The Escudo de la Libertad
was the pride of Azulvista's home fleet, and a unique beast indeed. Sponsored almost entirely by a single patrician, it defied the typical Azulvistan wisdom of smaller, faster attack craft backed by heavy duty gunboats. Instead, the 'shield' was a purpose-build frigate, designed to hold the line behind the fleets of smaller craft, heavily armoured, bristling with point defence, and with a command hub capable of managing an entire fleetwide battle in safety and comfort. It had rapidly relocated from the rim of the Azulvista system to the Gateway as soon as it had opened, joining the blockade that the Senate had ordered as a pre-emptive measure whilst Alfonso ventured out into the Sol system. The picket line had already been established closer to the Gateway itself, and the Escudo
now sat safely behind this, well within range to unleash its full firepower should something emerge.
And then, something did emerge.
"Almirante! Picket reports contact! A single vessel, unarmed!" The news rushed through the ship, winging its way down to the bowls of engine staff and to the high tables of command. "They've sent a message. In Spanish. Old Spanish."
"Play it." The admiral nodded at the underling officer, a cigarillo lazily smouldering between their fingers.
Greetings, peoples of distant stars! We are Shekhekhan, refugees of Bavel and travellers of the Great Empty. We exist on the Moons which orbit the gas giant Salome. If you are a human true of heart, and bear upon your lips peace and providence, we come joyously and bring only peace! And if you are un-human but seek peace, prosperity, and trade, we come to you with a strong arm and open heart. Humanity has lain disjointed and unknown to each other for far too long. Meet us at the table of brotherhood! Peace be upon you, Salome Al'akam!
There was a long pause once the message had finished itself. The picket line bristled, this alien ship left hanging in space, facing a small armada of attack craft, perilously vulnerable. Then, it would receive a response, still in Spanish, but with a tone and dialect unknown to humanity's cradle.
"Hail, Shekhekhan. You have entered the borders of the Gran Republic of Azulvista. Your message has been received and understood. We are glad to know humanity is still out there prospering and surviving, and would like to meet face-to-face. The pride of the Azulvistan fleet will be arriving shortly to take you aboard."
It didn't take much longer before the smooth shape of the Escudo
pierced the picket line and soared towards the Yetziyah. Cutting its engines, it sailed beside the smaller ship, then came to a stop, aligning itself as best it could with the Yetziyah's foreign construction. Another message was sent across.
"Maglocks have been enabled."
Rimana's skin bristled a bit as she saw the military frigate begin to approach her much smaller exploration vessel. Aoshu held her arm comfortingly as the professor composed herself, and began piecing together the message of this understandably foreign Spanish dialect. After piecing together the message as best she could, she realized their intention, and quickly went to send a reply in Castilian. "Eh...Hola, Azulvistenos
, this is Professor Rimana Batzakhar. Your message has been received; we are prepared to be boarded." After sending the message, she nodded for Aoshu and a couple of her robotic crew members to stand at her side.
"Boarded?" Came the reply. "Of course not! You are here, in our land. Let us show you some Azulvistan hospitality. I am sure you could use it with your travels here."
The professor chuckled a bit. "Thank you, I am sorry for the confusion, your tongue it is ah...my knowledge of Spanish is a historical one. We will be arriving shortly." With that, she nodded to her robotic pilot to align the Yetziyah with the Escudo in turn, locking in to the foreign vessel's maglocks. The same Salome welcome party waited at the ship's entrance while the airlocks between the two vessels were engaged.
The airlocks parted with a hiss. Standing on the other side were several severe-looking marines, all armed with hefty looking rifles, led by what must have been an officer, who instead brandished a sabre. None of them looked as if they were about to engage in combat, their stances parade perfect, their uniforms gleaming, and their berets all showing the same polished symbol bang in the centre of them. At the sign of the foreign diplomats they presented their arms, the officer pressing the sabre to his forehead before sheathing it with a smart click
as the hilt slotted into place. Once that had been completed, the soldiers parted to either side of the airlock, forming a corridor the diplomats could walk through. The officer at the head, distinguished by a set of epaulettes, several medals, and a nasty looking electric scar that spiderwebbed across his face gave a salute.
"Greetings. It is my great pleasure and honour to welcome the first ever foreign dignitaries aboard this most prestigious of vessels. I am Capitán Leôncio, of the Gran Republican Navy. If you would please follow me, la almirante is waiting in the central command hub."
