Well, it's been a long time coming but it's finally here; the completed final chapter of 'Lunatic Scientist'.
So, without more ado...
This ain't no self-insert fic.
This ain't no slash fic neither.
This is Top Dog.
Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty
Oh won't you please take me home...
Five miles to the east of the village of Torridon in the northwest Highlands of Scotland, in the midst of Glen Torridon, at the foot of the mighty wall of rock named Ben Aigh, stands a single lonely house two hundred years old.
That solitary building is the home of a pair of 'Incomers' – people who didn't grow up in the area – by the name of Richard and Caroline Roberts. They live with their young son, Stanley, age five, and their teenage foster-daughter, Lily Evans.
Lily is substantially older than most teenage girls. In her mid-thirties, she suffered a severe head-injury, and was left an amnesiac; her amnesia was so total that her mind was that of a newborn baby.
That was sixteen years ago. In the sixteen years since, Lily has gone through each of the processes a child goes through; learning to speak and walk, learning to feed and dress herself, attending school – and all as a child in a woman's body.
By appearance, she doesn't look normal either. She has long, fluted ears with pointed tips; they stick out sideways from her head, drooping a bit at the tips, and the left one has two thumb-sized holes through it. Her hair is red; not the muddy orange of so-called 'redheads', as red as freshly-spilt blood. And she has a long, highly mobile, catlike tail, banded in black and that same blazing red as her hair.
They have their up times and their down times, like any family – but for the main part they are a happy and comfortable family, wealthy enough that there is no need for either parent to slave their guts out at some thankless job, living in a pleasant home amidst the natural splendour of the Highlands of Scotland, with plentiful food on the table and fuel for the fire – they are warm throughout the most ferocious of winter nights, cool at the height of summer, and they are never pushed to afford spares and fuel for the family car.
They have called that place home since 1969, and they are adamant that they will never leave.
On this particular pleasant afternoon in mid July, Richard was up the back of the croft repairing a fence, Caroline was pottering about in the kitchen, Stanley was utterly engrossed in his Lego, and Lily was laying on her bedroom floor with an artpad, ignoring the muffled thunder of the big old engine she'd heard drawing up to the house as she once again drew the face that endlessly haunted her dreams.
It was a man's face, rough-looking with ragged hair, mutton-chop sideburns, a sarcastic smile, and intense eyes, and each time she drew that face, when she looked at it, she found herself feeling safer, feeling loved – feeling like a tiny piece of something better than home had come back to her; something she had never seen but always missed.
"Lily dear, there's some people to see you."
Lily looked up from her art-pad, wondering why her foster-mother sounded so freaked out. Caroline Roberts was usually a seriously centred person; having been an undercover cop in Ireland during the worst of the Troubles tends to have either that effect or to leave a body seriously screwed up.
Shrugging it off, Lily rose to her feet and clumped through to the living room.
She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the trio who were waiting for her. One was a short, fairly plain girl with frizzy faintly ginger hair and a nervous expression. The second was a six foot sandy-haired catgirl with bony insectile wing-like things protruding over her shoulders.
The third, however, was the one who grabbed Lily's attention. He was well over six feet tall, with an thletic frame, an intense expression, lizard-like jade-green eyes, a face startlingly like that she'd drawn so many times, wild black hair, and long fluted pointy ears exactly like Lily's, only with somewhat less piercings and without the pair of massive holes.
That said, he was much taller than her instincts told her he should be, and certain of his features seemed somehow wrong.
"Who… who are you?" she asked, taking a step backwards. "Do… do I know you?"
"You used to, but I didn't look much like this last time you saw me." The man said; he sounded as tired as his eyes looked, and his accent was a nightmare mish-mash.
"That was before my accident, right?" Lily checked. The man nodded.
"Yeah." he said. "I… shit, I'm not sure how to put this." He stared at his hands for a long moment; they were shaking. "I think you ought to sit down; this is probably going to come as a shock."
Lily dubiously sat down, flicking her tail out the way as she seated herself, then sat there nervously watching him; he watched her right back.
"Do you know the details of what happened to you?" he asked.
"Not really, no." Lily admitted. "I mean, I know I lost my memories, but…"
The man nodded.
"You were shot, in the head, leaving you with severe brain damage. Nine-tenths of your brain was burned out; it should have killed you, but, shit, you're one tough lady, I guess your inner tigress just wouldn't let you lie down and die… Lily, were you aware that you're a mother?"
"No." Lily admitted. "I… were you the father?"
The man shook his head.
"No." he said. "The only parts they ever found of your husband was about half of his foot and a huge quantity of blood."
"Then who are you?" she asked.
"My name's Harry Potter." The man said. "I'm your son."
It was lucky indeed that he'd got her to sit down, because, for the first time in her life, Lily fainted dead away.
Disclaimer: We apologise for any inconvenience.
Top Dog: Enter the Fnords
Intermission 1: Harry Johnson and the Lunatic Scientist
A Doghead13 / United Galaxies fanfic
Written & produced by Calum J 'Doghead13' Wallace
Preread by the CaerAzkaban Yahoo group
Brought to you by Hairy Scottish Git Productions, GMBH
This is not a drill.
Chapter 12: Playing with fire.
(In which our hero & heroine finally have a much-needed talk.)
Twenty minutes later, Lily was conscious again and sat there clutching a nice cup of tea like it was her sole link with reality as Harry quietly explained the events that had led to this.
"I survived. Voldemort was blown into a wet red smear; it basically exorcised him out of his own body. Nobody knows why that curse didn't kill me; it's always been a hundred percent effective. It's lethal through half an inch of battle armour; that's equivalent to a foot of high-tensile steel. I reckon either it just wasn't my time, or maybe Death had the day off, I dunno." Harry sighed. "In a metaphorical sense, your son died that day and I'm all that's left of him."
"So… what happens now?" Lily asked.
Harry handed her the envelope he'd been toying with.
"Usually this would be accompanied by a member of the Collegium staff, in your case probably the old fart himself." He said. "But let's just say he and I had some rather tense words and after I pulled my E-Mag on him he backed down and stopped interfering."
The letter proved to be an invite, addressed to Lily, from someone called 'Sir Albus P W B Dumbledore MBE DSO VC', offering her a place at something called 'Hogwarts Collegium Arcanum'.
"Um." She said.
"In case you were wondering, you'll be attending under a partial pseudonym ." Harry said. "You'll be called Johnson because of the identity I'm attending the Collegium under; we're going to make everyone think you're my little sister, because I've got a bit of a rep and that way the bastards are less likely to dare lay a fucking finger on you. Albus Dumbledore is the old fart; don't trust him, and if his eyes go twinkly when he's talking to you, for God sake punch him in the mouth because that's him trying to read your mind."
"... that's not very nice."
Harry shook his head.
"Lily... I am not a nice person." he said. "I'm a mercenary gunman. You realise that means I kill people for a living, right? Nice happy fuzzy people do not get into my line of work, or rather, if they do they rapidly stop being nice happy fuzzy people and become cynical old bastards like me, either that or they stop breathing real quick."
"But... why would you get into that sort of thing?"
"That's a long and frankly rather boring story." Harry said, shrugging. "At age sixteen I was a potential psychopath with post-traumatic stress disorder and serious issues relating to trust. I didn't snap out of it until the first time I held a gun in my hands, squeezed the trigger, and saw some bastard's head explode the other side of the sights. And hell, it's good work if you can hack it. You get to travel to far-off exotic places, meet fascinating people, and blow the ever-living shit out of 'em. The pay's great, you get to pick your own hours, and you'll never go hungry because as long as there are two people alive, I guarantee it, someone is going to want someone else dead."
"How can you just... kill people?"
"It's not hard." Harry said, his voice dropping to a snarl. "How can I kill people? How the hell can I not kill people when there's so damn many morons, paedophiles, rapists, wannabe Saurons, organ-leggers, drooling psychos, child abusers, hired thugs, people stupid enough to piss off a dragon – I'm talking total wastes of skin who deserve to be splattered all over the scenery. Someone's got to pull the trigger on those bastards, and until this galaxy is a place worth living in, that someone's gonna be me."
Lily sat there, digesting that, for a long moment.
"Harry," she said, "Can I, uh, talk to your friends in private." She indicated the pair of girls who'd accompanied her apparent son.
"I'll be outside." he said. "Having a cigarette."
"Smoking's bad for you."
"Yeah yeah, I know. Happens that I regenerate the damage, and these boys help keep my head level." He tapped his cigarette packet, smirked, winked, and sauntered out.
An awkward silence followed, Lily contemplating the pair of girls.
"Um, hi." she said. "I'm Lily Arieth Evans."
"I'm Hermione Granger." the human-looking girl said. She had an English accent. "And this is Aria R'hara'tath."
"Hello." Aria said; she had a pleasant husky contralto voice with an exceptionally weird almost-but-not-quite Asian accent.
"So, what's the story?" Hermione asked.
"... what's Harry like? As, you know, boys go?"
Aria let out a noise halfway between a laugh and a sound like a tiger coughing, and shook her head.
"I cannot say I truly know." she said. "But I do know that his honour is impeccable, and he has earned himself the trust of my father and my elder half-brother, neither of whom trust easily. My brother S'tarak'hai is a Thousand Kingdoms Special Forces operative, as am I, while my father is the supreme commander of Her Radiant Majesty's Armed Forces and personal bodyguard to Her Radiant Majesty, Queen Rialia the Twelfth; it is a part of our job to distrust the unknown as we never know when it may become our duty to shoot at it."
"Harry's a pretty messed-up guy." Hermione said, giving Aria a faintly bemused look. "I'm not really surprised, with everything he's seen, everything he's done... What we call hell, he calls just another day at the office. He's... he's a hero through and through."
Aria nodded solemnly.
"My father and brother first met Harry on the occasion on which Princess Zarie – our queen's youngest daughter – was kidnapped by a foreign power. Harry became involved in the rescue operation; I am unsure how, I have never been told. He was instrumental in the rescue of the Princess, and saved my brother's life in the process." She reached over her shoulder and rapped her knuckles on the hilt of her sword. "This is a First Legion warblade. One might only earn the right to bear one of these blades in two fashions; one must either serve for four years in active combat in Her Radiant Majesty's Armed forces then receive an offer for First Legion selection and succeed in passing the selection process which, although I might perhaps sound boastful, is the second toughest Special Forces selection process in the galaxy – or one must take the difficult option and do Her Radiant Majesty a favour that cannot ever be truly repaid. Perhaps you noticed that my future husband bears a blade like this upon his back; he earned it the day he brought Princess Zarie safely home. He has never been a member of Her Radiant Majesty's Armed Forces, but he holds a Thousand Kingdoms citizenship and he is regarded as a national hero upon my homeworld."
"At first all you see when you look at him is the big bad mercenary." Hermione mused. "You see the killer reputation, the guy Asinara clanners glance over their shoulders before talking about. But, well, under all that... look, I know he makes out that he doesn't give a damn, but I know, oh God I know, if someone tries to hurt one of his people he'll be down on the bastards like a ton of bricks, and, well, since you're his mum you're one of his people by default. And... look, I don't know Harry's past but I know Harry and I think I might, kinda, you know, care about him, right? He needs you, Lily. Apart from his daughter, you're the only family worth the term he's got left."
(Six hundred miles away, in London, a boy named Dudley Dursley sneezed)
"Please don't break Harry's heart." Hermione said. "I know he's trying to drive you away – he always does that because he's scared of losing anyone else – but he needs you. I know it's got to feel really weird, but you're his mum and he needs someone who'll hug him and tell him everything's going to be okay, because he's never had that."
