Enmity

Date: 1,990,095 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 5,039 (Shango), NA 506 (Qareen)
Location: p45

1

From: p45 Severe Crime Investigations Office [45SCIO], see credits below.
Sent 75.88.23, .435/506
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: Sedrain7/p45 Incident
Further files and data are attached.

Tynar3,

In the light of your request I have provided multiple angles of the research regarding the Sedrain7 case that occurred earlier this year. It transpires that the case is interesting for multiple reasons, not least because of the group behind it. It transpires that they have named themselves the Yakuza, a name they could not have acquired unless they have successfully hacked into restricted areas of the Human Database. The Yakuza themselves, as will no doubt become common knowledge in due course, were an organised crime group that achieved global notoriety during the Western hegemonic period of Earth’s history, from 1800 A.D. onwards. What makes the naming of the Qareen Yakuza particularly confusing is that the original Yakuza were influenced, naturally, by the scarcity inherent within Earth economics at the time; this is not an issue that should be present in any Qareen organisation.

Regardless of motive, however, I recommend that we keep a watch on this organisation. I have reason to suspect that they have recruited members, or possibly formed alliances, offworld. Just yesterday, a report emerged of a death within the Astrostate Republic of Wexeria that suggested Yakuza influence. Whilst no definitive evidence has yet come to light, if there is a connection – however faint – this would suggest a degree of power within this organisation unknown in any criminal enterprise within the Qareen Confederation since the Intersection Wars.

As stated previously, I have included a number of angles within this overall report [1], which you may find to be of varying usefulness. Given that the incident in question has reached its logical conclusion, the reports are effectively there to peruse at your leisure, although given the high likelihood of the Yakuza continuing their business, it may be advisable to read at least one of these reports immediately. Standard Report A carries some degree of width about the incident, but perhaps lacks the detail necessary to understand the root causes. Standard Reports B, C and D carry a strong degree of detail about various aspects of the incident, but all three must be read to understand the full picture.

Much as you disapprove of the Confederate Government’s Fully Applied Personnel initiative, having described it as “a navel-gazing solution for a non-existent issue in our society”, I have nonetheless decided to enact it [2] within our ranks and commission a fifth “report” from a local writer, who has condensed the previous four reports into a narrative. Whilst this does not necessarily provide the best way of conveying all the information to hand, it does nonetheless make the situation most comprehensible. It transpires that the writer, in spite of his relative youth, has travelled significantly around the Confederation during that time, allowing him to harmonise the multiplicity of dialects and languages bound up in the other reports.

And so, with this, my role in the case has for now expired. I should remind you that my contract stipulates renewal merely through a single message clearly indicative of such.

 

Credits

Standard Reports
A – Elkraya2/34,001
B – Jaran3/p1,201,455
C – Len4/p45
D – Wytre9/p45

Nonstandard

A – Cheltrak8/p45

Investigation Initiator and Supervisor

Myself, Yetza6/p57

Recipient Notes [sent back on .441/506]:

[1] Rest assured, these will be read in due course. Standard Report A has been read in full.

[2] Your quote was entirely accurate; much to my frustration, I have found the only option has been to utilise the initiative in the light of what I have read. The p45 SCIO Anti-Yakuza Operation [A.Y.O.] will begin on .445, employing 500 individuals through the scheme. We may require more. I confess this in advance to deflect awkward questions later, and I’ve done what I’ve done through gritted teeth. I’ll just hope that the Confeds don’t notice, right?

I’ll also hope that these “Yakuza” people aren’t as bad as they seem.

2

#Sedrain? Where are you?#

#<excl> I’m across town. Move in, you’re on the edge of range.#

#What are you doing?#

Sedrain looked across to the empty chair across the desk and sighed.

#I’ve said this before. Today I’m… taking care of business. The business, you know?#

He got no reply, and closed off that channel in his mind. The man he had spoken to had been gone for some time. He decided that panicking and leaving would not achieve anything. Even so, as he sat there, he still felt the subconscious urge to run well up through his conscious, bounce about through the quadrants of his brain.

#OK, Sedrain, I’ve managed to retrieve all of the calculations and, well, what you’re asking for is definitely possible.#

That was him. Sedrain watched as he hurried through the door and slapped down a series of papers on the desk, before turning to his computer screen, tapping and passing his hands over the graphics on it. In doing so, he produced a holographic projection of a large, bluff tower that stretched up kilometres into the sky. It was, as Sedrain couldn’t deny, an ugly piece of architecture, built in a manner that humans and Qareen alike generally associated with the disposal of self-produced waste. Of course, this was tempered by certain qualifications; even in the Confederation’s most decadent regions – of which p45 was not one of them – no toilet would ever reach above the clouds as this did, nor would it ever be several hundred metres along each side.

The outside, though, was not important; what was important was the inside, which Sedrain hoped he could do later. Kalio3 was still bothering him.

#OK, I’ll be outside in about 02.00.00.#

#Don’t bother, I’ll come to you.#

#No, it’s fine, I’ll just-#

He switched away from the conservation, allowing his superconscious to log Kalio’s overlong explanation of what she was doing, planning to do, why she was doing it… and pulled away from the holographic projection.

#Would it be possible to take these plans away?# he asked.

#I don’t see why not#, the man stated, pulling out a disc and slapping it onto the table. One more tap on the screen and a river of light spilled forth from the screen to the disc, quickly disappearing with a brief flare of light. He picked up the disc and tossed it to Sedrain.

#You’ve got all the time you like, but Rhiya Architectural Processes would appreciate it if you were to return with a request for execution.#

#That would… most certainly be likely. Thank you. Bye.#

Sedrain got up and left, and began to head home. Kalio continued to buzz in his ear, and he continued to ignore her, choosing instead to merely ping his location on a constant pulse. Reaching a teleportation booth nearby, he decided to go the easy route home, and with a brief flash found himself there, outside a large, single-storey hockey-puck of a building.

He walked inside, and made his way to his study – a misnomer, given that he had rarely worked in there much over the years – and slapped his palm against the wall-screen opposite the door. The wall rippled into life, displaying several specks of light of varying colours and magnitudes. He bent down to the bottom right corner, picking out a dull red glow that was almost invisible against the black background, and it expanded into a vast calendar, on which twenty days of fifty rows appeared. Most were blank, but those at the top each contained a number, and the run continued up until the third box on the fifth row. Moving his hand to there, he brought up a keyboard graphic and typed in a number slightly smaller than the one for the day before. He stood back.

“Computer, activate audio.”

A beep sounded in the room.

“Day three hundred and twelve, time is 64.55.17. The Yakuza have not sent any follow-up communications since day three hundred, and their threats would appear to have abated. There is no doubt on my part that this is purely in order to generate a sufficient sense of complacency. I cite the audio message from day twenty-six: ‘we do not forget, and we do not subside’. With each passing day the likelihood of them enacting some kind of final retribution increases dramatically. I am, frankly, grateful that they have held out this long.

“If you are hearing this, and you are a member of the authorities, then my plan has worked. Tonight, I will tell Kalio the truth. I owe it to her…”

3

The forty-fifth planet that the Qareen had ever discovered had, for many centuries, been as typically conservative as many such early-era planets – it still inevitably and largely consisted, after all, of the descendants of those who had never dared to press onwards into the outer reaches of the galaxy. p45, however, was one of the few bucking the trend, instead seeing its cities become ever more active, dense, and buzzing with the sounds of offworlders, Shango and Bhoot immigrants, and rural dwellers who had moved inwards. The trend had been a rapid and recent one, so much so that Sedrain could vaguely stretch his powers of recall back towards an early childhood in which the global capital, le7x, was essentially a huge, multi-million populated village.

He could also remember how his current predicament was once an unthinkable one for anyone.

When he asked himself, though, how it had come to this, he had to conclude that yes, it was partly his fault. He should never have allowed himself to get blackmailed and extorted, never allowed himself to acquire any kind of association with those people, who had the most obviously unqareen name, “Yakuza”. What did it even mean? He had no idea. He had wondered if it was a Shango term, a Dharan term, or something else, but it was irrelevant now.

Kalio got home around 70.00.00, and Sedrain decided not to waste time.

#Darling, I’ve got a problem. These last few weeks, when I’ve said I’ve had business to attend to?#

#Another woman?#

#No#, he said, and paused as she entered the room. #A crime gang.#

Her response was wordless and oddly neutral to him. Perhaps she was covering up her thoughts – perhaps she was in on it. Perhaps he was – no, perhaps he should push on with the explanation.

#They call themselves the Yakuza. They’re… well, they want something from me, and [unparsed; possible glitch] I don’t know how to deal with them.#

Still she was neutral.

#Look, I’ve got a plan. We’d have to move, but we could keep them away. They wouldn’t be able to deal with us, and we would have to compromise, sure, but it can work out.#

Still nothing. She sat down and didn’t say a word.

#If you want to leave, and get out of this, then I’ll go it alone. They’re after me, not you.#

#And what if#, she finally began, #in order to get to you, they go after me. Did you think of that?#

He had to admit that he hadn’t.

#Did you think of

ANYTHING?#

He felt the squeal of feedback and a splatter of pure scarlet bile, and abstractions that stabbed and shredded through his thought processes. He feel forward onto the table, clutching his head. He had braced himself, and still felt the full force.

He vision was still poor, his eyes still flickered, his head still ached.

“Like I said, I’ve got a plan,” he tried to assure her.

“Fine,” she said. She was still slightly onside, he realised – to signal him, and jam that thought into his head, would’ve been genuine torture. “But I want context. I want the truth, because I just have this crazy notion that an idler and a speechwriter aren’t going to outsmart a crime gang on their own.”

“They call themselves the Yakuza – I don’t know what it means, whether it’s Dharan or Shango or some made-up slang or-“

“What do they want?”

He tried to think it through. What they wanted was actually quite complex, but to say as much would’ve sounded like an excuse.

#…#

“They want… they want me to recover certain artifacts for them. And if I can’t do that, to make them. If I can’t do this, they’ll blackmail me. It’s a complex thing, what they’re asking for, and if I refuse, they’ll probably kill me.”

“Well I just might first,” Kalio replied. She glanced out of the window at the city lights across the flat landscape. “I’m going out. You’re coming with me.”

“Wh-“

“Like I said, I’m now your collateral. And there is no way that I am letting you drag me around.”

4

PublicLife le7x was an unusual place in the Qareen Confederation, in that it was named, not numbered and addressed. More and more of these sorts of places had appeared recently, and whilst Kalio frequented them, Sedrain had always had his suspicions.

This one was a spiky, edgy building around four storeys high, with darkened windows from which dim reddish light flickered and strobed out. Following Kalio in, Sedrain felt a sudden impact of noise and dense air, a suffocating, oppressive atmosphere that he instantly hated. The place was at least an open-plan, single-room layout on the ground floor, but it was incredibly dark, and filled with furniture; all he could do was follow Kalio, who threaded her way through this and to the bar that spanned the opposite side. An assembler slid along the railings at the back of the bar towards her.

“You’re indentified as Kalio3. Are you?” it asked through the speaker.

“Yes.”

“Is the man next to you Sedrain7?”

She sighed. “He is.”

“I have a message for him. It appears that someone knew he would get it here.”

A section of dark wood on the bar slid away to reveal a screen.

“You actually got an order?”

Kalio tapped it in whilst Sedrain examined the message. Written in small block capitals, he couldn’t help but read it with a calmly grim demeanour. It was, after all, what he had been expecting.

Sedrain,

This is the last message we will send you. As you are no doubt aware, we have pursued you for nearly a third of a year now. If you were under the impression that we were about to give up, you were right. Because we soon will, once we have brought this whole affair to a close. Make no mistake, Sedrain, you have no choice. You will comply to the conditions we set out previously or we will enact retribution on you as we see fit. Do not try to trace the source of this message, do not pass it on to any kind of authority. We will know, and reprisal will be guaranteed.

And this time, we are setting a deadline. You have six days, Sedrain. Six days to prove that you have what we’re looking for.

Do not forget.

5

#You should be able to move into the lower sections by 00.00.01 tomorrow.#

The lone construction manager signalled his client, then moved back to his station, where the holographic representation of a part-built tower swarmed with robotic units in exact unison with the real scene in the distance. Examining the tower, he nodded briefly; all was well, which in his mind was quite a shame. Not needing the money, he had to take jobs for the prestige instead, and prestige was not gained by directing the robots to build something as unbelievably ugly as that, not for him. He knew nothing about the project, other than the fact that it was apparently meant to be something kind of bunker or hiding place. Apparently his client needed a hundred-year shit as well, he thought.

#Time isn’t the problem#, his client responded, #so long as it’s all complete in six days, then it’s fine.#

#All matter should be laid down by then. The more advanced systems may well need to be installed in full on the seventh day, but that’d be all.#

The tower’s construction continued upwards, and having already climbed several hundred metres since the work began that morning, it would certainly be kilometres high by sunset.

#Good. I’m coming over to check anyway – not that I don’t trust you, but these are difficult times.#

#You don’t have to.#

#But I will. I need something to do anyway.#

The manager always liked the clients that teleported across to the site with new ideas, new thoughts, and various discussions. With these people, there was a true spirit of collaboration, and even if the units had to disassemble half the structure to make it better, and even if it put the project deadline back by days, he could live with that, because the deadline was always a mere guide. With this man, though, this Sedrain, he instead felt the decaying influence of a man who needed the project just so, and it blackened and rotted away everything he felt about the project. That dull, windowless design never had a single extra suggestion or thought added to it. And he was feeling this way mere hours into the project.

He toyed with the idea of adding things himself, and thinking up ideas was not hard in itself, but thinking up bullshit excuses that would please this man. He was also tempted to speed up the whole process, but had already ruled that out. This tower was to be built ugly, but also built well. A Shango war fleet at full tilt wouldn’t be able to take it down, once he had finished.

#It’s going well#, Sedrain said.

#Indeed#, a female voice added, #I have to admit, Sedrain, this is a good plan. But it’s also a short-term one.#

#Uh-huh. But it buys time.#

#Sure, but I just want you to know, in no uncertain terms, that I’m only half-impressed.#

Only half-impressed, the manager noted. From this ungrateful pair, he thought, he would be happy to take that. Even in that short verbal skirmish, the tower had risen several metres; the robots were oblivious, simply continuing on, never bored, never tired, and never stopping without good reason.

#I didn’t expect you to take this as the answer to all our problems#, Sedrain noted.

The manager continued to look at his console, and at the holographic display, and allowed his eyes to drift to the right, where the global controls lay. One graphic in particular, roughly in the centre of those controls, was a slider that could force those robots into overdrive. He had never previously imagined pushing that slider to the very top, but this time, he was almost unbearably tempted.

