Category Archives: Civ: Qareen

Enmity

Date: 1,990,095 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 5,039 (Shango), NA 506 (Qareen)
Location: p45

1

From: p45 Severe Crime Investigations Office [45SCIO], see credits below.
Sent 75.88.23, .435/506
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: Sedrain7/p45 Incident
Further files and data are attached.

Tynar3,

In the light of your request I have provided multiple angles of the research regarding the Sedrain7 case that occurred earlier this year. It transpires that the case is interesting for multiple reasons, not least because of the group behind it. It transpires that they have named themselves the Yakuza, a name they could not have acquired unless they have successfully hacked into restricted areas of the Human Database. The Yakuza themselves, as will no doubt become common knowledge in due course, were an organised crime group that achieved global notoriety during the Western hegemonic period of Earth’s history, from 1800 A.D. onwards. What makes the naming of the Qareen Yakuza particularly confusing is that the original Yakuza were influenced, naturally, by the scarcity inherent within Earth economics at the time; this is not an issue that should be present in any Qareen organisation.

Regardless of motive, however, I recommend that we keep a watch on this organisation. I have reason to suspect that they have recruited members, or possibly formed alliances, offworld. Just yesterday, a report emerged of a death within the Astrostate Republic of Wexeria that suggested Yakuza influence. Whilst no definitive evidence has yet come to light, if there is a connection – however faint – this would suggest a degree of power within this organisation unknown in any criminal enterprise within the Qareen Confederation since the Intersection Wars.

As stated previously, I have included a number of angles within this overall report [1], which you may find to be of varying usefulness. Given that the incident in question has reached its logical conclusion, the reports are effectively there to peruse at your leisure, although given the high likelihood of the Yakuza continuing their business, it may be advisable to read at least one of these reports immediately. Standard Report A carries some degree of width about the incident, but perhaps lacks the detail necessary to understand the root causes. Standard Reports B, C and D carry a strong degree of detail about various aspects of the incident, but all three must be read to understand the full picture.

Much as you disapprove of the Confederate Government’s Fully Applied Personnel initiative, having described it as “a navel-gazing solution for a non-existent issue in our society”, I have nonetheless decided to enact it [2] within our ranks and commission a fifth “report” from a local writer, who has condensed the previous four reports into a narrative. Whilst this does not necessarily provide the best way of conveying all the information to hand, it does nonetheless make the situation most comprehensible. It transpires that the writer, in spite of his relative youth, has travelled significantly around the Confederation during that time, allowing him to harmonise the multiplicity of dialects and languages bound up in the other reports.

And so, with this, my role in the case has for now expired. I should remind you that my contract stipulates renewal merely through a single message clearly indicative of such.

 

Credits

Standard Reports
A – Elkraya2/34,001
B – Jaran3/p1,201,455
C – Len4/p45
D – Wytre9/p45

Nonstandard

A – Cheltrak8/p45

Investigation Initiator and Supervisor

Myself, Yetza6/p57

Recipient Notes [sent back on .441/506]:

[1] Rest assured, these will be read in due course. Standard Report A has been read in full.

[2] Your quote was entirely accurate; much to my frustration, I have found the only option has been to utilise the initiative in the light of what I have read. The p45 SCIO Anti-Yakuza Operation [A.Y.O.] will begin on .445, employing 500 individuals through the scheme. We may require more. I confess this in advance to deflect awkward questions later, and I’ve done what I’ve done through gritted teeth. I’ll just hope that the Confeds don’t notice, right?

I’ll also hope that these “Yakuza” people aren’t as bad as they seem.

2

#Sedrain? Where are you?#

#<excl> I’m across town. Move in, you’re on the edge of range.#

#What are you doing?#

Sedrain looked across to the empty chair across the desk and sighed.

#I’ve said this before. Today I’m… taking care of business. The business, you know?#

He got no reply, and closed off that channel in his mind. The man he had spoken to had been gone for some time. He decided that panicking and leaving would not achieve anything. Even so, as he sat there, he still felt the subconscious urge to run well up through his conscious, bounce about through the quadrants of his brain.

#OK, Sedrain, I’ve managed to retrieve all of the calculations and, well, what you’re asking for is definitely possible.#

That was him. Sedrain watched as he hurried through the door and slapped down a series of papers on the desk, before turning to his computer screen, tapping and passing his hands over the graphics on it. In doing so, he produced a holographic projection of a large, bluff tower that stretched up kilometres into the sky. It was, as Sedrain couldn’t deny, an ugly piece of architecture, built in a manner that humans and Qareen alike generally associated with the disposal of self-produced waste. Of course, this was tempered by certain qualifications; even in the Confederation’s most decadent regions – of which p45 was not one of them – no toilet would ever reach above the clouds as this did, nor would it ever be several hundred metres along each side.

The outside, though, was not important; what was important was the inside, which Sedrain hoped he could do later. Kalio3 was still bothering him.

#OK, I’ll be outside in about 02.00.00.#

#Don’t bother, I’ll come to you.#

#No, it’s fine, I’ll just-#

He switched away from the conservation, allowing his superconscious to log Kalio’s overlong explanation of what she was doing, planning to do, why she was doing it… and pulled away from the holographic projection.

#Would it be possible to take these plans away?# he asked.

#I don’t see why not#, the man stated, pulling out a disc and slapping it onto the table. One more tap on the screen and a river of light spilled forth from the screen to the disc, quickly disappearing with a brief flare of light. He picked up the disc and tossed it to Sedrain.

#You’ve got all the time you like, but Rhiya Architectural Processes would appreciate it if you were to return with a request for execution.#

#That would… most certainly be likely. Thank you. Bye.#

Sedrain got up and left, and began to head home. Kalio continued to buzz in his ear, and he continued to ignore her, choosing instead to merely ping his location on a constant pulse. Reaching a teleportation booth nearby, he decided to go the easy route home, and with a brief flash found himself there, outside a large, single-storey hockey-puck of a building.

He walked inside, and made his way to his study – a misnomer, given that he had rarely worked in there much over the years – and slapped his palm against the wall-screen opposite the door. The wall rippled into life, displaying several specks of light of varying colours and magnitudes. He bent down to the bottom right corner, picking out a dull red glow that was almost invisible against the black background, and it expanded into a vast calendar, on which twenty days of fifty rows appeared. Most were blank, but those at the top each contained a number, and the run continued up until the third box on the fifth row. Moving his hand to there, he brought up a keyboard graphic and typed in a number slightly smaller than the one for the day before. He stood back.

“Computer, activate audio.”

A beep sounded in the room.

“Day three hundred and twelve, time is 64.55.17. The Yakuza have not sent any follow-up communications since day three hundred, and their threats would appear to have abated. There is no doubt on my part that this is purely in order to generate a sufficient sense of complacency. I cite the audio message from day twenty-six: ‘we do not forget, and we do not subside’. With each passing day the likelihood of them enacting some kind of final retribution increases dramatically. I am, frankly, grateful that they have held out this long.

“If you are hearing this, and you are a member of the authorities, then my plan has worked. Tonight, I will tell Kalio the truth. I owe it to her…”

3

The forty-fifth planet that the Qareen had ever discovered had, for many centuries, been as typically conservative as many such early-era planets – it still inevitably and largely consisted, after all, of the descendants of those who had never dared to press onwards into the outer reaches of the galaxy. p45, however, was one of the few bucking the trend, instead seeing its cities become ever more active, dense, and buzzing with the sounds of offworlders, Shango and Bhoot immigrants, and rural dwellers who had moved inwards. The trend had been a rapid and recent one, so much so that Sedrain could vaguely stretch his powers of recall back towards an early childhood in which the global capital, le7x, was essentially a huge, multi-million populated village.

He could also remember how his current predicament was once an unthinkable one for anyone.

When he asked himself, though, how it had come to this, he had to conclude that yes, it was partly his fault. He should never have allowed himself to get blackmailed and extorted, never allowed himself to acquire any kind of association with those people, who had the most obviously unqareen name, “Yakuza”. What did it even mean? He had no idea. He had wondered if it was a Shango term, a Dharan term, or something else, but it was irrelevant now.

Kalio got home around 70.00.00, and Sedrain decided not to waste time.

#Darling, I’ve got a problem. These last few weeks, when I’ve said I’ve had business to attend to?#

#Another woman?#

#No#, he said, and paused as she entered the room. #A crime gang.#

Her response was wordless and oddly neutral to him. Perhaps she was covering up her thoughts – perhaps she was in on it. Perhaps he was – no, perhaps he should push on with the explanation.

#They call themselves the Yakuza. They’re… well, they want something from me, and [unparsed; possible glitch] I don’t know how to deal with them.#

Still she was neutral.

#Look, I’ve got a plan. We’d have to move, but we could keep them away. They wouldn’t be able to deal with us, and we would have to compromise, sure, but it can work out.#

Still nothing. She sat down and didn’t say a word.

#If you want to leave, and get out of this, then I’ll go it alone. They’re after me, not you.#

#And what if#, she finally began, #in order to get to you, they go after me. Did you think of that?#

He had to admit that he hadn’t.

#Did you think of

ANYTHING?#

He felt the squeal of feedback and a splatter of pure scarlet bile, and abstractions that stabbed and shredded through his thought processes. He feel forward onto the table, clutching his head. He had braced himself, and still felt the full force.

He vision was still poor, his eyes still flickered, his head still ached.

“Like I said, I’ve got a plan,” he tried to assure her.

