In the early months of 2383, an object made its way to an alien solar system. It was a ship unlike any other in the galaxy because the race that built it just learned how to put together interstellar craft and this was their first journey to another solar system. The name of this historic vessel was Endeavor ADX, and it was sent to this solar system to signal the first wave of the Terra Firma Project. The project’s goal was to create human outposts on other stars and help humans become a truly advanced space-faring civilization.
Over many decades, humans have been sending robotic probes to explore other stars. When those probes found quiet worlds and calm, picturesque moons of gas giants where humans could actually land and explore their surroundings, a fleet of spacecraft designed to travel as far as 70 light years away was put into production. In 2359, the first was ready for take-off, its development accelerated by concerns over the planet’s rampant overpopulation.
The Endeavor was the prototype for all ships that would follow for the next 300 years. It was an immense, cylindrical structure that rotated around its own axis to simulate gravity. This behemoth had two fusion reactors, artificial magnetospheres which protected its occupants from cosmic radiation, and a huge dust shield that easily absorbed the shock from the cosmic debris that smashed into the craft.
Propelled by antimatter and liquid hydrogen, the ship accelerated to just over half the speed of light. The virtually empty expanses of interstellar space had almost no friction and so when the Endeavor reached the star Epsilon Eridani, it spent a year just burning off its speed, flying in circles around the solar system. Finally, as it slowed to a safe velocity and settled into orbit around its target world, the Endeavor detached its living quarters and artificial greenhouses and farms. The modules slowly and carefully landed on the planet’s surface, locking together once again, not as a spaceship but as an interstellar outpost of a space-faring civilization.
Human exploration of other solar systems was an efficient, safe, reliable, and highly organized process, rather than the haphazard one-way ticket their ancestors assumed it would be. With just a little bit of patience and concrete plans, humans spread throughout the Earth’s stellar neighborhood with impressive speed. But the full story of what these interstellar missions encountered on the worlds orbiting alien suns could only be told by Ace and those first explorers.
Epsilon Eridani Cb was not the first extrasolar world on which humans landed, that world was Proxima Centauri B, but it was the first one in the massive undertaking that resulted in ships like the Endeavor traversing the stars. Situated just 10.5 light years from Earth, it was a chilly, Venus sized desert world in perpetual twilight because its parent star wasn’t quite as bright or big as the sun.
This world’s sky and terrain were truly alien. It was a captured moon of a huge gas giant, and the red and gray monster, with its poles enveloped in perpetual auroras, loomed in the sky, reflected by dark, metallic sand that filled the valleys between enormous mountain ranges. Vapors of exotic gases formed long, thin, spiraling clouds over the silent world.
Walking across the barren surface was a small team of explorers headed for an abandoned alien temple they discovered a month after they landed. One of these astronauts was a twelve year old girl named Dot. Born on Earth but raised in space, she felt at ease in a space suit. She looked forward to going into the dark, eerie building. Next to Dot was her guardian, Endeavor’s commander Thomas Nelson. He decided to bring her along because the temple was her discovery and she deserved to see it with her own eyes.
A few days ago, he and Dot were strolling across the sand when suddenly, the girl froze, looking intently at what seemed to be just a random pile of stones in a dark, shallow valley. Nelson looked a little closer and noticed that the gas giant in the sky lined up between two of the stones with unnatural precision, the tops of the jagged block framing the planet’s ring system.
“Nelson, take a look at these stones,” urged Dot.
“Yeah, I see,” replied Nelson. “They line up with the gas giant.”
“No, no, those stones!” she pointed towards two rough, jagged onyx slabs with flat faces. “There’s something written on them.”
“Really?” he asked incredulously.
He got behind Dot and looked over her shoulder. He saw the fine gray rune on the flat face of a nine foot stone. Now, when he started looking, the building’s outline became very clear.
It was a massive structure reminiscent of an ancient temple, made out of immense, heavy, jagged chunks of what at first seemed to be raw obsidian, as if it grew out of the sand by a natural process, an odd combination of Cyclopean architecture and Neolithic stonework. The temple was flanked on all sides by a precise arrangement of stones with flat faces. On each flat face was a neatly stenciled gray rune. From Nelson’s and Dot’s vantage point, the stones marked a distinct path to the temple’s dark entrance.
“Let’s go inside,” suggested Dot.
“I have a better idea. How about we come back later with Mark and Cynthia and Joe when we make sure it’s safe?” offered Nelson.
“I don’t think anyone’s there.”
“You never know. We only saw it when the light hit it at just the right angle. Maybe whoever’s there doesn’t want to be bothered.”
“Ok… But I wanted to go in,” grudgingly said Dot.
Now, they were heading back to the temple after they were fairly sure that there was nobody home. As they entered the space between the stones inscribed with gray runes, an uneasy feeling came over the expedition. Up close, the alien temple looked downright menacing. It seemed like the building might lurch over at any moment and crush the human intruders. Eerie shadows crept on its rough, unfinished walls.
