Revelations and understanding.
ARG Class Dreadnaught Andromeda Ascendant. Internal dock.
"So, what kind of mission do you have for us, Admiral Hunt?"
Iriyanna didn't tend to address Dylan formally, but this was a special case. Her ship ready, her and Jeri were about to be sent on their first mission. Well, almost ready. She looked at the hull, where him and her father were working on the AP cannons.
While somewhat smaller than the old To Seek, To Find class, it had about three times the armament. And much better looks. In fact, Iri found herself lovingly running her hands over the hull more than once. Jeri was quite flattered, although he kept asking her to wait until his matrix was fully installed and active.
Turned out the avatar of the Sun could be quite a match for him when I came to blushing.
As she looked, Jeri had finally finished fine-tuning the cannon.
"All systems ready, Admiral Hunt!" He reported, saluting his father. "Any orders for me and Captain Harper?"
Dylan considered for a moment "You are free to go on an exploration mission with completely free initiative. And son..."
The Admiral grabbed his son's shoulder. "Stop being so formal."
Jeri's avatar was sitting in front of a display. It was displaying a complex interference pattern.
"Well? What are you looking at?" Iriyanna asked, laying her hands on his shoulders.
"As you know, since the establishing of the New Commonwealth, two more slipstream scanning probes have been launched. I've been looking for changes." Jeri said, rotating the patterns.
"Found anything interesting?"
He smiled at her:
"For me, at least." He looked at the displays around him and launched into lecture mod. Iri had to admit, he could be much better at that than the Academy professors… or sexier, at least.
"The slipstream depends on gravity fields. As such, there are significant changes when there are significant mass shiftings. Look."
Maps of the Known Worlds' galaxies were projected into the air. Hundreds of points were highlighted.
"Most of the shiftings." Jeri highlighted in blue "Are supernovae and other natural phenomena which occurred in the time between the probes. Out of the rest, most can be attributed to known Nova Bomb explosions." He highlighted them in red.
"However, there are three exceptions." He highlighted in purple.
"This one is Tarn Vedra. The second is Rhal Partia." He pinched his chin between two fingers. "Interestingly, there are significant changes between the last two probes."
"Perhaps they are maintaining the damage?"
"Most likely. In which case, these systems are off limits. Now, the third…"
"What is it?"
"A remote, completely unknown system of no significance. Yet it was apparently destroyed by a Nova Bomb. By my estimates; around the Fall, give or take two years."
Iri considered the options. Unknown, risky, and interesting. Perfect for them. "Can you get the ship there?"
"I can. But only if it's an order."
A slipstream portal opened. The Jericho Trumpet emerged from it with two beings aboard. One of them rather displeased.
"Perhaps I was a bit hasty with my order." It took a lot to cause nausea in a Lucifer, but this qualified.
"Told you there were shiftings in the slipstream, sunshine. Hmmm…" Jeri closed his eyes for a second. "Plenty of research data from this jump alone."
Iri, meanwhile, has approached the display and set the scanners to sweep the local space.
"Nova bomb alright. Can be pinpointed to… two months after the beginning of the Uprising. Matches a K2 star, just like the old charts say. Scans show one celestial body of significant size thrown off orbit, but still intact. Set a course there, Jeri."
The planet was once tidally locked to the star. Now, one of the sides still showed the terrible burns of the explosion, but the other was all but intact.
"Scans show debris from multiple ships upon the planet. Mostly destroyed, but some can still be analyzed. Probe data incoming." Jeri narrowed his eyes "That can't be right…"
"What is it, J?"
"These ships seem to have had stealth armor."
"But no one had that technology back then."
"Exactly. Only two groups might have, according to the existing sources, and the debris seem to belong to both." Jeri's face was grim.
"The first one is the Tarn Vedra elite Home Guard, and the other…"
Jeri looked at her, cold rage in his eyes. "Merged Ones." He hunched over the controls. "And I don't know which side starting it is worse."
Iriyanna hugged him. There was little she could say right now.
"I thought they all died in the Earth Battle." She finally said.
"Twenty did. The real numbers were never known. The Krav Searah database suggests there were over a hundred." Suddenly he widened his eyes.
"What is it?"
"A tunnel. Seems to lead into a large underground complex."
"Are you sure this is wise?" Asked Iri as they walked through the tunnel. "Just how far does it stretch?"
"Twenty kilometers. Whoever built it was taking no chances with whatever the complex contains."
