The Cathedral Galaxy setting is now complete with a full set of regional maps, each highlighting a particular area of the galaxy and an aspect of the setting. Extra lore and artwork are scattered throughout, in addition to the larger overview map and establishing descriptions of each region posted here. Enjoy!
My next step is writing a story in this galaxy. I will not make any statements on how long that will take!
In addition, I’ve had a few people ask me about setting role-playing games in the Cathedral Galaxy. That idea intrigues me, and I’m happy to learn that players are interested in using my universe for their games. So, I have put together some lore and gameplay reference materials that you may use. Click through to read more.
Some time ago, I got the germ of an idea for a science fiction story after thinking about the ridiculousness of aliens invading the Earth for its resources. Basically, most raw resources that aliens could find on Earth are also present in other places in the Solar System…without a big gravity well to get down into, and without pesky native species to fight. With our limited space capabilities, we would have to sit here and watch as all the asteroids and moons in the system got stripped. I sat on this idea half-written for a while, until — during the COVID-19 pandemic — I realized something: this is a story about the climate crisis, and it includes some of the feelings I’ve been grappling with about our society’s declining ability to engage with the problems facing us. So, I’ve finished the story, and shared it with a few people.
The general feedback I got from early readers was that, while this is a neat exploration of an idea in the vein of Clarke or Asimov, it lacks character-driven development. And I agree…but I couldn’t think of a good way to add that without it seeming pasted on (or making the story completely about the character-driven problems, and having the alien invasion be the thing pasted on) and avoid muddling the whole point behind the story. So, since I think the lack of character-driven action will make a magazine unlikely to pick it up, I’ve decided to post the story in full here:
“Can I see, Mommy?”
“No,” said Terry. She hunched closer to the monitor for a moment, then leaned over to scribble a note on her pad. Hailey’s day care let out early that day, but her parents were still engrossed in their work at the observatory. So they split their attention.
“Hmm?” Dan glanced up. “Oh, sure. Here you go.” He hefted his daughter above the edge of the desk.
“Daniel! I don’t want her to see her whole future evaporate!”
“She’s too young to know.” Dan’s brow furrowed. “Besides, it’d be more like her great-, great-, great-, …”
“That’s not helping, Dan.”
On the monitor, a repeating loop of sixteen false-color frames showed the telescope’s view of Neptune. Small sparks flitted among the dance of moons. In a time-compressed view spanning several days, some touched down and lifted off. Some of them dove into the outer atmosphere of the ice giant itself.
Hailey flapped an awkward toddler hand at the keyboard. Dan grunted and put her down.
“I’mna gonna evvaprate!” she protested.
“Will anybody even recognize this as a threat?” he asked. “I mean, there are a few groups doing asteroid mining at a proof-of-concept level…but getting to stuff around Neptune is decades, maybe centuries, away.”
Terry rubbed the bridge of her nose. The alien craft had been in the Neptunian system for months. By now, it was clear – from albedo changes of the moons and careful examination of the changes to the aliens’ orbits – that they were mining and removing material. Water and nitrogen ice from Triton, hydrogen and methane from Neptune’s cloud layers – all valuable resources for a spacefaring civilization.
The Cathedral Galaxy: so named to evoke an awe-inspiring structure; something built over generations. Eons before the advent of starflight, the Ancients – Progenitors, Precursors, Archaics, Elders – constructed a galaxy-spanning civilization. They learned to harness energies, manipulate matter, and gather information on a vast scale, ultimately building a network of wormhole passages across the galaxy. At the height of their power, they encountered a malevolence from outside the galaxy: some think an evil intent, some say a natural phenomenon. Nobody yet knows what happened to the Old Ones. Perhaps they died. Perhaps they absconded. Perhaps their essence remains embedded in the constructs they left scattered through the galaxy – some still functioning at mysterious purposes, some long torn down by the forces of gravity and radiation. Perhaps the Elders even remain alive. After all, ages after empires have risen and fell and risen again, no one has penetrated the dense, irradiated Cathedral at the galaxy’s heart.
