Category Archives: Civ: Bhoot

To

Date: 1,994,404 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 18,703 (Shango), N.A. 1878 (Qareen)
Location:
various

1

“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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.”

6

“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.

7

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.

8

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.

9

From: Office of the President of the Qareen Confederation.
Sent .007/1879
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.

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.

Jack

Date: 1,995,200 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 21,227 (Shango),  N.A .2132 (Qareen)
Location: RPDSCR of the Bhoot People

1

#I can’t believe Weczer7/11,191 was right. About everything.#

#Right down to the decor.#

The two men who made up Team 7 looked around their bleak hotel room – a room full of peeling walls and bare furniture that did not even pretend to have an air of comfort, let alone luxury – and at that point, both of them might have wondered why they had volunteered for such a grim task, although neither of them signalled as much to each other. Weczer had dived into the unknown, but these men had received some inkling of what they faced. Yet this atmosphere wasn’t wholly unusual for what they had seen over the past tenth of a year, moving about the world, and the living standards were similarly expected. Planet Glory was badly named, for the most part.

#I wonder#, said the commenter on decor – Retef6/575,997 – #I wonder how they cope. Unless they’re just that used to it. But surely someone wants things to change.#

#You don’t know how these people are, Retef#, his colleague, Serta1/575,996 replied, #because all you do is monitor the media and look at the government. Which is what team 9 should be doing anyway. You should be looking at how these people think, and <the sheer [x 2 with pause]> way that they choose what they see and believe. Random example, here, from the last couple of days we’ve been here, in this city. You see that place over there?#

Serta had gestured to a large complex visible from the hotel window, although Retef guessed that it was probably around a mile away, crammed in amongst the high-density low-storey housing that comprised that particular district of the city; if anything, he had a better view of it than the people living nearby.

#Yes. Some kind of factory?#

#Maybe, but it doesn’t make anything. I spoke to a man in the street about it, the other day. He said he lived next door to it. He said he always saw plenty of people go in there, but only the people with uniforms ever leave.#

Retef looked at the clump of buildings again, and saw smoke slowly drifting out of its towers, up into the clouds where it dispersed above the whole city.

#And when I asked him what kind of stuff goes on in there, he said it was no business of his.#

2

Sometimes, Kojen2/788,601 wondered if these people had only colonised four planets because the government would otherwise have run out of self-serving names. Planet Destiny itself was ostensibly that fourth planet, although it was not exactly fully inhabited as many Confederate planets were, the population probably around a hundred million, rather than the billions it took to fill a planet this size.

Still, as he waited for Alar9, the other member of Team 3, he couldn’t help but feel that he had grabbed quite a good role. Destiny seemed to be somewhat less in the tight grip of this regime, although perhaps, as a kind of outpost colony compared to the others, this was understandable. This lowered weight on his shoulders, however, combined with the fact that none of his people had explored this place before.

Of course, it wasn’t all that simple. Even as he looked out of the window, he could see the police drones hovering over the skies, no doubt scanning dozens of streets at a time. He watched as one of them shot right past the window, heading downwards in a perfect arc towards someone, or some people, who had no doubt transgressed in some unacceptable way. He hoped Alar9 wasn’t one of them; she would doubtless be fine whatever happened, but the inconvenience of another panopticon incident would have ruined the whole mission, as far as he was concerned.

In the early days here, he had studiously engaged his superconscious, recording almost everything he could see, but lately he had realised that there was a remarkable uniformity about the place, and as he ran through these thoughts in his mind, he added them to the record. In the end, it was almost all he could notice; the crazed street patterns and awkward civic design, the crumbling architecture that populated it, and the physically stunted, weary-looking populace – they were always there, and moving from city to city changed the specifics but never the broad generalisations that could be made about them. Whether the planet’s capital, or a minor backwater, it seemed to be the largely the same everywhere.

He reckoned he knew what was going on, anyhow. It was all fear, he decided; the populace feared their rulers, but the rulers feared losing grip, felt like they had too much to lose by sharing power and wealth in any way. It didn’t take a genius to know that. As he looked to the bed, he saw the election poster on it, it slogan not a promise, but a threat.

