Ren’brus felt his world spinning. He scanned the list of names again; he hadn’t heard a word from anyone on this list for more than ten standard cycles. A low whining screech escaped his mouth as pain lanced sharply through his chest.
Winterborn stood, placing a hand on his top right shoulder in a gesture of consolation. He did not move to shrug away her hand; it wasn’t his place to rebuff the kindness of his Prime. Still, he longed to run back to his ship and verify this report. His mother, his fathers, people from the resistance with whom he had worked so hard to achieve their goals. He felt as though the world were closing around him.
Winterborn said nothing, letting him feel what he needed to feel. She understood the anguish, the rage, and the helplessness he was feeling, if to a lesser extent. He had lost friends, allies, potentially family due to Sin’tel and his schemes. Rosa would survive, but it had been a somewhat near thing.
For a time, Ren’brus was lost in grief. He couldn’t stop the ever-rushing stream of faces blurring through his mind’s eye, couldn’t help but feel the weight of each of their deaths hammering away at his soul. A half hour bled by in this state, with him keening away his grief.
Gradually, he stopped quivering and the low keening stopped. He sat there, looking the Prime in the eye. He had processed his grief as much as he would be able to this day. Now, there was nothing but rage, hot and potent.
“This document says that Sin’tel is responsible. Is that true?” he asked, fury causing him to forget his decorum.
She looked his straight in the eye and nodded. “We believe him to be responsible, but we only have the word of the Ven. I don’t think they expected us to get our hands on this information, but we can’t be one-hundred percent certain until we follow up on this lead. When we get to Quin’tel, I intend to verify different elements of this report. I will want your people’s help on this. I need financial records, communication logs, people who can testify against his actions. In a bureaucracy like this, nothing can be erased in its entirety. Can you do that for me?”
He nodded in the human fashion, trying his best not to grind his teeth. “It will be done, Prime. I have one request, however.”
Winterborn released his shoulder, sitting back down at her chair. “Of course,” she picked up her tea and took a sip. “What do you need?”
“If we prove that Sin’tel is responsible, appoint me as your Second. When the time comes, let me execute him for the coward and traitor he is.”
Winterborn’s eyes reflected the same rage he felt, glinting like embers in the darkness.
She nodded. “Done. If guilty, he would be responsible for the murder of more than twenty of your people, and the attempted murder of one of my officers. In my culture or yours, that is a capitol offense. I’m glad we agree on that point.”
Ren’brus smiled. Not in the human fashion, he smiled like a Quin’tel. His smile was a threat, his smile was a promise.
Winterborn leaned back in her chair. “Now that we have that settled, let’s move on to the matter which brings you here. While I’m glad you’re on board, we still need to be more prepared for what’s coming.”
Ren’brus, too, leaned back in his chair, forcing himself to calm. “Of course, Prime. You need a political overview of the situation facing us on Quin’tel. I’m afraid that the overall situation is tenuous at best.”
“Of course,” she said, “this is the first time a non-Quin’tel has been coronated in history, right?”
Ren’brus nodded. “Yes, but the laws and regulations surrounding a potential change of power have been well-established since the founding of the Empire. While we have always quickly and violently put down any species who happened to come across us before we detected them, we always had to appear willing to submit if the tables were turned."
He pulled a tablet out from a pocket in his uniform, sliding it across the table.
"This dossier goes over the particulars of the ceremony. We can go over this in more detail, but this should work as an overview."
Winterborn scanned the document, familiarizing herself with its contents.
When she was done, she took another long and slow sip of tea. "This seems fairly cohesive, but there are a few points I'd like to go over with you. Do you mind?"
"Of course, Prime," he replied.
They talked for the next half hour, going over particulars of the ceremony, customs, expected dress, and the different species and factions they would be faced with and how to handle them in particular.
They walked out of the ready room, making their way to the briefing room. All officers were currently in audience, temporarily leaving crew-women to oversee the A.I. Officer modules. As they entered, Commander Val stood and called, "Captain on deck!" Everyone stood to attention.
Winterborn saluted, smiling at her officers. "At ease." She walked to the front of the room, Ren'brus following on her heels. She waited for her officers to settle themselves before continuing.
