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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“What would the government of Celebes II want with that?” whispered Pauline in a hushed voice, one so low her suit could barely pick up on it. Maria couldn’t see her face; the glow before them was simply too strong.

“Nothing,” said Maria flatly. “Whatever we were told before, it’s obviously a lie.”

The light pulsed, playing against their suits like the reflection of a tropical sun across the ocean.

“I think it knows we’re talking about it,” Maria added.

“How can it know? How can it even be something that could know?” Pauline cried. “It’s just light.”

“No,” Maria said. “No, it’s not. I think it’s alive, and I think we’re under contract to sneak it through a blockade.”

Maria honestly felt like she was having a failure of imagination. Jessie wouldn’t have had that problem. There would have been theories bubbling out at a mile a minute, half of them funny, half of them brilliant, half of them again 150% ridiculous. Alone, without Jessie, Maria wasn’t able to take that same light and reflect it into vision and creativity.

Her speculation was just a pale glow.

The lights contracted and began to swirl, appearing like some sort of impossible galactic vortex in miniature. “What did you do?” Pauline cried.

“I…I thought about Jessie,” said Maria, her voice now filled with wonder. “And it responded. How could it have known?”

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The hologram flickered. “It was a simple enough process,” said the spectral Quaoar. “I was responsible for maintining the gene registry for this world. To keep it pure and on-code, naturally!”

“That seems a little like letting the fox guard the henhouse,” Eris said, recalling the monstrosities she’d seen earlier.

“Or a child to monitor the playground,” Quaoar laughed. He continued: “I added my own genetic code to the mitochondria of the population. Not the whole thing, of course; even the fools upstairs would have noticed a change like that. I added a bit of the code to millions of individuals, along with a delightful snippet of my own design which led the pieces to seek each other out after a time as viruses.”

“So you infected the entire human genome like a disease.”

“Nothing so crude, I assure you!” said Quaoar. “It was a slow process, and a subtle one, but given enough time my genes hidden safely in mitochondria would form complete gametes that would then take over ova and sperm for reconstruction. Voila! You.”

Eris raised an eyebrow. “I think there’s a little flaw in your plan,” she said, crossing her arms very slowly and deliberately across her bust.

“Yes, that is a bit of an…unexpected element…in the plan. I had thought that the gametes’ design would not allow for such variance, but no matter. Flesh is flesh, genes are genes. All that remains is the genetic memory I have painstakingly prepared.”

“If you think I’m going to let you overwrite-”

“Child,” Quaoar said. “If I wanted to rewrite you, I would have done it the moment you entered that door. No, I need you to succeed where I failed. The memories I have to give will no more erase who you are than remembering a dream the morning after waking will.”

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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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It was a longer and harder road than it once had been to get between the Outland Empire and the Eastern Empire. Bandits were a problem, as were the general lack of mechanics and spare parts. But perhaps worst of all for the poor souls attempting to drive from coast to coast was the near-total lack of entertainment options.

Winona Greenwood had aimed to change that for going on ten years now.

Her businesses, side by side, straddled the old road right as it emerged from the mountains. The one that people saw first was “Treasures for Lovers – Romanticals,” Winona’s combination adult bookstore, adult novelty store, and exotic dancery. If ever anyone needed a little extra push through the door, its sister shop “Treasures for Livers – Intoxicants” was there.

Quaddlebaum ran the businesses day to day for Winona. He had an accountant’s mind for detail and was the only one capable of managing the enormous amount of scrip that came through the door, everything from universal exchange e-credits to Outland Empire scrip to silver coins pounded out on some godforsaken die in Ativia. But only Winona had the showman’s eye, the nose for glitz, that such an enterprise demanded. Quaddlebaum, she often said, would have squeezed the life out of the business in one very profitable week.

When he came to her in the office she kept above Treasures for Livers (the alternative was too loud), Winona was sure it was another minor dispute to be smoothed over with a smile or a sixgun. “One of those Beral boys refusing to pay for diesel again?” she said on seeing his face. “Remind them that it’s not killing the earth if the damn thing’s already dead.”

