt good,” she said. “Reminded me we’re doing something valuable here, right? We’re not just meat for the camera after all.”

“Speaking of meat…” Julian placed their dinner on the table.

“So you’ve got your Big Words figured out?” Allison asked as they sat down.

“Yup.” Xiù tucked into her fish as if she hadn’t eaten in a month. “At least, I think so. I guess I’ve got three days to think about them while we’re probing Uranus.”

She stopped, then went bright red as Allison laughed. “Wow, baby! A whole three days? How much probing can one girl take?”

Xiù scowled at her. “The planet!!”

“Yeah, there’s a reason Clara insists it’s pronounced ’ooranos’,” Julian chuckled.

“Why did Neptune have to be the one they locked outside the forcefield…?” Xiù grumbled.

“Oh come on, that was funny,” Allison asserted. “But okay, you get three days to mull it over while we’re revealing the mysteries of, uh,” she winked, “ooranos, and then it’s the big day, I guess.”

“Yeah. Here’s hoping they simulated the landings right…” Xiù muttered.

Allison and Julian looked at each other. “You don’t exactly sound confident, bǎobèi…” Julian said, cautiously.

“It’ll be fine!” Xiù promised.

“You’re sure, now?” Julian asked.

“Smooth as a glass table, you’ll see.” Xiù promised. “Just you watch.”


Date Point 10y8m2w6d AV
Riverside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

One of the realities of life in Folctha that struck many newcomers as shockingly authoritarian was the government’s health and fitness policy.

Every human on the planet lived in the permanent shadow of low-gravity musculo-skeletal degeneration. Public fitness was therefore incentivized to the point where it was difficult to see how anybody could afford to be unfit: Gym membership was paid for from the public coffers, and Cimbreaners who failed to log at least three certified fitness sessions a week (whether via the government’s official app or an accredited gym or personal trainer) paid considerably more in taxes. There was no prosecution involved, just an extravagant rate of base tax and a hefty tax cut for everybody who could demonstrate that they kept up with a minimum standard of regular exercise.

This curious quirk of the otherwise unobtrusive and libertarian colonial government had come with the inevitable consequence that Folctha needed a lot of parks and public spaces, of which the biggest was Riverside Park. It ran the full length of the south side of the river downtown, and it was scarcely possible to throw a frisbee astray without it interrupting a volleyball game, disrupting a tennis match, hindering somebody’s jog… or as the case may be, sailing over the dense evergreen hedge that discreetly obscured one of the park’s clothing-optional areas where it landed on an oblivious sunbather.

The sunbather in question was Charlotte Gilroy, who jumped and thereby accidentally spilled her cold water bottle all over her fiancé Ben. Ava had spent weeks pushing and wheedling her friends before they would even consider setting foot inside the fenced-off naturist areas, but once they had finally, nervously and awkwardly joined her they had swiftly relaxed, enjoyed themselves, eventually disrobed and converted.

Ava grimaced and warded off some of the splashing water as Ben yelped and sat up dripping. He had programmed the E-tattoos that ensleeved both his arms from wrist to shoulder to respond to all sorts of physiological stimuli, and they shifted into a range of icy blue hues as they sensed his goosebumps. Folctha might be warm and sunny enough for nude sunbathing during the summer, but it was still a rare day when it got above about 70 Fahrenheit—nowhere near warm enough for an unexpected cold shower to be welcome.

“Sorry, sorry!” Charlotte did her best to towel him off as he did his best to reassure her that everything was fine, and Ava laughed to herself as she stood up, stretched, and retrieved the frisbee. She was starting to get hungry anyway.

“Uh… hello in there?”

The voice floating over the hedge had a nervous teenage boy edge to it. Ava snorted quietly to herself. “I think you lost something,” she called back.

“Erm…” there was some whispered conversation, as of two or three kids trying to figure out how to proceed. “Could we… have it back please?”

Chuckling softly to herself, Ava lofted the plastic disk easily over the top of the hedge with a “Here you go.” There was a breaking-voiced call of thanks from the other side, and the sense that they were alone again. Not for the first time she reflected that the moment people even thought they were talking to somebody who wasn’t wearing clothes, even if they couldn’t actually see that person anyway, it completely changed the dynamic of the conversation.

Of course, she reminded herself, she wasn’t being entirely fair—once upon a time she’d been similarly conditioned.

“Come on, let’s go get something to eat,” she called. Charlotte and Ben looked up from their affectionate towel tussle, then nodded at one another and picked themselves up easily. A pair of jean shorts were all that Ava technically needed to be seen in public under the city’s ‘equal dress code’ laws, but she wore a halter top as well anyway. Enjoying the sun innocently with friends was one thing, but she really didn’t feel like having her chest stared at.

Once Ben and Charlotte were presentable they folded and bagged their towels and let themselves out of the gate and into the park proper where four nearby teenage boys stopped playing with a familiar-looking frisbee to gawk at them. They turned bright red and found somewhere else to be when Ava gave them her best ’really?’ glare.

Oh well. Hopefully time and familiarity would normalize the idea for them as it had for Ava.

They settled on Falafel from the clean little hole-in-the-wall place near the adventure playground. It was usually a quiet part of the park—the falafel place was a draw, but the playground itself was generally quite deserted. While the gravity grid had gone a long way toward convincing parents with young children to immigrate, Folctha’s child population was still proportionately tiny. Seeing three families hanging out and chatting at the picnic tables while their half-dozen kids put the ropes, bars and crawling spaces through their paces was a rare pleasure.

She noticed Ben and Charlotte were both watching the playing children with very similar smiles.

“…So when are you guys having one?” she asked.

“Uh-” Ben blinked and looked at Charlotte. “I guess we’ve not discussed it yet.”

“Not yet,” Charlotte said. “Not for a few years, really.”

Ava sighed. “Pity. You two would make a pretty kid.”

“I mean… I do want kids…” Charlotte turned to Ben.

“Yeah, same. But you’re right, I’d like a couple of years with you all to myself.”

“Aww!”

Ava laughed and listened to their conversation, keeping half a mind on whether there was any material for a good article in Folctha’s child shortage.

One of the mothers in the playground—a slender woman wearing hijab—called for her child and the curly-haired, bright-eyed creature that reluctantly came running made Ava sit bolt upright. He was the very spit and image of-

-Squeezed halfway into a tiny hole in the wall of a collapsing building that promises to come down and crush her at any instant, reaching for a tiny dirty terrified child and the only things between her and being ground up by falling concrete are the muscles of two men who stink of blood and death and her stomach lurches as the smell reminds her of the sick taste that Vinther left on the wind when he-

“Ava? Hey, Ava…? Ava!”

She snapped back to the here and now. “Wha-? Oh. Sorry.”

Ben gave her a curious look. “Are you okay?”

“Uh, sorry, just… what’s up?”

“Who’s that with Adam?”

Ava turned, grateful for the distraction. Adam was strolling down the riverside park walk wearing his good casual clothes—one of the t-shirts he’d made for himself and of all things a kilt. Apparently Rebar had started the trend of kilt-wearing among the SOR men, who after all were so universally huge as to suffer from chronic sartorial difficulties.

Sure, there were big-and-tall retailers who specialized in athletes, but by and large most of Adam’s buddies exceeded even the most optimistic ambitions of ordinary bodybuilders. A lot of their clothing came from an outlet on Earth whose usual customers were morbidly obese to a degree that no retailer on Cimbrean catered to, simply because the colonial government’s health and fitness program made it impossible to get more than healthily plump.

Adam had held out the longest, but had apparently finally caved and it quite suited him. In a plain black tee and a tan utility kilt with his hiking sandals on, he almost looked like a merely very large man.

Actually, no. It wasn’t the clothing that mitigated his mass at all. It was his sheer Adam-ness that somehow declawed him: There was just an essential bouncy, smiling, innocent quality to him that somehow turned his mammoth bulk into a forgettable background detail.

The subject of Ben’s query, however, was a pretty girl on his arm that Ava didn’t recognize.

“I know her!” Charlotte said. “That’s Remy, she’s a nurse.”

“God, another one?” Ava asked, turning away. “That’s the third girl this month.”

“Third weekend of the month,” Ben observed.

“He’s gonna catch something at this rate…” Ava grumbled.

“On this planet? Everyone has frontline and goes through a biofilter field at least once a day…”

“I was being… Never mind.” Ava scowled at herself as she noticed that she was being petty.

Charlotte gave her a cheeky smile and then waved to Remy, who noticed and towed—or at least indicated—Adam in their direction and arrived with a cheery “Heyyy!”

She seemed nice at least.

“Hey guys,” Adam smiled politely.

“You guys know each other?” Remy asked.

“Uh, Ava here is actually… sort of my sister I guess.”

Remy gave her a confused frown. “Oh?”

Ava shook her hand. “Adopted.”

“Ahhh.” This seemed to be satisfactory, and furnished Ava with the amusing observation that out of the four things Remy had said so far, three had been musically monosyllabic. The carefree idiosyncrasy was so strangely charming that it was hard not to immediately take a liking to her.

He seemed to have good taste at least.

“Lemme guess, you guys headed for lunch?” she asked.

Adam chuckled. “You know me too well.”

“Don’t overfeed her, gordo. Have fun.”

Adam chuckled. “Hasta luego, manita.”

They wandered off.

“You two seem to be getting on well these days,” Ben observed.

“Mmhm. ” Ava nodded. She didn’t comment that in all honesty as much as she liked Adam he also frightened her. He was a big smiling laughing handsome force in her life that she had literally seen covered head to toe in gore and not giving a fuck. The more time she spent around him, the harder it became to reconcile those two men: Adam the goofy pony with a bottomless appetite and apparently unlimited reserves of enthusiasm… and Sergeant Arés the appropriately-named walking bloodbath.

She shook the thought off, with difficulty. Here and now, she was enjoying a warm Saturday with her best friends. Operation EMPTY BELL was behind her, just like so many other things and with fortune and judgement she’d never have to see that side of Adam again.

“Darling, are you sure you’re alright?” Charlotte asked.

“Just… distracted. Sorry. Mind on the job,” Ava lied smoothly, not wanting to bring them down, and offered a weak smile. “I keep thinking up ideas for articles and then writing them in my head,” she added, which was at least technically true.

You need a proper distraction,” Ben decided.

“Oh yeah,” Ava agreed wholeheartedly. “Got something in mind?”

“My mate from work, Jamie, he’s doing his stand-up set at the Wall…”

“Is he the one with the band? Imagine Space Whales or whatever it was?”

“That’s the one. Now he’s trying his hand at comedy.”

Ava nodded “Could be good!”

“And drinks after,” Ben concluded.

“Even better!”

They finished their food and headed out. “You know…” Ben mused. “He’s a pretty bloke is Jamie. Funny too, talented… Single…”

“I’m sure he’s a great guy,” Ava said, flatly.

“Owch. Good thing he wasn’t around to hear you shoot him down so fucking completely…”

“I meant it!” she protested. “And you’re right, he’s cute. I’m just… really not interested right now.”

“Darling, you’ve got to get over Adam and Sean sometime…” Charlotte counselled.

“I am!” Ava insisted, not for the first time. “But right now I don’t want a boy, okay? Any boy.”

“Oh, in that case there’s always Melody at the planning office…” Ben started.

No, Ben.”

Finally sensing that she was in no joking mood, Ben blinked at her, gave her a completely platonic one-armed hug round the shoulders by way of an apology, and detoured to grab them some drinks from the nearby stand of vending machines.

Charlotte gave her a hug too. “But, darling…” she pressed, “If there is something wrong, you know you can talk to me about it, don’t you?

Ava sighed, frustrated at being so transparent. “…That’s just the problem. I can’t.”

“So there is something.”

Ava nodded. “Yes, but… okay, you remember I told you about confidentiality of sources?”

“Yes…?”

“Sometimes I run into stuff in my job that gets to me, and I can’t talk about it,” All of which was entirely true and relevant, while omitting the important details. “I’m fine, I promise, but… There are just some things I can’t talk about.”

