Even as he barely began his journey back to Ceretos, Anton’s increased speed had him thinking about just one thing. What the lower realms needed most was this. Not power. There were enough cultivators growing stronger that they would be able to handle anything the upper realms was willing to send. But having them in the right places at the right time? That required something more. And matters of logistics didn’t just apply to war. Different systems had resources the others might want or need, and the wide span of the explored area would take a long time to traverse.
Speed was the key. It made unity possible, and that was their best weapon against the upper realms. And while Anton didn’t think he could help with developing formations or technology, he could still support in other ways. He wasn’t quite sure how, but perhaps something to do with energy. Ships had to stop in systems along the way to refuel, and while Anton didn’t know if he could help with that process there had to be something. Perhaps just exploring more systems, helping to find the best routes. While it was mostly empty space, the need for fuel meant ships couldn’t simply take a straight line between systems. And while they seemed to stay in the same relative positions to each other, that was only over shorter timescales. Systems were drifting about- mostly in the same general direction- but longer journeys required adjustments due to passing by the gravity wells of systems no matter how much calculation effort was put into the journey ahead of time.
Anton tore through space with vigor, though he would be cautious around inhabited systems. He didn’t want to draw out distortion beasts, after all. Regardless of whether or not he could destroy them, he was worried about the potential side effects. Even Aipra didn’t understand much about them, except that they simply existed, and since they were always in subspace they didn’t even have the experience with them being drawn out. They were always around.
His estimation about how long it would take if he traveled with all haste was quite accurate. Anton thought he could reach Ceretos in something like a month. An absurd time- both in how short it was and how much time was still spent doing nearly nothing. Though time among the void between stars was not entirely wasted for Anton, as even simply traveling was somewhat effective as cultivation.
The actual time it would take Anton to arrive was of course longer. He wasn’t going to just bypass all of his favorite systems. He didn’t feel any particular reaction to his appearance on Xicil. He still wanted to properly speak with them at some point, and it was unlikely they could stay completely out of galactic affairs forever- isolation would only work so long if they actually developed a grand interstellar trade route. Though that was something far away, if it was even possible. Perhaps there would be stricter limits on how fast anything but an individual cultivator could go.
The Twin Planets were also on Anton’s list. Tenoun’a and Shrenn were some of his favorites not just because they had a nice star- a blue supergiant- but also because of how they had turned out. Almost completely wiped out by the upper realms, the two planets had struggled to survive. While that ultimately resulted in conflict between two planets that should have worked together, he had helped them overcome that struggle and dispose of the few individuals who benefited from it.
The people of the system had actually spread throughout the system quite rapidly. Their own planets were, in essence, ruined. Very little water, even deep underground. They were able to import some water from ice planets, but the people were used to harsh conditions. Over the past decades- almost a century now- they had happily spread to other places. The moons of Shrenn had always been better than the planet itself, despite having little atmosphere. They were building those up, but also happily settling other rocky planets and moons around gas giants.
They were able to live in so many places because once they had basic nutritional requirements met, the system itself was brimming with natural energy that would allow them to develop as cultivators. The nature of their star had actually been too much for them when they were in a dilapidated state, but now they were growing quite nicely. All it had taken was a change in their circumstances, a jump start by Anton and the alliance to introduce a variety of crops and animals they could raise in the various environments. Overall the whole system likely still had a population less than In’istra, but that might not hold true for long as In’istra was quite content on their single planet for the moment.
He also stopped by Ekict. Despite all of the negative feelings he had towards the system, none of the people currently living there were in any way responsible for them. And making an official visit was probably a good idea. Then of course there was his granddaughter-with-several-greats, Anishka. That said, being around the system too often might make them nervous, which was part of the reason he had avoided it immediately after the war.
Anton flew up to the border of the system, where he found an orbiting station waiting. Even before the war Ekict had had full control of their system, so it wasn’t odd for them to have several of these around the plane. Obviously they couldn’t actually stop anyone from entering with just a handful of stations, but they were the official checkpoints.
Anton was happy to go through official procedures. He extended his natural energy to an official next to the docking bays who didn’t seem to be occupied. “Good day. I am visiting to see my grandaughter.”
The woman’s head whipped up at his speech. But she quickly recognized the situation and spoke in response, the sound transmitting to Anton through his extended energy. “Oh, uh. We normally get ships here. But if you could land, uh…”
“There’s an empty dock on the far side. Should I go through there?”
“Yes, please. If you were in a ship I would have just sent you a landing route because it’s easier than explaining…”
For the sake of not alarming anyone, Anton took his time circling around. Not that he lingered, either. The woman he’d first contacted hadn’t arrived yet, though he sensed her scurrying her way over and trying to explain to others along the way.
The process was relatively painless for Anton. Was it possible that it was because of who he was and not the efficiency of the local bureaucracy? Absolutely. But he also didn’t have a hold full of trade goods or passengers to inspect. He was just one person with a not particularly full storage bag. Making special note of his presence was likely important to some, but that was also a reason to let him through quickly.
Landing on their main planet was simple enough. Though they had restored some level of planetary barrier, it wasn’t constantly powered- it was a waste of energy when there were no threats. Anton did his best to be polite with his sweeping senses as he tried to find Anishka.
He found her in the icy north, in the area once claimed by the Northern Glacier Sect. He politely landed outside their front gates and walked from there. Anishka sensed him coming and steadily made her way towards him.
