HOMEWORLD2: INTERSTELLAR ODYSSEY
CHAPTER 29: M51 REVISITED
Templar hung silently over the Tobari homeworld of New Toba, its scanners continuing to observe the devastation that had just occurred mere hours ago. If previous reconnaissance records were anything to go by, then there should be a near-unbelievable amount of traffic on the standard communications channels emanating both from the colonies' activity and the planet itself. But now, there was only an uneasy quiet.
"You do not look well Sir Talos," Driss asked the shaken Frerrn minister as she walked up to him, "Does something ail you?"
"... Do not misunderstand me," Talos finally began as he sat down on his seat slowly, "... I would have found it easier to accept if I were facing..."
"... a debris field?" Ein finished for him, his eyes still transfixed by the sight. He had seen images of these during Sir Sajuuk's briefings, from the datafiles on the Blight.
But nothing could prepare even him, a Progenitor captain, for the sight of an entirely intact defence fleet drifting aimlessly in high orbit.
The Agemo had won without firing a single shot, and he knew all too well what that meant.
The whizzing sound of the bridge doors opening broke the captain's trance.
"Doctor Piers, thank you for taking the time to come," Ein greeted the ship's doctor as he gestured towards a seat, which Piers declined politely.
"Straight to the point as always," the captain sighed, "Any updates on the subject?"
"Subject is in a state of deep coma with brain stem functions nearly non-existent," Piers answered in a matter-of-fact way, "In fact, it is a wonder he even managed to survive this long. He is on life support as we speak."
"Is there any hope for him?"
"If I had access to a full Class A medical suite then perhaps yes," came the nearly deadpan reply, "Otherwise, it is all that I can do to maintain his current condition."
"I see," Ein muttered quietly, "I trust you've read the Arkean notes? If so..."
"... the Arkean notes are of tremendous scientific interest I must say," Piers went on, having already anticipated Ein's query, "Based on the Arkean research data, I may suggest that the subject was a statistical failure in the Agemo's harvest procedure – that is to say he was one of the rare few who was not subject to a full consciousness uproot."
"So you mean he could be..."
"...cured?" Piers smiled slightly at the captain's optimism, "I would advise you to not use that word wantonly. While the consciousness uproot was not fully successful on this individual, it still managed to uproot at least ninety-percent of what makes him... him, as the Arkeans say."
"A fate worse than death," Talos uttered as he struggled to keep at bay the multitude of emotions surging within him, "Those Agemo..."
"I realise that we were not able to save your trusted aide, General Xiedo," Driss suddenly remembered, "For that, I apologise..."
"I have long since put that behind me," Talos stopped her from going on, "But we cannot allow these... atrocities to go on unchecked."
"Easier said than done Sir Talos," Piers turned to face the Frerrn Prime Minister, "What we have witnessed here is a consciousness uproot executed at the planetary level, and we are all fully aware of the one thing capable of such a feat."
"Well then, we must either destroy the abomination or die trying," Talos declared, "My people and I would certainly prefer death over becoming fuels for their atrocious war machine."
"I am fairly sure Sir Sajuuk would agree with your opinions, save for the 'death' bit," Driss commented, "That said, I believe we have spent enough time here grieving."
"Yes we have," Ein acknowledged as he saluted the dead planet and fleet in a sign of respect, "Templar, set a course."
"Wait," Talos raised a hand in protest, "I understand it is a priority one objective for you and your crew to bring me to Sir Sajuuk. However..."
"Speak your mind," Driss reassured.
"... I would appreciate it if we could head for Hiigara first," Talos admitted, "I believe there would be matters requiring my immediate attention and presence."
"Well..." Ein began reluctantly.
"It is not too long a detour," Driss commented after a moment's thought, "The Eye of Aaraan should also quicken our journey greatly."
"I was actually more concerned about Contact policies," Ein admitted, "Rightfully, we are supposed to keep our distance from the rest of the Alliance until..."
"... until after my meeting with Sir Sajuuk?" Talos finished for the hesitant Progenitor captain, "Proper contact between the Alliance and your people is surely quite inevitable. Why would it matter if it were brought forward? Furthermore, if I understand Sir Sajuuk correctly from the descriptions you have given me, I am fairly sure he would understand the situation, especially considering the presence of the Command Megalith in M51."
