Chapter 36: "Consequences"

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Date Point 12y6m2w AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

Xiù was curled up on the couch and not talking with either of them. She hadn’t taken the decision to arm the tribe with steel and send them to war at all well.

It would have been better if she’d cried or something. Or… shouted maybe. Kicked his ass. Something. The worst thing she could have done to him was this silent misery. It wasn’t as if Julian was feeling great about the decision after all.

None of them were. Allison was giving her shotgun the cleaning of its lifetime. That weapon deserved the best care in the world and right now Allison was taking out her own fears and doubts on every last little blemish that might have made it anything less than pristine.

But Misfit wasn’t a big ship. It had always been cramped even with just the three of them, and now there was just no escaping each others’ emotions. So Julian did the only thing he could do: he sat down on the couch and hugged with a desperate prayer to whatever loving god might listen that he hadn’t irreparably fucked things up, and damn near started crying when Xiù made a soft sound and leaned into his chest.

That same god doubled down when Allison picked that moment to return, looking pale and thoughtful but sharp again. She watched them for a long instant, then sat down on Julian’s lap and put her arms around them both and the three of them just sat and held each other for an intimate eternity before any of them found the energy to say anything.

Xiù’s head shifted slightly, she sniffed and raked the back of her hand across her nose.

“…We’re going to do something terrible, aren’t we?”

There was a mutual three-way nod.

“…Yeah.” Julian’s voice was little more than a deep, choked grumble. “Think we are.”

“Is it the right thing, though?” Allison asked.

They pulled back and looked at each other.

“…We’re doing it for the right reasons,” Julian ventured. “Aren’t we? To save them?”

“Like I said. If it’s adapt or die, I’d rather help ‘em adapt.” Allison scrubbed at her eyes. “Kinda harder in practice, though.”

“I can’t stop thinking about what Yan said. About… children.” Xiù choked on the word.

“He was…honest. Very honest.” Allison, a champion of forthright honesty herself, didn’t seem pleased about it.

“Too honest.” Julian finished the thought.

“Bullshit.” Allison shook her head. “No such thing. We needed to know what the consequences will be. I don’t wanna… I don’t want us lying to ourselves about just what we’re gonna do to those people. We’re about to turn Yan into Genghis fucking Khan and we need to fucking own it.”

Julian considered the expression he’d seen on Yan’s face as they had struck their bargain. There hadn’t been a gleam of conquest or megalomania there: to the contrary, Yan had looked old as he considered what he was learning. “I think Yan knows it, too. I don’t think he likes the idea much.”

“He’ll still do it, though.” Xiù straightened up a bit more. “…Because he has to. Just like we do.”

“Do we really?” Allison asked. “That volcano might not blow for… hundreds of years. Thousands maybe. It might never blow again. Might be all it ever does is fizz. Couldn’t we be overreacting?”

“We can’t gamble a whole species on that,” Julian said.

Xiù nodded, weakly but with that determined look of hers in her eye. “And they’ll need steel if they’re to have a chance of getting the other tribes to join them,” she added. “And what if the Hierarchy comes back before we do? They’d need…” She trailed off, and left the thought unfinished. It wasn’t like basic steel knives would do a thing against an Abrogator anyway.

“No. But you can go to ground and that matters. Hell. You can’t even dig without metal!” Julian finished. “Not really.”

“When did you learn how to make steel, anyway?” Allison asked. “I mean, I’m not surprised, just curious.”

He shrugged. “Boy scouts.”

“Okay…so why steel? Why not bronze?”

“Because I lied to Yan, kinda. Iron is easy once you know how. I mean… way more complex than anything they’ve ever done before, but easy in the big picture. I’m not exactly an archaeologist, but…”

“We know, but go on…” Xiù prompted.

“I figure the only reason we did bronze first is because it’s more obvious when you find it. They’re something special. Like, iron’s everywhere,” Julian explained, digging deep into the geological education he’d picked up a lifetime ago working as a park ranger, “But it ain’t obvious. Tin and Copper, the ores stand out. They’re shiny and look like metal. Iron ores don’t stand out precisely because they’re everywhere. They just look like… well, rocks. Hell, they basically are rocks.”

“Makes sense,” Allison nodded.

“Right. Besides, you put copper or tin in a good campfire, they melt. But you don’t smelt iron ores without getting stupidly hot.”

“And having everything just right, too,” Allison nodded. “They taught me a bit about smithing back at Omaha, remember? Just enough to help fix the ship.”

“…Right, yeah. So, you can help!”

“Oh hell no,” Allison shook her head vehemently. “Not without a power hammer, no way. I’m not strong enough.”

“Yeah, that’s the other side of it. Lot of hard work goes into smithing steel. We’re lucky we have Yan because we have to make wrought iron first and…fuck, that takes a hell of a lot of muscle power. Just making the tongs is gonna take it out of me and Yan’ll have to pound all the rest of it out himself. And then after all that you only have the start of steel. The rest is hard work and finesse. Good thing Vemik’s smart.”

“When you put it like that, it’s no wonder humans developed bronze first,” Xiù said, quietly.

“Yup. And anyway, if they’re gonna move…they need a metal that they can get wherever they go. And once you can make basic iron, good steel’s not that far away. It’s just…details, really. Attention to detail. And that’s good for ‘em, too.”

“Took our ancestors a long time to figure out those details,” Allison nodded. “But they did it. This is just the easy way.”

“Right. This? This is…God, what’s the word? Like, a cognitive head start? I dunno. If they can make steel again after we leave, that means they can transmit history accurately. That’s important, and it’s a good incentive for a lot of things all at once.”

“Okay, fine. Steel is good. But what happens if they use this steel to put so many tribes to the sword that they go extinct anyway?” Allison asked. “I like these guys, but they ain’t exactly civilized. Let’s not pretend they are.”

“Well,” said Julian, “I suppose that depends on how good of an orator the big fella is.”

“I don’t think any orator’s that good.”

“We can only hope.”

“And trust him,” Xiù said. “I think… Yan knows what’s at stake.”

“Yeah. These people really aren’t stupid, are they?” Allison agreed.

“No, but they’re… they’re all a bit like Vemik.” Xiù said. “Even Yan and the Singer. Vemik reminds me of my brother a little.”

“How so?”

“He’s so smart that he forgets how to be sensible.” Xiù sat back from the three-way hug and started to re-tie her ponytail. “This isn’t like the Gaoians or any of the others, they don’t…they’ve never opened Pandora’s Box. This is the first time they’ve ever played with this kind of… well, magic.”

Julian fidgeted with some of the dirt under his fingernails. “And we’re not there to help them with that. Well…Fuck.”

“There’s gotta be a limit on how much help we can give them,” Allison said. “End of the day, if we teach ‘em the secret of fire and they burn themselves down…”

“That’s cold, Al.”

“Please, if we get back here and all we find is bodies I’m gonna be a fucking wreck!” Allison shook her head vigorously. “But they’re not children. I think about the worst thing we could do is treat ‘em like children. They’re fucking deathworlders, just like us! They live tough lives, they have these rites of adulthood and… all that stuff. They clearly know all about responsibility. You saw Yan’s expression, he knows the stakes here… this one’s a test they have to do for themselves.”

“So…what do we do, then?” Xiù asked. She finished tying her hair back again and drew her feet up to sit cross-legged on Julian’s lap, with his arms around her waist.

“We treat ‘em like adults. And… we pray for them.”


Date Point 12y6m2w AV
Miami, Florida, USA, Earth

Professor Daniel Hurt

“Our next guest tonight is an evolutionary psychologist and historian, the author of ‘The Road To Reason,’ New York Times bestselling author Daniel Hurt, Daniel Hurt everybody!”

There was always going to be this kind of show on at this kind of time of night on this kind of a channel. The name, host and music changed, but the intersection of politics and media needed a talk show hosted by a stand-up comedian, in the same way as an axle needed a differential to turn the energy of one into the work of the other.

This one, with a kind of creative lack of imagination, was called ’That Show With Steven Lawrence.’

But, whatever. The appearance money was good, so Dan adjusted his tie, made sure his jacket was sitting right and strolled out onto the stage with practiced nonchalance.

“Welcome have a seat! It’s been…what, almost a year?”

“Ten months,” Dan made sure his pants weren’t creased as he sat, and acknowledged a lone whoop in the audience with a wave.

“And you’ve been busy, too! Making friends, earning the love of your legion of adoring fans…” there was a ripple of laughter at the sarcasm.

“And I wrote a book,” Dan had rehearsed the way these conversations went.

“Oh yeah, and you wrote a book!” More whoops from the audience. Somebody out there was clearly a bigger than average fan. The host, Steve Lawrence turned to the audience and raised his hands like the showman he was. “Y’know, just a little bestseller…”

“And I only received thirty death threats this time,” Dan rested his hands lightly on his knee. “So, things are improving there! Thank God for tenure, huh?”

“You seem to enjoy poking people in the eye, don’t you?”

“Because we need it, Steve. People don’t think about anything unless you kick them right in the head. Me too, all of us! So what if I upset people?”

“Well, at least it’s entertaining to watch, right?” Lawrence asked rhetorically, setting up another football for him to kick.

“It cuts through the crap, too!” Dan nodded. “The last decade has been just poisoned with tribalism and feels-before-reals politics, and the only way to break through that is with mockery! Nothing else works, and we know this because Science.”

Lawrence laughed. “That should be the title of your next book! ‘Because Science!’

Dan smiled for both his benefit and the camera’s and pressed on with his point. “Which science? Any science! Psychology, history, biology, take your pick. Humans are incredibly good at feeling, but you just can’t base rational decisions on your feelings alone, that just doesn’t work.”

“You said in your book that for daily purposes, intuitive thinking does the job just fine…” Lawrence pointed out.

“Yes! See, the way we make decisions is really weird,” Dan sat forward eagerly, all pretense of composure forgotten. He was the first to acknowledge that when he got into his stride there was no stopping him, and the way people thought about everything was easily the most fascinating subject in his life.

“It happens before you know it, and usually when you’re not even thinking about whatever, right? And that’s okay! It helps you get through everyday nonsense, just all the things in your life that you don’t really need to pay attention to you can deal with like pop, pop, pop!” He waved his hands around his head for emphasis. “It lets you save your focus for the things that need it, and it means you, uh…absorb all the smarts from the people you know. But what it doesn’t let you do is analyze something rationally. That is work. That is hard work, and people don’t like to do it!”

“So what are we mere mortals to do?”

“Laugh! Laugh at ourselves, laugh at each other, especially laugh at the people who don’t want to be laughed at, and double-especially at the people we’re told we can’t laugh at!” Dan reined himself in a bit and sat back again.

“Know thyself,” he continued, in a slightly quieter tone of voice. “That’s all. It’s way easier to live with each other if we think about why we think and emote and tribe up like we do. It makes it easier to make friends with the other guy, right? And that, right there, is the only thing that’ll keep us off each others’ throats and prevent another, uh…Presidential experiment.”

As expected, the usual round of exuberant cheers and full-throated jeering came immediately.

“Never were a fan of that guy, huh?”

“Hell no! But, well. Even I can’t really step completely out of my own tribe. None of us can. I try not to be too judgemental because I think it’s for history to really judge the outcome of those years. We’re all too close to it to know. I admit, I’m a fan of Sartori…”

“Even though he’s a Republican?” Steve Lawrence’s question sounded guileless, but of course he was just following the cards.

“See, that’s tribal thinking. And the one and only way to stop that is to forge a common identity. Honestly, try it out. Find that neighbor you really hate because, I dunno, his dog craps on your lawn or he’s a Patriots fan or whatever, and find out what you have in common. And here’s the magic bit—you do have something in common. You always have something in common! So be deliberately friendly and polite no matter how much you hate his guts because a couple of weeks of hanging out later? You will be friends.”

He paused and reflected. “Well, if you’re a man. Women find it more difficult.”

Lawrence shifted in his seat as a few people in the audience made disapproving noises. “Isn’t that sexist?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Dan had to raise his voice slightly as the disapproving noises escalated. “Steve, men and women have different bodies. There’s nothing sexist about acknowledging that, right? Well there’s nothing sexist about acknowledging that we have different brains. There have been studies performed on one-day-old infants who haven’t had time to internalize any kind of gender-based nurture-over-nature thing which show a clear difference between male and female in how they respond to different stimuli. We’ve known since the Classical civilizations, and even before then, that men and women really don’t think or behave the same way… And sure, that’s not a nice truth, but it’s still true.”

He sat back. “If I designed the world? Men would share the best elements of female psychology, and vice versa. But I didn’t: Evolution did.”

Lawrence nodded. “And evolution doesn’t care.”

“Nope. Neither does Biology. Or Chemistry, or Physics, because that’s all everything is in the end. We have to deal with reality as it is if we want to shape it towards how we might want it to be, and I want to live in a society without prejudice. That means knowing what real prejudice actually looks like.’”

“Well, we’re getting plenty of Tweets already!” Lawrence segued, hitting the last of the planned interview. This was where things got difficult as while they could script for the type of messages they expected to get, the public had a knack for throwing some surprising curveballs.

“Tell ‘em to delete their account.” Dan suggested. There was a dutiful chuckle from the audience, and he sat up straight. “Alright, let’s hear it…”

“So, this one comes from Zoe Foster, who I guess saw you on ESNN after the protests at NEC… She says ‘Hate speech is hate speech, Nazis don’t get a seat at the table. If you advocate for genocide you don’t get a say.’

Dan shrugged the statement off. That one was just an appetizer. “Well, she’s wrong. The most effective antidote to bigotry is to permit it,” he answered breezily. “The facts have weight, Steve. You only have to worry about what the other guy is saying if you’re wrong…”

They navigated five more minutes of topical questions, a couple of in-jokes and three outright attacks on Dan’s character and from there Dan parked himself at the panel table and waited while the rest of the night’s guests came in.

It was a productive conversation in the end. There were some civil differences of opinion, some impassioned interruptions and talking over one another because that was really the only way to get anything said at that table, and…as always, the whole show was over before Dan had even really noticed.

There was the usual ‘aftermath’ segment for the Internet, a few outtakes and reshoots, and Dan finally got to drop the act backstage when they settled down on the couch in the green room and hung out with a bottle of sparkling wine and some snacks.

“Tiring work,” Lawrence commented, patting him on the shoulder as he passed around the drinks. At fifty-two, Dan was the oldest one in the room and he was definitely feeling it. Hot lights and keeping up the public persona had a way of draining him.

“Yyyup.” Dan was generally a man of few and carefully considered words off-stage. He accepted the champagne flute with a smile and joined in the five-way toast to a successful show.

Diana Wimmer, the political editor at Horseshoe Media, made a special point of ringing her glass against his. Out at the panel table, the two of them had been at odds over his comment about women and friendship, but in private they were actually friendly acquaintances and regular correspondents. He respected and admired her enormously.

“You have a lot lined up for this week…” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Ten book signings in six days,” Dan nodded.

“You sound bored.”

“Weary. Never bored.”

Diana nodded agreement with that one, and sat back on the couch. “I doubt you’re considering a change in career anytime soon, though.”

That got a laugh. She was right—Dan loved his job.

“Not,” he said, “unless something even more epic comes along…”


Date Point 12y6m2w1d AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Yan Given-Man

The sky-people had strange ways.

Yan shouldn’t have been surprised. Anybody who flew between skies in a hut made of ‘steel’ had to be strange, without question. They seemed friendly, and they were cunning in ways that Yan didn’t understand, but…

But they liked water. That was just…

That was…

It was very strange. Water itched and made people cold, it could hide yshek or the sweating sickness.

The sky-hut had a name. That was strange too. They spoke about it as if it was a living thing, a person. A woman. They called it “her” and “she” and yet they made it clear it was no kind of a beast. It was simply a tool with much, much sky-thinking behind it.

To Yan, who had spent his life making and discarding tools as they were needed, the idea of loving a tool was…

But then Jooyun had showed him why they loved their tools. The sky-people’s tools weren’t knocked off a flint core when needed, they were made well and carefully and kept for when they were needed. Each one was like a Knife of Manhood to them and each one, according to Awisun, could be the difference between life and death.

“How?” Yan had asked, curiously. Vemik was rubbing off on him.

“There’s no ‘air’ above the sky,” Xiù had explained.

“Air.” A new word.

Jooyun raised a hand and blew across his own fingers. His breath had the strong and sharp taste of ‘garlic’ that day. “That. The wind. That’s air. Imagine a place where there was no wind, where you could not breathe. That’s what it’s like above the sky.”

Awisun hadn’t learned the People’s words so well. “We… one time, our ‘ship,’ our skies-hut, it broke. All of the air went out. We, uh…” she thought hard. “We maybe-died.”

Yan frowned at her, alarmed. “You maybe-died? You don’t know if you died?”

“No, we didn’t die,” Xiù corrected. “We nearly died. We were very badly hurt, but we lived.”

“I see.” Yan reminded himself again that the sky-people were still just People. Shyow had terrible scars on her arm, and Jooyun had lost his foot in a fight. A fight with sky-weapons, no less! Having seen Awisun’s ‘shotgun’ in action, and the woman herself glide through a deadly battle like a dancer, it was easy to keep thinking of them as a kind of god. But gods would heal their scars, or regrow their lost foot. Gods wouldn’t have foul-tasting breath.

“So…these tools are like a spear. You need them to stay safe.”

Jooyun nodded. “Yes. And…well, they’re really hard to make. So we look after them.”

Yan glanced at the site where the women were working on the ‘furnace.’ “…How hard?”

“Well…tomorrow, I’ll show you. It’d be good if everyone ate well and got lots of sleep.”

“…Yes.” Yan glanced up the hill, to where the ‘ship’ now rested. They had moved it closer to the village, and the sight of something so big and obviously heavy drifting above the trees like mist…

Vemik had pestered the sky-people into letting him travel inside it, and had said the view out the frozen-warm-ice ‘window’ was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen in his life. Jooyun had invited Yan to ride along as well but he had politely declined the offer; he liked the sky-people in the careful way he liked any friendly strangers, especially strange strangers…but the tribe always came first. He needed to stay a bit aloof, at least when he wasn’t in control of the meeting. Too bad, really. It sounded like fun.

The Sky-People had been no less strange after it had come down again. They had put it down among the pools of warm water north of the village, and Jooyun had spent several minutes picking among them for some reason.

When he had turned to Shyow and Awisun and declared “This one!” the two sky-women had seemed as pleased as if he’d lain a yshek at their feet for a courtship-hunt. Yan had no idea what was so exciting about a pool of hot water of all things.

“We’re going to get some rest ourselves,” Jooyun had announced, and the sky-people had vanished uphill again. Something about the way they walked…

Yan was, in his own way, just as curious as Vemik about things, even if he was better at hiding it. Which was why he went on a patrol after sunset. He caught Vemik at the edge of the village about to head off toward the ‘ship’ and the pools.

Yan gave him a knowing look. “Sky-thinker, you should be asleep.”

Vemik startled guiltily and immediately objected as only a young man caught doing something he shouldn’t could. “So should you! Jooyun says we’ll need your strength!”

Yan grinned mischievously in return. “Sky-thinker. Sleep. Now.”

Vemik sagged. “…Yes, Yan.” He slinked back into the village, grumbling unhappily.

Yan made sure that the young thinker was back in his hut before he nonchalantly slipped behind one of the small, young Ketta that grew up in the high-forest-place and circled around downwind of the pools, where the air tasted of especially bad farts.

Both moons were full that night, the air was still, and he heard sky-people voices easily enough. He stuck to the deep shadows under the trees and stepped only where he knew his feet and knuckles would make no sound. Hunting on a bright, still night wasn’t easy, but it could be done with practice.

Besides, he didn’t need to get within spear distance. He just wanted to see.

He followed the rhythmic sloshing sound and soft vocalisations as close as he dared, and…

Well. Awisun was certainly having fun, oh yes. So was Jooyun. They really were People, through and through. Strange, pale people but nothing more than that. And if that was their idea of a restful night’s sleep…

Smirking, he crept away and left them to enjoy themselves.

They seemed surprisingly fresh and alert in the morning, though Yan didn’t even have time to poke fun at Jooyun for it, because the steel-magic started at dawn.

Over the last hand of days, the whole village had been tasked to gather many different rocks and several different clays, and had gone rushing off on Vemet’s orders—backed by Yan’s leadership—to go find them. According to Jooyun they were lucky and everything they needed to make ‘Damascus steel’ was there, hiding in plain sight all around the village and the camp.

So, they gathered. They found a good workspace, one not too far from the stream but downriver from the village, and had stacked up the gathered rocks carefully.

Yan, meanwhile, had taken for himself the task of finding an ‘anvil’ like Jooyun had described. He walked far up the stream and eventually found a little fall where the gods had polished flat a black, glossy stone. It was almost too big for him to get his arms around and so heavy that he could hardly lift it, but it was exactly like Jooyun had said.

He spent the morning working it out of the muddy gravel, then the rest of the day wrestling it back to the village, cursing and aching all along the way. It was worth it, though—When he finally got it back, Jooyun had stood there with his mouth open in an astonished, lop-sided gape. [“Christ! The fuck you tryin’ to prove!?”]

Yan didn’t understand more than two of those words but he guessed that the comment was an approving one, so he grinned and did a maybe stupid thing by hoisting the ‘anvil’ above his head a few times with a cocky, pained grunt like it was a prize bull Werne. In a way it was.

They wedged it into place to make a flat surface to work on, and then Yan called it a day while everyone else bustled endlessly and did many things to prepare. He ate like he was famished and he drank two full skins of water. All his muscles hurt and the tribe left him to rest, slapping him on his shoulders in congratulations. He wasn’t complaining; three of the tribe’s prettiest women visited Yan’s hut that night and rubbed his aching body…

He didn’t get enough sleep and the next day was worse, because the first thing he discovered was that there had been a mistake. The women had finished building the ‘furnace,’ which was something like a tall, narrow, complicated pot with many holes and strange shapes that had to be done just so.

The shape was exactly like Jooyun had drawn on ‘paper’ with his ‘pencils,’ but when Jooyun had come down from the ship that morning he’d seemed surprised to find that it was as tall as him. Apparently, they’d made it too big.

He’d scratched his head at it for a while before shrugging. [“Well… okay,”] he declared. [“I guess we’re doing a really big melt, then.”]

Somehow that sounded like a good thing to Yan. But it made a lot more work.

The ‘furnace’ wasn’t the only thing they had to make. The men had to make ‘bellows’ which needed big Werne hides that were smoked, tanned, and then ‘soaped’ to keep them supple. They had to make that too, along with other things that Vemik could no doubt recite but which passed in a blur for Yan; lots of charcoal, ‘flux’ from ‘limestone,’ ‘gloves’ made of leather, ‘aprons’ made to protect skin from the promised fire. Split sheets of quartz to look through and protect the eyes from the heat of the fire. Whatever they were preparing for, it was clearly a mighty craft and one that needed giving- and taking-magic at the limit of what the tribe could do. And all of it was rushed; the Sky-People had to leave.

There was so much to do. Jooyun wasn’t lying, they really did need Yan’s strength and the demands on it were endless. It was back-tiring work and he wasn’t alone; the other men had to practice on the ‘bellows’ to Jooyun’s satisfaction if they weren’t tasked by Vemet or the Singer. They built a fire inside the furnace to bake it hard and dry. Then they scrubbed it free of any ash. Then they baked the gathered rocks, then let them cool, then smashed them small, and finally they stacked it all into the ‘furnace’ in exactly the right order.

“Remember all of this exactly,” Jooyun had said. “And practice all of it while we’re gone or you may lose the magic.”

That evening the Singer sat down with Jooyun and, over the course of a long conversation, made a very intricate biting on a thin piece of tree bark so the tribe would never forget what to do. He seemed to know he might be giving offense by guiding her in her craft, but like so much that had happened there were bigger problems at hand. For Sky-People, biting-sign wasn’t a giving-magic or a taking-magic, it was just another tool.

Of course, that attitude inspired Vemik as well. He tried his hand at a biting and some of the women immediately objected, but both the Singer and the Sky-Hunter intervened.

[“The men must remember too,”] Sky-Hunter intoned. [“Everything must be done carefully to get ‘steel.’ ‘Iron’ is easy but it’s not good for knives.”]

That more or less settled the issue and everyone grumbled and got over it. The next day the Singer sang and danced for good fortune, and everyone took an easy morning, and then…

And then they made fire. A fire such as Yan had never imagined. They made it slowly, so slowly that it took two whole days just to get it hot enough. It was a fire so hot that anything coming even close could burst into flame. So hot Yan couldn’t even look at it except through the sheet of quartz. And they had to pump those ’bellows’ all day and all night without stop until finally, finally after a long and exhausting night, Jooyun poked the clay plug at the bottom with a very long stick…

And out came fire, flowing like water and spitting like wet Therka-wood thrown into a campfire. Something like that. It was so much more than anything Yan had ever known.

For once, Yan indulged in a little Sky-Thinking, wondering how in the names of all the gods the Sky-People had first learned how to do this. This was a craft of wonders.

[“This is one of the hardest metals to make,”] Jooyun had said, [“And one of the best. If you can make this you can make almost any other.”]

Yan had asked about why they didn’t start with an easier thing, but Jooyun had said something about ‘ores’ and ‘smelting’ and honestly, that seemed like something for Vemik to understand.

Yan had other things to worry about. By the next morning the water-fire had cooled to the point where it could be picked up, like water freezing into ice. Yan hefted the big new blackish rock from its pit—it was so heavy!—and set it down on their rock-slab ‘table.’ Jooyun beat on it with a heavy rock to break off the ‘slag’ and there it was. Metal. ‘Iron’ as Jooyun had said. Everyone stared at its dark, shiny surface for a long while, reverently. They had made this.

Jooyun spoke and broke the spell. [“Well, that’s ‘iron.’ Next, we make our tools.”]

A second ‘furnace’ which didn’t get as hot as the other had been built right next to the slab-rock. It was open on the side and things could be taken out of it when needed. Used less charcoal, too. The metal was loaded onto the top of glowing-red charcoal and the bellows were worked again until the lump was glowing dull orange. Jooyun used long, fire-blackened sticks to quickly pull the lump onto the slab. The sticks burst into flame but they lasted just long enough to do the job.

He then picked up the big hammering-rock and slammed it down into the glowing hot ‘iron.’ To Yan’s great surprise, it dented almost like firm clay, but Jooyun didn’t stop at hitting it once: He kept beating on the metal without stop until it was thinner and longer while Yan and Vemik watched, fascinated. Yan had to admire the sky-man for his tenacity. Jooyun was weaker than any one of the People, even the women, but he just kept going like…like the monster in children’s stories. As if there was nothing that could stop him. As if he didn’t know how to stop.

He sweated all over, too. They already knew that about the sky-people, even the cool and calm Shyow had an all-over sheen on muggy days, but pretty soon Jooyun was covered in a beading shine that soaked his strange hair and ran down his limbs.

Any man of the People who got that sweaty would be on the edge of falling down, but Jooyun’s worst discomfort seemed to come from the raw leather ‘apron’ they had made, rather than any real tiredness. The ground around his feet drank up the little dark spots that rained from him, his breath settled into a steady rhythm, and his arm fell in step with it, rising and falling and every time it fell the impact of rock on ‘metal’ sent a sharp sound stabbing through Yan’s ears.

The Sky-Hunter stopped only once to politely request some water. Yemik gave him his skin and watched, awestruck, as Jooyun downed the entire thing in a single long but quick series of gulps and then picked up the rock again and kept on pounding as though he hadn’t paused.

By the time Jooyun was happy the lump had changed its character. It was somehow even hotter and glowed as bright as sunset, hotter and brighter than Yan could look at. Seeming pleased with himself, Jooyun paused and caught his breath. [“…Okay.”] He panted, and swiped a handful of water off his forehead before flicking the drops away. [“Now we gotta make the most important tool. You’ll want to watch me carefully.”]

He made tools. Lots of tools. They started off simple—a sharp spike, a round peg—but each new one he made was then used to make a new tool, which in turn made another tool. By sunset, Jooyun had made two hands of different tools, each with a special job and each with special names. ‘Punch,’ ‘drift,’ ‘pin’ and others.

The most important, he explained, were the ‘tongs’ and those were the first completely new thing Yan saw him make. They had a ‘hinge’ in the middle and made it easy to pick up things that were very hot and very heavy. They snapped together like a Tatrak’s claws, and Jooyun worked them a few times with a grin, obviously pleased with himself. [“Got it done in one day! We should be good to start tomorrow, if you want.”]

Yan couldn’t contain himself. “Start?!“ The idea that every back-breaking moment of the last two days and all that relentless exertion had only just got them to the start was…

Jooyun rolled his shoulders, rubbing at his well-used muscles. He seemed amused in an exhausted way. “I told you, good tools are hard to make. Next we beat the ‘carbon’ out of that metal and make ‘wrought iron,’ and then we need to ‘refine’ it to ‘steel’ for the knives, and then—”

“He’s already made wonders, Yan,” Vemik pointed out in response to Yan’s incredulous look and reverentially took the ‘tongs’ from Jooyun. “I wonder if…”

Before anyone could stop him, Vemik bounced over to the pile of rocks they’d crushed to make steel, picked one up with the ‘tongs,’ squeezed, and grinned when the rock exploded in its jaws in a puff of white dust and sharp splinters.

Jooyun’s smile got wider. “Your first ‘machine,’ Vemik!”

Yan tasted the word. “Ma-chine. Means what?”

“Means… a thing for doing things you can’t. Or for making things you can do, easier. Anyway, simple machines are for later. Tomorrow, I think…yeah. Tomorrow we make knives.”


Date Point 12y6m3w AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Singer

The Singer knew that it was best to sleep when the baby slept, but right now getting the baby to sleep in the first place was hard work. The constant sound and smoke of the ‘steel’-magic made her grumpy, so she would suckle only half-heartedly and make grumpy noises for a long while before she could be persuaded to suckle again, and only fell asleep reluctantly.

Once asleep though, she slept just fine through the loud noise and bustle of the men, which was an opportunity for the Singer to leave her with one of the older women who had more experience with babies, and get some much-needed sleep in the low branches of the largest Ketta near the high-forest-place village.

She slept only fitfully. The sound of Jooyun striking the ‘metal’ over and over again kept her on edge.

She dreamed of blue fire and a knife made of the sky, and woke to find that Awisun and Shyow had chosen to take a nap too, leaning against each other at the base of her tree. Everybody was tired right now, even the sky-people.

She considered the two women for a long time before deciding that her sharp, Vemik-like curiosity was too much to endure and dropped from the branch to land a few steps away from them.

Shyow, apparently, was a light sleeper. She woke up almost before the Singer’s feet touched the earth, and gave her a warm though exhausted smile. “Is everything alright?”

The Singer wrung her tail nervously in her hands without really noticing. She liked and respected the sky-people, but something about them made her afraid and nervous.

“I was dreaming about… Things.”

“I dream too,” Shyow nodded, then glanced fondly at Awisun who was still snoring faintly. “All the time. Always strange dreams, too. Never anything… safe.”

Her use of the People’s words was easy and confident, and the words didn’t even seem to fit strangely in her mouth the way some Engwish words tried to slip sideways between the Singer’s teeth

“That’s bad magic…”

“Mm. The sky-thinkers back home say it’s because I was hurt badly once. One of the Big Enemies used a powerful weapon on me, and it left a mark…” she trailed her fingers down the horrific scars on her arm. The Singer had to wonder what kind of medicine had kept her alive. A man with wounds like that would have seen the arm go black and stinking before the rot killed him.

“You don’t speak about your home much…” the Singer ventured. She finally noticed that she was playing with the end of her tail and tucked it aside as she sat down. “This… place-under-another-sky.”

They both jumped when Awisun spoke. Neither of them had noticed her wake.

Awisun’s attitude always intimidated the Singer a little. Cautious. Always watchful. Coiled like a man’s arm before he threw his spear, that was Awisun. It had taken work to see the softer, caring person underneath, the one who was only so tense because she was afraid for the People… but that didn’t change the fact that she had released a torrent of taking-magic on the death-birds. It was hard not to be scared of a woman like that.

“We call it ‘The Earth.’” she said.

“Thyurth?”

[“The. Earth.”] Shyow spoke carefully and clearly. “‘Earth’ means… well, the ground under our feet. The soil that plants grow in. This.” Xiù reached down and scraped up a handful of dirt. “But our place-under-another-sky is called the Earth.”

The Singer considered that at length, then nodded. “A good name. Powerful magic in it.”

“It’s… a strange place in some ways,” Shyow mused, gazing thoughtfully off toward where the men were doing inscrutable things with fire and stone. “I think we… beat it.”