Iri looked around her. The tunnel was narrow at the beginning, probably made so after whatever needed was transported in, but where they stood, two ships the size of Maru could easily pass clear of each other.
"Twenty kilometers and no trams? Who the hell designed that thing?" She began a tirade which would have made her father proud, but Jeri has suddenly cut her off:
"Well, Iri, it looks like the old principle never fails." He smiled at her.
Just behind the turn they cleared, a tram stood. Jeri opened the door. It was empty. He beckoned Iriyanna to enter first.
She looked at the control panel:
"Just what kind of encryption is that? Makes no sense."
"That hurts, Iri." Jeri said while interfacing.
"It's Merged One code." He pressed a few buttons. "Power still available, but the AI matrix of the facility is empty." He frowned. "Something is wrong with it."
Iri shuddered. His tone predicted nothing good.
"What do you mean?"
"I cannot tell for sure until we reach the main facility, but it looks like there was an AI there. A Merged One." His face was displaying clear shock. "And it died of mental disintegration."
Iri heard a crack. Looking down, she realized she snapped off a piece of the tram. Sheepishly, she welded it back. A regular AI dying of mental disintegration was something from the theoretical simulations; a Merged One… she didn't want to think about it.
The tram started moving. For one that wasn't in use for three centuries, it was running smoothly.
"All right" Said Jeri as he accessed the facility's control panel. "Atmosphere is within normal parameters. If we were wearing EVA suits, we could have removed them now."
They both entered the facility. It was an enormous cavern. Just the one room they were in was nearly five hundred meter across, and the scans showed many more. And it was full of ancient technology. A museum.
Normally, Jeri would have been awed at that, but, looking at his face, Iri saw barely contained anger instead.
"What did you find in the database?"
"This was a Merged One system." Jeri said, looking into space. "They were trying to build their own independent lives here. Without the Vedrans."
"What didn't they like about the Vedrans?"
The android snorted. "Everything. Look at this, for example." He stopped before one of the exhibits.
"A slipstream drive." Iri said. She looked at the plaque attached. "Earth made." Then her eyes widened "Three years before the contact with Tarn-Vedra". She looked at Jeri, shocked. "Earth was working on its own drive? And the Vedrans suppressed that knowledge?" This went completely against what she was taught.
"Worse." Jeri snarled "This is not a coil drive. This is a core drive."
"Sorry, I didn't study slipstream tech that much in the Academy. What's the difference?" The half-Lucifer certainly didn't like where this was going.
"I doubt you would have learned much even on a technology course. The modern drive uses a core to focus the gravity disruptions and enter the slipstream. Back then, Vedrans didn't have that tech. They used resonance of two coils filled with exotic matter. High energy requirement, high risk, and several days of repairs and calibrations required after every jump. Core drives revolutionized space travel." Jeri clenched his fists. "The Vedrans claimed it was their own invention. They suppressed the technology for nearly two centuries. Translated to the delays and risks of coil drives – billions of lives. Most of them coming from more expansive and curious races."
"I find that hard to believe." Iri said gripping his hand.
"So do I. But the evidence is there." He activated the display in front of the drive.
Iri looked at the evidence, but could find no signs of tampering. She felt Uncle Dylan was going to be really upset.
"Or this." He showed her a flexi. "The recording of the battle where Admiral Munro gave his life. It could have been won with much less casualties." His face grew grim. "But these would have been Vedran casualties."
"And this is the worst." They stopped in front of another display. "The list of all the casualties from the Hephaistos ambush. Two hundred crews. Not one Vedran. A lot in the crews, but they all took a vacation at the time."
The implication sounded clear to Iri.
"Sounds like they knew… and let the others exhaust themselves so they could move in. But why didn't they?"
"Most likely, something went wrong with the Slipstream cutoff. After all, it took them three centuries to attempt another."
"A "why you should hate Vedrans" museum." The half-Lucifer sighed.
"Just this section. There are all kinds of artifacts here. Even Lucifer technology. And… It says they have a piece of the Engine of Creation." In response Iri merely raised an eyebrow.
"Only one?" After all she saw, the girl felt nothing could surprise her.
"They were searching for the others. Managed to narrow down the locations."
"No wonder the Vedrans destroyed this system. The guys knew too much." She winced, knowing she made an inappropriate joke. But Jeri didn't react.
"It is unclear who launched the Nova Bomb." He said with a far off gaze. "The final records are full of madness. Something in this complex was too much for them. Something they made themselves. He stopped again. "Something behind this door."
"What do the records say?"
