The first sign that Beth’s plan was working was when the approaching Relian fleets powered down their weapons. The second was when their central command ship exploded.
“I’m not sure I understand what’s happening, but I’m pretty sure I like it,” Starshine said.
The communication net between the fleets sounded like a swarm of angry bees. Hyper-coded messages screamed from ship to ship as the upgrade spread through the implausibly large number of capital ships that had burst forth from the Grand Stellar Gates.
“The Reilians have a new definition of what it means to be Reilian,” Beth said.
“That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a society of zealots would be particularly willing to accept,” Lagressa said.
“It’s not,” Beth said. “They have very strict rules for how the purity of their society is maintained. Anyone or anything that drifts outside the allowed parameters is excised, usually by way of ‘excising’ their constituent molecules from one another.”
“And yet, for as different as we are, they are not shooting at us,” Lagressa said.
“It’s one of their big weaknesses,” Beth said. “By having a single central command node, they don’t have any issue with division in the ranks, but if you can fool, or in this case rewrite, the Overmind, there’s no defense in their system to allow the lower echelons to rebel.”
“That couldn’t have been that easy to engineer,” Starshine said.
“It wouldn’t have been under normal circumstances, but we had an unusual opportunity here,” Beth said. “The Burners.”
“They helped us?” Lagressa asked, sounding as confused as Starshine.
“In a sense, yes,” Beth said.
On her monitors the Reilian fleets were standing down their weapons and engaging their interstellar drives. The Grand Stellar Gates were closing and the window for departing the system was drawing rapidly to a close. They could open fresh gates of course, but with the rapid scramble to get here their warp generators would be drained for at least a day or more, and remaining outside of Reilian space without a tactical objective was (and still remained) anathema to the Overmind.
“The Burner’s have a huge weakness too,” Beth said. “They tried sending some Reilians at us. When that didn’t work, they sent a fleet. When that didn’t work either, they sent another, and then seven. They’ve got the imagination of a four year old. Or worse.”
“So you changed the conflict on them?” Lagressa asked.
“Exactly,” Beth said. “They know how to manipulate things but they’re not creative enough to do so in new ways. They just want to take what’s there and use it as is. They weren’t adding anything to the world.”
“What does this mean for us?” Awluno, the freed Reilian tech, asked.
“You and your fleet mates get a special exception,” Beth said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, but if I’d made the upgrade more comprehensive I think it would have fallen apart. You’re officially an ‘external security buffer’ for the general Overmind, with your local Overmind retaining a copy of the original ‘Contagion’ so that no variations can bypass the new protocols.”
“We don’t have to return then?” Budaana, one of the other free techs, asked.
“Don’t have to and can’t I’m afraid,” Beth said.
Around the generator chamber the dozens of other techs were processing their new existence in different ways. They weren’t uniformly joyous to be freed. There was relief and disbelief and profound confusion mixed with laughter and tears. Overall though, the mood seemed to be positive.
“And they won’t come looking for us?” Awluno asked.
“Well, technically, they already know where you are,” Beth said. “But, yeah, you can go wherever you like at this point. Aside from back home. The Overmind thinks you’re valuable as a buffer but it doesn’t want you exposing anymore of the Reilians to the ‘Contagion’ in case it’s capable of mutation and can bypass the new defenses.”
“But what was this Contagion?” Starshine asked. “I thought we just played them some music?”
“There’s what it really was, and there’s what the Overmind thinks it was,” Beth said.
“Won’t the Overmind discover that and undo the changes you’ve made to its protocols?” Lagressa asked.
“That’s another weakness I’m leaning on,” Beth said. “The Reilian Overmind is certain it’s correct. It destroys the elements of itself that it finds to be at fault, but this protocol upgrade was a change its central core. It will never check to see if the upgrade is invalid, because it’s incapable of doubting itself at that level. If it could, it wouldn’t be as ‘Pure’ as it believes itself to be.”
“Will the Reilians in this fleet need direction for where to do next?” Lagressa asked. “They’ve just been freed of a lifetime of servitude.”
“No,” Awluno said. “We do not require any more outside influence.”
“We thank you,” Budaana said. “But we were never mindless. We saw and learned from everything the Overmind had us do. We simply had no choice in doing or learning the things it wanted us to do.”
“I think all of us have dreamed of this day,” Awluno said. “In the dark corners of our minds. In the places we hid and kept as the fragments we could call ourself.”
“Then the question arises, what do we need now?” Lagressa asked. “The Great Library should still have the information you were looking for, shouldn’t it? Shall we return there?”
“I don’t think we need the libraries files anymore,” Beth said. “And I think the Burners know that.”
“What happened to the Burners that were here?” Lagressa said.
“The Reilian Overmind would have excised them, molecule from molecule,” Beth said. “I’m guessing they could survive that, but I can think of worse things to do to them if they try to come at us again.”
“Sounds positively dreadful,” Starshine said. “Count me in, if you need a hand with it.”
“Well, for our next step, I think we could use your help,” Beth said. “Remember the new Warp Gate I mentioned that can go anywhere?”
“Yeah, I was hoping we’d get around to that,” Starshine said.
“If you’re game, we’re not only going to get around to it, we’re going through it!” Beth said. “My Dad’s been missing for long enough, the Gate can go anywhere, so let’s go find him!”