“People of Nede, today marks the one-thousandth anniversary of the Emorian Empire’s foundation and the one-hundredth anniversary of my ascension to the throne. For one thousand years this planet have been united under the banner of justice, equality, and stability and for one hundred years I have held that banner with pride.
You have all heard the stories of the Empire came to be, of how the nations of Nede set aside their petty differences in the face of a common foe, the Marba Republic. For centuries the Marba lived lives of excessive decadence, forcing others to create extravagant luxuries that only they were ever allowed to enjoy, all while looking down on their subjects like lesser life forms. The people of Nede were right to ask the Marba for a share of their riches and then strike the Marba down when they refused.
Before I was an emperor I was a general in the Empire’s Advent Guard. Throughout this Empire’s millennium of existence, remnants of the Marba Republic crawled out from the shadows seeking vengeance, and it was my duty to stamp them out like the parasites that they were. Yet my time in the Guard taught me that Marba remnants were not the only threat to our empire, that some amongst the other races of Nede that seek to undo all that our empire has achieved.
These outsiders question whether we go “too far” in our mission to eradicate those who threaten us. I say that we do not go far enough! They complain that the Empire’s quest for peace and stability infringes on their personal freedom. I tell you that freedom is worthless when compared to tolerance and security! They claim to support diversity and equality. People from every race in Nede run our Empire and walk through our streets as equals! What more do these ungrateful louts want?
I implore you all stand as equals against those who oppose us, who spout their delusional drabble of freedom and diversity, ignorant of how much the world needs us. Never compromise with those who will not stand with us, for they stand against us, and never falter in your resolve. Persevere! Ensure that justice, equality, and stability reign for another thousand years!”
* * *
As the sound of applause overtook the Emperor’s speech, Chowski shut off his radio. The Emperor’s words were always a source comfort for him, and after a day of traveling in a ship on a choppy ocean, he needed all the comfort he could get.
Chowski was alone in the ship’s reading room, reflecting on the Emperor’s words about equality in the Empire. His bony, four-fingered hands, so long that they nearly touched the ground, were a reminder that he was not an Emorian, that he was not part of the species that founded the Empire. Yet here he was, a commanding officer in the Emperor’s personal army, the Advent Guard, clad in their uniform; a long grey coat, fastened together by black buckles, with armored sleeves, a high collar, and tassels hanging from a pair of metal-studded pouches on the hips.
"Yo Chowski, we finally reached our destination,” a young woman shouted through a speaker mounted to the ceiling.
“I’ll be right there,” Chowski responded. He wrapped his head in black straps until only his large orange teeth were exposed and made his way up to the ship’s bridge.
* * *
On the bridge of the ship, a dozen men sat at the desks that lined the walls, each one covered in countless buttons, levers, and screens. Like Chowski, they were clad in Advant Guard uniforms. Above the desks was a window that wrapped around the entire room and provided Chowski with a clear view of his ship’s destination, a Susehpen colony walker that stood alone in a seemingly endless ocean.
The walker was a massive cone-shaped spire, taller than a skyscraper and nearly as wide, suspended above the ocean’s surface by a series of metal, crustacean-like legs, each of varying size and shape. The exterior of the colony was covered in an irregular jigsaw of metal panels, each one the size of a house and covered in algae, rust, and other kinds of filth. Blue lights shined from the dark spaces between each panel.
Chowski had only read about walkers in history files until now. They were created by a nomadic race of sentient machines called the Susehpens, and they served as the Susehpens’ homes as they traveled the oceans in search of resources.
“About time you showed up,” said the woman that had called Chowski up to the bridge. “The colony’s been trying to contact us for an hour.” She was an Emorian, as could be seen by her hoofed feet and the curved, segmented horns that grew from the sides of her head. Her eyebrows were made of the same material as her horns and her red hair stuck out behind her head in large spikes. She wore a variation of the Advent Guard uniform, with a jacket that went past her hips and a black mask that covered her mouth.
“Shall we patch them through, Nolan?” Chowski asked.
“Like you had to ask.”
A metallic circle in the middle of the room started glowing white, creating a golden holographic figure that consisted of a limbless torso made of six loudspeakers, and a head made from three more speakers. It was the avatar of one of the Susehpen AIs that controlled the walker that stood before Chowski’s ship.
“Greetings, I am Vorsch, vizier of the Four Pillars Colony. And you must be the Emorians interested in the results of our latest expedition.”
“That is correct,” Chowski responded.
“Fashionably late I see. So, I assume that you know why you’re here?”
“Actually,” Nolan interrupted. “I haven’t read the report yet.”
“Nolan, you know it is standard procedure to read the mission report before starting the actual mission,” Chowski groaned.
“I get seasick when I’m trying to read on a boat!” Nolan snapped.
“Perhaps we could refresh the young misses on what you and your ship are doing in Susehpen territory,” Vorsch said.
“Piss off tin man,” Nolan snapped. “I want to hear this from Chowski.”