3

Being appointed to Team 1 seemed like the QPA had handed down a massive honour to Prolo3, but it turned out the honour was less than expected. Team 1 suggested that he and his fellow agent Aliv8 would be right on the cusp of discovery, prising open the exact areas of these planets that had not been previously uncovered, but as it turned out, they were merely tracing over the steps that Weczer had previously taken, over the same preposterously named planet she had wound up on, Planet Power. Apparently the capital, there was little suggestion that it carried any prestige, any improved living standards or any added urban buzz and activity. That law about no more than two people ever meeting was true, it seemed, along with all the other ones restricting various technologies. As a result, teams 2 and 9 vanished from the pair of them easily.
Aliv8 returned shortly before sunset. There was no moon around Power, and so the only light available to the city around them after sundown was what it could generate, which made her first statement as she approached the door a worrying one.

#I’ve heard there’s about to be a power dip#, she announced, and came through the door.

Of course, a “power dip” meant a complete blackout, possibly for the whole night.

Prolo consoled himself slightly, even as he sighed at the news. They had peered around the edges of Team 9’s remit, stumbling across one factory that manufactured the transportation that only business leaders and high-ranking politicians could afford to buy. He was reminded of M.E.A.C. and the occasional appearance of their ships in the galaxy, and the way that both the starship builder and the car manufacturer here on Power both had products that were ridiculously carefully styled and custom-built for every last conceivable idea that the client had. And this was perhaps the small ray of light amidst the sheer mess he felt he was witnessing here; those car-builders could have worked for several lifetimes to buy the things they made, and several lifetimes more to run them, but they took immense pride in what they did, which few others in this world could. Even so…

#We’ve seen enough. I think we should leave#, he told Aliv.

4

Zikk8 and Ewol3, of Team 5, had landed on Planet Glory along with the other teams there, but their real plan had been to secure a ship to take them to Strength.

Of course, they had assumed that Weczer’s account was an exaggerated one. It rapidly transpired that it wasn’t.

Once every form – quite possibly, they both thought, every conceivable form that the local language would allow – had been filled out, they managed to get onto the ship – the Joy of the Common Man.

#Wow#, was Zikk’s immediate reaction as he got inside. Of course, it was not what he was used to from spaceships – but that wasn’t the point. Perfectly clean, blemish-free walls and actual screens and some semblance of technology seemed amazing after the weeks of sparse, bare emptiness. Soft lighting, as opposed to the loudness of daylight, the glare of unshaded bulbs and the absolute darkness of the nights was a welcome touch of moderation.

#Wow indeed. Although it is a government ship. Apparently, this is the minimum you’d ever deal with, if you were in that power.#

As Zikk looked around the room, he wondered how anyone could possibly be so sheltered. Then again, the spaceport itself had been similar to this, but practically windowless, and certainly without any windows that didn’t point to the spacecraft themselves.

Still, even as the pair of them were on their way to join Team 6, on a planet that was previously unexplored by the Confederacy, they couldn’t help but wonder whether the state they were in was merely a different kind of suffering. The journey dragged on, for weeks and weeks, and as they watched their slow progress on inflexible screens they were reminded that they could have been at their destination long, long beforehand.

#Another thing Weczer was right on.#

#It’s OK. Soon we’ll be on a planet even she didn’t see.#

#True. But it’ll be the same shitty mess.#

It must have been a sixth of a year, Zikk realised, by the time they reached Planet Strength, the place they were originally supposed to be. Yet as the pair of them left the spaceport, parted with the diplomats and bureaucrats they had shared the journey with, and looked out across another grey industrial cityscape that managed in its haphazard asymmetry to still look homogenous, Zikk knew that the whole damn thing was probably about to be a waste of time.

5

Gold-lined walls, carpet made, probably, from the fur of something (probably several somethings) endangered, everything else made from the compounds of several elements at the far end of the Periodic Table; there was no doubt here. These were the halls of power, on a planet named Power, no less.

