Indrani finished zipping up his orange vacuum suit, hands trembling with excitement. He hadn’t felt this rush of emotion since he’d been ordained as a child and felt the Paragons hands, one by one, touch his brow in acknowledgment of his new appointment in their ranks and in blessing. At that moment, they had cemented within him his Purpose: to help others find their Path, as well as his own.
Finally, his Purpose was being fulfilled, his Path growing more defined with each passing moment, clarified with the help of Sun’s Path rising to merge with his own. He clasped his hands together in front of him, pressed them to his forehead to try and calm his nerves. A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth, an expression completely out of his control. He could feel his sense of faith growing within him, ballooning out and enveloping him like a second atmosphere. It was an impossible sensation to name; like a joyous burning and sense of flight all at once.
He was where he needed to be. This was his whole life’s destination.
He scrubbed at his face, trying to rub the wild grin off his mouth, and exited his room. He strode quickly down the hall, mind a rush of possibilities, of next steps. Oh, wait. “Sun? Should I meet you in one of the hangars? I’m ready to get out there!”
The Sun Clouded Over resurfaced from the layers of data pooling within their consciousness, results from the countless scans they’d been casting on the overrun jumpgate for the past hour. The lack of recognition or precedent in their memories irritated Sun, and the refusal of the data to yield any useful information did nothing to ease the feeling. And now—
“Out?” Sun’s avatar materialized in the corridor, smoothing their already neat bun and trying to sound more together than they felt. Their larger strides shortened the distance behind Indrani, even with his purposeful gait. “I still haven’t gotten a ping back from the ship out there. The repair crew or—” —the gardeners— “—or whoever.” The elevator doors ahead of them remained sealed, a line as tight and thin as Sun’s frown.
“Oh, I’m sure they’re just busy,” Indrani said pleasantly, tugging at the edge of his gloves to adjust them as he walked. “Have you figured anything out about what we’re seeing?” He palmed the elevator interface to summon it up, still too distracted to consider Sun at his side. “Anything in your archives about uh, space plants or—” he trailed off when he realized he couldn’t hear the little blips of the elevator rising. “Or, um…” He pressed his hand against it a few more times, totally ignorant of Sun at his side.
“Hmm, Sun, something’s wrong with—” Finally, he looked up at them properly, noticed the tension in Sun’s composure, the sternness in their face. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re worried! Come now, Sun, you can’t really be having doubts now?” He reached to pat the nearby wall comfortingly, as if it were Sun’s shoulder, a sympathetic smile on his face. “We were meant to discover this gate, to see whatever is happening to it now. They haven’t tried to attack us or anything, have they? That’s as good a sign as any that they’re probably the agreeable sort, if my experience counts for anything.”
Sun fixated on the hand resting on the wall as their avatar turned to look literally anywhere else. The elevator doors opened with a sigh.
“I’ll keep scanning the structure and pinging our visitors,” they said, stepping into the elevator. “But we’re getting out of there at the first sign of trouble. I’ll yank you back by your suit tether if I have to.”
The doors opened again, and the two of them stepped into the cavernous docking bay Sun had scooped Indrani into the first time they met. Near the elevator was a bank of more human-scaled fixtures—a supply locker, a control panel, and a viewscreen currently projecting live video of the jumpgate ruins beyond the Ship’s hull.
Indrani all but skipped to the locker, a grin locked onto his pointy face. He took out one of Sun’s vacuum suits, humming absently as he stepped into the heavy outfit and slid his arms in. “I was wondering, Sun, do you have some sort of…robotic avatar? A drone?” He zipped the suit up and clicked a button on his wrist that enclosed his head in a clear helmet. His voice buzzed out from a comm speaker on his visor. “We had a visitor once on Malakar when I was a teenager, a tourist. He was very sick and bedridden, but used a remote robotic body—a Shell, he called it— to tour the monastery.” Indrani tapped another button on his chest, and the suit hissed as it deflated, fitted itself to his body. “It wasn’t very sophisticated, not a lot of sensory feedback he said, but it was interesting.” He glanced up at Sun, dopey smile creasing the corner of his eyes. “Have you ever tried something like that?”
