Tui Hu Shu’u’lak paused when he reached the house. The air was cool and he could hear a flock of Blue Flitters flying overhead. The carefully curated woodland the house had been built amongst was intended to inspire peace and tranquillity, but Tui Hu still felt his pulses and core temperature rising.
His hand had drifted towards the ornate caller panel beside the doorway and he let it fall again while he tried to gather his thoughts. It twitched at his side as he recalled one of the mantras his old tutor had taught him at the first monastery in which he had trained. It was decades ago, but still useful now.
I am one, the universe is one, I am none, the universe is all.
He repeated it to himself, letting his doubts and worries and anxieties fall away from him, letting his conscious mind establish gentle but firm control over his sub-brain, as he affirmed his place and purpose in existence. The mantras served him well. They were well rehearsed and their use had become practically automatic in situations of stress.
His internal balance re-established, he felt the humour in the situation. A Cypher Prime, a commander of the Clades, a warrior who had Cypher drones in some of the most dangerous places in the galaxy, paralysed at the entrance to a house he barely remembered. He had seen things more horrifying than many other Asterians would even believe was possible. He had killed those things too, and won battles that had preserved balance across the galaxy. So why was coming here the most disturbing thing he could remember experiencing?
He stood a moment longer and let his hand rise again and feel the cool stone of the building, tracing the elegant lines of the doorframe. Distant memories hung in the air around this place, like ghosts of the past. Like the ones that had brought him here. Another mantra came to his mind.
The past is only a ghost, but weighs heavily on the future.
No, he decided. This was just another mission, another small part of a larger campaign. He had his part to play here; the other commanders were relying on him, and he would not be deterred by phantoms.
He stood tall and was about to press the caller button when the door slid open.
Tasim Shu’u’lak, Primary Counsel to the Tesseract, and Tui Hu’s mother, stood in the entrance.
"Well, there you are." she said. "Are you going to come in or just stand there all day?"
Tui Hu walked in and the door slid closed behind him.
She took him through the house and into the gardens at its rear. Tui Hu was glad of this, not wanting to be surrounded by the familiar layout and furnishings he saw in the living areas they passed through.
There were more religious icons than he remembered from his childhood, displayed prominently on the walls of the hallway, all in the prescribed places to show his mother's devotion to the Tesseract. Tui Hu’s experiences amongst the Clades had brought him to believe the Tesseract was more prosaic than divine, but differences in opinion on the matter were tolerated in Asterian society. Tui Hu did not know whether his mother truly believed the Tesseract were gods or not. The Clades believed she had their ear and that was why they had sent him to her.
The gardens were extensive and stretched out from the rear of the house. He could see a pool to one side he had swum in as a boy and the high rock platform to one side he had loved to jump from. His mother had urged him not to, she had been so protective of him then. Before she had abandoned him completely.
He found himself resentful of these things, features he recognised from his youth. The things she had kept and preserved while she rejected him. He knew it was a natural thing, all males were sent out by their mothers eventually. His true-male father had taken him in then, recognised his potential, and enrolled him in the monastery for training as a warrior. Tui Hu was glad of that too. His neuter-male father was a diplomat, and Tui Hu did not believe he could have developed the restraint and tact necessary for mingling openly with aliens. But none of his success in his assigned path in life could reduce the sting of coming back here.
They walked through a grove of fruit trees in full pink blossom, and Tui Hu tried to calculate what season this planet was currently experiencing. He decided it was likely the trees were kept in that state perpetually, preserving the beauty of the scene all the year round.
On their far side was a low hillock and, at its summit, an ornate pavilion that appeared grown as much as built. Curling loops and swirls of vines grew on and around graceful stone columns that supported a gently sloping roof. It was the perfect mix of artifice and nature.
As they climbed the hill, the obscuring devices and interference fields built into the pillars and supports diffused and refracted the light from the sun setting on its far side, making it seem to glow with a spectral halo. They would meet in the open, yet be completely hidden from any observers. Entering the pavilion, Tui Hu’s vision blurred slightly and he felt a tingling sensation pass through his head and extremities.
A serving drone met them within, carrying a tray of elegant earthenware, and they knelt on either side of a low table. The drone laid out the bowls and cups and a steaming pitcher of water and Tasim began the ritual to make tea. Not the blood-blue tea for friends or recreation, Tui Hu noted as she placed a portion of leaves in a wide bowl, but crimson; the tea for colleagues and official visitors.
“Was your mission successful?” she asked as she poured the water over the leaves.