"Sir Talos' suggestion is reasonable," Driss nodded in agreement, "Captain, I urge you to reconsider."
"... I regret to say that the loss of New Toba along with the rest of the Tobari core worlds has just been confirmed by preliminary scout data," Yuno bowed her head low as she spoke the words, causing a harsh silence to fall upon the gathered Alliance representatives. Even the normally stoic Vanaar seemed momentarily shaken by the news while the war-hardened General Tora sank weakly into his seat.
"It does not end there," Rei, the Nalthoran representative, spoke up suddenly, "King Ora is fleeing here in the royal flagship as we speak – just an hour ago a joint Sajuuk-Mythra attack force breached the Nalthoran frontier. At this rate it is only a matter of time before the New Capital falls."
"My sympathies to your people – you have all suffered much," it was Admiral Achnos' turn to speak now, "Surely this is the so-called 'tipping point' you have been waiting for Lady Yuno? Why have the Hiigarans done nothing thus far?"
"The science teams require more time," Yuno responded quickly, "As things stand now Kiir Sjet and his team are..."
"Do not mention that name before us ever again!" Achnos retorted in disgust, "The way he simply relinquished his post and responsibilities was cowardly and unforgivable!"
"You do realise that a hyperdrive capable of breaching the Eastern Wall is our only hope of contacting the Progenitors..."
"Yes yes, you have reminded us on numerous occasions," came the disinterested reply, "But even Sir Vanaar himself concedes that it is a mere possibility that the Progenitors exist beyond that barrier!"
"A high possibility," Vanaar reminded the Frerrn admiral calmly.
"Very well: if you insist, a high possibility then," Achnos acknowledged, albeit sceptically, "What then? What if they refuse to intervene or assist us?"
"We will find out in due time," Yuno was trying her best to handle the situation, "Until then there is no point in this paranoia..."
"Due time? Paranoia?" Achnos was incredulous at the response now, "That was what you said of our Prime Minister – that searches were under way and that he would be found 'in due time'. Where is he now? And every day entire worlds are lost, while you keep the Hiigaran Navy and the majority of the Alliance ships here to protect a coward's science project!"
"Admiral Achnos makes valid points," the booming voice of the T-MAT cut in, "For even we are beginning to doubt the efficacy of the current master plan."
"Well..." Yuno was at a loss for words now.
"Lady Yuno," Syne spoke up now, having realised that his efforts at consoling the distraught Tobari general were in vain, "Speaking for the people who have lost everything once again, surely it is not an unreasonable request to pull back the Vaygr Crusades from the Eye of Aaraan?"
"We cannot do that!" Yuno exclaimed in protest, "If the Agemo and Mythra were able to get hold of the Eye..."
"... All observations of their behaviour have pointed to the contrary – that they are completely ignorant of hyperspace physics," Syne cut back in with a growl, struggling to hold back his own tears, "I suppose Kiir Sjet has been ruling from the shadows has he? Using you as a front when he is too cowardly to show his face..."
"No, it is not what you think..." Yuno made an attempt to protest, knowing full well that the game was now up.
"... That is enough, Yuno," a familiar voice echoed through the room as a viewscreen flashed online, revealing the long-lost face of Kiir Sjet. Almost immediately, the present delegates erupted in a chaotic cacophony.
So finally you emerge from the shadows, Vanaar smiled slightly, I suppose my persistence has paid off in some way then?
It had nothing to do with you - now shut up and listen, came the mental reply, "If I would have silence for just a minute..."
"You have no right to even broadcast yourself into this very room!" Achnos spat, "Why, if I had my way..."
WHEN THE HIIGARAN ASKS FOR SILENCE YOU WOULD ALL DO WELL TO COMPLY, the blast yelled into the conscious minds of everyone present. All eyes turned to Vanaar in the back, who in turn regarded the mob with a face that implied the imminent use of extensive telekinetics.
"Damned Vaygr..." Achnos muttered as he took his place and turned reluctantly towards the screen.
"Thank you," Kiir nodded slightly at the Vaygr-Khar, who responded with a casual shrug of his massive shoulders, "I realise I owe all the Alliance representatives an apology..."
