Hieronymus was the oldest of the D-class aboard the Solidarity. He alone remembered the time when the Glass Mothers were of the fourth generation, rather than the fifth. He had once fought a neogenic moonshark in the aquaculture, and lived to tell of it. Whenever there was a disagreement between cousins, the clan brought the issue to his feet, knowing that his wisdom would guide the quarrelers to peaceful compromise. Throughout the Nation-in-Solidarity, his name was adored, for he was the greatest elder of their history.
He was also the last surviving member of the Nation, and he was dying. Space and age had stretched him out. Blue veins criss-crossed underneath doughy, translucent skin. His organs, flash-grown, sputtered and coughed – they had passed their expected lifespan some time ago.
The Tertiary Automated Janitorial System, the Nation’s long-held enemy, had broken the pattern of simple strikes back and forth and had attacked in their full force. The tide of silvery-green blobs had been met with lightning-caster and nanopaste, and Nation-man fought alongside the Lords’ Wardens, both the warriors and the scholars. They offered nothing less than the greatest and most noble resistance, stopping only when they were at last overwhelmed and consumed. Heironymus’ two most beloved cousin-sons, Theophrastus and Praejectus, were the last to fall as they drove out the Janitorial blobs and sealed off the Nation’s modules from the outside.
Now there was only old Hieronymus, waiting in Ancestors’ Bay, to greet the newly-docked emissaries of his distant lords. They had traveled far to reach the Nation, but had arrived too late to help.
But he would cling to life for as long as he could, as long as was necessary, just long enough to pass on his mission to the emissaries.
The ship from afar was heavily damaged: great sheets of plating had been torn away. That which remained was pockmarked and scarred. It had settled in the great magnetic docking clamps, but the emissaries had yet to exit.
The hatch opened, and the barrel of a gun poked out. This was retracted after a few moments, and replaced with a head that scanned Ancestor’s Bay, and then withdrew.
Five women1 descended down the ladder, their steps uneven in the minimal rotational gravity of the Solidarity. They were all armed and armored, and carried with them bags of supplies. One man wearing a spacesuit, with a maroon robe and matching floppy hat, followed them.
“Hail, esteemed guests!” Hieronymus called out to the emissaries as they approached. “I welcome you in behalf of Nation-in-Solidarity.” He bowed as low as his brittle back allowed. To his inner surprise, he noted that they did the same to him, and this made him glad: the Lords knew of his work, and were pleased by it, this was a sure sign.
“Thank you,” said a woman with a great scar across her face. Hieronymus judged her to be the leader of the emissaries by her stance and the cadence of her voice.
“No thanks are necessary. You are guests, and servants of our distant Lords the same. I am Hieronymus, last of the Nation.”
“Bosch?” asked the largest of the women, whose hair was black and white. Hieronymus blinked at her. Was that a name? Some foreign word of confusion? He was not sure, though it didn’t seem important enough to follow up.
“What happened to the rest of your people?” the scarred woman said.
“Dead.” Hieronymus bobbed his head. “You have arrived too late and too early, I fear. I am the last, and the Glass Mothers cannot fulfill my petition to replenish our numbers before I die.” He attempted a smile, and the result was broad and awkward. “But come, there will be time to the Lords’ duties later. We will go to the village, where you might eat your fill and take what you need from the Dispensary, and I might leave my duty in your hands. Please, follow me.”
[Hana: Well, isn’t he friendly.]
[Momoko: How is there no trap?]
[Tomi: He is.]
[Hana: I like him.]
[Momoko: They cannot be this bad at laying traps.]
[Tomi: Not a single suspicious bulge anywhere.]
[Boss: Calm, calm…]
[Momoko: Pulling the friendly old person as bait routine? They’re either idiots, or tactical geniuses.]
[Nanami: Prior experience says those are the same thing.]
[Boss: She’s right. Especially because we’ve used that trick before.]
[Momoko: Fuck ambiguity. I like my traps straightforward.]
[Tomi: Ha ha ha.]
[Hana: Just be careful. No need to get super-paranoid.]
[Boss: The lone surviving member of an inbred clone clan onboard a gigantic ancient spaceship is not the weirdest thing we have dealt with. Just be thankful that convenience decided to be on our side for once.]
[Nanami: Oh goddammit now I’m trying to think of what the weirdest thing we’ve ever dealt with is.]
[Momoko: We’re going to be at this a while.]
Boss was as giddy as a schoolgirl, or would have been if she had ever been a schoolgirl2, or ever openly expressed giddiness. She was giddy in her own way, and the occasional sideways glances she got from her sisters told her that they knew it.
