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As it turned out, there were reasons ships didn’t come with massive holes in them. Like the fact that if one were in space it became very inconvenient. Many Life Transformation cultivators and pretty much any Integration cultivators could manage without air, but that didn’t mean having air wasn’t better. Their ship- the Stellar Wave- also happened to have plenty of individuals for whom a lack of oxygen would be a death sentence.
“… It’s a good thing it’s not just us on this ship,” Alva said. “I don’t know anything about repairing ships.”
“I’m sure we could figure it out,” Velvet said. “I just imagine it wouldn’t be so smooth of a process.”
Some of their crew was already patching the hole- an interesting process, though not nearly as thorough as proper repairs. It simply involved laying sheets of metal over the hole and then sealing the edges with some sort of rapidly hardening goop.
“Jobs done,” said Cai, the man who had been leading the few individuals on the repair work. “It’s not structurally stable and it’s still basically a hole in the side, but it’s airtight. You’ll have to count on the barriers to keep things intact.”
“Or just not getting run into…” Velvet shook her head. “I can’t believe they turned so sharply.”
“Indeed,” Alva said. “I can’t believe it was a coincidence, but I also can’t believe it was on purpose. There was no warning from Instinct.”
“We’ll have to hope they can’t replicate it. It seems that our stealth worked, though. Except for that,” Velvet frowned. “We’ll have to maintain a great distance, just in case.”
“What should we say on the report?” Alva asked. Though they would provide thorough details when they returned, providing some information about how things were going would keep those back at Xankeshan informed. And in the worst case… they would at least not have totally failed. They weren’t willing to strongly consider the possibility of failure, however.
“I think we can chalk it up to a strange coincidence, for now,” Velvet said. “We don’t really have anything to indicate otherwise. Either way, we need to be even more cautious.”
There was some discussion on whether they should return for full repairs. Unfortunately, with the distances involved that would be a matter of weeks in each direction. While that was not an unreasonable amount of time, especially for cultivators, it also provided the enemy a chance to react.
“Now that they know spies are around, I guess we should lay low for a while,” Alva said.
“That’s a reasonable option,” Velvet admitted. “Or… we return immediately and make use of this opportunity.”
“Them being on high alert is an opportunity?”
“We can test their best defenses,” Velvet confirmed. “And by ‘we’ I mean probably myself. You’re capable of being stealthy, but that’s not your focus. I’m confident in setting the ship down on this planet somewhere it won’t be spotted. Then I can sneak in and get information.”
“The problem with your plan is that if you fail,” Alva frowned, “Then we don’t get anything and… you might not make it back.”
Velvet crossed her arms. “I’ll be honest. I very much like being alive, and I’m not the biggest on sacrificing my own life to save others. But I do care about our success. Knowing whether it’s even possible to sneak into these places will shape our entire operation in the future.” As she spoke, Velvet slowly faded from Alva’s perception.
“You still have to go out one of the doors!” Alva called after her. “I’ll notice that!”
It was to her shame that she did not, in fact, notice it. Her eyes were fixed on one door- that one it was quite clear did not open. Another, however, opened without her senses being able to discern it. In fact, it was only when it clicked closed that she noticed- and she was quite certain that sound had been intentional. Velvet had made her point. And an infiltrator who couldn’t open doors wouldn’t get far.
Though Velvet had snuck off, they did still have to land the ship- or return to the planet in general. They had not gone far, as there was quite a vastness of empty space away from the planet. Nothing even vaguely approached their direction, so they had been confident remaining long enough for people to get a bit of a rest. Though on the actual planet, they would better be able to replenish themselves and the ship.
The Stellar Wave moved in for an approach, invisibly and with only the most minute ripples of energy. Approaching a planet’s atmosphere at just the right speed to do so was a lengthy and energy intensive prospect, but being careless could easily result in them being shot down. They kind of needed their ship to get back off planet, so even if they weren’t concerned about the potential of death and the price of the ship- which they were- it would be quite inconvenient.
As Velvet slipped away, Alva made a determination to improve her own stealth abilities. Since it hadn’t been part of her Ascension she would likely find it difficult to actually catch up, but it was still useful to be unseen. Joining Velvet would likely just make things worse- stealth teams often just had more people to mess up and get spotted- but having options would be useful.
Velvet’s feet carried her from barren nothingness to monotone grasslands with a single type of tree. As an ecosystem it was horrible- as a hiding place the long grass and regular trees were quite helpful. Though she could walk invisible in front of people, having something in between made things easier where any senses were concerned. Visual was completely obscured, hearing muted, and even energy senses were hindered somewhat by physical objects in the way. Any limitations that she did not have to provide made her job easier.
