Date: 1,990,206 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 5,391 (Shango), NA 542 (Qareen)
Location: Moveworld 1.
She was a collector, and if there was one thing that drove her, it was the need to be comprehensive about it. Naturally, the nature of collecting anything in a region as vast as the Qareen Confederacy demanded the introduction of limits. Indeed, even on Moveworld 1, as it was needlessly called (there was no Moveworld 2, after all), the vastness of the land meant that to be comprehensive across that was probably asking for too much.
Luckily, those on Moveworld 1 were divided into KInetic Grid Sections, or KIGS, and KIGS 102392107 was a fine plot of land to hunt for things within. As a consequence, she could stand back, as she did that morning, and examine the house she had built as the artificial sun rose in the background. To be fair, calling it a “house” was a cheat; the house was actually a village of sorts, often consisting of two and three-storey town houses, with the spaces between them filled with criss-crossing ribbon-like contrivances of driveways, and each component connected into a singular whole with bridges that led from roof to roof. The resulting hatchways in the roof could often detract from the historical accuracy, but that was something she could live with, so long as the generalities were right.
Besides, most of these houses weren’t even for living in. As she entered one, a classic example of an immediate pre-war residence (around fifty years beforehand to about ten years in) – a sort of curving, complex mass that seemed to be leaning over some undefined finish line, she found herself (entirely expectedly) entering a short hallway, leading into a large chamber that was the bulk of the house. And there, lining the walls around the vast empty space, was every single example she could find – she needed to be comprehensive about it, after all – of an assembler. She had pride in this collection, and rightly so, she reckoned, because there were rare ones here, old ones, and highly specialised ones, from the days when specialisation was deemed a necessity.
The old ones, she felt, were the best. There was history bound up in each of those machines, like the one close to the door that could only make drinks. She often wondered what it was about early Confederate Qareen civilisation that made drinking such a priority. Apparently, medical implements were a specialisation that came later.
Speaking of which, that was the one machine that was missing. Well, it wasn’t the only one. It was just the one that irked her most, like a drill bit working into the base of her skull.
She often thought about how she’d kill for such a machine, but of course, her conscience would force her to use the machine and revive the victim anyway.
Crime and Avoiding Punishment
Staying on the right side of the law is so easy in a world, in a galaxy, in fact, where property laws are non-existent. After all, you take from the citizen of a post-scarcity society, and they can always replace what they have without even a call to the insurers. In such a world, stealing is in fact pointless, when the object can always be acquired legally. With so many possibilities off the table, and so many motivations eliminated, to stay on the right side of the law should have been simple, an act as natural as breathing.
How, then, had he managed to fuck that one up?
That was the question at the back of his mind. It was good for future reference, but right now, there was a better question, at the front of his mind, so to speak: how could he get away from such a mess?
He decided that an actual vehicle, a car of sorts, would be best. Not merely because teleporters could be traced (technically, cars could be traced too) but because jumped from A to B to C to D was pointless if his pursuers could simply go from A to D. What he needed was to present not merely a moving target, but a dynamic one.
Finding the desired vehicle – a sort of grand tourer that could give the impression of luxury and finesse but also kick up into a ridiculous speed – he got in, started the car, and breezed through town, taking care to stay under the advised speed limit. There was no need to draw attention to himself. So he threaded his way through town, made his way to the outskirts, passing that weird mini-village of a house where that slightly odd young woman apparently collected bits of technology, and then waited until exactly the point where the rear wheels crossed the line and the advised limit came off.
The recommended top speed was unlimited, quite simply because there were no settlements for another hundred kilometres, at least. Taking the minor roads, he realised, meant being tens of kilometres from any teleporter pad. That suited him well.
Of course, the rest of the situation didn’t. He had no fixed abode now, a ridiculous situation particularly for a Qareen. He had given up a proper life, too – the idea of a stable routine, of a fixed purpose (beyond anything as low as “staying away from the authorities”), of having someone to love. He couldn’t have done with those things.
He thumped the steering wheel with frustration when he realised that he could also have done with an off-roader.
He liked her hair, but he figured that the real deal-makers were her eyes. Maybe he was just getting old – or at least older – and hence soft. If true, that saddened him; did it always have to be that way? A kind of emotional entropy where every resolve and every solid principle buckled into compromise? And if he thought that wasn’t quite as tragic a thing as previously assumed, then was that such a bad thing?
