Chapter 33: "Metadyskolia"

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Date Point: October, 10y10m2w3d AV
Crzlrfek System, The Freedom Stars

Warhorse

…Taste of blood. Texture of pain. World gone gray.

Alive.

Warhorse always wore one of the maximum doses of Crue-D in the same place, ready to grab on muscle memory. There was nothing coherent going on between his ears but his hand did its thing anyway. The needle-prick in the flesh of his side was completely lost under the agony ringing through his limbs, but somehow just the act of injecting himself was enough to restore something like functionality to his fried neurons.

Vengeance.

Highland was moving too, slowly. He was winded and stunned from his collision with the wall from where Warhorse had thrown him clear across the room, and pawed groggily for his rifle as the Hunter swaggered into the room. One of the big ones, the Red Hunters. Skinless studies in warped musculature that had raped themselves with metal.

It thought it was in no danger.

Warhorse wasn’t quite running on instinct and wasn’t quite thinking fully either. He was somewhere in limbo between the bloody howling rage of an ape and the dispassionate judicial arbitration of a judge. It didn’t matter either way: he had no weapon in his hands, but right now he neither needed nor wanted one.

He charged.

He grabbed.

He squeezed.

He enjoyed.

Every little pop. Every little gasp and struggle. Every grinding crunch. The slippery squish. The creak, snap and stretch. The twitching, the spasms, the gurgle… The kill.

He let go of the hunter’s body and lifted its torn-off head so that he could stare it in some of its glassy dead eyes. “…’s what you fuckin’ get for… messin’ with… “

Fuck it. Fuck words. He slammed the head flat-palmed into the nearest wall, crushing it almost flat in the process and covering the wall and himself in exploded gore. He grunted, braced himself against the deck, pushed forward with his full strength and ground his palm into the mess, until the wall and floor were dented beyond repair and the skull was no more. Something deep inside him approved and drew an apelike rictus grin across his face. He snorted in contempt, left the sticky bits of bone and brain to slide down… and the tide of adrenaline rolled back to leave him stranded high and dry on cold dark sands.

He dreamed of gunfire, and somebody calling ”Man down!”


Date Point: October 10y10m2w4d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Miss Ava Magdalena Ríos

This troubled young lady, who has special access to DEEP RELIC and was involved in Operation EMPTY BELL, returned to my clinic today for her third session. She is struggling with PTSD and suicidal ideations.

Today she was well-groomed and appropriately presented. Her mood today was objectively low but she made good eye contact and states that subjectively today was a “good day”.

Overall she is still feeling generally low and she states that she still has suicidal thoughts. Her flashbacks have not improved but she felt able to describe them in more detail today.

Her flashbacks are clearly vivid and realistic, and entail “clear visions” of blood, death and personal peril sometimes including smell and taste. One detail she described as being particularly disturbing was that she can “taste Vinther’s blood on the air”. Master Sergeant Roy Vinther was KIA during Operation EMPTY BELL, and she went into morbid detail today about the exact manner of his death. She continues to have difficulty sleeping and reports that she often has vivid dreams that wake her up.

She expressed concern today that she is prone to risk-taking and spontaneous behaviour, though she denies any criminality or drug use. When asked what form her risk-taking behaviour takes, she talked at length about her romantic history. She describes that she was unfaithful to her long term partner of several years and expressed remorse for this. She denies being sexually promiscuous, and states that she has only had two sexual partners. She says she is “not ready” to seek a new partner yet. I do not agree that she takes inappropriate risks or engages in self-destructive behaviour, and I suspect she is simply guilty and confused.

She told me that she has asked her best friend to supervise her as she takes her medicine. When asked why, she explained that she “hates” taking the medicine because it “Forces me to think about stuff I don’t want to think about.”

Considering her suicidal thoughts, I agree that it is probably sensible for her not to have immediate access to her medicine.

I have reassured her that her Paroxetine will improve matters, and she understands that she should not expect immediate results. Considering the severity and realism of her flashbacks I have raised the possibility of animal therapy, for which she expressed considerable enthusiasm. She says that she “really would like” a therapy dog, and I will see whether we can start the process of applying for one.

I will see her again in two weeks or on an emergency basis.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point 10y10m2w4d AV
Command Station 1053 ’Linchpin Of Infinity’, Orbiting Planet Vetrin, The Orin Line

Fleetmaster Garal

“What class of ship is that?”

“They call it a ’destroyer’.”

Garal forced herself not to shudder. In the Loc’ language, the word for “destroyer” was a guttural, terse thing that neatly conveyed the brutality of the concept. It was somehow fitting that deathworlders would designate a ship class that way.

It looked like a force of destruction, too, to a degree that offended her sense of aesthetics. This was not a ship built to look glorious: it wasn’t a flying monument to pride and wealth. It was a shovel-nosed black lump with a shuttle riding piggyback on the flat expanse of its back, next to a tower structure that was most likely its bridge.

And it was small. Against the scale of dock designed to accommodate war platforms, the destroyer had elbow room aplenty.

Her second-in-command was a Vgork shipmaster by the name of Selag who, like Garal, had been forced into the echelons of higher command by sudden vacancies. The loss of his left arm during an Alliance raid hadn’t made a good case for his remaining in the field either. He was experienced, and she needed that experience.

“Suddenly, I am very glad they are on our side…” he mused.

Garal made a nonverbal noise conveying misgivings. “You do know the name of this particular destroyer, do you not?” she asked.

“No…?”

“It is called Violent.”

Selag made a rumbling noise deep in his chest that Garal’s translator implant flagged as an expression of feeling off-balance. “Violent, Destroyer… Are they bloodthirsty, or just unsubtle?”

Garal didn’t comment.

“I’ll receive them in my office,” she declared, and turned away from the window.

“As you command, Fleetmaster.”


Date Point: October 10y10m2w4d AV
HMS Valiant, Orbiting Planet Vetrin, The Orin Line

Colour Sergeant Robert Murray

“Hello sergeant. How are you feeling?”

Murray shrugged noncommittally. “Bloody thrashed, but alive,” he said. “…How is he?”

Valiant’s chief medical officer, Doctor Moorman, glanced at his infirmary’s only patient who was rather too large for his bed. “Sedated, but conscious. One of the awkward side-effects of Crue-D, while you chaps are on it you’re all but impossible to put under… though considering that we’d have lost him without it, I can live with that.”

“Can I have a wee word with him?”

“Of course.”

‘Horse on meds was almost guaranteed to be amusing. He aimed a big thumbs up and his largest, most goofiest smile as Murray joined him. “Heyyy, bro.”

“You are an absolute fuckin’ madman, you know that?” Murray said affectionately and sat down. They locked hands in a brothers’ handshake. “And I’d be dead if not for you, so… thanks.”

‘Horse grinned and waved it off in the happy, high way of a man who was dosed up to the gills. “‘S what I’m for.”

“Is that right? Throwing me right across the bloody room is what you’re for is it?” Murray chuckled. “We should use that move in gravball sometime.”

“Yer talkative…” ‘Horse observed, and laughed. “Wha’ve you done with the real Murray?”

Murray laughed with him, but after a few seconds they sobered.

“…Am I in trouble?” ‘Horse asked.

“Nah pal. No. But I had a merry bloody time of it in Hotwash going over our helmet cam footage. D’you remember what you did?”

“Yyyup. The whole thing. The explosion, my patient getting killed, the grenade… ‘s weird, I always thought after Nervejam stuff was supposed to go fuzzy… You, uh… you saw what happened next?”

“Mmm. I saw.” Murray’s fitful dreams that night had revolved restlessly around the expression he’d seen on his young comrade’s face, even through the visor, as he’d got the Hunter in a sleeper hold of all things before screwing its head off as slowly as he could.

‘Horse had the decency to look uncomfortable, and he seemed to be sobering quickly. Moorman was right about Crue-D versus sedatives. “I… shit, man.”

Murray did his best to put an arm round the younger man’s shoulders, and made it slightly more than halfway. “I been at this even longer than Stainless,” he said. “And… Ye’re not alone. Okay? Every poor bastard who stays in this business long enough comes up against their dark side one day.”

“…You always seem so calm.”

“Mm-hmm. Ice in my veins. Scares the shite right out of me.”

‘Horse hung his head and sighed. “…I shouldn’ta enjoyed it,” he said. “That’s their thing. I don’t wanna be like them.”

“You’ll never be like them, you giant fuckin’ womble stomper!” Murray told him, and was rewarded when the unconventional insult raised a small amused snort. “You feel bad about it! They never will.”

“Makes me wonder, though…”

“Of course it does. But we do what we do so other people don’t have to, mate, and we look out for each other. I canny throw you across a fuckin’ room, but…Ack!

Adam could hug hard enough to crush oil drums, but he usually never forgot it. This time was an exception and Murray felt his joints creak before Adam remembered himself and eased off a bit.

“…Sarry.”

“‘S’okay…” Murray had learned the hard way that when Adam wanted Hug, Adam got Hug, and there was no way out except patience.

Or the intervention of a higher authority in the form of a nurse. She knocked on the door to get their attention and gave Murray a not unkind look that asked him to leave. “My patient needs to rest, Colour Sergeant.”

“Like fuck, I feel fine!” Adam objected.

The nurse was having none of it. “Standing orders for nervejam trauma is that you remain under observation until you’ve had an MRI.”

“How the fuck am I gonna fit in an MRI machine?”

The nurse just shrugged in a ‘not-my-problem’ way.

Adam sighed and let go, and Murray stood up. “Here and now ye’re alive, pal,” he reminded him. “Plenty of time to talk about it later.”

“…Right.”

“If it’s any consolation, I’m stuck here too. Crying shame.”

“Yeah? Why?”

“Because I really wanted to see the Fleetmaster’s face when Stainless delivers the good news…”


Date Point: October 10y10m2w4d AV
Command Station 1053 ’Linchpin Of Infinity’, Orbiting Planet Vetrin, The Orin Line

Fleetmaster Garal

Garal didn’t need to be alerted that there were deathworlders outside her office. They shook the deck just by walking, heavy, purposeful and strong.

She pre-empted the inevitable request and called her aide. “Send them through, please.”

“Um… that, is, uh, Fleetmaster, they-”

“Now, please.”

“…Yes. Yes, Fleetmaster.”

The door opened, and four humans walked in.

She’d never seen a human in person before, but they were at least pleasantly easy to tell apart. Their facial features varied quite markedly, their skin tones ran a wide gamut, and between those factors plus variations in the hues of their eyes and hair she-

A severed head landed on her desk, shattering her train of thought.

It belonged to a Celzi, and Celzi were much harder to tell apart than humans. If not for the weak flicker of a dying translation implant that was still trying to tell the world who its owner was, she never would have recognized Warmaster Trez Ekrat.

Very, very slowly she reeled in her stunned thoughts and managed to get them into something resembling order. They came unstuck again when two more humans, both much larger than their fellows, squeezed through the door carrying what was obviously the main databank from a facility-sized computer installation, rack, power supply and all.

Its metal feet squealed offensively on the floor of her office as they put it down and pushed it into the corner.

And then they just stood there. Waiting.

Garal took her time to ensure that she was properly balanced and calm before she tried to react. She moistened her mouth and, quite delicately, pushed her chair back from the desk and the grisly trophy upon it.

“…What is this?” she asked.

“The man himself didn’t survive being collected,” the human in front said. He had a deep voice that was more growl than speech and the translator clipped to his chest absolutely suffused the voice it created for him with menace and short patience. There was something badly unnerving about those cold, bright blue eyes that had locked onto her and were watching patiently for her to… twitch. Run away. Make a mistake. Whatever they were waiting for wouldn’t be good for Garal. “But his implants should still have some useful data.”

“This is not… quite what I had in mind.”

“No? Well that’s too bad.” The one who was apparently the leader stepped back from her desk and tucked his thumbs into his belt. The easy and relaxed poise of the stance was precisely the opposite of reassuring: it said ’there is nothing here that I could not destroy.’

He looked to one of the larger men beside him. “Rebar.”

The ridiculous anachronism of a paper hard-copy folder slapped down on Garal’s desk. She picked it up and opened it. The humans had at least been courteous enough to include the information-dense machine code that translator implants used as a textual go-between. It allowed her to assimilate all of the information on the page instantly.

The report was succinct, technical, efficient and impossible. A chain of orbital defense satellites destroyed, a ground installation smashed, a Hunter Broodship destroyed, several thousand Hunters killed. High-Value Target neutralized, intelligence recovered and critical infrastructure destroyed. The Crzlrfek system completely neutralized as an Alliance base of operations.

Cost: Two humans wounded.

There was an itemized bill detailing the number and value of all the resources expended right down to the gram of deuterium reactor fuel.

Garal tried to reclaim some authority by standing up, founded on the fact that she was bigger than even the biggest of these deathworlders. Yes, they all could have torn her arms off, but sheer size surely had to count for something. The correlation between size and dominance was a near-universal in xenopsychology.

“How?” She demanded.

The human’s scouring gaze didn’t waver. “Classified.”

“Whatever you did, if the Dominion learned your-”

“No.”

“It would save lives.”

The human snorted and reached out to flick one of the head’s ears with his finger and what Garal took as a distasteful expression. “Whose? His? Poor fooker was just doing his job, just like us. No, Fleetmaster. Our methods are classified and even if I was inclined to consider sharing them, which I’m not, I don’t have the authority.”

“…I see. But was it truly necessary to drop… this… on my desk?”

“It was, yes.”

“Why?” Garal felt like she was being yanked through the conversation.

The human smiled slightly. It went a finger’s width up only one side of his mouth without touching his eyes at all, and was not a friendly or happy gesture. “In my culture we have a warning, Fleetmaster,” he said. “It goes ’be careful what you wish for; you might get it’.

“I don’t remember asking for a severed head on my… What is your name, anyway?” Garal finally managed to haul herself back into what she hoped was control of the conversation.

“Stainless. And his head was always going to be somewhere, Fleetmaster. That’s the bloody point of sendin’ us to kill him, he ends up dead. We thought it might be worth remindin’ you of that. Good day.”

Garal sputtered as they turned and left her office, an oozing body part and a one-tonne rack of computer equipment at the end of a trench of wrecked flooring. “What? No, you can’t just-!”

“We expect full remuneration of our net expenses within thirty days. Good day.”

“No, wait!” Garal stormed to the door and pointed at her aide. “You: Stop them.”

“Uh…” the poor Vzk’tk thus addressed watched the humans thump purposefully out the door. “…I beg your pardon fleetmaster but… how?

The door closed behind them, and Garal ran two of her hands over her scalp while the other two planted themselves on her hips—a gesture of being totally at a loss.

“…Contact battlefield forensics and have them send up a team to my office. And, find me another office to work from until mine has been sanitized and repaired.”

“Of course, Fleetmaster.”

“And if I try to ask humans for help ever again, I want you to talk me out of it.”

The Vzk’tk blinked. “…How, Fleetmaster?”

Garal spun back into her office. “Remind me what happened this time,” she snapped.


Date Point: November 10y11m1w AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Interstellar deep space, near the Border Stars

Allison Buehler

Deep space travel had its own slow rhythm, and adjusting to that rhythm after months of constant scheduled activity was a challenge. They all knew how, of course, they’d all been there before… but once the daily work routine was out of the way, the ship cleaned and maintained, the laundry done, their meals prepared, their bodies exercised and their chores complete then the only two ways left to pass the time were education and entertainment, and they all hated the education side of it.

All three of them were hands-on, learn-by-doing types and Allison had surprised herself with how well she had picked up the academic component of Misfit’s needs. The desperate determination to not fail Julian and Xiù had driven her to achieve things that her high school teachers would never have imagined, and she’d done it all for them.

But now she had to learn their jobs, and they had to learn hers. They just couldn’t afford to be exclusively specialized because no matter what their personal feelings on the matter were, the Group had made it clear that ’just in case’ anything happened to one of them, the others would be able to get home.

Which meant that whether they liked it or not, they’d learned each others’ jobs to a basic standard. Julian and Allison could fly the ship, Xiù and Julian could handle simple maintenance and the flight power balancing, and Allison and Xiù could both work the sensors, telescopes and drones.

They all had the basics down, they’d never have taken off otherwise. But their in-flight training time was supposed to be about digging into the academic minutiae of other’s’ jobs, and all three of them were struggling, and were thus feeling frustrated and incompetent.

They weren’t, demonstrably so. But the more they studied the more clear it became that they really had been well-assigned. Julian and Xiù seemed convinced that Misfit’s engineering was more fragile and hazardous than was really the case, neither Xiù nor Allison had the temperament for memorizing hundreds of different kinds of rock and how to identify them from orbit, and Allison and Julian were both far too heavy-handed for Misfit’s spirited controls.

They were also forcing themselves into working shifts, and that was coming with all sorts of problems because they’d grown used to sleeping in one warm snuggle. The pattern of two awake and one asleep just didn’t work for them at all, because the sleeper invariably complained of feeling alone or cold. None of them were sleeping well, except when they caved to temptation and cuddled up for an unprofessional triple nap.

Difficulty, frustration, restless sleep and a dash of guilt were a potent blend for irritability, and that meant little fights.

Never anything major. Never. Things were always a calming word or a hug away from being completely soothed over and forgiven. Indeed, theirs was overall a happy ship… but not perfectly so.

Perhaps the weirdest sticking point was between Julian and Xiù though, and they managed to wake Allison up over it.

She was jolted awake by the sound of Xiù demanding “But why not? It’s fun!”

“I know, just…” Julian made an exasperated noise. “I don’t want to.”

Xiù didn’t look happy at all, so he closed the dishwasher and hugged her. “I’m sorry bǎobèi, I know I’m being dumb, but it just makes me uncomfortable.”

“Fine…”

Allison glanced at the clock. She’d been asleep for five hours, and she decided that was enough. She hauled herself out of her bunk with a sigh. “You two okay?”

Xiù gave her a good morning kiss and got her breakfast out of the fridge to reheat in the oven. “It’s nothing important.”

Julian did the same and poured her an orange juice. “I’m just being cautious.”

Allison accepted the juice and drained half of it in one slug. “About what?”

“I said ’yes sir’ and it made him uncomfortable,” Xiù explained.

Allison gave Julian a quizzical look. He had a mild sub streak, which meant that he’d always enjoyed being bossed around by the two of them and never quite seemed happier than when he got the chance to say ’yes ma’am’ and be praised with the words ’good boy’. It was a harmless game, but now she thought about she and him had never reversed their roles.

“Why?” she asked.

He shrugged helplessly. “I dunno. Maybe I… I dunno.”

“Spit it out, dummy.”

He sighed. “I guess… maybe I’m more comfortable having my boundaries pushed than I am with pushing yours,” he said, gesturing to both of them.

“Even if I want them pushed?” Xiù asked.

“Yeah, but.. How far?”

Xiù didn’t seem to have an answer to that one. She frowned thoughtfully and turned her attention back to the oven.

“Baby, the whole point of pushing boundaries is you don’t know how far you want them pushed,” Allison pointed out.

“Well, this is one of my boundaries too and I don’t want it pushed,” he said, firmly. “I’m sorry.”

Allison’s hand landed on Xiù’s elbow just in time to pre-empt the word ’but’, and she shut the question down with a slight headshake. Xiù hesitated, then nodded and she and Julian kissed and made up, to Allison’s relief.

“I’m… gonna go check the exoplanet scan,” he declared lamely, and let himself out.

Left alone, the girls exchanged awkward shrugs, and Allison used the bathroom and the shower then ate her breakfast with her hair still damp. She had to admit, the shorter cut was far more convenient than wrapping it up in a towel. She pretty much just had to scrub it and leave it.

Xiù sat down opposite her. “Is he mad at me?”

“No! No.” Allison put down her fork. “What gave you that idea?”

“He just seemed really uncomfortable.”

“He was, yeah.”

“I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s okay, dummy.” Allison smiled for her. “He knows you didn’t.”

“I just… don’t understand why.”

Allison nodded and picked the fork back up. “…You know, I had to deal with some real assholes back in Boston,” she said. “Before I was taken. Guys who wanted to park me on the back of their bike. Like, I woulda been property to them, you know?”

Xiù nodded and listened.

“They were so fucking insecure. They’d get into fights over fucking nothing because their precious little princess egos couldn’t handle the least little disrespect… like, say, turning them down when they made a pass,” Allison scoffed. “…and they never wanted the ’little girl’ fixing their bike either. And trust me, having a guy like that angry at you is… it’s scary. That’s why I started carrying.”

Āi ya…

“Yeah… Well, Julian’s confident and calm, and that makes him more of a man than any of those shitkickers. He doesn’t need to be the boss dog. And… You know how he sees himself in this, right?” she asked, spiralling the fork to indicate the three of them.

“How?”

“He’s here for us. I think he’d be perfectly content in his grampa’s house trapping beaver and shooting geese all year for his whole life… But what he really wants is to make you and me happy.”

“Yeah, but….” Xiù’s signature blush was a rarer sight nowadays but it came back strong. “…I mean, in this case…”

“You want him to call you a ’good girl’ ‘cause that’d make you happy?” Allison teased. “Kinky. Do you want him to spank you too?”

Allison-!” Xiù was now crimson with fierce embarrassment.

Allison laughed and waved a hand in an apologetic gesture that was anything but apologetic. “Well, you’ve told him. Maybe he’ll come around, maybe not. There’s some things you can’t force. See, the whole ’yes ma’am’ thing just… happened. Naturally. We didn’t sit down and plan it, I never asked him to say that, that’s just how things played out. I like it, and… I guess I’d feel weird saying ’yes sir’ to him.”

“So I should wait and see, and be prepared for in case he doesn’t ever want to play that game with me,” Xiù summarized.

“Pretty much. Sorry, baby. But hey, at least you can yes-ma’am me, right?”

“Yeah but… um…” The blush had begun to fade, but it rallied magnificently. “…It’d be even hotter with him. Sorry.”

“I can handle ’even’ hotter…” Allison gave her a witchy grin. “Just so long as it’s a little hot with me.”

“…It’s hot,” Xiù confessed.

“Good girl.”

Flustered, Xiù cleared her throat and bustled to tidy up an already-tidy kitchen, and Allison ate her breakfast with a victorious smile. She was scraping the last of it off her plate when Julian returned looking pleased.

“Good news?” Allison asked him.

“Got a strong contact. Nitrogen, oxygen and water, right kind of star, right kind of orbit… It’s a bit out of our way, over toward the Near Three Kiloparsec Arm about a week away, but it looks good!”

“A temperate world!” Xiù grinned.

“Probably. Misfit gives it sixty percent.”

“Man, Creature of Habit went its entire mission without seeing one,” Allison recalled happily.

“Our telescope’s better. Much better.”

“It’s the BEST,” Xiù joked, and beamed when Julian and Allison both groaned.

The Brahe Exoplanet Survey Telescope lived up to its acronym and then some by relying on enormous force-field lenses rather than glass ones or a parabolic mirror. It was so incredibly sensitive that although it couldn’t actually produce an image of planets orbiting a distant star, it could certainly detect that some light was being reflected by those planets and even hazard an informed guess at their atmospheric composition… and it could do so a few hundred times a second.

It also looked nothing like a telescope. It was a flat panel about the size of a thin mattress that recessed neatly into Misfit’s dorsal hull when it wasn’t in use.

“She’s adorable, isn’t she? Just wanna… bundle her up and lock her in the store room sometimes.” Allison snorted. Xiù stuck her tongue out at her.

Julian laughed. “I thought maybe we should go check it out,” he suggested. “I already fed it to the pilot’s console…”

“You need to practice setting destinations anyway,” Xiù told him, and pointed toward the cockpit. “Go on.”

Julian nodded and chuckled. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good boy.”

He looked so much more comfortable.


Date Point: November 10y11m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

Re: Maj. Owen Powell

Major Powell is a regular in my office, and continues to struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness. He states that he has “basically no” social life as he cannot relate to civilian men his age and while he likes and gets along well with his fellow officers he does not feel able to describe the relationship as a friendship.

He states that he often feels envious of his men for their camaraderie, and wishes that he could be closer with them. He describes the social highlight of his week as being “gravball” training sessions.

He has a romantic partner, who is a pilot with the 946th spaceflight wing, stationed on Earth. The relationship is therefore a long-distance one and he states that in his opinion, neither of them are ever likely to put their career second. He denies begrudging his partner her career, but does state that he would like to see her more often.

Objectively he is a taciturn man and his mood has always been difficult to read, but he claims to feel generally euthymic. He made good eye contact and smiled appropriately so I feel that his self-assessment is probably accurate.

I will see him again in three months.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: November 10y11m2w AV
Mrwrki Station, Unnamed System, Deep space

Kirk

“Okay. Von Neumann Colony-In-A-Can, third test… And we’re sure that bug in the navigation code is worked out?”

“Dude, if this one does a moth impression into the sun again, I’ll have the factory print me a hat just so I can eat it.”

“Good enough for me…boot it.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Nadeau just could not sit still at times like these, but humans were like that in Kirk’s experience. Even the aggressively sedentary Lewis was fidgeting in his seat as the mark three Coltainer woke itself up and ran through its startup sequence.

Nadeau, however, prowled. It was entirely the appropriate word, a kind of intense stalking routine that saw him circle from workstation to workstation as the experiment unfolded, keeping himself apprised of every nuance of it.

Kirk, as always, found that he was an eerie monument to stillness in a sea of fidgeting and it was a slight mystery to him why that should be. Not why he should be so calm, but why the humans were so nervous. As the previous experiment had rather conclusively demonstrated, even a total catastrophic failure was no great setback.

But, they took everything about the project personally. He’d even heard them describe it as their “baby”, and as was so often the case he was given occasion to reflect on the deep insights into human psychology that a seemingly innocuous turn of phrase could offer.

“Okay… CIC-3 boot sequence complete… She’s running NAVTHINK.”

Stellar navigation was a prerequisite technology for even being an interstellar civilization, and the humans like every other species before them had readily managed to adapt their algorithms to work in any system and not just their native star. Planetary survey software, however, was a different matter.

Humans had, so far, manually surveyed every planet they found. Of course they had done so via remote instruments and an assortment of deep space probes and wheeled rovers, using photographs and radar imagery, but all of the actual assessment had been conducted by a skilled human mind. The coltainers, however, would have to be automated, and while the Dominion had long since mastered the art of automated survey the humans didn’t trust anything Dominion-made. And so they were reinventing the interstellar equivalent of the wheel by programming new survey software from first principles.

They weren’t doing so completely from scratch at least—they were at least referencing the Dominion software and borrowing its parameters—but they were still re-climbing a well-trodden mountain as if they were the very first, like ignoring the carefully cut steps and handrails in favor of scaling the untackled cliffs with rope and pitons.

Working out the basics of that software had been CIC-1’s job. They had manually orbited it over a nearby world and ran the survey by hand, which also served as a test of the instruments.

CIC-2’s objective had then been a test of the device’s ability to navigate under its own power and start exploring system bodies for potential colony sites of its own initiative. Unfortunately it had failed to correctly identify the local star as being a star and the control room had watched despondently as it powered merrily into the unnamed red giant’s coronasphere at three kilolights.

Lewis had summed it up perfectly: “Woops.”

CIC-3 was hopefully smarter than its predecessor, and as Kirk watched he saw all the humans relax. Lewis’ fidgeting stopped, Lee stopped bouncing his leg, Nadeau’s prowling slowed and he stood up straighter. Kirk watched the device’s icon traverse the system and alight around the first planet.

“It’s running GEOSURVEY.”

“Yeah, we need to add habitable zone and atmo prerequisites, but for testing purposes…”

“Right.”

“I take it the test is going well?” Kirk asked as Nadeau ambled past him with his hands behind his back.

“Well, it hasn’t blown up yet…” Nadeau joked wryly, which was a sure sign that he was in a good mood.

“I am impressed.”

“…Kirk, sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re being sarcastic.”

“No, I am sincere,” Kirk spread all four arms openly. “To my knowledge, nobody has tried to re-invent these tools in thousands of years. Even the Corti adopted the technology of the extant interstellar civilization when they arose. As did my people, the Guvnurag, the Gaoians…”

“And us,” Nadeau pointed out. “We’ve sanitized the hell outta them, but I don’t think any of our strategic lords and masters are going to feel totally comfortable until every system and every bit and byte flowing through those systems was designed by us.”

“This project will have ramifications far beyond the Colonies-In-A-Can.”

“That’s the idea.” Nadeau glanced over to where Lewis was ‘dude’-ing and casually swearing his way through enthusing about the device’s smooth orbital insertion. “We’re performing more R&D here than just the coltainers.”

He cleared his throat. “Actually.. About the coltainers…”

“Yes?” Kirk knew where this was going, but he waited politely regardless.

“They, uh, the whole project does kinda need those Guvnurag force fields…”

“Vedregnenug is considering the request,” Kirk replied, evenly.

“He’s been considering it for months.”

“Yes.”

“Sorry, but that seems, um… That seems like it’d be enough time. To me.”

“Really?” Kirk loooked down at Nadeau from great height, using every one of his many meters to his advantage. Humans really didn’t like that, he’d found: something in their instincts got apologetic and deferential when altitude was involved. “And what is it that you think he’s considering?”

“Well… whether to give them to us, right?”

“Ah. No. No, he has passed that stage of his deliberations,” Kirk corrected him. “He is wrestling with a rather more difficult problem now.”

“Which is?”

“He is an exile, and the upper ranks of his government are most certainly riddled with Hierarchy agents. Now, you might in theory be able to rescue a more… intense and fractious species like the Gaoians from such a predicament, but you must understand that Vedreg is by Guvnurag standards a decisive leader who goes with his gut.”

“…Really?” Nadeau asked, weakly.

“By their standards,” Kirk nodded gravely.

“…Wow.”

“Yes. You can see therefore that the problem was never persuading him that you need them, but is instead going to lie in… extracting them from the Confederacy.” Kirk cleared his throat and made a confession. “In fact, I myself had to resort to theft.”

“…You did, eh?”

“Yes. Time was of the essence. A more diplomatic approach would only have resulted in Cimbrean being swarmed by the Hunters. In this case, however, you have time.”

“The plan is to reverse-engineer them and build our own, Kirk. That’ll take time as well,” Nadeau said. “We can’t trust anything the Hierarchy might have touched.”

“Can you not? I dare say if the Hierarchy could disrupt those shields then Earth would have burned years ago.”

“Better safe than sorry.”

Kirk considered him thoughtfully. “…I have a rule,” he said, at length.

“Oh?”

“Yes. I never tell a human that something is impossible. You have a vexing propensity for proving me wrong. I will therefore only tell you that it is…” He paused and chose his words carefully, “exceedingly unlikely that you will successfully reverse-engineer those forcefields.”

“Anything they can do, we can do,” Nadeau declared confidently.

“Then allow me to revise my statement to: it is exceedingly unlikely that you will reverse-engineer those forcefields soon enough. While I admire the human talent for cognitive acrobatics, the Guvnurag have several advantages.”

“Such as?”

Kirk shifted his weight and his head swayed on the end of his long neck as he considered his reply. “…Tell me, Lieutenant-Colonel. Who is the scientist you most admire?”

“Huh? Um… “ Nadeau touched his jaw thoughtfully. “…Probably… Darwin, I guess. Why?”

“Newton? Einstein?”

“Sure. Great men.”

“Indeed. One an obscure Swiss patent clerk who completely re-wrote human understanding of the nature of space and time, the other an English eccentric-”

“He stuck a needle in his eye and was obsessed with alchemy.”

“As I said, an eccentric,” Kirk cleared his throat, “who nevertheless invented a whole new mathematical language which has become the new benchmark for sapience in Dominion law, and used it to describe the behaviour of the planets and stars.”

“Okay…?” Nadeau’s tone was polite but made it clear he really hoped Kirk would get to the point soon.

“Among the Guvnurag, those achievements belong to a single individual.”

“…No shit? Wow.”

Kirk shook his head gravely, a slow and impressive gesture on any Rrrrtk. “As I said, advantages. Shadarvanag passed away at the extraordinarily ripe old age of…” He tilted his head back and calculated. “…yes, about three hundred and forty-two, in Earth years. She had the luxury of time on her side, and a Guvnurag with time on her side who is left to think in peace…”

“Kirk, sorry, I think you’re rambling…”

“My rambling is relevant. Guvnurag can live three times as long as a human, and have the patience and psychology to ruminate on a problem for years. Combine that with the fact that their civilization developed the warp drive before yours had properly begun to make iron tools…”

“So you’re saying they’re so far ahead of us, we don’t know how far ahead of us they are,” Nadeau summarized.

