Planet Colline Fleurs, Imperium of Sidhae

Archonal estate

Sometime around year 2640

---

"Good morning, papa!"

"Good morning, baby girl! Did you sleep well tonight?"

"I did, papa! I dreamed of us going to Eridanos IV to hunt panzersharks!"

"Really? And did you catch any?"

"I don't know... They were so scary I woke up. What's for breakfast today?"

"I suppose we will have to wait and see what Mr. Legrain has prepared for us. But first let's wait until mother and your baby brother come to join us."

---

Strategos Hanno Malkar, the commander of the 235th Mechanized Legion, sat at the end of the table, as was befitting to the head of the household. Usually this place was occupied by his wife, given his regular duty-related absence. On those occasions when Malkar was at home, however, the seat was undisputably reserved for him. The strategos was currently looking at a very serious-looking nine-year-old girl, whose olive-brown skin and raven hair immediately betrayed her as his daughter, and his eyes in turn revealed nothing short of immense fatherly pride. Young Ayana Blackwater-Malkar gazed back at her father, her inhumanly-shining eyes plainly revealing her Sidh ancestry, the spark of childly mischief in them contrasting starkly with the dignified lady-like manner that the girl was struggling to carry herself with.

Strategos Malkar was an oddity among the Sidh in having a family and two naturally-fathered children, who were at least technically pure-blooded Sidh at that. The long chain of events that had led him to his current predicament had started some 10 years ago and been sparked largely by his own great ambition and glory-hounding.

Ten years ago, a scout ship belonging to his legion had stumbled upon an inhabited human world in uncharted space a mere few jumps away from the nearest Imperial fringe colonies. Being embroiled in a civil war, the humans had mistaken this ship for one of the enemy's and destroyed it, prompting Malkar to throw his legion into an effort to capture the world in reprisal. Though by all means a very risky gambit, given how there was nearly no intel available on the planet or the factions warring on it, the desire to present the Empress with a new planet captured in her name (and the rewards to accompany such a feat) got the better of Malkar's judgement.

The operation was initially a success, relying mainly on the technological inferiority of the humans, the element of complete surprise, and the state of conflict the defenders were in. However, Malkar would soon realize he had bitten off more than he could chew as this planet turned out to be a part of a considerably larger, thereto unknown human realm called Commonwealth of Altoris, currently embroiled in a civil war with the separatist Free Systems Alliance. An even more interesting discovery, however, were Altmarkers - genetically-enhanced humans who formed an autonomous faction within the Commonwealth. Asides from being taller and stronger than the average human, and disproportionately-female due to a genetic quirk that contributed to an almost 10-to-1 disbalance between the sexes, Altmarkers showed a disturbing ability to use captured Sidh tech - something not generally possible due to a genetic IFF system, which recognized Sidh genetic markers and self-destructed the devices so protected if attempted to use by an enemy species. Studies of captured bodies and live prisoners soon confirmed initial theories that Altmarkers were in fact an offshoot of the Sidh race, descendants of an early generation of proto-Sidhae thought lost during the early years of space travel, when the first Sidhae wandered the stars in search of a new home after their exile from Old Terra.

The whole campaign on Draitous, as this newfound world was named, eventually turned out to be a disaster. Malkar was forced to pull back after his supply lines were overextended and the Commonwealth struck a temporary truce with the FSA to repel the mutual threat, only being saved by the last-minute arrival of an entire Imperial Guard legion. The Imperial Envoy that this legion accompanied negotiated a cease-fire with the humans and took Malkar in to be brought to account for his unauthorized invasion.

