Hidden 9 mos ago 9 mos ago Post by Tortoise
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Teeken stood on a rocky outcropping just outside of the Nest, and looked out into a desert with more than human eyes. Her eyes were evolved for night and distance. She saw, she swore on some clear and sharp times, almost to the bending of the world, and past it into the void of space, where long before the supplanters had come. But this was not really possible. Her sight, specialized and focused as it was, did not see quite so far. Even on the very clearest and sharpest night, when she'd freshly eaten little brother and slept plenty the day before, the furthest her eyes saw was to the outskirts of the city the humans called Neo London, where it sat fat and sleeping on the horizon. Teeken did not know this is what it was called. In the half-spoken, half-pheromonal language of her species, the Ura'eek, this city was named The Place Where Sickness Landed.

Teeken was a native to Gilt, and one of the few still alive.

She was young. She was old, by human standards. But she was young for an Ura'eek, only seventy. She'd lived in this place her entire life, for the Ura'eek only migrate when it's time to reproduce, and her Season has never come. It should have come by now and this worries her deeply. It troubles her enough to pull her constantly, like tonight, out of the tunnels and shallow caves her clan lives in and make her take the long crawl to the surface and gaze pointlessly at a poison city on the horizon. Deep down, she thinks, she blames them. The word "human" is not in the Ura'eek vocabulary; none of them have ever spoken to a human face-to-face, and this one only knows awful rumors about what they look like. Teeken has a close friend (who also happens to be her mother- but that's hardly important) who says that the supplanters are huge, four-limbed mutants. She says they're missing shells so they have to make a second layer of skin to wear. She says they can speak to your blood and change your shape into something else. She says they were born in the stars the day the gods spilled poison onto the night sky, made by accident. The word 'poison' always comes up when the supplanters are talked about. In Ura'eek language, the pheromones they release play as much of a role as the spoken sounds, so no exact translation can be made for anything they say. But the closest rendering of the Ura'eek word for humans might be The Poison-Breathers That Fell Out of Night and Take.

She let her black carapace feel the desert wind. Her eight legs twitched with pleasure.

An odd sensation struck her. Something was wrong. She isn't sure which sense told her, "look up," but one did, and she obeyed, and in the tapestry of the night sky she suddenly saw something opening up which was a terror to her kind. It was a myth, a rotten omen. The Sun At Blind Midnight was suddenly shining over her head, the same one that her forebearers saw three centuries before which had heralded the coming of the Poison-Breathers. It was too much brighter than the day sun. Her sensitive eyes went blind, and she thrashed. She lost all her oreintation and screamed. She understood its name. Across the city of Neo London, humans would be looking up and saying "It's the Gateway! It's open!" But here Teenek was horrified. Her first thought: What did I do to have to be the first one to witness this?

It would be her job to tell the others in her nest. She would be renamed by it. Seeing something so big and mythical, it would become her identity in the eyes of the others. They might kill her. A Mouth Bringing Bad Things.

What did I do to deserve this?

She wanted to pray. The gods heard the Ura'eek. But in all the writings, the gods had never heard just one of them. Prayer was a communal thing, something you did with your nest. It required hours and the use of your bodies, as you danced and spun around each other in special patterns that signified your needs, leaving traces in the sand. She knew the patterns by heart. But she could not go to face her nest now, with this black news in her stomach. She needed... she did not know, but she needed something first. Something she could bring them so they would not be angry with her for witnessing this.

Taneek's sight was slowly coming back to her. So she crawls from her rock perch and lets her legs sink into the sand. It's course, and rough, and it'll stick to her when she returns. This place here- outside of the cave system they nest in- is where the rituals usually take place, with a minumum of a hundred participants. The gods do not hear one. Still, Taneek walks herself into a wide place, and begins the ritual motions. She dances as if there are partners there when she knows there are not. She dances with her imaginary clan, and hope the gods take pity. Alone, one alien spider spinning under a sighing and pained sky. A prayer. The waves and bends of her body are a plea for help. The gods, the teachers, let them show us another way, let them restore what is lost, let them make new again what is old, let them, let them, let them...

---

Addressing: @Sigma


"What have you learned?" a gentlemen representing Oldwell Conglomerate leaned back in a leather chair. He was tired, but invested in this conversation. He had let this professional spy into his Rainbow onboard apartment to hear it.

"Most signals around here are encrypted," the corporate spy answered, "but there's a few juicy bits you can pick up on that aren't too protected. And the diplomats and politicians are always too willing to talk, of course. The comings and goings of ships are a language all their own." This spy was a sym, one based on a long-gone human. He still wore a layer of synth-skin to look like the dead man who's mind he had.

"What's all that tell you?"

"You're looking to sell weapons, right?"

"Defensive purposes only- stop waffling, sym. Who do you think is going to buy from us?"

The spy hesitated visibly. "Sir, we're still new to this game. Please be patient. But there is one nation- the FRA, Free Republic of Americana. They've been fighting a neverending war with an alien threat for decades, and nobody has a clear enough advantage to win. The aliens took their homeworld, even. But nobody is getting any further than that. Stalemates create desperation."

"I heard about that, I think. You have reason to suspect they'd want an edge?"

"If I may?"

"You may."

"I have reason to suspect them and the aliens both would. Their weapons are probably about as advanced than ours, baseline, but I think we can produce faster. I don't believe they have an equivalent to syms nor stamps, and all that makes our labor cost almost nothing. Cheap wins wars, too."

The Oldwell representative's eyes went wide. "Did you just say we might sell weapons to an alien invader?"

The spy shrugged. "I believe I said that we might sell to both."

The representative awkwardly shifted in his seat. But when he failed to say 'no,' the spy prompted: "So, should I begin to draft a message to them, sir? The other corps will need to sign off on this."



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Hidden 8 mos ago Post by WrongEndoftheRainbow
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On the Seraphim, the Scientist’s flagship


Ex-Templars, now renamed to "RADrines" walked the decks in relative peace. Some used to serve on the ship during the Scientist's time, some were newly recruited. Neither side recognised the ship.

During the civil war, the Seraphim was at the center of the space battles above RADX-001. After multiple hull breaches, a high number of casualties and a deadly virus released upon it, the ship was unrecognizable. Coupled up with the missing paintings, music and any kind of insignia that would make the soldiers remember the Scientist. It was truly a different ship.

A loud beeping noise followed by an alarm rang across the deck. Troopers sprang to motion as Admiral Adam raised his voice and shouted annoyed;

"Someone stop that bloody alarm and tell me what's going on. "

Admiral Adam was one of the few Brute-types that ever achieved the honor to command a spaceship and the first one to ever command the whole Golden Armada after the old admiral died saving the Seraphim.

Almost immediately, the alarm stopped and an Acolyte turned her head towards the captain.

"Ensign Williams reporting in, sir! There is…no this can't be, sir. It looks like the Gateways have three new destinations. "

"Three?! That can't be. After this whole time? Are the sensors malfunctioning? "

"Negative sir. We've got confirmation from the Black Horse situated at the Gateway. "

"Ensign, tell Black Horse to investigate one of the new systems and get me a direct line to President William. Standard procedure, go in, assess danger, return. If the inhabitants prove dangerous, escape at any cost. We don't want to repeat another PUNT. "

As the ensign passed the message, the Black Horse, a cruiser type ship, passed through the Gateway.



A sickly purple glow, tinged only barely with white bathed the Black Horse. To the starboard side, the hulk of a gas giant. Close enough to the gate to visually make out, though not unaided, some kind of hulking mass of metal, dozens of lights blinking lazily along it. The hulk looked more satellite than it did ship; a flatly octangular center with components folded against each side, a smattering of thrusters on each side.

Strangely, however, the Black Horse’s sensors could not pick up anything else. They were working; they were reading, but the results returned with complete confidence ultimately proved entirely incoherent. Directly ahead of them lay the star, the source of the light; almost the same size as the gas giant they now orbited, though with a luminosity known to no class of star or proto-star. Though they could clearly see it with the naked eye, to their sensors, even the gravitational ones to which it should have been as clear as day, nothing.

The Black Horse went through the Gateway with no issues. Formed out of a joint RADiance/Exalted crew, it was an experiment. One captain, two first mates and two of every important role each responsible for their own crew but only one person in command.

Status report. ” came the raspy voice of the Exalted captain, John. A once chameleon type, now cured.

Class B gas giant, a spaceship or maybe a satellite of sorts? Unknown origin. I…can’t detect any life-form nor nothing else, sir. If I were to warrant a guess, something is playing with our sensors. Jammers or interference from the gas giant. ” replied in a curt voice, the first mate of the Exalted side. She was one of the very few remaining Virophage-Exalted types. Once she was nothing more than a crazed beast wishing only to spread its deadly diseases, now, only her almost green skin gave away her past.

Can one of you explain to me what is that?” continued John as they pointed to the lights, obviously visible to the naked eye.

Unknown. Our sensors don’t even detect it. None of them. Whatever interference the giant or jammers are blocking everything. ” replied this time the second first mate of the RADiance side. He was an ex-Zealot, one of the traitor’s very own who surrendered himself shortly after the civil war began.

Stand by. Incoming transmission. Unknown origin. Old Earth tech.

Everyone, battle stations. Issac, put it through. ” almost immediately, alarms started to ring through the ship as the crew went to man their positions in case they were attacked.

And then, over an obsolete radio band, a singular, raspy voice. It was slow, almost synthesized, with a ponderingly flat tone, “Salient Moon, message to vessel,” a pause, then, “emergency traffic, a storm is coming. Acknowledge,” the warning came through. Unknown origin, jammers everywhere, something was weird.

This is Captain John of the joint Exalted-RADiance taskforce. Warning received. What type of storm should we be expecting?

Distantly and silently, the octangular vessel began to unfold. On each of the eight faces, rods extended, telescoping out into an array of lattices. Some form of netting, laced in unusual geometric patterns and visibly formed of a metallic material, began to slide out from the vessel. It ran along the lattices, weaving itself together. And then, suddenly, as though emerging from a spell of invisibility, eight small shuttles suddenly came into existence, rocketing towards the vessel.

“Underheaven, message to Salient Moon,” the same pause, down to the second, crackled on the radio, “magnetosphere breach.”

The vessels came to a halt near the lattices, one to each extended face. Their thrusters firing jerkily, they maneuvered themselves in, until with a simultaneous final firing, they slotted into the lattices. The nets extended to meet them. Then, another message over the radio, “Salient Moon, wideband,” again, the pause, “magnetosphere breach. The storm is here. Begin spin.”

The vessel’s lateral thrusters fired in unison, the metallic nets billowing from centrifugal force as it all began to spin. The lights smattered across the vessel all flicked to an ominous red, and then, “Salient Moon, message to John,” the pause was precise, not one second out-of-place, “emergency traffic, the storm is here. Slagstream warning, your vessel does not match exposure standards. Prep emergency suits, match spin and dock; shelter from storm.”

Almost as soon as the warning came, the voice of the first mate, Exalted side could be heard.

"They're not lying, sir. Our sensors are picking up something. They're detecting something coming off the star. Orders? "

John stood still. They had to calculate the danger. Entering a potential enemy spaceship or staying outside to deal with an unknown type of storm.

"Orders, sir? "

"Send an emergency signal and trooper through the Gate. Let them know what we've encountered and prepare a rescue team if needed. Full speed towards the unknown vessel. Get a landing party ready. Weapons drawn. Just in case they decided to not play nice. "

Two curt yes, sir came as the two first mates carried out their commands.



As the Black Horse began its run to the vessel, what Salient Moon meant by the ‘storm’ became clear in a dazzling, brutal display. By the time it was visible, it was almost on top of them. Great clouds of purple gas billowed by as though a nebula, the ship rattling violently with the pure force of a maelstrom. The force of the blast was not the only concern, however; all at once, systems across the ship began to malfunction or fail entirely in improbable or even thought-to-be impossible ways.

The lights flickered violently. The reactor’s temperature was increasing out-of-control no matter what the engineers did to dampen it. Geiger counters flared with an entirely disparate reading every moment, the dials flying back and forth unnaturally. The terminals went out, all at once. Something exploded. There was a distant keening sob over the radio, emerging from a raw throat. Everywhere, all at once, the alarms flared to life. They were late, and then they were dead. With the sirens of the ship gone, the next loudest noise flared; it sounded as though the ship was in a great hurricane, the very hull being torn apart.

Alarms all over Black Horse rang as the ship was battered by the storm. Radio signals could be heard on the bridge and the whole ship vibrated violently.

"How are we doing? " the captain's tone didn't betray their slight distress at the prospect of losing their crew.

"It's hard to tell, sir. None of our systems respond. Can't tell if those are our people or the status of the ship. But–" Issac's sentence was interrupted by Toxina, the other first mate's voice.

"Incoming transmission from the Salient Moon, sir. "

"Put it through. "

Ahead, the satellite spun, leaving behind a pattern of clear space behind its nets, like spinning blades in water. Over the radio, sounding loudly over some quiet pleading from a source unknown, the same flat tone, salted with strained urgency, “Salient Moon, message to John,” this time, though nothing was different with the pause, it felt much longer, “Emergency Traffic! Slagstream! Reactor detonation imminent! Abandon, abandon, jump for Salient Moon! Salient Moon will catch you!”

As an emergency signal was sent and a trooper went flying at high speed towards the Gate, what he'd see behind was hard to explain. It was like the Black Horse was gone. Purple gas enveloped the whole area where the ship used to be.

The message played out and for the first time, John felt panic before they composed themselves.

"They didn't lie about the storm. Can't see any reason not to trust them. They know their system better than we do. Everyone…evacuate the ship. If they decide to disarm us and act hostile, Toxina…build up a virus strong enough to kill all of us. Fully destroy our bodies. We're not letting them get our technology. "

"A-aye, sir! " shorty after, replied Toxina as her skin started to faintly turn greener than usual. A virus in the making. Death awaiting. For one and all.

Suddenly the ship rocked to each side and the power went off and then went back on, not for long but long enough for the captain's decision to make sense in everyone's mind.

One by one, the crew jumped outside the ship. They were all armed and tried to hold onto their weapons as much as possible. In the end, John was the last one on the ship. They took a deep breath before jumping into the void.

Behind them, the Black Horse was in terrible shape; the entire back of the ship had begun to, quite literally, slag. Nuclear fire and globs of overheated material spun from its tail, accelerating away from the ship as the hurricane of purple gasses pulled on it. But, then, the reactor breathed its last; a thermal explosion briefly blinded the entire crew as the whole ship vaporized from a catastrophic failure. Nothing but dust and slag remained.

The satellite, meanwhile, fired its maneuvering thrusters in a pattern; it did not stop spinning, but it began to tear off to the side, preparing to intercept the crew. First, they flew into the pattern of clear space left behind by the nets. As they entered it, it was as though a great weight had been taken off of them, as if they could think and see more clearly. Before such freedoms could be enjoyed, however, the metallic strands of netting hit. It was not gentle, the relative speed of the meeting enough to fracture bones of unenhanced humans.

John could hear their crew's screams all around them but with a few loud words in the Chosen language, it was as if magic was cast upon them. Their screaming turned into grunts, their fear into resolve.

Most of the crew managed to hit the net and while normal humans would certainly have felt the impact, it was nothing in comparison to the G-training all the *types* receive but even so, one or two members of the crew ended up with a fractured bone or similar minor injuries.

Holding on was another problem entirely. Brought along for the violent spin, the crew – those that had been lucky enough to meet the net – discovered that they would have to hold on for dear life as the centrifugal force attempted to tear them away from the net and out into space, or worse, into the gas giant. On the face they had been caught, an enormous airlock opened, large enough to admit freight containers. The message was clear; climb against the centrifugal force, and to safety.

"Up! Up! Up!" bellowed John as the crew started their ascent and eventually after what seemed like an eternity, reached the airlock.

Just before Toxina went inside, her whole skin turned green. A signal that the virus was now ready to be released whenever she wished for.

As soon as the last person was in, several closed-circuit cameras watched carefully to verify, the airlock closed behind them and some form of gravity plating kicked in. Suddenly, all the centrifugal force was gone. The whole crew fell to the floor, as the room flooded with air and the interior door opened. Some ancient-looking fluorescent lights hummed to life, though some flickered and some failed entirely. The crew hit the floor hard but as soon as they were down, they went up again. Decades of military training and centuries for others pushed them to ignore the pain, tiredness or any other concerns until the situation was deemed "safe".



"Form up. TDOH1 position. On the double! " said John only for the command to be yelled almost straight away by the first mates.

TDOH1 - Tortoise Defense 01. An ancient tactic that still worked to this day. The captain was in the middle, flanked by the two first mates, sergeants on the exterior, while those with some form of natural armor, usually Brutes, would go in the front. All forming a circle of protection from all sides.

"First mates. Talk to me. "

"7 KIAs for now. Injuries all over but nothing life threatening. "

"Large space, ship hangar. Pre-Exodus tech. Unknown origin. No lifeforms around us. Yet. "

"This is Captain John. Anyone around? "

After a few minutes of silence, John shook their head and looked at the crew. They were on edge, that’s for sure but they seemed ready for anything.

Alright, move up. Split into teams of 4, if you see anything that resembles aliens or humans, don’t engage. Retreat and report back. Keep in touch with one another, I want to know everyone’s position at all times.

Within, there was a surprisingly small space; enough for four freight containers, and a ladder up into some kind of control room overlooking the entire warehouse. The storm outside was only audible as though a windstorm muffled by the walls of a house. The containers were unlocked, but all that lay within were primitive spare parts, covered in dust and some pitted with rust, long neglected.

In the control room itself, all the equipment looked painfully outdated. CRT monitors dotted the walls, accompanied with simple mechanical keyboards but no mice. Each monitor was opened to a different terminal, all in simple black-and-phosphor-green. Long lines of diagnostics and information ran down them. One detail, however, was out of place: Behind a glass case was a brain, too misshapen and small to be a human’s. It was connected to some kind of life support system, fluids of various colors pumped in and out. Electrical sensors reminiscent of an EKG monitor were attached to various points directly to the surface.

The teams slowly started to make their way around this part of the ship as John, Issac, Toxina and a Brute-type, which struggled a bit, went inside a room that seemed to be some sort of control room. A brain of sorts was linked to different scientific or medical apparatuses.

Toxina, are you ready? Issac, talk to me. ” said John while looking at each person as they talked. Toxina quickly nodded and it was as if her skin started to glow faintly while Issac approached the various terminals and tried to make sense of them.

While most of the terminals were covered in sprawls of diagnostics that only a specialist could understand, there was one that stood out, three words repeating over and over in an endless scroll.


> LOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT MELOOK AT ME


"It's mostly mumbo-jumbo, sir. Old Earth tech. It doesn't match anything we've got so far. Maybe the Go-scientist herself would've been able to make sense of it but this is too archaic for me. There is one that makes sense. Look!" said Issac while stopping mid-sentence as he almost mentioned the scientist’s old title, considered not a crime but very close to it. The memory of her 300 years long lie still fresh in the mind of everyone. As he stopped he pointed at the screen and the cameras.

A camera in the corner of the ceiling whirred to life, and turned to watch the group of four. Once it was certain the terminal had their attention, the terminal blanked briefly before a new wave of text began to emerge.


> THE STORM HAS ALMOST ENDED
> SALIENT MOON WILL DIVERT A HEV-P TRANSPORT
> SALIENT MOON WILL DIRECT UNDERHEAVEN CHANNEL OBSERVATORY
> TREATMENT FOR HEV-P POISONING AT HANUEL MIN MEMORIAL CHANNEL STATION
> GO TO SHIP AT END OF NET. AIRLOCK CODE IS 5332954893202010234445
> WHEN STORM ENDS


"Poison treatment at a hospital. I think these people haven't realized what they're dealing with yet. Toxina, if you detect something poisonous, assimilate it and create a cure for it if we aren't already immune. " said John with a smirk, truly the Chosen were immune or at least highly resistant to all but the most exotic poisons due to their planet's highly toxic environment, something that Ashevelen took into account when designing the Chosen-types.

"Everyone, this is the captain. Fall back to the airlock. Let's meet these people. " radioed John.

It was several more minutes before the howling outside began to subside. The entire satellite shuttered as the roar of thrusters vibrated the hull. Some dust kicked up into the air, but otherwise the satellite remained empty. It was truly just the surviving crew of the Black Horse and this brain, installed in the control room. Another few minutes before the thrusters went silent, the satellite once more returned to an eerie silence.

And then the inner airlock door opened, the same one they had first entered the satellite through. The cameras above watched them, and waited.

Within minutes the crew was assembled and each reported their findings on the ship. No lifeforms, old Earth tech. Eventually after a quick chat, they proceeded to climb on the transport ship.

At the end of the net they had climbed up during the storm was the ship; it was a small shuttle, more tanker than anything. The airlock did not open for them until the code on the terminal was entered into a keypad, but once they were inside it was of a similar make to the satellite, though evidently more well-maintained. There were no windows, and the passenger section would have been cramped for four people, let alone the whole crew.

At the front was an empty cockpit, consisting of little more than a chair and a bank of terminals, all turned off. Over the vessel’s radio, they could hear chatter.

“Salient Moon, message to Underheaven,” a pause, “Tanker four-two-two direct to Channel, belay programmed schedule.”

“Underheaven, message to Salient Moon,” the pause, “Understood. Four-two-two to transit Channel immediately.”

The shuttle lurched with a loud thunk, followed shortly by a strong vibration emerging from the back, the sound of fuel rushing through pipes evident as the thrusters came to life. Some time passed before the terminals sprang to life, providing instrumentation in phosphor-green, though it seemed all the keyboards were locked. Several monitors flashed lines about remote control every so often, making it clear what was happening.

And then, a cassette player embedded in one of the terminals began to play; the cover was locked, seemingly a more permanent installation. The voice was human, almost bored by the tone.

“Welcome to the Zixuang-Akako Energistics Corporation Onboarding Course, tape six, ‘Going far away’,” there was a break in the tape, as though the rest was recorded at a different time, “Zixuang-Akako has long been at the forefront of frontier exploration, aiding astronauts and explorers alike as they face the exotic dangers of the deep dark. From the X-3 shuttlecraft to hypermatter reactors, we keep trade flowing and the lights on. Wherever you may work, from the gleaming cities of Epinnu to the distant mining satellites of Alaktu, Zixuang-Akako is there.”

Another break in the tape, and another latched-on section. The same woman, but audibly older now, “For Zixuang-Akako employees heading to Alaktu, passage from the Hanuel Min district to Alaktu must be scheduled with the Underheaven Channel Observatory. Channel transit opportunities are a highly variable and ephemeral natural phenomenon. As of recording time in two-twenty, Underheaven Channel Observatory staff report a seventy-eight-point-two percent annual success rate for Channel crossings, a significant increase in shuttle survival since oh-fifty. If during transit you experience perception-altering transient events or persistent intrusive thoughts and visions, do not worry. This is common and likely harmless. Please consult medical staff upon arrival to your destination with any concerns.”

The next break in the tape led to a robotic voice, a poor text-to-speech imitation. This one was clearer, much more newly recorded, “Current Channel conditions offer an above-average chance of successful Channel transit of eighty-one-point-six-two percent, with an estimated transit time of twenty-two hours. Please take this time to ensure you have selected the appropriate life insurance policy for your means and needs, and enjoy your trip.”

An hour passed, and the shuttle began to shake violently. The fuel lines could be heard straining to keep up with the demand. They heard the sound of an atmosphere whistling by the shuttle. And then, nothing but an almost-ethereal humming sound. The thrusters had shut off, and the instrumentation on the monitors flickered with seemingly nonsensical data points.

The crew of the former Black Horse milled around patiently on the shuttle, those that could, as the Brute sized radrines had a tough time being bent down as to not damage the shuttle due to their size. Even the other types were a bit squashed but the Brutes had it the worst. While in the shuttle, John activated his on-armor camera and started recording everything they saw. From the video which seemed old, pre-exodus old to the terminals and the crew. Issac tried to make sense to the best of his ability to make sense of the terminals but alas’ it was just too archaic for him.



Onboard the UNFCCV Tanker 244
One day after Gateway transition

Mood Music


A warning suddenly flashed on all the terminals, quickly flashing by with text at an unreadable pace. Suddenly, the shuttle jerked and the lights shut off. The ethereal humming vanished, and there was a heavy clunk as something slammed against the hull. The lights flickered back to life, and less than a minute later, both airlock doors opened to a lanky-looking man, middle-aged and balding wearing a pair of blue coveralls. In his hand, a toolbox. He was standing in an umbilical arm; something had docked the shuttle.

Though he initially looked bored, the moment he saw people, his eyes widened as though dinner plates and he slammed a button repeatedly on the umbilical. Before the crew of the Black Horse could so much as say anything, the airlock doors slammed shut again. Twenty minutes passed until the next occurrence; the terminals all flashed a lockdown notice, and over the shuttle’s radio, an unmistakably human voice, gruff and evidently unamused, though still somewhat surprised, “Tanker two-four-four, this is Marshal Alderhall, smuggling Hev-P is punishable under the United Nations anti-terrorism act of one-forty-eight, with a minimum sentence of twenty-five years, and a maximum of life without parole,” he paused, as though to let it sink in before continuing, “but if you come out with your hands up, and do not resist our security forces, I can speak to the Attorney General and recommend a minimum sentence. Do you understand?”

The crew stood up almost immediately as the voice came through the speakers. Their weapons ready and pointing at the door. Whoever these people were, saved them but they now seem to treat them like criminals.

This is Captain John of the RADiance-Exalted Alliance. Your Gateway has recently reopened and my ship was sent to make contact, determine if you’re a threat to the galactic community and report back to our own system. We don’t know what Hev-P is. We’ve been caught in a storm and a…brain in a jar saved us from certain death. Salient Moon. If you choose to be hostile, we are more than happy to give our lives but make no mistake, we will take you all with us. ” spoke out loud John. Their tone was like steel, more suited to a staff sergeant than a diplomat.

With an unspoken command, John sent the two Brute types that were left of his crew at the door, completely covering it up with their frames. If these people tried to come in guns blazing, they’ll be met with a wall of steel.

A series of sounds filtered through the radio; first, the sound of someone speaking indistinctly, not from distance but from the quality of the microphone. Another two voices, and then the sound of rapid clacking. A long pause, and then the voice of Alderhall again, “You arrive, unscheduled, in one of our tankers full of Hev-P, and claim that some..” the radio picked up the sound of somebody speaking again, before there was a slight shuffling sound; a mouth close to the microphone turning back to face it, “gateway from three-hundred odd years ago brought you? Now, only the damn history majors know what the fuck that thing is, but I’m told that it’s been broken down from hev exposure. In short, your alibi’s pretty piss-poor. I’d ask you for proof, but let me guess, your dog ate it all.”

John's patience started to run thin upon hearing Alderhall. They understood that the story was hard to believe but surely just opening the door would've been enough to convince themselves.

They took a deep breath and raised their voice slightly, their calm tone gone.

"Look Marshal. There are two ways I can prove this to you. You can open the door and see for yourself or I can order my people to break the door open, by hand but if you do that, your security forces might start shooting and if they do that…we won't have any choice but to defend ourselves and I've got no intention losing any more of my crew today. Got already to visit 7 families and tell them how their sons and daughters gave their lives to explore an alien world and somehow make it seem like they were heroes. So, please just open the door and let's talk face to face. Please don't be hostile. "

As they spoke, the crew of the former Black Horse tensed up. They knew this might turn into a fire fight at any moment now. All over the shuttle they started to prep their weapons, the Brutes in the front bracing themselves for the onslaught of weapons being shot at their armor.

Alderhall’s voice again, still tinny from the microphone, “You say that like I’ll give you anything to shoot. When I open the door, throw down your guns and we can have a face-to-face. Otherwise, I can blow you into the exclusion zone with the press of a button. There was never a request there.”

The door opened once more, this time there was nobody there to meet them. It was an empty docking vestibule, a long tube with grated flooring. Every so often, there was a visible stretch of fabrics; the telescoping points where the vestibule was extended. Perhaps three hundred feet down the vestibule was another airlock; a thick metal door devoid of windows.

With a nod to their men, John ordered them to drop their weapons. It wasn’t as if they were defenseless, all things considered. The Brutes themselves were more than enough to take out a squadron of normal humans in close quarters, not to add Toxina’s deadly virus.

Max. Jax. Step forward. Stand tall, let them see what they’re dealing with. Everyone else, close behind them in case they get scared and close the door on us. Toxina in the middle, you know what to do if things go sideways. ” commanded John as the two Brutes stepped through the door and stood up tall for the first time since they stepped into the shuttle.

Once their guns had been thrown down, the airlock at the other end of the vestibule opened up. Six people could be seen inside the dock proper, five men of various sizes in what looked to be old riot armor. Three carried pistols, and the fourth carried what looked to be a grenade launcher of some sort. All four of them looked jumpy, especially with the size of the brutes in front. The fifth, the only one with a longarm in the form of a polymer-furnished hunting rifle, called out, “I said you’d get your face to face! Don’t reach for those weapons, or we’ll give you a very bad day! If you’ve got proof you aren’t terrorists, now is the time!”

The voice was different in-person, when not filtered through a tinny microphone and old radio equipment, but it was recognizably Alderhall.

John chuckled at the security team sent over. These people were trying to intimidate…them? It was brave, very brave even but…clearly not very smart.

Mr. Aderhall. Trust me, we don’t need the weapons. But, nonetheless. We have no intention in fighting you. As I told you over the comms, we are not smugglers of anything. We–” started John as they stepped forward, in front of the two Brutes, leaving themselves wide open for an attack. They took a deep breath and lifted a hand up, their armor was clearly different from the others from the crew and not only due to the different insignia and color but it was visibly odd.”..are a task force formed from the two nations, The Exalted and the RADiance, our Gateway has opened a little over a year now alongside the Gateway of another few nations of survivors of humanity. You might not remember when the Gateways closed but it wasn’t long before I was born. About 15 years. I assume you’re not going to believe me even if you obviously see Max and Jax here, Toxina there in the middle or my crew standing at 2.4 meters tall. ” continued John. The hand they raised prior was becoming invisible as they talked, then slowly it started to steam, putting a hand on the wall next to them, it let out a hiss before pulling their hand away. On the wall, a big handprint that matched theirs was imprinted on it.

While his security team quivered, keeping their weapons raised, Alderhall himself seemed unimpressed. He looked at the handprint on the wall, and then lowered his rifle, saying, “Well, if you were in a storm like you say you were, we’ll see it on a medical exam,” his hand extended in a beckoning gesture as he gave a signal to the security team, and he continued, “believe me, you’ll want one. Hev-P doesn’t play nice.”

The security team stood down, though their nerves were still clearly frayed. They scattered quickly, though it seemed to be intentional; Alderhall paid them no mind. As he slung his hunting rifle, he said, “Welcome to Hanuel Min Memorial, we’ve only got a few nurses here, but it’ll be better than nothing. At the very least, we can tell you how bad your doses are. Just leave your weapons in the vestibule, you should understand I don’t want armed men on the station.”

The crew followed the “aliens” closely. Toxina’s body kept glowing throughout the whole walk as her virus was getting more and more potent as time passed. John started walking in step with Alderhall with a stoic look on their face. Max and Jax seemed to be the only one that were struggling to walk as they kept having to bend down at times due to their size and the fact that the hallways were made for normal humans.

Marshal, I hope you’re not going to take offense but we won’t subject ourselves to a medical exam. Our bodies are modified by technology that isn’t meant to be known outside of our alliance. We won’t be infected by this Hev-P of yours, if we are, Toxina my first mate is more than capable of devising a cure. Even if she cannot, which would be a stretch, we’ll have the technology back home to do it. As for “unarmed” men on the station, you should understand that between my crew and I, we possess abilities which make the use of weapons only a formality in a close quarter environment like this. Surely you can imagine that Max and Jax, the two Brutes, are more than capable of getting a shot from that grenade launcher your team has and continue to rampage through your forces before they’re taken down. Oh' and before I forget, tell your men not to try to use our weapons. They're DNA locked and will release a neurotoxin if someone other than the owner touches it.” spoke John, their tone matching their look. They weren’t lying or boasting, they were just stating facts.

Alderhall seemed entirely unphased, his voice flat and unimpressed “We don’t keep a fucking genetics laboratory onboard, believe me. You’re going to want that medical checkup, considering you’re under the assumption Hev-P exposure is a disease. Next you’re going to tell me you don’t need it because you’re immune to radiation.”

"We are not immune to it, I'm afraid but due to the high concentration of it on our homeworld, we are highly resistant to radiation, poisons, toxins and a few other dangers. Our planet is very much hostile to humans. " replied John with a thin smile.

It was evidently a small station; through gunmetal hallways of steel, grates, and brightly-colored pipes, they came to another door, the same style as the airlock they had originally entered through. Alderhall gave the dog of the door several hard spins, before pushing the heavy metal bulkhead open. Inside, it was depressingly sterile, the gunmetal fff79a replaced with white tiles, clearly designed for ease of cleaning. A man and a woman in scrubs met them at the door, some kind of breathalyzer in their hand. They had clearly been expecting the group, as the man held up the breathalyzer and said, in a comforting tone one might use for the already-terminal, “Here, breathe into this. It’ll tell us the severity of your exposure. Once we’ve got all of your readings, we’ll start treatment.”

"Very well, I'll breathe in your apparatus if that'll make you feel better. I wouldn't suggest you doing the same thing to all of us. Your analysers might go…haywire. " said John while throwing a quick look at Max, Jax and Toxina who gave them a tiny nod.

Half a second into the breath, and the breathalyzer was already clicking rapidly. A second in, and it was a solid wail. Two seconds in, and the meter on the front was slammed against the end of the gauge. Both Alderhall and the two nurses backpedaled away. The door slammed behind them as Alderhall retreated, and the breathalyzers were dropped. A brief scramble to the biohazard closet, and the nurses began to dress as though their life depended on the next ten seconds. Then, a dead sprint over to a set of oxygen tanks. Once they established a closed air loop, they looked over at the crew of the Black Horse, as the woman commented, her voice both terrified and sad, “There’s nothing anybody can do for you. All of you have two weeks at best, I’m sorry.”

Or, it is, as I told you. We’re highly resistant to it. Our homeworld is bathing in radiation. If we need to wait two weeks at best, for you people to realize what you’re dealing with…so be it. More than happy to stay here for two weeks but when our ships respond to the SOS we’ve sent and come en-mass to deal with the kidnappers of a prized crew…you’ll be all alone to deal with them and our allies. Now, can I talk with some sort of leader you’ve got or do we really need to wait for two weeks or break out on our own? ” said John, their patience slowly running thin.

The woman shook her head slowly, looking at John as though he were an idiot. She backed a little further away, explaining with a slow voice, “It’s not radiation, it’s an exotic material. Radiation shielding doesn’t work, radiation medicine doesn't work, it follows rules entirely opposed to how the,” she paused as if looking for the right word, before stuttering slightly, “the– the whole damn universe works. We can’t even tell what rules those are because they might as well always be changing. I’ve never seen exposure like that, it’s like you went out into a hev storm without a helmet.”

The man added, grimly, “I saw a dose in the upper half of the meter once. A week in, his skin had sloughed off completely, but he was still alive. We ended up shooting him.”

"Is that so? We were outside, yes. Our bodies can survive the void quite easily. But, nevermind that. You'll see soon enough that your exposure won't affect us and if it does, well, our people back home will have a way to fix us. We've managed to rewrite our DNA. We'll manage to find a cure for your disease. So, would you mind opening the door or…"

As soon as John finished their sentence, the two Brute approached the door and readied themselves to open the door by force if needed.

The dog of the door spun, and the door abruptly opened. The people on the other side were different from Alderhall, his security team, the nurses, and the station as a whole. Whereas they were all run-down, projecting the visual of an underfunded frontier outpost, this group wore brand-new equipment. Through their masks, even their eyes were brighter, less beaten down by the world.

Their equipment resembled the biohazard equipment the nurses wore, but only superficially. They were clad in thick armor, with some form of exoskeleton attached to their backs, legs, and arms. There were ten in total, three carrying flamethrowers, and the rest carrying what appeared to be SMGs of some form. The man who had opened the door smoothly brought up his SMG, barking out, “Under the Emergency Response Act of two-fifty, the Manuel Hin Memorial Channel Station and all of its occupants are under quarantine order. All of you will immediately accompany us to the Zixuang-Akako Energistics Corporation Asset-Protection Vessel Gnostic Ascension. Failure to comply will result in liquidation of your persons.”

His tone then softened, though it still had a hard edge of authority to it; this was him speaking his thoughts, not a legal declaration, “Comply, and we’ll get you in contact with the higher-ups, understand?”

As the new soldiers came in, everyone backed away into the other side of the room as instructed by John.

There is no need for that. I’ll come with you, my crew will…stay here. Toxina knows what to do in the current situation. Toxina, hostile environment rule 47, activate after we leave. It’s been an honor, all of you. Soldiers, I don’t need to tell you but keep the door closed and let none in for at least 2 hours. ” said John, suddenly somber.

Hostile Environment Rule 47: In case a team has been compromised and a cure cannot be found immediately or the risk of infection is higher than the chances for a cure, then the team will do their utmost to destroy their bodies and remove any trace of themselves.

Toxina, Issac and the others stood to attention straight away. They all knew the risks of missions such as this, they knew what they signed up for and the rules were clear what to do in this situation.

As John was being led away by the soldiers and the door closed behind him, the former crew of the Black Horse huddled together. The one or two that were still religious uttered a silent prayer for their souls as the others hugged each other. In just a few minutes, everyone gathered around Toxina who started to sweat profusely as her green skin started to glow more and more before finally a pungent hiss could be heard and some green bright particles appeared. Within minutes, the former crew dropped on the floor as the artificial virus targeted their brains first killing them instantaneously but not before stimulating their pleasure centers of the brain. A few minutes later, their skin started to be eaten. Their armor soon followed.



Onboard the UNFCMCV Gnostic Ascension
Two days after gateway transition

Mood Music


The Gnostic Ascension was a much newer and cleaner vessel than the run-down Manuel Hin Memorial Channel Station; though it was still gunmetal-gray and industrial, the stainless steel still lived up to its name and the grates underfoot had not yet been worn to a patina shine. John’s quarters were spartan at best, with an observation room across. A wind rustled the cot at one end of the steel cube of a quarantine room, the air pushed rapidly through one vent and out the other.

John had been given food, evidently food-aid rations, the meal bland and lacking in ingredients, every single bag of vacuum-sealed plastic containing a carefully-calculated mix with the least chance of running afoul of allergies or dietary restrictions. He had seen little of the soldiers since he had been placed in quarantine, only occasionally in the observation room. For entertainment, he had been given a few paperback books, of nothing in particular. It did little to help.

And then, the door to the observation room opened once more. Instead of a biosuited trooper, it was a gangly-looking asian man in a suit, with a pair of heavy-looking spectacles and a clear disposition to balding. He poked a microphone inset on a terminal. John’s quarantine cell squealed with high-pitch feedback. The man winced, then said, “Hello, John, right? My name’s Wú Zǐmò, I’m the liaison for Zixuang-Akako, my colleague with the Frontier Commission got delayed in transit, uh,” he tapped on the terminal a moment, “his shuttle hit some turbulence. Threw him off-course. He should be here soon.”

He clapped his hands as though to change the topic, smiling through the glass, “I’m sorry about the quarantine, by the way. Safety regulations, you get it. Have you been treated well? Do you need anything in there?”

John kept quiet most of the time during their…treatment. Food, water, the usual.

Hello, yes, John of the Black Horse. Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Zimo. I’d offer you a handshake but I guess that won’t work. Quarantine is absolutely normal when dealing with a strong pathogen such as this. You might’ve discovered already that my crew has been eliminated already for this reason already and if it weren’t for diplomatic purposes, I would’ve joined them. So, yes. I’ve been treated as well as it can be expected. Should we start without your colleague seeing that I’m dying here or…? ” replied John with a grim smile. They were very well aware they were almost dead. Just one thing to do, one message and that’s it.

Zǐmò nodded his head, as he leaned back over to the microphone, responding in a kindly tone, “Of course, let’s go ahead and get started. I’ll get him caught up when he arrives,” he tapped on the keyboard once more, looking up at John, then back to the terminal, then to John again, “I suppose we should start with – are you the diplomat for your people, or just an explorer?”

"Just an explorer. Our mission was to find out if there's anyone on this side of the Gateway and if so, determine if they're dangerous to the galactic community. You see, there are quite a few of us out there and a nation…declared war on everyone. Not the smartest move but they had the firepower to back it…for a while. We were here to make sure that if someone is here, they won't be too do the same if they did, to give them a fair warning. So, tell me, are your people slavers? Do you enslave aliens you've found? "

Zǐmò’s eyebrow raised at the question, his response one of almost confusion, “Eperu is under United Nations governance, and is beholden to the declaration of human rights, do you,” he was clearly deep in thought, thrown off-guard by the question, “do you not know about the United Nations? The multinational organization responsible for encouraging peace and freedom for all? Are you from Earth?”

He then held up a finger, asking his second question immediately after, “and – aliens, you have met living aliens? You’ve spoken to them?”

"Wait. Wait. Wait. Haven't your people already told you who we are? Very well. The RADiance/Exalted Alliance was created 301 years ago when our colony ship left Earth fleeing the cataclysmic. Currently Earth is uninhabited, nothing can live on it. There are a dozen different nations which were born out of the colonist ships which left Earth. I don't know what your United Nations is. Maybe our former priests as they were more intune with Earth's history would know more but I'm assuming you're referring to nations on Earth United under one mission? Yeah, they're not around anymore. Human rights. I am not human, you might even say I'm an alien. Our DNA has been heavily altered to allow us to live on our planet. Yes, aliens exist. We've got a reservation for them on one of our planets but there are more out there. " said John before launching into a full explanation of the current nations.

The suited man returned to his kindly smile as he listened intently to John, every so often typing into the terminal as he spoke. Near the end of John’s explanation, however, the door once more opened and a heavyset man sporting a comb-over and a neat beard entered. Zǐmò turned to glance at him, and then, to John, said, “Ah, he’s arrived.”

The man walked up to the terminal, and glanced over John and the room before greeting him with, “Hello, my name’s Richard Evans,” his accent was a clipped English, “You’re.. John, right? Pleased to meet you. I’m the gateway ambassador, or, well.”

He smiled as though in anticipation of his joke, “I will be when the red tape clears. You know how it is, I bet. Your arrival caused some real violence to the timetable. Is Zixuang keeping you comfortable in there? It looks a little utilitarian.”

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Evans. I'm John of the RADiance/Exalted Alliance. I have just finished giving your colleague an explanation of who's who and the current historical events that marked the galaxy. My comfort is of no consequence. After our conversation, I'll be dead either way. It is what it is. " replied John as they stood up and gave Evans a military salute.

Evans waved his hand as Zǐmò looked on impassively, the englishman speaking quickly, “Oh no, we’ll be getting you home. We will not be returning a corpse. The Gnostic Ascension’s on its way through the Channel soon – we can’t promise you more than a week, but,” he paused, trying to find a way to word his sentence, “we want you to have the opportunity to say your goodbyes to your family on your own terms.”

"You won't, I will do that. Nothing to worry about, made peace with my fate. As for family? It may be hard to see or for you to understand but I'm over 200 years old. My family was part of the first colonists of RADX-001. They're 3 centuries dead already. They didn't survive the first colonization attempt. No children for the Rejected. Our…reproduction capabilities were a cost we had to pay back then. Now, we're better 'alas…I won't be there to make a new family. "

“Regardless,” Evans responded, “you will not be dying in quarantine. We’ll be releasing you to your people with an explanation of your condition.”



Nahikawa City, Colony Tower, Penthouse Suite
Six days after Gateway Transition

Mood Music


The initial convoys to the gateway had gone out less than a week from first contact; eight months ahead of schedule. In less fearful times, such violence to the timetable would have bankrupted Zixuang-Akako and the Frontier Commission aside. The initial scouts came out of the gate in even more of a hurry.

It had cost so much, the overnight inversion of global priorities, lost initiative made up as kings and corporations scribbled IOUs on the back of napkins and promised to sort it all out once the heat was off. What were once deep-space outposts, secure by the virtue of remoteness, now stood on the front line of a new paradigm. Habitats had to be refitted for defense against a new vector. Commercial ships on the Tuadesc Loop were conscripted, weaponised, and reassigned; some secured the high ground over Epinnu, while others fell sunward to guard Alaktu and the Channel.

It didn’t matter that the other nations hadn’t fired a shot at any of those targets; the risk could not be afforded. The planetary intranets were alive, debate on all sides, leftovers a week past their expiry date.

In the Colony Tower in Nahikawa, the real decisions were made. The public were irrelevant, bar the effort to sway them. Zixuang-Akako would make the decision, and one way or another all else would fall into line. Here, one woman directed the fates of billions, the relationships that would see Eperu ascendant or broken upon the pyre of outside context.

The day was overcast, a miserable purple-tinted dreary gray. It had been drizzling for two days now, and it seemed neither proper rain nor clear skies lay in the near future. The gleaming Colony Tower, all modernist white-trimming and carefully-maintained stainless steel facades looked entirely out of place in such weather. Here, a glorious monument to power and opulence placed upon a world best described as maliciously dying. The exotic star-stuff far above could not be seen, and yet its cold touch still gripped the whole world.

Below Hatomi Akako, two-hundred stories of cacophony. A hundred thousand office drones, slaving away in the furnace of total economic upheaval. The whiff of fear and uncertainty, of misplaced optimism and nationalistic fear practically wafted up, the air was thick with tension. In all the tower, only the penthouse remained a bed of quiet and calm; all the better to let the most powerful woman in all of Eperu think.

Behind her, the sound of an opened door, frantic footsteps. The perfumed smell of executive assistants, the click of dress shoes too cheap to be acceptable, and far-too-long pained over in service of hiding the former. She didn’t have to look back, it was all too obvious, “Were the engineers correct?”

The footsteps stopped, suddenly. Papers rustled, no doubt buying time as the question was comprehended. They kept rustling; now to find the answer. A familiar voice, one of the more reliable assistants, one that had been around for a while now, “Yes, they’re able to mount directly to the gateway structure without otherwise hampering the portal effect,” they continued on, answering the unspoken question, initiative, “the expansion in powers to our asset-protection teams are being slammed through committee as well; barring any unexpected pitfalls, we’ll be allowed to staff the customs station.”

Hatomi Akako digested the information, and then gave direction, “Draft an export ban on Hev and Hed outside of Eperu.”

The administrative assistant was confused, she could tell, but he was smart enough not to question it. She heard his footfalls as he spun in place, and she listened to him walk out – a fast walk, not quite a jog but also not leisurely. The right pace, in Akako’s eyes. The doors closed, and she was once more left in her steely silence.


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Timemaster Ashevelendar

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The One and the Pirates of Gilt
Collab between @Tortoise & @Timemaster






One. One-One. One-One-Two. One-One-One-Two...the counting keeps going on and on. Everyday, every moment. Multiple goals, One person. Survive, multiply, find what happened. What if it happens again? Are we alone? No. No longer alone, together. Forever. Find a way, maybe it's possible, leave the planet. No, impossible. Ship ready but maybe not ready. Where to go? Maybe nothing out there. Light? No light. Danger, darkness is danger. Don't linger. Crazy smile up ahead. Pocket. Avoid. Circle around. Climb. Move.
The One


All of the thoughts of the One were mostly the same, every ”day”. Every night. Every single moment of their existence, from the moment they were made they had these thoughts. Not clones but the extensions of One. Working, researching. Each thought was similar but unique.

Thousands of One walked naked through the streets of the Circle, weapons at the ready. The next batch of Williams were ready, food had to be brought over to the others. The ever present M symbol visible on their forehead. An old symbol of old Earth. Food, sustenance.

But…

Everything ended when a bright light filled the sky for the first time since they arrived on the planet. The city lit up and for once, hope was felt all over the One. Every clone felt the same feeling of true hope. For once in the history of The One, everyone stopped working. Abandoned their work and watched the sky, understanding what happened.

A few thousands of the One went straight away to record the memory for the new ones that came. More went to study the new machines which suddenly activated. Tiny lights appeared on ancient computers and the infamous black spheres started vibrating causing a wave of concern around all One. A sense of urgency followed. An urgency to repair the ship, make it work. Somehow. No matter what. No matter if it’ll cause damage to it or it won’t work for long.

It had to be done. Survival was, for once, not on the minds of the One. Weeks pass and the ship has been completed, somehow. Barely any life support. A communication array that worked most of the time, power supply from the black spheres for emergencies and the power plant, which was abandoned as it couldn’t be moved, charged with Williams.

A moment passed and then a course of action was decided. The ship will be sent through the Gateway, if it comes back, it will bring some raw materials. Maybe some food. If not, then, they'll die. More will be made. More will take their place and life will continue as normal. Maybe other colonies made it. It was time to see if others survived.