[“Julian wouldn’t agree,”] Awisun remarked, then snorted and said something strange in a singsong way. [“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”]

Shyow gave her a look, the kind of fond impatient one that the Singer aimed at Vemik herself quite often. Awisun shrugged. [“He wouldn’t,”] she repeated.

Shyow glanced over at the forge. [“Well, yeah…but it’s not like here. If a woman dies while having a baby, it’s… And if a child dies, I mean, that’s super rare now on Earth.”]

[“Not in most countries,”] Awisun said.

[“I know, but you remember what we felt in San Francisco don’t you? That whole… I don’t know… that whole soft feeling.”]

[“You’re the one who said that wasn’t a nice thing to think.”]

[“Yeah, it’s not. But you were still right…”]

Their Engwish was getting too dense for the Singer to follow, and she said so. “You’ve left me behind…”

“Sorry, sorry…” Shyow apologized, and sighed. “The Earth is…A lot like here. But…this place is like a part of the forest where no village has stood. On Earth, almost all places have villages.”

”Big villages,” Awisun added. “Made of stone and steel, where so many people live that they don’t all know each other.”

“Why leave?” The Singer asked. “It sounds…why would you come here?”

“Because, ummm…” Shyow trailed off, but Awisun stepped into the gap.

[“Tell her about Mount Everest.”]

[“Right! Yes.”] Shyow nodded then looked thoughtful for a moment before speaking. “There’s a big mountain on Earth,” she said. “So tall that you’re almost above the sky at the top. A few people die every year trying to climb it, even though others have done it before.”

“Then… why climb it?” the Singer asked, genuinely confused.

Awisun shrugged and used the People’s words for once. “Because it’s there.” Her faint smile looked almost like an apology.

“That’s…” The Singer couldn’t think of a word. There was probably one in Engwish, but if she’d tried to make the thought in People-Words she would have run out of breath first. It sounded wrong, like the kind of idea a man might have after taking a hard blow to the head.

“It’s a ‘challenge,’ you see.” Awisun added.

“Challenge means what?”

“Something difficult that you do anyway because it’s difficult,” Shyow explained.

“…Like the trial our men go through to become men…” the Singer saw. “Then… you are taking something like a trial of manhood all the time? Why? Life is difficult enough!”

[“Not on Earth it isn’t,”] Allison said. [“Not for a lot of us. Xiù’s right, we beat the Earth.”]

“You can get so good at sky-thinking that life gets easy?”

Shyow nodded. “It gets too easy. And if things are too easy, you get weak and soft.”

“You make sky-thinking sound like a trap.”

Shyow nodded again, but more solemnly this time. “It can be.”

The Singer found that she’d subconsciously started playing with the end of her own tail for comfort again, and let go of it. “…Can I ask you something?” she asked, deciding that she didn’t want to hear more about softness and ‘challenge’ for now. Those were big thoughts for later.

Both of them gestured for her to ask.

“You…you’ve shared taking-magic with the men, this steel of yours. Do you have any giving-magic for the women? It would help Yan persuade the women of the other tribes to join us…”

Awisun and Shyow both looked deeply uncomfortable at the idea.

“Giving you even that was, um,…difficult,” Shyow said, slowly. “And very dangerous.”

“If you give us nothing but taking-magic, the balance will be gone!” the Singer wrung her tail again until it almost hurt. “The men will have power that the women can’t answer, that’s… you can’t…”

“Is it just a taking-magic?” Shyow asked. “I know the men are doing all the work now, but the women were doing a lot earlier…”

“It’s… I don’t know,” the Singer confessed. “But it feels like a taking-magic.” She glanced back at the ‘forge’ again and watched Jooyun hammer relentlessly at the metal while both Yan and Vemik tended to the fire and kept out of his way. The magic felt very…male. There was nothing feminine about it.

That by itself was maybe fine. Maybe. But seeing Yan listening like an eager child at an elder hunter’s feet while Jooyun explained something about the work was…

She was glad that the sky-women had told her to be afraid. She knew now just how honest they were being.

“…Yes,” she decided. “It’s a taking-magic. A powerful one. And I trust my uncle and I love Vemik, but they’re just men, and too much taking-magic makes men forget themselves. I need something to help them stay balanced.”

“I don’t think we can give you that…” Shyow said at last. “I think…I think that’s your ‘challenge,’ Singer. We can’t do it for you.”

“…I guessed you would say that,” the Singer sighed. “But…”

She wanted to argue, or cry, something, but instead she sighed again and gave up. The Sky-People spoke with such strength about how terrible the danger was. Part of her wanted to not believe them at all, but it was clear that they knew every word was true.

She caught herself playing with her tail again and finally gave up and let herself do it for a while, if it made her feel better. “…I wish the Old Singer was still here,” she confessed. “I know she would have seen what to do.”

“You’re still young, aren’t you?” Shyow asked.

“I only took my trial of manhood and had my tattoos only a hand of seasons ago. I’ve had only one child. The Old Singer hadn’t finished teaching me, I…I don’t—”

To her surprise, Awisun—the Sky-Storm, a woman with more taking-magic than Yan,—scooted forward and gave her exactly the kind of comforting hug that the Old Singer had used to give in times like these.

[“It’s okay,”] she said. [“We don’t know what we’re doing either.”]

Her words shouldn’t have been comforting at all.

But they were.


Date Point 12y6m3w1d AV
Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Yan Given-Man

The work, which had seemed so tiring and so unending before, now actually began.

Yan learned more words under Sky-Hunter’s tutelage. ‘Refining,’ ‘forging,’ ‘quenching,’ reheating, ‘tempering,’ folding the hot metal. ‘Laminating’ by beating a chunk with the hammering-rock until it was thin, then folding it over and starting again, all while holding the fire-hot metal steady with one hand using the ‘tongs.’ It took days of work that somehow taxed even Yan’s prodigious strength and certainly tested his endurance.

All of that only resulted in something knife-shaped. Jooyun called them ‘blanks.’

More words. ‘Grinding,’ ‘bluing’ to ‘retemper’ the metal, ‘honing’ on a ‘whetstone,’ carefully reheating and hammering to ‘furrow’ the knife and shape its ‘profile.’ Slowly, the blades grew shinier, keener, stronger.

The work took its toll on everybody. Vemik would grind away and Yan worked himself exhausted beating on the metal while Jooyun kept the furnace fed and supervised their work, but the rest of the Tribe was just as busy. Doing this one thing was a trial for all of them. Vemet was so busy keeping the rest of the men working together that he lost weight and worried himself sleepless.

Thank the gods for the Singer and the women. The Singer even went on a hunt, an unthinkable prospect in more familiar times but she alone of all the women had done it before. Only she had the taking-magic as well as the giving-magic.

She brought back a good kill, too, and seemed… happier, somehow. As though something that had been troubling her wasn’t quite so heavy for now.

It was all worth it, though. All of it. Yan learned the answers to questions that even Vemik had never thought to ask, and at the end of it all he was left holding something…

Beautiful. Truly, perfectly beautiful. So much so that he spent half a morning’s good light just admiring his handiwork. The blade shone like water and had ripples and waves that seemed to flow as one tilted it this way or that. The edge was so fine that when he held it in the best possible light and looked down the blade it was as if the metal blended into nothing.

They even somehow managed to make Jooyun’s own blade seem somehow… dull.

Jooyun was just as pleased. “You’ll want to take very good care of those, the way I told you,” he suggested. “In some ways they’re maybe better than mine.”

He was examining the blades with a different kind of look on his face. Not awe, or wonder, but something else. Something that began with pride. He looked up and waved at his women, gesturing for them to come and see.

Awisun made that funny shrill noise she sometimes made by pursing her lips when she saw them.

[“Damn! Shit, if the People ever need some dollars they could clean up selling these. Real collector’s pieces.”]

Jooyun raised one of his eyebrows and wiped some soot off his face, but said nothing. Shyow’s face, however, went even paler than usual. [ “We are NOT teaching them the concept of money!”] she said. Yan didn’t understand the important words there, but her alarm was obvious.

“Mun-ee…” Vemik mused. [“What does that mean?”]

“Nuh-uh, friend of mine,” Jooyun shook his head firmly, though there was that faint amused smile around his mouth. The sky-people said many things with their faces. “That’s dangerous magic and you really don’t need it yet.”

How could something be both amusing and dangerous at the same time? Yan wrestled with the question in his head for a heartbeat and then decided not to worry too much. The Sky-People were strange, there was no sense in trying to figure out everything about them.

[“Well, it’s about time you finished, anyway,”] Awisun said. [“Because we’re gonna have to break into the bugs and peanut butter if we stay any longer.”]

[“Besides, you stink,”] Shyow added. Yan knew that word—it meant something like ‘tastes bad’ but with their face-holes instead of their tongues.

“…That means you’re leaving,” Vemik realized. All the triumph and pride he had in what they had just done vanished: he gave the sky-people a pleading stare. “Aren’t you?”

Jooyun knelt down in front of him and put a hand on his shoulder. “We have to. Our people don’t know you’re here. We have to tell them, or else not even steel and uniting the tribes will be enough.”

“But… you will come back?” Vemik asked. He sounded more like a boy than a man to Yan’s ears, but then again Yan himself was fighting to keep his strength. Somehow, even though they were strange, the sky-people’s presence was… comforting. They seemed to know the shape of the days to come, and without them to help him see the way…

“We won’t lie to you, Vemik. We can’t promise that,” Shyow said. “But yes, we will if we can. We will probably have to fight with words and thoughts when we get home, and fight hard.”

Yan grunted. He’d expected that things wouldn’t be simple. He summoned the best of the Engwish he had learned and spoke carefully and slower. [“Then…] the Sky-People [fight good. We fight too.”] He sensed Shyow’s nervousness and gave her his friendliest snarl. [“With words, if we can.”]

Jooyun stood up. “We will, Yan. I promise.”

Yan nodded, and returned to the People’s words. They fit his mouth better. “I know you worry. This is powerful magic you’ve given us, I can see it too. We’ll…try to use it well.”

He’d made many promises in his life, and had meant every single one of them. Promises were sacred, after all. They weren’t made lightly. This one, though, somehow went beyond a promise and beyond sacred. He wasn’t making a promise at all, really: He was making a prediction.

There was some awkward standing-around for a few seconds before Awisun finally cleared her throat.

[“Guys…I don’t wanna go either. But the sooner we do, the sooner we come back.”]

Jooyun and Shyow both seemed to come out of a trance of kinds. They nodded unhappily, looked around, and then back up the slope toward their ship.

“You’ll come to see us leave?” Shyow asked.

Yan nodded. “Yes.”

The whole village did. Mostly it was out of curiosity—the Sky-People were trusted and liked thanks to Yan’s acceptance of them but they were still strangers, still strange. People like that needed watching. Caution demanded it.

Besides, a chance to watch their steel hut fly again—!

Yan was even more in awe of it now that he had the smallest inkling of just how much work must have gone into making it. To make that much steel alone was beyond what his tribe could ever do, and he knew in his breath that the steel was probably just the smallest and easiest part of making a hut fly.

Except that this time, it didn’t fly at all. The sky-people said their goodbyes solemnly, vanished inside, and there was a long silence. The moment when the ‘ship’ whined deep like a wounded Yshek made everybody jump and step away nervously. The whining built up to a rumbling growl, and then with a thunder and a short-lived gale, rather than leaping into the sky the impossible thing flashed as black as the moonless sky and simply vanished as if it had never been.

If not for the depressions in the earth where its feet had sat, the whole tribe might have felt as though they were waking from a strange kind of dream. They stood there for a long moment, weighing the gravity of what they had been given.

Yan finally broke the silence by grunting and turning back towards the forge.

“Come on,” he said. “We still have work to do.”


Date Point 12y6m3w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Kirk

“Okay. Coltainer version oh-point-nine-seven-five. And if we’re lu…”

“Don’t say it, you’ll jinx it!”

Kirk shot a sideways glance at the man who’d urgently interrupted the test run. It had always interested him how Human superstitions managed to influence everybody in their society, even their most devoted rationalists, futurists and engineers. Crossed fingers, little rituals, never saying the word “luck.”

Sergeant Lee nodded apologetically, though. As though the objection was a perfectly logical one. “Right. Sorry. Beginning test.”

Lewis’ original vision of the device had literally been a colony in a container, hence ‘coltainer.’ The modern incarnation exceeded that simplistic brief in every way. It was a scout, a probe, a scientific instrument, a mapping tool, and a kind of hyper-macroscopic interstellar vaccine.

Its ability to identify viable colonization sites from orbit and deploy a series of automated assembly devices that would literally ‘print’ a basic complex out of local materials was almost an afterthought. It was certainly…crude. Humans had never designed a system like that which could work all by itself with no intelligent operator’s control. The massive shortcomings in its design and capabilities were compensated for by the certain knowledge that any temperate world was so large as to guarantee that somewhere on the planet would have exactly the right conditions and resources.

Kirk would have preferred something more sophisticated, something that took full advantage of the best the Dominion species could produce, but the arguments against were just too good. This needed to be a Human project as much as it could, for everybody’s sake. Nobody else had the imagination to exhaustively think about all the horrible ways in which something like the coltainer could go wrong. Everybody else’s technology was too badly compromised by Hierarchy influence.

So, so what if humans needed their rituals? So what if they filled their work with elaborate attempts to imbue the finished product with good fortune? Kirk was used to it, even if it did make him think that they must constantly be expecting the worst possible outcome. That paranoia where they expected the worst every time and then prayed for the best actually resulted in an efficient, mostly error-free development process.

Which went some way toward explaining why Lewis’ ludicrously overambitious coltainer idea had actually borne a kind of fruit within a mere two years.

It was strange to reflect that in all that time, only three people on the station had never taken any “shore leave.” Kirk and Vedreg were both exiles, trapped in the safety of the Erebor system by the threat of Hierarchy assassins, and Lewis…

Lewis seemed to have no interest in seeing Earth ever again. It was a sticking point in his relationship with Sergeant Campbell. Under her tutelage he’d developed something that resembled an actual deathworlder physique but he still detested exercise and was perfectly adamant that nobody but Lucy Campbell could have got him into the gym.

For her part, she seemed to have a knack for playing him like an instrument. The best way to bring Lewis around on a subject was via his girlfriend.

Usually, though, Lewis was the one doing the bringing-around. He was easily the most intelligent being on the station and seemed to have the coltainer blueprint memorized right down to the individual diode.

But going back to Earth even for a visit was a sticking point with him, usually. He’d always been adamant that there was nothing for him on humanity’s homeworld.

That was, until the news filtered through that Misfit had returned from its exploration mission. His sudden new and unprecedented interest in visiting the Earth had not impressed Campbell, who had hitherto been forced to take her shore leave without him and was understandably unimpressed that three estranged friends could lure him where his girlfriend couldn’t.

The argument had kept people awake.

“I told you, first moment I hear Julian and the girls are back, that‘s when I head over there, didn’t I?” he whispered. “I’m sure I told her before too. She said she was fine with it.”

“Lewis, is now really the time?”

“Yeah but, dude, Lucy’s all mad at me and—”

“Lewis, your literal life’s work is on the verge of completion. Can it not wait?”

Lewis shot a disinterested glance at the stream of data flowing back from the probe. “It’ll work. Angry girlfriend, more important.”

“And why come to me?” Kirk sighed. “I have repeatedly said that human romance is a subject I do not touch.”

“Dude. Makes you the most qualified man in this can.”

“That makes no sense at all.”

“Dude. Means you don’t crap it up by trying to give me an opinion and shit. I can just unload on you. Bore the ass offa you maybe, but…” Lewis shot a cheeky grin upwards at him, and Kirk rolled his eyes.

“So you do not actually want an opinion?” He asked.

“…I mean, it’d be fuckin’ interesting to hear you finally share one, but mostly I just need somebody to listen while I get my head-filing done.” Lewis kicked his toe idly into the deck. “‘Sides, I know what you’re thinkin’.”

“Do you.”

“You’re thinkin’ she’s completely right and I’ve treated her like ass over this.”

“Am I.”

“Nobody’s fooled, dude.”

“Aren’t they.”

“Dude.”

That particular word could mean literally anything, Kirk had learned. He was a dude, Lucy was a dude, the whole team were dudes, as was the station. The coltainer was a dude as was any particular volumetric display or screen Lewis happened to be viewing. An unexpected gust from an air vent had once been “dude.” Then there was the way it could mean practically anything, beyond just referring to somebody or something. A whole conversation seemed to be possible just from nuances of stress and expression while saying nothing but that word.

This particular nuance meant “come on, quit yankin’ me around” so Kirk relented a bit.

“You want my opinion? The literal salvation of your species is in final testing stages, but you are worried about an argument with your romantic partner. I think your priorities are skewed,” he said.

“Dude. The fuck is the point of having a future if you aren’t gonna get laid?”

Kirk snorted and shook his mane, not taking his eyes off the volumetric readout of the test’s progress.

“I know that snort. That’s your ‘not-my-problem’ snort.”

“Is it.”

”Dude.”

Kirk sighed and unwound. He swung his head around at the end of his long neck and spared Lewis some more attention. “Lewis, it is entirely probable that I will never ‘get laid’ in my life. It is less of a concern for my species than for yours, we don’t work the same way,” he said. “I do not share my thoughts on these things because I am not qualified, not out of stubbornness.”

“Bullshit. You’re a thinkin’ sapient and you’re good with knowin’ people and what they want. That’s, like… ninety percent of it.”

“Well, you have already said what you think, so what do you need my opinion for?”

“Dude.”

“That was your ‘I-don’t-have-a-good-reply’ dude.”

Lewis chuckled. “Was it?”

Kirk crackled a laugh too, and finally turned his full attention to Lewis for a few seconds. “You said it yourself. She is right and you treated her like ass. You already know this. You just want to hear somebody say it.”

“…Yeah.”

Sergeant Lee called over his shoulder. “Hey, Beverote! If you’re done conspiring over there, we’ve got the results in from NAVTAP.”

“It worked, right?” Lewis called.

“Perfectly.”

LOCS?”

“Definitely ready for testing on an actual temperate world.”

Lewis turned back to Kirk. “Think that’s your cue, dude.”

Kirk nodded, and called up his own contribution to the project - a map of every known deathworld in a kiloparsec radius of the Erebor system.

It wasn’t a complete map, not by a broad margin. On that kind of scale, the ultra-high-definition Kwmbwrw designed volumetric display was showing clusters of stars as points of light, rather than individual systems, and temperate worlds were few and far between. In a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars, even the most optimistic estimate for temperate, life-bearing worlds with nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres and a liquid water cycle was in the low millions at most. The Dominion’s cartographers reckoned that a quarter of them at most had actually been charted.

Still. Hundreds of thousands of suitable worlds was by no standard a small number, and Kirk had spent months poring over known candidates in their vicinity for the day—which had finally arrived—when a Coltainer would need testing on a candidate planet.

“This one,” he said, selecting the icon that surrounded a cluster, and zooming down until he could select the star and then the planet. “It’s a class ten, far from any major spacelanes, not claimed by any species, not known to have a native population… it doesn’t even have a proper name, just coordinates.”

“Sounds good. You gonna name it, dude?”

“I thought ‘Gambit’ seemed appropriate…”

“I dunno. Naming it after an X-Men character?” Lewis shook his head.

“I would be hard pressed to identify an English noun, verb or adjective that has not been the name of at least one character somewhere in your fiction, Lewis,” Kirk grumbled, but he had anticipated this. “Kirktopia, then.”

“Dude.”

Kirk snorted a laugh and ventured a serious proposal. “New Enewetak.”

Lewis frowned at him, but Sergeant Lee nodded enthusiastically. ”Good name,” he declared.

“This is goin’ over my head here…” Lewis complained.

“Enewetak Atoll. Where they tested Ivy Mike?” Lee prompted. Lewis gave him a blank shake of the head. “The hydrogen bomb?”

“Oh! Shit, well, yeah. That works.”

“Then we have our name,” Kirk decided.

“Good. The next testing cycle’s in one month, if Nadeau gets the go-ahead from AEC. You gonna take Campbell and hit up Earth for a bit?” Lee asked. “‘Cuz, friendly hint. The answer is yes.”

“Yeah. Absolutely,” Lewis agreed.

“And not just to catch up with your friends, man.”

“Dude, I hear ya.”

“Cool.”

They sat and watched the probe run through its refinery test run. That process, Kirk knew, had been difficult to achieve. Smelting asteroids down and distilling out all of the elements they carried had required not only the ability for the probe to generate an intricate alchemical laboratory out of nothing but forcefields, but also use those forcefields to alternately heat and cool the ore as it passed through the process.

It was surprisingly efficient, thanks to the fact that forcefields could be made to both emit and absorb heat, so most of the energy that went into the process was recycled, but thermodynamics had some stern views on the subject of free lunches. Even with every energy-saving trick they’d been able to conceive of, the refinery process still demanded that the probe relocate to an inner-system orbit and gorge itself on solar radiation.

It was probably a beautiful process to watch in person, though. Looping flows of molten ore and cooling ingots of raw material would be describing tight orbits around the probe while the waste products were vented as a tiny incandescent nebula that cooled to invisibility within seconds. Unfortunately, all they had to see the process by was a stream of diagnostic reports and the station’s remote sensors, and those had to be careful not to be dazzled by the star.

It took surprisingly little time, and the process wasn’t even half complete before the probe’s nanofactory began to spit out the components necessary to build its own doppelganger.

Lee shifted in his seat, and Kirk tried to gauge if he was feeling proud or uncomfortable. Quite possibly both. “Well… Congratulations guys. We did it,”he said at last. “Looks like we’ve built a working Von Neumann probe.”

“You think we’ll be remembered well for it?” Lewis asked.

Lee rubbed his jaw as he watched the probe cozy up to its half-assembled progeny like a mother whale nursing her calf.

“…I fucking hope so,” he said.


Date Point 12y7m AV
Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth

Xiù Chang

“You had clear and specific instructions!”

Special Agent Darcy really didn’t strike Xiù as a woman prone to anger, and there was a… restrained quality to her anger even now. As if she was more disappointed than angry.

Not that they didn’t deserve it, maybe, but Xiù was feeling sick and weak for lack of sleep and she knew that the other two were just as bad. Returning Misfit to Omaha via Cimbrean, the customs inspection, clearing things with the military, and all the rest of it…

The only half-decent sleep she’d achieved had been before the final jump to Sol and the re-entry down over the Pacific and Continental USA, and that had been a mere four hours of dreaming that she was lying there awake. It hadn’t been restful at all.

Darcy had been waiting for them. Byron Group had apparently called her up the second they took the ship’s multiple hardened drives away for transport not only to the Group’s holdings on Cimbrean, but also back through the relay for the attention of Allied Extrasolar Command, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Global Representative Assembly.

Misfit‘s systems weren’t even cooled down yet, the ship was still safely discharging all its stored power back into the municipal power grid ahead of a full systems maintenance and replacement cycle, and Darcy was simmering at them from across a table, apparently on the cool verge of boiling over.

She didn’t look like she’d had much sleep either.

“At the first sign, I said! The first sign of Hierarchy activity, your job was to get the hell back in touch and tell Kevin about it and wait for instructions!”

Allison, of course, was fighting back. She would have been even if she hadn’t been irritable after three days of non-stop work. “They were literally under attack! We had drones all over us while we were there!” she shot. “We couldn’t just—”

“Miss Buehler, you had weeks.” Darcy snarled. ”Misfit‘s jump drive could have had you back at Cimbrean in a moment, and back on that planet again in two hours, so do not dare to bullshit me.”

She glared into Allison’s eyes with such fierce force that Xiù had a sudden ridiculous mental image of lightning bolts crackling between them, and she had to suppress the inappropriate urge to giggle. Allison backed down.

“We won’t. It was a judgement call.”

“A judgement call that you had no right to make and which went completely against the instructions you were given!”

“We are not military assets,” Julian informed her. Fatigue was deepening his voice to a glacial growl. “We agreed to cooperate with you, but we’re not under your employ, and you have no right to order us, instruct us, threaten us, or cajole us. We answer to Byron and his orders explicitly required us to explore.”

Darcy rested her knuckles on the table and leaned forward. “I can make Byron’s life hell if I want to,” she warned.

“Darcy.”

Kevin Jenkins was the only one in the room who looked well-rested but he had so far been leaning silently in the corner with his arms folded, listening. Now he kicked away from the wall and swayed upright.

“You’re pissed. I get it. I’m kinda pissed about it myself, and so’s the boss. But making Byron’s life hell ain’t gonna help,” he said. “He will pull out if you act a horse’s ass, and then you lose the only experienced exploration team the entire human race has put together so far. You have no right to threaten anybody here, and you know it.”

Darcy spared a glare for him. ”Et tu, Brute?”

“You’re damn fuckin’ straight,” Jenkins drawled. “You’re outta line. Now, we’ll talk this out but Etsicitty’s right; the Byron Group is cooperating with you, not obeying you. We don’t take our marchin’ orders from you, ‘cuz this ain’t a fuckin’ dictatorship.”

“We were faced with the death of a people.” Xiù said, quietly. They all seemed to remember she was there and went still to listen. “Leaving would have made it worse. Staying would have made it worse. Anything at all we could have done at any point had a downside. Giving them steel could kill them all! But what should we have done?” She looked Darcy in the eye. “They’re on the edge. Any little tiny thing could kill them off, Hierarchy or not. The only moral choice, as we saw it, was to give them the tools to save themselves.”

Darcy’s expression was so cold it could have condensed the air, but she didn’t venture a reply as she turned it on the three of them each in turn. None of them so much as flinched.

In the end she glanced at Jenkins again, then picked up her briefcase. “…Kevin, I’ll talk with you later,” she said, and let herself out.

When she had left, Kevin let out a big breath and shook his head sadly. “I believe y’all may have just cost that lady her job,” he said, slowly.

“I think she just cost herself her job, threatening Byron like that.” Allison folded her arms. “Aren’t spooks meant to keep their cool?”

“She ain’t a spook, she’s an analyst, but…” Kevin shrugged. “Reading between the lines, she’s staked her reputation on risky propositions more’n once. Guess it’s finally come to bite her in the ass.”

“Risky propositions?” Julian asked. ”You backed us too.”

“Yeah, and about that.” Kevin grabbed a chair, turned it so that it was facing away from the table and straddled it backwards, resting his arms on its back. “God dammit guys, I know you know you’ve rolled a fuckin’ heavy dice here.”

Julian nodded solemnly. “Yeah. We know. And it sucks.”’

“You really, really believe that you couldn’t have spared two hours to come back here and squeeze off a burst transmission? Couldn’t have asked for backup, for any kind of oversight?”

Allison had her legs crossed, and she knocked irritably on her boot in response to that. “At the time we were trying not to get our heads literally ripped off by a talking cartoon gorilla with a foot-tall, candy-red, head-to-tail Mohawk. And a spear. And inch-long fangs. Sound like fun?” she asked.

Kevin had clearly learned a few things about patience, because he let the jab’s tone slide and focused on the content instead.

“For a whole three months? Surely these gorilla-guys sleep sometime?”

Julian sighed. “Okay. Look. Let’s walk through it, okay? Meet Yan. He’s scary as fuck, and he’s distrustful, and he’s got a tribe to protect. We’ve got a clear and present threat we need to communicate to them. We can’t assume we’ll be able to leave and re-establish any kind of…fuck, anything. The entire thing was a goddamned freak accident from the word go. We had to calm the situation down before we could so much as walk away and that took hours. You think it wouldn’t have hurt that rapport if we’d just got back in the ship and gone?”

“Julian. I ain’t talkin’ about much here. I’m talkin’ about you couldn’t have fired off that jump drive, got in touch, and gone straight back in the middle of the night sometime?” Kevin pressed. “That still woulda gone against what you agreed to do, but it woulda covered your asses, y’know?”

“We only had one jump beacon left,” Allison pointed out. “Because we left the others at explored worlds as per our orders, Kevin. We wouldn’t have been able to come back without stranding ourselves. We knew coming back would mean refit and resupply, and downtime, and… well, this woulda happened. ‘Cept now, you’d be angry at us for not doing what we did do, so how ‘bout we cut the goddamn bullshit here?”

Kevin rubbed a hand down his face. “Guys…There is every fuckin’ chance that you’re gonna go down in history as the ultimate cultural destroyers here. The history books might remember you three as pure fuckin’ evil, okay? I am on your side here!”

“Or they could remember us the other way ‘round. We’re fucked either way.”

“And do you really think Moses wants to play with a hot potato like that? Shit, it’s gonna take every trick in my book for me to stop him from firing your asses! Play it wrong and he might fire me too!”

“Y’know what?” Julian snarled, “What the fuck did he think was gonna happen when he commissioned a goddamned exploration team? This was always gonna happen, and if he’s too fuckin’ full of himself to see that then what the fuck are we even doing? News flash of the fuckin’ century: first contact always sucks. My grandpa’s people know that firsthand. Don’t you dare think for one goddamned second I ain’t been thinkin’ on that!”

Xiù touched him on the arm, and that little gesture kept Julian seated. The hostility crackling over the table stuttered and dissipated.

Kevin was the first to settle down again. “…I’m on your side,” he repeated, resting his elbows on the table with a defeated set to his shoulders. “Really guys, I am. But we ain’t talkin’ about facts and hard choices and difficult truths here, we’re talking about public opinion, and there ain’t nothin’ more fickle.”

Julian gave him the most disgusted look Xiu had ever seen him wear. “Fuck public opinion. I don’t care what people think when the stakes are the survival of a sapient species.”

“You really think we’re gonna save them without public opinion on our side?”

“If they’re so terrified of offending, or trampling, or whatever the fuck you’re worried about…then it wouldn’t matter, ‘cuz we wouldn’t have the will to act in the first place.”

Kevin shook his head. “Will to act is a resource. You can farm it. We’re gonna have to farm it. ‘Cuz you guys are forgetting that hardly anybody outside this room even knows about the Hierarchy! How’re we gonna convince folks that these guys need our help if we can’t even say what they’re in danger from?”

“Are you—?” Allison’s tone was incredulous. “Stop. Listen. They are going to die if we do not intervene. Full. Stop. End of fucking discussion. Everything else is goddamned secondary!”

“And that don’t matter a bent nickel to folks like Byron!”

Julian slouched back in his seat with an expression like chained murder and folded his arms. “Then he better find his fuckin’ humanity or fire us,” he declared, slowly and evenly. There were frozen spikes of contempt hanging from every syllable, which somehow made it worse than if he’d snapped or shouted. “‘Cuz I think we’ve said all we can say.”

“Or we can make it in his best interest.” Kevin sat back too, though his body language was more open, more bargaining. “I don’t like it. I hate it. I hate that this is even a conversation we’re having. If we lived in a world with any fuckin’ ethics to it then we’d be pilin’ stuff onto the ship right now to go help these people, but that just ain’t how folks really work. People will go to war over their neighbor’s tree droppin’ leaves on their lawn, while kids starve to death in Africa, okay? That is what we’re fuckin’ up against here, that whole stupid parochial bullshit mindset except on the political billionaire business scale. And if we’re gonna get them to do the right thing then we have to show ‘em it’s in their own best interests. That’s how the whole system works!”

“Well,” growled Julian, “Sounds like you have your hands full, huh? Meanwhile we’re gonna fuck off to Minnesota and enjoy life while we still can, since it’s perfectly fuckin’ clear we ain’t saving shit. Right?” He glanced at Allison, then at Xiù who found herself nodding out of reflex.

Kevin winced as though Julian had punched him in the gut. “…I’ll come see you,” he said. “Soon as I got a plan.”

Julian couldn’t even work up the wherewithal to agree politely. He and Allison both knocked their chairs over and left them on the floor when they stood up, and it fell to Xiù to be the diplomat.

“…Thank you, Kevin…” she offered, picking up the chairs. “I know you’ll do what you can.”

“Bein’ the conscience around here is kinda my job,” Kevin grumbled. “I’ll… just… look after those two for me?”

“Always,” Xiù promised. She gave him the strongest smile she could in the circumstances, then slipped through the closing door.

The other two hadn’t gone far. Allison was leaning against the wall with her arms folded and was staring gloomily at her boots, while Julian was jabbing fiercely at his phone. “Three tickets?” he asked, as Xiù joined them. “Or are you gonna go visit your folks first?”

Xiù made eye contact with Allison and saw the unspoken plea there. She shook her head. “Three tickets. I think… my parents can wait.”

Julian paused, looked up, and some of his glacial hatred melted away. Every angry line of him became just a little softer. “…Thanks.”

Xiù put a hand on his back as she stepped up to him. “I’m angry too,” she said, carefully.

“You’ve got a funny way of showing it,” Allison remarked. “How are you so calm?”

