Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Ren'brus moved on and another image appeared; a gasp hissed out from the group at the sight before them—the first Human-like species they had seen. Sure, the figure had eyes similar to a fly’s, and it had four fingers on each hand, but it more-or-less looked like a person. That was, until a ruler appeared next to the figure.
“This is a representative of the Rusan. As you have no doubt noticed, they are extremely similar to your species in form and function. They are, however, on average, about seventeen centimeters tall.”
A giggle broke out from one or two officers. Winterborn stared them down, sending each a dressing down she had prepared earlier edited to reflect their names and ranks. After all, she had laughed too, but that was while she was relatively alone. Not with the entire staff present.
Ren’brus resumed his speech. “These are some of the more technologically-focused species in the Empire. They are also some of the more capable military combatants in the fleet. They are proud and have reason to be. They serve with the kind of distinction that any member species of the Empire could only hope to emulate. Address male Rusans with the honorific of ‘Tel’ and females with ‘Kal’. They are strong allies, but do not tolerate insult easily. A full list of protocol regarding etiquette with their species can be found on page forty-three of the document I’ve sent out.”
Ren’brus straightened, rapping his claws against the podium nervously. Winterborn wondered if he had picked up that nervous habit from her.
“Finally, I will go over a species you are more familiar with.”
Again, the image disappeared. It was replaced by an image of a face all officers knew well—the face of Commander Julia. The face of the Ven who had infiltrated their ship, the one who had put Rosa in the infirmary.
Murmurs broke out at the image of the Ven agent. Winterborn had been prepared for this from her earlier meeting with Ren’brus, but she still winced the sight.
Ren’brus pressed another button on his tablet; the face flicked away, replaced by the image of a Quin’tel. Gradually, the faces jumbling into a blur. Eventually, it settled on a single image of absolute darkness.
“No one has ever seen the true form of a Ven. We know that they only take the forms of those who have actually been. Typically, they kill the original, steal their DNA, and replace them. While we do have detection methods available on the planet, they are extremely capable. The one on board your ship made mistakes, they were sloppy. Senior agents of the Ven rarely fail in such a manner. Many of you may have noted the tendency for Quin’tel to move in groups of three—the Ven are the reason for this. Imagine going down to the surface with a delegation. During that time, you and your friends are separated. When you get back together, nothing notable has changed. Supposedly everything went according to plan. What you don’t know is that one of your friends is lying in a gully, decomposing. Your ship is compromised, you’ve potentially killed everyone aboard.”
The room went entirely silent.
“As such, during this mission I have advised that all officers test before heading down to the surface, and test when they get back. Moreover, they should operate in groups of three. This will also draw parallels between your race and ours. Hopefully this subconsciously reinforces their loyalty to the new administration. While they will accept your claim based on established law, obedience to any new master will take time. Hopefully emulating some of our customs will help to accelerate this process.”
Ren’brus silenced an alarm in his tablet, nodding at Winterborn.
“I will be returning the microphone to the Prime. Thank you for the opportunity to be of assistance,” he bowed his head and stepped down from the box on which he stood.
Winterborn took his place.
"Thank you Ren'brus for those pertinent details. There is quite a lot more information in the document he sent you all. Take the next couple days to commit the entire work to memory. We need to be as above fault as possible on this mission," she took a sip of her tea. "Now, we need to move on to general mission objectives. We will be conducting two main operations. One, we will be acting as a diplomatic core, attempting to solidify relations with local species. Two, we will be investigating the current Prime on suspicion of murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy. You will mostly be handling the former, while Ren'brus and his allies handle the latter. That being said, you will all need to keep your ears and eyes open. It's possible that we could learn more from careless tongues and those wishing to ingratiate themselves with their new rulers. Avoid prodding if you can, but encourage anyone who seems willing to talk. Attempt to steer conversation towards matters of Sin'tel."
She sent out a mental command, calling up an image of the Apollate Palace—the venue for the multiple rounds of the power transfer process.
