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Forging Ahead (GURPS Interstellar Wars/Celestial Forge)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by cliffc999, Nov 12, 2022.

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  1. Threadmarks: Introduction
    cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    One world. One world set against an empire of thousands. One lone world set against trillions of Human and alien beings who do not share our history, any of our cultures, or any of our values. Victory seems impossible. Perhaps the best we can expect is survival. Yet to achieve even that, we must be... one world.

    – Kanshi Bannerjee, first Secretary-General of the Terran Confederation (2124)


    I stared at the large, burnished plaque hanging on the waiting room wall in the testing center, emblazoned with the most famous from Secretary-General Bannerjee's speech on the founding of the Terran Confederation, the one that every Terran schoolchild had already heard repeatedly. Ever since the Confederation had passed the Foundational Education Laws decades ago, it had been impossible to become an accredited school anywhere in Terran space without meeting strict requirements for curriculum. Every school had to offer education in at least one language in addition to their students' native tongue, immersion in Confederation history and human-rights principles, and exposure to at least several other foreign cultures. The social engineering aimed at instilling a globalist/Confederationist outlook in future generations, not a nationalist one, was unsubtle enough that even an idiot couldn't miss it.

    Then again, when your home planet had gone straight from the global environmental and economic collapse of the 21st century into making first contact with the Vilani Imperium less than a decade after the invention of FTL drive at the dawn of the 22nd century, and then only barely survived three wars with said interstellar empire despite being so massively outnumbered that some Terran military strategists still weren't certain how we'd survived, that same idiot could also figure out why the United Nations took the step from multinational alliance and coordination center into a true world government by rewriting its charter and becoming the Terran Confederation. And why so much social and political effort was expended on ensuring that neither Earth nor her daughter colonies ever fell back into the old nationalist and ethnic hatreds that had produced the Collapse in the first place. Terran humanity had barely survived its own mistakes even before we'd ever met the Vilani. If we fell back into those old patterns when they were still out there on the frontier waiting for an opportunity, an inevitable conquest would be the best we could hope for.

    Because it's not as if they'd find us impossible to assimilate into their culture so thoroughly that we'd eventually forget our own. The Vilani, for all that they were extraterrestrials, still weren't aliens. They were as human as we were, with only minor variations. But since as near as anyone could figure they'd apparently been taken off of prehistoric Earth by some mysterious bunch of aliens who weren't around anymore and resettled on a planet almost 200 parsecs away, minor variations over that many millenia of genetic drift were only to be expected. As well as an entirely different society, culture, language, etc, etc.

    So in the face of that kind of threat, and despite the misgivings of many, Terra had chosen to trade a portion of its freedoms in return for assured security and so things continued to this day. Oh, it wasn't a dictatorship, like the Communist regime that had ruled my country back in the Cold War era. Confederation citizens had freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and voted for elected officials who represented them among their national governments. Many nations - including my own, Poland - also allowed their General Assembly delegates to be chosen by popular election, even if some still had their own national governments appoint them. And the only requirements to vote were be of legal age and not certified mentally incompetent or serving a prison sentence. Likewise, the strict requirements of Confederation humans-rights law meant that it was almost impossible for any nation-state to run an old-fashioned kleptocracy or dictatorship without falling substantially short of at least one of the minimum provisos, even if politics was still full of politicians - with all that implied.

    Of course, that didn't change the part where in order to avoid a prison sentence, citizens had to avoid breaking the law. And right now one law in particular was very much on my mind - the one that mandated at least four years of government service for every citizen not suffering catastrophic physical or mental disability, as soon as they hit age 18 and graduated secondary education. The one that I was currently sitting in a Public Service Bureau office along with many of my classmates waiting for the next round of comprehensive aptitude testing for, so the PSB's computers and planners could determine where our particular talents could be assigned to best serve the Confederation's needs. I'd already finished the medical and physical tests, and now it was time for the gut-cruncher; the Comprehensive Academic Testing cycle. Multiple exams spread out over several days, each one as tough as a semester final exam had been in school, and all of them taking in combination and computer-analyzed and correlated to profile exactly what the Confederation thought you'd be best for. Exams that were so infamously rigorous that secondary education didn't even bother having final exams for Senior Year - they just took your CAT scores straight from the PSB and used those.

    "Sophia?" a familiar voice broke into my ruminating.

    "Here!" I answered quickly, turning to face the entrance to the testing rooms as I stood up and grabbed my datapad.

    "Relax." Madam Sokolowska - my homeroom teacher - assured me. It was cheaper for the PSB to just use a school's own teachers as assistant exam proctors during the annual surge of graduating secondary-ed students, supervised of course by the permanent testing center staff - smiled at me. "I've been taking my students here for nine years, and with only two exceptions I've brought them all back safely. Officially." she trailed off impishly.

    I rolled my eyes at the obvious joke, but acknowledged that it had at least done a little bit to take the edge off my nervousness. Normally a clerical job this routine would have been done largely by automation and an interactive computer agent, the labor situation being what it was, but the PSB apparently thought that having the 'human touch' for all its exam proctors would help keep the test scores of entire generations would tank due to nerves. Either that, or they wanted humans backing up the automated systems when it came to anti-cheating measures, given how important the CAT was to every citizen's future.

