Chapter 41: "Pyrophytes"

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Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

HCS My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon, Approaching Planet Origin, the Corti Directorate

Dog Wagner

Hephaestus—the Hephaestus Consortium, nowadays—was up to three ships in its fleet, and the younger two had inherited MOSITMF’s whimsical approach to naming. The HCS Put Back Together With Bits Left Over and the HCS Actually Three Smaller Ships In A Trenchcoat were bigger matter-movers than the original, but what My Other Spaceship… lacked in sheer bulk capacity she more than compensated for in speed. Alientech power systems hooked up to a Domain-made warp drive would do that for the old gal—Humantech was catching up fast, but there were a lot of centuries to cover.

Every so often, therefore, she doubled as the Consortium’s high-speed courier and interstellar limousine. They even had a permanent suite of business-class cabins riding where one of the dorsal cargo racks had been, with a huge viewing window. It was Dog’s favorite spot on the ship, when they were near anything worth looking at.

The corporate life was being good to him. Hell, the dental package alone had been worth coming back into the fold, but his salary and retirement package were somethin’ else. And he got to go interestin’ places and meet interestin’ people.

Best of all, though, he was the seasoned old salty sea dog all the others looked to for experience. That was good for the ol’ ego.

Of course, there was nothing inexperienced about Adele Park. Some rare women actually got easier on the eyes as they aged, and the flecks of white in her tight, professional high bun told the world that here was a seasoned, sharp, insightful queen of the boardroom.

“Have you ever been to Origin before, Dog?” she asked.

Dog nodded, and ran an eye over the marbled blue-and-yellow ball below them. Some quirk of Origin’s evolutionary history meant all the photosynthesizing plants were a rich goldenrod hue rather than the rich full green of Earth’s plant life, the slight turquoise cast of Perfection’s foliage or Cimbrean’s intriguing teal.

“Yyup. Use’ta run refined metals over here from a Locayl mining op out toward the Vgork Kingdoms. Took mining equipment back the other way. Good runs.” He sniffed. “Corti are easy. They’re up-front about what they want an’ they fold like a goddamn accordion if you catch ‘em tellin’ a lie.”

“Good to know,” she said, and adjusted her slim anachronistic wristwatch.

“Why are we here, Adele?”

A slight smile plucked at a corner of her lips. “Why else? They have tech we want.”

Dog grunted. “Not gonna tell me what kinda tech?”

“Propulsion, ideally. More efficient kinetics, better FTL…Anything to build a better Firebird, a faster destroyer…or a bigger freighter.”

“Huh. The Board want more freighters?” Dog asked. The Board of Directors had originally been intent on setting up an interstellar network of jump arrays dirtside before AEC had ‘gently’ told them to come up with a different idea. “Thought they were gonna go with orbital Arrays and tugs?”

“There was a cost-benefit analysis, the expense of buying the property and constructing our own infrastructure rather than just using the existing Dominion standard landing pads and cargo handling facilities,” Adele explained. “For now, doing it the old-fashioned way makes better business sense so…yeah. More freighters.”

“Awesome.” Dog grinned, and popped some chewing gum into his mouth. “I better get down to Flight Ops, we’ll be mooring soon.”

Adele sighed. “Yeah, I suppose I should go make sure my security detail is ready.”

“Can’t be too careful,” Dog agreed. Ever since the war on Gao had sparked off, general wisdom was that a human alone on an alien world was just asking for trouble. Deathworlder or not, nothing good came from any kind of incidents. Adele, as one of Hephaestus’ senior executives, got a whole posse of private security in serious black suits for a shadow, and every one of them had the knowledge, training and experience to whisk her out of a dangerous situation without escalating it.

Dog, whose abiding memory of being shot at was dominated by pants-filling terror, was happy to leave the job to them.

My Other Spaceship had another big advantage over her sisters—being Dominion-built meant she was scaled to handle anything up to and including Guvnurag. The drydock folks back on Ceres had trimmed down the elbow room a fuck of a lot by adding all sortsa canny internal storage racks so that the ship’s supplies—food, meds, laundry tabs, whatever—didn’t take up valuable cargo space, but she was still a roomy old gal and Dog had never felt claustrophobic aboard his ship.

Flight Ops was a heck of a lot tighter than the old bridge had been, too. It was buried deep in the ship’s forward structure, reinforced to hell and gone against contingencies like, say, space pirates. Any ETs boarding a human ship were in for a nasty surprise, but My Other Spaceship still had a few scars on her from her one run-in with an ornery human pilot. The new design emphasized protecting vital systems over creature comforts.

The crew liked it, on the whole. On a quiet day with nothing else to do, Flight Ops was a hum of conversation, jokes, music and folks working on whatever personal projects they used to occupy their time.

Right now though it was quiet, which meant folks were working. There was a lot to do on final approach to a Dominion cradle world.

“So serious,” Dog teased after taking a second to be certain nothing was out of the ordinary. His crew variously smirked, chuckled and rolled their eyes. They were an earnest lot—all of them were huge nerds who’d leapt at the chance to be starship crew and honestly didn’t give a shit that the starship in question was basically a glorified Big Rig.

“You’re the one always says approach is when things go wrong, Dog,” Webber spoke up. He was the A-shift communications operator, a former air traffic controller from some backwater airfield in Ass-End County, the state of Nowhere. Operating the radio on an interstellar freighter was probably no more exciting, but he seemed to enjoy it.

“Only if somebody’s bein’ an idiot and Corti don’t let idiots fly ships.” Dog squeezed between the workstations over to the helm, not to check the pilot’s work—Sam Jordan was a dab hand—but because it had the best view.

“They’ve got us on a tight course,” Jordan complained. “Almost down to the inch.”

“Just go with it,” Dog sighed. “Corti have a tight sphincter anyway, right now I bet they could crush beer cans. You see those light system pickets?”

Jordan nodded. There were three of them loitering around their approach path, barely a thousand klicks away—kissing distance, in interplanetary terms. “Yeah.”

“There’ll be ten more, cloaked. An’ don’t let the size fool you, those things could rip us open like a—”

He went sprawling across the deck as a sudden and massive jolt made the whole ship ring with the sound of tortured steel. Whatever the cause, it had to have been huge to overwhelm MOSITMF’s inertial compensation system. The fall knocked the wind out of him a little, but adrenaline got him creaking and swearing back up onto his feet in seconds as the ship’s collision siren warbled solemnly before shutting off.

“What hit us?!” he demanded. It hadn’t been weapons fire, whatever it was, but the odds against hitting anything that wasn’t targeted at them were unbelievable.

“Uh…nothing. We’re…we’ve just…” Jordan cleared their throat and swiped at the helm controls with a bewildered frown. “…Stopped.”

“That’s impossible,” Webber commented, unnecessarily. Dog gave the helm a glance and scratched the back of his head.

“Ain’t impossible, brother. We’ve done exactly that…Total relative stop.”

“Okay…” Catherine Price, their navigator spoke up. “How is that possible?”

“Beats the fuck outta me,” Dog grunted. He hit the shipwide intercom. “All hands, this is Dog. Somethin’ screwy’s goin’ on here. Everyone report to stations. Security, we’re goin’ to code amber.”

Code amber meant a lot of things, but for the security detail it meant ‘Stuff the VIP in an escape pod and be ready to hit the button on a hair trigger.’

“…Tractor beam? Forcefield?” Webber asked.

“Nah. If we hit a field ol’ Mossy woulda crumpled up like a tinfoil hat” Dog told him. “Helm, full astern.”

Jordan swiped down on the thrust slider, and the instruments certainly said the kinetic thrusters were pouring everything they had into reverse. As far as navigation was concerned, however, they didn’t so much as twitch.

“No activity on local comms, Dog,” Webber piped up, sounding grim and looking pale. “Not even traffic control.”

Dog grimaced and shot a suspicious glare at the Corti homeworld below them. “…I got a real bad feel—-” he began.

The planet vanished. The stars changed. Webber actually yelped and Price blinked at her instruments for a second before swiping her hands across them, desperately trying to figure out where a whole solar system had gone.

“…ling…” Dog finished, with infinitely more cool in his voice than in his hammering heart. “What th’—where the fuck are we?”

“…We’re…two hundred light years from Origin,” Price declared after a moment. “Widdershins by topside, two degrees. Facing away from it.”

Dog got on the intercom again. “…Adele, somethin’ really fuckin’ weird just happened. You better come down here.”

There was a pause. The voice that eventually answered him wasn’t Adele Park, but instead belonged to the security team leader.

“Uh…Skipper, this is Frank Newman. Adele’s…gone.”

Dog let that sink in for a second. He’d never heard the former SWAT officer sound so completely bamboozled.

“…Define… ‘gone’,” he suggested.

“She was standing right in front of me and now she’s…not! Like she just blinked out of existence! What the hell just happened?”

Dog looked around flight ops and saw his own total confusion mirrored back in every face.

“…I don’t know,” he confessed. “But I think the Corti have some major explaining to do.”


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Derek (Boss) Coombes

As Coombes understood it, transplanting plants from one planet to another came with a few…hiccups. Earth plants could apparently be weirdly finicky about the conditions they would grow in, and with alien seasons under alien suns and in alien soil their chemical cues could get all kinds of messed up.

All of which was, apparently, the reason why the cherry trees in Waterside Park bloomed in the winter, and powerfully redder than usual too. No delicate pretty whitish-pink for Folctha, the blossoms of Waterside Park were a full-bodied Valentine’s Day, Barbie-doll kinda pink.

It made for an interesting morning jog when they started raining off the trees, like running through a goddamn perfume commercial in the brisk morning air. Folctha never got properly, skin-tightening cold, but it did drop low enough to make Coombes’ breath fog and leave him feeling pleasantly cool as he ran.

He was starting to feel good about his career decision, at long last.

He’d never doubted the choice to leave Akyawentuo in Hoeff’s capable hands. The JETS were gonna need a senior NCO in a high place, and Coombes was the man for that job in a way that Hoeff and Walsh would never be. Walsh was too cerebral for all his slabbiness, and Hoeff was too…intense. Subtle was a foreign concept to him, as were politeness and tact.

But he had felt uncomfortable about it. Going from getting shot at and fuckin’ nuked in the bush of an alien jungle to a cushy desk job on Cimbrean was a turnaround harsh enough to give a man whiplash.

But there was the fulcrum of it. He’d got actually honest-to-god nuked. Sure, okay, he’d come out of it with nothing worse than a minor case of radiation sickness, but two Purple Hearts were enough for one career. He didn’t want to push his luck: After the battle on Akyawentuo, he’d had a vision of a folded flag arriving at his ex-wife’s house and solemnly presented to his daughter, and promptly decided that he wasn’t gonna let that happen.

Besides. The homesteading money for SOR-committed servicemen on Cimbrean was damn good. He could build a life out here, maybe find the second Mrs. Derek Coombes, give Taniya a little half-sibling or two to love…

He moved to the side of the path as a pair of jogging figures—a short middle-aged man who was definitely starting to suffer in the hair department and a much younger woman anonymous behind a baseball cap and shades—emerged from the blossom blizzard in the company of a pair of dogs. He nodded a greeting, and was nearly ten paces on when he was brought up short by the young woman asking “Wait…Coombes?”

He stopped and turned. She took her hat and shades off and smiled at him. “Hey. Didn’t recognize me, huh?”

Coombes chuckled and relaxed. Without the disguise, hers was a face he’d never forget. She had, after all, literally saved his life. “Sorry Ava. Good to see you.”

Ava Ríos scratched her dog’s head, and it parked its butt on the path and started sweeping blossoms aside with its tail. Behind her, the older guy was leaning on his knees to recover his breath. “Good to see you too!” she said. “How’s your chest?”

“Healed up perfectly, years ago. Got a hell of a scar, though.”

“I bet,” she grimaced. “Adam said you were living here now.”

“Yeah, took a desk job. Figured I’d had enough excitement and adventure for one lifetime.”

“Good to know there’s at least one SOR guy out there who knows when to stop pushing his luck.”

“Eh…” Coombes scratched the back of his neck. “…More like I’m gonna be pushin’ different sortsa luck…Thought you were on Gao?”

“I got back last night. I can’t stay on that planet, it’s…” she trailed off, then snapped back when the dog licked her hand. She smiled at it and scratched its head. “…It hits a little close to home. Also, Hannah here doesn’t have an interstellar passport or the disease control stuff and…uh, this is my dad. Gabriel Arés.”

“Oh!” Coombes inwardly kicked himself for not spotting the family resemblance. Ignoring the vast mass difference and the sparser, grayer hair, that was definitely Adam’s face smiling at him. He stuck out a hand. “Uh, Buenos días.”

Yeah, that was definitely Adam’s dad. He had old-man-strength in that handshake and then some.

“Good to meet you,” Arés senior told him. “So, you know Ava? You never mentioned him, Ava…” He gave her the sly sideways grin of a natural Dad.

“Uh…” Ava gave Coombes a look that said ‘help,’ which was a shame because Coombes was feeling the need for some help himself. He was twice her age for fuck sake, but the old man was definitely in an eyebrow-waggling, rib-nudging mode.

“Uh…She wouldn’t be able to, sir. We met in a professional context.”

“Ahhh!” Gabe nodded sagely. “Her top secret whatever-it-was in Egypt, then.”

He laughed as they both gave him the same carefully blank look, albeit with a weary highlight to it in Ava’s case. “Say no more.”

Ava sighed. “Dad…”

Gabe’s grin got even wider. “I tease!” He beamed, then nodded over his shoulder. “I’ll leave you two to catch up. Come on, Hugo.”

The much larger dog who’d been sniffing around waiting for them to finish—and a dog that big could only be one of Bozo’s puppies, even if he was nowhere near as big as his sire—gave an excited Wuff! and practically dragged him down the path. Gabe hit his stride, waved jauntily over his shoulder and was gone into the river mist.

Ava sighed again. “…Sorry about him.”

“Did he just—?” Coombes began, and faltered when it occurred to him he didn’t know how to phrase the question.

“Don’t ask. I’m pretty sure he’d act the same if you were a ninety-year-old Gaoian right now,” Ava sighed a third time. “He’s always like this when I’m single, especially now Adam and Marty are expecting and I think sometimes he forgets I’m not actually his flesh and blood…” She paused, then cleared her throat. “Sorry. You don’t need to hear all this. And it’s all so petty next to Gao and everything…”

Coombes chuckled. “Hey, sweat the little stuff, it’s cool. Keeps you sane.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. Nobody can solve a big problem all in one go. But anybody can solve a bunch’a small problems. And then you look back and see it all adds up to a big problem solved.”

“Hmm.” She gave his words some thought. “…Thanks!”

“I ain’t just a pretty face!”

That drew an honest-to-God laugh out of her, along with a brilliant smile which faded into something more thoughtful. “Ummm… so.”

With her Dad’s behaviour still keeping him off-balance, the slightly panicky thought ‘Oh God, here we go…” flitted across Coombes’ mind. Outwardly, he took a sip from his CamelBak and kept a straight face. “So?”

“Uh, look. You know I work for ESNN…”

Amazingly, the notion that she just wanted to press him for information was actually a relief. Coombes nodded and tried not to visibly relax.

“…I mean, I’m guessing PR isn’t one of your duties, but, uh… I know from some sources of mine at MBG that there was a team on Akyawentuo, and I know it wasn’t the HEAT, and the only other guys who’d be qualified would be JETS…”

“You want…what? An interview? Statement?” Coombes asked. “I can’t comment.”

“I know,” she assured him quickly. “I’m just saying, with the war on Gao the Ten’Gewek haven’t been in the news much since…well, since the Misfits made them news. I mean, you’re here and okay so I’m guessing things worked out okay with them…?”

Coombes nodded thoughtfully, getting what she was saying. She took it as confirmation and smiled. “Awesome! I was just thinking, seeing you, it’d be nice to run a piece on them. Especially if you guys scored a win over there. Good PR, you know?”

“That makes sense,” Coombes agreed. “Obviously I need to go through—”

“—Proper channels,” she said, nodding vigorously. “But look, if I… I always carry my business card nowadays…” she rummaged in her waist pack. “It’s got my business phone number and email address, and…” she produced a card and a pen, and scrawled something on the back. “And that’s my personal number. I mean, the PR guys at Sharman probably have all that stuff on file anyway, but y’know…”

“I got you,” Coombes took the card and pocketed it. “It’s a good idea, the People deserve more awareness. I’ll make it happen, if I can.”

She beamed at him again. “Thanks, Coombes.”

Coombes had to admit, getting smiled at was a pretty damn good start to his day. “You better go catch up,” he prompted.

“Yeah, probably should,” she agreed and put her hat back on. “See you around?”

“Count on it.”

She beamed at him one last time, called her dog into motion and was gone, leaving Coombes to clear his throat to himself alone in the mist for a second. He shook himself, realized he was beginning to get chilly in the morning air, and resumed his own jog.

Yeah. Maybe the desk job wasn’t so bad after all…


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Air Engineering Technician Jack Tisdale

Jack spent a week on leave in Folctha before reporting for his first day at HMS Sharman. He visited his family, left some flowers up on Memorial Hill for Sara, revisited a few haunts around town, went to the gym with his dad for the first time in years and got to relish watching his old man’s jaw drop.

Things were kinda awkward around the dinner table, sadly. Jack’s mum had never really approved of the military, being convinced that violence had no place in a civilized society. Jack had gently suggested that a society was only civilized because it knew when and how to properly apply violence in its own defence, pointed to Gao as an example of how civilization could be brought crashing down if the wrong people used violence unopposed, and generally succeeded in making her look small and uncertain, which in turn made him feel awful.

They’d agreed to avoid politics. She was proud of him regardless, and Hope seemed to love having him around the house for a few days. She was the spitting image of the big sister she’d never met, and Jack loved her dearly, but he did worry sometimes that his parents were wrapping her in cotton wool and not letting her breathe.

It was almost a wrench when the day came to report to Sharman for his orientation and introduction day.

He met most of his fellow Technician graduates in the corridor by the Jump Array which doubled as the base’s memorial wall. Everybody in extrasolar defence who’d fallen in the line of duty was memorialized there, meaning that it remembered not only the four fallen HEAT operators, but also a handful of Firebird crews, and a sickening proportion of the crew of HMS Caledonia…

Captain Costello made it absolutely clear that they were to pay respect to every single one before they were permitted to get to work. Read every name, touch every picture, acknowledge every life. It took Jack two minutes just to reach “Chief Petty Officer Andow, M. HMS Caledonia.

All told, inspecting the wall and studying every face on it took a big chunk out of the morning but it also drove home how hugely serious this all was.

Once that was finally done they were finally escorted to a briefing room for their introduction to the unit, and it was all Jack could do not to aim a huge congratulatory smile at the woman waiting for them. Back when she’d been giving him lessons and instruction to prepare him for this, she’d been Sergeant Kovač. Now, her maternity uniform’s breast bore a different name.

She still favored Jack with a small smile as they fell in to listen, though.

“Welcome to Spaceborne Operations,” she greeted them. “My name is Sergeant Martina Arés, I’m the NCO in charge of Hazardous Environment equipment maintenance and readiness and it’s my job, in part, to ensure that you guys—” she indicated the the technicians “—get along with your assigned HEAT operators. And you’d better, because without each other all that hardcore training you did counts for exactly dick. They’re getting a similar talk right now.