6

Sedrain checked the time. He had just over a day left, ostensibly. As he moved into the teleport booth, however, he knew he’d have longer than that.

#I’m definitely the last person who needs to go in, right?#

#It’s just us anyway#, Kalio said, #and why the bloody hell are you so worried, anyway? Aren’t there anti-tracing systems in here?#

#Doesn’t matter. I’ll explain once I’m in.#

He attached a small, badge-sized device to the console of the booth, checked the location, nodded to himself and pushed the initiate button. One blink later, he was gone. Another, and the booth also was, having been teleported and assembled into assembler material for every house in that street. Some fifty-odd houses would have to be searched if anyone was to know where and how he had gone from that specific booth.

#They’ll know you moved to the giant tower on the edge of town, Sedrain, I don’t see how that was necessary.#

#Yes, but they won’t be able to follow me here. There are already blocking devices in place, but if that booth had stayed there, someone could’ve followed us in. Where are you?#

#Floor above you. Probably room above you, I’m sensing.#

He held his hand up to the ceiling and gestured downwards, as if closing a lid. A ramp fell down from the ceiling, and he walked up it briskly. Stepping off it, he watched as it folded back up, then stretched and pushed upwards to form a wall, which then moved aside. He smiled with approval; the most basic system of all, the dynamic maze, was working fine. He opened the nearest door and entered the resulting room, which was a straightforward living room, for now.

#So explain the idea of this again.#

#It’s a combined fortress and maze. Programmable matter operating according to random constraints means that, if anyone could enter here, they would spend years trying to leave. One scan from outside should convince the Yakuza that it’s not worth going in.#

#Right, but there’s more than that, isn’t there?#

#Oh, sure.#

He walked out of the room and invited Kalio to leave with him; conveniently and coincidentally, wall and door slid aside, and as she crossed the once-threshold, another wall slid in from the ceiling.

#Don’t worry, the tower knows to avoid us#, he assured her, and began to lead her down a corridor that was slowly shortening behind them. Eventually it caught up, overtook them, and the whole construction flattened against a back wall and converted to a giant screen.

“Chairs?” it asked.

“No thanks,” Kalio replied, and the message blinked off again.

#We’ve got full entertainment, assemblers, teleporters with the heaviest screening I could get-#

#What about security? That’s what it’s all about.#

#Naturally, the whole structure’s designed to screen anything coming in, and jam and scramble it if it doesn’t fit. We’re being scanned continuously by a dedicated unit, so there should never be any confusion there. The whole place conforms to 3LSS-#

#3LSS? Third Law Spike Standard? The thing that takes a data route, blocks it, sends it-#

#-back with a trace and attacks with full force? The very same.#

#Well, we should be safe in here. But just to be sure, shouldn’t we be planning an escape?#

Sedrain reached an innocuous piece of the floor just as a ramp lifted up from it, half a wall slid in to support it and a mezzanine folded down from the floor below. He stepped up onto the ramp as another fell down to connect the mezzanine to both floors.

#What? Like take off in some spaceship and fly away from here? You think they won’t track us, Kalio? These people will do whatever it takes-#

#You must have seriously pissed them off.#

#It’s not merely that. They’re most likely in it for the chase, they’ve got nothing else to gain.#

He stopped at the mezzanine as Kalio joined him.

#So what are you saying?# she asked, #that it’s this from now on? Just a darker world of moving corridors and shifting ceilings? That we fade into pallid tones and grunt our way into silence, and this hideous thing we spend the rest of our lives in becomes our tomb?#

Sedrain merely frowned, shrugged and turned away. She grabbed his shoulder and spun him round; she knew he was always caught unawares by her strength. Reaching to her waist, she pulled a small disc from her pocket, which inadvertently prompted a section of the floor to rise up into a ziggurat; the top converted to a screen and flashed the image a small logo to indicate it was on.

#You see this? It’s the human database, Sedrain. Everything we know about the first five thousand years of human civilisation is on this disc.#

#You want me to look up ‘Yakuza’?#

#No. I want you to look up ‘Masada’.#

7

For several days, they stayed there, and Kalio’s implicit prophecy seemed to be correct. Sedrain found his paranoid outlook on life start to ebb away. Having embraced the environment he found himself in, he found himself increasingly in a sort of symbiosis with his surroundings; it was like the walls needed his nervous energy to animate them, and in taking them from him, benefited him too.

Kalio was much more sceptical, and much more impatient, expressing constant sighs and signalling static to Sedrain from distant rooms as ramps and walls moved in a way she disapproved of. Inviting friends over, whilst technically complex and requiring the systems to run lengthy and multiple scans, and requiring him to offer profuse apologies about having to treat the eventually-arrived individuals like potential criminals, often paid off in the form of subduing this irritation for a while.

Yet weeks dragged on and, as Sedrain settled in, he realised that he still had no plan. In his current status, the one thing he could hope for, he knew, was that the violent lifestyles of his enemies hung in the balance with their desire to get into the tower. Unless they outsmarted him, he would almost certainly outlive them, but he had no guarantee that the former would not happen, and to step out of the tower after several lonely years, decades, possibly centuries – that would be to step out as a drastically changed man, emerging into a sleeker, shinier world with a bent and buckled worldview.

Regularly he tried to push all quarters of his brain into overdrive, clenching his fists as though he was trying to grab every thought and jam it together. Kalio help me, he thought one day, I’ll even try that Shango thing of putting your hands together and wishing – what do they call it? Prayer?

Whoever he was supposed to send his wishes to, though, didn’t seem to respond.

8

Yeyen2 moved her hand to her hip, and felt it stop reassuringly two inches before the destination. You don’t enter the House of Yakuza without your gun. The mantra had quite literally flashed up in front of her eyes as a reminder.

The House had one entrance; anyone teleporting into the building would discover, if they could think in the attoseconds-long window that probably arose for such realisation, that the arrival stage was unusually difficult in the vicinity of the building; a set of “wet/slippery floor” holograms would always coalesce around the final result. As a nice touch to such enterprising individuals, however, the departure stage elsewhere was by no means any harder or, for that matter, in any way discouraged.

Going through that entrance the natural way would prompt a series of scans, which Yeyen could easily pass. After that came a long, straight corridor, lined with columns, seemingly designed to invoke Power with the minimum of actual evidence. After several hundred metres of that, she finally reached a staircase which opened up to the real House of Yakuza.

#You are here for…?# prompted a guard before she had even opened the door to meet him.

#I am here to see the Shogun. You can tell her that Yeyen2 has important information.#

The guard bowed his head in concentration, but nonetheless seemed to keep focused on her.

#OK#, he agreed, #you know where she is.#

Yeyen did, and proceeded to take the relevant turnings. The Shogun’s room was almost exactly, barring the entrance corridor, in the geometric centre of the building. She knocked on the doors outside, marked clearly by their blunt, brushed metal appearance and their completely smooth, blank design.

#Enter.#

She did so. Inside, the room was tall, it was wide, it was lavish, it had an ostentatiousness that was not traditionally Qareen in its degree. The ornateness and extravagance was there for one purpose only; it was there to show, or more accurately, to suggest, that the House of Yakuza was an overwhelming success at what it attempted to do.

#Your news, Yeyen?#

Yeyen pulled a disc out of her pocket and slapped it onto the desk-screen. The Shogun herself watched as graphics splayed out from the disc almost instantly. Yeyen leaned forward, tapped one of the branching architect lines, which caused it to split in two. Selecting one of the two, the news revealed itself; a hologram of a huge tower leapt into existence, revealing an intricate but blurred interior.

#A development in the Sedrain case. The deadline has long since passed, and yet we have not dropped him, and this is his solution. There seems to be some kind of dynamic interior structure to the tower. Our attempts to hack the systems in the tower have somehow done more damage to our own equipment than his. He seems to have truly thought this through.#

The Shogun leaned back, and looked over the holographic tower. She was not a threatening woman, Yeyen realised, not in the flesh, and no doubt she could be taken down in a hand-to-hand confrontation, of the kind that Yeyen had to admit to having thought about on previous occasions. Her reputation preceded her, though, and her capabilities beyond mere strength and physical intimidation were key to the fear she instilled. Yeyen knew that, even whilst looking directly at her, the Shogun could draw a gun and vapourise her before she knew there was a fight starting.  As a result, this realisation was one that Yeyen had to have anew with every visit.

The Shogun stood up and gestured vaguely towards the tower.

#He has made two mistakes#, she concluded, #The first is a forced one: we haven’t killed him, but we have scared him. He’s in the centre of a dark tower. Buried alive. We could leave him there for the rest of his life, and render it a life ruined, a life in desuetude.#

Yeyen frowned at this; it sounded uncharacteristic of her.

#To be honest, and with the greatest of respect, Shogun, I would hope that we would have a greater, more ambitious plan than to leave him alone. We are the organisation that prides ourselves on breaking every system and outwitting every enemy. Even our name is stolen property that can’t be taken back. Whether he knows it or not, he has put a challenge in front of us, and we owe it to ourselves – to him, even – to do our worst.#

Her signalling rose in intensity as she said this, and if she had said it aloud, she would have almost shouted. Nervously, she waited for the Shogun to respond. After a long pause, Yeyen was met with a devious smile.

#You’re good, Yeyen. One day, when I’m too old for this, you might well have this seat. But not yet. Now – now I formulate a plan, in accordance with this Sedrain man’s second mistake. In a few days I will send it to you, or else call you here to receive it. And you’ll get your challenge, and you’ll get your victory.#

#I cannot thank you enough, Shogun.#

#Not a problem.#

Yeyen gave a quick bow and turned to leave.

#Yeyen?#

She froze.

#If you’re going back the way I’m guessing you came, I just want to warn you about the wet floor just before the entrance corridor.#

Yeyen found herself unable to move from where she stood.

#It’s OK, it’s just water.#

9

#Kalio, did you hear something odd just then?#

#I don’t know. I think so. Like a- [insufficient signal for telepathic link; error code 301 - out of range]. Like a muffled thundery sorta noise?#

#I think it’s time we got to a teleporter.#

#I concur.#

10

“Base, I’m asking for, I’d say, about the seventh time here. Can we get some lights, damnit?”

#Do you have to wave that torch around, Zeje?#

Zeje6 ignored his colleague and waved the torch around even more. He did, after all, have plenty to examine here; the hanging chunks of debris that blemished an otherwise perfectly smooth wall, and the uneven surface of the ground. Whatever had happened here, it was huge; definitely the biggest case he’d ever dealt with. Qareen sight could have examined this if even just one light inside the building had survived; apparently, none had, and with complete darkness there was nothing Zeje’s eyes could work with. And so he was stuck with a torch, just waving it around, waving it around…

“This is Base. You wanted lights, you say?”

“Yeah. Any kind of proper floodlights. We’ve got a cuboid space – surely you know this?”

“Centralised resources, sir, we don’t necessarily know the mission inside-out. How big’s the space?”

“It’s about, I reckon, twenty kilometres high, and about half a kilometre square. We need it lit up. All of it.”

#Well, Seddek, at least they’ve responded.#

He yanked the torch downwards and began to carefully tread into each pool of light, moving slowly over the rubble. Seddek, he knew, was about a hundred metres away, holding the torch upwards, but of course, the power behind that beam would not push enough light to the ceiling.

He stopped, and roughly at that moment, a luminous hologram flashed up in the darkness, rotating quickly, informing both of them that of a “lighting rig impending – keep away from walls.” Well, he thought, already done. Which didn’t mean that there wasn’t a wait.

#When is this lighting rig going to-#

The sudden burst of light forced both men to shut their eyes and contemplate the exploding points of light behind their eyelids. Blinking them away and switching off the torches, they looked around and up. Zeje found himself gasping for two reasons; the first being that, even if he had quoted the size of the space he was in mere moments beforehand, the size of it still stunned him.

#Holy shit.#

#Holy shit indeed, Seddek.#

#You’re seeing this right?#

#Sure am. This makes all the difference.#

Zeje was only a partial expert in structural engineering – a couple of previous cases had prompted him to research such matters – but that second reason for astonishment was how the light had suddenly made it all incredibly obvious.

#What happened here is what I think happened, right? There’s no other sensible story?#

#If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, yes.#

#And you’re thinking…?#

Zeje looked around again, at stubs and bits clinging to the walls at regular intervals up the wall, just to be sure.

#OK. Clearly, some high-energy explosive device was set off in the upper floors. Possibly even the very top one. Now, the outer structure of the building could live through things that would level the rest of the city, but the interior was no doubt designed with teleporter jamming systems and other high-tech to stop any internal attack. Long story short, when the bomb went off, several floors collapsed, and landed on the first intact floor, that wasn’t built to take it. Cue a chain reaction. Anyone who was on the middle levels of the building almost certainly got several thousand tonnes of material right on them. Nasty way to die. At least it was probably quick.#

He looked down to the ground beneath him, which seemed to confirm his theory; it was completely uneven, consisting of nothing but stacked slabs of flooring. What perhaps compounded the tragedy in Zeje’s mind was how the mass of grey dust didn’t reveal a single suggestion of paint, or carpet, or dye; there was no suggestion that the occupants lived in anything close to luxury. They had a whole tower to themselves; they could’ve made it a palace, but they made it a prison-

#I’ve tried scanning for the bodies#, Seddek said, #but I can’t find them.#

…although they could’ve escaped in time, he realised. Several thousand floors collapsing? That had to take at least a decent fraction of a day, even if it occurred at high speed.

#Not surprised. You’re probably looking for some kind of humanoid shape – I’d suggest looking for some kind of meat paste instead.#

#Zeje?#

#Yes?#

#Do you think the perps were trying to take down the whole building?#

Zeje didn’t need long to think about it.

#No. Whoever did this knew they couldn’t smash the outer walls. So they went after the people inside, knowing that the structure would serve as a giant-#

#Oh, now I’ve found them.#

#Both of them?#

#Yep.#

Seddek’s tone didn’t give Zeje much confidence.

#Do I want to look at this?#

#You don’t want to look at this.#

#Fair enough. I won’t.#

Moveworld

Date: 1,990,206 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 5,391 (Shango), NA 542 (Qareen)
Location:
Moveworld 1.

Kitchen Sinkhole

She was a collector, and if there was one thing that drove her, it was the need to be comprehensive about it. Naturally, the nature of collecting anything in a region as vast as the Qareen Confederacy demanded the introduction of limits. Indeed, even on Moveworld 1, as it was needlessly called (there was no Moveworld 2, after all), the vastness of the land meant that to be comprehensive across that was probably asking for too much.

