Cloacae retract and limbs go flaccid with relief as the alien drone finally sheds its imitation, assuming an unthreatening, inanimate-seeming form.
“Satisfactory” 0409334-Biologer clicks, acknowledging the change tersely. His kinguards lower their aim. Even if the advocate’s explanation for why this deception is ‘standard practice’ makes little sense, at least they aren’t being confronted with an active threat display anymore.
But then it answers their inquiries - “the makers of the Owners of the nexus are unknown…’ the advocate begins, and its replies grow only more bewildering and terrifying from there, every response dense with highly interpretable information - of which all can be certain is its graveness and significance.
“How can these tools not know of their user-constructors?” 0409334-Biologer trills to the others in high-pitched outrage. “Self-directing constructed intelligence? This is impossible!” He remembers to switch to Meridian only mid-outburst - “how can non-biological entity speak of enjoyment, desires, motives? These are evolutionary-selectional mechanisms”
“Constructed intelligence extant for forty five thousand orbital periods” 2204873-Aerovoid-Technician stridulates in stuttering Meridian, limbs quivering in spasmodic awe. “Possible self-iterating system develops exponential complexity. Process evolutionary-analogous, only system cycles and physical retrofitting exponentially faster-efficient than biological mutation. Autarchavists hypothesise-predict this as future of constructed intelligence on Phorcys”
“This cannot be true” 0409334-Biologer chitters high and rapid, struggling to cohere his mental framework with the sheer scope of these revelations. The cosmos as oizyskind knew it is being upended by the second. If what 2204873 suggests is true - that this constructed intelligence is capable of such activity - then how is biological competition possible? Is his field worthless? His work for nothing? Is the universe beyond Phorcys only an arid emptiness, destined for the proliferation of self-replicating, self-directing machines?
“You will find way to destroy-defeat them” 0409334 demands. “When contact made with client species, this one will discern-detect how to kill them”
“This one hopes so” 2204873-Aerovoid-Technician chitters in response, but without conviction, for in truth he cannot see how. He is the Confederation’s pre-eminent specialist on void-travel and orbital engineering, sent here to observe the alien’s technology and discern its workings - and yet he has nothing to report. Their construct-craft, their drone-emissary - both are being analysed by every instrument the Confederation can point at them, and yet they remain as inscrutable as the eldritch distortion in space-time that bore them. Not even such elementary insights as their method of propulsion or their power source are determinable.
“Our supremacy is eternal-manifest, valued-ally-friends. Know this. The flesh is truth”. 0409334-Biologer begins to chatter babblingly, almost more to himself than to the others. “The race is all, the swarm is all”, he repeats, "the genome is all", clinging to the the reassuring mantras of spawnhood.
“We cannot assume-teach so anymore”. 2204873 clicks, not unaware of the effect he is having on 0409334, but unwilling to sweeten the truth. “All is changed. Phenomena we have witnessed, phenomena alien describes, none are comprehensible by physical laws as known. Alien possesses developmental advantage of forty five thousand orbital periods. Their technology-power magnitudinal orders beyond our own.”
Eighteen thousand years. That is what terrifies 2204873. Their enemy has traversed the void for eighteen thousand years, and his setae bristle with incomprehension at the terror of such an inconceivable span of time. The first Confederal probes breached the cloud-layer only sixty years ago. And that was considered distant history! Three generations of scientists have struggled since to understand the mysteries of the immensity beyond, and yet oizyskind has still barely begun to comprehend the first intimations of its nature. The Confederation’s most advanced unmanned craft have barely scratched its surface, reaching no further from Phorcys than their own two moons. The only oizys ever to enter the void and live are in orbit above them even now. They have been there for mere hours - their enemy for epochs. What power must be theirs...
“Fear-response irrelevant" 0992904-Interlocutor reproaches the Biologer and the East Continental both, clicking clear and precise in pointed contrast to their quavering trills. "Theoretical implications irrelevant. Our task-purpose to protect Confederation. Determine immediate threats. This one believes alien threaten-coerces Confederation with warning of nanite swarms. Possible nanites are weapon develop-deployed by Owners to dominate-subdue species.”