"Cut to the chase Hiigaran," Achnos growled, "This is no confession room."
"If you insist..." Kiir seemed to sigh as he began uploading several detailed schematics to the personal consoles of all the Alliance representatives present.
"I am fully aware that attacks from both Mythra and Agemo forces have inflicted considerable attrition on all Allliance forces, and as such we are already operating on reduced crew protocols to counter the manpower shortage we are now facing," Kiir stated the grim context, "Therefore I would seek the approval from the delegates here to bring into full production the Rapier class heavy fighter."
"It is mentioned here in the plans that this was the result of a joint project between Hiigaran and Vaygr scientists?" Rei asked suspiciously.
"I understand the concerns, but in desperate times such as these surely we are able to put aside our differences for the duration," came the slightly exasperated reply, "To continue – the Rapier is based on an enlarged and more heavily-armoured Blade hull for added survivability and weapons space. Its primary weapon is a scaled-down turbopulsar cannon..."
"We do not have all day to listen to your lecture," Syne interrupted impatiently.
"... If you insist," Kiir paused to take a deep breath before continuing, "Rapier is a fully-automated AI fighter."
An uneasy quiet fell over the representatives when the taboo words were mentioned. Nearly every galactic power had encountered the cybernetic disruptions of Mythra spies and had hence, as a result, halted all advances into AI-based derivatives so as to reduce their vulnerabilities against notorious Mythra hacking. And now Kiir Sjet had actually gone so far as to suggest a heavy dependence on an AI-based fighter platform.
"... While the premise is sound, we of the T-MAT have our concerns," the Unbound spoke up after several seconds' consideration, "These design schematics include an advanced thrust vectoring system coupled with, and this is most clever for Bound personae, what appears to be a miniaturised hyperphase drive system."
"That is correct," Kiir responded, "The thrust vectoring system is intended to work in tandem with the hyperphase drive to create a fighter platform with unprecedented speed and manoeuvrability."
"And you arm it with a combination of your turbopulsar weapons and Vaygr plasma shard technology," the T-MAT seemed worried now, "Even we have never dared to place so much power in the hands of an automation."
"I do assure you that multiple safeguards are in place," Kiir attempted to reassure the uneasy crowd, "The Rapier platform will only accept data inputs in the launch bay, so any hacking attempts made during the Rapier's operations will fail owing to the data input system being physically shut down for the duration. In addition to that, it utilises quantum encryption for all of its operating systems, so any Mythra or Agemo brute force attempts can be expected to require, at the very least, several decades to succeed. This is well in excess of any expected operational time frame of the Rapier. As a final safeguard, the Rapier's computer core is itself protected by no fewer than three quantum keys that can be changed after every operation, so that the net possibility of a hostile breach is effectively zero."
"What you have done is simply to move the point of weakness from the fighter to the carrier," the T-MAT countered, "We imagine that the Agemo and Mythra would have no problems compromising the host carrier if they see fit."
"What plans do not come with their risks?" the Hiigaran responded in a slightly exasperated tone.
"You confuse calculated risks with outright unnecessary risks flicker life," the T-MAT seemed displeased now, "We reject the proposal."
"And the other representatives?" Kiir asked as he looked around the room. Unsurprisingly, all but the Vaygr were unanimous in rejecting the plan.
"A pity," Kiir mused, "Yuno, play the recording now."
The meeting room dimmed as an Agemo megalith flickered into view on the main viewscreen, eliciting shocked gasps from the representatives present.
"The recording was taken from an observatory Rapier platform," Kiir explained, "It was observing and recording the combat performance of a Rapier squadron of five."
"You are mad," the T-MAT boomed, "To unsheathe the blade prematurely before the Agemo!"
Kiir did not answer, choosing instead to let the audience view the rest of the recording. The megalith, having spotted the approaching squadron long ago, began firing off its point defence weaponry, sending lines and bolts of energy streaking towards the fighters. But before the flurry of firepower could arrive the ships seemed to vanish, reappearing in plain view some distance from their original position and maintaining formation.
"Micro hyperphase jump," Kiir explained to the stunned watchers.
