The Sun Clouded Over maintained a steady pace as they cruised through the fragment serving as their base of operations throughout their ersatz career as a longhauler. They detected and took note of reliable landmarks, sliding through their waypoint systems. They had plenty of time to reminisce about favorite passengers and the stories they’d told of where they were from and where they were going, recognizing the names of certain stars or worlds as they passed them by. They had a single passenger now, and a single immediate destination, albeit one originally plotted out of spite.
Only one jumpgate had ever been charted in this fragment, and any detailed information about its function had been lost in the generations since it stopped functioning. It was a ruin now, and an obscure one at that.
Sun had now tried several times to educate Indy on the inevitability of what they would find—with little success. They hoped that once they arrived and he saw it for himself, their developing rapport would allow for the two of them to plot a more reasonable course of action to reach the imperial labs. Hopefully.
But like all outlooks founded on faith, Indrani’s expectations didn’t wane. Whether the ruins were as dilapidated as they sounded or not, it didn’t change the fact he believed they needed to go there, that it was a key, if not a door to pass through on their Path.
In his quarters, Indrani listened to the push of water against piping, the hum of electricity and the lulling buzz of Sun’s machinery. He was in mid-stretch, a seated half-twist that he’d been practicing every day to ease the stiffness in his bruised ribs. His arm had recovered for the most part, though the skin still sustained a purple mottling. It had been a week ship-time since he’d finally, properly, met Sun, and now they were quickly coming up on the jump gate. Excitement sizzled beneath his skin. He tried not to think about how from this moment on, his whole life would change, leading him closer to enlightenment on his Path.
“Sun? Are we there yet?” he asked into the air, helplessly chipper. Many of his mentors at the monastery had privately counseled him that he should cultivate a more solemn disposition when it came to holy matters. He often found himself reprimanded for his jovial nature when spurred on by some novel or exciting turn of events. He had tried to temper his mood for Sun, but they didn’t complain, and despite the awareness that he might be maddening the poor Ship, he couldn’t contain himself.
Five hours since the last ask. Sun checked against the unofficial tally they’d started after guessing that Indrani’s interruptions were increasing at an exponential rate. They hadn’t been far off the mark.
For a week, Sun had responded by telling him about their speed and distance covered, then by pointing out their progress on the holographic map in the common room—but really, the scale was hardly adequate. Even as their body propelled themself through the vacuum thoughtlessly, the sheer amount of space they covered in even a second was absurd and difficult to wrap their mind around. The bipedal hominids Sun descended from evolved on a planet with a circumference shorter than the distance their body traversed in the time it took for Indrani to speak his question aloud.
They had about a hundred and ninety-five minutes to change their strategy before he struck again.
“Almost, Indy,” Sun replied, in a tone they hoped was placating but not patronizing. “Actually, I had an idea. Remember the archives room? Why don’t you meet me there? You can get a good view of what we’re coming up on.”
“Yes, coming!” Indrani jumped up from his stretch and pulled on his tunic, splashing his face quickly to clean off the sweat. He jogged down the hall, a smile pinned on his face. They were so close! As he hurried, he took in the expanse of Sun’s hall; now everywhere he went was a new marvel. He was moving inside Sun, running through their halls like a blood cell in their veins. It was endlessly fascinating, and Indrani wondered if he’d be allowed to explore them further soon. He’d seen Sun’s physical form…perhaps he’d be allowed into their more intimate atriums and chambers. Maybe he’d even discover something about Sun they didn’t already know about themselves.
“Here!” Indrani said as he turned the corner into the archives room. “You can see it already?”
Sun’s avatar stood in the middle of a seemingly massive starlit expanse. They had set the walls, floor, and ceiling to project a convincing display of their surroundings in miniature. A few stars slid along the walls like raindrops on a windshield.
“I thought I’d try porting the visual readings from the sensors all across my exterior hull,” they said, gesturing broadly above and below them. “Better view than your typical window view, huh, Ind— oh. Are you okay?”
Indrani was quiet and slack-jawed as the doors shut behind him, sealing him into the illusion. The blurred starlight streaked past in an expanse of dimensionless ink at all sides, a consuming darkness filled with the diamond glint of distant worlds. He felt impossibly small, and his chest constricted with the wonder of it.
