Date: 1,994,355 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 18,548 (Shango), N.A. 1863 (Qareen)
Location: planet Trevi, Darkworlds Heath and Franklin
“But why here?”
The man who was stood sighed in undisguised aggravation.
“Two reasons, Getriq. One, to show that no-one is safe, which is the key message to send out when fighting a war of resistance. The second is that this is, very relatively speaking, a low-population area. There should be minimal loss of life. Which some of you, for some reason, care about deeply. As if shaving off a few million will make the difference.”
He leaned forward to the table and jabbed the right button for his purpose, which yanked up a holographic projection of the location being talked about. An orb appeared, rotating slowly, revealing its surface to every user: a curiously ordered one, in which a labyrinth of too-straight mountain ranges presented a patchwork pattern of alternating deserts and jungles or, at the poles, tundra and icy wastelands.
“Darkworld Heath,” the man standing explained, “6,000km radius, natural gravity fairly low. 57 Spaces and 115 surfaces. 766 billion inhabitants.”
“I still say this is a bad plan,” the man next to Getriq stated. “It is guaranteed to cause loss of life, which will-”
“It will cause an impact.”
“The wrong impact.”
“You’re too compassionate.”
“It’s not compassion, it’s a matter of damn strategy and you should get your fucking house in order!”
Out of the five people gathered in the room – four nominally sat on chairs, backs facing each corner, and the one meant to be a leader stood in the centre at the desk – four tensed at the crescendo of rage from the fifth. He had stood to confront the leader, looking eye to eye. For a long time, no-one spoke.
“Well you can count me out.”
“Out of the movement, or out of the cell?” one of the seated men asked.
“Out of the cell. I’ll go where the movement has brains.”
He slammed the door behind him.
“We carry on,” the leader insisted. “OK. Darkworld Heath has the same kind of security as any other in its infrastructure department.”
The holographic image shifted into a cutaway diagram. A central sphere acquired a highlighting glow.
“The infrastructure department hides its information initially via fractal encryption. Once that is broken, there is then a physical encryption in which the data is part of the simulation.”
“How does that work?”
“Well, we would typically enter a virtual simulation of the whole of Darkworld Heath, and then we would have to search for the data, which might be encrypted as a grain of sand on a beach on one of the surfaces.”
“Shit. Sounds complicated.”
“It is, if you don’t know which grain of sand to look for. Which is why, people, we must know. And once we do know, that is it for Darkworld Heath: the Grab Management Systems will be switched off, we will be out in the time we give ourselves, and then natural gravity will do its work.”
The hologram animated, and slowly, the sphere began to collapse in on itself, crushing itself into a small, rocky sphere as debris shot out into space.
Outside the window, a small but bright dot appeared in the sky, and quickly shifted across it. The leader peered out and looked closely.
“It’s time. The details I can explain along the way.”
Inside Central Government, the faux-street layout that attempted to disguise, as much as possible, the obvious fact that the whole giant sphere was simply a maze of offices and corridors. Yet roads and staircases and, if inside one of the “buildings”, lifts and telporters, managed to lead in almost all directions, making access far less complicated than the jagged and jaunty street layout would have implied.
Yet all roads led decidedly away from one place, which was buried, door-less and window-less, between six other buildings on each side. There were no logos for the department, and no clear evidence of who the people in the building worked for.
In an area marked Section J, a tall, suited man charged through the openly corridor-like corridors, arriving at a room dominated by one huge circular desk around which large, radial spines filled with panes of glass displaying animated graphics. There, he made his way through the office to a large alcove at the head of it, passed through the Membrane that invisibly covered the alcove and blocked out sound and unwanted visitors, and placed several sheets of paper on the desk. The woman behind it wordlessly picked them up and began reading.
“Dead drop on Space 31,” he explained, “we might have hours at most, it depends on how they’re organised.”
“One of our assets on Trevi. We can’t vouch for the accuracy of the names, they might be pseudonyms. Certainly the database we have hasn’t turned up anything yet.”
The man nodded. “We might need the whole Federal register. It’s possible that the cell has been recruited from other planets. Possibly Darkworlds.”
The woman looked puzzled, and re-examined the first page. “Zafz, why would the ADG recruit from the very things they’re protesting against?”
“I know. I suspect it’s all part of the ploy to cover themselves. Thing is, Tyos, I suspect the hypocrisy will not bother them if it contributes to the cause.”
Tyos sighed and slapped the document down onto the desk. “OK, the plan is thus.”
She reached for a graphic on the glass panel in front of her, and almost imperceptibly, the Membrane dissolved. Another graphic tap alerted the whole office; another displayed the case so far, as receptors in the paper beamed it onto a holographic projection.
“First of all, we call for Federal help,” she announced, “they might not arrive or reply in time, but it’s worth doing. Second, we track down those names, however long it takes. Thirdly, we need a plan on defending the encryption. If we can get any upgrade at all, let’s do it.”
