Some people worried about large armies coming from the great powers on either side of the Scarlet Midfields, and it was good that they did. But Velvet had a different category of thing to worry about. Her concern was with individual people. Assassins were possible, and throughout the entirety of either of the large regions there should be a few of great talent. Though she hoped that the Scarlet Alliance didn’t seem so important that they would bother. But less than assassins were the troubles that could be caused by simple spies.
There were certain things that simply couldn’t be hidden from the general populace. Large movements of people, sweeping changes to the planet’s defenses, the more mundane drives of expansion, or the rising functionality of technology wholly or partially disconnected from upper energy. These would all have meanings in their own way, and would influence how they appeared as a threat. Seeming like a threat was what they least wanted, regardless of their ultimate ambitions to actually be one.
They had already faced an almost casual assault by the Exalted Quadrant. There were no official channels of communication through which they could demand a reason, or repayment. They came to support their plant within the Harmonious Citadel, and then left. Ironically enough, the generally worse group from the perspective of the lower realms- the Trigold Cluster- had caused the least amount of trouble during that time.
But both were inevitable enemies, given their effects on both the lower realms and the state the Scarlet Midfields had come to. The only question was who they had spying, and how. Obviously there would be some. There was no way the whole planet of Xankeshan was perfect, full of individuals who were loyal above all else. Velvet had already begun to extend her spy network into the powerhouses, so they must have done the same in reverse. Though if there was one thing that held them back, it was actually their size. Both might officially be a single group, but with so many different sects within them and their populations that might be as high as trillions of individuals they weren’t truly all of one mind. But any small part of either could still likely ruin the Scarlet Alliance.
There was no perfect way to pick out spies. If they came from well known styles it was one thing, but local citizens simply paid to report news was entirely different. A higher ranking cultivator with a good insight might pick out a spy if they had a reason to interact with them, but that wasn’t frequently going to be the case if the spies just kept their heads down. They might not get deep cultivation secrets, but the surface level could tell much.
For example, if the Scarlet Alliance could find out what was beyond either region, whether there were friends or foes of the powerhouses or just more disorganized territory, they could plan whatever they were doing about other things occupying their attention. They could get away with more if the looming threats were in another war.
Velvet shook her head. Things were so much easier when she only had to manage herself. Just go on an infiltration mission and do her best to get out with information while not being caught. But of course, that was only sustainable until the one time she was caught. And against opponents of a certain caliber, that was an inevitability. Though if she was able to reach Augmentation at some point, it would certainly shift the odds.
The Great Queen had many opinions about what should be done in the future, and of course all of them involved void ants. Not that Anton disagreed with her, despite the clear bias involved with her personally. It was undeniable that void ants would be an influential factor on future conflicts.
“We will produce offspring until one is suitable to go to the upper realms,” the Great Queen declared.
“That sounds like a problem in any number of ways,” Anton said. “What makes them suitable?”
“I will determine their personalities and loyalty,” the Great Queen said. “They must get along with allied humans, of course. If they are uncooperative it will simply lead to systemic annihilation.”
“Repeated attempts to breed a perfect individual are frowned upon, you know,” Anton said.
“How? Why? If that is the case, why even breed at all?”
“Well, because of love and the desire to go on.”
The Great Queen waved her antennae dismissively. “I know enough of humans to say that much of what they do is not for the stated reasons. You wish for numbers for security of various sorts. Your particular societal structures simply don’t allow you to dispose of them when they don’t fit your desires. Or at least, lifespans do not.”
“… Do you dispose of your offspring?” Anton asked.
“Do not be concerned. If they are uncooperative and violent towards fellow ants or humans, they will be dealt with long before they have individual consciousness. Unlike humans, we are not born with such qualities.”
“That doesn’t make me feel much better,” Anton admitted.
“This is why we do not speak of it often,” the Great Queen said. “But it is why all colonies work together with each other and allied humans.”
“So if you end up with this queen… what then?” Anton asked.
“We use Ruteran technology to begin expansion into the border of the upper realms. It is best that any void ants remain disassociated with the humans there, given the presumed extermination of my kind.”
Anton nodded, “There are some problems with that, though. Would it be possible for your people to maintain unity when physically distanced from each other? Without human formations or technology.”
“It will be much more difficult,” the Great Queen admitted. “However, we are not incapable of constructing our own devices. Even those who do not have the spark to know what they are doing can be taught to perform exact tasks. We will require help developing processes by which we can self-construct, however. And we must develop to a certain point to reliably deconstruct rock and metal, required for most formations and technology.”
“This sounds quite difficult,” Anton admitted.
“Impossible, without centuries on both sides,” the Great Queen said. “Even with decades of planning, we have little to show for it. And no queen to fulfill the role.”
Anton sighed, “So you’ve already been attempting this?”