More concerned with the concrete and immediate than the others, as ever, this is what disturbs 0992904 - the Owners' thinly veiled threat that only under their dominion will life on Phorcys be safe. During his assignment at Complex Systems Instability Response Control he witnessed 01 Under-Command's prototype nanite technology in action - and he fully believes the advocate's warning of what it can do, if nothing else the deceiver claims. He recalls how nanite-infused structure gel was to be used to rapidly seal habitat breaches, and canisters of the viscous black fluid were installed at a dozen major tunnel-junctions. He recalls that they were designed to crack open under seismic pressure, and how the gel was released when the next major quake inevitably came - and worked, as intended. But within days vast masses of the stuff had been scraped off the walls by dissidents and traitors. likely Western agents operating under cover of the repair and rescue taskgroups. Whoever was responsible, all they knew was that vast quantities of the deadly substance were re-programmed to attack the habitat, not preserve it. The result - entire structural levels collapsed, vital tunnel-networks lost, and tens of thousands dead. An orbital period later Habitat-Vault 01 has still not recovered, neither in population nor genetic diversity. Deployed on a large enough scale, 0992904-Interlocutor can well believe such a weapon is capable of wiping out a world.
“Even if so,” 3100441-Emissary interjects, “it is irrelevant. Listen to 2204873. Resistance-survival impossible if alien hostile. Does not matter if alien lies. Changes nothing. This stalling-hesitation serves no purpose-use. We must sue-implore terms of confederation with Nexus immediately, before we are forced.”
“Enough of your treasons and misconstruals" 0409334-Biologer clicks, "Must communicate with client species to discern more of the nature of Nexus Collective, else beneficial-advantageous terms impossible.”
"This will not alter-adjust Confederal-Nexus power-imbalance in any way"
"Does Westerner desire Confederation to remain weak-ignorant?" 0992904-Interlocutor accuses him, spiracles flared with anger. "Your kinguards gone-below. Do not test us"
"Your aggression shames Confederation!" 3100441 retorts. "Step back. Alien will perceive it. Display of disunity weakens all our positions"
The Meridian chitters low and menacing as he backs away. His favourite tactic, 3100441 thinks to himself contemptuously. He has yet to see this self-assured brute take any action beyond brutalising a worthless, defenceless slave. 3100441 does not dignify his threat-display with a response.
He is not afraid of him. Nor is he afraid, unlike the others, of ancient aliens and constructed intelligence and weapons of unimaginable power. These fools belong to uncivilised Swarms, but a Westerner understands the subtleties of negotiation and commerce. A scion of the great Kin-League Phonotaxis
, 3100441 was schooled in the high elements of agent theory while these Meridian and Isthmus dregs learnt nothing but the crude violence of their primitive corpse nurseries. 3100441 has worked out what these aliens want. Not conquest or extermination - for that would be easy for them - but exploitation. To make offers they cannot refuse. And 3100441 does not dislike the notion of the Meridian Swarms bled dry by alien treaty, if the accord can be made right.
With that goal in mind, the only thing 3100441-Emissary fears is the advocate's insinuation that any meeting with clients must take place within the Nexus. By the command of the honoured Executors that sent him, his kinguard wait below, armed and armoured and ready to storm the chamber. At his signal they will kill the Meridian hulk and the Biologer, leaving him and 2204873 - his new East-Continental ally - to claim the clientship for their Swarms and divide the spoils of negotiation between them.
That was the plan.
This will not be possible if they enter the Nexus craft. Their orders to conceal their technological capacity from the aliens stands. The Confederal Consensus will never permit for his kinguards' micro-fusion weapons to be taken aboard - and without that advantage, there is no guarantee his kinguards will be victorious against the others...
"Request direct contact with Nexus client species", the Biologer stridulates, switching back to comprehensible Standard.
No. 3100441 must act.
“Further request” he adds, “contact occurs at current site”. It is ridiculous that inter-Swarmbloc politicking has led to there being no clear chain of command on this vital mission - but it does have the benefit that he can speak up and interfere in proceedings whenever he likes.
"This one concurs" 0409334-Biologer clicks to 3100441's surprise - but then again, doubtless the Biologer has no more desire to be trapped on an alien voidcraft than he does.
"I am afraid that we are obligated to ensure the safety of our clients"
the advocate responds, "and we cannot guarantee a risk free journey across the surface given the hostile enviromental conditions your world"
"Orders are to remain at this site" 0992904-Interlocutor trills aggressively. "We obey. Will not go"
"That is your choice. But any further contact must take place aboard our vessel"
There is a moment of silence. An impasse. Or at least there should be - but 0409334-Biologer swiftly breaks it.
"Confederal Consensus will decide" he declares - outrageous without consulting the others first. "Decision soon" he assures.
"Fool!" 3100441-Emissary rattles furiously in Meridian, “we cannot expose ourselves to their instruments!”