He paused for a moment, letting his vision settle as he watched the swirls of steam rise from the tea and dissipate into the air.
All things pass, nothing is constant.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it was.”
His mother’s head bowed in supplication, acknowledging the Tesseract and their watch over the galaxy. Tui Hu found he did not care to show the same devotion.
“We were able to follow the dwarf’s fleet for several weeks and obtained a large volume of data on their routes and capacities.”
“I believe so. The analysts on my ship tell me it will enable the Warminds to predict much more accurately the movements of at least a dozen of the Forge Lords’ fleets.
“When combined with the data from other observer Clades, that is.” he allowed.
“Good. I am glad.”
She had finished the ritual now and poured the tea from its bowl into two small porcelain cups. She placed one in front of Tui Hu and raised the other to her own pale lips. Tui Hu lifted his own cup, the delicate object feeling awkward in his powerful hands. He held it in front of his face but could not make himself drink the red liquid. The gesture was enough though. His mother sipped at hers and they replaced the cups on the table.
“And was it the Warminds that sent you here today?” she asked.
Tui Hu felt his ire rising in his gut but he remained completely still. He should not have been surprised. The Warminds were not the only ones able to think strategically.
“Not directly,” he said. “But my brothers in the Clades believe your ears may be receptive to their, to my, case. I come as a messenger to you. And, I hope, to the Tesseract also by your will.”
She raised her delicate eyebrows at that. Perhaps she had expected him to be less direct. Tui Hu imagined that she would be used to this from her time as a politician. But then that was why he had been chosen for this task. He could say things perhaps no other Asterian could.
“Then deliver your message.” she said.
“Very well. The Ward ship we had observed sent out a smaller vessel, but our navigator could not assess its destination. It seemed not to be heading towards any inhabited systems or known trade points. So I took the decision to follow it.
“It met with a GCPS vessel and we believe it delivered a considerable quantity of armour for the humans’ Enforcer program and then left.”
“And you know this how?”
“We were able to send a spectre program into the Forge Father ship and retrieved several quads of data from its computer, including bills of lading and shipping manifests.”
“You risked much.” she said.
“I did,” he confirmed. “But I believe the risk was warranted. We were not detected.”
“How can you be certain?”
“There was no reason for the dwarves to even suspect we were present. The approaches we used were beyond their capacity to detect. Normally, anyway. And,” he hesitated, thinking through the level of sophistication of dwarf sensors, ”even if they did suspect our presence I doubt they would be able to find us. They think themselves masters of technology, but they are merely more advanced than their human puppets.”
Tasim looked outside the pavilion towards the setting sun. It cast a warm amber glow across the lawns as shadows started to grow from the trees and bushes surrounding the pavilion.
“Very well. But in these things, as in all, you must take great care. The humans have a word, which I believe we would do well as a species to adopt. It is called ‘hubris’,” Her mouth twisted at the awkward syllables of the human language. “It means to take too much confidence from one’s abilities and therefore be at risk of great harm when they fail. Of all the races in the galaxy, we ought to take note of this the most.”
Tui Hu noted his mother’s thoughtful tone and understood the reference, even though he did not appreciate the use of a human word to express it. She was right. The Asterian Star Empire had once been the mightiest power in known history - until it reached too far for its own good.
“I accept your warning,” he said. “Now let me give you mine.”
“I decided to follow the human ship, or, rather, the equipment it was carrying. We have found Enforcers to be a - competent adversary in battle and any intelligence on their disposition is highly valuable to the Clades. The human vessel took it to some kind of research facility, well hidden, constructed inside one of the asteroids in the Po Ni sector. I believe this was one of the locations for their attempts to break the safeguards the dwarves build into the things they give the corporations.”
“And were you able to learn anything from this asteroid base?”
“Sadly, no. The location was attacked before we could penetrate its defences.”
“The Scourge. A fleet of ships, mostly human and civilian in origin, but with enough warships to support their assault.”
The words hung in the air between them, heavy and cold. The light from the sun had gone completely now and several lamps, rendered beautifully as organic shapes, like glowing fruit, came to life. Their light could not lift the dark mood that prevailed in the pavilion now though.
“Was the Scourge contained?”
“I do not know. We departed the system when three ships belonging to the Enforcers arrived and immediately engaged the enemy. It would have been unwise to risk being caught in their fire and exposed. At least some humans may have escaped the place though, we did record several small ships leaving it before the arrival of the Enforcers.
“My brothers in the Clades wish me to tell you that either way we believe open conflict is now inevitable and imminent.