Thousands of years ago, the first modern peoples discovered the principles of spatial trajection. With this starflight capability, a ship could disappear from normal space and, a fixed time interval later, reappear some light-years away. They soon found ruins of the Prior civilization. Eventually they located the Founders’ great Anchors, entry points to the wormhole network, providing instant transit – much better than time-consuming and energy-intensive trajector jumps. Many other peoples followed suit, and the wormhole passages thus became channels of commerce and information allowing galactic civilizations to be built again. Through their history, the peoples of the galaxy have always been keenly aware of those who came before – and all that has been lost, exemplified by the nonfunctional wormhole gates drifting near many of the active Anchors. Now, the galaxy has reached a relatively stable state. Decadent empires, considered republics, brave adventurers, learned researchers, inventive scavengers, and noble warriors make their home in this galaxy, from the populous core nations to the empty frontier fringes.
It is a galaxy of both promise and stillness at this moment in time. After eons, what is an extra nova in the uninhabited core? What is a rumor of new Anchors opening, or existing Anchors closing, but a rumor? And what is an archaic megastructure activating instruments, seeming to seek for something outside the confines of the galaxy, but a relic running an obsolete program…?
I have been mulling an improved map of the Cathedral Galaxy for some time, and finally bit the bullet. (Here’s the original.) For this improved and expanded version, my method was to draw the line art in black pen on white paper, then invert a photograph and color/manipulate it in Photoshop. I’m pleased with the result.
Amseile, a proud young realm nestled in two star-forming nebula regions. After uniting from several independent systems in 18k450, Amseile fought a devastating war with Shobah with lasting effects on galactic politics to this day.
The Axiom Republic, a large, baroque state of learning and cultural achievement. The Republic’s central location in the galaxy means that it contains many Precursor artifacts such as the Spire and Taron’s Throne, as well as celestial phenomena like the emission nebula Twin Idols, dust clouds of Onyx Space and Silver Run, the active Sapphire cluster, and the end-of-life star Khalkeus that sheds heavy elements.
Harrow’s Core, home of two enigmatic peoples who believe, among other strange ideas, that the galaxy itself is a living organism. There are rumors that a secret and powerful Archaic weapon prevented other polities from absorbing the Core during their expansionary phases.
The realms of what the core nations call the Exiles, nearly cut off from the rest of the galactic network by a quirk of the arrangement of wormhole passages: Babylon, a decadent theocratic empire; the Free Worlds, a xenophobic and militant confederation; and the Underworlds, domain of a people stereotyped by the rest of the galaxy as the Dead Ones – according to one legend, the last of the Ancients, but robbed of their faculties. The Panther Nebula, a dust cloud with an obviously recognizable shape from throughout the Burial Grounds, signals adventurers away from this region.
The Far Reaches, a spiral arm of the galaxy with a sparse population but many lesser Elder relics.
The Imperium of the Triumvirate, once a vast empire, now reduced to three closely allied provinces each under its own despot: technologically advanced, aggressive, and lacking restraint. The Imperium’s skirmishes are not always with other nations. Aoreu is known for the exotic star-forming Menagerie, but the true symbol of the Imperium is the Coliseum, a Progenitor-built sphere surrounding a white dwarf, where biomechanically modified beings battle for citizens’ amusement.
The Mariner Worlds, a loose affiliation of wanderers, not all native to this sparse region or even to the galaxy itself. Among these worlds are Harbor, a focusing construct partially surrounding an unusual dwarf star that appears on the verge of collapse to a neutron star; Haven, a resource-rich protoplanetary disk; and the Lighthouse, an array of transmitters and instruments aimed into the extragalactic medium.
Shobah, a nation of rigid structures and protocols, home to a sect of Librarians who believe that the Ancients discovered all knowledge it is possible to find, and therefore focus all research on the ruins scattered throughout the galaxy. Knowledge gleaned from the Ancient wrecks helped Shobah fight off Amseile’s incursions in the war.
The Traders’ Rim, where the layout and performance of the Channel Anchors make the region vital for speeding commerce and communication among the central galactic states from the Imperium to Shobah. Traders are some of the few people grudgingly accepted into the Free Worlds, making them a tenuous link between that region and the inner galaxy. Prominent landmarks in the Rim include the blue giant Azure, the black hole Point of No Return, and the planetary nebula Mokid’s Eye.
