GesteCo’s colonization scheme was simple: seeding barren worlds in the habitable zones of stars with hardy terraforming plants, then shipping in a jump gate for an official survey crew. The planets were each given marketing-friendly names coined by a dedicated AI, and the survey crew would lay out an initial colony for investors and settlers. With any luck, GesteCo would recieve a 1000% return on its investment within 25 years, to say nothing of longer-term profits.

Aerna (original designation: J20383259+4601983 c) was one such planet, and the survey crew found the terraforming plants to have succeeded brilliantly, warming the world such that its ice caps had shrunk and generated a terrain of stark waterfalls and caverns. It was in one of these caverns near the colony site that the crew discovered the spheres.

They ranged from just a few centimeters to tens of meters in diameter, featureless and stony, and most strikingly they hovered 1-2 meters off the ground without any visible means of support.

GesteCo, panicked at possibly violating their contract not to develop worlds of “historical or biological interest,” immediately called for a government investigation. It was found that the spheres were of the same composition and age as the rocks around them, there were no indications of tool marks, and that their floating was the result of an anomaly in Aerna’s magnetic field combined with a very ferrous composition in the rocks.

The Spheres of Aerna quickly became a tourist attraction, but the debate as to their origin remains open. It’s possible they formed naturally through some unlikely geological process, or that they were placed by an unknown intelligence.

In the meantime, GesteCo has been content to pocket the results of tourist spending and scientific analysis alike.

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“He has googly eyes,” said Mavis. “Why does he have googly eyes?”

“Googly eyes are cheap,” said Gerry. “Marbles are expensive.”

“Still, with the pose that they have him in, holding his golf club on the range, it looks like he’s psyching out over the shot.”

They moved to the next display. “This is a really unnatural pose,” said Gerry. “Do you think they didn’t have enough skin to work with?”

“She’s awfully fat,” replied Mavis. “I think they were just lousy taxidermists.”

“But a ballet move, en pointe? That’s a stretch.”

“What about this one ever here?” Mavis pointed. “This one’s not so bad.”

“Humans don’t have three arms,” sneered Gerry. “I think this entire display is just crap taxidermy. The Betelgeusians are hardly even trying.”

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“No data was recovered from your skimmer,” Tallow said. “Nothing but you, and that’s a miracle in and of itself.”

“Are we still in atmo?” cried Remy. “Please tell me we’ve left.”

“No, of course not,” said Tallow. “This is a class three skimmer, it’s not capable of breaking atmo. We’re a few days out from Neptune Central Station, we can transfer you to a trans-atmo skiff there.”

“You don’t understand,” cried Remy. “The flux is still scrambling your communications. She’s still out there.”

“She? Your skimmer had an all-male crew, if I’m reading this manifest correctly.”

“We never saw more than shadows,” Remy said. “Shadows in the clouds. But there’s no other way to describe what we saw.”

“Another skimmer? Maybe a crew member from an illegal claim jumper?”

“To see it from lower atmo like that…no, no,” Remy said. “She would have had to be as big as a cruiser, or a continent. Maybe that’s why she never came close…the atmo is too thin…”

Tallow shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Behind her, a shadow of humanoid and vaguely feminine shape reared beneath the Neptunian clouds.

The second-to-last thing Tallow heard was Remy screaming.

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“You think they got pilots in there?” Rube said, looking up. A skimmer was docking at the local tower as a second one pulled away.

“Nah, they’s probably got computers,” said Jon. “I mean look at ’em. No place for pilots.”

Rube squinted at the skimmer, its blocky and asymetrical form a familiar enough sight that he hadn’t really thought about it in years. “Maybe they’s small, or funny-shaped,” he said. “Somethin’s in ’em, because they pay us mind when they’d crash.”

A walker, its cargo container fully loaded and sealed, walked by bound for the tower. It paused a moment, scanned over Rube and Jon, and they both froze. Then, satisfied that they weren’t about to interfere, it continued on toward the tower.

“What about them?” said Rube after relaxing. “You think they got pilots? They sure do pay us mind when it looks like we might get in the way.”

“Didn’t even get its guns out, that one,” sniffed Jon. “An’ no, they gots computers too I think. They’s just got ’em fixed up to come down here, build towers, and haul stuff out of the ground to send up there. Cheaper that way I bet, and it means they don’t need to do anything to us if we don’t bug ’em.”

“Maybe,” Rube said. “Maybe. Whaddaya think they’ll do with that stuff up there? Whaddaya think they’ll do when there’s nothing else to haul outta the dirt?

