Category Archives: Civ: Shango

To

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

1

“Nah, nah, I heard something similar too.”

Erran Fee had found herself on the receiving end of a slab of scepticism, but Juttro Penye’s support was an unexpected yet welcome second vote of confidence amongst the quartet of individuals gathered in the Social Centre’s smallest room. Said room was too small for a fight, if things were to take a highly unlikely tip into the physical, and dimly lit from a cold candle, a mere simulacrum of the real thing, for a fake sense of atmosphere. The table was a rickety wooden affair, but the seating was naturally a highly mouldable and rich synthetic material.

“Oh come on,” Kietu Gettenz, one of the sceptics, said, “if there’s another civilisation across these two galaxies, why haven’t we heard of them?”

“We’re small and the galaxies are both very large places,” Erran argued, “and besides, you’ve now heard of them. I mentioned them. Look, why do you think I would lie about this?”

Both Kietu and Ellebe paused.

“I don’t think you’re lying, exactly,” Ellebe said, and prompted a rush of sarcastic thoughts in Erran’s mind, “I just think, hey, you’ve heard it from someone who heard it from someone. This could all be a prank from a Darkworld at the back of the galaxy.”

“OK,” Juttro interrupted, “sod the debate, the real question is this – if we’re gonna go off on some lengthy space expedition… well, would we? Would it be something good?”

A Gordian knot of debate had been cut through, and the four of them seemed to have some consensus on this.

“It’d be awesome if we found something. I mean, really, really fucking amazing. A whole bunch of people we never knew were there.”

“We’re gonna need a ship,” Kietu said. Erran stifled a laugh. Had he forgotten the argument so quickly?

“And a plan,” he added.

2

The ship was an easy acquisition, even as Ellebe for some reason chose the Science Finds Alliance, a huge, sleek, high-performance ship designed to push for maximum speed – not that said speed was that much greater than a standard starship.

Yet as they took off into the Intersection Zone and swept past Darkworld Manticore, the last Darkworld they would come close to before heading off into largely Qareen-dominated space, the plan remained less than clear. Erran would sit in the Tracklayer booth on the bridge at 1/2 each day, laying in the course for another four hundred parsecs or so, but the course arced across more stars for seemingly no reason. She could only hope that the games of Spectrum, Passong and Quantum were allowing herself (who was she to spoil the party?) and the others to subconsciously work away at inspiration.

It took less than seven days for Spaceplanes to start becoming the norm as the ship continued through the Intersection Zone. The other three were seemingly unconcerned, but it turned out that they would not be punished for it; on the eighth day, Erran finally figured it out, and called the others to the bridge in order to explain.

“OK,” she began from the Tracklayer booth, “I’ve laid down the track for the rest of the journey-”

“How can you do that?”

“We’re provisionally going to here,” she said, gesturing to a holographic projection in the centre of the bridge. The projection showed a seemingly standard-looking Spaceplane – disc-shaped landmass, sun- and moon-simulating spotlights orbiting either side, and an ice wall around the edge each side – albeit a fairly large one. “Spaceplane 114,099, capital of the Qareen Confederacy.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” Ellebe asked.

“Not really. The Qareen are used to having Shango immigrants, these days. And didn’t you meet a Qareen once, Kietu? They don’t just kill you straight away, because of the war, right?”

Keitu nodded silently to affirm both of these claims.

“Then it should be fine,” Erran replied, although a third of her audience remained only half-convinced.

3

Juttro elected to stay with the ship as the other three teleported onto the surface of 114,099. More specifically, they transferred themselves to a spaceport some three kilometres away from the Central Government complex, which was the legal requirement, and hardly stopped them from walking the distance instead.

“So why do they do it?” Kietu said.

“I guess they want us to give them warning,” Erran replied.

Central Government – for the whole of the Confederacy, not just the Spaceplane – was a huge complex of towers that each fed a flying buttress to an even larger central tower.

“Do we head there?”

“Might as well.”

The central tower turned out to be the executive and legislative branches, all bound up in one building. They were swiftly directed to another building, apparently related – if their translations were correct – to diplomacy; not only Qareen diplomats, but the surprisingly small Shango Federation embassy, which was a mere fifth or so of the tower. It was that fifth, however, that they wound up, meeting with a severe-looking Shango man who was apparently an expert in what they were looking for.

“What you are looking for,” he began promisingly, “is called the Republic of the Bhoot People. It is common knowledge amongst this embassy, amongst the FCDA, and the President. It is not a state secret, hence why I have revealed it, but it is not something that we want the Shango population at large to be dealing with.”

Erran nodded, but then looked left and right and found Kietu and Ellebe looking puzzled and suppressing a look of alarm, respectively.

“It’s OK. We do this, quite simply, because the Bhoot themselves are quite a secretive people. They were apparently not too open during the Intersection Wars, but since then, they have only traded amongst each other, and rarely communicated with the Confederacy, let alone the Federation. Such mercantilism can work amongst four whole planets, but to deny the Qareen’s abundant wealth does seem churlish. But it’s their choice – who are we to disrespect it?”

None of the three of them seemed to agree with this, but all of them remained silent.

“It’s all a bit weird, though, isn’t it?” Erran said after a long, long pause.

“How d’you mean?”

“Well, it sounds like they were a little bit secretive during the Wars, but then they went completely dark afterwards. I mean, something happened there.”

The ambassador nodded in a warning manner. “If you truly want to investigate this, then do. But if you break local law, get into any sort of trouble, then I will make one thing clear: the Federation will deny everything, and offer no assistance. This isn’t Shango or Qareen business, and the hand of government does not reach to those four planets.”

“Can you tell us where the planets are?” Ellebe said.

“Yes. But we’ll advise that you don’t go. You have no idea what you are entering into. For all we know, they may have abandoned all ideas of expansion into the wider galaxy to focus on technological advancement; you might be dealing with people more advanced than we are. And they may not be friendly.”

Erran felt like she had a hundred questions to ask, but she was also sure that this man would simply slide around each and every one of them. Unilaterally, she uttered a brief “thank you for your time” and got up from her seat. The others followed suit, and they made the three kilometre walk back feeling disappointed, confused and perhaps a little worried.

“Yours is the Science, right? I’ll patch the stuff across. And the warnings.”

“We’re still doing this, right?” Ellebe said as they reached the spaceport.

“Yeah,” Kietu said, “we’ve got to, now. I mean, what’s our government hiding?”

“I’ll say. It’s like there’s a conspiracy, but also a conspiracy to make sure there isn’t a conspiracy.”

Erran nodded. Somehow Ellebe’s description captured it for her: the Bhoot, the secret that wasn’t, and certainly wouldn’t be once their determination and spacecraft brought back the truth.

4

The observatory room, which took up the centre part of the Science Finds Alliance‘s bottom deck for no obvious reason, had converted its entire land-facing wall into a screen, effectively making it appear as if there was no wall at all. A proper Shipbuilders’ Guild could almost certainly have made the wall phase at command between opaque and transparent, but the screen served its purpose well enough. The four of them stood spread out within the room, each looking at the territory as it passed under them.

“What do they call this place?”

“It’s marked on the star map as “Power”, but that can’t be right. It’s the capital planet, anyway. Central government is about ninety degrees latitude away.”

The landscape rolling into view beneath them was of a mountain range fading into a desert, which in turn transitioned from a flat, barren surface to a mass of twisting structures and eroded shapes, along with the odd large patch of strangely-coloured plantlife.

“Optimum point for nanobot drop approaching in 1/3000” flashed up on the screen.

“Computer, do it,” Erran said, making an executive decision she suspected the rest wouldn’t.

Underneath the ship, a panel slid open, and let loose something manifested by the nearest star’s light as a mere occasional twinkle. But soon, Erran thought, as she watched a simulated view of the drop, that twinkle will be the light of truth, and we will know what they and my government are hiding.

5

The nanobots spread across the planet over the next three local days, building up more and more of a picture, both figurative and literal, of the planet’s towns and cities from street view. From above, the ship focused its cameras as it swept over government buildings, military headquarters, and prisons, over houses, roads and factories. A familiar, repetitive theme built up, of crumbling, decayed infrastructure, and austere architecture. Frequently the four Shango crew on board the Science Finds Alliance would gather in the observation room and discover yet another city of grim, smog-ridden despair, often set amongst relatively lush surrounding countryside.

“I think we know what they’re looking to hide,” Juttro said, “nanobots are sending in holographic projections from all over. Each city’s got similar things going on.”

“What kind of things.”

He opened up one of the simulations, de-screened the walls and allowed the projection to consume the whole floor. Initially, the whole scene appeared to be a scattered, patchwork mass of greys and off-white shades, but closer inspection revealed some suggestion of civic planning; even so, industrial sectors poured smoke over residential areas, and the apparently richer parts of the city were dumped down as enclaves within the poverty-ridden shanties on the outskirts. Local government, naturally, was perched at the highest point in the city, with the tallest buildings, fortified by the headquarters of major industries.

“The nanobots have confirmed that it’s a scarcity society,” Juttro continued, “that outward appearance of a poor, slum-ridden world is masking… a poor, slum-ridden world. The ambassador was completely talking out of his ass – they’re not ahead of us, they’re far, far behind the Stoppan. But there’s more.”

He erased the cityscape and replaced it with a scene that appeared to yank them from the observation room and place them down on the planet; if Juttro had, though, he had somehow stopped time as well. The still in front of them was of a commercial street in the city centre, which despite the money that flowed into it, still possessed that familiar off-white, peeling quality. But most notably, the people in the street had all dived into foetal positions on the ground, as a large, black, half-insectoid half-aircraft machine had entered a dive and was quite possibly preparing weapons. Erran suddenly found her focus, observing every last detail of the scene, but the most shades of grey to be found in it were literal ones.

“There are no flags, no banners. There’s no sign of a protest. What are they meant to be suppressing?”

“I’ve no idea, but these things are not unusual,” Juttro said, “we should probably go down there, to the planet. All of this bothers me. If our government-”

“And the Qareen.”

“If they’re aware of this, we should expose it. If they’re not, then they’re looking the other way, and we shouldn’t allow it.”

6

“Tell you what, I’ll fire back if you admit that bringing a weapon was a good idea.”

“Fine, it was a pretty good idea.”

Erran swung her arm round the corner of the wall and fired once, before quickly withdrawing her hand. A fusilade of gunfire followed; chips of wall flew off, picking away at their cover. They were using kinetic weapons, Erran realised – ideal for unarmed civilians, but hardly ideal for genuine confrontation.

“That bought you one shot.”

“Oh come on,” Ellebe protested.

The shadow of a patrol bot appeared. Erran concluded that yes, she was definitely joking, and wondered how much of a lag the robot’s sensors would have. The bot fired some more, chipping ever more away at that wall – a private residence, no less. They were prepared, Erran thought, to cut someone’s – an innocent’s – house to pieces just to take down a dissident, and would that person receive compensation? Probably not, from what they had learnt about the place. She twisted a dial on the gun, setting its power to maximum, then leapt out and fired. Rolling over, she felt the shrapnel of the bot’s body bounce over her.

Quite a lag, as it turned out.

