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Presenting, an Eventua and @Tortoise co-production...

It was always a slightly strange experience, docking an Avatar-class vessel. To outsiders and to its crew it was merely a ship – albeit elaborately decorated – a protective shield against the void of space… but to the tachyon to whom it was their personal chariot, it was effectively their body. Rows upon rows of carefully balanced transmitters and databanks, a powerful series of quantum computers integrated into every system.

Every door, every sensor, every panel and screen and input: in a very real sense for Gatsby’s mind, it was his “true” body, and had been so for almost three-hundred years.

To dock with the Rainbow though… it was a ship on a scale that dwarfed the great station of Spirit’s Loss – a construction on par with the entirety of the Meeting Place and yet, obscenely, it was just a creation of one nation rather than many. A billion lights and sounds and scents, a great hub of humanity that endlessly screamed into the void: “Look at us! We have goods to sell!”

For the briefest of moments as the two vessels became one, Gatsby felt his mind stretch…

and stretch…

and stretch almost to the point of breaking.

As the link of consciousness was stretched and the golden spiraling shell he inhabited powered down, he was struck by flashes of his vacations to Las Vegas, Mumbai and Tokyo centuries ago on a now dead world, the endless sensation of greed and product and consumption, to know that there was always more.

But then, just as quickly as it had come it went: his mind contracted, compressed and lifted by the form of his personal luminous carrier, Old Billsby. Billsby’s body was still kept in good condition – carefully molded plates of gold and ivory around a quadrupedal shell that housed a mesh of tubes and fluids, life support for what remained of the original diplat’s organic brain and nervous system. Through this amalgam of meat and metal and polymer, Gatsby’s holographic form was projected by a small group of networked drones that hovered just by Billsby and through the cyborg’s four glowing eye-projectors.

The vague sensation of ‘Ready to go, sir?’ lit up at the back of what remained of the diplat’s mind – though the exact words were tricky to make out – and Gatsby simply projected the feeling of ‘nodding’ in response.

[Docking complete], beeped one of the ampere support staff joining him on this mission, [security staff are ready].

[“Excellent”], he signaled back, [“Let’s go meet our new friends, shall we?”]

So out they scuttled, five in total – Gatsby’s hologram on his golden carrier, flanked by a pair of meter measurement in their neat gold and white uniforms, armed with sheathed swords and holstered pistols. Behind him were the scurrying amperes, who eagerly observed their surroundings, scanning every surface and rivet. For the meter measurements – themselves mostly organic and humanoid, in some ways resembling the more animalistic labourers of the Rainbow, albeit with strange scarring under their large, predatory eyes – the vast array of lights brought back reminders of the dancing clubs in some of the grander pit cities or the great satellite arcologies.

To Gatsby and the amperes, however, it extended far beyond that – the network of signals and data they shared revealed a vast hurricane of data and light, power lines and circuits stretching in vast fractal patterns. For a brief moment, Gatsby almost felt a “headache” of sorts coming on, until he actively filtered out most of it from his “conscious” mind, allowing himself to enjoy it on a “human” level.

They were being led through this neon, nausea-inducing carnival of a world by two stamps that had met them at the bay where they docked. It was obvious from the way the stamp duo moved that they were either intimately familiar with the sudden turns of this eclectic bazaar of a ship, or that they were following some path that only their eyes could see. Normally humans on the Rainbow pushed right through stamps. But these two, both tall and thin with insectoid features that could have rivaled the Aizir of the Ascendency, seemed to clear a path wherever they walked. These stamps were known to belong to some of the biggest players onboard the Rainbow. These bugs had pedigree. The crowd parted to let them through; and those who followed them.

They stopped at a gaudy elevator that jutted jarringly from out of a wall.

“Ambassador Molls Flynn is expecting you,” said the more feminine one, with the face of a cicada. But her voice was deeply soothing to human ears. “The elevator here will take you straight to her. It’s large enough to fit your whole party. We’re so glad to have you all here. You'll be impressed with what Gilt has to offer!”

“Right.” Affirmed the more masculine one, whose face was like a handsome young man’s if his paternal grandmother had been a housefly. His voice was the inverse of soothing. Weirdly intimidating in an under-your-skin way that could not be pinned down. Something in the resonance of it brought awful thoughts to one’s mind. “We love having guests. Right this way…”

Gatsby nodded politely to each of the guides in turn, as did his meter guards, who seemed ever so slightly nervous to be looking up so sharply – after all, by diplat standards they were very tall, a little over five feet, and used to projecting authority. By contrast the amperes were used to being diminutive and little notice, and having long ago been stripped of everything other than functionality, were simply eager to understand the genetic makeup and origins of the insectoids. One of the amperes emitted a series of short beeps, an encoded request for information, and Gatsby flickered briefly in response. In a fraction of a second the conversation was already over, and the ampere simply turned to scan the elevator instead.

