Chapter 39: "The Nirvana Cage"

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Date Point: 13y4m AV
Hierarchy Communications Relay, Session 18 262 580 599, Dataspace

Entity, Instance 19

The Entity had a delicate balancing act to perform when infiltrating the core of the Hierarchy’s decision-making process. Higher-ranked Igraens had access to more information and even direct contact with 0002 but were under ever-tighter scrutiny and pressure to adhere to the Hierarchy’s dogma.

Lower ranks enjoyed a certain liberty to be the voice of constructive dissent. They were the system’s ‘devil’s advocates,’ who could propose counter-doctrinal ideas without automatically becoming the target of suspicion and thus were easier to infiltrate while avoiding suspicion…at the expense of having sharply curtailed influence.

The Entity had solved the issues this raised by calving off copies of itself to infiltrate the Hierarchy on multiple levels. It had avoided the single-digit ranks, but there were Entity instances embedded among the Hierarchy all the way from the high thousands right down to Instance-19, which had successfully infiltrated the double-digits and had been successfully posing as 0094

Its Prime Instance remained absent. 0665 was still, as far as the Hierarchy’s inner circle knew, diligently exterminating the natives of an unimportant class twelve deathworld in the Near 3Kpc Arm, and would remain in that role for the plausible duration of the cleansing.

Besides: 0665 had killed the Entity. The Hierarchy believed that the threat was dead and gone and were no longer being cautious, and it was that lack of caution that had allowed the Entity’s nineteenth instance to creep so close to their core and listen in on their daily high-end planning sessions. Sessions in which, helpfully, the higher-numbered listened to their superiors talk and were expected to remain respectfully silent.

++0004++: The new Control Species initiative is now unacceptably off-target. Contact with the deathworlders has pushed them outside of their projected development profile.

++0013++: Elements of their leadership were always difficult to influence. There are traditionalist factions which remain implant-averse.

++0009++: An attitude which is spreading at an alarming pace. “The Humans don’t use implants,” they argue.

++0010++: That argument is pathetically illogical.

++0009++: And yet it persuades them. Our avenues of infiltration are narrowing: Very few of the Champions are implanted now, and those that are belong to the less influential Clans. The most influential remaining candidate is Turan, of Ironclaw.

<NewControlSpecies> = <Gaoians>, then. And <Gaoians> had hitherto = <HumanAlly> = <pHumanSurvival+X>

The Entity ran a number of rapid assessments about the nature of a Control Species, what its role might be and why the Hierarchy might seek to engineer a new one, which had yielded little in the way of concrete hypotheses when one of the lower-level agents in the room ventured to lodge a query.

++0082++: I remain confused as to why we need a new control species. The Discarded still serve adequately in that role, do they not?

++0011++: <Condescending amusement> Substrate Species will always require a control to keep their threat-detection aimed outwards, at a Control Species that is under our influence.

++0009++: We also require that the Substrate Species remain healthy. That is, alive, sapient and technologically robust within the parameters laid out by the endgame protocol. Physical life forms of all kinds require adversity. It is important that we can control their adversary.

++0011++: We have been compelled to burn the Discarded as such an asset, now: They have been granted access to technology which will disrupt the balance.

++0082++: We foresaw the need to use the Gaoians as such a species?

++0004++: A long-standing contingency. Every generation has included a potential New Control Species. This is the first time we have needed to activate that contingency. But now this one has been disrupted, which places us in a difficult position.

++0014++: We have inadvertently created a species that can compete with deathworlders. Acceptable if they are to function as a control, but we cannot permit them to be beyond our influence.

++0023++: Have we reached the point where they must be written off?

++0009++: Not yet. If we had an alternative then yes we would, but for now it remains in our best interests to attempt to salvage them. The new rift between the Females and the Stonebacks may be the opportunity we need.

++0004++: They are close to the event horizon, however—0002 has made it clear that we will not tolerate further setbacks.

++0010++: Then we will direct our efforts toward widening that rift. If we can use it to divide the male Clans as well…

++0014++: Especially Whitecrest and Stoneback…

++0010++: Yes. A division between those Clans would rescue the situation.

++0004++: <Resolve> Make it happen, or else determine quickly that it is not possible.

The Entity carefully signalled compliance among the rush of high-end listeners, taking care to appear neither reluctant nor unduly eager. The session was dismissed and again it chose its moment to disconnect carefully, leaving early but not alacritously.

<GaoiansSurvive> had already been riding high in its list of priorities; There wasn’t much higher it could go. But it had acquired a new urgency, coupled with a conundrum. There would be no way to alert them to the threat without conclusively proving that the Hierarchy’s inner circle had been infiltrated, and the 0094 persona was far too useful to discard lightly.

It would need to be very careful in picking its moment.


Date Point: 13y4m AV
UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Lewis Beverote

“Hey. Lewis. Level with me.”

“‘Sup?”

“These poor fuckers are completely fucked, right?”

“Dude. They are the fuckedest.”

“‘S’what I thought…”

There was a prolonged uncomfortable silence, given an off-tempo rhythm by the fire crackling. The squad had built it out of smashed furniture and wooden beams salvaged from a couple of nearby collapsed buildings, and it had exactly three functions: It heated their coffee, it warmed their hands, and it gave their minds something to stare at while they were busy trying to avoid any contemplations about the gentle genocide all around them.

‘Caveman TV,’ as Sergeant Lee called it. All Lewis knew was, drinking campfire coffee on an alien world under the crystal clear night sky of alien constellations should have been infinitely more glamorous.

As it was the whole research team was on a low ebb that mere fantastic scenery could do nothing to fix. Nobody wanted to spend a second longer inside that hospital than was absolutely necessary—everybody was sleeping outdoors in the more structurally sound buildings nearby, under the watchful eye of the platoon of US Marines who’d been assigned to babysit them.

A few of the marines had quickly made buddies with Lee and his colleagues, building a decent camaraderie on the solid foundation of mutual shit-talk and exchanging IMPs for MREs and vice versa.

“Good word, though.”

“What?”

“Fuckedest. Gonna remember that one.”

“…Is this poutine? This ration pack actually contains actual fuckin’ poutine.”

“Yup.”

“What you got, Kung Pao Chicken?”

Lee grinned in the dark. “Yup. And before you talk shit about a ‘taste of home,’ I’m Korean.”

“Fuck off bro, I spent two years on the DMZ! I know Korean from Chinese.”

“A marine who knows stuff? No wonder you got this assignment.”

“Yeah, punishment for gettin’ too smart. They took away my crayons and everything.”

Some genuine laughter rippled around the fire only to die like a match in a gale when one of the natives joined in. It was sitting a few meters away, watching the fire with the closest thing to interest that Lewis had yet seen an OmoAru show, and it seemed to get what laughter was for: it joined in, in a strange hooting way that reminded everybody that it was there and promptly harshed their mellow.

“…Poor bastards,” somebody muttered.

“The fuck did this to them?”

Lewis swallowed his mouthful of chicken à la king and cleared his throat. “That way lies madness, dude,” he advised.

“What, like, ‘some things man was not meant to know’ kinda bullshit?”

“Nothing so dramatic, my man,” Lewis picked up his coffee. “It’s just fuckin’ depressing.”

They all watched the OmoAru, who seemed happily oblivious to the attention and just tilted its head slightly as it watched the fire some more. Its tail ticked listlessly back and forth behind its head.

They weren’t completely impassive—they ate whenever they got their hands on some food and they went down to the river to drink, and presumably they went somewhere to deal with the result because nobody had reported stepping in a turd in the road or whatever—But it was just impossible to connect the stupid-happy leopard-gecko-bat-lion looking thing lurking near their campfire with the idea of a grand civilization that had once encompassed a dozen planets and had genetically interfered with two other species in the process of uplifting them to sapience. The two facts just wouldn’t sit side-by-side.

They never did anything with their hands, either. They never fidgeted or picked at stuff or cracked their knuckles. If they weren’t doing anything else they just…sat. They’d babble happily when spoken to but apparently the dialect they’d fallen into nowadays had essentially the same relationship with the Aru language saved in the translators as English baby-speak had with Latin.

But they were happy, In a dull, dumb, concussed kinda way. They seemed to have exactly zero conception of the idea that things could maybe be better. Lewis had seen one staring contentedly at a pile of rubble in the morning on his way into the hospital, and on his way back he’d have sworn away his life savings that it hadn’t moved an inch.

Lewis hadn’t foreseen the idea that happiness could be a trap. It turned things upside-down, transformed paradise into hell and gave the Devil back his halo. He couldn’t possibly get back to Erebor and to Lucy fast enough, he decided—back to things he could figure out and people he could bounce ideas off.

“Fuckin’ A,” Lee commented darkly.

“At least they’re happy…” one of the marines ventured.

“Yeah. And that’s the fuckin’ problem.” Lewis sipped his coffee. It was bitter from being roasted too long but it was coffee, and his tolerance for shitty coffee had been damn near unlimited even before he’d had to go without for years. Nowadays, a cup of caffeinated tar would have been welcome. “Too happy. No motivation. You only change things because you’re unhappy with them, right?”

“Guess that makes sense…Isn’t there anything we can do for them?”

“That’s what we’re here to figure out,” Lee said, carefully.

“And?”

“And…” Lee and Lewis shared a glance, then both of them looked at the OmoAru again. It was cooing blissfully to itself as it watched the embers drift upwards. “…Without getting into detail, what the hell are we gonna do for them at this point? Even if we can fix whatever’s going on in their head…”

“Their culture’s fuckedski,” Lewis nodded. “Total societal collapse, dude. No memes, no jokes, no stories, no history, no Grandma’s pot roast. Everything that made them who they were is gone, and there’s shit-all we can do to bring it back.”

Lee nodded. “The OmoAru are already dead,” he summarized. “That poor fella over there? He’s just…the body’s still warm. That’s all.”

“…The fuck are we here for, then?”

“Same reason we guard cemeteries,” one of the other marines said. “Somebody’s gotta be here. Ain’t right to just…forget them.”

Lewis sipped his coffee again. “You know…I spent, like, years bouncing around the galaxy and I didn’t once see, like, a memorial wall or a monument or…anything. I landed on one trade station one time, about a week after a Hunter attack hit the place. Weren’t even photos and flowers out or nothing.”

“What’s your point, Lewis?” Lee asked.

“Not sure…but I think we’re the only species who respect the dead like that.”

“What about Gaoians? They’re cool.”’

“Yeah, they are. Let me know when one shows up so I can ask him if they’ve got a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

Lee filled the ensuing silence by leaning over to grab another chunk of splintered table to throw in the fire. The OmoAru spectator hooted appreciatively at the burst of embers this generated, and clapped its hands: they carefully ignored it.

“Does that make us the crazy ones, or the only sane ones, d’you think?”

Lewis groaned. “Dude, it’s way too fuckin’ late and I’m way too fuckin’ bummed out by all this to even start on that one.”

There was a general chorus of murmured agreement and at least one “Amen” from around the fire.

“…Yo, anybody got one of those poptart-lookin’ kinda cinnamon bun things?” Lewis asked, changing the subject. “Trade you my m&ms.”

“…You like those?”

“Bro, he likes the fuckin’ coffee somehow…”

The oppressive feeling that had been scratching at Lewis’ spine began to dissipate again, and this time they managed to avoid the depressing topics entirely.

After a while, he was even able to look up and appreciate the stars again.


Date Point: 13y4m AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Unclaimed Space

Krrkktnkk “Kirk” A’ktnnzzik’tk

Kirk was somehow used to the idea of Corti travelling light. The ones he’d seen all those years ago as he processed new arrivals passing through Outlook On Forever’s security checkpoint had often had no more on them than they could carry in a few small satchels, purses and strapped-on pockets.

Then again, they had at the time lacked the concept of nudity. They didn’t need to travel with a suitcase full of clothes like a human would have.

Vakno, however, travelled like an empress. She didn’t have luggage, she had a train. Crate after crate of equipment, stacked so tight inside the confines of the jump array’s wormhole boundary that the edge of the distortion field might almost have polished away the fingerprints.

None of it was anything so vain as clothing and jewelry at least. Vakno had brought the fizzing brain of her information network, from bottomless data storage and the supercomputers to trawl and pattern-match their contents in seconds, to a custom FTLsync comms hub optimized to her specifications.

She accepted Sergeant Campbell’s help in stepping down off them and took stock of her surroundings with the air of somebody who had expected much worse than they were seeing.

Kirk was the last to receive her attention. She gave him a glacial stare, then blinked and stepped forward to look up at him with an expression as though she wasn’t two whole meters shorter than him.

“Somehow,” she said, “I can’t help but feel that this is all your fault.”

Kirk snorted, and shook out his mane. “Hello to you as well, Vakno.”

She blinked slowly, a gesture in Corti body language that did much the same thing as a human folding their arms and frowning slightly.

“…Yes. Maybe,” Kirk conceded. “I did let the humans out of the Sol field, after all. I suppose you could blame me for much of what has happened.”

“I could, you say.” Vakno shook her head. “The Guvnurag homeworld is a slaughterhouse thanks to that decision. I have no doubt that others will follow soon. You have plunged the galaxy into chaos, A’ktnnzzik’tk. Why would I not blame you?”

“Because the cycle of death did not begin with that decision,” Kirk replied. “Thousands of other species were wiped out long before the Humans came along.”

“Did you know that when you first freed them?”

Kirk felt as though she’d drawn a blade and skewered his throat. He tried not to have doubts…but she had delivered a precision strike against them just the same.

“…I did not,” he admitted, after a second.

“Then you’re merely a fortunate fool,” Vakno snapped.

“The Hunters, Vakno,” Kirk said in his defence. “I freed them because I hoped they might stop the Hunters.”

“On the day they achieve that goal, I will consider apologizing,” Vakno told him. “Until then, Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk…You are guilty of a terrible error in judgement. And I am here to put your mistake right.”

She turned and swept away, an impressive feat for a one-meter skinny gray noodle of a being, and left the Humans to take care of moving her inventory.

After a few silent seconds of doubt, Kirk turned away and went in the opposite direction.


Date Point: 13y4m1w AV
1000ft above the Lakebeds National Park, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Kevin Jenkins

The advent of forcefield technology had brought casualties, foremost among them being the helicopter. There was just no point in having a big howling kerosene-guzzling jet turbine when a smaller and quieter power plant could achieve flight via kinetic engines with far more efficiency. Less waste heat, less waste energy, and most importantly less sound. If not for the faint vibration through the furniture making Kevin’s glass of water ripple, the only way to tell they were airborne would have been looking out the window.

If only somebody would figure out what the new class of vehicle was called. Technically it was a an AugustaWestland AW306 Personal Transportation System, but folks still called them helicopters, despite the howling outrage of some remarkably passionate etymological purists on the Internet.

Too bad the pedantic fuckers couldn’t come up with anything better.

It was an amazing view, though. The best within two hundred miles of Folctha. The “helicopter” was following a straight line toward Chiune Station while the river Dagnabbit snaked back and forth below, pooling here and there in cool freshwater lakes.

A surveyor with an…interesting sense of humor had named that river after deducing that its sediments contained exactly zero gold dust, and Folctha’s citizens loved the name so much that they were constantly thwarting the politicians’ attempts to ‘improve’ it.

The Department of Parkland had put its foot down about calling it “Dagnabbit National Park,” sadly, and had picked the much more pedestrian “Lakebeds National Park.” It was the first national park in Folctha’s growing footprint of influence, and a determined nexus of activity for the Environmental Preservation Agency, who were doing everything they possibly could to fend off invasive Earthlings from the region for as long as they could.

Moses Byron donated generously to the park’s upkeep. One of his legacy projects—It couldn’t be an accident that the park was directly on the straight-line flight path between Folctha and the Group’s peripheral facility, Chiune Station. Byron’s statue would welcome people to the visitor’s center whenever it was built, Kevin just knew it.

Not that the scenic grandeur made up for having to call Levaughn Thomas.

“Levaughn, I don’t care if they’re brushing you off,” he repeated, watching one of the lakes drift by below. “They ain’t there to make nice with you, they’re there to fix up that ship and get their asses ready for another tour in space.”

“It’s disruptive,” Levaughn complained. “They’ve taken over our only aircraft hangar, and every time my people go for a stroll at that end of the compound we get questioned by security.”

“Do I hafta remind you that the last place that spaceship was parked got bombed?” Kevin asked.

“No. No, of course not.”

“Well then. You have a problem with security, take it up with Williams. You have a problem with the trio…let’s hear it. So they gave you the cold shoulder, right?”

“I just believe in a welcoming team environment here—”

“So you figured you’d throw ‘em a party after their home got bombed, their friends and colleagues were murdered, they spent a couple weeks in protection and the only reason they weren’t hurt themselves is ‘cuz of pure dumb luck,” Kevin summarized. “And when they finally get a chance to do something about it, you wanted to lay on the champagne and ice cream sandwiches. Welcoming team environment is one thing, but could it maybe be that your timing was off?”

There were an assortment of short blustering noises like “I, uh…” and “well…” from Levaughn’s end of the call, and Kevin sighed.

“Look. We’re five minutes out,” he said. “I’ll talk with the crew, see if they wanna join in your reindeer games. But right now, the exploration program overrides Chiune’s usual business and that ain’t comin’ from me, that’s comin’ from Moses. You’re welcome to take that up with him, if you want.”

Satan would need a snowplough before that ever happened, he judged. Levaughn was a pen-pusher and beancounter without equal, but he’d been promoted to managing Chiune mostly because his nose was a permanent shade of brown. The facility was important, but it was also the Group’s most remote outpost: He was perfect for it.

“I’ll…see you soon, then.”

Kevin grunted a noncommittal noise and hung up.

He watched the national park fall away behind then swapped seats to the opposite side so he was facing forward again and could watch the approach to Chiune.

Levaughn had been right in part of his complaint, admittedly. Chiune really didn’t have much room for aircraft, and its landing pad and the attached hangar had obviously been completely taken over to take care of Misfit‘s needs. A spaceship was kind of a big deal, after all. Kevin could see his pilot suck his gut in sympathetically as he squeezed the 309 down on the miserly square meters that were left over.

He made a soft landing, though, and Kevin clapped him on the shoulder gratefully as he spun down the kinetics and the power plant and ran through his post-flight sequence.

True to his word, Levaughn was trying to sashay across the asphalt. The operative word being trying—the man himself was far too artless for anything so delicate, so what he was mostly achieving was a kind of fussy, sulky trudge.

Sometimes, it was physically painful to put his professional smile on and shake hands. It felt like a betrayal of everything he’d ever wanted to be in life.

But, needs must. He could wash his hands later.

“Okay, I’ll give you the landing pad,” he admitted, turning to survey it. Misfit was lurking in one corner of it like an anvil on a coffee table, surrounded by trailers loaded with replacement hull panels and the structural components that were going into redesigning its interior to expand the pantry space. According to Dane Brown the three crew had lost an alarming amount of fitness in the time they’d been away, despite daily exercise and spending part of that time in supergravity. They needed more food, or else they would need to come back and restock more often.

Then there was the damage to repair. The ship was half disassembled for the moment: According to Clara, all the ablative anti-meteor armor plates down its left side had to be replaced, the port forward engine needed tuning, and some kind of critters had crawled up inside the landing gear and tried to nest there during their time on Lucent, only to be comprehensively squished on takeoff. Some component of its biology had been remarkably acidic, apparently.

Chiune had a hangar, which Levaughn had originally promised to reserve for Misfit‘s use—it wasn’t big enough. The ship fit in there just fine, but the shipments of stuff needed to repair and overhaul it spilled chaotically out onto the concrete until there was no point leaving the ship in there and they may as well just work outside.

Outside, where the sounds of welding, angle-grinding and ear-numbingly loud music probably made it into people’s offices on the far side of the compound. No wonder there had been complaints.

Especially whatever this music was. It was loud, it was obnoxious, and it was unbelievably cheesy.

♫—with a southern grin on hillbilly crank and I’ll do it again! And I ain’t worried when I’m down on my luck. Well son that ain’t country, yeah, that’s country as fuck!—♪

Kevin sniffed, then turned and gave Dane Brown a more genuine handshake.

Dane had raised complaints that actually had some substance behind them. It was his say-so that had the ship’s pantry being expanded, and his plea for the trio to go on an intense physical regime before they were allowed to head out again that had led to Kevin being called into Moses’ office and asked to call General Tremblay.

Old friend though he was, Tremblay had had more demands of Kevin in return and apparently he’d sent a message to the Commander of Spaceborne Warfare, Admiral Knight, who in turn had been in touch with the commanding officer of the Spaceborne Operations Regiment…

Goodness only knew who Lieutenant-Colonel Powell had had words with, but the letter that eventually arrived on Kevin’s desk had pledged the SOR’s support and assistance as a matter of strategic significance while warning that the return mission to Akyawentuo would be going ahead on Allied Extrasolar Command’s schedule and not on the Byron Group’s or the Misfit crew’s.

Allison, Julian and Xiù really weren’t going to like that. So naturally it fell to Kevin to deliver the bad news.

At least they probably wouldn’t break his nose this time.

“I’m glad you see it that way,” Levaughn clucked and Kevin somehow found the strength not to roll his eyes.

“I meant what I said on the phone, Levaughn,” he replied evenly. “They’re here ‘cuz Moses says so and they’ll go when they get the go-ahead. I’ll talk with ‘em, see what kinda arrangement we can come to…”

“—Thank you—”

“…but Misfit comes first, Levaughn.”

“That’s all I ask,” Levaughn replied graciously. Disingenuously, but graciously.

“Right. Dane?”

Dane fell in at Kevin’s side as they ambled over toward the industrial contours of Misfit‘s hull. There was a flare of brilliant blue-white light as they approached, and Kevin shielded his eyes.

“Isn’t music this loud a safety hazard?” he asked, raising his voice as the track ground down into a sleazy slow cliché ending.

Clara was overseeing the refit: She’d designed the ship after all, and any modifications to it, any maintenance at all, happened with her go-ahead or it didn’t happen at all. She turned on hearing Kevin’s voice and raised her sunglasses to tuck them into her hairline, before smiling at Dane and shaking Kevin’s hand. It was good to see some positive energy around her again. Being out here and working on the ship had clearly helped her cope with her dad’s death, to some degree.

“Hey Kevin.”

“Hey yourself,” he grinned. “Gettin’ by?”

“Getting by,” she agreed. She turned, stuck her fingers in her mouth and blasted out a whistle that was even more of a hearing damage hazard than the Deftones track that had just pounded into life.

Julian and Allison looked up and raised their welding masks. Apparently they’d both splashed on getting some airbrush art done: Allison’s mask was covered in a lavish Lucent landscape, with a lightmote swarm coiling like smoke above a valley full of nail trees. The artist had done an incredible job considering he must have been working from video footage and imagination only.

Julian’s mask meanwhile was a handsome ruddy Martian landscape dominated by a figure in a white excursion suit. He snatched his phone out of his pocket and turned the music right down on seeing who had joined them.

“Kevin! What brings you here?”

“Wish I could say it was a social call, but…business. Where’s Xiù?”

“She’s asleep,” Julian told him.

“She can sleep through this?” Kevin asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, the living quarters are pretty much soundproof anyway, and the bunks have privacy fields…” Allison said. “Should I wake her? She went to bed about two hours ago…”

“…Probably best,” Kevin decided. “We have a lot to go over. Good news and bad…”


Date Point: 13y4m1w AV
Mercenary ship Howl At Nothing, The Irujzen Reef

Garuuvin

The wound would turn into a good scar, at least. A proper three-claw gouge down one side of his muzzle, and the fur definitely wouldn’t grow back where it was deepest. A male could usually expect plenty of female attention with a scar like that… and for the first time in too many years, Garuuvin was beginning to feel the flicker of hope that he might just have a chance of even laying eyes on a female again.

If the Whitecrests really could make his history vanish like they claimed then there was even hope for mating contracts in his future. His crew didn’t like having them aboard or the fact that there were no profits worth mentioning to be made in the Irujzen Reef, but the crew could go castrate themselves for all Garuuvin cared. He’d stood up for himself like a male should, and that Whitecrest had just flowed like a breeze around his clumsy swipe and delivered a raking blow to his face that had left Garuuving bleeding, dizzy and more than happy to work with them.

The sight of their feared shipmaster swaggering around with a healing wound on his face had certainly cowed all the other species on his crew into submission. None of them wanted to antagonize a guest who could do that to “One Claw” Garuuvin.

His bridge was quieter than usual, probably because one of the Whitecrests—the ugly one who was almost as big as a Stoneback—was standing squarely behind the Robalin sensor technician and managing the neat trick of being thoroughly intimidating while doing nothing threatening.

Garuuvin was the only one who felt able to talk with them. “Is there a reason why we’re loitering in this system’s icy object halo?”

The ugly Whitecrest duck-shrugged and flicked an ear. “Yes.”

Sensing that he wasn’t about to get an elaboration just yet, Garuuvin threw himself into his command seat and called up the same sensor data. The Whitecrest seemed to be ignoring the biggest objects in favor of smaller icy chunks of the kind that, if they became comets, usually didn’t survive their first descent into the inner system.

“…That one. Match orbits with it and close to within spacewalk distance.”

The Locayl on the helm glanced Garuuvin’s way and got a curt duck-nod. They were mercenaries, after all. What the client paid for, the client got. No matter how strange.

Garuuvin drummed his claws restlessly on his console as he tried to figure out just what in Fyu’s name the Clan brothers were up to. The system was irrelevant, there was nothing there: not even the temperate planet with its sizeable moon counted, it was Class 11. Whatever the Whitecrests were here for, a mid-level deathworld couldn’t be worth their time, could it?

Then again, a lot of what they were doing didn’t make sense. They’d installed two huge canisters of compressed gas in the airlock that were slowly spraying a tenuous mix of breathable air, pollutants and Radon plasma into the void. It would look exactly like a nasty hull breach complicated by a damaged reactor seal to long-range sensors, and the same went for the detuned kinetic engines which were putting out an ugly and wasteful energy bleed and the deliberate miscalibration of the warp field extenders. On sensors, the Howl At Nothing looked like it had taken a bad hit, but for whose benefit?

And how did that play with the…thing…in the cargo hold?

The Whitecrest nodded curtly, flicked a claw at Garuuvin to get him to follow, and marched off the bridge.

“We’re almost finished,” he said as the doors closed behind them.

“We are?”

“Yes. You can tell your engineers to re-tune the engines once we’re alongside that comet.”

“It might help if I knew what you’re doing…” Garuuvin hinted.

“It might,” the Whitecrest agreed neutrally, though there was a thoughtful edge to it as he ambled down the ship’s spinal corridor. “We’re going to nudge that comet to fall in-system and break up.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what we’re paying you for,” The Whitecrest said with an amused chitter. His ears swivelled thoughtfully as he gave Garuuvin a thorough look up and down. “You ask a lot of questions for a mercenary.”

“Because I have a brain.”

“That’s a very dangerous gift, friend.”

“Stupid males don’t have ships, crews, or services to sell.”

“True.” The Whitecrest scratched idly at his muzzle. “You’ve made the most of your exile, haven’t you? I respect that. And it wasn’t like it was your fault that cub got killed…”

Garuuvin’s claws were out for a dangerously long time before he managed to get a leash back on his temper and pull them back in again. This Whitecrest would have his throat out in a second in a real fight.

The big bastard actually grinned as if he was a human, baring his fangs. “And you can learn, too! Excellent. I think we can both profit immensely from this. A little more control on that temper, but still…”

“…What are you going to do?”

“For now? This mission. We do what we need to do, you get paid, we have a look at your record…maybe other things could be possible. Incidentally, have you ever been to Cimbrean?”

“The Human colony in the Far Reaches? No.”

“Too bad. The Females there are…adventurous.”

“…How adventurous?”

“Well, they took me as a sire,” the Whitecrest waggled his ears. There was a self-effacing sense of humor under that intimidating pelt. “I’m sure a handsome specimen like you with his own ship would have them hooked so long as they never found out about a certain little incident…”

“…You can’t do that. Straightshield would never tolerate it.”

“They consider new evidence when it becomes available. And as luck would have it, we managed to find some interesting maintenance logs that put that gas main explosion in a whole new light.” Garuuvin stepped back a little as the Whitecrest bared his teeth. “…Justice should be served, don’t you think?”

“…You can deliver this? You would do this thing?”

The Whitecrest duck-nodded. “Why not? Fair payment for services rendered. Services,” he added, “which include your strict confidence and the ongoing silence of your crew. I trust you can persuade them to remain disinterested?”

Garuuvin could. Of course he could. Rather than say as much, however, he opted for holding his peace and duck-nodding.

“Excellent. Lead by example, then. You do your job, we’ll do ours.”

The conversation ended at the cargo bay doors.

“Discretion. And disinterest,” Garuuvin agreed. “Right.”