She rolled over again, shaking off shards as she did so, and looked around. It was seemingly all-clear, but out of the corner of her eye she sensed that another bot was moving in.

“We should teleport back to the ship, as soon as possible,” Ellebe argued. “I will, anyway. If you’re not back by-”

“I’m coming,” she said, raising her voice. “Sorry,” she whispered, “battle noise. Gets to you. Gets to me, anyway.”

The pair of them contacted the ship, and just as another bot began to sweep in – Erran firing one more shot to be sure, which missed – the slow blink cut in, and they were gone. The pair of them decided that they weren’t going back.

A bot rushed into view and immediately exploded as it met Erran’s next shot, its momentum causing the components to clatter and crash down the street.

“Yeah, I’m coming,” she said.

7

From: Office of the President of the Shango Federation.
Sent 81/88, 18,703
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: Science Finds Alliance unofficial mission.
Further files and data are attached.
Translated from Qareen type 1912, variant 1.

Dear all at the Science Finds Alliance,

We appreciate your concern regarding your discoveries upon travelling within the Qareen galaxy. Nonetheless, we have decided that intervention within the Republic of the Bhoot People cannot be justified under the current circumstances, on the following grounds:

1. The Shango Federation does not consider amongst its duties one pertaining to the inteference in other civilisations and their development, barring reasons of state security, political alliances or other justified constitutional reasons (see files attached for relevant legislation);

2. The location of the Bhoot Republic heavily implies that any intervention should be undertaken by the Qareen Confederation; should they request our intervention, it may well be provided.

We apologise if this proposed inaction is not to your satisfaction; it is worth pointing out that no current prohibition exists for any kind of non-government sponsored intervention, but naturally the Federation will not back such an intervention.

8

From: Central Executive Office for the Cosmic Charter Republic (Res 33).
Sent 84/88, 18,703 (Translated Time)
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: RE: Warning of Fourth Interplanetary Government
Translated from Stoppan type 34, variant 6.

To all on the Science Finds Alliance,

The Cosmic Charter Republic of Stoppan extends its sincerest thanks for the information you have provided. We should nonetheless be at pains, however, to point out that the Republic of Bhoot, whilst ultimately disturbing in its implications, is at minimum a journey of at least one Stoppan year away, and quite possibly several local years for a Bhoot ship, thus rendering our civilisations’ mutual impact minimal in the short to medium term. There is no doubt whatsoever that the CCR of Stoppan would, in a future scenario in which its capability is greatly expanded, intervene. We recognise that this is likely to be little comfort, but we nonetheless hope that your own Federation will give serious consideration to this issue.

9

From: Office of the President of the Qareen Confederation.
Sent .007/1879
Fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.
Sub: Issues arising from expedition to Bhoot planet Power
Further files and data are attached.
Translated from Shango type 2033.

To the Science Finds Alliance crew,

Speaking on behalf of the Qareen Confederation, the Office of the President is greatly disturbed by your news regarding the Bhoot Republic. Whilst diplomatic relations with those four planets have traditionally been minimal, they have previously been regarded as an ally of sorts, and it cannot be denied that this information, if true, calls for a re-assessment of such an alliance.

Naturally, the Confederation has other issues at this time – you are no doubt aware of a rising collective terrorist and separatist threat that must be dealt with utilising as many resources as can be allocated. Nonetheless, given the Bhoot Republic’s proximity, and the clear violation of the Confederation’s values of demanding no less than freedom, rationality and justice to all those virtues can be provided to, the Confederation will not pause in placing an option on a future expedition to confirm such findings. Upon confirmation of the data provided, an agreement is in place for intervention (see files attached for translated legislative act) and said intervention will occur with the maximum force, physical or intellectual, that the Confederation can provide.

Rest assured, tyranny will not stand.

Dual Core

Date: 1,993,775 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 16,708 (Shango), N.A. 1678 (Qareen)
Location:
Darkworld Semaphore

1

“Would the Senator care to clarify his remarks?”

The Senator in question took a subtle look around the near-empty chamber. Quite why he was defending his position to a gathering that couldn’t possibly muster enough votes against it, he had no idea. This measure came up every year; and every year, in the wee small hours, a group of diehards would gather to furiously debate an issue that had the broad, vague support of all government anyhow, and then cast a pointless vote that, even if it was unanimously against, would not have repealed the program anyway.

The small screen in front of him stated that a mere 54,000 people were viewing him and his colleagues.

“If I made any implication regarding any senators present, or their commitment to Darkworld Semaphore, then I apologise in advance. What I meant to say was that the PESMA programme is a key part of our heritage; it’s been an important part of our identity. My research indicates that only eight Darkworlds run the PESMA scheme. We are almost unique. And we should value that.”

“I would like to counter to the Senate that Senator Tskeye’s remarks are ridiculous. To hold onto something because of mere tradition is a fallacy of the highest order.”

The moderating AI blinked a red light but remained motionless.

“Senator Tskeye’s remarks will be filed under ‘Disregard’. Continue, Senator Rembarc.”

“The fact remains,” Rembarc said, “that the PESMA scheme has not delivered what it has promised to do, year after year after year. Only PESMA, beloved by sentimentalists and ignored by ninety per cent of this Chamber, persists with such a record. Any other programme from government would have gone long before now. Moderator, I would like to cite the Comprehensive PESMA report published two local years ago, as I cited in the prior debate, which pointed out in very stark terms that the alleged innovation and diversification created by a false economic scarcity was not present to a significantly greater degree than the post-scarcity settlement agreed upon by the vast majority of the Shango Federation.”

“So no new report backing this up then?”

His argument was thin and he knew it. He looked down to the screen in front of him, which stated that 1/2500 of Darkworld Semaphore’s relatively short day remained before a vote could be called.

“Well… I don’t regard such a demand as a prerequisite to examining the evidence,” Rembarc continued slowly. “If we-”

“If we are of rational mind, then we won’t-”

“Senator Rembarc has the floor,” the AI insisted in a loud, flat tone of voice, “and the window is now open for him to call a vote, if he so wishes.”

Rembarc raised his hand to indicate as much. The vote came in another 1/2500 or so later; the PESMA scheme was defeated by five votes to three in the battle, but in the war was aided by the vast absentee army of those hundreds of empty seats.

2

Tskeye decided to walk home; said home was about a mile away, and he felt that merely teleporting there and sitting around in the time saved wouldn’t let his thoughts flow. He wondered, as he reckoned plenty of Shango did all the time, whether he had any sort of driving purpose to his work. Certainly, year after year, for, what, fifteen years now? Was it sixteen? It was irrelevant; the point was, for too long he had been caught up in that annual debate, wasting a night out of every year to defend a system that was well-defended.

As the route inevitably would, it took him through the streets of Central Government, and past the Treasury. Yet as he passed it, he stopped and turned back. Going inside, and passing through the Membrane that screened all but those who had permission to enter, he found the place to be almost deserted – AI security blinked quietly, humming for no reason other than to assure anyone present that it was too.

He moved beyond the lobby into the corridors, and moving through them, headed towards a large chamber towards the back of the building, and entered.

Inside was a vast space, resembling a warehouse upended for height rather than length. At the far end was the real purpose of the place – the biggest wall-screen on Darkworld Semaphore. Quite possibly one of the biggest wall-screens anywhere in the Federation, in fact; and it was that, and the vast intelligence behind it, that Affan Tskeye had strenuously sought to defend.

“Do you wish to view the current situation, Senator Tskeye?” a voice asked. The Senator himself was mildly alarmed at the way that the voice sounded very close, instead of booming from the back of the room.

“It’s OK. Any long-time defend of mine is free to view the data I collect.”

“OK,” the Senator replied, and a vast 3D projection filled the hall, indeed, transcended it – it seemed to fill more than the hall, extending kilometres above, below and to either side of it. At the front of that projection, a vast spider-web of information showed streams of transactions, savings, investments, the labelling just about visible in order to show the workings of a whole Darkworld’s economy. About halfway between him and the wall, a discrete and pale red plane appeared; that marked the present, and said plane moved with agonising sloth towards the wall, consuming the ghostly vectors beyond it, which were the future transactions that the AI predicted with often astonishing accuracy. The Dual-Track Market, or DTM, was not quite a seer – it could not foresee, for instance, if a single individual on Vex 29 was about to purchase a small snack in a 24-hour store in a remote village – but once said purchase had occurred, the amount (but not the nature) of the purchase would transfer to the DTM’s database, where a prediction would be honed, and a flutter of re-arranging would occur. As was to be expected for the economy for trillions of people, said re-arranging was almost constantly occurring.

“Senator, I have already sent the message as programmed, but I will mention this anyway.”

“Shoot.”

“Well, it’s two issues. One is about the Gini coefficient, which has risen to 0.36. This is marginally above what I and independent bodies determined to be the one extreme of the ideal. It is not an immediate problem, but I suggest some form of regulation or redistributive measure be raised in the Senate nonetheless.”

“And the other?”

“I am concerned about sub-reserve trading. Such activity has largely remained small-scale up until now. In the last four days I have detected what I suspect to be the symptoms of a bubble. One bank in particular seems to possess some 1.1 billion Sigs in potential losses. I can only urge action on this front.”

“No problem. I trust your judgement in any event.”

And he did. The DTM was an all-seeing eye, for sure – but it was one that could not be bribed, extorted or made to confess. The same could not be said for the Senate.

3

Cave 13, Semjenfen city, financial district, was the kind of place that had a swagger about it. Unjustifiably so, Tskeye thought; this place was the sort that gave the DTM headaches and didn’t always provide the kind of payoff it should. Perhaps he was just old-fashioned, but frankly, it all seemed to pale in importance compared to the work of farmers, factory workers and so forth. Places like Vex 27 were admittedly poorer without such sectors in their economy, but by a similar merit, those places always seemed to be steadier sources of growth.

Today, though, he was going to find out exactly what these people were about. He was determined to say “fuck it” to every preconception he had.

The building he aimed right at first was a huge, palatial silver building, its logo blazed across the front.

“Welcome to Industrial Sky Banking, sir. Do you have a prior appointment?”

“I have to admit not,” Tskeye replied, “but… there is the small matter of nine hundred thousand pounds that need growing.”

About one point two million Sigs, he knew, but either way, the story did its job; one million pounds or Sigs would have seemed too precise.

“Does any particular area interest you?”

He brushed aside a number of lewd potential replies. “I think sub-reserve investment seems to be an interesting new area. But I could do with knowing the facts.”

“Well, if you can’t ask a bank about money… the wait should be about 1/50. Is that OK?”

“Should be fine.”

4

He was taken to an upper-floor office that seemed to be elaborately yet authoritatively furnished – an office designed for impressing clients, no doubt far more so than for accomplishing actual work. And that window, which essentially replaced an entire wall, was surely not helpful at all.

“Sub-reserve lending,” began the man who apparently worked in the office – he had introduced himself as Henoan Fedraxul – “is quite an exciting growth area in investments right now. Truly. And you’ve come to the right place, Mr. Tskeye, because we are the biggest investors in that area – so far, we’ve committed one point one billion Sigs as a test balloon.”

The Senator almost betrayed his identity at that point, but held back his shock.