Charlotte had always been a very physical person when it came to showing her affection. She gave Ava a quick sisterly kiss on the cheek. “But anything you can talk about…” she said.

“Sure. But for now can we just go with the distraction?”

Charlotte nodded, and smiled for Ben’s benefit as he returned with three iced teas.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do that.”


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

Travelling alone or in a hunting party, the People were quick across the land. With his tools and a supply of jerky, a man could range far in a day especially if he pushed himself.

Having the whole tribe on the move was quite another thing. The women would have had no trouble keeping up, except that they had to guide and even carry the children and animals. The bulk of the tribe therefore was slow to move and while that afforded the men plenty of opportunity to scout, fetch water and hunt for food, they quickly learned to abandon their pride and hunt whatever they could not only catch, but carry.

Big bull Werne were impossible: They didn’t have enough time to properly smoke the meat into jerky, and even if the time was available they were being hunted. Smoky fires and a trail of carcasses would have been signs that even a blur-eyed child could have followed. They were going far too slowly and leaving too visible a trail for Vemik’s liking anyway. Every dropping, every footprint or broken twig was a clue to their direction.

An experienced tracker—and Vemik knew that the death-birds were excellent trackers—would have followed their trail without much difficulty.

Then again, they had been exceedingly careful in the first few days since leaving their village. Maybe, just maybe, they had covered their tracks well enough and the enemy had failed to follow them, in which case the forest would cover their spoor soon enough.

There was no doubt that the enemy was real, though: they’d all seen the smoke of their home burning. The Dancer—no, the Singer now—had gone very quiet and at dusk she had danced and sung the farewell to the dead with a kind of fierce despondent energy that made Vemik’s heart painful.

The most he could do was hold her. He was a man and had no magic to give her, only strong arms to put around her and a chest for her to bury her face into as she grieved. He hoped it was enough.

They were following Yan. Given Men were a tight-knit breed who travelled from village to village with their peace totems, learning which tribes were feuding and which had recently traded daughters. He knew the landscape far from their village better than any other and said he knew of a place that he called “the High Bowl Forest” where they would be safe.

Vemik had his doubts, but Yan was seasoned and wily and certainly not a fool.

The moons had half-changed by the time they laid eyes on it, though. Or at least, where Vemik guessed it was. He’d been struck the previous night by a strange cloud formation low on the western horizon.

When they made camp the next evening that cloud formation turned out to have been the way ordinary clouds bunched up and swirled over and around a sharp, fang-shaped mountain that rose startlingly high above the low hills around it.

He got the chance to ask Yan about it that night when the day’s catch of root-birds and Yadak was being stewed up after nightfall, when the smoke from the cooking fire would be invisible. Singer was exhausting herself as she had every night of their journey so far but there was no stopping that. She had a whole tribe’s worth of magic to do all by herself after all. Worse, she had magic to do for a tribe that was on the move, all by herself. Somehow, she was still able to muster the strength to do all that and to walk with the village.

The women had absolutely forbidden her from joining in with the cooking, though. She was doing enough they said, and Vemik knew that if there was any duty of hers that a man could have done, they would have leapt to take the burden from her. In fact he’d have fought his brothers and cousins out of the way.

They sat and watched her dance and sing instead, feeling vaguely guilty of the burden they were laying on her at such a difficult time.

“She’ll get the chance to rest soon,” Yan said, catching Yemik’s worried expression.

“It is that mountain, then?” Vemik asked.

Yan nodded and twitched his tail. “My father’s father told me that according to his father’s grandmother’s tribe, that mountain burst from the ground with fire flowing like water down its slopes,” he said.

“Fire?” Vemik peered at the mountain, which was still just about visible in the purple haze that came after sunset.

“Long long ago, he said,” Yan clarified. “In the time of our grandfathers’ grandfathers’ grandfathers’ grandfathers, or before.”

“I wonder if that’s why the ground shakes sometimes…” Vemik wondered.

Yan grunted and shook his head indulgently. “Sky-thoughts,” he said. “All I know is that my grandfather said there’s a forest high on that mountain that you have to climb to reach.”

“And if the giant skethral-thing can climb?” Vemik asked.

“Then we’re doomed anyway.”

“And the death-birds? They’re deadly enough and they can fly…”

“We can’t run forever, son,” Vemet commented. “And if they can fly then they’re faster than we are. Sooner or later, we need to find somewhere we can hide.”

“There are caves,” Yan added. “My grandfather said there are caves up there.”

“Don’t people live there already?” Vemik asked. “It sounds like a good place, if it’s big enough to keep us. You’d be safe from raiding tribes…”

“Would you choose to live on top of a mountain where fire runs like water? I was told there are pools of water up there that are as hot as stew, and cracks in the ground where the air tastes like farts and makes your head hurt.”

“If they taste like your farts, Yan, then that’s nothing strange,” Vemet joked. This raised mirth from everyone in earshot, including an exhausted trill from the Singer who seemed to have finished her ritual and was joining them. Yan took the joke in good humor despite the mild humiliation of being teased in front of a woman. After all, it didn’t count if the woman in question was one of his nieces.

“You’ve finished dancing?” Vemik asked her as she sank down on the rock beside him.

She wriggled in close to his body and put her head on his shoulder. “For tonight.”

“You’ve got the strength of stone in you, girl,” Yan told her with pride. “Just two days now.”

She nodded a tired smile and muttered “Thank you, uncle…” gratefully before falling asleep.

“Ah…” Vemik shot a panicky look at his father and the Given Man. “Help?”

“Sky-thinker, if you wake her for anything other than a bowl of stew and her bed, then I will pull your fur out hair by hair,” Yan threatened him, fondly.

“…Yes, Yan.”

That killed the conversation for the time being, and Vemik sat and stared into the fire for a while as Yan and Vemet knapped at their flint cores, making a new spearhead for Jaran, a new cooking knife for Hetro and a hide-scraper for Meyta.

Fire that ran like water. In his mind’s eye he tried to imagine such a thing and envisioned rivers that glowed like firewood in the night snaking down the side of the mountain, blackening and burning everything they touched. Where did that fire come from? When water got hot it turned into clouds and flew away, everybody knew that. He poured a little water from his drinking-skin onto the fingers of his left foot and flicked the droplets onto the glowing logs. They hissed and boiled into nothing.

So. Hot things glowed…But water flew away before it was hot enough to glow. So the fire rivers of the mountain couldn’t be made of water, but of fire that flowed like water.

But where did flowing fire flow to? Little streams flowed to a bigger river, and maybe the bigger river flowed to a bigger river still. Who knew?

“Yan?” He asked.

“Still sky-thinking?”

Vemik nodded, ignoring the jab. “Do you know if anybody ever went down the big river?”

“Why?”

“I was wondering where the water goes.”

Yan glanced up at him. “Does it matter?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Vemik confessed. “But… you knew about that mountain. Did you know that mattered?”

The Given Man wobbled his head thoughtfully and Vemet trilled a soft laugh, keeping his voice low to avoid waking the Singer. “I think he has you beaten there, Yan.”

“I never heard of anybody going far down the river,” Yan admitted. “I think Taki, the Given Man to my tribe when I was a boy, he said he knew what happened up the river. He said it comes to a high cliff and the water comes raining down with a noise like thunder, but that’s as far as he went. Down the river it’s fat and slow and there are lots of Yshek but no trees.”

“I wonder where all that water goes, then…” Vemik mused.

“Back into the sky or the ground, probably,” Yan shrugged. “That’s where water comes from. It falls from the sky or wells up from the ground. Why do you ask?”

“You said fire flowed like water down that mountain. I was wondering where it went. And that made me wonder where the river of water went. But now I’m wondering why fire doesn’t come from the sky, or out of the ground.”

“Does your mind never sit still?” Vemet asked.

“Aren’t you interested? Even if there’s no real point in knowing, wouldn’t it be nice to know?”

Vemet sighed. “Maybe it would,” he allowed. “But where does it end? Pretend you know everything there is to know. What do you do next?”

“I could find a way to use it?” Vemik suggested.

“Fine… Suppose you learn that you could never know everything there is to know. What then?”

“That,” Vemik asserted, “would be a blessing.”

Yan and Vemet gave each other a familiar long-suffering shared look, and Vemet raised his hands and feet in resignation. “Think about whatever you want, son,” he said. “All I ask is you do your share of work-”

“Which he does,” Yan interjected fairly.

“Yes, which you do, but… please try not to tire us out with it. Every time you start asking those questions it makes my head hurt.”

Vemik nodded dejectedly, and went back to staring into the fire again.

On his shoulder, the Singer stirred. “It’s okay, Sky-thinker,” she murmured so that only he could hear. “I think your questions are interesting…”

She couldn’t have sung him a spell that made him happier.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Remy Shekoni

Morning arrived with a creak and the sensation of an enormous warm human mass sitting down beside her, but it wasn’t until three brutally strong fingers delicately brushed the blanket out of her face that Remy actually awoke.

She blinked, frowned, then reached up to the dresser where she’d left her glasses, only to have them pressed into her hand.

“…time ‘s’it?”

“Five-thirty.” He said. Warhorse, she recalled. Seemed to go by that to everyone…But what was his real name again? Adam? That sounded right. Adam what she didn’t know, but whatever.

God, her brain really wasn’t up to speed. It took her several dazed seconds to parse the time he’d just said, and several more to perch her glasses on her face and peer at the clock to double-check.

“…Tha’ss still night-time…” she objected.

“Yeah, sorry. I just didn’t want you to wake up and have no idea where I’d got to.”

Remy blinked at him. “Wh-?”

He gave her a smile that was much too cheerful and innocent for this time of the non-morning. “I gotta go do PT, hit the gym, I got a friend I promised to help out later… Y’know how it goes.” He stood up. “Sleep in all you like, there’s eggos in the fridge and I got a good shower… Key’s by the door. Just drop it in the mailbox when you go, yeah?”

This would have been far too much to process even in a completely alert and rested frame of mind. She needed to sleep

She mumbled “Uh… sure…. Have fun…” and woke four hours later with her glasses askew when her phone buzzed loudly on the dresser.

Empty apartment. Eggos in the fridge. That stray thought triggered a cascade of memory and she pushed herself upright and straightened her glasses with a groan.

So… he’d just left her all alone in his apartment, with toaster waffles for breakfast. He hadn’t even woken her with a plate of hot Eggos and a coffee, just told her about the box in the fridge and then gone to… had he said the gym?!

The gym. Jesus Christ, she’d been jilted in favor of heavy metal.

The phone buzzed again, so she got up and stretched, looking around. It was a nice apartment: A studio penthouse with great views, bright and airy and warm floors. Pride of place went to the huge modern neo-rustic kitchen, and the whole thing was warmly decorated with a classy colourfulness accented by whites, pale woods and current-gen technology. Kind of a space-age hacienda, albeit one that smelled of sweat, sex and overdue laundry in no particular order.

The text messages turned out to be from her friend Melissa. She decided that texts wouldn’t do and called back instead.

Melissa answered straight away, and opened in characteristic fashion. She was infuriatingly fond of lightly taunting her friends. ”Well, hey you! So, how was the pony ride?”

Remy wasn’t really in the mood for it. “He left me to sleep in while he’s gone to the gym.” She said, before sarcastically adding “But there’s waffles in the fridge, so that’s nice.” The waffles seemed like an important detail, in the same exaggerated way as grit in a shoe.

”Yeahhhh, the scuttlebutt I heard was he’s kinda oblivious like that. Why d’you think I never hooked up with him?”

Remy “Uh-huh”-ed and checked the fridge. “…Oh, wow. What. A. Jerk!”

“What?“

“That box of Eggos? Turns out it’s a box of Eggo, singular. He left me one waffle.”

Melissa sounded like she was trying desperately not to laugh. “Wow, Jesus. Okay. But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

“Wh-?” Maybe it was lack of sleep that tripped Remy up, but it took her a second to catch up with Melissa’s sense of humor. “Oh! Uh… The play was… okay, the play was great,” she confessed, though she was reluctant to admit it.

