I do not own Stellaris. Paradox Interactive does.

Thanks to R. Moonstalker for editing.

Chapter published 5/9/18.

Reminder that I routinely update the status of the next chapter on my profile.


A Few Days Later

Modrig den Tarrob

The sun lightly kissed his russet fur, and that meant it was time to wake up.

He turned over in his bed and, with a groan, got to all fours. He stretched his left paw forward and his right leg back. Out, and back in. Then his right paw and left leg. Out, and back in.

Modrig stretched a few more times, then slid out of his bed, rubbing the sleep and gunk from his eyes. His gaze wandered over his light-blue carpet, and to the glass sliding door of his penthouse suite. The star Vulot had just risen over the frozen plains, reflecting off the ice and seemingly dipping the city in molten copper. The city itself, the capitol of the entire empire, was a thing of beauty. Rising skyscrapers, sprawling museums and schools, monolithic businesses and ministries, surrounded by a circuitboard of buzzing streets and dotted with gardens of hardy plants. It never ceased to amaze him how many people there were, so close yet so far, each with their own rich lives. The sonder brought a smile to his muzzle.

He stepped forwards to the door and pulled it open, letting the arctic breeze ruffle his fur. Out on the balcony was his own private garden, growing neatly in its plot of earth against the marble railing. Modrig walked over to it and tended to the plants with the tools in his toolbox. Some clipping for the tangled yeetroot, some water - specially warmed so as not to freeze - for the imported Earth tomatoes, and no care needed for the hardy faitgrass. He sighed contentedly as he tended the garden, his heart swelling and his long ears warming.

Once done, he stepped back inside and closed the door, getting an eyeful of his bedroom. There was the one-person bed, pushed against the creamy walls with its perpetually unmade sheets. There was the television across from it, little more than a black screen of glass. There was the doorway to his shower, the towering closets holding his robes, a floor mirror, another doorway and, more importantly, a set of weights in the corner.

He made his way to them, picked out four heavy weights, then crossed his legs and faced the mirror. Modrig placed two of the blocky pieces of metal halfway to the mirror, and rested the other two in his palms. Staring at himself in the mirror, he began lifting the two in his hands. Up, down. Up, down.

After ten repetitions, he furrowed his brow. In the mirror he saw the simmering, glowing purple in his eyes flare as he reached out with his telekinesis. He lifted one weight with his right arm, and one of the further ones with his psionics. Left arm, left weight, two at a time.

Modrig worked up a good burn, then took a break just sitting and breathing through his nose, twitching it now and then. He finished a few more sets, then placed the weights back. With sore arms, he headed for his kitchen.

The morning passed in a gentle blur. He made a quick breakfast of red meat. Ran on all fours on his treadmill. Ate breakfast. Showered. Put on a fresh robe. With all that done he scurried back into bed, grabbed his transparent tablet from underneath it, and went to work.

His smile soon shriveled and died. There was a message from Seban, asking permission to extend a commercial campaign's duration. There were a multitude of housing updates from Isabella, one of the few humans he had working for him. News stories from the outer colonies, the core worlds, from other nations even. Even delegating, there was so much to handle. Sometimes it felt like the entire nation was on fire, and he was frantically running around handing out buckets. Alas, nobody ever said running the Ministry of Benevolence was easy.

He sighed, tapping away on the screen as he looked through his messages again. A new update from Isabella, another news story about the outer colonies being worried about the Imari Horde on their doorstep, a royal summons from the king -

Modrig choked on his breath and rolled out of bed, landing with a yip on the floor. His tablet hit the carpet with a soft whumph. Scrambling for it, Modrig grabbed the tablet and brought it up to his eyes, reading under his breath. "Modrig den Tarrob, you are hereby formally requested to appear before King Jorim den Vathrag. Appear by the palace at 14:35 on the sixteenth of Jalsm. Dress is informal. Have ID on paw." The message ended with some security regulations, and the seal of the king; a pale gray insignia with a pair of teal lines coming down from the top and into the bottom left and bottom right, inscribed with a circle that had a slice pulled out of it.

He glanced at the clock on his tablet, only for his eyes to go wide and his ears to flatten against his skull. It was already 12:41!

Modrig leaped up from the ground and dashed around his home. He brushed his fangs vigorously and swished mouthwash around his tongue. He took off his casual, even-white robes and put on something more appropriate for a royal summons; pale brown, with red trimmings. He hurried around, making sure he had his tablet with his ID code ready to be scanned. With that done Modrig rushed out his door, locked it behind him, and hurried down the stairs.

