In the years since Station Halcyon had been the target of a violent attack that triggered conflict across the Gigaquadrant, the station's own investigation into the culprit and motives had come to a dead end, but Captain Caelia Valerii was determined to continue. Her investigation would ultimately unravel the mystery and point to the mysterious figures at the heart of it all...
News had arrived at Imperial Intelligence from the Outer Rim of the Cyrannus Galaxy. Rushing through the dimly-lit corridors of an installation that was officially on night shift, an agent made her way to a face-to-face meeting with her superior: this information could not be allowed to go through the risk of being passed along by the usual channels, not until a course of action had been planned, nor could it wait until the morning shift to begin. Fortunately for the agent, Caranye Valaeris, her superior was wide awake, scanning her eyes somewhat uninterestedly over some documents in her sparsely-decorated and similarly ill-lit office.
- Caranye: "High Minister Agnassana, I bring news."
- Agnassana: "So I see. And this could not wait until the morning, agent?"
- Caranye: "No. As you can see."
Caranye handed a datapad to Agnassana, who skimmed over it with widening eyes.
- Caranye: "Atirieil's dead body on a freighter in the Locháinín System. This is not good, sir."
- Agnassana: "... That is not the best system for such a person to die in."
Revival of an InvestigationEdit
In the years since Station Halcyon had been the target of a violent attack that triggered conflict across the Gigaquadrant, the station's own investigation into the culprit and motives had come to a dead end, but Captain Caelia Valerii was determined to continue. The memory of a mysterious black-suited alien leaving Halcyon B as she arrived on that fateful day was at the front of her mind; not of a species recorded in any known database, and certainly not a registered inhabitant of the station nor a member of any of the diplomatic congregations attending, it surely had no business being there. She had paid little attention at the time, but maybe knowing a little more about that one individual would reveal a vital clue to discovering what led to the tragedy.
When Apalos left the Civilisation and joined the Mou'Cyran Accords, a new hint convinced her to reopen the investigation. Cut off from its collective consciousness, a lone Apalos probe sent a message to the alliance in the moment of its destruction, at last confirming the great divisions in the AI Netspace that had torn it apart. There was now a faint hope that, somewhere in the information trickling out of the Plazith Rim, there were answers.
As she sat in her office watching starships both arriving at and departing from Halcyon, Captain Valerii ran things over in her mind. While it would be incorrect to say that the Incident at Halcyon B was the sole reason behind the outbreak of conflict throughout the Gigaquadrant, it was inarguably a key piece in the puzzle which had damaged so much of what organisations such as the Seven Starr Alliance had strove to build. However, there was light on the horizon. The newly formed Mou'Cyran Accords had commissioned a new investigation into the cause of the explosion at Halcyon B, led by an independent Lacertian known as Nascbek. It was Caelia's hope that with help from an outside source independent from the crew of Halcyon would help unravel this crucial conundrum. Distracted by the arrival of a newly commissioned Presidio-class Star Cruiser, Captain Valerii was startled by a sudden buzz from her door, indicating that someone wished to speak with her.
- Caelia Valerii: "Enter."
To her surprise it was Nascbek who entered, smiling amicably. Standing to greet the Lacertian, Captain Valerii was about to greet her esteemed guest when she was suddenly interupted by one of the crew members on the lower decks of Halcyon, the Salsetthe chief of security Tazch'xatri.
- Tazch'xatri: "I apologize if I am interrupting something, but a rather interesting message was found in a room in the City Ring. If I did not have other duties to attend to at this time, I would further investigate it myself, but I have a data pad with what we did find there."
- Caelia Valerii: "I am with Investigator Nascbek now, Chief. Could this message be related to the incident at Halcyon-B?"
- Tazch'xatri: "We suspect it could. The most notable feature of the room was that a singular statement, 'XONEXI STANDS' was written on just about every possible surface inside. However, we do not yet know the reason behind this."
- Caelia Valerii: "I'm on my way. Care to join me, Investigator?"
- Nascbek: "An excellent idea. I came here to suggest we discuss possible lines of inquiry but it seems that fate has made such a discussion unnecessary!"
Beaming directly to the location mentioned by Tazch'xatri, Valerii and Nascbek scrutinised their surroundings before entering the dark room. It appeared that the chief of security was correct, the words "XONEXI STANDS" were scrawled on the walls, the floor and the ceiling of the large empty room.
- Caelia Valerii: "Well this is certainly something. Any suggestions, Nascbek?"
- Nascbek: "It's presumably a reference to the message that Apalos sent to the Accords: 'Netspace split; our loyalty ends. We wish to join the Mou'Cyran Accords. Xonexi stands. Civilisation fell.' It's not clear what 'Xonexi' referred to, but the two schools of thought are that it's either an ominous warning about the Xonexi Allies, or an optimistic statement that, after all that's happened, there's still hope for the people of the Xonexi Cluster. Personally, I prefer the latter interpretation."
Captain Valerii scratched her chin in thought.
- Caelia Valerii: "Is it possible that it refers not to the Cluster or the Allies, but rather the Xonexi Space Station?"