“All I know,” Jon said, “is I don’t wanna know. They shoot us if we get in the way, so it’s no nevermind to them either.”

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Gasping over the alarms in her ears, Emma pulled the handle to blow the explosive bolts on the hatch. It was the only way to get the fire under control, even though she knew that it was ultimately a futile effort. Her capsule’s systems were shot, the oxygen reserves nearly depleted, and most of the provisions had been destroyed.

Compared to that, Joris IV’s total lack of an atmosphere seemed almost trivial.

When the hatch blew, Emma scrambled outside. It was as much instinct as anything; she knew in the coldest part of her brain, the scientist part, that she was already dead and just hadn’t realized it yet. As the last bits of atmosphere inside the capsule blew away, and the parachutes settled under their own inertia, she settled against the still-warm side of her little craft.

And that’s when she heard it: a voice at once familiar and impossible.

“Mom?”

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“Relax. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

Annaclaire sounded confident, but the checklist she rattle off next was anything but reassuring. “Look at the test pattern. We need to make sure your light amplification is working or you might trip and fall into orbit.”

Samson shuddered at the thought. “Can’t I just let the computer do the walking?” he said. “Or send a probe?”

“Do you have the 1.2 billion dollars it would take to replace a probe if you lose it?” Annaclaire said.

“Well…”

“Do you have the ability to reprogram your suit’s motors on the fly to deal with variations in terrain and to correct problems that, if untreated, could make you trip and fall into orbit?”

“Uh…”

“Yeah,” Annaclaire said. “I thought so. Test pattern.”

Looking at the pattern, Samson followed the directions on his HUD, which gradually brightened what he saw from near-total blackness to a reasonable approximation of the amount of light on an inner solar system body like the Moon.

“Now, I’m going to open the door,” said Annaclaire. “It’s gonna be pretty dizzying. Try not to look too far up.”

“Okay,” Samson said, sounding anything but.

“Now we’re going to be tethered together, and the boots should do most of the work, but if it looks like you’re going to take off and drag me with you, I’ll cut the line. Rescue from orbit is extra, and it’ll be a straight abort if it comes to that. We clear?”

“We’re clear,” wheezed Samson.

“Good.” Annaclaire slapped a well-worn button. “We’re off.”

The door opened, revealing the great lazy ellipsoid of Haumea above the horizon, its great red impact smear like the iris of a bloodshot eye. The icy, tortured terrain of its moon Namaka lay ahead, stained reddish-brown.

“I hope whatever you’re after is worth it,” she added, elbowing me. “Time to go.”

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The number of parts you’d had replaced with cybernetics determined your place in the Sion Hierarchy; everybody knew that. From the enhanced eyepiece you got for free upon joining the Blackcoats to the 2.5-ton rated steel arms you had to purchase to become an Over-Lieutenant, it was a continuous ladder of aspiration. Each rung was more expensive than the last, true. And beyond the level of a Blackcoat Private Initiate, the Sion Hierarchy didn’t give you a cent to help pay your way.

But the Primarch was at the head of that hierarchy, and this would be the first time that Jell had ever seem it.

The Primarch walked out of its office slowly. It was living proof that, though the Heirarchy favored utility, it was not immune to decoration, to pomp. A rich red sash adorned the Primarch’s tall, thin frame, and it was equipped with a series of flexible bulletproof shields designed to evoke a long designer trench coat. A crimson gorget, bearing the seal of Sion, was also prominent.

“One of my Tetrarchs tells me that you have information about the Intersectionalists.” The Primarch’s voice was synthesized, emenating from a head that had no human features whatsoever, only smooth metal and plastic. Rumor had it that the Primarch instead saw through dozens of miniaturized cameras distributed evenly over its body.

In fact, there was no flesh of any sort visible. Rumor also held that only the tiniest portion of the Primarch’s brain was yet of the flesh.

“Y-yes, Primarch,” said Jell.

“Why have you not uploaded this data?”

“I feared it would be intercepted,” stammered Jell. “Better for me to perish carrying it than for it to fall into the wrong hands.”

“Perhaps,” the Primarch responded. It approached further and Jell noticed, to his surprise, that the vaguely humanoid frame nevertheless rested on a cane. “I will make a connection to a private and secure server available to you. You will then upload this information for analysis.”

It was not a question, but a command.

“To…to your own private server?” Jell said, palms sweating. Everything would go awry if the file was not directly linked to the Primarch.

“That is immaterial, is it not?” said the Primarch. “The data will be analyzed and your reward–or punishment–will be determined solely on its merits.”

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