“But let’s get the awkward stuff out of the way first: This job is not dignified. The human body is a marvel, capable of doing things that literally nothing else in the galaxy can match…and you are going to get profoundly familiar with its unglamorous plumbing. Over the coming weeks, you’re going to learn more than you wanted to about blood, urine and feces, you’re going to become intimately familiar with the scent of stale sweat, and yes, you are going to be up close and personal with literal swinging dicks. Get used to it, because they have to get used to being on the receiving end.

“On the other hand, after this last leg of training you will be a world-class armorer qualified to maintain and modify the most sophisticated and effective personal protection system ever devised by man or Gaoian, each one of which costs as much as a strike fighter. More than that, however, you will be the shaft behind the speartip. Without technicians, HEAT operations don’t happen.”

She grinned, and there was definitely a slight note of schadenfreude in that grin. “But before all that can happen, there’s some bonding to do. A little team-building. ‘Cuz I know HEAT operators, and if they have a flaw it’s that they think with their muscles. Which means if you want them to respect you, you have to earn it. That means showing them you have the kind of game, spirit and tenacity they respect. So here’s what’s gonna happen: You’re gonna change into your PT gear. We’re gonna go out there to the Pit and do a session with your operators, and they’re gonna effortlessly kick your asses into the dirt. Your job is to give it your absolute best. I just want to apologize for not joining in: I’d be out there getting my ass kicked alongside you if I could.” She rested a hand on her belly. “Afterwards you’ll meet your assigned operator—two techs per operator—and you’ll be excused for the day to get to know each other.

“Fortunately,” she added, “That bit should be easy. There’s four things in the entire world a HEAT operator likes the most. Eating, sleeping, and training…and I’d strongly advise you to avoid the fourth, no matter how flirty they get.”

A few years ago, Jack wouldn’t have been able to resist the cheeky comment that shot into the back of his head about how she was obviously speaking from experience there. He had Chief Donoghue’s “tender” management to thank for ridding him of that particular impulse, but he still couldn’t quite restrain a small smirk.

Arés noticed. She made eye contact until he’d got his face to behave itself, then allowed a smirk of her own. “Not that I’m necessarily following my own advice,” she added and let a chuckle do a lap around the room. “…Don’t be overwhelmed by them, that’s all. The thing you as techs need to understand better than anyone, even their girlfriends or whoever, is this: those men overwhelm themselves. They’re in awe of what they can do, and even scared by it. They’re also…extremely passionate. That’s both hormonal and just the nature of what they are. What they need from the techs almost more than your skills is your empathy. So…go make friends.”

Five minutes later, PT gear on and nervous energy jumping around between them like static, Jack and the rest of the tech graduates found their way towards ‘the Pit’ mostly by the sounds of boisterous team bonding and the sound of the other Technical Sergeant Arés’ raised voice.

“Pit” was an entirely accurate descriptor. Sharman was squeezed into a tight footprint, with the main admin building and the living quarters practically on top of each other. The gaps between them, in fact, were narrow enough that two men could only barely squeeze past each other.

But the admin building was square and the living quarters were U-shaped, meaning that in the middle was an oblong of open space hemmed in by concrete walls and floored with well-drained soft sand….And, right now, full of HEAT graduates who were lounging around knocking back post-workout supplements and listening as one of their number—an Army staff sergeant of some kind—reached the punchline of a well-delivered joke about a Colonel’s wife.

“…and the PFC hands him his coffee and says ‘well sir, I figure if there was any work involved then I’d be doing it for you.’

Several of them had obviously heard it before, but a round of deep-chested guffaws said it was well-received. Adam’s snickering Muttley impression was always a treat to witness, and he gave Jack in particular a wide grin as they filed through the narrow gap and into the Pit.

“Ah, now here come the folks who give your lives meaning,” he said. “Be nice to ‘em. They’ve literally got your nuts in the palm of their hand!”

He strolled through the sand—and on him, it was knee-deep though he apparently didn’t notice—while Jack took a step onto the surface and…barely sunk an inch.

“Able Seaman Tisdale,” he said, slowly and with a congratulatory tone. “You took your sweet time gettin’ here!”

“Book learnin’ takes a while, Technical Sergeant Slab,” Jack retorted, aware that his own grin was the exact mirror of Adam’s. He was promptly hoisted off the sand and flattened by a trademark Arés hug. And then slammed onto the sand in a pin. His view, once he recovered his senses, was completely filled by Adam’s cheshire grin hovering a few inches from his face.

“I’ve been waitin’!”

Jack sensed that his best bet with these guys was to not let on that even at his gentlest Adam could still wind a guy pretty badly. He forced down the reflex to gasp for air and nodded. “Good to see you too. Weren’t you gonna…” he couldn’t resist a cough “…introduce us before you started kicking our arses?”

“Nah. Up!” In one fluid move Adam somehow sprang backwards and practically tossed Jack upward, who found himself suddenly a few meters above the sand and falling.

He stuck the landing, at least.

Adam gave him a high five, then turned to review the other techs. “Guess I better get y’all introduced to your partners,” he declared. “Moho! You’re partnered with Tisdale here and…which one’a y’all is Miller?”

Moho was an immense black guy with a voice so deep that it excavated new caverns of bass possibility. He was also, to judge from the tattoo he’d managed to somehow find blank room for on his pecs, a Defender. That tattoo had a new, crisp look while all the others looked smeared and faded.

“Yo. Name’s Coyers. Callsign’s ‘Moho’…don’t ask.”

“…Moho as in the bottom of the Earth’s crust, or…?” Jack asked.

“Yes. I’ll tell you how I earned it the day you bench three-fifteen for reps.”

Jack snorted. He was a long way from his pasty scrawny tuna-paste-sandwich self these days, but three-fifteen was…asking a lot.

“I might need time to work up to that,” he said with snarky bravado. “But, uh, I did manage two-seventy…once.”

Moho seemed, for his part, legitimately impressed. “Wait, really? Shit, check out this guy! Where’d you lift that?”

Jack aimed a thumb at Warhorse. “His gym. Adam has a way with coaching. I’m pretty sure he could give a butterfly a set of bulging pecs.”

Moho’s chuckle could have triggered an earthquake. “He sure does.”

The correct Miller finally joined them. What quirk of fate had landed two Millers in the same group, Jack didn’t want to speculate but at least they were easy to tell apart.

Their Miller was…stunning. Wisdom among the techs was to pair them off with one solid chunk-slab of a person who could push hard and one strong-yet-slender type who could handle fiddly work, and that latter role was Jack’s. He was always going to be a tall, thin one with pianist’s hands no matter what he did, while Miller was short and built like a…well, Jack didn’t know. She probably looked amazing in more flattering clothes but as far as Jack was concerned her most attractive feature was easily her face, which was square and strong and framed by short dark hair.

Jack shook his head to clear his thoughts. Miller seemed to notice and smiled. Suddenly his thoughts weren’t so clear anymore.

Moho noticed too. “N’aww! Imma like you two, I can tell.”

Miller’s amused expression got a little wider, and she shook his hand. “Staff sergeant Miller, US Air Force. Former ammo troop for the Bone. Decided I wanted something less…grunty, so of course my airhead self goes and finds this!”

“Coyers. I was an 18C.”

Jack completed the introductions. “Tisdale. This is my first gig, it’s what I signed up for.”

Further getting-to-know-each-other time was going to have to wait, because Adam finally finished assigning Techs to Operators and got their attention with an effortless lift of his voice. “Okay! Everyone in the middle! Time ta’ train!”

They did their PT. Or, rather, they tried and mostly succeeded at surviving the HEAT’s daily warm-up routine. How the operators managed any of it Jack would never understand, since all of them were so massive they sunk into the sand and had their tiniest movement resisted at every turn. It didn’t seem to even remotely bother them even though it had to be much, much more difficult.

It did what they’d been told it would do, however. The fact that Jack made it to the end without giving up and sinking into the sand moaning in pain or throwing up seemed to impress Moho no end. He wanted to do both, and from the look on her face Miller had been an inch away from her breaking point too…but they were both still standing when ‘Horse finally called time.

A couple of the other Techs hadn’t quite managed to go the distance. Hopefully, that wouldn’t put a damper on their working relationship.

“Alright! That’s it for today, folks!” Adam announced, checking on the two that had collapsed while their operators hovered, already concerned. “Techs are authorized a short dose of Crue-D if you need it, but you’re all dismissed to go get acquainted.”

Miller had sunk to her knees gulping down cold air like it was in short supply but on those words she heaved herself to her feet and mopped a few soaking strands of loose hair out of her face. “Whew! …Good training,” she declared, drawing a tectonic chuckle out of Coyers.

“Hungry?” Jack asked her. He certainly was and he’d taken Adam’s imprecations about protein to heart over the years. There was no point in asking Coyers—HEAT were always eating. He’d either be on a special meal plan in which case he’d bring it with him, or he’d be free to join in whatever they did.

Miller nodded emphatically. “Fuck yes. I wonder where’s good to eat in this town?”

“Best Brioche on North Water Street,” Jack said promptly. “They do the best burgers ever, they’re called the Red, White and Blue—”

“I like them already!” Miller said. “…You sound like you know Folctha.”

“I grew up here.”

Moho grunted, and coming from him that was a heck of a noise. “No shit?”

“Yeah. Moved here when I was nine.”

Miller paused in getting her hair back into its bun. “…Wait. Tisdale as in—?”

“As in Sara,” Jack nodded and contrived to ask her with his face not to press any further. “Yeah.”

Coyers got the message too. He laid a huge, calloused hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Story for another time,” he said. Jack shot him a grateful look. They knew, of course. Everybody in Folctha knew the story, especially the SOR. So there was no point scratching that wound again today. “Showers first.”

Sharman had good showers. Jack turned the pressure right up and made incoherent sounds of pleasure as the pounding water ironed out some of the soreness, then changed into his street clothes once he was done. He found Miller and Coyers waiting for him at the front gates and greeted them both with a smile and a wave.

“Slow ass buys the burgers,” Coyers said. Jack laughed.

“You might have to spot me the cash,” he said.

“So where’s this burger place at, Local Guide?” Miller asked.

“North Water Street. It’s a straight shot about a mile that-a-way.” Jack pointed. “But that’s the boring way. The scenic route is over the road, past the courthouse, through New Worlds Plaza, over the bridge, along the river, back across the bridge by Rooney’s then through Quarterside park.”

“Sounds good, my legs are gonna get stiff if I don’t move them,” Miller agreed. Moho just nodded amiably. “Besides, I didn’t get to see the town much. It’d be nice to check it out if I’m gonna stay here.”

“It’s way different to what it used to be,” Jack confided, leading them out of the gate. “When we first moved here it was all prefabricated temporary housing and dirt streets.”

“I bet. Look at all the cranes,” Moho waved an arm at the skyline, and Jack nodded. Folctha didn’t have an iconic silhouette yet, it just had construction. Acres and acres of construction. “Who’s footin’ the bill for all this?”

MBG invested a lot. They run the jump arrays and spaceport, and they have Chiune Station out west past the Lakebeds. Hephaestus own the trade station up around Cimbrean-Five and the metalworks down in the Skidmark… most of the money’s from agriculture, though. The farms out east are huge and the livestock herds out west are even bigger,” Jack said, counting points off on his fingers. “Then there’s tourism, the academic investment, logging, oil drilling…and all of it’s taxed pretty heavily. Then there’s the Gaoians.”

Sure enough, there was a duckling-line of cubs following a Mother on the other side of the road, heading for the lake. “The Females brought a lotta stuff with them when they first set up a Commune in the Alien Quarter,” Jack explained. “After the war on Gao started and the Israelis weighed in and all that stuff… I think a lot of things were built at a loss, actually. Or at least, they aren’t going to pay back for years and years. Anyway, that’s the courthouse.”

“…Pretty, I guess,” Miller conceded. “I dunno. I kinda feel like courthouses should be all white marble and columns and stuff, and a big dark wooden door.” She gestured to the glass and limestone fronting of Folctha’s offering. “This one looks like an airport terminal.”

“Is that what the courthouse is like where you’re from?” Jack asked.

“Denver. And yeah. Heck, it’s almost nothing but marble columns.”

“What about you, Moho?”

“Fuck if I know. Ain’t never seen a courthouse before.”

“I meant where are you from?” Jack clarified.

“Oh. Florida. Lil’ place about twenny miles outta Jacksonville…”

Thus began an afternoon which later went down in Jack’s memory as one of the best of his life. Taking the scenic walk around town helped loosen up his muscles, they earned a greasy, calorie-laden treat with an armed services discount at Best Brioche, they grabbed an afternoon beer at Rooney’s and that turned into several evening beers and a long, long conversation.

God only knew how Adam or whoever had matched them had figured they’d click, but they did. Moho was generous with his praise and his cash, and Miller could make anything sound interesting. Jack, who’d been worried he’d end up as the team baby or maybe that he’d be getting pity-respect for his sister, was instead astonished at how…naturally they slotted together. By sunset the three of them were like old best friends reunited.

Or maybe that was just the beer. Jack honestly didn’t remember most of it in the morning, though he did remember how he and Miller had wound up riding Moho’s shoulders back to the base at dead-o’clock in the morning, trying to outdo one another at who could sing their respective service song louder and in different keys because pride was at stake and ‘Heart of Oak’ was obviously superior to ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ and…

…And all in all, it was an excellent night. Worth the hangover, even. And the hoarse voice. The upshot, however, was that it achieved the intended result—when their first day of real work began in the morning it wasn’t as awkward new acquaintances tiptoeing around each other, but as teammates solving problems together… and for the first time in his life Jack really felt like he belonged somewhere.

He’d made it.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Cabeiro Shipyards, Ceres, Sol

Drew Cavendish

Drew had lost his crown as the record holder for most time spent spacewalking years previously, but he still liked to keep his hand in. How was a man supposed to design spacesuits if he never wore them himself?

It didn’t matter that plenty of spacesuits had indeed been designed by people who’d never wear them, that wasn’t the Drew Cavendish way. Nothing went to the C&M Environment Systems assembly line unless Drew had worn it himself for at least twenty-four hours in real, working vacuum conditions.

Right now, he was testing the latest EV-CAM—ExtraVehicular Construction And Mining system. His was the prototype for the sixth-generation CAM suit, and things had come a long way from the early days wearing systems based off redesigned diving hardsuits. CAM-6 was flexible, luxuriously comfortable by spacesuit standards, packed with redundant safety features and, most importantly of all, simple.

There was no such thing as idiotproof in Drew’s experience, but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying to design an idiot proof suit. Combine it with the fierce training and constant safety measures in place and the fact that idiots didn’t get second chances when it came to EVA, and so far there hadn’t been a single incident.

Besides. It also felt good to do some honest work with his hands, and the bent, ravaged and blasted hulk of HMS Caledonia still needed a lot. They were rebuilding her almost from the keel up, and even the keel—a structural bar as thick as Drew was tall that ran right down the ship’s spine—had been reinforced with the best steel Hephaestus could get their hands on.

The alloy of the keel itself defied replication, which was why they were even bothering with the Sisyphean task of repairing her again. Even after being torn down to a wreck, Caledonia was still the most advanced ship humanity had. She’d fly again… in a few years.

There was a lot of welding to do before that day arrived. Drew enjoyed it, the simplicity of focusing on doing a job well in challenging conditions, and where other people might have sat down with incense and a singing bowl to clear their heads Drew instead forced his increasingly elderly bones into his own creations and built things.

Besides. It was a good way to hold the respect of the kids who’d come flooding out from Earth armed with engineering degrees and welding certs and heads full of the glamour of living in space and building spaceships. None of them had reckoned on the endless safety briefings, the relentless equipment checks and how little time they’d actually find between those two things to actually build ships… but they all agreed they had the coolest jobs in history.

“Drew Mike to Drew Charlie. You listenin’ you pommy cunt?”

Inside his helmet, Drew snorted. Some things would never change, and the world would be badly wrong if they did. Drew Martin becoming more and more Australian the further he got from Australia was one of those things. Whenever he was on Ceres, he was a walking stereotype to rival Mick Dundee.

“It was nice and quiet before you spoke up, Drew,” Drew replied with a grin. He stowed his welding torch away on the grounds that if his Antipodean counterpart was calling him in the middle of a ‘walk then he was probably about to be called back in.

“Believe me mate, I’d leave your wrinkly arse out there all night if I could so I can get some fuckin’ work done. But Big Jezza said get back in here for a Consortium meeting, an’ he looks a bit fuckin’ down in the mouth.”

“Oh, bloody hell…” Drew sighed to himself. Things had been going so peacefully, too. On the radio, he asked “Can it wait? If I don’t finish my scheduled job it’ll set the repairs back.”

“Nah, yeah, I told him that and he said it’s a no-can-do Drew. I even told him how much it’d cost, and he still said bring you in.” A note of concern crept into Drew M’s voice. “An’ you know what, if Big Jezza thinks the money can get stuffed then I reckon somethin’s a bit fuckin’ sketchy.”

That was putting it mildly. Drew carefully backed out of the compartment he’d been welding. “I’ll be inside in twenty,” he promised.

Twenty minutes later to the very second, the airlock was cycling around him as its in-built wash system sluiced Ceresean regolith, powdered steel and ice crystals off his suit. Getting regolith off of a suit in particular was a problem that Drew had spent years fixing. Brushing it off or vacuum-cleaning were out of the question, that stuff was worse than asbestos if it got into the air. That only left washing, and ordinary water just didn’t do the job…but whatever they did use needed to not harm the suit and wash off readily once it had carried away the dust, so oils and solvents were out too.

In the end, water-based sex lube had turned out to be the best starting point. There were 55-gallon drums of the stuff hooked up to the airlock showers to be slightly diluted, hosed all over the suit and then sluiced off. Drew had tweaked the formulation with a few particle-catching additives but at its core the decontamination process relied heavily on hypoallergenic, latex-safe, silicone-safe, easy-glide sexual lubricant.

Space was a glamorous business.

Suit-off had become far easier thanks to Drew’s years of hard work and innovation. Finding an airtight, secure seal that allowed the operator to enter and exit their suit quickly and conveniently in particular had involved three years of prototyping.

Normally, Drew would have spent twenty minutes performing a post-EVA inspection of his suit ahead of the relentlessly thorough one that would follow next time he came to wear it, but this time he stuck a huge red NOT INSPECTED label to the helmet, rinsed off the inevitable grime and BO of extravehicular work, grabbed a coffee and a snack bar from the vending machine, and ducked through the doorway toward Executive Operations.

Years on from its first construction, Ceres Base was easily the crown jewel of human achievement. Never mind Cabeiro Shipyards, that was just an ancillary facility—Ceres Base itself was a town, buried in the rock and ice and its standing population dwarfed the total number of people who had ever served aboard the ISS, Mir, Skylab and all the other space stations combined.

The old modules were still up there on the surface, under the domes. But all the important stuff had been moved deep underground years ago, backups made, redundancies added, compartmentalization written into the structure’s every line.

