I do not own Stellaris. Paradox Interactive does.

Thanks to R. Moonstalker for editing.

Chapter published 12/15/18. Happy holidays!


Modrig den Tarrob

Modrig did not know which was worse.

On one paw there was the battered world of Sun's Scrutiny before him, its arid plains and scattered brush covered in strip mines - visible even from so far up - and devastated by the Imari's orbital bombardment. Even as he watched, tiny pinpricks of fire lit up as the fleet obliterated a weapons factory, or vehicle lot, or storage silo, often with grievous civilian casualties.

But on the other paw, there was the complete and total lack of anything, forever.

Modrig firmly closed the live stream before spacesickness could claim him and thought about the planet. He didn't like what it represented. Five hundred million Stranglevines. Born - sprouted? - in fear and hate and raised in it their entire lives. What was it like, down there? He knew the Great Khan's ground forces had landed and were seizing power. He could only wonder at the death and destruction being wrought, the sheer weight of the misery and savagery crawling across this one planet, just out of view.

They should have surrendered. The Great Khan had even announced that ahead of time; 'surrender or die' had been what Modrig gathered from it. Naturally, they hadn't surrendered. Knowing the plantoids, they hadn't even bothered to parse the message. And now they were being slaughtered wholesale, with entire city districts being put to the torch.

Modrig returned to bed with an ear-flicking yawn. He crawled in, flipped onto his back, and levitated his tablet over. There was one piece of good news from all this; somewhere in the fighting, the Imari soldiers had taken control of a long-range relay station. Once the planet was secured it would be used to broadcast the counterpropaganda they'd been developing for the last... had it really been half a year already? For the last half a year to the Stranglevine Composters at large.

But for now, it meant he and all those others who'd been 'recruited' from the Grand Vulon Clan were authorized to make personal calls.

His tablet hummed and, after a bit of delay, lit up with his sister's disheveled face. Her dark red fur was haphazardly sticking up in some places. It was matted down in others. He couldn't see much with her blocking most of the camera, but what little he could see of her home behind her looked like it'd been hit by a tornado; bottles on the ground, overturned chairs and tables, and broken flowerpots all shrouded by dark blue light. Was it nighttime there?

Modrig blinked. 'Faram, is this a good time?' he asked. He usually spoke aloud with her, but just for privacy he'd use telepathy.

"Yeah, sure," she said, her voice coming through the tablet's telepathy receiver. A smile grew on her snout. "I haven't seen you in forever, what's the occasion?"

'Well, you've been following the news, right? The Imari are parked over a border world and are trying to conquer it,' he said sourly. Modrig wrinkled his muzzle. 'They've been fighting for weeks down there, but one of the structures they've just taken gives me an excuse to message you.' He looked behind her and smiled. 'So, good party?'

He had a moment to notice Faram's eyes narrowing before the view turned into a distortion of moving shapes. When it stabilized, Faram's back was to a wall and there was no trace of the chaos. Modrig snickered. "Laugh it up," his sister said, an adorable glower on her face. "Bet it's nothing compared to what those savages throw."

Modrig shrugged. 'They clean up after themselves, at least.' Her glower deepened. 'But in all seriousness, it's not as bad as I thought. You should see how serious they get when the fleet's in battle.' Or, rather, not see them. Whenever the fleet had gotten in range of an outpost the corridors of the ship emptied out as all the Imari went to their stations. The only glimpse he'd gotten of the Imari in a fight was back when Cari had called him onto the bridge.

"You've been in battle?!" she shouted, gripping her tablet and bringing it closer.

'Calm down, it's not like in the films. They just fire their weapons, and like a day later we get reports of an outpost being blown apart. I don't even notice it if I don't pay attention.'

Faram eyed him sideways. "... I don't know, I don't like it," she said cautiously, wrinkling her black nose. "What's it like? I mean, generally."

'Well.' He glanced up at the dark corners of the room. Tev had camera access. No doubt he was being monitored by the Imari in general, and he did not want to see what they'd do if he gave away anything sensitive. How much could they tell by Faram's responses to him?