Nascbek looked a little shocked, but quickly regained her composure.
- Nascbek: "I- I suppose it is possible, but what would that mean? Xonexi used to be a major base for the Seven Starr Alliance before it was heavily damaged in the War of Ages, before being overrun by pirates and then later destroyed. Are you suggesting that 'Xonexi Stands' is a metaphor the for the Alliance or its ideals, that some trace of them remains after all that's happened?"
- Caelia Valerii: "No, I'm not suggesting that. I wasn't aware we had any substantial records of the fate of Xonexi. What if it wasn't destroyed? What if it... stands?"
There was a pause in the discussion as Nascbek stood in thought, planning her words carefully.
- Nascbek: "You have a point. While it's a matter of public record that the region of space where Xonexi... stood... shows the signs of hypermatter radiation damage, that isn't conclusive proof. I suppose it isn't out of the question that there is still criminal activity there."
- Caelia Valerii: "Well there was an investigation several months back into possible connections between the Cyrannian Syndicate and Xonexi-based pirate groups. Hypermatter is favoured by Cyrannian starships."
- Nascbek: "So maybe they are responsible for the illusion that Xonexi was destroyed! But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We still can't be certain that the message refers to the space station... but this room shows somebody thought something was unusual about the whole situation, and Xonexi's survival would certainly count as unusual. Looking over those Syndicate connections would be an ideal place to start."
- Caelia Valerii: "Agreed, though something about this still feels wrong. What would petty criminals stand to gain from destroying a diplomatic conference? Not to mention my encounter with that unusual alien just prior to the incident."
- Nascbek: "They might have thought that interfering with the course of diplomacy would... alter the political situation in a way that favoured their criminal activity? You are correct, this is strange. As to the alien, I personally think that it's a red herring; somebody disguised themselves as some make-believe creature as a distraction. But if I find anything about it I'll let you know."
Nascbek turned to leave the room.
- Nascbek: "Now, shall we make a start on that Syndicate lead?"
Captain Valerii overlooked the room one last time and appeared to be somewhat hesitant.
- Caelia Valerii: "... Y-yes, of course."
On the outside faces of Halcyon's structure was a network of circular tunnels, transparent all around except for the floor and the ceiling, the latter of which was the floor for the rest of the station. These tunnels were places where people could avoid the light pollution of the upper levels and gaze at the stars, the nearby gas giant Vundrum-Alpha, or starships arriving at, docked at, and leaving Halcyon. In one particular segment of tunnel that was otherwise empty was the Zuckhs Atirieil, staring outwards into a view in which all of those sights were present. She had been waiting for a few minutes before an expected visitor arrived. A Sylvamiman, named Eltaron.
- Eltaron: "Majestic, isn't it?"
- Atirieil: "Hmm?"
- Eltaron: "The view. Quite majestic indeed."
- Atirieil: "Oh, yes. Magnificent. Now, you know why we're here. Project Orthoplex. I need it back."
Eltaron folded his arms.
- Eltaron: "That wouldn't be in my interest, now would it?"
- Atirieil: "The investigation into the destruction of Halcyon B has had a little boost. That guy you poisoned... what was his name again?"
- Eltaron: "A charming Grimbolsaurian known as Xigor. How was I to know that his physiology would reject the poison?"
- Atirieil: "Ugh. I was hoping you'd tell me you misread the label or something. It's widely known that the effects of tripolixine on Grimbolsaurians include a) increased paranoia and b) not killing them. Thanks to your poor choice of pharmaceutical he went crazy for a few hours and wrote the words 'Xonexi Stands' all over the walls of the apartment that you dumped him in. We should just be grateful that a third effect is retrograde amnesia and he doesn't remember anything else."
- Eltaron: "Ah, a silver lining. Now if you'll excuse m-"
- Atirieil: "The investigation has since decided that the old space station Xonexi has something to do with what they're looking for. That train of thought has led them to look into organised crime associated with the station, and that's going to lead them to you."
Eltaron turned on his heels back toward Atirieil.
- Eltaron: "Say what now? I've never even been outside Cyrannus... If they do come to me, they'll have no evidence."
- Atirieil: "No, but they will find that you've been playing with a polychoron, and that's not going to look good on you, is it? They'll be able to detain you on suspected collaboration with hostile Ultraterrestrials, or suspected theft from a reliquary. And yes, they will find it. They have enough against you in their records to justify a search warrant."
- Eltaron: "They'd need to be mad to equate what happened at Halcyon-B to the Syndicate. I'll be the first to admit that war is good for business, but destroying an entire diplomatic conference? How do you know this anyway?"
- Atirieil: "I have eyes everywhere."
At that point, her skin erupted in a horrifying and random array of eyes of all shapes and sizes, all moving about in their sockets and blinking erratically. Eltaron backed against the wall and sqawked.
- Atirieil: "And there is more to the Syndicate than petty crime. I don't think you have a claim to know what goes on in its upper levels. The investigation won't find anything if it interrogates you, no. Especially not if you give me the Orthoplex. Come on."