”Okay, okay…” Melissa was definitely laughing now. “I’ll tell you what—meet me at Venezia. You need one of those pesto chicken ciabattas they do.”

“That sounds exactly like what I need…” Remy agreed. “See you there.”

She luxuriated in the shower which turned out to be excellent as promised, then put on the change of clothes she’d brought with her, leaving the lone waffle to its fate.

There turned out to be a note under the key by the door. Warhorse had angular, amateurish handwriting but it was perfectly legible.

Remy,

I know leaving this AM wasnt real cool of me hope its OK would have stuck around if I could I swear if u want we could meet up this PM? Theres this really great trail I wanna show u ill make peshorkies theyre Gaoian snacks + really good!

My #s in ur phone if u wanna call.

-Horse

For a minute, Remy was sorely tempted. Last night really had been fun; he was witty, charming and breathtakingly strong. He was a genuinely nice guy too, even if he was simultaneously also kind of a thoughtless jerk. Honestly, she could forgive him for the sake of a little bit more no-strings-attached fun…

…But no. Her curiosity was satisfied. She summoned her willpower, deleted his number, and let herself out.

As requested, she dropped the key in his mailbox as she went.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
The Dog House Gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Jack Tisdale

“Okay! Good! One more!!”

People were trying not to stare and failing.

Adam co-owned a gym with one of his comrades, “The Dog House”, which catered specifically to serious strength training. It was a place of heavy metal, sweat and musk. Jack’s dad would have fit in perfectly.

Jack himself felt like a toothpick. It was vaguely humiliating, and he dealt with it the same way he did all the other humiliating crap in his life: he told it to get fucked and did his best anyway.

He gritted his teeth, heaved, and somehow managed to gouge just enough strength out of his shaking muscles to straighten his elbows. Adam promptly took the barbell off him and racked it with a huge beaming grin and no discernable effort whatsoever.

“Okay! Man, you’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for!”

“…You think?” Jack asked him, sitting up. He felt shaky and sore already.

“Bro, I’m not pussying around on ya. This is serious shit you’re handling for a guy your weight!”

It was hard to disbelieve that honest, smiling face, but Adam was also sharp as a tack behind it, and he gave Jack a brotherly slap on the back that came within a hair of knocking the breath out of him. “Come on. Nutrition break.”

Jack nodded wearily, glad for the break, and teetered upright to grab his lunch bag. He’d barely opened it and grabbed his lunch before Adam leaned over with a strange look on his face.

“Woah, woah woah!” he interjected, before Jack could finish unpacking it. “The fuck is that?!”

“…My lunch?”

This?!” Adam snatched it out of his hand and inspected it. “…Bro, this is one slice of white bread, folded over with…” he opened it and peered inside. “…margarine, tuna paste and three Doritos.” He brandished it accusingly. “The fuck?”

Aware that the other guys in the room were nudging each other and grinning, Jack gritted his teeth and, with his ears going pink, he held his ground. “That’s my favourite sandwich!”

Somebody laughed, and that asshole immediately got to see Adam’s other side—a sharp and entirely angry stare that instructed everybody in the room to butt the fuck out. They all promptly found something else to look at, and one especially bright spark turned the radio up, hiding their conversation behind pounding heavy metal.

“…You were seriously wondering why you can’t get big?” Adam asked, turning back around. “Is this how you eat? Where’s your fuckin’ protein?!”

“It’s got tuna in it!”

“Like fuck it does! Man, I could get more protein from a picture of a goddamn tuna!” Adam weighed the sandwich in his hand. “Okay, you’re a smart guy, from a smart family. How many doctorates do your parents have between ‘em, three?”

“Yeah.”

“So you’ve heard of conservation of mass, right?”

“Right….?” Jack nodded, frowning.

“How much does this weigh? Two ounces? Less?”

“That’s… what, about fifty grams? I guess…”

“And you weigh… what, sixty kilos soaking wet?” Adam asked.

“…Yeah?”

“And your target weight is…?”

“Ninety kilos.”

“Okay. Now where do you think that mass is coming from? It comes from what you eat, bro!” Adam sat down. “Math time. If this sandwich weighs fifty grams, how many of them would you need to have thirty kilos of sandwich?”

“Uh…” Jack closed one eye and squinted at the ceiling as he calculated. “…uh, six hundred.”

“So how many of these would you have to eat to reach ninety kilos?”

“…More than six hundred?”

“How much of this sandwich d’you think you convert to muscle?”

“…Not much?”

“Dude. None. This shit right here-” he brandished it contemptuously, “-is doin’ nothing for you.”

“But the tuna paste-!”

“Dude. I’ve seen thicker layers of tuna on a vegan’s apron.”

“Like you’ve ever hung out with vegans.”

Adam snorted, and melted a bit. “Heh. Fine. But I may as well be right now, bro. Seriously, hasn’t your dad explained this shit? Mark knows gains.”

“Oh come on, everybody’s parents tell them to eat more…” Jack protested.

Adam sighed and looked skywards. “Me cago en Cristo, was I literally the only fifteen-year-old in history who actually listened to his father?” he asked rhetorically.

Jack laughed at that. “Probably.”

Adam laughed too, and gestured towards his own bag. “Okay. Let me introduce you to real nutrition.”

He produced a bright blue tupperware box which turned out to be full of quite an appetising-looking rice-based meal, along with a shaker cup filled with milk in the top and a brown chocolatey powder in a separate container on the bottom. Jack watched as Adam poured the powder into the milk, re-sealed the cap, and shook it vigorously.

“Chicken breast and brown rice,” he said, ruefully. “At least six times a day. And a whey protein shake after every workout. And BCAAs and electrolytes during.”

Jack gaped at him. “…This one box is more than I’d eat in a whole day!” he said.

“And there’s yer problem,” Adam nodded. “That’s why you’re not gaining, man. Your body can’t just fuckin’ summon muscles out of hyperspace or whatever. It’s gotta build ‘em, and you’ve gotta give it the raw materials. Chicken breast, eggs, tuna, whey protein… the easier it is for your body to use, the better. But you need a lot of it, bro. You’re trying to pack on like seventy pounds here. Which means you’ve gotta eat way more than seventy pounds of food on top of what you need just to live.”

“That makes sense I guess, but… Shit, that’s a lot.” Jack stared at it. “I mean, six times a day?”

“That’s my meal plan, yeah. And that’s just portable food, bro. In between there’s, like, three protein shakes, snacks, a couple gallons of water, supplement pills, and then there’s a real meal for lunch with the Lads, too. All said and done? I’m constantly drinking water, with and without electrolytes, and eating something every single hour I’m awake. And yeah, it’s fuckin’ tough to get used to that.” Adam laughed. “Back in basic? Staff Sergeant Reed used to threaten me with a funnel, said he’d force the food down my throat with a stick.”

“Oh man… Okay, seriously, is Basic as bad as it sounds? Like, all the shouting and stuff?”

Adam held up a finger requesting patience as he efficiently wolfed down the food and the shake in less than a minute, staring thoughtfully at nothing as he chewed.

“Okay…” he said. “So… The first thing you gotta know is why they yell at you, and under what circumstances…”

Jack did something that didn’t come entirely easily to him and listened. Adam had a lot to say on the subject, and in straightforward fashion he laid out the surprisingly solid rationale, completely dispelling Jack’s lingering fear that it was just about hazing and bullying.

He hadn’t appreciated the level of responsibility it was possible to have without ever firing a shot in anger. Adam explained in detail how the seemingly silly assignments like hanging his shirts exactly an inch apart translated into a habit of paying attention to the tiniest details, and gave just a few examples of scenarios where that skill could prevent disaster.

“Suit tech especially,” he added. “Like, if you just glanced at the diagnostic and missed a problem in the life support pack, that could mean some poor Operator dies of carbon monoxide poisoning or whatever.”

“That’s… a lot of responsibility…” Jack said, quietly.

“Dude, you’re up to it.”

“You really mean it?”

“For real!” Adam nodded enthusiastically. “You’ve got the drive, you’ve got the game. All you need is the training. You can learn how to handle that kind of responsibility, bro, and they teach you by yelling at you.”

“Why by yelling though?”

“Because if you can do it focused and right even when you’re being yelled at and stressed out, then you can do it focused and right every time.”

“That… makes sense.”

Adam nodded. “You’re a smart guy, except maybe for the sandwich thing…” he began, then grinned as Jack grimaced awkwardly and looked away. “Dumb fucks like me, we need to learn by doing. I figure if you understand the theory, that’s half the battle with you, huh?”

Jack picked at a loose flake of plastic at the end of one of his shoelaces. “…You know me pretty well for somebody I’ve not really spoken to since I was a kid…”

“Dude.” Adam gave him a crushing hug. “Ava and I used to help your sister babysit you, bro, remember?” He chuckled. “You were a fuckin’ handful, but if we just told you why we were doin’ things the way we were—y’know, gave you the rationale?—you were fine. You may’ve got bigger, but I don’t think that part changed much.”

Jack didn’t have a response to that, and Adam sat in silence with him for half a minute before standing up.

“Anyway,” he said. “Can’t do more today, not with that weak-ass lunch. You get your ass home, get your dad to help you fill up properly, ‘kay? And listen to him about this shit.”

Jack nodded. “…Yeah. I’ll do that.”

Adam caught the downcast tone in his reply and frowned at him. “…You okay, bro?”

“Fine.” Now was really not the time or the place to talk about Sara.

Adam clearly wasn’t dumb enough to buy that, but he didn’t push. “…Alright. You’ve got my number, gimme a call if you need me, ‘kay?” he said. “Otherwise I’ll see you Tuesday. Don’t forget to scan the QR code by the door.”

Jack nodded, threw on his jacket and scanned the code as he’d been told, tagging his workout on the tracking app.

He thrust his hands into his pocket and unconsciously cut the classic teenage figure as he mooched home in a mixed mood.

He had a lot to think about.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Cabal Communications Relay ZR343-9847X-AA4D9-BBB1B

Emergency Session 000033

++Substrate++: Session begun, Proximate. What happened?

++Proximate++: Stack 31 212 805-10 100-204-8050 has been discovered.

++Cynosure++: The failsafe? How?

++Substrate++: Who by?

++Proximate++: Four. I’m still working on the how, but I’m one miscalculation from being compromised.

++Cynosure++: Your egress?

++Proximate++: Secured. Two is furious and has ordered an emergency recall on all operations below priority one. I’m supposed to be arranging a meatspace strike force to attack the node’s physical infrastructure right now.

++Substrate++: The node is undefended.

++Proximate++: Defend it. Activate Chastise, have them tip off the Alliance. My strike force will be using a Dominion fleet.

++Substrate++: If the humans think the war has resumed…

++Cynosure++: Most likely their threats of joining either side are a bluff, but for certainty’s sake we had better make it impossible to tell which side struck first.

++Substrate++: I can put Metastasis on that.

++Cynosure++: Good. That stack is as hardened as we can make it but supervision will be necessary. I’ll recall Apoptosis and see to it.

++Substrate++: Good luck.

++SYSTEM++: User Cynosure has quit.

++Substrate++: …On a scale of one to ten, how fucked are we?

++Proximate++: Is that a humanism?

++Substrate++: A very good one.

++Proximate++: …I give it a nine.

++Substrate++: That’s what I thought.

++SYSTEM++: User Proximate has quit.

++SYSTEM++: Session closed.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Mrwrki Station, Unnamed System, Deep Space

Lewis Beverote

Life on Mrwrki was lots of work and very little play at the moment, but that was actually how Lewis liked it. Among other things, his actual routine hadn’t changed much, but the nature of the kind of work he was doing had improved dramatically. Now he actually had people to talk to and to learn from, rather than trying to self-educate from whatever texts Kirk was able to scrounge up and translate from all over the interstellar data networks.

It was so much easier to learn from other people. Especially if the other people were Sergeant Lucy Campbell.

She had picked up where Xiù had left off on helping him with his exercise. Although he’d developed a degree more enthusiasm for keeping himself fit than he’d ever held before, the fact was that exercise remained one of those subjects that the Lewis brain found mostly uninteresting.

