“… and this one replicates the background energy levels,” Velvet explained.
“That’s why you’re the one controlling all the stealth stuff,” Alva said. “I get concealing your energy, I don’t get then intentionally using energy to be even less obvious.”
“I didn’t even get to see all the stuff from the Sylanis Cluster,” Velvet sighed. “I wonder if I could hide myself in subspace?”
“Don’t know. Either way, you manage that while I… take a look at that base.”
“Don’t forget to be careful with your sensing energy.”
“Listen, it’s not gonna be perfect,” Alva said. “I can’t conceal energy I’m using to feel people out. But I can be subtle enough.”
Finally in their third system they had found an occupied planet. And it was… not difficult. All of the signs of cultivators were present, including barrier formations that didn’t make any attempt to hide their presence and in fact did quite well to advertise them to the world. It seemed that the Trigold Cluster wasn’t terribly shy about their occupation, perhaps counting on the fact that nobody would be looking.
A simple pass around the planet indicated it wasn’t being settled normally. There were only a few occupied locations, large cities outside of which only a few locations with especially dense energy were occupied. Extreme regions, like the types that attracted sects to settle and develop their particular styles.
As for the cities themselves, simple visual observation- from a great distance- revealed many of the buildings were exact replicas. Standardized. From a bit closer, they could see training fields with large numbers of individuals performing the same moves.
Outside the city walls was very little. Fields of grass and occasional trees- all growing radially from the settlements. Clearly the planet hadn’t come with life, but instead it had been implanted.
“Grandpa would be so upset,” Alva said.
“But he likes the idea of settling new worlds,” Velvet answered.
“They’ve got one type of tree! I haven’t seen any animals!” Alva waved her hands wildly. “If someone brings along a single disease the whole system will collapse.”
“A fair point,” Velvet admitted. “But perhaps because they don’t intend to live there for long, it’s too costly.”
“They still have at least half a century,” Alva pointed out. “Depending on how long travel time takes.”
“Yeah… Anton would have at least a whole country put together by that point,” Velvet nodded. “The question is, do they just abandon these places for… five centuries normally?”
“And how do they eat?” Alva tapped her chin.
The answer to that was not as difficult to find as it might seem. Already since they had arrived earlier in the day, several ships had been spotted entering just the closest city. While ships of the size in question even if they continued to come in around the clock definitely didn’t have sufficient room in their holds to carry enough food, that was only the case if they didn’t have extradimensional storage of any sort. Individual bags would be prohibitively expensive, so perhaps the ships themselves were enchanted with one bigger formation.
“… This is a waste of resources,” Alva said. “Seriously they could have planted fruit trees a decade or two ago. Though I guess most of them would die since this planet doesn’t seem to have… weather.”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Velvet admitted, “But now that you point it out, I can tell it for myself. There’s certainly an atmosphere, but not enough of it to have much happen. Nor enough moisture to have a proper water cycle.”
“I bet if we popped the formations around the city everyone would die,” Alva said. “Uh… if we can determine they’re actually going to be invading the lower realms, of course.”
“You don’t need to be cautious with your words around me. We’ve been around each other long enough that we both know what is necessary sometimes. We’re at war- even if the Trigold Cluster wouldn’t deign to make any sort of official declaration. Or perhaps be so blatant with their excesses. Even cultivators have to draw the line somewhere. Bullying those who literally can’t be as strong as them isn’t very glorious.”
“But they can be,” Alva pointed out.
“I don’t think they knew that,” Velvet pointed out. “Or if they knew about Assimilation or Worldbinding, that might be why they kept invading every cycle… to keep people from reaching that stage. Ascension just scatters people into the upper realms where they have all of their forces so they don’t really care.”
“When you say it like that it sounds crazy to go against them.”
Velvet just shrugged, “It’s also crazy not to. If we want our home to thrive or even survive, we have to stand up to them.”
“What about Xankeshan, then? It’s just one world, does it really matter how many Integration cultivators we have there when they already have more? Then again, that’s why we’re trying not to be obvious.”
“Right,” Velvet said. “Speaking of which, want to get closer? I’m sure we can pick out more details.”
The first hour of hovering invisibly over the city revealed more details. From within the atmosphere their ship was barely any distance from their target. What they saw was mostly a large number of Spirit Building and Essence Collection cultivators. Not a threat to Ceretos, but in fifty years? Many of them could be in Life Transformation. That might still be fine, but other lower reams might have more difficulty.
“It’s not going to be easy to determine where these people are going…” Alva said. “Unless you can just sneak in and listen?”
“More like look through documents,” Velvet said. “I probably could, but coordinating with the ship would be a problem. You’d have to keep it hidden while I was gone, and I’d have to meet back up with it. That would take-”
The two of them suddenly turned. Their reactions came before the impact, but not with enough time to inform the crew. The ship was spun around, the impact damaging the hull.