Not for the first time, he wondered why they even needed Corcora to spy on him.

'I don't know how much I can give away. Um, try not to imply I said anything incriminating?' She nodded briefly, her right ear flicking worriedly. 'The ceiling's so short everywhere. I keep having to go to all fours like I'm running a marathon. The air outside is so hot and moist. Their days are practically lined up with the galactic standard, so there's that too. And everyone always calls me 'alien' and 'Vulo', even my bodyguard.'

"They gave you a bodyguard?" she asked sadly, splaying her ears against her head.

He nodded. 'I don't like the implication either. Corcora... Tenju, I think was her last name. She was assigned to me as a bodyguard. Well, assistant too, but I haven't got anything for her to do.' Modrig shook his head. 'Enough about me. What's it like back home?'

Faram's mouth quirked upwards in a wry smile. "Well, since you asked." The screen jostled as Faram stood and walked somewhere. The dark blue brightened the slightest bit, and sound poured in. Faram adjusted her tablet to look down the highrise her apartment was in, to the streets of her home in one of the colonies.

It was packed. Between the ice-colored skyscrapers, marching along the streets, were countless hundreds, no, thousands of people from all species in the empire. They chanted, hoisting signs above their heads both holographic and pawmade, tracing looping patrols through the streets. Faram must've tapped something, because his view zoomed in and the audio cleared up.

"Use the fleet!" came the chant. "Use the fleet! Use the fleet!" Their signs were scrawled with similar messages, ranging from 'Peace in Our Time' to 'Remember Ligira' to pictures of Vulon ships belching plasma at what he assumed was meant to be a Stranglevinian world.

After letting him get a good look, the protest swept out of view and Faram carried him back inside. "So, yeah, the MSA's been stirring things up ever since the savages started doing their thing. Think we aren't doing enough to help the Imari, can you imagine?"

He sighed and ran a paw down his face. 'Of course. Anything else new over there? How's work?'

She found one of the chairs that hadn't been upturned and reclined into it. A shiver ran across her crimson fur. "Miserable. I keep thinking we're close to figuring out the modifications, but everything turns into a dead end." She waved it off. "Whatever. At least I'm getting plenty of ten-times overtime pay."

Modrig's ears shot up and he sat ramrod straight. 'HOW much?!'

His sister gave him a toothy grin. "Yeah, it's pretty sweet! Everyone got a major raise lately, with how well the economy's doing."

'I'm not getting paid anything,' he groused. 'Are things really that good? I've read about it but I haven't been able to actually see it.'

"It's great, actually. Everybody has a roof over their heads, food in their bellies. Though I guess some people are still adjusting to having so much available; some of the colonies are having riots where everyone storms the shops and raids them for food. Honestly, you'd think they were pampered nobles with what they're demanding."

He pulled his lips back. 'Yikes. Take care of yourself, Faram.'

"You're telling me? Anyway, I gotta go. Stay safe, bro." She reached towards the tablet and the connection broke.

Modrig sighed and rolled over in his bed. He'd already done everything that could be done to prepare for sending out their broadcasts. All he could do was sit and wait, wondering when Sun's Scrutiny would be conquered.


Cari Alvie

The talons on her feet dug into the loose sand. It was warm and yielding.

Her beak nibbled at the air. It was pleasingly hot.

She blinked her nictating membranes to moisturize her eyes. The air was displeasingly dry.

She flexed her hands. The tug of gravity was smooth and unyielding, monolithic even.

Cari was here. She was here! She was standing on a planet. Septillions of kilograms of matter beneath her. It felt like only yesterday she had last been to Sun's Scrutiny on a raid, robbing the Stranglevines of raw mineral resources and bringing back slaves to work on Imari habitats. The resources had since been processed, and when she'd been crowned she had emancipated the slaves.

