When Caleb left the shattered husk of the Harvester Prime behind, bleeding out what it called the knowledge of a thousand generations onto its own mechanical innards, he had collected all the other Harvesters he could, pulling them free from their mechanical cocoons, their prisons. Most were very young, mere children; their leader had mentioned how quickly the Harvesters burned through a body that wasn’t young and resilient.

The oldest Harvester had refused Caleb’s help, defiantly pulling put a piece of vital circuitry and leaving the world on her own terms. A younger one, a teenager, had refused Caleb’s help, piloting his machine into the wastes with a grim purpose.

“You’ve no fuel and no plan, son!” Caleb had shouted after him. “What are you going to do?”

“Find a purpose,” came the reply over crackled loudspeakers. “Or die trying.”

The others had agreed to come or been so young that Caleb felt he had no choice but to take them. They were all cybernetically enhanced to various degrees, apparently at the whim of their departed ‘grandfather,’ but Caleb was able to fashion parts to replace their limbs–each child was missing an arm or a leg, with their connection to the Harvesters apparently passing through instead, an extension of the self in the form of a ten-ton hand.

So, when Caleb set out on his long trek home, he was accompanied by a wagon and nine children aged five to ten. They’d been given names by the Harvester Prime that seemed to imply he saw them as the components of a vast and sinister circuit board–parts soldered into place to serve a purpose like any other. “I/O” had chosen to take her own life, and “CPU” had trundled off to parts unknown, which left Trace, Diode, Switch, Transistor, Capacitator, Chip, Resistor, Breaker, and Fuse in Caleb’s convoy.

Transistor was utterly unable to pronounce her name, rendering it variously as “tray-sister,” “trog-sister,” or even “trap-sister.” By the end of the long ramble to safety, Caleb and all the others just called her Sister. Capacitor proudly and pointedly pronounced his full name every time, but Caleb had little patience for it: “I’m not using four syllables to call you unless I’m mighty angry, kid. You’ll go by Cap when I’m in a good mood.” Resistor, who was the same age as Sister and might have been a sibling or twin, was ironically the most pleasant and pliable of the children. She was “Tory” by the end of the journey.

Trace, the oldest, walked alongside Caleb as he led the wagon crammed with the others. “What’ll you do with us when we get to your home, mister?” he asked once his early fear of Caleb’s grizzled and laconic affect had faded.

“I can’t say I’ve decided,” Caleb said. “But I’m not the sort of guy to leave helpless kids to the jackals. I reckon I’ll teach you a few tricks, give you some books to read, show you how to shoot half-decent and forage for salvageable machine parts.”

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Sirzert regarded Glya with many, many unblinking eyes. “Well, Ms. VanPoen, your stated wish seems reasonable on the whole. However, we cannot grant it.”

“Why not?” said Glya, regarding the alien intelligence with pleading eyes. “I’ve seen you do incredible things. That ship you vaporized, uplifting the Qiq…surely returning an old woman left stumbling around, out of time, to where she belongs is meaningless before such power.”

Half Sirzert’s eyes blinked slowly in a sequence Glya felt like she half-remembered from a dream. “I am the fusion of hundreds of years of planning, the immaculate–according to my creators, anyway–product of a thousand years of planning. But asking to be returned to the past…while it is possible, the ripples are unpredictable. You are asking a great deal.”

“Am I?” Glya said. “I just want to live.”

“As do I, Ms. VanPoen. As do I. But ask yourself this: would returning you from whence you came upset the balance of history in such a way that my people never created me? Would you be the flutter of a lepidopteran wing that leads to my destruction? You are asking me to risk an existence beyond comprehending, as well as the life’s work of generations of my peoples’ finest minds, for what is an affectation.”

“Home is not an affectation,” Glya said softly. “It’s real.”

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I’m pleasantly surprised, one might even say amused, by your indignant attitude, Captain. Of course Kiaai V’Lzi is too mellifluous a name to have arisen by chance, and a humanoid figure like the one you see before you, strains credulity and probability. Even with the unusual grey skin tone and pointed ears to easily differentiate what you see from humankind, you find yourself unable to conceive of a convergent evolution strong enough to have produced such a comely form.

