Frame

Kloms under the surface of Hiigara, Imogen S’jet’s quarters were bathed in the golden light of
the setting sun. The wall was running a complete hologram immersion of the end of a peaceful summer
day; an older woman sat on a bench with a young girl. Despite the beauty of the silent Standing Sea
below them, the child’s rapt attention was on the woman, who bowed her head slightly before offering
up one of the two cups she had purchased from the shaved ice vendor. Then, setting her own cup down,
the woman reached into her pocket to grasp the leathery S’chto nut hiding within.

With a dramatic flourish, she revealed the seed before twisting it into two halves with a
satisfying “Pop.” The girl squealed with delight as the woman firmly pushed half of the S’chto nut into
the top of each ice cup. There was silence for a moment, and then the nearly inaudible whispered
countdown of the little girl. When she reached “zero,” the world seemed to freeze for a moment–then,
with a soft “bang,” surged back to life with the girl’s laughter. Inside the cup, the exothermic seeds
careened around, mixing the nut’s incredibly sweet “meat” with the cool ice chips. Within moments the
cups of shaved ice had become two servings of delicious S’chto Crème, and a very contented pair tapped
their spoons together in celebration before digging in.

“End playback,” Imogen whispered as the golden light faded. She wasn’t related to Normaa
K’taon by blood, but that never stopped the woman from showering her with kindness and treats.
Imogen had many caretakers in her youth. Some were there to hone her intellect, while others taught
her about “The duty of a S’Jet.” All of them shaped Imogen. Molded her. But on this day, Imogen only
cared to remember Normaa and her kindness.

She pulled on a non-descript technician’s jumpsuit. What would that recording feel like next
time she viewed it? Would the Mothership’s Quark Stacks make it a complete better-than-life simulation
as if Normaa was alive again? Or would she simply be able to dispassionately count every photon making
up the hologram while monitoring a million ship systems simultaneously?

She placed the thought into the metaphorical file in her head labeled “It will be whatever it will
be” and picked up her walking cloak. “Processor, run security splice ‘Imogen Studying,’ merge with room
cameras circa 15 minutes ago, and set to loop.”

“Yes, Imogen.” The room whispered back, speaking in her own voice as she slipped out the door.

Nothing was stopping Imogen from walking into The Cave as she did most days. Unfortunately,
that would also mean a cloud of technicians, security, and at least one or two earnest medtechs who
would gather around her like sugar mites on S’chto. “Is the Ship sound? Do you require an escort? Have
you seen the latest readouts from the core?” And the quietest, most polite inquiry of all. “Are you having
trouble sleeping?” She sighed as she approached an old access lift. They meant well and were all
professionals, but they went everywhere she did. And every needling question reminded her of the price
one paid for being a S’jet. Surely her Great, Great Aunt had felt as she did, Imogen consoled herself.

As Imogen reached for the latch embedded in the wall, it pulsed dully red, warning that this lift
was only meant for emergency transport and would trigger an alarm. “Override: S’jet Karan. Alpha
Omega Prime,” she whispered. In response, the latch turned green and disengaged. She slipped inside
and summoned a transport pod with the same cipher. Early in the project, she had found her ancestor’s
access codes still authenticated throughout this facility and expected nothing less. A S’jet without a
backdoor is no S’jet.

The pod creaked and groaned its way through the walls of the base, climbing upwards and
encountering more and more vibration. It felt like a thousand machines were hammering, cutting, and
blasting just on the other side of the tube wall because that is precisely what was happening. And just
when it felt like the vibrations would knock the lift off its tracks, it shuddered to a stop and opened
grudgingly at her command.

Imogen stepped out onto the lower decks. This far down, The Cave’s sonic baffles were only
moderately effective, and the waves of sound were nearly a physical force pushing her back onto the lift.
The Cave was the largest hangar ever built by Hiigaran civilization, and even with the mass of
the Khar-Kushan filling it, it still seemed like an endless dark with a giant jewel hovering inside, pinned by
countless spotlights. Squinting upwards, she could see thin clouds drifting along the hull of the new
Mothership and sighed. No matter how hard they tried to vent this space, nature had a way of making
herself heard. As soon as those whisps encountered enough dust and vaporized water, it would start
raining… again. And the Techs would file dozens of complaints to Admin… again. Even when people
behave as gods, there is still paperwork.