Team 9 were the ones who had managed to get in. Their methods had been complex and far from legal under local jurisdiction, although the QPA had more than authorised them. Thus far, their progress had been surprising to them, and the security had been apparently lax, although in truth it consisted of individuals, easily hacked surveillance and easily stumped AI drones.

#They’ll get us sooner or later#, Sadre5, one half of the team argued, #we’ll get complacent#.

#Oh sure, we’re panopticon bound, but I’ll have a message for them before we get there#, Pixa4 argued. She smiled in weird acceptance at this.

#Well they’d better be words to break chains with#.

If the two of them had calculated the whole mission well – and Sadre reckoned that they had – then today would be the last day anyhow. This was the awkward stage, however: recall. Reeling in the mass of surveillance, AI and loggers that they themselves had put in place, without tripping the surveillance and AI of the locals? A tough job, but it had to be done.

The two of them were located in a back office, a small room that the government did not truly consider worth monitoring, and so in the empty space they had various screens unfolded, various calculations running, various graphics showing independent units moving through shaded areas to avoid the glare of overlapping cameras and motion sensors.

Sure enough, the prophecy came true: one AI drifted into a motion sensor’s region that it had not accounted for, and from there, they would be traced.
All of that equipment had just about folded away when two guards burst through the office door, with guns raised. Behind his back, Sadre pushed two small buttons on the unit’s side, one to boost an ansible signal, another to send.
“What are you doing?” one of the guards demanded, “you are not authorised here. The Republic destroys all saboteurs and dissidents.”

“Maybe so,” Pixa4 replied, “but if you do, you should bear this in mind: the Qareen Confederacy is watching.”

Overcome with a nervous feeling, the guards lowered their weapons.

Up

Date: 1,995,187 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 21,186 (Shango), N.A. 2128 (Qareen)
Location:
RPDSR of the Bhoot People.

1

The scene on the bridge had been a tense one, but he nonetheless allowed it to slide from lingering mindset to sepia-toned memory. It was OK. She was safe now, and the Walk-In Contradiction/Lemonless/Spaceship Plus was charging away from the whole region of space at speeds they could never hope to catch.
Crossing the bridge had been the first bit of hope in years – but Weczer7/11,191 knew even then that she was in a tentative state, one where the information she had gathered had to balance the trouble she had potentially caused, something that was not easy to judge, even as she was lying on the floor of her quarters in the Walk-In. That had been made clear on the bridge, back on the planet; across the canyon, she could see a mass of hovering gunships, ranged battalions of android troops, all ready to act if the people releasing her attempted one last gambit, and to underline that they were dealing with the Qareen Confederacy, that civilisation that had some kind of presence in – be it a full occupation, a colony, or even just regular visitors and immigrants to – almost all of the galaxy.

Naturally, they backed down.

She had kept that information, though. It had meant a complex procedure in her cell, but she had done it, and the act of doing it had made her glad to be Qareen, the bio- and genetic-engineered origins of her race before it spread across the galaxy proving a saviour. Unlike the Shango, eschewing all ideas of technology beyond that of it being a medium for otherwise impossible occurrences, the Qareen had for thousands of years felt that the personal experience as enhanced by technology and the technology itself could be, and perhaps should be, inseparable. It was the guiding philosophy of mighty intellects, the guiding philosophy of an immense civilisation, the guiding philosophy that spread across thousands of parsecs.

Not to mention the guiding philosophy that had saved her ass.

#You were heading into the unknown. You could not have known or have reasonably expected how events would unfold a priori#, she was reassured by Galan6, the other female on board.

#Well, I’m not sure. Here is what I know – unless – you have clearance, yes?#

#Sure. {clearance qpa l7} is the highest I have.#

#OK. {cognitive: qpa l5 required}, so it should be fine. {info sending} …it’ll take
a while.#

It took three minutes, which felt like a long time to be engaging one’s superconcious, especially across most of the quartersphere concerned.

#Sent. Disseminate at will amongst those permitted to view.#

She shot up from the floor to her feet and decided she would do something useful, but as her brain dipped power usage to prevent dizziness, she realised that she didn’t really have a plan. Not in the short term, anyway – long term, well, she’d return to monitoring the usual threats, bouncing from planet to planet. If the information dropped to level zero clearance, she thought, she could write some sort of piece about the whole thing. There’d be no end of public demand for that.

