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.

Mass Times Acceleration

Date:1,991,972 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 10,991 (Shango), N.A. 1104 (Qareen)
Location:
from Spaceplane 106 to the edge of the Qareen-controlled galaxy

1

“Keo3. You are awarded Educational Attainment Section 17. With this knowledge, go forth, and may you do your people proud.”

Spaceplane 106 was one of the oldest constructions of its kind in the galaxy. Built thousands of years previously, it had been upgraded with the Qareen Confederacy’s technological improvements on occasions, but it nonetheless bore the hallmarks of its age; sometimes, the transparent dome could catch the nearby sun’s light in an odd way, betraying its presence, which it was not really supposed to do. The flat disc of land often got more than its fair share of visitors, too, because places like Spaceplane 106 got more than its fair share of history.

Yet there were benefits, too: being one of the oldest Spaceplanes gave 106 some of the oldest, and hence frequently most experienced, best and most prestigious establishments. The 5 Academy, one of the best of the best, had been good to Keo3, and it had allowed him to study at his leisure, but he had eventually chosen to leave; academia was not truly what he was cut out for, or so he felt. From here, though, came a problem every Qareen faced at the end of education: what to do in a society where no-one truly needed to work. A year on, he had fallen into the most regrettable life a Qareen could have: an idler. Someone who, far from doing nothing in particular, as many Qareen did, just did nothing.

He had spent half a local year as one, and too many days had involved him simply lying around, or even walking around, with a sense of emptiness. When he looked up at the slightly stretched night sky each night, it got a little too much, and he wondered whether anyone would miss him if he disappeared. The nearby lake on the edge of a3t5, his hometown, was bordered on one side by a steep and high cliff; to jump from there would finish it all on impact. Or maybe, he thought – but only slightly more hopefully – maybe he could disappear less permanently, to the more cosmopolitan areas of the Intersection Zone, where the galaxy the Qareen dominated overlapped with that of the Shango Federation. Of course, if another war happened, he would be at the vanguard, and he didn’t particularly want that; then again, a basic check of the calendar told him it was N.A. 1104; peace with the Federation had been managed for eleven centuries – it was, or should have been, a minor concern.

Eventually, his house spoke up.

“Keo3, we should discuss a certain matter regarding your routine.”

“Hmm?”

“I have noticed,” it observed, voice slightly too pitched to be Qareen, “that you have spent a high number of hours inside this residence. Your lifestyle in this respect is at least three standard deviations from the mean. Are you struggling for something to do?”

“I suppose I am.”

“I can help,” it said simply, and activating the holographic function of the living space floor, projected a mass of labelled graphics up to waist height as Keo3 stood at the door.

“Look, I don’t want to bother-”

“It is not a problem. I merely wish to offer advice and guidance.”

“Fair enough.”

He walked around the room, amidst the forest of options. Amongst them he saw a series at the back, above which gleamed the word “Exploration”. A series of sub-options were visible; exploring the local region, exploring the whole Spaceplane, exploring the whole damn galaxy; and it was that, quite remarkably, that made him realise something.

“I’ve never left 106.”

“As far as I’m aware, Keo, you indeed haven’t.”

“Maybe I should,” he continued. He thought about it, and when he did, he realised the idea was exactly what he needed. “Yes, I definitely should. How do I get a ship?”

“It’s not too hard. You just have to ask at the local access point.”

The projections were wiped away, to be replaced with a new one showing directions. The local access point, it transpired, was two miles away.

“Access depends on what kind of ship you’re looking for,” the house continued, “a slower vehicle, you might get immediately. A top-range ship might be a day or two away. A Shango commissioned one might take some time longer.”

Keo3 was already preparing to leave. He opened the door and checked the weather; it was a little cold.

“Assembler, one coat for current conditions.”

The assembler between the kitchen and living space flared and let out a low buzz, but inside a second of the command leaving his mouth a coat slumped to the floor of the cubicle.

“You’re not teleporting to there?” the house asked. A holographic arrow pointed to the teleport booth, a cubicle opposite the assembler.

“Nah. Sometimes the exercise is good.”

“And the cold?”

“It’s bracing. Character-forming. Or whatever other crap my parents always told me. But house… thanks.”

The house’s AI was not necessarily sentient enough to appreciate that last sentence, but it chalked up another recorded instance and noted the effectiveness of the job it was doing. Seconds afterwards, Keo left.

2

#Bafed7 > Keo3: What’d you get?#

#Keo3 > All Closed Reception: A6U9 Construction Type A1-1103. The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light. {schematic patched} Looks like this.#

#Uliska1 > Keo3: Good choice. Even M.E.A.C. would struggle to better that.#

#Keo3 > Uliska1: Similar waiting time, though.#

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate] I can imagine. [Bafed7] So they’re entrusting you with that?#

#Keo3 > Bafed7: Piss off…#

#Bafed7 > Keo3: I’m just kidding.#

#Uliska1 > Keo3: So can we come?#

#Keo3 > All CR: If you want. I’m gonna need crew for things, I suppose. Boardlayer to steer the damn thing, seeing as I probably can’t do it, and – are there any weapons on that? {schematic open, weapon search: positive} So someone needs to use that if we’re in trouble, which I might manage. But there’ll be other stuff, maybe. Everyone could pitch in. Bring friends. Bring friends of friends.#

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate] Sure. Bring the whole damn Spaceplane.#

#Keo3 > All CR: Sure. Why not?#

The three of them sat back in silence for a while. The view from Keo’s house, now that he looked at it knowing he would leave, had perhaps contributed to his sense of inertia; a flat plain that stretched forever onwards, viewed positively it was a symbol of limitless promise, but in his pessimism he had viewed it as the dull monotony his life had been. But he had purpose now. He understood exactly what he wanted to do; perhaps not in physical specifics, but in terms of mood – he wanted to go forth and construct an immense presence in space, reach out there across the parsecs and achieve something immense, so that no-one across the Qareen Confederacy could forget the name of Keo3/106.

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate]: Wow, we just thought this would be some kind of trip to somewhere.#

He realised that he had accidentally broadcast all of the previous thoughts to the other two, and made a conscious mental note not to lose control of his superconscious to that degree again. Bafed was the one who spoke next, and he transmitted his thought slowly, speaking as if trying to solve a crime or fit together a complex puzzle.

#Bafed7 > Keo3: I might be wrong, here, but… I think… if I recall correctly – what you said sounds like a – what is it? – a – Uliska, help me out?#

#I don’t know#, she said simply.

#An Astrostate! That’s it! You’re maybe looking to build an Astrostate, and possibly lead it.#

Keo wasn’t so sure about that. #First#, he told them both, #first we get the Kingdom Gone. An Astrostate would take years. It’s just that I wanted a purpose.#

3

The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light was not necessarily a large ship – at around three hundred metres long, and with around sixteen decks, it was at least half the size in all dimensions of a full-blown military vessel. What it lacked in size, however, it made up for in comfort, being a place where even the walls and ceilings were densely, softly and intricately carpeted. When Keo3 beamed onto the ship and walked around its corridors, he wondered if it was even faintly possible to injure himself on the ship. He tested this when he reached the engine room, and leapt off a balcony that was one deck up from the floor below; when he did, the Grab field weakened instantly, and he found himself floating down to the floor as if he had walked down an escalator instead of attempted free fall.

In the end, his encouragement to bring “friends of friends” hadn’t quite been taken up on, which was probably just as well, he thought. Even so, he found ten people aboard; himself, Uliska, Bafed, a couple of other friends he had invited, and five others he found himself not knowing too well.

Ten people across a sixteen-deck ship made it a little empty, but it also gave them a free run across the place. The sense of a small community helped him, as well. And slowly, as he got into the activities on the ship: observing the bright, star-forming regions near the Intersection Zone on the observation deck; forming an impregnable coalition in Kaizener Court Three, with a game that simply would not end, and checking the news feeds, which tracked various elections that were afoot, the incidents caused by various separatist factions across various planets, and some trade deal the Confederate government agreed with a small Republic known as the Bhoot.