Tall grass did have its flaws- it was quite happy to yield to her movements, but that meant it was also obvious if she didn’t do anything. Creating illusory images of the grass as it would be without her only worked until she let it drop, after which there would be bent blades that could be picked out, leaving a trail. Avoiding that was a significant pain, but she was still able to do it. As things went, reducing her weight to a negligible amount was much easier than flying.
The city she was infiltrating had walls- large towering structures that mostly seemed to serve as an anchoring point for the formations that actually provided protections. Climbing to the top of them would do no good as there would still be a barrier preventing her entry. She could try to force her way through, but it could easily lead to her being detected.
There were technically gates that opened and closed, but there were no roads leading anywhere and they looked basically unused even outside of the current potential lockdown. Velvet wasn’t sure how far things would have gone- what the enemy knew. They could only see reactions from afar, and they had no history with what protocols might be in place.
A ship approached. That was easily detected from afar, as it didn’t conceal its approach. She stepped upon the air, moving slowly towards it. Flying, but in a way that caused minimal disturbances. It was also much slower, like everything had to be when stealthy- but it was fast enough for her to catch onto the ship after predicting its landing position- not difficult, given it was the same place as all the others.
It moved through the barrier without issue, and Velvet with it. She was very careful to feel for any sort of detection, but she felt nothing lingering on her and heard no alarms. If she had been able to study the formations she would at least be able to pick out those details, but she didn’t intend to stand outside the walls for days. Especially as she was testing their theoretical heightened alertness.
The spaceport had quite a number of individuals prepared for unloading. A glance inside the hold informed Velvet that they were right about the extradimensional storage- there was quite a bit of space inside. Lots of food and other necessities, and even clothing. It didn’t seem like this place produced much of anything for itself. Expensive and wasteful.
Further into the city, she found except for the origin of goods it functioned much as might be expected, at least for cultivators. There were both the large training fields for the standard troops and training areas for individuals. Even for those whose cultivation was in Life Transformation, in the upper realms that was only considered the beginning of true power, so unless they were recognized to have special talent they were drilled in uniformity, depending on which sect they were part of.
The Trigold Cluster had more than a few cultivation styles- it was simply that Ceretos had the most trouble with a few specific sects. It was unlikely they had been representative of everything that was available in the region.
Velvet cataloged what weaknesses she could find. Since she could get inside she could certainly sabotage the formations- though she didn’t feel the barrier was strong enough to stop a concerted attack anyway. It seemed to be mostly used as a gathering formation, concentrating all of the energy on the city. Useful… but it wouldn’t encourage growth elsewhere. Then again, they clearly weren’t interested in that.
She listened in on conversations, catching snippets that might or might not be useful.
“… can’t wait until this is over. We’re out here so early…”
“… better than back at the sect. Might actually earn something.”
In a way, the city was more of a large military outpost than a proper city or a cultivation sect. While not all sects produced everything themselves, they at least had some production. Here, that was limited- some enchanting of weapons and armor as well as basic construction of replicated buildings.
She made her way towards the center where more important things would be. More risk as well, but she could avoid gatherings of Integration cultivators. Though she also wanted to check on some individuals, like the target ahead.
“It’s not as easy as you think,” a Life Transformation cultivator was complaining to a man a bit older than herself and the Integration cultivator in question. “We can only manipulate what is probable or possible. Sometimes inspiration strikes and you get an amazing result. Like revealing that ship. But other times…”
Now Velvet was especially interested. And concerned. Did this woman mean she’d orchestrated the collision? What did that mean for Velvet being here now? She kept herself tightly concealed as the two approached. She was confident enough in her combat capabilities to fight or run if necessary. She was an Integration cultivator herself, and not so easy to keep locked down.
“A downed ship and we were unable to catch the spies. That hardly sounds like a success to me,” the man said.
“That’s not my fault!” she said. “If y- if the others had been faster, they would have caught them.”
“Why did you not instruct them to be ready?”
“I told you already. That reduced the probability of anything going our way,” the man and woman were now perhaps a dozen meters from Velvet, walking next to each other on a wide street. They continued the discussion with the subordinate woman clearly trying not to get herself in too much trouble with her complaints.
“Just seek another future. If they came here, surely we can catch them.”
“Fine,” the woman sighed, then closed her eyes. Through her lids, Velvet could see them glowing, then it spread over her. Her eyes opened, looking straight at Velvet- who was ready to spring into action. But the eyes passed over her, not focusing. The woman clutched her head.
“What is it?” the man asked.
“It’s… nothing. I told you, it can’t be forced. Or you’ll just invite disaster.”
Velvet frowned. What did the woman know? Her posture didn’t indicate readiness, even though Velvet was a single instant away from killing her. Perhaps she was very practiced in deception, but Velvet wasn’t sure. She would have to find out more about this woman, and whatever potential divinatory abilities she was supposed to have. Something like that could be a severe problem for anything they might do.