“Fine,” she said. She was still slightly onside, he realised – to signal him, and jam that thought into his head, would’ve been genuine torture. “But I want context. I want the truth, because I just have this crazy notion that an idler and a speechwriter aren’t going to outsmart a crime gang on their own.”

“They call themselves the Yakuza – I don’t know what it means, whether it’s Dharan or Shango or some made-up slang or-”

“What do they want?”

He tried to think it through. What they wanted was actually quite complex, but to say as much would’ve sounded like an excuse.

#…#

“They want… they want me to recover certain artifacts for them. And if I can’t do that, to make them. If I can’t do this, they’ll blackmail me. It’s a complex thing, what they’re asking for, and if I refuse, they’ll probably kill me.”

“Well I just might first,” Kalio replied. She glanced out of the window at the city lights across the flat landscape. “I’m going out. You’re coming with me.”

“Wh-”

“Like I said, I’m now your collateral. And there is no way that I am letting you drag me around.”

4

PublicLife le7x was an unusual place in the Qareen Confederation, in that it was named, not numbered and addressed. More and more of these sorts of places had appeared recently, and whilst Kalio frequented them, Sedrain had always had his suspicions.

This one was a spiky, edgy building around four storeys high, with darkened windows from which dim reddish light flickered and strobed out. Following Kalio in, Sedrain felt a sudden impact of noise and dense air, a suffocating, oppressive atmosphere that he instantly hated. The place was at least an open-plan, single-room layout on the ground floor, but it was incredibly dark, and filled with furniture; all he could do was follow Kalio, who threaded her way through this and to the bar that spanned the opposite side. An assembler slid along the railings at the back of the bar towards her.

“You’re indentified as Kalio3. Are you?” it asked through the speaker.

“Yes.”

“Is the man next to you Sedrain7?”

She sighed. “He is.”

“I have a message for him. It appears that someone knew he would get it here.”

A section of dark wood on the bar slid away to reveal a screen.

“You actually got an order?”

Kalio tapped it in whilst Sedrain examined the message. Written in small block capitals, he couldn’t help but read it with a calmly grim demeanour. It was, after all, what he had been expecting.

Sedrain,

This is the last message we will send you. As you are no doubt aware, we have pursued you for nearly a third of a year now. If you were under the impression that we were about to give up, you were right. Because we soon will, once we have brought this whole affair to a close. Make no mistake, Sedrain, you have no choice. You will comply to the conditions we set out previously or we will enact retribution on you as we see fit. Do not try to trace the source of this message, do not pass it on to any kind of authority. We will know, and reprisal will be guaranteed.

And this time, we are setting a deadline. You have six days, Sedrain. Six days to prove that you have what we’re looking for.

Do not forget.

5

#You should be able to move into the lower sections by 00.00.01 tomorrow.#

The lone construction manager signalled his client, then moved back to his station, where the holographic representation of a part-built tower swarmed with robotic units in exact unison with the real scene in the distance. Examining the tower, he nodded briefly; all was well, which in his mind was quite a shame. Not needing the money, he had to take jobs for the prestige instead, and prestige was not gained by directing the robots to build something as unbelievably ugly as that, not for him. He knew nothing about the project, other than the fact that it was apparently meant to be something kind of bunker or hiding place. Apparently his client needed a hundred-year shit as well, he thought.

#Time isn’t the problem#, his client responded, #so long as it’s all complete in six days, then it’s fine.#

#All matter should be laid down by then. The more advanced systems may well need to be installed in full on the seventh day, but that’d be all.#

The tower’s construction continued upwards, and having already climbed several hundred metres since the work began that morning, it would certainly be kilometres high by sunset.

#Good. I’m coming over to check anyway – not that I don’t trust you, but these are difficult times.#

#You don’t have to.#

#But I will. I need something to do anyway.#

The manager always liked the clients that teleported across to the site with new ideas, new thoughts, and various discussions. With these people, there was a true spirit of collaboration, and even if the units had to disassemble half the structure to make it better, and even if it put the project deadline back by days, he could live with that, because the deadline was always a mere guide. With this man, though, this Sedrain, he instead felt the decaying influence of a man who needed the project just so, and it blackened and rotted away everything he felt about the project. That dull, windowless design never had a single extra suggestion or thought added to it. And he was feeling this way mere hours into the project.

He toyed with the idea of adding things himself, and thinking up ideas was not hard in itself, but thinking up bullshit excuses that would please this man. He was also tempted to speed up the whole process, but had already ruled that out. This tower was to be built ugly, but also built well. A Shango war fleet at full tilt wouldn’t be able to take it down, once he had finished.

#It’s going well#, Sedrain said.

#Indeed#, a female voice added, #I have to admit, Sedrain, this is a good plan. But it’s also a short-term one.#

#Uh-huh. But it buys time.#

#Sure, but I just want you to know, in no uncertain terms, that I’m only half-impressed.#

Only half-impressed, the manager noted. From this ungrateful pair, he thought, he would be happy to take that. Even in that short verbal skirmish, the tower had risen several metres; the robots were oblivious, simply continuing on, never bored, never tired, and never stopping without good reason.

#I didn’t expect you to take this as the answer to all our problems#, Sedrain noted.

The manager continued to look at his console, and at the holographic display, and allowed his eyes to drift to the right, where the global controls lay. One graphic in particular, roughly in the centre of those controls, was a slider that could force those robots into overdrive. He had never previously imagined pushing that slider to the very top, but this time, he was almost unbearably tempted.

6

Sedrain checked the time. He had just over a day left, ostensibly. As he moved into the teleport booth, however, he knew he’d have longer than that.

#I’m definitely the last person who needs to go in, right?#

#It’s just us anyway#, Kalio said, #and why the bloody hell are you so worried, anyway? Aren’t there anti-tracing systems in here?#

#Doesn’t matter. I’ll explain once I’m in.#

He attached a small, badge-sized device to the console of the booth, checked the location, nodded to himself and pushed the initiate button. One blink later, he was gone. Another, and the booth also was, having been teleported and assembled into assembler material for every house in that street. Some fifty-odd houses would have to be searched if anyone was to know where and how he had gone from that specific booth.

#They’ll know you moved to the giant tower on the edge of town, Sedrain, I don’t see how that was necessary.#

#Yes, but they won’t be able to follow me here. There are already blocking devices in place, but if that booth had stayed there, someone could’ve followed us in. Where are you?#

#Floor above you. Probably room above you, I’m sensing.#

He held his hand up to the ceiling and gestured downwards, as if closing a lid. A ramp fell down from the ceiling, and he walked up it briskly. Stepping off it, he watched as it folded back up, then stretched and pushed upwards to form a wall, which then moved aside. He smiled with approval; the most basic system of all, the dynamic maze, was working fine. He opened the nearest door and entered the resulting room, which was a straightforward living room, for now.

#So explain the idea of this again.#

#It’s a combined fortress and maze. Programmable matter operating according to random constraints means that, if anyone could enter here, they would spend years trying to leave. One scan from outside should convince the Yakuza that it’s not worth going in.#

#Right, but there’s more than that, isn’t there?#

#Oh, sure.#

He walked out of the room and invited Kalio to leave with him; conveniently and coincidentally, wall and door slid aside, and as she crossed the once-threshold, another wall slid in from the ceiling.

#Don’t worry, the tower knows to avoid us#, he assured her, and began to lead her down a corridor that was slowly shortening behind them. Eventually it caught up, overtook them, and the whole construction flattened against a back wall and converted to a giant screen.

“Chairs?” it asked.

“No thanks,” Kalio replied, and the message blinked off again.

#We’ve got full entertainment, assemblers, teleporters with the heaviest screening I could get-#

#What about security? That’s what it’s all about.#

#Naturally, the whole structure’s designed to screen anything coming in, and jam and scramble it if it doesn’t fit. We’re being scanned continuously by a dedicated unit, so there should never be any confusion there. The whole place conforms to 3LSS-#

#3LSS? Third Law Spike Standard? The thing that takes a data route, blocks it, sends it-#

#-back with a trace and attacks with full force? The very same.#

#Well, we should be safe in here. But just to be sure, shouldn’t we be planning an escape?#

Sedrain reached an innocuous piece of the floor just as a ramp lifted up from it, half a wall slid in to support it and a mezzanine folded down from the floor below. He stepped up onto the ramp as another fell down to connect the mezzanine to both floors.

#What? Like take off in some spaceship and fly away from here? You think they won’t track us, Kalio? These people will do whatever it takes-#

#You must have seriously pissed them off.#

#It’s not merely that. They’re most likely in it for the chase, they’ve got nothing else to gain.#

He stopped at the mezzanine as Kalio joined him.

#So what are you saying?# she asked, #that it’s this from now on? Just a darker world of moving corridors and shifting ceilings? That we fade into pallid tones and grunt our way into silence, and this hideous thing we spend the rest of our lives in becomes our tomb?#

Sedrain merely frowned, shrugged and turned away. She grabbed his shoulder and spun him round; she knew he was always caught unawares by her strength. Reaching to her waist, she pulled a small disc from her pocket, which inadvertently prompted a section of the floor to rise up into a ziggurat; the top converted to a screen and flashed the image a small logo to indicate it was on.

