Chapter 35: "Event Horizons"

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Date Point: 12y3m AV
Planet Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-ugunduvug, Capitol planet of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy

Druthegvurnag

Somewhere deep in the impenetrable horror of it all, the thing that was bothering Drutheg the most was one of the civilians. The legal clerk.

She was pretty, in a bookish way. Her wool looked as though under normal circumstances it would be surprisingly silky despite perhaps being a little neglected, and there was a permanent halting, nervous tangerine stipple to her chromatophores whenever she spoke. She was…what was that blunt alien word he had learned somewhere? ‘Cute.’

Except that her mind had completely snapped under the pressure. She kept mumbling something to herself, some long-winded thing that she clearly only half-remembered. ”The Society For The Acknowledgement Of…something. High something? And there was respect for biological…? Something? I wish I could remember. It would all be alright if I could just remember…”

Drutheg almost fluoresced dark mirth. The mere idea that simply remembering the name of some society or another could possibly make things alright was so utterly insane that he could almost feel his own mind fraying simply from being near her and hearing her absurd litany.

It would hardly be inappropriate. The whole world had gone insane. White-skinned death was raining from the stars, dragging good Guvnurag away or eating them where they were caught. There hadn’t been enough warning!

No. The all-too-imminent alarm hadn’t been the problem. The homeworld defense armies had been woefully underfunded for long generations; they were too small, too diffuse. Drutheg prided himself that he was as fierce a warrior as his people had ever trained, but he was alone with six civilians in tow and none of his war herd at his side. They were all dead, and he knew it.

Which was why his own chromatophores betrayed no emotion beyond black. He had filled himself with the grim resolve that the Hunters would feast on him only when he was already a corpse, and that he would not die without first taking down as many of them as he could. There was no room for any other feeling.

So far he had killed three, and had carved for himself a minor island of tattered calm in the middle of the stampede and slaughter all around them. Perhaps that was something to be proud of. Or perhaps his own mind was falling apart. The homeworld, every year of the millennia his people had been, all of that ancient history and heritage, it was all dying today. There was nothing to celebrate in such a trivial accomplishment.

And yet…he felt proud of himself. He hadn’t run. He had held, he had fought. If only for a little while, he had defied the enemy. He could not succeed…but he had not failed. Perhaps that was something to be proud of.

Or perhaps his mind was falling apart.

His racing cyclical thoughts were interrupted by the shriek of more assault pods impacting nearby, and he might have been perversely glad to hear them if he had been able to think about it. Instead it took all the willpower he had not to obey his screaming instincts and stampede.

The civilians were not so steady: The only one of them who did not immediately stampede was the muttering clerk who didn’t seem to register the horrors from orbit at all.

For what little it was worth, Drutheg put himself between her and the most likely source of danger and tried not to listen to the panicked, agonized bellowing as the stampeding citizens were caught and set upon.

He’d already spent two of his grenades just collecting the frayed knot of hangers-on that had just run away. He had one left, plus a couple of smoke charges. His war harness was at full shield strength, his pulse rifle was the latest military issue with the more efficient heat sinks, and he had enough food in his belly to fight.

If only it weren’t so absolutely, utterly hopeless.

He knew his position was effectively surrounded. Whatever the Hunters used to detect their victims would not have missed him or his collection of civilians, nor the body-count of Hunters that he had left. He had the high ground and he had a pulse rifle, but that was not enough against their shields, especially the larger, more grotesque ‘Red’ Hunters.

The only outcome that had something that even looked like a positive attached to it, and even then only in the crazed light of futility, was any one in which he left no corpse behind to be eaten.

That had him contemplating something quite alien to the Guvnargnaguvendrugun mindset. Self-sacrifice.

He watched as the Hunters swaggered into the clearing, weapons up and unafraid. They were drooling and that sight steeled Druthegvurnag’s resolve. He contemplated his last grenade, turned the yield charge all the way up, depressed the safety, turned it past safety-close, and charged with a bellow of defiance.

It was no kind of a gesture at all, really. In the face of the sheer scale of what was happening, one warrior’s proud finale made no difference at all.

But if the Humans were right and there was an ‘afterlife’ for warriors, then perhaps…

He was dead before he reached them. But a Guvnuragnaguvendrugun had mass, and therefore momentum, so there was little the Hunters could do as the mammoth warrior barreled into their midst—

The grenade exploded with enough force to level a small city block. Nothing survived, not the hunters, not Druthegvurnag, and not the civilians.

Mercifully, the confused clerk still trying to remember her mystery society never felt a thing.


Date Point: 12y3m AV
HMS Violent, Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-nugdurnuveg system.

Commodore William Caruthers

“…Fuck.”

The fleet was at full strength. Everything humanity had, every ship they’d ever built and captured, every single strategic asset Earth could bring to bear was at Caruthers’ command. Six V-class destroyers, thirty-six ‘Bulldog’ USVs, HMS Caledonia, HMS Myrmidon, USS San Diego, the Racing Thunder, no fewer than one hundred and eight ‘Firebird’ strike craft organized into three squadrons, the nine humans and six gaoians who were cleared and ready for HEAT operations. An effectively unlimited supply of nukes, anti-ship missiles, 30mm FTL rounds, Aster 45 missiles, RFGs…he even had access to the ultra-secret, as-yet unplayed trump card that was WERBS.

No commander in human history had ever wielded the resources available to him, and every spare bolt of it was useless. The Hunters had won this fight before the humans had even shown up.

Hence his whispered, futile monosyllable.

The Guvnurag were being slaughtered down there—their formation and tactics were classic Dominion, right to the core, and the Hunters knew how to handle Dominion warfare doctrine just fine. More so, now that they’d figured out how to add FTL capabilities to their railguns. The Swarm-of-Swarms was as mobile as smoke and just about as easy to shoot, and their own weapons could strike from so far out that the only limiting factor was sensor latency.

But it would have been a bloodbath even without that tactical superiority. There were a hundred Hunter ships for every non-Hunter contact in the system, and most of those were freighters, mining barges, passenger shuttles. The actual warships were outnumbered more than a thousand to one, and that kind of numerical mismatch multiplied the mass of the Hunter fleet, in the military sense of the word.

Human doctrine focused on force multipliers; mass was really a concept that meant ‘ability to impose force’ and in that regard any human fleet element had a mass that far outstripped mere gross tonnage, but here in this situation there was no possible way to finesse that mass. Caruthers may as well have fantasized about flattening the Himalayas using a team of dedicated men with shovels—not even the best men with the best shovels would have sufficed.

Which meant the only feasible response was to inflict as much damage as he could before withdrawing. And he could, in theory, inflict a great deal of damage indeed.

But there were a million ships out there. It was a number that defied comprehension. A million ships. It was doubtful in the extreme that if he were to tally up every single carrier, destroyer, submarine, cruiser, battleship, gunboat, frigate, ironclad, clipper, galleon, caravel and trireme ever constructed by the combined navies of all Earth’s history that they would even clear a tenth of that number.

He reached up under his flash hood and scratched despairingly at the back of his neck while thinking over his options.

To leave without inflicting some damage was unthinkable. Utterly unthinkable. And yet…

And yet strategic assets needed preserving. There was no sense in wasting resources on a token gesture and he had no reason at all to believe that these million represented the entirety of Hunter capabilities. And there was certainly no sense in tipping their hand any further than it had already been tipped—Every time humanity showed the Hunters a new trick, the bastards picked it up and used it. He’d be damned if he would contribute to that process today.

So, as unthinkable as effective inaction was right now…it was his only option.

He raised the Fleet Intelligence Center on Myrmidon.

The FIC, frankly, was possibly his most potent weapon. All those ships, missiles and guns were of absolutely no use at all if he didn’t know where to aim them after all, and from the second they arrived the churning data engines that IBM had kindly developed had begun digesting every last datum the whole combined Allied fleet’s collective sensors could generate.

The FIC was worryingly competent under the worst circumstances. Under optimal circumstances, when networked with the lesser Watsons aboard all the other ships, it was terrifying. Far too many people had joked about calling the whole linked system SKYNET and not without justification, especially considering that the man holding its leash answered to the name and rank of Lieutenant Connor.

They were looking subdued over there, and Caruthers couldn’t blame them at all. Of all the people in the fleet, the intelligence staff over in the FIC were easily the best-informed about exactly what they were watching.

“Lieutenant. I need a target. One target, if you please…and make it a bloody good one.”


Date Point: 12y3m AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

The strangers were…Well, strange.

It was an obvious strangeness at first: They were the wrong shape for a start, tall and lean and straight-legged and most disturbingly of all they entirely lacked tails.

And then the little details began to creep in. The strange terrain in the middle of their faces, below and between the eyes that distorted their lips upwards in the middle. They seemed to breathe through it! And Vemik didn’t once see them flick their tongues out into the air to taste it.

Then he looked into those eyes and saw that the pupils were perfectly round, as round as the sun and the moons rather than the horizontal slots of normal People.

He’d still been mesmerized by those eyes when the slimmer, shorter one had waved a hand in some kind of gesture at her partner and he’d been nauseated to see that she had five fingers! And so did the other one, too!

Those fingers were quick and clever, though. He watched them fidget dexterously with objects that defied his understanding but which were undoubtedly tools of some kind.

Every time they did, Yan somehow got tenser still. He was smouldering like a particularly ornery coal, pacing where the strangers could see him, always facing them front-on and ready to charge. That fact wasn’t lost on the strangers, either—neither of them had actually put their weapons down, Vemik noted. The woman had put hers away, slotting it neatly into a kind of open-topped bag on her hip, but the other one was as long as a short spear. The man was holding it loosely in his arms in as non-threatening a posture as possible but it was still there…ready.

They seemed to be waiting for something.

Or, as it turned out, someone.

A third stranger joined them, stepping cautiously between the trees and this one was not wearing that strange bubble of ice around her head, allowing Vemik to get a better look at her.

Her face was more People-shaped than the others’, though not by much—she still had that strange feature in the middle and her mouth still had those fuller, curiously contoured lips.

It was her crest that was the greatest surprise, however. Hers was the wrong hue entirely, a deep lustrous black rather than the proper shaggy orange or red, and it looked like she had gathered and tied it into a tight bundle into the back from where it fell in a shimmering rope down as far as her hips. And her skin! Every inch of it that Vemik could see was pale, smooth and delicate. Maybe shaded a little redder on the cheeks, a little darker around the eyes, but overall it was a complete contrast to everything Vemik knew of skin, which he had always known as being a dark, thick, tough beige thing.

The other two, he realized, were equally pale but it would be a mistake to assume that their strange smooth skin was a sign of any weakness. While the newcomer projected warm grace and peace, those two were both still as sharp and watchful as sentries. They prowled like hunters and never relaxed. This new one…

She paused in front of Vemik, smiled at him so prettily that the Singer would have made a jealous snarl had she been present, and then lowered herself serenely into a kneeling posture that Vemik would have found awkward and painful, but which she seemed to find effortless. She rested her hands lightly on her knees and then dipped forward at the waist until her forehead almost brushed the leaf litter.

Vemik had never seen anybody move with such effortless grace. When she straightened up again and settled herself she did so with such poise that Vemik, who could flip through the canopy like the wind when he wanted, was made to feel lumpen and brutish. Even the way she raised one of those strange, slim-fingered hands and brushed some stray hair from her face was composed and precise.

He glanced to his father for guidance.

Vemet shrugged, and gestured toward the ethereal being in front of them, inviting him to lead the way. “You’re the sky-thinker, son,” he said, “you talk to them.”

“It was your idea not to fight them,” Yan added, with angry gravel in the back of his throat. “…But I have my spear for you, if you need it.”

“Thanks, Yan…” Vemik decided not to say how much he doubted they would need the Given Man’s weapon today.

He stepped forward cautiously and considered how to reply to her gesture, whatever it had meant.

What had it meant? That was the important part. She had knelt, bowed low, exposed the back of her neck for a killing strike. She had intentionally made herself vulnerable in fact. A gesture of peace, then?

Among men of strange tribes who did not know one another, Yan had once told him, they would remove their knives of manhood and present them to one another for inspection. How one greeted a woman from a strange tribe he didn’t know, and certainly he had no idea how to greet a…a sky-person. Would she know to return his knives? Maybe she would think the gesture was a threatening one…

Maybe the thing to do was to just…sit. There was no sense in being undignified and trying to imitate her graceful contortions, but he could do something she couldn’t.

He squatted, and coiled his tail beneath him for a third point of contact with the ground. A man could sit like that for hours quite comfortably.

The strange woman from the sky smiled again, then slowly reached into a pocket on her strange garment and offered him something.

It was a disk. Round again, just as round as the moons, and made of some substance he didn’t know at all. It was white, and there was some kind of a mark on it, a series of short dark lines that crossed and bent in strange ways. He had no idea what it was and he glanced at the sky-woman in the vain hope that she might be able to clarify.

She smiled, and mimed a curious motion with her hands-she cupped her left one as if holding a small object about the thing’s size, and the other moved as if she was peeling a fruit, or…

Vemik considered the object again. Turned it over in his hands and looked at its edges. One edge was clearly different to the other and after a moment’s deliberation he experimentally cupped it in his hand as she had indicated, gripped it firmly with his thumb, and pried it open as she had shown.

His own face was inside.

He nearly threw it across the clearing in alarm and surprise but he chewed back on the impulse and considered what he was looking at.

It was like…looking in a stream, or a puddle as he had done many times before. The image of his own face looked back at him and moved as he moved. He frowned at it, and saw his own frown. He cocked his head, and saw his image do the same.

Like the ghost of himself he saw on water, but sharper, cleaner, more real. He considered himself for a moment and took the opportunity to consider what he must look like to a stranger.

Handsome, he realized. It was an odd thought.

Thoughtfully, he closed the object and handed it back to her while wondering what she had hoped to convey by giving it to him. For her part she seemed pleased, and he wasn’t sure if he had passed a test of some kind or simply if they were speaking two different languages.

She considered him carefully for a moment as she pocketed the item, and then placed her hand on the middle of her chest with those strange, slim, five fingers splayed.

Shyow.

Vemik cocked his head, so she turned to her armed companions and gestured to them.

Awisun. Jooyun.

She turned back to face him and extended a hand in much the same way that Vemet just had, and Vemik silently cursed himself for being slow on the uptake. Of course! when you met somebody, what did you do first?

He rapped his fist on his chest. “Vemik.”

Shyow smiled brilliantly again and this time there was a friendly flash of teeth. This one was a real smile, a warm and genuine one rather than a polite one. But if the fingers, the black crest and the odd thing in the middle of her face had been strange, nothing could possibly have prepared Vemik for those teeth. They were straight, even, unnaturally white, small and numerous. They looked like a child’s teeth after they had first grown in, sitting incongruously in the mouth of a woman who was clearly fully grown.

Something about the way he stared at them seemed to dismay Shyow. She raised a hand to cover her mouth, which had the effect of making Vemik feel strangely guilty somehow.

She lowered her hand again after a second once her teeth were no longer in view, then twisted at the waist to retrieve something she was carrying in a pouch low on her back. It was a flat, square rock of some kind which did something utterly unexpected when she touched it on one corner—it lit up.

Vemik heard Yan grumble something behind him, but ignored it. The object in Shyow’s hands fascinated him as she tapped and swiped at it, making patterns and shapes move and dance on its surface though he had no idea what she was accomplishing.

People from the sky were strange.

In a few seconds, Shyow had arranged the rock’s light to her satisfaction. She set it on her lap, smiled at him again, then looked around, pointed at a nearby Ketta tree, and spoke carefully.

Twee

Vemik glanced over his shoulder again and saw Vemet nodding.

So. These people didn’t speak as the People spoke, they had different words for things. He was going to need to teach them the words, and maybe learn a few of theirs as well.

He sighed, took out his water skin to take a quick sip, then turned back to Shyow, pointed at the same tree, and told her how to pronounce its name.

She nodded, tapped something on her rock, then looked calculatingly around before pointing at a Nara tree, and repeating the word for tree.

Nara tree,” Vemik told her. He pointed back at the first one. “Ketta tree, Nara tree.”

She nodded again, looked around some more then pointed at three trees of three species “Tweez?”

It wasn’t like teaching a child to speak at all. Shyow clearly already knew how words worked, and she knew it well too. Vemik only had to tell her something once and then she’d tap on her stone, and ask a different question. She looked around, pointed at a nearby boulder, and spoke a word. “Wohk.

Vemik nodded, taught her the tribe’s word for a rock, and in short order she had requested and been taught the difference between talking about one rock, two rocks, three rocks, and more than three rocks. He taught her the different words for men and women, for varying numbers of tree and the names of different kinds of tree, the words for grass in general and individual grass stalks, and the word for stone that had been worked into a tool as opposed to raw, unworked stone. He taught her how to say “My name is,” “her name is,” “his name is” and so on and never ever had to tell her something more than once.

Sometimes she would look at her flat rock as if seeking guidance there, and he got the distinct and crazed impression that it was somehow doing her remembering for her. Which was…how could a rock remember things? But then again how could a rock light up?

Maybe the light was the secret? He looked at them again and thought hard as Shyow raised the stone and showed it to Jooyun, who nodded sagely as though what he was seeing made perfect sense to him.

In his head, he was tying things together. The way that hunters would pile stones or cut a notch in the bark of a prominent tree to mark where the Werne roamed, or waters where Yshek lurked, to point back toward the village or toward a safe trail down a cliff. Those were all things that a man could remember, but which the right pile of stones, or the right mark in the wood could remind him of…or tell him, if he had never learned it in the first place.

So…he had successfully tied rocks together with memory. And he knew beyond doubt that the strange thing in Jooyun’s arm was a kind of a spear-thrower, a weapon for killing from afar.

Which meant…

He stood up and stretched from having been sat down a while, and asked a blunt question.

[“What do you have to do with that?”] he asked, pointing at the gutted destroyer. Yan stiffened and shot the strangers a suspicious glare.

Shyow frowned and tapped something on her stone, then nodded. She beckoned to Awisun and stood up, dusting leaves off her knees.

“…Fwend” she said, and gave Awisun an affectionate hug. Vemik nodded to indicate that he understood, so Shyow stepped back then mimed vigorously and hatefully attacking Awisun, who did something unexpected and giggled at the ferocity of the pretend attack. Like Yan, Awisun clearly had a playful side under that hard bark.

Shyow turned back to him. “En’mee” she said. When Vemik nodded again she turned to the destroyer, scowled at it, and held her hands far apart. “[BIG] En’mee.”

“[So they claim],” Yan growled. Shyow looked at him, then gave Vemik an apologetic smile before looking back to Yan again.

Fwend.” she said, clearly and firmly and pointed from her chest to Yan’s.

Yan harrumphed, turned away and headed back toward the village which left Shyow looking…disappointed, perhaps, but certainly not surprised.

“Yan?” Vemik asked. He would have protested but now was not a good time to pick any kind of a fight with the big Given Man.

[“The Singer needs to hear of this!”]

[“Let him go, son,”] Vemet advised. [“It’s his job to not trust strangers.”]

“[He’s right, anyway],” Vemik conceded. [“The Singer does need to see this.”]

He turned to Shyow and wondered how in the name of everything under the sky and beyond it he was going to explain that they needed to pause and resume tomorrow, but she seemed to understand already. She nodded and took a step back, gesturing open-handed for him to follow Yan.

Vemik was honestly faintly awed. She seemed to effortlessly know his thoughts and he didn’t know if that was guilelessness on his part, or sharp insight on hers. Either way, she stepped back and let him go with a confident smile.

Vemik nodded, and dashed up the hill after Yan. They had a lot to discuss.


Date Point: 12y3m AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Allison Buehler

Julian ghosted forward to the edge of the clearing to check that the last of the natives really had gone, and it was a long tense wait before he finally looked back and nodded.

Xiù sagged and the ethereal, angelic being she’d been pretending to be for the last several hours vanished like smoke. She seemed to lose a couple of inches, even—the transition was that dramatic. Suddenly she looked small, nervous and drained.

“Well…that could have gone worse I guess?” She commented, returning her tablet to the elasticated pocket behind her back.

“Fuckin’ A…” Julian’s agreement was soft but heartfelt as he scanned the trees while returning to them. “I thought that Yan guy was gonna twist our heads off for sure. He looks strong enough.”

“They all do,” Allison agreed. “That coulda been real ugly if Vemik hadn’t stepped in like that.”

“Yeah, and he’s gonna pay for it,” Julian opined. “Reckon Yan’s their chief or something, and I don’t think Vemik’s that old…”

“He’s really young,” Xiù appraised. “Like…really young. I think if he was human he’d be, um, maybe fifteen or so?”

“If they’re anything like some human cultures back on Earth then that’s old enough to be seen as a man…” Julian mused. “And it looks like he’s got the respect and trust of the older men too. But he’s still gonna have a hard time if he undermines Yan too bad.”

Xiù nodded exhaustedly and yawned. “…Ai ya…”

Allison wrapped her arms around Xiù’s shoulders from behind and hugged her. “Babe, you were incredible,” she said. “Since when are you an elf?”

“Hmm?” Xiù blinked at her. “Oh, um…since Mrs. Marshall’s drama class back in high school. She had us act out some scenes from Lord of the Rings and…” She shrugged. “I guess those lessons stuck. I enjoyed that class.”

“So what did the translator get?” Julian asked, leading the way back toward the ship.

“A lot,” Xiù said. She got out her tablet and frowned at it—they all knew the core of the translation software was a Corti design, which possibly meant there was some Hierarchy code lurking in there somewhere, but unfortunately it was also centuries in advance of any equivalent human software. It could extrapolate some astonishingly accurate predictions from meager principles, and had begun making respectably near-miss best guesses at syntax and sentence structure within minutes after Xiù had launched the app and started feeding it the data it requested.

It had its limits, of course—there was no way to deduce the native word for, say, “love” from the words for trees and suchlike, and the most sophisticated translation it was yet equipped to spit out would be something along the lines of ‘Vemik, please give me three small brown rocks’. For now they were confined to the simple and the physical—abstracts weren’t about to happen anytime soon, but it already had the basic grammatical and conceptual framework down. The rest was just vocabulary.

Misfit was not far from the wrecked Abrogator’s clearing, parked on the gravelly bank of a fast-flowing clear little river. There had been an even better landing site further upstream where the waters had pooled and formed a small lake but Julian had asked Xiù to hover above it while he scanned its waters, and sure enough he’d turned up a heat signature down there the size of an orca.

With no way of knowing if it was harmless, territorial, or even some vicious ambush predator they had given it a wide berth.

In hindsight, the change of landing site was doubly sensible: as well as avoiding some of the larger local fauna, the river had cut quite a steep-sided valley through layers of bedrock. Misfit was well-hidden in that valley—any other Hierarchy robots lurking around would have to pretty much trip over her to find them.

Unfortunately, there was the problem of decontamination. This wasn’t a green-cycle job, all three of them had been out there for hours, on a world that was landing firmly in the middle of the twelve-point somethings on the Corti chart, putting it effectively on par with Earth. Vemik and his tribe might be carrying the kinds of diseases that could rip through them with just as much fearsome effect as scarlet fever, smallpox or tuberculosis, and of course none of them were vaccinated against such alien diseases.

Therefore, they had to undergo an Orange decontamination—a full-strength sweep with the biofilter field on full power, a heavy powdering and a thorough sluicing-down with strongly chlorinated water.

For Julian and Allison inside their suits, that wasn’t a problem. For Xiù, who had chosen to wear her shipboard wear to make a good impression, it was eye-reddening misery. She endured it with extensive grumbling and then stormed toward the shower in the hab block the second the inner door opened, hell-bent on showering away the stinging stuff immediately, especially before it had a chance to bleach her hair. Uncharacteristically, she threw her soaked clothes on the floor behind her with a wet slap as she went rather than delivering them into Misfit’s laundry as she usually nagged Allison to do.

Allison briefly entertained the teasing possibilities of that, before deciding against it. Xiù was going to have red eyes and a runny nose for a couple of hours, now wasn’t the time for teasing. Instead, she and Julian helped each other out of their excursion suits with rather more care and stowed their gear for cleaning and maintenance.

“Not gonna be able to do that too many times,” she pointed out as she pulled out the spent powder and chlorine cartridges from the airlock’s reservoirs and replaced them with charged ones. “We’ve only got enough of these for ten orange cycles.”

“The biofilter field can calibrate itself for local bugs,” Julian said, doing his part of going over the suit for any sign that the decontamination had missed a spot. “We just need to get a couple of samples.”

“What, like, get Vemik or Yan to stand in the field?”

“That’d be ideal, yeah. Give us a full medical scan in the bargain, the scientists would love that…”

“Sounds like a tall order, babe.”

“The field should cope okay without,” Julian shrugged, and gave her a wry look. “Heck, when Kirk grabbed me from Nightmare, Sanctuary’s biofilter fixed me right up just fine. Corti know their shit. Sticking a local in the scanner’d just be…helpful. And hell, in a pinch a blood sample would do just fine, but do you wanna go ask them for some blood?”

“…Magic light in the flying metal hut it is, huh?”

“If we can, yeah. Except they maybe don’t have a word for metal. I didn’t see a scrap of iron, copper or gold anywhere on them.”

“Jeez.” Allison closed the hatch and rubbed her forehead. “How do you even begin telling guys who have like one bow between them just how much trouble they’re in right now? I mean…”

“I know.” Julian leaned against the wall. “But…I dunno, babe. They saw us arrive in a flying thing and Vemik there figured out what a rifle does. Could be, if a guy like that meets magic sky-people in a flying house who turn to this thing and say BIG ENEMY…I mean, he’s pretty smart. I bet it won’t take long to sink in…”


Date Point: 12y3m AV
Uncharted Class 12 deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

“Ya-an!” Vemik grunted and tried to work an arm free. “We are in deep trouble!”

