Taking one last look at those unnatural shapes, the CreoDron board of directors slowly removed their Egones and returned their attention to the other figures huddled around the table. Everyone was waiting silently in the darkness. Those with ocular implants bowed their heads slightly, and the strange images faded from their mind.
"We only have these six so far," a voice said from a speaker in the middle of the table. "But what you are seeing says enough. There is an 18% probable match, just from this one alone."
A reproduction of the last image suddenly dominated the far corner as a large plasma-nanite panel came to life. The intense colors of the scene overwhelmed the dim starlight that filtered in through one of the clear walls, the pale blues of Carirgnottin I subdued by the glow of a deep crimson nebula on the screen, teeming with the lives and deaths of a thousand stars. The backdrop seemed to pulse beyond the silent and lifeless structures, drenching the entire room in a strange sanguine hue.
The clearest of the six, the image showed a ring of circular, dome-like structures, which would later come to be known as Enclaves. Each structure was connected by conduits that arched around to every other dome, joining the separate discs together at perfectly smooth angles. Scale was difficult to determine, but the entire complex was easily the size of a station. Though nobody would venture a comment, there were some who even then guessed that it was a city they were looking at.
A city of sorts.
As they stared in silence, each director's eyes eventually came to settle on the imposing dagger-like spires that jutted out from the ring, their angles sharp and yet each edge beautifully smooth. There was no visible seam, no weak point in the gently overlapping and undulating armor. Eight of these spires towered over the rest of the area, standing watch like ancient protectors.
"Not ten seconds after our drone was sent in to capture this image, we lost the feed."
"We need to send real people in," one of the directors interjected, brushing the Egone before him aside in a less than subtle gesture of dissatisfaction.
The last comment from the superior was meant to have been dramatic. It was supposed to have humbled the subordinates into contemplative silence and sent them fumbling at the sheer scope of what had already been uncovered. The fast-moving minds of the men and women here shelved such concerns for now, however, and quickly prioritized other matters entirely, robbing their leader of his first contact moment.
In retrospect, the old man (as he indulged himself in being called) would appreciate the quick-witted minds of his "subordinates" and their own lists of concerns, particularly since this was, in fact, not the first time New Eden had been here.
"Another hour spent deploying drones will mean someone else beats us to the discovery," one of the directors offered, skirting the deeper point entirely as they opted for pragmatism.
"And it could mean much worse than that," another director added furtively, throwing some more ambiguous worry into the mix. The room was still fixated on the ring of domes, and the dark, shadowy spires that rose above them; the reminder was somewhat premature.
"Let's not waste time stirring people up with innuendo, Mr. Darieux." The softness of a female voice commanded the attention of the room, long before those gathered actually perceived the gross insult she had dared to utter.
The woman who spoke was a Federation Senator – and a Jin-Mei woman at that. This brashness was not her fault. She could only know assertion to be where she stood now, glimpsing something before her superior was even aware. She had long ago recognized that the fastest route to the truth was not dissimilar to the flight path of a bullet, or the trajectory of superheated coronal mass crashing into a planet: an inevitably straight line.
There was no other way to run something as vast as the empire she helped steer, and so she followed up quickly with another lunge for the truth, before anyone could muster their senses to speak.
Board room etiquette could go fuck itself.
"We all know who you intend to throw out there."
A lasting silence hung about the room as the others lowered their gazes, dreading to watch the exchange.
No matter what happens next, they thought, she's out of here.
"Do you disagree with this course of action?" The voice from the speaker asked, the stillness and calm in his voice like venom, slowly paralyzing everyone in the room. He was making it her call now – a tactic she never thought to expect.
"Very well," the voice replied. "Someone find Burreau."
The directors raised their gazes and quickly arranged for the extraction of one of their finest through a few simple gestures and nods. First, all eyes turned toward the two Security Directors, whose bowed heads assured the rest that Burreau's personal bodyguard had already been contacted and support was inbound. From the way they almost smirked, it meant their people were close enough to presume she was safe. A criss-cross of raised eyebrows thereafter would confirm the temporary closure of key stargate logs, and a "clean" route from her current location to HQ, as well as fleet support from a wing of CreoDron's finest.