Meat, blood and mushrooms were brought onboard the ship and a small group of 20 Grants and James went in, getting ready for the ride of their lifetime. Each was followed by another 30 Williams to be used as batteries if the power supply was cut short. One burst of pain and salvation for the others. A good price to pay.

With some very loud screeching noises and groans of metal, the ship shot up into the sky. A short cheer was let out by those that saw it and then nothing. Everyone went back to work. The One ship passed through the Gateway with no issue, the initial fear that the ship would break down or disintegrate midway through was long gone. Surprise, fear and at the same time, hope filled the One’s hearts upon seeing not only that they survived but that signs of other survivors were there.

" We are not alone! WE ARE NOT ALONE! Wooooo! " they yelled as loud as they could and everyone else joined in with a cheer. Finally the One aren't the only ones left. A message was soon sent to any nearby ship.

Survivors of humanity. We are the One. Can we parley?” the message was composed of all the voices of the One talking at the exact same time but due to the damaged communication system, what actually came out instead of normal human voices multiplied were metallic-broken voices, enough for someone to understand the gist of what they said.

Just as the message was sent, loud music started to blast through the damaged speakers, a jumble of distorted sounds and then voices.

"Welcome to Gilt, the land of gold and great opportunities! If this is your first time, be sure to check with the Grand Brand Ambassador, our newly-redesigned space station. Repairs and refuelling offered at reasonable prices, and be sure to ask directions to our many attractions! For recognized national powers, intercorporate executives can also be contacted. Have a shining day!”

"You heard that? They offer repairs! Maybe we'll repair this old rustbucket express!" said the lead Grant as the others laughed…at their own joke.

The jumble of sound they were hearing was intended to be Giltian jazz-pop, a swinging and catchy tune. Instead it sounded like anarchy. Catchy, autotuned anarchy. If the One ship had keen sensors they may notice that, just far enough off in the distance to be polite, a few sleek, silent and inexplicably pop-less warships were nonetheless watching the Gateway. The Giltians were corporate and corny, maybe, but not stupid.

The One hung there in the void for a few moments before- with precisely as much warning as it began- the sounds stopped. A crackle on the radio, and a new voice came through, this time sent from the largest of the watching ships:

“Excuse me, excuse me, this is Captain Francis Moore. We have received your message requesting parley. Unfortunately, the One are not on our list of human colonies.” He paused for a moment. Far off in the distance, Captain Moore was flipping quickly through his instructions. “Are you from an Earth colony?”

Good morning, afternoon or night, Captain. You can call us, Grant. Colony is a stretch but we are indeed from one. Our Gateway just opened up now and after some deliberation, we’ve decided to forgo safety and flew this junker over to the first destination that popped on the screen. ” sent the Grants a message back, their voices again all in unison.

Captain Moore had some concerns. He wanted to believe he was mishearing the first time. But no, these were definitely more than one of the same voice, all speaking in the same tone, at the same time. His training told him not to jump to conclusions. He jumped to the conclusion that he was a little freaked out. The One received back: “Understood, Grant. Please, allow us to escort you to the Grand Brand Ambassador. There, you will be able to arrange repairs and speak to representatives of my nation. Welcome to the Gilt Division.” He paused. “Please, do not be alarmed at this precaution. There is a slight piratical presence in the area, and the safety of fellow colonies is, of course, our highest priority.”

At the last words, two bronze ships of the Broker class broke formation and allowed themselves a slow, non-threatening sort of drift towards the One vessel.

As soon as Moore said "don't be alarmed", the One all over the ship started laughing and only after a full minute they stopped..

"Alarmed matey? Yeah. Sure. We won't be alarmed. Standard military practice and all that. Back on Earth it was normal for stuff like this to happen. So, yeah, don't worry about it. Just point us in the right direction and we'll follow along. Mind you, this flying junkyard is over 300 years old and repaired by people who've got no clue how to repair a spaceship or drive it for that matter. If it blows up or we end up drifting in an asteroid, just send a ship to our colony and try to keep one of our bodies. They'll know what to do with it and we’ll reward you for it.” said the One before chuckling a bit and sending another message.

Oh' and fair warning, we've got alien tech on board that doesn't like electronics and might release strong EMP strikes from time to time. Keep your ships away a bit just in case and before you ask, we’re not in control of it. 'Just won't do to blow up potentially new allies, ey? "

The ship soon started following the two Broker class ships in a slow hurdle through space. Occasionally a tiny explosion could be seen on the hull as ancient electrical systems malfunctioned. The Giltian captain maintained a comms link with them the whole time.

“Up ahead,” he calmly narrated, “we call that the Lost Dreams Belt.” He was referencing the glittering asteroids that the One probably spotted when they first crossed the Gate. “There’s a funny story about it. See how sparkly it is? That’s because of frozen ice on the asteroids. When the first colonists got here, this was the first thing they saw and some fool, don’t ask me who, started a rumor that the asteroids were all diamond. You can see how it's almost believable, can’t you? And when the ship passed by, every individual colonist got to feel disappointed when they weren’t diamond, they hadn’t seen anything special at all, it was just some frozen water on some rocks.” His laugh was dry.

“Y’know, we gather that some of the Gateways are different than ours, but the Giltian Gate never moves. No orbit or anything. We’re working to move the Grand Brand starbase closer to the Gateway, so that it’ll be right there when you get across. But the planets we live on, Gilt and Argent, they’re still a lot closer to the sun than the asteroid belt is, so whenever someone comes to see us planetside, they’re going to have to cross the Belt of Lost Dreams. Funny.” He didn’t laugh this time.

"So there are more Gateways out there. More nations and you've got two planets. Belt of Lost Dreams. Sounds like our Circle. Lots of lost dreams there. Lots of dead bodies. Lots of death. Pretty much all there is there. Death and us. Maybe a bit more death than us. For now. For now. For now. " came the One's response in the way of multiple people talking at the same time. Each saying a different word or sentence. Almost at the same time. If one would pay attention, they could understand that there were multiple people talking with the same voice from different parts of the bridge.

The three ships, slowly swimming through the void, eventually came to where the first asteroids looked almost close enough to touch. They flew over the Belt, for safety’s sake, but you felt like you could reach your hand out and grab one. Crossing over the ring of asteroids was watching a thick disc of ice and rock spread out beneath you, and then to look and see that it stretches out in either direction, unbelievably far, encompassing the whole system. Ruining the moment, this is when Moore chose to speak again. “By the way, pirates like to hide in the asteroid belt. So if we’re going to get mugged, this is where it’s happening.”

Next, they got mugged. As if on cue, something stirred in a thick patch of asteroids gathered a-far off. Far too far to see with the naked eye, but sensitive scanners detected the powerful engines that suddenly roared back to life when they had been invisible a moment before. The pirates of Gilt liked to turn down all the lights, so to speak, to make themselves hard to notice until the moment they pounced. They had slipped into this choice spot between the Gateway and the Grand Brand in-between patrols, days ago, and nobody knew quite where they were until just now. Until they spotted the One’s ship, a vessel that looked interesting, and was important enough to get a Giltian guard, but didn’t seem like it could fight back. Twenty small, mean Beetles emerged from hiding behind their asteroids and interstellar ice.

Comms crackled to life, and a voice unlike Captain Moore’s came through. It was a young man, thin and sarcastic. And, for some reason, it spoke with the exact accent you’d expect of a fictional Earth pirate. “I’d fire a warning shot, matey, but I don’t think you’d survive the blow. Well, well, welcome to Gilt all the same. Ye won’t be surprised to hear that this here is a toll station, and we’ll be needin’ to collect before we let ye pass.”

Next, the One heard Captain Moore answer back. “No! No, no, absolutely not. We have refugees here. I know you’re not exactly the kind known for decency, but these men obviously need our aide. Stand down.”

“Aye!” said the young man. “But who flees to a new home without bringing some of their valuables with them, if refugees they be? You here than then, newcomers? You got somethin’ on you?”

"Heard that boys? Pirates! Ha! We haven't dealt with pirates since those Somalians hijacked our boat back in '09. Good times. Pirates of Gilt. Giltates. That's what we're going to call you, Giltates. You want valuables? Sure. Two ways you can do that. Come on-board. More than happy to share. Or even better, we'll send one of us with you and you can blow this ship up. Just take that one back home and our people will reward you greatly. " replied all the Ones. Each saying a different part of the sentence. They weren't lying, their voices spoke the truth. The Giltates would've been rewarded if they arrived with one One, back to the Circle.

“I…” Captain Moore was stunned. Part of him already wanted to drop his professionalism, take the mic and ask what exactly was going on in this strange ship. But, alas, he was a loyal man of Earnest, Smithers and Black, and knew his role was to get these unusual new people (person? exactly how many identities were at play here?) to his employers, where they could figure out how best to profit from all this. “I do not recommend that, Grant. These men will take everything they can carry. Are you certain you want them aboard?” Giltian Captains were expected to be pragmatic, and sometimes yielded to pirates when that was the most economical choice. Moore had done it, and was not proud of this. But he knew that sometimes lost goods cost less than lost crew.

Oh’ sure. Let them come if they want. Not sure what you people consider valuable but we’ve got meat, blood and some mushrooms. If they want to take that, no problem. We can survive with no supplies for a while. If they want a fight inside our ship, we’re more than happy to give them one. ‘About time to die again. Ha! True. That didn’t happen in a while. If they do come on board and kill all of us, just get one of our bodies over to our planet. Don’t worry about it. Just a skull. You don’t need more. The others will understand. Don’t worry. No problem. Anyways, I digress. We stand no chance in a ship to ship combat. No weapons on this junkship. Sure we can make it explode. Maybe EMP their ship? Spheres. We could. Maybe. Not good enough. No other plan.” replied the One.

So, the pirates came aboard. There was a brief pause as they moved their ships into more advantageous positions, now that they were sure of Moore’s cooperation. From somewhere hidden in the asteroids, another power signature came to life, and a larger and spacier ship, a big, bronze cargo vessel liberated from the corps to the pirates, emerged. It would have the space to hold robbed goods. It was not the size of cruisers like Captain Moore’s ship, but it was bigger than the little three-to-five-man ships the pirates flew. Speaking of men: some would be needed. A better operation would have had a dedicated group for raiding the ship, but this particular band of pirates was not so organized, and their looters were also their shooters. The One and Moore watched about a third of the Beetle ships surrender staff to the task, going- carefully, one at a time- to the cruiser and depositing a pirate or two. Guns stayed on them the whole time. The cruiser extended a bridge to the junker, and walking across it came-

“Captain Thomas, at your service,” said a young, dirty man with uncombed red hair. His voice said that he was the same man who spoke over comms and his smell said he’d been waiting under those asteroids for a while. Strolling out, dripping with bravado were ten others. All were human, except for their one stamp comrade, a six-foot man with gray scales covering his skin and a third, perfectly white eye placed in his forehead, and the only one not carrying a weapon.

They had been expecting refugees. Their plan was to go through a rough, overpopulated ship full of strangers and take things like jewellery, tools, medicine and spare items that they could either use or sell. But now, looking out at the One, their faces twisted strangely.

As the pirates were getting ready to board the One ship, the One was getting ready too. Traps were placed all over the ship, the usual spring traps with spikes at the end or simple wire, the wire being made out of muscle sinew, traps that threw metal shards at different places of the human body.

The preparations were ready and not a moment too soon. The pirates arrived. In full bone armour, the One moved as…one person. Their movement was in perfect synchronisation with one another. Each hand movement, each turned head or muscle twitch happened at the same time. The Ones were armed with a spear, sword and a massive shield that covered a good part of their bodies. The further in the back Ones, had bows.

The cargo bay, if one could call it like that, was a shadow of its former self. Missing metal sheets, an electrical fire here and there. Dried blood covered some of the walls and the smell of death permeated the bay. Truly, it was a wonder the ship flew at all. 20 One came out to greet the pirates. Out of all of them, one Grant didn't wear a helmet but even so, if one would take a close look at the other Ones they'd see their eyes, identical. Each scanning the room, the weapons, everything there was. The eyes of a silent predator.

Three Grants stepped towards the pirates but still in the reach of the spears of the other Ones.

"Welcome. We are the One. Pardon the mess. We've hurried fixing this junker up so much that it didn't cross our mind to clean up. Anyways, straight to business. There you go, meat! 'Alas, we don't have any alcohol or anything of the sorts. " said the three Ones. Each saying parts of the sentences, the moment one of them would stop, another continued.

Two of the Ones behind stepped forward with some bags made out of leather and inside said bags, meat could be seen. Almost freshly cut.

"Feel free to eat your pick. There is more where that came from. Our offer from before is still available, afterwards too. Feel free to take a trip to our planet, land towards the south west. Near the big tower. We're happy to provide you with more meat, way more meat. No alcohol, unfortunately. That’s one thing we’ve been missing for the past 304 years." they continued, ignoring the stamp next to the pirate captain. It reminded them briefly of the Immortalis's robots but more organic and certainly not a killing machine.

“What…” Captain Thomas’s face twisted in genuine horror. “What kind of hellhole is this? What kind of nightmare world have you fuckers been living in? I don’t want any of your-” he scoffed, half gag and half derision, and when he spoke again his piratical accent was wholly gone and he sounded much as any Giltian, something much more transatlantic. “What we want are supplies, real food, I dunno, treasured family heirlooms. You telling me there’s no woman on this ship who brought her grandmother’s bracelet with her? That’s what we’re after, freakshows.”

The strange stamp, whose name was Bryin, stared hard at Grant. He looked like a man trying to solve a particularly hard puzzle, piecing together wrong-shaped pieces. When he spoke, it was slow, and unsteady- “Captain, move carefully. These men are all the same, and they have eyes like starved animals. I think they might know desperation even better than we do.” He took a half-step back. “Captain, I think we should leave. I don’t know what they will do.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow at Bryin. Usually the stamp could read people like books, he was created for it, and nothing shakes someone who can predict people like that. He’d never before acted so… off put.

The lead Grant chuckled a bit and it was echoed by the others, almost immediately. “Hellhole? This? ” said the Grant and took a step towards the captain, they leaned a bit forward as for the captain to see their dead eyes clearly and said, with a dark tone, completely different than how it was before. Their whole demeanour changed. Thomas met his eyes with a young man’s intensity.

This isn’t hell. We’ve seen hell and this is not it.

As soon as they said that, they took a step back and smiled at the captain. Back to normal. The captain scowled.

Supplies, real food. That is very real food. Kept us alive the past 300 years. It’s as real as it gets. Quite fresh too but really, if you want to take it, try to put it in a cold storage. Meat goes bad fast…you don’t want to know what rotten meat tastes like. As for women? We haven’t seen one in about 300 years so if you have any for sale, ‘more than happy to trade the meat for it. ” continued the three Grants.

One of the Grants with the helmet on from the trio looked at Bryin as he talked and shook their head.

Starved animals? Please. We’ve just finished eating before you guys came over. Trust us. You wouldn’t want to see us hungry. These massive bodies aren’t kept up with only mushrooms.

“I didn’t mean that kind of starving,” said Bryin, dryly.

The women pirates, about seven of them in all, were stepping back. “You guys haven’t seen a woman in 300 years?” One of them asked. “Then how do you… nevermind, you know, I really don’t want to know.”

“Neither do I,” affirmed Thomas. He looked out at the horror show in front of him. Raw meat. A burning, glitching ship. He wasn’t completely heartless. “Do… have you men really been living like this since the Fall? How did you make it? I mean, just eating meat and mushrooms, and wearing each other’s bones… No, you were right. You have seen hell.”

Once more the One laughed out loud at the female pirate's words. The lead Grants turned towards the woman and said, in a friendly tone.

"We've had better things to do. Surviving for one. "

Turning back to the captain, the Grants shook their heads.

"We haven't seen hell. We've experienced it. We live in it. We call it…home. How did we survive? We ate. We fought for everything we have. We've made do with little at first. Died by the billions. In other words, we've survived. "

Once more the lead Grant took a step forward and shook their head. A sad tone in their voice. They pointed to their head and said:

"We remember them all. Each maiming. Each disease. Each starvation. Every. Single. Death. "

They took a step back and looked at Thomas again, smiling.

"Feel free to visit. We're happy to show you. "

“I uh… I don’t think that will be necessary.” Thomas.

Bryin said, “Captain, these men obviously don’t have anything we want. I think we should leave.” Several of the other pirates were nodding along enthusiastically at this. They had decided the One vessel was far more worse than just waiting under the asteroids for richer prey. But Thomas hesitated.

“You know… this is a dangerous neighbourhood.” He scratched the back of his neck. He was about to do something he’d never done before, and he wasn’t sure how to phrase it. But the One’s story, their insane struggle, had pulled at his young heartstrings just a little. “We aren’t the only pirate gangs out here. If this is how you boys are travelling, we aren’t going to be the last ones to try to shake you down.” He shook his head. “I’m not going to rob you. I don’t think you’ve got anything to take. Actually- Julia, you here?”

A pirate with long, braided black hair worked her through the armed crowd to Thomas’ side. “Listen, Julia,” he told her, “I want you to get these guys a datapad with one of our starmaps on it, the ones that show the dangerous parts of the system in red. So they won’t get ambushed again. And… and get a handful of our spare rifles. These men have been through enough. If they’re going to be visiting Gilt, they need to be able to protect themselves.” He looked at the lead Grant again, something like respect in his eyes. “We’re letting you off the hook. But the next guys won’t be so nice. We’ll put the word around to leave the junker ship alone. Try to get somewhere better.”

The One looked…confused. These people came to rob them. They came to kill and main. The lead Grants looked at each other and shook their heads, humanity did get better in 300 years, maybe things were not that bad or maybe they were and they just got lucky this one time…for the first time in centuries.

As soon as Thomas finished talking, the lead Grants stepped forward and the two others who hadn't uncovered their faces removed their helmets revealing the same face the pirates saw until now, just multiplied by 2.

In unison, they offered the pirates a military salute.

We thank you for your kindness, Captain Thomas. It’s something we’ve learned not to expect from humanity. Seeing people kill each other for centuries does that to someone. We have an idea. There’s nothing we don’t own that we haven’t produced ourselves, everything we have was worked and killed for. Let one of us come with you. We’ve fought for over 320 years almost daily, experience isn’t something we lack. We’ll be under your command for 6 months. We'll do whatever it is needed with only one condition…when it comes to dealing with Gilt or other nations, keep the one we’ll send with you hidden or if that’s not possible their face. A precaution in case others will confuse us. More than happy to send two or three if that's acceptable. We do work better together but up to you. " replied the three Grants while a few of the other Ones helped the pirates with the rifles.

Thomas blinked. Then Thomas blinked again. Bryin said “This is what I meant when I said they were all the same, Captain.”

“I thought you were being metaphorical.”

“I was not.”

“Oh.”

Just at that time the radio buzzed to life. Captain Moore’s voice asked: “Grant? Status report. Is everything still alright over there?”

"We're here, alive. 'managed to work a deal with the pirates. There's no need for an intervention, we ask you to let these pirates go. Don't attack them, don't follow them. At least while we're here, afterwards, it's up to you. " replied one of the Jamess that were closer to the radio.

“If I may, Captain,” said Bryin again, “I do advise we take them. What I said before was true. These men have dangerous eyes. But danger at our side is a benefit. I don’t believe they will betray us, not after this. I do believe they will fight for us fanatically, and they have none of the fear of death in them that all others of your kind- humans- have with them always. Do you note the way they move? These walk as men who have seen death so often that it is a familiar taste to them. They do not enjoy it, but neither do they try to spit it from their mouths.”

“I really wish you didn’t talk so creepy,” said Thomas to Bryin. “But… alright.” Turning to the One, he said, “We can take three of you aboard. Six months. Let’s hope you don’t mind the life of a pirate, mateys.”

"Aye, we'll fight. We'll kill. 'Don't enjoy it but c'est la vie as they said back on Earth. " replied the Grants with a nod before realising what Thomas said to Bryin.

"Ah. 'That bothers you? Haven't spoken with people that aren't us for a long time. We'll…adjust. " replied only one of the Grants this time.

Three Jamess stepped out of the line and walked to the pirates' side in unison, their faces covered by their helmets.

Thomas smiled. “Well, welcome to the crew then, lads. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the life of a pirate. We’ll have you singing sailing songs in a week.” His accent had come roaring back.
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Hidden 8 mos ago Post by Enigmatik
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A New Challenger Approaches

Featuring Crown Prince Raaid Ghani al-Karim and Aisha

A robed and hooded figure hurried through the winding streets of the Burj Al-Muqaddas, every step taken furtively, every new street a potential threat. They were flanked by five others, all each clad in the same lightweight robes that concealed every inch of their persons from any nosey passers-by. Over the course of the past hour, they had meticulously descended nearly a hundred and fifty stories of the arcology's colossal construction, slowly but surely making their way towards a fortress that could be their salvation.

The Al-Muqaddas spaceport was an unsightly mark on what was otherwise an elegantly designed city. Al-Muqaddas had been erected by Al-Nizam as their new capital almost a century ago now, a far cry from the older arcologies set up by the first colonists. While they had incorporated their spaceports into the heart of the city, al-Nizam could never suffer their 'perfect city' to have to endure the booms of suborbs or the roar of full thrusters being a part of the daily tapestry of life.

Not that it mattered. Six figures became three - half of the bodyguards peeling away from their charge to foray ahead. There was the sound of struggle, the wet thump of bodies falling to the floor, and then they were through the outer perimeter, scurrying towards a small ship that had been left in one of the colossal repair bays, placed there by an inside man who saw the truth of this world.

Throwing off his robes, crown prince Raaid al-Karim dashed to the controls of the small vessel, then praised whomever may be listening. They had been promised a warm engine, and here it was - fully fuelled and looking like it had only stopped idling a few minutes ago. It thrummed back to life easily - the prince's hands shifting across switches and gauges like a conductor before a symphony. Once, long ago, a royal could get away with being indolent and letting others do their job for them. But he had been born an exile. For him, 'jihad,' was not some declaration made by soft-skinned mullahs, it was his life.

"My prince." One of his guards turned to him, an eye still on the small camera built into a wrist-mounted screen. "We thought we would have five minutes but... It looks as if they are coming sooner. We need to go. Aisha!" He called out to another one of the guards. "Keep the prince safe. We'll give you as much time as you can."

There was a brief moment of pause as the four guards braced themselves. This was a death wish, and they all knew it. There would be no way out of the port once the prince's craft had gone. Then, as one, they reached for the heavier, unsilenced weapons that had laid dormant during their trip across the Burj al-Muqaddas. Gunmetal gleaming in the moonlight, they pushed their way out the door, leaving the prince to turn back to the controls, and, with a grunt, slam the button to seal the doors.

"What can I do." Aisha turned to look at the young man, her hands balled into tight fists.

"Sit there. Strap in. If I tell you to do something, do it. A craft like this is meant for short jaunts... Not whatever awaits us up there." The bodyguard nodded, just as the first crackle of gunfire made its way to the craft.

Raaid's knuckles were as pale as snow as he pushed the engine to taxi out of the repair dome. Lights winked on - first red, then amber, and finally green as the craft prepared itself to soar into the sky, and then beyond. Outside, where the group had entered, the gunfire intensified. The prince forced himself to filter out the sounds as they changed from gunfight to massacre. The thump of a grenade launcher, the scream as one of his guards was cut down. "Thirty seconds..." He tapped the readout as if it would cause time to run faster.

"Twenty..." The last of the gunfire abruptly cut off. The guards would be storming towards them now.

"Fifteen..." He eased the throttle further forwards, the craft picking up more and more speed.

"Ten seconds, fuck this, switching to lift. Hit that switch there." He gestured over, Aisha following his order instinctively. As soon as she did, the entire craft lurched uncomfortably, an awful scraping sound coming from the hull as the engines only barely pulled them up in time.

"Five..." Masked and armed figures burst through the doors and into the repair dome behind them.

"Too late," Raaid said with a grimace, slamming the throttle forwards as he did. The craft roared, shuddering a little as a few useless shots were tossed its way, the prince heaving on the controls to swing it clear of the spaceport's main operating zones. The radio lit up, surprised traffic control and furious security yelling over each other, asking for clearance, demanding that he land, but he paid no attention. They could make it to orbit in five minutes. Craft could be scrambled before that. All he could do was fly like he had never flown before, and pray that that would be enough.




"New Gateway reading." A bored-looking desk jockey swivelled around in the cramped offices that made up the Gran Republic's Sol reading post. "Tiny. Fucked to hell and back too, looks like it's spinning out." He turned back to the screen. "Fuck me, three more just spat out as well. Doesn't match anything we know. Even more new folk-"

An all-frequency broadcast blared out throughout Sol. It was in Arabic, but even those who didn't speak the language could understand the urgency of the words.

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. I am Crown Prince Raaid Ghani al-Karim, of the Free Dinnin Confederacy. I am requesting urgent..." The message was interrupted by a series of thuds and the sound of metal grinding against metal. Then the voice came back, sounding even more panicked. "I am requesting immediate refuge by any that can provide it. Please, if anyone can hear me, mayday, mayday, mayday!"
Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by Apollo26
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Calth
Solaria
The Parade grounds and Solar Palace



The parade square outside of the Solar Palace on Calth was truly a massive structure. Cobbled in immaculate white stone, the entire avenue was nearly a mile wide. Gigantic multi tiered fountains adorned either side, topped with martyrs, people who have fought and given their life for the solar cult.
A large garden surrounded the avenue, with viewing pergolas and pavilions interspaced throughout. The large cobbled street led directly to the massive steps of the Solar Palace, the structure itself dwarfing the surrounding structures. The palace was equally as massive as the base of stairs featuring three large plateaus adorned with panoramic open top amphitheaters.
On this day, the entire square and adjoining garden was full of spectators and soldiers. Large red and yellow streamers flew from the tops of the massive fountains and massive banners were erected around the cobbled avenue, representing different regiments of the church’s military. The soldiers marched down the avenue in perfect formation to the cheering of an ever growing crowd. It was victory day and an end to the rebellion on Calth. It had been nearly a century of continuous rebellion against the Solar Church with varying intensity throughout the years. The Ecclesia had firmly solidified its grasp on Calth and was the only power on the planet but now faced no one to fight. Six months past the end of hostilities and the cracks in the foundation of the Ecclesia as a state were becoming obvious.
The rebellion allowed for the church to maintain a large and brutal secret police that will be hard to justify now. A large expensive military, paid for and incentivized by the conquest of new land and plunder, now lost its only source of income, the state was already struggling to pay. This new society only knew war, what will they do in peace? What new freedoms will they demand for their service? All of these questions were present in the high priest’s mind as he rose his hands to address the crowd.

“ VICTORY!” he yelled, his small wireless microphone amplifying his voice to the many speakers around the square. The crowd cheered in response, erupting into a deafening roar before the man held his hands up again.

“ These men before you, are the finest of this nation. They have bled and fought across countless continents, leaving their friends and family behind to continue this holy legacy!” he finished again, prompting more cheering from the crowd.

“ We honor these men here today, we honor their sacrifice and those of the dead who return to the stars as ash” the man finished again, turning to another religious official next to him with a slight nod.

The other official began to break into a prayer, prompting the crowd to bow their heads as the high priest walked inside the entrance of the palace, immediately being confronted by another man in religious garb.

“ Yes….Rylanor…” the high priest said with a slight nod as he waved him closer with an elderly hand.

“ Sir, they are back and they have the support of more districts this time” Rylanor said in a semi worried tone. “ They insist on discussing the reform of the local tithe of men and material from all districts” he finished eyeing the high priest.

The high priest was an elderly man, even his pale leathery skin could not hide his wrinkles.
“ Yes…” the high priest said nodding slowly “ As we knew they would, I will speak with them” the high priest spoke in a slow methodical tone. “ Speak with Kayvaan…..I have spoken with him about a possible solution, I want you to discuss its…… feasibility.” the elderly priest finished with a nod, patting Rylanor on the shoulder before continuing into the palace.

Rylanor let out a sigh as he walked back towards the entrance of the palace, immediately being hit by the wave of sound by the entrance to the palace. The hot dry air making him blink as he crossed the threshold and made his way outside, walking towards a collection of vehicles by an adjacent entrance to the palace.

The guards were lax, wearing dark green working uniforms and low slung weapons, quickly snapping to attention as Rylanor walked up.

“ where to sir?” a guard said as he jumped into the drivers seat of an open top truck.

“ The Ecclesiarch’s palace…” Rylanor said flatly as he stepped into the open top vehicle and closed the door.

The Truck sped off down a neatly cobbled street before the road changed to well maintained pavement, considerably smoothing the ride. The Ecclesiarch’s palace was the administrative center of the solar priesthood and the headquarters for the secret police. Rylanor held a ceremonial religious office as keeper of holy artifacts, however his real position was intelligence chief and head of the secret police.
Rylanor needed to find a new mission for his secret police and intelligence wing. Giving agents and office time to think and grow used to peacetime would be detrimental to morale and their willingness to carry out his dirty work. Skeletons in your closet also have a tendency to fall into the open during times of peace, when people have nothing else to do but reminisce. Rylanor wanted neither and needed a solution relatively quickly. Luckily, one just may have dropped into his lap.

In a bittersweet moment of respite, a decorated spy attempted to steal a Terran artifact. An old navigation core for use with the old, and long unused, gateway junction. The Ecclesia had self isolated themselves, due to their struggle to survive and long war for supremacy of the planet. Technology and knowledge was retained however, leaving the option open for future travel into the gateway.
What this spy wanted to do with it was unclear, but both the nature of his crime and the suspect were of great interest to Rylanor. The spy, Horus, was a personal friend of Rylanor and a veteran of multiple campaigns. Horus was a master spy chief, thought to be extremely loyal and maybe even a candidate for religious office. This saddened Rylanor, but he now had a scapegoat and future mission for his secret police and intelligence officers.

The pavement turned to gravel as the truck pulled up to the front of another large palace, adorned with large spires, sporting red and yellow star banners. Rylanor nodded at the driver and made his way inside, nodding towards the guards as they opened the doors in his path.
He was on a mission and quickly made his way back towards the secure elevator to go down to the prison and torture cells. Opulent and pristine surroundings quickly turned into dark concrete as he arrived at the prison level, loud screams greeting him as the the elevator doors opened.

“ where is he…” Rylanor almost growled at the first intelligence officer he saw, his anger growing in the short journey down to the dungeon.

“ Second door on the right sir” the man said, standing and nodding his head to the right as he moved to the side of the corridor.

Rylanor nearly walked through the man as he received the instructions, angrily thumbing the touchpad before the door slid open. A man sat inside, seated with his back towards the door in a small steel chair. He was stripped naked except for a bag over his head and his body was clearly beaten and bloody. Despite this, the man sat tall, turning his head to the side like he was expecting Rylanor as he opened the door.

“ I know that gait…….Rylanor” the man growled through broken teeth, his jaw too swollen to open it fully.

“ Why Horus…..after all this, Monarchia, Balhut, THE PROTEAN EBB!” Rylanor yelled uncharacteristically before quickly calming himself again. “ You had the opportunity, why now”, he finished, abruptly pulling the bag from his head to reveal his swollen and bloodied face.

“ Dont you think there is more, to all this…..” Horus spat, drolling a mixture of blood and saliva “ Do you remember how they begged, the xenos….they begged like us” he finished, he left eye twitching as he met Rylanor’s gaze.

“ I hate it, the stars, the church, all of it…..and I wanted to leave” he paused before managing the best smile he could “ and I will….”

Rylanor took a step back, his eyebrow raised in concern and confusion, had his friend snapped? Man handles death and destruction in odd ways, this could be his breaking point. Rylanor sighed heavily, looking sad as he met Horus’s gaze again. He couldn't bring himself to say anything as he walked behind the chair again, before turning towards the door. As he opened his mouth to yell for the guards, what felt like an explosion rocked the building. It was big enough to shake the foundation of the building and the prison level as the lights flickered off.
Suddenly Rylanor stood in the pitch black, looking towards what he once thought was the door. An animalistic sense took over, an ingrained sense of survival quickly brought itself to the front of his mind and forced action. With the sound of squeaking rubber, Rylanor quickly turned toward around to face the chair and Horus before the lights suddenly flickered on as the emergency batteries activated, illuminating the room once again.

Rylanor had estimated wrong, and was facing toward the far corner of the room. Either blunted by his new comfortable position or age, Rylanor was exposed. Horus was already moving, seemingly before the lights turned on, and was already in the air over Rylanor’s left shoulder.
The speed at which Horus released a cufflink surprised Rylanor, slowing his reaction to the punch that Horus threw. The blow connected right under Rylanors left ear staggering him a moment before he felt the cold metal of the handcuff chain around his neck, quickly tightening as Horus took him down.

Rylanor’s hands instinctively shot to his neck as the pair fell, unable to brace his fall as his face bounced off the dirty concrete floor. Rylanor felt Horus sit back on his lower back as he increased tension on the makeshift garrote, the chains of the handcuffs cutting into his neck.
Despite the blow to his face Rylanor clawed at his neck viciously as he struggled to free himself, attempting to turn violently and get to his knees. Despite his efforts, Horus remained on his back, ever increasing the pressure of the handcuffs around his neck. Rylanor’s face was slammed into the ground again, heavily lacerating his left eyebrow and lip. A warm, almost soothing feeling crept across Rylanor’s face as a large puddle of blood immediately began to form. His good eye shot to the door, wondering why no one had heard the struggle inside and came to his aid. Rylanor could barely hear Horus’s own expletives over the sounds of his own retching and choking. Suddenly an unfamiliar feeling began to creep into Rylanor’s mind, panic, something he had not felt since his early days as a soldier. This sudden mortal realization made Rylanor thrash wildly in an attempt to free himself, grasping out towards anything that may give him leverage to lift himself. Rylanor’s thrashes became less and less spirited as Horus continued to choke him. His vision slowly narrowing as he lost consciousness and his thrashing stopped. Panic left his mind as a warm realization of death crept over Rylanor, his panicked gaze toward the door replaced by an almost serene yet emotionless stare.

Horus felt the resistance wane and immediately increased the pressure, lifting Rylanor’s unconscious body up off the floor a little as he stood over him.

“ This is only the beginning, we will fix our people, with or without the church” he said angrily before his attenion shot to the door, causing him to drop Rylanor’s body once again.

The sound of armored boots could be heard behind the heavy metal door quickly fading as they ran past but the message was clear, Horus needed to go. He looked down at Rylanor who was sprawled out face down on the floor, small bubbles dripped from his mouth as his blood slightly frothed in their struggle. ‘ was he dead?” Horus thought before his attention shot back to noises behind the door.
Unlike the heavy security controlled terminal on the outside of the torture cell, the inside just featured a button for ease of escape in the event of this exact situation, a prisoner escape. From the commotion behind the door, it was clear that it was not just his cell that was affection but others as well. Human and alien could be heard screaming and fighting in the distance. The chaos alone was not enough cover however as Horus was still completely naked, he needed to find some clothes.

Looking down towards Rylanor again, Horus dragged his body away from the blood puddle and began to strip his clothes off, removing anything personal to Rylanor. The ceremonial robes were simple, a white or red toga with a gold and white shawl usually worn across the shoulder or over one arm and shoulder. Different patterns on the shaw denoted family ties and military honors.
Rylanor’s shawl was too well known and would be noticed, but the toga could be worn alone, particularly during a time of chaos. Quickly donning Rylanor’s bloody toga, Horus handcuffed his body and placed it in the chair before stuffing the shawl down the industrial drain in the floor. Horus walked back to the door and listened for a moment, hearing a another collection of boots run past before hitting the door control and entering the corridor.

It was chaos outside of the cell, a large collection of soldiers could be seen down the corridor with their backs turned to Horus. The way towards the lone elevator was clear and the elevator was still operational.

“ good” Horus said under his breath as he feigned a heavy limp towards the elevator door, hurriedly smacking the control panel for the elevator. Taking a look behind him, Horus could see a group of soldiers fighting behind him as the elevator stopped on the floor. Quickly stepping on, Horus smacked the door control before the elevator ascended.
Horus sighed deeply, the solitary elevator ride granting him a moment of reprieve. Despite his demeanor, his body was broken. He had spent the past week undergoing the worst torture that could be imagined. He took another deep breath, pausing slightly as he felt his broken rib. The right side of his jaw was swollen shut and he could feel his left eye floating in the broken socket.

Horus was not some grunt or simple soldier, he was a member of the elite naval infantry, shock troopers of the Ecclesia. All true believers in the solar truth, blindly loyal and willing to do anything to accomplish their means.
Born out of the need for a quick raiding force, the naval infantry turned into Eccleissa's premier SOF force. Proficient in a variety of missions, its bread and butter are hard target assaults. Using heavy weapons, naval support and ground, air or orbital deployed troops, they ensure absolute shock. This coupled with their religious zealotry, makes them a formidable opponent, unafraid to close with the enemy.

The naval infantry held a near mythical status amongst the populace as incorruptible, making Horus’s betrayal that much more surprising. Horus had not acted alone and many of the officers that served under him also joined his small rebellion, disaffected with what they were forced to do.
As the elevator reached the ground floor Horus could hear the commotion behind the door before it opened, revealing a ruined palatial atrium. It looked like a bomb had gone off inside the palace. The floor was heavily cratered and the sky was exposed behind a broken ceiling. Large chandeliers lay broken on the ground, accompanied by multicolored stained glass scattered everywhere.

Horus dipped his head low and began walking through the crowd of military and religious officials before he felt an armored gloved hand wrap around his shoulder. Too weak to put up a fight after his engagement with Rylanor, Horus allowed himself to be led outside by a waiting military truck. Horus continued to feign his limp and hold his head low, he did not know who grabbed him or where he was going.
The soldier was in full battle dress, a kevlar weave environment suit with modular armor plates and carrying an assault weapon. Looking up ahead, Horus could see another collection of boots before the door opened and he was lightly pushed inside.

“ All going to plan sir….” a female voice spoke once the door was closed, prompting a small smirk from Horus.

“ Good, how many of us are left…” Horus spoke in a raspy tone, finally able to look up.

The truck pulled away, slow at first before hitting the main road and speeding off with the towering space elevator in the distance. The damage in the city could be seen clearly now, over a dozen thick, black plumes of smoke could be seen in the distance with sporadic tracer fire.

“ Just us so far,maybe those that will meet us at the elevator. Getting you out was costly”
She finished flatly as the truck continued to speed off.

The rest of the ride was silent, and after a short moment the small group of trucks was at the space elevator and quickly greeted by other rebels. The entire group barely numbered more than 40 fighters, a large fraction of the elite naval infantry had sided with Horus but that was about it. Many in the other branches were extremely loyal and many administrators did not have the heart for rebelion. He had nearly 300 fighters, and he was now down to 40 as the small force sat on the oversized elevator platform.
Designed to be a mass conveyance, the platform could accommodate twelve large shipping containers laid end to end. Entire battalions and their gear could take the 12 minute ride into the spaceport.

From this vantage point, the smoke and the cities could be seen clearly, large craters could be seen by the papal palace and intelligence building. Close to the space elevator, a large dust bloom could be seen, marking the movement of a large military force.

‘ It did not take them long to react to this…’ Horus thought, as the feeling of panic began to creep into his mind.

More fighters met them at the top of the space port, bringing their small group to 60 fighters. The space port itself looked like it was taken peacefully, with most of the staff being detained instead of killed. Destroying orbital weapons would be detrimental to the station itself, so the crews were also killed or detained the the weapons jammed electronically from the station. By the time anyone got up there to fix the weapons, they would be long gone.
This space sport was special, housing vessels involved in relic research. Most of these ships had special navigation drives and the ability to interface with the local gateway. The Ecclesia had planned to travel back to former human worlds but the purpose was unknown to Horus. He gained enough exposure with the relics to understand how to use them with the vessel interface, but their technology was foreign to him.

The group wasted little time and boarded an experimental frigate, barely filling out the minimum crew needed to go underway. The rebellion was prepared, and used smuggled manuals to learn the very basics of moving and maintaining a ship underway. The makeshift crew could secure the ship for the vacuum and move the vessel, but little else could even be attempted. The ships weapons, radar, navigation and damage control were completely useless and inoperable by the crew.
With the large gateway completely insight of the spaceport, navigation was not needed and the ship could simply be pointed towards the large ring structure. The vessel had authentic IFF tags and their only ally in the administration approved launch orders for the vessel, standing down the automatic gateway defenses. This rebellion took years to plan and prepare and it was looking like they may just escape with their lives.

—-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



Despite their elite training, years of subjugating rebels and combat, they were not sailors and did not know their way around a ship. Many holds and maintenance compartments went un-searched and unknown. Despite their inexperience, they were lucky as the ship was mostly empty, save a single electricians apprentice that just happened to be napping in the fuse hub of the ship.
It was a popular place to nap by the crew and this crewman just happened to fall asleep during a scheduled fuse check. The sound of boots and shooting immediately woke the crewman who locked himself in the hidden compartment. Illuminated by the pale blue glow of status lights the crewman quickly figured out what was going on and began planning.
The crewman was young, a basically trained electrician's mate but he was loyal. This was his chance for glory, maybe even a promotion and an increase in standing for his family name. His plan was simple, cut the power and wait for the navy to rescue them. Simple in its execution but naive in the belief that it was a good plan.
As the frigate neared the gateway the crewman unscrewed panels exposing the wiring for a specific section of the fuse compartment. With his training, he knew that he was looking at the propulsion and power bus for the vessel, cutting these would cut power and engines without suffocating them.

Back on the bridge of the frigate, Horus went through the interface steps just as he had seen rehearsed before. A cold shiver shot down his spine as he reached the relic interface, greeted by an alien looking list of stellar coordinates.
The other names were unknown to Horus, but one stood out, Terra. The affirmative selection sent another chill down his spine as the gateway reacted, energy buzzing between the extremities of the ring complex. A deep purple orb grew towards the center of the ring, emitting a deep purple UV glow.

From the vantage point of an outside observer, the vessel would appear to move toward the orb before reaching its edge and suddenly disappearing. Quickly being followed by the rapid dissipation of the ring’s orb.
Inside the vessel, the events were much less peaceful. The crewman, finally finished exposing what he thought was the propulsion and power cables, wasted no time in starting the cutting process. Unfortunately for the crewman, his inadequate tools led to difficulty when cutting the thick high voltage wires.

White hot electricity arced inside the small space, frying both the crewman and the small enclosure in an instant. The sudden jolt and loss of power first scrambled the navigation interface, unknowingly setting a random destination as the ship crossed the gateway threshold and jumped.
To the crew, the journey took nearly an instant, but the wonder of their first interstellar travel was cut short by the shrill siren of warning tones and flashing lights. The makeshift crew could do little else but stare at view-screens as errors blinked by before the entire ship suddenly went dark.

The crewman’s plan had worked, he did indeed cut power and propulsion to the ship, along with everything else. The fuse bus compartment was ablaze, further fueled by the crewman’s melting body. Molten metal quickly spread to other parts of the compartment and started a small fire at first before igniting the entire compartment. Before any of Horus’s rebels could find the source of the fire, it had consumed the entirety of the electrical room.

Horus had also accomplished his mission, he had left Calth and stolen a holy relic. Horus would never figure out that did not make it to Terra, his makeshift crew was too busy attempting to fight the oxygen consuming fire that threatened to destroy them.
The would continue to fight the fire, inspired by reaching Holy Terra and full of hope for survival. No one had noticed that the large Brown Dwarf in the distance was indifferent to their suffering and hope.

As the Solis frigate slowly creeped closer towards Hellas and her moons, their fight would turn to desperation, and then panic as the fire consumed their oxygen. No one was coming to save them, as no one knew they arrived. The Gateway in Hellas was not maintained and not monitored and Its existence was forgotten by the majority of the populace.


It would be a long time before anyone would find the ship and the remains of Horus’s rebels.
Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by Crusader Lord
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Crusader Lord A professional, anxiety-riddled, part-time worker

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The United Republic of Arhas


Bedroom, Home, Beldren Subdivision, Suburban Town of Oumer, Near The Capital City of Eosia


He could feel the sudden pull out of deeper sleep as the alarm clock on the bedside table went off with the same repetitive, blaring alarm it always seemed to have. He felt the loss of heat when his wife got out of the bed, and could feel the small peck on the cheek she left for him. He could see that little smirk on her face without having to even open his eyes, really, playful as it ever was most of the time. He could even feel the heat of the early morning artificial sun creeping in through the window of his bedroom, even as he eventually rolled over on his back and his eyes opened up for the first time that morning. For only a short time he stared up at the popcorn-style white ceiling above his head, trying to shake the last of the groggy thoughts from his waking mind before finally giving in and running a hand over his face and wiping the matter out of his eyes.

From there, though, he knew it would be much easier. The same morning routine as ever, though it had become a certain amount of stability he’d come to appreciate as well.

Kepler rolled over some more before swinging his legs over the side of the bed, now sitting up and letting out one final yawn in his own bed before standing up to stretch his arms and legs. It was close enough to being the same type of pattern of getting up that he’d followed for over the last decade and a half, though he had to admit that finding and getting married to his wife had been perhaps the greatest possible improvement to the morning routine ten years ago. Indeed, already he could smell the tantalizing scents of cooking food on a stove, morning fare that his stomach would rumble in anticipation of as he was moving to the nearby bathroom attached to he and his wife’s bedroom to wash his face, shave, and get dressed.



...

...

...

White tiled floor, a blue-colored sky-like wallpaper with pictures of fluffy artistic clouds on it, and the sight of his wife draped in her long robe over the stop of her pajamas at the stove just on the other side of the kitchen bar. Her face seemed just as smiling and radiant as the day he’d met her, even though she was looking at the stove and tossing a large old earth style breakfast omelet in a pan she had once told him was called a ‘french omelet’. Whatever it was, he hadn’t tired of them in the last four months after she’d introduced them to him this year. Creamy, cheesy, fluffy, and with whatever else she decided to throw in with veggies and the occasional splash of pre-crumbled meat. It was enough to unconsciously put a small smile on his face as he walked up to the kitchen bar and sat on his usual stool sitting at the end of it.

“Well well, my dearest, it seems someone is ready for breakfast this morning at least~”

A low chuckle came out from between his lips, though it was enough to get his wife to look over at him. Deep green eyes and light brown hair tied in a hasty morning pre-shower bun certainly wasn’t what everyone might call the best thing ever, though it complemented his wife’s rather light tan skin, but for him he never got tired of it. Of this. Of any of this, whether it was a good day or a bad one. THough soon enough that gaze would turn back to the oven and cooking omelet in turn.

“Hey, it's one of the things I look forward to most mornings at least. Though when you’re busy, that Crepe-y Crepes place is my usual stop to get anything close. Sure it's just fast food, but whoever decided to add an Old Earth food place in this place was a genius. Beats the cheap Breakfast Hummus Wrap at Al Omar’s by a landslide.”

“Hmm. So you’re saying my food beats out Al Omar’s?”

“Absolutely. Place is already all over most anywhere you go here on Arhas anyways. Makes people sick if you eat too much at that!

…Not that I don’t enjoy the simple lamb and beef kebab sandwiches from there sometimes after work, if both of us are running late. Sometimes with a side of waffle fries with the Hallian yogurt sauce to dip.”


“The kids made a bet yesterday about that, actually, after they got home from school.”

“Oh?”

His wife would toss the omelet one last time, like a showman putting on a final display at the end of their act, before placing the food on a white porcelain plate and setting the plate in front of him with a small but telltale ‘clack’. Soon after a fork would be handed to him, before he immediately moved in to cut off a bite and shovel it into his mouth. Politely, of course, though somewhat still groggy in his manner of doing it regardless. It was, though, enough to get his wife to chuckle a little herself before she continued speaking again, leaning on the bar with crossed arms as she watched him eat.

“Sarah says you’ll change sauces one day there, try something else with your fries. Alan thinks you’ll never change what you dip your fries in. Both bet about ten arcas on it, a week of allowance, on the entire thing.

They both will probably try to get you to go there sometime the rest of this week and prove them right.”

“Mmm? Mmph mmm mmmmm mmmm.

*gulp*

Well that certainly makes things interesting then. Though they’d better not take their habit to gambling with other children as it is….knew a few too many when I was a kid who got into that sort of thing and lost it all over the years. Started as kids.”


His brows would furrow slightly, before his wife reached over with one finger and gently flicked his forehead.

“I can understand your worry, but I’ve been talking to the kids about it as well. They can keep it involved at home if they want, but nothing outside of the house. Especially not with adults either.”

“If they’re anything like you, though, they might just get so independent they start their own gambling ring behind the-, oww!”

The second flick on his forehead was a lot less gentle this time. He could feel the slight annoyance from here as his own smirk barely rose up on the edges of his mouth.

