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.

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