Malkar's saving grace that let him escape court-martial and, in the best case, relegation to an administrative job on some Emperor-forsaken fringe colony in the ass end of the Imperium was ironically his womanizing habits. A refined and handsome man, Malkar knew his way with women, so much so that Sidhwomen occasionally fought duels of honour over his affections. During his stay on Draitous, he had found a useful ally in a certain Elizabeth Blackwater, a prominent Altmarker noblewoman and business oligarch. Being stuck on a planet invaded by aliens, and having seen first-hand what the Sidhae did to those who resisted, Lady Blackwater had figured it was in her best interest to collaborate and in doing so save her life and some of the fortunes she held on Draitous. Her collaboration eventually went beyond the minimum necessary, Elizabeth using her feminine guiles to seduce Malkar in hope to secure a more favourable position under his rule. The effort was returned in kind by Malkar, who had laid an eye on the woman anyway, her own interest in him merely making things easier. This relationship of convenience became somewhat complicated when Elizabeth learned she was with child just as Malkar's operation started to fall apart. Now branded a traitor at home, she was forced to flee Draitous with her lover into an uncertain future. Ever the opportunist, however, Elizabeth managed to impress first the Envoy, and later the Empress of Sidhae sufficiently to have Malkar pardoned. A man with unique experience in fighting a thereto-unseen foe could yet prove useful and redeem his failings, had been her argument. Malkar's punishment was therefore made in good humor - he was formally married to Elizabeth by decree of the Empress, and commanded to give up womanizing and be faithful to her and care for any children they might have. Though the ridicule he had to endure at the hands of other Sidh for this at first was indeed a quite harsh punishment for a man as ambitious as himself, Malkar eventually came to embrace and even enjoy his newfound status as a married man and a father. After all, no other Sidh of his rank and standing could claim to be either, and whatever set him apart and attracted notoriety was, after all, a benefit one way or another.

Ten years had passed since those days. The FSA had fallen, conquered by the Imperium - a campaign during which Malkar had redeemed the stain of Draitous on his reputation. The Imperium and the Commonwealth were now embroiled in a cold war despite maintaining an outwardly-civil, if cool relations. Malkar's wife Elizabeth, now the Archoness of the Persean Expanse sector founded in its place, was a prominent and respected, if somewhat controversial politician in the Imperium. More importantly, however, she was the mother of Malkar's two children - Ayana and Hamilkar, the first two pure-blooded Sidhae born naturally in over 500 years. This had made the two children something of celebrities, prominent Sidhae travelling from far and wide to see this oddity insofar as their parents would allow. The Empress had taken upon herself to be the godmother of the two, a role she seemed to enjoy on her occasional visits, and which the children's ambitious parents both appreciated greatly as it gave them her ear.

---

"Good morning, dear husband!" Elizabeth spoke as she entered the spacious dining room with little Hamilkar holding on her hand. Seeing his oft-absent father, Hamilkar immediately let go and ran off to hug Malkar, jubilantly laughing.

"Good morning, love! And good morning to you, my lad!" the strategos smiled, plucking up the boy and seating him in his lap, "A new day to be filled with new adventures, is it not?"

"Yes, papa! Can we go fishing today?!" little Hamilkar agreed, "Please, please!"

"We can later in the afternoon," Malkar smiled at his son, "I have some work to attend to, and you must finish your classes first!"

"Alright, papa..." the boy nodded, slightly disappointed. Not knowing when and if his father would be back whenever called away to work was something he had already learned to contend with in his five years of life.

The family assumed their places around the table, Elizabeth taking the opposite end of the table as the mistress of the house, the children sitting at her both sides. Malkar himself in the meantime greeted the other notable Sidh members of the household, who would customarily eat with the family and were seated closer or further from Malkar depending on their rank and status. The lower-ranking Sidh employees like the guards would eat in their own separate room, but never with the human servants - such an insult to the very status-aware Sidh was unthinkable.

"The breakfast... is served!" the household's chef Mr. Legrain, a native of Colline Fleurs, announced affectionately as a group of servants entered the room and laid down the meals before the attendees.

"Traditional light breakfast a la Altorisien," Mr. Legrain introduced his today's first masterwork, "Two lightly-done toasts of Colline Fleurs' finest white bread, fried eggs and three slices of medium-well fried bacon, accompanied by your preferred beverages."

Little Hamilkar immediately reached out to eat, but Elizabeth slapped him on the wrist.

"Wait!" she instructed in hushed voice, "Your father must speak the Word first!"

In keeping with an established family ritual, Malkar stood up, everyone else following the suit.

"The Word, if you please, Mr. Grey!" he instructed Elizabeth's elderly butler Mr. Grey, who had served three generations of Blackwaters and had since Elizabeth's rise to prominence among the Sidh become the head of Malkar household's servants. Without saying a word, the butler turned and retrieved a copy of "Word of the Emperor" from it's place of honour on a special shelf behind Malkar, where it stood surrounded by candles and censers underneath a gilded icon of the Emperor. Malkar took the book and opened it at a random page.