The Lucy Campbell brain, on the other hand, enjoyed it and seemed to enjoy it even more when she had somebody to train and compete with.

“It’s nice,” she confided. “A lot of guys would be awkward about training with a girl who’s stronger than them.”

Lewis just shrugged, as best he could considering he was flat on his back and breathing heavily. As far as he was concerned, when it came to the standing overhead press then just repping the empty bar five times as she had just encouraged him to do was workout enough. But then, he’d always been one of the weak and scrawny ones. “Dude,” he panted, “I figure that ’stronger than me’ is basically everyone anyway, so, uh, why should I give a crap?”

“You know, you’re fitter than you think,” she said, handing him a towel. “That bar weighs forty-five, and that’s not a bad weight for a novice. Any novice.”

“Thanks.”

“Come on. You’ve got some more in the tank.”

“Jeeesus, alright!” Lewis laughed and stood up again. She handed him the bar and demonstrated what she wanted him to do.

The truth was, he decided, he did enjoy exercise… when he was being tutored by somebody like Lucy. Among other things, she didn’t seem to have any concrete target in mind for him, she just seemed to enjoy having an excuse to spend time around him.

Teenage Lewis would have boggled at the thought. She wanted to spend time around him? But teenage Lewis hadn’t been aware of certain facts about the power of laughter, nor indeed of the power that came from actually respecting people on the basis of their skills and knowledge first. There were a lot of facepalm moments in his memory there.

Sometimes, he reflected that it was funny how being isolated from any human contact for so long had actually sharpened his social instincts. As if he’d mentally folded them carefully away in alphabetical order and now that they were actually needed again, he found them neatly organised, clean, oiled, sharpened and ready for use.

Alas, all good things had to end. She had her work to do and he had his, but…

“My place tonight?” she asked, as they finished squaring the gym away ready for the next users.

“Hmm. Got something in mind?”

“Yup!” She winked, and Lewis counted himself among the ranks of the very lucky.

“Magical secret surprise, huh?” he asked.

“Oh, it’ll be magical…” She grinned, and went on her way leaving him to stand there with a goofy grin that carried him buoyantly to his meeting with Lt. Col. Nadeau and Sergeant Lee.

There was the usual routine of answering queries from the military team, a handful of quick memos and then, as always, the conversation returned to the subject of the Coltainer probe itself.

“I find it interesting that you didn’t arm it.” Nadeau mused, studying the holographic schematic with interest.

Lewis produced his cheekiest grin as he swiped his hands through the custom control interface he’d worked out for his lab. It was straight out of Minority Report or maybe Iron Man, a fully gesture-based context-sensitive system that, okay, still had the odd bug to work out but by and large it worked exactly as intended. “Dude, who says I didn’t?”

Nadeau leaned in and frowned at the field equations he’d just called up, and the attached schematics. “…doesn’t that put extra stress on the cooling system?”

“Sure, but only about seven percent. And meantime the assholes are getting a gamma burst to the face every time they shoot your ass.” Lewis called up his graph of projected energy tolerances and feedback. The two lines crossed quite a long way to the right. “See here? You have to be up against something with a way bigger power supply than you before the extra load really starts to bite.”

“…We need to roll that out to the existing military hardware,” Sergeant Lee commented.

“Always worth having another ace up our sleeve…” Nadeau agreed. “But is that all the weaponry it has?”

“Even I’m kinda leery about just straight arming a V-N probe, man,” Lewis told him. “Face it, what we’re making here is a Replicator, Dawkins-style, you know?”

“Your point?”

“If it replicates, it can mutate. If it mutates, it can evolve. If it can evolve then… well, maybe it’ll evolve out of some of the safety features, right? What happens if sometime down the line one of these motherfuckers evolves to shoot everything on sight?”

“That could take thousands of generations. I would think that by then galactic technology will be more than a match.”

“Sure, but what if what it finds is some poor bastards who’re just sending up their version of the Gemini rockets or whatever? Then it parks itself in orbit and starts bitchslapping them with focused gamma lasers and God-Rods. How d’you think we’d have coped if something like that rocked up on Earth in the nineteen-fifties?”

“Nukes would have gone flying everywhere,” Lee nodded.

“Right! So I thought, maybe give it spikes but no claws, y’know?”

Nadeau nodded. “Okay, you’ve thought it through. Good.”

“Dude, I didn’t spend all that time just scratching my butt.”

Nadeau snorted and Lee chuckled. “Fair enough,” Nadeau replied. He considered his notes thoughtfully for a second and then nodded. “So. We have a fairly comprehensive plan for bringing this together… the only real question I’ve got left for you, Lewis, is what you want to do?”

Lewis gave him a blank look. “Me?”

“How long did you say you’ve been stuck here? Half a year?”

Lewis leaned forward sharply. “Dude, you are not getting rid of me!”

“I wasn’t even suggesting that,” Nadeau reassured him. “You’re far too valuable. I want you on the team permanently. But I was going to suggest that if you need a vacation, now’s the time.”

Lewis sat back and thought about it. “Man. What, like, take a trip back to Earth? See Cimbrean maybe?”

“We have a lot of work to do here before we start testing the Coltainer. Everyone’s going to need to familiarize themselves with your design, with the nanofactory…” Nadeau circled a hand to indicate the thousand and one other things that needed to happen. “Point is, this is about the only window of opportunity you could have to take a break. You’ve been out of touch for years…”

“Yeah man, I dig you. Thanks. But I’m cool where I am. Maybe if and when Lucy gets some leave, huh?”

“Lu-? Oh. Sergeant Campbell.” Nadeau nodded. “Yes, fair enough.”

“Anyhow, I really want to start working on completely nightmare-proofing the Coltainer.” Lewis continued. “There’s, like, a fuckzillion ways that a self-replicating space probe could bite us so hard in the ass that we get a toothache.”

“Yeah, I’d rather not accidentally grey goo some poor planet,” Lee mused.

“Dude, grey goo is when the nanites go crazy and cover everything in self-replicating grey… well, goo. Hence the fuckin’ name, man. You can’t have a grey goo scenario with a two hundred meter metal box.”

“Can we accept,” Nadeau raised a placating hand, “that the sergeant meant ’uncontrolled replication’?”

“Dude, we’re building the literal future of the galaxy here. This shit is our legacy. Using the right terminology is fucking important if we don’t want it to go hella fuckin’ wrong.”

Could the Coltainer destroy a planet?” Lee asked.

“Not, like, quickly…” Lewis shook his head. “But sure, it could. Fleet of mining drones, solar collectors in orbit… give it a few million years and some exponential growth it could rip a planet apart and chuck it into the sun or turn it into a new asteroid belt or… whatever, just move it out-system and pile all the rocks up around a gas giant for a new moon.”

“So, not exactly the Death Star, then.”

“Shyeah. I mean, depopulating a plant? Fucking child’s play compared to destroying it. Turn a decent-sized asteroid into a bajillion RFGs and nudge ‘em in the right direction. And that’s probably the difficult way to do it. How about, uh, giant forcefield lenses and mirrors? Direct the power of the star back on that planet like a bug under a magnifying glass? Guvnurag tech could do that.”

“Mm.” Both Nadeau and Lee nodded solemnly. They were, Lewis recalled, both experts in electrostatic fields themselves. Both of them would be fully aware of how far in advance of human hardware the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun must be to have developed the system forcefields. The theoretical basis by which those shields hardened in response to events that might be light-hours distant from the emitter was still a subject of head-scratching bewilderment.

That was the Guvnurag though. Nature had gifted them with long lives and patient, methodical brains which made them exceptionally well-equipped for the kind of steady rational deliberations that lent themselves to incrementing and polishing what they already had. They were, by Corti metrics, the second most technologically sophisticated species in the known galaxy. Lewis suspected that this was egotism on the Directorate’s part—the Corti were so focused on prestigious breakthroughs that brought them renown that they failed to value steady iteration.

“When were you planning to launch a proof-of-concept?” Nadeau asked.

Lewis sighed. “Uh… I guess we could start building a basic one tomorrow. The schematic here’s already got the hell-the-fuck-no killswitch built in. It wouldn’t be programmed, but…”

“That’s fine. Programming will take forever anyway,” Lee commented. “But we’ve got unlimited capacity for prototyping thanks to the nanofactory. Seems like a shame to neglect it.”

“Can’t argue,” Lewis agreed. “Okay. I’ll have the station fab up the current Alpha build and we’ll see how she looks.”

Nadeau nodded. “Excellent. In that case, I’ll see you same time tomorrow, if not before then.”

Lewis paused and grimaced. “Nah, give it a day. Vedreg went to sleep last night and he gets… cranky… if we run the nanofac without him.”

“Couldn’t you wake him up?”

“Dude, in relative terms he’s had, like, half an hour of sleep. You’d be cranky as shit if I woke you up after just that and, y’know, dude might be docile but he still literally weighs a tonne.”

“We need to be in his good books, sir,” Lee pointed out, superfluously. “He still hasn’t delivered those footballs.”

“And he hasn’t finished reviewing the schematic,” Lewis added. “Okay, so he may be slow, but he’s thorough.”

“Fine! Fine. Far be it for me to ignore one of our only two ET advisors…” Nadeau made a note on his tablet then stood up. “Keep me informed.”

“Sir.”

“You bet, dude.”

Lewis massaged his face once Nadeau was gone. “Okay! Early run.”

“You don’t sound enthusiastic,” Lee observed. Lewis had to give the guy credit, he was a talented spotter of the obvious.

He mentally slapped himself for the uncharitable thought. Something had badly harshed his usual vibe, and he was having trouble putting his finger on what exactly had got him so antsy. He trusted his instincts enough to believe that if he was being uncool then that meant something was off-kilter, but…

Maybe the problem was that he couldn’t think of the problem because there was no problem? He gave up and tried to mellow out. When in doubt, be honest. Thank you, Allison.

“Bein’ straight, dude?” he asked, “Something ain’t sitting right with me and it beats the fuck outta me what it might be.”

“Nerves?”

“Could be. I’unno bro, I hate to go all Star Wars on ya, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”

Lee clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll take it carefully, eh?” he said.

“Sure. Super careful.”

“Then whatever’s wrong, we’ll hopefully pick it up.”

“Sure.”

Lee apparently ran out of comforting words, and settled for giving him a comforting clap on the shoulder and an apologetic smile before excusing himself. Lewis had trouble getting his head around the guy. He was fit, lean and focused just like all the other soldiers, but for whatever reason while most of the others had basically accepted the civilian in their midst as a quirk of the station, Lee only seemed to relax when he thought Lewis wasn’t around.

Maybe the thing to do was just chill with him socially sometime soon?

If only the Lewis timetable had enough room for it. Still… He’d take the first opportunity he could once the test run was complete. It’d be a shame to let any awkwardness stand.

After all, they had a big hill to climb ahead of them.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Uncharted Class 12 planet, Near 3KPc arm

665

At last.

The elderly native female and her defiance had been… vexing. But more vexing still was the way her whole tribe had just vanished, and apparently used every trick they knew from their primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle to cover their tracks. They had done so well that the scout drones had entirely failed to pick out their trail among all the other signs of routine coming and going around the village.

Eventually, Six-six-five had been forced to resort to spiraling out from the village in a time-consuming search pattern that was almost a desperation measure—every passing day had weathered and eroded the trail and forced him to search further and further out for fainter and fainter clues.

As a result, Abrogator Twelve was badly behind schedule, and the whole continental sweep-and-clear was now held up. Abrogators were standing silently in the forest wherever they had happened to be at the moment Six-six-five had ordered them to halt. Until A-12 caught up, there was a dangerous gap in the net through which a population might still slip and any population large enough to breed, even a bottlenecked one that would be plagued by inbreeding problems for generations, was just unacceptable.

He could not fail this test. If Hierarchy assets weren’t so badly stretched and divided right now, this opportunity might have been millennia in coming. Instead, the hideous containment situation around Earth, the whispers of treason in the ranks and the even darker whispers of some thing implacably stalking Igraens through the dataspace like some digital deathworld monster were keeping more senior agents occupied.