“But you have to be first in these markets. If you set a precedent, then the fact that you’ve been in the game longer inspires confidence. Markets generally are about confidence, but this, this is crucially about confidence. You have to be a sure bet. Whatever you do, sir, if you are in, you are in at some point in the next eleven days. That is the one thing, above all else, that you should take from today. You have a deadline.”

“Any particular reason?”

Fedraxul gestured out of the window, pointing simply towards a huge tower that Tskeye guessed was about a kilometre away. Despite the distance, however, it had a gargantuan presence; it surely extended several kilometres upwards (or downwards) towards the Vex lands below, and it tapered to its summit, forming a huge truncated pyramid. On the side of it, at the halfway point of the tower, the logo of this competitor glowed in shadow, the jagged text looking like a cartoon depiction of a mountain range.

“Industrial Sky is the biggest bank locally on Cave 13,” he continued, “it just about has a competitive edge on Darkworld Semaphore, for now. But Redreyen-Saarg is the largest institute of any kind to do with economics, statistics or mathematics across both of these galaxies. In eleven days’ time, they will have their AGM, and there, their employers and shareholders – for the most part, practically the same thing – will vote on whether to liberalise their memorandum and enter the sub-reserve market. When they do, the distortions in the market will be immense. We are the bank best placed to weather that storm.”

“Why don’t I just invest with Redreyen?”

“Legally, nothing stops you. But, and however unprofessional it sounds, it’s true – that place is a frickin’ cult. Best of luck, as an outsider, getting into that place. We welcome all comers; they don’t.”

Tskeye looked at the Redreyen tower, which seemed no less unsociable than the building he was in. Still, Redreyen-Saarg was not in the market. This was probably something the DTM could have told him, but the important thing was that he knew for sure, and he knew when it would most likely change. There was one thing he needed to have confirmed, however.

“Fair enough. But before I go through with this, I could do with knowing how exactly this whole thing works.”

Fedraxul leaned back on his chair and made a look that Tskeye recognised from many, many advisors, the assessing look of someone trying to judge how much complexity an explanation should contain.

“The principle is simple enough. What we do, in effect, is sink our Sigs into a created currency, which we then sell to other clients in return for pounds, or Sigs, or even their sub-reserve currency.”

“Is that even legal? I mean, I guess it is, but-”

“It is perfectly legal. For one, we have to sign an exchange contract every time, which effectively renders the whole thing a kind of barter. Enough of those barters generates its own market anyhow, and once you have a market, you have the potential for relative price signals to arise.”

Tskeye knew they’d have some mechanism, though. Those exchange contracts were almost certainly signed automatically, their terms determined through AI as the deal arose. This slowed due process by a picosecond, tops.

“Right.”

“The point is, once you’ve invested in an Isean Mark, or IM – that’d be our sub-reserve – you’re effectively ‘under’, to use the parlance. It’s worth bearing in mind that, whatever happens down there, whatever you trade back and forth, it means nothing until you’ve converted these things back into Sigs. From there you can jump back into pounds easily enough.”

“This sounds pretty complicated.”

“Then if I were you, I’d back out now,” Fedraxul said. He got up from his seat and walked over to the window, facing the Redreyen tower. “One of the rumours about Redreyen-Saarg, unconfirmed mind, is that they’re planning to go three levels deep. A reserve of a reserve of a reserve. If they do that, there’s no limit to how deep and wide this might get. Or the opportunities. With or without you, Mr. Tskeye, we’ll be coming up with billions in Sigs.”

5

“You have returned earlier than I expected.”

“Well, I don’t think anyone asks you to make predictions about that.”

The DTM cycled through various data on its screen, showing GDP, PPP, inflation, exchange rates. It didn’t need to do this, but in a sparse room, rarely occupied, and containing little but an AI that did not have a mobile, visible component, it seemed like the best way to the machine of conveying some kind of activity. Tskeye, for his own part, paced around the room, and indeed had plenty of space to do so.

“I decided to follow up your mention of a market bubble.”

“The Senate have scheduled a vote in fifteen days. It was deemed a moderate priority.”

The Senator sighed. “What if,” he said, “I was to tell you that Redreyen-Saarg will enter the same market that could potentially cause the liabilities you identified in Industrial Sky, only in ten days’ time?”

For several seconds, the DTM said nothing. On screen, it merely flashed up the message: “factoring in new information, gradation and multiple scenarios in progress.” Around the text, the usual graphs and charts continued.

“Senator, I would advise that you stand back for best viewing,” the machine finally said, and as Tskeye turned, a line appeared, presumably marking the area he was supposed to be in.

He turned and found himself confronted with a familiar projection; the huge, sprawling tangle of vectors was back, the ghostly lines beyond the present swelling into immense density and then thinning out.

“So what’s going on?”

“There’s a riot going on. A storm brewing. A crash coming. I’ll push the ECSCON rating to 1 and the vote up to tomorrow; when the Senate sees this, the vote will probably not be questioned. Anything beyond that and I would have to draft reflex regulation.”

The Senator merely nodded, although the screen briefly flashed up, through the fog of the projection, the local Shango language’s version of a question mark, the word “what”, in counter-response; the machine quickly realised that this was the approach of being “understated” instead of reacting proportionately. A proportionate reaction might well have been difficult to convey, however. Reflex regulation – in which the DTM slapped down its own autocratic will, no questions asked – on the kind of scale being mooted here would have been unprecedented.

“Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. You are presumably constantly aware that reflex regulation can only be used for the obvious, the plugging of issues that would cause immediate flatlining-”

“Et cetera. Yes.” The projection folded back. “I am fully aware of my role, Tskeye. I know full well that I am an eye, little more. Which raises one thing, Senator, which I feel you could spearhead.”

“You can’t take this to the President?”

“What, walk over to his office?”

Tskeye winced. Being outsmarted by a machine, he could take easily. Being outwitted by one just felt more painful, somehow. He turned away from the screen, headed towards the wall, then turned and put his back up against it. He screwed his eyes shut in mock terror. “Shoot.”

“Externalities. Or as I should call them, cataracts.”

Tskeye made a rude gesture at the screen; the screen itself threw up the word “explain”, betraying its relative blindness to the externalities of Shango communication, too. The Senator disobeyed the imperative and dealt with the original request.

“Remind me again how you are supposed to handle qualitative data?”

The machine threw up an extensive diagram that covered the screen like a mosaic. Tskeye was sure he had seen such a diagram before, although a longer analysis confirmed that it had been updated. The Senator wondered briefly how much RAM this took away from the DTM’s actual job, although it probably found a way around such things. He remained silent for a long time, but the machine did not give way; it merely refreshed the image, and raised projections of loading bars and symbols. He shook his head. Caught between a pincer movement of too-smart-for-their-own-good bankers and too-smart-for-their-own-good machines, he started to think that he should have backed away from the whole issue.

“Fine, I’ll raise it,” he agreed at last, and headed towards the door. “Just don’t expect results.”

“Well, you are only human.”

“Well,” Tskeye said as he reached the doorway, “perhaps you’d like to walk over to President’s office, if you’re so above imperfection.”

The DTM said nothing.

6

The Senate debate the following morning was swift and relatively efficient; starting from an apparent parity of opposing views, those who supporting immediate action manage to whittle down those who urged caution with the DTM’s report. Tskeye knew that, 1/50 into proceedings, there were almost certainly enough votes to pass the measure, but it would take another 2/50 or so before a vote could come up. In the end, the debate got personal; certain Senators who took campaign contributions from Redreyen-Saarg were made to answer some difficult questions; those who opposed PESMA altogether had to be reminded that the system itself was not on the table for debate.

“Well I would like to remind the chamber that, if we refuse to debate the fundamentals of the system, those fundamentals will slide into an area of complacency-”

“What is your point in relation to the debate?” Rembarc asked.

“My point is, I will vote against this and any other measure until this urgent matter is seen to by the whole of the Senate.”

“So you will jeopardise the whole economy, and therefore put the livelihoods of millions at risk, purely to see your own personal agenda pushed through?”

“Not exactly…”

Such debates wilted as the time passed. Eventually, the moderating AI’s programming brought up a rough approximation of boredom.

“Is there any other business, are there any other objections? A vote will commence in 1/2500 otherwise.”

No-one did, and Tskeye entered his vote as soon as he could. He watched as the votes stacked up – a few against, no doubt the Redreyen-backed Senators holding out to the very end, but many, many more against; barely two-thirds of the vote had come in before an unblockable majority had arisen, and still the votes kept coming in. Tskeye smiled; the most unanimous vote he had ever seen, over ninety per cent in favour, and he had made it happen.

The final votes piled in, and “measure passed” appeared on the screen. Tskeye decided to leave right then; there were other issues, agricultural affairs, crime bills and the like, but he’d done enough. He headed home, pausing as he passed the Treasury, but deciding against going in.

7

“What the fuck did you think you were doing?”

Rewenn Seddep, Chief of Investments at Industrial Sky, barged into Henoan Fedraxul’s office and delivered this demand for motives. Fedraxul himself was unmoved.

“Yes, I know what you were thinking. I’ve killed sub-reserve trading. But it was all part of the plan,” he replied calmly, and with a crass sweeping motion shoved the contents of his desk inelegantly into a large flimsy box jammed up against it. Seddep sat down.

“What plan?”

“Well, for one, we managed to make Redreyen-Saarg sink three million into coming up with a plan that, thanks to me, ended up being blocked. But that was merely a side prank. The true genius does not lie within this office.”

Seddep nodded. Fedraxul was going to get the benefit of his doubt, at least until he saw what was on the other end of the teleport pad he was being gestured onto.

He wound up in a place that seemed familiar to him; not because he had been there before, but because it was in images he had seen so many times before. He was in a large room, somewhat akin to a large concrete warehouse, upended for height rather than internal space, with a huge screen covering one wall at the end of it.

“Just about everything behind the entrance lobby was demolished for this,” Fedraxul explained, “five hundred million of the investment was sunk into this. A perfect replication of the Dual-Track Market over at the Treasury. It’s programmed exactly the same, to the very last line, so the predictions are the same, because it has the exact same thoughts at any given moment.”

“This is insider trading, surely?”

The machine itself decided to field that objection. “Not if you could derive the code entirely by studying the behaviour of the device since its inception.”

Seddep broke into an incredulous smile. “It works. Or at least, I hope it does. And it’s all legal. Fedraxul, this is brilliant!”

“All told,” Fedraxul continued, “the sub-reserve ruse made some four hundred million profit. But we must be careful not to overuse this. A sudden increase in profits will look suspicious; we want to look like miracle-workers, not fraudsters, even if we are neither.”

The two men stood facing the machine, which had resumed rotating between various graphs and statistics. Seddep accepted that this worked – indeed, it more than worked. It was a genius plan, one that could make hundreds of billions of pounds, or Sigs, all the while dancing a mocking jig on the line of legality. But there had to be a catch, he thought. Someone had to find out, sooner or later. Maybe the government would shut it down, or maybe what they were doing was illegal and there had been an oversight. Maybe the AI’s thinking would deviate, and a flaw, or even a mere difference – the two were coterminous – would result in some kind of yaw away from accuracy, causing the whole damn scheme to collapse as the certainties turned out to be lies. Or perhaps the worst-case scenario would unfold, where Redreyen-Saarg would independently discover this ruse; those motherfuckers would run and run with such a thing. They’d make trillions, they’d obliterate the competition. They had to remain oblivious – that was a given.

