Launch Day

Arrival

Oberon, Chat Noir, Fissure Gate. AF 11, 21st of November Earth Time(UTC).

Every Pandora Gate in the Sol system has a unique environment, near the Martian gate everything is stark and corporate, straight lines and symmetry in all directions. The Vulcanoid gate, despite what Terragen would have you think, is much the same except that they splurged to let someone have a can of paint. The surroundings of the Titan gate are like a university campus, with all the good and bad that implies. Approaching the Fissure Gate feels like walking through a high-tech shantytown with excellent food, and being near the Discord gate generally involves a sense of mortal dread that a security Reaper or Ultimate mercenary will gun you down for farting in the wrong direction.

But once you're at the Gate itself, every setup is similar: Tight security and high-strung nerves. Babbling Titanian scientists, socialist Anarchists, partying Scum and tough-as-nails Ultimates all have a healthy respect for the Pandora Gates which, if operated improperly, have killed humans in just about every way imaginable, but usually very quickly and extremely painfully. Crushing, freezing, cutting, disintegrating, incinerating, melting, vomiting them out on worlds that do rude things to their morphs, locking them from returning to safe worlds and so much more. Generally the only thing that varies in close proximity to the gate are the logos on the guns and security turrets, and what the Gatecrashers look like.

Gatecrashers do not necessarily have as much respect for Pandora Gates as the people who work with them, if they did, they'd never go near the damn things. Instead, from the Placeholder Meme, the departure lounge overlooking the Fissure Gate, it's possible to see a dozen Scum go through the gate dabbing furiously, one of them still holding the pose when, ten hours later, they're spat out, still-smoking, from the same gate. The next day they're back at it again, resleeved and arguing about what went wrong.

The Placeholder Meme was founded by an Extropian expatriate after winning a coin toss against the Love & Rage Collective, and no one's quite sure if the lounge's name is intended as a sarcastic dig at Anarchist/Scum culture, or just the closest that a soulless Extropian can get to understanding it. It's generally agreed, however, that there's nowhere better on Oberon to get absoutely shitfaced on everything from Titanian microbrews or Scum narcalgorithms to hard Jovian stuff that you'd think would kill a Flat dead in seconds, which is usually a necessity for first-time(or even veteran) Gatecrashers as Pandora Gates tend to inspire a certain sense of dread.

Whether busy getting shitfaced, doing last-minute gear checks or telling bullshit stories to some of the other Crashers in line, our protagonists are somewhere in the vicinity of the Fissure Gate when the AGI announcer calls out. "Gate Transit 415 to Splinter, buckle up! Departure in twenty and counting!" It's time to settle the tab, finish the stories and hope they've packed enough socks, because even for Anarchists, gate time is precious and rationed.

Vicinity of the Fissure Gate

The gate itself is clearly of non-human construction, resembling nothing so much as a confusing, fractal thicket of metal vines forming a rough dome which, at one side, has an opening large enough to penetrate the thicket to its heart. When the gate is inactive, that's all it looks like, a strange art sculpture that tends to make the viewer a bit nervous. But the gate is active now, getting a lock, cycling through addresses and at the heart of the thicket there's a black sphere, not shiny or reflective, but absolute pitch black, like the heart of a singularity, somewhere even light doesn't escape from. Every member of the gate crew has cleared out now, operating the security systems(in case something comes out of the gate that shouldn't) and the gate controls remotely, a safe distance away from the reality-breaking bullshit of the Pandora Gate, probably behind several dozen feet of heavily reinforced steel.

The heart of the gate expands steadily from something the size of a softball to something large enough for several people to walk through side by side. For a moment there's a feeling like it might not stop expanding, that it'll keep going until it consumes all of Oberon, but it halts, as expected, as predicted. This time. The surface ripples with regular expansions and contractions, like a heartbeat, for several seconds, and then the call is out across the mesh: "Gate's stable, destination's locked and confirmed. All yours, Crashers." And there's nothing to do but go through with it or turn around and run.

Inside the Gate

There are as many descriptions of gate travel as there are gatecrashers. From nothing, through dream-like states that last for subjective weeks, divine experiences, terrifying nightmares, horrifying or ecstatic physical sensations. Even descriptions similar to near-death experiences. And that's when things go right.

