Several hours after coordinating the transformation of the Revelation into a strategic base, Captain Forlen returns to the Crucible, his flagship in the interstellar conflict. As he steps onto the flight deck, he is immediately greeted by two new arrivals: Captain Newman of the Nova Alliance warship Endeavor, and Captain Yroski of the Titan.

After a brisk exchange of salutes and brief introductions, Captain Forlen leads his fellow commanders to the war room located in the upper decks of the Crucible. The room is dominated by a large holographic table, which Forlen activates to display a replay of the recent skirmishes against the Chthonians.

The hologram flickers to life, showing the menacing form of a Chthonian fighter ship they’ve named Pyroxis. Beside it, a sidebar displays a range of tactical data. Captain Forlen points to the hologram and begins his strategic overview, “The Chthonian ships have robust self-repair capabilities, but our firepower is superior. We can inflict more damage faster than they can recover. With sufficient numbers, we have a tactical edge.”

Captain Newman, looking thoughtfully at the display, interjects with a query, “Were there any transmissions—either from the Chthonians or intercepted during the engagement?”

Captain Forlen pauses, considering his response carefully. “There were no prior transmissions. It appears the attack on Revelation was a premeditated ambush. Our success so far owes much to our rapid and unexpected response. Since then, we’ve detected no communications from them, neither incoming nor outgoing.”

The room falls silent as the implications hang in the air. The absence of Chthonian communications suggests a silent adversary, relying on stealth and surprise rather than open warfare. This information shapes their next moves, as Captain Forlen and his allies prepare to leverage their firepower superiority while staying vigilant against further ambushes. The meeting continues, with strategies and contingencies evolving as they plan their next phase of operations against the elusive enemy.

After discussing the tactical situation with Captain Forlen, Captain Yroski raises a crucial question, “Have we detected any other potential threats in this sector?”

Captain Forlen, leaning back thoughtfully, answers, “Our sensors and buoys spread across a one lightyear radius haven’t picked up any unusual activity. However, with your fleets at readiness, I would appreciate it if you could deploy reconnaissance units in various directions to broaden our surveillance.”

Both captains nod in agreement, understanding the necessity of precaution. Their strategy meeting extends for another hour, delving into lessons from past encounters and refining their future tactics before they part ways to their respective commands.

Shortly after the strategy session concludes, Captain Forlen receives an unexpected update from Ensign Griffon. “Captain, Alliance Command has just informed us that they’re dispatching a mining and construction ship to our location within the next 24 hours.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Captain Forlen replies, his mind racing with the implications. Why would they send a construction ship capable of space station assembly? He muses over the potential for a larger strategic initiative, possibly a permanent base to exploit the DNC resources more effectively.

Meanwhile, aboard the Nova Alliance ship Titan, Captain Yroski briefs a select group of pilots. “Lieutenants, our success here hinges on securing this sector. Although our ships are low on DNC power, the newly discovered crystal deposit offers a vital resupply opportunity. We need you to scout the perimeter, extending a few light years out, to ensure there are no hidden threats.”

With crisp salutes, the pilots gear up and board their ships. One by one, they launch into the void, each heading in a different direction to canvas the vast, dark expanse. 

Similarly, Captain Newman of the Endeavor oversees his own fleet’s deployment. His pilots, too, disperse into space, their ships streaking away to explore the unknown, leaving trails of light against the cosmic canvas.

As these coordinated reconnaissance missions commence, the leaders of the Nova Alliance prepare for all possibilities, their actions setting the stage for a significant expansion of their presence in this strategically crucial sector.

Lieutenant Hilcox emerges from a space jump aboard his G5 Sentinel, materializing two light-years from the warship Endeavor. He immediately initiates a thorough scan of the surrounding sector, searching for any signs of spaceships or life emanating from nearby asteroids or planets. After hours of fruitless scanning, the sector appears desolate, prompting him to jump another light year into the unknown.

This new sector reveals a hostile tableau: several planets caught in a tight orbit around a dim brown dwarf star, and a vast ring of asteroids circling the dwarf. Hilcox notices an anomaly on his display—numerous small heat signatures just beyond the asteroid belt. With caution guiding his every move, it takes him an hour to approach the area stealthily, keen on avoiding any unwanted attention from potential adversaries.

As he draws closer, the scene unfolds into a chilling spectacle resembling a ship graveyard. Among the wreckage, some vessels bear the distinct design of Chthonian ships encountered in the earlier conflict, while others are completely unrecognizable. Tiny fragments of debris ping harmlessly off the Sentinel’s repulser shields, which protect against radiation and small flying objects.

Hilcox hovers at the edge of the graveyard, his sensors active and his mind racing, as he contemplates the stories and secrets hidden within the twisted metal and silent hulls floating before him.

