This story is in my book "The Honeycomb Comet" which is now available at Author House -- Amazon -- Barnes and Noble and other fine book sellers, search for "Roger Bourke White Jr."


The Bleevit imperial rule over the Solar System faded away quickly and peacefully. But the human diaspora to surrounding star systems that it had inspired kept on, until humans became firmly established in large colonies throughout a sector 50 LY across, not just around the Solar System. They continued steadily adapting to HX environments, live and dead, and improving their looting skills.

The species around the HX were all ferocious competitors, and humans discovered that more than 97% of them were genetically engineered for HX raiding by their various mother species. Most of these could move faster, think faster—so they were better at evaluating both possible dangers and the value of loot—endure more extreme climate conditions, and even communicate faster among themselves. But to optimize a race’s desirable traits, it helps to limit its non-essential characteristics. Since virtually none of their engineers had valued interspecies cooperation, that meant the huge majority of raider species were innately monolingual.

But humans could and did learn raider languages, which meant they could get two or more species to cooperate. They also began learning the languages of the HX bots, so they could listen in as the HX maintained itself. These abilities skyrocketed humans’ worth to the HX looting community.

Which brought them some unwelcome attention.

Book Eight
The Human Hunt

Chapter One: The Little Helper

“Raid Base Nora commencing activity,” I announced in NuAnglic on the human channel, knowing my announcement would automatically go out three more times on three other com channels, each in a different alien language.

Nora was HQ for yet another raid by the four-species Task Force Omicron. Like other humans on the team my job was to help all the people involved, human and alien, coordinate and cooperate in harvesting the live HX we were in. The Drill, Sghalupa, and Fornkarns are among the many high-performance synthetic species who do everything very fast and very well compared to humans, including talking to their own kind, but for whom learning another language is impossible. It’s as though every human could walk, sprint, and do distance running at superb levels but was congenitally incapable of swimming.

So although we humans are a slow, clumsy “planetary” species, one reason we’re valued is that we’re hard-wired to fill the coordinator slot, and nobody else is.

Another is that for over two hundred years we’ve been penetrating the HX Maintenance Language, alias HXML or Hexmal. It turned out to be in fact a language, not coded communications as those long baffled by it rashly assumed. Apparently the HX didn’t care who overheard the equivalent of marrow cells, gut bacteria, heart valves, T-cells, and so on talking to each other. Or else they don’t have any more conscious control over their internal mechanisms than most other races do. So far, there’s no way of telling.

It’s easy to hear lots of conversations where units are talking to each other. The nearly insuperable problem was building context with essentially no data beyond the communications themselves—like hearing “Me Tarzan, you Jane” without the gestures, as Ene Ansip once put it to a funding committee. Dr. Ansip was the one who organized the series of multisensory expeditions in the last century that observed what units were doing while they were talking. What her team learned finally made humans able not only to understand Hexmal but to actually “speak” it—transmit it and carry on some conversations with maintenance bots—and even to start learning some of the specialized languages that higher-level bots use.

With those two advantages, human-coordinated raids typically get 5 times the loot quantity, average 20 times the loot value—often much less, but also including some of the most spectacular known hauls—and suffer only one fourth the casualty rate of solo species raids. We pull our weight, even if by comparison to other raiders we’re clumsy as all get out and too slow and weak to carry much.

One of the keys to a productive raid is finding the right pieces of machinery to talk Hexmal to. There are thousands of kinds and their helpfulness to raiding varies a thousandfold. Some are too dumb, without either the brain or the need to say much. A door can say, “I’m open, I’m shut, I’m stuck, I’m loose, I’m broken,” and little else, and you can tell most of that just by looking anyway. Others have OK brains but are too specialized in doing a single task we raiders don’t care about and that they don’t think much beyond—a sector environmental control unit, for instance. Most of those prefer some language other than Hexmal, anyway. And some know a lot about what’s around them, but are too smart for us. A Sector Overseer can tell you a ton about what’s going on in its sector, but as soon as it realizes it’s talking with outsiders, not subordinates, it notifies Security, which if you’re lucky brings a level of trouble you can fight your way out of.