"You're in love with him, aren't you?" Lily asked her.
"I'm not good enough for him." she said. "Why would he want boring old bookish frizzy-haired me?"
Aria let out a humourless bark of laughter.
"Stop attempting to lie to yourself." she said. "When the Queen asked about you, Harry replied that, and I quote, 'It may surprise you to learn that some of us can see past the Omega-weapon stamp on Hermione's dossier, and some of us care about more than her aura.', though I confess I did not catch any more of that conversation as Mother had me watching my youngest siblings and they are currently teething. Harry cares very deeply about you, Hermione."
Hermione very visibly did her best to shake the gloom off, smiling wanly.
"I hope so." she said. "I really do."
Lily sat there, digesting all of that.
"What's an Omega weapon?" she asked.
"One of the top ten most powerful weapons within known space." Aria told her. "Miss Granger here just so happens to occupy the fifth position on that list."
"And before you ask what that means, it means my aura apparently produces more power than an exploding star." Hermione snapped. "I dunno if I believe it, but Harry definitely believes it and so do all sorts of governments and that's that, because Harry owns me he's a one-man galactic equivalent of a nuclear power; hi, I am a thermonuclear device."
"... okay, I'm even more freaked out now." Lily remarked.
"Do not worry about it." Aria advised. "You are as it happens Harry's mother. Therefore, you are close to the top of his top-ten list of people whom nobody is allowed to harm."
"Ever been in a room with a killing machine that's decided it likes you and anyone who fucks with you is so dead they'll be able to bury them in a matchbox?" Hermione asked.
"Well, no, I can't say I have." Lily admitted.
"Yes you have, Harry was in here less than five minutes ago." Hermione gave Lily a hopeful smile. "He'll change the world for you, and I'll be right there helping him all the way."
"But why?" Lily asked.
"Because I love Harry and I want him to be happy, and he'll be less unhappy if you're happy, okay?" Hermione told her.
"... that was not very coherent." Aria muttered.
Lily nodded, expression distant.
"Okay." she said. "I... aw, the heck with it. I'll do this."
It was four weeks since it had last rained (therefore you could tell there was something weird going on) and the south-east of England was as dry as a bone; there hadn't been a cloud in the sky above Swindon for coming on a month, aside from the great stinking plumes of diesel smoke blasting from the exhausts of trucks and railway locomotives alike.
The road-train was parked in the truck parking space at Memsbury service station between M4 junctions 14 and 15, all four engines ticking over, their vibrations lifting dust from the tarmac and the drivers of myriad Leyland DAF's, Iveco Fords, Volvos, Scanias and Mercs giving the behemoth awed looks; for every last one of the many passing truckers, it was the biggest rig they had ever seen.
Two trailers was, in Britain, exceptional. This monster had twelve, each unnervingly long, attached to a tractor unit that made the typical British tractor look like a toy.
Without warning, the giant's engines let out a ferocious roar; smoke and fire blew from each of the many exhaust stacks down the long line of trailers, and it began to move, rolling towards the onramp for the M4 eastbound at little more than a walking pace.
Four gearboxes clunked and air brakes hissed, and the monster began to gather pace, it's tractor nudging into traffic while the rearmost trailer was still way the Hell up the back of the service station forecourt; a Drummonds Distribution driver had to stand on his brakes as the titan swung it's hulking prow into his path.
There was another thump from the gearboxes, and another blast of smoke and fire from the road-train's exhausts as the engine's roar chose a deeper note and was joined by the thunder of heavy metal rock music; plenty of drivers recognised the track as Iron Maiden's 'Be Quick or be Dead' within a heartbeat.
Up in the titan's cockpit, Hermione Allison Granger glanced across at her sort-of-boyfriend, sort-of-master; one Harry Johnson. Her neck was currently connected to his left wrist by a chain leash, something she wasn't quite sure about.
He was grinning broadly as he put the hammer down and let the engines roar; it was obvious that he loved the big-rig. Hermione had seen him operate way faster machines, even on wheels, and substantially heavier, but the only machine she knew which put a smile like this on his face was a high-performance jetcycle, and she savoured it.
They rolled into London at ten in the evening, on the dot, Harry using the massive bludgeon that was the road-train to plough his way through the traffic. Their destination was an old warehouse near Victoria Docks, and with it one of his small network of truck-sized subspace doors and Kendarat beyond.
Having driven through the subspace door, they were on the rim of Mount K'rath'han, at the northern end of the plains across which R'harash'gai – the River of Angels – flowed, and with it, six hundred miles from where they'd arrived on-world, the city at the Mouth of the River of Angels – R'harash'gai't'rath, seat of the queens of the Thousand Kingdoms of Kendarat and heart of one of the greatest superpowers in known space.
And, here on Kendarat, it was mid-winter. As the rig raced south across the Valley of Angels, snow burst in great clouds from beneath the knobbly tyres, the headlamps on for all it was mid-afternoon and the wipers slamming back and forth as the clouds tried their best to part truck and road in a great white volley.
"How's your Kentare coming along?" Harry asked, eyes fixed on the snowy road.
"It's still pretty pathetic." Hermione admitted. "I only know a handful of words – I've hardly had a chance to work on it since, oh Christ, Easter?"
Harry nodded, had a root around in his jacket, and came out with what looked like a comms set – a pair of earphones attached to a throat mike and wired into a small black plastic box like a walkie-talkie.
"Universal translator." he said, plugging a cable from one of the truck's onboard computers and into the handset. "Here – I'll lock it to English-Kentare translation."
Hermione nodded, her eyes never lifting from the snow-covered tarmac.
In the city of R'harash'gai't'rath, the sun was just touching the horizon.
There was about a foot of snow on the ground, and more forecast by morning; in most places it had been mounded into heaps by 3-axle Mentler Sarvek trucks fitted with snowploughs. It clung to the sides of buildings, piled in great heaps along the central reservations of the city's broad streets, built up on the tops of rubbish bins and post boxes, and formed a cheerful little hat atop each and every streetlight and roadsign. The myriad vehicles – aircars and groundwheelers alike – that thronged the streets had coatings of downy snow on their upper parts, and every building sported a thick tranquil layer atop it's roof.
Seated in the spacious cab as the road-train rolled slowly through the streets, Hermione couldn't help but notice how most of the people she was seeing weren't dressed in a manner fit for the sub-zero temperatures outside, and that they and the traffic were largely flowing in the same direction, so thick that Harry was forced to drive at a crawl.
Over it all hung an air of anticipation. Many of the people were carrying bags or holdalls or backpacks visibly stuffed to bursting with drinks, probably intoxicating, and each and every one of them had the look of someone looking forwards to a party. Some were carrying great raggedy branches, old pallets, or random chunks of wood; more than half of the many, many utes or open-back trucks she'd seen had their loadbeds stacked to overflowing with scrap timber as well as yelling boozing Kenti. As far as the eye could see (even with the commanding viewpoint afforded by the New Aussie rig's towering cab) they streamed into and through the city from every direction in an uncountably vast horde.
Finally, as the snow began to fall once more, the road-train reached the head of a long tree-lined avenue, the buildings along it's sides the smallest and oldest-looking Hermione had yet seen in either of her two visits to this teeming metropolis, and there she found herself looking at what was possibly the largest piece of flat open ground she had ever seen in her life, stretching so far that the falling snow made it impossible to so much as glimpse the far end; she got the feeling the entirety of Bristol could have fitted there with room to spare.
Onto this vast plane Harry directed the rig, the two-hundred-seventy-ton titan's wheels ploughing through the slush as he directed it through the crowds of people and vehicles, finally halting the road-train at one end of a long formation (in line abreast) of such monstrous tractor-trucks.
Even just looking at them, she could tell these were a mixture of hobby vehicles and working rigs, differentiated by little details such as wear and tear on the cab-side steps, heat-discolouration on exhaust stacks, lived-in cabs, worn tyres, and slight cosmetic damage to bull-bars; aside from those tell-tale signs of use, both hobby and work rigs were just as perfectly turned out, and there were convivial groups of Kenti truckers dotted here and there, the odd non-Kenti mingling with them, drinking and chattering about this and that. A short distance away, she could see a similar vast assemblage of motorbikes, jetcycles, monowheels and bikers, likewise mingling among their vehicles, and many of them setting up tents. There were skyscraper-sized monitors dotted around, each about a mile apart, and myriad pickup trucks, art cars and motor scooters were moving around just about everywhere; here and there, people were building bonfires.
And, over it all, was that muted buzz of excited anticipation.
"This is amazing." she said. "There's so many people..."
Harry chuckled. "You're looking at about nine tenths of the population of R'harash'gai't'rath, along with a good two thirds of the population of the entire River of Angels area."
"Harry, just how big is this... flat place?"
"It's called Queen's Park." Harry explained. "It's octagonal, sixty-five miles to a side, centred on the Thousand Kingdoms war memorial. There's only about a dozen bigger flat public spaces in known space."
"How far is it from here to your mansion?"
"Two hundred twelve miles as the fuzzball flies." Harry said, shrugging. "About three hundred ninety by motorway. Quadruple the driving time if you head through the city centre, but cut the mileage to two hundred sixty."
"... I'm trying to get a handle on how this city is laid out since, you know, it's where you live." Hermione told him.
"The whole city's shaped like a hollow figure-of-eight." Harry said, with the latest in a long line of flippant shrugs. "One half's centred on this, the other half on the palace district, which is itself centred on the White Tower. The River of Angels runs through about halfway between Queen's Park and the palace district, so straight through the middle of the thin part of the figure-of-eight. There's two headlands extending south from the figure-of-eight, one each side of the river; on the west coast of the river there's the starport, on the east coast there's Rialia Base, that's the central military depot for Her Radiant Majesty's Armed Forces. This city makes London or even Tokyo look like spots on an arse the size of God; it could swallow both of 'em whole, and they'd rattle around."
"How can any police force manage a crowd this big?"
"I honestly have no idea at all. Probably helps that nine tenths of the police force of this planet are in plain clothes and mingling with this crowd. Probably also helps that there are likely less than a thousand people here who don't have a multitude of ancestors named on the monolith at the centre of this park, and it probably helps even more that a good third of 'em have a brother or sister named on that memorial." Harry shook his head yet again. "I have a dozen relatives named on that memorial. It lists everyone who has ever been killed in combat in Her Radiant Majesty's service, and the letters used are half a millimetre tall on a monolith bigger'n the Empire State Building. S'tarak'hai has one dead relative in the last ten generations of his family who isn't named there – the lucky bitch died at home in her own bed. I don't know about Tara, but I guarantee she has over a thousand ancestors listed on that memorial – she has to, she's a Kenti. Hell, Michelle's mother is on that thing. Your uncle Stanley's got three relatives on that thing. There's five Weaselys up there, eight Potters, four Dumbledores, nineteen Zabinis, even a couple of Malfoys."
A break in the clouds and snow blew over them, and Harry pointed at the dark needle on the horizon, stained orange by the dying light of day.
"There it is. The fallen heroes of the Thousand Kingdoms... no park or memorial can be grand enough to commemorate those men and women."
Hermione noted another garishly-decorated road-train drawing to a halt beside Harry's rig, right as someone banged on Harry's cab door and caused him to wind down the window; Hermione turned the universal translator on.
"Aha! Johnson! Good to see you, bro!" a male Kenti voice rumbled; peering over Harry, Hermione found herself looking at an eight-foot tiger-hued catman dressed in combat trousers, denim jacket, combat boots and Kenworth baseball cap, whose lips appeared to be out of sync.