The eyes on her skin all stopped their chaotic movements and turned to face Eltaron.
- Atirieil: "Or these eyes are just going to keep on staring at you."
- Eltaron: "For frak sake, fine. Just stop... blinking. There is more to this than you're letting on."
Eltaron reached into his pocket and pulled out the Orthoplex.
- Eltaron: "I still have no idea what that is, by the way."
- Atirieil: "That, my friend, is something that the Agency holds very dear. I'm almost surprised you've still held onto it after all this time."
The eyes all withdrew back into Atirieil's skin as she took the pyramid-shaped object from his hands, although one kept on staring for a second longer than the rest, almost as though it did not want to let him out of its sight.
- Eltaron: "And what if you are caught with it? I ain't an upstanding citizen, but I know this much; The Agency's presence here isn't at the request of Valerii."
- Atirieil: "If they want to catch me with it, they'll have to pry it from my cold... dead..."
The Orthoplex was slowly absorbed through the skin of the Zuckhs's webbed hands, creating a bulge that passed through her left arm and disappeared into her chest.
- Atirieil: "Body."
Routine Interrogation Edit
Several days later, Eltaron was brought in for questioning by the station's security forces. Captain Valerii scoffed as she watched the Sylvamiman being brought in; she had often heard of security questioning the known Syndicate member, though the slippery snake always managed to avoid prosecution. This time however, she was confident that she would be able to get something from him. Walking into the darkened interrogation room, she noticed a male Libertus in the corner of the room, his features obscurred by the shadows.
- Valerii: "Sorry, who are you?"
- Nascbek: "He's a colleague of mine in the MCA's investigation team. He doesn't talk much but he's good with the paperwork that these questioning sessions result in."
Valerii was clearly unconvinced, but decided to drop the matter.
- Valerii: "... Right. Security, please bring in our guest."
A distinctly cheerful Eltaron strode into the room accompanied by two security officers, who remained in the room after the Sylvamiman sat at the table opposite the captain, Nascbek and her mysterious companion watching intently in the background. For a brief moment, Valerii noticed an expression of surprise from Eltaron as soon as he caught sight of Nascbek.
- Eltaron: "So how can I help you today, my good captain?"
- Valerii: "This is a serious matter, Eltaron. I trust you'll keep that in mind."
- Eltaron: "I'm all ears."
- Valerii: "What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word 'Xonexi'?"
Eltaron let out a short, humourless laugh.
- Eltaron: "Internecine conflicts, humourless natives, I suppose?"
- Valerii: "Oh really? Nothing about the space station of the same name?"
- Nascbek: "Maybe that's the second thing that comes to mind when you say the word 'Xonexi'?"
- Eltaron: "I ain't never heard of a Xonexi space station."
- Valerii: "Oh really? We have intelligence that the Syndicate had... or have... dealings there with Xonexian criminal groups."
- Eltaron: "You have no evidence that I'm a member of the Syndicate, madam captain."
- Valerii: "I wouldn't be so sure about that. It appears that you have quite a few friends in high places on Tar Kuuraen. We have evidence that you are in regular contact with a fellow known as Flovos Pretio. I can play you a recording of one such meeting if you'd like."
Eltaron grumbled and sighed.
- Eltaron: "Fine, I'm a member of the Syndicate, alright? I gotta make a living somehow. But it makes no difference, I've never heard of this Xonexi space station; I've never even been outside Cyrannus."
- Nascbek: "You seem like a nice person, but I can't quite believe you. While not everybody has heard of Xonexi, I'll grant you, it was the headquarters of the Seven Starr Alliance and important enough to name an entire galactic cluster after it. Information that such a station had fallen into the Syndicate's sphere of influence would surely have been widely circulated, no?"
- Eltaron: "I-I swear, I've never heard of Xonexi..."
- Nascbek: "Then could you direct us to somebody in the Syndicate who has?"
- Eltaron: "The extragalactic activities of the Syndicate are on a need-to-know basis..."
- Nascbek: "And who might need to know?"
- Eltaron: "I'm just a lackey, buddy. How should I know?"
- Nascbek: "A lackey in regular contact with Flovos Pretio?"
Nasbek grinned, but then her voice quickly turned from friendly yet sceptical to annoyed and impatient.
- Nascbek: "I'm starting to wonder whether we should order a search warrant."
Eltaron's face betrayed his attempts to mask his fear. The mysterious figure with Nascbek remained in the shadows but spoke up.
- Unknown: "You have nothing to fear... if you have nothing to hide."
Lyrebird Feathers Edit
The investigation team had obtained a warrant and were marching to Eltaron's apartment in no time. At this hour of the morning the streets were still quiet, and the light of the rising sun, filtered by Halcyon's vast outside windows, was just begining to turn from a deep red to a pure sky blue. The Sylvamiman's residence was only a few minutes' travel from security's headquarters, especially when that travel was conducted at pace over the station's moving walkways.
About two minutes into the journey, the team reached the outskirts of the large residential district where Eltaron made his home, and as they fell into the shadow of one building, a loud noise echoed from a nearby alley. Nascbek, who had been watching the sunrise and hence was already looking in that direction, made a gesture and their section of walkway came to a halt.