#You see this? It’s the human database, Sedrain. Everything we know about the first five thousand years of human civilisation is on this disc.#

#You want me to look up ‘Yakuza’?#

#No. I want you to look up ‘Masada’.#

7

For several days, they stayed there, and Kalio’s implicit prophecy seemed to be correct. Sedrain found his paranoid outlook on life start to ebb away. Having embraced the environment he found himself in, he found himself increasingly in a sort of symbiosis with his surroundings; it was like the walls needed his nervous energy to animate them, and in taking them from him, benefited him too.

Kalio was much more sceptical, and much more impatient, expressing constant sighs and signalling static to Sedrain from distant rooms as ramps and walls moved in a way she disapproved of. Inviting friends over, whilst technically complex and requiring the systems to run lengthy and multiple scans, and requiring him to offer profuse apologies about having to treat the eventually-arrived individuals like potential criminals, often paid off in the form of subduing this irritation for a while.

Yet weeks dragged on and, as Sedrain settled in, he realised that he still had no plan. In his current status, the one thing he could hope for, he knew, was that the violent lifestyles of his enemies hung in the balance with their desire to get into the tower. Unless they outsmarted him, he would almost certainly outlive them, but he had no guarantee that the former would not happen, and to step out of the tower after several lonely years, decades, possibly centuries – that would be to step out as a drastically changed man, emerging into a sleeker, shinier world with a bent and buckled worldview.

Regularly he tried to push all quarters of his brain into overdrive, clenching his fists as though he was trying to grab every thought and jam it together. Kalio help me, he thought one day, I’ll even try that Shango thing of putting your hands together and wishing – what do they call it? Prayer?

Whoever he was supposed to send his wishes to, though, didn’t seem to respond.

8

Yeyen2 moved her hand to her hip, and felt it stop reassuringly two inches before the destination. You don’t enter the House of Yakuza without your gun. The mantra had quite literally flashed up in front of her eyes as a reminder.

The House had one entrance; anyone teleporting into the building would discover, if they could think in the attoseconds-long window that probably arose for such realisation, that the arrival stage was unusually difficult in the vicinity of the building; a set of “wet/slippery floor” holograms would always coalesce around the final result. As a nice touch to such enterprising individuals, however, the departure stage elsewhere was by no means any harder or, for that matter, in any way discouraged.

Going through that entrance the natural way would prompt a series of scans, which Yeyen could easily pass. After that came a long, straight corridor, lined with columns, seemingly designed to invoke Power with the minimum of actual evidence. After several hundred metres of that, she finally reached a staircase which opened up to the real House of Yakuza.

#You are here for…?# prompted a guard before she had even opened the door to meet him.

#I am here to see the Shogun. You can tell her that Yeyen2 has important information.#

The guard bowed his head in concentration, but nonetheless seemed to keep focused on her.

#OK#, he agreed, #you know where she is.#

Yeyen did, and proceeded to take the relevant turnings. The Shogun’s room was almost exactly, barring the entrance corridor, in the geometric centre of the building. She knocked on the doors outside, marked clearly by their blunt, brushed metal appearance and their completely smooth, blank design.

#Enter.#

She did so. Inside, the room was tall, it was wide, it was lavish, it had an ostentatiousness that was not traditionally Qareen in its degree. The ornateness and extravagance was there for one purpose only; it was there to show, or more accurately, to suggest, that the House of Yakuza was an overwhelming success at what it attempted to do.

#Your news, Yeyen?#

Yeyen pulled a disc out of her pocket and slapped it onto the desk-screen. The Shogun herself watched as graphics splayed out from the disc almost instantly. Yeyen leaned forward, tapped one of the branching architect lines, which caused it to split in two. Selecting one of the two, the news revealed itself; a hologram of a huge tower leapt into existence, revealing an intricate but blurred interior.

#A development in the Sedrain case. The deadline has long since passed, and yet we have not dropped him, and this is his solution. There seems to be some kind of dynamic interior structure to the tower. Our attempts to hack the systems in the tower have somehow done more damage to our own equipment than his. He seems to have truly thought this through.#

The Shogun leaned back, and looked over the holographic tower. She was not a threatening woman, Yeyen realised, not in the flesh, and no doubt she could be taken down in a hand-to-hand confrontation, of the kind that Yeyen had to admit to having thought about on previous occasions. Her reputation preceded her, though, and her capabilities beyond mere strength and physical intimidation were key to the fear she instilled. Yeyen knew that, even whilst looking directly at her, the Shogun could draw a gun and vapourise her before she knew there was a fight starting.  As a result, this realisation was one that Yeyen had to have anew with every visit.

The Shogun stood up and gestured vaguely towards the tower.

#He has made two mistakes#, she concluded, #The first is a forced one: we haven’t killed him, but we have scared him. He’s in the centre of a dark tower. Buried alive. We could leave him there for the rest of his life, and render it a life ruined, a life in desuetude.#

Yeyen frowned at this; it sounded uncharacteristic of her.

#To be honest, and with the greatest of respect, Shogun, I would hope that we would have a greater, more ambitious plan than to leave him alone. We are the organisation that prides ourselves on breaking every system and outwitting every enemy. Even our name is stolen property that can’t be taken back. Whether he knows it or not, he has put a challenge in front of us, and we owe it to ourselves – to him, even – to do our worst.#

Her signalling rose in intensity as she said this, and if she had said it aloud, she would have almost shouted. Nervously, she waited for the Shogun to respond. After a long pause, Yeyen was met with a devious smile.

#You’re good, Yeyen. One day, when I’m too old for this, you might well have this seat. But not yet. Now – now I formulate a plan, in accordance with this Sedrain man’s second mistake. In a few days I will send it to you, or else call you here to receive it. And you’ll get your challenge, and you’ll get your victory.#

#I cannot thank you enough, Shogun.#

#Not a problem.#

Yeyen gave a quick bow and turned to leave.

#Yeyen?#

She froze.

#If you’re going back the way I’m guessing you came, I just want to warn you about the wet floor just before the entrance corridor.#

Yeyen found herself unable to move from where she stood.

#It’s OK, it’s just water.#

9

#Kalio, did you hear something odd just then?#

#I don’t know. I think so. Like a- [insufficient signal for telepathic link; error code 301 – out of range]. Like a muffled thundery sorta noise?#

#I think it’s time we got to a teleporter.#

#I concur.#

10

“Base, I’m asking for, I’d say, about the seventh time here. Can we get some lights, damnit?”

#Do you have to wave that torch around, Zeje?#

Zeje6 ignored his colleague and waved the torch around even more. He did, after all, have plenty to examine here; the hanging chunks of debris that blemished an otherwise perfectly smooth wall, and the uneven surface of the ground. Whatever had happened here, it was huge; definitely the biggest case he’d ever dealt with. Qareen sight could have examined this if even just one light inside the building had survived; apparently, none had, and with complete darkness there was nothing Zeje’s eyes could work with. And so he was stuck with a torch, just waving it around, waving it around…

“This is Base. You wanted lights, you say?”

“Yeah. Any kind of proper floodlights. We’ve got a cuboid space – surely you know this?”

“Centralised resources, sir, we don’t necessarily know the mission inside-out. How big’s the space?”

“It’s about, I reckon, twenty kilometres high, and about half a kilometre square. We need it lit up. All of it.”

#Well, Seddek, at least they’ve responded.#

He yanked the torch downwards and began to carefully tread into each pool of light, moving slowly over the rubble. Seddek, he knew, was about a hundred metres away, holding the torch upwards, but of course, the power behind that beam would not push enough light to the ceiling.

He stopped, and roughly at that moment, a luminous hologram flashed up in the darkness, rotating quickly, informing both of them that of a “lighting rig impending – keep away from walls.” Well, he thought, already done. Which didn’t mean that there wasn’t a wait.

#When is this lighting rig going to-#

The sudden burst of light forced both men to shut their eyes and contemplate the exploding points of light behind their eyelids. Blinking them away and switching off the torches, they looked around and up. Zeje found himself gasping for two reasons; the first being that, even if he had quoted the size of the space he was in mere moments beforehand, the size of it still stunned him.

#Holy shit.#

#Holy shit indeed, Seddek.#

#You’re seeing this right?#

#Sure am. This makes all the difference.#

Zeje was only a partial expert in structural engineering – a couple of previous cases had prompted him to research such matters – but that second reason for astonishment was how the light had suddenly made it all incredibly obvious.

#What happened here is what I think happened, right? There’s no other sensible story?#

#If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, yes.#

#And you’re thinking…?#

Zeje looked around again, at stubs and bits clinging to the walls at regular intervals up the wall, just to be sure.

#OK. Clearly, some high-energy explosive device was set off in the upper floors. Possibly even the very top one. Now, the outer structure of the building could live through things that would level the rest of the city, but the interior was no doubt designed with teleporter jamming systems and other high-tech to stop any internal attack. Long story short, when the bomb went off, several floors collapsed, and landed on the first intact floor, that wasn’t built to take it. Cue a chain reaction. Anyone who was on the middle levels of the building almost certainly got several thousand tonnes of material right on them. Nasty way to die. At least it was probably quick.#

He looked down to the ground beneath him, which seemed to confirm his theory; it was completely uneven, consisting of nothing but stacked slabs of flooring. What perhaps compounded the tragedy in Zeje’s mind was how the mass of grey dust didn’t reveal a single suggestion of paint, or carpet, or dye; there was no suggestion that the occupants lived in anything close to luxury. They had a whole tower to themselves; they could’ve made it a palace, but they made it a prison-

#I’ve tried scanning for the bodies#, Seddek said, #but I can’t find them.#

…although they could’ve escaped in time, he realised. Several thousand floors collapsing? That had to take at least a decent fraction of a day, even if it occurred at high speed.