Sun listened patiently. More than a few passengers traveled with a surrogate body that they commandeered from their cabins. On a private ship, a Shell wouldn’t be necessary for them to access their essential needs, but on a large vessel like The Sun Clouded Over, socializing with the other passengers was the big appeal.
Sun had never physically interacted with humanoids outside of their shipself, at a port or on a planet. The amount of possible complications, the sheer number of people they would have to behave properly around, to lie to, to fool—it hardly seemed worth it. But maybe, for a short outing, just with Indrani, to help keep him safe…
“Just a sec,” Sun intoned, and their avatar blipped away. Above Indrani, several limbs snapped out of the smooth walls, folding downwards. One limb stretched down two digits to touch the floor, and extended two digits outwards a meter above the floor. With a mechanical pop, the hand disengaged from the limb to stand freely, and several other limbs moved in to make adjustments, add plating and sensors and ports. When they withdrew what remained was a featureless humanoid figure made of cool, dark metal, like a shadow puppet standing two meters tall.
With a flicker of light, Sun’s avatar rolled over the surface of the Shell, covering it like a glove, until the skeletal figure was invisible beneath them.
Sun flexed the Shell’s arms, and it moved in perfect synchronization with their avatar. They glanced up and raised their eyebrows at Indrani.
“Oh!” Indrani clapped his hands together like he had just witnessed a very neat trick. “That’s amazing, Sun…” His hand drifted out towards Sun’s arm like he might touch their flexing arm. A blink, and he quickly came back to himself, snapped his hand back to his chest with a shy smile. Indrani wheeled around towards the airlock, red-faced, fumbling with his tether. “N-now you can come with me! Wonderful, wonderful.”
Despite being a novice to space travel and spacewalks, Indrani had adapted rather quickly to the new experience. He steadied his breathing as the airlock cleared and the artificial gravity vanished. Outside Sun’s window, he could see the strange verdure that had grown across the gate’s wreckage like an infection. Unlike the plants and flowers he was used to, this particular mass of greenery resembled fungus. Thick, spongy lattices held the debris like a spiderweb, layered into a thick green tapestry. Huge stalked puffballs spotted the growth, spiked with beads of slowly-growing spores.
Indrani let out a breath as the airlock hatch opened. He threw Sun a nervous glance, his smile suddenly wavering uneasily. “Ready?”
Sun floated behind him, suitless in the vacuum. “Ready when you are.” Their lips moved to sync with the audio ported directly to Indrani’s helmet. It wasn’t necessary, and an outsider would find the sight of them very strange indeed, but Sun wasn’t going to quit their habits now.
They pointed to the ring ahead of them, where the odd growth was spreading across the surface of the structure. One yet untouched section had its exterior lattice chipped away, revealing layers and channels beneath—formerly habitable decks for the crew. “I’ll move close enough to get us within range of that open section,” they said. “I’ll use the Shell to plug in there, check the systems, see if the Gate truly is being repaired. Then we can head into the green zone and investigate these newcomers.”
“Got it,” Indrani said, the slightest tremble in his voice. He hoped Sun couldn’t hear it through the grainy comms. He kicked off after Sun, unsettled but also awed by the image of them suitless in the vacuum. He followed them at a safe distance behind, using his microthrusters so he drifted right in Sun’s wake. Finally clear of Sun’s hull, Indrani could finally see other ship, its spherical build and the nondescript black paint job suggesting a prop of some dark moon. On closer inspection, the grappling arms that emerged from the hull and anchored the ship to the gate were covered with the same fungi, woven and braided along the elegant mechanical arms like sleeves.