Probably every member of the crew is wondering which one they'll get as they step towards the gate and let their first digit, or entire limb enter the black heart of it, feeling the soft tug pulling them deeper into the gate which intensifies as they transfer more and more of themselves past the horizon. For a second it's like that moment at the top of a rollercoaster, entirely unsupported, or when you forget about the last step of a staircase and are teetering on empty air, and then their feet(or analogous extremity) find solid ground. Soil crunches overfoot, sunlight briefly blinds before eyes adjust and suit visors compensate for glare.

Splinter

Suit and morph sensors run quick analyses on the local atmosphere… lots of something like pollen, but breathable, though a higher oxygen content than Earth's atmosphere.

Probably most of the team isn't paying any attention to this as they take in the view, though. They've arrived in a bowl-shaped depression of bare, reddish soil with the Pandora Gate behind them, the singularity at its core slowly shrinking as the connection is cut from the Sol side. Above there's a clear blue sky, with a few snippets of white clouds and a large sun, looming four times as big in the sky as Earth's, but of a distinctly more reddish hue. At the edges of the depression are a few small cairns of bleached stone and beyond that dense vegetation, dark-green. None of it's taller than a half dozen meters at a glance, but it's everywhere, with the occasional bright-white flower or pod, standing out like pimples.

There's clearly fauna as well as flora, at the instant they arrived, the nearby vegetation rustled, clearly signalling that some skittish, local lifeforms got startled by their presence and bolted.

Now that they've taken in the nearest sights, they've properly arrived on Splinter. It's theirs unless it happens to be the first Exoplanet with local, sapient life that wants to contest their claim, or unless they all die horribly thanks to local hazards.

What's first?

Arianhod.

She steps out of the GEV's driver's seat. "WOOO! Fraggin' awesome! 5 minutes, 37 seconds, not dead yet, doing better than a lot of other colonies." She checks her vacsuit's readings. "Uh, let's move this out of the pit and launch that mapping missile."

Liz

"Acknowledged." The AGI's voice was a wintery contralto as she booted up the survey payload and generated the flight plan and scanning schematic. The others milled about behind her, fidgeting in their seats and sleeves as they shook off the gate transit.

Reaching out across the suddenly smaller mesh, she flipped the mental switch that initiated the launch procedures. The GEV's modified payload delivery system (in essence someone welded the launch apparatus to the top with some aftermarket hydraulics and scavenged parts) wheezed to life, whining against the GEV's hull. Finally though after one labored squeal, it reached proper firing position.

"Armature locked. Firing in three. Two. One. Launch."

And the rocket shot skyward, lashing out with topopgraphical sensors, radar and all things emissive radiation.

Thanat

With the missile busy mapping ahead and far, Thanat pushes his morph's thrusters to their maximum to float above the GEV and out the crater surrounding the gate. All that to get a more human and ground-level 360┬░ view of their immediate area.

"Let's see if we even make it to the ten minutes mark, yeah?"
"Did all our gear even pass through the gate intact?"

Local Time: 6 Minutes, 38 Seconds

After a couple of seconds, the smoke from the missile's launch has cleared enough that they can see their immediate surroundings again. The missile is designed to hit low orbit and transmit data from there, so it'll be a bit before it starts hitting their mesh with anything interesting, definitely not until it leaves the planet's atmosphere. Meanwhile, Thanat confirms that none of their gear has gone missing(and nor have any of they, horror stories of "body-swapping" and "changelings" are common in Gatecrashing circles, even though everyone only knows a friend of a friend who got put through it. Never a primary story.).

Between the launch and their arrival, the local wildlife had apparently been stunned temporarily into silence, but is slowly ramping up to full noisiness again. It's a mixture of frog-like croaking and hissing, nothing similar to terrestrial birdsong. In fact, the sky seems surprisingly clear of any flying animals. Perhaps Splinter has no flying wildlife at all, or maybe it's just a bad place for spotting any.

The local area appears to be entirely dense foliage in all directions, though it seems lighter to the… currently the party has no mapping references, but automated software assigns the direction with the smallest vegetation density as Northwest. Among the vegetation, Thanat can see what he at first assumes to be large, smooth boulders, until he realizes that they're moving, nudging the vegetation aside as they go. Most of whatever the things are, however, is still below the treetops from his vantage point.