Yan grinned and applied a little more of his prodigious strength to painful effect, while Vemet trilled nearby as he watched his son wriggle and fight to get free. The big Given Man had Vemik pinned face-down in the dirt, both arms held fast behind his back in one huge hand. Yan sat on his haunches with most of his substantial weight on his left leg and the rest smashing the slight young man’s hips to the ground. His other thickset limb curled around and under Vemik’s stomach and crushed powerfully, while Yan’s tail coiled tightly around Vemik’s legs and squeezed.

It was all playful: Yan wasn’t really mad, he was just…well, being a Yan. Instead of a thrashing like Vemik had been silently dreading, Yan had instead challenged the young upstart with a happy, boisterous hoot. Vemik accepted with a grin—who didn’t like to tussle?—and lost the match instantly, which was mildly humiliating even despite the huge difference in strength and skill. Yan had pinned him almost gently too, with an insultingly weak hold that should have been easy to escape…but Yan was far too strong. He trilled smug and happy and playfully dominant, while Vemik struggled uselessly to escape. Showoff.

At any other time it would all be good fun, but right then, the Sky-Thinker wished fervently for Yan to maybe stop being a Yan and maybe start being a Vemik instead. “This is important!” he protested, and tried to lash his tail around to get a grip on Yan’s ankle.

Yan was too old, too big, too strong and far too experienced to fall for such a simple maneuver. He whipped his leg out from under Vemik as fast as a lightning strike, then stomped the writhing tail and pinned it with a breathtakingly powerful squeeze of his foot-hand, drawing an involuntary yelp from Vemik and another light amused trill from Vemet.

Vemik struggled on, which earned him a grumbling approval from Yan. In response he settled his full weight on the young man’s hips, which earned him a loud groan of pain and a desperate look to Vemet, who smiled even bigger and trilled in sympathy. Every man in all the neighboring villages knew defeat by Yan, Given Men included. He tightened his grip with all four hands to the point where he felt the young man’s body spasm slightly underneath him.

“Give?”

Vemik shook his head defiantly. That amused Yan, who wrapped both his legs around Vemik’s stomach, squeezed mightly with legs and tail, then leaned in and pressed Vemik’s arms as far up his back as they could safely go. That hurt. A lot.

But Yan wasn’t done. He muscled himself up and forward, then whispered, “Y’know, I could go a lot harder if you want to test yourself, Sky-Thinker…” Vemik struggled briefly then gave in with a pained sigh when Yan yet again tightened his grip. In fairness, he relented the instant that Vemik surrendered. He sat back on his haunches and loosened his crushing leg-and-tail smash to Vemik’s groaning relief, though he still didn’t let Vemik wriggle free.

“You always think sky-thinking is the most important thing, Sky-Thinker,” Yan growled affectionately before letting go. “Think down here in the dirt with the rest of us, sometime.”

“I am!” Vemik objected, as he was roughly spun around and helped up to his feet. Yan ended the match with a painfully affectionate hug and a rough rub of Vemik’s crest, which he took with a grumble as he dusted himself off. He tried not to bristle—Yan had worked off his bad mood playfully and in good humor, but he wasn’t about to let a much younger man give him that kind of attitude. “Yan, they said—”

“I heard.” Yan took a sip from his water skin in a we-do-things-at-my-pace way, taking his time over it. He shook his crest out and made a scoffing noise in the back of his throat. “Big en’mee.”

Vemik tried not to scowl. The impression had not been charitable.

“Yan, they have—” he began again, and this time Yan gave him a flash of fangs.

“I’m not blind, Sky-Thinker. They have weapons and a flying…thing and a rock that makes light and the sky only knows what else. I saw. And they claim that thing is their foe, and if people like that have a foe, a ‘big’ foe…” he made that scoffing noise again “…Then we may as well be fighting gods. Is that what you’re about to say?”

Vemik gawped at him, then found a new objection. “…Aren’t you worried? I mean…Shouldn’t you be?”

Yan shrugged expansively, and turned back up the hill toward the village again, setting a brisk rolling pace that left Vemik and his father struggling to keep up. Most of the other men had already straggled out across the slope, partly for scouting purposes, partly to hunt if the opportunity presented itself, partly to give the tribe’s undisputed leaders their privacy.

“Worry about what?” he asked. “Is there anything we can do? That skithral-thing the two of you killed—” he turned and nodded respectfully to Vemet, “wasn’t moving. If it had been, you would both be dead and so would the village. Am I right?”

“…I guess…?” Vemik conceded, slowly.

“Those people down there are either the enemy, or they’re the enemy’s enemy. Now, some people are stupid enough to think that a shared enemy makes you friends, Sky-Thinker…”

“But what if they are?” Vemik asked. Yan rounded on him for about the fifth time in their short walk so far.

“They are not,” he snarled. “They are death, Sky-Thinker. They bring tools and magic we don’t know from a place we could never go and claim an enemy we could never fight. Things will never be the same after today.”

“But what if things are better after?” Vemik asked. “What if they…what if they teach us their magic and tools, or how to make huts that shine in the sun and fly?”

Yan shook his head and turned away again. “What did you teach the boy, Vemet?” he asked. “A man makes his own spears, hunts his own meat and provides for his own children. If the boy wants a hut that flies, he should learn how to make one for himself, not go begging to strange thin people from the sky to make it easy.”

Vemik should have bristled. To be called ‘the boy’ twice when he had the knives of manhood he had won himself strapped securely to his chest…But he sensed that now was not the time for that fight. Instead, he met Vemet’s eye. “…You’ve been quiet so far, father…” he observed. “What are you thinking?”

Vemet mulled the question over, and replied slowly. “I’m thinking…that if I had never taught you how to make a spear, you wouldn’t have figured out how to make that spear-thrower of yours. And when you teach that to your son, what then?” When Yan glared at him, he shrugged and spread his hands wide. “Men teach their sons how to hunt so that their sons can be better hunters than their fathers,” he pointed out.

Yan stood for a long moment and thought. At length he took another swig of water and grumbled, “Vemet’s got wisdom in his head.” He looked at Vemik and bared his fangs in a friendly sort of lopsided snarl, “I can see where you get it from.”

So. Vemik still had Yan’s respect but his patience was badly worn. That meant that Vemik needed to choose his words carefully.

“We are still alive, Yan,” he pointed out. “That means something.”

Yan flicked his ears and nodded. “Sure. It means we’ve got strange gods down the hill in a flying stone hut and we have no idea what they want or how to even talk to them. And they’re maybe fighting other gods that want to kill us all. Does this strike you as safe?”

“…No. But that means we really only have one choice. We need to talk with them.”

“Oh, sure. We go talk to the gods! Do you know what the problem there is? We need to pray and sacrifice and put our Dancers and Given Men through awful things just so the gods notice us. What do we do if we anger these strange People? Are they gods? Does it matter?”

“If we do nothing,” Vemet observed thoughtfully, “we still risk angering them.”

Yan barked angrily. “This would have been easier if you’d just let me rip them apart,” he grumbled.

Vemik nodded warily. “Yes, and if you did you might have been killed by those…weapons of theirs. And don’t forget about the skithral-things. What happens when they wake up?”

Vemet answered for him. “We die.”

There was a long and uncomfortable pause.

Vemet cleared his throat. “So. We had better make friends, so we know where to stand.”

Yan sighed loudly and shook his head. “Godshit! Why us? Why now?”

Vemik only shrugged.

“Right. Well. I guess the three of us need to meet with the Singer and figure out what’s the best way to keep these god-People happy and not inclined to kill us.”

Yan stomped up to a Ketta tree, walked up its trunk, then swung towards the distant village.

That was a sure tell that Yan was straining against a very bad mood. Normally he wouldn’t tackle a Ketta like that because it could damage the thick bark and the People respected the trees. While most anyone else had to climb a Ketta with their hands and feet gripping the huge trunk, a few Given Men were so strong and their feet could grip so powerfully that they could simply walk up trees as if they were just a particularly steep hill. That left their hands free for other things and Yan’s were flailing as he grumbled angrily to himself, lost in distracted thought.

Vemik and Vemet looked at each other. “You better go after him, Sky-Thinker.”

Vemik nodded and chased behind. The Given Man had already swung across the wide gap between the huge Ketta and its neighboring twin, which was so big a distance that Vemik could only climb up and jump down from a great height. Smaller men like him preferred lesser trees like Nara. They grew closer together and didn’t need nearly as much oompf to cross the gap.

That did mean it was work catching up to Yan, who seemed pointedly uninterested in Vemik’s graceful yet exhausting efforts through the upper branches to catch up.

“Yan! Wait, please!”

Yan turned around, settled himself on a massive branch at the bottom of the tree, and presented himself squared up with Vemik. “What!?” That time he could not hide the exasperation in his voice.

Vemik caught up, panting, then squared himself up as well. “Yan…I’m sorry.”

Yan blinked, then sort of…fell into himself. Vemik boggled. Yan was a man’s man, one everyone looked up to and wished they could be. He was handsome and playful and an unmatched hunter. His perfect, bright red crest stood tall and straight from head to tail. Every line of his body was big, tight, plainly visible and better than any other man.

It was amazing how something as simple as sagging shoulders and a less threatening, laid-back crouch on his haunches could transform someone like Yan from the most impressive man Vemik had ever met, into something merely big and rounded and…tired. Tired, and maybe a little melancholy.

He sighed deep in his chest and gave Vemik a contrite look. “I know…You did good today. Godshit, you probably saved our lives.”

Vemik didn’t know what to say to that and stood there, slightly embarrassed.

“…And I’m sorry too,” Yan added. “I saw your look when I called you ‘boy.’ That…was disrespectful. You didn’t deserve that.”

“Yan—”

“No, I mean it. A man owns up to his mistakes. It doesn’t matter if only two years ago you were still riding on my back and asking so many questions.”

Vemik scratched at the back of his head, where his crest met the nape of his neck. “I never really stopped, did I?”

Yan trilled sharply and recovered most of his usual Yan-ness and Vemik suddenly found himself swallowed up in a big, friendly hug. “No, you didn’t!” He noogied affectionately for a playful moment while Vemik squirmed fruitlessly, but the moment passed all too quickly. Yan sobered up, gave Vemik a hard look, then held the smaller man’s shoulders.

“Maybe take a little advice from a big, useless Given Man like me. Sky-Thinking and wisdom aren’t the same thing. Don’t spend so much time with your head up there,” Yan pointed straight up, “that you forget the dirt beneath your feet or the woman in your hut. Or your child, or your friends…or us.”

“I won’t!”

“I know.” Yan gave him a genuinely warm look, and explained. “Everybody has their strange ways, Sky-Thinker, and everybody needs reminding of it sometimes. You need to think of us first and not your gods-ignored burning curiosity about all the things. Can you do that with these strangers?”

Vemik nodded seriously.

Yan trilled softly and warmly. “I know. I always did. But we Given Men, we can’t help but worry like that. It’s our nature.”

“But why? And why do you get so big? And why is there only one in any tribe? And why—”

“Vemik!” Yan shook his head, radiating indulgent frustration.

Vemik deflated. “…Sorry. But will I ever know why?”

Yan gave him his most serious look. “Gods, I hope not.”

Vemik couldn’t refuse his impulse to grumble unhappily, but he finally held his peace.

“Anyway. Come, we need to make good time back to the village and we only have…” Yan squinted at the sun, “…one finger of the daylight left.” Yan gave another aggressively playful snarl, “I’ll race you!”

Before Vemik could accept the challenge, Yan turned and charged through the Ketta trees’ bottom-most canopy like an angry bull werne. Vemik trilled softly to himself then grinned, swung over to the better Nara trees, and chased after his friend.

All, he hoped, was forgiven.


Date Point: 12y3m AV
Guvendruduvundraguvnegrugnuvenderelgureg-nugdurnuveg system, Capitol system of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy

The Alpha-of-Alphas

Time, and obsessive analysis of Human tactics and philosophy, had radically altered the way that the Alpha-of-Alphas thought about certain important things. Once not so very long ago it would have been pacing in futile rage at the thought of missing out the grand Hunt going on far below it. The Brood of Broods was broadcasting the ecstatic high of the hunt through every channel as they tore through the population below in a frenzied orgy of delighted feasting.

For the Alpha-of-Alphas to miss out on such carnage would once have been unthinkable. But its thoughts had been so small then. It had seen only the meat, and the maw, and the claw and the prey. Its understanding of what a Hunt truly was had been constrained by simple fleshly appetites.

Since the battle of the prey-station, it had transcended such trivialities. Now, while lesser Hunters gorged themselves on mere meat and blood, the Alpha of Alphas congratulated itself on this successful hunt of a whole planet. Today, it had struck a grievous maiming blow to the large furred prey and left a wound that would never heal—the scar on an entire species would always be there.

Delicious.

Doubly delicious. The Humans were out there, watching. It didn’t know where, exactly—they were truly accomplished predators when they chose to be, and had elected to stalk and be watchful for the time being. They were unquestionably choosing their moment to pounce.

Let them pounce. No matter what they chose to strike, they could inflict no real harm on the Hunters, not with any of the tricks or tools they had yet chosen to show. They most certainly had others, of that there was no doubt, but if they did employ something new, then the Alpha-of-Alphas would learn, again. Would expand, again.

Would feast, again.

It was so engrossed in metaphorically salivating over the prospect of what it might learn that it almost missed the moment when the humans chose to show their token of defiance. It was over in a flash, literally in a flash. There was the most minute and guarded distortion of spacetime and the largest slave transport ship in the Swarm-of-Swarms was immediately gone, along with its crew of seven thousand Hunters.

Not gone: smashed. It took the Alpha-of-Alphas nearly ten minutes to piece together the precise sequence of events and after it had done so it reclined what little of its flesh remained within the cradle of its command edifice and considered what it had just seen.

Much of its body was gone now. This was nothing unusual for any Hunter of any seniority: the natural claws were usually the first to go, swapped for a universal cybernetic mount capable of bearing any kind of weapon from fusion claws and heavy pulse rifles to nervejam launchers and even plasma guns. Superior eyes, superior limbs, superior bones, muscles and nerves. Everything about a Hunter’s organic form was weaker than they wished to be. There was catharsis in personal transformation.

The Alpha-of-Alphas merely occupied the pinnacle of an obsession shared by all of its kind—the will to dominance. Now that its dreams of dominance encompassed whole species and their worlds, and had assembled a fleet of millions, an army of billions and the poised tidal wave of a species that viewed itself as the force of nature, ready to crash down on everything else and remind them where the real power lay in this galaxy…

Such a will to dominance demanded more than better claws and teeth. It demanded that its claws be whole spaceships, that its eyes and ears be scout craft.

Increasingly, the Alpha-of-Alpha’s proprioception was less and less aware of the truncated shreds of meat resting restlessly in its command facility, and increasingly it viewed its body as being the Swarm of Swarms.

And now the humans had torn off a scale, or bruised a finger. An irritation, certainly, but one that inspired interest rather than outrage. It was always entertaining to see how the deathworlders struck.

On close examination, the tactics and equipment used were nothing new. The Human Alpha must be aware of its foe’s hunger to learn and had sensibly withheld any new information. The fact that the materiel and maneuver involved was nothing new didn’t make it in any way less effective, however. The humans had fired an extreme long-range shot from somewhere out in the extreme reaches of the system, at such a low warp velocity that its passage had barely registered at all. They must have fired it hours in advance, in fact, and yet it had neatly drifted through the appropriate volume of space with commendable precision.

It hadn’t actually hit anything, of course. The slightest drift or acceleration at such ranges was enough to ruin even the most careful firing solution…but it had been close enough. The jump beacon carried by that round had fired up, and a claw of the Human strike ships had pounced through, lit up the transport ship with targeting sensors, summoned their weapon with millimeter precision, and departed in a pulse of bent reality all in a shorter interval than it to took the Alpha-of-Alpha’s heart to beat three times.

The weapon had been nothing special, either. An ordinary hydrogen-based fusion weapon in the megaton range, shaped to blast the great majority of its destructive energies out as a coherent lance of high-energy EM radiation that had torn the transport ship into two melting and partially vaporized uneven halves. Crude and low-tech, but very few things in the galaxy had the kind of defenses that could withstand energies on that scale.

It forwarded the data to the Alpha Builder. Meager pickings from the humans, but the builders were drooling to sink their fangs into the prey-species data banks and pick apart the secrets of the system shield technology. With scrutiny and time, surely a weakness would reveal itself.

It watched as the last few fortunate contacts flickered out of the system at FTL speeds, and peeled off a few pursuit ships to run down the slow and limping. Not all of them, though: The fastest, the healthiest, the strongest it let go to carry the word of what had happened here. When the sensor records and video footage they carried began to circulate, the panic would spread through the prey herds like a burning disease.

Finally, it relaxed. It sank back into the sensory feeds from hundreds of millions of Hunters below…And it feasted.


Date Point: 12y3m1d AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada

General Martin Tremblay

Some events were so huge that the usual system of talking over video calls wasn’t going to cut it today. Sometimes, when a good officer was in the hotseat to justify his actions, then the resulting meeting needed to be done properly. No phone, no big TV screen. Just a handful of the most powerful people on the planet, sitting down for a solemn talk.

Commodore Caruthers had not, in Tremblay’s view, done too badly from what he knew of the situation. The total loss to humanity’s military from the operation was a single, expendable, Nuclear-Pumped Highly Directional X-Ray Laser.

Sooner or later, somebody was going to want a stylish acronym for those things. It was a dull name for one of the deadlier weapons in their arsenal, and that weapon had been deployed to excellent effect. It had entirely shredded a spacecraft that dwarfed even oil supertankers. Even for the Hunters that had to be a loss that stung just a little.

But when one considered all the hundreds of thousands of ships that said attack had left perfectly unscathed and still ravaging the surface of the Guvnurag homeworld even while they sat here…It really didn’t seem like enough.

Sartori was having trouble containing himself. The president was usually a poised and garrulous man who was well-equipped to keep himself afloat in the sphere of public opinion. He wasn’t, it seemed, so great at handling the revelation that all that military spending that had so bedevilled his presidency to date wouldn’t have achieved jack shit.

Tremblay could hardly blame him. Sartori wasn’t exactly taking his displeasure out on Caruthers, he wasn’t so unreasonable as to assign blame where it wasn’t due, but Caruthers was certainly the conduit through which the president’s rage at all of Hunterdom was being channeled. He was bearing it remarkably well, considering that he was technically under no obligation to bear it at all: As a British officer his commander-in-chief was the King, not Sartori, but he was diplomatically choosing to ignore that fact.

“Yes, Mr. President. The tactical situation was hopeless, as we’ve reviewed. The best I could hope for was some form of moral defiance, in the hope the Guvnurag would understand the gesture.”

“Well, it backfired!” Sartori had cooled substantially in the last few minutes, but he was still boiling. “That transport was full of prisoners, and now they’re accusing us of contributing to the slaughter.”

“Meat-slaves, Mr. President,” Caruthers delicately corrected him. “Those prisoners would have been reduced to livestock in short order. We have the statements from Mother Ayma, Sergeant Regaari and miss Chang about that escaped Gaoian slave a few years back, Triymin.”

“A fate I wouldn’t personally wish upon my worst enemy,” Knight interjected, quietly.

Sartori sat back, disgruntled. “The Guvnurag don’t share our definition of mercy,” he pointed out. “As far as they’re concerned, that bomb cut-and-dried killed some of their people. And to hell with the circumstances, apparently.”

Caruthers nodded understandingly. “No matter what we had done, we would have been vilified,” he observed. “If I’m to be damned, I’d rather be damned for doing the right thing at least…by our standards.”

Tremblay and Knight exchanged the almost-psychic glances of old friends, and saw their private approval of that sentiment reflected in each other’s careful poker faces. Sartori meanwhile was getting steadily less red in the face.

“That’s not to say I didn’t find it a bitter pill to swallow, Mr. President,” Caruthers added, and Sartori finally backed off him.

“…I follow your reasoning, Commodore,” the president said at last. “I guess you’re right, too. How do we even begin fighting a million ships?”

Tremblay had no good answers, there. “We have to play the long game,” he said. “The fact is, that we’re at an insurmountable logistical disadvantage. We only have the resources of Earth, realistically: Cimbrean isn’t developed enough yet to count. Fortunately, both systems are secure against the kind of attack that hit Guvnurag-One, but…

“…But who knows how much territory the Hunters really hold?” Knight finished for him. “A race where one side has an enormous head start is no race at all.”

Prime Minister Philippe Martel finally ventured to say something. “We don’t have any idea at all?” he asked.

“Neither the Dominion nor the Alliance have ever successfully mapped any part of Hunter space. All their scout ships vanish if they stray beyond a certain point, but that’s about as defined as the limits of Hunter territory gets,” Tremblay explained. “We know roughly where their home ground is and roughly how many cubic parsecs it encompasses, but there’s no clear or reliable way to identify how many habitable worlds are inside that volume, let alone any orbital structures, space stations, asteroid facilities…”

“In other words, we have no idea at all,” Martel repeated.

“We don’t really know a damn thing about our enemy,” Tremblay agreed. “In fact we know so little about them that we don’t even know what we’d need to beat them.”

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle,” Caruthers quoted verbatim.

“…Sun Tzu?” Martel guessed.

“Yes indeed,” Caruthers nodded.

“The closest he ever came to a spaceship was a few observations about chariots,” Sartori pointed out.

“True,” Tremblay granted, “but this is old warfare, classic warfare right back to basic principles. He’d still take one look at this situation and say that we don’t stand a chance if we try to fight the Hunters directly.”

“And indirectly?” Sartori asked. “Or is the Supreme Allied Commander for Extrasolar Defense telling us to bend over and kiss our asses goodbye?”

“Indirectly…” Tremblay met Knight’s gaze, then Caruthers’, and saw that both men still had plenty of resolve in them.

“…We’ll work on it,” he promised.

__

Date Point: 12y3m1d AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Lewis Beverote

Lewis had found the station’s master systems console inside the first week after arriving on Mrwrki. To his quiet joy it hadn’t been holding pride of place in the middle of the control room or anything, no: Like all the best IT infrastructure he’d found it tucked away in an overcrowded office a long way from where all the ‘important’ end users worked.

While booting it up he’d amused himself with the mental image of a Kwmbwrw systems tech boredly instructing some super-senior Matriarch to try turning the faulty hardware off and waiting ten seconds. That amusement had turned into a frown when it requested an eight-digit numeric passkey for access.

More out of despair and the spirit of at least making a token attempt than anything else he’d half-heartedly entered “12 345 678” and to his shock, delight and disgust he had immediately been granted top-level Admin access.

Poking through the station’s OS had turned into one of the things he did for fun when he wasn’t designing an asteroid-eating, planet-hopping engine of unstoppable galactic conquest. That quiet fun had turned into obsessively cataloging everything wrong with the horrific mess of half-assed shell scripts he’d found in there in place of a sane or sensible system. In some ways he felt like a lepidopterist with a whole planet of alien butterflies to wave his net at, and in other ways he felt like a particularly morbid surgeon poking at a uniquely purulent abscess. Either way, it had made for a grossly fascinating diversion.

One of the worst bugs would actually let anybody who knew it exploit their way through any door on the station. He’d let that one live mostly because he had a horrible feeling it was caused by something in the life support controller, and no way was he fucking with that. Besides, it was a pre-existing bug in the code and he could hardly be blamed if he “forgot” to mention its existence to the Army dudes in all the excitement could he? It wasn’t like he’d ever planned to use it or anything…

Except that Vedreg wasn’t answering his door chime, and hadn’t been for several days.

Hold down the door chime, the five button and the intercom, wave his lighter under the air vent and….

The door hissed open. It SHOULD have sounded the fire alarm as well, but that was part of the glitch. It was something to do with the fire containment protocols and the way they interacted with the emergency escape pod access. Apparently Kwmbwrw engineers had never invented the VLAN, or even the concept of isolated networking in general, which was a head-shaker par excellence and had given him a funny twitch in his eye for the first few days after he realized it.

To his immense relief, somewhere in the darkened depths of Vedreg’s quarters there was a deep sighing sound and the sound of somebody huge moving slightly.

“…Go away, Lewis.”

Crazily, Lewis almost obeyed. Vedreg never used anything less than a person’s full name, or their honorific and surname. That was just…who he was. That was his way.

Which meant that his friend was at the worst he’d ever been, and who could blame him?

He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “Dude…”

His eyes adapted to the gloom quickly. It wasn’t completely dark in Vedreg’s suite of rooms: the little lights he’d put up around Nadeau’s little Bob Ross oil painting and the black pseudo-glow of a monitor in standby mode were enough to give some shape to the darkness, just enough to make out the shaggy furred mass of his friend huddled in a corner.

Guvnurag couldn’t help but wear their hearts on their sleeves, as it were. Their body language literally glowed, and there was always some small amount of bioluminescence visible along their bodies, even when they were at rest and feeling no particular emotion at all.

Vedreg’s chromatophores were completely inert, a sure sign of a Guvnurag in the grip of soul-wrenching despair, grief and depression.

They pulsed the barest, almost invisible hint of red as he repeated himself wearily. “Go away…”

Lewis ignored him. Instead, he sat down at Vedreg’s side and reclined into him. Guvnurag wool was thick, shaggy and smelled faintly like a clean barn, but it was warm as hell and damn comfortable.

“Lewis…” Vedreg was clearly too numb to work up a real emotion at all, but ghosts of red, blue and pink shot all over him as he thought at length about what Lewis was doing…and then surprised green.

“…Are you…weeping?”

Lewis nodded slowly, and dragged a sleeve fiercely across his nose. He’d been holding it back around all the military types, but…here in the dark, it seemed safe to sit back and let it all hit him.