The Ramparts, filled not only with ancient artifacts from the First Ones, but also with the remains of several civilizations that died out before contact with others.
The Sea of Relics, a span with a high proportion of Elder artifacts – many of them still functioning, such as the cryptic information repository at Bastion. Radiation from the active jets of The Pillar keep this region relatively uninhabited. The Burial Grounds, on the other hand, collects fragmented wrecks of Archaic constructs after gravitational tides and cosmic radiation have weathered and broken them down.
The Well of Ghosts, a devastated region scattered with burned worlds and detritus from the Amseile-Shobah wars. It stands as a monument to the terrible power of starflyers’ weapons.
Not all peoples of the galaxy are rooted to a location. The Waygehn had the misfortune of evolving close to the end of their star’s life, and are now spread throughout the Axiom Republic, Traders’ Rim, Imperium of the Triumvirate, and Amseile to form their own political super-entity. Many Waygehn located functional-but-inert relics and retrofitted their own systems onto the ancient hardware to form great arkships and wandering space stations.
I wanted to try drawing a map full of labels, but no place names. Instead, I would fill it with events and stories suggestive of the cultures living in the lands I depicted. This is the result:
Much of the importance we place on a location comes from the stories associated with it. So, this map is covered in people and actions identified with places. Their struggles and triumphs fill the lands, drawing us into chains of associations.
Here camped Lastos’ army on the eve of battle. Sfola’s Last Masterpiece depicts this forest. Foalic stole the Emerald Shield from this cave. Here was the site of the Second Arbiter’s Congress – possibly related to the Fishers’ Revolt, the first shots of which were fired in this nearby village.
Looking at the labels, you may notice that roughly half of them have a preceding number in parentheses – what might appear to be a year. These labels speak of military campaigns, scientific exploits, political victories, founding of religions, and significant personages. The other half, without a corroborating date stamp, mention more dramatic exploits: giant creatures, heroic duels, stolen artifacts, and encounters with the supernatural. Are these myths of the local culture? Or do they hold some kernel of truth? Continue reading Legends and Histories→
It is not circular in the literal sense shown on ancient maps of the Earth, before we understood Earth to be a sphere. Rather, Gliese 581g spins at the same rate as it orbits its star, so its sun is always in the same place in its sky. Heat from the red dwarf, distributed by the circulation of the atmosphere, keeps a circular region under the star warm enough to melt ice into liquid water. Thus, the habitable regions fall entirely within a disc under the constant light of the red star. Outside this region, water freezes – and the further one goes out onto the ice, the more inhospitable it gets. Travel to the far side of the planet is about as difficult as traveling from the Earth to the Moon – and so, to the inhabitants of Zarmina, their world might as well be a circle ringed in ice.1
This artist’s concept, based on image mapping from our recent interstellar probes, depicts the habitable region of Zarmina:
For discussion of Zarmina, some reference points and directions are necessary. The circular boundary of the map is the ice line: beyond this point, water is certain to freeze. The center of the circle thus defined is the substellar point. When standing here, the red dwarf Gliese 581 is directly overhead. This image shows Zarmina oriented with is orbital plane horizontal. The planet has a south magnetic pole pointing roughly towards the top of the page, and so the “top” and “bottom” of this map become the cardinal directions north and south. East and west take on their usual definitions.
Gliese 581g is approximately three and a half times the mass of Earth. It is tidally locked to its star, meaning that one side always faces its Sun just as one side of the Moon always faces the Earth. Gravitational tides from the star also have the effect of pulling the rocky surface of the planet into an oblong shape, like a rugby ball. Since our probes reached the Gliese 581 system,2 we determined that the planet has a tiny orbital eccentricity (from perturbations by the other planets in the system) which causes a periodic shift in the gravity force on the planet: slightly east to slightly west, and back again, every Zarminan day (about 37 Earth days). The combination of the periodic variation in stellar tide and the fact that the ocean is more mobile than rock makes dry land much more common in the center of the disc than near the edge, as we see in the map.3
I had been trying to sell this story for a while now, but was not successful. There’s a bit of a catch-22 to selling a short story for the first time: without any feedback from editors and readers, there is no way for me to tell whether a rejection was because the story didn’t align with a publication’s interest at the time, or whether they didn’t think the story was very good. (And if it wasn’t very good…what it did wrong.)