Given another ten years, it might even be able to permanently support a small population on a self-sustaining basis. And after that… who knew? The Hephaestus Consortium’s motto was “The Sky Isn’t The Limit” for a reason.

Thank fuck they’d finally ditched the elevator music. There would have been murders sooner or later.

“Something came up?” he asked as he entered Executive Ops. It wasn’t that he wanted to be rude, but in Drew’s experience ExOps was the kinda place he had to bull his way into and rule the conversation from the second he arrived or else people carried on their conversations without bringing him up to speed.

Fortunately, he had Drew Martin to watch his back. “It’s Adele, mate.”

Concern blanched Drew’s face immediately. He liked Adele. He’d worked with a lot of powerful executives in his life and some of them got high on the smell of their own shit. Adele Park meanwhile had all the confidence, authority and ferocity of a career woman who’d made it into the biggest of the big leagues and none of the character flaws.

“What happened?!” He sprang forward to the round table in the middle of ExOps through which flowed the accumulated data of their little interstellar empire. The report from My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon was in pride of place.

“Some kind of stasis fuckery,” Drew M summarized. “They snatched her right out from in front’a her security detail.”

“Jerry?”

Jeremy Carlson—”Big Jezza” to Drew M— shrugged grimly. “The Corti say they had nothing to do with it. They deplore her abduction, apologize profusely and blah blah blah.” He grunted. “I don’t really care. One of ours went missing on their turf. They are gonna need to get their noses very brown to make it up to us, and if we find even a hint that they’re lying to us about their innocence… well. All deals are off.”

“Bit bloody late for Adele,” Drew opined. “Have we called AEC yet?”

“That’s why you’re here.” Carlson gestured to Drew. “You work closest with them thanks to the EV-MASS contract. I figure you’re our strongest man to send to them.”

“We really don’t need the strongman act,” Drew protested. “AEC think of themselves as the sheepdogs keeping the wolves at bay. They wouldn’t ignore us.”

“Fair enough, but I don’t want to half-ass this,” Carlson said. “This is Adele we’re talking about. She’d pull out all the stops for any of us.”

“I’ll get on it immediately,” Drew promised.

“And I’ll lean on a couple of US Senators,” Carlson promised. “We’ll bring her home.”

Drew M grunted. “Strewth, I wish I had your confidence…” he muttered.

“Or that it was warranted,” somebody else added.

“What are we supposed to do? Just write her off?”

“Screw that! She’s one of ours—!”

Carlson raised his hand and his voice. “We’ll do… whatever we can,” he said lamely. “Thanks everyone. Let’s… let’s get to work.”

People drifted away in twos and threes, muttering amongst themselves with a generally hopeless air. The two Drews were among the last to leave, once Cavendish had finished his message to his friends in AEC and the SOR.

“…You still got that stash?” he asked of his counterpart once they’d escaped from ExOps. Ceres base had relaxed the rules on alcohol a lot since the early days, but Drew M had kept some beer right from the word go.

“Yep. ‘Bout time to crack open a coldie, you reckon?”

“Yyyup.” Drew sighed. “‘Cause something tells me about the best we can do for Adele now is raise a glass.”

Drew M nodded grimly, “…Bloody right it is,” he agreed.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Lt. Col. Claude Nadeau

People who didn’t know Lewis Beverote very well and just went off their first impressions of him were inevitably surprised by the orderliness of his private little kingdom.

It was an old and unusual arrangement. Lewis was the longest-serving human on Mrwrki after all, and had claimed a suite of rooms near the main nanofactory processors early in his tenure, giving him significantly more living space than anybody else on the station.

This had inevitably led to friction. How come the skinny middle-aged geek who talked like a terminal pothead got to lord it up in the penthouse while everybody else was crammed into single-room cabins barely larger than a college dorm room?

Complainers inevitably got the Tour, and there they learned that Lewis in fact lived in even more spartan conditions than the rest of them. His bedroom in particular was just that: a room with a bed in it. There were drawers and a hanging rail for storing his clothes, a tiny walk-in ablution room that combined the functions of a shower, toilet and wash basin, and that was it. Everything else was working space.

He never actually slept there, of course. He slept with his long-term partner, Sergeant Lucy Campbell in her perfectly standard cabin. But the tour definitely drove home the point that Lewis had never claimed that space for luxury. He’d claimed it to build miracles.

In ages past a renaissance man’s workshop like his would have been cluttered with drawings, prototypes, half-finished sketches and drifts of raw material. Lewis’ prototyping room on the other hand was kept meticulously tidy by the drones he’d invented partly as working prototypes for the Coltainer program’s control software, and partly because he knew his own mind and was absolutely certain he’d be neck-deep in mouldering unfinished pizzas if he didn’t take special effort.

Nadeau had a lot of respect for him. Even if the lighting in there did make him look a bit mad scientist-y.

“Good morning, Lewis.”

“Dude.” Lewis turned away from the pool of holographic light he was bending over and gave Nadeau the grin that said there’d been a Eureka moment in the recent past.

“I know that grin,” Nadeau said. “I take it you had a breakthrough on the Coltainer software?”

Lewis’ grin got wider. “You could say that. Say hello, SAM.”

“Hello Colonel Nadeau. It Has Been Approximately Sixty-Seven Hours And Twelve Minutes Since Your Last Visit. Are You Well?”

Nadeau almost fell over at the sound of a pleasant tenor voice greeting him. Lewis had always loved putting a scifi movie spin on his projects, but this one had all the special effects right down to an abstract holographic object—a friendly green icosahedron—that shimmered into life over the console and gave him something to look at, pulsing and twisting in time with the rhythms of its own speech.

“…You didn’t!” he exclaimed and took a cautious step forward.

Lewis waved a reassuring hand and shook his head. “Relax, the name stands for Sophisticated Algorithm Matrix. It’s basically just a fuckhuge flow chart of preprogrammed responses. ‘S’not alive, my man. True AIs are a fuckin’ crapshoot.”

“I heard they mostly just get depressed and delete themselves,” Nadeau hazarded.

“Yeah, but dude: Do you wanna take the chance that one of ‘em maybe one day gets mad at its creators for bringing it into this cold, uncaring, pointless universe and decides to take us down with it?” Lewis put on the same slightly manic smile he always did when he was discussing apocalyptic scenarios. “Nah, SAM here is nice an’ dumb, ain’tcha SAM?”

“I Know I Am But What Are You?”

“See? Nothing intelligent ever used that retort.”

Nadeau chuckled despite himself, and sat down. “…I have to ask. What’s the point of this, exactly? I thought you already said the Coltainers are as smart as they need to be. In fact I’m pretty sure you said we should keep them as stupid as possible because, quote ’that way there’s less shit can go wrong’.”

“Dude.”

“Fine, fine. Knock yourself out.”

Lewis chuckled and turned away from SAM’s console. “So, like, it’s always good to see you my man, but if this is a social call you coulda at least brung some beers.”

“No, it’s professional,” Nadeau said. “I have bad news and good news. Bad first.”

“Best way round!” Lewis nodded, and leaned against his console. “Lay it on me.”

“Bad news is, Kolbeinn says we aren’t going public with the Coltainers yet. For Opsec reasons. Don’t want Big Hotel getting ahead of us and planting beacons on every likely deathworld they can find…”

Lewis sighed. “Makes sense, but man. That’s gonna way slow down the colony sign-ups, and the whole point is rapid expansion. But whatever, he’s the big hat. What’s the good?”

Nadeau grinned. “He’s given us permission to launch.”

Lewis gawped at him. “…We’re go?”

Nadeau nodded. “We’re go.”

“My babies actually get to fly at last?”

“That they do.”

“Holy shit, SAM, you hear that? It only took five fuckin’ years, but we’re finally there!”

“Yaaaay.”

Nadeau eyed the holographic interface warily. “…You really programmed it to go ‘Yaaaay’?”

“Dude, I di’n’t program shit. SAM here’s flung together outta bits of other bots, some Watson tech, some Kwmbwrw universal interface, and a random number generator called Bob. Sharp as a rolling pin, but he’ll surprise ya. And he learns.”

“Well. We thought we’d run up ten Coltainers and hold a launch ceremony, probably a party, get very drunk…” Nadeau beamed. “I haven’t told Kirk and Vedreg yet, would you like the honors? I’ll even handle Vakno for you.”

“Dude.”

“Have fun, then.”

As it happened, Nadeau ran into Kirk not five minutes after leaving Lewis to his tinkering. Their permanent resident Rrrrtk almost bumped into him as he stepped out of Mrwrki’s sickbay. Thank goodness for ET medical databases, or their doctor wouldn’t have had the first idea what he was doing with three aliens on board.

Kirk and Vedreg had an…interesting role on board. Both were prisoners of circumstance, known enemies of the Hierarchy and thus unable to return to galactic society for fear of assassination or worse. Of course, there was nothing stopping them from moving to Cimbrean but considering that the Guvnurag population of Cimbrean was nil Vedreg would have been just as lonely there as on Mrwrki. Kirk, meanwhile, refused to abandon his friends. Nadeau had no idea what their slender and valuable ally wanted from life any longer, and Kirk wasn’t saying.

As it was, he avoided disaster by stooping and stepping under Kirk’s belly rather than accidentally scything his middle legs out from under him. Kirk reflexively reared away and hit his head on the ceiling.

“Shit! Sorry, sorry…” Nadeau spluttered but Kirk waved him off.

“It is nothing,” he promised.

“Good. Don’t want land you straight back in there…” Nadeau cleared his throat. “Everything okay?”

“I just needed a dose of antihistamines,” Kirk sighed. “I am sorry to say that I seem to have become quite allergic to Human dander in the last few months.”

“Huh. Really? A new allergy?” Nadeau asked.

“Inevitable, I am afraid.” Kirk shook his mane. “Incompatible biology. And while my immune system is sluggish and pathetic next to yours, with enough exposure even it will become quite aggressive…You seem in a good mood today, Colonel.”

“I was gonna let Lewis tell you, but we were just authorized to move on to full Coltainer deployment,” Nadeau revealed. Kirk’s ears flapped—Rrrrtk body language for a pleased expression.

“Outstanding!” he declared, without a trace of sarcasm. “It’s been a long road.”

“It’ll be a little longer yet,” Nadeau reminded him. “We still have to build some final-generation ‘tainers.”

“I suppose there will be a fitting send-off for the prototypes?” Kirk asked. He waved one of his four arms in the vague direction of the outer hull and through it the graveyard cloud of spent prototype Coltainers, hundreds of them, drifting in interplanetary space having given their best and only work to the conception of their replacements.

“Of course!”

“Good, then.” Kirk turned to go, then a thought seemed to strike him and he turned back. “A question though, Colonel.”

“Shoot.”

Kirk rocked back onto his hindmost four legs, a posture of thoughtfulness. “We have worked on the Coltainers now for five years. I myself have been here since before they were even conceived. And now, here we are on the doorstep of letting them out into the galaxy to pave the way for a wave of expansion without parallel in galactic history. And they will be a wave, oh yes.”

He sniffed, which was an impressive gesture when done by somebody with a sixteen inch nose. “But they self-replicate, do they not? After the first few production runs, our own contributions to their population will be negligible… but we shall still have a nanofactory, and a small army of the finest creative minds. I find myself wondering…What will we make next?”

He flapped his ears again when Nadeau’s face fell into a thoughtful expression, rocked back onto his forward feet and turned to walk away again.

“Something to ponder,” he said.


Date Point 15y4m2w AV

Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lt. Col. Owen Powell

Everybody needed the occasional lazy day. A man would go bloody crazy if he didn’t take some time off to, as the case may be, slob around in his underwear all day and do nothing constructive. It made the constructive days mean more.

So, Powell was taking a long weekend to relax around his rambling single-story home wearing a pair of loose cotton pajama bottoms, drinking beers that weren’t doing a damn thing to him, and allegedly reading. Mostly, he was falling asleep with a book in his hand. He hadn’t shaved in two days and, given that he was the kind of man who had a five o’clock shadow by noon, a scratchy briar patch of coarse ginger-and-white hairs had already colonized his face.

He was jolted awake by the sound of his doorbell, and set aside the copy of Raising Steam he’d fallen asleep under to scratch and quietly cuss his way toward the door as he tried to remember if he was expecting a package or something.

There was definitely a package on the doorstep. She was five foot three inches with her hair up in cornrows and one of the most famous faces in the world, and she short-circuited his brain with a brilliant smile before reaching up on tiptoe to kiss him.

“Rylee?” he asked, as his wits finally stopped grinding gears and started moving again. “Fookin’ ‘ell, you didn’t—at least, I don’t remember—?”

She grinned at him. “Surprise!”

“Uh…come in!”

She slid past him in a dazing perfumed whisper and placed her bag neatly next to the little table in the hallway. It wasn’t the first time she’d visited his house, but the last time had been far too long ago.

“Hm. You make lazy look good,” she said as she took her shoes off while Powell inwardly cursed himself for not at least showering and brushing his teeth. “Miss me?”

“Don’t be daft, o’ course I did!” Powell folded his arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. “I’m just half addled ‘cuz you woke me up an’ I wasn’t expectin’ yer. Coffee?”

“What am I, a house guest?” Rylee hooked a finger in the front waistband of his pajamas and dragged him toward the bedroom. “The coffee can goddamn well wait…”

It was almost sunset when Owen woke up feeling a little on the cold side. Rylee was wrapped in blankets under his arm and completely dead to the world, having left him only just enough to cover his hips. He chuckled softly to himself, ran a finger along her eyebrow just to be sure she was really there, then ghosted out of the bedroom and into the kitchen where he ran a couple of coffee pods through the machine.

The second one was bubbling and frothing into its cup when Rylee yawned and scratched her way out of the bedroom wearing an impromptu bedsheet toga and a satisfied smile. She accepted the mug like it was pure divine Ambrosia.

“It’s gotta be like four in the morning back home,” she groaned. “Damn twenty-eight hour day jetlag…”

“Lemme guess—Business trip? Not like you to make little flyin’ visits.”

“Nope. This one’s all little flying visit…I uh, I woke up real lonely a couple days back and…I just wanted to be here.” She gave him a faint smile. “Dumb, right? How long have we been doing this?”

“Aye, an’ it’s bloody tough.” Powell sat down on one of the bar stools around the breakfast bar. His were specially made so that the Lads could use them when they came around, making them wider and far sturdier than any ordinary bar stool. “Fook, I’ve wanted to do the same more’n a few times.”

She nodded and sat down opposite him. “…Can we keep doing this?” she asked. It was a query, not a request. “I mean… we aren’t getting any younger…”

Owen gave her a curious look through the steam off his drink. “…Are you gettin’ all maternal as well?” he asked.

“Come on, intelligent people second-guess themselves sometime.” Rylee attempted a smile, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“Christ. Warhorse and Jockey, I’m pretty sure Firth an’ his missus are thinkin’ on it…”

“I know. The Misfits too. It just… got me thinking.” Rylee cleared her throat. “About us. I’m… still pretty sure I don’t want kids. But then I started worrying because if you do then…”

She put on that almost-smile again and looked apologetic. “…I dunno. I figured it was time we sorted our relationship out. I… fuck it, I love you. And if you want kids and I don’t… If we’re always gonna be long-distance…” She sighed. “I just had to come over here, talk it out.”

Owen put his cup down and took her hand. “About the only thing I know about bein’ a dad is that I couldn’t possibly fook it up as much as my old man did,” he said, and earned a laugh. “But… I don’t know. What’re kids for, right? The future? A legacy? Owt like that?”

“Something like that, I guess…” Rylee agreed. “…You think we’re building enough of one anyay? Without kids?”

Owen nodded. “Rylee, trust me. If it were a deal-breaker, I’d ‘ave said as much before now,” he promised. “…Besides, you can’t tell me the Lads won’t breed a bloody tribe between ‘em. You an’ I’ll be godparents or some such, no doubt.”

She grinned at the mental image, nodded, and finished her coffee. “It’s almost a shame, though. You and I would make some damn pretty kids.”

“Only if they inherited your hair,” Owen replied, running a hand over his own scalp which was more bald spot than not nowadays. She laughed his favorite laugh, a kind of husky bubbling one that started in her stomach, leaned over the breakfast bar and kissed him again.

“I happen to think your hair is perfect,” she said. “Not sure about the beard, though. It scratches.”

“I’ll shave it off now,” Owen promised. “Too bad: It were growin’ on me.”

She groaned, laughed his favorite laugh again and gave him a playful clout on the chest, and he stood up to clear things away with a smile that only she could bring out. The future could take care of itself.

Right now, he was just going to enjoy her company for as long as he had it.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

The Grand Commune, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Mother-Supreme Yulna

The future, amazingly, was looking bright.

This was not a thought that seemed natural in the mind of a Mother-Supreme who had witnessed the wholesale slaughter of her sisters and the sickening reduction of the Clan to a fraction of its former population… But knowing beyond doubt that the alternative had been extinction did a lot to bring out the positive side.

Too many young Sisters had become Mothers instead, before they were really ready. Too many young ones had grown up too quickly. But there was a relentless streak in the Gaoian psyche, one now bolstered by the efforts of Clan Starmind. No matter what, they were still standing, they were still there. They had lost a lot…But they hadn’t lost everything. It was meagre soil, but seeds grew in worse, and some of those seeds grew mighty indeed.

For example: The Females were now freer and more secure than ever before in the history of Gao.

They had teetered on the edge of returning to the gilded slavery of long ago for their own protection, and many Sisters and Mothers had argued for exactly that. It was a dangerous galaxy out there, nobody knew that better than the Gao nowadays. Why wouldn’t they surround themselves with solid Stoneback walls and the devoted attention of Male guardians?

Yulna would skin herself alive rather than be so weak.

In that, for once, she and the Great Father were of an aligned mode of thought. Daar respected the Females, in a way that Yulna hadn’t understood at first. He genuinely thought the Females were strong, were capable, could tread new ground without needing a male to break it for them first. And he was right.

His contribution had been invaluable, but Daar was just one man. The Humans on the other hand were a better friend than anybody deserved, and endlessly generous with their land, their resources, their time and their emotions.

But the Grand Commune was a creation of the Clan of Females. It was their sanctuary, their fortress, their demesne and their beacon, and they’d built it themselves.

Yulna like to stand on its balcony and watch the whales.

Importing whole species to Cimbrean was one thing. Importing a breeding population of titanic oceanic filter-feeders was quite another, but they were essential to the terraforming effort. Without the whales, squid and fish, the seas would long since have been choked pink by a tiny Terran species called Krill. And without the Krill the oceans would be a horrific bacterial and algal soup from where the Earthling floral that infested the Microbial Action Zone drained down river channels and into the seas.

There were enormous troubles. These whales were called “humpbacks”, whose migratory instincts were tuned to the waters of Earth and thus were totally worthless on Cimbrean. Their confused songs were mysterious, slow and sad to Yulna’s ears but apparently to Human scientists they were ripe with information. The whales knew they weren’t in Kansas any longer so to speak.

One quirky behaviour they’d begun showing since their transplant was that they hung out near land more often, as though the uncharted Cimbrean deep worried them. Now, in late winter, Yulna could watch them about a kilometer offshore, count the plumes of steamy breath they shot into the air and wonder whether they were breeding as fervently and enthusiastically as the Gao were.

