The sun was bright. Matija was starkly aware of this, of course. While the instruments on Sizipra hadn’t been sensitive enough to get the detail of readings they wanted, they were dealing with the opposite problem now. Shielding the most sensitive instruments was extremely important, but they had to be close enough to their target to cover all their bases.
It took a lot of persuasion to manage to monopolize Anton’s time, but Matija wasn’t just sating her own curiosity. Anton’s effect on the sun had grown, or at least developed… and they needed to make sure it was safe. In addition to that, he could escort them for the sake of other studies, and provide protection for their scanners. The ones that were looking for invaders, specifically. It wasn’t yet clear if they would work better or worse closer to the sun, looking for pockets of missing power left behind. It was also a matter of their concealment- the previous ones had been on Sizipra’s surface, and floating in orbit around the sun could be more or less conspicuous depending on the enemy’s detection abilities. These things were in short supply and expensive, without a proper production line yet, so they had to be cautious with them.
“Alright Anton, let’s begin the tests.”
As conscious as Matija was of the sun being bright, it made her even more conscious of Anton just being… out there. Getting enough radiation in his system to kill someone instantly, let alone the heat or… well, anything, really. And no comms could survive that, so she just… spoke. And Anton’s connection of natural energy to the ship let him listen, and respond. “Understood. I’ll start with my usual draw.”
Familiar patterns began to appear, small but distinctly unnatural. “Seems the same,” Matija said after a few minutes of that. “Try that… new thing.”
The ‘new thing’ was Anton amplifying his connection to this particular star. As Anton made use of his practice, he could feel and even see a very real movement from the star. If he hadn’t been looking or had a connection he might not have noticed, but he saw the small rising ‘solar flare’, and noted that it trailed off into a point. But the energy wasn’t just wildly being released, instead it disappeared… and presumably, ended up inside him. Anton mentioned that.
“Ah, you’re right,” Matija concurred. “It disappears instead of just becoming diffuse.” They began to test out a few other things, but Matija got an alarm. “Incoming ships detected! They’re um…” Matija didn’t know how to quickly relay the information to Anton without a computer, so she just pointed, with her finger and her natural energy. “They’re circling around so they’re probably still a million kilometers out. Unless… it’s a glitch.”
“I’ll go take a look,” Anton said.
With that, he was off. He wouldn’t be able to maintain easy communication, as even Ceretos’ methods were ineffective around such power, despite their tolerance for interference.
In truth, Anton had a vast amount of space he had to search through, and within that space he had to pick out something insignificant compared to the sun. He wasn’t sure if that would be possible, though he’d been able to try sensing some of the ships they captured. It was something, but obviously those tests had meant little. The ships had been on a predictable trajectory he already knew, and not going terribly fast either.
Now he had to pick out something among- actually, in the few minutes of him flying and probing he did sense something. He’d been able to accelerate quickly enough to match a reasonable ship’s speed, and something made the sensing easier. Even with vast distances between, it was simple to pick out the points that didn’t belong. It wasn’t just one thing. Anton’s connection to the sun was certainly empowering him, but the ships were also drawing in power from around them. If he hadn’t been specifically looking then perhaps he might have missed it, since it didn’t create an obvious vortex- but he could feel the light being pulled away and used for something. Power.
Anton could shoot down the ships. He certainly wasn’t lacking for power at the moment, and if they didn’t see him coming… what could they do? However, he had something he wanted to try. If it failed, as it likely would, he could deal with it then.
He stretched out his hand, calling upon the power of the nearby star. A massive amount of natural energy- from Anton’s perspective if not the star- formed in front of him as he attempted to form a Star Catching Net. Everheart had named it, pointing out that just because they weren’t going to catch stars didn’t mean it wasn’t kind of catchy.
Previously, the two of them working together as they developed the technique had covered an area a kilometer square, sometimes a bit more. That was pretty good for a dense lattice of energy that had to be able to react to something reaching through any point, but it wasn’t much good for catching ships they couldn’t just punch. In space, it was hardly a wide area. Their initial projections had been for a net a hundred kilometers on a side, to be something useful.
Anton wasn’t quite sure how big he made his net… but it wasn’t far off from their plan. It might be a little smaller… or a little larger. Anton learned a few things in the next minutes. First, though he was commanding a vast amount of energy from the sun, he wasn’t really controlling it. He certainly hadn’t formed each crossing section of the net, but it flowed into place naturally. Second and quite related was that his powers were more than just a little bit augmented when he was only a few hundreds of kilometers from a star and drawing directly upon it, something he hadn’t really had to test yet. Third was that while he could handle the might of a star he was assimilated to, it seemed that Azoth ships could not. Instead of the net collapsing around them as it was intended to, the ships collided with it, unable to change their trajectories, and were separated into dozens of smaller slices. Anton planned to go capture the few lucky or clever cultivators who had squeezed between the meter-ish gaps in the net, only to find they were dead by the time he got to them.