“I know…fucking stupid, right? Not like it was my homeworld, right?” He had a bitter touch in his voice, and Vedreg drew away slightly to give him an even more confused look with the short tentacles around his mouthparts waving uncertainly. “Not like billions of people are dead. Not like my friend’s hurtin’ and there ain’t fuck nothin’ I can do for him. Ain’t like…I…”

Vedreg went very still as Lewis’ voice got caught and wouldn’t come unstuck. There was a long, defeated, silent moment and then an imperceptibly faint glow returned to his chromatophores. It was a confused off-white, but to anybody who knew how to read Guvnurag, there was a definite blue-ish tint of gratitude in there.

Slowly, his enormous pillar of an arm circled out and drew Lewis into a warm enveloping, woolly hug.

They co-miserated in silence until Lewis had long since run out of tears and was quietly growing desperate for a drink when Vedreg finally spoke.

“Tears seem…cathartic.”

“Guess they are…” Lewis scraped some dried salty stuff out of his eye. “Shit dude, I dunno. Not like they do anything…Not like I can do anything”

To his surprise, Vedreg rumbled and for a second a flicker of mirth of all things literally lit the room.

“…Dude?”

Vedreg sighed, and stood up. “I have found that it is the small every-day deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love,” he said in the special tone he used when quoting.

“…Dude?” Lewis repeated himself, feeling stupid.

“Tolkien. Gandalf. I read those books after the name for this system was settled upon. It was bewildering at first: I do not know what an elf is or how a keyhole can be hidden except in a specific light, and much of what I read was strange and impenetrable, but there were thoughts that…resonated.” He shook himself and glanced at Nadeau’s painting. “Especially now. Thank you for reminding me of them.”

“…I never read ‘em,” Lewis confessed. “I ain’t read much of anythin’, TBH.” He added, pronouncing the abbreviation.

“Oddly, that is comforting.” Vedreg sighed again, and shook himself. The dim hue of a Guvnurag in a neutral state of mind reasserted itself—perhaps a little dimmer, perhaps a little grimmer, but back. A human might have rolled up his sleeves—Vedreg just shuffled around in place and his mouthparts shifted enigmatically behind that thick fringe of wool and tentacles as he considered Lewis for a few seconds.

“We should get back to work. There are ten billion souls to avenge,” he announced.

“Dude. That was almost fuckin’ human of you.”

“Thank you.”

“Well, shit.” Lewis kicked his feet out and surged upright. “Transform and roll out, my man.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Hey, you have your quotes, I have mine.”

Vedreg fell in alongside him as Lewis led the way. “I thought you said you haven’t read much?”

“Dude. All the best life lessons come in cartoon form, everyone knows that.”

“…You are very strange, Lewis Beverote.” Vedreg stopped, and put a hand on Lewis’ shoulder. “But you are the best friend I have ever had.”

Lewis was amazed to find that his dehydrated eyes got wet again. He patted the huge hand on his shoulder gently, then hugged the arm it was attached to and turned back towards the workshop.

For once, he couldn’t think of anything to say.


Date point: 12y3m1d AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

Julian and Allison had left the helmets behind today, and had taken their excursion suits down to just a handful of the parts of its modular system. They looked more like they were wearing thick parkas now, which was definitely friendlier-looking than the full suit.

The natives seemed to find Allison’s hair fascinating. They’d had the chance to get used to Xiù’s black hair, and Julian’s was pretty much the same color with less gloss and more mess. Allison’s, though, was a cold blonde ripped straight from some well-hidden Scandinavian pocket of her genes.

It made for a more relaxed meeting, which was good because the natives had brought one of their women down the hill this time, and from what Xiù could tell she was important. She had vivid red tattoos around her eyes and cheekbones, and if the similarity between human and native body language held true then Vemik was absolutely besotted with her.

Julian cleared his throat when it became apparent that the alien, like her male counterparts, was wearing no more than a leather loincloth. Her body plan was very human in some important regards.

“Huh. Guess we shoulda maybe expected this…”

Allison chuckled. “Don’t stare, baby.”

“She’s an alien monkey, I’m not—”

“Uh, racist?” Allison snorted, and winked at him.

“Oh come on—!”

“Relax, Etsicitty. I’m only teasing.”

“I’m just thinking they’re probably all surprised at how much we’re wearing,” Julian shot back with a grin. “Maybe you two should get topless.”

“Lead by example!”

Xiù tried to effect an air of disapproval but mostly she was shaking with suppressed laughter. “Guys! First contact? Serious business? Hello?”

“Hey, nobody ever said first contact couldn’t be fun…” Allison pointed out.

Julian had a pensive expression. “Seriously though? Might not be the worst idea I’ve ever had…It’d prove that we’re flesh and blood, y’know? We don’t want them thinking we’re gods or whatever…”

“Maybe later,” Xiù muttered.

“Translation: Not on your life,” Allison smiled, then straightened up as the last of the natives settled in opposite them in the clearing. “Time to go to work, bǎobèi.”

Xiù nodded, and summoned that whole ethereal elf thing she’d done yesterday. She didn’t go through the whole routine of kneeling and bowing this time, but instead plumped for settling herself comfortably on a small rock and smiling at the natives.

Vemik and the female glanced at the adults, and especially at Yan, who shrugged and made a gesture that said ‘well? Get on with it.’ in any language.

They really were young, Xiù realized. The female was probably about Vemik’s age or maybe just a little older, which raised all kinds of questions. What kind of a society let their teenagers do the talking? Or was there something special about these two?

The translator was nowhere near ready to start answering those questions yet. It wasn’t ready to start asking those questions, not after just one conversation and a few hours to process and crunch the data.

Happily, it had reported near-perfect confidence on the syntax, which was broadly similar to the Indo-European language family. That was good news for Allison and Julian, neither of whom spoke a second language—Xiù’s experience in mastering three very different tongues was the very reason it fell to her to handle this stuff and gave her the confidence to assault any alien syntax, but the fact was that even she was going to struggle with this one.

The native language was…she hesitated to think of it as primitive, but it really was. It was absolutely packed with the oddities that littered old languages, like gendered nouns and consonant mutations, but at least the morphology of the root words was broadly consistent. It was the tangled thicket of prefixes, suffixes, stresses, mutations and tonal shifts that gave her a headache.

Names were among the biggest oddities. Vemik, she had discovered, actually had two names, one of which was Vemik, a proper noun, and the other of which was a common noun followed by the noun form of a verb, and he seemed equally happy to use either name.

More confusingly still, he introduced his female companion as “the [singular noun form of a verb”] without further explanation, but using the tonal tic which clearly designated it as being her name rather than her role or job. With a bit of goading, the translator was able to tentatively suggest how Xiù might inquire if the woman had any other names, but the reply was a straightforward no.

They settled in for a long and rambling discussion, driven by the translator’s hunger to codify all the rules of their language and expand its vocabulary. It was gripping and fascinating stuff…for the three people involved.

For everyone else, it was a long and excruciatingly dull morning.

They stopped for a break around noon, which was when Julian announced his Plan.

“I’m gonna go hunt something,” he declared.

“Hunt? I thought we were gonna stick to the food on the ship until we know it’s safe?” Allison asked.

“Not for us, for them. Kind of a peace offering, and…never mind. Point is it should make a good impression.”

Xiù and Allison frowned at each other. “Never mind?” Xiù asked.

“It’s…nothing important. Kinda dumb really. Never mind.”

“Julian…” Allison had an impatient-patient tone of voice that could crowbar him open in a second when she used it.

He cleared his throat. “I…kinda want to one-up Yan.”

Allison folded her arms at him. “Since when were you into senseless macho posturing?”

“It’s not posturing. It’s…” Julian trailed off, then reconsidered. “Well, okay, it is, but this kind of posturing is important. We’re on his turf, in his territory, and he saw that we were scared of him. I wanna fix that.”

“I…Julian, we don’t know what kind of taboos they have or…” Xiù began.

“Trust me.” He kissed her on the cheek. “I’ve got a pretty good idea already.”

“Okay, but what if Yan thinks you’re challenging him or something?” Allison asked. “That could turn this whole thing ugly pretty quick.”

“Nah. Not with Vemik and…what’s her name?”

“The Singer,” Xiù told him. That one had been pretty easy to get to the bottom of in the end. “She’s their…Shaman, or priestess, or medicine woman? I asked her what she sings about and I think she said ‘the gods’ but the translator has a really hard time with words like that.”

Allison put on a wry roll of her eyes. “Figures, if the Corti programmed it.”

“Well, you’re talking to Vemik and this Singer of theirs,” Julian continued. “And I figure things were already pretty damn ugly when we first met and they chilled out thanks to Vemik, so…”

“They’re at home to reason, at least,” Allison said.

“Right. I wanna see how Yan reacts. Getting the measure of him is gonna be important.”

Xiù hesitated, then nodded. “You’re right. Be careful, bǎobèi?”

“There’s nothing on this planet that’s scarier than me,” Julian grinned. He gave them both parting kisses, turned, and vanished between the trees more quickly than mere distance and line of sight would seem to suggest.

Yan’s reaction was instant and interesting. He straightened, watched Julian go and started to head after him before he seemed to remember something and instead turned to the lean one who looked like an older version of Vemik and said something. The other man nodded, turned, swarmed easily up a tree as comfortably as Xiù would have opened a door, and swished through the low canopy like a breeze as he headed off to follow where Julian had gone.

Allison made a thoughtful noise, and broke out their lunch. They’d debated briefly about the wisdom of using their MREs—Xiù had been worried about how the locals might react to the “magic” of a flameless ration heater—but between the ship itself, Allison’s tactical flashlight, the tablet and its translation software and everything else, it had been a short argument.

“…hmm…Beef chili? Maple pork sausage? Or vegetarian fettuccine?”

“Uh, Canadian?” Xiù grinned at her, and was promptly handed the pork sausage.

Sure enough, Vemik couldn’t help himself. He came close and stared rapt at the thin lines of steam as they poured from the little plastic packages leaning against a rock. His tongue flickered out at one point just like a reptile’s; he winced at the distinctly chemical smell that the heater gave off, and backed away from the pouch a little to consider it some more.

“There’s a joke here,” Allison said. “You know that old one about the dog with no nose?”

“Come on, they don’t smell that bad,” Xiù objected. “Just…musky.”

“Well, okay, sure, he doesn’t exactly smell like fifty used jockstraps on a hot day but I don’t think these guys do bathing a whole lot.”

“I bet humans didn’t smell so great either, ten thousand years ago.”

“I’m just saying, I was promised hot springs…”

Xiù glanced up at the mountain. “Julian thinks there should be some around here…”

“So why don’t these guys use them?”

Xiù was about to shrug and promise to ask about it later when a sharp crack! sounded far out among the woods, echoing oddly between the trees. All the natives surged to their feet—Allison waved a reassuring hand.

“It’s alright!” she called. “Julian! Julian.” she mimed aiming a rifle and made a “pkh!” sound with her mouth.

Yan snorted, but the tribe relaxed again. Vemik gave her a curious look. “Jooyun?” he imitated the rifle mime and the sound she’d made.

“Like, uh…” Allison pointed at the bow on his back, then mimed drawing and firing it with another vocal sound effect. She repeated the rifle mime again and then wobbled her hands to try and suggest a connection.

Vemik trilled, which they’d gathered was his species’ version of laughter, and nodded. He grinned and pretended to shoot several things with a rifle and trilled some more. Both Allison and Xiù giggled along with him.

Xiù adjusted her MRE as they sat and thought. “We have a long way to go,” she said suddenly.

“Hmm?” Allison obviously didn’t have any insight into her train of thought, and only heard a non-sequitur. “On what?”

“On these guys. Their language, it just doesn’t have some of the things they need for us to explain what’s happening here. Like…imagine if English only had about a thousand words or so.”

“So? We came here from above the sky in a flying house because some very bad people want to kill them all and we want to stop the bad people.” Allison shrugged. “Simple.”

“And the cybernetic implants? Nukes? Or just aliens in general? I mean…”

“No, I get you. They look like apes and that’s helping, but when there’s things like Gaoians, Rickyticks and Guvnurag out there…”

“Right.” Xiù nodded. “And…I mean, I was never really into sci-fi, that was more my brother’s thing, but I at least knew what an alien was when I was abducted, and what a human was. These guys don’t even have a proper name for themselves.”

“They don’t have a word for their own species?”

“They don’t have a word for species. I mean, they could tell you the difference between a…” Xiù checked her tablet, “…a Werne and a Yshek, but they’ve never put a word to the concept before.”

“Never had to, I guess.”

“Right. Vemik’s bow? He calls it a bird-spear-thrower. They say their village is up on the high-forest-place…except they don’t really have a word for forest, it’s just the word for tree modified into an indefinite plural pronoun…”

“Babe, I don’t make your head hurt by talking about the Nadeau-Alcubierre field, you don’t make my head hurt with language jargon. That’s the deal, remember?” Allison smiled at her. “But I get what you’re saying. They don’t have the concepts.”

“They don’t have a word for concept!” Xiù was getting animated. “Which means they probably don’t have the concept of concepts!”

“Shyow?”

They both turned to Vemik, who was giving them a concerned look. [“Are you angry?”]

[“No. Vemik, we…”] Xiù rubbed her face and desperately consulted the tablet. “…dammit. I don’t know if they have a word for ‘concerned’ or not and even then I couldn’t tell them what we’re concerned about and…”

Allison scooted over and hugged her. “Breathe, babe. You’re gonna give yourself a panic attack.”

She was right, and Xiù closed her eyes and took a few cleansing breaths while Allison used the translator to compose the halting sentence [“We can’t tell you what is bad today.”]

She frowned when Xiù giggled at the mangled sentence. “What?”

“You said you can’t tell him what ‘bad’ is.”

“Good thing he’s a smart one.” Vemik had needed a second or so to parse the disjointed grammar, but he gave a reluctant nod—a weary one, like he was used to getting that answer a lot—and backed away to go sit with the Singer again.

They ate their meals in a thoughtful silence, interrupted only by Allison’s failed attempt to steal some maple sausage. Vemik approached, apparently curious, and Xiù finally agreed to trade him some in exchange for a sample of what turned out to be a flavorful pemmican with dried fruit.

The peacemaking ended when Julian returned to the clearing with a sturdy creature that looked like the offspring of a goat and a small cow flung over his shoulder and the native man who had followed him rolling along beside him in the swaggering, thick-thighed way the natives did. Both men had blood on their faces in finger-painted lines around their eyes and cheekbones, and Julian was looking decidedly pleased with himself.

“Werne,” he announced with a grin as he handed the rifle back to Allison. “A good one too, if Vemet here is any kind of judge.”

[“Good Werne,”] Vemet agreed, nodding enthusiastically. [“Young, but strong. Your man can hunt well.”]

Xiù gave him a smile. [“Thank you!] He says you’re a good hunter, babe.”

“Well, if a caveman monkey fella says that then it’s gotta be true.” Julian looked across the clearing at Yan, who had straightened up again. He cleared his throat, crossed the clearing cautiously, and put it down in front of the big ‘Given Man’.

Yan gave the carcass a long and thoughtful stare, then aimed an even longer and more thoughtful one at Julian. Eventually, slowly, he drew the knives sheathed on his chest and presented them to Julian hilt-first. Julian looked at them carefully, thinking, then imitated him. He reached for the knife sheathed against his own thigh and presented it to Yan, and the two traded implements in the same diplomatic moment.

Allison just couldn’t resist a joke. “Oh God, are the boys comparing their tools?”

Xiù frantically gestured for her to shut up. “Yes, and this is deadly serious. Don’t laugh.”

Julian had strong and work-hardened hands with blunt fingers but Yan’s bulky, heavy knifes would make any human hand look dainty. They were well-balanced and clearly made with a great deal of care—the handle was polished and charred bone and wood, and the blade was flint-knapped down to a smooth, polished finish. There was nothing unsophisticated about them that Xiù could see, and when Julian returned them hilt-first he did so with obvious approval.

Meanwhile, it was the steel blade that seemed to fascinate Yan. He turned it this way and that to watch the light sheen off the metal grain, then ran his thumb experimentally across the edge. He cut himself shallowly and issued a surprised grunt, then handed the blade back with an air of respect.

The men of the village had watched the entire exchange in intent silence, and as Julian withdrew Yan gave him another calculating look then re-sheathed his knives. He stooped next to the Werne, grabbed it with two hands and one of his feet and effortlessly dismembered it with a trio of sickeningly loud cracks that reverberated around the clearing.

He didn’t even watch what he was doing, but instead seemed to be trying to stare Julian down. After a second though he seemed to decide that he’d made his point and turned his attention to the Werne, which he worked a little bit more before offering a meat-stripped thigh bone. Julian paused for a second and Yan snapped the thick bone in half with a snarl that by now almost looked friendly.

Seconds later, both men were slurping down raw marrow with every sign of enjoying it.

“Urgh…Think I’ll stick to beef chili…” Allison muttered, for Xiù’s ears only.

“You never tried Nava,” Xiù retorted, though she was feeling a little queasy herself. Julian hadn’t even hesitated.

Yan relaxed considerably, and made some quick calls that sounded vaguely food-related. Right away the men of the tribe were busying themselves around a new pit, and shortly thereafter they had a start on a fire, with the unfortunate Werne being taken apart to roast. Vemik watched for a moment, then devoured the rest of his pemmican and returned to his spot, and sat on his coiled tail.

Julian and Yan parted ways with an air of newfound respect, and Julian rejoined the girls looking pleased with himself. “Who needs translator software, huh?”

“Ugh, boys.” Allison snorted, though her face said something very different and more positive.

“Raw marrow, though?” Xiù objected. “Ew.”

“Warm from a fresh kill,” Julian beamed. “Kinda buttery and nutty, really rich…saved my life on Nightmare. Sure, it’s a better idea to cook it but…” he glanced back over at Yan. “When in Rome…”

“Can we maybe stop taking stupid contamination and allergy risks now?” Allison pleaded. “This planet’s a solid Class Twelve, that means the bugs and parasites here have gotta be about as bad as Earth’s. I really don’t wanna have to cart you guys home to an isolation ward locked in a stasis field.”

Julian considered. “Maybe we can get Vemik and Yan to step into the decon scanner, then. We need the scans and I bet Vemik would geek out over the anatomy display.”

Allison nodded. “Babe, if you can talk angry silverback daddy there into the magic sky people field, do it,” she said. “But until then, it’s ship food only from now on. Doctor’s orders.”

“How do we do that?”

“Well, we’re all monkeys, right? Monkey see, monkey do. And maybe candy.”

“Um…” Xiù cleared her throat. “We should probably talk about the language problem.”

Julian sat down, and grabbed the last MRE. “Oh man, you left me the fettuccine? I thought you loved me?”

“Julian!”

He quit joking around. “…Okay. Language problem,” he nodded, tearing the pouch open without bothering to heat it. “Fire away.”

“Have a look at this.” Xiù handed him the translator tablet. “Projected vocabulary size.”

He frowned at it. “That’s…not a big number.”

“That’s a really small number,” Xiù said emphatically. “And they’re missing some really important words, too.”

“Like?”

“Well…they don’t have a name for themselves. Not a name like Human, or Gaoian, or Corti or whatever.”

“Not surprising, I guess,” Julian mused. “There’s gotta be so few of them in a tribe they’ve never needed to define themselves versus everything else.”

“Yeah, but that’s just one of lots and lots of kinds of word they don’t have. I don’t think they have even half of what they need for us to be able to tell them about…everything.”

“…This is a Prime Directive problem, isn’t it?”

Xiù nodded. “Yup. And we can’t even tell them that. That’s how bad this is.”

Allison was spreading cream cheese on one of her crackers. “Not like Big Hotel left many options. These poor fuckers were extinct anyway, guys. Not our fault if their world’s about to get turned upside-down, at least they’ll still have one. Right?”

“That’s a sobering thought,” Julian said between mouthfuls of noodles. “But, I mean, okay. We can’t leave ‘em to die. That’d be just as bad as, I dunno, ‘interfering with their cultural development’ or whatever, wouldn’t it?”

“Bet you my share of the mission cash I could find some fuckwit on Earth who’d argue we should just leave ‘em go extinct,” Allison said. “But yeah. If it’s adapt or die, I say we help them adapt.”

“How?” Xiù asked. “There’s just too many…the things they need to know, their language just can’t—”

“So we teach them English. Carefully,” Julian raised his hand to forestall a tidal wave of objections, “We start out just, really really Barney-style, right? Simple, practical things. Start with storytime like you do with kindergarteners, and—”

Allison shook her head. “You’re overthinking it, dummy. I’m starting to think our Vemik here might maybe be smarter than all three of us. So how about we just teach him English?”

“And then what?” Xiù asked.

“And then we let him do what he does best: Ask questions.”


Date Point 12y3m2w AV
Whitecrest Clan Office, Alien Quarter Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Champion Genshi

Whitecrest’s stock in trade was political analysis. Oh yes, they dealt also in the application of low-visibility violence, in surveillance, monitoring, intelligence, espionage and sometimes assassination but as far as Genshi was concerned those were all just the claws. The claw was the sharp bit, the bit that cut the wound, left the scar, spilled the blood…but without a strong and skilled arm behind it, a claw was just an unpleasant little shard of keratin.

Politics. The claws were there both to facilitate gathering information about the political situation, and to facilitate influencing it. Everything the Clan did was about politics, sooner or later. It followed therefore that Whitecrest had become very good indeed at not only reading the politics of the here and now and retrospecting upon the politics of yesteryear, but more importantly had mastered the art of projecting how events would unfold in the future.

And, most importantly, the art of saying the right thing to the right person at the right time to bring preferred events to pass. Hopefully. Nothing was fixed, after all.

The right person in this case, on the surface, might have seemed like a deeply unlikely candidate. She was young, inexperienced and frankly not the most cunning Gaoian alive. She was perfect.

She was also, to borrow a human turn of phrase, drop-dead gorgeous. Although Gaori had some words that meant things similar to ‘Amazonian,’ it was the English word that fit Myun best: It implied a warrior mentality and poise that was absent from its closest Gaori equivalents.

She wasn’t stupid either, or else they’d have found somebody else. She was guileless and straightforward, but she had trained for years to be a commune guard: She had a nose for deception, risk and ‘bullshit,’ and seemed to be disconcertingly resilient to Genshi’s charms.

“I don’t think you actually have that authority,” she was observing as she slouched in the seat opposite him and watched him thoughtfully with her ears twitching and fine-tuning themselves as she thought.

“Not since Regaari was released from Giymuy’s service,” Genshi said. In fact they hadn’t actually had the authority to select the Mother-Supreme’s personal guard even before then, but Whitecrest had…influence.

“…Why me? I’m a junior commune guard. The Mother-Supreme deserves the best.”

Genshi flicked an ear in a calculated show of amusement. “You are the best, Sister Myun.”

We know that,” Myun agreed with no trace whatsoever of arrogance, “but don’t you have to…” she peppered the sentence with another word in English, “like, prove it or something?”

“I am a Champion, Sister Myun.”

“And why is the Champion of Whitecrest sponsoring me to be one of Yulna’s personal guard?” Myun pressed.

Genshi saw an opportunity to test her, and took it. “Why do you think?”

“Well, obviously you think you’ll need me. Why else? You’re not doing anyone any favors. But why do you need me?”

Genshi had struggled with that same bluntness during the week or two he had spent training with her. Myun had informed her that the style she had developed after studying under Sister Shoo was quite different to what the human Sister had taught her. What she had learned from Shoo had been specific regional styles that were heavily tied in with religious and spiritual practices. ‘Baguazhang’ and ‘Taijiquan,’ apparently.

To these, Myun had added…basically everything. She had obsessively studied human martial arts of every kind as well as she could considering the extreme distance involved and the relative isolation and paucity of human data, and had compared them to existing Gaoian forms.

The result was something that a human could never have learned: their bodies were the wrong shape. Shoo’s Baguazhang was apparently all about steady feet, planted firmly and moving independently of the upper body. But a human could do that - their center of gravity was low, their legs were proportionately long and accounted for a surprisingly large percentage of their mass.

Gaoians on two-paw teetered around a high center of gravity and Myun used that to drive movement through the whole body. She would flow easily from two paws to four and back while her long Gaoian dorsal muscles twisted and coiled her torso this way and that, swaying her body out of harm’s way while her paws diverted incoming blows aside. It was innovative, and effective, and so novel that it took Genshi nearly five days before he could score a hit of any kind. It was only on their final day that he had scored a pin at all.

To his regret, while she’d admitted to being impressed with his speedy progress it hadn’t resulted in a Contract. Myun was still young, still recovering from her first cub and apparently felt that there was no point in having a Clan that empowered the Females and afforded them their autonomy if all they did with that autonomy was spend their lives producing cubs.

She was in short a deeply unconventional creature, which probably came with being every inch her sire’s child right down to the smell. Nobody who knew Daar could fail to notice that she had his unique musk in feminine form.

And like Daar, she knew how to play the great game of politics just fine and didn’t give a stinking wet fart for it.

Oh well. There was nothing to be gained from playing it coy.

“…the Clan has learned things. Things that must remain secret for now and, if we do our job right, will remain a secret for a very long time.”

“Can you tell me what these things are?”

“Yes,” Genshi admitted. “But it involves a lot of paperwork and binding legal agreements and it’s one of those things you’d probably be unhappier for knowing. The fact that we think the Mother-Supreme needs a bodyguard like you should be enough to tell you how serious this is, though.”

He watched Myun watch him, and added “…Incidentally, the humans are very good at personal protection. We would almost certainly want the Mother-Supreme’s bodyguard to…shall we call it ‘comparing notes’ with them?” he asked, carefully deploying the English words like a garnish. That particular phrase had an exact equal in Gaori, but Myun had pleasantly big and clearly-labelled buttons to push.