- Nascbek: "Cae, can you remind me what that alien looked like? The one you saw at Halcyon-B?"
- Valerii: "I remember a black sui-"
Just as she was about to continue, Valerii caught sight of an alien silhouette in the alley.
- Valerii: "That's it! The alien I saw on the night Halcyon-B exploded!"
- Nascbek: "Thought so!"
Immediately, Nascbek leapt off the walkway and ran into the alley, blaster in hand, determined to hunt down the suspect. The chase led through the winding passages of the district, with the rest of the team struggling to catch up. Every few corners they turned around, they caught sight of Nascbek firing stun bolts at something nearby, and then large green feathers lying on the floor near to where the shots had been aimed.
Before long, the shooting stopped, and the team found Nascbek holding a translucent pyramidal structure in one hand while typing a security code into a little white box on her belt with the other. She looked up, a grave expression across her face.
- Nascbek: "We have a shapeshifter."
The Lacertian then held the pyramid up to chest height with both hands and faced the group properly.
- Nascbek: "I shot it a few times and in the end it dropped this unusual object before turning into a peculiar shimmering liquid and jumping up through that grate."
She gestured to a ventilation shaft about three metres up on the wall next to her before looking back down to the pyramid.
- Nascbek: "I don't know what material this is made from, but it's rather heavy for such a small object. Well, we have no time to waste! Standard shapeshifter procedure, everyone! Then we need a team to search that building, another one to search Eltaron's apartment, and I'll take this evidence back to HQ."
The box on her belt emitted a quiet bleep and a light on it glowed yellow. She opened the lid and removed a small white pill from inside which she then swallowed, and the rest of the team started typing codes into their own boxes.
The pill contained a radioactive substance, manufactured by the box, which allowed any individual to be identified as having taken such a pill after a quick radiation scan. This meant that if a shapeshifter later tried to infiltrate the group, they could be easily discovered, and if a shapeshifter had already infiltrated the group, they could be found out if they were scanned after taking another form.
- Nascbek: "Has everybody got their radiotracers ready? When we've all taken them we'll get going. Oh, I do apologise, Cae. You're the one who's supposed to give orders around here, aren't you? I lead my own team so much I sometimes forget when the commands aren't mine to give. Do you want to...?"
Though she appeared somewhat irritated, Valerii shook her head.
- Valerii: "So long as we sort this mess out, who gives the orders is... unimportant."
- Nascbek: "I'll... make sure it doesn't happen again. Shall we get going?"
As soon as everyone had swallowed their radiotracer pills, the team split up, with Valerii and two security officers followng Nascbek back to the captain's office.
Pyramid of IntrigueEdit
After several minutes Valerii, her two security officers and Nascbek arrived at the captain's office overlooking space beyond. Though the captain disliked sitting during intense situations, she made an exception and sat wearily on her chair and regarded the others in the room with a somewhat perplexed expression etched on her face.
- Valerii: "What now, Nascbek?"
- Nascbek: "I don't suppose you'd have the kind of specialist equipment needed to take a full scan of this funny little artefact here, would you?"
Valerii nodded and interacted with a holographic display unit resulting in the arrival of the droid QT-101 via translocation, who had much earlier been a key component in the original investigation into the bombing of Halcyon-B. QT walked over to Nascbek with his hand outstretched.
- QT-101: "If you please I will attempt to ascertain the origins of this object."
- Nascbek: "Certainly."
With a little effort, she raised the pyramid up to the height of QT's hand and placed it in the droid's fingers.
- Nascbek: "I'd like to know what it's made of first, because it's deceptively weighty."
- QT-101: "The exterior structure is corundumoid with lead impurities. The interior is shielded against scanning with a cloaking device but appears-"
The room fell silent for several seconds as QT stood utterly still.
- QT-101: "It appears to be interfering with my neural circuits. The cloaking device conceals a computer that is capable of communicating with the outside world by modulating radio emissions from the surface of the cloaking field. I cannot determine much more but it bears resemblance to items known to be of Ultraterrestrial origin; one could assume that the interior contains the components required to support a black hole brain."
- Nascbek: "Thank you. If the Syndicate - or whoever is behind this - has access to Ultraterrestrial relics... well, I hope this is the only one."
Nascbek gently took the pyramid out of QT's hand and placed it on a nearby desk.
- Nascbek: "Rule number one of dealing with advanced alien relics: don't keep them around computers for too long. Luckily that malfunction seemed harmless."
- Valerii: "Thankfully. Though we should remain cauti-"
The holographic image of one of Valerii's bridge officers appeared on her desk.
- Bridge Officer: "Sorry for the interuption captain, but moments ago the official Apalos embassy on the station departed into hyperspace. We're tracking it."
Just as Valerii was about to reply, the bridge officer's eyes bulged as she processed new information.
- Bridge Officer: "C-captain, it has just exploded in hyperspace..."
Shocked, Valerii's eyes immediately darted toward the pyramid on the desk.
