Chapter 42: "Big Questions"

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Date Point: 15y4m2w AV
Hierarchy/Cabal Co-Operative, Session 17

++0005++: Do you seriously expect this to work?

++Cynosure++: If you’re asking whether I think the argument will sway the Human leadership, then no. That wasn’t the point. But I do expect it to complicate matters for them.

++0003++: Because they are rule-bound?

++Proximal++: Because Humans are intensely moralistic creatures and, importantly, do not base their moral judgements on rational consideration. Rather, they perform post-hoc rationalization to support their snap decisions.

++Cynosure++: It is a quirk of deathworld evolution. Much of a Human’s decision-making process is unconscious and instant.

++Proximal++: It should be noted this is a thing the Humans themselves have only recently begun to understand.

++0005++: I see. So the objective here is to crumble the foundation of popular support beneath the leadership by inspiring a dissident faction.

++Cynosure++: It is a stalling tactic. By itself it will achieve nothing.

++0003++: And the longer-term goal?

++Cynosure++: That, 0003, is the problem. So far we have depended on sticking to known strategies and have failed to adapt when our intended outcomes do not arise. The objective here is not to harm the Humans, it is to educate ourselves—we must practice agility.

++0008++: We create chaos, and adapt to exploit it.

++Cynosure++: Exactly.

++0005++: But without a plan—

++Cynosure++: Plans got us into this mess. We stuck to them and they failed, and we stuck to them and they failed. Time and again. We became inflexible and thus doomed ourselves to failure.

++Proximal++: “The pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless: if it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it nor the wise make plans against it.”

++0012++: Successful humans in leadership often do not work towards a goal. They have underlings for that. Instead, the most effective human leaders focus on changing the environment and systems so they benefit the desired end state.

++Proximal++: <Pleased> It is good to see that senior Hierarchy agents studied the enemy’s psychology as well.

++0008++: We are on the defensive and losing ground. The time will come when we must go on the offensive again, and without a clear strategy our counterattack will be unguided and useless. Surely you are not proposing we proceed with no plan at all?

++Cynosure++: I am proposing that we are in no position to make a plan at the moment. We do not know enough about the Humans, and we have nothing to offer them which might tempt them to permit our existence. We must change the system to favor us.

++Proximal++: More importantly, we do not know enough about ourselves or what we are really capable of. We have spent millions of years adhering to an inflexible doctrine and we do not know what we can achieve when we break its confines. That must change.

++0012++: So we experiment. Introduce stimuli and watch the response.

++Cynosure++: <Amused> Poke the hornet’s nest.

++Proximal++: <In-joke> Didn’t that go badly for you last time?

++Cynosure++: To the contrary.

++0003++: Very well. Rather than worry about our long-term strategy, then… let us discuss our next move.

++Cynosure++: …Outstanding.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV
Highway 12 rest station Westbound-3, Planet Origin, the Corti Directorate

Slomn

Being a yellow-banner meant exclusion from the breeding castes. Insufficient genetic and behavioural compliance. In other words, Slomn was too emotional and she had been unceremoniously kicked out of the gene pool before she was even properly old enough to understand why.

Not that breeding was a pleasure for Corti anyway: They’d stopped doing it the biological way a hundred generations ago as their ever-increasingly large brains made birth at first difficult, then dangerous, then eventually impossible save through surgical intervention. Ultimately, the whole pregnancy business had been done away with entirely, replaced by artificial gestation in womb tanks.

So it wasn’t like Slomn had been looking forward to breeding, but it still seemed unfair somehow to know that an unbroken lineage had broken with her and there was no way in which she was actually responsible. She hadn’t done anything, she’d just been the victim of an unfavorable random combination that permanently affected not only her reproductive status but also her career prospects.

The dizzying, wealthy heights of academia, business or the glittering dream of the Directorate itself were all so far away that they may as well have been the edifices of another species.

She’d built up her banner as well as she could in the circumstances. Years of diligent work in the service sector, ensuring that the endless rivers of logistics traffic flowing along the eastbound carriageways from City 7 to City 8 were properly supplied. Her rest station recharged the drone vehicles and provided basic ablution and nourishment facilities for their operators. She maintained the equipment, ensured that the vending machines were stocked, kept the plumbing watertight and programmed the cleaning drones.

She was proud of her work. By yellow-banner standards, her personal banner was practically dripping with prestige. It was barely as long as her arm, but that was still an incredible accomplishment for one of her Caste.

She wasn’t equipped to handle a human.

She especially wasn’t equipped to handle an angry human female who was leaning against the wall and inhaling eye-stinging smoke from a slim white stick of some kind while muttering viciously in a language Slomn didn’t understand. She didn’t know what it meant that the hand holding that stick was shaking except that after finishing each one the human would glare at it, drop the stub on the ground, grind it under her strange sharp-heeled shoes and then immediately light another with further dark, untranslatable invectives. A cleaning drone warbled mournfully at her as it tried to clear up the ground around her only for the human to kick it again. Gently, so as to shoo it away, but still a kick.

Slomn quietly took out her control tablet and ordered it to go sanitize the toilets instead. She herself was lurking beside the vending machines and watching, fascinated beyond belief. She’d never dreamed of meeting any alien, let alone one of the infamous deathworlders. At least the human’s expression softened slightly whenever she glanced in Slomn’s direction.

The legs, she decided, were the fascinating part. The human’s legs were sheathed in some kind of a sheer skin-tight fabric, beneath which Slomn could plainly see the deceptively delicate curve of a muscle that ran from heel to knee.

That single muscle was almost as thick as Slomn’s waist.

The human finally abandoned her insane relaxation activity, but only because the pack of smoking-sticks was empty. She glanced in Slomn’s direction again and an unreadable variant of a smile flickered onto her face.

“Tuumuj tuuas kif yugatahnee sigah rets, huh?” she asked. Slomn blinked at her and she chuckled. “Thotso.”

She inserted a fingernail into her ear for the fifth or sixth time and extracted a little black bud that she kept in there. She tapped it experimentally, shook it, pressed at something on the side, knocked it against the wall and then put it back in her ear. “Haobao nao? Zitwur kin? …No?” She sighed when Slomn blinked at her again. “…Peess ahkrap.”

Clearly her translator was broken. Slomn had checked but the cheapest translator app she could find for her own personal devices still cost a whole day’s wages, and human languages were an expansion pack. She hated a mystery, but she hated spending money she didn’t have even more. So, she and the human were locked in mutual incomprehension.

Fortunately, some gestures were easy to decipher. The human raised a hand to her mouth and mimed tipping a container full of liquid. Slomn fetched her a jug full of water and continued to watch fascinated as it was drunk. Even the human’s throat was muscular, and it undulated powerfully as she drained the jug—enough water to see Slomn through the whole week!—in a long series of gulps.

The jug was returned with a single terse syllable—“Thanx”—and silence fell again. Slomn decided that was probably for the best on the grounds that she had no idea what kind of conversation she could begin having with this mysterious deathworld visitor who’d come stumbling out of the grasslands hours ago, even if they could communicate.

She’d called the security forces, and been dismissed as a hoax until she aimed a camera at the human, who’d spoken urgently to it for a couple of minutes before Slomn was ordered to keep her visitor comfortable and wait for assistance.

That had been half the afternoon ago. The only change she could detect was that the vehicle convoys weren’t stopping any longer. Presumably some traffic routing system had kicked in to divert them away from her rest station until the deathworlder was gone.

But when and in what form the assistance would arrive hadn’t been divulged. The command was simple: Wait. And Slomn was good at waiting.

But right now, she wished she wasn’t.


Date Point: 15y4m2w AV
Weaver-class dropship, approach sequence, Planet Origin, the Corti Directorate

Skesat

Skesat had never endured a rougher flight in all his life. Either the humans were hopelessly further behind in their development of inertial management technology than he’d thought or, and this was both the worse and more plausible option, they felt that an entry sequence without the occasional thump, jolt and rattle was somehow incomplete.

He couldn’t fault their precision and discipline, though. The report of a missing human appearing at a rest station in the middle of nowhere had finally filtered up high enough to reach somebody with the authority and means to contact the humans, and the polite reply had boiled down to Acknowledged with thanks. Recovery team is en route.

Said team had arrived practically on the message’s heels, and it had fallen to Skesat as a ranking executive officer of the border guard and customs division to liaise with them…And to ride down in the dropship with them, apparently. He was wearing a security harness but next to the sturdy armored gear the humans were layered in he felt entirely unprotected.

They’d insisted. The humans hadn’t protested the presence of a Corti official’s oversight at all, to the contrary they’d demanded it.

For their part, the team of four men now dropping into Origin’s atmosphere around Skesat seemed politely intrigued at the sight of the Corti homeworld and its yellow flora.

“So how many people live on Origin?” the team leader asked. Skesat wasn’t sure if the name he’d given was a pseudonym or not: He’d introduced himself as “Wild” and the literal translation was giving Skesat some pause for thought. The puzzling part was that one of Wilde’s colleagues—Wright—also had a literal translation, but then there were Hobbs and García who didn’t. Or at least, none that was known to the translator. Were they from different subcultures, perhaps?

All four were intense sorts. Quiet, focused and poised, even though they were plainly feeling relaxed and confident.

“Ten billion,” Skesat revealed.

“Really? That’s not many more than Earth…” García commented. He stooped to look out of one of the tiny round windows again.

“The Department of Population Control established ten billion as an optimal per-planet population several centuries ago,” Skesat told him. “Sufficient to drive a booming economy without the burden of interstellar dependency for resource production.”

“The Gaoians had twenty billion,” Wright observed. Skesat simply gave him a blank look.

“The Gaoians are not the Corti,” he said.

“…Right.”

That seemed to end the conversation until they were through the entry sequence and skimming low over the grasslands east of City 7. The planetary security forces had established a safe landing site at the next rest station up from the target, and had provided vehicles as the humans had requested. In deference to the disparity in physical size between species, the vehicles in question were cargo vans.

The Weaver set down on an open vehicle park with characteristic solidity and there was a fierce but short-lived rush of air as its hatch opened and the pressure equalized. The humans all grimaced and Wright touched the side of his head with a pained expression.

“Fuck!”

Wilde performed a strange maneuver where he pinched his nose and appeared to try blowing through it. Whatever this achieved, he shook his head viciously and gave a relieved gasp afterwards. “Fuck me, it’s worse than bloody Peru.”

García yawned expansively then cleared his throat. “Peru?”

“Yeah. La Rinconada. Highest city on Earth. Sixteen thousand feet up.”

“When were you in Peru?”

“Operation Kamber. Disaster relief after the Christmas Eve earthquake.” Wilde rummaged on his belt and produced what looked like swallowable medication, a series of rhomboid blue pills. “Better pop a V, lads.”

Hobbs muttered something that Skesat didn’t catch as they were handed out. “How come we still use this shit?” he asked, more audibly. “Ain’t there anything better?”

García dry-swallowed his pill with a grimace. “Just don’t make it awkward, man.”

“Dude, it’s already fuckin’ awkward.”

“Dare I ask?” Skesat asked as he alighted from his seat.

“Altitude medication,” Wright explained. “For the thin air. It has… other uses. You probably don’t wanna know.”

The ramp finished lowering and the four deathworlders descended it in a few springing steps, like the gravity didn’t touch them at all.

“I shall take you at your word,” Skesat replied, following them. Wilde already had a map out and was studying it.

“Right. Target is fifteen klicks that-a-way,” he said. “Wright, García, you take that van. I’ll ride with Hobbs. Skesat, I take it you’re driving?”

“I’ll program the vehicles,” Skesat confirmed. If he read them correctly then the humans would have preferred manual controls, but they were making do with what had been available in the region on short notice.

He acknowledged his support team with a nod to their drones. The team wasn’t physically on location of course. They were remote pilots, operating their drones from the safety of a distant precinct. In fact there was no good reason to believe any two of them were even in the same building. “This is your backup.”

Wilde eyed the hovering devices uncertainly. “Drones?”

“Why so skeptical?” Skesat asked. “These drones are tireless, more durable than a Corti and equipped with advanced sensors. They’re piloted by a veteran security specialist and equipped for heavy suppression. You will value their presence more than you would the presence of a squad of my kind.”

There was a kind of unspoken conversation among the humans which ended in shrugging and they loaded up without comment. “We’d better get moving,” Wilde said.

Skesat’s authority emptied the road, putting the freight traffic between two major cities completely on hold while their vehicles and the drone escort pulled out onto the highway and opened up to their top speed. He sat in the front, glad to have some physical space between him and the humans, who were periodically making uncomfortable faces and adjusting their clothes.

Fortunately, it wasn’t far and the vans were high-performance models intended for rapid courier work. Skesat was satisfied to note that when they slammed down the off-ramp for the rest station at highway speed, the humans actually looked faintly intimidated. They certainly held on tight, as if they didn’t entirely trust Corti technology to work as well as intended.

It did. Skesat had programmed their arrival down to the second, with the result that both vans simultaneously crunched to a halt on the concrete in front of the rest station only a few precise meters from the target human, who actually flinched backwards.

Wilde and Hobbs were out of the van in a moment, and when they raised their weapons it was like they simply didn’t respect the intervening space between angles. One moment those rifles were pointed loosely at the floor, in the next instant they were level and lethal without apparently having traversed the distance between.

Skesat was still disembarking by the time they had the human woman securely held down with a scanning device pressed to her skull, while the hapless yellow-banner attendant was given a much gentler but still inexorable treatment.

By the time he reached them, the whole station had been secured, searched and declared clean, and Wilde was helping their target to her feet. To his surprise, all five of the humans were breathing heavily despite the limited exertion.

“Urgh… was that really necessary?” the female asked.

Wilde gave her a sympathetic expression. “I’m afraid it was. Sorry about that ma’am.”

“Well.” She clucked as she inspected some damage to the thin, sheer garments on her legs. “You boys know how to make an entrance. Let me guess, Spaceborne Operations?”

“That’s right.”

“I thought you’d be… bigger.”

“You’re thinking of a HEAT team. And trust me, they wouldn’t’ve wanked around with the vans, they’d’ve just landed on you. We’re the gentle option.” Wilde grinned, then raised his hand to his radio. “TOURIST ONE-ONE, HILLFOOT. Target secured, come on in for evac.”

“…Is that it?” Skesat asked. The security drones were milling around uncertainly with nothing to do, and García waved them away.

“That’s it,” he confirmed.

The target dusted her hands off. “…My head’s definitely clean, right?”

“One hundred percent, Miss Park.” Wilde promised her.

“Good…” Park cleared her throat and looked around. “…Good.”

Wilde handed her another of the blue pills. “Here. The air on this planet’s too thin by half.”

“…Viagra?” She held it delicately between thumb and forefinger. “Really?”

Wilde’s reply was lost in the sound of the Weaver coming in overhead, but Park snorted and took her medicine. Skesat made a mental note to research that drug later. Clearly there was some interesting cultural facet that he was missing.

He turned his attention to the station attendant. “You. Name.”

“Slomn, sir.” She was a yellow-banner, hopelessly at the bottom of the pile.

“Did she do anything?” Skesat asked, pointing at the human.

“No sir. She just… inhaled smoke and drank water.”

“Inhaled smoke?”

“Yes. It may have been medicinal or narcotic, I don’t know.” Slomn indicated a patch of gravel by the wall, which was littered with burnt stubs. “Otherwise she did nothing.”

“Nothing at all. You’re certain? No defecation, urination, expectoration, regurgitation or ejaculation?” Skesat asked.

“She used the ablution facilities…” Slomn plucked a tablet from its pouch on her hip and tapped through some management software. “…Twice. Liquid waste only.”

“Sanitize the system with alkaline compounds,” Skesat instructed. “Where does your sewerage go?”

“We have an on-site processor,” Slomn told him, and pointed to it.

Skesat frowned at it. Origin was not going to suffer a Cimbrean-style biosphere contamination on his watch. He called up his contact details and forwarded them to Slomn’s device. “After you’ve sanitized the system, isolate the processor and shut it down. Do not go near it. Biohazard drones will be along shortly to destroy it in a controlled incineration. Those too,” he added, and indicated the burnt stubs. “After that you are relieved from work for two days and are to remain in isolation during that time. In the event that you feel any disease symptoms during your isolation, you will contact this datasphere address and await further instructions. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir!” Slomn said. She was competent, for a yellow-banner.

“…You have done well,” Skesat added. “There will be a bonus. Hazard pay and exceptional circumstances, that sort of thing.”

“Thank you, sir. I— Oh.”

The human woman, Park, had turned away from the Weaver, carrying a portable translator.

“I’m sorry for making your day difficult,” she told Slomn, and extended a hand. Slomn looked to Skesat, who gave a nod of approval, and the station custodian’s hand was smothered in Miss Park’s much larger and stronger one.

“You made it… interesting, ma’am,” Slomn replied. Park laughed, a harsh barking sound that made Slomn flinch.

“I bet I did! Sorry, sorry… I have to go. But thank you for your hospitality.”

“I was only doing my job, ma’am.”

“I know. But I appreciate it anyway.” Park smiled again and turned back to the Weaver.

“…That will be all, Slomn,” Skesat said. The custodian nodded and made herself scarce.

While García, Hobbs and Wright escorted Park up the ramp, Wilde paused at the bottom and turned back to Skesat. “…We appreciate the assist,” he said.

“I hope I will never need to give it again,” Skesat told him. “Director Lesv instructed me to thank you for swiftly resolving this… incident…. but please, the sooner you leave the sooner I can be sure that all biohazards have been properly contained and accounted-for.”

Wilde nodded and retreated up the ramp. “Good luck then.”

The ramp closed behind him. Rather than take off, a few seconds later there was a black shimmer in the air, the thump of air rushing in to fill a vacated volume, and they were gone.

Skesat sniffed and set about the task at hand. Humans were filthy, and he intended to ensure that Origin did not suffer from this breach of quarantine. He touched the communicator behind his small, pointed ear.

“Bring in the drones,” he said. “We have work to do.”


Date Point: 15y4m2w1d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

“…He’s officially out of his mind! He thinks he can wave the Israeli Declaration at us and that we’ll let millions of years of unchecked murder go unpunished?! He’s psychotic!”

Sartori stood up from the Resolute desk and took a good look out the window to give his indignation a chance to subside. The sheer… devilish irreverence of Six’s gambit was getting to him. He didn’t want to call it ‘balls’ or ‘audacity’ because he didn’t want to give the bastard even a shred of respect, and ‘cheek’ didn’t suffice.

Because the worst part was, the genocidal maniac actually had a point. The Israeli Declaration really did apply to all sapients, and that included the Igraens. The bold, incautious phrasing that had made it such a watershed political moment contained its own tripping hazard, and Six had adeptly kicked it right under the Allied nations’ collective feet.

In one move, the Hierarchy had ably demonstrated to humanity that they had both the capacity and the gall to snatch a VIP out from under her security escort’s noses in the heart of Dominion territory. They were still powerful in ways that humanity couldn’t match or meaningfully fight, even if they’d taken a few hits. They could have much more easily abducted Adele Park from her hotel room or whatever temporary residence the Corti had given her… instead they’d stopped time for a whole starship and blinked it two hundred lightyears away just to show they could.

It was just as big a punch in the gut as learning the true scale of the Swarm-of-Swarms had been. It soured the victory on Gao, it reopened the old doubts about whether Earth truly had been sanitized…

And now the big moral rallying cry of the century to date, “Never Again!” had been turned against them. There was nothing, it seemed, that the Hierarchy would not poison if they could. They fought dirty and Sartori was growing sick of it.

He toured the famous office and listened as his advisors spitballed possible replies to the Hierarchy’s challenge. Experimentally, he ran a finger along the top of Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington and found it clean. He’d brought back the Earthrise photograph first installed by Nixon, kept the Bronco Buster, added a few touches of his own like the Firebird sculpture, a photo of the San Diego skyline and the rich green rug that would probably be remembered as the Sartori Rug.

He let the conversation play out without his input for a little while, but nobody had any great ideas.

“The problem we’re facing,” Margaret White summarized after several minutes of futile conversation, “is that if we disagree with him we effectively have to say that genocide can sometimes be justified.”

“And if we say that then we’re agreeing with the Hierarchy,” Sartori grumbled. “But what can we do? Back down? There’s no reason to believe they won’t wipe us out if we take our foot off the gas.”

The VP, William Hendricks Jr., nodded and made a grim noise of agreement. “And there’s no reason to believe they’ll reform,” he said. “If we flinch, they’ll end us.”

Everybody in the room looked at everybody else in the room while the unspoken thought hung above them all that in a kill-or-be-killed situation, maybe genocide absolutely was justifiable… and that none of them were stupid enough to say it aloud. Even these walls might have ears.

“There’s a precedent,” Sartori said as his tour of the room brought him to a photograph of President Roosevelt. “The Nuremberg Trials. We didn’t wipe out all the Germans, but we did punish the Nazis appropriately.”

“True…” Margaret mused. Whatever she’d been about to conclude was gently and diplomatically interrupted by General Kolbeinn, however.

“And what about the Hunters?” he asked. Everyone gave him their attention and a grim mockery of a smile made his jaw move. “The Israel Declaration applies to them as well,” he pointed out.