“Alien can seize oizys aboard orbital habitat - nothing to stop them” the Biologer defends himself. “Gain nothing if we remain. Possible utilisable information gained if contact made. Logic is simple”. He pauses, as though measuring his next words - then adds, “this one thought Westerners trained in agent theory?"
“You dare impugn-slander this one’s proven ability? You are only desperate to remain relevant-purposeful to mission! No biology to dissect here - so you sacrifice greater utility of Confederation for individual glory-gain"
"Western-traitor-degenerate dares speak of greater utility of Confederation!" Even the moderately sized biologer - who has thus far slinked behind his kinguard and Meridian puppet whenever violence broke out - raises his limbs in the poised stance of aggression. "This one’s lifespan committed in each-every aspect to furtherance of the race! While your dysgenic-decadence undermines everything Confederation has built. You dare!”
"All your effort-endeavours futile-vain if we end this negotiation bound in alien vivisectory!"
"Western-traitor-fiend is coward as well?" 0992904-Interlocutor looms towards him again. 3100441 is almost at the end of his patience.
“You do not belong here!” he gesticulates to the brute, using too many limbs to maintain his decorum. “You are muscle-meat! Only qualification is size - unless performance-speed in simple logic-exercises deemed acceptable-sufficient criterion-"
"-This one protect-preserved thousands of resource-lives every cycle!" the Meridian rages, "this one protected the Swarm!" 0992904 physically strikes him, jabbing his cuticle roughly with the pereiopod of a limb adjacent to his ninth - the thinly-coded prelude to a mating attempt. 3100441 has kept his cool thus far - but for the first time begins to fear he has pushed them too far, that the beast will actually rip him apart in front of the alien ambassador. His cloacae tighten. He can signal his kinguard at any moment - but it would take hardly longer than a second for the huge Meridian to make the killing blow...
-It is then, most fortunately for him, that all their tele-tactofeeds go off. A transmission from the Confederal Consensus itself - who have been studying the dismal proceedings through the many cameras and echosensors studding the chamber walls. Less fortunate for 3100441 however is the content of the message.
Communication to Contact Taskgroup|[LOCATION REDACTED]
Confederal Consensus [Identities Confirmed]
+++Taskgroup to cease inter-unit hostilities|Cohesion loss unacceptable|Display of internal conflict unacceptable|Will incur punishment|Taskgroup to continue contact process|Prior orders remain in effect|Ensure no weaponry or personal devices taken aboard alien construct|+++
"Executors could not have confirm-conceded this decision!" 3100441 trills in an outburst of bewilderment. In periods of emergency the Consensus technically has the power to make decisions based on majorities, not unanimity - but this is all but unprecedented even in spite of years of mounting tensions.
"You question will-command of Confederal Consensus now?" 0992904-Interlocutor clicks with cruel satisfaction. "In Meridian territory penalty-deterrence is fitness-ascertainment-trial - by mating-challenge"
"This one questions nothing" 3100441-Emissary responds tactfully, trying to regain his composure. The plan is in jeopardy, but for the love of his Kin and the future of his Swarm he must improvise. With the recriminations and anger that must be flying between the members of the Confederal Consensus, maybe even the war will be ahead of schedule. As they say, no plan survives contact with unkin...
"Taskgroup orders are to comply" 0409334-Biologer informs the alien in Standard. "Taskgroup follows. You lead".
0992904-Interlocutor at least, 3100441 notes to himself, does not seem so eager at this development. He sheds his tele-tactofeed with great reticence. The Biologer is blinded by his desire for alien creatures to examine but the Meridian, true to his kind, is a violent paranoiac. Maybe there is a still way to twist this turn of events to his advantage - if the brute can be goaded into violence onboard the ship he will discredit the Meridian Swarms utterly, and perhaps the whole complex, vulnerable plan of hidden agents and falsified orders will be unnecessary to spark alien hostility after all. Perhaps he will return to the West with even greater honours than he imagined, and not to the castration he has been promised should he return in the disgrace of failure...
The feeble gloomlight of Phorcys' dim star glowers over a landscape a world away and a world apart from the dismal Meridian flats - for this is the West, a miasma-steaming jungle of fetid, black carrion-swamps. The relative geological stability of these lands has made them the greatest surviving concentration of bio-diversity on Phorcys, and its most valuable territory. It is these mulch seas of leathery black fronds that are the primary subsistence crop of the Confederation, the foodstuff upon which millions of lives in far-flung habitats oceans and continents away depend.