She knew it, too, and chittered sharply. “…That’s shameless manipulation, Champion Genshi…I’m in.”

Sometimes, Genshi had to admit, the straightforward approach was refreshing.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Diplomatic Ship Rich Plains, En Route to Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ambassador Furfeg

“I remember the last time this ship had a human aboard…”

The Rich Plains was a very different ship than had flown fatefully to Gao all those years ago. It had spent nearly two of those years, by the Guvnurag calendar, confined to drydock undergoing both repairs from the violation of its structure by a Hunter broodship and long-overdue upgrades and refit. A footnote in its long history to be sure…but a significant footnote.

Furfeg could well recall the look of awe that the young miss Xiù Chang had unrestrainedly shown while gawping her way around decks that, to his seasoned eyes, had seemed shabby and badly in need of improvement at the time. He wondered what she would make of the ship now, with its new polished dark grey stone floors, its clean burnished fixtures and clear aquamarine lighting.

That mission had not been half so important as this one…nor half so grim.

In the months since the homeworld fell, there had been no follow-up attacks on the remaining planets of the Confederacy. The homeworld was lost, but her calves had been reinforced and permanently enclosed behind the newest and most impenetrable barriers that Guvnurag science could produce. The turnaround on designing and deploying the upgraded devices had been lightning-fast by the standards of any species, but especially by the standards of Guvnuragnaguvendrugun.

Something about the slaughter or enslavement of the largest third of the species served to focus the mind. For a lucky few, the focus had been on what it was they personally could achieve to avert a greater tragedy.

For the great majority, that focus had twisted loose and unattached like a rag in the storm, until it had found something to coil itself around in the form of anger.

The Guvnuragnaguvendrugun were an emotional people. They wore their feelings openly on their body. But they were also a docile people who roused to anger and to violence only with great difficulty. Some were practically incapable of it. To see anger at all was unusual in their society, but now it was a contagion that was sweeping their cities and stations and their citizens by the hundreds of millions.

Furfeg would have preferred that it be directed at the Hunters. They were the monsters here, after all. Their ships had devoured the homeworld and uncountable civilians. But being angry at the Hunters was like being angry at a lightning strike, or a howling gale. They were a destructive force of nature that was not at home to the emotions of an aggrieved species, even if they were capable of understanding those emotions.

…No. The analogy was not apt. Storms and winds had neither desire nor sadism. The Hunters were no force of nature, they were worse; they wished to be hated and feared and so the collected terror, grief and rage of billions was worse than impotent, it was a victory for them.

Thus, yet again, all of that anger and fear had earthed itself where it did not belong: In a species that Furfeg knew in his belly was utterly blameless. A species who were militarily superior to the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun in every conceivable way and yet upon whom a few strident voices, outraged and grieving to the point of insanity, wished to declare war.

A species whose representatives would shortly address the assembled Grand Matriarchs and Patriarchs of the All-Herd. For all their sakes he could only hope that they would prove to be Xiù Chang’s equal or even her better in matters of eloquent passion.

He turned an eye toward Shipmaster A’tkrnnmtktk’ki, whose quiet comment had belatedly roused him from his thoughts without really registering.

“…I am sorry?”

“I said, I remember the last time this ship had a human aboard,” A’tkrnnmtktk’ki repeated. “Gao. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it.”

“I was just thinking about that myself,” Furfeg admitted.

“I hope this time goes better…”

“It went extremely well last time. We survived.”

Furfeg had noticed that about himself in the last few months: his humor was darker and drier. Whether that was a refuge for him, helping him overlook what had happened to his home and his herd…

He decided not to dwell on it, or at least tried not to: There was productivity at hand, which was usually a useful balm for any aching ego…but the itch was there in the back of his mind and constantly sending motes of depression, anxiety and shock glinting down his body atop a slow, steady pulse of gnawing background tension.

He practically radiated relief when the human escort fell in alongside them with an easy muscularity that made the Rich Plains’ respectably fifty kilolights seem like little more than a pleasant stroll. Insofar as starships had body language, however, theirs seemed…subdued. Rather than leveling their noses with that of the much larger diplomatic ship and sweeping in tight to show themselves off, they instead held back almost a kilometer away, and towards the relative rear of the formation.

Possibly that was a difference in protocol and decision-making or possibly it was some subtle expression of thought on their captains’ parts. Impossible to tell.

Furfeg should have spent the remaining distance to Cimbrean reviewing the diplomatic notes, but for some reason it just didn’t happen. Instead he stood there in the dark of the ship’s opulent observation deck and used the stargazing fields to zoom in on the human ship to port.

It was almost impossible to see. Indeed it probably was impossible to see, and only the virtual outline in bright orange let him know it was there at all, and that was no help whatsoever in helping him determine its shape. The silhouette was blunt, efficient and shovel-nosed with the stub of what was possibly a command or sensor tower of some kind mounted off-center and three-quarters of the way back. Beyond that, the ship was featureless beyond five bright lights at its nose which prominently lit the name painted there: Vigilant.

He read the translation of that simple word several times, mulling it over until he was roused from his meditation by the quiet ship wide announcement to the effect that they were shortly to be arriving at Cimbrean Five, and that the ship had entered final deceleration.

That last part was a feature found only on civilian or diplomatic vessels designed for comfort. Military and commercial ships simply kept their warp field at running power until they reached their target coordinates before immediately and seamlessly rejoining their destination’s inertial frame of reference. Efficient, but it had the disconcerting effect of making planets and other celestial bodies simply slam into existence right next to the ship as if they had simply appeared from nothing.

The Rich Plains however made its final approach on a slow and steady deceleration curve that actually brought it below the speed of light during the last minute or so. Thus, the destination planet swelled into view and seemed to slow to a halt beside them, so as to avoid startling any passengers who were unfamiliar with the incomprehensible apparent speeds involved with FTL travel.

The strange perspective of the vacuum of space combined with the inconceivable scale of any planet so that although Furfeg knew that he was watching something immense from a great distance, he felt as though Cimbrean-Five, with its static-charged crystalline silicon sandstorms that would have reduced even a human to bloody shreds within seconds, looked more like something he could reach out and pluck from the sky to study in the palm of his hand.

Armstrong Station meanwhile was just small enough to look very, very big indeed. It had begun life as a perfectly standard Dominion trading outpost, but the Humans had clearly felt that the design needed improving. Indeed, they were still improving it. With the stargazing fields, Furfeg could detect stuttering points of light on its structure that, when he zoomed in on them, turned out to be figures in bright yellow armored suits moving ponderously and carefully as they worked, usually involving the flare of welding or possibly of cutting.

How had they happened so fast? The Gaoians had exploded onto the galactic scene with such unmatched drive and ferocity that they had become members of the Dominion Security Council at a speed that had alarmed and dismayed other factions that had lobbied for decades or centuries for the opportunity.

The humans in many ways were much less…ambitious. From what Furfeg knew in fact the overwhelming majority of their focus remained on local tribal matters back on their war-torn homeworld. The number of their species who had travelled into space was a trivial minority of only a handful of their most historically powerful and wealthy factions.

And yet, that minority of a minority had achieved almost unbelievable things under immense pressure while petitioning for little.

The thought of what might happen if the galactic community pushed this particular species too hard was what had placed Furfeg firmly among the peacemakers. He had seen first-hand what a single human could do when properly motivated: He had no desire whatsoever to see a practical demonstration of their nonsensical idiom about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

He spun away from the window and prepared to receive the ambassador.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Shuttle, en route to diplomatic ship Rich Plains, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches

Ambassador Anees Hussein

Doctor Hussein sometimes struggled to remember what his home country had been like in his youth. He had memories of opulence and wealth—or, at least, of clean white buildings with clean fountains and lush foliage—and of attending the University of Baghdad alongside pretty young women with hair that they wore openly and skirts that ended above the knee. He’d married one of them.

Decades of grinding war had reduced those memories to a question. Had Iraq ever really been that place? From the comfortable distance of a well-earned retirement where he had quietly outlived the projections of even his most optimistic doctor, he had found it hard to find visions of the land he had once called home that didn’t focus on the dust, the bombs and the suffering. For years, weak leaders from across the globe had thrown people onto that fire like new logs, in the vain and misguided hope of extinguishing it. All of them had lacked the will to truly fix the problem, and had snatched their hand back from the flames the moment they began to feel the heat.

Such a waste. The old regime had needed to go, but it had needed replacing. Properly and comprehensively, not merely torn down and the wreckage left for whomever could claw their way to its top. Democracies took root slowly and only in the deep fertile loam of stability and civility. They took decades to nurture into being: The thirsty, stony, weed-choked stuff that was his homeland’s political substrate simply couldn’t support one yet.

Perhaps one day, years after a Caesar had ridden through and made the place work the less civilized way, the time would be ripe to start coaxing something more humane to life, but that day wouldn’t come in Doctor Hussein’s lifetime. In any case, he knew that he himself had never been a Caesar: More of a Cicero.

Or perhaps a Mark Antony, as Shakespeare had envisioned him. A man who, with a few barbed words and raw emotion had reversed a crowd’s anger completely.

He allowed himself a small smirk at the thought, amused by the way that his education in classical European history sometimes got the better of him. It had seemed like a fascinating and exotic subject when he had first taken it, but it was astonishing how the ideas and histories had settled in and radically re-written his way of looking at the world.

No wonder the aliens were scared of the human race. Some ideas just…infected a person and stuck there.

“Docking in three minutes, sir.”

Hussein glanced at the man in the black suit who had spoken and acknowledged the update with a grateful nod. The SOR had made it known, delicately, that they felt a little snubbed by his decision not to take them for his personal escort—they not unreasonably felt that security wherever Cimbrean, aliens, spaceships and the Hierarchy overlapped was their responsibility—but they were rather too…overt for this occasion.

He looked forward out of the pilot’s window at the columnar hugeness of the Rich Plains as they swept in toward a comparatively tiny landing deck that Guvnurag sensibilities had placed only just behind the diplomatic vessel’s blunt prow. He wondered if that was for reasons of practicality or reasons of making visiting dignitaries such as himself feel important.

Probably the latter, he decided. It was difficult to imagine that a high-traffic working landing deck intended for the humdrum business of taking on food and supplies would have such pristine polished stone for the shuttle to alight upon.

The pilot sat back and stretched as the tractor fields took over and guided their shuttle down to a gentle touch that explained the unscratched flooring perfectly, and Hussein hauled himself to his feet with a groan of exertion.

“Well,” he said, and adjusted his spectacles. “Shall we?”


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Diplomatic Ship Rich Plains, Cimbrean system, The Far Reaches

Ambassador Furfeg

The sight of a frail human was an incongruity that was almost enough to unbalance Furfeg all by itself. The human ambassador shuffled from his transport with a bent back and a gleaming wooden stick for support and for a second he seemed like he must be a member of a different species. Surely this decrepit specimen could not be a deathworlder?

But he had those same human eyes. Amber brown in a hue that, to a Guvnurag, spoke of liveliness and indeed behind their corrective lenses those eyes were active and watchful without being wary. And somehow he managed to make the larger, stronger, younger specimens of his species who accompanied him fade into the background.

Furfeg shook the disconcerting impression loose and took a number of careful steps forward. This was no unregarded castaway girl: When the Guvnurag had contacted the humans to demand an explanation of them, this was the man whom the humans had chosen to make their case. Presumably, he was in the presence of somebody who held enormous respect on Earth.

Or possibly he was an avatar of human contempt. That seemed unlikely from what he knew of humans, but the long years had taught Furfeg never to trust that an individual might represent the whole species.

He raised a hand to his chest in greeting. “Ambassador Hussein. Welcome aboard the Rich Plains. I am Ambassador Furfeg, the Confederacy’s permanent representative aboard this ship.”

The Ambassador imitated the gesture. “Salām.” he said, curiously untranslated. He clearly sensed Furfeg’s surprise, because he provided a translation immediately. “It means ‘Peace,’ in the language of my home.”

That boded well, in Furfeg’s estimation. He pulsed a welcoming medley of warm yellows. “The Dominion ambassadors will be joining us from their embassy station in a few hours,” he informed the human. “There is a diplomat’s residence suite available for your use, and we have increased the gravity in that section to Earth standard for your comfort.”

“Most kind,” Hussein thanked him.

“There will be food available,” Furfeg added, “But I must apologize, Ambassador: we do not have carnivorous options on board.”

“That is quite alright,” Hussein assured him. “I have been a strict vegetarian for most of my life.”

The translator tripped over the word ‘Vegetarian’. The linguistic detour necessary in the Guvnurag language to specify the subtle distinction between innate biological herbivorousness and voluntary vegetarianism took a full seven seconds, and Hussein wore an expression of polite interest throughout.

Feeling increasingly rattled for no good reason, Furfeg stepped aside and gestured invitingly for the human and his entourage to come aboard properly.

He was stymied again by Hussein’s frailty. Guvnurag were not a quick people by any measure, but the human ambassador took each step carefully and deliberately as if he was afraid that he might fall and suffer a grievous injury at any second. There was simply no hurrying him, but his entourage seemed entirely comfortable to amble easily along behind the ambassador.

Furfeg, meanwhile, found himself taking one step for every ten of the human’s and he still had no idea if he was the target of a studied insult or not. Hussein himself certainly made no mention of it.

Shipmaster A’tkrnnmtktk’ki salvaged the situation masterfully. Furfeg read the update from his Rrrtktktkp’ch colleague on his ocular implants’ virtual overlay and saw the wisdom in it instantly.

“Ambassador…” he began delicately. “The captain of the Rich Plains has requested to give you a personal tour of the ship before the delegates arrive. The ship is rather large, however, so he has offered the use of a small personal transport…”

“That is very kind of them,” Hussein said, pausing. “I hesitate to impose on the captain’s generosity, but as you can see my legs don’t quite work as well as they once did…”

“He assures me that the vehicle will be available for your use throughout your stay, Ambassador. As a personal token of his esteem.” A’tkrnnmtktk’ki hadn’t become shipmaster of the Rich Plains by accident. Indeed, he was an accomplished diplomat himself, and had worked small wonders in support of Furfeg for many years.

“The captain is most generous.”

By the time they reached the door, the vehicle had arrived and Hussein settled gratefully onto a part of it that looked deeply uncomfortable to Furfeg’s eyes, but then again he and the ambassador were very different shapes.

It set off under its own power at a comfortable walking pace that Furfeg was able to match with ease. The human guards with their shorter legs jogged to keep up but seemed to suffer no particular distress or feel at all disgruntled by the change in pace.

Furfeg willed himself to relax slightly. The first of many obstacles had been navigated without incident, and the real test was tomorrow. There was no sense in running himself ragged.

Still…he couldn’t shake a terrible paranoid feeling somewhere in his bones that told him he should not truly relax until after the human was safely off his ship again.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Cabal Dataspace 32 758 927, Adjacent to Gao planetary datasphere.

Cytosis

The sticking point was Stoneback. Every other clan, from the Females all the way through Gaoian society had nicely followed the Hierarchy’s usual cybernetic uptake projections. Progressive generations had become more and more comfortable with the technology, squeamishness had been carefully reduced, until nowadays every major political force on Gao—Clan or otherwise—had an entirely acceptable percentage of implantees.

Stoneback did not. Possibly this had to do with their lifestyles, which could be rough and physical by any standard and even sometimes as intense as a true Deathworlder’s. Their Champion was known for his lack of implants, too, and the Clan quite naturally followed his example.

Such factions had always been…difficult…for the Hierarchy to handle. Normally they would quietly engineer the faction’s irrelevance or possibly its destruction, but that was absolutely not an option here, for reasons that were maddeningly complex and essential to Gaoian culture.

One of those reasons, of course, was the counter-agency of Cabal operatives. They needed actors who were well-positioned to oppose Hierarchy influence, and the Gao were unknowingly at an essential moment in their history; they were almost beyond the critical threshold. Stoneback was the key to their salvation, to help them undo the deadening influence of the Hierarchy’s psychological and cultural engineering…but they had no agents within. At all.

Sometimes, however, an opportunity presented itself and in this case that opportunity took the form of one Associate Fiin.

Fiin was a young, junior, strapping, and sullenly belligerent example of the Clan’s advanced training programs. Supremely self-confident though still in some unidentified phase of his progression, the young associate had managed to annoy just the wrong male in a local Talamay house.

Gaoian society had a curious relationship with murder. They didn’t exactly accept it—the Females wanted stability and peace after all, and for their cubs to have long and successful lives. When a male killed another male, it tended to harm their mating chances, and that was usually enough of a disincentive. Usually, but not invariably

Then there were the Straightshields. Gao’s answer to a police force and judiciary were, if anything, even keener on an orderly society than the Females were, and they were among the heavier implant users. After all, neural cybernetics had made their role so much easier…

These facts combined to explain exactly why the young Fiin was standing shackled in front of Cytosis, or rather in front of the biodrone that Cytosis controlled. The young Stoneback was covered in blood and had a chunk torn from his left ear, and he was wearing an expression of barely-contained rage that his motives were even being questioned.

“He attacked me in a back-alley with three of his workhouse-mates! What was I supposed to do?”

“There were other options besides disemboweling all four of them, Associate Fiin,” Cytosis allowed his biodrone to say. “You are Clan and are held to a much higher standard. You know this, do you not?”

Fiin aimed a look that longed for violence at the Straightshield enforcers who had him coralled. He wasn’t stupid enough to fight back, but it was clear that his hackles were up and he wanted more blood on his claws. “The Openpaw medics said three of them will survive!”

“For which you should be immensely grateful, young Clanling. Their workhouse will demand Wergeld and rightly so. Terl was a valuable and highly-skilled welder.”

“He should have thought of that before he tried to bite my throat out!”

“Indeed. And will the surveillance footage reflect your version of events? Answer wisely, young Clanling.”

Fiin went stiff, then sagged. “Stonebacks don’t lie…but it was an alleyway. There is no footage. Which is why they attacked me there, the cowards…”

And there was the opportunity that Cytosis had been looking for.

“No, you don’t lie, do you? I can smell it on you.” Which was true: Fiin reeked of blood and honesty. “But what am I to do, Fiin of Stoneback? This is not your first encounter with my Clan and I suspect it will not be the last. Have you gained no serenity from your new position?”

Fiin didn’t respond to that, but he did cringe ever so slightly. Cytosis had struck a chord. He paused for a moment and addressed the enforcers. “Leave us, I think he will hold his honor.”

The enforcers regarded Cytosis carefully, then backed off and resumed their patrol. Dealing with one of the Judge-Fathers of their clan was more than they had bargained on at the start of their day, and especially not this Father. This father had a Reputation.

When the patrol officers had retreated sufficiently, Cytosis approached carefully and unshackled Fiin to his wide-eyed surprise.

“You are on probation,” Cytosis informed him. “And the citation will be recorded. Self-defense this may have been, but there is such a thing as excessive force, young Stoneback. You must understand that, because as Clan you have a much larger responsibility than any Clanless. And you are a Stoneback. In short order you will grow past our ability to peaceably restrain…”

He saw Fiin nod, and laid down his bait. “I am willing, however, to ensure that the citation expires quickly, provided you demonstrate that Straightshield can trust you. Our Clans have a good relationship. I want to keep it that way. I don’t want our officers to have to bring you down hard, and you don’t want to waste a gesture of goodwill. Do you?”

Fiin seemed to understand the gravity of the situation and duck-nodded submissively. “No, Father.”

“Good. Now…this leniency doesn’t come entirely without a price. While I cannot order you to do this…Straightshield would very much appreciate if you kept us in your thoughts when you fully assume your Clan responsibilities. You will see much. Some of it will be unusual, perhaps unethical. Maybe dangerous to the Gao…”

Fiin opened his mouth to object, and Cytosis had his drone raise a paw to stop him. “This is not an accusation, it is a fact,” he asserted. “Every Clan has its…difficult….elements, and Straightshield alone have the power to independently investigate and Judge. You know our motto?”

Fiin duck-nodded. Everybody knew the Straightshield motto, they were one of the few Clans who had made theirs public knowledge. When Cytosis gestured for him to speak, he grumbled the three words quietly. ”Service Before Self”

Cytosis duck-nodded for him. “We take it seriously. Just as seriously as your Clan takes yours…”

Fiin duck-nodded seriously but did not reveal the motto. Which was…maddening. Both the Cabal and the Hierarchy knew next to nothing about Stoneback and even something as simple as their motto eluded them. The Whitecrests had ‘Light the Darkness,’ Clan Shortstride had ‘Build The Easy Road,’ but Stoneback remained a frustratingly closed book.

Anyway. “Very well. Keep your nose clean and your claws bloodless, young Stoneback. Before you know it this citation will be gone and you will have your second chance. Now go get yourself cleaned up…and pay that wergeld. Pay generously, Fiin.”

“…I will. Thank you, Father.”

“Go.”

He watched Fiin depart with as much dignified speed as he could, which was frankly heavier on the speed than the dignity, then turned and strolled back out into the crowd towards his vehicle.

It wasn’t much of a foothold in Gao’s most impenetrable Clan… but it was a start.

And it was more than the Hierarchy had.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches

Ambassador Furfeg

The human was just…taking it. He had barely spoken a word for the duration of the session so far, and had instead chosen to bow his head and listen as the delegates took their turns laying into his species as a whole.

Furfeg was having to fight to keep his emotions from showing: Some of the unfiltered vitriol landing on the beleaguered deathworlder went far beyond anything that he personally or even the species in general deserved.

Furfeg had his…doubts…about mankind. When he had unleashed the Hunters on this very ship all those years ago he had wanted to showcase the species’ heroic potential, and he had succeeded admirably at a cold cost that he had kept buried ever since.

It was only later, on silent reflection, that he had begun to assess the consequences. Xiù Chang herself had done nothing wrong at all—indeed, she had been the victim of his scheme—but she had…broken things. Subtly. In ways that were hard to pin down, the collateral damage of what she had achieved not only on the Rich Plains but also in a nameless lab on a nameless barren world, on Gao and for the Gaoians had been widespread and most likely unconscious.

There was a lengthy causal chain between that girl’s abduction and the fact that Gao was, it was rumoured, shortly to see an upgrade in its official Dominion habitability rating to take it above ten and into the class of bottom-end deathworld. Furfeg was absolutely certain that the reclassification would never have even been considered if not for that one Canadian teenager. Perhaps the Gaoians could have maintained the deception a little while longer.

Deep in the soul he had come to believe he might have, Furfeg could only stare at the frail, elderly ambassador that humanity had chosen for themselves and wonder what happened when that kind of unthinking calamitous agency was multiplied to include eight billion people? Just how hot was the fire they were playing with, here?

And why was something so dangerous willing to just sit and take it?

The answer came to him in a cold jolt. Hussein was accepting the abuse with such composure because he could.

The realization happened at about the same time as the last of the grieving Guvnurag delegates reached the end of their tirade and sank back into their seat exhausted. Twelve of the most powerful politicians in the galaxy had shouted themselves hoarse at an old man.

Slowly, with a hand that might have been trembling from emotion or might have been trembling from age, Hussein reached up and removed his glasses. He folded them carefully and held them lightly in his lap as he tugged a small cloth square from his pocket and delicately dried around his eyes and nose.

He returned the cloth to his pocket, re-positioned the spectacles on his nose, cleared his throat, and then looked around at the beings who had abused him so futilely.

“…What must we do?” he asked, quietly.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

“You can’t just ‘go native’ like that!”

“I had a stone in my shoe! What was I gonna do, let it wreck the whole foot? The damn thing doesn’t heal, Al!”

Xiù had never heard Allison and Julian really raise their voices at each other before. As with all relationships there was always the occasional irate moment, the odd tense exchange, but by and large they had a peaceful home.

But Allison was furious with Julian today, and Xiù couldn’t really blame her.

The girls had gone on a supply run back to the ship, and on returning they’d found Julian showing a fascinated Vemik the workings of his foot while gnawing happily on a roasted Werne shank. And he’d known he shouldn’t be doing either of those things, because he’d shot Allison the immediate guilty look that all men wore when caught by their girlfriends doing something that had been explicitly forbidden.

Vemik, wisely, had found a reason to leave. Quickly.

“Xiù! Back me up here?” Allison finally turned to her and flung an arm wide, inviting her to pitch in.

Xiù looked her in the eye and shook her head. “No ganging up, remember?” she said, quietly.

The gentle reminder worked. Allison gawped at her for a second, then blinked and chilled out a little.

“I…Uh…Right. Shit, Julian, I’m sorry. I’m just—”

“No, it’s—” Julian tried to interrupt her. “You’re right, I promised I wouldn’t.”

“It’s not that. You’ve been scaring the shit outta me, dummy.” Allison confessed. “I keep waiting for you to wake up puking blood or…something.”

“Allison…” Julian hugged her and ran a vigorous, reassuring hand firmly up and down her back. “We’ve got biofilters, antibiotics, antiparasitics and stasis. We need to befriend these people if we’re not gonna be Gods and break them completely. We’re tough and they’re smart. We…we need to take some risk here. If we don’t, we might be risking them. They need to see us as people and not avatars or we might get…hell, a cargo cult or something.”

“There’s gotta be a way to do that without risking your own health, though?”

“…I’m not stupid,” Julian chided without any real hard feeling. “Vemet wanted me to take their trial of manhood, and God knows what that involves, but I know there’s some kind of a drug in there so I said no. I said it would probably be bad because I’m from very far away and it might insult his gods, and he seemed okay with that.”

Allison backed down some more. “Good. That’s…good. Thanks.”

“I’m not happy about it either,” Xiù confessed, “I dunno, I think he’s right, bǎobèi. But…I think you’re right too. I’m torn.”

“I’m not happy about it!” Julian said. “Just by being here we’ve done…fuck-knows-what to these people. I just don’t think hiding anything is gonna prevent further harm.”