“Wow,” he breathed, head swiveling around to absorb the scene. A blink, and he was looking at Sun, his smile bashful. “Sorry, yes, I’m fine! Better than fine! Do I not look fine? I mean, Sun,” he spun slowly in place, staring up at the ceiling where more stars blinked by, “this is incredible.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Sun smiled, gesturing toward Indrani to join them in the center of the room. “This is what’s all around us, right now, as distantly as I can see. Or y’know, pick up readings from. I have a broader definition of ‘seeing’ than most.”
They glanced at Indy, eyebrows raised in friendly challenge. “How far out do you think I can see things? What’s your guess?”
“Oh! Hm…” Indrani scratched thoughtfully at his chin, peering at Sun like he could discern the answer if he looked at them hard enough. “Ten….no, one hundred…par…secs,” he asked hesitantly, an awkward smile crooked on his mouth. The curate was well aware he was scientifically challenged; he much preferred the study of spiritual matters and the human heart and mind over astrophysics and engineering. “Wait, no…a thousand?”
“Well, give yourself some credit first,” Sun said, trying not to make him feel too embarrassed at his effort. “On your own, if you were looking out a window, or maybe outside hanging from my hull—” Sun considered the tiny but significant sensation of Indy tethered to them, gripping their outer plating—“you could already see stars five hundred parsecs away. One thousand six hundred trillion kilometers; think of that.”
A ripple of light washed over them, radiating from where they stood at the center of the room outward in all directions, a modestly sized bubble of light that encased them before fading away. Sun nodded at the room beyond the boundary of the sphere. “My range is a bit broader. Several million parsecs.” Another ripple stretched out, reaching the edge of the room and illuminating every object coming into focus on the wall screens. One point of light hovering within the room twinkled persistently.
“That’s incredible,” Indrani breathed, his awe palpable. To be able to hold that much of the universe in your mind’s eye, brush against the vastness of the galaxy—galaxies!—with a flick of their attention. He couldn’t imagine it, and when confronted with Sun’s grand nature, he felt miniscule. Insectoid. A lucky flea that had somehow hitched a ride on a stellar leviathan, swimming through colossal depths he could never fathom to on his own.
“Ah! Is this it?” The twinkling caught his eye, and he walked to it, flicked his fingers outwards to enlarge the point of light. A brightness blinked the room entirely white for a moment, making the curate shut his eyes from the glare of it. When he opened them, their destination engulfed them, mammoth and glorious.
The jump gate floated in the liquid black of space, a series of six concentric rings staggered outwards like a cross-sectioned horn. The rings glistened, their structure composed of some foreign crystalline substance that caught the drifting starlight in its pale facets. Each delicate ring was a spiderwebbing lattice, branching fractals too numerous and complex for Indrani’s human eye to find a pattern. Some rings had retained their structural integrity, but others were fractured, some sporting full breaks.
“I’ve…I’ve never seen one in person. Just images, descriptions,” Indrani whispered, drawing his index finger along the shape of the largest ring in the air. “Is this your first time seeing a gate? Or have you seen more?”
Sun’s avatar went rigid, taking in the sight.
“It’s the same,” they murmured, voice low. Their eyes unfocused, flicking to and fro as if doing a quick sum in their head, then nodded with new understanding, if not reassurance. “Of course. We’re thirty-three parsecs out. A hundred and seven light years.
Sun met Indrani’s quizzical expression. “We’re travelling faster than light, you know. Still not very fast when it comes to crossing the length of the old empire. But light’s speed is constant, and something I see from far enough away might only appear as it did a long time ago.”
They stepped forward a pace to join Indrani at the projection, framed by the great rings.
“This is how it looked the last time I was here,” they said. “One hundred and ten years ago. Just after Fragmentation.”
“Amazing,” Indrani said, biting his lip thoughtfully. He tried to imagine what it was like for Sun, to see the space outside of their hull blistering by in a liquid rush of light. Light that still held ancient images, imprints of time already dissolved by its passing.
“Do you remember what it was like? The Empire?” he asked, paused, fidgeted with the hem of his tunic. “Do you remember…your family?”