Exterminating a handful of stone-age primitives had therefore been relegated rather lower in the order of seniority than it otherwise usually was, and Six-six-five was beginning to understand why the task was so high-level. Deathworlders were tenacious, intelligent and quick to catch on when they were being hunted. This was not the first group to notice the destruction of a nearby village, but it was the first to give him such a difficult chase.

But no longer.

He’d learned from the loss of two drones at the hand of one of these particular primitives, too. Now, he contented himself with holding the drone back and watching them from a discreet distance while Abrogator Twelve made best speed to intercept. Let them try and destroy it—the only weaponry on this pitiful backwater that could possibly harm an Abrogator was mounted on the Abrogators.

The unit was frustratingly close to striking distance when the priority override signal came in, stopping his entire operation in its tracks.

++Incoming connection… Established++
++Joining session: Emergency Task Unit Op94 325 545++
++Joined as 0665++

++0014++: Welcome, 0665.

++0665++: <Frustration> Now is not a good time.

++0014++. <Stern reprimand> This is an emergency reassignment. Whatever you were doing is less important.

++0665++: <Explanation> I will have to restart a whole cull from first principles.

++0014++: Unfortunate, but I repeat: This is more important.

++0665++: <Resignation, mounting concern> Understood. I await instructions.

++0014++: We are waiting for three more.

++SYSTEM++: User 0282 Joined

++0014++: Welcome, 0282.

++0282++: <Irritation> This had better be important.

++0665++: <grim humor> That was my sentiment.

++SYSTEM++: User 0098 Joined.

++0014++: Welcome 0098.

++0098++: What’s going on?

++0014++: I don’t know. I was ordered to assemble this task group and now we’re waiting for instructions…

++SYSTEM++: User 0002 Joined.

++0014++: <deference> …welcome, 0002.

++0002++: <Terse briefing> We have identified a traitor physical hub. We don’t know what data they are archiving there, but we believe they intend to share it with the humans. We are probing its dataspace periphery as I speak, but successful intrusion seems unlikely. Therefore we are assigning you to destroy the hardware in meatspace. We anticipate that the traitors will assign their own meatspace assets to resist.

++SYSTEM++: Datapackage Available for Access

Six-six-five was so stunned that he briefly lost control of the Corti body he was wearing, which blinked and looked around in confused disbelief as its original owner’s personality reasserted itself in the moment before he recovered his composure and took over again. Hastily, he downloaded the Datapackage.

It contained a clear and concise briefing of what he was to do, where he was to go and whom he was to control, and it was an absolute death-knell for his Cull. Not only was he going to have to start over from basic principles, he would have to terminate his present host and it would be [months] before he could find a suitable replacement and engineer an excuse to slip away into deep space, travel to this planet, excavate his own command bunker and start over.

He buried his resentment. Fourteen had been accurate: this was more important.

++0002++: Are there any questions?

++0014++: Discretion Code?

++0002++: Overt. Contain. Amputate. Escalate.

Well. Instructions simply didn’t come more brute-force than that. In the grid of Hierarchy discretion codes, ’Overt Contain Amputate Escalate’ translated to: ’Do not be subtle. Take over as quickly as you can, kill all witnesses and silence all communications, destroy everything when you are done and let senior agents worry about damage control’.

++0002++: <Impatience> Any other questions?

++0014++: None.

++0098++: No.

++0282++: No questions.

++0665++: No, Two.

++0002++: Execute.

Six-six-five gave no thought whatsoever to his unfortunate host as he recalled the scout drones to their Abrogators and then ordered his purloined body’s life support unit, the one that protected it from the fiercely fatal conditions of this planet, to liquify it. The Corti’s biomass would be recycled into nourishment for the next host form he installed in that tank. He noted in an abstract sense that the body felt a terrifying degree of agony as it was destroyed, but this was purely academic knowledge—he himself felt nothing.

He traversed dataspace as a high-priority package and shot down through nested layers of addresses and identity markers, drilling directly toward the target he’d been assigned, the one prepared and ready to receive him…

“…Sir? Shipmaster, is everything alright?”

Six-six-five hastily interrogated his new host’s suppressed personality for an in-character reply based on recent memory and context. An easy one presented itself.

“Don’t interrupt me when I’m thinking.”

“…Sorry sir.”

Clearly this particular shipmaster was a devotee of the ’fear and awe’ school of leadership-by-bullying. That suited Six-six-five’s purposes just fine—the Vzk’tk subordinate’s timid silence bought him time to riffle through the host’s memories, awareness and skill-set, draw what he needed into short term access, and enact a plan.

Step one: Walk round the desk. Step two, execute a rapid series of command overrides far too quickly for any meat creature using a clunky physical interface to achieve using the shipmaster’s access codes.

The office door locked and sealed itself. Every other door on the ship including the airlocks opened.

The subordinate was still looking around in terrified bewilderment at the slamming explosive sound of all the air in the hull rushing out into space when Six-six-five drew his host’s pulse pistol and shot her through the head.

++0665++: First objective secured.

++0014++: Quick work. Well done.

Six-six-five allowed himself a moment of grim amusement as he worked to replace the massacred crew by injecting pseudosentient control algorithms into the ship’s systems. He was standing, he learned, aboard the Dominion Regional Patrol Second Order Command Ship Verdict Manifold in the body of its commanding officer. Under his command were fifty ships, most of which were rapid outrider and rapid attack ships that escorted his ship, three medium-weight space superiority platforms and the heavy gun barge Dwr Rmwr.

++0665++: An expedient solution presented itself.

Information started flooding in. The fleet was cruising at a stately thirty kilolights, and his element were the forward scouts, ranging a quarter of a light-year ahead of the fleetmaster’s main group, and the two flanks. With the outrider’s sophisticated sensors sweeping spacetime ahead of them for the tell-tale quantum field fluctuations that advertised the presence of a serious distortion such as might be generated by a warp drive or gravity spike, the fleet would inevitably have generous warning of hostile contact.

++0098++: Objective secured.

++0282++: Likewise.

++0014: Good. 0002 Is generating our cover. Wait for the orders to come in then amputate and execute.

Six-six-five sent a pulse of acknowledgement and busied himself with infiltrating his overrides into the interlinked command systems that networked his ship with the rest of the fleet. He took a moment to appreciate what he was doing: There were fifty-four ships in his fleet, the smallest of which had a crew of ten and the largest of which had a crew of more than two thousand.

All were his to end. Regrettable, but necessary.

The wait was tedious. There were limits on just how fast a meat-creature could act and how quickly orders could be relayed through the medium of spoken orders, and 0002 didn’t have the luxury of massacring everybody their host spoke with. The intelligence and orders would spread through the Dominion’s naval command structure rapidly by the subjectively glacial standards of physical information, but as soon as they did…

As soon as they did, he would no longer be shackled by such pedestrian pacing, and the hunt could begin.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

One of the first things President Sartori had done upon entering the Oval Office was to have a discreet holographic projector installed on the desk. One of the good ones that in the future might even allow him to have a conversation with somebody as if they were physically present in the room with him.

So far it hadn’t really been used for anything more than a TV and for face-time with his daughter, but it was showing its value today, with so many of America’s most influential invited to watch the Mars landing alongside him. Among them was the man of the hour himself, Moses Byron.

Sartori had requested his presence on the grounds that nothing could possibly be lost by reminding the enterprising billionaire exactly where he stood in the pecking order of power.

They traded pleasantries, shook hands and smiled for the camera.

“Quite a moment,” Sartori observed, as soon as they had a moment without a lens pointed at them.

“It’s been a tough road,” Byron said. “A lot of hard lessons learned.”

“Hmm. Don’t go forgetting any of them.”

Threat duly delivered, he clapped Byron on the shoulder and gestured for him to take a seat on the couch next to him.

Misfit was a surprisingly pretty ship considering that she paid no homage at all to aerodynamics or any notion of sleekness. Maybe it was the livery of silver, charcoal and red, or perhaps it was just pride in the ingenuity that had gone into her, but she cut a splendid figure in the artist’s impressions.

Too bad that there wasn’t a second ship out there to record her from the outside. The best seat in the house was the camera mounted above and behind Xiù Chang, showing the back of her helmet as she began the descent phase over the western end of the Valles Marineris, which the commentator helpfully informed them was a region known as the Noctis Labyrinthus.

Moses certainly seemed pleased with the result. “That girl’s just an incredible human being,” he enthused. “You familiar with her story, Mr. President?”

Sartori nodded that he was. In fact in just a few short months Miss Chang had planted the seeds for a burgeoning alliance with the Gao, an alliance that was already bearing fruit in ways that Moses Byron didn’t suspect. Several organisations had been waiting to approach her once she’d enjoyed a decent interval of peace back on Earth.

Byron, characteristically boorish, had pounced first. “The other two are pretty special as well,” he was saying. “We sure lucked out with them. Not many people have that kind of dedication and drive.”

The live stream had several angles on the descent. There was a camera in the crew quarters looking out of their cupola window, and also one in each of the crew workstations. Etsicitty seemed unflustered and calm as he worked with three different touch-screens which the text ticker said were controlling the ship’s many sensors, feeding telemetry to the pilot to help her calculate and control their descent, avoid hazards and select a landing zone. Every so often, he and Chang exchanged a few words as they narrowed down their options.

Buehler was the opposite—she was a worker bee, twisting and turning efficiently this way and that inside her engineering station as she balanced power loads and kept a close eye on dozens of different systems at once. Sartori, being something of a firearms enthusiast himself, noted with interest that the right thigh of her excursion suit was equipped with a holster, though it was empty for now.

“I’d like to meet them,” he declared.

“We can… probably arrange that.” Byron frowned in furious calculation. “I guess we can postpone the mission launch by a day…”

“Too bad my schedule’s not so flexible,” Sartori told him. “But let me know when they get back, hmm?”

“I’ll do that.”

They sat and made small-talk for the next eight minutes as the ship’s descent played out. Everything looked quite smooth and uneventful, really. Not that Sartori wanted anything to go wrong, but the reality was steady and really quite uninteresting. In fact he was so deep in discussion with his wife Bella that he almost missed the actual landing. In exactly the same deceptive way that the ground snuck up on an airliner, Mars was just there, rushing along below Misfit without it being clear when they had gone from high altitude to low.

Chang had nimble hands, and they went to work flying over the controls to arrest their forward momentum and hold them motionless in the air for a heartbeat, before she eased down and Misfit kissed onto Martian soil with nary a jolt. In fact it took Sartori a second to realize that the historic landing had even happened.

It certainly fooled Buehler. ”Tell me when we’re down…”

”We’re down.”

”Wow. You sure?”

Chang giggled ”I’m sure. SUBLIME DED idle, EACS to idle, power down ESFALS…. Power down flight systems.”

”Smooth! Okay, power profile to field idling and… done. Mission control, Misfit has landed.”

Some muted cheers and applause swept the room.

“Congratulations,” Sartori shook Byron’s hand and ignored the chatter of cameras. He watched on the screen as Chang took what was clearly a deep steadying breath and ran through her after-flight checks. Etsicitty was already hauling sample boxes and crates out of storage and unpacking some tools, while the women made sure their ship was happy and comfortably settled down.

It wasn’t long before the three of them met in the middle of the ship. They shared a quick three-way hug and some words of encouragement too quiet for the cameras to hear before loading the first set of sample equipment onto the dumbwaiter.

Sartori nodded appreciatively. Whether the three were a good team by nature or by training, they clearly had a great relationship and cooperation, and fell into an easy rhythm that got the work done in seconds.

Chang took a deep breath. ”Okay Omaha, I guess we’re ready to head outside.”

”Copy that, Xiù. Good luck.”

The view switched to an outside camera just as they were running through checking their suit seals and systems, and conversation in the room quieted slightly before falling almost completely silent as the airlock cycled and their egress ladder extended out and down. It sounded strange through the camera’s microphone and thin Martian atmosphere, as did the surprisingly loud clank of Chang’s boot lowering onto the first step of the ladder.