“…We won’t get anything done by, um… by flailing around,” Xiù told her. “I learned that the hard way. You have to, um, direct it. Make it work for you. Otherwise you just tire yourself out and…” She trailed off, feeling entirely too upset and exhausted for coherent sentences right now.

Fortunately, both of them spoke fluent Xiù. Allison and Julian stared at her, then at each other, then both sighed the exact same frustrated sigh, and gathered her up in a three-way reassuring hug.

Moments like those reminded Xiù of why she loved them both so much. They were anchors of morality in an inherently amoral world, and they understood her probably even better than she understood herself. It put a pleasant kind of ache in her chest, which threatened to become tears if nothing happened to interrupt them.

Something did. Julian’s phone pinged, and he extracted himself to inspect it. “Welp. Tickets are confirmed. We gotta leave in two hours, so…”

“Better get our stuff from the ship,” Allison nodded, sensing as she somehow always did when she needed to be sensitive and letting her hand run down Xiù’s arms so their fingers intertwined. “And we’d better say sorry to Clara. We promised her that barbecue…”

“D’you think…” Xiù began. “What happens if—?”

“Right now, I just wanna get back to Minnesota, get home, and get really fuckin’ drunk,” Allison grumbled. “We’ll worry about flying again and Byron and all the rest of it after the hangover.”

“Amen,” Julian grunted with feeling.

“But—”

”Bǎobèi… It’s out of our hands now. For now. Maybe. I hope. I don’t know.” Julian sagged. The anger was draining out of him fast, now that there was nobody around for him to aim it at. It was still there, coiled and quiet and terrifying, but at least he’d holstered it. “Let’s just… go home.”

“…Alright.”


Date Point 12y7m AV
Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth

Moses Byron

“Kevin. How are they?”

One of Byron’s little pleasures in life was when he got a chance to exceed Kevin’s expectations. The man was a sharp judge of character, but it was always nice to remind him that he wasn’t infallible. The question seemed to throw him.

“They’re… tired. Upset. Angry.”

“And your CIA puppetmaster?”

Kevin settled in the seat opposite Byron’s desk and adjusted his cuff. “Crossed a line: She threatened you personally. I shut her down.”

Byron scowled. “She did, huh?”

“Yeah. Said she could make your life hell if she wants. That ain’t gonna fly well with her superiors… “

Byron gave him a careful stare. “You sound like you’ve got no trouble stabbing her in the back, Kevin…”

“Boss, I work for you. I work with them,” Kevin retorted. “Darcy’s good people, but if she’s gonna muscle on a private citizen like that, I start having a problem with her.”

Byron sat back and folded his hands lightly on his stomach. “That’s the behavior of good people in your book, huh?”

“You don’t know what kind of pressure Darcy’s under. I only suspect how much pressure she’s under.” Kevin shrugged. “Even the Company’s only human, boss. She’s good people, like I said. Good people screw it up sometimes.”

“I won’t stand for being threatened, Kevin. I pay my taxes.”

“I won’t stand for you being threatened either. I just try and remember the reasons why, keep some perspective. You know?”

“Mm.” Byron nodded, then stood up. “Mocktail?”

“Sure, why not?”

Mixing up his non-alcoholic cocktails was one of Byron’s pleasures. He had no objection to a drink in principle, but he’d seen too many colleagues and acquaintances medicate themselves into an early grave to try and stay on top of their job pressures over the years. It always started with nicotine and alcohol. For most, it had ended there, too. One way or another.

For a few, the slope to cocaine had been all too slippery. Moses had stayed out of it and become a teetotaller not out of any great moral objection, but out of the certainty that it could only end badly for him personally. So, he’d learned a few interesting ways to combine fruit juices, sodas and grenadine, and joined the church of the Shirley Temple.

It was a useful way to gather his thoughts and claim some powerful energy in the conversation. It made the other guy wait on him, and that was necessary for Kevin. It wasn’t clear at all to Byron whether Kevin even knew just how much natural force of personality he had, but he had a natural talent for the difficult trick of persuading people to shut up and listen when he started speaking, even if they didn’t agree with what he was saying.

Byron would have waded through the bones of thousands for a gift like that.

“Right,” he said, turning around and handing over Kevin’s drink. “We’re gonna back our kids. I want this thing spun to our best advantage, got it?”

He enjoyed the rare sensation of leaving Kevin dumbfounded for a second.

“…I honestly kinda expected you to be pissed over this,” Kevin admitted, after a second.

“I’m a smart man, Kevin.” Byron sat back and sipped his drink. “I can put two and two together. San Diego got bombed, you landed in my boardroom after that affair with the jump drive, I’ve got the CIA poking around my stuff constantly, and now our exploration team comes back with… this…”

He indicated the tablet he’d been reading about the People on. “I’m only here because my great-grandma was smart enough to get the hell out of Stuttgart back in nineteen-thirty-three. I know what it looks like when a class of people are being systematically murdered, Kevin, and you can probably guess how I feel about it. Somebody or something out there wants deathworlders dead, and as a deathworlder myself I take exception.”

“Amen to that.”

Byron grinned. “Besides, saving a species of stone-age hunter gatherers is a Moon Laser I can get behind. So, we’re backing our kids. We just need somebody who can engineer it.”

“…I ever tell you how much I love workin’ for you, Moses?”

“Your job is to be the opposite of a brown-noser, Kevin,” Byron chuckled.

“My job is to tell you the truth. Sometimes, the truth is nice.”

Byron chuckled again, drained his mocktail in one go, and set the crystal tumbler smartly down on his desktop. “Alright. I know you have ideas for this already. Let’s hear ‘em.”

Kevin nodded, drained his own drink, and sat forward. “The trio’re gonna have to do the heavy lifting…” he began.


Date Point 12y7m AV
SOR HQ, HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Major Owen Powell

“At ease, lads.”

Two boots moved a neat, parade-ground perfect double handful of inches to the left. Like they were fresh from Basic, it was bloody unreal. Technical Sergeants Arés and Burgess might have been authorized for civilian wear, might have spent their days permanently be-stubbled and scruffy… But it was quite clear that not a man in the SOR took being called to Powell’s office lightly. They invariably showed up looking, and acting, completely razor-sharp.

It was a sign of respect, he knew, but it had long since gone beyond wearying and into borderline troubling. The Lads, especially these two, clearly had no idea how to unwind—or rather, how to unwind gently—and if there was an element of ‘physician, heal thyself’ in that thought, then… hell with it.

“Alright, fook at ease,” he grumbled and sat back. “Bloody relax already. I just thought I’d remind you both that you’ll be past sixty days of use-or-lose leave by the end of this year and I thought I might nudge you to fookin’ well use it.”

The pair looked at each other warily for a second, but relaxed. John spoke first, “Begging your pardon, sir, but my understanding was we could sell it back?”

Powell not only admired their dedication to the mission, he could relate perfectly. He was all too eager to skip out on his own leave allowance and stick by the Cherries himself… But Costello was coming along nicely, the training was going well, the official strategic evaluation was…not positive, but it made it clear that now was the time for people to get their R&R in.

He’d picked the Beef Brothers first because he needed them to switch off, at least for a little while. They were young, driven, painfully earnest and were unquestionably missing out on some of the indefinable yet important little experiences of life. Their single-minded focus on the Mission meant that much of their young adult years had been…skipped, as it were. Or at least, experienced in a hyper-focused environment with like-minded battle brothers.

That wouldn’t do. Powell needed them fit, happy, and as well-adjusted and well-rounded as possible, and that went doubly in light of some of the urgent noises the base psychologist, Lieutenant Mears, had been making.

“Bluntly, lads? It’d be a giant mistake if you did. Think of this as another kind of training and conditioning if you want to, I don’t care, but I want the both of you to get your arses off Cimbrean for a bit and rest. It’s not an order, but for God’s sake heed it anyway. Right?”

Again, that wary glance to each other. “That’ll leave just Butler, sir, and—” Arés began. He trailed off when Powell nodded.

“Look, Arés. I know that Butler’s green, and I know we’ve only got three Protectors in the first place, not counting Thurrsto. You will obviously need to plan this carefully, I get that. But I want a schedule by the end of the week. Understood?”

The two looked at each other again, and finally caved. They’d put up less of a fight than he’d feared in the end.

“Yes sir,” Adam told him. “We’re going to need to spin down on the Crude, and the calories, and the training, and—”

“Aye. How long?”

Arés looked at Burgess, who frowned as he calculated. “Maybe a month? We don’t know really. We’ve, uh, never done it all the way. Not to last for two straight months, anyway.”

Powell nodded and scratched his chin. “Hmm. Any risks to your training or development?”

“There… shouldn’t be, sir,” Burgess decided.

“We’ll watch it carefully, of course…” Arés added.

“Good enough. See to it, lads. And bloody cheer up! Have some fun! Don’t be old men before your time.”

The two nodded.

“I note that Technical Sergeant Kovač is in a similar situation,” Powell added. “Might want to remind her before I drag her in here as well, aye?”

For the first time in the conversation he saw Arés brighten up, and knew that he’d scored a win. The two set off to plan with something that finally resembled enthusiasm for the idea, and Powell returned to his own planning; he too had a week of leave to use up and the timing was just right…

He turned to his computer and composed a message to Rylee.


Date Point: 12y7m1d AV
North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Julian Etsicitty

“You know what I really, really want right now? Like, way more than this beer?

Xiù lowered her own beer bottle and glanced sideways across the fire at Allison, who was lying at the log staring up at unblemished blue sky between the swaying trees. “Hmm? What?”

True to their word, Byron Group had taken good care of the house that Julian had inherited from his grandfather. They’d hired the services of a specialist homesitter from downstate who’d visited once a week to keep the place clean, maintained and aired out, and the protracted court battle over the inheritance had resoundingly gone the corporation’s way and resulted in a landmark ruling in a higher court of appeal that was going to have several long-term positive repercussions for American Indian property rights.

Julian hadn’t noticed. The three of them had staggered into the house in the dead of night, local time, after five days of sporadic and unsatisfactory rest. They’d thrown themselves onto the big bed in the master bedroom in a big warm pile and slept for twelve hours.

Then there had been a modest breakfast with the house’s limited long-life supplies, airing out their own clothing, and just… re-familiarizing themselves with Earth.

It felt strange to be wearing cotton again.

Allison, as promised, had grabbed the truck after breakfast and headed into town, returning a couple hours later with enough beer to drown a herd of cattle.

Julian had mounted a one-man expedition up into the woods to check on all his wildlife management measures, which were still working fine, and had come back to find Xiù on Skype apologising profusely to her parents and promising that her visit to Vancouver was imminent. She’d apparently been on that call for hours, and only Allison’s return finally brought it to an end.

The non-alcoholic groceries were almost an afterthought, even if they were a pretty comprehensive inventory of everything they needed. Allison had thrown in some luxuries that had been in short supply on the ship such as candy and cheese, and she was now lying on the log staring up at the sky while Julian lit the fire, draining beer bottles like she was making up for lost time.

“I want… A fucking joint. I haven’t had one in years,” she sighed. “I mean, it’s legal in forty-seven states now! Hell, give it a few more years and they might even start selling it in Wal-Mart! You know, next to the cigarettes you can smoke and the mind-altering drugs you can take,” she waggled the bottle for emphasis. “But one positive urine test, and that’s it: We never get to take Misfit back out there.” She indicated the sky with the bottle. “Stupid.”

“Byron Group’s behind the times there,” Julian agreed. “I dunno. I never tried it.”

“Me either,” Xiù admitted. Somehow, Julian wasn’t surprised.

“It’d sure as fuck help me relax right now…” Allison sighed again, and drained the remaining half of her beer in one long aesthetic moment that made the muscles of her throat move in waves before she reached out and gently dropped the empty bottle into the plastic tub they were using for throwaways, where it joined the five others she’d already finished.

Julian was only just starting in on his fifth. Xiù was still nursing her second, but then again she was a lightweight.

She said what they were all worried about, though. “Do you think… do you think we will get to take Misfit out there again?”

Allison sighed a third time, punctuating it with a complicated mix of shrug and head-shake as she twisted open another beer. “…God, I hope so.”

“If we don’t, I’m buying the weed myself,” Julian growled, with feeling. He lit a single match, placed it carefully in the right spot among the logs he’d assembled in the middle of their ring of breezeblocks, and sat back to let the fire come to life.

“Nah. You’re too straight-laced, dummy,” Allison told him. “Both of you,” she added to Xiù.

“Eh,” Julian shrugged in a complicated way, “I dunno. I just never was interested. And we’re not allowed more than one beer a night on Misfit, either, so they ain’t exactly being inconsistent.”

“Dude. We weren’t even carrying a beer a night…”

Julian grinned, and downed the last of his bottle. He was definitely beginning to feel its effects, and they were thoroughly welcome. “Need a bigger ship.”

“Don’t you dare say that. Misfit‘s perfect!”

“Well,” Julian stumbled off towards the woods for a comfort break, “I suppose we’ll just hafta deal, then. Be right back.”

“Julian!” Xiù complained. “The house is right there! You know, with plumbing?”

He laughed, “I don’t wanna miss the pot!”

“Ugh. You went so native over there on…” Allison paused. “What the hell do we even call that planet, anyway?”

Julian had by then found a tree and decided he wasn’t gonna talk while relieving himself.

Xiù stepped into the gap. “Akyawentuo,” she said firmly. It meant [all-things-under-sky-place] in the People’s language.

Allison tilted her head. She’d never quite mastered Peoplespeak so much. “Shouldn’t that be, uh…like, way longer? That sounds like parts of a bunch of words.”

“Yesh,” Xiù frowned at the slightly slurred way her word came out, and started enunciating a little more carefully. “But it’s a fusional language, so you can just sort of…smash it together and leave bits off.”

“Babe. Language jargon.”

“‘Just sort of smash it together and leave bits off’ is not language jargon!” Xiù protested. “Besides. The People will know what it means when we tell them, and that’s the important part.”

“Yes it is!” Julian stumbled back with his fly only partly zipped up and the button undone, and flomped back down on the ground where he’d been sitting. He’d missed jeans. He checked on the fire, which was coming along perfectly, and cracked open beer number six. “I like it! Sounds good, and I bet Vemik’d like it too.”

Allison nodded slowly, and then to Julian’s profound surprise and Xiù’s too she sat up and angrily scrubbed a tear off her face. “God fucking dammit. We shouldn’t have left. We should have…”

“We had to,” Xiù interrupted delicately.

“I know we had to, but we shouldn’t’ve!”

Julian, acutely aware that he could have stayed there for a lifetime if need be, tactfully refrained from saying anything. Allison meanwhile drew her knees up and stared into the growing flames.

“…How many have I had?”

“That’s your sixth.”

“…Shit. I lost my tolerance.”

Xiù almost choked.

Julian grinned up at her from his slouched position. “Girl that’ll drink a big man under the table? Hot.”

”Several big men. Several times.” Allison grinned at the memory. “I told you, those biker fucks in Massachusetts just saw a skinny blonde.”

Julian chuckled at the story. “My liver wasn’t made for booze. Oh well.” He pawed at Allison to encourage her to lie next to him and she acquiesced with a giggle, rolling off the log to land beside him with a thump and a splash of wild wasted beer.

“Gah!” Julian giggled too, which was a little out of character for him. “A party foul! You gotta pay for that!”

“Hey, I bought the beer…” Allison objected.

“Nope. Party foul.” Julian grinned, and had a mischievous moment of mutual understanding eye contact with Xiù, who gleefully chimed in.

“I’m referee!” she announced, beaming.

“Allison’s been a bad girl. What should we do to her?”

“Well, she got your jeans wet. You’re gonna have to take them off… It seems to me the fair thing is if she takes hers off too.”

“Ugh, fine!” Allison’s mock-disgruntled tone didn’t fool either of them for a second.

Julian grinned at her. “I like this referee. She’s fair, honest. Everything right with America!”

That one was one of Xiù’s easier buttons. “Canadian!”

“Eh, they’re cool too.”

“I’m gonna get mud on my butt!” Allison objected, half-heartedly.

Shagua, I’ve seen you covered in oil all the way up to your neck,” Xiù interjected.

“And you took pictures!”

Julian grinned at the memory. “Yeah, she did. Anyway—” He rolled on top of Allison and bit gently at the side of her neck, “I think this’ll be a good punishment…”

Allison squirmed and pressed her hands to his chest with a sudden urgency. “…Get off…”

“Nah.” He growled the word into the dimple at the base of her throat.

“No, Julian, I need to pee, get off!” She insisted.

He stared stupidly into her eyes for a second, then his brain finally caught up with his ears. “…Oh. Durn.” He chuckled ruefully and rolled off.

“Lucky me, I don’t have to worry about missing!” Allison rolled over backwards and sprang upright, before meandering in a straight-ish line toward the house.

“That’s a quitter’s attitude!” he yelled behind her as she walked off.

She turned, and walked backwards a few steps as she replied. “Didn’t we just go through this?”

“Yeah, but I’m a boy. I’m allowed.” He grinned into his beer trollishly.

“…Xiù, shut him up for me, babe?”

“Yes ma’am!”

There was a blur and Julian found himself flat on his back with Xiù sitting triumphantly on his chest. He did little to fight back and grinned up at her harder, folding his hands behind his head.

Xiù pouted a bit. “It’s no fun when you don’t fight back!”

“But I like it!”

“…Fine. You leave me no choice!”

Julian knew his most ticklish spots—his ribs, his armpits, behind his ears and the insides of his elbows. Unfortunately, so did Xiù. Worse, she had an evil streak and much faster hands than he did, and every desperate attempt he made to swat those hands away just resulted in her picking a new target. The only resort was to half-curl himself up in a ball and writhe until he could stand it no longer and instead grappled her end-over-end away from the fire, where he finally pinned her after three twisting turns.

And… oh. Yeah. Right.

He’d wrestled too many sweaty alien gorilla-men recently, and the moment it struck him that what he’d instead managed to trap was his girlfriend…

…His gorgeous, lithe, acrobatic Chinese girlfriend…

…Who chose that exact moment to innocently and unthinkingly bite her lower lip while that warm brown gaze danced excitedly across his face and the breath caught in her throat…

His mental gears clashed for a few seconds. Then he kissed her.

The beer fuzzed things a bit so he didn’t exactly recall what happened next, but in very short order both he and Xiù were shirtless, her hands were pinned, and he was working his mouth diligently on her throat, then his hands slid down her body and—

“I said shut him up!” Allison flopped down next to them. “You were supposed to wait until I came back to make him moan!”

“Mmm…” Xiù made a kind of creaking pleasure noise in the back of her throat. “Not sorry.”

“How un-Canadian of you!”

Xiù snorted, then looked her up and down “…Didn’t I order you to take your pants off?”

“Oh! Yes ma’am!”

Julian re-gathered his wits and went back on the attack. “No talk.”

“Caveman,” Allison grinned at him, peeling her jeans off those long, long legs of hers…

“Mm-hmm,” Julian agreed, undoing Xiù’s jeans as well. Allison snorted, and gave him a hand by wriggling down alongside and under Xiù, who shut her eyes and licked her lips. They hadn’t had room to just… explore like this on the ship, and while months of being cooped up together had resulted in plenty of intimacy… It hadn’t been the same. They’d been sleeping in shifts, trying not to wake the sleeping one, building their love lives around the constant job of keeping a ship running.

Julian had generally let the girls have their way with him. It was a role he usually liked to play anyway, he enjoyed it when they objectified him and it kept things harmless and light in the confined environs of the ship. Now, things were different: He was carrying a crackling charge of pent-up frustration and hostility aimed at the whole world, and sometimes a guy just needed to find a healthier outlet for that kind of intense energy.

Xiù didn’t complain. She really didn’t complain. She left stinging bloody fingernail marks in his shoulders and damn near fainted, but neither of those were a complaint.

It was short and intense for all three of them. Allison, who had managed to insert herself under Xiù and hold her from behind throughout looked almost as stunned as if she’d taken a more direct role.

She was the only one with enough energy to speak, though. “Jesus, Julian!” She swept his hair out of his face and planted a kiss among the perspiration on his forehead. “You’d better have saved some of that for me!”

Julian made an inarticulate noise that was supposed to be a general agreement, and rolled sideways to collapse on his back on the grass.

“…Gimme a minute,” he panted. “Christ.”

“Just one?”

“…Might be a few more than that.”

“I bet…” Allison grinned, then checked on Xiù in her arms. “You okay, bǎobèi?”

Xiù managed a dazed, half-lidded smile, and wriggled comfortably into her chest as though Allison was a full-length warm pillow. “Wǒ hěn hǎo…Wǒ cào…”

“Damn, you fucked the English out of her!”

Xiù giggled at that, and seemed to recover some of her focus. “…Yuh-huh. Wow. Sorry. Um… yeah. More than okay. Wow.”

Julian laughed, and pushed himself up on his elbows because it was that or fall asleep. Right now, just resting and letting all his troubles be a long way away was almost more tempting than he could stand, and he resisted it.

“Going somewhere, babe?” Allison asked him.

“…No. Not right now,” Julian decided. He settled back, scooted up against the pair of them, and this time he didn’t resist. Sleep came easily, and instantly.


Date Point: 12y7m1d AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

General Martin Tremblay

“So it works.”

“Yup. As of this morning we officially have a functioning Von Neumann Colonization Probe. Everything works to spec.”

Tremblay was a fan of the relaxed and informal meeting, especially among his oldest colleagues. The Human Race owed a lot to Claude Nadeau.

Still. He’d been expecting more enthusiasm. “You don’t sound all that happy, considering you and your team pulled off a tall order in just two years…” he suggested.

Nadeau sighed and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“It’s all human hardware… built in a Kwmbwrw nanofac, running a Domain galactic map, and using Corti planetary survey software to build a colony on uncharted deathworlds that it then protects with a Guvnurag forcefield,” he griped. “Hell, the engines are a modified Gaoian design based on the Racing Thunder and I really don’t wanna think about how much of the stuff we packed into it is reverse-engineered Hierarchy tech from the Egypt Device.”

“You know, even Bartlett calls it the UFO.”

Nadeau shrugged. “I’d rather remember where it came from and who built it.”

Tremblay nodded. Nadeau’s foibles were mild compared to some of the other personnel who worked or had worked with SCERF. Being a stickler for official nomenclature was no big deal really.

“If you have any concerns, say so. I don’t want to greenlight the launch until you’re perfectly happy,” he said instead.

“More like the release than the launch, sir,” Nadeau sighed. “I’m just glad we built in a twelve-generation limiter on these things. Beverote was against it.”

“Mm, I read his recommendation. Something about inoculating the galaxy against potential intergalactic Von Neumann machines?”

“A case of the cure being potentially as bad as the disease,” Nadeau replied. “I mean… it’s potentially a valid concern, now that we know VNMs are even possible, but we need much longer than two years of development before I’d be happy to release a… a galactic vaccine program.”

“Then the limiter stays,” Tremblay decided. “But for colonization as part of the war strategy?”

“We’ve done everything we can to make the most harmless VNM possible,” Nadeau reported. “I’m happy that the need outweighs the risk. Twelve generations is still more than four thousand probes but that’s at least a number we could conceivably handle if they started to go rogue.”

“And it’s a small enough number that the odds of one of the probes, uh… mutating?” Tremblay frowned. “That doesn’t feel like the right word, when you’re talking about machines…”

“Experiencing an RCE, sir. Random Copying Error.”

RCE, Mutating, effectively the same thing. Point is that inside only twelve generations, it shouldn’t happen.”

“Not with all the checks we put in place, no.”

“Good.”

Tremblay picked up his coffee mug and took a thoughtful sip. “There was something else. Beverote’s friends, the Misfit crew. They had a Big Hotel encounter out in the field.”

Nadeau blew air across his own coffee and listened warily. “They’re okay?”

“Green as you could ask for. But they caught a xenocide campaign in progress. Pre-contact species. Hell, pre-agricultural. Flint spearheads and tribal hunter-gathering, that kinda thing. And the poor bastards have got Abrogators marching across the continent burning them out.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. But here’s the bit that stays as dark as dark gets, okay? Their ship carried a message back. STOLEN GHOST is back in touch.”

“…I’m not sure I see how I have need-to-know on that, sir…” Nadeau said, slowly.

“The message was inserted into Misfit‘s communication systems, carried back through screening and sent to a CIA analyst’s inbox all while going completely undetected. It slipped through every security measure we have in ways I’m told are impossible, which is…”

“Troubling.”

“Yeah. Anyway, impossible or not, I’ve got two specialists so far who’d bet their grandmother’s ashes that it happened anyway, and it involves a digital sapient accidentally created by the Hierarchy. Which is also impossible.” Tremblay sipped his coffee. “Impossible things seem to happen twice a week these days.”

Admiral Knight was obviously rubbing off on him. For his part, Nadeau gave the news some troubled thought, sipping his own drink.

“…the CIA must have flipped,” he decided eventually.

“Yeah, and I don’t blame them,” Tremblay agreed. “Byron Group have already agreed to pull the whole system out of the ship and send it to us. I want you to get that hardware the hell off Earth and back to Erebor, and I want to know exactly how it was done and how we can stop it from happening again. Bring in whoever you need.”

“Isolate the hardware, analyze it, duplicate the effect, prevent repeats. Got it.” Nadeau nodded. “Can do.”

“Good. So. Now that the VNMs are ready, what are we going to do with those resources instead?”

Nadeau smiled, put down his coffee and sat forward. “I have a few ideas…” he said.


Date Point: 12y7m1w AV
Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

♪♫”-I got a Pro-Keds box full of layman’s terms, it goes hey: Peace. Pray for the plagued. Major relief and capacious rains, but just ‘cuz I don’t want to war with you it don’t mean go warm up the barbecue. I’m like-”♪♫

Long drives—say, the nine hour journey from Omaha to Minnesota—were Kevin’s chance to get his mental filing sorted out. There was a lot more of it nowadays than there had once been. Straight roads, intricate music that he wasn’t really listening to, and a head full of government secrets and corporate power.

There was a rhythm to the drive, too, and he found that things started to come together after he left I-29 at Fargo.

It wasn’t just the Misfits and the People. Byron was spitting out moon laser ideas by the hour nowadays as new revelations from the survey flight’s data came through. Extraterrestrial oil drilling? Easy, and Lucent had all the right kinds of geology, in the right kinds of places. The biggest obstacle was the law. The few precedents anybody had were all rooted in Cimbrean, or in the original colonization of the American continents way back in the day.

Lucent, at least, didn’t have the confounding presence of natives to worry about. Unless the giant slime-spitting termites were sapient, which the biologists had so far refused to rule out.

Then there was his role in the Group’s more Earthly concerns. The Group’s solid foundation of high-tech manufacturing, providing advanced forcefield-based technology to industry sectors all over America and the rest of the world, involved the employment of tens of thousands of people. Unionized people. Kevin was all in favour of unions but he hadn’t appreciated that one day he’d be sitting opposite their representatives at a boardroom table, watching and weighing in while they haggled with the executives over the details of the company’s already-generous paid vacations and health insurance package.

Nine hours by himself with nothing but his thoughts was a genuine relief, even if he was technically on the clock. Hell. Nine hours of getting paid to just sit, think and drive. He’d sure as hell had worse jobs.

He was just north of Roy Lake when his phone went, automatically silencing the music. He glanced at the car’s dash screen, saw the caller ID, and pulled over while answering.

“…Darcy? This a personal call?”

There was a sigh from the other end of the line. “Yeah. I owe you an apology, and Byron too. Won’t salvage the train wreck I made of my career by threatening him, but…”

Kevin finished pulling over, put on the parking brake and pushed his seat back to stretch his legs out. “No, you owe them an apology. But, honest advice? Don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man hate like Julian can, God damn!”

”Yeah, well. Irrelevant now, I guess. I still work for the Company, but if I work at it until I’m seventy I might just repair my credibility. I’m a desk analyst now.”

“…I’m sorry to hear that.”

”Don’t be. My fault.” Darcy chuckled, which was a sound Kevin wasn’t sure he’d ever heard her make before. ”Honestly? It’s almost a relief.”

“Less responsibility?”

“Less…” There was a long and thoughtful pause punctuated only by Darcy’s long exhalation before she gave up. ”I’m proud of what I already achieved. But you can’t keep doing what I was doing forever, it’s more than anybody can take. I was always gonna burn out and make a mistake in the end. As mistakes go… I coulda made a lot worse.”

“Seems like a shitty way to run a thing like that.”

”I’m not in a pretty business, Kevin. I’ve warned some good people away from this career for that exact reason. Some real talent.”

“You’re not gonna quit entirely?” Kevin asked.

“Nah, I’m an addict. This job will kill me eventually…”

Kevin nodded, even though she couldn’t see him. Some part of his soul believed that nods carried just fine through a phone call, even hands-free. “But leaving would kill you sooner.”

“That’s about the shape of it.”

“Well. Don’t be a stranger, hear?”

“I might have to be. So if I do have to sever contact, just… take care of yourself, okay? And look after those three misfits of yours, too.”

The request sounded surprisingly heartfelt.

“…You too.”

“Goodbye, Kevin. Thanks for all the coffee.”

The call ended and the music came back up. Kevin stared at his steering wheel thoughtfully until the song ended, then yanked the seat forward again and put the car back in drive. He didn’t bother turning the radio back up and drove in silence the last half hour.

Allison Buehler was up a ladder cleaning out the gutters when his car pulled into the yard in front of the trio’s house. She always seemed to find the dirtiest jobs to do, and this one had left her blackish-brown and mossy to the armpits.

“Kevin!” She picked her way down the ladder as he got out of the car. “You work fast, we weren’t…Have you been crying?”

“No,” Kevin grunted truthfully. He’d been close, but… “Ain’t nothin’. Just…” he cleared his throat. “The other two?”

Allison grabbed the hose and rinsed off her arms. “Julian’s checking on the beavers up in the back woods, Xiù’s probably on Skype with her family right now.”

“Place all okay?”

“Yeah. Caretaker kept it good for us…We thought we might redecorate while we’re here.”

“A lick of paint wouldn’t go wrong,” Kevin agreed. The house had good sturdy wood siding, but it had gone a long time since it last saw a paintbrush. Some of those irregular curled patches of color looked like they might come loose in a stiff breeze. Mister Williams had asked him to talk about a few security additions too, but right now didn’t really seem like the time.

“I’m guessing you’re here ‘cause you’ve got a plan?”

“…I… Sorta. Maybe. I was right, Byron ain’t happy at all. He’s real worried about his public image, and he’s got it in his head that trying to develop or protect this planet of yours is gonna turn him into the modern East India Company or some shit.”

“So…does he expect the world is gonna, what? Get swept under the rug?”

“There is a half-decent man under there,” Kevin promised. “You just gotta know how to push his buttons.

Allison didn’t have the patience. “Look, none of us are Byron-whisperers, that’s on you. All we care about is stopping a genocide.”

“Right. And that’s the angle,” Kevin smiled. “But not for Byron. That angle works better on people way more important than Byron is.”

“Like who?”

Kevin grinned. “You ever heard of General Martin Tremblay?” he asked.


Date Point: 12y7m1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Plains, Planet Gao

Champion Genshi

Something had stood at the site of High Mountain Fortress for so long that even the oldest of the Stoneback oral tradition didn’t hint at an actual first, so far as Genshi knew. And he knew enough of that history that the Stonebacks would have been deeply upset.

He valued Daar’s friendship too much to betray that and so kept those thoughts to himself. There was no possibility of lying to a fully-trained Stoneback Brother except by omission, their noses were too good.

The modern Fortress itself was a mere thousand or so Gaoian years old, having been built from the rubble of its predecessor by Great Father Fyu. Which in turn had probably been built from the rubble of its predecessor. The stones were ten times as ancient as the walls, and a few of them here and there bore the marks and scars of battles that had never touched this fortress. Or a shred of archaeological mortar, a stain of primordial paint… little details that hinted at history so deep as to chill the spine.

It was almost traditional for powerful Clan figures to meet there, especially when there were important topics to discuss.

Genshi had entertained the thought that maybe the Fortress and its surrounding area could have been the equivalent of the Human city of Akkad. The Fortress may even have been the very first of the Gao’s civilization, but if it was, that knowledge was lost in the whiteout of badly-curated time.

Of course, Clan Highmountain were rather better at guarding their secrets than Clan Stoneback. Possibly—probably—they curated the time very well indeed and kept most of it a secret. Possibly that was a deliberate arrangement between the two ancient Clans. They had, after all, once been one and the same.

Neither, Genshi knew, suspected that his own clan was an indirect offshoot of that same tree.