#Not surprised. You’re probably looking for some kind of humanoid shape – I’d suggest looking for some kind of meat paste instead.#

#Zeje?#

#Yes?#

#Do you think the perps were trying to take down the whole building?#

Zeje didn’t need long to think about it.

#No. Whoever did this knew they couldn’t smash the outer walls. So they went after the people inside, knowing that the structure would serve as a giant-#

#Oh, now I’ve found them.#

#Both of them?#

#Yep.#

Seddek’s tone didn’t give Zeje much confidence.

#Do I want to look at this?#

#You don’t want to look at this.#

#Fair enough. I won’t.#

Moveworld

Date: 1,990,206 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 5,391 (Shango), NA 542 (Qareen)
Location:
Moveworld 1.

Kitchen Sinkhole

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.

 

Romance

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?#

#To him?#

#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.

#Beautiful.#

#Yes.#

#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”…”

Heads, Tails or Edge

Date: 1,988,927 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 1,336 (Shango), NA 135 (Qareen)
Location: Ringrail 1 Project

1

Government jobs around there were the best, apart from one annoying little factor – they’d never let you teleport.

I could deal with this, but it still marred my view of the job. Instead of nearly hopping from one town to another, we had to engage in what employees called The Rush – and the Leftmost Line County Government in its entirety, bound up in a retinue of three huge tracked vehicles, would thunder across the entirety of its jurisdiction in what I felt was a hopelessly Shango-like form of vulgarity.

The Rush was apparently necessary for the simple reason that, if we caught someone outside of the towns and villages, they might have requested our services. This struck me as incredibly unlikely, but then again, I suspected that my attitudes would have been disregarded as those of some stuffy bureaucrat. Which is all very well, but if you ever asked me (which people didn’t), then efficiency had to count for something. Even in a world of plenty, time charges on like The Rush, unheeding of us not making the best of it.

Actually, I guess what really bothered me, despite the Grab systems and their tendency to compensate, was when one third of a municipal government caught some air. As it crashed down again, I’d still feel it, and sense the rumble, and – well, I suspect some of my colleagues would have accused me of cowardice, but frankly I couldn’t see the joy in what was going on.

Of course, I complained about that, but what made me leave the service was something worse than that. Sometimes there’s a threshold to the ugliness you can deal with in a world, and in the end, I moved away from the Ringrail 1 Project and, for my services, I got a spot on Spaceplane 114,098, for which I’m very grateful. You can’t argue with being a mere three parsecs away from the capital and in a Kaizener-friendly area, which the Project (or at least, the Leftmost Line County) never was, necessarily.

Not to mention that I’m now pretty far away from the issue.

2

gpeo220 was one of the largest cities in the County, which for a stretch of land several thousand kilometres wide and hundreds of millions of kilometres long was quite an achievement. Of course, no Qareen likes to live in some vast, scrunched-up hive, so this meant that it was still only around three million in population, but even so, it meant that we got enough requests ahead of arrival to need to stop and have a proper town-hall meeting.

We stopped on the town’s Muncipal Boulevard, an ultra-wide street that cut through the middle of the city like a guillotine blade had slammed down from space to produce the schism. All major settlements had such a street, but in this case, we could draw out a crowd of thousands. The actual attendance turned out to be in the hundreds, but even so, it was always sensible to have the spare capacity; sometimes, these meetings could gather pace across the city through word-of-mouth, and then the crowds would swell to tens of thousands, stretching back down the boulevard for several kilometres.

It turned out that there was, for ninety per cent of the meeting on that boulevard, only one topic at hand. Apparently, the planetary issues in the Intersection Zone that occurred at the time had captured the local public’s interest, and they want to know, demanded to know, damnit, whether we had committed anything. We had, but no personnel – only ships and equipment, and the AIs to pilot them crudely into the battlespace, and none of the ruling had come from our personal jurisdiction anyway, so it wasn’t like the finger-pointing could wind up in our direction.

Obviously, if the ball hadn’t been in our court, they couldn’t blame us – but then, they didn’t especially want to, anyway. With no lives being risked, the populace seemed reassured. With that, the crowd dispersed and, after tackling some minor and specific issues – there was always someone who asked about infrastructure or constitutional reform, or something esoteric like that, and no answer was likely to completely satisfy – we moved on again.

3

The land was flatter outside of gpeo220, consisting of a long series of plains and the occasional knoll or wood that could easily be steered around. Of course, the drivers decided that, for maximum efficiency, it was best to do this at the latest possible point, and so some terrifying driving ensued; these government vehicles had the suspension of sports cars (on tracked vehicles, no less) and the engines of starships. I wish I was joking about that last part, but the drives were genuine downscaled versions of what powered the Ringrail Project’s recently deployed Nemesis/Antipode/Doppleganger/Evil Twin.

Even so, we got no requests from most of the villages we passed before the next stop, which wasn’t unusual – the kind of people who lived in Qareen villages were usually, I tended to find, fairly autonomous people anyhow, who didn’t necessarily want big communities and huge issues. I also regarded them as a little insular, too, which is why I chose a bigger town on 114,098, but maybe that was just my opinion.

After several weeks, during which even the larger towns hadn’t pinged us, we received requests from a small village up ahead, pet9. It was approaching sunset; the artificial sun band itself was starting to pull away from us as it raced overhead, and if we stopped, it would almost certainly disappear, its terminator sweeping past us and casting us into night.

The village itself was tiny – there was no boulevard, and so we had to pull aside and find somewhere to hold the meeting. Given the numbers, it was a safe assumption to think that the whole village would turn out, and as I scanned the village from my third-floor vantage point, I could see a centre circle, an almost tribal touch, that suggested an excellent place for a forum.

4

pet9’s villagers were largely looking for healthcare advice. This was technically something they could find out themselves, but doing so could take expertise that not everyone in the village necessarily possessed, and so here we were, dispensing advice and inserting the right spellings or pronunciations into the assemblers. Being a village, this obviously didn’t take long, and given that these people had waited for the council to show up, it was clear that few of their injuries or illnesses were serious, and those that were happened to be recent.

Once again, we got miscellaneous questions; someone wanted to ask about the military deployment, which was lucky as we obviously had the form answer for that. Little had happened in the war, so far as we knew, in the days since the city visit at gpeo220, so there was little else to add to it; and luckily, we’d heard nothing about our own deployment being destroyed.

Someone else asked about constitutional reform, too. There always seemed to be someone who did, and I often wondered about it – there seemed, constantly, always, persistently, someone, somewhere, who wanted to change the constitution of either the Leftmost Line County or the Ringrail 1 Project as a whole. It was inexplicable; I was reminded of old Qareen conspiracy stories where what the secret organisation had been plotting would backfire by having no impact whatsoever.

Certainly, deep in a shadowy underground lair somewhere, a group of people were presumably planning to have one person in every settlement ask about the bloody constitution.

 

5

We carried on again. This time it was through desert, although I could never exactly understand why we needed so much of it on an artificial world, nor why we had to go through it when there was surely no-one here – indeed, our population records suggested that even hamlets were minimal in the region, and none had pinged anyone for years. A better region for teleporting through, I was sure we would never find, but that wasn’t what we did anyway and The Rush continued.

To be fair, it was probably because I never understood why we didn’t do things differently that made me leave, ultimately. I just couldn’t understand the lack of teleportation, or the need for The Rush, or why the Project was built, or… well, we’re slowly coming to that.

The next place was a small town of around four thousand or so people, and around fifty had pinged us.

6

The issue this time was education. The Department of Education, anywhere at any level of Qareen government, was not a huge department; mostly it consisted of advisors and lawyers, a combination that I thought of as potentially toxic but which often seemed to work. Education was largely an autonomous affair; what the government handed down was a huge database of knowledge – the Qareen database – that represented pretty much everything that anyone knew. The exceptions, of course, were things the government classified, and the human database, which was an irrelevance unless certain jobs were taken.

Advising them was a simple but lengthy matter, and given that it was not my area of expertise, it meant that I was hanging around, doing very little for most of it. I made my way up to the sixth floor balcony and found that I was able to look out across most of the town, and view its patchwork of rooves and irregular threads of streets. The boulevard itself was a highway pointing out past the deserts we had crossed, this town, fed030, being on the edge of them, and towards what looked like a range of flattened mountains, the passes being unnaturally wide and the drops being close to the horizontal. It was, in essence, a mountain range that frankly insulted any would-be climber, who could happily stroll to the summit of any of them without any trouble; of course, for The Rush, it was perfect, and I made the confident (and subsequently proven correct) prediction that my colleagues, or at least most of them, would love it.

7

Over the mountain pass, the tracks on the vehicle came into play, and the Grab systems swung their vectors several times for every second that the machine containing The Machine moved forward, or for that matter, sideways, diagonally, or upward, or downward.

But even those systems couldn’t entirely compensate for the movement, even as they cut in picoseconds after each change of direction; changing the force around could only happen so quickly, and so I found myself stumbling a little each time, or feeling a rumble through the floor.

“What’s going on down there?” I muttered to myself on more than one occasion, and wished that the next destination to ping us would arrive soon.

But of course, it was the next destination that made me quit.