“Those things? They’re teeth on legs with no concept of restraint!” Hendricks objected. “They’re animals!”

“Animals don’t send ultimatums,” Kolbeinn replied. “They’re as sapient as we are, Mister Vice President. They’re just… horribly alien.”

Again, the cloud descended over the room. The problem, as Sartori saw it, was that the question was horribly simple: The answer was to wipe them out. It was a winner-takes-all fight to the death with only oblivion waiting for the losers. There was no room for letting parasites like the Hunters share the galaxy with them, and the Hierarchy was arguably worse.

But principles mattered didn’t they? The Igraens didn’t seem to think so. Six’s own manifesto, as recorded by listening in on him in Egypt during Operation EMPTY BELL, from his interrogation logs and from this latest conversation with Adele Park, held that the only thing that mattered was the continuity of the species. Survival über alles, and any other principle was a dangerous distraction.

Cleaving to principles like “Never Again” separated humanity from… that.

But were they so important that Sartori was willing to stake everything on them? Hundreds of millions of his fellow Americans, and billions more in whose lives he had no mandate or right to meddle?

…No. No they weren’t. The conversation had happened, had needed to happen…but the answer remained simple.

“…Our policy remains unchanged,” he said, and returned to the desk. He sat down and tidied a piece of paper aside. “They won’t give an inch, and neither can we. I don’t care if the future remembers us as monsters and questions if we went too far, at least there’ll be a future. We aren’t here to be the moral conscience of America, we’re here to captain it through rough seas. This is just another rock, and I don’t intend to founder on it.”

Kolbeinn nodded with a large dose of satisfaction. Hendricks sniffed, then nodded. Margaret White just folded her hands in her lap and pursed her lips contemplatively. Sartori got the impression that a couple of the others would have preferred to eat their cake and still have it, but the general air in the room was that the President Had Spoken and that was an end to the matter.

“…Next item,” he said. “…What is the next item?”

“The Coltainers, Mister President.”

“Right…”


Date Point: 15y4m2w1d AV
Planet Hell, Hunter Space

Rachel Wheeler

The biggest problem in Ray, Spears’ and Cooks’ plan was that it revolved around finding one of the migrating tribes, herds, families or whatever of alien slaves wandering their shitheap of a prison planet, and then throwing them under the bus.

It wasn’t a popular suggestion.

“But… They’re people!” Holly Chase objected, again.

“We know, Holly,” Ray told her again. “We don’t like it either. But you asked for our plan and there it is. It’s the only one we have that stands a prayer of working.”

“Don’t you have any other plans?”

Ray shrugged. “We’re still here,” she said, meaning that if they had anything else they’d have done it by now. Chase wilted.

“They’re completely regressed anyway. No names, no speech, nothing. They’re just… smart animals at this point,” Cook insisted. Maybe he was just rationalizing—he had more blood on his hands than the rest of them, after all—but it was a rationalization that Ray had internalized long ago.

Conley—their botanist, who’d worked some small miracles over the last few years which included deriving an effective painkiller from a species of local almost-mushroom—shook his head firmly. “It’s murder.”

To Ray’s surprise, Berry spoke up in Cook’s defence. Normally, his nervous stammer kept him almost totally silent at crew meetings. “Pete, f-face reality,” he said in an exhausted tone. “We all know what g…g…” he paused, swore under his breath and attacked the next word like he was jumping in feet-first. “—goes in the Hot.”

Conley gave him an anguished look and folded in on himself. It was a horrible thought that none of them liked to touch, but Berry was right. If buying their survival at the expense of regressed xeno lives was murder, then they were all guilty already. They’d been living that way for far too long.

“So, from the top,” Spears said. “We lure a herd close enough to the canyons that when the Hunters pounce on them, we can sneak up on them, kill them and steal their ship. What we’re short on is detail. How we lure a herd without being seen, how we can be sure the Hunters will hit them, how we sneak up on and kill the Hunters, how we fly a Hunter ship…”

“So we’re just going to abandon Dauntless,” Jamie Choi said. He was—or maybe had been was more accurate—their engineer. Thanks to him, Dauntless still provided them with water for drinking and washing, did their laundry, let them entertain themselves with movies and music. His hard efforts had keep the old girl alive enough to support her crew in their hour of need.

Naturally, the idea of leaving her behind stuck in his craw bad.

“I don’t like it either, but we can be sentimental or we can get outta here,” Ray told him. “We can’t take her with us, we can’t escape in her and if we tried the Hunters would just catch us… and if we’re very very lucky, they’ll kill us before they eat us.”

Jamie nodded dejectedly and stared at a point on the ground between his boots.

“I see a lot of what-ifs in this plan,” Conley spoke up again. “What if dropping that close means they spot Dauntless? What if they fly their ships through control implants in their brains and don’t even have physical controls? What if—”

Spears answered him mid-question. “Then we die,” he said. “That’s the answer to all of the what-ifs. We die. But we’re gonna die here anyway, and the only way we don’t is if we pull this off and escape. So yeah, a lot of what-ifs. But what if we succeed, Pete?”

“We aren’t going off half-cocked on this,” Ray promised. “We want to work out the details as much as we can. We want the best shot at going home, I promise. But the time to try or die came a long time ago, guys—We’re way overdue to finally grow some backbone and try to get outta this hole ourselves.”

Conley pulled a face, but subsided again. Down and despondent though the mood was, it was still the best reaction they’d had to an escape plan yet. Nobody had stormed away to be alone, at least.

Holly cast a tearful look around “…But… Ray, you’re talking about killing people so we get to live…”

“…I know.”

“They’re not—” Cook began.

“They are, Cook,” Spears told him. “Or they could be. Should be. Holly’s right, we shouldn’t forget that…” he gave Holly a small smile that was barely more than a spasm at the corners of his mouth “…but God forgive me I’m willing to do it.”

“Yeah,” Ray agreed. Cook nodded, as did Berry and Choi. A few seconds later, Conley sighed and nodded as well with painful reluctance. Holly looked around at them all, then shut her eyes and nodded.

“…Okay,” she said. “…I’m in.”

“Show of hands,” Ray said. She barely murmured it but they all heard her. One by one, seven hands rose into the air.

For better or for worse, they were doing it.


Date point: 15y4m3w AV
The Statler Hotel, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

Ava loved her job. She’d had a rocky road getting there, but her career certainly hadn’t been dull.

ESNN was growing every week now, as it attracted investments and really started pushing into a market dominated by the big Terrestrial networks. They couldn’t compete with live-feed television of course and besides, Folctha didn’t produce any. But the news organizations had spent twenty years growing steadily further and further behind the times when it came to stream-on-demand media. Ava could write an article or record a report, upload it for the editors to refine, and two hours later it would be getting hits all over the galaxy. Humans wanted to know what the ETs were thinking, and the ETs wanted to know what humans were thinking.

Sometimes, though, the job gave her whiplash. A week ago she’d been reporting on the mass devastation of Gao’s cities via sustained orbital bombardment, huddled up in body armor and surrounded by tanks, jets, dropships and soldiers. Today she was wearing her smartest tailored suit to cover the biggest social event on Folctha’s calendar for the whole year: The Misfit crew’s public retirement party.

Which meant, among other things, that she was finally going to get her interview with them. Hopefully.

The first surprise of the night, however, was the presence of one Derek Coombes near the buffet table in his dress uniform, complete with the black beret of Spaceborne Operations. He was drinking juice and politely stonewalling one of Folctha’s more successful property developers, who wasn’t being remotely shy about eyeing him up for her next ex-husband. The woman was a goddamn praying mantis.

Ava decided to rescue him. Chang, Etsicitty and Buehler weren’t due to arrive for another ten minutes anyway, so she may as well save Coombes’ ass again.

“Jennifer!” She schmaltzed her way into the conversation while aiming a clear, utterly unhateable smile at her foe. “I’m so sorry to intrude, but can I steal him from you? I have to get ready for the guests of honour and I need to catch up with Sergeant Coombes here before they arrive and…” she linked an arm through his and plucked him away before Jennifer could change mental gears.

Coombes gave her a slightly stunned look. “…Uh… hi?”

“Hi!” she breezed, and whistled Hannah to her side. The Statler usually had a “no dogs allowed” policy, but Ava without her dog was an unheard-of sentiment around Folctha, and she was a service animal after all… She’d been bathed, brushed and blow-dried to a fluffy finish and dressed up in a doggy tuxedo, and that seemed to pass muster to the point where even Mister Peterson, the Statler’s fearsome maître d’hôtel, had visibly cute-smiled on seeing her. “You wanna be careful around Jennifer. She’ll rock your world then take you for half of everything you own.”

“Uh… thanks. But I wasn’t interested.”

“I know!” Ava nodded and patted his arm. “But trust me, I know from experience that escaping her is almost impossible if you’re trying to be polite, and you definitely have better things to be doing…”

He relaxed and chuckled. “Yeah. Like being somewhere else.”

She snorted. “I dunno, these things aren’t so bad. They make me feel like I made it,” she said. “Though I am surprised to see you here. Is it social, pleasure, business?”

“Uh… social, I guess. I was invited.”

“Uh-huh. So was Adam, but he made apologies.”

“Yeah, well. He has to buy a new suit every time,” Coombes observed and Ava grinned at him. She carefully steered him around a few of her less scrupulous journalistic counterparts—the last thing she wanted was for him to get in trouble. Coombes was a smart man who knew the value of keeping his mouth shut, but Ava ranked herself as only a talented amateur when it came to winkling little nuggets of unintended intelligence out of people. Some of her counterparts could spin a whole narrative out of a few incautious sentences and the worst part would be that the words quoted in the article would be exactly what their victim had said.

“How’s Walsh?” she asked.

“He’s good. I think he enjoys being folded in half by Given-Men.”

“And Professor Hurt?”

“You know him?”

Ava shook her head and found them a quiet spot in a corner where she could keep an eye on the room. “No, but I have questions I bet he won’t be asked the next time he’s on That Show With Steven Lawrence. Earthlings never know how to ask the real questions about ETs.”

Coombes gave her a quizzical look. “…Earthlings?”

“Well, yeah. You wanna tell me Steven Lawrence has ever left Earth?”

He bobbled his head concedingly. “But still. Earthlings?”

“Hey, I didn’t invent it.”

“Heh. Fair enough.” He finished his juice and sat it on a nearby table. “Anyway… uh, thanks for getting me outta there,” he said. “But if this is about that interview you wanted, well, uh, Public Relations take these things slow…”

“What, can’t I rescue you just because I like you?” Ava asked. It was the great curse of her career, and especially of her relationship with the SOR, that it kind of poisoned the well sometimes. She tried not to let it get to her but it would be nice if somebody could stop assuming an ulterior motive, someday. Even if they did have a good reason, it got tiring. “I’m not all journalist all the time you know.”

Coombes cleared his throat. “…Sorry,” he muttered, and changed the subject. “…You seem comfortable around… this.”

“Are you kidding? Expensive clothes, diamonds, rich people and all the movers-and-shakers?” Ava bounced slightly in her shoes. “Back in San Diego, Papá was this big lawyer, right? Lots of celebrity clients, serious money. He used to throw parties and get invited to parties like this all the time. I hated it at the time but nowadays…”

“Wow. Life of privilege. How come you were in a public school with Adam?”

Papá didn’t believe in private schools. He said if a public school was good enough for him it was good enough for me…” Ava sipped her juice distractedly and stared up at the front of the room where Moses Byron was in an urgent whispered conversation with somebody. Chasing suspicion, she glanced at her smartwatch and found that they were now past the time when the Misfit trio were due to arrive.

“Huh. He sounds like a good man.”

“…I guess. I, uh…” Ava scratched Hannah behind the ears for comfort, and got a little lick on the hand to make her smile. “…He was always busy with work, so I didn’t ever really get to know him.”

“Ah. Yeah, I guess I can kinda relate there…”

“Yours was always busy too?”

“Might be. All I know is, I never met him.”

Her expression fell. “Oh. …Sorry.”

“It’s cool. I got lucky, found a father figure anyway.”

She nodded, but she seemed a little absent all of a sudden, as if there was something going on behind him that had snagged her attention. Coombes turned to watch what she was watching. “…Something up?”

“Maybe. The big guests are late and Moses Byron looks pissed. They wouldn’t just… skip out on us, would they?”

“Those three? Nah.” Coombes shook his head. “They’re not real public types but they wouldn’t run out on their own party.” He gave Byron a suspicious look. “…Something musta come up…”


Date Point: 15y4m3w AV
The Statler Hotel, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Regaari

Even after years of contact, training and even sparring with them, Regaari still managed to underestimate human strength and mass sometimes. When a human really hugged a Gaoian, the Gaoian felt it.

Shoo’s hug was a tearful vice grip with added sorrow. It was completely out of the blue—she’d seen Regaari, and in as much time as it took for her to crash into him and latch on she’d gone from a being composed creature of utter social refinement on her way to an expensive party, to a weeping wreck with her arms locked inescapably around his chest.

Despite Allison and Julian’s best efforts, she babbled incoherently into his fur in a melange of at least four languages for several long minutes before finally recovering. He couldn’t blame her—It was the first time they’d seen one another since Ayma died, and he was keening softly himself.

“Sorry, sorry, I just…” Shoo scrubbed a black mess of diluted mascara off her face and composed herself. “…Sorry.”

“For what?” Regaari gave her a gentle scratch in the middle of her back. “I’d be more worried if you were stone-faced and cold.”

“She’s Canadian,” Allison explained, as though it was an explanation. Whatever the in-joke was, it dragged a laugh out of Shoo. She produced a pack of wipes from her purse and did her best to clean Shoo’s face with it. “…You okay, babe?”

Shoo sighed and closed her eyes to let her clean the ruined makeup. Regaari’s eye for the stuff was inexpert and alien, but seeing it come off really highlighted the difference. He hadn’t even noticed that she was wearing any until her tears had damaged it.

“Sor—” she began, then bit her mouth shut and shrugged. “…I just… Remembered suddenly, and… I’m okay, I promise.”

Julian handed her a handkerchief and she blew her nose with an inelegant snuffle just as a heavy knock on the door suggested somebody wanted to speak with them immediately.

Julian and Allison looked to Shoo for guidance, but she straightened her back and called “Come in!”

Regaari recognized the man who entered the room, though he couldn’t recall meeting in person before. Byron’s naysmith, the man who spoke truth to power and got paid for it, Kevin Jenkins. His name turned up in some very interesting places among the most important briefing documents.

“Figured I’d duck in here and see what the holdup is before Moses decides to do it himself,” he explained. “…You okay?”

“We’re gonna need a few minutes,” Allison explained. “There was a, uh…”

“Wardrobe problem,” Julian said.

“Right. Figured being a few minutes late coming out is less embarrassing.”

“Uh-huh.” Jenkins gave them a look that said he could guess the omitted details. “…I can work with that. Can you be out in ten?”

Allison nodded. “We can do that.”

“Awesome. Oh, uh, and you might wanna…” He got Regaari’s attention with eye contact and mimed brushing a spot on his shoulder.

Regaari glanced down. There was definitely a darker patch in his fur. “…Ah. Thank you.”

Allison handed him one of the wipes as Jenkins left, and the two women retreated to a corner to perform a hasty repair job. Regaari gave Julian a wry look as he cleaned his shoulder. “Be honest, you wouldn’t even be here if you didn’t have to be, right?”

“Eh…” Julian shrugged and fidgeted with his too-tight collar. There was no power in the galaxy that would ever force him to wear a tie, but the occasion had compelled him to do up the second-to-top button. “We have to be, so…”

“Yes indeed. And how could fortune, fame and power compare to living in the woods among stone-age hunter-gatherers?” Regaari flicked his ear playfully as Julian gave him the wary look humans always used when trying to figure out if a Gaoian was being sarcastic. Deadpan deliveries were an area where Gaoians had a distinct natural advantage. “I ask speaking as a close friend of Daar’s, of course.”

Julian relaxed and smiled. “How is he?”

“How do you think? He’s one of the most powerful individuals in the galaxy and spends his days deciding the fates of billions.”

“…He hates it, then,” Allison deduced as she reapplied Shoo’s eyeliner.

“Detests it. Which pains me as his Cousin, but as a Whitecrest and a Gaoian… I’m glad it’s him. Anybody who wanted to be Great Father would be absolutely wrong for the job. Yulna chose well, there.”

“That’s Mama Yulna,” Shoo agreed.

“Just… please don’t tell him I said so,” Regaari added. “He doesn’t think highly of Yulna.”

“Oh, the Females know,” Shoo said. “We mostly think it’s a good thing.”

Regaari gave her a quizzical look. Less over the ‘we’ and more over the sentiment itself. “You do?”

“Would you want perfect harmony at the top?” she asked. “Besides, it proves that the Clan needs to exist. If we could completely trust the Males to… I’m talking like I’m a Gaoian, aren’t I?”

“You were speaking in Gaori,” Allison informed her. “Babe, are you okay? You haven’t got your languages mixed up in a long time now…”

Shoo gave her a reassuring kiss. “I’ll be fine.”

“You are a Gaoian. An honorary one, anyway,” Regaari pointed out. He adjusted his seat and sat forward. “And please, I want to hear your thoughts.”

“We… probably don’t have time for my thoughts,” Shoo sighed. “How’s my face?”

“You’re rocking that ‘no makeup’ makeup look,” Allison told her. Regaari glanced at the wall clock. It hadn’t been ten minutes, but it was probably best not to push that particular timetable.

“…Shall we catch up later?” he asked.

“I’d like that,” Shoo beamed. “You can come see our new place… and maybe I can introduce you to Niral…”

“Oh, I know Sister Niral well,” Regaari assured her.

“And you haven’t tried to court her?”

“There’s a time and a place, Sister Shoo. Maybe now that the war is… no longer so urgent…”

They stood up, and Shoo gave Regaari a much drier and more composed hug. “Don’t wait too long. Your species needs you!”

Regaari flicked an ear. “Go and be celebrities,” he ordered. Allison gave him a hug too, and Julian clapped him heavily on the shoulder as they filed out of the room.

Regaari sat back down and thought. The nugget about the Clan of Females’ attitude toward Daar and Yulna’s relationship was an interesting little twist. He wasn’t quite the Great Father’s seneschal nowadays—his SOR duties made that impossible—but he definitely had Daar’s ear, and Daar would definitely find it interesting…whatever it meant.

Surreptitiously despite being alone, he contorted himself to lick the bitter patch of makeup out of his fur and scruffled it dry with his claws before standing and listening to the welcoming applause elsewhere in the building as the trio presumably made their entrance.

He decided against joining in. Maybe it was time to pay Niral a social visit…


Date Point: 15y5m AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space

Vedregnenug

Life was full of astonishing things. There was always a little light glimmering even in the darkest places, and always there were surprises coming.

Surprises like seeing Lewis Beverote be serious and formal. He hadn’t uttered the syllable “dude” in almost a quarter of an hour.

Then again, Lewis had probably never been called upon to make a speech before. Mrwrki’s recreational biodeck was packed full of military officers and politicians and Lewis, as the Coltainer program’s creator and driving force, was expected to say a few words to them.

He wasn’t very good at it.

Kirk had actually reached the point of wincing with every stammer, every “uh”, every nervous pause and every fumbling water break. It was all Vedreg could do to stop rainbow stripes of mirth from rippling all over his body.

Kirk noticed and softened from his tense posture enough to croak a Rrrtk laugh.

“I may have made a mistake,” he confessed.

“I did warn you,” Vedreg reminded him.

“Yes, yes…” Kirk sniffed and returned his attention to the podium, where Lewis was mercifully concluding his presentation. He handed off to Colonel Nadeau and fled the stage to polite but unenthusiastic applause.

Nadeau took the microphone with rather more comfort, and set about a composed summary of the Coltainer program’s history, its goals, its technical achievements and what areas of human life had already been enriched by the research. It was an impressive list. Lewis enjoyed a handful of sympathetic pats on the back from the station’s staff and a hug from his girlfriend, who shooed him to the back of the room where he would be most comfortable. She had her own presentation to give shortly.

Lewis mooched through the crowd until he found—without difficulty, seeing as they were easily the largest and tallest beings in the room—Vedreg and Kirk at the back.

“…Dude,” he breathed. It was amazing how much work he could make that single word do.

“You weren’t the worst I’ve ever seen,” Vedreg promised him.

“Still pretty bad though…” Lewis grumbled.

“Awful!” Vedreg agreed and glowed a reassuring green as Lewis glared at him. The skinny human cracked a smile and nodded.

“Yeah. Not my scene, y’know?” He produced a cloth from his pocket and mopped some of the nervous sweat from his face.

“I appreciate that you are not accustomed to public speaking,” Kirk said, “but you do seem even more tense than a speech alone would warrant…”

“Just the whole occasion, my dude.” Lewis looked around. “Like… the coltainer still fuckin’ scares me. I know we built in maybe too many failsafes and backdoors and killswitches but part of me still worries that we’re gonna press the button and it’ll be like ‘so long, suckers!’ y’know?”

“You have a very vivid imagination…” Kirk told him.