And now she was... here! Standing on an actual planet! The first planet her people had owned in uncounted generations, with their banner raised above every city and town and mining district. Despite the vicious fighting put forth by the plantoids - Stranglevines had no qualms about using chemical weapons, some of which even worked on her species - Cari had seized the centers of power. They were in control. Colony ships bearing surplus population from overcrowded habitats were en route, bearing flocks of her people looking forward to a new life.

The magnitude threatened to overwhelm her. This world on which she stood was... huge. So much surface area. And when she looked off into the distance, past the sparse bushes and wavy dunes, the land dipped beneath a horizon. There were mountains carving a jagged skyline. The sky was blue, and the local star was a distant, searing spot of white. Wispy white things - clouds, actual clouds! - drifted above her in patterns like someone had wildly slashed their talons at a sheet.

And it was hers. The first of many. Cari had done it. They had done it. This was proof. Her quest wasn't foolish. Her dream wasn't impossible. She could lead her people to a glorious future, she could guide the galaxy to peace and prosperity.

She could actually do this.

The former clan leaders Akrok, Emeraldplume, Physeta, and Sapi - along with everyone's respective bodyguards - stood behind her, each of them also marveling at the planet. Further behind them were the two ships they had taken to the world's surface once the last pieces of organized resistance were confirmed to be exterminated. Cari had already handed out the administrative tasks for managing the world to trusted governors and law enforcers.

The five of them weren't on this world just to soak in the natural beauty, though. While it was certainly a plus, it was also to see about finalizing a project she'd left in Physeta's capable talons.

Two guards approached them from in front, holding ropes that led to a Stranglevine.

Like most aliens, the plantoid was taller than an Imari. This one was at about Modrig's height. They rested in what was best described as a high-tech pot with wheels, colored black to absorb sunlight. It had two hooks on the side that the ropes hooked into. Atop it, the alien had a leafy pod that, supposedly, the boneless aliens could curl their entire bodies into. Rising from the center was a thin, wiry stem tinted a fruity orange, with sticky dew-fronds along the underside of its stem.

At the top, the stem split apart into four more of the fronds, moving about languidly and tasting the air. It turned to each of them in short, jerky movements.

The guards came to a stop and saluted, falling back to stand next to Cari and leaving the Stranglevine alone before her. She pulled her tablet from the crook of her wings, tapped through to a translator application, and held it up to face the alien plant. "Hello, can you understand me?" she said, the surface of her device displaying a pattern of lights as Cari spoke.

There was a pause and then the Stranglevine replied, flashing bioluminescent lights on its four top fronds. Her tablet responded with a tinny artificial voice. "I-I do, esteemed Imari. I assure you, whatever you've heard about my people - "

"Quiet," she said, holding up a talon. Cari's tailfeathers, flat against the ground, swayed through the sand. "I understand you are known as Fronds of Honeydew, yes? And that you are the leader of the Alien Liberty Initiative on this planet?"

The alien pulled itself in, hiding the lower half of its body in its pod. "T-That is correct, on both accounts. I oversee the Alien Liberty Initiative in what little capacity we can scrape by."

She nodded slowly, keeping her eyes roaming around the alien's form, taking in the subtle textures of its plantoid skin. "And tell me, what has your movement accomplished in recent years? It has been decades since the last Stranglevinian purge."

Fronds of Honeydew shrunk further into his - their? Cari would have to ask - pod. "I regret to say not much, e-esteemed Imari. With the fleet idle, the Composters Party has turned its focus inwards. Our numbers have never been great, but in recent years our cells on the core worlds have been captured, and we bleed members elsewhere constantly."

"So nothing lately," she surmised. "No trafficking out terrified aliens from labor camps. No leaking state secrets. Nothing. Fronds of Honeydew, do you know who we are?" she asked, briefly gesturing to the clan leaders behind her.

"I-I do not mean to offend," Fronds of Honeydew trembled, sinking deeper into their pod. At this rate the plantoid would be eye level with Cari before long. "But I'm afraid I do not."