8

The town was called Pillstown-in-the-Twist, which was the kind of human-aping name that annoyed the fuck out of every other Qareen, but never stopped the occasional settlement in a trillion across the Confederacy from doing it. In this case, it was, of course, named in part due to its positioning, at the exact point where the Ringrail 1 Project started to twist through 180 degrees, and The Rush would begin to occur on the other side of the ringworld.

That, though, was irrelevant. What was important was that we were previewed with hundreds of pings – an unusual level of interest – but met by only one man.

#Jang8, local chief of police,# he introduced himself laconically, #so glad you’re here.#

#Where’s everybody else?# our team leader asked. Having the six of us meet him felt like overkill, until he explained the issue.

9

#What we’ve got is this sudden crime epidemic. We’re literally only a few kilometres from the edge of the Ringrail, the most westerly point for millions of kilometres. And what that means is that we’re the perfect place to commit a certain crime.#

#Murder?# I asked.

#Kinda#, he replied, #they call it “edge-junking”#.

He waved away any further questions and threw up an animated projection. The crime was surprisingly simple, beyond a certain point; after hacking through a section of force field, the victim was thrown over the edge. The Grab forces at that point were very ambiguous; as a result, the victim would fall down the edge, until the halfway mark, when counteracting forces would pin them to the centre. Left alone, such an individual would inevitably be able to call for help, so the next part of the crime was necessary to finish the job. This time, debris, detritus and various assembled parts would also be thrown off the edge, only with accelerated force – perhaps fired from a large cannon. This would kill the victim, but not before causing serious injury.

#Sometimes#, Jang8 explained, #they’ll carry on. Some of the bodies we’ve come across have been unrecognisable; we’ve had to check against databases, tracking logs and the like and find out who’s gone missing to get any kind of idea.#

I continued to look at the animation as it played again, and showed the exact same scenario once more. I could only feel a numbness; I imagined that if I allowed myself to feel anything, it would have been too much. I wondered what kind of sociopaths, or monsters – but then again, mental illness was a historical thing. It couldn’t be that driving the phenomenon.

Jang8 seemed to know what I was thinking, and signalled to me alone.

#They’re not mad, these people. They know exactly what they’re doing, and besides, you know, and I know, that we cured mental illnesses thousands of years ago. Incidences are rare, and they’re environmentally caused. No, sir, what you are dealing with here is a mental state we can’t cure. Never, ever, underestimate pure hatred.#

Around me, others seemed similarly shaken, although they got on with the work, and so did I – looking through the reports, classifying them according to similar properties – although all of them seemed to be largely the same story, over and over, as if the same perpetrators had committed these crimes. There was always, in each individual incident, one victim, even if incidents occurred very close together, such as within a tenth of a day – as if the whole thing was operating on some kind of production line. And the victims were not always from Pillstown-on-the-Twist; in fact, such victims were in the minority, as were victims from Leftmost Line. Theoretically, if my suspicions were correct, and it was all the work of a single organisation (this later turned out to only be partly true, but the impact was the same), then who knew how far this organisation went? Would a wrong glance in a bar somewhere a million kilometres away, result in this?

So that’s when I left. The exact point, in fact – I handed in my resignation before the next Rush started. And now, well, I’m happy here. I’m secure.

Although, I still wonder sometimes.

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.

Mass Times Acceleration

Date:1,991,972 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 10,991 (Shango), N.A. 1104 (Qareen)
Location:
from Spaceplane 106 to the edge of the Qareen-controlled galaxy

1

“Keo3. You are awarded Educational Attainment Section 17. With this knowledge, go forth, and may you do your people proud.”

Spaceplane 106 was one of the oldest constructions of its kind in the galaxy. Built thousands of years previously, it had been upgraded with the Qareen Confederacy’s technological improvements on occasions, but it nonetheless bore the hallmarks of its age; sometimes, the transparent dome could catch the nearby sun’s light in an odd way, betraying its presence, which it was not really supposed to do. The flat disc of land often got more than its fair share of visitors, too, because places like Spaceplane 106 got more than its fair share of history.

Yet there were benefits, too: being one of the oldest Spaceplanes gave 106 some of the oldest, and hence frequently most experienced, best and most prestigious establishments. The 5 Academy, one of the best of the best, had been good to Keo3, and it had allowed him to study at his leisure, but he had eventually chosen to leave; academia was not truly what he was cut out for, or so he felt. From here, though, came a problem every Qareen faced at the end of education: what to do in a society where no-one truly needed to work. A year on, he had fallen into the most regrettable life a Qareen could have: an idler. Someone who, far from doing nothing in particular, as many Qareen did, just did nothing.

He had spent half a local year as one, and too many days had involved him simply lying around, or even walking around, with a sense of emptiness. When he looked up at the slightly stretched night sky each night, it got a little too much, and he wondered whether anyone would miss him if he disappeared. The nearby lake on the edge of a3t5, his hometown, was bordered on one side by a steep and high cliff; to jump from there would finish it all on impact. Or maybe, he thought – but only slightly more hopefully – maybe he could disappear less permanently, to the more cosmopolitan areas of the Intersection Zone, where the galaxy the Qareen dominated overlapped with that of the Shango Federation. Of course, if another war happened, he would be at the vanguard, and he didn’t particularly want that; then again, a basic check of the calendar told him it was N.A. 1104; peace with the Federation had been managed for eleven centuries – it was, or should have been, a minor concern.

Eventually, his house spoke up.

“Keo3, we should discuss a certain matter regarding your routine.”

“Hmm?”

“I have noticed,” it observed, voice slightly too pitched to be Qareen, “that you have spent a high number of hours inside this residence. Your lifestyle in this respect is at least three standard deviations from the mean. Are you struggling for something to do?”

“I suppose I am.”

“I can help,” it said simply, and activating the holographic function of the living space floor, projected a mass of labelled graphics up to waist height as Keo3 stood at the door.

“Look, I don’t want to bother-”

“It is not a problem. I merely wish to offer advice and guidance.”

“Fair enough.”

He walked around the room, amidst the forest of options. Amongst them he saw a series at the back, above which gleamed the word “Exploration”. A series of sub-options were visible; exploring the local region, exploring the whole Spaceplane, exploring the whole damn galaxy; and it was that, quite remarkably, that made him realise something.

“I’ve never left 106.”

“As far as I’m aware, Keo, you indeed haven’t.”

“Maybe I should,” he continued. He thought about it, and when he did, he realised the idea was exactly what he needed. “Yes, I definitely should. How do I get a ship?”

“It’s not too hard. You just have to ask at the local access point.”

The projections were wiped away, to be replaced with a new one showing directions. The local access point, it transpired, was two miles away.

“Access depends on what kind of ship you’re looking for,” the house continued, “a slower vehicle, you might get immediately. A top-range ship might be a day or two away. A Shango commissioned one might take some time longer.”

Keo3 was already preparing to leave. He opened the door and checked the weather; it was a little cold.

“Assembler, one coat for current conditions.”

The assembler between the kitchen and living space flared and let out a low buzz, but inside a second of the command leaving his mouth a coat slumped to the floor of the cubicle.

“You’re not teleporting to there?” the house asked. A holographic arrow pointed to the teleport booth, a cubicle opposite the assembler.

“Nah. Sometimes the exercise is good.”

“And the cold?”

“It’s bracing. Character-forming. Or whatever other crap my parents always told me. But house… thanks.”

The house’s AI was not necessarily sentient enough to appreciate that last sentence, but it chalked up another recorded instance and noted the effectiveness of the job it was doing. Seconds afterwards, Keo left.

2

#Bafed7 > Keo3: What’d you get?#

#Keo3 > All Closed Reception: A6U9 Construction Type A1-1103. The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light. {schematic patched} Looks like this.#

#Uliska1 > Keo3: Good choice. Even M.E.A.C. would struggle to better that.#

#Keo3 > Uliska1: Similar waiting time, though.#

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate] I can imagine. [Bafed7] So they’re entrusting you with that?#

#Keo3 > Bafed7: Piss off…#

#Bafed7 > Keo3: I’m just kidding.#

#Uliska1 > Keo3: So can we come?#

#Keo3 > All CR: If you want. I’m gonna need crew for things, I suppose. Boardlayer to steer the damn thing, seeing as I probably can’t do it, and – are there any weapons on that? {schematic open, weapon search: positive} So someone needs to use that if we’re in trouble, which I might manage. But there’ll be other stuff, maybe. Everyone could pitch in. Bring friends. Bring friends of friends.#

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate] Sure. Bring the whole damn Spaceplane.#

#Keo3 > All CR: Sure. Why not?#

The three of them sat back in silence for a while. The view from Keo’s house, now that he looked at it knowing he would leave, had perhaps contributed to his sense of inertia; a flat plain that stretched forever onwards, viewed positively it was a symbol of limitless promise, but in his pessimism he had viewed it as the dull monotony his life had been. But he had purpose now. He understood exactly what he wanted to do; perhaps not in physical specifics, but in terms of mood – he wanted to go forth and construct an immense presence in space, reach out there across the parsecs and achieve something immense, so that no-one across the Qareen Confederacy could forget the name of Keo3/106.

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate]: Wow, we just thought this would be some kind of trip to somewhere.#

He realised that he had accidentally broadcast all of the previous thoughts to the other two, and made a conscious mental note not to lose control of his superconscious to that degree again. Bafed was the one who spoke next, and he transmitted his thought slowly, speaking as if trying to solve a crime or fit together a complex puzzle.

#Bafed7 > Keo3: I might be wrong, here, but… I think… if I recall correctly – what you said sounds like a – what is it? – a – Uliska, help me out?#

#I don’t know#, she said simply.

