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Date: 1,995,187 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 21,186 (Shango), N.A. 2128 (Qareen)
Location:
RPDSR of the Bhoot People.

1

The scene on the bridge had been a tense one, but he nonetheless allowed it to slide from lingering mindset to sepia-toned memory. It was OK. She was safe now, and the Walk-In Contradiction/Lemonless/Spaceship Plus was charging away from the whole region of space at speeds they could never hope to catch.
Crossing the bridge had been the first bit of hope in years – but Weczer7/11,191 knew even then that she was in a tentative state, one where the information she had gathered had to balance the trouble she had potentially caused, something that was not easy to judge, even as she was lying on the floor of her quarters in the Walk-In. That had been made clear on the bridge, back on the planet; across the canyon, she could see a mass of hovering gunships, ranged battalions of android troops, all ready to act if the people releasing her attempted one last gambit, and to underline that they were dealing with the Qareen Confederacy, that civilisation that had some kind of presence in – be it a full occupation, a colony, or even just regular visitors and immigrants to – almost all of the galaxy.

Naturally, they backed down.

She had kept that information, though. It had meant a complex procedure in her cell, but she had done it, and the act of doing it had made her glad to be Qareen, the bio- and genetic-engineered origins of her race before it spread across the galaxy proving a saviour. Unlike the Shango, eschewing all ideas of technology beyond that of it being a medium for otherwise impossible occurrences, the Qareen had for thousands of years felt that the personal experience as enhanced by technology and the technology itself could be, and perhaps should be, inseparable. It was the guiding philosophy of mighty intellects, the guiding philosophy of an immense civilisation, the guiding philosophy that spread across thousands of parsecs.

Not to mention the guiding philosophy that had saved her ass.

#You were heading into the unknown. You could not have known or have reasonably expected how events would unfold a priori#, she was reassured by Galan6, the other female on board.

#Well, I’m not sure. Here is what I know – unless – you have clearance, yes?#

#Sure. {clearance qpa l7} is the highest I have.#

#OK. {cognitive: qpa l5 required}, so it should be fine. {info sending} …it’ll take
a while.#

It took three minutes, which felt like a long time to be engaging one’s superconcious, especially across most of the quartersphere concerned.

#Sent. Disseminate at will amongst those permitted to view.#

She shot up from the floor to her feet and decided she would do something useful, but as her brain dipped power usage to prevent dizziness, she realised that she didn’t really have a plan. Not in the short term, anyway – long term, well, she’d return to monitoring the usual threats, bouncing from planet to planet. If the information dropped to level zero clearance, she thought, she could write some sort of piece about the whole thing. There’d be no end of public demand for that.

#This is pretty crude#, Galan6 admitted, #but my simulation says that you couldn’t have had significantly less than a 76% chance of capture, give or take five per cent either way.#

She was not surprised, but she reckoned she should have been. Logically, she assumed that Qareen technology and capabilities were responsible, because amongst the civilian population, she had never seen less than 100% rates. That was, of course, a mere shuttle-craft in the cargo bay of pain that was the life of an Bhoot citizen.

2

It had been half a Qareen year that she had been in there.

Of course, there was no risk of disease, either physically or, for that matter, mentally – a Qareen could always turn ostensibly insane, but there would always be one part of the brain that could lock itself off and perform functions separately, acting calmly underneath the storm of struggles in the conscious or superconcious.

Not that it was ever likely, but if it was to happen, it would happen here. The cell – a grey, cube-shaped space about two metres in all dimensions, was but a small component in the panopticon, yet its walls were soundproof, impregnable, and in any event, anything – and they thought of everything – that could potentially dig was taken away. Every possession she had was machine-assessed for it, which meant that anything she had in the cell was 100% likely to grind away before it made any impact on the walls.

The door was an old-style barred one, of the type she had only heard about in history classes, and of the type far easier to break out of than any potential Qareen facility. The Bhoot had countered this by making a breakout undesirable, to the tune of a sheer drop that Weczer guessed at being at least a kilometre, maybe two.

Despite the whole thing being very crude, all of it, except perhaps the Monitoring Station in the centre, the kind of thing no Qareen or Shango planet, Spaceplane or Darkworld would have utilised in thousands of years. It was, however, effectively – brutally so, although she had long since discovered that the Bhoot knew about brutality, and towards their own people, they had raised it to an artform. There was no getting out, barring the lone signal she had hoped would cut through the cell walls, or at least through the bars, and out into the reaches of Qareen space. Swallowing the amplifier would have distorted the signal, however, and not done much for her physiology either.