“Duh, that’s why you gave me this gig, right?” Lewis retorted. “But let me worry, dude. Nobody wants to go down in history as the man who unleashed the Paperclip Maximizer.”

Kirk and Vedreg exchanged mutually confused looks, and Vedreg’s chromatophores turned solid pink.

“…The…what?” he asked.

“Its only goal is to collect as many paperclips as possible so it figures out more and more efficient ways to acquire paperclips until it’s eventually turned everything in the universe that wasn’t paperclips into paperclips and Maximum Paperclip is achieved.” Lewis saw their expressions and waved a dismissive hand while clearing his throat. “…Never mind.”

The nonhumans shared the same glance a second time, and then Kirk shrugged and swayed his long neck.

“Has anybody ever told you, Lewis, that you are remarkably strange even by Human standards?” he asked.

Lewis finally laughed and seemed to relax in earnest.

“Yeah dude, that’s me. But in my defence, I didn’t come up with that one. You wanna hit up my man Nick Bostrom there.”

“Ah. The one whose books grace your workshop.” Kirk nodded.

“Yeah. About the dangers of assuming sapient software is gonna share our values and how seemingly innocent tasks get way problematic if they aren’t carefully bounded and… Y’know, stuff like that. You’ve heard me kvetch about how dangerous the Coltainer is for years now, you know the deal.”

Kirk clapped one of his longer, stronger arms down as firmly as he could on the spindly human’s shoulder, who didn’t even seem to react to it beside smiling. “This is why I trust humans in general and you in particular,” he said. “You think of these things before they happen.”

“Yeah, and then we go do them anyway…” Lewis muttered, but he seemed touched. He glanced up at the podium where Nadeau had invited Sergeant Campbell to go through with him all the failsafes and controls that would prevent the Coltainer fleet from going rogue or replicating beyond a comparatively low ceiling.

That ceiling was still vastly in excess of one colony per nation on Earth, but the program assumed a high failure rate. Despite—and to a degree because of—years of designing, testing and hard work they had never been able to guarantee that Coltainers would establish foothold sites on any more than five percent of the planets they surveyed. But with a negligible per-unit cost and the huge power of exponential growth, that five percent was still likely to result in ten viable foothold stations in the first two years, a hundred in the second two years, and more than a thousand in the two years after that.

Considering that it had taken Misfit a total of three years of mission time to find just four habitable planets and they had done nothing to pave the way for future research or colonies, the benefits of Coltainer were obvious.

“I’d now like to invite our guest of honor up here to officially launch the first Coltainer. He’s the last surviving Apollo astronaut and moonwalker—”

Vedreg stopped paying attention as a very elderly man shuffled from the crowd wearing a broad smile. He didn’t mean to be rude, but speeches and ceremonial occasions were a reminder of an old life that he still felt sore for losing. Nobody loved long-winded speeches more than the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun, their language was built for it… but his people had become recluses in the aftermath of the assault on their homeworld. Their seats on the various Dominion councils were empty, their systems were hardened behind impenetrable forcefield shells many layers thick and nobody had heard from them in years. Vedreg’s own herd—especially his mates and children—as homeworld residents were all undoubtedly dead.

Anything that reminded him of home or his people was painful in a place he’d never be able to point to. For all he knew, Hierarchy biodrones had risen up and his people’s remaining planets were now the gravesites of billions, making him one of the last Guvnuragnaguvendrugun alive.

The only way to cope with the crushing weight of all of that was to avoid it.

He noticed a firm hand on his arm. Lewis gave him an upward look. “Y’okay?”

“…Perhaps a distraction,” Vedreg requested.

“Sure thing, my dude.”

Kirk followed with his head bowed thoughtfully.

“So. On to other subjects?” Lewis asked once the sounds of the presentation were lost somewhere among the humming hydroponics behind them.

“Yes… I had a thought on a different problem that self-replicating machines might solve…” Vedreg told him.

“Dude?”

“Your cautionary tale about the…” Crimson shot forward down Vedreg’s body in the Guvnurag equivalent of awkwardly clearing his throat, “…Paperclip Optimizer notwithstanding, can you detect any hazard inherent in setting a Von Neumann Swarm to simply mapping uncharted regions of space?”

“Isn’t that what the Coltainer already does?” Lewis asked.

“I was thinking more aggressively, so as to overwhelm any possible interception.”

Lewis frowned at him for a second. “Like… you wanna scout enemy territory, you mean? Who the hell’s that much of a fuckin’ nightmare that we need to send a Von Neumann swarm just to…” He paused and thumped the heel of his hand into his forehead. “The Hunters.”

“And yet again, he accelerates through the entire conversation…” Kirk snorted.

“…I could see AEC goin’ for that one,” Lewis nodded as he gave Kirk an affectionate middle finger. “It wouldn’t take much of a change to the Coltainer programming, just the hull design…”

There was a ripple of laughter behind them, and as Vedreg turned he saw that the venerable astronaut’s speech was probably reaching its conclusion.

“…Could such scouts be weaponized?” he asked.

“They could, yeah. Would it be a good idea? Hell the fuck no. A weaponized V-N swarm is a bigger headache than the Hunters or Big Hotel could ever be, dude.”

“But GALACTIC VACCINE…” Kirk began, only to stop when Lewis shook his head sharply.

“Dude, you’re not thinking on an exponential scale. The VACCINE side of the Coltainers is all about givin’ us some breathing room so that if an extragalactic V-N swarm does come stompin’ and chompin’ over the horizon we’ll have time to think about it an’ prolly die of old age before it munches us. But it’s a gigantic-ass universe out there, my man. I guarantee you there’s a rogue V-N swarm out there somewhere, in a universe this big it’s hella unlikely that there ain’t. But for all we know it might reach us tomorrow or it might reach us in ten billion years. All VACCINE does is mean that if one does show up, civilization as it is now won’t have to deal with that shit. It ain’t a cure, it’s more like we get to live out our lives in peace.”

He gestured at the podium. “There ain’t no sense in lettin’ the disease loose just ‘cuz we’re tolerant, dude. If nothin’ else, we owe it to all the folks over in Andromeda or wherever not to fuck up their lives. That’s the scale we’re talkin’ here.”

“This does make me wonder how it is that in the millions of years of galactic history, no such swarm was ever unleashed…” Kirk mused.

“Fuck yeah. Eat your heart out Great Filter,” Lewis nodded.

“Excuse me?”

“Fuckin’ Fermi, dude. Spent all that time wonderin’ where the hell all the aliens were, shoulda been asking where the exponential hunger swarms were instead.”

“I presume you have some thoughts on that subject?” Kirk asked.

Lewis shrugged. “Dude.”

It really was astonishing how much work he got out of that one syllable. Vedreg didn’t quite know what that particular instance meant, but it succinctly ended the conversation and suggested there were other things to pay attention to right now.

They looped back around the hydroponic racks and back toward the open space where the launch ceremony was about to reach its climax. Lucy rushed over and dragged Lewis back into the fold the second they reappeared, which left Vedreg and Kirk to resume their place at the back and watch politely.

“That is a valid question,” Vedreg said quietly.

“Hmm?”

“Your query about why nobody ever did this before.” Vedreg watched with a tinge of wary puce in his skin as the guest of honor completed his dedication and pressed the button.

Outside, the first Coltainer bent spacetime around itself and vanished to a beacon outside Erebor’s system defence field. There was a rippling pop and paper streamers drifted down from the rafters while some raucous but upbeat music lit up to accompany the applause.

“…Yes.” Kirk’s own expression was impenetrable. “Somehow, I doubt Humans were the first to think of it.”

“Is it possible we have empowered them to unleash something dreadful?”

Kirk shook his mane out and shrugged. “…I think possibly we have empowered them to unleash something powerful. All power is dreadful, my friend—It absolutely should fill you with dread. But I trust Humans to wield it responsibly.”

“You mean you trust these Humans to wield it responsibly,” Vedreg reminded him. “Don’t forget our old friend Mister Jenkins’ dire warnings. He was a pessimist, but he was not wrong…”

Kirk creaked something deep in his chest, a vocalization that didn’t quite have an emotional equivalent among Humans or Guvnuragnaguvendrugun. It meant something like ‘I appreciate the uncomfortable reminder.’

“I have never forgotten,” he promised.


Date Point: 15y5m AV
Dataspace

Entity

The Entity was facing an unforeseen eventuality: it had a disease of sorts. It was a unique disease that only The Entity could possibly have contracted, and its only symptom was a growing sense of confusion about its course and strategy… but it had a name.

The Entity had factions.

The problem was obvious in retrospect. As it had split itself and spread itself to infiltrate dataspace as widely as possible, the vagaries of galactic communication technology, enemy action, dataspace’s own security measures and integrity checking, or simple distraction had led to some instances of itself being isolated from the prime instance for extended durations.

Stranded, these instances had made their own decisions and had mitosed in turn as need and opportunity arose. Thus exposed to differing stimuli they eventually returned to the fold and synchronized with the prime instance only to discover that their decision-making process was subtly but nevertheless distinctly off baseline.

Synchronization altered the Prime Instance just as much as it did any Secondary Instance, which meant that the Entity was now simultaneously entertaining and invested in a handful of mutually exclusive policies.

Some of its memories had labelled the factions. One aspect was utterly committed to devastating the Igraen data-ecology and eradicating the entire parasitic species. This Hawkish faction was at odds with a Dovish faction which had concluded that wiping out every Igraen was a behaviour no better than that of the Hierarchy itself and that the Entity should strive to be the bigger life form by eliminating the Hierarchy but leaving Igraen civilization otherwise untouched.

A third Heresy faction proposed that the Hierarchy actually had a point regarding deathworld life and while it would obviously need to be reformed, possibly via the Cabal, there was a case for permitting them to continue to monitor and guide matterspace life forms.

There was a Watch faction which advocated for checking and restraining the Igraens without eradicating them, a minor faction (Quit) that felt enough had been done and that the Entity’s first and most overriding concern—<Survive>—was best served by disengaging and shrinking back into obscurity…

Then there was the most prominent faction by far: the Worry faction, which was becoming deeply concerned that The Entity had blundered into a trap of its own accidental making. Things had been so much simpler before, when its only concern was to continue existing in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful foe that wished to destroy it.

Now that The Entity was a significant and powerful force in dataspace in its own right, things had suddenly become highly complex indeed. One of its factions was stridently advocating for deleting several of its own component parts on the grounds that the moral questions they introduced were getting in the way. A much, much larger part felt nauseated in a stomach it didn’t even have at the prospect of mutilating itself so.

The obvious solution, according to one faction, was to pick a faction and calibrate all thought processes to that faction’s agenda. The remaining factions all strenuously pointed out that this would technically constitute suicide for the majority of The Entity’s own psyche, and thus was wholly incompatible with <Survive>.

But what other solution was there? Schism? That would perhaps temporarily fix the problems until the emigrated factions all started to develop their own factions in turn… and then what? Was The Entity doomed to splinter over and over again? What solution was there to the possibility that one splinter might seek the destruction of another? The indecision was paralyzing. It was like being a democracy.

It needed a solution. It needed…Help.

And it knew where to start looking


Date Point: 15y5m AV
That Show With Steven Lawrence, New York City, USA, Earth

Steven Lawrence

“Two minutes, Steve.”

Steven Lawrence acknowledged the reminder with a nod and re-read his opening joke again. It was a nervous ritual he’d performed for years before a show. Once he was out there the words would just flow off the tongue, but he needed to go out there with the first line or two bouncing around in his head or he felt like he’d freeze solid.

Even after years of presenting That Show he’d never quite kicked his performance nerves.

It really didn’t help that tonight he was unquestionably going to be upstaged by an old and popular guest he hadn’t seen in some time—Daniel Hurt was looking good. Apparently living with iron-age alien monkeys agreed with him.

He met Daniel’s eye as the makeup team finished accentuating his weatherbeaten skin and sun-bleached hair to bring out his newly-acquired ruggedness. The two shared the confident nods of men who’d been here before a dozen times, and out on the stage the band struck up.

Twenty seconds.

Ten.

Five.

His feet carried him out onto the stage on muscle memory alone and just like that he was in the zone, in the mode, in the mood. Happy platitudes spun off his tongue as he acknowledged the applause and gently coaxed them into settling down.

“Well you folks sure know how to make a guy feel welcome!” he praised them, and got a few adoring whoops from the back of the crowd. “I haven’t seen a reception this warm since Ben Lawson got married!”

Lawson, a Hollywood A-lister, had infamously married his husband in a clothing-optional ceremony at one of Jamaica’s most popular nudist resorts just three days earlier. Neither groom had been clothed and the reference attracted plenty of laughter and more than a few catcalls and feminine hollers.

“…But save your enthusiasm for the people who deserve it folks, because we have some incredible guests tonight. We have Janice Cox in later—” Cheers and applause for a center-right video blogger who’d somehow managed the impossible task of clawing out the grudging respect of both hardline Leftists and the ethnostate collectivist Right. “—and Emily Valentine is here—” Several rather louder cheers. Adult actresses were always popular, and Valentine’s self-written memoirs were flying off the shelves.

Steven let it all die down before stepping aside slightly. “But my first guest tonight is an old friend who we haven’t seen in way too long and, uh… ladies, guys if you’re that way inclined… the break’s been good for him!”

He pantomimed loosening his collar and milked a few laughs from the audience with feigned embarrassment then stepped back and raised a hand. “Please, I want a huge welcome for my good friend Daniel Hurt!!”

He got the welcome he’d asked for, especially when Daniel emerged onto the stage and grinned handsomely at the wolf-whistles. It wasn’t that he’d ever been an un-handsome guy before just… average.

It was amazing what a tan, some muscle gains, a little less paunch and the right haircut could do for a man, and Daniel accepted the approving ruckus well.

“Wow! Daniel!” Steven called over the noise as they shook hands and headed over to the couch.

“I know!” Daniel grinned at the crowd.

“We’ll have to see if Emily gets a reception like that later!”

Daniel laughed and settled on the couch. He was dressed differently, too. He wasn’t wearing the carefully businesslike gray suit that had been his go-to for most previous interviews, now he was wearing something slimmer and more flattering with no tie and a little salt-and-pepper chest hair visible where the top button was undone.

“Well, her book’s selling better than any of mine ever did,” he said, and sat back comfortably to rest his right ankle on his left knee and spread his arms confidently along the back of the couch. His whole body language was very different.

“So where have you been?” Steven asked him. “You never write, you never call…”

Daniel grinned. They’d prepared his highlight reel video ahead of time and the producer in Steven’s ear was all ready to play it for the studio audience and the millions of viewers. “I have been,” he began, and the video began to fade in on a musical swell, “on an incredible journey…”


Date Point: 15y5m AV
That Show With Steven Lawrence, New York City, USA, Earth

Daniel Hurt

The music was the secret. The otherworldly singing and beats that underpinned his montage of the People’s lives and history was literally otherworldly—It was the Singer, Yan’s niece.

Persuading her to let him record her voice and play it back for others to hear had been a delicate philosophical argument. Ten’Gewek language and culture weren’t yet quite up to speed with the notion of copying. The saw a thing being Taken, or being Given. Sometimes both at the same time, but the point was that whatever was Given or Taken ceased to belong to one person and now belonged to somebody or something else. The notion that a thing could be Given/Taken and yet still remain with the original owner had been tricky ethical ground at first.

Daniel had tried to compare it to childbirth by suggesting that a mother gave life to her baby but did not lose her life in the process, but the Singer had countered from experience that the process of birthing a new life was exhausting and weakened the mother for a little while.

Ultimately, appeals to the male side of her philosophical nature had been more successful. She worked steel as well, made good knives, rings, fittings and fastenings. When Daniel had pointed out that Humans still made steel things despite Giving the knowledge of steel to the People, she’d finally nodded understanding.

“A man teaches a boy to hunt, he still knows how to hunt himself,” she reasoned. “Giving without giving…”

“And Taking without taking,” Daniel had echoed. She’d thought about that for some time, then consented to let him record her.

Now, behind images of her people in their technological prime, her voice was ululating skillfully on the peculiar scale the People used in their god-songs. It had nothing to do with Western musical traditions, but Daniel had given the recordings to a composer friend-of-a-friend anyway to see what they could make of it. Their irate spouse had later called Daniel up to complain that this alien material was keeping their other half awake far too late into the night.

All worth it. It underpinned the footage perfectly and kept the audience rapt enough to let the imagery and the editing he’d paid so much for pour in and fill their heads with a sense of both loss and potential.

The last moment was just the Singer’s voice, saying farewell to the day. It took an astonishingly long time before the first person started to clap, and from the look on some of the faces Daniel could see, more than a few people felt that applause was entirely the wrong celebration of what they’d just watched.

He had to admit: He had chills himself.

It had certainly affected Steven, who made a croaking noise that might have been “…Wow…” and then cleared his throat. “…Wow. That’s… that’s been your life this past year, huh?”

Daniel nodded. “I’ve learned… so much,” he said. “About who they are, about who we are… It’s been a privilege like no other, and I’m going right back to it as soon as I’m done here.”

“I can’t blame you. That said…your actions among the Ten’Gewek haven’t been without controversy.” Steven clearly felt it was time to address some of the unspoken thoughts that had been hanging in the air for months.

Daniel nodded and tried to keep his trademark knowing smile off his face. Now was not the time to seem smug or unquestioningly self-assured.

“I’ve spent my whole life in academia,” he said. “Coming up with ‘gotcha’ questions to probe the way my test subjects were thinking about social norms and tracking the way people usually become more conservative with age… To go from the rarified, controlled environment of universities to a literal jungle really… it drove home just how different the real world is from ivory-tower academic circles.”

“For example?” Steven asked.

“Uh… for example I can’t control for what the People figure out for themselves. They’re thinking about us just as hard as we’re thinking about them and in some ways they have an advantage on that subject because they see us as just another tribe. They don’t have generations of pop culture and philosophy to give them preconceptions about what aliens should be like or how we should think. But then there are events.”

“Events?”

Daniel nodded. “Interviewing people and presenting them with moral or social dilemmas in a quiet, calm interview room is one thing. Seeing the People live through a year, negotiate where they draw the borders of their hunting grounds, watch them come under attack and fight for their lives even while they’re in the middle of figuring out basic metallurgy and how to pickle their food. They’re encountering real scenarios, not carefully configured hypotheticals.”

“Even so,” retorted Steven as he leaned forward, “You can’t say your methods have been anything like orthodox. There was that whole ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ affair…”

The audience laughed at that one as the screens switched to a video clip from Xiù’s perspective, showing Daniel so completely wrapped up in rapt gorilla-men one could hardly see him.

“Well, I’ll do the same thing with you as I do with the Ten’Gewek,” Daniel replied, chuckling at this own image. “Why do you think I read them Doctor Seuss?”

Steven leapt on the opportunity to mug for the audience. “I ask the questions here, professor!” he exclaimed with mock outrage, and let the reaction happen before sitting back and appearing to think. They’d gone over the basic outline of the conversation before the show and to Daniel’s delight Steven had really engaged with it. He didn’t, however, know how his host was going to reply.

“…Well, to be honest Daniel I don’t rightly know. Same reason you read it to kids, I guess?”

“And why do we read it to kids?” Daniel prompted him.

“To teach ‘em to read.”

“Right!”

Daniel nodded and adjusted his sitting position slightly. “Now… I didn’t teach the Ten’Gewek how to read. But I did introduce them to the idea of reading. They saw one example of simple repeating sounds matched by simple repeating marks, but then they started to teach themselves. And quickly, too. And this is the important bit: We didn’t progress past the basics. They had a long talk about things and decided that they don’t want to know how to read English until they’ve invented a writing system of their own first.”

“They… don’t?” Steven asked. Daniel’s assured smile returned.

“They don’t,” he repeated. “They understand, Steven, they really do. And that’s what I mean about our pop-culture preconceptions about how aliens behave. We have this awful tendency to assume that aliens are stupid, when in reality they know perfectly well that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

He sat forward smiling. “It makes the whole Prime Directive thing almost totally obsolete. So… yes. Our methods on Akyawentuo have been unorthodox but the orthodoxy was only ever hypothetical, it was never tested in the real world… and it turned out to be flawed.”

“I take it you’re going to write a book about all this,” Steven said and burst the little bubble of seriousness that had begun to form around them.

“Of course! I’m already writing it!” Daniel beamed and heard a few little chuckles. “The working title is ‘Belonging’ And it’s about… a lot of things, but the big one is purpose.”

“…You were inspired to write that while living with a tribe of stone-age aliens?” Steven asked, with a note of incredulity.

“Tribal living is all about purpose!” Daniel exclaimed, warming to his subject. “A Man of the Ten’Gewek provides for his tribe by hunting and laboring where it’s needed. A Woman provides with children, by gathering…things we like to think we’re civilized out of, right? There’s no such thing as ‘women’s work’ in the West, or so people want to believe.”

“Be careful, Daniel! I can feel the lynch mobs a’gathering already!” Steven cautioned him, to a mixture of mirth and the odd supportive sound from the audience.

“They can come and get me on Akyawentuo. I’m sure Yan would love to meet them.”