"Good to see ya too, Tark." Harry said, leaning out the cab and shaking the hulking catman's extended hand; now his lips had gone out of sync. "Where's our bonfire? I've got thirty-five tons of scrap pallets in the third car back – I hope Theria brought her forkie?"
"Of course I did!" a pleasant tenor voice, similar to Tara's but with a different accent, called across.
"Our fire is close to S'rath'naia's rig." 'Tark' said. "Say, I do not recognise your friend?"
"Man, I swear I'll forget my own head onea these days... Hermione, this is G'ral'taraka N'alat'yai, but everyone calls him Tark because he's a redneck. The big lout's the main man among the truck-modifiers here on Kendarat; hell, he built my rig. Tark, this is Hermione Granger. Don't worry about her expression, she's an Earther and she's still getting used to this shit."
Tark laughed, startling Hermione when the universal translator translated the Kenti cough-laughter into the sound humans make when laughing. "Guess you have not ever seen a crowd this size, eh kid?"
"No, I haven't." Hermione said. "It's taking a lot of getting used to."
"If anyone gives you pills, do not take them." he said. "Tell one of us, and we will set things straight. Oh, and do not lose track of where the rigs are; it is all too easy to get lost in the crowd that is building."
"Won't be a problem." Harry said, indicating where Hermione's leash was strapped to his wrist. "Right, let's get that wood unloaded."
He heaved the door open; the Puma twins seemed to flow over the backs of the seats as he handed Hermione down.
"I should've brung a jacket." she grumbled. "It's bloody perishing out here."
Tark let out a tremendous roar of laughter as he glanced at his watch.
"Do not worry, little one." he said, still chuckling. "In about half of one of your hours, we will warm ourselves up with a small fire."
"Small fire?" was the only thing Hermione could think of to say when she saw the massive pile of wood. It was perhaps twice the size of Harry's road-train, neatly stacked, and largely composed of damaged pallets; two dozen Kenti were busying themselves pouring a liquid that smelt of extremely strong booze over the heap – probably alco-fuel.
Tark grinned at her expression.
"That is a year's worth of scrap wood from one hundred and fifty-seven truckers, lass." he said. "But compared to the main fire, it is small."
Harry's hand landed on her shoulder and tugged her to one side; a machine like an overgrown under-engined jetcycle with forklift forks on one end hummed it's way past, maybe a foot or two from where Hermione had been standing.
"Careful there, kid." the Kenti woman at the grav-forklift's controls called over. "Those forks would go through you like a warblade through a Norf."
"Sorry." Hermione called back; the woman smiled and waved, and proceeded to carefully position the pallet of scrap wood on the top of the mound.
"Hey, Theria!" Harry shouted; the woman brought the grav-forklift to a halt beside them.
"What is up?" she asked.
"I've brought some beer." Harry told her. "It's in Number Three car; any chance of yanking it over to our beer tent once you're done with the wood?"
"Sure. Hey, and can I plug my forkie into your generators? She will need a charge once I am done unloading everyone, and my charger has packed in."
"Go for it; you know where to find the hookup."
A quarter an hour later, the two cargo trailers of the road-train were unloaded. Thirty-five pallets of wood onto the fire and fourteen of booze into the beer tent – a whacking great oval big-top style thing set out to one side of the lead truck of the line – had been lifted from Harry's road-train's cargo trailers, and at least fifty or sixty more rigs had drawn up in that line-abreast formation.
By this time, Harry and Hermione, along with a dozen Kenti she'd been introduced to but couldn't remember the names of, were crammed into the observation dome that was built into the roof of the first power trailer on Tark's rig (the most flambouyantly-decorated truck Hermione had ever seen) and were drinking beer, chatting, and in the case of four a dozen of them, playing a card game called Pazzac for spliffs.
"I just can't get a proper handle on just how, well, big this city is." Hermione mused, enjoying the commanding view afforded by the cupola.
"Well, within two kilometers of us is as many people as the entire populations of London, Tokyo and New York put together." Harry told her. "The total population of this city is higher than that of China; there are almost two billion people call R'harash'gai't'rath home. You know the way some cities on Earth have a 'Chinatown' or whatever?"
"So does R'harash'gai't'rath. There are nearly two million humans of Chinese descent in this crowd, and they call this city home. You can say the same for pretty much any Earther nation, for the Clans – there's half a million Saotome clanners who were born in this city within the last fifty years, this city has more people with the surname 'Saotome' than the entirety of Earth – hell, I only really started to get a handle on just how big this city is until the time I was hanging out at the city spaceport asking what the different bulk freighters I was watching land were carrying, and I was informed that, 'That one is transporting half of the city's supply of cheese for today'."
"There's a Super Clyde loaded with a megaton of food touches down in this city every thirty-five seconds, and even still, if that supply ever stopped, those people you're looking at are one week away from starvation."
"... are you serious?"
"Of course he is." Tark provided, highly amused. "Young lady, this city plays host to more truck-drivers than your entire homeworld."
"A bulk freighter lands at R'harash'gai't'rath Interstellar once every seven seconds." Harry added. "Average turn-around time is thirty-five minutes, average cargo mass, approximately one million tons. A seventeen-thousand-ton freight train departs that spaceport once every one and a half seconds. Two hundred and twelve rigs leave that spaceport every second. One cargo plane every two and a half seconds. This planet gulps down the total production of two hundred and fifty agri-worlds, and it's far from the hungriest planet in the galaxy. Hell, that's not taking anything but food into account. Wristwatches, for example. This planet consumes a ton of watches per minute. Six hundred groundcars in the same time. Fifty trucks. Ninety jetcycles. One thousand ninety-three aircars. One railway locomotive, fifty-three freight wagons, one entire passenger train, per minute. Five tons of guns, six hundred of ammunition. Eight hundred tons of trousers, five hundred of T-shirts, six hundred of jackets. Ninety-seven tons of shoes, per minute, all day every day. Alarm clocks, fucking hell, half a ton of alarm clocks every minute. Ninety-five tons of toy cars, for Christ sake. Six thousand fridges, three and a half thousand freezers, eleven thousand personal computers – five hundred and twelve tons of cybernetics, eleven of them cybernetic arms – and a typical cybernetic arm weighs about eight kilos, so that's about one thousand three hundred and seventy-five cybernetic arms per minute. The logistics involved in keeping a capital world fed, watered, clothed, fuelled and stocked with, well, anything, are absolutely mind-blowing. Jesus, the rail-yards at that one starport contain more track than the entirety of Britain. And it's hardly like R'harash'gai't'rath Interstellar is the only commercial spaceport on the planet; there are six others as big, and hundred of smaller starports, Mount K'rath'han among them."
"I don't suppose they send the ships out empty?" Hermione checked. "What does Kendarat produce anyway?"
"Cargo ships usually leave loaded with a mixture of sewage, rubbish, compacted atmospheric pollutants, and scrap – pretty much anything you'd throw in the bin or flush down the drain, and before you say that sounds worthless, I know plenty of places that'll pay five hundred UK pounds per ton for a shipload of Kendarat rubbish." Harry told her. "The sewage, for example, is refined, decontaminated, and turned into fertiliser; the contaminants are rendered down into valuable raw chemicals, proteins, amino acids, whatever. Atmospheric pollutants – have you got any idea how much a megaton of pure carbon is worth? Scrap metal and plastics speak for themselves; a shattered warp coil can be melted down, refined, purified and turned into a brand new warp coil far more cheaply than tracking down the phlebotinum ore necessary to create one from scratch. Broken electronics are loaded with valuable materials, and this city produces four million tons of high-tech waste per day. You're wearing three hundred million pounds' worth of precious metals, high-tech synthetics, and exotic alloys, around your neck. Think about it."
Hermione's hand flew to her throat as her eyes bugged out. Harry caught her expression, and nodded.
"That collar is worth more than a jet airliner, kiddo." he said. "Throw in your wrist and ankle bands, and we're talking enough money to buy three brand-new Boeing 747's."
"What is one of those?" Tark asked.
"Earther atmospheric transport. Big one." Harry told him. "About the size of a Mentler Sunhawk, but a bit faster and with two tons higher payload. Of course, being Earther it's a touch overpriced and goes through fuel faster than a Legion on leave through beers."
"Aside from other people's junk, Kendarat's main export is starships, railway locomotives, and weaponry." Harry mused. "Of course, the raw materials have to be shipped in, but you can load a bulk freighter with over ten thousand high-performance railway locomotives, and there's one of those departs this system every thirty-five seconds. In the same period, fifteen ships loaded with guns and a hundred sixty loaded with ammo blast off. One brand new capital-class starship every five seconds; four smallships such as the Blink Dog every second. The production lines involved are something else; it takes longer to fill a Mentler DK colony rifle's magazine with bullets than it does to make the entire gun. Heh, you haven't seen heavy machinery running full-blast until you've seen gigantic railway locomotives rolling off a production line at a rate of one every sixty seconds, and then taking a look around you and realising it's just one out of thousands of production lines, stretching so far you can't see the other side of the factory for atmospheric haze, and that there are bulk freighters dropping off raw materials at the far end of the factory."
"My younger brother is a night-shift welder at Mentler's railroad motive-power production facility at T'rael'aisha Works." one of the drivers – who Hermione was pretty sure was named Zarie – remarked. "He states that that his line is able to turn a stack of machined castings and plate metal into a full-sized locomotive in seventeen minutes, twelve seconds. The line does not ever stop; there are locomotives operating on thirty thousand worlds that my brother and his team built with their own hands."
"The machines Zarie's talking about are thirty-five feet tall, twenty-seven feet wide, a hundred twelve feet long, and weigh nearly five hundred tons." Harry helpfully added; to Hermione's relief, she noted she'd got the name right. "They're capable of towing a six-thousand-ton freight train at one hundred twenty miles per hour on straight and level track. Oh, and it takes them four miles to stop a fully-laden train from full speed; if you're in the cab of one of those babies and you've got the throttle wide open, well, if you've seen an obstruction in the track you are going to hit it. And, frankly, unless there's half a mountain in the way, the loco is going to win. I've seen one of those locomotives, running flat-out, hit an animal the size of an elephant; the poor fucking thing didn't even make her flinch. Heh, when they got to the railhead they found bits of giant mutt-cow-moose thing barbecued on the radiator. Good eating."
"And my brother's line produces approximately twenty-four thousand of those machines per standard day." Zarie put in. "Enough to fill two Super Clydesdale bulk freighters, with locomotives to spare."
"And there's a nine-month waiting list on orders for Mentler railway locomotives." Harry added, giving Hermione a side-on grin.
"The sheer scale of all this..." Hermione murmured, shaking her head.
Tark let out a bellow of laughter, joined by several of the other truckers.
"Little one," the tiger-striped catman rumbled, "You have only just began to see the surface of it all."
"I guess there's a lot of accidents with all the vehicles out there." Hermione said, gazing pensively over the vast horde of party-ready Kenti.
Harry nodded. "Sadly, yeah. There is a fatal car-crash four times per second on this planet. The least house-fires burning at any one time in this city since the last reform of the R'harash'gai't'rath Fire Brigade is fifty-three." He paused for a moment. "Right now this moment, one hundred and twelve homes in this city are on fire. One hundred and thirty-six half-mile sections of road within the city limits are currently closed due to car crashes; no, make that one hundred thirty-seven. Six aircar crashes in the last ten minutes. Two trains have been involved in fatal accidents while we were sat here talking in this truck – one hit a car, the other ran some twit down. There's a gunfight in progress on Shorefront Way just north of the Asihave Corporation warehouse. That's unusual; there aren't many people up to no good during the Festival. Ah right, Frognorfian Mafia versus Nalfers again, go figure. Huh, sixteen thousand tons of illicit drugs have been seized in the last half-hour within city limits, along with five thousand twelve illegally-held weapons and one hundred fifty-seven stolen cars. Oops, a dead body just got found six hundred feet from here, gunshot wound to the upper chest. Ah right, some worthy smoked a kiddie-pedaller, nice shooting. If anyone works out who fired, he's drinking on me."