She hoped so. They looked so small, so lost, so…displaced. Out of their natural waters and fashioning a new life for themselves in unfamiliar places and times.

It was hard not to draw a parallel.

There was a scratch on her door that pulled her from her thoughts and back to her unending, inescapable work. Mother-Supreme was a job for life, and not even the Great Father got to say otherwise.

Her scientific advisor, Mother Deven, swished into the room in a rush of silky russet fur and impeccable grooming. She gave Yulna a respectful bow.

“Is it four o’clock already?” Yulna asked. She moved to her desk and sat down.

“Whale-watching again, Mother?” Deven asked. “Fascinating species. Some of the largest things alive.”

“So I understand. What’s today’s news?”

Deven sat and handed over her daily report. “The statistical survey on cub gender is back. We’re definitely having more males.” she indicated the tablet. “That’s graph one.”

Yulna duck-nodded as she examined it. The birth rates were measured as a number per thousand births so the…curtailment…of the female population (she was still far too raw and reeling to brave the more accurate but less euphemistic words) wasn’t accompanied by a cliff on the graph, but the war on Gao still shone out. Less than a month after the biodrones had first been changed, the ratio of males to females had swung out of its historically stable seven-to-one ratio and peaked at ten-to-one. It was coming back down toward equilibrium now, but managing the long-term crisis such an imbalance would inevitably cause in about fifteen years’ time was going to have to start in the present.

“Why?” she asked for the time being.

“Our working hypothesis is that it’s a hormonal stress response to the war. Difficult times require expendable males,” Deven said. “If I’m right, we’ll probably see a surge in female births in a few years as the war stress fades and we enter a regrowth phase.”

“Interesting, but not my first focus for now,” Yulna said and swiped to the next item, which she was pleased to see was the epidemiology assessment she’d requested. They were sharing a planet with Humans now, and Humans were notorious disease factories. The fact that Folctha had successfully ticked over for so long without a serious cross-species pandemic was a minor miracle all by itself.

Newborn cubs and postpartum Mothers were at their most vulnerable. She needed to be certain that the Grand Commune was equipped to handle the worst Earth could throw at them through its children.

She was still reading the summary when there was another scratch at her door. She recognized the heavy paw behind it instinctively.

“Myun?”

“There’s a priority message from Sister Niral, Mother!”

“Come in!”

Myun had learned physical grace as a little cub training with Sister Shoo, and carried it into her adulthood where it interacted strangely with her sheer physical presence and naturally boisterous personality. She could flow, even if she insisted on going four-pawed far too often. Deven flicked an ear at the vulgar show but Myun had strongly-held convictions about what was and was not worth her time, and a mere senior Mother’s displeasure was firmly not worth her time.

Yulna took the message with a duck-nod of thanks and scrutinized it.

“…Thank you, Mother Deven,” she said after re-reading it. “I think we’ll have to continue this later on.”

“As you say, Mother-Supreme.” Deven stood, sketched deference in the air and departed without objections.

Yulna waited for the door to close. “This woman is important?”

“Hephaestus built the V-class destroyers, the EV-MASS suits and Armstrong Station,” Myun explained. Her claws tickled her belly as she considered the implications. Even she was pregnant right now: nobody could afford not to be. Yulna had to admit, Thurrsto was a lot more charming than he looked and if Myun had a thing for Whitecrests… well, there were worse and less needy Clans. “Niral thinks the Humans aren’t going to like that she went missing. At all.”

“…Leaping to Gao’s defense is one thing, but does she think they’ll take on the Directorate?” Yulna asked. Myun just shrugged.

“…Thank you, Myun. Please let Niral know that she can call me at any time,” Yulna said. That shrug had been exactly the right gesture—Whenever Yulna thought she had Humans figured out, they managed to go beyond what she thought of them. “In fact, the sooner the better.”

Myun chittered and returned to the door. “Yes, Mother. Anything else?”

“Hmm…” Yulna thought for a moment. “…Please alert Mother Naydra as well. I’m sure she’ll want to discuss it on Daar’s behalf.”

There was a complex and evolving knot that felt like it was grounded in a complex bedrock of tradition while in fact being less than a year old. Daar—Great Father Daar, as she always referred to him in public—had taken a mate. Naydra had suffered inconceivably during the worst days on Gao before her liberation, and had apparently won Daar’s big, soft, soppy heart without really meaning to. Certainly, his affections were more than reciprocated. It was a love story in a very classic way and totally at odds with what the Clan of Females stood for: An exclusive relationship? Two years ago, the very idea would have been scandalous. Now, Naydra was what the Humans might call a princess, maybe a queen-consort. Either way she was a towering figure who wielded soft power that matched or perhaps even exceeded Yulna’s.

There were only two options when faced with somebody like that: Jealousy or friendship. Yulna had chosen friendship. Quite aside from the fact that it was impossible to hate Naydra, Yulna needed a sympathetic line to Daar’s ear. She hadn’t spoken to the Great Father in seasons, on the grounds that he honestly loathed her, but she spoke to Naydra on a daily basis.

Thus were bridges…built? Mended? It didn’t matter, really. The point was, there was a functioning diplomacy between the Females and the Great Father again. It maybe robbed Yulna of some of her own authority, but she’d take it. She was a servant after all.

Myun duck-nodded to acknowledge the request and was gone, which left Yulna alone again. She sighed and returned to the balcony as she calculated what, if anything, she could do about the incident in Origin.

The truth was, there probably wasn’t much she could do. This was a matter between the Corti and the Humans. Gao would stand on the Human side of course, but…

But somehow, she got the feeling that whatever transpired on Origin would happen without Gaoian input.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Central University, City 1, Origin, The Corti Directorate

Lor

A Professor—a Faculty member at that—never hurried anywhere, especially if they were a Silver Banner. It was a matter of principle, and so Lor was not hurrying, nor was he being hasty. He was merely proceeding with emphatic efficiency.

At least his emphatically efficient process didn’t involve anything so crass as actual physical activity. He was standing on a drone platform, which zipped through the campus corridors of the oldest and most important hall of learning and decision-making the Corti had ever built and if any oblivious students or staff members were unceremoniously thrust out of the way by the platform’s field then that was a valuable lesson in attentiveness.

That same field kept the wind from plucking at the printout he was re-reading as he zipped across the circular main courtyard and past the ancient, pitted concrete statue of Chancellor Varos brandishing the ancient Corti icon of learnedness and authority, a scrolled parchment. The scroll itself was a copy of Varos’ personal banner, fifty meters long and heavy with metallic threads depicting his many achievements but—thanks to some cunning mass boson field manipulation—still flapping in the light breeze as though it weighed little more than smoke.

Lor’s own banner was a hefty three meters, but it was a point of pride that the heraldry, text and icons were all quite small. Discretion, after all, was a virtue.

He bowled aside a particularly slow-witted Vgork exchange student as his platform swept through the space between the Faculty Building’s wings and deposited him at his destination. It wasn’t the biggest or most important of the Directorate’s many Colleges, but its prestige had grown substantially over the last two orbits ever since the humans had officially accused that there was a conspiracy lurking in neural cybernetics.

Lor had gone from being a cantankerous purist, isolated and sidelined by his titanium conviction that neural enhancements were a form of cheating and that real Corti ought to rely on their own native brainpower, to somebody of genuine importance. His ideas were gaining traction in a way they had never quite managed before. Students were flocking to his college, which inevitably led to wealth, prestige, influence…and authority.

He stepped off his drone platform and his feet patted and tapped their way across stone flooring and into the Cognition Theatre.

Other species would have called it a Forum, or a House, a Chamber or a Senate. To the Corti, it was an operating theatre where ailing or imperfect propositions were dissected, inspected and either euthanized or else improved upon and discharged in the form of legislation or executive decisions, destined for a higher authority to scrutinize.

He stopped at the door and announced himself. “Lor. Dean of the Varos College.”

The doors—huge, heavy things—swept aside for him and several of the most powerful Corti in the directorate looked up at him. Technically, Lor was among peers as fellow Silver Banners, fellow College Deans, fellow academics. But the fifteen Corti in the Cognition Theatre each held more power in a quiet conversation than Lor had achieved in his career so far.

The First Director blinked at him, a gesture of welcome. “Dean Lor. Your punctuality is commendable,” she said. This was, by Corti standards, a positively glowing reception and Lor bowed shallowly.

“I came directly, First Director Shanl,” he said. Forthright and uninflected, not obsequious. The Directors hadn’t earned their positions through false flattery and wouldn’t respect it in those they summoned to report. “Your message only mentioned a missing human…”

Shanl nodded and returned her attention to the data in front of her. “You are the most influential advocate for deimplantation,” she observed without immediately answering the question. “A heterodox attitude, until recently.”

“How did you rise so high when you endorse such a move?” One of the Second Directors asked. Larfu, Lor remembered. “Cybernetics are the backbone of our export economy. Surely advocating for it was an impediment to your career?”

“I cleave to the truth,” Lor said, and stepped into the middle of the room to join them. “…So far as I can discern it.”

The Directors nodded, and made room for him at the table. Test passed.

“This morning, an incoming Human starship, the…” Shanl scrutinized a note with a distasteful expression as though handling something unhygienic “…’My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’ was subject to unauthorized interference while on approach. Several research vessels which were supposed to be out cataloging samples simultaneously wove a temporal dilation field around it. From the complaints the Humans registered, a senior and potent member of their largest interstellar industrial consortium was abducted, while the ship itself was dumped in interstellar space.”

Larfu indicated a second screen above the table. “We factored the new incident into our probability calculations concerning the Igraen claim. While the diplomatic corps handle the Humans, we have a more pressing concern—the fact that it now seems certain that their claims are correct, and that Corti society is infiltrated at the highest level by this Hierarchy.”

“To be clear, we assigned the claim a high probability as soon as it was first made. Every member of the Directorate was promptly deimplanted as a precaution,” Shanl elaborated. “Our objective now is to sanitize the species, preferable before the Igraens decide to do to us what they did to the Gao.”

“Hence, you,” commented the other Second Director, Morln. The three Third Directors, four Fourth Directors and all the Fifth Directors nodded solemnly.

Lor inwardly congratulated himself on a successful prediction. Outwardly, he gave the data a moment’s intense study and fixed it all in his memory. The Corti had bred eidetic memory into themselves thousands of Orbits ago, so memorizing every detail in front of him involved little more than a glance.

“…I have drawn up possible courses of action,” he said. “We will need to be extremely careful. The abduction of this Human may complicate matters.”

“How so?”

“The plan… relies on their goodwill toward us.”

Shanl inclined her head slightly for a second, then blinked her nictitating membranes and summoned a small stool to sit on, delivered by drone. The remaining Directors followed her example.

“Brief us,” she said.

Lor didn’t sit. Instead he loaded some files from his personal devices into the display and opened them.

“Allow me to introduce you,” he began, “to a colleague of mine by the name of Nofl…”


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Planet Ayma, Uncharted Space, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

“That’s the last crate.”

Xiù stretched her back and looked around as Misfit’s dumbwaiter retracted and drew the last of their exploratory camp back up.

Byron Group had reluctantly conceded that their work on Akyawentuo was vitally important and had accepted a contract from Allied Extrasolar Command to make that their primary responsibility, but the Group had held out for two planetary surveys. Misfit was an exploration ship, they had argued, and keeping her grounded on Akyawentuo was a waste of valuable resources.

So they had picked the two best possible candidates and planned two surveys, months apart. The first had been a super-Earth, as big and massive as Akyawentuo but lacking the dense forests that the Ten’Gewek would need.

It had still been earmarked as their future property on the grounds that the People would pretty quickly outstrip the agricultural potential of their homeworld far before humans did—they needed to eat constantly—and the new world’s rich open grassy plains would be perfect for raising livestock herds, but they’d left it unnamed. The Ten’Gewek were a long way off even considering the prospect of colonizing another world, and would probably balk at the idea of leaving their gods and ancestral lands behind.

The second planet, however, was the jackpot. It was a sturdy Class Ten with immense oil and gas reserves. If Julian was right, there were oceans of the stuff deep under its sea beds, more than the combined oil fields of all the Earth and Cimbrean combined. In fact there was so much of it down there that whole clades of oceanic microbes had evolved to metabolize the hydrocarbons leaking into the water.

It was easily the most valuable planet they’d discovered, from a purely capitalist point of view. Even the gravity matched Earth’s to within a fraction of a percentage point. As huge as their finder’s bonuses for Aphrodite, Lucent and Akyawentuo had been, this one was the world that had made them all truly wealthy beyond dreaming. In a generation’s time, it might even surpass Cimbrean in both population and prosperity.

They named it Ayma.

Allison gave her a thumbs-up from the airlock. “Last crate. EV-Ten say they’re starting descent.”

EV-10 was Creature of Habit. The moment they’d flung their preliminary report and sensor data back to the MGB offices at Chiune Station on Cimbrean, a call had gone out for oil-industry geologists who wanted a crack at surveying an alien planet. Somehow, the Group had picked out a handful of the most qualified from among the tsunami of applicants, and prepped Misfit’s long-term survey sister for action.

It was good to think of her flying again. And with BGEV-12 in final testing back in Omaha it really felt like there was finally somebody to pass the baton to.

Passing Misfit off to a replacement crew was going to hurt, though. She’d been more than a ship, she’d been home. Leaving her behind was going to be like rewinding the calendar by five years, to those first months back on Earth when none of them had known where they were going, what they were doing or how to fit in.

Except…somehow, this time, she was looking forward to figuring it out.

“Babe?” Allison asked, and Xiù shook herself back to the here-and-now.

“Sorry.”

Allison smiled at her, then jerked her head backwards to indicate Misfit’s interior. “Shower’s free if you wanna clean up before they arrive.”

Xiù blinked at her, then glanced down at herself. She was, she had to admit, pretty dirty from all the lifting and spending time in the bush. “…Do I smell?”

“Not as bad as Julian.”

There was an indignant “Hey!” from inside the ship. Allison grinned and turned back into the airlock.

“Hon, you’re a meathead who wrestles with gorillas for fun,” she said as she vanished. “It’s okay.”

Xiù giggled and climbed the ladder. Julian and Allison were kissing when she got to the top which always made her feel warm inside too, and just like that her slight attack of melancholy was dispelled.

“I guess he doesn’t smell that bad after all,” she observed drily.

“Babe, get your ass in the shower,” Allison told her.

“Yes ma’am.”

Allison’s “good girl” was slightly muffled, though she was grinning around the kiss.

Twenty minutes later, by some miracle, they’d all managed to take a quick turn through the shower and change into clean dry clothes, which was why the crew of BGEV-10 Creature of Habit found three sharply professional interstellar explorers waiting for them rather than a trio of camp-stinky goof-offs.

EV-10 was a very different machine to EV-11. She was nearly twice the size for a start, and streamlined with a bullet nose and a raked delta wing. Even though the two ships wore the same red-and-silver MBG livery it was hard to picture them being assembled in the exact same facility by the exact same people. Their landing site was a pebble beach with plenty of room for both ships side-by-side, and Creature of Habit settled onto the stones like a VTOL jumbo jet. It was a heck of a sight…but Xiù fancied that she’d have made softer work of the landing.

They lowered the ramp right away and the first down it were Lee, Sullivan and Ackermann, the trio who’d competed against them for the right to crew Misfit.

There were no hard feelings. Well, okay, there had been some hard feelings at first, with Ackermann in particular making the pointed accusation that the better team had lost…but that was all in the past. EV-10 was arguably the more important ship anyway—Misfit was only equipped to find planets. Creature of Habit was equipped to explore them. All the real discoveries on Lucent had come from EV-10.

The two crews had finally had a chance to meet at an MBG party in the Statler Hotel in Folctha. It had been brief and a little tense, but it had opened the door to talking, familiarity and reconciliation. In time, maybe they’d even get to know each other well.

Allison certainly would. She was going to be designing the next-gen ships.

That was all for the future, though. For now, Sullivan—and here was a big difference between EV-10 and EV-11, in that Sullivan was firmly and definitely the captain, their leader and executive—shook their hands, followed by Lee and Ackermann.

“You found a good’n,” Lee commented. “The geosat data alone is a jackpot.”

“You should’ve been there when it started coming in,” Allison said. She gave Julian an affectionate tap on the arm. “This big lunk was giggling.”

“I do not giggle!”

“Yes you do, babe.”

Xiù chimed in. “And it’s adorable.”

Sullivan chuckled, then glanced back up the ramp. The specialists were finally stumbling off the ship in ones and twos, blinking around them in awe at actually standing on an actual alien world and suddenly the rationale behind putting him and his clean-cut compatriots in charge of the ship with passengers became clear. Allison, Julian and Xiù could get away with being informal and unorthodox because it was just them and they clicked. Sullivan and the guys needed to be able to take charge of untrained guests if things went wrong.

“…You’re gonna miss this,” he predicted.

“Life moves on,” Xiù said. “It’s nice that we get to choose when and how. Not everyone has that luxury.”

“You’re still gonna miss it though,” Lee pressed.

“…Yeah.”

“Well, hey…” Ackermann unslung the bag he’d been wearing over one shoulder and presented it. “I know you won’t be, like, formally retired for another month or so, but consider this a retirement gift from us to you. One crew to another.”

Xiù took it with a smile and received a bag that was much heavier than it looked. Inside was a cardboard box, and inside the box…

It was Misfit. Cast in what had to be steel from the weight and carefully painted, engraved, and recreated down to the last perfect detail, complete with the gold nanoparticle coating on the cockpit and observation window.

They cooed over and admired it for some minutes while Sullivan helped the science team navigate the endless perils of a shallow non-slip ramp and take their first awed steps on an exo-world.

“So what’s the plan after you’re happily retired?” he asked, returning to the group once the scientists were in their rhythm of unpacking.

“No rest for the wicked,” Allison said.

“Ambassador Rockefeller wants me to be his representative to the Ten’Gewek,” Julian revealed.

“I’m going to work with the Gaoians,” Xiù said firmly.

“And I’m staying in the Group,” Allison finished. “Clara wants me as technical crew consultant on the ship design team.”

Lee smirked and extended a palm sideways toward Sullivan, who grunted and slapped a couple of folded notes into his palm.

Sullivan’s curiosity couldn’t be contained. “How will you three make it work?”

“Jump portals,” Julian pointed out. “Cimbrean, Earth, Gao, Akyawentuo, they’re all linked and on a schedule now. And if the Group gets permission to build a station on Akyawentuo like they’ve been asking…”

“And eventually, some of the People will probably visit Cimbrean,” Allison added.

“We don’t know anything about that yet, though,” Xiù said.

“Yeah. There’s a lot to do.”

Lee chuckled “Can’t fault you folks on your work ethic,” he said.

“Even if we have been standin’ here shootin’ the breeze this whole time,” Sullivan pointed out.

His sweeping hand drew their attention to the five scientists whose presence was kind of the whole point of bringing EV-10 out there, and contrived to suggest that the conversation needed to come to an end.

There were selfies and autographs, quickly. A few shaken hands, a few kind words, and…that was it. Their last mission ended with kind of a fizzle…But Xiù was more than happy with fizzle. No excitement, no explosions, no killer alien robots or Hunters or interstellar wars. No choking on vacuum, no new scars, no more death.

