Drifting into the void of space between stars was… unpleasant. Those were the basic feelings Anton had on the matter, though it was of course more than just a vague feeling. He felt weak. Helpless. His instincts told him to immediately turn around, but he knew he had enough internal energy to reverse his direction completely if he needed to. Technically, even if he did nothing at all he would eventually arrive at Rutera. It would be a matter of years, probably decades unless he accelerated to a much higher speed, but he would get there.
He would probably survive it too, but the journey wouldn’t be pleasant. Being alone for so long with little to do would be draining. He couldn’t even cultivate, as between systems the natural energy was extremely thin. Then there was the matter of his connection to the stars.
Anton could always feel the three stars he had bound himself to- his home of Ceretos, then Rutera and Weos- but feeling them and being able to draw upon their power was different. As he found himself leaving the system, even though he was many times closer to Ceretos’ star than the others, it felt almost as faint.
But Anton wasn’t here just to re-confirm something he knew would happen. He was here to grow. He wouldn’t be attempting any special movement techniques to speed his travel between systems, not yet. Otherwise, he might run low on energy partway and be stuck merely sustaining himself until he arrived.
His connection to the sun was tenuous and weak, and he could barely draw any power from it. It was further weakening with every moment. But… just because that was the way it was didn’t mean it was the way it had to be.
From within himself, Anton reached out for his home sun, and for those of the others. With his intent to strengthen the connection, he felt three flickers, vibrations inside of him. Two faded, but as his will held onto it the third remained- the closest star, and his first Assimilation target.
Anton allowed himself to release some energy, expending it for meaningless efforts such as shooting Spirit Arrows in random directions where they quickly faded away, leaving behind small pockets of energy drifting through space. He didn’t need that expenditure to do anything. Instead, what he needed was the empty space it provided. Anton drew upon the power of the star to fill himself, and he felt his energy restoring. It wasn’t as quick as usual, but it was certainly more than the tenuous connection he naturally had.
After a few moments, he let his grip fade. Was there some remnant strength he felt, or was that merely a wish on his part? Regardless, if there had been a longer lasting change it was greatly insignificant compared to active control. Anton reached out once more, taking active control of the connection. In normal circumstances, he didn’t draw upon the power of the sun so much as he opened a floodgate and allowed it to pour in. Now, he was forced to actively hold open the connection to allow a smaller pressure through. But it worked.
For a week, Anton drifted further, feeling the connection wax and wane as his proficiency wrestled with the increasing distance from his font of power. Finally, when he could no longer feel any significant draw, he began to expend his energy to slow and reverse his trajectory, sending himself back home. As he returned closer to home and the bond strengthened he allowed himself to go faster and faster, expending energy he conserved in the other direction. He had no fears about being unable to stop himself as he moved through his system, as the power only grew stronger and stronger.
Soon enough, Anton found himself back inside the borders of the system, where his recovery quickly returned to normal levels, and then surpassed it. However, once he let go of his active efforts it once again resembled what he was used to, at least within a small margin. Holding open the channel was not simple. When he had nothing else to do but that, drifting through the void of space, Anton could likely keep it up more or less continuously. However, if he were to be in active combat, the concentration required would likely have a large effect.
After some experimentation, Anton found that maintaining more than just a few energy bows, along with firing one of his physical bows, was somewhere close to his limit. It was a far cry from the dozens of energy bows he could throw about if he were free. Still, it would be a great benefit for combat against singular powerful foes, or anything along the same vein. Right now there were few individuals who could be a problem- Everheart was always there in the back of Anton’s mind, but he doubted that the man would do anything soon– but the coming invasion would no doubt have many Integration level ascended individuals. Even if they were somewhat restricted in power, he couldn’t exactly hope to take them down en masse.
Anton took a few days to rest up fully, then went out again- this time, he lasted two weeks from his somewhat arbitrary cutoff for the edge of the system. The last few days his connection had been quite tenuous and thin, but he still had a consistent flow of energy if absolutely necessary.
He repeated the process at slightly greater velocities, since he was more confident in being able to return himself back to where he belonged. Only by pushing his limits would he be able to expand them.