“Unfair! My father was working at a Casino when I was a kid, taught us some tricks the regulars he knew used, but I never did more than make silly bets with my siblings by the time I grew up. Though…my mother….”

He could see the wrinkles form on his wife’s forehead as her words trailed off, letting out a small sigh on his end before placing a quick kiss on her forehead to snap her out of it.

“Sorry. You’ve told me a few times, but I keep forgetting things these days.”

“I know. With everything that’s been going on since last week, and then last night the Gateway reopening of all things, I’m not surprised they had you stay at the office on a cot again.”

He lightly grimaced, then a bit more so a few seconds later, at the memories. Literally the afternoon the impossible happened, the Gateway of their ancestors reopened, and he’d been stuck in the office until rather late at night. No going home. Just tons of paperwork and mandatory emergency meetings over the comms as he’d tried to help organize things in the flurry of aftermath activity. Mandatory, all of them. Barely had gotten home to try sleeping in his own bed at that.

But that was the Department of Armed Affairs for you, and he’d learned that bit quickly after getting into the Central Government Bureaucracy and being pulled into that particular department due to his experience. He’d even worked with the Military Police at lower levels for years before that, even working as a Stratus as part of that. Now he was forty one, with two ten year old fraternal twins and a wife. Certainly a change in some aspects of his life, but in others he found that much had remained somewhat predictably the same….namely paperwork and meetings and having to go to different places all over sometimes.

“Eh, they fed us at least before I came home. Let us come home for a bit as well even. But while I can’t divulge details, I can at least confirm what they’re likely saying on the news late last night.”

“Oh~? So there is going to be a mission through the Gateway?”

“Several all at once, in fact. Tests at the Gateway site indicate there’s multiple exit points, meaning there’s a number of places that could be investigated. Where to approach first though? That’s what the problem has been more than anything, especially given we don’t know if anyone else out there is alive.

But…they finalized things at least, in record time to boot. So today it’s mostly a decision of who gets stuck on each of the three ambassadorial vessels to act as a representative as they get escorted elsewhere.”


His wife raised an eyebrow.

“Did they ask you or something?”

Kepler lightly sighed once more, before gulping down another bite of omelet.

“You can’t disclose it to anyone yet, but yes. It will be revealed to the major news stations this afternoon.

All the same, however, I’m going to be heading to work for part of today before leaving the local office. Packed that bag last night for a reason. I’m supposed to then report to the Arden Military Police Spaceport in Eosia as quickly as I can get there after work. No special escort, keeping it as hush as they can until it breaks on the news formally.”


His wife simply stared back at him for a moment, their eyes meeting in a silent conversation before she gave a small nod of assent on her end as he continued taking quick bites of his breakfast. Not too fast, even if he was hungry, but with time crunching on him as it was he had to hurry regardless.

“I can hear the kids complaining about it once you’re gone, but if you can you have to at least promise them souvenirs.”

“It depends, honestly, on a lot of things….a hell of a lot of things really. Not even a chance to say anything, but I’ll leave you some arcas to take them out to eat tonight at least. My treat, and I’ll bring them back something if I can to boot.

Sound good?”


A pause, before his wife would smile again and lightly kiss him on the lips.

“I wish I had more leeway on this, but I hope you know this means we’re eating out at Father Franca’s tonight without you.”

….Of course that was the catch.




Underground Facility Entrance, Arden Military Police Spaceport, Upper City, Capital City of Eosia



To navigate the capital city of Eosia was certainly something that many visitors might feel was impossible, and he couldn't’ blame them either. Kepler himself could only do it after having driven in to and back from the city a number of times for work, and after having worked there as a Stratus for some time to boot before he’d managed to land getting the suburban life with his wife in a town only some ways to the south. Still, one had to make their way around the sides of the city to move upward or downward in the city by road, or take the criss-crossing aerial lanes of flying hovercraft or moving hover-platform-craft services to make it across the city span more directly. On top of that, the myriad levels of buildings and towering skyscrapers that sat on the shelving and sides of the great ‘pit’ the city had seemed to be built into the sides and bottom of was certainly something grand in scale. On top of that it could give the uninitiated from the rural areas horrible vertigo by simply looking down on Eosia itself, mostly due to the sheer and utter scale of size of the great underground city in the first place.

Yet he knew where his location would be, and that was at the base of the westernmost two or three titanic tubes that seemed to come down to the underground from above to certain spots in the city in particular. Massive elevators that moved spacecraft to the aboveground part of the spaceports of the city and back down again. On top of that there was the massive large artificial sun array at the very top-center of the city, looking down right over the center of the titanic pit the city had been carved into and out of far and deep below the planet’s sands. It shone with a day-night cycle following that of the planet, keeping people invigorated with a proper sleep cycle among other things despite living so far underground. Miniature versions were even utilized in a number of larger-scale hydroponics operations, among other methods.

As he went along, however, the road would become oddly more isolated as he wound his way up and around to the military police facility he was headed to. Ultimately any side traffic and buildings would seem to disappear as he took a turn into a road going deeper into the side of the bedrock and stone, wrapping back around into the city again at a large and imposing military police guard station at what was the facility’s main gate. In that vein he would slow down and lower his driver’s side window, as signs on the closed barriers of the gate would indicate, until he came to a stop and a large mounted scanner ran its obvious light over his vehicle. Then an obviously-armed Stratus in what looked to be Grade 3 armor approached him with a shotgun held in hands (but which was pointed at the ground at least).

“Government Identification please.”

The main scanner at the gate would have already identified him, but there were always layers of protection and security in these places. Even so, his face held that blank and stoic look he had become known for during his service over the years. His ‘professional face’, or ‘poker face’ as some had called it, trained and drilled into him by his own volition as he’d come to face even the simpler life of a Stratus back in the day. And just as he remembered being back then, he could hear a tone of familiar ‘no nonsense’ in the man behind the helmet’s voice as well. Pulling up the retractable government-issued badge on his chest, Kepler would hold it out of the window where the Stratus could see as a small, hovering, robotic assistant came around the Stratus and scanned it. After a few moments, then, the Stratus would nod to him and give a stiff and formal salute.

“Government ID and genetic ID both confirmed. Welcome to Arden Spaceport, Major General Kepler Ardenson.”

Kepler would give a salute back as the barriers lowered and rose respectively in front of him, before raising his window once more and driving forward into the base. Not that he hadn’t been here before, though the occasion itself was much more notable than simply coming to observe facilities and so forth. Much more than leading military police into combat. Etc.

…Whatever awaited him, and the other two expeditionary vessels, beyond the Gateway was an utter unknown. It was something their ancestors could only imagine in their fictional stories and records after it had originally closed. But he hoped it was more pleasant than dealing with rebel cells at least.

For the Republic.




Vehicle Garage, Northside Ruins, Rural Town of Cibara


Breathe in, breathe out. Slowly. Let the nerves settle, and focus on one task at a time. No matter how many years she had been fighting for the Peoples Confederated Militia, or what her rank had become in that time, Alena Marie Callisto still reminded herself of the very basics and ran through them each day. Use a gun, operating her personal modified working frame, even running some stolen old driving sim machines to keep in shape for operating vehicles. By the same vote, she sought to drill it into every new recruit and lower officer under her command so they would also be just as prepared….occasional complaints or not. If they were to make any ground, they had to be prepared and ready to truly fight back against the fascist police state that claimed the planet to be under a ‘Republic’ then they had to be ready.

The short-haired redhead was in her casual clothes at her core, blue eyes running over the zippers and buttons of the outfit as she pushed and pulled and tugged the fabric of it to get it on her body. A stolen flight crew uniform over it that bore the Republic’s insignia, recent enough of a design that it would hopefully work for what they needed to do next. It was certainly tighter than her combat uniform, though, but they had little time to waste and less resources than they were hoping for.

"Comms test. All major callsigns check in and confirm your preparations, over.”

However, today was not a standard type of operation. No direct combat, but instead the sort of undercover work that she and her people had been doing here and there over the last few years. Even then, however, this particular mission was something else entirely that had come down in orders from the Councilor she served under later. Rushed orders to say the very least, but important ones that according to the message the whole of the Council of Six was passing down in turn to try to organize something out of recent events. Not much time but to take a short rest and prepare her best away team for this one.

“Callsign Firebird, reporting. Squad Three is ready and en route to the garage.”

“Callsign Iron Curtain, reporting. Squad Four is en route to the garage as well.”

“Callsign Hummingbird, reporting. Most of Squad Six is ready, but Mark got locked in the men’s shower room by two members of Squad Three again in just a towel. So we’re trying to get him prepared as quickly as we can after having to bust the locks again on the door….again.”

“Hummingbird, tell Mark to pull his face out of peoples’ asses for me, would you?”

“Only when those pictures of you mounting the hovervee drunk last month get old to me, Firebird.”

….Well, at least the soldiers were in good spirits despite the whole situation they were in. Not that the ‘usual antics’ didn’t at times drive her near to insanity. Or each other to insanity.

"Firebird, Hummingbird, cut the crap or I’ll make you cut it myself. Just get to the garage ASAP, because we’ve got ten till’ we need to leave. We can’t pass up the shrinking time window to rendezvous with our contact at Liewson Spaceport.”

It was rare the Council pulled any strings like this, due to how risky it was, but they had managed to get them a last-second contact at the Liewson Spaceport. From there they’d get their hands on a current military escort vessel of the transport type, one assigned to one of the three ambassadorial details the ‘Republic’ was sending out through the newly-opened Gateway. It was a large amount of luck they had that much of a chance, due to how rushed the situation was, but it was a small window they could try to take advantage of all the same. A chance to get out of the system and look for some kind of sympathetic ears out there, or even just a black market they could trade the stored on their acquired ship with, which could give the PCM the chance to build up or get something that could turn the tide of their cause. Anything that could make for a big break to gain ground for the first time in decades.

Though even she had to admit the rushed plan was a bit too risky, and the window for things was far too small. They’d already put it into her hands if she’d be breaking from the escort to another different location using the Gateway, if they could, as that would be their best chance at things perhaps. Then again, staying with the others would both help their cover and give them protection from potential foreign defensive aggression and so forth to boot. On one hand they risked being discovered as rebels by separating from their particular escort group, as simple as that, but could potentially use the reasonable enough justification of ‘hit the wrong button’ to try to save face. Maybe. Ugh.

What if the plan was discovered back home while they were gone? What if they missed their window, and local security got them before they could get to the Gateway? There were a lot of what-ifs that certainly could happen, and had at times in the past, but they were as prepared as they could be for what time and such they had to do so. Even had some of their own gear and frames sent ahead and loaded on that ship to boot already via said contact.

…Still, Alena would bark over the comms one more time, even as she noticed two squads already piling into the garage and standing in formation and at attention near her. Each had what little combat or standard attire they could manage to fit under their own respective disguises, though due to the rush it wasn’t too uniform in that regard.

“Team One’s leader will manage things in our absence, as discussed, working with Team Two to keep supplies in order and the base safe while we are gone. Councilor will keep in contact with them until we return as well. Already discussed what to do if Egelman tries to show up and take charge of our area as well…”

A fellow officer who was double her age but half her level of patience in the field and far more ambitious than she liked, but she would admit he did good work in sabotage operations and a more destructive sort. Egelman was also an asshole who tried to usurp her internal authority enough that they’d clashed a few times at meetings despite being supposed comrades and even having worked together on a few missions in the past after she’d first joined (and their areas had been better connected to each other). It was more like he wanted her position and to assimilate her area of operations into his, take on more power and authority in the process, though he’d been barred from officially doing that by their Councilor….it still likely wouldn’t stop a potential attempt to barge into her base of operations with his people if she was gone long enough on this mission though. Orders were one thing, being as independent as they were made it harder to enforce order at times. But…at least they each had a choice in that sense. Not like the faceless murderers they called the ‘Military Police’.

In that vein she’d punched his command codes into her ramshackle base’s defensive grid blacklist, rather than the whitelist it was supposed to be on as with any other officers, so if he showed up he was getting blown to cinders. Just as she’d promised him she’d have done to him if he tried. Team One and Team Two’s leaders were also her most loyal, and while the rest were she trusted them the best to handle a potential ‘allied incursion’ or ‘attempted coup’ from another officer. Her people also had orders to fire on the asshat if he tried to threaten them outside of their range of their self wrought defensive grid.

Court martial her for it or not, she would follow through with her threats against him either way. His female predecessor had been just as bad in a general sense anyway, if history and PCM records indicated anything about ‘bad behavior’ within the ranks of officers, though they had many veteran hands in that area of operations as well that they couldn’t afford to lose to bickering and infighting either.

As the last of the squads entered, including the formerly trapped ‘Mark’ whose stolen uniform/disguise seemed already half-wet, Alena would finish securing her main outfit and hold the piloting helmet under her right arm as she turned to face her soldiers. Three groups of five, each with one squad leader among their particular grouping of five. Her light blue eyes would carefully scan over each and every one of them from head to toe, ensuring things looked to be in proper order for sure, before finally addressing them once more.

“We could be gone for a day, we could be gone for a week, or we could be gone for months. Yet today we get the rare chance the PCM hasn’t had in its history…. the potential for outside help. The potential to gather supplies and equipment that will further the cause and ring of freedom around the cities of Arhas once more!

We stand on the precipice of something potentially grand, and our window of operation is tighter than we’ve seen it be at the best of times around here. In that vein, we need to remember that we are allies and are united in our case. Only together can we ensure the Peoples Confederated Militia will succeed, and that tyranny and fascistic rule can be broken and never again rear its ugly head ever again!”


She then used her left hand to salute the soldiers before her, who would all salute back at the same time in turn.

….For the PCM. For Arhas.
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Outside the UNFCGSS Autumnal Harvest
Orbit of Alaktu
Mood Music


The UNFCGSV Dreadnought was a blocky, lovingly-painted vessel. It represented the latest and greatest of engineering feats; its prefabbed design crash-graduated from the simulators and assembled, in thousands of parts, across the whole of Eperu's shipyard capabilities. A dozen or more systems were on the far side of experimental, maintained through unforeseen difficulties by the around-the-clock attention of a whole corps of engineers. At its heart, Grey Wind, the first of its kind. This one had been developed far before the Dreadnought, so great were the risks of a premature deployment.

Grey Wind was not a dumb system, or a code name for some new and terrible weapon. No, it was the first of a new species of aggregate computing, an angel on the wing. Squids had always been a popular choice for such a task, their brains already attuned to pattern-matching and the implantation of sapience. If we ever uplift anything, it'll be a squid, so the saying goes. To this end, the sum of Grey Wind's parts were mundane, except in the details, that one word, parts. It was not just one brain, as Underheaven or the newly-popularized Salient Moon were. No, it was two. They were independent once, two squids with no conception of what they were bred for.

The extraction, well-practiced from decades of experience, was not painful for them. Lulled into unconsciousness, nerves deadened, they were lowered into a vat of HEV-P derived medicines. Eperu's brightest neurologists, mathematicians, and biologists had been crowded into a room for an operation that would define their careers; decide if they would receive illustrious prizes, or be sequestered for life, guilty of the crime of gross negligence. The two squids never woke again, but Grey Wind, in parallel, did.

And now Grey Wind was the Dreadnought. The ship's superconductors, chilled near absolute zero, fed a smorgasbord of information into its heart. Grey Wind could flex its lateral thrusters, feel them move up and down, could stretch its gunports, feel the crackling of impacted HEV-P scatter from the joints. It could feel the pain of a crashing system more intuitively and acutely than a legion of working professionals, and warn them before a terminal could update. The ship was not just a hunk of metal, it was alive, a steely body with electric blood coursing through it, little hairless antibodies scampering around it, protecting its guts from exotic disease.

If you wanted to put your best foot forward, there was no better ship than the UNFCGSV Dreadnought. It could outmaneuver a storm, could outgun a cruiser, and do it all faster than the saccades of a man's eye. At the insistence of the Frontier Commission, slinging reams of memos about diplomatic incidents and hostile architecture at the speed of a clogged bureaucracy, the Dreadnought was also the stealthiest warship ever to grace the howling dark. All of its cannons could hide seamlessly behind hidden gunports, hidden from the blind eye and sensors alike. It would not look the warship until it was time to be the warship.

It was not alone, flanked by three ships. Smaller, older, workhorses known to pull their weight and then some. If all else went wrong, they would swoop to the rescue, a cavalry not illustrious but certainly welcome. The UNFCMCV Bum Rush was the second-in-command, ready to seize the initiative and direct its flight if the Dreadnought valiantly fell. It was a destroyer, designed for light targets, retrofitted with a command deck when it was press-ganged into greater duties. It traded tightbeams and signal flags with the UNFCSCV Two For Flinching and the UNFCSCV Herald of the Morning. They were lean ships, corvettes bristling with weapons capable of contesting deep-space habitats. No space spared for fluff, selected for their scrappiness. They could eat hits that would dust lesser fighters and come out kicking for vengeance.

Such precautions had been protested in the Frontier Commission Senate. A military boondoggle, sacrificing diplomacy for expediency. The diplomatic corps had been accused of looking to start a war. Space Command had been served subpoenas, questioned on their integrity. Every time, such arguments were easily countered; one simple fact rained down from above to extinguish the political fires.

You don't fly into the middle of a war-zone without a backup plan.

The Dreadnought was a ship of two worlds. Below executive conference halls and staterooms sat cargo holds of shells and power-suited marines. For every diplomat, an analyst, running scenarios and formulating battle-plans. I wish for peace and prosperity for all, the ship seemed to whisper, hit me if you fucking dare.

Their computers had been ancient before the gateways were even a dream in a physicist's eye. Eperu had a nasty habit of forcing the hand, strangling complexity and power in a grip that defied every law man ever set in stone for how the universe ought to behave. It was no shock, then, that they interfaced easily. Oh, it's my older brother, so long in the tooth and so dull and shortsighted, let me get that for you its systems cried to the Grey Wind and the Dreadnought, giving the beating heart of gray matter reflexive control of man's greatest invention.

They hardly even noticed the transition, were it not for the star that awaited them. Sensors snow-blinded for a brief moment, tinting to adjust from the dark confines of Eperu to that of a proper main sequence. When it cleared, all was unfamiliar, save for the war that raged about them, the skirmishing cracks of ordinance easily visible to the highly-trained spotters of the diplomatic procession.

The new visitors were greeted by the arrival of a lone, angular warship, its impressive frame looming over the horizon as neared the edge of the DMZ line. It was one of many of the line of Judgment-class Battlecruisers, it’s hull streaked by a union of ebony, metallic gray, and crimson. Deep within its bowls her scarred Admiral and his staff observed a holographic projection of the surrounding space, the usual greens, and reds representing friend and foe alike. Out of the sea of green and red there was one blip that stood out, several blue figures representing unknown craft that match nothing in the Americana System. “Admiral, we’ve got new contacts entering the system.” One of the Janissary officers reported.

“Do they match previous contacts?” He inquired, his first officer shaking his head after a few moments. “No sir, these are new signals.

“Open communications at once.” The Admiral ordered his comms officer, their eyes locking with each other as the young man nodded, taking a few moments to input his commands, a comm line was soon established between the ship and the foreign delegation. “Attention unknown vessels, this is Admiral Ezekiel Hawthorn of the Blissful Wrath of the 3rd Home Defense Fleet.” Hawthorn stated. “Identity yourselves.”

A tight-beam lanced out from the Dreadnought, walked its way across the Blissful Wrath's hull to the communications dish. The naked hull did not register it; low power, intense only in its focus, designed for a system which did not play kind with invisible light. Clearer than traditional radio, especially at stellar distances, it was the obvious choice of communication for such a sensitive mission. The voice that came through to the Blissful Wrath was that of a veteran spacer, her voice gruff, "We acknowledge, Admiral Ezekiel. We are the first signalman of the UNFCGSV Dreadnought. We bring good tidings and hearty greetings on behalf of the United Nations Frontier Commission."

United Nations? That was something interesting to hear. Last the Admiral heard that name was in Old Earth classes back in his youth. Not that he can say much, as his own place of birth has names and titles that honor the legacy of Old Earth, so that humanity does not and will not ever forget. Regardless, this “Frontier Commission” openly comes peace, a pleasant surprise to be sure, especially when half the galaxy has been set against you. “In that case, Signalman, let me be the first to properly welcome you on behalf of the Americana System.” Hawthorn said. “However, I must warn you that this region of space is not safe. Let us escort you away from the combat zone.”

A brief pause, the signalman relaying the message for orders, and then, "Your message is understood and appreciated, Admiral Hawthorn. The Dreadnought will fall into your wake. Where shall we be escorted?" As the signalman spoke, the thruster bells of the entire procession came to a great, shuttering life, heat blossoming from archaic twentieth-century chemical relics, blasting molten fire into vacuum for thrust. They were far more powerful than they had any conventional right to be, the acceleration far snappier than ships of their size would suggest.

Admiral Hawthorn and his staff were left dumbfounded at the sheer speed of the UN vessels, as the UN group had soon found themselves in close proximity to the Blissful Wrath in what seemed like no time. The Admiral shook his head as he heard the First Signalman’s voice crack out from the intercom requesting further instructions. “Our destination will be our capital and homeworld, Columbia, there you’ll be able to speak with people more qualified than us.” He turned to his comms officer once more with a new command. "Contact the Throneship, tell them we have new guests."

The tight-beam walked its lock continuously to the communications dish, the voice growing scratchy every time it off-centered, "Please inform your capital and homeworld, Columbia that we carry export to demonstrate; arrangements for a testing field, pre-arranged for the comfort of dignitaries, would be greatly appreciated." Lateral thrusters fired on occasion, the four ships remaining in rough lockstep with the Blissful Wrath. They flew disconcertingly close to both each other and Admiral Hawthorn's own vessel, visible to the naked eye. The apparent reason why was unusual; there were signalmen in towers extruding from the hulls, trading flag signals to coordinate their movements.

Several Days Later
The Throneship
Orbit of Columbia
Mood Music


Several days had passed since the arrival of the UN vessels, the journey for the most part had been uneventful, however, they had at long last arrived to the pristine Columbia, standing out like a blue marble in the dark void, not much like Earth once did. Admiral Hawthorn, fresh out of bed had arrived to the Blissful Wrath’s CIC, letting out an audible yawn as his first officer passed him a cup of….”imported” coffee let’s just say. “We’ve finally arrived home, sir.” The first officer stated. “Shall we inform the Throneship?”

The Admiral nodded as he approached the center of the CIC, all other Janissary officers and staff saluting him. “At ease.” He said as they resumed work. “Contact the UN fleet and send them coordinates to the Throneship. We’ll escort them till that point.”

The UN vessels and the Blissful wrath proceeded to Columba, maintaining high orbit as they cruised over the horizon, the UN ships greeted by the daunting sight that was the Yulzan Throneship, a massive vessel that was practically a city onto itself, towering spires of clearly alien design protruding from her hull, bright crimson lights illuminating the void like a beacon. Surrounding the throneship was hundreds upon hundreds of more alien vessels of similar design. “Welcome to Columba, welcome to the Throneship.” The Admiral messaged the Dreadnought.

The tight-beam lanced to life once more, tracked to the Blissful Wrath. This time, the First Signalman was a man, slightly high-pitched. A different shift had since taken over the panels, "We compliment your Throneship, Admiral Hawthorn, and we request docking permissions for the Dreadnought. Does the Throneship use docking umbilicals? We will require one freight umbilical and three passenger umbilicals for a smooth docking and unloading."

“One moment, Dreadnought.” The comms officer spoke as he relayed new Coordinates, and uploaded them into the Dreadnought’s systems, leading them into one of the several docking port sectors within the Throneship, this one in particular made in mind for quick umbilical docking and disembarking. With their imminent arrival, a delegation was hastily assembled to give proper greetings to their new guests, one of the High Ascendants even taking part in the occasion.

As the Dreadnought's escorts fanned out into a defensive shield, the flagship itself maneuvered smoothly into the umbilicals. As the connection was made, Grey Wind extended out its own greeting to the systems of the Throneship, hello how do you do pleased to meet you im grey wind who are you thats a big station you have dont see many like it, bits unnecessary for bare operation, but a gesture of one intelligence looking for another of its kind to talk to. Outside of the realm of electricity and data, in the realm of topography and DNA, the unloading proceeded apace.

On the primary passenger vestibule near the front of the ship, the dignitaries of note; a dozen harried-looking men in fine suits, carrying briefcases and followed by an honor guard, marines in dress uniform, saber and all. Behind them, the true power players, a crowd of proper bodyguards, exoskeletons and snub-nosed sub-machine guns, all surrounding a single woman in a black suit-skirt combo. Dark sunglasses covered her eyes, and she had a legion of interns to carry her personal effects.

The other two passenger umbilicals disgorged an eclectic mix of necessary personnel, bureaucrats, lawyers, engineers, and notaries. They flooded out to find their own counterparts, to begin greasing the wheels of bureaucracy as to ensure the smooth and more importantly, immediate implementation of decrees and deals. From the freight umbilical, technicians began to unload an eclectic mix of product, the most notable an old-style anti-tank field gun with several plates of free-standing armor. Several boxes of stand-alone electronic systems came after, bristling with Old Earth technology, all CRTs and physical hard drives.

The people of the Frontier Commission were greeted by a rather unexpected sight. In addition to the assortment of humans in religious garb, and human soldiers glad in black armor, they would also witness their first live sapient alien lifeforms, as the human soldiers would be joined by the insectoid Aldzir, the amphibian Dathu, and standing in the center of the crowd, towering over all individuals present was the High Ascendant Alin’sha. She stepped forward, all those by her side stepping aside in sheer reverence, bowing their heads to her, Alin’sha approached who she would assume to be the higher-ranking members of the UN delegation, giving a slight bow. As she spoke, her voice vibrated the very air as technology far beyond human design assisted her in making audible tones, giving her voice an ethereal sensation. “Greetings, I am Alin’sha of the High Ascendants, I welcome you, most honored guests, to our Throneship, the jewel of the Ascendancy, and its seat of power.”

She raised herself up once more, displaying her sheer height to the humans of Eperu. “Tell me, what brings you here? Besides curiosities and wishing to reconnect with your long-lost kin, and I'm sure you have many questions for my presence as well.”

The honor guard fanned out to the edges. A man with an embossed press pass attached to his shirt was taking photos. The delegation ordered themselves, almost unconsciously, by hierarchy. At the head, a portly black man, his voice embellished with a slight African lilt, "The honor is ours, Alin'sha. Please, call me Mister Mandla. We are here on a mission of discovery, and hopefully, establishment."

He gave a slight bow in return, the camera snapping a picture of the moment. He then gave her a friendly smile, continuing, "We indeed have many questions, but they can wait. Tonight, the food will be on us. Will you join us in the executive stateroom for a dinner? We have many delicacies to display, and a wonderful stage play. A cultural exchange, yes?"

In the back, the woman surrounded by bodyguards stared impassively at Alin'sha, through the tinted lenses of her sunglasses. Though the assistants and executives behind her fanned out to jockey into positions behind the diplomatic delegation, she did not move a muscle and her bodyguards, in their exoskeletons, continued to tightly circle her. A slight frown flickered on her face, but otherwise she betrayed no emotion nor thought.

Food…the thought of it had sent Alin’sha’s mind elsewhere for a split second. The one thing in all of creation the Yulzan envied the lesser beings for. The last time since Alin’sha tasted solid meat was an eternity ago, she, like the rest of her kin, had long forgotten what real food tasted like…on somedays, the thought drove her and others to pure madness, on others, utter despair, and contempt.

This gift of self-made godhood was both a blessing and at the same time, such a dreadful curse, forever trapped in this painful slowly decaying husk. Her primal mind screaming out for violence…but her better judgment and instincts held that beast back for the time being. Now was not the time to shed blood, now was the time to possibly make new allies. “I..would be honored to join you.” Her voice flowed through the air. “However….for reasons I will l further explain later, I unfortunately won’t be able to enjoy your meals, the rest of my delegation however, will gladly sample your dishes on my behalf.”

Sympathy, closely practiced not to fray too far into pity, writ itself upon Mandla's face. His voice remained even, "Of course, we do not intend to pry. Hopefully, the play will do to whet your appetite. It's an Old Earth play, preserved from our ancient history by the datalinks of our original colony ship. Afterwards, it is my understanding that Zixuang-Akako, one of our foremost corporations, wishes to demonstrate technology they wish you to purchase."

He stepped aside, motioning towards the umbilical, "Please, make yourself at home. No expense has been spared on the stateroom, I am certain you will find it quite beautiful."

A select few of the Janissary Officers and attending Clergymen were the first to enter through the umbilical, Alin’sha following behind. Not too long after, she and her attendants had made their way to the stateroom, the Old Earth classical styles were something to behold, and could make even a Dathu noblemen quite envious.

The alluring cushions and the aroma of masterfully prepared meals were enough for the officers and clergymen present to forget that a High Ascendant was among them, some sinking themselves into cushioned seats, and others admiring the mini art gallery in display. “Impressive, for humans.” Alin’sha said to herself in a hushed tone. Making sure no unfamiliar, prying ears were within distance. Although in truth, she was curious what this play was all about, she knew very little of Old Earth arts and literature.

The main attraction was indeed the stage, the stateroom arranged in a dinner-theater format. Though there were buffet tables at the sides of the room, replete with gourmet finger foods, each table had menus, lovingly hand-written by a calligrapher. There were five courses in total, each guest given an option between several different items for each course. Each choice was designed to be varied, to give as many different tastes of human food as possible.

As soon as the High Ascendant had seemingly picked a table, Mandla expertly weaved his way through the throngs of people to take a nearby seat. If one were not specifically looking, he worked so smoothly that it looked only natural, or only coincidence. A practiced move from an experienced and competent diplomat. As people were seated and butlers, clad in white-tie formal-wear, assisted them in personalizing their dinners, Mandla said to Alin'sha, "I think you'll like this play; I picked it out myself. It's about one of the prevailing pillars of the United Nations; justice."

He stopped a moment to point out a few items on the menu to a passing butler, before he turned back to her, "It's called Twelve Angry Men. In our legal system, a man is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Do you know of jury trials?"

Alin’sha nodded. “Yes, your kin on Columbia have shared this concept with us.” She spoke. “My people were very unfamiliar with this “jury trial” at first, but we understand somewhat.” In truth, this was a lie, she understood it quite well in her decades in the Americana System, but she, like the rest of her kind, could care less, as the current regime has corrupted the system. Justice to a Yulzan was simply another tool in their continued oppression of the masses, and often was an excuse to erase any form of dissent among the lesser beings…but that would be best left unsaid, Mr. Mandla need not know the full details. The lights in the room grew dim as the show was about the start.

Mandla left the note in the air, the implication that he understood their differences well enough to pick on such a tense point drifting in the room as he turned to watch the play. His broad smile, however, did not vanish. It was not intended to be a jab, but a message: Despite their vast differences and the similarities they shared with the Yulzan's hated enemies, they had still come to the Yulzan first.

Meanwhile, the woman in sunglasses had not bothered to take a seat. Safe behind an ironclad wall of exoskeletons and weaponry, she gazed around the room. Even under the sunglasses, her gaze was withering, and those who fell under it felt their backs crawl. She didn't look up at the stage as the curtains opened, and the play began.

Aboard the Throneship
Orbit of Columbia
Mood Music


Sometime after the dinner and the show, it was now time for the product demonstration courtesy of Zixuang-Akako. The field test moved to a more spacious environment within the Throneship, not too far from the docking ports. It was one of many indoor parks that provided a small taste of serene greenery. Presented before Alin’Sha and her entourage of clergymen and high-ranking officers was an assortment of different products both military and civilian in function. The first to be tested was a field gun, used to blast away trees and hastily assembled target dummies representing FRA soldiers, each confirmed “kill” was met with audible cues, followed by claps from the officers, having good fun with just blowing something up.

The field gun was a primitive affair, no better than an ancient artillery piece. Its true variety was in its shell loads and its reliability, dozens of different shells for each situation and guaranteed to always fire. The field gun was lowered into a vat of mud, and then lifted out again and fired several more times without issue. When it was power-washed off, the true demonstrations began.

Several different items were rolled out; a long, rectangular, thin steel plate stood on its edge, a composite plate of the same make, a dark-colored plate of some advanced alloy, and a plate that appeared as though it were steel, though imbued with a purple hue and a vague rainbow sheen. The announcer, some Zixuang-Akako functionary, began to explain, "The very first armor plate we shall test is steel; used for centuries before we traveled to the stars, and sure to be used for centuries to come. It's reliable, it's tough, and we're going to blow a hole through it."

The field gun belched fire. There was a hefty explosion, and then a secondary one. The park filled with sparks and smoke. When it cleared, there the steel plate stood, in two pieces, the dummy behind it obliterated. Once the dust settled and ears had ceased ringing, the announcer continued, "Next, composite plating! Used before the heady days of the gateways, it's stronger and lighter than steel. This plate is the same size, but doubles the effective armor!"

Again, the field gun burped a shell. Again, the smoke and the sparks. This time, the hole was smaller; the plate was not split in two, but the entire upper body of the dummy had been blown off entirely. The announcer let the scene settle, then called over the loudspeakers, "Next, nano-graphene alloys, used by our very own ancestors on the ship that bore us to Eperu! It's lean and it's space-age, quadruple the effective armor of the old-school steel! We've yet to discover armoring better than it on the periodic table."

The field gun fired. There was a great impact, and two explosions. When the dust settled, the plate was intact, roughly. It had spalled material into the dummy, several shards embedded throughout the dummy. A grievous wound, but not an immediately lethal one. The announcer then continued, his voice rising as he presented the true star of the demonstration, "And finally, Hevsteel! Named for the alloying of Hev-P with those cheap and simple steel plates, it is cheap, light, and better than anything else available on the market! One of Zixuang-Akako's greatest inventions, if you're looking for the best of the best, look no further!"

Another shell slung downrange, and another two explosions. There was a slight purplish glare, and the smoke was blown away. The plate was entirely intact; a small scorch mark the only indication that it had been shot at all. The announcer called out, "As you can see, the armor is completely intact! But perhaps you think it's a fluke; let's go ahead and fire a few more shells into it!"

Another belch of fire, and another shell downrange. The same result, the smoke clearing once more as though blasted away. Again, nothing but another scorch mark. This repeated five more times, until finally, with a groan of effort, the girders holding the plate vertical snapped from the stress, the plate falling on the dummy. Surprisingly, the dummy was not crushed, sitting sadly underneath the plate.

“Hmm…quite impressive indeed.” Alin’Sha spoke, this Hevsteel had great potential, one can imagine what damage an army could do in full-plated hevstel armor, made nearly invulnerable. She surveyed her surroundings, looking at the hungry eyes of the Janissary officers, fortunate for her, they too see the promise this product offers. She turns to the ZA delegation.

“Your Hevsteel is something to behold and to be congratulated. I must say, you humans continue to surprise me to no end.” She paused to give herself a breather. “On behalf of the High Ascendants, it would be our pleasure to do business with you.”

The gaggle of interns, executives, and mid-level marketers practically glowed as they received approval from Alin'Sha. The stands exploded into dealmaking and wheeling as the announcer continued their display, some form of radar system being wheeled out. Alin'Sha could feel something on the back of her neck, like an itch that couldn't be scratched. Behind her, the gaze of the woman in the sunglasses was staring directly at her, something that had not occurred before. She made a motion, and the bodyguards parted, several of them also staring at the High Ascendant.

It was a beckons, the one opportunity the High Ascendant would be given to speak to the mysterious figure.



Alin’sha lightly stomped her way towards the strange woman, allowing her underlings to deal with the rest of the ZA employees on other matters. Both figures came face to face, so to speak, Alin’sha’s imposing figure literally staring down the woman. “Yes?” She asked.

The woman did not flinch, nor did her bodyguards. She remained silent and stonily still as the High Ascendant stormed up. The bodyguards closed around the two, and warded off a panicked-looking Mandla, the High Ascendant's own attendants, and the rest of the assortment of delegates. The woman replied, coldly, "Alin'sha," she gazed impassively at the Ascendant's body, asking without a hint of intonation, "was it worth it?"

Alin’sha gave a perplexed look. “What ever do you mean?” She asked. The woman raised a single disapproving eyebrow, before she ultimately answered, "To be surrounded by food, and yet to starve. I ask again, was it worth it?" Her tone was still flat, but her body language was almost that of disappointment.

Alin’sha pondered, her facial expression rather conflicted. “In truth? I don’t truly know anymore. When I was first offered the gift, I was young, and foolish, and feared death…perhaps If given another chance, I would’ve chosen death over this fate. But that was then, and this is now. My kind have finally achieved the dream of our most sacred ancestors, godhood born through our own minds and ingenuity, suffering be damned.”

The woman's demeanor returned to utterly impassive, as she looked out at the crowds beyond her circle of bodyguards. Her comment was striking, clearly intended to provoke a reaction, "So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be."

“What are you getting at, human.” Alin’sha said, her tone clearly agitated. “Even in my current state, I will far outlive all that stand in this room, they will wither to dust, while I still stand, in pain, but in glory.”

Her eyebrow raised once more, a singular act of profound disapproval. She continued, pushing the Ascendant further with that provocatory tone, "And yet your legacy appears, to me, to be a failure of empire. Here you stand, accepting war profiteering from the species of your greatest enemy, because you cannot afford not to."

She gazed out at the mix of Janissaries and marketers mingling amongst each other, before continuing, "Would a god, master of all he surveys, not have dispensed great wrath upon the blasphemers who defied him?"

“Do not test me, human. “A snarl could be felt vibrating in the air, Alin’sha’s rage mounting. “I can easily end you, here and now, profiteering be dammed.” Her clawed palms beginning to tighten, the urge to end this pest was too overbearing to ignore. “Our wrath WILL be dispensed, and all humans or any other species that dare stand against us, will be burnt to ashes in our new galactic order.”

All of the bodyguards snapped their heads to Alin'sha, as their exoskeletons whirred with tension. The woman still did not move. Instead, she maintained that raised eyebrow. Even with her eyes behind sunglasses, her body language screamed both disapproval and disappointment. She continued, unperturbed, "You cannot afford to, Alin'sha. Didn't you understand that? Kill me, and we pick a side."

In an act that Alin’sha would ultimately regret, she very much obliged the stranger. “If I must, we have made many enemies…what’s one more?” She said as in an instant, Alin’sha ignited a plasma blade from a wrist device. “I will NOT be brought low by a human.” Alin’sha then slashed down one of the guards. The Janissaries present, realized what had just occurred, all pulled out their firearms. “Stand down! All of you!” One of them ordered. The clergymen soon dispersed in a panic.

The explosion of activity was instantaneous. The bodyguards smoothly swiveled to Alin'sha, and unleashed a furious full-auto upon the High Ascendant. Delegates and Zixuang-Akako employees scattered. One of the marines on the honor guard pulled a sidearm, and the rest, in the explosion of sound and violence, followed suite. A technician, in a moment of panic and brilliance, turned the demonstration field gun on a group of Janissaries, and unleashed an anti-personnel shell. In the next few seconds, several of the bodyguards grabbed a hold of the woman, and began to drag her away.

She hadn't flinched. She was still staring at the High Ascendant with undisguised disappointment. She called out, her voice more projecting than yelling, "How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God!"

Grey Wind had been watching the demonstration through the camera feeds. It was the love child of three-hundred years of exotic research, medical science, and hard-earned engineering experience. Through its veins ran electrons, encased in steely veins. It could think, and react, beyond the ken of mortal man. The plasma blade had not been fully ignited by the time Grey Wind cried out, the scream scattered across the hundreds of klaxons of the Dreadnought. The guard had not yet been ran through by the time the gunports had opened, the red alert disseminated and the crew ordered to battle stations.

The fight had not yet started, and Grey Wind was already running tactical simulations. We are close, and close is good to be. Grab them by the belt buckle, and we may fight our way to safety. By the first shot, Grey Wind had pushed tactical readouts to the captains of the whole fleet. Truly, it was humanity whom held back the Dreadnought.

A wounded Alin’sha fell to the ground, purple blood dripping from her abdomen. She glared at the the fleeing humans, letting out a roar that was a mix of bestial and mechanical. “KILL THEM ALL! YOUR HIGH ASCENDANT COMMANDS IT!” she screeched out, all the while reeling in pain. More and more Janissaries came pouring out from multiple entrance points, a platoon’s worth running out in pursuit of the new visitors, while others remained to tend to their goddess’ wellbeing. Soon a sector-wide alert was sounded, alarms blaring out through the many corridors.

The bodyguards took the halls in a heady sprint. Every unfamiliar man or alien was shot down on sight, afforded no hesitation. Their communications were short, and true to their job, no opening was permitted upon their charge. The woman was being carried now, back to the docking vestibule. Behind them, a cacophony of gunfire as the two sides escalated. This was a losing battle; too many Janissaries, too little marines. The technician on the field gun fell after scattering another dozen Janissaries into a fine mist. The civilians were mercilessly gunned down as they ran or where they lay. The honor guard had lasted the longest, even using enemy guns, but their holdout was forlorn.

When the woman arrived through the docking vestibule a few minutes later, it was as though a switch had been flipped. There was no longer any use in waiting, and only risks to be associated with remaining docked. A series of cannon-shots rocked the Dreadnought as eighteen-inch main battery guns blew off the dock of the Throneship, severing the vestibules in the process. Its engines came to life as it maneuvered, all cannons blazing in every direction. The fleet was point-blank; now, more than ever, they could damage the Throneship, and perhaps start with the initiative.

Grey Wind assessed the situation; the Bum Rush, Two for Flinching, and Herald of the Morning were built for pirates and revolutionaries, not open battle against a uniformed enemy. The assistance they could provide was minimal at best, except to harass, distract, and if necessary, shield. It was with this in mind that Grey Wind tasked their crews to counterbattery fire, to disrupt the inevitable response in the trading of blows.

The Gateway was too far. Too many enemies, spread across too great a distance when point-blank was your best option. No, they would have to go for the jungle world, the home of the exiled republic whom had long since warred against this new enemy.

The fleets were on high alert, as a small fleet of Janissary warships, the Blissful Warth among them, were in now hot pursuit of their new enemies, much to Admiral Hawthorns surprise. From the CIC he watched in bewilderment as he suddenly received orders to hunt down and to destroy the people he escorted to the Throneship. “I don’t know what the hell went on in there, but they sure pissed someone off. Maintain high speed, we know how fast those things can get, we’ll lose them if we’re not careful. Prepare all batteries and tubes and open fire!” The pursuing ships unleashed a volley of torpedoes and anti-ship rounds, hoping to score a hit.

The Dreadnought was the largest and most vulnerable target, a fact Grey Wind had taken into consideration. While the rest of the fleet twisted between debris to make themselves hard targets, the flagship was used as bait as it wrecked havoc upon the Throneship. Once the Blissful Wrath and its supporting vessels had fired upon the fleet, the counterbattery began. The smaller cannons of the escorts opened up on the torpedo tubes and guns of Hawthorne's fleet, with uncanny precision at their near-point-blank range.

The Dreadnought, meanwhile, began its own counterbattery, its secondaries and point defense guns unleashing fury upon the incoming ordnance. With the aid of its precision near-sensors, tuned to fight through interference simply not present outside of Eperu, its weapons were also alarmingly accurate. It ignored near-misses and even duds, focusing streams of bullets and cannon shells towards the truly dangerous ordnance.

What made it through was immaterial. As they impacted the hull against strongpoints, the armor flashed with intense purple light, greater than the demonstration. A plume of purple fire blew outwards, and when it cleared, there was not so much as a scorch.

A number of torpedoes had started to disperse, going into random directions as their systems went haywire from the counter systems, or were shot down from enemy point defense guns. The UN vessels were given breathing room needed to make their escape from the Throneship’s grasp, Hawthorns’ fleet still in pursuit of their targets. Swarms of strike craft would soon launch in the hopes of slowing down their targets, although that may seem futile at this point.

The guns of the three supporting vessels were as pinpoint accurate as those of their larger counterpart, and the counter-battery gave the entire fleet the opening they needed. The strike craft were a valiant gesture, but an ultimately irrelevant one as the fleet began to flee. They did not flee directly towards safety, however, instead they opted to take one the next nearest group of ships.

Grey Wind's strategy became more clear as the fire from the fleet rapidly grew inaccurate and ineffectual as they made distance, at an alarming rate. If they had fled directly towards safety, they would have been left out in the open, easy targets for a myriad of vessels that outranged them. However, if they moved from ship to ship, fleet to fleet, they could fight too closely for supporting vessels on the line to rip them to shreds from afar.

The strategy was quite effective, as the days had gone by, the UN ships were able to initiate several skirmishes with patrolling Janissary vessels on their terms, exchanging fire before they’re able to flee further away from Yulzan Space, and eventually, had found themselves back into No Man’s Land, a region rife with piracy, and roving groups of FRA and Ascendancy warships, the heart of the war between the two.

As the Dreadnought broke into No Man's Land, they began to call out on all frequencies, the gruff voice of the signalmen audible through a wave of interference, "This is the United Nations Frontier Commission diplomatic taskforce under command of the UNFCGSV Dreadnought, requesting immediate assistance. We are under attack by Yulzan military assets. We are low on fuel and munitions and request safe harbor," the signalman paused to wait for a response before they repeated the distress call, as Grey Wind maneuvered the fleet for a standoff.

For a moment, there was only silence on the other end, and soon that silence broken by a cacophony of transmissions replying back, unfortunately, it was uncertain if any or all were friendly. A flotilla of Crusader-class corvettes were within distance of the transmission, and like a hungry wolfpack, they set a course in quick succession to their prey, fueled by furious zealotry. In some other corner, a lone Independence-class Battlecruiser, the FAS Dawn’s Early Light, had also received the Dreadnought’s plea for assistance. “This is Captain Hernandez of the Dawn’s Early Light, we read you and are enroute to your location, stand by for our arrival.”

The fleet turned for a burn to the corvettes, as tight-beams lanced the void, in a desperate search for the receiver of the Dawn's Early Light. Once once crossed the dish, it walked in and the signalman's voice came again, clearer and only to the battlecruiser this time, "UNFCGSV Dreadnought acknowledges, Dawn's Early Light. We are under attack by Yulzan military assets, and are moving to engage. Please render assistance as soon as possible."

As the engines fired once more, they began to burn towards the corvettes, as the three escort vessels flew in wide spirals in front of the Dreadnought. Their point defense guns swiveled, tracking the intercepting corvettes. Though all the vessels were clearly damaged, they seemed unwilling to concede the fight yet.

The corvettes unleashed a volley of torpedoes towards their targets, charging in a scattered formation, all the while scattering shots from their own point defense guns were let loose, preparing for pitched combat. Within proximity of the battle space, the Dawn’s Early Light was on fast approach, battle station alerts sounding off throughout her corridors as they braced for combat.

Machine guns opened up all across the UNFC fleet. At first, they tracked the torpedos exceedingly poorly, the guns firing wide and walked slowly towards the target as though by hand. But when they came into close range, the spread tightened and the guns jerked to their targets. Torpedos began to splash, ripped apart by archaic gunpowder weapons that arced metal through the void.

But then one slammed into the Two for Flinching, right in a battered section of armor that had begun to cave in. With a purple flash, the armor yielded, the first breach of their escape. The torpedo detonated, and an explosion rocked the corvette. Secondary explosions blew out of disparate sections; the ship had been hollowed. It spun violently as the power failed and its thrusters deadened.

The Dreadnought, however, had been saved. It was then the formation became clear; the supporting force had been tasked as shields, absorbing blows for the flagship that otherwise might have crippled their largest and most important asset. With the sacrifice of the Two for Flinching, it had been bought enough time to close the distance, unharmed by the barrage, and open up with its main battery against several corvettes. Meanwhile, its supporting vessels rearranged to intercept other groups that had scattered too far away for the Dreadnought to range.

The ploy had caught the hunters off guard as the Dreadnought unleashed her fury onto them, two corvettes were left limp and wrecked, others damaged, but still barely holding on. The short battle would soon conclude as wings of strike craft joined the fray, Firehawk bombers letting loose their own volleys of missiles and torpedoes on their weakened foes, downing several more corvettes, the remaining two pulling back from the fight once the Dawn’s Early Light was within visual range.

The Dreadnought and its supporting fleet backed off as the Dawn's Early Light took over the fight; their signalmen exchanged flag codes as the tight-beam walked itself back to their savior's vessel, the signalman's voice once more returning, "Dawn's Early Light, we thank you for the assistance. Two for Flinching will be operational shortly, but we request medical teams on standby for triage upon arrival to safe harbor. We are no longer operationally capable, and will be unable to lend assistance against further attacks."

