Enduring Symphony appeared in a flash of light above a barren world, in a system that seemed largely deserted. “We’re detecting several mining operations on the surface below, but those seem to be automated. I’m detecting no life-sign, only machines. Even most of the machines are currently inert. From the traces left behind, I’m guessing that someone’s been mining rare minerals here. Specifically heavier elements.” Nochehuatl reported as he read the sensor readings.
“Are there any signs of ships? Even broken ones will do.” Amaterasu asked. She knew they needed information and maps at the moment. They had warped into the most remote warp beacon in the galaxy that contained hundreds of them, and the maps that they now had were hopelessly out of date. as they came from the time the Dhar were still around.
“There are some remains of ships that seem to have broken down. They appear to be freighters. According to the analysis, the atmosphere is breathable, but the planet below is quite hot, prone to sand storms, and lacks moisture. It should be fine to send a team though.” Nochehuatl replied and gave his recommendation.
“Nox, have Ka’aukai prepare a team. They will be escorting Xiaoli to the ships Nochehuatl detected. Let’s see if we can get anything from them. Xiaoli should be perfect for the job. How about the beacon?” Selendil asked.
“The beacon is in a remarkably good condition. It’s not quite pristine enough to be recently built, but it’s hard to determine if it has simply been well maintained by someone, or if it’s something built after the fall of Dhar.” Nox estimated. “We would need to bring it on board to run a more precise analysis.”
“Make it happen. I think we need to know.” Selendil decided. That would be a rather vital bit of information.
“Permission to lead another team to the largest still operational mining operation? We might run into automated defenses but we might also learn some things the wrecked freighters can’t tell us. It’s a risk, but a rather small one all things considered.” Amaterasu suggested.
Selendil nodded her approval. “Nox, have Ka’eo form another team. I also want to get a feel for how well he performs. Ka’aukai had good things to say about him, but we need to make our own determination. With Amaterasu there, they should be able to deal with most issues.”
“I think we might have enough information to form some initial theories. It will be pure speculation, but…” Moonshadow interjected. Selendil gestured for her to continue.
“Well, the maintenance of the beacon suggests that this isn’t just a case of their mining operation happening to be in the same system as one of the beacons. You mentioned that there are hundreds of the beacons in this galaxy. I think that number is rather important. To me it seems that the only reason for a beacon to be here is to be used for its original intended purpose, to facilitate the moving of goods between a remote mine and wherever the goods are going to by warping them. That they can use a beacon for mining purposes suggests that warp isn't something extraordinary to them. However, the relatively low number of beacons suggests that it's not their primary form of travel for some reason. Otherwise, there would be thousands of the beacons. They are bottlenecked for some reason, either because they can’t make more beacons, or because they can’t fully and freely utilize warping. Maybe they have a limited number of ships that are warp capable?” Moonshadow speculated.
“That’s a lot of assumptions you’re making.” Nochehuatl pointed out the obvious problem. “Any single one of them is likely to be true, but with that many assumptions built on top of one another…”
“Well, that’s just an initial theory. We’ll start either confirming things or disproving them soon enough. Selendil, has the warp network of Dhar in this galaxy been used?” Moonshadow easily admitted that her theory was potentially iffy.
Selendil had checked the network of the wrecked galaxy before they left and had soon determined it had not been used by anyone else. She closed her eyes a bit to do the same here. “No. There are traces of someone trying to access the system though. They failed, but the attempt itself proves that someone knew enough to even make the attempt.”
“Who would have that kind of knowledge? I just want to be aware of all the possibilities.” Moonshadow asked.
"Well, we already suspect that at least one void wraith that used to possess a Dhar cooperated with the people who caused the explosion. Theoretically, anyone who they told could also be aware. A few of the most advanced client races. Many of them were vaguely aware of something like the network, but only a few of them knew about its exact nature." Selendil got lost in thought a bit as she considered other possibilities.
“Any AI left behind.” Nox interjected. “Well, not all of them were aware of such details, but at least those at the level of Haven.”
"Not many of us were left behind though," Haven added. "Even if they managed to reach a certain level of self-awareness after being roused from a slumber as I did, I don’t really see them spreading the information around. We were created to serve the Dhar and can’t really diverge from that programming.”