She reckoned that the only two actions to commit to were to protect and survive. Protect the information, which she had managed to smuggle the equipment for into the cell, and survive, which involved sitting out the sentence.
In the corner of the cell, where the setting sun struggled to reach its light into, she pulled the slim device from where it had been attached to the inside of her pocket, apparently made of fabric itself. Applying it to her head, she waited, then felt the mild jab of tiny needles engaging with the nerves in her head. Despite all the technology, there was no such thing as perfect machine-human interfacing.

In the top right corner of her vision, it flashed up: data download in progress – size 5.5 basics [unit-10]. She watched it tick slowly upwards from zero per cent. At sundown, which she made to be 65.74.09 locally and 12.07.96 in the agreed temporal measurement, the Monitoring Station began to sweep a flashlight over the cells. The thing no doubt had night vision anyway, along with thermal imaging and the like, but it naturally had to give the impression of activity.

Coming from a world filled with innovation, she tensed at the sight of the beam, assuming it was capable of all manner of scanning, analysing and other similar functions, that it would expose her plans, even as limited as they were, and instantly act in retribution.

It swept over, and her cell sunk into twilight again, the drop visible when stood close to the barred boor now in complete darkness.

100% complete, the interface told her as the beam was almost 180 degrees from her, and she felt the reverse of the jabbing from earlier, a feeling of tiny needles pulling out. She shook and bobbed her head, trying to make it look like a natural act, and the data logger flapped onto the floor. She scooped it up, shoved it into her pocket, and felt it sticking to the inside of it once again, as anonymous as it had been throughout; now, though, the disguise was unnecessary – she had all she needed, locked up within her own mental library.

The following morning, at 25.50.50 – they kept strict timetables around there – she was teleported out the same way she was teleported in, and found herself in the familiar environs of a similarly bleak-looking office, located, she had deduced during incarceration, in the tower propping up the Monitoring Station.

Uniformed, helmeted guards lined the room, all very blatantly carrying large guns in one hand and hefty spears in the other, and at last an open sign of the government’s hypocrisy. Quite what they expected from an unarmed woman, Weczer could not fathom. Even so, a vague clue was offered by the guard stood in front of her.

“We have received news from your people,” he said, “I do not know how they have discovered your presence as we did, but they are threatening war if we do not release you. Our glorious nation has decided it does not require such a conflict over one mere individual; it is not for the good of the people. Your release is therefore due at midday (she presumed 50.50.50), and you will remain here until then.”

She nodded, feigning fear and deference but secretly relieved. That message she had sent had got through, despite everything.

3

The bare, unpainted walls of the room were crumbling, but even so, the place was typical of what she had seen in her time here. Furnishing the space around her was a table and a trio of chairs, all metal, all rusting at their unrefined edges. A bare light, crude in its square glass casing, blasted light inefficiently into the area.

The two people in the room with Weczer had that same, haunted look that every Bhoot citizen had on their face; a look that suggested that had seen terrible things, that they had no words for, and that if they had the words, they would not dare speak of anyhow.

“It was too much of a risk to come here,” one of them said. He had introduced himself as Fighting Shadows At Sundown For Victory. The woman, who claimed to be named River to Glorious Destiny, did not reply, but looked as if she concurred.

“Well,” Weczer said, looking out of the murky window to see a dark country lane leading away towards the city lights, “it is done, now. We might as well do what we came here to do.”

“You’re right,” River said, and sat down on one of the chairs, which creaked. Fighting Shadows followed her, and his chair scraped a painful noise across the floor.

“Normally my job is to go somewhere, find any information I can, analyse it, draw conclusions about future events, and then leave,” Weczer explained. The two members of her audience nodded. “This time,” she continued, “it’s different. There’s nothing developing here. It’s an equilibrium, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Nothing’s going to change.”

“I want nothing to do with this,” Fighting Shadows said, getting up (creak) and heading towards the door, “our glorious society-”

“Glorious? Have you seen it?”

He said nothing, but gave a defiant look in response to the implied attack, and left. Outside, she heard a small car engine wheeze into life, and saw a flicker of shadow as it passed the window. One follower down. This awkward attempt at a resistance movement would not, she thought, impress anyone in the Confederacy. Perhaps, though, it was here motive that was lacking; it wasn’t that she was necessarily a citizen, on the inside, who wanted to change things; no, she was a relatively priveliged outsider, who had found her visit to this place intolerable, and felt that sure the citizens would agree. The problem was that she could find few who openly would.

“Are you still in, River?”

River nodded, but very hesitantly.

“The key thing here is that the people outnumber the government significantly. What they lack are the resources, which the political elite have seized with impressive totality.”

“But the government works for the people,” River argued.

“Of course they don’t, River. Why do you think that? Because they claim they do?”