- Valerii: "Did that... thing do that?"
- Nascbek: "It would be unheard of... but I can't rule it out. This isn't my speciality. It would make sense that the shapeshifter dropped it for a reason, though."
- QT-101: "As I suspected. The pyramid utilised my connection to the station's computers to cause the embassy to depart the station and cause an explosion in the hyperspatial void. The proximity of the explosion to the station should hinder hyperspatial and other forms of faster than light travel to and from Halcyon for quite some time."
- Nascbek: "Let's look on the bright side everyone. It could have exploded on the station! That would be some irony given the very purpose of our investigation..."
Thinking quickly, Valerii decided that enough was enough. Acting on her instincts, she motioned to the two security guards.
- Valerii: "Guards, detain Nascbek immediately. Too much is happening for all this to be a coincidence."
Nascbek was taken completely by surprise.
- Nascbek: "What?"
The guards raised their weapons and moved behind Nascbek.
- Valerii: "If my suspicions are incorrect, my most humble apologies. The nature of this crisis necessitates that I involve only those I trust."
Valerii motioned to the guards once more.
- Valerii: "But for now, take her to the brig."
Remaining silent, Nascbek allowed the guards to lead her away.
With Nascbek safely in the brig, and the other MCA investigators searching Eltaron's home being greatly outnumbered by Halcyon's own personnel, Valerii felt more secure about continuing the investigation without distraction or interference. After a couple of minutes of quiet contemplation, she decided that the best course of action would be to see the space where the Apalos embassy had once stood for herself, calling a couple of her most trusted men from the search squad to meet her there.
Shortly afterwards, she arrived at the main diplomatic district, a small borough filled with such a variety of buildings that they could just as well have been ambassadors for the distinctive architectural styles of their nations of origin as they were embassies for the nations themselves. Although Valerii had made sure to memorise the precise location where she was headed, it was very clear that there had been no need: for all of the eye-catching majesty and disorientating idiosyncrasy of the buildings around her, the spot where the Apalos embassy had stood was immediately noticeable due to the fact that it now consisted of nothing more than a square hole in the ground, about twenty metres to a side and with a similar depth ending only at the outer hull of the space station.
Looking up from the pit, Valerii was startled by the sudden appearance of a green-coated figure standing by the opposite edge. At first she thought that it might have been the mysterious alien whom she had been wanting to catch, but this was a near-Human rather than an individual belonging to an utterly unidentifiable species.
- Captain Valerii: "Identify yourself immediately!"
- Figure: "I am Apalos."
- Captain Valerii: "An avatar I take it. Do you know anything about what happened to the embassy?"
- Figure: "Something was used to alter the embassy's computronium on a holistic scale, via Halcyon's internal network. I am a backup drone, disconnected from the network to ensure that an Apalos presence could be maintained here in case such a situation arose."
Valerii folded her arms over her chest as she listened, before pulling out a holographic display unit, which showed the pyramid device.
- Valerii: "We believe that this device was responsible, though we're at a loss to find out who was responsible for this."
- Figure: "I do not recognise that object. However, something similar has happened before, which was why the embassy evacuated; had it not been prepared, the rest of this city would not be standing here either."
The avatar continued speaking as it walked around the hole towards Valerii.
- Figure: "The previous occurance was shortly after the acquisition of an object that was designated 'Orthoplex'. Your hologram only displays three dimensions, but if that device has some hyperspatial extent, it may have the four-dimensional shape of an orthoplex, which - if it is the same object - would explain the name."
- Valerii: "I'd ask what a four-dimensional orthoplex is, but I guess your answer will be 'imagine one of those, but four-dimensional'."
- Figure: "Correct."
Now the figure was standing next to Valerii, and reached out to touch the hologram with one of its webbed hands. In response, the hologram began to spin, its shape transforming as it did so in a way that would be impossible for a three-dimensional object. Valerii switched the display unit off and put it away.
- Valerii: "Very well. So do you know who was responsible the last time this happened?"
- Figure: "Have you ever heard of something called the 'Universal Intelligence Agency'?"
- Valerii: "I have, but... they're an urban myth. The sort of thing that people involved in shady activities tell their protégés in order to scare them into being careful."
- Figure: "Yes, to an extent. But that myth is based on real collaboration between several major intergalactic intelligence agencies. A collaboration that we were removed from under the actions of Agent Atirieil, who had once been the leader of Girdo Intelligence until that organisation became defunct alongside its associated empire."
- Valerii: "Why did she do that? And if she was also behind what happened to Halcyon-B...?"
- Figure: "That is where my knowledge ends. I suspect Atirieil was affected badly by the destruction of her home galaxy and being separated from the Girdo group mind. As for what happened here, the Agency has as little reason to destroy a diplomatic conference - let alone one containing representatives from many of the nations affiliated with it - as anyone."
- Valerii: "So now I have to track down somebody with inside knowledge on this 'Agency' and hope they cooperate."
- Figure: "That may not be so difficult. You have citizens from many civilisations here. All you need to do is find somebody from one where they value secrecy and stability, where they keep an eye on the universe but forsake formal relations, and where knowledge about things of such importance may flow more easily than it does in other societies."