Chowski started to explain the mission. “Approximately one week ago this Susehpen colony entered this area in search of iridium. That expedition was based on historical records of a meteor crash 50 years ago. They discovered an underwater formation that is believed to be the crater, but did not find any evidence of a meteor. Rather, they found traces of a non-Susehpen settlement.”
Vorsch continued the narration. “There is no record in any historical databank indicating that anyone has ever established a permanent settlement in this area”
“I told you I wanted to hear this from Chowski!” Nolan reiterated.
“Very well. So, Mr. Chowski, what did your superiors claim the settlement was?”
Chowski cleared his throat. “You were told that the settlement was a top-secret Emorian weapons testing facility, and that an Emorian battleship, namely us, would be there to confiscate the classified technology you had discovered in the crater.”
“Yes, that is indeed what your superiors told us. It seems that both sides of this exchange have been given consistent information.”
“So, do we have permission to enter your walker?”
“Indeed. We are sending your ship the location of a docking bay. The AI Rankin shall wait for your arrival there.”
Vorsch’s avatar vanished as the projector’s light faded away. The ship lurched forward as the motors restarted.
“What the hell did they mean by ‘consistent information?’” Nolan asked.
“I’m not sure, but it is possible that the Four Pillars Colony doesn’t trust us,” Chowski responded.
“Doesn’t trust us? But we’re not hiding anything from them!”
“Not necessarily. I for one had no knowledge of this base’s existence until its discovery last week.”
“Really, it was that much of a secret?”
“Indeed. Nevertheless, you have been ordered to accompany the squadron that we will send into the colony. Make sure to confiscate everything they found at the crater.”
“I have to go in that junk heap? I am really starting to regret going on this stupid mission,” Nolan remarked.
* * *
Deep inside the cyberspace contained within the walker’s circuitry, Vorsch conversed with two of his fellow AIs.
“Rankin, the Emorian ship will be docking at Bay 428. Make sure there are units there to greet them.”
“Understood,” Rankin replied.
“Sirene, just like the agents that contacted us two days ago, the Emorians on that ship claim that the crater was a site for weapons testing.”
“Interesting,” Sirene pondered. “Tell me Vorsh, based on the tests you’ve run on the artifacts found in the crater, do you think they are telling the truth?”
“It’s doubtful,” Vorsch said. “I would like to single out two specific artifacts. The first is the box-shaped object, which I have identified as a portable clothes maker. Its design does not match any maker the Emorian military has ever used, and the motherboard, while heavily damaged and corrupted, contains no programs of any kind for Emorian military uniforms. In fact, the clothing programs I have salvaged have more in common with uniforms found in Marba high schools.”
“Marba? You’re saying there were Marba living there?”
“Then you’re right to doubt the military base claims.” Sirene went silent for a few moments as she processed the information Vorsch had given her. “So, what is the second artifact of interest?”
“The cylinder. I’ve been able to determine that it’s some kind of hibernation chamber, and it’s from the same time period as the other artifacts we recovered, including the box. More importantly, whoever or whatever is hibernating in it is still alive.”
“Then figure out how to awaken it. It might help us figure out what used to be inside that crater and if we can trust the Emorians with what we found.”
“As you wish, my matriarch.”
* * *
The Susehpen walker had dozens of legs arranged in two concentric circles surrounding the base of the structure. Bay 428 was located on a leg in the inner circle and could only be accessed by a rope ladder. Chowski’s ship was too long to properly navigate in between the walker’s legs, so Nolan had to approach the walker with a lifeboat accompanied by five other guardsmen while Chowski stayed behind.
“Chowski, Can you hear me?”
Chowski’s voice rang through Nolan’s earpiece. “Affirmative.”
“I’ve made it inside. The rest of the squad will be coming soon.” Nolan looked up. The interior of the walker was a dark, claustrophobic labyrinth of pipes, wiring, and other assorted bits of machinery arranged in narrow, vertical shafts. “I’m not sure you would’ve been much use in here. We’ll be doing a lot of climbing.”
“As a Sidrasian, I am adapted for life on the side of a cliff.”
“Really? But you’ve got like a stomach-foot-thingy instead of legs.”
“We should focus on the mission.”
“That AI said that they were going to send someone down there to greet you.”
“It’s just me and the boys.” A soft rattling sound rang through the pipes. “Wait, scratch that. Someone’s finally showing up.”
From the shadows emerged the inhabitants of the Four Pillar Colonies. Susehpens, mechanical life forms resembling every invertebrate one could imagine, crawled down the metal piping on metallic claws, tentacles, and wheels, navigating their surroundings through glowing blue eyes. They surrounded the increasingly nervous Nolan and her squad mates, but stopped beyond arm’s reach.
A small flying ball left the crowd of Susehpens and positioned itself in front of Nolan. It activated a bright light that created the hologram of an AI avatar. This avatar took the form of a young woman in a white kimono. Her silver bell-shaped hair blended seamlessly into her pale-skinned head, which had no facial features other than three eyes, one red, one green, and one blue. “I am Rankin, Guard of the Four Pillars colony. I have been informed that your mission is a strictly diplomatic one, so I will have to confiscate all of your weapons for security reasons.”
