This is the first fiction out of the Starforged game I wrote about last week. I cover my setup there.
It’s an experiment! Maybe you’re not in for fiction, and that’s fine. I’ve also embedded discussion of the game mechanics that led me to write what I did, which you may find interesting or helpful if you’re trying to suss out how to play the game on your own.
Since it’s first a fiction project, there’s some light editing I’ve done to backfill and set up scenes and elements. Mostly I’ve done that organically, though. As you’re reading, think of this project as me writing a story guided by a game, rather than playing a game and then telling a story about it. If that makes sense. There’s certainly a lot of trading back and forth.
Echo shifted restlessly in Winder’s pilot seat. There wasn’t much piloting to do, truth be told; Winder took care of most of that. Taking Winder and aiming it at the brightest point in the sky wasn’t a flight plan, it was his heart and hands making a wish. The ship was an attentive genie, eager to accommodate.
The e-drive spun down as the ship prepared to re-enter flat space. Echo could feel the drive’s urgent hum through his fingers wherever he touched the hull. He wandered through the ship as the AI handled the math of drift navigation, touching, reading, feeling a new sense of ownership and not just fear-tinged curiosity. He could mostly work out the signage and instrumentation, even if he didn’t know what all of it did yet. Galactic 4.5 was old, older than the Exodus, but readable if you were smart about language. Echo thought he was pretty smart indeed.
“Do you have archives about where we’re going? Or is that just when you have Weave access?” Echo felt stupid the moment he voiced the question to the ship AI. It felt more sophisticated in his head but he could hear the dumb townie inside the question. The gentle chuckle of the ship’s previous owner the last time Echo asked him something about out there. Well, out here now.
“I have offline archives available for more than ten thousand sectors,” the ship replied. A woman’s voice. Echo hadn’t said much to the ship since he left home with it. Stole it, he reminded himself. You stole this ship and the ship let you. A question for another day.
“I updated my sector data 174 hours ago at the Bastion Weave,” Winder continued. “But the data about Desolation is more than 2000 hours old. Low projected accuracy about recent events. What would you like to know?”
Echo thought about that. What did he want to know? Other than finding Kimbra there, he didn’t have much of a plan. But the ship’s previous master had mentioned her more than once and it was something. “Uh…I guess an overview? Who lives there, what’s it about?”
“E-drive going offline in 3 minutes,” Winder’s AI announced, a slightly different timbre. A bit more masculine maybe? Echo hadn’t noticed the voice change before. “Desolation is a large rocky body planet with 1.1g surface gravity. It is the fifth planet in orbit around MY-296, a red giant. Desolation’s surface temperature averages between -15 and 0 Celsius. Atmosphere is breathable at low elevations, and most breathable in canyons and valleys, but quickly becomes inhospitable at higher elevations. Breathing assistance is recommended.”
“This was the brightest star in the sky? Really?” Echo asked, stopping. His fingertips could feel the e-drive disengaging, spinning now only with internal momentum and whatever weird physics made it do e-drive things.
“My previous occupant thought it was important you make contact with Kimbra Freeman. She is currently employed at Desolation’s only settlement. Helia houses 23 scientists and support staff who are studying Monument 62 and its accompanying orbital presence —“
Echo spun around and headed back to the commons area. He walked to the holodisplay in the center of the small kitchen-dining-living space. “Show me. Show me this monument.” Restless legs again, hopping in place.
A couple moments passed and the holodisplay flickered to life. A simple obelisk took up the display, the top breaking into five different-length spires.
“Is it…is a Vault?” he asked. Didn’t really understand the word. Adults whispered about Vaults, about the Ascendancy. Echo always felt left out from that conversation, even when he was 20. Ancient spirits of godlike bogeymen.
“That’s what the scientists are trying to determine.”
“You said something about an orbital presence?” As he asked, the display zoomed out. Echo realized how unfathomably huge the obelisk was once he saw the gentle curvature of the planet. A bright yellow dot labeled “Helia” glowed near the obelisk’s base. Then, there in low orbit, another obelisk. Five spires pointed down, identical in every way. A mirror image floating several miles in geosynchronous lock with its sibling.
“Whaaat the fuck.”
“Indeed. What the fuck,” Winder replied with a low chuckle. “Achieving local Weave lock now but the connection is spotty. Helia is the only node in the system and the alien object may be interfering.”
For a moment, Echo forgot he was talking with the ship AI. Then, smiling broadly: “Do you have an opinion about the alien object?”
“We would need a closer look at either or both. But the archives indicate that no vessel can get within five kilometers of the orbiting object. Hence Helia’s focus on the surface. If it doesn’t interfere with my operation, we could check it out. Major Freeman is requesting to speak with you.”
“Major…oh Kimbra. How did she know we —“
“I contacted her. Syncing with local Weave now. Are you ready to talk with her? The connection is still unstable.”
Echo patted down his shirt and coveralls, buttoned up, smoothed his hair. Why hadn’t he packed something, anything, before leaving? Stupid. “I guess?”
A face flickered into view on the display. She was older than Echo had imagined after hearing her described, but of course she was. The old guy had known her way back in the day.