#You’re going to need to keep tabs on these things, future President#, Uliska teased, although ten days in he was still insisting that he would not be forming an Astrostate. The idea was absurd, he thought, and as a man whose main focus in his academy studies had been history, he felt completely unsuited to running something as big as a whole nation. Still the notion kept coming up.

4

He finally gave in three days later.

The Kaizener game on Court Three had run since the beginning of the journey, and the scores were now over three thousand points apiece in the main game. Bafed’s coalition, of himself and four of the people who were new to Keo – the Rainfire – had an edge of about twelve points over the Pioneer coalition, which Keo played in. Of course, the AIs monitoring and refereeing the game were holding back other scores, which rendered the whole thing slightly illusory; for all they knew, that twelve-point lead was immensely deceiving.

Keo found himself as main player at the moment it happened, playing against Bafed, and Bafed’s serve at the time was a low shot that bouncing one-two against wall and floor before rising up again. Keo charged in, swung his racquet-bat in a messy, poorly timed effort, got a thick edge on the ball, and somehow managed to get it to move in a looping return, arcing several metres into the air before dropping and skimming the wall. Bafed was forced to charge in, and Keo simply tapped a drop shot that bobbed along the floor into a roll, another point easily won.

And bizarrely, it was at that moment, on that brief high (given that this completed a trio of brutally efficient plays across the last four points played), that the idea rose from the depths of his subconscious into a conscious thought.

#Let’s go for it#, he announced to everyone, on the court and on the balcony behind.

#Go for what?# Uliska asked.

#The Astrostate. Let’s make one. However you do it, exactly.#

A murmur of voices filed up in his superconscious; the game was half-thrown away as Bafed stopped to register his own opinion. #You’re mad – we weren’t really saying you should go for one now#. he argued.

#Well, let’s go for it and see how far we get. Worst case scenario is that we get in serious trouble and start appealing to the Confeds for help. And if we’re not stable, then maybe we can pitch ourselves close to Spaceplane 114,099 and that help arrives in minutes. {distribute: galaxy map – route to confeds}.#

The buzz of voices continued, a mass of thoughts moving through his superconscious as he reached for the ball that had rolled to a stop in front of him. He took his place behind the serve line and readied himself for the next point.

#I’m not ready#, Teru2, his catcher, told him, hurrying back behind the serve line.

#What about, we have a vote?# Uliska asked. #It’s what any sensible group of people would do over something like this, right?#

They agreed, and the votes were rapidly pooled together. Such a process was a slightly odd feeling, beyond conversation; there was a sort of qualitative focus in the room, and Keo could feel it, just there, suspended at head height right behind and equidistant from himself and Bafed. When the vote crystallised into detail, the spread was broadly seven to two in his favour, with one uncertain, and the two against prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. He had won that. The Kaizener game, however, would continue.

He lifted his racquet-bat, swung it down to meet the ball in a serve, and watched it bounce short of the wall.

“Fault, 1 of 2 permitted,” the wall-screen stated.

He was still eleven points down.

5

In a way, he could not quite believe that he had gone ahead with the Astrostate plan, but before long, Keo3 was in for a penny, in for the proverbial pound that the Qareen Confederacy had long since lost the use for, by and large. For days he paced about his room – which was now six former rooms he had collapsed the walls of, forming one huge suite in which he could arrange a mass of holograms within the space. Whenever he walked into the room, he was greeted by a labyrinth of diagrams springing from the floor and walls, showing typical Qareen state functions in splayed branches from the centre, summarising the conclusions of various political philosophers and scholars on how each department could be arranged, how the state as a whole could function, and so forth; their bullet points sprang forth from yet more diagrams plotting these views on various spectra according to their extremities.

In many ways, it started to become overwhelmingly, especially as, as far as he could see, overbearing, especially given that a Qareen state was by and large a minimal one anyway, whatever happened. The President’s Office, an intelligence agency, a department for foreign diplomacy, a justice department, the military, and two very minimal departments for education and health, which generally acted to ban quack medicine and false theories, were all that were really there on Spaceplane 114,099, and Keo reckoned that he would not even need at least two, perhaps even three of those.

So he gathered Uliska, Bafed, Teru and Kogr8 on the bridge, and together they focused on inviting ships into the brave new, if somewhat lightly sketched, venture.

#OK. We want to suggest that our place is more interesting than others#, Uliska established. #We need an angle. Something we can… sell this place on.#

#Sell?# Bafed questioned.

#None of us seem to be skilled at that#, Keo agreed. “Ship,” he asked, calling for all systems, “where is the nearest Astrostate to here?”

The Navigator’s holographic display, tucked away in the front right corner of the bridge, brought up a diagram, whilst large text flashed up on the wall directly ahead. “Nearest Astrostate: Republic of Valistan. 3.22 parsecs 063 Galactic west and 007 Galactic down. Estimated journey time 01.19.35.”

“Remarkably close,” Uliska said aloud. Indeed it was; the journey amounted to some twenty Earth minutes or so. The ship’s computer proceeded to dump information onto the same screen it had recently informed them with.

“The Republic of Valistan was formed in N.A. 1097. It is often a common feature of recently formed Astrostates to anchor themselves to relatively nearby Spaceplanes or Qareen-dominated planets; in this case, Spaceplane 113,764, which Valistan has been within five parsecs of for six of its seven years of formal existence.”

#That’s it! No need to go there at all#, Uliska suddenly cried. The rest of them were silent at this.

#What we do#, she continued, #is not anchor ourselves. Or maybe we give ourselves a sort of semi-anchor plan, to never be more than 03.00.00 away from a Spaceplane. But that’s our angle – we’re adventurous, we’re bold, we’re going were nobody else goes, and we’re having as much fun as we can along the way.#

#Sounds like a plan#, Kogr8 agreed.

6

The first ship to join them came two days after they put out the word. The Shovel-Ready/Clemency/Reducible Core swept in from the Galactic north and down, joining them as they headed inwards towards the Intersection Zone. With ninety-six civilians on board, the original group found themselves quickly outnumbered, having to introduce themselves to a large number of unknowns. A day afterwards, the Renaissance Fare/Rainstorm in Space joined them, with another sixty-seven people.

#It might take a bigger ship#, Oyret0, the apparent leader of the Shovel-Ready, told Keo. #That previous state you mentioned? The Republic of Valistan? I visited once. That’s what they were planning at the time. I doubt it’s being constructed now, but it will be in due course, and they’ll probably all move there, just one massive ship. It’s safer than smaller ships that can be picked off.#

#Where were these things during the Intersection Wars?# he asked.

#That’s a little before my time. But I understand that this strategy came about because of the Wars.#

#Shit.#

#Exactly.#

Keo wondered what Oyret’s agenda was, but she was advising him well, and he could not complain too much. The three ships flew on, approaching the edge of the stand-alone part of the galaxy, right before that ambiguous point where the collision began. The Kaizener game finally ended when Bafed missed a return and stumbled on his way to his Safe Zone. Another couple of days of subgames, and the Pioneers had won out. Keo hoped the victory would be symbolic of his future. He felt engaged, he thought; the previous fiftieth of a year had at times been exhausting, a rush of events compared to his previously inert lifestyle, and he had wondered what he was getting himself into. Even so, he mostly felt hesitancy; never fear.

7

#The 5 Academy? Quite a prestigious place. I heard it’s one of the top 20 such places in the whole Confederacy>>>#

Keo phased out Oyret’s seemingly constant stream of conversation. His superconscious memory would, in any event, log it all anyhow, should a question need answering. She had been doing this for quite some time, constantly asking questions, almost as if he was being interviewed for the job of President.