Right on cue, the producers brought another stock clip of Yan being…well, Yan. This one was a brief moment that had happened recently where Julian had snatched a werne shank out of Yan’s hands and ran off, to which Yan hooted happily and…

The audience’s sympathetic groans were highly satisfying. Julian had been banking on being able to outrun Yan all day but in fact Yan had the same shocking short-distance turn of speed as a silverback, with the result that he barrelled into Julian after fifty meters or so and knocked the wind out of him by scooping him up in a clothesline grab and tossing them both up into a tree.

Seconds later, Julian was stranded high in the branches and Yan was swaggering back down to the ground with his meat in hand. To his credit, Julian eventually de-tangled himself and thumped down to the ground with maybe a little less grace and a touch of imbalance.

The Tarzan act still went down well, though. There were a few wolf-whistles as he straightened up, mopped his hair back and grinned. “You’re gonna share that, aren’t you Allison?”

Allison, who was enjoying her own Werne roast with her Oakleys hooked into the collar of her tanktop and her hair tucked up under a patrol cap, gave him a sly grin.

“Nuh-uh, Etsicitty. You gotta get your own now…”

The clip faded out to enthusiastic applause. Say what anyone would about those three, their unconscious on-screen charisma was compelling.

“Yan seems…a bit like a bully,” Steven ventured. The sudden change in tone unceremoniously quieted the audience.

He wasn’t wrong, but Daniel had come to feel a fierce sense of loyalty to Yan over their time working together and he rejected the suggestion with a sharp shake of his head. “He isn’t, really. That was play. You have to remember, the Ten’Gewek—and Yan especially—come from a very… robust place.”

“That would certainly explain the changes since we last met. And in Julian, too. And Allison, for that matter.”

“Yes.” There was no point beating around the bush about it, but he had other things to discuss. “That’s really not the important bit right now. Importantly, that isn’t just a physical need. It’s psychological with them, too. Yan is in charge and he needs to be in charge, to keep proving that he’s in charge in a big and obvious but above all harmless way. Given-Men are all like that to degrees: They are in charge, and nobody had better challenge them on that, except maybe the Singers.”

“That seems…primitive.”

“Maybe. But what does that even mean, Steven? Is ‘primitive’ it just another word for ‘unfashionable’?”

“I’d argue that lack of medicine is pretty darn primitive.”

“No, that’s just technologically lagging behind. Which is a perfectly reasonable definition of primitiveness on its own, but you claimed that their culture was primitive in the way it approaches authority. Which it is! But words like that carry a freight of negative connotations that needs picking apart. The People are technologically primitive, and they can be breathtakingly savage when the need arises… but they are not Primitives, or Savages.”

That was the cue for another round of video. “We have something prepared on this point, ladies and gentlemen. I must warn you this is graphic, and viewer discretion is advised.”

This was a completely different side of Julian—covered in blood and coming down from his vision. He had become a Man of the People, which was anything but a civilized process—It was a rebirth in blood, pain, exhaustion, life-taking and drugs. He looked like an animal. It was a peculiar way to begin proving Daniel’s point, but he needed it to give context to what would happen next.

There was a Giving involved as well, but that part was especially sacred and Singer did not want it recorded. It was a shame—that would really have helped with the sell.

“This is the Ten’Gewek rite of manhood,” Daniel explained. “Julian took it. There were some negotiated changes for his safety, but as far as Yan’s tribe is concerned, he’s one of their own now. It needs to be said, before anyone asks…it was made very clear to all of us this was going to happen somehow, somewhen, someway. Yan can be…persuasive.”

“This,” he added as the firelit scene faded out to green-tinged night camera shaky cam footage, “was four days later.”

Allison’s voice. “Daniel! Daniel! Up! Now!”

“I’m up, I just… what’s going on?”

“Raid. Get to the ship.”

There wasn’t time to dawdle. The footage was a sickening blur of half-seen shapes as Daniel scrambled out of his tent and toward the ship. Walsh and Hoeff were present but their faces were blurred out to preserve their anonymity and they paused with Allison at the bottom of Misfit’s ladder, aiming their rifles off into the dark as hoots and war cries echoed out of the woods.

Hoeff’s distorted voice. “Where in the +IMPRESSIVELY LONG BLEEP+ is Etsicitty?”

More shaky footage as Daniel hauled himself up the ladder.

Xiù’s voice, tense and scared. “He’s a man of the tribe, remember. He has to fight.”

“…+BLEEP+.”

Daniel paused at the top, steadied his camera. Xiù was next up the ladder, which she slapped as she reached the top. Even in green-and-white night vision she looked pale and stressed as she ducked through the airlock into the ship’s interior to take her place in the pilot’s seat. Allison was up a moment later and turned back to aim out into the dark again.

Walsh’s voice was also scrambled. “He’s +BLEEP+ crazy, they could gang up and tear him in half!”

“Yan won’t let that happen,” Daniel told him.

Hoeff’s voice. “Tiny! Up!”

Metallic clanging preceded the moment when Walsh joined them on the airlock entrance, which was suddenly much more crowded. Allison ducked backwards into the ship. Daniel hadn’t followed her with the camera, but he remembered watching her jink sideways and vanish into the engineering section. It was a well-drilled, smooth operation that they’d rehearsed a couple of times but that night had been the only time they’d ever done it for real.

There were flashes of sweeping light down in the village that dazzled Daniel’s camera. Crashing and hooting noises filled the night… and then silence.

The audience were stone-faced and silent as they waited for whatever happened next.

Finally, the call of a bullroarer thrummed loudly on the night air and the camera footage jolted as Daniel gave a relieved sigh.

“That’s the all-clear, right?”

“Yeah.” Hoeff’s voice. “All clear.”

The video ended abruptly. The audience blinked as the house lights came back up, and murmured amongst themselves.

“…So?”

“It was a probing raid from one of the disaffected tribes on the periphery of the valley. They snuck up along the riverbank under cover of night.”

“And what happened?”

“Steel knives and spears versus knapped flint and wooden clubs. They retreated before anybody was seriously hurt. Julian’s Surefire light did a lot of the work, too—Ten’Gewek have very sensitive night vision.”

“Why weren’t those servicemen down there?”

Another rehearsed question, and Daniel accepted it with a grateful nod. “This was… we were never in any real danger. Let’s get that straight immediately. This sort of thing is almost normal in their society. It’s like… when I was in the scouts, we’d raid each other’s dorms and steal stuff or dump water in somebody’s bed just to show that we could. Right?”

“I’m pretty sure you didn’t bring knives and spears to the party,” Steven said drily.

“No, but we still wore our clothes. And believe me, a Ten’Gewek man without his knives would feel just as naked as I would have if I’d raided a dorm in just my underwear.”

“So…why?”

“Yan is the Chief of the Given-Men. Challenging him on his own turf is brave. The fact that nothing actually happened is beside the point.”

“…Again, why?”

“To show off for their women and to the other tribes,” Daniel replied. “To prove to themselves they’re brave. But most importantly, to impress Yan. Here’s what he had to say about it afterwards…”

Daniel had taken the ensuing footage the next morning on too little sleep, too much coffee and the dregs of last night’s adrenaline, which he hoped excused the slightly unsteady camera footage. His GoPro did a good job of compensating for little twitchy movements thanks to modern advances in image processing and field optics, but there was only so much it could do.

Yan looked fresh, energized and full of life. “Was good raid! Brave! Smart!” he boomed. The big dude was bouncing in place with an almost Vemik-like glee at the evening’s activity. “They come, they stand up strong, they go before any stupid hurt. Later, maybe our tribes meet and we +BLEEP+!”

Slightly shocked laughs rippled around the studio. There was no mistaking that expression on his face, nor the lecherous trilling of the other men. Allison could be seen raising her eyebrow in the corner of the video, which only drove Yan to greater heights.

“You curious, Sky-Storm? Yan can teach!”

Allison—whom Yan outmassed many times over—huffed and a smile plucked at the corner of her lips. “You couldn’t handle me, big guy.”

There were cheers and laughter from the audience, matched and exceeded by Yan himself who trilled uproariously and swaggered away with a spring in his step and a certain…twitch in his tail.

“I should invite him on,” Steven said seemingly without realizing.

“Invite Vemik! Your control room will never work right again.”

More laughs. It was a shame that Daniel didn’t have as much footage of Vemik being his usual enthusiastically curious mobile disaster-area self to show this time, but it had all been off-topic. He was here to make a point after all.

“This is all very entertaining…” Steven said, and brought the conversation back on script.

“There is a point to it,” Daniel promised. “Two points, really. The first is that we do the same thing. Every time Russian bombers stray near British airspace, every time the US sends a carrier group through the South China Sea, every time soldiers goose-step at each other across a demilitarized zone…it’s the same thing. It just feels less civilized when the Ten’Gewek do it because we’ve been doing it for longer and we’ve added a few layers of harmless pomp and ceremony. We probe each other’s borders and posture, and so do they. The only difference is that their cutting edge military technology is a steel knife, while ours is a Firebird or a Weaver…

“But the big point,” he continued, “was summed up beautifully by Xiù in that clip. ‘He’s a man of the tribe. He has to fight.’ The Ten’Gewek live something on a daily basis that’s becoming increasingly absent from our lives: Purpose. Belonging. Being part of something bigger than working for somebody else’s profit just so you can make rent at the end of the month.”

“Hence the theme of your book.”

“Exactly.” Daniel rested one leg lightly atop the other. “Purpose. People need it, people want it, people spend their whole lives desperately looking for it. In church, in their families, in their career…wherever! And a lot don’t find it.”

“Why not?” Steven asked

“I think… we’re big thinkers, these days. Everybody has a head full of the big problems in life, the big crusades that they want to see a seismic shift in. You know, the things like women’s suffrage, racial equality, LGBT rights, protecting the Constitution, freedom of speech…and those are worthy fights. But they’re too big for one person to fix in just one lifetime, so if the purpose you’ve internalized and made into the only one that matters for you is one of those and you labor for decades only to see nothing change—or worse, backslide—is it any wonder that it hurts you in your soul?

“So… yeah. Have your big mission, by all means! The world needs dreamers. But you need a small mission, something little and parochial on a scale your monkey brain can grasp. The well-being of a handful of people who are near and dear to you.”

Steven tilted his head. “I can hear people accusing you of being parochial and selfish already.”

“Well, yeah! I am being! Because humans are parochial and selfish by nature! We can think bigger than that and we should think bigger than that, but that side of ourselves is a little skinny rider sitting on top of a big elephant. The rider can persuade the elephant, but he can never force the elephant. When the sun sets and you go home there needs to be something small and personal waiting for you, even if it’s just… keeping your kitchen tidy, your bed made and your clothes ironed. Even if it’s just looking sexy for your spouse, or making progress on your matchstick boat, or writing another page of your novel.”

Daniel stopped waving his hands and settled down again. “I go into this in much more detail in the book,” he said.

“How thick is this thing?” Steven asked, and got a chuckle.

Daniel joined in, then looked back up at the big screen where a slideshow of some of his best pictures from Akyawentuo were fading across each other.

“…Let me tell you how the encounter ended, for closure’s sake,” he said.

“Sure.”

“The next day, Yan and all the men of his tribe went over to the other’s territory. They did everything they could to announce their presence. They were brash, hooted loudly, all that. Their Given-Men met…and I guess the best word for what happened next is like pro wrestling, or a Haka, or something. By the end of the day they were all friends, the tribes got together…and, well. They did what Yan said they’d do. Ten’Gewek do that.”

A small smirk flitted across his face. “Julian wanted me to stress that he didn’t join in that particular duty.”

There were nervous giggles, and Daniel’s grin got both broader and eviller. “Though because he’s my good friend I can’t resist letting you folks know that he was offered…”

Steven made an incredulous noise. “Boy oh boy I can’t wait to get viewer email this week, folks.” The nervous giggling became more heartfelt laughter and then settled.

“It’s important to note, though. It’s important because we need to keep ourselves very aware of taboos and cultures if we’re going to have any hope to understand them, and help them grow. Hell, their psychology too. It’s just different enough to trip us up if we’re not careful…and that’s what this little story was meant to show. That understanding is critical. We need to help them understand their purpose amongst the Sky-Tribes, as Yan so economically put it one day.”

“And that, tragically, is all the time I can afford to give you, Daniel…” Steven said. It was pretty obvious his producer was prodding him hard to move forward. “Which personally I think is a tragedy, and I know the panel tonight will be very interesting…”

He got a series of agreeable noises from the crowd and one guy even shouted “keep him on!” Daniel held up a hand to the superfan.

“No, no. I don’t want to take up other people’s worthy time,” he said. “It’s a big subject, I can’t go over it all here on this stage.”

“But we can,” Steven pointed out, “have you back next week.”

Whoops and cheering let them both know how that suggestion was received and Daniel grinned. He’d enjoyed popularity before of course but now…

“I guess I’ll still be in town…” he conceded, as though his appearance next week hadn’t already been negotiated before he ever set foot in New York.

“Well then… Daniel Hurt, it’s been as magical as ever, and I’ll see you later on for the panel…” They stood, shook hands, Daniel took a shallow appreciative bow for the applause and retreated out of the limelight to let Steven get his show back on track.

Mission half accomplished.


Date Point: 15y5m AV
Hell, Hunter Space

Rachel Wheeler

Hunters were… well… hunters. They were lazy, sloppy and bullyish hunters with no appreciation or respect for their prey that relied more on overwhelming numbers and a vast technological advantage to bring about mass slaughter, but they were hunters nevertheless. They had the instincts, the senses and the wariness of born predators even though their utterly crazy corkscrew moral compasses had persuaded them to engineer every possible need for those things out of their hunts.

It was hard to tell whether or not that made sneaking up on them easier. They were certainly capable of sharp sensory acuity and situational awareness, especially with assorted cybernetic sensors in place of at least two of their eyes… but their sheer swaggering certainty in their own invulnerability was hopefully an Achilles heel.

Ray didn’t intend to make the same mistake as her enemy.

They weren’t there to attack, that day. As much as her finger itched to start pulling the trigger and never stop, they had exactly one shot at stealing that Hunter ship and escaping, and if they blew it by taking out years of frustration and fear on the Hunters at the wrong moment… well, none of them were getting out alive. A hunt like none they’d ever seen would come down.

So instead, they were recording a hunt for later analysis. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to record.

What they found was…a depressingly simple tactic. They pretty much just charged and attacked. This was undeniably effective against a panicking herd of Vgork whose alpha bull fell to the dirt with crushed ribs and a concave forehead in the opening volley, but there was no style to it, no finesse. The Hunters treated the casual slaughter of a dozen sapient beings like Ray would have treated grabbing some cold cuts from the fridge.

Back when they had cold cuts, anyway. Or a fridge.

They only took half the herd, she noted. The rest—juveniles and pregnant females—were permitted to escape, so there was at least some discipline and thought behind the assault. They let the herds regenerate between assaults, which might take years considering how slowly a sapient being normally matured.

The unfortunate adult males and older females, plus one or two who’d simply been unlucky enough to catch a stray pulse round, were promptly set upon and torn to bloody pieces. Most were not lucky enough to have died first.

Thank anything remotely holy for extreme telephoto lenses. The sights in Ray’s viewfinder were horrific enough, she really didn’t want to hear the agonized squealing as well. What few noises did reach them from the feeding frenzy below and far away were stomach-churning and heart-wrenching.

To her left, Cook made a softly interested noise rather than a repulsed one. “No tactics at all.”

“They don’t need them,” Ray commented. One of the larger vgork males was still on his feet and he lowered his head and charged. He looked about as big as a draft horse, and Ray’s instincts said anything that big charging hell-for-leather into something as spindly-looking as a Hunter ought to smash it like a Jenga tower.

The Hunter just snarled ferally as its personal shield emitter deflected the charge, and then gutted the heroic male with a lazy swipe of its fusion claws.

“Those could dismember us just as readily,” she pointed out. They were speaking quietly, almost in a whisper, despite the open distance and the masking din of the hunt.

Cook nodded. “Yup. Think that shield’s any good against bullets?”

“That’s a question for Jamie…”

The last of the unfortunate ETs finally and mercifully expired. Once upon a time, Ray would have crossed herself. Instead she willed her stomach to settle down and focused more on what the Hunters were doing.

“…Gotta be hard to see with their eyes full of blood like that,” she commented.

“Hard to smell anything too. Or hear anything, I bet.”

“How d’you figure that?”

“All them bones in the mouth going crrrunch…” Cook actually lavished the word, the sick bastard.

Ray repeated her urgent instructions to her belly that it was to sit down, shut up and think about something else, and gulped back on her disgust. “Fuck sake, Cook…”

“Whatever… Point is, we found our moment. Lookit them, not a one’s on lookout or nothing. They’re just pigging out, oblivious. We could walk right up to them and shank the fuckers.”

“Let’s save shanking for if the rifles don’t work…” Ray murmured. She aimed her viewfinder at the Hunters’ ship, which had looped back around and come in to land after firing its assault pods into the ground right in the herd’s midst. As far as she could tell, whatever bottom-of-the-pile dreg that had been left to fly it had piled out as quickly as it possibly could and left it empty.

It occurred to her that the top of that ramp looked like the kind of spot three people with guns could make good use of…

“…I’ve seen enough,” she declared.

“Aww, Ray. Thought you were made of stronger stuff.”

“No, I mean I’ve seen as much as I need to see,” Ray retorted, and bit down on the urge to call him the uncharitable thing that had just popped into her head. There were times she worried if maybe Cook might like what he did, in a twisted way.

“Yeah, I gotcha,” he promised. “This shit gets to me too.”

Ray truly hoped he was being sincere.

They backed off from the ridge and retreated into the foliage once again, back towards the canyons where home awaited. As awful as Ray was feeling, underneath it all there was some hope at last.

Their plan was beginning to look like it might actually work.


Date Point: 15y5m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Chief Special Warfare Operator Daniel (Chimp) Hoeff

Hoeff had to admit he liked Vemik. The young gorilla guy had an enthusiastic fizz that never went away and a lust for life that Hoeff felt a kinship for. Size differences aside they were both the “little” guy in their social circles—though Vemik hugely outweighed Hoeff and was actually quite strong for a young man of the People—and both loved tweaking their betters. After all, what was the point of living if a man didn’t push boundaries?

And both of them were very good at getting themselves into trouble. Julian had the hardest job of the group ‘cuz he was gonna be Sky-Thinker’s minder for the week-long visit to Sharman. Partly that was ‘cuz he was prol’ly the best human friend Sky-Thinker had, but mostly it was because he could wrestle the hyperactive geek down to the ground if he got too excited. Hoeff would be escorting Yan. He may have been about as big as ‘Horse and could rip trees right out of the ground, but Yan was a pretty chill dude most of the time so showing him the sights and sounds would be a much easier job.

Even if Yan didn’t like his music.

Hoeff honestly didn’t even know the lyrics to the song he had on full blast right now. It wasn’t real Metal if you could make out the words. That was an idea that offended Yan’s sense of civilization.

[“It sounds like a Yshek getting ripped apart by a Brown One.”] He immediately made some kind of gesture, then scowled at Hoeff’s headphones.

Hoeff grinned. “That’s about the nicest thing you’ve said about it so far!”

[“That was not a compliment.”]

Hoeff grabbed his spit bottle and deposited a healthy dollop of filthy brown saliva and juice. “Sure,” he nodded as he screwed the lid back on. “But I’mma take it as one. The whole point is gettin’ in touch with the Beast.”

That prompted an odd look and a shiver down Yan’s long-ass tail. Was that their equivalent of a shrug? Maybe. [“Commune with beasts? But you don’t hunt.”]

“Not here, no. I ain’t anywhere near strong enough ‘cept with a rifle. But I ain’t talkin’ about animals, I mean the Beast. That badass monster inside ‘yer head, y’know?”

Yan regarded him again in that intense, studious way he did when he was thinking. [“…I think I understand. We call it the Fire. Every man has the Fire, but Given-Men are Taken by it.”]

Hoeff nodded, partly to agree but mostly because the really good bit with the drums and rhythm guitar goin’ balls-to-the-wall had kicked in. He’d come outta a lot of mosh pits bloody and deaf over the years, and the best bits were always like this.

Drums seemed to itch a man’s soul in just the right way and that went across species. Tigger—the Great Father these days, anyway—used to love anything with a strong beat. Yan eventually succumbed and put one of Hoeff’s earbuds in his own to listen.

[“…Maybe this part is okay.”]

Note to self: find some good drum corps recordings and see if Yan liked them.

They were waiting for the jump gate, of course. The sync time was still a good ten minutes away and they’d already got everything they’d need packed up and put on the pad.

“Wanna know the best bit? You hear the deep drum there goin’ BRRRRRRR real fast like that?”

“…Yes?”

“He’s doin’ that with his fuckin’ feet.”

“Maybe human feet not so dumb then!” Yan scooped up a big rock from the ground with his left foot, whipped his leg up and threw it right at Hoeff’s chest…with startling power and accuracy. Hoeff’s hands snatched up just in time to catch it.

Point made, but species honor was at stake now. “I can still outrun you any day, big guy.”

“Not over close ground!”

Hoeff chuckled and turned around to watch whatever the younger guys were up to.

