There is a common saying: "A nebula only looks good from the distance". And usually it is true. When you look at one through a telescope or when doing a spacewalk on a nightside they are gorgeous. But when you get closer they fade and become transparent, and when you are in the middle of one it just looks like the stars are a bit more reddish than usual. Even the Blackbody Nebula out in the Perseus Arm loses its drama when you get close to it. I should know, I have flown straight through it.
But there is one region of space where the saying isn't true, and that is the Orion Federation. Those nebulas still look magnificent close up - draperies of red and blue, streaks as dark as the galactic Nadir. And bright young stars everywhere, lighting up the gas and blowing it into piles, streamers or bubbles. The sky at Enremdea - on one side the Orion nebula, on the other the Cone Nebula and the Christmas Tree - is one of the most magnificent sights anywhere. Sure, you could interface a virtual and see it, but there is nothing like actually going through it at gamma ten or a hundred or as fast as you can possibly go. When you actually see the nebula move slowly, and you know you are going near lightspeed you get the real sense of the size of it.
There are some strange people in the nebulas there. Droid tribes and architectures descended from Metasoft defectors and Coggie radicals. Some kinds of tweaks have learned to live in the infrared globules, and the Rikendra 43 are more insects than humans. But that is like the rest of the Federation, filled with odd people and places. The Orion Federation is an odd place, and maybe it is because of their AI.
Any relativist captain worth his ship should have at least one unbelievable story, and I got mine a scant century back in the Federation. It was the time I hauled a cargo of gods.
It all looked like a fairly basic colony deal. Our company was approached by a local interfacer who wanted us to relocate two magnum cargo-cylinders to some planet on the outskirts of the Federation as a part of a colonisation project. The cylinders were apparently full of colonists and their equipment, cryonically frozen. I usually dislike taking one-way cargo, but the interfacer had some major economics behind it and the pay was very good - long-term terraforming bonds, Ferjik accesses and some clever mutual fund our shark AI thought was brilliant. Just the kind of safe big pay we like, unlikely to vanish like my father's savings did during the Version War. So we took the cylinders and started accelerating away from Enremdea.
As part of the deal we had to take a passenger. I'm used to have representatives from whatever corp is hiring us around. Most start out bossy, then get friendlier and finally quietly go mad. The rest-framers have a hard time standing true travel. But this one was different. He was the colony manager, according to himself. He had one of those unpronounceable outer Sophic tweak names, so we simply called him Nat and he didn't seem to mind. Nat was not that obviously tweaked, a bit of zero-grav adaptation, two extra arms and mirror skin, but that was nothing major. Most of the crew looked far stranger, and I run a nearly baseline ship. He probably had some cortical augmentation or even some cyber, but it was not visible. Still, even a few months out it was clear that Nat was very odd.
Nat was probably the friendliest, most pleasant passenger I had ever handled. He didn't complain, he didn't get visibly bored, he even listened attentively to our stories. He never interfaced the virch or tried quicktime. At first we thought his thing was some mood enhancer system or even an empath loop, but he didn't show the signs. When we asked him, Nat said 'Oh, it is just my nature'. He told us a few things about his old home in Trinenbyrg orbital, but he was always much more interested in us and the ship than telling us about himself and the colony. The colony, he said, was mainly to become a religious retreat for Trinenbyrg's Zonists, and he was just their mercemanager. He seemed to learn everything instantly, and when he apparently forgot something it was often as if he played he forgot it or tried to see our reactions. Once I had noticed it I began to notice that most of his questions were the same - he already knew how the drive worked, but he wanted to hear me tell about it. I'm fairly good at noticing things like that, and Bo the empath also reacted.
One shift he began to ask me questions about our forward scanning equipment and the impact shields. I was rather busy, so I tried to avoid his questions. So I demonstrated the scanning to him and let him play around with it. Suddenly Ship told me Nat had found a big one the scanning expert systems had missed - some iron chunk from the nebula, very dark and hidden against a dark cloud. Once spotted it was easy to blast it, but had Nat not stumbled onto it we might very well have hit. That was some eerie luck - if it was luck.
I had guessed he was a replicant, that would fit. I wasn't exactly thrilled. Sure, I'm no bigot but we have all heard the stories. It also made perfect sense: the colony venture wanted to ensure they were safely delivered, so they put a 100% trustworthy replicant agent on the ship. In the case we were dishonest and somehow thought we could weasel out of the contract and dump the colonist magnums into deepspace (yeah, right!) it could take action. Most likely it was really armed to the teeth. What worried us was the fact that we didn't know what other orders it had, like what to do with us after the trip. Some colonies are paranoid in the extreme and don't want anyone alive to know where they lie.
We had a little virtual powpow to figure out what to do, and as usual the Ship had the best idea. It suggested we try to put together some scanner and find out what kind of replicant we had on our hands (or in the case of Brug, tentacles). So we did a drive retuning to neutrinoscan Nat, and set up things so that he passed through the beam. My father taught me and Ship the trick when we were young on the Inferno. When we looked at the scan we saw nothing in Nat's head. Literally nothing - it was opaque to neutrinos. You know what that means, don't you? Godtech.
Nat was no ordinary replicant, that was for sure. Ship got real worried, and started to deal with Drive to weave a quark mesh to monitor Nat. Meanwhile Nat was acting as if nothing was going on, but I could tell he was amused.
I was in the middle of some pretty intimate business when Ship just downloaded what it had found out. It had never done anything like that before, and it felt like getting a small Kuiper into your head. I don't know if Ship or I was the most frightened. What I knew was that Nat had not just a godtech brain, but it was transmitting - to other brains in the cylinders. We were surrounded by at least a thousand high transapient cyborgs.