Rimana looked between the assembled marines. If this was a trap it wasn't one she would be able to break out of, but this was the job, and she couldn't have expected much different. She could imagine the response the first foreigners in Salome are going to receive. "Greetings, Capitan, I am Professor Batzakhar of the Academy of Ur'daat, this is my assistant, Aoshu." The mothlike alien gave an elegant curtsy. "I would be honoured, please, lead the way." With that, the Professor, Aoshu, and a handful of robots left the safety of their ship and stepped into the unknown.
The Azulvistans were doing a remarkable job of staying stern-faced despite the fact that an alien was walking among them, the Capitán turning smartly and leading the group out of the airlock, marines falling into step behind them as an honour guard. The diplomats were lead through the surprisingly well-furnished hallways of the frigate, arriving by a quick relay system large enough to carry all of them.
The soldiers comported themselves stiffly- perhaps overly so? But nonetheless, Aoshu, Batzakhar and the robots were carried up and through La Escudo's
inner corridors safely and swiftly, until at last they were deposited in front of the command centre of the building. Leôncio swept an arm out for the guests to go first, the automatic doors parting with only the faint noise of air being displaced.
The professor followed closely, looking with wonder at the walls and corridors of the ship, before embarking on the relay. She tried to contain the amazement she felt watching this alien yet human technology and styling. Finally, when they reached their destination, she followed suit as Leoncio led her and her crew into the command centre.
Inside the room, currently facing away from the pair, was what could only be la almirante.
Her hair had been drawn back into a practical looking black ponytail and her uniform was... Well it was simply magnificent. Even from the back, the tailoring and care that had gone into it was truly astonishing, a gilded sash sitting across her shoulders and numerous, equally gilded tassels shifting as she turned.
When she did though, it revealed another fact about la almirante. She appeared to be quite young indeed- perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties by Earth's standards, with piercing steely eyes and near flawless skin. She had a sharp, well-defined set of cheekbones and a narrow nose, but her lips were warm and held a smile for the visitors. She raised a hand towards the strange figures that stood towards her, cheerily introducing herself.
"Salve and hail! I am Almirante Isabella Maria Catalina Teresa Margarita Rodriguez de Lobasla, daughter of Chancellor Federico Javier Victor Ines de Lobasla and steadfast servant of the great nation in which you have found yourselves. Please! By all means!" She gestured towards the table that took up most of the room. It was clearly meant for issuing orders and examining the state of play during a battle, but its length, ostentatiousness and the glasses and ashtrays laid upon it now spoke of a more peaceful purpose. "To whom do I have the honour of addressing?”
Rimana stopped in her tracks when she saw Isabella, taken aback by the woman's beauty. She moved the brown waves of hair away from the front of her face to tuck them behind her ear, before clearing her throat and entering into the room. "It is a pleasure, Almirante de Lobasla, I am Professor Rimana Batzakhar of the University of Ur'daat, I study the cultures and histories of humanity before the Gateway. Eh...my father is a baker from a small town on my home world, heh...I can't say he has quite as impressive a title. But I am honoured to make your acquaintance." Aoshu stepped beside her boss, bowing deeply and grandiosely and spoke in perfect Castilian while attempting to perform the inflections of the Azulvistan language."And I am Aoshu. Asham native of the continental moon Adama, traveller, scholar, and-"
"My assistant," Rimana interjected. The alien glowered back at her."Yes. Her 'assistant'."
Isabella clapped her hands once, then gestured towards the vast table sat between them. "Please then, Aoshu and Rimana, sit! Would you like something to drink? Wate? Mate? Tea? Coffee? Something stronger?" She paused for a moment, and then continued with her offerings. "And do your people smoke tobacco? We happen to have many excellent
varieties should you partake."
Rimana raised her hand defiantly as the two sat at the table Isabella had gestured to. "Oh, that's very kind, Almirante, but we're-""I don't smoke but I'll take a ah...is there any hope for a daquiri?"
Aoshu interjected. Rimana looked to her assistant and side before returning her gaze back to Isabella.
"I suppose a coffee wouldn't hurt, gracias
Isabella eyed the alien curiously, then glanced towards the professor. Some sort of thought process was obviously occurring, but exactly what it was was rather difficult to discern. Nodding at the two requests, she gave a lazy wave with one of her hands and relayed the orders to an individual who, although dressed smartly, did not appear to be a soldier. The woman vanished through another automatic door, leaving the group alone again.