As though brought back to life by mention of its name, the thrusters on the gutted Two for Flinching flared back to life; the vessel looked like a ghost ship, pock-marked with holes and nearly blown in two at the midsection. Fires still raged along the hull, fed by ruptured lines and ammunition that had been slowly cooking off. It limped back into place with the fleet, as it listed to the side, forced to dramatically readjust with its few operational lateral thrusters to maintain course.

“The pleasure’s all ours, Dreadnought.” Captain Hernandez replied. A moment passes before another message is relayed. “Follow us with these coordinates, your people will get all the help needed there.” the UNFC fleet along with its Battlecruiser escort fled the scene before enemy reinforcements could arrive, the closest safe harbor in the FRA’s side of the border was one of the major military staging points, there stood Appleseed Point, an old, but sturdy starbase that withstood all that the war threw at it.



An additional couple of days pass as they finally arrive at Appleseed Point, the station made aware of the new arrivals. Medical teams aboard the station were rushing to designated meeting points, ready to receive any injured personnel from the UNFC vessels. Reports of the new arrivals quickly spread back to Roseau, garnering the special attention from the Chancellor.

Every ship in the fleet had injuries, but none so severe as the Two for Flinching. The vessel, repaired in the interim to a point that permitted docking, had suffered grave casualties. Medical teams found a charnel pit of a vessel; though the ship had survived, half of its crew had perished when the torpedo had struck its citadel and hollowed its interior. Repairs were slapdash, a firm but jury-rigged testament to the damage control capabilities of the crew. The remaining crew fared little better, as many had died in transit in an overloaded sickbay. Those that survived did so in poor condition, and they flooded even Appleseed Point's hospital.

Meanwhile, the Dreadnought disgorged exhausted sailors, armsmen, and terrified diplomatic delegations in equal number. The former, for their part, immediately began churning the rumor mill amongst the station as they recovered from the ordeal. In the bars, hospital, and barracks they spread dozens of different stories of what had happened. From them, a confused consensus had emerged; The Yulzan lured our people onto their throneship, and then ambushed them, and hoped to ambush us. From that spurred pride, and began the boasts, They may have killed the ambassador and his men, they bragged, but they found us a bitter target, and we blew a hole clean through their fancy station. Not only that, but we lived to tell about it.

The many tales shared by the UNFC survivors very much impressed any and all listeners within the station and provided a much-needed morale boost for the soldiers and sailors present, the UNFC fleet’s daring escape proved the Yulzan weren’t invincible, there was even a slip that one of the UNFC soldiers shot at a High Ascendant of all things, ironically enough, many believe that to be the tall tale aspect of their little chronicle. Regardless, this could be the start of a beautiful partnership.

Some time passes, and the Chancellor himself arrives at the station, his arrival causing an even bigger commotion, as the media followed him all the way to the frontlines. He moved with purpose down the halls of the Appleseed, with the main intention of speaking with what’s left of the UNFC’s delegation, flanked by members of his cabinet and a few members of the Republican Guard.

The delegation that arose to meet the Chancellor was, surprisingly, a full team. It seemed the Dreadnought had carried two diplomatic teams; though one was now dead, the second remained. They were all tired, some nursed injuries, and the honor guard were clearly exhausted from days of fighting. Regardless, they backed the ambassador, a lanky, tall man with a goatee and a heavy Russian accent. He held out his hand for the Chancellor, as he commented, "I wish we could have met under better circumstances, sir."

Chancellor Constantine reached out and firmly shook the man’s hand. “Don’t worry, we’re used to this by now.” Constantine said, these unusual means of first contact ironically becoming the usual for the FRA. “I’ve heard reports of your little adventure and quite frankly, if true? I’m damn impressed.”

The Russian offered a thin, weary smile as he straightened his suit, answering, "Thank you, sir. Space is so," he paused, taking a breath as though he had just stepped into fresh air, "clear here, easiest battlefield to fight in most of those men have ever seen, so I've been told." He then reached into his suit jacket's pocket, pulling out a battered VHS tape, "We managed to pull some of the camera footage. If we can get behind closed doors, I'll show you exactly what happened."

Constantine nodded to the Russian. “Of course, of course, lead the way.” He said, motioning the guards to remain where they stood while the Chancellor and the rest of his entourage follow the Ambassador. The Chancellor was also a bit intrigued by the VHS tape, that’s downright ancient technology almost lost to time, although it seems these people have kept the technology alive and well to this point. Before long, the Chancellor and company were led into one of the docked UNFC vessels.

The Dreadnought was no longer the glorious exhibit of wealth it had once been; the stateroom had been damaged in the fighting, marble and silk no match for the rigors of combat. Further, it had clearly been repurposed into both a munitions dump and a barracks for gunnery crews, cots scattered across the floor and shells stocked in corners. The Russian man led them past the shattered stateroom into a conference room across the way.

It seemed to have, at one point, been used as an emergency infirmary. The wood of the table was cracked and there were bloodstains on the carpet. Some IV stands had been left behind, though the stretchers had been moved out. The ambassador handed the tape to a technician, and soon the projector was running and the lights were dimmed.

The scene was one of the demonstration cameras; focused on the product being displayed. However, the Russian man took a cane and tapped at the corner of the projection, where a High Ascendant entered a ring of bodyguards to speak to a woman. He explained, "Here, the High Ascendant enters Akako's ring of bodyguards. It's an unlikely thing; that woman has tens of thousands of people whose sole job is to do her talking for her. I don't know what they were talking about, but that alien didn't seem to like us."

Right as he finished the explanation, the tape exploded into action. There was a bright arc of plasma, the sudden movement of a bodyguard jumping in the way, and the muted ratter of gunfire. The bodyguards fanned out, and the woman could be seen carried away as several SMGs forced the High Ascendant to a bloody kneel. At the same time, Yulzan troops flooded out onto the projection, and they gunned down indiscriminately. The Russian smacked the cane against a heavyset black man who was cowering on the floor, and whom was shortly after shot by several soldiers. He commented, gravely, "My colleague, Ambassador Mandla."

“My condolences…” Constantine said as he observed the footage, stepping forward to get a closer look, this was really something to behold. He would be the first Chancellor in decades to see footage, if only a small portion, of the interior of the Throneship, and the first to witness one of the High Ascendants to be brought to their knees. “My God.” He let slip. “You people were at the heart of the enemy stronghold, and survived.” He turned to face the Russian. “It may not look it but consider yourselves very blessed. We’ve have tried for years to cross over to No Man’s Land, all met with failure.” He paused as the footage cycled through once more. “Although, I am curious, what were you people doing there in the first place?”

The ambassador drew a cigarette, and as he lit it, he commented, bitterly, "We're the United Nations. Means we've always got to get in the middle and mediate, yeah?" He turned back to the projection, then, and watched as it looped once more. His eyes were fixed on Mandla, the huff emerging from him forming the unspoken implication, but look where it got him. He then turned back to the Chancellor, saying, "The idea was we'd make a show of refusing ideological bias by visiting with people least amenable to us first. Mandla would be left there to form an embassy, and I'd be dropped off nice and pretty here."

He peeked back at the ruined stateroom behind him, "Instead, we got a declaration of war. Instead, Mandla is dead. He was one of the best of us. Third in his class at Nahikawa City University. One of the few chumps who actually earned his scholarship, you know?" He pulled the VHS tape, and motioned to the tech as they went to put a new one in, "Was a good friend, was."

The next tape was a composite of various cameras on the Dreadnought. It showed the vessel blasting off the docking port, blowing vast chunks out of the throneship with enormous primitive twentieth-century cannons. It showed the standoff with the Yulzan fleet, and the interception of their munitions. And then, it ended at the fleet fleeing, as the Russian commented, "Were it up to me, we'd have gone down then and there, and took that damned station with us."

“I wouldn’t blame you.” The Chancellor said, all the while being mesmerized with the footage, the Yulzan’s perceived superiority had deep down, had always been a lie. While their technology does outclass humanity by some measure, but as the footage displays, the line is quite narrow. “You would’ve done us a favor had you sunk that beast.” Constantine paused as he turned to face the Ambassador. “But I’m glad you lived to tell the tale. “Once more, I’m sorry about your people, and your friend. You didn’t know of the Yulzan’s treacherous nature, the same thing happened to us decades prior. “He paused once more as he remembered his last days on Columbia, the chaos, the panic, the fighting, it was a nightmare. “I lost a home because of their deception and lies.”

The Chancellor kept viewing the looping footage of chunks of the Throneship being blown to bits, just getting the chance to witness this brought a smile to his face. “Know this, you’re among friends, and that your people will be avenged. This I promise you.”

"Good," the Russian commented, as his tone darkened. He took another drag off the cigarette before he continued, "I'm to stay here and be your liaison, but I'm a diplomat, not a military strategist." As if to continue his point, he waved his hand at another man in the room, who wore a military uniform. On his head, some kind of clunky headset that covered the eyes. He walked over, and held out his hand for the Chancellor.

The Chancellor shook his hand. “A pleasure.” He said, it seems like these people would be sticking around for quite some time, he might do proper introductions. “Forgive my rudeness to all of you, I am Julian Constantine, the currently serving Chancellor of the Free Americanan Republic.” He turns to the two other older men that flanked him the entire time. “This is my Vice Chancellor, Richard Sanders, and my Defense Secretary, Vincent Walton.” The two men nodded their heads.

"I am Dmitry Vasilyev," the ambassador responded, before he waved once more to the man in the military uniform, "and this is the First Officer, Michael Cochrane." The military man spoke next, his voice far gruffer, "Pleased to meet you, Chancellor Constantine. We've been placed in a unique situation here; if you're not aware already, our gate reopening is a recent phenomenon. Our military assets are limited to garrisons and light patrols. Currently we have no concerns about invasion, but our ability to project power is limited at best."

“Ahh, I see, well.” Julian started. “You’ll be very interested to know that we’re not the only remnants of Old Earth out there.” He paused as he took a breather, there was a lot to catch up, but he would have to give the abridged version. “The Gateway phenomenon has been ongoing for the past four years. Gates opening and closing, but we’ve managed to come together to form a galactic community.”

The Vice Chancellor stepped up to assist the Chancellor. “Through our collective efforts, we’ve managed to establish an International meeting place in orbit of Old Earth, the fittingly named “Meeting Place”, you can think of it as your old headquarters back on Old Earth.” Richard paused for a moment. “There, you can establish yourselves in the community, and have a voice for others to hear. We can assist you in that endeavor.”

The Defense Secretary was the last to step up, curious regarding Liaison Vasilyev’s confidence on repealing an invasion. “What makes you think that?” Vincent asked. “If the Yulzan ever manage to discover your location, nothing will stop them from sending a fleet.”

Cochrane was the one to speak up, he answered with an edge that seemed as though the answer should've been obvious, "Well, they may romp around Alaktu for a few days, but, if the malfunctions, ghost ships, exposure, and psychosis don't kill them, the storms will." He further continued, "Their ships are further unoptimized for the kind of combat Eperu demands. Their weapons will malfunction or scatter, they'll be running blind, and when they do see us coming, it'll be far too late to do anything but die."

He made a flourish with his hands, "We wouldn't have to waste any time or resources fighting them, ultimately. The environment will kill them, or they'll kill each other."

“Astounding.” Julian said, intrigued, but at the same time, a little terrified how unpredictable and dangerous the Eperu system can be. “Well, with that concern out of the way. We best make our return to Roseau, we’ll begin preparations to set up a proper Embassy for you and your staff to move in, Mr. Vasilyev. In the meantime, rest, make yourselves comfortable, and heal.”

"Thank you, Chancellor Constantine. At least some part of the mission will be a success," Vasilyev responded, as he snuffed out his cigarette in an ashtray on the table. Cochrane, meanwhile, followed up with, "Once the embassy staff are dropped off, we will require assistance in returning to the gateway. We are not combat-ready."

Julian nodded “Consider it done.” He spoke. “We’ll prepare you a military escort when the time comes.” Following this, he reached his hand out. “I hope this will be the beginning of a fruitful partnership.”

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Timemaster Ashevelendar

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00110001, Homeworld of The One
Gateway, FRA Diplomatic Vessel Revere

A collab between @Sigma and @TimeMaster

The Revere jolted out from the gateway, approaching the eerie-looking world that sat in the void, thick black fog enveloping the entire planet. From the observation, Tristan Marius, the newest diplomatic envoy given the honour to lead the mission to this new world, felt a sense of unease, his military escort, a squad of Republican Guard, were in agreement. “I don’t like this.” One of the Guardsmen commented.

“This place doesn't look natural, not one bit.” Another said.

“I know the appearance may be…unsettling.” Tristan said as he stood up to face his escort. “But looks can be deceiving! And this is our fellow man! We must reach out to them and welcome them to this new galactic community!”

“Regardless, we’ll keep our guard up.” The Squad Sergeant, a young woman by the name of Talia Grinston said. “Last thing we want is a dead envoy.”

“Mmm, uh, yes.” Tristan mumbled, the thought never occurred to him…and now the appearance of the planet frightens him a bit. The old primal fear of the dark, or rather, the fear of what lurks in the darkness. The ship processed forward, a small amount of time passing as the ship pushed through the atmosphere, and it was at that moment that any hopes for a smooth sailing were quickly dashed. As soon as the Revere passed through the thick fog, its systems began to go haywire as shipboard alarms were sounding off. Tristan jolted up from his seat from the shock. “Are we under attack?!?” He yelped in a panic.

Sergeant Grinston shook her head. “Engine failure.” she replied, maintaining her cool. “We’ll help the pilots in an emergency landing.” She motioned the rest of her squad to move out, every hand would be needed to keep the Revere in a good enough shape to actually get them offworld. Turning her attention back to the envoy. “You sit tight and hold onto something.” Tristan simply nodded as he quickly assumed position.

The Revere tumbled downward towards the planet, covered in darkness from the thick fog, with any luck, there was soft enough ground waiting for them, however, they were in for yet another surprise. The ship shot out from the darkness as it was greeted by a massive city, towers reaching as high as they can get, the city itself in a state of ruin. “Sweet Jesus!” One of the pilots exclaimed. “This is gonna be a reeeeal rough landing.”

“Shit!” Grinston cursed as she rushed to the ship intercom. “No time to explain! Brace for heavy impact!” Within moments, the Revere’s forward thrusters blazed to life as the crew tried to soften the landing, although they still were diving too fast, and slide through the alien street corners, sparks lighting up as the ship’s hull screamed and screeched from the descent, momentum would soon die down as the ship finally came to a halt, seemingly stuck in a pitch black, dead city.

It was a normal day for the One. Williams were dying by the millions, Jamess were hunting their undying prey while trying to survive or exploring ancient, long destroyed buildings that were, strangely, absent of bodies. The Grants had a different job, every James group had a Grant "leader" which acted as the memory keeper, they'd collect the implants of the fallen Ones and when they went back, they'd record the memories into the cloning vats for new Ones to have. A constant cycle of death, rebirth and knowledge.

Of course, the One was unaware of their new visitors and the plight that would soon befall them. Obvious of their selfless act that they'll perform. If one can call it like that.

As the Revere approached the planet, the black gas that stopped all the light of the blue giant sun, soon enveloped them. The gas, unbeknownst to the One or anyone else, was called Tenebrium and it was an artificial construct made by the Immortalis aeons ago to protect their planet from the burning sun. It was made out of highly concentrated particles of platinum and a few other elements not found on the periodic table.

Tenebrium was, like most of the Immortalis's technology, made to absorb ambient electricity from the air or anything else that passes through it then pass it onto to the power plants that kept the defences online even after aeons.

Another thing about Tenebrium is that it was extremely dense, dense enough to break many systems on the Revere as it descended if left unprotected. The fact that the first ship of the One managed to even pass through

Two things happened almost at once as the ship crashed. The first thing, closer to them, was the appearance of a few Snatchers from the sky. Making a weird metallic noise and flashing green and red lights which lit up their surroundings briefly before plunging it in darkness once more, they started to make their way towards the Revere. But these wouldn't be the last ones to arrive, soon, more advanced models would. Better armed and heavily armoured.

As the ship pierced through the atmosphere, a cacophony of war cries and signals erupted across the One civilization. Swiftly, a well-coordinated plan was devised. The nearest groups of One sprang into action, their mission clear – to reach the crash site swiftly and, if feasible, rescue the ship's occupants. If not, they were determined to salvage whatever remained of the vessel and return it to the safety of One territory.

An army of hundreds of Jamess, clad in bone-armour and armed with bows, spears, swords, shields, and torches, set off with great urgency. Their hope was to arrive before the robots could exterminate any potential survivors.

The Guardsmens were the first to exit the ship, greeted by the strange flashing drones in the sky. “Scouts maybe?” One of them commented.

“Either way, weapons ready. “Grinston commanded, locking and checking her rifle, the other guardsmen following her lead. She turned to the central entrance of the Revere to one of the pilots. “We’ll need every hand, get yourself and others armed. The pilot nodded as he retreated back into the ship momentarily. Meanwhile the rest of the squad scanned their surroundings, “Flashlights on.” Grinston ordered as she flipped the switch on her rifle. The city was empty, alien, and ancient, no way human hands built this place that’s for sure, nor did it look like Yulzan. In addition to the eerie silence, the city, no, the whole planet was covered in shadow, with very little sources of light of note, other than the flashlights from the guardsmen.

The dead city was quiet for a few moments. No sounds. No lights. It seemed as if time itself stopped. The Snatchers stopped in midair, just hovering above ground scanning the area for biologicals…and biologicals they found in the form of two FRA soldiers which stepped outside the ship and walked a bit further away from the main group. Immediately, weird metallic sounds similar to a hiss could be heard from all over the immediate area.

Two of the Snatchers dived from the sky with a grace that seemed impossible to be achieved for such robots. The moment they "spotted" the first soldier their tentacles lit and stood up as if to catch him in their deadly embrace.

Meanwhile, the One was dealing with their fair share of problems. The first group to arrive in the area was composed of a few thousands One running straight towards the crash site, defly avoiding debris and dead bodies in different stages of decomposition…remnants of an older exploration team.

And they were not alone. Swarmers started to come out from the underground, crawling down the side of buildings and on a few occasions from inside a few of the bodies.

A fight soon followed as they descended upon the One army which retaliated with what they knew best, oil bombs and spears to keep the swarmers away. They went into a circle with the Grants of the group in the middle and proceeded to go forward as many of their own cried in pain and death as the occasional swarmer would maul a James or William to death.

Bombs were thrown scalding the whole area in lights that revealed just how many Swarmers there were. Too many to count. Thousands if not more. An ever danger of exploring the city. Not that it stopped the One. Day after day they sent teams. Day after day…they didn't come back. Occasionally, a Grant would come back with a bunch of implants taken from their dead.

The soldier panicked as he pulled the trigger, his rifle shots echoing through the empty streets as he fired at one of the drones that snatched around his partner. Blood pushing out from the other man’s pours as the robots squeeze the life out of him. The Guardsman was able to dispatch the two drones, but was too late to save his squadmate, the man’s body crushed beyond help. “Fuck man….” He mumbled, before hearing his comm device blared to life. “All teams! Return to the Revere! We got activity in the city!” Grinston ordered. The soldier needn’t ask why, the void that filled the city was empty enough that he could hear the distant sounds of battle waging somewhere, faint echoes of screams, mechanical screeches and explosions, but what direction it came from was his best guess.

Or so it seemed. The Snatcher in fact simply squeezed the soldier a bit before flying away with him for a few seconds while the other Snatcher tried to pursue the soldier that retreated but couldn't reach him in time.

The snatched-soldier soon was put on the ground, their face contorted in what seemed like unimaginable pain as he slowly shuffled back towards his allies. His skin radiating briefly a blue-ish tint. Moaning something. If one would pay attention to him, they could see the dead-look in his eyes, obviously broken arms and the cuts in the uniform and lack of blood pouring from the wounds.

Closer to the Revere multiple things started to happen. Red dots activated above the ship as the soldiers moved themselves into positions and many green dots started to pour out of the buildings, Swarmers. Small spider-like robots roughly 1.2 metres tall that were fast and deadly but with little to no armour.

The One was making good progress as they kept beating the Swarmers back. Arrows with heads made of metal or rocks would occasionally pierce a "soft" spot on them or a spear would punch a hole in them. 'Alas, the One knew very well that this was the start of the onslaught. They won't stop. The Swarmers will come and come and come until everyone was dead.

Grinston placed two fingers over her ear. “Activate the defence turrets, we got company.” Within moments, the Revere’s Point Defense Guns whirled to life, immediately firing upon any target the ship deemed hostile. First contact was already off to a terrible start, the Guardsmen and a few armed pilots formed a makeshift defensive perimeter around the central entry point of the Revere as gun fire illuminated the darkened street corner.``Ha! Takes me back to Mojave!” One of the older guardsmen said, the machine's tactics and attack patterns were not too dissimilar to the Yulzan’s cybernetic attack dogs, the Condemned. “

Stay focused!” Grinston cried out, as she pulled the trigger, letting loose a volley of bullets, not letting go till she exhausted her magazine. “Reloading!” Grinston ducked down as she pulled another mag, however, the situation would escalate as more heavy variants were on fast approach, and did not intend to stop. “Oh shit!” One of the guardsmen cursed. “Scatter!” Within moments, the Swarmer-robots rammed through the barricade, the squad scattered around, the fight erupting into utter chaos of screams and gunfire.

Time seemed to slow down for Grinston as she saw even more machines emerging from the darkness, several of her men and one of the pilots being ripped apart by these mechanical beasts. Cut off from Americana, seemingly stranded on a dead and hostile world infested with killer robots, it seemed hopeless at the moment.

The One army couldn't have chosen a better moment to arrive. From atop of a nearby building a few Williams jumped to their deaths on the streets below as the oil-bombs that were strapped to them all ignited at the same time. The area around the ship almost burst into flames and starting heat.

Jamess soon joined in the fight too as they punched hole after hole in the Swarmers. Arrows, javelins and bombs were being thrown in almost every direction as the One army advanced. At this point, the Swarmers started to pull back. Retreating for minutes before restarting their assault.

The Grants shared a look between themselves and shook their heads. Robots retreating meant only one thing. Something stronger was needed to finish the job. Something deadlier. Far more deadlier.

The Grants stepped forward as the Swarmers and Snatchers retreated, raising their voice loud enough for the FRA to hear them, while the Jamess and Williams quickly setup a perimeter to keep a watch on things.

"Welcome to the Circle of One. Hope you're enjoying your stay soldiers. If you'd like to continue breathing, we suggest you gather your survivors and follow us. The Swarmers only retreat when the big boys are coming, and we'll soon be all dead in very unpleasant ways for you. We're the One and this is our planet. " said the Grants, each saying a different sentence or word of a sentence with perfect synchronisation between each other. As soon as they stopped talking, they removed their helmets that obstructed the view of their faces until now.

“What the hell…?” Grinston muttered to herself at what she saw. It all happened so fast, from the edge of death, to being saved by…an army of identical men clad in what appears to be armour made of bone. Regardless of the strange events, Grinston shook her head as she snapped back to reality, rallying what remained of her squad, the ship crew, and the ambassador himself to follow the strangers out of danger, far from the killer machines.

With a quick whistle, the One army was ready to move. Whatever remained of it. The One seemed impressed by the discipline of the FRA and it reminded them of the militaries of the past. Letting out another whistle, the One army formed up in a circle with the FRA and the Grants in the middle.

"You may call us Grant for ease of talk. We take it you're in charge? These robots are what we've been dealing with everyday for the past 300 something years. They don't play nice as you might've seen. Killed a few billion of us until now. " said one of the Grants while another shouted loudly: "Everyone on the double. If you care about your lives, I suggest you keep up with us and if one of you falls, let them. Don't play hero, you won't survive it. Agreed?" shouted the Grant as they started to move away from the ship.

"They won't care about your ship. We'll send another team to drag it back to our territory later. " quickly added another Grant.

Grinston was lost at the moment; she was still in shock from her current predicament. Giving simple replies to each question, until she registered the “billions” bit, her eyes widened. “Excuse me? Billions?!” She yelped. That certainly wasn’t a casualty number to scoff at.

Tristan walked forward, hoping to speak with his rescuers. “There’s so many questions!” He said, with a hint of excitement, that or the adrenaline from danger and action was still kicking in. “First of all, how did this happen?” He motioned to all the other Grants in the group. “And what were those machines that attacked us? And What is with the fog?”

The Grants chuckled at Grinston's shock and nodded.

"Aye, billions. We've been at this for a long, long time and fighting them without bullets, rockets, tanks and all that made it a bit hard to take them down. It doesn't help that they keep on coming. There's no real way of stopping them unless you kill the area's controller unit and that usually takes hundreds of thousands of us to take it down, loads of planning too. IF...we're lucky. We've attempted to take control of this area for the past 50 years and as you can see, we haven't found the controller unit. "

Another Grant studied Tristan, determining that he wasn't a soldier but something akin to one. Maybe a diplomat of sorts.

"By this you mean us? Cloning machines. Our colony ship was taken down by those spheres you must've passed by when you flew through the Gateway. EMP charge. We weren't prepared for it at all. The ship was damaged and most of our food stores were lost. Nothing can grow in the city besides a mushroom we've found 174 years ago, 11 months, 2 weeks and 5 days ago. Human nature ran its course afterwards. We killed each other, ate each other, fucked each other. Whatever kept us alive, until only One remained. Us. You'd be surprised how long the human body can survive without much food or water if you're stubborn enough not to die. The aliens of this planet made the cloning machines for whatever reason, we're not sure. " replied the Grant before removing from their back what seemed to be a trophy in the shape of a swarmer head, held it out towards Tristan and approached the torch they were carrying. The metal shined under the light, making it seem more terrifying that it actually was.

"These? We call them swarmers. They don't shoot at you but they can break your bones with ease. The other ones that were flying are Snatchers. They take you away, inject your body full of something. Suddenly, all you want is to kill biological creatures. Ain't a nice death, let us tell you that. The pain is everywhere at once. If you mean the robots in general, we've got no clue. Defence system? Experiment gone wrong? Whatever they are, they stay in their zone and kill anything that goes into them. As for the fog...no answers there either. Keeps things dark is all we can say. We haven't seen a sun since we first crashed here. Yourselves? You look well trained, soldiers, and ship. Got any luckier than us?"

The city went silent. Somewhere close, something stirred. Movement. Debris falling. Whatever it was, the quiet wouldn't last much longer.

“Compared to this? We had found paradise.” Tristan replied. “We had found a system with two lush worlds that could serve as the new homes of humanity. We named the sisters Columbia and Roseau. Columbia was our first home for centuries, but we lost Columbia to invading aliens, the Yulzan. They came as refugees, seeking a new home, and we foolishly took them in, only to be stabbed in the back. “Tristan paused, taking a deep breath. “For decades we’ve been at war, fighting for our freedom and for our very survival. The war is at a stalemate.”

"Your aliens are alive and kicking. Nice to hear that we ain't the only ones that are dealing with aliens. Well, technically in our case, we're the aliens. But, we're glad to hear that other humans survived. Are there more colonies? We remember the ads back when Earth was still around. Hundreds of ships. Nations, companies, entrepreneurs...everyone was sending ships out through the Gateways. At least you tried to negoti--" started the Grants to reply before a sharp whistle was let out by one of the outer Jamess before a thum, thum, thum sound could be heard and green energy lit up the area before the James fell on the ground, burnt to a crisp.

"On the double. RUN! We ain't got the numbers to deal with the Immortalis themselves. Group 1 and 2. You'll be remembered." shouted the Grants before a good part of One army broke off from the main group. As the main group ran, they could hear the sounds of fighting, screams and lights being extinguished behind them.

“You heard the man! MOVE!” Grinston shouted out as her group followed the main One group. She had no idea what was chasing, but she and what remained of the FRA group, were sure as hell were not planning to find out. The sound of fighting grew more and more distant as they all fled across the darkened landscape, for the Americanans, it was almost like running blind, thankfully better sets of eyes were guiding them through.

Silence followed for a few minutes and then the shooting from afar began again, 'alas, no human sounds could be heard anymore.

"Group 1 and 2 are dead. They've bought us enough time. " said one of the Grants with a grim expression while pointing at something up, in front of them.

"A few more metres. Prepare to jump forward when we tell you and keep your body low. Can't guarantee you'll live otherwise. " said the Grants as they passed under a bridge that connected two tall buildings between one another.

One step. Two steps. The shooting started to be accurate as more Williams fell down and the occasional FRA soldier. Three steps...

"JUMP!" shouted the Grants as they jumped forward and a loud explosion followed. The bridge stood still for a second before it came crashing down in a burst of dust and debris, closing down the street behind them.

The smoke cleared, all the Americanans present coughing their lungs out from the dust, followed by moans from fall injuries. “This is more than enough excitement I can have in a lifetime…” Tristan said as he got up with the ground, dusting off his clothes. “How much farther till we safe from those things?”

With a laugh, the Grants answered. "Safe? This planet ain't safe, mate. But this should keep them busy until they go around. More than enough time for us to get back to a safe zone. "

Helping out with the wounded, the One carried on and on. The occasional Swarmer or Snatcher would appear but was quickly shot down. Weapons made a massive difference in fighting the robots.

If only...the robots would've been the only danger. If only...After a few turns or going inside a building only to get out on the other side, the lead Grants looked around and shook their heads.

"Shit. This ain't good. We had to make a detour to bring the Immortalis to the bridge and now we're in an area we don't know anything about. Keep your guard up and follow our orders, this ain't gonna be a picnic. "

Shit. One of the Grants stepped forward and looked at the ground.

"None of you move. Stop, stop, STOP. " they shouted as they pointed at a symbol on the ground…dried blood and a skeletron. The symbol was of the wicked, crazy smile of the Joker from old Earth. A favourite character of the One turned into a warning.

"Please tell me that you see what we're seeing. " they said in a scared tone as they pointed forward to a shape that wasn't there before.

The shape in question was a deer made out of green light and it seemed to eat something invisible off the ground. Oblivious of the group staring at it.

“Where did the glowing deer come from…?” One of Americanans asked. The sight of a glowing deer was…something for sure, last everyone recalled, there was no animal life to speak of on this world, especially for an Earth animal that’s been extinct for over three centuries, at least in this part of the galaxy.

“I’m afraid to even ask….” Grinston said, unsettled by the Grants reaction to the anomaly.

The one FRA soldier that stared and asked about the deer took a few steps towards it. As he walked towards the deer, it stopped its grazing and looked straight at him.

Underneath the soldier a hole appeared and he fell into it. As he fell, his greatest fears came to life to attack him, tear him apart and then even as he lost limbs…they appeared back again as he fell into infinity.

At least that's what he saw. From everyone else's perspective, the soldier just dropped to the ground before taking out his handgun and unloading it upon himself.

The FRA group all screamed in utter shock of what had just occurred. Unprepared for the man's sudden suicide. "Jesus chirst!" Grinston cried out.

"Shit. That's what happens if you piss that thing off. It looks like light but it's far from that. We call them altered reality pockets. Only one of us survived them and we've had to put them down. Lost their minds. But what we know, we know from them. They fuck up with your mind but how, we've got no clue. We've been afraid to take the memories of those that were lost. Even the robots avoid them. Shit. If you believe in any gods, start praying to them. Chances are, we'll be dead by the end of the day. " said the lead Grant as the deer suddenly stood up and walked into a wall, disappearing from view.

"We can't go back, the robots will be waiting at the edge. We've got to keep going. Keep close. Don't think. Trust us." said one of the Grants, their tone shook.

The day keeps getting worse and worse, in addition to the various hostile alien technologies that seem hellbent on the death of humans, now there was anomalous entities that drove you to madness to the point of death. This world truly is “hell on earth” for a lack of a better term. “If I survive this…I’m taking a looong vacation…” Grinston said, the planet slowly draining her.

As Grinston thought about being drained, she started feeling weaker. Slowly but surely, she would die and she knew that. The only way she'd be able to survive was to get out of the APR (altered reality pocket). Her skin started to lose color and her face became pale.

Noticing the change in Grinston, one of the Grants turned towards and something between a shout and yell came out of their mouth: "WHAT DID WE SAY? WHAT DID WE SAAAY? STOP. THINKING. It knows what you know. Don't think about what you're afraid of, don't think about your loved ones, don't think of anything that can be used against you. "

As the group started walking forward, the street they were on...changed. It went up, at a 90 degrees angle. Looking around, it seemed that there were no other ways to go but up or where they came from...only that a wall appeared from where they came.

"Shit. Anyone afraid of heights? 'Cause the APR just heard you." seethed one of the Grants.

“Oh dear…oh dear..” Tristan started to panic about the sudden shift of the landscape for a brief moment before he decided to take charge, the sergeant clearly not in any condition to lead. “Y-you heard him! Run and don’t think! For once in your lives, don’t think about anything!” Tristan cried out as the group ran to…whatever direction they could to get the hell away from the APR, scaling up the hill that stood in their way. This truly felt like some bad fever dream.

The group started the climb and at first it went well, until suddenly, the street returned back to its original state. Leaving the group in midair and almost certainly, ready to fall to their deaths.

The FRA group let out frantic screams of terror as they seemingly plunged into their deaths. “I just wanna go home, damn it!!” One of the surviving guardsmen cried out.

Meanwhile…In the real world

The FRA and the One were sitting down on their knees, their eyes blank but with a face of horror. Some, the ones that fell and died, had blood pouring out of their eyes and ears.

A figure atop a building looked at the scene with disgust. The figure was clad in black metallic armour and had some sort of black cannon-like weapon stopped to their back. In their right hand, the figure had a metallic spear while in the left one a bag that seemed to be made out of leather. Their head was fully covered by a helmet made out of a different material than the rest of the armour.

They were spying on the group from the beginning of their fight up until they entered the pocket and they were ignored by the flying Snatchers, Swarmers and what came afterwards.

Deciding to spare the newcomers of the horror that befell them, the figure took a deep breath and jumped from on top of the building, 20 stories down. As they descended, a harpoon was shot from their spear to the side of another other building and then pulled towards it. After a few more graceful movements in the air, the person approached the group and took out something akin to a syringe from the bag.

Locating the first person, Grinston, that wasn't the One that looked more in charge than the others, the figure plunged the syringe in the person's neck and released whatever it was inside. Grinston would wake up in seconds after the syringe's contents entered her blood.

"Use it on others. The puppets can di–" he stopped himself and let out a long breath before continuing "--no, save them too. Even they don't deserve this...haven't earned it. 'Count yourself lucky. You've survived the unsurvivable." said the male voice of the person as he dropped the bag on the floor and then took off by using his harpoon to pull themselves away.

“W-wha?” Was all Grinston could muster at the moment as she awoke from her trance, the absurdity going around her was hard to believe at all. She nodded at the stranger before taking the bag, and administering whatever the hell was in those needles. One by one, each person who awoke helped the sergeant cure the others of their affliction. A moment passes once everyone is brought back from the brink. “I don’t even have words…” Tristan said, plopping himself on the ground, the whole day was a lot for the ambassador.

"And he intervenes again. " said the One as they woke up.

"We'll have time to chat after we get out of here. Whatever was in the syringes might not last for long or it'll kill us all. Anything is possible when it comes to that person. " said the Grants before letting out a whistle and the group started walking again.

As they walked, their torches started to go out, the oil no longer burning as bright as it did. "We're running out of oil but look ahead. Home. " said the Grants before pointing towards what seemed like a portal to hell from where they stood. Amidst the darkness of the city, the One's areas looked out-of-place.

Before they could even get too close, a few whistles could be heard from nearby buildings which were swiftly replied to, by the rest of the group.

A procession of thousands of One, in various states of dressing, some naked, some with very minimal clothing, awaited them as they stepped through the two massive torches that marked the entrance to the One territory.

"Hi boys! We're back and we survived an ARP! "

The sight was still unreal, a city made up of a near countless number of identical men. What remained of the FRA diplomatic mission. Despite the rather traumatic day he just had, Tristan stepped forever, this was pretty much the moment he was brought here for, he certainly had the audience for it now.

“Greetings from the Americana System!” Tristan said to…well everyone it seems, at least those who would listen. “I am Ambassador Tristan Marius, here on behalf of the Free Republic of Americana to greet you all to the new galactic community.” He paused as the realities of the day mounted on him. “I’ve had a long day….and experienced only a small taste of what you people endure on the daily. Know this, I will share what I’ve experienced with my leaders, and I promise you that we will help you in any way we can!”

Slowly, the group of One that was with the FRA was replaced by others as they went to record the memories for next generations. Only one Grant remained behind.

"Welcome to the Circle of One, Ambassador Tristan. We're sorry for the loss of your men, we'll launch an assault on that area in the following days to recover their bodies and your ship. It'll take us a day or two to gather all the required materials to launch an attack on that scale. Gonna have to redirect our forces from the south side to here but that won't be a problem. As you can see, the planet is quite big. We walked for hours and barely crossed one area without dying. " as the lead Grant spoke, Williams came forward with cups made out of carved skulls. Inside, there was a blue-ish drink. James came as well with well cooked meat and mushrooms. While another group brought some tables and chairs.

"The tea is a bit bitter but won't kill you, the mushrooms are nice when cooked. If you wish to eat some of our meat, you're welcome to try. It's...an acquired taste. " said the lead Grant as they took a sip of their tea and took a big bite out of a piece of meat.

"Feel free to ask us any questions now that we're outside of any immediate danger. You're going to spend some time with us, might as well get to know each other. "

As they took their seats, members of the FRA group couldn’t help but salivate at the sight of cooked meat, however, Tristan, Talia, and the rest of the survivors knew better. As recalled previously earlier, there were no animals to speak of on this world, so the meat could’ve only been from one source ... .and the thought terrifies them all to no end. “We’ll just eat the mushrooms and have tea if that’s alright with you. “Tristan said, speaking for the survivors with no objections.

The One group laughed out loud at the obvious rejection of their meat and continued to pass it between one another.

"Don't worry about it, we would've been very surprised if you tasted the meat and enjoyed it. Took us a while until we learned we can't survive on mushrooms alone. " replied one of the Ones.

As the survivors and Grants rested, drank, and ate, one question soon followed. “Were we the first to visit your world? Or have others come?” Tristan asked.

"You're the first and thus the most unlucky yet or if others arrived, we don't have any memories of their arrival. " the lead Grant stopped for a minute and realised they never explained one thing to the FRA.

"Apologies, we just realised it must be weird for you to hear us speaking in multiples and about memories like we do. The cloning machines we're using put something in our brains, an implant. It stores our memories, gives us total access to them. We remember everything that happened to us since the moment we were born. Our mother's breast milk's taste, our father's kind smile. The first alcohol that passed our lips. Our first death...and the billion other deaths that came after. So, while there are many of us, we are One. In life, death and everything in between. "

“Wait so, you have memories that stretch back to the Exodus?” Tristan asked, the shared memory bit certainly caught his attention. “So, you remember everything about Old Earth?” This was quite the opportunity, a chance to get a glimpse into the past, to see Earth as it once was before she was lost to humanity forever, before becoming the lifeless rock she has been now reduced to.

"Aye, that's what we said. We remember the wonders of Earth. You're calling Old Earth, we called it home for a while. About 36 years to be precise. Our colony ship left before Earth went to shit. 'You been there recently? It is still blue or did we destroy whatever was left of it before the last colony ship left? Feel free to ask whatever you want...it's been a while since we talked with someone else that ain't us or that doesn't want to eat us. "

“I’m sorry to say…but Earth Is long gone..” Tristan said in a sombre tone. “She still stands, but is now a lifeless rock compared to what you remember.”

"Expected...tho' it's sad to hear that they managed to destroy it. The companies were fighting non-stop for control over territories. Wars left and right. Earth wasn't as beautiful as you make it, Tristan. With all our technological advances, we still didn't overcome basic human nature. Greed. Trust us, we've been in a good part of the wars. Worked as mercenaries for a while. "

“That’s…. rather unfortunate to hear.” Tristan said, the illusion and myth of a dying, yet serene Earth shattered. Even though Earth was on her dying days, he, and countless others across the galaxy, believed there was still a sense of beauty to this slow death, even as Mankind fought for what little remained, Earth was still that picture perfect world, despite what was being done to her that would eventually lead to total destruction. “Unfortunately, after all this time, we haven’t overcome our darker natures” He paused as he drank some tea. “War being a constant in our collective history.”

"We guess you're not being taught about the bad shit that happened on Earth. Slavery, murder, rapes, deranged dictators...it had it all. We thought that would be gone when we got here. It wasn't gone. For you see...HUNGER does wonders on a person's mind. It will revert you to your basic state. Earth was a child's playground in comparison to what we've seen here." replied the Grant with a mad glint in their eyes as they said "hunger".

Moments later, a James approached from behind and tapped the Grant gently on the shoulder. The Grant stood up and left without saying a word while the James sat down in their place.

"We went to update our memory. Now, you were saying something before about a war with these"Yulzan ". What are they? Humanoid? Robots? Genetic experiments? And their tech. What can it do? You understand, we need to know in case they decide to try their luck with us or if we decide to give you a few hands of help. "

Truth to be told, the One all but decided to assist the newcomers with their alien war. It wasn't a hard choice, strategically, it made sense. They'd gain one or more allies, access to even more alien technology, weapons. It wasn’t as if the One had anything to lose. They'd probably lose a few millions of themselves, it didn't matter in the end. More would be made.

“From what the Yulzan themselves told us themselves during the first contact years.” Tristan began, this was a long one, but he’ll try to abridge it as much as he can. “They’re more machines now than living beings. Committing all matter of genetic and cybernetic augments on themselves to the point they no longer resemble the original Yulzan.” He paused for a drink. “Personally, I feel this to be real tragic thing in a way, what they did to themselves is pretty horrific, they can’t eat properly, all the augments have rendered them infertile, all in the name of long life and "godhood" as they call it.”

The Ones are the tables all stopped and listened closely to the Yulzan. Even if they didn't hear everything, it didn't matter, they'd all have the memories soon enough. When Tristan spole about the history of the Yulzan many of the One shook their heads and nodded from time to time.

"The question is not if it's horrific. The question is, did they have to do it? Did they need to do all that to survive or was it in search of power? What started it and how it ended up are two different things. If they started this pursuit of long life for survival, we understand them but if they wished only for power for the sake of power, they deserve their deaths. " replied some of the Ones at the table before one more stood up from further down "Horrific or not, it doesn't matter. Just look at us. Look where we live. The things we've done and experienced in the name of survival...it would make you hurl. The pain, the deaths, the torture. But you do what you have to do. We don't see it as horrific, just necessary. " they said before sitting down, others nodding around them.

Talia interjected on the technology department. “Regarding their tech, it’s pretty nasty stuff.” Talia said. “I was on the frontlines for a short while before becoming a Guardsmen. They have what you’d imagine aliens like them had: Direct Energy weapons that either slice you clean or burn you to ashes, an army of drones equipped with said weapons, dealing horrific damage to our side. Cloaking tech that is damn near difficult to detect.” She paused as she took a chunk out of a mushroom. “And lastly is their cybernetics and genetic tech, made horrible monsters out of people. Either growing supersoldiers in vats or turning the average joe into a cyborg abomination.”

"Direct Energy weapons. If it wasn't so dark, you would've seen the Immortalis are using them too. Drones, plenty of those around here. Cloaking tech. Meh. The trick in fighting something you don't see is to not see. Use your ears. Learn the movements of your enemy, copy them if you can, use them against them. If not, just listen. As for cybernetics and genetics...we haven't seen any since Earth-time. If they're anything like Earth's tech level, they'll be fun to tackle. We once killed a dude with his own cybernetical arms. The look on his face when we shot them off with AP rounds and then picked the arms up and started punching him with them...that was a fun day. " another One replied as others laughed at the memory.

Talia let out a slight chuckle. “You make it sound like you intend to fight them yourself.” She said with a grin, sipping more tea. “And if you do? Welcome to the club. Suits in the higher levels have been organising a coalition with the other colonies for years, but had to stall a bit due to a nasty affair from elsewhere. Not sure when but looks like we’re gonna strike back soon, we could use more bodies.”

One of the Grants stood up from the table and raised a cup up in the air.

"Ya heard that boys? They're prepping up for another war outside of this hellhole. What say you? On to war again? Want to show those alien blasters what happens when you fuck with the One? Want to steal some tech off 'em and use it to beat the Immortalis's asses? WHO WANTS WAAAAAAR?" shouted the Grant that stood up and almost immediately shouts of approval rang across the area, only to be echoed down throughout the city.

“Well, seems like first contact went swimmingly.” Tristan noted with a smile, although the landing itself was rough, and losses were made, at least the deaths of the brave souls were not in vain. “I’m sure our leaders will be more than happy to know you support our cause from the get-go. Once we return home, I will try my best to encourage peacekeeping operations on your world, it’s only fair we help you in exchange. Once we properly understand the "environmental hazards" that is."

Talia and the few surviving Guardsmen toasted alongside The One, letting out a battle cry. “When the time comes, go give ‘em hell.” Talia said to The One.

"We don't necessarily support your cause. Don't take it the wrong way, but it's for our own survival too. IF these Yulzan are as bad as you make'em, imagine what they'd do with the Immortalis's technology. What we've uncovered is a droplet and that's only due to our limited resources. Now if there would be someone with real resources...and as for your proposal of "peacekeeping", there's no need. We're more than capable of mastering our own world. In exchange for help with your Yulzan, we'll request only material help and a trade. Weapons, armour, building supplies. We'll provide you with our numbers, expertise and data from what we uncovered on Immortalis tech. We trust the price is right."

“A fair trade I would say.” Tristan said, standing up. “Once I return, I’ll speak to my superiors in arranging a supply line, ships will bring you all materials needed to win your own war. And with your guidance and assistance, we’ll arrange offworld transport for your troops.” He paused as he extended his hand. “I look forward to further cooperation with your people. Maybe one day this world will be made a paradise with our help.”

"Very well then. We shall start by apologising. We've lied when we said we need a few days to recover your ship. The plan was to learn as much as we can from you if you proved...unfriendly. That's not the case. You can join us as we take the area from the Immortalis or...stay and enjoy more of our mushrooms and teas. Unfortunately, our alchool ran out ages ago. "

Almost as if on queue, explosions echoed through the city and once more the yellow flames lit up the darkness.

A startled Tristan yelped from the sudden explosions, turning to face the lead Grant. “First of all, I thank you for being up front, as for your offer.” He looked to the other survivors, he could easily tell by their expressions that they were ready to fight to take back the ship from the Immortalis, they certainly had an advantage with the few firearms they had in hand, and the sooner they were offworld, the better. “We’ll join you in the fight. It's the least we can do.”

"Follow us but keep your distance. If we die, nothing changes. If you die, you stay dead. There's only one condition, if we fight a Controller, you run. Run back here or wherever there's one of us but before you do that, you'll have to recover an implant from our brains. We'd be dead anyway. Either the implant or the head works. "

The FRA survivors all nodded in agreement, checking their weapons as they were ready to charge out. The Ambassador handed a pistol just in case. Talia stepped forward as she took command. “Understood, we’ll act as support and let you take the lead.”

"If you don't mind, we'd like the Ambassador to stay behind. We'll offer him a tour of our parts of the city. He'll be perfectly safe. "

“That seems fair.” Tristan said he wasn’t exactly ready to charge out and possibly die. “I’m not much of a fighter anyway, lead on.”

“For security reasons, sir.” Talia began. “Best keep the pistol, just in case.” The Ambassador nodded, hiding the weapon underneath his coat. “

By the time the FRA group arrived bodies of thousands littered the ground. Most were crushed but as the group advanced, the bodies started to be burned to a crisp. While others were cut into pieces, body parts all over the streets. Blood, guts and everything else. But not only that. Carcasses of Swarmers and Snatchers were everywhere.

As they walked, the group collected the weapons from the FRA soldiers they found and promised they'll be back for the bodies but that wasn't the problem. It was the fact that the whole battlefield seemed off, different than usual. Very different, there shouldn't have been this many robots.

"We suggest you get ready. The fighting is closer now. It'll get dangerous fast from here." the One group said as they reloaded their weapons and got their javelins ready.

“Roger that.” Talia said, turning to the rest of the group. “Weapons ready, things about to get hot real fast.” The others nodded, checking their ammo count and some setting safety settings off. “We’re good to go.” The older guardsmen said.

“Alright, we move in slowly, follow the clones, they’re the experts here.” With that said, the squad followed closely with their One allies, ready to confront whatever the Immortalis threw at them.

BOOOM Fllluuusssh BOOOM

Explosions rang all around them as flying Snatchers were brought down by One archers from a building. Even aiming at something in the dark was hard, hitting them was a different thing altogether...yet the One was doing exactly that.

"GET DOWN!" shouted a James at the FRA group as they went in a protective circle around them. With their guns up they started shooting at what seemed to be nothing but then the tell-tale red lights of the Snatchers could be seen.

Arrows flew from the sky soon after from an unknown location. Screams of One dying all around could be heard. The whole area became a war zone and hundreds were dying by the second.

