The veiled figures walked solemnly down the length of the chamber, in a wedge formation. The noise of their feet hitting the carpet was a gentle patter, which did not echo against the softly round white walls. Where the wall and floor met, and where the wall met the ceiling, there was no sharp edge- only a curve. The white itself was bright and unblemished.
They stopped before they reached the room's end. The leader of the group stepped out, and then turned to face the others. The floor beneath him rose as a circular platform, and he sat down on the chair that rose from this. A low barrier then formed around the sides of the platform.
The leader's veil was altogether more ornate, with a silver-gilded lining and spiralling patterns all over. He was the Servant of the Veiled Ones- Aphoron. This post had been his for eleven luona, and he would hold it for many more still.
He motioned, and rows of benches emerged from the floor. They formed two rows, curving around the Servant's platform-throne.
There was a short-lived clatter as all took their seats, but it was quickly over. Aphoron waited for a moment, enjoying the calm before the storm, and then activated his neunonics.
It was a flood of recommendations, enquiries, and petitions that he patiently redirected to the relevant department. He glanced at each input inside his head, noting their content- send more Kiven to Allethik Colony (which needed to start making its own neutronium), send researchers to Yeseg (an interesting planet in the Viperius Galaxy with some candidates for sapience developing), poll the population on whether the Othono should be reprimanded (they had built a megacity on a candidate world)...
Ah, an interesting one. To arrange contact with a new class XII race to arrive in Emenata. They called themselves... the Shi'va? He sent neu-messages to the Sii and Lotori representatives. They should come too.
A few more hours of this, and he would have some free time. He planned to meet up with Kaolen, the Primarch of Defence, and Siria, the Primarch of Research. But that was later; for now, there was work.
Aphoron sat down heavily. The table increased in diameter so he could place the mug down on it.
"You look unusually morbid, Aph." Siria watched him curiously.
"Yeah, well. The job gets to you." He smiled, and then put his long, clawed left talon in the mug's handle, and took a short sip. "You thinking of applying for when my term is over?"
She shook her head. "Nah, Kaolen should get his go."
The red-clothed Veiled One opened his eyes upon hearing his name. "Not sure if I want the job, from what our Servant here says."
"Come on, you've wanted this since academy."
"Well, I didn't have all the facts then."
"They don't emerge until you have the job. And then it's too late..."
Kaolen shifted in his seat. It compensated, restructuring around his new position. "Anyway, there was a new race we're going to meet?"
"Yes. The Shi'va, they call themselves."
"What do we know about them so far?"
"Not much. Prelim scans show that... their ships are opaque to our scanners."
"They landed on a planet in the Doomsday Galaxy System. Took a few samples. They're erect bipeds, if what we saw through the scopes were their real bodies. We know their name from a transmission they sent to a civilised world."
"They made contact with a lesser civ?"
"Yeah, a VI class. Nothing was exchanged, they just introduced themselves and then headed off."
"I hope they play fair."
"Don't we all."
The larger nanobot's motors whirred and the active site that formed its mouth began to transform. The little nanobot in front of it jetted desperately away, but could not escape the rapidly gaining predator. But, as the mouth began to fit around its shape, it released several ions straight into the molecule. At first, nothing happened, but then the larger nanobot began to lose its shape, breaking up and shaking itself apart under the strain.
Gehenne moved the sample into the 'success' container.
His neunonics bleeped.
He had missed a meeting with someone. He wasn't sure he recognised the name. Oh well.
But now his concentration was broken. Sighing, he leant back and pulled a bottle from the minifridge that sat at the end of a long robotic arm, holding it still in exactly the easiest place for him to reach. He took a swig and enjoyed the warm feeling of alcohol on his throat.
Iniya would be arriving tomorrow. She was bringing her anti-nanobot designs back to here, so that they could compare notes. Gehenne looked forward to it- she provided a refreshing change from Veiled One discipline and austerity. The Sii were his favourite race, by a long way.
But tomorrow was a day away.
The sea of darkness was empty, save for pinpricks of light peppering the black tide. This was a part of space that had been abandoned long ago.
Shifting forms, black as the sea around them, moved forward, slowly. There was no need to rush. They had time enough to do what they wished.
Their mission continued. Find others, and eliminate them. It was quite simple. That was their job. Their cold and calculating minds did what they were supposed to, and nothing more.