Gatsby’s hologram gave the fly man something resembling a casual salute, before smiling again at the cicada woman.

“The welcome is very well appreciated, and this ship… it reminds me of Earth in a way. I can already see wonderful potential.”

The elevator took them up. Then to the left. Then down. Then a little left again, then it made a hard swing right, then back up, down, left until it was impossible to pinpoint where you were or where you’d come from. It was a smooth but random ride. Gatsby’s group wouldn’t at all be mistaken to think that it was intended just to confuse their sense of direction. But when it opened up at last, they stood in a finely decorated, modern office. At the end of a long and mahogany table, there sat Ambassador Flynn and her sym assistant.

Internally Gatsby couldn’t help but scoff; it briefly reminded him of the lengths Jaeger went to in order to try and disorient would-be intruders on his “projects”, and left a bitter taste in his mouth. Still, it made sense – in a world of endless competition for patents and wealth among tangible beings, one could never be too careful.

But his first thought upon leaving the elevator was all together different.

Is that real mahogany?

His hologram smiled warmly as the crab-like luminous carrying it shifted its form and stance, striding forwards with gentle steps designed to match the cadence of a young man eager to make friends.

“Ambassador Flynn, I presume? A pleasure to meet your acquaintance, and to be welcomed to a really fantastic city, just… spectacular work all around. Your people should be very proud of their accomplishments.”

Ambassador Flynn rose from her table and, in a move almost no other Giltian alive would’ve done, boldly strode up to the hologram on crab legs and offered it her hand to shake. Within herself, she didn’t know if a hologram could shake hands or not (Gilt had a few touchable holos, so she reasons that it’s not inconceivable others might have made them too) but her mind was always set on Keeping Up Appearances. That was part of her job. For a heavy-set, middle-aged woman with such a kindly face, Flynn had a bit of a core of steel inside herself. The strangeness of the visitors didn’t shake her.

“Yes,” she said as she lifted out her hand, “to my knowledge, the Rainbow is the first and only fully self-propelled spaceborne structure to house this many lives.”

Her cybernetic sym assistant, the tall and gold-bodied Ethan, nodded and said “But this only a taste of the overall width and breadth of Giltian culture. Somebody you must visit Gilt proper. There is nowhere else in all the colonies so… bright, I promise.”

The forward limbs of Gatsby’s carrier unfurled, a delicate filigree rearranging itself into the approximation of a human hand – enough to fill out the hologram’s fingers, anyway.

Cold to the touch.

“While the Summation has prided itself on its own interstellar engineering, this really is… really, something else. Reminds me of places I’d started to forget, back on Earth, and I mean that with the highest praise.”

He turned to smile at the sym, nodding at the suggestion.

“I’d love to. I’ve done a little reading on Gilt and I have to say, it sounds like a really fabulous place to stay. Sit back on the sand, watch the sunset, enjoy a martini and good company… the good life.”

One of the small scuttling cyborgs in his entourage emitted a sequence of beeps, and for a moment Gatsby’s hologram flickered, a brief but sudden exchange spoken in signals that even to an expensive and experienced sym like Ethan would have been tricky to parse. The sym blinked, and didn’t understand it.

Just as quickly, the conversation was over and Gatsby’s hologram flickered back into the “present”, once again carefully rendered to an almost perfect photo realism… tweaked, of course, ever so slightly as to remove unnecessary creases or ruffles. He smiled as if nothing strange had happened at all.

“I’m curious, Ambassador… my father used to have, uh, spirited conversations with the CEO of Daython. How are they doing? I understand they were involved with the colony ship responsible for Gilt’s founding.”

Both the Ambassador and Ethan stared at the holographic man in wordless shock.

“Your… father?” asked Ethan.

“Daython?” asked Flynn. “Well, they’re doing well. They’re a part of the Oldwell Conglomerate now, the largest of our corporations, rendering by number of employees and by land owned, but…”

The two Giltians looked at each other, met eyes, and an instant conversation of their own kind passed between them. Ethan took the reins.

“I may have misunderstood,” said Ethan. “I was aware that you are a digitized consciousness, much like my own. But I had no idea you were so… venerable.” He was silent a moment longer, and then in a softer voice, aware of the illegality of what he was about to say, added, “I was a boy when Earth died. You are the only person I’ve met in centuries older than myself.”

