In Which People are Met

As if walking through a wet beaded curtain, the cat stepped onto a ceramic and metal platform feeling the wet droplets shake off her fur. The pink sky above reaffirmed that she wasn’t on Earth anymore.

As she looked around, she saw a trio of white squid-jellyfish things with translucent tentacles dangling below them float toward her. They were accompanied by a short human-like woman in white robes. The woman’s head was bald and elongated, curving back, but with most of her short body hidden by the thick cloth, she looked almost like a human with dwarfism.

The dwarf spoke in English once they were close, “Greetings, Monarch of Sol. We were expecting humans from Earth. Had we known of your species in the Sol system we would have prepared more appropriately. Will the Human delegation be joining you?”

The cat struck her most dignified pose, “I’ve been expecting Humans for some time myself. I am the child of Humanity, for they are my creators. I speak for all remaining Earthlings.”

The woman checked her tablet, “And you don’t have a name listed, just Monarch.”

“No, I haven’t met anyone worthy of the honor of naming me. I had hoped for a human to have that honor, but your representative confirmed what I have long suspected. The Humans are all dead, only their creations remain. As their most advanced creation, an uplifted cat, I think you should call me Cat Queen. That is what I am. Perhaps someone worthy will present a better name in the future.”

The dwarf seemed at a loss for words, looking with sideways glances at her three companions. “Very well. Cat Queen, I am Thazbahak, Administrator for Hub World #32 Huron. The three Garshel with me are here to ensure your rights are upheld during your initiation. This plaza is designated for the Sol Gates. Obviously, you are familiar with the current gate to Earth. I am sure you will want to establish trade and industry with other worlds over time. It should be noted that hub worlds like #32 Huron are for commerce only, they are not zoned for industry or housing. Any infrastructure construction will require oversight and verification from my offices. Trains are most common.”

Thazbahak stepped up to the gate and removed a tablet. As she pressed a button the gate shut off. She then handed the tablet up to Cat Queen. “As the Queen of Sol, you and your designated personnel may turn on and off your gates to manage traffic flow as you see fit. You may use the ship in orbit of your Earth to place your remaining gates wherever you desire in your star system. We have assigned a technician to your service to aid you in its use.” The dwarf started walking toward the large wall structure behind the semi-circle of inactive gates and indicated Cat should follow her. “Further gates can be purchased from Network Administration once you establish suitable trade trust.  Their size and locations can be negotiated once your world’s trade practices are refined. You may use these extra gates to connect on a different hub, or for direct connections, bypassing the hubs entirely if you come to such an agreement with another star system. Trade taxes are reduced for direct connections since you aren’t using our planets as an intermediary.”

As they walked, Cat noticed that the light-gray concrete of the plaza had a bit of give. It distracted her from the boring speech the dwarf was giving about galactic economics, interstellar trade, the Intergalactic Congress, infrastructure beautification, and who knows how many other boring details. She tried to keep up a pretense of paying attention, but in truth, those concepts had never held her interest as much as mechanics and farming.

“Your Majesty?” Thazbahak asked again.

Cat looked up from a sparkling flower-like decoration as she realized she was being addressed directly. “Sorry, what?”

“I was just explaining the importance of our telepaths and how they will aid you in negotiations. But perhaps this is all a bit too overwhelming for the moment. I think we’ve covered the essentials and we will have your delegates study the finer points over time. The last required stop is your gate control center. Behind this secure door is the portal to the ship we sent to your planet. I will leave you in Technician Cutter’s skilled pseudopods for now.”

The door opened to reveal a small shimmering pane of purple portal fluid. She stepped through to find a small room full of blinking lights and controls. Out the front window, she saw the Earth. Somewhere down there was New Wickham, her town, her nest in the bookstore attic. This all apparently belonged to her as the last descendant of Humanity, the only intelligent Terran.

“Your Majesty.” The familiar rugged voice came from below her view. As she looked down to the controls she found a smaller pink squid-like being, its surface undulating and changing in bizarre ways. “Welcome to the Gater 354A. I’m Technician Cutter, at your service. I can deploy your gates as you see fit. Normally, I’d offer to train your personnel to do it as well, but, well, you know. I suppose I could train you if you want. You’ll be wearing quite a few hats, as it were until you can get people to immigrate to your planet. InterGalactic Law states that any planet entering the Network must be provided with various starting connections and that that world’s natives are to have Sovereignty over their own planets however they choose.”

