Over the last couple of days I’ve been playing a lot of Paradox Interactive’s Stellaris. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a galaxy spanning real-time strategy game that is absolutely loaded with random events and AI interactions. These random events and the scenarios it throws up make the game ripe for making self-created narratives in your head.
I started playing it in May, and had some great laughs with a ruler who became addicted to drugs and in doing so accidentally became immortal (I’ve generally been assuming that it’s Melange.) A few weeks back a patch was released that made a lot of my older games incompatible, so I started a new one. I came back to it this weekend to help take my mind off things happening in the real world. (For those following me on twitter you’ll already know that this wasn’t exactly a success.) After two days of almost solid gameplay I stopped for the evening and promptly wrote 2,000 words about the crazy nonsense which had been unfolding. I’ve interspersed the story with some edits of screenshots I took as the game was unfolding. I hope you enjoy it.
Twenty Fifth Day; 5th Month; Year 2390
Overseer Santiago Hernandez stood at the broad window of her chamber of office atop the Empire Complex on Siuruta Prime. The leader of the Xel Dar Commonality had been up since well before dawn, but had found herself able to do little else but watch, and wait. She could see all the way to the horizon; the foundries of industry, the fourth generation power plants thrumming with life, the research labs glistening in the morning mists. She kept looking at where the city met the sky, as if somehow she could see all the way to the research institute on the other side of the planet. She ran her hands over the chitinous bulb of her skull, her cerebral tendrils listless; twitching nervously. She felt every single one of her one hundred and forty-six years.
Her optical AI pinged, announcing the arrival of the three people she had been waiting for. With a thought she accepted the notification and commanded the durasteel doors to slide open. She had summoned the three heads of the Cerebriate as soon as she had heard the news. As of yet, they still didn’t know why she had summoned them at such a data-forsaken hour of the morning. Santiago knew they had entered, but as of yet did not deem it necessary to turn to face them, or even acknowledge them. She had been waiting for hours, they could damn well wait a minute or two.
You Xie led the small delegation of scientists into the Overseer’s office. The head of Physics, Computational Artifice and Theoretical Esoterica had always commanded a degree of respect that few of her contemporaries had ever managed to match. Her face, as ever, its radiant pale peach, fading into the tart pink that enveloped her crown. Santiago remembered how Xie had once made her go weak at the knees, driven her to maddening distraction, and rendered her completely unable to string together a coherent sentence. She didn’t need to look at her to know that Xie’s lips would be pursed into that tight, razor-thin smile that used to make her need to go and lie down for a while. Or that her gimlet eyes would be surveying everything within the room. From the plants by the door; their types, distribution, the construction of their pots; to the Overseer’s desk; spying out clusters of paperwork, the disarray of communiques. Santiago wondered whether those sharp, quick eyes would be surveying her. Tracing the curve of her back down to her hips, perhaps lingering on her rear as they once had done. But probably not. They were a long way from the darkened rooms of the institute dormitories, beneath sweat strained poly-silk sheets, entwined together, and out of breath.
The scientist trailing behind Xie coughed politely: Manuel Dominguez, head of the Department Societal and Keeper of the Many Ologies, from socio, through geo and bio, and into psycho. Santiago had known him for nearly as many years as she had known Xie. But unlike Xie, he stirred no feelings in her. He was, and always had been, blander than a Bazkaratian pudding. She knew that his sea-green face would be as emotionless, empty and utterly unreacting as it had been when she had appointed him to the Cerebriate: ostensibly the happiest day of his life.
The only other member of the group was X’folio ka Evola, Commandant Materiel, and Chief Scion of Engineers. The chittering Trakpocian had only recently earned xyr place in the Cerebriate, a shining example of xyr people’s determination and unwavering work ethic. Xe was no doubt anxious to not be in the Overseer’s office, and instead back in the titanic workshop of xyr foundry, busying xemself over the kinetic artillery xe was so excited about. If nothing else, Santiago knew xe would much prefer the dry and withering heat of the foundry’s climate bubble to the humid chill of the rest of Siuruta. Santiago could almost hear the poor thing rubbing xyr four hands together anxiously. She knew it was time to put them all out of their misery, and she finally turned around.
“Thank you for coming at such short notice,” she said.
“One never refuses the requests of the Overseer,” replied Xie. Santiago tried not to smirk, and pretended not to notice Xie’s wink. “I think I speak for all of the Cerebriate in wishing to know precisely what warrants us taking an express sub-orbital skiff to the capital at such an early hour.”
“Please, all of you take a seat.” Santiago led the three scientists away from her desk and into the small conference chamber next door. They all took their customary seats around the circular briefing table, all save Santiago, who even now could not bring herself to sit.
“So…” asked Xie.
Santiago took a deep shuddering breath. “As you are well aware, we are not alone in the universe.” X’folio snorted, what passed for a laugh is xyr species.
“Who has been keeping this great secret from me!” xe chuckled. You Xie gave the Trakpocian a sidelong smirk. Maybe it was the stress, but Santiago wanted nothing more than to kiss Xie’s stupid face and take her right there on the briefing table. A hundred a twenty years and that women still made her melt. She let X’folio’s levity pass, let them all make merry while they still have the spirit for it, she thought to herself.
“Some of our galactic neighbours are more friendly than others,” she continued.
“The Djomar Council haven’t declared war against us again, have they?” asked Xie, incredulously.
“Unlikely,” interrupted Manuel. “Models suggest it will be another 68 years before their economy collapses again, necessitating another propaganda scapegoat. In such an event, there is a 98.5% certainty that such a target would be the Mesh’Ben Compact, not the Commonality.”