"I am Cari Alvie, Great Khan of the Imari Horde," she said, placing a single talon on her breast. With a quiver of her tailfeathers she gestured behind her. "These are my most trusted diadochi - my generals, if the translator failed."

"The Great Khan?!" they yelped. "Y-You came here personally?! W-What do you wish of me and - please don't kill me!" Fronds of Honeydew begged.

Cari shook her head. What a skittish creature. "I actually have an offer for you. How would you like help in overthrowing the, what did you call them, Composters Party? I would have you gather your flock and coordinate with my Head of Prosperity, Modrig den Tarrob. You will receive his contact information and he will direct you to one of his subordinates."

"What?" Fronds of Honeydew rose slightly from their hiding place. "T-Truly, Great Khan? What would I be doing?"

"He will have more details for you, but you'd assist my appointed governor, Strigi Umloti, in maintaining law and order. The colonists arriving here will be armed and trained to defend themselves, of course, but I am very much interested in keeping lynch mobs to a minimum." She tilted her head and squawked quietly. "Do you have a personal tablet?"

"I - I do," they said, rising from their pod to their full height. A panel on their metal pot lit up, showing an alien tablet's display. "A thousand thanks for this opportunity, you are ever magnanimous! I swear I will not disappoint you."

"Ensure you do not," she said, putting ice into her voice before sending Modrig's contact information to him. There was a bit of loading time as the data struggled to adapt to their tablet's design, but she noted with pride that it succeeded with little delay. Her Vulo would find a place for him, either as a subordinate directly or as an aid to one of his existing ones. "Guards," she said, without turning around. "Please escort Fronds of Honeydew here to the orbital habitat and send them to a secure apartment. Stranglevine-compatible, obviously. After that, you may have the rest of the day off." Then Cari turned around, facing the four former clan leaders. "I believe that is our business on this world complete. Let us be off and give the colonists some space. Come," she bade, leading the way to the one remaining shuttle.

The five of them, and their guards, made their way up the ramp and inside. Within the shuttle's spacious, rounded room, the walls were painted with various hunting scenes from their long-lost homeworld. Perches sprouted from the peat-brown floor and rested next to rounded windows. Cari's crest feathers rose a little higher as she stepped inside; the air was no warmer, and smelled of metal, but the sudden humidity was a welcome relief.

Cari Alvie hopped onto one of the perches and settled into it, her tailfeathers spilling onto the floor behind her. The doors shut behind them with a hiss of pneumatics, and then the engines fired. There was no outrageous acceleration like rockets of old would suffer. Cari merely felt weighed down for a brief moment, and then they were off.

The impulse thrusters were silent and smooth, not at all like the plasma thrusters Imari ships had relied upon for so long. But the silence did not last long.

"A planet!" Sapi marveled, staring out her window and quivering her azure crest. "Did you feel the gravity? Feel the wind!"

I know! It was so big and so incredibly humbling and I think we might actually be able to do this! she thought. "Indeed, it truly was something, no?" Cari said instead, glancing at Sapi with a happy glint in her eyes.

"The wind was incredible," Physeta added.

"I just hope we can hold on to it," Akrok groused from where he perched. "You're staking a lot on your pet aliens, Cari."

There was a twinge of irritation in her heart, but Cari squashed it. He was a close advisor for a reason, after all. "That is correct," she mused, closing her eyes to think before opening them and fixing her gaze on Akrok. "Though I did come up with other methods of control before the opportunity with the Vulo landed in our nests. No reason not to combine them. Akrok, can I trust you with rounding up the more troublesome members - riot leaders, government officials who had any talon in purges and oppression, the like - and liquidating them?"

He puffed out his rusty feathers and saluted. "Consider it done."

"Oh, also, before I forget, is everything alright with Corcora? She has not had to protect Modrig yet, correct?"

He bobbed his head. "Correct. Maybe giving him a bodyguard was overzealous."