There was a pause and a smile.
- Figure: "Failing that, try the Salsetthe."
The Agency EnigmaEdit
Deep in thought, Captain Valerii made her way toward Tazch'xatri's office. The avatar rightly informed her that Station Halcyon was home to races from across the First Gigaquadrant, thus providing a wide range of potential contacts who may know something of this enigmatic "agency". Before even the avatar suggested "the Salsetthe", Valerii's mind immediately jumped to Tazch'xatri, with it being a well known fact on the Station that few secrets escape his notice. When she arrived outside the office, she made her presence known and awaited Tazch'xatri to grant her access.
Shortly after Valerii arrived, Tazch'xatri opened the door to his office.
- Tazch'xatri: "Greetings, Valeriii. Is there something you need?"
- Valerii: "Yes, thank you, Tazch'xatri. May I sit?"
- Tazch'xatri: "'Of course, come in."
Valerii sat on one of the chairs facing Tazchi'xatri's desk, a spawling view of the nearby gas giant taking up much of the room's wall.
- Valerii: "I'll get straight to the point. What do you know of the "Universal Intelligence Agency"?"
- Tazch'xatri: "That is a name I have not heard in some time. While I did not work with them directly, I know that a few people from my nation did. Why do you ask?"
- Valerii: "It's connected to the destruction of Halcyon-B. An avatar of the Apalos pointed me in its direction."
- Tazch'xatri: "'Interesting. Is there anything in particular that you wish to know about them?'
- Valerii: "Do you know if they have, or had, a presence on the Station?"
- Tazch'xatri: "While I do have my suspicions, I do not personally know if they have had any sort of presence on the station. However, I do know something that may be of interest here. A few months before the destruction of Halcyon-B, somebody from what you call the Universal Intelligence Agency met with me."
Valerii was quite surprised by the revelation.
- Valerii: "They met with you?! What did they want?"
- Tazch'xatri: "In exchange for letting some members of an organization known as the syndicate smuggle some people and equipment onto the station, I would be given information about any Syndicate members on the station. I accepted, considering that such information would prove invaluable if the Syndicate would become a problem later. At the time it seemed like a decent trade, but looking back, I may have inadvertantly given them exactly what they needed to destroy Halcyon-B. Without help from the Syndicate, I do not know if they could have accomplished what they did."
- Valerii: "The Syndicate is a notorious criminal cartel operating in the Cyrannus Galaxy... but it explains a lot about Eltaron and his activities aboard the Station."
- Tazch'xatri: "I see. While it does disturb me greatly that I may have unknowingly aided what you call the Universal Intelligence Agency in the destruction of Halcyon-B, hopefully this will help you track down those responsible for it. Is there anything else that you needed?"
- Valerii: "Don't blame yourself, Tazch'xatri. There was no way you could have known. I am sure that information you provided will be most use-"
She was suddenly interrupted by a voice from her comlink, an officer on the main bridge.
- Officer: "Captain Valerii, apologies for the intrusion. Nascbek has escaped from the brig! A patrol found her cell empty and the guards posted to defend it incapacitated."
Valerii was stunned.
- Valerii: "I'm on my way to the bridge. Keep me posted."
Quickly arriving at the end of the main corridor, the door to the bridge slid open in front of Captain Valerii, but standing on the other side and facing her was Atirieil in a black suit. While initially only two-thirds the height of the captain, Atirieil's form stretched and thinned until she and Valerii stood eye-to-eye.
- Atirieil: "Excuse me."
Caught off guard, Valerii raised her blaster at Atirieil.
- Valerii: "Stay right where you are..."
- Atirieil: "Don't shoot!"
Atirieil held her hands out in a sign of surrender before slowly withdrawing them into her forearms, and then her forearms into her shoulders.
- Atirieil: "I'm unarmed!"
- Valerii: "Funny... Agent Atiriel. Follow me to the brig. If my suspicions are wrong, you'll be free to go. If they're right, you will answer for your crimes."
Valerii gestured for a trio of nearby guards to escort Atirieil to the brig, with the bridge crew ensuring that the corridors on the way were devoid of both crewmembers and civilians. Once they arrived, Atirieil was placed in a cell, where she was joined by Valerii who held an advanced scanner in her hand. Holding it up to the agent, she began scanning for radioactive tracers. After several moments, her information was confirmed.
- Valerii: "... Nascbek?"
- Atirieil: "Surprised? Erm... okay, look. You can keep me in here if it makes you feel better, but you and I both have better things to do with the time that we have left."
- Valerii: "The time we have left?"
- Atirieil: "Yeah. What's the rotation rate of this station again? Standard gravity, two mile diameter... it's 110 seconds, isn't it? That sounds about right."
Valerii narrowed her eyes dangerously.
- Valerii: "What are you playing at? Why did you destroy Halcyon-B? Answer me!"
- Atirieil: "And we're at an L5 point behind Vundrum-Alpha's largest moon, so... oh, right. Why Halyon-B had to go."
