"The Pharos Gate"
Humanity's expansion through the galaxy
began slowly, a rising tide of
generation ships, sleeper ships, embryo ships
creeping along below the speed of light.
In time they improved, chasing the rainbow's edge,
but still toddling on a galactic scale.
The colonies settled in the early phase
soon lost touch with each other.
Then one crew of explorers
discovered the remnants of an alien civilization,
and among those ancient ruins,
the first jump gate.
That led them to Pharos, a hub
connecting jump gates in many far-flung places
to reunite the scattered planets of humanity,
forming a vast web between the stars.
Pharos became the jewel of the Annula,
a ring of cosmopolitan worlds
looped around the rim of the galactic core,
shining with knowledge and technology.
Next came the Laceum,
a loose network of planets farther out
with periodic traffic and variable development,
the Lacer worlds always a joy and a challenge.
Beyond the Laceum lay the Fimbria,
a ragged fringe of worlds connected to few others,
some with occasional contact, others lost and found,
Fimbrial planets wild and isolated and still full of wonders.
Along with the gates came many more marvels --
the biotechnology of jumptech tools and weapons,
the hiveships better than mute metal at jumping the gates
and able to bond with a human crew.
Yet what it means to be human has also changed,
for jumptech extended the ladder of life and
the gates themselves sometimes transformed travelers,
so that populations began to diverge in strange new ways.
Each planet has its own race of people,
often adapted to suit its unique challenges,
sometimes sculpted with purpose and care
but other times altered all unknowing.
Wildcatters still explore the jump lanes,
seeking new gates despite the danger,
for the rewards may be beyond wonder
and the distant stars yet beckon.
Civilization is delicate and beautiful
as a veil of lace spread over infinite space,
carefully stitched together by the actions
of a few devoted souls.
The spaceborn form a bridge between cultures,
sharing and combining knowledge from many sources;
and the shapeshifters travel from world to world,
blending in to mend what problems they find.
Seen from afar, it is the slow blooming
of a flower as it sprouts anew from dormant roots,
life in all its riot and color and clamor
reaching out to flourish and fill the waiting space.
* * *
Generation ships, sleeper ships, and embryo ships are all types of interstellar ark used for sublight exploration.
Jump gates appear in science fiction as a way to travel galactic distances easily, in the overlapping tropes of hyperspace lanes and portal network. Here an alien civilization has found the most efficient routes between distant points and connected them using advanced biotechnology, which humans have later discovered.
Pharos originally referred to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a symbol evoking knowledge and civilization.
Annula means "ring" and comes from the term annŭlāris or annular for "ring-shaped."
Laceum means "lace" and refers to the looping pattern of the gate routes in this area.
Fimbria means "fringe" and describes the edges of gate-connected space.
Biotechnology is based on living systems rather than inert materials such as metal or glass. Human technology is primarily inorganic; alien technology is primarily organic; and people have learned how to splice them together.
The hiveships comprise a kind of bioship, also appearing in the trope living ship. They consist of several parts joined together, each with its own individual awareness and a collective memory, forming a hive mind or group mind. They were discovered along with the jump gates.
Genetic engineering is the detailed manipulation of life for human purposes. It appears in the trope bioaugmentation. In this setting some of it is deliberate, on planets with high enough technology for people to adapt themselves to local conditions. But there are also cases where people who went through a jump gate were warped in unexpected ways. It's alien tech; nobody really knows how it works, just how to use it. Mostly. Sort of. If they're lucky and it's not glitchy at the moment.
Shapeshifting entails the ability to change bodily features. This version is akin to the trope humanshifting, because it focuses on humanoid forms. However, it's a metamorphic function based on biotechnology rather than a quick shift.