With that, their theories reached a slight impasse. They needed more information. The two groups launched to the planet below in shuttles while Nox brought the beacon on board. Xiaoli’s team was the first to reach their destination. “These ships are really badly damaged and eroded by time and nature. The local weather has done a number on them. Who knew sandstorms could do such bad things to ship hulls.” She reported sarcastically. They all knew that a single sandstorm would not be anything to worry about, but constant exposure over the millennia would leave its mark.
“You joke, but I think I might not have made myself entirely clear. The wind speeds during the storms on the planet can reach hundreds of kilometers per hour, and I don’t mean one or two hundred either. There’s no vegetation to slow down wind speeds, and even mountains are sparse. Besides, judging by the orbit of the planet the heat can grow so intense during the summers that the sand might melt into glass. There’s quite a bit of glass scattered around the hottest areas. So intense storms of glass shards instead of simple sandstorms.” Nochehuatl explained with a burst of hissing laughter.
“Umm, yeah, I’d like to pass on that one, please," Xiaoli replied decisively.
“Don’t worry, the planet is experiencing a relatively cool period at the moment. You might still get the storm but without the added bonus of flying shrapnel. Unless the wind picks up the shrapnel already on the ground that is. Luckily that stuff is already somewhat worn down and not as sharp.” Nochehuatl joked.
"Fuck it! We're speeding through this one. Ka'aukai, you heard the man. We're getting out of here as soon as possible!" They heard her shout over the comms.
After fifty minutes of jiggering with the ship, Xiaoli reported in again. “Well, the good news is we got some maps. The bad news is that they aren’t exactly all that up to date either. The ships have been here for at least a thousand years. I had to power the computers up with the generator we brought along with the shuttle. According to what remains of the logs, the owners didn’t bother fixing the ships. They removed the important bits like the engines and power core before leaving the rest here.”
“What’s the year on the last log entry?” Amaterasu’s voice asked over the comms.
“958. Why?” Xiaoli asked.
“That’s a bit over a thousand years ago then. According to what I’ve figured out, the mining equipment at least thinks it’s now year 1999 since the founding of the empire. Which empire that is, I can’t tell. What I can tell is that the world has been a major mining world for over a millennia and a half. It’s running out of useful minerals though, which is why it’s being abandoned. The rest of the equipment, and importantly the beacon, are scheduled to be removed in another ten years. Most of the stuff has already been removed.” Amaterasu revealed her discovery. They had run into some security, but even most of that was already gone.
“Anything else useful?” Selendil asked.
“Hard to say. According to the data, this place had people around at some point but it has been fully automated for at least fifty years now. The world was never truly inhabited aside from the mining crews. There are several references to the empire and its bureaucracy, but very little of anything specific. I don’t think this place had more than a few dozen people present at once even at its height, and they seem to have cleaned up everything truly useful when they left. The architecture suggests either a large species or one that likes to have lots of space?” Amaterasu offered. She was rather disappointed with her findings. She had been hoping for some material that would reveal more about the local way of doing things, but the place was cleaned up too well.
“Aha! I found a reference to a local sector capital in the logs! I’ve got the location.” Xiaoli announced competitively.
“The sector capital from a thousand years ago.” Amaterasu countered.
“Still better than what you have.” Xiaoli shot back.
“She’s got you there.” Moonshadow pointed out.
"Well, I think I've got you both beat," Nochehuatl interjected. "We checked the beacon with Nox. It's less than two thousand years old. Outwardly it looks a lot like the support beacons of the Dhar, but it's a stripped-down version. It still works as a warp beacon, but I'm pretty sure that the only reason it works as a beacon for the Dhar network is because it functions on the same principle."
"…the science officer takes this round," Amaterasu admitted reluctantly. She wanted to protest that Nox was helping him, but Nox was also helping them translate everything they found so she couldn’t.
“Yes, a point to the handbag," Xiaoli said, adding in a small tease.
“Now, now. No need to be a sore loser Xiaoli.” Nochehuatl stated graciously.
Moonshadow ignored the three dunces. “So now we know they can create at least some version of the beacons. And why make beacons if you’re not using them?”
“So. We have a civilization with the ability to make at least intra-galaxy warp jumps.” Selendil was forced to agree. “Now the question is, how did they get to that point? Not to look down on the younger races, but I doubt they reached the point on their own without participating in the Great Song.”
“Warping was something you gained from the Great Song?” Moonshadow asked.
"Not directly, but the principles behind the technology yes," Selendil explained. “It was something our scientists developed based on what they learned.”