“Of course. This one’s daughters are at minimum able to found new colonies here in the lower realms. You will need more of us should the time of invasions come. And I cannot go to the upper realms myself because you are here.”
“You don’t have to do everything yourself, you know,” Anton pointed out.
“Some things I must. My daughters are weaker than me, so their offspring will not develop with the required degree of speed. And I must be responsible for considering how my people will act without me. And unlike humans, I am actually meant to operate this way. I don’t need to relax.”
Anton grinned. “That sounds exactly like the sort of thing that someone who needs to take a moment to relax would say.”
“I anticipated you would say that and have been unable to come up with any counterpoints with a high probability of convincing you. So I will just reiterate it is not required.”
“But you will also admit there is a great amount of time left. If you would spend a short year not concerning yourself with these matters, or anything that doesn’t require you, perhaps you can gain some perspective. In fact, it might be useful to see if your colonies can function independently. You can always make yourself available should a true emergency arise.”
“What would I even do?” the Great Queen asked.
“I don’t know. Go hang out with Paradise and the phoenixes for a while. Come with me to visit my favorite stars. See the worlds I’ve been working with. Except Aipra.”
“Aipra sounds inhospitable to my kind regardless. Distortion beasts are also not so easy to bite.”
Engineer Uzun might be crazy for wanting to build Ascension-class battleships in the upper realms. It was too early and, if he was honest, they were too weak. The sheer number of Integration level individuals was difficult to count. Hundreds or thousands just within the Scarlet Alliance. Making a single ship that was at best slightly better than an average individual would be a waste of resources, though certain resources were also less valued so the project would be cheaper- except for the fact that the development of a technological base was still taking place in the upper realms.
He really had to wait. And due to the differences between upper and lower energy, not all of the blueprints would exactly translate. There was a vast amount of work required to refit every circuit diagram to account for that difference, as even if standardization meant they used the least different number of parts there were still thousands of individual pieces just to make the bridge or the crew quarters or a single engine. And if they were already working at that scale, why not try to do better. He heard rumors swirling of designs underway to make an Augmentation-class ship in the lower realms. The project was probably still a century off at earliest, but that amount of time had been less than a single lifespan since before Uzun had been born. It wasn’t infeasible to consider such long term things.
And he would have help on the formation side of things. Ascension-class battleships weren’t made with pure technology, but rather its combination with cultivation energy. Perhaps it was possible to do otherwise, but it didn’t matter at the moment. The point was that Catarina existed. Engineer Uzun had to understand formations to do his job, and though he couldn’t say he always kept up with the woman, he always at least understood her explanations. Until she reached Augmentation herself.
Around that time, he had lost his grasp on some of the most ‘basic’ concepts behind her formations. But if he could advance to Augmentation himself…? He was perhaps a century behind himself, but he might actually have success from that angle. Or perhaps when he was in the late Integration stage he would find that the project itself was the means to his own advancement. That was how their type seemed to work.
Anton returned to the eastern sector, glad to know they were capable of standing on their own for at least a few years without him. Not that he expected any different- that was the whole point of his attempts to empower them. But it was possible that he would have accidentally had too many things reliant on his presence, people who only got along because of Anton’s intimidation factor. And while there were some tensions that happened around In’istra and Poriza, Anton didn’t consider any of them out of the ordinary for anything involving people reaching the scale of billions of individuals.
His current plant was to widen the scope of their exploration starting from that point, headed in the direction of Ceretos and the others. Whether they joined up with others in any official sense, Anton wanted to try to make contact with as many as possible. And while he’d been fortunate with In’istra and Poriza, he would prefer to do so without infiltration. It was just that one was shortly post-invasion and unstable for that reason, and the other unstable in part due to lack of resources including basic natural energy. Cultivators who could not grow naturally were prone to competition for what little resources were available.
He brought the Great Queen along, one way. “What do you think your chances of advancing to another level are?” Anton asked. “To travel across the region alone and with speed.”
“It is possible,” she admitted. “But I doubt my speed would increase significantly. As you are able to propel yourself directly, while I cannot. Of great value to myself would be a great increase in the density of natural energy between systems. But for it to reach a level that would affect me significantly would require vast growth in populated systems along the whole route.I am content with the smaller ships.”
It was true that one ship, the size of a single fighter or perhaps slightly longer to be viable on long distance trips, could easily afford to add the Great Queen on board. And likewise, the value gained from having her own personal transportation was worth the expense. It was only because Anton was slightly faster that he had brought her along himself, and because he wanted to show her things on the way without the route restrictions a proper ship required.
So far he was uncertain if she was getting anything from her ‘vacation’, but Anton had the feeling she had grown closer to the functionality of humans than she would like to admit. And if she really did not need to take a break, he would still enjoy the little tour.