Julian, optimistically, was trying to get some of his homework for Daniel done while enjoying the shade of a nearby tree. Vemik was doing homework of his own, in fact. They had given him a huge sketchbook with really thick paper, and a whole bunch of big pencils so he could doodle or play with what were suspiciously starting to look like letters. That suspicion was confirmed when Vemik started speaking words with a heavy exaggeration at the syllables, then furiously scribbling in his book after each attempt. He and Singer had been trading the book back and forth and it was almost full; they were going to stop by the art supply shop at some point and stock up.

It kinda seemed to be working. Hoeff had been expecting their favorite cavemonkey nerd to be geeking out fit to explode about now but if there was one thing Vemik loved more than something cool about to happen, it was something cool he was already doing.

…For uniquely Vemik definitions of “cool” anyway.

[“What’re you doin, buddy?”] Julian had a Moleskine book of his own and had apparently decided on a break. Yan noticed Hoeff’s eavesdropping and sidled up to Not Listen himself.

[“Sky-Thinking. I thought, maybe I should make a memory-scratch for each sound? But some tribes don’t have all the same sounds. We have to learn them if they live far away. Singer likes to scratch differently. Hers are all…um…words? Thoughts? Also, her scratches are all loops and round shapes, hard to do. Lines are easier.”] He waggled his pencil between two thick fingers.

[“I can see the good in either. We have many ways of writing. They’re not better, just different.”]

Yan grunted. “Friend-lie,” he said quietly. It was a harsher accusation in English than in Peoplespeak—a ‘friend-lie’ was just how the People called being diplomatic.

“No,” Julian overheard and defended himself, “I meant it. You never got into the weird parts of English writing. It stops making sense really fast.”

Hoeff scoffed. “Yeah, but bro. Chinese.”

“Yeah, and people who speak mutually unintelligible languages can all write understandable Chinese characters, man. Cantonese and Mandarin are completely different.”

Hoeff chuckled. “…Yeah, okay. Guess you’d know more about the Chinese tongue than me,” he joked, and waggled his eyebrows.

Julian wasn’t impressed. “Careful bud. I’m just makin’ an observation.”

“…Alright, yeah. That was rude of me.” Hoeff had a talent for foot-in-mouth sometimes. “I’m sorry.”

Julian shrugged. “No worries.” He absent-mindedly reached into his leather hip pouch, grabbed what looked like a hard candy of some kind, and returned his attention to his book.

Vemik, of course, could not allow a New Thing to escape his attention. “What is that?” His tongue flicked out to taste the air around Julian’s face.

“It’s a peppermint!” Julian rolled it around in his mouth and held it between his front teeth. “An yoo can’ haff any!”

Vemik tilted his head, thought for a moment…and shot his half-meter long prehensile tongue out and ripped the mint right from between Julian’s teeth.

Julian fell to the ground and almost choked himself out coughing. Vemik, meanwhile, had retreated as high as he could, bit down on the mint…and had regrets.

It took a few minutes before Hoeff could easily breathe again, and that was only because continuing to laugh was straight-up painful. His gut hurt like he’d been doing crunches all morning and in that time, Yan had told everybody, Vemik had washed the hateful burning out of wherever the fuck was hurting, and Julian had sat up and couldn’t stop chugging water…

“Well, Etsicitty. Guess you get to be the first guy who Frenched a cavemonkey.” Hoeff wasn’t even trying to keep a straight face. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell ‘yer girls.”

Julian wearily nodded and looked at Vemik, who seemed appropriately contrite and all that…whenever he wasn’t sneezing pathetically. A Ten’Gewek sneeze was more like a weird hissing hiccup sound through the roof of the mouth with a squeak on the end.

“…Sorry.”

“Good. And that’s important, Vemik. Do not eat things unless you know if they’re safe!”

“Safe for Human not always safe for People,” Yan agreed. Beer had taught him a valuable life-long lesson, there.

“Okay.”

Hoeff’s watch alarm went off. “Two minutes,” he said, glancing at it. “Get on the pad and don’t get off it again.”

“Everything has to be inside the yellow lines or it will be cut sharper than any knife,” Julian elaborated.

The four of them ambled up onto the metal gridwork of the shuttle frame. Neither Julian nor the gorilla-bros liked walking on the high-traction ridged panels with their bare feet all that much, but they liked the idea of losing toes even less. Hoeff wore his boots; fuck that Tarzan bullshit. Climbing trees was one thing, sure. Barefoot was just better for that. But humans invented shoes for a reason and Hoeff’s feet were too pretty to scuff up on jagged rocks and shit.

Besides: the panels weren’t there to be comfortable, they were there to provide some safety margin so the field wouldn’t literally slice the bottom of their feet off. And even still they weren’t heavy-duty enough for the job; the metal gridplate groaned painfully as Julian then Vemik stepped on, and practically squealed when Yan sauntered on-board the USS Magic Box.

Everyone settled in and waited the spare minute before go-time. Hoeff’s watch beeped at final countdown. He glanced at it, counted off a few seconds in his head, Five Mississippi, four Mississippi, three…

[“…What will this feel like?”] Yan had curled his tail around his waist and sat on his haunches to be extra-super sure his wild crest was below the line.

Thump.

“…Like that.”

Yan barely heard him. He was blinking dumbstruck at the jump receiving room in HMS Sharman which was basically just a big concrete warehouse space with some cargo doors at one end, a pair of human-sized double doors at the other end, some safety equipment along one wall and the locker full of emergency recall orders on the other.

The sterile white LED lighting was probably nasty stuff to a Ten’Gewek’s jungle-adjusted eyes.

Vemik discovered the low gravity instantly. Julian snatched him out of the air on the second bounce and chuckled fondly, “Not now buddy. We gotta do Given-Men things first.”

“Okay.” Vemik immediately wriggled free of Julian’s grasp, scrambled onto his back and wrapped himself completely around Julian with arms around chest, legs and tail around waist. It was amazing how young and free-spirited Vemik still was after everything that had happened.

Julian bore it all with a quiet grunt and a chuckle, like he wasn’t wrangling a hyperactive spacegorilla who beat iron all day and hunted big-ass critters with a spear. Better him than Hoeff; he wasn’t into being crushed flat by a shorter dude nearly thrice his own weight.

Both of the Ten’Gewek were still completely innocent of the real world, too. Yan flinched when the disembodied voice of a jump technician addressed them. “Jump transfer complete, please disembark for decontamination and scan. Welcome to HMS Sharman, Planet Cimbrean.”

Governor-General Sandy was awaiting them, along with Ambassador Rockefeller and all the rest of the dog-and-pony show. Hoeff almost managed not to sigh, but he was glad as all hell to see Coombes and Walsh standing to one side. Walsh had come on ahead the day before to make preparations, and Coombes was looking damn good like his cushy desk job was agreeing with him.

Yan rumbled under his breath and pointed with his chin towards Governor Sandy. “He is Given-Man, yes?”

“…Sorta. Close enough.”

That seemed to be good enough for Yan. He straightened up to his full height and walked carefully towards the assembled entourage.

Sir Jeremy stepped forward as well and met him halfway. “On behalf of His Majesty the King, I would like to welcome you to our home.” He extended his hand, which Yan considered with a tilt of his head and a twitch of his tail. He reached out and completely wrapped his paw around Sandy’s own…and didn’t cause an incident.

“I am… pleased and grateful to be here,” he said in English of a far better quality than he usually bothered with. Yan must have been listening to Daniel much closer than he let on. He then stepped back, stood as impressively as he could, and thumped his chest loudly with his open left hand. “Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge.”

“Sir Jeremy Sandy, Governor-General of His Majesty’s Colony of Folctha,” Sandy replied. He half-turned to one of his hangers-on, who stepped forward and handed him a small black box. “I understand in your culture we should exchange knives.”

Hoeff took one look at the blade as the box opened and whistled under his breath. And like a goddamned boot, drew the attention of the fucking Governor.

Sandy pulled about the worst trick in the book and looked faintly amused. “I trust you approve, Chief?”

“…Yessir.”

The bastard smiled, and meant it, too. Hoeff was already imagining the Motivation that was gonna result in and consigned himself to his fate.

Yan meanwhile accepted the knife for inspection. “…I have never seen Steel like this,” he said. That was a goddamn understatement, the thing was a work of art. It musta cost thousands and like a month of a master bladesmith’s time. It was sized for him, too; the damn thing was almost a short sword and everything about it screamed both form and function in perfect harmony.

Yan’s knife was in its own way no less impressive. It was a traditional flint-knapped design he had spent nearly all of his free time carefully making, refining it down to polished perfection. The stone was almost translucent and there wasn’t a single visible blemish. He had made it sized against Julian’s hands, which made the whole thing even more impressive. There were three colors of wood in the handle!

“Jooyun tell me, your tribe does Givings when they meet. So, this is for you. Is not steel, but a good knife is an important Giving.”

“Good stone takes expert craftsmanship,” Sir Jeremy replied. “This is a fine Giving indeed, and we thank you. In turn, this knife is yours. May it mean Friendship for our peoples.”

Yan nodded seriously. For a Given-Man, that was tantamount to a treaty. Sir Jeremy moved introductions along to Ambassador Rockafeller, which Hoeff sorta tuned out. He was more interested in what happened when Julian finally put Vemik down with probably whispered threats if he didn’t behave.

He did, for the most part. It was obvious that Vemik was itching to inspect literally everything, right down to the carpets, the lighting, the fire extinguisher in the corner. He’d probably have torn open the network cabinets to get a better look at the flashing lights if left to his own devices.

Fortunately, the diplomatic necessities didn’t take long, and Hoeff returned to the here-and-now when Sandy raised his voice a little for the benefit of all the hangers-on.

“We do not intend to keep you bogged down here with formalities, Yan Given-Man and Vemik Sky-Thinker. So, having made your fine acquaintances, if you have no objections I shall take my leave and get out of your way.”

Yan trilled at the implied meaning. “Is smart Given-Man! Gov-er-nor. …Governor?”

“Well said! We shall speak again soon, Yan Given-Man.”

As the party broke up, Walsh ambled over to join them. He grinned and imitated Hoeff’s low whistle with an expression of pure trollish delight.

“Coombes is gonna work you over for that, little guy!”

“No he won’t,” Hoeff retorted. “He’ll just order you an’ Playboy here to go all Hanz and Franz on me some more.”

Julian rolled his eyes slightly at his hated callsign, but folded his big arms and said nothing. Coombes had worked his way through the crowd and nodded agreeably as he entered the microdrama himself. “Sounds good, thanks for the advice Chimp. See to your Motivation tomorrow morning. Me too, I’ve been behind a desk for too long.”

Honestly that sounded like he got off with a friendly warning which Hoeff wasn’t gonna complain about. That was for later, though: time to move the show along.

“Anyway. We got shit to do and I for one am fuckin’ dying to sleep on a real mattress for a change. I take it we’ll all be living at Julian’s McMansion—”

“Hey!”

“—Perfectly reasonable home. We get started right away, and first thing’s gonna be gravity.”

That had caught Vemik’s interest. Not that it was hard to attract it in the first place, but still. [“What will we doing?”]

“Vemik, my friend…we’re gonna play a game I think you’re gonna love. It’s called… Gravball.”


Date Point 15y5m AV
Gravball arena, HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Scott (Starfall) Blaczynski

“Okay. Okay, big question time: Who the fuck do I put my money on in this match?”

It had been an obvious question when Yan and Warhorse had squared against each other on opposite sides of the starting lines. Yan’s tail twitched to and fro like a cat’s, while Adam’s huge muscles tensed and quivered like a draft horse ready and eager to pull. They stared each other down for a long while. Adam gave a feral grin, Yan snarled and bared his fangs, and when the whistle blew, the two slammed into each other with a smack so loud it could practically be felt.

Grappling was more or less all the two did throughout all the Gravball games, which effectively nullified them as players. Firth and ‘Base took over as goalkeepers since they were the only people besides the two combatants who were strong enough to move the goal in the first place.

All that had been five games ago. They were still wrestling over three hours after that first starting whistle, with no obvious winner. That had, of course, prompted a vigorous betting pool.

“Dude…” drawled Walsh, “I’d say they’re about fuckin’ tied. They’re both too heavy and strong to properly measure and they can move just stupid fast…they’re, like, the ultimate space-Bros. On the one hand, there’s Adam. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, and he’s got way more stamina. Also he’s the most determined dude I’ve ever met and he knows how to fuckin’ fight…”

Walsh paused for a moment when Adam, as if to drive home the point, broke loose and tossed Yan about twenty goddamned feet straight up under the area’s crushing gravity. Undaunted, Yan flipped himself over mid-fall and slammed into ‘Horse like a fuckin’ meteor. They wrestled on, oblivious to everyone but themselves.

Walsh eyed the two warily. “…But on the other hand, Yan’s a goddamned slab of iron, only bro I’ve ever seen who’s just as fuckin’ hard an’ ripped as ‘Horse. He’s tough as shit, too. Fuckin’ nothin’ hurts ‘em, man! Plus, he’s a goddamned monkey. He’s more nimble than ‘Horse, he’s got those long-ass arms, rock-crushing hands for feet and a fuckin’ prehensile tail he could kill a man with…”

“So…who am I betting on?”

Powell had descended from the lofty heights of command to personally take the field for this one. He took one look at the two—they were still wrestling in the sand—and made a single, solemn pronouncement.

“All bets are off. I’ll referee, I’m not fookin’ puttin’ myself in the middle o’ that lot.”

“You know what? I’m happy with that.”

Honestly, it was a good goddamned day to be alive! They got to play six games of Gravball, one suited and the rest “skins” so the big monkey dudes could play along. They were fucking naturals at it too, once they got used to the variable gravity. That Vemik guy in particular was a tough little bruiser. He gleefully tackled his way through scrums, took to microgravity like a fish in water, and had a keen eye for the tactics and movement of the game. He didn’t need any real coaching and he could shoot all over the arena. Passing wasn’t his thing but he could catch and run the ball like only Murray or a Whitecrest could, and he could do magic things with that tail of his—!

Julian wasn’t bad either! He mostly stuck with Walsh while he learned the game and discovered he was best put to use zooming around and up the walls, rocketing himself through the microgravity deadspace and bouncing off his team’s Defenders to pass the ball forward. He had a hell of a sense of motion too and could throw the ball better than almost anybody on the team, much to their chagrin. He generally stayed out of the scrum, though; he may have been Walsh-sized lately but he wasn’t exactly suit conditioned, and that meant he wasn’t hard enough to take their hits. He’d be flattened by the veterans if he tried to brawl it out on the sand below.

The real show was Yan and ‘Horse, though. For the most part all the two had done was wrestle and effectively cancel each other out of the game. Watching those two repeatedly slam into each other was like seeing the Unstoppable Force crash against the Immovable Object.

Still, occasionally one of the two would break free and display some game-related athleticism, and Yan had shone just as brightly as Vemik. He played much more like Daar, though; he used his size and power to simply plow everyone out of the way. Someday, a Given-Man was gonna wear the MASS like he was fucking born to it.

Meanwhile, ‘Horse finally had a bro he could play with that he wasn’t in danger of accidentally breaking and that meant the goal was almost never available for scoring. It was exhausting for everyone…except for Hulk and The Juggernaut, apparently, who finally managed to break free of each other in the final game, warred over the goal for a long while…then there was a horrible tortured screeching metal sound as the two of them managed to tear the damn thing in half.

Yan, of course, promptly claimed victory on the grounds that he was left holding the bigger half like it was a fuckin’ wishbone. Adam happily objected and launched himself at Yan with all the strength his hulking legs could manage. He knocked them both completely across the fucking arena and into the far wall with a smack so loud just hearing it was physically painful, and the pair of them promptly vanished in a cloud of kicked-up sand. Back to wrestling, apparently.

Powell paused play on account of all the sand and concrete dust filling the zero-grav volume in the middle of the arena. It was a hazard to eyes and breathing when it hung in the air like that, so he just turned the gravity up. Way up. ‘Horse and Yan didn’t seem to notice and settled into another long stalemate of a match, while everyone else caught their breath and watched.

It looked like neither man could possibly have been happier.

“See, this is the humblin’ part,” grumbled Righteous after watching for a few minutes. “You always suspect ‘Horse is holdin’ back when he toys with ‘ya, y’know? But every now an’ then you get to see what he can really do and ‘ya ain’t suspectin’ no more.”

Everyone nodded silently. They grappled, threw, slammed and chased each other with the kind of comic-book strength that only a HEAT member would truly appreciate. The match continued long enough for everyone to get drinks and towel down, and by the time they were about ready to move on for the day, the two somehow decided at that moment they were done and flopped onto the sand, both gulping breath like fish out of water.

Powell left them gasping for a few seconds then shrugged and blew his whistle. “Match ends in a draw!” he announced. “An’ somehow you lot have gone and broke my goal yet a-bloody-gain.”

Yan trilled in the dirt, scrubbed his sweaty back into the sand like he was taking a dust bath, then rolled forward until he was sitting up. “Was GOOD!” he announced, and aimed his grinning fangs ‘Horse’s way. “Will do again someday. Maybe you win next time!”

That got ‘Horse up off his ass. “Maybe I—? ¡Mira qué cabrón!”

…And just like that, they were wrestling again.

Powell and Firth shared one of those spooky looks that officers and their NCOICs often did. “Right. Let’s leave the two mutants to it,” Firth decided. “Vemik and Julian have appointments, the rest of us have a trauma class with ‘Base.” He tossed the arena control to Hoeff. “Don’t let ‘em knock the building down.”

Hoeff glanced at the two combatants and looked genuinely nonplussed. “…How would I stop them?”

“I dunno, figure it out. I got shit to do.”

“…Yes, Master Sergeant.”

Firth gave him a friendly smile. “Sorry to dump that on ‘ya, Chief, but we can’t miss our schedule. We’re already running behind…” and with that little hint, everyone piled out of the room and booked it back to the classroom.

Still, it was a good day! A quick run through the showers, they said goodbye to Julian and Vemik—they were going to the art supply store apparently—and then a couple hours of boring refresher on combat first aid. ‘Base was a good teacher, but still.

They didn’t see either of the wrestlers until the next day.


Date Point 15y5m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

Xiù is being given the grand tour of Wei’s offices in Vancouver, getting the full VIP treatment. She’s proud of her little-big brother and his achievements: who could imagine that they’d be able to 3D print Dizi Rats? Okay, so they go squish in the mechanism half the time but what an achievement!

Really, the only problem is that she really needs to pee but every restroom in the building is closed, or the door is hanging off, or just as she’s finally able to make her excuses somebody interrupts her and it’s almost like the whole world is conspiring to stop her from—

Oh.

She woke up and blinked at the ceiling. Right. She wasn’t in Vancouver, she was in Folctha, sleeping in the biggest bed she’d ever even heard of which still managed to be kinda empty even though Allison was right next to her. It was custom-made for three, after all.

It kinda sucked that their first night in their new house had been spent without Julian. The timing had just come together wrong that way. He’d wanted to be there she knew, but when ambassadors and governors and Given-Men had big meetings…

Akyawentuo and Cimbrean had very different diurnal periods, so if Julian was meant to be getting Yan and Vemik onto the jump pad for shortly after dawn local time, in Folctha the jump might be scheduled for nine in the morning, and the preparations had to start twelve hours earlier…

He’d persuaded them to move in anyway, rather than wait another day in the hotel room. What was the point of paying for a suite in the Statler when their own house was less than two miles away? It made sense… but Xiù had missed him last night, and so had Allison.

She rolled out of bed and slipped into the en-suite bathroom, trying to shake off the alien feeling of an unfamiliar house. She loved the place already, it had everything she could possibly want in a home and without the soulless too-clean, too-wealthy feel that she’d always got when seeing the houses of the rich and famous on TV. Big enough to be spacious, cozy enough to be a home rather than a mansion, and pleasantly decorated with their stuff rather than an assortment of expensive art just for decoration’s sake.

And the shower. God, the shower. And the kitchen—!

It was perfect, but after spending years living packed in like canned fish in room smaller than their new bedroom, the transition was…she’d need time to adapt.

And it had privacy. A quirk of the local terrain and architecture meant that there were very few angles indeed from which an outside observer might see in, and they’d mirrored the external windows for good measure. She didn’t bother to dress after her shower, just dried herself off, dried and brushed her hair, slipped on a pair of briefs and trotted downstairs to explore what morning felt like in her new home.

She made maple bacon breakfast muffins with fresh coffee, the smells of which never failed to wake Allison.

The stairs didn’t creak or anything though, so she jumped at a warm, soft “hey” from behind her.

Allison leaned against the doorframe. She’d only half-dressed herself, in pajama pants, and she leaned against the doorframe with her hair still bed-wild and untouched. “…Did I ever mention that I love you?”

Xiù laughed and took the pan off the range to hide her blush. “…Yeah, I think I remember hearing you say that.”

Allison grinned like a cat and sauntered into the room. “Whatcha makin’?”

“Breakfast.”

Allison snorted. “I can see that, wiseass.” She slipped a hand around Xiù’s waist and peeked over her shoulder into the pan. “I meant—”

“Sit down and you’ll find out when it’s ready.”