"I speak His Word!" he announced as was customary when quoting the most sacred of Sidh scriptures, "Duty is the first and foremost of the Three Supreme Virtues. To put the needs of the many above the wants of oneself is what makes societies prosper and species survive. To he who calls himself Sidh, duty is not merely an obligation, but a way of life. The gratification of the moment is fleeting, but the boons brought by commitment to duty last for generations. So I tell ye - spare not the rod of discipline for yourselves first and foremost, nor for others around you, and ask not to be spared from it yourselves! As every crewman of a ship must be at his station and do his utmost for it to navigate the perils of the void and reach safe haven, so too must you be at your stations and do your best at every and all times, wherever those stations be. Your nation is your ship, and your race - your crew, and their survival and well-being rests upon you being at your station, doing your duty diligently and without reserve or complaint. The mark of a Sidh is the choice of duty whenever presented with a choice between it and personal happiness. So lament not your fate, should the call of duty detract from your happiness, but rejoice that an opportunity to prove yourself worthy has found you. Verlily, duty is a harsh mistress, but so too is her embrace the purest and worthiest of all."

"So it is written, so shall be done!" the strategos finally concluded the passage with the customary words.

"Ave Imperator!" those gathered around the table exclaimed as was customary.

Mr. Grey was already prepared for this moment and turned on the stereo system installed inconspicuously around the room to play back "Far Beneath the Distant Stars", the Imperial anthem, like his employers would have it every morning at breakfast after reciting a passage from the Word. The Sidhae gathered around the table sang along loudly and enthusiastically. Although having converted in the years before, Elizabeth was generally reserved about these overt manifestations of patriotic sentiment that bordered on religious faith. She sang along nonetheless to set proper example for her children, keenly aware that displaying a lack of sufficient patriotic zeal within sight of other Sidh could be dangerous to someone in her exalted station of archonship over an entire sector.

Finally, everyone could sit down and eat. The Sidhae at the table briefly discussed the day's plans with Elizabeth and Malkar. Several of the human servants awaited by to serve their masters if they so required. Back in the days before contact with the Sidh, Elizabeth had owned some of them as "indentured servants", which was effectively a thinly-veiled codeword for slaves. One of the reasons behind the Commonwealth civil war had been the issue of slavery, the wealthy elites of the FSA separatists wanting to preserve their old ways of "indentured servitude", and the Blackwaters were generally sympathetic to the separatist cause. After the Imperium had invaded, abolition of slavery had become one of the main Sidh propaganda platforms to secure local sympathies. The Empress had even expressly forbidden the usual heavy-handed methods of pacification that involved liberal application of mass executions, torture, disappearance and forced labour in uncooperative areas, instead opting for a more hearts-and-minds approach. Her strategoi had dutifully carried out these orders, the entire FSA campaign amounting only to some 2 700 000 instances of summary executions, around 6 million acts of public corporal punishment, a few ten thousand war rapes and only 9257 cities levelled to ground by orbital strikes across 105 star systems - an exceedingly gentle treatment of a conquered territory by Sidh standards. Being the resident expert of local culture and having many contacts and resources in the region from before the war, Elizabeth was offered the position of archonship over the newly-conquered territories. The decision had been highly-controversial among the Sidh, as Elizabeth had only recently converted and had never served in the Imperial military, which was normally the absolute pre-requisite for full citizenship and any kind of political office. Furthermore, the standard practice was to put recently-conquered systems under military administration for at least a few years before gradually transitioning to a civilian governance. Regardless, the Empress had no cause to regret going against established practices, as Elizabeth turned out to be a reasonably competent administrator who was also more popular with the human population than the usual Sidh military types. Granted, Elizabeth had to abide by the promised policies of abolition, retaining her household servants as paid employees. All in all, she had been a relatively kind mistress, at least by the standards of the former FSA, but at the same time only the most long-serving and trusted servants like Mr. Grey could hope to be anything more than mere servants in her eyes. Malkar, being a born Sidh, despised the very notion of domestic service as fit only for slaves and mindless robots, and thought even less of the family's servants, but at least strived to maintain an outward civility and courtesy to them.

"Papa!" Ayana suddenly raised her hand and called out. Ever since the arrival of her brother, she had been brooding and immersed in thought, appearing to ponder something as profoundly as a nine-year-old could ever be expected to.

"Yes, dear daughter!" Malkar turned to her, slightly displeased at being interrupted in mid-conversation with the household's security officer about today's schedule.

"Can I ask you a question, papa?" the girl spoke.

"I am sure I will not be able to keep you from asking it," Malkar sighed.

"How are babies made?"

Everyone else at the table chuckled, barely able to suppress laughing out loud, except for Elizabeth.