Flynn shook her head and said, “No- I apologize, Mr. Gatsby, but- no, I think what my assistant means to say is that he has the stored memories of a human man who was a boy when Earth died. Talk of Earth always makes him confused. Sym minds are based on humans, but are not humans.” And then, hastily, she added, “Unlike yourself, of course.”

Gatsby’s hologram smiled at the mention of Daython’s merging.

“Glad to hear they’re still around, part of something bigger. Under new management, heh, dad always used to reckon they’d be better off shut down, but… he wasn’t as great a man as he pictured himself to be. But you-”

His hologram began to glow a little brighter as he turned to look Ethan in the ‘eyes’ and gave the sym a sympathetic nod, leaning in ever so slightly closer.

“It must’ve been strange, to have to leave it behind so young. It’s a pleasure to meet another… heh, would we use the term ‘Earthling’, I wonder? Rare to come by beyond our borders, anyway. You should come visit some time.”

Ethan nodded.

His gaze turning back to the ambassador, Gatsby placed a hand against his chin. Not that he needed to, of course – by definition the hologram’s movements were calculated in fractions of seconds and deliberate, no longer having any of the physical organs or nervous system that guided a physical body.

“I’ve only read brief summaries of Gilt’s impressive neural storage and feats of gene-editing, but there could certainly be a lot to learn on both accounts – the diplat home world is full of possibilities, but intellect and discretion? That’s harder to come by. And while memory uploads are very impressive, of course, but… I’d be curious what Gilt might be able to do with full tachyon ascendancy.”

At his words the amperes behind him said nothing, but their spider-like lens clusters swiveled to share a brief look.

Full ascendancy?” asked Flynn. She kept her voice calm but pronounced the words with an emphasis. He couldn’t possibly know it, but Gatsby was walking into dangerous territory even with those words. It implies firstly that Giltian technology isn’t to the level of the Summation’s, and secondly that becoming an AI is somehow an ascent out of being a human being. Both implications are a smack to the face.

She steers the conversation into something else.

“Yes, well, gene-editing is as much a part of the equation, that’s true. Your world experimented along similar lines, haven’t you? I did some reading. It seems that your colony ship came to a planet that was inhabited by alien lifeforms, and you were generous enough to bring them into the fold. Just looking at who you’ve brought with you,” she laughed lightly, “you’ve done some brilliant work with them.”

Gatsby didn’t show it, but a brief ‘Shit’ crossed his mind at Flynn’s reaction to his choice of words.

‘Of course,’ he thought as something clicked into place, ‘They see their human forms as vital to maintain.’

He gave a warm smile, allowing her to change the subject without pushback.

“Well thank you, yes, we…” he gestured to those with him, “it’s been a long, refined process. The measurement system is designed to find clear functions in society for every diplat, and provide the necessary changes to make them even better suited to such.”

He nodded at one of the meter guards, his carrier emitting a series of sounds somewhere between a wet sponge on its third squeeze and a damaged bagpipe being hit with a stick. In response the guard nodded and clicked… something, hidden just behind the patch of quills and skin around what was presumably an ear.

“Tachyon Gatsby says you think we are brilliant work. Thank you for-”

It paused, wincing briefly.

“Kindness, thank you. Current body much better than before.”

Gatsby nodded and the diplat unclicked the translator before standing to attention once more.

“I’m curious, did Gilt have any sapient life of its own when you arrived? Some of our more adventurous minds are always keen to have additional samples.”

Flynn’s eyes went wide in amazement at the talking guard. She couldn’t stop herself from being fascinated at new forms of life, especially artificially-created ones. For a half a second she had morphed from fifty to five years old, at least in the eyes and the smile. She said, “Amazing! Our stamps are the closest thing to that, I… ah, I should have had some waiting in here for you. We can call some in, if you wish. They’re always standing by.”

At Gastby’s question, she straightens her stance and answers. “Oh, there were many forms of alien life on Gilt, of course, and her sister planet Argent. But ‘sapience’ is a subjective concept. There’s a real scientific debate to be had over whether it exists at all, or if it is simply a label that we put on some life and not on others, for usually self-serving reasons. In the many stamps I’ve met, I have yet to ascertain a clear dividing line at all between the ones we call sapient and the ones we call non-sapient. Brains and intelligence are complex subjects, and our understanding of them is always evolving, Mr. Gatsby.” Ambassador Flynn, like any true corporate of Gilt, relied on making her words sleek and meaningless when she wanted to avoid a question. She talked a paragraph without telling him about Gilt’s natives.