As if to demonstrate her point about tobacco, the admiral reached inside a pocket and drew out an intricately designed silver case, flicking it open and extracting a single cigarette. Setting it to her lips, there was the woosh
of a lighter and the bright purple flare of plasma, the cigarette soon happily smouldering away. "As a student of cultures and histories yourself, I'm sure you must be ecstatic at this opportunity to see all that humanity has become since the closure of the Gateways, are you not?"
The professor blushed a bit at Isabella's question and smiled, relaxing into her chair. "Of course I am! It is all so amazing. Truth be told, my people aren't all too interested in my field of study, so to be here, speaking Spanish with actual
Spanish speakers, God knows how many lightyears away from home, it's all a bit eh..." Her gaze met the Almirante's and she smirked. "Encantada."
"Very good!" Isabella's amusement was plain on her face, and some of the smoke that she had been inhaling puffed out through her nose, which, for a brief moment, made her look more dragon than woman. "So, professora, you are a... Mathetes, then, yes? One who dedicates themselves to their academia? And your assistant?" She looked towards Aoshu. "I must admit, we have had poor experiences with xenos in our time here. I assume that your people are more agreeable than our Yyasum."
Aoshu chuckled, offering Isabella a smile. Yyasum?
Aoshu thought, I suppose it's at least NEWER than 'Nukhrin'.
They knew better than to speak up about the cultural insensitivity, and for once remained decidedly silent. Rimana looked at Aoshu embarrassedly, before looking back to Isabella.
"Ah...with exception, relations with Alien-kind in Salome have been rather peaceable, at least on their end. To them...I suppose that we are the 'Yyasum.' Before the Shekhekhanin arrived on Salome, the Tifara system was a stop on vast Alien trade network. Still is." She swallowed before moving on to a less sensitive subject. "As or my profession...eh, yes, I suppose I could be considered a 'Mathetes', I like to think I'm fairly dedicated." At this, Aoshu snorted, expressing rare emotion."La Professora is being humble, she hardly leaves her office to sleep at home, she knows the boy who delivers her food on a first name basis."
They chuckled again before resuming their silence.
"Fascinating." Isabella responded. The only reason she wasn't taking notes was because this whole conversation was being recorded. "That sounds remarkable, to be located along the lines of an intergalactic highway... Have any breached the speed of light, or is it all slower than light travel? If so, how do they function? Sleeper ships? Colony ships? Something else?" She leaned forwards a little, tapping off her cigarette over one of the ashtrays.
Before the reply could come, the serving woman returned, carrying a tray set with two cups of coffee and a cloudy coloured daquiri. Once the drinks had been set in front of everyone, Rimana's coffee coming with sugar and milk on the side, the conversation could resume.
The professor's assistant sipped their delightful little cocktail. Exquisite. It was curious though, a human so interested in Alien culture and technology. Aoshu didn't mind it at all, and they leaned forward with their drink, their wings folded down and relaxed at the side. "Well, showing you would sum it up a lot quicker than my telling you."
With that, they tapped a set of instructions into a small holoprojector on their wrist, before removing it and placing it on the table to display a large ship. "This, mi compañera, is my Homeship, an Asham Royal Breeding vessel."
Rimana's eyebrows raised her eyebrows at what Aoshu was saying...it wasn't something she had ever discussed with her assistant. To be fair,
she thought, I also never asked.
While Aoshu continued their presentation, Rimana looked down to the coffee tray in front of her. Milk and sugar are blasphemous on Salome, but she was curious, so she mixed in a bit of the sweeteners before taking a sip. It was clear from first taste that the coffee these Azulvistans drank was nothing like what Salome had. It was rich, silky smooth and powerful. Much like on the Moons, the caffeine could be felt buzzing through one's veins practically before you swallowed, but the taste was vibrant and full bodied, whilst still managing to have smoother and subtler tones on the edges, tinged with a chocolatey, caramel flavour. Salome's coffee was earthy, bitter, and powerful, a true reflection of her people. Any attempt to dilute this power is treachery to your heritage; rather, the richness of Shekhekhani coffee should only be aided with cardamom or cinnamon. She had to admit though, this Azulvistan coffee was good
; Salome's brew has always been a bit too much for her. Shaking these thoughts out of her head, she looked back up to Aoshu, who had begun explaining the chart before them."While I was hatched and raised in Salome, the egg I was born from was laid here. My people, the 'Asham' as the Shekhekhanin call us, have been travelling this trade network for millennia. Humans are the only species I know of to have found a method of FTL travel."