#This is pretty crude#, Galan6 admitted, #but my simulation says that you couldn’t have had significantly less than a 76% chance of capture, give or take five per cent either way.#

She was not surprised, but she reckoned she should have been. Logically, she assumed that Qareen technology and capabilities were responsible, because amongst the civilian population, she had never seen less than 100% rates. That was, of course, a mere shuttle-craft in the cargo bay of pain that was the life of an Bhoot citizen.

2

It had been half a Qareen year that she had been in there.

Of course, there was no risk of disease, either physically or, for that matter, mentally – a Qareen could always turn ostensibly insane, but there would always be one part of the brain that could lock itself off and perform functions separately, acting calmly underneath the storm of struggles in the conscious or superconcious.

Not that it was ever likely, but if it was to happen, it would happen here. The cell – a grey, cube-shaped space about two metres in all dimensions, was but a small component in the panopticon, yet its walls were soundproof, impregnable, and in any event, anything – and they thought of everything – that could potentially dig was taken away. Every possession she had was machine-assessed for it, which meant that anything she had in the cell was 100% likely to grind away before it made any impact on the walls.

The door was an old-style barred one, of the type she had only heard about in history classes, and of the type far easier to break out of than any potential Qareen facility. The Bhoot had countered this by making a breakout undesirable, to the tune of a sheer drop that Weczer guessed at being at least a kilometre, maybe two.

Despite the whole thing being very crude, all of it, except perhaps the Monitoring Station in the centre, the kind of thing no Qareen or Shango planet, Spaceplane or Darkworld would have utilised in thousands of years. It was, however, effectively – brutally so, although she had long since discovered that the Bhoot knew about brutality, and towards their own people, they had raised it to an artform. There was no getting out, barring the lone signal she had hoped would cut through the cell walls, or at least through the bars, and out into the reaches of Qareen space. Swallowing the amplifier would have distorted the signal, however, and not done much for her physiology either.

She reckoned that the only two actions to commit to were to protect and survive. Protect the information, which she had managed to smuggle the equipment for into the cell, and survive, which involved sitting out the sentence.
In the corner of the cell, where the setting sun struggled to reach its light into, she pulled the slim device from where it had been attached to the inside of her pocket, apparently made of fabric itself. Applying it to her head, she waited, then felt the mild jab of tiny needles engaging with the nerves in her head. Despite all the technology, there was no such thing as perfect machine-human interfacing.

In the top right corner of her vision, it flashed up: data download in progress – size 5.5 basics [unit-10]. She watched it tick slowly upwards from zero per cent. At sundown, which she made to be 65.74.09 locally and 12.07.96 in the agreed temporal measurement, the Monitoring Station began to sweep a flashlight over the cells. The thing no doubt had night vision anyway, along with thermal imaging and the like, but it naturally had to give the impression of activity.

Coming from a world filled with innovation, she tensed at the sight of the beam, assuming it was capable of all manner of scanning, analysing and other similar functions, that it would expose her plans, even as limited as they were, and instantly act in retribution.

It swept over, and her cell sunk into twilight again, the drop visible when stood close to the barred boor now in complete darkness.

100% complete, the interface told her as the beam was almost 180 degrees from her, and she felt the reverse of the jabbing from earlier, a feeling of tiny needles pulling out. She shook and bobbed her head, trying to make it look like a natural act, and the data logger flapped onto the floor. She scooped it up, shoved it into her pocket, and felt it sticking to the inside of it once again, as anonymous as it had been throughout; now, though, the disguise was unnecessary – she had all she needed, locked up within her own mental library.

The following morning, at 25.50.50 – they kept strict timetables around there – she was teleported out the same way she was teleported in, and found herself in the familiar environs of a similarly bleak-looking office, located, she had deduced during incarceration, in the tower propping up the Monitoring Station.

Uniformed, helmeted guards lined the room, all very blatantly carrying large guns in one hand and hefty spears in the other, and at last an open sign of the government’s hypocrisy. Quite what they expected from an unarmed woman, Weczer could not fathom. Even so, a vague clue was offered by the guard stood in front of her.