Black Ops fleets had been deployed, Sin Battleships were already undocking and rapidly vanishing in flashes of blue light as they were each deposited along a chain of cynosural fields stretching outward toward Burreau – toward something each crew knew only as the cargo. Local CreoDron patrols relocated to stargates, ready to intercept. Ishkurs and Ishtars deployed drones preemptively in a gesture of threat, drifting at a distance from the passing civilian traffic as their larger brothers circled above, invisible to all.
Before the directors had exhaled for the second time, her passage had been secured and escort arranged. A valuable asset, they understood. Worth the cost of deployment. Perhaps that senator grasped this much as well; it would explain the behavior. Their eyes never quite left her as she stood in the corner, arms folded, failing entirely to understand their secret language of smiles and nods.
Maybe she's staying after all, they thought, looking among themselves. Maybe the Jin-Mei came without permission.
Maybe it's personal.
Hilen was still there, staring at the ground where Lianda had stood. For just one moment longer, he would allow his eyes to rest on the soft marks in the grass, tracing over the trail of small footprints she had left for him.
Cold Wind taught him to move without sound or track, and to perceive the paths that are hidden.
It was his job to follow her now.
"That was One I just had here. Did you get a trace on the call?"
“Carirgnottin, sir. She's not moving either. We have her on infrared at the moment, and she's still in place.”
“ Two is still missing?"
“Sir, permission to speak freely?”
"What is it, Arii?"
"The security detail on her right now is like nothing we've seen. The feet on the ground have multiplied by a factor of ten…my whole team is on edge. The timing, sir. Seyllin."
He hesitated for a long moment, wondering just how much of the last conversation she needed to hear in order to do the job effectively. He only knew it wouldn't have to be everything. Hilen Tukoss never shared a detail people didn't need to know.
"With respect, sir, it's obvious. An entire planet was just destroyed by some cosmic event and the astrophysicist we've been tracking for months just disappeared. Vanished. Off the grid completely, without any of us knowing where that second clone went. And now we're being told that her surveillance status has been bumped to top priority?"
“Let me bring you in then," he said, turning her own zeal back around. "If you are ready to assume equal responsibility for our new assignment?"
"I'm ready," she replied without hesitation.
"CreoDron has just discovered a new solar system. They arrived there through an unknown wormhole in Vitrauze. They believe the events in Seyllin created this wormhole, and may have created others. So far, only scout drones have travelled to the other side, but what they have found suggests that this system is home to another civilization. Five images returned only planets, the last shows something else entirely. They found structures, large ones, and I don't mean on a planet."
"How advanced are we talking?"
"While scouting what appeared to be some kind of facility out there, one of CreoDron's drones was shot down. The other five are still positioned at the entrance to the system."
"Sir, we need to get to Vitrauze."
He considered for a moment the 82% probability that things were not as they seemed. He couldn't dismiss it, but he distrusted the numbers. Instinct was telling him that nothing ahead was all that foreign, that they needed diplomats, not scientists.
"No," he replied, staring down at the information panel overlaid on his wrist. Soon enough, a flood of intel would begin to pour in as a hundred different sources all alerted him to the same event. "Check the news feeds. One is about to hold a briefing live on The Scope."
"They're going to announce the findings?" Arii asked, turning her attention toward a nearby screen as she searched for the face of her prey. She could see movement on the infrared – she was sitting upright. Like she's about to say something important, Arii thought.
"No," he repeated. "They're not, and there's no point chasing them. They're about to contest the CONCORD travel advisory, and yes, soon after they'll announce the wormhole. Six press releases later though, and they might start talking about scout drones, maybe release an image or two, but they're sitting on this. They won't release that sixth image."
" So the Vitrauze project can continue undisturbed. Why do you think we lost Two? She's gone already."