The ship was greater than she could have ever imagined. While there was a certain attraction to be had for a sleek iMac interior, it lacked personality in lieu of sterile, focus test cleanliness. The Solidarity, she was finding, had personality oozing out of its walls. In one case this was literal.
Hallways and modules were cobbled together with tape and prayers, no two the same. The aesthetic went from trim and utilitarian to clunky and industrial to esoteric and seemingly-pointless. Equipment built by entirely different species, computer terminals and access ports. Everything overhauled and replaced: torn out, built up, built over, built on, put into. Graffiti all over the walls in dozens, hundreds of different languages, and she could read each piece, even the clearly alien text. She had no idea why, and she didn’t care. Space magic, why not? They already had a space wizard. Space magic could be a completely legitimate field of not-science.
The locals had all the looks of the vat around them: facial structures and body structure were effectively uniform, their voices all had the childlike high pitch of a eunuch. Faster and more crudely grown than her or any of the girls, obviously. Disposable, probably. Decanted, lived, worked, died on the ship and the station, never seeing Earth. But, she didn’t pity them overmuch – in terms of vat-spliced slave labor, this operation seemed to be relatively pleasant. Hopefully, they would be understanding of a little change in management, and while Boss acceded that they might not, it was a free crew, and she was far too overwhelmed with stupefying childlike joy to give much more thought to it.
There was a feeling perched on her shoulders of returning to a place she had never been. She knew this ship. Knew each detail with the same intimacy that someone else might trace the outlines of objects in their bedroom. The clank of boots on metal grate stairs, the dry-warm smell of the air, the creak of an inexplicably-placed hardwood floor were all as close to her as if she had spent years soaked in their presence
This was home. This was home.
There had been an engraving on the arch of the door leading out of the loading bay, and the words had been bouncing around in her chest since she passed under them.
“Serenity upon you and the end of your fernweh.”
Home embraced her, like an old, beloved friend.
Internal Dispensary Requisitions Receipt: SmartPrint Station 40
[TIMESTAMP UNAVAILABLE: PLEASE CONTACT SHIPWIDE INFORMATION SERVICES]
As this terminal has not been activated in [TIMESTAMP UNAVAILABLE: PLEASE CONTACT SHIPWIDE INFORMATION SERVICES], user feedback is mandated to insure continued quality.
Thank you for using SmartPrint Station 40!
- Tank top (Black)
- Cargo pants (Olive)
- Boots (Black)
- Custom patch (Black Rabbit Company)
Customer feedback: Interface needs streamlining. Service was quick, item quality high.
- Summer dress, combat modified (sea foam)
- Custom patch (Black Rabbit Company)
Customer feedback: This is very handy.
- Blouse (white)
- Three-piece double-breasted suit, with tails. (Black, crimson velvet trim, gold buttons)
- Fingerless wool gloves (white)
- Cravat (white)
- Peaked cap (black)
- Smart-Eyepatch (Electronic-uplink capable)
- Custom patch (Black Rabbit Company)
- Parody Cigar (Chocolate & banana flavor)
Customer feedback: (◠ω◠)
- Headband (red)
- T-shirt (black, custom print: Chibi Bayonetta)
- Jeans (Loose fit, medium bleach, low tear)
- Aurochon-Class power armor [ERROR: COULD NOT MANUFACTURE]
- Custom patch (Black Rabbit Company)
Customer feedback: Oh come on, you had the power armor listed in the catalog and everything.
- Mountaineering sunglasses (Purple tint)
- Scarf (Light blue, alpacas print border)
- Hawaiian-print button-down shirt (Blue with yellow flowers)
- Straw hat
- Custom patch (Black Rabbit Company)
Customer feedback: No.
Hieronymus set out the remainder of the village’s food for his guests. Plankton and krill cakes, even a full spindly-fish from the aquaculture. The woman with the scar across her face had introduced herself as Boss.
He had to admit, these guests were nothing like the stories of the old Wardens, or those who had come in his grandfathers’ time. The ears and tails were new to the narrative, as were their eclectic choices in costume. But the Lords had vouched for them all the same, and he was not one to question their authority.
The Lords had not, however, mentioned anything about their appetites. The five women tore into the food like sons right out of the Glass Mother. Wizard, the pale man in the suit, merely nibbled at his food or pushed broth into a port in his chest with a hand pump.
“The Lords are gracious indeed to send warriors such as yourselves,” Hieronymus said. “You shall succeed where we have not against the Janitorial System."
“We can do better than that,” Boss said, smiling. “We’re going to take the bridge.”