It felt genuinely weird to think that they’d actually achieved something without it all going to Hell halfway. Ending a chapter of her life with a full stop rather than an exclamation was honestly a novelty and a luxury.

They stuck around for dinner though, or at least for sausages on skewers over the fire with campfire coffee and s’mores and a tiny toast to a successful mission, future endeavors and stuff like that. Not enough to even work up the smallest buzz…but enough to mark the occasion.

For Xiù, settling in her flight seat was a melancholy feeling. Everything about it felt special now, the precise contouring of it to make it fit her perfectly and to place all the controls in exactly the right place, the greeting card with its cartoon caricatures of herself, Allison and Julian that she’d stuck up on the wall to her right, the specific and familiar way that Misfit shook herself awake and made ready to fling herself out of the gravity well again.

To think…she might never sit here ever again. She wanted to tear up, to choke and hold on.

Instead, she selected their recall beacon codes, ran through the checklist… and left.

It was time for another adventure.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Professor Daniel Hurt

Writing was infinitely easier with a desk and keyboard. Sure, there were people in life who could scrawl out a book in a paper journal while sitting under a tree, but that just gave Daniel hand cramps. And tapping away at a touch-screen was no good at all, because whatever he was writing crammed itself into a tiny fraction of the screen and his fingers seemed to miss the letters.

A good keyboard—and Daniel had had one imported from Cimbrean for exactly this reason—was a joy. He could write for hours, given a supply line of coffee. Once upon a time, he’d have been supplied with cigarettes too, and even though he’d quit years ago he still felt the occasional twinge of craving.

He stood up and walked around to drive it off, reviewing his most recent paragraphs.

‘Inequality is mandatory. That is, it won’t go away no matter how hard we try to stamp it out, because somebody has to do the stamping, and that person will have authority that another will lack. It certainly exists in Ten’Gewek culture despite their total lack of ethnic diversity, class structure or wealth. Some men are “chosen by the gods” to be Given-Men and that’s the last word. It’s a biological function exclusive to middle-aged men, meaning there will never be a Given-Woman, or a young Given-Man.

‘A Given-Man is a genuinely alarming specimen. A full-sized man of the People is by himself a worthy challenge to a fully-grown silverback gorilla. A newly-transformed Given-Man is vastly more impressive and has many years ahead of him to gather strength. If that first-season specimen was to ever tangle with, say, a bear of the deep Alaskan frontier, my money would be on the Given-Man. They have a tremendous inequality of strength compared even to an exceptional Ten’Gewek man, and they are a people whose adolescents of either sex would certainly overwhelm adult male chimpanzees. And yet, the People aren’t generally unhappy with the inherent unfair lottery of this system.

‘Why?’

Daniel mused on that single syllable as he ambled over to the campfire. He cleared his head by setting the tablet aside and brewing up a fresh pot of coffee the old way, in a metal pot pushed into the warm ashes at the fire’s edge, and gazed meditatively into the glowing coals as it brewed. They almost had a heartbeat, he noticed. Their glow pulsed slightly as some internal quirk of air circulation drew first more then slightly less air into their midst.

He grabbed the tablet again and used the touch keyboard to sketch out the thrust of his argument.

‘Because happiness doesn’t come from wealth, but from purpose.’

He was interrupted away from writing any more by a message ping as their “mailbox” communications array took receipt of the hourly data swap from Cimbrean and passed on his emails. He opened his inbox and grinned, put the tablet in standby mode, and stood up.

His camp—and it had definitely become his camp, now that Misfit had flown off to Gods-knew-where and the JETS team were busy setting up their training facility—reminded him of playing Dungeons and Dragons in university. His friend Paul had described a crooked wizard’s tower perched high on a crag overlooking a dirt-poor pig-farming village, whose lone occupant was surrounded in arcane paraphernalia that the local peasants didn’t understand and whom the peasants treated with a curious blend of awe, fear, dismissal and confusion.

It wasn’t a tower, but Daniel’s camp certainly had that same otherworldly nature to it. Here he was, brewing a potion and weaving a spell of light. His beard had certainly grown over the last year, so really all he needed now was a pointy hat and a raven.

He chuckled to himself and strolled to the edge of the camp which was, yes, a little way from the Ten’Gewek village and high on a bare spot where the curve of the land kept the prevailing wind at bay and also gave him a breathtaking view every morning.

He’d honestly never been happier in his life.

He’d certainly never been fitter—living in supergravity had been aching, agonizing hell for several months, but he’d adapted, grown, firmed up under Playboy and Tiny’s cheery, painful coaching. He’d probably pay for it in later years but right now whenever he took a quick jaunt back through the Array to visit Earth or Cimbrean, he found himself walking down the street like there were springs in his toes.

Oh, sure, Civilization had its comforts. Hot water, lattes, jazz…But there was definitely something more fulfilling about those things when they were rare. And he’d been astonished during his last trip to Earth when a young woman had actually checked him out, a hitherto unheard-of event.

Good for the ego, good for the soul. All the more reason to keep coming back here to live in the dirt with a bunch of cave-monkeys who still hadn’t quite obsoleted their flint-knapping skills.

In fact…

He checked his boots for any pesky critters that might have decided to overnight in them, pulled them on and ambled down into the valley toward the forge with his hands wrapped around the steaming mug of campfire coffee to warm them against the morning chill.

Vemik’s forge was easily the biggest structure the Ten’Gewek had ever built, especially if one included the fenced compound out the back where the charcoal-burning and smelting happened. It was mostly just a roof of foliage thatch on a large scaffold to keep the rain out of the flames and off the tools, plus a windbreak, but it was warm, dry and rank with the smells of smoke, hot metal and sweat.

Vemik was there, of course, hammering away at a batch of wrought iron. The work had done much to fill him out, especially across the shoulders, though the constant smoke and heat had also colored his hide—apparently it made him look slightly older to the Ten’Gewek woman, in all the good ways. Outside of the occasional village party, though…he only had eyes for his Singer.

He looked up and gave Daniel a nod of welcome, before gesturing with his hand. His apprentice—a boy who hadn’t yet taken his Rite of Manhood—promptly flipped the sullen glowing lump of iron over on the anvil with a deft heave of two poles.

“Sky-Thinker,” Daniel greeted him, and took a close look at the iron. Ten’Gewek steelwork was getting more and more competent by the month, and this latest project had all the hallmarks of late-night ‘tinkering’ and mad inspiration.

If only the People would live closer to running water. They would have had water wheel-powered trip hammers by now. That seemed to go against their ethos in several ways, though—they preferred using their own strength where they could, and they hated bodies of water of any kind to the point where even small, shallow ponds drew their suspicion. They got their drinking water from Ketta trees, from tiny mountain streams, and from collecting rainwater as it poured off their thatched huts.

“Professor Daniel!” Vemik beamed toothily at him. He’d grown up considerably in the past year, including finally managing to lose his dogged w-lisp. His sideburns would have been longer too except that he’d managed to sizzle them short a few weeks previously, not that he seemed to care.

His English, meanwhile, was approaching full fluency. “Good morning. It’s good to see you!”

“Good morning,” Daniel replied. He knew Vemik had been up all night nursing the smelt and would probably crash hard once this project was finished. Then he’d sleep, eat a large meal, hunt a large meal during which some more inspiration would smite him and he’d come crashing back into the forge to make it live. “It’s a big day.”

“Is it?” Vemik’s tail twitched as he laid into the iron with his hammer again. “What day?”

“I just got a message from Allison, Julian and Xiù. They should be returning today.”

Vemik uttered a delighted hooting sound and gave the iron a gleeful blow. “Good news! Did they find anything good?”

“Oh yes. Very much so.”

He settled against a workbench—Vemik had invented the wedge technique for splitting wood into flat planks all by himself a few months ago—and watched the process of smithing.

“Found what?” Vemik asked, as his apprentice flipped the bloom again.

“A planet with no People, but lots of useful things. Not far from here, in interstellar terms.”

“Hmm. In-ter-stell-lar,” Vemik mulled the word over, then translated it into Peoplespeak with a compound word. [all-the-steps-between-stars]. Difficult word in any language.”

“Only for you, Sky-Thinker,” Daniel grinned at him. Vemik huffed the very specific almost-trill that said he was amused by the tease, but was certainly going to be re-exerting his physical superiority over the old man when his hands weren’t full. The People were like that, intrinsically kinetic.

Which…Daniel had found over the last year, to his surprise, that he didn’t really mind their very physical nature. It wasn’t like being trapped with a whole civilization of locker-room jocks at all, instead he’d learned how to enjoy pretty much constant bodily contact of some kind.

“What useful things?” Vemik asked.

“Metal ores, interesting plants and animals… something called oil. Lots of that.”

“Oil means…what does oil mean?”

“That is a word that means many things, Vemik. It can mean the liquid you get at the top when you boil werne bones. It can also mean something that’s black and sticky, like burned sap. What it means here is closer to that, but there are many, many things you can do with oil. Like, you can make the stuff that Julian’s foot is made from.”

“We have oil here?”

“You do. But it’s yours. My people want more, and we aren’t going to Take yours.”

Vemik have Daniel a complicated look. It was the look the People often used when they were utterly uncomprehending of why the humans were doing what they did, but were thankful anyway.

“You could,” he pointed out again. “We would, if a neighbor tribe had it.”

“And so would some humans. But we won’t. We have rules.”

“I know. We are…very lucky we met you. [Gods-many-blessed], I think.”

A new voice joined the conversation. “More than we know.”

The two men and the boy turned. The Singer and her apprentice Dancer were waiting at the forge’s threshold. It was very much a male space, and while the Singer was empowered to go wherever she wanted into the worlds of women and men alike, her Dancer hadn’t yet taken a Rite of Manhood. She wouldn’t enter the forge without invitation any more than a man would enter a birthing-hut.

Vemik waved them easily inside, slipped his tail around the Singer’s waist and tickled the baby she was carrying under its chin.

“More than you know?” Daniel asked.

“…Word come from Hoeff,” the Singer told him. “They found…he called it ‘Core-tie bunker.’ Also said ‘tell the fucking egghead to turn his radio on’.”

She trilled as Daniel scrambled for the radio in his pocket. Sure enough, it was turned off. He couldn’t remember when he’d done that.

“Uh…Chimp, this is, uh, ‘Nutty’. I guess. Uh…sorry. Got your message. Something about a Corti bunker?”

“Nutty, Chimp. Thank you for joining us on this outstanding morning. I can’t fucking stand how goddamned pleased I am today. Can you tell?”

Daniel grimaced even as every Ten’Gewek grin in the room got wider and more amused. The People got sarcasm, and Hoeff was…honestly? The ‘Hans’ and ‘Franz’ act that Walsh and Julian did could be intimidating, sure. But when Hoeff was angry, everyone was on-edge. Even Yan gave him deference. Something about the intense little man just screamed intent.

“…And yes, confirmed Corti research expedition. Old vault full’a tech, probably predating the Big Hotel presence. Tiny picked up a radio emission three hours ago. Weak as shit ‘cuz the power’s almost gone, but we tripped over it. Grab your tools and meet us up here.”

“Can I sleep first?” Vemik wanted to come. He desperately wanted to, but there was a certain tired slack to his muscles that spoke volumes.

“How long?”

“Maybe…four hours? That’s a finger of sun, I think?”

Daniel nodded and keyed his radio again. “Chimp, Sky-Thinker wants to come, but he’s been beating steel all night. He’s asking for four hours.”

“He can come later, this won’t be over quick. Find Yan and ask if he’ll carry your stuff. And your radio, too. He’s better with it.”

Hoeff was being extra salty today, and it couldn’t all be the radio. Normally, he’d have taken that with, yes, some salt but this was full-blown anger. That wasn’t a good sign.

At that moment Yan ambled over and crowded Vemik’s apprentice out of the small space. “I heard my name on [magic-voice-stone].”

“Radio,” corrected Vemik.

Yan gave him a tusky grin. Here in the forge was Vemik’s kingdom, and he tolerated a little more back-talk. [“I like our words better!”]

“I was showing Hoeff and the others where some of the medicine-herbs grow and we found…a thing. Like a stone hut underground, full of sky-devices,” the Singer told him.

“A vault full of tech,” Yan corrected. [“I know the words too. I just like ours better.”]

[“…They want] Professor Daniel.” the Singer finished.

Yan switched back to English for reasons only he understood. “That is good. How far away?”

“Flat-top mountain.”

Yan sighed. “So, half the day. Okay. You go get things, Professor. I help Vemik beat last of steel, so he can go sleep. Then he come meet us later, yes?”

Somehow, Daniel knew that Vemik wouldn’t be taking the full four hours he’d asked for. But the Sky-Thinker nodded and accepted the suggestion by gesturing for his apprentice to pull the bloom back out of the coals where it had been staying warm. With Yan’s help it went much quicker. He had his own hammer in the corner which Vemik could barely lift, let alone wield, and with it he was able to do in literally a minute what took Vemik about twenty, or his apprentice an hour. It wasn’t well-formed, but it didn’t need to be—they just needed the carbon beat out of it before it cooled and for that task, power was everything.

Daniel meanwhile ran back up to his camp. Ran! A year ago, he’d have been winded and gasping from just walking up the hill. Now, he whirled around the camp grabbing his field research kit, dry socks, some rations and his water filter bottle, then jogged back down to the village.

Yan had finished with the stack just as Daniel returned with his backpack of things and Yan’s biggest water-skin, which he’d filled up on the way back to the forge by tapping a Ketta tree.

It was the little things, really, and Yan grunted his thanks. “Ready?”

Dan shouldered his pack and made sure the straps were tightened properly so that its weight wasn’t hanging painfully on his shoulders. He stamped his boots to check they weren’t rubbing, then unrolled the hat he kept in one pocket and jammed it on his head. “Ready.”

Yan trilled in his contrabass voice, then patted his knives, and grabbed the little travel bag he carried with him everywhere. “You humans carry too many things I think. We go now.”

Without a further word, he swaggered out of the forge. Daniel sketched a little wave of parting to Vemik, the Singer, the Dancer and the apprentice and followed after him. Yan wasn’t difficult to follow—humans had longer, straighter legs and could outpace any Ten’Gewek on the ground no problem, even if they knuckle-walked.

It was still going to be a long walk, though.

In his head, he kept writing his book.

‘Happiness doesn’t come from wealth, but from purpose. Give somebody money, and what do they do with it? They want to spend it on something meaningful…’ he began.


Date Point 15y4m2w AV

HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Sergeant Ian Wilde

“Alright lads. Last one in buys the first round.”

Wilde had always had an ambitious streak, in a weird way. He wasn’t really interested in being rich or famous, but whatever he did he wanted to do at his absolute best. That was what had attracted him to serving in the first place: the Royal Marines had run a recruitment campaign challenging him to go beyond his own limits, and that had just… sung to him. Lured him in, and when those ads had turned out to be the honest truth, he’d stuck and stayed. Passing the notorious “Hell Week,” commando training, making the cut for spaceship service…

It all scratched the same itch, and JETS was just the next step up that endless hill. He wasn’t sure what was at the top or if he’d ever make it, but he was bloody well going to go as high as he could.

And any JETS team he led was bloody well going to be the best, too. There were four, and Wilde’s Team Two prided themselves on setting the standard for the other three to aim at. So the fact that Team Four had beaten their time in the tactical course obviously wasn’t going to stand.

The new time to beat was fifty-seven point oh-six seconds.

His teammates were all Americans, sadly. One SEAL in the form of Petty Officer Third Class Jason Hobbs, one Ranger as embodied by Sergeant Travis Wright, and their engineer, Specialist Nicolás Garcia. Good guys, a little short on appreciation for anything British, but brothers nonetheless.

They’d worked pretty hard on Garcia, on the grounds that he’d been the one holding them up a little in the last few runs. No blame attached, his training just hadn’t focused on that stuff before, but now there was team pride on the line.

“How’s that meant to be motivating anyhow?” Wright asked. “We all pay fer a round anyway, so what’s it matter who goes first?”

Wilde snorted. “Just get your arse on the line.”

Wright chuckled. “Assing the line, sergeant.”

They lined their toes up on the starting line, checked their MILES systems were online, then gave the nod to today’s supervisor.

Wilde liked Colour Sergeant Murray. Once you understood his ways, the guy was actually amazingly talkative: he just didn’t use words much. Right now he ran an eye over the four of them, nodded subtly, and started the course up.

“Time starts when you breach,” he told them, and stepped back to watch the show.

Wilde took a deep breath, rolled his neck to release a click in it, then dropped into business mode. “Alright… Go!”

Garcia had the most universal skeleton key in the world, a shotgun. The poor lock didn’t stand a chance, and the four holographic foes in the room beyond were serviced before they’d even finished turning round. Lines, motion, angles. Wilde knew his place in the pattern and slotted into it neatly, felt the flow click, felt his team move with the kind of precision they’d practiced for literal months to achieve. Whenever Wilde put himself where he needed to be, the others were there too, nobody late, nobody early, everybody fast.

Breach, in, movement, service, circle, service, clear, next…

Three rooms. Four rooms. Beep.

TIME!”

He let a breath out, and the four of them grinned at each other. They didn’t know if they’d beaten the course time yet, but they did know that they’d just set a personal best. They could feel it.

Murray for his part took his sweet time in sauntering over to give them the final score.

“No’ bad,” he commented, and the twinkle in his eyes said ‘bloody excellent in fact.’ “…by JETS standards.”

“Yeah, yeah. We ain’t interested in ‘yer big hero HEAT times,” Hobbs said. “How’d we do?”

Murray’s smile got a little wider. “…fifty-six point seven four.”

Garcia whooped. “Back on top!”

“Fuckin’ A!”

Wilde grinned. “Nice one.”

“You know Team Four’ll want another go, aye?” Murray pointed out.

“Bring it on,” Wright said. “Best team’ll…” he trailed off. “…Win. Heads up, captain’s comin’.”

The five of them turned. Captain Costello never managed to not look like he was on his way from something to something else with fifty plates spinning around him. His permanent expression was that of a perpetually busy man, but that probably came with the territory. There were other officers finally coming through the JETS and HEAT training pipelines so maybe he’d start getting a moment’s peace here and there in the near future, but for now he was about the busiest man on the base.

“Afternoon, sir,” Murray greeted him.

“New record?” Costello asked warmly. Wilde would say that for him, even under endless demands on his time, the captain was a nice chap.

“Aye.”

“Good! But I should note that we need to start preparing for your offworld survival training. I’m told Chief Petty Officer Hoeff along with a Mister Etsicitty will be here to explain the program next week.”

“That can’t come soon enough,” Wilde agreed.

“…Along with a special envoy, from what I’m told.” Costello grinned like he was enjoying the rare opportunity to be mysterious.

“…Sir?”

“All I will say, is that I doubt you will ever forget him. Anyway. You’re the only team cleared for operations on Class nine and below and we have a… situation. Might turn into a mission, might not. I wanted to give you a heads-up so you can be ready if it does.” Costello consulted some notes as a reminder. “…Hephaestus sent one of their ships to the Origin system, the Corti homeworld. Some big business deal they were hoping to negotiate with the Directorate, I gather. And instead the executive director they sent along to start the negotiations was abducted this morning, right off the ship. Either the Corti are being uncharacteristically stupid, or Big Hotel are up to something.”