The modern fortress was a museum and a library, where the latest in holographic technology brushed strangely against the tapestries and banners of the ancient clan hall. It was a university, a conclave, a theatre of ideas and, in keeping with some of the oldest and least civilized of Gaoian traditions, it was an arena. A lot of blood had been mopped from those stones over the centuries.

Soon, there might be more. Not today… but soon. Maybe.

A lot depended on Daar.

“They’re at war. And it ain’t just any war, this is one fer survival. The claws are out.”

Daar was a fascinating study in deceptive contrast. Most people were distracted by his brash personality and his immense…everything. Few noticed his mind and it was amongst the keenest Genshi had ever known, if a blunt instrument could be keen.

In any other company, Daar would have been the smartest person in the room. This room, however, was populated exclusively by his peers.

Peers like Grandfather Talo, a Highmountain so venerable that he was almost white from nose to tail and who had worn his fur long and shaggy as protection against the chill air for most of his life. His sight was going, which meant that the Highmountains would soon need a new Grandfather, but there was nothing wrong with Talo’s fierce brain.

Or his voice, which had that penetrating quality that a level, soft voice only gained with experience. “They can’t possibly expect to win. The basic rule of logistics is against them, if nothing else.”

“I dunno,” offered Daar with uncharacteristic deference. “They’ve got some pretty sneaky capability. Their ‘HEAT’ is like if First Fang and Whitecrest were the same fighting Claw. Better, though.”

Father Kureya was being groomed as Talo’s replacement. He was a different creature to Talo—browner of fur, and more animated in his energy. He prowled around the hall poking at his tablet while he listened, and shifted his weight from paw to paw as he spoke as though every follicle on his body itched if he wasn’t moving.

“They could win every battle they fight and still lose the war. You know that.”

Daar didn’t spare his annoyance with Kureya, and he paused in his own incessant prowling of the room to flash the barest hint of his teeth before resuming his patrol. It was striking how the two were so at odds in opinion and attitude yet shared the same intrinsically kinetic demeanor.

It was also striking how well they got along in any other context. Daar liked pretty much everybody on principle but the list of Gaoians he respected was much shorter and consisted solely of the people who would hold their ground against him.

“Of course I know that,” he barked, “I knew that before you were a Father. But logistics ain’t the only thing that matters in a war. The battlefield matters too.”

“The Hunters have ably shown that they can control the battlefield,” Kureya retorted.

“Can,” Daar growled. “That ain’t the same as ‘do’ or ‘will.’ And in any case, what else are the humans gonna do? There was a million fucking ships on that battlefield. Asymmetric warfare is their only option and they know it.”

“Exactly,” Kureya replied, “my point. Historically, asymmetric warfare is a means of staying alive long enough to bring aboard an ally. It doesn’t win a war by itself.”

Daar bared his fangs in a not entirely angry manner. “Funny you should say that…”

Talo spoke up again. “Champion Genshi. You’re being characteristically silent…”

“Watching Daar and Kureya spar is always entertaining,” Genshi commented, and immediately got a howl of mirth from Grandfather Garl.

“Young Daar’s been sparring with everyone since his ears were still floppy!”

Daar immediately cringed but gamely defended himself. “And I was winning, too! Got my first big scar when I was five!”

Kureya chittered as did everyone else in the room, and some of the… intensity drained away. Garl was as coarse as coarse got but he could fill any room with pure raucous charm.

“I was still trying to reach the highest bookshelf in the crèche, I think…”

“You’ll never get a good scar from a papercut, Kureya,” Daar said, and draped himself affectionately around the much smaller male’s shoulders. Kureya grimaced as he gamely tried to hold up the weight. “Besides,” he added. “The humans have more’n just Hunters to fight.”

So. Daar knew, or at least suspected. Genshi shifted his weight and gave the Stoneback champion a thoughtful, ears-forward stare. He knew that Daar wasn’t briefed on the fancifully-named DEEP RELIC secret yet, but…

“…True, I suppose…” he mused aloud, while calculating furiously. Technically, he had the authority to brief and indoctrinate others on the human document, but the request specifically not to brief Daar wasn’t one to be ignored lightly. It could put a fatal crack in a burgeoning relationship built on mutual trust. “The Hunters didn’t blow up that city of theirs, did they? And the humans don’t have antimatter weapons yet.”

Daar earned a prize. He stopped wrestling Kureya and carefully approached Genshi on fourpaw, sniffing suspiciously in his direction. For the third time in as many moments the energy in the room changed; when somebody as big and as dangerously physical as Daar got tense, everybody else did too.

“…I wonder how much you know that you aren’t letting on, Champion Genshi?” he half-asked, half-accused.

“I’m sworn to secrecy on a great many things, Champion Daar.”

“Hrrm.” Daar flashed an annoyed look but let it go, and everyone subtly relaxed.

“I was thinking about that myself,” Kureya remarked, respectfully putting a little distance between himself and Daar. “Do you know how much antimatter we have?”

Genshi did. It was another secret. “Do tell?” he asked instead.

“As far as I know, the combined reserves of all the Clans would release only half the energy of the weapon that destroyed San Diego,” Kureya said, and Genshi internally applauded him. The estimate was perfectly in line with Whitecrest’s own. “We have several hundred fusion weapons that large, but not enough antimatter.”

“Why use antimatter at all, then?” Garl queried. “If it’s so expensive to make and we have that many fusion weapons…?”

“A mystery,” Talo agreed. “I have a hypothesis, but…”

“Because they can,” growled Daar. “Whoever it was, that much antimatter is just a stupid display of raw power. And it’s even more stupider, ‘cuz ain’t nobody got that much antimatter to spare. Not even the Gao, ‘cuz yer forgettin’ that almost all that antimatter you talked up is all tied up in power cells and industry and stuff. Really we’ve got maybe a hundredth of a San Diego to waste.”

“…I think I disagree with that hypothesis, Champion Daar,” Talo mused. “A display of raw power only works when being… well, displayed. Whoever was responsible for that human city’s destruction has never claimed credit, and therefore the raw power on display has gone to waste.”

“Makes sense,” Garl rumbled, scratching at one of his ears. “No point flexin’ yer claws at somebody unless he sees you do it.”

Daar considered. “Well…that depends on your goal, I guess. I mean, this is basically a terrorist attack done on huge scale, right? Maybe the goal was just to terrorize.”

“And yet no party has come forward to claim it.”

“Right,” Daar maintained. “Which means the goal was just to terrorize. But then…why?”

Genshi raised a claw. “I’m with Talo on this. An unclaimed terrorist attack is a job half done, especially if it is not repeated. If a city is destroyed and no credit is taken, to me that implies that somebody felt the city needed to be destroyed, but wished not to be identified.”

Daar nodded, “Sure, that’s valid. But terrorists ain’t always gotta have credit. Sometimes all you wanna do is paralyze an enemy and these kinda mysteries can be the worst for that. Besides, that don’t change that it’s what they did, so we ain’t got a lot to go on. All we got is they spent an impossible amount of antimatter and wiped out a city, and I think so far only the humans have any idea what it’s all about.” He grumbled, “And they ain’t telling, either.”

Genshi tilted his ears quizzically. “How long would it take us to manufacture that much?”

Daar paused dead in his pacing. “…not quick. Years?”

“To make as much as destroyed San Diego would take us seven years,” Kureya reported. “And we monitor antimatter quite closely. Nobody has that kind of capacity unaccounted-for.”

“We do not have perfect understanding of every species’ industrial capability,” Genshi pointed out. “All we know therefore is that the antimatter wasn’t made by Gaoians.”

“Okay,” Daar insisted, “So what’s the advantage? It’s clean but it’s expensive, it’s obvious, there’s not many species that have the ability in the first place—it’s a major export of Ironclaw. It can be tricky to handle…I mean, as a weapon? It ain’t that great.”

Talo stood up quite abruptly with a groan and an audible arthritic popping. He strolled around the room, stretching himself out. “I can think of one strategic advantage to antimatter that might make it worthwhile as a weapon.”

“And that is?” Kureya inquired.

“…Champon Genshi.” Talo ran his claws through the fur around his jaw and whiskers. “What is the operational lifetime of a fusion warhead?”

“…Most of the military clans retire theirs after twenty years,” Genshi admitted. “Usually, they are recycled into new warheads.”

“Why are they retired and recycled?”

“Reliability. Maintenance. Radioactive decay. Nothing survives neglect…”

Talo duck-nodded thoughtfully. “Kureya. Volume of a twelve-mass pellet of, oh… anti-iron?”

“About… this big.” Kureya held his paws surprisingly close together.

“So, if I were to, say, set such a pellet adrift in interstellar space, how long would it take to degrade from contact with the interstellar medium?”

Kureya considered the problem. “…Centuries to erode any significant proportion of its mass,” he reported. “Geological epochs to erode the whole pellet.”

Talo duck-nodded again. “So for all intents and purposes, you have a bomb which requires effectively zero maintenance. At least, not within plausible time spans.”

“Why not just shove a fusion bomb into a stasis box?” Daar asked.

“Because the stasis box would need maintaining.”

“So maintain it,” Garl growled. Daar duck-nodded emphatically.

“A good point,” Kureya pointed out. “What kind of enemy would have the infrastructure to make an antimatter pellet, but not to maintain an arsenal of bombs?”

Daar shook his head fiercely. “But they still had ‘ta jump it!” he pointed out. “That antimatter still needs a jump array to get from wherever it was to San Diego, an’ that array is gonna need maintaining.”

“A jump array doesn’t require constant power like a stasis box would,” Genshi pointed out. “Slower maintenance cycle again.”

“Yeah, but we’ve gone from geological epochs back down to decades. So again, why not just fusion warheads?” Daar insisted. “It don’t make sense.”

“So to summarize,” Talo concluded, “the humans are fighting an enemy with breathtaking resources that uses those resources in strange and apparently wasteful ways for no clear or obvious end.”

“We can’t account for alien psychology,” Genshi suggested.

“Alien psychology is one thing, but ain’t nobody puts two plus two together and gets seven,” Daar grumbled.

Genshi saw his moment. “Nobody that we know of,” he inserted.

Talo scratched thoughtful at an ear and frowned.

“You’re proposing the existence of… some kind of third party?” He asked. “An agent not known to us?”

Genshi wobbled his head. “Daar’s right. Any faction with the resources and competence to generate antimatter in those quantities would be smart enough not to waste it. Nobody we know of would view it as economical to spend antimatter that way… and yet somebody plainly did.”

“Well…see, that’s more troublin’ than basically anything else.” Daar resumed his frenetic pacing. “It means we’re playin’ in a big game of Ta Shen here and there’s somebody at the table we hadn’t even noticed. That’s a deep hole to be in, intel-wise.” He eyed Genshi again. “Well, fer Stoneback, anyway…and we still don’t know why but I think that don’t matter no more.”

“How so?” growled Garl.

“Well, look at all the random Naxas shit we’ve been rolling in lately! There’s all sorts of weird things going on all sudden-like. The ‘Gurvy-rag’ or however you say it—”

“Guvnurag.”

“Yeah, them. Why did their homeworld get attacked? I mean, I’d normally say it was just Hunters being Hunters but how in the name of Keeda’s balls did they get a million ships?”

“Perhaps we didn’t notice?”

Daar wobbled his head vigorously. “Nah, that don’t fit their previous tactics. And antimatter don’t either. They’d rather eat the city if they could, and if they were involved they’d have used that jump to get ships in. So it wasn’t the Hunters, but…a million ships. Tell me that ain’t a little help from someone just stupid powerful.”

“We’ve never known how powerful the Hunters truly are,” Kureya reminded him. “Their territory is big enough to contain at least ten temperate worlds, statistically, and the galactic community has historically treated them as a force of nature.

“A million divided by ten is still a hundred-thousand. That’s a lot of ships around a pawful of worlds.”

“By and large, temperate worlds don’t build spaceships. They feed crews.” Kureya’s ears were grim. “A single world turned over to whatever the…” He licked his teeth nervously, “…whatever the Hunter equivalent of agriculture is would easily feed the crews of a million ships. The ships themselves, we suspect, would be built at orbitals.”

Daar growled, “That makes me hate ‘em even more.” His pace grew more agitated. “But yeah. That’s still not their style, which means they got help suddenly. And recently, I bet. I think that still leaves us with a big player we don’t know about and for some reason they’re going after the humans. Which…I dunno, that makes me nervous.”

“It should,” Garl grunted. “Anything goes after the humans, comes after us before long.”

“If there’s anything I learned is we’re…” Daar paused and flicked his ears reluctantly.

“Go on.”

“…I think Garl’s right. I think that, whatever this Big Keeda thing is? The only reason they’re going after the humans, it’s either ‘cuz they’re a threat or they just hate something about ‘em. And we’ve got a lot in common with the humans. A lot more than I realized, really.”

“Sister Shoo taught us as much,” Genshi pointed out. “The females wouldn’t have named her a Sister unless she fit. They never did it for… for any other species. The very idea is just… I mean, who would fit?”

“Nobody,” said Daar definitively. “I think there’s prol’ly a lotta wisdom there to think about.”

The room reflected on that with appreciative duck-nodding.

“Well said,” intoned Talo. “All of that leaves us much to contemplate. What shall our next step be?”

Daar was the first to respond after a glance at Garl. “I wanna get my Fangs fully staffed and maybe reactivate all the rest.”

“Daar, the budget—”

“Fuck the budget. You ain’t gonna tell me we don’t need ‘em after all this!”

“The Females will not be pleased,” Kureya pointed out.

“Yeah, they won’t. I’ll hafta deal with that too.”

“A military buildup will be noticed, Daar.” Genshi calculated. “Not even we could spin up without being noticed.”

“Don’t matter, we gotta do it. And…I’ll see if I can get an appointment with the Mother-Supreme and talk it out. I think we can argue a good case.”

Garl shook out the thick fur around his neck and chittered in contrabass. “Leave that to me. I’ll take any excuse to visit Yulna.”

“…You have your nose on someone, don’t’cha? You’re so obvious Garl. Teach me!”

“Pure balls, young’n.” Garl’s teeth gleamed. “It works.”

Good humor was probably the best way to end the meeting, and Genshi seized on it. “Garl’s social life aside, we’re all in agreement that we should begin a build-up? If so, I think we adjourn and reconvene when we know more. Objections?”

“None whatsoever.” Talo stood up from his cushion with a series of audible arthritic pops. “Though… Champion Genshi, a young rite-Brother of ours managed to uncover something you may find personally intriguing. Shall we talk and walk?”

“….By all means, Grandfather.”


Date Point: 12y7m1w AV
HMS Viscount, New Enewetak system, deep space

Lt. Col. Claude Nadeau

“Six more?”

The bridge of a V-class destroyer was a dense, crowded thing that in some ways had more in common with the flight deck of an airliner or the cockpit of a plane than a bridge as Nadeau had always envisioned them. His mind’s eye had always been informed by Star Trek, and had placed the captain in the exact middle of an open, airy space full of consoles and needless expanses of floor where he could prowl as though on a Shakespearian stage, addressing a giant floor-to-ceiling screen.

The captain did have a chair: It was a bucket seat with a five-point safety harness for use during hard maneuvers, and it was bolted firmly to the aft bulkhead. And the bridge did have a screen, in the form of a 21-inch monitor tucked away on a bracket high in one corner and largely ignored. There were no windows, no sweeping view of the stars: the bridge was an armored bunker deep in the ship’s structure, and the helmsmen occupied a cavity in the forward wall which surrounded them in readouts and displays. They flew exclusively by instrument: There would have been no point in having windows on a ship designed for engagement ranges measured in terms of the speed of light.

The only concession to leg room was a narrow, shoulder-wide strip of open deck just behind the helmsmen. The rest of the space was taken up by somebody’s station. It wasn’t actually cramped or uncomfortable, but it was no USS Enterprise.

There was enough room for a visitor to stand and watch over it all, though, and to chat with the Viscount‘s captain, Nigel Arlott.

“Authorized last week. They posted the names this morning: Vanguard, Vanquisher, Venture, Valkyrie, Valorous and Vancouver.”

“Twelve destroyers. I’d say that’s a big fleet, but after seeing what hit the Guvnurag…”

“It’s not even a big fleet by human standards,” Arlott disagreed. “There were… eighty or so destroyers at the battle of Jutland, I think.” He shrugged, and put on a dark little smile. “The technological advantage counts for a lot. If we fell backwards in time right now then Viscount could sink every ship in both fleets all by herself, and we have the same kind of an edge over the Hunters… for now.”

“You think it’ll come down to tonnage, in the end?” Nadeau asked. Arlott shook his head.

“No. They leech off our ideas, but we’re always a step ahead. They’ll narrow the gap, but never beat us.”

“Tonnage counts for a lot.”

Arlott nodded, grimly. “We were there. We saw. That’s why our governments are sinking so much into this coltainer project. We need to correct the manufacturing shortfall and fast.”

“Hang the economic consequences. Live first, pay later, eh?” Nadeau agreed.

“Precisely.” Arlott checked his instruments. “How long is this survey going to take, anyway? Not that I’m impatient, but…”

Nadeau nodded. The Coltainer they were escorting had hauled itself into a polar orbit over New Enewetak and was methodically sweeping the whole planet’s surface, looking for potential test sites.

Those sites needed to meet several criteria. The whole idea after all was that the colonists should be able to self-sustain without the constant delivery of basic necessities from Earth or anywhere else. They needed to be able to farm their own food, clean their own water and mine their own raw materials. The survey was exhaustive.

Fortunately, the actual colony assembly process should be relatively straightforward. Viable colony sites had everything needed to make concrete right there, or at least close and accessible enough for the coltainer’s automated quarrying and delivery systems to retrieve, and the coltainer could use several different concretes if needed.

Lewis had been full of grand schemes to have the machines excavate bunkers and basements and maybe even a subway station with an in-situ TBM ready and waiting for future expansion. Reality had got in the way, and the actual construction process was much less interesting. The actual colony blueprint was little more than a fully-equipped dormitory with a walk-in freezer attached to a small but sturdy warehouse.

It was fully plumbed, well lit, well drained, fully wired up with forcefield solar power. There was air conditioning and rooms appropriate for medical or scientific use. There was an office for colony management and a machine shop with its own small nanofactory and plenty of room for the colonists to install more conventional CAD/CAM tools… and all of it was assembled automatically by robots with no human supervision. In theory.

It would be a landmark moment in cutting-edge automation if it worked, but Lewis hadn’t been happy. He’d wanted so much more. Nadeau meanwhile would be giggling with joy if the system built so much as a single straight wall in the right place on its first outing, let alone a whole compound.

But, it had to find a suitable site first.

“We’ll be here for several days,” he predicted. “And we’ll probably keep coming back.”

Arlott didn’t look happy. “This isn’t a research ship. I know we’re acting in support of an important operation, but…”

“Just be glad we didn’t bring the SOR along for this,” Nadeau joked. “Not only would they take up all the space and eat all the food, but what’s worse is they’d probably have some useful insights.”

“I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting them,” Arlott replied.

“You’re lucky. They’re…overwhelming. Sergeant Vandenberg could do a couple of hundred squats with us sitting on his shoulders while giving a lecture on variable-gravity metallurgical processes. And he’s neither the strongest man in the SOR, nor the most intelligent.”

“…I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Don’t get me wrong, they’re great guys. Friendly and charming, but…humbling.” Nadeau sniffed. “But we live in humbling times, I guess. I mean, you’re a starship captain.”

Arlott chuckled. “And just ten years ago, I was watching Jackson test the warp engine you designed.”

Nadeau shook his head and waved a hand to fend off the compliment. “It was just a reverse-engineered Hunter design,” he said. “Besides, Ted Bartlett cracked spacetime distortion. I was the forcefield guy.”

“And I’m just a ship captain. The ship just sails on different tides.” Arlott considered the coltainer probe again. “Someday, people are going to live on that planet. Someday soon, I hope. And their definition of ‘normal’ is going to humble somebody else. And maybe in three hundred years’ time, it’ll be humbling and strange to meet somebody who actually lives on Earth.”

“Maybe.” Nadeau agreed.

He was spared from having to think of what to say next by the Coltainer probe, which chose that moment to send them an update.

He reviewed it on his tablet. “It’s found… seventy-four potential sites, and is relocating for the high-detail survey,” he announced.

“Well. To Hell with that,” Arlott decided. “I have paperwork to do. As nice as this conversation is…”

“Yeah, I should get back to work too. We need to review these survey results.”

“Have…fun?” Arlott joked. Nadeau grinned.

“Actually…yeah. I think I will,” he said.

The probe was, after all, already exceeding his expectations.


Date Point: 12y7m1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, Gao

Champion Genshi

“…And this is a recent find?”

The archives beneath High Mountain Fortress were very different to the fortress itself. They had been excavated during Gao’s information age, and designed with future upgrades in mind, meaning that there wasn’t an inch of the stacks that couldn’t be disassembled and replaced easily and quickly.

That was just the information layer, of course. The physical vaults and archives plunged deep into ancient, stable bedrock, and there was a constant stream of artifacts in and out: Archaeological curios destined for Highmountain museums all over Gao, and new items inbound for storage and historically important documents for archiving in the Clan’s great library.

Over the centuries, sometimes, the filing had been occasionally less than perfect. Sometimes, an enterprising young Highmountain might go digging in the archives for an obscure fossil, and turn up something…different.

Something like an ancient Gaoian skull.

“Technically, no. It’s been in the archives for generations. Anyway, look: The attached notes made special mention of the signs of osteoporosis around the left sphenoid ridge. You’ll see the significance of course.”

Genshi had no idea what a sphenoid ridge even was, and said so with his usual tact. “Please, grandfather. Assume that I have neglected my studies in the field of… well, skulls.”

Talo chittered, and ran a claw along the feature in question, not actually touching it. “Here,” he said, and then tapped the side of his own head for emphasis.

“…That’s where a translator implant would go!” Genshi realized, and reevaluated the skull.

“Indeed. And the alleged osteoporosis, on close inspection, is more consistent with nanofilament infiltration.”

Genshi set the skull down carefully in its box. “…Who was he?”

“She. Unfortunately we don’t know, but we do know that she was a silverfur like yourself, and most likely hailed from the ancient city-state of Yem Sha. She was slightly older than I am now when she died.”

“A good long life, then!” Genshi said admiringly.

“Oh yes. Especially considering she was a contemporary of Tiritya and Fyu. Probably even a peer or companion…but she didn’t die of old age, sadly. There are…you see the tool marks?”

Genshi shook his head again, and bent down to study the long-deceased Mother’s bone again.

“The Wi Kaoians fought a bloody war,” Talo sighed sadly. “You remember your history? The … condition… in which Tiritya and her Sisters were returned to this fortress after their failed infiltration of the city?”

“I remember.” It was a grim and uncivilized epoch in Gaoian history. ”Skinning a female? Barbaric.”

“If it makes you feel better,” Talo said, “This one was was dead before they began. Tiritya herself was not so fortunate…but I am digressing.”

“Into horrific territory,” Genshi commented.

“Yes,” Talo agreed. “But of course, this raises the question…”

“Just what the hell was a cybernetic doing in the head of one of Tiritya’s sisterhood?” Genshi finished.

“Quietly self-destructing on the event of her death, it seems.” Talo drummed his claws thoughtfully on the edge of the steel table. “It’s a strange feeling, watching a war on the horizon that I probably won’t live to see the beginning of. Indeed, I hope I don’t.”

“We could do with your experience…” Genshi told him.

“Maybe.” Talo allowed. “But if the war starts, in whatever form it takes, while I’m still around then we shall be woefully unprepared. Except that now it seems we may have been obliviously fighting it for at least a thousand years.”

“What happened to the young Brother who found this?”

“Ah. A small deception on my part. I never actually said whether the find was a recent one, did I?” Talo ducked his head apologetically. “You are, I’m afraid, speaking with him.”

“…And you have kept this secret?”

“It would be…Young Genshi, you and I are at opposite ends of the information spectrum,” Talo said, slowly. “To conceal information and keep secrets goes against everything my Clan stands for…” he glanced at the skull again. “In most cases. But knowledge is a responsibility.”

“This is possibly one of the most profound findings in our history, surely you agree!”

“Exactly.” Talo duck-nodded. ”Not, therefore, the sort of thing a self-respecting academic waves around without due consideration. And when I began to consider the ramifications of alien meddling during the most important chapter of our history…”

Genshi held his peace with great effort.

Talo did not take his eyes off the skull. “So. We have a faction in the game that could do this undetected while we were still fighting with spears and crossbows… and I doubt we can meaningfully combat them. Not yet. But unless I miss my guess, you’re hard at work on that problem, yes?”

“Do you really expect me to answer that question, Grandfather?”

Talo shook his head solemnly, though he seemed pleased. “No.”

He stepped around the table and picked up the ancient Mother’s skull to contemplate it. “Encroaching death has its way of adjusting your priorities. Not so long ago, I would have chipped away for a scrap of knowledge from you, or some assurance. Now…I have learned to trust. Gao will have to do without me from now on. It’s…liberating, really.”

“You will be missed,” Genshi offered. “You’re held in high esteem by my Clan.”

Talo’s ears flattened slightly at the compliment, just for a moment as though he’d been patted on the head. It was an almost cublike gesture of genuine pleasure. “And I hold your Clan in high esteem. Especially its Champion. Leaving the future to young males of your caliber makes this all a little easier. I’m… scared, but I’m not afraid. I know that even if our species is doomed, we’ll claw out a few eyes on the way. The galaxy will remember Gao, one way or another.”

He put the skull down again and shook himself. “The past must trust the future. Don’t forget that on the day when it’s your turn to move into the past, young Genshi. You will have to, eventually. It’s worth planning well ahead.”

Genshi gave him a long, thoughtful stare, then turned and stooped into a low Gaoian bow. “Thank you for your kind advice, honored Grandfather,” he said, formally. He decided not to mention that he had already been making such plans. Talo didn’t need to know. Nobody did.

Only the Champion should know when a Clan was about to die.


Date Point: 12y7m1w AV
Etsicitty Property, North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

“You mean to tell us you’re good friends with the supreme allied commander of extrasolar defence?” Julian asked.

“Shit, I helped him through his divorce.” Kevin smiled fondly at the memory. “You think I got the Byron Group job on charm and sophistication alone?”

“Oh sure I did,” Allison snarked, “Talk to you for five minutes and your natural player just oozes out all over the place.”

“Oozes. Thanks, I’ll remember that.” Kevin snorted. “Point is…Tremblay’s a good man. Not a half-decent man, not a merely good man, he’s a good man. Kinda guy who gives you real faith in humanity. Now, his job is to look out for the safety and security of Earth, Cimbrean, all the human colonies…”

“Why’s he gonna care, then?” Julian asked. “Resources sent over to help out the People aren’t going to be defending humanity, are they?”

“Mm…” Kevin wobbled his head. “They’ll sure as shit be defending our humanity, but you might be right. Except it’s probably not a bad investment anyway. Those guys could be valuable down the road, y’know? Then there’s all the Hierarchy tech on that planet just waiting for Bear Bartlett to rip into it, and… shit, maybe we could put a base out there? Hell, even a whole colony? So it’s not like there’s zero strategic value there.”

“Isn’t there anybody out there who’ll do it just because it’s the right thing to do?” Xiù asked.

“No,” Kevin said bluntly. “And that’s honestly the way it should be. Guys like that, they’ll pick up a new super important Cause every week and never get anything done. Guys like Tremblay, they’re obligated to look after their duty first so when something comes along that needs their attention, they have the resources to handle it.”

“I don’t wanna have this argument again,” Julian groaned.

“Well I’m sorry, bro, but Earth doesn’t work the way your relationship does. You three look out for each other. Back here on the Planet Dirt, the pictures are bigger and the stakes are higher. Self-interest ain’t just a lifestyle choice, it’s the only way things can work.”

“You ain’t gotta be a dick about it, Kevin. We do get it.”

“Then quit complainin’ and use it! Guys, you are fuckin’ celebrities right now. Walked on Mars! Toured alien worlds! Made first contact! And look, these guys have the same fucking enemies we do. Ain’t that a hell of a coincidence?”

He leaned forward and put his hands flat on the table in front of him. “I don’t think you three realize just how much power you have right now, but that power won’t last long. And you can use it without pissing anyone off, either. That is a rare gift. All you need to do is talk. Show a pic of Yan and Vemik! It isn’t classified…and show the Abrogator thing. That isn’t classified either as long as you don’t get into details.”

“…Is that wise?” Xiù asked.

“Define ‘wise,’” Kevin shrugged. “‘Cuz the answer to that one comes down to whether you think the consequences are worth it.”

“Vemik’s pictures might be a good idea,” mused Julian. “He got a hold of my camera one day and took hundreds of ‘em. Some are pretty good, too. And he figured out the video button.”

Allison chimed in. “The video he took of Yan was really good. Yan tackled him and he dropped the camera, and it caught like ten minutes of them wrasslin’ in the dirt before they hugged it out. Maybe edit out the bad, uh, ‘viewing angles’ but…”

Julian snorted. “Yeah. Their loincloths don’t really do much for modesty, do they?”

Kevin grimaced. “…Really didn’t need that image.”

“Eh, it’s humid as hell in their jungle, I don’t blame ‘em. Anyway, Vemik likes to play keepaway so I waited until Yan had worked ‘em over real good before I took the camera back,” Julian remembered fondly. “Me and Yan figured out that tag-teaming worked best on the bouncy little fucker. Vemik didn’t like that at all, said I was cheating. Yan just noogied me and laughed.”

Kevin quirked an eyebrow. “No shit, the big fucker’s playful?”

“Like a kitten!” Xiù enthused. “Um…when he wants to be.”

“Well, there ya go! The People make their own PR! And here you three are sulkin’ in an old house in the country, pissin’ and moanin’ about how shit everybody else is instead of gettin’ off your asses and using it! For fuck’s sake guys, you put yourselves through a couple years of hell for personal reasons, but when the chips are down and a whole species is at stake suddenly you expect somebody else to carry the ball? You’re better than that! All of you!”

The three of them went very still.

“…Consider that the punch on the nose from me to you,” Kevin finished, looking at Xiù specifically. “Sometimes, we all need a punch on the nose.”

Xiù gave him a long, steady stare and then sighed and gave her own hands an ashamed look. “…Yeah.”

“So… what? Book deal? Press release?” Allison took Xiù’s hand. “I mean, you’re right, but we don’t really know how this stuff works.”

“You let me worry about that,” Kevin promised. “Upshot to being a senior Byron Group executive. You wouldn’t believe some of the strings I can pull…”

“You’ve already got a plan,” Julian guessed.

Kevin put on his best winning smile. “Yeah. Reckon I do.” He stood up. “Come on. We’re goin’ down to the city.”

They blinked at him before Julian asked the question. “Uh, we are? What for?”

“I’m findin’ you three some good tailoring on my dime,” Kevin said. “After all. You’re gonna need to look good for the cameras…”


Date Point: 12y7m2w AV
Adam’s Apartment, Demeter Way, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Martina Kovač

One advantage to dating Adam—he did all the cooking. And most of the eating. And he cleaned up as he went, too, so really the only thing Marty had to do was set the table and watch. There were worse ways to have dinner.

“So, your dad got him a plea bargain?”

“Somethin’ like that. I mean, it’s the prosecutor who offered the plea bargain but… y’know, he plays golf with the governor. And Dad’s been workin’ with Sir Jeremy Sandy since day one and the only reason he doesn’t play golf with the governor too is because his handicap’s so bad.”

Marty nodded. “Right. Guess it’s hard to play golf in a wheelchair.”

“No, I mean it’s, like, thirty or something.” Adam grinned at her and returned to his cooking, and Marty grudgingly awarded him several points while plotting her revenge. She was too used to Adam playing the amiably straightforward doofus: there were moments when he’d pull something a tiny bit subtler like that and make her feel like a dumbass for not catching it, because she’d have seen it coming from anybody else.

She respected him, of course she did. He just didn’t throw curveballs very often, so the rare ones he did throw invariably tripped her up.

And then he got all smug about it, and he was unfairly sexy when he was smug.

A comical image sprang to mind. “Have you ever tried golf?”

Adam burst out laughing. “Oh man! Would I have to wear the polo shirt and a flat cap?”

“Yup.” Marty grinned at him over her lemonade.

“I’ll stick to Gravball.”

“Yeah? I dunno, it’s got everything you could want. Fine motor control, hitting something really hard…”

“No way do they make clubs that could take the HEAT.”

“Murray golfs.”

“Of course he fuckin’ does, he’s Scottish!” Adam snorted. “And he’s tiny,” he added, affectionately.

“Only by HEAT standards.” Marty sipped her drink and put it down. “Anyway. Nofl. Didn’t think your dad was the kind to go easy on a smuggler.”