They smirked as they thought back on their life as an alien among humans. "Maybe that's why they interest me so much. But that isn't to say that Aliens do not have our own sort of ingenuity. My species are eusocial colonizers, like ants or bees. Our queen makes most of us infertile with her gross queen mist, with only a small number of drones and princesses left to breed further. And on these breeding ships, she lives here,"
Aoshu focused in on a section of the ship containing a massive, egg-filled Asham."She lays a ton of eggs, one of them which contained me, but these eggs lie dormant unless exposed to ultraviolet light. So, most eggs are left dormant in the ship’s storage. The crew of the ship feed themselves, the drones, and the Queen through a series of fungal farms spread around the ship. And if there's one thing Asham know, it's fungus. As a food source, fuel source, and a medicine, we are masters of mycology. And a lot of these fungal varieties are extremely valuable. So, my species finds suitable homes along the Route, barters with the locals, and in exchange for this fungus, currency, and whatever other junk the ship has in its trunk, the locals allow the Asham ship to offload some of their eggs and their crew to start a new Asham colony. My colony was founded on Adama, on land leased from a major corporation on that moon. And I grew up on that colony. And I learned to grow fungus and build a new breeding ship for my colony to send out, but I got bored so I left because it was boring and I wanted to speak Spanish and Portuguese and watch Orfeu Negro. And now I'm here.
Aoshu looked between the two humans and felt a bit embarrassed; they hadn't spoken for that long in a while, but it's rare a human's actually curious about slower than light travel. "Thanks,"
Isabella nodded as the alien spoke, but the drags on her cigarette spoke volumes about her mood. Previously they had been almost lackadaisical, the amused actions of someone completely confident with themselves. Now, as the stick drew to an end and the butt was snuffed out into the ashtray, the last few drags had taken on a more intense, focused note. She breathed out a final plume of smoke, one hand's fingers drumming idly against the tabletop.
"We are not a peoples opposed to trade, even though our experiences with xenos have been less than stellar. I have no doubt you will find many markets for your exotic goods, and no doubt we will have our own products to share with you. For now though, allow me to share exactly who we are." She took another sip of her coffee, which it was clear was almost as black as night.
"When the Gran Republic arrived here, the planet below us was virgin. Life had barely evolved, caught in its primitive forms. We forged it into a paradise- an Earth away from Earth, seeding forests, spreading animals, crafting life. Then the government fell, and dictators reigned. The system was split and shattered, sectarian differences tearing apart what we thought was the last of humanity. Even here, we couldn't help but repeat the mistakes of our past. But, we learned from them. Grew stronger from our mistakes. The Gran Republic forged itself anew from the chaos and destruction of the dictators and the rebels, united the stars, and when the Yyasum came, their fleets ruining the careful lifecrafting of our ancestors, we drove them back with a cry that shook the heavens." She lit another cigarette, the smoke drifting past her face.
"The Gran Republic will not stand idly by and watch as the same mistakes are played out again and again. We will not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of or intimidated. But, if you come to us, honestly and frankly, and in the name of diplomacy and good faith, we will be your most faithful friends, and your greatest bulwark." She pushed herself back from the table and strode over to alien and human alike, offering her hand out. "Please, accept our hospitality for as long as you desire. Perhaps you might even meet others who drift into our system."
The professor blushed slightly and took the other woman's hand, standing up from her seat and placing down her now empty cup of coffee. "I can assure you, we come in peace. I would be honoured to be your guest." Her hand lingered in the Almirante's grasp for another moment before she pulled it away and replaced it at her own side. "I would like to establish communications, if at all possible, with my superiors back at Salome. I'd like them to know that the mission's been successful...and that the Academy will need to give my substitute an extension," she continued with a smile, "If your men could assist my automatons in that, it would be much appreciated."
Isabella's grip was firm but not overly hard, and when the professor pulled her hand back, she did so too, smartly and crisply. "Of course! I'll have some of the communications specialists assist you with such a matter. Once that is done, I'll have found you a berth, and I hope you can join me for dinner. I'm sure we still have plenty to discuss."
"I would love to," Rimana replied. "We're two civilizations separated by three hundred years of development," she said playfully, "Of course we have much to discuss."