Of course you are right.

But let me ask you this, Captain. Would you, or your crew, be able to handle a truly alien being? Wouldn’t it terrify you to know something that reflects no light you can see stalks your ship? Something that relies on trace gasses respirated through a chemical process you cannot conceive? Something that has the repeated patterns that make up its thought made up of such potent electromagnetic energy that it can reprogram what you see and feel as easily as it can annihilate you with a dose of hard rads at a whim?

I know what I’m doing. So do the both of us a favor and let the illusion do its work, eh? You do your thing, I do mine, and we’ll both be safe and snug in the knowledge that you won’t be too terrified or disgusted to do what we need you to do. Okay?

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Confessor Clayton continued, gesticulating as the basket upon his head bobbed and dipped. “Lady Eostre, also called Ostara. Dame of the Hares we name her, as she is patroness of that which fruitfully multiplies upon the earth, and that which sustains the belly and warms the body when taken with respect. Mistress of Eggs, she is called, for her daily gift of breakfast from hens and fowl, which reminds us of the boundlessness of life and also its cycle. She is also known as Mother of Fluffchicks, for the many small and fluffy birds brought forth from eggs not otherwise eaten. And, of course, children know her best as the Dispenstress of Honeyed Sweets–a reminder to those that have them of nature’s bounty.”

“I see,” I said. “Well, uh, Confessor, what will you do now?”

“We will have a Ceremonial Scattering, that we may know the toil of Lady Eostre, also called Ostara. Then there will be The Baskening, where woven reed baskets filled with bounties for the worthy will be distributed. Than, naturally, will follow Chocpocalypse, where the honeyed gifts of Lady Eostre, also called Ostara, will be consumed. The tummyaches to follow are a reminder to us of the dangers of excess.”

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Administrator Naqebtran steepled their fingers, seventeen in total, and looked across the desk at O’Rourke. The colonial officials called it the ‘selfie stare’ because Naqebtran usually appeared to be doing a ‘duck face’ with their rather large lips. Erhv-Skire like Naqebtran had the lips for an entirely different purpose, for covering the baleen-like plates that they used to filter airborne plankton. But O’Rourke couldn’t help but anthropomotphize Naqebtran, especially given the incongruous look that those lush lips gave when surrounded by bristly hair-like projections.

“I want you to tell me what, exactly, happened in the mines, Mr. O’Rourke,” Naqebtran said, in the reedy voice common to Erhv-Skire. Some of them used a synthetic resonator when dealing with humans, believing that a deeper voice would lend them more respect. Naqebtran had, in their first address as administrator, denounced this, insisting that the miners listen to the message and not how it was delivered.

This left O’Rourke in the unenviable position of attempting not to laugh at the administrator’s appearance while answering questions about the accidents–murders?–which Naqebtran was clearly taking very seriously.

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The artificial docent handed a thick, smooth sheet to Cvkia. “This is a list of rules that you agree to abide by in consulting Sage Goroy Sadak.”

Cvkia glanced over it, reading quickly as her eyes darted back and forth. “I’m not allowed to look him in the eyes?”

“Sage Goroy Sadak’s eyes have been known to distract supplicants. I assure you that they are extremely useful on his homeworld, but to those who have never seen them, they can be…deep-set and unnerving.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to freeze up,” Cvkia said. “Does that happen often?”

“Humans tend to. Others, it varies. For obvious reasons, Xinoi are completely unaffected, but then, they can’t even read the card, can they?”

Continuing to read the card, Cvkia flipped it over. “Try not to exhale?” she said.

“Sage Goroy Sadak’s physiology finds CO2 mildly toxic,” the docent said. “We recirculate his atmosphere with the CO2 scrubbed, of course, but if you get excited, exhale too much, it could be problematic. You will be removed if this happens.”

“Fine, fine. I will look at the floor and hold my breath as best I can.” Cvkia handed the card back to the docent.

Its servos whirred in an approximation of annoyance. “You will be removed of your failure to comply reaches a dangerous level.”