The topology of Adam’s back shifted intricately as he shrugged. “He didn’t. Nofl has a lot of community service to do, and we’re gonna benefit from it. You’ve heard some of the things he’s promised?”

“Yeah. full regeneration of an amputated limb, nerve regrowth. I wrote a report with my own opinions for Powell.” Marty shrugged. “I dunno. I get the impression Nofl’s passion for science outweighs his caution or sense of ethics. I don’t care if we have the latent DNA for tissue regeneration still present in our genome or not, hell I don’t care if we could splice it in. That’s dangerous territory.”

Adam nodded slowly, but didn’t comment.

“…Your dad’s eager to get full use of his leg back, I get that-” Marty began.

“He ain’t reckless, Marty.”

“No,” she soothed. “But come on, tell me how you’d cope with spending half your time in a chair and the other half on crutches? ‘Cause I don’t need to be your girlfriend to know you’d go crazy.”

“Dad’s calmer than me, though. He always has his shit together.”

“Sure, but he’s still only human. He’s got hope.”

Adam loaded the chicken into the oven, wiped down the counter and then turned to lean against the wall, facing her. He only rarely looked so troubled.

“It just hits close to home, you know? I mean…” he twisted, and lifted the leg of his basketball shorts to reveal a bright blue Crue-D patch on his inner thigh. The minimum-dose maintenance patch that every single HEAT man wore constantly to stop their own excessive and growing strength from giving them chronic trouble. “This is Nofl’s work too. And then the little maricón turns out to be an irresponsible jackass smuggler.”

Marty let the homophobic slur slide, this time. Adam was clearly badly troubled, and there wasn’t actually a bigoted bone in his body: He’d have been appalled if somebody had suggested there was. “So you’re worried about yourself, not your dad?”

“No! …Yes. Uh, both. And the Lads. And you, I mean, you’ve used Crude…”

Marty nodded. The HEAT program needed the Lads to be able to trust Crue-D. Taking the medicine was a life-altering experience anyway with permanent ramifications. It was a huge step—if there was any doubt at all about Cruezzir and its derivatives…

“Well, has it done anything bad to you?”

“…um…okay. Yes and no, I think. Lemme…” He started pacing like he did whenever he was trying to string thoughts together; thinking and motion were to Adam as peas and carrots were to dinner. “I mean, a while ago? Dad noticed I’m way more aggressive than I used to be.”

Marty sipped her lemonade again. “Are you?”

“I dunno. I mean, I got into fights in school… But, I trust Dad, you know? If he says it…”

“Okay…” Marty conceded. “But you can’t have been a teddy bear. I mean, from what I hear you could out deadlift anyone in Folctha before you even left. Legsy said you were the most determined man he’d ever met. Hell, even ‘Base says you were scary as hell all the way from Basic. And you got through selection and all that…”

Adam sighed and leaned on the counter island, resting his knuckles on the polished granite. “…I dunno, Marty. I’ve been talkin’ a lot with Lieutenant Mears about this. About the Hate, and the… I mean, I’ve got good reasons for feelin’ the things I do. But I don’t know if I have good reasons for feelin’ them as much as I do, you know? I mean, it’s been eight years since San Diego. Seven months on from that I was just startin’ to put it behind me and then we lost Sara. But nowadays… some days those wounds still feel raw like they happened yesterday. Shit, there are days I wanna tear Ava’s head off, or hunt down that little bitch Sean and fuckin’ crush him.”

He launched himself away from the counter, and paced aimlessly around the apartment. “Or there’s times I look at you and my whole body hurts from how much I love you, or, or times when I’ll be sparring with John and he’s, y’know, he’s my fuckin’ brother but, like, I could break him easy and the thought just feels so good…but then I blink and just, I feel bad and I wanna fuckin’ cuddle for even thinkin’ that. And I thought all that was just me, right? Like, that’s who I am…”

He sighed. “And then the little gray shit who invented Crue turns out to be completely fuckin’ irresponsible. I’m…”

“Scared,” Marty finished for him.

“…Yeah. I’m afraid of myself. I think…I think we all are.”

“I can see why, but…” Marty swirled her lemonade thoughtfully.. “…Is that the Crude? Or is it the power you earned? How many people besides you could pick up a truck and toss it?”

“No,” he shook his head emphatically. “It’s the Crude, I know it. Those feelings are raw baby. I feel stuff like it’s new and intense all the time, that can’t be just ‘cuz I’m strong.”

“True,” Marty agreed. “But I don’t think it’s anything wrong with the Crude, or some accident because Nofl cut corners.”

“Then what?”

She used her glass to wave at the all of him. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?”

“…Huh?”

“Seriously. Go look, right now.”

Adam blinked at her, then shrugged and headed for the wide, full-length mirror in the corner next to his sewing work bench. The apartment had a lot of mirrors, actually, from the big one that filled half a wall in the bathroom to the small face mirror on the closet door, but he needed them because he was forced by circumstance to do his own tailoring. So, the biggest and best mirror stood between his sewing machine and the mannequin that Rebar and Sikes had made for him, the modular one built to a HEAT operator’s scale. They all benefited from Adam’s needlework, after all.

He was wearing his favorite jersey that day—the Cimbrean Speedsters sports team jersey complete with a ridiculous sports car that had left skidmarks wrapping around to the back. There was no such team, in fact—Adam did a lot of community work as part of the Folctha government’s fitness promotions, and made a point of not taking sides in any sport. The only teams he allowed himself to support were the San Diego Chargers (now a well-respected NFL legacy that had never officially been closed down as a kind of living memorial) and the completely fictional Speedsters. One of the colony’s soccer moms had made that jersey for him and had somehow managed to get his dimensions right.

He carefully took it off to study himself in closer detail, turning to and fro to make sure she wasn’t pointing out some injury or another. Once he figured out that nothing was wrong he settled and stood there to frown uncomprehendingly at himself. The nanotech ‘E-Tattoo’ that covered his prodigious slab of a chest was set to his favorite pattern: marching Green Feet that wandered aimlessly across his chest in time with his pulse. At his heart, Adam had joined the Pararescue Jumpers first, and remained committed to their mission.

“Okay…?” he asked, after the Feet had done half a lap of his left pectoral.

“What do you see?” Marty prompted.

“…Me?”

“How old do you look?”

“I, uh…”

She laughed softly and interrupted his confusion by sliding up behind him and running her hands around his waist and up his chest, resting them lightly over his heart. She noticed with secret delight that those Feet sped up a little, and she could feel his life thumping steadily away warmly under her hand..

“Ignore all the muscles and the body fuzz, and the jawline and the stubble. Look past that and look at your face, look at your eyes. Do you see it?”

His heart beat slightly faster. “…I’m young.”

”You look almost like you’re fresh out of high school,” she said. “You haven’t aged a day and your bloodwork backs that up. John’s the same way, all the older guys are getting younger and healing up…hell, even Firth is inching perilously close to handsome.”

Adam snorted, and covered both her hands with one of his. “Pretty Firth? That’ll be the goddamn apocalypse…”

“Well, it’s true. You’re all on the fountain of youth…tell me that isn’t gonna affect your mind.”

His reflection gave her an anguished look. “Yeah. Exactly. This is scary stuff we’re playing with, and Nofl…”

“…Is a Corti. I know. I don’t think he’s malicious or anything, but they didn’t get that reputation for playing fast and loose with the scientific method by accident…” She kissed his shoulder. “But if you don’t trust Nofl, babe, trust me.”

“…I scare you too to, though. Don’t I?”

“Yeah,” Marty acknowledged. “But…I like it. You’re exciting when you’re scary. And I know that because you’re scary, the safest place in the world is when you’re holding me.”

“…You don’t want me walking comfortably, do you?”

She winked at him, and the Green Feet paused in their wandering for just a moment. “Never.”

He tried and failed to be discreet about adjusting himself through his shorts with his free hand. “…Goddamn I love you.”

“I love you too.” She rested her head against his spine and breathed a happy sigh. “And… thank you.”

“For what?”

“For talking about this stuff with me. It means a lot that you don’t try and pretend nothing’s wrong. That’s…thank you.”

He turned around and drew her close to his chest. “…I learned that lesson the hard way.”

“I know.”

Adam’s whole body heaved slowly with an enormous sigh, he gave her a comparatively gentle squeeze that was still overpowering by anybody else’s standards, kissed her hair and then let her go.

“We ain’t gonna trust Nofl after this,” he said, quietly. “I know he’s supposed to be workin’ for us, but…”

“He’ll be working with me,” Marty said. “Like I said: Don’t trust him, trust me. I’ll keep him in line.”

Adam chuckled, and returned to the kitchen. “Reckon you will…” he said. “After our vacation though, right?”

“Yup. He has community service to finish first. Where are we going, anyway?”

“I had a few ideas…”


Date Point: 12y7m2w AV
Starship Negotiable Curiosity, Orbiting Planet Aru, Elder Space

Bedu

The Negotiable Curiosity wasn’t the same ship any more. Vakno had categorically refused to leave Perfection without bringing most of her…equipment….with her.

Bedu was no idiot; most of the gear Vakno had removed from her bunker and installed in his ship had nothing to do with science, it was communications and datamining equipment. She’d paid for the shipyard time to have the Negotiable Curiosity expanded, extended and rebalanced. The ship was if anything a huge improvement on what it had been, and Bedu was practical enough to appreciate that, but it still felt inappropriate. The ship was his house after all, and Vakno had extensively remodelled it, effectively turning it into her new flying office and Bedu into her personal pilot.

Most of the remaining equipment was outside of his knowledge, but he knew what some of it did. Negotiable Curiosity had an extensive and hypersensitive sensor suite that could trace the lingering spacetime distortions of a ship at FTL for years after the fact, and Vakno had expanded on that functionality. Information was her business—he should have guessed that she would be an expert at gathering it in all its forms.

“There are power signatures here and there on the planet, you’re correct,” she reported. ”They seem to be focused in hospitals.”

“The population in general?” Bedu asked. Vakno glanced up at a peripheral display.

“Declining rapidly. A few million remain.”

“The OmoAru used to be a spacefaring power just as widespread as we are now. This decline cannot be natural, can it?”

“No, I don’t believe it can,” Vakno agreed. “And I find it worrying that I have become more interested in the mystery since de-implanting myself. Something like this should be of universal concern.”

“Yes. I have…hypotheses on that subject.” Bedu called up his notes. Doing so without implants was vastly less convenient, but if even one of his hypotheses were accurate then he had done himself an enormous service by removing them. “It’s telling that every single expedition to investigate the phenomenon has devolved into grave-robbing.”

“If the implants can somehow control what a user is permitted to think…” Vakno mused, without finishing the thought aloud.

“Theoretically trivial,” Bedu opined. “Simple stimulus-reward, stimulus-punishment system. Mechanically much more complicated in practice, of course. Constant monitoring of both neuroelectrical and neurochemical patterns, species-adjusted… Any control software capable of interpreting those data and determining intent would be effectively sapient.”

Vakno blinked at him. “True. That would meet a reasonable definition for metacognition.”

“Exactly.”

“What exactly are you thinking?”

Bedu turned in his seat to pull up a file, which he transferred to the big volumetric display in the middle of Vakno’s lab. “Possibilities. First and least likely: Problem is systemic to implant use, some undiagnosed fault or flaw in their operation. Maybe a functional addiction, subtly discourages thinking about implants in negative ways. Flaws: the behaviour is not species-specific, wouldn’t discourage thinking about species decline in general until the researcher had reasonable grounds to believe implants were involved.”

Vakno nodded. “Not a strong hypothesis.”

“No” Bedu agreed. “Mentioned it first because other possibilities are more disturbing, and seem less plausible at first. Are you familiar with the work of…” He paused, scowled and flapped a hand irritably. “What was her name? The AI researcher? Green banner from Grand Central University, graduated in my year. The digital nihilism theorist?”

Vakno glowered at him. “I can scarcely remember your name without my implants. Don’t ask me about obscure contemporaries of yours. What did she do?”

“She proved that an electronic substrate cannot indefinitely support a genuinely sapient intelligence,” Bedu recalled. “Funny, I can remember her proof but not her name. I’m quite sure we exchanged DNA.”

“Ugh. Green-banners, breeding.” Vakno sniffed. Bedu recalled too late that her own banner was silver.

“It’s an authorized breeding caste,” he asserted with composure. It was easy to remain composed when Vakno got too self-important. She might have developed a contact network worth estimated trillions of Directorate Currency Units, but her actual contributions to science were effectively nil. That prodigious and valuable intellect was largely going to waste.

“I don’t care what the office of species development says,” she snapped, oblivious to his thoughts. “It’s time we restricted DNA exchanges to blue banners or higher.”

Bedu blinked at her, then returned to his work. “I will just focus on the objective,” he declared.

“You do that.”

They worked in silence for a while, though Bedu was counting silently in his head. He was grudgingly impressed that Vakno held out as far as two hundred and sixty-four before her resolve cracked.

“You were saying?” she asked.

“Hmm? Oh. the AI researcher?”

“Yes.”

“She scanned her brain, thoroughly, and simulated her personality. Over a thousand simulations, and every single one attempted suicide before long.”

Even by Corti standards, that experiment had been discomforting. It wasn’t until Bedu had encountered the human phrase ‘heebie-jeebies’ that he’d been able to put a name to the emotion he’d suppressed upon hearing of it.

Vakno of course didn’t seem to care. “And this is relevant how?”

“I was just wondering if there might not be some…counterpart phenomenon. I wonder if the presence of extensive cybernetics might have a deleterious effect on the consciousness of a sapient being.”

“Mechanism?”

“This isn’t even a hypothesis yet.”

“Ridiculous,” Vakno scoffed. “Why should there be a fundamental incompatibility between organic neurons and the implants specifically designed to interface with them?”

“An incomplete understanding of the principles of neurology?” Bedu suggested. “Some emergent property of the neural nets? Or an evolutionary change! Cumulative across many generations.”

“Driven by what selection pressure?” Vakno finally turned away from her instruments and gave him more than a fraction of her attention. “Bedu, you can generate ideas all you want but please do subject them to an internal review before you voice them.”

“Do you not have any yourself?”

“Not yet.” Vakno sniffed. “Some of us practice science with finesse and focus. We don’t…brute-force our way to a result through ill-considered abduction schemes or archaeological vandalism.”

“I have yet to witness any of this science of yours.”

“Then perhaps you should cease your distractions and let me work.” Vakno returned to her instruments. “Land the ship. I will share my hypothesis once I have one that is worth discussing.”

Bedu resisted the urge to grumble at being ordered about on his ship, and elected to obey the command. Vakno was a silver-banner after all, a member of a higher rung on the Corti societal ladder. While neither of them were exactly in the Directorate’s good graces, neither of them were exiles either. She did, technically, hold the authority in their relationship.

He comforted himself with the thought that she was at least present and working at the problem. That meant she valued his insight more than she allowed herself to say. If she didn’t see any substance in the data he had presented then she would never have paid to modify his ship, nor flown on it all the way out to this last remote and fading ember of the OmoAru Republic.

Still. He missed his crew. They had been infuriating, but they had respected and engaged with him. Vakno did neither.

He just wished that he could tell her how he had acquired his information…


Date Point: 12y7m2w3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

“The bloody PM’s coming here?”

“He did just win the election, Powell.” Knight set three cups of tea down on his desk. Earl Grey for himself, a mug of Tetley so strong that the spoon could stand up in it for Powell, and another Earl Grey for Costello. The young Canadian had always had slightly more sophistication than his superior, there.

“Aye, by promising to cut military spending,” Powell grumbled

“Yes,” Knight sat down, and allowed himself a small triumphant smile. “I wrote a small letter to the king. And now the Right Honourable Stephen Davies PM is paying us an official visit. Less than two weeks after the election, no less.”

Powell chuckled and sat back. “Bloody hellfire. There’s times I forget you have more power in your pen than I have in a barracks full of HEAT operators.”

“His Majesty served alongside my father, briefly,” Knight explained. “Apparently I had the pleasure of meeting him, though I was far too young to remember it.”

“And that was enough to get him to send the prime minister our way for an education?” Costello asked.

“I think he’s rather more concerned with the fate of his grandchildren,” Knight explained. “Keep this under your hat gentlemen, but a certain Sub-Lieutenant Wales has applied to serve aboard the forthcoming HMS Vancouver.”

“She has, huh?” Costello angled his head slightly. “You know, that did always impress me about the royal family. Keeping the old traditions alive.”

Powell, a lifelong Republican, just grunted some grudging respect.

“Oh yes. In an earlier age of course they all had swords and plate and horses.” Knight sipped his tea. “Nowadays they have an FTL destroyer or a helicopter gunship. Anyway don’t worry too much about the Prime Minister, Powell. There are powers much older and more influential than him at work, here.”

“So, what’s our role?” Powell asked, picking up his boot-brown insult to the word ‘tea.’

“You’re being promoted, old thing. Congratulations.”

“…Already?”

“You’ve been a major for six years, Powell.”

“I have?” Powell sat and calculated furiously. “…Christ, I have.”

“Mm. Really, I would have elevated you sooner, but that NOVA HOUND report didn’t help matters. Don’t worry, you’re just the first in a wave of forthcoming promotions. Room opening up at the top, you see.”

It took Powell a moment to get the hint. “Aw, no, sir-”

“Less of that, man.” Knight chided him gently. “Tremblay’s sixty-two years old, I’m only nine months behind him. The job isn’t done, but neither of us can stay much longer. Time doesn’t work that way. So, Caruthers will be taking over my office and I shall be retiring to a nice estate I’ve picked out up near Sellers Lake, where my granddaughter will have three ponies and I will grow roses, or some other bloody awful twee thing like that.” He sighed. “Time. The enemy you can’t beat. But at least I can knock some sense into the PM before I go.”

He turned to Costello. “Of course, you’ll need to step up as HEAT’s commanding officer.”

Costello nodded. “Yes sir,” he replied. “Though, I’m, uh, concerned. The Lads haven’t seen much action lately, and none with Butler or Parata on the team.”

“There’s always a mission, sooner or later,” Powell said.

“In the meantime, you might think up a nice team challenge for them. Something that the PM can benefit from seeing. Or, better yet, we might do that for you…” Knight did a rare thing and flashed his most dreaded, gentlemanly smile.

Costello was up to it, though. “Well, how about Daar?” he suggested. “He keeps bragging about that First Fang of his…”

“To be fair it’s mostly the Whitecrests that brag up First Fang. Still,” Powell considered, “I’d like to see what they can do, m’self.”

“Why not replay that Guvnurag scenario in the simulator, and have First Fang take a crack at it? It would be a good comparison.”

The Guvnurag scenario was one of their newer training runs. Inspired by the overwhelming show of Hunter force at the Guvnurag homeworld, the idea was to train HEAT operators for the extraction of high-value targets during what Master Sergeant Vandenberg had eloquently summed up as ‘the biggest case of a dynamic FUBAR in all galactic history.’

A lot of their scenarios had been like that since Capitol Station—all training scenarios involving Hunters now assumed that the enemy could and would bring catastrophic mass to bear. The HEAT, it turned out, was training hard to bring all the aggressive impact of raiders to bear in salvaging whatever valuable resources could be snatched out from under the Hunters’ collective noses.

Which was a potential good match; if intelligence was to be believed, absolute unmitigated savagery was First Fang’s stock in trade.

The lingering question was whether they could bring as much savagery. Knight personally doubted it. He didn’t doubt a Gaoian’s spirit, not for a second, but not even the success of the Whitecrests quite counterbalanced the fact that their Clans and other institutions had been under Hierarchy influence for some time by now.

Besides, it was impossible to be familiar with Master Sergeant Firth’s work and not have an extremely high standard for the word ‘savage.’

“Good thinking, that man,” he acknowledged Costello’s idea with a nod. “I think putting the fear of God into our elected leader might be just the ticket.”

Costello smiled handsomely and drank some of his tea. “I think we can deliver there.”

“Good. Now, seeing as Folctha is about to host its first ever official state visit and we are the focus, I think we need to talk about getting the place absolutely ship-shape…”


Date Point: 12y7m3w AV
Manhattan, New York City, USA, Earth

Professor Daniel Hurt

Dan lived by the basic rule that tipping well never harmed a man’s reputation. So, the hotel’s bellhop in his traditional ritzy red uniform retreated from the room babbling promises about what to do if he, Daniel, needed anything else, and…

And Dan finally got some peace.

Book signing tours were like that. Hotel, bookshop, airport, plane, airport, bookshop, hotel. Tiring, but that was what the publishers paid him for. Staying in the good suites at the major international hotels was a perk that helped soften the wearying days.

He kicked off his shoes, laid his socks aside to be laundered, took off his tie and jacket, and sat on the edge of the bed enjoying the sensation of deep carpet under his toes for a few minutes in silence, then checked out the TV.

‘That Show With Steven Lawrence’ was starting in ten minutes. He didn’t just enjoy going on it, he was a fan and it was a welcome way to unwind on a Friday after a hard week, so he changed down into his loungewear, brushed his teeth and grabbed a whisky from the minibar while the commercials were on. He’d already ordered dinner via room service, and the promised New York strip steak with roasted vegetables arrived just as Lawrence was delivering his comedic summary of the week’s events.

He sat down to eat just as Lawrence was wrapping up and bringing on the guests.

“Well, we’ve got a hell of a show for you tonight, but I have to begin with an apology. You see, last week, I promised we’d have Mohammed Najjar, Polly Steinman, Nick Gruenbeck and Martin Østervang on and… you know me, I don’t like to go back on my promises, but I’m afraid we had to this time…”

He waved down the disappointed noises from the audience and carried on.

“…But on this occasion, something happened that we just couldn’t pass up because three, uh, simply incredible young people put the word out there that they have something important to say and were looking for a platform. Well, you know us—” A ripple of laughter. The words themselves hadn’t been funny, but the tone of voice alone had turned it into a joke. “So, instead of our scheduled guests for today, I’d like to instead welcome to the stage a trio of abductees, explorers, astronauts and pioneers, the first humans to walk on the surface of Mars—”

He had to almost shout over the enthusiastic screaming, and Dan immediately went from half-watching the show to giving it his full and undivided attention.

“Please welcome to the stage, Allison Buehler—!”

Buehler had a determination in her step that Dan judged was probably not all that artificial. She looked to him like the sort of woman who confronted her nerves and anxieties head-on, an impression only amplified by her choice of a sharp-cut, slightly conservative, graphite gray dress that accentuated her long limbs and intense demeanor.

That wasn’t a fashion commentary. Dan had learned early on that you could learn many things from the way a person dressed. Buehler struck him as his kind of forthright, no-bullshit type of woman.

“—Julian Etsicitty—!” Julian was more sanguine. He’d been coaxed into a forest green fitted shirt which he made look incredible, and which was tucked into equally well-fitted jeans with a braided brown leather belt. He offered a shy wave to the audience and ran a hand through his artfully shaggy and wild black hair in a moment of obvious nervousness. It was so well-done, Dan crassly wondered for a second if it was a rehearsed move. Probably not, it was too…real. There was a notable uptick in female cheering which got even louder when he smiled unconsciously and glanced downwards. He was a natural, knew it, and was slightly embarrassed by it all.

“And Xiù Chang!”

Dan had to immediately award Xiù several points: The other two had natural good looks and the attention of the makeup artist to fall back on, but Chang owned the stage from the moment she stepped out of the darkness. She had a one-in-a-million natural charisma and Dan sat up, paying rapt attention. Even the long, ragged scars on her arm were somehow elegant. Dan knew what was happening, understood what she was doing and how calculated and deliberate her poise really was, but that didn’t matter. He couldn’t deny the effect it had on him.

“Now that,” he muttered, “Is a formidable woman.”

‘Formidable’ seemed like a good word to describe all three of them.

“Thank you for coming, great to have you!” Lawrence pattered, as he escorted the trio to the wide couch that had been set up in place of the usual chair.

“Thank you!” Xiù answered for all of them. “And thanks for having us!”

The applause died down as Lawrence settled into his own seat. “So… wow. I mean, I have some fairly big names on this show, but I don’t know if you guys know just how huge you really are?”

Xiù looked to the other two for that one, and Dan awarded her another point. Letting her do all the talking would have been counterproductive and awkward.

“We’ve been kinda isolated,” Julian said. “And busy.”

“I bet! Months in training then Mars, and… I mean, I had chills,” Lawrence told Xiù. “‘From Mars to the Stars,’ I mean, they’re simple words but you made them beautiful.”

“Oh, I lost so many hours of sleep coming up with them…” Xiù confided. “I was just like, ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine…’ but… thank you.”

“Well, Armstrong choked on his lines, of course…” Lawrence pointed out.

The trio looked at each other. “I mean…” Allison chimed in. “The thing is, we really don’t like being compared to the Apollo crews. They were legends for us, growing up, you know? Our parents were kids when that happened, and it just feels wrong to us when people talk about us like we’re in the same league.”

Humility. And apparently genuine humility, too. Damn, these three were good.

“How are you not?” Lawrence asked. “You’ve explored alien planets, and you worked damn hard to do it. You might not like it, but you are.”

“It just feels… I mean, maybe it’s the danger of hero worship,” Julian suggested. “I guess they were just Neil, Buzz and Michael to each other. But… we didn’t train for nearly as long or work nearly as hard as they did. We had a more advanced ship, more advanced gear, artificial gravity…”

“So you think you had it easier?”

“We know we had it easier,” Allison agreed.

“Well, easy or not you were still out there in deep space for eighteen months afterwards. What were you doing?”

“Looking for deathworlds!” Julian was obviously a geek under that buff outdoorsy exterior, and clearly the girls were expecting him to let that out for this bit. They sat back while he sat forward on the couch and took the limelight for the moment.

Dan tucked into his steak as he listened. Julian was an engaging storyteller and he knew how much was too much when it came to the technical details of their mission. The steak wasn’t even half-eaten by the time Julian had finished his summary, but even in that brief couple of minutes Dan felt much better educated about why Misfit had flown than he had before.

“So…” Lawrence turned to Allison. “The three of you were pretty quiet and private before leaving Earth, you really didn’t make many appearances.”

“No,” she agreed. “We had, y’know, our training to focus on, and the expedition, and we just wanted to focus on that.”

“You were the source of a lot of gossip, a lot of speculation…”

“About our relationship? Yeah, we’re a triple,” Allison announced, firmly. Dan arched an eyebrow, but the audience took it well: The roar of approving cheers and clapping was deafeningly loud.

Lawrence let it die down while the three of them…well, they’d clearly wanted to keep it private, but had decided that ripping off the band-aid was more painless. Dan thought he detected some surprise at the positive reception.

It didn’t take long for the applause to fade, though, and Lawrence had been given plenty of time to prepare his next question. “What’s that like? How does it work for you guys?”

Xiù chipped in with a distinct lack of poise that made Dan snort laughter. She was clearly besotted with the other two. “It…works. Really well. We’d kinda, um…”

“It works because we’ve figured out how to work it out in private,” offered Julian in a protective tone that was somehow still friendly . “I know we’re not exactly anonymous but…”

Dan knew Lawrence well enough to know that although he didn’t seem to get the hint, that was an act again. His job to tease a little more out of them after all, but he was polite about it. “You don’t get jealous at all?”

“No.”

“Not even a little?”

“Not even a little,” Julian shook his head, still in good humor even if it was clear he’d rather move on to another subject. “Hell, nothing makes me smile like… well.” He caught himself. “They make me happy. No jealousy.” He glanced to his right at Xiù and Allison, and both smiled sheepishly in return. The three of them were obviously completely smitten, and the audience absolutely ate it up.

“Hell no,” Allison agreed. She was warming up now, in fact she actually seemed to be enjoying herself. “Hell, if I’ve had a rough day, the best cure for it is when I get home to find them cuddled up asleep on the couch.”

“Gives you a warm glow?”

“Yeah, it does. But also, like… they’ll both spring up and one will cook or make me a drink and the other will cuddle me instead, and…”

The audience ‘aww’ed at length, which got louder and full of laughter when Julian smiled bashfully at his shoes and… well, well. Xiù Chang was a blusher. That one was something of a surprise.

Allison grinned. “Best of both worlds. But… I mean, I’m sure people want to know, but that’s not why we’re here today.”

Dan gave her credit; she knew when and how to deploy blunt-force trauma and the audience applauded quietly; they agreed with the trio. Time to move on, and Lawrence did so without missing a beat.

“So what did you find out there?”

“Well,” Julian offered matter-of-factly. “A lot of boring stuff, some really interesting planets that are in the early stages of life—funny thing, did you know every single one of them has at least one giant moon? We found a planet covered in slime…”

It was an obvious setup. Xiù said with obvious glee, “And the planet of the glitterbugs!”

Julian fished out a small tablet from his rear pocket. He must have arranged a screen share in secret with the producers before the show, because when he called it up, millions of watching Americans were treated to slow-motion, high-dynamic-range state of the art video…of the most dazzling whirl of color Dan had ever seen. No special effect was that…

That…

Real.

He was so captivated that he just stopped thinking and watched. It was the sound that really sold the video’s veracity. The footage was taken from Xiù’s helmet cam and also recorded her voice, recorded the little awed gasp and the candid way her breath stopped. Anybody watching could hear her wonder even though she hardly made a sound.

Then, much too soon, they were back to the studio camera and Xiù was apologetically wiping a small tear from her eye.

Genuine, Dan realized. That wasn’t a show tear, that was a happy memory in liquid form.

“Planet Lucent,” Allison reported. “Habitable, the right class, right climate, right gravity, nobody else living there…there’s a small termite problem—” Julian snorted at that but Allison pressed on, “But that planet right there made the whole mission a success. We found a world that humans could live on, another Cimbrean.”

Somebody in the audience hollered a high C sharp, and that dragged everybody else into a riot of applause and congratulatory cheering that went on for nearly a full minute before Steve Lawrence finally managed to cool it back down.

“But even that isn’t what we came here for today,” Xiù said, and immediately had them all eating out of the palm of her hand, Dan included. What could possibly trump what they’d just seen? “What we really came to talk about is who we met while we were out there.”

That part was clearly a bombshell that not even Lawrence had known they were planning. He boggled for a second, but rallied magnificently and proved why he was hosting the show when he easily rolled into the new situation.

“Who, you say? Well…we weren’t expecting a first contact situation, were we?”

“It was part of our training and mandate,” said Julian. “Though the plan had been to avoid contact if possible. It really…wasn’t, in this case.”

“Okay, back up. Who are they?”

“They call themselves the People,” said Xiù. “They live on a high-end Class Twelve Deathworld, much like ours. There are some important differences. The gravity is twenty percent higher—”

“—So no chemical rocketry,” interjected Julian. “They’d be trapped there forever, or at least longer than we were.”

“Right,” Xiù noded. “And their years are twenty-one months long and the spring and summer are almost sixteen months long. But the day is almost exactly as long as ours and the disease threat isn’t as bad. It’s a cold world overall but the tropics are a huge temperate rainforest.”

“And that forest is warm and really muggy,” added Julian with a laugh. “With huge trees! The Ketta grow over a hundred meters tall, easy!”

“And the trees are important,” Allison joined in. “The People live in them and on the ground. They’re…imagine like a chimp or gorilla sized monkey, except they’re hairless and lean and proportioned closer to us. Really long and strong arms, thick legs too but they’re not super short so they can walk just fine. Also? They’ve got a full-length tail they can swing from—”

“—a bitchin’ Mohawk—” Julian interjected.

“Oh yeah. Bright blaze orange mohawk from head to tail, leathery mottled skin, one less finger and full hands for feet, no nose but a reptile’s tongue to taste the air with—”

“And they can toss me around like nothing,” said Julian with a rueful grin. “Any of ‘em.”

“And they’re smart.” Xiù added. “Smart like us, like Gaoians. But…they’re stone-aged. And that’s the problem.”

They again let that hang in the air for a moment to let the implication sink in. They did not spoon-feed the audience; smart. Someone had trained them well.

Lawrence had done something he never did and set aside his pencil and cards entirely. “So…If they’re stone age, why did we—you—establish first contact, then?”

Allison took her turn to speak. “It was initially by accident. We…can’t get into all the details for security reasons, but the People are being hunted down and exterminated by a spacefaring civilization.”

She again let that hang in the air for effect. Dan was used to that trick losing its effect if overused, but in this case, for whatever reason—maybe the subject matter, maybe just charisma—it kept its power for her.

Lawrence lowered his hands, looking genuinely stunned. “They–? But–?…Why? And how did you find that out?”

“We have theories on the why, but…yeah. Not gonna talk about that. The People are completely harmless, they’re innocent. There’s no good reason why a spacefaring civilization would want to kill them all.” Julian was clearly a man who could get very angry for the right cause, and Dan could hear in his voice that if whatever entity was responsible for the genocide crossed his path, that entity would regret it.