Luckily, those on Moveworld 1 were divided into KInetic Grid Sections, or KIGS, and KIGS 102392107 was a fine plot of land to hunt for things within. As a consequence, she could stand back, as she did that morning, and examine the house she had built as the artificial sun rose in the background. To be fair, calling it a “house” was a cheat; the house was actually a village of sorts, often consisting of two and three-storey town houses, with the spaces between them filled with criss-crossing ribbon-like contrivances of driveways, and each component connected into a singular whole with bridges that led from roof to roof. The resulting hatchways in the roof could often detract from the historical accuracy, but that was something she could live with, so long as the generalities were right.

Besides, most of these houses weren’t even for living in. As she entered one, a classic example of an immediate pre-war residence (around fifty years beforehand to about ten years in) – a sort of curving, complex mass that seemed to be leaning over some undefined finish line, she found herself (entirely expectedly) entering a short hallway, leading into a large chamber that was the bulk of the house. And there, lining the walls around the vast empty space, was every single example she could find – she needed to be comprehensive about it, after all – of an assembler. She had pride in this collection, and rightly so, she reckoned, because there were rare ones here, old ones, and highly specialised ones, from the days when specialisation was deemed a necessity.

The old ones, she felt, were the best. There was history bound up in each of those machines, like the one close to the door that could only make drinks. She often wondered what it was about early Confederate Qareen civilisation that made drinking such a priority. Apparently, medical implements were a specialisation that came later.

Speaking of which, that was the one machine that was missing. Well, it wasn’t the only one. It was just the one that irked her most, like a drill bit working into the base of her skull.

She often thought about how she’d kill for such a machine, but of course, her conscience would force her to use the machine and revive the victim anyway.

 

Crime and Avoiding Punishment

Staying on the right side of the law is so easy in a world, in a galaxy, in fact, where property laws are non-existent. After all, you take from the citizen of a post-scarcity society, and they can always replace what they have without even a call to the insurers. In such a world, stealing is in fact pointless, when the object can always be acquired legally. With so many possibilities off the table, and so many motivations eliminated, to stay on the right side of the law should have been simple, an act as natural as breathing.

How, then, had he managed to fuck that one up?

That was the question at the back of his mind. It was good for future reference, but right now, there was a better question, at the front of his mind, so to speak: how could he get away from such a mess?

He decided that an actual vehicle, a car of sorts, would be best. Not merely because teleporters could be traced (technically, cars could be traced too) but because jumped from A to B to C to D was pointless if his pursuers could simply go from A to D. What he needed was to present not merely a moving target, but a dynamic one.

Finding the desired vehicle – a sort of grand tourer that could give the impression of luxury and finesse but also kick up into a ridiculous speed – he got in, started the car, and breezed through town, taking care to stay under the advised speed limit. There was no need to draw attention to himself. So he threaded his way through town, made his way to the outskirts, passing that weird mini-village of a house where that slightly odd young woman apparently collected bits of technology, and then waited until exactly the point where the rear wheels crossed the line and the advised limit came off.

The recommended top speed was unlimited, quite simply because there were no settlements for another hundred kilometres, at least. Taking the minor roads, he realised, meant being tens of kilometres from any teleporter pad. That suited him well.

Of course, the rest of the situation didn’t. He had no fixed abode now, a ridiculous situation particularly for a Qareen. He had given up a proper life, too – the idea of a stable routine, of a fixed purpose (beyond anything as low as “staying away from the authorities”), of having someone to love. He couldn’t have done with those things.

He thumped the steering wheel with frustration when he realised that he could also have done with an off-roader.

 

Romance

He liked her hair, but he figured that the real deal-makers were her eyes. Maybe he was just getting old – or at least older – and hence soft. If true, that saddened him; did it always have to be that way? A kind of emotional entropy where every resolve and every solid principle buckled into compromise? And if he thought that wasn’t quite as tragic a thing as previously assumed, then was that such a bad thing?

Even so, it wasn’t all bad. Yes, they were gazing into each other’s eyes, yes, they were idling about, lying down on the bench in the town’s public square, where the tower blocks rose up around them in an imperfect quadrangle of three sides, but he still maintained that keen eye. For one, he saw some guy leaning forward over his steering wheel as crawled past in a car, carefully obeyed every rule of the road as he came down to the junction and turned meticulously onto the main road that bordered the fourth side of the square. Obviously a guilty man-

#The police will be after him. Maybe the Confeds.#

#Mmm. Should we say something?#

#To him?#

#Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure… what we would say, but we could… I don’t know.#

He didn’t know either, but he didn’t care. Sunset was approaching; he could see the artificial sun’s slow descent coming into view, where it was about to arc fully down into the huge tunnel (sunset was hence unlike that on a planet; long into the night, a mysterious glow would emanate from the horizon) and where, on the other side of Moveworld 1, it would emerge after some time as a sunrise.

#Beautiful.#

#Yes.#

#What are you talking about?#

#You, of course.#

#<gentle arm punch>#.

He examined her smile; he liked it, but he still decided that her eyes were her best feature. Physically, that was; he also loved the way she could be so languid, such a calming influence, and yet she glowed with a youthful energy too, something he couldn’t define.

The bright light in the sky, moving quickly overhead and contrasting against the darkening sky, seemed like an apt image, he thought.

 

Over the Face of the Waters

The Terroriser/Punisher/Tickler was a strangely sphere-like ship that was unorthodox by Qareen standards; indeed, its slightly blocky additions to its hull made it look like the mixed-race offspring of Qareen and Shango ships. Even so, Lubno4 was satisfied enough with it as a ship, despite its strange history and its relatively slow top speed. It was a historical cul-de-sac, one of a class of ships that was meant to utilise radical new technology just after the Intersection Wars. Said radical new technology was meant to produce a FTL drive that was far in excess of the kind of ships used in the Wars, but instead, it improved top speeds by a mere three per cent; when a later technology, utilising much simpler processes (although still horrendously complex to the lay mind), appeared and boosted speeds by a similar amount, it was clear that the Qareen Confederacy had come across the same strange speed limit which held back Shango ships from the kind of epic yet effortless journeys the Dharans were capable of.

One advantage that the Terroriser did have, however, was that it had the ability to also work as a low-orbit vehicle, to a far greater extent than the specialised kinds of spaceships that had appeared after it. All he had to do was find enough friends, and that was it – he’d use the machine as an exploration vehicle, exploring that great unknown: not the stars out in the wider galaxy, which the Confederacy as a whole knew pretty well, and where they had millions of ships combing through the remaining regions of ignorance, but down on Moveworld 1, where people had been given centuries to move around, to form themselves into societies which in turn bent themselves into the weirdest shapes to cope with the surroundings.

Moveworld, after all, was far from uniform, as became obvious from lift-off. Having tilted upwards, the Terroriser blasted off from the surface with a plume of steam tracing its arc through the sky – completely unnecessary, but spectacular enough to warrant the compressed tank attached to it, which detached over a safe area. As it levelled out, the main screen on the screen expanded its view to a sort of quasi-3D projection, lowering the bridge lights to sharpen the contrast, and there, he and the rest of the crew could see a vast swathe of Moveworld in all its glory, stretching out for millions of kilometres around. As it did so, artificial suns rose, fell, circled in lengthy arcs, cycled up and down, and spiralled through eccentric, oblique or generally unconventional flight paths. Around the resulting patchwork of night and day, they could see the scattered dustings of city lights or synthetic swathes of benign urban sprawl.

He wondered what was down there. No doubt the mundane and quotidian were superabundant – the usual things, like idle car journeys, or social visits, or teenagers kissing on town square benches. But Moveworld was vast; he had heard about a report from the government some time ago, which suggested that possibly as much as a fifth of Moveworld’s population didn’t come under the government’s jurisdiction in any meaningful sense.

Naturally, the government didn’t mention who those people were. He was going to find some of them anyway, though, and he could just imagine their surprise as a huge, official-looking spaceship came down in their midst, and a stranger stepped out to investigate their unusual society.

He also wondered what kind of society would form outside of the Qareen pale – an anarchist collective? A dictatorship? Some kind of monarchist throwback?

 

A Tale of Kings of Queens

The residents of the village looked up and felt the usual feeling of suspicion and weariness. Yet another visitor would appear, marvel at them as if they were gravity-defying sculptures, and then leave again, presumably to tell someone else who would turn up, and repeat the process.

They weren’t exactly asking for normal lives – such things were now impossible, given that dozens of people had landed amongst them and explained that no, they weren’t normal. What they wanted was – well, it was to not be patronised, not have each and every damn visitor marvel at their “mythical” system.

The Queen walked out onto her balcony and examined the ship descending. Judging from the shape of it – highly unconventional, not like the others, anyhow – there was a possibility that this one was government, or at least, the people who claimed to be the government of this land. She had heard about them, and she had known that one day, those people would surely come. She was sure that, when the time came, her subjects would be loyal to her. The Kingdom of Seren Falj had been going for centuries, and had always been Serenian – what this talk of “Qareen” was about, she had no idea.

The ship landed, and she realised that some kind of snap decision had to be made. She backed away from the balcony. She figured that the best approach would be to head into the main court, take the throne, and expect the visitor to come to her. That was power, after all – when things had to be done your way, not theirs.

She instructed her advisors appropriately, and in return got the usual sycophancy and one of them hurrying out of the door. After a short while – the ship had, after all, landed almost next to the palace – he returned.

#Your Majesty, he claims to be representing the government of this land. Naturally, I am sceptical.#

#As am I, Rinsad5. But send him in anyhow.#

#As you wish, ma’am.#

The visitor came in, trailed by a short train of other individuals. He delivered, unprompted, some kind of awkward bow.

#Truly, this is quite something…. yourmajesty.#

She’d heard that before.

#It’s like a piece of folklore come to life. It’s marvellous, it’s fantastic. And how wondrous that you’ve built a prosperous kingdom here.#

She’d heard that before, too.

#It makes me wonder what other mysteries abound – whether there are fantastical creatures in the forests, in these hills…#

He wasn’t from the government, she decided. The guy had no clue about statecraft, and no clue about the region. Another joker. With a snap of her fingers, the advisors bundled the group out of the room.

 

A Disco with Dragons

Above him, he could see a spaceship in low orbit – his shades hooked up to the relevant database and pulled out the name Terroriser/Punisher/Tickler - and listened as it idly lurched over the sound barrier, causing the boom to echo across the valley to the east. The animals wouldn’t like that, he thought, and as soon as he did, he heard howls, barks and saw flames of outrage from all around.

They settled down soon enough, though, barring the early creations, which he knew would continue for some time, until the boom’s last echo had dulled to a fraction of a single decibel. He was never keen on those; he had tried too hard, too early, on the first result in the subset of the human database on which he worked. That first entry had been Manticore, and he had definitely regretted that one.

Since then, he had gotten better, so much so that he now had virtually a whole park full of creatures, albeit ones that needed strong ringfencing and shielding. The health and safety required around the area was a nightmare, even as he assured central government, truthfully as well, that he had managed to breed all but necessary aggression out of these creatures. The entry marked Dragon had proved easiest; even as these strange, lizard-like beings possessed clawed feet and crazed faces, in the true tradition of the Eastern civilisations of Earth, they were more docile than the typical Qareen household pet. He had also explained very carefully that the other kind listed in the entry, the alleged fire-breathers, were creatures that he had conjured up the theory of, but never made. Apparently, that didn’t satisfy them.

Really, he thought, I should have simply done something less contentious. I should have become a writer – everyone is, he thought, but all the same, it’s obvious and safe work. Or maybe, he thought, I should have become a programmer. It’s the same principle, after all. Wasn’t it?

The manticores were still making noise. Sat on his platform, with concentric bands of computer screens ranged around him in a barrier between him and the forest, he sighed loudly.

 

The Story Factory

Some people, she knew, reckoned the best philosophy was one of quality over quantity. She disagreed – sort of. Her methods were quality through quantity; the ability to turn out a hundred ideas quickly, and see how many stuck.

Some of them had stuck very well indeed; her best story, a novel-length adventure that she had drawn out from a novella-length idea, had received half a trillion full reads. That was easily enough for “bestseller” status, even if it hadn’t quite landed her amongst the “best-selling” of all time.

She turned to the machine again, the Story Factory. She was so impressed with this, her finest creation – having invented it some years ago, she was now able to fully put her philosophy into practice, and turn herself from writer to publisher and editor. The downside, of course, was that instant ideas meant an instant slushpile. She had learnt that the hard way, when her exuberance had encouraged her to go for a thousand-strong random-length run; she wouldn’t do that sort of thing ever again, she had vowed, even if it had produced the half-trillion-read novel.

She set the machine to produce seven stories, roughly averaging but not exacting a length of around four hundred words. Naturally, the machine took longer to print the stories out than to think them up; the whole process took about half a second.

She checked the top of the printout, and read off the first sentence of the first story: “She was a collector, and if there was one thing that drove her, it was the need to be comprehensive about it.”

She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story”…”

Heads, Tails or Edge

Date: 1,988,927 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 1,336 (Shango), NA 135 (Qareen)
Location: Ringrail 1 Project

1

Government jobs around there were the best, apart from one annoying little factor – they’d never let you teleport.

I could deal with this, but it still marred my view of the job. Instead of nearly hopping from one town to another, we had to engage in what employees called The Rush – and the Leftmost Line County Government in its entirety, bound up in a retinue of three huge tracked vehicles, would thunder across the entirety of its jurisdiction in what I felt was a hopelessly Shango-like form of vulgarity.

The Rush was apparently necessary for the simple reason that, if we caught someone outside of the towns and villages, they might have requested our services. This struck me as incredibly unlikely, but then again, I suspected that my attitudes would have been disregarded as those of some stuffy bureaucrat. Which is all very well, but if you ever asked me (which people didn’t), then efficiency had to count for something. Even in a world of plenty, time charges on like The Rush, unheeding of us not making the best of it.

Actually, I guess what really bothered me, despite the Grab systems and their tendency to compensate, was when one third of a municipal government caught some air. As it crashed down again, I’d still feel it, and sense the rumble, and – well, I suspect some of my colleagues would have accused me of cowardice, but frankly I couldn’t see the joy in what was going on.

Of course, I complained about that, but what made me leave the service was something worse than that. Sometimes there’s a threshold to the ugliness you can deal with in a world, and in the end, I moved away from the Ringrail 1 Project and, for my services, I got a spot on Spaceplane 114,098, for which I’m very grateful. You can’t argue with being a mere three parsecs away from the capital and in a Kaizener-friendly area, which the Project (or at least, the Leftmost Line County) never was, necessarily.