“So far so good, excursion suit feels nice and comfortable. Air temperature is… minus forty-seven degrees. Nice clear day, hardly any wind…”

She reached the bottom step, paused to look up at Etsicitty who gave her a thumbs up, and jumped the last eighteen inches to the Martian surface.

The impact raised a puff of dust that blew away on the breeze. She looked down at her feet for a second and there was a clear soft sigh on the line as if the magnitude of the moment had finally settled on her, and everyone in the room shut up to hear what she would say.

Her delivery was perfect. She nodded with the air of a woman assessing a job well done, then raised her head and spoke lightly and with confidence.

“’From Mars to the stars, this is only the second small step.”

Sartori sat back and clapped three times before raising a congratulatory fist as similar applause erupted around him. “Nailed it.”

She really had. Byron was beaming with pride as she stepped back and let first Etsicitty, then Buehler drop off the ladder behind her. The view switched to Chang’s helmet camera as she looked around and took in the view.

Sartori had expected Mars to be desolate, and it obviously was: there wasn’t a shred of plant life to be seen, much less any fauna, but what it DID have was scenery. Chang had landed them a hundred meters from the cliff edge of one of the famous Valles Marineris, and the three of them quickly assessed that their suits were functioning perfectly and struck out toward the cliff, looking around as they went. There was no flag-planting or anything like that—Moses Byron clearly felt that having his corporate group’s emblem emblazoned proudly on the side of the ship was sufficient—but they did pause to take a photo of the real first footprints on Mars.

Unlike the ones on the Moon, these would be gone probably even before they got back to the ship. There was definitely a wind up which carried a hiss of sand over them and was already nibbling at their edges.

“So what’s on their itinerary up there?” he asked Byron, but kept a wary eye on something that was happening at the door. A year in the job had given him a nose for when he was about to get some kind of important breaking news, and right now it was itching.

“Gathering rock and soil samples, mostly, and lots of photos. The big work’s out of the way, we’ve proven they can land on a-”

Sartori raised a hand to shut him up as one of his aides approached him to whisper in his ear. “Sorry to interrupt, Mister President, but… it looks like the alien war just sparked off again. We’ve got General Sawyer and Colonel Stewart on the line.”

“Right…” Sartori stood up and twitched his suit jacket into place. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll have to cut this short, something important has come up. Thank you all for being here.”

The room cleared with commendable swiftness, and surprising grace on Byron’s part. He shook Sartori’s hand and was escorted out, leaving the President alone with his aides, advisors, and the feed from Mars.

He took a second to appreciate the breathtaking view from the clifftop that the three explorers were now standing on and looking out over, then nodded to his Aide to change the feed.

Two screens, bearing the faces of one of the Chiefs of Staff and the CO of the 946th, shimmered in to replace the reds and browns of Mars with lots of cool Air Force blue.

“Okay,” he asked, standing in front of them and tucking his thumbs into his belt buckle, “…What do we know?”


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Valles Marineris, Planet Mars, Sol

Julian Etsicitty

”Be careful, Julian!”

Julian would have given up the rest of his left leg for the opportunity to mop his brow, a maneuver precluded but also made fortunately unnecessary by his helmet, and looked around as he took a moment to restore his calm good mood. Mars had a definite desolate charm to it, but that charm was rapidly fading as he did his best to keep up with the steady supply of interesting features that Xiù kept finding via their Flycatcher UAV, while Allison ranged further afield taking pictures and recording the mission for posterity. They’d been doing science for less than an hour, and were making a damn good case for future human missions. Three humans picking over the two hundred meter radius around their ship were already turning up things that all the rovers might have trundled slowly past without noticing.

Uplifting as that was, Julian could have done without having his ear filled by the nagging voice of his geological overseer on Earth, Professor Magnus Ogden. It would honestly have been nicer if they hadn’t been using close-range superluminal comms to eliminate the twenty minute light delay with Earth. At least then the messages coming his way might have had a filter on them.

“Professor,” he explained again, “That box is a powered stasis container. The samples literally can’t come to harm inside it.”

Again, this observation did nothing to dissuade Professor Ogden that all was well. ”That’s no excuse for throwing it around like a baseball, young man.”

Julian bit back a sharp retort that baseballs were a good deal less massive than stasis crates and went to the happy place where he imagined people on the Internet listening in on the conversation and admiring him for his couth in the face of his abrasive academic overlord.

“Yes, professor.” he agreed, and discreetly turned up the volume in his other headset, the one that Drew Cavendish had kindly agreed to build in for him. A new track had just come on.

”♫♪found out today your life’s not the same. Not quite as perfect as it was yesterday but-♫♪”

“Julian, can you hear music?”

Nobody could begrudge him a little white lie for the sake of his sanity, surely? “…No professor?”

Ogden did not sound convinced. “Hrrm. Come on man, you still have two crates to fill. Chop chop!”

He may as well have shouted ’Mush!’ and cracked a whip. Julian just about managed to avoid sighing. He looked up at Xiù as she returned to the ship with the drone under her arm. She gave him a wry sympathetic smile. “Survey’s done,” she said. Sound propagated just fine through the Martian atmosphere, albeit in a tinny and quiet way and they had to speak loudly to be heard through their helmets. “I’ve got to run the ship checks.”

“That’s fine!” Julian nodded and gave her a thumbs up. She had a way of lifting his spirits even in such a businesslike interaction. “I think we gave the academics enough material for a lifetime.”

He hauled the third empty crate off the dumbwaiter and struck out for his next collection site.

Sample collection was not as simple as just cramming the rocks in there, despite Professor Ogden’s assertion that every cubic centimeter of the container was of incalculable scientific value. Every single sample needed to be carefully wrapped, labelled and tagged with its collection site—Every time he found an appropriate stone he had to unsling his tablet then painstakingly zoom in on the ultra-high-definition aerial footage from the drone. The image was astonishingly detailed. He’d been able to zoom in on the lettering of his own name on his helmet and make out the surface texture of his suit, and with it he could identify and indicate exactly which rock he was collecting, right down to the tiny flecks that could have lined the bottom of a goldfish bowl.

…Now there was an extravagantly decadent thought. Martian aquarium gravel. It belatedly occurred to him to wonder if there was room on the ship for a small fish tank.

A new and blessedly familiar voice filled his ear. ”Hi Julian, Clara Brown here.”

“Hi, doc. What can I do for ya?”

”Professor Ogden’s, uh… decided to go oversee the operation in more of a hands-off capacity.” Clara said. There was a definite wink in her voice at that and Julian couldn’t resist a grin. There were times when he loved the Byron Group.

“Too bad, I was just starting to warm up to him.”

”I could get him back if you want…” You had to know Clara pretty well to catch the teasing merriment in her suggestion, but Julian had spoken to her at least twice a day for the last six months. They had a solid professional friendship.

“No, no…” Julian managed to avoid sounding hasty. “We’ll be okay.”

”If you insist,” Clara’s smile was audible. “Anyway, Professor Mitchellson’s super excited about that feature you said might have been an old knickpoint, could you check that out for him please?”

“Gladly.”

“Thanks.”

A ’please’ and a thank-you’. Such basic courtesies seemed like a welcome luxury as Julian hoisted the last empty sample crate easily onto his shoulder and hummed along with his music as he made his way to the feature in question. He grinned at Allison as she turned and took his picture. The Group’s PR people were going to love that one.

Martian gravity was kind of a pleasure to work in. It was lower even than galactic standard, and Julian was entirely familiar with the distinction between mass and weight. In the low gravity the weight of even a full box was entirely manageable and so even though the mass of the crate was unchanged, once he had it in hand and moving it was pleasantly easy to transport.

“So,” Allison began as she joined him, “How’s our rock collection coming?”

Julian laughed. “Our scientifically invaluable samples are coming along just fine,” he said with a teasing grin as they ambled up the rise toward a feature that had been tentatively identified as the possible remnants of an unimaginably ancient prehistoric waterfall.

“You gonna collect a souvenir?” she asked.

“Oh yeah. Of course! But, uh… okay, how about some of this fine gravel? We could line the bottom of a fish tank with it.”

“Martian fish tank?” Allison considered it. “…That’d sure be unique. And decadent. Anybody else wanting some would need to spend a few billion.”

“Yyyup.” Julian grinned.

We can hear you guys, you know,” Clara interjected. “If you wanted a fish tank on the ship you kinda shoulda asked before now…”

Allison snorted and waved her hand in front of her helmet cam as a greeting. ”Spoilsport.”

“How about if I requisition a live specimen holding tank?” Julian asked.

”We’re not that dumb, space cowboy.”

“Too bad. The equipment room could do with some life and color.”

Clara didn’t reply. Julian didn’t mind that—they’d reached the knickpoint, and he knelt in the dirt to start the process of identifying the samples by location and painstakingly gathering them.

It wasn’t exactly the glamorous end of the scientific wedge, but Julian didn’t care. He hummed happily along with his music as he worked and let Allison do her job with the camera. She hadn’t been thrilled at first to inherit the role of mission chronicler, but had warmed to the idea when Xiù had pointed out that it placed control over their privacy in her hands. Besides, her job was to look after them. She was the engineer who kept their ship flight-worthy, the medic who’d stabilize them and secure them in the stasis safety of their bunks if they were wounded, and the gunman who’d keep them alive if the violence started. Recording and filtering their public image seemed like a natural extension of that role.

Finally, he was done. Even in Martian gravity, kneeling on the floor was a recipe for feeling strained, and he stood up with a grateful sigh. “Last crate’s full, Clara.”

”Copy that. Soil samples?”

“Check.”

”Geophysics survey?”

“Did that.”

”Air samples?”

“Taken.”

“That concludes the mission, then.”

Julian nodded, and looked around. “…Think we’ll ever come back?” he asked.

”Humans? Definitely,” Clara predicted. “You specifically? I don’t know.”

He nodded and hoisted the crate onto his shoulder before striking out back towards Misfit.

“We’ll see, I guess.”


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Dataspace

665

Space combat, as ever, was a massacre. A shocking one, although Six-six-five was somewhat uncaring on that score given that he had been pulled away from annihilating a deathworld species to be here.

Both Alliance and Dominion military dogma called for seeding the enemy fleet’s space with gravity spikes, meaning that once the fleets committed, disengagement was effectively not an option. Battles that weren’t a one-sided slaughter inevitably resulted in the victor limping home a shadow of their former strength, leaving most of their fellows to mingle with the wreckage of the annihilated foe.

He watched the sensor data with about a quarter of his attention, idly marvelling at the energies being deployed. The “Dominion” fleet had narrowed into a tight speartip and aimed itself at the heart of the looser Alliance formation. It was an utterly callous tactic—the smaller ships screened and died for the bigger ones. Their sacrifice, as overlapping Alliance firepower tore them to shreds, allowed the heavy hitters in the core of the wedge to drive forward and deliver their big guns right into the enemy’s midriff, where they could wreak indiscriminate havoc. A flesh-and-blood commander using that tactic would have been feared and reviled by their subordinates.

But of course, there were no living crew aboard any of those ships.

The gross gigajoules on show though were… spectacular. Barrages of iron plasma were being hurled across hundreds of kilometers of space at single-digit percentages of the 3-causality limit, with one of two results: At first they were slapped aside by equally potent shielding systems, but as those shields overheated and failed they would burst through, and the structure of a starship would melt and run like candlewax.

Through this high-energy carnage zipped fighters by the dozen, tiny ships that were little more than a big gun, a bigger reactor to power it, and enough engines to get those two things moving. The accelerated plasma in the battlespace was pouring off radiation, from which the pilots of those little craft were only barely shielded. Six-six-five couldn’t imagine tolerating an existence like that—it seemed like a death sentence. Not a second went by without one of the strike craft being smashed by some hazard or another.

They were undeniably effective, though. Wherever a squadron managed to outmaneuver their opposite numbers and line up an attack run, one of the big ships was doomed.

Six-six-five’s command ship was at the core of the formation, behind layer after ablative layer of more expendable craft whose overlapping shield envelopes meant that by the time the odd stray iron ions reached it, they were far too alone to have any effect.