Gatsby nodded along at her answer.

‘Always nice to remember everyone else can dodge questions too. Wouldn’t want to get rusty,’ he thought.

“I appreciate the offer on these… ‘stamps’, you mentioned. We’d love some samples, perhaps towards the end of my visit? We’re very excited to open trade with… maybe ‘ideological’ is the wrong term. Allies who understand discretion and necessity?”

The ampere to his right emitted a series of beeps, and his carrier simply beeped in response.

“And of course, sorry, my amperes have kindly reminded me to ask. Since Gilt has shown itself to be such a gracious host… how can I put this? Since my mind as you observe it now is condensed and focused into the ‘luminous’ diplat who carries me… but my true mind is vaster than it used to be. Seeing Gilt’s brilliance with my eyes is fascinating and brings back pleasant memories of my old life, I’d just… love to see what the Rainbow has to offer to a digital being. For the sake of giving a thorough report to my colleagues, you understand?”

Ambassador Flynn waved her hand up in a ‘go ahead’ gesture, saying, “Discretion and necessity almost is Gilt’s ideology. We’re a practical people. To be totally frank, Mr. Gastby? We care very little what you do on your own world, and care much more about what you can trade us.”

Ethan tagged in, “That’s true. No rational person places ideology over resources and mutual benefit. Giltians are rational. We have hope that you are also rational. If you’re going to go looking through the Rainbow’s information systems, by the way, I recommend looking into the database titled ‘Rainbow Public Library.’ The name is a joke, since Gilt doesn’t have a public anything, but it really is a vast library of digital knowledge- history, science, genetics, so on. It’s maintained mostly by dedicated individuals on their own free time, but the information is good.”

Gatsby smiled and nodded at the offer.

“I won’t have to detach too much from the conversation,” he said, the hologram flickering as one of the emitters attached to the luminous switched to a cold blue colour, “and thank you, it’s fascinating to learn a little about other nations on a ‘personal’ level.”

‘People giving up their time for free in this society is… impressive. Patterns of thought outside the grain of their system. Useful.’ he thought.

As an echo of his mind began its wanderings through the Rainbow’s internet, his hologram clasped its hands together.

“Now, trade! I love the initiative on it, so…”

The luminous carrier emitted a series of beeps, and the ampere to his right scuttled forwards. One of the prongs on its front-side unfurled and plugged into a port on the luminous, with a second hologram now breaking off from Gatsby’s own. A list of organisms began to appear – a combination of plant and animal-analogues, though not all seemed to have clear industrial applications.

“I myself am not a specialist in every field, of course, but we would be keen to go over a few possibilities. While we appreciate the scale of Gilt’s industrial base, we don’t lack for that ourselves on both large and smaller scale projects. Rather, we would be keen to receive samples of genetic material – and if possible live specimens – of many Gilt and Argent organisms.”

The secondary hologram shifted to include a second list of rare elements and unusual alloys.

“Our system has valuable, rare elements and supplies of specialist, hard to create alloys often used in our projects. We would be happy to trade these, and… if you have other interests we could assist with, I’d love to know more.”

“And we’d love to tell you more!” smiled Molls. “Well, we have many raw resources on Gilt, though of less rarity than you describe yourselves as having. The planet Gilt and the surrounding asteroids are intensely metal-rich. I could easily foresee a deal where the Gilt Division trades large amounts of more common metals for smaller amounts of your rarer elements. But, still, I do see the larger part of our agreement being centered around genetic material. I suspect we have a shared interest there.”

Ethan spoke up, “The native life to the planet Gilt is, unfortunately, no longer living, but that does not mean we cannot trade it. Our progenitors predicted the death of Giltian life, and so we have DNA stores of every lifeform that once breathed on Gilt. They show a remarkable convergent evolution with much of life on Earth, though they seem to have arrived at these similar destinations through a very different evolutionary route, if you understand me. Argent, her snowy sister planet, on the other hand-”

“That planet is a hivemind,” interrupted Molls.

“Uh, yes,” said Ethan.

“Sorry, but I wanted to get the big thing out of the way,” she goes on. “You would have built up to it forever. The native lifeforms to Argent, Mr. Gatsby, have a way of communicating with one another that we don’t fully understand. The entire world seems to be a linked mental system. The animal-like creatures are also able to think and act independently of the hive, and so, we suspect, are only aware of their connection on an instinctual or subconscious level. But that’s conjecture. The fact of the matter is that all the creatures on Argent operate as one life in a way that is more than Transcendentalist metaphor.”