“Very well.” Cvkia was shown through into Sage Goroy Sadak’s chambers, passing through a decontamination grid, a full scrubber, and a body-penetrating scanner. Finally, she was shown to a hard plastic chair facing a translucent wall. Shadows flitted about on its other side, sometimes corresponding to strange noises but more often not. Every few moments, the overhead CO2 scrubbers would kick on, causing a burst of harsh ozone smell and lifting strands of Cvkia’s hair skyward.

When the translucence finally shuddered, lifted, vanished, a small pod was extended outward, connected to the wall by snaking cables and radiation-hardened hoses. Perched atop the pod was a curious creature–Sage Goroy Sadak himself. He was the size of a small child, but with a brilliantly silvery-blue coloration. His mouth seemed twisted in a permanent grin, and his eyes were two flat black orbs that occasionally had silvery bursts of luminescence flicker across them.

“A child?” Cvkia said.

“Aren’t we all?” Sage Goroy Sadak’s voice came not from his mouth but rather a speaker set below and between his dangling and vaguely sausage-like legs. “But I assure you, it is simply a coincidence of convergent evolution. I am well-suited to my homeworld’s gravity and climate.”

Cvkia had been attempting to hold her breath when not absolutely necessary, and was beginning to feel lightheaded. “I see,” she said, in a bit of a wheeze. “And all the secrecy, all the security?”

“Necessary as a precaution only, and often enforced perhaps too strictly by those who are as jealous of my gifts as I am free with them.” Goroy Sadak raised a hand. “Please, breathe normally. It will not matter if our conversation is brief.”

With a gasp, Cvkia gulped in cold, ozone-tinged air. “Why do you let them do this?” she said. “Lock you away, when you would dispense your gifts freely?”

A sound out of the speaker that might have been a chuckle, or an attempt at one. “Even among my people, I am quite gifted. But I am, and have always been, a complete pacifist. I am also, if I may say so, something of a hedonist. I enjoy my creature comforts and find it very difficult to be roused to vengeance. If it suits the Confederation to keep me here, in comfort, who am I to stop them? Information, like entropy, will out. Now, what have you come to ask me, Ms. Cvkia Nebojsa?”

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“I’m looking for Ajixa, the Dark Blade of the Lutil.”

The Lutil approached. Its silicon scales glistened beneath its transparent environment suit, while the ammonia-rich atmosphere within manifested as billowing clouds of jaundiced vapor. Its words came across inaudibly, muffled by both the suit and the atmospheric pressure, but it had a good, military-grade translator. “That one is known to us, though not by that name,” it said. “That you would ask for them as such shows a profound ignorance. Tell me, what do you know of the one that you call Ajixa, and what do you know of this appellation, ‘the Dark Blade of the Lutil,’ that insults them on alien lips.”

“Well, Ajixa was head of the Lutil colony on-”

“We know the encyclopedia entry,” said the Lutil. “Tell me in your own, alien, words.”

“Ajixa assassinated the previous colony leader after maneuvering all their allies out of power, so no one would protest. The first order of business was to invite the human GesteCo Corporation to exploit the place. Ajixa not only encouraged GesteCo to spy on its workers and assassinate troublemakers, but actively encouraged it, even participating personally. Due to the place being under Lutil jurisdiction, Ajixa increased the output of crystalline glucose by 10%, the mines spat out deuterium at double their previous efficiency, and the colony was twice as profitable. And in exchange, 50% of the GesteCo workforce, mostly human like me, died.”

The Lutil nodded. “We prefer to say that Ajixa trusted the welfare of the humans to their own kind, and was disappointed but not surprised at what they did, turning a struggling colony into a profitable one at the cost of many lives. Ajixa did what was necessary, and those who might have counseled caution instead were encouraging.” It paused. “Because of that, Ajixa’s fearsome reputation is only matched by a fearsome bounty from human survivors and a GesteCo anxious to clean its hands fo the mess.”

“You are Ajixa, are you not? I think it is time to drop the pretense.”

A deep bow from the Lutil. “At your service. Tell me why you have sought me out, and the I will tell you whether you will get it, leave empty-handed, or die.”

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