"It will all take care of itself" – infamous Tortal saying
Welcome to the Open Gates of Tortal. All are welcome here. Are you a slithering conformist lizard looking for employment? Come and work in our power plants. Maybe you’re a consumerist mollusc seeking some retail therapy? Then visit our pleasure districts. Are you a titanic ocean beast of uncertain origin? Join our defensive military academy, you’ll fit right in. The Open Gates are for everyone. Wait, who are you? Oh, an aggressive inter-dimensional collective of carnivorous energy? GET OUT. SPACE IS FULL.
I’m playing galactic strategy game Stellaris (again) and I have a bit of an invasion problem. It’s not that I wouldn’t welcome the Unbidden, a race of ultra-destructive galaxy-hoppers that have appeared to the north, into my established multicultural kingdom of 10+ species. It’s just that they don’t want to come over without eating all my citizens like salted popcorn. If you’ve played Crusader Kings II they are a threat akin to the Mongol hordes. They come, seemingly out of nowhere, and lay waste to everything.
That’s a problem for me because – this time - I am not playing a militaristic people. Taking inspiration from the recently released Utopia DLC and its update sidekick, my goal is to create a peaceful sector of space where all are welcome. A democratic haven for migrants, undesirables and refugees, where former fungoid slaves can mix with short-tempered reptiles and horny insects, yet where all pull toward the same goal. In a reality where the age of free movement seems to be dissolving like a loaf in a pond, it feels good to remind ourselves that hugely different peoples can live within a single, prosperous society without succumbing to in-fighting or scapegoating.
But now we’re the refugees. Ten colony ships, each packed with a distinct species, have just left the disparate systems of the Open Gates, fleeing across the galaxy, running for our lives because of these blue marauders. We’re retreating to a corner of space, far from the threat and still unsettled, where we’ll set up a new capital. We call it The Shell.
But maybe it would help to know how we got here.
The Pointless War
“The Vhemm Empire has declared war on the Confederacy of Zithras,” said the message. Which ones are those again? I consulted the space map, cross-referenced the alliance list, inspected the species chart. Oh no, I thought. Oh no. It has been barely 25 years since the Tortal people embraced the stars, and already we have been dragged into a war. This is not what we signed up for.
The Tortals are unlike my previous spacefolks (robotic father-figures The Unboxed or slaver insect scourge The Scrub). Tortals are long-living, slow-breeding xenophiles. They think everybody is wonderful. Their government runs on a democracy with elections every 10 years. That sounds like a long term in office, but it’s a very short time when you live to be 180 years old. They live on their home planet of Free Cabbage, orbiting a star known as The Boiler.
Within the first two decades of space exploration, there is an explosion in known alien races. There are Tebbrans, Xeltek, Ymacera, Zithrans, Tal’Akkur – all the usual weird spacenames Stellaris likes to give its races. First contact is always peaceful and we are soon swapping our people like bodily fluids. Everyone is a total babe. It’s like Fresher’s Week up there.
But then the Vhemm Empire showed up. A less-understanding culture would describe the reptilian Vhemm as “a shower of bastards” but we Tortals always reserve judgement, even though their bullying swagger could be felt throughout local space. Just look at how they greet their neighbours.
We tried to make a migration treaty with them, as we had with three other species so far, filling our new colonies according to our delicious mixed nuts policy. No nut left behind, a bag of nuts divided against itself cannot stand, etc. We could not get the Vhemm to agree to a shared migration pact, which is a shame. Even raisins are welcome in our bag.
So they declared war on some guys. This would not be a problem, except that the hastily-made web of non-aggression pacts and defensive alliances we have made with the space neighbours quickly unravels faster than you can say “Franz Ferdinand” and we find ourselves on the side of the Zithrans, fighting against our next door neighbour and one-time bezzie, the Xeltek.
The war lasts 30 years and will sow the seeds for the downfall of Zithra as a space nation. The Zith themselves (militaristic reptilian democrats who love punching fascists) will live on. Thanks to our sexy migration treaty they make up a good portion of our populace already. In 25 years the Open Gates will have its first Zith president, Strongbow Cider. He will die a few years later, becoming the first ruler to die in office, simply because everyone else who has held an elected position has been a centenarian tortoise. The nation of his parents will soon disappear because of the local bully, the Vhemm.