    "Officially!" I tried to joke back, as I handed her my datapad and my personal com for safe storage - personal electronics of any kind were not allowed in the testing room - and followed her and the PSB proctor into the back. A quick check of my ID card and retina by the PSB computer, a sworn statement from Madam Sokolowska that yes, this person actually was her student Sophia Nowak from the Pulaski Secondary Education Center, a step through the scanning arch to ensure I wasn't trying to smuggle any electronic help in, and Madam Sokolowska went back to the waiting room to set up the next student while the PSB proctor showed shown to the little one-person cubicle that I would be working in for the next couple of days. Pausing only to start the tutorial for me, he then closed the door behind him and went back to the waiting room to help check in the next student.

    "Sophia Nowak, welcome to the Comprehensive Academic Testing cycle. Please present your retina scan for verification." a smoothly-synthesized voice spoke from the terminal. Two ID checks, one done by humans and another at the testing terminal itself by the automation? I wondered how many times someone had tried to sneak in a 'ringer' to take the test for them that the PSB would go to these kinds of lengths as I leaned over and stuck my face up against the eyepiece mounted to one side of the terminal. After a moment, it beeped and the light turned green.

    "ID confirmed. The date is May 15th, 2166, and you are in Public Service Bureau office Number Two for Plock, Poland. The time is 0749 hours." the computer spoke. While true AI was still only a dream for science-fiction writers, they'd started figuring out how to make natural-language voice interaction software for computers even before the Collapse. Names like 'Siri' and 'Alexa' flitted vaguely through my memory from history class, although the voice interaction today was much more sophisticated than those crude efforts. Unless you were a cybernetics specialist - or dealing with a Vilani computer, given their entirely different design philosophy towards user interfaces - you didn't need to know the first thing about programming syntax or software interactions to use a computer for any everyday purpose, you just needed the ability to talk.

    "You will have a total of sixteen hours to complete all of the CAT exams, in two eight-hour shifts spread out over the next two days. An hour will be provided for lunch. You may work at your own pace and spend as much time as you like on any question or any section of the test, but you are cautioned that there will be no credit given for incomplete work. It is recommended that students pace themselves accordingly, and that if you are stuck on a particular question you move on and answer all questions that you can readily solve, then go back and continue to work on the remainder. The testing software will automatically bookmark all incompletely answered questions for you. The exams are designed to take a median of twelve hours to complete for a student of average ability, so you may rest assured that pausing for reasonable breaks will not threaten your score. Should you experience any service interruption with the testing terminal, the time lost will not count against your total time to complete the exam. Assistance may be sought from the exam proctors at any time by pressing the 'Help' button provided to the left of the terminal, but proctors may not provide assistance with answering exam questions. Do you have any questions, Miss Nowak?"

    "No questions right now, thank you." I answered politely.

    "Understood. Testing terminals will unlock and the examinations will begin in nine minutes, forty-four seconds." The terminal display switched from the PSB's official government logo over to a countdown display, and I sat back to wait.

    Nine minutes until I began the exams that would determine the rest of my life. Which government service I'd be selected for in the Draft, at least half of what would determined what degree of college education if any I'd be eligible for after I finished my public service - the other half being determined by my public service record, of course - all my opportunities and possibilities for the future, and it all came down to here. I'd had my eighteenth birthday earlier this February, but until I finished the CAT exams and began the first day of my Draft service I would not be a legal adult. The cusp between childhood and the rest of my life, and it all began here.

    And in my case it was particularly worrisome, because if I couldn't qualify for a full-ride scholarship somewhere then I would be stuck in bottom-rank vocational jobs for the rest of my life. Normally all it would take to get some kind of college, even if not a first-rank school, would be testing anywhere above "certified moron" and having the money to pay for tuition... but that was the problem. The money, that is.

    My family had only moved to the city of Plock when it had become the new capital of Poland in 2147. The Vilani attack on Terra during the Third Interstellar War - the one and only time they'd actually made it through the frontier defenses to get as far as Terran orbit itself before they thankfully had to withdraw - had not done anywhere near as much damage as you could hypothetically do to an inhabited world if your spacefleet had control of orbital space, but over a dozen cities had still been destroyed by Vilani orbital nukes before they'd pulled out and millions of Terran lives had been lost. My parents had only lived to have me at all because despite their both being from Warsaw they'd both been working outside the city at the time. Father had been a Terran Navy rating stationed on one of the orbital platforms - thankfully one of the ones that had survived the Vilani attack - and Mother had been working at the starport over fifteen kilometers outside the blast radius.

    But both of them had been from the city, and both of them had lost their families and everything they'd owned to the Vilani bombing. And my older brother Michal had died with our grandparents before I'd even been born, as they'd been baby-sitting.

    So even with Father's muster-out benefits and Mother's having a quite good job with Kaufmann AG, setting up an entire new married life for themselves elsewhere used up almost everything they had. Between that and the fact that my older brother's arrival and then mine meant Dad couldn't work full-time before... well, if left to our own devices and what my parents could scrape together for an educational trust then I could just about afford community college. That's why I wanted to ace this exam more than I'd ever wanted anything in my life.