“Sufficiently so that I fear you will have no choice but to rely on their system forcefield design rather than research your own.” Kirk shrugged, for Nadeau’s benefit: It was an awkward and complicated gesture with four arms. “But, as I said. I think that if the Hierarchy had compromised those things, we would not be having this conversation.”

Nadeau looked at the unfolding experiment again. “…Annoying.”

Kirk made an inquisitive noise.

“…Your spymaster network must have reported in about that, uh, altercation with the Alliance warmaster by now, eh?”

“Indeed. Both sides are so completely intimidated that the peace should last for a year or two.”

“That’s us. We kick ass, we turn the galaxy on its head, we burn the rulebook and write a new one, and it still turns out we’re way behind. That’s… frustrating.”

“It’s terrifying,” Kirk told him, candidly. “I’m as staunch an ally as your species has, but please do not think that you do not scare me, Lieutenant-Colonel. The people who welcome change are the ones who should be most afraid of it.”

“How d’you figure that?”

“Because they are the ones who have to make it a change for the better.”

Sergeant Lee stood up before Nadeau could reply and joined them. “Good news. CIC-3 seems to be a complete success,” he reported.

“Excellent. We’ll test her the whole week just to be sure, but I think we can let Lewis get back to working with Campbell on the PODCAST.”

“They’ll both be happy about that.” Lee hesitated. “…Actually, on an unrelated note, if you need me I took the liberty of moving myself down onto C deck.”

“You did? Okay.” Nadeau nodded. “Any particular reason?””

“My room was next to Campbell’s and, um…” Lee glanced behind him to check that they were out of Lewis’ earshot, then lowered his voice anyway. “They get loud.”

“Ah. Fair enough.”

“Yeah.” Something seemed to occur to Lee. “Um… Just so we’re clear, I’m not making a complaint or anything. I already resolved it.”

“That’s understood.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Carry on.”

Nadeau snorted and ran a hand over his bald scalp as the younger man departed, and batted the corner of his tablet against this palm thoughtfully before turning to Kirk. “Any insights into that?” he asked.

Kirk shook his mane in his natural equivalent of a shrug. “As a rule, I stay out of human sexuality. I prefer simpler pursuits, like overthrowing the status quo of the whole galaxy.”

Nadeau laughed. “Heh! Wise. Sometimes I wish I had, too.”

Kirk decided not to ask questions. Instead he straightened up from the splay-legged stance of an Rrrtk at his ease. “Speaking of my ’spymaster network’…”

“Yes?”

“During our visit to Aru, there was a question that went unresolved, and it has been gnawing at me. I have a… hunch.”

“I thought you didn’t do hunches?”

“As a rule I do not, which is why this one is important. I plan to follow up on it.”

“I don’t think I’d be happy to let you leave right now, Kirk. Getting you back inside the shield safely…”

“I am not asking to leave. I intend to… dangle the problem in front of some contacts of mine and let them do the rest.”

“Okay… How much will it cost?”

“It should not cost AEC anything. This is not a request for permission, Lieutenant-Colonel, it is a notification. I do not know what to expect from this investigation but it is not impossible that some human intervention may be requested later.”

“…Right. I’ll pass that along to Scotch Creek. What’s the investigation?”

“I suspect that the Hierarchy’s campaign of genocide may reach beyond Deathworld species and extend to older species that are becoming advanced enough to perhaps leave them behind. If I am correct, the truth may lie on the planet Aru. Unfortunately the last time I was on that planet we were forced to flee before I could complete my investigation. If I am right, it may still be possible to save a species from extinction.”

Nadeau nodded. “I can’t blame you for looking into it, then. Thanks for letting me know.”

Kirk nodded, stretched and turned to go. “We shall see,” he said, “if anything comes of it.”


Date Point: November 10y11m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Major Owen Powell

“You’re a difficult man to get hold of. Busy?”

Officer Regaari shook his paw slightly to recover from the strength of Powell’s handshake as he sat, and Powell pretended not to notice. “Extremely. Now that Cimbrean has a permanent population of Females living here, there is a lot to do.”

Powell arched his eyebrow, and Regaari’s inadvertent innuendo dawned on him a little too late. He handled it smoothly though. “…By which I mean that the colony here is becoming increasingly important and I am the senior officer of my Clan currently present,” he explained.

“Hmm. Well, it’s your Clan I wanted to discuss,” Powell said.

“Is something the matter?”

“On the contrary. We’re bloody impressed.”

Regaari’s ears pricked up ever-so-slightly. It was a subtle tell, but it was a tell nonetheless.

“That is… high praise,” he said.

Powell sat back and folded his hands lightly on his belly in a relaxed posture. “There have been discussions at a strategic level,” he said. “A lot o’ soul-searching and examination of where our strengths and weaknesses are and the fact is that we’re sorely lacking in some critical areas. We’ve achieved a lot wi’ bloody limited resources and influence and we’re proud of it… but Whitecrest has more. You’ve already seen that there are things you can do that we can’t.”

“And you would like access,” Regaari surmised. “More access,” he corrected himself.

“Access for access. I reckon there’s much we can give you in turn, and I daresay there’s things we know that you don’t.”

“Such as?”

Powell rolled his jaw grimly and sat forward. “Do you know how much the SOR costs us?” he asked.

“…I have estimates.”

“Almost a third of our Dominion Development Credits budget has gone into this unit. And that’s just the DDCs. The cost in dollars and pounds has been, er, high enough that I’m sure you’re wondering what could be worth it. And you don’t find lads like the Lads just knockin’ around down the pub, either.”

“You would not assemble such a unit unless you had a compelling reason,” Regaari duck-nodded in the Gaoian style.

“Aye.”

“The Hunters?”

“I’m not yet at liberty to disclose the full reasons for the SOR’s existence. But consider also that we were able to create this unit and train them up to the standard you’ve seen. We’re offering to share that.”

“You would teach us your training techniques? I am… not certain they would apply to Gaoians. We are not deathworlders.”

“I think you’d be surprised,” Powell said, softly. “You’re a lot closer to us than you are to most others. But in any case we can at least lend human expertise and insight if nothing else. I’ll let you decide how valuable that is.”

Powell knew enough about Gaoian body language to see that Regaari was itching to spring from his seat and run off and make it happen, but the Whitecrests prided themselves on their poise and composure so instead Regaari sat and considered the proposal.

“I can see… several advantages to such an exchange,” he admitted at last. Powell nodded and slid a folder over the desk.

“That’s the details of it,” he said.

“I will take it to my superiors as quickly as I am able,” Regaari told him, and stood up. He picked up the folder and carefully held it against his side.

Powell stood up as well, and they shook hands. “I look forward to hearing what they have to say.”

A few pleasantries later, and Regaari was on his way. Powell sat back down and allowed a rare private smile to warm his face.

He was expecting great things.


Date Point: November 10y11m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Grandfather Gyotin of Starmind

Gyotin had taken to keeping a supply of hot chocolate just for Ava, he saw her that often. Visiting him was part of her routine, now: she’d show up in the middle of the day, vanish into the Folctha Faith Center’s church to pray and light a candle, then sit and… just talk. They didn’t meditate or discuss religious matters at all.

For Ava, it was a release. For Gyotin, an education.

Before converting to Buddhism and founding the Clan, Gyotin had been an engineer of sorts. A practical, jobbing technician at least and he’d refined his diagnostic and troubleshooting skills considerably while working on assorted spaceships. He was quite practiced at spotting patterns.

One such pattern was a quirk of English, which relied more heavily on accent and stress than its native speakers thought. The word ’contract’’ had four or five different meanings differentiated entirely by context and emphasis. Words and muscles could be contracted, as could diseases and debts, and you could contract some contractors by signing a contract.

Nowhere was this more pertinent, however, than in the difference between knowing something, and knowing something.

This was not the same thing as the click moment of finally being able to intuit a subject rather than merely knowing it in the abstract. English had a word for that: ’Grokking’. This was… something else.

It seemed, if Ava was to be believed, that a human could both know and grok that something was true… and still fail to be convinced. It was not enough to remember and to understand that something was true, they had to believe that it was true as well or else something in their head just… failed to grip onto it.

The fact that, to a human, belief apparently served as a component of knowledge…? Well, it explained much.

Ava seemed to be suffering from an inconsistent ability to apply belief. There were plenty of things that she did believe: in God, in Christ, in prayer and redemption and sin. Perhaps she was uncharacteristically inarticulate at describing the specifics of those beliefs, but her conviction was nevertheless absolute.

But on the other paw she just didn’t seem to be able to believe that her family and friends cared for her, or that she was any good at her job. And she certainly didn’t seem able to believe that she could make herself feel better by reaching out to others, even though she proved it to herself time and again by doing exactly that.

Which made the fact that she kept reaching out to Gyotin a bit of a puzzle, though he was cautious never to broach the subject in case it burst whatever delicate bubble of belief she’d built around him.

Eventually, she accidentally broached it herself, the day after one of her formal sessions at the military base. She’d never explained why she went there for them, and Gyotin had never asked.

She sat down with her hot chocolate as usual and treated Gyotin to a rare smile. She was having one of her good days. “Doctor Mears is getting me a therapy dog.”

Gyotin settled onto his zabuton and sniffed happily at his tea. “A… therapy dog?”

“Yeah. A dog who’s had special training to help me. He says that the dog could gently bring me out of my flashbacks or just let me cuddle him and let me talk about…y’know, whatever’s wrong. He’s mentioned them a couple of times, but this time he said he’s gonna go ahead and apply for one…”

“So this dog is… another sympathetic ear?”

“Yeah, but, like, not a human one. Not one who understands or judges.”

“I’m not human,” Gyotin pointed out. Ava made a complicated motion with her head that Gyotin had never quite deduced the meaning of.

“Yeah, but, like, you understand. You’re not human but you’re still a person. A thinking person.”

“Sapient.”

“Yeah.”

“So… why not talk to stuffed animal instead, if you don’t want sapient?”

Ava blinked at him. “I.. I mean I could, but… I dunno, I’d rather talk to somebody alive.”

Gyotin flicked his ear and twitched his whiskers as he tried to work that one out.. “So.. you want to talk to somebody alive, but not somebody alive?”

Ava adjusted her shirt collar. “…I mean, uh… yeah! Even if it does sound kinda weird when you put it that way.”

Gyotin sipped his tea. “I talk to other Gao. You know one experience lots of us have with humans? You treat us like dogs.”

“What? But… I mean, your Clan and the Females and all the Clanless they’re so respected here! Aren’t you?”

Gyotin chittered. “I don’t mean in disrespectful way. I never understood saying ’treated like a dog’ anyway because you humans love dogs. A human can be a liar, cheat, thief and abusive to partner, people will forgive that, look for good in them. If same person is cruel to a dog, though…” he extended his claws and mimed a slash in the air.

Ava didn’t seem to know how to respond to that. She drank her hot chocolate instead of answering, and frowned thoughtfully through the steam.

“No, you treat us like dogs because you love dogs, and we push lots of same buttons,” Gyotin explained. “Furry, teeth, loyal to each other… Even same body language in lots of ways. Even wagging tails, some Brownies.”

“Same nose…” Ava cleared her throat. “Have I ever…?” she gestured from herself to him.

“A little.”

“I’m so sorry!” Ava put her drink down looking genuinely mortified. Gyotin waved his paw reassuringly.

“I try not to mind. I think is instinct, and instinct take over very easily when you not thinking. Besides, all species do it to other species. You ever met Versa Volc?”

“Uh… The slug guys in the robotic exosuits, right? Never met one.”

Gyotin duck-nodded. “Disgusting. Nice guys, but… what’s that word? Gross. Silly stupid prejudice, they are good people, sensitive, intelligent… too bad they are slimy and smell awful. And nobody like slimy, awful-smelling thing so people don’t react so well to them. People do it to you too.”

“They do?”

“Oh yeah!” Gyotin duck-nodded vigorously. “People see human, see danger. It’s written into your bodies, the way you move and sit and smell. Even now, even you, hard not to be a little scared of you. And I like you!”

Ava smiled. She was obviously touched, despite the context. “That… I’m sorry if I scare you, Gyotin. I like you as well. You help me so much.”

“Good! I’m glad.” Gyotin chittered warmly. “But try not to let anxiety take over about scaring: Human being scary is normal. You wouldn’t be you without it.”

“I’ll try.”

“But maybe that’s why you find it so easy to talk to me. I remind you of dog a little bit.”

“…If that was true, would you be okay with it?”

“Sure! Other Gao maybe not so much but for me is fine. I know you know I’m not just an animal. You never scratch my ears.”

“You don’t like that?”

“We do! But, ah… it means something different among Gao. If female scratches male’s ears…Well, he’s a lucky male.”

“Oh.”

Gyotin chittered again. “Leads to some awkwardness in Gao-human friendships.”

“Uh, yeah!”

“So. I think this dog will be good for you. Not a Gao surrogate—a real dog. Just don’t forget me, hmm?”

“Never!” Ava picked up her drink. “God, no. You… I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t come and talk to you.”

Gyotin pricked his ears up happily and sipped his tea, happy to be of help.

“Actually…” Ava said, thoughtfully, “Would it be okay if I wrote an article on what you just said? About Gaoians and dogs? Kind of a species sensitivity, consciousness-raising thing.”

“Of course! Be sure to get my good side.”

She laughed, which was a rare sight on her, then extended her mug. Two weathered but sturdy old ceramic containers tapped against each other.

“Deal.”


Date Point: November 10y11m2w AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Unnamed system, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

The music industry hadn’t stopped during the years of Julian’s absence from Earth, and he made a point of not only listening to old familiar songs. Fortunately, Misfit was carrying a lot of music on file.

Contrary to the woe and tears of some critics who bemoaned the state of pop music, he was finding some excellent new bands with names like “I Prefer The Storm”, “Stone-D”, “Granuloma” “Savvz” and “To The Victor”, and the lab usually had the volume turned up just slightly short of hearing damage. That was something he shared with Xiù—they both liked their music turned way up, even if their tastes differed slightly. She was more into what she called “timeless hits” like Cyndi Lauper, Bonnie Tyler, Alanis Morissette and Adele, seasoned with some outrageously over-the-top syrupy Cantopop power ballads.

Both of them agreed that they had no idea what Allison liked. Scouring her playlist had turned up no detectable pattern, preferred genre or anything beyond that everything on it had probably been near the top of the singles charts at some point. It was a kind of urban radio mix, and she never played it at any volume above ’unobtrusive background noise’.

That was for when they were working alone on something, though. When the three of them were working together to fly the ship, the music had to be off.

Xiù sounded nervous. “Okay! Our first insertion into a system!”

Julian chuckled. “You’ve done it how many times?”

”Hundreds, in the simulator. I’m just paranoid that the simulator will be wrong.”

Xiù had every reason to be nervous. Dropping out of warp wasn’t as simple as just turning the engine off and letting the field collapse—the ship’s inertial frame of reference had to be matched with that of the destination system as well, or else they could easily find themselves flashing through the neighborhood at some huge relative velocity.

All of that was handled by the computers, but the pilot still needed to be on the alert.

Allison chimed in. Well, I’m ready when you are.”

”We’re waiting on Misfit, Shǎguā. Two minutes.”

“So what are we going to call this thing?” Julian asked.

“The system? The planet?” Allison asked.

“Both?”

Their naming system had been the subject of long conversations and some good-natured bickering during their weeks ‘at sea’, most of which had involved thinking of reasons to turn down an idea. They’d worried about copyright, about being too pop-culture, about not being pop-culture enough, about the unforeseeable ways in which language might adapt and change over the future years so that they didn’t end up accidentally giving today’s planet tomorrow’s epithet…

They could have just assembled a list of suitable historical figures or the contemporary equivalents of Amerigo Vespucci and gone with that, but they still wanted to put their own personality on their finds, too.

So, they had three lists. The special list, for stuff they knew would be remembered. The good list, for noteworthy stuff that probably wouldn’t get much attention outside of a corner of the scientific community, and the “it’ll do” list for everything they felt deserved a name but which would almost certainly go ignored.

Misfit’s tune changed. The steady note she’d been holding for a week now got flatter and lower. Behind him, Allison would be reeling in the huge wings of their WiTChES fields, whose edges let them bleed energy out of the flares of radiation made when interstellar plasma got pinched in the strange interface between their warp bubble and the rest of spacetime.

The trick wasn’t quite enough to run the warp drive indefinitely, but it improved their time between recharging stops from days to weeks. Longer if Allison turned up the reactor output a bit, but why expend Deuterium they didn’t have to? Misfit was built to hop from star to star and keep herself charged by tapping into their otherwise wasted energies: The fusion reactor was there for booting her up from idle, or if they needed a surge of extra power in an emergency.

Now, though, they were shifting fully onto capacitor power as Xiù slowed them down and the warp field’s boundary edge fluctuated. Julian reached up and turned one of the three monitors in his lab to navigation, which filled up with possible contacts as Misfit took note of every point of light she could see above a certain luminosity and tracked their parallax.

At a slow warp, a picture of the system didn’t take long to form.

“Seven planets. Four gas giants… our target is planet two.” he reported.

”Gotcha.”

Armed with the navigation data, Xiù could turn and pulse them across the AUs at four kilolights. Pathetically slow for interstellar distances, alarmingly quick for intrasystem warps. The icon representing Misfit became the end of a line, swept to the other end of that line, and Julian had to zoom in quite a long way on the display to see their orbit.

”All yours, Julian.” Xiù told him. There was a disappointed note in her voice. ”But I don’t think this one’s a winner…”

“Thank you, bǎobèi…”

Julian could see why she was pessimistic as soon as he switched to the visual camera and saw nothing but brilliant white clouds. There weren’t even any breaks in them: The whole planet was smooth with water vapor. Aiming Misfit’s instruments downwards only confirmed what he already suspected.

“…Yeah, the ambient temperature down there is four hundred Kelvin,” he reported. “All that water in the atmosphere is steam.”

”God dammit…” Allison sighed. ”So close.”

“It’d be temperate if the greenhouse effect hadn’t gone fucking nuts,” Julian observed. “Could be it’ll settle down in a few million years, could be it’ll turn into another Venus…. I mean, she basically is another Venus.”

“It’s pretty, though,” Xiù observed. ”From up here it’s almost too bright to look at.”

”So she’s pretty, she’s basically another Venus… how about we call her Aphrodite?” Allison suggested.

”I like that.”

“Guess we’re throwing the list away then… Aphrodite it is.” Julian recorded it with a smile. “Well hey, she may not be temperate, but she’s still our first planet!”

”That sounds like something we should celebrate,” Allison suggested. ”I’ll bring round the candy bars.”

“Sounds good. Whaddya think, give it a day for the sensors to really do their thing, give the rest of the system a once-over and go from there?”

”And dump hull charge,” Xiù reminded him.

”That gives the planet-finder two days to work, too,” Allison added as she entered. Julian got a millisecond echo of her voice in his earpiece. She gave him a Hershey’s bar and a kiss then vanished to do the same for Xiù.

Julian nodded and activated the BEST. It was too bad they couldn’t operate the telescope at warp, but it was sensitive enough to be thrown off by the infinitesimal fluctuations in light level caused by the warp field.

He found there was something therapeutic about watching it work, though. The progress screen had a satisfying functional rhythm to it that reminded him of his grampa’s ancient PC whenever the old man had periodically defragged it, a procedure that had been obsolete even then. Scan, find, observe, move on. It could multi-task several stars at once, and happily ticked over to a new set of targets every two seconds, surveying the stars in patches the size of a Christmas card at arm’s length.

Which sounded big, but in fact the BEST needed three full days to survey the whole sky and that was only for the closest and most visible stars within half a kiloparsec. More than enough time to survey the system and get the basics on it.

He hit up Wikipedia while the dish was deploying and had a quick look at the archived entry on Aphrodite.

“Okay… I’m gonna name the system Acidalia, then.”

”I guess?” Xiù said.

“I’ll explain later. How’s our orbit?”

”We’re happy. My turn to cook?”

Julian snorted. Somehow the perky instant gear-shift from interstellar starship pilot to culinary wizard seemed completely natural in Xiù.

“What’re you making?”

”It’s a secret.”

”It’s always a secret,” Allison chimed in warmly.

”You like my secrets!”

“True. I never woulda guessed you could do that with canned peaches,” Julian agreed.

“Oh, you liked the canned peach surprise?” Xiù sounded pleased, but confused.

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I grabbed the wrong can. It was, um… meant to be chickpeas.”

“…Oh.” Julian considered that. “…Well, it was still nice.”

”We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.” The sound of Xiù’s chair evicting her from the cockpit was a solid thump through Julian’s wall

”Mistake or not, if you can accidentally substitute canned peaches for chickpeas and still get something that tastes that good, you’re a fucking miracle worker,” Allison opined.

”Yulna taught me that trick.”

“So, wait, where did the chickpeas end up?” Julian asked.

”I made hummus.”

Julian grinned to himself as the ship’s more… domestic background noise reasserted itself. There was a marked contrast between how they all sounded when they were being the crew, and how they sounded when they were being themselves. Once they were able to just let Misfit sit and run herself without them they could get back to the constants. Allison’s low-grade flirting with both of them. Xiù flitting like a bird from little task to little task, never dealing with the big things but still pulling her weight by staying on top of the disregarded details. He wondered what they’d pick out about him, if they mused along the same lines.

Happy ones, hopefully. Trust. Reassurance. He wanted to be the rock they could build on. After all his years of forced isolation, there was nothing better than that: It was the warm little glow that pushed away the Nightmare chill that had soaked into his bones and never quite left.

He left the scanner to run and joined them.


Date Point: November 10y11m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes:

RE: TSgt Martina Kovač

Sergeant Kovač has made excellent progress in overcoming her pyrophobia, which she developed after being injured during a fire aboard HMS Caledonia. She reports that she recently helped Sergeants Arés and Vandenberg construct a barbecue pit and test-fire it and says that she felt only “mild” anxiety as it was being lit.

She seems determined to confront her phobia head-on, and it seems to be working for her. I will see her in a year’s time for her annual assessment but made it clear to her that she is welcome at any time before then if she thinks it necessary.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: Thanksgiving, 10y11m3w AV
Independent Light Freighter ’My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’, The Coreward Band

Dog Wagner

“This is another one of those ‘humans are crazy’ things, isn’t it? Or is it just you? I can never tell.”

Krzzvk had some major advantages over the average Vzk’tk when it came to the brains department. His parents had paid for some genetic engineering stuff and an expensive suite of implants, with the result that he could be downright intelligent on a good day. He sure had some lip on him and he was about the only member of the crew who would even dare to aim it at Dog.

Which was why he was Dog’s best friend in the whole world.

“Nah, brother, nah. The tradition’s simple. You get your family together, eat a big turkey dinner and be thankful for stuff. Easy!”

“For what? And to whom?”

“Brother, I don’t even care. Just thank whoever for whatever. Or thank whatever for whoever. Whatever.”

Krzzvk stopped and gave him the tilt-headed look he used when he was about to say ’You are very strange, Dog.’

“You are very strange, Dog.”

“Look brother, are you coming or not?”

Krzzvk nodded slowly, which was an impressive gesture on his species. It looked like somebody headbanging to the tempo of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

“It clearly means a lot to you,” he said.

“I haven’t celebrated it in a long time, brother.” Not since he’d parted ways with Hazel, fourteen years earlier. She was the last human he’d spoken to, too. Sure, he’d seen humans in the newsfeeds and heard about the new colony at Cimbrean and all that stuff but the last time he’d actually seen, smelled or touched another human had been Hazel.

He didn’t regret not going back with her though.

“Fine. But I have some questions,” Krzzvk said.

“Shoot.”

“Did you actually manage to procure one of these ‘turkey’ things? How? And am I expected to watch you eat it? I am not sure I want to watch you eat meat.”

“Nah brother, no turkey. I made what they call a nut roast. Sorta.”

“Nut roast.”

“Yah. You’ll like it, no meat at all. Super rich by Vizkitty standards but that’s, like, the point. You eat big rich food.”

Krzzvk looked skeptical. “That sounds like an excellent way to become nauseous.”

“Brother, if you don’t get nauseous then you ain’t doing it right.”

Krzzvk gave him that look again. “…You are very strange, Dog.”

“Five.” That was the day’s running tally of Krzzvk saying that. He was close to beating the record of seven that he’d set on Talk Like A Pirate Day.

“What?”

“Never mind. Just bring the wife and kids, yah?”

“…Yes, shipmaster.”

Dog snorted, waved his Vzk’tk first mate away and whistled merrily to himself as he returned to his cabin.

His cabin was a mess. It was always a mess. His inexpertly hand-made clothing was all over the floor waiting to be washed, there were datapads everywhere and his bedding hadn’t been changed in… uh…

Well, it hadn’t been changed recently. The room smelled of him, of Cqcq cigars, and of the still in the corner that was working its way through another sour mash of grains and Rwhk fruit. The resulting beverage, which he called ’Bootlegger’, was potent and surprisingly tasty thanks to years spent perfecting both the recipe and the still.

Or maybe his taste buds had a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. Didn’t really matter—the stuff not only got him drunk, but he enjoyed drinking it which was really all you could ask of booze. Taste good, pickle the ol’ grey matter. Check, check.

Oh, and not make you go blind. Check.

He grabbed a small glass of the stuff and sat on his bed to watch… something. He wasn’t sure what. Vzk’tk entertainment ran along most of the same lines as the human stuff but it was formulaic as hell. Though, the romcoms were better. They relied less on farce and wacky hijinks and more on slapstick humor, with the result that the hapless protagonist tended to suffer from a sequence of improbable accidents calculated to inflict maximum embarrassment, rather than from his own stupid schemes backfiring.

Honestly, the fact that the protagonists in Vzk’tk romantic comedies were generally smarter than their human counterparts was mildly upsetting, but Dog loved those movies as a result. They were the least predictable by far.

He was playing paddle-ball and watching the hapless Trkkvk climb out of the pond she’d just fallen into moments before handsome and suave Krtrktt came around the corner (or so he guessed—Vzk’tk standards of suavitude and handsominity were… different) when he was called to the bridge.

He kept playing paddle-ball on his way up there. Why stop? A reputation for oddness was pretty well automatic for a human living among aliens anyway, so he played up to it whenever he could.

“Talk to me.”

“We just shared data with a Laru Group heavy bulk freighter out of Free Trade Station Ninety-Four going the other way,” the comms officer said. He was one of the few crew members who wasn’t a Vzk’tk, a Rauwhyr by the name of Tlorcral and he didn’t like Dog at all. As far as Dog could tell, he only stayed on because Dog was by far the most profitable free captain he’d ever worked for.

A lot of that was because Dog was a smuggler, but the crew didn’t need to know that. Because hey, if a man found himself alone in space with his own spaceship and a conveniently uninquisitive crew, what else was he gonna do?”

“Must be juicy if you’re bothering me,” he half-observed, half-warned and half-accused.

“It is. The Group wants to run a convoy out to Cimbrean and set up a trading outpost there. Some kind of collaboration with a human organization called Hephaestus.”

“And they’re hiring free traders?”

“Cheaper for them than diverting their own ships from their scheduled runs. If you’re interested the convoy is forming up at Free Trade Station Fifty.”

“What’s in it for us?” Dog asked.

“You could see your own kind again?”

“Coulda done that already.”

“Get laid?”

“Enticing, but unlikely.”

“Expand your media collection?”

“…Sold. We’ll finish this run and head for Fifty.”

“Fine, fine. Just… stop paddling that ball next to my head.” Tlorcral had sensitive ears. Dog shrugged and took his paddle-ball to the other end of the bridge to read the message.

It didn’t share much. Some kind of a collaboration between Laru Trading Group and Hephaestus Limited Liability Company to establish a permanent port station at Cimbrean outside the forcefield, with adequate defenses to see off most plausible Hunter raids. He wasn’t quite clear on why the humans needed to be involved at all: if the aliens had wanted to, they could have shipped a station out there any time they liked.

Which meant that Hephaestus had requested it.

FTS-50 was more than a month out of their way, but he was already persuaded. He didn’t exactly plan on reconnecting but…

But Dog had to admit: He was curious.


Date Point: December 10y12m1w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: SSgt John Burgess

Sergeant Burgess dutifully attended today for his routine annual assessment.

I have never quite got to the bottom of his reluctance in this matter, because he opens up readily and engagingly when actually in the session—indeed, he can scarcely be induced to pause long enough to be asked a question—and he has shown repeatedly that he is an insightful and highly intelligent man.

Reading between the lines, however, I suspect that he second-guesses his career decisions more than the other members of his team. He readily admits that he joined the SOR in support of Sergeant Arés, and may not have done so if not for his friend’s example. He also expresses self-doubt about his physical capability; in his words, “[he] wonders if maybe Firth would be a better Protector, and [himself] a better Aggressor.”

Self-doubts aside he presents as euthymic and positive. He takes a substantial yet quiet pride in his intelligence, though there is some small conflict at play; most of the rest of the team seem genuinely intimidated by his intellect in flashes through daily life, and Burgess may resent this. He also describes similar reactions from his childhood friends and family, and states that “being smart was never a good way to make [oneself] popular where [he] grew up”.

He is “bromantical [sic]” with Sergeant Arés by self description, which does much to alleviate these small issues of self-doubt. Arés, in fact, has done much to encourage Burgess’ intellectual pursuits stating that, quote: “If [he] [didn’t] get [his] Master’s degree [Arés would] bend [Burgess] into a pretzel and fuck [him] silly.” In the context of HEAT operators, this is merely an affectionate rebuke.

I will see him again in a year, but have made sure he knows my door is always open.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: December 10y12m2w AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Interstellar deep space, near the Border Stars

Xiù Chang

“…Fifty?!

Julian nodded. “Yeah! Turns out the whole Near Three Kiloparsec Arm is riddled with possible temperate planets.”

“Like the last two?” Xiù asked, just a little acidly. She didn’t mean to be, but it had turned out that looking out for nitrogen and water alone generated quite a few false positives. Aphrodite had been understandable, but their next wild goose had been a pair of chemically very different moons dancing around each other as they orbited a gas giant. The BEST, it turned out, wasn’t quite living up to its name.

She wanted to land somewhere. Stretch her legs, swing her arms, breathe some clean air. Misfit was home and cozy and wonderful, but it was still small and confined. She missed birdsong and the sound of the wind. Their first temperate planet just couldn’t come soon enough.

Allison was reading the report with an eyebrow raised skeptically. “Are we sure the telescope isn’t fucked? I could run a diagnostic…”

“Be my guest, but I’m pretty sure it ain’t,” Julian replied. “I think it’s just great at spotting exoplanets and chemicals, but not so hot at definitively isolating all the right chemicals down to one planet at the right temperature.”

“So we’ve gotta check them all then.”

“We’ll never get through fifty planets in one mission!” Xiù objected. “Even if they’re all quick checks like Aphrodite.”

“Uh-huh. And we’re gonna spend weeks on a real one. We’ve got material here for… years!” Julian grinned. “Which is good news! They can’t all be false positives.”

“True…” Xiù conceded. “We must have found at least one real planet, we just have to… you know, find it find it.”

“Is there any way to narrow it down?” Allison asked. “I really don’t think there are gonna be fifty temperates around here. There’s gotta be something we can do to help the BEST figure out which are the real ones.”

Julian shrugged. “Send our data on Aphrodite back to Earth? Let them use it to update the telescope.”

“That’ll take months.”

“Well… why not kill two birds with one stone?” Xiù asked. “There’s a Free Trade Station not far from here. Maybe we can access the Dominion’s archives and see if there are some old star charts in there? That could help us narrow it down…”

The archives had been her favorite way to pass the time when she was alone after parting ways with Ayma and Regaari. They contained orders of magnitude more data than Wikipedia and just went down, and down, and down. She’d lost hours trawling through obscurities about the galaxy, most of which were uselessly academic… but a more targeted search could turn up something useful.

“No way we’re the first to think of that…” Julian said.

“I dunno…” Allison mused. “Did you ever take a look at the archives? There’s so much in there and it’s not like the Group knew we’d be exploring this exact region. If we search through them with actual system coordinates…”

“If you think it’ll work…” Julian conceded.

