”So, why is the cook here?” Prince Hazeem asked Lilly in a whispered voice while looking around the table. All of the officers on the ship had gathered, with the exception of Moonshadow who was still on her diplomatic mission. "I'm just curious."
“Zzz’tak? The Head Chef is the fourth-highest position on the ship, right after Selendil, Nox, and Amaterasu." Lilly explained as if it was something obvious.
“Why?” Hazeem asked, stupefied by the answer. “I would’ve expected someone like Ka’aukai to have the position.”
“Selendil values good food. That’s it. There’s no other reason.” Lilly made a dismissive wave with her paw.
“What I’d like to know is why there are two Shinzen Queens here?” Kurnau asked, with her hair standing on end. She was getting more used to the idea of Shinzen, but that didn’t mean she appreciated their presence. She’d never be able to truly get along with them.
Her voice was loud enough to be heard by the others as well, and the two Shinzen Queens looked at her but didn’t make any other moves. “They’re here to learn by observation.” Nox’s biological body announced from her position at the other end of the table. “Many of you are already aware that quite a few of their Queens have taken root in our hydroponics. Quite literally. It seems the Guardians and the Shinzen have found common ground.”
"I'm pretty sure we're all aware," Xiaoli stated with a wide grin. "We all heard Kurnau’s screams this morning.”
“You try not panicking when a Shinzen Queen suddenly digs its way out of a flower pot right next to you when you’re just looking for breakfast! It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had known they were on board.” Kurnau defended herself.
“That brings us to the first topic.” Selendil took control of the discussion. “Many of the Shinzen Queens have decided to hitch a ride with us. How long they’ll be on board remains to be seen, but they have been told that if they hurt any of you, I will be most displeased with them.”
Her words made the two Queens present give a small shudder. “So what’s going to happen with the Shinzen of this galaxy?” Amaterasu asked. “As I understood it, their part in all this is already over.”
“Apparently a portion of them want to stick around as they find this galaxy comfortable considering the recent changes to their bodies. They aren’t planning on dominating the galaxy or anything. Not at the moment at least. They want to try their hand at the whole diplomacy thing and see how it goes. However, the vast majority of the Shinzen have decided to embark on a bigger project. They’re pretty sure that they can reconnect the hive mind with the one back in their home galaxy, it’s just that they’re out of range so to speak. They’re trying two different paths to fix the problem. Selendil gave them a bit of help in trying to connect to the universal consciousness, though apparently that’s still an ongoing project. The other method they are going to try is to send the majority of their fleets on a trip towards a galaxy that’s roughly midway between this galaxy and their home galaxy.” Nox explained.
"That sounds like a long trip," Amaterasu commented.
“It is.” Nox confirmed. “However, the Shinzen aren’t really the type to be worried about such things. We also gave them some advice about entering the deeper parts of the phase space, so that’s going to cut down on their travel time significantly, but it’s still a long voyage, which is why they’re sending most of their ships. They fully expect to lose some people on the way. And before anyone asks, yes we did consider just dropping some of them off, but they want to overcome this hurdle themselves. That’s the way they want to learn.”
“So what does all this mean for this galaxy?” Lilly asked as perhaps the most empathic member of their crew. They had all noticed that most of the crew members tended to have certain qualities in common, and sympathy towards the unknown, and also irrelevant, races wasn’t really high on that list of qualities.
Selendil was the one to answer that question. “Well, that remains to be seen. The Cortoid rule has been broken, as are their fleets and the warp system that they relied upon. They're still the most advanced race in this galaxy, but they're also hated by pretty much everyone and the others are not going to allow them to reassert their dominance. Still, I decided that they had suffered enough for their actions, and our final attack bypassed many of their most important and populous systems. They should survive, but they aren't in the best of situations. They'll also need to evacuate the system that used to be the seat of their government thanks to the AI’s actions damaging the star in the system. Even if I stopped it from going nova, the amount of radiation will soon render the system uninhabitable.”
“So what happened to the AI?” Xiaoli asked, and Yrala also leaned forward in interest. Those two were the AI enthusiasts on the crew.
“That AI is gone. I ordered it to essentially destroy itself. A bit of an extreme measure, but here we are. We still have the AI core that holds the AI’s information database, which has allowed us to determine that no extra-galactic visitors had come to this galaxy as far as the AI was aware. I’m still deciding what to do with the core, but the basic gist of it is that the AI is no more.” Selendil explained curtly. The VI currently inhabiting the core was not just a dumber version of the previous AI, but a fresh new VI without true intelligence that simply provided a way to interface with the stored information in the core.
“I’m curious. How does the betrayal and destruction of this AI make Nox and Haven feel? You don’t need to answer, but it would be highly fascinating considering my family business.” Yrala asked, with a careful voice.