"This three-dimensional rendering depicts the building we'll be occupying for around thirty-six hours. The main event will take place here," she indicated to a large, open circular chamber. "There are twelve points of egress and ingress. Each door will be guarded both by three members of our security force as well as the Quin'tel palatial guard. I have outlined several escape routes and two meeting points outside of the building should things go south. Ren'brus has arranged for forces to be hidden around those points when the time comes. As Ren'brus suggested, you will all be assigned in groups of three. This will make for five teams. Check your mission report for your assigned teams."
She gave another command, shifting the image to that of the bedrooms they would be occupying.
"This is where we will be staying. While I would love nothing more than to stay on the Athena, it is customary for the Prime to stay the entire thirty-six hours of the coronation event. Still, we have apparently been given two entire floors of the executive apartments. Needless to say, I don't trust these rooms for a moment. We will be posting rotating shifts of guards at the entrances to the hallways. Moreover, we will sweep each room thoroughly before use. As an added precaution, I will also be sleeping in different rooms both nights we sleep. The room will not be known to anyone, not even myself, before randomly making my decision each day."
They continued going over each meticulous detail of the plan and each person's role in the plan for two more hours. Finally, Winterborn dismissed the officers. She sat down next to Ren'brus, sighing.
"I honestly can't believe it's almost time to set everything in motion. It feels like we've been on this journey for years, doesn't it?" she said.
Ren'brus nodded slowly, obviously weary. "Yes. Though in honesty, this is the truth for me. For my cause."
Winterborn stayed silent, waiting to see if he would say more. She already knew his part in bringing them to this arm of the galaxy, but she still hadn't confronted him. For one, because they had been so damn obvious about it, and also because he had been played by Sin'tel just as thoroughly as she had.
"The truth is important, Prime," he hesitated, dropping his eyes. "I'm afraid I haven't been entirely truthful to you."
"Go on," she said.
Ren'brus sighed heavily, already regretting the inevitable fallout. "I believe you to be wise and just. More so than any other I have met. And I trust that even if you judge me to be guilty and decide that I should die, you would not seek vengeance on my cause. I believe that you would still be the right choice for Prime."
Winterborn nodded. "I promise you that no others will be judged for a crime you committed."
Ren'brus sat still for a long moment, building his courage to take that final step across the edge.
"I was the one who initially contacted and contracted the Ven to bring you to this arm of the galaxy. To my system, in fact. We had discovered a scuttled ship adrift in our outer asteroid belt. According to our standing orders, we investigated. There were no survivors on the vessel, but we could tell that the ship both wasn't designed for war, and that the ship came from a fairly advanced civilization. We hauled it back to our orbital research station. There, we spent more than a year breaking the encryption on your computer systems. What we found was astounding. A civilization built on peace, understanding, practically unfettered freedom. You were technologically great, culturally advanced, and completely separate from the political miasma which makes up the Empire," he paused for breath, and to think.
"Take your time," said Winterborn. She picked up her tea, draining down the rest of the cup. "I need to get a refill anyway." She stood and walked over to a table near the door, filling her cup with another round of earl grey.
He seemed stronger when she sat back down, ready to talk.
"We contacted the Ven, scrounging up every bit of raw resources we could to pay for their extreme prices. We asked them to bring you to our solar system. We told them to avoid harming anyone other than the subject who was supplanted."
Winterborn's anger flared. 'That's right,' she thought, 'they had killed one of her officers.'
He continued to ramble. "We knew nothing of any secondary motives or contracts. Usually the Ven are single-client only. They only betray contracts if the amount is truly staggering. Sin'tel would have access to such wealth, but we had no idea that he could have discovered our purpose."
Winterborn forced down the anger she had felt at Julia—the real Julia's—death. Instead, she smiled.
"We figured most of this out from the start. Honestly, you and your friends aren't terribly good liars. We only got confirmation with the data storage device we pulled off of the Ven. I understand why you did what you did. Honestly, I may have done the same in your shoes."
"So you forgive us?" he sounded incredulous.
Winterborn shook her head slowly.
"Don't get me wrong, you will stand trial for the death of Commander Julia. You, Tre'brus, and Val'brus will all stand trial when this is done. But, for now, I won't press charges. We both still have matters which effect the lives on our people. We both have revenge to carry out. The greater justice will be sought for now, but your lesser justice will be meted out."
Ren'brus breathed with relief, "In that case, I know for certain now, I have chosen a truly worthy Empress."