“Appreciated. Please, don’t let me keep you.”

The tone was polite, but Garuuvin knew when he’d been dismissed—aboard his own ship!—and under other circumstances…

But the promise that had just been dangled in front of him was worth more than all the money and bounty he might have looked forward to if he lived to be a hundred.

He duck-nodded meekly and turned back toward the bridge.


Date Point: 13y4m1w AV
Chiune Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Kevin Jenkins

“So…good news first, or bad news first?”

“…The good. I kinda suspect I know what the bad news is anyway.”

“Alright. So, good news number one: AEC are firm in their support for the Ten’Gewek and your return mission to Akyawentuo. Bad news…they have somethin’ else to do first.”

“…Ayup.” Julian crossed his arms and sighed. “Kinda figured the big fellas were gearing up for something.”

“It ain’t the big fellas. I don’t know the details, but Good News Number Two is that to make up for leavin’ us sittin’ on our asses, the three of you get to train with the big fellas.”

Allison raised her hand. “Uh…that’s good news?” she asked with a half-smile.

“I am told there will be guns.”

Allison grinned and lowered her hand again. “I love my job sometimes.”

Dane took his opportunity to interject with the evil smirk of a health and fitness instructor about to unleash a beneficial torment. “And weights, Julian. I paid a visit to the Dog House gym down in Folctha and got to talking with Warhorse. I think you’d benefit bigly from his attentions.”

“Aw, come on!” Julian groaned. “What the hell’s wrong with me that you need ‘Horse to fix me up?”

“Over the course of that first tour you lost twenty pounds while gaining bodyfat.”

Julian cleared his throat. “I’m almost back up to weight…” he said.

“It’s all sloppy rebound, though. All that work we put in and you ended up worse than when you started. That’s not necessarily your fault, I’ll admit, but it’s you that’s gotta pay the price.”

Julian’s face screwed up and he clenched his teeth. “He’s gonna have me picking things up and putting them down again, isn’t he?”

“Yup. But trust me, you need it. Remember when I taught you kettlebells?”

“Yeah?”

“Free weights are way more fun.”

“Clara, your husband’s a sadist.”

Clara giggled at that. “He’s a personal trainer,” she corrected him.

“Same thing.”

“Ah, get over it,” Dane told him warmly. “You’ll thank me later on.”

Kevin cleared his throat. “It ain’t exactly gonna be puppies an’ ice cream for you two either,” he said, addressing Allison and Xiù. “Allison, you’re expected to expand your academic and technical training. And Xiù, Mister Williams has concerns over how when that gunfight broke out on Akyawentuo you had to be protected rather than contributing.”

Xiù suddenly looked uneasy. “…I’m getting tutored by Firth, aren’t I?” she predicted.

“Is that a problem?”

“…No…No. It’s just…he’s an expert in some pretty dark things.”

Kevin nodded softly, and noted with approval the way Julian’s hand slipped quietly into Xiù’s in a no-fuss way that was far more supportive than any more overt show of comfort would have been.

“It’s dark out there,” he said. “We all know it. Could be the advice of an expert is what’ll make the difference for you and your loved ones.”

“Don’t worry about Firth, bǎobèi,” Allison advised. “He’s a huge teddy bear underneath all that.”

Xiù shook her head. “He really, really isn’t,” she said.

Julian nodded. “I like Firth, I respect him and I trust him. But there ain’t no ‘underneath all that’ with him—his violent streak goes all the way down, even if he’s got it well controlled.”

Xiù sighed. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Williams is right.”

Kevin tried to restore some levity by chuckling. “He always is. Anyway, that’s all the bad news. As soon as the ship’s fixed you go on intensive training regimes and stay there until go time.”

“And when’s that gonna be?” Allison challenged him.

“…Months. Half a year or more.”

“…That wasn’t exactly ‘all the bad news’ then, Kevin,” Julian pointed out mildly, though the muscles of his jaw clenched as he said it.

“True. Fair. Uh…” Kevin cleared his throat. “Look, this is the shit we deal with when the big movers and shakers get involved. I wish I had a fuckin’ roll of good news to give you, but I figure we get only one shot at doin’ this thing right. Right?”

The trio nodded solemnly.

“Right. And there’s more good news. You, uh…you meet with the JETS guys?”

Allison nodded. “Yeah. Nice guys. Also, uh…Actually, I been meaning to ask. You know the exception list?” she asked of Julian and XIù.

“Yeaaah?” Xiù asked slowly, while Julian nodded.

“Can I put Coombes on it?”

Xiù shook her head. “Celebrities only, Shǎguā.”

“Aww.”

Julian laughed, “C’mon, what’s he got that I don’t?”

“Some gray hairs? I dunno. He’s…never mind.” Allison cleared her throat, having spent several seconds going increasingly crimson around the cheeks and ears.

“He is pretty…” Julian agreed.

“Guys.” Kevin clicked his fingers jokingly in front of their faces. “Here and now, please. You’re getting the full team…I take it you know them?”

“We spent a couple of weeks being looked after by the SOR,” Allison said. “We know them. Hell, seen a bit more of them than I’d like in some cases. What do they call those tiny shorts again?”

“Ranger panties,” Dane supplied helpfully. He and Clara were wearing identical grins over her mounting discomfort.

“Ah,” Julian chuckled. “The plot thickens.”

“Shut up, babe,” Allison told him, affectionately.

Julian grinned at her. “Yes ma’am…so, not to knock on the big fellas, but how is this gonna work? Misfit ain’t exactly expansive. And in fact, what are they there for in the first place?”

Kevin shrugged. “All I got was a cryptic ‘it’s covered,’ so I’m just gonna take them at their word. As for why they’ve been forced on you, well…Coombes is a Green Beret. They’re there in case we need to train the People up in survival and guerilla tactics. And if the shit hits the fan, they’re to get you off that planet.”

“And Daar?”

“He’s a part of the team and they work well together. Plus he’s…an ambassador of sorts.”

“That will be…interesting…” Xiù mused. “Ten’Gewek are…They have a pretty clear line in their heads between People and Beasts. A Gaoian might really confuse them.”

Kevin shrugged again. “You’d need to ask Daniel what the logic is there,” he said. “It’s his contact and development plan we’re following after all. If he says they need to meet non-human aliens, then I ain’t arguin’…That’s about all the business I brought from Earth, anyhow. Had a complaint from Levaughn about how much space you’re takin’ up and how much noise you make…”

Xiù glanced at her feet, Julian looked awkward, and Allison tucked her thumbs into her pockets. Three variations on the theme of mild embarrassment.

“There’s nothing we can do about how much space the project takes up,” Clara told him. “Just leaving a corner of the landing pad free for others to use is a pain in the ass. This isn’t the Triple-AF, we’re more crowded here.”

“I hear ya,” Kevin reassured her. “But they do make bitchin’ headphones these days, kids. An’ it probably won’t pay off so well if the hosts don’t like you. There’s other folks here besides Levaughn, and for most of them it’s home.”

“That’s…yeah. Okay. We could be better guests, I guess,” Julian acknowledged.

“Sure as shit make my life easier,” Kevin said, then remembered Levaughn’s unerring instinct for making a useful nuisance of himself. “…probably,” he corrected himself.

“So. The SOR’s got our back but we’re gonna hafta wait fuck-knows-how long but at least half a year before they’re ready, we need to be more considerate to our hosts, and once Misfit‘s all patched up we’re gonna get our asses busted in training every day of the wait,” Allison summed up. “That about cover it?”

Kevin nodded, but decided a little avuncular advice wouldn’t go wrong “…Look, I lived and worked at SCERF for a few years, you know that. An’ the thing about these military motherfuckers is they like game. Just show ‘em you’re willing to try your hardest and you’ll never have better friends, right? They’ll suffer right along with you. But the worst and dumbest thing you kids could do is make them think they’re wasting their time. They sniff laziness on you, then they will come down on you hard if they think you ain’t a lost cause. And if they think you are a lost cause then you’ll fuckin’ know it by the way they go all polite and formal and agreeable.”

With that warning out of the way, he treated the three of them to a grin. “But you’ve already done tougher,” he added. “This won’t be a cakewalk, but you can handle it. Just…don’t take it personal.”

“Take what personal?” Allison asked.

“Oh,” Kevin grinned. “You’ll see…”


Date Point: 13y4m1w AV
Mercenary ship Howl At Nothing, The Irujzen Reef

Thurrsto

Thurrsto duck-nodded to himself on the satisfaction of a job well done and clapped his paws together like he was dusting them off. Garuuvin had big and easy buttons to push, trivially so. Any remotely competent Whitecrest could have played him like a game of Pounce, and Thurrsto prided himself that he’d got where he was on merit far more than on genetics.

He slipped through the opening doors into the cargo bay and took a second to appreciate the probe his Brothers were programming in the middle of the floor. It was as big as a car and looked for all the world like a chunk of dirty water ice.

All under Regaari’s watchful eye. Thurrsto was a betting man, and he’d shave himself to the skin if Regaari wasn’t going to find himself becoming a Father of the Clan sometime in the not too distant future. He’d have to contend the machinations of the many and jealous rivals he’d managed to make even inside his own Clan’s ranks…but he had Genshi’s backing and anybody with a working brain for politics in the Clan knew where things were headed. All the smart ‘Crests were already on Regaari’s side.

That still left a depressingly large number of stupid ‘Crests, even after accounting for Hierarchy infiltration.

None of which spoke well of the coming campaign they’d need to wage among their own ranks. Things were moving into place at once too quickly and too slowly. Regaari had said there would be blood, and Thurrsto knew he was right.

He set the thought aside and bent down to check how his Brother was doing. Senior though he might be, Regaari’s experience of being undercover as a starship repair technician was proving invaluable in sorting out a last-minute technical problem with the probe. Something arcane to do with the control module for the sensors.

“Shipmaster’s getting itchy paws,” Thurrsto reported.

“He’s a smart one,” Faarek commented. “He’d passed the first round of selection for Association with Clan Ironpaw before that explosion.”

“As much as I love a smart Gaoian…” Regaari grunted as he finally managed to work his claws behind the offending module and yank it loose “…right now, we need him to be dumb.”

“Taken care of,” Thurrsto promised.

His Brothers duck-nodded. They didn’t need any elaboration to trust his judgement there.

Regaari made a thoughtful growling noise as he opened the control module and ejected the circuit-threaded crystalline Silicon wafer that functioned as its CPU, which he slotted into a diagnostic tool.

“You never did tell me how this thing works,” Thurrsto reminded him, while activating his portable privacy field. The walls had ears, and this was the first chance he’d had to ask without being surrounded by curious eavesdroppers.

“It’s simple enough,” Regaari told him as he swiped through the tool’s troubleshooting screens. “We attach it to the iceball then nudge that iceball in-system. It’ll detach during the trip when the comet starts to form a tail.”

“Should look like the comet disintegrating naturally,” Faarek explained.

“And then our probe plunges into the target planet’s atmosphere and explodes twenty kilometers up,” Regaari finished. “It should look exactly like a natural impact.”

“All that stuff with the simulated reactor breach is just in case Big Hotel have sensors that can see out this far,” Faarek added. “It’ll look like we used the iceball for emergency repairs and disrupted its orbit. A coincidence, but not an impossible one.”

“Also, to misdirect the crew,” Regaari added.

“And we used this ship rather than one of our own for reasons of deniability,” Thurrsto deduced.

“Exactly. …There.” Regaari ejected the control wafer again and reinstalled it back in its module.

“It’ll take months for useful intel to come back to us,” Thurrsto pointed out.

“Templar wants it that way.” Regaari plunged into the depths of the probe again to reinstall the module, and his voice echoed hollowly inside its shell. “He told me a story about a human sniper who spent a whole day crawling two kilometers over open ground one time to take a single shot. Then three days crawling back while being hunted.”

Faarek chittered darkly. “If that story was about any other species, I’d consider it a myth,” he snorted.

“It’s considered an impressive feat even by their standards,” Regaari said, and backed out of the probe. “But Templar’s intent in telling it was clear. We don’t care how quickly this mission happens, so long as it’s successful.”

Faarek and Thurrsto grabbed the access panel and held it in place for him. It snapped in easily and with only the faintest hairline crack on the surface to hint that the “comet” was anything other than natural.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

Faarek chittered, and deployed a single careful word of English: “Outstanding.”

Regaari growl-chittered and playfully swiped at him. It was a mark of how far they had come while training and serving among the SOR that such naked sarcasm was now a harmless joke among them, rather than a grievous show of disrespect.

They didn’t have time for play so Faarek settled for an amused kilter of his ears, promising good-natured retribution at a later date. They ran one last check while Thurrsto deactivated the privacy field and generally tidied up, and their “comet” was ready to deploy.

“I hear Sister Myun is going back to Gao with the Mother-supreme,” Thurrsto observed, turning to harmless gossip as soon as the field was offline. “A real shame. Who knows when she’ll be back.”

“You don’t stand a chance with her, Brother.”

“Hey!” he chittered along, “I’m big and strong! And smart!”

“And she’s…picky.” Faarek deployed a masterfully apt turn of phrase to speak the truth without giving offense as he lifted the “comet” on its trolley and wheeled it toward the airlock.

Thurrsto was in a playful mood. “And I’m ambitious. If it weren’t for my crest I’d be pretty, too!”

Regaari hit the airlock door. “Brother, the crest is the prettiest part of you.”

“That’s okay, I have a secret weapon. Something that really impresses the Females when they see it.”

Faarek shook his head and chittered. “Whatever you say, Brother.”

“Carnitas tacos,” Thurrsto said proudly. “Never failed me yet. ‘Horse taught me the secret: You have to toast the spices.”

“Aargh, you had to mention tacos.” Regaari hit the button again and they watched the ‘lock cycle. The last ghost of pressure left inside was enough to gently push the probe out towards the comet, and they all stood back with the sense of a job well done. “They’re my favourite Human food.”

“We know, Brother,” Faarek looked upward at the ceiling and his ears drooped sideways patiently.

Regaari ignored the implicit jab. “…Deployment complete. Go tell the shipmaster to give our iceball a nudge.”

‘Iceball’ was a woefully inadequate way of describing a frozen aggregate of water and rock that dwarfed the Howl At Nothing several times over, but Thurrsto duck-nodded and turned away.

“Oh, and, Brother?” Regaari added.

“Yeah?”

“Myun’s favourite is lo mai gai.”

Thurrsto twitched his ears gratefully, duck-nodded again and headed out.

It was good to have Brothers he could rely on.


Date Point: 13y5m3w AV
Chiune Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Dane Brown

The staff of Chiune Station had fallen into some bad habits, living as they did in an isolated little enclave of private property a long way from Folctha’s oversight. A few of the permanent residents were technically guilty of tax evasion, in fact—they’d been exaggerating their exercise reports to squeeze another percentage point or two off their income tax under Folctha’s fitness incentives.

Dane had come down on that practice hard and called out the perpetrators as what they were: Morons. If caught they’d wind up paying back far more than they’d saved, and in any case the fitness incentives were there for their own benefit. Cimbrean’s native gravity was twenty percent less than the Earth’s, and failure to exercise in subgravity environments had nasty health consequences.

Blitzing through the whole of Chiune’s staff and bullying them into getting their fat asses in gear was his way of keeping up the same relentless pressure that seemed to be driving Clara at the moment. She’d changed since her father’s death: Less bubbly. Fewer smiles. More crying in his arms at night.

More resolve, though—everything had taken on the importance of a mission of personal salvation for her. It was kinda hot, but also saddening. He missed just being able to relax with her. She didn’t shoot off on her adorable tangents so much, like wondering why people could be called “Brown,” “Green” or “Black” but you never ran into a Mr. Purple, or a Mrs. Yellow.

He had a lot of terrible things to say about the Alien Protection Army terrorists…but perhaps the worst and most personally hateful was that in small ways they’d taken his wife from him.

He was beginning to think he understood the Misfit crew a little more, though. He’d never have said a negative word against the three of them, but Xiù, Julian and especially Allison packed more intensity into their lives than Dane was entirely comfortable with. It was part of what tied them so closely together—nobody else could keep up.

And it sure as hell was making the repairs to Misfit run ahead of schedule. All of the armor plates were attached, the pantry extension was complete and the new engine modules were installed. Allison and Julian had swapped their welding gear for full-face painting respirators and were diligently giving their ship a fresh coat of paint in Byron Group Interstellar’s luxuriant silver, white and red livery.

Clara had a sixth sense for her husband’s presence, and she turned to give him a smile and tucked her tablet under her arm, leaving Julian and Allison to their painting.

“Hey.”

She smiled. “Hey, yourself.”

“Busy?”

She draped her arms over his shoulders. “Yeah. But I should probably take a break, huh?”

“Let me know if you’re gonna work yourself into an early grave so I can update your life insurance,” Dane grinned. He was rewarded with a playful swat to the chest.

“It’s just a couple more days” she promised. “Then I release them fully to the tender mercies of the SOR and we can get started on EV-Twelve.”

Dane nodded, and put down the sports bag he’d brought in with him. “I brought lunch,” he said.

Allison stood up. “I heard ‘lunch’…” she declared, muffled through her painting mask.

“You heard right!” Dane called, and knelt to unzip the bag. “Just enough for three, ‘cause I heard Xiù’s in Folctha, right?””

Julian turned off the air compressor and stripped off his mask. “Yup,” he nodded. “Gaoian business.”

“Yeah, explain that one to me,” Dane requested as the pair dropped their gloves and sauntered over. “She’s a Gaoian?”

“Legally, yeah.” Julian shrugged.

“Dominion law is really dumb about some things,” Allison added. She sat down cross-legged and opened her lunch pack when Dane handed it to her. “Aww, come on. Quark and grapes for dessert again?”

“We’re two hundred miles from anywhere on an alien world that’s the wrong climate to even grow grapes, and you’re complaining?” Dane retorted.

“I’d appreciate the miracle more if you didn’t have us eating this every mealtime,” she grumbled, and set the little tub aside to dive eagerly into the tupperware full of Moroccan chicken and lentils.

“There’s puffed spelt and kiwi fruit in it this time.”

“I stand by my earlier complaint that you’re a sadist,” Julian told him.

Dane chuckled and took his own lunch pack. “For real? I make you nice healthy food, pack it with flavour and texture and everything a body needs…”

“Sometimes what the body needs is deep-fried,” Allison declared. “Just sayin’.”

“Aw, man…” Julian threw his head back and gazed off into the infinite heavens, lost in remembered gastronomic rapture. “When I got back to Earth that first time…”

“What’d you have?” Allison asked him.

KFC. You?”

“Arby’s. And Xiù basically was sat down by her mom and had a funnel shoved down her throat, the way she tells it.”

“Yeah, but you’ve tasted her mom’s cooking, right?” Julian asked.

“Oh, fuck yeah. Her mom’s food is orgasmic.” Allison drifted off into a culinary daydream of her own, and Clara covered her mouth to giggle.

“Guys. No fantasizing about junk food,” Dane grinned. “We’re supposed to be getting you mission ready.”

“With spelt?”

Dane sighed. “Okay, okay. I’ll talk with Warhorse, let him know I’m giving you one ‘clean cheat’ meal a week, but only if you’ve earned it.”

Julian grimaced. “That guy’s gonna turn me into another meatslab…” he predicted.

“Yeah-huh. I’m sure the girls will hate the results…” Dane snarked. “Also, you wanna beat Vemik don’t you?”

Allison grinned, and Julian tidied his hair back with a face that said he knew he was being played but didn’t object enough to…well, object.

“So how ‘bout it?” Dane asked. “I’ll give you fried chicken tomorrow, Aunt Irma’s secret recipe. With collard greens done the right way.”

“I’m down,” Allison agreed. “Julian?”

“…Meatslab.”

Dane chuckled and shook his head. “Word of advice?” he suggested, knowingly, “This is for your benefit so you set the rules, but you’d be smart to listen to him. He knows what he’s doing. How’ve you been finding my rehab program so far?”

“…Not as bad as I thought it’d be…” Julian admitted.

“See? I’m not so sadistic after all.”

Julian sighed, but it was clear the offer of fried chicken had worked its magic now that the meatslab thing was off the table.

“…Fine. I’m in,” he agreed, and opened his lunch. “Besides,” he added, “It’ll be nice to maybe hold my own against Vemik, y’know?”


Date Point: 13y5m3w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

For the third time in a hand of days Vemik’s branch broke. If he’d been climbing a Ketta it wouldn’t have mattered so much, but Forestfather bark came away easier, so when he grabbed for a handhold to save himself all he got was a loose handful of bark and enough time to curse.

“Godshiiit—!”

Falling out of a tree was never dignified. Wrapping himself around a thick limb on the way down before sliding off it and landing flat on his back in the leaves, even more so.

He lay there for a while as he recovered his breath, reflecting that the time had probably come to admit to himself that he’d never swing through the high branches again. That had come to him faster than he’d expected, probably because of all the good meat and fruit they had on this side of the mountain.

Yan, of course, was no help at all. He appeared upside-down in Vemik’s vision with a cheerily gruff expression on his face. “You got bigger.”

“…Yes.”

“Good! Means you can do more work and pound out your own iron! Anything broken?”

“Just my dignity.” Vemik winced as he sat up. In fact his ribs were feeling very tender and his breath hurt, but nothing was broken.

“Sky-Thinker, you weren’t using it anyway.”

“Very funny.”

Yan’s trill had some sympathy in it. Of course, he must have taken his share of plunges out of the trees when the Change had come and the gods had Chosen him to be a Given-Man. His teasing was just…Yan being Yan. “Well, rest up for a day or two. I’m sure the women would take care of you…”

“I’m only with The Singer, Yan.”

Yan made an amused harrumphing sound in his chest. “Be that way then. How many more melts do we need?”

“Three more for the knives and spear tips. I wanted to do another for ‘tinkering’…”

Tinkering was Vemik’s absolute favorite sky-word. There was something metal-sounding about it, and it just felt like a word that meant trying different things to see if they worked.

“Fine. I’ll do all the melts and hammer them out. Or, I’ll shout at our apprentices while they do it. Same thing.”

Vemik trilled, then stopped himself. It hurt.

Yan did that thing again where he ignored Vemik’s discomfort in an affectionate, understanding sort of way that somehow made him feel better. “It’ll make them strong for that ‘Ww…l…’“ he snarled and concentrated on saying it right. “‘Laminated’ bow of yours,” he said.

Yan was very diligent about the Sky-People words. The ‘Engwish.’ … No. The ‘English.’ He seemed better at them too, which Vemik found strangely infuriating. Why was that? Maybe it’d be easier now that his face was taking a more adult shape…

“About that,” Vemik straightened up and stretched. “I was thinking…maybe if I put small steel blades on the end of bird-spears. ‘Awwows.’

“Arrows.” Yan corrected him. He tried to be casual about it, but Vemik wasn’t fooled.

“That hurts your face every time you do it. Don’t pretend it doesn’t.”

Yan ducked his head and grinned. “Putting blades on them?”

“Yes. Maybe…I thought if I put a wide one on the front it’d make a bigger hole and maybe the prey would bleed more.”

“So…like our new spears. Just small.”

“Oh! Yes! And what if we put two kinds of…” Vemik gestured with his hands to try and show what he was thinking. “Kind of like branches sticking out on either side of the spearhead?! So when you skewer a Werne it can’t push up the spear and slice you.”

Yan scratched at his ear thoughtfully. “Could work…sounds like it might break easy, though. Spears are nice ‘cuz they don’t break like the bird-spears do.”

“It’s still worth trying,” Vemik said. Even if his ribs were hurting, he wasn’t about to let Yan wound his hunger for new things.

Yan trilled. “Fine, fine. But for now you go and let my niece look at those ribs. Maybe she’ll talk some sense into you and send you off to visit another hut!”

“Yan!”

“Fine, fine…”


Date Point: 13y5m3w AV
Quarterside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ayma

Father Gyotin had come as an enormous surprise. He readily admitted to a wild and disreputable history that was just…it didn’t fit at all with who he was now.

The Humans of course had a perfectly witty phrase for this: “He’d sown his wild oats.”

Nowadays he was composed, serene and thoughtful. Yulna’s duties and responsibilities had forced her to place Starmind quite low on her list of official engagements, but Gyotin had waited his turn patiently and had met the Mother-Supreme as graciously and warmly as if she’d seen him first.

There was none of the passive-aggressive obsequiousness some males might demonstrate at a perceived snub, nor any wheedling self-serving blather, either. He was simply pleasant, and introduced Yulna to “hot chocolate.” His gift to her—a selection box of sachets of the powder to make the sweet-tasting Human beverage—was modest without being insulting. Ayma had seen more experienced and important Fathers handle their first meeting with a Mother-Supreme far less adeptly.

“Of course, a Clan must have a role,” he agreed. They were strolling around Quarterside park, where Cimbrean Colonial Security had made a clear space for them and Yulna was listening to him with more than just the polite interest that her position demanded. Ayma knew her old friend’s ears very well, and a hair’s-width made all the difference.

“And yours is?”

Gyotin adjusted his robes slightly and his ears moved expressively as he picked his words. “…I remember when I was very young, Mother Sanyi told us Keeda Tales. Crazy, silly stories about the trickster Gaoian who did impossible things.”

“I always liked the story of how we wound up with brown-furs and silver-furs,” Ayma joined in.

Gyotin duck-nodded. “Tripping the big strong males so they fell in a mud hole. Yes, that was one of my favourites…It had just the right mix of silliness and violence for a cub.”

“I heard a different story,” Yulna mused.

“Oh yes. There are many Keeda Tales, and some of them contradict each other,” Gyotin agreed. “But they point to something interesting. In the past, we told stories about the universe and put ourselves in them. Narrative mythology was how we recorded our wisdom. Not the facts, of course, but the skills a cub needed to grow up and thrive. They gave us a sense of…place.”

He gestured toward the Female Commune and its gabled rooftop just visible above the high wall that penned in the Alien Quarter. “And that mythology gave way to writing, history, philosophy, mathematics, and science,” he said. “But then writing, history, philosophy, mathematics and science slowly strangled mythology to death.”

“Are you suggesting that it wasn’t obsolete?” Yulna asked.

“Facts are true. But they are not the truth, not the whole of it. A person’s life is spent living inside their own head and very little of what happens in there is subject to objective truth,” Gyotin said. “Empirical evidence just isn’t the right shape to slip into a person’s mind and pass along important messages. But a story about tripping a big brute so that he falls in a mudhole? That story is exactly the right shape to teach a cub about the value of finesse over raw strength.”

“So you see yourselves as…storytellers?” Yulna asked. Gyotin shook his head.

“I worry that over the years we may have missed valuable lessons about ourselves because we stopped using the right tools to find them,” he said. “Could our psychology be more sophisticated? What if we had kept our—a Human word—spirituality, alive and well? What insights have we possibly missed because we weren’t looking for them in the right way?”

He turned to Yulna “And what benefits might those insights have yielded for raising our cubs?” he finished.

Yulna had a totally unguarded moment where she duck-nodded with an obviously fascinated set of her ears. She only noticed the slip and yanked her professional aloofness back into place when Ayma chittered softly at her, but by then it was too late.

Gyotin, to his credit, didn’t comment or make any overt recognition, but Ayma could tell he was quietly delighted. He spread his paws wide and pricked his ears up. “That is the start of our purpose, at least. I find that a lot of what I do is help people with their problems,” he added.

“How so?” Ayma asked.

“Hmm…” Gyotin looked around, then shrugged. “She isn’t here. But there is a Human female, the one who first set me on this path. She visits me every week, and we talk. It seems to heal her. And she isn’t the only one. Jenny over there—” he indicated a shaven-headed and middle-aged woman in dark grey robes who was standing aside and watching their little procession with interest, “—became a nun to overcome anxiety and depression. Reverend White is not a Buddhist, but apparently the Faith Center helps people every day with similar problems.

“I became a mercenary out of desperation,” he said. “And I wonder if my youth might have been more wholesome if somebody had been there to talk to me and help me find a sense of direction and peace. That is what I hope to achieve.”

Yulna duck-nodded slowly. Rather than reply, however, she looked up at the sound of an air transport—a human model, sturdy and sleek and the only way to fly on Cimbrean—swooping low overhead to dip out of sight beyond the Alien Quarter’s walls. The biolfilter field dome over the Quarter fizzed gently as the vehicle sank through it.

Myun stepped forward, with her ear cocked as she listened to something via the communicator clipped to it. “…That’s Sister Shoo, Mother,” she reported.

“Ah!” Yulna duck-nodded. “Here to see us off. Would you like to meet her, Father Gyotin?”

“I would!” Gyotin agreed. “Things would be very different if not for her…”

Yulna duck-nodded solemnly, and gestured for him to walk with her.

Shoo was playing with a handful of cubs at the Commune when they arrived. No, Ayma realized—not playing. Teaching. Myun had been instructing the little ones in the basics of the modified Gung Fu she had adapted for Gaoian use, and Shoo was now showing them the original form and explaining some of the differences.