“Full section meeting?” Zafz asked.
“Full agency meeting, if Kejaj allows. This one’s slipped through the net and it’ll take us all out.”
At this point, someone came running round the desk, weaving past the spines.
“I’ve got all the details beamed to Franklin,” he announced, “but it will take around 71/100 to get there.”
Tyos had risen from the desk, and she grabbed the document as she began to move across the room.
“Fucking hell, we might as well have dispatched a spaceship. Thanks anyway.”
“Got a message from Darkworld Heath, and the LCTA there. They say there may be another incident, category zero, but they suspect the ADG this time.”
Panz Hertriss leaned back on his chair at the news. “Darkworld Heath?” he asked. “Did they state a timeframe.”
“They said a minimum of hours, but no upper limit.”
“You see, Itris, if I remember rightly – actually, I’m not sure if I do.”
He leaned over to the glass panel, worked the graphics on the screen, and a huge, holographic image of the two galaxies appeared. Two shining purple lights indicated Darkworlds Heath and Franklin.
“If I and my convenient computerised calculations are correct, then it’ll take two-thirds of a day to send a message back. We may have to consider the possibility that the incident has been averted or that it has passed.” He checked the screen again. “766 billion citizens. I would’ve thought even the ADG would have its limits. Apparently not.”
Itris could only nod at this. He was already nervous at having to bring such news, and being relatively new to the job, this was more than he needed to be dealing with.
“Itris, don’t worry about it. I understand you have a smaller case to be dealing with.”
“Sure thing, Panz.”
With that, he left. Panz re-examined the document. He would suggest a number of things; deploying a military force, simply sending over advice. The problem, of course, was that window of uncertainty; he had no idea if the event had already happened or not. The Heath LCTA wouldn’t be able to deliver such news until the day afterwards, at best.
Think, he thought to himself. Think think think.
He tapped the glass screen one more time.
“Go ahead, Panz.”
“Mr. President, we might need your decision on something.”
The central office of the President was humming with activity. In the room, a long rectangular one of around three metres wide and twelve metres long, advisors examined screens and passed reports. At one end of the office, a third of the floor was raised by a short staircase, and the table at the top was surrounded by Utren Allix the Shango Chief of Armed Forces; Dekrip Iyet, the Head of the Shango Federal Covert Defence Agency, or FCDA; and most critically of all, the most powerful man across eleven million or so worlds, the President of the Shango Federation.
“Mr. President, a contingency plan might be a waste of time. If the whole Darkworld is going under-”
“Utren, in a situation like this, we are operating under an extremely tight window.”
The President looked around suddenly.
“Is the Membrane switched on?” he asked.
Dekrip nodded. “Right up to visual on all six sides.”
Indeed, the staffers that the three men could see mere metres from them would only see a black haze if they were to look back.
“The fact is,” the President continued, “there are over seven hundred billion people who might be affected by this incident. This incident may or may not have already happened either some time ago, or very recently. It might be imminent. We might just be able to intervene at the right time. But until we do, we have no idea how we can. We’re in a strange scenario here on Franklin, where the action we take won’t be useful unless we know the outcome of the action we take.”
He paused briefly, during that time wondering why he couldn’t switch off from autocue mode.
“And that is why we assume all eventualities, including the possibility that Darkworld Heath is gone.”
The President tapped a screen behind him, and the tabletop shifted into a screen. On it, Darkworld Heath’s image appeared, its synthetic outer patchwork of jungles, mountains and deserts surrounded by various blocks of text and graded colour patterns.
“It may take time to implement them all,” Utren countered.
“Good point,” Dekrip added, “we’ll have to prioritise.”
2/97 later, they had agreed a plan.
“It’s out of our hands, now.”
“I suspect it always was, Itris. The case?”
“Averted. Although it was unusual.”
“Stoppan spies on Franklin, Panz. A rare occurrence, unless I’m mistaken.”
“You are not. We do seem to be entering a troubled and troubling phase around now. Here we are in – what year is it? P.W. 18,548, and still these same issues crop up. Intensify, even. It is worrying, looking to the long term.”
The LCTA’s Planning Room was packed but relatively quiet; around the table, with some of them sat at it, were a sizeable proportion of the agency’s workers. At one end of the table, a holographic projection of the whole of Darkworld Heath hung in mid-air. At the other end, Darkworld Franklin hovered, and in the middle, a series of lines and arrows stretched across virtual kiloparsecs, labelled with various graded time estimates.
“The ship from Trevi has doubtless landed,” Zafz announced near the Heath end of the table, “but we still have potentially as much as another 1/39 until they’re working at the system from the optimum place. From there, we reckon the Grab management systems would be reached anywhere between 1/39 and 4/39, depending on their capabilities, and from there, the whole Darkworld is under immediate threat.”
