Last time in this diary on grand space strategy Stellaris, my species of sugary, democratic Tortals invited everyone to their space nation regardless of race, creed or culture. It was a burgeoning multicultural utopia called the Open Gates. Then a terrifying horde of transdimensional beings arrived and started to eat everyone like a rack of saucy ribs, which is against the rules.
The Tortals and their compatriots have now escaped in a flotilla of refugee ships to the Shell, a corner of space where they hope to be safe. They are far from the Unbidden, the aforementioned interdimensional gatecrashers, but now they have new neighbours in the form of of two very large despotic empires. And, as any cultured dictator knows, shells usually contain something tasty and soft inside.
To give you an idea of where our newly established haven is located, here is a map of the galaxy following the escape from threatened space.
You guessed it, the red guys with the frowny faces are not keen on our presence. To the south-west, the United Usanace Empire are a crowd of imperialists who think they have sole right to inherit the entire galaxy. They are one-eyed cyber-molluscs, and they call me “newt” whenever I show up for diplomatic talks. I weather this deeply racist insult with grace and dignity, and certainly do not mutter “snailfucker” under my breath.
To the north are the Tzynn Empire, who believe the same high things about themselves – that the galaxy is theirs by right. They are fast-breeding reptilians with a strict caste system and the largest population of any nation in the game. Unfortunately, most of that population is in chains. The sole political difference between these two giant imperialist blobs is that the Tzynn think the Usos go too soft on their proles.
Just one of these empires is enough to make the Shell quiver with fear. But they also have a long-lasting defensive pact, each coming to the other’s aid in times of war. This makes the Shell's position a hundred times more precarious. Imagine if Nazi Germany and the great Mongol Khanate co-existed beside one another and you owned a small cottage between them and every now and then Hitler and Genghis would come stand in your vegetable patch and shake hands while smiling at you through the window. It's sort of like that.
And if there’s a basement in my space cottage where we stash the refugees, it’s the orbital habitats we’ve built around barren planets and gas giants. These are packed with different species’, all mixing together in whatever way they care to. There’s stoic humans and fungoid Obevni. There are Xelteks, Uthonians, and Multyx. Then, there are the real sufferers – the Tal’Akkur, the Tebbrans, and the Khessam. These species have all had their home nations destroyed by the Unbidden. Being refugees is new to them.
Only the lizard-like Zithorians are hardened to the life of persecution, their home planets having been stripped of them by a conventional war hundreds of years ago (it is no solace to know that the race who stole their land, the Vhemm, are now themselves extinct). The particular orbital habitat these lizardfolk founded is called Zith Will Rise. In the years to come, they will be among the greatest leaders of the Open Gates. One of them will become a national hero, the great admiral Damnation Joe.
But it isn’t quite his story yet. First, there was a shameful period in Tortal history. When atrocities raged all around, and the Shell closed up like a selfish clam.
The Closed Gates
It started with a rude message. The one-eyed cyberslugs of the Usanace Empire sneakily plopped a frontier post down between some planets in the Shell and claimed the space was theirs. Then, they closed the borders. For the first time in centuries, we had planets which were cut off from the outside world – cut off even from other planets of our own. It was like they came into our cottage, built a wall between the fireplace and the sink, and then said: “If you touch this wall, we’ll murder you.”
It was the first gesture in an overbearing relationship that would descend into hate and resentment. Everyone else in the galaxy, even the terrifying Tzynn, were focused on the Unbidden threat. There was a sense between all nations that there was something bigger to worry about than your neighbour letting his side of the hedge grow too long. Everyone had a positive opinion about the Open Gates. Even the Scrub – those dreaded insects – had good things to say.
But not the Usos. They looked at the hodge podge of refugees in their neighbourhood and saw nothing but a jar of Bombay Mix. Fifty years after settling in the Shell, they made their demands. “Submit and become our subject, or prepare for war.”
What else could our people do? We only had three planets with functioning spaceports in this corner of space – the rest of our homes were floating habitats, unable to create warships of their own. And even if we started building warships immediately, we still wouldn’t have enough to put up a fight. All our other systems back in the old country had also been given away to the Progenitors, that protective race that vowed to kill the Unbidden yet who seemed to just be sitting in our old planets using all the teabags and doing nothing of the sort. Only the Boiler remained, which was technically still our capital since the president, an in-game character and definitely not me, kept forgetting to officially move it.
What choice did we have? We signed the Uso’s agreement. We were now the vassals of a slaving hegemony and the unwilling participants of any war of aggression they wanted to impose on others. Our membership of the Galactic Slop Pot – the federation of decent chaps that we established – was revoked. It was like being kicked out of your own book club because your racist boss keeps showing up at your dinner parties and talking about “the Muslimists”.