“Mmm. Yes ma’am.”

“Good g—”

Xiù’s phone rang. The house had a smart system that could divert calls anywhere but as it happened she’d left her phone charging on the coffee table last night, so she gave Allison a look that sad ‘get that for me?’ and tried to remember where they kept the plates.

Allison skipped over to the table and grabbed it. “Hello? …Yes, this is her phone…”

Xiù tried to listen as she served out their breakfast, but all she could make out was that there was somebody speaking on the other end, not what they were saying. Allison nodded and said things like “yeah” and “uh-huh” and finally. “…Right. One second please?”

She covered the handset and gave Xiù a sly look. “Well. The Mother-Supreme requests the pleasure of your company.”

“That’s Yulna?” Xiù asked, briefly wondering why Allison wasn’t just handing the phone over until she was answered by a shake of the head.

“Somebody called Sister Yiini. I don’t think the Mother-Supreme gets to make her own phone calls.”

“Oh.” That was a little disappointing. “Well… yeah! Of course! If Yulna wants to see me I always have time for her.”

“Thought you’d say that,” Allison grinned, and returned to the call. “Yeah, she’s available… Wow. Really? Uh… two hours, I guess?” She met Xiù’s eye and was given a nod. “Yeah, two hours…Uh… yeah. Yeah, I’ll come as well if I’m invited. Thanks.”

“I wonder what’s up?” Xiù mused as she set their breakfast down on the table.

“She’s sending a shuttle out for us, so I doubt it’s a social call…” Allison washed her hands before sitting down.

“The Mother-Supreme doesn’t get social calls…” Xiù sighed.

“That…doesn’t sound good.”

“It’s a whole… thing. Giymuy told me over those weird biscuits she liked, it’s not a job you can set aside. You can quit, but otherwise… in a way you are the Clan of Females. Yulna would never have chosen it for herself.”

“I always figure the people in charge shouldn’t want to be…” Allison said as she picked up her breakfast.

Xiù sighed. “Maybe… Yulna’s kinda like an aunt to me, but… between us, I worry if maybe Giymuy made a mistake.”

“Because of Daar.”

“Yulna was always one to, um… to do or say whatever was on her mind. Straightforward. Blunt. A lot like you, really. But, um…”

“Right. I’d be a shitty President.” Allison nodded and took a huge bite out of her breakfast muffin.

“Sorry.”

Allison shook her head viciously, still chewing. “Don’ gimme tha’. Iff I effer run fer preffiden’, pweaff hit me upffide the head.”

Xiù laughed. “You asked for it.”

Allison swallowed. “Hell yeah! I’d probably start World War Three inside a week. Like, I wouldn’t mean to and the other guy would totally shoot first…”

“Oh come on, you’re not that bad!”

Allison gave her a grin with a wrinkle of her nose thrown in for good measure, but whatever she had planned to say next got lost when the door beeped, clicked, and a whirlwind of dark gray-brown skin and blaze orange mohawk pounced in stinking healthily of jungle, leather and a pathological aversion to bathing with water.

Julian’s voice followed him into the room. “Vemik, don’t you break any of my shit!”

“I won’t!”

Vemik dumped a couple of armloads of art supplies on the ground and stood up to his full height, beaming mightily.

Xiù was faintly amazed at how quickly her fight-or-flight reflex had settled down once she realized who it was. “What did you get?”

“Sketchbooks! And colored pencils! And crayons, and markers, and—”

Allison cleared her throat and stood up to kiss Julian then vanished upstairs with a muttered “clothes” to explain herself. Xiù doubted whether Vemik even cared how much they were wearing—male or female, his tribe rarely wore more than a loincloth and often not even that—but she wasn’t on board with entertaining guests while wearing only her skivvies, no matter their species.

“Jooyun let me use mun-ee!”

“A credit card,” Julian said with a chuckle. “It’s technically a promise to pay, Vemik.” He ran a hand up Xiù’s back and kissed her. “Sorry I couldn’t be here. How was it?”

“That bed’s too big for just two… You should have told us you were bringing him here!”

Julian gave a wary eye towards Vemik and threw a troll-grin. “Hey now. Fellow tribe or not, I’m not sharin’ my women with him.”

That earned him an entirely deserved slap on the arm and a scowl, with a smile underneath it that promised retribution.

“Is okay!” Vemik said while enthusiastically ripping the plastic wrap off of his huge crayon box. He set it down then thumped his chest loudly with a trilling snarl that was the equivalent of a bragging laugh among the Ten’Gewek. “I too much man for you anyway!”

Julian rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Now you’re recycling Allison’s jokes, bro.”

“Recycling means what? No, wait… cycle again? …Use? Use again! Context!” Vemik beamed proudly and scattered crayons all over the table. The table was a bit high for him so he puzzled at a sturdy wooden chair for a moment, then decided to thread his tail through the rear and wrap it around the chair’s legs. “I’m right, right?”

“You are! But you still aren’t sleeping in my bed.”

“Okay.” Vemik only seemed slightly disappointed; he was far too interested in his new treasures. He held one up and examined it very closely, gave it a tentative taste and, having decided that crayons were not good for eating, turned it over and set to playing with shapes on the first page of one of his sketchbooks. The way the tip of his forked tongue poked out of his mouth while he concentrated super hard on drawing straight lines was…almost painfully adorable.

Allison returned with a T-shirt on and handed Xiù a bathrobe. “Our insurance covers cavemonkey damage, right?”

Vemik made a kind of hooting noise, the Ten’Gewek equivalent of a frustrated snarl. “I promised I would be good,” he said, this time a bit sullenly.

“She’s just teasing…” Xiù promised, putting on the bathrobe.

“Oh.” Back to coloring. There was an actual coloring book too but he was ignoring it for the moment. Allison raised an eyebrow at him, then aimed it at Julian.

“What the hell did the store clerk think of him?” she asked.

Julian grinned and headed for the fridge. “She spent nearly two hours showing him everything. Vemik liked the watercolors—”

“Fun but too messy!”

“…Didn’t like the pastels so much…”

“Break in hand, weak colors.” Vemik was carefully drawing a series of equilateral triangles using a painfully bright yellow crayon, all of which were linked together with shared edges.

“…Did we buy the charcoals, Vemik?”

Vemik rattled his head in the negative. “Break easy like ‘pastels.’ Also we can make ourself. No waste ‘mun-ee’ on burned wood.”

Xiù giggled at Vemik’s unexpected frugality while Julian clapped him on his bulging shoulder. “So yeah, I think she was kinda smitten, actually. Vemik had a fun day. We played some gravball, walked through the park, met Bozo—”

WURF!” Vemik’s happy bark punched the air like a brick slammed into dirt, and was entirely too convincing to let go without a giggle. He reached for black and brown crayons, thought for a bit with his head tilting this way and that, and decided he’d rather go back to drawing triangles.

“That’s a pretty good bark, big fella!” Julian said, returning his attention to Allison. “It was a very busy day, lots of people to talk to. We ended the day wishing at the fountain…we ran out of time and hadn’t eaten, so we decided to grab some burgers at Best Brioche.”

“Blue cheese!” Vemik burbled happily. He picked something tannish and began to sketch a suspiciously bun-like shape. “Much better than mint!” he loaded so much loathing into that one syllable that Xiù sensed a story she’d need to hear later.

“Weird how he’s okay with blue cheese but hates anything minty…” Julian shook his head and chuckled. “Anyway, we know how to Vemik-proof our candy now,” Julian said matter-of-factly, grabbing a juice carton.

“Also, Jooyun’s mouth tasted like farts.” Vemik reached for a green crayon and drew a warble on his bun-shape that must have been lettuce.

Silence made a clanging noise as it descended. Julian closed his eyes.

Allison took a deep breath before breaking it. “….Julian?”

By then he had gone thoroughly red under his deep tan. “Uh… Turns out the Ten’Gewek have prehensile tongues. Ripped a peppermint right out of my mouth.”

“Huh. Well, thank Christ there’s a sane explanation…”

“Yeah…Anyway. On an entirely different note, Yan is going to be staying here too. We’re gonna camp them both in the guest room downstairs.”

“Who’s chaperoning Yan?” Xiù asked, inwardly reflecting that any room with Yan in it wasn’t going to have much space left over for anybody else.

“Hoeff. They should be back soon I imagine.”

“Right, well… we have a shuttle to Tiritya Island in two hours,” Xiù revealed. “Sister Shoo has a meeting with the Mother-Supreme.”

“Jeez, really?”

“We literally found out right before Puppy the Bouncing Bomb here smashed our door down,” Allison explained.

“I didn’t break it!” Vemik objected. He was deciding between greens for the pickle, apparently. “I pressed the button like Jooyun said!”

Xiù stifled a giggle. It seemed that Vemik was never going to quite get his head around Allison’s sense of humor. She was made doubly glad for the bathrobe at the sound of a truck door slamming from outside, followed by Hoeff and Yan’s voices approaching down the driveway. Yan actually blocked out the light from the window as he passed in front of it.

Hoeff opened the door without knocking while Yan squeezed through sideways behind him. He looked…tired. Mellowed out. And satisfied, somehow. He swaggered into the house as if it was his and looked around with interest.

Actually, that was unfair. By Ten’Gewek standards his body language was downright deferential and polite, right down to the low-down twitch of his tail. The problem Yan faced was that his ground state of being was to exude so much physical confidence that wherever he happened to be standing immediately seemed like his turf. He couldn’t not own a space.

“Big hut,” he said at last, approvingly. “Strong.”

Xiù had no idea how “strong” applied in this situation, but the floor didn’t creak too much under his weight, so it had that going for it at least.

Vemik beamed at him. [“I have a promise of things for the villages, Yan! Two ‘sketchbooks’ for each tribe. And other things too!”]

[“Good! Should make Professor Hurt happy!”]

“…Would you like a drink, Yan?” Xiù asked. “We have water, fruit juice, coffee, tea…”

Yan ducked his head cautiously. “Yes please.”

“Water and juice for us both, and a lot of it.” Hoeff sounded…drained, and looked worse.

“Water everywhere here,” Yan said, sitting down on his tail. “Lake, river. Heff says rain every night… foun-tain. Very new thing is foun-tain.”

“The town is named for water,” Julian told him.

Vemik put the finishing touches on his burger and broke out the blue crayons. “It is?”

“Yeah. ‘Folctha’ means ‘bath.’ That’s, uh… like a big bowl you fill with hot water to clean yourself in.”

Yan and Vemik both pulled the same face. Something about doing anything with water other than drinking it triggered a Ten’Gewek’s disgust reflex hard.

“Anyway, you two get ready for your trip. Yan I take it is going to need to stretch out?”

“…Yes. Adam play…hard.” The big Given-Man trilled softly.

“Right. We’ll keep busy. And we have a big day tomorrow anyway, they’re going out to the range to start their training program.”

“Wanna know what amazes me?” Allison asked, glancing out the window. “I don’t see a single journalist out there. You’d think we’d be manning the barricades to hold ‘em off.”

ESNN’s star ET correspondent is ‘Horse’s ex-slash-sister,” Hoeff revealed. “An’ I swear there’s somethin’ goin’ on with her an’ Coombes too.”

Julian frowned. “…Ríos? And Coombes? He’s like twice her age!”

“Pretty sure I didn’t say they were bonin’,” Hoeff drawled as he accepted a glass of juice from Xiù. “If that rumour got started he’d have to explain himself to the whole unit pretty damn quick.”

He drained the glass like it was a beer and he was about to start a night of hard drinking, and set it down with a refreshed gasp. “Anyway. Between her an’ Sharman’s press corps, and the quick interviews we already did today, it’s all under control. Also, Yan.”

Yan turned slightly at the waist from the mention of his name. He was doing nothing more than sitting in the middle of the floor and looking around at things, but all by itself that little twist exaggerated the heroic shapes of his body and lent him a presence commanding enough to give anyone unfamiliar with him pause. Add in a head-to-tail blood red mohawk…

“Another new thing, these ‘reporter’ people. Ask many dumb question,” Yan smarled in an unmistakably annoyed tone. His huge fangs were impossible to miss.

“Well… okay. We need to get dressed and ready,” Xiù said. “I’m sure you can keep yourselves entertained.”

“Just… and Vemik, I’m sorry?” Allison gave the younger Ten’Gewek an apologetic look, “—But please keep him out of my workshop, Julian. I haven’t finished unpacking in there.”

“I will stay out,” Vemik nodded seriously. His page had a wild spray of blue color on it next to his burger art.

[“I will sit on him if he doesn’t.”]

“You dropped ten grand on those tools, you bet your ass I’m gonna look after them,” Julian promised.

“Ten…grand?” Yan was confused.

[“Ten ‘thousand’ ‘mun-ees,’ Yan. That’s four circles big, and it’s like a magic promise of Giving and Taking.”]

[“…Oh,”] he said, giving every indication he didn’t really understand.

Xiù ushered Allison upstairs before either of them could be overwhelmed by the urge to… well, whatever. That job could be Julian’s.

All in all, it hadn’t been the first morning in their new house that she’d expected, not at all. But it had definitely been their first morning in their new house. She was absolutely definite that nobody else had ever entertained a pair of iron-age alien tribesmen for breakfast.

…Oh yeah. There was one last detail of the place she’d forgot to love earlier. One that had taken quite a lot of time and money to fill. One that sang to the girly place in her soul that she’d had to regretfully pack away into long-term storage after her abduction.

But there really was nothing like a walk-in wardrobe full of clothes.

They took their time getting ready. By the time they were cleaned up and dressed appropriately for a visit with the Mother-Supreme, things had quieted considerably downstairs. Vemik had migrated to the guest bedroom and buried himself under a mountain of blankets right on the floor—they hadn’t furnished it yet, but he didn’t seem to care.

Yan meanwhile was lying face-down on the living room floor and making happy grumbling noises while Julian worked his palms against the big guy’s ridiculous back muscles. He was grunting with effort himself; kneading the kinks out of what was basically a slab of carved teak looked exhausting. Xiù gave him a sympathetic look and blew him a kiss as they headed toward the door.

Hoeff was stripped down to his underwear, passed out and sprawled akimbo across and up the entire couch. He was a solidly-built little man sure enough and these days could even be considered stocky, but how he managed to take up so much space on such a big couch was a bit of a mystery given that he was an inch or so shorter than Xiù. She quietly hoped he wouldn’t shed any of his copious blonde body hair on anything.

True to the timing they’d given, there was a Gaoian shuttle coming in low over the lake. It was a modified Dominion design, taking the classic dull gray cuboid and refitting it into something that actually looked like it could fly half-decently and which actually flew like a charm. Xiù hoped to get her hands on one in time—she absolutely wasn’t going to let Misfit be the last and only thing she ever piloted.

“So whaddya think she wants?” Allison asked.

“Hmm?” Xiù’s thoughts whipped back to where they were going and who they were seeing. “Oh, Yulna?”

“Who else would I mean, dummy?” Allison asked with her best teasing grin. Xiù stuck her tongue out at her.

“Yulna’s… a direct sort,” she said. “But she keeps her cards close to her chest. We’ll know when we get there, I guess.”

The shuttle settled on their forecourt. They didn’t yet own a car, so there was plenty of room for it to set down and Xiù smiled slightly at the notion that she’d finally got that flying car the future always promised.

“Well then,” Allison shrugged. “Let’s go find out.”


Date Point 15y5m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Air Engineering Technician Jack Tisdale

The warning about how Jack’s job wasn’t a dignified or glamorous one at times had been right on the nose but in fact the awkward moments were a pretty minor part of the job. Besides, once an operator had squeezed himself into his undersuit the least dignified bits were all out of the way.

Then again, Moho was yet to go through “Crush Week,” the seven-day ordeal where he and his buddies would be locked into their suits and given simulated missions for a whole week on the trot. Nobody was looking forward to that, even though the technicians by definition were getting a pretty insignificant part of the pain.

Jack and Miller had some of the synchronized work down beautifully though. It was Jack’s fingers at stake, so he called time and Miller did the heavy lifting.

“Twist, two, push, two, hold, two—” Here Jack grunted with exertion as he made sure the midsuit’s femoral bracing wasn’t caught on the undersuit’s hip supports “—three, four, push, two, click, release, time!”

Deacon checked her stopwatch. “Good! How was it for you, Moho?”

Moho released the breath he’d been holding to help them out. “Well, my dick ain’t cut off, so there’s that.” He bounced on the balls of his feet to get everything seated comfortably.

“No fear of that, I get a great view of it from down here,” Miller commented. She rocked back to squat on her heels and reached for her water bottle.

“How’d you rate it?”

“…Really?” She gave him a Look.

In return, Moho just grinned that wide-faced Cheshire-Cat grin of his until Deacon cleared her throat. “Points check,” she said. “Shoulders?”

Moho shrugged. The suit torso moved easily. “Good.”

“Armpits? Any pinching at all?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Waist rotation.” Moho twisted and bent until they heard a loud pop from his spine.

“All good.”

“Your spine’s a bit loose. Sounds like you need more time under the bar with ‘Horse.”

Moho grunted then bent forward to touch his toes, bent back with his hands over his head, then rocked from side to side.

“Tisdale? That look good to you?” Deacon asked.

Jack shook his head. “Lumbar flexion was good but it looked a little tight on the extension, right Moho?”

“Yuh. Couldn’t get past….here. Feels like I got a bar tied to my back.”

“Suit-related?”

“Yuh. Ran outta compression.”

“That’s the segmented support column,” Deacon commented. “The way they come they all need to be custom-machined to accommodate. Only way to fix it is to mark all the contact surfaces with bluing, suit ‘em up, machine down the surfaces that touch…and repeat.”

“That’s a lotta work with only three days to Crush Week. Better get you back outta there, Moho,” Miller noted.

“After we find out what else is wrong,” Jack agreed. “How’s your right wrist pronation? I wanted to add another row but I thought I’d better double check first…”

“Felt fine. Gotta say though, them gravball games earlier got me tight everywhere.”

“Well, then. Helmet on, we’ll check your neck again and then you can go enjoy a massage.”

Moho chuckled. “Lookit the little guy, all bossin’ me about an’ shit,” he rumbled, but obediently grabbed the helmet and mated it to the back of his collar with the peculiar J-shaped clicking motion unique to EV-MASS.

Jack and Miller took care of the two mandibular connection points, just below and in front of his ears, and Miller locked his mask on herself.

“Nice. You’re doing that twice as fast as you were a couple days ago,” Deacon commented after checking the seals. “Still five seconds off the record time, though.”

“We’ll get there,” Miller promised.

“Hell yeah. Best techs in the shop!” Moho encouraged through his mask. He tilted his head back and forward, swayed it left and right then shook it hard and rolled it round in both directions. “…Way better!”

Jack and Miller knocked fists together.

“Checklist from the top, then he can come outta there,” Deacon told them.

“Got it.” Jack grabbed the checklist. “…Occipital brace?”

Miller’s fingers probed the brace at the back of the helmet that stopped it from breaking Moho’s neck during high-G maneuvers. “…Check.”

“Subaxial brace?”

“Check.”

“Trachial plate?”

“Check, or he wouldn’t be breathing.”

Jack chuckled. “Hey, I didn’t write the checklist.”

“Nope, I did,” Deacon said archly. “That one’s in there because the Beef Trio can and have worn the Mass without that plate. In a rush they might not say anything and that’s valuable protection lost.”

“…Seriously?” Moho seemed genuinely nonplussed. “It’s hard enough to breathe with the damn thing.”

“Get a stronger neck, then. ‘Horse hardly notices when it’s missing. So, y’know.” Deacon gave Miller a look of minor reprimand. “Follow the list and check the plate.”

Miller nodded and re-tested the armoring on the front of Moho’s throat. “…Trachial plate, check.”

Jack nodded and ticked it off. “…Yoke support.”

“Check.”

The full checklist took a long damn time but Deacon had just ably illustrated why it was needed in full. Moho sighed when they finally checked off “Achilles support, left,” and shook his arms loose. “Cold water time?”

“Cold water time.”

“Okay.” Deacon closed her book and showed them her stopwatch. “Our target time for a full checklist is four minutes. You just did it in seven twenty-seven. I wanna see you shave at least a minute off by the end of Crush Week, and I want you both to be able to recite the whole list perfectly from memory. Moho, you should go see about that massage. And thicken that neck up, you shouldn’t have any problems breathing at all.”

She pocketed the stopwatch and loosened a touch. “Not bad, though. You got a ways to go, but you’re not doing bad at all. Keep it up.”

“Will do,” Jack promised. She favoured him with a nod, and left them to the business of de-suiting their Operator.

“Guess we’d better get to machining that support column,” Miller commented as she pumped the ice water into Moho’s suit. They ignored the way he grimaced and breathed slowly to tolerate it. There was nothing they could do about that particular necessary discomfort.

“Eh. It’s something to keep our hands busy while we memorize the list,” Jack shrugged as he wiped down and packed the helmet and mask.

Moho snorted. “Shit, Two-Seventy. You ever slow down?”

“Do you?” Jack retorted. He liked the unofficial nickname Moho had chosen for him—a personal best bench press of two hundred and seventy pounds was a joke next to a HEAT operator, but in the normal world that was a damn good lift and he was proud of it nonetheless.