#An Astrostate! That’s it! You’re maybe looking to build an Astrostate, and possibly lead it.#

Keo wasn’t so sure about that. #First#, he told them both, #first we get the Kingdom Gone. An Astrostate would take years. It’s just that I wanted a purpose.#

3

The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light was not necessarily a large ship – at around three hundred metres long, and with around sixteen decks, it was at least half the size in all dimensions of a full-blown military vessel. What it lacked in size, however, it made up for in comfort, being a place where even the walls and ceilings were densely, softly and intricately carpeted. When Keo3 beamed onto the ship and walked around its corridors, he wondered if it was even faintly possible to injure himself on the ship. He tested this when he reached the engine room, and leapt off a balcony that was one deck up from the floor below; when he did, the Grab field weakened instantly, and he found himself floating down to the floor as if he had walked down an escalator instead of attempted free fall.

In the end, his encouragement to bring “friends of friends” hadn’t quite been taken up on, which was probably just as well, he thought. Even so, he found ten people aboard; himself, Uliska, Bafed, a couple of other friends he had invited, and five others he found himself not knowing too well.

Ten people across a sixteen-deck ship made it a little empty, but it also gave them a free run across the place. The sense of a small community helped him, as well. And slowly, as he got into the activities on the ship: observing the bright, star-forming regions near the Intersection Zone on the observation deck; forming an impregnable coalition in Kaizener Court Three, with a game that simply would not end, and checking the news feeds, which tracked various elections that were afoot, the incidents caused by various separatist factions across various planets, and some trade deal the Confederate government agreed with a small Republic known as the Bhoot.

#You’re going to need to keep tabs on these things, future President#, Uliska teased, although ten days in he was still insisting that he would not be forming an Astrostate. The idea was absurd, he thought, and as a man whose main focus in his academy studies had been history, he felt completely unsuited to running something as big as a whole nation. Still the notion kept coming up.

4

He finally gave in three days later.

The Kaizener game on Court Three had run since the beginning of the journey, and the scores were now over three thousand points apiece in the main game. Bafed’s coalition, of himself and four of the people who were new to Keo – the Rainfire – had an edge of about twelve points over the Pioneer coalition, which Keo played in. Of course, the AIs monitoring and refereeing the game were holding back other scores, which rendered the whole thing slightly illusory; for all they knew, that twelve-point lead was immensely deceiving.

Keo found himself as main player at the moment it happened, playing against Bafed, and Bafed’s serve at the time was a low shot that bouncing one-two against wall and floor before rising up again. Keo charged in, swung his racquet-bat in a messy, poorly timed effort, got a thick edge on the ball, and somehow managed to get it to move in a looping return, arcing several metres into the air before dropping and skimming the wall. Bafed was forced to charge in, and Keo simply tapped a drop shot that bobbed along the floor into a roll, another point easily won.

And bizarrely, it was at that moment, on that brief high (given that this completed a trio of brutally efficient plays across the last four points played), that the idea rose from the depths of his subconscious into a conscious thought.

#Let’s go for it#, he announced to everyone, on the court and on the balcony behind.

#Go for what?# Uliska asked.

#The Astrostate. Let’s make one. However you do it, exactly.#

A murmur of voices filed up in his superconscious; the game was half-thrown away as Bafed stopped to register his own opinion. #You’re mad – we weren’t really saying you should go for one now#. he argued.

#Well, let’s go for it and see how far we get. Worst case scenario is that we get in serious trouble and start appealing to the Confeds for help. And if we’re not stable, then maybe we can pitch ourselves close to Spaceplane 114,099 and that help arrives in minutes. {distribute: galaxy map – route to confeds}.#

The buzz of voices continued, a mass of thoughts moving through his superconscious as he reached for the ball that had rolled to a stop in front of him. He took his place behind the serve line and readied himself for the next point.

#I’m not ready#, Teru2, his catcher, told him, hurrying back behind the serve line.

#What about, we have a vote?# Uliska asked. #It’s what any sensible group of people would do over something like this, right?#

They agreed, and the votes were rapidly pooled together. Such a process was a slightly odd feeling, beyond conversation; there was a sort of qualitative focus in the room, and Keo could feel it, just there, suspended at head height right behind and equidistant from himself and Bafed. When the vote crystallised into detail, the spread was broadly seven to two in his favour, with one uncertain, and the two against prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. He had won that. The Kaizener game, however, would continue.

He lifted his racquet-bat, swung it down to meet the ball in a serve, and watched it bounce short of the wall.

“Fault, 1 of 2 permitted,” the wall-screen stated.

He was still eleven points down.

5

In a way, he could not quite believe that he had gone ahead with the Astrostate plan, but before long, Keo3 was in for a penny, in for the proverbial pound that the Qareen Confederacy had long since lost the use for, by and large. For days he paced about his room – which was now six former rooms he had collapsed the walls of, forming one huge suite in which he could arrange a mass of holograms within the space. Whenever he walked into the room, he was greeted by a labyrinth of diagrams springing from the floor and walls, showing typical Qareen state functions in splayed branches from the centre, summarising the conclusions of various political philosophers and scholars on how each department could be arranged, how the state as a whole could function, and so forth; their bullet points sprang forth from yet more diagrams plotting these views on various spectra according to their extremities.

In many ways, it started to become overwhelmingly, especially as, as far as he could see, overbearing, especially given that a Qareen state was by and large a minimal one anyway, whatever happened. The President’s Office, an intelligence agency, a department for foreign diplomacy, a justice department, the military, and two very minimal departments for education and health, which generally acted to ban quack medicine and false theories, were all that were really there on Spaceplane 114,099, and Keo reckoned that he would not even need at least two, perhaps even three of those.

So he gathered Uliska, Bafed, Teru and Kogr8 on the bridge, and together they focused on inviting ships into the brave new, if somewhat lightly sketched, venture.

#OK. We want to suggest that our place is more interesting than others#, Uliska established. #We need an angle. Something we can… sell this place on.#

#Sell?# Bafed questioned.

#None of us seem to be skilled at that#, Keo agreed. “Ship,” he asked, calling for all systems, “where is the nearest Astrostate to here?”

The Navigator’s holographic display, tucked away in the front right corner of the bridge, brought up a diagram, whilst large text flashed up on the wall directly ahead. “Nearest Astrostate: Republic of Valistan. 3.22 parsecs 063 Galactic west and 007 Galactic down. Estimated journey time 01.19.35.”

“Remarkably close,” Uliska said aloud. Indeed it was; the journey amounted to some twenty Earth minutes or so. The ship’s computer proceeded to dump information onto the same screen it had recently informed them with.

“The Republic of Valistan was formed in N.A. 1097. It is often a common feature of recently formed Astrostates to anchor themselves to relatively nearby Spaceplanes or Qareen-dominated planets; in this case, Spaceplane 113,764, which Valistan has been within five parsecs of for six of its seven years of formal existence.”

#That’s it! No need to go there at all#, Uliska suddenly cried. The rest of them were silent at this.

#What we do#, she continued, #is not anchor ourselves. Or maybe we give ourselves a sort of semi-anchor plan, to never be more than 03.00.00 away from a Spaceplane. But that’s our angle – we’re adventurous, we’re bold, we’re going were nobody else goes, and we’re having as much fun as we can along the way.#

#Sounds like a plan#, Kogr8 agreed.

6

The first ship to join them came two days after they put out the word. The Shovel-Ready/Clemency/Reducible Core swept in from the Galactic north and down, joining them as they headed inwards towards the Intersection Zone. With ninety-six civilians on board, the original group found themselves quickly outnumbered, having to introduce themselves to a large number of unknowns. A day afterwards, the Renaissance Fare/Rainstorm in Space joined them, with another sixty-seven people.

#It might take a bigger ship#, Oyret0, the apparent leader of the Shovel-Ready, told Keo. #That previous state you mentioned? The Republic of Valistan? I visited once. That’s what they were planning at the time. I doubt it’s being constructed now, but it will be in due course, and they’ll probably all move there, just one massive ship. It’s safer than smaller ships that can be picked off.#

#Where were these things during the Intersection Wars?# he asked.

#That’s a little before my time. But I understand that this strategy came about because of the Wars.#

#Shit.#

#Exactly.#

Keo wondered what Oyret’s agenda was, but she was advising him well, and he could not complain too much. The three ships flew on, approaching the edge of the stand-alone part of the galaxy, right before that ambiguous point where the collision began. The Kaizener game finally ended when Bafed missed a return and stumbled on his way to his Safe Zone. Another couple of days of subgames, and the Pioneers had won out. Keo hoped the victory would be symbolic of his future. He felt engaged, he thought; the previous fiftieth of a year had at times been exhausting, a rush of events compared to his previously inert lifestyle, and he had wondered what he was getting himself into. Even so, he mostly felt hesitancy; never fear.

7

#The 5 Academy? Quite a prestigious place. I heard it’s one of the top 20 such places in the whole Confederacy>>>#

Keo phased out Oyret’s seemingly constant stream of conversation. His superconscious memory would, in any event, log it all anyhow, should a question need answering. She had been doing this for quite some time, constantly asking questions, almost as if he was being interviewed for the job of President.

