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“There is no stopping this thing!” Dr Kwelix called , shaking her head as the group of rebels strode off up the field. Freyr wanted to call again after them, but didn’t know what to say. The esteemed particle physicist may have been right.

“All is not lost; I’ll talk to them.” Dr Wetherall whispered in her ear from where he’d sidled over to support his boss. Dr Lang nodded, returning the gaze of this blue-tinged avatar in a grey suit as the scientists gathered around whispered among themselves.

Immediately, they sent a private message to both her and Marae: “You are required to attend an emergency session of the Committee for Friendly Relations with Cradle Intelligences, scheduled for tomorrow morning. Beforehand, you must present a full report of your team’s findings and undertake a psychiatric evaluation. Dr Lang, you must make your team ready for immediate transfer to the OSC Barbarossa.”
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“If we want to keep the team safe, I wouldn’t suggest moving us anywhere else.” Marae suggested to Freyr. “I mean this with as little offense as possible to your military, but they have repeatedly failed to keep us safe on or around Outremer. There were bombings in orbit, a terrorist’s avatar walked right up to you on a landing pad, and then of course the attack on the arcology. Being on the Faultless Spear is the first time we’ve actually been safe since we got here. Not to mention, the facilities here are much more advanced; we’ll be able to get more work done.”

Even if he hadn’t been messaged himself, listening to Marae gave Vreta enough context to understand what was happening. He too sent Freyr a message privately. “It’s ultimately your choice if you want to follow that order, but you don’t have to let them bully you into anything. If you want some help ‘negotiating’, I can shoot a message to Rareth, and you can have her at your side.”
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Freyr didn’t respond directly to Marae, instead speaking out loud to the light blue hologram, gesturing as she went.

“Our people are still recovering from a traumatic ordeal - I’ve only just woken up after sustaining a head injury. Surely, we can attend from this ship and-” The muttering slowed to listen into her side of the conversation.

The hologram interrupted, maintaining a private channel. “Your entire department is required to operate in close proximity with other elements of the new CRCI taskforce from the OSC Barbarossa. Gunships will be docking at the Faultless Spear momentarily - please make your way on board.”

“You can’t keep treating us like this - look at what happens!” Freyr retorted loudly, pointing to the scientists who had just left.

“It is regrettable, but I'm afraid time is not our friend. No one is irreplaceable if the need is great enough.”
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Vreta gave a light sigh. He might not have been able to hear what this Human’s avatar was saying, but Freyr was not hiding what she was saying. He could already tell this was going to require a bit of extra help. Clearly this person, whoever they represented, was intending to order the team away, based on Freyr’s side of the conversation. Vreta sent along a priority message to Rareth’Jharn informing her of the situation and requesting her immediate attention.

As long as Rareth was in range of the ship, it was easy for her to make her presence quickly known wherever she might be needed. Much like the Human’s avatar, Rareth’s avatar was soon projected in front of Vreta. Even in holographic form, it was hard for Rareth to be anything but imposing. Not just for her towering size, but her avatar carried every bit of the intensity of her gaze down towards the new Outreman representative. “Could you have bothered to involve me with informing the team?” She said as she turned her gaze to the rest of the science team. “Allow me to get you all caught up with what has been happening. In short, a mobile version of the Vault underneath Babylon has been installed on the Barbarossa. Given its specialized capabilities, we have come to an agreement to use the Barbarossa for the project. However, given previous security failures, a Rothian security detachment under my command is also being stationed aboard the Barbarossa for as long as it is being used for the project. Needless to say, the Faultless Spear will also be staying close at hand in case it is required.”
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“My apologies. It is not your responsibility to inform the Outreman elements - we assumed you were busy.” The hologram responded sniffily.

“Rareth’Jharn.” Another disembodied voice prompted the Datius. Her physical body was present in another virtual meeting with some of Outremer’s naval high command. One of the faces on the screen was Group Admiral Zihdren, a shrewd hawk of a man and close associate of Group Admiral Hale, current leader of the interim administration.

“Next item - our scanners in the Gulgar system on the Levantine Rim are picking up similar signatures to the machines which attacked you last week. We’re sending a carrier strike group to meet them and would give you the opportunity to present a united front. That system supports approach vectors for both Rothian & Human worlds.”