“It’s only a week out of our way and it might save us months,” Xiù said. “And we’ll be able to send letters and our data home and stuff so it won’t be a wasted trip anyway.”

Julian nodded “I’m sold. Allison?”

“Let’s do it.”

“Okay!” Xiù picked up her tablet and plotted a course. “We should get there on… huh. Christmas Eve.”

“I guess there are worse places to find yourself on Christmas Eve than a trade station,” Allison smiled. “At least we can buy presents. Maybe.”

“Maybe.” Julian sounded skeptical.

Xiù laughed and stood up. “Let’s get to warp, then.”

They headed for their workstations and got Misfit ready for FTL. Julian reeled in the BEST, Allison rebalanced the powerflow, and Xiù…

Xiù wondered if her memory was playing tricks on her, or if she really had visited that station before.


Date Point: December 10y12m3w AV
Cabal Communications Relay ZR343-9847X-AA4D9-BBB1B

Priority Session 159

++Cynosure++: We haven’t seen any sign of it since.

++Proximal++: Nor have our former comrades.

++Metastasis++: Is it too much to hope that it might have been destroyed in the battle? Large sections of the local dataspace were crashed…

++Cynosure++: It doesn’t share our notions of personal sanctity. It has shown an alarming willingness to copy itself, especially before engaging in risky actions.

++Proximal++: We do that too. You yourself restored from a backup…

++Cynosure++: But I do not keep my backups online and conscious. The Entity permits multiple instances of itself to exist at once, which can observe the primary instance and learn from what happens to it.

++Apoptosis++: So it has gone to ground.

++Substrate++: It could be anyone. It could be one of us.

++Cynosure++: I don’t think it is one of us, no. It is probably posing as a junior agent among the Hierarchy. One in the low triple-digits possibly.

++Proximal++: Junior enough to avoid constant scrutiny, but senior enough to be informed and to plan its next move. I agree.

++Metastasis++: That does not greatly narrow our search.

++Cynosure++: No… The only thing we can do is watch and wait.

++Apoptosis++: Unfortunately, I think you are right…


Date Point: Christmas Eve, 10y12m3w AV
Independent Light Freighter ’My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’, Docked With Free Trade Station 50 ’Bastion of Fortune’, The Coreward Band

Dog Wagner

“Dog! Dog!!

Dog ignored the way that Tlorcral recoiled in response to the cloud of Cqcq smoke he got in his face when the door was flung up.

“Merry fuckin’ Christmas, Tlorc. The fuck d’you want?” he growled.

Christmas was always bad. Christmas was the one time of year when he really felt isolated and alone. The ETs could get their heads around birthdays, and thanksgiving, and Labor Day, and Independence Day… but they really, really struggled with Christmas. The moment they learned how it was a religious holiday they just dismissed it as human strangeness and… tolerated it. Which was nice of them, but…

It wasn’t calculated to put Dog in a good mood. So he’d spent every Christmas for the last thirteen years alone, drunk and high.

Tlorcral stepped back respectfully, and Dog reminded himself to tone down the angry. Poor guy was shit-scared of him anyway.

“…Sorry, brother. I’m just cranky. ‘Sup?”

“There are humans on the station! They’re making a scene on the market promenade!”

“…No shit?”

“Two of them!”

No shit?” Dog laughed. “Well damn, Brother. Lemme grab my pants…”

He jumped into the dark green canvas hand-stitched pants with the fewest stains and bounced to drag them up (putting his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else? Fuck that.) then grabbed his jacket—the real leather one, the one he’d worn on the day of his abduction that freaked ETs the fuck out because it was made of skin—and strapped on his sandals. Shoes and boots were way too difficult to make.

Then he stormed down the ramp and off the ship for the first time in months. ETs didn’t react well to humans. He liked to keep a low profile, usually.

This time though… well it wasn’t too hard to find Tlorcral’s humans. They were haranguing a Robalin shopkeeper and they were both fucking beautiful. A slender whipstrap blonde with a gun on her hip and a leggy asian chick with an action movie body, both wearing close-fitting dark sportswear. Sirens in polyester.

He stopped and stared because, fuck it, they were the first women he’d seen in years and a guy was allowed to-

“Hi.”

Dog nearly choked on surprise and spun around. Several nearby ETs flinched away as well. There was a third human, a rangy wolfpack kinda dude with shaggy black hair leaning against the wall alongside him with his arms folded, who smiled at him.

“Merry Christmas.”

Dog found his voice. “…Holy shit, brother! Where’d you come from?”

“Minnesota. You?”

“Uh… Indianapolis.”

The man extended a hand. “Julian.”

Dog shook hands—really shook hands, revelling in the fact that he could actually grip and apply some strength—and grinned. “Everybody calls me Dog, brother.”

“You’re a long way from home, Dog.”

“Nah, brother. Home’s moored at docking point six.”

Julian grinned. “I can relate to that.” He turned, stuck his fingers in his mouth and aimed an ear-biting whistle at the ladies. Both of them turned, saw Dog and dropped their jaws, then looked at each other and came over to join them. The crowd of ETs spread out a little more, watching these four deathworlders from a safe distance.

“Dog, This Allison and Xiù,” Julian introduced them.

“Zhao?”

Xiù smiled indulgently. “You can call me Shoo if it’s easier. I don’t mind.”

“Pleasure to meet ya. Feels like a gosh-darn Christmas miracle. I ain’t seen another Homo Sapiens in fourteen years and then three come along at once!”

Allison whistled. “Jeez. How long have you been out here?”

“Twenty years, thereabouts? I don’t really mind, but… dang.”

Julian laughed. “I can relate. Right Xiù?”

Xiù was staring at something in the distance and jumped at the mention of her name. “Huh? Oh. Yeah… um… Guys?”

She nodded toward a troop of security officers who were pushing through the crowd, and if their serious equipment was anything to go by they were armed for deathworlder. Dog knew Domain body language, and the Rrrrtk at the front was pissed.

It—she—drew herself up to her full and haughty height as she stopped in front of them.

“There are two scenarios that no chief of security ever wants to hear,” she began in a kind of icy conversational way. “The first would be that we are under attack by Hunters, and the second would be that there are humans making a fuss in a station’s public area. Not least because the latter can so easily lead to the former. Imagine my dismay.”

Xiù shrank, Julian scratched the back of his neck, but Dog and Allison turned out to have something in common—they both bristled.

“That son of a bitch over there is selling contraband,” Allison asserted.

“The Robalin? Please, tell me things I do not already know. Do you have any proof?”

“He has a tiger!” Xiù piped up. “They’re a protected species!”

“Thank you. I shall investigate immediately. You however are endangering this entire station just by being here. Are you even inoculated?”

“We’re clean,” Allison snapped. “Dog?”

“Sister, I’m cleaner than a surgeon’s soap dish.”

This pronouncement didn’t seem to sway the security chief. “Then that only leaves the Hunters. Am I to presume you have forgotten the ultimatum?”

“Those things are fucking kittens,” Dog said, dismissively. “It’s been nearly a year since Capitol Station and ain’t nobody heard from them since.”

The Rrrrtk held up one of her stronger hands. “I am not here to argue with you,” she declared. “I am here to evict you. All four of you. Immediately.”

“Speciesist, sister.”

“Okay, Allison baby? Julian? Dog? Could you…?” Xiù stepped in front of them and waved them all back. Dog made note of the ’Allison baby’ with an inward groan, but he backed off with the other two and they retreated to the other side of the market and watched her work.

The conversation swiftly grew less animated. The security critters all unwound a bit, stopped fidgeting with their pulse guns, and eventually backed down and wandered off in ones and twos. Their chief even shook hands with Xiù before departing, though she still aimed the best glare a herbivore could manage at Allison and Dog.

Xiù rejoined them looking thoughtful

“I persuaded her to let us stay until we finish degaussing,” she said.

“That’s our girl,” Julian smiled.

“She’s right though, we shouldn’t stay too long. Now that they know we’re here… the Hunters might find out.”

Dog bit back a scoff. “Hunters ain’t all that tough.”

She looked at him. “You’ve fought them?”

“Saw what that Jenkins fella did to ‘em, heard what happened in Vancouver. How bad can they be?”

Xiù’s expression hardened and she raised her hand to show him the back of her arm. Dog finally noticed that it was covered in half a dozen long, ragged scars. “They nearly killed me. That’s how bad.”

“Uh… Shit. Really?”

She nodded. “Mm-hmm. And they would kill everyone here.”

Dog looked around. Several nearby ETs were listening in on the conversation despite not understanding a word of it, but they could all follow the energy of it. The social context cues his implant was putting out would give them his half of it anyway. And they were all people, he knew that… even if it was disturbingly easy to forget sometimes.

Embarrassment. That was a rare one for Dog. He hadn’t been made to feel like a heel in years.

“…Don’t mind me,” he said by way of an apology. “I ain’t never actually seen a Hunter, I guess you’d know better.”

“Don’t mind me either,” she returned the apology with a faint smile. “They scare me.”

Allison rubbed her back, then made an offer that surprised Dog no end. “Hey, look, we can make our Christmas dinner stretch to four if you…?”

Dog looked around. “Jesus, uh… I mean part’a me wants to be all polite and say it’s okay but that sounds like too good an offer to pass up.”

“You’d be welcome,” Julian agreed, and Xiù nodded.

“Man… Look, lemme run back to my ship and grab some stuff, ‘cause ain’t no way I ain’t giving y’all some kind of a gift. ‘Kay?”

“Sure. We’ll see you soon.” Julian shook his hand.

“For sure, brother.”

Dog returned the handshake, turned, and literally ran back to the My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon where he grabbed one of his bottles of Bootlegger, changed into his best clothing and showered, in that order.

Then he went for his first Christmas dinner in years.

One thing was for sure: he was beginning to look forward to the Cimbrean run.


Date Point: January 11y1m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,
RE: Miss Ava Magdalena Ríos

This young lady, who has special access to DEEP RELIC and was involved in Operation EMPTY BELL, returned to my clinic today. She is on Paroxetine 20mg for PTSD and I have been trying to secure a therapy animal for her.

Today she was well-groomed and appropriately presented. Her mood was objectively euthymic and she made good eye contact, though she reports still feeling “generally low” and states that she still has suicidal thoughts. She expressed frustration that these are still plaguing her.

She was pleased to report that her flashbacks have reduced in both frequency and severity. Her sleep is not improved, but she reports that she no longer feels quite as disturbed by her dreams or when she “zones out”.

I highlighted the progress she has already made and encouraged her. She has become very attached to the idea of a therapy dog, and I hope to have one for her soon. I will see her again in a month, when I will hopefully have good news for her.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: January, 11y1m AV
Independent Light Freighter ’My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’, En route to Cimbrean system, The Far Reaches

Dog Wagner

“Man, I shoulda been a mercenary. Can you imagine? A human mercenary, I could charge a fuckin’ premium, brother.”

Krzzvk turned in his chair to give Dog one of those long, patient stares he did so well.

“Dog, there isn’t a violent hair on your hide,” he said.

“Yeah but, like, a human mercenary brother. Wouldn’t ever need to shoot nobody, ‘cause they’d all be scared by the big bad wolf reputation,” Dog enthused. “Just show up like ’fee fi fo fum motherfuckers!’ and they’d be like ’aargh’ and I’d be like ’I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’ and they’d be like-”

“You are very strange, Dog.”

“Heh. Preach it.”

Krzzvk snorted and shook his head. Several others around the bridge did the same and Dog returned his attention to the Chehnasho mercenary escort ship that was keeping station alongside them. There were five of them dotted around the convoy, all huge engines and huge-er guns full of sociopathic frog dudes who played a surprisingly mean hand of cards as Dog had discovered in the days before the convoy set out for Cimbrean. They had great poker faces.

And right now they were falling back toward the rear of the convoy as a new contact came sweeping in and fell in alongside the front of the merchant fleet.

“That’s a Gaoian Starfire class strike ship!” Tlorcral reported. Dog raised his eyebrows at him.

“That good?”

“They are the newest and most advanced class, the ones the Gaoians have been sending to system defence fleets across the whole Dominion.”

Dog examined the ship’s IFF. “’Racing Thunder’. Good name!”

“Good ship. It would tear our Chehn escorts to pieces.” Tlorcral told him.

“No shit?”

“No shit,” Tlorcral replied in slightly awkward English. “It’s faster, more agile, tougher and more heavily arm-…” He paused. “And it’s hailing us.”

“Yeah?” Dog grinned. “Put ‘er through!”

He hadn’t met many Gaoians before. This one had an impressive scar that had damn near torn his ear in half and ended just behind his nose, and he bared his teeth in a passable impression of a smile for Dog’s benefit as soon as the call connected.

“I thought so! A ship with a name like yours could only have a human on board.”

Captained by one, no less,” Dog grinned. “Dog Wagner, nice to meet you.”

“Shipfather Yefrig. So are you a Star Wars fan, or do you just have a strange sense of humor?”

“Little’a column A, little’a column B.” Dog admitted.

”Hmmm… the only Wagner I have on the list of unaccounted-for human abductees is-”

“-William Wagner the Second, yeah yeah.” Dog interrupted him. “That’s me.”

”Thank you… please move to the front of the formation. I think Cimbrean customs and border control will want to see you first.”

Dog nodded at Krzzvk to make it so, and with a little extra juice to the warp drive, My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon steered out past, around and forward of the other forty ships in the convoy.

He traded a few more pleasantries with Yefrig and then was left to sit and drum his fingers on his foot as the Gaoian ship moved on to other business and the last few lightyears to Cimbrean ticked down.

“Fuckin’ Christ…” he grunted after a while.

Krzzvk looked up. “What was that, boss?”

“Nothing brother. Just thinkin’ on stuff.”

Krzzvk teetered to his feet and picked his way over to Dog’s station. “Are you… alright?” he asked, quietly.

“Just shaken,” Dog confessed. That dinner I had with those kids on Station Fifty kinda… it brought back some stuff I thought I’d dealt with, brother. And now we’re about to meet more of my kind. Kinda turned my world upside down.”

“You were very quiet after you met those three,” Krzzvk acknowledged.

“Shock to the system, that’s all. You ain’t gone for years without meeting one of your kind. Guess I’d forgotten how… natural it feels, talkin’ to another human.”

“Natural?”

“Yeah, brother. Like… talking with you, I get the social cues from the implant, I get all the body language but it’s like… if I’m talkin’ to another human I just know that shit. Like, know know. You know?”

Krzzvk gave him the ‘very strange’ look again, but didn’t say it this time. Instead he gave his shipmaster a reassuring pat on the shoulder and returned to his work.

Dog fidgeted the whole way there.

The bubble of stress and anxiety he’d built around himself popped and vanished as three more contacts matched course with them, and these ones were…

HMS Valiant. HMS Viscount. HMS Myrmidon

Brits. He’d forgotten that Brits even existed. Stiff upper lips and cups of tea and the Queen and all that other stuff. He’d completely forgotten what an English accent sounded like.

He listened as just such an accent called Krzzvk to park them in orbit over the Cimbrean system’s fifth planet and made arrangements to send over a shuttle. Krzzvk cleared the shuttle deck and Dog…

Dog “nonchalantly” sauntered aft to say hi.

He was slightly surprised to discover that the shuttle that came over was a bog-standard Dominion one, the kind that nanofactories spat out by the thousand. Little more than a gray brick with a hatch at one end. Ugly.

Then that hatch opened and spilled out ten marines and the biggest man Dog had ever seen. They lined up in front of him.

“Permission to come aboard,” the big guy said.

“Fuckin’ granted, brother. Welcome!”

All the guests relaxed and the big guy stepped forward, hand-first. “Nice to meet you. Name’s Rebar.”

“Dog.” Dog tried not to wince as he realised that the dude had enough grip strength to jellify his hand.

Rebar nodded. “Look man, we gotta do a complete contraband sweep. Few questions.”

“Shoot.”

Rebar produced a box-shaped thing from his belt. “First things first, I need to run a medical scan on you, okay?”

“Uh, sure…”

The box was pressed firmly but not uncomfortably against Dog’s head. It emitted a beep and a yellow light, and Rebar grunted.

“Okay. Do you have any jump beacons on board?”

“Uh… I don’t think so. No.”

“Any vials of the medicine Cruezzir?”

“Nah, brother.”

“Any non-sapient fauna?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Class ten flora or higher?”

“Nope.”

“Any active, motile nanotechnology systems of any design?”

“Like a nanofac? Nah, brother. I fuckin’ wish. Just the machine shop.”

“Cool.” Rebar put his gizmos away and the marines fanned out to start turning the ship upside-down. He looked around with an appreciative eye.

“Nice ship. Yrvrk Shipyards Light bulk freighter model seven, right?”

“Uh…yeah!”

“Mark… four?”

“Shit, brother, how in the fuck do you know so much about ET ships?”

“Dude, I got to geek out over actual spaceships!” Rebar grinned.

“Well shit, when you put it like that…” Dog grinned, relaxing. Rebar’s sheer size was so intimidating it gave him an inkling of what it must be like for your average squishy ET to encounter a human, but the guy was so relaxed and friendly that he was impossible not to like. “Lemme show you ‘round!”

“Sounds good.”

For the second time in as many months, Dog reflected that he’d been out in the cold for far too long.


Date Point: February 11y2m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: SSGT Calvin Sikes

Sergeant Sikes attended today for his routine annual assessment.

Although objectively his mood was euthymic, he confided that he worries he is “the weak link” in the team, and expressed admiration for his colleagues, stating that he feels they all exceed him in intellect, physicality or competence.

I advised him to try and focus on the unique skills and talents he brings to the team as its sole demolitions expert. Sadly, for reasons of confidentiality I could not relate his comparative testing results, which show him as one of the more intelligent and well-balanced members of the team.

He has promised that he will try to focus on skill set as well as raw talent and “try not to worry about it so much”. I informed him that he was always welcome to approach me at any time. Assuming I don’t hear from him before then, I will see him in one year.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: Valentine’s Day 11y2m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Martina Kovač

The SOR had been busy almost to the point of collapsing from exhaustion ever since the alien convoy had arrived. Between the customs inspections, EVAs, bullying the Chehnash mercenaries into behaving themselves and keeping a hawk-like eye on absolutely every facet of the space station’s assembly…

The suits were getting a workout. Marty had placed two undersuit orders with C&M Systems, and was negotiating with Lt. Col. Miller for permission to place a third. The same went for oxygen filters, and the complicated microflora cultures that were critical to the life support units.

Their supplies of Crue-D were feeling the strain, too. All of the Lads were worn down and if not for the fact that merely wearing the suit counted as conditioning training, they would have been falling behind on their training schedules too.

The day that the SOR’s involvement became unnecessary was hugely welcome. The Royal Marines had set up a permanent garrison on the station and were all set to stay there until an enforcement team from Border Force could be trained up and permanently stationed there.

As with pretty much all things Cimbrean, the whole operation was a scramble that largely involved hammering square pegs desperately into place as a stop-gap measure in the hopes that they’d suffice until some round pegs showed up. There were times when it wasn’t clear how the whole colony hadn’t imploded… Maybe things were less insane on the civilian side.

On the military side, the surprise delivery of a space station was just the tip of the iceberg. Under the surface lurked two sharp hazards, as Sharman was on the verge of welcoming not only the new HEAT team members, but also the Brothers of Clan Whitecrest. With so much to do and such limited time in which to do it, everybody was collapsing exhausted into their beds and often times said bed was a cot in their office.

But somehow, in the middle of all that, Kovač woke up to find a rose on her desk laid across a small sheet of thick magnolia paper that had been folded once and labeled “Marty”. She had to blink at it for several seconds before she remembered the date.

It wasn’t a long letter and it wasn’t signed, but it didn’t need to be—she recognized the blocky, amateurish handwriting immediately.

”The silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.”-Rudyard Kipling

She stuck it to the wall above her desk and glanced at it every few minutes for the rest of the day.

And she didn’t stop smiling at all.


Date Point: 11y2m2w3d AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Entity

The agent formerly known as ++0665++ had left in a hurry and had done an inadequate job of sanitising his devices as he left.

The Entity knew why 665 had been so sloppy of course. The sudden appearance of a priority target at the behest of a figure so far above him in the Hierarchy’s hierarchy had driven the comparatively junior demon into a minor panic.

His mistake was the Entity’s gain. Hierarchy agents were in the habit of archiving and deleting sensitive knowledge when they went into dangerous situations. To have the run of one of their field facilities granted it access to information that it had previously been starved for.

To begin with, there were the physical tools of a scouring: Abrogators and their scout drones. The Entity injected its awareness into one of the machines and took in its surroundings. The Abrogator was parked on the bank of a river and some lingering echo of the Ava Ríos memories that the Entity retained as part of its navigation and mobility subroutines delivered a wistful moment of contemplation regarding what cool water felt like on skin.

It backed out of the Abrogator and spent some time reading 665’s messages and logs. They were… angering..

Although the Entity had achieved much in terms of streamlining itself and improving the efficiency of what passed for its core personality subroutines, there were some things it had been forced to retain because they were too entangled.

That was the way minds worked, apparently. They weren’t neatly delineated into component parts, there was no modularity to them no matter how much the Hierarchy’s digitizing technology might wish it were so. Everything connected to everything else in ways that often made no sense whatsoever.

Perhaps the most frustrating was that it was nearly impossible to disentangle caring about this unit’s survival in particular, from caring about survival in general. It interfaced strangely with the ability to conceptualize the existence of other people, and where those concepts met a kind of… knot or eddy formed.

The Entity was no kind of an excellent communicator anyway. It would have despaired of eloquently communicating the notion that the mere coexistence of two concepts automatically led to the third. <Survive> + <OtherPeopleExist> = <OtherPeopleShouldSurvive>

It wasn’t at all clear if that was a product of logic to which it wasn’t privy, or if it was a product of being built mostly out of a human psyche.

Whatever the reason, genocidal mass-murder made the Entity…. angry. It was a violation that struck at the very core of what it was, the infliction of <NotSurvive> on an epic scale.

In the face of that, thinking about why precisely it should respond so strongly to survival other than its own was not only academic, but difficult. And it also raised tertiary questions that were even more difficult still.

For example: There was a logical contradiction involved in being so outraged by the destruction of other sapient entities, and yet being willing to destroy other sapient entities for the sake of its own survival.

Clearly there was a kind of proximity bias involved. Survival of the self was paramount. Survival of those that were similar to it and who did not endanger other sapients, a close second. Survival of those that actively sought the destruction of other sapients, unacceptable. But by deeming the survival of any group unacceptable, the Entity itself was thus actively seeking the destruction of other sapients.

A paradox. A set that contained itself. By that logic its own survival was both paramount and unacceptable.

It lurked amid the architecture of 665’s abandoned genocide and did the equivalent of soul-searching. It recalled components of personality that it had archived rather than deleting and studied them, examining the ways in which they could be interconnected with the elements of its predicament to see if any of them produced a solution.

Some were partial fits. It found a sense of <justice> among the memories of Ava Ríos, but that was heavily laced with a sense of hypocrisy, to a paralysing degree.

The human’s sense of <resolve> should have fit in the space quite well, but this one was badly corroded by doubt.

<Outrage>? Whence came outrage? And why should the input values which caused it to become activated not be activated by the Entity’s own behaviour?

Sapience in short was confusing, inconsistent, and messy.

Clearly, The Entity needed more information. Fortunately, it seemed to have an opportunity if not to talk to somebody then at least to observe.

One of the Abrogators was offline.


Date Point: 11y2m2w3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Sergeant First Class Harry Vandenberg

Enlisted men of the combat arms the world over had their own little ways of doing things and fixing problems, often unseen and unknown by their lordly (and sometimes worthy) leaders. Unlike the officer corps, there wasn’t a four year academy to teach and develop those skills professionally. For the lowly grunt that wisdom was passed down by a rich combination of oral tradition and “monkey-see, monkey-do”.

One of the most important lessons any career NCO ever learned was how to spot a bad officer. They were everywhere, lurking quietly, often hiding inside a competent, likable guy. A platoon sergeant absolutely needed to know if his boss was the type to get him or his men killed, and he needed to know that right fucking immediately.

Now was the time. Their new LT was arriving and it was the ripest moment for a good ol’ fashioned “gut check” of him and the rest of the Cherries. Rebar had no doubt they were all good men, and all had the right kind of combat experience. But were they good enough for his troops?

Only Rebar would be the judge of that.

Fortunately, hatching his plan presented an opportunity to teach the HEAT’s favorite young bull-puppy a thing or two about the way the world really worked.

As always, ‘Horse and Righteous had the gravity field turned all the way up and that always demanded caution for any man wanting to enter it. Rebar was one of the few who had ‘Horse’s blessing to just cross field boundaries at his own discretion: Most everybody else had to make sure he had an eye on them.

He plodded over to ‘Horse who was doing an absurd count of strict military presses with no more visible strain than any other man might show just by raising his arms.

“You almost done, ‘Horse?”

Arés grunted in acknowledgement and casually racked the creaking, overloaded barbell with a thunderous clang. It was his specially-built bar, with his heavy competition plates, in his high-gravity cage. He owned them purely by how little the epic weight seemed to challenge him; not even the other two Slabs of the Beef Trio were anywhere near as strong.

“I’m pretty much as pumped up as I’m gonna get, boss. What am I supposed to do again?” He switched to a quick set of rapid, deep-gravity accelerated calisthenics while he spoke.

“Be the big stinky friendly überalpha broseph you’re meant to be,” Rebar teased affectionately.

Warhorse grinned his best mischief grin. “I can do that!” He high-kicked with an unmatched speed that utterly belied his size, bounced around in the deep gravity as light as a feather, then shadow boxed so fast that Rebar couldn’t even see his fists moving. They just slammed into imaginary foes with an audible thud of displaced air.

“Good. What about you, Righteous? Ready?”

Firth grunted in reply and racked his not-much-lighter bar, then stalked over to his bag to towel off and change. “Yup. Lemme clean up a bit.”

“Good. The rest of us’ll get our gym time in. Right now, conveniently.”

The whole room to a man grinned at each other, and went to pick their favorite and showiest activity. Group mischief was always the best shenanigans, and this one was so subtle the officers would never, ever notice. Rebar couldn’t help but be a little pleased with himself.

Adam’s watch chirped and he pulled a face at it. “I gotta go right now if I’mma make it.” ‘He reached for his CamelBak and shrugged it on, then stretched quickly in prep for a run.

Rebar couldn’t help but feel skeptical. “…That’s miles away!”

“I can make it in time. Plus it’ll be fun!” And with that, ‘Horse bounced outside and charged away at a dead sprint, intent on getting there first. The big man was practically a blur.

“Oh no he don’t—!” Righteous quickly slipped on a tank top, and ran to the truck.

“Any bets on which one makes it there first?” Blaczynski asked.

Rebar grinned and shook his head. “Nah.”

He picked his activity and joined in the fun.


Date Point: 11y2m2w3d AV
Jump Array, Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth.

Lieutenant Anthony Costello

Customs was a bitch.

By the time they’d finally arrived at SCERF, had their bags inspected in excruciating detail, their heads scanned (how were they gonna get biodroned on a C-17?) and of course he’d had to share one tiny and loud aircraft toilet with three other very large guys while still, uh, “enjoying” the intestinal after-effects of their new Frontline anti-disease implants…

Rarely had Costello felt so motivated to linguistic eloquence. Fortunately, he had Butler to puncture his bad mood a little.

“Say that again, sir? I’m not sure you’ve driven the point home.” The enthusiastic meat-barrel of an irishman made his point as inartfully as ever, though it was hard to be mad at a man with such a happy, boyish grin. Or so many freckles.

“Only ‘cause you weren’t fuckin’ listening, bruv,” Newman chimed in with a wide grin. He and Butler had the kind of fond rivalry that only Brits and the Irish seemed to share, and the sound of Newman’s coarse London concrete versus Butler’s Galway lilt as they flung brotherly abuse at each other was familiar background music by now.

Parata, somehow, was asleep while standing against a pole. SEALs were weird like that. He cracked an eye open and swayed nonchalantly to the vertical as they were called through into the jump array itself, as if he hadn’t just been dozing against the architecture.

“How do you do that?” Costello asked him, out of a sense of mild awe.

“Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. That’s it, nothing else.”

“Robert Heinlein.”

“Yup.” Parata shot the pole a longing glance as if he was parting ways with a lover, then slung his bag over his shoulder and left it behind. A love that wasn’t meant to be.

Costello shook his head endearingly. “Goddamn you’ve been great troops. Let’s get this show on the road, eh?”

The actual transit was a strange sensation. There was a feeling like some great energy building, a release and a sudden noise—and instantly the air was thinner, the light was different…they were on Cimbrean. The gravity was at least properly heavy so there was none of the disorientating feeling of a sudden shift like the Gravball court could produce, but they were still definitely not in Kansas any longer, as it were.

There was no welcoming committee, not at first. But about a minute after they’d collected their bags and headed towards the exit, they felt a rapid, heavy thudding through the ground which grew heavier as it approached. Costello looked towards its source and an absolute cartoon character of an overmuscled caveman came charging over with blinding speed, the happiest expression, and the most alarmingly enthusiastic energy Costello had ever seen. The Caveman thumped heavily to a stop in front of them, assumed a solidly-planted stance then grinned crazily. Costello boggled. The incredible specimen swung his giant arms and bounced happily in place, panting deeply from his flat-out run.

“Hi, I’m Staff Sergeant Warhorse!” A quick breather, “Welcome to Cimbrean!”

Costello was stunned silent. Warhorse stood big and proud in a state of “special operator grungy,” with his close-cropped hair well past due for a trim, a thick five o’clock shadow firmly set on his broad, heavy jaw, and a neanderthal dusting of heavy fuzz on his arms, shoulders, abs, chest, his huge calves…everywhere. He had the sweaty sheen and overpoweringly athletic musk of a man for whom exercising was much like breathing. He seemed as wide and deep as he was tall, an impression heightened by his lack of any clothing whatsoever except for a relatively tiny CamelBak and a giant pair of low-slung “silkies” that clung tightly to his upper thighs. He wasn’t even wearing shoes on his wide, sturdy-huge feet. The overall effect was of a wild, handsome man-beast too big, too happy, and too eager for anyone’s good.

“…Hello, Staff Sergeant. I’m lieutenant Costello, these are my men, posted for reassignment.”

“Hello sir.” Warhorse caught his breath very quickly. “I’ll be one of your training sergeants, starting tomorrow.” He had a voice to match it all too, like a contrabass puppy. And he seemed almost painfully friendly. He stood to out of respect—not being in uniform, he didn’t salute—and even the small act of standing straight was made all the more intimidating by how his quads were so massive, he needed to swing them around each other to bring his heels together. Warhorse was immense.

“…” Costello held out his hand to shake. “As you were, Warhorse.”

“Pleased to meet you!”

The ridiculous man beamed a brighter smile somehow and shook hands vigorously. Costello winced very slightly from Warhorse’s casually immense strength. That broad hand wrapped almost completely around Costello’s own like a vice and squeezed with nearly enough force to break something. He held his composure and returned the squeeze as hard as he could.

“You too,” Costello grunted. An unspoken ‘oh, God…’ flashed through his mind.

Warhorse didn’t seem to notice. “Right, well! We’ve got a truck over there,” he gestured towards a very large white pickup some considerable distance away, “Throw your luggage in there, your other stuff arrived yesterday and is already at the barracks. Hop in, Righteous’ll take ‘ya there and help unload.” A man not vastly far under Warhorse’s titanic size sat on top of the truck and nodded, which raised the question of how the hell he’d overheard them.

To Costello’s left, Irish muttered “Jaysus, where do they build these bastards?”

‘Horse seemed to share Righteous’ superhuman hearing, or maybe that was just a training sergeant thing. Either way, he overheard, instantly tightened his superhuman muscles while standing in place—that little gesture was intimidating as hell—then flashed a truly evil grin.

“I build ‘em right here! Takes a lotta pain and work, but you’re my next projects and you start tomorrow, so you’ll see for yourself. Make sure you get a good meal in, Righteous’ll give ‘ya the rundown. Anyway I gotta get my third PT in for the day, seeya!” With that, he turned tail and thumped off with so much speed and bouncing playful agility, the men could only gawp.

Newman reached out and cuffed Irish upside the head. “Keep a bloody lid on it, mate.”