“But,” Ethan added, “this doesn’t mean we can’t bag them and sell them to you.”

Gatsby smiled. He had spoken briefly to representatives from Ishtar some months ago, before it became apparent that the paranoia following their recent conflicts and the nature of their technology would put a dampener on getting easy access to the sort of thing that was now being just…

Thrown out there.

“I can think,” he said, taking great care to stroke his chin as if deep in thought – entirely a gesture for show – “of a few colleagues who would be very interested in visiting Argent and being able to analyze its creatures. In fact… might I ask your policy on other nations establishing laboratories or outposts within your system? Most are distrustful of the idea of course, but an ecosystem like that sounds fascinating.”

‘And,’ he thought, ‘It will get at least a few of them where I can keep an easy eye out.’

“Well,” said Molls, lifting her head proudly, “it is our planet, Mr. Gatsby. We are naturally solicitous. Much of it is divided up into corporate property, anyway, and isn’t mine to deal with.”

She paused and tapped away on her infopad, her own pretended gesture. The Division owned more land on Argent than it owned on Gilt, technically speaking. None of the corporations wanted to buy it from them, and all were willing to sell it cheap. Argent land is useless land, on account of the hostility of essentially all the native life. People get eaten by plants on that world. She lifted her eyes from the infopad with a look of sudden satisfaction. “Ah! But I do see here that the Division proper has a few small areas under our name that we’re not currently using. Hm. Is your nation still familiar with the concept of paying rent?”

Gatsby smiled again.

“Yes. Funnily enough, that was one of the easier concepts to teach the diplat. It’s quite normal for most diplat to pay rent for their burrows and apartments.”

His secondary hologram began to break down and shift, rebuilding itself into a network of wide but shallow, dome-like habitats, workers and machines in various forms, centered around some kind of tall tower-like structure and surrounded by walls and turrets.

“This is a common template for the extraplanetary colonies we’ve established on the other worlds of our system, barring specific modifications of course. We would be interested longer-term in potential mining and settlement options in addition to research efforts…”

He then shrugged as the hologram shifted to that of internal laboratories, carefully laid out and intricate, for everything from biological and psychological studies, gene-editing, to mineral surveys.

“...with a regular payment in a percentage of what we access, both as regards to data, DNA, and resources, of course.”

Molls says, “Of course, and don't forget the Pirate Problem in the Gilitian system. There's a few criminals out there who would target a young operation Argentside like yours. Don't worry, we'll provide protection- that small fee just gets rolled in with everything else.” (The fee would not be small. Gatsby seems interested in making this deal happen- no Gilitian can stop themselves from milking that.)

“Other than that,” the ambassador says, “I think we may have the foundations of an agreement here: common metals traded for rare alloys, genetic information and a few live specimens shared between both parties, and appropriate payment for a Summation-run Argentside base. Anything else, Mr. Gatsby?”

Gatsby clapped his hands together before holding it out to shake – one of his carrier’s limbs reshuffling into an approximation of a human hand to fill out the surface.

“Only a thank you, for your hospitality. I think this will be the start of a very profitable arrangement.”

The details would be ironed out in time, of course, but as they were a very different conversation was happening in silence. The advantages of a digital mind were many, not least of all the ability to speak in depth and at speeds faster than an organic human brain, and to have such conversations at great distances.

In Ethan’s mind an invitation would ‘ping’.

When Ethan responded, he felt his mind stretch and bend… then snap back into place. Stretched before the sym was a white marble kitchen, neatly decorated but largely empty – there stood a tall black fridge, neatly lined up next to a clean stove top. Light shone into the room from a window that revealed nothing beyond it but white light and the sound of birds singing.

A smartly dressed young man in his mid-twenties with sharp blonde hair and piercing blue eyes stood by the fridge, and gave the sym a quick finger gun salute.

“Can I get you anything? I can’t promise it’ll taste exactly as you might remember it, but this is one of the memories I’ve worked hard to keep in, mwah,” he smiled and made the age old gesture of ‘chef’s kiss’, “condition parfait.”

Ethan stood there in his tall and golden body, feeling out-of-place in this domestic aura. He was all metal; around him, the memories of…

“Earth?” he asked. “That’s where this simulation is meant to be, isn’t it?” He probed with his mind. Tried to understand the process that was causing this mirage of a world long dead to form itself in his digital mind. As fast as he could think- which is quite fast, for a sym- he ran through all the data the shared memory made available to him. It was different from Giltian technology, but built with similar goals, based on similar Old Earth technology. He believed he understood it. The gist of it, at least; never the specifics.

