A collaboration with @Irredeemable
Six Months after the fall of the People's Union...
A storm of activity in orbit around the great gas giant - where once darkness had served as a constant reminder of their loneliness in the universe, now there was a fury of colours.
For the thousands of crew and staff aboard that great monument to failure, Spirit’s Loss
, the reawakening of the gateway was something never seen before. An upending of reality, an unpredictable disaster only whispered of in propaganda channels or restricted archival footage.
For what remained of the ancient, awakening mind of Roselle Ivanović, sealed within the station’s distributed intelligences and having been ‘sleeping’ for the past four days, there was a different sort of horror.
The horror of recognition.
Her consciousness projected, she desperately reached out into the shell of one of her Luminous subjects – a diplat mind, similarly digitised but carefully sealed into a single form. It seemed shocked at the sudden intrusion – obviously still a dull creature, even after all the glory it had been granted.
“You. Explain.” she echoed within it. Through its four arching, multi-spectrum lenses she could see it overlooking a number of reports being received from throughout the station and the various freighters and patrol ships throughout the region.
“My lord, it’s an honour, we-”"Explain.”
“We-we don’t know yet, there was no warning. My lord, what should we-”
The luminous could do nothing as its lenses acted under her control, focusing on a specific report that had just flared up.An object coming through? So soon?
With a lightning focus she hadn’t felt in centuries, she dropped the shell of the luminous as easily as the strings of a puppet, and moved through the network. A clear instruction echoed through a hundred minds, relayed to every relevant station and crew:
“Bring it to me.”
Roselle would have sneered, had she still a face to do so.
Through the eyes of another luminous – ‘0841’ was its designation, its personal name instead being some bizarre, nonsensical diplat-human combination that she struggled to remember – she worked steadily. Coordinating the efforts of half a dozen skittering, many-limbed current measurements as they meticulously scanned and cut away at the object that now rested in a hastily quarantined hanger-bay.
How many hours did they have before whoever sent the probe through reacted? Signals had been sent for the patrol fleet to converge on the station and maintain engagement distances, but it would take several hours for the entire formation to be ready.
It hadn’t been much to look at when they’d brought it aboard – not really. It clearly hadn’t been designed with looks in mind: a simple, cigar shaped chunk of metal with the absolute minimum required number of thrusters bolted onto it to allow for a comfortable range of movement. Not much fuel on board either – enough to putter out of a moon’s gravitational pull or align itself with an interesting signal.
But now it looked like the deranged mess of a serial killer. Every internal component was carefully removed and analysed before being placed into some kind of storage. With each step Roselle and the current measurements took meticulous, exhaustive data that was recorded and returned to the network, backups of backups of backups. Every sub-component of every sub-component, chemical composition, precise relative location, weight, arrangement of pieces.
The science of it was good. It distracted her from the nagging fears that had desperately clawed at her mind since the gate reopened.
Now? Why now? Who? From Earth? But they’re dead, impossible. Survived, perhaps - bunkers? Outer planet colony remnants? Other colonists?
The last option was the most frightening, of course. The Mensura Group had recruited from some of the greatest minds available on Earth in its time, but three centuries was a long, long time. If other colonies had survived – in likely greater numbers, given starting populations and methodologies for colonisation – then they would have had access to three-hundred years worth of intellectual and scientific development.
If they had reopened the gate…
She would have shuddered, had she still possessed a body to do so.
But fear did no good. There was work to be doing.
“Capacitors to 80%. Make sure tubes and PD’s are loaded.” Capitán Y Sorono frowned a little. Probes scouted out newly opened Gateways as a matter of course- it would be remarkably silly to let others get the drop on new nations and systems when Azulvista had more than enough resources to cover them all. What was less
regular was for one of those probes to put out some seriously unusual signals and then go dark. One-in-a-million collision? Scrappers, pirates, something more sinister? Or just another nation that had jumped the gun and swept up their tech?
Regardless, the Gran Republic was mildly annoyed at the whole affair, and so had sent a small flight of caravels to go and investigate. Five ships, headed by a single carrack- Leonardo,
sallied forth from the picket and had formed up in front of the Gateway. Last minute checks had been quickly carried out, and with a single nod of his head, Sonora’s craft sped through the vortex and out, out, out, into the multicoloured hues of ancient technology, and to the beyond.
What awaited the Leonardo
and its cohort as they emerged from the gate was not the quiet dark of space. Instead, a huge array of ships and machinery – a vast shipyard, networks of hangar bays and refuelling stations stretching for thousands of kilometers in every direction. As they watched, narrow, rounded structures began to uncoil from various surfaces around the tops and undersides of the stations – and judging by the clear power signatures, they were armed.
There was a brief pause aboard the command node of the Leonardo
as they took it all in. “Hold fire!” The order rattled through the wing immediately. “Power down the capacitors. Do not
pull the trigger, is that understood?” The patrician barked out orders quickly, easily. It was what they were born for, after all, and the orders in question were nothing more than common sense. A flight like this wasn’t even really meant
for a serious engagement – the PUNT war had seen a dozen flights like this packed into one
wing of a four or five wing fleet. They were outgunned.