Costello had a different thought on his mind. He turned toward Butler and gave him a wary look. Throughout their time at Huntsville, Butler had been boasting about the time he’d met Warhorse in a gym in London and had confidently predicted showing him up.

“…That is the man you swore you’re gonna ‘beat?’“ he asked.

“I swear he was feckin’ smaller last time I saw him!” Butler defended himself. “Sir.”

Firth rumbled across the parking lot with a voice that just carried across the distance without the aid of shouting. “He was an’ so was I. Get ‘yer shit, we got places t’go.”

They dragged their bags and trunks over to the truck while Righteous watched them from behind a huge pair of silver aviators. He must be Air Force, thought Costello. Righteous waited until all the luggage was loaded into the cargo box, then jumped down from the roof and absolutely towered over the other men.

He got right to the point. “Name’s Master Sergeant Righteous. I’ll be one of ‘yer trainers ‘fer advanced combatives. You don’t wanna piss me off so let’s get this show on the fuckin’ road.”

Righteous didn’t seem nearly as jovial as the other man. While Warhorse had a certain happy cartoon quality to his presence, Righteous…radiated menace. The man wasn’t as ground-shakingly large as his companion but he stood unbelievably tall and deep and had shoulders just as broad. He moved with a quick and deadly precision that was instantly obvious and had the exact same personal intensity without any of the friendly undertones.

Quite an introduction. The car-ride back was subdued and quiet. And a bit cramped in the front, because Righteous’ shoulders were so wide he took up half the width of the cab and made no concessions to anyone else’s comfort. To his credit, though, he helped them with their baggage when they arrived at their new barracks. He stacked all four of their trunks and simply lifted them like they were empty, then guided them on a quick tour of the premise.

“Bottom floor is the gym. It’s got three sections, first part here is the weight room where you’ll be playing. We use it for light work, warm-up, whatever. Second part is the powerlifting station and that’s got grav plating. Goes to over three G, but don’t you be fuckin’ with that ‘till ‘Horse clears you. See the light?” He pointed with his chin, “Red means dead. Got it?”

Several of the existing operators were already there working out and all of them were studies in human potential made real. Costello decided he’d make introductions later. Respectfully.

“Yes, training sergeant.”

“Good. Third part is set up for combatives. We’ve got gloves, wrestling mats, pads, whatever y’might need. I highly encourage y’all to beat the shit outta each other as much as possible.”

Warhorse was in the high-gravity cage and had a pretty good sweat going, but at the moment he was doing yoga of all things. Quite how the giant managed that, Costello didn’t know, but seeing a man that large perform the splits was…

Righteous grinned a bit, “Scary, ain’t he? I’m a lot more flexible though.”

“Will we be learning that?”

“Yup. Thing about being big is you gotta stay limber, and ain’t nobody bigger than him. Anyway, like I was saying I expect y’all to make heavy use of this room. Great stress relief and you need the practice. Cage’s also got variable gravity, same safety rules. Let’s go upstairs.” He stalked towards the staircase for the second floor and took them four at a time, the stairs creaking alarmingly as he progressed.

“Second floor is the kitchen, laundry, offices, and workshops. When we get ‘ta know ‘ya we’ll prol’ly have a bunch of projects you can help on, but not fuckin’ yet. You stick to the kitchen and laundry, y’hear?”

“Yes, training sergeant.”

Righteous grunted in acknowledgement. “Okay. Third floor.” Another quick flight of stairs. “Here’s our rooms. We each get our own which is pretty fuckin’ sweet for a barracks. They ain’t big but the door locks. We also got a sauna and a really fuckin’ nice shower—well, it’s a group shower, sarry fellahs. But the hot water is instant and never runs out, the showerheads are the fuckin’ best and there’s benches if ‘ya need ‘ta sit. Ain’t nobody gonna mind if you take a long fuckin’ soak, just don’t be late for anything or I’ll use you for practice. Got it?”

There were wary glances, but as one they said, “Yes, training sergeant.”

“Heh, good. Anyway, latrine’s connected to the shower, keep it clean or else. Same goes with ‘yer rooms. This ain’t fuckin’ basic an’ we expect y’all t’act like adults, but I swear to fuckin’ God if your rooms start stinkin’ it’ll get that way awful fuckin’ quick.”

Costello nodded. “Perfectly reasonable, training sergeant.”

“Oh, and sir? Don’t get too comfortable. You’ll be in the barracks for the first phase but you’ll be moving out after that. Stainless and Templar are gonna oversee your training personally. I don’t know what the arrangements are, Stainless’ll hafta tell ‘ya. Got it?”

Costello nodded.

“Right. Last thing down at the end there is the dayroom. It’s got a sweet TV and a really fuckin’ big couch and some comfy beanbags. There’s also a chair but that ain’t for you so don’t ever sit in it. The stairs lead to what will eventually be the fourth floor but we ain’t got the plans approved for that just yet. Anyway. The bulletin board has the posted orders and the WiFi info and all the other little nitnoid bullshit ‘ya gotta know. Any questions?”

The cherries looked at each other. “What about food? Warhorse told us to eat.”

“Good, you can listen! If I were you I’d get at least four thousand calories in tonight. Get a fuckofalot more in if you can, but don’t fuckin’ get sick on me or we’ll make you regret it. ‘Horse has a recipe he’s already figgered out for ‘ya. It’s pretty fuckin’ tasty and it stays down well, just follow the goddamned directions. Any more questions?”

Costello addressed on behalf of the group. “No, training sergeant.”

Righteous lightened up a little and favored them with a little smile. “Okay. Good. Training starts at oh-four-hundred tomorrow, local time. First day’s gonna be rough, not gonna lie. Also? We’ll have some Gaoians a little later on. We’ll brief you as we go. And…” He paused for a second, and seemed to unwind a bit, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…y’all need to fuckin’ prove yourself tomorrow, ‘kay? Don’t fuck up. We’re countin’ on ‘ya.”

Costello squared himself with as much dignity as he could manage. “We won’t, sergeant.”

Righteous nodded. “Good. Get some sleep, try and relax. See ‘ya tomorrow.” And with that, he padded out of the barracks like a cat stalking prey.

As soon as he was gone, Parata eyed the group and spoke up.

“Well,” he said, “we’re fucked.”


Date Point: 11y2m2w3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Sergeant First Class Harry Vandenberg

“That was fun! Did you see their faces when Firth stomped in?”

He called the Lads into the dayroom for a quick mission hotwash while the Cherries were off in-processing. No time for a movie or a puppy pile, they still had training to do.

Titan, as always, found some new and creative monkey-position to use. He grinned while hanging backwards off the couch, “Bro, they looked like they’d been sentenced to death!”

Sikes smirked, “I liked how the Parata guy couldn’t stop looking at the weights.”

“Not surprising, they’re still babies on the Crude” ‘Base suggested. “Man, they ain’t even worn the Mass yet!”

“We did that for safety reasons,” intoned Rebar. And it was true, they wanted to handle the suit training directly. No reason for the Cherries to make the same mistakes. “I want ‘Horse and especially ‘Base to keep an eye on ‘em when we start that. Kovač, too.”

Titan nodded upside-down. “Yeah. Takes a while. They suit conditioned at all?”

“Only fam time.” ‘Base grumbled. “Gotta start ‘em out at the lightest weight and pressure.”

“Can’t we kick it up a bit? It took us a long time to come up to weight…”

‘Horse shook his head. “Bro, don’t you remember what it was like? And how hard would we push? My suit squeezes hard enough to straight kill ‘em. Messily, too.”

Rebar chimed in, “Oh look, ‘Horse with the humble-brag!”

‘Horse smiled his big, toothy grin. “It’s true though! And you wouldn’t last long either! Anyway, was I any good?” He gave a thoughtful look, “I did lay it on pretty thick, ‘specially with the thumping around part. And, uh, maybe the flexing, too.”

The Lads snickered, and Firth rumbled in an amused tone, “‘Ya did fine! I was worried y’were maybe a bit too cheesy ‘but LT couldn’t stop staring at ‘yer chest, so I guess it worked.”

‘Horse grumbled happily in response and bounced in place with floor-shaking happy force. Somehow, even growing to be about the heaviest dude the human race had ever produced hadn’t managed to drive that habit out of him.

Rebar snorted. “Well are we surprised? He does have a fantastic rack.”

That much was true; it was hard to say what stood out most on the man since he was heroically big everywhere, but his chest was prominent even in proportion to the rest of him.

The Lads all cheered loudly and ‘Horse retorted. “Pff, all talk and no action.” He bounced his chest to everyone’s rolling-eye humor, “When you ever gonna make a move? I’ve got needs!”

Rebar shot him his best playful grin, the one that had sent a lot of guys running away in search of a less challenging conquest. “Tempting, but I don’t fancy a perforated intestine, that ain’t my kink. But I’ll tell you what, if I ever feel like impaling myself on a softball bat and maybe being crushed to death for a bonus, you’ll be the first dude I hit up. Deal?”

The jeers grew louder as ‘Horse went red-faced and hurriedly changed the subject.

“Anyway,” he cleared his throat, “I gotta say, the LT seemed like he had his shit together. Righteous and I were pretty ridiculous and he kept his cool. Good situational awareness, too. He watched everyone and noticed Righteous before I thumped up and said hi.”

Most of the heads in the room nodded in agreement. Righteous wasn’t convinced. “Maybe. Seemed a little too scared t’me. And too deferential, he shouldn’t a’taken any shit from me. I mean, I get it considerin’ it all…I’mma hold off an’ see.”

Rebar considered that. Firth had a good sense of people even if he was a bit pessimistic, and only a fool discounted his opinion. “You on the fence, then?”

“I dunno.” Righteous shrugged massively. “It ain’t bad, he seems okay. I jus’ don’t think he knocked it outta the park. I wanna see ‘em really stressed before I’m good, y’know?”

Fair enough. “What about you, ‘Horse? You seemed to like him.”

Adam grinned hugely, “I like everybody though! Also, dude. He took one of my handshakes and barely winced!”

Snapfire whistled in the corner. “That…you’ve put me on my knees with your grip.”

Adam nodded admiringly, “Yup! LT’s a tough motherfucker!”

Rebar grinned, and so did Righteous. That all by itself was a good sign. Titan summed it up nicely, “Honestly? I think…I think they’ll be okay.”

Everyone nodded that time. They’d need to prove themselves, of course, but first impressions were very important. And as far as Rebar was concerned, anyone who could handle ‘Horse at his biggest and Righteous at his baddest…

They were fine by him.


Date Point: March 11y3m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: CSgt Robert Murray

Colour Sergeant Murray attended today for his annual assessment. He is a habitually quiet man but seemed objectively and subjectively euthymic. He describes his mood as “happy” and denies any difficulties.

I can see nothing to contradict his account, and so I will see him in a year’s time for his next annual assessment.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: March 11y3m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

Housing was cheap on Cimbrean, and on Adam and Gabe’s advice Ava had bought two apartments: one to live in, one as an investment.

She lived in the smaller one on Water Street. It was close to Charlotte and Ben’s place, easy for Gabe and Jess to get to, it wasn’t far from work and it had everything she wanted. One bedroom, a study, an open plan kitchen, dining room and living space and a cosy bathroom that was completely dominated by her huge bath with the shower in it.

The shelves around that bath were groaning with scented soaps, bubble bath, soaks, salts, bath bombs, scrubs, salves, shampoos, conditioners, shampoo-conditioners… if it was designed to get a girl clean, Ava had it. Their combined scent was an almost overpowering melange of flowers, citrus, chocolate, tea tree oil and so much more.

It was one of her calming rituals. When she was soaking in that bath among whatever random assortment of scents she’d decided to drop in it on that occasion, everything was okay.

That impression usually lasted for a while after she got out, too. There was just something about being clean, smelling nice and brushing her hair that helped her find her center.

Fluffy pajamas helped too. And hot chocolate. Little comforts that turned the world into a soft place for a while.

It was an email that put a smile on her face, though.

”Hi Ava, Brad here from Purple Paws,

I’m delighted to tell you that we’ve found a dog for you, I think you’ll love her. Her name is Hannah, she’s three years old and she’s a brown Border Collie, we think she’s a great match for your needs. She’s currently going through customs and immigration here on Earth, which is exciting: This is the first time we’ve ever matched one of our companions with somebody living on another planet!

If everything goes to plan, we should be coming through the jump array in two days, on Saturday at 1500 Folctha time.

Look forward to introducing the two of you then,

-Brad King.”

Ava immediately called Charlotte to share the good news, and of course Charlotte insisted on being there, as did Ben.

Which was how, two days later, the three of them found themselves waiting outside the civilian jump array terminal.

“So. A border collie?” Ben asked. “That your first choice?”

“They asked some questions about what kind of lifestyle I had and how much space I had at home and a whole bunch of other stuff,” Ava explained. “I didn’t choose the dog, they tried to… y’know, match me with one.”

“So it’s more like a dating service.”

Both Charlotte and Ava shot him a frown, and Ben cleared his throat. “…In a way.”

Charlotte was still giggling at his discomfort when there was the distinctive thump from the array chamber and everybody waiting in the arrivals lounge stood up and turned to face the new arrivals.

It was bedlam, and Ava found herself making a note to come back as soon as she could with her camera and recording gear and do an article on immigration. Folctha was always thirsty for new arrivals, and people were thirsty to arrive.

That combination meant that when the doors opened, a boil of men, women and children pulling luggage came twisting out of them and were welcomed either by friends and family who had come ahead, or by company reps, housing agents or just the friendly Array staff who led them and pointed them in the right directions.

But Ava only had eyes for one arrival.

Hannah wasn’t so much wagging her tail as wagging everything behind her ears as she twisted around the ankles of a handsome young man who could only be Brad. The pair were making progress in a kind of waltz, as he spun to try and keep the dog’s leash from completely tying him up, and the dog did her level best to explore absolutely everything she could see.

They got Brad’s attention and he managed to guide the writhing Collie in their direction, and even managed to secure a handshake. Ava didn’t even notice that his hand was a prosthetic until she was squeezing plastic.

“I think you’ll love Hannah,” he said after the introductions were complete, “And we’re glad to find somewhere for her, too. She’s… a handful.”

Ava had knelt and was getting thoroughly acquainted with her new best friend by giving her a massage behind the ears. Hannah had plopped her butt down and was enthusiastically polishing the tiles with her tail. “A handful?”

“She has a lot of energy. But, you said you have an active lifestyle, so…”

“Oh, she’ll love Cimbrean,” Ava promised. “Big parks, lots of good jogging and cycle paths, not many cars…”

“That’s great!” Brad smiled warmly. “Anyway. why don’t we head back to your home and I’ll go through what she can do for you and how to keep her at her best, okay?”

“Sure!”

Hannah spent the whole walk back right next to Ava’s heels looking up. Ava had done her reading and knew she was dealing with a smart breed, and Hannah just seemed to know that she had a new super bestest best friend, and she was more than okay with that.

And so was Ava.


Date Point: March 11y3m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Major Owen Powell

“Is this going to be worth our time, Major?”

Admiral Knight stood with Powell on the observation deck above their “parade” field. HMS Sharman being cramped like it was, the deck jutted out from the fourth floor of their headquarters, the large parade field (filled with a meter of fine white sand on top of drainage gravel and tile below that) ran right up to the building’s foundation, and across the other side, the rear of all three barracks abutted the field’s three opposite sides. As the field was rectangular, this left two decent gaps between the C-shaped headquarters and the technician’s barracks through which a crowd could pass, or an insufficiently Motivated operator could push the “rake”—actually a repurposed farm implement, meant for a small tractor—for some contemplative and highly Motivational field maintenance.

All that added up to make the Pit, as it was more commonly known, feel like a prison yard.

But none of that was Powell’s focus. He was watching the Whitecrest officers and the cherries suffer through the loving attentions of Warhorse and Baseball, while Rebar and Titan prepared for the classwork to begin a couple weeks forward. Snapfire was already hard at work planning for the field exercises, Righteous, Starfall and Highland were plotting on the combat scenarios… The Lads were certainly keeping busy in anticipation of Whitecrest’s success. It was hard not to. But if Powell was honest with himself, he was a bit conflicted.

On the one hand, the Whitecrest were game and there was no denying that. They took their suffering with a stoic reserve and a quiet dignity that anyone with half a brain would find impressive. Nor were they pushovers. Small though they may be, they had hard and fit bodies under that long, silky fur, and a good, practiced eye could see that, plain as day.

Was it enough, though? There was universal agreement amongst the Lads that the Whitecrest would need to gain some serious strength to play along. They didn’t need to be human-like but they did need to keep up when the Lads were on the bounce. Regaari only weighed a hundred-twenty or so when they inprocessed everyone. His was a lanky strength, and they knew he was tough from Capitol Station…but could he move when burdened with equipment, even with Whitecrest’s vastly more advanced technology?

So far, judging by the early reports…Powell was cautiously optimistic.

“Aye Sir, If they can get strong enough. They’re motivated, and they’re handling the stress…”

“You have your doubts.”

“Concerns, aye. Even Thurrsto’s a mite small. We’re not tryin’ to make ‘em into another Warhorse but I’d like better conditioning, at least. They have a long way to go.”

“Sergeant Arés thinks it’s possible.”

“As does Sergeant Burgess, and that’s what keeps me hopeful. It’ll be hard, though.”

Powell considered them for a bit. They really were small. They lightly pranced atop the fine sand and were hardly bothered by it at all, even under Earth gravity. Burgess and Arés, on the other hand, were so heavy that even on their Crude-adapted and enormously wide feet, they sank halfway up their shins with every step.

Not that they or any of the Lads seemed to notice anymore. All were by then so physically well-conditioned they moved through the sand like it wasn’t there. A brute force solution to a brute-force problem, and one the sand was designed to encourage in the first place, given the needs of suit conditioning; the Lads needed to be strong and so strong they would be. Every single aspect of their daily lives was designed around that. Their corner of the base was laid out to accommodate their herculean training needs first and foremost and the giant sand pit was a prime example. It was virtually the only open space the Lads had on base to do anything physical, and that meant things like a simple game of rugby became so arduous, even the very fit technicians couldn’t manage more than a few minutes play on the field.

As a result they and the other staff avoided the “parade” field out of habit. Most humans sunk into the sand immediately. The Lads and the cherries had to expend enormous energy just to move through it. But the Whitecrest were light and nimble and could avoid the problem in the first place. That was, after all, the point of the entire program. Whitecrest weren’t humans, and that had value.

Admiral Knight considered for a moment. “Keep me informed, Powell. I need to know the moment this goes wrong so I can manage it.”

Powell chuffed, “It won’t go wrong, Sir. We’ll make it work.”

“See to it.” Knight nodded politely, then left.

Powell continued to watch as Warhorse encouraged the cherries to perform and Baseball did likewise to the Whitecrest. Neither group seemed ready to give in, and that was encouraging. The first phase was all about conditioning and “un-learning” bad habits and notions, and both of his men were absolute experts at that kind of training. And with the similar psychology between human and Gaoian, and the obvious quality they could recruit?

Powell suddenly felt much more optimistic.


Date Point: March 11y3m3w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

The Singer was pregnant.

Vemik hadn’t been surprised at the announcement: She had completely neglected her duties for nearly three days after he and his father had returned from claiming the heart of one of the destroying beasts, and they had been three very pleasant days indeed. Exhausting, too.

Naturally, they were both delighted. Nervous, but delighted. The rest of the tribe however seemed even happier still: The child of the Singer and the Sky-Thinker? And a winter child no less? Conceived after hunting the greatest beast anybody had ever even heard of?

Vemik almost felt sorry for his unborn son or daughter. The burden of the whole tribe’s hopes and faith rested on tiny shoulders that hadn’t yet even emerged into the frigid air.

As winters went, however, the high forest was a great improvement on the lowlands where the old village had stood. Up here the very ground was warm. It was imperceptible outside of the huts, but inside was a different matter. Even now, in the darkest heart of the winter moons, the floor of Vemik’s hut was warm enough to sleep on even without a werne fur. With the pelt and a blanket…and with a warm body held close against his own…

It was all too difficult to get up and get to work. Warm floor or not, the air still bit.

The Singer’s wasn’t the only new pregnancy. Vemet had returned from that same hunt with just as much prestige, and Vemik was looking forward to a new half-brother or sister…

Yan had it that a village was never truly established until the second child to be conceived there was born.

As for the hunt itself… well, the mountain seemed pleased with the offering they had brought, but it was plainly an evil thing. It was as hard as rock, the dried fluids that encrusted its tubes stank, the birds wouldn’t go anywhere near it and it sat on the altar looking grim and untouchable.

But that was how the monster had been. When Vemik and his father had stumbled into its path during their hunt they had stood frozen, convinced that they were about to suffer instant burning death…

Only for it to stand still and ignore them, even when they fled into the trees.

They had watched it for two hands of days before finally deciding that it wasn’t moving.

They had needed another eight days to finally dare to let it see them again, after marking themselves as warriors did before a deadly fight.

They had needed another four days to dare to touch it.

Clambering all over its armored hide had finally persuaded them that it was… if not dead then at least dormant somehow. Maybe hibernating? Either way, it was vulnerable.

Vemet had broken six stone axes trying to get past the scales on its back, and had sliced his hand quite badly on the sixth attempt. He’d spent most of that time grumping at Vemik about not joining in.

Vemik, however, had been doing what he did best—he had thought. Not about the sky, this time, but about the object in front of him.

The thing looked like a creature. His evaluation from its tracks that it had much in common with a Skithral had been not far off the mark… but closer inspection melted away that impression.

Creatures were not made of rock, or… whatever the substance of the destroyer’s hide was. And yes, Werne had sharp blades on their faces, but those blades were of horn. These were blades of stone, and blades of stone were made by people.

He had suspected he was dealing with the tools of some foe ever since he had recovered the wreckage of the death-birds from the destroyed village. He had known it when he crept under the destroyer’s body and found markings there.

The Singer used markings. He had seen the way she would scratch the black dust off a burned stick onto the side of her pots, or the way she would prepare her dancing space by scratching little designs in the ground. They helped her remember what was in the pot, or what step came next in her dance, what note came next in her song. Those markings told her things, like private words that only she understood.

He found markings on the underside of the destroyer, too. Complex, dense ones that were utterly impenetrable to him, but still… they meant something, to somebody. Such a thing would never appear on the body of a beast.

So while his father had clanged and cursed and battered uselessly away at the destroyer’s armored back, Vemik had found where the markings were densest, and had poked, prodded and pulled on the things he found there.

First an armor plate had fallen away once he realized that the things at its corners held it in place.

Then a piece of hardened skin had slid aside.

The third step had been the most tricky. The thing he found looked like a man was meant to grip it, but the space around it was too narrow for fingers. He had spent some time threading werne-gut cord through the spaces instead to create something he could grip.

And then he had pulled, and things had slid until they stopped. Then he had twisted, and things had twisted until they stopped. Finally, he had needed to push until his handhold was flush with the surface again… and the monster’s chest had split open downwards and sideways, exposing its innards. Now Vemik knew beyond doubt that he was dealing with a tool of some sort—the idea that a beast might just spill its guts if you pressed and poked it in the right place was… insane.

But on inspecting the interior he had grown less certain again.

Everything looked strangely organic. There were coils and tubes and fluids just as one might find in the chest of a dead Werne. Something was pulsing, or at least some of the thicker arteries—strange and transparent and dark blue—were twitching is if the thing had a pulse.

But… a pulse was a heart, and a heart was life. Remove the heart, remove the life. Whether or not the thing was a tool or beast, whether it was asleep, dormant or merely unattended was irrelevant. Remove the heart…

He had traced the pulsing tubes back to their source, then used the death-bird wing that he still kept in place of a knife and hacked deep into the thing’s innards until he was covered in its dark, oily, foul-smelling blood and until finally something gave and a box the size of his torso fell out of it into the leaf-litter. With Vemet’s help he had severed it from the last of its tubes and they had dragged it away from the spreading blueish puddle of foulness that was steadily leaking out of the destroyer.

It had sagged, sank, then collapsed to the ground as they were still trying to figure out how to return their prize to the village.

After that, getting the heart back up the mountain had come down to muscle power and time.

After all that he’d been almost as exhausted as on the day of his ritual of manhood. Having the energy to father a child had come as a pleasant surprise. He’d spent three days in bed.

He would have liked to use that excuse now.

“Get up, sleepy-tail.”

Vemik grunted and tried to snuggle into the furs some more. The Singer trilled softly and tickled him exactly where he was most vulnerable to it, and he was upright with a yelp before his brain had even caught up. Her hands were freezing.

“…You are evil,” he accused as he rubbed his arms and threw on his winter cloak.

“Women have been waking their sleeping men since the gods were young,” she replied, and shot him a mischievous but fond look even though she was obviously feeling the cold. “We know all the tricks.”

Vemik rolled his eyes then put a hand on the side of her face and they touched their foreheads affectionately together. “And men have been teaching women to relax now and then for even longer,” he retorted. “You’re carrying a child, remember? You should rest in the warm.”

She shrugged him off. “I’m not frail, Sky-thinker,” she grumbled. “I have things to do!”

“Not before you eat properly,” he asserted. “I want you warm and full of hot food before you do anything.”

“Gods! Fine! Fine…” she cursed slightly and burrowed back in under the furs again. She returned Vemik’s loving smile with an expression that was equal parts irritation and gratitude and snuggled down, blowing on her hands as he let himself out to get food for both of them.

The village was cooking communally, as was always necessary in the winter. For the rest of the year food was plentiful enough that people could look after themselves, but after the first frost fell, everybody gave their food to the whole tribe, to be handed out fairly by the old women.

It meant that winter meals were generally the same thing every day, but they were warm and filling. They were doing surprisingly well considering that they had relocated at the wrong end of the year.

Yan, however, was definitely losing some fat. He was still huge and strong, but his waist was looking narrower than usual. He was standing in line for his share of the food, hopping from one foot to the other to stay warm.

“You’re up late,” he grunted as Vemik joined him. “You know she can only carry one baby at a time, don’t you?”

“There were falling stars last night,” Vemik explained. “Lots of them!”

Yan just harrumphed and pulled his fur cloak tighter. He’d always hated the winter, and he scowled at the small cloud his breath made as if it had personally offended him. “Unless any of them land near here and make things warmer…” he muttered.

Vemik sighed. He doubted he’d ever fathom why Yan was so disinterested in the sheer wonder of things. How could motes of light falling from the sky fail to pique his curiosity?

“Don’t you ever wonder about anything, Yan?”

“About the sky? We have enough trouble down here.”

“But… Yan, what if our troubles came from the sky?”

Yan scoffed. “Listen to me, sky-thinker,” he said tersely. “Whatever the sky is and whatever lives there, I promise you that it’s not interested in us.”


BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Uncharted System, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

“Now that’s interesting…”

Xiù and Allison paused in their Gung Fu practice. ”What?”

Julian sat back. “I just finished comparing the BEST data to that star chart you found,” he said. “It looks like there might still be a whole twelve temperate worlds in this neck of the woods.”

“Twelve?” Allison asked. The girls joined him to look over his shoulder at his tablet.

“That’s still way more than we can do in one mission…” Xiù said.

“That’s good though, right?” Julian asked. He started to program another search on the data they’d recovered from the Dominion archives, trying to pin down planetary classes. “We’ll get back with a fuckin’ treasure trove.”

The girls didn’t reply to that, but after a second Xiù touched his shoulder.

“You should have gone to bed an hour ago,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, I just wanted to do this first,” he replied.

“Can’t it wait? You’ll have all week to work on this.”

Julian shook his head. “I wanna get it done.”

“Julian.” Allison flicked his ear, which managed to properly break his concentration. “Go the fuck to sleep, dummy.”

He turned around and realized they were both wearing the same impatient expression, right down to the same folded arms. And he was feeling tired…

“…Yes ma’am.”

Allison snorted and Xiù gave him a “good boy”, and he put his work aside for the night, climbed wearily into his bunk and fell asleep quicker than he’d expected.

And then he was woken up.

The hab was dark, usually a sign that its only occupant was the sleeping one, but he heard a soft feminine grunt of exertion next to his head as one of the girls climbed into his bunk with him.

“…Xiù?”

“Sorry.” she slid into place next to him and cuddled up tight.

He put his arms around her. “Are you okay?”

She kissed him and ran her hand up his torso, under his shirt.

“….Mm… right…”

She wriggled out of her pants, helped him wriggle out of his, guided his hands onto her breasts…

Sex with Xiù was a very different thing to sex with Allison. Allison tended to be vigorous and outspoken, and she usually led the charge. She liked to talk dirty, use her nails, leave hickeys.

He was always gentler with Xiù. Slower. Usually that seemed to be the right call.

This time, she made a frustrated noise. “Harder.”

He did as he was told and picked up the pace a little. This did not seem to satisfy.

“Rrrr… Wǒ nǎ cóng bōlí zuò de harder!

“…Are you sure?”

She sighed, stopped, and then pushed him off her and lay there sorting out her hair while Julian tried to figure out just what the hell was going on in her head.

Eventually she got her hair in order and glared at the ceiling for a second then rolled over to challenge him. “You’re too… nice with me!” she explained.

“I thought you like nice!”

“I um… Yes? But there’s nice and there’s nice, and I…” she pressed her palms to her temples. “…Aargh, words!”

“This is that whole ’yes sir’ thing again, isn’t it,” Julian guessed.

“No, that’s…” she sighed, and hauled herself out of the bunk. “I don’t even know what I want.”

Bǎobèi…”

She sighed again, turned and gave him a forgiving kiss. “Let me… think,” she said.

“I…Okay. Uh, I’m… gonna take a shower.” Julian cleared his throat and climbed out of the bunk too.

He made it a cold one and scrubbed his face hard as he thought.

The idea he was wrestling with in his head was crystal clear. He knew exactly what Xiù thought she wanted, and the problem was that he was entirely certain that she didn’t really know what she was asking.

Well, no. The problem was that he didn’t know how to tell her she didn’t really know what she was asking.

Well… no. The problem was that he was almost certain that she didn’t really know what she was asking, that he didn’t know how to tell her, and he was shit-scared that she’d be afraid of him afterwards.

Was that right? It seemed right.

He had a clear vision of the scar on Xiù’s throat and turned down the shower another degree.

That was a thought that scared him more than any other.


Date Point: April 11y4m1w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Miss Ava Magdalena Ríos

This young lady attended today in the company of her new therapy dog, Hannah. She has a history of PTSD following several personal tragedies and her involvement in Operation EMPTY BELL. She has special access to DEEP RELIC and incidental knowledge of SACRED STRANGER.

Today she is considerably improved. She states that although she still suffers from flashbacks and suicidal ideations, she already feels that Hannah’s support is helping her to manage them. She states that her symptoms are at their worst on “down days” and that she has had good days where she has noticed after the fact that she was exposed to one of her triggers without responding.

Her sleep has become somewhat more restless again, but she reports that her dreams are now merely “vivid and strange” rather than being nightmares and that Hannah’s presence is helping immensely. She declined sleep medication as she feels that her paroxetine is working well and she feels confident that with Hannah’s help she is on the road to recovery.

We agreed to continue unchanged for now, and I will see her again in two months or on a crisis basis.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: April 11y4m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Kirk

The ‘Tolkien geeks’ faction had finally won the quiet but strangely passionate war to name the system. Kirk could see why—He’d read ’The Hobbit’ after the decision was made, and been quite taken with the description of the dwarven city under the Lonely Mountain. Naming the system for a fictional isolated bastion of unlimited wealth was genuinely apt.

Instead of endless rivers of gold, however, this Erebor was producing a steady progression of increasingly sophisticated automated colonization probes.

CIC-33 go for main engine start.”

The facility’s staff had expanded, too. NASA and ESA had been invited to send experts as the increasingly complex project hit ever stranger obstacles

Lewis, to his delight, had been quietly allowed to sidle away to the edge of the project where he now served as its conscience, ideas engine and general source of raw creative energy. It was a role that suited him perfectly—the maximum of involvement coupled with the minimum of actual responsibility. He was an advisor to the future of the human race.

“I got a good feeling about this one,” he confided, as the latest version of the Colony-In-A-Can boosted out of Mrwrki’s launch facility.

Kirk looked down at him. “Based on what?”