Now the fighters moved into attack vectors, advancing quickly towards the megalith while easily evading all the incoming point defence fire. Even Vanaar seemed impressed by the results, observing that the Rapiers were so fast it seemed as though they were teleporting from point to point during evasive manoeuvres, all while maintaining a steady forward course.
"These... these movements..." Syne uttered in disbelief, "Impossible! Inertia..."
"... is non-existent on the Rapier platform," Kiir stated with a smile on his face.
"But no such AI could possibly exist..." Admiral Achnos managed to say as he stared incredulously at the flickering fighters.
"The Rapier AI was based on combat data gathered from hundreds of ace pilots throughout the Inner Rim," the scientist stated proudly, "Combined with an evolving neural network and personality snapshots of a few current Alliance legends, you have the ultimate fighter pilot unmatched for... maybe the next few centuries."
"I begin to understand now why you lobbied so hard for AI-based controls," Vanaar conceded, "I imagine that even with boosted inertia dampeners no organic pilot could hope to survive the g-forces associated with such... manoeuvres."
By now the Rapiers had moved within firing range of the megalith, letting loose plasma shards and turbopulsar blasts at the monolithic hull of the Agemo ship. However, any damage done to the otherwise pristine hull armour of the megalith was utterly insignificant in view of the ship's sheer size.
"The test flight revealed that at the fighter level, calibrated turbopulsar and plasma shard blasts were marginally effective against Agemo hull armour," Kiir added as the representatives remained transfixed by the recording, "This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means that scaled up capital ship versions of the weapons should be capable of inflicting serious hurt on even the Agemo. I would take the chance to recommend that all Alliance ships have their pulse and kinetic cannons replaced with turbopulsar or plasma shard cannons as soon as possible."
"A clearly transparent ploy for a Hiigara-Vaygr weapons monopoly," Rei muttered under his breath.
An interesting conspiracy theory indeed, Vanaar spoke aloud into the Nalthoran's mind, letting him know that his comment had not gone unheard.
"Lastly, I will demonstrate a supplementary weapon to the Frerrn antimatter hypervelocity missiles," Kiir announced as he gestured towards the recording again. A quick change in the viewing angle quickly revealed warhead hardpoints on the underside of the Rapiers' wings. The AI of the fighter craft seemed fully aware of the megalith's potent anti-missile point defences, choosing to approach so closely that the Rapiers were barely skimming the hull surface, all the while maintaining their erratic evasive 'teleports.'
The next moment, the megalith was a large spear in the distance as the Rapiers suddenly made a long-range retreat on hyperphase drive. Then a series of no fewer than ten cerulean spheres erupted all across the megalith's hull.
"... Quantum cascade reactions!" even the T-MAT's collective voices sounded genuinely shocked.
"I understand I may have violated many taboos regarding the use of hyperspace technology as weapons," Kiir seemed slightly regretful at the fact, "But as they say: desperate times call for desperate measures."
With that, the recording ended and the room lights reverted to their normal brightness. No sooner had this happened did the representatives erupt in outrage once again.
"This is in violation of the Council's strategic weapons treaty!"
"Quantum cascade warheads today, maybe planet-killing weapons tomorrow?"
"Looks like the Hiigarans are no better than the Agemo!"
"And it looks like little has changed even in the face of complete obliteration," a familiar voice suddenly boomed from the intercom, causing the Frerrn delegation to look up in amazement.
"This..." Admiral Achnos was stuttering, "This is..."
"Yuno?" Kiir looked to her holographic avatar for answers.
"... the transmission is being forced through the Grand Shipyard's systems," Yuno answered as she closed her eyes in fierce concentration, "All attempts to halt the hacking have failed. I am attempting to trace the source..."
Surely you must have felt it, Vanaar commented mentally to Kiir.
Yes I did, Kiir nodded, I've acquainted to the effect so the mental shock does not occur. It's exactly the same as the previous time, but I had not anticipated it to be this close...
I imagine we'd become better judges of distance with time, Vanaar noted.
"Priority alert, the sensor grid has just picked up a Progenitor Keeper approaching from beyond high orbit!" Yuno exclaimed.