Ships continued to join. The Triage/Infinite Set and the Prototypical Design/Sui Generis/Autumnal both swooped into the previously three-strong group of ships, and as they reached the edge of the Intersection Zone, they were joined by the Half a Fighter/Score Draw/Level Six. This put them one-off the minimum for Confederate recognition, or so Keo had read from various sources. The Kingdom Gone, for its part, had begun to project a faint sphere around itself and all six ships, around fifty thousand kilometres in radius and with a magnitude of around zero from the outside. Maybe I haven’t studied politics, Keo thought, but surely the obvious thing to do is to claim territory.

At that point, however, he was moving through the third deck down, heading towards the bridge area, namely a room branching off it, which functioned, in effect, as a conference room. When he walked in, he spotted Uliska and Bafed, and only them. Fair enough, he thought; they were everyone he needed to speak to.

“Afternoon.”

“Same to you,” Uliska said.

“We’ve got news,” Bafed added, “good news. A seventh ship is arriving. As soon as it’s within the sphere we’ll be sending off recognition.”

“When will that be?”

“In around 42.11.33,” he replied, looking down at a ticking graphic flitting across the table. “First we need a name.”

“Can’t we put that to a vote?”

“We did, behind your back,” Bafed said. He moved his hands across the table, where about a dozen strands of text floated towards Keo. “Those we asked were having none of it. They want something to rally round, just like you didn’t ask for a vote before you put all this together.”

“Well I don’t quite get that. But let’s do it. Any ideas?”

“You go first.”

“Venturia? Voyagia? Something along those lines, I think. Slightly cheesy, but it’s a decent description.”

8

The Intersection Zone was fairly densely packed with Spaceplanes and Qareen-resident planets, relatively speaking, as if the victory in the Wars had given the Qareen an absolute right to dominate it. Even so, surprisingly few ships joined, even if a steady number continued to do so. So the ships plunged on through the galaxies, under the now-official banner of the Republic of Venturia, Keo did begin to wonder when he exactly decided to rush towards largely Shango space, which they were to reach within a few days.

It was when they reached the heart of the Intersection Zone, which, given their relatively slow speed and eccentric path, had taken around forty days instead of the twenty or so that they should’ve done, when it happened.

It was night, for one, so Keo had to wake up to the sound – no, the feel – of something huge knocking the ship sideways. Grab systems, operated by the weakest AI necessary, struggled the figure out which way was down, and so he flew across the room, skipped like a stone across a table and slammed back-first into the far wall before normality resumed. It transpired that those wall-carpets had their limits.

“Ship, what the fuck was that?”

“The Shovel-Ready/Clemency/Reducible Core has collided with this ship. Evading tactics were utilised, but anticipation of the action was low and hence their effectiveness was limited.”

He got up from the floor, rubbed his back and quickly got dressed, pulling a t-shirt-like garment over his head as he reached the corridor. He got to the bridge shortly afterwards.

#What happened?# he asked, although opening up to the rest of the ship revealed a lot of the same coming back to him.

#I’m getting a cognitive upload from the ship. I’ll be on the bridge shortly#, Uliska explained. #OK, here it is. {collision doc}.#

Keo examined it. The Shovel-Ready had very suddenly yawed into the Kingdom Gone‘s path, and whilst minimal damage had occurred to the Kingdom, the Shovel-Ready had suffered immensely, having moved to pass under the Kingdom and smashed the top half of itself to pieces. He wondered how it had collapsed so easily; it struck him as very suspicious, but what also struck him as odd was the damage that the Kingdom did take – as he examined the holographic overview, he saw the steering strangely jammed in place.

#Something is going on#, he told Uliska, #and I don’t like it.#

The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light continued to spear onwards, passing through the Intersection Zone in a matter of days. Keo sent out the call for help, but only the ships following could help.

The real problem, really, was one of cosmology. The galaxies’ collision formed a warped curvature, which meant that at some point, the ship’s inability to turn would make it simply leave the galaxy, and head off into intergalactic space. The only hope then would be for the Dharans, intergalactic demigods that they were, to take pity. It was not, however, something to be assumed.

Firing the engines asymmetrically did nothing for direction; sitting in the Boardlayer’s booth and laying down those forcefield boards had similarly little effect, although slamming into one head-on managed to slow the ship by an imperceptible amount.

Eventually, Keo admitted that the other ships would have to drop back; the one that didn’t was the Renaissance Fare/Rainstorm in Space. Loyal from the beginning, it decided to move in closer in a bid to beam people between the ships – a complex, awkward operation that was not helped by the speed of both ships.

Keo was the last to stay, and as a reminder, the ship kept warning him that it would soon been clocking up ever more parsecs of distance away from anything recognisably Qareen. At first, he was tempted to go down with the ship, as it were, until he realised that, firstly, this was a moronic romantic notion he had read somewhere, and two, the ship wasn’t about to go down anyway, merely onwards, relentlessly, until it crashed into something, a prospect that would become increasingly unlikely as it drifted into ever-less dense space.

Then he realised that the real reason was that he somehow felt responsible. The ship could easily be replaced; the Confederacy wouldn’t miss it. But he would – it was the first ship he had, for want of a better phrase, been in charge of, and that it was gone inside of a year felt terrible. He wanted to stand on the observation deck, gazing out at the stars as they thinned out into a void, but of course, the ship’s computer was having none of it, instead displaying a huge, ominous countdown to it passing the last star over the view.

#You have to get out of there#, Uliska told him on the last evening in the galaxy, as he wandered the corridors on the fourth deck. She was very forceful about it, he noted.

#Why?#

He wasn’t about to give up without a good reason.

#Just trust me, you’ve got about 22.00.00 left. The ship’s gonna hit something. We think.#

#You think.#

#We think. And we’re not taking the risk.#

He moved to the nearest teleport pad and stepped in, figuring that, really, he had found no solution on the ship anyhow. Perhaps, he thought, it could be salvaged remotely. Transmitting his location, he felt that sudden plunge into darkness, and then the burst back into light and the unfamiliar vision of another ship, along with a queasiness in his organs that was stronger than the slight shiver that beaming usually caused.

#We had to move you#, Uliska said. #Come to the observation deck and you’ll see. It’s moving in so damn fast.#

#Dharan.#

#Most definitely.#

He reached the observation deck and, sure enough, the long-range display had the vessel rushing in, travelling in a second what the best Qareen ships took an hour over. On the direct visual, which was tracking the ship, he saw nothing but the Kingdom Gone moving onwards for several minutes, until quite suddenly, with a visual bang, the Dharan vessel appeared: like a monstrous, vicious, angular explosion of blades and bayonets, the perimeter of its shielding simply treating the relatively tiny Kingdom like a particularly useless shot. With a flash and a splash of debris, the Kingdom had gone. After a few seconds of imposing stillness, the Dharan ship also vanished, instant acceleration so fast that Keo could almost imagine hearing the whoosh through a vacuum.

#It’s OK. We still have a nation to build.#

9

He checked and found Uliska on the bridge, sitting inert in the Boardlayer’s booth. No boards needed laying; the ship itself had wound down to a sub-lightspeed crawl, shuffling towards planet 3,092,100, some two thousand parsecs from the Intersection Zone, and would reach it in about a week at the current pace.

#Hey.#

#A ‘hey’ to you too.#

“What’s up?”

Her voice startled him slightly. He hadn’t heard her speak aloud in some time. He was quite sure that the previous contexts were conspirational, the passing of secrets without interception.

“The election?” she asked. “The project?”

#How is the project going?# he asked. No need to cover that up.

#It’s OK#, she continued. “Don’t avoid the real question.”

He sighed, and took the captain’s seat, span it round ninety degrees to face her. She got out of the booth – the chair didn’t turn – and sat on the armrest nearest him. “The investigation,” he admitted.

“It’s been five years.”

“I don’t care. I want answers.”

Uliska nodded. “You’re one determined bastard. Like I’ve been telling you, don’t push it too far.”

She paused, but noticed he wasn’t going to give in.

“Computer, screen please. Standalone.”

A large transparent pane assembled in front of the captain’s chair, and Keo span round to face it.