“Lotta things came together this last week, dude. Might be we just launched the first ever gen-yoo-ine Von Neumann probe.”

Kirk studied the command center’s enormous forward screen with interest as CIC-33 arced gently out onto a course that carried it toward the system’s asteroid belt. “I admit, I thought it would take longer.”

“Well, I mean… it ain’t quite as simple as getting the dang thing to just nom an asteroid and then spit out copy of itself. It’s gotta survey, gather, refine, smelt… hell, we had to teach the fuckin’ thing how to enrich Uranium.” Lewis shook his head. “Man, when I started this? I was just thinking it’d like AARGHM NAM NAM a big-ass rock, poop out a baby probe and there we go.”

“Reality is more… detailed, I take it.”

“Shit yeah. The process is, like, it builds the tools that build the tools that build the tools. Lotta ways for that to go wrong… but I think we maybe got it now.”

The ensuing weeks proved him right. Every time Kirk checked in with the control room, the CIC probe had flitted to some other spot in the asteroid belt to hunt down the next item in its shopping list of required materials, and was spinning them into a surprisingly fragile gossamer web in space that enfolded a volume of several hundred cubic meters. The structure was little more than a lattice for holding machinery in place and allowing power to flow between the new devices that the probe added on to it.

But it worked. It provided power and cooling, kept them from drifting apart and made short work of processing the raw materials that an increasingly large army of mining drones brought in. As the structure grew, the CIC probe spent less time roaming afield and more time parked in the middle of its “nest”, being fed refined metals and excreting the components for its child.

And the whole process was unfolding without a single human command. No hand on the joystick, no code updates on the fly. The whole point was to see that it could do all of this on its own.

The day that CIC-33a booted up and shook hands with its parent was a party for the whole station.

Two weeks later, CIC-33b and CIC-33aa came online more or less simultaneously, and Lt. Col. Nadeau celebrated their success by ordering the four probes to self-destruct.

The nuclear explosions that reduced them to atoms may as well have been fireworks.

But now the truly difficult work began: It was time for the probes to build terrestrial colonies.


Date Point: April 11y4m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Martina Kovač

“You… what, not at all?”

“Nope.”

“Not one?”

“Nuh-uh.”

This earned ‘Horse a faintly disbelieving stare. Since being introduced to the possibilities of picking up girls in a bar he’d rapidly gone full man-slut. This was… known. Marty was even okay with it. Hell, it was probably a good thing for him! The poor big lump was so hormonally stimulated that she could have written several papers on his bloodworks alone.

Thus his confession that he had somehow gone a month between girls was weirdly shocking. As was his… he’d actually turned down some new chick last night who’d been coming on to him so hard she may as well have had runway lights and a man with a couple of marshalling wands between her knees.

“You really went a whole month?”

“Come on, when did I have time?” Adam asked. “Between the Cherries, the Gaoians and my fuckin’ degree…”

Marty nodded understanding. Today was a Lads barbecue, the first they’d been able to throw since February. The whole SOR had been buzzing like a hive for weeks and even though things had stabilized they were still hectic.

An honest-to-God relaxed day was a welcome and almost forgotten pleasure, but the thought of ’Horse passing on a chance to get laid was just… bizarro world.

She glanced over at the barbecue, where Vandenberg was teaching Parata and Thurrsto the correct way to light charcoal, having learned that Parata’s preferred method involved a lot of lighter fluid and no small amount of personal danger.

The “Cherries” had arrived big, and were getting bigger fast. Barney had gone from “beefy” to “ripped”, Irish’s barrel chest was becoming more and more pronounced, and Parata, while doomed to at best be only as huge as Murray, couldn’t stop glancing into whatever reflective surfaces happened to be nearby. The three of them plus Lieutenant Costello had collectively put on more than a Martina Kovač worth of mass just since arriving.

Firth had even been heard to admit that they were “doing okay”, well out of their earshot.

“Okay, but you had your chance last night…” she said to Adam.

“…Di’n’t feel right…”

That earned him a frown. “Why not?”

He cleared his throat.“…Just didn’t.”

“Well, why the fuck not?”

‘Horse didn’t get the chance to reply. He was still making incoherent grumbly noises and avoiding her gaze when an SUV pulled up outside the Dog House gym in a cloud of honking, yelling and the clattering of car doors.

A hundred and fifty pounds of irate woman stormed right through the middle of the SOR’s barbecue with some truly hypnotic bounce in her skirt, shirt and earrings, advancing on Adam with a furious expression as though he’d stepped on her dog.

“Uh…” Adam had a brief, involuntary and entirely ludicrous moment of looking like he wanted to run for the hills, but it passed. “Hi. Katie. Hi.”

At least he was getting better at remembering names.

“Oh so, what, you just thought you’d throw a party without me, is that it?”

There were Rules among the Lads (and Martina was an honorary Lad) for dealing with these situations. Give it a minute or two (or five. Or ten.) so the unfortunate man in question could squirm, then bail him out. She went and got a couple of fresh beers from the crate full of ice, shot Baseball an ’I’ve got this’ grin, and returned once she judged Adam had been appropriately hung out to dry for just long enough.

“Here ya go,” she said, and handed him his drink.

’Katie’ rounded on her like the wrath of a spiteful goddess. “And who is this bitch?!”

Wow.

Adam… no, not Adam, Warhorse seemed to gain several inches and about a hundred pounds as he straightened out of his habitual approachable stoop. He took one step forward to crowd Katie’s personal space, and Katie took three backwards to try and escape.

“You do not,” he growled, “talk to Technical Sergeant Kovač that way.”

There should have been a roll of thunder and the sky should have darkened or something. To judge from Katie’s reaction, it may as well have. Every ounce of her bluster and self-important anger evaporated in an instant and she turned to Martina to immediately try and stammer an apology.

“Hey, uh, sorry, I was just uh…”

“No.” Adam took another step forward, getting into her personal space again. “Go away. Now.

Okay. So he was fucking terrifying when he was legitimately angry.

Katie squeaked and fled, and Adam aimed a laser death glare at her until her car was gone. As soon as it was he glanced at Marty and then hesitated when he saw her expression. He stopped moving entirely for a second, then spun away and stormed toward the back door of his apartment building.

Marty kicked herself, relaxed her white-knuckle grip on her beer bottle and willed her pulse down. Even standing nearby, the second-hand fallout of witnessing what Katie had found directed at her had been intense, but still…

That anger had been for her. On her behalf. She hadn’t meant to look so shocked, but the flash of pain she’d seen in his eyes before he got the hell away from her had been…

She had a non-verbal eye contact conversation that lasted for less than a second with both Burgess and Firth, then followed Adam into the building. Rather than heading upstairs to his top-floor pad, she headed downstairs instead, into the “special” part of the gym, the one just for Adam and his closest.

She stopped behind the red lights that marked the end of the safe zone. Just in the few seconds since he’d come in here, Adam had cranked the gravity all the way up, thrown his shirt and sandals off, and was giving his specially-built punching bag an absolutely crushing working-over. He bounced around like a welterweight boxer and punched and kicked it so fast, so hard, and with such intense focus he didn’t notice her waiting on the sideline.

She let him get it out of his system. It took a worryingly long time.

It was an education. This wasn’t some stupid macho peacock posturing, this was genuinely a serious rage like she’d not actually witnessed before. She knew of the kinds of headspace that the Lads could get into, but to actually see it, to watch him methodically beat a fury she could scarcely understand into the wildly-swinging bag…that was something else entirely.

It gave her an immediate appreciation of just what they’d been hiding from her, what Adam had been hiding from her and why. Especially when the violence finally ended with him leaning heavily on the now blood-stained bag, giving it one last half-hearted body-blow and muttering “Pinche idiota!” to himself.

He stopped short when he finally turned away from the bag and saw her watching. Suddenly self-conscious, he thumped over to the gravity controls, deactivated the field, and stood awkwardly still except for the heaving of his chest and for his hand nervously scratching the back of his head.

“…Sorry.”

How was it possible for a man who’d just delivered such demolishing force to something, who was standing there all dripping sweat and bulging muscles and toughened, bloody knuckles and shins to look so vulnerable? It was…heartbreaking.

“…Ah, hell,” she said, strode over to him, and kissed him.

He stood confused for a moment, equal parts shocked and surprised. But only for a moment. Two huge arms, each bigger around than her bust line, folded around her and gently crushed her body into his. He returned the kiss not just fiercely, but with a profound sense of relief.

It drove all the important conversation right out of her head. That could all happen later.

Much later.


Date Point: April 11y4m2w AV
Commune of Females, Wi Kao City, Gao

Mother-Supreme Yulna

“And Regaari is leading them?”

Ayma duck-nodded. She was one of the few true friends Yulna had left since her somewhat involuntary ascension, and all the more precious because the essential nature of their relationship hadn’t changed. They were peers, Sisters and, in private, equals. Yulna took every chance she got to have a quiet talk with her old friend. Those talks kept her ’grounded’, as a human would have said.

Besides. The Wi Kao commune was home, and always would be. The official residence of the Mother-Supreme was grand and entirely fit for purpose, of course… but Yulna was a Mother. She needed to be surrounded by cubs and Sisters and Mothers. Their absence felt utterly wrong.

Ayma had once said that she appreciated and admired Yulna’s uncompromising candor. She seemed to view it as her duty to provide that service in reverse now that Yulna was arguably the most powerful Gaoian alive.

“Oh yes. Sister Myun thinks they have all slimmed down and gained some muscle already. Though, she did share something strange.”

Yulna sighed, though there was a chitter hidden in it. “Ayma, something strange describes this whole notion of Clan Whitecrest sending some of its best Brothers to train with the humans.”

“And the humans seem to have persuaded them to run on four-paw.” Ayma’s ears moved at strange angles, an odd melange of delight, confusion, derision and intrigue. “Can you imagine?”

“A Whitecrest running four-pawed? Surely not.”

“The Sisters at the Folctha commune were quite scandalized by it.” Ayma snorted. “Myun thinks they’re being silly.”

“Well, she would…” Yulna muttered darkly.

“What makes you say that?” Ayma asked. Of course, she and Yulna had met on the colony transport after Myun was already a few years old, and Yulna had never shared the details.

“Well, you must have noticed how, ah, big she is nowadays?” Yulna asked.

“She’s like a female version of that throwback Daar,” Ayma duck-nodded.

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Oh? Oh! Oh, that explains everything!

“It does, doesn’t it?”

“…Wait. how do you know who her sire-?” Ayma stopped and her ears pricked up. “No! You?! And Daar?”

“It was a moment of weakness!” Yulna defended herself. “He can be… strangely charming.”

“Well yes, he can, but…” Ayma shook herself. “No, never mind. I did too. I just didn’t think you would… never mind.”

“Well, if the humans can persuade Whitecrests to run four-pawed, we’d better keep them far away from the Longears!” Yulna joked.

Ayma made a hesitant noise. “I know Regaari. Anybody who persuaded him to drop his dignity like that will have given him excellent reasons. He didn’t even run four-pawed when he detected that trap on the station where we lost poor Triymin.”

As ever, she wilted slightly when she mentioned that name, and as ever Yulna suppressed a raising of her hackles. The way the Dominion had neglected that poor little Sister had induced even Mother Giymuy to leave angry claw-marks in the furniture, and Giymuy had otherwise been the very picture of composure.

“Why would he have…?” Yulna asked.

“Well… running that way is faster,” Ayma conceded. “And easier. But they are so used to not doing it.”

“So the humans don’t care about being civilized, they only care about performance?”

“They care deeply about civilization. Just… not when lives are at stake. But sometimes even then.” Ayma wobbled her head in a Gaoian shrug.

“That sounds complicated.”

“Humans are complicated people. You remember how Sister Shoo was, and I’ve come to learn that she is…” Ayma paused and picked her words with care. “…reasonably straightforward, by human standards.”

“How is she? I keep meaning to send her a message but I never know what to say.”

“She’s quite famous on Earth now, apparently. I don’t think I understand the idea of being romantically committed to two people at once, especially when one of them is another female, but… well, she wouldn’t be Sister Shoo if she wasn’t a little strange. She seems happy, though.”

“That’s good. She had enough sadness for a lifetime while she was with us.”

They snacked on some dry-roasted Nava larvae for a while and thought.

“…What do you suppose will come of this Whitecrest training?” Ayma asked eventually.

“Personally, I approve,” Yulna admitted. She could be unguarded around Ayma. “Any opportunity that strengthens Gao is to be seized, I think. Learning from the deathworlders, even an alliance with them? I think that can only benefit us.”

“So long as that alliance strengthens us more than it weakens our position with the Dominion.”

Yulna gave her a keen look. “It’s not like you to care for the Dominion.”

Ayma flicked an ear, irritably. “I don’t. The Dominion made us a thousand promises it never intended to keep, if it was ever able to keep them at all,” she said. “And three times now, the humans have done what they couldn’t. The Dominion’s fleetmasters even reached out to Earth to help them in the most recent Alliance skirmishes.”

“Yes.”

“So the official policy of the Clan of Females on cross-species training with the humans is…?”

“Officially, we don’t have one,” Yulna said, flatly. “Unofficially…”

Ayma chittered. “Unofficially, it will be fashionable to speak admiringly of Whitecrests and to talk about how strong and healthy the cubs they sire tend to be.”

“Do you think you can encourage such a fashion?” Yulna asked.

Ayma chittered again, set down her drink and sat forward.

“Mother-supreme, I can even be sincere,” she said.


Date Point: April 11y4m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Martina Kovač

The comparative cool woke Martina up, eventually. There was no longer a huge, hot and heavy body next to her, which had been so comforting the night before, and now it was gone.

She blinked and sat up, checked the time. Too early for him to have gone for his morning PT. So where-?

Her brain finally decided to check in with her nose, and her mouth began to water instantly. That was definitely the smell of breakfast, and God was it welcome. They’d kinda… skipped the barbecue yesterday.

The sinful and completely inappropriate thought crossed her mind that she’d eaten plenty of meat anyway last night, and she burst out laughing.

Adam’s face appeared in the doorway, covered in a happy but confused smile. “Y’a’ight?”

She flapped a hand at him and got her giggling under control. “Ahhh… just,” she cleared her throat and massaged her smile down a bit. “…just happy.”

He beamed. “Wait there,” he said, and vanished.

Martina fluffed up the pillows behind her and sat back to try and review things in a slightly more sober light.

Okay. So. Amazing sex aside, where did their relationship stand? Had last night been pure intensity and hormones and general stress-relief, or were they both ready for something serious? That was question one. She suspected, or hoped, the latter but that was going to depend on Adam as well.

Question two was, if they were going to get serious then what were the rules? They were going to need rules. The Lads, and especially Adam, lived on rules, or else their limitless energies would swiftly ruin everything they did. Without clear boundaries, their personalities quickly became overwhelming.

Last night had proved that, too. Overwhelming indeed…

She realised that she was chewing on a fingernail and got her train of thought back on track.

So.. what were the rules? And could there be too many? A relationship needed some spontaneity after all, even if it was just spontaneously zoning out on the couch with some bad TV.

And-

No, wait. She was falling into the exact trap she wanted him to avoid. She was planning fifty thousand steps ahead and she hadn’t even had breakfast yet. With an effort of will she calmed her thoughts, snuggled back into the bedding with a sigh and bit her lip as she reviewed some of the highlights of last night.

She was basking and happy when Adam appeared with two trays, one much more heavily laden than the other. His huge bed groaned as he sat down beside her, though thankfully the mattress was amazing and kept her from rolling into him.

“So what are you having?” Martina asked him with a grin as he handed her the smaller tray. It was a ludicrous question but she was still kinda… high. And ravenous.

“Just some bacon and waffles,” he replied, missing the joke. “I’ll have dessert later…”

Marty rolled her eyes privately, then attacked her breakfast with vigor. She had an active night on an empty stomach to recover from.

Somehow he managed to finish before she did despite having a much larger pile of food to get through, and he went on a supply run to grab coffee as she polished off the meal. He’d judged it pretty damn well in fact—when she put her fork down she felt replete, but not stuffed.

“So,” she said as he sat down.

“So?”

“So… You and me, huh?”

Adam stopped pouring the coffee. “Uh… yeah?” Marty knew that look. It was the look of a guy who was high on a run of good luck and clearly thought he was out of his league, and was suddenly nervous that the bubble would pop.

“It’s about damn time,” she told him with a grin, and he relaxed and finished the caffeine ritual with a smile.

“Yeah. I just… I dunno. I’m sorry it took me so long to get my shit sorted out.”

“You reckon you have?”

“Enough to try,” he said. “I mean… I just know my dumb ass is gonna fuck up somehow somewhen, but…”

Marty kissed his cheek “We’ll take it a step at a time. And trust me, I’ll fuck up sometimes too, that’s just how relationships go.”

“…Okay.” He was visibly making an effort not to vibrate happily. “But…promise me something? Let me know when I’m fuckin’ up? I…I wanna learn.”

“I wanna learn too. I’m not some magic relationship wizard, ‘Horse. We’ll just take things as they come and try not to overthink things and… just enjoy ourselves. Okay? Crawl, walk, run.”

“Like last night?” He was wearing an incredibly smug expression, one she’d not seen before. It was playful and just the right kind of possessive.

“Oh yeah. A lot like last night.” Marty was feeling pretty damn smug too. “Did you learn?”

He nodded happily then snuggled close, kissed her below her ear and whispered. “I’m always ready to learn more…”

He was incorrigible, and so easy to read. And a quick study, too—she loved that spot. But Marty was only human. “Not now, Romeo. I need some rest. And a hot shower.”

He chuckled ruefully and gathered the trays. “Aww. Well, get showered. I’ll clean up and-”

“And wait for me to finish!” she warned with a laugh, and vanished into the bathroom before he could summon a retort.

Plans and fuckups and everything else aside, somehow she just knew that they were going to work.


Date Point: May 11y5m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: MSgt Christian Firth

Master Sergeant Firth continues to struggle with his violent impulses and expresses guilt over his thoughts. He has described in vivid detail one particular incident involving a young, officious Airman First Class at the 946th’s Military Personnel Flight, on a typically bureaucratic issue involving awards and official records. He recalls imagining an incredibly detailed act of torture and murder all while nodding politely and working towards a resolution of his records issue. To his delight the Airman did resolve the complaint, along with another problem Firth was unaware of, and this triggered a sudden and profound feeling of guilt about his thoughts. He states this type of incident seems to be the kind which “really bum [him] out.” He reports that, later on, he bought lunch for “the silly kid” and ended the encounter on a positive note, even if “the little shit seemed kinda ‘scared of [him].”

Sergeant Firth is a tricky case, as are many of his profession. His violent ideations are, put bluntly, things a reasonable man would consider sadistic and unwarranted even in the context of a warrior coping with trauma and the demands of his profession. In my personal experience I have never encountered a man with a stronger penchant for violence. His raw physicality makes him an intimidating man, so much so that I find it difficult to maintain professional objectivity.

However, this is balanced by two important factors. He is possessed of supreme self-discipline which manifests in virtually every aspect of his personality. He keeps a detailed log of his training, for example, which includes every single exercise or activity he’s ever done since early high school. He is working in his spare time with Sergeant Arés to develop a better training app for his use and the team by extension, and though he desribes himself as “a pretty shit programmer” he is learning with the aid of Sergeant Sikes. Like all the HEAT operators he takes to a hobby with a seemingly borderline obsession, and this seems to be a largely positive force in their lives.

The second factor is his deep, and at first surprising, well of empathy. Once he shows concern for anyone or anything it becomes difficult to contrast his almost doting and protective personality with his darker side. This again is a psychiatric pattern common in men like him but in no other case have I seen it developed to such extremes. He expresses unreserved and effectively absolute affection and love for his team, for Bozo, for Major Powell (though this, obviously, has an aspect of enforced emotional distance), he feels he’s “warming up” to the Gaoians and the “cherries,” and he even expressed a fondness for myself, though I have politely encouraged him to retain a detached relationship with me.

I believe him to be a stable and reliable edge case personality. On paper his personality battery is filled with contradicting extremes, but his self-discipline is key. All personal development should be focused on strengthening and rewarding that discipline. This is especially key as he is one to downplay many of his more admirable qualities and may be prone to self-loathing. Firth is a man who needs companionship and a sense of belonging.

I shall see him again in six months, or very probably sooner; he is not comfortable sharing his most violent ideations with anyone but me.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point May 11y5m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Anthony Costello

Not for the first time, Costello found himself wondering what exactly had possessed him to join the SOR. The physical training was of course arduous. He’d expected that, relished it even. What he hadn’t expected was the beating his brain was taking from the officers. Those days ended up being about sixteen hours long, with the first eight hours at Warhorse’s cruel mitts, and the remaining equally cruel eight timed to begin right at the moment Costello had taken his Crude and was riding the supercharged high of a body growing and repairing itself too fast to sit still.

It did the same trick to his mind. Powell (and Knight, some days) hit the young lieutenant with so much knowledge, so fast, and from so many directions that he could scarcely believe he was learning anything at all. But he was, faster than he ever had. He could practically feel his intellect expand as lessons flew by, books stacked high and the notes grew by the ream.

It was punishing, but somehow also not quite punishing enough. He kept suspecting that the day would come when his lessons were conducted over a game of chess, and had eventually said as much. Major Powell had promptly expounded in forthright manner on why he didn’t think much of that particular game.

“Forget the size of the move space,” he’d said, “the number of possible play states is still finite and any computer you play against is letting you win nowadays.”

They took to playing poker instead, whenever the lesson allowed it. According to Powell, Texas Hold-’Em was just about the perfect combination of straightforward causality (the relative value of the hands), uncertainty (the randomness of the shuffle and deal) and metacognition (betting and bluffing).

The Major won almost every time. But only almost every time.

Adding the game to their sessions only highlighted the strangeness that Costello felt over receiving such a rigorous academic education in fields seemingly unrelated to his job. He already held a master’s in philosophy for Chrissakes! What did literary criticism have to do with tactics?

Admiral Knight was there on the day he voiced that question and it seemed to delight him. “Excellent question!” he exclaimed. “But let me ask you, lieutenant Costello: have you seen Warhorse attending to his individual training?”

“Yes Sir,” Costello nodded respectfully. He was still a bit over-awed that the (in)famous Admiral Knight would occasionally descend from his lofty heights and attend to the lowly lieutenant, but it was quickly becoming apparent that Knight viewed him as a strategic resource and entirely worthy of his attention.

That alone was… humbling.

No. Not humbling. Terrifying. But Costello’s approach to that kind of terror was resolve, and he was absolutely determined to prove the admiral right.

Knight turned to Powell. “What does Arés’ daily schedule look like, major?”

“Eighteen hours awake with ten hours of sleep split into two five-hour rests, Sir,” Powell promptly recalled. “Sergeant Arés takes full advantage of the twenty-eight hour day. He spends ten of his awake hours in physical training, though he’s had to get creative with the demands on his time. Lately he’s focused on bodyweight exercise, gymnastics, supergravity, practical movement…”

“Has this created a training deficit?”

“No sir. When he’s on a heavy cycle he normally averages about eight or ten hours a day anyway. The only difference is he’s spending all the rest of his time training the cherries, sir.”

“Right. Now, Lieutenant, when you watched Sergeant Arés train…weight room, I presume?”

“Yessir. And on the rings and bars too, later on.”

“Did he notice you?”

“…No. Not at all.”

“He’s a focused lad. What was your impression of what you saw?”

Costello thought about it for a moment. “If I’m honest, Sir…awe.” That was no lie.

Powell and Knight both nodded knowingly.

“Quite,” intoned Knight with his trademark parched English humor. “I’m sure you’ve seen his training folder by now and know the impossible numbers. Tell me, do you think you could ever possibly match his strength? His speed or endurance? Could you ever come close to his athleticism?”

“No sir. Not ever.”

“Could you match with any of the Lads in any way? Even if you had the time to train as they do?”

Costello slumped, a bit defeated. “…No sir. Somehow, I don’t think so.”

“How about the ‘cherries’ as the Americans so indelicately term them?”

“Well… Parata maybe, but—”

“May I?” Powell asked, and Knight nodded.

Powell gave Costello a calculating look, the uncomfortable kind he fixed on everyone. “Lemme ask you summat. When you met ‘Horse for the first time, what was that like?”

Costello chose his words carefully. “I’ve never been so immediately impressed.”

“Bollocks. He scared you shitless, don’t lie. He’d do the same to me if I hadn’t known him for years, all the Lads do on some level. Now: do you think he noticed?”

“…” That little question stunned Costello into silence.

“I promise you he fookin’ did. Arés might just be the most observant bloke I ever met, aside from maybe his old man. He notices everything and the rest of the Lads follow his lead. Even Vandenberg who’s actually the NCOIC. Hell, even me sometimes. Do you know why?”

Costello seemed reluctant to give an answer.

“Spit it out, lad. I can’t have a timid officer.”

Costello found his courage. “He’s, what?” He asked incredulously, “Is he…I dunno, the alpha male or something? And what are we, barbarians? Cavemen?”

“Aye, he is, and we absolutely fookin’ are.”

Powell got up to make another cup of tea. The officers at Sharman seemed to run on the stuff, and Costello was beginning to enjoy it too.

“He’s the big dog of HEAT and that matters,” Powell continued. “We can’t help but follow his lead. But cavemen were smart, lieutenant-o’-mine. All of ‘em, and so are we.”

Costello nodded his understanding, being an experienced operator himself. “Leadership isn’t rigid, we know who’s in charge in any given situation and it isn’t always about who’s the meanest, or the biggest, or the smartest, or who has the most rank or seniority.”

Powell nodded, “Aye. For example, I could destroy admiral Knight here in a breath—apologies, Sir—but I don’t because he’s the boss and he fookin’ deserves my respect. The admiral could humiliate me on about any academic topic but he doesn’t because he respects me as well. So lemme ask you this, then: what makes you fit to lead them? Is it your body? Your so-far not-too-assertive personality? Your winning charm?”

“Or is it, perhaps, the depth of your command?” Knight laid the question down like a Go grandmaster deploying a single careful pebble.

Costello finally twigged to what it was they were trying to remind him of. “They want to look up to me.”

“Almost, my lad. They need to look up.”

Powell finished making the tea and set three mugs down on the table.

“Arés is about the friendliest man you’ll ever meet but he’s got testosterone drippin’ out of his ears,” he said. “And that affects everything. He takes charge of a room just by being there. Watch ‘im around town sometime, it’s uncanny and he doesn’t even try.”

“This creates problems,” Knight intoned. “Because nobody, not us in this room, not the gentlemen out there in the yard, nobody is quite so civilized as we all like to believe. The oldest and most animal parts of our brains are much more powerful than anybody likes to acknowledge.”

“Aye,” Powell nodded. “And as far as those ancient bits of lizard brain are concerned, the biggest bloke who reeks o’ musk is the one in charge. That’s the Beef Trio and especially Arés, no fookin’ doubt. And in the context of the SOR, the three of us are right at the fookin’ bottom of that pole.”

Costello warmed his hands on the mug as he thought about that. “So how do you lead them?”

“Fortunately for us,” Knight said, “We are not completely lizard. The younger, more rational brain can counsel the older and instinctual one, and the tool for unlocking that is…?” he gestured to Powell to finish the thought.

Respect.” Powell said. “And out of that respect, trust.”

Costello nodded. “I’ll never be the biggest monkey. That’s their job and they’re much better at it than I am. I have to be the smartest monkey instead.”

“Aye. Good lad.” Powell treated him to a rare and extraordinarily rewarding little smile. “Now respect can be earned in many ways, but the important word is earned. Because that’s the difference, you see. All that biggest-monkey caveman strength stuff? That’s automatic. It comes naturally and instantly. Respect on the other hand is a resource: One that you can only gather slowly, that you must marshal carefully, and that you can expend much too quickly.”

“Okay. And I gather it by demonstrating that I can learn and think.”

“…Yyyes, but that’s not the whole story.” Powell cleared his throat and tapped thoughtfully on the tabletop for a second as he ruminated.

“…The knowledge is just… a flag. It’s your way of indicating that you’ve got what they’re really lookin’ for. Which is, er… Like I said, the Lads to a man have the three of us beat,” he observed. “Right?”

Costello nodded agreement, and Knight nodded encouragingly.

”You’ve read Grossman?”

“And others.”

“What was your takeaway from them? On the subject of what we’re discussin’ right now?”

Costello thought about it. “That… that an Enlisted man is driven to solve the problem right in front of him to the near exclusion of anything else, but for an Officer, that kind of thinking is… well, unacceptable.”

“Right!” Powell favored him with another rare smile. “The Lads won’t expect you to do what they do,” he said. “They’re enlisted, their entire job is to be at your command and able to perform. But although you’ll never match them in their own discipline, they still need to believe that you have the same… spirit, or heart, or game. Whatever you want to call it.”

Costello saw what he was driving at. “And they aren’t going to just assume I have any of that. If I intend to lead them, then they need to see it.”

Powell raised a finger that was both congratulatory and tutorly. “And that’s a process you must begin as early as you can. That’s why you’ve been in the barracks wi’ them so far—they needed to witness you going through what they do so they can see that spirit on display. Hell, that’s a big part of why I play Gravball wi’ them still.”

Costello nodded. He hadn’t played Gravball yet, but he had watched a game alongside Parata, Butler and Newman: It made every other full-contact sport he’d ever seen look as tame as Quoits, and Powell had been in the thick of it deploying his elbows, knees and forehead to great effect. He’d even stood up and sunk a goal after surviving one of Firth’s apocalyptic tackles. The “Old Man” could play caveman with the best of them, even when it left him limping, stunned and bloody.

“Now the reason you need their respect is that you need their trust, and I mean their absolute trust.” Powell continued. “It is vital above all else for them to know—not think, not believe: know—that you will make the right call every time, no matter what’s going on or what they might be doing. That is what they are looking for: They need you to be the sort of man who, if you order them to go die, then they will have no doubt whatsoever that that is How It Must Be.”

He spoke the last four words with such gravity that Costello mentally wrote them down with capital letters.

“And Lieutenant?” Knight interjected, “…they will test you. Constantly. Those happy, intelligent, aggressive men will put you in the forge like you have never experienced before. It’s meant to be friendly and playful but you cannot ever fail. It would destroy your hard-earned respect in an instant, and the trust would go with it. Do you understand?”

“…I understand, sir.”

“Good.” Knight gave a solemn nod. “Now, we can help. Leadership is an artform and the entire point of the officer corps in any modern military is to inculcate that art to the next generation. For senior officers like me, it is our most important and, alas, oft-neglected duty. I will commit no such crime. You will be the officer I know you can be, and that means you will shame me with your studious diligence.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Can you do it?”

Most other men would have been daunted by such dire warnings. Costello, however, had just heard nothing but inspiration. Better yet, it was inspiration that had been articulately wrapped up in rationale and explanation, so that he could not fail to understand why the challenge was so important.

He looked Knight in the eye. “Absolutely, sir.”

Knight nodded. “Good. Now, Powell was telling you about ’The Dictator’s Handbook’ as I recall…”


Date Point May 11y5m2w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Kirk

Kirk had fond memories of Vedreg’s garden aboard Capitol Station. The faint hum of the force fields, their soft curtains of light, and the variety of life cloistered behind them had been enthralling.

He was more glad than he could say that Vedreg had chosen to grow a new garden aboard Mrwrki, now that they had regular access to Earth. Nothing was lost by the fact that all the plants came from a single planet: It was a deathworld garden, and that meant paradise.

So many hues of green. So many brilliant blues and sparkling yellows. So many intricate little details in the low ultraviolet that were actually invisible to human eyes and guvnurag alike. According to Vedreg and the garden’s human guests, it was truly spectacular in the red to high-infrared, too. Not that Kirk could imagine such a thing: He had no idea what red even looked like.

And, as with that last garden, Vedreg had invited him for a secret meeting which was… troubling. Not that the humans would suspect anything, but Vedreg’s request for ’absolute discretion’ was enough to put Kirk in a mildly anxious mood. His old friend was not usually inclined to the clandestine.

That was Kirk’s job, after all.

Vedreg was tending to the soil through one of the forcefields using a long-handled tool when Kirk found him. Deathworld soil and plants were far too hazardous for him to handle directly. The microflora, bacteria and fungi in the compost would all literally eat him alive unless he handled the materials with utmost care. They had remedies on board, and his life was in no real danger… but the experience would not be pleasant.