In other words, the scheme was a piece of pure genius, but it was a fragile piece all the same.

“So that was the real plan, Seddep. This machine. We call it TOM.”

“Tom?”

“Triumph of the Market. Because whatever else happens, that lot down at the Senate will never be ahead of us. The market always wins.”

“It sure does, Fedraxul.”

Search

Date: 1,993,085 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 14,520 (Shango), N.A. 1458 (Qareen)
Location: Oxide system

1

The ship sped past various stars and planets, pausing to note that most of the systems they formed were uninhabited; nothing unusual about that, and there was little else of real interest among them either. None of the hundred-strong crew were going to hang around. They had almost unanimously voted for the ship to be named Seven Seminal Discoveries (92), and they meant it. The ship itself was new enough to have not even made one such discovery, let alone seven, but this crew was confident; as the daring pioneers of a race who were often almost resigned to their second-degree power in the galaxy, they wanted to show their more conservative peers that they were wrong, and that the Cosmic Charter Republic of Stoppan had plenty of prestige to claim. Their time would come, and people like this ship’s crew were convinced that they could make it come sooner.

They had become even more convinced once their journey had taken them outside of the reaches of Stoppan space, several hundred parsecs past Res 116, the last Stoppan-inhabited planet in the direction they were heading in, and the long-range sensors had picked up, beyond the relatively bare region of space, one particularly bright, star-forming region of space, where interstellar gas grew in density and supernovae flung heavier elements into the mix. There was more than mere astronomical curios, however; close analysis, one that involved pushing the sensors to the limit and then teasing out the data, zooming in on specific areas until they underwent the mathematical equivalent of pixellation, revealed that there were odd spikes and jumps in the density that were either unnatural, or an entirely new discovery altogether.

The Shango’s database, which they had syndicated with the Stoppan even since first contact with the Dharans, suggested that they knew nothing about these strange spikes, but then the database was not necessarily a complete one as they received it. Even so, the captain, Zshann of Manres 2, felt that slight tingle of hope as he moved about the bridge. Hope that, eventually, they would find out something that the Shango did not, something genuinely important, rather than the small discoveries of uninhabited star systems that the Federation could not be made to give a damn about.

Zshann had occasionally wondered if this attitude, especially across hundreds of worlds, was exactly healthy, but then again, it was no doubt just competitiveness, the desire of a relatively young, upstart nation.

Still the Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) plunged on, and the captain looked to the main screen at the front, purporting to show some kind of view ahead, as if travelling faster than light could still show a perfectly clear view anyway, and as if having a window on the ship would in any way prove practical. The screen did at least tell the captain, however, that he was less than one Earth day away from reaching the anomalies. And this time, he thought, a sliver of ignorance from the Federation just might out…

2

The Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) was six short of its eponymous promise one Earth day later, when it came across the anomalies. Of course, this was only in one sense; as Zshann suspected, it transpired that the Shango almost certainly knew about this place.

The place itself was around one-tenth of a parsec from a star that the Shango had apparently not named, the database merely granting it an automatic register number. The light from the screen’s “true view” only gave hints and outlines, but the lightened holographic display, with the lights on the bridge dimmed for contrast and the light of the image boosted, revealed the true horror of what they saw; an immense cloud of floating debris. Through the rain of metal, gradually floating in all directions, there slowly emerged vast, charred hulks of recognisable metal, long, aesthetically brutal, box-like hulls mixed with similarly twisted, broken and charred discs.

“Captain?” a minor bridge officer prompted as a holographic wreck headed towards his head.

“A battle. A battle we were never told about,” the captain said.

“Impossible,” replied Piret of Res 19, his second-in-command, moving through a mass of shards in his area, “we had an alliance with the Shango. One of necessity, for sure, but they trusted us. We were updated on everything.”

“Perhaps not this,” the captain said, “and besides, sometimes you can’t trust a member of your own species. Why think that you can always trust another?”

Piret was stumped, and he remained silent. All the captain and most of the bridge crew could do was look at the mass of debris and wonder why they had not been entrusted with what they were seeing.

The pilot, Keyisij of Res 56, had the task of trying to pull the ship through the mess. There were shields, sure, but they were not for situations like this. There was route plotters on the computer screens, too, but they had their limits.

Along with him, three others over the captain’s left shoulder worked quickly to filter and examine the data bursting in from the sensors, but they were perhaps the one real contrast on the bridge to the otherwise universal numb confusion.

Zshann thought as he scanned over the scene, down one avenue of logic, which transpired to be a cul-de-sac, turning back, and repeating the process. A Shango ship, spinning in a strange, widthwise manner, distracted him, but also churned up an idea.

“Can we get any magnification on a Shango ship? Preferably an intact one,” he requested as he stood up and shoved his head through the simulacra of an ideal example and a shower of pieces bouncing off it.

Someone at holographics set to work on it.

“Good plan, captain,” Piret agreed, “although, are you expecting to send a team out?”

“Maybe.”

“They wouldn’t like that back at Res 33,” he said much more quietly.

“They wouldn’t like this back at Res 33,” the captain retorted, “it’s good of you to quote protocol, Piret. I mean that. But we’ve got a political situation here. The truth has to out.”

3

It took several minutes to transmit the data completely from the ship, and it would take quite possibly days, perhaps in Earth terms weeks, in order for it to reach Res 33 and the relevant high offices there. Still, it was all Zshann could do, as well as signal an omnidirectional broadcast at Shango frequencies.

“Either explain,” he had told them, “or we’ll find an explanation.”

Of course, if that was in any way a truthful offer, then it was an invitation for them to lie, so the captain made an each-way bet and sent out a team to find out the unvarnished truth on a relatively intact ship. They found one, albeit one that had no life support systems and most likely, they surmised, no Grab systems at all.

As it transpired, the three-person team that had found their way onto the ship – which was intact enough to be identified as the SFS Surgical Strike – found that the Grab systems fluctuating wildly instead; in one corner of a room, normal, Shango, lighter-than-Stoppan-average artificial gravity ensued; in another, it could be jittery, its hold on the person’s body tenuous, and in another, it could be non-existent, and so the person stood there would float in zero gravity, until they arced downwards into a Grab-affected area again.

After some time of this, they reached the bridge, and from there, they reckoned that the central systems, if they were still there, would yield exactly what happened, at least in part. There was no reason to suggest that they wouldn’t, in the team’s eyes – the ship had taken a few hull breaches, after a complete externally induced shield failure, and the crew no doubt suffered the fate of exposure whilst the ship merely drifted through the carnage, for years bumping into other ships that came off worse in such collisions.

They reached the bridge, the three of them, and spotted the collapsed roof centre. From there they could see into the space beyond, although a dull glint from one piece of debris as it span past, most likely kilometres away, was all they could really see. Holographics had explained what was going on outside so much better than mere sight.

Around the banks, computers lay dormant. Strapping the large crate they had to the floor – the bridge seemed to have no Grab at all – they held onto railings and attempted to figure out the layout of the ship.

“Let’s hope there’s reserve power,” Likea of Banres began. She pointed to the Tracklayer’s booth. “That might be most useful for data. Possibly also First Pivot.”

The other two, Fetric of Res 202 and Miye of Res 97, began to move in those two directions. Likea bumped along to where she hoped some sort of power switch could be found; she found a switch, flicked it in hope, and the bridge lighting flickered into life, although it continued to flicker afterwards.

“No power in the booth,” Fetric explained.

Likea tried another switch.

“First Pivot power,” Miye said.

She tried another next to it.

“Booth online,” Fetric said, and he strapped himself, cumbersome suit and all, into the chair.

4

Zshann,

I am writing to you with the need to press several understandings into the minds of you and your crew. The first of these understandings is that what you have stumbled upon is quite literally secret and restricted information that, across the Shango Federation, is privy to just three individuals at any one time, myself included. It is for these reasons that I have been reluctant to reply to your message, but given that you have no doubt relayed data to Res 33, I will nonetheless give all the details I deem necessary.

What you have come across is the site, broadly speaking, of the Battle of the Oxide System, so named for the oxygen deposits emanating from the nearby star. The battle took place in W.Y. 433, towards the end of the Fifth Intersection War. At the time, Qareen forces had moved deep into our galaxy, and were threatening not only to take the Intersection Zone but a substantial part of what was undeniably our galaxy. The Oxide System was the furthest the Qareen got, as we committed high numbers of ships towards defending it; however, as we did so, similarly high numbers of ships arrived to attack. The fighting was intense, the situation grew desperate and shots were fired at incredibly close quarters, sometimes a mere few kilometres – hence the reason, as you can see, why the debris is still only spread across half a parsec in all directions after thousands of years.

The end result was effectively a draw, a result not good enough for the Qareen, who withdrew from the area and were subsequently pushed back to the Intersection Zone. However, the sheer size of losses on the Federation side were unacceptably high by any military standard – over 5,000 Shango ships were destroyed, and one went missing, never to return – and in the midst of a war effort, to announce the result, even if it was effective victory, would have been highly destructive in terms of propaganda; knowing that the Qareen could come so close to claiming both galaxies would have ruined the Federation. And so, for security reasons, we have suppressed this knowledge ever since.

We imagine at this point that your entire people are now privy to this state secret. We have passed on a form of this message to Res 33. The Federation will come down hard on anyone who disseminates this information in the CCR. We hope you understand and heed this message.

The Office of the President of the Shango Federation.

“Piret, what do you notice about this message?”

The second-in-command studied the text carefully.

“There’s a ship out there and the Shango can’t find it.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

5

On the second through fourth decks of the Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) was a series of large laboratories, and the second one of these was devoted to informational analysis. In a table at the centre of the lab was a small gold cube, and from its contact through the table, computers throughout the lab were able to pick up raw data, and holographic projectors were able to transmit an extrapolation of what the data meant.

“The information is very much incomplete,” one of the lab staff admitted, “the fact that some ships being fired at are damaged by other ships, that they fly in from certain angles – this gives us clues, but we’ll never have the full picture from this one ship.”

Zshann was still prepared to admit that the view ahead of him, which had been playing in real-time, was an impressive one nonetheless. The Surgical Strike had managed to get far enough into the action to come into contact with hundreds of ships, and it was clear to Zshann, who had previously undertaken a brief military career beforehand, that the battle had been strategically disastrous for both sides.

Both sides had, so far as he could tell, undertaken a strategy that almost perfectly anticipated what the other side would do, and the result was a deadlock that forced each side into desperation. With half an hour, he could see signs of tactics being thrown aside utterly, swept under a cosmic carpet as ships simply charged into the fray and opened fire. After a couple of hours, the original plans had fallen apart utterly, and the Surgical Strike and others were simply rushing around at random, firing at anything that was the enemy – he watched in particular as the Strike fired repeatedly at a ship that was already clearly critically damaged, flying as it was on an awkward, linear path and firing at no-one, debris trailing from it as it tumbled through the battle space.