As the Pointless War raged, three hivemind races would appear in the south and east of the galaxy, far enough away to be of no immediate concern. One of them is my own creation, The Scrub, of whom I am consistently suspicious, thanks to my Picard-like connection to them. They make friends with one of the other hiveminds. On paper this is a concerning development but eventually it will come to nothing. On a philosophical and existential level, this is also true of everything in the galaxy. It will all come to nothing.
The Vhemm conflict has ended. Out of the ashes of our war comes a Federation – the Galactic Slop Pot. There are three members, pacifists and decent folk all. Our migration deals mean that the Open Gates’ home system, The Boiler, and its neighbouring systems of Uncooked Chicken and Passable Air Quality, are becoming home to all types of people. We soon begin the age of terraforming, seeking to make planets with climates and landscapes suitable for all-comers. To resurrect an analogy that should have died three paragraphs ago, some nuts can only live in salt.
Thus the Open Gates entered a new age of mostly-peace. The next century would be defined by growth, chit-chat and the kind of interstellar negotiations you’d expect from some kind of mischievous newt. As new people settled in our Kingdom, filling the systems of Non-Refundable Ticket and Bants Bants Bants, we grappled with the various races of the galaxy, trying always to make the most obscenely liberal decisions. Here’s how we dealt with each group.
Red Legion. This was (and still is) a militarist faction within our own democracy. They are like an angry teenager with a morbid fascination with Mussolini. They were growing in numbers on a farming planet called Sour Puss. I can’t suppress them or resettle them on other planets, that isn’t the Tortal way. So I settle for idly shuffling them around on the planet’s tiles so that they don’t sit next to each other in class. I have no idea if this has any effect on their activities.
Thek’Qlak Progenitors. This enigmatic observer race of “fallen” dudes asked if they could take a cross-section of our populace to put them in an “endangered species preserve”. I refuse because this proposition is ridiculous. The Open Gates are flourishing. What could possibly threaten us?
The Xeltek Imperium. Our next door neighbours, and an absolute hoot. With the exception of the Pointless War early in the game they’ve been amiable and decent. As honourable warriors, they tend to look on us as their little brother in a vicious universe. The problem for us: we still don’t have a migration treaty with them. There are no Xeltek in the Slop Pot, which deeply offends my alien-loving sensibilities. I must have them. So I decide to give them a planet as a present.
But not just any planet. There’s a hivemind to the space-east that is looming towards us. It’s not a problem now but it might become one in a hundred years. A plan begins to form. I send a colony ship to snap up the last unclaimed system between the Galactic Slop Pot and this hivemind. Then, along with a smorgasbord of other goodies, I hand the star and all its planets straight to our big brothers, the Xeltek. They are super happy with their new gift and seem to take no notice that it has been renamed “Buffer System”.
But it still isn’t enough for them. Then, I see what the problem is. Our borders have a lot of friction. I remove a frontier outpost at the system of This Is Ours, and this cools the Xelties down long enough to finally set up a migration treaty. The sweat from the handshake is barely dry before I order the constructor ship TSB Coffee Break to go back and build a new frontier post in the exact same place as the one we just dismantled. The system is renamed to This Is Still Ours. The Great Xeltek Ruse is complete.
United Nations of Earth. They are a nice bunch, so I do the same for them, handing them the system of Greek Yoghurt. The downside is that this system is right next to a Gaia world which is considered a religious site for a nearby fallen empire. I haven’t touched it, because I know what those fallen geezers are like. But I don’t trust the humans not to give into their usual curiousity. To this end, we rename the system DO NOT DISTURB and dub the Gaia planet itself: Attention Humans: Never Go Here.
This kind of rampant diplomacy continues for almost fifty years, swelling our numbers and increasing our influence in the galaxy. Even the hiveminds of the galaxy think we are lovely, probably because we have taken in refugees from two of them.
You don’t normally get to set up migration treaties with hiveminds (they don’t understand the appeal), so its a real rarity to have some hiveminded “pops” living on our planets, and a testament to just how varied the Open Gates has become. Our planets are full of different lifeforms.
Our scientific council is made up of various species.
We are slowly realising our utopian dream. That’s when the galaxy-wide power surge comes. To the north, a dimensional rift opens. Out spill the Unbidden.
