Updated: May 20, 2019
Winterborn looked at the wormhole nexus in awe; more than twenty spheres of bent and warped light were nestled between arches. Each arch looked to be made up of bright silver metal bands, twisted and corded together. White bolts of electricity occasionally flashed into life, striking the sphere at its center. Winterborn thought that the arches looked something like woven vines.
As they approached, the voice of Gul'brus was patched through the comm system. "We will be entering the wormhole just before you, Captain. After we enter, the Nexus will close for a period of five minutes. When it reopens, please follow through the same wormhole we have traversed. We will await you on the other side."
Winterborn mentally passed along the message to those of her officers who were present in the link. A feeling of trepidation, excitement, and a slight trill of fear pervaded their blurred consciousness. The angular Vol'en'brus glided towards the singularity. As they approached, bolts of electricity picked up in frequency, striking the sphere. As they reached within a few thousand feet of the singularity, the lighting abruptly ceased; the sphere had grown to more than twice its original size.
The Vol'en'brus—now dwarfed by the singularity—slid into the sphere. For a moment, it looked as if the ship had melded with the wormhole. After that moment, the ship was gone. True to Gul'bres' words, two massive gates slowly closed over the mouth of the nexus. They moved with tectonic slowness, shutting in such a way that there was no determinable seam. The gate now held the image of a forest-scape, with what Winterborn recalled from her time aboard the Vol'en'brus to be the flora of the Quin'tel home-world. She marveled at the intricacy of the design, seeing distant mountains, rivers, and even the faint outlines of animals in the trees.
The feeling of awe was shared by the rest of her crew; the scale of technology on display here was unlike anything they had seen before. She supposed that, because Humanity had been alone for so long, been united for so long, they had lost the flair for the dramatic which was shown here. Though, she admitted, the monuments on Mars did have a similar gravitas.
Shortly, the massive gates opened once more. The wormhole was still just as massive as when the Vol'en'brus had traversed it. Winterborn ordered the ship forward, matching the speed the Quin'tel had used. As they approached, a mirrored and warped reflection of the ship loomed into view. Winterborn was dimly aware of swallowing in her distant body, their shared nerves having dried her mouth. As they entered, this view vanished, replaced by concentric rings of repeated light. Bands of color flashed around them, repeating in sequence as they traveled. The feelings of trepidation and fear vanished as if they had never been—awe now thrummed through all present, witnessing something the likes of which no other Human had ever seen before.
In a time which felt like ages and simultaneously only a few moments, they exited the wormhole. They were greeted by a fleet of thirty or so Quin'tel vessels, with the Vol'en'brus at its head. As the Athena cleared the gateway, it began to slowly close behind them. Feelings of apprehension replaced those of awe felt only moments ago amongst the crew. While they had been informed of the escort, the reality of being so vastly outnumbered was a very different thing.
The voice of Gul'bres again entered Winterborn's mind. "Welcome to Quin'tel, Prime. Welcome to the seat of your Empire." The voices of thirty other Quin'tel spoke in unison, "Welcome, Prime-to-be."
"If you would please follow my ship, Captain," said Gul'bres.
"We're right behind you," Winterborn replied.
The fleet branched out in a complicated maneuver, surrounding the Athena in a sphere formation. The Vol'en'brus lead the way, making a beeline for a mere speck in the distance. By its coordinates, she knew that far-away speck to be Quin'tel. Winterborn ordered her officers to disconnect from the command center now that they had traversed the wormhole safely. She opened her eyes, pushing open the casket-like command pod. As always, her legs were just a tad unsteady after returning to her body. She tapped into the comm system and sent a message to the Vol'en'brus, requesting the presence of either Ren'brus or Gul'bres on a shuttle. Shortly, she received a response—Ren'brus would be here within ten minutes. She smiled, stretching her arms and legs. She walked up to Commander Val, clapping her on the shoulder.
"Well, we're finally here," Winterborn said.
Val inclined her head. "For better or worse, yes."
"I've asked Ren'brus to take a shuttle over. I'd like him to go over our plan in person before we step fully into the fire."
"Would you like me to call a meeting? We've all been briefed on his earlier counsel with you, but I think we could all benefit from a face-to-face."
Winterborn smiled. "You read my mind. I'll have Lieutenant Kali arrange for food and refreshments to be brought up."
Shortly, the officers assembled in the conference room, taking their seats one by one. Winterborn meanwhile walked with a security detail to the main docking bay. She watched as the oddly fur-like exterior of the shuttle slid into view. As the mercurial docking tunnel oozed out from the shuttle, she was again struck by the sheer alien nature of the technology. Not for the first time, she wondered if Humanity's technology was just as alien to them as theirs was to her.