Allison made a pained noise and threw herself into Xiù’s lap under the tree they were using as ‘their’ space in the clearing. She kneaded her eyes with the heel of her hands before running her fingers through her hair and sighed at the leaves and limbs above. “…I mean…do we really wanna let more cats out of the bag?”

“No, I don’t want to,” Julian repeated himself. “I think we have to. We need to be real in a way they can understand. I don’t wanna be a God.”

“Oh, come on!” Allison groaned and glared at him half-heartedly. “Now you’re gonna use my own thing against me?”

“If it’s your own thing, babe…” He pointed out, and let the thought hang unfinished.

Allison stared at him a few moments longer then looked to Xiù, who shrugged and gave her a reassuring kiss on the forehead. “We’re all stressing out about this,” she said, stroking Allison’s hair. “I don’t want to hurt them either, but…”

“But honesty is the best policy. Fuck.” Allison sighed. “Fine. Beat by my own logic, huh?”

“Sorry.” Julian sat down with them both, and the argument ended as all their arguments did with foreheads to foreheads and three quick kisses. No hard feelings.

There was a curious sound from nearby. The Singer was watching them again, in a very different way to Vemik. Where Vemik had a permanent puppyish tilt to his head as he tried to figure out what he was hearing, the Singer just…watched. Levelly, thoughtfully and impenetrably.

Of course, this was the first time the three of them had been affectionate in front of the tribe, wasn’t it? In the moment, they’d forgotten.

Xiù went tense, waiting for the Singer to demand an explanation…but instead the native woman shrugged, turned, and swung away into a neighboring tree without comment.

They watched her go.

“…What’s with her?” Allison asked, eventually.

“I’ve barely spoken with her,” Xiù said. “She…I don’t think she knows what to think of us yet.”

“Could be a problem,” Julian’s hand rasped through a few days of stubble. “If she decides she doesn’t like us…”

“Her word would carry a lot of weight,” Xiù agreed. “I think she’s Yan’s niece, as well as being the witch or…whatever we call her.”

“Let’s just call her the Singer,” Allison proposed.

“And what do we do if she doesn’t like us?” Julian asked.

Xiù watched Vemik get up and leave as well, following after the Singer.

“…we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” she decided.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

Vemik had good hearing. He listened thoughtfully from a distance, and he wondered. He didn’t quite understand what they were talking about. Their sky-words were still new but…

They seemed worried. Worried about the People. And they seemed…like they cared. And that, he decided, was a good thing.

He noticed the Singer giving the three Sky-People some distance and followed her to the temporary nest she’d made half-way up a Ketta tree, hung with bones and totems and a few of her herbs and roots. She was dividing her time between the village and the meeting-place for now, and was almost as exhausted as she’d been on the long journey from the old village.

She gave him a tired look as she settled into the little bowl of bent branches and leaves she’d made for herself.

“You’re quiet…” Vemik said.

“I left the baby with Semi,” she said. Semi had been the mother of Vemik’s half-sisters, and was throwing herself hard into her work to try and keep her thoughts away from the pain of knowing that her daughters, sent to the eastern tribe a few seasons before, had all been killed by the “Big Enemy”.

Having a niece to look after was probably doing her some good. It was certainly helping the Singer, who had been struggling to cope with the constant demands of both tribe and child even before the sky-people showed up.

Vemik prided himself that he could offer comfort and support—the Singer fell asleep the instant he held her, most nights—but she had been adamant that if he wanted sex then he was going to have to go find some other woman for that as she just didn’t have the energy.

Vemik would have taken her at her word too, except that all the women in the tribe were so much older than him. Old enough to be his mother, although she had died and her body had been given to the skies many seasons ago. So long ago that Vemik could remember little of her.

He’d grown up being mothered by the whole tribe. To go to any of them seemed…it made his skin feel like little things were crawling all over him, and the crawling feeling got even worse when he thought about how the only other women in the tribe were his cousins and sisters.

There had been too many seasons since they last traded with another tribe. Too many more and things would become difficult indeed.

The Singer always seemed to know the inside of his head. Her usual amused sparkle shone through the fatigue for a second as she gave him a sly look. “So, what do you find so fascinating in the Sky-People?” she asked. “They are beautiful in a strange way, aren’t they?”

“They don’t have tails,” Vemik objected. “And their hands have too many fingers, and that thing in the middle of their faces—!”

“And they’re beautiful. In a strange way,” she repeated. “Aren’t they?”

“…Yes.” Vemik admitted. “But stranger than I…they seem…” He paused and scowled at himself. Whatever thought he was trying to have was getting stuck like a bone in a choking man’s throat. “Do women…?”

“Do women what?” Her tone was light and innocent, but her eyes were anything but.

“The Sky-Women, they seem to…love each other. And him.”

“And why not?” the Singer smiled at him. “Some of the village women turn to each other for comfort when the men are away hunting.”

“You do?”

“And why not?” She repeated. “Why? Don’t men—?”

“If we do, none of them have ever asked me to-” Vemik shook his head. “No.”

The Singer picked a stray shred of leaf out of her tail-crest. “Perhaps I should ask a different man.”

Feeling strangely jilted for no good reason that he could identify, Vemik climbed up onto a branch slightly higher than hers and lay along it on his belly, looking down at her. She rolled onto her back and continued to give him that impenetrable, amused look. “Do you think they’d answer?”

“Why not? Your father and Yan seem to like each other.”

“Wait, really?” Vemik was still thinking through what that might mean when she trilled loudly and gave him a fond look.

“I’m tugging your tail, stupid.”

“…Oh.” Vemik lowered his head again, thinking.

“I mean, Yan likes most people…but he’s polite about it,” she added. “Maybe he likes you!”

Vemik made a pained noise, as he always did when people were teasing him with things he didn’t know and vague half-answers. “You are in an evil mood today!”

“No, I’m in a good mood.” The Singer stretched and curled up a little in her nest. “That argument of theirs…what did you make of it?”

“…That they’re worried about something. Something big. And they’re worried for us.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Comforting, isn’t it?”

“If the Sky-People are worried for us…they can do impossible things. Shouldn’t we be worried by there being something that worries them?”

“Why? We can only do what we can do. Yan has more taking-magic than the men in any of the songs, but I think he’d be killed dead by that black rock-spear thing they have.”

“That’s worrying!” Vemik insisted.

“It is! But it’s obvious that they care about us, so it’s not something to worry about. See?”

Vemik looked down at her, knowing that he was going to worry about it despite her advice. “…So what do we do?”

“Learn. They worry for us. That’s both worrying and comforting, so learn. In time they will tell us what worries them, and once we know? Then we can make plans.”

“When we get the words…and the sky-thoughts. It’s hard, it’s like…” Vemik searched for the phrasing. “They have words for thoughts nobody’s ever had! Every time we talk I feel—” he paused and summoned the word he had learned. “They have a word. ‘Universe.’ It means all the stars in the night sky that we can see, and all the ones that we can’t see too.”

“I heard it. It sounded like Big Magic.”

“But…what kind of people have a word for stars that we can’t see?”

She shrugged. “Sky-thinkers.”

“I’m a sky-thinker,” he objected, “and I never came up with a word like that.”

“You haven’t been doing it for as long.”

Vemik opened his mouth to protest, and the Singer raised her hand to forestall the argument. “No, really! They’re not gods, I think that’s true, right? Gods don’t eat like we do, or have strange carved feet, or anything like that. They’re just People from under a far-away sky who have been sky-thinking for a very long time and are very good at it. They’ve told us so.”

“They could be lying?” Vemik suggested, half-heartedly. It was a crippled and weak little objection.

“Jooyun didn’t lie about his made-foot, did he? He took it apart and showed you all the bones and tendons, even with how strange their feet are. Why would he lie about any of that? Why would a god lie and pretend to just be a Person?” She glanced at the sun. “Could a god lie and pretend to just be a Person?”

“Maybe he’s a trickster god?”

“Well…No, I don’t think so. I feel it in my breath.” Which was fair enough, as far as Vemik was concerned. It was the Singer’s job to know such things, after all. “But, you want to do something? Jooyun seems to like you. You two started exploring right? Why not keep doing that? I know you’re harassing him with questions and he hasn’t taken you with his black-spear, so…”

“He seems to like it when I ask questions…” Vemik admitted.

“Maybe he likes you…” She had that teasing edge to her voice again.

“Hey!”

The Singer trilled, “You’re such easy prey!”

“Apparently,” grumbled Vemik. She trilled again, but relented.

“Fine. He likes your questions. So if he is a god then asking questions will keep him happy, and if he isn’t a god then maybe he will teach you things,” she summed up with a nod. “And maybe, eventually, you will know what has them so worried.”

“And after that…I keep asking questions until I know how to help them with whatever has them worried?” Vemik asked.

“Maybe. Swing from this tree to that tree, Sky-thinker. Don’t try to hold a branch that isn’t in front of you.”

“You sound like Yan,” Vemik grumbled. She trilled.

“I hope so! He is my uncle. And a wise man, too—You should listen to him more.”

“I do listen to him!”

“Really?” the Singer shook her head and seemed amused. “And if Yan was giving you advice right now, what would he say?”

Vemik thought about it. “He’d say…to keep my thoughts here and now. Hold the branch in front of me.”

“And what is in front of you right now?”

Vemik grinned. “A nest that’s just about big enough for two, if they’re close enough…”

“Really? Well then, father of my first child. How close are we?”

It was Vemik’s turn to make an amused trill, and he dropped easily off his branch and onto hers.

“Why don’t we learn?” he asked.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, Orbiting Cimbrean-5, The Far Reaches

++????++: <Alarm;Priority> [broadcast;observer_10 142 059; Meme_Sequence17 974 645]

Every Igraen agent in the Hierarchy had spent time as an Observer before being selected to undergo their evaluation period as a Zero ahead of finally being inducted into the Hierarchy itself. The work was tedious and demeaning, but it supposedly instilled patience and winnowed out those too fickle to properly serve the needs of the species.

The Observers did just and only that: they observed. They did not have the override codes to assume control of their host, nor any authority within the Hierarchy structure but they were utterly essential. The Hierarchy, after all, numbered at most in the low thousands and had done so only a few times in their history.

This, compared to millions of potentially important individuals who might know and see things that the Hierarchy might wish to learn. Individuals such as the Guvnurag diplomat Furfegrovan.

The observer riding in Furfeg’s implants had been monitoring the Guvnurag’s thoughts and had noted a chain of reasoning that it felt warranted inspection by a more senior agent. It had kicked the meme-sequence upstairs to its over-observer, which had in turn forward it to the observation overseer.

The thought chain was easily summarized: ‘The human is up to something.’ This alone warranted analysis, especially in light of the sophisticated decision tree that underpinned the opinion, and so the overseer immediately brought the analyzers into play.

Analyzers were the second tier of the structure atop which rested the Hierarchy’s agents. Observe, Analyze, Act. All Agents spent time as an Analyzer as well before they finally made it to their Zero-trial.

Analysis of the meme-sequence led to its immediate graduation to needing Agent intervention. It was forwarded to the junior receiving agent monitoring the diplomatic operation, who instantly handed it to the senior agent.

The entire process took place during the ringing silence that followed Ambassador Hussein’s simple question.

“What must we do?” he repeated himself, leaning forward on his cane and peering over his glasses. “Tell us. My species is listening, gentlebeings. Reveal to us what it is we must do to earn your trust, and it will be done.”

Hierarchy prediction algorithms ran ahead of that question, sending questing tendrils of probability-math into the future in search of the plausible outcomes, the desirable outcomes, the disastrous outcomes. Nodes of possibility were found, key branches in the conversation to come were mapped.

Hussein did not stand—indeed, the act seemed beyond him at this point—but he did shuffle forward and perch owl-like on the edge of his seat. “Tell us,” he repeated, softly.

With a fully mapped probability matrix in place, the Hierarchy’s critical objectives were injected and work began on what sequence of words and actions might bring them about. First and foremost, the objective of driving a permanent wedge between ordinary sapients and all forms of deathworld life.

One of the Guvnurag erupted to his feet, flaring a furious red. “There is nothing!” he spat. “The homeworld would be untouched if not for your kind, and you dare ask us to trust you? You… you blunder off your diseased planet and rot everything you touch, and then you ask for forgiveness? There is nothing, Ambassador! Nothing that you can do! Do not even ask!”

The probability space shrank and stretched, dozens of Hierarchy programs watched every subtle facet of Hussein’s body language as he took the tirade with patient sadness.

“…Then why am I here?” he asked, eventually. “Is this sentiment universal? Diplomacy never fails, sir; People fail it. It falls to us at these moments to have the strength to-”

“Your ‘strength,’” one of the other dignitaries interrupted, spurred by the Agent in her brain, “crushes us all.”

“Strength can do that,” Hussein agreed. “Or it can hold off the crushing blow. Strength is never a problem, gentlebeings. Strength solves problems, and it now falls to us to be strong for both our species’ sakes.”

”And what problems have you solved, Ambassador Hussein?” Furfeg asked, quietly. He was unaware of his status as the only Guvnurag in the room whose actions were entirely uninfluenced by Hierarchy demons. There always needed to be at least one, to act as a barometer for how other uncontrolled life forms would behave.

Hussein considered that for a long moment. “That is a fascinating question, Your Excellency. Answering it in detail would require I place all of you in great danger, and that, obviously, cannot stand. So I will answer it as best I can: we have ensured the continued survival of ourselves and others.”

“A bluff,” One of the dignitaries scoffed.

“If so, it is one we have committed virtually all of our Dominion Development Credits to ensure, along with a crippling increase in GRA member-nation debt, extensive economic pressure not to mention internal instability. No. This is a threat we are committed to fighting, and we are doomed to fight it mostly in silence. But, alas, I cannot ask your sympathy, and I know beyond doubt that many of the people in this room know of what I am speaking.”

“And is this… problem… actually solved, Your Excellency?” Furfeg pressed.

“No. Nor will it be anytime soon. All of that, however, is merely background. My people are in a fight for the right to exist, and one aspect of our enemy has decided to make an example of your people for their own reasons. This…we are not strong enough to have stopped it. We could only watch, helplessly, as all our oft-mentioned Deathworld might was as nothing before a million evil ships. So, I ask again: what must we do?”

Furfeg’s chromatophores shone with a mix of uncertainty and, even now, the urge to reconcile… and it was on that lone data point that the probability-space collapsed into a narrow channel of forced action.

There were no malicious words or taunting. What would have been the point? Instead, one of the Agents merely triggered a contingency in physical space that had been prepared ahead of this meeting. Its host raised a hand and pointed at the human, and there was a snapping hiss of compressed air.

Hussein had enough time to look down at the nervejam grenade that landed at his feet.

His reply was soft. “…I see.”

He shut his eyes.


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač

As dates went, Martina had to feel that going to a photo exhibition being thrown by her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend-slash-adopted-sister was… Surprisingly good actually. It sounded a lot worse on paper than it was in reality.

Ava was looking good these days. Marty doubted she’d ever quite lose that haunted look but she was carrying herself more openly, smiling more, looking less sorry for herself. Her fingertips never strayed far from the soft-haired brown border collie at her side, but there was a determined positive energy around her now. It was a definite improvement.

According to Adam, Ava had approached Folctha’s art galleries about doing an exhibition as a kind of therapy. Marty had no idea what went into being accepted by an art gallery, but she’d done her research and learned that the Ealain Gallery was getting the best reviews by all the right people. Some very serious names, apparently, felt that the place was on its way to becoming a true cultural focus. One critic had called it ‘Folctha’s answer to the Tate Modern,’ and it was high on the list of tourist destinations for visitors to mankind’s first offworld colony.

Art galleries had never been Marty’s thing, though. Too… self-congratulatory. She was an engineer and a scientist at heart, she loved problems and solving problems. The eternal quest to find ever-more subtle ways of evoking an emotion usually left her cold.

Sometimes, though, something came along to make her grudgingly reassess her opinion and Ava’s photography was proving to be such a sometime. Apparently she’d worked closely with the gallery’s curator to tell a story, and they’d succeeded.

The path through the exhibit meandered confusingly, leaving no clear sense of direction. It started, surprisingly, with an image not taken by Ava—a photo taken out in nature by a lake, showing the sunlight making lines of light and dark on Ava’s own naked back while the sun itself was framed by a coil of her soaked hair. You had to know it was Ava, though, as she was looking away from the camera. Frankly, the girl in the picture could have been anyone.

It was a happy image, a warm one, and it held Adam enthralled for so long that Marty was about to tease him about the shadowed edge of a teenage breast just visible between Ava’s arm and her knee when he spoke.

“I remember that day…”

Marty checked the label. “Original image by S. Tisdale…”

“Yeah. Last day we ever swam at the lake. God, she died only a week later…”

Marty took his hand and led him away from it, into the thicket of images that Ava had taken herself. There was a very similar image to the first one at the far end of the gallery, enlarged so that everyone could see that it was there and that it was almost identical to the first one, but hidden behind a curtain of gauze that blurred the details. The winding trail around the exhibit swung close to it, but never behind the curtain. Whatever that image depicted was tantalizingly visible, but never accessible.

“Jack writes to you, right?” she asked.

“Recruit Tisdale, you mean?” Adam grinned. “Yeah, he writes to me every week. Says the PT at HMS Raleigh is way easier than what I was givin’ him… hey, this is London, right?”

“You tell me, I’ve never been,” Marty inspected the image he’d stooped to study. It certainly had a strong London-ness to it. In fact, as she looked around she found they were in the middle of a virtual island of London-ness, written in shades of orange, blue and gray-scale. “Gonna be a while before he’s on the team.”

“Five years to finish his Engineering Technician training after he’s done with Basic. God, I’ll be an old man by then!”

“Shut up, you won’t even be thirty.”

“You’ll be though!” Adam shot her his best shit-eating grin, bouncing on the balls of his feet with enough force to be felt through the concrete tiled floor. “Ooolld…..”

Marty slapped his arm and got stinging fingers for it, but she was giggling. “Asshole… Come on, let’s see what’s next.”

Ava’s exhibition really was an emotional journey, and all of it was told in portraits of light and color that tended to focus on one ordinary thing. A decrepit old Lada in Cairo, a forlorn brown rock in the middle of the surprising subtle hues of desert sand. A crown of brambles choking a native Cimbrean tree to death. Every single one was bleak, but… there was something…

It finally clicked for Marty when they reached the far end of the gallery closest to the gauze and she could see what the picture behind was: A recreation of the original image by the lakeshore, with an older Ava still anonymously looking away from the camera.

She leaned back, folded her arms thoughtfully. “Well now. I don’t usually go for art, but this? I like.”

“That means a lot. Thank you!”

They both turned. Ava had managed to sneak up on them during their slow tour around the exhibit, and gave them a shy smile. “It was Bernadette who really put it together, though. I didn’t even see the theme in all these until she brought it out.”

“Bernadette?” Adam asked.

“The curator.” Ava looked around the exhibit. “She must’ve gone through thousands of pictures to narrow it down to just these.”

“I like that you used Sara’s picture,” Adam told her.

“Mm. It was Berna’s idea to recreate it.” Ava looked up at the huge image of herself on the wall. “Is it weird that an exhibition of my photos is framed by two pictures I didn’t take?”

“You’re asking the wrong gal,” Marty confessed. “You modeled nude, though? I dunno if I could do that…”

“Actually, it was a real boost.” Ava smiled. “I might do it some more. Not, like, a glamour shoot but for art reasons? Hell yeah, sign me- sorry.”

The apology was in response to her phone humming inside her purse. She fished it out with a practised ease that said that she got a lot of phone calls at unexpected moments, and had it against her ear in a businesslike flash.

“Ava Rìos…Me cago en Cristo, are you sure?! …Yeah! Yeah, send it over, I’ll meet the crew at Quarterside Park. Right away, Thor. …You too.”

She lowered the phone with a stunned expression.

“Something happen?” Adam asked.

Ava nodded slowly. “…Ambassador Hussein has been murdered.”


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Nofl

“The way I see it, you have a choice here. You can be a criminal and a dropout from the Corti Directorate and sink into obscurity…or you could become respected and revered.”

Nofl wasn’t buying it, and said so. “Chief, chief, sweetie! I thought you were a man of principle?” He wasn’t handcuffed—humans didn’t make cuffs small enough for a Corti’s wrists—so he idly traced a lazy finger in an abstract pattern on the steel tabletop they had parked him at, seated atop a couple of thick books. “This political bargaining doesn’t suit you, not at all!”

“I am a man of principle.” Gabriel Arés was in that ridiculous primitive wheeled chair of his again. Why the man persisted in enduring the indignity of a permanently damaged nerve despite Nofl’s repeated offers to help…well, everybody said humans were strange. “Our system of justice seeks fairness and even if you broke the law, your intent matters. It always does.”

“I’m sure that line works with the Gaoians, but I am one of the finest Corti minds alive, darling. Try harder.”

“You got caught.”

“…True.”

Arés smiled and shook his head. “No, this is a grand old tradition we have. It’s called a plea bargain, Nofl, and it’s quite simple. You co-operate and confess to the crime, admit guilt, and you will be treated very fairly. As opposed to merely…well. The local Prosecutor is frankly sick and tired of all the smuggling attempts we’ve foiled, and I think she wants a scalp, if you catch my meaning.”

Nofl considered that entirely plain and unhidden threat. “And what does this attorney of mine that you said would be arranged for me have to say about all this?”

“I don’t know. Would you like to ask her?” Gabriel paused, looked around conspiratorially, and said in a low voice. “Look…you’re not human, so let me just say the correct answer is ‘yes.’ You want to talk to her. Now.”

Nofl considered the chief for several seconds, and then nodded. “Yes please. I would like to speak with my attorney.”

Gabriel nodded, wheeled himself out of the room, and after a tellingly short wait, a tall and robust human female with very long, black hair strode in. She waited until the other humans had left, and then opened her briefcase.

“Mr. Nofl, I am Ms. Bader. As you are alien, let me first say that anything you and I discuss—anything at all—is protected and inadmissible in court. There are only three classes of profession where that protection is extended, and in our case, that protection is absolute. Do you understand?”

“What if they… record what we discuss?” Nofl asked, curiously. Even from that first businesslike sentence, the whole affair was beginning to seem rather elaborate.

“The legal concept translates from the Latin as something like ‘tainted fruit of the poisoned tree.’ Anything they learn from such a thing, and all of the descendant products thereof, are not only inadmissible in court but they will themselves have committed a crime. The act of recording this conversation is also illegal. And…as an aside? I would love for them to try. I’d make all of the money.”

Nofl found himself warming to this human. Her attitude was almost Corti, and for an added bonus her suit was immaculately tailored. Corti didn’t wear clothes, but that was no excuse for being fashion-blind. “Very well. Then yes, I indeed smuggled Cruezzir through customs as a personal favor to Myun. She does not know the details. She only wanted me to ‘get some’ to help Chief Arés.”

“How admirable,” Bader said, unconvincingly. “That particular crime carries the maximum penalty of ‘Transportation’ on Cimbrean, which is just a gussied-up English way of saying ‘exile to wherever.’ Which brings us to my question: how would you like to plea?”

Nofl considered it. “Chief Arés was telling me about this bargain he wanted to offer.”

Bader rolled her eyes. “He can’t do that. Only the Prosecutor can, but I have no doubt that rolling tightass coordinated everything with that…with her. But I bet the offer is genuine. He is honest to a fault.” Her tone of voice was…difficult for Nofl to analyze. Admiring? Something about the tone didn’t quite match the words.

“So what are my options, dear?”

Bader snorted derisively through her nose. “Drop the act, Nofl. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a gay Corti.”

“You’re quite right, dear, but can’t a chap be camp for fun?”

She deployed Nofl’s very favorite human gesture—the ‘concession nod.’ Head slightly tilted, mouth in a straight line, eyebrows raised. “A fair point, I guess. But as to your options, you have three: you could plead guilty and throw yourself at the mercy of the court—Don’t. You could plead not guilty, and—” she quickly rifled through her case notes, “—likely be found guilty as charged, and then the Prosecutor would have lots of fun. Sorry. They’ve got fingerprints, video evidence, transport logs…all of it. Yikes.”

Nofl considered this, feeling slightly chagrined. “And the third option?”

“Well…we strike a deal.” She rested her hand under her chin. “Which says something that they’re willing to offer a deal, seeing as they have you dead to rights. You’re very valuable to someone, Nofl. What did you do? And better yet, how can I profit for both of us?”

“Oh, I was just the first-circle professor of regenerative medicine at the Grand University of Origin…” Nofl permitted himself his best impersonation of a winning smile. “You should see my personal banner, it’s taller than I am.”

“…Are you the reason that ‘Warhorse’ character needs a whole sidewalk to himself? Him and his friends?”

“Miss Bader, if I answered that question then…oh wait, everything I say to you is inadmissible, isn’t it?”

“…yes…” Bader conceded, “But I highly encourage you to exercise discretion. The subtleties of the law here are significant and you’ll no doubt wish to study them after we’ve got your little problem cleared up. In particular the Cimbreaners have an Official Secrets Act which is just…unAmerican, if you ask me.”

“As I understand it, the colony is not American.”

“Their loss,” Bader sniffed. “But while the protection is absolute, that doesn’t mean they won’t try. We have another concept: ‘the process is the punishment.’ Let’s not explore that, hmm?”

“You manage to make law sound almost interesting, Miss Bader. Poisoned fruits and florid language… It’s nearly exciting!”

“Here’s another word you might like. ‘Lawfare.’ I’ll let you ponder that one. Now…shall I begin talks with the Prosecutor, and get you out of this cell? I’m gonna shoot for an admission of guilt, probation of, oh, some term or another…let’s stick to a misdemeanor, yeah. Maybe a fine? Only if I must. Oh, and are you willing to do community service? That might let me sweeten the offer.”