"Ayana!" she scolded the girl, her eyes shooting daggers. Being raised in a household of conservative nobility, any form of discussion pertaining to procreation had been off-limits in Elizabeth's family. Then again, taboo subjects had frankly been the least of problems in a family whose adult members typically spent much of their time plotting to murder each other to become the sole owners of the Blackwaters' vast fortunes.

So there it was. Young Ayana had finally asked The Question, obviously picking the most inappropriate and awkward setting to do so, Malkar thought. Being a Sidh, family matters and parenthood had generally been largely alien subjects to him until fairly recently, so upon becoming a father, he had thoroughly interrogated his human servants who had children about everything a father would be required to do. Among the things mentioned was The Question, one that every child would inevitably come to ask at some point, and which always seemed to cause a lot of unease and difficulty for parents to answer to.

"I will gladly answer your question after breakfast, Ayana," Malkar spoke aloud, "As it happens, I am headed to a place that will answer your question today, so I could bring you along. But first I must finish talking to Mr. Procopius here."

Content with such an answer, Ayana returned to eating, apparently wondering why mother was so angry about her asking a normal question.

---

"Husband, where exactly is it that you intend to take our daughter?!" Elizabeth demanded to know immediately after breakfast, once the servants and employees had left and Ayana departed to get dressed for the upcoming trip. Her perhaps a bit too paranoid mind had already concocted the worst-case scenario of Malkar intending to visit a secret mistress of his in a maternity wardl.

"To show her how babies are made, of course," Malkar responded nonchalantly, "My legion may be deploying to the Commonwealth against the Skargh in the next month. I need to make arrangements for steady reinforcements and preserving the gene-stock of my soldiers."

"That's not how babies are made!" Elizabeth objected, realizing now with some relief what Malkar had meant, "Well... I mean, not human babies anyway..."

"Our Ayana is a Sidh," Malkar contended, "Or at least, she will be when she comes of age and converts. Today is as good a day as any to explain her how it's done."

"I want to go with you too!" Hamilkar ran into the room, having eavesdropped on the conversation, "I want to see how babies are made too!"

"A different time, my lad!" Malkar dismissed him, "You must do your classes today."

"But papa, that's not fair! I want...!" the boy protested.

"Hamilkar," his father interrupted him calmly but sternly, "Did you pay attention when I spoke the Word? What does our Emperor say about duty? Do you want to be a proper Sidh like your father, or like a whiny weakling crybaby human?"

"I want to be a Sidh! But..."

"Then you must do your duty, and do it well at all times, however hard or unpleasant. And your duty is to study hard! Do you understand me?"

"Yes, papa..." the boy sighed resignedly

---

The nearby city of Fleur-de-Lis an hour's drive away had become something of an unofficial capital of the Persean Expanse since Elizabeth had settled nearby in the estate that formerly belonged to a prominent FSA official. The said official had since been executed along with his entire family on charges of sponsoring terrorism - supporting resistance against Sidh annexation. Most of that family's possessions had been confiscated and auctioned off by the State, Elizabeth having purchased this one estate for a fee that would have been considered insultingly-small even under worse circumstances. Preferring to avoid the crowds of big cities and the company of the shallow and vain human nobility that was now beneath her anyway, the archoness conducted much of her stately affairs from the privacy of her residence rather than a more official place in the city. This arrangement also helped her dedicate more time to her family, an important matter considering how Malkar was often absent because of his military duties.

"Where are we going, papa?" Ayana curiously questioned, sitting in the back of the luxury APC that her strategos father used in lieu of a limousine for official visits. No Sidh military leader would ever want to be seen riding something as decadent and effete as an ordinary limo, certainly not when a proper warrior-like armored personnel carrier could be repurposed for the same end.

"To the place where babies are made," Malkar smiled at her, "I will arrange for a special excursion, so that you can see everything from the beginning to the end."

"We are here, sir," the driver informed from the front shortly afterwards.

The APC approached a massive windowless facility with a fortified gate. A gilded decoration of the Imperial Aquila adorned the top of the gate, perched on the double-helix of DNA instead of the usual thunderbolt. The sensors scanned and recognized the APC and its occupants, the gate opening automatically without requiring further examination by the guards of the checkpoint. The vehicle rolled to a halt in the parking lot in front of the building, several armed guards in powered armor patrolling nearby. Just as Malkar, two of his bodyguards and Ayana disembarked, a Sidh in a lab coat came towards them from the front door.