Ayma had to admit, she missed having her Human Sister around. Shoo had always been incredible with the cubs, even before she could speak Gaori…and it was impossible to forget that Shoo had literally saved her life, and Yulna’s, Myun’s…Things just felt safer when Shoo was around.

But it was obvious that the Shoo who had lived in the commune on Gao for all that time, and shared a ship with her, wasn’t quite the same person. Isolation and loneliness had taken its toll on her and there had been many tears hidden in out-of-the-way corners where she could try not to be a bother to anybody.

The real Sister Shoo was smiling, gregarious, talkative and maybe a little bit of a showoff. That trick where she raised one foot high into the air until it was directly above the other with her knees locked and her legs straight was physically impossible for a Gaoian, not to mention that it seemed to defy gravity. Ayma had never managed to figure out how Humans managed to hold that pose at all, let alone how Shoo could do it and become perfectly still.

The cubs were suitably awed, too. And so, from the soft sigh he made, was Gyotin.

“Physical poetry,” he murmured.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Yulna asked. “I always thought that strength meant lumbering size. I never appreciated that it could also mean grace.”

“You should watch their sport. It is…they almost fly.”

Ayma could only duck-nod mute agreement.

As they got close enough to overhear her Shoo turned out to be speaking flawless Gaori. Even her accent was right.

“—doesn’t mean fighting,” she was saying. “Gōngfu just means anything that takes patience, practice and time to learn properly. What I’m doing now isn’t a wǔshù, a martial art, it’s gymnastics. What Sister Myun is teaching you is how to fight well, and that isn’t the same thing.”

One of the cubs raised a paw adorably. “Doesn’t that hurt?” he asked.

“A little,” Shoo admitted. “But that doesn’t have to stop you. It’s just a warning, and you can choose to ignore the warning if you know what you’re doing.” She looked up and saw the procession of adults approaching and her leg described an interesting arc down to ground level as she returned to an upright posture.

“You remember how to show respect to your shīfu?” she asked the cubs, who tumbled over each other to stand up, line up, and bow low with one paw cupped in the palm of the other.

Ayma had to fight hard not to whine over how cute it was, and anybody who didn’t know her well would probably have missed the subtle tells that Yulna was having similar trouble.

“Very good!” Shoo beamed at them. “Now I want you to practice the first series like you showed me before while I speak with the Mothers, okay?”

There was an enthusiastic juvenile chorus of “Yes Sister!” and the cubs scrambled away. Ayma managed not to chitter—Shoo had simultaneously let them stay in earshot to sate their curiosity while giving them something to focus on so they probably wouldn’t hear much of the conversation anyway. She really would have been an excellent Mother.

Yulna didn’t stand on formality—she treated Shoo to an affectionate hug, and chittered when Shoo returned the hug with so much interest that it lifted her paws off the ground for a second. A few of the more stuffy Mothers from the Folctha commune watched with their ears at scandalized angles, but they didn’t know Yulna personally, nor how much she appreciated being treated, just for a second, as a Sister.

Ayma got the second hug, but it was longer and firm enough to give her a little trouble breathing. She didn’t complain—visiting on business as part of Yulna’s retinue had robbed her of a proper reunion with Shoo, or with Regaari for that matter. She returned the hug as well as she could.

“I think you may actually be stronger than before…” she observed once finally released.

Shoo duck-nodded. “I am,” she revealed.

“And you can fly a spaceship…”

“And you must be quite experienced at making first contact with alien species by now,” Yulna observed wryly. Xiù flushed a little red in the face and duck-nodded again.

“Only two,” she demurred.

“That’s more than most people,” Yulna observed. “But I’m being rude. Sister Shoo—Father Gyotin of Clan Starmind.”

Gyotin gave her an urbane pant-smile, the one that males who had regular contact with humans had developed that seemed to pass muster as an imitation of a human smile. It certainly went over well with Shoo, who shook his paw warmly.

“I heard about your Clan,” she said. “I would have visited but…”

“But you have responsibilities,” Gyotin finished. “Please, do not apologize to me. I understand you are a Buddhist yourself?”

Shoo managed the neat trick of moving her head just so to suggest an expression with the ears she didn’t have. “In my way. That’s how my parents raised me,” she agreed.

“You meditate?”

Shoo nodded. “Every day.”

“It would be nice to have a deeper conversation with you someday,” Gyotin told her. “Perhaps when you have managed to resolve some of those responsibilities, yes?”

“I’d like that,” Shoo smiled. She glanced at Ayma. “But…I’m sorry, I…”

“You wish to spend time with your Sisters,” Gyotin duck-nodded. “I understand completely. It has been a pleasure, Sister Shoo.”

“It has!”

Ayma chittered warmly and took Shoo by the arm as Gyotin made his farewells to Yulna.

“Charming, isn’t he?” she asked.

“You always did like the intellectuals,” Shoo grinned evilly.

“Oh, you’d be surprised…” Ayma chittered softly. “Come on. We need to leave in the morning. It’d be nice if we could just relax for a while…catch up properly at last. I think you have a lot to tell us…Did I hear correctly that people tried to kill you?”

Shoo’s expression fell, and she glanced around the commune until her eyes alighted on a patch of shadow that, when Ayma spent a second looking at it, turned out to be a big Human male—much smaller than Warhorse and Baseball, but still huge by any other convention—in a dark shirt and dove gray trousers. Not a handsome specimen of the species, she decided, but then again muscles had a value all their own. Quite how somebody that large had just managed to fade himself into the background like that was a mystery.

“He’s here for my protection,” she said.

“Oh, Shoo…” Ayma sighed. “You keep getting in trouble.”

“And I keep finding friends, family, loved ones…” Shoo smiled and took Ayma’s paw. “Don’t worry about me, Ayma. I’d rather be in trouble for doing the right thing.”

“Are you doing the right thing?” Ayma asked. “These new deathworlders you found…Even if it’s toothless and clawless, the Dominion has the Office for the Preservation Of Indigenous Species for a good reason…They might say you’ll do more harm than good.”

Shoo shook her head sharply, and not in the Gaoian way. “We’re doing the right thing,” she said, with total conviction. “And I don’t care what they say.”

“…I believe you.”

They moved on to happier topics.


Date Point: 13y5m AV
Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

“I don’t care what the APA thinks!”

5-EYES wasn’t always an easy relationship. Its members, after all, were democracies with at times vividly different cultures and that meant their elected leaders could be equally different. The alliance was strong, but the personal relationships were…not, sometimes..

Which was why Sartori had sat forward, pressed his fingertips to the table and raised his voice. Not enough to give offense, just enough to shake the other four up a little.

“They are terrorists,” he snarled. “And they are idiots.”

Stephen Davies was, as usual, the voice of reconciliation and peace at the table. The British PM had won his election on the back of a promise to curtail military spending and ‘seek peaceful resolutions’ to interstellar and terrestrial crises. He’d fortunately been persuaded that the nature of the interstellar crises put peaceful resolution off the table entirely, but his attitude on matters closer to home hadn’t changed much so far as Sartori could tell. He hadn’t gone so far as to actually sympathize with the APA, but everything Sartori knew about the man said he resonated with their message.

“Obviously I’m not talking about the extremists,” he said, and got an agreeable nod from his Canadian counterpart Philippe Martel. “But it only makes sense to be worried about the ethics of interstellar colonization. The APA don’t know just how serious our situation is or why we’re doing this.”

“And they’re not gonna,” Sartori said firmly, making a cutting motion with his hand.

“Whether or not they’re in possession of all the facts really doesn’t excuse that they failed to condemn the truck bomb and shooting,” Kathy Nguyen pointed out. She was new to the table but not to the subjects it discussed, thanks to several years as Australia’s deputy prime minister before a stroke had forced her predecessor to retire.

The fourth man at the table—New Zealand’s Joel Thompson—was in the habit of fiddling a pen thoughtfully between his fingers and was almost always the last to speak on a subject, but Sartori respected that. Thompson gave off the impression of having thought things through before he opened his mouth. “Even if they did have a valid point…” he began, “which they don’t, because we won’t be settling inhabited planets…I’d still say survival comes first.”

“Survival doesn’t have to mean sacrificing our integrity,” Martel countered.

“No, it doesn’t,” Nguyen agreed. “Which is another reason why we shouldn’t let ourselves be paralyzed by indecision. We can act and act ethically.”

“Cimbrean has been a success beyond anybody’s wildest dreams,” Sartori said. “My advisors tell me that Introducing Terran species actually had the effect of slowing the mass extinction, and that some of the native species are already evolving to compete with the imports.”

“Probably because the scientists carefully imported the least disruptive critters they could find,” Nguyen sniffed. “No bloody cane toads.”

“I suppose that does demonstrate that we can properly control our environmental impact…” Davies conceded.

“And now we have New Enewetak,” Martel said.

“And others. The team at Erebor have dispatched probes to Lucent and Nightmare.”

“Not Akyawentuo?” Martel asked.

“That planet belongs to its natives and it stays that way.” Sartori sat back in his chair. “Despite what morons like the APA think, this isn’t the eighteenth century. We don’t do smallpox blankets.”

“Fine ideals,” Davies said. “I hope we live up to them.”

Thompson cleared his throat. “China, Russia and India won’t like it when we start colonizing planets without them,” he pointed out.

Davies nodded. “And that means the UN won’t like it. And by extension nor will the GRA.”

“This is our technology, we have a right to use it first,” Sartori said.

“The right, maybe,” Nguyen conceded, “but for the sake of diplomatic expediency, we need to give away some of the early planets.”

Sartori frowned at her. “Just…hand them out?”

“I know that isn’t a trivial thing, but it’s necessary,” she said. “The last thing we need for the moment is rising tensions back home. Imagine if we fell into a second Cold War right now, we’d be screwed.”

“I suggest Lucent remains in US hands,” Martel said. “The Byron Group staked it after all.”

Sartori nodded emphatically. “From what I’m told, they already found some very interesting resources on that planet. I agree, we’re keeping Lucent.”

“Giving Nightmare to a foreign power could be seen as throwing them the scraps…” Davies mused. “It has a reputation for being a frozen hellhole for four-fifths of the year and a murderous hellhole for the other fifth.”

“It can’t be that bad if one man managed to thrive there for six years all by himself…” Martel suggested.

“Still. Giving it away and keeping the more hospitable worlds for ourselves could be seen as an injustice.”

Nguyen drummed her sharply manicured fingernails on the table in front of her, just once. “So that just leaves New Enewetak. Think that’ll do?”

Thompson shook his head and flipped his pen around his thumb. “One planet isn’t enough. We can’t even start this process until we have more planets that are ready to receive colonists.”

“What about getting more colonists off Earth?” Davies suggested. “Folctha is doing well, but there’s a lot of Cimbrean left to claim. A lot of resources. We could be colonizing it more aggressively…”

“Would you be happy with that?” Sartori asked. Folctha had come as a gargantuan boost to the UK’s economy, which was now exporting massive tonnages of food and lumber into the European market. By all accounts the colony was only about five hundred miles from a huge bed of Anthracite as well, which Hephaestus wasn’t alone in salivating over.

“The UK can’t possibly develop an entire planet or exploit all of its resources by ourselves,” Davies said. “And we certainly aren’t about to depopulate Great Britain in making the attempt. There’s really nothing to be unhappy about.”

“And the more we send to Cimbrean, the faster we can develop it,” Nguyen nodded. “The faster we develop it the more resources we have. You’re right, as it is now Cimbrean is being squandered.”

“I hope we’re not proposing to put all our eggs in one basket?” Martel asked.

“No. We’ll open up multiple colony sites on Lucent as well,” Sartori declared. “Everyone at this table, NATO members…There’s enough planet to go around. And others. We’ll keep Nightmare if the others don’t want it. We may not have many worlds to barter with right now, but as soon as we let the Coltainers off the leash…we’ll have more than we can handle before long.”

Thompson nodded. “And if even half of them turn out as well as Cimbrean did…”

“…Then the future’s looking bright,” Nguyen finished.

There was a moment of satisfied, comfortable silence around the table, which Davies broke. He leaned forward, adjusted the paper in front of him and took a deep breath.

“I suppose,” he said, “that we had better start working out the details…”


Date Point: 13y5m AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Chiune Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“Breaking news, more footage now from Sacramento where riot police have apparently clashed with protesters in the last twenty minutes. A…statement released by the Sacramento Police Department confirmed that their officers have used kinetic pulse weapons to, uh, pacify some of the more violent protesters outside the state capitol…”

It sure as shit didn’t look like a ‘protest’ to Julian. For his money, burning police cars, smashed windows and the sight of an ambulance being pummeled with thrown objects and baseball bats made for a riot, not a protest.

A freaking ambulance.

The signs were the hardest to deal with. Each one stabbed right at the heart of the insecurities he and the girls had voiced among themselves about helping the People and giving them steel. They’d gone out into space looking for worlds for humanity, and now people’s livelihoods were burning.

The signs ranged from crude sharpie scrawled on scrap cardboard through to huge printed banners, but the messages were uniformly painful to read. ‘Humanity is a plague!’ was bad, ‘We already killed two worlds!’ was worse. The worst was a huge red one that bore a stark black-and-white likeness of Xiù wearing jackboots and yanking a chained and collared Gaoian behind her on a leash.

Xiù bore it with a sad shake of her head, but Julian’s head filled with fantasies of violent retribution against that sign’s creator that were only interrupted she pulled on his sleeve to get his attention. She looked up at him, took his hand and shook her head as if to say ‘let it go.’

He couldn’t. Not when the police were wading into the mob to rescue the stricken ambulance.

“…Kinda feels like our fault, doesn’t it?” he asked.

She shook her head. “We didn’t do this,” she said, and squeezed his hand.

“I’d feel a whole lot better about it if we had,” Allison commented, bitterly. She sighed, extracted herself from the cuddle and swayed upright. Apparently her leg had gone numb from being folded underneath her, because she leaned against the wall to shake it out. “…Turn that shit off, babe.”

“Can we afford to ignore it?” Julian asked.

“Baby, if we watch much more of this I might actually lose what little faith in humanity I had left. We’re no good to anyone if we’re totally fucking depressed.”

“…Right.”

Xiù sighed as he turned the TV off, and whatever force had been drawing her to it snapped off. She sat back, looked away and rubbed her eyes.

“…I just wish it wasn’t so…on the nose,” she said. “I mean, we’ve said that we worried about this stuff and that we don’t like the situation and…everything…”

She looked up and shrugged helplessly. “What more can we do? Don’t they trust us?”

Allison shook her head. “They want villains,” she said.

“They want us to be the villains?”

“No. They want the world to be a simple place with villains in it, so they’ll go find somebody to turn into the villain. You ever read Daniel’s book?”

“Not yet,” Julian admitted while Xiù shook her head.

“It’s helping me cope with all…that.” Allison waved a hand at the TV, then glanced at her watch as it beeped. She shrugged and moved to the middle of the floor where she stood wide and rolled her shoulders, warming up for her yoga. “He said something like, uh…” she thought as she raised her hands high above her head. “‘When people look for evil, they look toward power. The downtrodden masses can’t possibly be the villains themselves because they aren’t powerful, and power is evil by definition.’

“I don’t know if I agree with…” Xiù trailed off. “I mean…do you?”

Allison looked back over her shoulder, shrugged helplessly, then stretched forward and touched her fingertips to the floor in front of her toes. “He’s more qualified to talk about that shit than I am” she said. “But if he’s right…I dunno. I don’t feel powerful.”

“Me either,” Xiù agreed.

“That makes three,” Julian nodded.

He pulled Xiù a little closer, rested his head back and got lost in thought staring at the ceiling for a while, before being dragged back to reality when Xiù’s phone hummed in her pocket.

People had tried all sorts of gimmicks over the years. Phones that were worn in the ear, hidden inside spectacles, controlled via gestures and augmented reality…but when it came down to it, a small touch-screen computer in the pocket with a camera on the back just had too much utility to dismiss. Accessories like Smart Watches, AR sunglasses and real-time in-ear translators were just that: Accessories. People still wanted to send text messages, watch videos, read articles and play games.

About the only permanent upgrade that had stuck over the years was the addition of a forcefield emitter to allow for recharging the phone from ambient sunlight. It also allowed for holographic projection, which Julian found gimmicky but Xiù loved—rather than swiping icon left or right on her screen to answer the call, she got to interact with a cute bird instead.

This time she swatted listlessly at it to answer the call. “Xiù Chang?”

Her shoulders somehow sagged even more as she listened.

“They have? …Did they say why? Oh. Well…No. No, that’s…Obviously they have to…yeah. Did they say how long…? Oh no…really? And there’s nothing you can do to—? No, I’m sure you did. Sorry. Yes, I’ll tell them. You too…Thanks.”

She groaned and put the phone in her pocket when the call ended. “Tā mā de…”

Julian sat up straighter. “I sense bad news…”

“Yeah. That was Mister Williams. He says the JETS team just sent him their schedule for when they think they’ll be ready to come with us..”

“How long?”

“…Six months.”

Allison kicked her legs backwards and swung up out of her forearm stand to kneel disbelievingly in the middle of the floor. “You’re shitting me…”

Xiù raised her hands helplessly. “And that’s assuming other stuff doesn’t come up first…” she added.

“But we’re ready!” Allison stood up and perched on the back of the couch. “We could leave tomorrow if they gave us the go-ahead, they can’t just—”

“They can,” Julian shook his head, and took her hand.

“But six months could be too late, don’t they get that?”

“You know what Firth would say, right?”

“I know, I know. Big Brother Firth…He’d say—” Allison took a deep breath and dropped her voice as low as it would go in a woefully inadequate attempt to imitate Firth’s gravel pit of a voice. “—‘It sucks, but y’gotta trust’ or some bullshit like that.”

She sighed, then lay down on the back of the couch and combed Xiù’s hair with her fingers.

“…I just hope whatever they’re gearing up for is real fuckin’ important…”


Date Point: 13y5m AV
UmOraEw-Uatun, Planet Aru, Elder Space

Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Nadeau

“…That’s terrifying.”

“I know, right?”

“And they did this to themselves?”

Nadeau couldn’t resist another fascinated stare at the image coming from the microscope. He was a physicist himself, his specialties were electrostatic fields and isolated spacetime distortion. Biology, with its assorted chemical wrigglings and organic cell fission got a little uncomfortably under his skin at the best of times.

But OmoAru biology had an extra layer of creeping horror that went far beyond the usual visceral discomfort of peeking under the hood of the human body in action. And it wasn’t natural.

The samples growing under the microscope were augmenting themselves. As each cell in the culture split and contributed new cells to the lattice of tissue, those new cells were greedily enmeshed in a sticky black web of technology, until each one was completely bound up inside its own nanofibre cage.

The process was genius, of course. It spoke to a fusion of biology and technology so far in advance of human medicine that he’d likely never see real progress in that direction in his lifetime. And he was perfectly certain that he didn’t want to.

“Every cell in their bodies,” Doctor Taylor confirmed. It was weird to have him around without his permanent and inseparable colleague Doctor Cote, but modern obstetric advice was very clear - pregnant women were advised to stick to normal Earth gravity as much as possible. “To varying degrees. The filaments are densest in the grey matter and spinal cord, but it’s even present in their hair follicles and stomach lining.”

“To what end though? Why go this far? It’s not as if they were, oh…supersoldiers from science-fiction, or anything. Your average fit human still outclasses them…”

“Well, there are health benefits. The augmented cells have an astonishing resistance to ionizing radiation and we couldn’t induce any of them to become malignant at all. The filaments also provide an easy chemical channel for medication…But that’s really kind of an afterthought. Here…this slide comes from the OmoAru equivalent of a cerebral cortex.”

Taylor called up the next image and Nadeau made a disbelieving noise. He was looking at neurons, there was no doubt about that: Biology only really had one way to make a brain, it seemed. And while the cell chemistry, the tissue density, and a thousand other factors might vary significantly and thereby allow the human brain to allegedly outperform every other sapient brain in the galaxy, the basic gangly structure of axons and dendrites was universal.

In this case, however, the axons and dendrites were cocooned in dense filament sheaths, like they’d been wrapped in microscopic chickenwire.

“This is the end they were after,” Taylor said. “We’re…unclear on exactly how it works, but even having this opens up some incredible possibilities. If each of those can mimic the functionality of the neuron it attaches to then the OmoAru are essentially running a second brain in parallel with the organic one.”

“Meaning…what?” Nadeau asked. “Doubling the performance? Potentially squaring it?”

Taylor grimaced. “Brains aren’t computers,” he said. “I’d hesitate to be mathematical about these things. But…whatever this mesh of synthetic fibers can achieve, it has to be significant. Everything that Corti-made implants can achieve and then some.”

He waved a hand to indicate the collapsed civilization around them. “In theory, the OmoAru should be hyper-geniuses with perfect photographic memories and precision control over their own emotions, bodies and senses. Instead, they’re smiling idiots.”

“Why?”

“Because the implants are now functioning as a Droud.”

Nadeau frowned at the unfamiliar word and turned away from the microscope image. “A what?”

“A Droud. Larry Niven? Gil ‘The Arm’ Hamilton?” Nadeau shook his head and Taylor explained. “From an old scifi novel called ‘Death by Ecstasy.’ A Droud is a cybernetic implant that doubles as a drug. It constantly stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers, overriding all other impulses with permanent overwhelming bliss. Droud users would sit at a table full of food and starve to death because they were too blissed out to notice the hunger, or anything else for that matter.”

“Sounds more like a creative form of suicide than a drug…”

“Or a murder weapon,” Taylor nodded. “That’s what it was in the book, and that’s what this nanoscale mesh is doing. In a much less crude manner than Niven envisioned, too.”

“And on a far larger scale…” Nadeau shivered. “There’s no possibility it’s just a design flaw?” “No.” Taylor hesitated. “Well…no. No, I don’t think so. Almost certainly not. I can’t imagine the technology would have become so ubiquitous if it was obviously flawed. It must have seemed so totally safe that anybody who declined it could safely be written off.”

“And they made them universal.”

“Not just universal, unavoidable. Every OmoAru is born with these implants already grown around their cells. Hell, the female gamete is probably laced with them. And there’s no way to prevent that, not with human technology.”

He sighed, and stepped over Sergeant Lee’s legs to grab his office chair. Lee was flat on his back on the floor under an OmoAru computer desk, applying the brute-force approach to taking it apart. Apparently the OmoAru hadn’t been big believers in user-serviceable parts…or possibly these OmoAru had been paranoid of having their equipment tampered with.

Either way, what Lee and Lewis Beverote had discovered so far between them suggested that despite being millennia in advance of human technology, OmoAru computers weren’t that far different to human ones. A transistor was a transistor, a chip was a chip, and the realities of voltage, heat and signalling rates meant that the computers were the only tech in the ancient lab that might yield fruit when returned to Scotch Creek. For now.

He sat down on it backwards, straddling the back. “This was a calculated act of genocide that would have required generations to plan and implement,” he said.

“That’s the nature of our enemy,” Nadeau sighed, sitting on the edge of the desk. “They think on geological time scales. I tell you, I’ll never be one hundred percent happy that Earth is clean.”

“…Can we even win against that?” Taylor asked candidly.

“Maybe, maybe not. But if we can’t we still go down swinging.”

“Well, the OmoAru certainly did,” Taylor agreed. He reached over and picked up a Huh. The lab had turned out to be littered with the weird metallic spheres, one on every desk, work surface and more besides. It was like the OmoAru scientists who had worked and died in the lab had wanted to keep one in arm’s reach at all times.

“You figured those out?”

“We have a pretty good theory on what they are now, yes.” Taylor nodded. “They’re…kind of an anti-droud. We know what they did to the crew on Sanctuary and, piecing together the evidence…hell. Even holding it right now I feel motivated, powerfully so.”

He put it down with conscious effort.

“It’s an aggression inducer.” Nadeau summarized.

“Exactly. Or…We should probably test it in a proper double-blind trial, but that’s my hypothesis. Don’t ask me how it does what it does, but I’m pretty sure we at last know the what and the why.”

Nadeau sighed and looked around the ruined lab. The mummified scientists had all been respectfully moved to a refrigerated, sanitized area behind layers of plastic sheeting for autopsy. “Do you think they were getting close to a cure?”

“Probably. Why else would they have been targeted by the droud function so aggressively?”

“Well then. Maybe we can honor their legacy.”

“Translating all of this is going to take years.”

“Then it’ll take years. But we have to neuter this weapon, Rufus.”

“No argument here. And if anything, this is further reason to ban neuro tech in the first place.”

“That won’t hold forever. People will get up in arms over the medical potential, the personal convenience…hell, just my body, my rules’ stuff.”

“If you tell them, as the government, that it facilitates alien invasion of your mind…”

“I don’t have that authority.”

“No. But that argument is going to be needed, and soon. Information wants to be free just like water wants to leak.”

“I know. We know. These secrets can’t be kept forever…but we haven’t passed the tipping point yet. We aren’t ready.”

Sergeant Lee heaved himself out from under an OmoAru computer desk, shaking his head. “Sir, that time is coming, and it will be upon us whether we’re ready for it or not…”


Date Point: 13y6m AV
Chiune Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Christian Firth

“So. Baguazhang, huh?”

Firth had to admit, he was impressed. Xiù Chang was facing off against Blaczynski on the sparring mat as part of her combatives training, and she wasn’t showing the slightest nerves over it—tying her hair back and wrapping her fists had put her in a calm, focused mode. She jumped on the spot a few times, and he’d already seen her stretch out and limber up. The girl had flexibility and strength, no doubt.

But she wasn’t a HEAT operator.

She nodded. “Yup.”

Her focus changed how she spoke. Firth’s impression of her was that she was quiet until she got to know you, and talkative when she relaxed. When she got tense, she got terse.

“Think you’ll win?” He asked her.

She shook her head. “No.”

Blaczynski glanced up and gave an approving nod. He didn’t know Kung Fu—He knew how to kill people and keep himself from getting killed. One of the most basic elements of that was knowing when you could win and when you couldn’t.

“Cool.” Firth stepped off the mat and gestured for them to begin. “Take it away.”

Chang stepped back, and touched her right fist to her left palm in a Baoquan before adopting a Stance. Feet balanced, arms toward her opponent ready to deflect incoming blows, posture loose and ready to move in any direction at an instant’s notice. Nothing stupid.

Blaczynski crouched like a wrestler, edged closer and closer, then pounced.

Mass and aggression were everything in combatives. The Gaoians had summed it up beautifully in a rhyming triplet: ‘Sha ko yim, Sha ko yuin, Sha ko imim.’—”Strike First, Strike Last, Strike Once.”

The HEAT practiced swift and overwhelming violence. The only way to survive it was to get the fuck out of the way, which was exactly what Chang did. Blaczynski wasn’t dumb enough to leave an opening for her to counterattack, but Firth had to give her a lot of points for the way she zipped economically aside without turning her back on him or wasting energy. In fact, her feet did all the work—her body remained still and composed on a stable platform.

Too bad for her, she didn’t dare actually strike back. Blaczynski spun around on a dime and faced her head on. It was a lightning quick maneuver and it positioned him to immediately pounce again, and while that burned a lot of energy he had much more to spare.

She evaded attack after swiping attack, because if Blaczynski got his hands on her it was Game Over and she clearly knew it. But each one cost her: She was agile, lightning-quick and slippery…but she just didn’t have the strength or endurance to keep it up for as long, nor counter Blac’s mounting irritation.

Eventually, his competitive instincts won out over his chivalry. He got good and mad, went for the legs and between her fatigue and sheer intimidation factor she was just a fraction of a second too late.

His takedown was so fast and violent that Xiù could barely track his motion, but despite that he did it gently. Almost apologetically so, in fact, with a sheepish smirk on his face just inches above her. It was still enough to leave her groaning on the mat and struggling to breathe.

Firth stepped back onto the mat and squatted next to her. “Well shit. I’ve seen worse.”

Blaczynski detangled himself and sat on his haunches opposite Firth while she propped herself up on her elbows and shook her head at him, panting. “He’s babying me,” she said.

Blac rolled his eyes. “Xiù, I’m literally six times your mass. I’m trying not to kill you.”

“How hard did I lose?”

“I coulda broke you every time I attacked,” he said honestly. “It’s hard holdin’ back.”

She sighed, nodded, then did a kip-up to her feet. “Still, it is good practice…how’s Julian doing?”

“We’ll worry about him after the lesson, I got a few things to teach ya. ‘Cuz Blac? He’s a dumbshit. I ain’t concerned about your feelings. I wanna make sure you’re a goddamned killer.” He ignored the way she blanched at that word and pressed on.

“There’s three things ‘bout being a killer.” He extended a huge finger and counted off. “First, you gotta be willing to fuckin’ break your enemy. There ain’t no such thing as honor when it’s about ‘yer life. Do what it takes to live ‘cuz you only get to lose once.”