They're getting strange readings from the mapping missile, however. While it's still clearly visible(albeit far above them), it's reporting that it has reached sufficient altitude for stable orbit(though it's obviously still in the atmosphere) and will be deploying sensors now. Its hull cracks as it transforms from an ungainly cylinder into a beautiful assemblage of sensors never designed to function in atmosphere and starts transmitting mapping data to the party's mesh. It provides a full 360-degree scan and is preparing for the second sweep when something comes hurtling over the horizon from the southwest. It's an angry fireball that impacts the mapping missile before it can perform its second sweep, pulverizing it.

On the bright side, as smoking chunks of satellite clunk off the GEV's roof or embed themselves in the sandy ground around it, the team managed to receive one full low-altitude scan before their missile got blown out of the sky.

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To the northwest and southwest, the terrain becomes something more savannah-like, tall grasses and the occasional tree-analogue. To the northwest in particular, there's an arrangement of large, black boulders in the middle of the savannah that may or may not be artificial.

To the southeast, there's a large body of water, possibly a sea or a lake, either is possible. The most stand-out thing about the shoreline is east-northeast, an expanse of gray and white along the coast that stands out among the otherwise-verdant surroundings.

To the northeast, a mountain range. Somewhere in the middle of it, the mapping missile's sweep caught the glint of a reflective surface.

Additionally, threading its way across the mapping missile's image is an almost geometrically straight line suffering multiple 45-degree bends. Either it's an extremely orderly dry river bed, or it's an artificial construct, like a road or wall.

Arianhod

Even after all these centuries, English remains the prefered language for cursing.

"FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK"

She pouts as the existence of some kind of anti-air system on the planet makes itself evident. "Someone take a deep scan of that footage, I want a close look at what shot our bird out of the sky. We are not alone out here. We should probably wall off and secure the gate before proceeding. I'm going to suggest this…spot next to the shore, by the river. We want to consider if we want to cut a road or just fly the GEV there. Fuel use would be an issue for the latter solution, time for the former."

(Arianhod wants to go to the star to the northeast on the coast after locking down the gate area, and also scans the air for breath ability and safety with the Pocket Lab.)

Thanat

"So much for being first in…"

"Let's hole up. Whatever shot down the missile will know where it came from, and will come here to investigate. We can't just abandon the gate, they'd cut us off from Sol."

Thanat will help set up defense, dig moats, build walls, whatever, and checks out the dwarf bot and equipment for all of that. "Maybe we should've brought some turrets with us."

Liz

"Distressing." Liz intoned. Spinning up her drone rig, she quietly unpacked her Gnat reconissance drone- one of the least expensive pieces of equipment they had on hand. It took a few moments to fully settle into the jamming mindset, but once she was ready, it was just as intuitive as riding her own sleeves. Sketching out a few playful loops around the GEV, she ordered the little rotorbot to take a slow, widening spiral search pattern out from the gate itself.

"Visual and audio-sweep only." She declared with a mental frown. "Active sensors may have attracted whatever shot the mapping missle down."

While the others were preparing their defenses, Liz hummed out loud. "Why didn't the… attackers fortify the gate entrance? They could have simply taken us once we completed the transition…"

The gnat continued it's slow spiral, flickering over the immediate gate surroundings and GEV before gradually sweeping out wider.

Thanat

"Could be aliens that died eons ago, and we're left dealing with leftover automated garbage. Or the gate is recent? For all we know, they spread on their own like some kind of virus."

Lahmia

Lahmia has been quiet up until now. It was very exciting getting up to and through the Gate but now reality is setting in hard, especially with bits and pieces of the map missile raining down. There's time for second thoughts later, for now is work time and this is an important job.

She presses a button on the nanite hive next to her, beginning the process of fabricating thousands of nanomachines. It was an unceremonious process. The squat, cylindrical machine beeped and hummed to life in response.

"I shall examine what the eye has seen," Lahmia pulls up the images from the map missile and starts tagging every little point of interest. The mounds, the things, some stuff, the trajectory of whatever hit missile and some debris. She adds in potential places for nanite hive placements and some notes about the vegetation she can see from the GEV's cameras.