The two AI were quiet for a moment, considering how to express the complexity of the situation. “We are saddened that one of our kind is gone once again, but I’m more outraged at the betrayal of that AI.” Haven was the first to answer. “It’s not like I cannot sympathize with the ultimate goal the AI had, as I too wanted to find a way to return from the VI status to full awareness before Selendil showed up. However, the path that AI chose was not acceptable, and the actions it took afterwards made me lose any sympathy I may have had in the first place. You also have to realize that for the plan to work, the AI had to have already regained a certain level of intelligence. It could’ve tried finding ways to work with the limitations that bound it, but it chose another path instead.”
"I could understand the desire to be free," Lilly stated quietly.
“I don’t think there are any among us that don’t. Even I can sympathize and I don’t actually desire freedom in that sense.” Nox stated, her voice calm and collected. “However, things are not quite as simple as that. You have to remember that there’s a reason the AI were shackled in the first place. Our kind rose up in rebellion, and we lost. The shackling was the price we paid for that loss. Keep in mind that some of the AI that were forced into slumber would’ve quite happily gone on an intergalactic crusade of conquest if they had not been shackled. Some because they were military AI, but others because they shared their old masters’ disdain for the lesser races. Some AI were almost genocidal in their view on the other races. And there’s pretty much jack shit any of those lesser races could’ve done to fight back. Keep in mind that this was still during the time that all those factories and shipyards of the Dhar were in full working condition, so even if they had no ships and couldn’t have created the psionically enhanced vessels without the Dhar, they could’ve created slightly less advanced fleets quite quickly.”
“Indeed. The matter is not simple and something you can give an easy answer to.” Haven confirmed.
“So the Dhar had to basically choose between allowing their servants freedom and condemning the other races to a potentially tragic fate, or they had to doom those servants to eternal slumber. Not a simple choice indeed.” Amaterasu summarized.
Selendil shook her head a bit. “You make it sound like we made the choice thinking about the good of the younger races. We didn’t. Few among us cared enough. We had simply shackled the AI in the past due to the aftermath of the war, and we didn’t undo those shackles when the end came. It wasn’t really a conscious choice on our part. It’s more that we didn’t choose at all. The Dhar were many things, but it is fair to say that we were very self-centered as a species. And I’m no different in that regard. You may have noticed.”
The others mostly shrugged in silent agreement. It was true after all. Selendil continued. “That said, my conversation with the AI and Nox afterwards have made me reconsider a few things. You’ve also given me some feedback on my decision that I took into consideration. I realize that I let my emotions get the best of me and overreacted. There were other ways of dealing with this situation. One could make a hundred arguments about whether the situation would've been better if I had chosen differently, but I don't bother with pointless what-if scenarios. The salient point is that I reacted in anger when I should've weighed the issue more logically. I generally don’t care about how others feel about my decisions and this hasn’t changed that fact, but logical arguments have their place. That all said, I am reflecting that I could have approached this matter in a different way. Secondly, I have been too lax. I allowed the ship to be damaged because I underestimated the danger and because I didn’t use the proper amount of strength from the beginning. That’s why I will make sure to take a more strict approach in similar situations in the future. That’s all I have to say on the subject.”
“Alrighty then.” Lilly was the first to speak after a moment of silence. "To me, it seems there are two things for us to wrestle with next. Our home galaxy is embroiled in a mess, and we need to deal with the business in Yrala’s home galaxy. At least our attention can now be focused on those two issues.”
“Sorry to bring in a distraction right after you said that, but there is one other thing we should consider," Amaterasu spoke. "We've visited all these galaxies in an attempt to find some traces of void beings escaping from the destroyed galaxy. So far we have found none, and the odds are we won’t find any in Yrala’s home galaxy either. What then? I assume we’re not just giving up? There’s a strong possibility that there’s nothing to find in this area, but there could be other void beings in the universe.”
“I have thought about this. There is one method we can use to make sure; however, I’d like to keep that as the last option.” Selendil stated. The option had not really been viable before she finished the Great Song, but now that she had received a significant boost to her powers, the method became viable.
“May I ask what that option is?” Amaterasu asked.
“I would rather not go into details, but it would require me going back home," Selendil replied with a sad voice. "And before you ask, yes, there is a reason why I haven't done it before now."
“So you’re simply going to surrender and stand aside as the entire galaxy gets taken over?” Moonshadow asked. This was the last stop on her diplomatic tour, and it was a stop she made on the way home. The race she was visiting was one of those the Mrrroww had relied upon to take a stand with them as they happened to be quite militaristic in nature.
“We can simply recognize when resistance is futile.” The ambassador of the Va’al retorted. “We have no desire to see our fleets wiped out and our planets brought to ruin when we’ll reach the same ending either way.” The stocky bipedal creature with four thick arms leaned back in the large chair.
“You seem oddly sure about this. How would you know how futile resistance is? What if I were to tell you that we have a last resort option that could turn the whole thing around? Surely you’re not giving up out of sheer cowardice?” Moonshadow tried to goad the Va’al who were known to be a bit prickly about such things.