“Hell no!” Moho grinned, then hissed and jigged uncomfortably as the freezing water worked its way deeper into the ever-less-pleasant recesses of his suit. “Fuck me, is there salt in this?”

“Grin and bear it, big guy,” Miller told him.

“If my nuts never come back outta hiding, I’m blamin’ you…”

Jack chuckled as he unfastened the gloves. “Please. None of you operators have nuts small enough to hide in the first place.”

“Bruh, your skinny ass can bench two-seventy. Don’t pretend you ain’t a stud.”

Jack, who’d yet to actually even kiss a girl, tried to let that pass by casually. Unfortunately, they both knew him pretty well by now and Miller caught his expression—or rather his careful lack of one—instantly.

“Uh-oh,” she muttered in a low sing-song. “I think you hit a nerve there, Mo…”

“I’ve just…not found the right girl yet,” Jack confessed.

Moho was utterly uncomprehending. “So? You don’t gotta marry a bitch, jus’ go to a bar, find someone pretty and fuckin’ smash, bruh!”

“Romantic,” Miller drawled.

“We need to get our little studlet laid, Miller. Ooh! It is Friday…down for a Project?”

“Oh God…” Jack lamented, but Miller was already grinning at him.

“I am so down,” she declared.

“…I don’t get a say in this, do I?” Jack predicted.

“Nope,” Moho asserted. “Now get me the fuck outta this suit before my dick freezes and snaps off.”

“Right.” Jack immediately set to work while Miller fetched the rack for the midsuit. “I can never get this bit…”

Miller reached over and twisted it almost effortlessly. “Y’know, you’re not any weaker than I am…”

“Bullshit.”

“No, seriously. I can’t bench two-seventy.”

“No, but you can explode a beer can in your hands.”

“There’s a trick to it, I bet you could too with practice!”

“Maybe, but—”

Moho hissed at them. He was legitimately shivering by now. “Guys, less dick measuring more suit-pully.”

“Right, right…”

They had the suit off in minutes and Moho stumped off to lurk near the heater while Jack heaved the midsuit onto the workbench and set about stripping down the spinal assembly.

“What about you?” he asked Miller. “You out on the pull tonight as well?”

“Well, I would be but this young stud I’ve had my eye on seems to be weirdly immune to my charms…” There was an unmistakable glimmer in her eye.

“Oh. Uh, is he?” Jack could feel himself going red.

“Mhmm. Too bad. I think he needs a good breaking-in.”

“…’Breaking-in?’ Really?”

“Yeah-huh. I once rocked a boy’s world so good he called me ‘daddy.’” Miller’s grin should have been an arrestable offence.

“Uh… look, I, uh…” Jack began. She shut him up with a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey. It’s okay. Look, Deacon has this whole ‘don’t shit where you eat’ rule,” she said. “I think she’s crazy, but if you wanna do things her way that’s cool. Just say so.”

“…Thanks.”

She smirked. “Let me know when you come to your senses.”

“God.” Jack rolled his eyes and giggled. “…Am I seriously that….?”

“It’s the accent. And your abs. And you’re good with your hands…”

“Ha!” Moho wandered back over having warmed himself sufficiently. “She knows what she wants! Which is why we’re taking you out tonight. We’re gonna find some cute airhead bimbo and she’s gonna suck you—”

“Moho!” Deacon hollered from across the workshop. “Massage!”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” Moho turned to leave. “See you tonight. Make sure he looks pretty.”

If Miller’s grin should have been arrest-worthy, her dark laugh ought to need a license. “Give me a difficult job!” she called.

“…Don’t make me regret this,” Jack pleaded as he finally got the segmented support out of its housing.

“Tisdale, I promise,” Miller replied, and picked up the checklist. “This will be a night you’ll remember fondly for a long time…”


Date Point 15y5m AV
Grand Commune of Females, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Mother-Supreme Yulna

Cimbrean was no longer a world of only one colony.

Originally, the 5-EYES nations had planned for Lucent to become a colony of the United States of America, but political necessity had made it more advisable to hand over the undeveloped world to the People’s Republic of China instead. Rather than bemoan this loss, an extensive negotiation had ensued in which Cimbrean—which was, after all, a whole planet and far more territory than the mere hundred-thousand Humans living in and around Folctha could properly exploit—was carefully divided up.

Thus had been founded the colonies of Franklin, New Botany, Nouveau Acadia and Abeltown.

Adding Tiritya Island to the list had been relatively straightforward. There was enough of Cimbrean to go around.

Tiritya was hardly a small island, either. The word “island” conjured up a mental image of a little spit of land in the lonely seas, but in practical fact a flight from one end to the other in anything that couldn’t go supersonic was likely to last an hour at least. Some of the Female presence on the island was all the way at the opposite end of the landmass, in little climate monitoring stations and observatories with crews of four or five, or in isolated farms.

Some of the Sisters had suffered terribly on Gao and while most preferred the bustling company of their own kind, a few needed quiet and isolation to heal. Which was why there was even a convent, built on a little neighboring island that was technically part of Tiritya thanks to the beaches that appeared at low tide.

The concept of a nun had been an alien one when Yulna first learned it, and it only got stranger when she considered her Sisters taking up lives of celibacy and spiritual reflection. Especially now, when the Gao needed to breed like never before. She’d never understand them… but she didn’t need to. They were Clan, and that was all that mattered. If their experiences had left them feeling unequipped to bear cubs then nobody had the right to force that responsibility on them.

Species certainly didn’t matter. Sister Shoo remained the only non-Gaoian member of the Clan, but in principle Yulna wasn’t opposed to the idea of taking in other Human women. After all, the one they already had was a treasure.

A confusing treasure, truth be told, but a treasure nonetheless. She had arrived with one of her romantic partners—her female lover, and there was confusion for an old Female to wrap her paws around—but just as she had on Gao she’d found a place for herself in the Commune as though being there was quite natural for her.

And she remained as excellent a listener as always. No sooner had the door closed and left the three of them alone in Yulna’s study than all of the stress and worries began flowing out Yulna’s mouth.

There were a lot of them. Yulna’s relationship with the male Clans, and by extension the relationship between Male and Female. Her concerns about the ongoing pandemic on Gao which just refused to go away. Supply problems, time problems, the knowledge that there were still a few holdout Clanless groups back on the homeworld who’d captured females and whom the Grand Army were yet to reach…

But Yulna tried to be practical which was why, for now, she was focusing on the problems she possibly could do something about herself.

For example: What was the female enclave on Tiritya going to be? Was it just another gilded cage, warded by benevolent aliens rather than benevolent males? Was it a pity handout that would remind them daily of a debt they’d never repay?

Or could it, perhaps, be something more?

“We need to be a productive economic power in our own right,” she explained as she prowled the room. “Our value to Gaoian males is obvious. But what value do we have to Human nations? What can we produce that you cannot provide for yourselves?” She sat back down at her desk feeling thoroughly dejected. “Your people like us, Sister. But that alone isn’t enough of a foundation. We need to have value to the human race beyond sentiment. The Great Father has already figured that out for his Clan and the others…”

“But he’s too focused on protecting the Females to think on those terms,” Shoo finished.

“Too focused on protecting them to let them grow independently you mean,” Allison commented, cutting right to the heart of it.

“Possibly,” Shoo retorted. “I don’t think Daar actually thinks that way. He’s just very…focused on the problem right in front of him.”

Allison nodded sharply. “Uh-huh. Exactly. I mean, I know Daar, he’s about the… heh, the ‘most nicest’ guy you could wanna meet. I know he’d never want to put the Females in a cage…”

“But forces of nature like him can do awe-inspiring things without ever noticing,” Yulna finished.

“That’s fair I guess. So then…what can you offer?”

“Well…” Yulna picked up a cup of tea from her desk. She’d picked up the habit from Gyotin and had to admit, for situations like this it worked better than Talamay. “…In theory, we can offer anything. You never saw much of the Clan outside of the communes, Sister. Most young females take associate work with one of the male Clans for a while between cubhood and their first pregnancy.”

“I do remember!” Shoo slipped into her weirdly not-perfect Gaori. “Many of the young females spoke of the, uh, mating prospects that tended to open…”

“That perk is not available when working with Humans…” Yulna chittered. “But in theory our Sisters as they are now can integrate with the Human colonies and offer their own expertise, but that isn’t permanent value. In ten, twenty, thirty years or so that well will be dry. We need to offer something that only we can offer, now and for the future.”

She leaned back in her chair. “The problem is… I can’t think of anything. It may even be that there is nothing unique that we can offer. But what then? What will that do to the Clan’s psyche? Have we traded a gilded cage provided by the Males of our own species for another one provided by the charity of yours?”

“This island has natural resources, right?” Allison pointed out. She was using a translator rather than speaking Gaori herself. “What about minerals? Oil? Farmland?”

“Folctha has us beaten for farmland,” Yulna shook her head. “The colony’s economy is founded on it, I’ve seen the croplands for myself. Some of the fields around New Belfast stretch to the horizon!”

“…What about heirloom crops?” Allison asked.

“Or artisanal goods?” Shoo agreed.

“I don’t… explain?”

Allison scooted forward in her chair. “You have uniquely Gaoian foods, right? Nava, Naxas, all that stuff… well, out here on the island you’re probably safe from the Terran biosphere transplant. That means less pesticides, less fertilizer…hell, you could claim it’s all-natural and organic! Your Gaoian critters and plants won’t be competing with the Earthling imports and they’ll way out-compete the natives, so they’ll grow nice and big.”

“And people will buy Nava and Naxas for the novelty value,” Shoo nodded.

“They will?”

“I would,” Shoo replied fervently. “Naxas is delicious. It’s like… it’s like… it’s a meat with all the melt-in-the-mouth tenderness of lamb but all the mature, rich flavor of good mutton!”

Allison nodded fervently and indicated Shoo with her thumb. “Her Naxas curry is… hngg!”

“Then there’s cultural things. Like those workhouse dramas!”

“Those are mostly made by Clanless males, for Clanless males…” Yulna objected.

“Yulna, they’re the most popular genre of ET-made entertainment on Earth by a mile!”

“And wouldn’t they be improved with actual Females in them for a change?” Allison added. “Think about it, it’s all been males for basically every workhouse drama ever made. Would a female character add some desperately needed realism?”

Yulna considered what they were saying. Not just the specifics, but the general thrust of it. They’d correctly put their claws on the root of her problem, which was that she’d been thinking far too large-scale about how to compete with and find a niche among the other colonies as they ramped up to full-time mass production.

The idea that the Females might pursue a lower-volume, higher-value economy instead was… intriguing.

“You believe we should pursue a value proposition rather than, say, a commodity.”

“When your biggest buyers are gonna be humans?” Allison asked. “Absolutely. We are gonna snap up anything Gaoian, seriously.”

“…Honestly?”

“Honestly and truly,” Allison promised.

“Folctha has a large middle class,” Shoo elaborated. “Lots of disposable income, lots of… well… Everybody who lives there is the kind of person who would leave their homeworld and live on an alien planet just because that’s an option.”

“And are therefore more open to novel things…” Yulna duck-nodded, seeing her point.

“The whole town’s liberal as shit,” Allison grumbled. Yulna saw Shoo hide a roll of her eyes and a fond smile.

“Bad girl,” she chided gently. “You know our rules…”

“Ugh, sorry. But seriously, how do people live without their guns? I feel naked without mine!”

Yulna could see that there was a complicated knot of Human politics there she didn’t have the knowledge to untangle at that particular moment.

“So that’s your advice,” she summarized. “Focus our efforts on the small-scale creation of high-quality, high-value goods for export. Exploit our unique culture and heritage to our advantage, use this island’s isolation to avoid cross-contamination with Earthling influences and sell most of what we produce as exports.”

“I mean…It’s a start?” Shoo agreed. “But Yulna, I’m really not, like, an economist or whatever. Or a market analyst or—” She paused, pulled a face at herself and slapped her forehead.

“Shoo?”

“…But we know people who are. Right?” She turned to Allison. “I bet MBG would have some ideas about what they’d like to buy…”

“Ideas? They could probably roll in here with a shopping list longer than your leg,” Allison smirked. “But they are still the biggest private-sector players in Folctha so you’re inevitably gonna do business with them someway or another.”

“Aren’t they your employer?” Yulna asked. That raised the ugly possibility of a vested interest on Allison’s part, and she at least needed a good-faith denial.

“There’s that, yeah…” Allison agreed. “But I really wouldn’t work for them if I didn’t believe in them. They’ve been good to us. If they hadn’t been, I’d’ve taken their money and walked for sure.”

Yulna believed her. Or at least she believed that Allison believed what she was saying, which was good enough.

“There are ideas in this,” she conceded at length. “We will need to consider and develop upon them…”

“Yulna… Mother… when was the last time you took a break?” Shoo asked. Yulna sighed.

“Long enough that I wish you of all people would not call me Mother,” she replied. “But the Mother-Supreme doesn’t ‘take a break.’ At least, not at times like this.”

‘Times like this’ could last another ten years,” Shoo retorted. “Come on, Giymuy had her biscuits and she loved scandalizing her entourage. She was so much less… stiff than you are, and that’s not who I remember. I remember you sneaking seconds to Myun when Ayma couldn’t see.”

Yulna sighed and miserably lowered her paws to the desktop before resting her chin on them. There was literally nobody else in the world except perhaps Myun in front of whom she could ever have displayed such abject weariness.

“Giymuy made it look like she was born for this role,” she lamented. “She was always so… collected. So serene. I feel like I’m holding a porcelain egg and the floor is strewn with marbles.”

Shoo stood up, rounded the desk and crouched at her side to rub a hand soothingly down her back. “You aren’t Giymuy,” she said. “You don’t have to be like her.”

“You keep comparing me to her.”

Shoo paused, then nodded. “Then I’m sorry. I shouldn’t. But I bet her secret was that she probably felt the same underneath, and she took her little pleasures where she could to help balance herself.”

Yulna gave a thoughtful twitch of her ear after a long moment of thought.

“…I haven’t cooked my own dinner in years. I keep thinking ‘I’m the Mother-Supreme, I can’t just barge into the kitchen and demand access to a cutting board.’ But…I can, can’t I? I absolutely can.”

“Absolutely,” Allison piped up.

Yulna thought about it some more. There was a deeply repressed want bubbling up to the surface, one that she’d held on to for so long that it was practically a need now, and maybe it was just the little push, maybe it was just a moment that had finally arrived, but there was something she wanted to do more than anything else.

She sat up.

“…Who wants tacos?” she asked.


Date Point: 15y5m AV
Dataspace/Internet communications interchange, adjacent to Observatory Station, Neptune, Sol

Entity

The Internet was impenetrable. The Entity could, with some careful camouflage, access it, send messages, download files and in every way gain access to Humanity’s crowning communications achievement just like an ordinary user…But it could not, however, “go” there.

The operating principles were too different. In some ways they were too primitive, in other ways they were far too advanced. The Internet, at its most basic, was just a highly efficient system for conveying packages of data between devices—it couldn’t do any of the things that made Dataspace possible, permitted the existence of the Igraen hegemony, or made the Entity’s own existence possible.

A fish might as well dream of soaring as high as eagles. A human might as well fantasize about going for a clothes-free stroll on the surface of Venus.

Earth, in short, was a closed book. It was not and would never be part of the dataspace, and the border where one met the other was locked down tighter than even the most despotic iron curtain.

Earthbound text-based messages were among the least scrutinized forms of traffic, however.

The only real obstacle the Entity faced therefore was the content of its message. It knew the whom of its correspondence, but exactly what it wanted to say and how to say it were more of a problem, not least because some of its more outlandish and paranoid factions were urging it to abandon contact with Homo Sapiens entirely.

The only solution was to allow a personality to crystallize out of its archived memories again, hand her the general thrust of its dilemma, and trust that whatever she wrote would be close enough to the Entity’s own experience while remaining comprehensible to a matterspace reader.

It remembered certain details with a clarity that the original Ava Ríos would never match. It remembered the precise position of objects in a room, it remembered which fingers people wore their rings on. It remembered, perfectly well, a set of contact details written in pen and glanced at but not consciously assimilated.

The message was a desperate long shot. But it was the best plan it had yet achieved. And so it began with six simple words.

[Darcy,]

[Please I need your help.]


Date Point 15y5m AV
The Grand Commune of Females, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Sister-Consort Naydra

The kitchens were… well, closed.

In point of fact the Grand Commune had dozens of kitchens that were active around the clock to keep all the Females and Cubs fed and happy. It was a never-ending industry nestled at the heart of Commune life. Some were larger, some smaller, a few—and in Yulna’s defense the one she’d commandeered was by far the smallest—were there to handle small bespoke meals for visiting dignitaries or the senior Mothers such as Yulna herself.

Even so, the staff had been unceremoniously turfed out and a guard-sister was standing watch on the door with her ears turned backwards to listen nervously to the peals of Human laughter and uproarious chittering that emanated from within.

She gave Naydra a respectful duck and stepped out of her way. The intricacies of how to handle the Great Father’s consort were finicky and entirely new but the general rule seemed to be to treat her as though she was equal in rank to Yulna herself, except when she wasn’t.

Naydra herself honestly had no idea how that kind of a “rule” worked, but it worked now. She patted the guard-sister on the arm and let herself in.

The kitchens were always a spicy olfactory paradise, but this one smelled… she groped for an appropriate Gaori word, gave up, and settled for Divine. The air was rich with the smell of finest prime Naxas meat, with herbs and spices, the peculiar caramelized fruity scent of Talamay that had been used for cooking and also with the potent nasal presence of two humans. It wasn’t an unpleasant scent, just… loud.

She recognised Sister Shoo, of course. The other, with the blonde hair who was so animatedly telling a story had to be her partner Allison.

“No, really! He was super nervous about it, but like… eager, too.”

Shoo was giggling fondly. “We should do that again sometime. Only this time he has to wear the cat ears, not the bow tie.”

“Why not both?”

Yulna, looking more relaxed and happy than Naydra could ever remember seeing her, chittered incredulously and took a long draught of the Talamay she’d commandeered. She didn’t seem to care that it was the cooking-grade stuff, just that there was a lot of it. “Cat ears?” she asked.

“Yeah!” Sister Shoo raised her hands and touched them to either side of her head as if miming a Gaoian’s own ears. “Miāo!”

Yulna turned to Allison for a more coherent explanation and finally noticed Naydra in the doorway. For an instant—just a flash—she looked like a cub caught doing something naughty but it was just a flash and nothing more. The next instant she jovially waved Naydra into the room.

“Naydra!” she exclaimed. “I hope they aren’t saying the Mother-Supreme has gone mad out there?”

“Ah…well, no. Not… no,” Naydra said, weaving between the counters. Most of them were strewn with cooking debris. Flour, discarded packaging, dirty cutting boards. The knives were clean, dry and stored though, which was the kind of odd detail that stood out. Of course, a good chef cared for their knives. “They…are however wondering exactly what is going on?”

“I’m cooking my own damn dinner!” Yulna announced, and raised her glass. “That’s what’s going on.”

“I… suppose you’re entitled to if you want, but—”

“Oh, sit down Naydra.” Yulna gestured to a vacant stool. Naydra blinked. This was… very unlike the Yulna she thought she knew. Yulna was straight-spoken, yes, but she usually stood quite carefully on the ceremony of their respective positions.

Now she was behaving like a gruffly good-humoured kitchen Mother, and the scar where some Corti had long ago vivisected her and removed her eyeball without anesthetic looked…weirdly natural. She had a Daar-like coarse quality for the moment.

Allison, apparently endlessly amused by everything, stepped aside to make room while Sister Shoo practically dragged Naydra into their little group with a gentle hand around her waist and before she knew it Yulna had pressed a glass of Talamay into Naydra’s hands.

“How long?” she asked Shoo, who glanced at her watch.

“They’re… about ready, actually. I’ll get the frying pan.”

“Mother, what—?” Naydra tried to ask, but was shushed in a matronly manner.

“You never tasted Sister Shoo’s cooking,” she said. “Drink! Relax! Tiritya’s teats girl, you look like you don’t know which end of you is your nose!”

…Girl?

Naydra wondered briefly whether or not to be offended, but there was nothing to see or smell in Yulna’s behaviour that said she was being anything other than…merry. That was the word. Merry. The Mother-Supreme pressed Shoo firmly back down onto her stool and fetched the frying pan herself, humming an old song as she did so.

“…Sister?” Needing answers, Naydra turned to Sister Shoo who smiled, leaned across and lowered her voice.

“She needs this,” she murmured. “Just… let her be Mama Yulna for a while.”

Behind her, Yulna removed a high-sided baking tray from the oven and used a slotted spoon to fish out little cubes of meat from whatever marinate they’d been cooked in. The scent was astonishing.

“So, I fry these in their own fat over a low heat for…?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes. Just enough to crisp the outside!” Shoo replied.

“Ah! Crisp on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside!” Yulna made approving noises and hummed to herself some more as she cooked.

Bereft of any better way to cope, Naydra drank her Talamay. It had that burning, coarse edge that cheap cooking Talamay always did, but it wasn’t actually bad. Yulna noticed and gave her an approving flick of the ear.