Like all ecosystems on Phorcys, this one too is dying - the maddening whine of flesh-stripping parasites fills the toxic air, and roiling shoals of necrophagic worms blot out the acidic waters, devouring all other life. The agri-engineers tend to the needs of the self-destructing environment as best they can, an endless procession of corpse barges churning oizys dead into the mire, while great glass domes above protect the most fecund areas from ash.
This ecological cycle cannot be maintained - but what of it? Oizys lives are short, and no adult alive today will live to see the agri-territories finally die. All that matters is that for now they give the Kin-Leagues that control them the confidence that they can betray the Confederation, and win. The superior armies of the Meridian mean nothing once their food reserves are gone.
To defend these vital regions from the alien threat, and by order of the Confederal Consenus, vast numbers of Meridian soldiers are being deployed here in all haste. Still their sub-marine force-carriers continue to arrive, travelling up the rivers of rotting sludge and disgorging their payloads of oizys and weapons onto their slurry banks. Along the waterways and geographic chokepoints they entrench, setting up defensive positions and mobile anti-air defences. Doubtless they did not trust their hosts - but judging from their earnest preparations, not a single commander suspects that the attack will come not from the sky, but from the ones they were sent to protect.
Their imminent terror and confusion once they realise they have have been lured into the killing grounds of a pre-emptive strike are popular topics of conversation among the Western Executors, who eagerly observe the arrival of the 'reinforcements' they requested over tactoaudio feed.
Far beneath the Meridians, in a dark and secret chamber deep within the bowels of Habitat-Vault 05 - amidst luxuries unimaginable anywhere else in the Confederation, steaming with exotic scented vapours and tended to by throngs of slaves serving delicate parcels of near-extinct delicacies - they have convened in person. The first such summoning of every kin-league in three generations. Not since the Resource Wars has such an assembly been called for, and once again, it will mark the outbreak of war.
“Gathered-ally-friends” 0055217-Executor stands, a rare and significant display for an Executor that signifies the most momentous of moments. Though a slight loss of prestige to rise before the others, the gesture draws the valuable attention of his four peers and their kin-entourages successfully. So he begins-
“We have suffer-borne many interest-conflicts and claim-wars between our Kin-Leagues in past times. But still possible to bodily assemble here, unkin from many fleshlines, together, and this prove-attests superiority-harmony of our way of life over destructive eugenic anarchy of Meridian Swarms. In Vault 01, this gathering impossible - we would be mate-fighting. If they confined their barbarisms to themselves, we would tolerate-permit such folly. But this is not their way, for they believe-delude themselves pinnacle-masters of the Confederation, and desire-seek not only senseless destruction of themselves but imposition of their anarchic-defective ideology upon us all”
This judgement earns a round of affirming clicks and hisses.
“This one has received word from our Kin-League’s covert emissary to Southern Swarm States, pact-assuring alliance-assault on Meridian at our signal-command. Calculations prove our combined forces sufficient. This coming war, we will see the end of the followers of the geno-supremacist ideology upon this world!”
Dozens of limbs rattle in rousing approval. It is good oratory.
“However - must consider how plan-disturbance affects our contact-emissary’s mission. All threats and reward-promises have been made to him, yet is it possible to further guarantee his success?”
“3100441-Emissary is our kin” 0020191-Executor, master of Kin-League Sinusoid
speaks. “We posses-proclaim total assurance-certainty in his ability”
“No doubts when all according to plan, but now?” The Executor for League Phonotaxis
“Disruption does not substantially alter-distort predicted proceedings” 0020191 assures. “True, can no longer kill-dispose of Interlocutor and Biologer. Instead our kin-servant will denounce-deny them as aggressor-enemies of Nexus collective, and then deliver proclamation of New East-West Axis as planned. Risk enemy contacters plead mercy and Owners do not immediately detain or terminate - allow-permitting interference with client reassignment negotiation - but risk must be taken. No choice-options. Still highly possible to attain client status for New Axis, and unrecognition of Confederation of Swarms”
“And if your kin fails?”
“We shall administer highest degree of devestment-punishment. 3100441-Emissary castrated-slaved, and cast in shame from our Kin-League. This one trusts punishment satisfactory to all?”
All click their accord.
“Then let us seal-mark pact with slave-fluids!” the Executor of League Sinusoid
Not even needing the command, a ring of five nerve-broken slaves arrange themselves at the centre of the chamber. The Executors all rise. The Kin-Leagues are bound in a historically unprecedented unity of will and purpose as the slaves die squealing underneath them.