As they drifted closer to the gate, the fungal webbing took on new clarity. Small spores floated just above the layer of solid vegetal material, still in the vacuum. Some were simple featureless balls, miniscule, and others—in a more mature stage?— had grown long, hair-like tendrils.
“This is so…weird.” Indrani squinted at the fungus, bit his lip nervously. “I mean, I know I’ve been raised in a rather insular place, but this is weird right? Or maybe I’m being uh, ethnocentric. Fungalphobic…” He chuckled nervously, wondering if he was about to meet a mold-based lifeform or some other flora-based being.
Above them, at the highest arc of the gate, one of the orb ship’s panels bloomed open, all of its other panels shifting in a graceful tesselating pattern to accommodate the breach. A small single object emerged.
“Oh! Sun? There’s some movement on that ship.”
Sun turned the head of the Shell within their avatar, fixating on it like a predatory bird. Their shipself locked onto the object with their sensors and ran it through every sweep available.
Limbs extending from the entity, four, moving in a natural way. Humanoid? The proportions seemed off, scraping the edge of the range of genetic possibility for an adult human. Its short arms and legs sprouted from its pill-shaped body like an infant’s; in standard gravity, it might stand only a meter tall. But it clambered across the orb’s panels with shocking speed and dexterity, especially if it was wearing—
“We’ve got a person,” Sun replied. “Vacuum suited. So the ship does have a crew.” The stranger’s suit didn’t look like the uniform of any ship, company, or organization they recognized, but even from this distance, the shock of color was obvious against the muted green and dull black of the ship’s surface.
Indrani tried to crane his neck around to spot the person, but couldn’t without adjusting his trajectory. “What’re they—?”
“Pardon me,” a deep voice suddenly said, filling Indrani’s helmet. “We’re in the middle of a symphonic cycle, and to be interrupted during the process would cause grave complications to our study.”
Indrani blinked and looked at Sun questioningly. “Oh, we’re quite sorry,” Indrani offered, adjusting his jets to ease himself onto the exposed habdeck. Tiny motes filled the empty space around them, hovering around the surfaces of the wreckage. Ahead of them was an airlock door, a green light flickering brightly above it signaling that it was, for the moment, functioning.
“You had better get inside,” the deep voice said, exhaustion clear in the tone. “The new batch of spores will begin adhering to the closest surfaces soon.”
“Izzat the new guys you’re talking to?” a new voice piped loudly into the comms channel. “What, d’they land in the section we’re cycling right now? I’ll be right over!”
“Unfortunately, yes,” the deep voice said mournfully. Ahead of Indrani and Sun, the habdeck airlock flashed and then began to slide noiselessly open. A curtain of feathery mycelium hung like a curtain within the airlock chamber, with many long, branching pale filaments binding to the metallic structure.
“Is this safe?” Indrani asked, jettisoning himself slowly into the airlock. Whatever was inside the habdeck seemed less terrifying than the floating cloud of spores the voice had described.
“It’s fine, the roots won’t bond to you,” the deep voice said tiredly. “Come on in. My assistant will be with you shortly…”
Sun secured their tethers to a loop of exposed metal and unclipped them. Before joining Indrani in the airlock, they rifled through every sensor at their disposal on both ship and Shell for more information about their hosts. They studied the mycelium stretching from the ceiling as closely as surreptitious glances would allow, while their shipself’s cameras scanned the exterior of the structure. The figure climbing across the surface of the orb had somehow started going even faster, dipping around an extended plate and disappearing out of sight. Where did they go? Who were these two, anyway?
The door began its (to Sun) ponderously slow closing sequence when a flash of color darted from the gate surface to the habdeck and rolled into the airlock. Sun reacted, turning to face the intruder as they swooped their other arm around Indrani. Indrani had barely begun his surprised gasp when Sun finally recognized the small, round figure and the stubby arms they raised.
“Whoa, take it easy! Youse guys are fast! You see how fast they moved?” This last remark was probably meant for the other one on the channel.