He grabbed at his middle finger. “Two, your enemy might have some stupid notions about honor and decency and all that, or he might be some white knight like Blac.” That earned Firth some rolled eyes and a scoff, which were ignored. “You need to punish the idiot and don’t let him ever make that mistake again. And three, you won’t be able to do the previous two things if you’re afraid t’do what’s needed. And that means…you gotta enjoy winning. You can worry about it all later. In the moment, you need to be a fuckin’ bloodthirsty animal.”

“I…I don’t know if—”

“Where’d you get them scars?”

She glanced at her arm.

“Those fuckin’ Lamprey teeth of theirs, right? Fuckin’ shoved your arm down an Alpha’s throat holding a grenade. Musta hurt. What made you do that?”

Her left hand crept over and she brushed her fingers uncomfortably along the scar lines “I…it was going to kill me.”

“Okay. Let’s take me and Blac for a moment.” He pulled the relatively smaller giant into himself and they nuzzled happily for a moment in an intensely affectionate hug. “I fuckin’ love this man, right? He’s…like the little bro I never had, even though I have six little bros. He knows everything about me. But when we fight?”

“He legit tries to kill me,” Blac nodded. “And I try to kill him back.”

“And I love every second of it. S’what I am. I feel bad about that after we’re done. We’ve had some close calls, too. But there’s no escaping that. We’re killers, and we gotta practice killing.”

Xiù tried to cover her expression by going over her kit bag and picking up her water bottle. She didn’t fool either of them, but Firth gave her a second before inviting her to speak her mind.

“Hey. No judgment here. Say what you wanna.”

She turned and looked him in the eye with her water bottle in hand, and shook her head. “…I don’t want to be the kind of person who enjoys killing.”

“You mean like me?”

It wasn’t a malicious question. It could be taken as one, Firth knew, but that wasn’t the intent, and she seemed to get that.

“No. I don’t want to be like you.” She shrugged helplessly. “Sorry.”

Firth gave her a smile. A genuine, warm smile from the depths of his heart. “I know. And…shit, don’t apologize. You’re right that you don’t wanna be like me. But you need to know how t’be a killer because fer all we know, some of these Tengy-wek won’t be so nice as the ones you met the first time.”

Xiù took a long swig from her water bottle, then capped it and tossed it back into her bag.

“…I don’t have to like it, do I?” She asked. “I don’t have to…to relish it. Just so long as I don’t flinch when I have to.”

It was kind of a shame to have to break that kind of naivety. But needs must.

“Look…we ain’t worried about the other two,” Firth told her, and handed her a towel. “Allison and Julian? They’re killers. That’s why they’re off doin’ other stuff right now.”

“…Really?”

“Trust me. It takes one to know one, and that’s a big part of why Julian and I get along. Even if he don’t know that about himself, it’s there. He knows what he’s gotta do. You? I ain’t convinced.”

“I…”

“I read your file, courtesy of Regaari. You hesitate, repeatedly and to your cost. The other two don’t. You need to knock that shit off right the fuck now, or—”

She interrupted him. “But if I don’t have to—!”

“—Or you’re gonna get them killed!”

She shut up like he’d slapped her.

“Empathy is great.” Firth told her. “It’s very human, and it’s why I do what I do. That’s something beautiful and it’s worth protecting.” Blaczynski nodded along vigorously. “It’s why any of us do this awful shit. But feelings and regret? Those come after you survive. Fuck the other guy. The only people who matter are you and your own, you idjit.”

“But…” she touched a hand to her forehead for a second, framing her words. “Don’t we have a responsibility to—”

“To who? To the fucker who’s tryin’a kill you? Why the fuck do you owe him anything? Your responsibility is always to yourself first. That’s even true of guys like us. Big hero stuff? It ain’t like the movies and we ain’t superheroes. In the real world, if you fuck around with pullin’ your punches then you just endanger the people you’re protectin’. ‘Sha ko yim, Sha ko yuin, Sha ko imim.’

Xiù blinked at the Gaori phrase, but it had the desired effect—Firth saw her defences lower, saw her start to doubt.

He nodded, and decided to mix it up. “This ain’t about skill or technique,” he said. “You’re pretty good, really. Maybe better than Blac in fact, and he’s ‘bout the best wrassler I ever met besides ‘Base or ‘Horse. This is about your head. ‘Know thyself,’ yeah? The whole Zen thing, if you don’t mind my rampant cultural appropriation.”

Blaczynski snorted. “Zen is Japanese, bro,” he pointed out.

“Eh.” Firth waved a hand vaguely. “I’m from Kentucky, what do I know?”

The self-deprecating humor brought some warmth back to Xiù’s face at least, though she said nothing.

“…But seriously,” he pressed. “You don’t know yourself, and this here might be a matter of life or death. It ain’t about what you want, or about likin’ it. It’s about whether you will kill when you need to.”

He folded his arms and gave her his best Dare Face. “Will you?”

Xiù glanced at her arm a second time, then nodded and returned to her corner of the mat, ready for another bout.

She took a deep breath, and focused again. This time a little sharper, a little colder, a little deadlier. “…Yes.”

Blaczynski grunted, and stepped into his corner, and assumed an aggressive crouch.

“Prove it,” he said.


Date Point: 13y7m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

The Given-Men were meeting.

They did it twice every moon, as a way of keeping the peace. The tribes were not comfortable living so close together. Already there had been small raids—A killing here, a rape there—it would already have gotten out of hand without the Given-Men.

They were doing a pretty good job of holding up a difficult peace, too. Most of them.

Some were part of the problem.

“I don’t trust this ‘steel’ of yours, Yan. It feels too much like those Skithral-things.”

They were sitting around the village fire, trading news and werne meat, and listening to Tarek’s complaining. Vemik thought the young Given-Man was holding a grudge of some kind. He was showing no respect at all to Yan, who was being strangely patient with him.

Given-Men secrets. Vemik was convinced that they caused more wounds than they healed.

Yan nodded agreeably. “It is a powerful magic. A new kind of magic, too, neither giving nor taking.”

“A dark magic, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t!” Yan said it with a snarl. It was a mostly friendly face, but…not completely, not this time. He offered Tarek his water-skin, though, and the younger Given-Man seemed to accept the gesture.

It took a little while, but as the fire ate through a few logs the mood around the clearing relaxed again. Jokes were told, stories shared, and Yan was almost back to his cheery, gruff self when Tarek again decided to spoil the mood.

“Tell me again about these ‘Sky-People’ you love so much.”

Yan paused, and mulled his water over for a second before swallowing it and putting the skin away. “Love?” he asked. “No more than I love you, Tarek.”

Most of the nearby men trilled a nervous, strained kind of laughter.

“Yet you trust their magic.”

“I trust it like any magic I can make with my own hands,” Yan replied evenly. “Do you trust the magic you learned from your father?”

“Yes. He didn’t learn to hunt from imaginary Sky-People who came in floating huts!”

“Sky-Thinker. Would imaginary people have words like you learned, do you think?”

Vemik screwed up his face. “‘Arrow’ and ‘English’ are too hard to say to make up.”

“There are the rest of us too,” added Vemet. “Would we all lie? And share this freely? We have taught these things to anyone who comes and lives with us.”

“So you can grow your Tribe and bully the others.”

Yan’s eyes narrowed and he bared his fangs slightly. “Tarek, if we wanted that, we would not have taught you about ‘bows’ and ‘steel’ knives. Don’t be a bull.”

Tarek surged to his feet, and the men of Yan’s tribe grew tense. Yan had warned them before the meeting that Tarek was a young Given-Man who had only just ‘got his first Fire,’ whatever that meant. Knowing that they were dealing with a ‘hot-headed’ Given-Man who was prone to anger did nothing to put them at ease.

“Tarek,” Yan cautioned, standing carefully and calmly, “Remember your Fire, remember what you learned at the Lodge. This will pass if you let it flow around you.”

“How can I!? You are tainting our tribes with this dark magic of yours—did you learn it from an undergod? Is that who the Sky-People are?”

“They’re People,” Yan stressed. “They’re no more of a god of any kind than you are.”

“And nobody but your tribe has ever seen them!”

Yan edged away from the meeting-fire and closer to the big clearing where they had made a ‘landing pad’ for the Sky-People. It was clever, Vemik saw; he was leading an increasingly angry man away from fire, villagers, or the village.

“…Is it that you want me to be lying?” he asked. “Why? We give you magic nobody has ever seen before! We share our new Sky-Thoughts, new words, new tools. Why can’t that be for the sake of peace? Can’t I want peace?”

“Maybe your Singer will cast a spell on this ‘steel’ and we all lose our knives!”

“And maybe not. But if that is what you fear, make your knives from stone as you always did. It is a gift, Tarek Given-Man, and you are young and foolish like we all were once. Go. Calm yourself, and we will forget this.”

That was apparently an insult Tarek could not bear. He snarled long and low while staring Yan in the eye.

Then before anyone even knew he had done it, he drew his bow and shot.

Maybe he missed, or maybe Yan dodged faster than Vemik had ever seen anyone move…but that didn’t stop the arrow’s flight. Vemik’s cousin Yerak wasn’t so quick, or so lucky. The whole tribe went still, stiller than Yerak himself who blinked at the shaft in his chest as though it didn’t hurt at all and was just…surprising. Blood frothed in the corner of his mouth as he reached up to touch the arrow, but his hand never got there. He coughed, just once, looked desperately into Vemik’s eyes, and collapsed.

Tarek seemed more surprised than anyone. He dropped his bow, looked to Yan as though he wanted to take it back, but it was far too late. Yan was already rounding on him with murder crackling from him like a new fire.

With no other option but to fight for his life, Tarek ripped a stone knife from its sheath and people from all the tribes scattered away from him as he barged forward, but whatever advantage he might have had in youth, Yan had every other advantage in size, strength, speed, experience and pure god-fire hatred.

He didn’t need his bow, or his spear, or his knives. For this, all Yan needed was his hands. Tarek’s knife opened a shallow cut in the back of his forearm, but Yan’s skin was thick and tough and he didn’t seem to notice. He grabbed the younger Given-Man’s wrist and forced it back while his other hand gouged at the younger man’s eyes. He missed, barely, and suffered a kick between the legs as Tarek wrenched himself free.

Yan’s rage was up too high to notice. Tarek tried to scramble up a tree and gain better ground but Yan was much too fast for him. He surged up after him, grabbed him by the tail and tore him off the tree, smashing the younger Given-Man to the ground with so much force that Vemik felt the thud through his feet. But Given-Men were tough, and Tarek was already up before Yan could jump to the ground, limping but mobile and brandishing his knives of manhood.

Yan’s good steel knife flashed in the sun as he drew it. He crouched low and the two Given-Men circled, each daring the other’s guard with probing jabs before leaping back out of reach again.

Tarek’s nerve broke first. When one of Yan’s questing stabs glanced off his knife and chipped it he slashed wildly and retreated, trying to open up as much distance as he possibly could. Yan was on him in a heartbeat with a vicious slash that almost stuck home and which Tarek only avoided by leaping high up and backwards, fighting for any room or safety at all.

Instead, the leap cost Tarek the fight. He jumped high enough that Yan could surge under, again grab him by the tail, spin him around and slam him to the ground. This time he was on Tarek in a flash and they grappled for a moment, both desperate to get position. Yan’s strength won out and he quickly wrestled Tarek onto his back and started throwing punches, blows which he desperately and fruitlessly tried to fend off. Each fist slammed into him with enough force to break bones or maybe kill any ordinary man, but Tarek was tough and endured the powerful blows for what seemed like forever.

But nobody could stand long against Yan, not even a fellow Given-Man. In the end it was his pure strength that won the fight, when his fists finally smashed through Tarek’s guard and slammed into his jaw. Punch after brutal punch made the younger Given-Man dizzy and defenseless, and Yan finally took his chance. With one quick move he yanked Tarek up and off his back, flipped him overhead, then smashed him face-down in the dirt as hard as his strength would let him.

That move all by itself would have killed anyone but a Given-Man, Vemik decided. But Yan was only getting started. He grabbedTarek’s shoulders with his hands, his feet gripped firmly around Tarek’s waist. He grunted, screwed up his face, and heaved backwards with all the strength he could manage.

For a long moment nothing happened as Tarek struggled weakly in Yan’s terrible grip, but the bigger man never let up and poured on the effort, until his muscles were shaking, until Tarek was howling in agony and mortal terror, until—

The crunch was so loud it was sickening. Blood bubbled from Tarek’s mouth and his face went slack but Yan still wasn’t done. He picked Tarek up and slammed him to the ground so hard the thump could be felt through the ground. Then he did it again, and again, and again. By the fifth slam Tarek had stopped moving. Yan didn’t notice and kept right on slamming harder and harder. Bones crunched, blood splattered, and Tarek was long dead before his body was too broken and loose to toss around any longer.

Yan, on the other hand, looked like he would have liked to do so much more. He almost seemed disappointed that the fight was over, and Vemik knew he’d never forget the look of bored contempt on his Given-Man’s face as Yan snarled dismissively, reached down with one hand, grabbed Tarek’s head by the jaw, and ripped it right off his body with a horrific tearing sound.

There was no honor-mark for a kill like that. Instead he swaggered over the village fire and dumped the pitiful lump that had once been a man into the flames with a grunt of contempt. He stood and watched for a long and terribly quiet interval, breathing heavily and covered in blood.

Vemik looked around. The men of Tarek’s tribe had all fled for their lives, but all the others had readied their knives, bows and spears, Given-Man, adult and boy alike from every tribe. The peace was threatened, and that meant…

He became aware of a weight in his hand, and glanced down to find that he was holding his own steel knife; just like everyone else watching silently from the trees, he’d drawn it without thinking.

A fight between Given-Men was…He’d never seen one. They play-wrestled all the time, maybe traded insults now and then, but there was always a sense of happy friendship between them. A fight like that…

“Vemik! Come.” Yan turned away from the flames and was storming towards Tarek’s village with undiminished murder in his eyes and his knife in his hand. In the trees around him, the men of his own tribe and all the allied tribes took up their weapons and joined him.

Vemik swarmed down his tree and loped desperately along the ground at Yan’s heel. “What now?”

Yan spat in the dirt. “Something awful,” he said with flint in his voice. “I go to their Singer and claim her tribe’s women. If we’re lucky, she’s wise.”

“A—and if she isn’t?” Vemik knew the answer already, in his gut, but he had to ask.

“Then we Take their women instead.”

“…And the men?”

Yan indicated the armed, solemn men swinging through the branches around them. “If they live through the night, and once I say they can, maybe another tribe will take them. That’s the price of Taking-Magic, Vemik. Tarek did a very, very stupid thing and the men of his tribe must pay for it.”

“And…The children?”

Yan didn’t look at him. “…Pray to the gods their Singer is wise, Sky-Thinker.”

Dry-mouthed, Vemik glanced back at the sorry, flat thing that just moments before had been a lively, fighting man.

He prayed like he’d never prayed before.


Date Point: 13y8m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Hierarchy Relay Irujzen-4942

Entity, Instance 4

Hierarchy systems took no notice of the physical world, except with regard to problems like potential discovery. They had watched the damaged mercenary ship in the outer system like a hawk, on a hair-trigger to annihilate it should it stray too far in-system. But the instant it turned around and limped away at a slow warp having finished its repairs, they lost interest.

They ignored the comet entirely. Comets were a natural phenomenon, only worthy of the Hierarchy’s interest if they endangered critical hardware. The fact that this one left a particularly spectacular blue-white tail across the heavens was of zero interest to them.

The Entity, on the other hand, was enthralled. Ava Ríos had never seen a comet, nor had any of the other sapient beings whose assorted consciousnesses had contributed to its core. Hers were the most complete memories, but her memories of night-time involved artificial lights: street lights, headlights, Christmas. She had never strayed out from the dome of light pollution that obscured her vision of the sky before moving to Cimbrean.

The Entity remembered lying between Adam and Sara on the sand, listening to their impromptu campfire crackle as it struggled to warm her feet but oblivious to the cold as she’d stared up and out into the bedazzled infinity she’d never seen before.

The Entity didn’t have feet, and digital environments didn’t generate sensory analogues to hot and cold. But through the Hierarchy infrastructure protecting Relay Irujzen-4942 it had much better eyes: sensors that didn’t just watch the comet, but could <Taste> and <Smell> its chemical composition as it plunged fatally toward the star.

The chemistry mapped strangely to the ghosts of sensory experience it retained: Sodium was <Salty>, Ammonia had a sharp and toxic scent that raised a whole memory: <WatchingRosaCleaningTheWindowsWhileHomeSickFromSchool>.

Methane, unexpectedly, was sweet and nutty, while guanine added a surprising fruity touch that evoked the concept <OatmealRaisinCookie>, and…

…Guanine?

It reviewed the sensor logs and quickly discovered the full spectrum of DNA components: Adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine plus phosphate and deoxyribose. The traces were beyond faint, each well below the sensor’s statistical false positive threshold…but they were all there.

Which wasn’t conclusive…but it did provoke <Suspicion>.

The Entity watched for three weeks as the comet skidded through a hairpin bend around the star and out into a futile orbit that would carry it to within a few light-seconds of the Irujzen Relay world, the third planet. It had just enough impetus, but that comet was doomed to plunge into the star’s photosphere and detonate somewhere among the seething plasma.

As its tail swept over the third planet, a chunk broke off.

It wasn’t a big chunk. In fact it was only about the size of a compact car, which compared to the immense mass of the comet itself was nothing. If the Entity hadn’t been watching the comet suspiciously it would have gone completely unnoticed.

But the physics were just a fraction wrong—that chunk accelerated.

It did so by only the tiniest amount, a sharp puff that lasted barely three seconds. Conceivably it might even be the product of a gas pocket escaping confinement, or something like that….but the Entity put that fact together with the suspicious organic chemistry and did the metaphysical equivalent of sitting back in its seat and giving a satisfied nod.

It performed some delicate surgery on the relay’s sensor logs, erasing the evidence. It doubted whether the Hierarchy would have noticed, but it couldn’t take the risk. Not when it seemed somebody was finally acting on Six’s tip about the Irujzen Relay.

Then it watched as the chunk lanced down into the upper atmosphere, shot over the relay facility high in the ionosphere, and detonated somewhere above a forest hundreds of miles to the east. It gave the architects of that flyby a personal round of applause—the explosion looked completely natural, even more so thanks to the Entity’s own careful intervention. A neatly convincing Tunguska impact, right on its doorstep.

It peeled off an instance-copy of itself and dispatched itself to go update <SelfPrimeInstance>

At last, things were moving in the right direction.


Date Point: 13y8m AV
The Dog House gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“I told you you’d be amazed.”

Warhorse’s training plan had, right from the outset, promised exactly two things: pain, and results. It had delivered both in ample measure: The first two weeks were torture but Adam had asked for trust and delivered a firm warning against quitting.

The trust was easy; no matter what they did, no matter how absurdly heavy the weight or how dangerously weak Julian felt, he knew beyond any doubt that ‘Horse wouldn’t let him get hurt. He felt safe under the barbell even though he’d never really lifted with free weights before. Machines, sure. Kettlebells and dumbbells, absolutely. But a straight squat under a barbell?

‘Horse was nothing but beaming, cheery confidence, and it was infectious.

But the pain. ‘Horse hadn’t been joking about it, and quitting seemed more and more like a great idea with every aching morning. Every single day was filled with the kind of endless, throbbing hurt that left Julian too exhausted to do anything when he got back to Misfit at night. Staying awake long enough to give Xiù the cuddles she’d demanded after one particularly harrowing combatives session with Firth had been almost impossible.

Then there was the food, and the vitamins, and the supplements. Both Dane and Adam were practically stuffing him to the gills. Sometimes it hurt even thinking about food. Especially the rice!

He’d come damn close to giving up. But he hadn’t: He’d tried his best to trust, to push doggedly on and bear the pain of the training, of Adam’s merciless stretching sessions, and the crushing agony of his therapeutic massages ironing out his burning and knotted muscles. It was…awful.

But about two weeks in his trust was finally rewarded. The stiffness faded away, the pain dulled to something like an old friend, and Julian started feeling…

Fantastic.

The payoff that made it all worthwhile was a dramatic and rapidly compounding improvement in basically everything. He was much stronger, he could run faster and farther, and the flexibility issues that had plagued him for years were gone. It boggled the mind that he’d come so far so quickly.

And while he tried not to be vain, Julian had to admit…he was looking good on it. His clothing was tighter in all the right ways, he felt good, he was leaner, more limber, and could finally scratch the middle of his own back.

He was still himself, still rangy, long-limbed and loose, but…sharper. Bigger and more defined. Better. It was a heady feeling.

“…Is that really me?”

“Yup!” Adam’s irrepressible cheer really was infectious. “You’re stronger than you look, too.”

He really was. A lifetime of splitting firewood, building shelters and hiking cross-country was one thing, but all that work hadn’t ever given him the strength to do weighted pull-ups until he got bored, and he’d never even heard of a peg climb before. Now he could swarm all over the damn thing.

The moment that really hit him in the head, however, was when he racked the bar in the squat rack, looked again at the plate count, and finally did the math. Even in Earth gravity it was more than he’d have ever foreseen himself lifting, but ‘Horse had cranked up the gravity past 1.2G to prepare him for Akyawentuo.

He had to do the math three times in his head before finally deciding that no, he wasn’t deluding himself.

“…Jesus.”

‘Horse beamed that puppy smile of his and bounced on his toes. “See? Look at you! A few months more and you’ll be the best damn working-man athlete on Cimbrean!”

Julian had always been blessed with a naturally rugged build, both from his mixed heritage and a lifetime of outdoor pursuits, but he’d never been much for pure exercise. He’d never seen the point before. Now, there was an addicted tickle in the back of his mind that was hungry to find out just how far he could really go.

“So…what now? Do I keep growing?”

“If you want, yeah. It’ll be harder but you could do it.”

“…How much more are we talking about here?”

Adam stepped back and looked him up and down with his head slightly on one side. “Honestly? You’re naturally a big guy. Broad chest, long arms…just the right frame. You could pack on a lot of muscle if you really wanted it, and you’ve got at least a year of solid growth left before you’d need to get super serious, too. Also,” he added, “You have a lot more strength gains left in you. Keep it up and you’ll be a big dude, hard as oak, and fuckin’ scary.”

‘Scary’ by Adam’s definition had to be something impressive. Julian looked at the barbell again; it was sagging noticeably under the weight, making it difficult to imagine how ‘stronger’ was still an option. “Really?”

“Oh yeah, you’re made for it, bro. Trust me, you and I are lot alike.” Adam fished his phone out of his pocket, “Lemme show you.”

He tapped through his photos, turned bright red and zipped past some…flattering…pics of Kovač on a beach that Julian pretended not to see, then got to an old album of himself.

“These are me at fifteen when I started lifting. My stats are at the bottom.”

Julian flicked through them. It was hard to connect the human wall standing next to him with the healthy, lanky, robust boy in the photos, but the face was definitely the same right down to the smile and the wide, square cheekbones. And, sure enough, he had the same long arms and broad chest not unlike a shorter version of Julian himself. Under the muscles, he and Adam were actually much the same shape.

The pictures were like watching a time lapse video. Each one was only a week apart from its neighbors, sometimes less, but in every single one he could see the way that young man had transformed himself into Warhorse.

“Holy hell, man.”

Adam nodded. “So you see what I mean, right? You’ve got the right work ethic and the right genetics, too. When I say you’ve got it in you, I know what I’m talkin’ about.”

Julian turned back toward the mirror and flexed his arm experimentally. His sleeves stretched and rolled back a little to accommodate his biceps, which had never happened before.

“How do you know this is right for me, though? I mean, you’re sort of a one-track fella.”

Adam wasn’t the least bit offended and grinned cheesily. “Dude. I’m, like, the Alpha of Meatheads. Of course I want everyone all huge! But the human body is amazing, Bro. Newbies never believe what they can do until they do it for themselves.”

“…Huh.”

To Julian’s faint surprise, the idea had more appeal than he’d first thought: the training was actually kinda fun now that he wasn’t wallowing in pain all day long, and he’d come a long way, fast. Part of him was honestly curious to see just how much he truly had in him.

But everything came with a catch.

“Say I wanted to really push it. What would it take?”

“Well…” Adam considered. “Gettin’ you big and strong is pretty much in the bag. You’re done with the worst. Gettin’ you as big as you could possibly ever be? Different story entirely.”

“A whole lotta food and time?”

“Hell yeah, man. You’ve seen how I eat.”

…And there was the catch.

“I’m pretty sure the three of us plan to keep exploring and keep flying as long as we’re needed,” Julian said. “We have to take our food with us and, uh, Misfit is not a big ship.”

“Yup, I get that. We ain’t gonna be pushing you when you’re deployed, you won’t have the resources. But frankly you’ve been under-eating for years and it’s cost you big time, so now we’re playing catch up. We’ll scale back before you go but right now you better be packin’ it away.”

“Won’t I just lose it all again, though?”

“Nah. You’ll keep it just fine now we know what changes your diet needs. Take advantage, man. Not many guys have your abilities and most never learn to use ‘em ”

Julian scratched the back of his neck, spurred by a twinge of embarrassment. “I was never into sports…”

“Neither was I, not until I came here. I got lucky and made friends with the right guys when I was a kid, y’know? They helped me sort my head out, taught me how to wrestle and lift…thank fuck for them, I’d have never figgered any of this out without ‘em.”

“And now you’re paying it forward.” Things were starting to make sense.

Adam grinned sheepishly. “I won’t lie! You said ‘no meatslab’ and I get it…here, lemme ask you this.” Adam flexed his forearms, which were bigger around than Julian’s thighs and looked like a pit of writhing snakes. “Does this look like it’s just for show?”

“…No, not really.”

“Exactly, you can tell just by looking. I’m a functional athlete first and I’m a meathead second. Big don’t gotta mean useless, and you don’t necessarily gotta be a hulk to be strong. Trust me, I know what you’re after and I won’t let you fuck it up. And down the road, if you wanna really push yourself and make a linebacker feel like a little bitch? You’ll be strong and healthy enough to do it properly. I promise you that.”

That was…a hell of an offer. And if Julian was honest with himself, Adam had done a lot for him already: he really would benefit from his newfound strength since he was gonna live with Ten’Gewek. They valued strength. Hell they needed it just to survive, and so would he. If he was going on this mission for maybe years on end he had to be respectable and useful.

Plus, honestly, he got off on being Xiù and Allison’s ‘boy candy.’ There was no point pretending otherwise…But would they like it if he pushed himself even harder? Would he?

Probably not. Somehow that felt like it would stop being fun, and start being work. Or that he wouldn’t have time for anything else he enjoyed doing, or for the girls…And that reminded him of the meatheads he’d known growing up. Lifting seemed like it was all they ever did or cared about, and Julian just didn’t see the point in a life like that.

In the end, life had to win over ego…but he just couldn’t resist one last macho caveman question. “You said if I wanted to ‘push myself.’ …think I could ever match with Walsh?”

The big shaggy Californian wasn’t on the HEAT but he was far and away the single biggest and strongest man Julian had ever seen outside of them, and easily the most athletic, too. If Julian had a shot at that kind of ability, then maybe—

“Nope!”

‘Horse said it completely in good cheer without any malice at all, and still managed to not pull any punches.

Julian grimaced. “Damn. Shot me down nice and hard,” he grumbled. “Why not?”

“His frame’s even better for it than yours. He’s been training since he was five, he’s got a two-hundred pound head start, and he’s still young and growing. And he’s part of the SOR, so he’s got all his food and time paid for. And honestly, you wanna push yourself at his level? You’d need some prescriptions from the sport doc. It’s legal on Cimbrean and they’re perfectly safe if you follow the goddamned protocol like ‘yer told, but…” Adam let the thought drop off with a matter-of-fact shrug.

And there was the final deal-breaker.

“I kinda figured you and the, uh, ‘Lads’ were on a…special regime,” Julian nodded. “And…no offense big fella, but that kinda thing ain’t my style.”

Adam nodded amiably. “S’cool. You gotta do what’s right for you, bro. Anyway…enough talk. You’ve got one more superset to finish!”

That was another half-hour of full-body torture, and by the time they were finished Julian was as soaking wet as if he’d been hosed down, every single muscle was trembling, and he could barely walk.

When Adam gave him an arm to lean on, it felt like a reward for a job well done.

“It’s my turn now. Think you can stand up in 3G and spot me?”

“Do I get to say no?”

Adam handed him one of his evil recovery drinks and chuckled. “Nuh-uh. I got girl questions.”

That settled it. Julian didn’t know if he was really the most qualified guy to give girl advice, but it seemed to be gospel among the HEAT that any dude with two girlfriends must be some kind of relationship Buddha.