“I suspect,” Nofl hazarded, “That community service is exactly what Chief Arés wants.”

“Oh no, what he wants is justice. He’s admirable that way…” she got that strange look in her eye again, “Anyway. He’ll be happy if the system works like it should. It’s really the Prosecutor we need to worry and she is a bitch lately about…God, everything. Incidentally, I’ve made a small fortune off the Clan males and their constant brawling…”

Nofl gave her a calculating look. “How much are your services going to cost me?”

“This one? It’s free. Public defender working pro bono and all that. After today…” she flashed that distinctive predator smile that only humans ever quite got right. “I’m sure we can work something out.”

“I’m sure we can,” Nofl agreed.

After that, things went remarkably fast. Less than twenty temporal units after she closed her folder and let herself out, Ms. Bader returned. Five minutes after that there was a bustle towards the courthouse, where the Judge, Ms. Bader, and the Prosecutor donned some ridiculous white wigs. There was some highly encoded legal jargon spoken in heated terms…and the agreement was set.

The deal as it was explained to Nofl was really quite straightforward: He would serve one Cimbrean year of ‘probation’ which as he understood it meant a solemn promise not to offend again, on pain of severe punishment. He would perform two hundred hours of ‘community service’ and he would pay a bond of one thousand Cimbrean Pounds, repayable with interest after his year of probation was served, and he would offer one thousand hours of professional services towards the local military establishment.

The only hiccup in the process came when they tried to explain the concept of ‘swearing an oath.’ The whole notion veered deep into the heartlands of deathworld strangeness, onto a region of Nofl’s mental map that was clearly labelled “Madness.”

In the end, mostly in the hopes that by doing so he might get them to stop explaining it, he agreed to swear on a printout of the universal physical constants. What could be more fundamental? He spoke a few simple words solemnly avowing his obedience and agreement, the Prosecutor reluctantly agreed to the contract…and he was let free. Somehow, he really hadn’t expected to end the day as the next best thing to a free Corti.

And waiting outside was Gabriel Arés in his chair with a ‘shit-eating grin’ on his face.

“I told you to plea-bargain, didn’t I?” he asked. It wasn’t really a question.

“Yes, but why darling?”

“Oh, that’s easy. You did wrong but you also did good. We needed to resolve that. And besides…” Arés’ smile changed from ‘shit-eating’ to ‘sheepish.’ “…Who else am I gonna get a nerve treatment from around here?”

Nofl brightened up, genuinely. “…Really? Are you finally ready to leave that dreadful chair of yours behind?”

“Well…I have a sneaking suspicion that I might be a grandfather sooner than later. I…what man wouldn’t want to play with his own grandkids?”

“Much too sentimental, darling,” Nofl flapped a hand at him. “But… fine. Your reasons are yours, I’m sure.”

Arés chuckled. “Guilty as charged I think…” he paused, turned and frowned as a CCS officer in the characteristic high-vis yellow jacket and officer cap jogged up to him. “…Henson? Something wrong?”

“Message from the Governor-General, chief,” Henson said. “He’s called an emergency session.”

“He has? Why?”

“They’re saying Ambassador Hussein is dead, chief…”


Date Point: 12y6m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač

The tree was a Terran import, a dioecious “female” Ginkgo Biloba selected specifically for the fact that it wouldn’t release potentially allergenic pollens that could endanger Folctha’s nonhuman residents. It had been imported as a young adult and was already as thick around as Marty’s torso, a promise of incredible girth to come when it was fully matured.

Adam’s fist left a dent in the coarse bark, drawing blood and surprised gasps from bystanders. Ava’s exhibition had practically emptied as she had rushed out of the gallery and across the street to do an emergency piece to camera for ESNN on the ambassador’s assassination, but even that fascinating diversion was secondary to Adam punching a tree with enough force to break the turf behind him as its roots flexed.

He looked up, grumbled an apology, and skulked around the tree to nurse his bloody hand. Considering how much narrower than him its trunk was it didn’t offer anything much in the way of privacy, but at least it was a barrier of sorts.

Marty stopped watching Ava doing her work—and it was good work, she had to admit—and joined him. He was picking splinters out of his flesh.

“…He refused security,” she reminded him gently, after a tactful interval.

“I could have saved him!” Adam snapped. “Hell, I’ve done that same thing before! If I’d just been there-!!”

“He refused!” Marty repeated herself. “Dude, you can’t protect people who don’t want protecting.”

“It’s just so fucking… why?”

“Maybe he went up there expecting this to happen,” Marty pointed out. “…Hell, Hussein was ninety. When my great-grampa hit ninety, he started getting real upset that everyone was looking after him. I reckon he’d have killed to be able to do something useful with his death. The Mission, you know?”

Adam unwound a bit. “Yeah… but Hussein was a civilian, and your great-grampa hit the beaches at Normandy, right?.”

“Right. Military family. Double-Grampy served, Grampy served, Dad served, I’m serving… But not everyone who serves is military, ‘Horse.”

“Maybe, but the whole point is-”

“I know what the whole point is,” Marty assured him. “It’s to protect people’s right to live their lives their way.”

Adam nodded glumly, and licked his knuckle by way of fixing it. Bloody knuckles were a constant among HEAT men, they were generally ignored until the next routine Crue-D dose came along and repaired them.

“Still don’t feel right though, huh?” Marty put her arm as far around his waist as she could.

“Nuh.” Adam shook his head, and buried her under his own return hug. “Shit, what’s gonna happen next? Are we just gonna let this slide? Are the Guvnurag?”

“What’re they gonna do, glow at us?” Marty asked. “We have bigger fish to fry.”

“I dunno, Marty. They’re still a long way ahead of us tech-wise. If they really put their heads to it…” Adam glanced around and lowered his voice. “It ain’t them I’m worried about exactly. What happens if they figure out a weakness in our shit and you-know-who picks up on it?”

“Come on, do I gotta tell you that we just do the job in front of us?” Marty asked. “Those kinds of questions are for the brass, poor assholes.”

“Ours not to reason why. Right.” Adam nodded and finally managed to purge his frustrations with a sigh. A thought seemed to strike him. “…Is that Kipling too?”

“Tennyson.” Marty looked around the tree. Or rather around Adam, the tree being kind of an afterthought once he was out of the way. “I think Ava’s winding up her report. Wanna invite her to go grab a burger?”

“Sounds good… “ Adam, spurred by the promise of food, sprang upright. “Since when do you get on well with Ava?”

“Since she’s your sister?”

“Dude, she’s not exactly my sister…”

“I know, but she’s your family and… I dunno.” Marty shrugged. “Firth can grumble all he likes, I think there’s somebody worthwhile there. And you do too, or you wouldn’ta mended that bridge.”

“Ain’t bridges that worry me. I mean, she’s never bugged me for an exclusive or whatever, but this is a big story. And we ain’t authorised to go talkin’ to the press…”

“What, don’t you trust her?”

“Not really.” Adam paused. “Well… Yeah I do, Maybe? Depends on what. I trust her to keep a secret, at least. She respects non-disclosure.”

“So just tell her we can’t talk about it. Hell, I’ll bet my burnt ass she’ll nod and say okay and that’s an end to it.”

Adam grimaced. “Major Powell doesn’t trust her.”

“Major Powell can’t stop you from going for a burger with your girlfriend and your sister,” Marty pointed out. Adam was always painfully worried about what the old man would think. Marty, meanwhile, was much more experienced at knowing where the boundaries really lay. “Worst he’ll do is say ‘fook’ at us a lot. Besides, isn’t public affairs one of your extra duties?”

“Under close supervision and with a very specific brief, yeah, but-”

“‘Horse, we aren’t doing a public affairs thing. We’re grabbing a burger with your sister.”

“With my journalist ex-girlfriend. That ain’t the same thing.”

“You have breakfast with her at your dad’s place every week,” Marty said. “And… I love you, and your dad’s awesome? But you really learned how to cram the rulebook up your ass from him. It’s fine! The worst case scenario here is the old man clears his throat and Rebar has to find a way of ’motivating’ the both of us that isn’t disproportionate.” Marty shrugged. “And if I get one of those ‘red, white and blue’ burgers from Best Brioche out of it? Worth it.”

Adam’s stomach growled audibly. The Red White and Blue burger was a Cimbrean celebrity built from half a pound of medium-rare steak mince with back bacon for the red, ranch dressing for the white and blue stilton, all of it local produce right down to the bun. “…You’re a fucking seductress.”

“Hey, he finally noticed!” Marty grinned at him. “Now, are you coming or not?”

Adam glanced back in the direction of the base for a heartfelt few seconds then caved. “This is gonna throw my macros off for the day…”

Marty folded her arms at him and felt her grin get wider. “That ain’t a no.”

“…Damn you.”

Victorious, Marty made eye contact with Ava and managed to somehow convey through an uncomplicated impromptu sign language that they were going for a burger and she was welcome to come with. To her credit, Ava looked pleased at the invitation but immediately looked to Adam for confirmation and practically radiated delight when he nodded.

“Just so we’re clear,” Marty told her once Ava had retrieved her dog and escaped from her colleagues with promises to bring them back a box of sliders and donuts, “Please don’t ask us about Hussein?”

“You can’t confirm or deny anything and wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss it, whatever ‘it’ may or may not be. Something like that?” Ava asked, looking amused.

“Something like that,” Adam agreed.

“That’s okay,” Ava promised. “And don’t worry, I’m never going to interview either of you about anything. It’s a bad idea to mix business and family. Besides,” she added with a rare smile, “I probably know more than you do right now.”

“No comment,” Adam grunted. Ava drove an affectionate elbow into his ribs.

¡Tranqui, gordo! I just said you’re permanently off-limits.“

Adam caught Marty’s eye, and she finally saw him relax. Ava didn’t miss it either, but rather than seeming disappointed she smiled and patted him on the arm. “It’s okay. Trust takes a long time to build. It… means a lot that you both are giving me the chance.”

She reached down and her fingers brushed through Hannah’s fur for reassurance after she said it. “Though, uh… word of advice? Us journalists are tricky. Just saying that up front makes me feel like maybe you DO know something I’d find interesting. You shoulda kept your mouth shut until I asked you.”

“But we’re off-limits,” Adam sniped, with a touch of the uncharacteristic bitterness that only surfaced when Ava was involved.

“Which is why I’m warning you, you-!” Ava glanced down at the dog, took a deep breath and reined herself in. “…Change of subject.”

“Yeah,” Marty agreed, feeling foolish. She’d been so keen to assuage Adam’s concerns that she’d blundered into a basic error. “But, thanks.”

”De nada. Uh… Oh! Hayley said Jack’s doing well?”

“I thought she didn’t really approve?” Adam asked. “Military ain’t exactly in line with their peace-and-love lifestyle.”

“Well yeah, but you know what she and Mark are like.” Ava smiled fondly. “You remember Mark’s tattoos? ‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt’? They always were keen on a permissive upbringing. So long as Jack’s doing what he really wants to do, they won’t fight him.”

“That ‘permissive upbringing’ got Sara murdered,” Adam growled.

“No argument,” Ava agreed. “…But it was also what made her so beautiful to know. Wasn’t it?”

Adam didn’t reply.

“…Besides,” Ava continued. “Hayley’s like any half-decent mom. So long as her boy’s happy, she’s happy, and so long as he’s a success she’s proud.”

“He’s a success alright,” Adam said. “We turned him ‘round good.”

“Hell, no wonder he was playing up at school,” Marty volunteered. “No way it was challenging him properly. That boy could turn out to be smarter than Baseball.”

“Or you,” Adam added, loyally. Marty felt the modest urge to demur that Baseball was smarter than herself, but the fact was that they had different kinds of intelligence. ‘Base, if and when he retired, was going to wind up authoring the next generation of books on trauma medicine. Marty was ‘merely’ an extremely talented aerospace engineer who’d been destined for NASA until the SOR came along. Comparing a brain surgeon to a rocket scientist wasn’t exactly fair, especially when considering the fact she was going for burgers with a sports and nutrition expert who had an unrivaled practical working understanding of the human body, and a woman who was making increasingly prominent waves both as a journalist and as an artist with every passing week.

Marty kept herself grounded on the certainty that, past a certain threshold, there was no such thing as an absolute spectrum of ‘more’ intelligent and ‘less’ intelligent. Her motto was “There is no such a thing as a stupid person—just people who haven’t yet figured out what they’re smart at.”

“I hope so”, she said. “Means I taught him right. I mean-” she cleared her throat, “Cimbrean schooling is damn good, but he really needed the one-on-one time.”

“Pretty much all we got was one-on-one time in the early years,” Ava recalled, looking around. “And dirt roads, prefab housing, no entertainment… Now look at this place.”

“Hell, it’s changed just since I got here,” Marty agreed. “And you two are first-gen colonists. I can’t even… Musta been something special.”

Adam and Ava glanced at each other before Ava spoke for both of them. “It was… We were still kinda reeling from… I mean, we lost our home!” she managed. “My family, Adam’s mom, all our friends, the only city we’d ever lived in…”

“We shoulda been in that, too,” Adam agreed. “Pure dumb luck we weren’t.”

“It was just…” Ava looked down at her hands, and only stopped wringing them when Hannah whined and licked her fingers, prompting a grateful scratch behind the ears. “…Weeks and months of feeling numb, like I was gonna wake up screaming from a bad dream any second no matter how much I knew I wasn’t. Every night, I had this dream where I woke up in my own bedroom and everything was okay and Rosa was making breakfast, and-”

“Rosa?”

“She cleaned and cooked so mom and dad didn’t have to. Rosa Vialpando. God, she was… She had three grandchildren and she treated me like I was one of them and I could be such a bitch to her sometimes…” Ava wiped away a tear. “I know I was fifteen, but still… I wish she’d been around a few years back. Things maybe woulda turned out differently.”

“You’re beating yourself up again,” Adam told her softly. Ava nodded, and visibly backed out of Bad Memory Alley and returned to Memory Lane.

“…Stepping through the jump array that first time was like waking up. Just… a blast of cool air to the face and my new best friend tripping over herself to run up and say hi, and…”

“And when Sara started talking, nothing stopped her. Sometimes she’d keep talking while she was breathing in,” Adam recalled. Ava giggled.

Marty nodded. “She’s really special to both of you.”

“Oh, she could be a brat,” Adam laughed. “And she had the biggest crush on me. And I think a bit of a one on you too, Ava?”

“Maybe… But, yeah. I’ll never forget her. Hell, if I ever have kids, my first girl is gonna be Sara.”

“No way, I call first dibs,” Adam grinned.

“Yeah?” Ava grinned at Marty. “Are you two…?”

“Uh… not yet.” Marty balked.

“That ain’t a no,” Adam teased her with her own words.

“Well of course it ain’t a no!” Marty faced him. “Hell it’s a yes, probably. Just, not soon.”

That got the intended result. Adam blushed and stammer-grumbled himself silent while Ava folded her arms behind him and shot Marty an approving grin.

“Burger’s waiting,” she pointed out. They’d been standing outside Best Brioche for nearly a minute.

“I’ll, uh… three RWBs?”

“And a diet coke,” Ava said.

“Marty?”

“Sprite.”

“Right.” Adam vanished into the shop, still red around the ears.

Marty and Ava stepped aside to let the shop’s current customers exit, squeezed out by Adam’s sheer size. He had a way of doing that.

“I really enjoyed the exhibition tonight,” Marty said.

“Thanks. And… thanks for inviting me. This is nice.”

They had a moment to clear the air, and Marty decided not to let it go. “Ava… I mean, you’re real important to him. I hope you’re not jealous about us, or…?”

Ava shook her head with surprising vigor. “Absolutely not!” she said. “And he’s real important to me, too. I just want him to be happy, and you make him so happy, so… No, I can’t be jealous. Especially not of you.”

Touched, Marty gave her a hug. It caught Ava off-guard, but she returned it with sisterly affection after only a moment’s startled hesitation.

“So… seriously, how do you see the things you see through that camera?” Marty asked, letting her go.

“Uh… practice, mostly. I dunno, at first I was always thinking about things like light and depth of field, aperture size, shutter speed… Nowadays it’s more intuitive. I look at something, think ‘Yeah, I can work with that,’ and my hands do it all. You know?”

“Not really,” Marty shrugged, and tapped her forehead. “My job’s all up here. Millimeters, pH balance, PSI, Bartlett’s Law…”

“What’s that?”

“Uh…” Marty recalled how she’d explained it to Jack. “So, Kinetic Pulse weapons would be stupidly lethal if we could just get them to fire a shaped field with a sharp edge, right? Like, they’d just cut us in half.” When Ava nodded, she pressed on. “ But, the power draw of a field is proportionate to the curvature in an… interesting way.”

“Meaning it’s really fucking complicated?”

“Right. Bartlett’s law is the equation that describes that relationship. So, big flat planes, boxes, cylinders or neat spheres? Nice and easy. Something sharp enough to cut, though…”

“Yeah, I couldn’t do your job,” Ava agreed.

“Good, because there’s not many of my job to go around,” Marty smiled. “Besides, the world needs photographers and journalists, and gourmet burger chefs.”

“Amen, sister,” Ava giggled. “But… okay, if making a flat plane is easy, why can’t you just throw it sideways-on like a playing card?”

“Oh man, so that’s a complicated one,” Marty enthused, warming to her subject. “It has to do with something called ‘Fractal boundary indeterminacy’ and that’s just-”

“Ah shit, you got her started,” Adam interrupted, emerging with two paper-wrapped bundles and a couple of cold metal cans on his arm, which he handed out. “Bad idea.”

“Hey!”

Adam grinned and kissed her. “True though.”

“Where’s yours?” Marty asked, taking her burger and drink.

“He’s makin’ them for me now,” Adam replied, handing Ava hers. “And that box for the news crew.”

“Lemme guess. Three for you?” Marty asked

“Yup.”

“Orale!” Ava shook her head. “I remember how you complained about having to eat so much in Basic.”

“Well, I wasn’t used to it then,” Adam shrugged.

Ava snorted and tore into her burger like she’d been taking pointers from him but she spared a slice of bacon for Hannah, who was practicing her very best ‘Sit’ by Ava’s ankle and staring soulfully upwards. “It’ff gowwa be a wong night,” she explained, delicately wiping an escaping squirt of Ranch dressing back into her mouth before swallowing. “I’d better eat up and get back to the crew. Editor’s gonna want a report ready for the morning show and sync with Earth.”

“I bet. You’re gonna be busy next few days, huh?” Adam asked. Ava nodded with her mouth full.

“Thiff if…” she paused, frowned at herself, and finished her mouthful before replying. “It’s gonna be big. The GRA can’t ignore this, they have to do something.”

“Do what? That’s the question.” Marty pointed out.

Ava grimaced. “I have some ideas. But it’s gonna be about the gesture at this point, rather than punishing the people who are, ‘yknow, actually responsible…”

“Ava… be careful what you say, alright?” Marty advised.

“Back atcha. Don’t worry, if anything classified leaks it won’t be me.”

Adam nodded solemnly. “Good. We don’t wanna visit you in prison.”

She gave him a complicated look that Marty read as gratitude that he was still concerned for her well-being blended with mild and well-controlled irritation, and stuffed the last of her burger in her mouth. She dusted her hands off and pointed indoors to indicate that she, Ava, really ought to pay for the snack boxes for her crew and get back to work.

Adam nodded and went back inside to retrieve it for her, and when he emerged with the boxes and his own burgers Ava was chugging down the last of her soda.

“When did you learn to eat that big?” he asked.

“I eat a lot of my meals al desko nowadays,” Ava shrugged, and took the boxes. “I told you, it’s gonna be a long night. See you at Dad’s on Sunday?”

“Yeah. Take care.”

She gave him a smile, and one for Marty too, and high-heeled away with Hannah trotting smartly along in her wake.

Marty waited until she was around the corner to speak. “…Is she okay? I mean…She’s working awful hard…”

Adam gave a complicated shrug. “She throws herself into her work. So do I. So do you!”

“Well… She’s good at it,” Marty conceded. “You’ve seen her on TV, right?”

“I don’t watch much TV, remember?” Adam pointed out, correctly. His daily regime really didn’t allow any time for it.

“Well, she’s good,” Marty repeated. “You watch. Whatever goes down with GRA, I bet you Ava will have called it…”


Date Point: 12y6m1w AV
Global Representative Assembly Headquarters, Cape Town, South Africa, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

The White House had been home to a bewildering variety of First Families over the years, though America was still waiting for a female or openly gay President to furnish the history books with their first “First Gentleman.” Sartori, however, had not furnished Pennsylvania Avenue with a First anything. He was the sixth president in a list that began with Thomas Jefferson to have entered the White House as a widower, and his marriage to the late Emily Sartori-Brown had been childless. He had never remarried.

To his surprise, that fact had generated sympathy rather than difficulty during his election campaign. The nation by and large saw him as a man remaining faithful to his wife’s memory, and they weren’t far wrong—Emily would have loved to tease him about how much he hated flying. He might have the most famous aircraft in the world at his beck and call, but Sartori still loathed leaving the ground.

Unfortunately, Air Force One was the only practical way to get to Africa on short notice. So, he’d put on his big-boy pants, boarded the plane in a serious bustle, taken a half dose of diazepam and caught up on his much-needed sleep. Unconscious was the only way to fly.

Besides. It was always best to look sharp and well-rested when addressing an emergency meeting of some of the most powerful people in the world. The Global Representative Assembly had precious little political power on Earth, but it was the voice of authority when it came to extraterrestrial matters.

…Assuming it ever developed a unified opinion on anything, of course. In the years since its foundation, the GRA had yet to take a strong unified stance. By and large, it had been too riven by the hangover of the past few decades of religious conflict, economic turmoil, political bickering, the Pacific trade wars, and now the massive technological and social upheavals of the interstellar era. The will had simply never been there to properly align behind a single cause.

Perhaps that would change today.

Scratch that. That was pussy-foot thinking. That would change today. The time had come for the rest of the world to get with the program or get out of the way, and if the assassination of the GRA’s own ambassador wasn’t catalyst enough then nothing ever would be.

Much thought had gone into the GRA HQ building. Its construction had begun with the creation of an artificial tidal lagoon just north of a Cape Town suburb with the incongruously Welsh name of Llandudno, a wealthy spot that had for several years been looking for an excuse to go even further up-market than it already was.

That lagoon provided several benefits. It generated power from the tide, created a protected beach ideal for safe recreation, provided habitat for several native species, and made the GRA building surprisingly secure just by itself. The only overland routes to the building were narrow, closely-watched roads laid with several hundred retractable reinforced bollards. Any car bomb, van full of gunmen or other suspicious vehicle was doomed to be brought to a violent halt even if it did get past the checkpoints.

All of the security measures were similarly invisible. Between the forcefields, the reinforced glass, the shutters and the panic rooms honeycombing the building’s interiors, GRA HQ was a fortress that looked like an elaborate sculpture in glass and granite.

The Assembly chamber itself was simple and to-the-point. Serious wooden furniture underpinned by miles of cabling and support infrastructure. There were more seats than were technically needed, in anticipation of the future growth and political independence of offworld colonies, and all of them were arranged in a horseshoe around the speaker’s podium and looking out through tall windows onto the waters of the Atlantic.

Appropriately, those waters were choppy today.

So was the mood. The report into Ambassador Hussein’s assassination was detailed and thorough, and while every man and woman in the room was used to the interminable pace of these things it seemed that everybody was itching to leap to their feet and say their piece. Sartori had enjoyed ample time to jot down his own notes on the report, compare them with those of his advisors, send the most pertinent details away for analysis and then read the digested summary on the monitor in front of him.

All of which was fine… except that the preliminary investigation was clearly unaware of, and would have been unable to mention, DEEP RELIC. The Hierarchy’s existence was not known to most of the nations represented in the Assembly chamber and was being kept that way.

Option number one, right at the top of Sartori’s list of possibilities, was correcting that today. He had the authority to declassify DEEP RELIC with a pen-stroke if he chose, and a passionate but civilized debate was raging quietly on his screen as to whether that was the correct course of action here.

Sartori watched the debate with interest. As far as he was concerned, official and full revelation of the existence of the Hierarchy would be an open invitation for some crazy bastards somewhere on the planet to try and ally with the genocidal aliens. The Earth had some breathing room thanks to Operation EMPTY BELL, but that breathing room could vanish fast if somebody with any influence or power pulled a Quisling.

On the other hand the whole problem was escalating in an enormous way, and so far the human race was still figuratively fighting with one hand tied behind its back. Sooner or later, that handicap was going to take its toll. They needed to start getting some more resources, some more talent and some more humanity on board.

And that just wasn’t going to happen, and anybody with more political perspicacity than a stunned puppy knew it. Not without both a kick in the nuts and the promise of some actual benefit on the horizon. And in any case, when it came down to it the resources of two planets just wasn’t going to cut it, especially when one of those planets had a total population that wouldn’t even put it in the top three hundred American cities.

So far, one of his senior advisors had been silent, and the time was approaching where he needed her to speak. Margaret White was in the habit of offering her opinions last after everyone else had spoken, and it was generally a valuable habit, but right now he needed her to weigh in.

She got the message just from the way he turned and looked at her and sat forward primly in her seat to whisper.

“We need to acknowledge that there is a threat…” she offered. “Without going into specifics. Infer the presence of enemy action from the forcefield, San Diego, this…”

“Paul reckons we need to throw a bigger bone than that,” Sartori indicated his screen. Paul Nicholls was another of his advisors, and was safely back in Washington offering his insights from the comfort of his office.

“A closed session, maybe?” Margaret offered. “If we share some of the details of that Egyptian business…”

“That’ll piss off the Egyptians…” Sartori mused. “Not that we can’t handle that, but…”

“Needs must.”

“We didn’t share much with the Egyptians, either. This would anger them doubly so.”