"Where?" Tark growled, sitting up and taking notice, as did most of the other truckers.
"Wreck Row. Some pile of junk parked between Scrapheap Nal's rig and Terry McAllan's latest banger. Oho, seems our kid Nal smelt something nasty, checked it out, and drilled the bastard right through the heart. Hey, someone let the bar crew know Scrapheap Nal's drinking on my tab tonight, okay?"
Tark nodded, with an air of deep satisfaction, and grabbed a microphone off it's hook.
"Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine, this is the High Level Sunfall calling the R'targath'enar Beer Machine, have you a copy on me there S'rath'naia? Over."
"That is a big ten-four, Sunfall, you are coming out the windows. Over."
"Let the girls know our lad Scrapheap Nal just put a kiddie-pedaller in the dead-books; Nal is drinking on the West-Side Haulage Association tab tonight, and our lad Stormclaw says to tell him 'Good Shooting'. Over."
"Ah, ten-four on that; I will pass that along. Aha, I see Nal coming in looking a little excited. Beer Machine out."
With a deeply satisfied nod, Tark put the mike back on the hook.
"Trust Nal to make the galaxy a better place." one of the various truckers – Hermione was fairly sure he was called T'rael'aisha – muttered.
"With the things that man has seen..." Tark shook his head.
"Semper Fi, man. Semper Fi." Harry agreed, shaking his head; he caught Hermione's faintly bemused look. "Don't sweat it, kiddo. Scrapheap Nal's former Second Legion, he spent his Forces days on the Nalfer front. Anyone mistreats the ladies around Nal, they are dead meat; that kiddie-pedaller might as well have been signing a suicide note when he parked his pile of shit next to Nal's rig."
"Hey, you lot!" someone – a half-Kenti half-something man with blue hair and an immense beergut – shouted, sticking his head into the trailer, "Get your tails out here, they're about to start the ceremony!"
The purpose of those titanic screens rapidly became clear; they were now showing two people Hermione recognised – Queen Rialia the Twelfth, and K'tarag'jal R'hara'tath, though the last time she'd seen them they hadn't been dressed like that. The Queen of all Kenti was wearing an ornate floaty white thing Hermione found reminiscent of the get-up she'd worn (for want of a better word) during their trip to Tatooinie, with a snow-white fur-lined greatcoat over the top and large quantities of bright metal jewellery; K'tarag'jal was wearing what couldn't be anything but full military dress regalia, making him look like something halfway between a Napoleonic-era general and a Nazi officer.
Each had a microphone in front of them, and there was a substantial flamethrower perched on an ornate stand between them.
"Come with me for a moment." K'tarag'jal said, his basso profoundo voice thundering from the gigantic speakers, and every last person in the massive park stood to attention with an earth-shaking rumble of booted feet.
"It is late in the evening of Tarrath the 3rd of Ava, 2735." The hulking catman continued. "You are a young R'harash'gai, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. You are in T'rael'aisha – maybe by choice; probably not."
"Perhaps you are a landwarrior. You are sitting on a blacked-out ship in the heaving darkness, waiting for the order to sail. It is snowing like hell; it has been snowing for days. It has been snowing ever since you got off the transport plane; the Storm expressing the unease of the millions of warriors around you. You want to sleep, but you cannot; you are too worried about tomorrow. Everyone is on edge; even your Talon Alpha keeps clicking his claws together. Some of the guys are muttering prayers; others are checking their weapons. When the clock strikes midnight, you will be making your way over the last fifty leagues of the Sea of Islands, on your way to a date with destiny."
"And many of your friends will be coming home in plastic sacks."
"Maybe you are a seawarrior. You are sitting on an ice-cold anti-aircraft platform; dressed in every item of clothing you could scrounge up, trying to stay alert, scanning the blizzard for hostile aircraft, trying not to let your fingers freeze to the triggers. You heard one of the guys on D Deck was found frozen to death at his post last night; you just hope you are wearing enough to stop that happening to you."
"In later generations, many people will not even remember you were here; if they think of you at all they will believe you were back home, patrolling the coasts of the Prathi's homelands and living the good life on shore, despite the fact that all too many of your shipmates got blown to bits trying to get the men to the beach."
"Perhaps you are a strider pilot. You are sitting in your machine as it lies on the bottom less than a league from the beach; it is pitch black and hot as the River of Fire in here. You have been sat in this chair for nearly ten days; if it was not for the digital chrono on the dash you would have lost track of time long ago, and you are surrounded by the debris of your ration packs. You are just waiting for the gurgle of propeller noise and the sonar ping that will tell you to go. You have seen more combat than you like to admit; you had to knock out three tanks with a wrist launcher just to earn that skull on your shoulder, and with it the right to sit here in this baking darkness. The submersible equipment those clowns in Supplies clamped to your strider are bitch-ugly and clumsy as hell, but you cannot wait for the shock it will give the Temple goons when you come erupting out of the ocean with all guns blazing."
"It will be your job to knock out the beach defences; if you and your buddies cannot do it, the landwarriors are going to get cut to bits coming ashore."
"Or maybe you are a dropwarrior. At least you are in a comfortable room. You are checking your equipment for what seems like the thousandth time, wondering if there is anything else you can possibly bring that will give you the edge you need as you wait for your Talon Alpha to give the order to climb into the aeroplane you will be jumping out of in a few hours. You have jumped before; you had to do it ten times to earn that badge on your cap and those boots on your feet, but this time it will be different."
"This time you will be falling towards people who want to kill you."
"Maybe you are an airwarrior. You are sitting in the cockpit of your fighter, gunship, or bomber, repeatedly going over checklists, wishing they would just let you rev her up and go. Flying over the Planes of Death is routine stuff for you; you have been doing it every day for months, bombing the Temple's manufacturing power into radioactive dust or protecting your pals in the bombers. This time will be far from routine."
"In the morning, you will just be taking a quick trip over the Sea of Islands to knock on the fortress door – hard."
"But then, you could be a mage. You are stood in the ritual deck of your airtower as it waits at the foot of the runwaty; you are layering in spell after spell, wondering how many is enough, praying that you have not fouled up, knowing that it will be you and your colleagues who will have to keep the Temple's magi from tearing the assault force to battered scraps."
"You are all too aware that one slight mistake could spell doom for the entire offensive; you are praying you do not make that one mistake."
"Perhaps you are a netwarrior. You are crouched in front of your deck, drinking the latest in what seems like an uncountable number of energy drinks. The guy three cubicles over keeps jacking in and out; the click of the connectors going in and out of his neck has been pissing you off for hours, but you know the way you keep tapping a pen on your desk is probably pissing him off just as much, so you have not said anything. Some of the guys are coding addons for their icebreakers and firewalls as you wait; you would do it yourself if you were not so totally hyper. In a few short hours you will receive the jack-in order, and then you will be fighting for your life against the Temple ICE."
"And the lives of everyone you have ever known will be hanging in the balance."
"Or maybe you are a skywarrior. You are sitting in microgravity, listening to the repeated thump of missiles launching, watching them arc into space in a seemingly endless chain as they orbit in their precise patterns, all timed to hit their targets tomorrow morning – all at exactly the same moment. Your hands feel sweaty on the pistol grips as you scan the blackness for Temple orbital fighters or Temple ASATs, either of which could all too easily sever the lifeline of the pressure hull that is keeping you and your crew alive."
"If just one got through, you would be eating vacuum."
"Maybe you are not even a R'harash'gai. Maybe you are a N'era'kathi, looking for some payback for the embarrassment of the City of Ash three years ago, or a S'rath'naia or T'rael'aisha, ready to lay down your life for the homeworld. Or perhaps you are a K'tarag'jal or a G'ral'taraka, burning for some payback against the men who took your ancestral homeland away."
He paused, and this time he bowed his head. "Maybe, you are a R'hara'tath, heart blazing for vengeance for the slaughter of your kin these ten years past."
"Whoever you are, you have a piece of paper in your pocket, bearing the words of the one woman who controls more military forces than have been placed at the disposal of any one commander in known history."
"A woman who knows that it is her name at the bottom of the sheet, but it is your ass on the line out there."
The Queen of all Kenti took over, the switch placed so precisely that there was no break in the train of speech.
"Orders of the Day, Ava 3rd, 2735; Prathi R'harash'gai High Command."
"Warriors of the First Combined Legion."
"You are about to embark on a righteous journey, towards which we have striven these many months."
"Your mission is to bring an end to Temple tyranny, and bring freedom to our oppressed brothers and sisters across our ancient world. This will not be an easy battle; the enemy is well-trained, heavily-equipped, fanatical and battle-hardened, and will fight savagely and without mercy."
"But things have changed since the Temple triumphs of 2731 and 2732. Our home front has given us overwhelming superiority on the land, in the air, in space and on the digital networks, both in manpower and in weapons of war."
"The time has come for the free peoples of Kendarat to march together to victory against the Temple oppressors, and the hopes and prayers of freedom-loving Kenti everywhere go with you."
"Let us together beseech the Holy Mountains to bring us victory. The price of defeat is unthinkable; we must succeed in this war."
"Good luck, warrior."
"Signed, High Alpha Rialia R'harash'gai."
K'tarag'jal swept a very serious look around the immesurably vast audience. "In the morning, you and your buddies are going to save the world; and eighty thousand years later, the Kenti living in that future you bled to secure will still be thanking you."
With that said, he activated the flamethrower's pilot light, and handed it to his queen with a deep bow; she smiled, aimed it at the great mound of wood that provided their backdrop, and squeezed the trigger; fire blasted from the nozzle, converting the mountain of dry timber into an inferno.
The vast swarm – millions upon millions of bright-eyed catlike men and women – shared a solemn silence as the Queen ceremoniously handed the flamethrower back to K'tarag'jal, who accepted it with another bow, then placed it upon the stand and turned back to the mike.
"WHY SO SERIOUS, KENDARAT? I THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOD-DAMNED PARTY!"
Hermione found herself roaring along with that immeasurably vast crowd; Harry grinned, and with a whine of hydraulics the unfamiliar trailer on his road-train unfolded itself, revealing a truly huge public address system hooked up to a self-contained DJ's booth – and, as the hammering beat of Ministry rolled across that section of Queen's Park, Hermione couldn't help but smile. Tark howled like some kind of massive wild animal, lit the Molotov cocktail he'd been waving around, and hurled it at the mound of wood the truckers had brought in, screaming "TO VICTORY!" as fire mushroomed from the impact point; laughing like an idiot, Harry hauled a pair of hand flamers out of his jacket and added their force to the jets of burning chemicals the assorted Kenti truckers were sending at the bonfire; flames rolled across the heap, steam lifting in great clouds from the rapidly-melting snow, and Hermione was forced to shield her face from the heat with her hands.
The rumble of an explosion echoed from her left as fireworks screamed into the sky, tearing into the clouds in bright bursts, and a departing heavy freighter added it's weight to the cacophony as it lit up it's afterburners in thundering salute to the mighty dead as, for just one night, the Thousand Kingdoms as a whole played with fire.