There had been no Servics for a while. They were all gone by now. But there were other targets to consider. Larger ones. It would be better without those targets.
The blackness beckoned, a blackness they could not help but resist.
Lapis, High Lord of the Gonyords, drummed a scaly hand on his plaea-desk. The old thrill of excitement just wasn't what it used to be. Billions of new worlds to settle, but by now, new places were simply running out of room. No more races to meet. No more things to learn.
In fact, there was only one more question that pressed on his mind. When would the Gonyords come upon---
His tympanic transmitter gave forth an electronic chime. Microscopic cybernetics automatically set and connected between the transmitter and Lapis. "Hmmmm?" he said in a tired voice.
"Sabude here, High Lord. Just letting you know we've come upon the most remarkable thing."
"What." By now, the most remarkable thing was usually one of their old, thousands-of-years-old satellites found floating around.
"There's an unidentified ship design travelling around fifty aaks from here."
"Well, what's it look like?"
"Sorry, but it's unidentified."
Lapis sighed. "You have video image of it. Describe it."
Then a rustle.
"We've got a couple scans in now. Would you like those instead, High Lord?"
Lapis closed his eyes, breathing softly. "Sure."
"The inhabitants of this ship...well, we don't much. All that we can tell are that they have..."
Lapis sat, waiting for some information.
His eyes widened.
"That's it, High Lord."
"Stay right there. I'm coming down." The transmits automatically switched off, and underwent a memory addition and reset.
Lapis sat for a few moments more, reflecting on his pressing thoughts.
Well, that answers that question.
The Lotori and Sii representatives entered the room side by side. The Sii was Anayon, and the Lotori was named Haelel.
The Veiled Ones had sent five people- the white-veiled ambassador and four black-robed guards. They took seats first, then the Sii, and then the Lotori.
The Shi'van regarded them curiously. Its two eyes were large and benevolent, but it had some kind of third eye, screwed shut, above them both. Long braided strands of black hung from its head, and its skin was a warm yellow. It had two legs, but four arms, all thin and slender.
The Veiled One translator processed its first words in an instant. "Thank you for inviting me to this meeting. I anticipate successful times ahead."
"It it our pleasure." The Veiled One diplomat gestured for the Shi'van to sit, and it did so.
"We are new to this area. It has become necessary to move to here."
"Yes. We have a strong presence in this universe, and many others."
"We too are interuniversal. However, I imagine we are far more constrained than you." The Shi'van smiled.
"Why do you say that?"
"We're constrained by... limits. Limits of what we can do. Technology."
"Perhaps with our assistance, you can surpass these limits."
The Shi'van let out a very hollow laugh. "We'll see."
"Indeed we will."
The Lotori ambassador spoke up. "Where exactly do you come from?"
"A... universe. A large one, and one that seems to be quite unusual. Perhaps I'll be able to send you more information about it afterwards."
"I would appreciate that."
The Sii did not speak up.
With a flourish, the Veiled One diplomat stood back up. "I understand communication of data will begin shortly. Until then, fare well."
The Shi'van touched its third eye, and then was gone. The diplomat contemplated the Shi'van ships- peculiar things, with long tapering bodies and something like a pair of horns sticking from the front. Most odd.
But what did it matter.
Gehenne welcomed Iniya warmly. The samples did as predicted- and everything went as planned.
Empty black space. Nothing but a silence. All dark with no stars. Quiet.
Heading slowly through space, they spoke to each other.
"The unknown universe is calling to us."
"It is our destination."
"The Veiled Ones are moving away. We must follow them wherever it takes us."
"There will be others. Merely more targets to eliminate."
"Shadows bring death."
And they moved on.
Sabude looked over his shoulder as Lapis came down to the bay. "Is it true?" the High Lord said. "Have we finally found them?"
"Yes. Veiled One ship, still cruising along at a steady crosswise pace, forty-five aaks away now."
"One hundred percent."
To Sabude, this was the last great frontier. He had done a few things in his life---although the most important was a seeding package he had sent off in a random direction. Until now. Everyone had heard of the Veiled Ones and dreamed to meet them one day. Today was that day.
"Excellent," Lapis said. "Send a welcome beacon out, and wait for a response. In the meantime, I'll tell everybody else." His tympanic transmitter flipped in reverse, and a couple of gears clicked into place. And he was speaking to every Gonyord in existence.