"It is difficult to translate into words." The android closed his eyes. "The closest would be as follows":
"We have made the Perfection. The Perfection is too much for us. It rips us apart. We must spread to contain it. To become one and many. It is made to contain the universe. We must become more for it. To become separate together."
Iri looked at her boyfriend wide eyed:
"You think… they went to establish the Consensus of Parts?"
"Sounds likely." Said Jeri as he accessed a panel on the wall. A door opened.
A large device stood in front of them. Six columns were surrounding a black sphere. Between them floated small blue sparks.
Iri looked carefully.
These weren't sparks.
"Slipstream portals?" She tried approaching the device, but something blocked her path.
"Yes. And I think they are from all over the universe." Jeri said as he stood beside her. "I believe it is the central node of a data storage unit. They built a device for data collection. These are probes being sent out."
"How come no one noticed them?"
"I think they did." Jeri said as he tried to scan the device through the barrier. "It matches the characteristics of AIH."
"Artificial Intelligence Herpes. A probe infestation, usually harmless, and never more than an annoyance. But it gets everywhere. Guess we know where it came from."
"They went mad from all that knowledge?" Iri took a step back. Something about this device seemed terrifying… but also incredibly attractive.
"It's more than that. The data implies that the probes went somewhere incomprehensible. That some data was beyond what mind was meant to know."
"I feel something from this device. It attracts me. Do you think it wants to infect us?" Iri made another step back. It wasn't easy.
Jeri looked at the device. His eyes were unfocused.
"I feel it, too. It doesn't want to infect. I think it seeks the one that would contain it… and it believes we can."
"You think it might be right?" Iri looked at her boyfriend. Her eyes grew wide with fear.
Jeri was smiling as he put his hand on the barrier: "I think… I think we were meant to contain it."
With these words, Jeri stepped through the barrier.
With a shout, Iri grabbed his hand, and was pulled through along with him. As she tried to gather her bearing from the strange sensation, Jeri approached the sphere. There were two depressions there, probably meant for one's hands.
Shouting again, Iri grabbed his arms. Young Hunt didn't resist. Instead, he merely smiled at her:
"My love, I think I begin to understand. Open your mind."
And Iriyanna did. And she, too, felt it. She freed one of Jeri's arms. Smiling, they each placed a hand in a depression.
Gasping, they found themselves on their knees in front of the device. But they were no longer in the cavern.
"How did we get back?" Iri asked, looking at the walls of the Trumpet's main cargo hold.
"This thing can generate slipstream portals. Must have decided I need to be close to my main matrix for a proper interface. It's already integrated directly into the system." He accessed the sensors. "Yup. Must be it, considering we're in the Sol system. And there seem to be distress signals all over."
"They noticed us?" Iriyanna really didn't like the thought of being detected while in a Nietzschean system.
"No indication of that. Stealth systems are working perfectly. It seems we were unconscious for a week… And a war started in the meantime. Little detail available."
"Do you feel any different?" Iri did, but it was difficult to pinpoint directly. It felt like…
"It is like something simmers beneath the surface of my thoughts. The data will take a while to integrate." Jeri closed his eyes. "There is always something simmering there… And I think the new data completes it."
"Same here. But things are already becoming clearer." Iri said as they walked toward the bridge.
"And so many things are still unclear." Suddenly, alarms flashed. "We need to move. Mom sent a distress call."
"Mine too, but… something is wrong with it. Communications are barely there. I got no detail about the trouble." Iri wasn't just worried. She was scared. Judging from her boyfriend's face, he was hardly better off.
"Well, at least we have the coordinates. Better hurry."
As the Jericho Trumpet entered the system, they were introduced to one of the most horrible sights a war can have. The entire system was being evacuated.
Andromeda, along with the remains of the system's guard, was fighting off an enormous fleet. For all her upgrades, it looked like a force too great for her. Combat wounds were already visible all over her hull. Worse, many of the ships weren't fighting her.
They were slaughtering the evacuation transports.
"The only good thing I can see about this situation, is that we won't have to disappoint Dad." Said Jeri as he guided the ship toward the battle. "These are Vedran ships. And judging from your communications problem, they are working with Lucifers."
A screen came alive. Dylan's face was upon it:
"Good to see you, son, Iri." He started. "Listen, we need you to defend the transports. We can't handle all of them, not with these boardings. Do whatever you can."
"Acknowledged, Admiral. Who's boarding you? Vedrans or Lucifers?"