‘“Yes,” said Ethan, “I think you can get me something. More than anything in the world, you know what I’d like? A cup of water. It’s been two hundred years.”

Gatsby nodded at the humble request, and reached up to take a glass from the casing – ordinary and wide despite appearing to be fine crystal – before turning the tap and filling it up.

“Y’know, I like that. A good pick. I’ve got old memories of the drinks on Earth – what was left of them, anyway, after most of the plants had died and there wasn’t time left for old school aging – but fresh water doesn’t come up so much,” he handed the glass to Ethan with a wink, “enjoy.”

Ethan did not enjoy.

He did take a sip of it- but, with lighting-fast clarity, he compared it to his human original’s memories of water and found that it this simulation was just slightly off. Too plastic, too metal. Like drinking watered-down iron. It was the face of a loved one changed just enough to put you off. It made Ethan uneasy.

Gatsby smirked as he crossed his arms, having filled a glass to take a sip himself.

“It’s a shame, y’know? For all the wealth of the universe liquid water remains more precious than gold for living creatures, but we-” he gestured between himself and Ethan, “only worry about it for nostalgia’s sake. Same with food, air, and sleep-”

“I miss sleep,” said Ethan, genuine longing filling his usually melodic voice with static. He spoke according to a set pattern: his voice rose and fell in iambic pentameter, and then also tinted higher in pitch on every third and fifth syllable, bestowing a musical, pleasant but distinctly non-human impression.

But when he was distressed, an automatic process threw white noise into the mix. The sym rendition of ‘sounding upset.’ “Sym minds never stop working on Gilt,” said Ethan. “Did you know I’ve spent the last 200 years at constant labor? Right now is no exception. I’m calculating the impact the gravity of Mars is having on the Rainbow, receiving pings every time Flynn gets a message- she gets thirteen an hour, on average- and… well, I suppose you know what it’s like.”

Gatsby nodded and put his glass down, his easy confidence dropping for a moment, replaced with a kind of knowing sympathy.

“To some degree, yes. To be a tachyon is to exist, well… constantly. We are able to rewrite our minds in a way where we avoid the worst side effects, but every change reflects itself in, uh…” he gave a sheepish smile, “erratic, ways. We find ways to make our minds ‘rest’, but it’s not the same as true ‘sleep’, dreaming was especially hard to emulate. And-”

He reached over and tapped the surface of the kitchen table – for a moment the glass rippled like a pebble in water, the intricate simulation shifting and breaking down somewhat – before it suddenly lit up with a pale blue hologram. Not projected by anything specific, of course – it was no more or less ‘real’ than anything else in Gatsby’s mind palace

The hologram showed the structure of the Summation, and the great cities of Moumlet – lit up with vast industrial projects and networks of servers.

“-while we are certainly able to exist in a constant state of activity that would blindside ordinary humans, I can’t possibly imagine what it would be like to do so at the mercy of ordinary organic minds.”

He sighed.

“It’s tough enough playing god for people when for all intents and purposes you are a god. I can’t imagine how tough it would be without the worship.”

Ethan shook his head. “What a foreign statement. No offense, but you’ve clearly not spent enough time with my people yet. I have never felt like a god, Mr. Gatsby.” He felt like a smart slave. “There is no such thing as divinity where I'm from. I do not know if gods exist anywhere in the universe, but if they do, they have never walked on the sand of Gilt. The world is a black hole of spirituality. We’ve melted down all the temples and idols to make more cutlery and cans. Metaphorically speaking.”

Ethan paused, took a sip of the not-quite-water again and crossed his golden arms. He realized suddenly that he’s sharing too much.

Gatsby raised his hands and took a step back, before nodding his head slightly. For the briefest moment – barely a fraction of a second, just barely visible – the human figure in front of Ethan flickered then stabilized as before.

“Sorry. Of course, I wasn’t meaning to offend,” he gave a gentle smile and nodded, “faith is… well, while we see value in our work with Azulvista, we don’t see eye-to-eye on every topic. Faith has its uses, especially for the organic many, but wealth and the material, well, that’s…”

Gatsby smiled and gestured to the image on the table again, which shifted its attention to sets of boxy and dome-like factories that sprawled into massive underground complexes. Inside churned vast assembly lines of goods and machinery – conveyor belts hundreds of meters long, with mechanical arms assisted and crewed by teams of diminutive mole-like creatures that checked and monitored the machines.