“Again, Mister President, needs must. The only question as I see it is how far we go.”

Margaret was an old friend and colleague. She only called him ‘Mister President’ when she was deadly serious.

“…Right.”

Sartori filed a request to speak in a closed session with the Assembly’s Speaker, who had the unenviable task of not only overseeing the discussions and points of order, but also of managing precedence and etiquette. In theory every nation at the Assembly was on an equal footing, but diplomatic reality of course was more sophisticated. The seniority of the supplicant, the political importance of their nation and the relevance of the comment they wished to make were all factored in.

When the POTUS promised to contribute something highly relevant, Sartori knew, he was pretty much guaranteeing himself the first place in the queue.

The remaining minutes waiting for the official report to wind to its conclusion were spent quickly assembling the key points of what he was about to say, a process streamlined immeasurably by the involvement of his chief speechwriter, five senior advisors and the Secretary of Defence. Sartori and the speechwriter did the actual writing, the other six added notes in the figurative margin, and within five minutes he had everything he needed.

Sartori stood and tugged at his cuff to straighten it as the Speaker opened the floor, and as expected was immediately given the first comment.

“May I request a closed session, Mister Speaker?” he asked, politely. The etiquette of the chamber was respected.

There were disappointed noises from the public galleries as press and tourists alike were quietly ushered out. The windows dissolved into gray blandness as the privacy fields came online, the cameras were shut down. No doubt the thrust of his words would leak through one of the present dignitaries and functionaries, but the important part was that it would all be second-hand, and thus deniable.

The last door closed, the lights dimmed, and Sartori found himself spotlighted.

He looked down at his hands and brushed them lightly across the desk in front of him before speaking.

“I want to begin by acknowledging the human cost here,” he began. “Ambassador Hussein’s family are grieving today and it would be remiss of us to forget that. But they are not the only grieving families. After all, we are at war.”

He looked up and around. ”At war,” he repeated. “Not should go to war, nor are we debating the validity of today’s casus belli. I want to argue that we have been at war for several years now, and it is the bloodiest we have seen since the nineteen-forties. Millions are already dead, billions of dollars of war debt has been accrued, good men have lost their lives in combat operations…We. Are. At. War.”

It would have been better if the words had rang, but the chamber’s acoustics were not designed with dramatic effect in mind. In fact, they were designed for his fellow dignitaries to listen to real-time translation, and so his words were swallowed by dead sound and the white noise of the forcefields. It was a shame: A shoddy orator could stand on good acoustics. A decent orator could fly on them.

Sartori was an exceptional orator. He didn’t need acoustics at all.

“Our species is imprisoned, and we have done nothing. Our people were thrown to the wolves, and we did nothing!” He angled a sharp glance around the chamber, saw allies nodding and others listen solemnly. “Galactic nations tear each other apart and blame us, and we don’t even object! Our good green Earth is permanently scarred by an antimatter bomb, millions have perished, our economy is laboring… and our response is to act as though life continues as it always did? When it’s now clear that a force out there wants us all dead?”

He shook his head. “No. This Assembly may have been content to let the litany of injustices continue, but America and our military allies have not. When San Diego burned, we hunted the party responsible. When an alien ship invaded our sky to inflict the most sickening cruelties on innocent civilians, our jets swatted it from the Egyptian sky!”

He paused, adjusted his cuff again and shot a glance at the Egyptian table to gauge their reaction. When he read nothing he could use in their expressions, he sighed wearily for effect. “Let me tell you a little of our Enemy. I can’t say much because even now, even here, they are listening and they will seek every advantage. So I shall cover only the basics.”

He took a sip of water and raised a hand to punctuate his words with gestures. “They are old. Vast and ancient beyond the reckoning of our civilization. They are cunning. Many others have fallen to them, and the peoples no longer here to enrich our Galaxy number in the hundreds—that we are aware of. The body count is in the trillions, the measure of loss, the suffering and the retardation of the sciences and the arts… incalculable. They are subtle. Their influence has shaped Galactic society and passed unnoticed. They are cynical, pitting team against team, nation against nation, Dominion against Alliance. ”

He paused again, partly for dramatic effect and partly to reel himself in. That last part had perhaps been a bit too revealing but he needed the emphasis.

“And they are not afraid of overt action, either,” he added. “San Diego was their work. Egypt was a reaction to our rooting out the last of their Earthbound force. They are ruthless, willing to use even the Hunters as a weapon if it will suit their ends. But the worst, by far…”

He took a deep, nasal breath and allowed his volume to dip again. Like good music, the loud and the soft needed to dance. “The very worst part of our Enemy is that they are callous. Like our own Earthly terrorists but on a scale we have never seen, they hide among the innocent and hold those innocent lives in the most negligent contempt. For our defiance, billions of innocents have been slaughtered and we are made to take the blame. Our Ambassador, murdered, and as we all heard the last he asked of them was what we could do to make things right.”

He paused a third time and took another sip of his water. The room was stone silent. “Why do I speak of this now?” Rhetorical oration was one of Sartori’s guilty pleasures. “Because it is now clear that there’s no sympathy to be had out there: we are trapped. We’re a small island in a vast cruel sea, valiantly fending off a numerically superior foe…” he glanced at the British table “…but there is no help from abroad coming this time. If we’re going to get out of this hole, then we need to dig our way out by ourselves. We need to get our eggs out of this single basket, as a matter of survival.”

He glared around the room and repeated that last word. “Survival. That is how high the stakes are at this table. That is what we are playing for—the right for our children to see tomorrow. We can keep turning the other cheek, we can forgive those who trespass against us… But then what? Do we go quietly into the night? Do we join the hundreds before us and allow hundreds more to come after us?”

He looked around, attempting to convey with a single sweep of his gaze that he had singled out everyone in the room for his personal attention. “…Or has the time come for us to show the galaxy that we are not the monsters here? Has the time finally come for us to acknowledge that we are at war… and that we are not willing to lose?”

Somehow, those last words managed to ring even in the dead air of the assembly chamber, buoyed by the silent susurrus of rapt breath. Sartori allowed himself a satisfied nod and stood up straight.

“The good news,” he said, “is that our strategy doesn’t rely on sacrifice, but on opportunity. There are worlds out there waiting for us, untouched paradises shunned by other species as unusable ‘deathworlds’ and our best minds—scientists, engineers, even artists—have been devoting themselves to the task of unlocking those new promised lands.”

“The way isn’t open yet,” he shook his head, and let the volume fall again, until he was speaking almost as though conspiring quietly with all of them. “But I invite you all to imagine your culture, not just mine or those of our military allies, walking the stars, leaving your mark, writing yourselves into the future of mankind. Does that sound like sacrifice to you? Does that sound like war?”

He looked down at his hands, and absent-mindedly touched the gold wedding band he had never taken off. “Make no mistake. It will be war. It is war. Quite probably a bloody and difficult one that will last lifetimes and rob us of our best and bravest time and again. We will ask ourselves, ’will it be worth it?’ We will ask ourselves, ’how far are we willing to go?’ I don’t know. Maybe this won’t even be a war we can win. Maybe we’ll only win it by becoming the monsters they claim we are. If so, maybe it would be better to die with our souls untarnished, but…”

He paused for one last time, and shook his head.

“…But I have faith.”


Date Point: 12y6m1w3d AV
Grand Enclave of Females, Planet Gao.

Sister Myun

“Faith?”

Being Yulna’s personal protector was generally an easy job. After all, who would attack her? The Mother-Supreme was, well… the Mother-Supreme. Any male who so much as scratched her would never mate again even if he survived, and the Females were clan.

Myun still took her duties seriously, though. Especially now, especially after hearing those words that the Whitecrests had somehow managed to acquire and forward. Even the Gaori translation had been engaging but as a fluent English speaker herself she had felt the full impact of Sartori’s address. She wasn’t sure her fur would ever settle.

Yulna was listening to the recording with much more calm, resting her jaw lightly on a curled forepaw while tracing a claw idly across the glass surface of her desk.

“Sister Shoo tried to explain the concept once,” she said, addressing the Mother who had asked. “It is… a difficult one. Do you remember, Myun?”

Myun duck-nodded solemnly.

“It means something like… trust, or confidence,” Yulna elaborated. “But more. Trust based on conviction rather than hard evidence.”

“So this Sar-toree is saying that he trusts his people despite not having a good reason?” the Mother summarized.

Yulna angled her head contemplatively. “No… No, that would be an admission of weakness. ‘Faith’ is a strong concept. He’s saying he doesn’t need a good reason to believe it, he knows it to be true anyway. Something like that.”

“And this is the species that the Whitecrests want us aligned with?” Mother Suri asked, with an ill-concealed lick of contempt. She had been Yulna’s rival to the position of Mother-Supreme and while she had accepted Yulna’s accession in the end she had still maneuvered herself into the heart of Clan power.

Yulna insisted she was useful. Something about it being good to hear a dissenting voice and Suri still being one of the good people, even if there were profound differences of opinion between them.

“That ‘faith’ kept Sister Shoo going where any of us would have curled up in a mournful ball and given up,” Yulna replied. “It let the humans trust Regaari despite only meeting him once, and it let them trust me, too. I don’t really know what it is or how it works, but it does. The Starminds might know better… Father Gyotin has thought long and hard on the subject, I understand.”

Myun couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself. “You’re overthinking it. Faith isn’t anything supernatural or anything like that. It’s just belief. It’s belief that good people are good and will do good things. It’s belief that there is such a thing as justice. It’s just ‘faith’ in the basic sanity of the universe. Why is that so hard?”

Suri and several of the other Mothers shot her mingled looks of irritation, impatience and disgust at the interruption. Yulna, for her part, chittered indulgently.

“You should know that nothing is ever simple with humans, young one.”

“Nah, they’re really simple. They just…do everything intensely. Everything. They’re like Whitecrest that way. If they don’t like you, you’ll know it. If they do…well, they’ll have ‘faith’ in you, and they won’t be wrong.”

Suri growled slightly. “You are a bodyguard, Myun, not an advisor.”

Myun displayed a rare bout of political tact and duck-nodded respectfully, backing down.

“Good advice can be found scrawled on the wall in a stinking back alley,” Yulna observed, though the set of her ears made it plain to everyone in the room that she wasn’t insulting Myun in the slightest. “What matters is that you listen to it, not where it came from. And Myun, frankly, has studied humans rather more extensively than anybody else here.”

“Nevertheless…” Suri flicked an ear.

“Yes, yes.” Yulna waved a paw at Myun that said ‘please shut up’ in a kindly, materteral way and Myun stepped respectfully back into the corner. She was learning a lot about politics.

“The whole speech is just… paranoid, though. Surely?” one of the Mothers asked. “They’re deathworlders, they must be primed to see danger behind every corner.”

“Maybe…” Yulna agreed thoughtfully. “But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong, does it?”

“If you see danger behind every corner, sooner or later you’ll be right,” another Mother agreed.

“And they are primed to sense danger, are they not? That let them build an advanced society on Earth, which from what we know may in a practical sense be the deadliest planet in the galaxy.”

“Mother Ayma survived it, didn’t she?” There was a doubtful note in Suri’s skepticism.

“With the aid of an environment suit and full-time medical escort.”

Myun whispered “Beef Brothers” to herself quietly, with the faintest chitter.

The Mother who was taking Yulna’s side—Memi? Memya? Something like that—didn’t seem to notice. “No,” she said, “I think we can safely say that when a human is taking a threat seriously, then that threat is worth taking seriously. From what I know of them their lives are so… saturated with constant low-grade dangers that they tend to just ignore them, or view them as an inconvenience.”

“Example?” Suri’s ally demanded. Mother… Sesal. No, Sesala.

“They have to scrub enamel-eating bacteria out of their mouths every morning or else their teeth literally rot,” Yulna offered with, Myun thought, considerable relish. “And apparently a lot of them just don’t bother, or forget. And sometimes that doesn’t even matter. But sometimes it does and they can actually die from it. They have medical professionals who are concerned only with their teeth. ‘Dentists’ I think.”

“This seems contradictory,” Suri complained. “They’ll ignore a threat like that but we’re supposed to take them seriously when they get concerned over… what, a conspiracy to eradicate their whole species?”

“Well…if the mere fact of waking up could prove dangerous, wouldn’t you be numbed to all the little threats? What would it take to get your attention if a cut on a finger, a bit of food in the teeth, even brushing up against the wrong plant could kill you dead or leave you permanently scarred? You would be a neurotic wreck in short order.”

Suri and Sesala both lapsed into thoughtful silence.

Yulna let them think for a second as she sipped a contemplative glass of Talamay. “Besides. What happened to their city ‘San Diego’ is hard to explain except by conspiracy…I think the correct approach here is to at least entertain the possibility that their fears are valid. We can leave final judgement for when we know more.”

“And until then?” Memi inquired.

“Until then, I will speak to Champion Genshi and the other Champions as I see fit, and we shall discover what this threat might be. Because if it threatens the Humans…sooner or later, it will threaten us. The recent rumblings in the Dominion Security Council about our world…”

“We are not a deathworld,” Suri asserted, sharply.

“Does it matter? The official classification is headed that way and if it is…Well. I won’t debate whether or not Gao really is or is becoming a Deathworld, leave that to the Highmountain philosophers. I am more worried about the attention it draws and the political consequences.”

“Besides, the Guvnurag prove that it doesn’t really matter,” Mother Memi observed. “They are most definitely not deathworlders, and yet they bore the worst of it this time.”

“Yes, what do we do about them?” Suri asked. “We’re obligated to do something, aren’t we?”

“We offer as much aid as we can, discreetly, and we communicate that to the Clans,” Yulna declared. “I suspect they may not be willing to entertain a public gesture given our burgeoning relationship with the Humans. Perhaps a sanctuary colony on Gorai? I’d need to pay a favor to Stoneback…would the Guvnurag accept? Hmm…” She trailed off in thought.

“And what do we do if the Hunters decide that we’re next?” Sesela asked.

Yulna chittered darkly. “Get eaten, I suspect. Though I for one will claw a few eyes out, first. And I’m sure Myun here would go down fighting.”

Myun said nothing but she did flex her enormous, Stoneback-ish claws just for a second, feeling smugly superior. She savored the intimidated flick of Mother Sesela’s ear.

“…That cannot be your whole answer?” Suri seemed aghast rather than accusatory.

“Unless the males have somehow managed to build a million ships of their own in secret? It is the whole answer.” Yulna chittered darkly again. “And so we come back to the strange ways of danger and threat. That particular threat is simply… too big to worry about, for now. And that, my Sisters, I think is what the Humans must feel all the time.”

“…I should at least see if there is anything we can do to protect the cubs,” Suri suggested.

“Yes,” Yulna duck-nodded emphatically. “You’re right. Sensible precautions, of course. Precautions we should all take, I think.”

They all took the hint, duck-nodded respectfully, and made themselves scarce.

“Well. That was easy,” Yulna commented.

Myun resisted the urge to chitter, barely. As Yulna’s permanent protector she hadn’t moved while the Mothers let themselves out. “Easy?”

“I’d expected…a real fight. That was barely a token resistance. The death of billions sharpens the mind, I suppose.”

Myun found she couldn’t argue that point, and simply duck-nodded agreeably.

“Tell me, Myun, if a Hunter charged in here right now…?” Yulna let the question hang.

Myun broke out her human grin, the one she had practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and that showed off all her teeth. ”Just one?”

“…Good girl.” Yulna nodded with a pleased set of her ears then sighed quietly, recomposed herself and asked, “Next item on the schedule?”

Myun consulted the list. “Grandfather Meyku, Clan Straightshield.”

“I invited Champion Reeko as well, didn’t I?”

“He’s on Gorai, Mother. Something about a new precinct…?”

“Ah. In light of recent events…maybe we should take another page from the Humans and discuss our civil defense.”

Myun was learning that when Yulna asked a question like that, she wasn’t actually requesting an answer, it was more a way of helping herself think. Rather than reply, therefore, she busied herself straightening the office so that it seemed as though the Mothers had not been there. She also alerted the staff discreetly, who prepared an agenda and a briefing in the few short minutes before Grandfather Meyku arrived.

She hadn’t expected to be doing so much minute organisation for Yulna when she took the job, but she found that she quite enjoyed it. Just standing around with a sword would have been boring after all, but the moment she started thinking of herself as the gatekeeper for the Mother-Supreme’s attention she had realized that guarding Yulna’s body and guarding her schedule amounted to almost the same thing.

She was getting to know the Grandfathers too, and they were all entertainingly different. Garl of the Stonebacks tended to prowl into a room and throw himself onto the furniture as though he wasn’t twenty years the wrong side of old, and he left white hairs on everything. Myun found herself oddly and powerfully attracted to him…maybe one day. Soon. Before he died of too much mating, the smug sexy ‘asshole.’

Grandfather Myro of the Goldpaws was sleeker, slimmer and flowed across the world like one of those ‘otters’ Myun once saw on ‘Planet Earth.’ Yulna had once said he was as sleek and slippery in the world of finance as he was in real life. Myun didn’t know what was meant by that, but there’d been no mistaking the wink in Yulna’s voice when she’d said something similar about Myro and mating contracts. Mothers could be such ‘hens.’

Meyku sailed. He was upright, polite, direct and mostly unflappable, and had a pole up his ass that could have moored a megafreighter. But somehow he was friendly, too. Weird.

And he got right to the point. “We have a lot to discuss, Mother-Supreme.”

“That we do,” Yulna agreed, doing an excellent job of hiding her weariness. “Myun, some Talamay please?”

“Yes, Mother,” Myun duck-nodded and attended to her own role in this long diplomatic dance. She now had readying the snacks and drinks down to an efficient art.

“So, Grandfather…” Yulna said, as soon as the stage was set. “There is an interesting recording I think you should hear…”


Date Point 12y6m2w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

Vemik had once spent half a day watching the wriggling things in the gut of a dead Neyma and watching them blacken and buzz away. The rotting flesh had made the air taste awful, and the flying buzzers had wanted to land on his face, but he’d kept watching hoping to catch the moment when little white wriggler became little black buzzer.

Right now, his head felt like that Neyma carcass—full of wriggling things. It always did after his ‘wessons’ with Shyow. Or like she had somehow packed a handful of smoldering tinder in there; his thoughts just refused to settle down and turn into something that made sense.

Or maybe like that time Jooyun had taken him into the flying hut and a strange yellow light had made his whole body tickle, especially his teeth. That had been an exciting day, and in the end the Sky-People had resorted to begging Yan to drag Vemik out of there again, which he did with an amused snarl. The big Given Man hadn’t even paused at the ‘anatomy dispway,’ either! He just threw Vemik out of the ship and wrestled him half-dead. Like always.

It wasn’t that ‘Engwish’ was difficult, not at all. He’d been shocked and surprised to discover that the words Shyow, Jooyun and Awisun spoke were so…easy. Strangely so. None of the words changed, or at least never by much! Each word was like…a little stone. Whether he held it, put it down in front of him or threw it in the air, the stone’s shape never changed. It didn’t matter what you did with a word in Engwish, it kept its shape.

Which made sense, when he thought about it. The meaning never changed after all, so why should the word? And like stones, the order that the words were laid down in mattered: Nobody ever made a trail mark by just throwing the stones down in a rambling heap the way Vemik often did with his words when thinking out loud. Every time he wanted to say anything in Engwish, he was forced to pause, think hard, and say it only after he had already built it in his head.

Clearly, the Sky-People thought about everything they did before they did it.

He was getting good at it too, or at least he thought. He knew how it behaved at least, but that was the easy part. The difficult part was how many words there were. It was like trying to make a trail marker while having more stones to choose from than there were stars in the night, several of which would mean nearly what he wanted to say, but only one of which meant exactly what he wanted to say..

There was only one thing to do: Keep learning new words.

And Shyow said she had mastered the words of three sky-tribes who spoke in such intricate ways. And she had mastered the words of Vemik’s tribe in just a hand’s-worth of days. The idea that any head could be so full of so many different words, especially when so many of those words meant things that Vemik had simply never thought of…

There were words to describe different kinds of word! The very thought of all those words in Shyow’s head made the feeling of things crawling around inside Vemik’s own skull get worse.

Jooyun at least was sympathetic there.

“Heh!” He made that strange, friendly laughing-sound the sky-people made. His was quite different from Awisun’s, which was a harsh bark, or Shyow’s which was a kind of bubbling musical thing. Jooyun’s was soft, deep and warm but never loud. Jooyun was never loud, for that matter, not even when he played. [“Don’t worry, buddy.] Xiù [makes me feel dumb too, sometimes. And I’m supposed to be the ‘science’ guy.”]

They were out exploring after the morning ‘wessons’ about sky-people words—‘wanguage’ he remembered—and after Jooyun and Vemet had come back from the day’s hunting. They had eaten, and Jooyun had snuck some more People-food when Awisun wasn’t looking, and shared some of his. It had little balls of meat and a red sauce of some kind, very tasty! It also had ‘noodows’ that were a kind of ‘pasta.’ Vemik avoided ‘pastas.’ They were tasty too but they made his stomach unhappy and he would fart loudly for the rest of the day.

After that there was the usual camp chores, and a solemn moment with Yan and Singer for the day’s blessing, and then…they went exploring. Vemik had, naturally, asked why it was that Awisun objected to about Jooyun eating a fresh kill.

[“We come from a long way from here,”] Jooyun had answered. [“Where the sickness is different.] Allison [worries that I might get very sick if I’m not careful.”]

Vemik had thought about that, picking his words carefully. [“Is not she right?”] he ventured.

[“Isn’t.”] Jooyun corrected gently. [“And…yes, she is. But we carry all our food with us and…You know how sometimes, you need to smoke something to keep it good, but the smoke tastes bad? Or you get bored of the same thing for a whole season? Yeah. That.”]

Apparently, exploring was what Jooyun, Shyow and Awisun did. As they had explained it, their flying hut could go anywhere. Shyow had said that the stars were other suns, or that the sun was a star up close and that under each sun there was another sky above other People with their own gods. Jooyun had invited him to imagine being far from his village at night and looking back to see the village fire in the dark, small and cold and distant but still there.

Jooyun refused to talk about his own gods, though, but he had promised to explain why when they had the words.

But the smoking thing. Vemik had a hard time believing that! [“But your bag-food is tasty!”]

[“Rations. The word is ‘rations.’ Rations are a kind of preserved food.”]

[“Wations.”] Vemik tasted the word, aware yet again that he was getting one of the sounds wrong, which was annoying because he could make the sound sometimes but not always. It turned out that sky-people had different-shaped tongues to go with all their other strangeness. And they could ‘smeww’ with the face-holes! They didn’t taste the air at all!

That reminded him of a question he’d been meaning to ask since learning about ‘smewwing’ yesterday, and he shot off on what Awisun had described as a ‘tangent.’ He had no idea what a tangent was exactly, but there were other questions he wanted to ask before he got to that one.

[“What do we ‘smeww’ wike?”]

Jooyun laughed in his quiet way again. He had more patience for the way Vemik’s questions jinked and dodged like root-birds than Shyow or Awisun did, mostly. [“Not too bad. Like you’re doing honest work all day.”]

That sounded like a good thing to Vemik so he trilled happily in response. At that same moment he spotted a different kind of herb that Jooyun hadn’t gathered yet and bounced over to point it out. Jooyun shook his head in the way the sky-people did when they were happily indulging Vemik’s questions. Like Yan, really. Yan would share if he wasn’t doing much else.

“Mazaanok! [Careful, this one has…”] Godshit, another word he didn’t know. He thought for a moment, then bit down on a finger with one of his small young-man fangs and made a big show of hurting.

“Mazaanok, [huh? Good name.”] Jooyun nodded and approached carefully, then peered at it from a safe distance. [“Ah. Those are ‘thorns,’ and big ones too. Are they ‘poisonous?’”]

[“Thorns. Thorn!”] That word had a nice sound and Vemik liked it. He tilted his head at the other word. [“Poisuunus?”]

[“Poisonous. The root word is ‘poison,’ which is something that’s not alive that can make you very sick. The ‘-ous’ in this case means the word is ‘full of’ the root. So something that’s ‘poisonous’ is full of poison. Make sense?”]

[“…Poisun.”] He corrected himself. [“Poison.”]

[“Poison.”]

[“Poison.”] He got it! [“Yes. The ‘thorns’ are ‘poisonous.’ Make skin burn and itch.”] Vemik suddenly thought, [“But plants are alive!”] In People-words, plants were always a living thing when you stuck endings on a word.

Julian knelt by the mazaan bush and dug in his bag where he pulled out a pair of the limp hand-bag-garments called ‘gloves’ that he used whenever he wanted to handle something without touching it with his bare skin. [“Yeah, they are. But the poison itself isn’t, it’s just as dead as a rock.”]

That made sense to Vemik. [“Okay.”]

Jooyun worked in silence for a few seconds, respectfully clipping off a few bits of the plant and storing them in strange clear things like a kind of small pot made of warm ice. As he put the ‘samples’ away in his bag he tilted his head and asked, [“So what do we, uh, taste like?”]

[“Like…you three, not the same. Shyow tastes like water and fruit. I don’t know what Awisun tastes like. I…no words for it.”]

[“‘Solvent’ and ‘soap,’ probably. I’ll tell you what those are later, I promise…I think she smells nice. They both smell…pretty ‘incredible’ actually. To me.”]

Vemik nodded. Jooyun was always good on his word about explanations.

[“What about me?”] Jooyun asked.

[“You taste wike a Person, in a different way. Your hair tastes strange.”]

He knew that taste from one of their moments of play while out exploring. Vemik was pleased to learn he was a good wrestler compared to Jooyun, and could do things like wrap his tail around Jooyun and squeeze the same way Yan often did when playing. But Jooyun could do things Vemik couldn’t like stand up and ‘run’ instead of charge, and when he started ‘running’ he just didn’t stop. He could ‘jog’ slower and way, way longer too.