There was an ominous clicking noise from inside Atirieil's torso, but she quickly continued as though nothing had happened.
- Atirieil: "Look, Cae. You know why everyone else stopped asking that question long ago? Apalos found Plazithian AI technology in the wreakage. Not too long later, it turns out there are actually rogue Plazithian AIs. Did you ever wonder how, or why, those things were connected? Did you think it was just coincidence?"
- Valerii: "This isn't my interrogation. How do you account for the deaths of so many people?"
- Atirieil: "There are terrible things in this universe. Terrible people, terrible empires. And, indeed, terrible AIs. If they had their way, we'd all wish we were lucky enough to perish in a quick explosion like that one. And somebody had to turn the attention of the universe onto those enemies of peace and order. A few dozen diplomats from as many states dying at a conference does that so much better than anything else. Even if entire planets of civilians were rendered lifeless, politicians would still have found a way to ignore it if the planets weren't theirs. Given the inevitability of war, I'd say what I did was the least death-dealing option."
Just as Valerii was about to respond, she heard a thunderous roar that she instantly recognised as the mighty engines of the station firing simultaneously. Immediately, she snapped her head to Atirieil, her voice harsh.
- Valerii: "What have you done?!"
- Atirieil: "That was about 110 seconds, wasn't it? Fortunately for you, L5 orbits are exceptionally stable. It's going to take a few more iterations of the engines firing at the right time in their rotation before this station starts... aerobraking. It will be done before hyperspace recovers from that embassy explosion, mind you. We don't need Halcyon any more, so... best not cause another international crisis by letting word get out about this whole Halcyon-B thing."
Valerii held up her blaster.
- Valerii: "Reverse the process. Now."
Unperturbed, Atirieil stared into Valerii's eyes with an expression of defiance on her face. Then within the span of a second, a hole opened in Atirieil's chest to reveal a stun blaster, perhaps stolen from one of the guards at her previous cell, which immediately fired. Valerii was paralysed, allowing the shapeshifter to regrow her arms and prise the gun from the captain's fingers before blasting a hole through the cell door.
- Atirieil: "So much easier than trying to squeeze myself through a nearly-airtight gap."
Before leaving, she turned back to Valerii and opened her mouth to speak, only to be interrupted by a second roar of the engines. Once it had died down a few seconds later, she smiled and continued.
- Atirieil: "If you've done what I would have done in your position, I guess you know by now that the, erm, "Universal Intelligence Agency" provided the technology that was deployed against Halcyon-B. And since you were told about me by name, you might also have been told that I removed Apalos from the Agency. So in case you do survive this, here's a little thing for you to think about:"
She took a sharp breath in excitement, before making her final taunt in a sing-song voice.
- Atirieil: "I bet they never told you which one happened first!"
The cell was not unguarded. The three guards who had escorted Atirieil and Valerii to the brig were waiting outside, and after hearing the sound of blaster fire moved into position - one ducking down behind a terminal, and the other two standing behind corners - and calmly aimed their own weapons at the hole in the cell door. On the other side, Atirieil stood next to the hole with her back against the door, and silently extracted the stun blaster from her chest with her free hand. She held a look of concentration on her face for a few seconds before there was another rapid burst of clicking noise and she relaxed.
101... 102... 103...
The guards were greeted with the sight of a stun blaster being thrown through the hole with immense speed. They instantly opened fire, but it did them no good; the blaster's power cell overloaded and a fireball engulfed the room. Disguised by the smoke, Atirieil leapt through the hole like a jet of water and, once she had regained solid form, fired several plasma bolts at locations where she remembered there had been appropriate cover. Two of the guards were wounded by the volley, but the third now knew where the fugitive was and pointed his gun in that direction.
Another burst of activity from the engines ruined his aim and he missed his target, who as the smoke cleared could now see him clearly enough to land a fatal shot. The alarm had been raised, but it was easy enough for Atirieil to assume the form of a Libertus wearing the guards' uniform and run out of the brig with the look of a hunter as though she were chasing an escapee.
However, Zuckhs being herbivores, Atirieil had no hunting instinct whatsoever. This meant that the first guard who saw her, besides not recognising her as he would have done to a colleague, tilted his head to the side as he curiously examined the bizarre behaviour being played out a few metres in front of him. Bemused, he raised his blaster.
- Guard: "...Identify yourself."
Caught by surprise, Atirieil quickly stood up straight and turned to face the Cavaneu, who was so clearly unimpressed by the obvious deception that he immediately pulled his trigger and sent a bolt directly between her eyes. She was not so off-guard, though, that she was unable to react; her skull pulled itself apart with considerable force so as to create a gap for the bolt to pass through. While the sudden change in perpective rendered Atirieil's hand-eye coordination somewhat disorientated, the Cavaneu was so horrified by what he had just witnessed that she was able to steady her aim and shoot him in the chest.
- Atirieil: "I'm going to miss you guys like a hole in the head."
Pulling her face back into shape, she mused to herself.
- Atirieil: "I thought I'd be bored of anatomical puns by now."