Usually the most reliable little friends to a raiding force are cleaning bots and repair bots—they know a lot about where things are in their local area, but most aren’t smart enough to call a Security bot. Even more useful are traffic bots, who know where things are going, and storage bots, who can give you inventory for the locations they work at. Talking with the Chief Storage Bot for the right warehouse is a gold mine.

By the way, don’t imagine HX bots as gleaming or even matte-surface metal, or suppose that HX warehouses are made of boards, perhaps with a padlock on a metal-hinged door, as uninformed humans occasionally do. HX physiology could probably produce something like that, and their bots certainly could build them, but it doesn’t happen. The bots are mostly organic, although sometimes where an Earth being has to use bone or horn they do in fact have inorganic metal, and the same for enclosures. However, HX warehouses actually contain things unnervingly like human crates, jars, chests of drawers, etc., along with less identifiable containers.

One of the first parts of starting a raid base is getting some little friends with good information lined up and recruiting a perimeter of friendly bots, so HX Security bots have trouble finding where we are. We’d done that at Nora the previous day, then moved in equipment. Now that most of that was done, it was time to start finding and moving out loot.

An HX is kind of like a moon-sized, moon-shaped tree, in that at any one time only a little of the HX body is being intensively used. In a tree, the sap goes up and down just under the bark while the dead wooden part in the center that holds the tree up is no longer in use. It’s not so simple in an HX. Parts being intensively used and other parts waiting their turn are mixed throughout the body, and usage steadily migrates. You want your raid base in an area that’s not getting major use but is close to some valuable looting locations, which are usually in Active HX–Land. You use the base until you’ve made all available raids or HX Security shuts it down. We’re still not sure what triggers that. Sometimes HXSec seems to know about a base for a long time before it takes action, which makes life interesting.

At Raid Base Lane two raids back, we’d found a new kind of little friend. That’s not unusual; our best guess is that we have some knowledge of a quarter of the kinds of bots that inhabit a live HX. Most of the time stats on a new style go into the database and after that we ignore the bot.

But this one was talkative and helpful. As best we could tell, it was a smart super cleaning bot designed to query and search a room, and incidentally find things interesting to raiders. Not quite a gold mine of info, but very useful. As a bonus, when we weren’t using it, it liked to putter around and clean the base. That feature was nicer than you think. Successful raid bases are typically used only from three to seven days, then abandoned under threat from Secbots, while unsuccessful bases get abandoned sooner. But they do begin drowning in their own waste about Day Four. So we’d persuaded our YV74 specimen, alias Yvette, to come with us from Lane to Mona to Nora, and she’d proved of continuing use.

The raider-species guys had been scouting and solo collecting from the nearby easy sites ever since we’d established Nora’s perimeter. Now it was time to go after more valuable but more dangerous sites that needed team tactics.

So let me introduce the team players, for comparison starting with…

Humans. We humans would be far the biggest and slowest of the four even without our typically bulky pressure suits. (All attempts to produce scuba-like equipment similar to what the Drill, Sghalupa, and many other raider aliens use have so far fallen short.) About half of our host HX’s corridors are too small for humans to walk down comfortably, but although we’re bipedal we can get down on all fours or flatten even further to wriggle through small spots. We can climb many vertical surfaces, especially with appropriate equipment. Humans can decipher writing, disassemble machinery, and communicate both with raiding partners, to foster cooperation among all parties, and in Hexmal, to facilitate raiding.

Drill. Drill are hexapods the size of large dogs who scuttle very fast. They are superb fighters and haulers. Like humans, they can often get through small places; Drill’s bodies compress and deform more without harm than most species’ do. Their front pair of leg-arms have reasonably dexterous foot-hands. They cannot climb but can traverse fairly steep slopes on all-sixes. They swarm both to attack and to haul. They are atypical in being poor at fast evaluation. When collecting, Drill set up a line and start moving all accessible HX stuff, to be sorted out later; or else (when not in a cooperative team) they steal loot streams from other raiders, correctly expecting them to be of more concentrated quality than their own.