Not to mention that I’m now pretty far away from the issue.

2

gpeo220 was one of the largest cities in the County, which for a stretch of land several thousand kilometres wide and hundreds of millions of kilometres long was quite an achievement. Of course, no Qareen likes to live in some vast, scrunched-up hive, so this meant that it was still only around three million in population, but even so, it meant that we got enough requests ahead of arrival to need to stop and have a proper town-hall meeting.

We stopped on the town’s Muncipal Boulevard, an ultra-wide street that cut through the middle of the city like a guillotine blade had slammed down from space to produce the schism. All major settlements had such a street, but in this case, we could draw out a crowd of thousands. The actual attendance turned out to be in the hundreds, but even so, it was always sensible to have the spare capacity; sometimes, these meetings could gather pace across the city through word-of-mouth, and then the crowds would swell to tens of thousands, stretching back down the boulevard for several kilometres.

It turned out that there was, for ninety per cent of the meeting on that boulevard, only one topic at hand. Apparently, the planetary issues in the Intersection Zone that occurred at the time had captured the local public’s interest, and they want to know, demanded to know, damnit, whether we had committed anything. We had, but no personnel – only ships and equipment, and the AIs to pilot them crudely into the battlespace, and none of the ruling had come from our personal jurisdiction anyway, so it wasn’t like the finger-pointing could wind up in our direction.

Obviously, if the ball hadn’t been in our court, they couldn’t blame us – but then, they didn’t especially want to, anyway. With no lives being risked, the populace seemed reassured. With that, the crowd dispersed and, after tackling some minor and specific issues – there was always someone who asked about infrastructure or constitutional reform, or something esoteric like that, and no answer was likely to completely satisfy – we moved on again.

3

The land was flatter outside of gpeo220, consisting of a long series of plains and the occasional knoll or wood that could easily be steered around. Of course, the drivers decided that, for maximum efficiency, it was best to do this at the latest possible point, and so some terrifying driving ensued; these government vehicles had the suspension of sports cars (on tracked vehicles, no less) and the engines of starships. I wish I was joking about that last part, but the drives were genuine downscaled versions of what powered the Ringrail Project’s recently deployed Nemesis/Antipode/Doppleganger/Evil Twin.

Even so, we got no requests from most of the villages we passed before the next stop, which wasn’t unusual – the kind of people who lived in Qareen villages were usually, I tended to find, fairly autonomous people anyhow, who didn’t necessarily want big communities and huge issues. I also regarded them as a little insular, too, which is why I chose a bigger town on 114,098, but maybe that was just my opinion.

After several weeks, during which even the larger towns hadn’t pinged us, we received requests from a small village up ahead, pet9. It was approaching sunset; the artificial sun band itself was starting to pull away from us as it raced overhead, and if we stopped, it would almost certainly disappear, its terminator sweeping past us and casting us into night.

The village itself was tiny – there was no boulevard, and so we had to pull aside and find somewhere to hold the meeting. Given the numbers, it was a safe assumption to think that the whole village would turn out, and as I scanned the village from my third-floor vantage point, I could see a centre circle, an almost tribal touch, that suggested an excellent place for a forum.

4

pet9’s villagers were largely looking for healthcare advice. This was technically something they could find out themselves, but doing so could take expertise that not everyone in the village necessarily possessed, and so here we were, dispensing advice and inserting the right spellings or pronunciations into the assemblers. Being a village, this obviously didn’t take long, and given that these people had waited for the council to show up, it was clear that few of their injuries or illnesses were serious, and those that were happened to be recent.

Once again, we got miscellaneous questions; someone wanted to ask about the military deployment, which was lucky as we obviously had the form answer for that. Little had happened in the war, so far as we knew, in the days since the city visit at gpeo220, so there was little else to add to it; and luckily, we’d heard nothing about our own deployment being destroyed.

Someone else asked about constitutional reform, too. There always seemed to be someone who did, and I often wondered about it – there seemed, constantly, always, persistently, someone, somewhere, who wanted to change the constitution of either the Leftmost Line County or the Ringrail 1 Project as a whole. It was inexplicable; I was reminded of old Qareen conspiracy stories where what the secret organisation had been plotting would backfire by having no impact whatsoever.

Certainly, deep in a shadowy underground lair somewhere, a group of people were presumably planning to have one person in every settlement ask about the bloody constitution.

 

5

We carried on again. This time it was through desert, although I could never exactly understand why we needed so much of it on an artificial world, nor why we had to go through it when there was surely no-one here – indeed, our population records suggested that even hamlets were minimal in the region, and none had pinged anyone for years. A better region for teleporting through, I was sure we would never find, but that wasn’t what we did anyway and The Rush continued.

To be fair, it was probably because I never understood why we didn’t do things differently that made me leave, ultimately. I just couldn’t understand the lack of teleportation, or the need for The Rush, or why the Project was built, or… well, we’re slowly coming to that.

The next place was a small town of around four thousand or so people, and around fifty had pinged us.

6

The issue this time was education. The Department of Education, anywhere at any level of Qareen government, was not a huge department; mostly it consisted of advisors and lawyers, a combination that I thought of as potentially toxic but which often seemed to work. Education was largely an autonomous affair; what the government handed down was a huge database of knowledge – the Qareen database – that represented pretty much everything that anyone knew. The exceptions, of course, were things the government classified, and the human database, which was an irrelevance unless certain jobs were taken.

Advising them was a simple but lengthy matter, and given that it was not my area of expertise, it meant that I was hanging around, doing very little for most of it. I made my way up to the sixth floor balcony and found that I was able to look out across most of the town, and view its patchwork of rooves and irregular threads of streets. The boulevard itself was a highway pointing out past the deserts we had crossed, this town, fed030, being on the edge of them, and towards what looked like a range of flattened mountains, the passes being unnaturally wide and the drops being close to the horizontal. It was, in essence, a mountain range that frankly insulted any would-be climber, who could happily stroll to the summit of any of them without any trouble; of course, for The Rush, it was perfect, and I made the confident (and subsequently proven correct) prediction that my colleagues, or at least most of them, would love it.

7

Over the mountain pass, the tracks on the vehicle came into play, and the Grab systems swung their vectors several times for every second that the machine containing The Machine moved forward, or for that matter, sideways, diagonally, or upward, or downward.

But even those systems couldn’t entirely compensate for the movement, even as they cut in picoseconds after each change of direction; changing the force around could only happen so quickly, and so I found myself stumbling a little each time, or feeling a rumble through the floor.

“What’s going on down there?” I muttered to myself on more than one occasion, and wished that the next destination to ping us would arrive soon.

But of course, it was the next destination that made me quit.

8

The town was called Pillstown-in-the-Twist, which was the kind of human-aping name that annoyed the fuck out of every other Qareen, but never stopped the occasional settlement in a trillion across the Confederacy from doing it. In this case, it was, of course, named in part due to its positioning, at the exact point where the Ringrail 1 Project started to twist through 180 degrees, and The Rush would begin to occur on the other side of the ringworld.

That, though, was irrelevant. What was important was that we were previewed with hundreds of pings – an unusual level of interest – but met by only one man.

#Jang8, local chief of police,# he introduced himself laconically, #so glad you’re here.#

#Where’s everybody else?# our team leader asked. Having the six of us meet him felt like overkill, until he explained the issue.

9

#What we’ve got is this sudden crime epidemic. We’re literally only a few kilometres from the edge of the Ringrail, the most westerly point for millions of kilometres. And what that means is that we’re the perfect place to commit a certain crime.#

#Murder?# I asked.

#Kinda#, he replied, #they call it “edge-junking”#.

He waved away any further questions and threw up an animated projection. The crime was surprisingly simple, beyond a certain point; after hacking through a section of force field, the victim was thrown over the edge. The Grab forces at that point were very ambiguous; as a result, the victim would fall down the edge, until the halfway mark, when counteracting forces would pin them to the centre. Left alone, such an individual would inevitably be able to call for help, so the next part of the crime was necessary to finish the job. This time, debris, detritus and various assembled parts would also be thrown off the edge, only with accelerated force – perhaps fired from a large cannon. This would kill the victim, but not before causing serious injury.

#Sometimes#, Jang8 explained, #they’ll carry on. Some of the bodies we’ve come across have been unrecognisable; we’ve had to check against databases, tracking logs and the like and find out who’s gone missing to get any kind of idea.#

I continued to look at the animation as it played again, and showed the exact same scenario once more. I could only feel a numbness; I imagined that if I allowed myself to feel anything, it would have been too much. I wondered what kind of sociopaths, or monsters – but then again, mental illness was a historical thing. It couldn’t be that driving the phenomenon.

Jang8 seemed to know what I was thinking, and signalled to me alone.

#They’re not mad, these people. They know exactly what they’re doing, and besides, you know, and I know, that we cured mental illnesses thousands of years ago. Incidences are rare, and they’re environmentally caused. No, sir, what you are dealing with here is a mental state we can’t cure. Never, ever, underestimate pure hatred.#

Around me, others seemed similarly shaken, although they got on with the work, and so did I – looking through the reports, classifying them according to similar properties – although all of them seemed to be largely the same story, over and over, as if the same perpetrators had committed these crimes. There was always, in each individual incident, one victim, even if incidents occurred very close together, such as within a tenth of a day – as if the whole thing was operating on some kind of production line. And the victims were not always from Pillstown-on-the-Twist; in fact, such victims were in the minority, as were victims from Leftmost Line. Theoretically, if my suspicions were correct, and it was all the work of a single organisation (this later turned out to only be partly true, but the impact was the same), then who knew how far this organisation went? Would a wrong glance in a bar somewhere a million kilometres away, result in this?

So that’s when I left. The exact point, in fact – I handed in my resignation before the next Rush started. And now, well, I’m happy here. I’m secure.

Although, I still wonder sometimes.

The Fighter-Dwellers

Date: 1,989,512 AD (Gregorian), PW 3190 (Shango), NA 321 (Qareen)
Location:
p9,820,711

1

The Census Agency really wanted to know about this place; Central Government on 114,099 couldn’t have gaps in the knowledge of their own jurisdiction, after all. It had nonetheless transpired that, whilst the centre largely held, it didn’t entirely, and someone had to scurry about to pick up the fragments. And in a universe filled with unimaginable dangers, threats that were inconceivable to a lesser civilisation than the Qareen Confederacy, leaving those fragments isolated, alone and, well, fragmented, was not an option. Piecing them back into the Confederacy was a vital task.

Or at least, that’s what Shel2 had been told. What went unspoken gave out an entirely different message – the small and slow saucer-ship, the general lack of information about the mission, other than “get detail”, the fact that no-one else was on board with her. Missions dubbed important, even census missions, had at least four individuals, and there were reasons for that – for one, any split of opinion didn’t inevitably leave one person isolated, and in far-flung parts of the galaxy, that was important.

Well, it wasn’t like there were going to be differences of opinion on this mission.

She had been told to head off from 114,099 and head quite considerably away from the Intersection Zone and significantly down. There, she would find p9,820,711, a planet about which there were no post-war records. She had asked how an entire planet had slipped through the fingers of the government, but naturally, they replied that with ten million of them on the roll, one was bound to. That worried her a little. Perhaps not as much as it would worry the people she was visiting, but nonetheless – it concerned her. A genuine, quite big, administrative error had arisen in Central Government, and there was a remarkable lack of concern.

Perhaps she was overestimating it. She didn’t know whether the population of the planet in question was ten billion or ten, not to mention whether or not they were thriving or completely dead – it had, after all, been years, decades, maybe even centuries. She wondered and worried about that repeatedly over the course of the journey there, but of course, it didn’t matter. If they were thriving, they were fine without her inteference – indeed, her appearance, and sudden news that there was a whole military force in the galaxy that they were affiliated to, could potentially have been hugely disruptive to them. And did they know, she thought, that the Wars were over? Did they know that the Qareen had won? Had any of this reached them?

If they were dead, of course, then all of this was moot.

Yet she still thought about this – what else was she supposed to do? Play Kaizener against herself? Read up on the out-of-date statistics she had to hand about the planet?

“Ship, got any suggestions?” she asked.

“About what? We’re on course.”

“Actually, how long will it be, now?”

“Another day, I’m afraid – we’re around fifty parsecs away.”

Fifty parsecs; the ridiculously slow speed could not help her mood. She sighed loudly.

“Ship?”

“Yes?”

“Promise me that, once we get there, you’ll teleport me off here as quickly as possible.”

“I’ll comply if that’s your wish. But if you’re resentful due to the limitations of the mission, I can’t help you.”

“We can’t board a nearby Astrostate, or even just a ship, or something?”

“Don’t be silly.”

She left the tiny bridge – probably no bigger than the interior of an escape pod – and proceeded to pace around the lone corridor which looped around the rest of the ship, settling herself in for the most boring and tedious day she’d ever experience.

2

“We’re approaching teleport range, Shel. Still want that long-range teleport? I feel obliged to tell you that there is a heightened risk-“

“Nah, it’d only shave off around 00.00.77 of the journey time, maximum.”

The ship’s computer paused. Shel2 was still pacing around the corridor, although she had slept in between.

“How come,” it asked suspiciously, “you know that?”

“It’s a fairly rough calculation,” she said, “but yeah, I spent quite a while last night trying to figure that out. But yeah, it’s not worth it.”

The ship then spent that remaining 00.00.77 – or more accurately, a tiny fraction of it – calculating an appropriate orbit around the planet, assessing its likely population centres (trickier than it seemed), figuring out the best point of the orbit to teleport from, the best place to teleport to, and ran several diagnostics several times over. After all that, and dropping into sublight speed at the last possible moment, locking into orbit was a trivial task.

“OK, teleporting in about half an orbit, unless you object.”

“I don’t.”

“Noted. You will end up in the largest population centre my sensors can locate. I estimate a population of around two hundred, but this is an estimate at best.”

“That’s fine.”

“Best of luck.”

She felt the room disappear, and shortly afterwards, found herself in an underground tunnel, in some kind of protective suit, wondering why it was so damn hot. Nothing in the scant records available had explained that.

3

“We are the only planet in the system, and the only inhabited system for quite a few parsecs around here. Personally, I’m not all that surprised that the Central Government missed us. We missed us.”

#You people don’t signal?#

Her guide apparently hadn’t received her.

“You don’t signal, around here?”

“No, no… a side effect of the Shango occupation. Somehow they learnt to tell when we were doing it, although exactly how I’m not sure. I think it was a technological thing – remote brain scanning. But now it’s a habit, to not bother. I’m not even sure if I remember how to.”