And he could carry lots of heavy things in his clever, rough-feeling many-pocket-bag—his ‘backpack’—and carry them forever and not get tired. Vemik wasn’t sure how that worked, because he was pretty sure he was actually a good bit stronger than Jooyun…sky-people were strange.

Jooyun made a satisfied noise. [“Ah, that’s probably the ‘shampoo.’”] Jooyun said. [“It’s a kind of soap. Soap, by the way, is really good for cleaning hides and tanning them. I can show you how to make it one of these days—ah!”]

He turned and jogged a few steps off the trail to study an exposed rock. [“Limestone. Perfect. Add this to your list of ‘things you should have lots of’ ‘cuz this stuff is really useful.”]

Vemik gave the pale stone a skeptical stare. [“Is it? It breaks and you can’t make bwades from it.”]

Julian laughed again. [“Vemik, this stuff can help you make blades like this one.”] He patted his axe. [“You just have to know the trick. But you need to be patient,”] he warned, [“The trick is ‘complicated’ and we need other things, too. Like ‘Hematite.’ And clay. And you’ll need to make a big pile of charcoal too, unless we find ‘Anthracite’ lying about…”]

[“What are—?”] Vemik began. Jooyun aimed an apologetic smile at him.

[“Believe me, you’ll understand much better when I show you. But the simple way of saying it is that if I take this stuff and some other rocks that you probably don’t think are useful and put them together in a really hot fire, then the rocks flow like water and glow like fire and you get this stuff.”] He patted his axe again.

[“We have a story about rocks flowing like water!”] Vemik blurted, and bounced around Jooyun and halfway up a tree out of sheer excitement at getting to tell the sky-person something he didn’t already know.

Jooyun rocked back on those long, straight sky-person legs and folded his arms, grinning. [“Yeah? Tell me.”]

Vemik took hold of a branch with his tail and both feet and swung upside-down in front of Jooyun’s face. [“Yan said that in the time of his old grandfathers the mountain spat fire and rivers of fire ran down it!”]

Julian always laughed whenever Vemik hung upside down or something, but this time his laughter faded and he frowned. [“…This story. How long ago?”]

[“Yan said…the time of his grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather?”] Vemik hazarded. [“Maybe there was another grandfather in there, I am not sure.”]

[“…How long do you expect to live, Vemik?”]

[“Uh…well, Yan says he’s been around for two hands of four hands of seasons?”]

Jooyun looked like he was sky-thinking. [“So he’s about…‘fifty’ then, so that’s at least one ‘eruption’ within the last…‘two hundred years’ or so…well. Fuck.”]

Vemik already knew that word, and had figured out he wasn’t supposed to. It was comforting to know that sky-people had swearing too, and he liked ‘fuck.’ It had weight.

[“Is…that bad?”]

Jooyun sighed, exactly like any of the People would. [“Yeah, it’s a big problem. It means your whole ‘species’ is mostly living in and around an ‘active caldera’ and that is bad in a big, big way.”]

There were Important words in there that Vemik didn’t know, but he had to start at the bad part first. [“…how bad?”]

Jooyun stared at him, then turned around and headed back in the direction of the forest camp. [“We should get back.”]

Oh.

That bad.


Date Point 12y6m2w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Entity

The Entity knew what ‘frantic’ felt like, though the emotion didn’t quite map to anything it permitted itself to feel. Frantic overlapped with panic; panic robbed precision and thought and got in the way of +SURVIVE+ and thus the Entity had done whatever it could to expunge that particular emotion altogether.

Nevertheless, it was as close as it ever got to being frantic with worry right now. Somebody had come to this planet. Somebody with a spaceship, and thus who was capable of understanding and discovering the Entity. If they had implants, then any Hierarchy demons riding in their brains would know immediately that 665’s operation had stalled and never resumed. The Hierarchy would investigate, the Entity might be caught…

And physical objects were so slow! An Abrogator had a maximum overland travel speed under optimal conditions of about thirty miles an hour, but a dense temperate rainforest was decidedly suboptimal.

After too many days of travel it was finally getting close now, though. The Entity didn’t have hands or any physical part to its being at all but if it did then those hands would have been shaking and its palms sweating. There were too many unknowns here, too many variables. It had no idea who or what the landing ship belonged to, but it had come down near the destroyed Abrogator and the last known location of 665’s problematic tribe.

The scout drones were faster, but Hierarchy technology had never quite managed to produce miniaturized power sources that could meet their energy demands. They were battery-powered, and thus had a limited range. If it didn’t care about getting the drones back it could have already sent them, but needlessly wasting those drones on an over-reach scouting mission would interfere with future scouting, multiplying the unknowns.

Unknowns were lethal. Unknowns violated +SURVIVE+. Unknowns would be eradicated with extreme sanction.

It launched the scout drones.


Date Point 12y6m2w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Allison Buehler

The annoying thing about bodyguarding Xiù was that it was so easy to believe she didn’t need it. Allison had seen her take down a guy much larger than her without much difficulty, knew of at least one nose that Xiù had broken and was acutely aware that they’d tracked her down as much on her reputation for single-handedly (and bare-handedly) taking out an entire Hunter broodship as anything else.

But all the kung fu in the world wasn’t going to work if Yan got it in his head to tear her apart, and all three of them knew it. Yan was no Hunter, he was a fellow deathworlder and leagues stronger. He’d mellowed out, but there was no suggestion that he’d got round to trusting them yet or even that he ever would. If he decided to kill Xiù, then he would. Not could; Would.

Xiù herself seemed much less concerned by this upset in the balance of power than Allison was on her behalf. She and Julian were both used to the idea that their diminutive Chinese girlfriend could leave them both winded and stunned on the mat at the same time, and for Yan to just swagger in and overturn that dynamic simply by being huge and strong felt vaguely insulting.

Not that it mattered: Allison had a Mossberg 590 and whether the target was a world-class martial artist or a stone age gorilla-critter from an alien deathworld, an average Joe with a shotgun was gonna fuck them over fifteen ways to Sunday. And Allison was no average Joe.

Fortunately, Yan seemed smart and knew the score. He mostly kept on the periphery but he always watched intently.

There hadn’t been so much as a sniffle among either the humans or the natives, fortunately, which had forced Allison to reluctantly concede that maybe the cross-species disease problem wasn’t quite as scary as she’d feared. They were still being vigilant, but they’d stepped down to green decon cycles with only three of the intense decontamination cartridges left spare.

Good thing, too. She knew Julian was sneaking food from Vemik when he thought she wasn’t looking, but she’d let it slide for the sake of peace. Somehow that hadn’t irked her as much as his increasingly “gone native” habits, but…well. The tan that had been robbed from him by months of living in a spaceship was reasserting itself, so she wasn’t gonna complain about how he was walking around shirtless a lot right now. Definitely not.

Besides, going native had gone over well with the natives. And Xiù had her elf thing going on, which had the tribe treating her almost with the same deference they showed the Singer. Both of them had got impressing the locals down pat. Allison meanwhile had settled for maintaining a more aloof attitude: she’d picked out her Oakleys on the grounds that the aliens probably had no idea how to handle bright orange mirrored wraparounds.

A black sleeveless top completed the whole Sarah Connor look and was damn welcome, because it was unbearably humid in the fog between the trees. Not hot, but any sweat she did produce stuck around forever because there was too much moisture in the air for it to go anywhere. She’d interrogated Xiù on the secret to staying cool and ethereal under such conditions and Xiù had just shrugged and said something about ‘thinking cool and dry thoughts.’

The natives seemed to have that problem licked—they mostly sweated through their hair crests as far as Allison could tell. Those fluffy, kitten-soft furs wrapped around a core of stiffer capillary hairs and drew the moisture and heat away from the skin in a second.

As she passed the Singer, who was taking an afternoon nap in a low branch, Allison took the opportunity to consider the young shaman’s crest in closer detail. It was noticeably redder than those of her female peers; almost as red as a mature male’s bright blaze hunter’s orange in fact, while most of the other women were more like a bright ginger or strawberry blonde. Julian had mused about hormones and sexual dimorphism long enough to make Allison yawn despite being genuinely interested.

It looked soft and strokable, too, but so far the natives were understandably a bit too standoffish with her for her to have felt it first-hand. The information on how soft those crests were came from Julian, who seemed to enjoy being wrangled by Vemik during their play-fights and had reported that the crest was as soft as dryer lint around those stiffer hairs.

She circled the clearing slowly and returned to where Xiù was meditating beneath a tree. Xiù had taken to doing that after her language sessions with Vemik to clear her head before she tackled the chore of recording as much Peoplespeak as she could for posterity before English could pollute it and destroy it via Vemik.

It was maybe part of the elf act, too. When Xiù got into character it took her a while to return to just being herself.

“You okay?” Allison checked with her, as she patrolled past. Xiù opened her eyes, smiled at her, and nodded.

“I like the way this forest smells,” she said.

Allison had to agree. “Natural. Alive.”

“Yup! And…quiet. It’s funny to think that if we look up we won’t see, like, an airliner contrail or something.” Xiù looked up through the canopy anyway, as if daring the universe to prove her wrong.

“Or a satellite,” Allison agreed. “Our surveysats are all way too small to see.”

“For now. When do they burn up?”

“About a week,” Allison informed her. “And we run out of food two days later. Unless you want to break open the bug crate.”

“Ew, no. Which is why Julian needs to hurry up and finish his—”

They both looked up as Julian crashed into the camp in the precise opposite of his usual stealthy style, with Vemik trying his arboreal best to keep up. Allison straightened, Yan stiffened, and Xiù stood up.

“Julian? What’s wrong, bǎobèi?”

Julian sketched the absolute bare minimum level of respect to Yan that he could get away with and jogged across the clearing.

“That volcano’s active,” he reported, keeping his voice low and urgent. “Are the surveysats still up there?”

“Uh, yeah. Still got a week,” Allison reassured him.

“We need to find a place for them away from the caldera. Now.”

“Is…it really that bad?” Xiù asked. “I mean, people live near active volcanoes on Earth…”

“Yeah, but there’s nearly eight billion of us,” Julian waved a hand. “If ten thousand humans get killed in an eruption, that’s a good day to own a news channel. If ten thousand of these guys get killed then there goes the whole species.”

“Julian!” Xiù seemed a little taken aback, but Allison nodded.

“I mean, yeah. Hard-ass way to put it, but…”

“No, sorry…” Julian rubbed his face. “I’m just…If it was just the fucking Hierarchy then that’s a problem the fellas on Cimbrean can solve. Show up, blow shit up, take the death robots…these guys don’t have writing. A few thousand years from now, the sky-people in their flying hut who fought the demons are a quaint religion and I kinda doubt it’d matter much. But if Big Hotel wanna make these guys go away, all they have to do is make that thing pop its cork—” he jerked his thumb toward the volcano, “—and let mother nature do the rest. We have GOT to get them away from it, and that’s gonna matter.”

“What do you mean, ‘matter?’” Allison asked.

“We can’t move them. We’re one tiny ship and just this one tribe is, what, over fifty people? They’ve gotta move themselves. And they’re not the only tribe, ‘cuz Vemet and I’ve already met dozens out there while hunting, Vemet’s introduced me as the Sky-Hunter. They call you the Sky-Dancer, Xiù. Guess they saw you doing taiji or somethin’.”

“…What do they call me?” Allison asked, intrigued.

“They don’t really know what to call you yet. But they’re starting to talk about us, and there’s probably discontent…we’ve already done damage, and now we’ve gotta do more or they’re all maybe going to be dead in a few years. But we can’t just conquer them and order them around, either.”

Xiù nodded, seeing where he was going. “Somebody needs to persuade them to migrate, and it can’t be us. And the only language they’re going to listen to is if somebody knocks their heads together and makes them follow.”

“Somebody like Yan,” Allison glanced across at the chieftain.

Julian steeled himself and made a decision. In his best Peoplespeak, [“Yan! Can we talk?”]

Yan eyed him carefully, stood up with his water skin and lumbered over deliberately. It was hard to tell if he was intentionally swaggering or if that was just how he moved, but he curled up his tail, sat down and offered a neutral [“Yes?”]

[“Can I speak in] English?”

That seemed to pique Yan’s interest because he nodded, and to their surprise he replied in English too. Clearly the big chieftain had been listening more closely than he pretended. “Okay. Important?”

“…Yeah. Very.”

“Vemik trust. He smart, I trust. Speak good words, he does.” Yan’s English was halting and slow, but excellent considering that he’d never used it in earshot of the three of them.

Julian tilted his head. “You keep your own counsel, don’t you?”

Yan didn’t reply.

[“Sorry. You do your own thinking, on your own. That’s good.”]

Yan snarled in that weirdly friendly way he reserved for Julian. “You tell story or not?”

Vemik settled in a branch above Yan—technically a subservient position in their society, because it placed him behind the Given Man and under his protection—and listened. The whole tribe was doing that, sensing that the sky-people had suddenly become deadly serious about something. Only the Singer settled at ground level alongside Yan, and the big man actually moved over to make room for her.

Julian turned to Xiù. “Fill in for me if we get stuck?” Xiù nodded and fetched her tablet, and they settled down to talk while Allison hung back.

Something was pricking at the back of her neck, and she wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t just the tension with Julian, Xiù and the Tribe, they were all engrossed as Julian launched into his halting best to try and explain exactly what a volcano was and why living near one was a really bad idea, supported now and again by Xiù’s ludicrously fluent grasp of the native language.

No, something else was wrong. Something that nobody else was paying attention to.

She prowled away from the impromptu powwow and tried to do what Julian had taught her how to do in Minnesota and really listen to the forest around her.

And she heard what was missing. The whole tribe jumped when she charged her shotgun.

Julian gave her a confused stare. “…Al?”

“Birdsong.” There wasn’t any. The animal background noise of the forest had gone completely hush.

Everyone went silent at that single word. Clearly the Tribe had learned English more widely and better than they had let on. After a tense several heartbeats of listening, the whole tribe began to make stealthy preparations. Up in the tree, Vemik readied his bow. Yan’s huge fingers clawed a fist-sized rock out of the soft earth for throwing, and Julian unfolded himself and stood, readying his gauss rifle.

In the silence, there was a faint sound, one that didn’t belong at all. A kind of…mechanical whine, like a turbine spinning up for just a few seconds.

Vemik almost fell out of his tree. [“I know that sound!”] He blurted, resorting to his native language. [“Death-bird!”]

The humans wasted a few seconds looking at each other bewildered before Xiù realized what he meant. “Hierarchy drone!”

Allison gritted her teeth. “Back to the ship. Now.”

Xiù took Julian’s reluctant hand to drag him ship-wards, then stopped in her tracks as a similar whine sounded from among the trees in that direction. Then another from the south.

[“They’re all around us!”] The tribe shot up the trees like fireworks, making shrill hooting alarm sounds. Yan remained on the ground, hefting his rock and baring his fangs.

Everything became angles in Allison’s head. Lines of fire, lines not to fire, places where allies were standing and how to move to safely shoot past them. With one arm she shepherded Xiù to whatever protection the dead bulk of the Abrogator could provide while Julian called for Vemet, leapt, and the native man hauled him easily up into the low branches of a Ketta tree.Julian was a decent climber, but Vemet was strong enough to practically throw him into the higher branches, where the pair of them settled and Julian scanned the gauss rifle back and forth, searching for targets among the trees.

They’d all taken tactical training together back in Omaha, with…mixed but largely positive results. Julian’s persistent problem was that at heart he was a varmint shooter: He took his time over every shot, made every round count, and wasn’t really mobile enough for tactical situations. By nature and practice he was much more of a sniper. Xiù meanwhile had started out handling guns like they might explode with every trigger pull and though she’d improved with practice and was mobile enough, her strong and obvious distaste for firearms shone through. They’d both scraped through the training, but…

But Allison had aced it.

Her hand was barely back on the shotgun when the first Hierarchy scout drone spun through the trees, flipping like a thrown playing card as it caught sight of her and took evasive action.

Not quick enough. It was smashed by hurtling twelve-gauge buckshot.

Yan howled and leapt like a salmon to clobber another drone as it swooped in past him on an attack run. The goliath blow knocked it twisting out of its path and it clattered harmlessly to the soil, still whining and trying to fly but disabled.

More of those whining sounds among the trees, three flashes of metal. Angles were wrong. Drop shoulder, bully sideways, turn, fire, spin into the cover of a tree to guard her flank. The two surviving drones wrenched through bewildering tight arcs to try and spoil her aim.

Feet under her, weight balanced, face ice-cold. Step. Advance. Fire. Missed. Julian finally took a shot and winged one, though, and the damaged drone glinted as it skipped behind a tree and vanished.

The undamaged one was circling like a wolf, using the Abrogator’s hull to cover itself. She couldn’t shoot it, it couldn’t shoot her. Harmless, just for a second or two.

Long enough for her to turn at the waist, step back and obliterate the sixth drone as it flashed out from between the trees. Then step, turn, step, kneel, breathe, wait—

And fire. Buckshot slapped the circling-wolf drone out of existence the instant it came into view.

Silence. A long, long tense one full of only the sound of the damaged drone retreating until even that had finally faded below the level of hearing, and the disabled one in the grass still trying to twitch back into the air.

Nobody dared move until the first chirp of some bird coming out of hiding dispelled the silence.

Allison let out a long breath, and the world became a place of people and things again, instead of angles and movement. She noticed in an aloof way as her hands reloaded the shotgun on their own, but tried not to really think about it—She was worried that if she noticed she had a body then it might start shaking and throwing up.

Julian, thank God, came bustling down the tree and rolled as he dropped the last few feet. He touched her on the shoulder and somehow said everything just by doing so, giving her the strength to shore up her composure and pretend to be unaffected as Vemet jumped down and landed behind him, and the two men both went on an immediate patrol of the area.

Yan…he had picked up the disabled drone in his mitts and walked over with it like it wasn’t any big deal. He grunted, and crushed it into a squashed sort of disc with visible effort, then slammed it on the ground with so much force it embedded itself in the dirt.

Then he looked up at Allison, and nodded respectfully before he turned to check on his tribe.

The Singer dropped down from the tree she had fled into during the attack and gave Allison a long and thoughtful stare, then looked back at Vemik. She thoughtfully scraped one of her stubby claw-nails across her teeth to excavate the ketta sap from under it before nodding as she seemed to reach a decision.

“I think we call you…“ She said something in Peoplespeak. The word-bit for ‘sky’ was in there, but Allison didn’t know the other bit, which gave her something to focus on while she gave Xiù a hand up in crawling out from under the Abrogator.

“What did she call me?”

“She called you ‘Sky-Storm.’” Xiù’s elf act was gone, replaced by naked awe. “And…I mean…that was just…Holy shit, Al!”

“I feel like I’m gonna puke…” Allison confessed for her ears only. Around them, the tribe was slowly coming back down the trees in ones and twos.

Xiù took her hand. It helped.

When the patrol came back, Yan grunted some commands to the men, then he looked at Julian pointedly, returned to where they were sitting, and resumed his position calmly like he hadn’t just leaped clear over Allison’s head and hammered a goddamned drone out of the sky with a rock. Allison wondered if he was feeling as shaky as she was and covering it better.

He inspected his hands and feet quickly, then said politely, “You tell story more.”


Date Point 12y6m2w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Entity

<Relief>

Humans. Humans who, quite clearly, had known what the Hierarchy was and had immediately opened fire. The Entity could not possibly have wished for a more positive find from its scouting expeditions.

It could have wished for a more positive outcome of course—the loss of five scout drones stung—but this particular unknown had resolved itself well.

The surviving drone was damaged but stable as it swept wide in the direction the two humans without the shotgun had tried to run. It didn’t take long to stumble across their ship, an unsubtle hammerhead of a thing in gleaming red and silver livery and adorned with the logo of the Byron Group. Unarmed, tiny…clearly a scout ship of some kind.

It allowed itself a rare spike of amusement when it saw the ship’s name painted above the airlock. ‘Misfit.’

As with all human systems, the ship was hardened and all but impenetrable to outside access. The rigorous parity-checking, firewalls and checksums made them all but impossible to infiltrate.

But they could be made to carry a message…


Date Point 12y6m2w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Allison Buehler

It took several minutes before Julian finally sat down across from Yan again to continue explaining… well, everything. The villagers had scattered, and they took the time to ensure everybody was safe before the storytelling resumed, this time with a nervous eye towards the sky.

“…okay. So.” Julian cleared his throat. “The volcano. We good on that?”

“May go ‘ksssh!’” Yan spread his arms wide to imitate the concept. “Like [spitting-pond] in [high-forest-place] but big. Could kill all People. Bad. Must move…far away. All People move. All tribes. Yes?”

“Do you think the other tribes would move?” Julian asked.

Yan pondered that very carefully, and took a good, long swig of his water skin.

[“Jooyun Sky-Hunter, Shyow Sky-Dancer and Awisun Sky-Storm.] You, I believe. Others…not see you. Not know.” He said that last while aiming an especially respectful eye at Allison and her weapon.

Julian gave Yan a very intense stare. “Yan…how big of a leader are you?”

That was a ballsy thing to ask in front of his tribe like that. But Julian had a point; there wasn’t time to be diplomatic anymore. Yan seemed to understand and even respect Julian for it.

“Am oldest [Given-Man] now in all [The People.] Crest dark.” He gestured to the tip of his tail—the tuft there was as turning as dark as wine or spilled blood compared to the brilliant scarlet of the rest of his crest, a far cry from Vemik’s pale ginger and Vemet’s blaze orange. “Not many live so long. Am…[young-healthy-strong], live many [future-seasons] maybe. Am biggest, too.” He said that with his characteristically smug snarl.

Xiù had to translate that bit. Julian then asked, “Will they listen to you?”

Yan nodded after some thought, then added, “But would need…would break many [Given-Men] to make listen. And women. Children. Very sad.”

Well. That was as candid an assessment as they’d ever get. The men and women of the tribe nodded along too, grimly. They collectively seemed to sense they had a mission now and it seemed to Allison they were already steeling themselves for it.

It wasn’t often anyone got to see how wars started. Allison looked at Julian uncertainly, knowing—or maybe hoping—in her head that they were doing the right thing here, but there was a sick feeling settling in her stomach now that had absolutely nothing to do with adrenaline and fear.

For her part, Xiù was unreadable. Her hair had come loose during the attack, and from where she was sitting Allison couldn’t see enough face past it to read her expression even if she was showing one.

“…We need to go,” Julian said, having to force the words out in a grim croak until he cleared his throat. “This attack, our supplies are running short…but we will be back as fast as we can, and we’ll bring friends.”

“How long?”

“It may be a full season.”

Yan thought about that, then looked at Vemet and the Singer. “Will move by then. You find us?”

“Yes. You must move, and you must hide or be ready to hide. Big Enemy may wake up. We can make something to help. And I need your help to make it, Yan. Making this needs strong men.”

Allison snorted internally but kept her calm. Boys. Julian was shamelessly playing to Yan’s literal strengths and Yan permitted him the flattery. [“The People,] strong!” He thumped his chest impressively. [“Sky-Thinker] beat you, I hear…” He said it with a surprisingly gentle, playful expression.

Julian chuckled softly and gave Vemik a fond look. “Yeah. He’s got game.” There was a trill of laughter from among the men of the tribe—even if they didn’t understand his words, they knew his meaning perfectly. “But, this is [big-craft-magic] we want to give you.” Julian sobered back up. “I want to teach you to make something. Something that will make it easier to lead the People.”

Yan sat forward. “What?”

Julian drew his knife and stroked the edge. “We call it…steel.”



++END CHAPTER 35++



If you have enjoyed the story so far and want to support the author, you can do so at patreon.com/HamboneHFY

This chapter was brought to you with the help of:

THE SOR
Those special individuals whose contributions go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson.

Ellen Houston

Three Humans

SirNeonPancake

Savvz

Laga Mahesa

23 Deathworlders

Adam Turnbull,
Andrew Ford,
Aryeh Winter,
Ben Thrussell,
Daniel Morris,
Dar,
Darryl Knight,
Elliott Woods,
Greg Tebbutt,
Jamie Atkinson,
Martin Østervang,
mudkip201,
Nader Ghali,
Nicholas Enyeart,
Nick Annunziata,
Parker Brown,
Patrick Huizinga,
Remi Harbo,
Ryan Cadiz,
Sun Rendered,
tsant,
TTTA,
Volka…

As well as 22 Friendly ETs and 135 Dizi Rats

Fiction categories: 

Media and genre: 

N<0011> (not verified)
Binge

Ive been binge reading this from the start to now and good job indeed

I just finished chapter 34 as this was posted actually.

I also noticed that you used to post at the end of every month, sans January. Will you be resuming this at the end of February or nay?

TheOldWolf (not verified)
This made me smile!

This made me smile!

Anonymous (not verified)
"This species is at the brink

"This species is at the brink of extinction..." "Let's give them powerful weapons they never even dreamt of and have them war against themselves!"

Goddamn Julian, you're supposed to save them from the Hierarchy, not imitate the Hierarchy. we don't even know if the volcano

R (not verified)
Review

Keep up the good work

Excroat3 (not verified)
USS San Diego

I thought the USS San Diego was still being fitted with weapons and sensors, considering that the hull launch was just last chapter. Did it get rushed into combat with a half-complete weapons suite, or did they finish outfitting it before the events of this chapter?

Donald (not verified)
Tingles

Every damn one of these is great, the last few have been phenominal, this one... gave me tingles up and down my spine as I read it. I love your stories, they really give me something to look forward to.

Sisk (not verified)
Good read, as always

One thought sticks out though....how freaking chaotic must The People's language be for Vemik to find ENGLISH - a language born of a mishmash of half a dozen other languages, some of them with totally unrelated roots - to be orderly?

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