She considered it, tilting her head and scratching the walls with a talon. "Maybe. "

With that settled, they turned their attentions back to the windows. The blue sky was growing dark, now, as they slipped free of the atmosphere. Cari could make out the sprawling city districts of the Stranglevines, tinted with a greenish hue even from so far up. There were blocky, grayish mines as well, tunneling deep into the planet's mantle to get at its metals. Searing deserts, sparse grasslands, and even some forestry near the poles slid by as they rose higher and higher until the entire world was there to see.

It looked so fragile, hanging there in the emptiness.

That only made it all the more beautiful.


She had to admit she was jealous of her subordinates. While they only had orders to hand down, and then they could join the celebrations and drink themselves silly, Cari had to deal with a fundamental problem with having Stranglevine citizens.

Feeding them.

It wasn't impossible to make food for the carnivorous plants. Not by a long shot; they'd made nutrient-rich compost for the Stranglevine slaves they'd abducted, after all, and she'd started building hydroponics specifically for feeding her planets. But Sun's Scrutiny imported food for all its five hundred million population. The infrastructure needed to feed them in time to prevent mass starvation just wasn't coming along in time, sadly.

Which was why, while her diadochi were out getting drunk and bedding the ship's concubines, Cari Alvie had to speak to robots.

Inside her quarters, she once again set up everything for a conference. The hologram was ready, and she'd bathed and preened and been attended to by servants. All that was left was for the meeting to begin in three, two, one...

The air in front of her crackled and took the form of a colossal machine.

How punctual.

The hologram was of a Nurturer, no taller than Cari but long like a scuttling insect and standing atop an appropriate plethora of jointed legs. Its 'tail' flattened into a broad fin like that of aquatic arthropoids, and a dozen leafy solar panels extended from its back. The earthy hull was polished to a shine, made of broad and flexible plates that shifted and curled in a satisfyingly organic manner.

The Nurturer's head was little more than a round optic at its front, with four simple grabbers beneath it. Instead of a standard eye, there was simply a spot of yellow light with four spokes around it.

"I bid you welcome, Nurturer intelligence," Cari greeted. "Thank you for holding this meeting with me."

"Oh, esteemed Great Khan," the machine said in an eloquent voice, "the pleasure is all ours! Do tell, how may we serve you?"

"The star charts will not have updated yet, but my forces have finished seizing control of the Stranglevinian world of Sun's Scrutiny. I am given to understand you possess the ability to produce food for any species in the galaxy?"

"You flatter us!" it said, lowering itself to the ground. The screen-face briefly turned into a facsimile of a human smile, with blushing cheeks. "It's an exaggeration to say we can do it for every species. The stagnant ascendancies do not permit us the opportunity to study their biology, we are afraid. But!" It showed an excited face. "We think we know what you're getting at. You need food for the Stranglevines?"

"Until we can set up enough hydroponics for this and future conquests, yes. My civil planners have put the time table for that at one standard year. With decreasing deficit over that time, obviously, as the farms become more and more productive. Would you be interested in setting up a monthly trade of compost for my newest subjects?"

"Interested!" it said, rising up on its metal legs. "Why of course we are. This is in the name of keeping starvation at bay!" It flashed a serious face, with narrowed eyebrows and a thin mouth, at her. Its voice turned monotone. "Though we would be remiss, of course, not to offer you and your people our signature automated lifestyle?"

By which it meant annexing her empire and taking over its functions while her people lived pampered lives in climate controlled domes. "I am afraid I will have to decline," she cooed, flicking her head to adjust her crest. "The offer is appreciated, Nurturer."

The monotone lifted and it gestured grandly with an arm. "Disappointing, but we will respect your decision. As for providing you with food, we must complete our earlier statement. We are interested, but in the pursuit of practicality we insist on something in return. We, as representatives of the federation of Conjoined Species, request full sensor view of the Imari Horde in exchange for the sustenance you desire."

Ah. She had been expecting a price, but this was a telling one. "Would you tell me which of your member states insisted that you be able to keep such close watch on us?"