“That…doesn’t sound very good, sir. You want we should rest up and recover?”

“Yeah. Get your gear, be ready to move on short notice.”

Wilde nodded his obedience but grumbled internally. “Right. Let’s go get cleaned up lads. Consider yourselves on-call starting now.” It would be good to be deployed and be useful. Every team needed that to really come together.

But he had really been looking forward to that beer, too.

Oh well. There was always later.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Planet Akyawentuo, The Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Professor Daniel Hurt

“My God, look at this! They had boats! And wheeled carts! And writing, mathematics…”

The Corti bunker was quite a small affair, in fact. How they’d built it unobserved and undetected, Daniel didn’t know but it consisted of little more than a pair of sturdy metal doors, and behind that a room full of computer equipment with a living annex fit for three pint-sized gray researchers. There was a basic quantum power stack buried in the floor, which Walsh had managed to successfully jump-start with his own portable solar power collector and an alarming moment involving sparks and smoke.

Nobody human had the first idea how quantum power stacks worked or what fuelled them, but they were pretty damn convenient. They produced power from…somewhere. Not a lot, but enough to run a facility for some time, and apparently they lasted well. That little stack had been doggedly keeping the bunker running on emergency minimum for decades.

Once things were fully up and running again, logging into the Corti computers had been easy. They weren’t even password-protected, and their memory banks were replete with a treasure trove the virtual equal of the one that made Howard Carter so famous. Hundreds of hours of high-definition 3D video, millions of still images, tens of thousands of scanned samples, untold libraries of sound recordings…

The ceremonial armor was particularly impressive. One of the high-definition images Daniel had successfully recovered showed off an impressive cohort of Given-Men, each clad neck to knees in riveted steel and leather and armed with long-handled straight swords that looked like they could just about bisect a bear.

And they in turn answered to a king. A real king, wearing bronze and gold and dispatching wisdom from a throne of wood and copper, with his long crimson crest intricately braided and woven with decorative jeweled fabric.

There were Singers and Dancers, a whole parade of them raising their voices as one to greet the morning sun and weaving a tapestry of sound the likes of which Daniel hadn’t ever heard in church. Not worse or better, but very different.

There was a market draped with dyed cloths and the photography was so excellent that Daniel could almost smell the spices. There was a gymnasium of sorts, full of grappling fun. There was a school, with eager, bald young Ten’Gewek children listening rapt as a teacher read them stories and young adults with extremely Vemik-like expressions debating furiously over some philosophical, mechanical or mathematical point of interest.

There was civilization. And from the map data, it was unquestionably the same one that had vanished in nuclear fire when the Hierarchy came. It was like watching real video footage from Pompeii.

Yan was very, very quiet. The kind of quiet he only managed when he was truly angry.

“This…we did this?” He asked eventually, as Daniel was reviewing the Corti zoologist’s notes on Ten’Gewek mathematics. Their approach had revolved around geometry, and they had devised a remarkably elegant proof of Pythagoras’ Theorem considering their working medium had been damp sand. “They…The Big Enemy Took this from us?”

“Yes,” Daniel said softly.

“When?”

Daniel checked the Corti dates, and compared them to a mental conversion table. “About…Let’s see, two hundred and twelve Origin years, seventy Earth years for every hundred Origin years…sixteen Earth years for every ten Akyawentuo years…Fuck, is that divide or multiply by one point six, or…?”

Walsh cleared his throat. “A hunnerd an’ twenty-one local years, Professor.”

‘Tiny’ had a truly unsettling propensity for understated genius. And Yan these days had a better understanding of base-ten numbers; he could write them out, too, which he did in mid-air with his finger and his lips moving.

“That is…old,” he declared after thinking about it. “But not gods old.”

“Yeah, well. Best guess on the population…” Walsh waved a hand at another screen. The Corti, inconveniently, used a base-twelve number system, “They figger between the inland sea civilization here, the river valley civilization up north, the forest tribes an’ the mountain Clans there were about two, two-an’-a-half million.”

Yan scratched at his crest. “Two…million,” He said, carefully. Reasonably fluent in English or not, lateral consonants were still tricky for him. “How many…circles? Circle-things. How many in number?” Daniel made note of that question; Yan didn’t just understand the numbers, he understood the theory of the numbering system, and had asked for an order of magnitude to compare. The Ten’Gewek really did have an exceptionally rational way of thinking, sometimes.

“…Six.”

They watched as Yan traced out such a number in the air with his finger, then…

“So many.” There was a long, awkward pause. “We are… four circles left. Yes? For every [one-person] now, we were a whole tribe then?”

“…Yes. Just under twenty thousand today, as best as we can figure.”

“…three circles. [Anger-killed].”

“Murdered. There was no anger, this wasn’t…” Daniel gritted his teeth. He was getting angry too, deep in his anthropologist’s soul. “…They weren’t angry at you. They just saw you as a…pest.”

“Pest,” Yan repeated hollowly. Daniel found he couldn’t muster the courage to look at the Given-Man’s expression.

After a silent moment, Yan stood up and headed for the exit. Hoeff and Tiny got the hell out of his way as he grabbed one of the massive vault doors, rusted by time, foliage and weather into a pretty solid unit, and wrenched it aside, slamming it back into its slot with an agonized squeal of elderly metal and the crunch of decrepit hydraulics finally giving up their ghost.

The sunlight cast his shadow on the wall, and he was gone.

Daniel dared to breath again. “…Gods and spirits.”

“Even they’re prolly stayin’ outta Yan’s way right now,” Hoeff remarked. “Tiny, go keep an eye on him. Let him get it outta his system.”

“Go be his wrasslin’ dummy. Got it, Chief.” Walsh sighed, resigned to his fate, and followed the distant sound of Yan taking out his anger on anything in the vicinity.

Hoeff slumped down in a Corti-sized chair next to Daniel, and managed to make it look almost normal-sized. He wasn’t a large man at all. “About where were they at, in our terms?”

“…Ancient Greece?” Daniel hazarded. “Their mathematics was certainly there. But there’s a lot the Corti didn’t record.”

“Like what?”

“Size of the slave population, if there was one. How the king became the king, what role other Given-Men filled in their society…I see fruits and roots being sold in this marketplace image, but there’s no data on their agriculture.”

“Maybe they didn’t raise crops?” Hoeff suggested. “They seem pretty meat-oriented. Hell, they’ve even managed to get me to gain ten pounds.”

“Maybe. But what I take from it is that these researchers weren’t here for very long. Their data covers only a few weeks of observations.”

“Didn’t take Hotel long to notice, huh?” Hoeff sat back in the chair and swung his boots up onto an unimportant surface. He fished a foil pack of blueberries from a pocket and tore it open. How he could be so small and so ravenous was a constant source of amazement.

“I suspect we’ll never know exactly what happened,” Daniel said. “The last entry in the log is routine, cataloguing samples. Maybe there’s something hidden in the facility’s security systems but I wouldn’t know how to begin accessing those…Goddammit.”

“What?”

“Just…look at this. Authentic pre-Contact Ten’Gewek alphabet. A fully encoded translation matrix for both written and verbal media.” Daniel waved a hand at an image he’d found. “They wove their family histories into blankets. Weaving! The People we know wear hide, and not much of it either. Weaving means they were either cultivating a plant like linen or cotton, or they were rearing woolly livestock.”

Hoeff bounced up and ambled over to the screen, intuited its controls and started flicking through photos. “Hey prof, you notice anything ‘bout these folks?”

“I noticed a lot of things. What did you notice?”

Hoeff looked like his fun had been spoiled, but he pressed forward. “They’re small. All of ‘em, ‘cept the Given-Men. And even they’re—”

“Yes. Next to the Given-Men that we know, they’re an unimpressive bunch… Hmm.” Daniel stood up and paced as he thought. Julian had said something about a conversation he had with Yan once. Something about Den Given-Man’s tribe, and how they had had once traded with People near the river delta, deep in the time of so many grandfathers.

He found a crowd shot and scrutinized it. The People on his screen were undeniably more…gracile. Their legs were straighter, their tails shorter and slimmer. A few obviously grown men were walking around with crests that were pale to the point of being straw blond. The faces were different, too. Narrower. Smaller teeth, bigger eyes. The fingers were slimmer with less pronounced clawlike fingernails, better suited for delicate work. Interestingly, the skulls seemed proportionately smaller too.

“…Hell. Julian’s hypothesis was right.”

Hoeff looked up from studying an interesting example of a native sword. “Hey?”

“Julian once suggested to me that maybe our People are the Ten’Gewek equivalent of Neanderthals. They’re…very close to what we think we knew about them. Physically robust, rational, intensely tribal and individualistic. He’d noticed their relative cranial capacity was a little greater than the skulls we found, too.”

Hoeff swiped on to another image. At a glance it looked like some kind of animal sacrifice ceremony. “So what does this mean for our guys?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. Arguably, it means that this isn’t their heritage. But at the same time it is.” Daniel sighed and shut off the screen he’d been flipping through. “Reviewing all this would take a team of post-grads a whole semester, and they could all write their doctorates on the implications.”

“Well, we’ve got you and however long it takes for Yan to cool off,” Hoeff told him. “In the meantime, since Playboy is off at his mansion or whatever the fuck, that leaves you the head of our little mission, here. So says the Ambassador, anyway.”

“They’re coming back today.”

“That’s nice. Here and now, this is your job.” Hoeff stood up. “I’ma go check on ‘em. You… think.”

Daniel sighed. Hoeff was possibly the most unsubtle little hairy troglodyte he’d ever known, for all his oddball charm. He was right, though. There was no time for nuanced academia here, now was a time to parse the new information into something the People could pick up and build on.

So. Write a book. Daniel sprang to his feet and retrieved his pack, opened his word processor and started sketching out thoughts.

Of course, there was still the echo of the book he was already writing bouncing around in there, so the first theme that sprang to mind was purpose. What purpose could he extract from his data which might contribute to Ten’Gewek well-being?

And, going forward, what insights could he extract which might be relevant to the human condition?

He pondered the questions for a moment, and then began to write.


Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Vedregnenug

The surprise, from Vedreg’s perspective, was that he largely felt… He felt well.

Not happy. Happy was an active emotion that nobody could possibly sustain indefinitely. And certainly he had felt deeply unhappy at times over the last few years. The slaughter of his own homeworld, the genocide of the Gao, not knowing if or when the two remaining Guvnuragnaguvendrugun planets would be targeted…

And yet all of the emotions such events whipped up in him were ocean froth above deep, tranquil, warm waters. Deep in his belly, Vedreg was at peace in a way that his careers as a lawyer, a politician and later a refugee simply had never achieved.

The simplicity of his role had that effect. He was paid to think, deep and methodically and thoroughly. While the Humans bubbled away like a chemical factory on the brink of disaster and churned out clouds of ideas and rivers of insight, all of it came to Vedreg who spent his waking hours—and his waking hours were much longer than a Human’s—taking them apart and mercilessly exposing every flaw he could find.

It was a wonderful balm, knowing that Humans weren’t perfect. They were merely very, very good, and his mind was the crucible in which their flawed products were purified.

Lewis was his favorite. Lewis came up with new ideas like a growing Guvnurag shed fur, and there was usually some sense to them.

A lot of the time though, it was buried beneath a thick crust of what could only be described as Lewis.

“But why make it now?” Vedreg asked him.

SAM answered on its creator’s behalf. “No Time Like The Present!”

Lewis just shrugged. “I dunno, dude. It’s just a science fiction thing, you know? Fuckin’… Robby the Robot and Cortana and C-3PO. Lotta stories out there with talking technology in ‘em. Just seems…wrong to send somethin’ like the Coltainers out there an’ they’re just dumb machines. Faceless, y’know? These things’re gonna be findin’ an’ preppin’ planets for hundreds of years, it just don’t seem right for them to be…things.”

He trailed off. Vedreg’s usual cool stare had got him to ramble as it always did but sometimes, when he knew he was being more sentimental than logical, Lewis would talk himself out of an idea without Vedreg’s input.

“…Or because I could,” he suggested lamely.

“That seems uncharacteristic of you, Lewis,” Vedreg pointed out. “Normally you throw away nearly as many ideas as you produce.”

“Yeah, because I can see the obvious flaws. And I can see the obvious flaws in somethin’ like SAM…” Lewis cleared his throat. “I just… I got this nagging feeling like it’s important, dude.”

“By how long would it set back the Coltainer deployment?” Vedreg asked.

“…Depends.”

Vedreg’s chromatophores developed a faint impatient scarlet tinge. “On…?”

“We got three days until Zero One rolls outta the nanofac. Right now, SAM is just a really efficient stimulus-response engine. In theory, we can teach him an’ teach him an’ teach him until he’d pass the Turing test. Uh, that’s—”

“I know the Turing test.” Interruption didn’t come naturally to Vedreg, but it was the only effective way to break through Lewis’ relentless speech patterns, so he’d developed it as a skill. “How much could you populate in three days?”

“…Eh. It’d barely make a difference.”

“And what concrete, predictable benefit might be gained from delaying the release until you have a more completely populated SAM?”

Lewis sighed and developed the hunched, sulky posture he always did when one of his toy ideas was being torn apart. “…That’s just it, dude. The best I got for ya is a gut check. It don’t feel right. Like… I dunno. I keep imagining someday we might need’ta actually ask a Coltainer to stop all nice-like, y’know? Like, maybe just popping the self-destruct wouldn’t be the right thing and we’d wanna talk it down…I’m bein’ a fuckin’ mad scientist aren’t I?”

“A little.” Amused violet shone on Vedreg’s face and flanks. He’d watched a few B-movies with his old friend by now and at least felt equipped to understand Igor jokes nowadays. Lewis had something that no cackling castle-dwelling villainous doctor ever enjoyed though: A functioning sense of when he was being hopelessly irrational.

“Can’t help it. This is like… my life’s work is about to go flyin’ off the assembly line, dude. Literal change-the-fate-of-the-galaxy-forever kinda shit. An’ I just keep comin’ back to a question Kirk asked.”

“What question?”

“…What next?” Lewis gave Vedreg a slightly desperate look and shrugged. “Like…the whole point’a the Coltainer was to get our eggs way the hell outta one basket ‘cuz I figured Earth was fucked sooner or later. Only I was wrong there, they actually managed to hold the fuckin’ line. And now expansion isn’t a survival strategy, it’s a winnin’ strategy. And now the project’s done and about to fly an’ it’s like… ‘Hold the fuck up, dude. Your flight just landed but you don’t have cash for a cab.’ What am I gonna do next?”

“Why Not Take Up Yoga?” SAM asked.

“…Thanks, SAM.”

Vedreg rumbled thoughtfully to himself and examined Lewis’ disjointed, incomplete and half-hearted documentation on the SAM project again.

“…What could SAM do?” He asked. “In the long term?”

Lewis’ hands never sat still if he could help it, and right now they fluttered wildly around as he answered. “What couldn’t he do? Font of knowledge, companionship, seamless organic/synthetic interfacing? I dunno. That’s kinda the point, dude. I don’t know what he could do, so I wanna find out!”

Inwardly, it sounded to Vedreg like Lewis was completely at a loose end and looking for anything to occupy his attention. Outwardly, he selected a more diplomatic phrasing.

“You have worked on the Coltainers for years,” he pointed out. “And if you will take relationship advice from a friend…”

“Right. Lucy…” Lewis went red in the face and cleared his throat. “Should… probably involve her, huh? Or do something for her or…”

“Maybe she would be a good project for you?” Vedreg suggested. “You have worked hard for your whole species. I suggest now is the time to think smaller…and perhaps seek inspiration in the more personal things.”

Lewis gave SAM’s slowly tumbling icosahedral interface a long stare, then nodded. “SAM. Save state and close application.”

“Time For Nap-Nap. Good Night, Lewis.”

The room seemed…emptier without it. Strange, that. But for the moment, Lewis seemed a little less troubled.

“Right…” he said. “…Actually, I’m just gonna go home and spend time with her.”

“Do so, my friend,” Vedreg intoned. “I will…think. Perhaps I can come up with a more permanent answer for you.”

Lewis gave him a huge hug, then left. Alone in the mad scientist’s sanctum, Vedreg waved his facial tentacles thoughtfully and a bolt of green shot down his body in the Guvnurag answer to a sniff.

He needed something better than SAM for Lewis to work on. The world did. And frankly, he had no idea where to start. But there was one person aboard the station who did.

It was time for another conversation with Vakno.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Technical Sergeant Timothy (Tiny) Walsh

Yan was a muscle-thinker, not a head-thinker, which made him Tiny’s kinda person… even if it meant enduring being tied up in pretzels by way of stress relief.

It took the big guy about twenty minutes to get all his mixed emotions over the bunker out of his system, which mostly meant short bouts of exquisitely painful wrestling interrupted by charging off, throwing rocks, uprooting trees, and generally wreaking havoc in the immediate vicinity. Then he’d charge back, tackle… He managed not to break Walsh. Just.

He did, however, effectively transform Tiny into a giant bruise, as he got increasingly carried away. Walsh was already getting worried, but the real moment when things went too far was genuinely fucking terrifying.

Yan seemed to forget who he was and where they were for just a second: He reared back, bared his fangs with an enraged howl, and sank them right into Walsh’s shoulder.

Yan’s fangs were huge, easily big enough to tear the throat out of a Werne, and they sank deep. If Walsh had panicked and jerked, they might well have torn his shoulder to ribbons. He didn’t, though. Whatever presence of mind he had that froze him up kept those four deep puncture wounds from transforming into a terrible injury. Nonetheless that was, at last, the step too far that finally made Walsh cry out in agony.

His yell snapped Yan back to the present. He let go, seemingly stunned by himself, detangled, stood and backed off. Walsh was in so much pain there were tears in his eyes.

Yan…freaked out. [“Godshit! I’m sorry fuck are you okay!? Did I—”]

“N…nngh. No. I’m okay…get my first aid pack.”

[“Okay okay where—here!”] Yan looked about wildly, spotted it, bounced over to where Walsh’s IFAK had fallen off his belt, picked it up and scrambled back. He fumbled around trying to open it but Walsh wasn’t in any mood to be patient.

“Just…gimme.” Walsh opened the kit with his working arm, grabbed the small bag of irrigating saline, attached the syringe and washed out the wounds. Then a generous glob of Betadine, and finally he attended to the bandage. One advantage of living in a jungle with gorilla-folk was that going shirtless was the rule of the day, because the Ten’Gewek found the military uniforms silly and it was too damn hot and humid for them in the first place. At the moment that meant there wasn’t any cloth to get trapped in the wound, so…that was nice.

Didn’t stop Walsh from cussing inventively under his breath as he sterilized the deep punctures though. Thank fuck his shoulders were so meaty, a smaller man mighta had something important punctured.

The next step was the Crue-D patch. He waited a minute for the throbbing to die down, realized it wasn’t going to. He pulled the patch’s foil packet apart, wormed his way out of his pants, and slapped the max-dose patch right on his inner thigh. It tingled, then burned, then felt like it was on fire before it disappeared under his skin and started doing its space magic.