Both Rothian & Outreman officials had been preoccupied over the last couple of weeks with a matter of dire importance and utmost secrecy to most of society. Huge automated ‘combine’ ships had been showing up from the dark void between galaxies and making their way quickly towards various Rothian worlds and Outremer. Powerful yet unco-ordinated, these craft looked cobbled together and totally unfit for biological life forms of any description.
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“We’ll have that united front. I will approve a strike group from the Rothian navy to assist.” Rareth answered. “If these machines continue to refuse dialogue, then we will stop them there, or else determine their capabilities. Speaking of, we should get our scans from the last battle to the science team to see if there are any recognizable features from known Cradle-objects.”

Rareth turned her attention back towards the others on the Faultless Spear. She paused, briefly referring to some information on a holographic screen off to her side. “You are to follow your orders to deploy to the Barbarossa. Though I am reading that there are medical items of concern. Continue to follow the instructions of medical personnel on the Faultless Spear, then move to the Barbarossa once the relevant patients have been cleared for duty.”

Rareth’s gaze fell onto the other hologram present. “Ensure that both ships keep to our timetable for the next assignment, but see that you heed the instructions of our medical personnel.”
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“It will be done.” The grey-suited representative nodded. He then turned to Freyr, speaking out loud.

“I have marked the location of your transportation on the network. We are wheels up in thirty.”

“But why such a rush?” Freyr asked quietly, but to no avail - the hologram blinked out of existence. She turned back to the mass of people.

News of a miniature vault had struck the science teams like a lightning rod. What had begun as an insistent murmuring had grown in volume until colleagues had to shout to be heard. Some had given up entirely and were just messaging each other via implant, sharing looks with each other.

Once again, Freyr knew a meeting she had called to restore peace was now well and truly out of her control. For a moment, a white hot anger bubbled to the surface; her mouth and fists clenched. Then she sighed, and raised her voice to be heard.

“Everyone pack up your gear - lets go and find out what is happening together!”
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Vreta nodded. “If Rareth agreed to this, then it must be important. The Faultless Spear will still be close at hand, but be sure we have everything we need regardless.”

“Is a vault really worth giving up the facilities we have here? We’re not going to be able to be as productive as we are here.” One of the Rothian scientists commented.

“It is specialized equipment.” Vreta answered. “Regardless of the technological limitations, these Cradle objects are unique, and the Outremans do have experience with the unique ways of dealing with them.”

There was a brief huff from the scientist. “Give us a week and we could fabricate a vault of our own.”

“Well we may not have a week to wait around. We know the potential threat we face, and we have our orders. Just remember, there is no one more qualified to meet this challenge than all of us, and we will see it through to the end.” Vreta replied; a firm answer to remind them of the stakes. Ultimately, the Rothians would follow their orders. A Datius was an extension of the Rahn’Saki’s will, and Rareth was clear on what she wanted them to do. Right away, the Rothian team members started packing whatever equipment they could think of that they would need. Or, more accurately, ordering some of the ship’s automated labor force to move what they needed to the hangar while they supervised.
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The atmosphere was…tense, to say the least, as the teams once again moved their whole lives to a new base. Drones did all the hard work, so Freyr spent most of her time rallying support from her senior colleagues.

They all knew now that she had broken their curfew to go to a party. Their loyalty to their boss had prevented them from voicing concerns publicly, but they made it clear that it hadn’t reflected well on her or them.

Even though Freyr protested in the strongest possible terms that it was a data-gathering exercise with a senior diplomat, without evidence they couldn’t comment on it either way.



A group of military transports took them the short distance between the Faultless Spear and the Barbarossa. When they arrived, the ship was a hive of activity - Captain Andersen was busy with another matter, so they were shown back to their lab. While they were setting up and recalibrating their specialist equipment, two doctors came and introduced themselves to Freyr.