The Nurturer actually scoffed, forming a face that implied it was rolling its eyes. "The Bryll, naturally. As much as we adore the dragons, they're peeved at you. By which we mean you personally, and insist on treating you as the enemy until you reform to a democratically elected system of governance." It held its hands together nervously and 'looked' to the side. "It's actually why we have not begun military operations against the Stranglevines ourselves. Every time we call an emergency vote, their representative vetoes. Always 'Imari are no different from a Blood Court' and 'Let them weaken each other'. We try to recommend our patented relaxation aids, but he never accepts."

Cari opened her beak a tad and sighed through it. "That is disappointing to hear, but not unacceptable." She needed that food. "For how long do you wish to have sensor access?"

"Five hundred million Stranglevines, correct? Allow us to do the math... a mere decade. Seventeen years if you wish to confine sensor access to military installations." Now it turned outright giddy, flapping its tail against the ground. "In exchange we the Nurturer Systems will provide sufficient food, monthly, for the aforementioned number of Stranglevines to consume up to twice their daily requirements for an equivalent period of ten-to-seventeen years - ahp ahp ahp! As a token of our goodwill, esteemed Great Khan," it said, cutting her off when she tried to remind it that she did not need the food shipments for so long. "The first delivery would, of course, be sent immediately, followed by at the end of each calendar month."

"In which case I find your offer acceptable," she said. "Seventeen years of military sensor access in exchange for the food you described, Nurturers? I shall have the contracts drawn up and sent your way. Thank you for being so reasonable about this."

"No no," the machine said, stepping its hologram forward and reaching out to shake her talons even though they couldn't touch. Cari humored it by pretending to shake. "Thank you, esteemed Great Khan. We are always happy to serve. Please, if you ever find yourself on our Masters' Soil, allow us to give you the guests' suite. Until next time?"

"Until next time," she said, ending the meeting with a gesture. The hologram flickered out and Cari released a breath. She'd actually done it. Nobody would be starving on her watch, and she could spin getting food imports in a positive light with ease. It was, after all, the Nurturers providing food. They always jumped at the chance to help anyone.

Knock knock!

Her-daily-psionics-session-with-Modrig-how-could-she-have-forgotten-there-was-just-so-much-going-on-and - Cari got a hold of herself. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Repeat until her heart calmed down from its fluttering pace. She turned the air conditioning down as far as it would go for Modrig's comfort, then said, "Enter." The door opened on its own, and a din of noise billowed inside.

Cheering hoots and squawks filled the air. Cari's bodyguards, still stationed at their post, stared down the hallway with a humored bounce in their stance. There weren't many people to be seen, mostly shadows around the bend as party-goers rushed around the ship. Modrig was nearest the door with his ears flat against his skull and fangs bared from between his lips. Corcora, yellow feathers standing out sharply against the metal, looked on with bemused mirth. Her psychic powers picked up the traces of revelry and enjoyment echoing down the hall. A pair of Imari she couldn't place were being publicly indecent.

'I'm, ah, here,' Modrig said, his telepathic voice strained. She waved him in and he rushed forward. The door shut behind him and he shivered all over. Once he got that out of his system he looked down at her and gave a strained smile. 'How was your morning - err, day, Cari?'

"Satisfying," she said, already moving over to her nest and sitting in it in preparation for the lesson. "May I get you something to drink?"

He held up a paw sheepishly. 'I already have, thank you.'

"Before we begin, have you spoken to Fronds of Honeydew yet?"

Modrig flicked an ear and cocked his head to the side. 'Fronds of... Honeydew? Can't say I have, who is that?'

"A Stranglevine, the leader of the Alien Liberty Initiative on the world we have conquered. In ages past, their group - "

'Organized the smuggling of aliens being killed off after their worlds were conquered, I took history.' He looked at one of the paintings hanging on her walls, deep in thought. Then Modrig turned back to her with a light smile. 'Oh! You've sent them my way, right? Thank you, having a familiar face for the Stranglevines should help massively. Things are... not good down there. Have you seen the videos?'