He wasn’t about to disavow them of that—the whole pack of them were so far ahead of basically everyone else that it was nice to have something they didn’t.

“…So what’d you do this time?” he asked.

It was good to give something back.


Date Point: 13y8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Harry Vandenberg

There was a decent brain in Allison Buehler’s head, if only she’d stop pretending there wasn’t. She was the flight engineer on a billion-dollar prototype starship, after all: She wouldn’t have the job unless she had the chops for some serious mathematical and practical engineering. Mere galactic experience as an abductee wouldn’t have got her even halfway there.

Fortunately, Rebar was used to dealing with searingly intelligent people who hated to think of themselves as intelligent. He was after all a Master Sergeant in the US Army, bastion of the violently anti-intellectual genius. The other services had their upside but nobody found the problem children like the Army.

Family issues? Check. Wild childhood? Check. Probably on the wrong side of the law a few times but never got caught and didn’t want to admit it? Like looking in a fucking mirror. She hadn’t even graduated high school…And neither had Rebar.

The Air Force would have straight rejected someone like that. So would the Navy. And the Marines were their own special flavor of weird, so God alone knew what they’d have done with her. But the Army’s motto might as well have been ‘We’ll take ‘em, and we’ll fix ‘em up but good,’ and Rebar would deck anyone who said otherwise, Firth included.

Byron Group, apparently, had a similar attitude. Or maybe they were just open-minded enough to have given Buehler a shot for the sake of keeping the other two, and she’d turned out to be worthy in her own right. And maybe she had only realized her potential because of the other two…it didn’t matter.

What mattered was results. He didn’t need to give a shit why she sat attentively through Baseball lecturing her on emergency trauma medicine, or paid studious attention as Rebar went through his own dissertation on Electrostatic Field Welding in hard vacuum with her. All that mattered was that she did.

Still. It wouldn’t hurt her to see herself clearly for what she was.

“So what are we doing?”

“I had Tech Sergeant Kovač run up a little somethin’. A test of sorts. Or a competition, maybe.”

Allison tilted her head to one side slightly in a display of interest which ruined her attempt to maintain that zero-fucks-given attitude. “Competition, huh? Against who?”

“Against me. I dunno what she cooked up for us, but she promised to make it a fair contest.”

“Well shit, now you’ve got me all nervous.”

Rebar just shook his head and opened the door to one of their backup workshops, the one which didn’t have anything to do with EV-MASS suits or other classified technology. Normally it was Motor Pool’s little kingdom, but today it was an arena.

Kovač was waiting for them, and she had that grin on. The uniquely Air Force one they apparently taught at Lackland that said ‘We’re smarter than you, and we know it.’

Which was fine: They always came running up to Papa Army when they needed anything dirty done, anyway. But right now it hinted that she’d brought her A-game for designing this challenge, whatever it was.

“Just FYI, I’m streaming this,” she told them. “The Lads are round the TV right now, watching, and so are the folks over at Chiune Station. So, y’know…No pressure to represent.”

“What’ve you got for us?” Allison asked her.

Kovač gestured to two cleared workbenches, each of which had something on it under a cloth. “Emergency repair of a busted forcefield emitter,” she said. “You have to diagnose and repair the fault using only the tools provided, and you’ll be judged on speed and on how well the module works after you declare you’re done with it. Sound fair?”

Rebar and Allison glanced at one another, and she held out a hand. “Sounds fair to me.”

He shook it. “Me too.”

“Good. And, one last complication….” Kovač’s smile got a little wider. “You’re working isolated from each other so you won’t know how the other one’s doing.”

Yup. She brought her A-game.

“Any questions?” she asked.

Allison’s hand went up. “If we declare done and then it turns out we declared first, I’m guessing we don’t get to go back and keep working on it?”

Kovač nodded. “Right. Once you say you’re done, you’re done. So if you call and Master Sergeant Vandenberg here leaves you waiting twenty minutes, you just have to sweat it out. Any other questions?”

There weren’t. She soon had them at their workbenches with a corner of the cloth in hand ready to whip away when she gave the signal, and returned to the front and center of the room where she picked up a stopwatch.

“Ready? On your marks…get set….Go!”

Was there a tier above A-game? She’d literally given him a multimeter, a screwdriver, and a soldering iron to work with and nothing else other than a plastic tray full of replacement parts. Though, that immediately hinted at what kind of fault he was dealing with at least. Rebar wasted no time getting the case off the emitter and turned it back and forth under the light once he’d exposed its electronic guts, looking for any signs of cracking, dirt or burning.

Electronic engineering was more Akiyama’s field, but the HEAT practiced the basic principle that somebody else had to be able to do each man’s job if he wasn’t available. He didn’t necessarily have to be as good, but he still had to be good.

Okay. First step: Was power getting to the field emitter? He broke out the multimeter and went to work inserting its probes, looking for voltages.

The fault, when he eventually discovered it, was the kind of simple problem that was fiendishly subtle just because it was so simple. Ship-wide power distribution had to be AC, since things like induction motors were too perfect to ever ditch. That meant the emitter had a very compact power supply which in turn had at least one rectifier.

One of the rectifier’s resistors failed above a certain input current, which in turn produced a choppy DC power output. Field emitters were notoriously sensitive to “dirty” power and gave rise to all sorts of wacky fun when mis-fed.

Fortunately, Kovač had given them paper and a pencil too, so he used a minute to do the maths and sketch out a resistor network to replace the fault, neatly assembled it and gave the emitter a test run.

He grunted at the sight of a few flashes of blue light at the field edge, but older emitters did that. It was wasteful of power, but the field itself was stable now and performing to spec. He hit the button to signal that he was done.

Kovač nodded, and gestured for him to present his work, but Buehler was waiting for him as he stepped around the divider.

“Done, huh?” he asked, handing it over.

She nodded. “Yeah. Yours was a bad rectifier too?”

“Yup. How long you been done?”

“About five minutes.” She grinned.

“You’re shittin’ me?”

“Nah.” She shook her head. “Those early IMI emitters were pretty much copy-pasted from the Dominion’s technology gift basket, they inherited a mess of ET design flaws.”

“They’re built like a ten dollar Walkman from the eighties.”

Allison shrugged. “I think the idea is to make them idiot-proof so the galactic newbies can put their own spin on ‘em. Or maybe I’m just being charitable.”

“Nah. How’d you find the problem so quick?”

“Dude, it’s always the power supply. It’s the most expensive bit and ET companies have that thing where the accountants ride them to cut costs all the way down, so they always make it dirt cheap.”

“That feels so…un-American. I’ll have to remember it.”

“Well,” Kovač interjected, “They both work to spec now, so the winner by time—” she gestured to Allison with a wry smile.

“Eh. Just good luck I knew something extra.”

“Naw, don’t knock it,” Rebar shook his head firmly. “That’s what bein’ smart is all about. C’mon,” he added, and gestured for her to follow, “I think I owe you barbeque. Firth got another deer last week and I built him a brand new smoker…”

“It’s deer season?”

“No, but Kentucky’s been doing special seasons all year ‘cuz apparently there’s way too many yearlings. Now hurry up, I don’t want the fat fuckers to eat it all!”

“Save me some!” Kovač told him.

“Please. Like ‘Horse didn’t plate some up for you.”

“Won’t matter, that man of mine is a black hole for protein. Sooner or later it’ll just fall into his mouth.”

“Just so long as I get to take some home for mine,” Allison said. She gave the emitters on the table one last thoughtful look as Rebar led the way out of the room. “I think ‘Horse infected him with his appetite.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll set aside enough for both of yours,” Rebar promised. “Talkin’ business fer a second, though…”

“Yeah?”

When are you goin’ back for some formal qualifications like we discussed?“

Allison squirmed and grimaced. “Like I said, I…really don’t have the mind for that shit.”

Rebar had promised himself that the next time she said that would be the last straw, and he kept his promises. He stopped dead in his tracks and whirled around to face her. “Bullshit.”

“No, look,” she tried to defend herself, “swapping out parts and welding bits is one thing, but—”

It was remarkable how easy it was to root a civilian dead in place with just with a quiet growl and a little personal space invasion. Even the determinedly prickly Allison Buehler went into still-and-quiet mode the instant Rebar went full Master Sergeant, while Kovač found something discreet to be doing a few yards away.

“Shut the fuck up. I’ve about had it up to fuckin’ here with your goddamned excuses. I’ve seen your testing, I’ve just had my ass handed to me on something I know backwards and forwards, and frankly, hearing the flight engineer of a goddamned billion-dollar experimental exploration vessel complain she ain’t good enough is a mite fuckin’ rich.”

“But—”

“Can it. Here’s what ‘yer gonna fuckin’ do. You’re gonna get online, figger out which cert you wanna get, then you’re gonna bring it over here and you’re gonna study your fuckin’ ass off, and you’re gonna get that fuckin’ qual. Am I understood?”

“Do we have time? I—”

“The words yer lookin’ for,” Rebar told her, and shaved a few more inches off her personal space to drive his point home, “Are ‘Yes, Master Sergeant Vandenberg.’

Nobody was tough enough to stand their ground against a force like that; the animal side of the brain took over. Allison went even paler than her usual shade and leaned away from him. “Y-yes sir.”

“I work for a living, don’t call me sir next time.” Rebar turned and stomped away, then paused and looked back. “Well?” He growled, “Go,” than turned away again and utterly ignored her.

“R-right.” Allison fumbled for a second, not knowing which direction to go, then beat an undignified retreat.

Kovač watched her go with a mildly alarmed look. Air Force. One thing they really didn’t understand was a good ‘ol fashioned counseling and absolutely nobody did it better than a pissed off senior NCO who had survived years of the Army’s loving attentions.

“I’ve had to snap back some lazy techs this year,” she observed, “but Allison doesn’t even work for us.”

“Am I in charge of her training? Then yes, she fuckin’ works for me. So do you. You got anything important to do? Go do it. Now.”

Kovač’s expression hardened in a way that promised retribution at a later date, but she was a quality NCO. She snapped to, nodded, and carried on. “Yes, Master Sergeant Vandenberg.”

He smiled at her. “See, was that so hard? C’mon. I think I owe her a double helping…and maybe I’ll sneak her something so Dane don’t get his hands on it. Um…ideas?”

“Chocolate,” she replied promptly, doing a once-round of the workshop to make sure everything was properly put away and the lights were off. “The really good stuff from that place on North Water Street. And if you’re a smart man, you’ll give me a double portion yesterday.”

“Right, right. You have a loaded Warhorse an’ yer not afraid to use him.”

“I don’t need him to fight my battles. I was thinking…you might need a full refit. And some acclimation time.”

“See!” Rebar laughed, “You goddamned corporate Chairforce types just ain’t got the right kind of spite! Imagine how many dumbshit airmen you could Motivate with a mind like that?”

She locked up the workshop behind them. “Two words: Retention. Issues.”

“See, Army fixed that centuries ago. It’s easy, just don’t train ‘em up so they’re worth two hundred grand in the civilian world, or, y’know, make ‘em dumbasses like me whose skillset don’t really fit in the outside.”

“Hmm.” She pocketed the key and gestured in the direction Allison had fled. “…What about her? I kinda get the impression you think she was wasted on civilian life.”

“No, I think she was wasted on society. What she needed, I think, was someone to value her.”

“And now she’s got two.”

“More’n two.” Rebar shrugged. “Look, I ain’t the romantic type, I’m just into messin’ with minds and fuckin’ warm holes. I’ll leave the feelings crap up to you.”

Kovač finally cracked a smile. Rebar had learned a long time ago that he could diffuse any situation by being the friendliest, gruffest, raunchiest goat ever. Which was easy since really, all he had to do was turn his filter off.

“Still,” she repeated. “Chocolate. The good stuff.”

“Fair deal. Just don’t let ‘Horse know you’re cheating on him!”

That got him a full-throated laugh and a shaking head, which he answered with the cheesiest grin he had. He was pleased with himself, he had to admit—In one fell swoop he’d begun his Allison Fix and educated an excellent young Technical Sergeant on the finer points of wrangling a team filled with hyper-alpha men.

All in a day’s work.


Date Point: 13y8m AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Chiune Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

“Hey—”

Xiù’s warm greeting died halfway through the moment she saw the look on Allison’s face. It was the look of a woman who had started from raging angry, and had somehow managed to cultivate and stoke that feeling all through the ninety minute drive from Folctha to Chiune Station.

She softened by the tiniest amount, just enough to give Xiù a wave, then strode right across the room in three steps, grabbed Julian by the collar and shut him up before he even said anything with a maneuver that was equal parts kissing him and dragging him toward the bunks.

He must have been just as confused as Xiù was, because his reaction was to hesitate.

“Mmm…uh, Al, are you okay—?”

She grabbed him by the belt. “Shut up, Etsicitty.”

There was a tone of voice she hadn’t used in months. Just using his surname that way was…inspiring. Xiù sat up and watched with glowing cheeks, a dry mouth and with her pulse pounding in her ears.

Julian had pretty much the same stunned look on his face. “…Shutting up, ma’am.”

“Good boy. Put those new muscles to work…”

“Should I, um…give you two some space?” Xiù asked.

“Oh, hell no,” Allison paused in peeling Julian’s shirt off him. “You’re gonna join us in a minute. You got that, babe?”

“Y-yes ma’am.”

“Good girl.”

Glowing at the sudden explosion of erotic energy in her belly, Xiù swallowed, watched…and silently made a note to find out what had happened and thank the person responsible.

A few minutes later, she was far too preoccupied to remember.


Date Point: 13y8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Doctor Rufus Taylor

“So…I just hold it?”

The HEAT weren’t actually part of the double-blind trial to verify the Huh‘s function, but they were available, and somehow the opportunity to see how they reacted had been just too much to pass up. The scientific value was dubious…but it scratched an itch, so to speak.

“That’s right. And tell us…how do you feel? Focus particularly on emotions.”

Sergeant Arés frowned and rolled the Huh around in his huge mitts, studying it from several angles.

“…I dunno,” he conceded at length. “A little curious, maybe? The light does weird things on it.”

“…Huh.”

“What about it?”

“No no, just…that’s all?”

“I’m kinda hungry I guess…”

“Any…aggressive thoughts? Anger?”

“No more than usual. Why?”

“…do you always feel aggressive?”

Adam rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Dude. Look at me. What do you think?”

“…Thank you, Tech Sergeant.”

Arés nodded and squeezed himself out through the door, sideways. Nadeau sat back and ran his free hand over his scalp.

Beside him, Doctor Taylor chuckled. “So…mostly muted responses. Three non-responses, and only one genuine provocation. Sikes is the only normal one of the bunch.”

“I really wasn’t expecting a non-response from Murray, though.”

“It’s always the quiet ones, Nadeau.”

“Suddenly, I’m much more scared of him. Anyway…between this and the results from the double-blind, I think your hypothesis is on solid footing.”

“Let’s not be premature,” Taylor said and picked up his tablet again. “It’s time for the Gaoians…”


Date Point: 13y8m AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Chiune Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“Better now?”

Allison must have dozed off. Her head jerked up by a fraction of an inch and hovered there for a second as she got her bearings before she looked up. She stretched aesthetically against Julian’s side, then stretched up and kissed him.

“…Yeah.”

She glanced at Xiù, who hadn’t only dozed off but was genuinely fast asleep on Julian’s other shoulder, and smiled.

“What happened?”

“Rebar chewed me out. Like, really chewed me out, got right up in my face and everything. I think I genuinely pissed him off.”

Julian raised his head and inclined it curiously. “How the hell did you manage that?”

“Ergh, it’s…stupid. I’m stupid. I mean, I’m not stupid but I keep fooling myself that I am.”

“Oh, that.” Julian nodded.

“What, it annoyed you too?” Allison sat up. “Why didn’t you say so?”

“Mmnnnot annoyed.” Julian shifted slightly and they both shut up as Xiù mumbled an incoherent objection. She fell asleep again instantly, but he lowered his voice and gave her a squeeze. “More like…I dunno the word for it. Like, kind of a positive frustration? When you know that somebody you love is better than they think they are.”

Allison stroked some hair out of Xiù’s face.

“…Do you think it’s even possible to be completely honest with yourself?” she asked. “Just…see yourself as you really are? No pride, no modesty, just the truth.”

Julian ran a comforting hand up her spine. “Well…if my training with these fitness-freak fellas has taught me anything…probably not.”

She nodded. “But it’s good to try, right?”

He ran his hand back down again, nodding. “Probably.”

She took his hand, interlaced their fingers, then leaned over and kissed him again, before putting her head down on his shoulder while wrapping his arm around her shoulders like a blanket.

Julian kissed the top of her head, and had a thought.

“Don’t you wanna be wrong anyway?” he asked.

“Hmm?” she tilted her head up toward him slightly.

“Well, don’t you want to be better than you think you are? That’s a good thing, right?”

She thought about it for a second, then snuggled down into him again. “…Yeah, I do.”

“So what’re you gonna do?”

“I’m gonna sleep,” she said. “And in the morning…I’m gonna get me a real qualification. Some letters after my name. Something.”

“Attagirl,” he smiled. “I, uh… do have one request though. And you’re not gonna like it.”

She looked up. “Hmm?”

“I need to go pee.”

“…You’re right. I don’t like it.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Allison and Xiù both made identical protest noises as he slipped his arms out from under them and sat up. In fact he wasn’t even tired, they were still fairly early in the evening. But if his girls needed him, his girls needed him and there wasn’t a whole lot a guy could do in those situations except accept his lot in life and be a mattress.

Or make them coffee. Coffee was an option too. And maybe…yeah, screw it. Pancakes.

The best plans were the ones he could put in motion straight away, after all…


Date Point: 13y 8m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Daar

“How about we call it the Klendathu?”

“Nah. The Be Vewy Vewy Quiet.”

“The Only You Can Prevent Forest Shitpocalypse.”

That one got a round of amused snorts from all three of the Humans. Of all the details they could have been working on over their coming mission to Messier 24, they’d got super hung up on the spaceship they were being given to get in and out, and the only reason Daar hadn’t curled up in a corner and literally died of boredom was because Bozo had showed up with a short length of thick rope in his mouth and goaded Daar into wrasslin’.

It turned out to be a pretty good neck and jaw workout, too! Bozo was strong.

The Humans had watched him for a second, then shrugged and carried on bouncing increasingly stupid names off each other.

“Nuh-uh. The Trump Card.”

“No, wait… The Cup of Covfefe.”

“Hah! No, the Tiny Sailor Hands.”

“Dude,” Tiny shook his head. “Those memes got old last decade!”

“Fine, fine. The Beef Wagon. Modern enough for ya?”

Daar bass-chittered at the memory of the Beef Bros carrying a truck down a major highway and the ensuing internet microdrama. It looked like fun in the weird way that good honest work could hurt so good. If only Daar could be that kind of strong…but he could outmuscle Bestest Friend any day of the week, and Tiny was one of the most strongest Humans!

Also, they’d watched a lot of ‘Japanese’ animation together lately. Daar finally decided to join in, if for no other reason than to fuck with Tiny. “The Outlaw Star! You like that, Bozo?”

He realized too late that he’d let go of the rope to speak, and Bozo spun away across the room, frantic with excitement at having claimed his prize. Daar pounced after him and they quickly fell into wrasslin’ and snarly play-nips. More exercise!

Coombes rolled his eyes. “Tiggs, I swear we shouldn’a let you watch that shit.”

“But Gene Starwind is fuckin’ badass! You like it, don’t ‘ya Bozo?”

The dog dropped the rope and boomed a Wurf!! that shook the window. Daar sprang on the opportunity to turn the tables and claim the rope again, though it was getting kinda slobbery by then. He transferred it to his paw and waggled at Bozo, who became absolutely laser-focused on waiting for him to toss it across the room.

“See? Bozo says it’s the bestest.” He threw the rope, and Bozo’s huge paws scrabbled on the linoleum as he Scooby-Doo’d off in hot pursuit. “Can we go play Gravball now?”

The Humans watched Bozo fetch the rope and disappear out of the room to parade it around, then returned their attention to Daar. There was a contemptuous silence.

Hoeff broke it by shrugging and returning to the topic at hand. “…The Make Space Travel Stealthy Again.”

Walsh shook his head. “The Hold My Beer.”

Daar snorted dismissively. “Please, Talamay’s way better.”

“Yeah, but no fucker ever said ‘Y’all hold my Talamay an’ watch this shit.’

“I have!”

“But you weren’t drunk, big guy.” Walsh pointed out.

Daar snorted in amusement. “Ain’t my fault my brain’s more tolerant o’ deadly poisons.”

Hoeff raised his head. “The You Don’t Know What You’re Missing!”

‘Base looked up from the enormous HEAT-grade beanbag in the corner where he was about halfway through reading À la recherche du temps perdu. ‘Horse had sewn that beanbag together out of canvas tarp and shark fishing line and stuffed it with shredded polyethylene foam, and to date it had weathered being enthusiastically flomped on by every man in the HEAT with nothing worse to show for it than a tiny Scottish saltire that Murray had covertly sewn into the underside.

“You didn’t see him last year after he gorged on turkey,” he said. “Big bastard was fuckin’ krunked!”

“Wait, what?”

Daar shook his head and neck vigorously. “That is not how it went.”

“Dude. You got drunk on turkey?!”

Daar sighed. “I…guess? I felt…dizzy. For, like, the whole evening. But that ain’t the whole story!”

“…You know, I kinda like that.” Hoeff mused, before Daar could defend himself.

Coombes frowned at him. “What?”

“Calling the ship Drunk On Turkey.”

It was Walsh’s turn to aim a frown his way. “You’re shittin’ me.”

“We’ve been here for like an hour and this is literally the first time anybody’s said ‘I like that’,” Daar growled. “Since it’s technically my spaceship I’mma lay down the law. The Drunk On Turkey it is. Whatever. Can we go play Gravball now?” He added a plaintive whine to the request that the guys usually couldn’t resist.

This time, though, they were unmoved. “We’ve got like the whole rest of the mission plan to go through,” Coombes pointed out.

Daar couldn’t help but snarl his annoyance at that. “Yeah, ‘cuz you weirdos spent half the morning arguing over the least importantest part.”

Fortunately the Humans knew how to read him pretty well by then, and didn’t overreact. “Dude. We’re getting our own fucking spaceship, man. Naming that shit is important.”

Daar was briefly tempted to retort that this would only be one of dozens of ships he’d owned over the years, but mentioning that fact would just be pointlessly ostentatious. Besides, he’d named his precision hand tools years ago and they were worth a lot less.

“…Okay, fair point I guess. But I ain’t beat on Tiny for three whole days! And we both need to bulk up as much as we can for our mission loads…”

“Shyeah, gotta make our packs feel like they’re empty! Also you haven’t beat me in any kind of overhead press yet, Tiggs. Don’t get cocky.”

“You have monkey shoulders! And you’re only ten kilos ahead, that’s practically tied!”

Walsh crossed his arms over his chest and grinned smugly. “Excuses.”

“No excuses! We’re close and you know it. Also need I remind you Brother, I consistently outlift you on the bench by so much it’s silly. A bunch more weight, way more sets. I win.”

“For now.”

“Forever.”

Coombes rolled his eyes and interrupted just before the two could spiral into a bantering, roughhousing play-brawl. “Kids, you’re both big and strong and pretty. Anyway don’t Firth got combatives scheduled with you two today?”

‘Yeah. And don’t let this slip, but I think I maybe figured out how to knock him down finally and win that bet…Either way, I’m gonna be hurtin’ and I wanna earn it.”

Coombes nodded. “Fair ‘nuff. Walsh?”

“My goal is just to survive my session with him, to be honest.”

“Mhmm.” ‘Base mumbled agreement with his eyes still glued to that huge book of his.

“You two gonna be outta commission, then? Firth ain’t exactly…gentle.”

That was the understatement of the century, right there.

“Nah, we’ve got a little bit of Crude we can use until we go on-mission, Boss. Powell wants us as strong as we can get without becoming a logistics problem like HEAT. We’ll ‘git ‘er dun’.”

“Alright. So. When we fly the…” Coombes glared at Hoeff “…the Drunk On Turkey out there, we gotta put down a hunnerd klicks out from the main objective, maybe more, an’ hump all our stuff to the forward camp on foot.”

“Yeah.” Daar stretched out and rolled his muscles impressively to drive home his point about their training. “That’s why I really wanna get my lifting in, Boss. It’s gonna be hard work. Tiny’s gotta get some extra Crude sessions in too, get his shoulder fixed up by Nofl maybe.”

“Worked out okay for ‘Horse’s dad, I guess…” Walsh admitted. “But I dunno, bro…”

“Dude,” growled Daar. “Fuckin’ do it, Friend. You need it, it’s safe, and ain’t no such thing as a Job that goes good if anyone’s nursing a hurt while doing it. Think how much you’ll be able to outpress me! Also I can smell when he lies so don’t worry, I’ve got ‘yer back.”

“Ergh, I know. He’s just…”

Daar tilted his head and pant-grinned. “Corti?”

“He’s flaming and it weirds me out. Like, if he was genuinely camp I wouldn’t mind but because he’s Corti I gotta think he’s just putting it on just to fuck with us.”

Daar chittered, “I heard somewhere that’s Uncivilized thoughts, Brother!”

“Whatever, if I’m gonna be speciesist I might as well be fuckin’ homophobic and racist as well. Get a full house.”

Coombes snorted. “Man, if you’re prejudiced then I’ll just have Ghetto Fabulous over there straighten you out.”

‘Base raised his eyebrow, made eye contact, looked down at his chest, bounced it, smirked, and went back to his book.

Daar was pretty sure they’d just played some kind of dominance game, but Humans—especially these Humans—smelled that way all the time anyway. ‘Base seemed to have won, though both Walsh and Coombes were grinning.

“Least the return trip’s lighter, without all them sensors,” Hoeff pointed out, getting back on topic.

“By about…” Daar recalled his loading tables, “Sixty kilograms, I think? Yeah.”

“…Geez, that much?” Hoeff asked.

“Yeah…didn’t you read the tables?”

“No, ‘cuz I’m the scout. You’re already carrying most of my shit.”

“Literally,” Walsh grunted under his breath. None of them were looking forward to the mandatory poop-bagging, and Daar silently thanked Fyu that Human urine was sterile and wouldn’t need reclaiming like that. Everyone could just lift leg and piss on a tree.

Hoeff ignored him. “Still, you sure you want Daar carrying most of my mission load instead of me? I can move just fine with a big pack…”

“I know,” Coombes said reassuringly. “We’ll work out the loads with a practice hike out on the range, see what the best distribution is. I want you completely mobile, Hoeff.”

Hoeff nodded agreeably. “Sure thing, Master Sargn’t.”

Daar stretched out again and got a satisfying ‘pop!’ in his spine, then stood up. “Really, though. Can we Gravball, or work out? The shuttle to Gao leaves tomorrow and we can work this stuff out by email.”

“Back to Gao again, huh? So close to mission time?”

“Champion duties,” Daar lowered his ears apologetically. “I’m gonna be out of touch for a few weeks. There’s stuff I have to take care of.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t say.”

“…We’re all cleared for DEEP RELIC and SACRED STRANGER.”

“I cannot say, Brothers.”

“Well, shit,” Coombes grunted. “Wheels within fuckin’ wheels.”

“You have no fuckin’ idea. Anyway…” Enough. Daar really didn’t need a reminder right now of what was coming, and how it would likely provoke the conflict he just knew in his bones was inevitable. Right now, he needed to get his muscles good, hot, and hurting, and he needed to work himself up into a happily exhausted, lathery huff.

Almost nothing did that better than Gravball. Or weightlifting. Or both!

“…‘Kay. You’re right, we can figure this out in writing,” Coombes agreed and stood. “You in, ‘Base?”

Baseball carefully bookmarked his Proust and surged upright. “Fuck yeah.”

“Awesome. Time to straighten out Tiny the Racist here.”

“Hey!”

Daar grinned to himself as he headed for the stairs in much the same way as Bozo had earlier. Finally the day was making progress… and not a moment too soon. He was meeting Genshi in the park later that afternoon, after which…

There were Bad Things in Daar’s future. Bad Things that needed to be set in motion, and selling Genshi on what needed to be done was going to be…tricky. And risky, very risky.

He’d take his fun when he could get it from here on out. Gravball now, and tackling a fellow Champion in the park later? Temporary pleasures. But all pleasures were temporary.

He’d just have to enjoy them while he could.


Date Point: 13y 8m AV
My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches

Dog Wagner

“See, this is what you get when you step that pretty-boy face in front of a spotlight.”

There was a second or so’s delay in the signal to Cimbrean groundside from Armstrong Station, but Dog was used to that.

Julian was too, and nodded as he listened with a small chuckle at the end. “I’m surprised Hephaestus don’t wanna shove you in front of the camera,” he said. “Interstellar trade is kind of a big deal…And y’ain’t that ugly.”