As the distance between them and their destination shrank, the projection did its best to compensate for years’ worth of reflected light streaming from the ruined gate. The rings in the magnified image began to drift, a process of decades happening over mere minutes.
“What kind of family do you mean?” Sun asked. “Parents? Direct ancestors? I didn’t have any. I’m pretty sure I just came out of a special embryo bank, engineered for the chassis they developed for me.” They chuckled hollowly. “Custom made.”
Two rings smacked together, flinging some of the delicate lattice into space at hyperspeed. “The Empire was so big. I really saw very little of it. The training I got since I was a—well, I guess you could call me a child—imprinted on me that it was incredible, and worth fighting for.” They sighed, and it felt less of an affectation than usual. “But I think it was my passengers who convinced me of that more than anything else.”
Indrani nodded stiffly, half-ashamed to have unearthed a topic that seemed bitterly tender. For him, family was also a sour subject; he’d been unceremoniously dropped off on an old star barge, at a traveling orphanage filled with a slew of other orphans. He remembered only vague experiences from that time in space, of the rusty industrial interior, the wan yellow lighting, and the musky smell of over-sanitized metal. A memory pushed front and center from that time: the entering and exiting long stasis sleeps between drop-offs at stationary orphanages, of standing in line to get hosed off by their caretakers and shuffled off into a crowded bunks.
He’d never gotten properly adopted. Two groups of potential parents had declined him from his transcripts alone; another family interviewed him but decided on another younger child. Eventually, the orphanage pawned him off at the monastery, who hadn’t seen a child in decades. He became their ward. Nothing familial about it.
The curate swallowed down a sigh, tried to focus on Sun and the great gate coming into a more present visual state. “You must’ve met so many interesting people. Who stands out in your mind? Anyone famous? Strange? Alien?”
A grin spread across Sun’s face as they started remembering years upon years’ worth of passengers walking through their decks, sharing meals, talking, waiting out their journey. They wondered where to start.
“There was an abbess, I remember, from the Kvaldite order, looking to found an abbey in a part of the fragment that hadn’t seen any Kvalds for almost fifty years. She traveled with a whole entourage, and there was a lot of fanfare for the mission when she left. Very dignified. Very good at picking her nose when she thought no one was looking.”
They glanced at Indy and winked. “I got a batch of posties once. Post-humans, or so they say, anyway. Wore their veiled suits the whole time, never a face or an uncloaked hand. Spooked the rest of the passengers at first. But they put on a show in the common room doing feats of strength or speed and magic tricks, the usual kind of postie show. The kids on the ship warmed up to the performers fast enough. They always regrouped in the baths, where I wouldn’t have a camera on them. I always wondered if they clocked me for what I was.
“Oh, and speaking of kids,” Sun added, animatedly, “one time, an Elevation prodigy was on board. She was traveling to a tournament with her mom. Couldn’t have been more than eight. Every day she’d sit—” Sun took a seat on the floor “—in the common room, cross-legged, just like this, lay out her cards, and go through her forms. One day, an older guy from another group learned about her, came up to her, and challenged her to a match. Wanted to see how good she really was. He used to be sapphire rank, you see.” Sun raised their eyebrows with this last declaration.
“No,” Indrani gasped, eyes widening. Posties and Kvalds he had little idea about, but Elevation was a game he was familiar with. “Don’t tell me…he lost?” he said, hanging on Sun’s every minute expression for a clue. “He lost, didn’t he!”
“Spectacularly.” Sun clapped their palms on their thighs, amused at the memory. “Most of the other passengers stood around them, watching. One by one, they started to see the trajectory of the match. The murmurs got louder with every laid card, like the game exuded an energy that the crowd amplified. Her mother saw the shape the girl was building towards, an advanced Divine Ladder, and gasped. From that moment, I studied every face in the crowd, looking for the moment where they also saw, and understood.”
They chuckled. “When her challenger saw it, understood there was no way he could elevate past her shape, he crumbled and admitted defeat. And this is the best part. The girl was a professional, after all. She didn’t smile or cheer or clap, since gloating is disrespectful to your opponent. So I watched this guy bow his head to an eight-year-old with the most severe, stone-faced expression I’ve ever seen.” Sun attempted the expression, brow furrowed, eyes dark, mouth set in an unbreakable straight line. “It was the closest I’ve gotten to entirely losing my shit.”