As they stepped into the wide entrance, something in the temple turned on the lights as they were expecting. The short hallway opened into an impressive, circular foyer with marble walls which were polished to perfection. The floor was adorned with chrome rings, each ring inscribed with a sequence of black symbols. In a nook to the side of the room stood a statue of an alien deity made of dark metal. Its body was smooth and fluid, finely crafted in an abstract, humanoid style. Its eyes glowed red and its formidable finger-like claws looked like they were grasping something. Opposite of it, in another nook was a stylized version of a female deity also made in a fluid, humanoid shape. It had much softer, more feminine look. This goddess was endowed with breasts and made of a metallic material with a dark silver tint. Her eyes glowed blue and her hands reached out to the statue across the room.
Branching off from the foyer were libraries and bedrooms as well as mysterious rooms that served unknown purposes. The deeper into the temple the astronauts went, the more it seemed like a house rather than a religious monument. The explorers split up, wandering around this odd place, skimming through immense books written in bizarre alien runes and looking at the beautiful artwork tastefully arranged throughout the temple.
In their awestruck state, nobody except Nelson noticed that Dot went off in her own direction and hadn’t checked in for an awfully long time. The explorers heard a faint conversation in their intercoms but didn’t give it much thought. Nelson listened closely to the voices. The soft, higher pitched voice was Dot but the pleasant, low baritone was a voice he’d never heard before. The little girl was talking to someone, but whoever it was, he wasn’t a member of the Endeavor’s crew.
Nelson followed the intercom signal and walked into the large dining room. He was floored by what he saw. Sitting cross-legged on a thick cushion of a curvy, big chair in front of a massive table, Dot was having a pleasant chat with Ace. The Shadow Demon sat next to her in a dark uniform adorned by red tribal designs around its edges and tied by a decorative sash at the waist.
“Did that hurt?” Dot was asking, pointing to the two, translucent red rings in Ace’s left ear.
“No, not at all,” replied Ace. “I didn’t feel a thing. My ear is made out of carbon.”
“So why’d you get your ear pierced?”
“Eh… Just felt like it one day, so I did it.”
“Well it looks cool. I want to get my ear pierced too,” sighed Dot.
“Hey Dot, I think Nelson’s here,” said Ace, turning to the shocked human.
“Umm… hello,” said Nelson. “I assume that Dot told you about who we are.”
“Yes. You’re from Earth like me,” replied Ace.
Nelson suddenly found himself mute.
“Yes, I know. I don’t exactly look human anymore. Just sort of humanoid. So what do you think of my little house here?”
“It’s… it’s very nice,” mumbled Nelson in reply.
“I don’t like it very much. I should re-decorate sometime. A little too dark for my tastes. Some parts of this place look like a Goth kid’s fantasy,” laughed Ace.
“Um… well…” kept mumbling Nelson.
“Mr. Nelson, relax. I’m not going to hurt you, and I’m not a bona fide alien.”
“Please call me Ace,” smiled the cyborg as he got up and extended his clawed hand.
Nelson very cautiously shook it, his heart skipping a beat as the flexible claws firmly grasped his glove.
“So, Ace, is it?” smiled Nelson.
“That’s what I go by.”
“So how did you come to Epsilon Eridani C?”
“That’s a long story,” smiled Ace, flashing one of his fangs. “But I promise that it’s an entertaining one. I’m an astronaut like you, only I had to take a really long detour.”
Perched on a rock in an alien desert was a sleek, six legged, armored creature the size of a small dog. Its sensitive antennae wiggled in the light breeze of the reddish, arid world. Its single, oval eye strained to make out shapes floating across the night sky. As fuzzy red auras lit up over the horizon, it shook with a nervous twitch. Red lights. The invaders. The strange, dark aliens that came to its world long ago, in the days of its ancestors. In just a few cycles of the moons, they created their bizarre temples and spires shaped like monstrous claws shot into the sky like the hands of ravenous monsters.
According to legends, these aliens appeared out of nowhere on the haunted world they would call Abydos and built a grand temple complex in the shadow of its fabled City of Ghosts. When they settled in on their new home world, they started to reach deep into space, looking for new planets to colonize, fuel, and resources. When rival armies tried to slow their relentless advance, they failed. The demons of Abydos were powerful, armed with weapons that shook the fabric of space and time. As world after world fell into their grasp, the galaxy learned the name of the alien horde.
They called themselves the Shadow Nation. A secretive society of spies, assassins, and soldiers, ruled by an enigmatic entity known only as the High Command, they seemed as sinister and bizarre as their name suggested. The few creatures who were able to land on their worlds told of immense, dark temples where the fanged and clawed Shadow Demons worshipped alien Gods in mysterious rituals, terrifying sculptures celebrating their occult knowledge and brutality, and of cutthroat competitions in their savage military. All of these rumors were more than likely just colorful exaggerations, but the Nation not only embraced these myths but promoted them to breed fear of their penchant for secrecy and respect for their power.