She had been there around 10.00.00, Confederation Time, at the time of that conversation, but the days and nights (she had already been told) were much longer on this planet. It seemed like everything was different; the post-scarcity of the rest of the Confederacy was replaced by a spartan functionality, even if the teleport booths and assemblers were still there. And piece by piece, she learnt exactly what had happened within this society, why an austerity pervaded the place.

Apparently, the planet had been taken by Shango forces during the Fifth War, some three Qareen years after the Treaty Breaker Battle that had started it. The battle had apparently been ferocious (Shel detected elements of hyperbole, but she could forgive that – this story, after all, was their history, their folklore) and the Shango had not won without an immense struggle, or a price to pay. The planet, already largely a desert one, had been tipped out of orbit, headed further towards the nearby star. The Qareen had managed to arrest the collision course and compromise it into a closer orbit, but at the cost of losing the planet anyway.

Once they had taken over, the Shango occupation had been – not exactly brutal, Shel understood, but oppressive in a more psychological way.

“They understood,” her guide said, “that Qareen mentality is about the conscious thought, about complexity, about striving for mental prosperity. So what they wanted to do was force us into a mental poverty. Only children’s games, children’s entertainment, allowed. We could discuss the war, but we’d find the conversations were blocked if they got too deep. It was debilitating. Made us better parents, though.”

The occupation went on, it seemed, for decades. The Shango left – were forced to leave, pretty much – when the war was over, and the Shango had lost. They had not killed a single occupant of the planet die, but their incomplete control nonetheless meant a demographic slide occurred anyway; Qareen ships slipped by on carefully irregular schedules and whisked away people in their hundreds from maximum teleport range. Those that remained, constantly donned in safety gear, braced themselves for centuries of living in unimaginable heat.

4

Night finally came.

The nights were, however, not much of a relief. Freezing temperatures meant that the underground town Shel was in slept with the raging shudder of a blast furnace underpinning their sleep. Somehow, the residents slept through it. Shel, naturally, couldn’t.

When she thought about it, she realised that she had difficulty doing anything in this place. To say that it wasn’t what she was expecting was beyond obvious; a planet of this kind surely needed help, needed not to fall away from the Confederation. These people were fighters, their mere existence a trial. They were arguably war heroes, although naturally the thought squirmed through her mind with some distaste. Even so, surely the isolated planets in the Confederation were – or should have been – the agrarian, ruralised societies, the slightly backward, hermit-like societies, the Earth-like places that didn’t need and most likely didn’t want help. Or even just – well, just anywhere but this planet.

She couldn’t quite believe, in fact, that it had taken right up until her journey to sort this out. Already she was thinking of how easy, with modern technology, it would be to correct the issues with the planet, or the problems the population had; a teleporter ring could push the planet back into its old orbit, or even a more temperate one (although the terraforming process would be a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare). Or even – and here was the really simple solution, now that the ship was starting to report back from its lower orbit – she could have called in a larger ship (or even an Astrostate) and simply teleported the residents out of there.

“We wouldn’t want that,” her guide – who finally mentioned his name as Kan4 – had said in response to this earlier on.

“How come? You live in these unbelievably oppressive conditions, you’re parsecs away from help in the event of the worst-case scenario happening, and-“

“This is where we live, now. And we made a pledge that we would hold on to this planet.”

“But the Shango have gone, and you don’t have to defend it anymore. The Fifth War is over. All the Wars are over. Unless you think the Dharans want a piece of this place.”

“Maybe they do.”

“What if,” she suggested, “what if I could get this moved? If you didn’t have to live with the immense heat and the underground infrastructure? Daylight and decent weather – surely you can’t argue with that?”

Kan seemed unconvinced; he frowned at the idea. “We’ve lived like this for so long…”

“So you struggle to embrace any sort of change…”

“Struggle to embrace it, yes. Dismiss it, no. You seem to think that we suffer here…”

“I think I know that you suffer here. If the temperature were to drop, were to stabilise between the days and nights, then you would see for yourself that you’ve had to go through more than enough pain.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

It was probably that exact moment that prompted her to think that she could never live in such a place. In the darkness, she fumbled for the comm unit on the bedside table, heard it clatter to the ground, and then picked it up.

“Ship?” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Should I get out of here?”

“In the middle of the night? Might be a little rude.”

“But it’s cold and my pillow’s lumpy.”

The ship’s AI paused in what Shel knew was the computerised equivalent of an unimpressed stare.

“…and we’ve got the data, right? Quantitative and qualitative.”

Another long pause.

“The night here is ridiculously long. It’ll be at least the equivalent of four days before sunrise.”

“Longer, actually. But I still think you owe it to these people to bid them goodbye.”

Shel sighed loudly into the lumpy pillow. “OK,” she said in a muffled tone, “but straight afterwards I’m leaving.”

“Agreed.”

5

Census Office for the Qareen

Postwar Ruling #1 on p9,820,711

1. The aforementioned planet will be designated Section A [Maximum Priority] for re-integration into the Confederation.

2. A referendum for a) orbit shifting, and/or b) terraforming or c) the status quo shall be held for all citizens on the aforementioned planet.

[postscript: option a approved with 61% of vote]

To

Date: 1,994,404 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 18,703 (Shango), N.A. 1878 (Qareen)
Location:
various

1

“Nah, nah, I heard something similar too.”

Erran Fee had found herself on the receiving end of a slab of scepticism, but Juttro Penye’s support was an unexpected yet welcome second vote of confidence amongst the quartet of individuals gathered in the Social Centre’s smallest room. Said room was too small for a fight, if things were to take a highly unlikely tip into the physical, and dimly lit from a cold candle, a mere simulacrum of the real thing, for a fake sense of atmosphere. The table was a rickety wooden affair, but the seating was naturally a highly mouldable and rich synthetic material.

“Oh come on,” Kietu Gettenz, one of the sceptics, said, “if there’s another civilisation across these two galaxies, why haven’t we heard of them?”

“We’re small and the galaxies are both very large places,” Erran argued, “and besides, you’ve now heard of them. I mentioned them. Look, why do you think I would lie about this?”

Both Kietu and Ellebe paused.

“I don’t think you’re lying, exactly,” Ellebe said, and prompted a rush of sarcastic thoughts in Erran’s mind, “I just think, hey, you’ve heard it from someone who heard it from someone. This could all be a prank from a Darkworld at the back of the galaxy.”

“OK,” Juttro interrupted, “sod the debate, the real question is this – if we’re gonna go off on some lengthy space expedition… well, would we? Would it be something good?”

A Gordian knot of debate had been cut through, and the four of them seemed to have some consensus on this.

“It’d be awesome if we found something. I mean, really, really fucking amazing. A whole bunch of people we never knew were there.”

“We’re gonna need a ship,” Kietu said. Erran stifled a laugh. Had he forgotten the argument so quickly?

“And a plan,” he added.

2

The ship was an easy acquisition, even as Ellebe for some reason chose the Science Finds Alliance, a huge, sleek, high-performance ship designed to push for maximum speed – not that said speed was that much greater than a standard starship.

Yet as they took off into the Intersection Zone and swept past Darkworld Manticore, the last Darkworld they would come close to before heading off into largely Qareen-dominated space, the plan remained less than clear. Erran would sit in the Tracklayer booth on the bridge at 1/2 each day, laying in the course for another four hundred parsecs or so, but the course arced across more stars for seemingly no reason. She could only hope that the games of Spectrum, Passong and Quantum were allowing herself (who was she to spoil the party?) and the others to subconsciously work away at inspiration.

It took less than seven days for Spaceplanes to start becoming the norm as the ship continued through the Intersection Zone. The other three were seemingly unconcerned, but it turned out that they would not be punished for it; on the eighth day, Erran finally figured it out, and called the others to the bridge in order to explain.

“OK,” she began from the Tracklayer booth, “I’ve laid down the track for the rest of the journey-“

“How can you do that?”

“We’re provisionally going to here,” she said, gesturing to a holographic projection in the centre of the bridge. The projection showed a seemingly standard-looking Spaceplane – disc-shaped landmass, sun- and moon-simulating spotlights orbiting either side, and an ice wall around the edge each side – albeit a fairly large one. “Spaceplane 114,099, capital of the Qareen Confederacy.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” Ellebe asked.

“Not really. The Qareen are used to having Shango immigrants, these days. And didn’t you meet a Qareen once, Kietu? They don’t just kill you straight away, because of the war, right?”

Keitu nodded silently to affirm both of these claims.

“Then it should be fine,” Erran replied, although a third of her audience remained only half-convinced.

3

Juttro elected to stay with the ship as the other three teleported onto the surface of 114,099. More specifically, they transferred themselves to a spaceport some three kilometres away from the Central Government complex, which was the legal requirement, and hardly stopped them from walking the distance instead.

“So why do they do it?” Kietu said.

“I guess they want us to give them warning,” Erran replied.

Central Government – for the whole of the Confederacy, not just the Spaceplane – was a huge complex of towers that each fed a flying buttress to an even larger central tower.

“Do we head there?”

“Might as well.”

The central tower turned out to be the executive and legislative branches, all bound up in one building. They were swiftly directed to another building, apparently related – if their translations were correct – to diplomacy; not only Qareen diplomats, but the surprisingly small Shango Federation embassy, which was a mere fifth or so of the tower. It was that fifth, however, that they wound up, meeting with a severe-looking Shango man who was apparently an expert in what they were looking for.

“What you are looking for,” he began promisingly, “is called the Republic of the Bhoot People. It is common knowledge amongst this embassy, amongst the FCDA, and the President. It is not a state secret, hence why I have revealed it, but it is not something that we want the Shango population at large to be dealing with.”

Erran nodded, but then looked left and right and found Kietu and Ellebe looking puzzled and suppressing a look of alarm, respectively.

“It’s OK. We do this, quite simply, because the Bhoot themselves are quite a secretive people. They were apparently not too open during the Intersection Wars, but since then, they have only traded amongst each other, and rarely communicated with the Confederacy, let alone the Federation. Such mercantilism can work amongst four whole planets, but to deny the Qareen’s abundant wealth does seem churlish. But it’s their choice – who are we to disrespect it?”

None of the three of them seemed to agree with this, but all of them remained silent.

“It’s all a bit weird, though, isn’t it?” Erran said after a long, long pause.

“How d’you mean?”

“Well, it sounds like they were a little bit secretive during the Wars, but then they went completely dark afterwards. I mean, something happened there.”

The ambassador nodded in a warning manner. “If you truly want to investigate this, then do. But if you break local law, get into any sort of trouble, then I will make one thing clear: the Federation will deny everything, and offer no assistance. This isn’t Shango or Qareen business, and the hand of government does not reach to those four planets.”

“Can you tell us where the planets are?” Ellebe said.

“Yes. But we’ll advise that you don’t go. You have no idea what you are entering into. For all we know, they may have abandoned all ideas of expansion into the wider galaxy to focus on technological advancement; you might be dealing with people more advanced than we are. And they may not be friendly.”

Erran felt like she had a hundred questions to ask, but she was also sure that this man would simply slide around each and every one of them. Unilaterally, she uttered a brief “thank you for your time” and got up from her seat. The others followed suit, and they made the three kilometre walk back feeling disappointed, confused and perhaps a little worried.

“Yours is the Science, right? I’ll patch the stuff across. And the warnings.”

“We’re still doing this, right?” Ellebe said as they reached the spaceport.

“Yeah,” Kietu said, “we’ve got to, now. I mean, what’s our government hiding?”

“I’ll say. It’s like there’s a conspiracy, but also a conspiracy to make sure there isn’t a conspiracy.”

Erran nodded. Somehow Ellebe’s description captured it for her: the Bhoot, the secret that wasn’t, and certainly wouldn’t be once their determination and spacecraft brought back the truth.

4

The observatory room, which took up the centre part of the Science Finds Alliance‘s bottom deck for no obvious reason, had converted its entire land-facing wall into a screen, effectively making it appear as if there was no wall at all. A proper Shipbuilders’ Guild could almost certainly have made the wall phase at command between opaque and transparent, but the screen served its purpose well enough. The four of them stood spread out within the room, each looking at the territory as it passed under them.

“What do they call this place?”

“It’s marked on the star map as “Power”, but that can’t be right. It’s the capital planet, anyway. Central government is about ninety degrees latitude away.”

The landscape rolling into view beneath them was of a mountain range fading into a desert, which in turn transitioned from a flat, barren surface to a mass of twisting structures and eroded shapes, along with the odd large patch of strangely-coloured plantlife.

“Optimum point for nanobot drop approaching in 1/3000″ flashed up on the screen.

“Computer, do it,” Erran said, making an executive decision she suspected the rest wouldn’t.

Underneath the ship, a panel slid open, and let loose something manifested by the nearest star’s light as a mere occasional twinkle. But soon, Erran thought, as she watched a simulated view of the drop, that twinkle will be the light of truth, and we will know what they and my government are hiding.

5

The nanobots spread across the planet over the next three local days, building up more and more of a picture, both figurative and literal, of the planet’s towns and cities from street view. From above, the ship focused its cameras as it swept over government buildings, military headquarters, and prisons, over houses, roads and factories. A familiar, repetitive theme built up, of crumbling, decayed infrastructure, and austere architecture. Frequently the four Shango crew on board the Science Finds Alliance would gather in the observation room and discover yet another city of grim, smog-ridden despair, often set amongst relatively lush surrounding countryside.

“I think we know what they’re looking to hide,” Juttro said, “nanobots are sending in holographic projections from all over. Each city’s got similar things going on.”

“What kind of things.”

He opened up one of the simulations, de-screened the walls and allowed the projection to consume the whole floor. Initially, the whole scene appeared to be a scattered, patchwork mass of greys and off-white shades, but closer inspection revealed some suggestion of civic planning; even so, industrial sectors poured smoke over residential areas, and the apparently richer parts of the city were dumped down as enclaves within the poverty-ridden shanties on the outskirts. Local government, naturally, was perched at the highest point in the city, with the tallest buildings, fortified by the headquarters of major industries.

“The nanobots have confirmed that it’s a scarcity society,” Juttro continued, “that outward appearance of a poor, slum-ridden world is masking… a poor, slum-ridden world. The ambassador was completely talking out of his ass – they’re not ahead of us, they’re far, far behind the Stoppan. But there’s more.”