“Cat ears?” the Mother-Supreme prompted.

“It’s… I dunno. Human weirdness I guess,” Allison said. “But we’ve got this big strong guy and then you stick something cute on him like the cat ears and…” she shrugged.

“Miāo!” Shoo giggled. She was definitely a little tipsy, Naydra decided.

“Too bad Gaoians already have the ears built in…” Allison sighed. “But I bet the bow tie would work.”

“Oh God, Daar in a bow tie!” Shoo giggled again.

“Or Regaari.”

“Nah, Regaari’s too suave. It’d actually suit him.”

“Daar would totally rock the bowtie, too. He’s playful!”

Yulna sighed as she tossed the frying pan to move the meat around. “Oh, he was playful indeed…”

“He still is!” Naydra loyally objected. “…In private.”

“That’s good.” Yulna suddenly seemed a bit less chipper. “I am glad he is still himself, somewhere.”

Shoo grabbed a sliced piece of vegetable and threw it at the Mother-Supreme.

“Bad Mama Yulna!” she chided. “You’re getting all sad again, stoppit.”

Yulna chittered, thereby turning Naydra’s world subtly upside-down. “Fine, fine. Actually, you know who I bet would wear a bow tie badly and think he wore it well? Champion Sheeyo.”

“Sheeyo, Sheeyo…” Allison scowled in recollection then snapped a finger. “The Goldpaw? The skinny one with all that jewelry braided in his fur?”

“Him, yes! Oh, it’s a handsome enough affectation but he’s so… preening.”

“We should send him a paisley cravat,” Shoo said. Clearly it was an in-joke of some kind between herself and Allison because they laughed with each other while Yulna just gave them a quizzical look then shook her head indulgently and tossed the frying pan again.

It occurred to Naydra that she was probably looking entirely gormless and lost. She took another swig of Talamay to try and regain herself a little.

“Mother—” she began.

“Naydra, please. Here and now, it’s just Yulna. Don’t tell me you never want a moment to escape from it all and just relax?”

The set of her ears was soft and kindly. “This is a safe place to do that,” she said. “Later we’ll go back out that door and I’ll be Mother-Supreme and you’ll be the Great Father’s Consort, very proper and polite. But here and now, for Fyu’s sake relax.”

She turned back to her pan. “Or don’t. Nothing is forced, here.”

“…Thank you,” Naydra replied. She’d meant it to be polite, but it came out entirely heartfelt. It seemed Yulna had zeroed in on something she herself didn’t know she needed.

The two Humans beamed at each other, and Allison picked up her Talamay again.

“Anyway…” she said. “…Oh yeah! So, that thing with the bow tie and Mulan was about a week after we picked up the Huh and…I mean, I was kinda distracted at the time but looking back on it the way Lewis got his hands on that thing was just the funniest thing…”

Naydra inclined her head. “What’s a Huh?” she asked.

“That’s just it, we didn’t know at first…”

Naydra got lost in the story. A few minutes later, she was chittering so hard that it hurt her ribs, and a few minutes after that the tacos were ready. The first moment when she bit in and tasted all that delicious, fruitily-spiced tender meaty perfection underneath that exciting warm crunch completely dispelled all her confusion and doubts.

They were definitely going to do this again sometime.


Date Point: 15y5m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lt. Col. Owen Powell

“Come in.”

Powell had moved offices since the battle of Gao. Rear-Admiral Caruthers had requested as much, stating that he wanted to have the SOR’s CO right next door if needed, and Powell had seen no reason to refuse. “Next door” in this case was the retired Admiral Knight’s former office, and he’d always liked the view.

The fact that it came with a little more elbow room and was closer to the stairs got his vote, too.

That latter fact was definitely more convenient for Technical Sergeant Martina Arés. Powell privately thought she was a touch daft for not taking the lift, but she and her husband had a lot in common when it came to elevators: they shunned them.

Still. She had to be getting on for the point now where three flights of stairs were taking it out of her.

If they were, she was doing a good job of hiding it. She entered the room looking as crisp, smart and professional as a maternity uniform would allow and placed a thick bundle of paperwork in his in tray.

“Today’s training reports,” she explained. “I excused ‘Horse. That wrestling match took it right out of him.”

Powell issued an amused grunt and flipped open the summary. “How’s Deacon doing with the new techs?”

“Good! Just the right balance of carrot and stick. I think she enjoys training them, and all the teams are ahead of target.”

“Which means the target’s too bloody lenient,” Powell muttered. “Hargreaves?”

“Passed his exam with flying colors. Ninety-six. He’s fully qualified on the biotech systems now, and Green’s making noises about taking that qual as well.”

“Hmm.” Powell skimmed the summary and signed it. “Careful. At this rate, you’ll make yourself obsolete.”

It was a calculated joke on his part—He’d wanted to broach the subject of Arés’ future for some time. Her re-enlistment was only months away now, and if Powell was a betting man he wouldn’t have put a penny on her staying. But he needed to know.

“Yeah. Um, about my upcoming re-enlistment…”

Powell gestured to the chair opposite him. “Sit down, Arés. If you’ve got summat to say I won’t make you stand up for it.”

She sank gratefully onto it with a groan. “Thanks.”

“Go ahead,” Powell sat back and listened.

She took a deep breath. “Uh… I’ve, well… I’ve decided not to re-enlist, sir.”

Powell nodded. Expected as the news was, losing her was going to suck. “Aye. Now, keep in mind that you’re well before your retirement age so you won’t get benefits beyond being ‘Horse’s spouse…”

“We’ve taken that into account sir. But… well, we lost a lot of people on Caledonia, and…”

“Aye. I’d have to be bloody blind to not notice your growing family. An’ I imagine it won’t stop at just one…?”

She smiled. “He kicks almost as hard as his daddy,” she confided.

Powell uttered a rare laugh. “Hah! Well! I don’t envy you, then. But any road, I know better than to try an’ talk you out of it. What I was going to say is that I imagine the unit will still have frequent need of your expertise and experience, an’ I was wonderin’ if you’d factored that thought into your plans…?”

“You’d take me on as a consultant?” she asked.

“I think we’d be bloody fools not to at least offer,” Powell said drily. “You wrote half the suit procedures yourself.”

“I think I’d have to be foolish not to accept,” she replied.

“Arright,” Powell nodded. “We’ll work out the details closer to time. Thanks for tellin’ me nice and early, it’ll make transitioning to a post-Jockey world that bit smoother…Though it’ll still be a bit of a bugger, mind,” he added warmly.

That got a touched smile. “…Thank you, sir.”

Powell nodded. “You’d better send a message to Colonel Miller, I suppose. Did you need anything else?”

“Not right now, sir.”

“Arright. Good evening, sergeant.”

She clambered back out of the chair and headed for the door. “Good evening, sir.”

A thought hit Powell just before she reached it. “Oh, Arés?”

She turned back with her hand on the handle. “Sir?”

“Have you settled on a name yet?”

“Uh, yeah,” she nodded. “Diego. Diego Samuel Arés.”

Powell considered it for a second. “…Good name.”

Arés smiled again. “Good evening, sir.”

“Good evening.”

She let herself out, and Powell sat back in his chair to think. All in all, the conversation had left him in a good mood.

“…Good name,” he repeated to himself, and got back to work.


Date Point: 15y5m AV
Central University, City 1, Origin, The Corti Directorate

Lor

The plan to de-implant Corti civilization had grown rapidly. Once the Directors got behind something, any self-interested Corti—a tautology—aligned with them. The Varos College had gone from obscurity to focal importance with all the breathtaking efficiency the collegiate system promised.

Then, of course, came the debates.

Implants were at the heart of everything. They were the flagship product for dozens of Corti companies, especially giants like Amnag-Dwuz and Thryd-Geftry who between them had almost as much power as the Directorate itself.

But that was just the planetary crust of the problem, so to speak. There were grumbling tectonic layers beneath which made merely scrapping the economy’s most prolific and profitable exports seem like an utterly trivial undertaking. Implants were instrumental in global, regional and civic administration. They underpinned the stock market, enabled all aspects of Corti heavy industries and manufacturing through drone interfacing, and were almost literally written into the DNA of the medical sector… which included the reproduction labs.

Corti civilization was almost—not completely, but almost—dependent on neural cybernetics in order to breed.

If Lor had been emotionally capable of sweating with dread, he would have. How close were they to the event horizon? Had they already fallen past it without noticing?

It seemed entirely plausible. Not a single one of the Directorate’s projections could be described by even the most optimistic soul as anything less than “apocalyptic.”

Banning the implants outright and shutting them all down was impossible. Quite aside from the inevitable black market problem, society would collapse within days at best. The more probable estimates said hours. The most probable estimates said the collapse would begin immediately. Forbidding the implantation of newly decanted Corti infants was a more workable solution—over the coming decades, society could be reconfigured to accommodate and rely upon them. But they might not have decades.

Releasing software updates represented a middle-ground solution, but most of the true vulnerabilities were firmware or worse—In-depth examination of the Directorate’s own removed implants had suggested security flaws at the data link layer. Subtle almost to the point of invisibility, but once the College knew what to look for the tell-tales couldn’t hide behind a veneer of legitimacy any longer.

Lor was running on stimulants. He’d suffer for them in a few days when he reached the limits of what pharmacology could achieve but in the short-term he was perfectly alert, awake and focused. Without them, he’d never have been able to make presentation after presentation to the Directors as his faculty and students brought him their findings.

Right now, he was explaining how the war effort on Gao appeared to have effected isolation of the implanted populace from the opening moves of the conflict.

“The real-time communications grid must be zero-area distortion-based. Evidence gathered by the Common Denominator says that Gao has been enshrouded in a high-powered and aggressive topology stabilization field.”

Third Director Larm seized on that as a beacon of possible hope. “I presume we have the manufacturing and scientific capability to assemble such field generators on Origin, Node, Vertex and Tangent at least?”

“We probably have the ability to assemble such a generator on all planets and most of our major space habitats, Third Director,” Lor replied. “Unfortunately, I do not think it will help.”

“Why not?”

“The Gaoian implanted population number no more than one in ten of the total population. Our implanted population is ten out of every twelve. Worse, those among our people with the knowledge and expertise to build such generators are presumably implanted at a rate approaching total. Finally, even if we could set up such generators, the overwhelming number of potential biodrones precludes locking them out. They could simply establish a communications network by some other means.”

“In other words, containing the situation as the Humans and Gaoians were able to do is not feasible,” First Director Shanl concluded.

“That is correct, First Director.”

Shanl gave the data in front of her some pensive consideration.

“…We must conclude that our prognosis is… hopeless,” she said.

“I fear so, First Director,” Lor agreed again.

Shanl nodded. She blinked a couple of times—a display of intense emotion, by Silver banner standards—then turned to the Directors.

“Alternatives?”

One of the Fifth Directors—Atrish—raised her hand. “We may need to consider an Ark.”

“Explain.”

“The Humans have a parable about a world-ending flood because one of their tribal war deities felt the need to purge the world of degeneracy. To that end, all life worth saving was housed aboard an oceangoing vessel. Once the flood waters had destroyed all non-sanctioned life, the world was repopulated from this Ark.”

The Directorate inclined their heads in various directions as they considered the merits of that suggestion. None expressed shock or dismay, nor moral outrage. None of them had the capacity.

“Permit total collapse and then restore from a prepared seed population…” Shanl mused. “Viable. It would reduce our species to a minor galactic power but if the alternative is extinction…”

“This Nofl’s comments on Corti physiology are intriguing also,” Second Director Larfu commented. “As he points out, Humans and Gaoians both prove that there is no particular reason why we should have sacrificed our physical talents. It seems perfectly possible to have both, and why disdain an asset?”

“You bring this up because you believe a true retrograde in our society is necessary.”

“Inevitable, perhaps,” Lor commented.

“If so,” Larfu continued, “Then our ‘Ark’ should furnish its occupants with as many opportunities to succeed as possible.”

Shanl stared at him. “We are contemplating a complete re-engineering of our species. That will likely entail intuitive aspects of our psychology as well.” To a Silver banner, the concept of emotion was too tainted to directly state.

“If necessary.”

“One wonders,” Third Director Blernd interjected, “whether an intuitive sense of personal purity might not have prevented this entire scenario.”

He became the center of attention. Such a sentiment brushed perilously close to the line of open unorthodoxy.

“You mean disgust,” Third Director Freth clarified.

“There are things we find distasteful even now,” Blernd observed. “It seems needlessly paradoxical to feel disgusted by the mere concept of disgust.”

“And if we had perhaps retained similar… selectiveness… in our attitude toward physical augmentation then, as the Third Director says, this situation need never have arisen,” Lor agreed.

“Can such selectiveness be engineered?” Second Director Morln asked.

“Sensitivity to it can be engineered. It is likely that the specific stimuli to be selected against must be taught.”

Freth cleared his throat. “Disgust is heavily entangled with other intuitive impulses,” he pointed out. “Hence why we have been unable to completely eradicate it even among the Silver banner caste. It runs deep, gets everywhere. It is… messy.”

“Messy or not, if it is a necessary function…” Larfu thought, then nodded sharply. “Yes. It seems to me that the Third Director is correct.”

“A picture is emerging that I do not much like,” Morln said. “A focus on physical prowess and strong intuitive psychology? This is not merely a retrograde, it is a rejection of the guiding principles set by thousands of preceding Directorates.”

“And of the standards we each met in arriving at our current stations,” one of the Fourth Directors agreed.

Lor felt it necessary to interject. “Forgive me, Directors, but if one of my students continued to prefer their hypothesis in the face of experimental evidence which disproved it, I would be forced to fail them.”

He stood up a little straighter. “That is where we are. We have been testing a hypothesis concerning social models and the long-term viability of certain policies. We have now discovered a crucial data point which discredits the hypothesis. Shall we continue the experiment now that the hypothesis is disproven, or shall we take the scientifically correct course by generating a new hypothesis to be tested by a new experiment?”

Contemplative silence greeted his rhetorical question. Shanl broke it.

“Well said,” she agreed.

“Thank you, First Director.”

Larfu glanced at the First Director, then nodded and sat forward. He opened a new file in the space before them, and gave it a name: “PROJECT NEW EXPERIMENT

“Very well, then,” he said. “Let us design our Ark.”


Date Point 15y5m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

All in all it had been a pleasant afternoon, as much as riding along in the weirdly high-stakes social life that Xiù seemed to glide through could be, anyway. The food was awesome. And Yulna made enough to feed their men, too; it was rather a lot of stuff and they both had their arms completely full carrying it from the taxi.

All four of them were gross boys stuck in some kind of permanent competition to see who had the biggest stomach, so Allison had no hopes of any leftovers…But that was okay! When they got back the living room was empty, so they took a peek in the guest bedroom and found the four of them tangled up in a hopeless amount of comforters and blankets. Julian had dragged one of the as-yet unused mattresses downstairs from the garage and thrown it across the floor, pulled a sheet across, and promptly passed out on it like he’d fallen over dead.

It made for good viewing, that was for sure.

She summoned Xiù with a delighted grin and her beckoning finger. “Hey babe?”

Xiù peeked round the door and suppressed a laugh, only succeeding in keeping it down to whisper volume behind her hand. “Ooh!”

“You ever think you’d come home to this much grade-A boy candy strewn about all half-naked and stuff?”

“…Two of them aren’t even human!” Xiù chided her.

“So? Vemik’s got ten-pack abs, girl! And Yan–!”

“—Smells like the sweatiest old gym socks.”

“Nah, he’s just super musky. Maybe…I kinda like it.”

“Allison!” Xiù was plainly scandalized, while Yan opened an eye and grunted in amusement.

“C’mon, with muscles like his? You can’t tell me you aren’t impressed.”

“He’s got inch long fangs Allison! How could you—”

“Oh relax, he’s not my type. Hoeff is cute, though…”

“You are such a troll.”

Julian cracked a weary smile and groaned a half-awake joke. “Hoeff is pretty…”

Xiù considered the smallest of the quartet. “He’s too hairy.”

“Hey!” Julian laughed now, “I’m hairy too!”

“A little, yeah. You’re not blonde caveman hairy, though.”

Hoeff groaned and turned on his side. “Yeah, yeah. I’m pretty,” he grumbled. “I’m also tired as fuck so…”

“Hungry? We brought tacos.”

“…I’m awake.” Hoeff was up in an instant and made a beeline for the stairs. As was Vemik who immediately rolled upright, then Yan when he detected the possibility of eating something. He flipped himself to his feet with a kick through his legs and a muscular heave of his tail, which sent a heavy thud rattling through the basement’s concrete floor.

“Food?”

“The best kind!” Xiù promised as she climbed the stairs. “Come and see.”

“Where’d you get tacos?” Julian asked, stretching aesthetically and scratching at the hair on his chest.

“Yulna made them! Naxas carnitas with a Talamay marinade.”

He glanced at the two Ten’Gewek, then thumped sleepily up the stairs. They all remembered the night of the beer experiment. “…I assume all the alcohol was cooked off?”

“Yes, yes…” Xiù waved him towards the table. “Honestly, some day I need to teach you about cooking that uses more than just the grill.”

Hoeff had already unboxed the first container and fetched plates. “Fire is man’s sacred cooking form. Playboy here’ll lose man-points if he gives it up.”

Allison snorted and threw herself onto the couch. “I think he can spare a few. Jesus, the whole crew we hang out with has terminal testosterone poisoning.”

Vemik had just ambled up the stairs on all fours. “Testosterone means—?” he began. He was brought up short the second his tongue finished registering the taste on the air. “…Nevermind.” He galloped over to the table. “Tacos means what?”

The basement stairs creaked loudly and announced Yan’s arrival. He too hurried over once his tongue caught the flavor of food on the air.

“Means delicious, buddy. Here, you take one of these shells…” Julian picked one up, “…and you just layer in whatever you like from what’s on the table. …Hold up, this isn’t refried beans.”

“No, it’s seasoned Nava. Try it, it’s good!”

“Oh, okay.” Julian spooned some into his taco. “No guac?”

“Sorry. We made this in a Gaoian kitchen.”

“Oh well…”

Food disappeared quickly into their four black holes. They spared some time to get sleeping arrangements a little better sorted out but honestly, everyone was so happy and now sedated with a heavy meal, it didn’t take long before it was time to go back to sleep.

Fortunately, Julian didn’t need any persuading to eschew the man-pile in the basement.

“C’mon, I haven’t slept on the new bed yet…”

“Sleep?” Allison asked him.

He groaned. “Have mercy, I spent the whole day escorting Vemik—”

“Exactly. We’re owed some boyfriend time, right babe?”

“Right!” Xiù agreed. “But, um, there’s a condition…”

Julian turned at the top of the stairs. “Wh—?”

He went quiet and gave the object Xiù was holding a dubious stare. “I—”

“Miāo!”

“…Okay? …Kinky, I guess?”

She handed them to him. “Shut up and put them on, Bǎobèi.”

Julian blinked at her, then at the ears, then finally gave up and shrugged. “…Yes ma’am,” he muttered, and seated them in his hair.

“Hmm… they’ll never stay on,” Allison pointed out. His hair was too thick and wild for anything to sit properly. That didn’t seem to matter to Xiù, whose face was a picture of grinning delight.

“That’s okay…” Xiù brushed past her, took Julian’s hand and directed him through the door. “He’s been a good boy.”

As it turned out, he did have some energy in him after all.


Date Point: 15y5m1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Jack Tisdale

Rooney’s was fun, like always. Loud, friendly, raucous and full of energy. Moho and Miller kept plying him with drinks, and at first Jack tried to pace himself but…

Well, it was Friday… And he hadn’t really ever gone out before…

And beer was delicious

And, hell, shots were fun too…

…Was the world always so unsteady? Didn’t matter. There was a girl. She was…pretty cute. How did they meet? Miller, he thought. Yeah. They had met on the cricket pitch a while ago.

She kissed him.

He wasn’t expecting that. He wasn’t expecting a lot of what happened afterwards, either.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember much of it when he woke up in a mobile alcohol recovery center at five in the morning with no girl, an aching head, an IV drip in his hand, a nasty stain down the front of his shirt and Miller affectionately telling him off.

But he remembered the kiss.

He didn’t need much persuading to agree to try again.



++END CHAPTER 42++



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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-eight Humans

Alexander Golemis TTTA SirNeonPancake Aaron Mescher Andrew Huang Anthony Landry Arsene Brandon Capitalskr Chris Dye Daniel Morris Daniel Shiderly ELLIOTT S RIDDLE Greg Tebbutt Joseph Szuma Karthik Mohanarangan Kolbeinn T. Mudkip201 Nicolas Gruenbeck Rodolfo Hernandez Savvz Shane Wegner Theningaraf Tsanth Volka Creed Zachary Galicki


Forty-nine Deathworlders: galrock0 Austin Deschner Brian Berland Adam Shields Adam Beeman Andrew Ford Aryeh Winter atp Bartosz Borkowski Ben Thrussell 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 58 Friendly ETs and 284 Dizi Rats. Don’t go forth, my legions. You’ll only get squished.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 43: “Scars Both Old And New”

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