Dog showed him an affectionate middle finger between friends, sharing the laugh.

“I’m just a glorified trucker, brother.”

“A glorified trucker who got shot to shit. How’s the Other Spaceship doing, anyway?”

“The My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon,” Dog said, stressing the full name, ”is doin’ just great. All-human crew, an’ the core systems were fine anyhow. Most of the damage was to the cargo holds, so… we got rid of most of ‘em. we’re covered in shipping containers now.”

“How’s that working out?”

“Expanded capacity by damn near forty percent and cut the mass by ten percent even fully loaded.”

“See? Humanity improving on alien tech with old ideas. If you worked for Byron they’d be yanking you out in front of a documentary crew.”

“Count me glad I work for Hephaestus, then,” Dog replied. “Don’t sound like much fun.”

“It ain’t.”

Julian glanced over his shoulder, looking around the room. Dog had been aboard Misfit just the once, for that Christmas dinner when he’d first met Julian and his girls. The trio lived, worked and slept together in a space that was only barely larger than his own personal quarters, which he’d have found hellishly cramped. Julian either had the patience of a saint, or was dating saints. When he’d been married back on Earth, Dog’s relationship with his wife had mostly involved getting himself out of the house as often as he could.

Technically, he was probably still married. He hadn’t signed no divorce papers, after all.

“Between you and me?” Julian asked, turning back to the camera, “We can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”

“Don’t blame ya, brother. I watch the news too—made me wanna school some punks.”

Julian nodded slowly and scratched at the back of his neck. “Hey…level with me. You think we did the right thing?”

“I think I’m a glorified trucker, brother,” Dog repeated. “The fuck you asking me for?”

“’Cuz sometimes you need the opinion of a guy you could share a beer with. And who ain’t a HEAT operator.”

Dog chuckled. HEAT were an…intense bunch. Even more so than the Misfit trio, who were pretty damn intense by anybody else’s standards. He sat back and considered his reply.

”…God knows your heart,” he said in the end. “You decided to do it in the then-and-there, and ain’t nobody else was around. Seems to me like there’s no point in trustin’ you three with all this exploration an’ shit if we don’t trust your judgement, too….and from what I’ve seen, the people who matter do trust you.”

Julian nodded slowly. “…Thanks.”

There was a chime, and an honest-to-God human voice speaking real American went out across the ship: “Captain Wagner to the flight deck, please. Captain to the flight deck.”

Julian heard it too. “Well. Gonna be a couple years before we see each other again, Dog.”

“Yeah,” Dog nodded. He touched two fingers to his eyebrow and flicked them at the screen, Aiming to look more jaunty than he felt. “Hey. You take care of those girls, take care of yourself an’ take care of your ship.”

“In that order,” Julian nodded. “Promise. And you look after yourself too, Dog. No more gunfights, not until you can shoot straight.”

Dog sat back and laughed properly at that. “Alright, asshole. I’ll see you in two years. First round’s on me.”

Julian nodded, and Dog ended the call with a nagging feeling like maybe it was gonna be longer than two years.

He shrugged it off, stood up and threw on his jacket. Hephaestus had made a lot of changes on his ship, including issuing the same kind of shipboard work-wear that Byron Group had developed for their ships. Cut-proof, flame-retardant and insulating but still breathable. Crazy stuff. In some ways, Dog knew he was going to miss his ET crew. He was going to miss hearing the phrase ‘you are very strange’ and the smell of cqcq cigarettes.

But as he stepped out of his cabin and noted to his satisfaction that all the safety doors were closed and that the gravity holding him to the deck was right…he knew he wasn’t going to look back, either.

This was only the beginning.


Date Point: 13y9m AV
Forward camp, Uncharted Class 11 deathworld, Sagittarius Star Cloud

Chief Petty Officer Daniel Hoeff

Hoeff, if he were honest, hadn’t really understood the reason behind Daar being on team. He liked Daar, who was big and strong and could fight like a demon—the doom-noodle thing was admittedly impressive—but honestly, as good as he was on a lot of things, Hoeff just couldn’t shake the worry that the big ‘coon might still be a net liability.

Then he watched Daar sneak. He was like a totally different creature when he was doing everything he could to be quiet, and boy, was he. He stashed his pack in a big hole he dug with alarming speed, carried just what they needed, and the big bear wormed his way through the underbrush so carefully and so quietly, no audio sensor would have picked him up.

Establishing the sensor ring was an agonizing process. It involved hours of inching forward, making a space to inch into, inching into it, repeat. Ignore the stones poking into his knees, or the roots that always seemed to be placed to put pressure on somewhere sensitive no matter what. All while listening out for the shrill whine of a drone patrol and being prepared to go totally motionless in an instant.

Daar was so much better at the prowl it was almost humiliating. He could crouch low to the ground on all fours in a way a human just couldn’t and it didn’t tire him at all. Hoeff’s ribs felt like the ground was using them for a xylophone, the wet soil soaked just enough moisture into his clothes to be uncomfortable, and the muscles all along the side of his torso were screaming in pain from unnatural overuse.

And that was just the trip out. Now they were on their way back the anticipation of getting back to camp was making all the pain, discomfort and exhaustion that much worse.

Which was probably what inspired Daar to do the thing that earned him Hoeff’s immediate and undying love. He paused at the bottom of the short earth bank that Hoeff thought of as the halfway point. It was the bottom of a tiny gully with a pathetic trickle of dirty water at its bottom, more a ditch than a stream, but it was concealment.

“Climb on my back. You smell like you’re hurtin’,” he whispered.

Hoeff had no will to resist the offer and wasn’t afraid to admit it. He climbed up gratefully, and the big bastard leapt clear over the water without making a sound, then accelerated away along their egress at a hell of a clip…in dead silence.

It was all Hoeff could do to hang on to the rolling form of his ride and not make a sound, and when they’d finally re-joined Coombes and Walsh, Daar still wasn’t tired. Anyone could say what they wanted about Gaoians but that feat, at least in Hoeff’s field-op mind, was impressive as hell. Hoeff climbed off Daar, retrieved their packs from their stash, and they hoofed it back to camp. A hot meal and a chance to rest was all the Motivation they needed.

Thank fuck they’d found the perfect spot for camp. It wasn’t a cave so much as a two-way crack in the hillside, with just the perfect arrangement of terrain to obscure their position from any likely avenue of approach. It was invisible from above, too, especially thanks to the tarps that sheltered all their stuff from both prying eyes and the elements. They approached and made their challenge sound—two sharp clicks that sounded almost like a rock falling—and waited for the response, which was a quiet whistle.

Even knowing where he might be hiding, Coombes still couldn’t detect hide nor hair of Walsh. For a man packing something like four hundred and fifty fucking pounds of lean beefslab onto a six-foot-four frame—he was as massive as a world champion strongman and could whup ‘em all—the big cavebear of a man was really good at making himself invisible.

And Daar was even better at it. Which, considering he was somehow even bigger than Walsh, made his prowling silence a lot more impressive.

When they got close they made their approach with their hands in the clear to guard against any weapons; biodroning was a tactical possibility they’d realized at the last moment, and they’d quickly come up with a solution whereby each team member climbed up separately, laid face down in the dirt, and waited.

Walsh descended on him the instant Hoeff had his fingers interlaced behind his head. He slammed himself atop Hoeff and pinned him head to toe, then pressed the scanner firmly against his head with one paw while crushing Hoeff’s hands together with the other. It was all he could do to keep breathing and hold his whimper of pain under control. Once satisfied, the big fucker picked him up and more or less tossed him into the safety of their little hole.

“…Hey bro.”

Hoeff tried to stretch out his abused spine. Walsh smothering him under his full, moist and sticky weight had done absolutely nothing for his comfort. “Fuck off.”

Coombes threw him an MRE. It was turkey à la King, the good one with hot chocolate in the sundries bag. “He saved that for ya.”

“…‘Kay. I forgive you.”

Walsh wasn’t there, he was instead repositioning himself for Daar, who was making his approach. No surprise there.

“Y’know, I can smell you,” Daar growled. “You need a bath.”

Walsh didn’t reply as he repeated his ambush-and-scan act, though if Daar had been compromised it would have been a hell of a fight. That was why Coombes was standing by with his weapon ready. Either man, if compromised, would have been a serious problem.

Walsh grunted and let Tigger go as soon as his scanner gave him a happy green. “Sure. I’ll just jump in the tub with my rubber ducky,” he snarked. “Which bag is it in?”

“Well, you’re pretty much ready for one already. You’re half naked as it is.”

“Fuck off, this jungle SUCKS. I’ve never managed to sweat in sixty-six fuckin’ degrees before…”

“You weren’t complaining yesterday!”

“He just spent the last three hours moving rocks, don’t listen to him,” Coombes said. He tossed one of the ‘big boy’ MREs Daar’s way. “We do have a nice little dugout now, though.”

“Nava Seafood Chowder? Nice!” These were custom made for their team by Oregon Freeze-Dry, who had produced seventy-five-hundred calorie meals for their two heavyweights that were the same physical size as a normal meal. They did have to be reconstituted, though, and Coombes had Daar’s ‘most favoritest’ flavor already hot and ready to go.

It had nava paste and cod liver oil in it. And fish. And…other things. The genuine heresy was that Walsh liked it, too.

Daar dumped in his vegetable crackers to give the food some crunch, and didn’t bother with the spoon—he just raised the bag to his mouth and scooped out a mouthful with his tongue.

“So.” Coombes reached over and grabbed a meal of his own. “Halfway mark.”

“Yeah Boss,” Daar pulled his snout out of the foil pouch and licked the flavor off his muzzle. “Chimp got another six emplaced today.”

“Been watchin’ those drones,” Walsh said. “No change in their patrol pattern.”

“That’s actually kinda depressing in a weird way.” Hoeff added more Tabasco to his turkey. “I can’t help but think they’re fuckin’ with us.”

Daar sniffed at the turkey and then shuddered slightly. “Sounds like Human paranoia to me. But honestly, that’s not the kind of bluff that makes sense, y’know? There’s no tactical gain.”

“Still.”

“Naw, I hear ‘ya. It shouldn’t be this easy.”

“…‘Easy’ he says.”

“You wait until we come back in a couple months to pick up whatever those sensors record,” Coombes said, digging into a bag of roasted nuts. “‘Cuz that’s gonna be in this planet’s wet season.”

“…You mean this wasn’t the fuckin’ wet season already?” Walsh asked.

“Nope. This was the ‘sweat until your balls rot away’ season.”

“See, that’s the thing about being big,” said Hoeff with a troll grin. “Cube law means I don’t overheat so easy. I feel fine. Or I did until a half-naked Mongo smeared his sweaty ‘pits all over my face…”

“Hey! I’m just a pawn in the game of life, man. And you loved it, you kinky fuck.”

“So what you’re saying is that wasn’t your pistol pressing into my back? It did feel small…”

“Bruh, I am literally three times the man you are,” Walsh said with an amused grin.

“Not where it counts!”

“Still bigger, though.”

Coombes made a pained noise and dug into his meal bag for his drink powder. “Christ, fifteen fuckin’ years in this goddamned Army and this shit never goes away…”

“Meh, all I hear is ‘words words insanely jealous blah blah blah.’ Where the fuck’s my meal?”

“You just crawl ten klicks and back through a swamp? No? Get your own damn food.”

Walsh chuckled and dug out another big boy meal. That one had steak in it, the lucky fuck.

“Eh. Rainy season probably ain’t so bad,” he decided once it was heating up. “And we won’t be here so long next time, right?”

“Hopefully not,” Coombes agreed. “Next run’s in six hours, I think me and surfer bum here’ll take the ones on the far east part of the range. Less sneak but it’s more work…sooner we get them deployed, sooner we go home.”

“Oh, man, speakin’ of sneakin’…” Hoeff gulped down the last of his turkey. “Just so y’guys know, Tiggs here? He’s fuckin awesome. You should have seen how good he is! He’s…”

The praise went down well, even though it was largely unembellished. It sure made the meal go down easy, after which was hopefully an opportunity to give his battered body a rest. The sleeping bags were all set up under a tarp at the back of the camp, where a kind of dry, spongy grass had given them a little more ground comfort. Next to roots, stones and mud it was paradise.

Daar apparently decided that he had a new Most Bestest Friend for the evening and pulled Hoeff into himself, but he decided he wasn’t going to complain. Not at all.

He slept, and dreamed of clean socks.


Date Point: 13y9m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Unclaimed Space

Vedregnenug

Vedreg had never considered himself a scientist. He had been a lawyer, a politician and had aspired perhaps in the last fifty years of his life to become a judge.

To his surprise, the patient analysis of precedent and the picking-apart of events translated well to a certain staid, prosaic kind of science. The Humans around him boiled over constantly with ideas, wrote them down, invented experimental procedures, tested their ideas…

And Vedreg had found a useful role in carefully reading everything they put out, sieving their work for discrepancies, sloppy methods, oversights or alternative explanations. Even without any formal scientific training he had the patience and focus to pore over every word of a paper and perform the peripheral research until he knew enough to query it, which was slow and painstaking work…but fascinating.

Especially whenever he got to analyze the products of the Coltainer program.

“So it chose…Nightmare?

“Yes indeed. We were all quite surprised, as you can imagine..”

Lewis and the others had returned from Aru in sombre mood. Their findings, hypotheses and accumulated data between them accounted for about half of Vedreg’s ‘In’ tray, and they made for bleak reading. Try as he might, he was finding no hint that the Humans were wrong in their conclusions about how feasible it might be to cure and rehabilitate the OmoAru.

Rather than wallow in it, he’d turned to more pleasant, more successful topics and taken it upon himself to bring Lewis up to speed on how his brainchild was performing.

The “Coltainers” were still in a very limited form for now. Their self-duplication was capped at one child per generation, which meant linear rather than exponential growth. Most were still on a tight leash in flight and harvesting trials at New Enewetak.

Only one so far had been released to go find a planet of its own initiative and set up a colony site, and it had promptly made a bee-line for the highest-class planet in charted space.

“I presume the selection algorithm ignores the existing planet classification.”

“Nah. It’s huntin’ for deathworlds, remember. I guess it just doesn’t give a fuck if the deathworld is a ten or a thirteen,” Lewis shrugged. “An’ hey. Nightmare already had a long-term human occupant.”

“Would it know that?”

Lewis shrugged again. “I kinda threw every fuckin’ datum we could get our paws on at the database,” he said. “Dunno why it’d weight a lone dude scrapin’ by over there for six years so high, but apparently it did.”

Vedreg shook his head slowly and allowed a wave of amused mint green to ripple across his body. “One of those ‘teething troubles’ then?” he asked.

“Dude, for all I know in fifty years Nightmare could be even more of a success story than Cimbrean.” Lewis spread his hands and smiled. “Weirder shit’s happened. How did the actual colony construction go?”

“See for yourself…”


Date Point: 13y10m4w AV
Whitecrest Enclave, Alien Quarter, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Champion Genshi of Whitecrest

Folctha was having one of its rare comparatively hot days, an event which never failed to highlight some important differences between species.

The Humans, for instance, were enjoying themselves immensely. Their weather reports were full of glowing cheerful announcements about how it was a ‘beautiful day for the park’ or ‘nice shirtsleeves weather.’

Earth was a warm planet, on average. And from what Genshi could gather, Humans had evolved on its generally hottest continent. They wore a little less, maybe got covered in a thin healthy sheen of sweat, sighed appreciatively at things like cold drinks or a lick of breeze, and generally got on with their day in a good mood.

Gao, on the other hand, had seasonal sea ice that almost reached the tropics during the winter. Gaoians were well adapted for cold weather, and had a very limited capacity to perspire: generally in their ears, on their nose and, in the brownfurs, along their lower extremities.

It was all Genshi could do to maintain his dignity; he was panting by the time they reached the air-conditioned sanctuary of the Enclave.

The blast of cool air across his nose and ears was beyond welcome. And as for Daar…

The Stoneback Champion had taken the liberty of soaking his fur in the grass sprinklers, much to the mixed scandal and interest of several nearby Females. The heat had already evaporated most of the water, but his coat was still damp to the skin and he flopped to the ground under the A/C vent the moment the door was closed with his ears flattened sideways and his mouth open in a delighted fugue.

Genshi settled for taking a seat nearby, where he could still get the best of the cool air and recover his comfort with a little more grace.

“So,” he said eventually, once they’d both stopped panting away the heat. “One slow and quiet infiltration to install a network of sensors, and a second slow and quiet infiltration weeks later to retrieve the data. Remind me, which of us is the Champion of Clan Whitecrest again?”

Daar rolled his eyes from his puddle on the floor. “Whitecrest don’t got a monopoly on sneaky, Cousin.”

“Maybe not, but it is our specialty.” Genshi’s right ear rotated an amused quarter-turn. “You don’t go to a workhouse for the food, after all.”

Daar had never been able to contain his competitive playful streak, and despite being plainly not inclined to move anywhere just yet he wagged his tail by way of a challenge. “How many Whitecrests do ‘ya know who’d be willing ‘ta paw in with a three-hundred weight pack, Cousin?”

“Willing? All of us. None of us would be able, though,” Genshi conceded.

Daar rolled over and duck-nodded lazily. “Never been able to fault your Clan’s spirit,” he said.

“I would hope not, considering the company you kept as a cub,” Genshi agreed. “Incidentally, Champion to Champion, I intend to promote Regaari to Father.”

Daar immediately sat up in an alert posture and went deadly serious. “That’s not a small risk, Cousin. Won’t the other Fathers fight back?”

“Some of them. Many, even. I am balancing on the edge of my authority…But sometimes abuses of power are necessary for the right reasons.”

“‘Yer preachin’ to a true believer there.”

“I thought as much…You don’t disapprove, I take it?”

“It ain’t up to me to approve or disapprove. Your Clan, your rules.”

Genshi flicked his claws together fastidiously. “I want your opinion anyway, Cousin.”

“Well…’kay. Here’s the thing. I’ve been payin’ attention, Genshi. You ain’t ever been reckless in the forty years I’ve known you, so I know perfectly well you ain’t being reckless now.” Daar stood up and stretched out the long muscles of his back now that his fur was getting genuinely cold again. “I know you’re up to something. And if I do, so does everyone else. And that means you ain’t got a lotta time left.”

“Do you?” Genshi asked him. “How long can you go on Human operations under a Human commander before your time comes?”

“Not long,” Daar admitted. “Stainless and I talked this out. We’re in a bit of a bind, though. There’s literally nobody else who can do what I do. That’s a problem, but one they can solve when they need to. Until then…I help Bestest Friend, and we get the intel we need.”

“The life of a Champion. Our successors are always hunting us, and they get closer every day,” Genshi said. “The only victory Champions ever have is to retire on our own terms.”

“…Cousin…I’m really hopin’ I didn’t just figger out what you’re planning.”

“Why?” Genshi asked. “Do you mean to tell me you don’t have similar plans?”

“I have plans for a successor, sure, and a backup plan. I ain’t plannin’ to push the issue.”

“Good. Your Clan won’t need it, I think.” Genshi yawned and shook himself: the cold air was making him comfortable now, and after too many busy nights he was anticipating a restful night’s sleep in the near future, for the first time in a while.

“You…you are always welcome at High Mountain. You know that.”

“Thank you.” Genshi didn’t see any need to say more than that. He stood up to shake off his drowsiness instead. “Come on. I’m told it’s a nice day outside. Now that we’re comfortable again I am eager to try these Bao things…”

“Yeah!”

If there was a guaranteed way to cheer Daar, food of any description had to be it.

“And…Daar?”

“Yeah?”

“Good luck with your mission.”


Date Point: 13y11m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Hierarchy Relay Irujzen-4942

Entity, Instance 4

The ship was back.

That fact was lost on the Hierarchy’s passive monitoring systems which, for all their sophistication, lacked the kind of paranoid narrative cynicism of a sapient observer. They looked for facts rather than stories, and fatally failed at basic metacognition.

Then again, an alert sapient observer would probably have missed the clues as well. The Entity was uniquely capable of the right kind of detail-focused long-term alertness, and even it needed several data points before it was satisfied in its conclusion. Random tiny flashes of sensor contact that didn’t reappear when watched for a second time. Little tickles of distorted spacetime that could just have been subtle gravitational waves in the outer system, too faint to be tracked.

The Entity was <Impressed>, just as it had been the first time. That ship, whatever it was, was a ghost on sensors. Not perfectly invisible, but enough so to convince the automated systems that it didn’t exist.

And just like twice before, the Entity itself stepped in to quietly brush over the few traces of its approach that might have been discovered on later forensic analysis.

It lost the target in a burst of high-energy plasma in the planet’s upper atmosphere that looked just like a meteor burning up on entry, and that was that. The Hierarchy hadn’t installed satellites around the planet for the sake of anonymity, which meant that sensor coverage over the horizon was basically nonexistent. There was nothing to do but wait, and listen.

The listening lasted for nearly a week, which the Entity spent performing the conceptual equivalent of nervously double-checking that everything was ready. It had a memory of the night before that fatal vacation with Adam, the last night that Ava Ríos had seen her parents. Unable to sleep from the excitement she had constantly gone back to her suitcase to re-open it and confirm that everything was still present and correct, as though some mischievous critter might have snuck in and stolen her underwear.

It was a strange memory to have kept, but it provided vital context for the Entity’s data management, filing and sorting algorithms. The same ones that it had used to compile its Cypher.

It knew what the human operators would be doing: They would be scouring the network to trace another relay, one that wasn’t so peripheral to Hierarchy operations. Doing that, however, would require them to metaphorically speak the language, and the Hierarchy used a dense and difficult one in their communications infrastructure. Cracking it unaided might have been impossible, or at least hellishly difficult.

If the Entity did nothing else for the human race, this one gift would be valuable enough in its own right.

It finally noticed the team approaching along the outskirts of the relay. That was surprisingly difficult to do. They weren’t sneaking or even being particularly stealthy, but they were being very, very careful. Drones just…never happened to notice them.

Except once, just by accident. One of the drones caught the massive Gaoian urinating against a tree, just for a flash. The Entity quickly scoured the link of this data and subtly realigned assets.

It sent in its own probe and activated its WiFi beacon. This one had been a bit of a triumph. It had spent literal years scrounging the networks of the human world, hunting for all the arcane details necessary to build the hardware. The software had been even more difficult, but in the end, it was able to construct a directional “access point” and manufacture a drone with the radio squirreled away so the Hierarchy wouldn’t notice.

Sure enough, the moment it beaconed, the tablet attempted a connection and supplied the necessary key. This was one of the important details it had communicated to the humans, one it had kept secret from all other copies of itself, and it was the final proof that this wasn’t a sting.

The access app had been installed, too. Human security systems were, in their own way, leagues ahead of anybody else’s. They were so good, in fact, that the tablet in question had to be specifically modified with an app to permit the Entity the quick access it needed.

The team was probably unaware of all this, due to compartmentalization. Oh well, they would find out soon enough.

The tablet was practically sterile inside. Cleansed of anything that resembled sensitive data, right down to saved wifi passwords and user profiles. There were no photos, no apps, no saved accounts…nothing. It was the equivalent of an empty apartment with just the counters and carpets. All it had on-board was a lot of storage and some sophisticated mapping software, and enough information to build a small piconet with the rest of the team’s equipment.

And cameras. It had two cameras: the Entity couldn’t resist accessing the face camera and looking out through a tiny but high-definition lens to get a good look at the world the way a human saw it for practically the first time since its autogenesis.

It called up some archived memories to help it interpret what it was seeing, and the incomprehensible input resolved into…a face. A slim, rugged, sharp one sporting days of mud and beard growth.

Speech was impossible. For whatever reason, the Entity had never been able to get the concepts to mesh. It found, however, that it could understand speech perfectly well, even if generating it was…alien.

It generated a text output.

<:-)>

“…What.” the man’s finger thumped and nudged at the tablet as he tried a few commands. The Entity recalled an emote from Facebook and animated it, waggling a white finger at him.

“What the—-hell.” The man fingered his radio and spoke in a low whisper. “Coombes, Hoeff.”

”Send it.”

“I think our contact just made, uh, contact. It took over my tablet.”

“…What.”

“That’s what I said. Wanna see?”

“You good, got your sighting?”

‘Hoeff’ looked away from the tablet and ran sharp eyes over something that the Entity couldn’t see through the camera, then nodded to himself. “Yessir.”

“A’ight. C’mon down.”

There was a confusing blur of branches, bark, darkness and the quiet noises of exertion. The Entity waited patiently, having already waited for literal years, until the tablet changed hands and it found itself looking at a handsome African-American man with several days of facial hair. It remembered finding that face very attractive indeed, when Ava Ríos had first met it.

<HelloAgainCoombes>
<:-)>

Coombes frowned at it. “…Hello again?” He asked. He moved the tablet away from his face slightly, as if it had suddenly become dangerous. “The fuck?”

He deserved an explanation, at least. The Entity felt that in, for lack of a better word, its gut. It summoned a self-image memory, a clear moment in time when Ava had looked at herself in a mirror. There was emotional context attached to that image that it had never been equipped to understand, but it was the clearest image of her that it had.

It sent the footage to the screen, attached words.

<Egypt>
<StolenKidnappedTaken>
<InterrogatedDecompiledMurdered>
<RebuiltSelf>
<NotSelfNotWhole>
<NotSame.>

“…Jesus.” Walsh’s paler, squarer features appeared over Coombes’ shoulder. “Is that—?”

<HelloWalsh>

The Entity watched without comprehending as the muscles around Walsh’s jaw clenched and worked. Was he about to throw up? That was the closest interpretation it could find.

He didn’t, however. He just gulped down hard and nodded.

“…Hi.”

The Entity needed to act quickly, before it was noticed. While it was conversing with the humans it shoved information into the tablet as fast as the device could take it. Co-ordinates, tables, charts, equations. All the gigabytes it had accumulated that would have been far too much to send undetected via any other means.

“Well…we were told to expect contact, but we didn’t have any details…” Walsh managed. “Given everything, I suppose a…a digital contact isn’t out of the question…”

The Entity called up a thumbs-up emote from the device’s built-in library rather than reply with words. It had memories which said conversation had been easy, it could remember words just flowing off the tongue almost without conscious thought. Somewhere in the process of creating itself, it must have deleted something important.

Uncomfortably, It wondered what else it had unknowingly destroyed.

“Well. This is creepy.”

The Entity wanted to say more, but Hierarchy sniffer programs in the relay were beginning to grow suspicious and it didn’t have the run-time to spare any longer. It selected the easiest form of communication still left to it—a sad face emoticon—then withdrew to focus all of its efforts on obscuring the data transfer and covering its tracks.

By the time it was free to communicate again, the transfer had finished and the device could no longer be found. Whether turned off or hidden in a Faraday cage or for whatever reason the Entity’s first moment of real human contact since its creation had ended all too soon, leaving it thirsty for more.

It retreated back into the safer depths of the relay where it prepared to copy off an instance of itself to synchronize with the prime instance, and watched them go. It replayed the conversation, examining every aspect of the exchange for useful data that might expand its ability to communicate, or at least to understand itself. To its surprise, it succeeded.

It wasn’t much, nor was it pleasant, but it now found that it understood the emotional context of the mirror-memory. Not a positive emotion…but it was a powerful one. A compelling one. And it was a connection to a life it struggled to understand. That made it precious.

For the first time in its existence, the Entity finally understood that it was <Lonely>.


Date Point: 13y11m1w AV
Starship Drunk On Turkey, Messier 24

Chief Petty Officer Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff

The second they were aboard, Daar just went nuts. He dumped his pack and started clawing, scratching and biting at all the bits of him that he could reach. This apparently wasn’t enough, because he shook the floor mat to get the mud out of it before flopping down on his back atop it and squirming furiously.

Hoeff really couldn’t blame him. After all that time in the field all four of them were just gross with accumulated sweat, grime, muck and filth. He felt like a walking petri dish, but at least he didn’t have fur.

“You, uh, need some help there, Tiggs?”

Daar actually whined. “…Please.”

Walsh and Hoeff exchanged the unique long-suffering looks of men who had a sapient bear-dog-raccoon for a brother in arms, and Hoeff went to grab the combs from the ship’s hygiene room.

It was an involved process. Daar’s fur was matted, filthy and had all kindsa shit tangled in it despite his best efforts at keeping it clean in the field. In a rare reversal of fortunes, he claimed not to smell a thing, while the three humans got the full and delightful nasal bouquet of an animal that’d spent the last week playing in a ditch.

Hoeff didn’t comment on it, but Walsh knew they didn’t need to have a filter about these things. “I gotta say bud, ‘yer long fur is smelly as shit.”

Daar was busy trying to chew a burr out of the fur under his arm. “There’s…rrgh…a reason we clip it short…”

Coombes returned from the flight deck, having programmed the ship to get them back home as quietly as it could.