Ren'brus stepped over the threshold from his shuttle, onto the cold and sterile ceramic floor of the Human ship. He wondered, not for the first time, how they could stand to be so far removed from wildlife, from the breath of the trees, the sounds of the forest.
The Prime-to-be stood there waiting for him; she looked tired, so far as he could judge. Bags were heavy under her eyes, and she stood with just the hint of a slouch.
Winterborn smiled as he approached. He mirrored the gesture, not wanting to be rude. Still, he had to resist the urge to bow. Settling for a nod instead, he reached out a claw. The warmth of her handshake was remarkable, something he never quite got used to from endothermic species.
"It's great to see you up and walking, Ren'brus," she said, the warmth in her voice outstripping even the warmth of her handshake.
He inclined his head further. "You do me great honor, Prime. Thank you for having me aboard your ship once more."
She laughed and released his claw, turning and walking down the warmly-lit hallway. He followed alongside her, a step behind in order to show his deference. While her species did not stand on ceremony, he wasn't quite able to shake a lifetime's worth of habit.
"So," he said, "I am to meet with your officers and brief them on the days to come?"
"That's right," she said, "We don't want to walk into a situation we're not fully prepared for. But..." she paused, both in speech and step. She looked at Ren'brus and continued, "there has been a new development that we need to go over in secret. I didn't want to risk talking about it over the comms." She continued forward, letting the words sink in as he walked. His mind was racing—had she discovered his involvement with the Ven? No, the Prime would not have been so welcoming were that the case. But what else could she be referencing? Despite the torrent of thoughts racing through his mind, he nodded and said, "Very well, if it is your will, Prime, we shall discuss this new issue before meeting with your senior staff."
Winterborn nodded and smiled, grimly. She rounded a hallway and placed her hand on a scanner to open one of the many meeting rooms spread throughout the ship. Ren'brus stepped in behind her. He was surprised to note the presence of a chair designed for Quin'tel use placed at the table, sporting a slot down the center to accommodate the fifth arm mounted on their back.
Winterborn noted his surprise with a smile. "We had Gul'bres send over the specs for this chair. We'll be equipping each meeting room with similar chairs for visiting Quin'tel."
Ren'brus felt warmth bleeding through his limbs, satisfaction filling him. Truly, they had chosen well when picking both the race and individual to lead their civilization. A thought occurred to him in that moment.
"May I voice a question, Prime?" he asked.
"Of course," she said.
"Do you intend to continue on this ship after assuming your full position? No offence intended, Prime, but while this ship is fine in its way, it is not exactly sufficient for your needs."
Winterborn sat down at the head of the table, steepling her fingers and thinking. Ren'brus obviously had a point. The Athena was a fine vessel in her way, but was ultimately a ship designed to perform research, not a diplomatic ship, and certainly not a machine of war.
"What do you recommend we do?" she asked.
He sat down, following her example. "My race would be grateful beyond words to provide you with a new ship—one unrivaled by the rest of the fleet."
She seemed to mull this over, rapping her knuckles absentmindedly on the table. Finally, she came to a decision.
"No, I don't think so. While I don't doubt your intentions, I do not so readily trust every one of the Quin'tel. I will instead send a message to my home world. Once I debrief them on the current situation, I doubt they will refuse me an upgraded ship. Now," her voice dropped low, her mood darkening, "that brings me to my next topic. I have found evidence of betrayal in the Ven's quarters. It was keeping a record of its employer's orders and instructions."
Ren'brus felt his blood freeze, fears suddenly finding themselves realized. His mind raced, apologies fought with excuses, damming his mouth with their urgency to escape. That, as much as anything, saved him from damning himself before the Prime, or in the very next moment she said, "We have reason to believe that Sin'tel was behind the actions of the Ven."
The words died in Ren'brus's mouth. Relief, warm and vital, flooded out from the frozen lake of despair in his heart. Still, he managed to keep the relief from bleeding through to his face.
"What do you mean, Prime? What makes you say this?"
She sighed, sliding over a tablet for him to read. "On that tablet is an excerpt from a data storage device the Ven was using to log his orders from Sin'tel. In short, he was attempting to use us to drag you and your faction out of hiding. He knew that you were all plotting to undermine the Empire, but he didn't know who and where you all were. Apparently, he didn't anticipate your quick dissemination of our meeting throughout the Empire."
Ren'brus nodded slowly, pouring over the information on the display. Initially, his heart soared when she spoke. He assumed the Ven must have created this data in order to obfuscate their involvement in the plot to bring the Humans to their system. That was, until the latter half of the report. A list of names was displayed there, names of friends, family, and allies—they were all listed as being targeted for assassination.