“Well, the President’s story checks out,” the captain said to no-one in particular.

“It’s the folly of war with none of the bravery, virtue or wit,” one of the lab staff said.

The captain couldn’t argue much with that. He continued to watch as the Surgical Strike threaded itself upwards through a ridiculously close bunch of ships, levelled out and then looped round in a sort of half-hearted spiral, apropos of nothing, all the while managing to take out one ship when it should have clocked up at least three. Pure tragedy on so many levels.

6

“Captain, we’ve found that missing ship.”

Zshann could barely believe he was hearing those words, but he heard them, and as he reached the bridge, and witnessed the holographic image himself, he could hardly believe the sight of it, either. There in the centre, a dark, sinister presence, completely black and spherical, simulated jets of radiation streaming out of opposite ends, and an accretion disc in slow orbit around the middle. In among the gathered gas, dust and other assorted pieces was indeed the ship they had been seeking.

The captain moved into the hologram, wading out into the accretion disc and looking at the ship, small in comparison with the event horizon it was so close to, On the side on the artificially brightened ship he could see that it was the SFS Elimination Sought and Achieved.

“The time dilation must be… immense,” he said to no-one.

“They probably still think the war is on, unless they’re aware of it,” Piret agreed.

“Thousands of years and they all flash past like that.”

The captain continued to gaze at the ship and its apparently motionless appearance.

“It’s barely moving,” he observed, “they might well have fallen in already.”

“Routing the ansibles through the sensors suggests otherwise,” Miye said, and she pulled up a screen that demonstrated why. “There’s ample evidence to suggest that the ship is in very close but very fast orbit around the event horizon. Probably mere kilometres away at most and less than a tiny fraction of a per cent below lightspeed velocity. There’s no doubt intense levels of time dilation of both kinds.”

“Fair enough,” the captain said. He wasn’t prepared to argue with better-informed experts, even if he knew something of what he was talking about. “So they can’t get out?”

“Presumably the superlight drive is damaged,” Miye suggested, “or the time dilation is so intense that it’s been mere seconds on there. But I doubt it.”
The captain was still looking at the projection all the while, and noticing that the ship still hadn’t moved, so far as he could see. It moved like a tectonic plate over a planet’s surface; so imperceptibly that he doubted he would even know if it had made significant progress a year later.

“Shouldn’t the accretion disc provide drag? Are you sure they’re not slowly falling in anyway?”

“I can’t see any evidence that such a scenario would happen. The sublight engine would have systems to compensate.”

Of course they would, the captain thought. No Stoppan ship would have such systems, because of the complexity of the calculations, but the Shango would. Even when trapped they showed an edge over his people.

“And there’s no way they could get out? On their own?”

Miye hesitated. “Well…”

“Anything. I’m all ears.”

“It is possible that the black hole will die before they do. But at that point, the Shango, us, the galaxy might have collapsed into subatomic particles. There’d be nothing waiting for them.”

“What can we do?”

Miye seemed uncertain, and the rest of the bridge crew frowned at their screens. Finally, one of them volunteered a solution.

“We could donate our own power to push them into escape velocity. But it would take a lot of power, and we’d have to get it back, probably through stellar capture, which would mean a much longer route home.”

The captain nodded and slowly considered this.

“Fuck it. Gather data, and let’s head back.”

Gathering Apart

Date: 1,994,355 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 18,548 (Shango), N.A. 1863 (Qareen)
Location: planet Trevi, Darkworlds Heath and Franklin

1

“But why here?”

The man who was stood sighed in undisguised aggravation.

“Two reasons, Getriq. One, to show that no-one is safe, which is the key message to send out when fighting a war of resistance. The second is that this is, very relatively speaking, a low-population area. There should be minimal loss of life. Which some of you, for some reason, care about deeply. As if shaving off a few million will make the difference.”

He leaned forward to the table and jabbed the right button for his purpose, which yanked up a holographic projection of the location being talked about. An orb appeared, rotating slowly, revealing its surface to every user: a curiously ordered one, in which a labyrinth of too-straight mountain ranges presented a patchwork pattern of alternating deserts and jungles or, at the poles, tundra and icy wastelands.

“Darkworld Heath,” the man standing explained, “6,000km radius, natural gravity fairly low. 57 Spaces and 115 surfaces. 766 billion inhabitants.”

“I still say this is a bad plan,” the man next to Getriq stated. “It is guaranteed to cause loss of life, which will-”

“It will cause an impact.”

“The wrong impact.”

“You’re too compassionate.”

“It’s not compassion, it’s a matter of damn strategy and you should get your fucking house in order!”

Out of the five people gathered in the room – four nominally sat on chairs, backs facing each corner, and the one meant to be a leader stood in the centre at the desk – four tensed at the crescendo of rage from the fifth. He had stood to confront the leader, looking eye to eye. For a long time, no-one spoke.

“Well you can count me out.”

“Out of the movement, or out of the cell?” one of the seated men asked.

“Out of the cell. I’ll go where the movement has brains.”

He slammed the door behind him.

“We carry on,” the leader insisted. “OK. Darkworld Heath has the same kind of security as any other in its infrastructure department.”

The holographic image shifted into a cutaway diagram. A central sphere acquired a highlighting glow.

“The infrastructure department hides its information initially via fractal encryption. Once that is broken, there is then a physical encryption in which the data is part of the simulation.”

“How does that work?”

“Well, we would typically enter a virtual simulation of the whole of Darkworld Heath, and then we would have to search for the data, which might be encrypted as a grain of sand on a beach on one of the surfaces.”

“Shit. Sounds complicated.”

“It is, if you don’t know which grain of sand to look for. Which is why, people, we must know. And once we do know, that is it for Darkworld Heath: the Grab Management Systems will be switched off, we will be out in the time we give ourselves, and then natural gravity will do its work.”

The hologram animated, and slowly, the sphere began to collapse in on itself, crushing itself into a small, rocky sphere as debris shot out into space.
Outside the window, a small but bright dot appeared in the sky, and quickly shifted across it. The leader peered out and looked closely.

“It’s time. The details I can explain along the way.”

2

Inside Central Government, the faux-street layout that attempted to disguise, as much as possible, the obvious fact that the whole giant sphere was simply a maze of offices and corridors. Yet roads and staircases and, if inside one of the “buildings”, lifts and telporters, managed to lead in almost all directions, making access far less complicated than the jagged and jaunty street layout would have implied.

Yet all roads led decidedly away from one place, which was buried, door-less and window-less, between six other buildings on each side. There were no logos for the department, and no clear evidence of who the people in the building worked for.

In an area marked Section J, a tall, suited man charged through the openly corridor-like corridors, arriving at a room dominated by one huge circular desk around which large, radial spines filled with panes of glass displaying animated graphics. There, he made his way through the office to a large alcove at the head of it, passed through the Membrane that invisibly covered the alcove and blocked out sound and unwanted visitors, and placed several sheets of paper on the desk. The woman behind it wordlessly picked them up and began reading.

“Dead drop on Space 31,” he explained, “we might have hours at most, it depends on how they’re organised.”

“Source?”

“One of our assets on Trevi. We can’t vouch for the accuracy of the names, they might be pseudonyms. Certainly the database we have hasn’t turned up anything yet.”

“Yet?”

The man nodded. “We might need the whole Federal register. It’s possible that the cell has been recruited from other planets. Possibly Darkworlds.”

The woman looked puzzled, and re-examined the first page. “Zafz, why would the ADG recruit from the very things they’re protesting against?”

“I know. I suspect it’s all part of the ploy to cover themselves. Thing is, Tyos, I suspect the hypocrisy will not bother them if it contributes to the cause.”

Tyos sighed and slapped the document down onto the desk. “OK, the plan is thus.”

She reached for a graphic on the glass panel in front of her, and almost imperceptibly, the Membrane dissolved. Another graphic tap alerted the whole office; another displayed the case so far, as receptors in the paper beamed it onto a holographic projection.

“First of all, we call for Federal help,” she announced, “they might not arrive or reply in time, but it’s worth doing. Second, we track down those names, however long it takes. Thirdly, we need a plan on defending the encryption. If we can get any upgrade at all, let’s do it.”

“Full section meeting?” Zafz asked.

“Full agency meeting, if Kejaj allows. This one’s slipped through the net and it’ll take us all out.”

At this point, someone came running round the desk, weaving past the spines.

“I’ve got all the details beamed to Franklin,” he announced, “but it will take around 71/100 to get there.”

Tyos had risen from the desk, and she grabbed the document as she began to move across the room.

“Fucking hell, we might as well have dispatched a spaceship. Thanks anyway.”

3

“Got a message from Darkworld Heath, and the LCTA there. They say there may be another incident, category zero, but they suspect the ADG this time.”

Panz Hertriss leaned back on his chair at the news. “Darkworld Heath?” he asked. “Did they state a timeframe.”

“They said a minimum of hours, but no upper limit.”

“You see, Itris, if I remember rightly – actually, I’m not sure if I do.”

He leaned over to the glass panel, worked the graphics on the screen, and a huge, holographic image of the two galaxies  appeared. Two shining purple lights indicated Darkworlds Heath and Franklin.

“If I and my convenient computerised calculations are correct, then it’ll take two-thirds of a day to send a message back. We may have to consider the possibility that the incident has been averted or that it has passed.” He checked the screen again. “766 billion citizens. I would’ve thought even the ADG would have its limits. Apparently not.”

Itris could only nod at this. He was already nervous at having to bring such news, and being relatively new to the job, this was more than he needed to be dealing with.

“Itris, don’t worry about it. I understand you have a smaller case to be dealing with.”

“Sure thing, Panz.”

With that, he left. Panz re-examined the document. He would suggest a number of things; deploying a military force, simply sending over advice. The problem, of course, was that window of uncertainty; he had no idea if the event had already happened or not. The Heath LCTA wouldn’t be able to deliver such news until the day afterwards, at best.

Think, he thought to himself. Think think think.

He tapped the glass screen one more time.

“Go ahead, Panz.”

“Mr. President, we might need your decision on something.”

4

The central office of the President was humming with activity. In the room, a long rectangular one of around three metres wide and twelve metres long, advisors examined screens and passed reports. At one end of the office, a third of the floor was raised by a short staircase, and the table at the top was surrounded by Utren Allix the Shango Chief of Armed Forces; Dekrip Iyet, the Head of the Shango Federal Covert Defence Agency, or FCDA; and most critically of all, the most powerful man across eleven million or so worlds, the President of the Shango Federation.

“Mr. President, a contingency plan might be a waste of time. If the whole Darkworld is going under-”

“Utren, in a situation like this, we are operating under an extremely tight window.”

The President looked around suddenly.

“Is the Membrane switched on?” he asked.

Dekrip nodded. “Right up to visual on all six sides.”

Indeed, the staffers that the three men could see mere metres from them would only see a black haze if they were to look back.

“The fact is,” the President continued, “there are over seven hundred billion people who might be affected by this incident. This incident may or may not have already happened either some time ago, or very recently. It might be imminent. We might just be able to intervene at the right time. But until we do, we have no idea how we can. We’re in a strange scenario here on Franklin, where the action we take won’t be useful unless we know the outcome of the action we take.”