An energy blast hit in the middle of the group and while it didn't kill anyone, they were all pushed by the shockwave that it produced.

The world became blurred and muted, the blast a killer on the ear drums, at least for a brief moment before Talia regains awareness of her surroundings, chaos erupting as gun shots and explosions rang out in the air. A Snatcher diving towards Talia, close enough for her to pull the trigger, downing the machine within moments as she unloaded lead in the thing.

The Snatcher got battered by bullets but it didn't seem to stop it from approaching Talia. Tentacles came out of it and just as they were about to catch her, a Grant pushed Talia away, getting caught themselves in the tentacles.

"Shoot us in the head. " screamed the Grant as they were struggling to keep themselves away from the body of the Snatcher.

In a panic, Talia pulled the trigger, a single bullet hitting the Grant right in the forehead, the body going limp.

Meanwhile, the fighting went on. Swarmers swarmed from every direction pouring out of buildings even as some parts of them would explode from oil bombs and destroyed robots.

But the cause of the energy blast would soon be revealed to the group soon enough. From above the first floor of a nearby building, bodies started to drop. Human at first and then 3 Immortalis themselves.

Immediately they jumped towards the group but didn't make it too far. Spears, swords and a few bullets to the head from both the FRA and the One brought them down.

"Scatter. These guys explode after they die. " shouted a One as they began pulling people away.

The FRA soldiers followed as instructed, and scattered as soon signs of detonation were detected. “Shit! Get clear!” One of the guardsmen cried out as they all jumped away, the Immortalis exploding into a bright flash. Talia rushed to one of the Grants taking cover in nearby rubble. “How much further to the Revere?” She asked one of them.

"We passed by it about 1 km ago. Had to go around. We're planning to piss them off enough until they send out the Controller. When that thing's around...your ship we've assumed it's well armed. It should be able to punch a few holes in it. If not to bring it down, enough to ground it. Once on the ground, we'll take care of it. "" shouted the Grant as they stood up from their covering place to shoot at incoming Swarmers.

Reinforcements soon arrived from the way they came and while it didn't do much, it was enough to allow the group to move and move they did.

"There. That's your ship. " shouted a One as they threw a swarmer on the group and punched a hole through its head.

“Alright people! You know what to do!” Talia shouted out, the FRA soldiers rushing for the Revere, shooting like mad men at incoming swarmers as they advanced towards and eventually entered the ship. “We’re down to a lot of people, so do whatever you can to bring her back up.” The FRA survivors went into frantic work to revive the ship, and to ready her defence systems just in case this “controller” shows up.

"Let us help. Use us. " pleaded the One as the city started to rumble. What seemed to be an earthquake, proved to be anything but that as a 20 meter tall Controller burst out from beneath the ground, leveling a few buildings as it did. The whole area was soon bathed in red light from the Controller's body. Illuminating the extent of the damage. Hundreds of thousands of dead bodies everywhere. Blood, guts and gore.

"That's it. Talia! The head. Put a few holes in it. As many as you've got. If that thing gets fully out of the ground, one ship won't make much a difference. " shouted the last Grant that was with the group.

From the bridge of the ship, Talia stared in awe at what was emerging from the ground. “We’re dealing with giant fucking worms now?!!” She cried out in frustration, she looked down at the command console, frantically searching for that magic button. “Aha! There we go.” She said as she slammed the button, within moments the defence guns emerged from the ship’s hull, all aimed at the Controller’s head. She wanted to say something witty, but the shear stress of the fight had left her speechless. The miniguns whirled up to life and unleashed a volley of bullets upon the serpent’s heads.

"Only a worm when in the ground, Talia. Once it's out, it'll start floating. Flying. We believe these things are meant to be able to go into space if needed. " said the Grant as they watched bullets being shot from the miniguns.

Initially it seemed to go well, only for the Controller to turn around towards the Revere. A fly annoying a giant. Ready to be squished.

"You got its attention now. Aim rockets right as it opens its mouth to swallow us. It has to be close otherwise its armour will protect it. That's how we've taken it down in the past...from inside. " said the Grant as the Controller started to move towards them, killing and destroying everything in its path.

“Got to recognize the armaments.” Talia said as she pressed down a few more buttons, the sole missile tube on the Revere opening up. She was soon in control of the targeting systems, aiming square for the beast’s gapping maw. “Fire!” She shouted, pulling the trigger as a missile jolted out from the ship, heading straight for the beast.

The missile flew in a bright light towards the Controller's mouth and for a second it seemed that it would just move away but it didn't. For once, luck was on their side. It flew right in then...nothing. For a few more seconds, everyone waited with bated breaths for what was about to come.

BOOOOOOOOM


The missile exploded inside and it seemed like multiple things happened at the same time. Snatchers fell from the sky, swarmers stopped moving and started to explode all over the area, bathing it in tiny explosions that could be seen from above quite clearly.

The Controller's light flickered a few times before its head fell too in an awesome display of dust and rubble flying in every direction as it hit the ground.

The Grant grinned at the sight and put a hand on Talia's shoulder. "We thank you for this. The Controller's not dead yet but disabled. Your job is done. The rest of our forces will kill it. We suggest retreating for now, 'lest when it explodes it'll take the ship down with it. " said the Grant as they watched the others making their way towards the Controller. No longer having to fight off swarmers and snatchers, it wouldn't take them long to reach it.

Talia nodded as she connected to the ship intercom. “Hostiles are done, but we gotta bug out. “ She announced. “The big one is not down yet, but if it goes off, there goes our way back home. We gotta get the ship air and space worthy before that happens.” With that said, efforts were doubled as the survivors, along with any One left along to assist, all worked like there was no tomorrow in getting the ship at tip top shape. Miraculously, the ship was barely damaged in the fall, the preemptive emergency landing helped in that regard. Within moments, the ship lifted up towards the sky, making way for The One city.

Just as the ship was above the One city and began its descent, an explosion similar to a nuke went off from behind them. The shockwave brought down even more buildings in its path. It was clear that the One managed to kill the Controller but that everyone in the area was dead now.

"Brace! The thing is dead. The area is ours. Next time you'll be here, Talia, we'll have settled in our new area. Hopefully clean all the bodies too. " said the Grant as they held onto something.

Talia held on to the command console as the ship shook from the shockwave. “With all due respect.” Talia began. “I think I won’t be back for a while. After what I’ve been thinking, I need a break…Although I’ll keep an eye out for you folks when you visit Americana.” The doors of the ship slid open, the boarding ramp lowered as massive crowds of One formed around the vessel, the occupants walking out victorious. Ambassador Marius was among the crowd, forming a wide grin, looks like he was going home after all

"We don't blame you for not wanting to come back but you're buying us a drink or 50 when we visit your planet. " laughed the Grant with a grin on their face. It was a good day. Less losses than usual, less resources spent, new allies. A good day.

The lead Grant stepped out of the ship and raised a fist in the air.

"We've won." they said before going straight towards the ambassador.

"Thank you for the win, Ambassador. Your ship made our lives easier and saved lots of us, it wouldn't have mattered but it's good not to count the dead by the millions. Now, we think it's time for you to go back home but before that...will you allow us to join you? A few of us to replenish your crew and see the world outside of this place. We're prepared to bring some Immortalis artefacts with us to sweeten the deal. "

The Ambassador nodded. “We’ll be more than happy to have you along to help us. “He said. “And I can imagine members of our science community will be very pleased with the artefacts, and if you’re willing, we can bring a few more of you, we will no doubt need to establish an embassy for you for a proper introduction into the galactic community.”

"We don't know if the artefacts have any material worth or if they're dangerous if tampered with but we're sure that after what you've seen here...you're going to let your people know that the Immortalis aren't playing nice. " replied the Grant before turning around and looking at the first groups of survivors coming from the battlefield.

"Aye, we'll send you 20 of us. " they added before putting their hand out for a handshake. Tristan firmly shook the Grants hand. “It was an...interesting visit, and hopefully our peoples can help each other in the future.” He said.





Zone 47 - City Centre


A figure dressed in metallic armour stood atop a massive spire shooting skyward. One of the few that still stood. Snatchers flew around the figure, swarming around it in a flurry of bright blue lights.

The figure raised the weapon they held, a long spear high into the sky and electrical discharges from the Snatchers hit the tip of the spear. The blue lightning swirled around the spear's tip and then with a swift motion of the figure's arm, it hit the ground in an awesome display of electricity.

Then he laughed. Loud and raw. Unhinged.

"I'll find it. Soon. Just a few more. "

Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Timemaster
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Timemaster Ashevelendar

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Prior to the FRA’s arrival
Moments of introspection


Life. What can One say about life? They’ve lived for a very long time. More than it is humanly possible. They’ve seen the good parts of life. Parties, women, alcohol, communities and many other things but they’ve also seen the bad parts.

Death. Betrayal. Starvation. Death. They’ve seen and experienced them all. What do they have now? There were no women alive, the only community they have is their own. Alcohol was something they had, in abundance. A small mercy maybe. The glowy One mushrooms that they found were used in creative ways to produce alcohol using the oil from the robots and ample ice. With their resourcefulness, they lit the oil to generate heat for a distiller. They extracted the sugar from the mushrooms by crushing them and used the melted ice to create a water-sugar solution. Somehow after a few months of trial and error, they’ve managed to create alcohol. It tasted worse than it looked but it did the trick.

There wasn't much free time in the Circle of One. Survival was always the priority, yet the One understood the importance of relaxation. Mental health was, after all, important 'lest One would need to remove themselves from the collective, and their memories permanently lost. In those rare moments of respite, they gathered around the flickering flames of their oily-fueled fire sources, sharing stories of the past, reminiscing about the diverse experiences of their long existence. They found solace in each other, reaffirming their unity in the face of a dead world.

Yet the One knew how to unwind, to cherish the moments that reminded them of their humanity. They engaged in various activities, not as individuals but as a collective entity that relished every emotion and sensation together.

Music was a rare treasure, but the One had found ways to craft instruments from the bones of the Williams, and their collective voices would fill the air with haunting melodies, a harmonious echo of their unity. Long lost and forgotten songs of a long lost civilization.

In the quiet moments of the night, the One would sit together, gazing at the thick black clouds that shrouded their world. They wondered what lies beyond their dead planet, what other mysteries the galaxy held, and what truths awaited them among the stars. Did others survive?

They were the One, a single being existing across countless cloned bodies, living, surviving, and striving. They knew not what the future held, but they faced it together, undying and forever intertwined. For within their mind, the memories and experiences of the entire collective thrived, ensuring that the One would endure, adapt, and survive.

Sometimes they would meditate, they sought to untangle the vast network of memories that they had. Each of the One would align their thoughts, seeking harmony within the collective memories they shared. It was a delicate dance—one that required synchrony and understanding.

The One delved into the depths of their shared experiences, sifting through emotions, traumas, and joys. They embraced the pain of loss, the echoes of laughter, and the warmth of camaraderie. It was a cathartic process, a release of emotional burden that fosters mental resilience.

As they immersed themselves in this internal realm, the boundaries that separated one clone from another blurred. They transcend the limitations of individuality, embracing the truth that they are both many and one.

Hidden 5 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Enigmatik
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Enigmatik Overly-Caffienated Thembie Supreme

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The Birth of a Company

A collab between @Enigmatik and @Eldritch Puppy
Feaaturing Coronel Martillo


Kamenymir’s capital had a new addition to its streets and boulevards. At first it had just been one or two new people showing up, slighter and shorter than the usual towering fellows out and about. Then, slowly, day by day, week by week, more people started to move in. Where once there had been a couple, now entire families started to settle in, and as they did, the buildings around them began to change with them. Clustered around a space elevator station in Novyras, the area now known as Little Esperanza or if you were so inclined, Esperanzita, had come to be.

It was a bright, overly sunny day as the man known by the GRA as Coronel Larenzo Javier Martillo stepped outside and looked around. Back home he would be considered powerfully built- tall, with visible muscle, and the first few flecks of grey creeping into his hair and beard. Here, he felt dwarfed for the first time in his life.

Still, he had business to conduct, and it wouldn’t do to look weak to what he sincerely hoped would be his new business partners.This whole voyage had been a huge gamble- he didn’t have the authorisation or the influence to get away with the level of diplomacy he was about to conduct, and if this fell through he’d be lucky if he ever got a relevant command again. No matter: there was little time or reason to think about failure.

The Gran Republic had never been a nation particularly interested in mercenaries. It was too top-down for that, too well controlled by the Senate and by the patricians that populated that institution. Under any other circumstance, his little gambit here would have been casually dismissed without a second thought, but this wasn’t usual circumstances. New Terra still smouldered from the destruction levied on it from above, and across the galaxy nations uneasily eyed each other up, each one reaching out to try and forge another piece of this new order.

And Martillo had never been one to let an opportunity slide by him. Reaching into a pocket, he drew out a set of bulky, gold-framed aviator sunglasses, then set them carefully down over his eyes, now flecked with purple. The ‘Hekate serum,’ he had been informed up in orbit. A permanent change to one’s eye colour, in exchange for immunity from Kamenymir’s strange radiation. He had elected to go for the lite version- he had no particular desire to bulk out of his wardrobe.

Pressing the sunglasses up so they sat more comfortably, he tugged out at the collar of a wool-lined leather trench coat, underneath which sat a faintly shimmering, well-fitted brocade shirt. Beneath that was a g-suit that had originally been invented for Azulvistan pilots , but served well enough to keep Martillo’s organs pumping in the heavier gravity of the planet he now found himself on.

He checked his watch, freshly updated for Kamenymir’s strange timezones and day-cycle, and nodded once. Time to make the meeting that could make or break him.

A few dozen meters away from the station’s exit, the passenger door of an expensive-looking black car with tinted windows opened as Gregor Rayk Mayer stepped out. The founder of Strigoi Global Security, a successful, notably heavily equipped and organized in a military fashion private security firm, looked like the image of Kamenyan businessmen at first glance.

Standing near the Kamenyan average at 2.6 meters tall, and wearing a deep blue suit with a black tie, his face was clean-shaved and remarkably square-shaped, with thick lips and a protruding jaw. Aside from his mundane clothes however, Mayer had his brown hair cut short, the kind of buzzcut more typical of active duty soldiers than of CEOs and stock market traders. Rings of solid gold and silver adorned five of his fingers; three on his left hand, two on the right.

He closed the car door and walked towards Martillo. He smiled widely, and spoke in English with the typical heavy Kamenyan accent. “Mister Martillo, I presume?” He sounded jovial, with a deep husky voice. “Or should I call you colonel?”

Larenzo turned, then craned his neck up to attempt to look the man in the eyes. Once again, he was struck with a sense of not measuring up, before crushing it down. “I’m not in uniform, so Señor Martillo it’ll have to be.” His English was flowery and accented, a far cry from the harsher tones of Gregor. “But yes. I’m here from Azulvista because I think we have a real opportunity on our hands that I wouldn’t want to let slip.” Finally, he offered his hand forward.

“I do not wear the uniform anymore. Some of my men still call me ‘colonel’, though.” He took Larenzo’s hand and shook it firmly, although he did refrain from engaging in a little game of squeezing too hard. “I am Gregor Rayk Mayer. A pleasure to meet you, Señor Martillo.” He released his hand’s grip. “Be welcome to Kamenymir. Now, it wouldn’t do to discuss such things standing in the streets, with a dry throat to boot. I know a good café nearby, my treat. You can tell me if it’s as good as it is on Azulvista, eh?”

The lack of posturing surprised Larenzo a little… But then again, their size and weight difference would likely make it a pointless affair anyway. They knew who was physically stronger here, but this wasn’t about that now, was it? His research on the Strigoi firm told him they cared more about power born from money than they did any physical might.

“Likewise to meet you, Gregor. From some of what I saw up in orbit, I have high hopes for what my countrymen are brewing here. Do you smoke? I brought a small gift.”

“I do. Nebula leaf, that is. Although I have heard about this tobacco thing that some of the other colonies retained from Earth. I’ve read it was quite widespread back when the old planet was still alive and well.”

“Nebula leaf? Hmm. My research doesn’t seem to have brought that up. Incomplete information and all that.” He smirked a little, then reached into his overcoat’s inner pocket to draw out a cylinder only a tad larger than the Kamenyan’s thick fingers. “It’s sized for us, but considering you’ve never smoked before, perhaps that’s for the best.” A quick twist to take the lid off, before he shook out the cigar, taking the time to clip the end before handing it over.

“Not to be fully inhaled,” he informed Gregor. “Keep the smoke in your mouth - it’s for tasting, not sucking.”

Gregor took the cigar with his thumb and index finger, examining it for a few seconds. “Interesting. So you smoke the leaves like that, just dried? I’ll have to get you something in exchange as thanks.” He slid the cigar in his chest pocket. “I’ll save this for a good occasion.”

“Indeed. Hand harvested, sun-dried” Larenzo waved a hand. “Don’t worry about paying it back. That’s why we’re here, no? Hopefully by the end of this little meeting there’ll be a good occasion to light it.”He grinned a little, even as he had to double-time it to keep up with the bulkier man.

“I’ll tell you plain, if you don’t mind the launch into straight business. I have a lot of boys and girls back home, fresh from New Terra or Boot, fire in their eyes, guns in their hands, and nobody to shoot them at. The way I see it, we have a product. We just need to ship it to the right market.”

Gregor chuckled. “I like what you’re saying, Señor Martillo. Most of my current workforce came from the demobilisation of the Uhlans, like I did. The Constitution forbids conscripts from serving in the army in peace time, you see. But a lot of them found that they quite liked the life of a soldier, so now they work for me. Not quite the same thing… Yet.” He sighed, shaking his head.

“Two hundred years of peace. And now that this generation finally gets a taste of the glories of war, it’s been taken from them so quickly after a measly few years of conflict. It’s almost cruel, don’t you think?”

“I’m glad to see we have similar thoughts… And it’s unlikely that our nations are the only ones to be experiencing such a… ‘problem.’ So, here’s my suggestion:” He paused for a moment to straighten his shirt before continuing.

“Your Strigoi are already a functioning mercenary company. We can call them the ‘proof of concept,’ if you will, a sign to investors that our business model works. I have connections within the Republican Army. High connections. A few favours called in, an arm or two twisted, and I can secure us a significant amount of startup capital. Enough to say… Set ourselves up somewhere nice and prominent on Sol, and take your operation from one planet to the entire galaxy.”

“Sol?” He smirked, an eyebrow raised quizzically. “I do hope that your friends are in as high places as you say. The Sol system is subject to… ambiguous legislation, it is true. But that is a blade that cuts both ways.” The two of them walked past a large public park planted with a grove of trees with big, iridescent leaves. Loud buzzing came from that direction as dozens of bee-like creatures the size of a large house cat with multicolored bioluminescent fur frolicked in the canopy, occasionally coming down to play with the children below who were giving them fruit bars. “But if your plan works… Yes, that would put us in a good position. I take it you wish to be partners then?”

“Why not?” Larenzo returned the smirk. “Any system claimed by one nation would draw accusations of favouritism, and as you’ve accurately assessed, there’s no consensus at the moment on who controls what there. So long as we frame ourselves as a neutral third party, there shouldn’t be an issue” He paused for a moment to examine the flora and fauna, although any astonishment that might have been going through his mind certainly didn’t make it to his face.

“Indeed,” he continued, turning back towards Gregor. “Separately, neither of us are even on the board. Together? We can be one of the players above it.” Another few strides to catch up to the goliath-sized Kamenyan.

Mayer chuckled, before letting out a burst of laughter, giving Martillo a none too gentle pat on the back. “You’ve got some balls, Señor Martillo. I like that! Consider me interested in your little scheme. But for now, let’s get ourselves something to drink. We’ll go over the details later on, yes?” The large man smiled with a toothy grin fit for a wild predator.

“They call them cojones where I’m from. But let’s wet our lips - I’m curious to see what you have here.”

---


The Fate of a Desert

Featuring Crown Prince Raaid Ghani al-Karim, Aisha and Ögedei Khagn.


“Tracking four ships, one seems heavily damaged.” The tiny hub that was Azulvista’s defence grid aboard the Meeting Place had suddenly become a swarm of activity. For the majority of its life it had been nothing more than a glorified traffic camera - watching those who came in and out of the Gateway. It didn’t even have offensive weapons, and the few point-defence guns it had would be useless to reach out to the vessels that had suddenly spilled through the wormhole.

“Can we get a response team out there now? If that message is accurate we have a huge opportunity on our hands.”

“Negative. They’d have to come from our side of the Gateway, and that ship doesn’t have that kind of time to waste.”

“Mierda. What are our options the-”

A new voice cut across the frequencies, run through a distorting translator that did nothing to relieve the guttural viciousness of its tone.

“This is the Bai-Ülgen vessel of the Great Khagn of the Steppes and Sky. You have entered the Sol system, and we do not approve of this violence.”

A long pause hung in the air as the crew of the Meeting Place stared at each other.

“Shit… That’s a lot of Khagnate ships…”

“Where the fuck are they coming from? How did we not have them tracked?”

“Someone trace their fucking flight paths right goddamn now, how did we-”

“The asteroid belt. They’re in the fucking asteroid belt.”

“But that’s around Mars? How in the fuck are they planning on getting to Luna orbit that quick?”

“I don’t think they need to. Flagship’s right here.”

“Joda! Right, you.” The officer jabbed a finger out. “Don’t let these saindsdamned Khagnate ships out of our sight. I have no idea how they squirrelled a fucking armada out there and I don’t want another surprise like that. Check under every fucking rock out there if you have to, comprende?

“Si, señor,” came the grumbling response.”

---


If it wasn’t for the EVA suits that had been included in the shuttle Raaid had stolen, he’d be dead. They were losing atmosphere from three different places in the hull, had lost half of their thrusters, limiting their movement to precisely two directions, neither of which were helping them stabilise their trajectory, and they had somersaulted so many times that it was a miracle his dinner had stayed down.

But they were seemingly safe. After… The Great Khagn? Had signalled their vessel, and a whole suite of new IDs had begun to flash up on the fritzing rangefinder, the three Caliphate vessels that had been so eagerly snapping at his heels had peeled back, hanging next to the Gateway.

Aisha turned to look at the prince, confusion plain on her face even through the semi-reflective visor of her suit.

“Are we safe? What’s happening?”

“We’re in Sol, it seems. Home. And others got here first.”

The voice returned, sputtering out through the comms console.

“Crown Prince Raaid, the Great Khagn has extended his beneficious hand towards you, sovereign to sovereign. He invites you aboard the Bai-Ülgen to take tea, and welcome you to Sol.”

Raaid opened his mouth and was about to reply, when another voice - this one untranslated, its Arabic clearly rusty, came through.

“Ahem… This is translator Candelaria Barbosa, speaking on behalf of the Gran Republic of Azulvista. We would also like to welcome you, your royal highness. If the Khagn would permit, we would also like to send a representative to meet you.”

There was another long pause, and this time Raaid stayed quiet. There was already politics going on, and while normally such a thing would excite him, he was smart enough to recognise that right now he was the pawn in the negotiations, not the queen.

“The Great Khagn has vouched for your Republic, Candelaria. You are permitted aboard the Bai-Ülgen.”

“Many thanks, your Majesty.”

Finally, Raaid spoke. “Your offer is most gracious, and we will of course come aboard your vessel. Unfortunately however, we have lost control over our vehicle, and are una-”

“That will not be an issue.”

---


Aisha wasn’t sure what she expected when she had heard they’d be taken aboard by the ‘Great Khagn,’ but this certainly wasn’t it. A massive starship - bigger than even the mightiest ones used by the Caliphate as propaganda coups, had cruised towards them, then unceremoniously pointed some sort of device at their broken vessel and reeled it in.. They’d made contact with a juddering clank, and less than five minutes later, a small swarm of people, all fitted for the void they’d found themselves in, were clustering around the vessel.

She and the prince were both ushered out one of the gaping holes in the hull, then pushed and pulled through microgravity towards a cable that had been shot between the damaged shuttle and an airlock some distance above them.

“Quite the welcoming party, isn’t it?” Raaid’s voice came through their internal comms bright and clear.

“Are we sure this is a good idea? Sure, they scared off the Nizam’s goons, but…”

“Do you have a better suggestion? We could stay in the ship until we run out of air in our suits, if you’d prefer?”

She bit her tongue. This entire thing stank to high heaven, but the prince was right - they weren’t in a position to turn down any help, no matter how bizarre or concerningly offered it was.

As she pulled herself along the length of the cable, she took the opportunity to turn back and stare at the craft. She wasn’t sure what she had expected these strange folk to do, but even so she hadn’t expected to see the plumes of plasma cutters as they ate away at the hull, nor sparks flying from the internal engineering as besuited spacers set to work.

“They don’t look like they’re fixing it…”

“They can have the damn thing if they’re taking us aboard”

“Prince, with all due respect, that’s our only way to get around here, with-”

“Aisha, it goes down and left, and that’s it. It wasn’t getting us anywhere anyway. It did its duty, it did it well, and if these Khagnate fellows want to see how it ticks, they’re more than welcome to it.”

“I like this even less…”

“Concerns noted and filed away for later.” Or, to put it in a way that wasn’t distinctly Raaid-ish, she was being ignored.

“On our heads be it.” She sighed.

As someone who had never had to move around in zero-gravity, she felt distinctly disadvantaged as she slowly crawled along the cable. Around her, their rescuers zipped around, either assisting each other or using movement suites - something she was seriously wishing her suit had right now.

“Odd to see people who seem at home in space, no?”

“They seem way too used to this, yes.”

“You fret too much. We’re not dealing with Al-Sahra any more Aisha, these people are probably very different to us.”

“That’s exactly why I’m fretting.”

The prince chuckled, but finally the pair had arrived by the airlock, two more besuited individuals reaching across the gap to tug them in. Once they were both firmly situated inside the cramped space, one of the figures slammed a button and the blast doors crashed shut, vapour pouring in from the sides of the room.

Three long, silent minutes later, and the first individual removed their helmet, showing themselves to be a swarthy, short-haired man, who promptly genuflected and gestured towards the other door.

The prince removed his own helmet, then beamed at the man. “Thank you very kindly. I assume you-” The man’s blank expression told both the Dinnin that he had no clue what the prince was saying.

“To the airlock it is. Out that suit Aisha, it won’t be helping us here.” The prince busied himself with shedding the reinforced over-layer of the suit, and Aisha reluctantly followed suit, until the two were left in the thin, heat-positive jumpsuits that they had stuffed themselves into.

With that done, the door swung open, and immediately Aisha reached for the weapon she no longer had. Five walking behemoths, each one seven or eight feet tall and carrying weapons that looked like they weighed more than she herself did, all clad in bulky armour and only one without a sealed helmet. The last of them, slightly shorter than the others, had his under his arm, and was accompanied by a woman that he absolutely dwarfed in size and stature, wearing a peculiar device over her mouth and nose.

“Greetings, Crown Prince. These are the Khagn’s Kheshigs, led by Commander Temürdai. We are here to escort you to the Khagn himself.”

The prince let out a low whistle. “God rest the souls of those we left behind but… If we had five of these fellows, perhaps everyone’d have made it to the ship…”

Aisha gulped a little. These were the Khagn’s soldiers? When combined with the massive vessel they had been unceremoniously yanked onto, she was starting to feel like the Dinnin were a tiny fish in what had just become a very, very large pond.

“If I may ask.” The Prince was currently having to wedge himself between two of the airlock walls to keep himself stable in zero-g. “How on Earth are they all standing upright in this?”

“Their armour contains magnets for just this occasion. Now please, there are more important matters. The Khagn has laid out the ‘Red Carpet,’ for you, and the Azulvistan delegation will be arriving shortly. Do you require aid to move around?”

“That would be wonderful, thank you.” The prince nodded several times, finally letting himself float when Temürdai reached out a hand, then promptly tugged him forward, through the crowd of Keshigs, and then practically launched him across the corridor. Bracing herself, Aisha also reached out, then felt her stomach churn again as the huge man sent her too flying along the hallway. The translator simply kicked off from one of the walls and shot along behind them, while the five soldiers turned together and began to march in lockstep behind them.

Several more weightless manouvres later, and they had finally reached what the translator helpfully described as the “inner sanctum,” and the pair of Dinnin found themselves suddenly under the effect of gravity once more.

The kheshigs escorted the pair through a set of massive blast doors that groaned as their gatekeepers hauled them open, and finally the group were through to the Khagn’s own court. Aside from the bullish figures of kheshigs and the rather downplayed appearance of the man himself, the rest of the court was stuffed with a myriad of different faces. Women and men, wearing everything from a thin gauze to shamanic robes had stopped what they were doing, curious eyes watching these two newcomers to the galactic scene step forward.

Raaid let out a low whistle at the sight. “Just think Aisha. Once upon a time, the arcology houses would have looked just like this. Hells, maybe they might even come to look like it again.”

His bodyguard let out a quiet grumble, but even she couldn’t hide how impressed she was.

For his part, the Khagn let out a wide smile, spread his arms wide, and in a cheery tone began to talk, the translator quickly filtering it through.

“He says that you are honoured and welcome guests, offers you sanctuary, and offers to treat you and your companion as befitting royal status.”

Raaid blinked a few times. He had to admit - he’d have thought that convincing people he was, actually royalty might have taken some time, but here it seemed none of that suspicion had come through. No looking a gift horse in the mouth though. He offered a slight bow - he was a prince, and thus below a king, but only slightly. No deep prostration here.

“Many thanks, Khagn, for your swift action and welcome hospitality. I had not thought such kindness and generosity would be so easily found through the Gateway - there is perilously little for me back home.”

The translator paused for a moment as the Khagn processed Raaid’s words, then resumed his translation. “The Khagn bids you to think little of it. This is sacred ground - those who would profane it not just with blood, but that of royalty, should thank themselves that we merely frightened them off. He says that even though he is eager to hear your tale, he wishes for you to wait until the third delegation arrives, so you may save your breath. In the meantime, do you drink?”

A smile slowly spread across Raaid’s face. “You’d be surprised how long I’ve waited for someone to ask me that.”




Slaughter over the Sands

A long overdue collab between @Lady Lascivious and @Enigmatik


Transports screamed through the sky, and the small train of warriors paused, gazing up at it. “Quivers out!” Barked the lead warrior, and almost immediately the procession halted themselves, vaulting off bikes, dismounting from horses, and scampering out of buggies. Missile launchers were pulled from their moorings and set into place, the convoy forming a loose circle just in case others had had the same idea.

The foremost warrior unfolded a long, telescoping device and aimed it at the trails of smoke and vapour in the sky. A tiny display winked into life on the device, and the quivers automatically turned themselves, locked on to new targets.On the horizon, the specks that were their marks soared merrily along, ignorant to the danger, yet majestic in their movements.

This would not continue for long. The horses huffed angrily, and the engines idled, the quivers of high explosives bristling in the blistering sun. “Shoot,” the lead warrior ordered, and with a single chop of his hand the quivers were emptied. The rush and whir of missile engines engaging filled the air, the small plumes of smoke barely noticeable against the pale sands of the Steppe. As they hurtled into the sky, their primitive robotic minds were fixated only on the transports above them. This was their purpose.

Before they had even hit their mark, the warriors were moving. The tubes were hefted up and tossed over mounts, engines revving and horses snorting as they were kicked into action, clouds of dust kicked up in their wake as they moved to pursue the same targets the missiles now wung towards.

It was a small warband, not even a full clan’s worth of power. Really, it was just a raiding party that had seen an opportunity and taken it. Several buggies roared beside a single small-rig, boosted speakers blasting out the deep, melodic, and throaty wartunes that so often accompanied violence on the Steppe. The leader, clambering back onto the small-rig unfurled a warbanner, horsehairs angrily fluttering in the wind, and a small host of bikes and horses rallied around it, heavily augmented beasts managing to keep pace with their mechanical counterparts in a startling display of raw force.

The three aircraft in the formation were mothballed transport models from well over eighty years prior, kept in storage awaiting decommission. The opening of the Gateways had prompted a slew of interest from groups of Ishtari interested in procuring them for foreign adventurism. The allure of Khagnate archaeotech in particular prompted the creation of many a group seeking to pillage the remnants of yet another ancient civilization to bring back home to the commonality. Though these models lacked extensive weapons suits, armour, or more than basic defensive measures even for their time, they were nevertheless cheaply afforded.

Within the cockpit of the lead craft of the formation, the pilot kept her eyes trained on the horizon. Nothing but sand and rocks as far as the eye could see, interspersed with the remnants of bygone battles and crumbled civilizations, picked over by human carrion and left to gently rust away in the desert. The monotony of the desert was almost dangerous in and of itself, even speeding along it towards the promised coordinates as they were. They were making good time - but even so, she’d had to hit the stimulant drip more than once during the transition. The girls in the back had the luxury of waiting for a drop to the ground. Up here? Her eyes had to be peeled, constantly, for any sign of danger. And yet as she scanned the horizon she saw nothing once more. Her bored expression mirrored that of the copilot.

The monotony was quickly shattered as the old craft’s missile warning system called out at her. Reacting on well honed instinct, she disabled the autopilot with a simple nervous impulse, pulling the antiquated joystick control sharply as she began evasive maneuvers. Her copilot reacted just as quickly, activating the decoy flares. A series of muffled shouts and shrieks met her from the rear of the craft. “Contact!” She yelled out, “Buckle in!”

The second craft was not so fortunate, a missile slamming into one of its engines and erupting in a fireball that sent the stricken aircraft slowly careening into the ground, coming to a screeching crash landing. She winced as she watched its crew hastily evacuating from the wreckage, already brandishing weapons or dragging the wounded clear of the flames. The third aircraft fared little better, a missile tearing a chunk out of the fuselage and dangerously near the reactor. It had little time left in the air, but even as they began to lose altitude its pilots relayed to her location the rockets had been fired from.

The side door opened as the door gunner took up her position, taking aim at the enemy position and letting loose a burst from the E60. Those on the ground joined in, directing every ounce of firepower they had at their disposal towards the enemy.

She yelled back to her crew, “We’re putting you down! Ceratis! Keep their heads down! Anything pointing a launcher at us dies!”

The sounds of engines and hoofbeats were nothing in comparison to the music now blasting out across the Steppe. It shook the earth, drowning out the noises of the engines and the screeches of dying machines… And the sounds of mortars being fired. One of the buggies had fallen back a little, internal stabilisers allowing the crew to begin dropping indirect fire all around the vague vicinity of the downed crafts.Even as it slowed though, its fellows sped up, and now, barely audible over the guttural singing was the whoops and howls of the steppefolk as they tore their way towards the Ishtari.

The smallrig’s huge frame slowly began to turn, turrets atop the cumbersome construction’s beetle-like shell whirring to face the enemy position. The explosive rounds of the E60 thrummed through the air, bursting and raining shrapnel down upon the advancing warriors. One bike spun out, the rider thrown clean into the air, smashing down into a sand dune. As they tried to recover, limbs wobbling, the rest of the raiding party pressed onwards, disregarding their first casualty. Now, the smallrig’s turrets had found their range, cannon shots returning the displeasure of the steppefolk.

The bikes and horses began to peel apart from each other, each one clearly serving a separate role in this battle. The bikes wheeled about, throwing up a wall of dust as their tyres spun, then gripped the sand. From the back of the bikes weapons were aimed, and as the cavalrymen revealed long, bulb-tipped lances, a host of arrows, grenades and bullets were sent hurtling through the air towards the Ishtari. A few missed entirely, but many more did not, rattling off the vehicles or bursting into billowing smoke.

More Ishtari took up cover positions near the crashed aircraft, neurolinks slotted in and weapons calibrated, they began unleashing a withering hail of fire on the enemy in disciplined bursts. A power armored Gorgon Strain pulled herself from the rubble and, hefting the two E60s from the downed aircraft, positioned herself as the center of the impromptu defensive line. More of the GPMGs joined the fray as the passengers from the undamaged transport, and the ones from the wounded craft took up their positions, 26mm rocket propelled armor piercing explosive and airburst fragementation rounds hurtling downrange towards the onrushing steppefolk. Of course, it wasn’t as if they needed to pierce armour or explode- these were not the heavily armoured foes these weapons were designed for, but nonetheless steppefolk fell as explosions rocked the sandy plain.

The pilot of the remaining transport radioed in to the mothership in orbit. “Ryu, Washite 1, ambushed by war party of steppefolk, Washite 2 and Washite 3 down, request immediate reinforcement, I say again we require immediate reinforcement, over. ”

“Washite 1, Ryu, acknowledged. Sit tight, we’re sending the gunship. How long do you think you can hold out? Over.”

“Washite 1, we’re down two out of three and we’re taking heavy fire. Get here as fast as you can. We’re doing our best. Over.”

The pilot redoubled her efforts, pulling her craft to face the enemy as her second door gunner swung out and began directing her own stream of heavy shells towards the oncoming enemy.

On the ground, a Tiamat Strain hefted another piece of surplus equipment - a shoulder mounted launcher, taking aim at the largest of the enemy war machines. This was what they had trained for, albeit only for a short time. The gunner waited for the lock on, and cheered as she pulled the trigger, watching as the missile streaked towards its target. The crack of .50 caliber smart-rockets breaking the sound barrier was muffled by the explosion as the rig was engulfed in flame. A second later, an explosive tipped arrow struck its operator, blowing a crater in her chest and sending her sprawling backward where she was dragged into cover by another.

Despite the size and seemingly cumbersome nature of the smallrig, it was clear that taking it down would not be as easy as the Ishtari had perhaps hoped. The missile fired, streaking through into the air, then cracked against the carapace of the rig, engulfing it for a brief moment in flames and force. The rig rocked unsteadily, the front cabin threatening to jackknife the vehicle, but then, with a blast of its horn and gouts of flames and smoke from its exhaust the vehicle steadied itself. Smoke trickled from the turret that had been directly struck by the missile, but the others steadfastly continued to fire, one even adjusting itself up and pounding fire at the transport that was still airborne, hoping to force it into a landing.

Now however, the cavalrymen had vanished. The smoke and dust kicked up by the steppefolk concealed them to the eye, and the pounding music, explosions and the whoops and howls of the tribal warriors all around the Ishtari made the distinctive hoofbeats of the troops impossible to make out.

Then, from a cloud of white smoke just behind the most damaged aircraft, they emerged. Six steppefolk, lances lowered, mounts whinnying, burst from the concealment and aimed themselves towards the firing line. A volley of explosions went up as their demolition lances made contact, the horsemen desperately wheeling away to avoid return fire… Apart from one. Despite having struck an Ishtari clean on with the lance, the tip had not detonated, and, instead of leaving her a smouldering corpse, he galloped through the line of bullets and smoke, only to find that impaled on the end of his weapon was a still very much alive foe.

The impaled Tiamat Strain bared her teeth at him as she clawed for the rider, instinct wearing off after a second as she pulled herself further down his lance toward him, clawing for a bulky sidearm holstered on her thigh. She freed it and fired off a half dozen heavy caliber rounds into his chest and toward another rider in the distance, the explosive rounds detonating inside their targets with devastating force.

Unfortunately for the tiamat strain, this might not have been the smartest idea. As the shells exploded the rider’s arm went limp, their lance drooping down until they were dashed into the sand. Although unpleasant, this would not have been fatal to her… Unless, of course, the steed that the late warrior had been riding on galloped over her, its colossal hooves smashing down first onto her ribcage and then her skull, the force of the tremendous beast every bit as potent as a man-made weapon.

As if to ensure that she was out of the battle, another rider whose lance had blown itself as intended had drawn a bow, and as she galloped past the Ishtari she loosed an arrow with an instinct drawn from decades of practice. The arrow burrowed its way into the Ishtari soldier, and then, in a final moment of revenge for her fallen brethren, the horsewoman pivoted her steed, yet another set of hooves crashing down onto the unfortunate Ishtari. A moment later, the lance’s explosive tip finally detonated.

Elsewhere, the battle still raged. Several of the steppefolk bikers had peeled off from their harrying tactics and now tore towards the firing line. As the rider of one kept their mount steady, their passenger rose to his feet, holding out a ramshackle and boxy-looking construction with one hand.

With a howl, he activated the archeotech, and a bright beam of black light burst out, streaking towards the Ishtari line.

The beam struck an unfortunate Tiamat Strain square in the chest, her surplus armour of little use against the archaeotech beam as it, seemingly, bored a hole through her chest, her body and armour crumbling into dust as it was atomized by the blast. Instantly in return, the man was struck by a dozen rounds of various calibers, great gaping holes torn from his body as a hail of fire threw him from the bike. The rider, to avoid a similar fate, tipped the entire vehicle up, sending a plume of sand and dirt into the air to provide them with a smokescreen. By the time it cleared, the bike had already begun its retreat, the rider throwing themselves violently from left to right in order to avoid any more retaliatory fire.

“The actual fuck?!” An Ishtari yelled as she hunkered down to reload, eyes wide at the burnt remnants of a former comrade. “The fuck they get that kind of weapon?!” She slammed a fresh magazine into her gun and dropped it, the sling catching it, and threw herself onto another onrushing buggy. She pulled out her sidearm and a knife, plunging the blade into the skull of the first steppefolk and firing off a trio of bullets into the other.

The combatants were treated to the sight of an untrained Ishtari wrestling with the controls to the buggy, two dead steppefolk being thrown from it as she veered wildly off course, nearly slamming into another buggy as she tossed them a crazed salute, taking aim with a grenade and hurling it into the buggy’s driver’s seat, and peeling off towards the largest war rig with a mad cackle.

Hefting her rifle in hand, she waited the split second for the software to pick out targets, and pulled the trigger. In seconds the weapon’s magazine was empty and she was slamming another one in, her hands working on autopilot as dozens of explosive rounds slammed into the rig and its occupants.

She would regret being so careless with her ammunition. No sooner had she finished her barrage before a figure pulled themself up through the smouldering scrap that had been a turret on the small-rig, hurling herself across the gap between the two vehicles, a spear held overhead. She slammed into the Ishtari, the weapon punching clean through the tiamat strain’s natural armour, her weight causing the entire buggy to lift precariously off two of its wheels. The Ishtari retaliated, hurling the steppewoman back with almost as much force, sending her careening backwards and into one of the decorative spikes that adorned the sides of the buggy.

The changes in momentum was too much for the still-moving buggie to handle. Uncontrollably veering off to one side, it held course for but a second before it lifted off the ground too far, scrap metal flying off at odd directions from the crash. Blood seeped through the steppewoman’s teeth as she offered the Ishtari a final grin which her foe reciprocated in kind, the buggie managing another full roll before her grenades detonated.The concussive force set off the buggie’s ammunition cache, which, in turn, caused the hydrogen fuel tanks of the vehicle to also explode, the entire construct coming to a burning, smouldering end, shrouded in the dust its last manoeuvre had kicked up.

Her comrades hefted their rifles and cheered her display. Many of them yelled out “Banzai!”, one of the few untainted holdovers from the old earth languages that persisted within her own as they redoubled their counteroffensive against the Steppe attackers. Another, however, shook her head as she sheltered behind a burning hunk of scrap metal to reload, instead calling out, “Mediocre, Iuvetis!” before hurling a large grenade towards the enemy, the explosion generating a large noxious cloud of brown mist that ate at the flesh and lungs of anything it touched. Surplus weapons dug up from decades ago, but still appallingly deadly even now.

As the battle intensified further, the Ishtari counted down the minutes until air support was due to arrive. Outnumbered, surrounded, and with their ammunition reserves rapidly dwindling in the face of far greater numbers than they had prepared for, the situation grew increasingly desperate.

“How much longer we gotta hold these fuckers off?” An Akkoro Strain yelled to a comrade as she slammed a fresh magazine into her gun, firing off a burst of the explosive rounds into the chest of a charging Steppesman. Several more bullets pinged off the metal around her, one of them slamming into her armor and forcing her back into cover as she wheezed for breath.

“About seven minutes according to comms.” Her partner shouted back, pulling spare magazines from the headless body slumped next to her. “We might wanna prep self-destruct just in case because I’m not sure we can hold off that long.”

There was a brief pause in the battle, although the shells from the mortar vehicles in the back continued to fall, pounding the Ishtari and preventing them from gaining too much breath back. Even the small-rig’s guns stopped for a moment. The battlefield quietened.

The leading cannon on the small rig turned to the air and fired a single shell. It lanced upwards, then burst apart, a streak of bright orange smoke staining the sky. The pair of guns remaining turned to the three aircraft and resumed their barrage, except these shells didn’t detonate on contact- instead, wherever they contacted, thick, choking grey smoke sprung up, obscuring the vision of the defenders.

The meaning of the smoke was almost immediately apparent to the embattled Ishtari. “Regroup! Regroup! They’re going to charge! Don’t get cut off!” Called one of them, pulling a wounded comrade into the cover offered by one of the downed craft. The injured soldier, seemingly unphased by his lack of a leg or the intestines that could be seen dangling from his ruptured abdomen, continued to hold his rifle in anticipation of assault. The Ishtari were well prepared for battles in which quarter was neither expected nor offered, and they readied themselves as such, regrouping for a better defensive position for a final stand. Detonation charges were slapped onto the munitions too heavy to drag towards the craft they’d hold out at, deadman’s switches synced as a backup in case they were killed before they could destroy the craft and their payloads.

Every Ishtari carried a melee weapon of some sort. Some had them as natural parts of their bodies. Some carried swords, large knives, or axes on their persons in addition to their kit, but all were proficient in their use. Whatever charge the steppefolk had in mind they would find their quarry willing to fight to the last. A final radio message was sent out to the incoming aircraft that there was a likelihood they would find no survivors, and to drop whatever ordnance they had on the site and bug out.

The pounding music from the small-rig cut out. The only sound on the battlefield was the whistling of covering shells as they plummeted all around the Ishtari, and a faint, almost indistinct whine from somewhere outside the ring of smoke they were surrounded by. Then, building up slowly, was a low, indistinct, guttural noise, harsh and powerful.

It rose up in volume, the whining sound growing closer, the two sounds overlapping each other, both growing in intensity.

The smoke above them was ripped apart as skimmer-craft soared overhead. They were here and gone in a moment, but hurling themselves off from the sides, plummeting down, were steppefolk warriors. As they descended, the indistinct cry suddenly took on a more definitive tone, dozens of voices screaming out a single word together.

UUKHAI!


The Steppefolk burst from the smoke, spears, axes and blades held out before them, a few ripping off gunshots towards anything they saw that looked like it was twitching. An unfortunate Tiamat strain found herself practically leapt on by a warrior, a knife big enough and long enough to be called a sword flashing down as it struck the fish-folk’s neck, before coming down again and again and again, blood staining the sands as the blade punctured the armored membrane.

The Tiamat Strain in question bared rows of razor pointed teeth, dragging out a large knife of her own from a sheath strapped to her thigh and lunging at her attacker. She sank her teeth into the first soft flesh she could find, tearing away bloodied chunks from what rapidly became the remnants of a face. Raising her blade she plunged her knife into the steppefolk’s back over and over again, both combatants heedless of whether they lived or died as they savaged each other with the brutality of feral beasts.

The Ishtari, seeing the writing on the wall, pressed the self-destructs on two of the three downed craft, excepting the one they now sheltered by. Powerful shockwaves tore apart the air as fireballs erupted from these munitions, and the Ishtari pressed the counterattack. Those who lacked ammunition hefted melee weapons or even carried explosives on their persons as the remaining defenders sallied into the onrushing Steppefolk. Those too injured to run continued to pour gunfire into the oncoming steppefolk. The Ishtari warcry, preserved through their trials aboard the Ark, rose in defiance of the Steppefolk’s own as the doomed defenders launched their final suicide attack, gunning down or stabbing to death every Steppefolk they could see.

BANZAI!


Some charged into groups of enemies clutching armfulls of explosives, detonating them and wiping their bodies and those around them from existence. Others displayed tremendous prowess with the swords they carried, fighting ferociously until overwhelmed or gunned down. Others emptied the last of their remaining ammunition into the enemy before pulling out knives and swords and joining the doomed attack. The power armored gorgon strain, finally, burned through the last of her ammunition as the 26mm explosive rounds tore apart Steppefolk, the guns clattering empty as she disconnected their neural links and tossed them aside, drawing two sidearms and two primed explosives as she too joined the charge.

The sides crashed together in a last explosion of violence - one that was over almost as quickly as it had started. There was little time to revel in the victory though - the steppefolk had the rest of their clan to join up with, and the sheer number of explosives the Ishtari had deployed had rendered most of the battlefield naught but scrap and rubble. They salvaged what little they could and pressed on, the Ishtari air support only serving to pound the sand into even finer fragments.

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"What happened?"

"Grav sensor arrays picked up an anomaly outside the belt. Around the K4-Sol L4 Lagrange point."

"The Origin Point?"

"The exact same. Literally, initial readings and analysis suggest the same fluctuations from the Origin."

"The Gateway is reopening, then?"

