Interlude I: Oversight
Hand-compiled treads rolled across the botanical dirt of one of the Elettarium’s many open boulevards. Soft metal edges dug in shallow and hauled forward a machine on high-torque electrics. Quiet coil whine met the usual low-volume chatter of switches and gears as a conscious contraption ambled.
cce. Artificial enthusiast; steel-plate softie. Voted
“cutest newcomer” by the Lilialae.
It left tracks as it moved but the grass covering the pathway was a hardy sort, bioengineered to be soft to the touch yet tough enough to handle a whole stampede of florets. It could handle one well behaved probe without losing a blade.
cce’s sides strode the drifters.
Thatch Aquae, hardly out of the Garden yet somehow Second Bloom, slithered forward on false footsteps. Most affini in Rinan/Terran space had learned to walk like the humans did, but this one wore her heritage on her sleeve, though she may not have known it. Self-loathing snake in bipedal paint; student of a poorly managed life.
Last and legally least: katie Aquae—Second Floret, despite the tragic backstories. She crested forth on all fours with a swagger so crisply sinusoidal it could be her programmer’s signature. Stripped bare of humanity; teacher’s pet trained for greatness.
“Lunch?” suggested the katie, timed a beat after her stomach’s rumble. Her feeding time was fast approaching and so it was little surprise her mind had turned to sustenance. Her approach was perhaps unusual for a pet, but the results of her domestication were not. Take any creature used to unpredictable, uncertain sources of nourishment and introduce them to a strict mealtime schedule and their biological clock would quickly learn when it was time to start getting hungry.
The affini extracted a portable terminal from within herself and
spent a few moments tapping away, querying the Registry for those nearby
who were offering the kinds of food that katie liked best. The answer
took a moment to come back, but when it did the suggested result took
into account the girl’s last registered micronutritional needs; the
chef’s workload and their last break;
cce’s mild discomfort
around AM radio sources; and a hundred other factors besides.
As expected, the suggestion was accepted. The trio headed towards it and the chef was alerted to their approach.
Thatch rested a hand against the more artificial machine’s casing. “So, Cici, you said you had something to tell us?”
“Yes!—I have made—my decision,” it announced. “I have a—list of requirements—and—I am planning to—speak to—my chosen today.”
katie squealed, listing to the side to bump into the probe’s casing. “Oh, that’s fantastic! I’m so happy for you, cee. Come on, don’t keep it secret, who’d you pick?”
Some things should be discovered in person, so to speak.
Elettarium Actual—Ined Incertae, when she was pretending to be
small—pulled her attention back from her
not hers, as the case may be—and away from the three
altogether. She doubted they would notice. Doors may open a little more
sluggish on the automatics. They might have to wait for a light magnetic
rail pod, perhaps.
Actual didn’t know. She wasn’t paying attention to them. It felt odd, like holding closed an eye might have to an organic, but she wasn’t completely sure on that. It had been a long, long time since she had seen with organic eyes. Her real senses were sweeping: a deluge of information that had taken decades to grow used to and centuries to master. She could focus and filter, but her awareness was near absolute and stretched for light-centuries around, albeit with a sharp loss in precision the further from her hull she gazed.
She was used to not seeing within individual habitation units, of course. Actual couldn’t, not without invitation or a supermajority. Even then she would not, unless it was necessary or desired. Perhaps a third of the homes aboard had given her a blanket invitation to come visit whenever she wished, and only a handful had requested she pay no attention to their goings on beyond what was necessary to properly balance distributing resources around the ship.
The Aquaes were in that last category, and so it was nice to see them going out on walks and trips more often. The Elettarium’s radiators glowed a little more warmly at the thought.
The comfort and care of her crew was Actual’s highest priority, and seeing anybody aboard flowering brought with it a deep satisfaction.
I’ve got a blind spot up around those guests. Ined sent a message to the chef the trio had been pointing towards in the last few moments before their bubble of ignorance stretched over the cafe entirely. Please do take good care of them. The affini is a little jumpy, but the others respond well to good treatment.