"It Will All Take Care Of Itself"
I have heard whispers of the Unbidden but never encountered them in a previous game of Stellaris. Like I’ve said, they are essentially space Mongols. Fortunately for us, they have sandwiched themselves between our old bullies, the Vhemm Empire, and a cranky isolationist fallen empire, the Menjeti Shard, who hate it when you walk on their lawn.
I send a lone construction ship, the TSB That’s Your Problem There, to peek at the newcomers. He sees a huge 62k-strong armada of space nasties and is summarily evaporated. Good work, Gatesman, your sacrifice will be remembered.
At the sight of this power I decide to let the Vhemm and the cranky Menjeti deal with the Unbidden. Part of me feels that together they are strong enough to deal with that number of ships. The other part of me, the freedom-loving Tortal, thinks a new arrival isn’t so bad anyway. All beings should be welcome to the galaxy. Even voracious beings of pure malice. I sit back and continue chasing migration treaties and handing out star charts, the Stellaris equivalent of friendship bracelets, thinking no more about the Unbidden. It will all take care of itself.
Within just a couple of years I realise this was probably a bad idea. The Menjeti have been squeezed to a pip and the Vhemm aren’t so much “on the back foot” as they are “completely lacking in foots”. It isn’t long before the super-powerful dreadships of the Unbidden arrive at one of our own settlements in the Return Of The Zith system (a one-time Zithorian slave colony that rebelled against their Vhemm lords and joined the Open Gates, don’t you know your history?).
In short, the Unbidden are spreading…
The Vhemm are dying...
And we might be next.
At this point I click on the Vhemm to see how they are faring. Their hostile tone has completely changed to one of pathetic niceties. Their bullying fleets are gone, their capital lost, the apparatus of the state has come apart like a broken teabag. Looking at their one remaining planet, it is populated by a mix of Tortals and Ziths. By all counts, there is only one actual “Vhemm” left of their entire species, the overlord Cotaxir I. He is described as “Receptive”.
I try to think of a way to help him, despite our history of differences, but he stubbornly refuses to a migration treaty. He is doomed. Within a few years I will look again at this space and see only a hole where our most troublesome neighbours the Vhemm once stood.
I won’t feel good about this, only a creeping feeling of having not seen the heat death of the universe for the trees.
There are still space kingdoms between us and the Unbidden’s onslaught, but this encroaching extermination has opened my eyes. I have two options now.
1. Try to put down the Unbidden by destroying their portals guarded by hundreds of ships all more powerful and numerous than anything the Galactic Slop Pot can muster (hahaha oh god).
2. Enact an immense evacuation of Open Gate space, somehow resettling each and every species to the other side of the galaxy.
You already know my decision. Where once Tortal Space was a refuge and haven for all, it is now scrambling into ships. I make one colony ship of every species. Little green flags make their way, one by one, to safety.
This is our Ark-mada. We need to get out of here before the Unbidden pierce through the other kingdoms and reach us. With the Vhemm gone, the murderships are already leaking through. Just this year they arrived in the Painful Annoyance system and turned our once-glittering scientific hub of Splinter in the Eye into a ball of hot glass.
The Ark-mada soars across the stars. Thanks to our reputation and general loveliness all borders are open to us. The colony ships arrive at their destination, a remote and unclaimed corner of the galaxy, as far from the Unbidden as you can get without falling off the edge of the galaxy. The Shell is now under construction, a small nugget of Tortal space nestled between a hivemind and a vast xenophobic empire. Because of the lack of planets most of our people live in orbital habitats, without the protection of spaceports.
It is a precarious existence. We are an upended turtle balancing on a tightrope between a pool of hammerhead sharks and a pool of moray eels. But it is still a safer spot than before.
In a final gesture of galactic grace, we give all the planets we left behind to the mysterious race of Progenitors who once called us an “endangered species”. It turns out they were right. But they have now come out of hiding once again, this time to confront the Unbidden. I give them everything. It is the single greatest transfer of wealth and property in the history of our known universe.
Hopefully, the Progenitors will make good use of it to fight and defeat the blue horde. As for us, we are retreating into our shell. The Open Gates of Tortal are slowly closing. I'm sure the galaxy will take care of itself.
Next time: how will the various species adapt to their new homes? Can the cultures and peoples of the Open Gates co-exist in their bolthole? Find out in the next part of our Stellaris Utopia diary