He erased the cityscape and replaced it with a scene that appeared to yank them from the observation room and place them down on the planet; if Juttro had, though, he had somehow stopped time as well. The still in front of them was of a commercial street in the city centre, which despite the money that flowed into it, still possessed that familiar off-white, peeling quality. But most notably, the people in the street had all dived into foetal positions on the ground, as a large, black, half-insectoid half-aircraft machine had entered a dive and was quite possibly preparing weapons. Erran suddenly found her focus, observing every last detail of the scene, but the most shades of grey to be found in it were literal ones.

“There are no flags, no banners. There’s no sign of a protest. What are they meant to be suppressing?”

“I’ve no idea, but these things are not unusual,” Juttro said, “we should probably go down there, to the planet. All of this bothers me. If our government-“

“And the Qareen.”

“If they’re aware of this, we should expose it. If they’re not, then they’re looking the other way, and we shouldn’t allow it.”

6

“Tell you what, I’ll fire back if you admit that bringing a weapon was a good idea.”

“Fine, it was a pretty good idea.”

Erran swung her arm round the corner of the wall and fired once, before quickly withdrawing her hand. A fusilade of gunfire followed; chips of wall flew off, picking away at their cover. They were using kinetic weapons, Erran realised – ideal for unarmed civilians, but hardly ideal for genuine confrontation.

“That bought you one shot.”

“Oh come on,” Ellebe protested.

The shadow of a patrol bot appeared. Erran concluded that yes, she was definitely joking, and wondered how much of a lag the robot’s sensors would have. The bot fired some more, chipping ever more away at that wall – a private residence, no less. They were prepared, Erran thought, to cut someone’s – an innocent’s – house to pieces just to take down a dissident, and would that person receive compensation? Probably not, from what they had learnt about the place. She twisted a dial on the gun, setting its power to maximum, then leapt out and fired. Rolling over, she felt the shrapnel of the bot’s body bounce over her.

Quite a lag, as it turned out.

She rolled over again, shaking off shards as she did so, and looked around. It was seemingly all-clear, but out of the corner of her eye she sensed that another bot was moving in.

“We should teleport back to the ship, as soon as possible,” Ellebe argued. “I will, anyway. If you’re not back by-“

“I’m coming,” she said, raising her voice. “Sorry,” she whispered, “battle noise. Gets to you. Gets to me, anyway.”

The pair of them contacted the ship, and just as another bot began to sweep in – Erran firing one more shot to be sure, which missed – the slow blink cut in, and they were gone. The pair of them decided that they weren’t going back.

A bot rushed into view and immediately exploded as it met Erran’s next shot, its momentum causing the components to clatter and crash down the street.

“Yeah, I’m coming,” she said.

7

From: Office of the President of the Shango Federation.
Sent 81/88, 18,703
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: Science Finds Alliance unofficial mission.
Further files and data are attached.
Translated from Qareen type 1912, variant 1.

Dear all at the Science Finds Alliance,

We appreciate your concern regarding your discoveries upon travelling within the Qareen galaxy. Nonetheless, we have decided that intervention within the Republic of the Bhoot People cannot be justified under the current circumstances, on the following grounds:

1. The Shango Federation does not consider amongst its duties one pertaining to the inteference in other civilisations and their development, barring reasons of state security, political alliances or other justified constitutional reasons (see files attached for relevant legislation);

2. The location of the Bhoot Republic heavily implies that any intervention should be undertaken by the Qareen Confederation; should they request our intervention, it may well be provided.

We apologise if this proposed inaction is not to your satisfaction; it is worth pointing out that no current prohibition exists for any kind of non-government sponsored intervention, but naturally the Federation will not back such an intervention.

8

From: Central Executive Office for the Cosmic Charter Republic (Res 33).
Sent 84/88, 18,703 (Translated Time)
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: RE: Warning of Fourth Interplanetary Government
Translated from Stoppan type 34, variant 6.

To all on the Science Finds Alliance,

The Cosmic Charter Republic of Stoppan extends its sincerest thanks for the information you have provided. We should nonetheless be at pains, however, to point out that the Republic of Bhoot, whilst ultimately disturbing in its implications, is at minimum a journey of at least one Stoppan year away, and quite possibly several local years for a Bhoot ship, thus rendering our civilisations’ mutual impact minimal in the short to medium term. There is no doubt whatsoever that the CCR of Stoppan would, in a future scenario in which its capability is greatly expanded, intervene. We recognise that this is likely to be little comfort, but we nonetheless hope that your own Federation will give serious consideration to this issue.

9

From: Office of the President of the Qareen Confederation.
Sent .007/1879
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: Issues arising from expedition to Bhoot planet Power
Further files and data are attached.
Translated from Shango type 2033.

To the Science Finds Alliance crew,

Speaking on behalf of the Qareen Confederation, the Office of the President is greatly disturbed by your news regarding the Bhoot Republic. Whilst diplomatic relations with those four planets have traditionally been minimal, they have previously been regarded as an ally of sorts, and it cannot be denied that this information, if true, calls for a re-assessment of such an alliance.

Naturally, the Confederation has other issues at this time – you are no doubt aware of a rising collective terrorist and separatist threat that must be dealt with utilising as many resources as can be allocated. Nonetheless, given the Bhoot Republic’s proximity, and the clear violation of the Confederation’s values of demanding no less than freedom, rationality and justice to all those virtues can be provided to, the Confederation will not pause in placing an option on a future expedition to confirm such findings. Upon confirmation of the data provided, an agreement is in place for intervention (see files attached for translated legislative act) and said intervention will occur with the maximum force, physical or intellectual, that the Confederation can provide.

Rest assured, tyranny will not stand.

Dual Core

Date: 1,993,775 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 16,708 (Shango), N.A. 1678 (Qareen)
Location:
Darkworld Semaphore

1

“Would the Senator care to clarify his remarks?”

The Senator in question took a subtle look around the near-empty chamber. Quite why he was defending his position to a gathering that couldn’t possibly muster enough votes against it, he had no idea. This measure came up every year; and every year, in the wee small hours, a group of diehards would gather to furiously debate an issue that had the broad, vague support of all government anyhow, and then cast a pointless vote that, even if it was unanimously against, would not have repealed the program anyway.

The small screen in front of him stated that a mere 54,000 people were viewing him and his colleagues.

“If I made any implication regarding any senators present, or their commitment to Darkworld Semaphore, then I apologise in advance. What I meant to say was that the PESMA programme is a key part of our heritage; it’s been an important part of our identity. My research indicates that only eight Darkworlds run the PESMA scheme. We are almost unique. And we should value that.”

“I would like to counter to the Senate that Senator Tskeye’s remarks are ridiculous. To hold onto something because of mere tradition is a fallacy of the highest order.”

The moderating AI blinked a red light but remained motionless.

“Senator Tskeye’s remarks will be filed under ‘Disregard’. Continue, Senator Rembarc.”

“The fact remains,” Rembarc said, “that the PESMA scheme has not delivered what it has promised to do, year after year after year. Only PESMA, beloved by sentimentalists and ignored by ninety per cent of this Chamber, persists with such a record. Any other programme from government would have gone long before now. Moderator, I would like to cite the Comprehensive PESMA report published two local years ago, as I cited in the prior debate, which pointed out in very stark terms that the alleged innovation and diversification created by a false economic scarcity was not present to a significantly greater degree than the post-scarcity settlement agreed upon by the vast majority of the Shango Federation.”

“So no new report backing this up then?”

His argument was thin and he knew it. He looked down to the screen in front of him, which stated that 1/2500 of Darkworld Semaphore’s relatively short day remained before a vote could be called.

“Well… I don’t regard such a demand as a prerequisite to examining the evidence,” Rembarc continued slowly. “If we-“

“If we are of rational mind, then we won’t-“

“Senator Rembarc has the floor,” the AI insisted in a loud, flat tone of voice, “and the window is now open for him to call a vote, if he so wishes.”

Rembarc raised his hand to indicate as much. The vote came in another 1/2500 or so later; the PESMA scheme was defeated by five votes to three in the battle, but in the war was aided by the vast absentee army of those hundreds of empty seats.

2

Tskeye decided to walk home; said home was about a mile away, and he felt that merely teleporting there and sitting around in the time saved wouldn’t let his thoughts flow. He wondered, as he reckoned plenty of Shango did all the time, whether he had any sort of driving purpose to his work. Certainly, year after year, for, what, fifteen years now? Was it sixteen? It was irrelevant; the point was, for too long he had been caught up in that annual debate, wasting a night out of every year to defend a system that was well-defended.

As the route inevitably would, it took him through the streets of Central Government, and past the Treasury. Yet as he passed it, he stopped and turned back. Going inside, and passing through the Membrane that screened all but those who had permission to enter, he found the place to be almost deserted – AI security blinked quietly, humming for no reason other than to assure anyone present that it was too.

He moved beyond the lobby into the corridors, and moving through them, headed towards a large chamber towards the back of the building, and entered.

Inside was a vast space, resembling a warehouse upended for height rather than length. At the far end was the real purpose of the place – the biggest wall-screen on Darkworld Semaphore. Quite possibly one of the biggest wall-screens anywhere in the Federation, in fact; and it was that, and the vast intelligence behind it, that Affan Tskeye had strenuously sought to defend.

“Do you wish to view the current situation, Senator Tskeye?” a voice asked. The Senator himself was mildly alarmed at the way that the voice sounded very close, instead of booming from the back of the room.

“It’s OK. Any long-time defend of mine is free to view the data I collect.”

“OK,” the Senator replied, and a vast 3D projection filled the hall, indeed, transcended it – it seemed to fill more than the hall, extending kilometres above, below and to either side of it. At the front of that projection, a vast spider-web of information showed streams of transactions, savings, investments, the labelling just about visible in order to show the workings of a whole Darkworld’s economy. About halfway between him and the wall, a discrete and pale red plane appeared; that marked the present, and said plane moved with agonising sloth towards the wall, consuming the ghostly vectors beyond it, which were the future transactions that the AI predicted with often astonishing accuracy. The Dual-Track Market, or DTM, was not quite a seer – it could not foresee, for instance, if a single individual on Vex 29 was about to purchase a small snack in a 24-hour store in a remote village – but once said purchase had occurred, the amount (but not the nature) of the purchase would transfer to the DTM’s database, where a prediction would be honed, and a flutter of re-arranging would occur. As was to be expected for the economy for trillions of people, said re-arranging was almost constantly occurring.

“Senator, I have already sent the message as programmed, but I will mention this anyway.”

“Shoot.”

“Well, it’s two issues. One is about the Gini coefficient, which has risen to 0.36. This is marginally above what I and independent bodies determined to be the one extreme of the ideal. It is not an immediate problem, but I suggest some form of regulation or redistributive measure be raised in the Senate nonetheless.”

“And the other?”

“I am concerned about sub-reserve trading. Such activity has largely remained small-scale up until now. In the last four days I have detected what I suspect to be the symptoms of a bubble. One bank in particular seems to possess some 1.1 billion Sigs in potential losses. I can only urge action on this front.”

“No problem. I trust your judgement in any event.”

And he did. The DTM was an all-seeing eye, for sure – but it was one that could not be bribed, extorted or made to confess. The same could not be said for the Senate.

3

Cave 13, Semjenfen city, financial district, was the kind of place that had a swagger about it. Unjustifiably so, Tskeye thought; this place was the sort that gave the DTM headaches and didn’t always provide the kind of payoff it should. Perhaps he was just old-fashioned, but frankly, it all seemed to pale in importance compared to the work of farmers, factory workers and so forth. Places like Vex 27 were admittedly poorer without such sectors in their economy, but by a similar merit, those places always seemed to be steadier sources of growth.

Today, though, he was going to find out exactly what these people were about. He was determined to say “fuck it” to every preconception he had.

The building he aimed right at first was a huge, palatial silver building, its logo blazed across the front.

“Welcome to Industrial Sky Banking, sir. Do you have a prior appointment?”

“I have to admit not,” Tskeye replied, “but… there is the small matter of nine hundred thousand pounds that need growing.”

About one point two million Sigs, he knew, but either way, the story did its job; one million pounds or Sigs would have seemed too precise.

“Does any particular area interest you?”

He brushed aside a number of lewd potential replies. “I think sub-reserve investment seems to be an interesting new area. But I could do with knowing the facts.”

“Well, if you can’t ask a bank about money… the wait should be about 1/50. Is that OK?”

“Should be fine.”

4

He was taken to an upper-floor office that seemed to be elaborately yet authoritatively furnished – an office designed for impressing clients, no doubt far more so than for accomplishing actual work. And that window, which essentially replaced an entire wall, was surely not helpful at all.

“Sub-reserve lending,” began the man who apparently worked in the office – he had introduced himself as Henoan Fedraxul – “is quite an exciting growth area in investments right now. Truly. And you’ve come to the right place, Mr. Tskeye, because we are the biggest investors in that area – so far, we’ve committed one point one billion Sigs as a test balloon.”

The Senator almost betrayed his identity at that point, but held back his shock.

“But you have to be first in these markets. If you set a precedent, then the fact that you’ve been in the game longer inspires confidence. Markets generally are about confidence, but this, this is crucially about confidence. You have to be a sure bet. Whatever you do, sir, if you are in, you are in at some point in the next eleven days. That is the one thing, above all else, that you should take from today. You have a deadline.”

“Any particular reason?”

Fedraxul gestured out of the window, pointing simply towards a huge tower that Tskeye guessed was about a kilometre away. Despite the distance, however, it had a gargantuan presence; it surely extended several kilometres upwards (or downwards) towards the Vex lands below, and it tapered to its summit, forming a huge truncated pyramid. On the side of it, at the halfway point of the tower, the logo of this competitor glowed in shadow, the jagged text looking like a cartoon depiction of a mountain range.

“Industrial Sky is the biggest bank locally on Cave 13,” he continued, “it just about has a competitive edge on Darkworld Semaphore, for now. But Redreyen-Saarg is the largest institute of any kind to do with economics, statistics or mathematics across both of these galaxies. In eleven days’ time, they will have their AGM, and there, their employers and shareholders – for the most part, practically the same thing – will vote on whether to liberalise their memorandum and enter the sub-reserve market. When they do, the distortions in the market will be immense. We are the bank best placed to weather that storm.”

“Why don’t I just invest with Redreyen?”

“Legally, nothing stops you. But, and however unprofessional it sounds, it’s true – that place is a frickin’ cult. Best of luck, as an outsider, getting into that place. We welcome all comers; they don’t.”

Tskeye looked at the Redreyen tower, which seemed no less unsociable than the building he was in. Still, Redreyen-Saarg was not in the market. This was probably something the DTM could have told him, but the important thing was that he knew for sure, and he knew when it would most likely change. There was one thing he needed to have confirmed, however.