So what do you do in situations like that? Well, I rushed out, banged on Nat's cabin door and wondered loudly what the Paradigm he was up to. Not the most clever or diplomatic approach, I know, but I could always blame the stress that had built up over the weeks and Ships download. Nat got up, cheerful as ever. Ship was screaming warnings at me. Some memories get burned into your hippocampus forever: I was standing defenceless in a corridor with something that was likely a god and all I could think was that he had ridiculous pyjamas. Some kind of starmap with cute animated bioids clinging to the constellations.
The good thing about gods is that they apparently don't mind getting yelled at in the middle of the nightshift. I'm certain I would have hit somebody who did the same with me, but Nat just smiled and looked innocent. 'Oh, you seem to have found out' he said in the same tone as someone who have been caught smuggling a kilo baggage extra. 'Why don't we discuss it over a glass of whiskee?'
So there I was, drinking whiskee with what was at least a hyperturing replicant and quite likely something far more. One of my most memorable drinks, that was certain. Nat still behaved like he used to, but now it was much clearer that he was definitely not human or even bioid. I couldn't get out of my head the scan showing streams of warp bubbles between the officially frozen colonists and Nat's brain - and maybe beyond.
'Well?' was all I could manage to say to start the dialogue.
'I guess I owe you an explanation.'
'Like what you are.'
'Well, my real name is Orion'
I just looked at the god. I have of course met quite a few big Ais in my career. I have even seen the God-Emperor on Tiphareth from afar when I visited during the Founding Festival. And there were Enremdean symbionts at the spaceport. But the feeling of sitting right across the small polymex table from one of the Imperial Gods was definitely unsettling. What do you do? Fall down and worship the man in the animated pyjamas? Ask for an authograph or a solar system? Just ask questions like a robot?
'What does a god need a spaceship for?'
'To travel, of course. Do you really think it would be cost-effective to build my own ship? As the Assembly always complains, I am a thrifty god.'
His good cheer was starting to soften me up. 'You could have hired the Casi clan, they're cheaper with their fleet of rustbuckets.'
'Sure, I am thrifty, but I want some quality. And the food is better here.' You heard it. Even the gods acknowledge that Ship can cook!
'So what is the deal with the colonists? Is the Federation in so much trouble that you decided to sneak away with the federal treasury?'
The god laughed with me. I guess it is obvious now afterwards that either there was something in that drink or it just modified my brain, but right then I didn't notice any discomfort of joking with a transcendent superintelligence. Meanwhile Ship and the crew were biting their nails while listening in.
'My go-between was entirely honest, captain. It is a colony expedition. Three thousand symbionts are migrating to the colony to set up a new life. The deal is completely legit, it was just that it didn't tell you that they had interfaces or that I happened to be a bit non-human.'
A bit non-human. Still, it did understand us bioids fairly well. Orion suggested that having Nat around would just freak everybody out, so the best thing would be to freeze him too for the rest of the trip. Even if I had just spent a few minutes joking with it I definitely knew this was a good idea - having the god around the next seven months would be a rather difficult experience. So I went with Nat to the sealed magnums and he let me in. Inside there was a standard cryonic honeycomb with frozen symbionts. They didn't look much different from frozen mortals, but I guess their implants worked perfectly despite the cold. Nobody home but god. I monitored the autosuspension of Nat, and quickly left.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. It almost felt a bit lucky carrying this cargo of frozen godlings - would Orion let anything happen to us when we were carrying its symbionts? Of course that was rubbish, but it felt good.
When we deacced into the system we found it a dull sight. A measly K star with a few rocky planets. A marginally habitable brownish martian world, that was all. But Orion probably had its reasons. Nat got up, checked the data and assured us everything was all right - he seemed as happy as always, and from his exclamations the system was as wonderful as Eden or Newest Earth. We should just drop off the magnums in orbit around the martian and then we were finished. He gave us the cryptokeys for the remaining payments and went to board magnum one.
Just before he left I asked him: 'You never answered my question last time. Why do you do this?'
Orion smiled. 'Have you ever heard the old saying "never put all your eggs in the same basket"? I'm following it here. Whatever may happen in the Federation I will have some part of me around here.'
Guess it makes sense, I have heard that Orion uses the brainpower and experience of symbionts much more than the other gods do. But I wonder what things might worry a god to the extent that it starts thinking of making backups.
'So you have sent out more colonies?'
'I can't tell you that. Make a guess.'
'You're going to find it rather dry and windy down there.'
'We'll come up with something. Or just change it'. He entered the airlock and began keying in the code. 'Au revoir!'
I had to ask Ship to translate it. Apparently it means 'see you' in some dead Earth language. We left just a few hours later; the magnums still in orbit above the brownish planet. We never saw what they did on the planet. I never noticed any terraforming equipment or anything when I was in the magnums, so maybe they just stayed frozen in orbit. Or they unleashed some unimaginable tech once we were away and turned the planet to paradise. We got back to Enremdea, got a wormhole deal and set off to link Suomi II to the Federation nexus. But I could have sworn I saw one of the symbionts at the spaceport smile and wink at me just like Nat before going back to its official face.
Do you believe me? I'm certain you don't, gods just don't do that sort of thing, do they? So you would demand proof. I can show you the cargo manifests and Enremdea paperwork for taking the colonist cargo, but that doesn't prove much. I can also tell you the name and position of the system we went to. But there is nothing there. The real punchline of the story is that the system doesn't exist and apparently has never existed. Once we got back to civilisation we tried to check it out in catalogues, and found there was no trace of it. There were no K stars in that vicinity, no systems matching the description in any of the local surveys. I'm still not certain how Orion did that trick. A theologist once suggested that it had just altered our memories of the coordinates and name, but I don't know. Maybe it just moved the ship, or the star.
I guess you have to go the Federation and ask Orion itself. Another reason to go there, besides the nebulae.