For the sake of thoroughness, he tried different directions. Whenever he was not between systems he had assimilated stars within, he felt slightly empty. It was difficult to say whether it meant anything, but he was more conservative with his experiments anywhere not directed at Rutera or Weos.
Drawing upon the distant stars still received little more than tiny pulses of energy for great effort, ephemeral even as he attempted to keep the connections open. Yet, Anton imagined that this would not necessarily be the case forever. Increasing his proficiency in this technique and his overall cultivation would certainly help. Perhaps he would need to reach the next step of his journey. If he was in the ‘early’ Assimilation phase, then perhaps the ‘mid’. Anton wasn’t really sure what would be beyond, the equivalent of Augmentation or Domination. Maybe Assimilation was all there would be.
In that case, Anton wondered how many stars he might need before reaching such a level. If he followed the current patterns, two more prime temperings would put him at one hundred and sixty. Two more, and he would be at two hundred and thirty eight. Just thinking about his current rate of advancement made him understand it would be an extraordinarily long process, no matter what.
Having not experienced any Integration cultivators since his advancement, and only having Everheart to compare to for Augmentation, Anton couldn’t say for sure, but he felt that perhaps two prime temperings would secure him a position akin to the peak of Integration. Then again, it might require three. There was only one level that had three prime temperings- Body Tempering- but post Ascension or Assimilation it seemed reasonable that the pattern would repeat itself. In that case, one hundred and ninety-seven stars would be the threshold for an Augmentation equivalent. There was only one way to find out, and Anton either had the time to put in… or he did not. Either way, he’d walk the path until he came to its end, or his own. Or fly, because he really didn’t seem to be doing much walking lately.
General Nicodemo was quite fond of Anton. A man with great power, but also empathy and the willingness to use it for others. There were many things about him to like, but Nicodemo had some categories he wished the man performed in. Like… specificity of time.
Knowing that Anton intended to come to Rutera was a relief, but hearing he would show up ‘in a few months’ was really not a good estimate. If he wasn’t sure when he was going to leave it would be one thing, but estimating a ship’s arrival time was one of the key features of a pilot. Being off by an hour between systems was already a pretty significant deviation. Anton was usually quite communicative, so the fact that he couldn’t specify a time of arrival meant there was uncertainty, and that bothered Nicodemo.
What was more annoying was that another group from Ceretos was on the way, with a clearly stated arrival time. Anton didn’t have to be with them… but what could he be doing that things were so uncertain? An experimental ship, perhaps? In that case, it might not be as fast as expected, or perhaps even slower. It must be something like that.
An alarm woke Matija from her slumber. She sprang to her feet, grabbing her weapon from next to her bed before realizing it wasn’t that alarm. They weren’t under attack, at least. No, this was one of the research station’s alarms set up to alert the scientists if anything odd happened with their target.
That was… actually much more worrying than them being under attack. Because her subject of study was just the same as it had always been- the sun. As giant flaming balls of plasma went, stars were extremely consistent and anything that made them act otherwise was worrying.
Matija skidded to a halt in front of the monitors. “Is it recording?” she asked one of the others.
“Always, but I checked just to make sure,” said her male colleague. “You’ll want to see this.”
At first, the images didn’t look like much of anything. The changes they were expecting from the sun were very minute indeed, at least in comparison to its size. Solar flares and hotspots and other things were all constant things to account for. All Matija could see were snapshots of solar flares, which wasn’t anything particularly odd at this time of the solar cycle. They were pretty constant, though many were on the far side of the sun or otherwise difficult to monitor from their station on Sizipra. They had communications with some satellites orbiting the sun, but because of the war they couldn’t risk being out there in person.
“I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be seeing,” Matija admitted as she looked at several pictures. “A small solar flare. Anything else?”
“That’s just the thing,” her colleague said. “Look at the timestamps- and the intermediate images.”
So she looked. The first several images showed a flare growing and shrinking… and the same with the next, and the next. “This is… a sequence of solar flares from the same location?”
“Exactly!” her colleague said excitedly. “The system picked it up after it kept repeating for the last few days, short ones hours apart.”