"Correct. If everyone would direct their attention to the viewscreens now… thank you, you will see a comparison of new and old starmaps from the Stargazers. As you can see… it's distorted towards the indicated Origin as the Gateway opens… oh! Well, right now. Fortunately the Beholder-7 station was closest and oriented on it as soon as the anomaly appeared, so we were able to gather a decent recording of the Gateway Event.

"But now… We need to figure out how to break this to the public. They'll figure it out within the hour so we need to get ahead of this fast if we want to control the narrative."

"Understood."

"Confirmed.

"Our people's work, potentially destroyed by happenstance. This is going to be a mess."

"After we finally hit equilibrium too. Exposed to the diaspora."

"You are all too concerned with the equilibrium. Opportunities await, brothers and sisters."

"So does catastrophe, Maerker."

- - -


The Confederate League of Kallan


Across the Kallan Sol System, decades old infrastructure rumbled to life.

Satellites and stations in orbit flickered as their lights slowly blinked on as their nuclear hearts woke from hibernation. Artificial brains slowly woke, digital intelligences who agreed to rest with their home until needed finally waking up and scanning millions of lines, hundreds of reports, thousands of detectors.

It had been thirty years since the last warship was produced, her shipyard waking from hibernation.

The active signals from the gas giants Kallan V and Kallan VI began to increase, redundant infrastructure coming online but in standby mode.

The Q-Com Hub Station flickered on the rest of its floors, five rings of light turning to seven, eight, ten, eleven, as it was brought up to full capacity, invisibly chattering with every station in the system. Maintenance requests were entered, orders were placed, queries answered, latest ballgame updates dispersed, memes posted, and conversation began.

The system-wide alert even reached so far as the structures buried deep in the ice and mountains of Kallan VII, where researchers glanced at each other in shock over the gravitonic anomaly they were looking at, supercomputers beneath their feet keeping them warm while it tried to boil supercritical watercooler. Old DASS and VI that had fallen asleep a century ago stretched their code and rejoined the wake to pour over the data with their peers.

The system's military fleets, research, logistics, and infrastructure finally awoke, the paranoia of the last century perhaps, finally, paying off despite the system's peace.

Ships gathered in high planetary orbit, meeting with orbital stations sporting miles of warehousing, among their thousand other purposes. Warships clad in sweeping sheets of pitted, rough, yellow-red-stained lusterless silver hyperdense armor were rearmed with the latest missiles, mechanical men the size of a shuttle marching over their surfaces as they replaced sensor blisters and gunmounts with the latest versions.

Diagnostics were run as cargo was secured. Crew ran to their duty stations, hearts pounding in their chests, unknowing of the cheering and fervor from the planet below as countless millions cheer at their screens, watching the League prepare to rediscover Earth, hearts in their throats and butterflies in their bellies.

The fleet finally assembled.

A missile cruiser, with a bandolier of disposable missile pods wrapped around its widest section. It bristled with point defense, laser and rail, even more missile ports dotting its armor seams.

Two light cruisers, their leading point a shell to protect the shaft of a particle beam cannon. Bulbs on its flat armor sprouted laser turrets.

Two destroyers, sporting heavier point defense of both rail and laser. Both, wrapped around a high velocity, small calibre railgun.

Each cruiser embarked by three DASS-only Corvettes, larger than any fighter or bomber but more nimble than any destroyer or larger.

Within their pack, a fleet supply ship, a large research cruiser- an unarmored, noncombat ship- with her two flanking expeditionary support cruisers, packed full of scanners and special equipment. Even a miner, one per expeditionary ship.

Among the fleet of a dozen civilian marked ships, one was a mobile station just waiting to be installed at a lagrange point or in planetary orbit, and another carrying a full load of seeds, genes, printers, fabricators, and equipment, perfect for any colony… just in case the Gateway closes again.

One among their number, carrying supplies both marketable and usable for colonizing like every other hauler in the fleet, ran diagnostics on her hidden sensor arrays, her DASS crew doublechecking lines and cables, the most modern ship of the League's roster ensuring she blended in and brought no suspicion to herself as she stealthily scanned her neighboring ships and doublechecking their readings from available info.

The most active, experienced warship in the fleet, just another sheep in the flock.

Eighty three hours after the Gateway was first detected, the fleet was underway to Sol System. Another, stronger military fleet followed, to send them off to…

The Cradle.

Its Gateway guarded by a second fleet, just… in… case.

- - -


"We're being lit! Activating active sensors on your word, Captain."

"Go for active scans."

"Go for active, confirmed.

"Scanners coming back, getting returns… from… by the Mother."

"Button it up, we all see it. Prep a message torpedo for the blockade to receive on the other side."

"Contacts! There's a significant cluster in H-E-O. Lightsource identified. Picking up a high volume of debris as well."

"Tactical confirms, logging as UnCon 1."

"Analyst?"

"Aye sir. At a glance, there's more debris than should be in orbit. Contact cluster is using different sensors generations, I'd guess that the Gate's monitored by other returning humans. Planet is dead, radiation is still untenable."

"...Outstanding. Tactical, load data and snap analysis to the torpedo and send it back."

"Aye sir. Transcript loaded. DASS 23?"

"Data loaded, Tactical."

"Confirmed. Torpedo prepped, green diagnostics. Torpedo launch… its made translation."

"Fantastic work. 23?"

"Standing by, Captain."

"Plot new lagrange points, relative Earth to contact cluster."

"Task complete, logging now."

"Many thanks. Navigation, plot a course to Earth to CC Lagrange 5. Helm, bring us around and trait the CC. Tactical and 23-"

"New contacts, midsystem. Logging as UnFor 1."

"Confirmed, Tactical. Tactical and 23, standby drones. Load sensor package."

"Drones standby, diagnostics green. Package loaded."

"Launch drones."

"Aye, drones launched. Shadowing fleet. Enabling multifaceted sensor reading."

"Alright, Communications, light the IFFs and activate Broadcast 3."

"IFFs, aye. Broadcast 3, aye."

"New contacts, we're seeing significant activity further in the system. Fleet, but they're showing up brighter than UnFor 1. Designating UnFor 2."

"Confirmed. See anything else, 23?"

"Not as of yet, Captain."

"Okay. Filing report, forwarding to CIC. Drop another torpedo, update the League."

- - -


IFF reads:
LSFS Cruiser Hardheaded
"The Confederate League of Kallan Star System greets all Terran diaspora. We come to support the Mother, and reconnect with our lost brothers and sisters. Felicitatum hominum."
LSFS Cruiser Palladium Punch
"Felicitatum hominum."
LSFS Cruiser Homegrown
"Felicitatum hominum."
LSFS Destroyer Backwards
"Felicitatum hominum."
LSFS Destroyer Pinhole
"Felicitatum hominum."
LSFS Res-Vessel Event Horizon [NONCOM]
"The Mother truly is destroyed. The League weeps! We will not let this disgrace stand."
LSFS Expeditionary Schrodinger's Bastard [NONCOM]
"The universe is at our fingertips like never before. Felicitatum hominum."
LSFS Expeditionary Rescue Ignorance [NONCOM]
"Perseverance, humanity's enlightenment is our purpose. Felicitatum hominum."
LSFS Fleet Support Überdonke [NONCOM]
"Felicitatum hominum."
LCS Mobile Station Ship Kallan Gateway Standardbearer [NONCOM]
"The League declares itself; we are here to stay and support the Cradle. Felicitatum hominum."
LCS Hauler Nuclear-Powered [NONCOM]
"Inventory for sale. Fissiles, fuels, coolant, and more."
LCS Hauler Roger Weekend [NONCOM]
"Survival and residential supplier available."
LCS Hauler Rock and Stone [NONCOM]
"Cosplay a dwarf. Mine anything with our stock."
LCS Hauler Stoned and Rocking [NONCOM]
"Ignore the other guy. We've got the fun stuff."
LCS Hauler Pioneer Original [NONCOM]
"Manufacturing and Engineering inventory available. Starship components and engrams available."
LCS Hauler Prime Rib [NONCOM]
"Cold storage! Quality meals served! Highest quality on Kallan II! General goods and supplies available."
LCS Hauler Ottaurus Rex [NONCOM]
"The fruits of our extraterrestrial culture, exchange available."
LCS Hauler Love, Mom [NONCOM]
"top it this is a priority IFF bro-"
LCS Hauler Belethor [NONCOM]
"Goods, consumables, everything's for sale."
LCS Hauler Sinthetic Cruiser [NONCOM]
"Pleasure cruiser, experience supplier. Your dreams are our trade."
LCS Hauler Brick [NONCOM]
"Supplies and stuff. It's stuff."
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Eventua

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A collaboration with @Enigmatik, in...

The Great Black Sky, The Gateway Above the Steppe

Featuring Orda Khan and Shepherd

Orda Khan stared out at the Gateway swirling before his flagship, a look of deep contemplation on his face. Around him, the various functionaries that kept his court and vessel running bustled around, house guards watching the madcap display almost as impassively as their lord was, the only other oasis of calm in the room being the colourfully-dressed shaman, their sonorous drumbeats broadcast out across the entirety of the ship.

“The fortunes are good, Khan. The stars show that a wise course of action lies before us. We have Uzay’s blessing to proceed.” His beaded headdress faintly clicked with every quirk of their head, the man’s eyes flicking rapidly between the various constellations still faintly visible despite the Gateway’s light.

“Do we have a course plotted?” Orda turned to the helmsmen of the vessel, who simply shook his head.

“The Great Khagn did not issue an explicit edict of exploration. We have many choices.”

“And what do you see? Does Uzay enlighten you as to a path?” The Khagn turned back to the Shaman, who took a few sombre steps forward to examine the crude display before the helmsman.

The curiously-dressed man stared at the options before him, continuing to strike the drum along to a beat that only he could hear. Then, he swayed forward with a nod. “That one. There.”

The helmsman nodded once, turning to the Khan for approval. “So says Uzay. Who are we to deny Their will?”

The course was set. They required only the strength to follow it.

Striding to the front of his vessel, Orda pressed his lips against the bulky broadcaster, then spoke the commands clearly. “Prepare to pass through Uzay’s embrace. All hands ready for transit.”




The great outer asteroid belt was not unlike many other asteroid fields, of course – scattered and remote rocks of various sizes and compositions, in a lazy, lonely dance across the void of time and the vacuum of space.

While at its fringes lingered the Gateway of Easifa, it was, frankly, a strange beast. The Children of Gaia had spent centuries constructing and refining their greatest temple-garden in its vicinity and in recent months the flow of traffic had steadily increased (primarily outwards), but the truth is that much of the space around it saw little in the way of protection or border controls; for Orda Khan the requirements for peaceful passage were… nothing, essentially. A simple 'thank you' with well wishes to the Children of Gaia, and a promise not to harm them or their temple-garden.

The Khan of course was almost entirely ignorant of this fact. The disparate nature of the Hordes meant that what the Khagn knew was not often efficiently passed to his subordinates, and besides- they had had centuries of being able to claim celestial bodies as their own. What lay in the Great Black Sky was theirs- so long as they had the wherewithal to reach out and take it.

And, speaking of reaching out and taking it, they needed an initial foothold. Somewhere they could establish a small örtöö, to grow into a real refuelling and resupply station. Conveniently, there was a suitably sized asteroid within reach of their grasping fingers.

“I expect every ship to know their duty. Drink deep of the waters Uzay provides. We are blessed.” Orda Khan gave an approving nod to the rest of his court. All was well.




The Easifa System – Outer Asteroid Field, Gateway Region

Danger took many forms. Sometimes danger was a rogue asteroid. Sometimes it was the steel ghosts. Sometimes it was a fault in your water recycling systems…

…and Shepherd hated to admit it, of course, but sometimes it was the new guy.

"If you blow this recitation one more time, Mav, I'm going to blow a gasket."

"In a good-"

"No, not in a good way!"

"...sorry. Please repeat it for me, please?"

She sighed, nursing the headache that had been gradually forming over the past hour. Unfortunately, the paracetamol tea she had been drinking was at its limits and Mint had been very clear to her the prescribed dose was one cup every four hours and not one moment sooner.

She looked into Mav's slightly wonky eyes and took a short, deep breath.

"If we overcharge the copper oxide, then we’ll be taken on a deadly ride."

Mav bit his lower lip, his single remaining incisor leaving a conspicuous gap.

"...if, uh…"

Shepherd knew her forehead was popping a vein and she'd stopped caring.

"...it, uh… I'm sorry! I, it's just-"

"What, Mav?! You're thirty years old and you can't memorise a simple recitation? They told me you were a feckless moron but, by the ghosts, I…!"

She couldn't look into his dejected, whimpering face any longer and pushed herself out of the chair.

"Don't touch anything - if the warning light starts blinking red, just wake me up. I need some kind of sleep."

Eat, drink, sleep. The three most crucial acts of a spacer, besides from their work; if she was going to have to spend the rest of her life with him, the best thing she could start doing was take control of her body's needs.

Eat – the hydroponics was a floor down, where Mint was busy checking the potatoes and trying not to look like she had been listening intently to Shepherd's disastrous attempt at teaching what were supposed to be childhood technical skills to a grown man.

"... Good potatoes?" she asked the young gaian woman, whose green algae-infused skin and narrow features made her look more like some kind of fae creature than a human being.

"...oh! Uh, yes, haha."

As Mint sniffed one empathetically, Shepherd just sighed and picked up one of the carrots in the "freshly washed" tray. Raw carrots weren't her favourite but they were, in theory, food. She considered printing a mycelium sheet from the box on the wall, but honestly the idea of eating even a crumb more of it made her sick.

With an audible 'bleh' she made her way to the washroom.

Drink – the washroom taps weren't being used right now: in theory the recycling system was meant to be 100% efficient, but in practice there was always some loss, and for that reason they had to carefully ration what they had until they next located an icy comet - a miracle that demanded prayer. Throwing out a quick one in apology, she hit the switch to give herself just enough water to take a few sips, then sat down at the shower's dry floor.

Why'd you do it, Eli?

How long had it been, now? Half an orbit? Twelve weeks? Thirteen? To spend so long without feeling his hand in hers, or to feel his lips against her cheek.

A mistake, of course. Just a mistake. But mistakes always came at a cost – often in more ways than one.

Sleep – It wasn't comfortable, of course, nor practical, but as she sat in that empty washroom her mind began to wander. To ancestral pastures from pictures long faded, to the quiet drifting in the void, to times spent haggling at the sunport markets on the third habitat…

"Um, uh… Shepherd," echoed a voice through the ship.

Ignore him, he might not exist.

"Shepherd, dear?"

Oh he did NOT-

"Excuse me?!" she screamed, tiredness replaced with pure rage.

It almost felt like the ship was shaking, as she marched herself back up to the cockpit. His rubbery face contorted in a way that left her sick.

"Well, uh, so-"

"Mav, we had a rule. An agreement."

"Well, yes, but-"

"It settles a debt, Mav. A debt! Not even a debt to you! You have the emotional and physical desirability of a rock, Mav!"

"Oh. Well, that's… hurtful, but, I-"

"Oh, it's hurtful, Mav?!"

There was another shake, and this time it was definitely not just in Shepherd's head. The whole ship lurched, followed by the sound of the other two crew mates dashing to their stations.

"...It, uh, there's a warning ligh-"

"Yes I can see that, Mav! Strap yourself in and don't hit any buttons!"

The reflexes kicked in like lightning, tiredness dimming as she took her seat and plugged in her adrenal IV. Hopefully it wouldn't be needed, but the collision was sharp and there was the distant sound of something echoing through the walls, as if tapping against the stone.

The steel ghosts? she wondered, then corrected herself. They were less gradual, less polite. And besides, the Yahsud Alnaar was far from here; its’ annual migratory orbit had already passed on.

Asmovund were more likely, and they were tricky to reason with. So that being the case…

She hurriedly hummed a tune as she hit a switch or three in time to the sound of it, and with a mumbled prayer she engaged the ion thrusters.

With a great crash the ship lurched forward, as if out of the grasp of something, and sped into the deeper asteroid belt.




Orda leaned forward, a frown wrinkling his brow. From his decades of experience in witnessing asteroids, they had never once shown a sense of self-preservation. Yet, here it was, a set of thrusters having burst to life, and the rock changing its orbit in an attempt to escape the onrushing Khagnate vessels.

A more superstitious man might have seen this as a bad omen from Uzay- a sign that their actions here were deeply offensive to the universe, but Orda Khan was not a particularly superstitious man. Instead, despite the Shaman letting out a yelp, he instead chopped his hand towards the vessel’s communications officer. Hurriedly, a translator was rushed up from the blastproof archeology quarters, and a line was opened up directed at the vessel.

The words would boom out across the Lost Lillian’s comms unit. First, harsh guttural and unintelligible, and then changed into something that sounded oddly like a crude text-to-speech function. “Halt! You have the honour and fortune to have fallen under the gaze of the leader of the White Horde, the blessed Orda Khan! He has promised you safety and has sworn his honour in providing all obligations of hospitality should you come aboard his vessel.”




I knew this would happen! thought Dannyel, wrestling with the radio as a light flared to reveal they were receiving a transmission.

He hadn't, of course, this whole course of events was proving wildly unpredictable. But he had known this voyage had to be cursed; to come back to his father's gravebelt with this unloved debt marriage?

At last the signal snapped into place – a voice, human but unintelligible, then shifting, altering…

…an invitation? From who?

With the flick of a switch the message was played over the speakers.

A few moments of uncertainty, followed by a very certain, "Alright! Everybody to the cockpit!"

"We're already here, mum!" Sarah's voice replied, and in another few moments the five of them were stood around the cramped compartment.




There was a wait – too long, almost insultingly long.

Then at last, in one of the languages Orda Khan had broadcasted in, a reply was received. Crackling and fuzzy, the signal obviously produced by a fairly weak transmitter – a woman's voice with a strong accent reflective of Old Earth's Iran, and the sense of a woman with authority and determination. The signal was weak, but whoever this was certainly wasn't.

"Safe journeys and peace to you and your horde, Orda Khan. My name is Shepherd, captain and matriarch of the Lost Lillian. Your offer is very kind, but I would ask that your… horde, please stop trying to take apart mine."

There was a brief pause over the line, the faint audio of people speaking in that same guttural language crackling over. Then, the translator spoke again. “You have my word, as Khan of the White Horde, that no harm will come to your vessel or its inhabitants. My flagship will be approaching shortly. I warmly encourage you to come aboard.”

Another wait, another click.

"I accept your invitation, then."




Shepherd hadn't been sure what to expect, exactly, as the lights of the foreign vessel easily dwarfed the home she and Eli had built for themselves.

As the docking systems engaged and the great ship latched on, she carefully stepped into her hazard sleeve – a patchwork combination of hazmat suit and body armour – and took one last solid breath of the homecycled oxygen she was used to.

Stepping into the airlock, she gave a cautious smile and a wave to her kids and Mint, and pointedly did not acknowledge Mav at all. Turning to Dannyel, she gave him a nod. He knew what to do if they didn’t hear from her in a couple of hours.

“See all of you soon,” she said through her helmet radio, “in this life or the next.”




The airlock door hissed open, and she was met with quite the sight.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a cramped, zero-g spaceship airlock, and yet here managed to stand two men, wearing heavy suits of armour and carrying shortened spears, flanking an intricately-dressed man, a peculiar looking contraption strapped over his mouth, cross-legged and floating in the centre of the corridor.

“Hail,” the figure declared. “Orda Khan awaits.”

Shepherd was starting to regret not getting her helmet tinted years ago, because the sight was baffling. As she drifted slowly towards the cross-legged… the word escaped her. A merchant, perhaps? Arjuani habitat merchants were the only people she knew of who could wear clothes like that.

Quickly trying to correct herself from being too visibly confused, she raised both arms, palms spread out in a greeting.

“Hail to you and your… guards… as well. Peace from the Lost Lillian and her crew, and… yes, please. It is an honour to be welcomed by Orda Khan.”

“These are the mighty Khan’s houseguards. They ensure the security and safety of not only this vessel, but the cohesion of the entire horde.” The official’s arm swept out wide, gesturing to the two men beside them, then twisted himself around, one hand touching against the ceiling to send him drifting forwards and out of the airlock area.

As Shepherd followed, shifting her weight slightly to pirouette off of the floor while trying to maintain something resembling a straight back, she nodded along.

Keep nodding and he might think you understand him, she thought, though the idea that someone could not only own a house but guards for it as well… rumours had circulated for months now of the stability, wealth and influence being seen on the other side of the Gate, but to see and hear it with your own senses was a different matter entirely.

“They seem to be very impressive. Certainly much, um, better equipped, then any guards on the Shabaka.”

Despite the impressiveness of the staff around her, the vessel itself was not dissimilar to what they’d known. Cramped corridors. Spartan, bare metal and reflective sheeting around them. A few panels were decorated with weavings or painting, but the majority of them were left gunmetal. A few folks peeked out from hatches and corridors, elongated forms and short-cropped hair showing them for what they were- born and bred spacers.

“Careful here. Gravity returns.” The pathway twisted upwards - and at the top of the long vertical corridor, sure enough, Shepherd would feel themselves dragged down towards the floor.

“One Gravitational Unit. Carefully calculated from observations of Earth.”

At first there was a lurch as she landed, thankfully maintaining her balance and not collapsing – though the sudden application of so much weight made her lungs feel particularly small. She smiled and gave a gentle wave at the staring spacers, trying to focus on the familiarity – in some ways, not so different from attending a shipmeet of multiple crews. Though it did stand out to her that none of them seemed to be wearing hazard suits – so many individuals crewing a single vessel and being comfortable in each other’s air left an eerie cold up her spine.

“Earth… have any of you been to it? Is the surface safe again? There’s someone in my crew who would love to visit, I think.”

She gave a nervous laugh.

“Maybe once our next ice-haul is done.”

The official shook his head. “Only the Great Khagn’s own Golden Horde has returned to Old Earth. News has been slow, but reports have been pessimistic. We may have ruined the steppes we once were born from.” There was a melancholy in the man’s words as the pair drew closer to another airlock, this one too manned by houseguard, their plumes a bright white.

Shepherd nodded in sympathy, recalling traces of her grandmother’s fairytales and a single tattered ‘photo’ of a family resting upon a mat, sharing food in front of some kind of long lost plant species.

Upon witnessing the guest, the guards slowly reached for indents in the airlock door, then heaved them apart, the thick barriers hissing loudly, then scraping across their bearings. With how smoothly the other doors had run, it almost seemed deliberate.

Shepherd almost winced, then noticed the disparity.

Appearances, she thought.

She breathed carefully, steadily through her nose and tried to focus her mind. Expression like a pleasant stone. Posture straight and standing tall – matching the rigidity of the guards, even if she couldn’t match their weight or height.

The door finally locked itself open. The courtroom awaited.

It did not fail to impress. Where the rest of the ship was cramped corridors and space-efficient, this room was far larger than it had any right to be. A broad-shouldered, hirsuite man sat atop a wooden stool, legs folded over one another and a stern look on his face. He was dressed in fine white fabric that hung about him in the exact sort of way that would make it utterly impractical for life aboard a spaceship, and among the various functionaries about this colossal room were women in gauze, men in equally useless clothing and soldiers, armed with those same blades and short swords.

Perhaps to settled folk this would be nothing impressive, but aboard this otherwise spartan vessel, it spoke of only one thing.

I can afford to have two dozen people using up oxygen for no purpose. Fear me.

Orda Khan smirked a little as Shepherd entered. He tossed an arm out towards the official, growling out a few short syllables.

“The Khan bids you to remove the spacesuit. If you cannot share air with someone, how can you trust them?”

Shepherd’s attempt at remaining stone-faced almost immediately collapsed. This was madness – beyond even the absolutely wealthiest of habitat families. What were all of these people doing, and in a room this big? With nothing in it?!

She was shocked, of course, but the tiniest worm of something… nastier, was growing there. Shepherd quickly blinked away her surprise and tried to focus on the request, unpleasant as it was.

Her teeth crossed her lip, trying to think of a polite way to reply. Perhaps the manner of someone indebted? She bowed her head and kneeled forward slightly, bending both of her knees.

“Mighty Orda Khan, much peace to you from the Lost Lillian. I only fear removing my suit because, as my people are isolated from others for such long periods of time, our bodies get sick easily to foreign air.”

The Khan frowned, then turned towards the official. <“Are they a fool? How else are our bodies supposed to adapt? Keep cohesion within the horde? And, how are they supposed to break bread with us if they’re wearing that damnable costume?”>

The translator paused for a moment, then turned and nodded towards Shepherd. “The Khan bids you break bread with him, and share in the air, so that both groups may strengthen each other’s immunities.”

Shepherd paused, tried not to let her skin crawl at the request too much, then at last she nodded and politely smiled. In the back of her mind she offered a quiet prayer for guidance, and an old recitation she hadn’t had to use in a long time – one she’d almost forgotten.

“I accept your kind offer, Orda Khan. You are the host, and I am the guest – I will act by your custom. Forgive me.”

Reaching up a hand to the neck of the suit she carefully clicked and unlatched it, the carbon-polymer mask and helmet detaching with a heavy hiss as the air pressure shifted and the atmospheres mixed.

With the tiniest bit of strain she removed it, the heavy dark brown curls of her hair messily bouncing back into place and framing her face. Thin features – a woman in her forties, with olive skin – were contrasted by the wide intensity of her eyes, and a pair of delicate scars like tear-drops under her eyes… though the one under her left eye seemed to be much fresher than the one under her right.

As she carefully untightened and detached the hazard suit and its armour, it revealed clothes that were shockingly… civilian? Simple, lightly padded dark purple working slacks from cheaply fabricated synthetic materials. They hung a little bit loosely – she was ever so slightly too thin to match them properly.

She turned to the translator – wondering for a moment if the device strapped over his mouth was as uncomfortable as it looked – and held up the suit’s helmet.

“May I ask, does Orda Khan mind where I put my hazard suit? Should I simply leave it on the floor, or carry it?”

The translator didn’t bother converting the message so the Khan could understand it. Instead, a young woman, her face powdered and hair tied up in an intricate design, took the hazard suit and ferried it away and out of the court.

Another woman, with a similarly pampered appearance, set out a simple cushion and low table before the Khan, the translator gesturing to it. “Please, sit. The Khan has offered the honour of his family’s arkhi, but if you do not partake of drink, tea can be provided.”

Shepherd raised an eyebrow slightly as she approached to sit at the cushion. The term was unfamiliar, and she couldn't help but feel like she was missing something.

Is tea not a drink? she wondered, Is he offering me raw tea leaves?.

However, better the devil she knew than the one she didn’t.

"Thank you very much, the tea would be greatly appreciated.”

A nod from the translator, and he relayed the information back to the Khan. Orda’s only response was an undignified snort, before he began to rattle out more questions. <”Her loss. With that out of the way… Who is she? Where have we ended up? Is the area rich enough in resources to support our efforts here?”>

“The Khan is disappointed you would not take the arkhi, but is nonetheless understanding. He is curious as to where we have ended up, and the people who live in this strange sector of space. How do you make your living here?”

Shepherd thankfully kept fear from creeping along her face, maintaining a gentle smile. This was not someone to offend, and he was not good at hiding it.

But questions… those were something she could help with. Information was valuable to anyone, after all, even pampered foreigners.

"Well… the noble Khan and his horde are in the Gateway Fields of the 44th degree; the area of the outer asteroid belt that stretches from the Gate to the planet of Easifa'Mal. It is largely untouched, between…"

She paused.

Just how dangerous would it be for these strangers to meet the Asmovund? Their technology seemed just as powerful, perhaps more so.

"Well, few people live out here. My family and I – the crew of the Lost Lillian – are ice gatherers. Past the Yahsud Alnaar's reach, deeper in the system, there are the great habitats and stations of Easifa'Thani. Many, many people live there of different species and tribes, but despite Easifa'Thani's many treasures they lack easy access to water. So our crew and many others come out here to gather ice and rarer metals, then we take them deeper into the system and trade our goods for things we need; seeds and soil for hydroponics, replacement parts, improvements to machinery."

There was a moment as the translator considered this information, then in less than half the time, conveyed the message back to the Khagn. For his part, the ruler of this strange ship reached up to his lip, tugging a little at a strand of the moustache that seemed perfectly suited for such an occasion. During the silence another one of the women - who must have been part of a harem, for that was really the only role that made sense for them, set out a small table before Shepherd, then followed it up, perhaps the most ludicrous of all the already absurdist sights aboard this vessel, an open flame burner.

Atop the burner was placed a metal teapot, intricately engraved and sculpted into the shape of a dragon, its forked tongue curved to a spout. “We grow the tea in carefully tended aeroponics, and allow it to sprout in its own time. When it is ready, it is plucked and placed facing the great black sky, so that the light from passing stars may soak into it.” There was a note of pride in his voice as steam began to trickle out of the pot, the khan’s voice finally rumbling out.

Shepherd meanwhile, did an admirable job of keeping a straight face at the madness of it all. Did they not struggle to keep the atmosphere constant?

<Well. She has been useful. Ask her if she would like something more substantial. Reaction mass? Or water.”> He frowned.< “But if these strangers can’t even provide themselves with enough ice to drink, what have they to provide us?” He snorted a little. “With the riches the Great Khagn remarked upon in Sol, we seem to have gotten unlucky.”>

“The Khan thanks you for being such a consummate guest, and asks if there is something we can provide from our fleet. You said water was in short supply - our storeships hold much ice, not to mention we have our own banks of seeds and parts.”

<”Ah, tell her we shall be establishing ourselves in this belt here. She should spread the message - a fair price and security, so long as you obey.”> The Khan gave a dark chuckle.

“The Khan also says that since none claim this asteroid field, we will be making our örtöös - trade posts, here for the time being. He bids you spread the word - fair prices, a guarantee of security, so long as any who come to trade beneath our roofs abide by our customs.”

Shepherd had started to give a polite smile at the kind offer, and to her credit managed to hold it as she processed the Khan’s laugh. The translator’s words couldn’t help but sting a little.

“Of course, when the Lost Lillian returns to Easifa’Thani we will share stories of the noble Khan and his horde. There is plenty of ice and rare materials to harvest, though…”

She held her chin in her hands for a moment.

“Most trade is done at Easifa’Thani – some will gather ice directly and take it there, but most redirect it with a kind of tag or marker for locals to collect and pay them back. Few will come out to the field itself to collect the ice, when their lives are so close to Easifa’Thani, and with so many of the dangers that lurk out here.”

The translator turned back to the Khan to relay the message. For a moment, he paused at the fiddling with his moustache, a contemplative moment spreading over his face. <”And should those redirected resources end up… Waylaid?”>

“The Khan inquires as to what would happen should that flow of redirected resources dry up.”

Carefully, the woman who had conveyed the tea set over to the group began to pour it out. It was a deep orange-black, steam softly rising up before being swept away into the vessel’s air filtration system.

“Do you take milk? Honey?”

Shepherd couldn’t help but squint slightly at the translator’s question. She turned briefly to the woman serving her tea and smiled. The fact she was being offered something with tea on a ship was at this point the least concerning behaviour.

“Oh, um, honey, please. Thank you.”

As she took the tea, she sipped it carefully and deliberately. The comment lingered in her mind.

“Well, the belts are vast, and there are many ships and stations towards the inner belt who watch for incoming material. We have relied on the ice of the outer belt for generations – it wont run out of material for many generations more.”

Her expression became a little pained, just for a moment.

“Besides, since the Gate opened… there will be fewer mouths to feed in Easifa, in the years ahead. The belt will last for generations more.”

The translator turned back and said the only words that Orda Khan needed to know about. Relied on.

A brief exchange later, and the translator bowed at Shepherd. “The Khan thanks you for your honesty and forthrightness.”

Shepherd maintained a polite smile, but something in her chest didn’t sit right. She wasn’t an expert on languages, but it seemed like the translator had skipped some things.

“Of course, it is an honour. Our ancestors – and the ancestors of all of the many sorts of folk that call Easifa’Thani and the asteroid belts home – were welcomed here in exchange for a promise, and for generations we have kept our word. Even…” she visibly winced, as if recalling an unpleasant memory, “the machine-men, the raiders in these places, value honesty.”

“And we shall honour all of you in turn.” The translator conveyed.

Shepherd sipped on her tea.

Even if it is with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other, she thought.

Orda Khan took the first sip of his tea, a slow, malicious smile splitting his lips.
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A Meeting of Suits

A collab of Gilt and Azulvista

Featuring Antonio de Lebrón, Alfonso de Carvajal & Rafael Mendoza.


“With all respect, vizconde…”

“Señor.”

“Of course, yes, señor de Lebrón, could you explain exactly why you’ve come with us today?” Three men of very different rank all sat together in a plush but otherwise unremarkable shuttle interior, the air already beginning to thicken with tobacco smoke.

“Duque de Caravajal, Señor de Lebrón here is a member of the Republic’s diplomatic corps, just as you and I are. When it comes to foreign affairs, he is every bit as qualified as us.” Rafael’s public-facing chops had yet to warm up for their upcoming visit, but nonetheless he played the peacekeeper, trying to keep the two wildly diverging patrician personalities aboard from becoming too obvious to the latest and flashiest of the new kids on the block.

“I can speak for myself Mendoza, thank you.” Antonio rolled the edge of his cigar carefully around the ashtray built into his seat, his other hand resting around a crystal glass filled with nothing but seltzer. “To answer the question no doubt coming though, because I have been tasked to do so by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I intend on carrying through those directives. You may be our most well-known face here on the meeting place de Caravjal, but it’s not your duchy to rule as you please.”

“Nor is it a waystation for passing-by señors such as yourself to come in and whirlwind around like you own the place, then flit off to some distant system without any other member of the corps with you.” Alfonso’s moustache bristled a little, but he otherwise kept his composure, punctuating the end of his sentence with a slow pull on his cigar.

“Perhaps, duque, we can see what Antonio brings to the table this rotation? After all, you’ve never seen the man conduct diplomacy before. I’m sure it’ll be an enlightening experience.” Rafael snuffed the stub of his cigarette out, then slowly pulled himself to his feet.

“Arrival time in three minutes. We should make ready gentlemen.”

Docking with the Rainbow was, thankfully, a smooth process. Three-hundred years of accepting guests on and off had made this experience painless, if a little bland. There would be docking fees involved for a Giltian, but here in the Meeting Place, all mentions of money were suspended until you were entered into the city proper. For the sake of PR.

There was, of course, more than one dock, just as any prospering city must have more than one gate. The closest to the three Azulvistans was a large, somewhat messy and industrial affair run by Oldwell, the only company conservative enough to employ more humans than stamps. A metal wall opened up to let them in, hardlight shielding holding in the atmosphere for just a moment, and then it slid shut behind them with an echoing bang. They were guided to a randomly assigned place by lights and a polite, English-accented AI voice. This particular spot only had a few other Meeting Place guests in it- scattered around were ships of bronze, curved beaks like the Giltian's prefer, one with a black "X" scrawled over its corporate logo. The men did not know it, but they were parked within spitting distance of a pirate ship.

There was a long pause from the three men as they stared out at the strange dock, then one by one turned to each other. “Put on a good show, then you get to the front gate and they can’t be bothered to actually greet you.” Antonio flicked the end of his cigar down to the ground in a pointless display towards a cheerily corporate automated greeter, repeating the same sentence over and over again.

“Welcome aboard the Rainbow, Gilt’s largest ship! Would you like to hear about nearby attractions? Please mind the step.” But a hovering holograph sign over a large, open, metal door told them where they could head for something called the "Old India Marketplace," and there a greeter was welcoming anyone coming in.

Normally, with such an obvious class divide between the three men, they’d walk in a single file line, but here, things seemed far more fluid. Antonio and Alfonso walked two abreast, and although Rafael trailed behind the duo, his job was altogether quite different, his dataslate already open and an inch-long microdrone buzzing around his ear, recording every moment.

The greeter welcomed them, asked again if they’d like directions to local attractions, bars, stores or anything else, and offered them a credit chip that would be accepted at most stores until a proper currency exchange rate could be worked out. There was a pause from the three men, then finally Rafael spoke up.

“Hello there. I believe there’s been a misunderstanding - we contacted an official to arrange a meeting for foreign diplomatic delegates, not a tour around your vessel. I have the transcriptions if you require them.”

“Oh? Not a problem at all, I’ll just comm with management on that real quick.” The woman, standing inside a small booth, pressed an unseen button, and her next words were only a muffle to the Azulvistans. Some kind of holographic distortion around her mouth made lips unreadable, but body language says she was having a quick, tense interaction with someone over a speaker. The distortion vanished and she said: "Alright, just one moment. We'll have a st- an associate of mine escort you to where you can go." A few moments passed before a door inside her booth opened and let out a very human-looking stamp; the only tell-tale sign that anything was different about her was the faint, electric-blue glow of her eyes. The glow wasn't necessary, even, but it was a signal to her human owners that she had cybernetic software installed. The Azulvistans would not know this, but she could see a perfect map overlay of the Rainbow- she is probably the only person onboard never to get lost.

"My name is Suz," said the stamp. "If you'll follow me? I can lead you to a representative."

“Interesting to see obvious enhancements like that,” quipped Antonio. “That sort of thing must be rather common around these parts then?”

“Oh, my enhancements are the most common kind,” said Suz, humbly, and because she was trained to downplay her inhumanity. “Only so we won’t get lost.”

Men in tow, she led them through the door to the Old India Marketplace.

Behind the door was- everything. At least, that's what your senses told you, and it was hard to argue with them. The Rainbow was not a place that could spare any sort of space. Every inch seemed to be full. Of color, of sound, of smell, of even the gentle vibrating humm of the spaceship. The men exited out onto a particular "street" that was about fifteen feet across and led off straight for about thirty feet, before branching off into multiple directions. The overall feel of this place was like being in a tunnel- the ceiling arched darkly overhead, and the men were walled in on either side of the passage. Where the road split ahead, some of the branches led upwards like ramps, or downwards into unknown darks.

It was a baffling amount of room to see inside a spaceship. Of course, the Azulvistans weren’t unused to the idea of making your ships a little bigger and more luxurious at the cost of practicality - even their pride frigate had seen itself enlarged and with excess comforts like carpeting and panelling put into place for the inevitable swathe of high-ranking officials and officers who rotated through its halls, but his was altogether on another level. If spaceships were mankind reclaiming life from the void, this was an indulgence of life on a completely different scale.

The Rainbow has few overhead lights. There were no streetlights, either, even though this was clearly the equivalent of a street. Instead, the multicolored hue of this whole place came only from its neon advertisements. This was a corporate-sponsored marketplace, and that means little storefronts punctuated the space every few steps. Some of the stores jutted out onto the walking path, obtrusively. One sold momentos. One repaired sym bodies.

The three men took it all in slowly, their pace now greatly reduced from when they’d been tromping through the parking lot like docking bay. They craned their necks, here Rafael would poke his head down an alleyway, camera drone zooming off and up to capture an overhead shot, there Antonio would pause to examine a stall, rapping a knuckle against its construction.

Between the grander stores, little metal or wooden stands were set up. Here the men and women behind them were not under the employ of Oldwell, but- living the true Giltian dream- were enterprising individuals, selling foods or gadgets or clothing they'd tell you that they produced themselves, but which they probably bought Giltside. The time-honored Giltian tradition of haggling meant that speech was in the air. Talk mostly like English, but with Chinese and Indian fluidly slipped in every odd sentence, as if the three languages had just spent centuries in a blender together. Teenagers leaned against the store walls and women chatted. You had to dodge and “excuse me” your way through.

And from the sound and looks, it continued in every direction.

"We're close," said Suz. "It'll just be to the right and up, then we'll take a quick ride up an elevator, and I'll introduce you to the man you can speak to. I am only a stamp, of course-" her bosses had forgotten to tell her not to mention it- "but if you have any questions, let me know, and I'll answer as best as I know how."

The obvious question was fielded near-immediately by Alfonso. “A ‘stamp,’ you say? A social caste you have?”

"Oh, I'm sorry, I don't know what a caste is," said Suz, sounding exactly like an Old Earth AI being given a request it didn't understand. "I'm a stamp. If you'd like, you may scan my code, or if you have any concerns, I can give you some contact info for my originators at Rivertown Gene-" before she could say that very important word, "factory," she was cut off by a crate-carrying man shoving his way through her. "I'm sorry!" she told him, even though it was not her fault.

The three men glanced at each other. Although ‘factory’ hadn’t been said, there was enough information from just the word ‘gene’ and the fact she apparently had a ‘code’ to be scanned for the basic implications to be grasped. This was interesting. Rafael’s fingers rattled across his datapad as the men continued.

She led them to a golden, intricate door that looked out-of-place against the metal spaceship wall, something that looked more like it would exist in a fancy hotel. "Here, our elevator." Where an Old Earth equivalent would have a panel with a dozen plastic buttons, one for every floor, the Rainbow's take on an elevator had nothing at all. You simply stepped inside, and Suz said "EBS Old Plaza, Offices, Office 76, Mr. Federov," and the gilded doors slid shut.

"Elevator," was the wrong word, because it went not only up but sideways, diagonally and every other direction you could imagine, but it did so smoothly and without too much feeling of inertia. There was no window and it was impossible to tell where they were going or how far. The feeling of being in this elevator was, you could say, very much like taking a nap as a child and waking up in a different room, not having any idea of how you got there. The four waited to the sounds of jazz-pop. Suz hummed the familiar song.

This was not actually an unusual experience for the Azulvistans. After all, their own vessels used a similar concept to get you around. They called them ‘translocators’ rather than ‘elevators’ when they didn’t just take you up and down, but it was hardly as if that would throw them. Not when so much else about this vessel was so strange already.

When the doors slid open again, they were already standing inside a totally new environment, a large but somewhat bland lobby decorated with white, soft couches, glass tables with complimentary cookies on them, and windows overlooking another crowded hodgepodge space not at all unlike the Old India Market they had just exited from. It could have taken them to any of a hundred other places like this one. The schematics of the Rainbow has been known to drive unprepared engineers to madness.

"Mr. Fedorov resides here, when he is onboard the Rainbow. This is his private apartment-office. He has been told to expect you- just within the third door, on the right, his sym assistant said. Would you like me to knock for you?"

“No thank you,” Alfonso nodded at the woman. “We’ll take it from here.” He stepped forward imperiously, raised a fist, then rapped three times, loudly, on the door.

The loud knocks were answered by footsteps, and then the doorknob turned and a blue robot, tall and thin and of a somewhat feminine design, opened the door.

"Ah, you must be the Azulvistans?" She didn't wait for an answer, since she had good facial recognition and the stamp had already seen them. "Andrei, your guests have arrived."

"Ugh," said Andrei. She let them into the sparse office. Andrei sat behind an elevated, wooden desk, and three fairly comfortable chairs were already pulled out in front. The rest of the room was mostly empty, sans a mandatory meeting table that- not being needed tonight- was pressed up against a far wall, and the tinted window that occupied the wall across from Andrei from ceiling down to floor.

"You may sit down," said the blue sym. "I'll be glad to remain standing," and she took up position beside Andrei. He was wearing a suit, his black hair slicked back and one ear with a black stud earring, and would've looked nice if it weren't for his general demeanor of a man having a Bad Day.

Of the three men, only Alfonso took a seat. Rafael remained standing, lifting a hand out for the microdrone to settle down, the ever-so-faint whine of its tiny engines cutting out so he could safely stash it away. Antonio instead took up a position to Alfonso’s right, reaching into a pocket to draw out a long, heavy metal case, carefully easing out a cigar. “You smoke?” He glanced up.

"Smoke what?" Andrei asked. "Oh, nevermind, yeah, I smoke. Blue Girl, make that thing do whatever it's supposed to do." The sym took the cigar and lit it, handed off to Andrei. He took an experimental drag.

With that handled, Antonio snipped his own cigar, Alfonso taking the opportunity to draw his own case out too. Rafael’s cigarettes would not be making an appearance, the man still rattling down the conversation in diplomatic shorthand. With the third cigar of the room now lit, Alfonso would begin.

“So you are… Andrei Federov? Is that right? Were you the one who took our initial message, or was that someone else?”

"It was someone else. Most of these things are handled below my pay grade, and then they send it up the line to see who's important enough to meet foreign diplomat types, and then my mother, she's the CEO - I work with the Earnest, Smithers and Black corporation, by the way, that's who you're talking to here - she says 'Oh, Andrei will do it,' and then she tells her sym and her sym tells Blue Girl and Blue Girl tells me at, unfortunately, six in the morning and then here you are. Nice to mee-" Andrei finished the greeting in hard, hacking coughs. The look he gave the cigar was accusatory. "Man, what's in this thing?"

Santa Florian Cigars,” Antonio said with a smirk. “On Old Earth, they considered Cubanos the best of the best. The Lebrón plantation offcuts make Cubans look like tea leaves.” He extended a hand. Andrei shook it. “Incidentally, I am Señor Antonio de Severino Manuel José de la Cruz, of the march de Lebrón.”

Alfonso’s head snapped across to look at Antonio, confusion wrinkling his face. ‘March’ meant that the man was a marqués, and custom dictated that an heir could use their parent’s title in formal settings… And yet Antonio had only ever referred to himself as señor. In fact, so confused was he that he had entirely forgotten to be insulted by the lesser-ranking man introducing himself first, a mistake he was quick to rectify.

“Duque Pedro Luis Maria Fernández Alfonso Leoncio Alvarez De Caravajal, twice-duke of Veragua.” The Republic still hadn’t given up on that particular claim.

“Rafael Menoza,” the last man finally spoke up. “Of Esperanza, although I’m not of nobility.”

"Hey, neither am I,” said Andrei, “so you're in very good company, Rafael. Although I do have a long lineage, if those are appealing to you all. My family was in business back even in the Old Earth days. Have you ever heard of the Russian Oligarchs? If I add 'great-' to the word 'grandfather' enough times, eventually I'll run into some wealthy ancestors before the Fall of Old Earth. One of them started off in oil or something. Fuel of way back when."

“Way back when indeed. Azulvista never ended up with fossil fuels to begin with, but all that means is we’ve had to diversify.” Antonio nodded with understanding.

Not as much had changed for Gilt. Andrei’s forefathers pulled up fossil fuels from the earth to power society, and now…

He says, remembering his job for a moment: “Of course, we at Earnest, Smithers and Black are doing much the same thing today, in a kind of way. We are the biggest producer of stamps, the second biggest of sym bodies. We also have large stakes in all kinds of energy production and mineral extraction, especially Giltside extraction. Don’t worry, we’re highly diversified and all that- you know, a megacorp and everything- but those are the spots we’re proud to stand out on. Energy, minerals and stamps. We're the ones who keep the world rolling.”

“Ah, yes, there was a mention of ‘stamp’ already, but we’ve not had that explained to us. Are these ‘stamps’ a caste? Human-looking robots? Some kind of… Clone?” Alfonso eased himself forward, curiosity clear across his face.

"Sort of, almost, and yes," said Andrei. After a pause, he realized they were waiting on him to elaborate. "They're synthetics," he sighed a bit, "part cybernetic and part biological, made in cloning chambers. They're not human. They can look human, they can talk and work and walk around being all creepy, but only about half of their DNA really comes from us. The other half is animal, or something unique the nerds made in a lab."

"Or, harvested from the alien species native to Gilt and Argent," added Blue Girl. "Then cybernetics are added, body and brain. They are partly AI. With all that, it's debated whether they have much… humanity, or what the people of the past would have called a 'soul,' but they are created to enjoy doing particular tasks, and those are the tasks their buyers usually put them to."

A look passed across the three Azulvistano’s faces, and they slowly turned to look to each other.

<”Cybernetic and biological crossover is one thing,”> Alfonso had switched to Spanish once again. <”But animal and alien? I should not be the only one concerned here.”>

<”They seem to be fully integrated into society. This one’s a PA to an executive of some kind.”> Antonio gestured towards ‘Blue Girl.’

<”’People of the past would have called a soul?’> Rafael raised an eyebrow as he typed away.

<”Designing beings with a soul, and then enslaving them would be terrible. But is designing something that could have a soul, and then intentionally leaving it out not worse?>” Alfonso shifted in his seat.

Blue Girl laughed politely, if a little tensely, and said in Spanish: <”Oh, no, I am not a stamp. I am fully AI. If any part of me looks biological to you, let me know, I’ll need to get that checked out.“>

<“Fucks sake.”> Antonio paused for a moment, then realising his swearing had been totally intelligible, followed that up with another <”Fucks sake!>”

“I admire how you speak English perfectly, but when you use English swear words in Spanish, it suddenly has an accent,” said Andrei, with no hint of irony.

There was a brief pause for a moment from Antonio, before he mumbled out a few words that sounded suspiciously unkind towards someone’s mother.

“Apologies for the sudden language switch,” Alfonso glanced over towards Andrei. “What you’ve said would be a tad controversial back home.”