"Ah, pleasure to finally meet you in person, Strategos!" he spoke, shaking hands with Malkar before noticing Ayana, "And who might this young one be? It is truly her... I've never seen the tapetum lucidum manifest so pronouncedly in a hereditary manner... How marvellous...!"

"Ahem!" Malkar interrupted the scientist who had leaned down to Ayana, musing over her shining eyes much to her confusion, "And you are?"

"Ah, apologies... Dr. Valerius Cale, chief science officer of Fleur-de-Lis State Progenitory! This must be your daughter Ayana, right?" the man snapped back to attention and extended his hand to the girl.

"Pleasure to meet you, Doctor Cale," Ayana accepted the hand with the dignity of a noble lady.

"Young Ayana here has taken an interest in matters regarding procreation," Malkar explained his presence, "I was hoping that you could arrange her a tour regarding that question."

"By all means!" Dr. Cale nodded enthusiastically, "I could also take some genetic samples from her while we are at it! The R&D department would kill to obtain a sample of a DNA like hers! 500 years of genetic enhancement combined naturally with a primordial proto-Sidh DNA without any apparent flaw... That alone would be a material for several dissertations... If you don't object, of course!"

"Ayana, the good doctor wants a small contribution in exchange for your excursion," Malkar turned to his daughter, "A small sample of your blood."

"Will that hurt?" the girl wasn't certain at first.

"Just a little," the doctor reassured her, "And you will make many, many scientists very happy!"

"Alright," Ayana agreed.

"It is settled then," Dr. Cale smiled with an almost child-like delight, "Please, follow me!"

"I trust the production of the genotypes requested in my memorandum is progressing well?" Malkar inquired, "If the word about Imperium's upcoming intervention in the Commonwealth-Skargh war is true, my legion will require a steady supply of new troops, and I want to be sure they are all up to standard."

"Yes, we have ramped up the production of warrior genotypes Alpha-3-9, Sigma-3-3 and Kappa-6-7 by 120%, and are currently expanding the capacity of production lines for the others as well. To meet your requirements, however, we will have to repurpose a number of civilian lines currently in progress, and that will increase in-growth attrition rates significantly. That said, if all goes as planned, the first complete specimens should leave production in three months and production should peak at 50 thousand individuals a months in two years. I trust you will be able to last that long with your existing reserves, strategos?"

"All depends on how the war goes, if we indeed go join it. I trust that the Sidhae currently in production will be augmented to full military standards by the time of activation?"

"This will be somewhat problematic, strategos. Surely you know that augmenting newly-produced Sidh above baseline Tier 1 is against official protocol and as such is strongly discouraged by the standing directives. Any augmentation tiers above One require additional neural imprinting time, especially military-issue augs, and that time comes at the expense of socialization, especially if deadlines as tight as yours are to be met. The Sidhae so produced will serve their purpose as soldiers, I can assure you of that - but they will have serious difficulties in integrating into broader society without proper socialization, and likely suffer from a number of mental disorders if not carefully attended to."

"Half of the Imperial brass is like that. Some quirks aside, they seem to be doing alright."

"True enough, strategos. I am just a progenitor doing what the State in your person requires of me - as the one commissioning this batch of Sidhae, their well-being will legally be your full responsibility, and yours alone."

"War demands sacrifices. Besides, we might as well not go to war at all, in which case you will have all the time in the world to socialize these new citizens."

---

As Malkar and Dr. Cale conversed, the group had made their way to a laboratory in the second floor, where numerous researchers and their robot assistants went about their business, sorting various samples and performing various manipulations on them, the purpose of which eluded an untrained eye.

"Your excursion begins here, young Ayana," Dr. Cale spoke to the girl, leading her into one of the laboratories, "As you may already have noticed, you are in a progenitory - the place where all Sidhae are built. Where humans give birth to live young that are conceived the natural way, our kind is a bit more deliberate and sophisticated about it. The State sponsors the eugenics program, which makes and takes care of all baby Sidhae until they grow up, so that their parents do not have to care for them themselves."

"Why do my parents care for me then?" Ayana curiously asked.

"You? You are different, which is exactly why I am asking for a sample of your blood, so that we can study and learn from it," Cale explained, "If you'd sit down here, please! Now, hold still, this will hurt just a little."

Tapping some instructions in the lab assistant robot's console, Cale pointed towards several hospital gourneys in the lab on the opposite side of the hallway behind a thick glass pane.