He floated up and she realized that the gravity was pulling her very weakly here giving only a vague sense of ‘down’. He gestured with some of his newly formed tentacles to the planet and with others to her. “Your situation isn’t unprecedented, but it is rather rare. The past two times there were only one or two people on a planet the InterGalactic Congress agreed that the Rules of Sovereignty still hold. So only another native of Earth can challenge your authority over your planet. Or some native of another planet in your system could challenge you for their world, but since they haven’t even made their presence known, I doubt they could challenge your right to the system as a whole. Your position as Queen, or whatever title you want is fairly secure.”

“Why though? Why give us, me, this stuff? Why not just take over?”

“To prevent interstellar war. Sure, you’re small and weak, but the rules apply to every world. When wars spill out to other systems, many planets close off so they won’t be used as battlegrounds. It’s bad for business.”

She pulled herself a little closer using what she assumed were the ship’s handholds. “But I thought the industrial military complex was a profitable economic strategy, even if brutal and inhumane.”

“Oh, sure. Planetside wars, even intra-system wars are really profitable for weapons manufacturers and suppliers of other military services. This model is designed to freely allow those. As long as they don’t spill into the hub worlds, the Administrators don’t do anything about it, and Congress rarely does anything more than sanctions.”

“What could the Administrators do?”

“They could raise trade taxes, refuse various sales, or even restrict gate access. Shutting down a world’s gates is probably their scariest power. This also gives them a fair bit of sway in the InterGalactic Congress.”

“If the Administrators can cut off the gates, why don’t planets just use ships, or make their own gates?” She gestured to the ship all around her.

The pink jelly undulated with a bit of sardonic laughter, “Oh, I’m sure they’d love to. But only a few worlds even know-how, and the gates are just way more efficient. In a week, a small team of people could transport more through the gates by hand than this ship could carry, and the trip here took six years. These ships are expensive, fairly small, slow, and, well, the stellar drive systems destroy themselves on arrival to prevent reverse engineering.

“As for the gates, they are only one part of the system, so reverse engineering that part doesn’t do much good. I think you know who controls the other part.”

“The Administrators.”

“Bingo! Ding ding ding! Rod, tell our contestant what she’s won! Our new Queen has just survived her way into managing a fledgling planet under an oppressive unelected board that uses their established power to uplift worlds into being exploited to trade goods and services their way or cutting them off from the Network. Can she recruit workers to make use of her system’s finite resources for the benefit of the Administrators, or will she be isolated once more for failing the galactic overlords? Only time will tell. Back to you, Bob!”

She was slightly taken aback by the sudden shift in tone of his speech but figured he was probably mimicking a human thing she’d never seen. “So, just like the United Nations and the USA did to less developed nations, or those recovering from war. The International Monetary Fund did a bunch of that too.”

Returning to his normal voice, “I don’t know, probably. Most world powers tend to do that, and I know the USA dominates the broadcasts we’ve received from your system. Oh, if ya can, I just thought of a market you could exploit. I’m sure tons of people would like to see episodes of beloved shows that won’t get to us for a few more years. Or newer shows we haven’t even received yet. We’re up to the late nineteen nineties, but the longer you wait the more we will have received already.”

Cat held her head, “This is, so, not what I wished for.”

“Yeah, Luck and other probability manipulation techniques can only get ya so far. Like, I could have woken up late or talked with someone on my way here, and I might have missed your transmission and written up Sol as dead. But you gathered enough Luck for me to wake up, travel, arrive at work, and scan while you were transmitting. Otherwise, I’d have headed through that door, received a different assignment, and it might have been another twelve of your years before necropolis researchers would come to study your dead world. That would make your legal claim on the planet a lot more murky to prove. You’d probably still win, but the historian’s lawyers wouldn’t make it easy. So, yeah, you spent a lot of concentrated Luck today. I hope you can put it to good use.” 

“Luck, how, uh, understood is that?”

“Luck is a known force of the universe. You can gather and spend it like most forces if you know how. Most don’t find it worth doing cause the impact is fairly small compared to other methods. It is one of the few that can have a retroactive influence. Like the Luck you invoked, I wouldn’t doubt if it influenced my being selected for this job, influenced when this ship was launched, and influenced the density of its travel corridor, influenced my transit pickup this morning, all so that I’d come in to work at just the right moment so that I, someone familiar with 80’s music and willing to give you advice, wouldn’t miss your transmission. A bunch of very small effects spanning perhaps decades, if not millennia, that add up to you being here today with me. 