“We have received news from your people,” he said, “I do not know how they have discovered your presence as we did, but they are threatening war if we do not release you. Our glorious nation has decided it does not require such a conflict over one mere individual; it is not for the good of the people. Your release is therefore due at midday (she presumed 50.50.50), and you will remain here until then.”

She nodded, feigning fear and deference but secretly relieved. That message she had sent had got through, despite everything.

3

The bare, unpainted walls of the room were crumbling, but even so, the place was typical of what she had seen in her time here. Furnishing the space around her was a table and a trio of chairs, all metal, all rusting at their unrefined edges. A bare light, crude in its square glass casing, blasted light inefficiently into the area.

The two people in the room with Weczer had that same, haunted look that every Bhoot citizen had on their face; a look that suggested that had seen terrible things, that they had no words for, and that if they had the words, they would not dare speak of anyhow.

“It was too much of a risk to come here,” one of them said. He had introduced himself as Fighting Shadows At Sundown For Victory. The woman, who claimed to be named River to Glorious Destiny, did not reply, but looked as if she concurred.

“Well,” Weczer said, looking out of the murky window to see a dark country lane leading away towards the city lights, “it is done, now. We might as well do what we came here to do.”

“You’re right,” River said, and sat down on one of the chairs, which creaked. Fighting Shadows followed her, and his chair scraped a painful noise across the floor.

“Normally my job is to go somewhere, find any information I can, analyse it, draw conclusions about future events, and then leave,” Weczer explained. The two members of her audience nodded. “This time,” she continued, “it’s different. There’s nothing developing here. It’s an equilibrium, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Nothing’s going to change.”

“I want nothing to do with this,” Fighting Shadows said, getting up (creak) and heading towards the door, “our glorious society-”

“Glorious? Have you seen it?”

He said nothing, but gave a defiant look in response to the implied attack, and left. Outside, she heard a small car engine wheeze into life, and saw a flicker of shadow as it passed the window. One follower down. This awkward attempt at a resistance movement would not, she thought, impress anyone in the Confederacy. Perhaps, though, it was here motive that was lacking; it wasn’t that she was necessarily a citizen, on the inside, who wanted to change things; no, she was a relatively priveliged outsider, who had found her visit to this place intolerable, and felt that sure the citizens would agree. The problem was that she could find few who openly would.

“Are you still in, River?”

River nodded, but very hesitantly.

“The key thing here is that the people outnumber the government significantly. What they lack are the resources, which the political elite have seized with impressive totality.”

“But the government works for the people,” River argued.

“Of course they don’t, River. Why do you think that? Because they claim they do?”

Weczer knew, however, that it was only partly that. What it really was, truthfully, was that the government stated it, repeatedly, loudly proclaiming it across every medium available, and the result was bludgeoning rhetoric that worked to crush every other possible argument; not with quality of reason, but with quantity of claims. To even ask River the question she just had was to rip away reality and force her to view an utterly bizarre universe, whose principles were entirely upside-down from the assumptions she had always held.

It transpired to be irrelevant anyhow. Before she could say anything else, the door slammed open, thudding dust off the adjacent wall and rattling on its hinges, and a squad of uniformed, anonymous government operatives swept in, shoving the pair of them to the floor. Inside the hour, she was inside her cramped cell within the vastness of the panopticon.

4

The QPA could be bureaucratic, but usually for a reason – every precaution had to be taken, so precise, exact and highly detailed assessments couldn’t really be protested in such circumstances. Weczer7, though, had never seen anything like what she had attempted recently, however. She had requested a transfer from the third designated Bhoot planet (“Glory”) to the first (“Power”). The resulting paperwork – and yes, it was indeed overwhelmingly manually-inputted dead-tree format – could have filled a warehouse, she thought, and on reconsideration found it to be only a small exaggeration.