"If she's gone already, then why aren't we going as well?"
"Because someone in the Senate was feeding her intel before CreoDron even arrived. I doubt every senator has been made aware at this point. There's too many; it would risk a leak."
"Someone highly placed?"
"Perhaps, but not necessarily. Someone who at least has an overview of security. Someone with pull."
"So you think the area has been locked down already?"
"I'm not sure, but they only need to know what system to look in, and then we would become very noticeable, very quickly. We've stumbled on to something here, and right now, nobody knows it is the only advantage we have."
"What's our plan then, sir?"
"First we need to pass this up the chain of command."
Somewhere far from Carirgnottin I, in an equally dark and oppressive board room, another group of figures waited impatiently as one of their own excused himself to take a call.
"Have you lost control of your asset, Hilen? Do you even know where she is?"
Hilen felt his wrist grow warm. Looking down at the information overlay once more, he could see the first trickles that would soon become the flood. A hundred of his best people all turning in the wrong direction.
"We know where One is. If you're near a holovid screen--"
The man raised his view to one of the panels filling the lobby outside the board room. Just below a large platinum-thorium etching that read “ZAINOU BIOTECH - BOARD OF DIRECTORS,” there was the pale, innocent face of the Jin-Mei he'd ordered his corporation's best surveillance to watch. The voices back inside grew louder for a moment before being quickly overcome by the growing sound of her own voice. They were all watching now.
"I see her. What is going on?"
"They're escalating her profile. It's a distraction, sir, and I need everyone there to ignore it. We have a situation unfolding in the background."
"Before I explain, I need you to get in touch with Ishukone. Find someone as high up the ranks as we can get quickly and unofficially. We're going to need them for this."
Hilen waited for an answer.
"I see," the director finally offered. "Tell me, Hilen?"
"Is it their previous experience that you're after?"
And suddenly Hilen realized that he knew. He knew something, at least. Enough to ask the question, and ask it in such an indirect way. There was no telling what was infiltrated now. No line was secure.
"Yes, sir." Hilen felt a dull ache in the depth of his stomach, the pain of the one soldier who returned back to base alive, having seen the onslaught to come.
Except this time, nobody had fired a shot, and nobody would.
What do you intend, ambassador?
I propose we call for a private summit of national leaders, to discuss an exchange of information and come to an agreement about the best use for select recovered parts. We could use the Inner Assembly to arrange for the meetings quite easily under the guise of an understandable concern for these events, which have touched our worlds too, as we will inform them.
It will be systematically accumulated and re-integrated into current technology in ways that render the salient points unrecognizable. The finer details will have to evolve organically, but the framework will be a new, non-binding agreement regarding scientific commodity trading. Although the primary motivator will be the acquisition and development of new technologies, there are also factors such as quarantine periods, comprehensive safety testing, and many other additional barriers to access the empires can and will likely impose without suggestion. The various research benefits inherent to each unit guarantees widespread financial self-interest. Our engineers have already produced a range of schematics. Some of them are new technologies, but we believe the concession here is a smaller one in the long term. Where we could, we focused on improvements upon pre-existing methods.
How do you suppose this will even work to suppress the information?
You must understand two things. The first is human sensitivity. Seyllin is dominating the media, and as such, it is dominating the public consciousness. This works to our advantage, but only for so long. The world’s attention is turned toward the disaster, so now is the most opportune moment to make bold moves elsewhere. None of them want to be the first to speak about the potential profits, the new resources, the opportunities and secrets that can be uncovered. At this moment, those avenues will be forced into the background, and yet undoubtedly pursued all the same. If the empires are already operating on a covert footing, then we need not lead them there.
You seem confident in this plan.
I simply believe it will be an easy law to pass in this moment. The non-binding nature will appear in line with the current lack of information. A symbolic gesture made in the spirit of peace and cooperation, made quietly and where few look, a means for all parties to ensure a more secure future.