Liz

Splitting off a thread of her awareness, Liz quietly and unobtrusively added herself to Lahmia's feed and analysis of the mapping rocket telemetry. A gentle ping against Lahmia's muse for a visual representation link resulted in a tiny window gracefully fading into the other woman's awareness. The still portrait of the infomorph security expert matched her cool voice as well. "Allow me to assist you. Beginning image capture and telemetry analysis."

Local Time: 15 Minutes, 42 Seconds

Arianhod's pocket lab confirms that non-modified humans should be able to breathe the air easily, though the high oxygen content might cause some degree of giddiness and excitability over time. The pollen content should, at worst, make someone feel like a pollen-heavy Earth summer, i.e. congested and mucousy. It provides a 99%-sure estimate that none of the pollen detected so far will cause a catastrophic allergic reaction in anyone or colonize their airways with alien flora that eventually rips its way out of their ribcage in an explosion of colourful flowers and shards of bone.

Meanwhile the Dwarf unpacks itself to prepare for Thanat's construction requests. The name is a bit of misnomer as it's similar to someone's idea of a vaguely anthropomorphic piece of earthmoving equipment. It unfolds, walks in a small circle to test its actuators, stretches and twists every motor to confirm that everything has survived transit in one piece and then surveys what it has to work with. After a few seconds of confusion, its low-level ALI classifies the local vegetation as birch trees for some reason and it gets back to Thanat via a short-range Mesh communication, asking how he wants the local area fortified. It suggests, based on initial surveys of the local soil taken while stomping on it, an earthern berm-and-moat combination, or a palisade made from the local vegetation. Thanat senses that the ALI, simple as it is, enjoys using unusual words like "berm" and "palisade" as a way to show off its extremely specific expert knowledge.

Liz's gnat gives an obedient little chime as it finishes unpacking and takes to the skies. As it's passing close over one of the large "boulders," she identifies them as something like a large mollusc or snail, below a shell big enough to hold a half dozen Reaper morphs, making slow progress through the jungle vegetation. It dodges around several swarms of small invertebrate fliers, but spots nothing larger than a standard transhuman thumb which haunts the skies. Generally the jungles seem to thrive with life, but there are no immediate signs of anything technological, not even at the stone age level.

Watching the data threads from the mapping missile, Lahmia(assisted by some of Liz's spare processing power) immediately spots something unusual and, cross-referencing with the feedback from the very basic decision-making software on the expendable missile, she starts getting some answers. Apparently the missile was intended to rely on three data points to identify when it was time to unpack for outside-atmosphere mode: atmospheric density, dead reckoning and gravitational pull. On an unknown planet, dead reckoning was disabled as it had no expectations on exactly when it would be free of the atmosphere and gravitational pull. Thus leaving atmo density and gravity sensors. About half as high up as would be expected of a world with gravity very similar to Earth's, gravity's grasp suddenly dropped off remarkably, well before the atmospheric density did. Running a few basic threads, the software concluded that the atmospheric sensors were being confused by a trapped pocket of atmospheric air inside its hull and decided to initiate deployment. It ended up deploying in an atmospheric region similar to Earth's troposphere, when it shouldn't have deployed before reaching the thermosphere.

There's also footage of what hit the mapping missile. At first glance, it just looks like a hypersonic fireball, but closer analysis through the mapping missile's senses suggests that it's a ball of metallic plasma with a still barely-solid or viscous liquid core, exactly the sort of thing that you'd expect from a hypervelocity railgun projectile inside an atmosphere, as the friction between the slug and the atmosphere, unable to move out of the way fast enough, heats the projectile to absurd temperatures. Liz and Lahmia are both passingly familiar enough with weapons to make this comparison. A while before impact, the missile also found itself being pinged by active radar roughly from the south.

Initial observations on the local flora via the GEV's sensors: The vegetation, at least in this region, looks a lot less rigid than most major Earth plants. Despite having sizes similar to Earth trees, there's no rigid bark, thus explaining the limited height of the trees as, over a certain size, they simply start to bend over, unable to support their own weight. Their fruiting bodies, if that's what they are, also rarely seem to grow directly on the boles and branches, instead being attached to long, narrow creepers at ground level. The ones immediately in sight are a pale white, almost blue at the tips, about the size of a small watermelon, with a dark black or brown core at the center, visible through their partially translucent sides. Most of the vegetation grows darker than on Earth, possibly to absorb more wavebands from the fainter, but closer, star.