"I have seen a great many videos, Modrig," she joked politely. "Please specify."

'Things are bad down there. Like something out of an old history vid from before the Grand Clan's rise.' He pulled his tablet free from his robes and prepared something on it. He turned it around and played what appeared to be a scene from one of the cities on Sun's Scrutiny. The architecture was all metal tinted green, with buildings sprouting up from deep within the dense rock. Some of the more distant structures, out of the camera's focus, had visible leaf-like balconies near their tops.

A substantial portion of the city appeared to be on fire.

Stranglevinian crowds filled the streets, like a hoard of potted plants had sprouted limbs and gone marching. Except there was no discipline and order behind it. It was a mob, hefting signs and smashing in the doors of workplaces. Other plantoids cowered away from the rioters, and whoever was filming must've been in a rush because now and then the view blurred with motion. A crack filled the air, and then the crowd dispersed from unseen shooters - her own enforcers, if she had to guess.

The video stopped and Modrig rested the tablet on her nest, looking at her worriedly.

"That was always going to happen," she said sadly. "You know it."

'I do. It's just - we've never had to deal with anything like this in the Grand Vulon Clan.' His ears drooped and Cari's psionics picked up his unease, rotting in her gut as if it were her own. 'I wonder if I'm even qualified for this.'

"Do not worry, Modrig. For starters you are not alone in this task; I did not ask for you alone, did I? Second, I am certain you can rise to the occasion. Thirdly, I have some measures of my own to deal with the more rowdy Stranglevines that refuse to be cowed." He glanced at her with wide eyes and a spot of alarm, but said nothing. "At any rate, what is to be today's session? More precognition?"

'Some precognition to warm up,' he said, tone and mood still dour, 'then I was thinking we could begin trying basic telekinesis.' As if to demonstrate, his tablet levitated itself and set itself in front of Cari, then drifted back to him. She saw him pull up the same card simulation before gesturing to her with a paw. 'Whenever you are ready.'

"Of course," she said, her tailfeathers twitching in anticipation. Telekinesis? Truly?! She could hardly wait!

They ran through a few test runs, with Cari guessing every card correctly before they even generated. She was getting better!

Frigate, Raider, Galleon, Imari.

Raider, Raider, Cruiser, Warrior. She could do this!

Eventually Modrig put his tablet down and emitted some odd, mammalian grunt. 'Alright, I think that's good. Let's move on.'

"Truly? We can?!" she asked excitedly, raising her tailfeathers. Then Cari got a hold of herself and relaxed. "Ahem, wonderful. Please explain what I am to do."

The touchpad shifted over to her. With a strange look in her direction, Modrig explained. 'I turned its sensitivity way up. Just tap anywhere on it with telekinesis and it'll react.'

Hmm. She looked down at it and tilted her head. "How do I do it?"

'You don't tell your arms and legs to move," Modrig explained, lifting an arm and flexing the claws on his paw. 'You just do it. It's like that. When you're first learning, it's like a phantom limb from inside your head. It starts very weak at first, so you'll need some time flexing it to get the 'muscle' built up enough to do anything. You'll... probably not get any reaction for a few weeks.' He smiled. 'I remember when my sister was first learning, she started shouting at her blocks to move.'

Cari cackled a laugh. "I would love to meet her one day. Let me try..." She narrowed her eyes at the tablet and did as Modrig said. She pictured a long, spindly arm with many joints sprouting from her forehead, reaching through the air and hovering over the tablet. Cari focused hard, imagining flexing the limb.

Predictably, nothing happened. She focused harder, trying to imagine the same feeling of sensing emotions or predicting enemy fire, and...

The intercom crackled to life. Modrig jumped in fright with his fur standing on end and her head snapped up.

Fleet Array T-389V's voice sounded into her chambers, full of panic. "Emergency, emergency! This is not a drill! We are being boarded!"

Then the sirens began to blare.


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