“Thank you, Manuel,” replied Santiago wearily. “While we can be certain of the actions of most of our neighbours, like the Djomar, there remains the stellar enigmas, the ancient and unknowable civilisations we call the stagnant ascendancies…”
“I always thought the Progenitors that live on our chunk of the rim were quite amenable fellows,” replied Xie. “The other two…? Not so much.”
“Yes…” said Santiago. She let the words hang in the air. “At 0215 hours, Siurutian time, I received an intel-packet on encoded tight-beam from the Department of Homeworld Securitat on Where Fate Sleeps.”
“Those crusty old assholes? They haven’t had anything useful to say since the Commonality’s flirtation with autocracy. Their opinions haven’t mattered since we moved the capital from there to Siuruta!” said Xie.
“Please don’t start dissecting the mistakes of my great-grandfather again, Xie,” replied Santiago, her voice as icy and cold as a Moshiri winter. That was an old, sore wound. She had earned every damn achievement she had ever made, and it stung every time someone, even Xie, especially Xie, suggested she’d only accomplished her position based on the lingering legacy of the first High-Technician and his computerised bureaucracy. “We have established in previous discussions that his theories were sound in principle, and that nearly a century of peaceful co-existence, advancement and expansion under that regime does not mark my ancestors as brutal and murderous tyrants.”
“Which is why your father dismantled the entire thing the moment he ascended to power,” needled Xie.
Santiago slammed her fist onto the table. X’folio jumped, while Manuel seemed ruffled enough to allow himself a languid blink. “Dammit, Xie. This isn’t the time for this!” What little composure she had managed to hold together through the dark morning hours was starting to crack and crumble. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes.
Xie sat open-mouthed with shock. She had been playfully teasing Santiago about the Hernandez Dynasty’s neural network administration for over a century, and it had only ever been met with smiles, frowns, and at worst a slight harrumph. “Oh shit…” Xie breathed. “Whatever it is, it’s bad isn’t it?”
Santiago sniffed. “For the last 50 years we’ve received reports of Otaga ships in scattered and remote areas of the galaxy, poking at ancient and ruined worlds. Ignoring all hails and attempts to communicate, always fleeing when attacked. Most of the sightings of their ships have never even substantiated! However, this morning we found out what they were doing.”
“I’m not going to like it, am I?” asked Xie.
“No Xie, you’re not.” Santiago flicked on the omni-projection at the heart of the briefing table, and brought up the intel-packet from the old homeworld. “These are the reports from our deep space observation platforms.” The pale blue of the projection filled the air above the briefing table and began to zoom in on an area of the rim to the far distant galactic south. “Do you see these spikes here?” asked Santiago.
Xie squinted as she parsed the data. “Dark matter variances, they don’t look natural. And some spatial distortions that look like jump signatures, but they’re static so that doesn’t make any sense. All manner of strange matter and sub-atomics. It’s unusual, that’s for sure, but why the cause for alarm?”
X’folio chittered quietly. “It matches some of the survey data which was collected during the scouting of the Progenitor systems to the galactic north. Only… stronger…”
“X’folio, would you kindly tell Mistress Xie what the readings are indicative of,” asked Santiago.
“The only place we have ever seen similar readings was when the Commonality scanned the dormant Progenitor titan foundries. These readings… suggest active foundries.” X’folio’s forearms rubbed against xyr mandibles, making a rasping noise.
“But why would the Otaga have activated their titan foundries?” asked Xie.
Santiago mapped the projection to the Otaga border “Evidently they do not deem this sufficient to their needs.” A wall of diamond-shaped ships were spread across the length of the border. “They’re heading this way.”
“There’s so many of them…” whispered Xie.
“This particular sleeping empire has decided to wake up,” said Santiago.
“Maybe they’ll ignore us?” said Xie, “Surely they can’t see us as a threat?”
“I would have been inclined to agree with you Xie, had I not also been forwarded this message: a wide-band, multi-frequency burst targeted at the old Cerebriate foundation on Where Fate Sleeps. Otaga intelligence seems imperfect currently, but it is clear that it was meant for the office of the Overseer.” Santiago dimmed the galactic projection. It was replaced by a small trapezoid face, filled with 6 black, beady eyes and ringed with a mane of fibrous leaves caught in an evolutionary mix of feather and fern frond; pallid green, tinged a vivid blood-red at their ends.
Its language was screeching and guttural, with undertones like bubbling swamp tar. The translation matrix kicked in and in cool, calm, genderless tones announced:
“Tremble Xel-Dar Cerebriate. For too long, we Otaga have allowed our empire to decline, our borders to shrink, and foul, disgusting lesser species such as yourselves to wander among stars that rightfully belong to us. No more. This galaxy is ours, and you will submit to our rule or face the annihilation of your entire species.”
“I… I…” stuttered Manuel “I… do not have models or projections for any change in stagnant ascendancy status quo. They’re supposed to be sociological constants.” He held his head in his hands, his eyes glassy and distant.
“How many battleships do we have?” asked Xie.
X’folio croaked and nattered “Almost double what the first Grand Admiral had when she led the raid on the Ether Drake’s nest in the Fuye system. And most of our technology has advanced two, maybe three generations since then.”
“It won’t be enough,” sighed Santiago. “Not by a long shot.”
“What do we do?” asked Xie. she looked drained, like the message had blown the life out of her, and left only a grey revenant of what she once was.
Santiago shrugged. “We solve this problem the same way we’ve solved every other problem the Commonality has ever encountered: With Science.”