“I hate welcome wagons,” Nolan noted dryly. “Look, we’re not here on vacation, we’re here for business.”
“Regardless of intent, you will still have to go through customs and security,” Rankin reiterated. “Please hand over any weapons you might possess.”
“Oh, you mean this weapon?” Nolan said as she raised her right hand. Cubes of light and metal materialized out of thin air and rapidly assembled themselves into a heavy gauntlet that covered her forearm. In place of a hand was a thick drill that tapered to a point. “Come and take it tin head!”
“That language is unnecessary.”
Nolan started to charge towards Rankin, but two of her squad mates grabbed her by her arms to hold her back.
“Nolan.” Chowski said. “Our mission is supposed to be peaceful.”
“The hell it is! We don’t have time to deal with a bunch of stupid machines and their bureaucracy! We’re here to recover imperial secrets!”
“I know that, but we do not have to resort to bloodshed for such goals.”
“They don’t even have blood!”
“Perhaps I can offer a compromise,” Rankin said. A huge, pill-bug-like Susehpen with two stubby arms floated up to Rankin’s side, propelled by a pair of rockets. The rear segments of its armor opened up like a lid, revealing that it was mostly hollow inside. “Your weapons will be stored within this TD-Grade unit during your stay in this colony. I will ensure that this unit remains within 3 meters of you and your squadron at all times.”
“I think we should do as they say for now,” Chowski said.
Nolan wrestled her way out of her squad mates’ hands. Her drill gauntlet disintegrated into cubes of light, which converged into a small metal card in her hand. “Fine, you can have our weapons. But we will be taking them back when we’re done.”
Rankin’s avatar disappeared and Nolan and her men placed their collection of metal cards into the body of the TD-Grade. “I will guide you to the storage sector,” Rankin’s voice said through the TD-Grade. “One more thing; we are Susehpens, not machines. Do not confuse the two again.”
* * *
Guided by Rankin through the TD-Grade, Nolan’s squad made their way through the inner workings of the walker. Eventually the pipes, wires, and gears stopped forming tight vertical shafts and rearranged themselves into wide rooms with low ceilings, a sign that Nolan’s squad had moved out of the leg and into the main body of the walker. Around them Susehpens crawled in and out of the nooks and crannies in the walls the pipes formed, focused only on the tasks the AIs had given them.
Eventually Rankin led Nolan’s squad to a corridor lined with circular, twenty-foot tall doors. Rankin prepared to insert one of the TD-Grade’s arms into a control panel next to one of the doors, but was interrupted by the appearance of an AI avatar. This avatar consisted of series of seven pink disks, five arranged in a circle to form a body and the last two on either side of a cartoony face.
“Hello Hello Hello!!” The avatar declared in the voice of a little girl. “My name is CeeVee and I’m the colony’s miner! Welcome to the storage sector!”
“What are you doing here, CeeVee?” Rankin asked.
“I know, I know. I’m supposed to be out in the ocean looking for resources, but I was just so curious about those artifacts that I just had to help Vorsch examine them. I mean I am the one that found them after all.”
“Speaking of examining artifacts,” Vorsch said from the other side of the door. “Would you mind keeping our guests outside for a little longer? We’re in the middle of a very important test at the moment.”
“What? This is bullshit!!” Nolan blurted out. “Are you hearing this, Chowski?!”
“Affirmative,” Chowski said.
Back on the ship Chowski, who had been observing Nolan’s journey inside the walker through her earpiece, pondered the implications of Vorsch’s latest statement. What kind of experiments could the colony be doing on the crater artifacts? Were they trying to reverse engineer something, or did they find evidence of something that the Empire was trying to keep a secret?
“You know what? I’m done playing nice,” Nolan said. “I am going in there and I am taking those artifacts whether they like it or not.”
“Very well,” Chowski sighed. “Just try not to get too carried away.”
Nolan walked up to door.
“Um, what are you doing?” CeeVee asked.
Nolan threw a punch. The door was a disk of solid metal over a foot thick, yet it buckled beneath her fist like cardboard. CeeVee yelped as the sound of the crunching metal rang through the hall.
“Your current actions constitute breaking and entering. This is a violation of Susehpen law,” Rankin protested.
“Yeah? Well you robots are trying to steal imperial technology!” Nolan retorted as she effortlessly ripped the door out of its frame and threw it down the hallway.
White smoke billowed out of the entryway, engulfing Nolan, her squadron, and the AIs. “What the hell where you doing in here?” Nolan yelled between coughs.
“We have recently and successfully awakened someone from hibernation,” Vorsch answered.
“Wait,” CeeVee asked. “Didn’t you say to keep that a secret?”
“Given our current situation, keeping that a secret is no longer possible.”
The smoke started to clear, and Nolan could now see a girl, roughly her height, standing in front of her. The girl had tanned skin, dark red hair, and bright blue eyes. Her ears were long and pointed and on each cheek was a pair of dark triangular markings.
“Those ears… the cheeks… Chowski, is she what I think she is?”
“Yes, I believe that girl is a Marba.”
The girl walked up to Nolan. “Pleased to meet you! My name’s Kara,” she said with a friendly smile.