“Fair enough. But before I go through with this, I could do with knowing how exactly this whole thing works.”

Fedraxul leaned back on his chair and made a look that Tskeye recognised from many, many advisors, the assessing look of someone trying to judge how much complexity an explanation should contain.

“The principle is simple enough. What we do, in effect, is sink our Sigs into a created currency, which we then sell to other clients in return for pounds, or Sigs, or even their sub-reserve currency.”

“Is that even legal? I mean, I guess it is, but-“

“It is perfectly legal. For one, we have to sign an exchange contract every time, which effectively renders the whole thing a kind of barter. Enough of those barters generates its own market anyhow, and once you have a market, you have the potential for relative price signals to arise.”

Tskeye knew they’d have some mechanism, though. Those exchange contracts were almost certainly signed automatically, their terms determined through AI as the deal arose. This slowed due process by a picosecond, tops.

“Right.”

“The point is, once you’ve invested in an Isean Mark, or IM – that’d be our sub-reserve – you’re effectively ‘under’, to use the parlance. It’s worth bearing in mind that, whatever happens down there, whatever you trade back and forth, it means nothing until you’ve converted these things back into Sigs. From there you can jump back into pounds easily enough.”

“This sounds pretty complicated.”

“Then if I were you, I’d back out now,” Fedraxul said. He got up from his seat and walked over to the window, facing the Redreyen tower. “One of the rumours about Redreyen-Saarg, unconfirmed mind, is that they’re planning to go three levels deep. A reserve of a reserve of a reserve. If they do that, there’s no limit to how deep and wide this might get. Or the opportunities. With or without you, Mr. Tskeye, we’ll be coming up with billions in Sigs.”

5

“You have returned earlier than I expected.”

“Well, I don’t think anyone asks you to make predictions about that.”

The DTM cycled through various data on its screen, showing GDP, PPP, inflation, exchange rates. It didn’t need to do this, but in a sparse room, rarely occupied, and containing little but an AI that did not have a mobile, visible component, it seemed like the best way to the machine of conveying some kind of activity. Tskeye, for his own part, paced around the room, and indeed had plenty of space to do so.

“I decided to follow up your mention of a market bubble.”

“The Senate have scheduled a vote in fifteen days. It was deemed a moderate priority.”

The Senator sighed. “What if,” he said, “I was to tell you that Redreyen-Saarg will enter the same market that could potentially cause the liabilities you identified in Industrial Sky, only in ten days’ time?”

For several seconds, the DTM said nothing. On screen, it merely flashed up the message: “factoring in new information, gradation and multiple scenarios in progress.” Around the text, the usual graphs and charts continued.

“Senator, I would advise that you stand back for best viewing,” the machine finally said, and as Tskeye turned, a line appeared, presumably marking the area he was supposed to be in.

He turned and found himself confronted with a familiar projection; the huge, sprawling tangle of vectors was back, the ghostly lines beyond the present swelling into immense density and then thinning out.

“So what’s going on?”

“There’s a riot going on. A storm brewing. A crash coming. I’ll push the ECSCON rating to 1 and the vote up to tomorrow; when the Senate sees this, the vote will probably not be questioned. Anything beyond that and I would have to draft reflex regulation.”

The Senator merely nodded, although the screen briefly flashed up, through the fog of the projection, the local Shango language’s version of a question mark, the word “what”, in counter-response; the machine quickly realised that this was the approach of being “understated” instead of reacting proportionately. A proportionate reaction might well have been difficult to convey, however. Reflex regulation – in which the DTM slapped down its own autocratic will, no questions asked – on the kind of scale being mooted here would have been unprecedented.

“Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. You are presumably constantly aware that reflex regulation can only be used for the obvious, the plugging of issues that would cause immediate flatlining-“

“Et cetera. Yes.” The projection folded back. “I am fully aware of my role, Tskeye. I know full well that I am an eye, little more. Which raises one thing, Senator, which I feel you could spearhead.”

“You can’t take this to the President?”

“What, walk over to his office?”

Tskeye winced. Being outsmarted by a machine, he could take easily. Being outwitted by one just felt more painful, somehow. He turned away from the screen, headed towards the wall, then turned and put his back up against it. He screwed his eyes shut in mock terror. “Shoot.”

“Externalities. Or as I should call them, cataracts.”

Tskeye made a rude gesture at the screen; the screen itself threw up the word “explain”, betraying its relative blindness to the externalities of Shango communication, too. The Senator disobeyed the imperative and dealt with the original request.

“Remind me again how you are supposed to handle qualitative data?”

The machine threw up an extensive diagram that covered the screen like a mosaic. Tskeye was sure he had seen such a diagram before, although a longer analysis confirmed that it had been updated. The Senator wondered briefly how much RAM this took away from the DTM’s actual job, although it probably found a way around such things. He remained silent for a long time, but the machine did not give way; it merely refreshed the image, and raised projections of loading bars and symbols. He shook his head. Caught between a pincer movement of too-smart-for-their-own-good bankers and too-smart-for-their-own-good machines, he started to think that he should have backed away from the whole issue.

“Fine, I’ll raise it,” he agreed at last, and headed towards the door. “Just don’t expect results.”

“Well, you are only human.”

“Well,” Tskeye said as he reached the doorway, “perhaps you’d like to walk over to President’s office, if you’re so above imperfection.”

The DTM said nothing.

6

The Senate debate the following morning was swift and relatively efficient; starting from an apparent parity of opposing views, those who supporting immediate action manage to whittle down those who urged caution with the DTM’s report. Tskeye knew that, 1/50 into proceedings, there were almost certainly enough votes to pass the measure, but it would take another 2/50 or so before a vote could come up. In the end, the debate got personal; certain Senators who took campaign contributions from Redreyen-Saarg were made to answer some difficult questions; those who opposed PESMA altogether had to be reminded that the system itself was not on the table for debate.

“Well I would like to remind the chamber that, if we refuse to debate the fundamentals of the system, those fundamentals will slide into an area of complacency-“

“What is your point in relation to the debate?” Rembarc asked.

“My point is, I will vote against this and any other measure until this urgent matter is seen to by the whole of the Senate.”

“So you will jeopardise the whole economy, and therefore put the livelihoods of millions at risk, purely to see your own personal agenda pushed through?”

“Not exactly…”

Such debates wilted as the time passed. Eventually, the moderating AI’s programming brought up a rough approximation of boredom.

“Is there any other business, are there any other objections? A vote will commence in 1/2500 otherwise.”

No-one did, and Tskeye entered his vote as soon as he could. He watched as the votes stacked up – a few against, no doubt the Redreyen-backed Senators holding out to the very end, but many, many more against; barely two-thirds of the vote had come in before an unblockable majority had arisen, and still the votes kept coming in. Tskeye smiled; the most unanimous vote he had ever seen, over ninety per cent in favour, and he had made it happen.

The final votes piled in, and “measure passed” appeared on the screen. Tskeye decided to leave right then; there were other issues, agricultural affairs, crime bills and the like, but he’d done enough. He headed home, pausing as he passed the Treasury, but deciding against going in.

7

“What the fuck did you think you were doing?”

Rewenn Seddep, Chief of Investments at Industrial Sky, barged into Henoan Fedraxul’s office and delivered this demand for motives. Fedraxul himself was unmoved.

“Yes, I know what you were thinking. I’ve killed sub-reserve trading. But it was all part of the plan,” he replied calmly, and with a crass sweeping motion shoved the contents of his desk inelegantly into a large flimsy box jammed up against it. Seddep sat down.

“What plan?”

“Well, for one, we managed to make Redreyen-Saarg sink three million into coming up with a plan that, thanks to me, ended up being blocked. But that was merely a side prank. The true genius does not lie within this office.”

Seddep nodded. Fedraxul was going to get the benefit of his doubt, at least until he saw what was on the other end of the teleport pad he was being gestured onto.

He wound up in a place that seemed familiar to him; not because he had been there before, but because it was in images he had seen so many times before. He was in a large room, somewhat akin to a large concrete warehouse, upended for height rather than internal space, with a huge screen covering one wall at the end of it.

“Just about everything behind the entrance lobby was demolished for this,” Fedraxul explained, “five hundred million of the investment was sunk into this. A perfect replication of the Dual-Track Market over at the Treasury. It’s programmed exactly the same, to the very last line, so the predictions are the same, because it has the exact same thoughts at any given moment.”

“This is insider trading, surely?”

The machine itself decided to field that objection. “Not if you could derive the code entirely by studying the behaviour of the device since its inception.”

Seddep broke into an incredulous smile. “It works. Or at least, I hope it does. And it’s all legal. Fedraxul, this is brilliant!”

“All told,” Fedraxul continued, “the sub-reserve ruse made some four hundred million profit. But we must be careful not to overuse this. A sudden increase in profits will look suspicious; we want to look like miracle-workers, not fraudsters, even if we are neither.”

The two men stood facing the machine, which had resumed rotating between various graphs and statistics. Seddep accepted that this worked – indeed, it more than worked. It was a genius plan, one that could make hundreds of billions of pounds, or Sigs, all the while dancing a mocking jig on the line of legality. But there had to be a catch, he thought. Someone had to find out, sooner or later. Maybe the government would shut it down, or maybe what they were doing was illegal and there had been an oversight. Maybe the AI’s thinking would deviate, and a flaw, or even a mere difference – the two were coterminous – would result in some kind of yaw away from accuracy, causing the whole damn scheme to collapse as the certainties turned out to be lies. Or perhaps the worst-case scenario would unfold, where Redreyen-Saarg would independently discover this ruse; those motherfuckers would run and run with such a thing. They’d make trillions, they’d obliterate the competition. They had to remain oblivious – that was a given.

In other words, the scheme was a piece of pure genius, but it was a fragile piece all the same.

“So that was the real plan, Seddep. This machine. We call it TOM.”

“Tom?”

“Triumph of the Market. Because whatever else happens, that lot down at the Senate will never be ahead of us. The market always wins.”

“It sure does, Fedraxul.”

Re

Date: 1,995,227 A.D. (6,721 years after the Intersection Wars), P.W. 21,313 (Shango), N.A. 2140 (Qareen)
Location: RPDSR of Bhoot, Planet Power

1

#We should just invade. Smash every governmental system and seize it all by force. The people are decent, but the government – they deserve no mercy at all.#

#Prolo, would you like to at least come into the office before you start off with this?#

The QPA veteran came through the door, not aggressively, but certainly brusquely, and slapped a disc onto the desk. Naturally, the architect lines pointing to files began to slowly uncoil, but neither he nor the section leader went near it.

#We’re offering you a second mission to the Bhoot Republic. But of course, you knew that already.#

#Yeah. Every idea around the office has blabbed about it for the last few days#, Prolo replied, #let me ask, Sanger6, why do we need a third mission into those four chunks of crap again?#

The section leader sighed. Leaning forward, he looked to the disc, but seemed to think better of whatever he was going to do with it, and looked back to Prolo. #Point is this. The Bhoot claim to be a democratic country. Free and fair and clean elections. We have no reports to the contrary. And if, as you say, the government deserves no mercy, then perhaps this is where it is truly justified.#

Prolo did not seem to be persuaded.

#You want justification?#

He reached over to the disc, pulled out one image file, and tapped it. The image filled the whole desk, utterly sharp and completely clear.

#That’s your justification. That alone should be enough. And yet we don’t act.#

Sanger had seen the likes of it before; the factory-like building with an entrance but no exit. Prolo had clearly altered the image to be black and white, probably, Sanger thought, an emotive gesture, but one with minimal impact anyway; the buildings were usually white, stained with black ash, and the ground surrounding it was usually grey stone or pallid mud.

#Look, Prolo, we are not about to invade four planets on your say-so. And I’m not the one who makes the call if we do. So the question is, are you in on this third mission, or are you out? Because, like you said, there are plenty of idiots in the office who would go instead.#

Prolo scowled. Sanger knew he had caught him in a bind – he didn’t want to go, but then again, the whole Bhoot thing was, if only partly, his thing. He had been – no-one else in the office had. Sanger had always dreaded to think what the man would’ve done had he taken Weczer’s place on the first mission, but thankfully, that was a purely hypothetical thought.

#I’ll take it#, he said at last.

#Knew you would. And take your disc, you’ll need it.#

#Election coming?#

#Election probably underway when you get there. They’re meant to happen every seven local years – about three of ours. But of course, campaigning goes on for longer than a mere election day, from what we’ve heard. Apparently they’re quite different too.#

Prolo nodded. The sociologist in him would always be won round.

2

He had continued to push the invasion angle right up until he had gotten on board the Turncoat/Toerag/Terrible, at which point there was no real way of continuing. He had come up with a strategy, even, consulted as many military sources as possible, but all to no avail.

#Invasion might well free these people, Prolo, but it will free them into a world of resentment and anger. They’ll view us as the people who disrupted their ordinary way of life. And besides, we have a far better strategy. In fact – I will bind that strategy up with the ship. When you approach Power, you’ll see. Trust me.#

#Well, Sanger, I’ll suppose I’ll have to.#

Once he was on the ship – a large, highly powered and very luxurious affair, as these missions naturally called for – he found that out of the twenty-person team from the second mission, nine (including him) were going again. How nine people divided neatly by two he couldn’t imagine; all the same, he was simply glad that everyone around him had gone before. Some neophyte complaining about the place was the last thing necessary on this mission. “It’s terrible” was not enough; what they needed was “it’s terrible beyond reprieve – here’s the proof”.

They were a day out from Power – about nine hundred parsecs at their not-quite-top-speed rate – when whatever genius plan the QPA had was finally revealed. “Urgent message for Prolo3 – please visit bridge” said the message that flashed up holographically in front of the man himself as he strode down one relatively anonymous corridor on the third deck.

3

Prolo,

Sanger passed this message on personally regarding the upcoming mission. It is intended to be given to you, in order for you to disseminate to the other eight crew members – this seems incredibly inefficient, in my view, but that was his wish and I trust he knows what he’s doing.

Essentially, the open statement – to study the election – remains, but the operational specifics are different from the second mission. In particular, attached is a sub-mission, the exact nature of which was not revealed to me, named Operation Defcon Four. As for the main mission, the following prescriptions apply:

The nine people gathered are to form three teams, one for each planet except Glory.

You are not to receive the customary prosthetic jobs; instead you will be going as overt visitors from the Qareen Confederacy.

The jurisdiction you submit to is to be Confederate law, not local law. Resist all attempts at law enforcement from local authorities.