"To make a baby Sidh, we normally need a genetic sample from a man and a woman. Of course, we can just copy a sample and make as many clones as we need, or randomize some of the genes and make each of them a similar but slightly different Sidh, but combining material from two members of the opposite sexes is deemed the most safe and effective method. Now, there are several ways how to go about it. The most common one is to extract gametes, which are the cells meant for producing children. Female gametes which are harvested from women are collected over there, in those gourneys. The procedure is quite invasive, and an unfortunate side effect of such procedure is that Sidhwomen become sterile and cannot have children naturally, but that is a small inconvenience in comparison to the benefits. Collecting male gametes is a more... uh, straightforward business and takes place in the room behind that door over there. I'm sure your father can elaborate on the details of that process later."

"What's in that room?" Ayana asked, wincing slightly as the robot sprayed disinfectant on her forearm and jabbed a needle in it.

"Uh... Nothing exciting, really, just a few cabins with couches and some, uh... motivational vids, which make the extraction procedure easier," the doctor explained with some awkwardness.

"The next happens in the next room over there," Dr. Cale continued, "As you see, my collegues working there are sorting and examining various samples. The big machine where those racks of samples are being put is the genetic sequencer. It sequences the genome of every sample put in it."

"What is a genome?" Ayana asked.

"Hmm... It's what makes you you - the code in which everything about your body is written in the language of chemistry, with every letter being a chemical molecule. All these trillions of molecules are arranged in a spiral chain that is called DNA, and the sum of the information written in it is called a genome. Sequencing it means translating this language of chemistry into a language that we can understand, so we can know what each letter and word means and what does it do. For example, there's a gene - a chemical sentence - in every cell of your body that says you will have shining, purple eyes like your mother, and a different one saying that you will have swarthy skin like your father. Half of your genome comes from your mother, and the other half from the father," Dr. Cale explained, retrieving the blood sample from the robot and gesturing to the nearby nurse to take and deliver it to sample collection, "Please, set this one aside for special study."

"So what happens then?" Ayana questioned.

"Once the genomes have been sequenced, we can tell which ones would make the best match, and what needs to be added, removed or changed in each one for best result. This way we make sure every Sidh born receives only the very best from his or her gene-parents. That other big machine next to the sequencer is the genetic redactor, which inserts new gene sequences or removes flawed ones from the samples. Then they are combined according to pre-determined matches," Dr. Cale pointed at several workbenches, where several lab workers sat with neural interface cables plugged into sockets on the back of their heads, each controlling a series of high-speed robotic arms that manipulated the specimen trays coming out of the redactor with inhuman precision and placed them on a conveyor belt leading to the next room behind a wall.

The group moved on down the hallway and through a door, which revealed another laboratory.

"This is the incubation room where the samples begin to grow, and are carefully monitored. Any faulty ones are immediately discarded. The rest quickly grow into embryos, which are then sent to one of the pre-natal growth labs downstairs," Cale explained, displaying racks and racks of samples. Each vial coming in from the adjacent lab was collected by servo-bots and its contents injected into an artificial amniotic sac, hundreds upon hundreds being arrayed on large racks, connected to nutrient feed tubes. The reddish mature ones could be seen to contain a tiny humanoid embryo, being carefully harvested by different robots and loaded on transportation racks to be delivered downstairs via special elevator. The doctor presented the codex on his hand to the security scanner near the door in which the hallway terminated, and it opened to reveal an elevator. The group entered, and the doctor tapped a key to proceed downstairs.

After exiting the elevator, Ayana immediately gawked. This next area was a huge hall, stacked to the ceiling with rows upon rows of vats containing babies in different development stages. These too were tended by various robotic constructs, with only a handful of Sidh supervisors present.

"This is where the future Sidh spend their first three months," Cale continued, "Normally, it would take roughly nine months with human babies inside a mother's belly, but the growth factors added to the hyper-nutritional amniotic solution that they all swim in speed this process up greatly. While here, they are subjected to further genetic enhancement via retroviral and nanite infusions, which introduce additonal new genes and seed populations of nanites which will eventually grow into artificial organs."

"What happens if there's anything wrong with one of them?" Ayana asked.

"Then they are recycled into amniotic fluid," Cale explained nonchalantly, "It would be a waste to do anything else with them."

The excursion took several minutes to reach the next hall, even larger than the previous one, because the vats here were proportionately larger.