Ships continued to join. The Triage/Infinite Set and the Prototypical Design/Sui Generis/Autumnal both swooped into the previously three-strong group of ships, and as they reached the edge of the Intersection Zone, they were joined by the Half a Fighter/Score Draw/Level Six. This put them one-off the minimum for Confederate recognition, or so Keo had read from various sources. The Kingdom Gone, for its part, had begun to project a faint sphere around itself and all six ships, around fifty thousand kilometres in radius and with a magnitude of around zero from the outside. Maybe I haven’t studied politics, Keo thought, but surely the obvious thing to do is to claim territory.

At that point, however, he was moving through the third deck down, heading towards the bridge area, namely a room branching off it, which functioned, in effect, as a conference room. When he walked in, he spotted Uliska and Bafed, and only them. Fair enough, he thought; they were everyone he needed to speak to.

“Afternoon.”

“Same to you,” Uliska said.

“We’ve got news,” Bafed added, “good news. A seventh ship is arriving. As soon as it’s within the sphere we’ll be sending off recognition.”

“When will that be?”

“In around 42.11.33,” he replied, looking down at a ticking graphic flitting across the table. “First we need a name.”

“Can’t we put that to a vote?”

“We did, behind your back,” Bafed said. He moved his hands across the table, where about a dozen strands of text floated towards Keo. “Those we asked were having none of it. They want something to rally round, just like you didn’t ask for a vote before you put all this together.”

“Well I don’t quite get that. But let’s do it. Any ideas?”

“You go first.”

“Venturia? Voyagia? Something along those lines, I think. Slightly cheesy, but it’s a decent description.”

8

The Intersection Zone was fairly densely packed with Spaceplanes and Qareen-resident planets, relatively speaking, as if the victory in the Wars had given the Qareen an absolute right to dominate it. Even so, surprisingly few ships joined, even if a steady number continued to do so. So the ships plunged on through the galaxies, under the now-official banner of the Republic of Venturia, Keo did begin to wonder when he exactly decided to rush towards largely Shango space, which they were to reach within a few days.

It was when they reached the heart of the Intersection Zone, which, given their relatively slow speed and eccentric path, had taken around forty days instead of the twenty or so that they should’ve done, when it happened.

It was night, for one, so Keo had to wake up to the sound – no, the feel – of something huge knocking the ship sideways. Grab systems, operated by the weakest AI necessary, struggled the figure out which way was down, and so he flew across the room, skipped like a stone across a table and slammed back-first into the far wall before normality resumed. It transpired that those wall-carpets had their limits.

“Ship, what the fuck was that?”

“The Shovel-Ready/Clemency/Reducible Core has collided with this ship. Evading tactics were utilised, but anticipation of the action was low and hence their effectiveness was limited.”

He got up from the floor, rubbed his back and quickly got dressed, pulling a t-shirt-like garment over his head as he reached the corridor. He got to the bridge shortly afterwards.

#What happened?# he asked, although opening up to the rest of the ship revealed a lot of the same coming back to him.

#I’m getting a cognitive upload from the ship. I’ll be on the bridge shortly#, Uliska explained. #OK, here it is. {collision doc}.#

Keo examined it. The Shovel-Ready had very suddenly yawed into the Kingdom Gone‘s path, and whilst minimal damage had occurred to the Kingdom, the Shovel-Ready had suffered immensely, having moved to pass under the Kingdom and smashed the top half of itself to pieces. He wondered how it had collapsed so easily; it struck him as very suspicious, but what also struck him as odd was the damage that the Kingdom did take – as he examined the holographic overview, he saw the steering strangely jammed in place.

#Something is going on#, he told Uliska, #and I don’t like it.#

The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light continued to spear onwards, passing through the Intersection Zone in a matter of days. Keo sent out the call for help, but only the ships following could help.

The real problem, really, was one of cosmology. The galaxies’ collision formed a warped curvature, which meant that at some point, the ship’s inability to turn would make it simply leave the galaxy, and head off into intergalactic space. The only hope then would be for the Dharans, intergalactic demigods that they were, to take pity. It was not, however, something to be assumed.

Firing the engines asymmetrically did nothing for direction; sitting in the Boardlayer’s booth and laying down those forcefield boards had similarly little effect, although slamming into one head-on managed to slow the ship by an imperceptible amount.

Eventually, Keo admitted that the other ships would have to drop back; the one that didn’t was the Renaissance Fare/Rainstorm in Space. Loyal from the beginning, it decided to move in closer in a bid to beam people between the ships – a complex, awkward operation that was not helped by the speed of both ships.

Keo was the last to stay, and as a reminder, the ship kept warning him that it would soon been clocking up ever more parsecs of distance away from anything recognisably Qareen. At first, he was tempted to go down with the ship, as it were, until he realised that, firstly, this was a moronic romantic notion he had read somewhere, and two, the ship wasn’t about to go down anyway, merely onwards, relentlessly, until it crashed into something, a prospect that would become increasingly unlikely as it drifted into ever-less dense space.

Then he realised that the real reason was that he somehow felt responsible. The ship could easily be replaced; the Confederacy wouldn’t miss it. But he would – it was the first ship he had, for want of a better phrase, been in charge of, and that it was gone inside of a year felt terrible. He wanted to stand on the observation deck, gazing out at the stars as they thinned out into a void, but of course, the ship’s computer was having none of it, instead displaying a huge, ominous countdown to it passing the last star over the view.

#You have to get out of there#, Uliska told him on the last evening in the galaxy, as he wandered the corridors on the fourth deck. She was very forceful about it, he noted.

#Why?#

He wasn’t about to give up without a good reason.

#Just trust me, you’ve got about 22.00.00 left. The ship’s gonna hit something. We think.#

#You think.#

#We think. And we’re not taking the risk.#

He moved to the nearest teleport pad and stepped in, figuring that, really, he had found no solution on the ship anyhow. Perhaps, he thought, it could be salvaged remotely. Transmitting his location, he felt that sudden plunge into darkness, and then the burst back into light and the unfamiliar vision of another ship, along with a queasiness in his organs that was stronger than the slight shiver that beaming usually caused.

#We had to move you#, Uliska said. #Come to the observation deck and you’ll see. It’s moving in so damn fast.#

#Dharan.#

#Most definitely.#

He reached the observation deck and, sure enough, the long-range display had the vessel rushing in, travelling in a second what the best Qareen ships took an hour over. On the direct visual, which was tracking the ship, he saw nothing but the Kingdom Gone moving onwards for several minutes, until quite suddenly, with a visual bang, the Dharan vessel appeared: like a monstrous, vicious, angular explosion of blades and bayonets, the perimeter of its shielding simply treating the relatively tiny Kingdom like a particularly useless shot. With a flash and a splash of debris, the Kingdom had gone. After a few seconds of imposing stillness, the Dharan ship also vanished, instant acceleration so fast that Keo could almost imagine hearing the whoosh through a vacuum.

#It’s OK. We still have a nation to build.#

9

He checked and found Uliska on the bridge, sitting inert in the Boardlayer’s booth. No boards needed laying; the ship itself had wound down to a sub-lightspeed crawl, shuffling towards planet 3,092,100, some two thousand parsecs from the Intersection Zone, and would reach it in about a week at the current pace.

#Hey.#

#A ‘hey’ to you too.#

“What’s up?”

Her voice startled him slightly. He hadn’t heard her speak aloud in some time. He was quite sure that the previous contexts were conspirational, the passing of secrets without interception.

“The election?” she asked. “The project?”

#How is the project going?# he asked. No need to cover that up.

#It’s OK#, she continued. “Don’t avoid the real question.”

He sighed, and took the captain’s seat, span it round ninety degrees to face her. She got out of the booth – the chair didn’t turn – and sat on the armrest nearest him. “The investigation,” he admitted.

“It’s been five years.”

“I don’t care. I want answers.”

Uliska nodded. “You’re one determined bastard. Like I’ve been telling you, don’t push it too far.”

She paused, but noticed he wasn’t going to give in.

“Computer, screen please. Standalone.”

A large transparent pane assembled in front of the captain’s chair, and Keo span round to face it.

“Yitre9 has found very little in the past half a year or so. Right now, it’s all only speculation.”

The screen displayed a diagram filled with lines branching off from one another.

“The basic picture remains the same,” Uliska explained, “there’s thirty-seven possible explanations about Oyret, which form into eleven different self-consistent narratives. Only one can be true. Depending on which one, she was either an innocent person who made a terrible mistake, a Shango operative for any one of four organisations, a Qareen operative for either a terrorist faction or the Confeds in one of two capacities, a Stoppan operative, or a Dharan operative in one of two capacities. But it’s been five years, Keo. The trail is cold, and your guess is as good as mine. She’s dead, anyhow. All I’m saying is, perhaps the truth will never out, and it’s worth dropping.”

Keo was only prepared to put the issue on the back-burner. This was, after all, important: here he was, heading towards one of the biggest manufacturers in the galaxy, who would in part help create one ship for one, unified Astrostate. What would the Dharans, the Shango or anyone else do to that?

“The thing is,” Uliska said quietly, “sometimes, the truth isn’t out there. You just have to plunge onwards into the unknown.”

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.

P.L.C.

Date: 1,995,260 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 21,417 (Shango), N.A. 2151 (Qareen)
Location: several

>GCNT
.547/2145
Pretence to Revolution?
As a new political movement arises in the quieter quarters of the galaxy, Peri6/946,788 investigates and gives his opinion on the new movement.

My invitation was a somewhat cryptic one; sent out on uniband, it asked all who could to either tune into or turn up in person to what was being described as “the creation of a new platform and a new politics.” And as it turned out, it was quite exciting: if this movement succeeds, the Qareen Confederacy will bear witness to its first economic reforms in centuries.