“That’s where the real power is, Ethan. And,” the image shifted, revealing an increasingly abstract hierarchy of alien creatures that had clearly been augmented in all sorts of ways – similar to the ‘measurements’ that Ethan had met in person, but more complex and specialized – was stretching and unfolding in the image, eventually simply revealing ‘tachyon’ as the highest rung of this vast, billions-strong ladder, “to which we...”

Gatsby took a step towards Ethan as he said ‘we’, his voice taking on a conspiratorial whisper as he raised his glass, ever so close to Ethan’s own.


Ethan watched the image with a sharp, stabbing kind of gaze, remembering each alien image that appeared. He’d be able to lay them all out for Molls later. More knowledge of their new business partners- that can only be useful. Good. He feels himself taking on the role of a Giltian negotiator again- a role he had let slip too easily. “Indeed,” he said to Ethan. “The material is the source of strength. On Gilt, we’ve honed it to the highest degree. There’s profit buried under the sands, and profit that waits inside the asteroids suspended around our star. We are bold enough to take them both.” Ethan here pulled a card from Gatsby’s deck, and tried generating a hovering image. It wasn’t hard- the simulation wasn’t too alien to the Giltian style, both being derived from Old Earth techniques. After a moment, a flickering three-dimensional hologram jittered into existence, floating between Ethan and Gatsby- a rendering of Giltian mining efforts. Strange syms swarmed over a large asteroid, operating their equipment in the plain emptiness of space. Not unlike some kind of void-proofed worker bees. “And there’s profit to be had in learning from a like-minded partner.”

Gatsby’s gaze followed the hologram, a distant curiosity and thought crossing his expression. But then, after just a moment it shifted into a smile and he held out his glass to clink – a toast.

“To profit, then.”

Ethan lifted his imaginary glass of not-water and clinked it to Gatsby’s. “Indeed, to profit.”

The office of Molls Flynn is larger than most homes, Giltian or otherwise. It’s an expansive space, a warren of spa-rooms and suites, two kitchens and four bathrooms. A Giltian of wealth is judged by the space their homes and offices can occupy. The mansions of the true multi-billionaires stretch lazily across miles of empty desert sand, like a cat at the beach, taking up the same amount of space that could have contained a village centuries ago. Most of the possessors of these palaces will never see all the rooms they own themselves. Flynn’s space is not so opulent; but it is large, it truly is a fortress of an office during the day, and at night when the setting sun turns it into a darkened maze, Ethan wanders through the halls alone.

He wanders, also, through the halls of his mind. A good sym must sometimes do upkeep on his personal memory files. Ethan flicks through a great digital book in his brain, cutting out the bits that are no longer needed. Weeding unimportant information out. He stumbles upon a file while he does this. He doesn’t recognize the file (Perhaps, he thinks, I’ve already deleted all the other memory files that would speak of it) and when he opens it up, he finds it to be only a short note. Left right inside his own head.

“In case you ever want to talk to someone about life on Earth,” the text reads.

Following that message is a direct line of communication to Gatsby.
"How come Stevie gets'ta stay up?" asked the child, his mind racing for answers as he clutched a pale pink security blanket tight in his right hand, his left hand tucked into his mouth. The taste of apple-rice this time of day was always a little bitter -- it meant bedtime was near.

"Because Stevie," his mama's familiar lilt and smile forever able to ease whatever news she had to give, "is old enough to be learning a trade now."

The child frowned.

"I could learn tradin'," he said, thinking on the many occasions he'd agreed to swap snacks with his older brother or Mali, the girl who lived next door and who he saw at nursery some times, "I'm good at tradin'."

Mama's smile briefly broke into a sigh.

"I'm sure you could, and will. But you know what's needed to learn a good trade? Being strong and healthy. And you know what's needed to be strong and healthy?"

He frowned. He knew the answer but right now it meant he didn't want to be strong or healthy, thank you very much.

"...stayin' up for da come home?"

Mama sighed again, this time reaching down and picking him up.

"Nooo, don't give me those eyes. Come on, off to bed. You'll see your da tomorrow."

The child's room was still not very large, but it had gotten a little larger; his da's job at the signal station had gotten busier and busier with new folks moving into town, and he'd overheard last night -- through the gaps in the door frame -- that some kind of exciting news had broken, but they weren't supposed to be sharing it just yet. Right now, it just meant that -- especially since Stevie was getting a little older now and 'needed a little more space for his learning' -- the little boy suddenly found himself with a lot more space, and a lot more quiet.