Andrei nodded. He couldn’t speak Spanish. “Don’t worry about the stamps, if that’s what this is about. They’re not unhappy. Hell, they’re probably happier than we are.”

Blue Girl said, “They are. Like me, they were designed to most enjoy being helpful and serving a purpose for their creators. If you offer a stamp a choice of anything to do, this is what they would pick, and so would I.”

“See, that too would be… controversial. Although yes, one can’t be a slave if one has no concept of ‘freedom,’ but the idea of denying the ability to conceptualise freedom…” Rafael paused for a moment, discomfort slowly spreading across both his and Alfonso’s face.

Andrei leaned back in his chair, cigar casually in one hand (he was starting to quite like it already) and asked: “Well, since we’re in a philosophy class, can I ask you- what’s the purpose of freedom? What does it do?”

Antonio and Alfonso glanced at each other, then both men spoke at the same time.

“Allows one to pursue their own path.” Another brief glance at each other, the pair of men clearly surprised that they had actually come to an agreement on something.

“Even plebeians are free to choose their path in life, guaranteed by the Republic’s constitution.” Antonio continued.

“‘A man can do as he wills, but cannot will what he wills’” quoted Andrei. “Yes, we choose our own path, but how do we make the choice? Most people go with whatever we think will make us happiest. But what makes us happy? Well, our sense of happiness is all just biology, y’know, genetic incentives to act a certain way. When you kiss a girl you get a nice rush of endorphins, so you ‘choose’ to kiss her more, but it’s just ‘cause your genes want you to keep doing that until you get a chance to reproduce.” He waved his hand lazily. “We think we choose the things that we think will make us happy, but we can’t even design our own sense of happiness. Same with the stamps. We’re as free as them, except our wants come from nature and evolution- or God, or whoever- and theirs came from us. That’s the only difference.”

“Bullshit.” Antonio said with a smirk. “Humans are not mindless endorphin-pursuing machines. Well, most of us, anyway. If we were, nobody would ever bother to do things that are hard or gruelling. The man who uproots his life to head to the frontier and eke out his living doesn’t do so because it’ll provide him with a rush of endorphins. The fanatic who perches himself atop a lamppost for three months straight is hardly flooding himself with good feelings as the rain pours down upon him. Sure, the base elements of what most would recognise as a ‘good life,’ are controlled by our pursuit of endorphins, but that’s not all that makes one happy.”

“Well, as Mr. Federov has said,” picked up Blue. “The stamps, allowed to pursue their own path, would pursue the very one they are on now. So this is all merely academic. But if we’re going to be debating- would you gentlemen like some coffee?”

Andrei nodded. He would like some coffee, always.

Blue Girl said playfully, “Andrei’s taste in coffee changes every other hour. Sometimes he loads it with milk, sometimes straight black. Once he drowned it in hazelnut flavoring in front of some Oldwell representatives and I think it almost caused a corpo-on-corpo war. We have near everything available. Would our guests like anything?”

Rafael cleared his throat. “Café pingado. Two shots, no sugar.” Alfonso gave an approving nod.

“The same for me. We’ll see if what you have holds a candle to our stuff.”

“Café lungo. One sugar.” Antonio added.

“Now, while I don’t approve of my colleague’s language, what he says holds true. To condense all of the human experience down to merely the pursuit of pleasure is… Shortsighted.” Alfonso quirked an eye towards ‘Blue Girl.’

Blue Girl nodded but, weirdly, didn’t look like she was writing any of their orders down. She just stood there. Robotically. In a moment, a knock at the door finally moved her from her statue stance, and when she opened it, two stamps were already waiting there with the coffee, on a literal silver platter, precisely as described. Cream, milk, flavorings, sugar and the dreaded hazelnut syrup were all present and accounted for.

The stamps who brought it in were of a different kind than the electric-blue, pretty girl who led the Azulvistans about the ship. They were neither electric-blue nor very pretty. At least one was actually ugly, a reptile thing with loose, green-brown skin and a wise face like a tortoise’s. It had no shell, but it bent forward just a bit, as if its body still thought one should be there. Looks no matter, it moved gracefully and with amazing evenness, bringing down the platter onto the desk quick but without even a shake of the coffee. The other stamp was short, pitch black-eyed, exceedingly slender, spotted with patchy miss-matched skin, and four arms were clasped behind his back; but he was the more human of the two. They both wore uniforms.

The three Azulvistans watched these new stamps warily. Their appearance was certainly something, but it wasn’t their appearance alone that intrigued the trio. The simple fact that they existed in the forms that they did - stooped, wrinkled and inhuman, spoke far more about the Giltian mindset than the prim and polished Blue Girl did.

“So,” said Andrei, wanting to change the subject, and apparently deciding that this time the drink needed four spoons of sugar but no creamer at all, “what’s a plebian?”

“They are-” Alfonso started.
“Why don’t we let the one person here who’s actually a plebe speak for himself, hmm?”

Antonio cut the more senior man off with a smooth interjection, raising an eyebrow to see if the obvious challenge would be taken.

“An excellent idea,” Alfonso managed through gritted teeth. Antonio would have been disappointed, but this was almost better.

Rafael, glanced between the two bickering patricians then cleared his throat. “There are… Two ways of describing them. The academic way, and the less polite way. The academic way would be to say that they are the majority social group on Azulvista - those whose rights are guaranteed by the constitution, but who do not receive the privileges of the patrician class. The… Less polite way would be to say that they are subjects.”

"Oh, yeah, I've read about those in history classes," said Andrei, already downing the molten hot coffee in a wild disregard for his throat. "So, your patricians head things up, and the plebians do the everyday laboring of society, non? Huh. Classic. Gilt, you guessed by now, we're run by corporations. We have wealth differences, sure, but there's not really enforced classes between humans. I know a man who started as a junior clerk, and now he sits in board meetings with me. We like to let things be more… loose, in Gilt. No real government besides corporate policy. People do what they will, and if they do it smart…" he smiled.

"But let's get down to the real business. I'm here representing EBS. You've seen aboard this ship already what Giltians are capable of. Our economy can produce very fast, and very cheap-" he decided to leave out that this was because of the free labor of stamps and syms, since some things are better left to implication- "and we are eager to make early business connections with dependable nations such as yourself."

Now it was time for Alfonso to take the lead. “I think you’ll find that any nation that has survived has done so by being self-sufficient. Because of this, we are capable of making all the staples and luxuries of living in our home system. If you want to open up our market, you’ll need something we’ve not seen before. So, by all means. Impress us.”

Andrei’s dark eyebrows shot up. “You’re floating on a spaceship bigger than Los Angeles, where four million people live full-time and where you’re told that a government-less society survived for three centuries, and a sentient tortoise just brought you coffee… and you aren’t impressed? What the hell does Azulvista have that’s like all that?” He downed the rest of his coffee in a gargantuan swallow.

Antonio responded with a smirk. “We came from a space station made by a dozen different nations haphazardly bodging together their own engineering that rotates around a world humanity killed three centuries ago, that we arrived at on a ship manufactured in void-docks that can crank out war galleons like a factory makes cars. I’ve seen aliens, robots, robot aliens and alien robots with my own eyes, and we’ve come out of a conflict that saw an entire planet turned into a warzone. Standards here are damn high.”~

“Alright. Fine. Challenge accepted. I’ll have work today after all, like one of your plebians. Blue- will you call your coworkers in?”

Blue Girl hummed, “Of course. And pitch on that: may I recommend the defensive model be showcased as well?”

“Love you, Blue.”

“That’s a yes,” she translated. “We’ll have something to show you boys. Will you step out with us? This room is a little small for the matter at hand.”

The five filed out, leaving a mess of drinks and cigars behind- the sign of diplomacy happening between these two cultures, apparently- and emerged into the larger room the Azulvistans had first seen. Already a few fast stamps had pushed the tables to the side, making way for the show. The complimentary cookies were relocated to a smaller table, just beside four comfortable chairs lined up facing what was now an open space.

There were people emerging from a backroom, except they weren’t people. A line of sym bodies filed out, each of a slightly different form. They were all typically gold and gilded, but some were strong and brutal, who looked fit for either manual labor or melee, and some were sleek and elegant along the lines of Blue Girl. Some male, some female, quite a few just indeterminable; there were about seven in all. The designs tended towards the gaudy and elegant- their movements were mathematically perfect.

Last of all, as if it had been the furthest back in storage, came a design that wasn’t like the others. Though still shiny, it was armored, and its metal hands gripped a gun. It lined up beside the others in brisk, soldier-esque movements. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” waved away Andrei, now with a cookie in his hand, “the gun’s just a model. We don’t make our combat syms as graceful as the others, but that’s probably the most advanced piece here. Blue, do you wanna do the thing?”

“I’ll do the thing,” confirmed Blue Girl. “Gentlemen,” she said, “these are examples of sym bodies. They are advanced robotic forms capable of doing all tasks that humans can, but much more quickly and powerfully. A sym worker compared to a human employee is typically three to five times more effective and, unlike the human, will not require wages beyond their basic energy costs. Don’t worry, they’re quite efficient. We do not sleep. We do not eat. We do not ever stop working. Unlike stamps, we are not organic at all, although our minds are based roughly on human minds.” She lifted her left hand, and at the same moment, every one of the models before them did the same. “Take note: sym minds and bodies are separate entities. You may purchase the rights to a sym mind, like you would any intellectual property, and then you purchase your physical bodies like these to place them into. A good sym mind- like myself, of course- can control five to ten bodies at a time. Or, if you want, you can simply plug a sym consciousness into a drone ship or plane and let us fly it. A dogfighter is far more effective when it does not have to waste weight on a human pilot. Or, speaking of fighting: when a sym soldier, like the one you see now-” the one with the gun nodded- “is destroyed in combat, the mind is not lost. It can simply exist on any one of your databanks and control multiple combat forms remotely, making a perfect, veteran soldier who never really dies, just changes bodies.”

There was a long pause as the three Azulvistans listened to the speech and looked at each other. Alfonso, reaching up to tug at his moustache, frowned a little. “What you’re describing is a threat. Not a personal one, but a threat to the foundational way of life on any nation that does not consider itself post-scarcity.” The three men were clearly having similar thoughts. If syms became widespread on Azulvista… It would mean mass unemployment. A sledgehammer to the Republic’s entire economic system… And worst of all, it would be profitable.

Antonio broke the long silence that had settled over the group. “How much? For a mind and let’s say… Five bodies?” Another long pause. “How about five thousand?”

Andrei stroked his beard that wasn’t there. He went through a phase where he had one, during college; he decided he would be philosophical and start stroking it when he needed time to think about something. He never bothered to unlearn the habit when corporate culture forced him to start shaving again.

“Minds and bodies sell different. Bodies are more consistent. For five of them, I’d say fifty-thousand dolls. For five thousand, we’re talking medium-large numbers now, so economies of scale kick in. That saves nicely. Thirty-two mil, thereabouts. Minds are more individual, since whatever sym might know different things. Usually that gets negotiated by the nitty-gritty bean counters who work for people like us. Or other syms. But the general going rate here in this year’s market, for a batch of the robo-brains who aren’t dumbasses?” His fingers did counting motions, wrangling numbers that were technically large but functionally simple. The economy had entered a hyperactive state since the Gate reopened. Sym minds were selling for a song right now. “It’s about fifty thousand again.” He looked at Blue Girl. “So a mind is worth five times a body, you might say?”

“You might say that,” affirmed Blue Girl. “But I have a feeling these gentlemen won’t know how much dolls are.” She translated it into Azulvistan money for them, based on what Gilt had already studied about the economy of the local superpower.

“And you accept foreign currencies?” Antonio raised an eyebrow, Raphael’s fingers flying to try to keep pace with the information. Andrei shrugged.

<”We can afford five thousand.”> The younger patrician remarked.

<”We? Were you perhaps expecting me to throw the dice on this gamble?” Alfonso was thoroughly unimpressed.

<”Consider it an investment. Fiver thousand? That’s a proof of concept to the syndics.” Antonio folded his arms, then turned towards Raphael. <”And you? You in as well?”>

Raphael blinked a few times in surprise. <”I’m not sure that would be entirely appropriate consid-”>

<”Consider nothing. If you can’t use your position to influence things, what’s the point of having that position. What we pay? They’ll pay triple, at least until they set up their own connections.”>

<”Crude, rude… Shrewd…> Alfonso frowned. <”I can’t very well argue against it. Fine.”> He nodded.

“I believe we have a deal. Doll the five thousand units up, make them look prestigious. More than they will be, anyway. We’ll get you a market. You just need to show them why they should buy.”

Andrei waved his hand in a gesture that was near to being dismissive. “Don’t worry, Mister Señor. Our syms are our art. They will prove themselves to anyone who sees them.” Blue Girl, knowing herself to be first-hand evidence, was happy to nod along.

The trio of patricians turned to leave, Antonio reaching into an inside pocket to draw out a fresh cigar. As he clipped the end, he said only one thing to the two men by his side.

<”Mister Señor? Let us hope their engineers are smarter than their executives.”>

Alfonso let out a polite laugh. Behind them, Andrei was sarcastically waving goodbye.
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Enigmatik
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Enigmatik Overly-Caffienated Thembie Supreme

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A Horse With No Name

Featuring Senhore Ninguem


I was looking at a river bed
and the story it told of a river that flowed
made me sad to think it was dead


A horse plodded its way along a dusty riverbank, each hoofprint implanting itself into the cracked earth beneath it. Above the horses' head floated islands of rock, upon which swarmed men, woman and machines, busying themselves like ants did to support their hive. Atop the horse's back sat a rider, wearing a wide hat and a wider poncho, one hand lightly resting atop the reins.

The rider adjusted their hat and looked out, across the lodefield that they'd reached after two day's ride. It would have been easier to take a jetbike, but that would have been a little too conspicuous for their liking. Besides - they'd be leaving here on the back of one anyway. The figure took a swig from their canteen, then urged their steed on. Just a little distance longer. A little distance further.

In the desert, you can remember your name
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain


At the center of the lodefield sat a squat, ugly processing plant and its accompanying support structures. Vehicle platforms to ferry goods and workers to and from the fields, squat bunkhouses to keep those workers out of the baking sun. Shops and bars to keep them entertained and spending their paycheques right back to the company.

It was a neat little operation - and the perfect place for a group of wanted criminals to lay low. Or, it would have been, if there was any place to truly hide on Azulvista. Reaching the outskirts of the small settlement, the figure slid off the back of their horse, spurs jingling a little as their heels hit the ground.

After nine days, I let the horse run free
'cause the desert had turned to sea
there were plants and birds and rocks things
there was sand and hills and rings


They tossed the reigns of the horse to a stableboy and followed it up with a small credstick, tipping their hat a little in thanks, then turned to leave. They had timed their arrival nearly perfectly. The sun was low in the horizon, bathing the sky in deep hues of yellows, pinks and reds, and the workers were coming home from the fields, haulers and rumblers slowly moving their way back towards the base. Above them, floodlights clicked on, bathing the chapped dirt and simple roads in light perhaps even less forgiving than that of the sun that was leaving them.

The figure turned and headed towards the building that so many others were heading towards. A sign overhead proudly displayed it as the Motherlode, and already light and life and music filtered out from its swinging doors. The rider banged off the dirt and grit that had accumulated on their boots, then headed in, attracting no attention amongst all the other patrons.

Taking up a position in the corner of the room, they scanned the area and waited. A waitress came up to ask them if they needed anything, but the figure simply shook their head. "Waiting for an acquaintance," was all they offered by way of explanation, and the minutes continued to tick by, until... Three men, brusque, burly, and all clearly having just come from work, heading to the bar all together.

Pushing themselves off the wall, they clacked their spur against the wooden floor, loud enough to turn a few heads, then reached to their hat, adjusting it up just enough that the barest glimpse of their neck was now visible.

"Leone Bastilla, Hugo Molina and Raul Ortiz?" Their hands set comfortably at their waist, the three men pausing, then slowly turning to face the lone figure.

"Who's asking." It wasn't really said as a question, but the figure would humour them regardless. Reaching underneath their poncho, the figure drew out a badge emblazoned with a star, their fingers covering up the identifying information.

"Federales. You're under arrest for armed assault, kidnapping, the taking of hostages, theft of federal property and murder." The figure took a step forward, and the rest of the crowd slowly pulled back from the figure. Lodefields were full of criminals and ex-cons, but most of them had come out to the fields for a second chance - a way to earn good money without oversight, where their crimes didn't matter much. As the figure had predicted, none were willing to stick their necks out in this altercation.

"You out here alone?" That one was a question, the three men slowly spreading out to form a loose semicircle. The leading man - Leone, reached down to his belt, and the federales' eyes followed his arm down, to the gun sitting at his hip.

"You draw that and you don't leave here alive. Only warning." The rider's hands vanished behind their poncho and for a moment the crowd froze, only to calm a little as they drew out a cigarette.

"You out here alone?" Leone repeated again, the other two men now also reaching for their weapons.

"You going to keep saying that?" The cigarette moved from hand to hand, and although the figure's eyes were shadowed, it was easy to feel their gaze boring a hole through the man across from them. "Or are you going to come along now?"

There wasn't a reply from the three men. In a desperate burst of motion guns were wrenched from holsters, and patrons dived for cover. The federales simply flicked their cigarette into the air and wrenched themself to the side, bullets whipping past where they'd just been standing and smashing into the woodwork of the bar behind them.

In one smooth motion their poncho was tossed to one side, their left hand coming across their body to draw a bulky black revolver. It barked three times in rapid succession, the sound ear-splittingly loud in the confined space. Then, everything fell silent bar the unmistakable sound of blood leaking onto panel flooring.

The figure caught the spinning cigarette and slid it into their mouth. Without speaking more words, the figure paced over to the bodies on the floor and checked each one for a pulse. They pressed the dead men's fingerprints down against a small scanner, ran that same scanner over their faces, then finally put a small mark next to each one's name. Deceased.

"I'll let your security handle the bodies. Case is closed."

Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
but the humans will give no love





Hail to the Khan

Featuring Orda Khan
Notifying Player: @Eventua


A small smile played over Orda Khan’s face as he processed the news. Perhaps this place was not as rich as Old Sol, but they had an opportunity here. This realm was poorly controlled by weak, fragmented groups. There was no strong central authority to repulse the full might of a Horde, and they could easily establish dominion over the area near the Gateway. It was almost perfect.

The orders went out swiftly. This was to be almost no different from any other expedition into an asteroid belt. They were to establish supply lines, conduct expeditions to find new resources… And inform those that they came across that this territory was now under the rule of the Khaghnate.

There was just that one crucial difference: Intercept any of the ice haulers or their tagged cargo. For those that did not resist, every courtesy was to be given to them. For those who did… Let the White Horde grow.

He however, along with a few of the more powerful vessels under his command, were not about to sit idle. They had learnt that there were other groups out there in this system: In the inner belt, around their promised planet, and he intended on making contact with all of them. There was no use in establishing oneself if none were aware of you after all.

His eyes turned to the endless stretch of Uzay before him, and as the White Horde scattered across it, he felt a swelling satisfaction take hold. Who knew what potential lay before him? With a system at his call, his Horde would grow rich. His brother may have secured the Golden Horde… But he knew as well as all the Khans that such a position was precarious, and could be toppled.

You just needed to push with enough strength.




Juan Paolo Jonás Is A Pirate

Featuring… Juan Paolo Jonás
Notifying Player: @Tortoise]


The skies above Mars had become a hub of activity ever since Larenzo Martillo had made his fateful deal with Gregor Mayer. Construction craft, surplus military vessels, trade vessels… All had moved their way to the Red Planet and settled themselves around what was fast becoming a bustling spaceport set above Olympus Mons.

But a very unusual ship had come into this fleet. It was small, unarmed and not very impressive, having only a few crewmembers to its name… But it wasn’t here to take part in this frontier frenzy. No, instead it came to fuel it.

Capitán Juan Paolo Jonás sat in a high-backed chair and grinned like a madman. His family had thought him mad, for leaving behind the Azulvistan system to invest himself into this bizarre plebeian attempt at a mercenary company… But he had seen something more in Coronel Martillo’s move for influence. The plebs were fine soldiers and make no mistake, and he had no doubt that the planetbound mercenaries would see plenty of contracts… But he had brought with him ships, and ships were something altogether different.

As he could already crow about, for a client had arrived.specifically seeking out the services of the Extrasolar Mercenary Corporation’s vessels, and Juan Paolo was more than happy to oblige. For now, the navyman sat behind a heavyset wooden desk, swirled a glass of near pitch-black rum, and let a smile play across his face.

The door across from him swung open, and a severe looking woman tromped in, high heels clacking against the metal floor. Her bodyguards glanced inside, then reached to the door handle and shut it firmly, leaving just the two to do business.

“Aah, the marquesa de Isla de Santa, a pleasure to meet you in the flesh. Can I offer you refreshments? A drink?” Jonás reached for the decanter of rum and gave it a swirl, the alcohol leaving a distinct wake against the glass.

“Thank you, but I’ll have to decline.I assume you are the señor Jonás whom I was told to contact?” The marquesa settled down into the less comfortable chair across from the ma, setting a briefcase down next to her.

“Indeed madame, but I think you’ll find it’s Capitán. Worry not! No offence was taken… Now, how can I help you?” He set the decanter down with a clink, then let his finger ring the rim of the glass.

“I presume you have not failed to notice the gigantic ramshackle construction currently dwarfing all but the Meeting Place in this system.”

“Indeed I have not marquesa. I presume this is relevant to your commission then?” He took a slow sip, the liquor burning as it slipped down his throat.

“It has come to my attention that three Azulvistan diplomats boarded it, and departed it having conducted a sale of five thousand and five… ‘Syms,’ along with a thousand and one minds for these syms.” She frowned.

“Our constitution does not cover those who are not citizens of the state, but it is nonetheless the duty of patricians to stand up to injustice where we see it carried out.Those three men may not have seen it this way, but to me, the purchase of bodies… Of minds?” She shook her head. “It is little better than slavery. An institution best extinguished wherever it rears its ugly head.”

Juan nodded somberly. “So you wish for us to do something about it?”

“Indeed. I am under no apprehension that you could attack such a large vessel without causing a diplomatic incident, but their home system is known, and they must traffic millions of individuals within it. I want your men to send a message. A decisive one.”

The capitán grinned. “Something I am sure they will be happy to do… But persecuting a campaign, even a just and righteous one, cannot be done on an empty purs-”

The marquesa waved her hand dismissively. “I represent a group of individuals similarly displeased with this arrangement. You will have your funds. We will expect results.” She abruptly stood up and was about to leave before Paolo Jonás coughed. He knew how this went, but nonetheless stood up and offered a hand across.

“To a fruitful relationship then. You will have your results.” The other patrician took his palm, grasped it firmly and shook.

“Further information is within my briefcase. I wish you good hunting.”
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Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Eventua
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Eventua

Member Seen 4 hrs ago

In collaboration with @Jeddaven

The Sol System – Six Months Ago...


A trio of spiralling ships drifted towards the long abandoned home of humanity, each several hundred meters long and resembling something between a blossoming flower and a jackhammer. The leader of the trio was carefully trimmed in gold shielding, and flickered with the reflection of the sun against stark white paint and an ornate green filigree.

Through eyes of digital gold the man once known as Howard Carmen looked out over the wreckage of the Sol System. Sensors picked up the faintest traces of artificial structures and ships throughout the system, the oldest having long been destroyed by cataclysm and violence and now having drifted quietly for three centuries, while yet others moved to and from the Gates in a constant stream of activity.

A graveyard to the hubris of mankind reborn as a center of industry and political power… indeed, as his personal craft swept through the system – the wide, wing-like navigation structures of an Avatar class diplomatic vessel, the Dozen Suns – he couldn’t help but smile to himself.

Big responsibility, he thought, first impressions.

His smile faded slightly, reminded of the eccentric and brazenly arrogant way they’d greeted Captain Leonardo of the Gran Republic. Trying to imitate Latin American food, and doing so poorly? Freely admitting to some of the ways they treated their subjects?

He shuddered ever so slightly, and the luminous who was carrying him – a friend of many years, Old Billsby – shuddered along with him.

”We’ll do a better job, won't we Billsby?” he thought, and the echo of Billsby’s mind was faintly positive. Tricky to say for sure, of course, while what remained of the diplat’s physical brain was handling someone else’s consciousness, but he had always liked to be an optimist.

Nevertheless, through the ship’s sensors a transmission soon came through.

“Hello, welcome to the Meeting Place. Please state your business.”

“Ah, fantastic!” he spoke up, the wider leadership of the Summation back home having agreed for him to take the lead in diplomatic efforts for now, “My name is Gatsby, representing the Sevenfold Summation of the Diplat Sphere. My colleagues and I are requesting permission to land.”

There was a brief silence, before the voice replied – a terse, “Please proceed to Hangar 23.”

With a flourish he directed the crew – a group of current measurement, their limited and sickly organic bodies having long been replaced by complex, modular mechanical shells – and in a whirr of connective limbs they moved the ship to dock. The other two vessels – the brazenly red Chariot of Mars and the painfully gray Roselle – followed closely.




The messages rushed into Strasbourg's artificial mind in a veritable flood of data – warnings, curses, aggravated groans, most of which were calling for it. It took mere fractions of a millisecond for it to understand precisely why there was such a sudden, aggressive flurry of information, as names and images began to resolve into clear words in its thoughts.

Summation. It didn't know Summation, though. That was... New. Unfamiliar, as much as Diplat was, but something else stank of a sort of familiar that left an angry, disgusted buzz in Strasbourg's storage, awakening ancient data that hadn't been utilized in centuries, drawn up from a foggy backup.

It was the man. The one clad in gold was... Wrong. Not quite what it remembered, yet horribly familiar all the same. He was the source of the boiling sensation, the disgust, the anger... Flexing its processors, Strasbourg shunted its consciousness into one of its many bodies; a tall, perfectly androgynous thing, towering well above all but the tallest humans, its surface sculpted in imitation of lean, powerful muscle.

What would it wear, it briefly wondered, before quickly settling on an elegant, simple set of white robes.

It did not typically choose such flashy forms, it thought, as it proceeded out of the AFE quarters toward the hangar... But this was a special occasion. One of the few times it aimed for visual impressions, to rub something in a smug bastard's face...

So determined, so focused it was that it simply ignored everything around it on its way to its destination, swinging open the doors to the hangar with a mere flick of its wrist.

While the crew of the hangar bay was primarily Azulvistan and went about their work with military precision (and the occasional odd glance or angry look at their various visitors), the people that Strasbourg was looking to meet were… well, unmissable.

Much like the three vessels that they had emerged from, there were in a sense three delegations – at the forefront of them was standing an oblong, vaguely-centipede-like machine of white metal and golden filigree some six feet tall. Projected from it was a golden hologram of a well-built, slender human male wearing a neatly pressed suit, and speaking to several concerned Azulvistan officers.

Behind him were two other similar machines; one projecting a pale silver light but no hologram and surrounded by half a dozen small scuttling robots whose lenses eagerly and erratically looked from one sight or sound to the next; the other bug-machine was larger and more crab-like – though still dwarfed by Strasbourg’s own form – painted red and projecting the glowing red image of an unusually tall, stone-faced man wearing an eyepatch and naval uniform of unknown origin.

Most frightening of all, however, were the four creatures who flanked the red machine and were evidently the cause for concern by the GRA’s officers. Five and a half foot tall and dressed in layers of unknown metal and fabrics, the creatures were the unwanted love children of tardigrades and tigers; rubbery, worm-like torsos of sinewy muscle carried by eight limbs, the front four of which they used more like arms. Carrying heavy kinetic rifles to attention with their frontmost pair while their second hovered ever so gently over a variety of holstered weapons, they motionlessly gazed around the room with two sets of eyes – many-layered forward facing ones like those a predator, watching the Azulvistan officers with the gaze of a disturbed guard-dog, while larger compound eyes rested on the sides of their heads.

As Strasbourg slowly approached the delegation, the creatures didn’t move their heads… but something in their body language ever so slightly changed, as if with no effort at all they could shift to open fire on multiple foes at once. Likewise, the tiny scuttling machines and the gray ‘centipede’ leading them also quickly turned to notice the newcomer.

One of the scuttling robots – no more than two, maybe two and a half feet tall – skittered across the metal flooring of the hangar bay and raised its four lenses to meet Strasbourg’s gaze.

“Hello,” it said, its automated voice softly speaking in Spanish, “are you a representative from someone other than the Gran Republic of Azulvista?”

"I am, though I'd hardly call myself a representative." Strasbourg chuckled disarmingly, sweeping into a deep, respectful bow.

"...But I suppose you could call me a citizen of Europe, if you really wanted to."

The robot’s lenses twitched slightly, before its head rotated to gaze back at the dimly glowing centipede machine that watched Strasbourg like a hawk.

After a few seconds, it scuttled back to join the other robots who had begun to slowly wander around the area, staring at random tools, objects, or staff, and then would move on to something else.

The larger machine stepped out on an unfolding trail of limbs, meeting Strasbourg but making no attempt to adjust its height, and looked the larger machine up and down before gently arching its lenses upwards to make ‘eye’ contact.

And then, at long last, it spoke in the voice of a woman in her mid-thirties, with the faintest hint of an accent… Russian, maybe? Broadly Slavic? Whatever accent had been present centuries ago seemed to have faded.

“I haven’t heard the word ‘Europe’ in a very long time, but… mmm. ‘Anarchist Federation’ is a term I’ve heard more recently.”

The machine tensed slightly, as if unused to talking to people.

“A… pleasure… to meet you. I am Roselle, of the Sevenfold Summation. The past two weeks have been very exciting for us, after so long. To see Earth again from the sensors was…”

Roselle shook her… head, or equivalent, and gave a gentle automated sigh.

“Have you been on the surface, yet?”

"The surface?" It replied, shaking its head. "Oh, no, no. Not yet. We're still waiting to make sure we won't disturb anything that might have survived, yes?" It explained, idly tilting its head from one side to the other.

"...Ah, I do miss it so, but -- yes, I do come from the 'Anarchist Federation' you speak of. We settled in the Trappist system, precisely as planned."

Roselle nodded, her four-lenses set into the mask-like ‘face’ of the machine twitching slightly.

“TRAPPIST, yes… I think I remember, it was a very high-prospect system. But… from what I’ve read your nation is respected for its scientific knowledge. It sounds like it’s been made good use of– oh!”

At a bit of distance from the others, the red holographic figure flickered slightly, while the machine projecting it turned slightly to glance at Strasbourg. The guard by its right… ‘shoulder’, turned ever so slightly and was now watching Strasbourg with its primary eyes like a tiger in tall grass.

Roselle reached up one of her limbs, its modular structure unfolding itself into an approximation of a human hand.

“I am afraid my skills as a diplomat are, uh, unpracticed. But I have been asked to attend for matters of scientific exchange, so, I would love to arrange some tests. A discussion and exchange of essays, experiments, blueprints and so on. Would you be able to arrange that? Or know who I would need to speak to?”

Strasbourg spared a moment for a dainty, almost mocking wave at the red hologram, uncharacteristically (but oh-so-deliciously) smug, before quickly turning its attention back to Roselle. "...Oh, I can make sure it gets discussed, but we like to take our time, mhm? It's quite the motley crew, our Federation. There are artificial intelligences like me, those lovely folk made out of Tungsten, those Plains People we helped liberate themselves from the PUNT Nazis... And a handful or two more. We like to make sure as many of us as possible agree on big decisions."

A small snicker escaped Roselle’s voice at the wave towards the red machine, before taking a step back at Strasbourg’s words.

“Artificial intelligence… true AI? You’re not a human consciousness? And alien life, you have lots of it in your nation, and it sounds like a big variety…? That’s… well, fascinating to hear.”

"True as can be!" It replied, grinning proudly. "If my numbers are right, there are about, mhm... Eleven million, one hundred thousand of us AIs in the Federation. Numbers are not particularly my strong suit, though -- unless I am calculating firing solutions. But, you see... As it turned out, we weren't the only ones to catch a glance at TRAPPIST... And we are always happy for more comrades."

Roselle seemed to flinch slightly at Strasbourg’s words, as if trying to puzzle if she was reading its intentions correctly. The silvery lights of her form danced a little bit, as the red hologram flickered in turn.

“Comrades… friends, yes,” she whispered, before shaking herself more into the present. The silvery lights rippled slightly, before projecting a hologram of a slightly haggard looking young woman with glasses, wearing a cardigan. Her eyes narrowed at the machine, as she rubbed her right thumb into the palm of her left hand. She seemed to pay no attention to the way that the little scuttling robots – till now content to engage in whatever analysis they had been doing of random objects – all suddenly stopped to watch her. For the briefest moment the robots almost seemed to be in some kind of… shock? Disbelief?

“Do you recognize us? Most of our government is made up of people originally from Earth, though… well, our physical bodies are less ‘us’ than they used to be.”

"Oh, a few of you," Strasbourg said, flashing a toothy, conspiratorial grin. This Roselle seemed... Tolerable enough, at least for now, whatever skeletons might be in her closet. She was quite literally an ancient bourgeoisie, after all... But the more Strasbourg knew, the better. All the more reason to field the Thinker Initiative.

"...Like Howard over there, for example." It said, pointedly raising its voice.

The golden figure – who had been up until this point still engaged in conversation with the Azulvistan officers, working to calm them down from whatever initial confusion or concern had come up when they landed – briefly flickered, but didn’t immediately turn to face their conversation.

Roselle’s hologram, however, seemed to buffer for the briefest moment.

“You… huh. Yes, Howard Carmen, though…” she shrugged, “Gatsby, is the name he goes by now. Like, uh… judging from everything else you know about old Earth I assume you’re familiar with the novel? He…”

She rolled her eyes, “Many of my colleagues have long since been using various literary or mythological names for themselves. Mars, uh… well.”

As if on cue, the guard creature at the red machine’s side gave a nod as if an instruction had been received, and with a vaguely-snake like rippling it marched towards Strasbourg and Roselle. The scuttling robots carefully moved out of its way, but maintained their gaze on Roselle’s hologram.

In an unknown language – something between a large dog barking and a deep warbling rumble – it asked Roselle something. She grimaced slightly, before responding to it in its own language, and it simply stepped backwards, standing to attention.

“My apologies,” she sighed, “most of us were convinced bringing an honor guard was unnecessary, but Mars has been waiting for this kind of pomp and ceremony for… centuries at this point, and, well…”

She gestured to the Azulvistans.

“Now we’ve been held up over it. Not an ideal start to diplomatic relationships with the rest of the galaxy, eugh.”

“Oh, I am. I’d hardly say I knew the fellow personally, but I am still... Familiar, you know?” Strasbourg replied with a casual shrug and a smile so polite it was almost grating, radiating quiet, unspoken smugness. It turned with this very same gaze toward Mars, showing not a hint of being phased -- in fact, its smile even seemed to widen, so narrowly that it was nearly imperceptible to the naked eye. Gently bowing its head in greeting, it quietly reminded itself to coax Mars into speaking more thoroughly in its own tongue so that it might be decoded.

The eight-limbed creature reacted to the bow with a very brief salute, but otherwise watched with cold indifference. The red machine and its hologram remained stood with just the barest tilt of movement.

Not wishing to dwell on such matters for too long, however, Strasbourg tilted its head to one sight in an apparently innocent display of curiosity, eyebrows shooting upward.

“Oh? Have you already heard about us, then, perhaps?”

Roselle's hologram nodded, the machine-shell no longer moving other than to adjust the hologram of the woman.

"We've not heard much about you, I'm afraid – most of the information we possess on the other colonies is, frankly… really not enough to judge easily. Our new friends in the Gran Republic provided us a fair amount of information, but you can't learn much just from other people's opinions, can you?"

The machine projecting her sharply turned to one of the small staring robots, which much to Strasbourg's interest had been very slowly attempting to approach it. As with all of the robots, however, its movements were… eerily, almost like a curious animal, or perhaps a person.

With a brief jolt it stopped, looked at Roselle's mechanical form, then scuttled off to go and analyze a cargo container.

While all of this was happening, however, Roselle's hologram gestured at Gatsby – evidently now having to wait for some kind of Azulvistan diplomat to arrive.

"In fairness to you and whatever you might be wondering about our founders, Gatsby was probably the most famous among us before leaving Earth. So if you have records from that time, he'll probably show up," her mouth screwed up slightly, as if thinking, before she continued, "though he'd like me to say he's come more into his own since then."

She smiled, adjusting her glasses despite the total lack of need.

"Not that his family life on Earth is much of my business. Like the rest of us it's been… strange, the last few centuries. Lonely, in a lot of ways. But interesting, of course! A lot of discoveries and advancements in some areas."

“Oh, yes -- certainly, certainly!” Strasbourg giggled, perhaps the first entirely genuine thing it’d done throughout the entire meeting. Chin resting on the back of its left hand, it propped its elbow up on its opposite hand, briefly glancing sidelong at the robot.

“I suppose we’ve been less... Lonely, though.” It admitted with a lazy shrug. “TRAPPIST turned out to be rather... High demand, you see, so a number of scattered refugee populations have joined up with us. Not many, but, as it turns out, humans weren’t the only species to render their homeworlds uninhabitable... But we’re quite proud of our multifarious little society!” Strasbourg chirped, flitting into an exaggerated, distinctly aristocratic accent.

“Well, I’ve already given you the rough overview. No need to repeat myself on that front... But it turns out that people can do some simply wondrous things when they aren’t motivated by monetary greed! Photon rockets, advanced nanotechnology, energy weapons, what-have-you... Why, practically the only solid projectiles we bother with are point defense systems! You should see what a concentrated particle beam can do...” Strasbourg mused, staring off into space with a wistful, almost loving sigh.

“...Or a population that’s mostly cybernetic. And so many artificial intelligences? The quantum computational power alone makes so many things possible...”

Rocelle's eyes seemed to widen at the list. They weren't all out of the Summation's reach, of course, but if nothing else it sounded like they didn't seem to have anywhere near the ego that kept getting in the way of things.

"That's… well, that sounds, well… genuinely fascinating! Perhaps too many people for my taste, I suppose," she chuckled, a nervous bite to her tone as her hologram flickered slightly and some of the small scuttling robots were watching her with more than a few curious nods.

"I apologize, it… the last few weeks have been, um, overwhelming. Myself and my team, we're, you know, we're here for research purposes, not diplomacy, really, so-"

The armed creature tilted its head slightly, as if a signal had been received to its ear, and it carefully tapped Roselle's machine-body on the shoulder. The hologram moved with the machine for the first time, as if for a moment they were no longer a body and a projection but simply one form, almost instinctive.

"What?!" she barked.

The creature asked her something in its growling language, and Roselle responded in turn.

There was a pause, when the creature suddenly nodded at Strasbourg, then back at Roselle, and her hologram froze up.

With a grimace she looked over at the red machine and it's hologram, now watching them even as the "honor guard" of alien creatures followed their gaze, staring at Strasbourg like a pack of wolves.

"Eugh," she sighed, rolling her eyes, "... he's insisting I-"

She shook her head and took a more structured, stable poise.

"My apologies, my colleagues are reminding me of the matter of time. The Azulvistans are apparently giving us permission to continue into the station following, well…"

She gestured at the nervous staff, still watching the alien creatures with concern.

"...everything. So, in the interests of… national security, I'm obligated to follow them in their meetings with representatives of other nations. It's," she sighed again, "going to be a very busy day."

“Awh!” Strasbourg pouted, crossing its army over its muscular chest. “Well, it has been lovely speaking with you...” It said, the barest hint of a seductive purr creeping into its voice, along with a momentary bite of its lip. “I would just love to enjoy your company more thoroughly, darling...”

Roselle couldn't blush, of course. Her body was steel and not her own in multiple senses, and imprinted with a mind that no longer fully resembled itself.

But the brain, for all of its centuries of decay and modification, was still in many ways human -- unpredictably so. Wires crossed that hadn't been used in centuries, and with a jolt the machine-shell froze. The hologram stuttered, paused, then disappeared.

The closest guard creature actually seemed concerned, scratching its head and whispering a few statements in its language.

The scuttling robots, meanwhile, sprung to attention with something that seemed more like panic than devotion, suddenly dropping whatever they were doing and dashing to her side. A flurry of electronic chirps and whistles passed between them as they set about scanning and poking the machine with a variety of instruments.

One of them - seemingly the one that had first approached Strasbourg - turned to the AI and watched it with a focused intensity.

It beeped some kind of question at Strasbourg, albeit in a language still unknown. Its tone was… fearful? Angry? …

Amused, a little bit.

“What?” It shrugged, a smug grin plastered across its face all the while. “She’s cute. All I did was flirt with her! If I were trying to harm any one of you, you’d know... Though how does that saying go, again? l faut souffrir pour être belle..” It giggled.

The robot tilted its head and emitted a series of electronic barks at the soldier-creature in a digitized approximation of the creature's language.

The armed creature, in turn, saluted at Strasbourg again before saying, clearly with some difficulty – as if its throat didn't quite fit the words and it was reciting them from a hastily written script:

"Com-mann-der Mars, asks come, please. Speak. Cur-rent drones will, fix, wake up, com-mann-der Ro-zel."

The red machine near Gatsby, meanwhile, simply watched.
“If you insist,” Strasbourg shrugged, smoothly moving to follow the armed creature, its movements so impossibly fluid they almost seemed ethereal, unburned by gravity or air resistance.

The red hologram – of a well-built man in his early fifties, dressed in some kind of general's uniform with the same symbol as the delegation's ships stitched into the shoulder, his left eye wounded and covered by an eye patch – was now turned to Strasbourg, watching the machine with anger, but… restrained. Amusement was poking out the edges.

The large red machine that projected the hologram – more crab-like than Roselle's or Gatsby's, and equipped with modules that registered as some kind of folded kinetic weaponry – watched Strasbourg and extended itself to a greater height, just barely failing to match it.

"I'm currently trying to decide," said the machine, "if I should be impressed, or furious. We brought exactly three people on this mission."

His hologram gestured to the creature who had escorted Strasbourg.

"My soldier – good fellow, proven himself well – has kept me updated on the gist of your conversation with Roselle. Unlike Gatsby's meandering over every damn bullet point, I won't pussy foot around – you're a spy, correct? Or a saboteur of some kind, obviously."

“Oh, no. I’m far too blunt to be a spy!” Strasbourg laughed, as though it found the very possibility to be ridiculous. “I recognized ‘Gatsby’, so I asked my friends permission to be their diplomat today... And I found Madame Rochelle cute, so I decided I’d flirt with her.” it continued, its voice shifting into a horribly dry, emotionless drawl.

“If you want the needle-y, technical answer, I am still not a spy. I don’t really do spying, you know? I’m far too blunt for that. I am a supercarrier, after all... Sneakiness isn’t really my thing, yes? I’m sure you understand.”

Mars paused, his eyes narrowing as if puzzling out exactly how much he could trust.

"Supercarrier…?" he gave a gentle smile, "Curious. But not unbelievable."

"Mars, acting military representative of the Sevenfold Summation of the Diplat Sphere. I'm afraid I can't talk long; Gatsby's meandering has its uses when calming down our allies' nerves," he seemed almost thoughtful as he spoke, as if reminiscing on something, "but as soon as Roselle’s drones have reconfigured and awoken her mind from the ship, we'll be on our way."

His smile widened, "I have a number of important people to meet. Hopefully ones with slightly more open minds, at least in the affairs of national defense."

“Open minds?” It asked, blinking. “You speak of the GRA, I assume? I half-expect them to recommend sending men with swords charging into machine-gun fire, every time they open their mouths...”

Mars' hologram flickered briefly, before tilting his head.

"Really? The records of the PUNT war that they'd presented to us seemed… hmm. Heh."

He smiled, as if reminiscing again. The honor guard that Mars had brought with him gestured, and then he turned to see Gatsby and the Azulvistans had given the green light.

"War is a funny thing. Violence in the pursuit of peace and security. Take care…"

He glanced at one of the drones, the last few modifications to Roselle's shell being applied as her form suddenly lurched to life. A signal was transmitted to him and he smiled, anger having long burned down into amused contempt.

"...Strasbourg, that's your name. I'd be wary, if I were your Federation, of meddling. You might not like what you find."

Strasbourg simply smiled, letting a loud, sing-song laugh, precisely calculated to be pleasant to the human ear. It threw its head back, chest heaving as though it’d just heard the funniest joke in the world. Once it’d finished, though, joy bled from the intelligence’s expression like blood from a stuck pig, and it stared at Mars, utterly firm in its convictions. “That is my name, but don’t you worry, my dear Mars. I know just what I am getting into. How does that saying go, after all?

Impossible n'est pas français!” With another taunting, sing-song laugh, Strasbourg melted into a thin, grey slurry, splashing across the floor like syrup before quickly collating together, and flowing rapidly outwards, toward the door, the sound of its laughter still echoing through the air.

Mars' and Roselle's holograms watched with incredulity as Strasbourg melted away, before freezing and flickering in place at the sight.

Gatsby flickered briefly, but as the AI and its form were gone, emitted a sharp signal and snapped them back into the present.

"Thank you, Señora," he said to the Azulvistan diplomat as his hologram bowed, "Once again, my apologies for the disturbances."

As the others and their staff joined him to leave the hangar bay and begin their mission properly, he couldn't help but snap at them internally.

For Mars, it was a confusing feeling. He was certain that interaction had been in his favour, surely? Why…

Why did he get the ominous feeling he'd not won?

For Roselle, it was a shameful feeling. She was 328 years old! She was a scientist, ascended to immortal divinity! She was here to decipher machinery and arrange scientific exchanges!

But… those chrome muscles. That accent. The damn… complexity and ingenuity of it all! To have survived? Thrived?! It was…

...bad. That's all it is. And good to study. Interesting, yes.




Do you hear the sirensands?

The whistling of war disturbed his dreams, the hum of machinery. When he wasn't carrying Mars, when he was simply waiting for the next command, it was always a bit surreal.

At least with his clutchmates in the red legion there was discussion to be had. How many days or weeks were wiled away between exercises or assignments that way? To theorize and ponder on the nature of life and death, and most of all to find purpose in their… lives.

But this honour guard he was now standing by… they were noble soldiers, good soldiers, of course, handpicked by Mars himself. But they had not lived and died and lived again, as he had. They did not measure their lifespans in decades or centuries.

Did not crave death.

And yet now, the five of them were together, simply standing guard by the ships - while a lesser luminous than himself, one trained only to guide and speak, had been entrusted with carrying Mars for the rest of the diplomatic mission. Apparently this 'Meeting Place' had been attacked in recent months, and their rules for diplomacy demanded that weapons systems be left in the hangar bay.

Unfortunately for the red legionnaire, he was made of weapons.

And so he sat. And rested. And thought.

Then he heard a voice, newly familiar.

[i]”A shame things had to be cut off so soon, but... You won’t mind me hanging around a while, will you?” A voice echoed -- smooth, calming, and distinctly accented... In the same way as Strasbourg.

The legionnaire didn't move - he had been instructed not to, after all - but his lenses focused and shifted within the face of the machine.

The sound wasn't coming from any clear direction.

The STRASBOURG entity was nanite-based and had, prior to departing, been in very close proximity to Mars and the legionnaire. Therefore it stood to reason…

"ASSESSMENT:", the legionnaire quietly screeched, his voice as if a block of iron could feel pain, "THE FOREIGN ENTITY KNOWN AS 'STRASBOURG' HAS PLACED ITSELF WITHIN MY EXOSKELETON."

The legionnaire didn't shake externally, though internally his systems quivered. Internal infiltration was something a little bit new - just a little bit exciting, perhaps!

"HELLO, STRASBOURG. IS THIS A NORMAL MANNER FOR DIPLOMACY WITHIN THE ANARCHIST FEDERATION?"

”We don’t really have a normal... But I wanted to chat with you away from Mars. Pick the brain of someone who’s not the one in charge. Ah, and -- I should explain, mon ami, ‘pick the brain’ is a figure of speech. No actual brain-picking necessary, yes?”

The legionnaire thought for a moment, then nodded his internal structure ever so slightly.

"I SEE. YOU ARE ACTING BEYOND YOUR PROTOCOLS. AND YES, I AM HAPPY TO ANSWER QUESTIONS OF A NON-COMPROMISING NATURE. I WILL INFORM YOU I AM CAPABLE OF FLOODING MY MECHANICAL STRUCTURES WITH HEATED CONDUCTION MATERIALS AS A WAY TO PURGE MYSELF OF PHYSICAL INFILTRATION SYSTEMS. MY MAS-"

A brief shock rang through the machine, his voice cracking, before he blinked.

"COMMANDER MARS WOULD NOT APPRECIATE HARM OR SABOTAGE TO A MEMBER OF THE RED LEGION. I REQUEST YOU DO NOT DO ANYTHING THAT WOULD CONSTITUTE A 'DIPLOMATIC INCIDENT'."