Ten floors and two minutes later, he was on the streets. Being outside and watching the crowds was like watching a hundred different puzzle pieces scrambled together. Dozens of his fellow Vulo walked around him, silent as they conversed with telepathy. Dotting them were some of the other species the Grand Vulon Clan had come across over the centuries. Some mostly-hairless humans, draconic Bryll towering above the crowd, even a few lumbering synthetics that stood out by their lack of a... it was hard to describe. They lacked the 'glow' that organic brains had.

Modrig found a street console, tapped a few buttons on it, and a moment later a blue self-driving taxi pulled up on the curb. He crawled inside, relaxing against the plush leather seats.

"Where to, Mr. den Tarrob?" the onboard computer asked as he adjusted his tail.

"The palace, please," he said.

"The palace it is," it replied. Smooth and gentle, the taxi accelerated and merged with traffic. Modrig settled against the seat and gazed out through the windows as the city passed around him. Already, the sky was darkening with clouds; the forecast yesterday had predicted a blizzard and, amazingly, it looked like they were right.

As they traveled, Modrig thought about what was happening. A royal summons. What could it be for? Had he broken some obscure law? He didn't think he had; Modrig made it his business to know the law. Was he in danger of some sort? Hard to believe; Modrig wasn't in the public spotlight despite his high-ranking job. Just the fact that he could walk out and get a taxi without bodyguards was proof of that. Did the King need something from him? But then why not send a message containing the request?

... unless this was something so important it could only be relayed face to face. Modrig's throat felt tight.

Traffic was slow. By the time Modrig's taxi parked on the side of the street, he had maybe half an hour until his audience. He hurriedly paid the taxi with a few taps on his tablet, got out, and stood before the palace.

The royal palace was golden and rounded, with towering arches supported by elaborate, curving beams. The walls were patterned with hundreds of curving lines, like a jig-saw puzzle put together. Gardens sprawled around outside, soaking up the frigid air. Vines curled over the gleaming structure, which towered over the nearby schools and businesses, but not quite over the skyscrapers; it was an old building, rebuilt many times but rarely changing in layout. In front of him was a wide rectangular field, with stairs leading out from all sides into domed-roof buildings, each connected by elaborate hallways. Modrig walked dead ahead, up one of the flights of stairs, and into an exceedingly lavish atrium.

Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, blazing with electric candles. More plants filled the room, and creepers spiraled along the walls. The chamber was large enough to host a formal ball, and had not long ago when the Obevni Trade Commission and the United Nations of Earth sent representatives to renew their trade deals. At the moment, however, it was empty save for a pedestal and chairs up against the walls. The two elaborate doors, painted to look like wood, were locked.

Modrig approached the pedestal, and waved a paw over the glowing blue screen. He tapped a few buttons and input a few names and numbers. It gave him several instructions, such as to dispose of any loose metal or wires, disclaimers acknowledging that he would be taped for the duration of his presence, and reminding him of the presence of armed guards. He went through it all and with twenty minutes to spare, it told him to take a seat and wait to be called. Doing as it said, he rested in the plush seats, and silence engulfed him. No noise beyond the anxious thoughts in his head. What could possibly warrant a royal summons for him? He thought up several ideas, each more horrible than the last. He brought his tail over into his lap and began stroking it in a vain attempt to calm the ball of worry in his gut.

Time passed. The light shining through the windows grew dimmer, or was that just his imagination?

Finally a door slid open, and a synthetic stomped out to greet him. "Modrig den Tarrob," it said, raising a bronze arm. "Follow me. I will lead you to your scheduled meeting with his Majesty."

Modrig nodded and stood, trying not to look directly at the synth. He'd never admit it out loud, but he didn't like these models. They had no face, just a flat screen with a sensor moving around the chest, so he never knew where to look. When it turned its back to him he gratefully relaxed and followed it into the halls. As they walked he glanced left and right, eying the incredible paintings of the world's many, many glaciers. They took several turns left and right before arriving at a gilded double-door engraved with silver lines.

The synth turned to him, shifting its metal body. "His Majesty is waiting for you right through here," he said.

He dipped his head. "Thank you." Modrig stepped forward and pushed into the next room.

It was an office of sorts. Paintings hung on the walls, and behind an ivory desk was a smoothly curving silver chair, with handrails large enough to be a throne in its own right. On the desk was a tablet, and a black screen of glass lifted so that Modrig couldn't see what was on it. There was a chair for him to sit at. And behind the desk was King Jorim den Vathrag. His fur was gray like smoke, leaving the psionic-purple eyes as shining beacons on his aged face, with a distinct pattern to his fur that the Vulo used to identify each other. He wore ceremonial robes, long and expertly cleaned, the color of fresh snow and lined with sky blue.