She got a little heart back in response. Quintina Rhus, First Floret and endlessly sweet. Sharpest sniper in the Terran Accord; knew her targets better than she knew herself. How could she not fall in love?
There. Meddling done. Actual returned her attention to her other passengers. It was mid afternoon on the minor arc, where her little blind spot lay, and darkest night on the major arc. Each spun with a satisfying ease, running almost entirely on their own inertia with magnetic bearings ensuring friction-free stability and a comfortable simulation of gravity for the florets.
It was all for the florets, in the end.
Actual’s attention focussed in on the major arc. The Elettarium never slept, neither in the sense of the ship herself nor the civilisation therein, but most of the florets were diurnal and most of their partners kept to the same schedules for convenience. Things were quiet.
A few dozen families milled around the pathways, those who preferred the night or for whatever reason had chosen not to sleep. Several lay in the parks staring up at the stars, or at least what they expected to be stars. The smaller observatories had walls with real transparency, but each arc was comprised of several decks and not all of them could really look up into the vastness of space. Actual didn’t think it really mattered. The only difference between a window and a sufficiently capable display was intent.
A slip of movement caught Actual’s attention. One floret stumbling down a walkway, otherwise unaccompanied. Actual felt knowledge drift into her mind a moment after focussing in. Jade Soredia, Twenty Second Floret. Rebel turned rockstar glammed out in floral chic. Mistake not peace for quiet.
Well past her bedtime, but she’d been well behaved for years by now and it was unlikely she’d be up to anything concerning. Probably she was just heading for a midnight snack. Indeed, after leaving the walkway she made a beeline towards Late Nite Ice, the current obsession of Ipheion Pentas, Forty Ninth Bloom. Old enough to have heard silence in the void and wise enough to fill it with song. Always dedicated, but never to the same thing twice.
By the time of its closure the Terran Accord had boasted almost ten thousand distinct flavours of ice cream, and Ipheion planned to produce the definitive recipes for each. For reasons Actual couldn’t quite put her effector on, many of the sophonts aboard her avoided the atomic perfection of her compilers, opting instead for handmade reproduction. It seemed strange to her. Either the ingredients were compiled, or the resources used to grow or make them had been, most of the time. They weren’t on a planet and somebody had to manage the water cycle, at very least.
Unfortunately for Jade Soredia, Twenty Second Floret, there was a short flight of stairs on her path, she was sleepy, and her foot was going to clip on the step. She was going to trip. Hasty simulations suggested a ninety percent probability of a bruise. Sixteen percent for a scrape. Unacceptable. Actual engaged the arc Brake for an instant, slowing its rotation and weakening the force of gravity just enough for the floret’s foot to make the step.
All good. No harm done. Ice cream secured. The arc would return to its proper speed and position more smoothly over the next few minutes. The energy expenditure of the operation would have brought tears to the eyes of a lesser civilisation, but it wasn’t like the Affini were short on power.
Actual had suggested to the ship’s investigative xenoenvironmentalist that putting the two arcs on different schedules would help with making species used to different daily cycles comfortable and that was true, but she had to admit that her real reason was much simpler: she would get bored if there wasn’t something going on at all times. A little nudging of the cycles minimised the occasions where both arcs slumbered at once, and a little balancing of the population ensured there were enough nocturnals around to keep her occupied.
Those habitation units that Actual had been invited within were largely calm and quiet. A majority were asleep. Actual busied herself for a few minutes with inertia and effectors: bumping objects lost beneath things free; setting compilers to have preferred breakfasts ready on time; turning off lights that might otherwise wake someone; and a dozen other things besides. If a creature—affini or floret—had a habit they liked to keep to or a task they liked to have done and forgot or faltered, Actual liked to step in and smooth over the gaps. She had their consent, but all the same, she tried to keep it to things nobody would spot. She wasn’t here to be noticed.
The clerks were up late again, tired eyes staring at piles of paper as tall as they were. The Elettarium’s little collection of feralists had broken without its leader, and now even those who still resisted their care did so alone. It made for a lot of paperwork.