"I have an announcement to make. An announcement that I am sure you have all been waiting for in a very long while..."
In the meantime, a glimmering device shimmered into view and started in the direction of the Veiled One ship.
“A beacon?” Aphoron sounded interested.
“Yes. A very sophisticated one, and not transmitting what you would have expected for a race such as them.”
“They’re advanced. XII.”
“Well, under that system, yes. But there’s so much variety within that- would interaction with them violate the treaty?”
“I don’t think so. We could provide a convincing argument for them knowing what you have to know to be inescapable.”
“So you want to send an envoy?”
“That’s exactly what I want to do.”
Lapis waited for the Veiled Ones with a few of his trusted friends and advisors. He had been waiting to see a sight like this for all his life.
And just like that, they were there. No flashy lights, no dramatic entrance. The Veiled Ones---five of them---were just there, standing in front of him.
“Greetings, Gonyords. You have our attention.”
“My name is Lapis, High Lord of the Gonyords. On behalf of all the species, I can say that we are delighted to finally meet the legendary Veiled Ones.”
“You are too kind. We anticipate that this meeting shall be as interesting for us as it will be for you.”
“I’m sure it will be. Tell us; what brings you to this part of space?”
“It was your beacon. You did something that aroused our curiosity and we came to investigate.”
After spending a good portion of his life preparing for this, Lapis found that he had surprisingly little idea of what to say. “...Your technology certainly impresses us, even from what we have already heard of it. I am sure that we will share our species’ secrets together.”
“Oh, our technology has been forced to become as it is due to millenia of war and attack. All you see of our advancement was born in the fires of battle, since we first travelled between universes. There have been ten thousand deaths for the Veiled Ones for every invention we have produced.”
“And the rest of your civilization?”
“We are... quite spread out, though less than we could be. Settlements on a million worlds in maybe two score universes.”
“Quite amazing. The Gonyords, too, have colonized multiple universes and made our presence known. But with the Veiled Ones as allies, we can go even farther.”
“Indeed. We meet new races every day, and we learn from each of them. Usually not technologically, but nevertheless...”
“Of course. When you become highly advanced, you tend to figure all that out eventually...”
“I’d like to invite you to a bigger meeting, now that we’ve met and I have an idea of what your race is like. You see, we’ve recently met another XII race - just our classification system- and we’re conducting first contact with them as well. Would you care to join us? I’ll send the place and time if you would.”
“We wouldn’t miss the opportunity at all. I’m already looking forward to it.” Perhaps there were still some mysteries left in the multiverse after all.
The room was large, very large indeed, so large it was difficult to see to the other side. Lapis and his guard were led a distance to a table, flat and featureless, in the center of the room. There were Veiled Ones already present, and a particularly odd-looking sort of folk alongside them.
The Shi’va ambassador, along with one other of his kind, entered. They wore flowing, blue robes studded with rubies, far more overdressed than they had been on the first contact, and a kind of casual arrogance surrounded them as they took their seats.
So these were the other advanced race, Lapis thought to himself. They weren’t exactly what he expected, but then again, anything that had remained hidden for this long probably should be out of the ordinary.
Aphoron stood up. “Welcome, all. This day shall be remembered as the first in which the Shi’va, Gonyords, Sii, Lotori, and Veiled Ones stood together, as friends, in one hall. I must again express how thankful I am that you have all come, and also how hopeful I am that our relationship will only improve with time.”
The Gonyords followed the motions of the other races and nodded their heads.
The Shi’va ambassador remained motionless. A kind of weak smile went from one side of his face to the other.
The Sii representative, Kahlora, stood up. “To begin, I would like to thank the Veiled Ones for providing a common ground and such hospitality.” There were more nods from around the room. “And I would like to stress how confident I am that our relations will indeed only get better. Let us continue to progress, to advance, and to explore time and space.”
Lapis cleared his throat. “Previously, the Gonyords had thought there was nothing very new that was left to come upon. In fact, the only other thing we were hoping to accomplish is meeting the Veiled Ones, who have kindly taken the opportunity to host us today. However, it has now become clear that there are still universes full of sapient races with which to trade and interact with. This meeting today will surely be the first step in achieving all this.”
The Lotori ambassador nodded. “I can think of nothing else to say. You have summed up everything so wonderfully that I cannot hope to match it. All I can say is: I am so happy that this time has come.”