All of the locals agreed that Gnadus was a harsh, inhospitable environment to live in. Anton had likewise come to that understanding immediately upon seeing the planet. Now that the crisis moment was over and the root causes all iced, discussing things further in detail could be done in a somewhat leisurely manner.
“We cultivate towards Ascension to free ourselves from this place,” Janae said. “To rise towards the upper realms, abundant in resources.”
Anton couldn’t argue with that. That was the main goal of most cultivators- with Assimilation being a recently discovered alternate path. Things that seemed to have little of direct value like the harshest deserts could become a great source of power. Likewise, Anton could see the peaks of Gnadus being much the same, or the mists themselves. The cultivators were already barely a step removed from that. The only thing was… none had interest in staying. Perhaps some might have interest in lording over the terrible planet, but they would just be a big fish in a small pond.
“If your main goal is to leave Gnadus…” Anton began, “We are capable of transporting people to other systems.” He had no intention of destroying a people’s way of life- but that was only if they were living instead of just surviving.
“No.” Janae’s answer was direct. “I will not circumvent adversity to shelter in comfort.”
“I did not expect you would,” Anton admitted. He knew very little about her, but what he did know indicated she would see things through to the end. Whether that meant she died, or she ascended. “However, I do intend to make the same offer to those who might want it. Especially those who have no hope of ascension.”
She closed her eyes, pondering on his words. “Not all can follow the trials set down before us,” she said with a vague sense of agreement. “You will offer them an easy Ascension?”
“Ascension is never easy,” Anton said. “Though with proper resources, it is more achievable. Along with a good understanding of the path, of course. There are many roadblocks and dead ends along the course of cultivation.”
“Are those not valuable for learning?”
“Not all of them,” Anton said. “Humans are made to build upon the work of those who came before us. Some things are simply mistakes that if they were known to be coming could have been avoided without weakening the cultivator.”
“I have seen many Ascensions,” Anton said with authority. “And studied many paths. Perhaps you are on the path most suited for you, but for others it might not be the same.” Anton avoided specifically mentioning her path might also be riddled with flaws. That was unnecessary.
The chill winds blew across the Third Peak, but compared to the mists below it was almost pleasant. Anton didn’t find it as invigorating as the old woman clearly did, but he was more than able to ignore it.
“You spoke of another path,” Janae eventually said. “Can you tell me about it?”
“We refer to it as Assimilation. Other systems have called it Worldbinding. Regardless, it is the process of tying oneself to something inextricably and drawing power from it.”
Janae nodded. “That is what I sense from you, then. You must… come from a very different place, to want to remain.”
“That is true,” Anton easily agreed. “I love my grandchildren, and my planet, and most of the others who live upon it. I had no reason to leave them behind. Not that I could have ascended anyway.”
“It does not seem you are lacking in cultivation talent. What prevented you?”
“A technique I practice. It provides access to certain powers in exchange for no ascension… and no reincarnation. At least, not in any sense where I remain myself.”
“Why would you choose such?”
“Why would I not?” Anton shrugged. “I had no reason to ascend or even think about the possibility at the time. I became a cultivator to accomplish necessary goals, not to reach some sort of unfathomable heights. Though Assimilation is not inferior to Ascension regardless. It simply depends on your ambitions. I got what I wanted.”
Clearly all of that information had given Janae plenty to think about. Though Anton didn’t intend to sway her conviction, and he would gladly help her if she wished to share the Third Peak’s cultivation technique. Actually… it was probably mostly the same as the First Peak, and he did have some copies of that. Perhaps he could study the technique for flaws in case she asked. Anton very much likes being a guide, after all. Even if it was for those who might be older than himself in body.
Without Life Transformation cultivators, the First Peak couldn’t and wouldn’t stop the retrieval of Matija’s ship. Unfortunately, their poking and prodding and dissecting had made it unclear in its viability for space travel. It took Matija and her crew some time to check it over to make sure it wouldn’t explode when powered up, and even then they only flew it to the Third Peak where it would be safe, half carried by Anton.
Proper repairs could be done over time- and with reinforcements from Rutera. Some were already on their way, though it was a journey of weeks to reach the system. With the loss of contact they had made some plans, though they were quite relieved to hear that the situation had been resolved.
Anton would be staying around in case any other peaks thought to do something stupid- and it really would be stupid once he gave the offer to transport people off world. Eventually, because they couldn’t carry even a small portion of the tiny- for a planet- population with just a few ships. He would have Janae help him propose that to people, because many would be against the idea. Even so, if some were Ascending or attempting to just to leave, Anton thought they would have a better life anywhere else. Those dedicated to cultivation could choose their path.