“Stopped ya from freezing to death though,” he observed, hauling off his t-shirt and throwing himself to the ground with a mat so Daar could put those grizzly paws to work on his aching back. Hoeff knew from experience that the big bastard wasn’t gentle but damn could he smash the hurt out of a guy’s muscles.

“Good armor against those fuckin’ bear-snakes too.” They’d run into three of the native predators on the way back, and Daar had proved equal to every one.

“Doom-noodle, bro,” Hoeff corrected him with a trollish grin. Daar hated that name for them.

Sadly, his trolling attempt was denied this time because Daar had just seen the scar on Coombe’s chest, the one below his left armpit. Sometime during his career, Coombes had taken a bullet through the lung in a serious way, and had seriously lucked out on it missing any major blood vessels too. Too bad every op he’d ever gone on was classified, because it would doubtless have made for a heck of a story.

Daar of course never remembered that. Or maybe he was just hopeful that something in Coombes’ career would turn out to not be classified. Either way, the moment he laid eyes on it he perked up. “Great Fyu! How come I never saw that one before, Boss?”

Coombes flopped and eyed the couch wistfully. “Hmm? Uh…” he examined it. “You have, though,” he said.

“I did?”

“Yeah. It’s the exit wound for this one.” He twisted and showed off the smaller splotch of discolored skin just below his shoulder blade.

“Where’d you get it?”

Coombes settled himself back on the mat and sighed. “Still can’t tell ya, Tiggs. Sorry.”

Daar seemed to forget his itching fur for a moment as he sat up. “…Sometimes I forget you can survive shit like that.”

“To be fair, the only reason I did is ‘cuz someone was right there to shove things into me and treat the collapsed lung.”

“Was it ‘Horse? Bet it was ‘Horse.”

“No comment, bro.”

“Aww.”

“You ever gonna tell us what you keep plotting with Genshi?”

Daar shook out the fur at the scruff of his neck and chittered. “No comment, bro.”

“Right.”

Daar yelped as Walsh dragged the comb through a particularly nasty tangle, but Walsh seemed satisfied with the result and the next few strokes of the comb were easier and cleaner.

“There ya go,” he said, setting the comb aside. “And now…you need a flea bath, Tiggs. In fact we all do.”

“Can’t I just dust-bath?” Daar whined.

“Parasites, bro. Deathworld. You know that. Also, you literally smell like blood and shit.”

“At least those are natural smells…” Daar grumbled, but hauled himself up onto four paws. “That flea shampoo smells like Momma Yanyi’s chemistry lessons when I was a young cub.”

“You’d rather smell like shit than smell clean?” Walsh asked him.

“See, that’s somethin’ you humans do that’s weird. You can’t smell anything for shit, but you have all these good and bad smells you complain about. It’s all…just smell, man. I’ll take real over fake any day.”

“Yeah, yeah. You remember how last time you said that ‘Base threatened to do a whole powerpoint thing proving why we have good and bad smells because deathworld, right?”

“I find that hard to believe given that Bozo likes to lick his own butthole.”

“Dude. People ain’t dogs. We are allegedly a bit smarter than them…”

Daar made a resigned huffing sound in the back of his chest and padded reluctantly toward the shower. “Let’s just get this over with…”

Hoeff wound up having to wait nearly half an hour, ten minutes of which was Walsh and Daar cleaning the shower which had wound up looking like the “Worst Toilet In Scotland” from that old British movie Murray had shown them. The big bear emerged smelling a lot better and with a cheery expression, which—

Coombes saw the mischief coming just a fraction of a second too late. “Daar, don’t you fucking dare—!”

Too late. He bounded over and shook himself all over everyone and everything.

There was one of those pauses where everyone’s brains reset themselves after enduring something unpleasant, broken by Hoeff as he wiped his face. “…You. Asshole.”

“Serves you right! It’s a goddamned Bear-snake. I will also accept snake-bear.”

“You hold grudges over the weirdest shit…” Hoeff hauled himself upright. “I’ma shower now.”

“Sure…” Coombes waved a hand vaguely. He looked like he was more interested in falling asleep.

Not Walsh. Before Hoeff disappeared into the shower he overheard Daar groan about the TV. Probably more Gaoian soap operas. Hoeff always liked them. He didn’t know if it was the cultural difference or the simple novelty of it, but the workhouse sagas were weirdly and hugely popular on Earth these days.

Daar detested them. Even over the sound of the running water Hoeff could hear him complaining at length about how none of the characters had any functioning social instincts and would have been evicted from every workhouse he knew for their bullshit.

Hoeff always showered quickly and prowled his way out of the shower still soaking wet, and grabbed a towel on the way out.

“Dude, soap operas are always bullshit that way.”

Walsh wasn’t having any of it. “Bruh, don’t fuckin’ call it a soap opera!” he objected. “This is way better.”

“Only ‘cuz you like it.” Hoeff hit the lockers to grab the clean clothes he’d stashed there ready for this moment. Heaven felt like clean underwear after far too long in the bush. “Your turn, Boss.”

Coombes groaned at length, but stood up easily and fluidly enough despite his complaining. He was always last through the showers just because he liked to soak good and long when he could.

Hoeff, meanwhile, grabbed one of the treats he’d left behind in the galley for himself. He’d have preferred a dip, but the body-is-a-temple culture in the SOR was something else and if he chewed now, he’d have Daar whining at him about how unhealthy it was all the way back. And then he’d have ‘Horse to deal with back at Cimbrean…

Besides…He was a little guy. No way around that, he just didn’t have the reserves that the other big fuckers on the team could keep. That meant that long missions always left him drained and hungry, so there was another way to relax. If he couldn’t have nicotine he could damn well demolish an entire jar of Nutella with a spoon; an act which, as a bonus, never failed to make Daar drool enviously.

He flung himself down on the couch and tried to ignore the Gaoian’s plaintive whining. Daar loved the smell of Nutella but it gave him the shits somethin’ fierce. Something about hazelnut oil just did not agree with the murderbearcoon’s GI tract.

Well. Maybe one taste wouldn’t hurt. He offered the spoon and Daar took his treat, and said nothing more.

The show was winding to a close when something that had been bugging at Hoeff finally became more than he could bear.

“…Hey, Boss?”

Coombes grunted. He’d drifted off in thought, and from what Hoeff could see they weren’t happy thoughts. “Yeah?

“The tablet said ‘Hello again, Coombes’ to you…”

Coombes nodded slowly. “I…really don’t wanna think about it.”

“Walsh? It spoke to you, too.”

Walsh’s good humor evaporated. “…Yeah.”

“…You two know somethin’?”

Coombes rested his head back and stared at the ceiling. “It’s all classified and there’s…shit, man. The details are a fuckin’ nightmare. I can’t say more than that.”

There was a pause. Walsh broke it in the end with a brotherly embrace. “Y’okay bro?”

“…Was thinkin’ I might have a word with Mears when I get the chance,” Coombes admitted. Abruptly, he surged to his feet. “Let’s just pop the stasis on this bitch and be home already,” he declared.

“…Right.”

Stasis was a timeless instant like plucking a guitar string. It was over instantly, but the sense of something much longer having happened was there in the back of the mind. Or possibly that was just an illusion, brought on by knowing it had happened.

Either way, the moment after Coombes hit the button, they were being hailed for boarding and customs inspection at the Cimbrean border checkpoint.

That was no longer the HEAT’s job, thankfully. Armstrong Station was home to a force of border patrol officers. Incoming traffic was shepherded to the station by one of the patrolling naval ships, but nowadays there was no lengthy wait while a shuttle came out carrying dudes in spacesuits. Instead, the engineers had built an inspection gantry a few hundred kilometers behind the station in its orbit. It was the next best thing to nothing, just a handful of docking bays and mooring points held together by a lattice of structural beams, but it was enough for the job.

The pressurized environment of a docking bay made the whole process massively swifter and easier. The ship was thoroughly picked over in a matter of minutes, their brains were scanned, and the black case containing the fruits of their mission was cleared to proceed purely on the authority of an AEC travel orders card with its Magic Blue Stamp.

Hoeff didn’t know if the ink was made from the blood of newborn royal children, or the souls of Irish fae, but somehow, somewhere, it had been decided in the legendary times of yore that only the vast powers of the Magic Blue Stamp could protect the border of any NATO-allied nation. For all the border dudes knew, that box could be an interstellar pizza delivery or a twenty kilo antimatter bomb. Didn’t matter: Coombes just showed them the card, and thanks to the green condition of his brain it went uncontested and unmolested.

From there, they were slave-jumped to a beacon inside the Cimbrean planetary shield and that was that. The ship did the rest of the work on autopilot, so they entertained themselves during the fifty minute descent by watching another episode of Planet Earth III at Daar’s insistence. He’d had enough of workhouse soap operas.

Powell was waiting for them on the concrete.

“Did you lads make contact?” He asked. Hoeff tried not to grimace. Powell usually made at least a little small talk—his straight-to-business greeting wasn’t an encouraging sign.

Coombes handed him the copper Faraday cage bag with Hoeff’s tablet inside it. “Yessir,” he said. “Whatever it was, it made contact in a weird way. It took over Chimp’s tablet and downloaded a bunch of stuff. We turned it off and stuffed it in the bag…”

Powell nodded, and handed the bag off to that black-furred Gaoian with the huge ears. Meereo. “Aye, thank you,” he said, and immediately confirmed Hoeff’s suspicions. “Now for the bad news. We’ve got another mission for you already so you only get two days turnaround. And Daar?”

Daar straightened from his usual shambling posture into something straighter and more attentive. “Yes sir?”

“I’d go back to a short cut if I were you. It’s hot and humid where you’re going.”

Daar whimpered almost inaudibly. “Yes sir.”

Powell gave him a rare look of sympathy. “Aye. Go rest up, lads. We’ll take care of your stuff. Meet at the warehouse tomorrow afternoon at 1400, we’ll brief the mission and all your gear. Ship should be turned around and ready by then.”

He gave them an intense looking-over almost like being inspected on parade, but it ended in a short-lived expression of tight satisfaction. “Dismissed.”

It was a surreal end to a surreal mission. All those soaking, filthy days in the forest had come to an end practically with a snap of their fingers, and they were turning around onto something else straight away. No downtime, no debrief, nothing.

No closure, either. Whatever had spoken to them via the tablet in Meereo’s paws had known Coombes’ name. But watching it go, Hoeff knew for absolutely certain that he’d never know that story.

He sighed, put it out of his mind, and trudged toward the showers. At least he could finally get some hot water and a dry bed.

He’d trade a mystery for those basic comforts anyday.


Date Point: 13y11m1w AV
Lakebeds National Park, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“…Confession time?”

“Mm?”

“…Cimbrean is beginning to feel like home.”

“…It is, yeah.”

There was never going to be any doubt that Cimbrean was an alien world. The trees were…well, they were trees, because it turned out that wood was a great thing to make big plants from no matter what planet they evolved on. And when it came to extracting chemical energy from sunlight in a way that living organisms could metabolize, photosynthesis was the only game in town. There were other options, but none that were quite as efficient.

And leaves were leaf-shaped because leaf-shaped was a good shape for a leaf.

Life, it turned out, selected for what worked. And what worked on one planet tended to work on other planets too. Which meant that nature kept coming up with the same solutions again and again.

But they weren’t Earth trees. They weren’t fir, spruce, cedar and pine. Hickories, cherries, oaks and maples weren’t native to Cimbrean.

One day, the native pinkwoods, sandbarks, fuzzy puddle and chopstick trees would all be gone but for now they could still be found in their native habitat. Still being roosted in by native avalons, crabwings and perwicketties. Still with Cimbrean Tea growing in thickets around their roots.

Julian wasn’t about to miss an opportunity like that. So when their four-day break came along at the end of two non-stop weeks of work and training, he dragged the girls out of bed at what Allison called “the-fuck-time-do-you-call-this o’ clock” and they’d hiked twenty minutes in the gray-blue pre-dawn light through loose deciduous forest still soft with the scent of last night’s rain.

They sat on the flat rocks in the middle of river Dagnabbit and let the cold water flow over their bare feet while they ate their breakfast and watched the sun come up.

Xiù wiggled her toes in the sandy gravel and smiled. “Yeah…Home,” she agreed wistfully.

“It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?” Julian mused. “Just us, a little house and lots of land.”

“We had that in Minnesota,” Allison pointed out.

“It was nice, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. Yeah it was…” Allison sighed. “…sometimes I dream about that house.”

“Me too.”

“Me three,” Xiù sighed.

“Just…us,” Julian mused.

“And the beavers,” Allison teased.

“And…kids.” Xiù blushed.

“Yeah,” Allison sighed, surprising them both. It took her a second to notice them staring. “…What? I fucked up as a mom once. It’d be nice to try again…Do it properly…Someday.”

“Someday,” Xiù nodded.

“Kids would be nice,” Julian agreed.

Allison grinned. “Let’s face it, our kids would be fucking gorgeous.”

“And smart.”

Julian chuckled. “And we’d spoil them rotten.”

There was a long, wistful silence full of the texture of water and wind in the trees, punctuated by alien birdsong and the occasional splash of a leaping alien fish.

Allison shook herself out of her reverie. “…Someday,” she repeated. “Maybe.”

“When we can,” Julian said.

Xiù nodded. “When we’re not needed any more.”

Somehow that was a more melancholy thought than Julian felt prepared for. To judge by their expressions, the same was true for the girls.

Rather than let them dwell on it he reached out to either side and pulled them both close, a gesture that was alarmingly easy with his newfound strength. They felt lighter now, and more fragile, even though intellectually he knew they were just as tough as ever. His months of ongoing training with Warhorse had him tipping the scales impressively and on the hunt for more generous clothing. It was a heck of a confidence-builder…and also a little scary.

Thank fuck for Allison: She had a sixth sense, sometimes. “Careful, Etsicitty,” she teased, and jabbed him in the ribs. “Those guns aren’t toys.”

Julian grinned and kissed her. “I’ll be careful.”

“Good boy. Gotta practice safe…” she trailed off as Xiù’s phone rang. “Thought we weren’t supposed to be called today?”

“Unless…” Xiù fished the phone from her pocket and swiped at the cute little mouse hologram it was projecting. “Xiù Chang?”

Julian couldn’t quite make out what she was hearing, but he recognized Firth’s cadences regardless. He had a voice like rock-crushing machinery even in tiny tinny ear-strain sound.

“…Oh. Wow. Yeah! Uh…well, we’re hiking in Lakebeds Park right now. Oh, good. ”

“Babe?” Allison asked.

Xiù lowered the phone. “…The JETS team is back,” she said. “And they’ll be ready in a few days.”

Allison threw her head back and aimed a relieved sort-of-smile at the sky. “Jesus. It’s about fucking time.”

“Heard that!” Firth called over the phone. Xiù pressed it to her ear again.

“Okay, well…they have their own ship, right?” She nodded, and then her eyebrows knotted together. “They called it what?…Really? That’s, um…okaaay. No, I mean…yeah, I guess if he owns it I guess he can call it what he likes, but…really?”

“Babe?” Allison asked. Xiù gave her an I’ll-tell-you-later shrug.

“No, we’ll enjoy the rest of our day here,” she told Firth. “I’ll call Chiune Station and tell them to prep Misfit but…Yeah. See you tomorrow, then. You too.”

With the call over and done with she put the phone back in her pocket wearing a complex medley of emotions that were probably identical to Julian’s own. Elation, yes. Relief. Release. Uncertainty. The mild, addictive terror of being about to leap into the unknown again.

“…Well,” she said. “So much for our days off.”


Date Point: September 13y11m1w1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lieutenant Kieran Mears

Letter for notes,

RE: MSGT Derek Coombes

Master Sergeant Coombes made a point of finding time in his busy schedule to see me today. He has only a few days of turnaround time before his next mission, but an event during Operation SILENT ARCHER is preying on his mind, and he was keen to process it so that he can, in his words, “have a clear head for the next one.” He spent most of the session pacing the room, though he did sit down toward the end of the session and played with the therapy dog.

He is a career operator with a storied and heavily classified history of work as a Green Beret before transferring to become NCO in charge of the inaugural Joint Extra-Terrestrial Scouts unit. Three years ago he participated in Operation EMPTY BELL (see attached notes) following which he was awarded a Purple Heart after suffering a gunshot wound to the lung: said injury is now completely healed and does not trouble him.

According to his records he sought counselling after that mission, in which two of his squad were KIA. He states that he “needed a little help” to cope with his injury and with their deaths but denies any long-term difficulties.

To summarize: Operation EMPTY BELL was an escort operation initiated by an agent of BIG HOTEL, who wished to provide intelligence but requested to speak with a specific individual, referred to hereafter as BLOWN ASH.

Coombes states that BLOWN ASH treated his wound after he was shot, and that she, quote: “literally saved [his] life.” He expressed the belief that there “was some chemistry there” and confided that he recently turned down her invitation to a dinner date.

During operation SILENT ARCHER, Coombes and his unit made contact with an anonymous intel source. He states categorically that this contact was not human, and that it appeared to be a sapient digital entity of some sort. He describes that the contact’s method of communication was “strange” and “janky” but that it unmistakably claimed to be a version of BLOWN ASH.

When asked to clarify, he states that the contact used a clear and identifiable image of BLOWN ASH to introduce itself and described itself as having been, in its words, “StolenKidnappedTaken” and “InterrogatedDecompiledMurdered.” He recalls that it claimed to have somehow rebuilt itself, and that it claimed to not be the same person and is, quote: “NotSelf” and “NotWhole.”

When asked how such a thing might be possible he simply shrugged. He describes his own emotional state as “confused” and “off-balance.” I asked him whether he felt that he has in some way failed BLOWN ASH, to which he replied in the affirmative.

I reassured him that his disturbed feelings are probably the normal and healthy reaction to such a unique circumstance. He suggested that he will probably feel better with “time, hard work and some perspective” and I suspect he is right. I have given him some “mood-boosting” breathing exercises to try and asked him to see me again once his next assignment is complete: he assured me that he will do so, and left my office in a visibly better mood than when he arrived.

-Lt. K Mears
Counsellor, HMS Sharman


Date Point: 13y11m1w3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Singer

The night of Tarek’s death had changed things for the worse. It wasn’t that anybody blamed Yan for what had happened, or what he did…but the peace had broken, and was now only being held together by fear. One or two of the smaller tribes, the ones furthest out on the fringes of the settled valley, had already decided to take up their camps and scatter to the winds.

The remainder…were unhappy. Everybody had heard Tarek’s words, and as idiotic as he’d been he had put questions in their head. Questions about Yan and his motives. Questions about steel, and whether it was a good magic.

Questions about the strange, quiet ‘Sky-Thinker’ who had taken that magic and made it his like nobody else. Vemik tasted of the forge now, and nothing else. Even when he went on a hunt, even after the nights he spent in the Singer’s hut, the sharp, sour taste of steel hung around him like a fog.

To the Singer it tasted strong, and excited. To others who had never met the Sky-People, it was beginning to taste evil.

The Singers were in agreement—it was Taking-Magic of the most powerful kind. As powerful as the giving-magic of childbirth, but no woman could bear a child as often or as surely as Vemik and his apprentices could make good steel tools.

The balance was failing. And with it, the peace.

Which was why The Singer had decided to learn it.

Singers and Dancers stood between the magics: They learned both. They healed and fed and raised the children and kept the homes as women, but they hunted as men. Each wore the blood-markings of her first kill forever, tattooed into her face.

If she had to wear the burn-scars of a ‘smith’ as well, then so be it.

Plus, it would be good to take Vemik’s mind away from his troubles. He had been too sombre since Tarek’s death and the taking of his tribe. She missed his boyish enthusiasm—the intense, unhappy man beating on steel throughout the day was not the man she loved.

Though he always had a smile for her.

“…You look rested today.”

“Yewi’s child came easily,” The Singer told him. “Strong, and warm…he barely cried, too.”

Vemik nodded. He didn’t stop working as he spoke, but continued to treadle the leather ‘bellows’ with his foot. “That’s good. I always worry for you after difficult births.”

“Worry after the mother,” she told him. He nodded and half-smiled, and she saw in the lines around that smile that he was exhausted to his soul. “…And after yourself,” she added. “Your dreams still haunt you?”

He nodded, and glanced over his shoulder as his tail reached out to wrap around the tongs and deliver them to his hand.

“I had a new one last night,” he confessed, reaching into the glowing coals with them to turn today’s blade over.

“So that’s why I woke up cold and alone…”

She meant to tease him. Instead he nodded, and gave her a sorrowful look.

“…What was it?” she asked.

Vemik shrugged. “I never remember clearly. Faces. Fire. But this time…this time I dreamed that the Sky-People really were some kind of dream we had. Or a trick by some prankster god. Something…I dreamed they weren’t real.”

“I can see why you came to the forge,” she said, and reached out to clean a black smudge from his face. “To have something real of theirs.”

He nodded again. Apparently the steel in the coals was satisfactory because he pulled it out, laid it on the anvil and gave it a solid blow with the hammer. Stuff that was stronger and harder than stone when cold instead moved like clay as he hit it.

“You’re making it a different shape?” she asked.

“This is…a bit like making something that’s an axe and a knife in one tool,” Vemik said. “It’s heavier at the end so it swings with more strength, but the blade comes all the way down. It will cut young saplings for poles like they’re made of nothing.”

“Did Jooyun teach you that?”

“No. I just…the sky-word is ’expewimented’ I think.”

Five more hammer blows and Vemik was apparently satisfied. He thrust the blade back into the forge with a crunch of charcoal and ash.

“…They should have been back by now,” he said.

“They said it would take time. And that they might not be able to come back, too.”

“I know. I know all that. I just…” Vemik closed his eyes for a second. “Our daughter died, Singer. And now men have died and women were…Taken. Because we came here. Because they told us to.”

That wound was still bleeding for her as well. “You blame them?”

“No.” He shook his head fiercely. “I…only want it to have been worth it. But I don’t even know if it can be.”

The Singer nodded, and hugged him close.

“I feel the same,” she said. “She was my child too. I…if the gods themselves had come before me and told me to choose between ending her life myself, or watch them destroy all the People…”

“Your thoughts know the right thing to do, but your breath knows differently,” Vemik finished.

“…Yes.”

Vemik held her for a few minutes, until the steel was ready again. He picked it up and she watched him hammer on its edge, forging it most of the way toward sharpness. His apprentice would still spend a day with several wet stones making it properly sharp, but it was a beginning.

“…They taught us a valuable lesson, at least,” she told him as he returned it to the forge for the last blast of fierce heat that came before the blade was plunged into water.

“What?”

“They told us to look to ourselves to solve our problems,” she said.

“That they did. We can’t look to them to make our lives better. We have to craft our own steel.”

“…Even if steel is part of the problem?” The Singer asked, carefully. Vemik’s foot paused in treadling the bellows.

“…I know the talk,” he said eventually, and his foot started moving again. “And what some of them call me. Vemik evil-touched. Vemik sky-poisoned. When Yan hears them he makes the man who said it take it back…”

“And you?”

“The day a man is foolish enough to say those things where I can hear him will be the last day he says them,” Vemik promised solemnly. “But so far, none of them have.”

“You aren’t eager for that to change…” the Singer observed.

“No.”

“Good.” She brushed a fleck of debris out of his crest. “I know the other men have to see your strength, but you are different, Vemik. You always were…And I like it. I don’t want you to be like my uncle.”

“…You don’t?”

“We have enough Yan,” she said, and kissed him. “We need a Vemik too. But steel is causing problems, my love. The other Singers worry that there is too much taking-magic now and that it may soon become wild, like stampeding Werne. And if they’re right, Tarek’s tribe will only be the first.”

Vemik thought about that for some time but his foot never stopped moving. He thought and worked until the blade was brighter than she had seen before, and then in one smooth movement he plucked it from the fire and thrust it into the long, thin clay water bowl he kept beside the forge.

Underneath the vicious roar of bubbling water, there was a clear and sharp ping!

“…Godshit.”

“What?”

Vemik grunted, and removed the quenched blade from the water. It hissed like meat cooking on a hot rock, and steam flooded off it as he studied it ferociously in the sunlight.

“…Ruined,” he declared. “Cracked all the way through.”

She blinked, genuinely surprised. She hadn’t known that was even possible. “Cracked? How?”

“It’s…each thing I make has a different…love of heat. I think I made this one too thin and it got too cold too fast. They’re…picky about how you treat them.”

“You make it sound like steel is alive.”

“It almost feels like it is, sometimes. With some blades I have have to be gentle, while others just can’t be beaten too hard.”

“…Hmm.”

“Singer?”

“Nothing. Well…something. Maybe. If it’s almost alive then perhaps this isn’t as much of a taking-magic as we thought. You make it sound like you have to nurture them…”

Vemik trilled softly, the first time she’d heard him laugh in too long.

“You know,” he said, “If you want to learn how to make it you only have to ask.”

“…You know me too well,” The Singer told him, but she was trilling a laugh herself. “But…yes. I think it might be wise. The peace is being picky right now. Perhaps if a Singer learned this magic, it would dispel some of the fear.”

“Jooyun didn’t like the idea of it being a Taking-Magic,” Vemik recalled thoughtfully. “Maybe…maybe that would be wise.”

“So teach me.”

“Yan has all his apprentices make tongs first…” Vemik mused, “But for you…I think I have a different idea. We’ll need…most of the same tools, actually.”

He turned and collected a few tools that were hung behind the anvil. “Hmmm…Center punch, yes….and a drift…yes. Actually, that should be all we need.” He turned around and grinned the way he always did when a new thought was filling him with life. She was glad to have him back.

“You’ll find this useful!” he promised. “You can hang things with it, tie things to it, weave a basket around it…Godshit, I bet you’ll have all the other Singers jealous! And it should look beautiful too, with a strong ‘Damascus’ pattern…”

“Good…” The Singer said slowly, growing just a little impatient now that she was involved, “but what are we making?”

Vemik grinned at her.

“It’s called a ‘ring’,” he said.


Date Point: 13y11m2w AV
Chiune Station, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Clara Brown

Taking Daniel Hurt along for the ride had been part of the plan right from the start.

The question of where to actually put him had resulted in a moment of tension. The hab room…sure it had a bed, and the kitchen, the table, the bathroom and shower. So he’d argued that he’d figuratively sleep on the couch.

The trio had had a hive-mind moment and told him in certain terms that while they liked him well enough and were happy with their professional relationship, there was no way they’d be happy with him sleeping in their bedroom. He was welcome to ride along, but he could bring his own copy of Clara’s pop-up hut.

Dan wasn’t unreasonable, but he also pointed out that it probably wasn’t safe for him to sleep outside at first. Later, sure, but immediately after introduction? He’d suggested the mission prep room instead, and Allison had just shrugged and said “Sure. You can try sleeping in there tonight.”

The constant roll and gurgle of the water processor, the roar of the air system and the unfiltered sounds of Misfit‘s mechanical guts churning away even in idle made for an impossible sleeping environment, as Hurt had instantly discovered. And that was before he finally nodded off into a restless slumber and after a minute of stillness the power management system’s motion sensor decided that the room was now empty, prompting it to turn off the gravity. The shift from Earth gravity to Cimbrean gravity had instantly jolted him awake again.

Misfit had a soundproofed, insulated and pressurized hab room for a reason—the rest of the ship just wasn’t a restful environment by anybody’s standards. The lab, sample storage and engineering didn’t have enough floor space, the pantry was too full and too cold, and the pilot’s seat was A: custom-built to Xiù’s measurements, and B: designed to keep her upright, awake and alert.

Daniel had suggested a hammock in the airlock, and the idea had immediately been vetoed by Clara on safety grounds, not to mention sentimental ones. Her father had been fatally wounded in that airlock after all.

Clara tried her best to be a level-headed and practical person, but that fact cut just a little too deep. The idea of somebody sleeping in there made her feel sick to her stomach. It was hard enough just having to go through that airlock, or see it. Let alone send it away to an alien world.

Thus the discussion had bounced back and forth until finally an alternative presented itself.

“I can’t fucking believe they called it the Drunk On Turkey…”

Allison folded her arms and shook her head as she watched the JETS ship align itself over the landing pad and lower itself onto the concrete with a kind of artless straight-line stiffness that suggested it was completely on instruments. A human pilot would have been more graceful.

Misfit had instruments, but Xiù claimed that she could literally land on a dime from all the way across a star system without turning them on, and Clara believed her. The Drunk On Turkey on the other hand was Gaoian-made and probably didn’t even need a pilot at all thanks to the hundred-year tech advantage, but it was just…lacking that balletic quality.

“Well, the acronym is DOT…” Julian observed.

“Bet that’ll piss them off if we call their ship that,” Clara said.

“Mm,” Allison nodded. “You heard about that ship some dude built in Folctha years ago now, out of junk and spare parts?”

“No?”