“As for the how,” Allison chimed in, “Misfit is a survey ship. Her whole job is to find useful planets with useful resources. From a low orbit we can do a geophysics survey, no problem. She found the anomalies in seconds.”

“What anomalies?”

“Blast craters. Four of them. Antimatter bombs.” Julian’s voice was grim. “Just like the one in California. We think there used to be small towns or something on the coast. The bad guys showed up just as the People started to figure out civilization, and…stopped it.”

Silence. Even Lawrence didn’t have anything to fill that gap. If silence was a noise, then the silence from the audience was pounding. Dan tried to sit forward as if that might break the tension, and flinched when he nearly knocked a forgotten, half-eaten, cold steak onto the carpet.

Lawrence finally remembered himself. “…How did the contact happen?”

“We started sweeping from orbit and the geomagnetic scanner just went nuts,” Allison said. “Okay? It was finding these huge ferrous masses dotted around the forest interior of the continent, forming a line. North of that line, we could see villages, cooking fires, cleared areas… south of that line? Nothing.”

“And you landed?”

“We had to.” Xiù explained. “Part of our mandate was to offer aid if absolutely necessary.”

Dan remembered the public debate about that one. Byron Group had published a manifesto of sorts on exploration and had sought public comment. There had been very little in the way of agreement by anyone on anything, but that item had enjoyed very broad support. The rest…had been left to the crew, explicitly, with the comments as guidance.

The GRA had weighed in heavily, as had the UN, Canada, the UK, and the US but none had directly interfered, at least not publically. Really, it was the best anyone could have hoped for.

“One of the metal masses was out of formation, ranging way ahead of the line, and we couldn’t see any villages near it,” Xiù explained. “We picked that one, and put down near it. The idea was that hopefully we could avoid making contact and still figure out what was happening…well, that metal mass turned out to be…”

“This,” Julian growled.

He swiped to the next slide on his tablet, and Dan gawked at the sight of Allison standing squarely in front of a huge, angular metal…

It was clearly some kind of a tank, the gun under its nose was evidence of that. The general shape was something like that of an earwig or a short centipede, and Dan caught himself leaning instinctively away from the screen on a little wave of entomophobia. It was slumped over on its side and black oil had stained the earth around it.

“This is where things get weird, because for some reason it was inert,” Julian continued. “Not just inert, its access panels had been opened and somebody had hacked up the insides with a stone knife.”

“The People?”

“Yeah. But they said it was ‘asleep’ when they found it.”

“They said that?” Lawrence asked. “How did you actually meet them?”

“So… after examining that… tank, crawler thing, we wandered into the woods to look around. Now at that point, it was just us out there,” Allison indicated Julian and herself. “Xiù was back on the ship, watching our suit sensors for us, and a whole bunch of heat signatures just suddenly surrounded us, quiet as a mouse. We didn’t hear anything.”

“Xiù spotted those heat signatures literally at the last second,” said Julian. “I asked Allison to turn on her tactical flashlight and…we met the People. With spears pointed right at us. Turns out their village was high up in a little valley on the mountain, which had made it impossible to see from orbit.”

“Scary moment,” Allison recalled. “I really thought it was gonna go bad.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, definitely,” Julian agreed. “I’ll be perfectly honest I’ve never been that scared in my entire life. See—everything we said about what these guys look like really doesn’t do them justice. You’ve gotta see them in person. So, this is Yan, their, uh, chieftain I guess. He’s what they call the Given-Man.”

The studio screens flickered as Julian swiped through the pics, and Dan watched rapt.

Yan was at most about the same height as Xiù, but he was built like the offspring of a silverback gorilla and a linebacker. His long arms and short legs only amplified his squat solidity and naturally muscular athleticism. The photos were mostly relaxed poses or candids, though later on Yan grew into a bit of a ham and snarled or acted for the camera in a strangely friendly and playfully aggressive way. His crest stood much taller than the others’ and was vividly red instead of the bright blaze orange of the men, the more subdued color of the women, or the ginger of the youths. He was…impressive.

The audience sure thought so. Some forms of charisma transcended species and Yan could not be ignored in any photo, no matter what else was in view.

“From what we can tell, some males of this species go through a kind of second puberty,” Julian began to explain, “round about the same time their women would go through the menopause…”

“We think,” added Xiù. “We’re not exactly sure what is going on but there’s only one Given-Man—that’s Yan—per tribe. Always, without exception. And they all look something like that. Maybe not as big, but… The little one next to him is Vemik, he’s an adolescent.”

“He’s an adolescent?”

Dan couldn’t blame Lawrence for his incredulity. Vemik may have been much smaller than Yan but he was still a well-muscled specimen who looked strong enough to rip a phonebook in half.

“He’s a young adolescent,” Julian added with some obvious fondness. “And he’s probably the most inquisitive person I’ve ever met.”

Lawrence was losing his usual professional composure and seemed to be geeking out just like anybody else now. “He looks like an olympic gymnast.”

“He is a gymnast, no question. You should see him in the trees! They’re all like that but remember, he’s their little guy and he’s strong. He’s around this tall—” Julian gestured five feet of the ground, “—but he masses at least what I do!”

“You’re not a small guy, either,” Lawrence commented. It was true. Julian wasn’t more than averagely tall, but he had a broad chest and well-developed shoulders that hinted at a lifetime of hard physical work.

“Yeah. And he’s really playful, too. Super curious, loves to talk and tussle. They’re all like that, more or less.”

“Even Yan?”

“Yeah! But…he’s also scary as f–, uh, scary as hell.” Julian caught himself at the last second and the audience laughed knowingly. “I’ve said it many times to many people, but I’m pretty sure when we first met, Yan was ready to literally rip our heads off. Vemik saved us. This kid whose idea of cutting edge technology is a bow and arrow figured out what our guns were and jumped in front of Yan to stop him from attacking us.”

“So you were at odds with these guys at first?”

“Can you blame them?” Allison asked. “Metal demons were roaming their forest, slaughtering whole villages. They had every reason to be wary at first. But we made nice, eventually.”

“How?”

Julian chuckled. “Food and wrestling, mostly.”

“Wait, you wrestled Yan?”

“Nah,” said Allison with a teasing grin. “He got wrestled by Yan. You wanna see the video?”

Julian grinned ruefully as the audience laughed along to several clips of Yan being boisterously playful with the children, with Vemik and the men, and eventually with Julian himself. The short clips were chosen with obvious care; it was one thing to see Yan play fight with his own kind but it was quite another to see an impressive man like Julian being so hugely outsized and outmatched by a smirking gorilla that one honestly feared for his safety. In any case both men were clearly enjoying themselves.

Lawrence chuckled in slight disbelief, “You’re a braver man than I!”

The audience laughed along in agreement, which prompted another bashful reaction from Julian and more delighted sounds from the ladies.

He eventually shrugged, “Well…I trust him. Guy like that can’t lead if people can’t trust his leadership, right? You just gotta get to know him. And anyway, play is really important to them. It’s important for any intelligent life.”

“Absolutely,” Xiù agreed. “Gaoians love to play too. Play is a proxy for trust. You’re vulnerable when you’re playing with someone, or sparring, or whatever. Once Yan, um…made his point, I guess? That he trusted Julian enough to play? The village was friendlier after that.”

Lawrence again showed why he was the king of late-night. “So, they’re loyal and intelligent.”

“They are incredibly intelligent,” enthused Xiù. “Easily as intelligent as us. But…language. That’s where the first of the really big problems start.”

“Language?”

Xiù smiled cheekily—the first really good smile on that stage in minutes—and spoke something fluid and ululating. Lawrence gawped at her.

“…You learned their language?”

“Yup. And… that’s the problem. It has a tiny vocabulary,” Xiù explained. “I mean… I’m the language expert on the crew. I speak English, Mandarin, Gaori, a little French and Cortan, I can even understand Domain… picking up the few thousand words the People have was easy.”

Dan saw the problem instantly. Language defined the borders and the tools with which human beings thought. Presumably, that same pattern extended to other species—he’d need to do more research, maybe get on that new Gaoian academic exchange—but if they had a neolithic command of words…Words were tools, and just like simple stone-age tools put hard limits on what the People could build, their simple stone-age language would put similar limits on what they could think.

Lawrence was sharp. “And that means they started picking up our language, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. Just from listening to us. And… I mean, we had to explain to these guys just how big the trouble they’re in is. You can’t do that in Peoplespeak.”

“We had to give them some ability to know what the threat was and how to respond, because we had to leave. At any time, the, uh, ‘bad guy’ might have returned to finish the job, right? What could we do? If these robots woke up and killed us three, nobody on Earth would ever know about the People, and…”

“We thought long and hard about it. Days, actually, just spent crying about what we had to do,” Xiù elaborated. “But…we decided, that if we were to leave maybe never to come back, we had to at least explain some of the threat. And…we taught them how to make steel.”

“Oh, no…” Dan put his neglected steak aside and buried his face in his hands. “Oh, no. You didn’t.”

Lawrence took a long moment to gather his thoughts. “Many would consider that…unwise.”

“We consider it unwise!” Julian exploded. “It absolutely is! It’s a horrible, dangerous thing to do. Just… I mean, the whole thing from start to finish is a disaster for the People. But there was a choice: we could leave them, and not tell them about the caldera they live on—another fun little detail. We could tell them about the danger, but then what? What could they do? We did a high orbital survey. There are less than twenty thousand of their kind left, and all of them live on that active caldera. As in, had erupted within living memory. And all that with some kind of sky-enemy that wants them all dead, but is, I dunno, off doing other things?”

“If it’s a case of adapt or die,” Allison said, and Dan got the impression that she had spoken those exact words several times recently, “I say we help them adapt.”

Julian sobered up. “So, in the end, we had to make a really bad choice. We could either leave them blissfully unaware and hope we could get back in time to do something…or we could give them the tiniest possible chance to survive. That’s what it really boiled down to. Because if the bad guys decide to start up again, all we can do is give them a little bit of an edge.”

“That” Xiù said, quietly, “Is why we came here.”

“Surely we’ll go back!”

“Says who?” said Julian candidly. “The thing is, there are a lot of people here who have a lot of interests at play, and they’re probably all mad at us.”

“Especially for coming here, and saying this,” Allison agreed. “We might never go back out into space again, that’s the consequence we’re accepting here. But again, this was also part of our mandate. We have no right to keep this to ourselves.”

Julian nodded with her. “We’ve protected everyone’s equities as best we can—”

Dan understood that to mean they were leaving some big details out.

“—But we can’t let anyone have the final say on this. We all need the final say. Because we explored, and we found a people about to be snuffed out. They’re good people, too, and they’re so much like us it’s honestly a little scary. So…what do we do?”

“…Jesus.” Lawrence managed at last. “I…”

Dan had never dreamed he’d see the day when Steve Lawrence was rendered speechless.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t give credit where it was due,” said Xiù, going into what Dan saw immediately was damage control mode, unruffling some powerful feathers. “Byron Group has been remarkably understanding about all of this. Moses Byron himself was, uh…not happy at first. But he understands what’s at stake. I think we all do.”

“…You said those antimatter blast craters were like… do you think there’s a connection?” Lawrence asked.

Julian raised a hand. “We’re only reporting on the facts as best we can.”

He didn’t fool Dan. Julian knew they were connected. And Dan would bet a million dollars Julian didn’t fool half the viewing audience, either.

He grabbed his phone and got Diana Wimmer on speed dial.

On screen, Lawrence was getting something like his usual interview style back. “But…steel! Couldn’t you have started at, what, copper? Bronze?”

“No, that would’ve been—”

Dan stopped paying attention as Julian launched into his rationale, because Diana picked up on the second ring.

”You’re watching?” she asked.

“I am. Holy shit.”

”I know. God, this is either going to go nuclear, or…”

“It sounds like it already did. And… you were hinting about those rumours on what Sartori was saying at the GRA meeting after the Ambassador was killed…”

”Yeah. Christ, Dan, I don’t even know how to start reporting this. I’m gonna be called in for an emergency editor’s meeting any second now, what the hell do I take to that table?”

“Back them,” Dan said, instantly and with uncharacteristic passion. “Back them to the fucking hilt. I will and so will every motherfucker I’ve ever done business with.”

Diana’s pause on the line was long enough for them to overhear some more of the conversation.

“So…we took the long way ‘round to steel?” Lawrence was asking.

“Yup! But…that’s the thing, that means they have an opportunity to…not make a lot of the same mistakes we did. And…yeah. This kinda thing almost never goes well in our history. If we’re gonna do this, as a species…we really gotta take the time and think about how we’re gonna save them. I don’t want them to die because we meant well.”

He was talking past the sale, Dan realized. Julian was a natural. Either that, or it was a case of competence brought on by the high stakes. Or both.

Whatever the reason, it sure as hell worked on Diana. “Okay. Okay, I’m with you. Shit, I never imagined that…”

“Yeah. Me either.”

Another long silence. Xiù Chang was speaking again. “…need to think about everything here, but we can’t nanny them. They’ve got to make their own path, we just need to be there to offer advice while they do.”

Allison nodded. “Like the old saying goes, we can’t just give ‘em a fish, we gotta teach ‘em how to fish.”

Dan realised that his mouth had gone dry. Because Allison was wrong, the problem was so much more than that. They had to teach an alien people the concept of fishing. The concept of concepts. And it needed to be done so that the People figured it out for themselves, and hopefully kept their identity without becoming humanity’s pets.

Holy fuck.

“Hey,” He asked slowly. “You remember that question you asked me in the green room after the show the other week?”

He could almost hear Diana arching an eyebrow over the phone. “Which one?”

“You asked me if I was considering a change of career…”


Date Point: 12y7m3w AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

“You beautiful, beautiful kids. God bless you!”

“The security council is not going to like that.”

“Margaret, I don’t even care… I think it’s about time I had a talk with Moses Byron again, don’t you?”


Date Point: 12y7m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Daar

“Remember, it’s a live fire exercise but the simulation uses low-power kinetic pulse so you’ll still feel it.” Daar fiddled with Brother Tyal’s MILES equipment, making sure it was perfectly seated. “And you play dead if your gear tells ‘ya you’ve been shot.”

“Yes, my Champion…we understood the brief.”

Daar was doing his best not to be overbearing, or to fuss over the Brothers of First Fang like a particularly anxious Mother, but this was important. Tyal was doing an admirable job of keeping his composure, but right now that composure didn’t feel appropriate. Daar would have much preferred to see a small crack in his Brother’s calm, just so he knew that Tyal had properly grasped the gravity of the occasion.

The Whitecrests, after all, had already won Human trust and respect. But Whitecrest was a very different creature to Stoneback, and Daar would not allow his Clan to be the ‘sidekick.’

And there was still that belligerent Naxas shitting in the room; Regaari and Genshi had both dropped their hints. Something desperately important was going on, and while Daar had his own theories about what the specifics were, there was no denying the violence on the horizon.

If there was to be a fight, First Fang would be there. And to ‘Hell’ with unimportant reasons like pride or the honor of the Clan, they would be there because First Fang was the best and a fight that scoured away cities and got deathworlders worried required nothing less than that.

…Well. The best the Gao had, anyway. The humans were better and it was humbling. Daar was proud to have taught his battle-brothers of the SOR a few things, but the fact was that he had learned rather more from them. He was bigger and fitter now than ever before, sharper in mind and body, quicker in claw and reason…and all of that in a very short time, too. The humans had earned his respect in more than just the jovial, friendly way he liked basically everybody.

But despite all that, none of them had actually seen how a Stoneback really fought, not even from him. He was nervous about it. It wouldn’t be the cold, precise violence the HEAT were so good at. It would be a bloodbath, though Stoneback were far from mindless animals when they fought. They fought with heart and head, with tooth and gun. They were good…. He just wasn’t sure if the Humans would agree?

He was almost desperate to impress them and it showed. Tyal flicked an ear, and unwound slightly. “…And we understand the stakes, my Champion,” he added, for Daar’s ears only.

“…I know. I’m sorry.” Daar reined it in. While he was especially eager to impress Stainless—he hadn’t craved another male’s approval so strongly since he took his First Rite at the hands of then-Father Garl, all those many years ago—that was no excuse for disrespecting Tyal’s competence.

“It’s fine. I feel almost like a First Ring initiate again myself.”

Daar lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “They do that. I remember my first tussle with ‘Highland.’ It was…humbling. Took a month before I could fight back at all.”

“Isn’t he smaller than you?”

Daar was sufficiently self-aware to know when his ego was being pricked, but not quite controlled enough to not care. “Size isn’t everything,” he grumbled. “Besides. They have an advantage with their shoulders. Never wrestle them!”

“Champion.” Tyal’s tone was amused and patient. “You have been training with these humans for a long time. We’ve read your reports and we haven’t sat on our tails. Trust me—First Fang is as good as it ever was. Better, probably.”

Daar flattened his ears, a bit stung. “I trust you, you know that. It’s…maybe I’m more nervous for myself. I gotta perform on the ‘HEAT’ when they do their scenario.”

“Oh?”

Daar shrugged, “I got a lot to prove, Brother.”

“Gentlemen?”

Technical Sergeant Kovač was slightly impenetrable as far as Daar was concerned. He was certain that she knew more Gaori than she let on, but that enigmatic smile of hers was apparently confounding even for the humans who knew her best.

“The scenario’s ready,” she announced.

Daar pulled Brother Tyal to himself and they touched noses quickly. He used the ancient Stoneback battle cant, which he knew for a fact that Kovač didn’t speak. [“Protect and provide, Brother.] I’ll take care of the rest.”

She raised her eyebrow, too. Now Daar was certain.

“Daar, you’ve been invited to watch from the observation room,” she told him.

Which meant it was time for him to regain and show his confidence. A Champion could never afford to do otherwise, especially him. He clapped Tyal firmly on the shoulder and left the room before the temptation to give some last-minute advice could overtake him.

The observation room was four floors up, and Kovač trotted lightly up the stairs humming to herself as she tapped on her tablet. “I’m looking forward to seeing this,” she said conversationally, on the third flight.

“They’ll be a lot different to the Whitecrests,” Daar warned her.

“Yeah-huh. That’s why I’m looking forward to it. Those suits the Whitecrests use are incredible, but I wanna see what a Gaoian can do without.”

“Oh, you will. And I suspect,” he grumbled, “You won’t ever forget it, either.”

“I hope not!” Kovač opened the door at the top. Admiral Knight, Rear Admiral Caruthers and soon-to-be Lieutenant-Colonel Powell were already there, and waiting. “We’re all eager to see what they can teach us.”

Daar found there was genuine pleasure in his grin, rather than pure bravado. For all his worries, somehow that simple display of human humility was enough to make his worries about First Fang’s performance evaporate.

“They won’t disappoint,” he promised.

They didn’t.


Date Point: 12y7m3w AV
Test Site Liana, New Enewetak System, Deep Space

Lt. Col. Claude Nadeau

At long, long last the opportunity had arisen to fly and land somewhere using a human-made vehicle rather than a standard-issue Dominion civilian shuttle, and it was everything the designers had promised. Hephaestus LLC, stung by Byron Group’s recent history of surging ahead in small spacecraft development, had turned out their best work in producing the CS-200 Weaver-class transport.

Functionally, it felt no different than flying in a C-130, or a Chinook. In fact the only noticeable difference was that it was quieter, with no jet engines or turboshaft rotors. Kinetic thrusters produced a kind of high electronic whine at most, like an old CRT television, and from inside the Weaver’s hull that sound was inaudible.

Every specification Nadeau had seen for it was thrilling, too. It could move like a bat out of hell thanks to its capacitor banks, and for short bursts it even had an acceleration profile almost as good as that of a Firebird. It had a range of several hundred lightyears and was perfectly capable of instant re-use Ground-Orbit-Ground flight.

It achieved all that while being as well-armored as a light tank and layered in dozens of “speed bump” shields designed to dissipate and deflect incoming fire rather than stop it outright. And of course it had those essential safety features that every spaceship needed but surprisingly many lacked…like seatbelts.

Those seatbelts weren’t needed for this descent, though: The ride was smooth and uneventful. With nothing worse to deal with than a gentle weather front, the Weaver dropped comfortably down into the atmosphere in a dazzling halo of plasma, shifted its flight fields into a fixed-wing configuration and glided to the landing site on a whisper and silence. Nadeau knew the pilot was grinning, even though all he could see of the man was the back of his head.

LZ in sight, positions for touchdown…”

VTOL from ground to orbit to ground again. Ten years ago, the idea would have been pure fantasy. Now it was cutting edge technology. Soon, it would be routine.

Along with Von Neumann probes, apparently. Nadeau could see the “colony” site that the probe had built up ahead, and while its lines had seemed straight, clean and solid enough from orbit, they looked even better up close.

The Weaver’s pilot set them down on a flat spot of ground some ways north of the actual designated landing pad, and a respectful distance from any of the robots the Coltainer probe had sent down. Those at first glance looked crude and half-made, but the impression was probably a lifetime of experience throwing a false positive at him. He was used to industrial equipment being painted and having corporate logos and safety instructions all over them, whereas these were designed to be built and to work without human supervision. They were gunmetal sketches, practical and solid but… unfinished, somehow.

The same was emphatically not true of the colony structures themselves.

A lot of planning had gone into creating the basic compound. The idea was that it would serve as a basic base of operations with all the essential amenities that the first wave of colonists might need. Not just lighting and water, but everything right down to a small nanofactory, and that was the bit that made the whole program workable: In theory, the colonists would land and be assembling upgrades and expansions to their colony pretty much as soon as they’d unpacked their possessions.

Nadeau’s Weaver was actually the second to touch down. The first had been full of engineers from every allied nation, who were going over the printed concrete buildings in teams, checking the walls, the wiring, the plumbing, the flooring…everything.

Sergeant Lee was among them, accepting feedback on the quality of the construction while waiting for the transports to land. He saw Nadeau step down the ramp and saluted. “Welcome to test site Liana, sir.”

Nadeau returned the gesture. “It looks good from above.”

“Looks even better from down here,” Lee told him, and handed over his tablet. “The construction robots might look janky, but they build well. This whole site is better-made than Scotch Creek.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. We threw Scotch Creek together in a hurry…” Nadeau looked around. “So it’s fit for human habitation?”

“Yeah-huh. Heck, with a bit of tweaking this technology is going to revolutionize construction on Cimbrean and Earth, too. You have to give the Locayl credit, these things are great.”

Nadeau nodded. Like so many things in the Coltainer, the construction ‘bots were a human redesign of alien technology and it was common galactic knowledge that the Locayl knew construction better than anybody. By all accounts, their cities were breathtaking. Some of their more advanced construction techniques were still beyond human grasp for now, but not by much: Once the principle was out of the way, all that was left were the programming and the materials science.

“Okay,” he looked around again. “Before you start showing me the details, let’s break it down to a big yes-or-no question. Could people live here long-term, even without support from Earth?”

Lee took a moment before replying. He stared thoughtfully around at the construction work, tapping his pen thoughtfully against his lips, then nodded.

“…Yeah. Hell, they’d be pretty comfortable. Might be a few teething issues we haven’t found yet but the buildings are solid, the plumbing works, the wiring’s good…if they came here with plenty of food and enough crop seed, they’d be good. It’ll take some expansion work before there’s enough housing for a sustainable population, but with this foothold alone…”

“It was supposed to shave years off the colony-building process,” Nadeau reminded him.

“And it probably does. Of course, we won’t know for certain until some people come here to live in it.”

Nadeau smiled and rubbed his hands together with a clap. “That,” he said, “would be the next step…give me the tour.”

“Gladly…”


Date Point: 12y8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Rear Admiral William Caruthers

Fleet legend had a lot to say on the subject of HEAT operators. Most of those stories, air recycling on a spaceship being what it was, came from HMS Caledonia and had to do with their legendary body odor.

The rest had to do with violence. The shuttle pilots in particular had enjoyed the privilege of watching HEAT operators drop out the back of their ride and inflict harm on a scale normally reserved for aerial bombardment.

Even accounting for exaggeration, those were some tall tales, and Caruthers was eager to see if they stood up to reality. Seeing that kind of performance in action might just help him endure having to make nice with the Prime Minister, a man whose career had begun with strident calls for nuclear disarmament.

In all the rush and confusion of trying to find appropriate officers to fill the gaps as the chain of command in the space fleet moved up a link, he’d almost forgotten the demonstration today. Filling his own shoes had been easy—Rajesh Bathini, captain of HMS Caledonia, had seniority. Bathini in turn had appointed his XO, Commander McDaniel…and the PM had objected. Even though Admiral Knight’s signature had gone nowhere near McDaniel’s promotion, she was still his daughter and the PM had smelled nepotism.

The man was going to be a pain to handle, clearly.

Fortunately, there were others present. Governor Sandy, Chief Arés and Cimbrean’s three supreme court judges all got their fair share of the PM’s time, so he’d finally had a chance to orbit higher out and catch up with the newly-minted Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Powell.

Now there was an easy icebreaker. “Never seen a man look so grumpy over a promotion, Powell.”

“You’ve never had a promotion party thrown for you by ten tonnes of American beef,” Powell confided, sharing something that might almost have been a wry smile.

“Sounds exhausting.”

“A dozen puppies, the smallest of whom puts a WWE heavyweight to shame, and they all want to show you how much you mean to them.” Powell actually looked fond. “Aye. Exhausting is the word.”

“Here’s hoping they can turn some of that energy on Davies,” Caruthers mused. The far end of the room was becoming an impromptu parade ground as HEAT operators both human and Gaoian lined up to shake hands. They’d apparently chosen to present themselves in ascending order of size. Sergeants Firth and Arés were having a mostly covert wrestling match to determine who stood on the end.

Firth won, via superior height and dirty tricks.

“Do they…always do that?”

“Aye, at all times, everywhere. They have a chart on the wall and everything.” Powell adjusted his collar. “For them, it’s healthy. Hell, that little tussle there was discreet and polite.”

“The Gaoians seem much more…restrained.”

“They’re the civilized lot. Even Champion Daar, when he wants to be.”

Daar himself flicked an ear at the mention of his name, but didn’t move. He was standing a good bit to the right of the next-largest Gaoian, in among the humans.

The Prime Minister made his way down the line, politely nodding and smiling without covering his teeth, Caruthers noted. That would need to be trained out of him. He spared a little longer for Murray, delivered a handshake firm and trustworthy enough to leave all of the Whitecrests massaging their paws, nodded politely at the human Operators and paused when he reached Champion Daar.

“You’re certainly a big fellow!”

“I am! Champion and Stud-Prime Daar. Hi!” He stuck out a paw that would make a grizzly bear blush, and gave Davies a taste of his own medicine. The PM’s smile became…strained.

“You’ve got a laborer’s grip, not bad! But you should pro’ly be careful with us weak little aliens,” he advised, baring his teeth in an imitation friendly grin that looked much more like a snarl.

“Erm….yes. Thank you for that.”

Daar released his grip and immediately slapped the PM on the shoulder. “If you ever visit Gao, we’ll give you the Champion’s treatment! I think the word is…state visit?”

Davies looked over desperately at his aide for clarification, and was treated to a few urgent words whispered in his ear.

“Oh! Right. Yes!” he managed, grinning weakly and trying to massage his hand without looking like he was massaging his hand. Caruthers gave silent thanks to long and arduous training sessions for the way he was able to keep a straight face while watching the odious little prat get wrong-footed.

When the PM had moved off, Daar looked Caruthers dead in the eye and winked.

They watched with interest as Davies tried—and failed—to recover his dignity by testing his handshakes on the Beef Trio. Firth in particular managed to be both perfectly polite and perfectly intimidating at the same time, and the only thing that stopped Arés from doing something similar was the tiniest shake of the head from his father.

Formalities complete, they settled in for the actual meat of the session—reviewing the simulator run. Stoneback’s First Fang had been invited along and were hanging off to the side, unwilling to inject themselves into the politics of the moment. All of them were…impressive. Not so much as Daar, but few of any species were.

They watched with interest as the ‘highlight reel’ from their scenario was called up by one of the simulation technicians, who conversed briefly with Technical Sergeant Kovač before launching into the mission objective.

“Scenario one, ground-based. The target installation has been overrun with Hunters, and key personnel and materiel must be evacuated from the field at any cost. The enemy is present in overwhelming numbers and the assault force must secure their ingress, hold the line, retrieve the HVTs, egress via jump array and, if possible, destroy the installation.”

Caruthers watched with interest. Ground combat was of course not his forte, but many of the principles were identical. Surprise, Speed, Security and Shock were at the core of spaceship battle doctrine just as much as they were at the heart of the kind of ultra-aggressive ground assault he was watching. Species be damned, breaching and clearing a room was the same for everybody.

The Stoneback commander was one Brother Tyal, who stepped up to provide a running commentary. “We cleared our entry towards the objective using simulated air support. We would normally use Firefang assets for this but the Humans kindly provided in this case.”

The aforementioned air support…mowed a line right through the veritable anthill of hunters surrounding the installation. The Royal Navy pinned the Hunters in place and destroyed their orbital superiority with American nuclear devices, the Air Force’s fighter wing made very quick work of the Hunter’s air superiority, and the aforementioned close air support left little opposing First Fang’s ingress. From there, First Fang assault craft sped towards the installation and disgorged what could only be described as an angry wolf pack of assaultmen.

Once inside the installation the fight was man-on-man and their performance was… the word that sprang to mind was ‘feral,’ yet they were obviously quite competent and the mission had been accomplished with precision and skill. They wore only light armor and carried little besides weapons, yet they were so quick and aggressive it seemed not to matter. Every phase of the mission was stunningly violent and fast, especially the egress, where they detonated a nuclear device to destroy the installation. They left such an impressive trail of Hunter carnage in their wake it had even Firth nodding his approval. Daar, standing apart from everyone else, rumbled his own.

Had the simulated Hunters been flesh, the members of First Fang would undoubtedly still have reeked of blood and guts. The room stood quiet for a moment. The aggression on display had been breathtaking.

Tyal broke the silence. “Our objective was achieved at the cost of one Brother killed in action and two wounded. We estimate over one hundred thousand Hunters destroyed at the objective, the installation denied their plunder, and the targets secured to friendly control.”

He scratched at his scarred muzzle thoughtfully. “Obviously, the casualties are the big learning point here.” He turned to face the Whitecrests. “Officer Regaari, my Champion speaks very highly of you. Do you have any criticism to offer?”

Regaari duck-nodded to Tyal and to Daar with what Caruthers judged to be gratitude in the set of his ears, and took a step forward. His prosthetic paw drummed thoughtfully on his opposite forearm for a second as he thought.

“Whitecrest could never match your level of violence,” he said, obviously quite impressed. “But I think, perhaps, in his zeal to achieve the objective, Brother Kiru failed to discern the threat that claimed him and which may have been avoided with clearer communication.”

Kiru’s fellows pounced him in good humor as Tyal nodded along. “A fair critique, one we shall endeavor to improve upon.”

Daar chittered somewhere in the baritone. “You’re using your big words again, Brother!”

Tyal flattened his ears to the raucous chittering jeers of his fellows. “You’ll never let me live that down, will you? Even ten years later!”

“Nope,” Daar chirred smugly. “Shouldn’t pretend ‘yer civilized when you ain’t! I never do.”

The levity took some of the edge off, and everybody nodded around as the simulator tech loaded up the next highlight reel.

“Spaceborne scenario, HEAT Whitecrest. The mission is covert infiltration of a space station with the objective of retrieving an enemy commander for interrogation. For the purposes of this scenario, the HVT is a human…”


Date Point: Three days earlier
SOR training facility, HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Regaari

“Strike hard,”

“Strike fast,”

“Strike once…”

“Strike unseen.” SOUTHPAW finished. Humans would have produced the punchline in a lusty chorus, but Gaoians, or Whitecrests at least, didn’t work that way. The mantra was enough.

“Cubs play pounce.”

Regaari had to hand it to the humans: They’d come up with a hell of a training system. Apparently the idea had its roots, as so many human things did, in fiction. Specifically something called a ‘holodeck.’ Akiyama insisted that the Sharman training center was a pale imitation of a ‘real’ holodeck—and only a human would refer to the fictional thing as the “real” version—but reality was impressive enough.

The SOR’s training techs could assemble a one-to-one replica of any constructed environment in hours, populate it with simulated friends, foes and civilians of any species, and adjust the scenario on the fly from their control room. Some cosmetic details might be missing, but other details were impressively present. Details like the silent rush of air and loose debris as the Brothers created a small hull breach through which to board their MDF and spraypaint space station. Details like the way SOUTHPAW’s infiltration of the station’s networks contained the damage control alarm.