“Dr Lang, would you like to follow us for your psychological assessment?” One of them asked politely. After some hesitation, Freyr nodded and followed them out of the lab again.
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Rareth’Jharn was aboard the Barbarossa, though she had not yet interacted with the science team. She trusted they would be able to re-establish themselves in the new facilities, and she had much of her own to do in the meantime. Her purpose in negotiating for a Rothian security detail on the Barbarossa was mostly to maintain a strong Rothian presence in the project at all levels, but that did not mean she would not take her new role seriously. She intended to fully-integrate her team with the Barbarossa’s own security forces. Void Company was mostly autonomous in how they chose to operate, but the rest she directed to maintain, as close as possible, a standard of security that would be acceptable on a Rothian ship. Patrols were easy enough to keep constant with robotic security, so it was in surveillance and screening that she placed most of her personal attention. Her first day on the ship, and she had already spent hours speaking with the captain about her requests, which she expected she would need to do many more times during this mission.

Early the next morning, Rareth had taken for herself one of the officers’ briefing rooms. She had just sent a request to the captain for background checks on all of the ship’s crew, and was going straight into a meeting with the Committee. Naturally, its other members were not all aboard the Barbarossa, but the briefing room had access to a full holographic communications interface. Ignoring the chairs that were entirely too small for her, she stood as the sensors scanned her body and projected a holographic version of herself in their digital meeting room.

There was a short wait for all of the relevant members of the committee to join the meeting, but once they had, Rareth wasted no time. “Apologies for cutting short the formalities, but there is much to do today. The science team is in the process of setting up on the Barbarossa. No meaningful difficulties at the moment, so I expect we will keep to our minimum timetable. We need to be ready to depart as soon as possible. To that end, I can approve the deployment of a corvette division from Rothia to reconnoiter the system ahead of our arrival.”
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“We should wait until we can substantiate this lead before committing any military resources to such a distant location.” Benoit Souza spoke up. He’d been promoted from domestic intelligence to Naval Intelligence director by the new administration. You named Plenipotentiary Wallace as the source but, where is she?”

A few more faces had joined the meeting since they’d started, but none of them were the silver haired senior diplomat.

“Hear, hear!.” João Sequeira boomed. Previously Under-Secretary of the Diplomatic Corps on Outremer, he had also been kept around after his failed bid to succeed President.

“The position itself is obsolete, yet we still have them. Why? We cannot get rid of them, and believe me I tried. They are too powerful! Whatever Wallace has claimed must be properly scrutinised; she could be tricking us into advancing her interests.”

“Quite right.” Souza purred. The agency director was much softer-spoken than the former diplomat, but carried a certain calculating gravitas.

“Even if this lead turns out to be worth pursuing, we can’t just show up with a battle group. For those of you that weren’t in the original briefing, let me explain why.”

Souza shared a 3D hologram of a planetary system with the group. Three planets orbiting around two suns. Souza zoomed in on the smallest of the three planets - it was lush and green, with very little visible water and small spots of desert.

“This is Psi-Helios. 27 years ago the system was surveyed and a previously uncontacted civilisation found. The Tindrel and Qalian-Vosh both claimed the system as part of their ecumene. To avoid all-out war, elements from Earth petitioned the galactic community to declare this new civilisation part of the Control program. This means the system was given demilitarised status and peacekeepers deployed.”
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Rareth gave little in her reaction for the others to observe. After Marae and agent Vreta had alerted her to Wallace’s tip, she had received her own report on the situation from the Rahn’Masser. Unfortunately, even they lacked recent information on how the system’s situation had developed. Its location was far from Rothian territory and overall sphere of influence. The only reason they had justification to be involved at all was the presence of the primitives in the system. Pre-FTL civilizations were protected by international treaties from outside interference, even within sovereign territory. Of course, the amount of exceptions and conditions written into those treaties could fill out the space of entire novels. For the Tindrel and Qualian-Vosh, having any presence within the system skirted the edge of the law, but as of yet they had not provably violated it in any meaningful way. On occasion, the Rothian military could send stealth corvettes to carefully observe the situation from far outside any other species’ effective sensor range. They could determine if there were any signs of uncharacteristically advanced technology in too close of proximity to the planet, but their last observation was months ago.