Alien species ensnared by their vast armadas had to make deals to survive. With their colonies cut off from each other by the demons’ armies, they had to use the Nation’s shipping lanes. When they ran low on resources they had to rent quarries on the Nation’s worlds, pay for the tools they would use, and pay taxes on their discoveries. Usually the Dark Gods ran such lucrative rackets, but since the Shadow Nation was their ally, their leaders were quite content with the flourishing arms trade between the two empires. Empowered by this symbiotic relationship with the galaxy’s rulers, the Nation secured the second largest territory in the Milky Way and ensured that its “clients” weren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
But the Nation was anything but cruel to its subjects. Rather than bleed them dry and allow corruption to infest its government, the Nation ran a fair business. They prosecuted cases of graft, price-fixing, syndicates, and even issued refunds if one of their many corporations failed to deliver what it promised. Its tax system was administered as fairly as possible under the circumstances, and debts were often consolidated or even forgiven. Why kill off their sources of profit, the High Command reasoned in missives to troubled clients of the Nation, when it’s better to keep them paying at least something over the millennia?
The creature’s world was in the Nation’s grip for a very long time, but other than the few structures they erected so many moons ago, it has never seen a Shadow Demon or their armies until a short while ago, when the destroyers appeared in the skies and small, sleek transport craft began darting to and from the planet’s surface. As the little alien looked out on the Nation’s base, its nimble brain reached a conclusion. It had an opportunity to observe the galaxy’s second top bogeymen up close and personal and it was going to take advantage of this chance. Stretching its appendages, it scuttled towards the red, glowing destroyers and towering, claw shaped spires.
Oddly enough, the demons didn’t give the sleek, six legged alien a second thought and allowed it to freely roam between their temples. Their children tried to play with it and some of the adults would try to talk to it. The Nation’s sharp, angular symbols and fluid spoken words were incomprehensible to the alien, but their advanced body language was easy to interpret. It found a way to be among the Shadow Demons without getting in their way and over the many lunar cycles that followed, it learned quite a bit about the enigmatic masters of its planet.
The demons were highly social and very informal. Many eschewed armor and wore very little clothing, immune to temperature changes, germs, and radiation. They were strong and muscular, and each bore jagged red, scar-like runes on his or her face. Despite the fact that they were on a world totally alien to them, the demons didn’t use any life-support devices. They actually didn’t breathe, taking air into their bodies only to vocalize. The little alien was even able to see how their children were born. Or rather, how they were hatched from large eggs in which intricate organics fused with equally intricate machinery, proudly displayed in their homes for visiting friends and family.
Most demons only stayed on this world for a relatively short time before summoning their destroyers from orbit and leaving for, what the little alien assumed, were other planets around other stars. They cycled between worlds for any number of reasons, using their temple complexes like temporary homes, labs, and even military bases while they took in otherworldly views, performed experiments the little alien didn’t understand, or hatched their young. Occasionally, their destroyers would bring in soldiers and their much feared metal monstrosities of war for quick tune-ups or rest.
Then one day, a small squad of destroyers brought something totally different to the outpost. They looked like Shadow Demons, they talked like them, and they were just as immune to the environment. But these creatures looked as if they were made of dark silver. The runes and decorations on their bodies were black in color and smaller than those of the demons, and their eyes glowed blue rather than red. The silver creatures also didn’t act like the demons who brought them here. They would stay on this world longer than most of those who brought them here, learning, training, and testing what were obviously their new abilities. The demons who acted as their teachers were excited. The little alien knew it was witnessing something big, but it couldn’t realize that what it saw was the beginning of a pivotal change in the Nation’s structure and organization.
It witnessed the birth of the Children of the Stars; human astronauts sent to tranquil worlds orbiting distant stars during one of humanity’s greatest bursts of exploration being incorporated into the Nation. Because the process behind making Shadow Demons from scratch was a closely guarded secret of the Dark Gods, the Children’s machine parts were made of different materials and they weren’t as strong as the Shadow Demons. It was the best that Ace and the High Command could do with the technology at their disposal. But they got the most important part right. Just like any Shadow Demon, the Children had an effectively unlimited lifespan and were invulnerable to the ravages of space.
The Children slowly but surely integrated into the Nation as the new backbone of its vast military. They were allowed to form their own ruling body, which merged with the Nation’s government. Ace became an advisor to the Child High Council, providing his vast experience and knowledge about all things alien and interstellar. The Children soon grew into an impressive and powerful extension of the Nation. But unlike the Nation, they did it rather peacefully, without becoming the scourge of the galaxy, and far removed from the Dark Gods’ prying eyes. Or so the Nation’s rulers hoped…
[ illustration from Elite: Dangerous ]