Sensors and visual feeds revealed at least two dozen larger vessels – their exact purpose unclear, though it was obvious they possessed some ability to project… kinetic projectiles? Energy? Along with hundreds of smaller craft – though considering their movements, it seemed they were perhaps civilian or economic in nature. Transports or mining vessels, perhaps?
In truth though, even the larger, armed vessels struck the Azulvistans as… unimpressive. Simplistic, rounded shapes stretching maybe a few hundred metres long, the position of their thrusters indicated machines designed for long-distance pursuit or journeys – not the manoeuvrability of ship-to-ship combat at shorter ranges.
For what felt like a lifetime the crew would wait with baited breath, the unknown vessels and the station’s weaponry watching them with the focus of a wounded animal.
Roselle watched the feeds with an intensity that even her colleagues had found disturbing.
“Here. By four degrees. Adjust the time stamp. Here.” she said to the network of luminous she was currently integrated into, directing every meticulous camera zoom or remote analysis as if she was conducting an orchestra.
For the briefest moment Roselle was reminded of cigars when she looked at the ships that had emerged from the gate, and a craving she hadn’t felt in centuries suddenly emerged into her mind. As quickly as it came it passed, and Roselle wanted to break something when he
decided to interrupt her.
“You know, we could have had proper battleships.”
the time, Mars.”
“No no, of course. I’m just saying.”
Insufferable as ever.
“Do you have anything useful
“... We have the element of surprise.””What?”
“Say it again and I’ll personally call for your deletion, understand?”
The digital image of Mars that flashed in her mind – all punchable teeth and a scar across his left eye he’d gotten during the violence when the gate first closed – seemed to twist into a frown. She hated the way he had always insisted on staying on Spirit’s Loss, for the exact reason of something like this happening.
“COMMS!” echoed her voice through the network, “Where is the language reconstruction I ordered?! And Minerva better have sorted out her avatar already!”
“You’re naive if you think they’re human,” was all Mars said as he blinked away into another part of the distribution, “or will recognize us.”
“Capitán… Your orders?” One of his subordinates was looking at Leonardo, clearly anticipating some kind of statement from the captain. On his part, the young patrician simply chewed his lip a little, thinking.
“Send a commspacket back through the Gateway. Everything we can grab as quickly as we can grab it. Open our receivers for anything we might get from them.” He nodded, partially to confirm his orders, partially to make himself feel a little better. For a moment he had the instinct to touch the cross that hung from his neck, but he had to put on a resolute face for the sake of his subordinates. Stay calm. Do his duty. It was simple in theory, much harder when an indistinct-yet-large amount of firepower was pointed directly at your tremendously fragile carrack, with no room to manoeuvre out of the way.
Suddenly, a transmission came through. It was a little distorted at first, but after a few seconds it began to clear up. The same message, starting to loop in over a dozen languages of old Earth, in the voice of a young woman in her twenties with a clear New England accent:
“State your intentions. You have invaded the territory of the Sevenfold Summation with deadly force. We want peace. Do you seek peace?”
The image that came with the message was at least a little bit eerie, given the circumstances: a young woman in her early twenties, with lightly tanned skin and wavy brown hair that rested against her shoulders. She stood alone in a lightly decorated white-walled room – to anyone who had possessed a particular interest for the architectural design of the time, appearing as a late 2210s minimalist apartment. She was dressed in comfortable attire, as if ready to have a relaxing day at home during the winter, but as she spoke it was clear something about her lips were off – her mouth moved out of time with her words, ever so slightly.
It took a few repeats for the message to come through in something the Azulvistans could begin to understand. Old Spanish. Old Portuguese. It’d do. Leonardo paused, considering his options, which as he counted them up, proved to be remarkably few. The safest, easiest and most reasonable one was obvious though: talk.
First though, he needed to present himself a little bit better than his clipped military softsuit. Comfortable, flexible and useful for slipping into a hardsuit- certainly. Formal or fashionable? Not remotely. “Dress uniform. Now. Captain’s sash as well.” He barked the orders out towards one of the bridge staff, then paused, adding one more on. “And don’t forget my sabre!”
A few minutes later (minutes which thankfully had not been interrupted by weapons fire,) and he was dressed, buttoned, hair slicked back and sash neatly set across his shoulder. His sabre slid into its sheath with a definitive click
and, with a quick adjustment of his cuffs, he nodded. “Narrow band broadcast. Straight at whatever sent us those messages.”
“Salve. I am Capitán Leonardo Adalberto Demetrio Teodoro Y Sonora, a member of the Gran Republic of Azulvisa’s Republican Navy. We have arrived in response to one of our exploration probes failing to report in. We are armed only for our own defence, and are more than happy to discuss matters as civilised people.”
The response came from a man who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, with the faint shadow of stubble around his cheeks, a small moustache and the vaguest glimmer of concern behind his eyes, despite the front he was almost successful in presenting. He wore the typical dress uniform of a naval capitán- a black blazer with silver accents, three medals pinned over his heart, a blue sash slung across his shoulders and a broad peaked cap sitting snugly atop a carefully curated crop of light brown hair.
