The Gentle Crush of Outward Expansion

Cyclopea VII did not want to be tamed. In that way it was like all the other wild planets before they’d been swept into the Fold. The Scouts would break it, eventually. But this was to be a war of attrition.

Kaixuan stood beside a loaded-up Colt, its multijointed glassy carbon legs firm beneath its burden. He was feeling the weight of his own supplies, a turtle shell of rations and medical provisions and all manner of munitions hanging from his shoulders. Only the thin scaffolding of his exosuit kept him upright and prevented his bones from snapping.

The Scouts were reflections of the landscape. Their Colts, and their platforms, and even their own personal gear, all gray alloys blanketed in thin gold foil. Cyclopea VII was a world of dark metallic ore, steaming pools of organic solvents, and dull golden fungi that grew atop rocky pillars, covering most of the planet monolithically. All of it, the planet and the Scouts alike, trapped beneath a thick cloud cover that scattered the binary starlight uniformly across every craggy landmass and bubbling sea at every hour. Unrelenting gray.

As he looked about the encampment before heading out on his own, Kaixuan saw things that once would have amazed him but now barely caught his attention. He saw fellow Scouts working the platform with their damaged faces and severed limbs in various stages of regrowth. He saw the fizzing, frothing surfaces of machinery in constant battle with the acidic puddles in which they were left, their nano-assemblers refusing to accept the stalemate they were offered. He saw through the haze the shifting silhouettes of floating structures whose geometries should have been impossible.

He thought it all was a terrible waste.

This world was to be made habitable for human settlement. The decision had come from those too powerful and privileged to have ever crossed the fringeline themselves, let alone set foot on a place such as Cyclopea VII. It wouldn’t be disbanded for its raw materials or repurposed as a staging outpost or—heaven forbid—fucking left alone for the insufferable fungi haven it was. No. It was to be rebuilt, atom by atom, until the gravity was comfortable, the air was refreshing, and wheat and rice and corn would flourish. Until the rich homesteaders could come and claim they were settling the frontiers and believe it to be true.

Everyone would admire its pristine, natural façade. And indeed, a façade was all it would be.

Kaixuan would be gone by then, along with the other Scouts, for somewhere further still from the embrace of the Fold. He wasn’t sure if they were being pushed away or if they were running from its reach. Probably some of both.

“Let’s go,” he said.

The Colt grunted; it was a garbled, synthetic sound. Together they picked their way over ragged stone and through featureless bogs, because that was the order of the day.

There was much to do.

Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Gabriele Nicastro, used with permission.

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