“No, Ms. Greenwood,” said Quaddlebaum. His wispy hair, what remained of it, was in even more disarray than usual. “We have a joiner.”

“Tell them to get lost.” Many people thoughout the years had thought to work at Treasures for Lovers after stumbling out of the mountains. Compared to the hard work of crossing the continent, handing out novelties and pole dances to a paying crowd must have seemed a pretty sweet deal. Winona only hired locals, though. Until you put down roots, you had no business working for her as anythong more than a shovelboy.

“That’s just it, Ms. Greenwood,” Quaddlebaum continued. “She is…quite insistent.”

“Do I need to get Jacobs down there with his rifle?” said Winona. “You know how much good bullets cost.”

“Far from it, Ms. Greenwood,” Quaddlebaum replied. “The lady in question has taken Jacobs hostage with his own gun, and says that it’s employment for her or death for him.”

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“Sverdlovsk-83,” said Yuri. Even with headphones it was difficult to hear him over the roar of the Crocodile’s rotors. “Down there.”

Jen looked out the window. The snow was blinding at first, even with the goggles she’d been issued, but once her pupils painfully jerked smaller she could see a number of structures casting stark shadows against the snow. “How far are we from the actual Sverdlovsk?”

“We call it Ykatrianburg now. Hundreds and hundreds of kilometers away!”

“Why did they call it Sverdlovsk-83 then?” Jen said, shouting a little to be heard. “They didn’t really brief us very well,” she added.

“Of course not, why brief you when we have a nice long quiet helicopter ride?” laughed Yuri. “It was a closed city used for research. Aerospace and the space program mostly. They chose the name to throw people off the scent. But if you knew someone who worked there, they’d get their mail through post office box 83 in Sverdlovsk. Hence it has a name like an isotope!”

The Crocodile banked, and Jen felt her stomach protest roundly. “Does he have to do that?” she cried.

“Looking for a lading spot!” Yuri answered. “There should be an old helicopter pad, but it’s covered with snow!”

Jen pointed out the window. “There,” she said. “Right there. That’s the building from the schamatics I saw.” A large satellite dish loomed over the complex, pointed skyward. “That’s the RB-1 Reciever?”

“Correct,” Yuri said. “The centerpiece of Secretary Brezhnev’s plans for space, and the only one we ever built.”

“The original purpose of the RB-1 was communications with astronauts on the moon,” said Jen. “We ultimately didn’t need them for that, so they were never built. What was this one being used for?”

The Crocodile banked hard again. “You’re going to laugh at this,” said Yuri. “But it was intended to recieve transmissions from Soviet space colonies on Mars. He was an ambitious fellow, our Secretary Brezhnev. Loved medals. Never did anything small.”

“So what’s the problem?” Jen said. “The dish clealy isn’t calibrated properly anymore, and couldn’t be without major repairs.”

“The problem,” said Yuri, “is that last week, our RB-1 recieved a signal.”

Inspired by this.

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“Tell me about it,” I said. “Describe what you’re feeling.”

Neltoq inclined his head. “It is like…” He trailed off, and for a moment there was just the sound of his reedy breathing.

“Go on,” I said gently.

“Imagine a song you have never heard, but one which you nevertheless know by heart,” said Neltoq. “You hear it distantly, as if borne on a summer breeze. As much as you desire to hear it, you hold back out of fear.”

I could only nod my head.

“How else might I describe it…?” Neltoq closed two of his eyes to re-moisturize them. “Perhaps…you see an old lover from a short distance away. You want to cry out to her, but at the same time you dare not. It is too dangerous. There is too much pain. Instead, you feel the embers of what was, what could have been, stirring deep within you.”

“I didn’t know you were a poet, Neltoq,” I said.

“It is an avocation I hve been studying,” he said. “It is a tradition among the Ultoq to compose a final testament before the metamorphosis. I have long thought that I would prefer for mine to be a poem. My scientific work will speak for itself, but it contains none of my soul.”