There was a moment, as the looping message suddenly paused. The woman’s face was frozen into an expression of curiosity – head tilted ever so slightly, like someone had just shown her a pet animal that she didn’t recognize.
Then the woman at last replied, more clearly in a form of Spanish seemingly adjusted slightly to account for the captain’s own words and accent:
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Capitán, and what looks to be a fine crew. My apologies for the aggression, we will power down our weapons.”
Sure enough, the heat and ion signatures radiating from the station platforms began to dissipate and shut down. The fleet of ships began painfully, awkwardly adjusting their course and flaring up light signals in old morse code in something to the effect of ‘sorry to bother you, welcome to our shipyard’.
“Would you and your crew wish to enter our station for further discussion and refreshments? Or is it preferable to communicate remotely?”
“It is only understandable under the circumstances,” Leonardo replied, “Our own weapons are now fully depowered,” as he spoke he waved his hand frantically off-screen, the crew picking up on the implied order and relaying it across the flight. “And we are more than happy to meet face-to-face.”
The woman paused, then smiled slightly at his reply.
“I assume you all still breathe oxygen?”
There was a brief pause before the last question came through. A small note of confusion briefly fluttered across Leonardo’s face. “Affirmative. We are baseline humans – as close as one will find to those that left Earth.”
The woman smiled again, and something about her eyes changed – taking on a brown hue similar to that of the human crew who were visible on camera.
“Excellent. Please direct your vessel to habitation bay 4-” she snapped her fingers, and one of the wider, more disc-like structures of the station suddenly lit up, flashing in rhythmic patterns, “and we will get some refreshments ready. Please do not be alarmed at the welcome you receive, the crew will be very
excited to meet you.”
And with that, the signal cut out.
Leonardo waited until he was sure he was no longer broadcasting, then let out a slow breath that he hadn’t known he was holding in. He turned slowly to the rest of his bridge staff, took a moment to compose himself, and failed horribly.
“That was fucking weird,
A few nods from the bridge staff. Most of them weren’t that much more experienced than Leonardo himself, especially when it came to diplomacy and foreign relations. “Send another commspackage back through. The entire conversation we just had, all of it. Highest damn priority we can. Oh, and get the marines out of their bunks and in their dress uniforms, now.” He took the opportunity to cross himself at last, then dug beneath his waistcoat to extract his cross and place it against his lips. “Prepare to dock.”
Grul-Phell Tinek, the Blessed, was having a very blessed few days. He had always thought himself a painfully ordinary diplat – of low-born stock by the echoes of the compact system, and never worthy by assessment of any higher measurement and the gifts of the Summation – and yet here he was, on Spirit’s Loss! Crown jewel of the Summation’s extraplanetary projects, the dreamed destination of untold millions of other quantity caste.
A fluke, honestly. A chance encounter weeks ago with one of the kindest members of the time measurement – the one who called himself ‘Gatsby’, tricky as it was to pronounce – and he’d done such a good job when he was asked to ‘juggle’ that Gatsby had invited him to serve as a private entourage! Imagine!
Gosh, his mum was thrilled to bits.
The flight had been sickening, of course – the medication and therapies had helped, but the diplat body wasn’t naturally built for zero-gravity. For a while he’d regretted it, weakly hoping that maybe lord Gatsby would send him back.
Then of course, the sky had unfolded in a cascade of light, like the jaws of a bounteous grippleworm – followed not long after by the appearance of alien ships! Battle stations at every moment! It was all hands on deck, and as Grul-Phell had cowered in a corridor at one point he had almost been trampled to death by a pair of mass-measurement rushing to arm something… when suddenly one of the luminous – those most blessed beneath the masters of the Summation themselves – reached down with a coiled, ever-shifting hand and lifted him up.
“Grul-Phell, friend. Can’t have you getting squashed, can I? You better come with me. We are expecting special guests.”
And now, with bated breath he stood near the front of a huge crowd – of every caste they had gathered, relentlessly curious. He overheard strange whispers – humans? What were those? They knew the masters? From the master's home?
At the front of the crowd and emitting sharp, curling beams of golden light that clearly delineated lines on the ground that no one could cross stood three members of the luminous – those chosen to represent three of the masters residing within Spirit’s Loss.
There was a whirring of wind. The airlock that the crowd stood across from gave a heavy, weezing THUNK as one harsh, cold white & red door sealed behind the arriving aliens.
“You know, Grul-Phell,” whispered Gatsby into his ear, “I trust you. When they step through and we welcome them, you will follow our entourage. They will be delighted at your juggling, I’m certain
Unfortunately, something about the way it was said made him more nervous. As he thought about it, however, he was distracted by the sight of new lights forming – the three luminous had emitted new shapes now, a set of three holograms far more detailed than the abstract, faintly bird-like forms they used when speaking to society as a whole or giving big presentations.
In golden light they formed these strange, thin giants – like the length caste, in a way. But taller, thinner, without fur, and with a single pair of smaller, many-circled eyes. There were more hushed whispers among the crowd, but Grul-Phell could only watch the form that Gatsby was projecting.
A strange idea came to him – one that he didn’t like very much, and very quickly tried not to dwell on. An idea that smelled of lies, but to which his gut whispered ‘truth’.Is that what the masters really look like?