He fumbled, crossed his arms, and bowed his head. 'Your Majesty, you honor me with this summons,' he said telepathically.

"Modrig den Tarrob, please, sit," the king said aloud, his voice wispy yet unwavering. Modrig took his place in the seat, tail stiff behind him. "A7031, please leave us." The machine stepped back and closed the door, but Modrig had no illusions; if he even looked at the king funny, it could punch through the walls and grab him by the throat. "Modrig - do you mind if I speak aloud? I find it good practice to exercise my throat." He shook his head. "Wonderful! My subject, what do you know about the Imari Horde?"

He frowned, then opened his mouth to speak. "IIiii," he screeched. His ears splayed back in embarrassment, and he swallowed to wet his throat. Sheesh, and it wasn't like he never spoke verbally. "Iii, I. I. I," he practiced. "I know they've been giving me a lot of headaches these past few weeks. They just unified seemingly out of nowhere around this 'Cari Alvie', and now their ships are getting dangerously close to our spaceports. I've had Isabella giving me stories of riots and protests practically nonstop."

The king nodded. "I imagine they've been giving you trouble, yes. But I mean, with their stated goal?"

Modrig furrowed his brows, trying to look anywhere except directly at his Majesty. There was a golden pen on the desk, he noticed. "I, uh, know that their Great Khan wants to give her peeeeeeople - ahem." He cleared his throat. "Her people a new lease on life by conquering the surrounding space as room for them. Why, what about it?"

King Jorim smiled. A wry little smile, not even enough to show off a fang. "Because I have been in conversation with Great Khan Cari Alvie yesterday, regarding her future plans." His eyes widened. "Yes, you see, she has some very admirable long-term goals. Unite the galaxy, bring about a new age of prosperity and advancement where all sentient life is equal, and all that." The king sighed. "Though the idea of how she wishes to do it is very. Hmm." He frowned. "Very violent."

That was enough to send a pit into Modrig's stomach. Violent. No kidding. He'd grown up on horror stories of what orbital bombardment did to families, of the refugees from what was now Stranglevine space recounting the monstrous actions that the sapient plants had perpetrated. "So what about them, your Majesty?" he asked. "What did you speak with her about?"

"The possibility of a truce between her people and ours. We both have a mutual enemy in the Stranglevine Composters. How much do you know about our rivalry with them?"

Not a lot, but Modrig had to know enough to think up calming advertisements. "I know we have choke points at a few pulsars, but not enough forces to go on an offensive."

"Correct. We do not have the forces to liberate them. But the Imari Horde does. Cari Alvie and I discussed this at length, and if our people are to provide assistance to hers, she's more than willing to pass us by and direct her attention to overthrowing the Stranglevinian government." The king's ears twitched, the only tell as to how he felt. "Privately I feel she needs the help; her people are strong, disciplined, and have a long history of spaceflight, but their technology is..." He held out a paw and waved it. "... lacking."

"Your Majesty, you're really suggesting allying with those monsters?" he asked, the word slipping out before he could stop it.

He shrugged. "We really do not have much in the way of options. And I was able to sway the Great Khan somewhat. Initially her demands were for a sizable material tribute, as well as conscripting our citizens as auxiliary forces." A chill ran down Modrig's spine, and his tail's fur stood on end. "You understand why I couldn't do that. We bargained for a while, and eventually we settled on an agreement. We would provide her forces access to our shipyards, as well as our technology." He sighed. "I received much criticism when I gave them the Enigmatic Fortress's encoder and decoder, but I'm glad I established the precedent. We will give them our technology, and in return they will focus exclusively on the Stranglevine Composters."

He nodded slowly, putting the pieces together. "If I may be so bold, I believe I understand why you summoned me. I imagine none of this information is public knowledge yet. You want me to put a positive spin on giving more of our technology to the marauder horde, in return for them savaging their way across our rivals' space."

"No."

Modrig blinked. "No?" he repeated dumbly, as if King Jorim, the noble protector of the nation, had somehow made a mistake.

"No. And this is the part you are really not going to like. While the Great Khan and I were discussing, she also mentioned that she wished to have a few select individuals from our people among her fleet. One of the people she requested was you. She claims she wants you for your various fields of expertise." He snorted, wiggling his black nose distastefully. "In so many words, hostages."