“So what now?” Amaterasu asked as she was still running a sweep through the facility.
“I think our next destination will be this sector capital Xiaoli mentioned. I think it’s time for Moonshadow to display her skills.” Selendil decided. “We need information and that’s the next logical place to get that information.”
Apparently the information they got from the wrecked ships wasn’t too out of date, as the system they warped into was a hotbed of activity, and very little attention was paid to their arrival. Part of that was because there were thousands of ships of various shapes and sizes coming and going. Notably, most of them used a phase drive to travel. A large artificial orbital ring surrounded the planet, and the ring seemed to be made up of shipyards, habitats, and various automated machinery. The skeletons of unfinished ships dotted the ring. The planet below seemed to be an example of a fairly standard terrestrial planet with large oceans.
"Nox," Selendil ordered simply.
“On it. Acquiring language files and gathering information.” Nox replied immediately.
“Well, Moonshadow. It’s time to do your thing. Incidentally, Nox can use the nanites in your body to quickly inject the local languages into your mind.” Selendil added as an afterthought. The only real requirement was the nanites, though without psionic talent the process would be slower. Being an energy being also made things easier, but even at its worst, the process would take minutes instead of seconds.
The others waited patiently as Nox put Moonshadow in contact with some official. The two spoke at length, but none of the others bothered taking advantage of the new feature of the nanites they had been introduced to. They had all heard Moonshadow’s yelp of pain once the process had been initiated, although it passed quickly. “Master. There’s something you need to know.” Nox suddenly said with a worried tone. She had found something in the data.
“What is it?” Selendil asked, knowing she would not like whatever she was about to hear.
Instead of Nox, Moonshadow was the one to answer. “The empire we heard about. They’re calling it the Eternal Empire of the Dhar.”
They all felt the temperature of the bridge suddenly plummet, even though no actual change of such kind happened. They still felt it though. “Bring up an image of one of the ruling members. Even if they have multiple races in the empire, they still must have these ‘Dhar’ they got the name from.” Selendil got up from her seat and pieces of her armor suddenly materialized around her. She had to make sure at least.
An image of an amphibian humanoid species with bright blue skin and a somewhat fish-like head appeared. The four-armed humanoid also had tall antlers on its head that looked a bit like a crown if you squinted hard enough. “That’s the stock image at least.” Nox stated carefully.
“Find me the leading figure of this planet. Now.” Selendil demanded with a cold tone. The image was not of the Dhar she knew. However, she was familiar with the race shown in the image.
“Master…” Nox tried to placate Selendil a bit, without success.
“Never mind. I already found them.” A spear suddenly appeared in Selendil’s hand and she disappeared.
“Nox, what’s going on?” Moonshadow asked in surprise.
“That image is of one of the younger client races of the Dhar. They were known as Cortoids back then. Now they are shaming the memory of their old masters by impersonating them. Or at least that’s what she thinks.” Nox replied.
Suddenly all the psionic members of the crew felt enormous pressure settle on the entire system, and it was coming from the direction of the planet below. “Uh, guys. The planet just got another orbital ring out of nowhere. And I think the entire planet is shaking.” Nochehuatl reported, not really fully believing what his station was telling him.
“That’s not an orbital ring.” Nox stated coldly. “That’s Selendil’s halo. They’ve made her truly angry this time and she’s getting serious.”
The explanation caused time to freeze on the bridge. They had known that Selendil was more powerful than them, even known that the difference was one of magnitudes. But, being shown the difference in such a stark manner, shook even the most composed of individuals.
“Are... are you serious!? She has a halo that can go around an entire planet?! I thought she only had like a few dozen of them?” Xiaoli gasped out in shock, managing to gather enough mental facilities first.
"After a certain point, they all become one. She can still manifest them separately, but…" Nox gave a brief explanation.
"Be that as it may," Amaterasu exclaimed, pushing her own awe aside, as terror of things to come gripped her mind. "Take us down!" she demanded, before continuing "She said we might have to stop her from doing something crazy one day. I think now's that time.
“That’s not how it works. I can’t warp you without Selendil’s help.” Nox retorted, assuming the Illum meant using the same form of transportation she had used several times before. She assumed wrong.
“Fly us down! I don’t care if you have to crash the ship through the roof of whatever passes as the palace on that planet!” Amaterasu stated firmly.