“Indeed,” the voice sighed. The airlock gave an unpleasant series of beeps before it flashed green again. The inner door opened jerkily behind them. “Come on in, then. We haven’t any gravity on this habdeck, unfortunately.”
Indrani had clung to Sun unconsciously, startled by how quickly this new person was moving. It was like they were perfectly at home in zero-g. Maybe they were space-raised? Did spacefarers live without artificial gravity? He’d thought for some reason that would be rare.
Sun’s arm squeezed against his waist and Indrani was suddenly torn from his thoughts, very aware of how close they were. His face flushed hot, and he gently extricated himself from Sun’s grip. “We do apologize for intruding. I am High Curate Indrani the IV of Malakar, and this is, ah—” Indy glanced at Sun, wondering how they wanted to appear to these two beings: ship or simply a person?
“Call me Sun,” the Ship said, nodding at Indrani and withdrawing their arm as casually as possible. They pivoted their back to the airlock wall and stole a glance at the deserted habdeck hallway before studying the newcomer more closely.
The quilted fabric of her vacuum suit was ablaze with bright colors, whimsical patterns tessellating across every surface. Her helmet was an opaque bowl that capped one end of the rotund body. Along with a few valves and cable connectors on the suit, it sparkled under the habdeck’s light fixtures. That their host’s face was hidden from view jogged Sun’s memory; could it possibly be that…?
“You’re a post-human,” Sun spoke aloud as the small figure rolled past them in zero-g. “Aren’t you?”
She stuck out her arm and hooked it round a pipe extending from the habdeck wall. In less than a second, she used their new armhold to change the direction of her momentum, bounced around the ceiling and walls before catching herself on a new fixture and flashing a jaunty salute at Indrani and Sun.
“Fast brains and fast bods!” she crowed. “We’re posties all right, me and my buddy both. Did a couple tours ‘round the fragment before I started my current enterprise. I’m Clumb.” She jerked a thumb in the general direction of the orb ship. “And this guy—”
“Helfdym,” intoned the deep voice as its owner turned the corner, crawling along the habdeck ceiling. Indrani was glad there was no gravity; otherwise, the jolt he gave would have been embarrassingly prominent. Helfdym was a mass of arachnid limbs stemming from a thin humanoid torso, all encased in a purple vacsuit that gradated to black towards the ends of his appendages. Each limb bore a hand, which in turn bore a set of six long, spindly fingers. Helfdym twisted effortlessly to land in front of the visiting pair, bracing himself with his impossibly long arms against the hab walls. Indrani had seen altered humans before, spliced or cyborged, but the natural grace of how these posties moved in zero-g made him uneasy.
“And yes, we are post-humans, though we prefer to call ourselves Unbound, after our home colony, the Boundless Federation. Perhaps you’ve heard of it,” Helfdym said, scratching at a mark on the wall before turning his black-tinted helmet towards them more pointedly. “But more importantly, we are scientists. You’ve interrupted a rather long experiment we’re running here. What exactly can Clumb and I do for you?”
Sun used a notch in the wall to reorient themself toward the two scientists. “I was escorting Indrani to the closest Gate to assess its functionality.” They left out that the assessment was intended to be little more than displaying the ruins on screen in front of Indy, raising their avatar’s eyebrows, and drinking in Indy’s sheepish expression before they planned a viable route to the imperial labs. “I must admit, we weren’t expecting to have company here. What sort of experiment are you doing, and how is the Gate involved?”
Helfdym’s helmet canted sideways, considering them. Multiple sets of fingers drummed against the wall thoughtfully, then gestured expansively to the Gate with a sweeping arm. “Biotechnological regeneration, obviously,” they lamented, unsure if Sun was simply testing their honesty or truly ignorant. “And what exactly are you?” They craned their neck, the dark of their helmet obscuring their eyes, but still conveying the intensity of their gaze. “Traditional humanoid as well, hm? It’s been decades since I’ve seen someone allow themselves to grow without any,” the distaste in their voice slanted towards pity, “…personal curation.”