Said paperwork was nonetheless done quickly, however; a mere tenth of a Qareen year later, she found herself boarding the ship, the Revolution for Prosperity, and heading for Planet Power, which was a mere five light years distant, but even so, it would take five Earth weeks to do what it would take Qareen vessel ten Earth minutes to achieve. Still, she had got her wish, and once inside the vessel, pleasantly surprised. Spacious and relatively luxurious, certainly more so than, say, a warship, she found herself in the one area of the Bhoot civilisation that had so far even remotely suggested opulence. There were, apparently, no protocols, either; she could wake at any hour, and often did, and used the facilities at will, although she did not dare ask if there were any sports facilities she would recognise; she was already under the impression that there was some kind of catch, that a trap would be revealed. They were suspicious enough when she had initially merely asked to be there.

Five weeks later, though, the ship landed on Power – they actually landed, she realised, and did not choose or offer to beam her down. That, of course, would have meant the surrender of a level of control, and the regime would not allow it, especially to what their records marked as a recent and rare immigrant.

Still, she landed on Power, near the planet’s capital, a gargantuan sprawl of a city that was, like many Bhoot cities, oddly bare-looking even at the nominally busiest point of the day. She left the ship, accompanied by a lone guard for the length of the way into the city. He then got out of the car, wishing her a “for the glory of the Republic” standard bid of goodbye, and walked back. She examined the pile of documents on the passenger seat as soon as she was in the city and parked; they told her where her designated accomodation was, and suggested jobs she could assign herself to. The employment sheet also stated that there was a “personnel surplus due to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Republic’s economics”, which she understood to mean that she wasn’t really wanted anyway. It was when noticing things like that – which were hardly possible not to notice – that she realised what bothered her about the whole place; if only, if only, she thought, they could be honest about their intentions. But they were not, and so the whole populace was shrouded in this opaque rhetoric, this bullshit she found more crushing than the surveillance and the martial presence about the place.

She wondered whether doing anything about it was within her remit. Then she reasoned that she had an open remit anyhow – and that the billions involved across those four planets could hardly be sorry she tried.

For centuries, political academics across the Qareen Confederacy – and for that matter, across the Shango Federation with which a slow-built and, even now in NA 2128, tentative alliance had been formed – had studied the doings of their elected leaders with few assumptions at the core of their discipline. Yet there were some, and the most wide-reaching one – backed up by almost all the evidence that could be gathered on the subject, as well as more suspect claims by the likes of the Dharans – was this: no interstellar civilisation could reach or maintain such a status whilst acting as a dictatorship.

Of course, the evidence for this was, along with Dharan claims, limited to the aforementioned two civilisations and the Stoppan Republic that the Shango had long been familiar with, who exemplified the assumption perfectly.

The theory, too, was solid enough: as a civilisation prospered and expanded, it provided both a jurisdiction with monolithic gaps – the space between planets, and the thousands of uninhabited worlds within and without the civilisation – and, with spaceships a common asset, the capability for groups, if not individuals, to exploit these gaps was immense. For a civilisation to remain coherent, it had to appease those of such libertarian desires, whilst maintaining the values of the more socially conservative. Either way, the result was democracy and liberal tolerance all round.

The gap, on the other hand, was the Bhoot civilisation, which had been known by the Qareen for two thousand of their years, but had always been shrouded in mystery. Assuming that it was simply a cultural position of isolationism, the Confederacy had stayed clear, respecting such distance even during the Intersection Wars, where the Bhoot signed a formal alliance for the Fourth and Fifth wars, which simply amounted to a few spaceships tossed into the otherwise vast resources utilised.

Eventually, however, the Confederacy needed to know, and so the QPA dispatched an agent. Weczer7 knew she had no idea what to expect, but with few friends and family, she knew she was the closest to the ideal that the QPA could manage. The Walk-In Contradiction/Lemonless/Spaceship Plus beamed her to the surface of what she later learned to be named Glory from 100 local AUs, taking no chances on detection even if it resulted in teleporter failure.
Within hours of reaching the surface, though, Weczer couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong about the place, and that the secrecy existed for the wrong reasons. The place looked impoverished, and finding a local government office, the huge, imposing metallic sign at the front gave away the truth: Representative People’s Democratic Social Republic of the Bhoot People, it read, along with Freedom, Justice, Peace, Order underneath.