This makes me sad, because I got lots of positive feedback from people who went to graduate school in a technical field. I think that maybe that’s the problem: the story appeals to too much of a niche crowd.
Anyway, here it is, the version of the story I most recently tried to sell. It’s about a young scientist presenting her findings at a research conference, and the unexpected reception she encounters there. It was inspired by some of my own experiences in grad school.
The numbers didn’t match up. Ceren Aydomi tapped her desk, frowning at the resonance spectra before her. The projections cast pale purple and green light over Ceren’s face, spilling down the front of her body and glinting from the polished glass surface of her desk. The peaks of each spectrum marched onward, rapidly deviating from her calculations. And the Three Hundred Seventy-Eighth Channel Interstice Studies Meeting was only two days away. Continue reading Original Fiction: “Conference” (final draft)→
Well, since I just had some discussion about orbits and other fundamental physical concepts in science fiction, here’s a short scene I’ve been sitting on. It’s set in the Cathedral Galaxy, and I’m not quite sure what I want to do with it yet.
The Kite stretches his solar wings wide, spanning over five hundred meters. He fans out his array of electromagnetic membranes, thermal structures, transceiver antennae, and weapon emitters, flourishing. The Kite’s voice booms out over the electromagnetic spectrum, mingling with the others in the Coliseum, as they announce themselves to the assembled spectators:
“In salute, we die and live by the will of the Imperium!”
The Kite pulls one solar wing out from the light flux to tack. He wheels around, scanning and assessing his competitors. He catalogues their capabilities but pays special attention to their faces – distended from all the grafts and alterations, stone-gray and glassy-eyed from the environmental treatments, yet still faces. The younger competitors growl and sneer at him, while the more experienced repay his cool appraisal in kind. Today, The Tiger and The Worm worry him.
Silence falls across the EM bands, leaving The Kite with only the intermittent discharges from the Coliseum walls. His stomach (though no longer really a stomach) lurches in anticipation. A moment drags on in the flickering silvery shell of the Coliseum, buried in the sparse mist of an orange nebula. This could be the day, thinks The Kite, when I die. Again.
The Kite pulses an electromagnetic field, launching himself away from the spherical inner surface of the Coliseum. The others do the same. Continue reading In the Arena→
I have come into the possession of a most extraordinary object, which I procured rather fortuitously before the auction of goods from an insolvent boutique on the East Boulevard. I do not know how long it lay, disused and uncared-for, in a dusty drawer at that establishment, or when the boutique acquired it. The artifact in question is a curious map of the southern continent. I have scrutinized the place names and cross-referenced the markers corresponding to cities and towns with the atlases and charts in the City Library, and I have determined that this map dates from approximately 530 A.E. It covers the area from the North Barovin Mountains in its upper-left extremity, to historic Vorsvenbal in the south and all of South Brenin, Kalatchal, and part of Olahira to the east.
The famous dòm Gurand Map of our southern continent does not only provide interesting historical and societal context, but contains some surprisingly accurate geographic information. One can examine the map for geological purposes, for evidence of historical wind patterns, and for characteristics of the climate of the year 530. Drainage areas of rivers are readily apparent, for instance, and the cartographer has captured some of the different qualities in the mountain ranges. Continue reading The Map→
This story has one purpose: to build on this entry to demonstrate how a space battle might actually play out. It has the thinnest of plots and the flattest of characters. My goal was to be as “hard” in the science as possible, at least conceptually–not that I can’t perform the necessary orbit calculations (see, e.g., this) but to show that a writer need only know some basic concepts, and could then use them for dramatic effect.
Anyway, I hope it’s entertaining.
(A hearty “thank you!” to the readers over at Gizmodo, some of whose comments on this article helped shape bits of this story.)