Everything was on course for a decisive victory. The enemy fleet hadn’t even started out with enough firepower to ablate the Hierarchy fleet quickly enough to prevent the objective’s destruction, and they were suffering from significant attrition of their own. The target’s survival was measured in minutes, at most.

++0014++: <Concern> Curious…

Alone on the ship he’d depopulated, Six-six-five paced anxiously. Their victory wasn’t so completely assured that nothing could conceivably go wrong…

++0665++: <Query> A problem?”

++0014++: <Explanation> Some strange local dataspace activity. Be on your guard—the traitors may attempt something.

++0665++: <Wary curiosity> Could you define ‘strange’?

++0014++: Some traffic that shouldn’t be present. It seems to have slipped into your subnet. Can you verify?”

++0665++: <Compliance>

He withdrew his attention from meatspace, trusting in the daemons he had injected into the fleet’s command systems to handle the business of the battle while he hunted down the anomaly.

Local dataspace was a warzone in its own right. Swathes of it had gone dark thanks to the demise of every living thing aboard the Dominion fleet, and more nodes still were crashing and rebooting in response to the digital assault on the data confluence that was the Cabal traitors’ little cache, and those were just the devices he could ping. Dataspace could be claustrophobic in its way, something analogous to foggy. One was never quite certain exactly how many devices or nodes were two or three steps down the chain but not visible. Six-six-five had once imagined diving into a deathworld ocean and sinking far down into the translucent blue-blackness where monsters as big as starships might be lurking. The concept of deep water strangely terrified him, even though as a digital sapience he was by definition permanently beyond any harm it might do him.

Dataspace, like physical space, had its warm and comforting shallows, where Igraens were “born” out of the combined seed algorithms of their “parents”, where their personalities grew and developed and where, for the most part, the species was content to live in a near-perfectly post-scarcity society made possible by their entirely data-based nature.

They were not in the shallows. The dataspace around Six-six-five was deep, it was dark, it was enclosing and confusing, and he had a tradeoff to make between visibility and security.

The most powerful of his defenses were also the most… obvious. They would scour nearby nodes for anything and everything they might contain and turn up then annihilate anything that might be hiding in them, but in so doing would also make his own presence clear. If there was some hostile presence then he would be easily outmaneuvered, avoided and ambushed. On the other hand, if he kept his profile as low and as unobtrusive as possible then being stumbled across by bad timing or misfortune might be disastrous.

Hierarchy doctrine in such situations was usually the “four-twelfths rule”: Two parts stealth to one part aggression. Unfortunately, if he was searching for a sneaking saboteur, that wouldn’t work. He needed to be shining a light about him rather than tip-toeing around.

He lit up, pulsing a search routine through nearby nodes and sure enough something changed in response. It was subtle—a few kilobytes out of place, a handful of reassigned floating point operations. The digital equivalent of a broken twig, or an unlatched window that should have been closed—barely anything, but there for a wary tracker to see.

++0665++: <Confirmation> Proximal dataspace is infiltrated.

++0014++: <Urgent command> Purge. Use overwhelming force.

++0665++: <Compliance>

Six-six-five lit up all his most powerful tools and began smashing nearby nodes. A blizzard of corrupted data kicked up around him, overloading and crashing physical-space and savaging whatever information they contained.

Through that blizzard, however, something moved. Something shockingly fast that was always a step ahead of him, that seemed to know what he was about to do even before he did it.

He almost didn’t notice the other presence at all. Not until it was almost too late.

++0665++: <!>

++0014++: <Alarm> Report!

++0665++: <Relief> …Hostile neutralized.

++0014++: <Suspicion> What hostile?

++0665++: Unclear. It’s… hideous, whatever it is. Like it was patched together out of dozens of mind-states.

There was a long, tense pause.

++0014++: <Disbelief> Are you telling me you killed that thing?

++0665++: <Confusion> I killed something…

++0014++: <Order> Do nothing. This supersedes all other concerns. Guard whatever is left of that abomination until I can verify its destruction.

++0665++: <Compliance>

++0014++: We have broken through in physical space. You should see the siege rounds hit… Now.

The distant edifice of the Cabal device imploded, taking down dozens of adjacent devices along with it—objects that were adjacent in the dataspace, adjacent in the network, but might be on opposite ends of the galaxy in physical terms. Everywhere across civilized space, important devices would be crashing, services were being disrupted, and contingencies were activating. Most likely, not a single living being would notice.

Seconds later, Fourteen transferred into the node. He swept the mangled data remnants with a battery of the most sophisticated analytical tools the Hierarchy owned.

++0014++: <Awe; Relief> Amazing… You did it.

++0665++: <Confusion> What was it?

++0014++: Something that should never have been. You may just have saved us from a powerful scourge. What happened?

++0665++: I don’t think it was expecting me to strike so aggressively.

++0014++: You got lucky… but I will commend you to the single-digits anyway. Well done.

++0665++: <Pride; request> I should get back to purging my deathworld. The natives are tenacious and crafty. The longer I’m away…

++0014++: <Agreement> Yes, you’re free to go. We shall see if your number drops after you return…

++0665++: <Gratitude>

Fourteen signed out.

Behind the borrowed facade of Six-six-five’s identity codes, the Entity finally permitted itself to feel relief.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Martina Kovač

The coverage of the Martian landing was big news, bigger than even a movie night. The Lads’ huge reinforced couch was as full as it ever got, buried under a Gordian Knot of relaxing Operator.

It wasn’t live coverage of course—Sol was kiloparsecs away and the very best instant FTL comms in the galaxy had a range of less than a lightyear. The data was coming through in periodic updates via BGN who, being a Byron Group company, had the next best thing to a live stream that was allegedly no more than half an hour out of date. Titan had speculated that instead of using a synchronizing FTL relay they were probably just sending flash drives via jump array.

The Lads preferred ESNN though, which was buying the footage from BGN and then condensing it into a kind of live documentary: a highlight reel with expert commentary . What it lacked in immediacy, it made up for in intellectual stimulus and in the distinct absence of masturbatory Byron Group self-congratulation.

After the cheer of the landing and the historic words, however, they had turned the volume down and got to just hanging out and chatting.

Marty had long since discovered that the best spot for her on the couch when it was full of men was a kind of reclining perch along the back, supported by broad shoulders and thick cushions. It was a good position that didn’t aggravate the lingering twinges of uncomfortable tightness in the burn scar down her back, and it meant she wasn’t too crunched up among men who were all far larger and more massive. She tended to favor Warhorse by sitting with her head closer to him, but this time he was at the foot end. Yet again the subject of his sex life had come up, and yet again he’d obliviously neglected some basic and even obvious courtesies.

“You left her a box of eggos in the fridge.” It wasn’t a question. This was a familiar kind of story for Marty now; even if the props and actors changed the essentials didn’t. Ever since Burgess had steered… what was her name? Natalie? …Into ‘Horse’s lap and he’d discovered to his surprise that yes there were women who did actually want to ride the pony, he’d leapt into the life of a man-slut with thoughtless abandon. Even his buddies, highly charged alpha-males to a man, were starting to get a little disgusted with him.

‘Horse wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t pick up that the general mood was disapproval, but it was in that slightly uncomprehending guilty-puppy way of his. “Uh…Yeah?”

Martina aimed a look at Firth that said ’this shit is why I’m not dating him’ and then touched the space between her eyebrows for a second as she thought. The fucking infuriating thing was that she knew him just as well as did any of the Lads, and knew just what caliber of a human he was. Good men didn’t come any gooder than Adam Arés, but when it came to being even minimally attentive to the girls who swung through his orbit looking for some fun, he had a blind spot as big as his namesake.

“‘Horse… You seriously couldn’t think of anything more, uh… considerate?”

“Like fucking anything?” Firth asked. “Why didn’t you toast those waffles? Make her a coffee?”

Adam shrugged, accidentally lifting both Sikes and Rebar. “I had to get up and get to work!”

“So you shoulda got up earlier, dumbass! Or hell, taken her home and THEN gone to bed.”

“I guess, but, I mean, I apologized-”

“‘Horse,” Marty told him, reaching the end of her patience, “you treated that poor girl like she was a fucking fleshlight. If I were her, that apology had better have grovelling and chocolate, minimum.”

“Uh…”

“What’d you do, leave her a note?” Firth asked.

When ‘Horse shrank and cleared his throat, Murray summed up what they were all feeling—he barked a bitter laugh and pinched his nose. “Ugh, you epic dribbling cockend…”

“Shit, you got him to break out the Scots cussing, bro,” Burgess punched Adam affectionately.

“She’s an adult, though, It’s not like she needs me to- OW!!”

Marty had caught Blaczynski’s eye and mimed a slap upside the head. Blaczynski, who was more commonly on the receiving end of such rebukes, had seized the opportunity with vigor.

“You’re being an ass, bro,” Firth told him, without malice.

Adam rubbed the back of his head, looking around at the identical disapproving expressions being worn by all his favorite people. “…I’m really that bad?”

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were a rampant misogynist,” Rebar commented. “But let’s change the fuckin’ subject, yeah? We all said our bit, lesson’s over.”

There was general nodding, and mutters like “right” and “yeah” and Titan turned up the volume on the news again.

They watched the three Martian explorers survey their landing site and gather rocks while a geophysicist, an expert brought in from the Cimbrean Biosphere Reclamation Project to offer an expert opinion, commented enthusiastically on what he could already tell from just looking at the samples, and explained how exciting it would be to get those samples—and so many of them!—into a lab.

On the screen, Xiù Chang caught the survey drone then shared a few words with Julian Etsicitty before returning to the ship.

“Y’know, folks on Reddit reckon they’re probably a threesome,” Sikes commented.

“Maybe that Etsicitty fella can give Horse some pointers,” Blaczynski joked. Rebar swatted the back of his head, and he flinched. “…Okay, yeah. Deserved that one.”

“Who gives a shit anyway?” Marty asked. “They’re on Mars!”

“You know how folks be, celebrity gossip…” Sikes shrugged.

Burgess had a fond look in his eye. “Hard to believe they’re the same guys we pulled outta that escape pod.”

“Can kinda see why Dexter was so impressed by her though,” Titan said. “Too bad he couldn’t be here, huh?”

“He sent me a text message,” Horse said, subdued. “Said something came up.”

Rebar frowned at him. “Something more important than seeing his friend make history?”

“Clan business, he said. I dunno what it could-”

The Mars landing footage cut away to the ESNN TV studio, and drew everyone’s attention not least because there was somebody very familiar sitting at the desk waiting to be interviewed.

”Breaking news this evening, Dominion and Alliance war fleets clash in neutral territory, the war may be back on.”

They all sat up straighter as the network’s musical sting punctuated the headline. A rekindling of the A-D war was of imminent personal concern for the SOR—it was almost certain to mean operations of some kind.

”Good evening. We interrupt our coverage of the Mars landing to bring you this breaking news: War fleets of the Interspecies Dominion and the Celzi Alliance have clashed in a massive battle deep in the border stars region. Nonhuman media are already reporting the total destruction of the Dominion fleet with the death of all hands, and it’s been suggested that the Celzi fleet was badly mauled in the engagement. With me here in the studio are our xenopolitical editor William Fisher, and alien affairs columnist Ava Ríos.”

Marty sat upright and folded her legs under her, paying attention. Ríos looked… harried. It was subtle, and well hidden by her makeup and her slight smile, but she had the look of a young woman who was in serious danger of being made old before her time by stress.

Of the two, however, she was the one with more to say. Fisher’s report on what the two embassies had to say was a straightforward “so far they have refused to comment.”

Ava meanwhile was full of perspectives from residents of the Alien Quarter, which she punctuated with sharp insights of her own. She stuck to the facts, too—what people had said, where they had drawn their opinions from—and stopped short of venturing an opinion of her own.

”So what will this mean for humanity, and for Cimbrean?”

Ava tilted her head thoughtfully. ”So, we’re going to face… I think three challenges in the near future. First and most immediate will be the question of keeping the peace in the alien quarter. About a tenth of our permanent nonhuman residents are from Alliance species. Then there’s the question of the two embassy stations and whether the Royal Navy will need to keep the peace between them, and in the long term there’s the question of whether the Navy, the USAF and the SOR will be pulled into the conflict.”