As Hilcox emerges from his cockpit, he gazes out at the debris-strewn battlefield, trying to discern who fought whom. The presence of residual heat from the wreckage suggests the battle was recent. Suddenly, a relic from Earth’s military history—a Military Automated Companion (MAC)—bounces off his window. Excited, Hilcox swiftly re-enters the cockpit, murmuring, “I have to retrieve this and bring it back to the Endeavor.” He carefully maneuvers his ship to tag the MAC with a tracking device, ensuring it doesn’t get lost among the wreckage.

Skillfully piloting the G5 Sentinel, Hilcox follows the MAC until it drifts within range. He then extends the ship’s metallic arms and, with meticulous control, secures the inactive humanoid robot into an external compartment. Just as he’s about to secure it, movement on the edge of his screen catches his eye. “Crap!” he exclaims, realizing he’s not alone. A blip on his radar begins to close in.

Talking to himself, Hilcox rushes to secure the robot, urging, “Come on, just a little further.” Just as he secures the MAC, proclaiming, “I got it!” a small ship zooms past, jolting him into action. The enemy vessel tails him as he maneuvers out of the ship graveyard. Although fast, the enemy isn’t faster than his J5 Sentinel. Hilcox decides to engage, unable to risk leading it back to the Endeavor or letting it escape.

Executing a challenging flip with the J5, he catches the pursuer off guard and damages its wing with precise gunfire. The enemy returns fire briefly before ceasing—out of ammunition, likely due to the previous skirmish. Grinning, Hilcox thinks, “Lady luck shines on me today.” As the enemy attempts to retreat, he launches a rocket, watching the ship explode silently in the void.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Hilcox mutters, “Time to head back to the Endeavor before more trouble finds me.” Without hesitation, he initiates the interstellar jump, leaving the haunted battlefield behind and racing back to safety.

Lt. Hilcox, piloting his scout vessel, was the first of the reconnaissance team to pierce back into the safety of friendly territory. His voice crackled over the comms as he contacted the Endeavor. “Endeavor, this is Hotel, Charlie, Oscar, X-ray, requesting immediate landing clearance. I’m carrying critical intel.” Moments later, the ship’s response buzzed in his ear, “Clearance granted. Proceed to bay three. Isolation protocols are in place for your cargo, and the Captain requires your presence for an urgent debrief.”

Smoothly, Hilcox maneuvered his craft into the Endeavor’s hangar—a maneuver he had perfected over countless missions. As he touched down, a tactical team, swift and silent, swarmed his ship, efficiently extracting a sealed container holding a dormant Military Automated Companion (MAC). They secured it on a levitating gurney, quickly whisking it away to a high-security vault.

Without exchanging a word or a glance, Hilcox disembarked and strode directly to the debriefing chamber adjacent to the flight deck. The chamber, stark and functional, was furnished only with a metallic table and surrounded by austere images of distant planets and the Endeavor in orbit.

Captain Newman and Commander Drewman, the ship’s lead tactician, were already seated. Newman’s expression was grave as he interlaced his fingers and began, “Lt., we need to know everything. Start from the top.”

Hilcox launched into his report, detailing his harrowing discovery in a remote sector—a veritable mausoleum of derelict ships adrift in the void. The debrief stretched for over an hour as he recounted each observation and encounter.

As the meeting concluded, Captain Newman stood, his voice low and firm. “For now, keep this under wraps. We can’t risk a panic. Our hands are full with the Chthonians; we don’t need rumors of another potential enemy spreading.”

“Understood, sir,” Hilcox responded, the weight of secrecy already settling on his shoulders.

Captain Newman and Commander Drewman exited the debriefing room, their steps echoing through the corridors as they made their way to the science lab deep within the ship. There, the team was examining a humanoid AI, its form eerily reminiscent of humans but unmistakably mechanical.

As they entered the lab, Newman wasted no time, “What have you discovered so far?” One of the scientists, clad in a pristine white lab coat and clutching a holographic tablet, looked up. “Captain, we’re in luck—the AI’s memory core is intact. It appears these AIs are unique entities but share a collective memory network.”

His colleague interjected, “Imagine, Captain, if you had access to my entire life’s memories and experiences instantly. That’s how these AIs operate, though we’re still determining the speed of their memory sharing.”

The first scientist added, “And from what we can tell, this AI seems to be a direct evolution of our MAC’s back on Earth.”

Commander Drewman leaned in, lowering his voice. “Captain, I must speak to you in private.”

Outside the lab Commander Drewman looks very serious and continues. Considering the data, it seems our old AI models have been engaging the Chthonians for some time. They likely mistook Lt. Hilcox for another Chthonian vessel and attacked. This new AI probably shared its encounter with Lt. Hilcox across their network.”

Newman’s face hardened. “What are you suggesting?”

Drewman’s reply was grave. “Sir, if the AI network is as interconnected as we believe, our discovery of the AI may have brought on a larger conflict. We might now be facing a three-way war—us against both the Chthonians and a network of rogue AIs.”

The revelation hung between them, the weight of their next decisions heavier than the void of space outside.