Okay. Fixed. He could feel everything warming up and loosing up; brief, localized fever was a sign of Crude at work. Next he checked on Yan, who was currently pacing back and forth with a look of utter shame and worry on his face.

Good. Maybe time to set some boundaries. [“What did I do to deserve that, Yan Given-Man?”]

[“My friend, my friend…”] Yan did something Walsh never thought he’d witness and made himself as small and apologetic as he could. He was alarmingly close to grovelling, in fact. [“You did nothing! The fault was mine and I am ashamed.”]

He wasn’t actually grovelling, Walsh noticed; this was still Yan after all. But by Yan standards an apology didn’t get more abject.

“Lost control, huh?”

Yan gave him a penitent look. “It is still Lodge season…and I am old.” He gestured to the glossy black tips of his crest. “Every year the gods make me stronger, the Fire gets hotter…” he said in English before returning to his native tongue. [“But that is no excuse.”]

Walsh nodded along. He’d pretty much got his head around Ten’gewet’kaitä—‘The Words Of The People’—from daily use over the last year, enough that code-switching between it and English was honestly pretty easy by now. [“I know, big guy. But Yan, you could squash almost any human like a little black buzzer, including me. That is a dangerous thing and it’s only going to get worse the longer you live, isn’t it?”]

Yan didn’t answer at first. Instead he pulled his tail around his body and ran his thumb through the rich crimson-and-black tuft where his crest ended, then cleared his throat. Playing with their tail like that was a deeply insecure gesture among the People—Walsh had never seen Yan do it.

[“…The Fire makes Given-Men what they are. It is a gift from the gods to protect the People and lead the tribes. But every Giving has a Taking. It will make me head-broken in the end,”] He revealed. [“I have at least a few seasons yet, I hope. But someday, my crest will only be black and I will forget names, will forget memories, forget…everything. When that starts, I will go on my Last Hunt and the gods will take me home. Better to die with my dignity, not drooling into my soup.”]

The lingering pain in Walsh’s shoulder was forgotten. “Fuck, man…I don’t know what to say.”

Hoeff’s voice interrupted them. “I do.”

Yan turned and gave the much smaller man a quizzical look. Hoeff had emerged from the bunker and his eyes flicked between Yan and the bandage on Walsh’ shoulder in a calculating way.

“…Lost my gramps that way,” he explained. “Nasty sickness called Alzheimer’s. By the end of it, he didn’t even know who my gramma was.”

“You…[your Sky-Tribe has this, too?]”

“Not the same. But somethin’ like it. Anyway. Took me a few years to figger out what I wish I’d told the old man, before his marbles went. ‘Cuz he hurt people pretty bad as his mind was goin’, Made my gramma cry pretty much erryday… Weren’t his fault.”

Yan didn’t look like he bought it, entirely. He gave Walsh a guilty look. [“…I should still cling tighter to my branch,”] he said, using a Ten’Gewek aphorism about restraint and control. [“There should be pain for pain. For the balance.”]

“…So one free hit, huh?” Walsh felt a grin building, “You sure? I’m a hell of a boxer.”

“I’ll take it. Last time I saw a man take pain for pain, he got hit in sack.”

Walsh managed to chuckle. “Face it is, then. I ain’t gonna kick a bro in the nuts. Good thing you didn’t bite my dominant arm…”

Yan nodded and stood up straight. The Ten’Gewek were way physical sometimes, and Walsh knew them well enough to know that half-assing his repayment would just be taken as an insult.

So, before he could change his mind, he bounced up, shook out his left arm, and decked the Given-Man right across the jaw. Yan staggered, turned and slumped into the dirt. He was maybe even out cold there for a second—he was certainly still enough for a few seconds before he got a hand underneath him and picked himself up shakily.

“…Good… Good hit,” he managed. “…Ver’ good hit. Ow.”

Walsh also probably earned some hairline fractures in his fist, but whatever. Crude. And being honest, scoring a one-hit TKO on a bro like Yan was fuckin’ good for the ego. He couldn’t help but tease, just a little. “Maybe don’t bite me again and I’ll teach you how to do that…”

Yan was still massaging his jaw, but he huffed in both amusement and warning. [“Don’t push your luck.”]

Hoeff snorted. “Shit, Tiny. An’ I thought the time you killed the doom-noodle with a rock was fuckin’ hardcore.”

“I don’t train to be useless, you know that.” Walsh sighed, ready to move on. “We good, Yan?”

Yan sat down on his tail, blinking as he recovered. “I am if you am. Are.”

Walsh sighed again, wrapped an arm almost halfway around Yan’s shoulders, and chuckled quietly. “We’re good. Maybe time to head back in there?”

“Give the Professor a few minutes,” Hoeff decided. “Man’s havin’ to write up a whole comparative whateverology paper on short notice. And Yan, I don’t think we saw even a finger of what’s in there. There’s a lot to think about.”

Walsh nodded. “…Yeah. There’s writing. Math, the basic technologies. I won’t lie bro, what we found in there is at least a few thousand years ahead of where you guys were when the love boat found you.”

Hoeff sat down and broke out his Dip. “You make ‘em sound like some hippy road trip.”

“Have you met Julian? He’s the most straight-laced hippy there is, man.”

“Have you met Allison?” Hoeff retorted. “Girl’s pricklier’n a saguaro.”

“Nah, she’s a fuckin’ kitten behind those claws. Reminds me of my cousin Anita.”

[“Different breaths come together,”] Yan intoned wisely.

“Dude, if they come together I’m gonna need to study at Julian’s feet.”

Yan gave him a blank look. [“…What?”]

Walsh was saved from having to explain the joke by Professor Hurt, who emerged from the bunker holding a tablet and wearing an expression of concentration.

“…Nutty? ‘Sup?”

Hurt emerged back into the here-and now. “…They were… definitely a different species,” he said. “I just found a genome comparison.”

“Genome means what?” Yan asked.

[“It’s… if I told you there are words that are a part of you and that make you you then that’s the very, very simple version,”] Daniel explained. In third place after Xiù and Julian he was one of the most fluent humans alive in the Ten’gewek language, and seemed to prefer using it when speaking to the People, especially Yan.

The explanation seemed to suffice for Yan, who nodded. [“The people we saw in that room…didn’t have the same words.”] Hurt continued. [“They were more like the People than any sky-tribe could ever be, but they were still very different.”]

Yan nodded. [“I knew as soon as I saw them. Scrawny pale-crests. But they were…what? Cousins to us?”]

Daniel nodded. [“That is a good way to say it. We had cousins too, even one tribe that was something like you. They were strong and hardy, we were clever with tools…but that’s a long story for later.”]

[“So the Enemy didn’t Take our makings, they Took our family.”] Yan sighed. [“…That is worse, I think. A making can be made again…But when a tribe dies…”]

He stood up and considered the bunker. “These…Core-Tie. Are Takers?” he asked in English.

Daniel nodded. “They carry people far away and learn about them so that they can come back with the fruits of their learning. And they Take more than they Give back. Whether that’s just who they are or because the Enemy made them that way… I don’t know.”

“They’re the reason Julian spent six years trapped on Nightmare, Yan.” Walsh decided to connect the dots. “They’re why he’s so…sad, when Allison and Xiù aren’t around.”

Yan snarled. “I do not like these Core-Tie,” he declared. “But. They have maybe Given us a good thing, without meaning to.”

“An accident I doubt they will ever repeat.”

“Mhmm.” Hoeff spit a massive load of noxious tobacco juice into a nearby bush and pressed Daniel on the point. “Right. So. What do we do? No offense, big guy,” He nodded solemnly at Yan, “But even if this stuff rightly belongs to you, letting Vemik in there to tear it apart might be ‘bout the stupidest thing I could imagine doing ‘cept maybe hittin’ on Singer.”

Yan just grunted a grunt that said ‘you’re completely right but I don’t want to say it out loud.’

Daniel cleared his throat, checked his notes and then put the tablet away in his inside jacket pocket. “Well… we did say we were going to found an Academy…” he began.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Allied Extrasolar Command, Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Canada

General Gregory Kolbeinn

Kolbeinn had entered the tiny, square office of the Supreme Allied Extrasolar Commander with big ambitions to streamline…well, everything. The whole interstellar defense effort was a series of square pegs that had been brutally hammered into an assortment of hastily-drilled round holes and on the rare occasion it actually aligned with established procedure, law, treaties or doctrine it did so more by chance than by design.

Over the last year, he’d rapidly learned just how much of a genius plate-spinner Tremblay had been to keep the whole thing functioning at all. Hell, some features of the whole shebang actually relied on people doing what would, in any other situation, be exactly the wrong thing. It was, in short, an unhealthy heterodox mess that worked mostly due to the pure willpower and hard work of a legion of unsung passionate heroes.

Hammering it into a shape that resembled the existing Allied military structure was going to be his life’s work. And he wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if Tremblay and Knight—both now retired—hadn’t been eager to offer their services as consultants.

How Knight found the time around caring for his injured daughter, Kolbeinn couldn’t fathom. Commander Ellen McDaniel had suffered permanent impairment from her brain injury: There was nothing wrong with her personality or intelligence, but the battle of Gao had robbed her of her short-term memory and her mobility, leaving her wheelchair-bound with only one good arm—her non-dominant one—a blinded eye and chronic pain that not even Cruezzir could fix. Not a happy burden to saddle on an old man.

Maybe that was why the old Brit seemed to enjoy returning to AEC every so often to provide assistance and advice. It was a break of sorts, and maybe a chance to lash back at the things who’d hurt his daughter. All women, even middle-aged naval officers, would forever be little girls in their fathers’ eyes.

Tremblay, meanwhile, was probably just lonely and bored. He’d retired to Folctha amid lavish thanks from a multitude of Ministers, a plethora of Presidents and one Great Father, but all it took was an email and he would hop straight back through the Jump Array on the next scheduled transfer. His presence on the planet had been well-calculated: thanks to his display of confidence in its long-term security, the little wobble in colonist sign-ups had stabilized nicely.

Colonization. It was going to be the foundation for everything, now that WERBS had been fired. WERBS had needed firing, nobody disputed that, but the established wisdom among the intelligence services was that now it had been seen, it would sooner or later be duplicated. And if it was duplicated, then it might be improved upon. WERBS as it was now couldn’t penetrate a system defence field—there still needed to be an unimpeded line-of-sight between the beacon and Volume Zero, without an intervening excess of matter or electromagnetic distortion—but the Hierarchy especially were known to have single-end wormhole technology that was at least good enough to land a starship in the correct galaxy.

Humanity needed to spread out, and quickly. The Chinese were already establishing foothold settlements on Lucent—or Fāguāng de as they were calling it—Cimbrean’s land masses and natural resources had been parcelled out among the Anglophonic nations as fairly as possible with jump array stations built at the future settlement sites of Franklin, New Botany, Nouveau Acadia and Abeltown.

The Russians weren’t happy at all. A long-standing negotiation between them and the Celzi Alliance to take ownership of a couple of unused deathworlds in the Ilrayen Band had fallen through completely, and dumped them at the back of the queue for new worlds—no way were the Allies letting them get their hands on the newly-scouted Planet Ayma—but after the shit they’d pulled in the early days with the spetsnaz teams, not to mention Kolbeinn’s own memories of the “dispute” over Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, frankly the Russians could go to Hell.

Though, they had voted with the ayes on the UN resolution that the attack on Gao constituted an act of genocide and on invoking the 2005 Responsibility to Protect. As ornery and contrary as Moscow usually was, in their own way they were playing ball. They knew just as well as anybody that the midst of a literal interstellar war wasn’t a good time to fuck around.

Then of course there was the question over whether the EU would accept a colony world between them or if separate ones would be needed for the French, Germans, Dutch and so on… In short, interstellar colonization was a mess, and destined to get messier, as the briefing he was reading proved.

“…God Almighty, 946th Operations Support again? Seems like every time I pull on that thread the whole of Spaceborne Operations unravels.”

Tremblay smiled sympathetically. “Sorry about that. If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure negotiating an international service treaty that achieves what the 946th allows to happen organically would take twenty years.”

Kolbeinn sighed. “Every day dashes my hopes of ever gettin’ this sorted out.”

“Yyyup.” Tremblay’s sympathetic smile got a little warmer and he sat back in his seat. “Why d’you think I’m so comfortable on this side of the desk? At the end of the day it’s your problem now. I’m sleeping much better nowadays.”

Kolbeinn snorted. “Gee, thanks.”

“Ah, don’t be hard on yourself,” Tremblay relented. “Considering you stepped into the job while we were still dealing with the aftershock of the Israeli declaration and you managed to work them in just fine, I’d say you’re on top of things. Just don’t let your subordinates hear you stressing about it. I was a little too relatable sometimes.”

“I’ll bear that in mind. I—Yes?”

One of Kolbeinn’s aides had knocked and entered, and she stepped smartly to his desk to deposit a folder. “Urgent matter, sir.”

“I’ll go grab a coffee and a panini at Jenkins’ Bar,” Tremblay said, standing to leave. The bar had kept its name despite its owner entering MBG’s employ years before, and by all accounts did the best coffee in Scotch Creek. “Or should I head home?”

Kolbeinn skimmed the report summary and grimaced. “…Might wanna head home,” he suggested.

Tremblay’s expression said he understood perfectly. “Good luck,” he said and was gone.

Kolbeinn waited for the door to close before grumbling. “I told Hephaestus they were asking for trouble sending one of their directors out there. The ship’s green?”

“Scanned and swept by a Royal Navy crew.”

Kolbeinn nodded, finished reading the report and then sat back to think about it. “…Put JETS Team Two on alert and get us a beacon near Origin to jump them out there on short notice. And tell our intelligence assets on Origin to watch out for any humans showing up outta nowhere. I’ll hold a full meeting about this in three hours in which we’ll discuss whatever potentially damaging intelligence Director Park is likely to have.”

“Yessir.”

“And in the meantime, get me somebody from Hephaestus on the line.”

“Yessir.”

With no other orders forthcoming, Kolbeinn’s aide departed again, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

He genuinely had warned Hephaestus, but the Consortium were determined to carve out a market niche very different from that occupied by Moses Byron Group. Both corporations viewed the chaos of interstellar politics right now as a forest of opportunities just waiting for some intrepid pioneers to go plunging into the bush, and both were fighting to open the gap between them and their Indian, Chinese and Russian competitors as wide as they possibly could.

And of course they were just the first. SpaceX were recovering quite nicely from the punch in the bank account they’d suffered when all the tech they’d invested so much in developing was rendered obsolete overnight by the Dominion’s complimentary New Contact technology package, and were beginning to take that tech in new directions, without the fatal corner-cutting that Moses Byron’s lawyers were still defending in court.

Other companies were already getting fat on the Cimbrean investments and preparing themselves for a second wave of colonial expansion, and some little Canadian technology firm called TTTA Prototyping was raking in the cash by solving problems the big players didn’t even know they had yet.

It was a Brave New World. And of course, bravery was only done in the face of danger. Hephaestus, it seemed, had been too brave this time. Privately, Kolbeinn was quite certain that there was no point in doing more than writing Director Park off for dead or ‘droned… But there was always politics. Hope too, but mostly politics. And it’d be a good exercise for JETS Team Two at least.

He returned his attention to the organizational tangle he remained determined to comb into something more sensible.

Maybe, just maybe, they’d luck out.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Vedregnenug

Vedreg didn’t like Vakno at all.

The problem wasn’t that she was noticeably more acerbic than most Corti, who in turn were practically the galactic champions of chilly brusqueness. Nor was it her total absence of empathy, which was by and large not her fault. After all she was one of the Silver Banner caste, a genetic exemplar of the Corti’s millennia-long eugenics program. Her social instincts had been tuned by centuries of selective breeding for manipulation rather than commiseration, with the result that she could be really quite charming when she thought it was in her best interests.

Relentlessly antisocial and yet socially adept. A paradox like that would have plucked at any Guvnurag’s instincts and scraped them raw.

What bothered Vedreg is that he had no idea what she wanted from life. So long as she was juggling secrets and privileged information, Vakno seemed content: She had achieved her ambitions and seemed to have no new ones. There were a few slights left to avenge, a few wrongs to correct… but those were just business. Aspirations, it seemed, were for lesser beings.

Her greeting was, as always, totally terse. “Vedregnenug.”

“Vakno.”

She laid down her tablet and turned her wide black eyes to give him her full attention for just a second before she picked up a different tablet. Corti could multitask effortlessly, but it still felt rude.

“Something is bothering you.”

It wasn’t a question. Vakno’s office was small, spartan and full of nothing but her own design of communications equipment, most of which was devoted to trawling the assorted species’ dataspheres and the intervening dataspace for anything remotely interesting. How one head could contain it all, even one as disproportionately bulbous as Vakno’s, was a mystery.

“I am concerned for Lewis Beverote,” Vedreg explained. “Now that the Coltainers are being built to fly, it seems his driving concern has abandoned him. He is at what the Humans call a loose end.”

Vakno swiped down whatever text she was absorbing. “And?”

Vedreg suppressed his unimpressed swell of ochre pigmentation. “I would have thought you would be keen to see an asset like him used effectively.”

He awarded himself some small satisfaction as she paused, set the tablet down and gave the matter her full attention for a few thoughtful moments.

“…Astute.” She sat back in her chair and fidgeted the bulbous tips of her fingers thoughtfully along the edge of her desk as she thought. “Don’t the Humans have their own ideas?”

Vedreg affected a shrug. “I’m sure they will. I would like to have some non-Human input into that conversation.”

“Ah?” A slim tightening of Vakno’s lipless slit of a mouth was about as close as a high-Caste Corti ever got to smiling. She waved her hands through an interface only she could see then pushed a tablet across the desk to Vedreg. “In that case… there is a mystery I believe Mister Beverote should be encouraged to take an interest in. And I am sure the Humans will agree that it is a matter of strategic importance…”

Vedreg picked the tablet up and squinted at it. Curious cyan speckled his flanks, along with the usual sickly tinge of green nauseation that any mention of one particular species always brought out in him “…Hunter space?”

“Quite. An imprecisely mapped volume, as I’m sure you know. Without a distinct and hard border, just a fuzzy zone that only the suicidally intrepid dare to brave. And the Dominion’s best efforts have really only mapped its flank facing the Kwmbwrw Great Houses.” Vakno inclined her head slightly. “In other words, we know almost nothing about where our other enemy lives, in what fashion, how much territory they control, what resources they really possess…”

“They must be spectacular if they can assemble a million warships in only a few years,” Vedreg pointed out.

“All the more reason to map them, no?” Vakno almost-smiled again. “If we intend to set our friendly Deathworlders against them then we should at least know where to aim them.”

“I don’t know if even the Humans can realistically expect to fight the Hunters…” Vedreg cautioned.

“Not directly,” Vakno agreed. “But Vedreg, you old plodder, that fight was never going to be about brawn versus brawn. It was always going to involve guile.”

“…And for guile to apply, we must have knowledge,” Vedreg finished. “…Thank you, Vakno. I will drop this problem in Lewis’ lap. I think with a little persuading, he may well find a new obsession in it.”