A delighted laugh escaped Indrani, and he rocked back on his heels, shaking his head in disbelief. “I wish I could have seen that! What a game.” He scratched at his chin in thought. “I’m not much of a strategist myself. Sadly, most of the games I play, I lose. But back on Malakar, one of the other Curates was in a week-long game of Serpent’s Tapestry with a High Paragon—” he held his hands up, as if warning Sun to brace themselves for the twist, “—with the condition that they fast for the duration of the game! They were delirious by the end of it. Making crazy moves, hallucinating different board patterns.” He chuckled, thinking back to the ridiculous game, of High Curate Lussena’s green eyes swimming in their head. It wasn’t unusual for Curates to undergo tests of endurance, but a week of testing the body and mind in such an intense manner was impressive, if not unsettling.
“Finally, of course, the Paragon won, and the curate passed out immediately, like they’d flipped a switch in their brain, turned their mind out. They fell backwards and immediately started snoring. The Paragon didn’t even flinch! They just bowed, thanked the unconscious curate, and walked back to their quarters alone. She was almost two hundred years old then,” he said, affection tinged with sadness. He pressed his lips together, felt a sudden onrush of homesickness. He missed them, missed Malakar.
Something twinkled near the ceiling at the top of one of the Gate rings, floating stationary next to one of the fractured sections. It didn’t look like a ring fragment; it was too symmetrical, tethered strangely to the structure by what looked like jointed arms.
Indrani blinked, distracted from the slow wave of nostalgia that had crept up on him. “Sun? What is that?”
Sun turned their avatar’s head in response to the question, but they’d caught the change a few microseconds earlier, and started a more intensive scan. Their shipself was catching up with the light far closer to the source of its reflection now—this object was a recent development.
“A ship, I think,” Sun murmured, magnifying the projection as far as they could go. “It hasn’t been there long. Is it looking for scrap?” After all this time, what could possibly be left, that anyone alive could actually use?
The image shifted again, and the ship, barely a fleck of light, resolved into more clarity. It was a featureless orb, its hull hinting at a mosaic work of panels. A dozen grappler arms sprouted from one of the hull’s open panels, latching them securely to the gate’s splintered shell. Indrani squinted at the projection. “Have you ever seen a ship like that?”
Another moment, another rush of new light, and with it, something strange. Where the ship was anchored, the Gate was turning green. “Whoa,” Indrani muttered, straining up on his tiptoes to peer at the strange bloom of color on the ruins.
Sun scoured their memory for anything remotely close to what they were seeing now. “The ship appears to be a construction vessel for zero-g manufacturing,” they offered blandly, but didn’t know where to start on the color spreading out from it. No attempted jumpgate repair they’d ever witnessed looked like this. The mass accumulating on the shell looked almost…vegetal.
“We should be careful,” Sun said, trying to regain their air of expertise as they straightened up and smoothed their avatar’s clothes. “This could be a wild experiment underway, and we don’t want it to blow up in our faces.”
“It looks like…the topiaries we kept at the monastery,” Indrani whispered to himself, in awe of the sight. “How is it surviving out there, Sun?”
As the scan updated second by second, it was clear there was some translucent membranous layer stretching across the damaged gate, containing the sprawl of vegetation that seemed to be growing denser and darker, sprouting out through increasingly more distant deteriorated spots on the gate. Second by second, more progress, more greenery. Soon, all of the wrecked parts of the structure exhibited some touch of the flora, thick vines snarling around exposed circuitry, banding together glassy Empire hull fragments in an arboreal embrace. It almost looked…whole.
Sun slowly shook their head as they stared. Was this ship… reconstructing the gate? Repairing it? They’d never encountered technology like this before, and felt uncomfortably out of their depth. There were few things in the fragments that they’d never heard of.
But if the gate had truly been repaired…
“Go get ready,” Sun turned to Indrani. “We’ll be in communication range soon, and then we’ll see who we’re dealing with.”