“Yitre9 has found very little in the past half a year or so. Right now, it’s all only speculation.”

The screen displayed a diagram filled with lines branching off from one another.

“The basic picture remains the same,” Uliska explained, “there’s thirty-seven possible explanations about Oyret, which form into eleven different self-consistent narratives. Only one can be true. Depending on which one, she was either an innocent person who made a terrible mistake, a Shango operative for any one of four organisations, a Qareen operative for either a terrorist faction or the Confeds in one of two capacities, a Stoppan operative, or a Dharan operative in one of two capacities. But it’s been five years, Keo. The trail is cold, and your guess is as good as mine. She’s dead, anyhow. All I’m saying is, perhaps the truth will never out, and it’s worth dropping.”

Keo was only prepared to put the issue on the back-burner. This was, after all, important: here he was, heading towards one of the biggest manufacturers in the galaxy, who would in part help create one ship for one, unified Astrostate. What would the Dharans, the Shango or anyone else do to that?

“The thing is,” Uliska said quietly, “sometimes, the truth isn’t out there. You just have to plunge onwards into the unknown.”

Vexing

Date: 1,990,714 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 7,002 (Shango), N.A. 703 (Qareen)
Location: Darkworld Vox

1

He was not unduly concerned about the gash to his head, and he was probably not too worried about the bomb that had caused it. From a better perspective, however, he knew what it all meant, and was aggravated about it all the same.

The shrapnel that had rained down on the nearby district had come from the gates to a mansion up on the hill, and as Tacka Qillosa got up from the ground and turned around, he could see the mansion itself in flames. He knew that the poor bastard who owned that mansion was probably not inside at the time, but being targeted in that way was almost certainly an unappealing prospect.

Personnel from the Justice Department snapped onto the scene fairly immediately, as the fire was rapidly neutralised. The perpetrators were most likely long gone, but the search was worth doing anyhow.

“Sir, are you alright?”

A nurse was stood by his shoulder.

“I should be OK.”

“You still need realignment.”

He nodded, and allowed her to place a small pad in front of him, and to nudge him onto it, all the while pointing a device to the back of his head. A slow blink of his vision later, he found himself exactly where he was, but healed, and stepped off the pad.

“Thanks,” he said and walked away from the scene, even as he occasionally glanced back. The place was becoming increasingly filled by medical teams and police, and he would merely be clutter amongst it. He looked around for a teleporter booth, found one, as they usually were, between two buildings along the street, and stepped in, this time specifying his own residence. Then he changed his mind, and decided on the Social Club nearby. Another slow blink, and this time the view changed, to the image of a large, three-storey cube of a building with a rustic, wooden appearance, which of course was all it was: it was no more made from dead trees than he was.

He made his way inside, moving his way past the maze of walls that created de facto rooms where the buzz of conversation occurred. Being programmable matter, they were always capable of shifting about according to the wishes of the clientele, and to Tacka’s annoyance, they did this a lot; a mere toilet visit could result in a new and completely unfamiliar place.

This time, however, he knew to simply search around, and somewhere he would find Nyluk, his partner of around six years, and explain what was going on.

“Tacka. How are you?” she asked.

“Not good. There’s been-”

“Another incident, I know. The news channels are speculating that it might be Cavers.”

“I’m pretty damn sure it was a bunch of Cavers. The question is, why now? It’s not like the Kings haven’t been around for some time.”

Indeed, the Kings were a social class that had emerged over the last two decades, locally, or thirty Shango years. Darkworld Vox had previously been known for its higher-than-average journalistic pretensions, but this trend, ever-present since the Darkworld’s construction, reached the point of what would, in a scarcity society, have been an economic bubble. Eventually, with more journalists than events worth reporting, those who had leapt onto the bandwagon late, such as those on both surfaces of Space 33, had leapt off and formed another one. This time, however, they jumped not to a profession, but a manner of consumption: large houses, elaborate clothing, as many gadgets as possible, however useless. They lived like kings with the burden of power, and hence they became accepted as that social class of Kings.

“There’s a war brewing, isn’t there?”

“Definitely. We should make plans. Apparently Central Government are building spare cities in Spaces 32 and 34.”

“Ah c’mon. We should do something a little special.”

“You think?”

“There’s never been a better excuse to. We should.”

2

“Computer, list house contents.”

Nyluk selected the resulting list filtered for debris (she did not need to know how much dust and fluff was about the place) and cited typical non-essentials. The house responded with 107 essential items.

“Remove all furniture.”

26 items remained, all hand-luggage capable, most of them of sentimental rather than functional value. She checked the Borderline and Eliminated lists for any errors, certified it as error-free and pressed enter. The house dimmed sharply, and besides a blueish glow, only spotlights remained to pick out the items on the list.

“Shit, Nyluk, did you have to?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s OK.” Tacka met her in the hallway. “Are we that desperate to leave? We might have days yet.”

“Perhaps not until you get a shard in your head again.”

“Oh come on. That was a one-off thing.”

Nyluk could just see into the lounge and the kitchen through the walls, rendered temporarily and slightly translucent by the computer, and the spotlights picking out various places in multiple drawers and compartments around the house. She decided that it was all too time-consuming.

“Computer, beam all spotlit items to the hallway.”

It did so, although a tumbling noise suggested that it had done so with less than perfect elegance. On the wall over Tacka’s right shoulder, she saw the multiple jagged lines of a profuse and detailed apology. Tacka took both of her hands in his and looked her in the eye.

“I just wonder why you are so keen to get away. This place… it’s where we grew up. It’s where we met. It’s important to us. And I just want to know why we can’t stay a while and plan what we’ll be doing.”

She shook her head and moved back into the bedroom, sitting down on the bed. Tacka followed her, sat by her side and put an arm around her.

“OK, first question. Where are we actually going? I mean, we discussed ideas, but…”

“I always thought Trevi would be nice,” Nyluk suggested.

“Trevi? But isn’t it a planet?”

Tacka felt the bed rise a little as the house systems realised they weren’t about to sleep.

“Sure, the gravity’s a little weird, but… it is romantic. I heard Romisa went there once.”

Nyluk had indeed heard it once, but Tacka had subsequently heard it a million times. He let out the lightest sigh that a set of Shango vocal cords would allow, which luckily happened to be a very light one.

“OK. You deserve something good.”

Nyluk threw her arms around Tacka’s neck and kissed him. “You,” she said, jabbing playfully at his chest, “are a wonderful being sometimes.”

She pulled herself away and, having half-fallen off the bed, and stood up facing him.

“Next ship’s in 7/90 from surface port 105 West,” he said.

“See,” she beamed. “You wanted to take me.”

Tacka gave a satisfied smile as a set of red jagged lines blinked off the wall in front of him.

They walked to the door together and gathered the items in plain, boxy hovercases, allowed the house to lock itself and headed out towards a nearby teleporter booth, which was just across the road between the two buildings opposite.

“We still didn’t get ours repaired, did we?” Nyluk abruptly said.

“It’s OK. We’ll sort it when we get back.”

The pair of them and the hovercases bundled into the booth as a rocket streaked upwards towards the city lights above. Once they had gone, an observer in the street at that moment would have seen a pinpoint orange glow blossom amidst the white and yellow-specked darkness.

3

“We should leave.”

“Romisa, it’s just the usual thing. It’ll be over in about a quarter-year.”

“And that’s the thing. It shouldn’t be the usual thing. And we shouldn’t have to put up with it. Tacka and Nyluk didn’t, they went to Trevi.”

Petan gave an aggravated sigh. The woman in front of him was still the woman he had first partnered with way back at Academy, but as the years had passed, he had found what he felt to be her diva-ish behaviour to be increasingly less tolerable. He felt he had given her everything. When the whole King fad sprung up on Vex 33, he threw himself right at it, with a whole hundred-storey tower to themselves which rose imperiously above the city, in plain sight above those who chose humbler lifestyles.

“But you, Romisa, you wanted all this. But you, now, don’t want the responsibility for all this. The trouble it might cause. As soon as that responsibility comes, you want to run away.”

