Date: 1,989,512 AD (Gregorian), PW 3190 (Shango), NA 321 (Qareen)
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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]