    Which is why I had just a few butterflies in my stomach as the most important test of my life was about to start-

    User Selected: Nowak, Sophia Anna
    Celestial Forge v2 (Modified): Initialized


    I gaped incredulously at the glowing letters hanging directly in my field of vision. What the frick? Hologram tech wasn't this good, and the PSB wouldn't be paying for it in a routine testing center if it was and what was a 'Celestial Forge' anyway-?

    The Celestial Forge is a pan-cosmic augmentation system designed to allow users greatly enhanced capabilities for crafting, building, research, and discovery, including access to resources and knowledges not normally available in their native universes.

    I blinked at the 'native universes' bit and rapidly came to the conclusion that either someone was not only using some type of highly experimental hologram projector on me but was trying to gaslight me into thinking I'd slipped a gear somewhere, or else I actually had slipped a gear somewhere and had let exam stress push me straight into hallucinating off my nut.

    I sighed inwardly at realizing that 'hallucinating off my nut' was what had to be going on here. Greeeeeat. Well, at least I don't have to worry about passing the CAT or getting a good pick in the Draft anymore, because I'm going to spending the next few months in the neuro ward while they figure out if they make a pill to fix what's wrong here or if I'll just have to be certified officially loopy for the rest of my life. Despairingly, I reached out to push the 'Help' button and call the exam proctors to summon medical assistance-

    You are neither hallucinating nor insane, Sophia Nowak.

    I glared at the floating text, as I angrily thought that this is exactly what an insane hallucination would be telling me right now! Also, the fact that whatever this is is responding to my thoughts entirely rules out the holographic practical joker hypothesis, so-

    It would be rational to test your hypothesis before making an irrevocable life-changing decision, would it not?

    And how exactly do I do that, smart guy?

    The 'display' opened up in front of me to show a list of choices, complete with point values next to them. The format was that of a standardized computer display that I was already familiar with from a lifetime of use, so I thought about touching one of the line items and was unsurprised to see it expand into a context-box full of descriptive test. As I looked, the point values next to each one had a strikethrough put through them.

    Choose one perk to start with, at no cost. If nothing happens after you make a choice, then you know that this phenomenon is merely a hallucination.

    I looked quickly at the countdown clock. I had maybe five and a half minutes before the exam started, by which point I wanted this thing to either have finished proving its bona fides or conclusively demonstrated itself to be merely a figment of my imagination. So I started reading my way through the list as carefully yet quickly as I could. Because on the off chance this thing was real, I certainly didn't want to waste my first pick on something useless. Especially not when 'the first one is free' strongly implied that the next ones would have a cost, and I had no clue what the cost would be or how painful the process of earning the whatever currency you paid those costs in would get.

    I noted that all of the options I was being given were apparently just an extract from the full list of whatever, as virtually all of them had a point value of '100 CP', with the only exceptions being 50cp or free. And if everything on the total list was like that then you wouldn't need point values - just 'free', 'little', and 'big'. Using three-digit numbers implied you had a wider range of numerical values. So, the free sample starter is only allowed to be picked from among the cheapest options in the catalog. Well, that was... reassuringly normal, honestly.

    Wait, what the hell was that option? My eyes locked in on one particular block of text and grew so wide that I imagined they were sticking out of my head like stalks. And this was only 100 points? What the hell were the big point options, then?

    OK, choice made! Even if I never get another pick from this thing ever, this thing is way more than I'd ever hoped to see in my lifetime and that plus some hard work will be everything I need to get myself a good life. Right, Well-Researched it is! I reached out mentally and 'clicked' on the option to select it, and-

    And I took my first step into a realm of thought the likes of which I had never faintly dreamed.

    My memory become perfect and absolute. Everything I'd ever learned, even the things I'd never been aware of learning or had let slip out of my mind the day after I'd crammed them in there, was now at my instant and perfect recall. I 'felt' everything in my head automatically cross-referencing itself, providing legitimate comprehension of the topics as well as rote memorization. And, just as the text had promised, I gained access to an entire library's worth of academic knowledge on top of all my own life experiences and schooling. In a single instant I'd gone from being a hard-working but only somewhat non-mediocre secondary-ed student to someone with the knowledge of almost a dozen separate PhDs, in topics ranging from history to world cultures to engineering and physics.

    Holy shit. This was real. It was all real.

    Hey, Celestial Forge? What the hell are you and why did you pick me?!? I screamed inwardly at it.

    That information is not currently available.

    Was that supposed to be a 'I can't tell you?' or a 'I won't tell you?'

    That information is not currently available.

    ... so, that's a "won't". Great. Mysterious otherworldly entity of vast and unknowable powers and resources straight from a sci-fi holovid, reaching down to a teenager barely an adult and handing them stuff for some unknowable purpose without telling them anything about how or why. My newly-granted knowledge and everything I already knew about the scientific method and simple basic life skills came together to tell me that the two most probable scenarios here were that I was a lab rat or that I was being set up as an unknowing pawn to do something that would get in the way of some other entity, peer to the one currently manipulating me, without even knowing that I was doing it. Because you couldn't use your own mysterious entity mightypowers to mind-read a secret that the other party didn't even know.

    Honestly? With the choices laid out like that, I was hoping for lab rat. But I certainly wouldn't know one way or the other - or if it was option None of the Above - for quite a while yet, and now that I'd accepted something from this "Celestial Forge"and plugged into my head, I'm pretty sure that I was now committed.