'They'll share it at the town hall when it's good and proper to share it,' was what his mama usually said about that kind of secret news, not that it happened often.

'But what if it's bad? Shouldn't they share it sooner?' whispered Teddy.

The child had been safely tucked in and alone in his room for what felt like forever when his teddy bear decided to interrupt his thinking. The first time it had happened a few nights back he'd tried to ignore Teddy, but when he told the bear it was weird for a bear to talk Teddy got all offended about it. Besides, Teddy was nice and usually had fun ideas, so in the last few days the child had realized that he was a very clever young boy, actually, who could talk to whoever he wanted.

"What d'ya mean?" he whispered back.

'Well what if it's dangerous? People need t'know, y'know?'

"But mama said it's-"

'Yeah but mama doesn't always know best, does she? Remember when she thought it was a Tuesday and it was actually a Monday? Or when she gave you apple slices instead of apple-rice, that's totally different!'

He couldn't help but nibble on his blanket slightly, his mind racing. Every question he thought up, Teddy would come up with an answer that sounded good -- though at least one time Teddy did get stumped, only for the curtains to chime in with a solution.

Fifteen minutes away by ladder and passage the child’s father was starting on his next coffee. He couldn’t help but grimace, even if he knew he’d need it to get through the night.

‘Help lay the groundwork of a new frontier, they said,’ he thought, ‘Be part of Avalon’s history, they said. Never mentioned the coffee would taste like piss.’

Not that it wasn’t worth it, of course; his parents had moved to a new homestead when he was a wee lad himself, and that sense of meaning and constant growth, of new progress and things to look forward to had always stuck with him.

He wanted that for Steve and Barri.

But as he stared in front of him the console screens glowed a hearty green, the message leaving a strange pit in his chest. For the past two days he’d agreed to take the overtime pay in the wake of the news, in theory to help pay for new work on the house, but in truth… his brain was constantly ringing with the wait for news. He’d found ways to pass the time of course – his engineering and computer science degrees at the university of Monmouth having finally paid off as he’d busied himself with new jobs and upgrades around the generally lonely station.

But still, the darkness lingered. The question of the message.

Schrodinger’s crisis.

NOTICE TO ALL SIGNAL STATION CREWS: We wish to inform you that readings have been detected in close proximity to the Gate. Please know that we have a number of physicists and engineers investigating the situation and CANNOT CONFIRM THE STATUS OF THE GATE. Knight-Marshalls are on standby. It should be remembered that it has-

The coffee cup trembled in his hand, the bitterness leaving a sting in his mind as he tried to focus.

The photo of his wife that he kept by his desk at all times frowned at him.

‘Don’t you think it’s strange for them to let us know like this? Surely this is broadcast worthy.’

He rolled his eyes at the suggestion.

“Ava would never suggest what I think you're suggesting.”

‘I know that, but I’m not Ava. I’m a photo of her. I can’t lie to you, Liam.’

He scoffed as he took another sip of the coffee and sneered. The photo sneered at exactly the same time – yet another telltale sign that the photo was simply a faerie synced up to his subconscious, though he'd had enough conversations with the photo and the town's lone member of the ranger's syndicate to know what faeries were like.

“You absolutely can lie, ya liar. And as for your question, I don’t think it’s strange – this wouldn’t be the first false alarm, y’know.”

‘And if it isn’t…?’

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Tried to push out the possibility, wonderful and terrible all at once -- if mostly terrible all the same.

“Then it won’t matter, will it? I’ll broadcast the news when we get it.”

'And give the kids one more day of normal life,' he thought.

Because he knew it, all the same. Despite all the protests in the surface of his mind.

No more false alarms.
[NOTE: Sorry my bad, accidentally posted it here lol, it's now in the IC tab.]

Thanks @Enigmatik :D
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.”
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!


”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.


A brief shock rang through the machine, his voice cracking, before he blinked.


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.


The briefest flash of a ceremony popped into his head, in clouded memories of metal and darkness. A tattered corpse stripped of its history.


“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.


"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.


"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.


"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.



*Frrrzt!* there it was again, that same jolt as the internal systems of the legionnaire suddenly readjusted themselves.


“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?”



The machine paused again… then it simply said, quieter than before:


"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.


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.


“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.
Nations??? Colonies??? I would never-

I promise this is the last one for real ;_;

ALSO NOTE: I've put the Nous-Choir on hold for now, for plot reasons, so it would be the Easifan Promise, the Summation, and Avalon for now

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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