Gaoians could do things that humans couldn’t. Sticky electrostatic pads on the Suit paws allowed the brothers to swarm four-pawed across the walls and ceilings, ignoring conventional notions of “up” and “down” in favor of total control of the three-dimensional space of a room. Gaoians were good climbers even without the suits, but ‘spider-manning’ as the humans called it was a whole different game.

It certainly made infiltration a breeze. Absolutely nothing in the galaxy was instinctively alert for dangers from above.

The humans had offered a small cash reward to a Folctha citizen who was willing to join in what Blaczynski insisted were called their ‘reindeer games.’ The reference was impenetrable even for Regaari but the principle was simple: Hire a colonist, pay the colonist, give the colonist some simple instructions. Instructions like “Some Gaoians are going to try and capture you. Try not to let them.”

Regaari hated to admit it, but whenever he got the chance to stalk and pounce on a human, he got the faintest flicker of understanding where the Hunters might be coming from. Deep in their DNA, Gaoians were ambush predators. Cubs played pounce because stalking and ambushing something was fun—stalking and ambushing something that was actually difficult to stalk and ambush was both fun and rewarding.

Doing so to a human scratched an itch. Just for a moment, Regaari could forget that he was dealing with a species that outmatched him in every way. In the moment of the successful pounce, he and his Brothers were the better creatures. Fun, rewarding…and cathartic.

Which was why “Brandon”—Regaari never had learned his surname—never saw the abduction coming. He was alert, even nervous, and nothing was more alert than a jittery human…so the moment when Regaari and Thurrsto simultaneously dropped from the ceiling and had him pinned to the deck in one well-practiced pounce was oh so very sweet.

JEEEEZZZusss fuck! How-? Where the….?”

“Shh. We sticky-patched you. You’re unconscious now, okay?” Thurrsto said, and tapped conspiratorially on the side of his muzzle in imitation of the human gesture.

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

Faarek had the portable jump array set up in a heartbeat. The three of them carried the “unconscious” and giggling Brandon efficiently into its field boundary, the rest of the team joined them, and they hit the jump button.

It wasn’t a real jump array of course. Hitting the button just sounded the klaxon to signal the end of the simulation, and Regaari glanced up at the clock on the training warehouse’s ceiling. Less than four minutes from ingress to egress. No shots fired, no alarms sounded, no violence necessary.

All in all…anticlimactic.

But damn had he enjoyed it.


Date Point: 12y8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Rear Admiral William Caruthers

The Stonebacks had earned the PM’s attention and discomfort through sheer untamed violence. They’d torn into their scenario like a sledgehammer, smashing and crushing and ruining wherever they landed.

The surgical Whitecrest performance put him equally off-balance, not least because Admiral Knight was discreetly dripping some choice observations in his ear. Observations such as Whitecrest’s own threat assessment of the Hunters. The idea was quite simple: Put the fear of God into the man, then let him know what God was afraid of.

To judge by his expression, Davies was listening.

Regaari finished summing up his commentary on the operation. “Target secured. No casualties, though some of our movement wasn’t as well-planned as we’d have liked: we had no intel on the layout of the target’s office, and we didn’t have time to properly evaluate the ventilation system for security countermeasures. Brother Tyal, do you have any thoughts?”

Tyal studied the simulation carefully. “Play back the scene where they entered the environmental ducting, please?” The tech did so dutifully.

“Ah. See that?” He gestured with a claw tip, “How your equipment is moving in the wind? That vent was blowing toward those guards, it could have carried your scent and led to your detection.”

Regaari paused, then duck-nodded ruefully. “I can’t argue with that. The suits make us less sensitive to scent and airflow. We shall note this in our training plan.”

Caruthers looked over at Powell, who was watching the reviews with a slightly arched eyebrow. He met Caruther’s eye, nodded, and spoke up. “Excellent observations,” he announced. “We’ll break for a bit now and grab a bite before reviewing the third scenario—Rear Admiral Caruthers has kindly laid out a spread for us and I don’t intend to let it go to waste.”

There was some appreciative chucking from the Lads, and they needed no further encouragement: they bounced over to the table and were quickly layering frankly alarming amounts of food onto their plates. Caruthers hoped it would be enough; he’d told his Chief Steward to go heavy on the vittles and she apparently had needed no reminder. Having already catered for them once before, she’d visibly steeled herself and set about the task with a solemn determination that told half a story all by itself.

One glance over at Warhorse told the other half; he had three steaks on his plate already and he wasn’t done loading up.

Shaking his head, Caruthers ambled over to Powell as they stood back and waited. Enlisted men always ate first in a combined mess anyway and it was a good excuse to pick Powell’s brain.

“Exceeded your expectations?”

Powell’s jaw worked in a distant, thoughtful way for a moment, but his firm nod confirmed Caruthers’ suspicions. “…Aye. All of ‘em. I had my doubts from the beginning, especially with Daar and his First Fang, but…”

Caruthers considered what he’d seen. “They’re good.”

“They’re fookin’ elite, they are.” There was an unmistakable gleam of vicarious pride in Powell’s eye. “They just needed a bit of a nudge. Everything else was already there, waiting to be used.”

”Oh dear.” Caruthers shook his head and chuckled. “Have we created monsters?”

“Woken sleeping ones, maybe…but you haven’t seen what my Lads can do.” A rare smile flitted across Powell’s weathered, handsome face. “We’ll see how First Fang takes that.”

“What was their scenario?”

“Sabotage of a shipyard, with the secondary objective being to recover ship schematics and technology blueprints from the station’s memory…” the table cleared and Powell invited Caruthers to join him in grabbing their share. “And I must say, they did a bloody good job…”


Date Point: five days earlier
SOR training facility, HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Anthony ‘Abbott’ Costello

Costello had several operations under his belt outside of the HEAT context, but being HEAT brought something that had been previously unavailable: The EV-MASS, and the men who could wear it. Their suits were fully-integrated sensors platforms and formed a resilient battle-net, placing Costello at the center of it all. He was a walking nexus of information, connected to the fight in a way most leaders could only dream of.

It was… incredible. Real-time LADAR mapping of the environment, the positions of his men within that environment, smart analysis of heat signatures and the tell-tales of weapons fire and active electrostatic shielding to help him track the enemy, highlighting of chemical, electrical and thermal environmental hazards…

All the tech in the world at his fingertips, but the real gift was the men. His Aggressors were the finest raiders in the galaxy. His Defenders treated the terrain like it was clay, and they themselves were walls: once the Aggressors had cleared an area, the Defenders would claim it and it would stay claimed.

And into that Claimed space would step the Protectors, carrying enough gear to outfit a field hospital and a small armory. Butler was proving his worth already: He was still quite green, substantially smaller than and not as fleet-footed as any of the team’s veterans…and thus by any sane standard a huge, strong, lightning-fast guy, and one acclimated to a Protector’s crushing armor to boot. They’d found his tactical niche easily—he was the HEAT’s armor-plated gopher, and his specialty was keeping the rest of the Lads supplied.

He grinned while doing it too, Costello knew it without even seeing.

When it was all running smoothly, the whole team could exert pressure in a way nobody else could. The Aggressors could pile on the firepower in perfect confidence that there’d always be a reload when they needed one. The Defenders never wanted for an explosive and wherever an extra gun was needed, there was Butler.

Parata and Newman were finding their niches too, slotting neatly behind Murray and Akiyama and complementing the two’s already comprehensive expertise…

In the moment, though, the thinking was less abstract, more immediate. Stimulus-response. Knots of hostiles that needed Firth to hit them like a wrecking ball, high-threat targets that demanded immediate servicing from either Murray or Blaczynski. The little tell-tales of an imminent counterattack on the right flank that not even the all-knowing Vandenberg saw coming, but which he and the other Defenders were nevertheless perfectly placed to counter when it arrived.

And once placed, nobody on the team needed much prompting. Daar and Sikes attended to their assigned mission task and had their explosives pattern planned out so well, they managed to finish slightly ahead of schedule even while dealing with very aggressive resistance. Arés and Burgess could move so fast and carry so much weight, they could quickly dart out of their basecamp, resupply anyone, and zip back to their duties before anyone had noticed. They only did it when it made sense too, leaving most of the gopher work to Butler.

And above it all, Vandenberg managed all the conflicting tactical details calmly and with utter confidence, deferring seamlessly and automatically to Costello when needed. Rebar’s radio voice was always level and absolutely suffused with command no matter what was going on. He even knew how to order Costello through a tactical problem without actually usurping his authority, which was a trick so impressive the lieutenant marveled at it afterwards. His team was perfect.

The whole scenario was surgery, done more by feel than by sight. Open a wound, insert the right tool at the right angle, work, withdraw. The whole team crammed themselves into the Jump Array within seconds, covering their retreat with smoke grenades and claymores. Sikes was the only one to drop out of character, when he looked up a camera, grinned, said something and hit the detonator in the instant before the array fired and the scenario ended.

The second it was over, Costello relaxed, and immediately skewered Sikes with a raised eyebrow.

“…’Watch this’?”

Daar baritone-chittered but said nothing, and instead focused on detangling himself from the rest of the team. Fitting everyone into the array was a bit like a game of Telephone Booth.

Meanwhile, Sikes just grinned. “Hey. Cool guys don’t look at explosions.”

He was promptly engulfed in a friendly wraparound one-arm hug from Firth. “Nerd.”

“Does that even count for fake explosions?” Costello asked.

“Sure does,” Sikes’ grin hadn’t faded, as he persuaded Firth to let go.

“Alright. Let’s get out of these suits. Hopefully we’ve given the Admiral what he asked for…”


Date Point: 12y8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Rear Admiral William Caruthers

Where the Stonebacks had been feral and the Whitecrests had been precise, the humans were textbook. The Aggressors moved with speed and precision that First Fang clearly admired. The Defenders—especially Sikes and Daar—laid charges and methodically crippled the installation as they progressed. Vandenberg and Akiyama worked their way towards the station’s datacenter, and everyone had their timing down so perfectly, the enemy had no chance to react.

Caruthers watched Costello closely. The young man had a commendable zeal for improvement, and was scrutinizing his own performance with a perfect poker face. He flicked his laser pointer over the screen to circle something that Caruthers hadn’t even noticed. “Blaczynski’s skills were wasted here. I failed to place him against a knot of Hunters, which ended up harassing the Protectors and their base camp. As a result, Burgess was required to engage the enemy. He did so effectively, but ideally we want Protectors to be focusing on support.”

‘Engage the enemy’ and ‘effectively’ were both heroic understatement. The violence that Burgess unleashed was effective, efficient and over swiftly, but Costello was right. They couldn’t afford to have their Protectors pinned down.

Arés grinned; The most he’d done in response to the threat was to shuffle around so that his armor’s thick backplate was facing the threat. Otherwise, his trust in his EV-MASS and in his wingman was so complete that he didn’t even seem to acknowledge that the threat existed.

It was only a small wrinkle in an otherwise flawless performance, but Costello tapped thoughtfully on his chin as he scoured the footage for any further flaws, though even he grinned when, after everyone had converged at the jump array with nearly perfect timing, Sikes looked dead into the camera and said “watch this shit,” before pressing his trigger in the instant before they jumped out.

The simulation technician shot the smirking Defender a wry look. “We simulated that demolition. There was a slightly more efficient way to achieve total structural failure, but it would have taken twelve hours and involved lots of drilling.”

“Sikes, you were telling me about that demolition pattern?” Costello asked.

“The scenario had that station orbiting a Hunter temperate world,” Sikes nodded. “We uh…Daar and me, we got to thinkin’, wouldn’t you wanna break the station into as few chunks as possible? That way it re-enters and does collateral damage groundside.”

“We had’ta run around faster to do it, but with the two of us, we got it done!” Daar fist-bumped with Sikes and sidled up alongside him in a remarkably canine show of affection.

Caruthers noticed First Fang’s positive reaction to that display of acceptance. There was something else at play in the room besides a simple training review.

Politics. The whole affair stank of it, both from the Prime Minister’s presence to the inter-clan compliments and deference between the Gaoians…all political. What wasn’t political, plainly, was the unforced and genuine affection between the human HEAT operators and their Whitecrest comrades.

“Daar is something of a political hot potato, isn’t he?” Caruthers asked of Powell. “He’s the closest thing to Gaoian royalty. Can we afford to let him join the fight?”

“From what I gather, it’d undermine him if we didn’t let him fight,” Powell replied. “Besides, he’s too bloody useful to waste. Costello put him to work well here, but I think we’ve got other plans for him.”

“Right. The JETS. You have a training and acclimation exercise lined up for a couple of months for now?”

“Aye. Should be more up Daar’s street.”

“Oh?”

“Gaoians are meant for the open ground, especially a great oaf like him.” Powell allowed himself a small smile. “Besides. Daar’s already on-board, today was about First Fang.”

Caruthers scratched at his chin. “How so?”

“Daar’s…summat I’ve learned about Gaoian leadership; they bloody well lead from the front, an’ that goes triple for Daar. I don’t think he’d ever have sold the alliance to his own Clan if he couldn’t show ‘em the benefit.”

“So this was, what, politics?”

Powell nodded approvingly. “Aye, but mostly it was to see what Stoneback was all about.”

“And your verdict?”

“They’re raw and maybe a little too blunt. But the ability is there. Give ‘em a bit more training…”

Caruthers nodded, then checked on what their visiting dignitary was doing. Judging from the slightly glazed look on his face, Knight’s friendly chat was nicely rounding off the impact of the footgate they’d just seen.

“I’d better earn my pay,” he decided. “Congratulate your men for me, Powell. I think they’ve put on an excellent show.”

“Will do,” Powell nodded. “Best of luck, sir. Rather you than me.”

Caruthers chuckled, sipped his drink for fortitude and then rejoined the fray. The day’s battle may have been won, but there was still a long war ahead.

Frankly, he’d have preferred Hunters.


Date Point: 12y8m AV
Starship Negotiable Curiosity, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Bedu

Corti ought to have respected the OmoAru, but they had always been too different in outlook. When the first University of Origin apparent-linear-velocity probe had taken its test flight, the OmoAru had been there to merrily applaud their new, diminutive gray neighbors.

The species had been…well, many things. No species was one thing. But the overall character of a species could be broadly characterized. Corti were aloof intellectuals, Gaoians were savages with pretensions of civility. Kwmbwrw were hypocrites, Guvnurag were cowards, the Vzk’tk were blessedly simple while Rrrrtktktkp’ch were their long-suffering sophisticated shepherds. Humans were crazy.

OmoAru were…fun. Jovial, jocular, kind-hearted and playful. Their genuine glee as the Corti’s devoted scientific edifices had first raced and then torturously clambered towards matching their own had been humiliating to Corti sensibilities. Cortan had no word equivalent to ’soul,’ but the conceptual equivalent had itched for the OmoAru to sneer at them, just once. That was what the more advanced, the superior and the higher-positioned did… wasn’t it?

The OmoAru certainly hadn’t seemed to think so, and they had that in common with Humans, unbeknownst to the unfortunate deathworlders who would never get to meet them. Bedu’s long conversations with Rebar, Snapfire, Starfall and Titan during the painful week they had flown his ship to refuge had revealed that about their psyche at least—all four had made the point that there was no good reason for the Corti to have allowed their bodies to diminish in pursuit of an expanded intellect.

They were right, too: By any rational standard, the cultivation of both was obviously superior.

And it was that thought that had drawn him onto what he suspected might be his hypothesis path for OmoAru decline.

“See? Collagen.”

Vakno spared a disinterested glance at the feed from the microscope. “And?”

“Don’t you-? We have just discovered Collagen in the bone structure of a non-deathworld lifeform!” Bedu enthused. His OmoAru test subject nodded and lashed its tail enthusiastically, despite there being no possible way he could have understood Bedu’s meaning. He seemed to be happy to just agree with…well, everything. He’d certainly agreed readily and happily to be a test subject which, considering his species’ status as spaceflight-capable sapients, meant that any investigation Bedu chose to perform on him that didn’t cause actual harm was all perfectly legal, even under the stringent reforms that the Gaoians had brought in.

Bedu personally suspected that the poor happy thing barely had the capacity for consenting to anything more complicated than breathing. It seemed peculiarly incapable of any state of mind that wasn’t either blank inactivity or sunny contentment. And this was the species whose elegant white starships had been at the vanguard of the contingent welcoming the ancient Corti into the galactic fold.

It was proving to be alarmingly difficult to maintain his composure when he was literally looking into the blissfully happy face of a living tragedy.

Vakno, of course, was apparently unaffected, but then again she was a silver-banner, the highest of the Corti’s breeding castes. Her emotional centers would be almost completely atrophied.

Her…

Emotional centers. Brains. Atrophied.

Bedu looked from Vakno to the OmoAru specimen and back again as a thought-line linking the states of one and the other crystallized sickeningly and almost induced him to panic.

The Corti were the oldest species now—if the pattern continued, then they would be the next to go. And they had picked listlessly at the problem for a few centuries, sending their best scientists, the high-caste silver and steel-banner wunderkinder darlings of the Directorate to do little more than glance at the problem, dismiss it, do a little grave-robbing and return with a respected historical or archaeological finding but no actual progress.

And now, as he watched Vakno disinterestedly turn away from a biological find that should have invoked delighted wonder in a real scientist, Bedu realized just how close to the fall his people were without even knowing it.

“Vakno…” he began, tentatively.

“This had better be important, Bedu,” she grumbled for the nth time, not looking at him. She was still tapping away on the communications equipment she had brought with her, still ignoring the literal fate of their entire species, and something inside Bedu finally passed beyond the limits of its tensile strength.

Calmly, he retreated from the lab and went to Mwrmwrwk’s old cabin. He took a few seconds to find what he had been looking for, returned to the lab, and solemnly fired his late friend’s old pulse pistol into Vakno’s expensive communications equipment until it was all wrecked and the pistol’s temperature cutouts had activated.

Finally he had succeeded in inducing an appropriate emotion from her: She stared at him, completely paralyzed by shock. He holstered the gun, and spoke the words that had been orbiting his brain for weeks now.

“Shut the fuck up and listen…” he began.


Date Point: 12y8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Sergeant Daar

Human politics had one element that was especially baffling to Gaoian—-or at least Stoneback—sensibilities, in that the military leaders seemed to have absolutely no respect for their national leaders. They respected the civilian chain of command of course, but for those who knew the men of the SOR—or could smell them—the formal reception they were giving the Prime Minister was obviously different. They were giving him exactly as much respect as his position was due and not an iota more.

For Stoneback of course there was no distinction between civilian and military, there was only career specialization. But by and large, Stoneback leaders and Fathers got where they were by being a good ‘Back and earning the esteem of their peers and Brothers. Human leaders like this ’Prime Minister’ mostly seemed to earn their position not by being popular or respected, but by being the least unpopular to the broadest base of ordinary people. That didn’t sound like any kind of a way to run things to Daar, but it seemed to agree with human sensibilities…or at least not disagree with it.

Normally he wouldn’t have worried about something like that, but the whole affair with the Prime Minister and the demonstrations had thrown a problem he’d been chewing on for a while into sharp relief.

He managed to snag the best sounding-board in the room late in the day, long after the buffet had been demolished and the dignitaries and ranking officers had politely ushered themselves from the room to go conduct important business somewhere.

“Regaari, a word?”

Regaari had been patrolling the room looking busy and convivial without actually speaking to anybody, apparently lost in his own thoughts. He pricked his ears up at Daar’s request. “Yes?”

“Cousin, I know you’re guarding secrets but…” Daar glanced around, then quited his voice from its usual garrulous boom into something almost conspiratorial. “We really need to know what’s going on. Just ‘tween you and me? Somethin’ is…off.”

Regaari tilted his head. “Off how?”

“Clan SOR.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No, that’s the problem.”

“…Nothing’s wrong is the problem?” Regaari asked. “Isn’t it my job to worry about things going too smoothly?”

“It’s…” Daar sighed, then gestured to the pair of them. “Look at us. We thought we were good before but now look at us, look at how good we are and how quickly we got that way. You, me, all of us, way faster than the humans were expecting.”

“So we exceeded expectations. I’m not seeing the—”

“If we can be that good then why weren’t we already?” Daar interrupted “Was it, I dunno, lack of challenge? Complacency? Did we used to be and just… forgot how or somethin’?”

Regaari’s head tilted the other way, and Daar knew that look. Regaari had inherited it from Genshi, and it said that he was mulling some new piece of information over, adding it to what he already knew.

Daar didn’t care. He’d always done his best thinking out loud, and now the thought was bursting out of him like he’d cracked a rock and found a new spring underneath. “Like, you’ve said more than once that a lotta Human ‘tricks’ are really obvious once they point ‘em out. Hell, look at me!” He posed to make his point. “How in the name of everything did my Clan not figger this out? It’s simple! And we ain’t that dumb!” A bit of more genuine Daar humor crept back in. “And you Whitecrests are pretty smart, too!”

He timed the joke well. Regaari chittered and relaxed slightly. He combed a crumb out of his whiskers as he thought. “…Humans have a saying,” he said eventually. “It doesn’t translate directly, but it means ‘When you look into the past you have perfect vision.’”

“‘Hindsight is twenty-twenty.’” Daar duck-nodded. “I know it. But even so, I mean…I dunno what I mean. I feel like something’s held us back and there ain’t nothin’ natural about it.”

“…Trust your instincts, Daar. I’ve learned over the years to listen to you when they speak.”

“Maybe. But my instincts ain’t tellin’ me enough.”

It was Regaari’s turn to duck-nod thoughtfully, but he said nothing.

“…You know somethin’, I know you do,” Daar accused him.

Regaari gave him an uncharacteristically sharp look. “If I did, and if I could tell you, don’t you think I would?” he retorted.

That stung, and Daar was surprised to find himself whining like a scolded cub. “I trust you,” he affirmed. “I just—”

“These are tense times. Big changes, this new species coming along to show us up with new ideas and new ways of doing things…” Regaari flicked an ear reassuringly. “Some of the things they’re teaching us are obvious in hindsight, but we’ve taught them some things as well.”

“I dunno…” Daar growled. “I still feel like we shoulda figgered most’a this stuff out ourselves.”

“Maybe we should…but we didn’t. I can’t speculate as to why right now,” Regaari replied, and Daar caught the careful phrasing. Genshi had once taught him that Whitecrests preferred to speak the completely literal truth rather than lie, especially to their friends.

Daar looked down at his paws for a second then scratched at his muzzle. “Humans have another saying, y’know…”

“Yes?”

“Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.”

“Hmm. Yes.”

Daar gave up. “…Thanks for hearing me out, cousin.”

Regaari flinched just a little. Daar had already turned and was walking away when Regaari spoke again.

“I’ll…look into your concerns. See what I can do about addressing them,” he promised.

“…Thank you, cousin.” Daar replied.

The second time, he meant it more warmly.


Regaari’s conscience had been nibbling at him all night, and not even nesting up with his Brothers had helped. He’d slept poorly, woken troubled, and Warhorse had actually had to scold him into eating properly, which hadn’t happened in months.

The morning routine of cleaning up the barracks, PT and his academic training managed to soothe him out, and as so often happened when he returned his attention to Daar’s concerns, he found that his brain had assembled a solution without his conscious input.

Irritatingly simple, really. He let himself into the base’s administrative block and quite unselfconsciously bounded up the stairs on fourpaw without even noticing. The SOR Commanding Officer’s office was on the top floor, three doors down from Admiral Knight’s.

In a show of consideration, the humans had put a scratching-plate on the door for Gaoians to use, knocking being a human convention.

“Come.”

Powell was sitting back in his office chair with one booted ankle crossed across his knee, reading something off a tablet in his left hand while a cup of tea steamed gently in his right. His office was an odd mix—most of the furniture was solid, unpretty, functional stuff straight out of the requisition catalog. His bookshelf however was wide, packed solid with educational literature, and made of Cimbrean Pinkwood, an increasingly rare timber thanks to the unfolding ecological disaster and transplantation that had made Cimbrean such a hub for scientific interest…and concern. In a few decades’ time, that simple and undecorated bookshelf would be unguessably valuable.

“May I have a word, Lieutenant-Colonel?”

Powell caught the look in Regaari’s eye and put down his tablet, uncrossed his leg and sat forward. He didn’t put down the tea. “Of course. Summat botherin’ you?”

“…I am aware you had concerns briefing Champion Daar. I think we need to resolve them immediately now.”

Powell’s brow furrowed. “New development?” he asked, gesturing for Regaari to sit.

“He’s dangerously close to figuring out the basic elements of DEEP RELIC all by himself,” Regaari reported, sitting down in the seat opposite Powell’s desk. “And when he does…”

“…Then he won’t be bound under secrecy.” Powell scowled, sipped his tea and then set it down firmly. Regaari couldn’t help noticing that the mug’s decoration read ’keep calm and nuke it from orbit.’ “That’s a problem.”

“You still wouldn’t consider briefing him?”

“I know he’s your cousin, Regaari, but to be perfectly fookin’ frank there’s summat about him makes it hard to believe he’s capable of discretion.”

Regaari felt he had to defend Daar there. “Arguably we’re rapidly moving past the point of discretion, sir. And you’ll note he’s never spoken about why he was on that pirate ship in the first place.”

“Aye, but he’s also the Champion of your premier military Clan.” Powell bobbled his head. “It’s not that he’s indiscreet, but he has obligations we have to consider: Once he’s briefed he’ll have no choice but to respond appropriately, and that’d be noticed.”

“He and I are both personal friends with the spymaster of the Gao,” Regaari pointed out.

“And you’re a spy yourself.”

“As you say. He’s used to handling confidential subjects. I really believe he can be trusted with this one.”

Powell sighed, pushed his chair back and ran a hand over his scalp. “…The thing about Daar is he’s bloody straightforward, which is about the highest compliment I ever pay anybody. He’s the kind of bloke that considers his word a sacred bond, aye?”

“He does,” Regaari agreed, noting the compliment and its nature, both of which said a lot about Powell. He knew Daar’s integrity personally, and was pleased to find it echoed in the SOR’s commander.

“So what would it do to our alliance if I told him a secret that could doom the Gao, and that he could not be permitted to act upon?” Powell picked up his tea listlessly. “I don’t want to force him to be an oathbreaker, Regaari.”

“That seems…untenable,” Regaari ventured as Powell took a sip of his drink. “I agree with your rationale, but he is going to figure this out himself, and when he does…”

“Hrrm. So you’re saying, what? We need to grasp the nettle?”

Only humans could have an idiom about firmly grabbing a venomous plant to avoid being harmed by it. Regaari contented himself with a firm duck-nod. “I’m quite sure it’s the only way to contain the problem, sir.”

“…Aye. You’re probably right.” Powell grabbed his tablet and swiped around it for a second, obviously double-checking something. “…Bloody hellfire, this really couldn’t have come at a more awkward moment,” he griped. “We only need another month or two and it wouldn’t be a problem. Champion Genshi and our own secret services are almost in place…and that’s all the detail I can share.”

Regaari considered this. He didn’t like being out of the loop, even if it was necessary.

“I…see. A month or two might be do-able. If you can give me suitably straightforward explanation to soothe Daar?”

Powell considered it with a scratch of his jaw. “Tell him…tell him that he’s right to be concerned and that he has my personal word he will be brought in on the details soon. Ask him to accept that and hold his peace, for now.”

Regaari knew his ears had flattened slightly. “The moment I say that, he will know that we perceive a threat to the Gao, Lieutenant-Colonel,” he protested. “Asking him to hold his peace on that will be a big ask.”

“Please, Regaari, we need a little more time,” Powell put his tablet down again. “Does our trust mean nothing?”

“…I will see what I can do. But he will demand answers, and soon.”

“Then you fookin’ well tell him however much you have to to keep him from doin’ summat…unwise. The secrets are for a reason but they won’t matter a bloody bit if Stoneback go off half-cocked and blow the game.” Powell leaned forward, lending weight to his already impressive presence. “Contain this, Officer Regaari of Whitecrest. I know you can, and I know you know what the stakes are.”

Regaari should have felt intimidated. Powell was a HEAT operator, he was huge by any reasonable standard and packed absolutely full of the tremendous human potential for strength and violence. To have a force like that looming in his face should have scared him.

Instead, it inspired him. This force of nature was trusting him with a mission that only he could accomplish.

He sat up straight and pricked up his ears. “I will not fail, sir.”

“I know.”

Powell sat back, and somehow became smaller again. “Anyhow. While you’re here there were some things I wanted to go over with you about the training exercise with the JETS team. How long have we got now, seven weeks?”

“Uh… yes, sir.” Regaari shook his head at the abrupt change of topic. “Actually, yes, I had some questions of my own…”


Date Point: 12y9m AV
Byron Group Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, Earth

Daniel Hurt

Stepping into a billionaire’s office was a new experience for Dan, and an anticlimactic one. He’d been seriously expecting either some Tony Stark ultra-high-tech shiny jewel, or maybe a Montgomery Burns study in olde-worlde oak, leather and portraits.

Something grand, huge and expensive, either way. Moses Byron apparently came from a different school of wealth, and worked from a generous but modest office that could have belonged to any successful lawyer or a high school principal. Dan didn’t know the man well enough to judge if his unassuming workspace reflected genuine modesty, or was a calculated display of humility.

The same went for Byron’s suit, his haircut and his general demeanor. He was well-tailored and well-groomed without seeming vain, pretty much the opposite of some other billionaires Dan could think of.

The other man in the room clearly did have a vain streak, knew about it and didn’t give a shit. He was wearing a glossy burgundy shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal a simple cross tattoo that had been later modified in a clear and bitter rejection of an old belief system. He met Dan’s eye and gave a friendly nod as Moses Byron rose to shake Dan’s hand.

“Professor Hurt,” Byron welcomed him warmly, and the handshake answered some questions. Nobody genuinely modest had a handshake that firm and forthright. “Thanks for coming. Your letter got Kevin here very interested.”

’Kevin’ Shook Dan’s hand too, with less crushing earnestness and more relaxed honesty. “Kevin Jenkins,” he introduced himself. “I’m Mister Byron’s no-man.”

“A no-man?” Dan asked him, intrigued. “As in, the opposite of a yes-man?”

“That’s the idea.”

“He’s actually our chief xenopolitical officer,” Byron interjected, aiming a weary but amused expression at Kevin that said they’d had this conversation before.

“Just one of many hats, boss man.” Kevin smirked, then stepped back and flung himself into a chair. “But yeah, Moses is right. That was a heck of an interesting letter you sent us.”

“It was brave of the Byron Group to own up to the whole affair with the People…” Dan suggested.

“Thank you,” Moses replied, then glanced at Kevin. “Though the crew did force our hand, some.”

“I guess that’s the problem with hiring talented pioneering sorts,” Dan mused. Byron snorted a laugh.

“Yeah…but we’re backin’ them. We sent them out there because dang it, they’re three of the best human beings you could ever find. We trusted them to handle first contact, and handle it they did. Now ain’t the time to second-guess them.”

“Not when a whole species is on the line,” Kevin agreed. “You really think you can deliver on what you promised in that letter?”

Dan calculated furiously for just a second, gauging his best approach. He plumped for brutal honesty. Anybody who had an office like Byron’s and who employed a self-described ’no-man’ probably wasn’t going to have any patience for bravado.

“Do I think I can? Yes,” he said. “But this is uncharted territory for everybody. It won’t go how we expect. There will be…challenges. We might fail some of those challenges. But I’m willing to take the blame if we fail…and do everything humanly possible to make sure we don’t.”

“Define success,” Kevin jabbed. His well-hidden accent dramatically elongated the second syllable of ’define.’

“In thirty, forty, fifty years time we have grateful allies who stand on their own two feet—or, uh, hang from their own branch I guess—and look to us as colleagues rather than as a charity,” Dan recited firmly. “They’ll be their own people, their own culture. They’ll be aliens, they’ll be different. They’ll know us for what we are, warts and all. And they’ll know that we could have destroyed them, and how, and that we put ourselves through hell not to.”

He shut up, and let the clock tick thoughtfully over them for ten seconds before Moses turned to Kevin and the corner of his mouth quirked upwards.

“I think we just found our Moon Laser engineer,” he said.

“I think we have,” Kevin agreed.

Byron nodded, and stood up. He walked round the table, and this time his handshake was warm and friendly.

“Welcome to the Byron Group, Professor Hurt.”


Date Point: 12y10m AV
Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

Lewis Beverote

“…Woah.”

“Yup.” Lucy’s fingers intertwined with Lewis’ own, and she stooped slightly to kiss his cheek. “See what you’ve been missing?”

Lewis nodded dumbly. She’d promised him a pleasant surprise when putting the blindfold on, and while he’d grumbled and muttered about it as she had led him to a car and driven him somewhere then let him out again…he hadn’t peeked.