The bottom dropped out from Modrig's stomach, leaving him staring at the king in numb disbelief. "H-Hostages? Me?" he asked faintly.

King Jorim huffed through his nose. "Regrettably. The Great Khan's been keeping an eye on us it seems, she even gave me a list. It consists of several people from the Ministry of Benevolence - you included - and some rising captains in the military. They are to be brought to her ships, and to remain there as she forms her empire."

Modrig leaned back and placed a paw to his forehead, whining quietly in his throat and flattening his ears. "Oh," he said at last, stomach flipping inside him. "I, I'm going to guess that wasn't negotiable."

"She made it clear that we either submit to all her demands, or nothing. And with the Stranglevines at our doorstep, we can't fight both her and them. We give her our technology and her hostages, and in return she ignores us and focuses exclusively on our enemies." The king held up a paw. "This is not as terrible as it sounds, however. The Imari Horde is the perfect solution to our problems, and we can direct them like a weapon unto our enemies. Cari Alvie thinks we are serving her, but in reality she is serving us and our interests." King Jorim's eyes softened. "But in order for that to happen, the Great Khan needs to be appeased."

His thoughts stuttered. In his mind's eye he had the view of being on a cramped, dismal spaceship, surrounded by the unruly avians as they murdered their way through space, for months on end. Years on end. Decades on end. His throat tightened and the room spun. 'There has to be a way out of this,' he pleaded telepathically, unable to speak normally. But King Jorim's apologetic face was all the answer he needed; there was no way out of it. They couldn't fight a war on two fronts, and they needed something to deal with their enemies. Modrig slumped in his seat, tail going limp. "When do I leave?" he muttered. "Should I hire a replacement, or...?"

"One standard month from now, and yes, if you please."

Modrig's paw, still on his forehead, massaged his headache. "We'll... we can't just portray it as is. We need to... as if we're volunteering. Establishing better relationships with them."

The king nodded solemnly. "Yes, I had thought that as well."

"Maybe I can get through to them? We can get through to them," he stammered, thoughts racing. "Get them to calm down, and maybe convince them and the Stranglevines to accept peace."

King Jorim shook his head sorrowfully, ears flat. "Perhaps, but I've come to consider peace with them a fool's hope. It seems very much that their nation's role in the Great Plan is to be a warning to others. Modrig, I am terribly sorry it has come to this, but the council and I discussed this thoroughly. If there were another way, any way, we'd have taken it. Please, take the rest of today and tomorrow off. Get things in order. After that I'll publicize our assistance to the Imari Horde, and then you can start coming up with announcing your own piece. Ensure it is done well before you are scheduled to leave." He dipped his head. "You are dismissed."

"I - thank you, your Majesty," he said, shakily rising from his seat. Modrig pushed the chair in and, numbly, stumbled out the door. The synth - A7... something - led him out.

For a few minutes they walked in silence through the halls. As they got closer to the atrium, Modrig's thoughts tumbling about in his head, the machine spoke.

"I hope that your meeting with his Majesty was productive and efficient," it droned. In response, Modrig just stared blankly into the synthetic's back. "Silence suggests subject was classified. You appear troubled." When they reached the atrium A7 stopped and turned to him, the blue sensor on its screen roaming over Modrig. Something beeped. "Fifty-two credits, as a gift. I suggest using them to purchase food items you find delicious."

He dipped his head. "Much appreciated." He stepped past the machine and headed for the exit, almost in a daze.

Outside it was already getting dark, even though he hadn't been with the king that long. The sky was black with clouds, and it was snowing. The cascading flakes swirled about in the breeze, dusting the pavement. The streets weren't half just as crowded as before. He walked in a daze, only vaguely following his nose to a restaurant. He didn't know the name, but not long after he walked out with brown paper bags of Bryll cuisine in his paws.

Modrig elected to walk back home. It was good exercise. By the time he got back to his apartment complex the blizzard was well under way; snow howled and shifted in buffeting walls, and the icy gale sliced through the streets and ruffled his fur. The few non-Vulo he saw had wrapped themselves in enough coats to triple their size. The gentle hum of a drowsy city tickled his ears, but all he heard were his restless thoughts.

He was going to the Imari. He was going to the savage marauders as a hostage aboard the Great Khan's ships. He was going to be going into a war zone.
It echoed in his head, filling his thoughts like buzzing static until he couldn't even think in words anymore.

Modrig stumbled back into his home, locked the door behind him, and collapsed face-first in bed. His legs hurt. His take-out fell somewhere to the floor. He crawled to his cushions, closed his eyes, and struggled to fall asleep.