Sghalupa. Sghalupa are bipeds half the size of humans with wallaby-like large legs and massive tails that help stabilize them in low G as they hop. (The Sghalup home world’s gravity is the lowest among the four.) They are more dexterous than any Australian marsupial, with six-digit two-thumb hands on forward-facing arms. Sghalupa are mediocre fighters, but better than humans. They cannot climb and can manage only comparatively flat slopes. Their heads are unusually large for their bodies—unsurprising, because their sensory capabilities are the best of the four. Also, even without being able to read labels, Sghalupa tend to figure out HX devices quickly, which lets them establish high-value loot streams and also means they can override many Security setups without setting off alarms. But without supervision they often dawdle like a human scientist, in appreciation of what they have discovered and attempting further understanding of it, which makes them very prone to fall victim to competitors like the Drill.

Fornkarns. Fornkarns are small leather-winged bipeds, weighing less than a kilo each, engineered to breathe, fly, and even reproduce inside HX, so that there are tribes of Fornkarns living permanently in our host HX and reportedly in most other live HX. Those tribes are highly territorial and likely to attack and kill raider Fornkarns who are alone or in small parties. Whether because of Fornkarns’ pseudo-native status, or because they can carry only very small items, most HX Secbots don’t consider Fornkarns as threats. So in a raider team, Fornkarns are great route scouts. They aren’t as good at determining what’s in HX packages. Against larger species (i.e., nearly all), Fornkarn swarm to attack.

Okay, that’s the cast list. Now on with the action!

From talking with our local little neighbors, we thought there was an HX battery warehouse nearby. Umm! We humans have lusted for HX batteries since we first came in contact with one in the 23rd century. All the diligent research since has never reproduced the magic. The other species in this party love them, too.

The Fornkarns fanned out in search of the warehouse, and a way to it, if possible through little-used corridors that bypassed HXSec checkpoints.

They found not one warehouse, but two! This sector was apparently relocating its hot area from one to the other. My Sghalup liaison was ecstatic. “It means there will be much to learn here!”

I was thinking, “That’s nice, but loot tops learning in my book,” when he continued, “And it also means there will be much to loot.”

We planned a first raid on the new warehouse in Active HX–Land for six hours after, on Capt. Breitenbach’s shift.

* * *

Standard tactics are that on the first raid we don’t take anything, we just see where stuff is and make friends where we can. When the preliminary raid works out well, we get primo stuff on the second raid without a lot of confusion and accidents.

This one went even better than textbook. While the Drill drew the warehouse Secbots away, the Sghalupa did a quick inventory and we humans found the Chief Warehouse Bot. After a conversation with little Yvette, the big bot seemed to warm up to us as well, and we set up a communication channel with him to use in our second raid. Yvette was making herself quite worthwhile!

Breitenbach ran the planning meeting before the second raid. I slept through it. Humans’ strange habit of getting tired and stopping work after twelve hours, then using up the next twelve in playing, eating, and sleeping just drives raider species nuts! So in a raid party we usually run three or two shifts. That way there’s always a human ready to function, even if it isn’t always the same human. Which means we have to communicate among ourselves even more intensively than we do with our partners.

They all know, and like, that in cooperative raids their loot stream gets huge compared to solo hunts. So long as the loot stream stays strong, as it had for Task Force Omicron so far, everyone’s solid. If we’re having hard times and the loot stream dries up, you need to watch your back against defectors. And your front against hecklers at the meetings they resent you leading.

I got to handle the immediate pre-raid briefing and lead the raid. Our loot stream had been fat, fat, fat!—though we wanted more—so the atmosphere was friendly.

“Hello, everyone! Chan Sanchez in for Shimon Breitenbach on the human team,” I began, getting chatters, grunts, and shrills in response that my translator turned into “Hi!”, “How are you!”, and “Go fuck your grandmother”—greetings as essentially meaningless as my human “Hello”. I looked over my note board as they looked me over again.

Unless two or more functionalities are called for, all the raiders of a given species are clones, virtually identical to each other. The fact that humans vary so much among ourselves makes us resemble their mother species, which raiders mostly see only in virties, coloring their attitudes toward us: Planetaries functioning as fellow raiders. Like many raiders, the Drill find this uncomfortable. Their recognition wetware sees each human as a new species, even though they’re plenty smart enough to know it’s not so.