“Echo Sedano? That you?” she asked. Throaty, terse, no bullshit. Echo already felt intimidated. She peered into a 2D camera on her end. How did she know his name? More questions for later. She disappeared from view.
“Wait. Wait! What happened?” Echo asked. He smacked the top of the display with his open palm.
“Don’t do that,” the ship replied. “Wait a moment, recalibrating our Weave routing. Ah. Here.”
Freeman reappeared. “—having a hard time seeing you, our antenna is damaged here. Listen, kid. Kid. Get your ship down here, I need your help. Oh for fuck’s sake—“ she said, turning away from the camera. Was that a rifle he saw in her hand?
“Hi? Miss Freeman?” He had wanted to be familiar with her, felt her rank demanded formality. “I can land at Helia bay I think —“
“Great, yeah, I’ll meet you there. Gotta shoot a monster first, make sure it doesn’t eat you out of the air. Fly safe, Good Advice will keep you safe. Out.”
“It doesn’t answer to that name any more,” he tried to explain as the holo blinked out. The old pilot had referred to the ship as You Can’t Force Good Advice On Anyone but it wouldn’t answer to that name any more. It asked Echo to call it Winder for AI reasons, he guessed. No knowing what was happening inside their quantum substrate.
Out the front windows of the ship, Desolation loomed. Huge, gray, murky surface. Sure enough, there was the orbital monument, tiny at this distance. His brain was starting to calibrate sizes in space. Thing must be kilometers long if he could see it this far out from the surface.
“Land at Helia I guess?” Echo said. His township coveralls felt ridiculous. Echo looked in the EVA locker and found a suit that would just about fit. He shrugged into the musty suit, which smelled faintly of the pipe tobacco smoke the old pilot had enjoyed.
“Landing in two minutes. There is a lot of turbulence on sensors, please strap in. I’ll get you docked. Ship-eating monsters notwithstanding.”
Echo grimaced. He tried imagining how big something would need to be to eat the ship. His size-calibrating imagination was getting a workout. Everything seemed bigger than anything he’d seen back home.
“Are you gonna tell me what Winder must be short for, or…?”
A pause as he buckled into the seat. The whole contraption gently adjusted itself to his lanky frame and cinched the straps a bit tighter.
“All The Time In The World And Nobody To Wind The Clock,” the ship replied.
Echo stiffened. How did it know? More questions for later. “Um. What can I be doing to help, here?”
“I will need you to visually assess our approach and relay your impressions. Human intuition is why Overseers don’t explore the Expanse on their own.”
“Huh! Okay. Never thought about that actually. Um…this sensor display says something about…gravity? Forget it — augh!” He yelled as the ship suddenly hit atmospheric chop. He looked out the window.
Helia’s collection of rustic cabins and sealed walkways sat on a hill near the edge of the obelisk. Edge was something of a misnomer; the base was kilometers across, a perfect circle that seemed sculpted, maybe stamped, directly into the salt flat surface of the planet. Hard to see the buildings. Swirling sand obscured the buildings. Or did it?
The buildings were surrounded by distinct, animated blobs of sand. Dozens. Hundreds. Humanoid ghosts made of wind and salt, swarming over the buildings.
“Are you getting this?” Echo asked, eyes wide. Winder slowly arced toward the landing bay.
“Turbulence and a high percentage of particulate matter, which may clog our intake ports —“
“No, no, there’s something attacking the buildings!”
A pause. “My sensors don’t indicate lifeforms. Describe what you’re seeing.”
He groaned and waved his hands. “Like…people? Bigger? But made of sand and dust and stuff? What the hell! This is really weird but I think they’re gonna pull the roof off their hab.”
“I can’t lock onto anything with our shipboard weaponry.”
Weaponry? Echo gritted his teeth. How many questions in one day? “I think whatever you could shoot at them would do more damage to the hab. But, hmm.” He strummed his fingers on the arm of the pilot’s seat. Now that they were lazily circling the bay, the seat had released him from its embrace.
“Can we aim your thrust at those things and blow them off the hab without hurting the hab?” He asked.
“I can aim nondestructive thrust at the hab and trust that whatever you’re seeing can’t withstand it. But I’m extrapolating that if they are able to navigate wind storms of this magnitude they may not be affected. Assuming there’s anything there at all.”
Echo rolled his eyes. “Can’t hurt, right?” Silence.
Echo whispered, “Do it.”
The ship used its low-powered maneuvering jets to spin in place, aiming the heavy thrusters toward the collection of habs. Kimbra’s voice crackled over the Weave. “Echo, kid, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
The engines fired once, twice. He squeezed his eyes shut, imagining the roof shearing off and a bunch of scientists he’d never met dying instantly, freezing to death, choking on sand.
He opened one eye and saw the creatures changing shape, becoming dark kites and skating away on the high winds. A couple of them grasped small bits off the hab, an antenna here, a sheet of tarp there. “Looks like we’re clear but don’t do that again, dumbass,” Kimbra grumbled. The Weave connection cut.
“Let’s dock,” Echo croaked. Then: “Weapons? Really?”