The Shell closed up like a firm sphincter. All migration treaties had been totally revoked as part of our subjugation. It was our weakest and most terrible era.
But in an unassuming star system, far from the Shell’s planets and orbital habitats, a small construction vessel, the TSB Coffee Break, had already begun work on a machine that would change everything. It would take 70 years to complete the Dyson Sphere in the Nothing system, a machine that would encompass an entire star and produce untold amounts of energy credits. But when it was complete, it would be our ticket to freedom.
Damnation Joe and the War of Independence
I don’t know where Damnation Joe was born, but my storytelling gut says he grew up hustling in the vast solar panel quadrants of Zith Will Rise, where he saw first hand the importance of energy credits. In this orbital station the hardy Zithorian lizard people were biding their time and holding onto their historic culture of “punching up”. You see, hundreds of years ago, before their nation was devoured by the late Vhemm, the Zithorian Tribes were marked by the game as “democratic crusaders”. Wherever the weak were bullied, they chomped at the bit for a fight, much more reckless than the peace-loving Tortals, who they no doubt saw as wishy-washy, soft-bellied appeasers. In the end, their crusades got them utterly conquered by foes much stronger and less egalitarian than themselves. The Zith that weren’t clapped in chains fled to our space.
But now history has put them in a similar position once again. Not in actual chains this time, but in political chains. Being a vassal means we can’t perform many matters of diplomacy by ourselves. We can’t build new colonies outside our own space. We can’t refuse to go to war if our Overlord, the Usos, decree it. But most importantly, the borders are closed. Migration between ourselves and any other nation is now off-limits.
This would not stand.
Using the Dyson Sphere and a network of habitats filled to bursting point with solar panels, we stockpiled huge amounts of energy in a short time. We went to a trading enclave and made repeated deals – our massive surplus of energy credits for shiny, shiny minerals. This would now be the basis for our entire economy – a war economy.
With this, we built our fleet. And the Zith called Damnation Joe took charge of it. The Usos had recently declared war on the Scrub and the Lollers – two hiveminds that we had secretly been giving all our research data to. The game's AI is not that intelligent but if it were, our shipbuilding could easily have been mistaken for preparations for this hivemind conflict. We never attacked the Scrub or the Lollers, however. I wanted instead to strike at our Overlords fleshy and exposed flank at that moment, as they sought dominion in the north. But the game doesn’t let you do that, even if it is what Damnation Joe would have done. “Usanace’s difficulty is Tortal’s opportunity”, to borrow a phrase from my own country, which has a colourful history of stabbing their neighbour when they’re not looking. In any case, we weren't allowed because of the game's strict rules. So we tried asking instead.
Well, at least we can say peaceful means were tried first. Now, we just had to wait until the hivewar was through. When it ended, our fleet struck out. The war for the freedom of Tortals, Tebbran, Zith, Hathgum, and all the other peoples of our nation, had begun.
We sailed in one big fleet. It was our only chance. The Tzynn Empire, Ghengis to the Uso’s Hitler, would be coming down on us en masse, as per the traditional agreement with our slimy oppressors. A third nation – a plantoid hivemind called the Mandasura – would also be swinging their cabbagey fists at us, because they were now, like us, the vassals of a larger monster - the Tzynn. I didn’t hold it against them. In turn, they did not try very hard.
The odds were stacked against us in the extreme. You can check the power of a nation’s fleets and their level of technology by hovering over a little text box on their diplomacy page. The Usos had a “superior” navy. The Tzynn Empire’s was described as “overwhelming”. But Damantion Joe took his new fleet, the 1st Hateful Squint, out of its berth and went on a cunning and vicious rampage. Our mineral stockpile drained away like a punctured beer can, due to the maintenance costs of such a massive fleet. But as long as the Dyson Sphere thrummed we had the means to refill that beer can with a dozen massive kegs. We may have been weak in numbers, but we were drunk on money. And it is money that wins wars.
Damnation Joe zoomed from fight to fight, picking on fleets half his own size and running from any collection of ships that looked as if it might knock him out. Every naval battle he fought, he won. Just as one battle ended, he raced to lift a siege of one of our planets, or cut off an enemy reinforcement brigade, or intercept a convoy of transport ships. He was like every strategic mastermind in human history. He was Simon Bolivar, he was Napoleon Bonaparte, he was Kevin from Home Alone.
And I know what some of you interstellar history buffs are thinking. “Well, actually the Usanace Empire was drained from previous wars,” you say. “And the Tzynn’s poor logistics and AI led to them never fielding a large enough fleet to destroy the 1st Hateful Squint, despite it being wholly feasible."
“And the Galactic Slop Pot entered a war with the Usanace once they saw an opportunity, and so did the hiveminds, once they smelled the chance for revenge.”
