“Whoa!” Xiaoli shouted in surprise, as Selendil appeared inside the shuttle with a flash and dropped a Cortoid scientist on the floor. The scientist was clearly unconscious and collapsed in an undignified heap. “You brought a friend?” The Cybran woman asked, still freaked by Selendil’s sudden appearance.
“A gift of sorts. Hold on, we’re going to get out of here right away.” Selendil replied, and they warped away just as dozens of warships started appearing in the system.
“Was it just me, or were we about to get some company as we left?” Moonshadow asked as the view outside changed to the hangar of the Enduring Symphony.
“Yes, well, the Cortoids didn't take it well when I borrowed two of their scientists," Selendil replied a little contritely. She could’ve done the whole thing using a bit of stealth, but she didn’t want to do it that way. She wanted to do it the hard way. Hard for the Cortoids that is.
“Two?” Ka’aukai asked, looking at the rather obviously singular scientist on the floor.
At the same time, Xiaoli got stuck on a different part of the same sentence. “Borrowed? So you intend to return him…her…it…whatever that is?”
“I’m fairly confident that one counts as a female, though I didn’t care to check. And no, I’m not going to return her.” Selendil countered.
“That’s called stealing, or in this case kidnapping then.” Xiaoli pointed out. “Also, now that Ka’aukai mentioned it, two? I see only one.”
“That’s what makes it somewhat borrowing. I returned the other one. Or what was left of it anyway. I didn’t have time to stick around to interrogate that one, so I just took what I could from its mind. Amaterasu keeps complaining that I break people’s minds when I get information, so I brought one along just so she can show what she can accomplish. You can all question that one together.” Selendil said a little defensively.
“So how did they end up getting an alert out in a way that several ships had time to arrive here?” Moonshadow questioned.
“I may or may not have killed quite a few of the guards that the scientists had taken along. Well, some of those guards were supposed to report in just then, and the ships that arrived were using warp so they arrived as soon as the word reached them.” Selendil said carefully. “On the positive side, I made sure no one saw me and that no recording was left behind."
Xiaoli was already failing to keep in her laughter while Moonshadow had a paw pressed against her forehead. “Maybe you’ll let me handle the ‘borrowing’ next time?” Ka’aukai suggested gently.
“Deal.” Selendil agreed, aware that this could’ve gone more smoothly.
“So?” Selendil asked as Amaterasu and the other officers arrived in the conference room they used for official business. The same officers had been busy interrogating the Cortoid scientist just moments before.
“Well, I’d like to point out that this was not a fair example because you picked a member of a species with high tolerance to pain.” Amaterasu started. Just as Selendil was about to reply, she continued with a small victorious smile. “But she was rather weak against humiliation and pleasure.”
“A rather effective combination and a masterful use of both.” Ka’aukai also nodded in confirmation. He had been rather impressed.
“Judging by your smugness, you didn’t leave empty-handed.” Selendil prodded. She had also gained a fair bit of information from the one she had handled. These Cortoids had minds that were slightly less fragile, so she could get more before her target’s mind shattered.
“We got a fair bit of useful information, yes. It seems they truly managed to take the weapons from the station and apply them to the defense of their homeworld. That said, since the seat of power in this galaxy wasn’t a battle station, the amount of weapons is limited. They also have trouble with power generation, so they can’t fire the weapons very often. They managed to recently replicate some of the simplest weapons, though as lesser versions. They won't have more than a small fraction of the power of true Dhar weapons, but they will be more dangerous than the standard affair of what you call the younger races." Amaterasu explained.
That matched what Selendil had managed to find out, though it seemed the scientist Amaterasu had interrogated was a more senior one. All that Selendil’s target had divulged was based on hearsay and guesses. “So all in all, there’s some risk to our ship, but the risk is not as bad as we feared. Assuming the scientists were aware of everything their empire has managed to achieve, a rather dangerous assumption to make. What else?”
“Well, it seems they are using the AI from the station as the main piece of their warp network. The whole system depends on the AI performing the necessary calculations. It seems the AI was also the main reason they were even able to get the system working in the first place which suggests that your theory about the AI cooperating with them has merit. Incidentally, the scientist didn’t have any idea about them traveling to other galaxies, and according to what she knew that should be impossible. She was also unaware of any potential visitors from other galaxies, but she really wouldn’t know about those if it was kept a secret. Not her area of expertise." Amaterasu listed the things they had learned. The scientist had been eager to tell them everything she knew once they were done with her.
“It was the expertise of the one I dealt with. She was pretty sure no visitors like that had come. Her old mentor was the foremost expert and would’ve known. That mentor had never even hinted at anything like that, and apparently that mentor was a bit of a braggart and would’ve said something if he had something that big to brag about. Apparently, the scientist I took care of was bedding her mentor, which I really didn't want to know about." Selendil stated with distaste.
“That’s what you get with an indiscriminate mind search.” Xiaoli teased with a grin.