Leonardo had gone over many options in his head as the Leonardo
slowly approached the foreign station, marines hastily assembling in their small barracks to prepare a formal escort. Of all those options though, not a single one of them came anywhere close to the reality of… this.
They’d met aliens before, of course. Not him personally, but the Republic as a whole. He had considered perhaps a few xenos faces to be among the welcoming committee. Not the entire entryway to be stuffed full of them
with their… Saints above, what the hell were they even supposed to be? Things? Beasts? Creatures? He once again failed to keep his emotions off his face, although to his credit, most of the marines had also failed to do so as well.
His escort was nothing like the de Caravajal’s prim and proper diplomatic guards, or the Lobasla 1st’s refined ferocity. They were Sorona men and women, proud and true, but they’d spent most of the war (and indeed, all the time before the war,) being little more than glorified security guards aboard the carrack. Disciplined, drilled and determined, yes. Prepared for… This?
Still, they were here for diplomacy, so they had to put on at least some
kind of a show. “Marines! Attention! Present… Arms!” He drew his sabre in one swift motion, holding it aloft.
Carbines quickly snapped into place, then were planted firmly into the airlock’s floor. Leonardo brought his sabre to his face, then with a quick twirl, eased it back into its sheath. The only vaguely human figures among the crowd were holographic projections, and it was towards the leading number of these projections that he offered a horizontal-palmed salute.
“Capitán Leonardo Adalberto Demetrio Teodoro Y Sonora of the Gran Republic of Azulvista, and the Sonora 3rd Marines at you-” He mentally corrected himself, ”greet you!”
Only one of the three holograms returned the salute – a dark red in contrast to the other two’s golden light, shaped like a tall and well-built veteran soldier.
The central machine-creature of the trio was projecting an image of the woman who had been on the video transmissions, albeit now wearing a projection of clothing mostly identical to Leonardo’s uniform – just adjusted for her fitting, and with a different symbol than the flag of the Gran Republic: of six pillars arrayed, their shadow cast outward and away from a hollow circle.
A similar symbol was painted on the walls of the station in red and white, like a surreal eye watching all who passed.
The woman stepped forward along with the machine behind her, and as she held out a hand the bizarrely crab-like machine followed her movements – some strange mesh of machinery rearranging itself into a smooth approximation of a human hand and matching the position of the hologram’s own.
Cold to the touch, of course, but artificially warmed.
Leonardo, for his part, quickly lowered his hand from the salute and thrust it forward. His logic was simple- if he didn’t give himself time to think about how utterly insane everything was, it wouldn’t be obvious to these strange foreign diplomats.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance in person, Capitán. My name is Minerva, of the time measurement. These are two of my…” she flickered briefly, as if holding her tongue, “colleagues.”
“A pleasure, a real pleasure!” said the hologram to her right, of a well-built man in his early thirties with carefully styled blonde hair, “I… wow! You wouldn’t believe how exciting this is! The name’s Gatsby, sorry, I just… a real honour. You have to tell us what’s been happening on Earth in our absence.”
‘Minerva’ flickered briefly, followed by Gatsby and the third figure both flickering.
The third figure – the one who had returned Leonardo’s salute – was grizzled, his left eye covered by an eyepatch, and his face marked by the wrinkles of a man in his late sixties.
“Mars,” he said with a nod and a pained smile, “a pleasure, captain. And might I say, a pleasure to meet such fine soldiers as well.”
No time to pause. Pausing was the enemy. Thinking about what he was doing more than was needed for diplomatic niceties was the enemy. Anything other than getting through this situation intact, and without sullying the reputation of the Gran Republic, was officially not secondary, not tertiary not even
quaternary, but… What was further along than quaternary? Shit, no time to dig through his Latin lessons. Gatsby had said something he needed to clear up.
“Once again, greetings to all of you.” He inclined his head slightly. “I’m afraid to say that we ourselves do not hail from the Sol system, but I’ve been reliably informed it’s bustling and busy again, after humanity’s long absence. As for my men, they have conducted themselves most honourably over the past year.”
The three figures flickered briefly, before Minerva smiled again – almost piteously?
“Well… that’s good to hear, I suppose. We will have to send representatives of our own through the Gate, of course. Please come with me – we have done our best to prepare refreshments as close to old Earth as we can manage, but I warn you that diplat tastebuds are not excellent judges. Plus, three hundred years, it, well…”
“...makes it tricky to remember the details.” Gatsby chimed.Tricky to remember the…
How old were the holograms he was talking to? Were they even human? By any metric? Once again, Leonardo had to clamp down on his wayward thoughts. “Is that the term for these xenos?” He had slipped into using the more offensive Azulvistan term, even if it was
purely descriptive at its core. “Diplat?”
As one the trio of holograms turned to surround the machine-creatures projecting them and began to walk down the hangar bay in the direction of several wide doors, leading Leonardo and his crew deeper into the station. Notably, most of the creatures in their abundance of shapes stopped dead at the doorway, jostling for position as they excitedly waved at the marines. The exception being a small mole-like creature who stuck close to Gatsby.
Minerva spoke up as they went.