As he said this, a missile streaked down and slammed into a shorter building which exploded into a column of flame. The Darkworld’s Grab systems pulled the debris down strangely, the arcs of flying pieces truncated into a vertical drop.

“Bullshit, Petan. Why would I not want to run away from this?”

“Oh, and what are you going to miss? About a day of your life. You’ve got about a hundred backups down at the Server. One of them’s live, for fuck’s sake.”

“You would miss me. Or would you?”

Awkward didn’t begin to describe the silence. Three rockets shot up from the suburbs as another crashed down, hitting the mansion on the hill, which caught fire for the second time in half a local day.

“Sobayyo Tower is yours,” Romisa said, and walked out of the room. Petan chased after her, and he heard more booming thuds outside, followed by the sounds of laser fire. In front of him, Romisa strode onwards, towards the teleporter next to the stairs.

He wanted to tell her to wait, but she already had the location programmed, and one button push saw her zap out of existence, and he found himself stood on the teleporter platform, unsure what to do.

Boom. Thud. Zap.

He headed to the lift, which shot down to the ground floor, and he made his way out through reception.

“Sobayyo, is everything OK?”

He nodded at the receptionist. “War’s underway though. If you want to leave, do. Tell everyone else.”

The receptionist nodded, and she got onto the comms system, typing something quickly that would no doubt prove surplus to requirements. Popping, zapping, thudding polyphony outside should have clued everyone in to what was going on. Petan left through the automatic doors, jumped two at a time down the flight of stairs, and walked into the street. The immediate vicinity was deserted, but as he looked down the street, he could see smoke begin to gather, and a spray of rubble crash outwards from a house about half a mile away.

He felt a tap on his shoulder; it was the receptionist.

“Sobayyo, what exactly is going on?”

“Deposition,” Petan said, “or maybe abdication. I haven’t decided yet.”

4

He flinched instinctively from the shrapnel, even if it was coming from at least a hundred metres away. The Caver tank itself tipped sideways, almost landing on its side, but came slamming down, its tracks twisted slightly. Petan watched, but he almost missed the raised weapons of a squad coming down the street to his left, and ducked right before puffs of dust shot out from the house he had taken cover behind, and the pops of gunfire rang out. They were still using kinetic weapons in these wars, he realised. Powerful ones, for sure – anything that could put a hole in a Shango-built house could do far, far worse to an actual Shango.

“Shit.”

“You’re Paten Sobayyo, aren’t you?” his squadmate Puresna asked behind him.

More dust, more popping. Paten aimed back, and they fired again. He ducked. No response. Mere suppression.

“Now isn’t the time, but yes,” he replied.

He took aim at the tank and fired twice; the alkahest beam hit the tank, now struggling around on one track, right as it unleashed a shot of its own, which sliced through a block of housing on the opposite side of the street.

“Now is the fucking time. Why didn’t you tell the recruiter?”

“Because it’s not relevant.”

Another boom, and a huge chunk of the corner of the house flung over them, and the roof collapsed into the gap. They were losing their cover.

“We’ve got to move,” Paten said, and led by example, heading back down the street. The squad that had shot at him were tied down; having to fend off two Vexer squads emerging from a pincer movement. They ran to a quieter area, although they knew it would not be so quiet soon, and they would have 1/200 at best.

“Where’s the rest of our squad?” Paten asked, having just realised. There should have been at least eight others around them.

“I don’t know. Look, Sobayyo, you can’t fight this.”

“Why not?”

“Because people like you started this.”

“I started nothing. It was bigoted fuckers like you who started this. I’m just defending my right, and it’s your right too, to be a King.”

“It’s not a right, it’s a pretension,” Puresna said, “you live in a big, phallic, hundred-storey tower when everyone else can make do with a three-bedroom detached and then wonder why everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.”

The pair of them were walking past a cul-de-sac that ended in a Social Centre.

“This way,” Paten said, gesturing towards the Centre. They ran towards it, and a missile streaked overhead, cutting diagonally over their shoulders and thudding into a distant, unseen target.

“Fucking move!” Puresna shouted, and Paten shoulder-barged the door – it was unlocked – and then rushed inside, making his way to the centre space. The both of them were safely inside, but could already hear pops and buzzes outside. “So what was your plan?” Puresna asked.

Paten ignored him, and got the computer systems to convert a wall into a screen. The screen switched on, and he switched it to vid-journalism, where the local news channel splayed a mass of information; 3D projections based on real-time data, 2D variations with cruder logos, reporters talking with pundits (from a safe distance several Spaces away, naturally) and further reporters in the field. In order to ensure that even someone of merely human communication faculties could get the picture, however, a headline was jammed into the centre of this.

“Darkworld Vox, 3rd Caver-Vexer War: Leading King Centre of Tau River, Vex 33 Subject to First Assault”.

Above them, the ceiling jarred and rattled, and another missile could be heard streaking past.

5

Olixxi heard a knock at the door and opened it, to find a tall man clad in military uniform stood outside.

“I’m a girl of catholic taste, but this one is… kinda new.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh. Yes. There’s a war on, right?”

A thud and flash in the distance seemed to confirm this. She noted with interest that, in spite of the apparent cause of the current situation, no-one had actually attacked Sobayyo Tower, surely the most visible thing for the Cavers to aim at.

“There is indeed a war on. You’re Olixxi Fenedar, right?”

“Yes. I answered the call for pilots.”

Coincidentally enough, a jet flew overhead.

“Uh huh. The thing is… why?”

“Because,” she said, raising her voice, which was now becoming increasingly necessary, “the idiots on Franklin, or down on the bottom Space, don’t do a damn thing about this sort of shit. They’re more bothered about PESMA phaseout or quasi-implementation of Xeer or some other such trivial bullshit. If I can end this sooner, then I’ll sort it out myself. I mean-”

“OK, just come with me. We can discuss this on the way.”

She followed him to the teleport pad opposite the street, during which he introduced himself only as a Major for the Vexer forces. Her next view was one of an airfield, sparsely populated with jets, with many of the remainder now taking off. She could see in the distance that Sobayyo Tower was still intact; it bothered her, and made her wonder whether she should simply bomb that instead.

“…and the key point is that emaser fire is calibrated with this area of the console, and it’s done by – Olixxi?”

“Yeah, it should all be intuitive enough,” she said, and began to climb up through the hatch. She settled in the seat and hit the activate button, the safety harness dived over her shoulders, and with two manually-confirmed clicks, she was ready to go.

“You’ll owe me a jet,” the major said, pointing an accusing finger, but it and the rest of him vanished out of sight as the jet lifted off the ground. She set the emaser to mid-range, swatted a missile out of her path, and pulled into a climb, bringing the nearby city lights of Cave 33 into view, as well as a jet that was heading her way. Pulling back sharply, she flipped around and streaked back over the city, and the cockpit filled with squares and triangles and lines, along with the mass of laser and alkahest fire she was sure wasn’t there a while ago. She frowned, and took a while to sort out what it all meant, drifting higher above the action as she did so. Maybe it wasn’t so obvious, after all.

And maybe she should have simply left, she thought. Plenty of others no doubt did. Probably others on the other side of the damn Space.

She had made her choice, though, and had to make one now. A quick emaser burst killed another missile that was heading right for her. She throttled upwards again, the squares and triangles mercifully reducing, only picking out those up on Cave 33. When she got out of the Grab zone, some twenty kilometres or so above Vexer ground, she felt the pull on the jet rapidly diminish, and before she knew it, she was, despite heading in the same direction, in a dive, not a climb.

She gripped the controls and readied herself. She was calm. She was confident.

And besides, she had a backup ready to go live in the Server, right?

6

The cornfield stretched on for quite some distance, far more, Olixxi thought, than was reasonable. Then again, being stranded in the middle of it, watching the wreckage of her plane head off towards the glowing embers of the city in the distance, had something to do with it. Another factor was Darkworld Vox’s relatively long day, which meant that sunrise still wasn’t due for some time. How long, she didn’t know, having nothing on her but the clothes she wore.