Weczer knew, however, that it was only partly that. What it really was, truthfully, was that the government stated it, repeatedly, loudly proclaiming it across every medium available, and the result was bludgeoning rhetoric that worked to crush every other possible argument; not with quality of reason, but with quantity of claims. To even ask River the question she just had was to rip away reality and force her to view an utterly bizarre universe, whose principles were entirely upside-down from the assumptions she had always held.

It transpired to be irrelevant anyhow. Before she could say anything else, the door slammed open, thudding dust off the adjacent wall and rattling on its hinges, and a squad of uniformed, anonymous government operatives swept in, shoving the pair of them to the floor. Inside the hour, she was inside her cramped cell within the vastness of the panopticon.

4

The QPA could be bureaucratic, but usually for a reason – every precaution had to be taken, so precise, exact and highly detailed assessments couldn’t really be protested in such circumstances. Weczer7, though, had never seen anything like what she had attempted recently, however. She had requested a transfer from the third designated Bhoot planet (“Glory”) to the first (“Power”). The resulting paperwork – and yes, it was indeed overwhelmingly manually-inputted dead-tree format – could have filled a warehouse, she thought, and on reconsideration found it to be only a small exaggeration.

Said paperwork was nonetheless done quickly, however; a mere tenth of a Qareen year later, she found herself boarding the ship, the Revolution for Prosperity, and heading for Planet Power, which was a mere five light years distant, but even so, it would take five Earth weeks to do what it would take Qareen vessel ten Earth minutes to achieve. Still, she had got her wish, and once inside the vessel, pleasantly surprised. Spacious and relatively luxurious, certainly more so than, say, a warship, she found herself in the one area of the Bhoot civilisation that had so far even remotely suggested opulence. There were, apparently, no protocols, either; she could wake at any hour, and often did, and used the facilities at will, although she did not dare ask if there were any sports facilities she would recognise; she was already under the impression that there was some kind of catch, that a trap would be revealed. They were suspicious enough when she had initially merely asked to be there.

Five weeks later, though, the ship landed on Power – they actually landed, she realised, and did not choose or offer to beam her down. That, of course, would have meant the surrender of a level of control, and the regime would not allow it, especially to what their records marked as a recent and rare immigrant.

Still, she landed on Power, near the planet’s capital, a gargantuan sprawl of a city that was, like many Bhoot cities, oddly bare-looking even at the nominally busiest point of the day. She left the ship, accompanied by a lone guard for the length of the way into the city. He then got out of the car, wishing her a “for the glory of the Republic” standard bid of goodbye, and walked back. She examined the pile of documents on the passenger seat as soon as she was in the city and parked; they told her where her designated accomodation was, and suggested jobs she could assign herself to. The employment sheet also stated that there was a “personnel surplus due to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Republic’s economics”, which she understood to mean that she wasn’t really wanted anyway. It was when noticing things like that – which were hardly possible not to notice – that she realised what bothered her about the whole place; if only, if only, she thought, they could be honest about their intentions. But they were not, and so the whole populace was shrouded in this opaque rhetoric, this bullshit she found more crushing than the surveillance and the martial presence about the place.

She wondered whether doing anything about it was within her remit. Then she reasoned that she had an open remit anyhow – and that the billions involved across those four planets could hardly be sorry she tried.

For centuries, political academics across the Qareen Confederacy – and for that matter, across the Shango Federation with which a slow-built and, even now in NA 2128, tentative alliance had been formed – had studied the doings of their elected leaders with few assumptions at the core of their discipline. Yet there were some, and the most wide-reaching one – backed up by almost all the evidence that could be gathered on the subject, as well as more suspect claims by the likes of the Dharans – was this: no interstellar civilisation could reach or maintain such a status whilst acting as a dictatorship.

Of course, the evidence for this was, along with Dharan claims, limited to the aforementioned two civilisations and the Stoppan Republic that the Shango had long been familiar with, who exemplified the assumption perfectly.

The theory, too, was solid enough: as a civilisation prospered and expanded, it provided both a jurisdiction with monolithic gaps – the space between planets, and the thousands of uninhabited worlds within and without the civilisation – and, with spaceships a common asset, the capability for groups, if not individuals, to exploit these gaps was immense. For a civilisation to remain coherent, it had to appease those of such libertarian desires, whilst maintaining the values of the more socially conservative. Either way, the result was democracy and liberal tolerance all round.

The gap, on the other hand, was the Bhoot civilisation, which had been known by the Qareen for two thousand of their years, but had always been shrouded in mystery. Assuming that it was simply a cultural position of isolationism, the Confederacy had stayed clear, respecting such distance even during the Intersection Wars, where the Bhoot signed a formal alliance for the Fourth and Fifth wars, which simply amounted to a few spaceships tossed into the otherwise vast resources utilised.