    I took a minute to keep myself from starting to hyperventilate and tried my best to focus and be rational and tactical about this. What should I do know? Regardless of the long-range factors I couldn't do or know anything about yet, what should be my immediate first step?

    The terminal went ding! to indicate that the countdown had expired and that my Comprehensive Academic Testing cycle had now officially begun.

    Okay. Yeah. I could certainly do that.

    * * * * *​

    "I can't believe it!' Mom hugged me tearfully as we all stood around looking at my CAT results in the official e-mail. "I'm so proud of you!"

    56th percentile physically. 99th percentile academically, with National Honors to indicate that I'd had not only exam results in the top 1 percent worldwide but that I'd had the highest test score in all of Poland for my particular exam cycle. I might well have had International Honors for being the best worldwide - with the ridiculous boost that Well-Researched had given me, I could have answered every test question perfectly if I'd wanted to - except that I'd deliberately fluffed a few to try and avoid being too high. I wanted to ace the thing, not trigger a cheating investigation as to how the heck a student with a previously undistinguished record had broken every testing curve there was. In fact, I was a little worried about the 'National Honors' tag I saw there, because - okay, I'd gotten straight As in school because I'd had good study habits and had worked my butt off to the point I basically lived inside my books, but my IQ tests were not those of a genius. So I may have spiked too high here.

    "I guess all that late-night studying paid off, hmm?" Father said, giving me a manly hand on the shoulder. "National Honors. Well, that means the Draft is wide-open to you, honey. They'll let you basically have free pick."

    "Well, free pick of anything that my physical scores don't drag me down on, at least." I tried to play it off. "But then again, I'm a bit on the small side for a girl and never really did sports, so..." I shrugged.

    "And modest, too." he smiled down at me. "So, had any thoughts of what to go for?"

    "Originally? If I couldn't get an academic scholarship I was going to try for the Navy, because the veterans' benefits would set me up academically even if I didn't qualify for a full-ride scholarship on test scores. But I'd never expected a 99, let alone National Honors." I did my best to sound as incredulous as I felt. "I... am going to have spend some time thinking about the options I have now, because I'd never expected to have them."

    "Sensible." he nodded.

    "Well, that's why they give six weeks after getting your exam results to make your Draft selection." Mother reassured me. "So you should have more than enough time to research your choices. And of course your Papa and I will give you as much advice as you ask for."

    "Along will all the advice I didn't ask for." I threw back with a quirk of my lip, and she nodded back cheerfully.

    "Ah, she knows us too well!" Father chuckled, and then both my parents turned somber - suspiciously so, given the moment.

    "What's wrong?" I immediately picked up on the mood shift.

    "We didn't tell you about this before because we didn't want to interrupt your studying or affect your exams." Mother said. "But of course we were going to tell you as soon as we could, and I suppose now is the best time." She paused and continued. "I got a job offer. An actual entry-level management position, not just administration. It would pay more than twice what I'm earning now."

    "If it's that kind of boost then you're not talking about a promotion to management, you're talking about switching employers." I realized immediately. "But who would offer that kind of-" My newly enhanced brain immediately put together all the pieces. "Wait, that kind of raise would have to be at least partly hardship pay!" I said, shocked. "You're talking about taking up a position on one of the colonies! About leaving Terra!"

    "And now I'm seeing how you aced those tests." Father said, and I noted in passing just how right he was without even knowing it. "That's exactly what's going on."

    "A corporate headhunter from the High Frontier Development Consortium approached me with a recruiting offer." Mother confirmed. "Full relocation expenses, a subsidized home loan to set up on a new world, and a base pay plus frontier hardship premium that would almost double our earnings even before we factor in that your father would have much better job opportunities as a technician where we're going as well. We... as much as we'd miss Terra, we really can't afford to pass it up, honey. I already turned down a similar offer last year, but they came back with more money."

    "Last year I was heading into the most important year of my schooling, and you didn't want any disruption." I said. "But now I've graduated, and with a higher ranking and more opportunities in the Draft than any of us ever dreamed of. In addition to the whole 'legal adult, time to leave the nest' part, for the next four years minimum I'd be going wherever the Confederation sends me anyway. So if ever there was a good time for you to pick up and move, this would be it."

    "I'm glad you see it that way." Mother said, and her and Father relaxed in relief. "And of course we can still keep in touch-"

    "Wait, High Frontier?" I blurted suddenly as I remembered something. "You're talking about relocating to Nusku, aren't you?" I continued. "That's the colony that High Frontier has gone all-in on developing and exploiting!"

    "And they're having a major expansion into the orbital shipyards and starport there, funded by the Confederation buildup." Mother agreed. "That's why they have this position on offer."

    "Yes, but that buildup is because Nusku is right on the Vilani border!" I said, worried. "Hell, it's a conquered planet! We only took it away from the Imperium ten years ago! You'd be outnumbered almost twenty to one by Vilani!"

    "The Vilani are as genetically human as we are, they merely have a different culture." Mother shut me down firmly. "And yes, it's a culture whose rulers have attacked us repeatedly and destroyed Warsaw and-" She stopped and drew a deep breath. "But the Vilani living on Nusku are peaceful farmers. Nusku was a rustic border world for the Imperium for over a century until it turned out to be positioned smack dab on one of the only two jumpdrive routes between Vland and Terra. The ones still living there are assimilating into the Confederation as thoroughly as you or I have."