“Damn,” Matija said. “I wish we could study it up close. Our instruments just aren’t sensitive enough to give us good data from here. What have we learned?”
“Well, besides the regularity, there are some familiar fluctuations. It-”
At that point, another alarm sounded- one much louder and more widespread than the ones routed to the comms of Matija and a few of the others. Fully awake, Matija still took a moment to recognize it. “That’s… the new one, isn’t it?”
“It… could be a glitch,” the man said unconvincingly. However, one of the monitors quickly pulled up what had been noticed.
“It works!” Matija clenched her fist in excitement. “Yes!” A moment later, she saw a flash outside one of the windows. Her eyes flicked across the monitors. “We just lost contact with one of the satellites.”
“Enemy ships confirmed,” a younger female colleague said. “The good news is the scanner found them before they dropped out of cloaking. I’m sending the message now.” She sighed. “It’s done.”
At the same time, Matija was connecting her comms to the station as a whole. “Enemy attack. Everyone evacuate to the underground shelters! This is not a drill, I repeat, this is not a drill.”
As soon as she set the message to repeat, Matija was running with the others. She could have easily outpaced them- not only was she in better physical shape than a typical scientist, she was also seriously training in cultivation. However, she couldn’t just leave her people.
As they ran for the nearest bunker, the corridor in front of them exploded, a beam of energy cutting through it- disintegrating a few individuals who came too close. They were perhaps the lucky ones, as one person slightly further caught on fire. That part didn’t last long as the pressurized atmosphere quickly burst out of the area, but fortunately spread out enough to not drag anyone out with it.
The sound of the ceiling beam cracking came half a moment after Matija was already moving, grabbing her two colleagues around their waists. She leapt forward, away from the falling beam and the collapsing ceiling it could no longer hold. The gravity wasn’t high on Sizipra, but that was what had allowed them to construct durable enough structures cheaply. Unless there was massive trauma, they were actually rated safer than anything back on Rutera itself. And in situations like this, well, it might still be safer.
“Grab onto him!” Matija ordered the two in her arms as she landed next to the badly burned individual. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it was better to be in pain than to be left behind. A loop of Matija’s energy dragged the figure closer, and soon they were in a strange lump of four people. The important part was that Matija’s feet were free to move.
She didn’t really know anything else to do but to run– but that she did. Low gravity and a near vacuum would have made her job easy, except for the fact that she had to avoid further bits of collapsing structure. Anticipating an incoming attack just in time, Matija ground to a halt just a dozen meters from their entrance. This time, the incoming beam didn’t collapse any of the structure- but it did melt the thick trapdoor leading down below.
Once the attack passed, Matija carried her companions over, setting them down as gently as she could do swiftly. Then she reached for the trapdoor. It was hot- still molten in parts, even after only brief contact with the attacking beam. The One Hundred Stars that Anton had instructed her in was somewhat attuned to fire, but that didn’t make her task easy. She gathered as much energy around her as possible, but she still scorched her hands as she tore the trapdoor away and provided access to the stairs below. Then she had to grab her companions again before anything else could reach them.
At the bottom of the stairs was another door, but they were deep enough that the tremors of the attacks above were faint. The air was still thin, but as they passed through the sealed doors she was able to take a deep breath.
Her legs gave out on the other side of the door. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t run further or in more difficult conditions, but they simply wouldn’t listen to her. The relief at being safe- even if that was probably only temporary- was enough to drain the adrenaline from her system.
“You saved us!” “That was amazing!” Her colleagues both spoke at the same time.
“… Thanks. You need to… get him to a medic,” Matija said, gesturing to the burned man. She could feel life still in him, if not much.
A few minutes later, Matija somehow managed to get her senses back. Even if she hadn’t done it consciously, she’d carried her weapon with her from her room. Normally she wouldn’t have brought it with her, but she had just subconsciously slung it on her back. Had she sensed something… or was this one of those paranoid reminders that Anton liked to say during training? Or in this case, practical. Though Matija wasn’t sure how much she could do if anyone bothered to land and attack them inside the bunkers.