Sleep did not come for a long time.


The next day, the world seemed gray.

He got up. He tended to his garden. He vaguely remembered he hadn't performed his nightly prayers yesterday. He didn't feel like doing them now.

Modrig sat in bed, with the covers up to his chin, and turned on the television. He found where he'd dropped the takeout and had breakfast in bed. He tuned to a music channel and used it as background noise. Still eating, he pulled up his tablet and composed a message to his sister:

Could Use Some Help

Hey, Faram, can you call me? Something's come up and I'm not feeling too good.

- Modrig

He reread it, nodded, and sent it. It might be a while before she got it, though; Faram was quite busy these days. He finished up his food, forced himself to work out despite the lead in his body, then checked his messages via tablet.

Only one. King Jorim had sent a message detailing when he'd leave, and for where. He was set to go to the Jatta spaceport in a few weeks. From there he'd fly out from the center of the nation to some frontier world he couldn't find on a map. By then the Imari Horde's fleets would be there, and mostly refitted. There was also a list of everyone that was going, and to which ships. Modrig himself was going onto the Imari's flagship, the IHE Midnight Tenu, with the Great Khan herself. After that, they'd be in the marauders' 'care'.

He sighed. Technically he had the day off, but he couldn't stop thinking about it. No surprise. Already in his mind Modrig began thinking over how he'd go about 'volunteering' to go to the Imari Horde. A show of friendship between species? It'd be a tad one-sided. Maybe philanthropy? He could spin that...

Bzzzt!

His tablet vibrated against him, and a blue window opened in the top right. He tapped it and instantly the tablet was taken up by his sister's head. Her fur, a shade darker than his own, was ruffled as if blown about by intense wind. Judging by the blue light and glass tables behind her, she was at home. A tiny blip at the bottom of the screen announced it was picking up and translating her telepathy for him.

"Hey, Modrig, you alright?"

"Just some bad news at work," he said aloud. Modrig imagined it'd be classified, but Faram was employed directly under Doctor Beak of Ivory. She had similar security clearance as him. All the same... "I, uh, don't want to give too much away, but I've been reassigned and it's something."

She narrowed her eyes. "It's about those savages, isn't it?"

He swore. Got it in one. "Well, they are pretty big news. Once in a lifetime. Don't tell anyone, but I'm being sent to - " How to put it? " - help facilitate friendship between our nations."

Faram nodded slowly, narrowing her glowing, violet eyes at him. "Mmhmm." Damn it, she probably knew exactly what was going on. Then her eyes widened. "Wait, you mean sent to the Imari, right? Spirits, Modrig, you're not actually being sent into battle, are you?" His response was a nervous, toothy grin. "Oh damn it, damn it. Modrig, listen, you gotta run, okay? Go hide somewhere. The Conjoined Species, maybe."

Oh that was tempting. It meant not getting shot at by ship-sized guns. But he'd be found, he'd be tried for treason, and while the death sentence was ancient, ancient history, prisons certainly were not. Next to the Great Khan, at least, was probably the safest place to be in a war.

Probably.

I'm rationalizing, he scolded himself.

"Maybe," he lied. "I'm set to leave in a month, but I think I should just do it. I'll be fine," he said with a weak smile.

Faram sighed, twitching her ears and frowning. "I hope so."

Silence.

"So enough about me, what's new at work?" he asked once the quiet grew unbearable.

Faram's ears lifted and her eyes sparkled. Immediately Modrig knew he'd made a mistake. "It's going great! We actually just managed to isolate the Sigma-A and Voliren-CD chromosomes in one of the cleanroom Cormathani, and guess what?! I found the equivalents in human DNA!" She clapped her paws and jumped excitedly in place. "And then of course I knew I had to ask Takuug for..."

Modrig relaxed into his pillows and vapidly nodded as Faram continued to ramble genetic mumbo-jumbo at him. Already he could feel his heart relaxing, his soul lightening, listening to his sister pour her heart out about her passion.

There'd be things to do. He'd need to compose a message about going to the Imari, maybe as a retirement. Or a job-change. He'd need to coordinate with everyone else being sent - had they already been told their fates by the King? - to make it convincing. Then he'd need to pack, and then actually travel. Where was he going? He'd need to look up where the planet he was heading to was. So many things he needed to do just to prepare for what was going to happen. For the time being, though, he'd been given the day off and he was going to make the most of it.

At least for now, the world didn't seem so gray anymore.


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