Kendarat's day is a little longer than Earth's – just over twenty-five Earth hours in all. Thousand Kingdoms standard time is established by time at the centre of Coronation Square in downtown R'harash'gai't'rath, and therefore dictates the times of Kenti festivals.
The Festival of Fire takes place late in Kendarat's northern-hemisphere winter, from the moment that the last light of day falls on the tip of the war memorial at the heart of Queen's Park, and lasting for a full twenty-five-and-a-bit hours, until sunset the following day.
And, for Kenti everywhere, it is the greatest party of the year.
Throughout Thousand Kingdoms space, the workers of a superpower down tools for one full Kendarat day. The only businesses that operate during that period are street pedlars, bars, nightclubs, festival beer tents, food vans, hookers, hawkers, and the emergency services. Even Her Radiant Majesty's Armed Forces will, wherever possible, reduce operations to a minimum for that day as they remember the fallen.
All over Kenti space, street parties erupt, almost spontaneously. Every public place is thronged with people, bonfires are piled high in backyards and parks, and sixteen billion tons of fireworks per second are blasted into the skies of untold tens of millions of worlds across half a galaxy.
It outpaces even Smashdown Week on New Australia. Only the Old Atlantean's Feast of the Emperor's Acension has ever outdone the party that the trillions of subjects of Her Radiant Majesty throw on that night.
And the heart of that party is to be found in the city of R'harash'gai't'rath, on the planet named Kendarat, seat of the queens of the Thousand Kingdoms of Kendarat, far up the top-hundred list of greatest metropolises in the galaxy – a city that encompasses a half dozen square miles more land than the state of Texas, with more people packed in than call China home.
Over a hundred million DJ's booths, rigged up to four billion speakers, lit by a throng of holographic systems strong enough to conceal a world, pour the throb of bass-beats across that innumerable horde; the crowd consumes so much alcohol that, at any given moment, fifteen million beers are being poured. The party casts a pall of smoke across Kendarat's northernmost continent so deep that, thirty Kendarat days later, visibility is still impacted by the haze; the innumerable millions of tons of fireworks that blast their way into Kendarat's sky that night, along with the equally innumerable millions of tons of wood and fuel that go up in smoke, are enough to increase the local area's mean temperature by half a degree Celsius for the next three months.
It was round about midnight R'harash'gai't'rath time, and Hermione Granger was thinking about all of that as she lay, slightly drunk and blissed out on the spliffs someone had been handing round, in Harry's lap around one of the many and myriad camp fires, sheltered from the snow by the immense bulk of a big-rig, listening to the rumbly voices and bellows of laughter.
She smiled and chirped out a cheery greeting as she saw a familiar nine-foot sandy-furred titan emerge from the darkness.
S'tarak'hai R'hara'tath's eyes were gleaming, as was the spit-polished cap-brim and buttons of his dress uniform, as he strode out of the snow with a decidedly inebriated Tara hanging off his arm and a large crate of booze tucked under the other.
"Aha, Johnson. There you are." he rumbled, and Hermione caught the look of astonishment in the eyes of most of the truckers. "I have been searching for you all over."
Harry looked up from his beer and gave the massive landwarrior a dour look.
"Catboy," he said, "What the Hell took you? I told you we'd be at section D-11 near the custom truckers' fire."
"Alcohol." S'tarak'hai placidly stated. "Blame Tarai; it is her fault."
"Sniff my bum-hole, Rak." Tara complained, letting go of his arm and swaying around.
"Tarai, you are as drunk as a dropwarrior." S'tarak'hai informed her.
"Well of course I am drunk, it is the Festival of Flame you big idiot. Drunk and playing with fire is what everyone is supposed to be tonight." Tara earnestly explained, pilfering a bottle out of his crate.
S'tarak'hai gave her one of his vaguely bemused looks, shook his head, pulled up an unoccupied spare tyre, seated himself, and pulled her down beside him.
"Sit down before you fall down, woman." he instructed.
Tara giggled at him – once again, the universal translator translated this, successfully messing with Hermione's mind – and leaned against the side of him.
"You are nearly as drunk as me." she said.
"Cybernetic gyro-balancers are such a wonderful device." S'tarak'hai placidly remarked, a large and silly grin (and his eyes crossing) putting the lie to his feigned sobriety.
"Hey, you gonna pass that around?" Harry asked, pointing at the bottle Tara was now ferociously brandishing.
"Oh. Okay." She said, handing it to him; he took a slug, whistled, and handed it to Hermione, who (after a dubious sniff and sip) found herself coughing as the odourless liquid hit and proved to taste a bit like vodka on steroids.
"Who is your friend, Johnson?" Tark asked, sounding a bit dazed and repeatedly glancing at the rack of medals on S'tarak'hai's chest.
"Hmm? Oh, the big lug's S'tarak'hai R'hara'tath, he's with the First Legion, and the pretty girl's Tarai T'rash'gal, she's the navigator of a friend's starship." Harry replied. "Me and S'tarak'hai go way back; we've saved each other's asses a good few times." He glanced over at Tara and S'tarak'hai, then swiftly began introducing the various truckers; once everyone knew who everyone else was, they settled down to a good night's drinking and bragging.
As per usual where Harry and his mates were involved, the bragging got downright silly, tall tales were made up on the spot, the bullshit flew thick and fast, and Hermione eventually got drunk enough to join in, telling them an over-the-top story about escaping from a Sultan's harem armed only with a very large wet dog.
Eventually, at some insane time in the morning, she drifted off, lulled to sleep by the booze, the heat of the fire, the rumble of deep voices, the throbbing bass-beat of stereos, and the warmth of Harry's body as she'd curled herself up between his arm and his body.
"Bad plan." Said Ron Weasely.
"What're you talking about, bro?" Fred asked.
Ron grimaced. "What, you ain't seen the way Harry reacts to people making him jump? Hadn't you noticed he's got shellshock?"
"Er, yeah, so I guess we don't wait till he wanders in and all jump out yelling surprise then." Percy dubiously agreed., striking that one off the list of suggestions.
"What the Hell is it with you lot and Morley?" Bill complained, even more dubious.
"What the Hell's your problem with Harry anyway, bone-head?" Fred asked, narked. They'd been skirting around that very question for the last half an hour.
"Frankly, I'm not comfortable with us associating with Morley so closely." Bill finally admitted. "The bastard's a stone-cold killer."
"SHUT YOUR GOB!" Ron roared, instantly on his feet. "The only reason Mum and Dad and Ginny can sleep safe at night is because of blokes like Harry!"
"What are you two talking about?" Arthur asked, befuddled. Ron kept glaring at Bill.
"Yeah, Harry kills people for a living." he said. "Like to know what sort of people he kills? Mob bosses. Psychos. Death Eaters. He kills the sort of people who think people like us are fresh meat! He's like an Auror and a Curse Breaker and an Unspeakable and a Tomb Raider and a Special Forces landwarrior all rolled into one. You know the bird who was here with him last Crimbo?"
"That Granger girl, right?" Bill checked.
Ron nodded. "Yeah, Hermione. She's sound. Heh, and about the only person who ain't realised she's gone on Harry is Harry. Anyways, some sick bastard attacked her."
"Language!" Molly chided. Ron, for the first time in his life, drummed up the guts to glare at his mum.
"Gimme a break, Mum. Anyways, she was hiding in the bogs being really upset and stuff, and so when that crazy bugger Quirrel let a troll into the place she didn't know. It would've got her if Harry hadn't, well, knocked it's fucking block clean off."
"Language!" Molly repeated.
"Mum, nobody's told you what that sicko Flint did to Hermione." Ron said. "Look, she was in the library, right? She always is. We, well, we took off down the pub for a few before grub, and, I wish I hadn't listened when she said she was too busy to come down the pisser with us, she's well into books and stuff, it's like she's reading all the time, and when she gets really stuck into a book there's no point trying to get her out the book because it won't work, so we just took off and downed a few, y'know, had a quick pint before grub was up. Well anyways, we got back in time for grub and she wasn't about, and Harry was wondering where she'd got to, and one of his birds said she was down the bogs really getting worked up about summat. So anyways, Harry looked a bit freaked and we kept on scoffing our grub, then the stutterbunny came barging in yodelling 'Troll! In the dungeons!', and the old far- uh, and Dumbledore said for everyone to scarper for the dorms, right? So anyways, we go split up from the others 'cause everyone was barging all over the place, and Harry suddenly went, 'Shit, Granger's in the downstairs toilets. Come on.' and he takes off and I went after, and right when we got down thataway the troll went mashing into the downstairs girls' bogs. Harry took off like a cat with a rocket up it's arse." He shook his head. "I've never seen anything move so bloody fast - he went into the bogs, there was this sort of wet noise and a crash, and when I got there the troll had went one way and it's noggin went the other. And there was Hermione, with shiners and stuff and her skirt fucked up, looking like a cat'd widdled in her grub. So anyways, Harry grabbed her and we scarpered back to Harry's digs, and that was when he worked out what had Hermione so mucked up."
"What happened?" Bill doubtfully asked.
Ron looked him straight in the eye. "While we were off down the pisser, that sick bastard Flint sneaked up on her, skelped her one over the head with a big stick, towed her off into a quiet corner, and raped her." he said. "Harry went bonkers when he worked it out."
"Yeah." Fred and George chorused, looking a bit ill.
"What'd he do to that wanker?" Ron asked. "I mean, I know Flint went for a Burton..."
"You don't want to know." Fred bluntly stated.
George nodded firmly. "Flint didn't go easy into that final goodnight."
"I don't think there was much of any of Flint what wasn't knifed, shot, kicked, or skelped one by the time Harry was done." Fred muttered.
"Wow." Ron muttered, then shook his head. "Not surprised, Harry fell for Hermione ages ago and I think the only one who hasn't worked it out is Hermione. Funny how birds like her can be so brainy but really slow-on-the-uptake about blokes at the same time."
"Yeah." Fred said. He still looked a bit green around the gills.
"Don't shite a dragon about." George put in. "For you are scrummy and bloody good with chilli sauce."
"Dragon?" Charlie asked, sitting forwards to wax lyrical about his favourite subject.
"Didn't you know?" Ron checked. "Harry's an Arcadian-cross weredragon."
"... holy shite." Charlie said.
"I've known for yonks." Bill remarked.
Arthur turned stunned eyes on his three youngest sons.
"That's quite some friend." he murmured.
"Yeah, he scares the shite out me sometimes." Ron said with a shrug. "But he's a sound bloke."
"He says he scares the shite out himself sometimes." Hermione remarked, having arrived in time to catch the last couple of exchanges and making an educated guess as to exactly who was being discussed. "What? Why's everyone looking at me in that tone of voice?"
"Ronald and the twins were just telling us about some goings-ons from last year." Molly carefully told her.
"Oh. Flint and that other troll, right?" Hermione checked, getting the rest of the idea.
"Uh, yeah." Ron said, his ears going red.
Hermione sighed and sat down.
"You lot don't know the start of it." she said. "But whatever, Ben says you're planning a bit of a surprise birthday party for Harry, right? I figured I'd drop in and see if I can help out."
"So.. what do you make of Harry?" Bill pounced.
Hermione considered that for a long moment.
"Good question." she said. "I guess... well, he's one messed-up guy. He's got the same sort of scary eyes as blokes Mum and Dad know who were in the Falklands. It's the look you see when you look a hero in the eyes, and I know just what that means; it means shellshock. Sometimes I wonder how he keeps going through it all; he's spent so long just wandering, taking it a day at a time, searching for a reason. Sometimes I wonder how he manages not to flip out; he's been at war for so long that the whole galaxy's a battlefield to him. I don't think he really knows how to trust anyone any more; about the only things he can let himself really trust are guns and his own reflexes."