When I began the briefing in earnest, with “OK, we have three primaries for this raid,” they’d again gotten past any such disconnect. I had their full attention as I set out the order of events, with one “ding” to start the raid proper, two after five minutes, three after ten, and so on, to keep us all on schedule; how we’d handle various expectable kinds of setbacks, and how we’d promulgate any changes to the plan; and where we’d meet to negotiate loot allocation and exchange—that last being another valuable advantage of a human-coordinated raid.

Then I took questions and translated both Q and A for all the folk present. There was a lot of machine backup in this process—there had to be, given how fast the raiders talk!—but I still needed to listen to what the machines produced as NuAnglic and come up with equivalents for the other languages. Context and subtexts are still something the machine processes can’t always get right.

This raid was potentially another record-breaker for Task Force Omicron.

* * *

The beginning of the second raid went like clockwork. We humans spent a productive hour talking with the Chief Warehouse Bot from outside the enclosure, to learn where the containers we wanted most now were, incidentally translating for the Sghalupa about what was new and interesting in the warehouse. Meantime most of the Fornkarns flew around confirming that there were no surprise HX Secbots in the area. A few went into the warehouse and attached tags in agreed colors and shapes to the first wave of containers, so the haulers could start moving out prime stuff as soon as they walked in. None of this bothered the two Secbot door guards.

Then we repeated a successful tactic from the first raid. Four Drill got themselves noticed threatening the warehouse entrance. When the Secbots failed to shoo them off and gave chase, those Drill suckered them around a couple of corners, out of sensory range of the door, so the bulk of the team could rush in and begin looting. I set the timer going and the first ding sounded.

The rest of the Drill and half the Sghalupa started with the already tagged boxes. The other Sghalupa and most of us humans raced around looking for additional interesting stuff and adding appropriate tags, so that anyone with spare carrying capacity could grab more. Halfway through, the taggers would stop tagging and start hauling like everybody else.

Normally the body of a warehouse raid like this goes on for twenty minutes. If it goes well, the Secbots return to find a lot of boxes missing and a few tags on the remainder. If not quite so well, there’ll be some shooting or damage done, and the HX might be down one or two Secbots. If badly, we raiders will take damage for not much loot. If it goes FUBAR, we don’t come back.

This time, something very different happened. Soon after the four dings sounded for fifteen minutes in, I got dizzy and my sensor tracks all went to static. I came back to myself just before five dings, and according to plan we all cleared the room. As I reached the corridor, I realized half the other humans were missing!

“What the fuck?” I heard Associate Madoowbe say. “What’s happened? Where’s everybody?”

“Stay on plan,” I told her. “We’ll sort this out at the rendezvous.”

Whatever’d happened, it looked big and likely to hurt. But long experience had established the harsh rule “Loot first, players second”. You investigated HX problems and mysteries only after the carry carts were safely headed to base.

As we began heading to rendezvous, I saw that the Fornkarns, who’d been stationed outside the warehouse, were also reduced by half. The commander of those remaining reported they’d seen a parade of HX bots of a previously unknown style leave the warehouse, each carrying a human, and head deeper into Active HX–Land! On their own initiative, since neither I nor any human inside the warehouse would issue orders, the Fornkarns had sent a shadowing party after the bot parade.

I immediately called in that report and Nora sent a Ready Reaction team to intercept the abductors.

Our Ready Reaction teams were set up to cause trouble whenever trouble would help the cause. Usually, this was when HXSec had discovered and was about to destroy a loot team. The RR team would cause a commotion to give the Secbots a higher priority target, lead them off, then vanish as best they could.

The current situation was unprecedented. We’d had casualties in raids, often enough fatal, but never captures like this.

Of course those of us on the loot team, humans in particular, would have preferred to give rescue personally, but abandoning the loot stream was tantamount to losing it. And unburdened, the RR team could go faster, anyway. So I contented myself with asking more questions, determining that everyone inside the warehouse, human or not, had experienced the same spooky blackout.