But still. There it was. The Khar-Kushan. Hovering there on pressor beams as if it weighed
nothing. The feedback loop between the pressor beams pushing against the bedrock and the gravitic
potential energy of the massive ship meant Hiigara itself would have to crack in half before
the Khar-Kushan would fall. That’s not to say that she hadn’t personally had to camp at the bottom of
The Cave directly under the Mothership for a week to get the more “skeptical” technicians to put in full
shifts on the “downside.” She had refrained from explaining that the only real danger was from the
pressor beams desyncing their harmonics. In that case, the ship would still hover, but anything between
it and the bedrock floor of The Cave would have been smeared into a molecular paste. She had learned
that some truths are best left unsaid.

She found a cargo pad and shot upwards into the light. As she rose into an ever more prominent
position, a dozen security beams lashed out to question her presence only to be answered by her cloak
telling them she was Mere Kadaal, a 21-year-old materials engineer from one of the cities on Hiigara’s
largest moon. The “Who am I today?” game Imogen played with Security was well established; her
personal best was one of her alternates getting “worker of the cycle” before it was discovered the person
only existed in Imogen’s imagination and the base’s memory grid. She smiled at the thought that she was
ensuring her walks’ privacy while giving her Security Chief something to do. No one wants to work
around a bored Soban Security Chief.

She looked down over the railing at the rows and rows of Ravaan and D’vash fighters waiting to
be loaded into the Khar-Kushan. Her implants could query the functionality of the interceptor and recon
ships from here, but it was just basic data. By this time tomorrow, she would be able to see every part of
every ship that belonged to the Mothership. While she had never been particularly maternal, she was
fascinated by the thought of being able to reach out into the void and see through the eyes of dozens of
her children as they careened through space on tails of fusion flame. She wondered for a moment, “what
would it be like to feel them in battle?” They had already warned her that if the Khar-Kushan took
damage, she would feel it as if her own body was being harmed. Would she feel her children die as well?
Would she grieve?

Not for the first time, she wondered how those epic journeys and battles had been for her
ancestor. Everyone knew the great Karan S’jet had never faltered, never failed. Even in her private files,
there had been vanishingly little about how or what made Karen feel. Her memoirs seemed so above it
all. But Karan S’jet had been a product of her training and her time. She had earned the right to be fused
with the first Mothership. There must have been a comfort in that.

It was different for Imogen. She had been chosen for her intellect and what it had achieved. She
was the creator of the Neo-Cores that would allow the new Mothership to jump vast distances without
the aid of the Gate Network. The Anomaly would be no barrier for the Khar-Kushan. But no one, not
even the other members of her research team, understood the Neo-Cores and hyperspace better than
her. She would be fused into the Mothership tomorrow because no one was more capable. On this night,
though, she was unsure how much comfort there was to find in that fact.

By this point, she was level with the Mothership, and the hundreds of mites swarming the
surface of the giant starship resolved into technicians, engineers, and fabricators. Checking sensors,
running final conduits through the outer hull, welding more armor over vulnerable sections, and rigging
communication towers. From this distance, what had looked like smooth metal from a klom below was
now an intricate, faceted surface covered with sensors, auto-repair systems, robot hangers, comm
arrays, and thrusters. One of the closest technicians noticed her watching and clearly recognized her. To
her relief, his only acknowledgment was the Silentspeak gesture for “hopeful journey,” after which he
turned back to plasma welding the armor plate in front of him.

As she rose ever higher, the full implications of this ship and her role in it took up her thoughts.
Once she was successfully embedded, this massive machine, two and a half kloms wide, nearly a klom
long and over 500 m’s thick, would be her body. An adaptive armor plate would be her skin. All those
sensors being installed, her senses. The massive fusion reactors, her heart and the thousands of
thrusters, her legs. At that thought, she grimaced and absently rubbed her bruised knees and shoulders.
Surely there had to have been a better way to teach her to twist and turn this vessel than countless
hours of zero-G dance instruction.