“Yes, I did not need to know about the sex-life of the Cortoids. Anyway, did you get anything else?” Selendil asked to get her mind off the image she had just reminded herself of.
“Well, we do have some bad news as well. The Cortoids have built extensive defenses in their home system and they can use their warp systems to recall all of their warp-capable vessels back to the home system if it comes under attack. Even if we tried to pull the enemy ships away first, they could return immediately. If we attack the home system directly, we'll have to force our way through a sea of enemy ships and defenses. There’s another problem. The Cortoids have considered the possibility of coming under attack by a group of powerful psions, as that’s pretty much the only way the races they rule over could attack them at the moment. They have trained some sort of technique to have their psions combine their powers to form a more effective defense. Do you have any idea what that might be about?” Amaterasu asked. Psions joining together and combining their powers was not a new idea, but it wasn’t a very efficient process. Mostly you wasted a lot of power for a questionable benefit. It wasn’t very effective if ten Deities with a single halo had to join their powers to achieve the strength level of a single Deity with two halos. Those ten would be much more effective on their own.
Selendil made a frustrated sound. Yet another thing the AI had likely taught the enemy. The Dhar were quite effective at joining their abilities together in battle. Part of that was the fact that their minds were already joined, but that wasn’t the only reason. Technique also played a large part. The AI's were well aware of their abilities because they had to be able to account for such things in their predictions and calculations. The rogue AI wouldn’t be able to teach such techniques to just anyone or to any degree of true competence, but it would still be a lot more effective than nothing.
“Even at the best of times, the technique wouldn’t allow other Dhar to really fight a Keeper effectively, and these Cortoids would be capable of much less. However, they can slow me down to an extent at least. I can’t just wave a hand and wipe their entire fleet away.” She explained.
“So, plan B?” Xiaoli suggested.
“I’m still not sure if it’s a feasible option. But I am willing to give it a shot. I could try approaching the Shinzen just to see what I could achieve and see how it goes. We never did make proper contact with them before, so I can’t say if it would work or not. One thing does make this plan more feasible though. Time. Now that we have at least some idea that these people were not behind the destroyed galaxy, nor do they know of who did, we are not in such a rush. I want them to stop misusing our name, but the damage on that front has already been done in this galaxy and isn’t likely to spread, so I can have a bit of patience in order to avoid risks we don’t have to take. We also need to check the other nearby galaxies before we commit a lot of time to dealing with this issue. This is a problem, but not the main problem." Selendil had calmed down a bit and had gotten a bit more rational about the whole thing. Calm brought perspective. Dealing with these criminals was something she had to do, but not something she had to do right now.
"It might also help to deal with the Shinzen," Moonshadow added. "If you give them something else to fight, they might be less eager to attack other races in our galaxy. And if you can make contact with them, that might open other avenues aside from pure warfare.”
“So, Shinzen first and then we’ll check the other galaxies. Dealing with the Cortoids will wait for now.” Xiaoli summarized.
"That seems like the best plan for the time being," Selendil confirmed.
“I’ve never been this deep inside the Shinzen space.” Moonshadow commented, perhaps a bit pointlessly.
“I don’t think anyone has, aside from the Shinzen themselves of course.” Xiaoli sarcastically pointed out the reason why.
“That’s not entirely true.” Prince Hazeem countered. As what was about to happen had a large potential effect on the Mrrroww, they were all allowed on the bridge. “There used to be another race that called these worlds their home. They were the first to fall to the Shinzen and no longer exist. Some refugees were still around a few decades ago, but even they’ve died out by now.”
“What happened?” Xiaoli asked.
"The neighboring races didn't really understand Shinzen back then. Still don't, but back then it was even worse. They were worried that they would incite the Shinzen to attack them if they took the refugees in. The refugees settled on inhospitable border worlds without permission anyway as they were desperate. Well, as we know, the Shinzen expanded in all directions and the refugees fell under that expansion. Some of the more ignorant races still blame the refugees for pulling the ire of the Shinzen their way.” Hazeem explained, feeling genuinely sorry for the dead. The Mrrroww had not bordered the Shinzen back then, so no refugees came to them, but he wasn’t sure how they would’ve reacted even if some refugees did come. He liked to think they were better than that, but he wasn’t stupid enough to blindly believe that either.
“We’re about to arrive.” Nox interjected. They were traveling towards the place where the old Shinzen homeworld had been. They couldn’t tell if it was still the homeworld, but at the very least Selendil had felt the presence of a large amount of Shinzen, and rather powerful ones at that. It was a good place to start.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Moonshadow asked Selendil.
“Are you worried about me?” Selendil asked, amused.
“A little. I mean, you are about to come into contact with a hive mind. I know you have experience with dealing with multiple minds, being a Keeper and all, but we’re still talking about a huge number of minds that are likely hostile. It might be a jarring experience.” Moonshadow explained her worry.