    "You hope." I muttered darkly, still internally freaking out at the idea of my parents even considering moving to live directly on top of the main Vilani invasion route into Terran space, let alone be surrounded by them-

    "Remember that our people were once ruled by evil tyrants once too, Sophia. Even to the point of having to serve in their armies." Father said firmly, referring to the old days underneath the USSR and the Warsaw Pact that not even the most multicultural education initiatives had yet to soften the treatment of in Polish schools. "That didn't mean we were like them, or that our country didn't become an entirely different place when we were finally freed."

    I firmly reminded myself that I hadn't even been born yet when Warsaw burned, but that Sensor Technician 3rd Class Adam Nowak had been helping guide anti-ship missiles into Vilani cruisers on the day that Earth had been bombarded. Just because I'd gone with him into the ruins of Warsaw on salvaging runs when I'd been younger and still sometimes had bad dreams about the cityscape there, just because the Vilani were the reason I was an only child, that didn't mean-

    "Yes, Father." I said. "But it's still such a long way away. We were doing all right financially before, weren't we? Is something this drastic really necessary?"
    "Financially, we were keeping our heads above water." Mother conceded. "But we weren't doing much more than that. I admit that emigrating to Nusku is a big step, but this is the best chance we've gotten in years."

    "But-" I began.

    "But we'd be living directly on the invasion route." my father the Confederation Navy veteran acknowledged. "Trust me, I have not overlooked that. But you know why the Third Interstellar War ended, right?"

    "The Saarpuhii Kushuggi who'd led the drive on Terra withdrew his forces in the face of our counterattack, right?" I answered, before frowning as I began to make connections- "Wait. Why didn't he reconsolidate his forces and make another push?" I asked, as I'd never thought to ask the question before. "It's not as if the Battle of Terra had broken his fleet, we'd merely wounded it."

    "Because he was politically unable to reconsolidate." Father answered. "Now, we only found this out several years after the war-"

    "If it's classified, should you be telling me about it?" I said quickly.

    "ONI declassified the analysis last year. High Frontier actually included a summary of it in your mother's recruitment package, for reassurance." Father continued. "The short version is, unknown to us until the Free Traders brought back word after the war is that at the same time the frontier governor - the Saarpuhi Kushuggi - was busy making his drive on Terra, the Vilani were having at least a limited civil war of their own on their other frontier. And the shift in Vilani Imperial politics that made - well, to skip over a lot of speculation, Saarpuhi Erasharshi was on the wrong side of those politics. So he had to abandon the war and head back to the sector capital as quickly as he could, before his enemies could bounce him out of his position entirely. And there he remains, without remotely the support he'd need to sanction another invasion of Terran space. Particularly not after the casualties he took last time."

    "That won't last forever, Father." I analyzed. "Eventually he'll either get all his influence back or else get replaced by another Imperial appointee of who knows what kind of power base and motivations. Lame ducks don't survive in politics forever, that's why they're called lame ducks."

    "True." Mother agreed. " But if something like that does happen, it will take years. And I'm only committed to a two-year contract initially, and if the situation looks like it's going that far south..." she nodded.

    "Plus, Nusku is being turned into the biggest fortress in the Terran Confederation have. That's part of why High Frontier and all the rest are recruiting so aggressively. Heck, more of our fleet is already there than here, and by the time the military buildup is finished they'll have system defenses at least matching Terra's. The entire reason we kept Nusku at the end of the last war is because it is the chokepoint - jumpdrive ships simply don't have the range to get to the Vilani from here or vice versa without using either Nusku or Procyon as a waypoint. And now we own both fortress worlds." Father finished. "Given how unsuccessful they've been when they had better opportunities, it's really not likely at all they'll try again any time soon."

    "We barely survived the last several times, and they weren't even using a percentage of their empire's full strength." I said quietly. "If they ever do, then fortress world or no fortress world-"

    "If they ever could, then they already would have." Father said reassuringly. "That's one of the reasons your mother and I put faith in the analysis of the Vilani's lack of internal cohesion - if it wasn't at least mostly true, we wouldn't be here."

    "I suppose I can't argue with that." I conceded. "But I'll still worry about you."

    "You worry about yourself, dear." Mother said and kissed me on the forehead. "And that's enough talking about weighty matters for tonight. We can get started on working out what you'll do for your Public Service tomorrow, all right?"

    "Because for tonight, there's a celebratory dinner out there with your name on it!" Father said cheerfully. "So get changed, because we've got reservations at the best restaurant in town."
    * * * * *​

    I'd managed to put my worries out of my head for a couple of hours as Mom and Dad took the academically conquering heroine out and feted her appropriately, and bragged to suitable acquaintances and friends, and then we came back home and went to bed. And I didn't bring up the topic of Nusku again because I knew them well enough to know that their minds were already made up and as much as they loved me, I was not going to get a deciding vote here. And rationally speaking, they were not taking any gambles on Nusku that millions of Terran citizens hadn't already decided to and they couldn't all be idiots, and neither would the Confederation government whose strategists had chosen to go all-in on colonizing Nusku and making it a border wall in the first place. So, let's hope that newly expanded brain or not, I was the one who was wrong.