Such eagerness to imply freedom did not bode well, but over the days afterwards, she found the propaganda had light foundations in truth. The RPDSR of Bhoot was technically a capitalist and democratic society, and one where criticism of the government was not banned or punished per se, but that only represented a half-truth. Highly corporatist, she found that business, media and government effectively formed a dictatorial elite, a triangle of mutual interest that allowed tyranny to occur, and democracy was rendered moot by the razor-thin difference between parties. Of course, locking out the overwhelming majority of the populace would potential cause rioting, so the government had enabled a smart system of surveillance, enacting laws that were programmed into combat and police drones that hovered over the cities and towns in which the Bhoot lived.

As she first found her apartment, for example, she found no communication devices. This was part of the government’s real control: one facet was communication, of which technological devices to enable it were banned unless approved by the government and commerce committees. Furthermore, and most noticeably, no meeting between more than two people was ever permitted; the streets, even when relatively busy, were full of people whose paths never intersected for fear of it constituting a meeting; most never came within three metres of each other.

The second facet was ownership; this state-military-industrial elite possessed every spaceship she saw, and all transport for long distance, which meant no entering or leaving a local area without their permission.

Weczer7 found herself oddly unmoved by all of this; what dismayed her was that, despite them being free to do so, she heard no resentment, no anger amongst citizens in private. Even when they knew they were not being listened to (even if they were being tracked), many of them spoke of a glorious system, a great nation, and of “traditional Bhoot values.”

Perhaps, she told herself, she was looking at it from an alien perspective. Maybe this suited them. Maybe it truly was their way. But she couldn’t fathom it; there was no understanding that complicity, that rampant desire to support a system that held them back. Many of them told Weczer that they would soon be inside that elite, sharing in the spoils, but when she asked, she could not get anyone to name someone else who had achieved this feat. Their ideas had sprung not from evidence, but from the screen on their bedroom wall, which issued nightly the torrent of assurance that it was possible.

Always she asked herself whether to intervene was to raise the ugly spectre of paternalism that had dogged ancient Qareen empires. The final straw finally occurred one day when, spotting an elusive but foolishly public three-person meeting, she also witnessed its drastic termination. The grey, battered and unpainted AI drone swept down from the sky, weapons blazing, hitting the three of them with brutal accuracy and effectiveness, but of course never killing, for to kill them was to martyr them; instead, the intense maiming would incentivise them towards the truth path, to use the government terminology.

As she saw their clothes singe and their bodies writhe and their voices pierce the air with unnatural shrieks, she made her decision. Condescending, patronising, paternalistic or otherwise, she would defend the values of her culture, initiate an initiative, an uprising, a shaking off, and the first step was to strike at the heart of this alleged Democratic Republic.

5

The Walk-In Contradiction/Lemonless/Spaceship Plus was, thought Weczer7/11,191, a truly magnificent spaceship. Half a kilometre in diameter, and disc-shaped barring its two cylindrical superlight drives on support struts either side – a fairly standard Qareen design – it had a dozen decks, but the ship had everything she could have imagined – Kaizener courts aplenty, programmable matter that the crew were fond of using to the full, shifting walls and staircases so the ship was never the same from day to day, and VR simulations that were practically indistinguishable from reality. Practically, of course, because where it simulated a known environment, there were gaps in the information. Having selected Earth, another place that, like the assignment that was approaching for her, was something of an enigma to the Qareen, she found herself in an area labelled Tajikstan, and this was where the simulation and its database faltered – there was little information, and so the people in the streets were doing very little other than walking or standing.

She called up the settings and changed it again. She found herself on a narrow lane, a pair of bollards in front of her, the foliage and walls either side obscuring a crossroads busy with traffic. It was raining lightly. To her right was a large field surrounded by fencing. As she walked the length of the road, she found a sign, reading “Melbourne Avenue”. Australia, she thought, cannot be right. It was too cold for that, if she remembered rightly. United Kingdom, the ship’s computer prompted.

Well, she thought, it seems like a nice enough place. She hoped the Bhoot planet was as pleasant.