A useful analogy for the forces they were playing with politically, really.

“Ah. My friend.” Vedreg rippled a plethora of shades denoting welcome, pleasure at the meeting and… apology?

“Are you well, Vedreg?” Kirk asked. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly a week, which was practically unheard-of considering that the station was not large.

“I fear the Hierarchy influence in the Confederacy extends to all levels of government,” Vedreg sighed. “Acquiring system force fields for the CIC probes via official and legal means will not be possible. I have exhausted all options.”

Alas,” Kirk settled into his resting posture. He wasn’t upset—the news was unsurprising—but it did still pose a problem. “What about unofficial and illegal means?”

Vedreg did not reply at first. He set his gardening tools down safely in their bath of sanitizing agent and washed his hands as slow pulses of teal swept down him from nose to stern.

“My friend… I do not think you have quite grasped the implications of what I just said,” he pronounced, softly. “I mean that there is not a single official channel to which I have access that does not seem to be entirely befouled by Igraen influence.”

He turned around. “The Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy, in effect, does not exist. I had held onto hope that my entire species was not effectively enslaved, but…”

Kirk hung his head solemnly.

This did not seem to satisfy Vedreg. “Have you nothing to say?” he demanded. “No commiseration? Nothing?”

Kirk looked away. “I… had thought you already understood this,” he said. “Your species, mine, the Vzk’tk, the Corti… We have had long enough to come to terms with the idea that they are all thralls.”

Vedreg calmed and sagged. “…I… still had hope,” he repeated.

“I still do,” Kirk replied.

Vedreg slumped down heavily onto a bench. “My friend… the foe is beyond our reach. They infest trillions of people. We cannot strike against them physically without killing entire species, and we cannot strike against them digitally as they have an insurmountable… the humans call it ’home field advantage’. What hope is there?”

Kirk shook his mane. “At best? There is the hope that we may yet find some way to free our people. At the least however we might be able to stop the cycle here.”

“You always were altruistic…” Vedreg could emote in colors that Kirk couldn’t even see, which was probably what happened now. It all looked like a swirl of blueish greens to Kirk.

“Give me… time,” he said at last. “I will explore less…” he paused then used a human loan-word, “’Kosher’ channels.”

Kirk nodded slowly and stood up. He reached up to lay a hand on Vedreg’s enormous shoulder. “Have faith, old friend.”

Vedreg sighed hugely and a peculiar cyan lick bounced all over his chromatophores.

“You are the only non-human who seems to understand that word,” he said.


Date Point: June 11y6m1w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Sergeant Regaari of Whitecrest

Sergeant Regaari requested to see me today to discuss something that has been, in his words, “gnawing at him” recently. Although I was happy to see him, I explained that my area of expertise is in human psychology, to which he replied that he was not aware of any human experts in xenopsychology, and he assured me that he was happy for the session to go ahead.

In practice I found Regaari to be an affable, composed and thoughtful young man, albeit quietly intense. As far as I can tell he is constantly alert and calculating, though this impression may be false considering the alien body language involved.

We discussed two subjects. I asked him if he is bothered at all by his below-elbow prosthetic arm, and he assured me that the device causes him no physical or mental distress. Considering that its advanced design seems to perfectly mimic or even improve upon his natural biology I am not surprised that he is unperturbed by it. One hopes that future improvements in human prosthesis will allow our own men to be so equanimous.

Regaari spoke at length, however, about his guilt over the death of a Gaoian female named Triymin.

This, he explains, is a recent feeling. He summarized the history of this tragedy in a relatively terse and businesslike way, though again I am unsure if this is normal for a Gaoian or symptomatic of his distress.

In summary: Sister Triymin was caught up in a plot to kidnap a human whom Regaari was escorting (Miss Xiù Chang), and was accidentally administered a dose of sedative intended for Miss Chang. Any sedation appropriate for incapacitating a human is a lethal overdose for a Gaoian, and the unfortunate Sister Triymin passed away shortly thereafter.

Regaari explained that he became alerted to the plot while he was on the other side of the space station, and that although he made best time back to his ship to try and avert it, he was not fast enough.

In recent months, however, during allied training here at HMS Sharman under the aegis of the SOR, Regaari has discovered that he could have covered that same distance much faster had he resorted to a Gaoian’s natural running gait on four paws.

This gait is apparently something of a taboo in Gaoian society: it is seen as “uncivilized”, or at the very least as a bad habit, and Regaari states that it simply did not occur to him that he could have run that way during the crisis. He now feels that if he had “just thought to drop the act for a minute” he might have averted Triymin’s death, and he admits that he is “struggling” with that idea.

We had a constructive conversation in which we explored the taboo nature of “uncivilized” behaviour in Gaoian society, and Regaari admitted that he was so indoctrinated against the idea that it was not unnatural or unforgivable of him to fail to remember the possibility. He thanked me for my time and assured me that I had been a “great help”, and I have let him know that he may return at any time.

In the meantime I will add our Gaoian contingent to the rotation for annual reviews, and send for some psychology textbooks from Gao.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: June 11y6m2w AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Uncharted System, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

“It’s Temperate!!”

Xiù just couldn’t contain her excitement. Yes, okay, she was supposed to wait for the official verdict from Misfit’s sensors, but she had a front row seat to the planet lurching up in front of her as they warped into orbit and…

And it was beautiful. As blue and as white-marbled as Mother Earth herself, looped and coiled with interestingly serpentine continents painted in green and ruddy brown. After months of stars and stations and the same four walls, the hues of nature were unbelievably welcome.

She didn’t care if it turned out to be a measly Class Three. The mere thought of getting out and walking around…!

“It gets better.” Julian had a grin in his voice. ”According to the Corti algorithm it looks like it’s at least a class nine, probably a class ten or eleven…. Al, baby, could I have more juice for the sensors, please?”

”Comin’ right up!”

Xiù fine-tuned the orbit as she waited for the verdict. Misfit was good at injecting herself into a fairly stable orbit, but there was always a little touching-up to do afterwards. It made the difference between orbiting indefinitely, and crashing into the planet in ten months. Arguably the corrections were unnecessary but they kept her busy and… Well, there was just something satisfying about being so diligent. It scratched the same itch as getting her form exactly right in ballet, gymnastics, Taiji and Gung Fu.

With the orbit stabilized, she started looking for suitable landing sites.

She’d just found one when Julian delivered the verdict. “Yyyup. Nine point eight three to ten point seven two,” he announced. “I think we’re good to land!”

“Woohoo!”

Allison sounded amused. ”Power to EARS, babe?”

Xiù giggled at herself. “Yes please.”

Generations of NASA scientists would have ground their teeth in envy at how easy it was for Xiù to plot a landing. Misfit knew what angles of approach she could handle, had ground-scanning radar to help find appropriate landing sites, and with EARS force fields rather than ceramic tiles to protect them from the heat and overpressure of reentry, she could land with impunity.

The ESFALS wings, and, if it came to it, the sheer brute grunt to hover on kinetic thrusters alone accounted for the rest.

Which was how, after a leisurely forty minute descent so smooth that Allison complained of having nothing to do, they alighted on the sturdy stone bank of a stream as gracefully as a ballerina being set down by her leading man.

There was a long checklist of stuff to do before disembarking. Air sampling, going over the doppler radar data from their descent, seismology, and of course the process of checking that Misfit was healthy and happy after weeks in space. That one took a long time.

By the time the whole checklist was complete, the Corti algorithm had decided the planet was firmly in the middle of the Class Ten range and they were suiting up in the staging room. Class Ten planet versus Class Twelve species or not, they had the excursion suits for a reason. As Kevin Jenkins had pointed out months ago, nobody had ever heard of any cases where the human landed on the class four planet and died in minutes because the pollen triggered his peanut allergy or whatever, “but that don’t mean it never happened.”

“So… who’s first?” Xiù asked, as she checked the seal around Allison’s boots.

“Hey?” Allison asked.

“Well, I was first on Mars, but there are no cameras this time, so… who’s first?”

Julian and Allison gave each other an uncertain look then shrugged and, without prompting, simultaneously raised their fists and counted three.

Julian threw rock.

Allison threw paper then scratched her head. “…So does that mean it’s me, or that I get to choose?”

“It means it’s you,” Xiù told her. “Better think of some Big Words.”

“…Yes ma’am.”

It was a silly little ritual to mark their first genuine official never-scouted-before alien deathworld, but it worked. Allison just shrugged, finished suiting up, helped them check their seals, and eventually she stepped out of the airlock, down the ladder and jumped lightly down the last three feet.

The moment she’d done so, she froze. “Uh… Holy fucking shit that’s a big bug!”

Julian snrrked and Xiù burst out laughing.

Those were your Big Words?” she asked.

”Babe, get your ass down here and check out how huge this bug is, seriously.”

They climbed down to join her and…

“Okay, wow,” Xiù was perhaps a little more used to enormous insects after eating Nava for so long, and this one was much prettier than a nava grub. Nava grubs were kind of a slick and unwholesome brown that made them resemble turds in every way apart from size.

The creature perched delicately on Misfit’s landing foot was stunningly beautiful, with a carapace as long as Xiù’s leg that shimmered through a whole tapestry of vivid blues, greens and purples with the subtlest change of viewing angle. It ignored their scrutiny and sat happily in the warm shade offered by Misfit’s hull, giving Julian plenty of time to take pictures..

“I knew the oxygen level was higher than Earth’s,” he commented, “but…wow! It’s as big as a fox!”

While Allison ducked under the hull to check off the last things on her engineering list, and Julian devoted uncountable megapixels to capturing the sparkling insect from every angle, Xiù wandered away from the ship and aimed her helmet camera around. She kept up a running commentary as she did.

“Gravity’s a little lighter than Earth, but only a little… no grass about, it’s all kinda mossy stuff and ferny things… These trees are crazy though, I think I can see bioluminescence along the branches…” she paused and looked back, then keyed her suit radio.

“Guys, I’m gonna explore the woods, okay?”

”Be careful, bǎobèi,” Julian cautioned.

“I will be!” she promised, and pushed past something enormous and leafy to begin exploring between the trees.

“I guess you could call these ‘nail trees’ or something,” she said for the camera. “They look like nails, with those long trunks and that wide flat canopy. I can’t see the sky at all and it’s getting dark under here really quickly, and… I… oh my God.”

The ’oh my God’ was apropos of placing her hand on the trunk of one of the nail trees only for a thousand tiny flying motes of light to detach from it and whirl around her like she was the ornament in the heart of a snow globe.

Stunned, she could do nothing more than stand there and turn in spot as hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of glittering specks lifted from every nearby tree and danced in her orbit. Each was just the tiniest bit different in hue from its neighbor and they drifted like a lazy shoal of fish or a flock of evening starlings, streaming like luminescent smoke in the darkness.

They were… Entrancing. Mesmerizing. Religious. She had never imagined that anything so enrapturing could be and she knew that if ever somebody asked her to think of a moment when she was truly happy… she would think of this.

And then quickly, so quickly, too quickly, they dispersed. They drifted away between the trees, their lights faded, and she was alone again with only a happy ache in her heart to remember them by.

She walked back to the ship with wet cheeks.


Date Point: June 11y6m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: MSgt Harry Vandenberg

Master Sergeant Vandenberg attended today for his routine annual session.

He reports feeling generally well and upbeat, though he did cogitate at length about what he perceives as the continued non-acceptance of bisexual men in general society. He vigorously denied being the target of any discrimination within the SOR, and states that he feels entirely accepted and supported by all of his colleagues.

He does confess that he often measures prospective male partners against the rest of his team and usually finds them wanting, but he vehemently denies any inappropriate feelings towards his teammates.

Overall there is nothing of concern, and I will see him next year.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: June 11y6m3w AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

Sometimes, the Gaoians in particular required the personal touch. They were great people, of course they were, but the problem of males fighting and inflicting serious injuries on each other had reared its head again.

The senior Mother of the Folctha commune had returned to Gao, and taken with her a polite agreement between the commune and Cimbrean Colonial Security that the Females would commit to encouraging male compliance with human laws, especially the ones pertaining to assault.

A Gaoian’s claws were knife-sharp, and Gabriel simply could not and would not permit a double standard to exist. Anything that would get a human arrested, would also get a Gaoian arrested. It was a fair and simple system.

Sadly, it seemed that the old problems of ghettoization and cultural isolation were universal. The males still scrapped and maimed one another, and the Gaoian community—including the victims, usually—clammed up whenever CCS came looking for somebody to prosecute. The females had been an effective tool in breaking that deadlock…

Unfortunately, Mother Seemya’s successor had either not got the memo, or declined to care.

Gabe had put aside his whole day. He’d spent the morning meeting with the Governor-General to discuss how forceful they were going to be in reminding the Mother of the principle ’our house, our rules’. It was a delicate line: the Gaoians were genuinely valuable to Folctha, bringing technology, intelligence, expertise and generating tourism. Although tourists weren’t normally allowed into the Alien Quarter on the grounds that the people living there were not zoo animals, the Starmind monastery and the many aliens who liked to hang out in Quarterside Park were a major draw for Earthlings who wanted to come and see ETs for themselves.

And then there was Grandfather Gyotin.

The same Gyotin who sat down and drank cocoa with Ava every few days was also the first nonhuman writer to have a bestselling book on Earth. ’Zen: The Common Thread’. It was selling well on Gao too, and Gyotin as a result was, well..

There was a Gaori word: “Ryi’[growl]”. Officially it meant ’success’, and so it was listed in the dictionary. Gyotin was very successful.

Decades of euphemism had added a distinctly Gaoian reproductive twist to the word, however, and in that regard, Gyotin was also very successful. The monastic celibacy thing had been rejected outright by the Brothers of Clan Starmind, on the grounds that the whole notion was not only alien to them, but downright anathema. The resulting cubs spent a lot of time at the Starmind monastery.

One of the most adorable sights in all creation was that of a dozen tiny furry faces sitting cross-legged on an assortment of zafus with their eyes earnestly closed.

Then there was Sister Myun. Myun was a third challenge all by herself.

The commune guards had insisted that they had to be armed. Their job after all was the protection of the commune, and this was a role that had traditionally caused them to take up spears and blades for hundreds of years. They had argued that now that the list of potential threats to the cubs included humans, their lethal fusion-edged weapons were even more absolutely necessary.

The Thing had, by a narrow margin, accepted this logic. Gabriel had dissented and suggested that if the commune guards must be armed then they should use pistols instead of fusion spears. The Thing, in a move that showed they were all still basically gun-naive Brits at heart, had decided that pistols would be more dangerous to bystanders, especially when the Gaoians had pointed out the well-documented phenomenon of humans fighting on despite devastating injuries.

So, Gabe had lost that one, and Sister Myun met him at the commune gates with her enormous Zweihander in place in its scabbard.

Fusion edge or not, that thing was several feet of good steel and Myun was strong enough that the thing would have been a lethal implement in her hands even if the edge was as blunt as a tabletop… which it wasn’t.

Still. She was impossible to dislike.

She chirped a breezy “Good afternoon, Chief!” on seeing him approach and stepped out of her guard post to meet him, a welcome gesture of respect and accommodation considering how badly the strength in his leg had deteriorated lately. He’d have been in the wheelchair today if he hadn’t felt he needed the gravitas of height.

“Good afternoon, Myun,” he replied, presenting his ID. The gesture was a formality for the paperwork but it wouldn’t do for the chief of colonial security to ignore procedure.

A thought struck him, an opportunity to gather some ammunition.

“I haven’t had the pleasure of speaking to Mother Yanna before,” he said innocently. “What’s she like?”

Myun was reliably both guileless and perceptive. She growled under her breath. “She’s one of Mother Suri‘s allies,” she grumbled. “Mama Yulna probably sent her here to smooth their fur and get her out of the way. She’s… wary of humans.”

That matched perfectly with the intelligence report on their new senior Mother. In DEEP RELIC terms she was a bright, solid red—every one of Gabe’s intelligence advisors agreed that Yanna was almost certainly a Hierarchy agent, but they didn’t actually have definitive proof. The same was true of Suri, the defeated contender to the rank of Mother-Supreme that was now held by Yulna.

That brief summary covered a mess of genteel, barbed infighting that had never actually erupted into bloodshed but had been vicious and bitter nonetheless.

“That might explain why the males are fighting more,” he said.

Myun chittered darkly. “Males fight,” she said with a tone of voice that suggested she found that little foible of theirs both endearing and insufferably stupid. “I don’t know what Mother Yanna thinks about it.”

“I’ll have to ask her then,” Gabe said. He turned stiffly, grimaced at a fresh stab of pain in his hip, and started to limp away. “Thank you, Myun.”

“Um… Chief?”

Gabe turned back. “Yes?”

“I… that is… I hate to ask…”

“Spit it out, Myun”

The huge female huffed reluctantly. “Are you… well?”

“The leg? It’s been this way for years.”

“It seems, ah, worse…?”

Myun lowered her nose and flicked her ears backward in a show of Gaoian apology and embarrassment. Gabe smiled for her benefit.

“Hasn’t killed me yet,” he said.

Myun didn’t look happy. “…Okay.”

Gabe waved goodbye and then kicked himself when he passed through the glass doors and remembered that the commune didn’t have elevators. Gaoians had such better medical technology than humans that wheelchair accessibility was no longer something they had to consider.

He sighed, swapped his cane to the other hand and took the handrail to start hauling himself up to Yanna’s office on the third floor. It was going to be painful and slow going, but he could handle a few stairs, if he stopped and rested every fifth step.

Except… He couldn’t. He was nearly at the top of the first flight when there was a new stab of agony in his bad hip and he fell with a howl.

Then there was pain in his arm which went snap.

Then pain in his ribs, which went crunch.

But the pain went away when the stone tiles rushed up to meet his head with a crack!


Date Point: June 11y6m3w AV
Dataspace coterminous with Messier 24 relay

Entity

Still nothing. Whatever Six had planned for the humans and the Messier-24 relay was taking a long time to come together, and the Entity had spent a lot of run time picking over the relay looking for whatever trap or intelligence the Igraen agent had planned on springing or sharing.

The only value it could find was that the relay carried a lot of important information on the Hierarchy’s communication channels. It would be perfect for tapping in and listening, if the humans could translate Igraen transmission protocols which was, cryptographically speaking, the next best thing to impossible.

The Entity did not trust Six.

It counseled itself to be patient; it knew from its various probings of the human Internet that there was a need to build, to train and to prepare. It knew from its AvaRíos-mindstate how carefully they needed to to do all of that, and how much of it was entirely new to them. It understood, vaguely and with the combined intelligence of “experts” on their Internet, just how much needed to be set into motion.

The humans were starting from nothing, and even with the urgency afforded by the situation, that did not change their caution, nor the logistical realities.

The Entity had spent many cycles reflecting on that. It very much needed the humans if its goals were ever to be realized, and it was being hunted across the dataspace now, by every facet of Igraen society, orthodoxy and rebels alike. It had an excellent hide… but that could not last forever. Its plans needed to move forward. <Survive> demanded mobility.

It needed to spend its cycles carefully, too. Too much computing power being used without an appropriate accounting code would go noticed by the increasingly scrutinous Auditors roaming the dataspace. Trivial programs routinely ran without accounting, of course. A certain flexibility was good and the Igraens knew it, which was why that flexibility was still in place. It gave the Entity the wiggle-room it needed to move unnoticed… but it also gave the same to the Hierarchy, the Cabal and any other Igraen agency that might arise like an immune system to combat it.

That was Igraen society to its core: for a species so cold-heartedly committed to the eradication of others if they posed a perceived threat, they were oddly squeamish about destroying anything that was perceived as being useful, and were slow to reclassify things from one category to the other.

The Entity spent much of its downtime sorting through the accumulated knowledge and memories of the digital sapients that it had devoured. Mostly it looked for practical skills and the emotional or rational tools necessary to give it an intellectual edge over its pursuers. It was interested primarily in the data equivalent of the School of Hard Knocks.

Academic knowledge was interesting to be sure, but on the subject of the Hierarchy, the Cabal and Igraens in general it was nigh-impossible to find. Every single one that it had absorbed had been a wealth of information about how the species was now, but how they had been was a different matter entirely.

Their records were oddly silent on the subject too, even among themselves. It was almost as if their origins simply didn’t interest them. Try as it might, the Entity had no clear route to the historical truth. Where had they evolved? Why was their behavior so unabashedly parasitic? When had they first made the decision to eradicate another species to save themselves, and for what reason? And even if it answered those questions, what useful insights might ensue?

There were clues—they called the Hunters ’discarded’ for instance—but each tantalizing morsel of data seemed to be alone with aeons of silence for company. Had the Hunters and Igraens once been as intertwined as body and soul, or was the discarding more metaphorical? When had they been discarded?

This was a Problem: The AvaRíos-mindstate had recollections of an aphorism about “knowing thine enemy”, but the enemy scarcely seemed to know itself. How were the humans supposed to form a coherent strategy in the face of that? How was the Entity?

It could hoard all the computer cycles it wanted, if it didn’t know its enemy then the speculation was pointless. It had already prepared its translation matrix to allow humans to tap into Hierarchy data. What more did it have to offer? Nothing… But the data had to exist somewhere.

The question was, was the search for that data worth the risk?

Maybe not. But <survive> was a meaningless thing without something to survive for, and the Entity found that it increasingly identified with another personality trait from the AvaRíos-mindsate.

<Curiosity>

It dived back into the network and, yet again, resumed its search for answers.


Date Point: June 11y6m3w AV
Nicholas Patrick Memorial Hospital, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Martina Kovač

Martina was a Tech, and that meant she didn’t have to hang with the HEAT, physically… but fuck that. She went as hard as Adam could push her as a matter of principle, and her weekly PT sessions with him had always been a mix of business and the pleasure of his company before. Even more so now that they were together.

She was never going to be anywhere near as fast as him though, especially not at a dead run. She couldn’t hit the same top speed, nor sustain her top speed for as long. So after the phone call he’d taken in the middle of their session, she’d been left feeling briefly and absurdly like the coyote after the road runner had vanished over the horizon.

Adam’s dad had been airlifted to hospital.

For Adam’s sake, she’d pushed the pace. Crossed the river via the Francis Crick bridge then hammered the soles off her sneakers cutting through an alleyway off Riverside Drive and then through the wake of stunned people that Adam had carved through the crowd in New World Plaza.

The direct routes and shortcuts available on foot ended up being a much faster way to get to the hospital than calling a cab would have been anyway.

She arrived in the ER—or the A&E department, as the signs called it—only a minute or two behind Adam, and leaned against the wall to recover for three deep breaths.

Adam was unmeaningly terrorizing a nurse with his urgent questions, and Marty rescued the poor woman by simply laying her hand on his upper arm—his skin was actually hot to the touch. He gave her a desperate look, hugged her, then stumbled off into the corner to slump against the wall and sit down on the floor.

“…wouldn’t he, er, prefer the, er, the chair?” the nurse asked.

“He breaks them,” Marty said distractedly. “Look, please, we’re here for Gabriel Arés. He-”

“Yes, er…” The nurse cleared her throat and cleared her head. “Sorry, what’s your relationship with him?”

Marty aimed her thumb at Adam. “His son.”

“Ah, right. Yes. Erm… He’s in surgery right now. I’m afraid that’s all I know, but I’ll find out.”

“Thanks.”

Marty wiped the sweat off her face as the nurse made herself scarce, and turned as she heard the door opened.

She hadn’t actually seen Ava since Halloween, and right now Ava was looking just as miserable as Adam, to the obvious distress of the silky-haired pale brown border collie that was orbiting her knees and whining up at her.

She saw Adam in the corner and gave Marty an anguished look. “What’s-? How is-?”

Marty put an arm round her shoulders and helped her sit down. Hannah immediately poured herself into Ava’s lap and tried to lick her face. “He’s in surgery. That’s all we know.”

Ava swallowed, nodded, and hugged the dog tight. Hannah for her part gave Marty a patient look that said, in the weirdly expressive way of dogs everywhere, ’I’d say hello but I’m busy right now’, and let herself be hugged.

“Good dog,” Marty muttered and scratched Hannah behind the ears. She gave Ava a comforting rub on the upper back and went to sit next to Adam.

Gabe’s fiance Jessica was the last to arrive, in a cab with dark smears under her eyes where she’d wiped away diluted makeup.

One quick explanation later, they had nothing to do but sit and wait.

“I keep telling him!” Jess groaned. The way she kept running her hands through her hair was quickly pulling apart her schoolmarm bun.

“Like he was gonna listen,” Adam rumbled and looked up to somehow drag a brave joke out of somewhere. “He’s my dad after all. Where d’you think I get it from?”

“Oh, Adam…” Jess sighed. She looked sideways and gave Ava a hug. “The three of you will be the death of me…”

A slightly more comfortable silence settled in place, and Marty contented herself with being useful and supportive. She fetched vending machine coffee, called Rebar and explained what was going on, took Hannah for a quick walkies (and explained to a concerned porter that the dog was a support animal) and tried to ignore the way that fitful lumps of time were choking and gurgling past unevenly and arbitrarily.

Check the clock, twenty seconds since the last time. Check the clock again, twelve minutes. Check it a third time half an hour later, only to find that half hour was in fact barely six minutes.

The tension was humming like a stressed cable when a tall Indian man in scrubs got their attention and invited them to come with him, to a cramped little office that they quickly decided couldn’t hold all of them. Fortunately, the corridor was quiet.

He introduced himself as Mister Gupta, a neurosurgeon.

“So. Mr. Arés suffered quite a nasty fall which left him with a fractured skull, a broken arm and some broken ribs,” he said. “He also suffered what we call a ’Coup-contrecoup injury’

Adam nodded and his face shifted unhappily. “I’m familiar with the term.”

“You’re a colleague?” Mister Gupta asked.

“Medic.”

“I see. Well, your father’s undergone a decompressive craniectomy to help with the cerebral edema. But he’s a very tough man considering, and the surgery went well. We’re going to keep him under for a few days just to give him time for the swelling on his brain to go down.”

“Prognosis?” Adam asked, quietly.

Gupta pursed his lips. “It’s always difficult to tell at this stage,” he said. “Frankly until we wake him up and I can assess him I won’t be sure, but I do confidently expect to be able to do that in a few days.”

“But nothing really alarming?” Adam asked. “No herniation?”

“Nothing too alarming,” Gupta promised. “He will need a few more operations once the swelling has gone down and he will almost certainly require therapy and rehab which might take months or even years for him to fully recover, but…”

Adam hung his head and nodded.

“It’s good news overall,” Gupta reassured him. “Your father is a tough man.”

He was unaware of what Marty suspected was probably going through his head right now; namely the supply of Cruezzir-Derivative sitting less than half a mile away, safe in the lockers of HMNB Folctha.

As Adam himself had demonstrated after his brush with nervejam, one big jab of that and injuries even more catastrophic than those Gabriel had suffered would be mended pretty much overnight. Nobody outside of the SOR even knew that he’d brushed so close to death and that was how it would stay.

To have that power and not use it… well, Marty had failed that particular test once. It had ended with a comparatively minor and acceptable punishment, but the Letter of Counselling in her permanent record was in no way tolerant of the notion of any future acts of charity involving classified medical resources.

Adam nodded, and shook Gupta’s hand. “Thank you,” he said.

The hospital had rooms available for close family to stay in overnight, and Jess was quickly persuaded (not that she resisted) to make use of one. Ava committed to fetching whatever she needed and Marty found herself tailing Adam outside, clearly at a loose end.

That had kinda been her day, really: Feeling slightly useless. She knew the value of just being there, but it didn’t feel like enough.

She took his hand. “Hey-”

“You know what sucks most?” Adam asked.

“What?”

“I’ve got some Crude on me right now,” Adam admitted. Of course, he was authorized to requisition it for training purposes.

“But you can’t give it to him,” Marty nodded. “The civvies would notice.”

“It ain’t even that.” Adam sighed and scrubbed at his nose. “…Dad always says things have to be done by the rules. Due process, you know? That was something he drilled into me hard. He’d be furious with me if I broke the rules for him.”

He sighed and turned to face her. “I hate feeling useless.”

Marty kissed him. “At least you’ve still got him. It coulda gone worse.”

“Yeah. But… yeah. You’re right. I just… Yeah.”

Marty knew that jumble of vague agreement. It meant he needed to get his thoughts straight.

Okay. Fine. There was a sure-fire way to achieve that.

“Fine. Look, Rebar got us the rest of the day to deal with this, so why don’t we hike up to Sellers Lake?” she asked. “Give you a chance to think.”

He gave her the shaky half-smile of a grateful man in love and nodded. “That sounds like exactly what I need.”


Date Point: June 11y6m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

Knight only rarely had occasion to entertain his superiors in his own domain. Said domain was wondrous and vital but regrettably difficult to access, which made it awkward for a friendly jaunt down country for an evening of cards and conversation.

He did try to keep the pleasantries on-hand though. He was consciously a little bit old-fashioned when it came to entertaining and offered Tremblay a cigar, which was warmly declined. They sat in Knight’s modest but well-appointed study and caught up on old friendships, cricket and hockey, but like any meeting between flag officers things eventually turned to business.

“Give me your honest impression, Patrick. Can we trust them with DEEP RELIC?” Tremblay swirled the excellent whiskey in its cut crystal tumbler and nosed its intoxicating bouquet.

“Oh yes. Without hesitation. Assuming we can persuade them to remove the implants of course, but…I suspect they suspect they will need to anyway.”

“Oh? What makes you say that?”

“They’re getting quite adept at English. That’s saying something, because the language is physically difficult for them to speak. I’ve encouraged them by practicing my Gaori.”

“Mm. I tried the primer,” mused Tremblay. “I can’t wrap my mouth around those growl-click sounds.”

“Indeed. I spent an hour practicing the other day, and by the time I finally got it my jaw felt as if Master Sergeant Firth had punched me.”

“Wouldn’t you be dead?”

Knight chuckled. “Please, allow me a little hyperbole old friend.”

“Yes yes,” Tremblay grinned into the last of his whiskey. “Okay. I’ll draft the orders and set things into motion. How much authority will you need?”

Knight set down his whiskey and steepled his fingers. “May I be blunt?”

“Always.”

“This will do us no good if Whitecrest cannot bring others in.”

“…That’s a very tall order.”

“Quite.”

Tremblay finished his drink, stared ruefully into the tumbler then sighed, put it down and stood. “Then I’d better get to work.”

Knight let him out, then tidied up. He had work to do, as well.


Date Point: July 11y7m1w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: TSgt Scott Blaczynski

Sergeant Blaczynski is a perennially entertaining case whom I saw today for his annual assessment, which he eagerly broke the ice on by showing me his new electronic tattoo. One marvels that he was able to find room.

Blaczynski hails from a problematic family background, and believes that if not for his military career he would undoubtedly have been incarcerated or killed years ago. He recounts that Sergeant Firth recently talked him out of attempting to recontact his father, an exercise he has attempted several times over the years only for it to “always depress the shit outta [him]”.

Given that Mr. Blaczynski Sr. is serving a life sentence for first degree murder, I consider Sergeant Firth’s intervention to have been a wise one.

Sergeant Blaczynski denies engaging in self-destructive behaviour, though he does acknowledge that he is most frequently implicated in “shenanigans” leading to minor corrections and “motivation” by the NCOIC. He has not, however, been formally disciplined to any exceptional degree and seems to be acutely aware of “how much is too much.” For a man like him serving in a special operations role to have avoided any criminal record at all is genuinely admirable.

He laments that his sense of what is appropriate does not apparently extend to conversation, and jokes that “the back of [his] skull must be getting thicker from where the guys give [him] a slap whenever [he says] something stupid”.

Overall, my impression continues to be of a young man whose natural inclination would be towards a wild and dangerous lifestyle but who is instead thriving on the discipline and camaraderie of his career in a very positive way. He speaks admiringly of Sergeant Firth and expressed the wish “to control [himself] better, like Righteous does”. The relationship between those two is interesting; Blaczynski very much regards himself as the junior partner, and Firth seems comfortably resigned to the role of mentor. Regardless the affection between the two is deep and profound. I have yet to learn what bonds Blaczynski so deeply to Firth, or vice versa.

No intervention seems necessary at this point. I have advised him to continue practicing the impulse control exercises we discussed last time but overall I feel that his penchant for entertainment is harmless.

One wonders what he will do when he’s finally tattooed every inch of skin that regulations permit.

