Category Archives: Time: Mid-Period

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of all government anyhow, and then cast a pointless vote that, even if it was unanimously against, would not have repealed the program anyway.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.”

Mass Times Acceleration

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

1

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

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

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

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

Eventually, his house spoke up.

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

“Hmm?”

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

“I suppose I am.”

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

“Look, I don’t want to bother-”

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

“Fair enough.”

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

“I’ve never left 106.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Assembler, one coat for current conditions.”

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

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

“Nah. Sometimes the exercise is good.”

“And the cold?”

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

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

2

#Bafed7 > Keo3: What’d you get?#

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

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

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

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

#Keo3 > Bafed7: Piss off…#

#Bafed7 > Keo3: I’m just kidding.#

#Uliska1 > Keo3: So can we come?#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#I don’t know#, she said simply.

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

4

He finally gave in three days later.

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

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

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

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

#Go for what?# Uliska asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was still eleven points down.

5

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

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

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

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

#Sell?# Bafed questioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Sounds like a plan#, Kogr8 agreed.

6

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

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

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

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

#Shit.#

#Exactly.#

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

7

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

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

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

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

“Afternoon.”

“Same to you,” Uliska said.

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

“When will that be?”

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

“Can’t we put that to a vote?”

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

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

“You go first.”

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

8

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

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

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

“Ship, what the fuck was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Why?#

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

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

#You think.#

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

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

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

#Dharan.#

#Most definitely.#

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

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

9

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

#Hey.#

#A ‘hey’ to you too.#

“What’s up?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s been five years.”

“I don’t care. I want answers.”

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

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

“Computer, screen please. Standalone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.