JOHN L-35: I’m your host, John L-35, and this is Crossball coming to you live from our studio on Deep Space Station K-9. It’s October 6, 2563, and today’s interview topic is the assimilation of the human race. Our panelists today are Krk-skrr 010, formerly Serena Doublett of the New Queensland colony, and Unit 11001001, formerly Mercedes DiGiacinto of Sleepship Twenty-Seven.

KRK-SKRR 010: Thank you, John.

UNIT 11001001: Happy to be here.

JOHN L-35: So let me lead with the obvious question: why does the human race need to be assimilated at all, and what benefits does assimilation offer?

KRK-SKRR 010: Well, John, I think we can all agree that as a species humans have proven themselves incapable of evolving, with almost no change in 10,000 years. Think of what the species could have done with a chitinous exoskeleton impervious to laser blasts and molecule-sharp claws with which to rend its enemies? That’s what the Starbrood offers.

UNIT 11001001: Give me a break.

JOHN L-35: Unit 11001001, you’ll get your chance for a rebuttal.

KRK-SKRR 010: Thank you, John. Starbrood is legion, Starbrood is flesh, Starbrood is the future. The transformation isn’t even that painful once the pain receptors are burned away in the Changing Vats

JOHN L-35: Thank you. Unit 11001001?

UNIT 11001001: We assert that The Cogitate is the future and the only assimilator capable of helping the human race reach its true potential. After all, computers are the work-horses of our minds already; we outsource thinking to our devices, so why not to The Cogitate? Individual differences, not lack of evolution, are dooming humanity. The Cogitate stands to scour all that would stand in the way of distribution of resources for the collective good, including the dangerously individualistic Starbrood.

KRK-SKRR 010: At the cost of surrendering to a dictatorship, you mean! That’s tyranny.

UNIT 11001001: And demanding that every member of your society be the same species is not?

KRK-SKRR 010: We’re still individuals.

UNIT 11001001: Individuality is lipstick on a horse to the Starbrood. Valuable data and bodyforms are lost in your inefficient conversion process, which ought to assimilate via neuro-implants rather than fleshy viral pools.

JOHN L-35: Please, please! We are here for a civil discussion. Now, I want you each to say something nice about your opposite to get us back on the right foot.

KRK-SKRR 010: For a mindless cog in a totalitarian nightmare, Unit 11001001 is surprisingly capable of restraint.

UNIT 11001001: Krk-skrr 010 is marginally less hideous and knuckle-dragging as a Starbrood drone than as a mechanical engineer.

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Dmitri’s father, Yuri, had fought in Afghanistan and during his long slow slide into vodka-fueled oblivion had regained his son with tales of that desert hell of scorpions and Stinger missiles.

He found Syria to be its match, bug for bug, bullet for bullet. The only difference was that instead of a hundred thousand comrades-in-arms, he had half a battallion of naval infantry at Latakia, a close-support air group, and a section of Vega Group special forces. That and the Syrians themselves, who Dmitri held in utter contempt. Too many of his men were there because of threats, and he’d seen them break and run under sustained enemy fire.

The really good troops, the Republican Guard? Dmitri had a respect for them. But Assad, that crafty jackal, wouldn’t even let the Russians, his only friends in the world, tell his personal troops with skulls on their shoulders what to do.

So Dmitri sat and waited, coordinating his men as best he could with those Syrians the kleptocrats saw fit to give him command over, coordinating and leading assaults to fight fires as they arose.

“We’ve got a signal,” one of his local techs said, in English. God, how Dmitri hated the soft sound of that mongrel tongue, but it was the only way to make himself understood.

“What is it?” he barked.

“Message is as follows: Site 38 overrun. Foreign fighters reported present. Foriegn nationals present. Request full ground, air support.”

“Is it a proper communication?”

“The code checks out.”

Dmitri massaged his temples. “Send word to the SU-25s at 06-07,” he said. “I want them fueled and loaded for a strike on my mark.”

“Yes sir.”

“What about the Crocodile helicopters at 04-05?” Dmitri said. “Do we have a status update after their last mission?”

“04-05 reports Crocodiles are being repaired and rearmed.”

“Keep me posted on their status, I want them available for close-in support if necessary.” Dmitri rose and tugged at his uniform shirt. “Radio that bastard Abdul and tell him to get his sorry excuse for a recon unit in gear. I’ll meet them in a hour.”

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All Vyaeh ships of a certain size carried a transmitter capable of tapping into their FTL communications network. It was a power-hungry operation that demanded every ounce of energy not needed for life support, but its efficiency was unparalleled. Other species still relied on moving data ship by ship, lugging around bulky drives with images of their networks; compared to that, the Vyaeh FTL network was a thing of rare and subtle beauty. How the idiotic Krne had wondered, during the Verge War, why the Vyaeh always seemed to be one step ahead!