Eventually, however, the Confederacy needed to know, and so the QPA dispatched an agent. Weczer7 knew she had no idea what to expect, but with few friends and family, she knew she was the closest to the ideal that the QPA could manage. The Walk-In Contradiction/Lemonless/Spaceship Plus beamed her to the surface of what she later learned to be named Glory from 100 local AUs, taking no chances on detection even if it resulted in teleporter failure.
Within hours of reaching the surface, though, Weczer couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong about the place, and that the secrecy existed for the wrong reasons. The place looked impoverished, and finding a local government office, the huge, imposing metallic sign at the front gave away the truth: Representative People’s Democratic Social Republic of the Bhoot People, it read, along with Freedom, Justice, Peace, Order underneath.

Such eagerness to imply freedom did not bode well, but over the days afterwards, she found the propaganda had light foundations in truth. The RPDSR of Bhoot was technically a capitalist and democratic society, and one where criticism of the government was not banned or punished per se, but that only represented a half-truth. Highly corporatist, she found that business, media and government effectively formed a dictatorial elite, a triangle of mutual interest that allowed tyranny to occur, and democracy was rendered moot by the razor-thin difference between parties. Of course, locking out the overwhelming majority of the populace would potential cause rioting, so the government had enabled a smart system of surveillance, enacting laws that were programmed into combat and police drones that hovered over the cities and towns in which the Bhoot lived.

As she first found her apartment, for example, she found no communication devices. This was part of the government’s real control: one facet was communication, of which technological devices to enable it were banned unless approved by the government and commerce committees. Furthermore, and most noticeably, no meeting between more than two people was ever permitted; the streets, even when relatively busy, were full of people whose paths never intersected for fear of it constituting a meeting; most never came within three metres of each other.

The second facet was ownership; this state-military-industrial elite possessed every spaceship she saw, and all transport for long distance, which meant no entering or leaving a local area without their permission.

Weczer7 found herself oddly unmoved by all of this; what dismayed her was that, despite them being free to do so, she heard no resentment, no anger amongst citizens in private. Even when they knew they were not being listened to (even if they were being tracked), many of them spoke of a glorious system, a great nation, and of “traditional Bhoot values.”

Perhaps, she told herself, she was looking at it from an alien perspective. Maybe this suited them. Maybe it truly was their way. But she couldn’t fathom it; there was no understanding that complicity, that rampant desire to support a system that held them back. Many of them told Weczer that they would soon be inside that elite, sharing in the spoils, but when she asked, she could not get anyone to name someone else who had achieved this feat. Their ideas had sprung not from evidence, but from the screen on their bedroom wall, which issued nightly the torrent of assurance that it was possible.

Always she asked herself whether to intervene was to raise the ugly spectre of paternalism that had dogged ancient Qareen empires. The final straw finally occurred one day when, spotting an elusive but foolishly public three-person meeting, she also witnessed its drastic termination. The grey, battered and unpainted AI drone swept down from the sky, weapons blazing, hitting the three of them with brutal accuracy and effectiveness, but of course never killing, for to kill them was to martyr them; instead, the intense maiming would incentivise them towards the truth path, to use the government terminology.

As she saw their clothes singe and their bodies writhe and their voices pierce the air with unnatural shrieks, she made her decision. Condescending, patronising, paternalistic or otherwise, she would defend the values of her culture, initiate an initiative, an uprising, a shaking off, and the first step was to strike at the heart of this alleged Democratic Republic.

5

The Walk-In Contradiction/Lemonless/Spaceship Plus was, thought Weczer7/11,191, a truly magnificent spaceship. Half a kilometre in diameter, and disc-shaped barring its two cylindrical superlight drives on support struts either side – a fairly standard Qareen design – it had a dozen decks, but the ship had everything she could have imagined – Kaizener courts aplenty, programmable matter that the crew were fond of using to the full, shifting walls and staircases so the ship was never the same from day to day, and VR simulations that were practically indistinguishable from reality. Practically, of course, because where it simulated a known environment, there were gaps in the information. Having selected Earth, another place that, like the assignment that was approaching for her, was something of an enigma to the Qareen, she found herself in an area labelled Tajikstan, and this was where the simulation and its database faltered – there was little information, and so the people in the streets were doing very little other than walking or standing.

She called up the settings and changed it again. She found herself on a narrow lane, a pair of bollards in front of her, the foliage and walls either side obscuring a crossroads busy with traffic. It was raining lightly. To her right was a large field surrounded by fencing. As she walked the length of the road, she found a sign, reading “Melbourne Avenue”. Australia, she thought, cannot be right. It was too cold for that, if she remembered rightly. United Kingdom, the ship’s computer prompted.

Well, she thought, it seems like a nice enough place. She hoped the Bhoot planet was as pleasant.

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