“I think you’re underestimating the number of minds I’ve come into contact with. Besides, this is different from what you might think. I’ve dealt with hive minds before. They aren’t a grouping of trillions of individuals. That’s the wrong way to think about it. It’s more like coming into contact with a small number of minds with countless appendages they can move around.” Selendil reassured her just as the ship came out of phase space.
The Shinzen gathered around the planet noticed their arrival immediately. That was the benefit of a hive mind. Once even a single being detected them, the whole hive mind would become informed. Hundreds of billions of beings ranging from tiny creatures barely bigger than insects to large biological shipyards orbited the planet. At first, they all seemed to converge towards the ship, but then suddenly stopped, as if in recognition. Which was exactly what happened.
At first, the Shinzen thought they were under attack, but then they recognized the ship belonging to the Great Ones. Instead of attacking, the Shinzen cleared a path for them instead. They had made the mistake of fighting the Great Ones before. They would not do so again. They could learn after all. "Showtime," Selendil said and teleported outside the ship.
She started moving towards the largest psionic signatures she could sense, though she was somewhat surprised to find that almost all of them had gathered together. As the Shinzen sensed her approach, they too sent out a representative, although they considered the particular Queen to be a sacrifice more than something that would take part in diplomacy. That Queen was at the same time the smartest and the most gifted of their new Queens, yet they sacrificed her anyway. Doing anything less couldn’t even be considered.
With the speed that both of them moved, it only took a handful of seconds for them to reach each other despite the distance. Selendil looked at the Queen that shivered in fear but also seemed to be accepting of any fate that befell it. The shape of the Queen was somewhat humanoid, though only to an extent. It was covered in white chitin plating that flared out from its midsection like a long skirt of some bygone era. Its face was almost featureless and largely insectoid with compound eyes and a mouth that could split into four sections. It looked like some artist had wanted to create a statue of a humanoid from white clay, fucked it up and then abandoned the project, leaving it unfinished. Perhaps inspired by the Dhar of old, it too had several tail looking appendages coming from the back of its head, though these were covered in chitinous armor.
Despite the rather basic features, the power inside the being flowed in extremely complicated ways. This was a being that was able to mass-produce countless of the cores at the heart of every Shinzen. It was not one of the combat Queens, but one designed for command and control. Selendil lifted her hand and pointed a single finger at the being. It looked at her for a moment before looking at its own claw, as if wondering if it was expected to do the same. Finally it obliged and their hands came into contact.
The rush of information was enormous, though largely one-sided as Selendil made contact with the hive mind. She was surprised to find that the number of individualistic mind in the collective numbered in the thousands, scattered mostly around their vast territory that actually stretched almost on the other side of the galactic core. She also realized this number was a recent development. The Shinzen were making preparations and wanted to be ready. Why? They were expecting to learn another great lesson and didn’t want to be caught off-guard.
That’s when she learned of the Shinzen obsession with lessons. Their whole existence revolved around learning, likely because they were almost incapable of new development on their own. They needed to struggle and learn from others instead. They were great at applying what they learned, they just didn’t get many new ideas. They also assumed she was here to impart another lesson to them, perhaps one on the scale of the one they had learned so long ago that had almost destroyed their race. They also thought the time had come with her approaching them like this. Instead of feeling resentful, they were excited, though also somewhat scared to be found wanting.
The Queen also learned a few things. She learned that the Great Ones were like them! They also existed in a mutual harmony of minds like the Shinzen. That meant the Shinzen were on the right path. The Queen also learned that this was not common. Other races were all individuals like the Queens, but worse. They didn’t have the constant connection with others that both the Shinzen and the Great Ones shared. Inferior beings, all of them. The Shinzen had suspected as much, but now they received confirmation. The Queen also learned about the concept of spoken languages. Ineffective, almost not worth considering, but a lesson nonetheless.
‘Perhaps I could go along with their wish?’ Selendil thought. They wanted a lesson. Maybe she should give them one? She’d just have to formulate it in a way that the Shinzen would understand.
She started immediately by instilling a thought into the hive mind. Learning lessons was important, and learning through hardship and battle was a good way to learn. She didn’t want to change that, as the Dhar were warriors as well. She had no intention of turning the Shinzen into pacifists, even if she could. However, she also introduced the idea that some lessons could not be learned through battle. Some lessons required other kinds of interactions. Some of those lessons would be bad and just as harsh as those learned in battle, just in a different way.
She also introduced the concept of mercy. Not as something to be applied universally, the Shinzen would not be able to swallow that one, even from her. However, she gave them the idea that simply wiping out species that could not fight back was beneath them. There were no lessons to be learned from such battles. But such species could still be useful if left alone to grow. She realized that a change like this would be much more effective than trying to change the fundamental nature of the Shinzen, something she didn't want to do anyway.
She also introduced the concept of reciprocation. She had taught them an important lesson this day, and now they would have to do something for her in exchange. There was another battleground far away from here. A battleground where they could learn whole new lessons. She would take some of their Queens there, and they would learn from the new enemy she pointed out. That was a trade the Shinzen could get behind, so they agreed almost without hesitation.