Prologue: Clarion

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Year: 3013 CE
Location: Clarion Mining Colony, Arc-Epsilon Planetoid

Galaxy: Caldwell 57 (NGC 6822; Barnard's Galaxy)
Distance from Earth: approximately 1.6 million light years
Population: 2935

"Hey Jared -" Adel leaned over in the driver's seat, but kept his eyes ahead "- tell 'em about your internship with the monkeys." Adel wouldn't admit it, but he enjoyed these rides to work.

The treaded mining vehicle shook and rumbled as it climbed towards the survey site. Adel's crew didn't react to the jostling; they were used to it, and spent the trip in boisterous conversation.

The pilot area of the vehicle was joined to a more spacious rear compartment that served as a mobile operations room. It was stocked with survey and mining equipment for the team, rations, medical tools, and other supplies. Four crew occupied the six seats in the back: Jared, Piotr, Ayvan, and Caydman. They chattered noisily, raising their voices above the thumps and vibrations. Adel and his co-pilot Jamal kept their eyes on the path ahead.

"Internship with the monkeys?" Piotr's interest was piqued.

"Yeah," Jared started, "when I was at the academy."

"You went to the academy?"

"Don't act so surprised."

Piotr had a puzzled expression. "So then what are you doing in this shit-hole?"

Caydman laughed. "Yeah Jared, tell 'em why you're here."

Piotr looked expectantly at Jared. "Well?"

Jared sighed. "My girlfriend. A mining tech. She was placed here."

"I hope it was worth it," Piotr said.

"We broke up."

Caydman laughed again.

Adel's calloused fingers gripped the hand controls. The laser terrain scan suggested this was the safest route, but it was proving to be extremely rough travelling. They hit a large bump, and Adel bounced an inch off his seat. The vehicle continued rolling forward.

In the rearview display, the colony disappeared into the distance at the base of the mountain. The installation was a tangle of straight metal tunnels, tubular silos, and blocky buildings welded together without any thought given to aesthetics. From this vantage point high in the mountains, Adel could see the complex in its entirety. It looked like a circuitboard, spreading across the rocks below.

"The monkeys?" Ayvan prompted Jared.

"Right. So -" Jared became suddenly animated, talking with his hands "- the academy had this cross-species ambassador internship program going, part of a plan to improve relations with the Mangeroma."

"That's funny already," Piotr said. "Good luck getting along with those assholes".

"Well," Jared continued, "maybe it was worth a try. Anyway, they got me hooked up with a group in the Arietis region. So I was living as part of the ape's tribe. It was goin' great 'til I found out they were gonna be holding a wedding ceremony while I was there."

There were some knowing chuckles, but Piotr had a confused expression. "What's wrong with their weddings?"

"I didn't know either. Asked my supervisor at the academy and she told me it was a 'great bonding opportunity'. No one in the program'd been to an ape wedding yet, so I was 'breaking new ground'. I had some doubts, but she made it clear I didn't have a choice about it."

"So what happened?"

"Long story short, their 'wedding' is more or less a group mating ritual."

Piotr joined the others laughing. "No shit?"

"Yeah, it's a way to expand the tribes gene pool while keeping the same tribal structure. It works like this: basically, two tribes get together for a wedding. Then the females can propose to any of the males, including males from the other tribe. But any male that's proposed to can be challenged by any other male. After the challenge the female has the option of changing her proposal: picking a new mate or cancelling the proposal."

Piotr nodded slowly. "So how'd it go?"

"It was fucked up." Jared laughed. "So they hold the weddings in an arena. It's got different areas for the challenges, like ropes, a track, a combat pit. Basically like some kind of monkey Olympics. And they've a bunch of weapon racks set up. It's crowded and noisy as shit with all the tribal monkey music. All the apes are doing different drugs, too."

"I gotta admit, " Piotr interjected, smiling, "it sounds kinda fun."

"Did I mention the smell? Anyway, I was just starting to think that maybe I would get through it okay when the most fucked up thing happened."

"What?" Ayvan leaned forward.

"One of the apes proposed to me."

The crew burst out laughing.

"I'm really freaking out now," Jared continued, "cause I know I don't have a choice. Males can't turn down a proposal. So I'm flipping out, wonderin' what I'm gonna do, realizin' I might get kicked out of the academy for bailin' on my ape marriage, when I get grabbed from behind. I turn around and look down to see this other ape standing there, growling up at me. He must've been four feet tall -tops- and this little fucker challenges me to combat with blunt weapons."

Laughter erupted from the crew.

"So now I've got a choice to make. Either I'm getting married to an ape, or I'm letting this other monkey beat my ass with a stick."

"Sounds like an easy choice to me," Ayvan observed.

"You would say that, " Caydman leapt into the conversation. "Isn't that how you met your wife?"

"Fuck off," Ayvan shot back through the laughter of the rest of the crew.

The vehicle came to an abrupt stop, jolting the crew forward in their seats.

"Everything alright up there?" Piotr asked Adel and Jamal in the front cabin. He was met with silence. "Guys?" Piotr unbuckled and popped out of his seat. He stepped forward and peered into the piloting area. The others followed his lead. With heads poking into the pilot chamber, they could see Clarion's skyline through the viewscreen. Adel and Jamal were seated in stunned silence, transfixed by what they saw.

Above the jagged peaks of Clarion, the sky was filled with an armada of cross-shaped vessels. The starships descended slowly from above, coming to a hovering stop over the mining colony at the base of the mountains. The smallest were barely visible sparkles of light in the distance; the largest stretched at least a kilometer across, skyscrapers hanging in the air. Their outer hulls were ornately designed and tinted shades of gold and shining silver. Halos of light followed the vessels, a by-product of the plasma thrusters that kept them hovering above. The once dark mountains now lit up with a dance of unnatural light. The ships hung like glittering jewelry on invisible necklaces, draped against the starscape. Time stood still as the crew took in the sight.

"Oh no," managed Adel.

"Are those attack ships?" Piotr wondered aloud.

As if in response, the invading fleet opened fire. Adel's crew watched helplessly from their distant perch on the mountains. Flash after flash lit the sky as weaponized energy beams fired on the colony buildings below. The surface bubbled with expanding orbs of brilliant white plasma. The spheres dissipated, leaving an unrecognizable landscape of craters. The colony was gone. A cloud of ash hung in the air, settling slowly to the lifeless ground below.

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