As she waded through the cornfield, hearing the booms and thuds in the distance, punctuated by flashes in the sky, she couldn’t help but feel that she was now stuck in the middle of what had caused all of this mess. Odds were that this farm kept a hundred people busy, albeit with intellectually undemanding and physically unnecessary work, all in service of some idiot who felt that grown corn was simply so much better than that horrible stuff out of an assembler. The arrogance of it…

She tossed this thought aside and continued on. Finally – and sunrise, she thought, had to be soon, or was she merely getting too tired? – she made it back to the city, or town, or wherever she was. Rubble was strewn across every street she came across; shrapnel was embedded in every wall. She wondered whether getting shot would just make things easier, but decided that if that had to be the way, she’d need a teleporter.

She made her way to a nearby house and tried the door. It was obviously locked. Something flashed at the end of the street.

“House,” she said quietly, “I’m seeking asylum. Permission to enter?”

On the door, the jagged Shango language appeared. “Nearest threat not within protocol range. Permission conditionally granted.”

Spotting a corpse on the floor, she checked for a gun and found one. Kinetic. Not helpful, she thought, but it’d have to do.

“Don’t fire that,” the house warned in writing.

Somewhere in the next street, a building exploded, and debris crashed over into the street. She saw the house door swing open and she rushed in. Pulling open the drawers revealed little; whoever had been here had clearly fled, not fought.

“Computer, is there anything resembling a teleporter in this house?”

The lights dimmed and a spotlight shone on a small metallic disc on the table behind her. “Thanks.”

“Your name,” the writing on the wall said as she reached the table.

“Olixxi Fenedar.”

“Do you have a plan, Olixxi?” it asked. Olixxi paused. She didn’t, truthfully.

“You are from Vex 33,” the text continued, “the region you are from would appear to be less involved, now.”

“The war’s nearly over?”

“In that region. It has been an intense fight. Perhaps not a war so much as a riot.”

“Well, thanks, computer.”

Olixxi picked up the disc, set the location for home, and pressed the button. A slow blink later, she was back in her familiar surroundings. A flash at the window told her that the Cave house’s claims might not have been entirely true, and she went outside to examine things more closely, clutching the disc as she did so, setting it to the hospital Darkmoon. Her house, it seemed, had taken minimal damage, but the street was filled with blackened patches, burnt-out vehicles and pockmarks, and many houses had collapsed or simply been flattened. Fires burnt across the city. She paused outside when a Justice Department squad swept past, but it was too little, too late as far as she was concerned.

In the distance, Sobayyo Tower remained intact.

7

“You just want to squat in this place,” Paten complained. The faint glimmer of sunrise could not quite mask the flashes on the horizon, visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the room they were in. “You just want to be in my place, on the 89th floor where no-one’s going to-”

“No, it makes a whole load of fucking sense. No-one’s attacked this place all night,” Puresna argued. “Basic military strategy says it’s best to find cover.”

As if to completely disprove his squadmate, Puresna ordered a window section open, raised his gun, and shot an alkahest beam into some of the fighting ten blocks away. A pointless move, but important in PR terms. Paten sighed and flopped onto a bed-sized sofa in the centre of the room, conceding defeat.

“Computer, activate screen,” he said. The computer hesitated briefly but noticeable at the half-formulated order, then converted the ceiling into a screen, and duplicated the result on the wall Paten’s feet pointed towards.

“3rd Vexer-Caver War: New Fronts Appear” the headline read, and Paten realised that the war was not about to end, only move somewhere else, where it would cause more carnage. On the video sections he could see personnel from the Ministry of Justice and Defence moving in, attempting to keep the peace.

“Too damn late,” he whispered.

“I’ll say,” Puresna added, still leaning out of the window, gun pointing at nothing in particular. “They’re all over here, it’s like you’ve got your own personal bodyguards. Thing is, no-one’s shooting at this monstrosity.”

“Well you’ve got a gun, how about you have a pop at it?”

Puresna didn’t reply. Paten sat up, and the ceiling-screen disappeared. He rubbed his eyes, which were watering. He realised that he missed Romisa. He had been stupid. Another thing he realised was that, in spite of the years they had been together, he had no idea where she had gone. He could have guessed at Trevi, but if she wasn’t there, he had no leads.

You moron, he thought to himself.

But now she was long gone, and she had been replaced by a terse soldier for whom words spoke louder than actions.

He resisted the urge to defenestrate Puresna, got up, walked to the window and ordered the screen off again. He heard a thud in the distance, but it was low, the flash barely discernable, and it was practically morning now. War damage had smashed so many houses that Shango presence seemed nonexistent; it was as if he was looking at an eerie, naturally-formed landscape on a barren and unpopulated world.

He could do nothing about Romisa, but he could start anew, he thought, and start with the squatter.

“You gonna rejoin the squad?” he asked. Puresna murmured something noncommital. Paten switched the wall-screen back on again, same news channel, same events.

“15 Confirmed Temporary Casualities; 201 Admitted to Darkmoon Ward.”

The ticker on the bottom of the screen spoke of a potential Caver attack on remaining King residences. Paten grinned at the irony of modern Shango media; the element of surprise would be gone from such an attack, so naturally, it wouldn’t happen. The very instance of reporting it barred it from happening; the media, the alleged outsiders merely saying what they saw, effectively causing the events that would make the news.

He turned back to the man at the window.

“Puresna, remember when you said I had my own personal bodyguards?”

“Yes?”

“Well, I do. So piss off, my good man.”

8

Down on the 47th floor of Sobayyo Tower, a whole floor was devoted to 3D projection and information analysis. Such functions were not necessarily Paten Sobayyo’s job, but those hundred floors needed filling with something, and there were only so many variations on bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens – all of which could be changed around anyhow – that could be added to a house.

Nonetheless, the 47th floor was useful, because as midday approached, Paten entered the single room on the floor and switched the wall-screens on, calling up holographic panes to hack up the newstream into discrete sections. The channel in question continued to insist on reporting that the Cavers were coming back to the city, but the lie was there in the real-time tracker, which showed units continuing to slowly move away, and for the battles in no-man’s airspace to become increasingly self-absorbed, caught up in the sixty-kilometre wide region where Grab forces were neglible and, due to the way they worked, ever-shifting and unpredictable.

The initial jab of pain over Romisa had gone, but he wondered exactly what that was about. After that action had come the reaction – he was angry at her, angry at the way she couldn’t support him, and couldn’t at least understand his point of view, especially when it had, thus far, been proven completely right to him. This feeling dragged on over the morning, and by the time he was on the 47th floor, it had either faded or hardened, but he couldn’t quite tell.

He decided to test himself on it. Pushing away the local news – and my, he thought, how magnificently they were capable of recycling the same crap when one story dominated – he flung himself into the social networks. The Friendships section he wasn’t too bothered about. The Anecdotes he could miss too. He clicked intuitively on Connections, and realised that doing so told him exactly where he was emotionally. Fuck it all. And fuck whoever he found on this thing too.

3D holographics threw up a series of almost-indistinguishable-from-real women around the room, their one obvious sign of artificiality the way they stood completely still and did nothing. Paten wished they could at least walk around.

“Network, narrow down to one and unfreeze.”

“Specify algorithm.”

“I don’t know… make it random.”

Almost all of the projected women vanished, and the one remaining walked over to him. She held out a hand. He shook it awkwardly. “Hi.”

“Olixxi Fenedar. Or my simulation, anyway. 87% complete, so what you see is almost what you get.”

Paten nodded appreciately.

“Pause,” he whispered, and the hologram froze. “Computer, something to lean on? Something appropriate?”

An assembler strip rolled out across the ceiling, and a bar materialised across the length of the room, an old-school wooden construct of the kind found in Social Centres on scarcity worlds. Stools also appeared. He grabbed a drink that had appeared on the bar, but knew that handing one to the woman apparently in front of him would have been misguided.