“Bear in mind, we are the ones who would be substantiating the Plenipotentiary’s claim. If we had other, more likely leads, then I would suggest following them. But, as it stands, waiting around here debating on what to do next, as we have been for weeks, will end only with us doing nothing. The forces that may be arrayed against us will keep marching their plans forward regardless of whether or not we do anything to challenge them. I do not know many of you, nor what you value, but I prefer to have some say in my own fate.” She said, pausing a moment as her gaze moved slowly around the virtual room. “Again, I intend to authorize a division of corvettes to scout the system from outside sensor range ahead of our arrival to identify any potential points of danger. They will not be detected by the Tindrel, Qualian-Vosh, nor the natives.”
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Some of the delegates talked privately among themselves for a few moments. Eventually it was decided to manage the facts themselves rather than let the Rothians find out some other way.

There was a pause, then Benoit Souza spoke quietly again.

“We know Psi-Helios is dangerous already. In fact, it's a powder-keg that's ready to blow. Our assets think the Tindrel and QV have discovered some unique properties of the plant-like organism that now covers most of the planet’s surface. They both want to control the synthesis of whatever it is, or at least stop the other. It is a delicately balanced situation which we feel will be best left to…recalibrate naturally.”

João took over. “We need you to promise not to interfere. Outremer cannot be seen to take sides in this conflict. Since this is a joint venture, any intervention made by Rothia which then later involves Outremer will not reflect well on anyone.
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“The potential danger posed by these machines far exceeds the economic benefit of a plant. I frankly am not interested in playing these pointless political games.” Rareth responded. Her gaze moved around the room across the meeting’s various participants. The kinds of debates this Committee invited were tedious and frustrating, but if there was one advantage here, it was that not all of them were in agreement. Certainly, some favored action, and if Rareth could deliver a reasonable path to taking that action, she could gain support.

Rareth took in a short, deep breath, followed by a light sigh. “These machines could threaten the Tindrel and Qualian-Vosh just as much as they could for us. If they are threatened as well, then the Rahn’Saki will want to inform them of the risk. They have a right to be able to defend themselves, and we certainly would not mind having the support of as many species as possible in a united defense against this threat. I believe you may be…overthinking your approach to this political situation. We can simply explain our involvement with the truth. We are being guided to Psi-Helios in pursuit of a potential threat to our galaxy’s safety. Our intrusion into this interspecies spat over a plant is pure coincidence. We will be taking no sides, and they need not know in what ways you may or may not have already been watching them. If you are still so concerned about political fallout, then let us take the lead. You can present yourselves as merely being dragged along our warpath in the interest of mutual defense, and my people can deal with the politics later.”
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“What of these combine ships - can we link them to Psi-Helios?” Outremer’s interim leader broke his silence and appeared prominently on a large window. Lord High Admiral Hale was a military man with nearly one hundred years of experience, his voice crackled like old parchment, but his grey-blue eyes were still bright.

Group Admiral Zihdren puffed out - this was his moment.

“Their attacks grow in frequency and strength, my lord. The Navy has repelled their advances and tried to board and disable them. Unfortunately they have some sort of self-destruct mechanism. No significant wreckage remains.”

“And we have no other avenues of inquiry?”

Benoit Souza answered. “We have begun to dispatch teams to known inhabited worlds, but the process-”.

“Then there is no time to waste. Summon the Tindrel and Qalian-Vosh ambassadors today - inform them of the threat in broad terms and explain that Outremer and Rothia will be conducting joint exercises around the Psi-Helios system as a precaution. They can either fall in line or be destroyed.

Hale’s eyes focused on Datius Jharn, towering over her in the conference room. “I think it's time to put our new alliance to good use.”
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“You may want to let my people take the lead with negotiations. We have closer ties with both species.” Rareth remarked. In any case, she would be satisfied for them to actually be able to get to work. She already knew that the Rahn’Saki wanted to bring in as many allies as they could. Even she did not know why they had come to that decision, but she did have her guesses. Militarily speaking, the advantage of having more ships and soldiers at their disposal was obvious, even if it did not end up being strictly necessary. Aside from that, making the threat visible to other species would also put them in a position to show that they are willing and able to step up as protectors in the galaxy, if it is necessary.

There was a recess in the meeting as they took the time to reach out to the required participants. Rareth, too, made her own calls. She was comfortable dealing with the Committee herself, but she knew when to take advantage of the expertise of subordinates. She contacted the Rothian ambassador to Outremer, Taranik’Nhet. She had already been kept in the loop to a degree to allow her to assist in negotiations, and Rareth had time to fill her in on what else she needed to know while they were waiting on the other two ambassadors. The ambassadors moved in the same social circles here on Outremer, so Rareth had no issue taking advantage of that familiarity to help make the ambassadors more comfortable.