“What happened?” Alva half shouted at the pilot. It was mostly to be heard, but she could understand why he cringed.
“I don’t know! Suddenly that ship changed trajectory towards us. We were going to slip by them but-”
“I got it,” Alva said. That was basically what she had sensed too. She hadn’t felt any intent from the approaching ship, no impending danger or fluctuation in their energy. Maybe they really had turned and randomly run into them. She had to admit, the other ship looked like it got the worse end of the deal. Its masts were torn off- sails weren’t fully necessary for star ships, but they still had purposes. Meanwhile, their own ship just had a deep gouge along its belly. They were still flying, but the enemy ship was going down.
That was good, but what was not good was the notice it attracted. Alva felt several Life Transformation consciousnesses flare up as the incident progressed.
“We lost concealment!” Velvet warned. “It was only for a moment, but they’ll know where we were.”
“We have to get out of here,” Alva said. “Increase altitude!”
There were many other shouted orders. Within a short time there were Life Transformation cultivators and a few Integration cultivators preparing ships- Alva could tell that much through the barriers. At the same time, a crew member rushed onto the deck. “Seniors! The cargo hold is broken open! Some supplies have fallen out, and more are threatening to spill! The rapid climb is jostling it!”
What a pain. They had extra supplies- but something falling out would undoubtedly reveal their location. “I’ll deal with it,” Alva said. “You continue to maintain our stealth.”
Instead of going through the ship, Alva simply jumped down over the side, latching onto the ship with her energy. She slipped in through the crack, which was indeed worse than it had initially felt. She’d sensed it and determined the ship wasn’t going to fall apart- and not further than that at the moment. Even as she was swinging in through the breach, a crate was on its way out, the shaking of the ship and the winds pulling it along. The gash was only a meter wide and at most two or three long at an angle, but that was more than sufficient to cause them problems.
It had luckily missed any important parts of formations- though Alva knew that there would still be some impact because of the ship changing, if nothing else. Her energy reached out along the seam, holding back not only the cargo but also the scattered splinters of wood. This was sturdy stuff, but their barriers had been down and the other ship just careened into them at high speed. What terrible luck. Or ingenious planning to make it seem coincidental. Though if that had been the case, the enemy would have reacted faster. Instead, their ship had half-crashed and their others were just beginning to lift off.
Alva felt senses sweeping over the general area they were in, but she had no idea if they were noticed or not. The ships certainly moved in their general direction, but hesitantly. They were still not far from where the crash happened, after all- the enemy could have guessed.
Around the time the enemy increased their speed and launched their first attacks- a volley of bolts from emplaced ballistae- their own ship had the barrier formations engaged. Velvet had either noticed the preparations or had partially given up on stealth. When their own ship shot back, Alva added her own attacks to the mix. She was supposed to be up on deck where there was an augmentation formation, and not down below where a good portion of her energy was occupied with holding things together… hopefully someone would come take over that part.
The barrier helped with some of the shaking, and the wind, but things could still fall out and either burden the barrier or simply be lost. Alva’s hands pulled the string of her bow, launching Spirit Arrows at the enemy ships. A couple Life Transformation cultivators by themselves weren’t of significant consequence, but on top of other Integration cultivators they could be an issue. If nothing else, they could wreck the ship and make things much more difficult.
Downing the ships would be best, either forcing those who could fly to expend their energy on that or grounding the enemy. She pierce the barrier and the helm on one of the ships that had no Integration cultivator. With no lateral control, that ship quickly veered off course despite attempts to latch onto the mechanisms with the energy of those on board.
There were still two more Alva was worried about. However, as she was trying to pick which one to focus on, a command came from above, echoing through the ship. “Hold fire!”
That was Velvet, and she was obviously intentionally reaching Alva… so Alva withdrew her energy, waiting to see what would happen. From her perspective it was very little… she mostly felt their ship turn as the far horizon drew further away- their ascent having brought them out of the lower atmosphere. There was a single bolt that pierced through the barrier over the hole in the side, and almost into Alva- but she could easily deal with one arrow, oversized or not. She caught it and spun around to slow its momentum, while doing her best to not leak energy out.
The following attacks were quite off target, and it seemed they had their stealth protections engaged once more. As they flew almost over the enemy ships, the vastness of space opened up before them- and improperly aimed attacks became less and less likely to hit them.
Now all they had to do was get away, deal with the hole in their ship, and also the consequences of being spotted. Simple.
Maybe they should have just stormed the planet, though obviously they couldn’t have anticipated it to be so ‘thinly’ defended as it was. If the other cities were the same, there were at best a dozen Integration cultivators on the whole planet- something that their alliance or even just Alva and the others could take care of on their own.
Alva looked at the hole in the ship and wondered if that particular spot was cursed. It sure felt like it- though actual curses were just manipulations of energy.