“Yes. They’re extremely helpful creatures, and as you can see by their abundant forms –- very versatile.”
“I think you'll really love this guy,” said Gatsby, gesturing to the stocky four-eyed mole thing that dutifully followed him, “I’ve taught him to juggle. It’s so funny.”
As he followed the holograms through the hallways of the station, Leonardo couldn’t shake the distinct feeling that he was being condescended to. It was not a feeling he appreciated very much – he’d had quite enough at officer’s clubs and wing meetings during the Galactic War, often by people who had no greater qualifications than a more prestigious family name.
Worse than just that though, he couldn’t also help but feel that the holograms he was walking behind didn’t consider the alien beings were really beings
at all. True – they were xenos, and to Azulvistans, xenos were a dangerous, potent threat to be respected and hated, but they were still lifeforms.
They protected their colony ships and spawning pools at great personal costs, still were capable of feats of extraordinary ingenuity and heroism, and still worthy foes, but these holograms…
Why did he get the distinct feeling they viewed these xenos not as beings,
but as amusements, or… worse… tools?
“Captain,” spoke up Mars as they walked as if to interrupt his thoughts, “I do have to ask. Did your colony open the gate? We were prepared for potential outsiders, of course, but it’s been 300 years at this point. The arrival of your ships was a welcome surprise.”
“I am not best qualified to speak on the Gateways- I am, after all, a military officer, but from my understanding of things the Gateways began opening unprompted around six quarters ago. Not just ours, mind, but many other systems as well. Some of them have fluctuated- opening if only to close again soon after, others have taken longer to come online. Full understanding of them is still a ways off.”
Mars frowned, almost in disbelief.
“They just… reopened? No one intentionally activated them? That’s… mmm.”
“Frustrating? I believe our mathetes have had much the same reaction.” Leonardo nodded.
Mars simply nodded and fell back to the side, flickering briefly as he walked.
The room they were brought to was… well, to describe it as a lounge would have been generous. In some regards it resembled a cafeteria of sorts – a wide array of lightly cushioned chairs were spread out, evidently designed for use by these many different forms of ‘diplat’, while along the walls were a variety of machines decorated in strange, scratchy symbols and pictures of… some kind of food. None of it looked very appetising.
Near the centre was a particularly large table, around which they’d arranged eleven identical chairs that looked like they just about could fit a shorter, stockier human – exactly enough for Leonardo and his marines.
Gatsby gestured to the table with a flourish and excitedly pranced towards it, the elongated, crab-like amalgamation that projected his hologram audibly ‘thumping’ as it tried to keep up with his movements.
“I’m sorry, I appreciate it’s not as diplomatic as you may be used to given how many colonies it sounds like have returned, but… please, take your seats. You’re welcome to relax, gentlemen!”
“Any welcome is much appreciated. We understand that you can hardly expect to have a red carpet prepared on the off-chance that three centuries of isolation suddenly ends.” Although Leonardo pulled out the central of the eleven chairs and settled himself firmly into it, the marines did not, instead taking their positions in a loose formation around their captain. For his part, Leonardo would briefly reach into the inside pocket of his dress jacket. For a moment, the golden cross still around his neck glinted in the artificial light of the station, only to be rapidly replaced by a sleek silver cigarette case. “May I?”
Saints he needed a smoke.
Minerva and Mars both flickered briefly, but Gatsby simply smiled.
“Oh, please do! Honestly, I keep trying to get the diplat to try it but tobacco has been just… so
difficult to synthesise properly.”
Well, if nothing else, they were clearly a scientifically-minded bunch, Leonardo mused as he brought a slender white stick to his lips, then extracted a bulky yet elegantly designed lighter, sparking a bright blue flame and inhaling deeply. For a moment, he was quiet save for the faint crackle of paper, before slowly exhaling, a long plume of smoke curling its way into the air. One of the marines closest to him twitched a little.
Minerva flickered briefly, resuming movement as she gave a slightly pained smile.
“Forgive us, Capitán. We’re all still very new to this. We would love to know a bit more about your home and what has happened in the past… six quarters, you said? The last year and a half?”
“Rotations,” Leonardo informed her. “Our home planet of Azulvista does not have the same 365, 24-hour day as Earth does, so to avoid confusion between calenders we use ‘rotation’ for a full circumnavigation of our sun, and ‘cycle’ for day. Fortunately, the mismatch between them is not too
Minerva gave the professional smile of a secretary handling matters that she was being paid very much to pretend to care about.
“Fascinating. We have something similar – sometimes we use a clock and calendar based on the diplat homeworld’s rotations, but with time our numerous projects and holdings across the system required us to standardise. After some debate it was decided to simply use Earth’s calendar as the baseline, for simplicity’s sake.”
Leonardo couldn’t help but let out a wry chuckle. “Our various calenders are a constant cause of debate and frustration- it is terribly difficult to organise things when one must keep Earth, Azulvista and her moons all in mind at the same time, and standardisation seems a distant dream.”
Minerva and Gatsby both laughed politely. This was easy and comfortable, a little diplomatic small talk… then Mars perked up a little at the change of subject.