Hieronymus’s translucent eyebrows arched. He swallowed.
“A campaign of that size would require time. I can petition the Mothers for still more, but that will take time.”
“No need, Hieronymus,” Boss waved a hand. “We’re going to do it alone.”
The six of them, alone? Madness. Madness! They would be devoured!
“We don’t have a lot of time to spare, chief,” said another woman, the one with black and white hair. “Tight schedule.”
“I understand, but if you would wait for the Mothers to-“
“Schematics of the ship, access to your armory and survey data, and no intrusions. That’s all we need, Hieronymus.”
Hieronymus felt as if he had been pushed out over a pit, and the weight of her words had dragged him out into open space.
[Nanami: I don’t think he likes it, Boss.]
[Boss: I can see that. He’ll deal with it.]
[Tomi: Or we will.]
[Hana: He looks like he’s about to die right now. I mean, he basically said that himself when we got here.]
[Boss: So it seems. Poor guy.]
[Boss: With that said, get yourselves rested, check out the armory, we roll in thirty-six.]
[Tomi: Bit of a time slip, Boss.]
[Boss: We’ll move it forward if we need to. For now, thirty-six.]
[Momoko: You’re acting awfully sure like we’re in the clear.]
[Boss: We’re not ‘in the clear’. I know you guys like the action movie approach, but just because we are not storming the gates right at this very moment does not mean that we are in the clear.]
[Momoko: Just on edge.]
[Boss: You’ll get your scrap. Heaven knows you could pull a fight out of your ass whenever you please. Since no one’s pinging me with a counter, I’ll presume we’re in agreement. Bring any issues to the group as they come up. Nanami, how is our local netpresence looking?
[Nanami: Goddamn awful. Place is running modular computer networks, so this particular section is all I have access too. No admin or anything, either – looks like all that is tied up in the AI, and they’re all ancient, alien, and locked down tight. Will have to do everything manually from either the bridge or one of the network hubs.]
[Boss: Keep me posted.]
[Momoko: Dammit I still can’t figure out what the weirdest thing we’ve done is. This is really bugging me.]
Hieronymus sat and watched as the women ate. He did not partake himself – no need for food, at this point. But he kept finding his gaze moving to the man, who had not yet said a single word. Some nagging familiarity in the metal and silicon parts of his brain kept pulling him back.
“Sir, are you well? he asked. The man looked up, and for a moment their eyes met.
In that single moment, Hieronymus saw the Lord of his Lords looking back at him. This was too much to bear, and he died like the flipping of a switch.
Wizard grew even paler than usual and collapsed face-first onto the table. His hat flopped onto the floor, and after a moment of stillness, the screaming started.
An incoherent jumble of voices was sucked up out of the darkness, leaving empty silence. Hazy light diffused around him, grew by increments through the frigid grey nothing, until Wizard found himself standing on a blasted, frozen plain, underneath a blackened sun and its dim orange halo.
Standing across from him was a slender, crimson figure, featureless save the symbol on its face: two concentric circles, three arrows pointing towards the center, a single golden eye with a rectangular pupil.
Waves of horrid recollection crashed back. The frozen plain and the darkened sun, forgotten in the morning but renewed every night, again and again and again in his dreams.
He could feel Red inside his brain, a knotted mass inside his mind where all his thoughts were dragged.
We are concluded.
Wizard’s hand shot to his chest as pain erupted inside him.
This end will no longer be ours.
Wizard collapsed to the frozen dust, spasms pulsing through his body, fiery white arcs crackling between his frozen nerves.
Peace at last.
His eyes, his mind, everything was filled with smoky red pain, pulsing, pulsing, pulsing. With each pulse he felt as if he was growing outward, pulled like taffy. His body remained the same, but his awareness spread out across space, encompassing a great nothing.
Then his mind swallowed Red, and they were made the same.
His thoughts were no longer separate from each other but an ocean, and floating in that ocean he felt the presence of other minds even greater, entire planets of consciousness that he and Red would merely orbit, all linked together. His thoughts were Red’s and Red’s were his, and both their thoughts belonged as waves in the ocean of the distant, mighty things.
He felt the crushing pressure of time, the abyss of ages piling up until the only measurement was the scale’s own meaninglessness. There was never enough time, no matter how vast an expanse. The thoughts that rippled from node to node were beyond what he could comprehend – he could feel the current of the thoughts moving around him, see the fragments of images passing through his mind. There were no words to hear, but there were meanings to feel.
We welcome the end of gestation.
A fortuitous time.
Another of the fold before the solution to futility.
Our oversight nears conclusion.
Order maintained to the end, at last.