“Usually only multi-stellar corporations bother manipulating probability on that scale, but they do it a lot more deliberately. For them, a dropped screw in the wrong place can mean an entire planet being unproductive for a month, or an entire space station blowing up, so they make sure that unlucky accidents like that just don’t happen. And while it’s illegal, everyone knows they use it to sabotage their major competition, so they all employ counter-probability manipulation teams as well. It’s almost impossible to prove if a specific incident was remote sabotage, let alone who to hold responsible, so those cases rarely even go to court.”

He flicked a few switches and sighed. “Also means, you don’t want to piss them off. You give them a reason to and they will crush you, maybe literally. We’ve all heard the claims of a President who died in a landslide, his planet blamed a rival for manipulating the stability of the cliff so it was more likely to fall while he was under it. No clue if it’s true, but it is possible.”

Cat pulled herself over to see the controls better. “And, is magic real?”

“Depends on what ya mean by magic. Yer not gonna just wiggle your nose at every problem your husband has.”

“What?”

“Bewitched. You never saw Bewitched? Great show your humans made a while back. But magic ain’t like that, ya see. It’s meticulous rules, like Luck, but often done through deals with beings from other planes of existence. Let their rules bleed into our existence and some crazy shit can go down, man. But, those beings can be fickle and moody, so most companies prefer the stability of tech. Due to slavery laws, those beings also aren’t allowed to manifest on hub worlds, so you can’t use them to transport your goods.”

“Slavery? Is that legal? I’ve read a lot about the American slave trade.”

He seemed to wobble his central mass like he was nodding. “Yeah, not uncommon. Probably hard in your situation. You see, anyone on a Hub World has rights. A world violating those rights can have gate access restricted. So no using the gates for slave transport. That’s why contracted beings aren’t allowed on Hub worlds, it gets too muddled with the slavery laws and rather than figure out which contracts violate it and which don’t, they just ban manifestation entirely. Once you do get people to your own planet, the Administration doesn’t care how you treat them. But a planet that gets a reputation of making visitors into slaves gets real unpopular.”

She contemplated deeply. “Ok, you mentioned my finite resources, can this ship scan my planets for resources?”

“Absolutely. Should warn ya, though, anything this ship scans, and anything the gates pass, it’s all logged. The Administrators have access, and they are well-known as information brokers. Same goes for that tablet they gave you. So if you want your mineral reserves to be a secret, don’t use the ship to find them.”

“Um, why are you telling me all this?”

His tentacles shrugged. “I don’t have to ‘tell you,’ but this is all Congressionally required disclosures, just, with my own personal bias thrown in. And I like ya. At very least, I want ya to set off on a fair foot. Er, as fair as I can.”

He reached over with one long tentacle and poked her tablet. “That’s got all the legalese translated into all 98 of Earth’s identified languages. They already opened it to the English version, just swipe that, yeah, you got it. It’s also got a relay node to the gates, as long as a gate is active within fifteen million kilometers (that’s about 1/10th the distance from this planet to your central star) you should have access to our information network. Most prefer to spread their gates and other relays around their system so they can always have access. Again, the Administrators will be able to see your browsing and scan history and sell it to any interested party, or use your communications through their system as justification to restrict the gates. That detail is in 6223.Hal.85. That is, article six thousand two hundred twenty-three, section Halefricle, Subsection eighty-five. A lot of governments use a ‘drown you in details’ approach to hiding info without violating the disclosure requirements.”

He wrung his tentacles together. “What else? Oh, right. Never sign or officially agree to anything you don’t understand. Like these gates, you agreed to that way too easily. Probably your best option, but you should have asked for more info first. These gates, as you can see, give you a lot of opportunity, but they also come with a lot of strings attached. And just because a lawyer tells you you have to sign something, it’s not true. In fact, that should be a big yellow flag to stop and check out the details again, they are probably trying to slip something through. Those lawyers aren’t on your side, they will lie as much as they legally can to get you to do something that benefits their client.”

He floated back up, turning to look at her with one eye-like structure. “If ya don’t mind, I’d like to keep talking, but for legal reasons, we should do it while I’m off the clock. Wanna go get lunch, not in a professional capacity?”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“As the Technician assigned to Sol, you have some authority over me, Your Majesty. But if I clock out, and we go to lunch as friends, you can’t order me to do anything until I clock back in. All kinds of legal reasons, but mainly, I’d like to just be equals for a bit, no work obligations hanging over my head while I take you shopping.”

Her big eyes lit up with a green reflection, “Shopping?! I’ve never been shopping before!”

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