"So why do you stick with him?" Bill asked.
"Have you ever been in a room with a killing machine that's decided it likes you and anyone who messes with you is dead meat?" Hermione asked him. "I have, in fact I am every time I'm in a room with Harry. He's... he's my guardian angel. He's scary as Hell, and when he goes all quiet and too calm it's like standing next to an unexploded bomb... but yeah, I know he'd do anything to protect me, and I know I'll move any mountain for him. I know he's real good at fooling people into thinking he doesn't care about anything but the money, but the fact of the matter is that he cares very, very deeply about people like us. He fakes that don't-give-a-damn attitude because it helps him stay alive, but my God man, have you seen the way his eyes go like they're made from ice when someone starts threatening one of his people?"
Bill nodded, as did most of the others.
"What of it?" Bill asked.
"That's the sort of expression Harry gets when he's about half a heartbeat away from going for his guns and shooting to kill, bro." Ron told him.
"I call it Harry's landmine look." Hermione said. "Because when he looks like that he starts being like a landmine – when he looks like that, anything that tries to step on him or his special people is as screwed as if they'd just stepped on a mine."
"What's so special about people like us?" Bill asked.
"He's a greater dragon, innee?" Charlie pointed out. "It's the hoarding urge, innit?"
Hermione nodded. "Well, that too. But, y'know, I think the main part of it is that we can see past the reputation. Most people can't see past the Sith Lord, the big scary dragon, but we can."
Bill slowly shook his head, thinking about it. "Hermione... what do you see when you look past the half-mad mercenary gunman?"
Hermione closed her eyes for a moment, her expression pained.
"I see a frightened little boy lashing out at a world that tried to kill him for no reason when he was a toddler, who's never had a friend in his life, and doesn't know the words to say to tell anyone he needs help." she told him. "Either that or a tired old man who's had ever last gram of trust slowly drained out of him by one betrayal after another until he's this sort of husk, but whichever way I know he's screaming inside and I know what he needs is someone he can depend on, someone who'll never betray him, someone who'll be there for him, someone to be his armour – and if I'll be that someone for him until Hell freezes over."
"But... why?" Bill asked.
"Because... because I love him, okay?"
All was silent in the Weasely kitchen/living room for several moments, then Ron let out an indelicate snort.
"You know what I reckon, Hermes?" he said, accepting the well-earned glower for the strongly-disliked shortening of her name. "I reckon you oughtta tell Harry that."
"I'm not good enough for him." Hermione told him, instantly angry. "Why would he want plain boring old me when... fuck sake Ron, he can have any woman he wants!"
"Bollocks." Ron told her, becoming miffed. "You're the only bird he really gives a monkeys about, any twat can see that. Well, it's not so much that, I mean I figure he cares about all his girls, but more about you and if they weren't okay with that he'd drop 'em like a shot. He already ditched that Sally-Anne Perks bird for saying stuff she shouldn't about you behind your back, he pulled a gun on her and told her to start running." He shrugged. "Lavender told me about it, I told her to shut her gob and keep private stuff private, then I made her tell me who else she'd told and I made bloody sure they were gonna keep their gobs shut about it."
"... why'd you do that?"
"Coz of the Death Munchkins, right?" Ron said, exasperated. "They've been looking for some way to get payback on Harry all year. Well, at least since, y'know, Flint got what woz coming to him. And I don't reckon they oughtta know what Harry's like about you, coz that way lies some rough shit and Harry going totally bonkers and I'm not sure the castle'd still be, you know, a castle afterwards. And I don't wanna see Hogwarts turned into a great big pile of smoking mess."
"You're not normally so perceptive, Ron." Ginny remarked.
"What? Bugger off, Gin. I know I don't understand birds, no bloke does, and I know I ain't the sharpest tool in the box, but I ain't stupid and I saw the way Harry's face went when he realised what'd happened after that thing with the troll. It scared the fuck outta me."
"Do you really have to use bad language all the time, Ronald?" Molly complained.
"Aw, sorry mum. It's just, y'know, I get really het up about this stuff."
"Het up about what?" asked a sardonic voice from the doorway.
"Well, like, that stuff with that troll and what-not, Harry." Ron said, immediately nervous.
Harry ambled over, and gave Ron's shoulder a nudge.
"Have I ever thanked you for backing me up that evening?" he asked.
"Well, not really, but y'know, it's cool, right?" Ron said.
"Don't sell yourself short, kid." Harry told him. "Following an unknown element to face down a berserk troll when you were a first-year Collegium student is one of the ballsiest moves I've ever seen. I know I had it covered, but you didn't know that. A guy's gotta respect guts – and if things had gone a little different, it could easily have been you saving Hermione's life. Long story short, let's just say I owe you."
"It wasn't nothing, man." Ron said. "That's what mates are for, right?"
"Damn right." Harry said, then turned to Molly and Arthur. "Hey. I know it's a bit late to ask, but you guys mind if I come in and sit down? I need to let you guys know about someone I'm bringing to the do tomorrow night."
"Of course, Harry; take a seat." Arthur said, and with a smile (and a companionable nod to Bill) Harry did so.
"Thanks." he said. "Look, first off you have to understand how vitally important it is that this remains strictly off-the-radar. The exact identity of the woman I'm bringing with me tomorrow is the sort of secret that could get people killed, as is exactly how she relates to me."
Bill blew out an enormous sigh.
"Slade," he said. "If I couldn't trust you, I'd be dead in a hole in the ground in Liberia."
Harry snorted. "Aw, no big. Hell, I don't blame you for not trusting me. Sometimes I don't trust me, so it's just common sense on your part."
"You're not making this any easier, Slade bloody Morley." Bill snapped. "Whatever. I know you can tell when people lie to you, and I can tell you one thing for damned certain. Working for Gringotts involves secrecy oaths, oaths of non-betrayal – the magically-enforced type. I've never spilled any of your secrets and I'll never be able to, unless you cease being a Gringotts customer, which isn't likely so long as Chairman Shatteraxe is breathing. It's a company policy."
"Yeah, I know that." Harry told him. "That was half the reason I trusted you back in Liberia. I know Gringotts' policy regarding customer privacy – hell, I helped Shatteraxe pin the details of the policy revision down – and then there's the fact you've got the surname Weasely. I can work with a Weasely. I can trust a Weasely just the same as I'd trust a R'hara'tath. Ron and the twins are the ones who know why I know that, and I don't think they've connected the dots – but it's there for all that."
"What are you talking about?" Molly asked, puzzled.
"I'm talking about the reason Shatteraxe Goldgleam Tallfellow hired Bill in the first place." Harry told her. "I'm talking about the reason Charlie got a paid job with the International Lesser-Dragon Preservation Foundation – a charitable organisation, I might note, primarily funded by Yours Truly. I'm talking about the reason I trust every redhead in this room with my life. In fact, I'm talking about the 1462 oath of alliance between Jason Potter and Augustus Weasely."
"What in the galaxy does that have to-do with you?" Percy blankly asked.
"The woman I'll be bringing to the do is named Lily Johnson." he said. "She's significantly older than she looks – she's a weretiger who Firsted at fifteen. And her surname is a pseudonym. We're going to have it on the record that she's my little sister who I'm violently overprotective of. That is of course bullshit – she's not my sister, she's my mum, who was mindwiped a little under seventeen years ago. Oh, and her surname happens to be Evans-Potter."
"My God, Morely!" Bill croaked, sounding a touch sick. "You're The-Boy-Who-Lived?!?"
"I hate that fucking nickname." Harry growled. "But, yeah, Harry James Sirius Logan Fawcett Evans-Potter to a whole load of stupid bastards."
There was a long silence, finally broken by Bill.
"I call bullshit." He said. "I knew you eleven years ago, and you sure as hell weren't a six-year-old."
"No, I wasn't; I was just short of my three hundredth." Harry said with a shrug. "That's what you get when you're always gallivanting in a Tardis."
"How in Merlin's name did you get a TARDIS?" Arthur squawked.
"Same way as anyone else; twenty years at Prydonia Academy." Harry explained. "Look, my eldest daughter happens to be the Old Atlantean Senshei of Time, and I still don't actually know who her mother is – I haven't met her yet. In fact, on my mother's side I'm descended from myself; Setsuna is my maternal great-times-ten-grandmother. A lot of you know about Lily's Apast's?"
"Professor Evans-Potter's tail, yeah, sure." Bill said, nodding.
"Well, it's the line of descent from Setsuna she got it from." Harry elaborated with a shrug. "And Setsuna got it from her dad. 'Hello, Harry. My name is Setsuna Meiuu, and I am your daughter' coming from a hottie older than me still ranks as the creepiest thing I've ever heard. Well, second to, 'This is it, kiddies. Welcome to Garg's Landing'. It's called a causality loop; I'm where the Apasts and the whole being-a-weredragon thing entered my own bloodline since I'm the dumb shit who decided going back in time a quarter million years was a great idea."
"I thought Lily was dead." Molly murmured.
"You were supposed to." Harry told her. "Everyone she knew apart from her grandpa was supposed to. Look, Voldemort – oh for fuck sake stop flinching, it's just a dumb anagram – well, he shot her in the head with a sawn-off double-barrel particle carbine. It fried a large portion of her brain. Hell, it should have killed her. I reckon she was just too bloody-minded to let go; she regenerated the damage, but it left her with the mind of a newborn baby. She's effectively a sixteen-year-old girl who's been stuck in the body of an adult weretiger since the day she was born."
"Wait a minute, what happened to the scar?" Ginny asked; she'd gone sincerely squeaky. "And... why the whole pretending not to be who you are?"
Harry gave her a dour look.
"It was getting me all the wrong sort of attention." He told her. "The kind of attention that involves people shooting at me. I skinned that part of my forehead with a Stanley knife after I Firsted and my regeneration came online, it healed without the scar but there's still a groove in my skull; if you press against the right part of my forehead, you can feel it."
"But… but why would anyone want to shoot you?" she blankly asked. "You're a hero!"
Harry snorted disgustedly.
"Hero? Aye right. OK, long story short, a wannabe Sauron decided he didn't like my face, so he blew up my old man, lobotomised my mum, and shot me in the head with a supposedly unstoppable spell only my skull turned out to be tougher than expected and it rebounded in his ugly fucking face viola the entire fucking universe thinks I'm Mr Hero when they should be thanking my fucking forehead, The End." He grimaced. "Problem is, Old Cheesy Armpits had a certain number of like-minded shitheels who weren't very happy about him getting blown into a wet smear, and there's always idiots with one-digit IQ's and itchy trigger fingers out to make themselves famous, and if you're a moron with a gun there's no easier way to become famous than drilling a famous person; just ask John Lennon. Oh yeah, my mistake, you can't ask John Lennon, he got shot dead by a retard who wanted to be famous."
He pulled his muscle-T down, revealing a half-inch circular scar on his chest, between his heart and his left nipple.
"You'd be amazed how many dumb fucks with mono-brows and itchy trigger fingers are out there looking for statistics." he remarked.
"Where'd you pick that one up, Harry?" Hermione asked, touching the scar for a moment. It felt warm, smooth, hard, like a part of a Harry. She'd seen his scars before – they were all over him, across his back for the main part, most of them from Vernon Dursley, but he'd only got the one visible gunshot scar. Amerai regeneration had made sure of that. It had two halves – a half-inch circular dent in his chest, and a massive ragged circle from the exit wound on his back.