Indrani flushed at the comment. He wanted to sink into himself, but was stuck in an uncomfortable splay of limbs, holding onto a nearby railing to anchor himself. “Is your experiment progressing?” Indrani ventured, unease in his voice. He’d grown used to being out of his depth on most topics with Sun, but this Unbound seemed to be less forgiving of his ignorance.
“Is it ever!” the smaller one chirped, barrelling back in Indrani’s direction. Sun noticed that this one seemed more amiable to their guests from the start, or at least more socially inclined. They wondered if they understood Clumb right earlier when she had mentioned “tours.” Maybe she did have a background as an entertainer, like the ones onboard The Sun Clouded Over years ago.
Clumb steadied Indrani with a hand on his shoulder. “You seem a little green, and I’m not just talkin’ in the face.” She laughed, a single loud honk. “Green to the technology, yeah? What an exciting opportunity! Why don’t I show the two of youse around the place? Show off what we’re doing?”
Before Helfdym could object—a very likely possibility, Sun guessed—the avatar smiled gratefully. “What a generous offer. We’d love to see more of the Gate.” Maybe it’ll help us get to the bottom of this.
“Absolutely honored,” Indrani said eagerly, trying not to shy away from Clumb’s hand lest he give some offense. Now that he was out of the monastery, where others did not know of his personal reservations, he’d have to get used to casual contact.
Helfdym was silent for a moment before returning to his work station, an orb spiked with hundreds of tiny hypodermic tines, which he began to press and pluck. Indrani cast a look to Sun, eager but nervous, before kicking off to follow Clumb. Farther down the deck corridor, more foreign scaffolding and equipment was implanted and embedded to secure the ancient structure. It was a patchwork of translucent bone-white angles in the style of late Imperial tech, amalgamated with the Unbound’s more amorphous biotech, grafted on and spreading throughout.
To Indrani, the Gate almost looked infected with the stuff. “So you’re trying to restore the Gate, I’m assuming? What’s drawn you to a project like that?” He ran his hand along a nearby wall, bulbous and blue. It was warm beneath his gloved hand. “Most Gate rebuilders stick to arguing theory amongst themselves,” Indrani said, drawing his hand away. “They don’t actually try to repair it.”
Sun listened to this with interest. When they had first discussed voyaging to a jumpgate, Sun had taken Indrani’s passion for ignorance of the sorry state the gate system was in. But he’d apparently heard about reconstruction efforts before. Or seen this infighting for himself. On his little rock? They’d have to ask him about that later. Clumb had started to reply.
“Most of those guys’re perfectly okay orbiting ‘round the theory of the thing. They don’t wanna actually mess with the Gates. They’re relics. Treatin’ ‘em like little Empire treasures is more valuable to ‘em than whatever they would find on the other side. Watch your head.” Indrani barely missed colliding with a bony protrusion as they coasted down the corridor. Sun wondered how Clumb could have seen it without turning around, since the small figure was already two meters ahead of them.
“See, we actually want what’s on the other side. All us posties do. That’s why we’re always travellin’ around. We’re lookin’ for new homes for the Federation. Boundless places that aren’t so firmly established by more…bounded types.” Clumb did spin around this time, gesturing amiably with her arms. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Indrani said, carefully negotiating his way after Clumb. “We’re also interested in what’s on the other side! In fact, I was sent on a holy mission to find out just that.” An unsure cough. “Though I’m far from any sort of engineer. I was depending on the Path to guide me to a Gate that was ready to be revived, and lo and behold,” he smiled almost beatifically, arms out as he spun slowly around to take in the habdeck hall. “Truly incredible what you’ve done here! Er,” he blinked, smile turning to sheepish grin. “What have you done, precisely?”
“Next room’s right up ahead.” Clumb resumed cannonballing along the curving hallway. “You’ll see!”