“I’m also curious at your mention of… you said your men had conducted themselves honourably in the last year. Has there been a lot of conflict in that time? I imagine many colonies have been…” he gave a deep-chested laugh, “...heh, less than easy to deal with. Human nature.”
Once again, Leonardo had the concerning feeling that the holograms he was having a conversation with were a little too
distant from their roots. “Most of those we have met have been inquisitive and lively, but not warlike. Unfortunately however, one nation in particular found the new state of affairs… Ideologically unacceptable. Conflict ensued, but I’m sure a better diplomat than I, with far longer to inform you of the galaxy’s goings-on, can provide a better brief. There is a large space station in Sol – the Meeting Place, for the various states to conduct this sort of business.”
Mars nodded, before Gatsby’s hologram leaned over just enough to catch attention.
“Ahem, sorry, the refreshments are here.”
From an unfolding circular door against the left wall the refreshments were brought through, carried by a set of four heavy-set diplat, almost deformed by their musculature. To Leonardo and the marines they looked… for lack of a better description, as if the little mole-creature at Gatsby’s side had been fed a regiment of extreme steroids and had done nothing but sleep, eat, and exercise for years. Beneath the smooth, padded dark-red uniforms they wore there were clear signs of cybernetics and implants, to the point where at least one of them made the sound of metal rods clanging together as it walked.
Minerva flickered briefly at the sight of them.
But perhaps more extraordinary than their appearance was the fact that as they brought trays with various foods and drinks – some recognizable, others bizarre – they weren’t… holding
the trays. Rather, as each of them walked they simply held up their hands, claws outstretched, as the trays levitated amidst coils of dark blue light.
With heavyset wheezes the creatures leaned forwards, the trays slowly lowering as the glow faded and the trays came to a rest on the table with a soft clattering. As one the servers stepped to the side, standing to attention by a far wall.
“We hope you’ll enjoy it, Capitán. We weren’t sure what should be prepared, but perhaps a range of foods from the ‘Latin America’ of old Earth. Your marines are also very welcome to take some.”
Leonardo had to admit, he was impressed. The display- the cybernetically enhanced servers, the immaculate uniforms despite the alien physiology, the floating serving trays, was certainly the sort of thing he expected from an entirely alien nation. He snuffed the butt of his cigarette out, brushing any ash off his hand before moving to take the food.
The problem came when he reached out to one of the trays, carefully set with daintily looking tacos, and plucked one up. Already he was slightly irked- between Minerva’s hologram imitating his naval uniform and the Latin American food, he was already feeling as if Azulvista was being poked fun at, but it got worse as he realised what he held.
It was hard to stop himself from freezing. This was not a taco. This was a folded tostado, and it looked suspiciously like wheat, not corn. Slowly, trying to make sure his trepidation didn’t show, he bit into the front of it, one of the marines actually wincing at the audible crunch.Mi abuela would flip a table if she was served this.
Barely marinated, with far too much sour cream, guacamole and salsa and severely undersalted, and where the fuck
was the coriander?
He had tried, really tried to keep the culinary horror off his face, but he was pretty sure he had failed, trying to finish the food he had already picked up quickly.
As Leonardo struggled to eat the non-taco without grimacing, the holograms likewise struggled to control their reactions. Minerva flickered several times as if her holographic form was failing her, while Gatsby flickered briefly but otherwise gave an amused smile – though something in his eyes gave away a nervous fear, the thought ‘we’ve offended him’.
Mars remained stone-faced, glancing periodically at the marines.
“Captain,” he said, sneering at the hulking, cybernetically augmented creatures who had brought the food, “I apologise for the poor quality of the food – the diplat sense of taste is geared towards things we would find repulsive, and the salinity of their world’s water supply distorts perspectives. I remember on Earth military food standards were famously rather… hit-or-miss, you might say, but I have no doubt your people’s standards have improved in the past three hundred years.”
“It is certainly a worthy attempt, and I must apologise for my reaction. It is not becoming of your generous hospitality.” He reluctantly picked another one of the tostado-things up as he continued to talk. “We in the navy have the luxury of consistent kitchens and mess halls, and officers such as myself have cooks fit for the station… It’s the infantry that must get along with inconsistencies.” He smirked a little- say what you would about the prestige associated with a tiny carrack command, but it was surprisingly comfortable once you got used to its eccentricity.
Mars nodded but said nothing, before glancing at the marines again. The hologram scratched his chin, as if a thought had suddenly appeared to him. Minerva politely smiled but otherwise seemed to be happy for Mars to speak.
“You know, I think it would greatly benefit our nations to arrange some form of joint-military exercise. The diplat have repeatedly proven themselves quite tenacious when under siege or in urban warfare, and with a few careful adjustments individuals have proven themselves in a range of extreme environments, but, well…” Mars gave a polite laugh, “they lack, mmm… military finesse, you might say. It sounds like your republic is very capable in such matters.”
Leonardo swallowed quickly in his hurry to respond. “While such an offer is generous and would likely have much merit to it, I must confess that I cannot be considered to speak on behalf of the Gran Republic when it comes to such matters. You must understand- I am no diplomat or admiral, carrying great authority within our nation. I’m merely a naval captain of good birth and bearing, sent here to investigate a missing probe.” Actually, that reminded him. “Speaking of which, I presume the probe has been held on this station? If that is the case, its return would be greatly appreciated, as property of the Republican Navy.”