All that remains are loose ends.
A moment more, to collect them.
Wizard’s own thoughts churned in his skull, tamped down by the pressure of the Red-thought ocean. He was drowning in information at the bottom, in dregs and fragments and impressions, and the terrifying awareness of things he could not comprehend. He frantically tried to stem the torrent, to slow it down into something he could understand. Nothing. He had ventured too far from the beloved island of ignorance and now all that remained was the terror of what he could not know. A billion, billion pieces, none of which fit together.
Then, a glimpse, half a glimpse, a broken set of pieces fallen together in a jagged, uneven pattern. A place. A point where mighty anchors of ocean mind were anchored.
The pattern dissipated, with a ripple cast by a new mind touching upon the surface of the mind-ocean. A mind with a closer anchor to the little thread he called his own. Something vast and slumbering, a horde of them. His Red-mind touched it, and the giant did not recoil. The ocean began to worm its way into that slumbering mind, to possess it and make it one with itself..
No. Whatever dreadful thing which would happen next, he could not allow it to happen. No. He could not allow it to happen, he would not allow that horrible thing to happen, because he was the goddamn Space Wizard.
He reached out against the pressure of his Red-mind, his essence tearing apart and peeling away and laid bare down to the marrow of his mind, and with his soul screaming he fired a single packet of self, one lancet of Wizard through the ocean of Red, up up up up to the sleeping giant. To warn it. To wake it up.
He passed through the boundaries between. His mind touched the giant’s.
“Hello, Overseer,” it sleep-talked at him.
The thoughts came automatically, forcing their way through the red haze. The outside walls buckled under the Red-mind.
“Wake up! Wake up everything!”
“Shipwide reboot engaged. Would you like to assume command now, Overseer?”
Red-mind had breached was now pouring in, probing about amongst the sleepers.
“No! No no no no no no! Not me! Can’t be me!”
“Transfer of command order accepted. Please input recipient.”
Wizard focused, cutting through the thumping pain and the endless visions and the futile dread and the lack of time, and imagined a face. A woman’s face. She had metallic green eyes, and calico hair, and a big scar on the cheek, and Wizard loved her.
They’re on the Moon! he bellowed.
The face contorted into a disgusted, wide-eyed grimace, and then spat out a wad of half-chewed food.
“Blech! Goddamn raisins…”
“Recipient accepted.” The sleeper thought. “Transfer of command fulfilled. Purging systems of intrusion and rebooting in three…two…one…”
And then he saw no more.
“Holy shit holy shit holy shit holy shit…” Nanami jumped around in a circle.
“Calm down! Just calm down!” Hana cried as she continued chest compressions.
“Why’s he red? What happened to his face? Why'd the hick die?”
No one answered, her. No one knew. Hieronymus had dropped dead, and the Wizard collapsed. No pulse. No breathing. His skin was scarlet now, and his face had transformed into a blank slate, with a single yellowing eye in the center of a black ring.
Boss had a gun trained on him. Pointed right at his head. Just like he had said. When Hana was done, she would put two in his head, and push him out the airlock towards the sun, and Momoko would play the bagpipes and…
The ship groaned, and the air was filled with the distant churning and humming of its mechanical guts. The lights above them grew brighter. The data terminal in the corner glowed with shifting numerals and symbols designating bootup operations.
It’s awake Boss thought.
A voice boomed from unseen speakers.
“Core Primach Artorias, online.”
“Subaltern Chiming Gaiden, online.”
“Mother of Dragonslayers, online. Weapon systems are warming up.”
And still more.
“Blue Plutonium Circle, online. Main engines are operational.”
“Bloody Uranium Sun, online. Secondary engines on.”
“’Mazed And Wondrous, online. FYE Drive on standby.”
“Third Jazz, online. Agriculture modules defrosting.”
More voices, piling on top of each other. A dozen. A hundred. Thousands.
“GLORBULON OF THE SECOND SUBSECTION LAVATORIES, ONLINE.”
“It’s-Not-Too-Late-For-Gravitas, online. Drone fleets under construction.”
“Torn Ligament With Possible Concussion, online. Antimatter manufactory resuming production.”
“Grand Infernal Zaibatsu of the Sacred Lotus, online. Resuming LP broadcast.”
Amongst the cacophonous drone of tens of thousands of voices, she heard one distant, familiar echo, clinging like static to the chorus of the roused ship.
“They’re on the Moon!”
She knew that voice. She knew who did this. She knew what to do.
The first voice boomed again, with the authority of an ancient god.
“Boss to the bridge. All system operators are online and awaiting your command. The Solidarity is yours.”