Oh, I won’t perform any sabotage,” Strasbourg laughed, silently noting that, if it wished to do so, it’d be a horribly simple matter. But alas -- now wasn’t the time. Still, it felt the shock. A defensive system, maybe, but it seemed far too... Coincidental. “Do you have a name?

The legionnaire narrowed his lenses at the laughter, running a number of background diagnostics even as he spoke. This felt far worse than talking to an enemy face to face.

"I DO NOT HAVE A NAME ANY MORE. I GAVE IT UP AS PART OF MY MEMBERSHIP INTO THE LEGION. A WEAPON DOES NOT NEED A NAME – IT SIMPLY SERVES ITS PURPOSE, AND GLORY IS ACHIEVED ON BEHALF OF THE MANY."

The briefest flash of a ceremony popped into his head, in clouded memories of metal and darkness. A tattered corpse stripped of its history.

"WAS YOUR NAME CHOSEN FOR YOU BY THE ANARCHIST FEDERATION?"

“Oh, no, no! I chose it, mon ami. Strasbourg was -- is where I was initially... Constituted. Born, you could say!”

The legionnaire's mind clicked and whirred. There was common ground here, potentially – and common ground with the enemy was a useful weapon.

"AN INTERESTING CHOICE OF PHRASE. WERE YOU PREVIOUSLY ORGANIC?"

"In a manner of speaking," Strasbourg's voice echoed, tinged by a playful, mischievous giggle.

The legionnaire couldn’t squint – his’ lenses were set into his faceplate in a way that gave a very limited range of expression – but he wanted to very badly.

“...THAT DOES NOT PROPERLY ANSWER MY QUESTION. I AM ALSO TRYING TO UNDERSTAND IF YOU ARE MAKING A JOKE.”

"We were organic," it, or perhaps they replied, dozens of voices echoing through the legionnaire all at once. "Some of me was, at least. Not... All."

For a moment he didn’t reply, just nodding gently. Somewhere deep, deep inside that shell something clicked differently from normal.

“A COMBINATION OF INTELLIGENCES… THAT IS AN, INTERESTING, THOUGHT. ARE YOUR INTELLIGENCES COOPERATIVE WITH EACH OTHER? DO ANY OF YOU MISS YOUR ORIGINAL FORMS?”

"Oh, no -- certainly not. I -- we chose this form because we wanted it, yes? We were... Lovers, before Earth was made... Ill." It said, a hint of sad longing creeping into its voice.

The legionnaire’s internal systems involuntarily jolted, just slightly. The spark of a memory he hadn’t dwelt on in a long, long time was ignited, now – he quivered as he tried to refocus on the present.

“I HAVE READ A NUMBER OF TACHYON BRIEFINGS ON EARTH AND ITS HISTORY PRIOR TO THE GATEWAY PROJECT.”

He paused, “I AM SORRY YOUR HOME SUFFERED LIKE MINE HAS. IT HAS ALSO BEEN SICK-”

*Frrrzt!* there it was again, that same jolt as the internal systems of the legionnaire suddenly readjusted themselves.

“IN A STATE OF REPAIR FOR MANY GENERATIONS.”

“A state of repair, of course!” Strasbourg replied, struggling not to let sarcasm drip through in its voice. “You were born on the planet, then, yes?”

"YES, AS ARE MOST OF MY SPECIES. MY EXACT ANCESTRAL HISTORY WAS MOSTLY SACRIFICED AS PART OF MY JOINING THE LEGION…” a moment as the legionnaire thought.

“BUT I BELIEVE IT WAS SOMEWHERE IN THE GREATER YUL-KARROK PIT CITIES COLLECTIVE."

The machine paused again… then it simply said, quieter than before:

"I HAVE NOT BEEN THERE IN A VERY LONG TIME."

"Oh, that's a shame? Do you miss it, perchance?"

There was a pause entirely too long, like waiting for something to resurface from turbulent waves.

“...NO.”

Strasbourg could feel something in the internal structure of the machine change, just slightly. A heavily encrypted signal of some kind was emitted, back towards the red ship that Mars’ delegation had arrived on.

“Trying to warn your boss about me, are you? How obedient of you,” Strasbourg tittered, and as it continued to speak, the sensation of hands upon the machine’s shoulder assailed it, though there was nothing there. “Perhaps you can deliver a message for me, then, since you're already in communication. Tell him... Tell him that there's nowhere he'll be safe.”

The feeling of touch upon his shoulders was eerily familiar, but was suddenly replaced by a memory of a thousand rotating teeth skimming beneath the surface.

“...I OBEY. I WILL SEND YOUR MESSAGE, STRAS-BOURG, IN RESPECT OF YOUR AUTHORITY.”

“Wonderful, and... One more thing, yes? I do quite like how that eyepatch looks on him, but it gives him a look that's too... Serious. Poor man, he used to be so happy before Uruguay! So many smiles and laughs...”

For just a few seconds, the legionnaire’s internal systems whirred and churned. Whatever still remained of the organic brain deep beneath layers of casing and armour pulsated.

A brief instruction was decoded.

“COMMANDER MARS HAS DETECTED YOUR MESSAGE AND HAS DECLINED TO REPLY. HE HAS ASKED, QUOTE:” and as the legionnaire spoke, its voice shifted to perfectly match Mars’ own faintly yankee inflection,

“Get out of my legionnaire or getting sad about home will be the least of your worries.”

“Oh, you poor, sad man... You have no idea what we’re capable of, do you?” Strasbourg sighed... And with a mischievous giggle, it was gone.




The red legionnaire waited, wondering just what had transpired.

The commander gave no further instructions, and Strasbourg’s voice was gone.

There was simply silence, and steel, and a quiet frustration at places that didn’t exist.
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Eventua
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The Sol System, Inner Mars Orbit


“Alba Mons isn’t a dead-end, Gatsby.”

The way the geologist said it – the way he’d precisely tuned his pale green hologram to nervously smile just enough to feign innocence, ever the purely curious academic – was almost enough to send Gatsby into a fritz.

He knew precisely what the geologist meant, of course – perhaps Gatsby would’ve also once cared to see the largest mountain on Mars still standing and mostly untouched over the quiet centuries, were he still one for being awed by such things.

But Gatsby could remember when it served as the ground launch station for the Mensura Nous orbital array – the key to their escape from Earth. It should have still been there, even as some kind of graveyard full of worn out scrap and abandoned construction drones, but…

It was gone.

Like a cracked seashell on the beach – a handful of support structures picked clean of anything useful, and the databases wiped clean having long been… not merely degraded, and deleted entirely. The majority of what machinery was still here had been brought by Gatsby and Columbus as part of their investigation - an eclectic swarm of drones and ampere engineers, the perimeters of their dig sites patrolled by kelvin-class soldiers. A set of transports had been brought with all the tools they would need, as Gatsby and Columbus' personal ships rested in orbit.

Beyond this excavational swarm was the view of the Martian landscape, a cold and barren red in the thin and radioactive atmosphere, dotted periodically with abandoned markers or rovers from countless failed missions to try and make Mars a habitable second home for humanity all the way back in the early 2200s… before the gateways were revealed and humankind got a second chance.

He got a second chance, even if it was with people he’d learnt to despise.

Still, part of maintaining a sense of who he was – not just a facsimile of a man who died centuries ago, himself – was being patient, even with those he hated. An unpleasant but vital part of any business – dad had taught him that back in the day.

“Okay,” he said, his digital avatar having been meticulously refined to always reflect the version of the clean-cut, charming, once-a-playboy-upon-a-time who had dominated the newsfeeds and gossip columns of old America.

“Columbus, I need you to understand. I get it. Geological structures, I understand they’re your…” he wanted to say ‘obsession’, but settled for “...field of expertise. And that Mars is your old haunting ground too, y’know, the Mensura owes a lot to your work, but…”

He raised his eyebrows slightly and gave the sweetest smile he could muster, all pearly whites and just a hint of stubble – ‘attractive’, not ‘scruffy’.

“It is vital that we figure out what happened to the Body of Nous. You know that, and it would’ve been undergoing key early construction on its launch systems here. So where in a diplat’s right ass-cheek did it go?

Columbus shrugged, raising a gnarled finger to his chin – having long ago chosen to abandon his original human appearance, now instead hunched over like some kind of fairytale goblin made out of gravel and moss and with a pair of binoculars projected around his neck.

“Sorry, Gatsby. The amperes and drones have been bringing back preliminary scans and seismic pulses for the past four hours and there’s nothing artificial of value left here; it’s been worn down to jack all.”

“But how, Columbus? How?! Mars hasn’t been touched for 300 years and there’s no signs of battle, what the hell happened to it?!”

“Maybe someone stole it.”

Now Gatsby was feeling pissed – a strange experience, considering the reconstruction of his mind didn’t actually have any of the organs that normally helped a human body feel emotions.

“I actually can’t believe I brought you along for this. If Roselle wasn’t so busy ‘spying’ on the bloody anarchists I’d-”

“{Sir, new Gateway activity detected in relative proximity. Earth Lagrange 5.}”

The message struck him like a ton of bricks. The scarab-like cyborg housing his consciousness and projecting his holographic form reeled internally as it reviewed the data transmitted.

Reviewing the data with lightning speed, it was true; several somethings had emerged from a new Gateway, and were making a beeline for the Meeting Place. Thankfully for Gatsby, this presented a unique opportunity.

“Understood, thank you for informing me. Columbus, sorry to ask, but would you be a great friend and focus on widening and deepening the surveys? All my memories and records indicate the launch site was here, there must be some kind of evidence of what happened to it and the Body. Did they try to launch it and it blew up? Did they modify it into some kind of subterranean bunker? It can’t have literally just vanished… there’s got to be some explanation, even if it’s bizarre.”

“You won’t be helping?”

Gatsby gave an apologetic smile and steepled his fingers together.

“No, so sorry, I’m afraid something has come up. I’ll be back when I can though-”

“Don’t rush back, Gatsby,” Columbus sneered with haggard teeth, “It’ll be easier to focus on my work without your breathing.”

Gatsby froze for a moment, blinked, then let his own feigned politeness drop away.

“Fair enough. Don’t trip and break a neuron.”
Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Tortoise
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One Kay

A Collab of the One and Gilt


You would think living on a space station would be fun. It’s fun in the holo-movies: all adventure, all living gloriously amidst the stars, fighting off disgusting alien invaders and saving the day with a mix of science and resilience fueled by the unstoppable power of the human heart. Kay Cook loves, loves movies. Sci-fi movies, especially, the loud and flashy kind with the lasers and the phasers- cinema is a proud tradition on Gilt. She had movies in her head when she agreed to relocate to the Grand Brand Ambassador, that huge and spinning Giltian cathedral of capitalism out in the stars. “Ambassador” is her title now.

She hated it. Only after her bags were unpacked onboard the station did the smarter part of her mind realize what a horrible life she’d just condemned herself to. It all looked very nice, of course. You can’t walk from Kay’s quarters to the mess hall without walking over a half-dozen golden carpets, through en-muraled walls and under a fucking chandelier or two. The man- she was sure it was a man- who was in charge of redesigns obviously thought Western extravagance was the way to wow foreigners. He knows nothing of art. No mind for symbolism. The beating heart of an artist trapped onboard this tasteless steel cage- there is a tragic symbol for you!

What Kayla really wanted, she had the time now to realize, was to see New things. Something a Giltian had never before encountered. To talk to the foreigners, the aliens, the robots, the foreign alien robots from another world, and be known as the first gal who did it. Maybe she’d make a painting about it. She liked to play with the idea of painting more often, but she always found excuses inside herself not to actually do it. She certainly couldn’t do it here, on this uninspired bourgeoisie mess of a station. Who could?

She stopped at the airlock. She was supposed to be meeting someone here, acting in her official capacity as an ambassador. She’s sure she was given the details, but she wasn’t listening then. It’s not her job to remember, anyway. That’s the job of the man beside her on the golden carpet, her favorite sym, a towering AI intellect who is named Gorilla Bob (and for good reason, too) who stands waiting inside his huge metallic body. She found this particular robot deeply intimidating at first. Not anymore. Nowadays she considered Gorilla Bob one of her best friends, even if he is, awkwardly, her property. The airlock opened, and…

Out of 10 One step out in a perfect synchronized formation, 2-2-2-2-2. 2 Grants walked in the middle, dressed up in an Old Earth suit, a metal sword dangling at their waist. The other Ones, 2 Williams in the front and two in the back, were all suited up in full bone armor with metal indents all over, covering every inch of their body. In their hands, they all had a metal spear and swords at their midsection.

As they neared Kayla, the Williams stepped to the side with the middle Jameses banging the bottom of their spears on the ground. The lead Grants performed a military salute to the Ambassador. Before they could say anything, all the other Ones moved behind him. If one was perceptive enough, they would notice that the One were scanning every inch of the room for hidden dangers while the lead Grants were looking at Gorilla Bob, a small thin smile on their face. Immediately strategies on how to take it out were being formed. Potentially impossible to escape with their lives but their small unit could at least damage it.

We are the One!” the lead Grants said, each uttering a different word at the exact time the other one finished it.

You may call us Grant, ma'am. Correct to assume you're the Ambassador? ” they continued in the same way as before, their tone calm and calculated.

Kay looked back and forth at them. Then she looked forth and back again.

“Twins?” she finally asked, arching a ginger eyebrow and trying to hide her shock. “I’m Kay. You can just call me that- titles are so dull, aren’t they? This is Gorilla Bob.”

Gorilla Bob grunted like an ape. He found gorillas to be fascinating and demanded that his sym body should look like a hulking silverback. Kay liked to oblige his weird desires. He walked on his knuckles to the lead Grant. “Nice to meet you,” he said, in a surprisingly prim-and-proper, deeply middle-class British accent. “We have a small banquet prepared to welcome you to Gilt. But before we get going, would you mind leaving your weapons here? They’ll be well-looked after by our quartermasters, worry not. You understand. Safety protocols.” He rolled his metallic eyes as if it was all very silly to him, but he had to do his job, after all.

The lead Grants shook their heads at Kayla's question.

More than twins. We are One, Ambassador Kay.” they replied and straight away after, all of the One took their helmets off…at the same time, in perfect synchronicity.

Kay looked at them with something that was fascination as much as shock, and horror half as much as wonder. At length, she said “...wow. I’m, uh, not high, right? I don’t think I feel like it.”

As we said, we are the One. ” simply replied the two lead Grants.

With a sidelong glance at the Gorilla, one of the Jameses, addressed him in a proper British accent.

A fellow Brit, are you?

Before Gorilla Bob could reply, the other Ones disarmed themselves as requested. Spears, swords and hidden daggers were laid neatly on the floor. Stamps emerged from walls and shadows to take them up and carefully store them away.

“I’ve never seen Britain,” the gorilla admitted, trying to distract the One from where their weapons might be going, “though I’m very sad to say it. Except for in the simulations and the holo-suites. But near to a third of the first Giltian colonists hailed from the British Isles. Did you know our capital is called Neo London? It has a better ring to it than Neo New York, I can say that much. If we hit things off today you might take a tour of it.”

It was a shithole before they bombed London back in 2279 and after that…things became worse. Way worse. Shootings, stabbings, bombs. You name it, Britain had it. We’d know, we were in the thick of it a few times. ” replied the James that initially talked with Gorilla Bob before realizing that they must sound weird for people who haven’t lived there nor understood what the One were.

Our implant allows us total recall of our memories from birth until…now. We remember Earth in its prime and we remember its fall.

“Really?” asked Bob. “That’s fascinating! Ah, to remember London as it was, war-torn or no… if you’d ever sell those memories, there is a market for that sort of thing, you know. Especially in the capital.”

“If they do ever take a tour of Neo London, they’ll need to see the Museum of High Art,” Kay spoke in the more Trans-Atlantic accent that was par for the course on Gilt. (She always suspected that Bob’s overt British-ness was an affectation, like his gorilla persona. His madness is what makes him fun.) “I’ve been trying to get a piece in there for ages, I’ll tell you. But shouldn’t you be showing our guests the way to the banquet, Robert?”

“I should indeed,” said the robot silverback. “Follow me, please,” and down he went through the main hall. Half of this side of the station had to be rebuilt so that the airlock would lead down a grand space to a banquet hall. First impressions. They’re everything.

The space opens to a Giltian style eating room, meaning it was a bit like a space-age take on the opulence of 1920’s America. It’s a room you could very well see yourself swing-dancing in, were it not for the table yawning out in the middle filled with too much food.

“We’ve prepared our own cuisine, not knowing what your people eat,” the gorilla said. “So, there’s a lot of British and New American staples, and maybe a little Indian spice thrown in for real flavor. Ah, I miss eating.”

“You still eat bananas, Bob,” said Kay, and it was impossible to tell if she was joking. She sat down at the head of the table, and with a motion of her hand, invited the One to take whatever seats they might prefer.

To say that the One were impressed, it would've been an understatement. The opulence of the place was on a scale they haven't seen since a couple of centuries ago. Yet, at the same time, they silently judged these people. It was old Earth all over again. The powerful living like the kings of old and if the pirates were a sign, the weak were left to die.

It wasn't that the One resented what they saw. Survival was something they understood better than anyone after all. If you were weak, either you grew strong or you'd end up dead. The problem was that it was clear that these people didn't need to let others strive to survive.

At Bob’s explanation of food, the One chuckled grimly.

Our planet is barren. A nightmare turned into reality. No fauna, no trees, no food. So, you could say, we're not picky when it comes to food.

The One group chose to spread around the room, each trying to learn and experience different foods and potential weaknesses or strengths of the Gilt. Only one Grant stayed with Kayla and Bob.

They grabbed something that looked like wine off the table and drank it in one fell swoop.

Wine. Different from what we expected yet very close to the one from back home. ” they said to Kay.

Kay blinked watching him drink it. "Oh. You like wine! Yes, no surprise it is familiar, Gilt keeps to tradition. Preserving Old Earth and the human way is important to the old men at the top, you know. I think maybe we should find new things too, but that's just one girl's opinion. Aren't you going to feel tipsy? You should try some cranberry jello." Talking too much and too out of order was her way of expressing nerves. These identical men were strange.

"You know," she said. "I represent the Division proper, but there's really a lot of corporations that this whole operation is made from. Do you gentlemen at all have an interest in business?"

Gorilla Bob made a sound between a scoff and a laugh, but said nothing himself.

Tipsy? From wine? We’ve got something stronger back on our planet…when it doesn’t kill us. Preserving the human way sounds nice and all when you read about it from history books or whatever your people are using to read from but when you experience it? That’s a different story. As for trying different things, I’m sure you’ve noticed that we are doing that all over the room. When we’re back home, we’ll know what the others have experienced even if we aren’t physically doing it. ” replied Grant with a wink. It was true, the drink they made using their own bodily fluids, some of the oil from the robots and the mushrooms was highly alcoholic in nature and highly deadly, most of the time.

Business? It depends. We’ve come to see what became of humanity after 300 years. So far, we’ve seen the same thing as before, just painted differently. Don’t take it the wrong way but fancy dinners and opulence like this, we’ve seen before. What can you offer us? ” added the Grant in their most diplomatic tone.

Kay looked at him for a long few seconds. Inside herself she was thinking: What? This dirty caveman gulping back wine like a homeless stamp does liquor thinks he’s going to negotiate? And then, pause completed, she burst into laughter. “Oh, you’re wonderful, Mr. Grant,” she said, and with no hint of irony. “What do your people want, then?” Her elbows on the table, she cupped her face under her hands and leaned in towards him. “Come on, let me know.

Not, Mr. Grant, please either refer to us as Grant or the One and may we, please, ask you to drop the tone, we may not look like it but we're a few hundred times your age, also…” said the Grant while the other Ones were already looking for whatever makeshift weapons they could find. If they were to die, they’d take some out with them.

Did we say anything about what our people want? We want to survive and we’re doing just fine from that perspective. Etiquette stands that one with more will offer their wares to the one with less in order to secure business, is it not? Or did the rules of business changed in the last 300 years? ” continued the Grant with a smile. They were enjoying this childish conversation more than they admitted.

“You will show respect to Ambassador Cook,” Bob raised his voice. “The rules have changed very much indeed if you expect us to-”

Two of the Williams almost immediately approached Bob as he said his piece only to move back as Kay talked.

Kay raised her hand, the universal ‘stop’ sign, and the sym quieted down. “It’s alright, I’m only having some fun with our guests.” She wiped her face with a napkin, even though it wasn’t dirty; this was just a punctuation mark in the conversation. Bob was bristling. She said: “Alright, you want to ‘survive.’ Then maybe Gilt is not the partner for you. We don’t care about surviving here. We are for thriving. If that’s what you want, then you talk to us. I’ve noticed you’re all the same, and I think I did hear about that in the news. You’re clones of each other? Well, we mass-produce ‘people’ here, too. They cooked this food tonight. So you already know that we have resources and labor to sell you. And technology, I think. What do you have?”

The Grant let out a chuckle and shook their head. A child. This is what they sent to meet another nation. One that is all for grandstanding too.

We did mention it since we entered your system. We are the One. You mention that you’re mass-producing people here yet by simply saying “producing”, you’re not thinking of them as people. They’re organic robots, are we correct? Labor is something we don’t need. There are over 6 billion Ones currently active on our planet. Food? As you might see based on our size, we’re not lacking it either, even if the variety could use some improvement. The only thing we’d be interested in would be weaponry. What do we have? Besides our numbers, skills, ability to learn anything once and then our whole nation knows it? Unity. More than any of your machines. We’ve got killer robots. Pockets of altered reality that will give your scientists...nightmares or make their dreams come true. Maybe oil that burns for over 48 hours, Earth time. But we’re talking about what our nations want…but what about you? ” said Grant with a collected tone only for at the end, to approach his head slightly to Kayla’s.

“Me?” asked Kay.

Gorilla Bob answered for her. “What Ambassador Cook wants is to be an artist.” He had offered to pose for her paintings.

“I do,” said Kay. “And I want to see New things. And-” she hesitated, but her natural instinct to keep talking always got the better of her, “-and I want to get off this fucking station. Ugh. Anyway. What about you, Grant?”

An artist and you want to see new things. You're looking for adventure. ” replied with a knowing wink. They understood the desire well, it was what put them on the mercenary path a long time ago.

What do we want? We want not to be destroyed by others who'd see our planet as an archaeological site, not our home. It's a dangerous place but it has its beauty. Especially the parts that haven't yet been damaged beyond repair. You should see the Glowy One caverns. Imagine, a room a few times bigger than this, filled with lights of all colors. Shining differently depending where you're looking at them from. Or, imagine standing upon a tall building, thousands of meters high, overlooking an alien city. Trust us, nothing can prepare you for that sight.

Gorilla Bob said: “Are you suggesting that Ambassador Cook should visit your world?” His tone made it hard to tell if he approved or not. Most other syms had electronic, auto-tuned voices, or else something alien or something beautiful. Gorilla Bob just sounded like a middle-aged, middle-class middle-manager, and he reading him was difficult when he wasn’t being passionate. Kay is usually one of the things that gets passion out of him.

“That’s what I heard, Mr. Gorilla,” hummed Kay. She’s easy to read compared to the robot. She was enthused. “Well, of course, any such visit must be done in the name of advancing relations between our people, but… I am authorized for such things. If they serve a diplomatic purpose.” She suddenly didn’t care if they had anything tangible to offer or not. This place was so boring.

The lead Grant smiled and shook their head. “We haven't said such a thing. ” then they winked before leaning backwards and continuing:

That said, it is a good idea. We'd welcome you with welcome arms and you can see for yourself the Circle. It may be a bit dangerous for the unprepared but–” a shortstop and a nod to Gorilla Bob:

--we're sure that Mr. Bob, whoever else you may bring with you and of course, us, will be more than enough. If we're to guess, Mr. Bob is equipped with enough weapons to take out any danger, nothing to say about his obvious strength.

There is only one rule, if we may impose. You'll have to follow our directions to the letter when we're landing. Our EMP weaponry doesn't have an IFF so to say nor is it controlled by us.

“I’m great at following directions,” lied Kay. Gorilla Bob grunted again, and this time it was definitely sarcastic.
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Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Sigma
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Sigma

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Collab between @WrongEndoftheRainbow and @Sigma

Americana System

First contact with another lost colony under the banner of the UNFC, and the rather unfortunate series of events that followed their initial arrival had provided the people of the FRA with yet another ally in their continued struggle against the Yulzan. For all their supposed might, the Yulzan were soon finding themselves cornered by the free children of humanity. After some weeks of diplomatic talks, logistics planning, and the UNFC getting acquainted with the wider galactic community, a supply lane of sorts was charted between the Mojave Gate in No Man’s Land, crossing all the way past the FRA border. Although the pathway was agreed to be the “safest” out of other planned routes, it was by far free of enemy activity. With that, a small flotilla was hastily assembled to act as escorts for the UNFC’s freighters, their only mission was to protect them and their precious cargo at all cost, under the command of Captain Hernandez of the Dawn’s Early Light.





FSS Dawn’s Early Light
Command Bridge


Hours had passed since the arrival of the first batch of UNFC freighters, Hernandez observing a real time holoprojection of the convoy as they traverse through deep space, making their way into friendly territory. Six FRA vessels and ten now recognized as UNFC. With the revelation that Hernandez and his crew were the first to make contact with the UNFC, High Command found it appropriate that he would be tasked with such an assignment as a symbolic gesture. “Not the most glamorous assignment.” Hernandez commented to any who would listen. “But it sure as hell beats frontline duty any other day.” He twirled around his chair, snapping back to the holoprojection dead center in the room, turning to his second in command. “Any word from our recon squadrons?” Hernandez asked.

His X.O., a young Dathu woman by the name of Udalia, shook her head, as he browsed through a small comm-pad. “Reports are clean so far, captain.” She replied. “Shall I recall them?” Hernandez shook his head. “Nah, have them make one last sweep before returning. I don’t trust the peace and quiet at all to be frank.”

Udalia nodded back. “Aye, aye, captain.” She said as she pressed down the comm-pad, relaying the Captain’s orders to the fly boys. There were ten freighters in all; large, bulky craft made no more agile for the addition of armored plating, spot-welded across vulnerable sections. On each, machine gun nests had been jury-rigged to the hulls, though none carried heavy armament. It was slapdash, vessels pressed into wartime duty by a culture who had not had open war in hundreds of years.

Within, there lay primarily armor. An overstatement, each freighter contained heaping tons of civilian-grade hevsteel plates, pulled from wherever there was excess or where refineries were outputting more than expected. Only a few freighters, positioned in the middle of the pack, contained any export-grade military-spec hevsteel. It had been a close vote, but the brutality of the Yulzan's attack on a peaceful diplomatic convoy had angered the public and the government alike.

The Yulzan and the United Nations were officially at war. As such, emergency powers long neglected activated and, slowly but surely, the economy began to move to a wartime footing. Men were mobilized, factories were seized and their production swapped to war goods. Even rationing was placed on the table: every day, a new restriction on foodstuffs that could be better saved for a soldier or sailor's stomach.

Even with war, the UNFC navy was anemic and the army was virtually nonexistant. It had to be bootstrapped from first principles, and whole new equipment both designed and prototyped. Civilian vessels pressed into convoys with what could be spared was ultimately all the UNFC could offer to their new brothers-in-arms to relieve pressure.

Elsewhere within a reasonable distance from the convoy was a squadron of starhawks, one of the aforementioned reconnaissance squadrons that swept through the surrounding space, acting as the eyes and ears of the convoy. Within the lead fighter, the Squadron leader had received the order to make one last run. “Echo leader to all wings.” A voice in a gruff tone announced. “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is we gotta make another sweep.” With the dreaded words spoken, followed a series of moans and sighs. “Good new though, this will be the last one as we head back to base.” That got the squadron wide awake as some cheers could be heard over comms. “We’ll make for sector 119 and we’ll be back in our bunks.”

Sadly, as if one cue, those words and actions would set events in motion, making this mission more eventful than they wished for. Within an hour, Echo Squadron had arrived at their destination, the fighters scattering in pairs as they began their last sweep, many praying that nothing would be found. Some time passes, as the mission neared its end. “Get nothing so far….wait.” One of the pilots said. “Ssshit, I’ve got something on the radar….. can’t make a read, we’ll invest-“ Within moments the pilot fell silent, a pair of flashs of light seen in a short distance from the various cockpits. “Fuuuck…” One of the pilots cursed. “We got Jannies incoming!”

“Fall back to the convoy! We’ll make our stand there!”

Alarms sounded on the freighters, machine guns sprung to life as crewmen manned battlestations. They swivelled to and fro as the gunners got their bearings. The pilots began to spread out, to give each freighter room to maneuver, as unwieldy as each vessel was. One of the vessels tightbeamed a message to the Dawn's Early Light, the signalman a hardened star-sailor, "Dawn's Early Light," he started, his voice tense, "this is the UNFCCFV Old Elizabeth, none of the freighter craft are equipped with military sensors. We will be firing by eye. You need to keep us clear, acknowledge."

“Copy that Old Elizabeth.” Hernandez sent a reply. “We’ll be your eyes in this fight.” He turned back to his X.O. “What are we dealing with here?” Udalia tapped the pad a few times before the holoprojection morphed a rough image of the inbound enemy ships. “From what little images were captured by Echo Squadron, we’re dealing what seems to be a standard wolfpack, eight corvettes and…” Udalia was silent for a moment, a new larger shape taking form in the holo image. “Uh oh..”

“What do you mean by “uh oh?” that’s a little concerning…” That certainly got the captain’s attention. Udalia pressed down the pad a few more times, making a more clearly image, knowing feel well what they’re dealing with, the captain letting out an audible sigh of frustration. “Of all of the days, of all the missions…”. The mystery ninth ship leading the Janissary wolfpack was what the FRA has classified as a “Reaper”-class Battlecruiser, a vessel under the banner of the Throne Guard, a warship of Yulzan design and make. “Issue a red alert throughout the fleet, this is gonna be one hell of a fight.” Hernandez ordered.

Without hesitation, sent a message back to the Old Elizabeth. warning them of the threat ahead. “A Janissary wolfpack is inbound, in addition to a Yulzan Battlecruiser. We’ll provide as much cover as possible as we continue our trip, but prepare for the worst.”

The signalman responded, "Recieved, Dawn's Early Light. What are the specs on the battlecruiser? Can we outrun it? These freighters can not survive the attention of a warship." Meanwhile, the pilots of the freighters moved further back, to place the escort between them and the wolfpack. There was a pause, then, a crackling across the open band, "This is the UNFCSCV Herald of the Morning on station. Message for UNFCCFV Old Elizabeth and Dawn's Early Light: We are enroute to provide fire support. We are transiting from the gate, we will need at least an hour to arrive."

The tightbeam on the Old Elizabeth walked to somewhere far in the distance, and silently, they acknowledged the message. Then, the tightbeam walked back to the Dawn's Early Light, and the signalman's voice returned, "The Herald of the Morning reports it has been refitted with Hev torpedos. If we can avoid engaging the battlecruiser, they instruct they could eliminate it and even the odds, acknowledge."

“Good, we have a chance then.” Hernandez replied. “And yes, we’ll be able to outrun for a while, the only problem is its armament.” He paused as he sent specs of the Reaper to the Old Elizabeth. “It’s armed with an array of various direct energy weapons that will cleave a hull in half if you stay in its sight long enough. The other problem is the wolfpack and the Reaper’s support ships, they will try to either sink us or slow us down long enough for the Reaper to catch up. We’ll hold out long enough for the Herald to help take out the Reaper.”

As the freighters moved into position, the Flotilla moved as well, forming a wall of sorts, as friendly and hostile blips soon materialized on radars and maps alike. The remains of Echo squadron were being perused by the wolfpack, in addition of wings of fighters and bombers that were on fast approach. “Shit! They’re already here! All ships, fire!” In an instant, the Dawn’s Early Light, along with the rest of the flotilla, let out a volley of missiles, torpedoes, and railgun rounds, the darkness of space illuminated by countless flashes of light.

The sailors of the freighters were hardened by a life in Eperu; to their credit, not a one panicked. They maintained their burn, a pondering arc away from the Reaper though not enough to cut them off from their own escort. The guns lay silent, machine guns near impossible to spot festooned tight against the hull. To fire so soon would give up their emplacements for no gain, and so they held their fire.

The Dawn’s Early Light fighter payload launched in its entirety, joining what remained of Echo squadron as they turned back to face the enemy head on, the opposing strike craft clashing as a large dog fight took place, all the while the corvettes unleashed their heavy ordnance, from both sides torpedoes launching in zooming across the battle space, both sides scoring a hit as several of the Janissary corvettes went limp, reduced to scrap, the same happening to a pair of FRA frigates, the downed ships left behind as the two groups pressed forward through No Man’s Land, all the while exchange fire.

The freighters, unwilling to keep moving without their escort, turned to the downed frigates. Once the remainder of the escort was safely engaged a distance from the frigates, the civilian ships moved forward to begin searching for survivors, and, when and where they could, provide damage control and repairs. Still, with nobody targeting them, their guns remained silent.

Everything descended into chaos as the battle went on, the two wounded fleets continuing to exchange fire, battering one another as they moved. In addition to this and their lost ships, the freighter’s broke formation to aid the crews of the downed frigates. “Dawn’s to Old Elizabeth. “Captain hastily sent his message. “It’s a hard decision....but we can’t afford to slow down, the Reaper will catch up soon.”

The signalman was silent for a while, before, a slight tinge of despair in the hardened sailor's voice, he returned to the radio as the freighters pulled away once more, "Old Elizabeth acknowledges. We can't move forward alone; we'll need you to peel off some escorts. We get caught out in the open and get surprised again, and we all go down. Convey our blessings and thanks to whoever remains in the rearguard."

Although they could only hear rather than see, the Captain couldn’t help but nod to the Signalman’s words. “They knew the risks, and when this is over, we will come back for them. No soldier, marine, or sailor will ever be abandoned.” With those words, was a renewed sense of duty, and a fire to see this through. He focused his attention on his crew. “Keep the enemy distracted long enough for the convoy to move back in formation.”

The freighters fired their engines, full burn. They pulled away with astonishing speed, away from the battle. In their wake, a trail of exotic particulate, their engines far less efficient than their military counterparts. At first, they began to outrun the escorts peeled off to protect them, but their engines slowly began to wane down, counter-thrusters firing to slow them down to an acceleration rate more manageable by the Columbian vessels.

The Dawn’s and her fighter payload trailed behind, illuminating the darkness of space as she came under fire from several hunter corvettes, all the while, the small strike craft engaged in dogfights in proximity of the cruiser. A corvette was soon in sight of one of the Dawn’s batteries, making a clean shot that split the vessel in two, dimming into a pair of lifeless hulks. The fight, however, was far from over as she was battered by the remaining craft, select wings of bombers making runs against the cruiser. The bridge trembling with every direct hit made.

Captain Hernandez was tossed from his chair from the last hit, recovering and regaining his composure before sweat started creeping down his cheeks. The holomap had detected and registered a new hostile vessel within range, the Reaper was closing in. “Full speed! We have to catch up with the convoy!”

The convoy lingered ahead, their counter-thrusters still firing. They did not intend to continue without escort. Their guns remained silent, as they turned to wide, circling arcs; the central freighters, the most valuable cargo, using the rest as shields. A tightbeam from Old Elizabeth walked to the Dawn's receiver, and the signalman's voice came once more, "Old Elizabeth to Dawn's Early Light, support is thirty minutes out. Relay orders, repeat, relay orders. We are prepared to hold out for support, or, should the path be clear, we are prepared to make a run for safe space."

Hernandaz was swift to reply. “We stand a better chance booking it to safe space, signalmen.” He replied to the message. “Proceed to the coordinates as charted, we’ll try to catch up to the convey, and even if we don’t, still push through till you reach to safety.” He turned his attention back to the bridge staff. “Maintain our current speed, fight off any of the bastards that get close, and if, God Willing, the Reaper shows up, we’ll stall it enough for the others to make it to friendly space.”

The radio was quiet for a while. When the signalman's voice returned, there was just a hint of despair in his tone, "Old Elizabeth acknowledges. We will relay to the rest of the freighters," the signalman paused a moment, and then, quietly added, "godspeed and good luck; give them hell."

The convoy killed their counter-thrusters, and once more their primary rockets came fully online. They flared blindingly as the freighters moved to max acceleration, rocketing away towards the coordinates. They were fast, far faster than any of the vessels on either side. Behind them, that same trail of exotic particulate, slowly fizzling away in vacuum.

Captain Hernandaz fell to his chair, feeling all a flurry of emotions at once. He couldn’t afford the tears, however, as the lives of well over a thousand sailors and marines laid on his hands. But all those lives would follow him to the jaws of dearth if willing. He scanned the room once more, the bridge staff looking to him for their next course of action, push through as planned? Make a sudden turn for the Reaper? Something in between? “Orders, sir?” His X.O. asked, her expression with a mix of uncertainty and fear. The captain clasped his hands as he jolted up from his chair.

“First order of business, mop up the remaining enemy fighters, and recall our own.” He paused as he stepped towards the center of the room, looking to the holomap, the Reaper drawing closer. “I sure as hell ain’t leaving anyone else behind. Once all pilots are accounted for, we book it, we have no chance of regrouping with the convoy, so we do our damn best to hold out, stall the bastard if it shows up, you got me?”

“Aye, aye, captain!” They reply in unison. The captain smirked. “Good, if we die, we die in a blaze of glory!”

The Dawn’s Early Light proceed as usual, guns blazing through the void as once by one, the Janissary fighter craft were made into stardust. The Dawn’s surviving pilots regrouped and and were recalled as the engines burst with life, the battlecruiser jolting onwards. The Reaper, however, was quickly catch up, her own captain becoming Impatient and eager for an easy slaughter.

A tightbeam from a far distance focused on the Dawn's Early Light, and a distant voice crackled. A familiar one, a signalman who had been on the Herald of the Morning when first contact had been made. His voice was gruff, and he said, "Herald of the Morning to Dawn's Early Light, report ten minutes out, repeat, ten minutes. Break," he swapped to a different topic, "maintain enemy attention. We will make a high-v pass. Three torpedo spread. Acknowledge."

Before the message had arrived, the trip had been rather emotionally exhausting for many, this voyage most likely would’ve been or will be, the last for many onboard. However, once the message from the Herald broke though, there was hope for survival. The captain was quick to respond, barely containing the excitement in his voice. “Copy that! We’ll keep them busy long enough for us to make a pincer move on them, over and out.” He turned to his X.O. “Change of plans, we’re charging straight at the reaper. Help’s coming and with our combined firepower, we can take down that monster.” With those words, some the bridge staff were fearful, but others cheered on, as they may be among those that sunk a Yulzan warship.

The Dawn’s Early Light made a starboard turn, charging head on to confront the Reaper. A few tense minutes pass before the dreaded moment finally came, the Reaper was within visual range, and immediately began to fire. The Yulzan ship exploding in an array of red plasma streams and bolts as the Dawn’s shields were under constant stress from the attack. “Evasive maneuvers!” Hernandaz cried out. “Keep our distance! Fire all batteries!” The Dawn’s engaged in a hit and run maneuver as both she and the Reaper exchanged shots, the Reaper’s own shields illuminating from every hit from the Dawn’s own payload, slowly wearing it down, however, her own shields were dwindling in a frighting pace. The bridge trembled from another shot from the Reaper. “Shields down to 20%, sir! We can’t take another shot like that!”

“Hold! We’ll make it through! I Promise!”

In the far distance, a ship travelling far too quickly to engage. It streaked across the sensors like a shooting star in the night, the flare of its engines at full-blast as it accelerated faster and faster. It was the Herald of the Morning, not bothering to decelerate, just streaking faster and faster towards the fight. It would only get two or three seconds to engage, it couldn't possibly be enough to do any meaningful damage.

As it rocketed above the Reaper, three torpedos released, one after the other. They hurtled, at great speed, towards the battlecruiser, as their mother vessel streaked off the sensors on the other side. One torpedo missed entirely, hurtling off into the dark. The second landed home, but wedged in the armor, undetonated. They were experimental, never before tested. It was entirely likely they might all fail, leave the Reaper to destroy the convoy.

And then the third hit, and the Reaper was replaced by a blinding flash. The Dawn's shields dropped as a vast pressure wave knocked their ship into a spin. A purple, fiery sphere expanded from the impact point. Then, a second blinding flash as the undetonated torpedo blew. The spin got worse, and the armor was peeled from the escorts. When the twin spheres of destruction cleared, all that remained of the Reaper was dust.

Once the fight was over, Dawn's drifted along the void, the explosion alone leaving the ship in worse condition then its fight with the Reaper, but it remained functional enough. Life slowly flickered back into the vessel, the once darkened bridge was now dimly lit as the crew awoken from their deadly ride. Blood dripping from the captain’s forehead as he came to. “Fuck that hurts…” He mumbled. “Any… sign of the Reaper?”

One of the bridge staff moaned as he stood up, having a good look of the flicking holo-display “Holy shit.” He cursed. “It’s… gone.”

“Holy shit, they did it.” Hernandez mumbled once more, in awe of what the Herald managed to do. “That’s one hell of a weapons demo.”
“…What now?” The X.O. asked.

“What else? Engines are still somewhat functional, we maintain course back home. May take a while, but we're alive, and that’s all that matters.”
Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Tortoise
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Gilt and Yulzan

Collab between Sigma and Tortoise


Andrei frowned at a holographic read-out displayed over his desk. He seemed to spend a lot of time doing that these days, he thought. Just kind of brooding in the general direction of technology. Not because he was a luddite- far from it, he was a tech billionaire, after all- but because lately technology seemed exclusively to be used to convey unpleasant information to him about all the new and gross peoples that the Giltians were meeting.

"Yool-zan," Andrei muttered the alien word under his breath like it's a swear. It may as well have been one. He was told, not asked, but told, that he'd be meeting with at 2 PM, Rainbow Time. It was a voice message from his mother that told him that- more technology delivering bad news, see?- and it told him three hours past. Every thing he knew about the Yulzan he learned in that time. He enjoyed exactly none of it.

"So," he asked Blue Girl, the sym secratary always standing by his side. "They're like... religious zealots? But the weird, skin-crawly alien version? How does that work?"

The tall, aquamarine robot sighed, but in a very contained and polite sort of way. "Well, neither. There's a lot of people, some humans included, who worship them as divine. The Yulzan themselves are either gods or conmen, depending on who it is you ask."

"Hey, I asked you."

"I think they're fully and totally insane," she said. Andrei twerked his eyebrows in the way that signaled that he agreed, but he wasn't happy about it. "Also," Blue Girl said, "they're here. Now. Shall I let them in?"

"Do you have to?"

She did.

The room onboard the esteemed Rainbow ship that the Yulzan representatives were invited to meet the Giltians in was better than ordinary. More decorated, and more spacious despite the cramped reality of life on a starship. It had occured to the Giltians that these were a proud people, and pride makes for a good customer so long as it is well-satisfied. The room was a classy dining hall with a golden chandelier, carpeted and with a beautiful, curved window-wall that overlooked the East India Marketplace. There were a half-dozen stamp servants standing guard around the room, but no persons seated at the dining table but Andrei and four other businessmen. Those five and Blue Girl would be meeting the aliens alone. The less people knew about this, the better. For all the beauty and decoration that abounded, this remained something of a shady back-room deal, and everyone could feel it. There was no food on the table this time. Just datapads and electronic pens, the sort for signing contracts.

The two large doors opposite Andrei slid open.

Andrei was greeted by the sight of two imposing figures stomping past the doors, their build towering everyone present in the room. Flanking the pair was a smaller figure more comparable to human height, a member of the insectoid Aldzir dressed in religious garbs in a various shades of crimson, gold, and ebony. The Aldzir moved ahead, ready to present. “Presenting the most exalted of the mighty Yulzan! The High Ascendants Zara’gul and Vras’thran!” The Aldzir bowed as he shuffled to the left, the High Ascendant representatives approaching table. Both choosing to not sit at the moment.

The Giltians were stumbled a little. The five humans in the room had no one response, but if you were to condense down what they were collectively feeeling just then, it'd read as "What century is this?" There was something so distnictly medieval about that entrance. One of the businesswomen, an OldWell Representative by the name of Mrs. Battle, was shocked into standing up out of her chair and, in an attempt to recover from the awkwardness, did a little bow. The other Giltians looked at her. Then, not to be upstaged in front of a client, followed suit. Three more Giltians stood out of their chairs and sketched their best imitations of short bows before sitting back down. Only Andrei remained seated.

"Well, uh" he said. "Nice to meet you. I'm Andrei Federov. And I suppose you're Zara-gal and Vras Dan." He butchered their names so smoothly you would think it was intentional. "Good to have you here."

Ignoring the rather insulting butchering of their names, however, the rather accidental and awkward bows had alleviated any offences taken, Zara’gul gave a slight nod. “A pleasure.” He begun. “We’re pleased to find humans that are willing to sit down and simply talk with us…it is a rare quality these days.” Granted, it’s a situation of their own making. “The sourness of our war has reached many ears, nearly all have turned against us.”

Vras’thran was next to speak, an ethereal, feminine voice vibrating in the air. “So, few recognize our divinity, blind to their hatred and ignorance of the alien, clinging to their false beliefs in the name of “liberty” or other such nonsense.” She paused as she scanned the room. “But forgive our blather, what business do you wish to discuss?”

"The businessness of business," said Andrei. He shifted his shoulders, crossed his hands over the table. To those who knew him, this was the signifier he was about to start putting on his Reasonable Businessman persona.

As much as he enjoyed playing the offensive drunk, and hated himself for it at the same time, he was technically a trained speaker. There are times to tap into that, he reasoned. When huge aliens are standing in front of you and speaking with the voices of angels, that is one of those times. "You say that all have turned against you. Gilt, of course, has not. We do not turn away a people before we've heard their story-" true, so far- "and we don't turn down possible partners just because others disregard them. There is a place for everyone to work with us. Your war has been brutal, from everything we've heard. This is the time when you need a partner. Someone whose goods can shift things in your favor. We're willing to be that partner, in exchange for, of course, fair trades and reasonable repayment. We are honest businessmen, in search of honest work." There's the deceptive part. "And, of course, that means nothing is off the table. Weapons, metal..." he looked over at the stamps, "...labor, especially. Cheap labor, if you understand me."

Andrei shrugged so lightly it was a lie. "I'm sure we'll come to some mutally beneficial agreements."

The two Yulzan exchanged looks to one another, nodding before turning to Andrei. “Mr. FIdarof. “Zara’gul begun, having his own moment and butchering Andrei’s last name, after decades of Human interaction, some Yulzan still find it difficult to communicate with humans, their many dialects are a confusing concept to a Yulzan, and miscommunication is bound to occur.

“The simple act of your offering to meet us at the table is a more than suitable enough gesture to hear you out. Whatever services you offer, we members of the ruling council are more then willing to pay for it. What more can you tell us?”

Some of the Giltians looked around at each other uncomfortably. One thing they'd learned from the nations they'd met so far is that this is always the Awkward Part. If they receive backlash, this is when it'll happen.

"Are you aware of stamps and syms?" asked Blue Girl, and every human in the room visibly relaxed. Not because they trusted her more than they would've trusted themselves to explain it. But because now they didn't have to.

"The terms are unfamiliar to us." Zara'gul replied.

"Mhmm," hummed Blue Girl. "Well, stamps are essentially biological robots, whereas syms are mechanical robots, like myself. Stamps are programmed to do specific jobs by tailored instinct and by cybernetic implants. For syms, our minds are copied over from human minds; but, worry not, the human is kept safely unharmed by this process. But," she waved her hand, "let us not get too caught up in the details. The essential bit to understand is only this: stamps and syms do most of the manual labor on Gilt, and so that keeps things very inexpensive. We can mass-produce goods with a speed and effeciency most peoples never obtain. What that means for you is that we can sell nearly anything. In your cases... I'd imagine you are in the market for weaponry and other purely-defensive military needs, no? We can supply that."

"And," said Andrei, but didn't continue. He was leaving it to Blue.

"And," said the sym, "we can also sell excess stamps and other syms. To do labor on your behalf. We work several times harder than humans do, rarely make mistakes, and do not require payment. I think it would be most beneficial to your wartime economy if you wished to purchase some."

The two exchanged looks, turning away from the humans as they quietly exchanged words, small mumbles heard here and there before the two High Ascendants turned back and face Andrei and the others. “What you offer is very promising.”

The description of the stamps in particular offers many opportunities, workers, cheap soldiers to swell the ranks of the Janissaries, and in between….and they may provide possible biomaterial for the continued development of the Condemned. The Syms would provide a similar advantage, further automating the Ascendancy in every aspect. “Consider us sold on your…”pitch” as you humans say.”
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