As we all know, the Confederacy all agreed to a complete post-scarcity settlement in the Treaty of the Confederacy in DNA 46, around one year before the Intersection Wars. Knowing that the Wars would soon occur, it was a necessary step at the time – the capability was there, and there was no need to mess around when the galaxy’s biggest conflict in thousands of years, and possibly ever, was on the verge of erupting.

Yet now, on p334,102, those measures enacted all that time ago are being questioned. Ios8/p102,355, leader of the Pangalactic Limits Campaign, argues that the time has come for the Confederacy to look backwards in order to advance.

“The problem with all Qareen, right now,” Ios8 argued as I spoke with him, “is that they live too easily. Where’s the struggle, we might ask, where is the aspiration?”

He may well have a point. Technological progress, new political ideas, the vitality of an ever-advancing civilisation, seem stagnant in the Confederacy, which arguably seems content right now to sit in its current, sub-Dharan semi-hegemony over one of this galactic pair we reside in.

Before our brief talk, Ios8’s public meeting to convene the first followers among the P.L.C. – an impressive gathering of some two hundred, more of whom have signed up since – went smoothly. With an impassioned argument, Ios8 did not shy away from criticising the status quo, and calling attention to historical fact. His audience was enthusiastic, and the word is spreading; apparently, within 0.01 of a year, some five hundred followers on p334,102 have signed up to the movement.

Five hundred may seem to be a tiny number amidst a civilisation of millions of trillions across Spaceplanes, planets and ships galore, but it is a start, and the movement already has its first off-planet follower.

The P.L.C. might well be dismissed as a reactionary group bent on taking the Qareen as a whole back into an undesired past, but this seems not to be the case. At the same meeting, Ios8 and his followers debated extensively a Charter of Beliefs, some of which included a desire to wind down the increased centralisation that has indeed been the norm since the Intersection Wars. “We’re pretty much a Federation, if not a completely unified state,” one follower told me, although I suspect this might be going too far.

Even so, their arguments have weight. Critics have been dismissive to the P.L.C., but their arguments have thus far been weak. Pinne7 of the 123,456 Network accuses the movement of “regressive, backward thinking”, which any decent analysis should refute. “An ignorant but thankfully tiny force, thinking back to an imaginary time that doubtless never existed,” argues Alak1 of Network Zenana.

This knee-jerk reaction is common amongst many pundits, but the P.L.C. are unfazed. “We won’t necessarily achieve all we aim to, possibly ever,” Ios8 admitted, “but all we’ve got to do is get enough followers, into the thousands or even the millions. Once we’re big enough, we’ll be sending a message to those at the heart of the Confederacy, that it’s time for change. That this whole galaxy needs to be shaken out of its complacency.”

And with the P.L.C. Charter, a sure method has arrived. With some ninety articles, it’s an extensive piece – this movement has emerged fully-formed. It is, quite simply, disappointing to see a new movement, the most radical in centuries, dismissed by journalists who often themselves pose as outside the establishment or mainstream. The P.L.C. are not yet a revolution, but they could easily become one. The P.L.C. isn’t about ignorance; it’s about rationality and aspiration, about driving not just their society, but all Qareen towards an even better future.

It seems remarkable that, in today’s society, trillions have accepted the by-and-large stasis that occurs on the grounds that things are ‘good enough’.  To which it must be asked: is the Confederacy, across millions of Spaceplanes and planets, merely settling? Isn’t there more, beyond this? Don’t we have a Dharan hegemony to confront, and their technology to emulate?

So, for the P.L.C., I wish them the best of luck. There’s a whole galaxy of inertia to overcome, out there, but if they can, the result will be spectacular.

>123,456 Text and Statics Network
.711/2151
In Defence of Reverse Gear
Karank9/p334,102, the second-in-command of the Pangalactic Limits Campaign, argues his case, on why the P.L.C. represent the future, not the past, and why reports of fascist tendencies have been greatly exaggerated.

“The rise of a New Galactic Order,” trumpeted the GCNT recently, snidely dismissing a movement that they had previously supported. It seems especially odd that they would abandon the movement now, as it stands to gain its billionth member, and now has some 1,000 Spaceplanes and 50,000 planets with openly declared followers. But it should not be a surprise; having, in some quarters, embraced the P.L.C., the mainstream media coalitions have decided, seemingly unanimously, to back down to the face of easy slurs on the Campaign.
It’s not clear when this unjustified backlash started. Certain critics – highly conservative-minded ones at that – have always criticised the movement’s radical nature. And of course, radicalism – however benign – is always the enemy of those too insulated by current society to see its failings.

Certainly, the backlash has emerged in the past couple of years. On .743/2149, the riots on Spaceplane 544 were attributed to the P.L.C.’s demonstration, even though a mere 44 protestors showed up and 51 restraints were imposed. Logically, for at least 7 of the restraints the P.L.C. not to blame, and given that most of them returned from the demo, almost certainly more were the responsibility of local Qareen counter-protests.

The second piece of alleged ‘evidence’ lies in supposed rhetoric spoken during 2150. One thing should be made clear: the P.L.C. is not a racist or xenophobic organisation. What we do oppose, however, is the continued welcoming into our society of members of the Shango Federation. It cannot be stressed enough that the allegedly peaceful Federation were once the organisation that caused unimaginable death and destruction during the Intersection Wars; entire Spaceplanes were destroyed and entire planets, even star systems, were in ruins. Smaller conflicts ever since should have given some clue that the Federation, as a whole, is not interested in truly lasting peace.

No, the P.L.C. is not racist; this is the easy slur thrown at us by pundits pulling dubious quotes from the media networks, as they buzz halfway around the galaxy before the P.L.C. can even respond. What we object to is the degradation of our culture and the abandoning of values that served the Confederacy for thousands of years before the Intersection Wars. We object to the flimsiness of our politicians in acting on this, and their unwillingness to talk, let alone deal, with the problem.

Perhaps the real reason for the fear of a P.L.C. galaxy is that a bold new agenda is being adopted by millions of people each day. Nearly one billion people have listened to and agreed with us over the last six  years, and therefore, come the next election in 2155, we will make an impact. Our voice is growing ever louder, and all across the galaxy, people are realising that what we speak of is not reactionary nonsense but the genuine thoughts and feelings that ordinary people – and most critically for the political class, ordinary voters – are thinking.

It’s a smart, intelligent agenda, and the mainstream media find themselves on the wrong side of the argument. For the likes of the GCNT, perhaps oppositional rhetoric isn’t the key; perhaps mere pity is more appropriate.

>Network Zenana
.713/2151
Knowing No Fear, Knowing No Sanity, and Knowing Nothing
Having argued against the P.L.C. since its inception, Alak1/976,501 argues that the P.L.C. is as misguided and repugnant today as it was six years ago.

Six years ago, I wrote an article that, to be frank, was damning of the P.L.C. and their aims. At the time, they were a miniscule organisation, but I wrote that article in a bid to argue against such ideas and in a bid to warn against the rise of such movements. I stand by that article, even now, and as I look on the last six years, I see no reason to change my mind.

The P.L.C. are a different movement, now, in some ways. Numbering a billion or so members, whose distribution is now measured in parsecs instead of kilometres, and as a result, the nature of such an organisation changes; informal discussions become formal conferences, and home-made mailshots become slick marketing and promotional operations. But just because the money for public relations is there, it does not mean that the politics and policies underneath have changed.

There are very few, if any, individuals in the galaxy nowadays who have lived under the age of scarcity, which means that such a time is now being reduced to a folk memory across large swathes of our civilisation. With this, however, comes a romanticisation of that time, and a deluge of misconceptions, of which there are regrettably also no scarcity of.

“Scarcity”, as we well know, has a mass of negative connotations, and for good reason. Starvation, poverty and a fight for resources will not create a “dynamic society”, and it is insulting and unqareen to suggest as much. Ridiculous notions such as these should be shot down with ease in our society; with the information we have in easily-accessible networks, there should be no excuse for such ignorance. Yet somehow, it persists, it thrives, it grows. It should be worrying, but indeed, plenty of those within our media accuse us, the journalists, politicians and campaigners already in the inner circle, of a sneering superiority, or worse, of outright demeaning ordinary Qareen citizens who have taken to the movement.

Yet it is arguably the P.L.C. itself that demeans. When they claim our society to be “technologically stagnant” – their words, not mine – they implicitly insult billions of scientists who, in dedicated facilities across the galaxy (or even on dedicated planets and Spaceplanes) endeavour to push for ever more understanding, and make those incremental breakthroughs that will one day produce the Dharan level of technological sophistication that the P.L.C. claim to be aiming for. Today’s scientists can devote themselves to nothing but the quest for more knowledge, free from almost all other considerations; apparently, this is not enough.

But this would be nothing if the movement did not engage in some of the lowest rhetoric any party has engaged in for the last two thousand years. The P.L.C. are keen to claim that they are not racist, that no xenophobia is afoot, but it is clear where they stand on the Shango and Bhoot diasporas. “You have to ask if these people are polluting the system with the values of their home society, or diluting our own values by adding theirs”, one member asked recently, and not any standard member of the public, but Ios8 himself, when talking about Bhoot refugees, who number in the hundreds and have worked hard to escape oppression.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s not the time before the Wars that the P.L.C. wish to return to; perhaps it’s the Wars themselves.