"This madwoman out on New Oz recognised me." he said. "That was before I got rid of the forehead scar. It was two months after I turned sixteen, right before I started the whole time-hopping thing, so a good three centuries ago for me, just under a year ago linear time. The voices in her head told her to make front-page by blasting me in the chest at point-blank range with her pet Desert Eagle. I've got a scar on my back as big as a plate; I bloody nearly didn't make it. After that, we decided to have my First Change artificially triggered; if that didn't set me off, nothing would. That and a little incident where this mad old hag-spirit used a True Name ritual on me are why I go by pseudonyms these days. Fuck sake, that wasn't the first time someone tried to kill me for being born, that was when Mouldy Voldie came a-callin', and it sure as Hell won't be the last. There's gun-toting idiots who want to be famous, there's Old Mouldy's multitudes of homicidal goons who bought themselves off after he had his close encounter with my forehead, and there's the multitudes of people I've pissed off over the years. All being the Ooh-Aaah La-De-Da Boy-Who-Gets-Hyphenated did for me was paint a bloody great target mark right between my eyebrows alongside that damn scar."
"I... just don't get it. How can anyone be so... so..." Ginny tried, but rapidly drifted off, words failing her.
"People are bastards, kiddo." Harry told her. "If they think something'll make them rich and famous, they'll do it, no hesitation, no regrets. And there's no easier way to make yourself famous than killing someone famous. Often, it's a good way to make yourself rich too; powerful people make dangerous enemies, and you'd be surprised how often a famous person's head on a plate is worth a literal fortune. Believe me, I should know – I've been the bogeyman of Clanspace ever since I put an explosive bullet into Kami Asinara's skull."
Bill proceeded to go rather grey.
"Slade Morley, Harry Johnson, Lord Stormclaw, the freaking Boy-Who-Lived... just how many identities have you got anyway?"
"Currently in-use?" Harry asked, cocking his head. "I maintain a minimum of five hundred identities at all times, about half of them fully backed up – paper trails, old friends, teachers, you know the drill. A Tardis and a few disguises makes for a very direct and very functional alibi generator, especially when you combine it with chucking gun barrels into a blast furnace. I know for a fact there are two of me on this planet right now, and another three elsewhere in the galaxy; there may be more, but I haven't been those ones yet; for me, the time I stuck my head in here last week was a year and a half ago."
"But... why?" Molly asked.
"Several reasons." Harry told her, shrugging one shoulder. "Firstly, I have a large number of identities to maintain. Secondly, I am an expensive and very bloody busy mercenary. Right now, I've got one hundred fifty-six job offers pending acceptance; I intend to have fifteen of them done by this evening, and I also intend to have two of the would-be employers dead within the hour. What? Hey, they tried to hire me to kill people I like, and an enemy of my friend is someone I'll take pleasure in exterminating. One of them is someone who's called a hit on your husband. Would you prefer me to leave the son-of-a-bitch to hire some other mercenary who'll go through with it?"
"Who?" Arthur asked, suddenly extremely serious in a way that reminded Ron, the twins, Bill and Hermione of Harry's land-mine look.
"Morrigna remnant." Harry told him.
"Well, I'd better get moving. Places to go, things to do. I'll catch you lot tomorrow."
"Yeah, seeya man." Ron said as Harry rose to his feet.
Hermione watched Harry go, wilting a bit.
"Hermes," Ron remarked. "Sod it, if you don't tell him I bloody will. This is getting silly."
"Mind your own business, you ginger Liverpudlian twit, or I'll give you such a kicking your great-grandkids'll be born bruised!"
"What? Hey, no need to bite my head off!"
Hermione's response consisted of a glower as she rose to her feet and followed Harry out.
The next morning when Hermione got around to getting up and wandered over to see what Harry was up to, she found him working on restoring the boltgun he'd bought on the Cowabunga; he had it in pieces and was tut-tutting over the damaged breech block, clicking his tongue and shaking his head and making disapproving noises.
Seeing as how he wasn't in a talkative mood, she picked a random book from his bookshelf, settled herself down on one of his sofas, and started reading.
About half an hour later, they received an interruption.
"What the Hell is-"
Harry whipped round with his guns out as soon as he heard the voice.
Jeff Granger recoiled away from him, staring in blank shock at the brace of E-Mags, one of which was levelled at his heart and the other at the end of his nose.
"Oh, it's you. Do yourself a favour and knock next time." Harry remarked, holstering the guns.
"What in the fuck is your problem?" Jeff growled.
"Armed people who want me dead." Harry told him. "What do you want?"
"I want to know what the Hell's going on with you and my daughter."
Harry considered that, then sat back down with a snort.
"Long story." He said. "Take a seat. You're going to have to hear me out; you are not going to like what I've got to say, but there isn't a hell of a lot of choice."
"This doesn't sound good." Jeff stated. Harry nodded and handed him a beer.
"That's because it's not." He stated. "First thing you need to understand is that time travel is not only possible, it is a day-to-day fact; I own a well-maintained Tardis, one of the more versatile and reliable time machines, and my eldest daughter, Setsuna Meiuu, happens to have the most powerful temporal engineering device ever constructed affixed rather firmly to her soul."
"I'll take your word for it." Jeff said, cracking the beer. "A guy calling himself Genma Saotome told me the basics… First off, I want to know what the hell the deal is with that ironmongery she's wearing."
"Hey Hermione." He said.
"What's up?" she asked, looking up from her book in a distracted manner. "Oh, hi Dad."
"Mark your place; this may take some time." Harry said, sitting down beside her; she gave him a faintly puzzled look, marking her place with a slip of paper and dumping the book on the coffee table.
"Your old man wants to know what the deal is with your stabilisers." Harry told her.
"I wondered how long it'd take." Hermione said; Harry nodded and idly brushed her hair out the way so Jeff could see the silver plate with it's multilingual lettering.
"First off, Arcadian High Draconic. It's the political language of the galaxy; any diplomat or cop worth his salt understands High Draconic, same goes for judges, lawyers, business executives… you get my drift." He said, tapping the topmost line of lettering. "Second off, Kentare." And his finger moved down to the second line. "The Thousand Kingdoms of Kendarat are a political and military-industrial powerhouse; Kentare is the native language of a galactic superpower. Third off, Seletic." On to the third line. "Scots Gaelic is a dialect of the Seletic language. It was the language of the ancient Celts, and the Hardaks they were descended from – and courtesy of the Hardaks, it's the native language of the Amerai. Nearly everyone in Clanspace – that's a vaguely spherical area about six thousand lights across centred on this system – speaks Seletic. Last but not least, we've got Old Atlantean, also known as Imperial Gothic." And he tapped the bottommost line of lettering. "It's the common language of the Old Atlantean Imperium, the most powerful nation the galaxy has ever seen, it's the ancestor of nine-tenths of the languages in known space, and it's the galactic standard trade and navigation language. It sounds a bit like a bastardised form of Latin." Harry let go of Hermione's hair and sat back; he gave Jeff a hard and unnervingly serious look.
"Those four languages are the commonest in the galaxy. This galaxy is a multilingual place; only one in a thousand people don't speak at least two languages, and nearly half the population fluently speak three or more. It's not unusual for someone to be able to have an intelligent conversation in twelve or more languages. Ninety percent of the galactic population can read at least one of those little markings, Granger. That means ninety percent of the galactic population will take a long hard look at that collar and back the fuck off. There's a bloody good reason 'Never piss off a dragon, for you are crunchy and taste good with chilli sauce' was coined as a saying."
"What the Hell's that got to do with anything?" Jeff snapped.
"Each line of lettering on that collar says, in one of those four languages, something roughly translating as 'This human is property of Lord Stormclaw the Magnificent; to interfere with her is to invite the immediate visitation of Death'." Harry stated. "Lord Stormclaw the Magnificent is as it happens me."
"Are you saying you've made her into a bloody SLAVE you son-of-a-" Jeff roared, erupting onto his feet.
With a noise like a whipcrack, a handgun seemed to teleport into Harry's fist; there was a click as the hammer dropped, then silence. The gun was levelled at Jeff's head.
"Don't ever take that attitude with me again, Earther." Harry said, and suddenly his draconic nature was very apparent. "Or next time there'll be a cartridge in the breech."
He stood up, placing a hand on Hermione's shoulder.
"Your daughter means two things to me." He continued. "Six months after she was born, only a week after I'd got a proper watch on her, I was approached by an agent from the Thousand Kingdoms' Bureau of Counter-Terrorist Operations. The agent in question passed on a message from Queen Rialia the Twelfth; if I ever let Hermione out of my control, there's a bullet in the Thousand Kingdoms armoury with her name on it. Three days ago, Hermione successfully materialised, contained, and safely dispersed, a quantum singularity. What a fully-armed ballistic missile submarine is to Earth's politics, this lil' girl is to galactic politics. Because I've got her, I am a one-man nuclear state. This pretty lil' girl's going to enable me to exterminate the worst terrorist in known space, and get payback on the worthless fuck who killed my father in the same shot. Old Tom Mouldy thinks he's so fucking tough; just wait till the bastard gets a load of a living supernova. That's the first thing Hermione means to me; I'll admit it, I'm a gun maniac, and she is the most powerful weapon I'm ever likely to possess."
"Harry, I know you're pissed off at him right now, but couldja please stop pointing that gun at my dad's head? I know he doesn't use it much, but he'd look kinda fucked-up without one." Hermione requested.
Harry glanced down at his .50 Desert Eagle, blinked, and dumped it on the sofa beside him.
"Sorry. Reflex." He said.
"S'ok, no harm done." Hermione said with a shrug. She turned her attention to her dad.
"Dad, please just, well, lay off Harry about this, OK? I knew pretty much what the writing on my collar meant when I put it on, and I'm still not sure whether I'm cool with it, but I know Harry cares about me. I can tell when he's telling the truth; his voice goes quiet and tired, and he gets this look like he's staring off into eternity, and he looses the flippant attitude."
"Damnit, Hermione; when the Hell did you get so good at reading me?" Harry complained, sitting back down with a flop.
"I'm not really sure." Hermione said. "I think it was about the same time as you actually started opening up to me." She turned her attention back to her father. "We're a team, me and Harry. He leaves me out the loop a lot of the time, and he always seems to be trying to piss me off, but when the cards are down… I trust him with my life."
"This ain't over, Johnson." Jeff growled.
"Over?" Harry picked the Desert Eagle back up, slotted it's magazine in, and pulled the slide. "It was over before she was born, you stupid fuck." He casually aimed it at Jeff's cranium. "Or do you really want half an inch of lead in that empty fucking skull of yours?"
"Your daughter is mine." Harry flatly stated. "I own her, mind, body, and soul. She's been mine since the day she was conceived, she'll be mine till the day she dies, which is going to be a hell of a long way into the future if I've got anything to do with it, and I don't give a flying fuck what you say."
"This is a mean old galaxy we live in, boyo. Dog eat dog. Strong dominate weak. Might makes right. You either get the fuck out the way, or I drill you; your choice. Never say no to a dragon, Earther; we never forget anything. You Earthers say possession is nine-tenths of the law; well, out here in the real universe, it's one hundred percent of the law. I'm bigger than you so I'm higher in the fucking food chain."
"I can make you temporarily mute with three words, Hermione. Do yourself a favour and quit yelling at me." Harry remarked, putting an arm round her.
"Asshole." Hermione muttered.
Harry smirked and put his hand between her legs.
"Yeah, an' you love it, baby."