“Other ghost missions are reporting a massing of war machines in both the human Core and their expansion worlds. Our spies report their ‘corporations’ plan to annex more of the worlds we left to the Scourge. They do not understand the danger buried there and ignore the warnings of the Prax.
“They meddle with the toys the Forge Fathers give them too because they do not understand how dangerous or how treacherous their allies truly are.
“Contrary to what I may have suggested earlier, I do not underestimate the power of the Forge Lords at all or their threat to our borders. They are certainly less capable than ourselves in many areas. But they have had time to prepare, to build arsenals. They did not have to deal with the Scourge and have numbers and greed to match the Corporation. They have designs on the entire galaxy, including our own space.
“And there are other threats too, other races readying themselves to rise and fill the spaces left by any carnage unleashed upon the galaxy.
“You talk about the dangers of this ‘hubris’. Well I tell you we are now more guilty of timidity. We respect the balance in all things. But if we cannot see the universe is truly out of balance now, if the Tesseract will not allow us to act to redress it, then when will we?”
“After this, ‘meeting’, I am due to report to the Warmind on all this.” Tui Hu said. “I do not believe the news of a fleet of Scourge ships will be well received.”
Tasim smiled at her son then. It was only a thin crescent of an expression, but still an unfamiliar one to Tui Hu.
“I think your news will not be as momentous as you expect. It will not be the first of its kind.”
Tui Hu placed his hands on the table edge.
“You mean there are others?”
“Then surely you must agree the time has come?”
“Yes! The Clades demand it! They sent me here to ask you to use your influence with the Tesseract, to make them see the necessity of it. ”
“But against whom?”
He hesitated, and then sat back. His stance had become aggressive, leaning in and gripping the table with his fingers. It was the kind of thing you could do in a meeting with other Primes or with his Secondaries when planning a raid. But not at a meeting with a Counsel. Or his mother. He dipped his head slightly in acknowledgement of his poor form and Tasim lowered her eyes in acceptance.
“You should deliver your report, as you intended,” she said, taking up her cup again. “It is though, as I said, not the first of its kind. Our agents amongst the humans report their plans to us and the Tesseract knows we stand on the brink. But we must be careful, now more than ever. The threats to the universe are numerous and anyone of them could turn and devour us if we provoke it carelessly.”
Tui Hu felt his frustration rising again. He had heard these sentiments before, a thousand times. In the debating chambers of the Tesseract the military and civilian leaders had argued the points again and again, one side demanding war, the other advocating for watchful peace. And meanwhile the universe around them grew more dangerous every day.
Tui Hu heard a chiming noise then, a sound in his right ear, gentle but urgent. The Clades were calling.
He bowed his head towards his mother.
“I apologise. I am being summoned. I must go now.”
“Of course,” she said. “I will consider what you have told me,” she said as Tui Hu rose from the table. “Please know, although many agents report to me, I do consider your own word particularly valuable. Inform the Clades I will pass on their recommendation. Tell them,” Tasim lowered her eyes, “I am aware of the weight of ghosts of the past.”
As he stood, Tui Hu saw his mother had adopted a different stance, her limbs moving into an expression he could not immediately decipher. The world around her was starting to go grey, the sounds becoming distant and he felt a sense of vertigo as he realised it was one of embarrassment. His usually stoic mother had expressed a sentiment of attachment and could not bear it.
“I wish we could one day -”
Before she could finish, Tui Hu’s consciousness left the host-drone it had been transferred to completely and he found himself back aboard his ship, being gently lifted in low light from the sentience pod he had used to transmit himself to his home world.
His real flesh body seemed cumbersome and heavy and his limbs flailed as a triad of attendants helped him to his feet and began to clean him of the fluids from the pod.
He felt impatience as well as disorientation and he strove to avoid disassociation, the complete loss of the connection between his mind and real body. He felt it every time he closed the interface with his Cypher and was not surprised to be experiencing it after being joined with the communicator proxy he had used just now. The vast distance involved was immaterial. The quantum technology employed made it so. But the strain on his psyche was still immense.
The attendants dressed him in his uniform and he walked to his ship’s command centre, thinking over his conversation with his mother, the Counsel, and her last words to him. A dozen other Primes were waiting for him there.
He wasted no time with superfluous greetings, those things were not necessary amongst a gathering such as this. They were all true-males - leaders and commanders - and they all knew why they were here.
Instead he took his seat at their head and laid his hands on the table before him.
“My brothers,” he said, “Ready your forces. I believe we are now on the path to war.”