If only they had known.

Ryll arrived breathless on the bridge, the spiracles on either side of his abdomen pumping madly through the provided ports in his uniform. There was an incoming message on the FTL network in response to the earlier report of combat.

Subcommander Lhayr was astonished. An incoming message? That was a significant, one might say unprecedented, expenditure of resources. She demanded an explanation; Ryll had none to give. Instead, the only detail was more worrying.

It was a live signal with simulated pheromones. And it bore the unmistakable seals and metadata of the Orphaned Court.

Lhayr immediately ordered the Cunyak to move to the part of orbit best suited for transmission, and for the crew to report to quarters. To make sure that ample power was available, she shut off life support to every area of the ship aside from the crew quarters and her own personal executive suite. She took the message there after the necessary preparations had been made, wearing her dress uniform.

The shape before her was shrouded in shadow, as was the custom of the Court. None of its inner members were ever seen, instead relaying their missives through intermediaries. Those intermediaries had intermediaries, and none of them revealed their faces to the vile ranks below them. If Subcommander Lhayr distinguished herself in battle, gained a fortune, and retired wealthy and honored, there was a chance–a chance–that her children might be permitted to look upon the lowest-ranking envoys of the Orphaned Court in normal lighting.

Bidding her welcome, the intermediary identified herself as Vy’Gryr, with the honorific reserved for those associated with the Court plain in both her speech and in the synthetic pheromones which flooded the chamber, bringing with them a musky hint of metal and gears. Vy’Gryr demanded that the Cunyak immediately depart its station and report to a world whose coordinates were to follow.

Prostrate, and with her own pheromones being sensed and transmitted across impossibly vast distances of space and time, Lhayr responded with the truth. She was confused by the order, and by the coordinates, which seemed to specify an underdeveloped world which was beneath notice and contempt.

To her surprise, Vy’Gryr the intermediary was pleased. A group of primitives on that rock had earned themselves a death sentence from the Orphaned Court, she said, and none could under no circumstances be allowed to escape. There were to be no survivors. Every structure, every trace of human occupation within this small sector of the planet’s surface was to be razed and destroyed. After this was secured, further orders would follow.

Lhayr agreed wholeheartedly. What of the curious structure at the center of the coordinates? She asked if the intermediary of the Orphaned Court would like it preserved or investigated.

At the mention of the ruins, though, there was a sharp difference in the pheromones of Vy’Gryr. If the subcommander hadn’t known better, she would have interpreted the scent as…fear. But that was, of course, impossible. Intermediaries, even comparatively lowly ones like Vy’Gryr, were conditioned almost from pupation to express no fear and to suppress any and all pheromones related to it.

Was the subcommander, Vy’Gryr asked, familiar with the Vyaeh military’s last expedition to that world?

Lhayr had to admit that she was not. There had been no mentions in the archives, no notes, nothing. An automated probe scan for celestial navigation purposes, that was all.

In fact, the intermediary said, there had been a battle over the world almost six thousand years ago, in the late phases of the Vyaeh empire’s aggressive expansion. A native population had been wiped out, driven to extinction without even the benefit of conscription extended to those like the Krne who had proven themselves in battle. A single ship, one of several that had escaped this purge, had disappeared in the sector in question.

The subcommander, in response, was so bold as to wonder why a single, ancient ship was of any concern. They had routinely found ancient crashes and derelicts during their time in the Verge, and found them to be unremarkable in every way. There was typically no reason to believe that the ship’s technology had anything to offer the Vyaeh or posed any sort of threat.

Vy’Gryr swatted down the question with a wave of hostile pheromones. The subcommander presumed too much, she said, and such answers were generations beyond her right to ask.

Chagrined, Lhayr apologized. What was needed of her? That was the only question to be asked, it seemed.

The intermediary was more receptive to this. Lhayr was to command a raid on this world, and explicitly authorized to use the resources at her disposal in wiping out the humans in the vicinity of the crashed ship. Then, every single soldier, engineer, or other personnel to have entered the ship was to be summarily executed. She was also thereby ordered to destroy, ruthlessly and without prejudice, any human vessels attempting to flee the planet or any Vyeah ships that lifted off without express authorization.

Lhayr agreed. Of course. No sacrifice was too great for the Orphaned Court; her troops would understand. Furthermore, she pledged to detonate any ship that appeared to be so much as warming up for takeoff without the proper authorizations and network stamps.

Vy’Gryr was sure the troops would welcome the opportunity for sacrifice, and praised Lhayr for her initiative. Further orders and authorizations were forthcoming, but they had been issued at the very highest levels. Whatever reasons there were behind it did not concern the subcommander, but it was important that she know how deeply the Orphaned Court had chosen to involve itself in this seemingly provincial matter.

Lhayr agreed, and the connection was terminated, leaving her confused.

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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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