Even so, it wasn’t all bad. Yes, they were gazing into each other’s eyes, yes, they were idling about, lying down on the bench in the town’s public square, where the tower blocks rose up around them in an imperfect quadrangle of three sides, but he still maintained that keen eye. For one, he saw some guy leaning forward over his steering wheel as crawled past in a car, carefully obeyed every rule of the road as he came down to the junction and turned meticulously onto the main road that bordered the fourth side of the square. Obviously a guilty man-
#The police will be after him. Maybe the Confeds.#
#Mmm. Should we say something?#
#Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure… what we would say, but we could… I don’t know.#
He didn’t know either, but he didn’t care. Sunset was approaching; he could see the artificial sun’s slow descent coming into view, where it was about to arc fully down into the huge tunnel (sunset was hence unlike that on a planet; long into the night, a mysterious glow would emanate from the horizon) and where, on the other side of Moveworld 1, it would emerge after some time as a sunrise.
#What are you talking about?#
#You, of course.#
#<gentle arm punch>#.
He examined her smile; he liked it, but he still decided that her eyes were her best feature. Physically, that was; he also loved the way she could be so languid, such a calming influence, and yet she glowed with a youthful energy too, something he couldn’t define.
The bright light in the sky, moving quickly overhead and contrasting against the darkening sky, seemed like an apt image, he thought.
Over the Face of the Waters
The Terroriser/Punisher/Tickler was a strangely sphere-like ship that was unorthodox by Qareen standards; indeed, its slightly blocky additions to its hull made it look like the mixed-race offspring of Qareen and Shango ships. Even so, Lubno4 was satisfied enough with it as a ship, despite its strange history and its relatively slow top speed. It was a historical cul-de-sac, one of a class of ships that was meant to utilise radical new technology just after the Intersection Wars. Said radical new technology was meant to produce a FTL drive that was far in excess of the kind of ships used in the Wars, but instead, it improved top speeds by a mere three per cent; when a later technology, utilising much simpler processes (although still horrendously complex to the lay mind), appeared and boosted speeds by a similar amount, it was clear that the Qareen Confederacy had come across the same strange speed limit which held back Shango ships from the kind of epic yet effortless journeys the Dharans were capable of.
One advantage that the Terroriser did have, however, was that it had the ability to also work as a low-orbit vehicle, to a far greater extent than the specialised kinds of spaceships that had appeared after it. All he had to do was find enough friends, and that was it – he’d use the machine as an exploration vehicle, exploring that great unknown: not the stars out in the wider galaxy, which the Confederacy as a whole knew pretty well, and where they had millions of ships combing through the remaining regions of ignorance, but down on Moveworld 1, where people had been given centuries to move around, to form themselves into societies which in turn bent themselves into the weirdest shapes to cope with the surroundings.
Moveworld, after all, was far from uniform, as became obvious from lift-off. Having tilted upwards, the Terroriser blasted off from the surface with a plume of steam tracing its arc through the sky – completely unnecessary, but spectacular enough to warrant the compressed tank attached to it, which detached over a safe area. As it levelled out, the main screen on the screen expanded its view to a sort of quasi-3D projection, lowering the bridge lights to sharpen the contrast, and there, he and the rest of the crew could see a vast swathe of Moveworld in all its glory, stretching out for millions of kilometres around. As it did so, artificial suns rose, fell, circled in lengthy arcs, cycled up and down, and spiralled through eccentric, oblique or generally unconventional flight paths. Around the resulting patchwork of night and day, they could see the scattered dustings of city lights or synthetic swathes of benign urban sprawl.
He wondered what was down there. No doubt the mundane and quotidian were superabundant – the usual things, like idle car journeys, or social visits, or teenagers kissing on town square benches. But Moveworld was vast; he had heard about a report from the government some time ago, which suggested that possibly as much as a fifth of Moveworld’s population didn’t come under the government’s jurisdiction in any meaningful sense.
Naturally, the government didn’t mention who those people were. He was going to find some of them anyway, though, and he could just imagine their surprise as a huge, official-looking spaceship came down in their midst, and a stranger stepped out to investigate their unusual society.
He also wondered what kind of society would form outside of the Qareen pale – an anarchist collective? A dictatorship? Some kind of monarchist throwback?
A Tale of Kings of Queens
The residents of the village looked up and felt the usual feeling of suspicion and weariness. Yet another visitor would appear, marvel at them as if they were gravity-defying sculptures, and then leave again, presumably to tell someone else who would turn up, and repeat the process.
They weren’t exactly asking for normal lives – such things were now impossible, given that dozens of people had landed amongst them and explained that no, they weren’t normal. What they wanted was – well, it was to not be patronised, not have each and every damn visitor marvel at their “mythical” system.