There is additional equipment onboard in Kaizener Court 6 (I note that you have, logically enough, only used Court 1) which is intended for use on the mission. Their use should be relatively obvious when discovered, and should be particularly useful for the purposes of data logging.

Expense accounts are unlimited.

The best of luck on this mission – we hope you discover the evidence that we, and indeed you, are looking for.

ETA is 93.88.04; option for top speed equates to 84.49.24.

4

“So what are those buildings about?”

“They’re for dissidents.”

“What kind of dissidents?”

“Well, the kind that trouble… the order in our society?”

“How?”

“Well, they cause trouble?”

“What kind of trouble?”

“They disrupt… the smooth flow of operations, I guess?”

“What kind of operations?”

“Well, government operations.”

“Yeah, but what does the government do?”

“Maintains order.”

“But how does it maintain order?”

“It takes away the dissidents.”

“Alright. Why are the dissidents causing trouble?”

“Because they dislike our way of life.”

“And why’s that? Why the hate?”

“Because they’re… they – they don’t – they don’t like the laws in our society. So they break them.”

“Do they have a point?”

“Well, not every law around here is a great one. But we voted in the governments that made them.”

“But if the government makes bad laws, isn’t it failing its people?”

“Yes, but we can always vote them out.”

“What if the people you vote in don’t repeal the laws.”

“Well, we can vote them out too. We’ve got that freedom.”

“What if the laws never get repealed?”

#Prolo, seriously, stop already.#

5

It was just like he remembered. Actually, that was wrong; everything was different, but only on the surface. On the surface it was a damn carnival in every city they drove through, in every street Team 1’s satellites surveyed and filmed. Underneath, though, was the same flaking, crumbling mess that had been there last time.

He was amazed, like he was last time, with how quickly he could think in terms of money. Of course, as soon as he bought every newspaper he could find. Journalistic intrigue, organically denied the route of questioning the fundamentals about the election, took the path of least resistance and concentrated utterly on the minutiae instead. Given only this, it was all he and his colleagues, Kojen2 and Alar9, could really study, and given the numbers they had to hand – 50 of the smaller local units (they had dozens of these methods of exchange on Power alone – absurdly wasteful, but no doubt all part of the plan) typically bought one of the newspapers they had to hand, which in turn explained that the election could see the spending of several billion of the larger units on either side of the divide – be it the Progressive Future Party or the Traditional Values Coalition. Of course, several billion divided by a half equated to double the numbers of billions, and if half a unit could buy so much paper – but then again, the paper itself carried adverts, which quite possibly dropped the price of it.

The three of them couldn’t agree on what the real price of the paper would be – but then again, they had no data on it, and instead went about collecting political advertisements instead, filming images and videos and grabbing as many different kinds, although the homogenous stamp of logos, liveries and slogans made duplicate specimens an ever-present hazard.

As he sat there at the end of the day, scrolling the images across the unfolded screen he had spread across the bed, Prolo realised that this was what fun had been reduced to, now he was here.

6

#I swear these assholes shake hands with just about everybody on the damn planet.#

Kojen may well have thought that, but as they examined the nano-cam feed, Prolo knew that the man shaking hands was no doubt a simulacrum, and that the security surrounding him was a masquerade. The real President (and no doubt his counterpart in opposition) were no doubt sat in palaces that put their spaceships to shame; stood in front of a huge, ultra-high-definition screen, and quite literally putting the words into the mouths of those dolls. To actually have the President meet people would be too much of a security risk, and security was, after all, what both parties prided themselves on providing to their people. You were safe in the Bhoot Republic – they could guarantee it. Only this, and nothing more.

7

The three of them had initially booked into a hotel in the centre of Planet Power’s capital city, but Alar9 had subsequently come up with a different idea for the days afterward.

#We should build a house. It’ll be less expensive over a year and a third.#

#Won’t it be three local years?# Prolo contended.

#Yes, but that’s-#

#A year and a third of ours, right, I get it. But we’ve got unlimited expenses. And we don’t have to hide away.#

#I know we don’t, but… I have a feeling about this Operation Defcon Four. I think this is part of what we’re meant to do with it.#

#So what kind of residence do we need?#

#I’m thinking a big one. Like Uyeyba Jaradicio or Sedrain7/p45. Unmistakable.#

They eventually agreed on something that looked part palatial, part pyramid; a huge, towering, slab-like pile on top of a hill outside the city. It did what, at the very least, Alar9 hoped it would do – the news quickly switched from the campaign to the mansion on the hill; confusion and unease swept first across the city, then across the planet, and the election candidates found that they had to respond to this. The media, knowing how stupid it would be to destabilise the whole republic, figured that they would bury the story on other worlds, or at the very least, speculate with no evidence that it was a new Presidential Palace. Skimming over the story quickly allowed as few people as possible to spot the large pictograms around the building that marked, in both the team’s Qareen and the local Bhoot language, “Qareen Confederacy – Third Mission to the Bhoot Planet Power.”

Around thirty days after the house had gone up, the impact finally spilt over into advertising.

“We promise to take action against those who threaten the Bhoot Republic – including those offworlders who would build a fortress just outside our very own capital,” Kojen read aloud, then laughed. “You know what this means, right?”

#Go on#, Alar prompted.

“We’re altering this election.”

#Oh shit#, she replied, #that’s probably not what we’re supposed to do.#

“Well we’ve done it,” Prolo replied, “the incumbents – the Traditional…Values…Party? Whoever they are, they know they can’t do anything. We’d have the alert signal out of there, calling for the whole Confederation, long before a single bomber turns up, and they know that. They know the opposition can’t do anything, either, but they can’t prove it.”

“So we’re probably bringing down a political party without having to do anything other than show up and explain who we are,” Kojen said, “it’s brilliant. It’s power, Prolo.”

Alar dropped the signalling. “We’d need to check the polls, though.”

8

As soon as Prolo left the building, the day after the advert, he found himself blinking at the midday sun (he and his colleagues maintained an obstinate Spaceplane schedule, and to hell with the city around them), and then blinking further at the police drone hovering above him. Said drone kept a constant shadow over him as he drove into the city. He couldn’t help but smile; he knew that said drone was, in turn, being tracked by a spy satellite of his own, primed and ready to send off the call for reinforcements. He knew that, and the people controlling the drone knew that.

His trip was simple enough, anyhow. He would grab some newspapers – paying for them, although he wondered as he did so for how much longer he would do that, and whether punishing an individual shopkeeper was acceptable in order to stick it to the whole rotten core of this society. He then drove on, seeking something of suitable importance; finding a factory owned by a suitably large local corporation would do, he thought. He understood that this was a munitions factory; not essential, but useful for what he was attempting.

He pulled the vehicle into the parking area, unfolded a screen from his pocket and searched through the image files listed. He selected one – bold red writing, he thought, would look good against the black-painted metal construction of the factory. He reached to his ear and switched on a comms unit, which he linked to the screen in his hand.

“Calling Sat Prolo slash 5,” he said, and got a beep in acknowledgement. “Proposing the following stencil.”

He dragged the image file he had selected into a small box that had appeared on the screen.

“Would this contravene regulations as you have received them?”

“No evidence to suggest as much,” was the laconic reply that he received onscreen.

“OK. Could you apply it?”

The screen blinked off, and he looked up to find the factory covered in text – in the local language, “vote neither – choose the third way and smash this corrupt system”, repeated over and over.

Satisfied, he got back into his vehicle and drove home. He’d convert nobody – he knew that much – but that wasn’t the point. A government, rolling around slowly towards an election year, no less, would feel that slowly rising sense of panic yet again as they saw this, and then feel it rise even more when they realised that crucial factor about the technology behind that graffiti.

For it wasn’t merely painted on; it was embedded in the metal, impossible to remove unless the entire factory was bombed into oblivion – in other words, if the government was prepared to turn against the very kind of big business it was symbiotically intertwined with.

9

#The polls! The polls! It’s what you went out for, damnit!#

#Wait, damnit.#

Alar9 was the most impatient, but Kojen was also hanging around the door. Prolo simply gestured for them to move aside, which they did, and then moved through to the central living room. Locating the largest table, he slapped down each newspaper in its own space, and sure enough, the polls were headline news on almost all of them.

“Traditional Values Coalition down 6… down 5… down 7… down 3… down 9,” Kojen read off each of them.

“We’d need to look at that by planet,” Prolo pointed out, “because if that’s all based on Power, then there’s still even more potential once the news escapes.”

“We’re actually taking them down,” Alar said incredulously, “aren’t we gifting these people, these other people, the election?”

“And if this proves embarrassing enough, that party’s over for good. We could be turning this into an outright dictatorship if there isn’t a third party there to step up and-“

“Thus removing a key part of the legitimacy of the system,” Prolo continued, “but of course – if we stay, after the election, then that other party will have to deal with us.”

“You think they will?”

“What do you think?”

The three of them stood silently in the room, looking to one another and, without having to speak or signal, asked whether they really were going to get away with what they were doing. But of course, Prolo thought, they were not truly doing anything. The odd prank behind the government’s back, for sure; but other than that, the biggest real threat they had posed was building the house.

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Alar said at last, “we just shouldn’t. It’s not our place.”

“We’re following orders. I mean, OK, I embedded a subversive message into a factory-“

“You did what?”

“Which one?”

“Revolution Armaments up on the other side of the city. But the point is, we haven’t fired any weapons, we haven’t killed anyone, haven’t stolen from anyone. I’ve defaced property, but I haven’t destroyed it, it’s still fully functional. Even if they wanted to move against us, they’d only be able to get us under the three-people-meeting law, the communications laws, and for fairly large-scale vandalism.”

Kojen dragged some graphics across the table-screen, throwing newspapers aside as he did so. Hastily throwing pictograms together, he pushed them into a box he drew in the middle of the table, where they subsequently exploded into a mass of text in 3D projection, where shards of sentences were flung in tangled vectors from a central point at eye level.

“Apparently, all of that considered and convicted results in indefinite panopticon time. Normally. We avoid the factories thanks to Offworlder Immunity.”

“Offworlder Immunity?”

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a misnomer.”

Prolo nodded. “You see, Alar, this is the thing – this government, this complex of military and politicians and media and business, they can’t even be honest about the simple things.”

He walked towards one of the smaller tables, where campaign literature was stacked up in piles to shoulder height. A convenient example appeared at the top of the stack. He held it up to Alar, and she read the headline text, bold and all-caps: Traditional Values won’t touch that Mansion on the Hill. Progressive Future will. Vote for us in one year’s time.

“Like I said, dishonest about the simplest things. And that’ll bite them back, in a year.”

10

The results coming in proved unsurprising.

Current News: Election Update: Power [TV 3, PF 113, Undeclared 135], Strength [TV 9, PF 102, Undeclared 93], Glory [TV 97, PF 103, Undeclared 19], Destiny [TV 1, PF 66, Others 2, Undeclared 4], Total [TV 110, PF 384, Undeclared 251].

#They’ve won already. PF has the Presidency.#

#Alar > All: This early?#

It was hardly surprising to the three of them, or for that matter, the majority of the Bhoot Republic’s ten billion citizens. The Mansion on the Hill that had provided Planet Power with an inert threat had been tripled on other worlds, with the other teams, over the previous year. With Planet Glory, however, the media kept things covered up – for fear that citizens, and hence their viewership, would slip out of control, which served to provide a useful control group to the mission.

#So what’s the scenario now? I mean, what happens, exactly?#, Alar asked.

#Well, apparently the votes were counted in places that favour TV, so PF will almost certainly get more of a mandate than they have at the moment amongst the undeclareds.#

As if to prove this, an undeclared was called for Progressive Future.

The team had, along with the other two, employed an extensive network of satellites, nanobots and so forth and trained them on the electoral machine – this was, after all, what the mission was about. And yet, to Prolo’s dismay, they had found nothing. Everything at the core of the election itself was clean – no stuffed ballot boxes, no fake voters, no numbers invented from nowhere. The technology allowed for plenty of electoral fraud, but the political elite did not. Instead, it seemed, they had surrounded the clean process with a corrupt, dirtied everything-else, forming a large torus ring of propaganda and brainwashing that perfectly framed (and hence was invisible to the citizens) that shining core of decency.

So, Prolo realised, the third mission had failed. Only this Operation Defcon Four, something they still hadn’t been told the nature of, would achieve anything here, because the smoking gun simply wasn’t present.

#Got the final report on the manifestos, had it run through most of the AI support and they all concur.#

#All concur with…#

Kojen worked the graphics on the screen and found the reports amongst the files. A graphic depicting those reports shuffling and merging together followed, and finally the figures were there.

#Put simply, in word terms the manifestos are 53.4% identical. In other words, they’re more than half repeated, word-for-word, before any clever editing and rewording takes place.#

#And after?#

#99.2%.#

#Some choice.#

#I’ll say.#

The day after the election was muted; whilst Progressive Future had won, by a landslide in fact, in all Presidential and governmental elections, this was largely what the people had expected. What they had not expected was for the view of the landscape around many of their cities to change in the way that it did. A brief look up into the distance had previously revealed, around each of three planets’ capital cities, a single, ziggurat-shaped house, large, covered in the local language spelling out a message about the Qareen Confederacy – whoever they were – but nothing more. It was worrying, but it was surely containable, and the fact that the previous government had done nothing had proven to be immensely disillusioning.

Yet they had reassured themselves that they had a choice – there was one other major party, that could realistically reach power, and once they did, they would – they had, after all pledged – that they would deal with the menace.  It logically stood, then, that the house, and the mysterious people who came down to the city, would soon be leaving.

Naturally, then, it was a shock when, two days after the election, another house appeared in a city on the other side of Power, and in the days that followed, this sudden appearance proved not to be coincidental. The new government insisted that they were still formulating a plan, but to no avail; more houses appeared, and once most of Power’s major cities had been covered, there appeared two houses either side of the capital, then three, then six. The government could only splutter about how their plan would soon be in place; credulity was being stretched.

These mysterious Qareen people didn’t fire any weapons, but they didn’t have to. To see the increasing numbers, the houses going up, surrounding them, it was clear – an invasion was underway, and the government was doing nothing. Citizens wondered aloud why those police drones, so eager to swoop down on those asking the wrong questions, were not already firing at the houses. Eventually, even the media asked, and when it did, the government responded.

It transpired that the houses had some kind of forcefield around them; no weapon would work. Even as the government sent bombers and missiles, advanced laser satellites, nothing worked.

The government pointed out to an increasingly angered populace that this was not their fault; it was, after all, the offworlders who were doing this. But of course, they had been dishonest about their promises, about the simplest things.

And a desperate people acted.