He paused briefly, during that time wondering why he couldn’t switch off from autocue mode.

“And that is why we assume all eventualities, including the possibility that Darkworld Heath is gone.”

The President tapped a screen behind him, and the tabletop shifted into a screen. On it, Darkworld Heath’s image appeared, its synthetic outer patchwork of jungles, mountains and deserts surrounded by various blocks of text and graded colour patterns.

“It may take time to implement them all,” Utren countered.

“Good point,” Dekrip added, “we’ll have to prioritise.”

2/97 later, they had agreed a plan.

5

“It’s out of our hands, now.”
“I suspect it always was, Itris. The case?”
“Averted. Although it was unusual.”
“Go on.”
“Stoppan spies on Franklin, Panz. A rare occurrence, unless I’m mistaken.”
“You are not. We do seem to be entering a troubled and troubling phase around now. Here we are in – what year is it? P.W. 18,548, and still these same issues crop up. Intensify, even. It is worrying, looking to the long term.”

6

The LCTA’s Planning Room was packed but relatively quiet; around the table, with some of them sat at it, were a sizeable proportion of the agency’s workers. At one end of the table, a holographic projection of the whole of Darkworld Heath hung in mid-air. At the other end, Darkworld Franklin hovered, and in the middle, a series of lines and arrows stretched across virtual kiloparsecs, labelled with various graded time estimates.

“The ship from Trevi has doubtless landed,” Zafz announced near the Heath end of the table, “but we still have potentially as much as another 1/39 until they’re working at the system from the optimum place. From there, we reckon the Grab management systems would be reached anywhere between 1/39 and 4/39, depending on their capabilities, and from there, the whole Darkworld is under immediate threat.”

“How long,” Tyos asked, “do we need for a full evacuation?”

“I have contacted every Darkworld and every newsband possible,” Koitra, a woman at the Franklin end, said, “we won’t achieve a full evacuation barring Dharan intervention.”

A buzz erupted around the table. “You can’t consider it, Tyos,” one voice managed to say, cutting through the mass of other voices.

“I can and I will,” Tyos said calmly once quiet had been achieved, which did not take long. “I won’t let billions die because of mere principle. We will beg to the Dharans if need be. It’s rare that I pull rank, people, but on this I will. Contact the Dharans.”

“Moving on,” she added after the pause.

Zafz moved his hands across the table, and the holographics shifted to a three-dimensional sprawl of Darkworlds, all differing slightly, branching out into fractal patterns that disappeared, presumably, through the walls.

“This is the system at present, for those who don’t usually go about tinkering with the Grab” Zafz explained. “As you can see, Darkworld Taal is the default encoding simulation for our Grab management. They have to guess this. If they fail, they will have to search across six Darkworlds for the data, and should they fail there, thirty-six. If they fail at eight guesses, they will be searching across the whole galaxy.”

“What are the odds that they fail?” Koitra asked.

“Ordinarily, the odds of making the guess on the first level are a million to one, and on the second level, one point four times ten to the power of thirty-three to one. That’s the beauty of the system; it’s almost impossibly hard to make the first guess, and after that, you truly have to know. After eight failed guesses, you get to search the whole galaxy’s Darkworlds, and you’re looking across them for ten grains of sand, or ten bits of grit, or ten particles of mixed composition. Even across one Darkworld, it’s immensely difficult, and not even we are privy to the information. But I suspect they would not attempt this if they did not have a way around it.”

“What do you suggest?”

“It’s tough to call. We could wait until they make the first guess, and then follow them in.”

“We don’t know their physical location.”

Tyos waved that away. There were tracker bots, after all; if they could be apprehended in virtual space, they would have all the time they needed.

7

Perceld felt ridiculous, and he wasn’t wrong to do so; the headgear he wore was heavy, cumbersome and large enough to make him look like a possible Qareen underneath. Even so, he would have been prepared to wear it if he hadn’t felt that the project was becoming ever more futile.

The headgear, of course, was important due to the lack of information the team had. They had been given an anonymous tip on the fractal system, which would otherwise have turned into a nightmare scenario of impossibly long odds. It was a risk to rely on such a tip, but it had worked, and all ten of the team recruited – two separate cells – had found themselves on Darkworld Taal, or a virtual version of it, scouring the place visually in an agonisingly long analysis. The headgear, naturally, was the only thing that stopped this from lasting billions of years too; its scanner swept over everything it was pointed at, analysing everything with a (fake) self-contained molecular structure, every small component, and tossing it aside as a negative within picoseconds.

Where he stood, the headgear was especially useful, as millions of items – blades of grass across a vast field – were practically identical in their coding.

He had walked for what had felt like miles across the Protest Fields when he stopped, not because of anything he saw or heard, but what he realised.

He hadn’t heard anything from the team in quite some time now. Not a single word. The comms had been full of chatter initially, people reporting nothing for at least 1/39, but another 1/39 on, only three of the pieces had been found, and the chatter was beginning to thin; to the point where each member of the team was able to use most, if not all, six voices that expanded the Shango language to its full potential, rather than the thin, Qareen-like single voice, unable to carry as much context and detail.

It was another 1/39 on from that scenario when he had stopped and realised that the voices in his ears had diminished to far below six, and right down to zero. Had these others left? Was he being framed? Or were the authorities onto them already?

He got his answer shortly; the lighting above suddenly shifted westwards, and in a matter of moments, he found himself looking at a sunset that was not due for another 4/39, at least. The shadows around the place had lengthened considerably, and the buildings in the distance were shrouded in twilight.
It was getting cold, he realised, and he swore he could see movement. He carried on, through the maze of tents he had reached, but felt that something really wasn’t right.

“Unit 1?” he asked into the comms. One voice, no elaboration. No reply.

“Unit 4? Unit 8? Unit 3?”

No replies from them, either. He would have reached for a weapon, but he had none. The plan had looked flawed before, he know, but it had looked about as sound as it could be made to be; now all its horrifying issues seemed to be laid bare. He knew what was going on, now – the darkness was closing in, literally and metaphorically. Yet it had now, surely, been around 1/780 at least. What were they taking their time over?

“Where are you?” he whispered to no-one in particular.

He carried on, through the maze of tents, and in his peripheral vision spotted a flicker. They were to his right; he turned left, but subtly, hoping he could make it look like a voluntary, free deviation. If he could reach the other side of the tents, he thought, then he could probably find a unit in order to-

He suddenly felt a gun jab into his helmet and an arm seizing him at the neck.

“Good effort. But better luck next time.”

So The Gods Must Be X

Date: 1,989,107 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 1909 (Shango), N.A. 192 (Qareen)
Location: Darkworld Jeremiah, Dei system

1

He woke up and looked at the grey stone ceiling. This morning, like any other, he blindly slapped an arm down onto the bedside table, and then remember that the UID would be no help here; it was just a ceiling. The peeling and faded metal door in his peripheral vision was just a door, and the desk to the right was just a desk. The only thing that wasn’t what it claimed to be was an apparent alcove in the wall above the desk, which was a universal assembler. That said, it was the size and approximately shape – albeit more rigidly angular and cuboid – of what a citizen of Earth’s Western society would recognise as an ATM, so Goiqa Federoi would have needed to think creatively in order to conjure up something resembling the screen that the ceiling and walls, in almost any other part of the Federation, would convert to.

This did not happen on Darkworld Jeremiah, and he was starting to regret it. He got up – he didn’t need to for another 11/100, but as he washed, got dressed and ate, he felt good about having the extra 7/100 – and decided to make his way out of his room and away from the complex.

It had been three months since he had decided to join the priesthood, and having decided that he was going to do so at the very top, in the most important place of all, it had been two months since he had arrived at Darkworld Jeremiah. His family had hardly objected strongly, but they had advised against it. It was perhaps no wonder; piety had especially not been considered a virtue in the Federation in the previous years, with numerous incidences of religiously-inspired violence hinting at a troubling tendency within it.

Goiqa would have been the first to admit that his conversion three years ago had initially prompted an arrogance, a superiority, perhaps even something with the potential of hubris. The revelation had been an overwhelming one, one that seemingly had to be spread, but in three years he had travelled a long way, and those initial binary thoughts about errant Shango and godless heathen Qareen and the Need to Spread the Word had blurred significantly. Initially he had wondered if such blurring was a more sophisticated outlook, but the longer he stayed here, the more he suspected a crisis of faith, a stretch of doubt or even just a feeling that he was in too deep.

Darkworld Jeremiah was a strangely homogenised place for a Darkworld. Residential Darkworlds usually broke up their vast smears of cityscapes with jungles, forests, woods, mountain ranges, plains, prairies, steppes and rivers, and sometimes the distinction between artificial and natural was blurred, in urban jungles that befitted the name, cities that bore the tabular, blunt beauty of icebergs as they floated across undersurface seas, and mountain ranges that rose up in surreal, ordered columns like cities built by ghostly alien predecessors. Military Darkworlds had their masses of barracks, for sure, but also their mock-up cities and their range of environments, and whilst they rarely employed the same kind of artistic intent as their civilian counterparts, they made up for it in diversity; deserts, cities, jungles and even tundra were present time and time again in finely graded varieties, the Darkworlds as a whole acting like the geological equivalents of paint colour charts.

He had come from Darkworld Gauss, a place that could implant all manner of inspiration in the mind of someone sufficiently alive and world-embracing. Darkworld Jeremiah, however, had the austerity of a church. Which was fair enough, because it was, but even as he left the village complex, he could not see anything much beyond the same regular paved surface, needless columns that reached down to the Vexers below, and the odd, heavily sculpted garden. It all bothered him, he thought; it did not glory the gods, and passing away the 7/100 walking around the village did not change his thoughts.

2

Goiqa found himself where he was meant to be, at the Academy Section Point nearest the village. Its appearance, a mass of nonlinear form combined with more traditional (to Earth eyes) features comparable, broadly, to flying butresses and gothic arches, was a familiar one on Jeremiah. Inside, through a labyrinth of corridors and chambers, he found Space D-101, where the Holiness of the Lower Third (or H.L.T.) Abrax Pretere waited for his students to arrive. Despite everything, he was the first.

“Goiqa. Always eager, it seems.”

“Indeed, sir. Although I also happen to rise early.”

The H.L.T. nodded from across the table. “Although we don’t exactly punish opulence among our students. We know what lives they’ve come from, and I’ve have thought that 42/85 would be a perfectly reasonable-”

He stopped as three other students came through the door, making his class just two short. Another followed shortly afterwards, muttering a hasty, half-sincere apology as he did so.

“One late,” Pretere persisted.

“Krastep, sir, he says he’s ill.”

“I will grant him the benefit of the doubt, as I suspect I have too many times before. Then again, what is faith, beyond granting the benefit of the doubt to the feelings we have, those feelings that we cannot brush aside? But I imagine this is another debate. What we ask today is not the definition of our faith, but the epistemology of it. What can we know about that which is beyond mere science? Where is the line between knowledge and faith? And what about that which lies in between?”