"Actually, I don't, but there isn't much point saying so, is there?"
"Never know your luck." Harry remarked, moving his hand closer to Hermione's groin. "So, Jeff; gonna back off, or am I gonna pull this trigger?"
Jeff gave him a hate-filled glare, and went storming off back through the subspace door.
Harry and Hermione watched him go, then Harry shook his head.
"Well," he said, "That went better than I expected." His hand was now completely covering Hermione's crotch.
"What? It was a bloody disaster!" Hermione complained.
Harry sighed and shook his head, safed the gun, and put it down.
"Fathers tend to be a bit overprotective of their daughters, kiddo." He said, sounding sad and tired. "Especially when the daughter's had an experience like what Flint did to you; once bitten, twice shy. I sure as hell don't blame your dad for getting worked up about anything he perceives as a threat to you; been there, done that, got the fucking T-shirt. I'm not going to take any shit from him, but I've got a certain level of sympathy – that's why he's still breathing and hasn't got any broken bones."
He shook his head.
"But, as much as he may dislike it, the fact remains that you are my property and nothing your father can do will change that."
"I'm not some plaything, Harry Johnson." Hermione complained, glaring at him. "Don't you ever think I'm your slave. It's wrong, and I won't have any part of it."
Harry stared at her for a long moment, then sighed.
"Hermione," he said, "We've been over this subject over and over and over again, and you are really starting to piss me off. You sound like a stuck record; what the Hell is it going to take to get you to permanently drop it?"
"Harry, slavery is just wrong." Hermione growled. "That won't change."
Harry muttered something impolite-sounding in Klingonaase (though admittedly, anything said in that language sounds impolite) while rapidly shaking his head.
"For the love of... Which part of this expression makes me look like I give a fuck?"
"... what?" Hermione blankly asked.
Harry shrugged one shoulder.
"I know you're not going to like my opinion." he said. "I kept giving you chances to let it rest, and you didn't bite, so it's time I laid it out for you."
He drew in a deep breath.
"I. Do. Not. Care."
"You... Harry, people have rights. That's inherent, it'll never change."
"People who don't fight for their 'rights' lose them." Harry said, voice dead level. "That's inherent. It'll never change. A certain sizeable metal paladin keeps saying freedom is the 'birthright' of all sentient beings; that's why I call the daft bastard Overoptimistic Prime. How this galaxy, and in fact this planet, works and has always worked is, he who has the most firepower makes the rules. 'Rights' can take a fucking number, I've got bigger fish to fry. You think barely-sentient globs of biomass being treated as the property they are is the worst thing in the fucking galaxy? If that was the worst of our problems the galaxy would be at peace and I'd be out of a job."
Hermione didn't reply, so he continued.
"Every civilisation is a system, and every system has rules. Here on Earth, in your home nation, you do not have the 'right' to blow away anyone who tries to kill you – unless you're one of the government's pet enforcers, also known as 'police'. It is not a pretty system; just like the rest of this shit-hole galaxy it is built on might making right. The difference is, the people at the top are more honest about it out there, more likely to use guns and chains than those useless bits of paper and scrap metal we call money. Want to know how many 'rights' you've got and what they are?"
She still didn't reply. He took that as assent.
"Jack and shit. And Jack left town."
"Oh, I'm not talking about because I own you, in fact what 'rights' you do have are directly from belonging to me. I'm talking about because you're an Earther human mage and your parents are not purebloods. Mundane Earther law no longer applies to you because you're supernatural. Magical Earther law applies to you, and by that you're in a worse position than apartheid-eara black South Africans. Your parents are even worse off – since they couldn't afford and didn't know about magical education, they're legal non-entities. Want a say in government decisions? Tough shit, you don't own a hereditary seat on the Wizengamot. You're a peasant in a feudal society. A mundane-born Earther mage has two options; spend their entire life slaving their guts out at some soul-crushing subsistence-wage job or emigrate. Or, if you're female, become a concubine for some pureblood or another in the hope that your kids in twenty or so generations will manage to marry into money."
"I'm amazed there hasn't been a revolution."
"Oh, there has, plenty times. That's what half the 'dark lords' in the book were; effectively, freedom fighters. They won a few times, but as any idiot can tell you, today's triumphant freedom fighter is tomorrow's Big Brother. The guy leading escaping slaves today is the guy who'll be holding the whip tomorrow, and when that don't happen, ever heard of a counter-revolution?" Harry shook his head. "Any successful system has checks and balances built into it. Not to protect the people at the bottom of the pile; to protect the system itself. Like to know what magi 'civilisation' does to people who buck the rules?"
"It buries them in a hell-hole called Azkaban. If ever you wanted proof that there's such a thing as a fate worse than death, look no further than there."
"First off, it's a deathworld. That means, every living thing on that worthless dirt-ball thinks anything that moves is dinner. Second off, it's smack in the centre of the deadest thaumatic dead zone in Clanspace. And third, well... ever heard of a Dementor?
"... I can't say I have."
"Be grateful for that, kiddo. It's a form of corporeal undead, similar to a class-three zombie, but better preserved and possessed by a sub-demonic entity called a sluuakh. Those fucking things are emotional vampires, and not the good sort. They can feed on pretty much any emotion they so choose, but it seems they prefer the 'flavour' of despair, and they're pretty damn good at causing it – it's like they exude this palpable aura of depression. That said, they can't sate themselves off emotions – oh no, to sate themselves they need to eat a despairing soul."
"... oh, God..."
"Yeah. And that's what Azkaban calls a prison guard. A life sentence in that hellhole is usually about five to ten years, between the prisoner not being able to summon the will to take care of themselves, absolute lack of hygiene or medical attention, starvation level diet, and usually-polluted water. The longest anyone's ever lived when in that hole is thirty-seven years. About a third of all prisoners die within five weeks of being ditched there; anyone who actually manages to survive their entire sentence is going to be decidedly insane when they get out – there's only about a dozen ex-cons per century ever make it that far, out of them maybe two will ever be able to function again, and not one of them has ever been completely sane again. Take Hagrid – he spent six years in there and his grasp on reality's been downright shaky ever since. And then there's the fact it's about the closest to escape-proof of any jail in the galaxy; there's only a couple hundred people have ever broken out of there, and only one of 'em – John Kirth – did it without any outside assistance. I've been trying to find out how he pulled it off for a while; I broke someone out of there a couple centuries back, and believe me, it wasn't easy."
"Haven't these people ever heard of, well, human rights?"
"Yes, and they find the whole idea unfavourable. After all, if they did that, they wouldn't be legally entitled to exploit the hell out the 'lower classes' and shitcan anyone who tries to rock the boat." Harry caught Hermione's expression, and visibly winced. She was looking lost, confused, like someone had shot the foundations out of under her world.
"I'm sorry, kiddo. I really am. I hate having to give good people bad news."
"I... I guess it isn't really your fault, Harry." she said, resting her cheek against his chest as she tried to anchor herself. "I... with my aura, I'd have been up to my neck in this anyway."
"You're wrong about that, Hermione." he told her. "After we discovered you, I and a few of my pals had a lengthy discussion about you. Something stank. What the Hell were the chances of someone as powerful as you just randomly turning up? It's only happened two times before; Rob Zombie and the Emperor. You know that saying about how once is weirdness, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action? You can bet your eye teeth we looked into it. Sure enough, there were signs of genetic engineering, signs of selective breeding. It's no coincidence you were born; someone did a lot of extremely painstaking work to make sure you came to be."
He sighed and shook his head.
"It took me fifteen years. Whoever I was searching for seemed almost precognitive, it was like he'd planned for every possible move I might make. But I eventually found him."
"Who was he?" Hermione asked, getting more and more creeped out.
"Time Lord, remember. He was me, Hermione. I created you and I still haven't entirely figured out why."
"How's that work?"
"Because I haven't done it yet." He shook his head. "I'm still trying to figure out why... and the thing that worries me is I'm starting to get a pretty good idea of it."
"Why would a guy like me want a weapon like you? And before you say that the only thing a weapon like you is good for is taking over the world, I don't want this mess; the bastards who're running it are the ones who deserve it because whoever's running it will be first against the wall when the next revolution comes."
"... I guess you mean aside from, well, the whole gun-maniac thing."
Harry chuckled, but he sounded a bit wan.
Harry didn't reply for several moments, obviously deep in thought, then he sighed and shook his head.
"Hermione, you've got the raw destructive power of an exploding star. That, not to put too fine a point on it, scares the ever-living shit out of me."
He sighed again.
"The only thing that'd get me searching for something that makes a Genocyber look like a cherry bomb is if there is an enemy coming that I cannot stop any other way." he said. "Enemies like that... are never good news. They're the sort of enemies where, if I fuck up, galaxies die."
"I'm saying... Hermione, I am starting to believe that you were created to save the world."
Catching her expression, he grimaced.
"I'm sorry, kiddo. I really am. It's a hell of a thing for me to lay on you... but, hell with it, you deserve to know the truth. After all..."
He stopped and shook his head.
"After all, if you die in the process, it'll make the whole fucking thing completely worthless."
"Harry, the world is worth a lot more than me."
"Look at me, kid. Look me in the eye." Harry snarled, hands becoming painfully tight on her shoulders, and she snapped her head round and up, staring into the mad Avrea Kedavera-green whirlpools he called eyes.
"You." he snarled. "Are worth more than every fucking dirtball in this galaxy PUT TOGETHER. Give me a choice between you and this fucked-up mean old galaxy and the galaxy can whistle Dixie. Without you I would be NOTHING. You hear me, girl? NOTHING. Don't you ever fucking tell me ANYTHING would make it worthwhile to lose you! You are MINE. Forever and a day. And you WILL outlive me."
Just as suddenly as it had arrived, the intensity had vanished.
"Everyone's got to have a reason to keep going, kiddo." he said, sprawling back on the sofa and staring at the ceiling, "And I found one stood on a railway platform in London just under a year ago." The maniacal light came back to his eyes, and his voice dropped to the inhuman snarl he used when in dragon form. "I'll make this galaxy worthy of having you in it if it's the last thing I fucking do."
"It wouldn't be worth being in if it didn't have you in it, Harry." she said, and the energy seemed to drain out of him; he slowly slumped over on the sofa, landing with his head in her lap, his eyes tired, and a strangely un-Harrylike soft smile on his face.
"You and me, Hermione m'girl. You and me. Think of the possibilities..."
"Together." she said, running one hand through his hair.
"Forever." he told her, taking her other hand in his.
They sat in silence for a few moments.
"Harry... a while back you told me never to point a gun at anything I'm not willing to kill..."
"Yeah. I did."
"Does that rule apply to you too?"
"Applies to anyone; it's the second rule of firearms safety."
"... so you'd be willing to kill my dad?"
"There is only one person in this universe or any other who I would not be willing under any circumstances to kill. Sometime, the only thing you can do for someone is finish the job."
"Yeah." Harry blew out a sigh and heaved himself to his feet as he realised it was just about time to go pick up his mum before heading to the Weasely place. "C'mon, sei kara." She too rose, and took his hand in hers; he glanced down at her, and one corner of his mouth twitched up into a quirky little grin;
"Let's get out there and change the world."
It's all over, you can come out now.
Top Dog Will Return, In,
Enter the Fnords Book 2:
Harry Johnson and the Deathtrap Girl.
"Harry, what the fuck is 'the good type' of emotional vampire?"
"What, never heard of a succubus?"
Once again, I have removed the end theme from this FF.N version; this time, it's Runrig's 'Hearthammer' from the album 'The Big Wheel'.