"What is happening to those babies?" Ayana asked curiously, pointing at numerous vats which had been intruded by robotic arms, which were apparently performing some sort of surgery on their inhabitants.

"They are being installed with neural interface ports, the very first cyber-aug that every Sidh receives. Every Sidh needs them to interface with machines, first and foremost with the Dreamtime VR," Cale explained.

"What does it do?"

"Since we need these young Sidh to grow up quickly, there is no time for them to be given to parents and raised the old way like humans still do, and like your parents are doing because of the special circumstances that brought you in this world. That's where Dreamtime comes in. It is a virtual simulation of the real world, letting the new minds within it grow, learn, interact with each other and mature. All sorts of simulations can be run there, so that the new Sidhae learn and mature to become fully-capable young adults by the time they are activated. Sometimes we need to cut corners where we can in the interest of time, like your father here recently requested, so that we can produce a particular type of Sidh quickly and in numbers. But that is a risky procedure, because such Sidhae tend to malfunction and go insane more often."

"If you can, at least make sure they don't come off too maladjusted," Malkar interjected, feeling a short-lived pang of guilt about subjecting his future compatriots to such a difficult fate should they survive the battlefields they were destined for. Then again, such was the Sidh way - even if the lives and well-being of a billion had to be sacrificed for a net benefit of the rest, any Sidh leader worth his salt would do it in a heartbeat. A few ten thousand Sidh affected by mental issues that they weren't even likely to live long enough to start suffering from fundamentally meant nothing.

The group walked among the numberless progenitory tanks, where successive groups of increasingly-mature Sidh floated, hooked up to dozens of tubes and wires. Some were being operated on, installed with cyber-augmentations. Ayana stopped to watch one, a boy currently in the early teen growth stage, have a layer of synthetic muscle grafted into his right side, robot arms weaving it with preternatural speed while others held flaps of skin peeled away from the incision. Fresh but already fading scars criscrossing his body elsewhere showed that this youth had already undergone significant enhancements before.

"What are those screens for?" she asked.

"They show the vitals of each Sidh," the doctor explained.

"No, the other ones above their heads," Ayana pointed upwards.

"They let us see what each Sidh in the vats is currently seeing and doing within the Dreamtime."

Indeed, each screen above every vat showed a different picture. Shown from a first-person perspective, some of the Sidhae in the vats played sports games or socialized with each other. Others were subject to terrifying ordeals, struggling to escape disasters, fighting or witnessing distressing things like mutilated bodies and monstrous creatures.

"A Sidh must be prepared for a life in a harsh and violent universe," Cale pointed out, "Which is why each and every one of them is routinely subjected to terrifying and stressful simulations that they must successfuly resolve. It desensitizes them to stress and fear, and moulds them into the assertive, aggressive and fearless individuals that our kind generally are, but also instills them with the importance of obedience to authority and teamwork over personal freedom and ambition."

"What if they disobey?" Ayana asked, watching one feed where the visibly-distraught Sidh inside the vat tried desperately to navigate through a burning building collapsing around him.

"They cannot complete the designated tasks if they do. If they fail, the simulation will restart itself over and over again until they eventually cooperate and complete it. Or go insane, in which case they are recycled. It's not a pretty sight when that happens, but it has to be done," the doctor explained before taking a right turn, "Now then, Strategos, here in these rows are the genotypes you have commissioned. There are more in each of the other twelve blocks of this facility, and more are being built as we speak."

"Wow! They're huge!" Ayana exclaimed. Indeed, the almost-complete men and women inside the vats shown by the doctor were massive, easily above 2 meters in height and highly-muscular.

"They are indeed. These are warrior genotypes," Cale explained, "Admittedly, not all of them will become warriors in your father's legion - although every Sidh is bred for a certain purpose and role in society and encouraged to assume it, the choice is ultimately his or her own. It has long been found that if presented with the option to choose, most new Sidhae will still choose to embrace the role their genotype was designed for, and will also feel less pressured and unhappy about it. We do, however, imprint them to predispose their interests and personalities towards professions that their genotype is intended for, so most embrace their intended purpose subconsciously, without even fully realizing why they chose so."

"Is that how you were made, papa?" Ayana turned to her father, "And why you became a soldier?"

"It is," Malkar said, "It is how every Sidh in the last 500 years has been made. And yes, in all likelihood I became a soldier because I was designed to be good at it."

"What am I designed for?" Ayana questioned.