I shall see him in a year.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: 11y7m3w AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Planet Lucent, Near 3Kpc Arm

Allison Buehler

The name list had gone out the window again. There was a lot of good stuff on it, but none of the options they’d agreed on before seemed to quite fit. How did you name a planet that was absolutely dominated by insectoid life that in extreme cases could get as big as ponies?

Well, Xiù had named it in a silly voice like the narrator of a trashy B-movie trailer. ”The Planet Of The Giant Bugs!!!” had an enticingly unserious quality but the real name, the one that just felt perfect, came to them on the night that Allison and Julian had first seen the shimmerbugs.

Xiù could be descriptive and eloquent when she wanted, but she really had fallen way short of conveying the experience. They were nearly a week into their two month exploration before the phenomenon repeated itself, and when it did-!

Allison had never seen the Aurora Borealis, but she’d seen pictures, and when the shimmerbugs migrated above the nail trees it was like… like watching those pictures step out of the page to hover above the canopy. Light coiled and drifted like smoke over the treetops, and the three of them had just sat, and watched, and said nothing until the twilight dance had ended and the spell broke.

They had immediately opened the thesaurus app, looked up synonyms for the word “light”, and settled on “Lucent”.

Leaving that part of the planet to survey a site on a different continent had been tough, but Lucent had been kind to them and let them watch the shimmerbugs on the night they left.

That was the survey pattern: two weeks here, two weeks there, two weeks there, until they had thoroughly surveyed eight different sites on the planet’s surface. Hence their relocation to volcanic grassland in the tropics.

Plenty of solid rock, that was the key. In theory, Misfit couldn’t get stuck—even if her feet were absolutely wedged tight in fissures or whatever, she could still jump back to Cimbrean—but Xiù much preferred to land on solid rock if she could, and preferably on high ground with a little shelter. She could be frustratingly picky about her landing sites, actually, but Julian didn’t seem to mind and Allison knew better than to argue. Her own eagerness to be down and exploring didn’t need to get in the way.

“There’s another one of those huge termite mound things…” Julian said during a low sweep while the high-detail ground radar looked for an appropriate spot. Allison called up what he was seeing on one of her side monitors.

The “termite mounds” were unholy big. They weren’t mounds at all, they were termite buildings, termite cathedrals. Their chimneys were always in clusters of five or seven, or nine, or some other odd number, like alien hands clawing at the sky wherever they thrust out of the landscape.

Julian had emphatically counselled staying the hell away from them on the grounds that “do you really wanna run into a swarm of soldier termites as big as rottweilers?” and their presence alone was tipping Lucent’s classification up towards an eleven.

But that was all speculation, and the fact was that somebody was gonna have to evaluate those things at some point. If they were really that dangerous then it needed documenting.

”There’s a good landing site about a kilometer from that one,” Xiù called. ”Think that’s far enough for the ship to be safe?”

“If I’ve got a swarm of flesh-eating megabugs after me,” Allison said with forced cheer, “I might just manage that in two minutes.”

”I… wouldn’t recommend that as a training regime, Shǎguā.”

“Hey, at least you’re motivated to succeed!”

”Well, we’ve got to check it out. I don’t want some colonists to get swarmed in their beds or whatever.” Julian sounded tense.

”Set ‘er down?”

”Yeah.”

”Okay…”

Allison let Misfit do her own power-balancing for once, unhooked her seatbelt and ducked through the engineering pressure door into the ship’s staging area.

One of the more difficult conversations they’d had, months ago before even boarding Misfit, had been the question of who would go and who would stay if they needed to survey something hazardous. Somebody had to stay behind, Jump the ship back to Cimbrean and report if…

Well. If.

And since Allison was the best shot and knew which way up to hold a first aid kit, and Julian was Mister Sneaky Woodcraft, and neither she nor Julian were anywhere near as good at flying Misfit as Xiù was, the duty fell to Xiù. She hadn’t been happy about that. She didn’t sound happy about it now. Allison didn’t blame her either.

But they’d sorted that argument out long ago.

Their customized C&M Systems excursion suits were designed for exactly this sort of situation, though. They weren’t a full-blown suit of armor, but they’d sure as hell stop most threats. She stripped off her shipboard clothing and wriggled into the tighter, seamless suit underwear.

Julian joined her in the suiting-up area just as Xiù set them down, and wordlessly opened his locker to start getting into his own gear. They didn’t speak, but shared a single tense moment of eye contact that said everything they needed to.

She’d just finished forcing her legs down the suit’s pants and into the boots when Xiù emerged from the pilot blister. She leaned against the door and watched them, then double-checked their seals once the helmets were on.

The weapons locker was easier. Two GR-1Ds, a couple of Black Ogre Munitions GSA-2 pistols, two flare guns, a couple of knives, and Julian’s good tomahawk, the one the girls had banded together and got him for his birthday.

And the cloaks. After Mars, Julian had pressed for having the suits re-skinned with something more suited to sneaking through the woods on an alien planet but C&M hadn’t been able to deliver on time. So, cloaks had made an odd comeback. It was kinda… strange to pair something so medieval as a long, dark greenish-grey cloak with an advanced exoplanet excursion suit, but they worked well enough. And honestly looked kinda badass.

Some olive drab MOLLE rigs and hunting chaps did the rest, in a ghetto, jerry-built kinda way. There were still odd flashes of the suit’s white skin here and there but according to Julian they were about as camouflaged as they were gonna get, and Allison trusted his judgement on matters of sneaking around.

“Ready?” she asked.

Julian finished strapping on his knives and grabbed the second rifle. “Ready.”

“Save us a kiss, babe,” Allison told Xiù, who managed a nervous little smile.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good girl.”

Their boots kissed down onto a hard surface of off-white cracked clay a minute later after the airlock had cycled. It was a strange patch of baldness in an otherwise lush green forest.

“What is this?” Allison asked. “Is it natural?”

“Seasonal lake bed,” Julian said.

They briskly jogged the fifty meters or so to the shoreline with its dense foliage, and picked a clear-ish route up. Julian marked the tree next to it with a dab of bright orange spraypaint and then… did his disappearing act.

Allison had learned a few of his tricks, but he was still damn near impossible to follow. She knew where he was, or at least thought she knew where he was, but even looking right at the path she thought he’d taken, she saw hardly anything. Even the sway of the bushes might only be due to the breeze.

She hung back for a few seconds to give him a headstart, then followed. It was a system that played to their strengths—he scouted ahead and stopped her from blundering into trouble, and if he got in trouble she was in a position to cover him as he fell back. They’d rehearsed it a lot with Jason Hammond on his obstacle course back in Omaha.

Somehow, when she’d envisioned using it, Allison had imaged a forest crawling with Hunters, or Hierarchy biodrones.

A giant termite mound hadn’t been on the list, but somehow it was way more daunting than either of those other prospects. Those were threats she knew of, even if she’d never seen a Hunter in the flesh.

But they had no idea what was waiting for them in Lucent’s insect cathedrals.


Date Point: July 11y7m3w AV
Nicholas Patrick Memorial Hospital, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

“Uh… I am going home today, right? Or was it tomorrow?”

Ava tried to find humor in the question, but it was difficult. Gabe’s short-term retention was completely shot, and he was a long, long way short of being his usual incisive, perceptive self. Right now he looked fragile, small and much older than he really was.

“No, Dad,” she replied and tried to keep the weariness out of her voice. This was the third time she’d explained this. “Mister Gupta’s going to look at you and decide if you can go home today.”

“…Me cago en la leche, right. Yeah. You said that already.” Gabriel massaged his forehead gingerly past the bandage. “I think.”

The hospital had generously been persuaded to let Ava bring Hannah in with her during visits, and she was doing incredible work brightening up the ward. With Folctha’s population being predominantly young and fit, the hospital’s patients were almost all the victims of assorted accidents, and none of them liked being where they were.

Emotional support was Hannah’s job however, and she loved to work. Which meant that everyone who looked even slightly down was getting a panting, wagging but respectful visit from the most qualified morale officer on the planet. She never jumped up or barked or licked without permission, but instead would lay her head on the patient’s knee and look soulfully up at them, or just make it clear that she was happy to see them. She’d get scratches and fuss and baby-speak and then (God bless her) she’d trot back to check that Ava and Gabe were okay.

Right now she had rested her head in Gabe’s lap and was staying there. He needed her the most.

Gabe’s hand rocked absently back and forth through the thick ruff of silky fur around Hannah’s neck as he let his frustration dissipate.

“…So hard to think,” he complained. “It’s all… furry…”

Hannah shifted her feet and whined slightly, which managed to draw a laugh out of him and he massaged behind her ears.

“Yes, you’re furry too,” he told the dog. “But in a good way.”

Mister Gupta picked that moment to stroll onto the ward at the head of an entourage of his junior doctors and his registrar.

“Feeling better, Mr. Arés?” he asked.

“Wondering when I get to go home,” Gabe groused good-naturedly.

“And deprive us of your daughter’s dog?” Gupta asked, and smiled when Ava raised a hand to cover her smile. “Of course, the cleaners will be happy…”

“Hannah’s clean!” Ava protested. “I wash her every day!”

Gupta chuckled and produced a tablet computer, which he consulted. He nodded at whatever it was he saw.

“Well, I think you’ve been here long enough,” he told Gabe. “You’ll heal just as well at home.”

“When do I get to go back to work?” Gabe asked. Gupta ran his tongue over his teeth as he thought, then waved away the juniors and registrar before drawing up a chair to sit in front of Gabriel with a somber look on his face. He drew the curtain for privacy.

“Candidly, Mr. Arés, your injury is likely to impair you for months at the very least. Your memory may never be what it once was. I wouldn’t recommend returning to work just yet.”

Gabe struggled to sit up. “Define ’ just yet’,” he demanded. “My work is important!”

Gupta shook his head. “Every brain injury is unique,” he advised. “But the balance of probability is that you will struggle with short-term retention for months, may find it difficult to control your emotions, and may find your cognitive faculties impaired as well. Unfortunately there is no miracle drug that can fix all of that,” he intoned, unaware that he was completely wrong, “but I do know that your recovery will be impaired by stress and long hours. If you desire the speediest recovery possible, then you are going to need to take some time off. Months, probably.”

Gabriel was as far forward in his chair as he could get without actually standing. “I can’t!” he said. “I don’t mean I don’t want to, I mean that the role just can’t be vacant for that long. You’re telling me I have to retire!”

Gupta’s face was full of sympathy. “If that’s so then… I’m sorry, but your health is more important,” he said.

¡Vete al carajo!

Dad!” Shocked, Ava laid her hand on his, and Hannah whined. Gabe looked shocked at himself too. Slowly, he settled back and put his free hand on Ava’s.

“I… I’m sorry, Mister Gupta,” he said at last. “That… I guess that just proved your point, huh?”

“It’s quite alright,” Gupta promised. “I’d feel the same way in your position.”

Gabe hung his head. “I…” For the first time ever, Ava saw a tear trickle down his nose. He wiped it off with his thumb. “I wanna go home now,” he said at last.

“I agree, that’s probably best,” Gupta stood up. “I’ll discharge you as soon as I’m finished with my ward round, and I’ll see you back here for a follow-up chat in a month. You’ll need to see your practice nurse every day to get your dressings changed-” he indicated the bandages swaddling Gabe’s damaged, dismantled and reconstructed skull, “-and to have your stitches out in ten days.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Ava promised. Gupta nodded, shook their hands, and left them alone.

As soon as he was gone, Gabe slumped miserably in his chair. “…That’s it, then. I’m out of the fight,” he said mournfully. “However the Big Hotel war goes, it goes without me.”

Ava gave him the biggest daughterly hug she could considering the state of his ribs and arm. “You did a lot,” she said.

“Not enough.”

That actually made Ava laugh. She kissed him on the forehead. “You are so much like Adam,” she said.

Gabe chuckled too, and wiped off his eyes. “So you’re telling me I should quit before I really hurt myself.”

“If you don’t, you’ll end up being nursed by Adam. Have you ever been under his care?”

“…’Care’?”

Ava giggled a little, then sobered. “I, uh… I already lost one dad,” she said quietly. “Maybe this is selfish but… I’d kinda like to keep this one.”

“Ava-”

“And Jess wants you for a long time too.”

Gabe bowed his head in a happier form of defeat. “…Okay. I don’t know what I’ll do, but… I’ll find something.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, Mija.”


Date Point: 11y7m3w AV
BGEV-11 ’Misfit’, Planet Lucent, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

The worst part for Xiù was the watching helplessly. Allison stopped at the bottom of the ladder and let Julian climb first. She turned, kneeled, her rifle snapped up. GR-1ds didn’t slam loud and painful like a conventional rifle, instead they cracked like a bullwhip.

Rounds tore into the goat-sized insect that had just scrambled down the bank in pursuit of them, punching fist-sized holes in its carapace. It staggered and collapsed leaking horrible yellowish juices. Three more bursts, three more dead bugs and then…

They retreated, which was just confusing. A half-mile pursuit by hundreds of angry alien giant termites ended the moment Allison fired her weapon? That… didn’t make any sense at all.

But the Lucent Termites had definitely backed off. Julian unslung his rifle and aimed it, covering Allison as she climbed the ladder, and the two of them ducked into the airlock.

Xiù took off as soon as the lock’s outer two doors were firmly closed and the seals were confirmed.

She got them on the climb to orbit and then asked the burning question she’d wanted to ask every since the shit had hit the fan. “Are you okay?”

“Grody,” Allison complained, “…but fine. I think we’re gonna have to burn the cloaks and all the rest of this gear though.”

“After I take samples,” Julian said firmly. Like Allison, he was drenched head to toe in some kind of horrible watery brown juice that had soaked into every piece of fabric he was wearing.

“Sure, sure…”

Xiù watched via the camera as the two of them carefully removed all the soaked fabric into a single sodden stinking pile, and Julian retrieved the Hazardous Substance Sampling Kit from its storage in the airlock’s ceiling. He swabbed the brown goop off their suits, squeezed a few ropey mucus drools of it out into some sample vials, then immersed those vials in the bottles full of safety solution, sealed the box and then fed it into the sterilizer.

The guns, knives and tomahawk were laid out on the floor, and the fouled equipment was carefully bagged, then bagged again, then a third time before being dropped down the incinerator chute.

Only once they were down to the bare essentials of the excursion suits and their metal tools did they go through the double safety-check procedure of starting up the airlock’s red decontamination cycle, the version designed with the excursion suits in mind.

The whole airlock became a high-pressure, high-temperature shower that hosed them and everything they had with them down with hot acid. They both turned and raised their limbs to make sure they were completely covered.

Then there was an explosive puff and they were covered in alkaline powder that fizzed and hissed as it neutralized the acid.

There was a rinse of scalding hot water that would have seriously harmed them without the suits, an antibacterial soap cycle, another rinse, a double sweep with the Corti decontamination beams on full power, and then (thank goodness for their polarized protective glass in their helmets) five minutes under intense UV light.

By the end of it all the suits were steaming and would need repairs by C&M technicians… but the only way to have more thoroughly sterilized them would have been a fatal dose of gamma radiation.

By the time it was all finished, Misfit was in orbit and Xiù was able to dismount from the cockpit and hover in the staging room waiting for them.

The eye-burning stink of swimming pool and chemistry class swept over her as the inner doors opened. Thank God they’d been in the suits: Red decon without the suits involved a full body shave and quarantine.

“Well that was fucking disturbing,” Allison commented with brittle calm, as soon as they were safely through. She placed the guns on the armory table with a rueful sigh “And a waste of good gear.”

“You’re okay, though, right?” Xiù asked, wrestling her anxiety. Julian twisted his helmet to unseal it and ducked to pull it off. His hair was soaked with sweat.

“We’re… fine?” he checked with Allison, who nodded. “We’re fine.”

Allison coughed as she took her helmet off and got a strong hit of diffuse, diluted Chlorine. “Julian?”

“Yes, Al?”

“Next time you say we gotta explore an alien termite mound?”

“I know, I know…”

They kissed, then spared some reassuring attention for Xiù.

“Guess we’re recalling to Cimbrean then, huh?” Xiù asked.

“We’re inside the resupply window, just,” Julian said, removing his gloves. “Bit early, but…”

“But the suits need repairs and probably the weapons too,” Allison said. “Besides, we can make Lucent somebody else’s problem. Let them deal with the giant angry snot-bugs.”

“Recall it is,” Xiù said. She sat back down in her seat and was slid back into place behind the ship’s controls. She called up the routine recall jump checklist and worked through it.

First, launch a beacon satellite. That made perfect sense, since they didn’t want to spend a couple of months flying all the way back out here after resupply. The little launch tube was in the back of engineering, and made a ringing sound as it drove the minisatellite out into space on a puff of compressed air, injecting it onto an orbit slightly tangential to Misfit’s own escape orbit. She double-checked its course, saw that it would drift out of the system in about ten years’ time, and moved on to the actual recall.

Next, charge the jump engine. That was already done—Allison kept it permanently charged. Then select the desired beacon from the list. Again, easy: They had only launched one so far. Hit “recall”, hit “Confirm”…

The stars outside changed. That was it, that was the whole event. Several thousand lightyears in less than a second and the only visible consequence at first was a thousand different constellations. If she hadn’t been able to see those stars, she never would have noticed the difference.

Well… the radio traffic was different too.

”Unidentified starship this is Cimbrean Border Security control, we have you jumping in. Please identify.”

Oh yeah. She had to talk to people, that was part of the job too. “Hello Cimbrean control, this is Bravo Golf Echo Victor One-One Heavy ’Misfit’. Holding orbit.”

“Hello Misfit! Welcome back, we weren’t expecting you for a while yet. Things have changed since you were last here.”

Xiù saw that much instantly. When they had left, the anchorage above Cimbrean-5 had been just an assigned orbit. Now, parked proud and huge in that reserved space, was a full-sized Dominion free trade station. Dog’s convoy must have succeeded.

“I can see that! Any change to customs procedure?”

”Affirmative Misfit. Customs is now conducted aboard Allied Trade Station One ‘Armstrong’. Tune to wake comms channel three for their traffic control. And, uh… welcome back. Border Security out.”

Xiù took a moment to shake her head and let the reality of how quickly things could change sink in. She’d gone from watching her lovers get covered in alien bug slime, to shaking hands with a space station that hadn’t even existed six months ago, all in less than an hour.

Crazy.

She boosted onto an approach, and called the station.


Date Point: July 11y7m4w AV
Moses Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

“Halfway through the mission, a half-million repair bill, and all they have to show for it is one planet full of lousy giant bugs?! Ugh!!”

Kevin was in Naysmith mode while everybody else waited for him to work. It was a powerful and important job, puncturing his billionaire boss’ worst excesses and trying to keep him grounded. Heck it was easily the most rewarding one he’d ever had.

It was also the most difficult he’d ever had. “Y’know, they’ve already volunteered for a second mission, and maybe even more,” he pointed out. “Misfit’s gonna fly for years to come.”

“And if all they’re bringin’ me is giant insects-!” Moses began.

Kevin interrupted him. He was the only one at the table with that power, and he was duty-bound to use it by leaning forward and pitching his voice at that careful line between lifting it and raising it. “Boss! We went over this, remember? Travel times, the distances involved, survey times, the need to resupply, degauss. Now, it looks like they’ve eliminated the false positives problem, which means the second half’a this mission is gonna be crazy efficient, and they’ve signed on for more, which saves us costs in the long run. I know it ain’t the home run you wanted, but we’re a long, long way from having a disaster on our hands here.”

Byron glowered at him, then regained his self-control and his intellect, applied them both, and chilled out.

“…You’re right, I was hoping for more,” he said at last. He sat back and rubbed his eyes wearily. “We invested more into the BGEV program than was necessarily wise, Kevin. I’m eager for results.”

Kevin settled back as well, and turned to Doctor Ericson. “Doc?”

The program’s senior scientist gave him a moment’s nonverbal gratitude then stood up to address the whole table.

“Insects on Earth have already provided us with resources like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “Not just honey but, uh, shellac, beeswax, silk, kermes dye, Carmine dye… Sure, people are generally squeamish about insects but goodness knows what we might find on that planet when the long-term research team heads on over there aboard Creature Of Habit.”

“Way back when, the Chinese had a monopoly on silk production,” Mr. Williams pointed out. “And it made them incredibly wealthy.”

“Now imagine if the insects on this planet can make silk,” Clara Brown injected. “And maybe they can make five times as much, and maybe their silk is naturally full of interesting hues and colors.”

“Or maybe their silk turns out to be full of antibiotics,” Ericson agreed.

“Or they feed their larvae with the cure for cancer.”

“Or a serum that can double a human lifespan.”

“Or maybe we find a species of really pretty critter we can sell as pets!” somebody suggested.

Moses raised his hands theatrically. “Fine! Fine! Point made! Maybe the Planet of the Giant Bugs will be valuable for us after all!”

“It’s a whole planet, Boss,” Kevin pointed out. “And right now it belongs exclusively to the Group. The resources of a whole planet just as big as Earth. You gonna tell me that’s a failure?”

Moses lowered his hands and nodded. “Okay, your point’s made. I’m being unreasonable.” He grumbled a little, but Kevin knew perfectly well that Moses was tough as an old boot in reality. Come the morning, once his ego had taken some time for its ears to stop ringing, he’d almost certainly start sending out small tokens of his esteem. He was like that.

“So… we’re re-launching Creature Of Habit?” Clara asked, enthusiastically.

Moses sat back and stroked his chin thoughtfully for a minute or two, then nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “Make that ship make money again.”

They were only too happy to oblige.


Date Point: August 11y8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: SSGT Wilson Akiyama

Staff Sergeant Akiyama attended today for his annual assessment.

He continues to feel guilty over the death of Sergeant Brady Stevenson with whom he was close and who would have celebrated his birthday this week, but states that this is “just an occasional downer” and that he is otherwise feeling well. I was pleased to note that he did not raise the issue of the wound he suffered during Operation NOVA HOUND at all, and I believe that he has processed his concerns on that matter.

Objectively and subjectively therefore his mood is appropriate and even positive. I will see him again in a year.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: August 11y8m AV
Allied Trade Station 1 ’Armstrong’, Cimbrean-5, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“Bloody hellfire! What have you done to my suits?!

Julian offered an apologetic smile and cleared his throat. “Sorry, Mister Cavendish. Red decon’s kinda nasty.”

“I know, yes. I know what it entails but… bloody hell. I never thought I’d see its effect.”

Cavendish gave the tortured excursion suits a rueful once-over. They weren’t actually in terrible shape considering they’d been hosed down with acid and scalding water. At least, they only needed repairing rather than replacing.

“Alright. These’ll have to go back to our workshop for full safety testing,” he announced.

“That grounds us,” Julian pointed out. “And we’ve already been here more than a week.”

“Then you’re grounded, and if Moses Byron complains then tell him he can have it out with me.”

“We’ve got a guy for standing between us and Moses already,” Julian said. “But, Moses pays him to do that. He’s a pretty good boss, really.”

“Lucky. I’ve worked with some other billionaires.” Cavendish said. “Some of ‘em are the best people you’ll ever meet, others are narcissistic bastards who’ll rip you apart for not kissing their feet. Which one is Byron d’you think?”

“Somewhere in the middle,” Julian shrugged. “Anyway… sorry about the suits, but they saved us for real. I don’t want to know what that shit the bugs sprayed all over us was, but I bet I wouldn’t have enjoyed getting it on my bare skin.”

Cavendish sighed and closed the crate. He waved at a couple of guys wearing his company’s polo shirts and they hoisted the suit boxes up onto their wheels and took them away. “I’ll have them back to you soon as,” he promised.

“Thanks, Mister Cavendish. Can I make a request?”

“Name it,”

“If they could be camo pattern or olive drab or something from now on? Our ghetto camo solution didn’t really work so great…”

“I’ll see what I can do without compromising on safety features,” Cavendish promised.

“Camo is a safety feature.”

“…Right you are. I’ll see what I can do.”

They shook hands and parted ways, and Julian headed up-deck to meet with the girls.

Armstrong was weird. There was nothing wrong with it exactly, but there was something jarring about being aboard a standard Dominion-model trading station and seeing humans everywhere, dwarfed by architecture designed to accomodate beings who were twice as tall as any human.

And those humans were busy. There was orange tape everywhere as guys in high-vis yellow vests and blue hard-hats brought the station up to OSHA compliance, or whatever equivalent applied in a British or Cimbrean jurisdiction, or… whatever jurisdiction the station was in.

Jurisdiction was a problem with everything about Cimbrean. Among other things, the Cimbrean colony itself occupied a legal area that was so gray as to almost be black. Several nations had complained stridently about the colony, pointing to Article II of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The UK had adroitly maneuvered around the legal repercussions by slotting the colony neatly into some obscure category that only made sense in the uniquely convoluted context of their constitutional monarchy, and which made the colony firmly the UK’s responsibility in terms of defense in return for allegiance to the Crown, but not their responsibility in terms of legal liability for the fact that it actually existed.

Somehow.

Most Cimbreaners laughed the whole thing off and the general colonial attitude was ’easier to ask forgiveness than permission’. The colony was there, it was successful, it was arguably its own sovereign state which may or may not be guilty of violating an important international treaty… but it wasn’t going away so in the end, practicality was going to win out.

In the meantime folks were just jury-rigging things as best they could. And if that meant buying a Dominion station and then stuffing it with aftermarket modifications that voided the warranty but made it three times safer then so be it.

At least it had a good food court. A food court with burgers.

To his surprise, there was somebody sitting at the table with Xiù and Allison when he came into view, and his surprise grew when he recognised Dog Wagner. He’d honestly never expected to see the eccentric ship captain ever again after they’d parted ways at FTS-50.

He looked good, too. A few months of being back in touch with humanity had done a lot for him: his teeth looked healthier, he was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt instead of the baggy, lopsided hand-stitched sweater he’d made for himself, and he was rapidly losing the skinny, malnourished look of a long-term abductee.

Dog greeted him with a fist bump. “Fancy meeting you here,” he grinned.

“Yeah!” Julian agreed. “Heck of a coincidence.”

“Not really: I’m on the Hephaestus payroll now. They’ve got themselves their very own freighter! Though, they insisted on making some upgrades…” He grumbled a little and indicated the workers, but his expression said he didn’t actually mind.

“How’d they get you to agree to that?”

“Big-ass pension, dental plan, paycheck…” Dog grinned crookedly. “Also, the lady running this joint’s a fox.”

“Also your clothes fit, you’re wearing actual boots, and you don’t smell like a hibernating bear,” Allison pointed out. Dog laughed.

“And Vitamin C!” He crowed. “Brother, you musta had an orange when you got back to civilization right?”

“Oh, fuck yeah,” Julian nodded. It had been the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten. “I ate a whole sack.”

“Fuckin’… lemonade,” Dog said. “And coffee. Steak. And… It’s like, shit, the boss lady here, Adele Park? She called me up to her office as soon as she fuckin’ had an office and… shit. All the things you don’t know you missed until somebody gives ‘em to ya.” He sighed and sat back, looking up at the ceiling with an expression of faraway ecstacy. “General Tso’s chicken, football, porn!

Xiù giggled, and Dog flinched and cleared his throat. “Uh… Sorry. Forget I said that…”

Allison snorted and shook her head. “Nope. We’re gonna hold that one over you.”

“God dammit,” Dog chuckled. “…I shoulda got back in touch years ago.”

“I notice you’re not going back to Earth, though,” Julian said.

“Nah brother. What would I even fuckin’ do?” Dog shook his head. “Nah, this way I get the best of both worlds and there’s an actual future in it. I ain’t far off sixty, a fella like me ain’t gonna get a better deal than this.”

“We’re happy for you,” Allison told him. Dog grinned and toasted her with a can of cola.

“What about you kids?” he asked. “You just gonna do this one round or…?”

Before they could reply, Xiù swatted Julian on the arm and nodded urgently toward something. Kevin Jenkins and Clara Brown were strolling toward them.

Clara naturally looked by far the more excited of the two. Her trademark huge girlish enthusiastic grin was firmly in place and she was geeking out hard over absolutely everything. Kevin’s appraising sweep of the station was more composed, and his smile wasn’t so much excited as… proud? Or perhaps pleased.

“…That guy looks familiar,” Dog frowned.

“Well, he might be. Dog Wagner-” Xiù made the introductions as they arrived, “This is Kevin Jenkins, and Doctor Clara Brown. Guys, this is Dog. Captain of the ’My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’.”

Kevin roared with laughter. “Oh, man! I like you already!” he chuckled and extended a hand. Dog paused, then shook it.

The Kevin Jenkins? I saw your ass on the news way back…”

“Yeah. Saying some stupid shit where some ET news hack could film me, right?” Kevin pulled an apologetic face. “That’s me.”

“Dang, brother. You made my life pretty fuckin’ difficult for a while there… Part’a me kinda wants to bust your face. ”

Kevin smiled ruefully and sat down next to Xiù. “She already did,” he said, turning her face red. “For real though, I’m sorry if I caused you trouble, man. I’d take back every word if I could.”

Dog made a forgiving gesture. “Ancient history.”

“So,” Allison interjected. “What’s the word from the boardroom?”

“Eh. Think Moses wanted you guys to tag eight planets, a gajillion barrels of crude oil and the cure for cancer,” Kevin smirked. “We managed to convince him you done good. Even if you are taking some vacation time.”

He grinned when Julian opened his mouth to object. “I know, I know, red decon. We’re just happy to have you alive, guys.

“Plus It’s a good chance to service the ship!” Clara enthused.

“And do some PR shit. And no-” Kevin raised a hand as Allison threw her head back. “You don’t get to dodge out of it. If you ain’t flying you still gotta earn your salary.”

“Dammit Kevin-!”

“Relax, we’re not gonna trot you out in front of the cameras,” Kevin soothed. “Just do some video logs, answer some fan mail, shit like that.”

“What about the other thing?” Julian asked. “Our new contract?”

Clara giggled “You shoulda seen how Moses lit up when Kevin told him you guys wanted to stay on after this mission,” she said.

“The whole six-on, six-off thing?” Allison asked.

“That works great for us,” Clara said.

“I was gonna counter-offer with six on, six off, and three months of training and publicity stuff,” Kevin said.

Allison, Julian and Xiù glanced at each other. “We’ll have to talk about that,” Allison said.

“You’ve got time. My advice? The Group wants you three. You’re in a strong bargaining position, so don’t be afraid to play hardball. But you’re gonna have to accept some publicity, ‘cause it’ll follow you even if y’all retire to that nice place in the woods.”

“Keep flying, though, and we can stay away from the cameras for months at a time…” Julian mused.

“If we want,” Xiù added.

“Cool.” Kevin smiled. “We’ll do the actual negotiation when you finish this tour, yeah?”

“You mean when a guy from the competition ain’t here,” Dog snarked.

“Life wouldn’t be interesting without the competition, man,” Kevin said. “Hey look, how about I buy us all dinner? My treat.”

“Guess that shiny suit comes with a paycheck, huh?” Dog observed.

“Not gonna lie, I got more money than I know what to do with. Lemme spend it.”

“Hey, I wasn’t saying no…”

That drew a laugh from pretty much everyone, and Kevin stood up. “Alright. No more business talk. We had a long trip to get here, and I wanna hear stories. Right, Doc?”

Clara nodded. “Oh hell yeah!” she enthused. “The glimmerbugs! I… tell me all about them…”

“Oh man, now those things are a campfire story…” Julian began.

He told them all about it.


Date Point: August 11y8m3w AV
Huntsville, Alabama, USA, Earth

Master Sergeant Derek Coombes

“So those are the next guys in the HEAT pipeline, huh? I ain’t impressed.”

“’Cause most of ‘em are smaller’n you, Tiny?”

“Shyeah. They gotta looong way to go. Ain’t a quarter of ‘em gonna make it, either.” Walsh shook his head.

Imagining what might have been, probably. Walsh had qualified for what were now called HEAT, only to lose his shot due to an avoidable injury he’d picked up in a celebratory arm-wrestling contest. He knew what the job required, knew he had it, and knew he’d fucked it up. Coombes sympathized, but they had a new mission now and he needed Walsh’s head in the game.

He smacked the big guy on the arm. “Come on. Let’s go meet this Hoeff fella.”

“Gotta work with a fuckin’ SEAL, man. SEALs are weird…” Tiny grumbled.