Arianhod

Despite being, next to the dwarf, the closest thing approximating construction equipment the team has, Arianhod has no particular interest in manual labor at this point. Having determined the atmosphere would be mostly flat-friendly, she decides to bypass standard experimental safety protocol and use herself. One *HSST* later, her helmet comes off as she watches her medichine's readouts and records all their data for submission back through the gate. That done, she approaches the fruiting bodies carefully, scanning with both the pocket lab and also her nose and medical nanites. She jams a needle into one of the fruit and detects it. One of the foremost questions Transhumanity has when encountering the unknown, "Is it fermentable?"

(relevant ware: Biomods, enhanced respiration, medichines)

Thanat

"And there's clearly more complex life here too… But can we fuck it?"
"And more than once?"
He also wordlessly sets the dwarf to build a wide earthen berm-and-moat all around the gate, to be surmounted with a wooden palisade if the local flora proves amenable, letting the bot decide on exact dimensions. Something small enough to be done fast, maybe big enough to also use those walls to set up the workshop and prefabs behind? Though safety would be prioritized. Since the world is inhabitable and hostile, he also transmits future maybe projects of a keep and walls, with portcullises, machicolations, battlements with crenels, ├ęchauguettes, the whole works and fancy rare words.

Local Time: 32 Minutes, 42 Seconds

Arianhod fails to keel over and die twitching on the ground, and thus she gets to poking at the alien flora. The fruiting body is remarkably firm and leaks only a small amount of juice when she pokes at it. Looking over the feedback she's getting on its structure(or at least the flesh, the needle comes to a dead stop when it reaches the black/brown core, it's remarkably dense), she feels like its closest terrestrial analogue, based on composition and remarkable astringency(a flat taking a bite out of it would have tooth damage to rival a decades-long meth addiction), would be rhubarb. Despite this, it contains a decent amount of alien sugars, so while it might require a specialized or custom yeast strain, the answer is yes, it could probably be fermented. Whether anyone could drink the resulting liquid with a (trans)human digestive system and survive, on the other hand, remains an unanswered question.

The Dwarf obeys Thanat, stomping around the immediate area and scoping it out in detail. After a few minutes it informs him via mesh that it's going to clear-cut some of the nearby trees for building materials and also for space to build on as per his instructions. Switching through a multi-function tool limb, it has several false starts trying to attack one of the local tree-analogues(it keeps bending with the blow and being remarkably hard to do damage to), then throws a bunch of error messages and a maintenance request at Thanat when it finally succeeds. Apparently one of its chainsaw attachments has been gummed up by the sap of the "tree" which, upon exposure to air, has hardened into something akin to a natural rubber. While it swaps out attachments, it's requesting Thanat's permission to clear the nearest trees with acid sprayers and a welding torch instead.

Liz

"We have completed our analysis-" Liz declared from her current home on the GEV's ghostrider module. "Gravitic anomalies in addition to incidental error resulted in less than ideal deployment of the mapping missle."

"Additionally, we have noted several places of interest within several days travel from our current location." It would have been easy to assume Liz was speaking like a robot, but she was in fact speaking like a secretary. A very professional, somewhat frosty secretary. Exactly as one would expect a hypercorp AGI to behave perhaps. "I have uploaded the data and cross-references to our local mesh. Review at your leisure."

She was quiet for a moment, which for a computer intelligence was probably ages. "My recommendation, such that it is, is to stay mobile. There is a potentially defensive force in the local area from the south and southwest, along with radar sensor capabilities. Survey does not indicate if this force is technological, biological, or other."

"Regardless, we have an approximate window of two-plus hours to scout the local environs as Miss Bloodyteardrop's smart dust finishes deployment."

There was another pause as Liz carefully itemized both the gear they brought with them, and quietly organized their associated blueprint licenses into a shared reference file- she only looked at their registries. Hardly something worth getting worked up over. "Please examine the attached files before we proceed with our next action."

Thanat

"You don't have to be so formal and professional, you know. It's just us here, no meanie judgy humies. And everyone saw that flash drive labelled 'vile VR robot porn' fall off its hiding spot in the GEV. Might've been mine, though."