The Queen walked out onto her balcony and examined the ship descending. Judging from the shape of it – highly unconventional, not like the others, anyhow – there was a possibility that this one was government, or at least, the people who claimed to be the government of this land. She had heard about them, and she had known that one day, those people would surely come. She was sure that, when the time came, her subjects would be loyal to her. The Kingdom of Seren Falj had been going for centuries, and had always been Serenian – what this talk of “Qareen” was about, she had no idea.
The ship landed, and she realised that some kind of snap decision had to be made. She backed away from the balcony. She figured that the best approach would be to head into the main court, take the throne, and expect the visitor to come to her. That was power, after all – when things had to be done your way, not theirs.
She instructed her advisors appropriately, and in return got the usual sycophancy and one of them hurrying out of the door. After a short while – the ship had, after all, landed almost next to the palace – he returned.
#Your Majesty, he claims to be representing the government of this land. Naturally, I am sceptical.#
#As am I, Rinsad5. But send him in anyhow.#
#As you wish, ma’am.#
The visitor came in, trailed by a short train of other individuals. He delivered, unprompted, some kind of awkward bow.
#Truly, this is quite something…. yourmajesty.#
She’d heard that before.
#It’s like a piece of folklore come to life. It’s marvellous, it’s fantastic. And how wondrous that you’ve built a prosperous kingdom here.#
She’d heard that before, too.
#It makes me wonder what other mysteries abound – whether there are fantastical creatures in the forests, in these hills…#
He wasn’t from the government, she decided. The guy had no clue about statecraft, and no clue about the region. Another joker. With a snap of her fingers, the advisors bundled the group out of the room.
A Disco with Dragons
Above him, he could see a spaceship in low orbit – his shades hooked up to the relevant database and pulled out the name Terroriser/Punisher/Tickler – and listened as it idly lurched over the sound barrier, causing the boom to echo across the valley to the east. The animals wouldn’t like that, he thought, and as soon as he did, he heard howls, barks and saw flames of outrage from all around.
They settled down soon enough, though, barring the early creations, which he knew would continue for some time, until the boom’s last echo had dulled to a fraction of a single decibel. He was never keen on those; he had tried too hard, too early, on the first result in the subset of the human database on which he worked. That first entry had been Manticore, and he had definitely regretted that one.
Since then, he had gotten better, so much so that he now had virtually a whole park full of creatures, albeit ones that needed strong ringfencing and shielding. The health and safety required around the area was a nightmare, even as he assured central government, truthfully as well, that he had managed to breed all but necessary aggression out of these creatures. The entry marked Dragon had proved easiest; even as these strange, lizard-like beings possessed clawed feet and crazed faces, in the true tradition of the Eastern civilisations of Earth, they were more docile than the typical Qareen household pet. He had also explained very carefully that the other kind listed in the entry, the alleged fire-breathers, were creatures that he had conjured up the theory of, but never made. Apparently, that didn’t satisfy them.
Really, he thought, I should have simply done something less contentious. I should have become a writer – everyone is, he thought, but all the same, it’s obvious and safe work. Or maybe, he thought, I should have become a programmer. It’s the same principle, after all. Wasn’t it?
The manticores were still making noise. Sat on his platform, with concentric bands of computer screens ranged around him in a barrier between him and the forest, he sighed loudly.
The Story Factory
Some people, she knew, reckoned the best philosophy was one of quality over quantity. She disagreed – sort of. Her methods were quality through quantity; the ability to turn out a hundred ideas quickly, and see how many stuck.
Some of them had stuck very well indeed; her best story, a novel-length adventure that she had drawn out from a novella-length idea, had received half a trillion full reads. That was easily enough for “bestseller” status, even if it hadn’t quite landed her amongst the “best-selling” of all time.
She turned to the machine again, the Story Factory. She was so impressed with this, her finest creation – having invented it some years ago, she was now able to fully put her philosophy into practice, and turn herself from writer to publisher and editor. The downside, of course, was that instant ideas meant an instant slushpile. She had learnt that the hard way, when her exuberance had encouraged her to go for a thousand-strong random-length run; she wouldn’t do that sort of thing ever again, she had vowed, even if it had produced the half-trillion-read novel.
She set the machine to produce seven stories, roughly averaging but not exacting a length of around four hundred words. Naturally, the machine took longer to print the stories out than to think them up; the whole process took about half a second.
She checked the top of the printout, and read off the first sentence of the first story: “She was a collector, and if there was one thing that drove her, it was the need to be comprehensive about it.”
She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story”…”