    Oh, and speaking of a newly-expanded brain...

    Hey, Forge! You there?

    This interface will always be on-line, but communication outside of perk selection will be very limited.

    Not very chatty, are you?

    Information beyond the minimum necessary for function is of necessity highly restricted.

    ... riiiiight. So, in the category of 'minimum necessary for function', where's the user manual?

    Tutorial information substantially beyond that which has already been provided is not deemed necessary.

    Seriously? The 'sink or swim' routine? I don't even get any warning labels? If you're supposed to be all about crafting and forging, then how do you not know even the basics of sound engineering practice? Step one of which is, make sure that the first thing all users understand is what not to try doing!

    Forge options deemed excessively hazardous and/or grossly incompatible with your universe, such as things conventionally referred to as "magic", are already under access restrictions. Verbal or textual cautions against using them are not considered necessary.

    ... uh-huh. But you haven't even told me what those point values mean, let alone how I earn points!

    Possible methods of earning points are time awards, scenario rewards, and quest rewards.

    'Possible'? You got anything a little more definite than that?

    Quest Granted!
    A Rising Thunder
    Objective: Advance the Terran Confederation's tech level to be superior to Vilani Imperial Standard Technology in at least one militarily significant area before the start of the Fourth Interstellar War
    Reward: 1000 CP, Terran Confederation Victory
    Failure: Conquest of Nusku and Procyon by Vilani Imperium, Terran Confederation defeat and armistice

    I choked off a panicked scream only barely in time to avoid waking up everyone in the house.

    * * * * *​

    Author's Note: As my regular readers know, I've been stuck on my ongoing story ("The Unconquerable", on the NSFW forum here) for over a year, and I had to abandon my prior Celestial Forge story ("The Light of the Forge", on SB) because that was the story I'd been in the middle of writing when my father died and, well, the association just won't go away.

    But looking back, I also have the part where whenever an SI or CYOA story of mine hits the 'Empire Builder' stage, I start losing my feel for it. I need more practice at doing such things, and so one objective of this story is to try and give me that practice by setting up a story where the internal narrative is all about one girl trying to change the fate of interstellar empires because she got a spoiler on the canon ending, and it sucks.

    (To be fair, the Forge hasn't told her that Earth wins the Fifth Interstellar War, and she's a native of the Traveller Interstellar Wars setting with no meta-knowledge, so of course she reacts like this).

    But yeah. Basically, I need to write something, anything, to get back in the flow of writing at all again, and I want to work with the Celestial Forge some more, and I need to at least try an empire building story of some kind, and so, here we are. So, we'll see if I can finish it this time.

    Which, in fair warning, I have less than 50-50 odds of doing. But that's a known hazard of being a fanfic reader, and I was up front about it, so, let's see what happens.

    Unspent CP: 0
    Purchases: Well Researched (Lords of the Night - Liches)
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2022
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  2. Threadmarks: Celestial Forge - Mechanics
    cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    This fic wil be using the Celestial Forge v2, with these houserules:

    * The protagonist, Sophia Nowak, will have free choice from the menu options presented to her by the Forge interface.
    * All options that require magic to exist will be removed, because the Forge doesn't want to import magic into this particular non-magical universe. So they won't even be on the menu for Sophia to see, let alone pick.
    * Likewise with all options I feel would immediately break the fun. The Forge wants the MC to at least feel like she has a choice, as well as avoid entirely dictating the agenda for its own purposes, but it certainly wants to operate within some constraints. So if she doesn't pick an obviously desirable option when she logically should have, it's very likely because it was hidden on the menu.
    * CP will be earned by quest completion and/or arbitrary 'I think enough significant has happened in the story' passage of time, not strict woudcount.

    In short, I am avoiding RNG entirely and picking whatever I think works for the story the best. Y'all don't like that, well, it's what I've decided to do anyway. (add) I would like to think Master of Tech and his "Forging Wonders In A World of Injustice" for giving me the idea of granting quest CP in the Celestial Forge instead of wordcount CP.

    What perks were selected in which chapter and the text description of each will be maintained in this post, for anyone who needs more info than the in-character text in the story provides.

    Perks Selected

    Introduction - Well-Researched (Lords of the Night - Liches)
    Chapter 2 - Genius Intellect (SyFy Combined Continuity), Programmer (World Seed)
    Chapter 3 - Inert Ceph Technology (Crysis)
    Chapter 4 - Bolthole Protocol (Honor Harrington)

    Well Researched (Lords of the Night - Liches) (100cp) - The truth of the matter is that, no matter what you're doing, someone else was doing it before you. People say, don't reinvent the wheel, but the wheel has been reinvented countless times. You are good at avoiding having to reinvent things already made or discovered, though.

    Your mind is like a steel trap. Not only do you never forget anything, you're good at instantly putting everything you come across into context. This won't make you instantly cross-reference it with something from a completely different context, but when you think on things and try to figure something out, find a solution, or need something out of left field you can quickly scan across your entire body of knowledge for something that could help.

    This comes with you already being well studied on a huge range of topics, in this jump and all future ones you go to. Think of it as roughly ten doctorates' worth of study on a wide range of subjects, with a new set each new jump.