“Good. I hate not knowing things.” Vakno picked up a third tablet and resumed reading.

“After all,” she added, “There could be anything in there…”


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Hell.

Rachel Wheeler

“Morning Ray. Quiet watch?”

Rachael—‘Ray’ to her colleagues—accepted her morning cup of Hot with, if not pleasure, then at least the appreciation that only somebody who had gone without food for a whole fortnight could really feel. Experiencing that kind of raw, aching hunger had really taught her to value getting something inside her, even… Hot.

It was only called Hot, on the grounds that exactly what it was that was hot changed on a daily basis depending on what they had available, and frankly if she thought about some of the things it had contained in the past she’d just get depressed. They’d run out of Earthly things like coffee, tea, beans and lentils a long, long time ago.

“We’re still here,” she said. Those words had become her mantra over the years, her signature phrase at once both bleak and darkly optimistic. On the one hand they were still stuck on a diseased pile in the Devil’s own asshole…but on the other hand they were still alive. At least while they still had beating hearts and working limbs there was the hope—slim, but non-zero—of perhaps someday working an escape.

“Hunt came down last night. Took out the Domain herd over near three peaks,” she reported properly, and took a sip. This morning’s Hot was, unfortunately, actually quite tasty. That usually meant she really didn’t want to know what—or, on the worst days, who—was in it.

Naming the world they were stuck on ‘Hell’ had been a kind of dark joke at first. A way of confronting the relentless awfulness they saw there on a daily basis. Over the years, though…Rachel was beginning to think that maybe the actual biblical hell couldn’t be even half as bad. At least Satan’s kingdom probably wouldn’t lie to folks with pretty sunrises, birdsong and the scent of wildflowers on the dawn breeze. At least it wouldn’t have painted on a thin varnish of pleasantries over all the misery.

At least Hades, however awful it might be, probably wasn’t a Hunter livestock world.

God fucking damn the Byron Group. It wasn’t fair to blame them, Rachel knew. It had been their fault, the crew of EV-03 Dauntless, they’d been the ones who chose to head out this way. Nobody at the Group had known that their planned exploration vector plunged them right into the heart of Hunter territory…But still: God damn them.

Maybe that was why they’d survived. What little they’d been able to glean—carefully but still at enormous risk—suggested that the Hunters expected ships approaching their space to advance cautiously and quietly while being ready to rabbit at a moment’s notice if things went wrong. The Hunters had become so specialized at snaring such careful interlopers that a prototype human exploration ship blundering right through the sensor cordon and plunging into their heartlands had been completely missed…until the crew had realized just how incredibly unlucky they’d got and promptly fled for the meagre safety of the first temperate world they could find.

That had been…years ago. More years than Rachel wanted to even consider, and frankly she’d lost track anyway. By an assortment of miracles, heroic effort and equal parts cowardice and daring they had somehow made a kind of hidden home for themselves on Hell’s surface, and somehow nobody had died. Yet.

Berry grunted and took a look through Ray’s telescope at where the Domain herd had been, even though the Hunters and the prey were both long gone in the night. The poor fuckers were—had been—however-many-great-grandchildren of whichever hapless slaves had first been brought here, and they had totally regressed to being little more than a smarter-than-average animal. The same went for the other herds, tribes, clans, bands and gangs roaming the land and grazing, some of which were from species Ray had never heard of before.

Being sapient didn’t mean shit if the last guy who knew how to read and write was eaten five hundred years ago. There were all kinds of technically intelligent technically people out there, but the only kind of civilization and the only persons on Hell were squatting in Dauntless’s camouflaged hull, brewing up Hot from whatever ingredients became available and keeping their heads down. A lot of effort had gone into ensuring that however the Hunters looked down on this world they’d never find the prized morsel of Human meat figuratively lost in the back of the fridge.

And Ray was sick of it. Sick past the point of caring. Sick of barely clinging on, sick of watching butchery on a weekly basis while they hid safe in their bunker, sick of not knowing and not wanting to know where her calories had come from. She had no idea how Cook—and boy what an appropriate surname he had—was still sane. There was definitely meat in her Hot today, heavily disguised but present… and they’d got their meat from some terrible places over the years. Even if the meat in today’s Hot was something innocent like a couple of birds, all Hot was forever tainted by the knowledge of its past ingredients.

“That’s c-c…” Berry’s nervous stammer had been almost completely compensated for when he joined the crew riding high on confidence. Nowadays, on bad days, it silenced him. “Cccclose,” he managed at last.

“Yeah.”

“That’s g-good, right? It means they d-ddidn’t nn-notice us? If they wuh, wuh… were that close and d-didn’t see us, that means wwwwe’re still hidden… uh… r-right?”

Ray shrugged. It was either that or the Hunters had elected to tribute their prize discovery to a more important Hunter or something and any second now an assault ship full of the biggest and meanest that Hunterdom had to offer would land on their heads. But Berry was a wreck held together by neuroses and fear anyway: There was no point in telling him that his hope could be disastrously misplaced.

She settled for saying “We’re still here,” again and stood up. She handed Berry the binoculars and the rifle (diligently maintained but never fired), patted him on the shoulder and retreated back into the canyons to finish her Hot in peace.

For the thousandth time she contemplated how things might be if she was in charge and not Damian goddamn Spears, and for the thousandth time she reluctantly concluded that they’d probably all be dead.

She didn’t disrespect Spears at all—His instincts on where to land and hide Dauntless had literally saved their lives. Somehow, while fleeing headlong from an unseen, unknown and possibly imagined pursuit he had kept his wits about him enough to find a dense canyon system full of hot springs and volcanic formations, as though the best bits of Colorado had collided with Yellowstone.

Sure, the canyons stank of sulphur and they kept a number of chirrupy little local “birds” around to serve as their mine canaries in case the volcanic vents ever spat out something more noxious than bad egg smell…but the geological heat and the confused mineral medley those vents had vomited up over the aeons hopefully disguised the ship’s presence. With dirty tarpaulins stretched over the ship, about the only way the Hunters would ever find Dauntless and her crew was if they blundered down the right fork in the right canyon…and there was a lot of landscape out there.

He’d proved he was in charge for a reason, that day. And the fact was, she mostly liked that he was in charge. He bore the relentless pressure of command in their hopeless situation with a grace that Ray knew she’d never have emulated. There was a profound difference of opinion between them on the matter of their escape, and it was difficult not to feel a little resentment…but it was impossible to hate him. As much as she disagreed with his cautious approach to their escape, she trusted him with her life. All their lives.

Back among the nest of rocks, makeshift shelters and survival equipment among the canyons that the crew called home, he shot her a genuine smile, which was a rare and precious thing in Ray’s life right now. “Morning. How’re we doing?”

She gave him her best tired attempt at smiling back, which was little more than a grim tightening of the lips. “We’re still here.”

As it always did, that dragged a little amused grunt out of him and a lift of his expression. Every morning the same ritual but he still seemed to find it just as funny as the first time.

“Hunters took out that Domain herd we saw over near Three Peaks,” she told him. “Let the young escape, as always. Couple of adults maybe got away too.”

Spears cleared his throat and shuffled around so he wasn’t facing the Hot Pot. “…Yeah. At least one.”

Ray carefully filed his implication away in the mental folder marked ‘shit I’ll need counselling for FOREVER after we’re done here’ and finished her Hot. She’d become pretty good at that, over the years: If she died on Hell, she sure as shit wasn’t going to do it by starving to death.

It kicked the conversation in the crotch and knocked the wind out though. Neither of them had any idea what to say…which was pretty standard. What was there to say that they hadn’t said a thousand times already? Nothing constructive.

But today in fact held a surprise in the form of Holly Chase, their tiny, squeaky-voiced, timid little field mouse of a geologist. Chase liked interesting rock formations and whatever fossilized critters might be lurking within them, and had the fighting instincts of a baby rabbit.

Today, she sat down next to Ray while staring morosely into her Hot. That was always a bad idea.

“…You’d better eat that,” Ray prompted. Chase didn’t respond. “…Holly. You should eat.”

Chase snapped out of her reverie long enough to meet Ray’s eye. There was a faintly manic gleam in her expression that Ray hadn’t seen before. “…I want to be a vegan.”

“…Beg pardon?”

“Vegan. I want to be a vegan. I want to go back to Earth and be a vegan for the rest of my life.”

If Spears had a flaw, it was not having a soft touch in emotional moments like this. He cleared his throat awkwardly, gave Ray a look that begged her to handle this, and found something else to occupy his attention. Ray carefully took Chase’s Hot out of her hands, put it down on their boulder “table”, then folded the smaller woman up in a hug.

For a few minutes, the only sounds in the canyon were the hiss and belch of the boiling spring that warmed the Hot Pot, and sobs echoing among the rocks in diligently awkward silence as the other four gave Chase what paltry privacy they could.

It took a while and the tears had soaked right through Ray’s much-patched sleeve by the time Chase finished letting it all out, but when she finally let go and ran her sleeve messily across her nose it looked like a Rubicon had been crossed in her head.

“…I want to go home,” she said plaintively.

“Me too,” Ray told her. She caught Spears’ eye. He held eye contact, to his credit, and came to sit at Holly’s other side.

“Me three,” he said. Somehow, that oldest and most cliched joke broke through Holly’s pain and dragged a laugh out of her. She drew her own fraying sleeve across her nose with a pathetic wet sniffle.

“…You have a plan? You two and Cook? You’ve been saying for years we should try to get out of here, but do you actually have a plan?”

“Oh, Holly…” Before Ray could figure out what to say, Spears interjected.

“We’ve talked about it. Ray’s plan is… plausible,” he said. “But I don’t want us to take our best shot and then go down fighting. I intend to get us all outta here, guaranteed.”

“…When, Spears?” Ray asked him. “‘Cuz I know I’ve said this before but if we sit around waiting for the perfect moment then I think we’ll be here a long, long time.”

She saw the gears in his head turn the question over, analyze its implications, play out a hundred future conversations and accept what she already knew: that after what had to be the best part of a decade in Hell they were all approaching their breaking point. He’d held them together this long… how long could he keep holding them?

Not long, in Ray’s opinion.

Eventually he finished his own Hot with a determined swig, grimaced as he gulped it down, then nodded. “…Okay,” he said. “We start tonight.”


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV

Holding cell

Adele Park

Adele was a problem-solver. Mostly, she solved interpersonal issues, scheduling conflicts, questions of team direction…all the things that a Managing Director did, she did well.

Figuring out how to escape a presumably alien prison while armed with nothing but her clothing and jewelry was not on her resume, but she was giving it her best effort on the grounds that it was something to occupy her mind.

Unfortunately, whoever had designed this particular prison had obviously heard the same things Adele had about previous human abductees being able to overcome their cell through such design flaws as forcefield emitters mounted inside the cell. Honestly, it was a miracle anybody had ever not escaped.

Her cell had no such fripperies: It consisted of concrete, and a hefty steel door with an eight-point locking system involving steel pins as thick as Adele’s wrist. In short, it had been designed around the principle that anybody inside it should not have any reasonable hope of removing themselves, not even with explosives. A middle-aged Korean-American armed with a handful of bobby pins, an executive translator earpiece and her mother’s bracelet didn’t stand a chance.

Rather than waste her time, therefore, she sat and thought. Worked on her novel in her head. Gnawed on a minor political argument she’d been having with her cousin over social media. Remembered a cocktail bar she’d meant to visit next time she dropped in on her college friend Cordelia.

Grew steadily and slowly bored out of her mind.

The final arrival of some kind of stimulation therefore was both terrifying and welcome. She heard doors opening in the distance past her own door, and the tap-tap-tap of a firm stride. She was already on her feet by the time the door was unlocked and opened.

A…body stepped through. In silhouette it would have passed for a tall, well-proportioned human man, but in the light the figure seemed to consist in its entirety of prosthetics. Prosthetic arms, prosthetic legs, and synthetic muscles wrapped around manufactured bones. It looked grotesquely naked and skinless, despite its unnatural clean pearlescent white hue. In fact, she could plainly make out the emblem of the Corti firm Thryd-Geftry dotting the figure’s…parts…like sponsor’s logos on a Formula 1 driver.

Except for the eyes. The eyes were disgustingly realistic, and twinkled with dark mirth as they focused on her.

The sight was enough to frighten the bejesus out of anybody, but she wouldn’t have been Adele Park if she’d let her discomfort show. Even though her feet stepped back and took the rest of her with them, she still managed to summon the bravado she’d thought up hours ago.

“…Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

The apparition’s laugh was as uncanny as the rest of it: Full of human mirth but with a hollow grating quality, doubtless invoked by its synthetic throat.

“Miss Park, when I found myself in a situation very similar to your own some years ago, I fell back on bluff and defiance as well. It didn’t work,” it said, and sure enough there was an unnatural quality to the voice that said it definitely wasn’t being produced by fleshly lungs and vocal cords. Other than that, it was…cultured, but lacking any specific accent. About the best Adele could say for it was that it belonged to a highly educated native English speaker from the northern hemisphere. Presumably its neutrality was carefully calculated. “But rest assured, I don’t intend to detain you for long. Indeed the only reason you were waiting as long as you did is…well, bodies like this take time to manufacture.”

It spread its arms. “My name is Cynosure, but I used to be known as…Six.”

“…I’ve heard of you. The Hierarchy agent. Captured, escaped and founded the Cabal,” Adele resisted the urge to sit down on her small, narrow bed. Now was not a time for submissive body language.

“Well summarized!” Cynosure applauded her, with what sound like genuine warmth. “ I was quite amazed when President Sartori declassified as much as he did. Our assessment of him was woefully inaccurate.”

“And you’ve…abducted me,” Adele surmised. Her words were calm, but an insistent voice in the back of her head was insisting that she was about to die or worse and offering nothing in the way of advice about how she might avoid that fate.

“Yes. I would have preferred to catch up with an old friend by the name of Ava Ríos—”

“The reporter?”

“Yes indeed. But unfortunately her business has not so far taken her outside of the rather robust defences around humanity’s datanets. You are the first civilian of any real note—and it would have been quite impossible to abduct a non-civilian for this—to venture outside humanity’s aegis since the battle for Gao.”

“And…‘this’ is…?” Adele asked, warily.

“There have been upheavals. Gao was an awakening, of sorts. It led to sweeping changes of policy though I naturally don’t expect you to believe me.”

“Genocide no longer the game plan?” Adele asked, acidly.

“The game plan was always survival, Miss Park. My species has a right to exist—”

“So did all the ones you wiped out.”

The intricate synthetic musculature that served as Cynosure’s mouth formed what might have been a grimace or might have been a slight, condescending smile. It was difficult to tell.

“You preempted me,” he objected. “I was not making a philosophical statement. I was, in fact, quoting last year’s resolution by the nation of Israel. What do they call it, a Basic Law? The exact wording was ‘all sentient people’ I believe. A definition which includes my own race.”

Pure outraged anger made Adele take two steps forward and get right up in Cynosure’s face. The synthetic body was eighteen inches taller than her and well built, but she couldn’t possibly find room to care about that past the rage that was making her whole body shake.

“You want to invoke those protections?!” she demanded. “Your species are the worst mass genocide merchants in…in the galaxy! Maybe the whole universe! What…what makes you think that…?” her words finally failed her. The last few had been an emotional croak rather than the tirade she really wanted to unleash.

“What I think is irrelevant,” Cynosure replied calmly . “The facts, Miss Park, are all that matter. And the facts are simple: The Igraen people are being slaughtered by the million. By any coherent definition, we are now the victims of a genocide ourselves and the…entity…responsible for our predicament is, or was, Human…and it is being assisted in its efforts by a pogrom against cybernetics that your people instigated.”

He ignored Adele’s indignant attempt to interrupt and talked right over her, though his voice remained level, calm and reasonable. “Your own diplomatic zeitgeist meanwhile is now firmly summarized by the words ‘Never Again.’ You are, I’m afraid, bound by your own rules to help us…either that, or your precious UN resolutions, NATO treaties and the Basic Laws of the nation of Israel don’t count for anything.”

He stepped back and now the expression on his unnatural face was definitely a smug smile. He gave her a shallow bow, little more than a tight tipping-forward at the waist and neck. “Thank you for your time. You will now be returned to Origin. You should find it simple enough to send a message to your employers from there.”

He vanished. So did the cell. One moment, Adele was surrounded by bare concrete and unyielding steel, and the next she was standing disoriented and bewildered atop a low rise amidst scrubby yellow grassland dotted with blue flowers and stickly bulbous cactoid plants.

Civilization wasn’t difficult to spot. There was a thick river of traffic maybe a quarter of a mile away, directly in front of her and there, beside it, was what looked for all the world like a truck stop. Far in the distance beyond, she could just about see the sharp spikes of titanic buildings and the glint of sunlight on glass. The Corti cities on Origin, she remembered, were supposed to have some of the largest and tallest buildings in the known galaxy.

Odd furry things like skinny rabbits with long whippy tails bowled away from her as she strode out and blithely ignored the way the grass bruised and broke as she barged through it. At least she’d been wearing flat, comfortable shoes.

She got about fifty paces before nearly jumping out of her skin at the sound of Six’s voice just behind her. “One last thing, Miss Park?”

“Jeez!” Adele flinched and spun. The synthetic man was standing a few yards away with his hands resting lightly on his hips as though he’d tucked his thumbs into the belt he wasn’t wearing. “…What?!”

Six smiled. “Please give my regards to Miss Ríos and the SOR.”

He vanished again. This time, whether out of adrenaline, because she’d been expecting it or a simple mistake on Six’s part, Adele just about managed to gather the impression of a blur of impossible speed and the sense that something enormous had been hanging above her head for a trimmed fraction of a second. Then it was gone, and some faint sixth or seventh sense told her she was finally and truly alone.

Cursing and grumbling, she turned around again and resumed her walk.

It had been a long day, and it was going to be much longer still.



End Chapter 41



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This chapter was brought to you with the help of:


The SOR Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve, BitterBusiness, Sally and Stephen Johnson. Ellen Houston


Twenty-seven Humans

Alexander Golemis TTTA SirNeonPancake Aaron Mescher Andrew Huang Anthony Landry Arsene Brandon Capitalskr Chris Dye Daniel Morris ELLIOTT S RIDDLE Greg Tebbutt Karthik Mohanarangan Kolbeinn T. Mudkip201 Nicolas Gruenbeck Remi Harbo Savvz Shane Wegner Theningaraf Tsanth Volka Creed Zachary Galicki


Forty-eight Deathworlders: Galrock0 Austin Deschner Ben Thrussell Brian Berland Adam Beeman Adam Shields Andrew Ford Aryeh Winter Bartosz Borkowski Ben Moskovitz C’tri Goudie Chris Bausch Chris Candreva Coret Trobane damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight Devin Rousso Doules1071HFY Eric Johansson HWPD Ignate Flare Jerdnas Jim Hamrick Jon Krit Barb Laga Mahesa lovot Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. Myke Harryson Nicholas Enyeart Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Parker Brown Patrick Huizinga Peter Bellaby Peter Poole Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Sintanan Stephane Girardin Sun Rendered theWorst Woodsie13

As well as 59 Friendly ETs and 270 Dizi Rats. Squish.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 42: Big Questions

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