There was a brief pause as Leonardo’s request hung in the air. Minerva and Mars both flickered repeatedly, as if malfunctioning – to the point where even the mole-creature, just quietly standing off to the side and staring at its feet, was now watching them with a… confused expression? Fear? The hulking server-creatures seemed to lean forward slightly, as if wrestling with whether they should run to get some kind of help.
Leonardo too, seemed rather concerned at the flickering of the holograms. They’d done this before, multiple times, for some reason which he had yet to fully fathom, but this was a longer and more intense bout of the apparent malfunction than had happened before.
Gatsby, however, remained stable – just an awkward smile crossed the hologram’s face. He gave a deep breath, then clapped his hands together and held them not far from his chest.
“Captain… you’re our guest, so whereas my colleagues
seem content to lose their minds over this matter, I’ll be honest with you.”
He flickered very briefly, then snapped his fingers – from the mechanical body that projected him, a second hologram was then projected: a huge mess of components and dismantled machinery, carefully being catalogued or melted down and tested by about a dozen scuttling robots.
Slowly, Leonardo took another bite of the food, considering the matter as Gatsby continued to explain.
“I’m afraid to say that one of our colleagues was so eager to understand your probe and the potential risks to outsiders that she made the…” he paused, as if looking for a word other than ‘stupid’, “rash
decision to have it captured and dismantled immediately.”
He gave an apologetic smile and let his hands open – an age old gesture of ‘how can we fix this’.
“My colleague has informed us that the probe is now in a state where it would be, well, unusable. We would like to make it up to your great republic – I appreciate that destruction of property, navy
property in particular, is not a great first impression. We’re happy to return the parts and analysed materials, of course, but… is there something of exchange that might be more valuable instead?”
Minerva and Mars’ both snapped back into place, but simply stood there silently – Minerva in particular looked mortified.
Leonardo took a moment to mull over his words. “Firstly, of course, the analysed parts and materials would need to be returned, particularly the probe’s backup databanks- it’s ‘black box,’ so to speak. As for a repayment…” He paused once again. He wasn’t speaking for himself or his vessel any more, instead he was speaking for the Republic, something he was vastly underqualified to do. “What would you consider to be adequate compensation in a matter such as this, internally?”
Gatsby smiled, flickering briefly, “That’s fair. We’ll start returning the probe's components immediately.”
Indeed, in the space of a few seconds the various scuttling robots on the camera had paused their work, and just as quickly they set about re-attaching or restoring what components they could. Several of the bulkier diplat entered the room, and began to use both physical strength and the strange levitating abilities demonstrated to begin moving the various packs of dismantled parts and melted elements out of the room and off camera, to places unknown.
Then he smiled at Leonardo’s response to his offer by putting the onus on him. Gatsby stroked his chin, as if weighing up possible gifts.
“Well, mmm… I would offer some kind of equivalent machinery, but I appreciate it’s early days to be transporting unknown devices into your home system.”
Mars gave a scowl at Gatsby’s comment, a look of… ‘you’ll never hear the end of this’, but with an undercurrent that was harsher. Deadlier.
The machine at the centre of Gatsby’s hologram turned, its four lenses suddenly narrowing slightly in the direction of the mole-creature. Its gaze had shifted slightly as it stood to one side, glancing at Leonardo and the marines with something resembling paranoia.
A gentle smile spread across Gatsby’s mouth.
“These… ‘mathetes’, you called them? Do they handle all matters of scientific curiosity? Zoology, maybe?”
“It is the broad term for those who have completed an advanced academic degree- what Earth might call a ‘masters,’ of any subject, yes.” He quirked an eyebrow, curious as to where this was going.
Gatsby gestured to the diplat, snapping his fingers. When the creature turned to look at him, the machine projecting him emitted a set of noises, some sort of strange, brief mixture of clicks and… chewing, sounds? Whatever he’d said the creature responded dutifully, shuffling over on two legs when the shape of its arms suggested it would’ve been more comfortable sprinting on all fours.
“This dear fellow, the juggler? He is a member of what we’ve come to call ‘Quantity’ diplat – their genetic baseline, or close enough anyway. ‘True diplat’, unlike the more useful higher measurements that crew most of our ships and stations. I think your mathetes might find him most interesting to analyse, medicate, test…”
His voice hesitated briefly, as if about to use other terms, but held his tongue.
“Well, you get the idea. We have four-and-something billion of them, and they’re quite naturally short-lived.”
“They’re easy to miss.” chimed in Minerva.
“Yes, exactly. And don’t worry, we’ve had many opportunities to test for potential risks, all evidence shows that diplat and human diseases are near-mutually exclusive. Plus this one has been, and will be again, very carefully detoxified before boarding your ship – assuming the idea is agreeable?”
This time, Leonardo was able to hide his distaste. He was very glad he was, because the words that ran through his mind were anything but diplomatic. Slavers.