"As you are all aware, we will soon be arriving at Quin'tel, the capitol of the Empire. Our objectives while there will be multifaceted," she gave a mental command and a document was sent out to everyone's neural interface. "Listed therein are general mission parameters. While most of you will continue to be active on Athena, senior officers will be accompanying me on my journey to the surface. Junior officers will be expected to fill in while we are planet-side. We should be gone for approximately thirty-six hours. If we do not make contact every hour with Athena, you will be expected to go immediately to battle stations and do what you can to contact us. Lieutenant Commander Avers will be left in general command. She will have instructions on what to do in the case of communications failure. Individual assignments are located in the file you have been sent," she straightened, rapping her knuckles on the podium. "You will be our eye in the sky. We'll be counting on you to watch our backs. Now, all of those not heading to the surface are dismissed."
Winterborn paused, taking a long drink from her tea. She waited for the officers to finish filing out of the room. When the last of them were gone, she cleared her throat and continued.
"Now, for those of us who are going planet-side, we face a much more dangerous situation. That being said, the environment isn't a part of that. The Quin'tel evolved to survive on a planet with an oxygen-nitrogen-hydrogen atmosphere. The only minor difference is they seem to have a much more oxygen-rich environment than we have become accustomed to. You can expect to feel more energetic than usual, but you will not be required to wear E.V.A. suites. However, the temperatures on Quin'tel are high, this time of year especially, sitting at nearly forty-three degrees in the capitol city. The buildings are climate-controlled, but Quin'tel tend to enjoy higher ambient temperatures than we do. As such, we will be providing each officer with a skin-suit. This will have the dual benefit of regulating our body temperatures, and providing a measure of protection against ballistics." She said the last mostly for the benefit of Ren'brus, but she could tell the officers were excited. The skin-tight suits weren't worn regularly, being more suited for combatants than researchers. They were difficult to manufacture, and single use. Once one was removed, it would be useless.
"Now, I will turn the floor over to Ren'brus. He will address you on what to expect from the other races we encounter on Quin'tel." She stepped down from the podium, placing a small box in her place for him to stand on.
Ren'brus stepped up to the podium with more gusto than Winterborn had expected; the usually-meek Quin'tel seemed at home in front of an audience. It was then that she remembered that he had been the Prefect for a portion of the Empire which exceeded the total population of her entire species. Him being at home in front of a group was entirely understandable.
He began by pulling out a tablet from his uniform and placing it in front of him. Quin'tel didn't believe in technological integration, so he would use the archaic device to follow along with the information already dispersed to the seated officers.
"Greetings to the officers of the esteemed Athena. I am Ren'brus, now-former Prefect to the Prime Empire. As you can see in your neural interface," he unintentionally sneered the words, "there are several obstacles present that you should all be aware of."
Winterborn watched as a three-dimensional image of a large hulking creature filled her vision. It stood on four legs sprouting from a torso of corded muscle. It had two large tentacles in the place of arms. She couldn't make out any eyes or mouth, nor any means of communication at all.
"This," he said after they had time to absorb what they were looking at, "is a Trajan. They are strong, prideful, and typically have a strong urge towards political independence. They are likely going to try and test you all, hoping to find weaknesses they can exploit. The Empire has been forced to put down more than one rebellion sprouting from their prideful society."
He pressed a button on the pad, another image appearing in their mind. This looked even stranger than the last, a stick-thin figure with bulging sacks filled with gas all around their body. The creature was animated, appearing to barely glide over the surface it walked across. Its skin looked more like tree bark than flesh, being both brown and roughly textured.
"This is a Tend. Those of their government tend towards being soft spoken and charismatic. They tend to make fantastic politicians and even better spies. In the Empire, we make wide use of them for both purposes. Say nothing to a Tend that you do not wish known across the entire Empire within a few of your months. That being said, their people are some of the finest we have. Make a friend of a Tend, and you'll never regret it."
Another image appeared, surprisingly, it looked to be an artificial life-form. It was a sphere being upheld by four mechanical legs. The surface was smooth and black, various arcane devises jutted out from all around the construct.
"This is a representative of the Torrah. They are an aquatic species which relies on mechanical walkers and self-contained mobile environments. They are one of the few deeply religious species in the Empire, but they make up a significant faction. They take great pride in their myriad rituals for just about every social situation. We advise that only the Prime interact with the Torrah. They take offense easily if the proper religious observances aren't followed. As the soon-to-be-Prime, Captain Winterborn is too high-ranked for them to approach her. They will be pleased by her merely attempting to follow their traditions, while they might take mortal offense from one of her subordinates. The Quin'tel, as a rule, only allow diplomats trained in Torrah ways to interact with them."