Goiqa wondered if it was things like that which caused him to doubt. There was too much of an attempt to reason that which he had assumed was beyond reason; how could religion wind up in hard calculus? It unsettled him. He assumed that this, the priesthood on Darkworld Jeremiah, would be primarily about guiding those on pilgrimage, given that the place was, so transgalactic sources alleged, the largest holy site for a hundred million light years in all directions.

3

At 76/100 the interior lightband on Space 33 began its fadeout, slowly sapping the area of its grey and beige duochrome and bathing it instead in a weak orange-and-shadow two-tone. Goiqa found himself some two Earth miles away, across the surface of the sphere at any rate; in truth, he also found himself some ten miles high, too, close to the summit of one of the highest towers in the Space. Isiah Tower was an unusual indulgence for Darkworld Jeremiah, although this simply meant there were hundreds instead of thousands of such projects. From the balcony railing, though, he could see all manner of things; the lights flickering on above and below; the small clouds that occasionally drifted past; the columns that connected Cavers and Vexers in the most superficial way, and – he could just about see this in the dimming light – the way they flexed, bulged and thinned in the middle, ripples of stone mass acting like water and shifted in fickle rotating alleigance to the various, weak and tangential Grab forces on either surface in the absence of any truly effective gravity, adding a touch of surrealism to the solemnity of Jeremiah’s architecture.

He watched for some time, idly wondering how he was going to get back on foot in the darkness, but couldn’t bring himself to feel urgency amidst the stillness. Eventually he had this and many other issues answered.

“Goiqa. Goiqa Federoi.”

He turned around and spotted Ipnar Sewt, a man who he had only met on a few occasions. He, during those times, had only had to remember one name; how Ipnar had managed to recall his among hundreds, he could not work out.

“Yes. How-”

“You should probably be leaving. Don’t worry. We’ve all been in these situations. We find ourselves in an equilibrium with our surroundings, and we just can’t break free, however temporary we know it to be. It becomes the softest obsession.”

Goiqa nodded and tried to lean slightly more softly on the railing, if only in a bid to make the most symbolic move of getting away.

“Like I said, don’t worry. I could beam you back in an instant.”

“There are teleports in this tower?”

“Thousands. You didn’t know?”

In retrospect, it should have been obvious.

“You seem bothered, Goiqa. I would say troubled, but that might be
overreaching. It doesn’t elude my essential point, though – something is wrong, isn’t it?”

Goiqa thought it through. His problem, really, wasn’t one of a straightforward, mundane issue.

“Ipnar, is it just me, or is there something off-key about the Church today?”

“I suppose, Goiqa, that depends on what you want from it.”

“I’ve tried as an apprentice. Tried my hardest. The problem I have, though, is all this endless philosophy, methodology, all this rigid study. Shouldn’t faith transcend reason? Shouldn’t it be… well, maybe this is simplistic, but shouldn’t it be the primacy of feeling over thought, or feeling beyond thought?”

Ipnar gave the smile of a man who knew the exact answer.

“I guess you’ve forgotten the history of the Church. It seems incredible, when you look around you at all of this, an entire artificial planet designated to our cause, but it’s true nonetheless, that for a long time, our Church has been in decline. A long, slow decline too. Millions, possibly billions intone their last prayer every year. In a galaxy of trillions this is not an immense problem, but if ignored, this place becomes not a church, but a museum.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“I’m not suggesting anything.”

Goiqa realised that it was getting dark, now; a breeze picked up, and the last of the sunset could barely show the horizon.

“But I am stating,” Ipnar continued, “that the establishment here want to, I paraphrase, modernise. Demonstrate their relevance. Move with the times. The unchanging faith is not always all that unchanging. When public opinion, on hundreds of tiny issues, starts to shift, the effects are seismic. And so the Church shifts to justify its presence.”

Goiqa frowned. “So what you’re saying is, it’s all a lie.”

“Well, that’s highly reductive.”

He supposed so.

“What I’m saying is, you don’t have to turn your back on it. There’s always an alternative. Reconsider, not the destination, but the path to it.”

It was now completely dark on the balcony, barring a small spotlight whose edge of influence just touched the railings.

“You see, the Church doesn’t approve, for example, of us in the Plasma Community. We’re not heretics to them, but… something about us doesn’t sit right with them. But aren’t we disrespecting the gods if we blithely – indeed, blindly – accept assumptions about their nature, about their whims and requirements, from a group of demonstrably flawed mortal beings?

“I won’t pressure you, Goiqa. It is always your choice, but the important thing is that you have a choice. You can leave, become a lay follower. You can push yourself to the fringes, become a missionary. You can weave in and out of official doctrine and dogma, become part of the Plasma Community. It’s all there for you.”

Ipnar began to back away, off the balcony and into the room inside.

“The only thing you must do,” he called from the shadows, “is beam yourself back.” He flicked a light on. “Over here.”

With that, Goiqa did so, and having stepped into the unit, he found with a brief flash of light that he was back in his sparse room, ten miles down and two miles away.

4

“Ipnar. I imagine you would have nothing to do with Federoi’s disappearance?”

“Disappearance?”

“Yes. He has not been seen by anyone at the complex for the last five days.”

“Well, that is somewhat odd. I would have hoped that he would have informed his superiors and gone through the proper procedure before vanishing. Do you suspect a more tragic occurrence?”

“On Jeremiah? People come here to be buried, Ipnar, but they don’t die here.”

“True enough.”

“He was a gifted student, the likes of whom we can’t afford to lose.”

“Correction – you can’t afford to lose. The likes of me will survive just fine.”

Train

Year: 1,988,405 A.D. (Gregorian), W.Y. 127 (Shango), C.E. 13 (Qareen)
Location: nr. Darkworld Franklin

1

The walk to the captain’s office had been one of twisting corridors and low ceilings, of narrow passages surrounded by displays and components, and of glimpses into small rooms where the floorspace could maybe accomodate two standing to work at a machine. After what felt like a kilometre of this, she had finally arrived at the office, which was seemingly the only room on the ship that was of sensible dimensions for a Shango. The captain, naturally, was a large-built and tall man in order to compensate for this.

“Welcome aboard the Shango Federation Ship Total Wipeout,” he said, “Captain Ilrap. You are…”

He said this whilst remaining sat. He invited her, in turn, to sit.

“Kolliq, Kolliq Derro. I’m applying for the-”

“Tracklayer role. Yes indeed. Been a difficult role to fill.”

The Total Wipeout, it transpired, had gone through three different tracklayers in the previous year.

“The first guy was simply not good enough. Half of his time here was spent off-ship, because of the damage we took. The second guy had some extremely rare condition that caused him to react to flashing lights – can you imagine? Can’t gaze at brief flashes in the midst of a space-based battle? Ridiculous. Why he hid that from us, when it became so obvious…”

He gazed at the desk in silent annoyance for a few seconds, then continued.
“And recently we’ve been using an AI, but they’re just not quite as up to the task as a human. Great defensively, but they can’t position for firing. What I’m saying, Ms. Derro, is that after all of this, this ship is very, very much ready for a highly competent tracklayer. You have to be capable. So are you ready to proceed?”

“Yes.”

The desk shifted in appearance underneath his hands, transferring from its previous wooden look to a display of a timeline, instantly recognisable to Kolliq as her Utilisation Statement. The U.S. contained few gaps, although it did contain a broad theme to it.

“I see you have extensive experience in civilian piloting,” the captain noted, “it is a fairly low-pressure environment, most of the time.”

“It can be. I would also note, though…”

She reached over, highlighted three small bits in orange, and pulled them away from the long timeline bar in the display.

“…I do also have racing experience. Requires some originality and spontaneous thinking to do that, especially in the laned sublight series I’ve competed in.”

The captain nodded, and drew the blocks across the table towards him. A series of statistics unravelled in sprawls of architect lines as he did so, great stacked rivers of information torrenting outwards in the Federal language of Umbekkr.

He gazed over it, taking in statistics and reports and gently bumping away offers to be told more. When he looked up again, he gave a confident smile.

“Well, Ms. Derro, this does seem to qualify you. Of course, we would never let you, or any other candidate, into a battle situation without a thorough assessment. Even if there is an ever-escalating war on.”

Kolliq nodded. The view on the screen behind showed the surrounding space, which, given that it was a mere few parsecs from Darkworld Franklin, was unlikely to face a direct attack – yet. The way the war – the wars, plural, in fact – had gone, it would not be long before even this area of space would be under attack.

2

What surprised Kolliq at first was how they actually gave her the ship for the assessment, with a First Pivot on standby. They had also not limited superlight speeds. They had a lot of confidence in her.

She settled into the booth, where the controls were arrayed in front of her, and the screen in front showed a genuine, front-of-ship view, although the fractal mass of screens around it showed numerous other pieces of data that she was tempted to get distracted by.

The first task was simple enough – fly off from the current, static position near Franklin to the mocked-up battle sight a parsec away. The burst of speed from the ship – it was not a small machine, and it was tempting to think in terms of Darkworld physics, or even planetary terms – was surprising enough, but the middle circle of screens had one indicated an ETA to the site, and listed it in mere Earth minutes, rather than the leisurely courses she had piloted in the past. Even the racing machines couldn’t quite touch this.

As soon as she reached the site, the enemy ships (pure focused AI constructs with membrane-attuned self-preservation protocols) opened fire immediately. Shield energy drained slowly but surely. She looked down at the railed course plotted in front of her, bumped a holographic points symbol onto the track, and from there extended two fingers from it and, with a fluid wrist action, sent those rails curving back on themselves, twisting and turning away evasively. Some damage had been done, but it was easily survivable. She continued, for what felt like several minutes but was probably less, to evade and duck various laser and uvaser fire, and eventually decided that she had to fight back.

The Total Wipeout swung in, and began a corkscrew descent through the mass of ships, beam weapons and assembled ammo flinging outwards in maelstroms towards each ship, and at the end of the volley she suspected a sighting of the white blast of an alkahest ray. She flicked her eyes over the outer screens for confirmation but found none with just a glance; as she looked back, she saw a flash and a partial eclipse of the nearby star, a certain hit.

She curved the rails ahead into a sharp bank to bring the ship about, and just ducked most of a further fusilade; the Total returned fire, and this time she saw it, that milky-white fire that suggested a lack of shield energy. More flashes, more artificial asteroids shot past. As she continued to fire, more flashes; this time, two of them managed to collide, producing another flash and showering the view with debris.

One ship remained, and it continued to fire, hitting more often than not. The shields were running low.

Think, Kolliq thought. There has to be something you can do. She examined one of the other views and found the ship to be behind and above her, swooping in. She figured it out.

She switched the rails off, cutting the ship free from the pair of forcefield shackles it been bound by, threw the engines into dorsal-aft asymmetry, and with the ship powersliding through space on Newtonian physics alone, watched as the last white beam stuttered across the ship’s underbelly, flashes erupted across its hull and a rain of exotic material slammed against the camera view with such force that she instinctively flinched.

3

“Most impressive,” the captain said almost immediately afterwards, after a pause that was just long enough to qualify as dramatic. “That thing you did, at the end?”

“I took it off the rails and used the thrusters naturally.”

“That doesn’t necessarily guarantee directional accuracy, though. A tighter track could’ve turned the ship around faster.”