“OK, go.”

She moved back into life again.

“So how come you’re listed?”

She smiled and made a small hand gesture, like she was drawing something.

“It’s this damn war business, Mr. Sobayyo. I want it over with, and I’ll deal with it myself if I have to.”

“So, in short…”

“Petite young lady seeks attractive man with big weapon and a good point to fire it from.”

His drink almost wound up back in the glass. She was a nice one, though. Witty, sparky, a little bit mad. Getting into this after about two Federal days was probably a little insensitive, but he was past caring.

“Send back to your real self that, if she wants it, it’s on the roof of Sobayyo Tower in 1/50 Federal.”

9

Senjen attempted to awkwardly bank the jet round, but instead found it pulling in a staggered arc, meeting an difficult mix of some Grab, some gravity, some air resistance and some centripetal force. Way down – or up – in the Grab zones, things were easier, things were more or less planet-like, but here piloting took on whole new rules.

The other issue, of course, was that the whole conflict had turned into a confused mess. Weaving through a web of alkahest beams and emasers, and through a hail of missile fire, he was relieved to see, as he pulled out of the world’s least elegant banking maneouvere, that the shields were still close to maximum. The computer projections flashed up the optimum window of opportunity and he reached for the top right of the console.

A disc-like wave erupted from all around the jet, a membrane-like forcefield acting as the vanguard for a 360-degree no-escape barrage of layered panspectrum emaser. Senjen watched as three planes exploded, pieces flying in all directions and rushing past the cockpit. Flashes and flares ensued as they struck other fighters and bombers.

This, he thought, was why he’d left space warfare to others. Stuff like this was too good to miss.

He dropped down slightly and closed in on a bomber that was optimistically dropping a bomb upwards into Caver territory. Said bomb lazily floated upwards, oscillating a little, and Senjen jinked under it, giving him a full view of the top of the aircraft. An emaser spread across the wings, engines and tail fin did little. He aimed forward towards the cockpit, but this too had a minimal effect.

He sighed and pulled up, diving back towards Caver territory, twisting around the slow-moving bomb as it wobbled upwards. He checked his altitude: around 46km (Cave)/53km (Vex), the screen claimed. He suspected that this was all a little futile.

He pulled the plan up into what he perceived as a climb, cutting that 53km as much as he could. The amorphous clouds parted way to reveal the more usual, flatter fare; they in turn parted way, revealing a ruined cityscape underneath him.

He continued to rush in, gunning the plane for all its worth, hoping the supersonic boom would flatten what was left, and he caught in his sight a wonderful thing, a target. He recognised it, especially standing there, intact above the ruins – Sobayyo Tower, owned by the King, Paten Sobayyo. This was what the war was about, he realised, not the mire above his head. It was the fact that people like him, a Caver 33, didn’t tolerate this bullshit like the Vexers did. That tower, he silently told himself, would burn to the ground.

The jet continued to rush in, the Tower growing in his vision, and he pointed all weapons, getting the computer to call up every rocket, every bit of power to the alkahest beam and the emasers. He factored in the weak points in the tower’s structure, the suitability of each weapon to each weak point, potential factors in targeting such as wind or diffraction, the closing speed, the acceleration, the foreshortening caused by the angle of approach, gravity, Grab and inertia for the exit path.

What he didn’t calculate, and should have done, was the jet on Sobayyo Tower’s roof, and the lowered shield energy that his assault called for.

10

“Well, Nyluk darling, you were right. That was fantastic.”

“Honestly?”

“Completely honestly. I can’t believe I wanted to stay on Vox, actually.”

The Continuing Course began a steady descent through Darkworld Vox’s upper atmosphere.

“Apparently it’s been chaos for two solid weeks,” Tacka continued, “ended more because the whole fight had burnt itself out.”

“You’ve been checking the news?”

The ship swept over a barren desert landscape, and even at the height it did so, the airflow was enough to whip sand up in vortices. Deccelerating almost as if slamming into a brick wall, it reached the outskirts of a city, swung round and landed on a large patch of paved land.

“Sure. We had to know when we could go back, didn’t we – not that we had to go back, it was just, y’know, one of those things that’s good to know.”

Nyluk nodded slowly, largely accepting this.

“I guess-”

“All passengers, we have landed at Darkworld Vox.”

“I guess you’d be interested anyway.”

The pair of them moved towards the teleporter in the corner of the room, and watched as the boxcases beamed out of the room. A brief darkness and they were back in their own home too.

“Welcome back,” the house wrote on the wall, whilst raising the lights.

“Good to be back, computer. Any damage?” Nyluk said.

“A roof collapse,” it confessed, “but Central Government has tended to almost all war damages fairly swiftly, even if they have received criticism for allowing the situation to spiral out of control. You don’t have to do anything about it; it’s sorted.”

“I guessing,” Tacka said, “that this whole city took quite a hit.”

“There were three major battles here, including the opening night. Most of the damage happened around here. You were probably wise to move, if current self-preservation was the primary motivating factor, and backups in the Server were not to be considered.”

The two of them had moved through the hallway to the lounge, where the computer had laid out a full simulation of what happened. Tacka examined the sight of a city that, barring a few smashed towers, hardly looked like a city. He looked to the window, and the computer brightened the view outside. It looked fine; exactly as he saw it when he left. Jagged red text, along with an arrow, appeared above the simulation when he turned back.

“There is one building that Central Government has refused to repair automatically,” it read, and he could see that the arrow point to-

“Paten and Romisa’s place. Nyluk, come here.”

Sobayyo Tower was still standing, and largely intact, but the simulation zoomed in on it, a large gash was visible near the top of the tower.

“The Sobayyos,” Nyluk said, “did anything happen to them?”

The computer began to speak audially, but nonetheless brought up the writing on the wall, to reinforce what it said.

“Romisa Saarp ex-Sobayyo left Darkworld Vox on the opening night, on a ship bound for Darkworld Scuderia. Paten Yetrias Sobayyo remained on Darkworld Vox. Olixxi Fenedar Sobayyo, originally a pilot on the opening night, was technically responsible for the war fatality, Senjen Toaqem, of Gertsallon, Cave 33, who had no backup in the Server or anywhere else federally. His jet crashed into Sobayyo Tower on the 76th floor. The case has been designed an Occurrence of War and no further action has been taken.”

The two of them could only sit in silence, taking in this immense stream of events, for the longest time.

“Senjen Toaqem’s funeral will be tomorrow, 1/2 local time.”

Jack

Date: 1,995,200 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 21,227 (Shango),  N.A .2132 (Qareen)
Location: RPDSCR of the Bhoot People

1

#I can’t believe Weczer7/11,191 was right. About everything.#

#Right down to the decor.#

The two men who made up Team 7 looked around their bleak hotel room – a room full of peeling walls and bare furniture that did not even pretend to have an air of comfort, let alone luxury – and at that point, both of them might have wondered why they had volunteered for such a grim task, although neither of them signalled as much to each other. Weczer had dived into the unknown, but these men had received some inkling of what they faced. Yet this atmosphere wasn’t wholly unusual for what they had seen over the past tenth of a year, moving about the world, and the living standards were similarly expected. Planet Glory was badly named, for the most part.

#I wonder#, said the commenter on decor – Retef6/575,997 – #I wonder how they cope. Unless they’re just that used to it. But surely someone wants things to change.#

#You don’t know how these people are, Retef#, his colleague, Serta1/575,996 replied, #because all you do is monitor the media and look at the government. Which is what team 9 should be doing anyway. You should be looking at how these people think, and <the sheer [x 2 with pause]> way that they choose what they see and believe. Random example, here, from the last couple of days we’ve been here, in this city. You see that place over there?#

Serta had gestured to a large complex visible from the hotel window, although Retef guessed that it was probably around a mile away, crammed in amongst the high-density low-storey housing that comprised that particular district of the city; if anything, he had a better view of it than the people living nearby.