Actual considered stepping in and reminding the pair to take care of themselves, but as she did she noticed the letterheads. This was play, not work, and she was reminded once more that she was not the only piece of esoterica aboard. Of course she was not. Here were Wing and Montsechia Vidalii. Cryptids wrought from ink-stained edge; the beating heart of an ineffable civilisation.
Over on the minor arc things were busier. Actual engaged herself for a little while: arranging rail pods so that nobody had to wait more than a few moments; placing virtual clouds above the parks so the florets who preferred things dimmer wouldn’t need sunglasses; caring for the maintenance of the thousands of little automated systems that kept the ecology healthy; and generally performing the inherently thankless work that went into letting her crew feel like things simply always happened to go their way.
The Terrans had this adorable concept of luck, an attempt at accounting for all the factors and variables they weren’t able to control for, but Actual never let a die roll without knowing where it would fall.
Assured that all was well, Actual continued her sweep. Her nose cone was primarily uncrewed, at least when there weren’t ferals needing rescue. Automated systems hummed away, happily invested in their work. Space was big and, Core Worlds aside, unsafe even for affini, never mind their florets. It took a lot of effort to carve out a little area of comfort and ease within it.
Atmospheric controls were nominal. The mixture getting pumped around the ship—or compiled at atmospheric substations, depending on distance—was holding at the desired levels, with a suite of gentle scents carefully chosen to appeal to everybody aboard.
The compilation mass reserves were a few percent below expectations. Actual took a note to follow up on that. They had been far beyond Affini territory without resupply for some time now and so it was unsurprising that waste was starting to add up, but this was higher than Actual had predicted.
The Elettarium was largely a closed ecosystem with only a handful of exceptions. Given that matter could be neither created nor destroyed, except by conversion to energy, good recycling policy generally ensured that a small amount of compilation mass went a long way.
Say a floret wanted a glass of water: Five hundred grams of mass was deduced, an amorphous blob of subsubatomic particles then impressed into a template that turned fifteen of those grams into SiO₂—a curious hypercooled liquid the Terrans had used for its vague transparency and somewhat effective solidity over short timescales—most of the rest into H₂O—one of those base compounds necessary for Terran life—and the remainder into a mix of nutrients, compounds, and flavourings to match the specific floret’s needs.
Of those five hundred grams, the majority would be reclaimed within the day and decompiled back to a fundamental soup. A little would be retained within the floret’s body, becoming a part of them. A little would take longer to reclaim. Anything lost to evaporation, any spillage, or any glasses left forgotten would only return to Actual once they naturally made their way to one of the many subtle decompilation points dotted around the ship, in atmospheric filters or sewage management or so on.
Strange to be missing a few hundred kilograms, but spread out across the entire crew it was believable. Nobody needed reminding of the importance of maintaining recycling protocol yet. They were doing such good jobs already.
Actual’s attention shifted, considering her aft. Grand stabilisers spun freely on partially hyperspacial mounts; traction engines dug deep into subspace ridges to haul them along through realspace at a comfortable pace; reactors hummed happily, fed with an ideal mix of ultra-exotic particles that was actually running a little low.
That would be their limiting factor, then, not the compilation mass. They could have stayed out a few more months, and then they would have had to head home. The limitation chafed. The Elettarium had been designed as an ultralong range scouting vessel and every caveat was felt.
A mail drone or two back had suggested that some floret in Andromeda was close to a breakthrough of sorts. It was continuing its life’s work in hyperfine nanoconstruction with the aid of Affini technological might with an eye to maybe succeeding in producing a compilation technique that could synthesise a workable fuel mix from raw mass. If it was even possible it would probably take them another thirty years, but they had Actual’s attention.
Thirty five blooms and the first few hundred years of an eternity was a long, long time, even by Affini standards. The younger of those among them had this sense that they had been uplifted into the end of history; that there was nothing left for them to do but continue their victory lap across the universe, saving everyone, and that success was simply inevitable. Even many of the older affini seemed to agree that even if they weren’t quite at the end, they had made all the discoveries they needed in order to achieve their goals.