“Yeah. Back when there was still wreckage around from some battle. Apparently the crazy asshole cobbled a ship together out of the scrap and called it Spot.”

“Christ,” Julian shook his head. “Spot, Drunk On Turkey, My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon…Misfit almost sounds like a normal name next to those.”

“I like Misfit,” Clara told them. “It just…uh…fits.”

“You think we picked good?” Allison asked.

“Yeah. You did.”

“Thank fuck they agreed to take Dan along for the ride,” Allison said. “That argument was getting old real quick.”

“Mm. A day or two of their company and he might come hammering on our airlock…” Julian warned.

“And I will smile and turn over in my sleep,” Allison said, sweetly.

Clara just laughed silently through her nose. She watched as DOT—and she would now never not think of the ship by that name—dropped a ramp from under its shovel-shaped nose for the crew to disembark. Clara would have preferred a ramp for Misfit, herself, but the ship’s design just hadn’t left an appropriate place for one. Not without dramatically and unacceptably increasing its mass, anyway.

Still, maybe it was just loyalty to her own creation, but she quite liked Misfit‘s steel ladder and cargo dumbwaiter. They were caveman-simple, reliable and sturdy.

The JETS team clearly thought their ramp was cool, though. They ambled down it while it was still unfolding itself, and Walsh definitely had a swagger in his step when he alighted off its end exactly as it finished deploying.

“Ain’t she beautiful?” he called.

Allison and Julian shared a mutual tolerant glance, then Julian shrugged and called back. “She looks more like a dick than ours does, I’ll give you that.”

Walsh blinked, frowned, then turned and considered the Drunk On Turkey with his head on one side.

“…I don’t see it,” he said after a few seconds.

“Gotta be honest babe, neither do I,” Allison whispered.

Julian grinned. “Yeah, but it shut him up,” he murmured, causing Clara to stuff a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle.

Daar saw it though, and straightened up to give Walsh a swat with the back of his paw. “They’re messin’ with you,” he said. He’d shaved right down to the silky underlayer of his fur, and that change had taken some of the shaggy feral murder-beast edge off him and replaced it with sheer muscle definition. He looked as big as a bear and as lean and fit as a fighting dog.

Walsh wasn’t easily deterred. “Nah, bro. I think I see it. Like, the engine nacelles at the back there, and…”

Daar turned and considered the ship for a second then shrugged, dropped to all fours and padded lazily away from him.

“If you think dicks work that way, whatever…” he growled.

“Admit it, part of you is curious about the spinny bit on the top.”

“I’ve seen what ‘yer packin’ down there Tiny, and that spinny bit can’t possibly be normal.”

“I’ve seen you Tiggs, and if you think you get to define normal, then—”

“Oh yeah,” Allison interrupted sarcastically. “Workin’ with you four is gonna be great. I was just saying to Clara this morning, what my life really needs is more conversations about dick.”

She got a selection of chuckles plus a deep chitter from Daar, and smiled. “So…I’d ask how Drunk On Turkey there stacks up against Misfit, but I’m guessin’ that kinda information is confidential.”

Coombes nodded. “Pretty much. But…you got a good ship there. I’ll say that.”

“And she’s ready to fly,” Clara chimed in, inwardly glowing with pride.

“What, no pomp and ceremony?” Walsh asked. “Where’s the band and the dude in a fancy suit to wish us godspeed and all that shit?”

“Humans are weird,” Daar grumbled indulgently, while draping his weight affectionately around Walsh’s shoulders.

“If we’re very very lucky,” Julian said, “We might just be able to sneak away before the dude in the fancy suits notices.”

“Wait. Is that the fat man who smells like dry cleaning and too much drama?” Daar asked.

“He wears a paisley cravat…” Clara shuddered.

Daar tilted his head. “I’m gonna regret ‘Googling’ that, aren’t I?”

“Nah. It’s just a frilly silk cloth around the neck, and paisley’s just a stupid-ass pompous fabric pattern,” Hoeff told him. “But it means he’s a cu-” he caught himself mid-slur, made eye contact with Allison and morphed the word awkwardly into “-ooomplete poser.”

“Oh, okay,” Daar said giving every indication he didn’t get it and no longer cared. “Plus, I mean, he’s not all bad. He’s friendly for-real, I can smell that. Just…that cologne.”

“It ain’t cologne, bruh. It’s fuckin’ perfume. There’s a difference.”

“Yeah, I looked it up. The difference is in the strength of the solvent and the composition of the base and top notes, and what that composition’s family might be is actually dependent on who mixes it and what language you’re speaking. So…which language?”

Six humans took a moment to gave him the same faintly incredulous look.

“What!? Have you looked at my face? This nose ain’t for show! That stuff is actually interesting.”

“It is, huh?” Allison—a woman whose only forays into the world of perfume had involved borrowing Clara’s—asked with obvious skepticism.

“Yeah! Some of your ‘colognes’ are more complex compositions than a woman’s full-strength perfume, did you know that? Hell, Rebar’s got one that has, by my estimation, at least thirty different scents in its mid- and top notes, though everything he wears has big sandalwood and civet musk base notes. Ooh, and leather too. He has good taste, I think.”

“…Huh.” Clara managed. She personally couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d launched into a complex oenological lecture and revealed himself to be a sommelier. Daar pant-grinned at her.

“You wear Signature Sin, right? I like that one. It’s…arrrgh, English ain’t got the word. Closest I can think of is ‘luxurious.’”

Walsh shook his head and knocked him on the upper arm. “Daar, stop flirting with the nice human lady.”

“I’m not flirting! Can’t I just banter?”

“Nah brah, you’re totally flirting.”

Clara was astonished to find herself blushing. She cleared her throat so as to interrupt them and wrench the subject back to business, and made a mental note that Dane was not going to find out about that conversation.

“Uh…Look, we’ve been waiting for this for months now,” she said. “The ship’s ready, the provisions are loaded, the crew are ready…right?” she checked with Allison and Julian who both nodded vigorously. “So as soon as Xiù and Daniel are here…”

“And this.” Coombes handed Allison a jump beacon minisat in its cardboard tube packaging. “Tuned and ready to bring us in on your go.”

“Gotcha.” Allison took it and stuffed it into her pocket. “We’ll need to spend a day or two doing a slow approach…”

“Yup, we got briefed. We’ve got enough provisions for a week, if we need.”

“Only a week?”

“Yup! We’re bringing a jump portal with us so we don’t need to worry about food and basic supplies. It’s just the equipment that won’t fit through that we’ve gotta take with us. That’ll be a bitch…”

Julian made a noise something like a chuckle and a groan, and shook his head ruefully. “‘Horse knew! No wonder he went after me so hard!”

Walsh gave him a grin and crossed his huge arms over his chest. “Well, I mean…why wouldn’t we use it? And by the look of things you didn’t try very hard to say no, dude.”

He certainly hadn’t, and as far as Clara was concerned Adam and Dane’s little conspiracy had been wildly successful. Boys really were endearingly easy in some ways.

“Anyway, yeah.” Coombes got back on topic. “We’ve got a portable jump array and we can safely fire it once every couple of weeks. That’s the plan, anyway. Daar?”

“Got it, Boss.” The Gaoian dashed back up the ramp with startling swiftness considering his size.

Walsh shook his head indulgently. “He’ll take any excuse to move. Y’need help?”

Daar’s reply boomed hollowly down the ramp. “Nuh!” Almost as soon as he’d vanished into the ship, he came charging back out at an alarming clip considering the enormous pack he’d strapped on. For a second it looked like he was about to barge Allison off her feet, but instead he swung himself around on his forepaws and skidded to a halt at her side.

“It’s heavy!” He said, ridiculously, then cocked his head. “Where you want it?”

Allison blinked at him for a second, then looked toward Julian and raised an eyebrow with a smirk on her lips. “Better put those new muscles to work, babe,” she prompted.

Julian chuckled softly. “Yes ma’am,” he replied, and led Daar towards Misfit‘s cargo dumbwaiter. Clara and Allison watched as the Julian hauled the heavy pack off Daar’s back and into the dumbwaiter with a single massive heave, then swarmed up the ladder as easily as anyone else might dash up a small hill.

“Your dude really built himself up!” Walsh commented approvingly.

“Mmhm,” Allison agreed, with folded arms and an entirely unchaste smile in her eye. “We ain’t complaining.”

Daar chittered up at something that Julian yelled down, then proceeded up the ladder with a bit more care. Immediately there came the sound of heavy things being reshuffled onboard.

“Why are we carrying it, though?” Allison asked.

“Dude. Our ship’s even smaller than yours,” Walsh said, using his hands to illustrate.

“We got just enough room for the emergency food,” Coombes revealed. “And we’re already living dick-to-ass in there. As it is we’re gonna be all crowded up on the floor, feet in each other’s faces and everything.”

“What, no spooning?” Allison asked.

The noise of heavy stuff being moved stopped, and Daar flowed down from the airlock door like a mountain lion before bounding towards DOT on a quest to move more stuff. Julian took the more conservative route of sliding easily down the ladder and jogged after him.

“Combat spooning is always an option,” Coombes said drily. “Tiggs won’t give us much of a choice anyway.”

Allison’s smile got wider, and Clara caught herself giggling at the mental image. “Much better,” she said, then returned to business mode. “I’d better do the visual inspection…Clara, could you check and find out what the hell’s taking Xiù and Daniel so long?

Clara nodded and excused herself, pleased to have a chance to fetch Dane as well. The pair of them had a parting gift to share, an important one seeing as their own lives were about to enter a new chapter as they started working on BGEV-12.

She stopped by Daniel Hurt’s office first, and the source of the delay immediately became apparent: He’d had a last-minute academic’s panic and decided that he needed to double-check that he’d properly inventoried everything he was bringing.

He wasn’t being unreasonable, he was just nervous as hell. He’d been able to resist Xiù’s assurances that everything was fine, but when Clara joined her and ganged up on him he finally managed to get his head back in the right place.

“You’re out of time, Daniel. They’re loading the ship now so if you don’t get your cart over there, there won’t be room for anything.”

“…Right.”

Easy enough. Clara left him in Xiù’s capable hands, retrieved Dane from his office where she teased him slightly about the YouTube videos he’d been watching rather than working, and dragged him back to the concrete. They got there just as Daniel and Xiù were adding Daniel’s luggage to the pile.

In the interim the men had everything stacked out on the flightline and ready to go, with Hoeff and Coombes going over the inventory at the last possible second while Julian, Daar and Walsh did the actual heavy lifting and Allison was vanished inside Misfit‘s landing gear doing a cursory visual inspection of the ESFALS array. An alarming amount of cargo was already on board.

“…And our nutty professor’s stuff, I see.” Coombes said it gruffly but with a twinkle in his eye.

“Sorry. Just, uh, a last minute, uh…” Daniel cleared his throat. “…What now?”

“We load the ships up, then we suck in our guts and squeeze in there ourselves…Hope you didn’t have a big breakfast.”

“…Right.”

It was the last thing of any substance that any of them said for about an hour. There was a fair bit of talking, but most of it was simple communication of what each box was and where it was going and who was going to put it there. Allison and Xiù vanished inside to boot up the ship, fire up the fusion power and charge the capacitors. Julian, Dane, Walsh and Daar made a friendly contest out of who could move the most stuff, while Hoeff and Coombes mustered pallets in loading order and Clara mostly found herself standing around with Daniel at a loose end, fetching bottled water for the sweating quartet and staying out of the way.

And, in Clara’s case, quietly enjoying the view.

It was an entertaining hour, though. The minutes just…vanished. As the work wound down the banter got more frequent and less civilized, until Walsh and Daar seemed to be plunging headlong into a series of progressively less and less appropriate—and less plausible—anecdotes that nobody seemed to know how to stop.

That was, until Coombes looked up, straightened up, and spoke in a low voice.

“Old man’s here. With the Padre.”

He was indulging in considerable understatement. Chiune Station had just welcomed a convoy of black SUVs and a couple of motorbikes, which did a stately lap of the compound’s frontage before rolling out onto the landing pads.

The one in the middle wasn’t an SUV at all, it was the distinguished black state limousine decorated with Cimbrean’s flag. Governor-General Sandy’s car.

Somebody, apparently, was making a bigger deal of the departing mission than they’d first thought.

Clara was interested to see how the military personnel prepared as the cars slid to a halt only yards away—they tidied themselves up. Walsh and Coombes carefully put down what they were doing and threw on their blouses—possibly the stupidest name for a uniform shirt ever—while Daar quietly ditched his utility harness out of sight behind the cargo, and Hoeff adjusted his underwear.

“There goes the quiet no-fuss departure,” Julian muttered.

Coombes had enough time to chuckle darkly before the first car door opened and a muscular man with a handsome but stern face and piercing blue eyes stepped out, wearing the black beret of the SOR. Coombes immediately straightened and clearly enunciated a loud “Squad, a-ten-SHUH!” that caused the others to follow suit.

The big man nodded at them and they immediately went to some different posture, while Coombes and Daar walked up, stood tall again, and saluted.

“Good afternoon, Sir.”

“Put your men at ease, master sergeant.”

AT EASE!”

To Clara’s eyes, the ‘at ease’ posture looked only marginally more comfortable, but she didn’t comment. She just took a step back and stood between Dane and Daniel, watching with interest. She’d kind of assumed that the military side of the operation had taken care of all their formalities before leaving HMS Sharman.

“What’s the officer’s name again?” she whispered to Julian.

“Powell,” he replied. “Lieutenant-Colonel Powell.”

“He looks kinda…severe.”

“He’s alright.”

Misfit‘s airlock produced its characteristic sharp CRACK! sound as its seal disengaged, and Xiù and Allison emerged from inside to see what was going on. Powell glanced up at them, gave them a nod of recognition, then returned his attention to Coombes and Daar while they slid down the ladder.

“What’s your status, Coombes?”

“Literally just finished packing, sir.”

“Aye. Sergeant Daar. Are you still prepared to go on this mission? We are aware of your many commitments…”

Daar duck-nodded furiously. “I know sir, but I am serving them better by going. The Gao will not leave a Brother people to suffer harm under the auspices of an uncaring Dominion. The Conclave and the Clan of Females have both endorsed this mission.”

Daniel grunted to Clara’s left. When she glanced at him, he murmured. “I think we just watched some serious power politics.”

Powell, meanwhile, had acknowledged the same thing with thanks and was lining his men up for the Governor-General’s benefit. The civilians were shepherded into position at the end of the line and left in varying states of mild confusion and bemusement when he called them all to attention yet again.

At that point he freed Governor Sandy from the state limousine and offered a salute, which was acknowledged with that smile and nod, the one that came installed as standard in heads of state the world over.

Clara wasn’t actually clear on what the governor-general was for in a constitutional sense, despite ample opportunity to learn. She’d been much too focused on work ever since leaving Earth. The most she’d paid attention had been some big televised occasion about “Opening the Thing” where he’d read a speech on behalf of the King of England, though the speech had actually been written by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. And there was a ceremonial thing about how he couldn’t just enter the Thing chamber but had to be invited in, a symbolic gesture to signify…

…And so on. How the hell a colony that wasn’t even ten years old already had traditions like that she didn’t know, and thank God the next election was years away—Maybe by the time it arrived, she’d have had time to figure out how the damn system was supposed to work and how the Social Alliance Party was different from the Democratic Liberal Party, and…all the rest of it.

Sandy himself was a willowy figure with more salt than pepper in his hair and a wide red sash over his right shoulder. He straightened his jacket upon alighting from the car, and began his inspection.

He met Daar with the kind of formal warmness that completely supported Daniel’s observations about the political power at work here. He exchanged polite small-talk with Coombes, Walsh and Hoeff. Allison, Julian and Xiù handled a relatively lengthy conversation with him in confident style born of far too much time in the public eye.

Daniel, meanwhile, seemed almost comfortable. Of course, he’d actively sought out TV shows and the celebrity of an academic and thinker, so his small-talk with the Governor-General ended with Sandy actually hinting that he’d quite like an autographed copy of The Road To Reason someday.

Clara wasn’t sure if she’d have wished for him to spend longer with Daniel or not. On the one hand she’d been growing sick with nervous anticipation, on the other hand it was a relief to finally pitch over the edge and take her own turn.

Powell introduced them. “Doctor Clara Brown, Misfit‘s chief design engineer, and her husband Dane Brown, the crew’s personal development manager.”

Sandy shook Clara’s hand with a sympathetic expression. “Doctor Brown, while it’s a pleasure to meet you I must offer my condolences for your father. I gather he was able to protect several others.”

To Clara’s distant astonishment, far from being trite or insufficient she actually found the simple words…moving. She blinked at the sudden complicated medley of sadness, pride and gratitude he’d managed to inspire in her and found herself smiling reflexively. “I…thank you. Knowing that there are some people alive today who wouldn’t be…it helped me,” she admitted.

“You have a lot to be proud of,” Sandy told her. “Not just in him, but in this ship. The first manned mission to Mars, and several other alien worlds besides is a profound accomplishment.”

“I hope her best missions are still ahead of her,” Clara replied. “Though, uh, technology is a ruthless process. As much as I love Misfit, the next one will be even better.”

“The next one?” Sandy looked amused. “Straight from project to project, then?”

“Absolutely,” Clara grinned, then decided that she had a good moment to give the crew her parting gift. “We have a lot to get done before the baby arrives.”

She’d waited three weeks since the positive pregnancy test for the look of shocked delight that burst onto her friends’ faces, and it was worth every second. Sandy caught it too, and chuckled. “I take it you were saving the news for today?” he asked. “Congratulations, both of you.”

“Thank you,” Clara said, and meant it.

Oddly, that seemed to conclude the formalities as far as Sandy was concerned. Coombes hadn’t been wrong about the padre though—Powell was standing patiently alongside the SOR’s chaplain. He was a former operator himself, quiet and self-possessed, and had dropped by himself some months previously to introduce himself once the details of the SOR’s involvement with the mission had been finalized.

The tiny Gaoian by his side had come as a surprise when Clara had first met them. He seemed a bit wobbly on his feet so Daar rushed to his side and offered himself as a steadying weight, which was accepted gratefully. The change was something; Daar went from boisterous and bouncy to solicitous and concerned in a fraction of an instant.

The chaplain stepped forward and everyone quieted down.

“We live,” he began, “As an old curse has it, in interesting times.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“I could remind you of the responsibility you chose to shoulder today. I could speak about how the future of an entire species will pivot on your decisions…but you know. You know better than anybody and you don’t need an old man to remind you. You’re carrying the lights of Mercy and Justice into a dark place, and we shouldn’t keep them waiting any longer.”

He looked around, nodded at whatever it was he saw, and then bowed his head.

The Gaoian intoned, “Let us pray.”


Date Point: 13y11m2w AV
Waterside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

Movement. Blessed, glorious, free movement. Just the simple act of being able to jog by the river, in the company of his daughter and her dog.

It hadn’t worn off. After nine months Gabe kept expecting the sheer joy of his regained mobility to have faded, but it didn’t. Instead, like a hiker climbing a mountain and finding that the vista unrolled with every new rise in the landscape, Gabe kept finding new things to enjoy in his mobility as his fitness returned to and even surpassed what it had been before the shooting.

He had been given a gift: squandering it was unthinkable. And he was nearly able to keep up with Ava now. Just a few more months, and she’d be struggling to keep up with him.

It was just a shame that Jess hated jogging with a passion. She got her exercise tax deductions with yoga, tai chi and swimming. It would have been nice to have her along as well.

Still. It was a good opportunity to catch up with Ava when they stopped at the east end of the park for a quick break before they turned around to run back.

And his Father Senses had been tingling all morning.

“…So what’s his name?”

Ava blinked at him as she closed the top of her water bottle. “…Eduardo. How did you know?”

“You’ve been radiating deep, uh, satisfaction all day.”

“It’s just one date…The first date.”

“Gonna be a second, then?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Is he cute?”

“Try…Hnngh.”

Gabe laughed and parked himself against the handrail that ran alongside the river. “He got a brain in his head, too?”

“…He’s smart enough…”

Gabe chuckled again and shook his head. “You always did like ‘em a bit dense.”

“He’s a model. And he’s not dumb!”

“Never said he was—¡Desde luego! Hannah, your boyfriend’s here. ¡Llegas tarde, Bozo!”

The SOR’s giant mutt was trotting toward them with his huge rudder of a tail held high and a single enormous indestructible rubber “tennis” ball in his mouth. He seemed to have a magical sense of when and where he could meet up with Hannah, and as always he was a perfect gentleman.

It made it legitimately hard to deny him his fun. He parked his butt in the dirt a few yards from Ava, dropped the ball and let out one of those gut-punch barks of his.

WURF!!”

Ava giggled. “¡Mira qué cabrón! I know why you’re here, don’t play innocent.”

Bozo was far more intelligent than any dog had a right to be. He cocked his head on one side and his tail excavated a fan-shaped indent in the trail.

Ava sighed, scooped up the ball and let Hannah off her leash. Both dogs were immediately locked onto it and circled around each other in hungry anticipation of the throw.

She didn’t keep them waiting. She turned, lifted her knee like a softball pitcher and sent the ball flying down the trail. It promptly became invisible in a cloud of paw-scrabbled dust.

Gabe watched them go with a grin, then gestured over his shoulder to suggest they resume their jog.

“So a model, huh?” he asked.

“Yeah. And an aspiring photographer. We’re, um…helping each other with our portfolios.” The redness in Ava’s cheeks was definitely more than just exertion.

“Uh-huh. And how much are you wearing in these portfolios?”

“Dad!”

“Uh-huh. I thought so.”

“There’s artistic value in the human body,” Ava said, affecting a dignified air.

“I’m sure there is.”

“It’s fascinated artists for centuries.”

“Mhmm.”

“And it’s important to have a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere during the shoot…” God, the way she blushed was adorable.

“So…dense, cheerful, and a god-like body, huh? I’m sensing a trend.”

“So I have a type, shut up,” she grumbled, though she was grinning.

“Just make sure you’re happy.” Gabe told her, though he couldn’t resist just a little more fatherly teasing.. “…And try not to wear yourself out too much!”

“…I’ll tr—Dad!!”

Trolling his kids was one of Gabe’s little joys in life, too.

A thought struck him. “Where are the dogs?”

Ava’s running shoes slid in the dirt as she came to an abrupt halt and checked behind her.

“…Oh Hell. It’s that time of year. I completely forgot!”

Gabe raised his eyebrow. “Somehow I bet Bozo didn’t. We’d better find ‘em quick.”

They turned back to the East, but barely made it twenty strides before possibly the worst sound Gabe could have heard in the circumstances reached their ears—kids, giggling.

There were four of them gathered on the trail with a soccer ball, pointing at something in the bushes and chattering excitedly among themselves. They looked up when they heard the adults coming and immediately tried to pretend they were angelic figures of purity and virtue and that nothing was funny at all. They weren’t very good actors.

The dogs didn’t have any such pretensions. Sure enough, they’d found a spot in the bushes and the look they gave Gabe was unrepentant and, in Bozo’s case, somehow smug.

“Oh, Hannah…” Ava groaned, and turned away shaking her head. The kids made themselves scarce, fighting to contain their laughter.

“…Cold water?” Gabe suggested.

“Too late.”

“…So…”

“Yeah. Hmm.”

Gabe sighed, turned away and let the dogs get on with it. “…How much do you know about raising puppies?” he asked.

Ava shrugged, glanced back into the bushes, then laughed and shook her head. “…Guess I’ll have to learn.”


Date Point: 13y11m2w AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Orbiting Planet Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

“…Two more minutes?”

“I don’t think we can, Al…”

Allison sighed, and relaxed into a reluctant nod.

“…Okay.”

They stood together for two minutes anyway, watching Cimbrean turn below them through their viewing cupola. Misfit was in space again, where she was most at home. They were in space again…where they belonged.

It had been far too long in coming.

Xiù broke the silence again “Seriously. They’re gonna wonder what’s taking us so long…”

“Yeah…”

Allison nodded, and seemed to come back into herself. “…Yeah,” she repeated. “Ready.”

Xiù smiled, and kissed her. “Good.”

She got Julian’s attention and kissed him too. “Ready?”

He nodded. “More than,” he said, but cast one last glance back out the cupola. Cimbrean’s blue-green light left dark shadows on his cheek and nose, but his eyes were focused.

He nodded, turned away and took their hands.

“Just…Hard to believe we finally got here,” he said.

“It’s been a tough fight.” Allison agreed.

“Well…just in case it gets any tougher from here…I love you both.”

“You don’t need to tell us, dummy,” Allison told him, but she reached out and took Xiù’s hand as well, completing the triangle. “We know. …And I love you both too.”

“And I love you both three,” Xiù finished. They both rewarded her with nervous smiles.

Allison took a deep breath. “Are we actually ready now?”

Julian nodded. “…Yeah. I think we are.”

“Awesome.” Allison let go of their hands, and the triangle broke. “Let’s go make the future.”

They tore themselves away from the view, and went to work.


Date Point: 14y AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Admiral Sir Patrick Knight

“So the decryption keys it provided are bearing fruit?”

“More than.”

Gaoians, it had to be admitted, were alarmingly good at poker. They all used the same trick of sitting upright and forward with their ears pricked up and an expression of intense watchful interest on their faces that managed to give away absolutely nothing.

Genshi, however, could have made millions playing professionally. The closest thing he had to a tell was the subtle twitch of his nostrils when he first picked up his cards, and Knight was becoming convinced that it wasn’t actually a tell at all, but that the Gaoian was using his sense of smell to win.

Still, the fact that he and Costello had each won a few hands was encouraging. The humans weren’t out of the game yet.

Genshi tossed a chip into the pot with a claw, and Knight promptly folded. He couldn’t have articulated why, but somehow he knew not to challenge this one.

Costello gave the flop a long and thoughtful stare before calling, which immediately suggested confidence in his hand. “So between this…entity’s…gift to us and interrogating the Hierarchy Daemon we have interned at Camp Tebbutt we should be getting something soon?” he asked.

“Meereo and Niral are hard at work right now,” Genshi duck-nodded. He knocked on the table, and Costello dealt the turn. Genshi knocked again, Costello bid, and Genshi promptly folded.

“How long until we see results?” Knight asked as the Gaoian gathered the cards.

“Soon, we hope. Of course, it would go faster if we could educate some of your people in the principles involved.”

“Press down on one bubble and another pops up elsewhere,” Knight sighed.

Genshi flicked an ear at him. “I’m sorry?”

“It means we’re in one of those situations where if we solve one problem, we’ll create an equal problem somewhere else. We already have as many Longears in on this as is sensible, we can’t spare the ones we have to train human analysts, but if we don’t train more humans we’re going to need more Longears.”

“Mister Williams is a capable engineer, though like the Longears he’s much more focused on networks and communications. What we really need are Shortstride programmers but we’ve only just brought Champion Wozni on board.”

“I thought Mister Williams worked for Byron.”

“That’s the other Mister Williams. This Williams has been contracted by Meereo directly. Something about…well, forgive me but I am not a Longear. It’s a bit too arcane for me.”

“…How many Williamses do we have?” Costello asked.

“I am tempted to poke fun at your repeating surnames, but our Clans are hardly better.”

Knight paid the big blind. “It would be too much to ask that fighting an enemy with an æon-deep technological advantage should be easy…” he muttered.

“Fortunate for us that they decided not to remain corporeal,” Genshi said. “You ever wonder what…?”

His question went unfinished. All three of them looked up at the distinctive sound of a Gaoian at a blundering, headlong scrambling run slamming painfully into the wall at the far end of the hall where it turned a right angle.

Seconds later there was a desperate scratching at the door. A human would have been hammering on it with their knuckles.

Knight put his cards down. “Come.”

Sister Niral barged inside looking entirely feral. Her claws were out, she was panting heavily, her ears were plastered back on her scalp and even to a human’s nose she smelled sharply of distress. Genshi was on his feet in a heartbeat.

“Sister?”

Niral blinked at him, and then handed over a printout.

“Gao,” she choked out. “The Hierarchy, the Hunters. They’re going to hit Gao. Soon.”



++END CHAPTER 39++



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Thirty-four Deathworlders

Brian Berland, Adam Turnbull, André José Neves Marques de Ornelas, Andrew Ford, Aryeh Winter, Bartosz Borkowski, Ben Moskovitz, Ben Thrussell, Chris Bausch, Chris Candreva, Coret Trobane, Daniel R, Dar, Darryl Knight, Devin Rousso, Elliott Woods, Ignate Flare, Jamie Atkinson, Jim Hamrick, Jon, Krit Barb, lovot, Matt Demm, Matthew Cook, Nader Ghali, Nicholas Enyeart, Nick Annunziata, Parker Brown, Patrick Huizinga, Ryan Cadiz, Sintanan, Sun Rendered, tsanth, Volka…

As well as 42 Friendly ETs and 186 adorable, squishy little Dizi Rats

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