"How in Kharak's name did it manage to get so close?" Kiir demanded, "Was it cloaked?"
"Negative – it appears they are using some derivative of phasing technology to remain out of phase with reality," came the reply, "Its intangibility makes it difficult for even proximity scanners to identify."
"Status of the defence forces?"
"As we speak Admiral Eefrit has issued a scramble alert throughout our forces, while the other Alliance ships are moving into attack formations."
"Attention to all representatives of the Alliance," the voice cut in again, "This is Prime Minister Talos. I am onboard the Progenitor Keeper-Destroyer Templar and they mean you all no harm. Please stand down immediately."
"Prime Minister Talos," Admiral Achnos finally spoke up, "Is that really you, sir?"
"If I do not usurp myself, I am," came the reply as the main viewscreen flickered to life again, but this time not on Yuno's will. Upon seeing that the Frerrn Prime Minister was safe and sound, the Frerrn delegation seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief. Then relief was quickly replaced by awe when they noticed the sleek bridge of the ship and the various Progenitor officers moving around in alien uniforms.
"There is much to discuss, but little time," Talos continued quickly, "Kiir Sjet – requesting permission to dock with the Grand Shipyard?"
"Granted," came the reply, "I will come over at once to meet you in person."
When the doors of the meeting room slid open, the gathered delegates of the Alliance rose immediately to welcome the unexpected guests. As Prime Minister Talos entered the room, the various delegates began applauding the safe return of the leader of the Frerrn Aggregate. Admiral Achnos himself marched straight up towards Talos to salute his superior smartly. A few whispers were exchanged, following which Achnos nodded grimly before showing Talos to his seat.
With the entrance of Captain Ein and Lady Driss however, the applause was quickly replaced with a heavy and uneasy silence. Unsurprised by the delegations' reactions, Ein cleared his throat calmly and walked right up to the central conference table.
"I am Captain Ein of the Progenitor Keeper-Destroyer Templar," he began matter-of-factly before gesturing towards Driss at his side, "To my right is Lady Driss – First Officer and Second-in-command of Templar."
Driss bowed slightly as a polite gesture, hoping to break the silence but to no avail.
"Many of you will find our meeting sudden and unexpected, perhaps even terrifying, and I can understand the rationale behind those reactions," Ein continued as he glanced at everyone present, with Vanaar's imposing figure and Yuno's holographic avatar catching his eye, "With time, I expect that this fear and uncertainty will give way as we forge closer ties in working together. However, time is a luxury which we do not have."
At this juncture, the doors slid open and Kiir Sjet slipped in silently, causing a multitude of whispering and murmurs among the representatives themselves. Noticing the Progenitor officers, he gave them a polite bow before moving calmly towards Vanaar and Yuno.
"I believe that everyone present here has encountered the destructive entities known as the Mythra and the Agemo," Driss began as she rested her hand on an interface panel on the table, allowing her wrist communicator to begin interfacing wirelessly with the inbuilt computer, "I also believe that they have announced their intentions to 'Modify' this galaxy and have requested for all resisting forces to stand down?"
Several scattered nods throughout the gathered delegations acknowledged the accuracy of Driss' statement, accompanied by several hushed whispers.
"Kiir Sjet," Driss continued, turning her gaze to the Hiigaran scientist standing between Yuno and Vanaar, "You are a rare genius among your people and your developments have allowed the Hiigaran Navy to approach, sometimes even equal our own capabilities. While I concede that those are impressive achievements, you must bear in mind that the foe you are up against is no less impressive either."
The room lights dimmed once more as another recorded video lit up the main viewscreen. Talos recognised it immediately as the one Driss had shown him on the sly before.
"Allow me to introduce the concept of 'consciousness transfer'..."
"You realise that your complacency was the cause of this debacle?" the hologram of a hooded figure boomed with clearly evident displeasure, "The near-destruction of Megalith Four is unforgivable, and if not by virtue of your past successes you would be rotting in scum vessels right now!"
"It was indeed an oversight on my part and it will not happen again my lord," Voer acknowledged apologetically and meekly as he maintained his prone, submissive position before his superior. Having assumed the form of a young Taiidani, he no longer found any difficulty in kneeling unlike in his previous, nearly disintegrated vessel.