Strangely enough, though the entire world seemed to be on the edge of survival or death, Anton didn’t really find a general idea that they would want to change. And as long as they were aware they had the choice, he wasn’t going to make anyone do anything. He knew that the world was going to produce some impressive cultivators… and likely already had. It was simply that the upper realms was a big place, so a few Ascension cultivators here or there wouldn’t usually be noticed.
After making sure that the Ruteran ships would be okay, and that everyone on Gnadus would be aware it wasn’t beneficial to try to attack them for their resources, Anton only stayed a short time. Just a month or so, studying their cultivation and providing guidance for those who asked- even if he didn’t practice their style, he could pick out flaws. A benefit of a lifetime working with others, and a bit from the Ten Thousand Scrolls and his other studies.
Though he might have liked to stay around and attempt to improve the planet like Ceretos, ultimately that was the choice of the locals. He could only let them know there was more to the world.
So he moved on- though he had the feeling he would be back. Other systems, devoid of life and sometimes devoid of planets of significant interest. Several years passed without contact with another new system, even in some of the more promising locations. That was quite reasonable- Anton felt they were already quite a populated stellar neighborhood, though ancient cultivators could have settled many of the places he passed. He could hardly imagine why they might have chosen Gnadus, except for the philosophy of trials they had passed down and ultimately doomed others to require.
Anton was not disappointed by lack of other findings, nor was he intellectually confused… but he couldn’t help but continue searching the same areas repeatedly instead of moving further afield. He felt he was missing something, though he couldn’t quite place why. Cultivator intuition, combining many pieces of consciously and subconsciously known information to reach only a feeling.
Eventually he found himself moving between three systems- alone, because he didn’t want to subject a crew to his obsessive wandering. If nothing else, the process improved his ability to move between systems, as he was almost constantly in motion. Being away from his Assimilated stars for so long was unpleasant, but he found himself constantly able to draw just a bit more from them. Enough that he wasn’t worried about being stranded in the void between planets without a way to restore his energy, at least.
What was it about the area he found compelling? That, he couldn’t determine. Everything seemed completely normal. Which was, perhaps, the oddest thing about it. And another thing, though he did his best to deal with the movement of systems relative to each other, he often found himself off course by some significant degree. This was something he only realized after a significant number of traversals, at first presuming it to be due to his casual efforts at being precise.
He finally discovered something by using abilities he was still unfamiliar with. As soon as he considered the tides of the world, however, everything fit. He became consciously aware of a sort of bubble in the center of the systems, and the more he paid attention to it the more it didn’t fit in the space it appeared to occupy.
Anton considered a few possibilities for it. First, it could be a strange anomaly that came about on its own. Such a thing might be extremely dangerous, and he couldn’t determine a clear value in investigating closely. Then there was the possibility it was artificial, by the hands of cultivators. That one Anton was unsure of, though it was theoretically possible. If it was the case, then attempting anything would be both dangerous and… rude. If people chose isolation through such an extreme, who was he to pull them out of it?
Thus, he attempted no active change, merely doing his best to feel the flow around himself, and in the area in between. After several months of slowly patrolling the area, he decided that there was no way the phenomenon was natural. It had far too much regularity for that. What, then, would he do? He could simply ignore them, as they seemed to wish. But completely leaving them did not sit well for him.
So he found a reasonable spot in a nearby system, the planet closest to naturally sustaining life, and created a simple formation- one that did nothing except advertise its presence to anyone who would be looking. Then, he left a note, carved into stone. ‘For the Hidden System, if you wish to talk.’ There, he left a communication device. He did the same thing several more times, at least once in each system surrounding the area.
Then he considered one more thing. He could not tell if it was too much, but he filled a small bag with a note and another device. The note was only slightly different, merely adding, ‘If you wish to be left alone, simply destroy it however you please.’ Then, he picked up speed, tossing the bag after a solid period of increasing his velocity. There was always closer he could go to the speed of light, but it was never better than dealing with subspace and proper movement techniques. But it was the best he could do without going along.
When he tossed the sturdy contained, it continued on in his aimed trajectory, carefully chosen to potentially pierce the veil. It would continue on its path for years. A decade, perhaps, before it might reasonably arrive. Most likely, the properties of the system would have him miss, and even if it passed through the system it would likely either burn up upon entering a planet’s atmosphere or otherwise be destroyed. But there was a small chance someone would find it… depending on how closely they watched their borders. That would have to be good enough. Any more, and he felt he would be violating their unspoken request.