Date: 1,994,404 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 18,703 (Shango), N.A. 1878 (Qareen)
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
From: Office of the President of the Qareen Confederation.
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.