"Indeed, such an incident can and will NOT happen again," the figure emphasised, "Though, it still irks me that we had to bring the Nexus in prematurely as a result of your disgusting carelessness..."
"I have made plans to show my sincere repentance my lord," Voer continued to grovel, "Our scouts have discovered the core of what seems to be a galaxy-wide network of quantum gates."
"Galaxy-wide, you say?"
"Yes my lord," Voer answered, "Initial analysis shows great promise – each individual gate can be recalibrated and attuned specifically to the relevant quantum frequencies."
"Most interesting," the hooded figure considered the thought for a while, "So it seems there may be redemption for you yet – I will want a full detailed analysis and report within the next hundred hours, as well as the securing of the relevant gate installations. A second failure will not be tolerated. Is that clear?"
"Yes my lord – Voer understands and complies," the Agemo kept his head low as the hologram faded from view.
"To think that I still have to play second fiddle to you," Voer uttered angrily as he got up and moved towards his implant chamber – for his body was so new there hadn't been time to implant all the necessary devices that would allow him to wirelessly interface with the ship, "You will come to regret that attitude with time, Noyle."
"Someone sounds quite bitter, methinks," the voice emanated suddenly from a shadowed corner of the vast hall.
"Who's there?" Voer demanded as he whirled around and tried to trace the noise with the primitive biological ears he had, "Show yourself!"
"No need to get all flustered I assure you," the voice continued as footsteps began sounding from the shadow, "Though, it is perfectly understandable. I imagine you must feel very naked without all those implants you so require."
From the darkness stepped a humanoid of medium build. From the muscled form of his upper arms Voer deduced the person to be a warrior of sorts. Moving calmly to a manual console, he tapped a few buttons to initiate a scan of the mysterious one.
"I trust you will not be offended by this," Voer commented calmly as the scanning beams enveloped the individual, who shrugged nonchalantly in the lights criss-crossing his self. When Voer saw the results of the scan, his eyes widened slightly.
"So... Sajuuk and his Progenitor scum must've sent you here," Voer smiled slyly as the figure was immediately ensnared and suspended in the air by a series of force fields, "I do assure you however, that we have long since developed... countermeasures to this form of attack."
"Sajuuk?" the person seemed amused by the name, "You are very much mistaken dear sir. I am here yes, but not of his or their wills."
"Really?" Voer was surprised by the answer.
"I assure you I will do you no harm," the individual continued, "In fact, would you be so kind as to disable these restraints? They do get in the way slightly..."
No sooner had he finished speaking did the force fields vanish without trace, dropping him unceremoniously from mid-air. Unfazed by the fall, he simply landed gracefully on both feet.
"Thank you very much kind sir," the person continued, "On to business – I wish to negotiate a cooperative arrangement with you."
"Cooperative arrangement?" Voer's ears perked up, "Could you elaborate?"
"You seem to be having, shall we say, issues with the resistance in this galaxy thus far," the figure smiled at the possessed Taiidan before him, "Your issues with your superior are quite apparent as well. I would thus like to offer a helping hand in your deeds."
"A helping hand?" Voer chuckled slightly, "Surely there must be some ulterior motive afoot – what is it you seek in return?"
"Nothing at all," came the calm reply, "Because by allowing me to assist you you would allow me to nurse an old grudge I have."
"A grudge, you say?"
"It is a sensitive issue," the person dismissed any further discussion on the matter, "Surely you are not averse to this offer?"
"But what have you that could possibly help in my endeavours?" Voer's eyes seemed to glint at the mysterious one.
"Plentiful I assure you," came the reply, "All I want is to help, and therefore an assurance that you would leave me alone when we're done."
The figure paused for a moment, as if to consider something of importance to his well-being, then turned and fixed his full gaze upon Voer, "What say you? Have we a deal?"
"... I have my doubts still, but you seem fairly confident about putting those doubts to rest," Voer acknowledged the figure with a smile, "That said, what are we without introductions? You may call me Voer."
"Some once knew me as Luca Paktu, but that is quite a mouthful is it not?" the humanoid replied as he made a courteous bow, "You may also call me Kaark. Pleased to make your acquaintance."