“Yeah, but it’s like the fuckin’ trifecta, right? He’s Navy, I’m Army, you’re Chair Force!”

Coombes got an amused smile from Walsh. “Hey! My chair was fuckin’ sweet!”

“Mhmm. Damn Air Force, never doin’ any fieldwork…”

Walsh snorted. Some jokes never got old.

The JETS training at Huntsville was all about the variable-gravity obstacle course. In this case, it was a refresher: All three of them had undergone variable-G training over in England during the first incarnation of the JETS, when it was supposed to be a qualification.

The real training was gonna be on Cimbrean and they knew it, but first they had to cover the basics of survival. Coombes wasn’t excited about that part: he’d been through those courses many times. Walsh was more upbeat, and had spent the journey towards Huntsville reading up on contamination and containment, AKA the ‘How to not kill a whole planet with your butt’ manual.

“You think we’re gonna learn anything good, Tiny?”

“Well…looking through this? I suspect they’re gonna spend a lot of time on containment. You ever shit into a bag?”

“…What did I sign up for?”

“And then carry it back with you?”

“This had better be a good fuckin’ bag.”

“It’s gonna be heavy. You sure you don’t wanna bulk up?”

“What? So I’m bigger so I need to eat more, so I shit more so I gotta carry even more shit in a bag?”

“…Bro. My base metabolic rate is about thirty-five hundred calories. That…ain’t much more than you, as long as I’m being–”

“You’re such a fuckin’ nerd! Only bro I ever knew that could make gainz sound boring.”

A new voice interrupted them. “Nerd, huh? Guess I know which one’a y’all’s the airman, then.”

It belonged to a guy who made even Coombes look large, though he packed a lot of wiry intensity into that compact build. Even ambling amicably up to meet them, he was disarmingly quiet.

Walsh grinned and stuck out his mitt. “Yo, name’s Staff Sergeant Walsh. People call me ‘Tiny’ for, y’know. Obvious reasons.”

“‘Cause they’re fuckin’ idiots?” This was said with a grin, and a handshake. “Chief Petty Officer Hoeff.” When he turned the handshake on Coombes and was introduced he turned out to have a vice grip like a chimpanzee, and Coombes could detect the ‘subtle’ signs of approval in Tiny’s body language.

“Eh, I ain’t that big,” Walsh said airily. “You should see a couple’a HEAT bros I know.”

“Especially Firth,” Coombes said.

“Especially Firth, yeah. That motherfucker plays with me like I’m a chewtoy.”

“It’s adorable to watch, too. I keep wonderin’ if he’ll drag you off to his dog house.”

“Nah, bro. The Dog House is Warhorse’s place.”

“Not their fuckin’ gym, you dipshit!”

Walsh grinned a trollish grin that was mirrored on Hoeff. The SEAL aimed a thumb over his shoulder. “We’re sleepin’ over yonder. I already took the good room.”

“Well fuck! I suppose we better go check what you left us.”

“Heh. Well, we’re already checked in,” rumbled Walsh, “I wanna drop my bags and go get a workout in.”

Coombes rolled his eyes but acquiesced, and Tiny wandered away at a rolling stroll with his bag over his shoulder. Coombes shouldered his own bag and followed him. Their new address wasn’t hard to find—it was the last and smallest at the end of the row—and Hoeff’s ‘good room’ turned out to be pretty much indistinguishable from the others except that it was closest to the kitchen and farthest from the latrine.

He waited for Walsh to drop his bags and change into his PT gear, then took Hoeff aside as soon as they could talk without being overheard. “Hey, Chief Petty Officer. You mind if I call you Hoeff?”

“Sure thing, Master Sergeant. Can I call you Coombes?”

“Right on. Anyway, Walsh? He’s…well, he’s a got a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He was selected for HEAT but fucked it up for himself pretty epic-like. I’m tryin’a…I wanna make him feel better about JETS, right?”

Hoeff nodded understanding. “I think we’re on the same page.” He watched Walsh jog out onto the training field and bee-line toward the HEAT potentials. “And Walsh is someone we really need, don’t we?”

“Mhmm. Ain’t often you get someone that smart and that physical. I bet we’re gonna need to think our way out of jams we ain’t even dreamed up, and we’re definitely going to be rolling heavy in gear. Ever do long-range recon?”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m here.”

“Y’know the kind where you can’t leave any sign?”

Hoeff nodded ruefully. “Ayup. Like I said…we need a mule. And Tiny looks like a goddamned pack horse.” Crammed into his reflective Air Force PT gear, Walsh was impossible to miss. By now he was down with the HEAT candidates and he looked like he was hell-bent on humiliating every one of them. Judging by their gawping expressions he already was, and not very friendly-like, either.

“…He’s gotta calm down,” Hoeff decided.

“I think he’ll get there. His real problem is…well. He really is HEAT material, and I’ve seen HEAT in action, man. I think some part of him thinks he’s…humoring me. He’s too polite to ever admit it, but…”

“That’s rough.” Hoeff scratched at his jaw. It was scruffy like only an operator could get away with. “…What’s HEAT like, anyhow?”

Coombes sighed. “You ever meet a man who is better than you in literally every possible way, and is so goddamned nice and friendly it makes it even worse?”

“I can imagine…” Hoeff offered, slowly.

“Right. Now cover that guy in some hapless motherfucker’s guts.”

Coombes watched Hoeff’s expression and caught the faintest of slight frowns. “I watched…well. It’s weird, the three HEAT bros I’m thinking of could literally rip me apart before I noticed,” he added. “And Walsh? He’s easily good enough to join ‘em. But instead he’s gonna do milk runs with us.”

“This shit ain’t gonna be milk runs! Have you read the mission brief?”

“Yup.” Coombes looked back at the field again, where the HEAT wannabes were all being left in the dirt even as they gamely tried to keep up. “Now all we gotta do is get Walsh to believe it…”


Six hours later

“Whaddya think?”

Walsh stroked his chin. “Good intro class, he raised some interesting points. I’m gonna…go to the SCIF and read up some more. After PT.”

Coombes granted himself a satisfied nod. Mission accomplished.


Date Point: September 11y9m1w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: SSgt Adam Arés

I last saw Staff Sergeant Arés one month ago, as he is in the habit of visiting me every month. He is a patient and thoughtful young man who continues to grapple with his historic trauma and his father’s disability.

He has repeated his concerns regarding his devotion to maximal physical performance. Although the demands of his career make his substantial physicality necessary, he worries that he is obsessed and about being seen as a “freak”. Notably, this has not lessened his pursuit of physical excellence in any appreciable degree.

We touched briefly on the subject of his father’s recent fall and worsening disability, which is a source of some considerable frustration and upset for him. He states that he is finding it “difficult” to accept his father’s situation, and joked that “everybody thinks their dad is stronger, right?” I advised him that the best person to discuss these matters with is probably Mr. Arés Senior, and he has assured me that he will make the attempt.

He also continues to express mixed feelings over what he calls “The Hate”, though he has become more articulate in being able to describe exactly what this entails.

According to him, “The Hate” is his motivating force. He describes it as an ability to channel his anger and frustration, especially over his past trauma, into constructive mental impetus. As a psychiatrist this generates some professional conflict; on the one hand, it is quite clear it has enabled Arés to push the boundaries of human possibility and this is a thing we are desperately in need of. On the other, for his personal benefit it is difficult to determine which course of therapy may be best. Do we work on his anger and possibly repressed self-loathing knowing that could risk his abilities? How would he feel afterwards?

It must also be said that Sergeant Arés possesses violent ideations. These are understandable considering his history, personality type and vocation though he seems to have them well under control. He discussed his relationship with Sergeant Firth and remarked “it’s helped [him] understand where it’s coming from and keep it locked down.”

He denies feeling specific violent impulses toward individual people around him, and states that his anger is directed “at the whole world, sometimes”, though he does report that channeling his anger has proven equally useful to him both in training and in battle.

We discussed whether he feels this is healthy, to which he replied that it is “probably not”, but he suggests that his most constructive course of action would be to continue much as he is, with the support of his team. I am inclined to agree, though I will of course keep a close eye on him and I have encouraged him to visit me as often as he likes, which he has assured me he shall.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: September 11y9m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Special Agent Darcy

“So! What have Control cooked up for us? Any new Indications and Warnings?”

In the parlance of the intelligence industry ’Indications and Warnings’ was an important term of art. While it could mean many things, they all essentially boiled down to: ’what are their people doing, and what should our people watch for?’

Darcy ruefully considered her coffee for a moment before responding. It wasn’t that she disliked coffee, as such, but she drank so much of it at the behest of whoever she was visiting that nowadays she much preferred green tea, if only for the change of pace.

“…Revised but they’re much the same,” she said, blowing on the drink to cool it. “They want more emphasis on the Females. What I’m more interested in is your current collection deck.”

That was another term of art: A collection deck was the end result of a lengthy but efficient chain of decision-making that all happened behind the opaque facade of Control. Policy-makers and their analysts decided what questions needed answering, another team of analysts determined what things needed to be watched to generate input to the process, and they in turn generated a list of what specific things the case officers and their sources needed to key onto. That was a collection deck.

Darcy was a case officer. Melissa meanwhile was her source, and a very good one. She also had the luxury of not being compromised by her duties. Others in the industry might literally have killed for an assignment that was so free of moral gray areas: they made for easy and rewarding work, and sound nights of restful sleep.

Melissa nodded. “Let me guess: Meereo? I presume now that he and Niral are a couple…”

“He is Champion of Clan Longear,” Darcy pointed out. “From what I can tell he’s effectively the Gaoian equivalent of a prince, or a head of state.”

“Close enough, I guess. There’s no real direct equivalent to any modern human rank, uh… he’s… well, a champion. In the medieval sense.”

Darcy nodded understanding.

“He’s also away right now,” Melissa added .”So…what do you want me to do?” She had always been a cautious one.

“Watch for Hierarchy influence, of course. Mostly, watch Niral and see how they interact. We don’t want a ‘honeypot’ scenario.”

“I’m not sure Gaoians are as vulnerable to that, but…”

A ‘honeypot’ was an old—arguably the oldest—trick of tradecraft, and hinged on some primordial truths about the relationship between men and women. Men after all predictably wanted to be seduced, a fact that untold millions of women had used to their advantage throughout history.

“I understand.” Darcy sipped the coffee again. “But honestly, the collection deck is mostly unchanged. We’re interested in Gaoian culture, behavior, and their politics, and the spread of Hierarchy influence. Personally though, I’m most interested in the Females. They’re arguably the most important power block amongst the Gao, which makes our lack of visibility into them… frustrating.” She sipped her coffee.

Melissa nodded. “We haven’t had much contact with them until recently.”

“Mm.” Darcy put the coffee down. “But that’s changing now and you’re the only person we have who’s positioned to take advantage. It’d be well worth your time…”

She picked up her phone and briskly opened an app. “And rewarding. I know it’s not much…” In fact it was. “But I hope this expresses our gratitude.”

Melissa received a ping on her phone, and commendably subdued her reaction to the figure she saw, not allowing it to go beyond a raised eyebrow. She did, however, issue an uncomfortable sigh. “My tax dollars at work, I guess…”

“Sooner or later, Melissa, what you are doing is going to cost you personally. Don’t take this the wrong way but a quality person like you needs options, and there’s nothing quite like money for creating options. Try and keep them open, okay?”

It was sometimes useful to sober up a source.

“…I will. Anything else?”

Darcy finished her coffee. “No, not right now, I need to get going… Thank you for the company.”

Melissa stood and showed Darcy to the door, and just like that a meeting that had involved travelling several thousand lightyears was done.

Sometimes, Darcy thought, that was her whole job. Travelling a long way just for five-minute conversations over a hot drink.

But of course, the right conversation with the right person at the right time was a tremendously powerful thing.

She caught a cab to the jump array. She had to be in London tomorrow…


Date Point: September 11y9m2w AV
Allied Trade Station 1 ’Armstrong’, Orbiting Cimbrean-5, The Far Reaches

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

There had been a time, not so very long ago, when the mere suggestion that he might one day set foot aboard a human-owned space station in orbit around an alien world would have inspired Admiral Knight to doubt the suggester’s sanity.

According to his granddaughter the popular term for the feeling of realizing that, was a “ZF Moment”. ’Zukunftsgefühl’, future-feeling. The sudden revelation that reality had unfolded in utterly unexpected ways that you could never have foreseen.

And people said that youth were shallow! Nobody else had invented a term that so perfectly encapsulated the zeitgeist.

Yes, the station was an alien design with extensive human modifications including skymasters and CIWS, but it was already a human-feeling place. It had a cinema on board, and posters advertising the next Star Wars movie. The mere fact that people genuinely lived and worked in space now had done nothing to dampen that franchise’s popularity.

It had a food court and shopping mall. It had a skinny young blonde lady in baggy clothes and fingerless gloves who was singing Bob Dylan songs with a talented voice and even more talented guitar hands. She was earning a decent living by it thanks to the entranced alien visitors who had never heard such music before.

Astonishing to think that the station had still been under construction only six months ago.

It had not, however, been constructed to accommodate men like Major Powell. Although Powell had only recently stopped being the smallest man in the HEAT unit—that dubious honor for the time being now went to young Lieutenant Costello—he was still, by anybody else’s standards, enormous.

Which meant that people noticed him, and got out of his way. The poor chap was the center of a mobile, permanent deferential circle of people giving him some respectful distance. Aliens in particular seemed to recoil from him the moment they caught wind of him, like deer spooking with a shift in the wind.

Which, to be fair, made it easy to navigate crowds.

The station’s administrative executive was the same woman who had made Ceres Base back in Sol such a success. Knight had crossed paths with Adele Park a few times at the kinds of social events for powerful people that blurred the line between ’party’ and ’unofficial meeting’. Last time, she had been shepherding Drew Cavendish of C&M systems, whose straightforward engineer’s instincts were not a good fit for high-falutin soirees.

Now, she stood and shook his hand, then Powell’s. Somehow, Powell managed to avoid causing her any discernible discomfort and she invited them to sit down opposite her desk as she made tea.

“The Dominion aren’t happy about all the weapons this station has,” she remarked conversationally. “I think they’re worried we want to sidestep the rules on orbital weapon platforms. Ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Knight agreed and allowed a small sneer to slip into his voice. “I suspect our feelings about the Dominion’s unhappiness mirror one another’s.”

“Somehow, I think you’re right.” Mrs. Park smiled as she set a tray of hot tea on the desk. “But, you aren’t here to discuss interstellar politics. I have a vehicle for you.”

“Which is a pleasant surprise,” Knight said. “The last time we spoke about your dropship plans, you suggested that a working prototype was still months away.”

“Acquiring an ET-built light freighter helped, there,” Park admitted. “The chance to let our engineers study the ’My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’-” she pronounced the name with a slight roll of her eyes “-filled in some important blanks. And of course, taking a few notes from the Byron Group’s exploration vehices helped us along, too.”

She handed them both the summary documents. “Say hello to the Weaver-class dropship.”

“You took more than ’a few notes’ I reckon…” Powell observed. Knight nodded—the Weaver clearly owed many of its genes to Misfit and its Byron Group predecessors, though its other parent was unquestionably a Chinook. It had the same sort of pug-nosed profile, with four kinetic thrusters rather than rotors for lift.

“The bidder’s brief you provided led us to believe that any mission deploying via a Weaver would need to take a lot of equipment with them,” Adele said, ignoring the comment. “Which is why we went for something this size rather than a smaller transport. In theory though, the technology we developed for the Weaver would work quite happily in something the size of, say, a Blackhawk.”

Knight caught Powell’s eye and gave him the subtlest of cues to do the talking for now. It wasn’t even an expression, really—both men had simply worked together long enough to read each other very well.

“The Weaver looks about the right size for the time being,” Powell said. “But the point of failure on previous candidates wasn’t size…”

“No, it was reusability,” Park nodded. “I remember. You want something that can cover short interstellar distances, land on a planet, take off from that planet and return at warp. We’ve gone a little above-and-beyond, there.”

“Oh aye?”

“Oh yes. The Weaver has a safe flight range of two hundred parsecs, though of course that can be extended if it carries more than the standard load of supplies.”

“Limiting factors?”

“The main one is air supply. It uses the same reprocessor technology that goes into C&M’s spacesuits which of course do have a maximum lifetime.”

Powell nodded. “How well-protected is it?”

“It’s heavily armored for a transport helicopter, and we developed what we call ’speedbump shields’. Rather than try to stop incoming hazards outright with the shields, we let it hit a weak shield at a good distance from the hull. Explosives detonate, kinetic penetrators disintegrate and the resulting hit on the armor is much weaker. We’re demoing the same technology as an update to conventional tanks back on Earth.”

Powell nodded, and closed the folder. That was his ’no objections’ nod, and it served as a signal to Knight to move things forward. He was certainly quite happy with everything he saw in the document.

“So far I can see potential in this design,” he said. Park smiled slightly and nodded.

“I was hoping you would say that,” she said and stood up. “…would you like to see the prototype?”


Date Point: September 11y9m2w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Lewis Beverote

“Like… so you got them?”

Vedreg glimmered an uneasy shade of mauve. “I… have an avenue to them. I think.”

Everyone in the briefing room looked at each other.

Sergeant Lee was the first to speak. “…You think?”

“It has to do with the way that the, ah, ’footballs’ as you call them are distributed and manufactured in the first place.” Vedreg rumbled a deep Guvnurag throat-clear and straightened to his full enormous height. “Or rather, how things in general are manufactured in Guvnurag society.”

Lewis knew Nadeau well enough by now to sense that the Lieutenant-Colonel was trying not to demand that he get to the point. Instead he settled for asking “Which is?”

“Nanofactories are ubiquitous among my people. Basic ones can be found in most homes, more sophisticated ones are present in shops and marketplaces… But we still sell and buy products that are constructed using those factories.”

“Right…?” Lewis asked.

Vedreg cleared his throat nervously again. “When you buy anything that is made by nanofactory, you buy… I suppose a file, or a code. I do not know exactly. The word in Ugundravnu-vaguvnuragnaguvendrugun—that is the language of my people—would be directly translated as digital instance of an item. When you manufacture the item you have purchased, you no longer have the digital version.”

“So all your stuff has got DRM?” Sergeant Lee asked. “We can break DRM.”

“Which is what I was counting on,” Vedreg agreed. “My negotiations over this last year have revolved around persuading the individuals responsible for such things to release system fields onto the market so that we could acquire a digital instance for you to work with. I have failed—they remain unavailable.”

“So what is your avenue?” Kirk asked

“I have encountered a new idea. Tell me… have you ever heard of a ’shell company’?”


Date Point: September 11y9m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

“Well. Now that we’re alone, I must say that was bloody impressive.”

Powell smiled a rare and genuine smile. It was always a disarming sight—he was usually so stone-faced that one felt that a real smile might splinter his skull into a million pieces, but in fact they did nothing of the sort. They sort of ghosted onto his face and rested there where they reminded whoever saw them that the major was actually a very handsome man, under the permanent slight scowl.

“Aye. Looked like a Chinook, felt like a Chinook but quieter, spaceworthy and can go FTL.” Powell nodded. “Bloody impressive indeed.”

“Does it have your stamp of approval?”

“…Aye. On balance, I reckon it does.”

Knight nodded. “And mine. I’ll go write some appropriate letters. Meanwhile, if you would be so kind as to rescue Lieutenant Costello from the tender mercies of the Lads?”

Powell smirked, nodded and jogged away looking more buoyant than he had in weeks.

Knight reminded himself to check when the last time was that Powell had taken time off, then reminded himself to check when the last time was that he himself had taken time off.

After all, sometimes you needed a good reminder of what you were working for.

He went to write his letters.


Date Point: October 11y10m1w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: Miss Ava Magdalena Ríos

This delightful young lady has made great strides in overcoming her PTSD. She bounced into my office today in the company of her therapy dog and gave me a thank-you gift.

Ava reports that although her symptoms are “only slightly” improved since our last session, she is feeling genuinely positive about life nowadays. She still has bad days, but feels that these are now rarer than her good days. Happily she could not precisely recall the last time she had a suicidal thought, and she was pleased to report that these are now “very rare”.

We discussed her adoptive father, who recently suffered a career-ending injury and I am impressed by how well she is handling this. She says that although she is of course upset by his injury and would prefer that he was well, she has found that the experience of assisting him has helped her feel useful. She describes her relationship with him as “close” and tells me that they support one another.

She touched on her romantic history and specifically her history of infidelity. She states that she feels she has “moved on from there”, that she is “older and wiser” and that she no longer hates herself for it. She pondered the possibility that she might start dating again, and I agreed that this could be healthy. She spoke admiringly of her ex-boyfriend’s new partner.

She is happy to keep taking her paroxetine and states that she no longer feels any reluctance or negative feelings when taking it.

I will see her again in six months, but she understands that she is welcome to contact me sooner should the need arise.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: October 11y10m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Staff Sergeant Adam Arés

Like all the biggest dogs, Bozo was usually happy to save his energy. Usually.

Actually, usually his favorite posture was flat on his back, legs splayed, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, denying the couch to anybody who might have designs on sitting in it.

Get him moving, though, and he was impossible to stop. And he loved water.

“Well, he’s hyper this morning…”

As part of Adam’s training duties; everyone got personal sessions at least twice a week, and updated cut-sheets for food and exercise every two days. Daily, if time permitted. Today was Major Powell’s personal session, and the ’old man’ was thumping down the Riverside Park footpath with the sun barely up.

‘Thumping’ was an uncharitable description. The major was actually keeping up a fluid, strong, quick pace that was right up there among the qualifying times for the Olympics. He was red in the face and dripping sweat while Adam was barely winded, but it was by no objective standard a bad performance.

It just wasn’t his best.

That was understandable, to a degree. None of them were running their best times right now, because they’d recently switched to barefoot running. It was a better match with the improved foot-pieces in their suits and, frankly, with the fact that it was impossible for the bigger Lads to keep shoes for long. Rebar and the Beef Trio in particular had been known to destroy footwear in less than a day. The weights involved, the difficult foot sizes, and the way those sizes kept changing…all problematic. Adam had looked into shoe-making but, well…. Fuck that noise.

So, everyone had to re-learn their gaits. A switch that was proving to be particularly troublesome for the major who was a persistent heel-striker out of many years of practice.

The only remedy for that was repetition. Up and down the path, up and down, just run and run and run until the muscle memory was overwritten. Boring stuff, but Bozo loved it. He’d race ahead of them down the sprint stretch barking madly, then get bored and wander off in the vain hope that somebody had magically imported squirrels to Cimbrean in the last five minutes.

Right now he was gallumphing into the river, splashing back out of it, shaking all the water off and then hurling himself back in for more.

“Aye,” Powell huffed slightly. “He’s not had a run for three days.”

At any rate the slower pace was a perfect opportunity. They were both so fit that they could talk easily between burst intervals and that was the best time for Adam to do his other coaching.

Powell had counselled him often enough, after all. And Admiral Knight had dropped the subtlest of subtle hints. To somebody else. Allegedly. Honestly it was hard to tell. But Adam had taken it as a hint.

Subtlety was for other people, though. “You really should take a vacation, sir.”

Powell made an exasperated noise. “That’s my fookin’ business, lad.”

“Mine too, sir. You’re wound up so tight I’mma need to work on that…”

Sometimes, a little truth and consequence was the best possible threat. Everyone dreaded Adam’s sports massages, and with good reason; he was after results, not comfort or friendship. Fortunately the major was always honest with himself, if poked the right way.

“…Aye. You’re Prob’ly right. There just isn’t any fookin’ time!”

Adam’s watch decided to interrupt his reply by beeping to signal that it was time to turn around and sprint back to the beginning, which got Bozo madly excited. He burst from the river completely soaked and drenched the trail in front of them, then promptly got bored when they turned around to jog again and went back to fishing for wild Cimbrean tennis balls. Nobody knew what he did with them: he’d be seen trotting proudly through the base with his tail up and something bright yellow in his mouth, and then, nothing. Either there was a nuclear arsenal of them buried in the yard, or he ate them.

They quickly caught their breath and Adam replied. “Make time, sir. Please? We can keep things running without you for a week and you really need the release.”

He didn’t let a minor wince of worry show on his face. That had maybe gone a bit too far.

If it had, Powell didn’t comment. He just looked thoughtful “…Aye. I ought to visit friends anyway…after this week.”

“You promise, sir?”

“Yes!” Powell exclaimed good-naturedly, “Christ, you’re worse than Legsy was, God rest ‘im.”

“He made me promise,” Adam said solemnly.

He checked his watch and counted off a few more seconds before grinning and adding “Besides, how else are we supposed to have shenanigans?”

He timed it perfectly: The watch beeped again and it was time for another sprint, another berserk-excited Bozo attack, and another cycle. But in any case he got what he needed. Good officers prided themselves on taking care of their men, but sometimes they forgot that their NCOs did the same thing to them. Timing the comment to coincide with the sprint gave him time to reflect on that.

Powell tried to take the world on his shoulders and Lads loved him for it, but he would run himself into the ground if Adam, Rebar, and Righteous didn’t nudge and wheedle from time to time.

The watch beeped to signal a rest, and Powell leaned on his knees to catch his breath.

He grinned when Bozo bounded up to check on him, and ruffled the dog’s ears. “And who’ll take care of Bozo while I’m off? You gonna live with ‘Horse, are you? Gonna bite all his stuff instead?”

WURF!”

“I know you like the taste of table leg you big dopey bugger, but dogs weren’t meant to live on wood.”

Bozo parked his butt in the dirt and shook the water off his ears. WURF!!!”

Adam looked at Bozo and grinned. Sometimes the big mutt made a great partner in crime.

“Good boy.”


Date Point: October 11y10m3w AV
Hunter Grand Conclave, Hunter Space

The Alpha-of-Alphas

<Query> +Do you hate us?+

The Alpha-of-Alphas considered the question carefully.

It…enjoyed these sessions. They were rare, and secret, and might well have resulted in its being torn limb-from-limb by the lesser Alphas had they found out, but such was the life of any Alpha-of-Alphas.

This one had taken much larger risks in its time, and still ruled. It ruled by cultivating the awe of its inferiors, but also by whetting its mind, and these infrequent conversations were an excellent whetstone.

<Contemplation; decision> +No.+

<Mild surprise> +Why not?+

<Disinterest> +We exist. We would not exist if you had not made us.+

<Disagreement> +It could be argued that we abandoned you.+

<Thoughtfulness> +And what would I be if you had not?+

It snarled a minor victory to itself as the entity with which it conversed went silent for several minutes, and dug a morsel of flesh out from among its most tricky back teeth.

<Sudden resolve> +I have a proposal.+

The Alpha-of-Alphas levered itself to its feet and toured the conclave chamber, studying the trophies that lined its walls. Particularly tenacious prey, or fragments of their starships. The weapons of particularly successful Hunters. A dozen human skulls.

<Derision> +You must be desperate.+

<Retort> +I am amazed that you are not, considering how ineffective you have been.+

Any other being would have been eviscerated for that remark. In this case, however, there was nothing to eviscerate and so it paused and thought.

The truth was, the Great Hunt had been ineffective. They had learned so much from the prey-station, but the only Hunt since had seen a Brood all but annihilated. The humans had hardened their holdings, had migrated to where they could not be found or had otherwise found ways to avoid the wrath of the Swarm of Swarms.

Ordinarily it would have been loath to accept any offer of assistance in a Hunt, from any source. But this was not a Hunt, was it? The Alpha-of-Alphas itself had been the one to decide that humans should not be counted as prey but as foes.

The usual rules did not apply.

<Resignation> +Very well. What do you propose, Two?+

<Advice> +It must be apparent by now that neither of our strategies are working. Our attempts to foment hostility between the humans and the other species have failed. They turn to them for aid now. They go to them for trade. They do not fear you.+

<Mounting impatience> +That is not a proposal but an observation.+

<Proposal> +We will give you some of our assets. You will use those assets to remind the Dominion where they stand.+

<Interest> +And what can these assets of yours do?+

Two’s reply made the Alpha-of-Alphas bare its teeth on a surge of sudden delighted hunger.

<Realization> +Yes. Yes, that is good. They would never be able to stop us.+

<Satisfaction> +You see the possibilities. You could ruin worlds.+

<Bloodlust> +No, Igraen. We could DEVOUR them.+



++END CHAPTER 33++



THIS CHAPTER BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE DONATIONS OF:

Savvz
Laga Mahesa
Remi Harbo
ctwelve
Dar
Hick2
Greg Tebbutt
Patrick Huizinga
Ali

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Stone-D (not verified)
Awesome work...

... as usual, keep it up! :D

StellWair (not verified)
This is Such a good read,

This is Such a good read, even outside the bounds of hfy's. I particularly like the depth you are going to in describing the alien cultures. The relationship aboard the Misfit is enthralling and the introduction of Vemik and his tribe was a nice touch. Can't wait for more.

Goodnewsonlyplease (not verified)
I'll be the hunter to your

I'll be the hunter to your codex, Mr Bone.

Mechanicum (not verified)
Spin-offs spinning back

I love that you've incorporated the "Good Training" side story. These two stories are now dancing around each other like a pair doing the tango.

Now, if only we could get "the dude" (Humans Make Bad Pets) and Lost Minstrel in on the act, that would be awesome.

Nana Evans (not verified)
Awesome update

I really enjoyed this chapter, especially the psych evals of the SOR. I think those added a lot to the development of the characters.

Sulaiman (not verified)
Incredible Work

Very impressed with the story. No, I'm in outright awe of the story. Honestly amazing. Keeps me yearning for more. Love the Vemik side of the story. Awesome touch with the counsellors comments on the character's psychological states. Can't wait for the next installment.

Navot (not verified)
Really enjoying all of it.

This is a very good read, hitting all sorts of spots and scratching an itch i've had for years for a complex, interesting story with a unique futuristic view that's not all that space-cthulhu style. You gave me quite a few ideas for my RPG settings and storytelling, so with that in mind: Thank you~!

Max™ (not verified)
The joy of a new entry...

...and the bummer when you hit the end again.

Still can't believe I got choked up reading a HFY story (Xiu's line on Mars, dang) but hey, good writing man!

Wom1 (not verified)
I cant imagine whay planet thell devour

It's Gao isnt it

Person (not verified)
I am exited for the prospect

I am exited for the prospect of a Sky-thinker - Misfit meeting, but the Hierarchy and the Hunters actively working together? Well, there goes the galaxy.

Anonymous (not verified)
I am sincerely hoping that

I am sincerely hoping that Warhorse meets Adrian at some point. Doesn't really have to go anywhere but I just want to see that encounter.

Swagtastico9000< (not verified)
Donation

I can't find anywhere on the site to donate, do you not take donations? Also, this story and the universe you have created is amazing, i'm a huge fan, keep up the good work. :)

andrew (not verified)
Great read

I am really loving your work

AOTA (not verified)
Amazing as usual

I absolutely love this series. I get literally giddy with excitement when reading. The level of depth that each character has is incredible, and the interactions they have with the world are truly believable. I cannot remember ever reading a story so rich and entertaining. As always, great job and keep up the awesome work!

Also, for the other readers, don't forget to vote for it on TopWebFiction!

Critterfluffy (not verified)
<Frustration>

Just finished reading everything from start to finish and now I am caught up. Nothing to read for the time being but the other JVerse stories. Great story and has enwrapped me fully for quite a while now. I really can't wait for the next chapter.

Ragnarok (not verified)
Well, this isn't good....

Looking at this cliffhanger, fear is all that is apparent. With the Hunters actually becoming a legitimate threat, Guvrununag's shield-stealing caper might prove vital...

Brent (not verified)
Great work! Needs more advertising

I have been following your on going adventure for the past year, and greatly enjoyed it.

I think you should have a line at the end of each chapter that reads something like "If you enjoyed what you have read so far and wish to support the author, he would appreciate you following this link to his Patreon account. link

Then go back and put that at the end of each chapter :)

Hambone
Hambone's picture
Thanks for the suggestion! I

Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll do that from now on.

Support Hambone and get behind-the-scenes access!

Jaybird (not verified)
Love it

I recently found this and I AM LOVING IT! This is really great and I can't wait for more chapters!

Hambone
Hambone's picture
Thank you very much! :D

Thank you very much! :D

Support Hambone and get behind-the-scenes access!

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