“Grandfather,” she inclined her head. “I didn’t receive advance notice of your visit.”
“No need to be so formal,” Anton said. “Or mature. I’d honestly prefer if you had come running. Dignity is for those who aren’t fully confident,” Anton grinned. “As for why you didn’t hear from me, the message wouldn’t have arrived significantly before myself so I didn’t bother.” It would have still been somewhat ahead of even his current speed, but he liked surprising people too.
“I see,” Anishka nodded her head, then stepped forward to hug Anton tightly. “You don’t visit often enough.”
“Unfortunately, I can only be in a single place at a time and have no current intentions to try to change that.”
When Anishka stepped back, she carefully displayed her hand to reveal The Sergeant. “Greetings, sir Anton!” the ant signed.
“Greetings to you as well, Sergeant. How have things been here for the two of you?”
“Slow,” Anishka said. “But peaceful. I travel between here and fire attuned regions for my training. Speaking of which, while you are here I have some questions about the techniques of the fallen Enkindled Sun Sect. The Palace of Fire and Ice focuses on different aspects of fire, and this is specifically star related.”
“Of course, what do you mean to ask?”
“It is about the connection to stars.” Anishka saw the sparkle in Anton’s eyes and shook her head. “It is partially for my own curiosity, and I have no intent to give up half my cultivation to focus on them. Though I do have some friends who might be interested. Many people are speaking of binding our local star by the same methods you do, though I doubt most of them understand it and fewer still are knowledgeable enough and likely to surpass Life Transformation in the near future.”
“On an interesting topic, I have met an archer who focuses on nearly the opposite of myself. The cold void between stars,” Anton smiled.
“I am more interested in terrestrial heat and cold,” Anishka shrugged. “But I could likely learn a lot. Gudrun would likely be interested to hear about this archer.”
Anton nodded. Gudrun was one of Anishka’s older sisters, the third child of Annelie and Anish. As one of his lovely grandchildren he was quite fond of her, obviously. Now that he considered it, it seemed past time for many of them to ascend or reach Assimilation. It had been a good pair of centuries, after all. He understood that a single century to go from no cultivation to that level was exceptional and never to be expected, but with access to proper resources and training they should be getting close. Anishka wasn’t too far off herself, at a much younger age. But Anton also had the feeling that such advancements tended to come in waves.
Anton stayed for a few days, providing guidance for Anishka and some friends and allies. And a few random farmers he passed by who had managed the form of a properly run farm but were missing a little bit of the spirit to get the most out of things. Before he left, Anton also asked the Sergeant if she had anything to say to the Great Queen. Fascinatingly enough, instead of a long report he got a single sentence.
“Things are going well here, thanks for the opportunity.”
Well, he preferred a heartfelt message compared to a long report anyway.
The Great Queen was not one to beat around the bush. Nor did she care much for many of the restrictions of human social interaction. Thus, when Anton came to find her she was quick to make a rather alarming announcement.
“We need to prepare to attack the upper realms.”
Anton sighed. “Who, how, why, and when?”
“You know of the ways we have discussed for the ant-us to get there,” the Great Queen signed. “The void ants and you cultivators both need to move proactively against the Trigold Cluster. And perhaps the Exalted Quadrant as well. They already caused trouble for our colony in the upper realms. As for when… either before or after the next change in the tides of the world. It is still far off, and yet fast approaching in its own way. But we have had many years of idleness in much of the region, and while peace and growth are wonderful…” the Great Queen spread her antennae and forelimbs in the void ant’s version of a shrug, “It will not last forever. Your granddaughter and the others went to the upper realms to bring the fight to the enemy. I would suggest it is time. Or it will be.”
“You’re not used to waiting,” Anton nodded.
“It is in my nature to be industrious,” the Great Queen said. “Speaking of which, will we be able to establish colonies in the eastern expanse?”
“Not yet,” Anton said. “It may not be surprising to learn that humans are still hesitant about your people, especially without having met them.”
“We sound dangerous,” the Great Queen agreed. “And we are. Which makes us the best allies.”
Anton had to admit that they had been among his best allies for a long time. “You know that everything I do is ultimately preparing to fight the upper realms,” Anton said.
“True. You do not sit idly either. But we need specific plans. And I know it seems quite early, but we cannot coordinate nearly so well for something we do not know ahead of time.”
“Within the upper realms specifically, there is a power disadvantage.”
“Only for the moment. But the vast rear ends of the great powers seem loath to pick themselves up off their rear ends. I understand the danger of annihilation, but sitting and waiting will likely be insufficient. And with the number of Augmentation cultivators in the Scarlet Midfields increasing, soon they will likely be considered a threat regardless of whether they are known to have done anything against the powers.”
“It sounds like you mean to have people move in secret.”
“If at all possible, it is best to slip under a door and steal crumbs without being noticed,” the Great Queen said by way of agreement. “Help me express my intentions to others, because they will not be inclined to listen to me. And your wisdom can make up for my mistakes. I will admit that the void ants have an empathic hole considering the loss of lives in war.”
Anton nodded. He would hear her out, and help to get people moving as necessary. They might have almost five centuries, but not too long ago there had been another half century he was counting on. It would be easy for time to slip by, and while it wouldn’t be terrible for them to simply focus on growth that whole time, an active plan would still be better.