"Both. They seem to be after the Engine… and Lord Ursa." The sounds of the combat indicated the enemy was getting rather close.
"Ursa? There's been a successful coup among the Lucifers?" Iri was shocked. Seems like Antar's faction has recovered very fast.
Jeri was considering his options. The one he intended to follow was risky, but the possible outcome was worth it. And considering the Trumpet was a research vessel, he had few options.
"Yes. And now the Vedrans. They have considerable support among the population, you know. We have trouble rallying."
"Jeri, send the data to the Andromeda. It might help them."
"At it, Captain." Jeri said setting up the transmission channel.
Iri was about to ask something, when she noticed the details of the course he was setting.
"J, are you insane? This'll expose us to the enemy!"
"That's the idea, sunshine. Buckle in, this is going to be rough."
Shaking her head, Iriyanna buckled in. The number of the enemy ships left her little choice but to trust him.
The straps cut into her body painfully. The maneuver Jeri pulled off nearly shook her and the ship apart.
"You know, Jeri, I don't know anyone except you who could have pulled such a maneuver off, but… what was the point?"
"The point, Captain, is that the enemy doesn't know anyone other than me who could have pulled such a maneuver off, either." Jeri replied as he pointed at the displays. They now showed a very different tactical situation. Andromeda was escorting the evacuation transport to the slipstream portals, all but unopposed…
Because nearly all the ships were now pursuing the Jericho Trumpet.
"As I thought." Said the AI. "One signal I am near, and they forget all else. Guess they are angry for something. Either at me, or my kind in general."
Iri was horrified at the implications:
"We need to get to the data storages! If they are hostile toward the Merged Ones…"
"You underestimate the probes. The data has been collected within a month of uploading." Jeri said, launching a few salvos at the enemy. "Don't worry about that. Worry about us getting away. I'm starting to." With these words, the Trumpet transferred to slipstream.
"They are much more stubborn than the ones who tried to prevent your conception." Iriyanna stated while looking at the fleet pursuing. "How the hell did the Vedrans manage to build such a fleet with just two systems?"
"The combined mass is not much in astronomical terms. All you need is a different approach toward economics." Jeri said as he tried to shake off the fleet. "Can you do anything about them?"
The girl shook her head: "The other Lucifers are causing some major disruption. I can barely connect to my star. Drawing energy from it…" she looked helplessly at her hands. Only a few small flames were flickering between her fingers.
"Then I'll try to shake them off at one of the slipstream anomalies."
However, before he could, the fleet fired a salvo.
This being slipstream, most of the missiles went wide. Some were dodged, a few others intercepted, some were fooled by the stealth armor…
Too many made contact. Sparks and debris flew all over the ship.
As the AI tried to regain proper control of its ship and the slowly rising android, he saw something that made him freeze cold with fear.
One of the debris hit Iri in the head. She was slumped in her chair, unconscious. Her life signs were faint.
The fury he felt so seldom was now rising in him once again. But this time, it was joined by the knowledge and power simmering below his thoughts. And together, they joined into a torrent of shadow, light, clarity and chaos.
And the torrent slammed into the Vedran ships.
Millions of Vedrans, hundreds of Lucifers, had no time to scream before that power obliterated them. Where a moment ago, one of the mightiest fleets in history was pursuing its target, now only the strings of slipstream were quivering in the remains of the hurricane. Even the distant bodies of the Lucifers were shaken until all signs of sentience were obliterated.
Jeri was paying no attention, standing near his girlfriend in the med bay. She was still unconscious, though stable. But her condition was far more than just the wound. The knowledge they both absorbed, combined with her powers and the hidden birthright, was overloading her nervous system. It was tangling into a chaos that could kill her.
Carefully, he unraveled the tangle. What was done for him by a sudden blast of fury, he did to her with the light, caressing strokes of a lover. The same birthright as his, but weaker, now connected to the knowledge of the universe. The knowledge and power flowed together as one.
And Iriyanna Wanda Harper opened her eyes.
"What happened?" She said groggily.
"You were wounded from a weapon impact." Jeri said, caressing her hair. She will have to spend a few days growing back the locks that hit cost her.
"Did you shake them off?" She tried to stand, but Jeri pushed her back.
"No." He shook his head. "I destroyed them."
"What? How?" She looked at him, wide eyed.
"I finally understand." Said Jeri, smiling. "And you should understand now, too." He said before kissing her.
The girl looked at their intertwined hands, now glowing with an otherworldly light. "Yes. By the Divine, I do understand." She answered breathlessly.