Naturally, there will need to be a waiver on capsuleer-related science and industry, but this is the second thing you must understand. The truth will find its way out eventually. Please forgive me for saying so, but I cannot properly serve in this role if I do not give you the most accurate analyses I can. The truth will find its way out. We cannot control their access. It will be they who make the discovery.
How quickly do you expect this to happen?
I cannot say. Their interests are unpredictable, but they are divided and divisive. There will always be ones who question what most do not, but I believe that overall, they will share the same goals as the empires. They will take what they can understand and reintegrate. We may see another rise in their power and autonomy as a result. We should expect them to monopolize on this new opportunity as well. Given the inherent dangers of exploring Anoikis, they are positioned favorably to do so. In terms of raw resource gathering capabilities, conventional empire fleets will not be economically competitive. We will struggle to maintain a presence eventually.
That will turn the empires toward research.
Not if we intervene and provide for them what convincingly appears to be the most promising final applications of any potential studies. This hints at precisely the point we must illuminate. When framed as a concern for the balance of power between the empires and the capsuleers, our interests will appear far more congruent with theirs, and our actions will remain understandable. The empires can be made to quickly appreciate how little control over these new areas they will have, and from there, it will be simple to assist each of them in coordinating access to components we identify as key. They will recognize it as the only opportunity any of them have for strategic equality. None will refuse.
Had she not realized yet? In the early months, we can make a great deal of ground.
She had not. The ambassador swallowed. Emotion was rippling inside each cell, bursting throughout the bloodstream as it tried to break free.
The capsuleers. They will settle. They will understand the network eventually, and they will command it.
They will not be everywhere at once, and we can move undetected.
In this environment, so can they. We are all headed to the same destinations. We have no desire to be noticed, and no hope in conflict with them.
Then we will use these early months well.
She recovered quickly from that thought, he mused. Yes.
If the situation is ever understood in its entirety, as you predict, then there will be consequences for these actions.
I do not share that view. What we do now benefits all parties. If our motives are ultimately viewed as benign, then any perceived wrongdoings can be explained in full detail as they are identified. Trust and clarification at the highest tiers will filter downward and provide the level of institutional compliance necessary to establish the agreement.
You must still realize that we cannot become publicly involved in this?
Yes, this is obvious to me. The suggestion will be put forward earlier, between myself and the other ambassadors, or the national leadership, if you please.
The ambassador cleared his throat. "I understand. Was there anything else you required of me?"
"Did you hear of Burreau?"
"What is your assessment?"
"I believe she is dead."
"You are correct. There was activity on the line. She was at one of the mirrors."
The ambassador almost seemed to smile for a moment. "She learned well."
"She was taught by the best. We are concerned about the reasons why she was chosen. "
"Perhaps you should be, but then there are not many astrophysicists with clones."
"Let us hope it is that simple."
"I would not hope. I would investigate."
"Thank you, ambassador. That is all."
Article 8, Section E
CONCORD subsidization in the acquisition of scientifically valuable by-products.
Although preliminary, through the spirit of peace and co-operation that affirms this treaty, each of the four member nations have exchanged sufficient information to identify four key salvageable materials of scientific interest. Seeking to both minimize their impact on capsuleer economic development and to allow more time for proper investigation into the impact of all unknown materials, the member nations have agreed to focus on four lower tier by-products identified during initial excavations of unknown space.
Clause 1) The four member nations of the treaty have each agreed that the preliminary findings, and any agreements based thereupon, on each of the four units is strictly provisional. Current scientific opinion broadly agrees that these items are of little material value. However, any reassessment undertaken by any of the member nations that is deemed to invalidate this initial finding may be deferred to.
Clause 2) CONCORD, in operation with the SCC, has agreed to facilitate and subsidize the acquisition of these items through capsuleer markets at a standard price agreed upon by all of the four member nations.
October acquisition metrics (Capsuleer Markets / SCC):
Data Library: 11,799,985
Neural Network Analyzer: 1,162,057
Coordinates Database: 244,234
Drone AI Nexus: 70,726