#Yes. Some kind of factory?#

#Maybe, but it doesn’t make anything. I spoke to a man in the street about it, the other day. He said he lived next door to it. He said he always saw plenty of people go in there, but only the people with uniforms ever leave.#

Retef looked at the clump of buildings again, and saw smoke slowly drifting out of its towers, up into the clouds where it dispersed above the whole city.

#And when I asked him what kind of stuff goes on in there, he said it was no business of his.#

2

Sometimes, Kojen2/788,601 wondered if these people had only colonised four planets because the government would otherwise have run out of self-serving names. Planet Destiny itself was ostensibly that fourth planet, although it was not exactly fully inhabited as many Confederate planets were, the population probably around a hundred million, rather than the billions it took to fill a planet this size.

Still, as he waited for Alar9, the other member of Team 3, he couldn’t help but feel that he had grabbed quite a good role. Destiny seemed to be somewhat less in the tight grip of this regime, although perhaps, as a kind of outpost colony compared to the others, this was understandable. This lowered weight on his shoulders, however, combined with the fact that none of his people had explored this place before.

Of course, it wasn’t all that simple. Even as he looked out of the window, he could see the police drones hovering over the skies, no doubt scanning dozens of streets at a time. He watched as one of them shot right past the window, heading downwards in a perfect arc towards someone, or some people, who had no doubt transgressed in some unacceptable way. He hoped Alar9 wasn’t one of them; she would doubtless be fine whatever happened, but the inconvenience of another panopticon incident would have ruined the whole mission, as far as he was concerned.

In the early days here, he had studiously engaged his superconscious, recording almost everything he could see, but lately he had realised that there was a remarkable uniformity about the place, and as he ran through these thoughts in his mind, he added them to the record. In the end, it was almost all he could notice; the crazed street patterns and awkward civic design, the crumbling architecture that populated it, and the physically stunted, weary-looking populace – they were always there, and moving from city to city changed the specifics but never the broad generalisations that could be made about them. Whether the planet’s capital, or a minor backwater, it seemed to be the largely the same everywhere.

He reckoned he knew what was going on, anyhow. It was all fear, he decided; the populace feared their rulers, but the rulers feared losing grip, felt like they had too much to lose by sharing power and wealth in any way. It didn’t take a genius to know that. As he looked to the bed, he saw the election poster on it, it slogan not a promise, but a threat.

3

Being appointed to Team 1 seemed like the QPA had handed down a massive honour to Prolo3, but it turned out the honour was less than expected. Team 1 suggested that he and his fellow agent Aliv8 would be right on the cusp of discovery, prising open the exact areas of these planets that had not been previously uncovered, but as it turned out, they were merely tracing over the steps that Weczer had previously taken, over the same preposterously named planet she had wound up on, Planet Power. Apparently the capital, there was little suggestion that it carried any prestige, any improved living standards or any added urban buzz and activity. That law about no more than two people ever meeting was true, it seemed, along with all the other ones restricting various technologies. As a result, teams 2 and 9 vanished from the pair of them easily.
Aliv8 returned shortly before sunset. There was no moon around Power, and so the only light available to the city around them after sundown was what it could generate, which made her first statement as she approached the door a worrying one.

#I’ve heard there’s about to be a power dip#, she announced, and came through the door.

Of course, a “power dip” meant a complete blackout, possibly for the whole night.

Prolo consoled himself slightly, even as he sighed at the news. They had peered around the edges of Team 9’s remit, stumbling across one factory that manufactured the transportation that only business leaders and high-ranking politicians could afford to buy. He was reminded of M.E.A.C. and the occasional appearance of their ships in the galaxy, and the way that both the starship builder and the car manufacturer here on Power both had products that were ridiculously carefully styled and custom-built for every last conceivable idea that the client had. And this was perhaps the small ray of light amidst the sheer mess he felt he was witnessing here; those car-builders could have worked for several lifetimes to buy the things they made, and several lifetimes more to run them, but they took immense pride in what they did, which few others in this world could. Even so…

#We’ve seen enough. I think we should leave#, he told Aliv.

4

Zikk8 and Ewol3, of Team 5, had landed on Planet Glory along with the other teams there, but their real plan had been to secure a ship to take them to Strength.

Of course, they had assumed that Weczer’s account was an exaggerated one. It rapidly transpired that it wasn’t.

Once every form – quite possibly, they both thought, every conceivable form that the local language would allow – had been filled out, they managed to get onto the ship – the Joy of the Common Man.

#Wow#, was Zikk’s immediate reaction as he got inside. Of course, it was not what he was used to from spaceships – but that wasn’t the point. Perfectly clean, blemish-free walls and actual screens and some semblance of technology seemed amazing after the weeks of sparse, bare emptiness. Soft lighting, as opposed to the loudness of daylight, the glare of unshaded bulbs and the absolute darkness of the nights was a welcome touch of moderation.

#Wow indeed. Although it is a government ship. Apparently, this is the minimum you’d ever deal with, if you were in that power.#

As Zikk looked around the room, he wondered how anyone could possibly be so sheltered. Then again, the spaceport itself had been similar to this, but practically windowless, and certainly without any windows that didn’t point to the spacecraft themselves.

Still, even as the pair of them were on their way to join Team 6, on a planet that was previously unexplored by the Confederacy, they couldn’t help but wonder whether the state they were in was merely a different kind of suffering. The journey dragged on, for weeks and weeks, and as they watched their slow progress on inflexible screens they were reminded that they could have been at their destination long, long beforehand.

#Another thing Weczer was right on.#

#It’s OK. Soon we’ll be on a planet even she didn’t see.#

#True. But it’ll be the same shitty mess.#

It must have been a sixth of a year, Zikk realised, by the time they reached Planet Strength, the place they were originally supposed to be. Yet as the pair of them left the spaceport, parted with the diplomats and bureaucrats they had shared the journey with, and looked out across another grey industrial cityscape that managed in its haphazard asymmetry to still look homogenous, Zikk knew that the whole damn thing was probably about to be a waste of time.

5

Gold-lined walls, carpet made, probably, from the fur of something (probably several somethings) endangered, everything else made from the compounds of several elements at the far end of the Periodic Table; there was no doubt here. These were the halls of power, on a planet named Power, no less.

Team 9 were the ones who had managed to get in. Their methods had been complex and far from legal under local jurisdiction, although the QPA had more than authorised them. Thus far, their progress had been surprising to them, and the security had been apparently lax, although in truth it consisted of individuals, easily hacked surveillance and easily stumped AI drones.

#They’ll get us sooner or later#, Sadre5, one half of the team argued, #we’ll get complacent#.

#Oh sure, we’re panopticon bound, but I’ll have a message for them before we get there#, Pixa4 argued. She smiled in weird acceptance at this.

#Well they’d better be words to break chains with#.

If the two of them had calculated the whole mission well – and Sadre reckoned that they had – then today would be the last day anyhow. This was the awkward stage, however: recall. Reeling in the mass of surveillance, AI and loggers that they themselves had put in place, without tripping the surveillance and AI of the locals? A tough job, but it had to be done.

The two of them were located in a back office, a small room that the government did not truly consider worth monitoring, and so in the empty space they had various screens unfolded, various calculations running, various graphics showing independent units moving through shaded areas to avoid the glare of overlapping cameras and motion sensors.

Sure enough, the prophecy came true: one AI drifted into a motion sensor’s region that it had not accounted for, and from there, they would be traced.
All of that equipment had just about folded away when two guards burst through the office door, with guns raised. Behind his back, Sadre pushed two small buttons on the unit’s side, one to boost an ansible signal, another to send.
“What are you doing?” one of the guards demanded, “you are not authorised here. The Republic destroys all saboteurs and dissidents.”

“Maybe so,” Pixa4 replied, “but if you do, you should bear this in mind: the Qareen Confederacy is watching.”

Overcome with a nervous feeling, the guards lowered their weapons.