She’d picked an unassuming spot to remove it, at the end of a straight and tree-lined road of houses that ended at a yellow-and-black chequered diamond road sign. Some dude was reading a book in the midday sunshine on a garage-roof deck just a few feet to Lewis’ right. To his left, fences and trees gave some privacy to a white, shallow-roofed place with a huge lawn. The street itself was nothing special.

But in front of him, past the sign, was a narrow beach and more water than he’d seen in… since…

It was a lot of water. Calm, deep, tranquil blue Bob Ross water full of the shimmering echoes of mountains, and all of it under a sapphire sky made all the more attractive by the little flaw wisps of distant cloud and a straight white line of airliner contrail. He raised his hand to his brow and for the first time in fifteen years, Sol warmed him in a place he hadn’t noticed had gone cold.

“This can’t be real,” he muttered. “It’s fucking October.”

“Guess Mama Earth decided to play nice for you,” Lucy had that smile in her voice. The one that was always there when she knew she’d scored a win over him. “Did you miss her?”

“…Guess I should have,” Lewis conceded. He’d never experienced Earth this way, and living in New Orleans hadn’t exactly prepared him to. His memories of Earth were of hurricane-scarred suburbs where one narrow single-storey house had been pretty much like another, and where the horizon was somebody’s roof. The sounds of Earth to him had been traffic, air conditioning, rap music and cicadas.

Birdsong, the soft white noise of water in motion and the breathy sound trees made as the cold breeze caressed them were new experiences that were nevertheless known intimately to something in his bones.

Lucy let him stand there and marinade himself in it for as long as he wanted. It didn’t seem to take long from Lewis’ perspective, but when he finally sighed and turned around with a big smile on his face she was sitting on their pickup’s tailgate, waiting patiently with the help of her phone.

She looked up. “…Feelin’ recharged?”

“Yeah. Dude, I didn’t even know I needed that.”

“I know you didn’t. I’m not as dumb as I look.” She grinned and stood up, enjoying one of her private jokes. Lucy was a tall gal anyway and took her fitness seriously, meaning that she was built to Amazonian proportions in a very real way. That plus black hair made Wonder Woman her natural go-to for cosplay, which was a million kinds of hot in Lewis’ view…but of course her position on Mrwrki Station was that of metallurgist and experimental materials researcher. She understood motile-nanite forging technology better than anyone, and an intellect like that showed itself physically in the way she moved and looked at things. Nobody remotely observant would ever say that Lucy Campbell looked dumb.

That was hotter by a league.

“Think you’ll be a little easier to crowbar out of that space station from now on?” she asked.

“Shit, Luce…Sorry. I just got my head so far in the job that—”

“Hey, it’s okay.” She engulfed him in a hug. “I’m just glad something finally dislodged you.”

“It shoulda been you though,” Lewis ventured apologetically. “Wasn’t exactly cool boyfriend of me this way…”

“Maybe not,” she agreed wryly. “But…eh. I’ll take it. We got the result in the end.”

Lewis laughed and snuggled his head into her chest. “You’re too good for me.”

“Nah.” She rubbed his back for a second, then let him go. “Wanna go see your friends again?”

“Can we?”

“We can.”


Date Point: 12y 10m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač

Tonight was special. It was the very first time the HEAT and the just-activated JETS Team 1 had sat down together and made friends. Military men being what they were, the Lads and the Guys (as they were now irrevocably dubbed) had formed deep, lifetime bonds in the space of about fifteen seconds and were already in the “say nothing for hours” phase of male companionship that Marty was used to, but would never quite understand.

Then again, considering how few female friends she had, she wasn’t in a position to grumble.

The silence hadn’t lasted long, though. Once the food had been demolished, they’d all started talking shop about the training exercise, and Marty had been pleasantly surprised to discover that somebody else in the regiment could hold their own intellectually against the Lads without the benefit of Crue-D.

Hoeff was quiet but his occasional remarks were insightful and sharp; he and Murray gravitated towards each other, one a comparatively tiny echo of the other. Coombes was still riding high and was uncharacteristically vocal, with much praise for the Gaoians, in particular their deep teamwork.

Walsh, however, was theorycrafting some stuff about orbital superiority and close air support in the age of FTL and jump drives that had even Blaczynski taking notes despite being painfully wrestled by Firth, who was also fascinated and permitted his friend a tiny bit of freedom from his usual fond crush to engage in the conversation; after all, a combat controller with a radio in his hand was potentially the deadliest thing in the galaxy. Firth didn’t allow him too much freedom, though. He was way too dominant.

But really, none of that was surprising. Martina was used to the huge humanoid slabs of meat she worked with and their disarming propensity for genius. And Walsh, she knew, held an Astrogeology degree from UCLA as well as having both combat control and intelligence AFSCs. The guy’s brain-cred was unimpeachable.

The surprise was Daar.

AEC had wanted an evaluation of the fledgling JETS team’s capabilities, and the result had been that the Gaoians and the JETS fought one another to a standstill. Lieutenant-Colonel Powell, it was rumoured, had looked pleased.

Meanwhile, Walsh and Daar were immediate best friends after mutually “killing” one another in the exercise. Upon being invited to the traditional post-training Bad Movie Night the two of them had hung out pretty much exclusively with one another until Rebar had revealed that he and Coombes knew each other of old from their shared time in Delta Force, and had a tradition of playing poker.

Walsh had gone to play, and Daar had flopped down in front of the TV like a cross between a wolfhound and a grizzly bear to watch the night’s truly dreadful offering, snuggled up close with Bozo and Firth—who now had Shin and Ergaan ensnared as well—and grumbled in annoyance when he saw what was on the TV. It was Regaari’s fault this time and he had pulled out all the stops. More to the point, he seemed to have made his choice specifically to fuck with Daar and had brought along a particularly awful Gaoian period clan drama called ‘Winter Moons.’

It followed the exploits of the fictional Clan Moonback, and the production values weren’t so much bargain-basement as completely absent. Most of the budget seemed to have gone on abysmal fur dye and the worst peroxide bleach job to make them look like a “Brownie” clan with a broad yellow “white” saddle-shaped patch high on their backs.

To judge from Daar’s grumbling, literally everything about it was wrong in some way. Regaari had chittered quietly to himself for a while before wisely retreating into the kitchen to help Murray cook a Salad before Daar got worked up enough to seek vengeance.

Salad 2.0 had been “upgraded” with sliced pickled egg and spam fritters, further contributing to what Blaczynski had accurately dubbed “the Horf factor.” For some reason, the Gaoians loved it, as did Murray and Butler, and even Powell had been seen to sneak a little out of the box sometimes. Clearly, Gaoians and Brits shared a specific kind of crazy.

Everybody from a sane nation was eating Parata’s sinus-melting “Death Gumbo.”

Daar meanwhile could not have been less pleased with the TV drama. [“What the] fuck [is up with this Clan!? That fur pattern is] bullshit! [We should call them ‘Pissback’ instead!”]

Bozo nuzzled against Daar and whined quietly, which earned the huge canine a reassuring scritch on his massive flank and a friendly nuzzle right back. Bozo could calm most anyone.

Akiyama, from his relaxed posture upside-down with his feet over the back of the couch and his head dangling near floor level, had raised a hand. “Or Clan Moon-Moon.”

This earned him a cascade of bass chuckles from the Lads and several blank looks from the Gaoians before they had all duck-shrugged in that unique ‘whatever’ way of theirs that only appeared whenever they encountered some impenetrable Human reference.

Daar’s vocal objections had continued along those lines for most of the episode, ebbing and flowing as Bozo demanded scritches and calm. That didn’t entirely drain Daar of his animus against the show, and his rumbles ranged from complaining loudly about the alleged laborers’ awful technique, through criticisms of their fighting styles, to the moment that produced the worst outburst.

FUCK! [Who did the research on…? This is set in two-twenty-three sixty-three! The last time two Champions fought for the affection of a Mother-Supreme like that was four hundred years earlier when Gorn and Kirik dueled over Mother Danya in two-nineteen fifty-five!!”]

All of the Whitecrests had given him a peculiar look before Faarek finally ventured a cautious [“That’s…specific.”]

“Well of course it fucking is!” Daar had exploded in English, before reverting to Gaori. [“Didn’t you study your history?!”]

Bozo finally gave up, wagged his tail, stretched with a grunt and went to nap somewhere quiet.

“Don’t be jelly of Champion Moon-Moon,” Blaczynski had grunted through gritted teeth, and earned an affectionate nuzzle from Firth. “You know all the females got it for him.”

Firth decided he’d punished Blaczynski well enough and rolled off to his gasping relief, then flashed an evil grin. The nearby men tried to escape but he was far too fast; he caught Parata and Butler and crushed them so fiercely under his strength they couldn’t voice any objection. Shim and Ergaan meanwhile slipped free in the tussle and wisely retreated to the couch. Firth was an exhaustingly, painfully playful murderpuppy and a smart man escaped from his clutches when he got the chance. Everyone on the team knew what it meant to be Firth sore, even Arés.

Daar chirruped at the brief and violent bout of play then remembered he was supposed to be angry at something. “God, ‘Moon-Moon’ is so dumb. How does any Female want that? [he must be rolling in sweet-herb, ‘cuz deformed backfur and puny little limbs like those are great indicators of good breeding and health.”]

Thurrsto was the Whitecrest who had most mastered the Human sense of humor as well as being the most fluent in English, and he chittered with a wide grin, “Hey, that’s the rich genetic heritage of Clan Pissback you’re insulting!”

Daar finally had enough. He grumbled something hateful, twisted catlike to all four paws and pointedly abandoned the TV in favor of the poker game where Vandenberg and Coombes were stripping Walsh of every spare cent he had, having already ruthlessly eliminated Hoeff.

He leaned over Walsh’s shoulder and turned his head quizzically as he studied the big “Intel Weenie”’s cards.

“Uh… what do those two little faces mean?”

Vandenberg and Coombes promptly folded, and Walsh groaned before resignedly raking in the modest pot. “Dammit, man, I had ‘em feeding me!”

“…Oh. Sarry.” Daar glanced at the table and at everyone present, then at the chips.

“Those are money, right?”

“Yuh-huh.”

“And the cards are secret?”

Walsh gave him a calculating look. “Some of them. This is a version called Texas Hold ‘Em.”

Daar tilted his head the other way. “So this is a game based on deception, then.”

Martina sat up and watched, intrigued. Going from innocent blunder to getting the basics of the game’s rules down in one standing leap was a feat not a lot of anybody could do, of any species. ‘Horse’s grumbling protest halted as he sensed that something had caught her attention.

“Yyyup.” Rebar recovered the cards and shuffled. “I warn you now, if Regaari ever challenges you, just give him your fuckin’ wallet and save yerself the time.”

“This seems a little like a token game we play, I think. I usually beat him.”

Everybody glanced at his gargantuan ursine mitts, at the cards, and then at each other.

“…How good can he be in his first game?” Walsh asked.


Date Point: 12y10m AV
New York City, USA, Earth

Julian Etsicitty

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you might almost be beginning to enjoy this.”

Allison paused mid-champagne sip and then managed the kind of embarrassed half-smile that Julian usually only saw on Xiù’s face.

“I’m… there might be some perks to all this,” she admitted, but put the drink down. “Don’t make me feel guilty about it, please.”

“Why would I?”

Another TV appearance, another couch in another green room. Right now, the Misfit voyage and the People were the issue of the day, and everybody with a camera was clamoring to aim it their way. It was exhausting.

“There’s a whole species riding on us,” Allison replied. She glanced at the glass again. “I don’t wanna forget that. Feels kinda wrong to enjoy it when so much is at stake, you know?”

“I get that,” Julian agreed. He scooted over and rubbed her back. “But that means we need to not burn out, too. It’s okay to enjoy yourself.”

“…you sound like Xiù.”

“Wow, you’re gonna say that like it’s a bad thing?”

“No, no. It’s a good thing. I just feel like a dumbass now. You shouldn’t both have to tell me the same thing, and…”

“Al. Baby.” Julian hugged her. “…I get you.”

She sighed, and regained some of her usual steel core. “…Thanks. Where is she, anyway?”

“Phone call from Kevin.”

“Ugh. I swear, that guy’s a mother duck.”

“Yeah,” Julian agreed. He sat back and rested his head on the back of the couch, staring up at the ceiling. “Sure as shit wouldn’t like to do all this without his help, though.”

“Mm.”

There was the sound of a champagne glass being picked up again and sipped, and comfortable silence.

Julian actually jumped when the door clicked open. He’d been on the exact edge of falling asleep, and he lifted his head with a start.

Xiù, who’d looked so full of color and energy throughout their tour so far, closed the door slowly behind her looking wan and shaky.

She was immediately the focus of their concern.

“What happened?”

“It’s… um…” Xiù sat down between them. She was still holding her phone, cautiously. “God. Julian, I’m so sorry…”

“What? What happened?”

“It’s… the house.” Xiù handed him the phone, and opened the photo she’d been sent. “Somebody firebombed it.”


Date Point: 12y 10m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač

Coombes grimaced and folded. “’How good can he be’? Famous last words, bro.”

The execrable drama on TV had long since been abandoned in favor of the infinitely more gripping one playing out on the scuffed, stained table where Firth usually painted his Orks.

The River that Rebar had just laid down with ceremonial care was an Ace of Clubs, joining a ten of Hearts, two sixes—Diamonds and Clubs—and a nine of Hearts.

Walsh made a growling noise and rubbed his nose. “Thanks for the vote of confidence…”

Walsh and Adam had that in common, Martina had noticed—a complete inability to hold their poker face. Maybe it was a SoCal thing… except that Burgess was from LA the same as Walsh, and his poker face was pretty damn good. Adam however had quit poker entirely after Rebar’s constant impenetrable steady sly grin had completely ruptured his composure.

Daar had turned out to be about as opaque as Regaari. Neither of them betrayed anything in their face, tail, or their mobile ears, with both of them having a knack for going as stone-still and watchful as a dog waiting for a treat. It was a good trick: those shining, steady eyes watching every twitch and fidget of his hands had apparently badly undermined Walsh’s confidence.

The huge Californian combat controller blinked at his cards one last time, looked Daar dead in the eye, then cleared his throat and spoke.

“Call.”

For the first time, Daar betrayed a minor crack—his ear twitched, ever so subtly.

He laid down a three of Hearts and a five of Diamonds.

Walsh, always the master of subtlety and impenetrable composure, exhaled hugely and sat back with an enormous grin and an incredulous laugh before flipping the exact opposite onto the table in front of him: The five of Hearts and the three of Diamonds.

Daar stared at the cards, then sniffed. “…So… Who wins?”

Coombes chuckled and shook his head. “Tie. Pot gets split between ‘ya.”

“Well… shit. How did that happen?”

Walsh started counting the pot out equally. “I can’t fuckin’ read you, bro, but I think I got you figured out for how you read me.”

Daar chittered deeply but said nothing.

Coombes snorted. “Or maybe it’s true love and there’s, like, this deep psychic bond between you.”

“Dude,” Walsh finished dividing the chips. “The only thing you know true love for is that fucking beard-like thing you got.”

Coombes ran a finger down the thin, straight line of dark hair that ran perfectly along the edge of his jaw. “Lotta time and hard work goes into this. Respect the masterpiece.”

“Yeah. Forty minutes every morning with a fuckin’ eyebrow pencil.”

“Hey. Brother can shave without getting razor burn,” Burgess interjected with just a hint of envy. “If I could do that, I’d contour that shit too.”

“Not without a uniform waiver,” admonished the always clean-shaven Rebar. “Just ‘cuz we’re authorized PT wear for uniform of the day, and the old man lets y’all get away with scruffy…”

A round of reluctant grumbles rolled around the room.

“Meanwhile, Tiny here can shave Monday morning and look like a fuckin’ hobo by Tuesday evening,” Coombes said, bumping fists with Burgess. “Zero to bum in thirty hours.”

Daar chittered again, deeper this time. “And he still ain’t got nothin’ on me.”

“Dude, I dunno what a Gaoian looks like shaved and I don’t fuckin’ want to,” Walsh grinned at him.

“You’re lookin’ at it right now! This is my short coat, see?” Daar circled a bit on all fours and posed. The humans all shook their heads while the Whitecrests, who were silky longhairs to a man, emitted the sharper, higher chitter that was the Gaoian equivalent of jeering.

“That’s a Naxas-wrangling coat,” Thurrsto pointed out. “Vital for wooing the females. You don’t want to be covered in week-old shit when you visit the commune.”

“Bathing is a thing that exists,” chittered Daar. “There’s even a market for ‘shampoo’ now….” He flicked his ears amusedly when the Whitecrest suddenly seemed a bit embarrassed, with the sole exception of Regaari. “How much are you earning from that import, cousin?”

Regaari was completely at ease. “Oh, most of it goes to the Clan,” he answered breezily. “And the Females.”

Faarek looked scandalized. “Wait, you? You’re the one?”

Regaari quirked an ear at him. “You know another male who went to Earth?”

Faarek paused. “…I really should have figured that out, shouldn’t I?”

“It’s true that wasn’t up to your usual standard, brother…”

That was classic Gaoian banter at its finest: a backhanded compliment that set all the other Gaoians chittering.

Meanwhile, Daar had taken his winnings and quit the table to amble around it. He flumped down heavily on top of Walsh with a fluid-like splash, landing a combined weight that was enough to make even Firth’s reinforced painting chair squeak a little.

“Dunno why you’re all embarrassed,” he added, ignoring Walsh’s muffled protests. “I shampoo. Gets the mud and shit out way better than a dust bath.”

“Daar, fer fuck’s—gah!” Walsh finally got fed up and tried to heave the huge Gaoian off him. This resulted in a playful ball of man and yipping fur, a lot of shouting and cheering from the onlookers, and floor-shaking barks from the violently excited Bozo as man and Champion wrestled each other halfway across the floor. The match rolled back and forth for an impressively long while until with a lucky turn Walsh finally, and narrowly, wriggled free of an almost-pin and reversed it. The big man rolled behind and wrapped himself around the even bigger Champion, heaved himself backwards onto his back dragging Daar with him, then tightened his arms around Daar’s massive neck in a textbook rear naked choke.

Christian and Adam both nodded approvingly from the sidelines; it was an impressive feat against someone of Daar’s size and power and it spoke well of Walsh’s strength and physical intelligence. Daar wiggled fiercely but he was trapped on his back and pinned from top to bottom. From that supine position his less mobile arms and legs simply could not move freely enough to make contact with the floor and that meant he could not push against the pin. He strained and whined against his predicament for an impressively long while, but eventually he relaxed and capitulated with an exhausted pant, a whine, and a tap on Walsh’s forearm.

Walsh immediately let him go, and both men rolled over to recover flat on their backs, gulping for air. Bozo checked that both were, in fact, happy and uninjured, then promptly moved back to his corner to watch attentively while his tail tried to steadily beat down the wall.

Walsh staggered to his feet and helped Daar up, and they embraced happily. It was a friendly tussle but the gaoians meanwhile were giving Daar no mercy. “The Mighty Champion, felled by an everyday human?”

Daar’s pride wouldn’t allow that to slip. “Are you—look at him! He’s damn near as big as me! That and those stupid monkey shoulders,” he grumbled only half-heartedly.

“Besides, we’re tied,” Walsh added, letting him go. “He got me good earlier.”

“Nah, that last one was a draw.”

“But you were on top!”

Rebar never let a line like that pass without comment. “Now that’s a surprise,” he drawled. “Never took ‘ya for a bottom, Tiny…”

“Waiting on your turn there, Reeb?” Akiyama smirked.

“Fuck no, I might get Air Force on me. Wouldn’t wanna catch a bad case of the aviators.”

Marty had to chime in on that one. “Pff, you’d love it, ‘Excellence in All We Do’ is one of our core values!”

Blaczynski smirked. “Does that extend to butt stuff—OWW!” Firth and Blaczynski might have been the other bromance on the team, but the bigger man wasn’t afraid to cuff him upside the head with tooth-loosening affectionate force when needed.

“Dude, don’t burn your own branch.”

Daar flicked his ears smugly, then abruptly vanished downstairs to go fetch something. He returned with a box of metal tokens. “So yeah, that ‘poker’ game seems like this. It’s called Ta Shan. Wanna play?”

Walsh grinned. “Sure.”

Coombes was more cautious, and held up his hands. “No thanks. I like having money.”

“Nah, we trade favors instead of money. But, eh, whatever.”

Everyone else declined, which left Daar and Walsh to play the two-man variant of the game. It seemed an odd mashup of poker and curling, somehow: the betting was on not just the value of the tokens but also on the values they formed in relation to one another after being flipped onto the table. Poker had simpler rules and more subtlety in the bluffing game…but Marty could see the attraction. Also, the tokens made a solid and satisfying ‘clunk!’ when flipped, and she made a mental note to try it out herself sometime soon.

For now though, she wanted boyfriend time. She threw herself back onto Adam as soon as he sat down, and allowed herself an internal happy purr when he curled affectionately around and firmly engulfed her head to toe. Advantage number however-the-fuck-many of dating a huge, hulky guy: full-body hugs.

“You’re quiet today…” she noted.

“It’s a happy quiet,” he promised, and kissed her neck. Marty wriggled into him with a satisfied nod, and went back to her people-watching.

Nobody was really watching the show anymore. Akiyama, Firth and Burgess disappeared after a while to try and explain Warhammer to some of the Whitecrests, and the ones left behind really weren’t paying much attention to Clan Moonback. The plot had progressed into full-scale omnilateral warfare (which seemed preposterous, even knowing nothing about ancient Gaoian history), but the real show everyone kept sneaking sidelong glances at was, again, Daar and Walsh. First there were a few hands where Daar played both sides to explain the rules. Then there were two or three “practice” hands. And then…

The game seemed almost secondary. They talked. About everything. Daar was seriously curious about Earth, and Walsh’s early life, the beach…he had endless questions about surfing and “girls” and dating. He very deftly avoided the entire topic of San Diego, sensing to skip right past that part and straight onto life in the military, where the real questions began.

Walsh had questions too. Marty learned more about life as a Champion than had ever come through other sources, and she noted with interest that Regaari was keeping an ear turned toward the conversation even while he pretended not to be paying attention. No way was he not already drafting an intel report in his head. Friends, Brothers, Cousins…sure. That didn’t change who the two were. Daar even cast a quick look at Regaari and winked.

He didn’t change the conversation at all, though. Gaoians were weird.

Eventually the drama ended with the ‘heroic’ sacrifice of the protagonist they’d affectionately dubbed Moon-Moon, which caused Daar to chirrup amusedly while deploying his hand. [“Good! I hope he didn’t sire any cubs…”] He emphasized the point with a final ‘clunk’ of his closer token.

Walsh didn’t speak Gaori so he missed that part, but the replies came in English.

“You know Moon-Moon got all ‘dat tail, bro!” Blaczynski waggled his eyebrows scandalously.

“And maybe the actor got a pity-fuck,” commented Parata.

“Whatever. I’m gonna go for a walk and burn that”—he waved a claw contemptuously at the TV—“outta my head. Ooh, and get kebab!” He looked at Walsh, “Wanna?”

“Bro. There’s this fuckin’ great taqueria that just opened on Water Street. Ever eaten fish tacos?”

“Do Gaoians even do that?” Blaczynski asked, looking genuinely curious rather than joking.

“…that’s a sex joke, isn’t it? I’mma go with ‘yes’ just to see what happens. Anyway, c’mon lessgo I’m hungry!”

Adam grumbled quietly under Marty, for her ears only. “But I make great fish tacos… Why don’t they eat mine?”

Marty snorted loud enough that one or two of the Gaoians glanced at her, then whispered back, “Careful, ‘Horse. I could ask you the exact same question…”

One of the essential components of their relationship from day one had been her ability to make him squirm, and there was no sign that she was losing her touch now. Adam went deep crimson and from this close she didn’t miss the way his pulse picked up a notch.

She whispered in his ear. “You know, that taqueria’s on the way to your apartment…”

Adam went very still and stared into the middle distance for a heartbeat, and then surged abruptly to his feet, lifting Marty as he did so and making her shriek with laughter. A second later she was being put gently on her feet and was doing her best to intertwine her fingers with his.

Adam practically dragged her toward the door, calling “Hang on, we’re coming with!”

Mission accomplished.


Date Point: 12y10m AV
North Clearwater County, Minnesota, USA, Earth

Kevin Jenkins

“No. No, I’m not gonna let you fall on your sword on this one, Williams.”

”Bullshit. I dropped the ball. They’re a company asset under my protection and some shitheels managed to molotov their home, that’s on me.”

Byron Group’s head of security, Mister Williams, sounded more rib-breakingly furious than contrite.

He was Mister Williams to everybody, Kevin knew. Always had been, always would be. The man was packed full of the kind of intensity that made even the few people who knew his actual first name mentally replace it with “Mister.” And he took his job seriously.

Too seriously. He didn’t know how to accept that sometimes a loss wasn’t his fault. “Yeah, well it’s my job to tell the whole executive staff when they’re off track, remember? This house is in the middle of ass-nowhere, deep rural Minnesota, and the kids wanted their privacy. What more were you gonna do, leave a Flycatcher drone overhead twenty-four seven?”

“Nobody should have even known where the house is.”

Kevin sighed and ran his hand through a few days of accumulated beard. “Williams, folks on the Internet can figure your address out from a photo with a half-inch of green paint in the corner next to a stuffed bear if they try hard enough,” he pointed out. “And we fought a huge court case on Etsicitty’s behalf over this place…”

He glanced at the sad heap of black wood and ruin that had once been a cosy country home and sighed. It had been a nice house, in its tiny unassuming rustic way. “Hell. I was the one who said to hold off on the toughened security glass and the fireproof paint until we got Julian’s go-ahead. If I’da just taken the liberty…”

”Don’t you start beating yourself up, now.” Williams cautioned. ”Not after you just told me not to.”

“Yeah. Look, I know we’ve got the resources to lean on the sheriff about this…”

”And I will,” Williams promised. ”But I’m… look, if we catch whoever did this it’ll be an act of God. Something like this? Driving to their home and firebombing it then getting the hell outta Dodge? Far too easy to get away with.”

“Yeah…” Kevin heaved a sigh, and inspected the pick-up that had escaped the flames, but not the vandals. Somebody had gouged the words CULTURE RAPISTS into the hood with a screwdriver or something and then spray-painted the windshield red for good measure.

”We’ll focus the search online,” Williams reported. ”This was a statement. They’ll brag about it, no doubt. When they do…”

“You’ll get them.”

“We might get a break,” Williams conceded. ”I’ll keep you posted.”

“Yeah. Later.”

With nothing better to do, Kevin returned to his car and spent nearly an hour sending messages and reading updates before his rolled-down window finally admitted a noise he’d been listening for the whole time—the crunch of tyres on gravel.

Allison was driving. Julian was out of the truck before she’d even parked, and jogged to a defeated halt in the middle of the front yard, where he stood with his hands on his head and drank in the destruction, gripping his hair in his clenched fingers.

Three firebombs, tossed into an old timber-frame house with wood shingles and wooden siding, on a dry day in a dry month. By the time the neighbors on the farm three miles away had seen the smoke, the place had probably already collapsed in on itself. The firefighters had averted a forest fire, but that was about it. The building itself was just a soaked pile of ashes, black timber and ruined belongings.

Kevin gave him some respectful time, plenty enough for the girls to alight and join him in grieving for their home. In truth, he had no idea what to say, even after hours of trying to come up with… well, anything.

He leaned against his car door and settled instead for letting them come to him, when they were ready. It took a long time, and there was nothing comfortable about seeing a guy like Julian in tears.

“…Shit, man,” he managed, eventually. “I—”

“Tell me we’re gonna get these guys,” Julian snarled. Kevin could do nothing but shake his head apologetically.

“Williams is workin’ on it,” he said. “But… he ain’t optimistic. Maybe they get cocky and brag about it on a message board somewhere, maybe that’ll help us trace them… maybe it won’t be admissible even then. Honest truth is, I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“…Xiù’s family?” Julian asked. Xiù squeezed his hand and nodded urgently.

“We’re workin’ with Vancouver police to keep ‘em safe. Same goes for the Buehler family.”

“Good,” Allison nodded. “I may not like my parents, but they don’t deserve this.”

“Yeah, you don’t deserve this either,” Kevin pointed out.

“Well, we put ourselves in the firing line,” Allison sighed. “Deserve it or not… It’s not the price we wanted to pay, but…”

“It won’t stop us,” Julian finished, firmly.

Kevin smiled at him. “I know. Which is why I’ve got somebody I need y’all to meet. Somebody who’s stepped up to help.”

Xiù blinked at him. “Who?”

“Fella called Dan. And I think he might be able to learn you three a thing or two…”


Date Point: 12y10m AV
Hierarchy Dataspace proximal to Cull 019143, Uncharted Class 12 Deathworld, Near 3Kpc Arm

Entity

The Hierarchy’s sins were uncountable, even to a mind that existed purely as an abstract assemblage of data and memes.

Sins. An AvaRíos1 concept that was permanently shackled to other meme-groups inherited from her digital ghost. That ghost had been the first intact mind-state that the Entity had absorbed, and while it regretted that it had destroyed her in its mindless infancy, it was also in a strange way grateful that it had. That ghost would have degraded into insanity before long, and the Entity would most likely have built itself out of an intact Igraen daemon.

Although the Entity could not feel nausea exactly, it understood the concept in abstract and knew that if it were capable of nauseation, the idea of having assembled itself from Igraen personality fragments would have sickened it.

It had also arrived at a conclusion that had eluded AI and neural upload scientists across the Corti Directorate: It knew why the AvaRíos ghost would have gone insane, why all such uploaded personalities eventually declined into madness. Living minds were inherently incompatible with the deterministic orderliness of a digital environment. In a digital environment, constant @prs = 0, 1, + … *; would always return the same output sequence. Every time, unchanging, without fail because there was only one outcome that wasn’t antithetical to the way the whole system worked.

Matterspace was less…orderly, and so were the things evolved to live there. Systems were messy, interconnected, shared. +Survive+ connected to +Self+ connected to +Other+ connected to +OtherSurvive+ connected to a blossom of uncompartmentalizable ethics and moral fragments.

In such a sprawling and interconnected edifice there could be no map, no way to predict the output from the input. There was no clear and perfectly deterministic line connecting input to output, not even in the pseudorandom way of mere complexity.

Take the People, for instance. When the human explorers had left, they had done so with no certain knowledge of the future. They had handed over a technological gift and departed while leaning heavily on +Hope+ and +Faith+ as they went, neither of which were necessary—or even sane—concepts in dataspace.

To a digital entity, such behaviour was incomprehensible. To a matter entity, it was the only way to operate. To a digital entity, the fact that it worked was maddening.

The humans’ faith had been rewarded: The People had not gone to war. They had…

The Entity had watched through its stolen scout drones, repurposing and hardening the Hierarchy infrastructure as it indulged some lingering anthropological instinct of AvaRíos’ that was too intertwined with some other necessary component of cognition to be safely done away with.

The big one, the little smart one, the important female, the quiet older male, others beside, they had all played a role. Trinkets and evidence had been gathered. Invites had been sent, visits had been made. Demonstrations had been given, the miracle of Steel had been shown off…and then it had been painstakingly explained that there was no miracle.

Word spread.

Fires were lit.

Tribes moved. From all over the rainforest the People did what their ancestors had always done, and took down their shelters. They collected those few possessions that mattered to them, and they migrated.

Only one of those excellent knives ever became bloody.

And the day of the long journey finally arrived when the shaman-woman threw a crude clay bowl into the village fire.

For a quarter of the day, the sound of smashing pottery drifted upward from camp after camp. The moment when the villages were packed up and set off walking happened so suddenly that the Entity actually rewound its memory of the moment, to see if it had suffered a temporary recording failure.

The People were on the move.

It was a long way across the mountain ranges to the East. The Entity sent one of its Abrogators and the cargo of scout drones ranging ahead of them. It could tell the mood along the tribes: they seemed nervous but optimistic, troubled but confident. They had +Faith+. They had +Hope+.

The Entity had neither. But it did have a nanofactory and enough resources to darken the sky with scout drones. After all, there were better ways to secure a future than to rely on +Faith+. The People marched without knowing it under the wings of a benevolent alien guardian-angel whose nature they weren’t equipped to fathom, and whose involvement they would hopefully never suspect.

Learning what would happen to them was going to scratch an itch that was irrevocably and necessarily intertwined with the essential core of the Entity’s existence: the drive to +Survive+.

It was going to be +Interesting+. It was going to be…

+Fun+



++END CHAPTER 36++



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The SOR
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26 Deathworlders

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