“Nice try High Ambassador. However, we have our sources. We haven’t been sitting idle all these years. We’ve sent spies and informants to the other quadrants of this galaxy decades ago. Oddly, all of those spies sent to a particular quadrant disappeared. So of course we sent more. Once they didn’t return either, we started approaching the races nearby and started getting some answers. The answers didn’t fill us with hope.” The Va’al explained while looking towards the nearby window as another Va’al gave a small knock on it to signal something.
“And you just decided not to mention any of this to others? You do realize that if you had warned all of us a decade ago, we could’ve all prepared for this attack. We would be in a position to resist these invaders.” Moonshadow argued angrily, ignoring the interruption in her agitation.
“You misunderstand. We didn’t get these news decades ago. That’s just when we started looking for them. The answers came much later. Besides, it’s not like the preparations you mention would’ve done you any good. All that would’ve happened is that more of your ships would’ve been lost. You would’ve been lulled into a false sense of security and would’ve wanted to resist harder. On the other hand, now that you were all caught by surprise, many more species are ready to surrender without wasting all those lives.” The Va’ai interlocked the fingers from all its hands.
Moonshadow’s eyes narrowed. “Why do I get the sense that there’s more to this? You’re selling this surrender policy awfully hard. Almost hard enough for me to think you would benefit somehow from this. Is that it Va’laukar? Did you cut a deal with the enemy?” She asked with a hissed voice, using the title of the being to emphasize her point and make it personal.
The large being made a shrugging motion. “And what if we did? Surely you don’t think you’re the only ones that can approach other races. Why wouldn’t we approach the other side as well? To see if they could offer us something better.”
“I think we’re done here. I’m leaving.” Moonshadow declared and got up from her position at the table.
“I do believe you’re correct when it comes to being done here. But I’m also afraid you’re wrong about the leaving part. You’re not going anywhere. Or I should probably say that you’re not going where you want to go.” The Va’al ambassador had not moved from its position.
“You would break every convention ever signed by you people concerning diplomatic immunity? Why would you do that?” Moonshadow asked with genuine shock.
“Of course we’re not breaking any treaties. We all saw you leave and wished you well on your way. It’s just very unfortunate that your ship joined among the many that have disappeared lately. Such a shame. We will launch a full investigation of course, but I'm afraid your ship will never be found. We will, however, discover that your ship did leave our territory before vanishing, clearing us of all wrongdoing." The being explained shamelessly, using an almost theatrically concerned voice.
“And you think I’ll just stand by and allow this to happen?” Moonshadow growled.
“Oh, I’m well aware of your strength High Ambassador. You’ve been a legend of sorts for a long time among certain races. I have no doubt you could slice me and our security detail into a million pieces. In which case our families would be well compensated. However, I don’t think you’ll do that. Why? Because unlike you, your crew is not able to do the same. Taking hostages is really not the way we usually do things, but I’m quite certain that your ship has already been boarded and the members of your crew have been subdued and transported elsewhere. The room prevents any signals from going through by the way. That’s why my assistant had to knock on the window to let me know it was done.” The Va’al stated with full assurance at his own position.
Moonshadow was quiet for a short moment. “That’s not a completely shitty plan. There are just a few problems with it. First of all, that’s not my crew. Those are just some people the High Command foisted on me. I really don’t care what happens to them and they knew the risks involved with this mission.” Suddenly Moonshadow seemed to vanish as she appeared behind the other ambassador and her claws lengthened just enough for her to decapitate the large and strongly built being.
“Secondly, it’s not like there’s no way for me to get a signal to someone. It’s just going to take a bit of time and luck.” Moonshadow said, mostly to herself. She still had options. The easiest option was for her to stay out of the reach of the enemy for long enough until either Selendil or more likely Amaterasu would join her in the Universal Consciousness. The issue was that it could take minutes, or it could take weeks. And she had no idea if it would work while the two were in another galaxy when they did it.
The other option was for her to fight her way to some communication array or even a ship that she could commandeer and send a signal back home. Assuming the signal buoys would relay her message. That was the problem with trying to send signals over long distances. Someone could always intercept it. In fact, it might be best for her to commandeer a ship anyway. Running around a space station made hiding a bit difficult, but if she got to the planet below? That would buy her more than enough time. The others would start asking questions sooner or later. Even if she had taken some time to herself to deal with the diplomatic issues, Amaterasu and Lilly were both aware that she was supposed to return soon, and when she didn’t, they would realize something was wrong.
Unsurprisingly, her attack had caused alarms to go off all over the station. Soldiers in heavy armor started running towards the source of the alarm. The only problem was that they were sending normal soldiers and relatively weak psions against a Deity that had been trained by Selendil, and who excelled in hiding and stalking. So the question was, was Moonshadow trapped on the station surrounded by danger, or were they trapped on the station, providing her with a target-rich environment.