Her eyes locked onto two huge defence turrets careening across the hull on their embedded
tracks. Were they going to be her new “reach”? Would she imagine she was swinging her arm swatting
bloodflies when those guns flared, sending mag-shells moving at nearly relativistic speeds to rip apart
threats 100 kloms away? And then there was her life’s work buried deep under all those decks. The
NeoCores. Ten years and trillions of credits to back-engineer the ancient hyperspace cores that allowed
the first Mothership to change the fate of her entire people. The life’s work she alone truly understood,
and which made her both revered and alienated, even by her own Kiith. As her view of
the Khar-Kushan became obscured by endless girders and massive power cables, she thought for a
moment she could feel the Neo Cores, pulsing, hungry to twist space and time. With a shake of her head,
she dismissed this thought as a side effect of all the philosophy tracts the Project Board had “suggested”
she read before bonding with the Kushan.

Imogen’s thoughts were interrupted by a gust of cool evening air, which hit her as the lift doors
opened to reveal the streets of Kaalmar, just one of the countless communities that sprung up around
any military project, no matter how secret. A hungry sense of anticipation lingered around the town
tonight. Despite the secrecy, everyone knew launch was close. But the bars and sense halls were not her
destination. Instead, she headed toward the space along the edge of the entertainment district and the
designated nature space surrounding the town. She walked up to a very particular chef stall and lowered
her hood for a moment.

“Hello, Magelle,” she smiled at the elderly woman behind the counter.

“Lady! It’s been so long! I see we’re an engineer today. The usual?” she beamed while giving the
slightest of head bows. Magelle, like Normaa, was K’taon, a vassal kiithid of the S’jet in the distant past.
Not many these days paid attention to those bonds, but some still did, and no matter how many times
Imogen said it was not necessary, Magelle bowed her head.

“Yes, please,” Imogen smiled in return. “How could I lea—how could I end my shift without my
favorite dessert from my favorite stall?”

The older woman’s face fell, but the smile held as she fetched the cups and ground the ice. As
she slowly handed the cups over the counter, she looked above Imogen’s head into the gathering night
sky. “You’ll be careful out in the dark, won’t you?”

“Of course, I will.” Imogen reassured as she took the S’chto seed and reached her wrist comp
over the pay spike.

But she found her hand being pushed away gently. “I won’t hear of it. Not tonight.”
Imogen was about to argue but stopped. The other woman was right. This was not the night to
disagree.

“Magelle, I… If I don’t… Thank you.”

As she walked away from the stall, the older woman called out, “If you find her out there… Lady
Karan… you bring her home, all right? Some of us will never forget!”

“I’ll do what I can, but I’m just an engineer,” Imogen replied, momentarily retreating into her
playful ruse.

“Goodbye, Lady Imogen.” Whispered Magelle as she began to close up her stall.

As Imogen climbed the hill, she whispered into her wristcomp, “Initiate Transfer Imogen Omega.”
The command code activated a complex set of financial transactions that, three days after launch or
surgical failure, would transfer her funds and holdings to Magelle K’taon.

Either way, she would no longer need them, and there really was no one else.

She reached the bench at the top of the hill just as the Spring sun slid into Hiigara’s horizon. She
sat down, placed the two cups on the bench beside her, pulled out the S’chto Seed, and completed the
ritual, countdown and all. As the cups settled and filled the air with the delicious scent of sweetness, she
placed one atop the low stone wall in front of her and slowly relaxed, sipping from her own cup. She
smiled.

Tomorrow she would be fused with the most powerful Hiigaran starship ever constructed. She
would suffer more pain than most could imagine. If she survived, she would emerge as something else.
The heart of a machine. Like her ancestor Karan, her very soul bound to her ship and her people. And no
one could say where this path would lead. Hero? Monster? Weapon? Goddess? Too many unknowns to
solve the equation.

But at this moment, on Imogen’s last night as a human, there was S’chto Crème.

And she was content.