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“You lied to me,” I said. “Neltoq isn’t contemplating suicide. He’s contemplating metamorphosis.”

Gelb spread his fingers wide, shaking them in a mock version of jazz hands. “You got me, kid. Lock me up for fibbing.”

“Why?”

“The Project, of course,” said Gelb. “Don’t put on such naivete. It doesn’t suit you.”

“What about it?”

“Neltoq is a chief architect of the Project. It would take decades for someone else to familiarize themselves with his work, decades that we might not have.” Gelb pulled a cigar from his desk and held it under his nose, savoring the illegal odor. “And before you go trying to rat me out to Albert or Mil’Raq or the Supervisor, keep in mind that I was doing as I was told.”

I knocked the cigar out of Gelb’s hand in a gesture that surprised even me.

“Pick that up,” he said darkly. “Right now.”

I folded my arms.

“Fine.” Gelb stood up, waddled over to his cigar, and fetched it. “Have a tantrum if you like. But you can’t deny that Neltoq is an asset to the project as a juvenile Ultoq. What is he as a sessile sponge on the ocean floor?”

I didn’t say anything. Honestly, I couldn’t even think straight.

“So tell Neltoq to get off the grinyth if you want, counselor,” said Gelb. “But do so knowing that you’d be fatally undermining the Project.”

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The Sisters of Proxima Centauri wore their traditional habits, based on what had been common street wear two hundred years ago.

“So, you think you have what it takes to be a midwife?” said Sister Mary Xargbargl. A Theodosian, she looked rather strange wearing an Earth-style t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, but the Sisters would brook no violations of their dress code.

“I do,” said Miriam Burbage, late of 1066 Vowele St., The Integral Article, Surwickshire.

“You do know that there are over 10,000 species on Maximus Prime,” Sister Xargbargl said. “Each with their own complex birthing rituals.”

“Well, I do know that 4583 of those species reproduce by budding or asexual division,” said Miriam. “So there’s that.”

“Hmph! I’ll be the judge of that,” Sister Xargbargl snapped. “How does a newly budded Pseudopodean prevent its parent’s digestive enzymes from permeating its membrane?”

“It uses its birth legs to crawl away before they soften, naturally,” said Miriam. “Do give me a harder one if you’d like to test me, Sister.”

“How long does a newly burst Chitinoid have to find a suitable host before it loses its baby claws, then?” snapped the sister. “And how do you, as a midwife, keep from being infested?”

“37.3 hours,” said Miriam. “And I’ve already switched to a garlic shampoo.”

“Where must the incision be made to keep an Eleutherian from eating its way out of its father?”

“Below the sternal vacuoles and above the hyperthorax,” said Miriam. “Are you quite finished?”

Sister Xargbargl nodded one of her heads rather grudgingly. “Just one more thing.” she said. “Why?”

Miriam looked off into the distance. “I want to help people,” she said. “If there had been an alien midwife when my sister was carrying her half-Scraglite baby, she might have lived.

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Ambitiosior stultitia is highly sexually dimorphic, like all the organisms in its ecosystem. It has trilateral symmetry and three sexes, (male, female, and neuter), again very similarly to the norm in its ecosystem.

The male Ambitiosior stultitia is a hemolymph drinker, with a sharp proboscis for that purpose and wings. The female, also winged, uses a similar proboscis to take milksap from sedentary pseudotrees. The wingless neuter is a photovore, feeding on sunlight.

But the true distinction of Ambitiosior stultitia is the final stage of its life cycle. Rather than mating, the three sexes spin a cocoon together and emerge after a pupal period as the mated form, which utilizes the nutrients gathered by all three progenitors.

This form, which is wildly dissimilar from the others, was initially classed as a different species. It has wings, is heavily armored, and emerges pregnant from its chrysalis. With no working mouthparts, its only purpose is to find and kill a suitable host in which to lay its eggs, after which it dies.

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