Taranik’Nhet appeared seated once she logged in to the meeting. She had dark green scales with black stripes, and an altogether much less intimidating demeanor than Rareth. She was a familiar presence, so she would take the lead over Rareth when speaking with the ambassadors. The Datius, of course, would not hesitate to intercede when necessary, and Taranik would ultimately advocate for whatever position Rareth instructed her to take.
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They decided to contact the Tindrel representatives first.

The Tindrel embassy on Babylon was among the biggest. But it was also located relatively close to the Tower of Babel. So, they had been among the first to evacuate when the Navigator was reunited with the Cradle beneath the city. The Ambassador and most staff had been relocated under police escort to a row of townhouses on one side of a prestigious planned square called Félicien Place:




The houses were purposefully nostalgic, and the Tindrel were too large for the Human-sized rooms, so they had fallen back on the old ways. Junior staff clung to the ceiling with four of their legs as they worked. The higher up the hierarchy you were, the lower you were to the ground. Specialised equipment was stacked up in corners.

The Ambassador had been writing his report for his superiors on Tind when the request came through. Patching through on a secure line, he saw a row of faces looking at him. Some of the faces were very recognisable, and not all Human. Very curious. His mandibles tapped together instinctively, and he shifted from one set of legs to the other.

“Firm greetings of this day to you all. What is the meaning of this ambush?”
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“Greetings, Ambassador.” Taranik’Nhet began. She paused a moment, taking in a long breath as she gave one more glance to her notes in front of her. “Unfortunately, as you can probably imagine, it is not good news that is bringing us together right now. Forgive me if we skip some pleasantries, but to avoid keeping you in suspense, I am going to get straight to the business at hand. We have recently become aware of a potential, military threat, not only to our nation, but possibly every nation in our galactic community. Datius Rareth, would you…” Her voice trailed off to become inaudible over the call as she gestured to Rareth.

The Datius stepped forward, serving as more of a “military” presence to state the facts about this threat they were describing. “Last week, Rothian space was attacked by a foe of unknown origin, with unknown capabilities. These ships were operated entirely by artificial lifeforms. They attacked, then self-destructed once disabled. There have been no friendly casualties thusfar, though we believe it likely that these were merely scouts, so the true capabilities of this foe are, as I said, still unknown. As of this moment, they have only been found in Rothian, or unclaimed space, but approach vectors for ships we have detected have placed them as moving towards the territory of other species as well. We have no reason to believe they will restrict their attentions to us.”

Taranik continued right away from where Rareth left off. “We are contacting you now to inform you of this threat, and to invite your people to join in our response to it.”
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The Ambassador gurgled within his chest cavity.

“I am a Tindrel representative to Outremer, not Rothian space… João what say you?” Tindrel language was an eclectic mix of gurgles, subvocals and clicks - but this translation sounded to
the senior diplomat like how he imagined an eloquent house parrot might speak.

Most of the Committee had left for other engagements by now, including Lord Hale. He and Souza could approach this however he wanted.

“This is a courtesy call. So far we don’t have any evidence to suggest these ghost ships are more than some isolated incident.”

João barely had time to finish before the Ambassador interrupted.

“Hmmmm. Ok. Thanks for letting us know. I will inform my superiors.”
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“A ‘courtesy’ this may be, but I would advise taking our warning more seriously than some…others are.” Rareth remarked. “It is much better to over-prepare for a minor threat than to under-prepare for a major one.”

Taranik spoke up quickly to steer the conversation towards their most pressing issue. The Outremans were hesitant about giving too much information away. Rareth was going to be negotiating in favor of further disclosure to their allies, but for now, Rareth was being patient enough to wait instead of proceeding without the Outremans' agreement. At the moment, Taranik would only give away some of what they knew. “Indeed, and part of that preparation is why we are contacting you first. We are attempting to get to the heart of this threat before it has a chance to cause any major damage. That investigation, from my understanding, is leading us to a system in which the Tindrel have a presence. Are you familiar with the Psi-Helios system? We require access to that system for the investigation to proceed.”
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