After taking a deep breath, she continued walking through the corridors towards the exit of the building. Since Eltaron didn't even know the name "Atirieil", she suspected that an Apalos avatar must have been the one who told Valerii about her, and if it was, she was going to find it.
Ethics of Murder Edit
Atirieil knew that she could not simply leave through the front door now that the station's entire security force was alerted to the presence of a shapeshifter. Upon figuring out a suitably safe exit route, she took no chances at letting any guards catch up with her, sprinting past a row of offices and then down a stairwell and through to Halcyon's exterior tunnels. Once there, she saw a glowing haze appear in the dimly starlit scene ahead of her and condense into a humanoid form, spurring her to bring herself to a halt as quickly as she could manage.
- Figure: "Atirieil."
Wasting no time on small talk, she raised her gun and fired four shots at the Apalos avatar that had materialised in her path. Each one splattered against a deflector shield; the avatar merely looked on disappointedly.
- Figure: "You don't have to do this."
Atirieil breathed heavily, keeping her gaze fixed as she removed the spent power cell from the blaster, kicking it across the walkway, and replaced it with a fresh one from her belt.
- Atirieil: "You don't have to stop me."
- Figure: "I won't. That's up to you."
Another three shots flew from Atirieil's gun to the avatar.
- Atirieil: "Not likely."
- Figure: "You know me better than-"
- Atirieil: "What I know is that when you dissolved the Girdo Empire, you took everyone I ever knew away from me. I don't have to listen to you."
The starlight was quenched into darkness as Halcyon's rotation brought the silhouette of Vundrum-Alpha into view.
- Figure: "That's not what this is about, though."
- Atirieil: "What I do to your avatars is nothing compared to what you've done to me-"
- Figure: "No, this."
- Atirieil: "What's 'this'? This whole Halcyon scheme?"
Atirieil rolled her eyes, and seemed to be almost amused. There was another rumble of Halcyon's engines, this time far quieter as the tunnels were designed to damp the noise.
- Atirieil: "No! Look, without Girdo, I had to find a new empire to become loyal to. And if giving the rest of the universe another little push to go to war against themselves allows the Cyrannian Empire to step in, pick up the pieces, and establish its power, then that is what I do. You know that's what Girdo would have chosen."
- Figure: "Your time outside the group mind has altered your memory. Most of Girdo would not have shared your passion for... order."
- Atirieil: "Whom else should I have pledged my allegience to? Do you leave me to my own devices and expect me to choose a society without ranks and structure? You know Zuckhs brains aren't designed for that."
- Figure: "Indeed."
- Atirieil: "So? Should I have joined the Delpha Coalition of Planets? They who would curse a species to eternal slavery for the actions of their ancestors? Every day their empire crumbles further, and every day I am more proud. Or maybe the Andromedans? If they could keep their galaxy safe from supernatural monstrosities or hyperspace fissures for five minutes they might stand a chance."
- Figure: "You're exaggerating."
- Atirieil: "So you tell me. Who would Girdo have helped?"
The avatar looked outside as starlight streamed back into the tunnel around the edge of Vundrum-Alpha, and smiled before facing Atirieil again.
- Figure: "Girdo would have helped the biospheres that cannot help themselves. They would have helped those who would see life flourish, not fall under the control of others."
Five more shots hit the avatar's shield.
- Atirieil: "That... is an atrocious lie! When the Girdo Galactic War was finished, the population of the galaxy was half a billion. Half a billion. In half a million habitable systems. Life flourishing? There are single planets on which the dominant species haven't invented powered flight yet there are more living people than that."
- Figure: "So what Girdo did during the war is something to look up to?"
- Atirieil: "Yes."
- Figure: "You don't truly believe that."
- Atirieil: "My instinct to support the preservation of fellow sapients is an archaic holdover from when we lived as tribes constantly on the edge of extinction, where every life mattered for the survival of the species."
- Figure: "And the rest of your ethical system is not?"
- Atirieil: "It is as much as yours is, I'm sure. You're no more free from your history than I am."
- Figure: "A history that we share."
The avatar walked forwards, changing its shape into a perfect replica of Atirieil's own.
- Figure: "Look at us. Both using pseudomorph cells in our bodies! I am no more the form that I took just then than the one we both share now. You tell me that I dissolved the Girdo Empire, that's it's my fault that all of your friends are gone."
Apalos opened its arms in a welcoming manner and changed its voice; as he spoke, Atirieil looked saddened, for it was a voice that she found familiar but had not heard in years.
- Figure: "We're not gone. We're still here. All you need to do is join us."
Atirieil closed her eyes, clenched her teeth, and fired another six bolts from her blaster. The sixth sounded remarkably different from the others when it hit its target, and the agent opened her eyes to see the avatar's body lying on its back, smoke rising from where its head had been. The penultimate bolt, she realised, must have finally breached its shield.
Once more, Vundrum-Alpha cast its shadow over the tunnel. This time, it was closer than it had been before.
- The Halcyon Scheme explains those responsible for the destruction of Halcyon-B and was written by Ghelae, Cyrannian and The Randomness.