Giving away a sapient being, viewing it as a disposable test dummy… If he’d have been back home, he would have spat on the ground at such an offer. But he wasn’t, and, realistically, bringing back a xenos to question and examine would certainly be appreciated. He swallowed down his distaste, instead focusing on practical matters.
“I can see a few small issues with this- one, you mentioned that their diet is somewhat different to ours? Would feeding him be an issue? Secondly, how are we to communicate? Thirdly, are there any other accommodations we’d need to make?”
Gatsby clapped his hands together.
“Oh, diet won’t be an issue at all. They’re omnivores, but particularly lean towards scavenging detritus – the core food set up for them is a kind of…” he cringed, “well, we’d call it slop, honestly. Our tests involving Earth-based food supplies show they can digest them well enough. And no, there shouldn’t be any other accommodations – if your ships and stations have a waste disposal system, it’ll be easy enough for him to figure out where to relieve himself.”
Minerva stepped in now, smiling flatly.
“And communications will, mmm… we could provide a small translation device?”
Gatsby rolled his eyes at the suggestion.
“Diplat are actually quite intelligent, with the right training. Their brains are hardwired for communication and cooperation – it won’t take long for me to teach him a few key commands in Spanish.”
“I would much prefer communication devices. A few key commands will hardly be useful should the mathetes wish to ask him about family structures or names.”
Gatsby flickered very briefly, almost imperceptibly so, but then just smiled and nodded.
“Excellent point, we’ll have it arranged right away… I must say capitán, this has been, just… thrilling
, I don’t think any of us can emphasise it enough.”
Minerva stepped forward, “Yes, it’s been very informative. The other members of the Summation will be curious to know more and arrange more discussions… will you and your marines be staying longer? You’re our guests, of course.”
“I’m certain we can arrange to stay for a little longer, but I must be returning to my vessel somewhat soon, with the probe in tow. I have a report to submit to my superiors.”
It was as promised. Leonardo had stuck around for another few hours, fielded more questions and asked just as many, avoided eating anything else, and then once the news came through that the probe was safely stashed away in the Leonardo
he took his leave.
The flight hovered in Summation space- just outside of the Gateway for a few hours more, relaying information back and forth, finally delivering the Time Measurement with a brief data package on what they should expect upon reaching the Meeting Place, and a summary on the rest of the Galaxy’s nations. With that, they turned, burnt engines, and with a surprising lack of ceremony, returned to their home system.
“THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST. WE WILL BE SENDING A DELEGATION TO THE MEETING PLACE IN THE COMING WEEKS. PLEASE LEAVE OUR TERRITORY UNTIL WE HAVE CONTACTED YOUR REPRESENTATIVES AT THE MEETING PLACE. THOSE WHO STAY WITHOUT LEAVING AS REQUESTED WILL BE FIRED UPON.”
So had beamed the message in the hours following Leonardo’s departure. It was a warning that Gatsby had frowned at, but ultimately the others’ paranoia had won out – when it became clear that a number of other civilizations were also reaching out to make first contact so quickly, Roselle had been quick to point out what a mess
first contact had been with this… Gran Republic. Time was needed to work out what limits would be needed, and information had to be gathered in more detail to know how the various colonies would feel about their… ‘eccentricities’, as she’d put it.I suppose we can agree on that,
Gatsby thought, though I think the juggler saved it, honestly.
The juggler… Grul-something, it was already escaping him, but it had dutifully followed his instructions.
“I have a special task for you,” he’d said, “go with these humans. We’ll be providing their ‘ Capitán Sorono’ with a device to translate for you – whatever he or anyone he assigns to guard you tells you to do, you will obey them, understood? When the time of your mission is over, I will come to collect you: but I warn you, it will probably be a very long time.”
He’d given a bit of the old spiel, about this being a special responsibility for the good of the diplat sphere. That they were rediscovering ancient allies, who would help the Summation and its good subjects rise to ever greater glory.
The juggler had frowned, quivering slightly, before looking up with that defeated look that so many of the creatures seemed to constantly carry.
“Will you tell my mother? They’ll miss me,” the juggler had pleaded, and for the briefest moment Gatsby had projected the image of a diplat, smiling gently and emitting sympathetic warbles.
“Yes, of course. We’re friends, Grul…” a brief flicker, “-Phell. I’ll make sure they get the news, and many gifts for having raised such a dutiful son.”
He hadn’t lied, of course – some might have in his place, but Gatsby was a good master. He’d been sure to record a brief message, a thank you with condolences and some petty lies about him having died in an accident involving an airlock. Compensation was an obvious inclusion, tickets to move to an apartment in a nicer burrow-city for his mother and a few of his siblings.
But all that having been dealt with and the various operations and projects of Spirit’s Loss
finally returning to a measure of normality, Gatsby retired into his digital palace.
Ever so idly, he drifted through the data package that the azulvistans had provided them with; smiling here or there at the summaries of the dozens of other civilizations that had emerged since the Gates reopened.
For a moment, he almost started to skim read it… then something caught his eye. For an instant of time his mind flashed back to his time at university – a mortal man with mortal needs. His mind began to race, idle curiosity collapsing into a black hole of need
Names. Two of them.
Human, and ancient, and by all rights very, very dead.