“Yes, but the unpredictability and impreciseness of the ship’s movement made the enemy’s targeting slightly more difficult.”

The captain nodded. “Well, it worked. I can’t argue with that.”

The main screen in the tracklayer booth flashed up the statistics, like a high scores board from an old arcade game. Six ships were eliminated in 7/492; not a result repeatable in real life, but a strong one nonetheless. Kolliq stared ahead, the concentration she had been under during the assessment proving hard to shake.

“That is definitely the best performance I’ve seen in the last year. You’re hired, if you still want it-”

“Yes, sir. When do I start?”

“We’ll probably get a posting as soon as we return to Franklin. Or to Rama, at least. Straight away, unless you especially need anything to work.”

Sure enough, she looped the ship back at maximum speed. With only a slightly longer journey time than the route out, they were soon back, the main screen showing the Federation capital looming ever larger as they approached. Kolliq actually lived – or perhaps now, used to live – several thousand parsecs from Franklin, on a planet just shy of one of the heavy-stellar-formation or HSF zones on the edge of the galaxy, and she had come there as a refugee from another planet whose star had very rapidly gone supernova; only Shango technology had saved anyone from such an event. But both residences had been backwards, “rural”, as it were, and did not compare to this gargantuan planetary sprawl of three trillion people, served by no less than a quartet of Darkmoons. As she skirted the ship around that artificial planet, towards the night side where city lights represented a mere fraction of the population living there. In the darkness, a mysterious circle of utter black where the stars were blocked out revealed the presence of Darkmoon Rama, and with the circles of screens confirming it, she locked in an orbit.

Once the orbit was set, she, the captain, the second-in-command and the first pivot headed back through the labyrinth of corridors.

“Any questions? You were very eager to take the role. Unquestioningly, in fact. The military does not tend to approve of such behaviour in non-critical situations.”

“Sorry, I-”

“Not a worry. It’s one of the very few mistakes I have seen from you, and it was a minor one. The point is this; that unquestioningness, we have heard it to be a Qareen quality. True or not, I’ll nonetheless make the point – except in an emergency, it is acceptable to use initiative, to question, to ask. You may have heard that the military demands discipline and obedience; that is true to some extent, but not absolutely.”

They rounded another corner in single file, and passed yet another room that barely qualified as a cupboard.

“OK,” she replied, “how about this. When I was a civilian pilot, every room had hectares of space. This ship seems to have tiny rooms. Just wondering, why?”

“Well, it is a ship to fight battles in. When determining the lives and fates of quadrillions, of a whole galaxy, Ms. Derro, you should not be too relaxed about it.”

“I guess not.”

4

The SFS Total Wipeout‘s first mission after that was to head towards Darkworld Taurus, just inside the Intersection Zone, but still thousands of parsecs away; such a journey would take days, and involved Kolliq mostly bumping that small holographic infinity symbol onto the track and letting the sensors scan ahead, finding no fault in continuing onwards in its path for parsec after parsec.
Still, she found Captain Ilrap’s words to be accurate. Taurus, at mimimum, had at least a trillion inhabitants, but if it fell, then the further consequences could have been the half-dozen systems around it. That didn’t relax her, and lying on her bunk as those on the night shift strolled past did indeed add to the unease. There was no privacy on that ship; any mistakes, any embarrassments, were all very much public.

“It takes a few missions, but it’ll be OK,” the woman on the bunk below, Alati, had said. She could only nod and assume that was true. Alati claimed to have lost a friend on another ship, and assured her that it was losing others, rathering than facing actual death, that was the truly distressing thing. That, she doubted.

Still, the ship remained on its double-forcefield track, shooting forwards at the top speed of around 115 kiloparsecs per Shango year, as the dim reach of inertia insisted it should. She assumed it was inertia, anyhow; she had never been too strong on the physics of superlight travel, recalling vaguely from her education that it was some different form of physics. Different how, she didn’t know and didn’t find to be immediately important.

A week passed without relatively incident, and her job was at the point a somewhat narrow, unskilled one, merely scanning for potential obstacles in their path, even though the first pivot and the backup AI systems would doubtless catch them anyhow. For anything less than a planet, tractor beam or teleport would shift them out of the way too. The endless waiting seemed to heighten the potential danger impending, and she wondered whether she regretted her eagerness to take the job, or whether it would simply be easier to fall asleep for the rest of the journey, and to wake up in the chaos, too emotionally senseless to have to fear what was going on.

It was on day eight that the Total Wipeout began to approach the combat zone; having skirted around, above and below others, receiving messages of victory and the odd word of defeat (worryingly, Kolliq thought, the defeats and victories became increasingly even the closer they got to Taurus). This Intersection War – the third, if she remembered correctly – was perhaps going to go the way of the Shango, after two indecisive results that had not truly separated the sides or struck a crippling blow to either one of them. This one, she thought, had to decide it, even if it lasted her whole lifetime, as it had so far, even if they had to throw a trillion ships into the breach; after all, if the Qareen could simply be allowed to invade Shango space, then who else, what other galactic empire would decide to rule over and oppress them? The Dharans, she thought, would gladly enter the galaxy – if they weren’t already here, as rumoured – and seize it, and perhaps the Qareen’s claimed space too, if their rumoured power was to be believed.

The bridge was oddly calm as they got within twenty parsecs, or an Earth hour and a half, from the battle area.

“Preview shot and data from the Tactical Advance,” the data officer announced, and brought it up on the surrounding walls. Kolliq was tempted to gasp, but refrained. There in the picture, no doubt shot from the cameras fed to the tracklayer booth, were at least a dozen Qareen warships, and data indicated that there were hundreds gathered around Taurus. The fighting had begun an hour ago, and had proved relatively even, although Taurus itself had been bombed in parts, and shot with miasma beams in a bid to spread damage further into the Darkworld. This is what they will stoop to, she had been told, by colleagues, by friends, by the media; they were prepared to inflict disease on their enemies.

The Shango at least had the decency to kill as quickly and painlessly as possible.
There was also the suggestion that Shango reinforcements might tip the balance, at least numbers-wise. Still, the ship raced in, and it was not long afterwards that Kolliq, settled into the booth and ready to engage in the most dangerous computer game, saw the message “weapons engaging” flash up on her main screen.

Starboard

Year: 1,992,209 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 11,632 (Shango), N.A. 1168 (Qareen)
Location: Intersection Zone

1

The M.E.A.C. starship SFS Supression Fire had sped three thousand parsecs through the Intersection Zone, heading across and down it towards Darkworld Komodo. It was still some two thousand from its destination when the incident occurred.

On the bridge, the only area of the ship to have any real sense of space and layout, the incident marked a moment of unease. In the middle of the bridge, a round table projected a holographic image of the surrounding space in all directions for some two hundred parsecs; a thin grey line indicated the ship’s intended path through it. Another line, which moved down in another downward arc, came close to intersecting the ship. This in itself was not a problem; the course could always be altered. What was the issue was the nature of the object.

“We suspect it to be a Dharan vessel,” the navigator told the captain.

“The Dharans? Any indication of what they want? Anything out of them at all?”

“None, sir. But then again, we have only sent one message. They might simply be slow in responding.”

The captain moved over to the table from his seat at a raised platform on the left hand side of the bridge, and examined the dot that indicated the Dharan vessel.

“There is only one?”

“There is only one,” another crew member indicated.

“Drop speed,” he ordered no-one in particular, although it was the job of First Pivot to do so, “maintain path. Don’t activate any weapons. We don’t want to seem evasive or hostile. I suspect they are not either of those things, too. Also scan for further Dharan presence at longer range, use network monitoring if you have to.”

The Suppression Fire promptly slowed, and the two dots on the screen continued to merge, albeit more slowly.

“They’re slowing to meet us,” the First Pivot said, eyeing the display over the table, even as he slowed the ship with the console, “I think they are looking to actually meet us.”

“Shit.”

The captain gripped the table and squeezed, as if attempting to crush it. As the equivalent of five Earth minutes passed, he split his gaze between the table and the clock screen, which, by the end, informed him that it was 79/87 in Federal Time. Darkworld Komodo was still a week away, and even if a distress call was sent out, the nearest Darkworld – probably, if he remembered rightly, Darkworld Behemoth – would still probably take at least a day to send a ship. He was truly alone with this Dharan vessel, and would have to do the best he could.

“Sir, we’re entering contact range with the vessel.” The captain nodded in acknowledgement. Of course, contact range differed for Shango and Dharan ships, in any case; Dharan weapons had longer effective ranges, and their ansibles were far less prone to inteference from outside forces. That said, how much so was uncertain, across the whole Federation. The same was probably true of anything Dharan, although it was known that they were a far more advanced civilisation, the kind that could wander into the Intersection Zone and either deal with or outrun any ship with ease. The Federation, the captain knew, could do astonishing things with such technology.

“Display it,” he ordered, and the table shifted to reveal a three-dimensional hologram of ship revealed the scene. The Dharan vessel was a military one, he could tell; the shape of it suggested a sword blade with a mass of bayonets attached, branching out in aggressive fractal patterns. The ship had a very dark green exterior, and was, the captain guessed, about twice as long, wide and high as his own vessel.

“It’s gettting very close,” the First Pivot continued, “they’ll pass within mere kilometres.”

“I’ve sent another message,” the navigator added.

The two vessels continued through space, moving ever closer. The Dharan vessel continued across their path, ever so slowly, slower, in fact, than the rate at which they were travelling, which was already sublight. What were these people doing, he thought, what motive do they have? As far as he was aware, this was the first time in at least a year that the Dharans had shown any kind of presence in the Intersection Zone or the galaxy, although he admitted to himself the possibility of being wrong.

“Still no response.”

The ship was, if anything, slowing, right down, onto the path the Suppression Fire was on.

“I’m slowing it down, captain,” the First Pivot said, “I think these guys are actually stopping.”

“What are they planning?”

“Fuck knows,” the captain said, still gazing at the projection. He paused for a while, then had a thought. “What information do we have about the Dharans?”

A crewman near the front of the bridge brought up the database entry and read it out.

“Dharans. Form of government ultimately unknown, but socially they are relatively unified, suggesting some form of central executive control. Suspected origin in a galaxy around thirteen point eight million parsecs from here. Believed to have some form of inhabitation across the whole supercluster, possibly in every galaxy. Despite a simplistic language compared to us, or even the Qareen, they seem to have faster ships and more advanced technology. Last major involvement known to us in these galaxies was around four hundred years previously, when fifty full-sized Dharan vessels, twenty of them warships, passed directly through Shango space and one landed on Darkworld Franklin, the inhabitants claiming their visit to be diplomatic.”

“Any acts of aggression?”

“There was a misunderstanding during the Intersection Wars, which resulted in damage to a Dharan warship, destruction to thirty-three Shango ships and seventeen Qareen.”

The captain paused to think of another question. As he did so, he noticed that both the Suppression Fire and the Dharan vessel had stopped. A screen wrapping around the bridge showed a heavily zoomed image of it, As he continued to examine it, he spotted a message flashing up on the table console, even though this was not supposed to receive outside communications.

“Bye.”

And with no other explanation, the vessel blasted away at top speed.

Within one Earth hour, it was out of the galaxy.