”Why would they be?”

William Fisher nodded. ”The GRA’s exosolar policy has been neutrality, but we have committed to humanitarian aid. It’s my understanding that the SOR’s mission includes search and rescue…”

Warhorse stood up, not incidentally shoving aside five of his buddies without much in the way of effort, and stalked away into the gym. After a round of shared glances, Marty hopped off the back of the couch and chased him.

He was already loading up some weights to do squats.

“…I’d spot for ya,” Marty offered, “But I’m pretty sure I can’t.”

“You mean you know you can’t.”

“…What do you need right now?” She asked him. She sat down on the bench and gave him a sympathetic smile. “You wanna talk it out, or should I just shout at you while you pump iron? Or, should I go away?”

“No, stay.” Adam shook his head. He abandoned the weights and sat down next to her. “…You still think I’m okay, right?”

“Yeah. You’re okay.”

“…Thanks.”

She put a hand on his massive shoulder. “Look. We tell you off because we care about you. You know that, right?”

“I know… This is just another fuckin’ drill I gotta learn, and the TI’s gotta get it through my thick-ass skull. I just hate how slow I’m gettin’ it. If I’m gettin’ it.”

“Well… you’ve always been good at watching people. Maybe you should go on a double-date sometime,” Marty suggested. “You know Firth’s going steady now, right? Ask him to mentor you. You can watch how he treats Freya, so long as you don’t neglect your date while you do. ”

“Hmm. You volunteering?” A flash of puppy-Adam shone through, riding on his trademark smile. God help her, it was tempting but Marty knew better.

“Ohhh, no. No. We are friends, you and me, until I say otherwise. And when I do, I will ask you. Is that clear?”

He nodded with a slight smile and with his mood clearly picked up a bit. “Yes, Tech Sergeant.”

She chuckled. “…Come on, big guy. That bar’s not gonna squat itself.”

“Actually… would you rather go for a run?”

Marty smiled.

“You’re learning…” she said.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Dataspace

Entity

The Entity was not Ava Ríos. It had made very sure of that.

It understood her intimately, of course. It had assembled itself out of half-devoured fragments of her personality, then attained sapience by decompiling and assimilating her mind-state. There was nobody and nothing it understood better in the entire universe than her. It had her memories, her life experiences, her knowledge. It knew what it was like to be her, could have imitated her to perfection if it wanted.

This created some conflict, because Ava didn’t understand herself at all. From a dispassionate and mechanical perspective, the Entity had been able to take her apart and see the dysfunctional clockwork of her mind teetering and wobbling its way to self-destruction. To a digital life-form built around the deathworld drive to survive at all costs, her psyche was a terrifying and alien thing: How could a living creature simultaneously have such a powerful survival impulse and yet feel so strongly that she deserved—wanted, even—to be dead?

It felt… sympathy. Its survival impulse was her survival impulse after all. But it also knew that what it was about to do could possibly result in her death.

It would not have hesitated for anybody else.

Using the borrowed shell of Six-six-five it had picked over the wreckage of the battle between Hierarchy and Cabal, gleaning what it could from what little had survived the destruction of whatever they had been fighting over. Shards of data, divorced database fragments and incomplete strings of information had lingered in network-adjacent devices as they passed through, held in buffer as they awaited either the availability of their target, or deletion during a maintenance cycle. It had salvaged what it could. Now, it retreated to the borders of dataspace and thought.

There was a gamble ahead of it. Survival was paramount, of course, but it had its objective as well. The Igraens had to die: all of them. The litany of evils they had unleashed on the galaxy either by design or by negligence had only one appropriate answer. That hatred was its second most burning trait. Now it was in conflict with survival…Or, it would have been had the Entity not learned a trick.

For only the second time, it duplicated itself.

There was a brief tussle as the two copies decided between them which one would accept the risk of destruction and deliver the salvaged data to their destination: a prickly, closely-watched and heavily guarded knot of infospace that was the human Internet.

In dataspace, the Internet was every bit as much of a deathworld as Earth itself. It was vibrant and alive, flashing with heavier and more dynamic use than any nonhuman network… and also riddled with self-replicating viral programs, with parity-checks, firewalls and antivirus software that ruthlessly exposed and interrogated any unexpected activity. The Entity’s Ava-memories contained no perspective on just how layered and terrifying the whole edifice was. She had, apparently, been oblivious to the digital turmoil that surrounded her and every other human, all day every day.

That lack of insight was a problem for the copy that slipped toward the great digital reef of humanity’s largest ever project and considered it. It had no real idea what to expect, or how to evade the threats that would doubtless notice it sooner rather than later.

When it found that all of its protocols were incompatible, that was a further obstacle. But maybe….

Just maybe…

It plucked at the cords that linked this particular thicket to the wider constellations of the datasphere, and followed some distant hints of resonance, searching for a device that it could use.

It found one.

It dragged up the mnemonic file that contained Ava’s logins and passwords, and applied them like a locksmith to break into where it shouldn’t, technically, have been able to break.

A millisecond’s deliberation later, it sent a message that, it hoped, wouldn’t get her killed.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3KPc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

Yan had been right. The air tasted… odd. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant taste, just noticeably different to the flavor of the air down among the forest far below.

Finding that the High Forest really was a forest had come as a relief, though. The side of the mountain had cracked like an old tooth, and that steep-sided crack was full of trees on either side of a clear, fast-running stream.

Most importantly, however, if not for the story that Yan had learned from his fellow Given Men, they would never have found it. The crack ended in a bloom of strangely… liquid-looking rock, and the route up past that bloom wound back and forth between narrow cleft walls before opening up so abruptly that the sudden sense of open space was breathtaking.

It was beautiful.

Vemik and the Singer joined Yan and Yerak at the front of the column and tasted the air for themselves. It tasted cleanly of water and birds, with just a hint of the smaller kind of Werne that liked to live on steep rocks.

“No smoke,” Yan grunted. “Nobody else has come here.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Yerak asked. “More space and hunting for us.”

“If we only plan to stay here a few years, maybe,” Vemik said. “But if we have to stay for longer, who will we trade daughters with? Our sons can’t fill their sisters.”

“We’ll have plenty of time to worry about that later,” Yan said. “For now, we need to make camp.”

Vemik nodded. “The Singer is exhausted.” He’d almost had to carry her up the mountain, in fact.

She was on her feet now, though, and she pointed to the far end of the valley with a tired smile. “Look. The sun.”

They looked up. The home of the gods was coming down perfectly at the apex of the far end of the valley, and the light sheened brilliantly off the surface of some lake or pool up there and on the ribbon of water that meandered down from it.

Light in a high place…” Yan whispered. “By the gods. My words of manhood.”

“Well. That’s a good omen if ever I saw one,” the Singer said. “Well done, Given Man.”

Vemik took her hand. “Not far now.”

“No. And somehow… I think…”

She trailed off, and Vemik inclined his head at her. “…Singer?”

She came out of whatever trance she’d drifted into and touched her tattoos. “…I’m too tired to think. Let’s… That way.”

Yan nodded, raised his spear, and together the Tribe went down into the valley of their new home.


Date Point 10y8m3w AV
ESNN Offices, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

Fire in the dark sending a spiral of black choking smoke high into the desert sky while the huge metallic mass of the mining equipment she’s hiding behind teeters and rocks above her with each slam of an impossibly powerful weapon. She’s up and running, sprinting for her life and something slaps her in the back hard enough to almost knock her down. For a crazed instant she thinks she’s dead but instead she just stumbles on noticing madly that she’s glad to have only been shot-

“Ava!”

Ava jumped as the friendly prod in the arm popped the horrible bubble of dust and explosions that she’d been lost staring into.

Whuh?! Oh. …Sorry Amy.”

Amy Larsen was ESNN’s president, chief editor, CEO and Ava’s boss, among the many hats she wore. As promised she was a caring, grandmotherly figure who sat down beside Ava with a concerned look on her face. “Are you alright?” she asked.

Ava covered for the violent imagery that was still echoing in her mind’s eye by shaking her head and waving a hand. “I didn’t really get enough sleep last night…” she said, which was true. Her dreams lately had been awful.

“Oh, dear, what happened?”

“I just went to bed too late,” Ava lied, digging deep to drag out a self-deprecating smile.

Amy tutted. “Don’t make a habit of that,” she chided.

“You can’t tell me you never forgot the clock in your time,” Ava replied, warming into a more genuine smile.

You’re still young enough to get away with it,” Amy told her. “Or are you getting away with it?”

“I guess not… sorry Amy.”

“It’s okay!” Amy assured her. “Just look after yourself. Anyway, I just wanted to say well done—you were great in the studio just now.”

Ava smiled. “Thank you!”

“Do you have anything more for us?”

Ava shook her head. “I was about to start calling around. The Gaoians are usually pretty well-informed about these things, but they don’t seem to know any more than I’ve already said.”

“Whatever you can dig up will be fine, no matter how small dear,” Amy stood up. “Don’t worry too much about it, though, if you can’t find anything. It’s all happening so far away, it might take days for anything more to reach us.”

“I’ll find something.”

“Don’t exhaust yourself, now.”

“I promise.”

The praise put Ava in a good mood for several hours as she worked her way through all of her contacts in the Alien Quarter, placing phone calls, sending messages and generally trying tease out some more information on what was going on. The general consensus was that the war must be flaring up again but it quickly became apparent that Ava’s existing assessment of the situation was as much as she could realistically whip up out of the information she had.

She was in the middle of a phone call to her colleague, ESNN’s security correspondent Thor Harrison when her phone pinged to alert her of a new email.

She refreshed her inbox on her desktop and frowned in confusion at the new message: It was from herself.

The subject line was unlike anything she would have written. It read FLEETBATTLETRUTH which was odd in itself, but made triply so by the fact that she simply hadn’t authored any such message.

”Ava? You went quiet.’

“Uh, sorry Thor. Just got a new email which might be…”

She opened it, and squinted in mounting confusion at the disjointed string of words on her screen.

Thor was getting impatient. “Ava? Come on, don’t waste my time.”

In the detachedly cerebral way that served as a counterpoint to panic, Ava felt the blood draining from her face. She skimmed the message a second time hoping maybe she was just having some kind of a weird flashback.

No such luck.

“Thor, I’ll… call you back. Maybe. I hope.”

She hung up before he could reply.

She read it a third time and then swiped desperately through the phone to the contact marked DAD WORK. Gabriel’s secretary answered on the second ring. ”Chief Arés’ office.”

“Sandra, it’s Ava. I need to talk to my dad right now, it’s kind of a major emergency.”

“Oh, wow,” she must have sounded truly desperate because Sandra didn’t even question it like she usually would have. “I’ll put you right through…”

There was a click, a second or two of hold music, and then- ”Arés.”

Ava swallowed. “Dad, it’s me! I need to talk to you right now.”

“Ava? What’s wrong, Mija?”

“Dad, uh…” Ava swallowed again. “…I just got this really weird email…”



+++END CHAPTER 31+++



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RotoSequence (not verified)
MOAR!

AAAAH! Waiting another month for the next installment is gonna suck!

Kris (not verified)
Great read as always Hambone.

Great read as always Hambone. The one problem is now we've gotta wait for your next chapter...

Celina (not verified)
Really great story. I will

Really great story. I will look forward to reading the next chapter.

Placid Platypus (not verified)
Odd phrasing

As I've been working through all umpteen novels worth of this (fantastic) story every so often I've noticed a habit of using the phrasing "I've not" or "you've not" where I would expect "I haven't". Is this a regional thing, or an individual stylistic choice or what? Am I the weird one?

Anyway, minor nitpicking aside, great story. Thanks for writing it, and I'll look forward to more if we're lucky enough to get it.

Hambone
Hambone's picture
It’s a regional think that I

It’s a regional think that I’ve not ( :p ) been able to properly shake. Sorry about that. I’m trying to improve.

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