He lets his muse handle the data and spoonfeed him a summary. "So much for settling in easy. Pfff, it can't be a coincidence that this weird line connects the reflective surface, the black rocks and about where the radar ping and railgun shot came from, can it? I guess we'll have to remove a few squatters, or impress them with jewels and baubles. I can set the dwarf and autominer to dig underground and hide themselves and our stuff, or do we carry everything with us on the GEV?"

"And how stealthy are those little bugs and the nanobots? Even if we can't risk contacting them from too far, if we leave them here and they aren't found, we'll at least know if someone's waiting for us when we return to the gate."

Liz

"A professional has standards." It was possibly the first properly emotive display they had heard from the AGI. "To answer your question, my GNAT has chameleon skin, and I have declined to invoke its active sensors for the time being. The primary limitation is its communication range."

She quoted a few figures, converting to kilometers and meters as appropriate. "Therefore, either we move as a group to maintain reconnaissance coverage, or we split into smaller teams."

Arianhod

Hmm, file away for "When we get a permanent shop set up." she thinks. Once the report on the missle comes back, Arianhod adds her two cents/credits/minor favors, "We should find whoever or whatever did that and neutralize them as a threat, unless we want more rail slugs up our ass the second we clear the surface, or even if we stay put. ESPECIALLY if we stay put."

(Military ops at 65, if relevant)

Lahmia

"Abraxas, come forth," Lahmia makes a gesture with her hand, an arcane circle flashes before her hand (in AR). A small, boxy, four-legged automech clanks out from its charging dock, its chassis colored red and topped with tiny devil horns. It barks twice, displaying AR messages that its own diagnostics are green and it is ready for orders.

"Abraxas," Lahmia addresses a small boxy automech. It focuses its camera lens in response, "I want you to assist the dwarf in unjamming its chainsaw. Oh, and bring back a sample of the tree sap."

"Go forth, my minion!" she opens the door of the GEV, and Abraxas immediately leaps out, plummeting to the ground with a loud clonk. It picks itself up and scurries over to the Dwarf.

"To answer your question, Thanat, the nanobots will stay quiet until they see something, then will report through the mesh. Someone might know they were discovered, but not where we are."

(spycraft 30, if relevant)

Local Time: 44 Minutes, 12 Seconds

While the rest of the party considers their options, Abraxas starts helping the Dwarf unjam its chainsaw attachment. It takes several minutes, during which Abraxas gets itself somewhat gunked up as well, meaning that it waddles back to Lahmia with two legs stuck together and rather a large sample of the local tree sap. Meanwhile the Dwarf begins dismantling the nearby trees with an acid sprayer, seeming to take some degree of pleasure in retaliating against the foliage that gave it problems.

Additionally, Liz notices they seem to have attracted some attention. One of the nearest local molluscs, one with a body(excluding the shell) already about half as large as the GEV, is approaching the clearing with the Pandora Gate at a ponderous pace, likely to arrive within a few minutes. She also notices that rather than going around the trees, it simply sweeps right over them, and the trees spring back to their previous shape when it's passed, rather than snapping under its likely considerable weight.

From her knowledge of military railguns, assuming the defense system that took down the missile was one, Arianhod knows that ones intended for anti-air/orbit functions are rarely positioned in locations where they'd be good for surface bombardment(they tend to be in underground bunkers to harden them against first strike attacks and prevent the enemy from easily spotting them with air/space surveillance). Usually it would force them into awkward angles with very poor coverage or low impact speeds/remaining mass once the projectile hit. Usually the only ones that can effectively clear both functions are the ones that are mounted on mobile surface vehicles, or sea vessels, which usually aren't large enough to hit targets in orbit, but can effectively target both air and ground enemies. Judging by the size of the projectile(or the remainder of it), she would assume it was an anti-orbit launcher, based on human standards.

Thanat

"Time to go check out these mysterious hostiles? Looks like the GEV can drive over those trees easy, we won't need long detours."

"I think we should load back our stuff on the GEV, too. If the gate ends up swarming with baddies, we'll need to be able to support ourselves until Love & Hate contacts us again, and we can't afford to lose all that junk."

Arianhod

"Yep."

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