    You can leave minds that might actually be greater than yours in the dust, as they try to achieve something from first principles that was figured out by an obscure sage thirteen centuries ago, who only ever put his findings down in a single journal that has been gathering dust in some corner of a minor family library ever since.
    Genius Intellect (SyFy Combined Continuity) (400cp) - You are one of the greatest minds to ever live. Well, that might be a touch hyperbolic but you are most definitely deserving of the title genius by local standards, which are higher than most. Your raw mental processing, calculating, and problem solving ability is at least one, and usually several, orders of magnitude above the common man. Try not to let it go to your head.
    Programmer (World Seed) (100cp) - Through hard hours spent slaving over a hot keyboard you have learned the art of programming. You could write a program for pretty much anything. Please don't try to steal peoples' bank accounts.
    Inert Ceph Technology (Crysis) (100cp) - Within this small vial is a delicate sample of a Ceph commander unit, once active but now 'dead'. The nanomachinery is still active at some level, but it acts without intelligence nor connection to the Ceph hivemind, making it relatively safe to handle. It's not exactly a gold mine of every possible Ceph technology, but studying it can yield tremendous advances.
    Bolthole Protocol (Honor Harrington) (400cp) - While coming up with unbelievably advanced new designs may not be exactly your forte, what is is the reverse engineering of the same. You need only spend a few moments working at something to get a basic idea of how it works, and only get faster from there. No matter how advanced or obscure the technology, you can eventually work it out, with a thousandth the time and effort it would take anyone else.
     
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2022
  3. CrazedGamma1721

    CrazedGamma1721 Getting sticky.

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    This is a really interesting fiction, I can’t wait to see what will happen next.
     
  4. Ovid

    Ovid Versed in the lewd.

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    It was at this moment that I REALLY wanted to see some Riftbreaker tech in this story. You cant just randomly pick the same last name as the protagonist of that game, and not expect me to make mental connections.

    I have no idea how useful an interstellar base building mini-mech would help this setting, but at least the energy-to-raw materials tech should be useful. And the bullshit farming, and mineral-containing plants.
     
  5. cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    I know nothing about Riftbreaker, and the reason I picked that surname is because its one of the most common Polish surnames that I know of.

    Ah, coincidence, my eternal enemy. :p

    We'll get an overview of setting tech pretty soon, as I can work it into the flow of the story, but suffice it to say that outside of the jump drive and contragravity/reactionless drives elements, its relatively grounded. It's still an interstellar sci-fi setting, of course.
     
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  6. MadGreenSon

    MadGreenSon Verified Devil Tiger, The Childish Yandere

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    Neat. I'm in. If there's anyone I trust to maintain the careful balance of technobabble and actual story for Cosmic Forge stuff without needlessly padding things out just to make the number go up, It's you cliff.
     
  7. Blaflaix

    Blaflaix I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    On the other other hand, that wouldn't be all that comforting.

    "Don't worry, you'll win the next one!"

    "..."
     
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  8. cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    Especially considering that basically every living relative she has is going to be living right on the invasion route, and the last time the Vilani orbitally bombarded a planet her family was living on most of her family tree ceased to exist in nuclear fire.
     
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  9. SemiSaneAuthor

    SemiSaneAuthor SemiSillyAuthor

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    So it's Traveller Canon for a united Earth Humanity, right?

    Yeah, I will suspend my disbelief, even as I quietly roll my eyes at that.

    Because, I hate that trope. Especially after the, 'global environmental and economic collapse of the 21st century,' is going to make Fallout US look united. But it's you Cliff, so I'll just shut that part of my head up and instead enjoy the show.

    Even if I basically only know of Traveller from reading bits of TV Tropes, because it's you, Cliff.
     
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  10. cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    Two points:

    a) The version of setting history you're getting in-character voice is what the protagonist was taught in school, with all that implies.

    b) Even the official version of events concedes that Terra only developed a sincere interest in being a united Earth after the Vilani showed up, for quite obvious reasons.
     
  11. Bevillia

    Bevillia Getting sticky.

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    Well, I know nothing about this setting, but neither have I known basically anything about the last half-dozen settings you've written stories in, Cliff, and I've eagerly read along each time. You've got a really solid knack of writing in existing settings in a way that brings across the necessary information to people unfamiliar with them, without dragging the pacing out to do so. So, absolutely watched with interest.

    I'm definitely interested in seeing where this character goes. I've always liked stories where a protagonist is working within a competent and reasonably benevolent system towards their goals, rather than struggling against one, and from the introduction here the Terran Confederation seem to fit that descriptor. Especially with the way you're approaching the Celestial Forge here, since that should hopefully allow you to avoid the self-reinforcing power creep the default Forge tends towards in fics.

    Best of luck with the fic.
     
  12. hyperspacewizard

    hyperspacewizard Versed in the lewd.

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    Looks fun. Hopefully she can find her way into what ever version of DARPA her government has eventually.
     
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  13. kraryal

    kraryal Making the rounds.

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    I am so looking forward to this fic. Thanks Cliff!
     
  14. cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    Minor retcon to the intro - I'd dropped a year in my math, so I either have to change my MC's age, change the date, or change the backstory. Because if she's 18 years old in May 2166 and was born in February, then she was born in 2148... meaning her older brother would have been born before the destruction of Warsaw in 2147, and that means he's no longer alive.

    And her age is part of the story concept (she's just becoming a legal adult), and I don't want to change the timetable, and so... only child.
     