"A very good question," Dr. Cale spoke, "To which there is no good answer. You are different, conceived and born rather than designed. I suppose it remains up to you to find out what your purpose is."

"Half of you is definitely meant to be a warrior, like myself," Malkar added with no small measure of pride.

Ayana nodded to acknowledge the answer but said nothing, immersing herself in thought. After discussing some more details about the warrior production lines with Malkar, the doctor led the way to another elevator.

This elevator led to another hallway with more laboratories behind large observation windows. Inside, doctors were examining several naked and disoriented young Sidhae sitting on hospital gourneys.

"This is the most special place of all in this entire facility - the activation labs!" Dr. Cale proudly presented the spectacle, "Every new Sidh life begins in a place like this one. Look there - one new Sidh is being activated right now!"

Indeed, a vat emerged into one of the labs from an opening in the wall, lab technicians quickly connecting it to some cables and pipes. It was then rapidly drained of the amniotic fluid and tilted on the side before the many tubes and wires inserted into every interface port and orifice of the Sidh inside disconnected themselves automatically. The last to disconnect was the main interface probe plugged in the back of the subject's head, and the new Sidh awakened with a loud, pained and terrified gasp, hastily crawling out of the vat and collapsing on the floor where the technicians and doctors quickly took him over and started to tend to him.

"He looks hurt," Ayana remarked, "Does it hurt to be activated?"

"Maybe a bit," the doctor explained, "Most of us don't even remember it. It is certainly way less messy and disgusting than how humans are born."

"Mother says I was born like a human," Ayana noted, "But she never told me how exactly that happened. Was that messy and disgusting too?"

"Most certainly," Dr. Cale spoke with a frown at the mere thought, "It is indeed most fortunate for the women of our great race that they are spared such an unsanitary, painful and dangerous indelicacy."

The group left the activation labs through a door that led to a catwalk overlooking an open-air yard. There were a number of young Sidhae in hospital gowns and some doctors and scientists in lab coats. Many of the young Sidhae looked confused and disoriented, moving with jerky, unsteady motions, the staff helping them along. Others, all dressed in identical light-grey jumpsuits and white sneakers, were engaged in various activities, such as playing streetball and exercising, lively chatting with each other or answering to questionnaires given by the doctors.

"This yard is part of the adaptation zone," Dr. Cale narrated, "Newly activated Sidhae spend their first couple weeks here, getting accustomed to the real world under supervision of our staff, who make sure they have no physical or mental health issues. As you can see, the ones fresh out of the vats are having some difficulty moving and speaking. This is completely normal, and usually goes away within a week. They also undertake various aptitude and career orientation tests to help them find their role in society. While we do, of course, encourage them to take on their design roles that they are built to be good at, the final choice remains theirs. Upon leaving this place, each Sidh is assigned a place of residence and his first work assignment - something very basic at the beginning that can be combined with studies."

"Why are there armed guards here?" Ayana pointed at a couple security guards in powered armor carrying imposing stun sticks on their belts, "Do the new Sidh try to escape sometimes?"

"Like all young folk, they sometimes get unruly," the doctor clarified, "Imagine having to break up a fight between two or more of those warrior-genotype Sidh you saw back in the growlabs!"

"How do you punish them if they do something bad?" the girl asked curiously, "My mom usually makes me sit in my room all day or do chores with the servants when I misbehave."

"We do much the same thing here," Dr. Cale smiled, "A few days in isolation on reduced rations usually convinces any miscreants to behave."

---

With that, the tour was largely concluded. Ayana again immersed herself in thought while her father talked over some more details of his upcoming commission with Dr. Cale.

"What do you say to the doctor, Ayana?" Malkar spoke to the girl as the group returned to the parking lot outside the progenitory.

"Thank you for the tour, Dr. Cale," she spoke with amusing seriousness and gravity, "It was very educational."

"And I thank you, Miss Malkar," the doctor responded with a smile, "Your blood sample will be the subject of a lot of very intriguing studies."

---

"Now you know how babies are made," Malkar said to Ayana as the luxury APC began it's way back home, "I trust this trip has taught you many new things besides that."

"Papa," the girl responded, "I learned a lot today about how Sidh babies are made. But I wasn't made like them. You and mother made me like the humans do, but you or the doctor never told me how. How do the humans make their babies?"

So there it was, Malkar thought. Apparently there was no way around The Question.

"Well," he sighed resignedly, "There are the birds and the bees..."