“How long,” Tyos asked, “do we need for a full evacuation?”
“I have contacted every Darkworld and every newsband possible,” Koitra, a woman at the Franklin end, said, “we won’t achieve a full evacuation barring Dharan intervention.”
A buzz erupted around the table. “You can’t consider it, Tyos,” one voice managed to say, cutting through the mass of other voices.
“I can and I will,” Tyos said calmly once quiet had been achieved, which did not take long. “I won’t let billions die because of mere principle. We will beg to the Dharans if need be. It’s rare that I pull rank, people, but on this I will. Contact the Dharans.”
“Moving on,” she added after the pause.
Zafz moved his hands across the table, and the holographics shifted to a three-dimensional sprawl of Darkworlds, all differing slightly, branching out into fractal patterns that disappeared, presumably, through the walls.
“This is the system at present, for those who don’t usually go about tinkering with the Grab” Zafz explained. “As you can see, Darkworld Taal is the default encoding simulation for our Grab management. They have to guess this. If they fail, they will have to search across six Darkworlds for the data, and should they fail there, thirty-six. If they fail at eight guesses, they will be searching across the whole galaxy.”
“What are the odds that they fail?” Koitra asked.
“Ordinarily, the odds of making the guess on the first level are a million to one, and on the second level, one point four times ten to the power of thirty-three to one. That’s the beauty of the system; it’s almost impossibly hard to make the first guess, and after that, you truly have to know. After eight failed guesses, you get to search the whole galaxy’s Darkworlds, and you’re looking across them for ten grains of sand, or ten bits of grit, or ten particles of mixed composition. Even across one Darkworld, it’s immensely difficult, and not even we are privy to the information. But I suspect they would not attempt this if they did not have a way around it.”
“What do you suggest?”
“It’s tough to call. We could wait until they make the first guess, and then follow them in.”
“We don’t know their physical location.”
Tyos waved that away. There were tracker bots, after all; if they could be apprehended in virtual space, they would have all the time they needed.
Perceld felt ridiculous, and he wasn’t wrong to do so; the headgear he wore was heavy, cumbersome and large enough to make him look like a possible Qareen underneath. Even so, he would have been prepared to wear it if he hadn’t felt that the project was becoming ever more futile.
The headgear, of course, was important due to the lack of information the team had. They had been given an anonymous tip on the fractal system, which would otherwise have turned into a nightmare scenario of impossibly long odds. It was a risk to rely on such a tip, but it had worked, and all ten of the team recruited – two separate cells – had found themselves on Darkworld Taal, or a virtual version of it, scouring the place visually in an agonisingly long analysis. The headgear, naturally, was the only thing that stopped this from lasting billions of years too; its scanner swept over everything it was pointed at, analysing everything with a (fake) self-contained molecular structure, every small component, and tossing it aside as a negative within picoseconds.
Where he stood, the headgear was especially useful, as millions of items – blades of grass across a vast field – were practically identical in their coding.
He had walked for what had felt like miles across the Protest Fields when he stopped, not because of anything he saw or heard, but what he realised.
He hadn’t heard anything from the team in quite some time now. Not a single word. The comms had been full of chatter initially, people reporting nothing for at least 1/39, but another 1/39 on, only three of the pieces had been found, and the chatter was beginning to thin; to the point where each member of the team was able to use most, if not all, six voices that expanded the Shango language to its full potential, rather than the thin, Qareen-like single voice, unable to carry as much context and detail.
It was another 1/39 on from that scenario when he had stopped and realised that the voices in his ears had diminished to far below six, and right down to zero. Had these others left? Was he being framed? Or were the authorities onto them already?
He got his answer shortly; the lighting above suddenly shifted westwards, and in a matter of moments, he found himself looking at a sunset that was not due for another 4/39, at least. The shadows around the place had lengthened considerably, and the buildings in the distance were shrouded in twilight.
It was getting cold, he realised, and he swore he could see movement. He carried on, through the maze of tents he had reached, but felt that something really wasn’t right.
“Unit 1?” he asked into the comms. One voice, no elaboration. No reply.
“Unit 4? Unit 8? Unit 3?”
No replies from them, either. He would have reached for a weapon, but he had none. The plan had looked flawed before, he know, but it had looked about as sound as it could be made to be; now all its horrifying issues seemed to be laid bare. He knew what was going on, now – the darkness was closing in, literally and metaphorically. Yet it had now, surely, been around 1/780 at least. What were they taking their time over?
“Where are you?” he whispered to no-one in particular.
He carried on, through the maze of tents, and in his peripheral vision spotted a flicker. They were to his right; he turned left, but subtly, hoping he could make it look like a voluntary, free deviation. If he could reach the other side of the tents, he thought, then he could probably find a unit in order to-
He suddenly felt a gun jab into his helmet and an arm seizing him at the neck.
“Good effort. But better luck next time.”