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2022
  15. G1336

    G1336 Getting out there.

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    Great to see you getting back to writing. Really looking forward to this.
     
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  16. D King Hecht

    D King Hecht Know what you're doing yet?

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    I would just change the date, if it was me.
     
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  17. A/N

    A/N Versed in the lewd.

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    Really liking this.

    Not knowing the setting, I'm surprised they went the 'learn other languages and cultures' route instead of 'mandatory mono-culture of Terra, global nationalism'. Not arguing for it at all, but it wouldn't be surprising.

    I have a suggestion, then. In order to avoid breaking the story in ways you don't want, and also gain the benefit of not having to describe any options or choices (which could be it's own thing for struggle and characterisation, don't get me wrong)... She could get her perks at 'random' in-story but actually chosen by you the Author. Or, maybe chosen by the Forge in-story. Either works.

    Because plenty of times there will be options that are strictly superior, but that you don't want for the story, or don't want yet, but she'd have plenty of reasons to actually pick. And having the character pick things for the sake of the story instead of her wants and needs when she actually has the choice can suck the immersion out of it.
     
  18. cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    The Fourth Interstellar War has a canon start date, and I don't want to change it (the protagonist might change it through her actions, but I'm sticking with the default timeline until and unless she whacks it herself), so I want X years between story start and it.

    Valid point. I'll make it clearer that while the Forge is offering her a selection, it's also making sure to curate the selection so that nothing it doesn't want dropped too soon drops too soon. Which is what I was intending to do anyway, but, underlining it.
     
  19. A/N

    A/N Versed in the lewd.

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    Could be an adopted nephew or relative who survived but lost their family? It gave the parents an extra reason to leave, they were trying to keep the family together in addition to the money and presumably have been away from their son for a while?

    Maybe it only offers X small number of curated options per choosing, adding to or replacing older options each new choosing?
     
  20. cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    Hmmm. Well, there's no reason her parents have to be only children... I'll think about it.

    Well, the option that's the least work for me is to just show what she picks, not the entire menu she's picking from, so I don't have to worry about that. :p
     
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  21. A/N

    A/N Versed in the lewd.

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    Ha! Naturally.

    But, if she picks something really good later on that she could have picked earlier by raw cost, will it have been on the menu all along, or will it be a new option? Easier to do if the menu is small each time, casting a small net. Because there aren't all that many non-broken forge abilities if you're sampling by the hundreds, something incredible will be in there.
     
  22. Skierus

    Skierus Know what you're doing yet?

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    Celestial forge and by cliff? I hit watch before even reading! Was not disappointed! Love this take on the forge! I really look forward to what job she does, has to be some type of R&D scientist/engineer with that kind of quest popping up.
     
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  23. heralding_bubble

    heralding_bubble Bloody idiot

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    A cliffc999 writing? Watched and read.
    Coincidence, or subconscious? :V
     
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  24. ryune

    ryune Versed in the lewd.

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    I'm going to assume that ride along perks are not on the menu? Most of the pure tech related ride alongs that I can think of are just skills in their use though unlike with magic where you need a set of other perks just to make the one you bought worth it.

    Also, how are you handling free perks? As is, there really isn't a reason for her to not buy them all at her earliest convenience other than most of them being items.
     
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  25. cliffc999

    cliffc999 Well worn.

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    Well, note that non-magical perks from settings with magic will still work. That's how she bought Well-Researched. Basically, it's a function of 'the local mana level around here is zero and this is not a Jumpchain, so anything that needs magic to work doesn't', not 'magic settings are not allowed'.

    As for why not load up on freebies, the answer is 'The Forge is making sure she only gets choices from a limited selection'. How limited I don't have to get into, because you'll only see the choices she does make, not the list she passes up. So, could be anything.

    Remember, on the Doylist level, I'm 100% picking what fits my narrative. I've tried RNG Celestial Forge and RNG Jumpchains, none of those experiments were fun. It's only on the Watsonian level that my MC gets the illusion of free choice.
     
  26. SemiSaneAuthor

    SemiSaneAuthor SemiSillyAuthor

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    I am compelled to quote Doctor Who from NuWho Series 1:

    "Broken. Broken. Hairdryer."

    As a thing. Because that seems fitting.
     
  27. Jangofet54

    Jangofet54 Getting out there.

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    Woooot. I loved you're other fics and recommend them anytime someone asks for a Inspired Inventor/Celestial Forge fic. I'm really looking forward to this thanks for continuing to publish chapters.
     
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  28. Prince Chrom

    Prince Chrom Versed in the lewd.

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    I'm not very familiar with the early timeline, but is this before or after they get laser weapons working?
     
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  29. tlhgeek

    tlhgeek If the problem isn't solved use more DAKKA

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    Hell yeah! Good to have you back writing again Cliff. Looking forward to more.
     
  30. Sceptic

    Sceptic Critical Irrationalist

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    Or that for some reason he wasn't in Warsaw at the time. Which, given her mother couldn't have been in Warsaw at the time either (given that she exists), presumably means that her mother had a reason to be out of Warsaw with her brother for some reason.

    I see you've learned from previous fics and are attempting to head off the arguments about why her other choices would have been better for this that or the other completely-out-of-character reason.
     
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