The net had lowered the momentum of the ships and everything on them as it cut them up, and now the power of the sun was reclaiming them. Anton wasn’t inclined to let that happen, sweeping as much as he could into his storage bag while also claiming any that had not spontaneously combusted. The materials were already well known, but Anton was interested in getting his hands on any techniques these cultivators might have carried. He’d look through what he obtained later, when he wouldn’t have to shield things from the might of Rutera’s star. He didn’t find that terribly difficult, but it wasn’t a great environment for reading, either. Too bright.
“Your sensors were correct,” Anton reported as he returned to the ship. “There were a handful of battleships, now extinguished.” The response from the ship was mostly the confused garble of a dozen scientists shouting theories at each other. “… I suppose you scanned my use of the Star Catching Net?”
“Half of our instruments broke!” Matija shouted.
“Sorry? That was amazing!” Matija said. “Do it again! No, wait. Uh… was that difficult?”
Was it? Anton shook his head, not that she could see it. “I did put forth my full effort but… compared to the magnitude of what happened, it was not particularly difficult.”
“Then do it again! Actually, wait like… a few hours while we fix stuff. And then give us warning. And then do it again, but only once because we probably shouldn’t mess around with that level of power. Though it might still take centuries to notice any lasting change in the star so maybe we should have you-”
Eventually, Anton and the others involved decided on the more cautious approach. Anton didn’t mind showing them the technique again because even if he for some reason had to catch Ruteran ships… either it was going to act like normal, or he would be next to the sun and able to completely obliterate things, apparently.
Over the next week, there were several more groups of ships from Azoth, which Anton swiftly dealt with. He also experimented with directly drawing upon the sun’s power to do things. Aside from forming such a net, drawing a simple strand of plasma that he could whip around was even simpler, even if that ‘strand’ was a dozen meters thick and a hundred kilometers long.
When channeling power through himself, there was also a difference- though not nearly so stark as directly forming the star’s power into something. Anton had kind of done it by instinct, as he was used to controlling some of the natural energy around him during combat. It had simply been more responsive than he anticipated. Drawing directly upon that energy was affected by his distance from it, though it was mostly similar for the first few hundred kilometers before sharply falling away. He could still call upon that power at thousands of kilometers away, but there was a noticeable time delay and it wasn’t so astonishingly more than what he’d done before.
His personal power seemed to be close to double near the surface of the star- he actually got within fifty kilometers to find it was a few percent different from his more comfortable several hundred. It wasn’t just recovery, closer to the sun- but his power output was more efficient. The discovery was interesting, though he doubted he could convince enemies to just fight him by a star. Even Azoth had stopped sending ships on that route after one week, after which they hadn’t seen any more for the rest of the month. Even that had a good side, because they seemed to arrive more slowly, giving more time between assaults.
General Nicodemo could hardly believe he was watching two men face off with swords in their military training grounds. He had long gotten past his prejudices against using them as weapons, when he’d been shown it was actually viable for cultivators… but just because he understood didn’t mean he believed it. That was decades of common sense and training he had to fight against.
But he didn’t need to believe anything to watch the fight. It was short and bloody, with Elder Intan being the clear victor. Ty Quigley was good, but he wasn’t a peak Life Transformation cultivator. Both contestants drew their swords and waited for an opening, then their swords clashed and blood sprayed. But at least nobody was seriously injured.
Then Ty Quigley’s arms fell apart, one cut off at the shoulder and one at the elbow. Nicodemo’s jaw dropped. That was their best pilot- Nicodemo was well beyond the point where he was going to say one of their best pilots when the man was such a standout. Now, he was crippled and… still smiling?
“Good job kid,” Elder Intan of the Million Sword Vault said. “I’ve got a little reward for your advancement, after we patch you up.”
It was difficult for Nicodemo to say he’d never seen anyone move so fast, with the way the man picked up Ty’s limbs and stitched them back on… but he was beginning to come to terms with the fact that he wouldn’t always be able to see what happened in front of him… like the battle. He had seen it, but he hadn’t seen it. But instead of discouraging him, that just made him grin too. He’d just have to reach the point where he could do something like that. He couldn’t let this Ty kid pass him up! Though it wasn’t like he’d done anything but make a tiny nick on Elder Intan. Nicodemo really hoped that the guy’s arms would be alright. There was no way they could just be stitched on without problems, was there? Though the fact that the thread was so fine as to be practically invisible, and the confidence with which Elder Intan worked gave him hope. Then he poured a few bottles of something Nicodemo was pretty sure could sell as a miracle cure-all and not be branded for false advertising.
… Some day, he’d be there. A decade? Two? Heck, even if it took ten that was apparently decent. And the slight relief in pressure that Ceretos was providing was absolutely what Rutera needed at the moment.