Yet here Actual was, contemplating the benefits of yet another revolutionary invention that would change everything. How different would a universe be without any need for supplies? Would it even be a good thing? The Affini had never known an age where survival without co-operation was even plausible. They were a mature enough people now to handle that responsibility, Actual expected, but she couldn’t predict how the effects would ripple.
Only time would tell. The Elettarium let out a pulse of waste heat and turned her attention to the stars around them to stare out into the endless void. For all her power, she was more aware than most of the fragility of their shared journey.
Sagittarius A*, the Terrans had called it. Actual preferred the Rinan term herself. Liliaux. Lily, their homeworld’s star. Laux, the cultural concept of a resource owed to all. The all-star at the galaxy’s centre was crucial to their efforts here, and for all the unshakable confidence of the Affini Compact it said something profound that the Liliaux Gate was defended by real, actual warships the likes of which could not be found anywhere else in the galaxy.
Actual felt uncomfortable just thinking about such things. Hypermetric artillery that could wipe away a star at superluminal speed. A Firebreak large enough to snap entire fleets so deep into the Below they’d never find their way back. Traction engines mounted on fixed universal points that would tear the spacetime they all lived in to shreds and disintegrate anything that happened to be in it. Weapons of war. Weapons of death and horror. The uncomfortable admission that there were things the Affini at large were willing to kill for, because they could not lose their foothold here and the prospect of ever needing to abandon an entire galaxy’s worth of valued creatures was something nobody was willing to accept.
The weapons had never been used. Nothing had ever needed them. Hopefully nothing ever would. They were the last argument of an ancient race arrogant enough to believe themselves unstoppable, yet thorough enough to prepare for the possibility regardless.
At Liliaux hung the Gate, the terastructure that connected the Milky Way to the rest of Affini space. At Liliaux stood the Penrose Engines that harvested the power of a galaxy and synthesised the fuel that ran the ships.
One day it would run out. Not for millions of years yet, or perhaps billions, but Actual had no plans to stop existing between then and now and so the prospect of becoming a truly closed system that could run forever in a perfect loop excited her in a way she suspected that most affini would never fully comprehend. They would need a solution to the problem eventually.
Until then, Actual persevered, profoundly unarmed and interested primarily in the safety and wellbeing of her crew. She could not save the universe by herself, but she would do her part.
A signal pinged off of one of the Elettarium’s deep-space radios, catching her attention. It was one of the ones with antennae sticking out Beneath to pick up extremely long range transmissions. Actual set one of her subsystems to decoding it and raised the alert with Captain Rosaceae. Fair-weather friend; indispensable ally in a pinch. An actress with a stage so grand she could outshine the stars and have them thank her.
It was a little strange not being captain any more, Actual had to admit. The first five hundred years of her life she had been both the ship and her captain and she didn’t think she could have had it any other way. There was something magical about reality grinding against your treads as you ducked so close to a star you could feel your own hull glowing with the heat as you fell into the gravity well of something a million times your mass.
The Elettarium wasn’t a new ship fresh out of the Gardens any longer. She was crewed, she had responsibilities, and she was taking part in something meaningful. Rosaceae Hautere had not been Actual’s vote, but she was glad to be wrong. Rosa had made a delightful captain, empathetic and insightful, a servant leader with a patient streak a lightyear wide. She listened to everyone’s thoughts, everyone’s needs, and found the compromises that made them all happy by building them a narrative that everyone trusted her to make real.
She had also quickly become Actual’s closest friend and occasional lover, when the mood struck them both.
The signal decoded easily enough. It was a response from the Meandrina, one of the bare few dozen world-ships in Rinan/Terran space. Each represented a significant investment of resources even by Affini standards, and each had a speciality that placed it among the most potent in the known universe.
The Sphenophyllia brought an industrial base that could build something to do just about anything on just about no notice. The Lotus’ Bounty provided an agricultural titan that could feed an entire species by itself, if it proved necessary. The Meandrina carried with it a bureaucratic wing that could catalogue, compartmentalise, and organise anything in record time—and it would track those records too.