Half an hour later, our loot haul was the only good news. Within minutes of leaving the warehouse, the five Secbots with their five humans had picked up three HX Battle Bots as escort. The BBs were big, fast, and could do a lot of hurt. Put 20 raiders against a solo BB and they had maybe a 50-50 chance of winning. Put 40 on 2 and the BBs would rip every raider a new one without anesthetic. Since BBs were as uncommon as they were deadly—the silly nickname we used being a symptom of how much they scared us—we’d either been intensely unlucky, or more likely the abduction was part of a high priority project.

A dozen brave Drill tried, but the BBs ignored them and simply would not be led off. Instead they stayed close to the Secbots and began attacking any Fornkarns they saw. BBs bothering with Fornkarns was even more disturbingly out of character! And more of a pain; we were losing our eyes in this battle. After twenty minutes, with the parade deep in Active HX–Land and the Drill pursued only by a separate small squad of Secbots (fortunately easy to ditch), the remaining Fornkarns retreated and we lost our ability to track the captives at all. Damn!

That evening—nobody ever said “mutually agreed end-of-activity period”, though a few sticklers might write it—we had a full Task Force Omicron war council. There were two mated couples representing the Fornkarn, two Drill, two Sghalupa, and half a dozen of us humans including me, up past my bedtime. The fact that the aliens had sent twice their usual number of liaisons showed that they considered the meeting important enough to represent both ends of their (fairly narrow) psychological spectrums, instead of sending the usual person from the middle. They never did seem to care about, much less understand, the principles by which we humans selected our participants, but we always sent lots more than they did—humans like to exchange ideas.

Even for the strange world of the HX, the situation was beyond the usual strange. By then, Central Coordination (alias Human Central among the aliens) had reported that a number of other human raiders had been similarly carried off. “All groups have been lost track of, but projections of their routes suggest the captives are being gathered at a central location deep in Active HX–Land.”

After Breitenbach officially summarized, what came up was something we all unofficially had been thinking about already. A Sghalup made the first speech, translated to Drill, Fornkarn, and NuAnglic. “If raid teams are going to get picked on by Secbots because they have humans in them, that lowers the value of humans to the teams, and the human standard share needs to be lowered to reflect this.”

I stood up and said, “This may never happen again. We shouldn’t make any major policy changes based on a single day’s anomalous events.”

A Drill declared, “Things are not the same now as at Mona, so we need to ask ourselves what has changed between Mona and Nora.”

It was incredibly bad timing for her that at just that point Yvette came in and began cleaning. Breitenbach’s voice changed as he said, “There were also significant changes between Lane and Mona. I think that, given the perilous situation we find ourselves in right now,” and he gestured and stared hard at her, “we should begin by talking about those!” We all realized that, useful as she had apparently been to us, there was no reason Yvette couldn’t record and transmit our war council to HXSec, possibly even in real time. If her pickups were sensitive enough, it wouldn’t even matter if she was in the room.

So I sent out a scribbled order and for a little while we took turns intentionally saying nothing useful. Then a couple of Sghalupa with tools came in, jumped Yvette, and began disassembling her for a comprehensive analysis at their HQ.

Then we talked for nearly another hour, now saying almost nothing useful because almost nothing useful could be said. It was not obvious what we should or could do differently. If we tried to hide or restrict human activity, our value to the team diminished. So having established that there was nothing to be done, unlike the typical committee we actually did it. We decided to carry on as we had been, until and unless one or more races received contrary recommendations from headquarters.

Not only was Nora compromised, but we all felt the base was bad luck. So we were glad to establish Raid Base Olivia a few days early.

Olivia went well, with good loot and no more unusual Secbot activity. We’d been on base a day or two when the Sghalup report was relayed from Central Coordination: “Its construction and software indicate that the YV74 bot dissected, informally tagged ‘Yvette’, was designed for remote reporting to HX Security and only secondarily connected to HX Maintenance. Recovery of deleted files confirms that Task Force Omicron was its current target. It did not, as feared, have disguised strong sensor capability.” So we had something new to watch for.

Raid Base Picton also went smoothly. Except that we all kept speculating about what might be going on with the human captives, an activity officially prohibited as prejudicial to morale. That gave me and Breitenbach an excuse to stop such talk when we got tired of it, but we figured it would be way more prejudicial to morale not to let the guys vent some.