“Basically,” you say, in an uneducated and biased tone, “the conflict ballooned into a bloody war that involved the whole galaxy, with only two nations remaining neutral, so while Damnation Joe was a critical factor, his military manoeuvres were not solely responsible for the Open Gates’ victory in the year 2521. And in fact, his actions were probably the catalyst for a war that produced more refugees than any before in galactic history...”
Well to you I say: hogwash! Damnation Joe is a national hero, he was the freedom fighter who led our great nation back to its former glory – a free, independent and open democracy. In the first free vote for a president since our subjugation, who did the people of the Open Gates choose to lead them? That’s right. Damnation Joe.
So we won our independence, after six years of fighting. A more realistic story would see Joe slowly turning the machinery of the state to favour his own position, and eventually becoming a dictator. It would have been fun to tell that story. But in the end he just fulfilled his mandate of building research stations. He invested in new colony ships at The Boiler, our old and largely neglected capital back in Old Space, which he used to reclaim planets lost to the Unbidden, and he made them good and stable homes for hundreds of new people. He rejoined the Galactic Slop Pot, he renegotiated old migration treaties too long forgotten, he stabilised the Shell and knocked down that wall in the middle of the cottage, so that people could move freely once again.
And at the end of his time in office, when he wasn’t re-elected, he stood down gracefully and retook his position as admiral of the fleet. Just as the thought struck me, that he would happily take the fight to our old transdimensional foes, the Unbidden, that particular threat was snuffed out for good, not by us, but by an old friend.
The Unbidden, Smitten
While we had been flailing and fighting and building megastructures around stars in a dank corner of the galaxy like a nest of harried beavers, the Unbidden had been taking painful blows. And it was none other than the Xeltek, our old neighbour, who was delivering those blows.
The last time we saw the Xelties, they were being squeezed away by the collective blue energy of the Unbidden’s terrifying armadas. But a little to the east, they still had a crucial star system – the Buffer system. Centuries ago, we had gifted this troublesome system to them as part of a con to get them to agree to a shared migration policy - because even a nice galactic civilisation has to sell some DeLoreans once in a while. But now, it had saved their nation from destruction. They grew out from it like a bad rash, taking over a massive amount of newly-freed space in the north and making their own federation with another harassed crowd called the Multyx. Both of them were sick to the back teeth of blue men with big guns.
Finally, in the year 2528, the Xelties and Multies did what the Progenitors (the ones I had gifted all my worlds to) could not manage after a hundred years of sitting on their ascendant asses.
They destroyed the Unbidden.
And we too, mighty military that we are, were present at the final battle, not as a new fleet marshalled by Damnation Joe, but in the form of the constructor ship Cuppa Tea Luv? who was just in that neighbourhood of space at the time and fancied a gander.
In the end, it seems we weren’t really the heroes of this Stellaris story, or the villains. The Tortals were just the guys caught in the middle, but who stuck to their ideals, despite being chased across the galaxy, and being bullied by bigger boys into finally punching back. Even after all that hardship (and maybe a few years of enforced isolation) they still stuck to their principles of open borders and fairness for all. It makes me genuinely proud to look at the little chart of our current demographics and see so many species all sharing one pie. Tortals, the founding species, make up just 16% of the total population. The largest group? The Zith. A fact that Damnation Joe would be proud of. Sadly, he passed away recently. Zithorians never did live very long.
But our multicultural nation remains a reality, thanks to him. Even the Scrub have citizens living their brief insect lives on some of our habitats. Here's one living on the orbital habitat TV Dinners & Contentment.
With the Unbidden vanquished and the galaxy back to “normal”, elections begin again. This time, a human becomes president for the first time - another multicultural milestone.
More importantly, we have begun work on a new megastructure – a ringworld in the Wet Kibble system, deep in the Shell. A place where all can live freely and openly. A democratic “Gaia” world fit to inhabit any type of species. One of the sections will doubtless be called “Damnation”. Or, you know what, maybe just “Joe”. That has a nice egalitarian ring to it. Yeah. The universal name: Joe.
Finally, I add a universal welfare system for every race, something we should have done long, long ago. It’s not going to be a perfect galaxy, and who knows how long the multicoloured Shell of the Open Gates will hold in a galaxy full of empires and despots who ban “aliens” from entry. But Joe is a world worth trying for. If you ever find yourself in trouble with intergalactic assholes made of a rarefied and maleficent energy, come to the Open Gates. We’re all aliens here.
If you enjoyed learning about Tortal history and want to pick up this game a few years after the point Brendan left off, download the .sav file here. Just plop it into this directory: USERNAME/Documents/Paradox Interactive/Stellaris/save games. Then run the game and load it from the main menu. Warning: you might need all the available DLC to get the most out of it. Second warning: there's a bit of a war going on.