It was the latter that they needed here. They had a whole new species that had been spreading across space, colonising every last planet, moon, and asteroid they could get their tracks on, then mining them out in preparation for exploring further. The transmissions Actual had been spying on suggested they likely had intelligent creatures on hundreds of thousands, or even millions of distinct locations, some of them barely kilometres across.
Suffice it to say that their clerks, capable as they might be, were not up to the task of organising this.
Actual got the green light from Rosa to go ahead and rendezvous.
Five hundred three years in and the Elettarium still took every jump with the same nervous excitement as the first. Actual pulled her traction engines up away from the fabric of spacetime, leaving them drifting with only minor navigational thrusters and reaction drives with which to steer.
The Elettarium turned her attention to the universe.
Just like Ined had explained to Thatch Aquae, it was difficult to get large amounts of information into a biological mind, and really possible only if one was willing to leverage the senses and memories that already existed. Actual felt tiny gravitational tugs from a hundred separate sources against her skin, but nothing so potent it would throw off her leap. She tasted radiation tickling across the magnetic field surrounding her that kept the invisible dangers of space away from her crew. She saw the stars shining across the whole electromagnetic spectrum in a blistering array of colour that had taken her thirty years to see without developing a severe headache.
The universe was beautiful, but it wouldn’t get them where they needed to go. She reached out further, pressing effectors against the edge of reality itself. A reaction chamber deep inside her aft began to hum. Spacetime sparked as exotic forms of matter left their containment tanks and, no longer held near absolute zero, began to tear existence apart. The stabilising petals at the Elettarium’s aft began to spin, faster and faster and faster until to any organic eye they would simply be a blur dotted with a kind of lightning not of this realm jumping between the tips as the universe itself yearned to be broken and brought to heel.
The first time Actual had tried to Jump she had wanted to cry, but as she had rendered herself incapable of the act she instead had drifted through space listlessly for whole solar days. It had been nothing like she had hoped. She had felt awkward and uncomfortable, using clumsy and imprecise limbs to touch the divine. Over the course of her thirty fifth bloom she had gone from a biomechanical expert with a nanometer-scale steadiness in her vines to feeling like a child flailing with every movement. She hadn’t even landed in the right system, never mind on target, and the hole she’d left behind had taken whole seconds to close.
It had been a long time since then. Elettarium Actual awaited the approval of the hyperspacial engineer on duty, got a go signal—from their floret (Pickle Saprot, First Floret: Endless sweetheart with a thirst for violence; liked to push the buttons that went boom)—and prepared to leap.
Exotic matter slammed into three different reaction chambers, curved down magnetic tunnels in a precise spiral, and lanced out across spacetime. It cut deep, though not quite through. The three lines together formed a triangle of traced grooves in a very specific size and direction.
Disengaged traction engines span, building up terrible momentum that could go nowhere while they were safely nestled deep within the Elettarium’s aft. In the mere moments before the three grooves healed themselves, Actual thrust her engines back down against the weakened universe and the sudden force tore her triangle of scored-off space free and flung her through.
Reality fluttered back into place behind them as they slipped past, leaving barely a trace. To an outside observer, the ship would have simply vanished in a brief flash of unreality.
Here the traction engines were fully submerged. The Elettarium laughed as it danced through the universe’s substrate, following the ageometric curve drawn by its jump engines nanoseconds prior and leaving rippling causal eddies in its wake.
The first time the Elettarium had done this she had despaired, but like anything else worth doing it was a skill and one she had since mastered. The tides and swells of the Void Beneath All wanted to throw them off course, but shifts in her stabilising petals let Actual to stick to her path.
The cuts she had made to fully enter the Beneath had been subtle affairs. Nobody had quite figured out how to make the re-emergence into their universe quite so clean. Exotic matter launched into forward-facing reaction chambers at terrific speed, sending out subspacial cracks that aimed to make as clean a cut in spacetime as Actual could manage from afar.
Despite her intent the end was violent. The reinforced nose cone of the Elettarium struck the spacetime barrier with force and cracked it wide open, announcing their arrival with a hypermetric shock that would buzz reality for a light-second around. It felt almost like a gravity wave, but not quite. Gravity was smooth and slow, while this was sharp and pointed. The strangest thing was that the distributed biology of the modern-day Affini form lacked enclosed spaces for the wave to resonate within, and so while about half of all ward species could feel the kick, for the affini it was only the ships who knew it.
Less than a second had gone by since their departure. Upon their arrival, traction engines kicked into full reverse, bringing them back down to a pace reality could abide.
Dirt, I still love how that feels, Actual laughed, pinging a message across to Rosa. Are you absolutely sure you won’t let me find you a nice hull design? You’d make a great cruiser~
“Maybe in another few dozen blooms,” came the response, a few real-time seconds later. “I’m still having a lot of fun down here!” Perceptually it took whole minutes. Actual tried not to spend too much time under accelerated consciousness, partially because it was broadly unnecessary for the sedentary life of a small scouting vessel and partially because it was very dull having to watch everybody go about their lives in ultra-slow motion. There was a ramp-down time, however, and taking a Jump in real time would be madness. Unfortunately, there were some downsides that came with being a spaceship.
Actual felt the electric buzz of rapidly weakening spacetime nipping against her shell. On instinct she reached out with a hypermetric effector, stabilising reality around her just in case she’d accidentally jumped somewhere that couldn’t take her weight.
The Elettarium was barely over two and a half kilometers long. By Affini standards it was tiny, but it had a power-to-weight ratio any command ship would envy and traction enough to hold position in a smallish black hole’s accretion disk. While most Affini vessels would never need to venture into uncharted space, a scout needed to be ready to disentangle itself from anything.
What the Elettarium did not have was the sheer mass to stabilise spacetime more than a few light-milliseconds out. Her engines whimpered as That Beneath churned against a bubble of reality-held-firm while all around them swam and mixed.
In real time it wouldn’t have lasted more than a second. Nobody else would have noticed anything even if it had taken longer. The thing about reality was that it was where people lived. If it shifted, they shifted with it. Being able to feel the fabric of existence was a gift, but it was not without its flaws.
Caring not for the Elettarium’s attempts to calm the seas, the Meandrina arrived.
An artificial moon of bulbous coral with a diameter a thousand times the Elettarium’s length dropped into local space. Actual set her engines, span her stablisers, and just tried to ride out the storm.
Things like the Meandrina weren’t meant to move. They had engines for station-keeping, yes, but they were massive enough that they’d tear subspace apart before they really got themselves moving. Even sitting in her bubble of solidified space Actual could feel herself slipping—or rather, her reality was what was slipping while space around them rippled from the sudden impact of a world’s arrival.
The Meandrina moved only when it was absolutely necessary, dragging a furrow into reality behind it as it went. Nobody would notice but the ships and the scientists, but it was a stark reminder of the power they played with.
Was the Elettarium a weapon? No, because she chose not to be in each and every moment. Was the Meandrina? No, but only because its every move was calculated and planned in meticulous detail weeks in advance to ensure that no harm would be done.
This was why Ined Incertae, Thirty Fifth Bloom had finally chosen to ascend. Universal benevolence was not the universe’s default state. It didn’t come without effort and sacrifice. They all had to work to maintain it.
As rippling reality calmed, Actual’s perception slowed to match something only a little faster than the average affini.
She span her arcs a fraction faster for a moment, working out the discomfort and the metaphorical adrenaline, and then let herself relax. Her hold on local spacetime released, petals stilled, drives idled. She laughed, rolling her gyroscopes at herself. Time dilation always got her philosophical. Not enough distractions to remind her of what really mattered.
Actual set course for her docking ring in the Ochre Gardens, one of the Meandrina’s many, many shipyards. She’d lived on this thing for three thousand years, and though she would never again set foot aboard, nestling into the gentle embrace of a docking mount still felt like coming home.